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Ship in a Bottle

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The thing is if you smile and you tilt your head and you hunch your shoulders just right everyone will believe your grin.

But you have to close your eyes though, scrunch them tight so they wrinkle at the corners and give you false crows feet. Because sometimes people care enough to call you out, to make it awkward, but not enough to want to know the cause.

Dean had apologized, of course he had. And Cas had tried.

Damn him, he had tried so goddamn hard, but every “I want to talk to you.” that dripped from Dean’s lips like blood, viscus dark red smeared across bridges like gasoline, sounded like “Get out.” And Castiel braced himself accordingly.

There was no fixing this. There was no undoing the fact that Dean had kicked him out, and despite the extenuating circumstances, despite the way Dean needed him now, Cas couldn’t. They were broken and Dean knew it too. There was no coming back, no miraculous turn of forgiveness or magical bonding moment and there would never be because Cas couldn’t trust Dean anymore, and Dean couldn’t trust him. Their love be damned, and it burned him like holy fire every time he passed Dean in the hall and met his eyes. Because they both knew it could never be fixed.

Dean stopped knocking at the door and stopped inviting him to join him and Sam for movies and whatever else they did, stopped raising his head to acknowledge Cas when they saw each other wandering through the endless maze and soon even those little glimpses of each other stopped. They went into hiding.

Dean didn’t stop him when he packed his things and left the bunker, he just gave him some food and a card with the name of a stranger and let him leave.

Neither of them said a word about the tears in their eyes.

So, Cas smiled and tilted his head and performed all the things he had learned the first time, got a job and burned the card. Gave the food to someone who would eat it. He knew how to find shelter now, and he knew how to manage not having a home.

He knew that well.

He should have known that he would never have a place to lay his head, not one to keep. Heaven never wanted to keep him and neither did Dean, which he should have known.

He knew what to do about the crushing ache in his chest, the dark bitter thing that sucked at whatever he had for a soul like a monster. Teeth and claws and knives and destruction that never ended and if it were hell he would never have known the difference. He knew what to do about it and that was nothing. The answer was shivering in the dark until his body stopped trying to warm him, but not long enough that he needed to worry about scarring someone if they found his empty shell.

He went to work and smiled at people and danced on the edge of socialization like a knife—if he looked down just right he could see the blood dripping from his toes. He pretended that he didn’t want a home, because homes were family and family could reject you and homes could be stolen away in the span of a breath and a few cracking words.

He had a nice smile.

Nice enough that people didn’t care it wasn’t real or didn’t notice. Sometimes his manager would look twice, when he was busy enough to let the smile drop. But she never said anything, just handed him his check and let him walk out the door, no questions.

That was the human rule after all. No questions.

Which was fine, really. He just needed to make enough money that he could burn out in comfort, somewhere far away where no one would find his bones. Maybe he would know it was coming and have time to burn it all down with him. Leave no trace, no body to find and no mind to scar.

Dean had said, had promised like a broken record, he would never kick Cas to the curb again, but he had done it enough that when Cas looked at him, truly looked at him, he saw the man who had kicked him to the curb a thousand times before. It was a long line and no matter what good Dean had done, it stood unbroken against the dark.

And the worst thing was that Dean was sorry. He said he was sorry, but he didn’t need to. Cas understood his reasons well enough.

When Cas finally came back with his stolen grace Dean made him all kinds of food he didn’t need or want to consume and brought him his favorite things but Cas couldn’t take them, he just let them sit on the table until Sam put them away. Dean had done his goddamned best to bridge the gap but whatever water was between them, churning and broken, filled the horizon. There was no bridge to build and nothing left to burn. It was just a nothingness that threatened to drown them both. He wished he could say he left to save them, but the truth was that he left to drown on his own. No matter how much he wanted to he couldn’t bring himself to care, at the same time he cared too much, that Dean was drowning too.

So when Dean called him about his wounded grace, his real grace, he watched it go to voicemail so many times that Dean stopped leaving them. He still called though. And Cas still let it ring, let it buzz off the counter until it fell, cracked on the floor, when he was working even though his manager frowned and asked if he needed a break.

He did, but not to answer his phone. Dean kept at it for a week.

Because he was guilty. Or because he still cared enough to be selfish and wanted to think Cas could be alive somewhere out in the wild blue yonder.

When Dean showed up at his workplace yet again he said nothing. He left a vial of swirling blue ether that sat, heavy and bloodstained on the counter.

Cas pretended not to see his limp; that he didn’t notice the lacerations winding into he sleeves and shirt collar. It was easy to smile and act like his heart didn’t clench at his ex-lover’s pain. Everything for Dean and anything for Cas and they still couldn’t find the materials to bridge an ocean.

He didn’t acknowledge Sam’s tentative wave through two windows and a thousand feet or cracked concrete. He didn’t want to see the contusions he would be able to heal if he decided against burning out. If he breathed in that fractured part that didn’t seem to belong to him anymore.

He wanted to drop it. Crack the bloody glass on the ground and watch it dissipate with his future, like the way the Impala vanished in the dust. But he let it sit on the counter. And when it was done he took it to the shelter he had carved for himself from state land—old promises that hovered over the generations like unseen mothers. If he dropped it here this place would flourish. It would blossom and he would have left one good thing.

But he set it on the desk like a model ship he was preparing to bottle.

There was a story he had read once, stolen from a free library and returned soggy with rain and cold, scientists had released an army of rubber ducks into the sea, just to see what would happen. Because they were scientists and in that age they had been almost rouge.

The ducks, some of them, made the journey slowly, without aim and without purpose. They drifted along until they reached the next shore and then waited to be found or consumed by the world around them.

And maybe ships in bottles could find the same sort of solace.

He saw Dean again at a diner. Through the window. Sam was talking but Dean was staring at his bottle of beer like the urn of a loved one. He isn’t eating.

Cas thought that if he looked too closely he can see Dean’s bones, a grim skeleton still wrapped in skin that looks out the window suddenly with vacant eyes.

If Cas didn’t know what it meant to be soulless he would have defined the word by that empty green.

But he knew better.

Because those eyes were dead, the kind of dead that looked back when he checked his own reflection.  

Sam looked too, his gaze followed his brother and the hunter mouthed his name excitedly. So, Cas turned to vanish into the night, leaving nothing but a cloud of pale air to mark his place. Sam came out anyways, calling to him a few minutes too late.

Not that it mattered. Cas would have turned away if he was only a few feet away. Because sometimes when Sam asked him to talk it sounded like “get out” too.

Cas knew what Sam wanted to say. He would ask him to forgive Dean again, to forgive and forget and he would never tell the ex-angel to move on already, but Cas would hear it the same way he heard “get out.”

Cas had forgiven Dean. That was the problem. That was the biggest match and most of the gasoline. Cas would always forgive Dean. Forgive and let himself be ripped opened again and again and it was in his nature as an angel to never learn from pain because Heaven tore him open just as often. But he still forgave the angels, and he forgave Dean and was easier to just burn all the wood before anyone could try to make a bridge from it. Including himself.

Ships in bottles were more liable to sink. Rubber ducks floated, but only gathered mold while drifting aimlessly, abandoned by the ones that set them free.

The vial of grace was still where he’d left it on the stump he used as a desk sometimes. Coated in the browned bloodstains, fingerprints he could never forget and wished desperately that he could despise. Love wasn’t enough. It never was.