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howl and haunt

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Castiel makes the deal and refuses to think about it for a year. 

It’s not that hard. There are many things Castiel chooses not to think about. He doesn’t think about the swathes of angels that he has killed for good reasons and for bad, the brothers and sisters he’s killed without second thought He doesn’t think about watching Kelly Kline love the thing that will eventually kill her, how he promised to take care of her precious son and then died. 

He doesn’t think about how sometimes he wants to be useless, how he wants someone to tell him it’s okay all the same. He doesn’t think about D

He doesn’t think about it, is what he means. 

A deal concerning his happiest moment is so far from his consciousness that it’s like a deal concerning him turning into a dinosaur. Simply impossible. Not worth analyzing. 

Anyway, Castiel can count the times he’s been truly happy on one hand. One of these occasions was meeting Jack for the first time, even though he was older and looked more like Jimmy than he expected. Another one was cracking his head out of the ground and breathing in the smell of warm dirt and sunlight after the Empty let him go. Another one was when he was in the Impala and wearing a cowboy hat and D

Not thinking about it is a struggle.

Knowing where he’s going is also a struggle. He remembers the Empty: how vast it was, how his eyes tried to make sense of all that darkness, how futile it was. Despite what the Empty’s figurehead said, there were things suspended in the darkness  —  old angels and demons, nothing more than torn apart corpses. If they were animals, Dean might’ve called them roadkill. 

He remembers being raised from slumber laid neatly between two of his siblings. He remembers it being so nothing he had to navigate by just hoping that he’ll eventually hit something. Until, at last, the Empty’s keeper showed up and he talked his way out of there.

Once a strategist, always a strategist. His captain would have been proud, if unsurprised. 

Cas remembers looking into that nothingness and trying to remember scenes from his life to fill it - not even the scant happy ones, but the normal ones. The inside of the Gas ’n Sip on Route 45, the golf course they drove past once. He couldn’t remember any of it, not a single blade of grass. Just soul-shredding emptiness.

This time, he knows where he’s going. And despite how far away it is, how unlikely his true happiness is, he prepares.

He sets up a plan. He stays in the bunker at night to memorize every inch of it; the uneven cracks of the concrete walls, the old smell of books and corroded metal. He palms every uneven and mismatched utensil in the drawers of the kitchen and runs his fingers over the wood grain of their kitchen table until he’s sure he’s committed all of it to memory. And it goes on and on like this until he is sure he could draw a map of it, the place where he used to live. 

Dean only walks in on him only once. It’s after a hunt, a violent ghost in Wisconsin that almost burned a house down. Castiel is a fool for expecting Dean to go to sleep after a case with children and a house fire, but he is too wrapped up in the idea of categorizing all the different metal knives they have in the bunker to notice.

“Cas?”

In the midst of Castiel’s obsessive categorizing, Dean has caught him with his metaphorical dick in his hand. The knives, all Dean’s, spill onto the kitchen table in surprise. 

Dean flicks on the lights. Castiel has been doing this memorizing in the dark, where he can see perfectly fine, but he realizes it might be disconcerting. He performatively squints his eyes against the sudden light and the confusion on Dean’S face.

“Hello, Dean,” Castiel tries. He is aiming for casual but he isn’t sure he really gets there.

“Hey, buddy,” Dean says, like he’s trying to talk someone out of defusing a bomb. “What are you doing?”

“Just doing some repair,” Castiel says, gesturing to the knives. “These ones need to be sharpened. I noticed that during our hunt tonight.”

“You didn’t think to ask me first?” Dean says. “Also, 4AM? Really, dude?”

“I wasn’t doing anything else,” Castiel says. “It is either this or waiting outside until the sun comes up.” Castiel does indeed do this, but he tries to make it sound like a joke. 

Dean nods slowly. He’s dressed in his bulky grey “Dead Guy” robe and his burrito-patterned underpants that Jack got him for his birthday. He is intensely attractive, but that is a foregone conclusion. 

“Cas,” Dean says quietly. His throat is moving like he’s swallowing hard over and over again. “I.”

They both wait for him to finish the sentence. He seems unwilling to do it. 

“You sure you’re doing it right?” Dean says eventually, the moment shattered. Castiel rolls his eyes.

“I am several millennia old. I am sure I’m sharpening your knife correctly.”

“Good, because it-,” Dean starts.

“It’s your favorite. I know,” Castiel finishes, picking up the knife in question. “John gave it to you when you were a child. I remember.”

“Well. Good,” Dean says. “You don’t have to sharpen it if you don’t want to. Just saying.”

“I know. I want to.”

“Alright.”

They stand in silence. 

“I’m gonna head back to sleep,” Dean says. He presses his lips together, nods, and turns to go out the door, but Castiel holds out a hand to stop him. 

“Are you alright?” Castiel asks. “You’re not usually awake at this hour.”

“And how do you know that?” Dean says, squinting his eyes. 

Castiel shrugs. He rather not say that he can hear every person’s heartbeat for a quarter mile. Dean might have some strange issue with that knowledge.

“Well, I,” Dean starts, his hand going to the back of his neck. “Well. That case didn’t go great.” 

“No, it didn’t,” Castiel says. 

From the beginning, everything that could’ve been a problem during the case became a problem. There was a dead husband’s ghost in the newly single mother’s bedroom, breathlessly trying to convince her to get out of their house. There was the brackish water streaming down the walls and puddling under their shoes as the ghost tried to talk to them with his throat torn open. Then there was a knocked-over candle in their barn spreading to the piles of dry hay. The kids Dean had to save, two twin girls, watched the structure go up in flames in silence. 

Sam managed to burn the bones before anyone got hurt, but a bad hunt has a lasting effect on all of them. Like a mark you can’t quite wash off, or a bruise you can’t stop pushing on.

“It’s just those girls,” Dean says, voice raspy, not meeting Castiel’s eyes. He is trying to communicate something important without words. “They saw their dad. Like that. ” 

“I’m sorry, Dean,” Castiel says, and truly, truly means it. He wonders if it is strange to hug Dean like this, in the kitchen, alone. He has been scared to touch Dean since his Deal, just in case, but he knows he can try and give something to him. A reassuring pat on the shoulder might not cross any boundaries. 

Dean shudders as Castiel puts his hand on his elbow, and sways forward into Cas’ personal space. Dean rubs his eyes with his fingers, most likely to hide his tears, and Castiel wishes he wouldn’t. It’s just the two of them. Tears are very human. Dean would be mistaken if he thought Castiel thought worse of him for it. 

“You’re a good friend, Cas,” Dean says thickly. He doesn’t make eye contact.

Castiel memorizes all this too; the motion of Dean’s Adam’s apple against the skin of his throat, the worn-in thyme and amber from his cologne, his hair limp and devoid of the gel he uses. 

Castiel breathes it all in, already dreading the absence of it in his life. He wants to be able to explain this to someone without them knowing Dean and still knowing that they understand - a handsome man leaning on you for comfort, smelling like a desert, calling you his friend.

 Dean, oblivious, takes deep, shuddering breaths as he tries to calm down. Dean places his heavy head gently on Castiel’s shoulder for a beat before lifting it back up. Stay, Castiel wants to whine like a dog. Stay there.

“Now I really gotta go to sleep,” Dean chuckles wetly. “Crying in the kitchen like a teenage girl.” 

“I don’t mind the company if you want to stay,” Castiel says quietly. Dean’s eyes meet his and tries to read something there before he smiles limply and looks away. 

“Nah,” Dean says. “Big day tomorrow. Gotta pack for Tucson.” He hits Castiel’s shoulder, less gentle than before. “That lamia ain’t gonna gank itself.” 

Castiel nods. It probably wouldn’t.

Dean purses his lips and looks off into the kitchen. “You coming?”

Castiel hadn’t been aware that was an option. He shouldn’t, as he feels he is on a tightrope and cannot chance an opportunity to be dragged back down to darkness. But it’s his family. Would they notice if something was wrong? Would he even want them to?

“Yes,” Castiel decides. He gestures to the knife he’s holding, Dean’s favorite. “Until then.”

“Knife time,” Dean chuckles. “Sure. Goodnight, Cas.”

“Goodnight, Dean,” Castiel says warmly. Dean turns to go and then stops at the light switch, thinking.

“Do you want the light-?” Dean trails off. 

Castiel had thought he was too old to get embarrassed. Apparently not.

“Ah, keep it on,” Castiel says, looking down at his feet. “Better to see what I’m doing.”

“Alright, buddy,” Dean says, eyes liquid in the pale fluorescent lights. “I’ll see you later.”

 

-

 

Soon enough, the quest for memorization extends to places outside the Bunker. 

This particular day is very mild and pleasant, the last bastion of summer before autumn arrives. Castiel watches the wild rabbits in the dense forest outside the bunker hop and thump the ground, and gently holds out his hand so they could sniff the grain he’s procured for this exact reason. 

Their fur is very soft. He watches them crawl, one by one, towards him, snag a piece of grain, and disappear. One in particular is smaller than the rest, with fawn colored fur and intelligent black button eyes. She grabs a piece of grain and instead of dashing away, she sits by his hand and eats as much as she dares. Castiel knows better than to get attached 一 although, does he? 一 so he mainly watches with adoration from afar. 

“Cute bunny,” Dean says over his shoulder. Castiel resolutely does not flinch, even though his true form shudders in his vessel at the sound of his voice. The nearest trees sway despite no wind.

“Indeed,” Castiel says. The rabbit finally freezes at the sudden sound and bounds away a second later. They both watch as it disappears deeper in the forest, and then Cas turns around to actually look at his interloper.

“Hello Dean,” Castiel says. Dean is wearing his waist apron and has a dirty hand towel slung over one shoulder. He’s smiling absentmindedly, the sort of smile that would disappear if you drew any attention to it.

“Hey Cas,” Dean says, eyes shining with something that looks a lot like mirth. “Dinner’s almost ready if you’re done being Steve Irwin.”

“Sure,” Castiel says. He doesn’t get the reference, but he’s sure Dean said it with the intent to explain it to him later. “I was just spending time with God’s creatures.”

“Sorry to interrupt. Luckily, you’ll be spending a lot of quality time with one specific creature. We’re having ribs and baked beans for dinner,” Dean says. “You coming?” 

“Uh,” Castiel hedges. He is wary about these ribs. He fears that he will try the food and he will taste something other than molecules. Maybe he will even enjoy it. That scares him. “Perhaps.”

Dean slaps his hands together in excitement and turns around to go back into the Bunker. Castiel goes to follows him and stops. He feels a pair of eyes following him, glued to his vessel.

He makes eye contact with the fawn-colored rabbit hiding in a chokecherry bush. It looks at him like it can’t tell what he is, whether he be human or angel or animal. Not a threat apparently. Castiel takes some solace in that. 

“Be well,” Castiel bids it. The rabbit must understand, as it turns and bounds off into the forest again. 

“Huh?” Dean says. He’s paused on top of the stairs, waiting for Castiel to cross the threshold.

“Nothing,” Castiel says, taking a step over the door and shutting the door behind him. 

The ribs taste good when he bites into them. It’s terrifying. He has a single bite and gives the rest to Sam. Dean watches him out of the corner of his eye, like he’s on a case and Castiel is the ghost to be exorcised.

Castiel commits even this to his memory. It is bittersweet, but he does it anyway. Dean, so obviously worried. Sam, oblivious and staring between the two of them like he’s waiting for a bomb to go off. Jack, tearing into his ribs like a wild animal with sauce smeared on his chin and nose.

He absentmindedly takes a bite of the baked beans and grimaces at the texture. Beans, he thinks as he puts his fork back down, are the one thing I won’t miss.

Unbeknownst to Castiel, Dean watches his every move with his brow furrowed. There is something wrong but he can’t figure out what it is.

He bites into his rib, watching Castiel smile at a joke from Jack. It’s good. 

 

-

 

Castiel’s next frontier of memorization is all of the stock of the stores in Lebanon. He spends days just looking at the various labels in the little grocery store, the one down the street from the bank. He goes several days in a row, so much and for so long that the employees usually stop asking if he needs help.

If they do, he gives his most uneasy smile until they get the message and leave him to peruse the peanut butter aisle alone. He just goes back to looking at the ingredients for smooth-style Skippy.

“Cas?” 

Uh oh. Castiel plasters on a different uneasy smile to see Dean coming down the aisle with a full cart, looking surprised at Castiel’s presence at the grocery store. A very valid reaction, as Castiel told him he was going to be in the Himalayas this week to look for clues towards defeating Chuck.

The Himalayas is where he isn’t. The Quik-E-Mart is where he is. 

“I thought you weren’t going to be back until Tuesday,” Dean says, tone straining to be light. Castiel nods and looks at rows of perfectly-faced peanut butter jars instead of Dean’s expression.

“I came back early,” Castiel says. He thinks if he adds another smile it’ll be too suspicious, so he keeps his face passive. “I actually came here to check out the -,” Castiel tries to think of an ingredient Dean has mentioned before and it’s all blank until, “The shrimp.”

Dean raises his eyebrows. “The shrimp?”

Castiel nods his head seriously. “The shrimp.” 

Dean looks at him for a long moment more and then slumps against the cart in thought. “I guess we could have shrimp tonight. Hell, maybe even shrimp scampi. The kid hasn’t had that yet.”

“Precisely,” Castiel says. “I was just thinking that.”

“Were you,” Dean says, not quite a question. His eyebrows crawl halfway up his forehead. “Thanks for the inspo, Cas.”

“Don’t mention it,” Castiel says. “Are you here alone?”

“Nah, Sam is in the frozen food aisle with Jack. They’re picking out popsicle flavors or something. Those are alright, but personally, I’m more of a Rocky Road fan myself,” Dean says, nudging Castiel’s arm and raising his eyebrows like you know ?

Castiel does not know, but he thinks it’s endearing that Dean thinks he does. 

“Me too,” Castiel throws out there, trying to act like he knows and he’s in on the secret. Dean looks almost hurt for a second before resolving his features into neutrality. Another minefield Castiel has stepped through, another bomb set off without realizing. More carnage to clean.  

“Glad you have a favorite, dude,” Dean says woodenly, and takes a step away from where Castiel is standing. They were pretty close together, Castiel realises. He wonders what people would think if they saw them, heads bowed together like that. He wishes-

No. He cannot think about that. He steels himself and lets Dean take a step back.

“Will you joining us for scampi tonight?” Dean says after a pause. Castiel wants to say yes with every mutated and broken molecule in this body. He wants to sit at the table and stare at Dean when he’s eating ice cream, and he wants to laugh with Jack, and he wants to talk to Sam like everything is normal and not on the precipice of disaster.

But what if he forgets something important?

He looks at the wall of peanut butter he hasn’t categorized, and the ensuing aisle of jams and the aisle after that on salt. He thinks about his long history and how he cannot conjure more than one or two jars of raspberry jam in his mind’s eye. He should refuse. This is ridiculous, Castiel. Stay on task.

“I will be there,” Castiel says, his mouth overtaking his mind with his decision. Dean looks immeasurably relieved and in that moment, Castiel cannot find it in himself to berate his choices. His mind 一 always running, always cautious 一 is finally quiet. Jack and Sam round the corner a second later, obvious surprise on both of their faces at Castiel’s appearance. 

Dean triumphantly announces, “Guess who’s coming to dinner!” He slaps Castiel on the back and leaves his hand on his shoulder, his thumb absentmindedly skimming the top of Castiel’s shoulder bone over and over again. It’s almost overwhelming. Castiel has been keeping himself at a physical distance since the deal, and this 一

He feels warm, from his forehead to his feet. He lets Dean lead him out of the peanut butter aisle, his hand still firmly on his back, like Dean can keep Castiel with him by force alone. How Cas wishes he was right. How he wants to be held there by Dean for the rest of eternity, living happily under the warm palm on his shoulder. 

The Rocky Road Dean buys has marshmallows and milk chocolate folded in with vanilla ice cream. The molecules are barely noticeable when he eats it, and he gives it this time to Dean, who shrugs and eats the rest. 

He even thinks he’s hungry. How odd. Castiel dwells on the gnawing pit inside his stomach and vows to think about it later. 

-

When it comes 一 and it does come, sure as the worms tilling the Earth and the saltwater eroding stone一 Castiel can walk endless grocery stores in his mind. He can walk the grounds of the bunker and identify every single rock he picks up. He can sit in the Bunker’s kitchen and cook a whole meal from the ingredients he knows sit on the pantry shelves. He can whistle every bird in Kansas’ song and imagine them all whistling back to him at once in a beautiful symphony of sound. 

It’s not enough. 

The darkness is just as overwhelming as before. Castiel is still somehow awake in this mass of emptiness. He wishes he could just sleep, to become unconscious and oblivious and forever dreaming. 

“I wish you could too,” The Empty says to him. The voice is Balthazar's this time. It has seemingly run out of all the people he's killed to torture them with, so it goes between Balthazar, Anna, and Dean. He ignores it and tries to shut what he thinks are his eyes. He does so for what feels like seconds, hours, years, millennia until he’s sure he’s alone again.  

He brings up that rabbit again in his mind’s eye, the only place in this realm that isn’t dark. The bunny has very soft fur and dark eyes and it comes forward to sniff his hand. The bunny doesn’t run away when he sits down next to it. He thinks he can hear birds chirping too if he focuses, and he can hear the dark buzz of insects come near his ears. 

Dean's there too, in this dream. He is sitting there, cross-legged. He lets himself think Dean's hand is firm on his thigh. He likes it there. He even wishes it was a couple inches higher.

He shivers. He must be better at visualizing than he thought. If he thinks really hard, he can feel a breeze like the ones he felt back at the Bunker 一warm and comforting and smelling like damp green earth. Sometimes he would smell the river nearby, the small molecules that make up the fish in it. 

He uses his non-existent lungs to take a deep breath. Wow, the smells are even similar. If it’s all going to be this easy, then he’ll have no problem trying to entertain himself for eternity. 

“Hey Cas,” he hears Dean say next to him. He is eternally grateful that his brain has perfectly matched Dean’s cadence too. He’s glad for that because he doesn’t want the last thing he hears of Dean to be him saying his name in despair. If he turns, he bets he’ll see Dean wearing that waist apron and his dirty towel, smiling like he does. He wonders if his memory can construct an image of Cas kissing him. 

He turns. It is, in fact, Dean, but framed in a reality-ripping portal the size of a small building. The edges of it fray and reform, like something is continually recasting a spell. Dean’s got blood all over his face, dripping from his nose and mouth and pooling onto a white t-shirt. He's got a matching bruised eye. Beyond him, the trees outside the Bunker sway in the breeze. 

Uh.

“Cas, it’s me,” Dean says impatiently. Is this a trick? Cas looks down at himself and sees that he has a tangible body again, which is a good sign. It’s also completely naked, which also points to this not being a fabrication. He doesn’t think he took just his coat off more than four times in the last four years. “Cas, we gotta go.”

Castiel pauses. His brain is still going a little haywire. “Dean?”

“Yeah,” Dean says happily. He’s very handsome like this, coming to save Castiel. Castiel assumes this is what this is, a saving. He wonders if Chuck is dead, if Dean has forgiven him for dying again. Probably not on both accounts, but Castiel can deal with both eventually. Preferably when he has clothes on.

“You’re very handsome,” Castiel says. Dean looks like he’s battling between laughing and yelling and crying, so he just looks at the floor of nothingness in the Empty and ends up halfway smiling. The blood makes his teeth red. It’s… compelling.

“Alright, Don Juan. Let’s talk after we get out of the friggin’ black hole,,” Dean says, looking back up at him with amusement and pivoting back to gesture him forward through the portal. Castiel peels himself off the floor, covering his penis with his hands as he steps out of the portal. The Empty lets him go without much outrage, something like a sigh of relief emanating from it as it snaps shut behind him.

Dean pauses for a second, makes a gesture like Fuck It , and then hugs him. The wind is brushing through the trees. The chokecherry bushes are dotted in little red fruits. Castiel reflectively returns it, and then really returns it, leaning his head against Dean’s.

“Wish you’d stop leaving,” Dean says, muffled into Castiel’s neck. Castiel can feel every puff of breath, every movement of Dean’s lips against his carotid artery. He can feel the jump of his heartbeat in his neck. It’s pumping rather hard. Everything is pumping really hard, actually.

“Okay,” Castiel whispers.He shifts his stance so his lower half is not so pressed against Dean's.

“If I find you in the kitchen at 4AM again, I’ll strangle you,” Dean mumbles. He leans back, dropping his arms around Castiel’s naked waist. His arms feel warm enough to brand Castiel's skin. He guesses it would be payback of a sort. “You know, it all kinda made sense after you left. I thought you were just being weird and sneaky.”

“Yeah,” Castiel says. He’s shaking, half because of his proximity to Dean and half because the breeze is definitely getting colder. “Well, if there was any way to make sitting in eternity tolerable, I was going to find it.”

They both breathe shallowly for a moment. Dean pauses for a millisecond, leans forward to rest his forehead on Castiel’s. “I never thought it would happen. Not in my wildest dreams,” Castiel says quietly, a confession in itself. Dean nods against his forehead, an apology or a benediction or a simple acknowledgment of fact. They spent years and years circling around something neither of them could name. 

“Did you remember it all?” Dean says at last. Castiel is distinctly aware of the way his body curves toward him, like a branch or a plant. “In the Empty?”

“Yes,” Castiel says. “But it wasn’t enough. There were so many moments I could remember, but all of them felt hollow.” He chuckles loosely, feeling Dean's responding grin more than seeing it. "I much rather just focus on this."

“You have time to,” Dean says, fervently. Castiel has smudges of wet patches of blood drying stickily all over his neck from Dean's nose. “Chuck’s gone, by the way. Sam and Billie got him. Jack helped.”

"I'm glad to hear it," Castiel says. Understatement. He doesn't think he can actually let that sink in until later, but he grabs Dean hips tighter in response.

Dean reaches up to rest his hands on Castiel’s neck and then closes his eyes. Castiel is confused, cold, disorientated, and itchy 一 but he is alive and seemingly whole. He tries to send his grace to heal Dean, but he finds he has nothing left. He is sure if he had something to eat, he would taste all of it, not a molecule in sight. 

It is worth it. He'd eat beans for every meal if it is what it takes. 

“I love you too,” Dean croaks hastily, like he forgot he didn't say it yet. His eyes are still squished shut, closed like he can’t bear to have all of this confession in him at once. “I-I. I didn’t think-.”

“Me neither,” Castiel says simply. Dean leans forward to rest his sticky mouth on Castiel’s cheek, and then breaks away like he can’t bear it. Castiel is barely conscious, and he further sways into Dean’s arms. He is confident Dean can hold his weight. 

There’s a snap of a twig behind the pair of them. When Castiel peels open his eyes, the fawn-colored bunny winks one of its intelligent eyes at him. Castiel places his chin onto Dean’s shoulder and nods back. And then it is gone.