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There’s a man in Castiel’s kitchen.

It’s not much of a kitchen. It’s a stolen microwave and a kettle he found in the dump. His elderly neighbour gave him an old tea towel, patterned with thin green flowers and dancing blue teapots, when he was moving his scant belongings into their building. Castiel can’t bear to clean anything with it, so it sits on his counter, untouched.

The man looks out of place next to his tea towel. He’s hunching his shoulders in his big dark suit, like he’s trying to disappear. The man hasn’t noticed him yet, but Castiel thinks he must be aware. Castiel has been bred to be quiet, but not quiet enough for who he thinks this is.

The man answers whoever is on the other side of the phone with a short, “Understood.” He’s facing away from where Castiel is standing, looking through something. Castiel’s wallet perhaps. His books.

Castiel tries to hide his sigh, but he is unsuccessful. The man’s broad shoulders stiffen. He turns. His mask is covering his nose, the turn of his chin. But it is him.

The man asks, “You know me?” Castiel wants to deny it, but it would be fruitless. Yes, he wants to say. I’d know you if I had no eyes to see.

“You’re Dean,” Castiel says instead. He wants to put his hands in his pockets to hide the shine of his arm. “I read about you online.”

More chatter on Dean’s end, some tinny voice telling him to attack. Or something. Castiel forces himself not to listen to the exact words. Privacy is important.

“I know you’re nervous. Hell, you’ve got a lot of reasons to be, Cas. But-” Dean says, inching forward. In this kitchen, it feels like a mile. He points a finger at Castiel’s chest. “You’re lying.”

“I wasn’t in Ohio,” Castiel says. He knows why Dean is here in his kitchen, going through his things. “I don’t kill people anymore.”

“Let’s say I know that. But the people who think you did?” Dean inches forward again. The shield is bright and big and all-encompassing and Castiel hates it. “They’re coming here right now, and they’re not going to let you leave this country alive.”

“Considering their target is me,” Castiel says, trying to stay still as the ground rumbles around him. “That’s a good strategy.”

There are footsteps on the roof above him. Ten to twelve SWAT agents it sounds like. He eyes Dean, wondering if he sent them.

“This doesn’t have to end in a fight, Cas,” Dean says. His voice is deep and gravelly and desperate. Castiel has heard his name said by this man a thousand different ways. He’s been susceptible to every single one.

“It always ends in a fight,” Castiel reminds him. There’s yelling outside his door. He closes his eyes, mourning this version of his life. His poor tea towel. His poor kettle.

“You pulled me from the river, right?” Dean says in the background. Castiel nods, remembering Dean’s lax face, the wet heft of him as he dragged his limp body to shore. “Why’d you do it?”

Castiel’s metal fist tightens when something slams into his door. “I don’t know, Dean,” he bites out. The SWAT agents are at the front door, waiting for some signal. Castiel will not give it to them willingly.

“Yeah, you do,” Dean insists. He looks, suddenly, like his heart has been ripped from its dark hiding place and thrown into the unforgiving sun. And then all the doors explode inwards at once.

There is a fight. Castiel remembers very little of it.

-

The asset searches up Castiel Novak’s name as soon as he can get to a library, but first he has to become human again.

His old duty suit is dripping with river water and chafing at the skin in his inner thighs and ankles, so he waits under it’s dark and finds a thrift store’s dumpster. He grabs a too-big, almost-white button up and someone’s old suit pants from the top of the heap and quickly peels the leather suit off. He cringes at the white skin under the fabric of his old suit. He looks like a cave animal, one who never saw the sun, all spongy and white. He wipes his body with some “hand sanitizer” he finds in the dumpster, and does a quick scrub through his long hair and hopes he looks okay.

He doesn’t know what year it is, but he has a watery memory of looking up something at the library as a child. He grimaces. Last time he checked, it was 1994. If he’s lucky, libraries as a concept still exist.

He knows what he wants to look up though. So when he goes to the library and boots up a computer using some knowledge somehow implanted in his brain, the asset types it into the search bar carefully. His own face, with short hair and a stern expression, stares back at him from the screen. He cringes away and clicks the first link, some sort of encyclopedia page just on Castiel Novak, and starts reading.

Castiel Novak’s Early Life section is brief. Castiel Novak was born in Pontiac, Illinois, the youngest of six siblings and the devout son of a pastor. As his father became more distant as his practice grew larger, his older brother Gabriel took reluctant care of him, his other siblings too old to care about a seven year old.

If he focuses, the asset can remember a short man with light brown hair, smiling at him and calling him squirt. He names this man Gabriel, pleased at the click of puzzle pieces in his brain. He was a person who had a brother once. He turns to the screen again.

Castiel Novak was a quiet child who did not disobey under any circumstances, not from lack of willpower but from lack of knowledge of another way. His neighbours remembered him sitting on the curb in front of their house most days, quietly content as he watched people do their errands.

Dean Winchester and his brother moved to the old Dowling house down the street when Castiel was ten. This part of his history, noted on Wikipedia with the sub-heading Captain America, is much more filled out, and the asset reads how they met, how Castiel saved Dean and Sam from school bullies, how they would sit on the curb next to him every day after. How Dean would try and get Castiel to date girls from their school, how that would fail, how they would all sit and talk and read in the Winchester’s dark, empty house.

Dean and Sam worked at various bars and butchers as Castiel trained as a bookseller as they got older, and they all lived in a small apartment near Castiel’s father’s church, and they were, by all intents and purposes, content. The asset tries and remembers these days, but all he gets is the sense memory of a hot and humid day - Sam’s high, sparkling laugh, Dean's green eyes and his wide, unconscious smile. He remembers how that smile made him feel. He swallows and keeps reading.

Castiel Novak had been drafted for the war in ‘42. He, along with Sam Winchester, had been sent to the Western Theatre while Dean was left behind. This was the catalyst for the force that was Captain America - Dean’s fear of abandonment, the guilt of not dedicating his life to the cause, the uselessness of his own body not being good enough to fight.

Dean had been attacked by dogs as a child. There is one of the rare pictures of Dean Winchester and Castiel as teenagers on the Wikipedia page, and Dean had three scars running down the length of his face - thick pale ropes that twisted up his mouth and bulged out his cheeks as he smiled for the camera. The dog’s claws had caught his lungs and stomach, and he had barely survived the internal bleeding. Because of this, he had a wonky smile and a crooked nose, and couldn’t breathe too hard or else he would pass out due to scar tissue in his lungs.

The asset remembers this old face. He remembered it before he realized he had a name of his own, before the conditioning sunk its claws in his brain. The freckles on Dean’s face and shoulders, growing more and more numerous in the bright Kansas summers. He remembers watching the sweat bead on Dean’s chest, remembers wanting to rest his mouth on the scars on his neck. He remembers the shame he felt when he thought it, how it mingled with pleasure in his chest. 

Everyone knows the story after that. Dean visited Dr. Singer, a surgeon specializing in a little-known chemical that promised to cure Dean’s internal scarring and elevate his abilities to the super-human level. Dean agreed, and Captain America was born on a metal slab, crying for his dead father and his little brother.

The Captain America that emerged had no scars. He had the high cheekbones of his long-dead mother. He had a straight nose, and a smile that curved just as he wanted it. His shoulders and chest were thick and defined, and he lost the characteristic wheezing that accompanied his every movement. He was strong and fast and handsome, always with a wink at the crowd and a beautiful woman on his arm. A miracle of science and eugenics.

Then he left the frontlines in the middle of the night to rescue his little brother and his childhood best friend’s platoon from capture behind the front line. The asset remembers the intense coughing that set in amongst the prisoners, then being strapped to a metal table and injected with venom and electrocuted for hours. He remembers crying and soiling himself and screaming to God that He had abandoned him and the world in general. And then.

A man with a shield appeared. He had green eyes. He had sandy-coloured hair. He had a chin so familiar it rocketed around Castiel Novak’s chest like it had every day since he was ten years old. He felt like this was the angel of death coming to take him home. He was grateful.

The angel of death spoke in an awfully familiar gravelly voice. “Cas?”

Castiel always thought that Dean’s low, gruff voice was because of those scars, but maybe not. Maybe this was who he always was.

“Buddy, I need you to say something,” Dean begged, putting his shield on his back and coming closer to the table, expression as transparent as it had always been when he thought Castiel wasn’t looking. “Cas.”

“Dean?” Castiel forced himself to say, squinting as Dean hurriedly undid the straps holding him down. “What happened to you?”

Dean helped him off the table, knocking his helmet askew as he smiled in pure, naked relief. “Got a little plastic surgery.” His smile was big and triumphant and as foreign to Castiel as the place he was trapped in, grunting and bursting with smoke.

The asset shakes this memory away. The librarian is watching him gently from her perch behind the front desk and he shies away from her gaze, hiding his hand firm under the desk.

The next heading on Wikipedia is entitled Death, and the asset exhales hard before clicking it.

Once, Castiel Novak was on a mission in the dead of winter in 1945. He was once on a train dangling above the waters of the Danube, on a mission Dean and Sam had planned. Castiel Novak had felt himself growing more strange with the passing days, the quiet knowledge that his captors had stolen some essence of humanity from him and that he could not recover it no matter what he tried.

What had gone wrong, Castiel? Were his fingers too cold, could he not keep his grip? Was it the way Dean was looking at him like he was already planning his funeral as he stood there, reaching for him? Did Dean mourn him after he died, or did he move on, overcome with duty? What did Dean tell Gabriel? What did Dean tell Sam?

The asset feels himself breathing too quickly, his heartbeat rocketing in his head. It is almost novel, after years of being shocked into cold passivity. He closes his eyes and breathes and thinks, if Castiel Novak died in 1945, what am I?

-

The sweats and delirium start to set in after he leaves the library. Full bodied types of sweats and shakes, like he got sick from one of the kids at the shop back in the day. In those days, Dean would bury him in blankets and complain at the stove, stirring whatever they had left into a watery soup and holding him hostage until he would try a few hesitant sips.

He presses himself against a wall in an alley and breathes in, his chest hurting with the effort of it. His arm clanks against the bricks as he looks at his surroundings. He needs some sort of glove or something to make his arm camouflaged from prying eyes. He’s aware of the teetering piles of his memories, the tenuous grasp on what is real and what isn’t. The velvet coat over the gun. He doesn’t know if the gun is new or the coat is.

Dean would probably know. This version of Dean might hate him.

And for good reason, the asset thinks before a wave of nausea curls his stomach into rope. He remembers crushing Dean’s cheekbone with his human hand in that airplane hanger. How precious blood can be when it’s splattered across someone’s teeth. You have to take better care of yourself, Cas. This’ll kill you if you let it.

The asset remembers laying his hand on Dean’s shoulder, his uniform so ripped to shreds that he could put it on bare flesh . The body underneath it has never been familiar to him, but he thinks this blood is.

“To the end-,” Dean had sputtered. His teeth are red, red, red. “To the end of it all, Cas. Past that.”

Castiel remembers -

He doubles over in that alleyway and ejects the remainder of his stomach contents onto the concrete. They must not be feeding him very well at HYDRA. There’s nothing but clear bile puddling on the ground next to a candy bar wrapper. He wipes his mouth. He can’t remember the last meal he had.

He is struck suddenly by visions of hamburgers, the big juicy ones Dean showed him sometimes. He whimpers at the thought, feeling like the very lowest of the human species. He edges his white sleeve over his hand and pushes off from the wall. He remembers Sam’s warm hand on his shoulder. Sometimes you have to just keep going no matter what. He feels like his legs are about to give way. Some superweapon he is.

As he walks through the streets, and the sun is rising, and the humans are in line for their coffee and laughing and not covered in blood and river water, he lets some deep instinct take over him. He lets his shoulders relax and his spine straighten and when a woman hits his shoulder and apologizes, he doesn’t kill her. He inclines his head and says No problem in perfect accentless French, and then he doesn’t resurface until he’s in a mysterious apartment, the keys still hanging from his fingers.

Sometimes you have to save yourself, Cas, the Dean in his head reminds him.

Well, he thinks. He sits down on the empty floor of the barren apartment. He’s still alive. That must mean something. Or just that he hasn’t died yet.

Castiel breathes. His own name rings like a bell in his head. He thinks he can stand to think of it because it was never something Dean called him. Castiel was a birth certificate name, a name that Gabriel called him, a name he heard at school. Cas -

He breathes in against the static in his brain, waits until his eyelids stop twitching.

The apartment he finds himself in is probably an old HYDRA shell. He suspects he has fifty minutes before they notice him curled just on the inside of the door. He forces himself up on shaky legs and plucks every security camera he can find from their hiding places and crushes them in his palm.

Now for the tracking -

Shit.

Castiel walks up to the threadbare kitchen and starts rummaging through the cupboards and drawers. There’s a lot of nothing, because this is an apartment not for a human, but for him. If they could’ve gotten away with no furniture, they would’ve, but HYDRA cares deeply about appearances.

Their loss, Castiel thinks as he grabs a sharp knife from the knife block. It looks as unused as the other facets of the apartment, but it’ll work well for this purpose.

He stumbles to the bathroom. He hastily strips himself of all his clothes and piles them onto the bathroom counter, steps into the tub and briefly blasts himself with cold water from an unused showerhead. He grimaces as murky water circles the drain, but all he needs to be is mostly clean before - before doing this.

He turns off the water with a shaking hand and sits on the slick floor of the tub. He palpates the clammy skin of his chest until he finds an incongruity against the bone and the hard strips of muscle - a lump, tucked hard against his first rib.

He breathes deep and rests the knife against the skin there. I’m sorry, he says to himself, the child who used to watch bees that wandered in from the open window. That child is watching this with wide eyes. I have to. I have to.

Blood drips into the murky water below him as Castiel works the tracking chip off the grey bone of his rib. He wrenches it off and presses hard against the incision as the chip hits the bottom of the tub with a plink. He breathes as deep as he can as the skin starts to refashion over it, moving jerkily underneath his fingertips. Being an abomination has its upsides. In a moment, the only thing that will remain is the shakiness of his human fingers as he starts digging the other tracking chip out of the metal arm.

The water that is gathering around him is cloudy with dirt and blood. The other chip starts to emerge from the other parts of his shoulder as he peels back circuitry and caked-on dirt. Castiel is much more careful about this one. As soon as it’s offline, they will divert all HYDRA personnel to look for him. He can’t run very fast like this, and there’s nowhere he can go.

There is one place. Cas grimaces as he twists the tracking chip from the metal that compromises his shoulder joint. That one place might never want to see him again. He might remember that whatever Castiel is now is not his friend from 1945, but an imposter. Some long-haired aberration that beat him to a pulp and left him like a coward.

Well, that’s never changed, Castiel thinks. The last tracking chip drops into the water with a plink, and he watches as it sinks to the bottom of the bath, light still on and flashing irregularly. Through the hazy bathwater, it looks like a searchlight.

Bite me, he thinks. He shakes his metal arm and all the components click back into place. He is free for the first time in eighty years. He wishes he could celebrate more. He will have to settle for washing the blood from his naked body and dressing himself in his own clothes and breathing without being told to.

He looks in the mirror as he leaves the bathroom. He has something of a beard and his hair curls long against his neck, but it’s still him. His brother would recognize him on the street, he thinks. That provokes in him the first smile he’s had in years. 

He stumbles out of the apartment four minutes before HYDRA shows up and raids the whole building. He knows this because he watches from the street corner, enrapt at the effortless precision HYDRA officers use when planning to execute someone.

He leaves before they fire the shot.

-

Cas is in a glass cube.

More accurately, Dean Winchester put him in a glass cube, and then left.

He thuds his head back against his restraints and watches as Dean leaves, flanked by other SHIELD agents like bugs on a flower as they undoubtedly discuss his fate. At least he’s not wearing the uniform anymore.

He notices, as if from a block away, that he’s scared. It’s not a new feeling, nor an unusual one, but something about these cuffs, this box. He is powerless to protect himself. Maybe Dean -

Dean is back and doesn’t hate him. Those words come ringing into his brain and he sighs at the relief it brings. Dean doesn’t hate him. Dean wishes he would’ve stayed.

If I don’t want to hurt him, I can’t stay, Cas thinks to slow his own heartbeat down. He’s like a dog when its owner comes home, enthusiastic and severely misjudging their permanence.

He shakes his head against the thought. Dean and Sam have never been his owners. They were his friends and they would help him no matter what. He thinks this as loud as he can until it tunes out everything else. He is not a dog. He is not owned.

A man in an ill-fitting suit comes to rest on the wall near the cube. He’s shorter, with dark hair and a slightly patchy beard. Cas ransacks his internal data banks looking for similarities, but blessedly finds none. Just an office worker on a break, looking at a serial killer in a glass box. He goes to kick the glass, but finds he can’t. Wonderful.

The man looks around at the empty airplane hanger and, finding it satisfactory, comes closer to the cube, hands in the pockets of his long, black coat. Cas watches him move carefully. His hair keeps getting in his eyes, but he doesn’t move to fix it.

“Hiya,” the man says. He’s British, with a tone that seems overly familiar. He leans on the box casually, like they’re making small talk at a bar. Cas doesn’t even look at him.

“Don’t be like that, ducky,” the man says disapprovingly. He tsks, a small noise Cas can hear perfectly through the foot-thick glass. “I’m just making conversation.”

Cas leans back against his restraints again, trying to regulate his breathing. He’s been too long out of deep-freeze. He can’t control his heart rate anymore.

“I’m Fergus Crowley, I’m a part of SHIELD’s investigative division. Me and you are going to have a little chat about motivations, hm?” The man - Crowley? - motions his head to someone, and a young woman of considerable height and strength comes over to the cart that moves Cas’ cube and starts pressing buttons. Cas jerks as he feels the wheels engage under him, and he is then being escorted to a large door on the other side of the airplane hanger.

The door glides open silently, and the woman places him underneath a spotlight in the middle of the room and then departs without a word. Crowley sits at a short metal desk across from where Cas sits and opens a notebook and a recorder in front of him. He places his bag, a black leather suitcase, delicately on the table. He clicks a pen and starts writing.

“Castiel Novak, I presume?” Crowley looks up with a trace of humour in his eyes as he writes something down. Cas squints at him. Who else would it be?

“Can’t blame a guy for trying to communicate,” Crowley says. He looks up at Cas with a smirk and Cas gets the feeling that this is a man who usually gets what he wants. He resolves not to give it to him.

“Tell me, Cas,” Crowley starts. Cas rankles at the nickname coming from this unfamiliar man’s mouth. “You’ve experienced a great big load of bullshit, eh?”

They wait, looking at each other. This seems like non-standard questioning.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Cas says at last.

“Maybe you feel like if you start talking about it, you won’t stop, right? Especially to a random bloke like myself or SHIELD. Well, don’t worry your pretty head about it,” Crowley says, tapping something briefly onto the tablet in front of him and then looking up. “I’m only here to trouble you briefly.”

Cas nods. He wishes this were over. He wishes he was out of this glass box.

The lights go off.

All of the emergency lights in the room snap on, red and flashing, and shrill alarms go off on all sides of this room. He looks to Crowley, who looks nonplussed. Castiel is starting to have a sinking feeling in his gut, a remnant of his army days. The silence before the gunfire. The second between hitting the ground and the bomb going off.

“What is this?” Cas asks quietly.

“Don’t you worry about that. Now, let’s discuss your home, shall we? Not Ohio, and definitely not Kansas. Your real home, Cas.”

Crowley brings something dark out of his bag and flips it open. Cas can see the red cover, knows what that means. Cas knows every single word of what’s about to happen, can see it unfolded in front of him like an ugly puzzle. He just hopes he can kill Crowley before-

Zhelaniye,” Crowley begins. Castiel’s metal arm tenses up in the holster. Of course. There was no other way.

“No,” Castiel says. He knows it is futile. He says it anyway.

Padeniye. Legche,” Crowley says in terrible Russian. It’s apparently effective enough as Castiel can feel his body stiffen at the words, can feel his mind start to cloud over. He hasn’t felt like this in years, like he’s watching his body move on its own. He yells for it to stop, any of it.

Chetyre,” Crowley keeps going. He’s smiling, even as Castiel breaks his restraints open with a metal fist and launches out of his seat. I’ll kill you, Castiel thinks as he punches the glass as hard as he can. The whole cube shudders. I’ll kill you for this.

Prizrak. Geroy. Nebesa,” Crowley says, saying every syllable crisply. It’s a march of unrelenting pain in Castiel’s head, like long-closed wounds being slowly soldered open.

“Stop,” Castiel pleads one last time. Crowley smiles at him indulgently before shaking his head.

Vosemnadtsat. Vozvrashcheniye domoy,” Crowley says, evidently enjoying the reaction he is provoking in Castiel. He is just a dog after all. Say the words and he comes running. He keeps punching the glass, less out of will and just out of reflex.

I’m sorry, Dean.

Otchayaniye,” Crowley finishes. The glass finally breaks and what was Castiel Novak tumbles to the floor in a rain of shattered glass.

Soldat?” Crowley says. The asset rises from the floor. He is a homunculus. He is a shell where horrors are formed.

“Gotov podchinit'sya,” the asset says. Ready to comply.

When he goes to kill Dean Winchester, the asset finds that he is crying. He wipes the tears off his cheek and looks down at his wet fingers. Malfunctioning, he thinks. He keeps moving.

-

When HYDRA put their asset back together after his fall, they didn’t account for his newfound regenerative capabilities. During the entirety of the arm’s amputation, Castiel’s body was fighting the surgeons. It was convinced it could handle whatever the world could throw at it and was building new bones from his tissues, fine vessels extending forward past the tissue and knitting back together in front of their very eyes.

The arm had regrown four times before they had to chop off the joint entirely, and they soldered the new arm on before it could regrow again. Castiel wasn’t awake for this - or he was, and the pain had been too much to bear - but the four small, wrong arms that were discarded fell in disarray around the operating table.

The handlers were convinced that there was nothing human left of him as they watched those tiny arms wiggle on the surgery wing’s grey floor. So they decided to turn him into what they wanted: a robot. A gun.

When they wiped him that first time, when they wiped Dean and Sam Winchester and his brothers and Kansas from his mind entirely, his alliances didn’t change entirely, not quite. When she - a handler named Naomi who would only show up in perfect gray pantsuits and crisp notepads - asked him to kill a Captain America proxy, he couldn’t. Whatever spell Winchester had on him was uncrackable by electric currents and implanted nodes. Castiel stood next to this Winchester proxy and he wept.

The handlers were disgusted. They had expected the killing machine they formed with their own hands to be ruthless, that he had no soul left, that they had scooped it out of him. Yet the Winter Soldier wept anyway, his ruined shoulder shaking with the effort of it.

They dragged him away to put him through the machine again, and he put forth no resistance. “Dean,” he had mumbled as they strapped the halo over his head, mashed a bite guard between his teeth and told him to bite down. “Sam.”

When they asked him to do it four more times, he hesitated less each time. Once, he rested his hands around the proxy’s neck and held his handsome face in his hands for a long time before he snapped his neck. Too much kindness, Naomi said still, looking over her glasses at the silent Castiel in front of her. Remove it.

The final time, after thousands of imitators in identical patriotic suits were killed and the asset had gotten every inch of his suit coated in blood, they asked him to kill Captain America and he complied without hesitating. When he was done ripping the proxy’s head off his shoulders, he dropped it, stood up, and waited for further instruction. He was perfect, as malleable as clay and stronger than any other man before him.

You see, HYDRA accounted for every scenario in their programming when destroying Castiel Novak. They had scenarios in which Dean Winchester said he loved him like a brother, that he wanted him in his life, that he forgave him and he wanted him to defect. That Winchester wanted to kiss him, fuck him, hold him. Those triggers are easy to implant.

“I need you,” Dean Winchester had said on the aircraft carrier, one eye swollen shut and a tooth regrowing in his top gums. “I need you, Cas.”

They never thought Captain America would need a thing like their asset. Therefore, their asset stopped fighting, mouth slack and gaping. Dean Winchester, the start and the end of it all. Naomi would’ve been furious.

“At least I found you, Cas,” Dean says, a hundred years and ten inches away from the asset’s broken nose. “I never stopped looking, you know that?”

The carrier starts shattering into pieces around them. The asset is ready to die, The asset shakes his head. His head hurts, probably because he got punched a hundred times by a super soldier. He feels like he should be hurting him back, so the asset tries. He tries balling his fist, he tries to bring it down, he tries -

“Cas,” Dean says again, and the hand stops in the air. There is defeat on the asset’s face, behind the long hair, underneath the leather. “Please.”

The bottom falls out. Dean Winchester hits the water at mach speed and is unconscious as soon as he breaks the surface. The Winter Soldier drags him to the shore and leaves him there.

I’m sorry, the newly reborn Castiel Novak thinks as Dean sputters and groans and vomits river water all over himself . Then he walks away. He has a lot of learning to do.

-

It turns out being turned into a ruthless killing machine and being frozen and unfrozen for dozens of years confuses your body down to its base level. It starts thinking cold is hot, sour is nauseating, that pain is necessary for function.

When the asset is finally brought to a doctor for the first time in seventy years, a friend of Iron Man’s Charlie Bradbury, the doctor has to leave the room to cry.

Welcome to my world, Castiel thinks. He says this thought out loud to Dean, who is sitting in the hospital chair next to the gurney he’s been strapped to. He is hoping it would make Dean smile. Sam is lingering near the front door, obviously caught between comforting the doctor and comforting Cas.

Cas shakes his head minutely, so Sam heads to the doctor and hovers his hands awkwardly over his shuddering back.

Dean doesn’t laugh but sighs dramatically, leaning back in his small hospital chair. He’s just on this side of too bulky to be comfortable, so he shifts his weight every few seconds to compensate. Cas finds some amusement in this. He looks like a loaf of bread in a Ziploc bag.

“You’re kind of a mess, Cas,” Dean says finally, gesturing with his hand to where the x-rays of his shoulder joint lay. Apparently Cas’ reinforced spine is way too thick and very crudely made, and his shoulder bone has completely calcified a thin layer of bone over the implanted metal joint, which breaks every time he moves the arm. Apparently it’s very painful. Cas wouldn’t know.

“I’ve noticed,” Cas says shortly. He breathes deeply against the nausea churning in his gut. Dean leans back in his chair and rubs his eyes, resting his hands there for a beat too long.

“I’m sorry,” Dean whispers, barely audible over the beeps of Cas’ heart rate monitor. Cas grunts.

“Dean, as I’ve said before, you had no reason to believe I was even alive. You wouldn’t have been able to find me even if you knew where to look,” Cas says. “What’s past is past.”

He is tired of this cyclical conversation. He is tired of Dean feeling sorry for himself, about the veil of misery he exudes with him every time he looks at Cas. He is here now, breathing freely and of his own volition against all odds. If Cas could even hold a grudge, it would’ve been gone the second Dean hugged him hello, willing to welcome whatever Cas was hugging him back.

Dean sniffles, pinches the bridge of his nose, and nods once. He looks at him with red-rimmed eyes, running them over Cas’ white hotel gown, his metal arm flayed open to its gristly components, his hair tied back in a neat bun. “Yeah. I know, Cas. But that damn doctor is crying over what they did to you, man. How-,”

“What’s past is past,” Cas interrupts. He doesn’t want to hear this. “If I dwell on it too much, I’ll go insane.”

“Fair point,” Dean says finally. They both watch as the doctor collects himself outside Cas’ medical room, Sam talking to him in fervent whispers every so often. The doctor peeks back at Cas every so often like he’s a mirage, like he’s not even sure he’s alive. Cas knows the feeling.

“Bright side,” Dean says, slapping both of his hands together. His smile is watery when he aims it at Cas, but it is a smile nonetheless. “Might get some heavy duty painkillers for this. Could sell ‘em if you wanted to. Build a nest egg.”

Cas feels happy for a bright, brilliant second. It’s as foreign as anything else is these days, but he carefully smiles back at Dean, using all the muscles a human would use. Dean looks pleased, pursing his lips in a smile and looking down at his lap.

“That’s a nice thought,” Cas says. “Retirement.”

“Yeah, well,” Dean says. He hesitates a second, scratching his denim-covered thigh. “Do you remember Cassie Robinson?”

Cas nods. She was a high-ranking SHIELD officer assigned to the Captain America project during the war. Cas was on the front lines too often to know her very well, but received most of his information during the hours Dean would sit, dreamy eyed, writing letters to her on the bunk table. Cas would always double-check his responses for spelling errors.

He liked her well enough, he supposes. She and Dean had a lot in common; both willing to get dirty for a good cause, both with a sparkling dry wit. When they were in a room together, talking and joking and gazing at each other, you could almost see the sparks catching in the space between them, threatening to consume them both.

Cas wasn’t in the room with them often.

“Of course,” Cas says softly. He did like her, despite his childish jealousy. She was in the unenviable position of being Black, a woman, and a high-ranking official in a country that didn’t want her to be any of those things, and she was great at what she did. Castiel would’ve attended their wedding dressed to the nines with a smile on his face.

“Well, she’s still kicking. She’s in the Alzheimer’s ward at Howard. After I disappeared, she got married and had a few kids,” Dean says. His tone is nonchalant, but Cas knows that it hurts to say. Dean keeps his eyes on the window as he talks, folding his hands into his chest gently.

“She keeps talking about just living, you know. About her house next to a little river that her kids would swim in when it was hot. She would always show me pictures of them on her phone,” Dean chuckles wetly. “She made it sound so good, you know. Having a family. Not having to solve a world-ending crisis.”

He pauses and looks down at his feet. “The way she said it, it sounded doable. Easy.”

“I know you wanted that with her,” Cas says quietly. “I’m sorry it didn’t come to fruition.”

“Yeah, well. Maybe it would’ve worked out in another life,” Dean said, a deep buried hurt coming to the surface for a second before it sinks back down. “But I-I wasn’t jealous, Cas. Not of her husband. I was jealous that she got old.”

They just look at each other for a second. Two old men in young men's bodies, in a time that wasn’t supposed to be theirs. Dean should’ve been married by now, working hard on a farm in Kansas. Cas should’ve-

He pauses that train of thought. Perhaps this was always the way it was meant to end for him. He doesn’t think he’s meant for domesticity, the way the old alley cat he used to feed never got quite used to being held.

“We got time now, is what I’m saying,” Dean says. Cas looks over at him. He’s already looking back, eyes pleading with something Cas can’t name. “I already told SHIELD and the Avengers that I’m taking a hiatus for the current future.”

“Dean,” Cas says, annoyed. Dean was always a hoverer, someone to give you blankets and watch over you when you were sick. “I don’t want to be your pet project. I’ll be fine.”

“Sure you’ll be fine. I’m talking about me, you diva,” Dean says, nudging his arm. “I want some R&R. I was talking to Sam, he wants some too. Apparently SHIELD’s had him doing archive work since he was unfrozen. It sounds friggin’ awful.”

Dean’s fingers trace letters on top of his palm. H-O-M-E. “We bought a couple of houses in Kansas. Real deep woods, middle of nowhere. Going to be heading over there next week to start renovating.” He pauses. “There’s space for you if you want it.”

“Dean,” Cas says. It’s a bad idea, surely. Cas could be triggered by a random snap of a twig and kill them all, or accidentally smell vanilla yogurt and throw up for hours. “I can’t.”

“Why not?” Dean says. Cas can start to feel a headache brewing behind his eyes. Dean, among all his better qualities, has always been stubborn. “I’m a super soldier, Cas. And hell, I’ve beat you when you were in Soldier Mode before.”

“Even once is too much, Dean,” Cas says. He’s not quite sure how Dean isn’t getting how dangerous he is, or if he’s actively choosing to ignore it. “If I hurt you or Sam, even by accident, I’ll never forgive myself.”

“What will it take to have you stay with us, huh?” Dean asks. “A padded cell? Tranquilizers? It’ll kill me but I’ll do it, Cas. I’ll do anything.”

“Dean,” Cas says in astonishment. Dean’s bristled up like a bear, leaning towards him with wide, unblinking eyes. The chair starts to creak ominously under his weight.

“I need you, Cas,” Dean says. And it is the truth. No one would look at the way Dean Winchester is pleading with him and disagree. “Please. Here with me.”

Stupefied, Cas nods. His heart monitor is going crazy, which finally gets the attention of Sam and the doctor. The doctor seems to snap out of his trance, and he pushes Sam’s hand away as he wipes his face and blows his nose.

Cas has to answer Dean. He has to tell him no, that it’s too dangerous. That he still has those trigger words in his brain, that he has screaming nightmares. That sometimes he goes mute for days, that the taste of fake orange flavoring makes him shake. He is a burden. He is noth-

“Soon,” Cas promises. He knows he means it as soon as it comes out of him. Dean looks like everything good has come to him at once. “Soon. I promise.”

Before Dean can respond, the doctor comes in, eyes finally dry. Sam trails in after him, looking worried. Sam always looks worried. It’s a large part of his personality.

“Sorry for that, Mr, Novak. I was unprepared for the scope of your injuries,” Dr. Kerubin says, voice only slightly shaky. “Your shoulder has been crudely assembled and put on with no respect for your well-being. I am frankly surprised that you’re conscious right now, let alone talking normally.”

“He’s a tough guy, Doc!” Dean says proudly, slapping Cas’ flesh shoulder. The doctor, Sam, and Cas all turn to look at him, and he retracts his arm after a second of silence.

“It would certainly seem so,” Dr. Kerubin says after a moment. “The arm is putting immense amounts of strain on your spine, Mr. Novak. I imagine it is because of HYDRA freezing you so often that it hasn’t started impacting your spinal cord.”

He looks at his clipboard, fiddling with his pen. He looks like he’s stalling.

“For your well-being, I suggest amputation of the arm and partial amputation of the shoulder joint. After that, Mrs. Bradbury has said she feels like she can make you something better, Mr. Novak.” He speaks haltingly, seemingly too aware of the combined 500 pounds of muscle in this room.

Dean and San start asking questions about recovery time, but all Cas can hear is muted mumbles, like he’s underwater. Dean grabs his arm as he does his breathing exercises. Sam hovers over his shoulder, wringing his hands as he looks at where the doctor points to all the weak points of Cas’ skeletal system.

“It would make you feel a whole lot better, Mr. Novak. I would bet my whole medical career on it,” Dr. Kerubin says. Dean looks at Cas and nods, his eyes liquid and hot.

So he commits to the surgery. Of course he does.

And during the surgery, Dean is parked on a stool next to him, humming in his ear the whole time because Cas’ body metabolizes anesthetic like crazy and he needs a distraction. He hums Yankee Doodle Dandy and Amazing Grace and Elvis. His broad shoulders block out the light of the surgery room and the bustle of the doctors, shrinking the operating room to just the two of them. Dean has a gift for that.

Cas watches his improbable mouth and his straight nose and the muscles under his skin move and thinks, for the first time in his life, that someone out there must like him a little bit, if only to let him have this after all he’s done.

-

After everything’s been torn and sewn and cauterized 一 after all the fighting, and the disappearing, and Cas getting all of his trigger words dragged out of his skull one by one一 all of them retire officially.

The second all three of them left the building for the last time there’s a “beep” of their SHIELD buzzers deactivating. Sam and Dean yell in happiness, and Dean slings a casual arm around Cas’ shoulder and swings him around. He is careful of the stitches, but he lets the arm sit there until they get to Dean’s new civilian car.

“Dean, you weren’t even alive in 1967,” Sam says, looking it over. Dean rubs some imaginary dust off the hood and smiles adoringly at the car, fresh from the SHIELD garages. Cas watches him from under his arm. 

“Yeah? Well, you weren’t alive in 2004, but you still can’t stop playing with that Pad thingy,” Dean says. He makes a motion like he’s scrolling on said Pad thingy.

“It’s useful, okay?” Sam says defensively, holding his bag containing the iPad to his chest. “Charlie rigged it up for me. Imagine all the books I can-,”

“Geek,” Dean coughs into his hand. Sam glowers at him, flips him off, and opens the passenger door roughly to slide in.

Dean turns to Cas, who has just been happy to watch this unfold, and says “What do you think?” His eyes are very beautiful in the late afternoon sun. Cas is, as always, completely overwhelmed.

“It’s certainly a nice car,” Cas says. Its sleek lines and steel accents shine as the light hits it just so. It’s a car he can see Dean driving, see Sam in the passenger seat, see himself in the backseat, watching them both.

“Just nice?” Dean teases. He puts a hand on the top of the car and leans in, like he’s flirting with a chorus girl at a dance hall. Cas feels… okay being the chorus girl. Just this once.

“Very nice,” Cas says finally, a smile curling up the side of his mouth. Dean’s smile broadens and he opens his mouth to say something else but there’s a honk from the car beneath them. Dean falls back a couple extra inches in surprise. Cas doesn’t move a muscle.

“Jeez, I thought we were done with this in ‘43,” Sam calls from the open window. He honks again, longer. “Let’s go!”

“Alright, alright, keep your pants on,” Dean says, looking away from Cas now and turning a little bit red across the tops of his cheeks. True to what Sam said, Cas doesn’t think he’s seen that since 1943 - how Dean always laughs at his jokes, how Dean always leans in a little too close.

“Ready to go?” Dean says, facing him again sheepishly. “Charlie burned us a couple tapes apparently. It’s a long way to Kansas.”

“Ready,” Cas says gently, and the answering smile could power Cas through a hundred more years of solitude. He gets in gingerly, to not bump the stitches. Dean gets into the front and revs the Impala’s engine several times before peeling out of the parking lot.

Dean brings them to a couple houses in northern Kansas, on the outskirts of a small town there.

They’re not very big. True to Dean’s word, It’s two single story houses with most of its acreage being dense, thick forest. Dean goes into the city a couple times a month to visit Cassie and meet with SHIELD. Sam does his research and spends his days talking with the professor of History at the local college. There’s enough room out back for a garden, which Cas could spend his time tending to when he’s not sleeping, reading, or getting fat off of Dean’s cooking.

Or.

“It’s me,” Dean says from behind a closed door. It’s been a couple months of living in the houses. Cas has read approximately a hundred of the e-books Charlie put on his iPad for him. He’s sitting in the sunroom at the moment, a small room right off the patio with a view of their field.

Dean always announces himself before he enters a room, like somehow Cas wouldn’t have guessed it was him. Cas supposes it’s for good reason, as the first time Dean burst in on him without knocking he almost tackled him to the ground. It’s much more peaceful this way.

“Come in,” Cas says. He puts his book to the little wooden side table next to his comfy armchair. It’s East of Eden, Steinbeck. It is weirdly familiar in some aspects. He doesn’t think about it too hard.

“Hey,” Dean says quietly as he opens the door. He’s wearing a pair of loose sweatpants and a grey t-shirt. If pressed, Cas could name all major muscle groups through the fabric. He doesn’t exactly mind it.

Dean gently closes the door behind him and sits in the opposite armchair from Cas, looking troubled. Cas prepares himself for a talk. Their mornings have been a little stilted lately. Cas watches Dean and then Dean turns to watch Cas and then they both turn away. There’s always been a tension between them, but it’s reached a fever point.

Cas’ good humor evaporates. Now is the time he tells me to go. It’s not like the thought didn’t cross his mind, especially as he heals more completely. What remains of his arm is fully healed and he is getting used to life using only one arm. The phantom pains, as always, hurt and he gets less sleep than is prescribed, but he is hopeful for his future. For once.

Dean notices him tensing and physically relaxes his shoulders, his stance. Cas watches this carefully. Old habits die hard.

“I have to talk to you about something, Cas,” Dean says gently. You have to leave, Cas fills in the blank. His mind races for potential places to stay. Garth Fitzgerald was always nice to him in the Avengers tower, whenever he wasn’t ten feet tall and green. Anna Milton didn’t look disgusted by him when she met the real, non-asset version of him, and she and Dean had some easy camaraderie that might translate into pity for his circumstance. He even thinks he recognizes her, somewhere deep in his brain. A target or an accomplice or both, back in his inhuman days.

“Okay,” Cas says, faux-casually. His fingers grip into his basketball shorts. Dean’s eyes follow the action and he sighs.

“I’m not good at this kind of thing,” Dean says, more to himself than to Cas. Cas cocks his head in confusion and Dean smiles at the action, looking down at his lap as he does so. “Come on, Winchester,” he whispers. Cas waits patiently. He just hopes he has enough time to pack up his clothes and books after his dismissal.

“I have to tell you something and you have to promise not to leave,” Dean says quickly. His face is closed off again, his brow furrowed. He’s not making eye contact. Cas’ heart elevates, and Dean must hear it, because he squints at his chest.

“Of course,” Cas says, now just confused. Did Dean burn down a house? Did he buy the wrong beer?

“I might have feelings for you, Cas. Uh, romantic. The romantic sort of feelings. I’m sorry,” Dean says quickly. He’s looking at his pants, at his hands squeezing the fabric past its stretching point. “I can’t keep living here and not acknowledging it. I think I’ve had them since - since before, too. You and Cassie. Uh, both of you. I - I have to know if. If you feel the same.”

What?

“What?” Cas whispers. His thoughts of packing and gangs drift away. His arm is squeezing the armchair’s armrest so hard he can feel the wood crack underneath the upholstery. “Uh?”

“Yeah,” Dean bristles. He’s closing off already, his shoulders rounding. “I’m going to take that as a no, then. Good talk.”

He gets up quickly. He hasn’t made eye contact yeat.

“Wait,” Cas croaks. He reaches his arm out for Dean. “Dean, you-,” he starts again. He clears his throat.

“I do,” Cas settles on at last. Dean looks at his face, finally. And whatever he sees must clear something up for him because he carefully walks over and bends down and puts his hands on either side of Cas’ face.

“Tell me if I’m misreading this,” Dean says quietly. The light inside the sunroom is orange and yellow. Somewhere in the distance, a bird chirps its morning song.

“I’ve wanted this since I was ten years old,” Cas croaks, putting his hand up to where Dean’s hand is resting on his cheek.

“You bastard,” Dean says unevenly, and then he leans in.

There’s a brief moment, right before Dean kisses him, that the thought comes: This is a dream, I am in cryo still. Any moment now, they’re going to call me and take me back, and I will have to murder a governor or his wife or their child. Any moment now.

Dean’s lips are so careful against his, only moving a little, like he’s waiting for Cas to turn away from him. Cas turns into it instead, gently sliding his hand up Dean’s chest to rest at his collarbone. Dean’s breath is uneven on his cheek.

Any moment now. Any moment now.

“Cas,” Dean whispers as they break apart, and one of Dean’s hands goes into his hair, and his weight settles on Cas’ thighs. Cas groans in relief.

They kiss for what seems like eternity, shaded in yellow and gold. The moment never comes.

-

When they tell Sam, he shrugs a shoulder and continues reading something on his iPad. Dean throws one of Cas’ decorative pillows at his head. They go out later and buy more pillows and conditioner and a single tea towel. 

Cas puts it on the counter, next to his new kettle.