Actions

Work Header

On Drowning

Work Text:

It takes all goddamn night, but they finally gank the wendigo that’s been haunting the little town of Iron Mountain Lake, Missouri.

Dean would probably feel more accomplished if it weren’t the middle of February. The whole experience has been, unsurprisingly, unpleasant. The temperature can’t be much above freezing, probably colder than that with the wind chill, and Dean’s winter coat and constant movement aren’t doing shit to keep him from shivering.

And the all-nighter definitely isn’t helping. Actually, if there’s something that sleep deprivation does help with, Dean would love to know about it.

He’s going to think back on that, later. He’s going to think, Yeah, we were all exhausted, that must have been the reason we made the fucking decision to take a shortcut over the fucking lake just to save ourselves a few minutes trekking back to the car.

Right now, at least, to his credit, Dean is asking, “Are you sure this is safe?”

He’s too busy watching Cas step out onto the ice to see it, but he can hear Sam’s eyeroll in his voice. It’s one of his many gifts, being able to divine Sam’s facial expressions even when he can’t see them.

One of Sam’s gifts is being able to recall random shit at a moment’s notice, even after being conscious for more than twenty-four consecutive hours.

“It’s the middle of winter, Dean. This lake has probably been frozen for weeks. I mean, get this, there are people in Michigan who actually take their snowmobiles across the ice to this one island every winter, and --”

“Okay, nerd,” Dean interrupts, rolling his eyes right back. Sam scoffs but doesn’t pick up where he left off.

When they step out onto the ice, Cas already twenty feet ahead, Dean has to admit that, all right, it actually feels pretty sturdy.

In retrospect, he’ll think to himself that of course it was fucking stupid of him to jinx it like that. Not that he believes he has the power to curse things with a thought, just that the universe isn’t a big fan of his happiness. It probably thinks giving him any would be more than he deserves.

That’s what he’ll think later, but right now, right now he’s five feet onto this frozen lake and Cas is maybe thirty feet out, and then. Then there’s a crack that makes him look up as though he’s expecting thunder on this crisp cloudless day, and it’s only when Sam shouts “Cas!” that he realizes what’s actually happened.

Cas has gone through the ice. He surfaces for a few seconds, gasping with the shock of the water or the cold or both, hands grappling at the edge of the hole his body has created, and then he disappears beneath the surface.

The next thing Dean sees is a flash of Cas’ coat through the ice a foot from the hole he fell through, his own panicked thrashing just making it all so much worse. Cas is trapped beneath the largely unbroken surface of the lake, and all Dean can think is Cold shock could mean Cas could be dead in two minutes.

Two minutes. Dean has spent practically his whole fucking life training himself to handle any situation like it’s first nature and yet right now he’s rooted to the spot as his brain tries to count the seconds ticking by.

“Stay here,” Sam says, because for some reason, he’s in control of his mental faculties. Apparently he’s developed a plan in the last 2.5 seconds, and frankly, Dean’s not going argue. He watches in a daze as Sam stretches out over the too-thin ice, as he puts those super long limbs to great fucking use, in Dean’s humble opinion. Sam makes his way out onto the lake like he’s crawling across a battlefield, and when he stops, he slams his gun against the ice.

Dean thinks, Oh. He’s breaking it in the last place he saw the flash of Cas’ ugly yellow coat beneath the surface.

Sam reaches down into the water and comes up empty handed, so he moves again, again, repeats the process, face set in a look of grim determination.

On his fourth try, Sam pulls Cas up first by his collar and then, when he’s made the hole big enough, with an arm wrapped across his chest.

Dean is thinking, absently, Oh, Sam was probably finally able to grab him because he stopped moving. It seems, at best, like a mixed blessing.

Dean watches as Sam stays as flat as he can, spreading his weight over as much of the ice as possible, dragging Cas along with him awkwardly towards land. “Dean. Get to shore,” Sam says, slowly pulling Cas to safety.

All Dean can think at the moment is, first of all, the water must not have been that deep, if Sam could reach Cas, because his clothes would have dragged him straight down; and second, thank god for that awful sunflower yellow coat.

“He’s not breathing,” Sam says, snapping Dean out of his thoughts, voice unnaturally steady in that way he has when he’s trying to pretend he isn’t panicking. He looks at Dean like he’s asked a question. Like he’s expecting an answer, like when they were kids and he would ask Dean why Dad wasn’t back yet. Like that was the end of his plan and now it’s Dean’s turn. Like he’s expecting him to have a solution, because why wouldn’t he, he’s the older brother.

Dean is still frozen, stuck moving in slow motion, though he’s perfectly dry and Cas is the one dripping with literal freezing water.

“Get out of the way,” Dean hears himself saying, as though from far away. Which he supposes he is.

Absurdly, he’s replaying episodes of Dr. Sexy in his head. He’s thinking about all the ones where people nearly drowned. Never actually, because it wasn’t the kind of show where people die in every episode.

If Dean’s life were a show, he’s pretty sure it would be that kind of show.

He had marathoned his way through half of the first season before he started wondering about the medical accuracy. One of the characters had dislocated a shoulder and gone on to perform open heart surgery the next day, and Dean had announced to the TV, oh, bullSHIT. That’s the trouble, he supposes, watching fictional depictions of his realities.

So the seed of doubt had been planted, and when the credits rolled, he finally paused. He found a blog that broke it down, complained about all the medical fallacies even though the show claimed to consult various medical professionals. He hadn’t been particularly surprised, which is why the amount of time he spent poring through the site had been so puzzling. He had tried to tell himself his fascination with it was purely academic, at first. Like research for potential outcomes of hunts instead of potential causes for them. But then one thing led to another and he wound up reading article after article, spending hours on research that he couldn’t possibly pretend would accomplish anything more than satisfying his own curiosity, and he had to admit it was more obsessively fan-ish than anything. He only managed to tear himself away when he caught up to the episode he was on and had to stop to avoid spoilers.

But the point is, two episodes after the shoulder dislocation that sent him down the initial rabbit hole, someone nearly drowned on Dr. Sexy. But not that nearly, apparently, because all it had taken was a few breaths and voila, the person was awake and alert and everything was fine. And at that point, he couldn’t help himself. He went back to the computer to catch up and learned exactly how wildly inaccurate this particular episode had been. The articles were bad enough, but the personal stories were what finally got him to shut off the computer and go to bed. He had shied away from the ones where people hadn’t eventually pulled through, and even then, what he read was horrific. He deals with people dying on the regular and he still thinks that word is appropriate, horrific.

He knows, now, that it’s not nearly that easy to revive people, especially if their heart has stopped beating. They’re not going to cough and wake up after a few seconds easy as that. You need -- fuck, you need an ambulance, you need a defibrillator, you need things Dean doesn’t have in the trunk of his car, things that are miles and miles from where they are in the middle of fucking nowhere. Cas’ lips are blue and Dean knows how hard it will be to find a pulse, how it’s a waste of time to try. He knows exactly how little hope he should have that Cas is going to speak or walk or smile at him ever again. He knows it all too fucking well, and he has no one but himself to blame.

But he’s going to try his best anyway, dammit, even though CPR is nothing like on TV, either. It’s difficult and it’s violent and he’s imagining it already, the way it’s going to feel to have Cas’ bones cracking under his hands as he tries to keep him alive. He already knows the feel of it from personal experience. It’s not something he wants to repeat.

He feels like throwing up. He’s shaking with more than just the cold.

It’s been maybe ten seconds since he gave Sam his last command, but it feels like it’s been a fucking eternity.

Sam has obediently moved out of the way, though, and next thing Dean knows, he’s on his knees next to Cas. He’s desperately trying not to wonder if Cas’ soul, or whatever it is he has now, has already left his body. If it’s hovering somewhere nearby, listening to the prayer Dean knows he’s broadcasting, voluntarily or not.

He does his best to block out his thoughts as he leans over and gives CPR for the first time in his life. He's not going to let Cas become part of some statistic on a fucking Wikipedia article.

He hopes knowing the theory is enough, because god knows he has zero experience with the practical application. He focuses on counting out the compressions and the breaths and keeping the ratio correct, because if he thinks about anything else, like the way more water bubbles from Cas’ mouth with every press of his hands against Cas’ chest, he isn’t going to be able to do this at all.

He focuses on the rhythm of it, the compressions that he can’t help doing to the beat of Stayin’ Alive. He read it set the perfect rhythm of 100 beats per minute, which is maybe just a coincidence and maybe also because the universe has a fucked up sense of humor, which wouldn’t surprise him at this point.

He has no idea how many sets he goes through, thirty compressions -- maybe, he’s having a hard time counting that high right now -- to two breaths, rinse and repeat, but he does know he jerks to a stop when Cas draws in a sudden, shuddering breath. He doesn’t even have time to be relieved before Cas makes this awful wet gurgling noise, and he has just the presence of mind to roll Cas onto his side before he throws up water and the remnants of the greasy diner food they had shoveled down last night in the outskirts of St. Louis.

He thinks, Can you imagine if Cas aspirated on his own vomit, after all that. Jesus.

Dean barely registers Sam saying, “Holy shit.” He recalls, distantly, that when he was doing all that reading, he had been thinking, Drowning sounds fucking disgusting. But right now all he’s thinking is, Thank fucking god Cas isn’t dead.

Well. Not yet.

He rolls Cas back over, still unconscious, and he has to remind himself, he has to think, This isn’t a fucking movie, stop hoping for some magic fix. He knows how bad it is that Cas isn’t shivering. He knows that just because Cas is breathing now, it doesn’t mean he’s going to be okay. He’d read about secondary drowning, too, the way fluid in a person’s lungs can cause pulmonary edema. Cas is a person now and this is a thing that could happen to him, this slow drowning over the course of hours or days.

The water in his lungs could be absorbed into his blood and cause cardiac arrest within minutes. Even moving him too aggressively could cause dangerous heart arrhythmias.

Fuck, he really wishes he hadn’t read so many Wikipedia articles about this.

But because he’s going to be a fucking optimist, he tosses Sam his keys -- he even manages not to completely screw up his aim, which is frankly a goddamned miracle at this point -- and says, “Get the car.” That’s all the instruction Sam needs to take off sprinting, across the land this time. Jesus christ, what were they thinking.

Dean picks Cas up in stages, pulls Cas’ arm over his shoulders, slides one arm behind his back and another under his legs, and stands up slowly. He starts walking in the direction Sam took off in, carefully making his way across the frozen ground, because he’s sure if he doesn’t keep moving, this is going to become even worse than it already is.

When Sam finally pulls up in the Impala, heat already running at full blast, Dean carries Cas into the car as quickly and gently as he can and lays him across the back seat. As they take off down the road, Dean pulls a knife from his jacket and cuts Cas’ freezing clothes off of him. He tries not to notice the fact that even though Cas is breathing, it’s slow and shallow, and he still hasn’t regained consciousness. He tries not to think about it, but the back seat isn’t that big, and his whole world has narrowed down to Cas and what’s happening to Cas and whether Cas is going to be okay. It’s easier said than done.

It doesn’t help that once he has Cas stripped down, Dean can see that it’s not just his lips and the tips of his ears that have turned blue. Cas’ fingers and toes have followed suit, and the rest of his skin is unnaturally pale.

Dean peels off his own layers, using his flannel to dry Cas off as best he can. When he finishes, he tosses the wet shirt onto the floor with Cas’ ruined clothes and lifts Cas just enough to slide him into his own dry coat. He demands Sam’s coat next, waiting impatiently as Sam maneuvers out of it while driving, and then places it over Cas’ legs, careful to keep the parts still damp from where Sam had reached into the water from coming into direct contact with Cas’ skin.

He isn’t sure what else he can do in terms of triage. The thought is almost unbearable, so he settles for sitting uncomfortably, half on the seat and half on the floor, with one hand on Cas’ shoulder and the other on his neck. He can feel Cas’ heartbeat now, but he’s pretty sure it’s fainter than it should be. With how cold the water must have been, and water is a great conductor of heat, he knows, drawing heat away from Cas’ body, he figures even if he’s being optimistic, Cas has maybe an hour. If he’s being pessimistic, it’s, well. It’s much shorter than that.

He’s trying very hard not to dwell on that thought and not exactly succeeding when when Cas starts shaking uncontrollably and wakes up, gasping, and relief floods through Dean, loosening something in his chest that he hadn’t realized was ratcheted tight.

Cas looks around frantically for a few moments. “D-d-d-dean,” he says miserably, teeth chattering so hard it must hurt.

For a second, Dean is stuck like that, looking down at Cas pale and shivering and alive, and realizing, absently, that it’s the first time in the years that they’ve known each other that Cas has ever looked this young and afraid.

It’s cramped in the back seat, but Dean manages to twist and pull Cas up and hold him against his chest. He tries not to cling to him as fiercely as he wants to, tries not to think about how ice cold Cas’ skin is. Instead he says, “Hey, it’s okay, you’re gonna be fine. Everything is gonna be all right.” He doesn’t know who he’s trying to convince.

In response, Cas makes the worst little noise, a whine deep in the back of his throat, breath hitching in the middle of it like he’s in agony. Dean swears he can feel it like a physical ache in his chest, but he doesn’t focus on that. He doesn’t focus on the way Cas is still dead weight in his arms, moving only when Dean shifts in the seat. Instead, he focuses on the way Cas is breathing raggedly against his shoulder. He asks, “Sammy, how much farther?”

Sam is still an inexplicable pillar of calm as he says, “Just five more minutes. We’re almost there.”

It’s great Sam is such an amazing liar, Dean thinks, because it’s not five minutes. It can’t be. Dean keeps asking and Sam keeps saying “Just five more minutes,” though. He must say it at least four or five times before he’s actually pulling to a stop and opening the door. By that point, Cas still hasn’t stopped shivering. Dean aches from the way he’s been sitting and his throat feels raw from whispering his mantra of “it’s going to be okay”s.

Dean gives himself five seconds to shake out his limbs before he picks Cas up again and carries him inside. Sam walks ahead, six feet four inches of purpose, and says, “We need help,” in a tone that makes it clear he is not even remotely joking.

Sure enough, a swarm of hospital staff converges on Cas. As he’s taken in, from the way everyone moves around him, the way they’re rushing, Dean just knows it isn’t good. He knows, logically, that there isn’t anything else he can do to help at this point, but he feels his feet trying to carry him in the direction they’re taking Cas, anyway. He watches him disappear down the hallway as a nurse pushes him back towards the waiting room, but it’s only once Sam grabs his arm that he lets himself be pulled away.

Dean draws one hand down over his face and tries not to scream.

Sam is still tugging at his elbow, though, so he follows. He drops into a chair, sitting with his elbows on his knees, hands in his hair, pulling so hard it hurts, while Sam quietly, calmly explains to a nurse what happened.

The ensuing wait is not pleasant. Sam has the decency not to try to engage Dean in conversation or offer him meaningless reassurances, though, just pretends to be engaged in an outdated Reader’s Digest. Meanwhile, Dean clenches his hands into themselves, against his knees, on the arms of the god-awful uncomfortable chair, and tries not to lose his mind. He hates this part, has always hated it, the not knowing.

After what seems like an eternity, the doctor comes out to talk to them.

“Well,” she says, “the good news is that he seems to have really lucked out. He’s stable, but we’re keeping him in the ICU for monitoring since we’re in the process of bringing his body temperature up. He’s breathing on his own, though, and while there’s some bruising from the compressions, there are no fractures or other internal injuries --”

“Shit,” Dean interrupts. “I hurt him?”

The doctor looks at him levelly. She must understand what he means, the way she’s silently appraising him. “No,” she says, and there’s no incredulity in her tone, nothing for Dean’s guilt to latch onto. “You saved his life.” Calm and professional and with all the surety that comes with her knowledge as a medical professional, allowing for no argument. Dean finds himself nodding.

“He’s resting now,” she continues, “and we want to keep him for observation overnight to make sure there are no complications. Even after that, if anything at all is wrong, you need to bring him in.”

Dean is too busy remembering how to breathe, so it’s Sam who responds. “Yeah, of course,” he says, emphatically.

Dean is immensely fucking relieved, but he still finds himself bouncing from one foot to another, restless and anxious. All he can think, at the moment, is how long the next day is going to seem. “Hey, wait,” he says, as the doctor turns to leave. “I mean, that’s all great, but can we see him now?”

Dean already knows what the answer is going to be when the doctor turns back to him with a sympathetic look. “I’m sorry,” she says, “the ICU is crowded right now. We’re not allowing any visitors except immediate family.”

For a second, he can feel it. He can feel the way he’s about to flip out and start screaming. Sam is in the middle of saying, in his reasonable tone, “Ma’am, we’re the only family he has, we--” when something. Something happens. Some other part of Dean’s brain takes over and shifts his thoughts into a higher gear.

He hears himself saying, more terrified than angry, “Are you kidding me? I’m his husband! How much more immediate can you get?”

“I…” the doctor starts, momentarily stunned. She quickly regains her composure. “I apologize,” she says, opening the doors behind her to gesture to a nurse. “Please show mister…?”

“Winchester.”

“Please show Mr. Winchester to the ICU.”

As he makes his way down the hall -- not running, okay, just walking very briskly -- he catches the remnants of a conversation between Sam and the doctor.

“So you are…?” she says.

“Brother-in-law,” Sam responds, easily.

“Did you want to…”

“No,” Sam says, and Dean can hear a smile in his voice. “I’m good. I’ll wait here.”

Dean is grateful for that. He lies professionally, but this last one still has his face burning.

His embarrassment goes out the window as soon as he sees Cas, though. He’s lying in the hospital bed, still asleep, oxygen mask covering half his face. He’s hooked up to heart monitors and IVs and god knows what else, wires running from machines to his head and arms and chest, tubes and cords all over him.

He thought he was all done being terrified for Cas today, but he was wrong. It occurs to him that he’s never seen Cas look so human before, never seen him needing the help of machines like this. He knew Cas was in the hospital before, helpless and comatose for weeks, but he hadn’t known until after, hadn’t been there or seen him. And anyway, that was before they. That was. That was before. That was a long time ago.

Dean swallows hard and goes to sit down next to Cas’ bed, and he swears. He swears his hand moves of its own accord, because the next thing he knows, he’s holding Cas’ hand in his own and noting that while Cas’ skin is still cold, it’s not nearly as bad as before. Another part of him is wondering at the fact that he just sat down and grabbed Cas’ hand like he’s entitled to it, which he’s pretty sure he isn’t. Whatever part of his brain that’s still functioning normally helpfully supplies him with an excuse: Well, you did say you were his husband. This is something a husband would do. This is perfectly normal, if you want to keep up appearances. And, well. He’s worn too thin to argue.

Instead, Dean sits there, holding Cas’ hand, feeling him getting warmer as the hours go by and the heating blankets and warm IV fluids and oxygen do their jobs. He texts Sam every now and then, one handed, just for something to do, something to take his mind off the seriousness of the situation: Hour one: Cas still asleep and Hour two: bet you never would have guessed this, but Cas is still asleep and I’d say this hospital is maybe 40th percentile for nurse hotness at best.

Dean flashes an innocent smile at the nurse who wanders over just as he hits send on the last one. She must not have seen what he was typing, because she gives him a sympathetic look and says, “He’s lucky to have you here with him.”

As she walks away, Dean wonders, What was that all about? It gets him thinking, which is the opposite of what he wants. Cas isn’t the best conversational partner at the moment, and he has too much time to reflect on the past few hours. He thinks on the fact that the hospital staff didn’t ask him for ID, or for paperwork, or for anything. They just accepted his declaration regarding his marital status and let him in to see Cas. So it must have been something else, the look on his face, the panic in his voice as he said it. Or maybe he’s overthinking it.

He’s probably overthinking it.

He texts Sam, Can u come b the husband now I’m starting to cramp up

Sam replies, Don’t be a whiner. Anyway I’m getting cas clothes from the motel so he has something to wear besides the shitty hospital gown.

Dean texts back Good call and then goes back to waiting.

A few more hours later, Cas regains consciousness. “Hey,” Dean says by way of greeting, not bothering to fight the smile he can feel spreading across his face.

Cas shifts slightly in the bed, tilting his head to look at Dean.

“Dean,” he says, sounding grouchy and tired but mostly okay, mostly just like himself. “You’re here,” he adds, muffled through the facemask. His brow furrows. “How?”

Dean thinks, Shit, Cas is probably remembering every movie where they only let family in to see the patient. I’m found out. He chokes down the hysterical laugh that he suddenly feels building in his chest and says, “I told them. Uh. I told them we were married.” He grins like he thinks he’s a fucking genius.

In response, Cas just goes, “Hmm.”

Dean was expecting a chuckle, maybe, or a token objection, or an outright noise of disgust, but Cas doesn’t do any of those things. He just says, “Hmm.”

Dean’s not sure how he feels about it. He figures, like most things, he should probably feel like shit about it. He adds, “Sorry. I didn’t. I didn’t mean to make it weird. I just--”

“It’s not weird,” Cas says, sighing.

“Okay,” Dean says. “Great. Good. I mean, this would be a fucking awful honeymoon, right?” He can feel himself grinning inappropriately for the situation, but he can’t seem to stop. “Par for the course for my life, but wow. What a bummer, Jesus, what--”

“Dean,” Cas interrupts.

“What?”

Cas closes his eyes. For a second Dean thinks that’s it, that Cas is just gonna go back to resting, and that’s fine, because god knows he’s earned it. It turns out, though, that he’s just gearing himself up to say more than three words at a time. He takes a deep breath, and when he opens his mouth, he says, “Stop acting like it would be some kind of punishment.”

Dean is quiet for a long, long moment wherein he tries to process the fact that he has been sort of joking and Cas does not sound at all like he’s joking.

Whatever morbid sense of humor Dean has supplies I’m gonna be the one needing chest compressions any second here. His grin has faded, but he forces a laugh. “You must still be delirious,” he says.

Cas makes a displeased noise. He says, “I’m not delirious. I’m tired.”

Dean is pretty fucking grateful for that out, because truth be told, he’s not sure if Cas is saying this because he actually is delirious or if he’s saying it even though he’s not. He isn’t sure which freaks him out more, that Cas means it or he doesn’t, so he just decides to ignore it for now. It’s easier.

Cas is probably still delirious. He’s probably just too delirious to realize he’s delirious.

“All right,” Dean says. “I’ll shut up and let you rest.”

“Thank you,” Cas says. “Talking hurts.”

Dean starts to get up, but Cas stops him, squeezing his hand. His grip isn’t strong enough right now to actually stop Dean from letting go, but it’s enough to get his attention and stop him before he does.

Cas opens his eyes again as he sighs. He says, “You’re leaving?” in a tone that almost sounds like he would be disappointed, if Dean did.

Dean freezes in place for a second, but then he figures, Sam probably still has the car, so where would he go, anyway? So he cracks a grin and sits back down. “Not ‘til they kick me out.”

Cas settles and closes his eyes at that. “The hand holding doesn’t hurt,” he says, like he thinks maybe Dean needs reassurance in order to continue. Which, he kind of does, he supposes, since he didn’t ask in the first place, just pulled Cas into his story when he didn’t have a chance to object.

By the time visiting hours are over, Dean is in desperate need of a shower, a meal, and renewed circulation to his legs. Cas is asleep again, so when a nurse comes to direct him back to the waiting room, he goes without a fight.

Sam is waiting for him when he exits the double doors. He’s engrossed in an issue of National Geographic, looking up only when Dean stops directly in front of him.

Dean shifts uncomfortably on his feet. “So,” he starts. “That was. Uh.”

Before he has time to come up with something to say, Sam says, “That was good thinking, saying you were married. We don’t have any IDs for you that match the last name on the insurance we have for Cas, so the whole next of kin thing would have been a much harder sell.”

Dean hadn’t realized it until this exact moment, but he’s been dreading this conversation for hours, wondering how it would go, getting his defenses up. He feels suddenly relieved by the fact there’s no judgment there, just Sam being placating, Sam giving him an out. “Oh,” Dean says. “Yeah. Thanks.”

Sam shrugs, as if to say, For what? “So,” he says, “When they discharge Cas, he’s gonna need a new coat.”

Dean thinks, Shit, can’t believe I didn’t think of that. He says, “Let’s hit the store, then grab dinner and head back to the room. I’m freaking exhausted.”

Sam nods, handing Dean his coat, which the hospital appears to have treated better than Dean treated Cas’. He slips it back on as they head outside, Sam leading the way to the car. He tosses Dean the keys, and he slips into the driver’s seat to begin the thirty minute drive to the nearest Walmart.

“So, how’s Cas doing?” Sam asks a few minutes in, because he’s not stupid enough to try and ask how Dean’s doing.

“Better,” Dean says. He supposes that’s kind of obvious. It would’ve been hard for him to get much worse. “I talked to him a little,” he adds, deciding to omit the detail about the preceding hours of handholding. “He seemed cranky, but that’s nothing new.”

Sam makes a noise that’s more acknowledgement than agreement. “He’s gonna be fine,” he says, like Dean had asked.

“Yeah,” Dean says, anyway.

Mercifully, they spend the rest of the drive in comfortable silence, the only noise the radio playing in the background.

They pull into the Walmart parking lot at a quarter before nine, making their way inside with their backs hunched against the cold. “What,” Dean says, when they step through the second set of automatic doors, “no greeter?”

Sam rolls his eyes. “Forgot my toothbrush,” he lies, wandering off in the opposite direction of the clothing section when they reach the first intersection, leaving Dean to pick out a coat for Cas.

He makes his way over to the name brand section, avoiding whatever low-end crap Walmart makes itself. On one of the racks, hidden between jackets in much more socially acceptable colors, he finds a coat that’s a slightly different design but the same shade of yellow as Cas’ last one, that color that he loves and Dean hates. He tucks the ugly thing under his arm and heads to the single open register.

Sam rematerializes when Dean is next in line, tossing his unnecessary toothbrush onto the counter with the coat. The cashier looks so disinterested that Dean doesn’t even feel the need to clarify he’s buying this monstrosity for a friend. He pays with a fake card, because fuck ever coming back to this clearly godforsaken corner of the world.

Once they’re back in the car, Sam navigates them to a 24-hour diner whose fare is only one step above hospital food, but Dean is so hungry he doesn’t complain. By the end of his second beer, he’s even stopped fixating on the fact that it’s a little strange, it just being the him and Sam, even after only a few weeks of Cas’ presence.

Dean gets dessert, too, in spite of his low expectations. It’s not the worst pie he’s ever had, but it allows him to drag the meal out another half hour, so it does its job. Sam doesn’t comment, just fiddles around on his laptop, flipping it around every now and then to show Dean some article or another, get his input on whether or not he thinks it’s a case. All of them seem like obvious “no”s. Dean points this out, halfway through the meal. Sam just shrugs.

When they finally get the check, Dean hands over his fake card and signs his fake name, and then they make their way out to the car and back to their motel room.

Dean drives five miles per hour under the speed limit the whole way back. By the time they unlock their door and start shedding their coats, it’s just after midnight.

“Well,” Dean says, “I’m gonna hit the sack.” They’re not going to be able to get Cas out of there any earlier than eight, according to Sam. He doubts sleep is going to come easy, but he knows he has to try, at least so he doesn’t nod off on the drive home.

He manages to kill another thirty minutes showering and taking a piss and brushing his teeth. When he gets out of the bathroom, steam trailing after him, Sam is lounging on his bed, watching the news. He doesn’t even glance up as Dean flops down on his own mattress. “What, no comment?” he says.

Sam keeps his eyes fixed on the TV. “Why, should I be concerned about what you were doing in there?”

“That’s more like it,” Dean says, reaching over to turn off the lamp next to his bed as Sam flicks off the TV and heads for the bathroom.

Dean drifts in and out of consciousness for a while, trying not to long for drug or alcohol-induced sleep. He loses track of his progress sometime between two and three.

He jerks awake from a dream combining all his worst experiences with water ten minutes before his alarm is set to go off. He’s dressed and packed by the time Sam’s own alarm wakes him up at seven.

It doesn’t take nearly long enough to get coffee and clear out their room, because by the time they arrive back at the hospital, it’s still twenty minutes to eight. Dean tosses the Walmart bag he’s dragged along into one of the chairs and paces the empty waiting room while Sam talks to the receptionist.

“She says it’ll just be another thirty minutes,” Sam says when he’s done with his recon, giving Dean a look like, You gonna make it?

Of course Dean is gonna make it. It’s only thirty minutes. “Awesome,” he says.

A nurse wheels Cas out forty-one minutes later. It’s eleven minutes longer than he was promised, but Cas’ appearance means they can finally get the hell out of here, so Dean isn’t about to complain.

Apparently Sam had thought to leave clothes for Cas while Dean was with him in the ICU, because he’s already changed out of his hospital gown. Or maybe someone helped him change, Dean supposes, given how exhausted Cas looks and whole wheelchair thing.

As he processes this, Dean is distantly aware that the doctor is trying to talk to all of them, give them Cas’ discharge papers and a lecture about potential complications. He can see Sam nodding obediently out of the corner of his eye, though, so he figures he’s okay to ignore her in favor of focusing his attention on Cas.

Dean grabs the bag from the chair he abandoned it in before returning to shove it down at Cas. “Here,” he says, by way of greeting. “Got you a new coat.”

It’s only as he says it he realizes that maybe he should have gotten something else. He thinks, I got him something that looks almost exactly like the clothes he almost died in. Good thinking, genius. He cringes internally.

If Cas is put off by it, though, he doesn’t show it. Maybe he’s too tired to make any facial expressions at all, because he simply says a quiet “Thank you” as he reaches for it.

Dean watches him struggle into the coat for a long ten seconds before saying, tentatively, “You want some help?”

Cas scowls -- he was wrong about the facial expression thing -- and says, “That won’t be necessary.”

Dean figures Cas doesn’t want to feel helpless, which is why he doesn’t point out that Cas has left all the tags on the coat. He even has the decency to look away so Cas won’t see him grinning.

When Sam rejoins them, discharge papers in hand, Dean shifts around to the back of Cas’ chair and starts wheeling him out to the car.

“I can walk,” Cas says petulantly, but he doesn’t try to stand up, so Dean figures he’s right about part of his analysis, at least. He opens the car door for Cas, but lets him drag himself out of the chair and into the back seat.

Sam goes to take the chair back inside as Dean gets into the driver’s seat, starting the car to give the heater a chance to warm up. He looks over his shoulder to ask, “You okay back there?”

Cas already has his eyes closed, leaning his head against the seat. He says, “I’m fine.”

Dean digs through his box of tapes, popping one in just in time for Sam to get back and slide in next to him. He looks back at Cas, then at Dean, and raises his eyebrows like He okay?

Dean shrugs, He said he’s fine. He turns back towards the wheel and shifts into drive and they’re off.

Thirty minutes into the drive, Cas has laid down in the back seat and is sound asleep. Dean keeps the music low, just this once, because of the extenuating circumstances. Sam alternates between dozing off himself and talking with Dean in a low voice, asking whether he wants Sam to drive (“I’m fine”) and if he thinks Cas is gonna be all right (more insistently: “He’s fine”). They stop once for gas. Cas wakes up long enough to go to the bathroom and drink the Gatorade Dean buys for him, and then they’re back on the road and he’s back asleep.

They get back to the bunker early in the evening. They make record time, if you ask Dean. Sam starts getting their shit out of the trunk while Dean pulls open the back door and says, “Hey, we’re here.”

Cas wakes up slowly, rubbing his eyes.

“C’mon,” Dean says. “Let’s go inside and you can lay in an actual bed.”

Cas nods, dragging himself from the car, but he doesn’t go inside and lie down. Instead, he moves to grab his bag and their weapons from the trunk. Cas looks exhausted even though he’s basically been sleeping for a full day, but Dean figures he’s probably better off not mentioning it.

When Dean says he’s going to make them dinner, Cas announces he’s going to start a load of laundry. Dean doesn’t protest that, either.

Dean hears Sam say, from the other room, “Lemme grab my stuff. We can toss it all in together.”

Dean figures laundry isn’t more than a two person job, anyway, so he doesn’t feel bad about going to make them food. He uses up the last of their sandwich ingredients, toasting the bread to hide that it’s gone a bit stale.

“Sorry,” he says, when Cas and Sam have returned to the kitchen. “Groceries tomorrow.”

“Shut up,” Sam says, when he takes his first bite. “It’s delicious.”

Cas makes a quiet noise of agreement.

“Yeah, whatever,” Dean says, smiling, and they spend the rest of the meal in silence, too worn out to make any further attempts at conversation.

By the time they’re done eating, Cas looks like he’s about to pass out, but he still insists on helping clean up the kitchen. He shuffles along like a zombie as he helps rinse the dishes and wipe down the table.

Dean can’t help giving Cas the side-eye when he tags along as he and Sam go to clean their weapons. “Dude,” he tries to say, as Cas starts disassembling one of their handguns. “It’s fine, Jesus, you almost --”

He can’t finish that last part, though. He chokes on it even before Cas sets the gun he’s cleaning down a little too hard and says, “I’m fine.”

Dean can feel Sam watching them. He ignores it. He lets Cas do what he wants.

They sit in tense silence until finally, when Cas looks like he’s going to fall asleep sitting up, Sam says, “I’m beat. I’m gonna hit the hay.”

It’s not even 10 pm. Cas nods absently.

Sam asks, “You need anything, Cas?”

He shakes his head.

Sam does that sad puppy look he has and says, “All right, well, just let us know.”

Cas shuffles off to his room, and Sam turns that look on Dean. Dean shrugs like, What’re you gonna do.

Sam frowns, but he doesn’t say anything else, so Dean goes to his own room and unpacks his bag. He tosses his clothes in a pile of ambiguous cleanliness, then stands looking at the hospital discharge papers that say “Diagnosis: Drowning, no morbidity.”

And the thing is, he’s. He’s fucking listed on there as the emergency contact, Name: Dean Winchester. Relationship to Patient: Spouse. If that’s any indication regarding the state he was in. He gave them his real goddamn name. Jesus. He rolls his eyes at himself as he tosses the papers onto his nightstand.

He gets ready for bed, quickly this time. He lies there for what seems like hours, nowhere near sleep.

Which is why it startles him so much when he jolts awake to the sound of Cas coughing like he’s trying to hack up his lung. He can hear it through both of their closed doors.

Dean looks at his clock. 3:14am. He drags himself out of bed and walks over to Cas’ room, knocking twice on his door.

“You decent?” he asks.

Cas keeps coughing, so Dean says, “Hey, I’m coming in whether you’re decent or not.”

He waits through a few more seconds of Cas’ coughing before he opens the door and turns on the light.

Cas is lying curled up on his side with his eyes squeezed shut against the sudden brightness. When he pauses coughing long enough to manage it, he groans miserably.

Dean walks over and sits on the edge of the bed, tentatively putting a hand on Cas’ shoulder. He can feel through Cas’ t-shirt how he’s shivering even though his skin is unnaturally hot. He says, “Hey, can you sit up?”

Cas manages half a nod while coughing and shifts a little, and Dean helps him roll onto his back, then pulls him up as gently as possible until he’s leaning with his knees pulled up to his chest. Dean keeps a hand on Cas’ back while he keeps coughing.

When Cas finally stops coughing for more than a few seconds, he frowns, looking over to his nightstand, squinting intensely.

Dean follows his gaze. “Kleenex?” he guesses.

Cas nods, so Dean pulls out a handful of tissues and passes them to him.

Cas spits a glob of what looks like mucus mixed with blood into the wad of tissue, and Dean thinks, Well, that’s probably not a good sign. “Gross,” he says instead, cheerfully.

Cas manages to glare at him before he closes his eyes again, and in the silence that follows, Dean can hear how quickly he’s breathing, wheezing a little on every inhale.

“Deep breaths,” Dean says, and to his surprise, Cas actually cooperates. He takes three slow breaths before he winces and gives up.

“Hurts,” Cas says. Dean can hear it in his voice.

“Okay,” Dean says, because he’s pretty sure he read about this on Wikipedia, too, “We’re going to the hospital.”

Dean has already shifted so his arm is across Cas’ back and grabbed Cas’ hand to pull his arm behind his neck when Cas looks up at him and says, “I’m --”

“Don’t,” Dean says, cutting him off. “Don’t say you’re fine. You’re gonna be fine, but right now we’re gonna go to the hospital.”

Cas stares at him for a second, frowning like he’s going to argue. Before he can manage it, though, Dean finishes picking him up, standing and carrying him out of his room and into the hallway. Cas gives up, letting himself lean against Dean, his forehead burning against Dean’s neck, fingers curling weakly against Dean’s shoulder.

Dean can hear Sam snoring and briefly considers waking him, but then he weighs the urgency of the situation against the fact that even though Sam is better at using Google Maps, he is not a doctor. He keeps heading for the garage.

When they finally get there, Dean puts Cas in the car and leaves him breathing fast and shallow against the door, breath fogging the glass. He’s actually grateful it’s cold as fuck for once. He runs back inside to throw on shoes and his coat and grab his phone and Cas’ shoes and coat, fidgeting with his phone while he walks. By the time he’s getting back into the Impala, a robotic voice is telling him how to get to Smith County Memorial Hospital, that his route is clear and he should arrive by 4:01 am.

Dean tries to focus on the road instead of the too-audible sound of Cas’ breathing and meets with only moderate success.

Cas has another coughing fit sometime around the time Dean’s phone is saying “Turn right onto US-281 South.” When it passes, he says, breathlessly, “I hate this.”

“I know,” Dean says. He reaches over and grabs Cas’ too-warm hand, rubs his thumb over Cas’ knuckles even though Cas doesn’t hold his hand back.

Dean pulls the car into the hospital parking lot at 3:52. He has a pretty awful sense of deja vu as he hauls Cas out of the car and into the emergency room, then watches a pair of nurses haul him off behind closed doors. He also kind of feels like he knows this routine, though, even though he doesn’t want to. But at least, if nothing else, maybe it means he’s not going to flip out this time.

Dean explains the situation to another nurse, then sits down to wait. He texts Sam so he doesn’t freak out when he wakes up, even though he’s probably going to freak out a little anyway.

Just a few minutes after 7, he gets a message from Sam. Got ur text is cas OK?????

He replies, He’s in the ICU I think should know more soon.

It can’t be more than two seconds later when he gets Sam’s response. OK let me know if u want me to come.

Dean rolls his eyes and sends back, It’s fine ill let u know when were on the way back.

Sam replies, Ok just let me know. He finally seems content to leave it alone.

It’s another hour before they let Dean in to see Cas, and in the interim, he makes the conscious decision to be positive this time, to not have some kind of meltdown. He’s pretty sure that’s the last thing Cas needs. He repeats this as a reminder to himself when one of the nurses finally lets him through and leads him to Cas.

Cas is hooked back up to a ventilator, but it’s just the cannula this time, not the mask. He has something dripping into him through an IV, too, but they’ve left him in his own pajamas and he’s sitting up, so Dean figures it can’t be too dire. He says, “So, what’s the word?”

Cas sighs and grumbles, “Pneumonia.”

Dean takes a seat next to him. “Yikes.”

Cas points to the needle in his arm. “Fluids and antibiotics,” he says, quiet and slow and tired, but matter of fact. “They ran tests. They said I can go home soon.”

“Home,” Dean says. “Yeah.”

“I have to rest and drink plenty of fluids. They suggested a humidifier to help with--” Cas gestures at his chest, the cannula-- “Everything else.”

“You sure, uh,” Dean says, looking at Cas sitting there still looking like shit, “You sure you’re good to go?”

“Yes,” Cas says, insistently. But then he looks down at himself as if considering, and his expression shifts to something else. For a second, he stops looking pissed and just looks defeated. He says, even more quietly, “Don’t leave me here.”

“Okay,” Dean says. He makes himself grin like everything is fine. “Yeah. ‘Course not.”

An hour later, Dean has helped Cas -- who, to his relief, is back to looking annoyed -- into his shoes and his coat and gotten more discharge papers and another lecture about taking care of him. As if he’s going to let Cas run a marathon.

He wheels Cas to the car and he doesn’t even object this time. Which is nice, because Dean would really like to go home so both of them can get some actual rest as opposed to spending any more time in any goddamn hospitals.

Dean sits in the driver’s seat and sends Sam a text, Cas is fine were on the way back now before typing the name of the pharmacy-slash-home-care place into the map app. He follows his phone’s instructions, and when he pulls into the parking lot, he says, “Wait here, it’ll just be a minute.”

Cas keeps staring out the window as he nods, so Dean leaves the car running and power walks into the store. He picks up the antibiotics for Cas and the fanciest humidifier he’s ever seen (he’s pretty sure it’s the first humidifier he’s ever seen) and pays in cash, just in case they need to come back. He hustles back out to the car, tosses the shit in the back seat, and heads back to the bunker. Cas sits quietly through all of it, breathing against the glass as he stares out the window.

When they pull back into the garage and Dean parks the car, he’s pleased to find that apparently he and Cas have some unspoken agreement now. When he opens Cas’ door and goes to pick him up, Cas just closes his eyes and huffs an annoyed sigh and lets Dean carry him inside.

Sam jumps up as soon as he sees them. He gives Dean a look and shakes his head in that way he has, as if to say So, what gives?

Dean tilts his head, In a minute. He carries Cas towards his room with Sam trailing along behind him at not even close to a respectable distance.

Dean deposits Cas on the bed, pulls off his coat and his shoes, and helps him get back under the covers. He says, “So, what do you want for fluids? All we have here besides water is beer, and I’m pretty sure that’s not recommended, so.”

Cas shoves his face into his pillow. He says, “I don’t care.”

Dean isn’t going to begrudge Cas a little petulance, so he shrugs and leaves the room.

Sam, who has been hovering outside Cas’ door like a weirdo, follows Dean into the kitchen. He apparently decides they’re far enough from Cas’ room that he can play twenty questions without Cas overhearing.

“So, what gives?” Sam asks.

As he opens the fridge, Dean thinks, Knew it. He confirms that they do, in fact, only have beer. “Pneumonia,” he says.

“Wow,” Sam says. “That sucks.”

“Yeah,” Dean says. He toys with the idea of grabbing a beer even though it’s not yet 10 am. “Turns out breathing in water isn’t great for the lungs. Who knew.” He knew, of course, but he assumes most people don’t spend multiple days reading about the physiology of drowning just because of some serial hospital drama.

“Is he gonna be all right?” Sam asks. “He’s had...a rough couple days.”

Dean decides against the beer, closing the door and turning to leave the kitchen, Sam still following. Dean shrugs. “He seems all right,” Dean says, heading back to the garage to grab the stuff from the car. “Mostly tired and kinda pissed off. Who wouldn’t be, though.”

There’s a pause before Sam says, “Suppose so.”

Dean pulls the meds and the humidifier from the back seat. “Got him some antibiotics and this monstrosity, at any rate,” he says, patting the box. “Doc’s orders. Some fluids, a little R&R, and he’ll be fine.”

Sam raises an eyebrow, but he says, “Seems like you have this under control.”

“Yep,” Dean says, and starts heading back inside.

“Just lemme know if you need help with anything, I guess,” Sam adds.

“You got it, Sammy,” Dean says, and heads back to Cas’ room. Cas already asleep again, so he sets up the humidifier and leaves it there, closing the door behind him so Cas can rest.

Dean figures he has some time before Cas is up and about again, so he takes a shower and changes into actual clothes. He stops in the library before he heads out to tell Sam, “I’m going to the store, you want anything?”

Sam says, “Um, literally any groceries? All we have here is beer and some crackers that look like they’ve been here since the 50s.”

“Cool,” Dean says. “I’ll pick you up some McDonalds on the way back.”

Sam ignores him and goes back to reading, but Dean can feel the eyeroll as he leaves.

Dean drives to the store at a leisurely pace. He browses the aisles the same way, formulating meals in his head as he grabs stuff off the shelves. He even plans side dishes for Sam, grabbing brussels sprouts and broccoli and asparagus, because he’s feeling nice.

He has no idea what Cas’ favorite drinks are, but he remembers being told to drink a bunch of liquids when he was sick and getting real tired of the same thing over and over real fast. He winds up getting Cas a few kinds of juice (orange, crangrape, apple), Gatorade (Cool Blue and lemon lime, because they’re the only flavors worth drinking, in his humble and frankly 100% accurate opinion), bottled water (a couple fancy-looking kinds that probably taste exactly the same as the tap water at the bunker, but whatever), and some Vitaminwater (he’s pretty sure Vitaminwater is bullshit, and the flavors don’t help dispel that impression, but he sees some named Rescue and Revive and Energy and wonders briefly if getting those for Cas would be in poor taste. He tosses them in the cart anyway). He grabs some aspirin because he remembers the doctor recommending it in case Cas’ chest keeps hurting and calls it good. They probably have some aspirin somewhere in the bunker, but it’s probably, like, a first edition bottle from the original run after aspirin was just invented. He figures it’s worth the extra $2.99.

When he gets back to the bunker, he lugs in as many bags as he can in one go. Sam gets up to help him put everything away.

“Wow,” he says, “you really went all out.”

“I guess?” Dean says, because it’s just groceries.

Sam doesn’t have any further commentary until he reads the flavors on the Vitaminwater. He gives Dean a withering look and says, “Really?”

Dean pretends not to hear him. He figures if Sam wants to complain, he can do the damn grocery shopping himself.

At any rate, Dean is sufficiently exhausted after that endeavor. He feels like he can justify a nap, so he heads to his room and collapses onto his bed without changing back into his pajamas. He passes out almost instantly.

He wakes late in the afternoon, stretching lazily, feeling more well-rested than he has in days. He wanders into the war room, where Sam is sitting hunched over his laptop.

“Hey,” he says. “Cas up yet?”

“Nah,” Sam says, not bothering to lift his gaze from the screen.

Dean shrugs, turning to head for the kitchen. He figures he may as well start cooking dinner. If Cas is anything like he is, he’s gonna be starving by the time he finally regains consciousness.

Sam joins him in the kitchen when he’s halfway through chopping the brussels sprouts, taking a seat at the table, laptop in hand. “Wow,” he says. “You actually bought vegetables. Who are you, and what have you done with my brother?

“Shut up or, so help me god, I’ll make you eat these sprouts raw,” Dean threatens, waving the colander at him menacingly.

“Nice try,” Sam says, “but some of us can actually eat vegetables even when they’re not drowning in butter.”

“No one likes a show-off, Sam,” Dean says. “Are you actually gonna help, or are you just gonna sit there mouthing off?”

Sam mimes zipping his lips closed before reopening his computer.

“Yeah,” Dean says, without heat. “That’s what I thought.”

Truth be told, he prefers Sam keep him company rather than trying to help. He’s pretty sure there isn’t a kitchen big enough two accommodate two grown men cooking at the same time. On his own, though, Dean maneuvers around the kitchen easily, finishing chopping the sprouts and tossing them in oil and sea salt and popping them into the oven to roast, because as much as he wants to watch Sam try and eat raw sprouts, he isn’t evil. He moves on to preparing the meat for the burgers, next -- homemade patties, because he takes pride in what he feeds his family, thank you very much.

He waits until everything is nearly done, the burgers just a few minutes from cooking to perfection, before he asks Sam to go rouse Cas from his slumber.

Dean is in the middle of laying out the spread on the table when Cas appears, looking like death warmed over as he shuffles into the kitchen. Sam trails in behind him, pretending not to hover and failing miserably.

“Nice to see you up and about,” Dean says.

Cas nods absently and takes a seat at the table, spooning sprouts onto his plate and assembling a burger mechanically. He doesn’t inhale his food like he usually does on burger night, but he does finish it all, even the sprouts. He drinks the lemon lime Gatorade and hardly coughs at all as he listens to Sam talk about a multi-volume work he found cataloguing variations in siren encounters based on the romantic and sexual orientations of their targets.

“The Men of Letters’ opinions were pretty gross and outdated and, you know, problematic,” Sam is saying, “but beneath all the bullshit, there’s this really fascinating exploration of the different ways in which people love. Sirens seem to understand that more than people do, actually. It’s pretty ironic.”

The whole thing flies over Dean’s head, so he keeps quiet, content in the fact that there don’t appear to be any more hospital visits in his near future.

When they finish eating, Cas moves slowly, but he clears his own plate and takes his meds and makes himself some tea while Dean makes popcorn.

They watch Jurassic Park in the old archive that they’ve turned into a home theater. Cas stays awake through the whole thing and even manages to complain about how “The dinosaurs are all wrong. Maybe human ingenuity knows some bounds, after all.”

They have to pause the movie as Sam asks, little kid excited, “Wait, what? How did the dinosaurs really look?”

Dean doesn’t even bother hiding his interest as Cas talks about dinosaurs with feathers, ensuring them that they were still quite terrifying, and Dean is content. It’s nice. He goes to bed thinking that he loves these nerds and he loves Jurassic Park and it’s been a nice evening.

The next day, Cas still looks tired as hell literally a hundred percent of the time. He seems to be improving, though, and Dean doesn’t want to be overbearing, so he mostly lets Cas shuffle around and get his own drinks and meds and whatever else he needs. He figures if Cas needs something, he’ll ask.

They loiter around the bunker, and if Dean is honest, it’s kind of nice to just hang out with all of them here. In a few days he’ll probably be restless for work, but for now, it’s nice. Cas had only been staying with them a few weeks before the events of the last few days, and this is the first time they haven’t been actively looking for a hunt and can just relax.

Dean cooks all their meals and always cleans the kitchen to spotless perfection afterwards. Sam keeps working his way through the huge siren series. Cas reads and eats with them, napping in between, sometimes in his room and sometimes with his head resting on his arms on the library table.

They generally all exist in each others’ space, sometimes talking about what they’re reading or thinking or doing, and it’s just. Nice.

The day after that, Cas looks slightly better. His cough has gone away almost completely, and his body temperature is all the way back to normal when Dean insists on checking it. It’s good news.

He tells Cas as much at breakfast. He says, from across the table, “You’ll be ready to get back to the grind in no time.”

Something flickers across Cas’ face. He says, dully, “Right.”

Sam shoots Dean a look. The fuck, dude?

Dean frowns and raises his eyebrows. I didn’t fucking do anything.

Sam rolls his eyes and Dean knows he’s going to drop it. The next thing out of Sam’s mouth is a question about how Cas likes the french toast, how does he think it compares to pancakes, and it’s fine.

Cas starts on the siren books, too, because Sam won’t shut up about them. Sam decides that it’s finally warmed up just enough outside that it’s prime time for a leisurely jog through the country, and while Dean disagrees wholeheartedly, he’s not about to deny Sam the frankly puzzling things he seems to enjoy.

For his part, Dean decides to continue what has become their ongoing quest to electronically archive all the weird shit in the bunker. The task has been made entirely more monumental by the fact that they keep getting sidetracked. Sometimes, it’s because of shit like those siren books Sam is engrossed in. They lose weeks that way, Sam with his nose buried in a book.

There are other distractions, too, fun stuff like this bracelet they found, once. It made the wearer sing everything instead of simply speaking it, but it didn’t actually convey any new musical talent. They found this out the hard way when Dean sang, very off key, “Is this just a weird piece of -- oh.” At that point, they all agreed it was cursed, logged it in the archive, and put it back in its box.

Point is, it’s slow going, and they have a lot left to do.

Dean announces his plan to Cas, who simply continues looking down at his book, so engrossed that for a few long seconds, he doesn’t seem to even process what Dean says.

“Cas?” Dean says. “You hear me? I’m gonna head upstairs and work on the archives.”

At that, Cas slams his book shut and picks it up. “Fine,” he says, stalking off down the hallway, leaving Dean to wonder what the hell just happened.

He stares after Cas for a bit and finally chalks it up to exhaustion, shrugging it off and heading upstairs to work on his project.

He’s at it for maybe an hour, up on one of the higher levels, when Cas appears in the doorway, leaning heavily against the frame and looking like he’s about to pass out.

Dean stops what he’s doing, dropping the box he’s holding back onto the shelf. “Holy shit, dude,” he says, taking a few steps toward Cas, already starting to reach out. “You need some help?”

“God damn it, no,” Cas says, vehemently.

Dean is shocked enough that he freezes, backing off and letting Cas sit down at table. Dean half sits on the opposite corner, considering him for a minute while he catches his breath. “Dude,” he finally says, when Cass’ breathing has returned to almost normal. “What’s going on?”

“I’m tired of being tired,” Cas says, scowling.

Dean says, “No shit. But the doc said the fatigue can last for about a month. This is normal.”

“I know,” Cas says. He stares at his fist clenched on the table, and after a few tense seconds, he mutters in a mix of frustration and anger, “As if being human wasn’t bad enough already, now I’m completely useless.”

Dean is taken aback. He wonders, Where did this come from? As if he was gonna expect Cas to be in fighting shape five days after almost drowning. he says, “You’re not useless.”

Cas scoffs. “I would appreciate it if you didn’t lie to me.”

Dean bristles at the accusation. Hell, he doesn’t even know what he did wrong, but he doesn’t say that. Instead, he says, “What the hell, Cas? What’s your deal?”

Cas says, voice flat, “What if I can never hunt again.”

Dean rolls his eyes. “You’re being dramatic. You’ll get better.”

“You don’t know that.”

Dean sighs. He still doesn’t even know if this is an argument, and if it is, what exactly they’re arguing about. He says, “Fine. You’re right. I don’t. But if it plays out that way, we’ll deal with it, same as anything else.”

Cas frowns. “I don’t understand.”

Frankly, Dean doesn’t understand either, but he says, “You don’t understand what.”

Cas swallows, looking away. He says, very quietly, “Why you would keep me around if I was nothing but a burden to you.”

Dean is floored. Honest to god, he has no idea how Cas could think he’s just a tool and not -- not someone Dean -- not something more. He says, “Cas, how...how could you think that, after everything?”

“You measure your own self-worth through hunting,” he says, voice still flat. “Why would my worth be any different? I’m ‘just a baby in a trench coat,’” he says, in a mocking imitation of Dean. “Or pajamas, as it were.”

Yeah, okay, Dean said that, but it was, it feels like so long ago. He’s surprised Cas even remembers it. He starts to reach out as he says, “That was a long time ago. I --”

Cas’s gaze snaps back to him, tracking the movement of his hand. Dean feels, absurdly, as though he’s been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. He drops it back to rest on his thigh.

Cas mumbles something too low for Dean to hear.

“What was that?”

In response, Cas practically yells, “I said you only touch me when you think I’m dead or dying!”

It feels like a slap to the face.

“That’s not --” Dean starts, but he finds he can’t actually say “That’s not true.” He’s thinking of carrying Cas into a hotel room back when they were visiting a time before Dean was even born, of holding Cas up when his face was a bloody ruin, of pulling Cas into a fierce hug in a place meant only for the souls of monsters, of grabbing Cas’ arm and trying to pull him back into life, of grabbing his face when he was lying in that chair with a hole in his chest. He’s trying to think of counter-evidence, but all he can think of is that time he scoffed and said baby in a trench coat, that time Cas had glared at him and hadn’t looked nearly as hurt as he does right now. “I don’t think you’re dying right now,” he says, lamely.

Cas gestures to the space between them and says, “I can see that.”

“Cas,” Dean says, pleading, because he doesn’t know what else to say.

“Forget it,” Cas says. He stands up and makes his way back to the door.

Dean doesn’t follow. He lets Cas struggle on his own back to his room, where he stays through the evening, rebuffing Sam when Dean sends him to go tell him the food’s ready.

When he does the same at lunch time the next day, though, Sam finally asks, “You sure he’s okay?”

Dean is still rankling a bit from his last conversation with Cas. He says, “I’m sure he’s fine.”

Sam raises an eyebrow. “Yeah, sure,” he says. “That’s why he’s been moping around lying in bed. And why he’s been following you around like he’s lost. And why he’s only been pretending to read whatever books I give him. And why hasn’t showered in nearly a week and is now refusing to eat. Because he’s fine.”

Dean’s stomach twists involuntarily. “Look,” he says. “I’m not his mom.”

“Dude,” Sam says, but he throws up his hands in defeat when Dean tosses his plate in the sink and stomps off to the archives.

Sam comes to join him, both of them working in silence, and in the ensuing hours of mind-numbing cataloging, Dean’s brain thinks back over the past few days without his permission. He thinks about how he had carried Cas and clung to him when it was an emergency but not really touched him in anything but a cursory way the rest of the time. He thinks about how he was trying not to be overbearing, but maybe from Cas’ perspective, it looked like he was trying to avoid him. He realizes that he actually hasn’t even taken a close enough look at Cas to notice whether he’s unshowered or when he’s been staring at books without reading.

He thinks, Fuck.

He feels like shit about it, and eventually that, combined with all the half-irritated, half-pitying looks Sam is giving him, becomes too much.

“Fine,” Dean says. “I’ll go talk to him. Christ.”

He makes his way down to Cas’ room, knocking softly on the open door.

Cas sighs tiredly. He says, “What is it, Sam.”

Dean shifts awkwardly in the doorway. “Uh, actually, it’s me. Just.” He tries to ignore the fact that he can tell Cas tenses up, even under the blankets. “Just wanted to see if you needed anything.”

“No,” Cas says. “I’m--”

“Fine,” Dean interrupts, sighing. “Yeah. I know. Because when people are fine they lay in bed and mope and don’t eat or shower for days, right?”

Cas says, louder, “It’s none of your business.”

“It is if you’re starting to smell up the place,” he says, smiling.

Cas says, even louder this time, “I don’t smell.”

Dean moves over to stand by Cas’ bed. He lifts up the covers a little and wrinkles his nose, because now that he’s finally close enough, he can tell that Cas’ hair really is matted with grease and he smells like stale sweat. Dean says, “I can smell you from here.”

Cas says, yelling now as he yanks back the blankets, “I don’t care! Why don’t you just go back to avoiding me!”

“I’m not--” Dean starts, but Cas interrupts him with a noise of disgust. Fuck it, he thinks. “Jesus, I get it. I’m leaving.”

Dean marches out of Cas’ room, down the hall, and into his own. He throws himself onto the bed, putting on his headphones and queuing up every Taylor Swift album he has. It’s the most cheerful shit he has on his iPod, and if he listens to that, he can pretend he’s not sulking.

He must doze off, because he wakes to Cas knocking on his door and then opening it before Dean has a chance to respond. “You know, you’re supposed to actually wait before permission before you come in,” Dean says.

Cas stops in his tracks.

Dean sighs. “Come in.”

Cas sits on the end of Dean’s bed and picks at a loose thread in his shirt. Actually, it isn’t Cas’ shirt -- it’s one of Dean’s, one of his old favorites, and Cas is deliberately pulling at the thread and making the whole hem come apart, staring at his hands as he does it. Dean is considering complaining at him about it, but then he notices how distraught Cas looks and the words die on his tongue.

“Cas,” he says instead. “C’mon, man, talk to me.”

Cas is silent for a long few minutes. Dean waits.

“It’s so often romanticized,” Cas says, when he finally speaks. “Drowning, that is. In the movies. People’s lives flash before their eyes. Or it’s no big deal. Or it’s played for laughs.” He yanks on the thread, snapping it off and twirling it between his fingers. He swallows audibly before he continues, more quietly. “It’s not -- I remember what happened to me, and it wasn’t anything like that. It wasn’t romantic or funny. It was awful. It was -- my -- my life didn’t flash before my eyes. I didn’t just fade pleasantly into unconsciousness, I -- I remember the cold. The shock of it, and the pain. I remember the water like shards of ice in my mouth and my stomach and my lungs. I remember my clothes weighing me down, I remember my fingers at the underside of the ice, I remember being absolutely certain that I was going to die right before I blacked out. The rest of it -- the car, the hospital -- I remember it in bits and pieces. In a fog. And all of it -- all of it terrified me. It still does.” He takes a deep breath, dropping the thread and watching it float to the floor. “I don’t want to go anywhere near water. I don’t even want to shower. I can’t.”

Dean swallows hard. “Cas. Let me help you,” he says.

“No.”

“Cas, please.”

“I understand if you want to avoid me,” Cas says, “but I don’t care if -- I don’t care.”

Dean actually sits up for this one. “Damn it, Cas,” he says. Cas has stopped picking at the shirt, but he keeps looking at his hands. “I haven’t been avoiding you, I’ve just --” Cas looks at him skeptically. He gets the sense he’s saying the wrong thing. It sounds like he’s making excuses, and it sounds lame even to him, so he stops. He takes a deep breath and scoots forward so he’s sitting next to Cas on the bed, body angled so they’re almost facing one another. He says, “I know you don’t care, all right? But I do.”

Cas nods like he doesn’t believe it.

Dean stands, and after a moment’s hesitation, he holds out his hand. He says, “C’mon. Let’s get you cleaned up. It’ll make you feel better.”

Cas stares at Dean’s outstretched hand for a few long moments. He doesn’t meet Dean’s eyes, but he does reach up eventually, placing his hand in Dean’s own and letting himself be pulled up off the bed. He continues letting Dean hold his hand as he leads him to the bunker’s bathroom.

Cas was right, Dean thinks. Touching him was easier before, when he was lying on that floor, standing by that river, sitting in that chair. But he makes himself hold on.

He only lets go when they step into the bathroom together, Sam mercifully nowhere to be found. “Go ahead and get undressed,” Dean says. “I’ll grab you a towel.”

Cas begins undressing dutifully as Dean grabs a couple clean towels and a spare robe from the cabinet, hanging them on a nearby hook. He turns on the water, waiting for it to reach the perfect temperature while Cas finishes stripping out of his stale clothes.

His timing is off. Cas tosses the last of his clothing onto the floor before the water is done heating up, and Dean finds himself observing his body, now that it’s not a life and death scenario.

He’s never really thought about it before, but Cas is muscular, his build not so different from Dean’s own. They both have functional strength, Dean supposes, the natural result of the demands they’ve made on their bodies. But he knows the similar result has come from vastly different demands.

Dean’s muscles come from running from monsters, from holding a gun at shoulder level, from digging graves, from swinging crowbars and machetes through bone and sinew, from fighting for his life. But Cas has a body that, up until recently, was borrowed. He’s muscular for reasons that don’t belong to him. Those reasons belonged to Jimmy, and the results are Jimmy’s, too; muscles built up from jogging before going to his nine-to-five, from lifting weights at the same gym every week, from carrying groceries in from the car, from holding his daughter in his arms.

Maybe someday, if Cas sticks around long enough, he’ll replace those muscles with his own, the muscles of a killer. Or maybe Cas will keep going on like he is, refusing food and sleeping all the time, and those muscles will disappear entirely.

Dean swallows around the lump in his throat and tries not to think about it, now that the water is warm.

He turns the shower head so it’s pointing straight down. He forces himself to look Cas directly in the face. “Don’t worry,” he says, rolling up his sleeves, “I won’t get it near your face.”

Cas nods. He grabs Dean’s hand when he holds it out, and when Dean says, “Stand here,” he does. Cas keeps holding on as Dean adjusts the shower so the spray runs over Cas’ back but not onto his head. He breathes in sharply and tightens his grip on Dean’s hand when the first water hits his skin.

When Dean moves back to stand in front of Cas, he notices his eyes are closed and he’s breathing harshly. Cas’ hand is shaking where he has a death grip on Dean.

“Hey,” Dean says, gently. “Open your eyes.” When Cas does, Dean ducks his head to meet his eyes. “You’re not in the lake,” he says. “You’re at home in a kickass bathroom, and I’m not gonna let anything happen to you, all right?”

Cas nods, keeping his eyes fixed on their joined hands.

“Grab my arm instead,” Dean says, “I need that hand.” Cas shifts to grip Dean’s bicep, and with both hands free, Dean proceeds to lather up the loofah with body wash and scrub Cas down, ignoring the way his own clothes start to stick to his skin as he gets caught in the spray.

He’s careful of the bruises on Cas’ chest that he tries his best to remember mean alive because of me and not hurt because of me. He murmurs occasional instructions to Cas on how to move so he doesn’t fall over in the shower while Dean is washing the soles of his feet.

Once Cas is rinsed off, Dean shuts off the water and hands him a towel. “Gimme just a sec,” he says, as Cas dries off and slips into the robe Dean found for him.

Dean grabs a stool from across the room and drags it over to the tub as Cas watches. He pulls the other towel off the hook and drapes it over the edge of the tub. Cas looks confused when Dean gestures to him, but Dean just gently guides him over, moving Cas so he’s sitting on the stool with his head hanging back over the edge of the tub, neck on the towel for cushion. As he starts the water running, he says, “Gonna need both my hands for this one, sorry.”

He grabs a spare cup from over by the sink as the water heats. When he’s satisfied with the temperature, he fills the cup, using it to pour water over Cas’ hair as he maneuvers his other hand strategically to make sure none of it gets on Cas’ face or in his ears.

It’s only as Dean rubs shampoo into Cas’ hair, lathering it up into foam, massaging his scalp, that he feels Cas start to relax.

“This is nice,” Cas says.

Dean smirks. “I know, right? My mom used to wash my hair in the sink like this sometimes when I was real little.”

Cas makes a noise of satisfaction as Dean scrubs at his hair for longer than he probably needs to. When he’s finished, he rinses it off the same way he got it wet, then has Cas sit up and towels it dry for him. Dean grins at the way his hair sticks up every which way.

“That’s a good look on you,” Dean says, laughing.

Cas looks like he’s considering smiling but can’t quite manage it. He’s too busy silently appraising Dean.

Dean ignores the look Cas is giving him in favor of gathering up the used towels and Cas’ dirty laundry. He motions for Cas to follow, and they head out of the bathroom and back down the hall.

When Cas starts heading for his own room, Dean says, “No way, dude. Your sheets need a wash. You can go lay down in my room if you’re tired.”

“Okay,” Cas says, carefully.

Cas heads to Dean’s room as Dean heads to Cas’. He strips off the dirty bedding, carrying it to the laundry room and tossing all of it in the wash at once. After a moment’s consideration, he pulls off his damp clothes, stripping down to his boxers, and tossing them in with Cas’ bedding. The washers may be ancient, but they’re industrial and they’re awesome.

When Dean gets back to his room, Cas is lying there asleep on top of the covers, a small smile on his face. He’s sinking into Dean’s mattress, looking like he’s in heaven. Except, you know, an awesome heaven. Heaven like it should be. Heaven made of memory foam.

Dean smirks as he lies down on the other side of the bed, putting his headphones on and listening to music until it’s time to move the laundry over to the dryer. When he comes back, Cas is still asleep, and Dean finds he doesn’t have the heart to wake him. Instead, he pulls on a shirt and heads to the bathroom to get ready for bed, shouting out a “G’night, Sam!” in the event that Sam is still up and hiding out in the bunker somewhere.

When he returns to his room, Dean grabs an extra blanket from his closet, throwing it over Cas before getting under the covers.

It takes him a long time to fall asleep. He’s used to the cadence of Sam’s breathing, the sound of his snores, his occasional mumbling. With Cas, though -- he’s still adjusting to the fact that Cas even needs to breathe. It’s not bad, it’s just. Different. New.

He manages, though. He falls asleep thinking about how he’s gonna ask Cas what he thinks of the memory foam in the morning.

For some reason, when Dean wakes the next morning, he expects Cas to be watching him, but he isn’t. In fact, he’s not even sure Cas is awake. He says, softly, “Cas?”

Cas groans into his pillow.

Well. Dean’s pillow. Dean chuckles.

It takes a few minutes, like he’s gearing himself up to start moving, but Cas eventually props himself up on his elbow to face Dean. He has the most ridiculous bedhead, the kind you only get when you go to bed with your hair wet. Dean grins.

Cas says, grumpily, “What?” And even that is kind of endearing.

“Nothing,” Dean says, still smiling. “What did you think of the memory foam? Awesome, right?”

At that, Cas cracks a tentative smile back. “Yes,” he agrees. “Awesome.”

Then he’s giving Dean that appraising look, except. Except this time it feels different. Like something is waiting to happen.

Cas seems to consider for a moment longer, and then he scoots a little closer to Dean, reaching out with his right hand to touch Dean’s face.

Cas leans over and kisses him, and Dean thinks, Oh.

It’s not that it’s not good. It’s nice, actually. It’s sweet and tender and heartfelt, the way Cas presses his lips, dry and closed, against Dean’s. But with Cas’ hand on his face like that it just. It reminds him of when Cas -- it reminds him of when --

It terrifies him.

He can feel his thoughts kicking into overdrive, his body gearing up for a fight or flight response. Cas pulls back and just looks at him, waiting.

Dean doesn’t want to fight with Cas, not after that, so he says, “Cas. Buddy. We can’t do this.”

The look on Cas’ face makes his stomach twist. “Why not?” he asks.

Dean’s brain is helpfully supplying him with reminders about his past romantic relationships that ended badly, which happens to be all of them. Which, consequently, also happens to be why he’s gotten so good at never thinking of Cas like that, of turning that part of himself into a crime scene he carefully keeps taped off. Why he’s made his hopes for that apple pie life into a cold case he doesn’t want anyone to solve.

Dean’s proud of himself, actually, how successful he’s been at keeping Cas firmly in the “friends and/or family” box. He’s not proud of a lot, but he’s proud of that, the way that even though they’ve hurt each other, he’s at least spared Cas from becoming another Cassie or Lisa.

He thinks of the way Cassie had looked when he told her he loved her, then told her who he really was. The way her face had twisted in a mixture of confusion and betrayal and disgust right before she told him it was over between them. He can picture that look on Cas’ face, too, can imagine far too easily how it would feel to have that be the last expression he ever sees Cas wear before he steps out of Dean’s life forever.

He remembers how Lisa had looked, too: a little more sad, more tired, more disappointed in him every time he showed up on her doorstep. He remembers her even though she doesn’t remember him, his existence wiped from her memory because he knew in his bones it was better that way. That it’ll always be better that way. It had hurt, anyway, though, just like it had hurt when Cas had worn a different name and looked at Dean like he was a stranger.

Dean knows all too well that every time he goes there, every time he crosses that line with someone, he’s jinxing it.

Plenty of people they know get killed, from casual acquaintances all the way up to family members. The people he lets himself fall in love with are different, though. They end up alive and yet not in his life.

It’s shitty thinking the latter is worse, so he tries not to think about it.

He tries especially hard not to think about it with regard to Cas. He’s gotten so good at it that he can truncate the thoughts before they’re even fully formed with brutal efficiency.

He doesn’t care about the potential reward of letting them come to fruition. He’s never going to take that kind of risk again.

He doesn’t know how to sum all that up, though, so he says, “We just can’t.”

Cas says, “That’s not an answer.”

“I know,” Dean says. “Sorry,” he adds, lamely. He’s already started pulling away. He says, “I’m gonna go shower and make breakfast, all right?”

Cas nods unhappily and lowers himself back onto the bed, turning away as Dean stands.

Dean sighs, grabbing a change of clothes and dragging himself out into the bunker to greet the day.

By the time he’s done showering, Cas has disappeared from his bed. He ventures back to the laundry room on a hunch, and sure enough, Cas’ bedding has been removed from the dryer. Dean’s clothes are folded in a neat pile on the top. He pulls the jeans back on, tossing the shirt back into his room before going to make breakfast. Sam is already sitting at the kitchen table, reading the paper. He chats with Sam like nothing is wrong, and when he’s done cooking, he asks Sam to go tell Cas the food is ready.

Sam obliges, but he comes back alone. “He says he’s not hungry,” Sam says, raising his eyebrows.

“What?”

Sam huffs in frustration. “Did you talk to him?”

“Yeah,” Dean says, “I did. And it didn’t do any good. Are you happy now?”

“Dean --”

“Just leave it, Sammy,” Dean interrupts. Sam drops it, which is nice, but they eat breakfast in tense silence, which isn’t.

Dean doesn’t see Cas for the rest of the day, even though he’s still working on the damn archiving project while Sam hides out somewhere to continue with his reading in lieu of helping. he still has to make his way to the bathroom and the kitchen every now and then, so it’s not like no one would know where to find him.

Before he goes to bed, though, he feels just guilty enough to stop by Cas’ room.

“Hey man,” he says, “you need anything?”

Cas pretends to be asleep.

Fine, Dean thinks. If that’s how it’s gonna be, then that’s how it’s gonna be.

It isn’t until the next morning, when Sam is out on his run and Dean is making breakfast, that Cas ambushes him.

“I want to respect your wishes,” Cas says, as he slides into a seat at the table, “but I also want to understand.”

Dean grimaces. So much for easing into it, he thinks. He fights the desperate urge to escape, but he can’t think of a good enough excuse. He’s in the middle of making Eggs Benedict. If he flees the kitchen, his bacon and his muffins are both going to burn. Instead, Dean says, still facing the stove, aiming for casual, “Understand what?”

“Why you don’t want anything to do with me.”

Dean grips the spatula tighter. “Jesus, Cas,” he says. “It isn’t that. That’s. That’s not it.”

Cas says, “Then what is it?”

“Look, I don’t know, all right? We just can’t.”

Cas thinks for a second before he says, quietly, “That’s not good enough.”

Excuse me?” Dean says, even though he heard him.

Cas says, louder than necessary, “I said that’s not good enough. You owe me more of an explanation than that.”

The truth is, Dean knows Cas deserves more of an explanation. The problem is that he doesn’t have one. He can’t think of an excuse that sounds convincing to himself, let alone one that would sound convincing to Cas, so he responds the only way he knows how.

He slams the spatula on the counter and spins around, ignoring the look of shock on Cas’ face. “Oh, I owe you?” he spits. “I owe you an explanation even though you’re the one who -- who --” Cas just watches him flounder, looking hurt and angry. “No,” Dean says. “I’m not doing this.” He abandons his breakfast in favor of storming off.

It takes less than ten minutes of Dean sulking in his room to realize he’s sulking. By that point, his righteous anger has worn off, and he feels petty and childish. And hungry.

He goes back to the kitchen. Cas is sitting at the table, reading or maybe just pretending to read the three-day-old paper. He looks up when Dean walks in.

“I took the pan off the stove,” Cas says. “so it wouldn’t burn.” He hesitates. “I would have finished cooking, but.” His voice trails off and he shrugs.

Dean tries to let go of everything, to focus his thoughts solely on his half cooked breakfast. He sighs. “Thanks, Cas,” he says, and gets back to cooking.

The longer the silence stretches, the more Dean feels like he needs to fill it.

Cas beats him to it, though. He says, quietly, even though Dean’s back is turned again, “I’ve seen every part of there you is to see, Dean. What are you so afraid of?”

Frankly, that’s way too close to the truth for Dean’s comfort. There’s a whole fucking lot that Dean is afraid of.

God damnit, he had been trying to let it go. He wants to just let things go on like they had been.

“Oh, spying on me while I’m naked, now?” Dean says, flippant.

“You know what I meant. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t turn this into a joke.”

Dean cooks in silence for a while. Cas lets it stew until shame eats at Dean enough that he finally manages to say, “I know this isn’t a joke, Cas, I fucking know.” He turns to look at him again, but he has to drag a hand over his face before he can finally say the actual fucking truth, which is, “You don’t deserve to be saddled with me, all right?” Because it’s true. Cas deserves better than that. Better than him.

That does it. As soon as the words are out of Dean’s mouth, Cas looks fucking devastated. He doesn’t say anything. He just turns and goes.

Dean doesn’t feel like eating any more, but he finishes cooking and chokes his food down, anyway. He thinks, Yep, this is about right.

Sam gets back from his morning run while Dean is cleaning up. Dean can feel him lingering in the doorway, considering how best to ask him another accusatory question.

He feels a rush of vindictive glee when Sam says, “Another no-show for Cas, then?”

Dean doesn’t break any plates. He doesn’t react at all besides offering a casual, “Yep, looks like it.”

He ignores Sam’s skeptical hum.

“Enjoy your disgusting bran flakes,” Dean says cheerfully, clapping Sam on the shoulder. “I’ll be in the garage if you need me.”

Before Sam can protest, Dean wanders off to look after his baby. He starts the lengthy process of checking her fluids, wiping off the dirt that still lingers from their trip to Missouri, vacuuming out her interior.

The whole process feels strange in a way he can’t remember it ever being before. It takes him a while, but eventually, he realizes it’s the silence. He’s gotten used to Sam and Cas’ constant presence, or at least Sam’s while Cas is sleeping, and now it seems strange to hear only himself and the sound of the vacuum. That’s all. He scolds himself for being so hung up on it and gets back to work with renewed vigor, cleaning his baby to spotless perfection.

When he heads back inside, tossing together a sandwich before wandering into the war room, he finds Sam already sitting at the table. He glances up as Dean enters, closing his laptop meaningfully. Dean can feel Sam’s eyes on him as he eats. When he gets sick of being watched, he snaps, “Christ, I can tell you want to say something, so just say it.”

“So,” Sam says. “I talked to Cas.”

“Damn it, Sam, I said to leave it.

Sam huffs but reopens his laptop. His eyes are fixed in one point, though, and it’s obvious he’s not actually reading or watching anything.

By the time Dean finishes his food, he’s had too much time to wonder about it. He says, “So. What did Cas tell you.” His voice comes out flat, almost disinterested, which is probably for the best.

“He said you had a disagreement.”

Dean snorts a laugh. Just from that, he can tell Sam doesn’t know the half of it. Somehow, he doesn’t find it very reassuring that Cas apparently meant that shit about respecting his wishes to the point that he won’t use Sam to triangulate him. “Yeah. Disagreement. That sounds like something he’d say.”

Sam stares at him levelly. “Dean, he’s going through a lot. He needs --”

“He’s a grown ass man, Sammy,” Dean says. “He needs anything, he can use his words like everybody else.” He realizes the irony of this statement as he says it and appreciates that Sam doesn’t know the extent of the situation. He’s intimately familiar with the fact that sometimes needing something doesn’t mean a goddamned thing.

“Yeah,” Sam says. “Cas is definitely the only one acting like a child in this scenario.”

Dean knows Sam is right, so he latches onto something else. “Oh, so you agree Cas is also acting like a child? Glad to know we agree on that, at least.”

“You’re fucking impossible,” Sam says, but at least he finally gives up.

Dan goes to dump his plate in the sink and heads to his room, cracking open his own laptop. He intends to just dick around, to kill time, but he winds up reading the news. Before long, he finds a story about weird shit going down with the crops outside a tiny town in eastern South Dakota. He doesn’t want to invite more questions, but he figures he should probably have Sam weigh in, so he carries his computer back out to where Sam is still sitting.

“Hey,” he says. “Check this out. Think it might be our kinda thing.”

Sam takes only a cursory glance at the article. “There’s nothing out there but corn, Dean.”

“Yeah, I know,” Dean says, rolling his eyes. “That’s the thing. Entire fields have been dying overnight.”

Sam raises an eyebrow. “You’re thinking something demonic?”

“Yeah. Not a whole lot to go on, but better safe than sorry, right?”

Sam hesitates, so Dean spins his laptop back around, reading from the article. “‘I farmed this land my whole life and never seen nothing like this. It’s not natural.’” He gives Sam a look that says C’mon, what more do you want?

“Okay, fine,” Sam sighs, “Let’s check it out.” He shuts his laptop and pushes his chair back from the table, pausing ominously rather than standing. “Are you gonna ask Cas if he wants to come, or are you too much of a baby to --”

“Christ,” Dean exclaims, throwing his hands up. “I’ll do it.”

The door is closed when he gets to Cas’ room. He knocks politely, and even through the door, he can hear Cas sigh before he says, “Come in.”

Dean opens the door to find Cas sitting on his bed, books fanned out around him. He keeps looking down at them as Dean says, “So, got a case up north. Looks like it might be demonic. You in?”

Cas sucks in a breath, opens and closes his mouth. When he opens it again, all he offers is a simple, “No.”

Dean gets the distinct impression that wasn’t what Cas was originally going to say, but he lets it slide. He says, “All right, well, I wanna leave soon so we can make it into town tonight. Shouldn’t take more than a couple days. There’s food in the fridge and you have our numbers if you need to reach us.”

“Okay,” Cas says. He keeps his eyes down, on his books.

“Right. Okay. Well, see you in a few.” Dean leaves it at that, heading to his own room to pack.

Sam is waiting for him by the time he makes his way to the garage. As they get in the car, Sam asks, “Cas staying here?”

“What do you think?” Dean says, not waiting before he turns the key and pulls out onto the road.

As it turns out, getting himself stuck in a car with Sam for seven or so hours wasn’t exactly a winning strategy in terms of avoiding his problems, because thirty minutes into the drive, Sam reaches over and turns down the radio.

Dean has a few seconds to feel guilty about classifying his relationship with Cas under the umbrella of “his problems” before Sam asks, “So, what’s up?” He says it in this casual tone of voice like he actually thinks he’s being subtle.

He’s not being subtle, though. Dean knows him way too fucking well for that. They can always tell when the other person was lying to them - even if they don’t know about what or how big it is, they can tell.

They haven’t thrown tact out the window, but after all that shit with the darkness, they’d promised each other not to lie about things that matter.

Dean is pretty sure this is something that matters, but that doesn’t mean he has to make it easy. He resolves not to give Sam anything other than monosyllabic responses to his roundabout questions. He’s going to wait for Sam to ask the questions he really wants to ask. He’s going to make him say it out loud.

Dean shrugs. “Stuff.”

“Any stuff you want to talk about?”

“Nope.”

He can hear the growing incredulity in Sam’s voice. “You sure?”

“Yup.”

“Are you being difficult on purpose?”

Dean side-eyes him. “Maybe.”

Sam throws his hands up in frustration, and Dean gets several minutes of glorious silence.

Finally, though, Sam asks, “Are we on this hunt so you can avoid talking to Cas?”

“What? No,” Dean says, because lying to himself doesn’t count. It’s something they’re still working on, all right? Old habits die hard.

“Yeah,” Sam says, scoffing. A thousand feet tall and his annoying little brother voice still fits him perfectly. Amazing how well it’s scaled. “Right.”

Dean scowls. Sam sighs, but he gives up for a while. When he tries again, he manages to sound less argumentative.

“Look,” he says, “Cas wouldn’t tell me anything, so at this point I’m just trying to understand what the hell is going on. You were practically mother henning him the other day and now you’re not speaking? What gives?”

Dean has a sudden, vivid mental image of Sam hounding him with questions for the entire fucking drive to South Dakota, throughout the hunt, and again on the trip home. He suppresses a shudder. He’s going to find out sooner or later, Dean figures. He always does. Their whole lives up to this point are a testament to that.

Dean wrings his hands on the wheel for a few seconds and then he sucks it up and says, “He kissed me, all right?”

“Wait,” Sam says. “What?”

“You heard me.”

Sam is quiet for a minute, processing. Dean knows better than to hope this is the end of it.

Eventually he continues, “He kissed you, and…?”

“And?”

Sam gestures with one hand, palm up, fingers spread. When Dean remains silent, he prompts, “And then what?”

Dean sneers. He’s not sure if it’s at Sam or at himself or just at life in general. “Well,” he says, “I didn’t turn into a prince, if that’s what you’re asking.”

He chances a glance over at Sam, and sure enough, Sam is giving him a look that says You fucking know what I’m asking.

Dean grinds his teeth. He says, “I tried to let him down gently, okay? Jesus.”

“Why?” Sam asks, already offended on Cas’ behalf.

It immediately puts Dean on the defensive. “Why did I let him down gently?”

Sam closes his eyes and takes a slow, I’m-trying-my-best-to-keep-calm breath. “God damn it, Dean.”

“You’re god damn it, Dean.”

“That doesn’t even make sense.”

“You don’t make any --”

“Dean.” Sam pauses to rub at his temples. “Look, I’ve seen the way you act around each other, all right? The way you look at each other. The way you react when you think he’s hurt or -- or gone. So are you really going to try and tell me you’re not interested? Because from where I’m standing, it looks like you just turned down the only person you’ve ever really l--”

“Don’t say it,” Dean snaps. “Just. Don’t.” He pauses, takes a few deep breaths, tries to focus on the road. “Look,” he starts again, eyes fixed forward. “It’s not that I don’t care about the guy, all right? He’s family, you know that. But it’s. It’s just different.”

“How?”

“He’s my best friend,” Dean says, because it’s the safest thing he can say that’s still true. “And that’s it.”

“That’s it?” Sam says, and Dean knows from his tone he’s gearing up for a fight. “This stuff doesn’t fit all into neat little boxes, Dean. It doesn’t work like that. Not that we’ve had a lot of great role models,” he concedes, “but what do you think successful relationships are built on? People being complete strangers?”

“Oh, yeah,” Dean says, lip curling. “Because people being besties means things are always gonna work out. That’s totally how things go, in our experience, right?”

“Well, yeah,” Sam says, and to his credit, he manages to turn down the volume. “I know it didn’t work out before, but this is different.”

“Oh yeah? How? Please enlighten me.”

“Because it’s Cas.”

“The hell is that supposed to mean?”

Sam starts counting things out on his fingers, ticking them off one by one as though he’s making some sort of juvenile pros-versus-cons list. “He’s already in the life, so that’s not gonna scare him off. He literally helped us save the world, several times over. He’s chosen us over heaven time and time again. And he’s seen all the shit there is to see, Dean. He’s seen the worst parts of both of us, and he still sticks around. For god’s sake, he literally pulled you from hell. He cares about you.”

“He pulled you from hell, too,” Dean offers, weakly.

“Yeah, and when he starts referring to my relationship with him as a profound bond, maybe I’ll reevaluate whether or not he’s in love with me.”

And that’s just. That’s just way too fucking much to process. Dean makes a conscious effort to loosen his white-knuckle grip on the wheel. His voice comes out more strained than he means it to when he says, “Can we please just focus on the case?”

Sam stares at him for a minute, dumbfounded.

“Fine,” he finally says, sighing. “I’ll enable your avoidance for now. But remember, Cas is still going to be there when we get back.”

After that, Sam keeps his word, dropping the subject for the rest of the evening. When they stop for dinner, they spend the entire time working out their plan of attack for the next day. Dean is more than content to leave it be as they grab a motel room, too, interacting with Sam only in the cursory way necessary to coordinate bed assignments and bathroom use.

The next morning, after a restless night of sleep, at least on Dean’s part, they get up and drive to the tiny town of Bushnell. The guy the paper had quoted is a farmer named Gary who won’t shut up about the crops once they get him started.

As it turns out, though, the corn didn’t exactly die overnight. It’s more like it disappeared. And was replaced with an entirely different crop. Of tobacco, actually, which Gary refers to as “ungodly.”

Dean suppresses an eye roll as Sam tries desperately to get anything useful out of Gary. “Did you notice anything else out of the ordinary?” Sam asks. “Lingering smell of sulfur, cattle deaths, that kind of thing?”

“No, nothing like that,” Gary says, and Dean is about to write the whole thing off as a huge waste of time when the guy gets a thoughtful look. “But,” he continues, “Now that I think about it, things started going real funny when Dave got back from the hospital. One day he’s on his deathbed, and the next he’s back at home, healthier than a horse. It’s just not right.”

“Not...natural?” Dean offers, smile unfaltering as Sam elbows him in the side.

Gary is too lost in thought to notice the exchange. “That’s right.”

“Where can we find Dave?” Sam asks. “We’d like to ask him a few questions.”

Gary gestures back toward the center of town. “He and his wife Julie run the pottery shop off the main road. You can’t miss it.”

“Great,” Dean says, already walking away. “Thank you.”

Sam catches up as Dean is sliding back into the car. “This is a waste of time,” Sam says, and Dean pretends not to hear him. Like hell is he going to give up after half an hour after enduring Sam’s interrogation on the drive here.

Gary was right about the pottery shop, at any rate. It’s the only business on the main road, which runs for a whopping three blocks.

When they park the car and walk inside, they’re greeted by a woman who must be Julie.

“Is your husband here, ma’am?” Sam asks, slipping easily into his role in spite of his earlier complaints. “We’d just like to ask him a few questions about the recent crop...problems.”

Julie looks at the ceiling and takes a deep breath. “Lord above, Gary sent you over here, didn’t he?”

“Um,” Sam says, taken aback. “Yes, actually.”

“That old fool is just out for his fifteen minutes of fame,” Julie says, leaning back in her chair. “He made a killing off that tobacco, but I suppose he forgot to mention that?”

Dean is, quite frankly, not interested in small town gossip. “Regardless, ma’am, we’d like to talk to your husband, just to make sure we dot all our i’s and cross all our t’s. You know how it goes.”

“You can wait here for him, if you’d like,” she says. “He’s just gone into Brookings to pick us up some lunch. I’m telling you, though, Gary’s got no business spinning whatever tales of gloom and doom he’s concocted. Truth is, things here have been better than ever since my Dave got home from the hospital. And not just for us, mind. There was a bad fire, few weeks back, and nobody's quite sure how everyone managed to make it out of there. The crops are growing better than ever, even if the particular kind of crop has been a bit,” she pauses, clicks her tongue, “Unexpected. Everything’s been real good. It’s the middle of winter and no one has come down with so much as a cold. We got nothing to be complaining about, Gary included.”

“That’s great,” Dean starts, “But --”

“I think we’re done here,” Sam says, nodding to Julie. “Thank you for your time.” He drags Dean toward the door, ignoring his accusatory glare.

“Dean,” he says, once they’re back outside. “This doesn’t seem like anything. Let it go.”

“Okay, so it doesn’t sound like anything demonic. But c’mon, you gotta admit the crop thing is still pretty weird, right?”

Sam raises his eyebrows. “I mean, maybe,” he says, skeptical tone undermining this concession. “But that’s not nearly enough to go on.”

Dean mentally replays everything Julie said, trying to find anything to latch onto. Something is off about this whole situation, he’s pretty sure. No town is that lucky. He knows from personal experience, actually, that good things don’t happen with such consistency, and --

Something clicks.

“What she said about all that good fortune,” Dean says. “She didn’t use the word, but you know what all that sounds like?”

Sam sighs. “What.”

“They sound like miracles,” Dean says, tilting his head toward Sam and wiggling his eyebrows.

“Fine,” Sam says, rolling his eyes. He gestures toward the front of the shop. “I’ll indulge you for ten more minutes.”

Julie doesn’t seem terribly surprised to see them again.

“Sorry to keep bothering you,” Dean says, “but would you mind telling us when it was Dave made his miraculous recovery?”

“Oh, it’s no trouble. I suppose it was ‘round about, oh, early June in, hmm, 2013? Maybe end of May?”

Dean makes a point of catching Sam’s gaze and holding it for a long moment. Sam huffs a sigh, shaking his head, but doesn’t say anything.

“Mind if we wait for Dave to get back after all?” Dean asks.

“Oh, of course,” Julie says. “You boys make yourselves at home.”

Dean is wondering how they’re supposed to do that in a shop with no chairs besides the one Julie currently occupies when the door opens. “Ah,” she says, smiling at the man who walks in as he heads over to give her a quick kiss. “Speak of the devil. These gentlemen are here investigating the nonsense with Gary’s crops and wanted to have a chat with you,” she explains. Dave nods, giving Sam and Dean a quick once-over.

“That’s right, sir,” Sam says. “Mind if we ask you a few questions?”

“Have at it,” Dave says, standing with his hand on Julie’s shoulder.

Sam clears his throat, “Alone?”

Dave and Julie share a look, but at his nod, Julie says, “Just holler if you need anything,” and leaves through the back door that must connect the shop to their house.

“All right,” Dean says, once the door closes behind her. “So who are you, really?”

Dave calmly meets his gaze. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”

“Right,” Dean says. “You know, we drove all the way here because we thought that shit with the crops meant there was demonic activity. Seems to me that if you’re trying to lay low, the fact you showed up on our radar is a real good sign you’re not doing a great job at it. So why don’t you drop the act? You can start by telling us your real name.”

Dave sighs as he drops into the now empty chair. “It doesn’t matter,” he says. “It’s Dave now. It wouldn’t mean anything to you, anyhow. Unless Castiel is hiding up your sleeve?” He sounds a little hopeful at the idea.

“He’s not here,” Dean says, abruptly, “So we’re gonna need more of an explanation than that. You seem to know who we are, so you should also know we don’t have a real good track record with angels.”

“I know who you are,” Dave -- or, rather, the angel possessing Dave -- says, sighing “And I mean you no harm. Just like I mean the people here no harm. I’ve only done them good, Dave included. I’m sure Julie told you as much.”

“She did,” Sam confirms. “Not everyone seems, ah. Thrilled with your interference, though.”

“You must be talking about Gary,” Dave says. “He’s full of shit. He made a ki--”

“A killing off that tobacco,” Dean says, rolling his eyes. “Yeah, we know.”

Dave spreads his hands wide, as if to say, What more do you want?

“What about Dave?” Sam asks. “The real Dave?”

“He’s still here,” Dave says, tapping a finger to his temple. “And so here I am, with his permission. Only with his permission.”

Sam glances over at Dean, shrugging almost imperceptibly. “What do you think?” he asks, voice low.

Dean thinks he’s had plenty of reasons to kill angels in the past, but this particular one hasn’t given him any good reasons in the present. Which is kind of unsatisfying, in a way, but if the angel hitching a ride is trying to atone or something, Dean figures being trapped in rural South Dakota is punishment enough.

“All right, fine,” Dean says. “You win. You can keep playing good Samaritan. But cool it on the really obvious shit, okay? I don’t wanna drive all the way back here for no reason.”

Dean had been trying to seem more annoyed than he actually is, but apparently it wasn’t very convincing, because Dave is smiling. “Deal,” he says, nodding once.

“Great,” Sam says, clapping Dean on the shoulder. “We’ll just be going, then.”

“You boys take care,” Dave says.

Dean is tempted to roll his eyes at the irony, but he opts for turning to follow Sam back out to the car instead. As he does, a flash of color catches his eye.

Most of the pottery on the shelves is what Dean assumes is standard fare: jars and vases and plates with buffalo and horses and flowers and other nature painted on them pleasing color schemes. Off to one side, though, is a section wildly at odds with the rest. There’s a few shelves filled with nothing but clay dinosaurs wearing Santa outfits. They’re all perched on two legs, too, chilling on the shelf like they’re standing outside a grocery store asking for donations.

Dean thinks, suddenly, of the way Cas is always looking at the weird trinkets in gas stations. He thinks of how he wouldn’t stop talking about the inaccurate Jurassic Park dinosaurs; he thinks of Cas, slowly filling his room with knick knacks, making it his own.

Before he knows it, Dean has an entire scene in his head, one in which Cas came along with them to South Dakota. in this particular fantasy, Cas is standing next to him and Sam in the pottery shop, and Dean is asking him if the Santasaurs are closer or farther to the reality than the movie dinosaurs had been, huh Cas? and what do you think of thisas far as human ingenuity goes?

Dean is picturing Cas grinning, and then, back in reality, his mouth is asking how much one of these things is.

Dave is watching him curiously. “You can take one,” he says, slowly.

Sam is looking at him, too, one eyebrow raised, the corner of his mouth twitching.

“Can’t argue with free,” Dean says, picking one of the silly creatures off the shelf. Dave holds out a hand, and before Dean can think about it enough to stop himself, he’s handed it over and Dave is carefully wrapping it in paper for safekeeping.

Of course, while Dave is doing so, Dean has plenty of time to reflect on the fact that if he actually tries to give this to Cas, he’s probably not going to grin and give some amusing analysis of Santasaur versus movie dinosaurs. He’s probably just going to say, “Oh. Thanks.” and roll over in bed.

Dean feels his face drop before he realizes he was smiling, but it’s too late now. Dave is holding out the small package, and Dean takes it with a mumbled “thanks” before hurrying out the door.

“What was that all about?” Sam asks, as soon as they’re back outside.

“What, this?” Dean asks.

Sam gives him a look like duh, what else?

Dean says, trying to play it casual, “I dunno. Cas likes weird shit. Figured he might like this.” As he rounds to the driver’s side, Sam stands next to the car, not getting in, just looking at him incredulously. “What?” Dean demands.

Sam shakes his head, finally opening the passenger door, so Dean gets in the driver’s seat and sets the package down next to him. Carefully.

As they start the drive back, Sam texts Cas their ETA and then contents himself with fiddling around on his phone until they stop for a late lunch. He at least has the decency to wait until they finish eating and are back on the road to continue his interrogation. By that time, Dean has had plenty of time to wonder how the fuck he’s supposed to act around Cas upon their return, and a very reasonable sense of dread is starting to set in.

“So,” Sam starts. Dean tries not to grimace. “You’re buying Cas eccentric shit like an old married couple, but you’re worried this isn’t gonna work out somehow?”

Dean barks a borderline hysterical laugh before he’s able to choke it back. “Yeah, okay, it’s a weird dinosaur, all right? But you know what, if lives were dinosaurs, ours wouldn’t be this one. It’d be a fucking T-Rex on steroids.” He pauses to take a steadying breath. “I’ve watched him die, Sam. Way too many times for comfort. I’m not gonna make him an even bigger target. I’m not gonna get him killed because of me.”

“Yeah,” Sam says, “Right. As if Cas never gets into any trouble on his own. You think if he was really worried about it he would have stuck around this long?”

“Dunno if you noticed, but he doesn’t,” Dean sneers. “He peaces out all the time. He’s never stuck around.”

“Are you even listening to yourself?” Sam asks, incredulous. “He chose this, Dean. He chose to be human. He gave up his grace, and he didn’t do it for me.”

Dean scoffs dismissively. “You couldn’t possibly know that.”

Dean can see Sam giving him a look in his peripheral vision. He takes his eyes off the road for a moment, glancing at Sam. Sam is looking at him like he’s an idiot.

Dean caves. “How could you possibly know that?”

“Because some of us actually talk to people about their feelings, Dean.”

“You’re an asshole.”

Sam shrugs. They’re quiet for a while, after that. When Sam speaks again, his voice is softer. “I know it’s hard to live with that thought, Dean. Believe me, I know. I thought about it constantly with Jessica. I thought about it every day until she died, and I still wouldn’t have traded my time with her for anything.”

Dean swallows hard and tightens his grip on the wheel. “That’s so unfair,” he complains.

“Yeah,” Sam says, chuckling. “I know.” he smiles, a little sadly. “Doesn’t make it any less true.”

They lapse into silence again, Sam letting Dean spend the rest of the drive stewing. When they get back to the bunker in the middle of the night, Sam grabs his bag and says, “I’m beat, I’m going to bed.” Giving Dean a pointed look, he adds, “Go check on Cas.”

“Sure thing, mom,” Dean says petulantly, as though that wasn’t already his plan.

He heads to Cas’ room, first, but finds it empty. He’s a bit surprised at that, given the hour, but he figures Cas is probably just sitting up somewhere, stubbornly refusing to go to bed until Sam and Dean returned. He checks the library and war room next, but Cas is still nowhere to be found.

It’s only after he’s found the kitchen and movie room empty, too, that he starts to worry.

He starts moving through the bunker methodically, calling Cas’ name quietly and trying, without much success, to reassure himself that Cas’ didn’t peace out while they were gone. That he’s still here, somewhere, and Dean didn’t say all that shit to Sam for no reason.

He makes it through the entire first floor and part of the second before he gets so keyed up that he finally thinks, Fuck it. I’m at least gonna take a piss and a shower before I continue flipping out about this shit.

As soon as he steps into the bathroom and hears one of the showers running, he lets out a long breath, all of his tense muscles suddenly loosening. He thinks, Oh, this is where Cas is. I’m an idiot.

He’s in the middle of thinking something that’s a jumble of Thank god he’s here and Guess he got over his fear, that’s good when he turns the corner. It takes him a second to process what he’s seeing: on one side of the bathroom, an empty shower is running; on the other, Cas is sitting on the floor with his hands gripped so tightly on his knees that his knuckles are white. He thinks, Oh. Not good, then.

“Cas?” he says, carefully. “You o--”

“I don’t need your help!” Cas yells. His voice cracks a little on the last syllable.

Wordlessly, Dean moves to turn off the shower, but once he does, he doesn’t know what to do. In the ensuing quiet, he can hear that Cas is doing the thing where he draws in a shuddering breath, letting it all out in a quick huff before repeating the process.

Dean has done that before, has tried to fight off unwanted tears of frustration and self-loathing. He knows exactly how unsatisfying it is.

“Okay,” Dean says, then stands there trying to think what the fuck to say. He tries to think of times he was scared or upset or hurting or whatever else Cas must be feeling right now. He tries to think of what he would have wanted someone to say to him. The problem is, though, he doesn’t exactly have a great track record when it comes to accepting help from people. Cas doesn’t have a great track record with that, either.

Dean supposes maybe what he needed was just for someone to stick around through his bullshit until he came to the realization, on his own, that it was actually bullshit. Maybe that’s still what he needs. Maybe that’s what Cas needs, too.

While Dean’s been standing there trying to figure out what the hell to do, Cas has shifted to sit with his arms folded over his knees, his head resting on his forearms. Dean hesitates for a few more seconds before going over and sitting next to him. Even though Cas tenses for a second when Dean drops onto the floor next to him, Dean resolves not to leave until Cas directly tells him to.

“I know you don’t need my help,” Dean says, quietly. “But I’m gonna stay here just in case you want it, all right?”

Cas doesn’t respond, but after a while, his breathing starts to even out. Once it’s returned to normal, he says, bitterly, without lifting his head, “I wanted to be able to do this on my own.”

“I know,” Dean says. Then, because it seems like something he should say, given his own history for blaming himself for everything imaginable, he adds, “This isn’t your fault. It’s okay to let people help you. I mean, Christ, what’re friends for? What’s family for?”

Cas sighs into his arms and doesn’t say anything. A few minutes later, he finally lifts his head. “I’d like to take a shower now,” he says, avoiding Dean’s gaze.

“Okay,” Dean says, and then, just to be absolutely sure, “Do you, uh. Do you want my help?”

“Yes.”

“Okay.”

They repeat the process from the other night, Cas trying not to look at anything other than the floor. Dean, for his part, tries not to think of any of the shit he and Sam talked about in the interim as he helps Cas wash off. He tries, instead, to be happy about the fact that the bruises on Cas’ chest are starting to fade. He tries to focus on Cas’ death grip on his arm.

It’s only when Dean has his hands buried in Cas’ soapy hair that Cas says, “I’m still mad at you, you know.”

“Yeah,” Dean says. “I figured.”

When Cas is all cleaned up and wrapped in a robe, he leaves on his own. Dean showers and gets ready for bed and tries to figure out what the hell he’s supposed to do.

He’s still trying to figure it out the next morning. He’s in the middle of eating breakfast with Sam when Cas appears in the doorway.

His relief at seeing that Cas has ended his boycott is somewhat dampened by the fact that Sam’s “Morning, Cas” is immediately followed by, “I was just about to head out for a jog. Get Dean to make you an omelet, they’re delicious.”

Sam stands, mouthing Talk. To. Him. at Dean as he heads out of the room. Dean mouths a cheerful Fuck you! that he hopes Cas doesn’t notice.

Cas gets himself a cup of coffee and sits nursing it in silence while Dean makes him an omelet. It’s only when Dean sets the plate in front of Cas, taking a seat across from him, that he says, “Listen, I’m. I just. I’m sorry how this has gone, all right?”

Cas huffs a sigh and stabs at his food a little harder than he needs to. “Okay.”

“That’s all you have to say? Just ‘okay’?”

Cas shrugs. He says, “Why would you care.”

“The fuck?” Dean says, unable to stop himself from sounding exactly as insulted as he feels. “Because I thought you deserved a fucking apology?”

“I don’t deserve an apology,” Cas mutters. “I don’t deserve any of this. You said it yourself.”

“Wait,” Dean says, because just like that, he’s totally lost the thread of this conversation. “What?”

“You said it yourself,” Cas repeats, pushing a piece of omelet around his plate miserably. “That I don’t deserve you. So why can’t you just leave me in peace?”

Dean’s brain short circuits while he tries to figure out the direction this conversation has gone, the turn it’s taken. “Cas. I didn’t. What?”

Cas scowls. “What?”

“Cas,” Dean says, resigned. “What did I say?”

“You said I didn’t deserve to be saddled with you.”

Dean groans a little as he remembers. He’s starting to get it, he thinks. How it sounds when he says things, sometimes. How sometimes he’s just adding to the string of misunderstandings that has wound itself between and around them.

“I meant --” he starts. “Fuck, Cas, I meant that you deserve. You deserve better than --”

Cas’ expression cuts him off. He looks like he knows what Dean is about to say and is already offended by it. It suddenly feels like a ridiculous thing to say, so he doesn’t say it.

“Say it,” Cas says.

Dean scrubs a hand over his face, letting out a strained laugh.

“Say it.”

“You deserve better than me,” Dean says, quietly.

Cas stares at him for a long moment, considering. Something in his expression shifts.

“What do I have to say to convince you?” Cas says, a little lighter.

“Convince me of what?” Dean asks, tiredly, because this conversation is fucking exhausting.

“That there is no one better. That you deserve to be happy. that you’re worth -- worth caring about.”

Dean laughs mirthlessly. “Yeah, if only any of those were true.”

Cas throws his fork down onto the table. “Damn it, Dean,” he says, voice quiet, furious. “It’s all true.”

“Yeah, ri--”

“Stop,” Cas says, voice rising. “Stop telling me how I feel.”

Dean chokes back the hysterical laughter that threatens to overtake him. He can’t believe this feels harder to deal with than when Cas was literally dying. Because it is. It is harder. He’s pretty sure.

He chickens out. He isn’t even surprised at himself.

“Can we just,” he says. “Can we please just not do this. Can’t we just. Go back to how things were.” He knows it’s a fucking cop out, but he doesn’t care. He can’t do this. He can’t. “Just. Go back to being friends.”

“Just friends,” Cas says, lingering on the word like he doesn’t believe they were ever just anything.

Dean tries not to think about it.

“Yes,” he says, emphatically.

For a second, Cas looks like he’s going to fight it, but then he sighs, deflating a little. “All right,” he says. “I’ll try.”

Dean says, “Great. Yeah. Me too.” He drags a hand over his face. “You should eat that before it gets cold,” he adds, gesturing to Cas’ food as he stands.

He leaves Cas to finish his breakfast in peace like the wimp he is, retreating to the war room and hunkering down over his laptop, ostensibly looking for a case.

It was a good plan, Dean thinks, until Cas finishes eating and he comes to sit at the table, too. He cracks open a book, and he looks like he’s actually reading it for real this time, which means he’s actually trying to do what Dean has asked, to return to some semblance of normalcy. He looks up at Dean every now and then whenever he reads a bit he finds particularly interesting, reading pieces out loud as though hoping for Dean’s input.

Dean does his best to respond, but he’s so caught up in thinking, about every interaction, Is this natural? Am I being awkward? Is this how we’ve always been? that he mostly just ends up saying “Hmm,” or “Huh. Cool,” or “Oh, that’s neat.”

Neat, seriously? Who is he kidding?

As if that wasn’t bad enough, when Sam gets back from his run, he joins them. The fact that Dean knows he’s being observed certainly doesn’t help matters any.

Dean does his best to ignore it, anyway, pretending to be engrossed in his search for weird occurrences. He finds himself hoping that Cas will need a nap soon, because if Cas is asleep, it’ll force him, for a while, to give up trying to talk to Dean. It’ll mean Dean doesn’t have to aggressively over-analyze his every action and reaction. He’ll have a break to recover.

That gets him thinking, though, how it’s kind of comforting, that Cas has to sleep now. That he’ll always have to sleep periodically from now on, and thank god for that. A thought flickers across his mind, something like The fact that he has to let himself be vulnerable just like the rest of us means he finally needs me, too, even if in a sideways kind of way. He doesn’t even have the energy to crush it. He simply thinks, I’ll take it. I need to take it, because I’m never going to get any more than that.

Except, you know, actually, not thank god for that, because Cas sleeping in the bunker stresses Dean out. He doesn’t mean for it to, like he doesn’t mean a lot of things, but it does.

Cas’ exhaustion lingers, so he keeps wandering off to his room throughout the day. He dozes off on the couch. He falls asleep at the table with his head on his hands. Now that his lungs are healing, though, there’s no more coughing or wheezing. Dean should be happy about it, but all he can think about is the fact that Cas sleeps silently, now. He sleeps so, so silently, and stays so still, and it freaks Dean out.

Sam has the decency to snore every now and then. He tosses and turns and kicks in his sleep. If Dean needs to check on him, he only needs to stand outside Sam’s room and press an ear to the door. But with Cas, he would have to go in, and he can’t do that.

Even when Cas is sleeping in public spaces, Dean would have to get so close to make sure he’s not -- well. To make sure he’s only sleeping. He would have to get so close, and from there it would be a simple matter just to reach out. But he can’t. He can’t. He knows exactly what he’s so afraid of and there’s not a damn thing he can do about it. As if the strained silences and lingering looks when Cas is awake weren’t bad enough, now he sits and tries not to watch the rise and fall of Cas’ chest. The whole thing stresses him out.

Cas, for his part, is either oblivious to Dean’s plight or indifferent to it. Or, if Dean is being realistic instead of petty, it’s probably just that he’s trying a bit harder than Dean to return to some semblance of normalcy.

Needless to say, the first day is weird, their interactions stilted and awkward as they share the same space, eating and reading and archiving.

The next day is a little easier. Some of the tension seems to have eased, and Dean feels absurdly proud of himself when he manages to give Cas the damn dinosaur statue. Sculpture? Whatever. Point is, he presents it to Cas after dinner.

“Hey, I almost forgot,” he says casually, “I picked this up when we were up in South Dakota. Thought you might like it.” He watches as Cas unwraps it, and when he’s freed it from the paper completely, he grins. “Well,” he says, “Whaddaya think? Does it look anything like the actual dinos?”

Cas turns it in his hands thoughtfully. “The resemblance is uncanny,” he says, with a completely straight face.

Dean bursts into laughter, and after a moment, Cas cracks a grin. It’s the first time Dean thinks that maybe they're okay.

The following day, they even have another movie night. They try to watch Jurassic World, which Sam has illicitly obtained. Five minutes in, they all agree that the quality is so bad that they should wait until they can actually see it in all of its high definition glory, even if -- Sam gasps in horror -- they have to pay actual money to see it.

They switch to Alien instead. Cas tries the popcorn this time. He finds that he likes the taste, but not the texture or the way pieces get stuck in his teeth.

Sam goes to bed before the end, leaving Dean and Cas to finish the movie by themselves. When the credits finally roll, Cas looks down at his empty popcorn bowl. He frowns. “Why did I eat all of that?”

Dean laughs, clapping a hand on Cas’ shoulder. “Life’s mysteries, dude,” he says.

And in that moment, in this scenario, where he’s hanging out with Cas, doing these mundane things like they’ve been doing them for years rather than weeks, he drops his guard. He’s relaxed back into being around Cas, he’s so caught up in the way his laughter catches and has Cas smiling back at him, that he casually, unconsciously, lifts his hand from Cas’ shoulder and reaches up to brush his hair out of his face.

Cas freezes. The look he gives Dean is so fucking heartbroken that Dean immediately jerks his hand back. “I’m sorry,” he mutters.

“It’s fine,” Cas says.

It haunts Dean, though. That expression, the look that’s a reminder of how Dean feels about all of this, a reminder of everything he wants but can’t have, sticks with him as he brushes his teeth, as he lies in bed.

He catches himself thinking, It’s better this way.

After tossing and turning for a few hours, though, it occurs to him that no, it really isn’t. It isn’t doing either of them any good.

As he lies awake, he thinks back to a story he heard when his dad dumped him off with a -- not a friend, really, but more of an acquaintance. That’s much more par for the course in this life, Dean supposes. At any rate, his dad had dropped him and Sam off with this lady, and Dean remembers going to church with her one Sunday. Sam had gone off to Sunday School with the rest of the kids, but Dean had been old enough to sit through the service. He doesn’t remember anything else about the ceremony, but he remembers the story the pastor told during the sermon.

In it, there was a guy trapped in his house with a flood rapidly approaching. The man prayed to God to save him and received an answer in the form of a vision of God doing just that -- reaching his hand down and plucking him from danger.

Soon enough, the man’s neighbor came by, offering to take him in his truck and drive him to safety. The man turned his neighbor down, saying, “No, I’m waiting for God to save me.”

As the waters rose, the man was forced to move up onto his roof. A little while later, a group of people came by in a boat, offering to give him a ride to safety. He turned them down, too.

The water continued to rise until the man was sitting on a tiny patch of roof. More people came by, this time in a helicopter, and offered to carry him to safety. He turned them down, repeating “No, I’m waiting for God to save me,” like a mantra.

Of course, in the end, the guy in the story died. When he got to heaven, he told God, “I believed in you. Why didn’t you save me?”

God was having none of it, in this story. Dean doesn’t remember the exact words, but the gist of God’s response was, “I sent you people in a truck and a boat and a helicopter, you idiot. What more did you want?”

Dean is pretty sure he’s that guy on the roof, caught in the flood of bullshit that is his life. And while he stopped hoping for God’s help a long time ago, he can’t help thinking of Cas coming back to him again and again and again.

Dean is pretty sure that wherever God is, he’s laughing at him.

He feels like he spends hours thinking of that stupid story, and it’s only in the early hours of the morning, half conscious, that he finally makes a decision.

He also decides to wait until late the next morning to act on it, so he can be sure to get Fully Conscious Cas, not Grumpy Early Morning Cas. He expects it to be agony, but as soon as the decision is made, he finally drops off to sleep.

He wakes abruptly just after 10am, tossing on some clothes and hurriedly brushing his teeth before searching the bunker for Cas.

Dean finds him in the movie room watching his favorite whale documentary. He’s not cruel enough to say the words “Can we talk.” Instead, he sits next to Cas on the couch, swallows his panic, and dives right in.

“I know you’re here now,” Dean says, “and that you keep coming back, in spite of all my bullshit. But I keep thinking. I keep worrying that one day I’m gonna wake up and you’re not gonna be here. That I’ll get up one morning and you’ll just be gone. On to bigger and better things or whatever.”

Cas turns down the volume on the TV. He says, without looking at Dean, “You would care? If I was gone?”

The doubt in his voice is like a knife to the chest.

“Of course I would care,” Dean says. “For fuck’s sake, Cas, I care about you, and not just when you’re dead or dying. Christ, it fucking terrifies me how much I care about you.”

Saying it feels vaguely like being electrocuted. Dean should know; he’s done it to himself before. If he remembers right, he had just as little hope about his future back then.

Cas chooses that moment to turn to Dean, looking at him with a mix of wonder and fear. Dean doesn’t know whether to be hopeful or terrified. He winds up doing both at once. It’s a nightmare.

“I could go somewhere else,” Cas says, slowly.

“That’s not --”

“I know,” Cas cuts him off. “I could go somewhere else, but I don’t want to. I want to be here. I’m choosing to be here. With Sam,” he hesitates. “and with you.”

Dean swallows hard, clenching his knees with his fingers. “How are you not terrified?” he asks. “How does this not scare the shit out of you?”

“It does,” Cas admits. “But we’ve been through the worst the world has to offer and made it out the other side, haven’t we?”

Dean knows he can’t argue the core truth of that, but his brain doesn’t want to let him believe it. He finds himself saying, “Yeah, I guess, but we. We just. We hurt each other so much in the process. Fuck, Cas, the things I’ve done to you, how can I ever ask, ever hope to be forgiven for that?”

“I’ve hurt you, too,” Cas points out, quiet. “It’s my biggest regret.”

Dean laughs hollowly. “That doesn’t really make it better.”

“I know,” Cas says, sadly. He fiddles with the remote. “I’m sorry, for what it’s worth.”

“Yeah,” Dean says. “Me...me, too. Christ, I’m so fucking sorry.”

They sit without speaking for a few minutes, the documentary playing softly in the background. Cas is finally the one who breaks their silence. “It isn’t too late,” he says, and the hope in his voice is almost harder for Dean to bear than the sadness was. “To make a habit of doing something other than hurting each other.”

Dean wants to believe it. He really does. But he figures, hell, if they’re going to be voicing their fears to one another, he may as well go all-in. “What if,” he chokes out, “what if that’s all we’re capable of?”

Cas tilts his head, looking at Dean levelly. “Do you really think that’s true?”

Dean thinks about it. He actually takes the time, for once, to go back through his life and evaluate. He thinks of Cas pulling him from hell, of standing with him and Sam when they were trying to stop the fucking apocalypse, of helping him with the Mark and everything that followed. He thinks of himself, too, of the way he refused to leave purgatory alone, of driving to Rexford, of coming to help Cas even when he knew it wasn’t an emergency, of “Because it’s Cas” always being enough of a reason. He thinks of saving each other and believing in each other over and over, in spite of everything. Of all the apologies they’ve made and are still making.

Dean says, “I. I guess not. No.” He takes a deep breath. “Do you?”

Cas says, simply, “No.” he takes a breath of his own. “Is that all?”

“No,” Dean says. “That’s...that’s not all. Not even close.” Not that he has a point of comparison, but he knows his issues are much broader and deeper than that. Even if they weren’t, he’s pretty sure they’re a big fucking deal, not something that can be brushed aside with a “that’s all.”

Cas seems to get that. It’ll probably need to be said at some point. Dean will probably have to choke out an explanation, bring the rest of his doubts and fears and hangups to the surface. For now, though, Cas seems to understand it well enough. He says, “I know.”

Dean nods. He only manages a few seconds of a shaky smile before it falters. “God, Cas,” he says, practically whispering. “I’m so fucking scared.”

“Will you be less scared if we do nothing?” Cas says, gently. “If we keep our distance? If we pretend we’re family in the same way you and Sam are family?”

Dean knows from the way his stomach twists, from the way he’s been feeling and acting, that he won’t be. That they won’t be. It won’t be better at all. He shakes his head silently.

“We can do this,” Cas says, voice low, and his unabashed earnestness grabs hold of something in Dean and doesn’t let go. “Together. We can try. If you want.”

“Okay,” Dean finds himself saying. “Yeah, okay. But can we. Can we just. Start simple.”

Cas tilts his head, brow furrowed. “What did you have in mind?”

“Um,” Dean says, shifting from one foot to the other before moving to take a seat next to Cas on the couch. He readjusts slightly, shifting so his leg is pressed against Cas’, and lifts his arm halfway. He pauses with it in midair. “Can I, uh…”

In response, Cas grabs Dean’s arm and pulls it the rest of the way behind his head, dropping it so it rests across his shoulders. Dean tries his best to relax into it as Cas turns back up the volume on the whale documentary.

By the halfway point, Dean’s arm is draped casually rather than held stiffly, and Cas has leaned his head on Dean’s shoulder. That’s how Sam finds them. Dean snaps his head up as Sam enters the room, glaring at him in a way he hopes says I dare you to say something.

His threat turns out to be unnecessary. Sam smiles softly, eyes crinkling around the edges, before taking a seat to finish watching the documentary with them.

When the documentary is done, though, Sam doesn’t stick around. He slaps his hands against his knees before standing and announcing, “Well, think I’m gonna run into town and spend some time at the library.”

“Roger that,” Dean says. He meets Sam’s eyes as he leaves. “Thanks,” he adds, because he really is grateful for what Sam is doing, keeping his distance even though he isn’t obligated to. Giving them time to figure out this...whatever this is between them. He’s grateful to Sam in general, really, even for all the really annoying questioning he subjected Dean to in order to get him here.

Sam nods, smirking, and heads out.

“So,” Dean says, once he’s gone. “Wanna help me make breakfast?”

“Yes, please,” Cas says. He looks at Dean like he’s hung the moon just by inviting Cas to be part of his life in this simple, stupid way.

Still, Dean hopes Cas will say yes to everything he asks from now on. Just thinking it makes him feel better than he has in, well. He can’t even remember how long. It suddenly seems so much easier, this way, not having to pretend this isn’t what he wants.

Dean extricates himself from the couch, offering a hand and pulling Cas up after him when he takes it. Cas follows him to the kitchen, standing at his shoulder as he pulls ingredients from the cabinets. “Mind grabbing the eggs from the fridge?” he asks, as he goes to get the flour.

Cas, as it turns out, is awful at cracking eggs. Dean lets him ruin two of them, bits of shell floating sadly amongst the broken yolks, before he decides to take over.

“Okay, watch this,” Dean says. he cracks four perfect eggs in a row, one-handed, feeling like Alton Brown. He grins at Cas. “Pretty cool, huh?”

“Very impressive,” Cas says, fighting a smile.

Dean kind of wants to lean over and kiss Cas right then, with the pancakes half-made and egg whites still dripping from Cas’ fingers. His heart starts pounding just thinking about it, though, so he doesn’t.

He thinks, Okay, maybe this isn’t easier after all.

HIs heart rate has almost returned to normal by the time they’ve finished cooking.

“It tastes pretty good for a first try,” Dean says, shoving another forkful of pancakes in his mouth.

Cas pauses with a bite halfway to his face, eyebrow raised. “First try?”

Dean grins. “Yeah. You ever had pancakes with chocolate chips?”

“I have not.”

Dean gasps in mock horror, holding one hand over his heart. “In that case, it is my personal responsibility to correct this omission. You up for a trip to the store?”

Cas nods, shoveling the last of his eggs into his mouth before standing with Dean to put their dishes in the sink. They head down the hallway together, but when Dean stops in the war room, Cas keeps walking.

“Hold up,” Dean says. Cas turns, frowning in confusion. “Gotta find the perfect recipe first,” Dean explains.

Cas joins him at the table, where they sit hunched over Dean’s laptop, pressed close together as they look for the perfect chocolate chip pancake recipe. Or, well, Dean looks for the perfect recipe, debating chip-to-batter ratios as Cas nods thoughtfully.

Somehow, it turns into a discussion about what else they could make since they have nowhere to be and, at least for the time being, have the bunker to themselves. They already have lemon bars and carnival cookies on the list when Dean makes an executive decision and adds both banana and zucchini bread.

“A fruit and a vegetable,” Dean says triumphantly. “No way Sam can complain about that. They hardly even count as desserts. We’ll be totally blameless.”

“Totally,” Cas agrees, nodding gravely.

Dean gets to work searching for a good banana bread recipe, clicking through half a dozen pages before Cas catches on. “Are none of these satisfactory?” he asks.

Dean freezes for a moment. “Uh,” he says, eloquently. He tries not to grimace. “It’s not that. It’s just, I’m. I’m looking for one that’s like -- for one that sounds like it’ll taste more like my mom’s.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Dean can see the way Cas is looking at him, this soft, sad smile on his face. Dean wants to kiss Cas then, too, but he doesn’t. He clicks “back” instead, moving on to the next recipe, scanning the ingredients, trying to picture the exact way they’ll come together.

It takes over an hour, but by the end of it, they’ve amassed a dozen different recipes to try. It’s only after they’ve managed to turn them into one comprehensive grocery list that they finally pull on their shoes and head out.

The fact that it’s a weekday afternoon means La Dow’s is mostly empty, so they stroll the aisles at a leisurely pace, grabbing ingredients off the shelves. It’s a good thing there aren’t many people around to witness this excursion, Dean thinks. He’s so keyed up the entire time that no matter how stupid he tells himself he’s for being so excited, to be here, to be doing this mundane shit with Cas, he can’t make himself chill out.

He tries anyway. He tells himself to relax as he stands in the baking aisle, watching Cas squint at all the choices.

“How much difference could there possibly be between the name brand and the store brand sugar?” he asks, looking between the two bags accusingly. “The ingredients on both are literally just ‘sugar.’”

“It’s a marketing thing,” Dean says, casually, like he’s not about to lose his goddamn mind over how endearing Cas’ question is.

Cas glares at the name brand sugar once more before grabbing the store brand bag and placing it in their cart. “I suppose next you’re going to tell me that they have name and store brand zucchini.”

Dean laughs, “Nah.”

It gets him thinking, though. After a moment, he adds, “Actually, they do have name and store brand sprouts.”

Cas huffs an annoyed sigh, casting his eyes to the ceiling in supplication.

Dean wants to kiss him then, too, but like hell is he gonna do it here, in Smith Center at La Dow’s supermarket.

They continue to walk the aisles, Cas watches their cart getting fuller and fuller, considering it carefully. It’s only when they’re waiting in the checkout line though, that Dean figures out what his stares have been all about.

Cas starts loading the items up onto the conveyor belt, setting the eggs down carefully as he asks, “Are you stress baking?”

Dean pauses with his hands halfway to the bananas. “What?”

Cas shrugs. “Sam mentioned that sometimes you cook when you’re stressed. He referred to it as ‘stress baking.’” He says it casually, like this is a normal conversation to have with another human being.

“It’s good stress,” Dean says, before he can stop his mouth from getting ahead of him. When he realizes what he’s says, he looks up at Cas, spluttering, “I mean. No. Yes. Shit.”

It doesn’t seem like Cas is judging him, though. He’s smiling. “In that case,” he says, “I’m glad I can help.”

Mercifully, before Dean has to think of a way to respond, a friendly voice says, “Hi, how are y’all doing today?”

“Wonderful, how are you?” Cas says, way too earnestly, as Dean mutters, emphatically, “Stress baking. Jesus.”

They get their groceries bagged and loaded back into the cart without a hitch, at least, and if the cashier notices the looks Dean and Cas keep casting each other’s way, she doesn’t mention it.

Thirty minutes later, they’re back at the bunker, groceries spread in an impressive array on the kitchen counter, and kick off their baking marathon by making fudge, then moving on to the carnival cookies, followed by the lemon bars. Cas slowly gets better at cracking eggs as the day goes on, looking to Dean for approval every time he manages to leave the yolk intact.

One of Dean’s favorite parts, though, is watching Cas’ face as they cook together. A few hours in, they start working on peanut butter Rice Krispie bars, pressing them into a pan before making the topping. It’s a mixture of chocolate and butterscotch chips, and by the time it’s halfway melted, it smells goddamn divine. Stirring the mixture definitely isn’t a two person job, but Cas hovers over Dean’s shoulder the whole time anyway, watching intently as the chips melt. He’s still looking at Dean’s hands as he pours the topping over the bars and then moves to put the pan in the sink.

Dean thinks he gets the picture.

“You wanna lick this?” he asks, lifting the spatula and holding it out to Cas. “Blow on it first, though,” he says, as Cas takes it. “Y’know, since it was molten chocolate just a few seconds ago.”

Cas looks elated as he tries to shove the whole thing in his mouth at once. Dean tries desperately not to think about what he would taste like, right now, if he kissed him.

They’re still baking when Sam wanders into the kitchen, startling them both. Cas jumps a little, but Dean manages to accidentally dump half a bag of pretzels into the chocolate they’re supposed to be dipping them into one at a time.

“It’s after 10 pm,” Sam says carefully, taking a seat at the table. “Have you been baking since I left? Did you even stop to eat dinner?”

“What?” Dean says, trying to push enough pretzels aside to uncover the chocolate beneath. “No.”

“To which?”

Dean finally takes the time to process what Sam was saying. Which is unfortunate, because upon reflection, they totally have been baking for something like ten hours and they totally did forget to pause to eat dinner. Still, they’ve been taste testing so much that Dean would be surprised if either of them were remotely hungry. All that is beside the point, though. “Wait,” Dean says. “It’s after 10? What the hell kind of library is even open that late?”

There’s a long pause before Sam speaks. “Uh,” he says. “Well, I mean, I did other stuff, too.”

“Okay,” Dean says, eyebrows raised. Sam shifts uncomfortably under his gaze. “Like what?”

“I had a great time at the park,” Sam admits, sounding embarrassed.

Dean considers the way he chose to spend his day and supposes he isn’t in any position to judge. “Oh yeah?” he asks, abandoning the pretzels in favor of joining Sam at the table and gesturing for Cas to follow. “See something you like?”

“Actually, yeah,” Sam says, grinning like a doofus as he pulls his phone from his pocket. “I took a bunch of pictures.” He turns his phone to show Dean and Cas a picture of a beautiful, smiling...golden retriever. In the middle of trying and failing to catch a frisbee.

“That was not what I was expecting,” Dean says, laughing good-naturedly.

“She’s beautiful, Sam,” Cas adds, and Dean laughs harder.

Sam glares at them suspiciously for a moment before deciding they aren’t secretly making fun of him. He smiles, shrugging. “It was a good day.”

“Likewise,” Dean says, standing again and tapping Cas on the shoulder to get him to follow. Together, they manage to finish up the pretzels in time to pull the loaves from the oven.

Dean and Cas work on cleaning up the kitchen as the bread cools on the counter. Sam fiddles on his phone, presumably admiring his canine photo collection. It’s only as they’re finishing up the last of the dishes, after spending nearly eleven hours in the kitchen, that Dean realizes he broke his “Only one dude working in the kitchen at a time” rule.

He can’t find it in him to be particularly heartbroken about that. Especially not when they’re all sitting around the table tasting the fruits of their labor, eating warm bread so good it doesn’t even need butter. Dean puts a ton on his, anyway, just so Sam will roll his eyes and make fun of him. Cas backs him up, slathering his with butter, too, before shoving half a slice in his mouth at once.

Dean has been doing pretty good the past couple hours, he thinks, acclimating to their new status, but in that moment, the urge to grab Cas’ face right then and there becomes more overpowering than ever.

Luckily, they finish sampling various baked goods soon after, and Dean is able to distract himself by packing everything up so it doesn’t go stale overnight.

Sam heads to bed first. Dean and Cas only leave the kitchen when the last container of cookies has been securely sealed.

They head to get ready for bed together, and it’s only because he’s still so fixated on Cas’ every moment that Dean notices the way Cas still flinches when he turns the water on.

“You know,” Dean says, idly, as he squeezes out a blob of toothpaste. “I’ll. Uh. I’ll help you for as long as you need. Or want. or Whatever.”

Cas pauses with his toothbrush halfway to his mouth. “I know. Thank you, Dean.”

“Yeah,” Dean says. “Don’t mention it.” He shoves his toothbrush in his mouth as a clear signal he wants this particular conversation to be over for the time being.

When he’s done brushing his teeth, though, he can’t help himself. “Maybe we can make some new memories in here,” he says. “Better ones, to replace your current associations, you know?” He tries to make it sound like a joke, but it comes out sounding so much like an earnest promise that not even his wink can hide it.

Cas rolls his eyes, but he’s smiling as he spits his toothpaste into the sink.

Hey, Dean thinks, as he tries not to die of embarrassment. It wasn’t a no.

He decides to test his luck a little more as they leave the bathroom, heading down the hall side by side. “You can, um,” Dean starts. He has to clear his throat before he can continue. “You’re welcome to. To stay in my room. With me. If you want. You can even lay under the actual covers this time.”

Dean makes a point of looking at the floor, but he can see, in his peripheral vision, that Cas is considering him carefully.

“I would like that very much,” Cas says, after a beat, following Dean in through his doorway like it’s no big deal.

They both strip to their t-shirts and boxers and climb into bed, Dean reaching over to click out the lamp so the only light is the little bit filtering in through the grate in his door. They lay facing each other for a few minutes, which is fine at first. But then his eyes adjust to the dim light, and he can see Cas lying there with his eyes open, too, just watching him.

“Hey,” Dean says, softly.

He can just make out Cas’ smile in the dark. “Hello, Dean.”

“Do you wanna,” Dean says. “Um.” He realizes that he probably needs to clarify at least a little bit more than that, but the idea of asking if Cas wants to make out feels so juvenile, just doesn’t seem appropriate given the gravity of this situation. Instead, he reaches out and touches his fingertips to the side of Cas’ face, rubbing the pad of his thumb gently across his bottom lip.

He both hears and feels it when Cas says, “Yes, please.”

Dean swallows hard and shifts closer, moving his hand farther up Cas’ face and sliding the other under his head on the other side. Cas moves closer, too, shifting so one of his hands is pressed against Dean’s chest and the other arm is curved around his torso, palm pressed flat between his shoulder blades. Dean leans forward slowly until their foreheads are pressed together, then takes a deep breath and shifts so their lips meet.

Dean kisses Cas closed-mouthed, slow and soft and chaste.

They continue just like that for a bit, Dean soaking up every detail, from the way Cas’ skin and stubble feel under his fingertips to the shape of Cas’ hands on his chest and back to the way he can taste the toothpaste on Cas’ lips even though their mouths are still closed.

When Dean parts his mouth slightly, Cas responds in kind. Dean drags his tongue across the roof of Cas’ mouth experimentally and, he thinks, successfully, based on the pleased little noise Cas makes.

When Dean gently teases at Cas’ lower lip with his teeth, though, Cas lets out a shuddering breath, fingers curling into the fabric of Dean’s shirt.

Dean pulls back only as far as he needs to in order to speak. “You okay?” he asks, though maybe he should be asking himself the same question, the way his heart is hammering.

Cas is silent for a long moment before he speaks. “Tell me I’m not dying,” Cas says, voice shaking.

Dean has to spend a long moment breathing past the lump in his throat and the ache in his chest.

As soon as he’s able, though, he leans forward to kiss Cas’ forehead, stroking his thumbs across Cas’ cheekbones. “You’re not dying,” he whispers, his own voice shaking a little. He shifts again, kissing Cas’ eyelids. “You’re not dying,” he repeats, a little more sure. He kisses the corner of Cas’ mouth. “You’re not dying.”

Dean can feel Cas’ hands trembling slightly where they’re fisted in his shirt. He lets go of Cas’ face to wrap one arm under Cas’ neck and the other around his waist, pulling him close, tangling their legs together beneath the covers. “You’re not dying,” he says, into Cas’ hair, like he really believes it.

“Okay,” Cas says quietly, breathing against Dean’s collarbone.

He holds Cas like that, pressing occasional kisses to the top of his head, until his breathing evens out and he drops off to sleep. He keeps holding onto him even after that, as though he’s made a promise not to let go.

He’s so focused on Cas, in that moment, that for a little while, he forgets to hold on so tightly to his own self loathing. It’s a relief, in its own way, to take care of someone else. To be allowed to do that. It’s a relief to care about Cas enough that, for the time being, he actually believes that Cas cares about him, too. That feeling probably isn’t always going to be easy to capture, but for now, Dean believes Cas actually cares about him as much as he cares about Cas.

That’s the last thing Dean thinks about as he drops off to sleep, too.

He eases into consciousness slowly the next morning, and if that wasn’t a nice enough change, it’s even nicer to find Cas there next to him. They’ve shifted in their sleep, and Cas is on his back, now, Dean’s head pillowed on his shoulder, one arm resting on his chest. He panics for a moment, remembering the bruises, but Cas stirs when he tries to shift away. He must understand what Dean is worried about, even half-conscious, because he reaches up to pin Dean’s arm where it is.

“It’s all right,” he says, voice still rough with sleep. “It doesn’t hurt.”

Dean relaxes at that, easing his head back down onto Cas’ shoulder. They lay like that for a while as they shift to wakefulness.

“Okay,” Dean says, when his neck starts to hurt from being bent at an odd angle. “That was way more than my usual four hours. I need breakfast.”

Cas makes a noise of agreement, so Dean rolls off him and onto his back, reaching out to switch on the lamp. Before he can sit up, though, Cas leans up on an elbow, like he had before.

This time, though, when Cas leans over, Dean meets him halfway and kisses him back, morning breath and all.

“I really am hungry, you know,” Dean says when Cas stops kissing him long enough for him to speak. “For actual food. Not that I’m complaining.”

Cas responds by rolling his eyes and reaching up to place a hand on Dean’s shoulder, pushing him back until he’s lying flat on the bed again. Once he has Dean where he wants him, Cas pushes himself off the bed, moving to straddle Dean, hands buried in his hair. He kisses him into the mattress, firmly, enthusiastically, and Dean figures, Eh, no rush. After all, it’s not like he needs to cook. There are enough baked goods sitting around that he probably won’t need to cook for a whole week, actually.

He definitely isn’t going to complain when it becomes clear Cas is intent on learning every possible way to kiss him. Cas explores Dean’s mouth with his tongue, pulling back every now and then to gently drag his teeth along Dean’s jaw, mouth at his neck, place tender kisses to his cheeks and ears and brow.

It’s only when Cas pulls away, gently running his fingers through Dean’s hair as he looks down at him levelly and says “I’m not going anywhere,” that Dean realizes he’s been gripping Cas’ hips so hard his hands are shaking.

“Shit. Sorry,” Dean says, shame flooding through him. He lets go of Cas immediately, turning his face away.

Cas isn’t having any of Dean’s guilt, though. He continues kissing the corner of Dean’s mouth, punctuating each one with reassurances. “It’s okay,” he says. “You didn’t hurt me. I’m here. I’m not going anywhere.”

Cas keeps murmuring to Dean, breathing hard, chest heaving. It’s only when Dean finally turns his face back towards Cas that he slows his ministrations, kissing Dean so softly on the mouth that he’s pretty sure the raw tenderness of it is going to kill him. It wouldn’t be a bad way to go, he supposes. It’d certainly be better than all the times before.

When Dean’s breathing finally evens out, Cas pulls back to search his face. “Are you okay?”

Dean’s still fucking terrified, but he’s also pretty damn elated. His smile feels genuine as he says, “Yeah, Cas. I’m fine,” he swallows. “I’m more than fine. I’m fucking great.”

The smile Cas gives him then is unlike any Dean has ever seen on Cas before, so wide and bright that his gums are showing.

Dean has made a lot of goddamn stupid decisions in his life, ones that have undoubtedly made his life even harder and sadder and more awful than it was already going to be on its own. He’ll probably even make more of those decisions in the future.

When he reaches up and pulls Cas back down on top of him, though, it feels like the best decision Dean has made in a long, long time.