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The wilderness.

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There was no safety in the house of Saul, so David took his leave of Jonathan and went out from the city, to the fields. Castiel wasn’t there, so Castiel can’t remember it. But Anael was there, with some others, watching. She described it to him later, when they were alone. They were frequently alone together, then. She told him about the arrows in the ground. About the tears, about faces pressed against each others’ shoulders. How Jonathan stood and kept David in his eyes until he was a blur on the horizon. “I don’t understand them,” she’d said, softly, secretly, knowing Castiel would not tell. “Their hearts must be so heavy in their chests. Can you imagine?” She’d turned her face upwards, towards home. “Like a drum thudding on. Like hoofbeats. How can they stand it, the sound of their own hearts beating?”

Now he lies in the dark on a motel bed and holds his breath until his blood pounds in his ears. He inhales at last in a gulp and his head spins and his heart races. He feels the sensation in his chest, the heavy thump of his heart. It’s like hands hitting against a wall, flat palms battering the inside of his flesh. Like a bouncing ball or the echo of a voice against concrete; like the frantic fluttering of wings.

 

 

Dean gave Castiel five hundred dollars in cash and one of his own stolen credit cards. A cell phone with ten numbers listed in it, all Dean’s and Sam’s and one for Garth. A map with a highlighted route. A small duffel with clothes in it, Dean’s clothes, a pair of jeans and two t-shirts and rolled-up socks and underwear that was freshly washed. Three bottles of water, granola bars, a bag of potato chips. Dean drove him to the bus station and paid for the ticket himself and then sat there on the plastic benches with Castiel, talking about unimportant things: what has the most calories of all the food in the vending machines, the last time Dean rode a bus, good diners in South Dakota, and television plots that this moment reminded him of. Castiel has never seen any of the things that Dean describes. He finds himself not paying attention. When the bus pulls up, Dean stands and hands Castiel his bag and then hangs back, arms dangling at his side, with an expression Castiel can’t read.

“You’re gonna,” Dean says, and then stops. It began like a statement, and now it ends like this: “Be fine?” he asks. He squares his shoulders. “You’re gonna be fine,” he says. “Garth knows you’re coming. Give him a call when you get in and he’ll get you set up. You need anything, he’ll get it for you. Anything he can’t get,” Dean says, and looks at his own boots. “Well, you call me.”

“Dean,” says Castiel. Dean looks up. His face is pulled tight, but the muscles in his cheeks are twitching. Castiel offers him one hand to shake. Dean shakes it. He looks surprised. “Goodbye,” he says.

“No,” says Dean. It comes out of him quickly, like a laugh. It’s not a laugh. “No,” Dean says, “no, man, it’s not- you don’t say goodbye,” he tells Castiel. “You say, see you later.”

“See you later,” Castiel says. He hefts the bag over his shoulder and goes up the steps of the bus, finds a seat towards the back, on the opposite side from where he knows Dean is standing. He doesn’t want to look at Dean as the bus pulls away. But when he leans his head against the window and looks out across the parking lot, he can see Dean walking to the car. It’s in the shadow of the bus station wall. He sees Dean get his keys out, like he’s going to drive away. And then he sees Dean put his hands on the hood and lean down, to rest his forehead against the door. Castiel closes his eyes. The bus pulls out of the lot and down the road and he’s asleep before they hit Nebraska. Eventually, the bus stops in Sioux City; Castiel is supposed to wait forty-five minutes and then change to another bus, one that will take him towards Garth. Instead he calls Garth from outside the station.

“Hey-o,” Garth says. “You get in early?”

“No,” says Castiel. “Actually, I’ve decided to stay. Dean and I discussed it last night. So I’m sorry if you went to any trouble.”

“Weren’t nothing,” Garth says over the phone, sounding delighted. “Glad to hear you guys worked it out.” Castiel thanks him. “You give those two idjits a big hug for me,” Garth says. Castiel says that he will.

He shoulders his bag and walks away from the bus station, towards the center of town. He finds a convenience store and goes inside. Castiel spends his first seventy-five dollars on a new disposable cell phone and minutes. The clerk cuts it out of the package for him and helps him activate it. Castiel reads the manual in the park, outside, and programs all the numbers Dean gave him into the menu. And then he breaks open Dean’s cell phone and destroys it, cracks the chips inside and scatters the wires and the battery into the trash can. He keeps the charger, just in case. He does not want the phone itself but he is too selfish to go without those numbers: he is not ready to go that far. He does not want to be entirely disconnected with no way to return, no string to grab onto if things become desperate. He has eaten out of cans and shivered, bleeding, in the rain: he’d prefer not to do that again, even if it means calling them. He doesn’t want to need them, even if later, he might.

But for the moment, he also doesn’t want to be found.

 

 

Castiel exchanges his bus ticket to South Dakota for a new ticket to Des Moines. It costs him something called a service fee. He rides to Des Moines and then catches a bus towards Cedar Falls. He stops there for the night and finds the cheapest motel room he can. Another forty-five dollars. He takes a shower and goes out into the town, walking the old-fashioned main street until it turns into empty lots and gas stations. He turns back and goes into the diner, spends seven seventy-five on a hamburger and French fries and a black coffee. He enjoys the food and he tells that honestly to the woman behind the counter. She smiles at him and refills his cup. That night he sleeps fitfully and winds the covers around himself, but it’s orders of magnitude better than sleeping in the bus seats.

In the morning he goes back to the diner and has breakfast, eggs and pancakes and more coffee. The woman behind the counter- the owner, he has learned- even gives him a glass of fresh orange juice for free, which is so good that he takes fifteen minutes to drink it. When he is leaving, he sees a small sign in the window: help wanted. Help, he thinks. It is the kind of thing he used to provide. He goes back through the door.

“What kind of experience have you got?” the woman- Marilyn- asks, while she looks him up and down. They are in the back room, which she’d said was her office, but now Castiel thinks that must have been a joke. Because they are standing in a pantry, between shelves loaded with ketchup bottles and milk crates filled with onions.

“None,” says Castiel. “No experience at all.” She looks a little disappointed, so Castiel thinks quickly. He remembers April- the thing that pretended to be April- and the voice of concern as she said, bad investment advice? So that is what comes out of his mouth. “I received bad investment advice,” he says, looking at the floor. That was a lie, but what follows it feels true. “I have nothing,” he says, meeting her eyes. “I’m starting over.” Her eyes soften. She nods at him, slowly.

“Alright,” she says. “Alright, we’ll give it a shot. I can’t promise you anything,” she says. “But work hard, and we’ll see.”

Marilyn gives him an apron to wear, and teaches him how to work the register. He tries not to feel a small swell of pride- pride, the greatest sin, always his fatal flaw- when she claps him on the back and tells him he’s a quick study.

 

 

He works at the diner for five weeks, taking orders and relaying them to the kitchen and refilling coffees and ringing people up when they are ready to leave. He has a good memory and he doesn’t drop plates. Marilyn pays him in cash. And he is also tipped in cash, crumpled dollar bills and the occasional five. He hoards it, except to pay his rent at the motel. He quickly discovers that he is spending almost as much to stay there, as he is making every day at work. It doesn’t seem fair. He doesn’t know how humans manage it. At least he is eating for free at the diner now: Marilyn feeds him a big breakfast when he comes in, and always shoves a paper bag of food into his hands at the end of the day. “It’d just go to waste,” she says, shrugging. She calls him Charles, because that is the name he gave for his paperwork. He left many of the boxes empty- past employment, education- but marked down his address at the motel and gave himself a last name. Levi, like the label on the back of his jeans.

But he is heading back from work one night, with a paper bag of turkey sandwiches, when he sees a man coming out of the drugstore. A man walking stiff-backed and awkward, determined in his movements, like the body is borrowed. He is scanning the street with a narrowed, angry gaze. Castiel feels an unwanted spike of fear- something else he can’t control- and he ducks into an alleyway, hides behind a dumpster. His heart races and he tries to calm down. He might not have been seen. He is not defenseless. The angel blade is in his coat sleeve. Castiel sits there, legs crouched and tingling numbly, for what feels like an hour. Nobody comes into the alley. Nobody finds him. Finally he gets up and his legs shudder and wobble. He walks to the motel as quickly as he can without looking especially suspicious. He locks the door and draws his blade and sits on the bed, waiting. He looks at the bag of sandwiches, but he’s too nervous to eat. He doesn’t remember falling asleep but he does, collapsed sideways on the bed, blade still in his hands and his shoes still on. He wakes up in the middle of the night, disoriented and hungrier than he’s been in weeks. He thinks about going back to sleep, going to work. He wants to. He wants to go into work and put his apron on and smell the bacon and eggs frying on the griddle. He wants to talk to Marilyn about her sister’s kids, about nothing. He wants to stay here and take a long shower at night and sleep in this unimpressive but clean bed. He wants to stay, but he can’t.

He leaves a note under the locked door of the diner, just after three in the morning. It says: I’m sorry. I have to go. Thank you for your kindness. It occurs to him- as he is getting on the bus that will take him out of town- that he could have left a note for Dean, if he’d wanted to. It would have said something very different.

 

 

The bus takes him into Minnesota. He gets a motel outside of Mankato- only thirty-five dollars, this time- and walks the town, looking into shop windows and visiting the public library. He finds a sign in the window of a clothing store looking for a sales representative. They look at him and say that the position has been filled. Castiel goes outside and thinks about it, about his faded hoodie and ill-fitting jeans. He understands.

There is a handwritten sign in the window of a hardware store, asking for a cashier. Castiel goes inside and asks about it. He has experience working a register. The woman working the front looks him up and down, much like Marilyn did, so he tells the same story: bad investment advice. Having nothing. Starting again. It is starting to feel less and less like an invention, and more like a thing that really happened to him. Her eyes are more skeptical than Marilyn’s were. Castiel offers to demonstrate his ability to operate the register. She lets him, but not before calling up another person- a man- from the back room. They stand together and watch him run through several operations, cashing out, giving a refund, taking a coupon.

“Okay, okay,” she says, finally. “We got it.” Castiel steps out from the counter and she looks at the other man, who shrugs and goes back down the aisle towards the stock room. “When can you start?” she asks him.

“Right now,” Castiel says.

“Uh-huh,” she says, eyes narrowing on his worn-out jacket and unbrushed hair. He hasn’t had time to take a shower yet, and that was a mistake. He should have made himself more presentable for this. “How about tomorrow?” she says. That surprises him; he smiles, involuntarily, and she smiles too, a little less enthusiastically. “And do you have any, uh, other clothes?”

“Not really,” he says. She stares at him. “But I will acquire some.”

"Okay,” she says. “Do that.”

He walks three miles to the Wal-Mart in the shopping center outside of town. He picks out two new pairs of pants, presentable slacks that are not fancy, and three button-down shirts, all on clearance. He also puts a family-sized package of granola bars and two bags of dried fruit into his cart. He walks a slow circle around the store, thinking, and then finds himself a real coat, something sturdy and plain, with pockets. He finds a pair of boots that are more comfortable than the ones he’s been wearing. And he buys himself a full-sized bottle of shampoo and a few bars of soap. All together, it comes to one hundred and forty-three dollars. This time, he pays with the stolen credit card from Dean. He knows that they might track it, might find him with it. But on the other hand, they might not. They might not be looking for him. They might not be looking at all. He lugs everything back to the motel and hangs the clothes up in the little closet. He eats down the street at a Wendy’s. He takes a long shower before bed.

He thinks he will dream about Dean, but he doesn’t. He dreams of Anael, of missing the sound of her true voice, which his brain can no longer summon up. He remembers that she was there one minute and gone the next, torn from his consciousness, torn from heaven. He wasn’t there when she fell. He didn’t see. So he remembers only her absence: Anael in negative, an empty mold that cracked in casting. He remembers the silence left behind. The gap she made in the world. But she wasn’t gone, not really. She was inhabiting a new space, becoming a new person, bearing a new name. She was simply somewhere else.

In the morning he presents himself, clean and dressed in his new clothes, and the store owner appraises him with one raised eyebrow. “Wow,” she says. “You do clean up.” She extends a hand and Castiel shakes it. “Nora,” she says.

“Charles,” he says.

“Well, that’s a little too perfect,” she laughs, but he doesn’t understand why. He tells her so. “Really?” she asks. “You never heard of The Thin Man?” He recognizes from her tone that this must be a piece of human media, a book or a film- not an exceptionally slender person- but he doesn’t know what it is. “Okay,” says Nora. “That’s your homework, then, Charles.”

He says he’ll look it up at the library.

 

 

He looks up many things at the library: he starts with home improvement books and guides to tools and techniques, so that he will be more useful to his new employer. When he goes into the store in the mornings- early- he reads the backs of every product label, one aisle at a time, so he will knows where things are and what they are used for. Some things are familiar: he’s observed the use of power tools and gardening equipment before, and there is nothing new that any book can tell him about knives or saws. He reads the information on the backs of the solvents and paints carefully, though. Nora catches him at it, though she doesn’t say anything.

The store is a pleasant place: it is well-organized and Castiel enjoys the way that things sit in rows on their shelves, side-by-side, in orderly groupings by type and size. When there are no customers he stocks shelves and straightens displays. It’s mindless work but oddly pleasurable: it’s as if his hands need the movement, while his brain needs the space to fly away, to disassociate from the rote mechanical gestures, to contemplate other things. He understands now, why humans busy themselves with mundane tasks. He has so much more room inside himself that he thought he would, and also so much less: his brain finds a thing and fixates on it, spirals around it endlessly, until he is afraid he is going mad. A song lyric, a word in someone’s voice, a problem he’s not yet solved. And then he loses that thread and his brain picks up another. It’s been like this since the woods, since the spell. He thinks this might actually be normal.

Nora is kind to him, if not effusively so. After the first two weeks she seems to relax: he hasn’t stolen anything from the registers or the stock room, he doesn’t arrive late or intoxicated. His clothes remain clean. He washes them in the bathtub at first, and in the coin-operated machines at the motel. He likes the way they smell and feel when they come out of the dryer, hot and soft. He shrinks one of his shirts by accident and learns to adjust the temperature. He doesn’t have to walk all the way to Wal-Mart to replace it this time: Nora offers him a ride as she is locking up the store one Friday night. They drive in her pickup to the shopping center, talking about a customer who didn’t understand the difference between a washer and a nut. The radio is set to a country station, soft and quiet, playing a song Castiel doesn’t know. There are plenty of those. Nora pulls up to the front of the store and stops the car.

"You want me to wait for you?" she asks. Castiel shakes his head.

"Thank you," he says. "I need the walk." She waves at him and says she’ll see him on Monday. Inside the store he picks out two new shirts and a jumbo box of instant oatmeal packets. He looks at the holiday displays with some confusion; it’s only November, and Christmas is weeks away. But a huge section of the store is covered in artificial trees and pine-scented wreaths, tinsel and stuffed snowmen, glossy, golden ornaments, plastic reindeer that sing insipid jingles about Santa Claus and the judgments he supposedly passes on the behavior of children. Castiel wanders the aisles, for once not thinking about anything, letting his eyes unfocus as he stares up at twinkling lights and shiny ribbons. He finds himself in front of a plastic nativity scene, where a doll-faced Virgin kneels, frozen, over a tiny plastic infant in a manger. And suddenly, even with the heat of the store’s vents blowing down on him and the weight of his jacket on his back, he is cold. Ice-cold and trembling. He cannot remember what it was like. He cannot remember the ache of joy and fulfillment he once felt, hearing other voices. He remembers that once they rejoiced- that they all rejoiced, and sang in one unearthly wave that shook the skies and thundered the rocks from their beds in the mountains. But he does not remember what it was like to be part of the Host. To be touched at every point by the presence of others. Not anymore. He is only one small man alone in the aisle, trapped in his own thoughts, holding a jar of roasted peanuts. He goes numbly through the rest of his shopping- thicker socks, a hat, cans of soup, then a can opener- to the checkout lanes, where he stands dumbfounded for thirty seconds at the question cash or credit. He hands over Dean’s stolen card again.

The walk back to the motel is in the dark, while headlights flash by in dizzying streaks. Castiel can see his breath in the air like white clouds rising, as he huffs each one out.

 

 

"What are you doing for the holidays?" Nora asks him, sometime in the middle of December. She is under the impression that Castiel is religious, maybe Catholic, an impression which he has probably caused but which he has not bothered to correct. He doesn’t know what he would say. So he has said nothing. Instead of that they have been talking about food again, a subject Castiel never really tires of. Nora has baked cookies for something at her son’s school, and brought a small tin into work for the staff. They are sitting behind the front register, eating the last peanut butter ones. Castiel and Nora have both agreed that they prefer peanut butter cookies to plain sugar, because they feel heartier. Castiel is very conscious, now, of what foods satiate hunger and what merely satiate his palate. He tries to make good choices.

"Nothing," he answers, honestly. He looks at her, struck with a sudden thought. "Is the store going to be closed?" He does not want the store to be closed. He doesn’t make tips here, and the motel is still thirty-five dollars a night.

"We’ll be closed on Wednesday for Christmas," she says. "No point, nobody’ll come in. And I might take Thursday and Friday, too, because Jake’s off from school that whole week. Why, you want the hours?"

"Yes," he says. "I’ll work Thursday and Friday, if you’d like."

"Okay," she says. She crosses her arms. "You’re really not doing anything?" she asks. Her voice is quiet now, like she doesn’t want Dave to hear her from one aisle over. He appreciates her tact. He is aware of the stigma of being friendless, solitary, untethered, around human holidays: he has been watching the specials on television which articulate that point endlessly. They are basically unbearable. "No family stuff?"

He thinks about saying, I have no family, but he doesn’t. He would feel a kind of cruel satisfaction in saying it, but it would be a lie. It’s not true. He has family: two families. But he is not wanted by either of them in a way that would make his life easier, or better.

"No family stuff," he repeats. "Right now I’m on my own."

"Oh," she says. And then, like she is making a decision even as the words leave her mouth: "You want to have dinner with me and Jake?"

"Yes," he says. He thinks he does.

So on Wednesday evening two weeks later he finds himself standing on Nora’s porch, in a quiet neighborhood only half a mile from the hardware store. Under his coat and scarf he is wearing his best shirt and carrying a box of gingerbread cookies that he bought at Wal-Mart. They are the densest, most nutritious cookies he could find. Jake- eight years old, gangly, perpetually in an Iron Man sweatshirt- answers the door and stares at him with the same skeptical expression Nora often wears.

"Mom!" he hollers. Nora comes to the door, wiping her hands on a kitchen towel.

"Come in, Charles," she says. She smiles and gives her son a gentle shove towards the kitchen. "Go get our guests some cider." Jake nods and goes, obediently, and Nora takes Castiel’s coat. In the living room, there are people sitting on the sofa, one of whom he recognizes: Nora’s brother, Steven. Castiel assumes the woman sitting beside him, one hand on his knee, is Steven’s wife. There’s another woman that Castiel has seen in the store and talked to once or twice: one of Nora’s friends. She gets up first and offers Castiel her hand to shake. If she is concerned about Nora inviting her semi-vagrant employee to her house for the holidays, she doesn’t let it show.

"Sue," she says. She gestures towards the sofa. "You’ve met Steven, I think. And this is Lina." He says that he’s pleased to see all of them, because it’s true. Jake comes in right then with a tray of mugs, all steaming. "Ooh, cider!" Castiel sips from his mug while everyone talks. Eventually, Nora comes in and herds them into the dining room, where they crowd around a table that’s not quite big enough for all of them, or for the abundant spread of food.

"Squeeze!" Nora hollers at her family, and they chuckle and slide their chairs closer. Steven bumps Castiel by accident on one side, and Sue runs into his elbow on the other. "No roughhousing," she says, pointing a gravy spoon at them, and Castiel feels himself laughing. It bubbles up so loudly at first that he can’t keep it down for a second. Nora smiles at him strangely, slowly, like she’s seeing him for the first time. Castiel thinks his face might be going red. "Alright," she says, "settle down. Jake, say grace for us." Everyone bows their heads except Castiel. He looks around the table for a moment, and then leans his head down, until he is staring at the napkin laid across his lap.

"Dear God," Jake says, "thanks for turkey-"

Jake.”

"And for gravy," Jake adds, and Castiel can hear the grin in his voice. Then there’s a pause. "And for my mom," Jake says. "And for snow days. And for each other. Thanks for letting us all be together." Castiel twists the napkin in his hands. For a second he can’t see it; it’s as if something is blurring his eyes. His face feels hot. "I hope that everyone else is as happy as us."

"Amen," says Nora, glowing.

Amen, thinks Castiel.

 

 

In January, Nora helps him get an apartment. A friend of hers owns a house on Rigby Street, a rambling old Victorian home that was divided into apartments when its owners fell on hard times, sixty or seventy years ago. There is an upstairs apartment, what Nora calls a studio, one large-ish room with its own attached bathroom and a kitchenette, and Nora’s friend Devon will let Castiel have it without a security deposit up front, and apparently without asking an overabundance of questions. The rent is three hundred and seventy-five dollars a month, but it includes electricity and gas heat. It’s considerably cheaper and more pleasant than the motel. It is clean and bright, with a big double window that faces the street. There’s also a window in the back, that leads to a fire escape. Castiel thinks it is probably a good idea for him to live in a place with two exits. He fills out his paperwork with lies- increasingly fewer lies, because he has gainful employment and a reference to list- and thanks Devon when she hands him his key.

"When do you want to move in?" she asks. Castiel blinks and looks around at the bare apartment, the empty walls and broad wooden floors.

"I thought I just did," he says. Devon stares at him in confusion but Nora laughs, because she’s used to him by now. Later Nora drives him to the Goodwill, to buy a set of dishes: two cups and two plates, two bowls, a handful of forks, knives and spoons. Everything has a match, a duplicate. Castiel wonders why he is bothering to buy two of anything when there is only one of him, but Nora insists.

"What if you have company?" she asks, and he silently puts a second mug into the basket. He also buys a faded comforter there, with cartoon animals printed onto it. There is a laundry machine that takes quarters in the basement of the building where he is renting, so he will be able to wash it in hot water and dry it until it’s warm and fluffy. He’s looking forward to it. Nora takes him to the Wal-Mart and he buys things like a dish rack and a broom, a trash can, a bag of sponges, the cheapest pillow they sell. He doesn’t have a bed yet, so Nora is loaning him an air mattress. When he gets back to his apartment he puts the comforter in the wash and unpacks his bags; puts the dish rack and soap and sponges out on the counter of the kitchenette, then washes his plates and cutlery and puts them into cupboards and the rickety drawer next to the sink. He inflates the air mattress and sets his pillow on top of it. He pulls his clothes out of the duffel and hangs them on a row of hooks by the door. It only takes him about a half an hour, and then he is standing alone in his apartment, his own room, with a collection of things that he owns. Possessions. He has never had so many things, things to use and look after, things to clean and put away in their places. His chest feels a little tight. He doesn’t know if the feeling he’s having is happiness, or something else. It’s not clear. He takes a shower and the pressure is not especially good, but it doesn’t matter. It’s warm and he stands under the spray a long time. Human skin, he knows, constantly renews itself, shedding the dead cells of the epidermis. He wonders how long it will take until he is an entirely new person, until every cell on his surface is a new one. He looks at his hands under the water. It might take less than a month. They will be different hands, a different face, a different body. He will not be the same person that lay on his back in the woods, staring at a sky of falling stars. He will not even be the same person that slept in a doorway or on a bus- the person whose bare skin touched bare skin. He will not have the same foolish, roaming hands that believed they were sharing an intimacy. They will be new. Hands that have never touched an angel blade, or the curve of a face. Hands that have never hit anyone.

It’s a stupid idea and he knows it, knows how human it is to hope for those things: for salvation through transformation, for rebirth. But everything he was, he is, except for that one unrecoverable thing. They are the same hands and the same face, they will never be different, he will never be different, no matter where he goes and what he buys and how many books he reads from the library, how many things he takes into himself. Nothing can change the substance of him. It’s both horrifying and comforting. He will always be the same creature that played God and killed his own family. He will always be wrong, and he will always love Dean Winchester, and he will never be welcomed home again, not in any way that he’d hoped. But at least he will never have to hope again. He can rebuild himself, one layer of skin at a time, around that empty well.

Castiel cries in the shower. He thinks that is human, too.

 

 

On March eleventh Castiel is ringing up a customer’s purchase- two pairs of gardening shears, two pairs of gloves, two kneeling cushions, everything a match- and thinking about the roast beef sandwich he is going to eat for lunch when the bell on the door jingles. Castiel ignores it; it’s been a busy morning, and he’s got lots of stocking to do. Castiel thanks his customer and the man walks away and then past him, he sees Dean standing in the front of the aisle staring at him, eyes wide and stunned, face slack, mouth opening and shutting of its own volition. Castiel freezes.

"Cas," Dean says, barely audible. And then: "Cas!” Dean comes forward to the counter and Castiel backs reflexively into the wall behind him, feels his head thump against it. His hands ball into fists. “Cas, man,” Dean says. He’s leaning across the counter but his hands are flat, awkward on top of it, like he doesn’t know what to do with them. There are huge circles under his eyes. He looks unshaven. “Can’t believe you’re here, I thought- you don’t know, I checked everywhere-“

"Charles," says Nora, from the power tools section. They both turn to look at her. She’s holding a hammer and a price tag sticker gun, and looking at Castiel, who is still pressed bodily into the wall, away from Dean. Her voice is cautious, and so’s her posture. Castiel remembers suddenly that Nora has an unpleasant ex-husband somewhere, that she thinks and hopes is dead. He knows that she is not holding that hammer accidentally. "Everything okay?"

"Charles?" Dean repeats. His face screws up with distaste. Castiel feels a hot flare of anger, and lifts himself away from the wall.

"I’m fine," he tells Nora. "I’ll handle this." She nods at him, and pretends to go back to what she was doing. Castiel turns to Dean. "What are you doing here?" he demands.

"I’m-" Dean says, and his mouth flaps open and closed again. "I’m here to take you home," he says, quietly, embarrassed, like he did not expect Castiel to make him say this out loud. Castiel stares at him. And then looks down at the register, the solid machine with its numbers and buttons arranged in rows, a small orderly universe that Castiel does not want to break into pieces. He slows his breathing and feels his heart thud heavily in his chest. Then less heavily. Steadily.

"I’m working," Castiel says. "I’m done at six."

Cas,” Dean blurts.

"You can wait and talk to me at six," Castiel says, "or you can go." Dean looks slapped.

"I’ll- I’ll be here," he says. "I’ll pick you up." Dean turns a circle around the store, gaping at the aisles of screws and nails, the rack of leaf rakes, like he is seeing everything for the first time, like he has no idea where he just was standing. He looks at Castiel, lost. "I don’t-" he says, and Castiel turns away from him, to arrange the counter displays. He works in silence and feels Dean’s eyes on his back. "See you," Dean says. Castiel says nothing. And then the bell jingles again and Dean is gone. Castiel looks up then, to the place that he just left. Nora comes up to the counter.

"Trouble?" she asks. She looks grim. "Say the word and I’ll call Rogie." She means the sheriff, Roger, a gruff but pretty peaceful man that Dean Winchester could probably break into his component parts without much effort. Castiel does not say this.

"It’s fine."

"Ex?" Nora asks, lowering her voice. Her eyes are sympathetic.

"No," says Castiel. And then: "Not exactly."

"Uh-huh," Nora says. "You let me know if you want me to wait around after six."

"I will be alright," he says, and puts his hand over hers. Nora sighs. "He’s not a bad person," he says. It doesn’t hurt to say that, it’s what he believes. Whatever he is feeling, he will not defame Dean’s basic character. "He’s not here to harm me. It’s just," Castiel tries to find an explanation that makes a drop of sense. "It’s been a while," he says. "It was a surprise."

"Okay," says Nora.

At fifteen minutes past six, Castiel finally goes out of the back door and Nora follows him. She locks it behind them and waves to him, and heads for the parking lot in the back. Castiel walks to the front of the store. The Impala is there, parked on the curb, and Dean is leaning against the door, tapping his foot, hands jammed in his pocket like he’s cold. Like he’s been standing there a long time. Castiel lets himself stand for a second and watch Dean, while Dean stares at the front door expectantly, not seeing him. He looks the same, except a little more tired, a little more careworn. Castiel wonders if Dean knows that he is wearing the same jacket and jeans he had on when he took Castiel to the bus station, if he did it on purpose. Or if it was unconscious. Just coincidence. He stands there wondering a second too long and Dean sees him. Dean’s face lights up.

"Hey," Dean says, and comes towards him. This time, Castiel does not flinch back. He lets Dean come forward and envelop him in a hug, in the warm sturdy press of Dean’s arms. Dean wraps his arms around Castiel’s neck and huffs a laugh into his shoulder. "Cas, man, it’s so good to see you,” he says, muffled in Castiel’s coat. Dean squeezes tighter and the hug goes on for a few more seconds. Castiel stands still and lets himself be held. His hands twitch at his sides. Finally Dean lets go and then puts his hands on Castiel’s shoulders, holds him at arm’s length. “You look good,” he says, and his cheeks color. “You look healthy,” he corrects. “You been in town a while?”

"Since November."

"Jesus," Dean says. "You’ve- you’ve been here, the whole time? In one place?” He looks confused. “I thought you were on the run. You called Garth and told him that bullshit story, you changed your bus ticket- I thought you were moving around, trying to stay off the radar.” Dean’s face is crumpling a little, with anger or something else, but Castiel doesn’t know why. “You were just- you were right here?”

"I don’t know what you want me to say," Castiel tells him. "You wanted me to leave, so I left."

"I didn’t want that,” Dean says. “I wanted you there. But the angels-“

Castiel makes a noise of disgust and turns from him, walks away down the street. His face feels hot and his hands are balled up in his coat pockets. Dean jogs after him and grabs his arm, tries to stop him or spin him around, but Castiel shakes him off and stalks forward. Dean tries again and this time Castiel grabs him by the front of his jacket, hauls him into the alleyway between the dry cleaner’s and the old diner with a to-let sign in its window. He shoves Dean against the wall, and it’s so familiar, down to the fact that Dean goes limp and unresisting almost immediately. Except for the hand wrapped around Castiel’s wrist. “Cas,” Dean says. He’s feeling it too, then: the déjà vu.

"Why did you come here?" Castiel says, and shakes him. "What do you want from me?"

"Nothing," Dean says. He looks afraid. Castiel can’t understand it, what this is, what’s happening. "I-"

What do you want?” Castiel hisses.

"I just want you," says Dean.

Castiel lets him go.

 

 

Dean drives him to the house on Rigby Street and tells him, slowly, and with an expression of deep shame, about Sam and the thing that inhabited Sam over the winter.

"It wasn’t Ezekiel," he says, finally, when they’ve parked in front of Castiel’s apartment. "It was Bezaliel."

"One of the fallen," Castiel says. "Yes, I would have known the difference. Ezekiel was a friend. Eventually, he would have slipped, and his plans would have been waylaid."

"Oh, his plans got waylaid," Dean says, angrily. "I waylaid them myself. With a great big fuckin’ knife."

"And Sam?"

"He’s good," Dean says. He smiles. "He’s better than good, he’s healed up, he’s finally, you know. Himself. He didn’t talk to me for like two months," Dean adds, looking out the window. "Wasn’t sure he ever would again." Dean sighs and scrubs his face with one hand. "But he’s back now, gung-ho about the angel stuff, getting hunters together. We’ve got some angels that are working with us, trying to help organize. It’s a mess but it’s getting better." He looks across the seat at Castiel, at Castiel’s hands in his lap, back up at his face. "Come back," he says. "Come back with me."

"To help you fight?" Castiel asks.

"No," says Dean. "Come back because you want to."

"But I don’t," Castiel says. "I don’t want to."

He gets out of the car quickly and goes up the front steps. He unlocks the front door and closes it behind him and climbs the stairs, unlocks his own little door, locks it again, too. The apartment is dark except for the numbers on his microwave, the one he bought at Goodwill for eleven dollars, with the broken handle. Castiel stands in the dark and breathes heavily in huge gasps, like he’s been running. His head aches and his eyes are burning. He doesn’t know if he’s just told a terrible lie or an even more terrible truth.

After a minute he goes to the front window and looks down at the street; he didn’t hear the sound of an engine but he didn’t really hear anything in the last few minutes. So he is surprised to see that the car is still there, parked in front of the yard. He can see Dean in the driver’s seat, with his face pressed against the steering wheel. Castiel stares down at him and as he watches, Dean hammers the dashboard with a closed fist until his shoulders start to shake. He shakes for a minute or so and then he just sags there against the wheel, his whole body slumping forward. Castiel backs away from the window and stares at nothing for a long time, alone in the dark.

Finally he peels off his clothes and curls naked under his comforter on the air mattress. He’s never bothered getting a real bed. He wonders why that is, and thinks he might know the answer, finally. Because he did not really expect to stay here. Because no matter how many dishes he bought and bars of soap he used up, he did not really believe that he was making a home. He did not allow himself to know that, before, at least not consciously, when he was steadfastly not thinking about Dean and Sam, about his brothers and sisters, about the world that was probably falling apart all around him. Like a child, he has been living with his hands over his eyes, pretending none of this was real. But now Dean has come and Dean will go again, and this will be the last time. He will have to be this fake human he has invented, now, for good. He will not be Castiel anymore. He will not even be Cas.

In his dreams that night he feels Dean’s hands on his face, Dean calling his name: they were the first things he knew when he died as a human and woke up again. They are the marker where his second- third, fourth- life begins. But in his dreams when Dean touches him, Castiel floats away, into the sky like a kite, dangling a single thread.

And then it snaps.

 

 

In the morning Castiel takes a shower and eats a bowl of oatmeal and gets dressed; he goes downstairs and inhales the cold morning air and then sees the Impala, still parked in the same spot in front of the house. He goes over to the driver’s side window and leans down to look in. The windows are slightly fogged but he can see Dean slumped over in the backseat, with a ratty-looking sleeping bag pulled over his legs. Castiel stands up again and stares at the clouded window. And then opens the door and shoves Dean’s legs aside to curl under the sleeping bag with him. Dean wakes up with a snort and is holding a knife in about two seconds, but he drops it when he sees who it is. They stare at each other across the backseat. Dean’s legs are warm against Castiel’s knees.

"Did I hurt you?" Castiel asks. Dean blinks."When I used to leave. All the times I left. When I didn’t answer your prayers, or couldn’t answer." Dean looks down at his lap, and then back up.

"Yes," he says.

"I’m sorry," Castiel says. His hand finds Dean’s under the sleeping bag. "Dean, I’m sorry."

"I was so stupid," Dean says. "I should have told that fucking faker to get lost. I should have fought for you. I shouldn’t have just shoved you out on the fucking street, like-" Dean closes his eyes, in pain. "The fucking bus station,” he says, and makes a noise of agony. Dean lets go of Castiel to put his hands over his face. “Jesus Christ, Cas. I’m so sorry.” They sit in silence for a long moment, while Dean rubs at his leaking eyes. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Dean says at last. He still has his hands balled up against his eyelids. “I don’t know what the fuck I’m going to do, if you don’t come home.”

"Okay," says Castiel. Dean lowers his hands and stares at him, red-eyed, wild.

"Okay?"

"I can survive on my own, I know that much now," Castiel says, carefully. "You should remember that I can survive without you."

"I know you can," Dean says, hollowly.

"But I’ve also learned that I would prefer not to," says Castiel.

"Oh," says Dean.

Dean comes upstairs with him and looks around in stunned wonder at the objects that comprise Castiel’s human life. He looks at the cups and plates and the cartoon comforter and the shower curtain with an enormous duck on it. He touches everything. It’s like he is trying to absorb the time he missed through contact with the relics of it. Castiel pulls his old duffel, the one Dean gave him, off a hook. He starts folding his clothes up and packing them together while Dean looks through his counter-height refrigerator. Castiel runs out of room in his duffel and gets a garbage bag out from under the sink. He puts his extra pair of shoes in the bottom and then stuffs his comforter and pillow in. Dean helps him take down the pictures he’s been pinning up from magazines, and tucks them carefully into the front cover of a hardback book. Most of his books will have to go back to the library, but a few are his to keep. He has to deflate the air mattress. He has to return it to Nora. He has to quit his job. Say goodbye. The thought overwhelms him for a second, and he stands in the middle of his disintegrating apartment staring into space. Dean sees him and comes closer. “Cas?” he says. Dean’s hand snakes into his; his fingers twine together and press once. Castiel looks at his face. There is no world where they will be safe, where things will be easy. But he is tired of the wilderness, of the fields.

Dean pulls him in with his free hand against the back of his neck; holds his face against Castiel’s and rubs his nose into Castiel’s cheek, gratefully, tenderly. He kisses the edge of his jaw and then his mouth. Castiel closes his eyes and lets Dean kiss his eyebrows.

"Take me home," says Castiel.

 

 

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