There is always music.
At first, the constant background noise in the Gas-n-Sip grates on Castiel’s nerves. There is always the radio or the TV, playing songs that dig their hooks into his brain or telling stories that grab at his attention when he’s supposed to be working. Why can’t humans just live with the silence?
But when silence comes—in the morning before the store is open, before the coffee is percolating, or when he closes up at night and finally switches off the hum of the fluorescent lights—it settles over everything, thick as dust, ghostly as a shroud.
And then there is only the sound of his thoughts. He’d rather listen to a hundred discordant, tinny radios and an endless loop of news—You’re Listening to K-Bear 101 Idaho’s Only Real Rock Station, Thank You for Listening to K-Love Contemporary Christian, You’re Listening to KISU Idaho State University Radio, KIDK 3 Eyewitness News, Local Strip Mall Burns Down, Gas War Affects Prices, Do You Know What Your Children Are Doing with Their Cellphones, More at 11 on Local News 8—than turn over all the ways in which he has failed yet again.
His sleeping bag is thin. He can feel each of his vertebrae against the concrete floor of the storage room. It’s cold. It’s quiet. He can’t sleep. He gets up and turns on the small television in the break room, watches a few advertisements featuring humans performing mundane tasks as ineptly as possible. Isn’t there a better way? Castiel sympathizes, but there is no miracle product that will fix his life. He changes the channel and watches a program about a man who is suddenly given powers and forced to adapt. It might be funny, if he were someone else.
He is someone else, of course. A stranger named Steve who stocks shelves and runs the register at the Gas-n-Sip in Rexford. A man who needs to sleep and can’t.
So Castiel comes to appreciate the music. The television can be pleasant, too. He takes an interest in the magazines—although he has no interest in losing ten pounds and he does not have partner whose “pleasure spots” he could explore—and the paperback books with their glossy covers and embossed lettering. These novels change every few weeks, but Castiel discovers that the stories inside often share the same basic structure. Somehow that doesn’t dim their appeal. There are stories about people solving mysteries and people falling in love, sometimes simultaneously. Castiel ponders them, sometimes out loud when Nora and Bill are around, and they tell him he’s thinking too hard about trash.
But the stories are not trash. Like music and television, these novels are a way of making the world bearable. Nora says the word escapism but Castiel does not think that is right. Stories are not about escaping the world. They are about living in it. Even if it’s a world with aliens and space travel, even if it’s a world with talking cars, stories are still essentially about what it’s like to be human, to form and break bonds, to suffer defeat and to know triumph, to feel happiness and sadness and love and anger and regret. Stories are not about escaping the world. They are about understanding it. Truth is elusive, shifting; certainty is treacherous. But the hero and the heroine always get together at the end of a romance.
Stories have a structure, a logic. Stories chart the possible and the impossible. They are a map in the trackless waste of reality. There is no real structure or logic to the world except for what humans make. This is why they say make sense. Sense does not arise organically. Meaning is crafted. Castiel doesn’t know how, exactly, but he’s figuring it out. How do you tell a satisfying story? How do you live a meaningful life?
When Dean comes to town for the case, Castiel will tell him that there is a human dignity to this work.
Ten minutes later, when he is cleaning the men’s bathroom, he will have doubts.
Castiel remembers a time before gas station convenience stores. Nothing was convenient then. Food had to be hunted or gathered, and death was never distant. He had wondered why, then, these strange creatures scrabbling for survival spent their precious energy painting caves, decorating their stone tools, singing, dancing, and sitting around fires telling stories. Wasn’t it a waste? Trash, as Nora and Bill might say. What if some rival tribe came along, a tribe less interested in foolish creative pursuits, and hunted down all the easy game? But Castiel waited, and watched, and generations passed. The storytellers survived.
This memory feels like a clue, a piece of information dropped casually into a few paragraphs of description near the beginning of the story that will later be revealed to be of great importance. Castiel is learning the structure of mysteries now. Sometimes there are false leads—Nora tells him they are called red herrings, an opaque idiom—but there are always a few genuine clues. If he catches enough of them early in the story, he can solve the mystery before the protagonist does. That is very satisfying.
Sam and Dean solve mysteries in real life. They even refer to their hunts as cases. When Castiel sees the news article about four unexplained deaths in Rexford, he recognizes it for what it is.
Castiel finds the mystery novels easier to understand than the romances. He likes it well enough when the couple gets together, but the rest of it frustrates him. The whole plot consists of forced separations and contrived misunderstandings between two people who obviously care for one another and would make each other happy.
Nora walks into the break room one afternoon while he’s reading.
“Didn’t know you were into bodice-rippers, Steve,” she says. “You like that one?”
“No,” he says, disgusted. “Why won’t they just talk to one another?”
Nora laughs, shakes her head, and walks back into the store with her fresh cup of coffee. Castiel turns another page.
When Castiel calls Dean to tell him about the bizarre deaths, he does not tell Dean where he is.
He tries not to think about Dean. It’s difficult, but the books help. The books and the music and the television and the daily routine of work, all of it helps. But there is still that quiet time, that time when all the lights are out and he’s lying in his sleeping bag on the storage room floor.
In an effort to distract himself, Castiel tells himself a story. But too quickly it becomes the story of what will I do if I ever see Dean again and then he’s awake, thinking of all the angry words he’s going to shout. Or maybe he won’t shout them. Maybe he’ll seethe in silence. Maybe he’ll punch Dean in the face. No. He won’t do that. It would feel good, though, to yell at Dean and crowd him up against a wall and—
Castiel does not intend to think of kissing Dean. His imagination supplies the visual unbidden: Dean’s eyes, wide and startled green, in contrast to the angry flush of his cheeks. Castiel’s imagination provides not only the visual but the accompanying auditory and tactile sensations: the warmth of Dean’s lips, the catch in his breath. It is almost as if Castiel has imagined this before.
He hasn’t, though. But he recognizes this structure from the romance novels: the two people in the couple get angry at each other, and then they get close, and then one kind of passion turns into another. That’s all it is—his mind caught the beginning of a story thread and completed it automatically. It is trite and cliché and trash.
It won’t happen like that. Castiel isn’t going to kiss Dean. Dean doesn’t deserve to be kissed. Dean threw him out. Dean is the reason Castiel is on the storage room floor, resolutely ignoring the pain in his lower back.
Castiel doesn’t know what kind of story he can make from that and he doesn’t care.
Castiel remembers Aristotle. He wasn’t a storyteller, but he had lots of ideas about what made a good story. Castiel had found it dull at the time—he wanted to know why humans told stories, not how they told them, or what elements comprised them—but lately the why and the how of stories seem bound up together.
Dean finds Castiel in the gas station. Castiel doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t want to say anything. But he can’t help but wonder if Dean stood outside the gas station and watched him work. Castiel watched Dean rake leaves once. It seems like a very long time ago.
Castiel wonders about Dean, about all his reasons and the secret thoughts running through his head. Perhaps the greatest pleasure of reading fiction is that it allows Castiel a window into other people’s minds. As a human, he possesses no such power. He can’t even tell if Dean has been watching him without his knowledge.
Aristotle had a word for such reversals of fortune. Castiel can’t remember it.
Tanya cries and Castiel sings to her. He sings one of the songs he heard on television. She stops crying. Perhaps some good has come of his sleepless nights at the Gas-n-Sip.
As he holds her to his chest, rocking her back and forth, he finds himself talking. It’s not a story, just a gesture of sympathy. It’s probably for the best that he didn’t tell her a story. Castiel doesn’t know much about happy endings.
The storytellers survived. Stories must have some use in the world; otherwise this urge would not reproduce itself. Humans have always adapted to their surroundings remarkably well, gaining new skills and discarding those that no longer serve them. So the constancy with which humans tell stories suggests some purpose to the inventing and sharing of fictional worlds. Perhaps it is the rarity of real-life happiness that makes stories so important. Stories make hope possible.
There is no reason to hope for anything. Castiel had been right, years ago when he told Dean I see nothing but pain here. He knows that acutely now that he’s been powerless and alone for months. He has no evidence that things will improve—on the contrary, all proof gathered so far suggests a downward trend—and logic says the end should be a mercy.
And yet when Ephraim is looming over him, ready to write the last word, Castiel says “I want to live.”
Dean sings to the baby, too. It stirs something in Castiel, something he doesn’t want to think about. He has already broken his own promise to stay angry with Dean. In truth, he broke it the minute Dean popped out from behind another customer and grinned at him.
Now, watching Dean bounce Tanya gently up and down, Castiel feels the last of his anger toward Dean ebb. It washes away and leaves something nameless and aching in its place.
Castiel picks at the bandages around his hand and his wrist. That was another scene that didn’t end like the ones in the books or on TV. It should have been tender and intimate, but instead it was businesslike. Dean was gentle, but reserved, so Castiel attempted to imitate him. Dean offered him a shot of whiskey for the pain—another thing that might have led somewhere, in a story—but Castiel declined.
It won’t happen like that, either.
Even so, it’s nice, taking care of the baby with Dean. It’s like a scene from someone else’s story, two people who live in a little house with rose bushes by the door. They could be people with jobs and friends, people who bicker about who did the dishes last and complain about how little sleep they got, people who eat cold leftovers in front of the TV because the baby was crying, people who stay in bed on Sunday morning, people who sing their little girl to sleep, people who are making a home together.
Tanya falls asleep while Dean is cradling her. She looks so small in his hands. Dean lays her down in the crib, and even in the dark of the room, Castiel can tell he is smiling.
Then Nora comes back.
Anywhere but here, Castiel wants to say. Some other story, one where we can be different people. Instead, he shrugs. He’s too proud to show Dean that he’s sleeping at the Gas-n-Sip, even if a spiteful little part of him longs for the stricken look on Dean’s face.
“You wanna come back to my motel room?”
Castiel stares. It’s a fraction of the invitation he’s been waiting for. He’s half-tempted to refuse, but half is not enough.
“Uh,” Dean says. He’s blushing. “I mean. For a beer. Or. Y’know, we could… watch TV. Talk?”
Dean is very flustered for someone who was passing out date advice a few hours ago. Castiel nods, if only to put that tortured sentence out of its misery. And maybe because he still wants to believe they could be different people. People who drink beer and watch TV and talk.
But they don’t talk in the car on the way to the motel. They don’t talk on the walk from the car to the front door. They don’t talk as Dean crouches down and pulls two bottles of beer out of the mini-fridge. Dean pops the caps off the bottles and hands one to Castiel. Castiel accepts it, and he allows Dean to clink their bottles together. Dean lifts his own bottle and says “Good work.”
Castiel shrugs. It doesn’t feel like good work to kill an angel, even one who was trying to kill him. It’s become too easy. But the rest of it—giving Tanya her medicine and rocking her to sleep—maybe that’s worthy of cheer. Either way, he drinks.
“Thank you for bandaging my hand,” Castiel says, because it seems like he should say something, and he forgot, earlier.
“Yeah,” Dean says. “It was nothing.”
Silence unfolds. It’s a prickly, fraught kind of quiet—one that should be filled with conversation. It used to be easier, talking to Dean. Castiel walks over the bedside table, picks up the remote, and turns on the TV. If they can’t talk, they can at least do this. Castiel isn’t sure what’s happening between them, why he’s here with Dean when he should be angry, but he’s tired. He wants to sit on the bed and drink his beer.
Castiel leans back against the pillows and props his feet up. “Dude, at least take your dirty shoes off,” Dean says. He’s still standing at the foot of the bed, holding his beer. He grimaces at the sight of Castiel’s shoes touching the blanket. Castiel rolls his eyes, sets his beer on the table, and reaches down to unlace his shoes. Dean looks away. His cheeks are dull red. Castiel lets his shoes drop to the floor carelessly. “Sorry,” Dean says, and Castiel doesn’t say for what.
“Can I—” Dean says, indicating the empty half of the bed with a tilt of his head.
“It’s your bed.”
“Right,” Dean says. Things were easier when they had a case to solve, an angel to kill, a baby to care for. Even preparation for Castiel’s non-date had at least provided a topic of conversation.
Dean sits down next to Castiel and the mattress shifts with it, dipping in the middle. They stare at the TV, and Castiel flips through a few channels, but he’s barely paying attention. Dean is right next to him. Castiel doesn’t know what Dean wants, and worse, he doesn’t know what he wants. Maybe he wants to be angry. Maybe he wants to forget all his reasons for being angry so that he can reach out and cover Dean’s hand with his.
Castiel glances at him.
“Cas, are you—” Dean starts. He meets Castiel’s gaze, then looks away. He clears his throat. “Nah,” he says. “Never mind.”
It’s unlike Dean to be so quiet and so outwardly, obviously unsure. Castiel wishes he could read Dean. He wishes he could understand why Dean is acting like this now and why Dean kicked him out of the bunker. Castiel had been so sure that Dean would want him to stay, even without his powers. Perhaps especially without his powers. Castiel has relived the moments before Dean told him to leave countless times, and he still doesn’t understand. Dean was happy to see him, Dean looked excited about the prospect of teaching him about humanity, and then… Dean kicked him out.
What is the sum of all these clues? Is there any story that makes this sequence of events make sense? Castiel is missing something. He knows Dean’s stated reasons for asking him not to stay—angels who might want to kill him—but if anything, tonight has just proven how much safer Castiel would be with Dean. Dean’s stated reasons are not logical.
Is Dean lying to Castiel? But why would he do that?
Castiel has lied to Dean. He’s not proud of it, but it happened and he can’t undo it. When Castiel lied to Dean, the first few times, it was because his superiors forced him to. After that, on his own, Castiel did it because… because he wanted to protect Dean, to leave Dean out of it. Castiel wanted to solve the problem by himself.
The first explanation is impossible because Dean has no superiors, and the second one doesn’t make sense. Dean is not protecting Castiel by kicking him out.
But perhaps Dean is protecting someone else?
It can only be Sam.
But that makes no sense. Castiel poses no threat to Sam. Still, it feels like a lead. Castiel just doesn’t have quite enough information to solve the case. He glances sidelong at Dean, whose gaze is pointed toward the TV but who does not appear to be watching it.
“Dean,” Castiel says. “Are you okay?”
“You’re asking me if I’m okay.”
“Yes,” Castiel says, although it’s a useless clarification.
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
Castiel makes a noncommittal noise of assent. “And Sam?” he says.
“Yeah, Sam’s doing good. A lot better than he was.”
A lot better than he was. Because Sam was sick. Sam had almost died. But then he hadn’t died, and now he’s “doing good.” And what could have caused that? Castiel doesn’t bother asking. He knows he won’t get an answer.
So there’s something about Sam that Dean doesn’t want Castiel to know. The realization turns Castiel’s stomach, and he wonders if this is how Dean felt, that day with the holy fire. As terrible as it was to be inside that ring of fire, it feels worse to be outside it.
“I’m sorry for all the times I lied to you,” Castiel says. He’s probably said it before, but it bears saying again. He still feels it.
Dean’s brows draw together for an instant, and then the expression slides off his face as it was never there. “I know, Cas,” he says. “Can we not talk about this?”
“What would you prefer to talk about?” Castiel says dryly. He thinks of all the minutes of silence piling up between them, like bricks in an invisible wall.
“I think Nora thought we were a couple,” Dean says. Castiel blinks at the suddenness with which Dean speaks. Has Dean been preoccupied by that this whole time?
“And that thought bothers you.”
“Uh.” Dean takes a long gulp from his beer. “Actually, it’s just—kind of—I don’t know. I mean, we took care of her baby together. Why wouldn’t she think we were a couple?”
Castiel remembers the fictional life he imagined for the two of them while watching Dean care for Tanya. It hurts more somehow, knowing that even strangers like Nora can imagine that life existing, and yet it doesn’t. “Perhaps she assumes everyone around her is heterosexual.”
“Well, she’d be wrong about that,” Dean mutters. And then, more loudly and with a sharp shrug: “In general, I mean.”
“I know, Dean,” Castiel says quietly. Dean never discusses his sexuality openly and Castiel has never had reason to mention it. “I’ve always known.”
Dean stares. “You know that I—that I—and you never fucking said anything? Jesus, Cas. It’s been years.” Dean drops his head down and puts a hand to his forehead.
“Technically, it’s been your whole life, since you were born with the capacity to develop romantic and sexual feelings for people regardless of sex or gender,” Castiel says.
“Oh,” Dean says. “You mean you know I’ve fucked a few dudes.”
“Yes. What else would I have meant?”
Dean gets up from the bed and gets another beer out of the fridge. “Nothing,” he says. He takes another long drink. “Sorry for making you look gay in front of Nora, I guess.”
“Why would I care about that?”
Dean gets back onto the bed very gently, so as not to make the mattress creak and shift too much. “You have to be careful about what people think of you, Cas.”
“Dean, I spend every minute of interaction with Nora and Bill and all our customers worrying that someone will discover that I have not always been human. I don’t care if Nora thought we were a couple. At least that’s a normal human thing to assume about someone.”
“Oh,” Dean says. “Glad I could help your cover, in that case.” After a moment, he laughs to himself and says, “Man, what the hell even is your cover story? Steve?”
“Steve Milton,” Castiel says, with as much dignity as he can muster.
Dean stops smiling. “Anna’s last name.”
“She became human more successfully that any other angel I’ve known.”
“Still, man, you could have used mine.”
“I was under the impression that people wait until after marriage to do that,” Castiel says. “Unless you’d rather be fake husbands than fake boyfriends.”
“Uh. Yeah. That makes sense, I guess. You’re not bad at this whole cover story thing.” Dean is flushed, but perhaps it’s from the beer.
“Also, I was very angry with you at the time,” Castiel adds.
“Yeah,” Dean nods. “You needed your space. I was probably heartbroken, but I’m handling it.”
“I meant in real life, Dean.”
“Oh.” Dean closes his eyes in momentary embarrassment. “Shit, Cas, I’m so sorry. Of course you were. What an asshole.”
“I forgive you,” Castiel says. He’s not sure he means it yet, but he wants to mean it. That must be worth something.
“You know that’s not how I wanted things to go, right?”
“I know.” Castiel had imagined that he would move into the bunker and he would learn to hunt and he would help Dean and Sam and Kevin and he would finally have a home and a family. He wonders what Dean imagined, in those moments before he decided that Castiel had to go. It doesn’t matter. It’s as unreal as the life he imagined for them back in Nora’s house.
“Cas, would it be okay—can I call you, sometimes?”
“It will make for a more convincing story,” Castiel allows. Dean looks—not hurt exactly, but perhaps disappointed. That wasn’t Castiel’s intention. He lays his hand over Dean’s. “Of course you can call me.”
“I’m gonna be the best fake boyfriend you’ve ever had,” Dean says. He grins.
Castiel doesn’t know what to say to that, but he’s saved from speaking by a yawn. It’s late. He has work in the morning. He leans back against the pillows and closes his eyes.
“Cas, are you… sleeping here?”
“Are you kicking me out?”
“No,” Dean says instantly. “No, it’s fine. You can stay. I guess it’ll help the story, too, if I drop you off at work tomorrow morning. Especially in today’s clothes. Your very first human Walk of Shame.” Dean reaches for the lamp and switches it off.
Castiel doesn’t know what a walk of shame is, but he’s too tired to care. He rolls over onto his side and settles into the bed. He feels the mattress shift as Dean rolls over, and then slowly but inevitably, they both slide down into the middle until they’re back to back. “Sorry,” Dean says.
Castiel has read this one before. This time, instead of letting the opportunity pass, he rolls over so that he’s facing Dean’s back. He wraps his arm around Dean and bends his knees until his legs are folded right up against Dean’s. And then somehow—maybe it’s the darkness, maybe it’s being so close to Dean—between yawns, Castiel finds himself saying, “Nora’s not the only one who thought about us being a couple.”
Dean interlaces his fingers with Castiel’s and holds their hands to his chest. “Yeah,” he says. “I know.”
Then there’s a long silence, but it’s warm and comfortable. It has nothing in common with the silence of the Gas-n-Sip at night after everyone else has gone home, not even the absence of sound. Castiel can hear Dean breathing.
For the first time in weeks, he drifts off to sleep with ease.
In the morning, Dean drops Castiel off at the gas station. Before Castiel gets out of the car, Dean says “I’m proud of you.” The praise is unexpected, but bittersweet. Castiel wonders if that’s the end—surely Dean’s approval means he’s solved the mystery of being human—but he hopes not. He still doesn’t know what Dean is hiding, or if they’ll ever have what Castiel wants them to have, but perhaps he will some day.
Castiel unlocks the gas station and turns on the radio.
There is always music.