God knows, Dean says, sometimes. Castiel has heard him say it once or twice when the world was heavy on their shoulders, when everything was falling to pieces. God knows what we’re gonna do, how we can win this. God knows how. But mostly it marks inconsequential things, a verbal tic for incomprehension, missing knowledge: God knows where the next rest stop is, Dean will sigh, fumbling with a map, arguing with Sam over stopping for dinner, which tiny town will have a drive-thru that’s open late and serves the kind of food Sam prefers. Castiel listens from the back seat and doesn’t bother joining in. He is not overly picky when it comes to fast food. How strange it is, to him, that humans can forge their identities around the things they consume, what they wear on their backs- or their fronts- or by stylized images of animals that represent opposing teams. There are “burger king” people and other people who look down on burger king people and eat at a place called chipotle, after a pepper. It would be fascinating if there wasn’t an edge of malice to it, an undercurrent of us and them. But then again, Castiel understands. He is starting to be a five guys person. Sometimes he catches himself wondering, with some disdain, what would drive other people to eat the burgers at the Dairy Queen.
"Hey," Dean says. He is looking into the rear-view mirror; that’s where Castiel finds his eyes, and looks back. "You hungry for anything special?"
"No," Castiel says. "I think I’m hungry for something normal." He’s trying a joke. He smiles into the mirror and sees the corner of Dean’s cheek as it tilts towards Castiel, just far enough that Dean can keep his eyes on the road. The muscles in his jaw move; his eyes go warm and crinkly at the edges. Dean is smiling, too.
"See?" Dean says and smacks Sam on the arm. "Next time Cas rides up front. He’s not such a whiner."
Castiel feels bad and good at the same time; he wants to defend Sam but he also wants to preen, to bask in even the mildest praise. There’s no real logic behind it. The feelings come out of his gut now, like hunger, and like hunger he can’t control them. God knows, he thinks. God knows about this. He must. This was built into humans for some mysterious purpose, some reason that Castiel doesn’t understand.
"Eating vegetarian for one friggin’ night isn’t going to kill you," Sam says, grimly, across the bench seat. "Big baby."
"Hippie that’s afraid of clowns."
"Real mature," Sam says. But he’s laughing.
They eat at a Wendy’s- Dean nudges Sam in the ordering line and points at the glossy photographs of salad on the menu and says you’re welcome- and they are alone in the dining room except for a handful of teenagers all crowded into the same booth. Castiel watches them. He can’t help it. They’re like a flock of wild birds, talking in bursts of whispers, huddling together, then exploding apart with laughter. They slap the table and talk with their mouths full, they throw things and pinch each other and curl together like small animals, all in a matter of minutes. Castiel was never a human infant, a human adolescent. It means he is free of the childhood traumas and pubescent awkwardness, certainly. But it also means he never had a phase where he was expected to scream and shout and laugh until he cried, to fall in love messily and briefly, to make dramatic pronouncements and recant them immediately, to shift through identities, to oscillate wildly. Castiel is an adult body housing an ancient mind. He is supposed to be a grown-up. He is supposed to act soberly and responsibly, not to raise his voice in public, unless he’s drunk. He knows what grown-ups are like on the television: they wear ties and complain about the people they work with. He doesn’t know if that is the kind of man he is, anymore. Castiel thinks about that, and watches one of the teenage girls stick her face straight into a frosty shake while her friends shriek in horrified delight. Dean catches him looking.
"Uh, Cas," Dean says. "You’re staring." He shoves a couple of french fries in his mouth and shrugs. "I know you don’t mean anything by it, but they won’t." Castiel looks away immediately.
At the motel they get one room with two beds; Sam falls asleep sprawled out over his, and Dean curls up on one side of the second mattress, eyes shut but breath still quick and his shoulders still tight. They divide up this way out of habit; at the bunker they have their own rooms, their own beds. On their first real hunt together as a trio Dean lost a coin toss; then, later, games of rock-paper-scissors. They don’t bother with the games anymore, because Dean says it’s easier. But he’s oddly tense, sometimes, when Castiel slides in beside him. Other times he just slings his arm over Castiel’s shoulders and says, you’re stuck with me, and they sprawl together on the mattress and make insulting comments at action movie stars. Castiel never knows which one it will be: Dean silent and distant on the opposite side, or Dean warm and loose and laughing, tucked halfway into Castiel’s space. There’s no pattern that he’s yet grasped. Castiel is the same, though, every time. In the dark after Dean turns over Castiel stares at his back, at the lines of him, the curve of his spine and the place where the blankets dip and rise, the swell of his hip, the fine hairs at the back of his neck. Castiel holds him in his eyes, all the places he would touch, the knots and whorls in the smooth planes of his skin. He is the last thing Castiel wants to see before the darkness, before the dreams that are always too empty, too bare, too inhuman and sad. He doesn’t know what Dean would think of that. Castiel hasn’t said anything. He doesn’t know if this is something people tell their friends, their only friends, who are also their colleagues: do most people heap everything on top of one person this way, like a pile of stones? If Castiel shakes it at the foundations, tries to rock what they have, he’s afraid the whole pile will topple and the world will crumble away. So Castiel tells nobody.
But if God is not gone entirely, if God is not blind, then God knows about this, too. He might be the only one who can hear it: the inaudible rumbling in Castiel’s heart, restless and aching like an empty stomach.
In Scranton a rugaru almost kills Dean. It bites him in the throat and blood sprays everywhere, out across the wall and a table in the victim’s apartment, across the front of Castiel’s shirt. Sam is fighting with the creature’s mate- a mated pair, the first they’ve ever heard of, and the reason why they were so utterly surprised by the attack- and Dean goes down to the floor on his knees, holding his neck with both hands and sputtering through a mouthful of blood. Castiel moves past him and the rugaru tries to claw at his face. But Castiel blocks and ducks to get closer, to jam his blade under the rugaru’s chin and up through its mouth, just barely missing the bottom of its brain. It convulses and shrieks and scratches his arms, the sides of his cheeks. Castiel pulls his blade out and hammers it down into the space where the rugaru’s throat meets its chest; he drags downward and cuts the creature’s chest open, breastbone to belly. There’s a horrible sucking noise and a howl of agony and then it’s on its back on the floor, spilling everywhere, spasming. Sam’s got the female burning already; he comes from behind Castiel and sprays the accelerant and lights the body, quick. Castiel turns his back on the flames and goes to Dean; he pulls his own overshirt off and wedges it between Dean’s hands to staunch the blood. Dean’s eyes are starting to roll back in his head.
"Sam," Castiel says, and then Sam’s at his elbow. "Get him up." Together they get Dean down the stairs and into the back of the car, where Castiel holds a hand over Dean’s slippery, bloody fingers and tells him to stop moving around, to stop fidgeting and trying to sit up. It takes almost seventeen minutes to get to the closest emergency room. Sam doesn’t stop at red lights. Dean gets stitches and a blood transfusion while Sam provides the hospital with fake identification and insurance information, and Castiel sits on the floor staring at nothing in the room with all the vending machines and one very loud television.
After a while Castiel gets up and goes into a private bathroom, one marked “family,” and locks the door behind him. He washes the shallow scratches on his face and then gets down on his knees, mostly because he’s not sure he won’t fall. He doesn’t bother looking upwards, towards heaven, the way people do in movies. Castiel looks at his hands, crusting over with Dean’s blood; at his ruined jeans. Heaven is empty. God is not there. But perhaps that doesn’t mean God is nowhere. Even if Castiel personally believes he’s been abandoned. Castiel kneels for a long time and thinks of what he would say, if he were a human man at a time like this. “He doesn’t have to love me,” Castiel says, finally. “He just has to live.”
When he comes out Sam is pacing the halls and calling his name.
"Dean’s stabilizing," Sam says, breathlessly, "he’s gonna be okay." And Castiel feels a great rushing sensation like all his balance is sinking downwards, like gravity has struck him behind the knees. He wobbles a little and Sam holds onto his arm. "Whoa. Are you okay?” Sam asks. “You weren’t bitten?” Castiel shakes his head. “Okay. I just thought- you were in the bathroom a long time.”
"I was praying," Castiel says, before he can stop himself. Sam looks surprised.
"I didn’t think you-"
"I don’t," Castiel says.
Dean gets better slowly at first and then quickly, until he is padding around the bunker in sweatpants with gauze strapped to his neck, croaking about the bedside manner of the room service staff and asking if he can finally have a fucking sandwich because he’s tired of soup. Castiel says no to everything and then manhandles him back to his room while Kevin points and laughs. But for lunch Dean gets tomato soup and grilled cheese after all, and Castiel sits at the foot of the bed and watches him eat it.
"Is this going to stop the complaining?" Castiel asks. Dean licks butter off his fingers and grins.
"For today," he says.
After the stitches come out Dean tries to get them to take a hunt in Wyoming. They veto it until another girl dies, and then Sam and Castiel pack up the car and leave Dean in the bunker with Kevin, sulking and trying to pretend he’s not going to enjoy a long weekend of Halo and wearing formless cotton clothes. When they come back the ragged pink line along his throat is less pink and angry, fading fast into his skin. Castiel can’t stop looking at it, can’t stop thinking about touching it, tracing it with the breath between his lips. He tries not to dwell on it. But one night soon after, when Castiel is done with the dishes and tired of books and not in the mood to watch Sam and Kevin play their own complex version of Uno with homemade rules, he shuffles to his room and finds Dean there, sitting back against the headboard, hands over his stomach and his eyes thoughtful. Dean sits up when Castiel comes in, and tucks his legs up to make space for Castiel to sit. “Hey,” he says. Castiel stands there and stares at him. “Jeez, come on,” Dean says. Castiel sits down at the end of the bed, one leg dangling, and Dean leans forward. “Thanks for, uh, taking care of me,” Dean says. “Sorry I was a jerk about it sometimes.”
"You were hurting," Castiel says. "It makes people irrational. And I didn’t mind."
"Sam says," Dean starts, and then trails off, picking lint from the top of the blanket. "Sam said while I was under, you prayed." Castiel doesn’t answer that, because it’s not a question. Dean looks up. "Is that true?"
"Yes," he says.
"Oh," he says. There’s a beat. "Do you, uh, do you mind telling me what you prayed for?"
"You know what I prayed for," Castiel says. Dean doesn’t say anything. But he stares at Castiel like he’s seeing something new. Impossible, Castiel thinks. This is the same sad, stubbled human face as yesterday, and the day before that. Tomorrow it will be an older face. But Dean keeps looking, and then he smiles faintly, cautiously, like he’s trying it out.
"Cas," he says. "I still pray to you, sometimes."
"What?" Castiel says, startled. His ears feel hot. "Why?"
"I don’t know," Dean admits. "I know you can’t hear it, I just thought, I don’t know." But Castiel does, now. It’s sudden and jolting. Castiel sees it clearly for the first time in his existence. He has only been human for a little while but it was long enough. Human prayers so often go unanswered, but human prayers never cease. Maybe that is something God understands, something God knows, and built into the cracks of his designs: the world was made from darkness, and one voice. When there is only silence to speak to, you still have to speak.
"I told God that I could live without your love," Castiel says. "But I could not live without you."
Dean’s eyes flare out for a second, wide and soft, like flowers. And then he is leaning forward over Castiel, pulling gently at the back of his head, opening his mouth against Castiel’s and inhaling him, kissing him, filling his air with the heat of his breath and the taste of his skin. Castiel kisses back and tilts his head for Dean to kiss his jaw and his chin, he clutches at the small of Dean’s back, holds his waist between his hands and slides his fingers under Dean’s shirt. He’s warm and solid and Castiel adores him, adores every atom and pore and toenail and joint, he will adore him until the end of his life and after if he can, until the end of the universe, he will love him in all the ways that an angel could never have loved the glory of heaven and the service of God. Castiel will love him in every imperfect grasping measure, in every flawed and humbling human way.
"Cas," Dean says, against him, sliding closer, holding tight, "Cas, I-"
"I know," Castiel says. He closes his eyes and kisses Dean’s throat, his collarbone, the flesh over his heart. "I know."