Castiel went to a zoo once, because he was curious. Since man was given dominion over the beasts of the earth, they had used them for food, for clothing, for protection, for companionship, for physical labor, and for conquest. A zoo seemed to fit none of those purposes.
Castiel stood outside the chimpanzee exhibit with the human visitors, watching the apes live a life under surveillance, and wondered what was the point. He stood in front of a waist-high fence with a sign reading ‘do not climb fence’, the first barrier of two separating man from his cousins, and puzzled at what would drive humans to hold animals captive for no reason.
The first time Dean Winchester asked Castiel if he didn’t feel pain at all, the first thing that the angel thought about was that fence at the chimp exhibit. Only this time, he imagined himself on the other side, staring out through bars and barriers at humanity held back.
Dean had been nursing a drink at a bar when the angel joined him. Sam had already gone back to the motel for the night, and though Castiel couldn’t be sure, he thought there might have been some argument that precipitated their parting. Before Castiel could ask about it, Dean beat him to it by asking if Castiel was incapable of perceiving pain.
“It’s not that I don’t feel pain,” Castiel began awkwardly, because it was hard to explain to Dean the nature of angelic vessels. Ironically, probably as hard as it would be to explain human beings to the chimpanzee prisoners.
“Dude, I stabbed you with a knife in the chest, me and Bobby riddled you with bullets… you didn’t even blink. You telling me any of that hurt?”
“No…” Castiel frowned, consternated. “I’m aware of damage to my vessel, but I’m not close enough to it to feel the wounds as pain.”
“Not close enough… what the hell, you’re all up in that guy. I don’t get how you could be any closer.”
And that was the problem, really… Dean didn’t get it.
But Dean didn’t pursue the topic. He ordered another drink and proceeded to speak ill of Castiel’s father and His divine plan. It was an annoying habit Castiel was learning to tolerate in the hunter… why, he did not know.
The next time the subject came up, Dean was outside at night in the middle of nowhere, leaning against his car while Sam sprawled out in the backseat, fast asleep. Castiel appeared at Dean’s side, strangely uncomfortable with Dean and Sam being alone and so out in the open. He would stay with the brothers until dawn, just in case.
“So when you say you’re not ‘close enough’, does that mean you just don’t care about the guy you’re riding?”
Castiel looked over at Dean hesitantly. There was a bitterness in his voice that Castiel knew signified discontent. Humans were moody creatures, Castiel was learning first-hand, and Dean Winchester particularly so. And he’d learned that when Dean was in one of these moods, nothing said or done was the right thing. Castiel didn’t like getting into fights with Dean when he was like this, and any discussion was sure to be a fight.
Still… Castiel was not a being made to run from confrontation.
“I wasn’t talking about emotional distance,” Castiel replied, and he wondered why they would pick up a conversation they’d had months ago as if it was only hours past, “I was speaking of physical distance.”
Dean gave him a dubious look. “Cas… you’re in that guy. What ‘physical distance’ can there possibly be?”
“His name is Jimmy,” Castiel said lowly, not sure why it mattered that Dean acknowledge that. It wouldn’t have months ago, when they had the first part of this conversation. What was different now, he could not say.
“I know that,” Dean growled. “Damnit, I met the guy, remember?”
Castiel fidgeted. “Why are you so concerned with how I experience pain?”
“I… I just wonder if you actually do. If angels do. I mean, what can you possibly know about humans if you don’t even understand what pain is?”
Of course Dean Winchester would define human existence in terms of pain. The thought tempered Castiel’s annoyance. “I’m too detached from the senses of my vessel to feel through it.”
“Cas,” Dean chuckled, “that makes no sense whatsoever.”
It did make sense, just none that a human could comprehend. “A vessel is a…” Castiel struggled to find a suitable word, “an interface, a conduit, a tool for angels to interact with the physical plane and mortal men. Jimmy doesn’t hold me, Dean. Not all of me. My true form is far too large for a human body to contain it all. My vessel only houses the cognitive aspect of me.”
“So… it’s your brain stuffed in there?”
Castiel despaired at how inaccurate that description was. “In a crude sense, yes.”
“And when Jimmy takes a bullet, your brain riding around in his skin doesn’t feel pain?”
“Your brain doesn’t feel pain, either,” Castiel countered, not sure why he felt any need to show similarities between them. It was a reach to even try.
“So… where’s the rest of you? Pulling a Spock’s Brain? Is it stumbling around Heaven like a zombie while your gray matter’s joyriding in Jimmy?”
“That is like me asking you where your foot is if your brain is in your skull,” Castiel countered, irritated at how far this conversation was from really explaining anything. Castiel cursed the human’s language, so ill-equipped to convey what Castiel was trying to say. And he cursed himself for wanting so genuinely to make Dean understand.
“But my brain and foot and everything are all attached!”
The discussion had become overly frustrating, so Castiel took wing and left. He would continue to watch the brothers through the night… but from a distance.
Just like the distance created by the fences at the zoo.
Dean didn’t ask about the distance between angel and vessel again, but it began to weigh on Castiel’s thoughts a great deal… once he rebelled against Heaven to stand alongside the Winchesters. Amid everything happening – Lucifer on the loose, the angels gunning for Dean to serve as Michael’s vessel, the Apocalypse – Castiel could not ignore the boundaries that separated angel from human anymore.
Because the moment he turned his back on Heaven, he was shoved unceremoniously closer to his vessel. Always while he was inhabiting Jimmy, a part of him remained in Heaven, bridging the distance between Heaven and Earth and keeping Castiel in touch with home. When Heaven was lost to him, his essence needed somewhere to go. As Castiel refused to relinquish his vessel (he still needed to work with the Winchesters), he was pushed deeper into his host. Crowded up closer to the barriers keeping him comfortably distanced from the grit and grime of humanity.
Castiel thought of the first fence at the zoo, the one bearing the warning ‘do not climb fence’, and imagined that was exactly what he had done. Climbed the first fence that kept him apart from the apes. Uriel would no doubt have found that comparison funny… if he were still alive.
The brothers were intent on trying to stop the Devil and save the world; Castiel didn’t expect them to realize the depths of what had happened to him with his rebellion. But everything felt different. Everything felt. Things he was once indifferent to – things like temperature and pain and discomfort – were sensations on the periphery that he had to make an effort to ignore. Sometimes, he failed. And when he failed, the too-raw reality of the world would scrape against his senses, surprising him with how acute and overwhelming existence could be. A world that had once been an afterthought at best became a beast, inflicting pain that Castiel could most definitely feel now.
It felt like sinking. Like being trapped by humanity, sucked down into its clutches like he was being mired in quicksand.
It was fitting that they should call it falling, because it felt very much like that. Free fall with nothing to catch him but the frail form of Jimmy Novak.
Castiel could say with certainty that he did not like being cold or wet. Certainly not both at the same time. It was a small consolation that the brothers seemed to agree on that count. Misery may love company, as humans were fond of saying, but that did not lessen the unpleasantness by any measurable amount.
They’d been fighting a water spirit inhabiting a lake, and when fighting water spirits, one can be virtually guaranteed a thorough dunking. Water spirits were rarely violent, but Dean said the end of the world had everything pissed off. A new manufacturing company had taken to dumping their refuse into the lake, and the water spirit took exception. Castiel thought the spirit well-justified, but the brothers deemed it hostile and that it had to be hunted down. In very little time, all three of them were soaked to the bone. The wet alone might not have been so bad, but the temperature outside was near freezing, and the situation quickly qualified as miserable.
Worse were the accommodations awaiting them. The lake was deep in the woods – the reason the manufacturing gurus thought they could get away with dumping their filthy runoff water there – and the brothers had set up base in a rundown cabin in the forest. The only electricity or hot water it had was served by a generator Castiel thought might actually be as old as he was.
It was not a toasty, warm place they were returning to. If Castiel had the strength, he would have flown. Someplace bright and warm… a beach or maybe blindingly close to the sun. But the closer he felt to Jimmy, the farther he felt from his wings. The more Jimmy’s claustrophobic skin constricted around his grace, the more crippled his angelic nature felt.
He wondered if humans felt like so much glory locked inside a trap of a body.
When they stumbled into the cabin, Dean turned on a single lamp near the door. It barely cast enough light to avoid the rickety furniture, but the Winchesters were men adapted to making do with poor conditions. It was Castiel who was wildly out of his element, thrust into an environment so primitive from what he’d known his entire existence and taking his lead from the natives of the land as best he could.
He turned to watch the Winchesters.
“That p-piece of shit generator’ll only give us enough hot water for one shower, if that,” Sam stammered. Castiel could practically feel the cold in his voice. He did not like the cold and dark of this place, this night. Angels were made for light and heat. He wasn’t supposed to be here. He was too close to the last fence.
“Go,” Dean bade his brother. “I’ll start a fire.”
“M-maybe you sh-should…”
“Sammy, shower. Now.”
And Sam, ever the defiant one to his father, obeyed his brother. Dean’s demeanor shifted noticeably as soon as Sam left the room… Castiel felt the cold in him now, too.
There was jerky haste in Dean’s movements as he crossed to the room’s fireplace and set about stoking a fire. Castiel watched from the shadows, quite disgusted with his misery. It used to be so simple to dismiss, a joke to think of even experiencing the sensations wrought upon the vessel. Now they gripped him tight, vicious and unrelenting.
Dean finally had a fire flickering in the fireplace, casting a warm light into the dark corners of the room, but as yet no heat.
“Cas…? You been standing there this whole time?”
Dean’s voice made Castiel flinch. He hadn’t realized his mind had been wandering until Dean spoke. And that was wrong. Angels shouldn’t get so easily distracted by such mundane things.
The half-worried, half-confused look on Dean’s face seemed to concur.
Castiel stepped closer, drawn to the fire and its promise of warmth. He wondered what it would take to make his vessel stop aching from the tight clench of freezing. When he got closer, he could see the cold in Dean’s features. Reddened nose and cheeks, purple-tinged lips, goose-pimpled skin… it was an ugly sight of a body in the throes of fending off an attack of its environment.
And clearly Castiel must have had the same look about him, because when he was near Dean, the hunter’s eyes widened. “Shit, dude, are you…” and instead of finishing the question he reached out and grabbed one of Castiel’s hands. The contact was sharp and jarring, painful and cold and burning all at once. He tried to tug his hand back out of the uncomfortable hold.
Dean pulled. “Damn, Cas, I didn’t think you could get cold,” he groused as he went to his knees in front of the fire and drew Castiel down with him. Castiel found the new proximity to the fire pleasant. It threatened to ward off the discomfort he should not be feeling in the first place. He sidled closer, wishing he could actually crawl into the tiny space with the fire and wrap himself around it until he felt warm again.
Dean grabbed musty blankets off the nearby couch, one for each of them, and first wrapped one around Castiel before doing the same to himself with the second. The weight and thickness of the blanket were welcome, but the smell of sweaty, unwashed humans was arresting.
Mommy, the monkeys stink! a little girl at the zoo had whined.
“So much for that ‘too far to feel anything’ crap,” Dean grumbled as he clutched his blanket tighter around himself. The comment might have been meant as a joke, but Castiel was not amused. It might have been some gesture of solidarity, but Castiel had never felt more alone.
Being forced so close to his vessel’s senses felt a great deal like being backed into a corner.
The first time he opened his mouth to lecture Dean about his reckless behavior and the hunter crowded up into his space and kissed him, Castiel felt his grace barrel into his vessel’s borders like a meteor slamming into the earth. For a split-second, he thought he might punch right through the frail human shell holding him in, and he had no idea what would happen to him – or Dean – if he did.
He gasped – in shock, in wonder, in horror – and Dean licked his way into Castiel’s mouth on his sharp inhale.
Castiel wanted to shove Dean away and fall into him at the same time. He sensed he was more apt to do the latter, all things considered.
Then came a dizzying moment when he couldn’t tell what was directing his actions, his own will or the instincts of his vessel, when he kissed Dean back.
He imagined standing on the wrong side of the ‘do not climb fence’ barrier, eyeing the last towering barricade separating the evolved from the primitive.
He could imagine how the iron would feel when he closed his hands around the bars in order to climb.
There are things an angel should not know. What it’s like to be cold. What hunger feels like. How taxing it is to be tethered to an earth-bound husk. How much bigger the world becomes when its girth can’t be flown in the span of a thought.
They also should not know the arch of their lover’s back. The taste of sweat and the slide of hot skin. What it feels like to fist another’s hair in bare hands.
Even as he walks among humans, Castiel should not have the wherewithal to be left breathless and panting as Dean presses into him. Castiel should not rejoice at the dirty rut of human fornication. He shouldn’t be enmeshed and entangled so hopelessly with his vessel that he could be utterly entangled with Dean. He should not reverently chant any name but his Father’s, but Dean’s name owns his mouth and his tongue and Castiel can’t remember any other language he’s ever known when Dean is dragging Castiel down so glorious and low.
Castiel shouldn’t feel the pounding of a human heart against ribs he can’t call his own. He shouldn’t see the stars while indoors and reduced to using puny human sight.
He shouldn’t feel any primal drive enough that his hips buck up into Dean’s expert hand. He shouldn’t feel the universe in his borrowed spine when Dean thrusts. He shouldn’t throw his head back. He shouldn’t grasp at sweaty shoulders. He shouldn’t shake. He shouldn’t arch. He shouldn’t moan. He shouldn’t come.
And yet Castiel does all these things.
For one fleeting moment, falling feels amazingly like crashing.
When Dean was spent, draped boneless atop the angel and cradled between his thighs, Castiel wondered if there was more than one way to be fallen.
He still had his wings and his grace, but the smell of the zoo was all over him. The apes might well take him for one of their own.
And he was decidedly on the other side of the fence reading ‘do not climb’ and looking out.