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In Small Ponds

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There’s kind of a pop, when they win.

“Huh,” says Dean.

Castiel can hear Sam moving somewhere through the dust — coughing. “What is it? Dean?”

“Yeah, over here. It’s, uh —”

There’s a loud crash, an oof from Sam. “Yeah, behind the table,” says Dean.

Castiel blinks. Blinks again. He’s alive; that’s unexpected. Slowly, he looks down at himself. There’s concrete dust all over his trenchcoat. He brushes it off.

“Oh,” says Sam.

“Cas? You all right, buddy?”

Slowly, out of the murky gloom that used to be — still is, Castiel hopes — the bunker’s library, Dean’s silhouette emerges.

It looks different than usual. Chunkier. Like he’s carrying something on his hip.

The something turns its head. It’s not a something, it’s a person. A toddler. With a thumb in its mouth.

“Is that…”

“Yeah, think so.” Dean extends one hand, and Castiel takes it; lets Dean pull him upright. He almost overbalances and steps right into Dean’s arms. He catches himself in time. Dean’s arms are kind of occupied.

For a moment, their eyes meet, and Dean’s face goes slack. Urgent, grateful; like it looks when he’s about to cry. Then he looks away.

But the toddler raises round eyes to Castiel. Round, glowing eyes. Glowing gold.

He withdraws his thumb from his mouth and reaches out. Castiel doesn’t have to think about it. He lifts his own hand to catch the tiny, sticky one. Shakes it solemnly.

“Hello, Jack.”

---

It takes a couple weeks to get Jack enrolled in preschool.

Sam’s the one who resists at first. “Dean, he’s a demigod,” he keeps saying, “at the very least — you really think it’s a good idea to dump him on some unsuspecting teacher? After what happened yesterday —”

There’s a mobile over Jack’s bed, because Castiel bought it for him. It’s all airplanes, or it was; now they seem to be airplane-butterflies, living wild in Jack’s bedroom, roosting in the walls. Dean’s muttered darkly that he thinks they might be breeding. At least the bunker’s still standing; Castiel worried at first that his repairs wouldn’t stand up to the joyous outbursts of Jack’s newly untrained power.

“Yeah, well, there’s bound to be some bumps, okay?” Dean’s saying now. “But the kid deserves a chance to be normal, Sam. Go to school, have friends —”

“It’s not like we ever went to preschool!”

Castiel sees Dean’s jaw tighten, the muscle in his cheek work.

Then he turns brightly away from Sam, bends down to Jack. “Hey, kid. You still wanna help me make cookies? I think we’ve got just enough chocolate chips. Long as no one goes and eats them while I’m not looking…”

Jack giggles. They leave the room, hand in hand. Castiel watches Sam for a minute, until Sam can’t help but return his gaze.

“Has it occurred to you that Dean might want to give Jack precisely the things he wasn’t able to give you?”

He sees Sam’s face goes slack; then he ducks his head and runs a hand through his hair. “Yeah, I — yeah, you’re right. It’s just — Cas, this could go pretty bad for us. I mean, we’ve managed to stay more or less under the radar in this town, against all odds, but if we suddenly have a kid who’s — turning teachers into giant bugs —”

“I’m sure Jack won’t turn any of his teachers into insects.” That’s not the truth; Castiel considers. “Well — I’m fairly sure that if he does, I can fix it. Fixing the bunker didn’t even tax me. My grace seems as powerful as ever, now that Heaven has stabilized, at least.”

He knows that will make Sam feel better, and it does. The spark of curiosity catches in his eyes. “Speaking of — did you still want to test your range with sensing neurological signals? I’ve got kind of an idea about that — here, I can show you my notes —”

Castiel follows him. He doesn’t think about how Dean hasn’t been looking at him. Has barely looked at him since he got back.

---

The tadpoles in the puddle in the back lot are turning into frogs.

As it turns out, once Sam has him testing it out, Castiel can sense pretty simple neurological signals from a good distance away. Amphibians, for instance. They’re living in the low marshy hollow below the bunker’s west wall, and their pool is starting to dry up under the summer sun, so he and Jack go out every day and water them.

Jack loves it. He likes to point up at the sky and down at the grass and make it shimmer, gold sparks of the cosmic force that lives in everything; that is, somehow, Jack. Castiel still isn’t sure what happened, why Jack didn’t vanish when he gave himself over to it; he’s not sure how Jack wrenched him out of the Empty, either. There are a lot of things he’d like to ask Jack, if he could, but — well.

Right now there’s only one thing he needs to ask Jack, so he does. “Do you think we’ll see any with front legs today?”

“I fink so!” Jack wriggles excitedly, clinging to two of Castiel’s fingers and nearly falling as his stubby legs carry his body over the rough ground. “Sam says the ones with front legs are froglets.”

Jack says things like that, sometimes — complex sentences Castiel’s parenting books tell him should still be beyond a three-year-old’s grasp. Other times, he throws tantrums over forgetting a simple word like cup. It’s a shame no one’s written a parenting book for convincing your ex-adolescent ex-antichrist probable-embodiment-of-the-divine-energy-of-the-universe adopted child to stop throwing his peas on the floor.

“Sam is correct. If you catch them very gently,” Castiel tells him, serious, “you can take some in to show your class. But you have to be very kind to them. Okay?”

“Okay.”

It’s not like Jack has the dexterity to wield the little net. He might be able to reach out and make the tadpoles fly through the air into his bucket, but there’s a universe of things he can’t do. It makes Castiel marvel, realizing how much humans have to learn about their bodies and the world around them. Dean called him a baby in a trenchcoat once, and he was in many ways, but he wasn’t — not really. He could still speak, and think. He could still move his own limbs.

Jack is so precious, and so fragile. Castiel has no idea if he has any buried memories of his life before. Sometimes he hopes he doesn’t.

He can feel the little pond as they get close — the web of alien consciousnesses. A fat green frog hiding in the weeds at the water’s edge. A damselfly perched on a blade of grass. The larval diving beetles with their enormous jaws, stalking under dead leaves beneath the water, dreaming of prey. The wriggling tadpoles, eating and growing, working toward some foreign thing they don’t know the shape of yet — except perhaps in ancestral memory.

“All right,” he says, “like we practiced.” Jack grips the net alongside his hand, inexpertly; his head turns as a bird flies by. “One, two, three.”

A swoosh, and a splash. Jack’s completely distracted. Castiel fills their bucket quickly with water and upends his catch into it. “Look what we got! How many tadpoles? One, two —”

Concentration screws up Jack’s face. “One,” he says. “Two —”

The tadpoles don’t seem bothered by their newfound confinement. Their minds settle quickly back to normal. Castiel’s heart can’t help but twist at the thought; he can’t help but wonder —

He’s good at picking up neurological signals, these days, but he still has no idea how to read Dean’s.

Dean is locked up tight as a Ma’lak Box. He watches Castiel, when he thinks Castiel isn’t looking; he longs for him in some undefined way. But he doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t let any stray prayers fly. Not after Castiel told him —

I love you.

Dean doesn’t feel the same way. It’s obvious enough; it’s what Castiel always expected. Maybe he didn’t expect to be here and face it every day.

He just wishes Dean would say so. Free them both from this wondering. Let Castiel move on.

---

When Jack and Castiel get back to the bunker, bucket of tadpoles in hand, Sam and Dean are deep in conversation, heads bent over the table, intense.

“— I still don’t see why you don’t call her, man. I mean, what’s the worst that can —”

“Dean, I’ve told you, I — we barely made it out of what happened with Chuck in January. It fucked her up, and I don’t blame her. Being a puppet on a string like that? And then he goes and vanishes her —”

“— yeah, well, it’s not like you did her much better, leaving her car and her phone sitting outside her apartment like that without a goddamn word!”

“I left a note.”

“You left a note. Sammy, you got any recollection of how much shit you’ve given me for leaving notes?”

That seems to startle a laugh out of Sam. Castiel shouldn’t be listening to this. Sam says, “Yeah, well, what about you and Cas?”

“What about — hey.” Dean seems to, finally, notice the two of them in the door. “Where you been?”

Jack takes his thumb out of his mouth. “At the pond!” he announces, excited. “Cas caught some padtoles.

That makes Dean laugh, tipping his head back; he looks beautiful like that, Castiel thinks. “Got froglets down, but can’t say tadpoles? That’s all right, kid. Let’s get a look at them. You gonna show ‘em off at daycare?”

Sometimes Castiel thinks Dean’s just happy. He’s got Jack, they’re all safe; he has everything he wants. It’s nothing more complicated than that.

Other times, he thinks that Dean’s buried himself in parenting for most of his life. That it’s what he knows to do when he can’t handle whatever else is going on. That maybe — just maybe — that’s why his eyes keep sliding carefully away from Castiel’s face.

---

When Castiel emerges from Jack’s room that night after his bedtime story, though — the three of them rotate that duty, not so much because it’s a burden as because they’d fight over it if they didn’t — Dean’s leaning against the wall, arms crossed and a pensive look on his face.

“That’s a good one,” he says, before Castiel can say anything. “Goodnight Moon. Used to read that one to Sammy when he was little.”

Castiel closes the door with a quiet click. “I know.”

Dean’s mouth twists; it doesn’t look like an entirely happy expression. “Yeah, guess I shoulda figured.”

“Dean —”

“Did you mean it, Cas?”

The words catch Castiel by surprise. They’re quick, and clipped; Dean isn’t meeting his eyes. His shoulders are hunched up, defensive, like he’s waiting for the axe to fall.

Did I mean — what, exactly? Castiel almost asks. He could force Dean to say it. But that would be petty; instead, he just says, “Yes.”

“Okay,” Dean spreads his arms, “well, you can’t blame a guy for wondering, when you — fucking die and then pop back into existence no worse for the wear like — oh, nothing happened, fiddle-de-dee!”

Castiel’s drawing in breath for a retort, but it catches in his throat, a surprised laugh. “‘Fiddle-de-dee’?”

“Shut up.” But there’s a quirk at the corner of Dean’s mouth, too.

“Dean.” Castiel waits until Dean looks back up at him. “Nothing I’ve said has changed. But you have to realize that the ball is in your, ah — proverbial court.”

“Thought you were gonna say my hand there for a sec,” Dean mutters, but he’s still smiling. “A ball in the hand is worth two in the bush. Cas — can I tell you something dumb?”

“Of course.”

“I kinda —” Dean shuffles his shoulders against the wall. “I sorta, like. I had it in my head I was gonna come — save you. I dunno how, I was gonna figure it out, like you — like you pulled me out of Hell. I was just — going to. And then — I dunno, seems like Jack pulled you back, I guess, but it’s not like we can really ask him about it now, and — it feels like cheating. Feels like I don’t really deserve to, I dunno — if I can’t put my money where my mouth is —”

“It feels like you don’t deserve to what?”

Dean opens his mouth. Closes it. He does it again.

“I might suggest,” Castiel offers, “putting your mouth where your money is.”

“Jesus Christ,” says Dean, “I hate you sometimes,” and he kisses Castiel.

---

Sam was right, in the end. Preschool does have its bumps. But they’re used to them by now.

At least, Castiel thinks, as he finishes cleaning up the last of the mess, all the kids did seem to enjoy being tadpoles. Or pollyfrogs, or whatever it is Jack’s calling them this year. None seem to have sustained any permanent injury from hopping so excitedly they bounced off the walls. There’s a chance Dean might have cracked a rib from laughing, but, well — as tempted as Castiel is to let him suffer for being unhelpful, he won’t. Dean tells him he’s a soft touch.

“Come on, kid,” Dean’s telling Jack now, “let’s get you over to Eileen’s place, all right? She and Sam are gonna make you the awesomest dinner while Cas and I have our date night. Tell ‘em to let you try the margaritas.”

“Do not try the margaritas,” Castiel hastens to add.

“Hey, not like he wasn’t drinking way younger than this. Honestly, if you think about it —”

“Dean, if you don’t want me to have to erase the memories of all the other parents —”

“All right, all right, fine. I’m just sayin’.”

Jack looks up at them. Sometimes Castiel thinks he sees flashes of something there; a knowledge or memory from when he was the son of Lucifer, the next God, the savior of the world. He isn’t not those things now. Maybe in a few years — a good few years, Castiel hopes — they’ll need to talk to Jack about those things. For now, though —

“Make Eileen teach you how to say pollyfrog with your hands,” Dean’s telling Jack. “And then you gotta teach me. I don’t know. So you gotta remember it right, okay?”

Castiel thinks about the things Dean’s own father was telling him when he was Jack’s age. Watch out for Sammy. Look after your little brother, boy. He thinks maybe Jack isn’t the only one who’s gotten a second chance.

“Just you wait,” Dean murmurs in his ear as they watch Jack trundle up Eileen’s front steps. They’re going to a restaurant, because that’s what date night means, but Castiel’s long resigned himself to the fact that Dean’s at least as excited to stretch out on the couch for an R-rated movie marathon when they get home. “The lineup I’ve got for you tonight? Classics. We’ve got Hell Hazers, we’ve got Hell Hazers II: The Reckoning —”

“Oh,” says Castiel, in faux surprise, “is that the one you worked on?”

“Shut up. You like it.” Dean elbows him. “Kids out of the house? If you’re nice, I’ll let you get handsy in Hell Hazers III.”

Sam’s at the screen door, bending down to scoop Jack up; he gives them a wave. Castiel turns his head and murmurs into Dean’s hairline, “And if I’m not nice?”

He feels Dean’s pleasant shiver. But Dean just steps back and winks. “Bring it on, cowboy.”

“You’re mixing genres.” Castiel turns back toward the car. “Nonetheless, I’ll consider it.”

The Impala hasn’t changed that much. There’s a car seat in the back, now; there’s still hunting gear in the trunk, but there’s also a massive colorful folding umbrella for days at the beach. It hasn’t changed much, how Dean slides in behind the wheel, the way he smiles when the engine purrs to life. It hasn’t changed that when Castiel settles in beside him, he feels like he’s where he belongs. He feels like he’s going home.

It’s just that maybe, nowadays, he feels like he started there, too.