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One Species Too Many

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"I think we should get a cat."

Dean whipped around to look over the couch back at Cas. He studied his face, trying to gauge how far off into his own world Cas had slipped and how difficult it would be to call him back. But Cas's expression didn't have the unnerving, glassy detachedness that it usually did when he rambled about honey and board games. He was looking directly at Dean, lucid and earnest, waiting for a response.

He was serious. This was worse than Dean had thought.

"Uh, why?" Dean asked.

"I think it would be fulfilling for all of us to have a pet," said Cas, "And now is a perfect time. With your injury, you will be incapacitated for at least a month." He gestured to Dean's leg, which was encased in a cast and propped up on a lump of pillows. Broken. Again. It wasn't as bad as the last time it had happened, but a broken leg was never exactly a good thing. He would have liked for Cas to fix him up, except that Cas’s healing abilities had been the first thing to be sapped by Purgatory. By the time they’d escaped, Cas had been almost completely human. Now, a month after the fact, there was nothing left to prove that he had ever been an angel.

Cas continued, "We might as well take advantage of the time that we must spend here in this cabin and use it to bond with a new member of our family."

"A new family member?" said Sam as he walked into the room, balancing his laptop on one arm and a plate of food on the other, "Cas, did you finally knock Dean up?" He grinned at Dean like he thought he was funny. Bitch. Sometimes Dean thought Sam was the only one who wasn’t surprised by the news that Dean and Cas had hooked up in Purgatory. He hadn’t looked surprised when they had tumbled through the portal hand-in-hand, and he hadn’t looked surprised when they didn’t let go. A week after, when Dean had tried to explain, Sam had just told him, “It’s about damn time.”

"He wants a cat," Dean explained.

Sam only considered for a moment before saying, "I’d prefer a dog, but it’s not a bad idea."

"What?" Dean demanded, "Dude, you're supposed to be on my side! What are we going to do with a cat when we're back on the road? You can't just lock it in the car all day."

Cas walked over to sit on the couch's armrest, the better to stare into Dean's eyes as he said, "Cats are very independent. It could fend for itself while we’re hunting."

"Or we could just leave it in whichever motel we're staying at," Sam offered. It was scary how fast he had gotten on board with this idea. "I know most of them don't allow pets, but it wouldn't exactly be hard to sneak a cat in."

"That's… dishonest," said Dean, grasping at straws.

Sam lifted an eyebrow. "Since when do you care?."

And then both of them were giving Dean their best puppy-dog eyes at the same time, and Dean knew that he was beat.

"Fine," he sighed. Then, before Cas and Sam could get too carried away, he added, "BUT! Don't go getting a prissy, fluffy thing. Get a big, mean tomcat – one who can take care of himself."

Sam beamed. Cas wasn't the kind of guy who beamed, but he gave Dean one of those little smiles that made it look like he was glowing inside his skin. Then Cas tilted himself back onto his feet and said, "Let's go now!"

"Now?" Dean sputtered.

"There was a shelter down the road," Sam said, grabbing Dean's coat off the back of a chair and rummaging through the pockets for the keys to the Impala. "Don't worry Dean, we'll be back soon!"

As the two of them made for the door, clearly trying to get out of the cabin before Dean changed his mind, Dean yelled after them, "And no kittens! You hear me? No kittens!"

-----

Dean had never had a pet. He had never even been inside a pound except for a couple of times when he and Sam had had to pose as Animal Control officers for a hunt. But he had a general idea of how these things went. His brother and his angel would go to the pound, make girly noises over all the critters, pick one out like they were picking out a pair of shoes, and come back with a big cardboard carton full of cat. The cat would ignore them for a while, and eventually it would get eaten by a coyote. Problem solved.

But when they came back, there was no cardboard carton. Instead, Cas was carrying an open-topped box that was overflowing with fleece blankets. There were at least two power cords poking out from under the mass of fabric with plugs on the ends dangling loose, suggesting that at least some of the blankets were electric. From the way the blankets were tangled at the center like a nest, Dean could tell that there was something living in there, and whatever it was Cas looked as proud as if he had given birth to it himself.

"Dude," said Dean with trepidation, "No."

Sam appeared behind Cas, carrying a tote bag. It was bulging with God-knew-what, but Dean could clearly see the nipple of a baby bottle poking out of the top.

"Dude!" Dean groaned, turning away from Sam's apologetic smile to bury his face in his hands, "What did I say about kittens?"

"Dean…" Cas started to say, looking painfully hopeful.

"Take them back!" Dean ordered, "Right now!"

Cas frowned, a flash of annoyance showing through his zen exterior. "Dean, listen to me," he said, and Dean listened, "We intended to honor your requests, but when we arrived we learned that the mother of these kittens had just died. They are only a few days old, and the shelter simply doesn’t have enough people to take care of them. Since there was no surrogate mother available, if we hadn't agreed to foster them they would have died. We couldn't just let them die, Dean."

Dean could have let them die. Hell, he could have drowned the things himself and slept easy that night (and if that wasn't true then good luck proving it). But one look at Cas's face and he knew that he was in trouble. He let his head fall back onto the couch in defeat. "Let me see them," he said.

Cas stepped forward and lowered the box so that Dean could see inside. Nestled in the blankets were three furry little larva-creatures – two orange and one black. They didn't even look like cats. Their eyes were sealed slits, and their ears were floppy and folded. As they squirmed, their impossibly-small claws snagged on the blankets like hooks of Velcro. One of them opened its mouth and let out a little peep like a dying bird.

"Oh, my God!" Sam cooed, peeking over Cas's shoulder, "They're so cute!"

"Cas…" Dean choked, trying to find a way out of this mess without hurting anyone's feelings, "We can't keep three cats."

But Sam quickly spoke up. "That's the best part!" he said, "They're fosters. After six weeks, we'll give them back to the shelter and they'll go out to permanent homes."

That was bullshit. By the way Cas's eyes were sparkling, he didn't intend to ever let them go. "Let me tell you their names," Cas said.

And he'd named them. Dean's heart sank as he watched his chances of getting rid of the furry bastards shrink into nothingness.

Cas sat down on the coffee table right next to where Dean was lying on the couch. He set the box on his knees so that his hands were free to pet the kittens gently. "I wanted to name them after some of my siblings," he explained.

"Your siblings?" said Dean, "Like Zachariah? Because one, I hated that guy, and two, that's a terrible name for a cat."

Cas rolled his eyes. "I had other siblings," he assured Dean, "Siblings of whom I was considerably fonder than Zachariah." With that, he scooped the little jet-black kitten out of the box and placed it carefully on Dean's chest. "This one is Ambriel," he said.

Dean tried to squirm away, but the kitten had already latched its little Velcro-paws onto his shirt. He settled for lying very, very still and hoping the kitten wouldn't try to cuddle him too much. Luckily, it appeared to be too small to do much other than wriggle a little bit.

Cas set a second kitten beside the first, saying, "This one is Raziel." This kitten was a solid, creamy orange color.

"I guess these names aren't so bad," Dean admitted, lifting his eyebrows approvingly, "Amber and Raz. Got it." The kittens squirmed a little less as they started to get comfortable on their new bed, and Dean decided that it really wasn't too unpleasant.

Cas didn't bother arguing with Dean's nicknames. He just lifted up the last kitten – orange with the faintest hint of stripes – and declared, "And this one is Tzaphqiel."

Dean blinked twice. "Tza… qi… huh?"

"Tzaphqiel," Cas repeated.

"Dsaff…keel…" Dean tried uncertainly. The sounds were familiar, but he couldn't quite make his mouth put them together right. When Cas said it, the consonants rolled musically. When Dean said it, it sounded like he was trying to spit something out from where it was wedged under his tongue.

Cas winced at Dean's pronunciation. "On second thought," he said, "His name can be Daniel."

"Danny it is, then," Dean sighed as the last kitten was placed on his chest.

"So," said Cas, folding his hands over the empty box and gazing at Dean expectantly.

"So?" Dean repeated. Of its own accord, his hand floated up and began rubbing one of the kittens very gently between the ears.

"So, can they stay?"

Dean had already accepted that he would have no say in the matter, so he was caught a little off-guard. Taking care of infant kittens was really the last thing he wanted to do when he was busy recovering from a broken leg, but Cas had clearly bonded with the things already. Dean glanced at Sam, his eyes begging for help. Sam just shot Dean a look that clearly said, "Don't you dare break his heart."

As if Dean had to be reminded.

"Yeah, they can stay," Dean said.

Cas leaned forward and kissed Dean on his forehead. "I'll get the rest of the supplies from the car," he said, and he whisked back outside before Dean could express his disbelief that there were more supplies than what was in Sam's tote bag. Damn kittens had more luggage than Dean.

After a moment of stunned silence, Sam's lips curled up into an irrepressible smile. He looked down at Dean, stretched out with three tiny kittens curled up on him, and said, "You are so whipped."

"Shut up," Dean grumbled. He peered at the kitten closest to him – he was pretty sure this one was Amber (he had already forgotten their full names). "I'm on to you, furball," he whispered, pointing an accusing finger. Amber just yawned until it looked like its jaw was about to dislocate and, God help him, Dean had to admit that it was pretty fucking cute.

Sam scooted Dean's casted leg to one side so he could sit on the couch with him. "He's really excited about these cats," Sam said, raising his eyebrows at Dean.

"I said they could stay, didn't I?" Dean grumbled, "What else do you want from me?" He sighed heavily, disturbing the kittens with the movement of his chest. They mewed in complaint.

"I think this'll be good for him," said Sam.

Dean snorted a laugh. "What, like they're his therapy cats now?"

"Dean," said Sam reproachfully, "He's not crazy."

"I know," said Dean quickly, "I'm just saying… He's not quite right either, sometimes."

Sam's mouth twisted unhappily. He knew what Dean meant. "Is it really that bad?" he asked, "I mean, do you actually know what's going on with him?"

Dean stalled by herding Danny, who was shuffling determinedly to the right, back toward the center of his chest with a cupped hand. "Kind of," Dean finally said, "He just…He knows everything. It's hard for him to focus, especially when he gets a thought in his head and can't let it go. But it's weird – I think Purgatory actually made him better. At least he deals with it better, most of the time."

"That makes sense," said Sam.

Dean raised an eyebrow. "It does?"

"Sure," said Sam, "He's always been good at pulling it together when you need him."

"Yeah," Dean muttered uncertainly as he watched the kittens fall asleep.

-----

Cas soon returned with two more bags full of kitten supplies, whisked the little creatures off of Dean's chest, and set about fussing over them. Sam joined Cas enthusiastically. Dean laid back on the couch, turned on the TV, and waited for the inevitable moment that they would both run to him and ask for his help. Not that he would give it to them even if they asked. The kittens had been Cas's idea, and Dean wanted nothing to do with them if he could help it.

But the moment didn't come, and soon Dean found himself peeking over the couch back in the direction of the kitchen to find out what was going on. Sam was showing Cas how to mix and heat up the kittens' milk replacer. When Sam started testing the temperature on his arm, encouraging Cas to do the same, Dean couldn't help but call out, "When did you learn to do that?"

Sam looked up as if he were surprised that Dean was still there. "One of Jess's friends got pregnant sophomore year," he explained, "We all helped out with the baby. I still remember a few things."

"Please don't worry, Dean," Cas added, "Sam and I have everything under control."

"Right," said Dean, sinking back into the couch, "Good. Cause I'm not going to babysit the things. I didn't even want them."

"I will make sure that they are not a nuisance to you," said Cas, so meekly that Dean immediately felt guilty.

Once the milk was prepared, Cas and Sam rejoined Dean by the TV, Sam taking the chair and Cas curling up on the floor by Dean's feet with the box of kittens. As soon as Dean was sure that Sam was watching the game, he allowed himself to glance away from the TV and down at Cas. Cas lifted each kitten out of the box in turn and eased the nipple of the bottle into their mouths. They were so small that they didn't even fill his palm, but still he cradled them close to his body as if he were worried he might drop one. His hands were remarkably gentle, and his eyes were intense with focus on his task.

Those hands had once wielded swords and smote demons. The intensity in those eyes had once come from fierceness instead of motherly concentration. Cas had been a soldier once, and now he was something approaching domestic. Dean loved him both ways, but he couldn't help but think that Cas was somewhat diminished now.

It wasn’t that Cas was human. Dean didn’t care about that. The problem was that Dean couldn’t always tell whether the changes in Cas’s behavior meant that he was adapting to his new circumstances or whether he was about to let his eyes glaze over and demand that they all play Twister.

The last kitten finished eating, and Cas silently got up to return the bottles to the kitchen. Dean craned his neck to watch him go, and Sam finally took his eyes away from the screen to give Dean a smirk.

"You guys are really adorable, you know that?" said Sam, quietly enough that Cas couldn't overhear from the kitchen.

"Shut up, bitch," Dean muttered, turning back to the TV with a frown.

Sam's smirk relaxed into a worried smile. "Something wrong?"

Dean glanced at the kitchen to make sure Cas wasn't on his way back before leaning toward Sam and whispering, "It's weird, isn't it? He’s making us sandwiches, doing our dishes. He was more like his old self in Purgatory, you know, fighting monsters and stuff. But now here he is playing mom to some kittens. I don’t think it’s his... you know, head thing... so what gives?"

"I dunno, Dean," Sam said, shrugging unconcernedly, "Maybe it just makes him happy."

Dean was about to reply when Cas suddenly returned from the kitchen, and both Sam and Dean whirled back toward the TV as if they hadn't just been talking about him. Cas didn't seem to notice. He was holding a wet paper towel and a folded sheet of newspaper.

Once again, Dean couldn't help but slide his eyes down toward Cas and his kittens. Cas picked one up – the orange one with stripes; was that Danny? – and cradled it in his hand, its rear end tilted up. And then, inexplicably, Cas began using the paper towel to wipe the thing's ass.

"Uh," said Dean, not sure how to proceed. Cas's weirdness had never taken this particular form. "Cas? I think you've got the wrong end."

Cas paused, looked at Dean, and raised his eyebrows as if to say, "You are an idiot." Then he explained, "The shelter gave us many pamphlets concerning the care of these kittens. They need to be taught how to eliminate waste. If their mother were alive, she would lick their anuses to stimulate defecation, but a warm towel has the same effect." He set Danny down on the newspaper and, sure enough, after squirming around for a few seconds the kitten did its business.

Dean wrinkled his nose. "Ooookay," he groaned, "That's disgusting. Just so you know, I'm never letting you rim me again after this."

"Argh!" Sam shouted, clapping his hands to his ears, "Too much information!"

Cas ignored both of them. Once he had finished with the other two kittens, he folded up the soiled newspaper and took it outside to throw it away.

Shaking his head, Dean said, "I don't get why anyone thinks kittens are cute."

"Cas loves them," Sam admonished, "So be nice."

"Yeah, yeah," Dean sighed.

They went back to watching the game. Ten minutes passed before Dean started to worry. "Where the Hell did he go?" Dean muttered, glancing at the door through which Cas had so far failed to re-enter.

"He's probably just enjoying the fresh air," said Sam, but he was starting to look worried too.

Dean pushed himself into a sitting position and swung his feet off the couch and onto the ground. "I'm going after him," he said, struggling to his feet.

"I'll go," said Sam, jumping to his feet, "You need to take it easy. Your leg…"

But Dean was already fishing under the couch where he had stashed his crutches. "Sit down," he told Sam, "I’ve been lying on that couch all day; if I take it any easier I’m gonna puke. You stay here and watch the cats." Sam reluctantly returned to his seat, and Dean wobbled his way to his feet before making for the door.

When Dean got outside, to his relief, he found Cas almost immediately. At least the bastard hadn't zapped himself off to Antarctica or somewhere. But he was standing stock-still in the middle of the driveway, his eyes focused on something that Dean couldn't see.

"Cas?" Dean called out. When Cas didn't answer, he immediately felt the familiar grip of fear that his body had acquired in Purgatory. Every second that Cas spent like this – disconnected from the here and now – was a second that Dean spent vulnerable to the monsters that lurked just out of sight, their eyes glowing red between the trees.

And there was a deeper fear too, deeper even than Dean's fear of being ripped to shreds. The fear that, this time, he wouldn't be able to snap Cas out of it. That Cas would go back to the way he had been when he first woke up in the hospital. That Dean wouldn't be able to talk to him anymore except in metaphors involving board games and flowers and bees. Or worse, that he would simply leave, so distracted by all the other things in existence that he would forget all about Dean.

Dean hobbled in front of Cas so that he was looking into his face. "Cas!" Dean called again, louder this time.

When Cas's eyes met Dean's, they had none of their usual intensity. He looked at Dean the same way he would have looked at a traffic pylon – just another feature of the landscape. "The tree behind you is over five hundred years old,” he said suddenly, “There’s a gravestone inside it.”

“What?” Dean couldn’t stop himself from saying.

Cas didn’t quite sigh, but he hunched his shoulders impatiently as he explained, “A man was buried at the foot of the tree. Over the course of centuries, the trunk grew to engulf his headstone. Most of his bones are inside the roots, by the way. Except for his right mandible and a section of his spine - those were washed to the surface in the early 1700s and carried off by a raccoon.” He finished by reassuring Dean, “Don’t worry. He was no one you knew.”

Dean clapped twice, loudly, right in front in Cas's nose. "Okay, that's really fucking interesting," he said roughly, "But your crazy-time is over now."

Cas flinched, blinked, and slowly refocused his eyes on Dean's face. Dean could see the moment that Cas came back to himself. It was only a subtle change in his face, but it masked a jolting shift deep within him, as if he had been asleep and Dean had thrown a bucket of water on him. His brain struggled to reprioritize the words that Dean was saying over the trillions of other pieces of information vying for his attention.

When he readjusted completely and recognized the tension in Dean's expression, he cast his eyes down ashamedly. "I apologize," he muttered.

Dean was too relieved to get pissy about it. "Dude, it's fine," he sighed, "Let's just go back inside." Cas reached out to steady Dean as they turned back toward the door, but Dean waved him off with a curt, "Stop it; I can walk!"

Sam didn't ask, and Dean didn't explain. Cas just busied himself with the kittens again, feeding them twice more that afternoon (did the little monsters ever stop eating?) and repeating the disgusting routine with the washcloth.

Dean figured that he was being a pretty good sport by letting Cas bring the kittens to the dinner table, but he drew the line when Cas went to move their box into the room he shared with Dean.

"Nuh-uh," said Dean, dragging his leg as fast as he could to intercept Cas and the kittens, not even bothering to retrieve his crutches, "Not in there."

Cas turned to watch Dean's slow progress. "Please sit down, Dean," he said, "I will help you to the bed once I've plugged in the kittens' heating pad."

"Did you not hear me?" said Dean, pausing to lean against a wall. Trying to get around with a full-leg cast was exhausting. "I can't sleep with those things watching me!"

Cas tilted his head bemusedly. "Their eyes have not yet opened. They are incapable of watching anyone."

Dean rolled his eyes. "Whatever."

Sam approached, drawn by the sound of the argument, as Cas explained, "They need to be fed every two hours. It will be easier to keep them nearby."

Dean was about to say something else when Sam interrupted. "They can stay in my room," he said, reaching to lift the box from Cas's hands.

Cas didn't let go. "They are my responsibility," he said.

"Don't worry, man," said Sam, "I'll take care of these little babies, and you take care of your big one." He threw an unimpressed look at Dean. Dean threw his arms out to the sides, pouting.

But Cas still wouldn't let go. "If Dean doesn't want them in the bedroom, then I'll sleep out here with them," he said decisively.

Dean's jaw dropped. "You're choosing the kittens over me?" he sputtered.

Cas looked at him so sadly that Dean immediately felt like a dick. "That is not my intention," he said.

"Just let me take them for the night," Sam offered again.

"Thank you, Sam," said Cas, "But no. It was my idea to bring them here, and I am responsible for their well-being. There's no reason for either of you to lose sleep over them."

In the end, Sam helped Cas make up a bed on the couch and Dean spent a long, cold, resentful night alone.

-----

Dean would remember the week that followed as a whirlwind of fur, milk, poop, shockingly loud mewling considering the size of the source, late-night feedings, ridiculous amounts of laundry, and lots of frantic internet searching whenever a question arose that was not covered by the pamphlets from the shelter. Of course, Dean spent most of that week flat on his back on the couch while Sam and Cas did all the work, but he felt that he was contributing admirably by keeping his complaints to himself.

Strangely, though the feeding schedule would have been much easier to manage if they had split it between them, Cas insisted on doing all the actual work. He would take Sam's advice, and he relied on Sam to work the computer when they needed to research something about kitten care, but in terms of physical labor he politely refused to let Sam participate. "Responsibility" might have come up once or twice.

The kittens' nest box was installed in the TV room. As they grew, their squirming began to resemble crawling until they were getting to the point of being able to tip themselves out of their box and onto the floor. Cas countered by getting them a deeper box.

Their eyes opened on the one-week anniversary of their arrival, all six of them a brilliant blue.

"Cas, they've got your eyes!" said Dean with a chuckle.

"The color will change as they grow," said Cas, but he seemed pleased by the compliment.

Dean scooted off the couch to sit beside Cas where he was peering into the box. It was the closest look he had taken at the kittens since they had first come into the house. They didn't look like grubs anymore; they were actually starting to be recognizable as cats.

"That one's Amber, right?" said Dean, pointing at the little black kitten who was squinting up at him testily, "It looks different from before. It's getting some orange streaks in its fur."

"Ambriel is not an 'it,'" said Cas amusedly, "She is female. The other two are male." He scooped Amber up and offered her to Dean.

Dean took her more out of curiosity than anything. He peeked under her tail, but he couldn't see anything that might hint at the cat's sex. "How can you tell?" he asked.

"The color of their fur," said Cas, "It has to do with genetics. Would you like me to draw you a diagram?"

"Nah, I'll take your word for it," said Dean, flipping Amber around so he could see her face again. She seemed to study him for a moment, and then hissed ferociously. Dean gently returned her to her place with her brothers. "I don't think she likes me."

"She will learn to," Cas promised. His sincerity made Dean shift uncomfortably and scoot back toward the couch. "Let me help you," Cas offered.

"I got it," said Dean, already levering himself up.

With their eyes open, the kittens no longer needed to be watched at every hour of the day. They still needed to be fed near-constantly, but Cas was able to return to Dean's bed in between feedings. Dean wasn't exactly thrilled that Cas was sneaking out of bed every two hours all night long, but it was better than him not being there at all.

All in all, things were going pretty well until Jody called.

"You all listening?" her voice said through the phone. Sam had put it on speaker and set it in the middle of the table where all three of them could hear it. "There's some weird stuff going on in Newport. I heard you guys were nearby. Want to give it a look?"

"Well, we are on the West coast," said Sam, "But we're not exactly nearby. Newport is a full day's drive away."

"Well, you're closer than I am," said Jody, "And we don't have any time to waste. There have been five victims so far – all went walking by the ocean at night and were never seen again."

"That doesn't sound too weird," said Dean, "Maybe they were just idiots who drowned."

"Five in less than two weeks?" said Jody, "And besides, two of them washed back up on shore. But just their skin, split from groin to chin and down each inseam, flayed right off their bodies."

"Well, that's pleasant," Dean muttered.

Sam picked up the phone and said with a conflicted grimace, "Jody, we'd love to help, but Dean's laid up with a broken leg. We're not going anywhere for a while."

"Doesn't he have his boyfriend to look after him?" Jody wasn't letting them off that easy.

"Yeah," Sam admitted, "But we… uh, we just took in some kittens and they're kind of a lot of work. Isn't there anyone else you can call? Garth? Anyone? I mean, you've got Bobby's whole address book."

There was silence on the line, and then Jody's voice came back twice as loud and three times as pissed. "I'm sorry, did you think I called you because I just felt like ruining your day? Five people are dead! And I might trust Garth with a simple salt-and-burn, but this is serious! As for Bobby's contacts, they don't know me and I'm not going to call every single person on the list looking for the one or two who might give me the time of day. I don't have time for that; I'm still Sheriff of Sioux Falls and I have work to do that doesn't involve people halfway across the country getting skinned by sea-monsters. I've been working phones, chasing down lore, and running support for you for over a year now – which I do in my free time and which, by the way, could cost me my day job – the job that actually pays me – so when I give you a heads-up about a case in your area it's not because I'm looking for an excuse to boss you around. It's because I assume you're still in the business of saving lives!"

Dean reached over to cover the mouthpiece of the phone so Jody couldn't hear him when he said, "She's sounding more like Bobby every day."

Sam pushed Dean's hand away from the phone. "I hear you, Jody," he said, sounding appropriately chastised, "I'll take care of it."

"Good," she said, sounding cheerful again, "I'll e-mail you the details. Watch your ass out there, Sam."

"Yep," Sam sighed as he hung up the phone. As soon as Jody couldn't hear him, he gave a mighty sigh and slumped in his chair. "We were supposed to be on vacation," he whined.

"No vacation for Hunters, Sammy," Dean reminded him, "Our retirement plan sucks balls too."

"The important thing is that lives are at stake," said Cas, "You made the right decision, Sam."

Sam lifted his head to give Cas a regretful look. "Sorry to leave you on your own with the cats."

"Please don't worry," said Cas with a smile, "I am more than capable of taking care of them by myself."

Sam gave Dean a pointed glare until Dean finally crossed his arms and said defensively, "What? I said already, I'm not helping. It's not my fault you're taking off. Besides, you heard Cas: he's got it under control."

"Jerk," said Sam as he got up to pack. He left early the next morning, taking the Impala and promising to be back in no more than a week. Cas reassured him that everything would be fine in his absence.

Two days after Sam left, Amber started sneezing. By the time it got dark that night, she was refusing to eat, play, or do anything besides lie on her side and breathe heavily.

Around midnight, when Cas still hadn't come to bed, Dean went out into the living room to find him sitting on the couch. Amber was lying curled up in his lap, and Cas's hands encircled her gently. As quietly as he could, Dean shuffled around and sat next to Cas.

"I thought you weren't going to help," said Cas without looking away from the comatose kitten.

"I'm not helping," said Dean, "I'm just keeping you company. You gonna sit up with her all night?"

"If I have to," said Cas.

Cas's eyes stayed on Amber while Dean studied Cas's face. Cas seemed calm enough, but to Dean he looked even more fragile than the kitten in his lap. Dean still hadn't completely mapped the maze that was Cas's mind post-wall-breakage. What would set him off? How bad could things get? What would happen to him if this fucking kitten up and croaked?

"You know, Cas," said Dean softly, trying to pick his words carefully, "She seems really sick. And I'm pretty sure when kittens get orphaned this young, they're really, uh, not likely to, um… Look, I just don't want you to think it's your fault if she…"

Cas looked up at Dean for the first time. "If she dies?" he said calmly. And now that Dean could see Cas's eyes, he suddenly didn't look nearly as fragile as before.

"Yeah," said Dean.

"Dean," said Cas, "I named this kitten after my brother, Ambriel. He was one of Raphael's followers. I killed him."

Dean raised his eyebrows, surprised at the suddenness of the admission. "Oh," he said, "I thought you said you named them after siblings that you liked."

"I liked Ambriel very much," Cas said, "He was my dear friend since before the dawn of humankind. By comparison, the year we spent at war was a grain of sand in the hourglass of our lives. I loved him. And I ran a blade through his heart and held him as he died."

Cas no longer looked fragile at all. Dean dropped his eyes down to the kitten in Cas's lap, unable to hold his gaze.

"I am no stranger to death," Cas continued, "If this creature dies, I will be sad. But I will survive."

The way he said it, "I will survive," sounded almost reproachful, as if he were reminding Dean that his concern was unfounded. And for a moment Dean believed him. For a moment Dean saw the angel he had met in the barn all those years ago, who had entered Dean's life in a shower of sparks and broken glass. The angel who had held Dean up when Dean was weak, instead of the other way around.

"NYA NYA NYA NYA NYANYANYANYANYA NYA NYA…"

"JESUS!" Dean sputtered, "What the fuck is that?"

Cas pulled his phone out from his pocket. "That means it's time to feed them," he said.

Dean’s heart was still pounding. He peered at the screen of Cas’s phone and demanded, “Is that a cat dressed as a Pop-tart?”

Cas shrugged. He pushed a button, and the awful noise stopped. "Sam set it up for me," he said unconcernedly, "I don't know how to change it."

Sam. Dean would get him back for this, somehow.

Then Dean noticed that Cas was shifting indecisively, his eyes glancing back and forth between Amber in his lap and her brothers in their nest by the wall. "Hey," said Dean, "You go feed those two. I'll keep an eye on her."

"Really?" said Cas, his mouth twitching in equal parts relief and amusement.

Dean raised a finger seriously. "This doesn't count as helping," he informed Cas, "I'm just holding her while you do the work."

"Of course," said Cas as he deposited Amber into Dean's lap. Then he leaned over, kissed Dean's cheek, said, "I love you," and disappeared into the kitchen before Dean had the chance to feel obligated to reciprocate.

While Dean listened to the sounds of Cas preparing bottles of milk replacer in the kitchen, he leaned down and whispered to Amber, "Okay, listen up. I know he said he'd be fine, but that doesn't give you permission to go and die on him."

To Dean's surprise, Amber cracked her eyes open and gave him the most condescending look he had ever received from a cat.

The next time the horrific alarm went off, Cas was able to get Amber to eat a little. The next time, a little more. By lunchtime the next day, she was perfectly fine and back to cuddling happily with her brothers.

"The little drama queen was faking us out!" Dean grumbled.

Cas was too happy to care.

-----

The all-night vigil really took it out of Cas, but he couldn't catch up on sleep, not when the kittens still needed to be fed every few hours. The tooth-grindingly awful sound of the alarm blared regularly all through the day. Dean expected it to wake him up at night too, but that never seemed to happen. At first he wondered if Cas had figured out how to turn off the sound, but then he realized that Cas had simply become so attuned to the alarm that he was able to respond to it and turn it off before it even reached the second NYA.

So Dean remained well-rested, if slightly annoyed, while Cas became more and more haggard over the course of the week.

"Cas, I was just being a dick before," Dean admitted when Cas started nodding off several times in the middle of the day, "I'll help feed them at night so you can get some sleep."

Cas shook his head with a frown and gave him the same response that he had given Sam from the beginning. "They are my responsibility," he said, "Caring for them is well within my abilities."

But Dean was pretty sure that the lack of sleep was getting to him, especially when he found him in the kitchen one morning, holding a glass of milk and smiling vacantly as he swirled the liquid, admiring the thin white film that coated the side of the glass. Dean's stomach twisted tighter and tighter as he watched.

He finally spoke up. "Cas, are you gonna drink that or not?"

"The fluid dynamics of this milk are fascinating," Cas said, "There is nothing else quite like it. An emulsion of lipids and proteins, found in the glands of a lactating mammal."

"Cas…" said Dean, stepping forward and reaching for the glass.

"And this is the substance used to sustain life in precocious young," Cas continued unabated, "Such a strange design. I'm not sure what my father was thinking. It's certainly not ideal. If the mother dies, then the young will soon perish. That's assuming an absence of another source of milk, even artificial milk, and someone to administer it. Like me with these kittens, I suppose. I am thwarting my father's will by keeping them alive. Or perhaps He also planned for the invention of formula, and wishes for the kittens to survive. What do you think, Dean?"

"I think you're freaking me the fuck out," Dean said, hating the way Cas spoke to him superficially, without really engaging with him, as if Dean were barely present, "Now gimme that before you… son of a bitch!" He made a grab for the glass only to fumble it, trip on his cast, and make Cas drop it. Shards of glass scattered in a spreading puddle of white.

By reflex, Dean dropped to the floor, cast and all, and started picking up the largest pieces. Cas stared, his eyes tracking as his brain let go of its milk-related train of thought and caught up to what had just happened in front of him.

"I apologize," he said, distraught.

"No, it was my fault," Dean mumbled. He threw the chunks into the trash, but there was still a minefield of smaller shards all around Cas's bare feet.

"Let me help you clean it up…" Cas lifted his foot carefully, trying to find a safe place to set it down.

"Don't move!" Dean snapped. He was standing on the periphery of the mess, and Cas was just out of his reach in the center. After a moment of considering the logistics, he stepped forward with his casted leg. Glass crunched under the fiberglass. It took him a few wobbly seconds to make sure he wouldn't slip in the milk, but once he had found his balance he lifted Cas under the arms like a ragdoll and deposited him on the other side of the spill, out of harm's way.

But far from looking grateful, Cas looked pissed. "I am capable of avoiding injury on my own," he said, "Go back to the couch and let me handle this."

"I'll do it," said Dean, trying to kneel again, "You'll just hurt yourself." It was awkward, with his casted leg sticking out at an odd angle. He couldn't quite get close enough to the floor without sitting down, and he definitely didn't want his ass touching the floor when there was glass everywhere.

"Dean," said Cas, and this time the tone of his voice made Dean freeze. "I am not a child."

Dean stood, straightening out his busted leg and leaning against the counter. "You were just pontificating on the wonders of milk," he said, "Forgive me if I don't want you handling anything sharp right now."

For a long moment, Cas didn't speak. The anger melted out of his eyes and turned to helpless frustration. "I know that I am broken," he finally said, "But I wish you would see that I can still be of use to you."

The words hit Dean right in the gut. Broken? Harsh, maybe, but yes. That's what Dean thought of Cas now. Broken. His mind shattered. Getting better, but still in need of protection.

But Dean would never admit that. "Who said you aren't still useful?" he said, "If it weren't for you, I'd have died about a million times over back in Purgatory."

"I can be more than your shield," said Cas, "And more than your sword. I protected you in Purgatory by fighting by your side, by standing between you and danger, because that is what you needed. But we are not in Purgatory anymore. Let me protect you now, by feeding you when you are hungry and taking over your chores when you are injured. If you love me, if you trust me, if I am truly a part of your family, then you will accept my help when I offer it."

And then it finally became clear to Dean that all the domestic crap that he had always looked down on was not a symptom of Cas's broken wall, but an expression of his love. Dean should have seen it earlier; after all, Dean knew that kind of love well. That love that compels you to give everything you have for someone else, not because they deserve it, but because you have chosen to make them a part of you. It took strength to love like that, and maybe it was a different kind of strength than it took to fight a battle, but it was no less admirable.

Dean didn't know how to put any of that into words, so he stared into Cas's eyes and willed him to understand. When Cas's face softened, his brow relaxing and his jaw loosening, Dean knew that he had somehow succeeded. He extended his hand to Cas. "I'm gonna go sit down," he said, "Help me to the couch?"

"Of course," said Cas gratefully, taking Dean's hand and positioning himself under Dean's arm.

After weeks of hopping, crutching, and dragging his way around the cabin, Dean had to admit that having Cas to lean on was about a million times better. Cas took most of Dean's weight off his bad leg with just an arm around his waist, and Dean got the impression that Cas could have scooped him up and carried him like a chick in a romance movie if he'd felt like it.

Cas deposited Dean on the couch and made sure that he was comfortable before returning to the kitchen. Dean listened to the clink of glass on glass and the wet slaps of soaked dishrags as Cas cleaned up the spill. His instinct was to call out, to make sure Cas was all right, but he suppressed it. Cas had it under control – under better control than Dean really gave him credit for. So Dean laid back and tried to relax.

But before he could let his eyes slide closed, they were caught by a sudden movement from the corner of the room. The kittens' nest-box was there, up against the wall, the power cords of their heating pad flowing out and into the nearby wall socket. Motionless. But Dean was sure that he had seen something, so he watched until the tips of a pair of ears slowly showed over the edge of the box. A head followed, and then a pair of paws. Soon Amber was peering out at Dean as if trying to decide whether or not he would be an obstacle to her plans for world domination.

Dean narrowed his eyes at her.

She apparently wasn't impressed, because she looked away from Dean and began squirming her way out of the box. The lip was almost too high for her, but she managed to get one back leg over the edge and soon she had somersaulted to the floor with a thump.

"Uh, Cas?" Dean called. Amber's brothers were peeking out after her, trying to figure out how she had pulled off her escape. "The kittens are making a break for it."

Cas didn't sound concerned when he shouted back, "They've been doing that since yesterday. It's nothing to be concerned about. Just make sure they don't wander too far."

While Cas was talking, Raz and Danny had flopped their way out of the box and down to the floor. Now all three of them were meandering clumsily in various directions. "What am I…" Dean almost demanded to know what he should do about it, but then he decided that since Cas was busy in the kitchen the least Dean could do was keep an eye on the kittens. Luckily, it didn't look like it would be very hard. They weren't making much headway; the two boys were mostly staggering in circles, falling on their faces every now and then, and crying plaintively.

Only Amber seemed to know where she was going. She made her way over to the couch, also falling on her face occasionally, but moving with more purpose than her brothers. When she arrived level with Dean's face, she pressed herself up against the side of the couch, opened her mouth, and said, "Mew!"

It sounded like an order.

"What do you want from me?" Dean whispered, not wanting to have to admit that he was talking to a cat.

"MeeeeeEEEAAAAAAEEEeeeeew," said Amber, so loudly that Dean's eyebrows shot up in admiration.

"You've got a set of pipes on you, I'll give you that," Dean whispered as he reached down and scooped Amber up like a flailing potato. She had grown a lot since she had arrived all curled up like a grub, but she was still tiny and, under Dean's fingers, shockingly delicate. He could feel each rib and each joint, and he was instantly aware of how easy it would be to accidentally hurt her. He set her on his chest gently.

She immediately stopped yelling and, instead, dug her needle-sharp claws through his shirt and into his skin. Dean hissed a curse and resisted the urge to swat her off the couch.

Cas came out of the kitchen and, seeing Dean flinching under Amber's kneading claws, stopped and cocked his head amusedly.

"Not a word," Dean said, pointing a finger at Cas, "Now, how do you turn off the claws?"

"You don’t," said Cas, "They haven't learned to retract them yet. You'll just have to be careful." He knelt by the box where the other two kittens were still flopping around in circles, and he herded them back into their nest of blankets.

Dean was careful, and patient, and finally Amber stopped stabbing him every few seconds. "Hey, I think she stopped!" he announced, just before Amber squatted and pooped on his shirt. "Aw, son of a bitch…" he amended, "I thought you said they couldn't shit unless you did that gross paper-towel thing?"

Cas looked up, saw Dean's predicament, and fuck if the bastard didn't have to suppress a smile. "They are learning to do that on their own," he said.

"Thanks for warning me," Dean grumbled, picking Amber up and shifting her back to the ground. She mewed angrily at him, but this time he ignored her.

Cas retrieved Amber and returned her to her brothers, despite her protests. Then he crossed the room to bend over Dean. "Hold still," he advised as he rolled up the hem of Dean's shirt to keep the stain from touching his skin. Then, "Lift your arms, please," as he pulled the shirt over Dean's head and tossed it into the corner with the rest of the kittens' laundry.

Dean still wasn't happy. "You can't keep the little bastards around here if they're just… gonna… poop everywhere…" he tried to say, but he was quickly distracted by the way Cas was thoughtfully regarding his bare chest.

"I understand, Dean," said Cas, even as he knelt on the couch and swung one knee over Dean's hips so that he was straddling Dean's lap. And that was when Dean completely forgot what they had been talking about.

Cas leaned forward slowly, slowly enough that Dean finally lost his patience and pulled him down with a hand on the back of his neck. And just like the first time, just like every time, as soon as their lips met nothing else mattered. Dean let his body relax into the couch cushions, his arm draped lightly over Cas's neck. He let his face be turned by Cas's hands on his jaw and in his hair - they angled his mouth into a better position for Cas to attack it with his tongue.

Then Cas's hands were making their ways down Dean's neck, his chest, sliding down his sides and pressing on his hips. Just as his fingers pushed under the waistband of Dean's pants, Cas dropped his mouth down to Dean's neck to suck fiercely at the skin behind his ear.

"That's it, Cas, keep going," Dean gasped, lifting his hips to chase after Cas's touch. But Cas had frozen. He drew his hands out of Dean's pants and rested them on the couch instead as he slowly lifted his face out of the crook of Dean's neck with a pained expression.

"Dean?" Cas said, grimacing, "When's the last time you showered?"

Dean felt his shoulders hunch in embarrassment as he stammered, "Well, I'm supposed to keep my cast dry, and it's really hard to keep it out of the water since the shower head doesn't detach. I mean, I tried at first but then I figured that I was gonna get it off in less than a month anyway, so… it's been about two weeks."

Cas looked deep into Dean's eyes. Sometimes Dean got the feeling that their whole "profound bond" thing let them read each other's minds, but he was pretty sure that even without that he would have been able to recognize Cas's expression as saying, "And you let me put my mouth on you?"

"Dude!" Dean continued defensively, "It's not that bad. Every morning I stand at the sink and, you know…" He gestured to his neck, his armpits, and his groin. "…spot-clean."

Cas seemed somewhat reassured, but he still asked, "And your hair?"

"I can't get my head under the sink faucet," Dean admitted.

Cas shook his head slightly with a small smile, and then stood and offered his hand to Dean. "Come with me," he commanded.

"What about the cats?" Dean asked, letting himself be pulled to his feet.

"I'll close the doors," said Cas as he pulled Dean toward the bathroom, "They won't get far."

Dean stopped protesting and let Cas take over. Soon he found himself stripped naked and seated with his back against the outside edge of the bathtub, his head bent backwards over the lip. Cas had even put a folded towel under his neck to make the position more comfortable.

As Dean had said, the shower head was not detachable, and the lower faucet didn't work, so Cas had to hold a bucket up to the sputtering shower head to fill it with hot water. Dean wasn't too noble to take advantage of his low angle and peek up Cas's shirt. Not for the first time, he felt grateful that Cas had traded in the suit for hospital scrubs, and then the hospital scrubs for borrowed t-shirts and jeans. Dean wasn't sure whether he preferred Cas wearing Sam's shirts, which made him look small and kind of adorable, or Dean's shirts, which tickled Dean's possessive streak.

Cas shot Dean an eyebrow as he shut off the water and got down to sit on the lip of the tub, letting Dean know that he hadn't missed the staring. Dean answered with a smug grin.

They only had one bucket, so Cas used a large measuring cup from the kitchen to scoop water over Dean's head. He only splashed it onto Dean's face once before figuring out how to hold his hand against Dean's hairline to make sure the water ran in the right direction.

At first Dean kept having to bite back snarky comments, but by the time Cas was massaging shampoo into his scalp he had decided that this comfortable silence was better. He closed his eyes and enjoyed the sensation of Cas's fingers sliding through his soapy hair. The muscles of his neck stayed slack even as Cas gently turned his head from side to side so that he could reach behind Dean's ears and down to the bottommost curve of his skull.

"Mmm," was all Dean said when Cas's fingernails scraped deliciously against his scalp.

"Mm-hmm," Cas replied. A splash and a hollow clunking sound signaled that he was picking up the measuring cup again, and sure enough Dean felt a stream of water begin to wash the soap out of his hair.

When he was done, and the water that ran through Dean's hair came out clean, Cas nudged Dean upright and dropped a towel over his head. Dean was blinded until Cas straddled his lap and pushed the towel away from his face, roughly rubbing his hair dry. Dean's hands made their ways absently to Cas's hips, and then up under his loose-hanging t-shirt. One hand started at the base of Cas's spine and walked slowly up, vertebra by vertebra. The other ran up Cas's chest to gently pinch at a nipple. Cas's body warmed to the attention, and he gave a sigh deep in his throat that was almost a groan. Dean's hair was still quite damp when Cas threw the towel impatiently aside in favor of diving in for a kiss.

Dean pulled Cas more firmly onto his lap, savoring the rub of Cas's clothes against his own bare skin and kissing him lazily, sloppily, all lips and tongue. It was Cas who brought the teeth, biting Dean's lower lip just hard enough to make Dean's hands tighten their grip on Cas's rear.

"My hair's still wet," Dean complained with a cheeky smile once Cas had released his lip.

Cas pulled back and regarded Dean thoughtfully. Then he leaned forward and lapped up the trails of water that were running from Dean's hair down his face. The tip of his tongue ran quickly from Dean's chin up to his temple, tracing the path of a water droplet there, and then again on the other side. A row of kisses along Dean's hairline stopped the droplets that were just about to fall. Cas even sucked up the water that had pooled in the hollows of Dean's collarbones, and worked his way around to mouth at the moisture clinging to the nape of Dean's neck. He only paused when Dean rolled his hips up, letting Cas feel the growing erection beneath him.

They looked into each other's eyes, breathing heavily, for no more than a second or two before Dean asked breathlessly, "Bed?"

"Bed," Cas confirmed, grabbing Dean's wrists and hauling him to his feet.

Dean continued to lean on Cas as they staggered out of the bathroom and into their bedroom. "Good thing I'm already undressed," Dean chuckled, "Trying to get my pants off over this cast is a major mood-killer."

"Why do you think I made you take them off before I washed your hair?" Cas answered, pushing Dean ahead of him.

Dean let Cas push him face-first down onto the bed, turned, and said, "You sly dog!" He levered himself up on his elbow so that he could see. Cas smirked as he retrieved a bottle of lube from under the bed and tossed it onto the mattress beside Dean, and then began to undress. Another good thing about Cas borrowing Dean's clothes was the fact that his pants fell down as soon as his belt was undone. It was very convenient.

Dean tried to roll over, struggling with his heavy cast, but Cas pushed him back down onto his stomach with one hand on his shoulder. "Stay." Dean stayed. Cas slowly crawled on top of him, matching shoulders to shoulders and hips to hips, his hands running down Dean's arms to weave their fingers together. His hardening cock prodded lightly between Dean's legs, making Dean squirm with anticipation.

"Faster is better," Dean whined.

The pop of the cap on the lube bottle silenced him. Cas said nothing. He didn't need to.

When Dean felt the cold slick of the lube between his cheeks he gasped, "Fuck!" and then, when Cas sank two fingers deep inside him, "Fu-uck! That's more like it!"

But after the initial intrusion, Cas took his time. He worked Dean open slowly and gently, planting kisses across Dean's shoulders and up his neck, until Dean was slack and quivering under him.

"Come on, Cas, come on," Dean murmured, "Give it to me."

Cas laughed a little in his throat as he craned his neck to kiss Dean's mouth, and added a third finger. With his free hand, Cas reached around and grabbed Dean's hip, angling him up and rolling him onto his side. He cradled Dean's body against his, back to front, one hand thrusting faster and faster into his ass while the other swept low to stroke his cock, rubbing the head through the foreskin until it stood hard and throbbing.

When Cas said, "Almost there," it was not a question but a statement of fact. Dean was arching back, throwing his head over Cas's shoulder, and trying to quicken the pace with stuttering thrusts of his hips. He tried to bite back his moans until he remembered that Sam wasn't home, and then he threw caution to the winds and opened his mouth, letting loose every gasp and plea and filthy shouted oath. He was so close that he could feel it building within him, growing so quickly that in another moment he wouldn't be able to stop it…

"NYA NYA NYA NYA NYANYANYANYANYA NYA NYA…"

They both froze, Cas with his hands in mid-stroke and Dean with his mouth in mid-curse, and they both turned slowly to where Cas's phone sat buzzing and ringing on the nightstand.

"NYA NYA NYA NYA NYANYANYANYANYA NYA NYA…"

"Don't you dare," said Dean, trying to make his voice low and dangerous. It only came out sounding desperate and whiny.

Cas rolled reluctantly out of bed. He pulled his fingers out too fast and at an awkward angle, forcing Dean to give an undignified yowl as he flopped back onto his face. "I'm sorry, Dean," Cas panted as he grabbed a pair of sweatpants off the top of the open dresser drawer and pulled them on, "I'll be right back." He snatched up the phone and turned off the alarm as he made for the door.

"Don't you dare leave me like this!" Dean shouted after him, but Cas was already gone. Dean gaped helplessly as he listened to Cas's footfalls on the way to the kitchen, followed shortly by the slamming of cupboards and the whir of the microwave.

And then Dean began to laugh. It started as one of those little unhappy chuckles but it soon built into a quiet but gut-shaking belly laugh that would have doubled Dean over if he hadn't already been lying flat. Okay. So Cas loved those goddamn fucking kittens. It wasn't ideal, but Dean could learn to share.

He was still laughing as he rolled himself laboriously over, wrapped his hand around his cock, and finished himself off.

-----

As Sam stood on the darkened beach, watching the leathery sealskin twist and burn in the bonfire, he let out a sigh of relief that he had been holding in all week. It had been a rough hunt, especially without Dean and Cas to back him up, but luckily he had found help from a different source.

Sam turned to look at his companion, who was likewise watching the fire with an expression of satisfaction. It had been almost six years since Sam had watched Tamara drive away from the battle against the Magnificent Seven, which had cost her her husband. She had aged more than she rightfully should have, but she was still standing strong. It was more than Sam could say for a lot of hunters he had known six years ago.

Tamara shook her head with a faint smile as she voiced what Sam had been thinking: "Selkies. Who would have thought, huh?"

"It's a first for me too," Sam admitted.

"I could tell," said Tamara, "You would have been fish food if I hadn't showed up."

"I'm not too proud to admit it," Sam replied.

When the fire had burned down and the seal skin that had once belonged to the killer selkie had been reduced to ash, Sam and Tamara quenched the last of the flames and scattered the coals over the sand.

Tamara was quiet. Sam tried to break the ice by asking, "So, how have you been since… you know. Last time?"

Though Tamara hadn't yet shown a shred of weakness, when she looked up at Sam this time there was a shadow of grief lying behind her eyes. "What do you think?" she said, bitterly but not angrily.

Sam nodded in understanding. "You've been terrible," he said, "You've kept breathing, day by day, hoping that eventually it would hurt less and you could get on with your life. But at some point you realized that it would never stop hurting, and you had to keep going anyway. And now you're okay, or at least that's what you tell people, because they don't want to hear about how you're never going to be okay again."

Tamara raised her eyebrows at Sam. "You can't really understand," she said accusingly, "Dean came back. Isaac never will."

Sam smiled sadly. "Dean's not the only person I've ever lost."

They finished their work in silence, and then trekked back up the beach to their cars. Sam was about to say an awkward goodbye when Tamara spoke up.

"I've been running with a pair of hunters lately," she said, "They're sisters. Tough kids. Good in a fight. Kind of like you and your brother. They're up at Puget Sound right now, tracking a vampire nest. I was on my way there when I ran into you."

She didn't say anything else. It took Sam a moment to realize that he was being invited along. "Tamara…" he said regretfully, "I should really get back to Dean and Cas."

"Oh, I see how it is," said Tamara, "I save your life, but you're too busy to lend a hand in return, is that it?" She smiled to show that it was a joke, but it stung Sam anyway to know that she was right. "Seriously, Sam," she said, the smile dropping from her face, "If you have to go, then go. No hard feelings. But we could really use your help up there."

Sam hesitated for only a moment longer before pulling out his phone and dialing Dean's number.

"Dean?" he said, "Sorry to wake you, man. I'm gonna be gone a little longer than I thought."

-----

"Just a sec," Dean whispered into the phone. He leaned across the bed to make sure that Cas was still asleep, that the vibration of Dean's phone hadn't woken him. Cas had been up an hour ago, and he'd be up again in another two hours or so to feed the kittens. The last thing he needed was for his precious short span of sleep to be interrupted. The more tired Cas got, the more often his episodes happened, and though Dean had so far managed to snap Cas out of it without breaking anything since the milk glass, he preferred Cas not to drift off in the first place.

Carefully, Dean scooted out of bed and hopped into the hallway. When he had managed to close the bedroom door with Cas still snoring peacefully, he finally spoke to Sam again. "What the hell for?"

He leaned against the wall and listened as Sam explained about the selkie, Tamara, and the vampire nest in Washington.

"Go with her, man," he said when Sam had finished, "We owe her that much."

"What about Cas?" Sam asked, "Are you still making him do all the work?"

Dean frowned into the phone, too sleepy to care that Sam couldn't see him. "I've offered!" he said, "But he doesn't want my help. Says he's got it under control."

"Does he?"

"I dunno," Dean sighed, his eyes flicking toward the closed bedroom door, "He's tired, obviously. But things are good. I think we're good."

Sam chuckled. "Does that mean you're still getting laid?"

"Yes it does, bitch," Dean replied, refusing to let Sam make him feel embarrassed about his sex life, even though it was true that Cas's libido had tanked lately due to exhaustion, "Don't you have some vampires to kill?"

"Fine, jerk," said Sam, his smile evident even through the phone, "I'll give you a call when I hit Seattle."

"You do that," said Dean. He yawned loudly, but he didn't forget to add a quick, "Stay safe," before Sam hung up.

Dean hobbled back to bed, quietly setting the phone back on the nightstand and peeling back the covers inch by inch. Slowly, gently, he rolled his body up close to Cas and draped an arm over his sleeping form.

"Uh…" Cas mumbled in his sleep, his eyelashes fluttering softly, "Who was that?"

Dean murmured in reply, "Just Sam. Go back to sleep, babe."

Cas obeyed. A couple of hours later, when his phone alarm went off, he wriggled his way out from under Dean's arm to prepare another meal for the kittens. When all three of them were fed, he returned and re-arranged the arm around himself. Dean slept on, never knowing that Cas had been missing.

-----

The kittens learned to walk. This presented a whole new set of problems.

It wasn't enough anymore to just shut the door and hope they wouldn't stray too far from their box. They were walking with purpose, following every interesting sight and smell and hardly ever falling on their faces anymore. It seemed that they were always underfoot, and they had somehow perfected the art of making Dean trip over them.

"Don't they know that if I step on them, they'll die?" Dean grumbled after having to windmill his arms wildly in order to stay upright. Raz was rubbing up against Dean's cast as if he hadn't just almost caused both of their deaths.

Cas stooped to guide Raz away from Dean. "Please don't step on them if you can help it," he said.

That was easier said than done. Even though their nest box was in the TV room, they managed to get into every corner of the house, even through closed doors. Cas hypothesized that they were following Dean through the doors when he wasn't paying attention. Dean's theory was that they had all inherited Cas's angel-teleportation.

It didn't matter how careful Dean was about accounting for every kitten before leaving a room and always closing doors after himself. Somehow, after making himself a sandwich in a previously cat-free kitchen, he would turn around to find a little orange puffball watching him and his food. He would be brushing his teeth and some little hell-beast would decide to make a scratching post out of his leg. Or he and Cas would be about to get it on, only to be interrupted by confused mewing from under the bed.

The only way Dean could deal with it was to constantly remind himself that Cas loved them. Cas loved them and Dean loved Cas, so he would just have to deal with it.

In fact, just as Dean had told Sam, he loved Cas enough to offer his help with the kittens again and again. They were eating every four hours now, but they were still a long way from being able to make it through the night, and Cas was definitely showing the strain of keeping up with their punishing pace. Dean had no desire to get more involved with the kittens than he already was, but he couldn't stand to see Cas keep running himself ragged.

It didn't matter. The more Dean offered, the more resolved Cas seemed to become. Dean must have heard some variation on, "They are my responsibility," at least a dozen times in the last few days alone.

So for a while Dean's only interaction with the kittens was occasionally tripping over one. Then, finally Raz and Danny seemed to figure out that weaving between Dean's feet was a dangerous and unproductive game, and they began to steer clear of him. Dean might have been a little offended that he was being ignored, but if he actually missed the kittens' attention then he was never going to admit it.

Amber, on the other hand, abandoned almost all human contact as soon as she figured out how to get between rooms. She would roam all over the cabin, hiding in the most unlikely spots, and only coming out when she heard the sounds of Cas making her food. She never tried to trip Dean; she only yowled at him from afar and, if he sat very still, she would stalk over and chew on his socks. But most of the time she was nowhere to be seen.

Dean was returning to the couch from the kitchen, a freshly-made sandwich in hand, when he noticed the door to the broom closet standing a few inches open. He knew that Raz and Danny were back by the nest box, playing with Cas, but he figured that he had better make sure Amber wasn't in the closet before he closed the door.

Sure enough, she was there nestled behind a stack of dirty towels and an old mop head. Her black fur blended into the shadows almost completely, but the orange flash on her face gave her away. She stared out at Dean, tail twitching.

"C'mere, you dumb cat," said Dean, beckoning, "Someone's going to close this door on you by mistake and you'll starve in there."

Amber hissed at him.

Slowly, difficultly, Dean kicked his cast out in front of him and sat down on the carpeted floor, setting his sandwich and his single crutch down beside him. The lower angle let him reach into Amber's hiding spot to try to grab her. "Don't make this harder than it needs to – OW!" he said as Amber turned into a tornado of claws and teeth as soon as his hand touched her. She hissed again at his retreating hand, proud of having defended her territory from the invader.

Dean didn't know why he wasn't just leaving her be. He could have gone back to the couch and told Cas where she was, and then it wouldn't have been his problem anymore. But he had started this, and he was Dean Winchester, and he'd be damned if he was going to admit that he'd failed at retrieving a kitten from behind a mop.

He grabbed his sandwich off its plate. It was tuna. He was positive that cats liked tuna, though he wasn't sure if Amber could eat solid food yet. Finally he decided that she'd be fine if he gave her small enough pieces. He scratched a crumb of fish off of his sandwich – no more than could fit under his fingernail – and put it on the ground just on the other side of the towels that Amber was hiding behind.

A twitching nose appeared from behind the towels, and then the entire kitten zoomed out to pounce on the piece of fish. She lapped it up, and with much exaggerated licking and gulping she managed to get it down her throat. Dean expected her to jump back into her hiding place, but instead she just looked at him expectantly.

"Okay, then," Dean said as he picked another piece off his sandwich. Soon there was a little trail of tuna crumbs leading from the depths of the closet right up to Dean's lap. Amber followed it readily. She hesitated for a moment at the threshold between closet and hallway, but soon her desire for tuna outweighed her fear of exposure and she soldiered on. When she finally reached Dean, her nose almost bumping up against his leg as she grabbed the last piece of tuna, she looked up at him once more and said loudly, "Mew!"

"You realize that Cas is probably going to kill me for messing up his feeding schedule?" Dean told her.

"MEW!" she replied, unconcerned.

"Whatever," Dean sighed, "Are you going to try to kill me again if I pick you up?"

Amber stared at him in a way that seemed to say, "Try your luck, human."

"Fine," said Dean, "I'll leave you alone. Just don't go hiding in any more closets." He shut the closet door so she couldn't return to her old hiding place, and began to the task of getting back to his feet. It took him a few minutes before he was completely upright, sandwich in one hand and crutch in the other, and he expected Amber to be long gone by then. But when he looked around, he found her still sitting right behind him in the middle of the hall, staring with unblinking blue eyes.

He took a step. So did she. He took another step. She followed.

"I'm not giving you any more tuna," he said gruffly.

Cas voice floated down the hallway from the TV room. "Dean? Who are you talking to?"

Dean immediately felt his cheeks grow hot as he shouted back, "No one!" He hopped his way quickly back to the couch and went to work on his sandwich. It took him a moment to realize that Amber was still following him, sitting patiently at the foot of the couch and watching Dean intently.

"Oh, I see," said Cas. Raz was asleep in his lap, and Danny was perched on his shoulder, and Dean had to work very hard to convince his brain that that was not the cutest thing he had ever seen in his life. "You were talking to Ambriel."

"I wasn't talking to the cat, okay?" Dean lied.

"She seems to have gained an interest in you," Cas observed.

"She just wants my food," said Dean. He devoured the rest of his sandwich and held his empty hands up to Amber, showing her that there was none left. She just mewed at him again and stared harder.

It didn't matter what Dean did after that; whether he had food in his hands or not, Amber was his constant shadow. She was never directly underfoot, never in the way, but wherever Dean went she was not far behind. She only let him out of her sight during feeding times, when food proved to be more interesting than Dean, and at night, when she curled up with her brothers and allowed Dean to escape. But as soon as the food was gone or Dean emerged from his room, she was back to stalking him through the house.

"I don't get it," Dean said to Cas after two days had passed and Amber didn't seem to be at all tired of following him around, "Why does she like me now? I just gave her some tuna!"

"Perhaps she senses in you a kindred spirit," Cas said, not looking up from the pot of soup he was stirring.

"She's a cat," Dean said flatly, his tone revealing just how ridiculous he found that idea.

"Then maybe she’s just hoping that you will feed her more tuna," said Cas, humoring him.

"Yeah," said Dean.

From her place under the cabinets, where she had a good view of Dean where he sat at the kitchen table, Amber said, "Mew!"

-----

"NYA NYA NYA NYA NYANY…"

The alarm only went on for half a second longer than usual, but it was enough to wake Dean up. He opened his eyes to find Cas sitting on the edge of the bed, clutching the phone, his finger still on the button, frozen in that moment of harsh awakening.

Cas's silhouette turned as he glanced toward Dean, and Dean quickly closed his eyes again. He didn't want Cas to feel like he had to apologize for waking him up. After a few seconds of feigned sleep, Dean felt Cas rise off the bed. He waited until he heard the bedroom door open and close again before he sat up and rubbed his eyes.

Dean was no stranger to sleep deprivation, and he knew exactly how miserable it was. Cas had been catching naps a few minutes at a time for the last week, his longest uninterrupted sleep never lasting longer than four hours. It wasn’t enough. Whatever Cas was now, he was human enough that he needed a full night’s sleep at least every now and then.

The hum of the microwave was barely audible through the bedroom door. Not for the first time, Dean felt the overwhelming urge to drag himself out of bed, hop his way to the kitchen, rip the bottles of formula out of Cas's hands, and send him back to get the sleep he so desperately needed. But he had tried that before, and Cas had only gotten pissy with him about it. "Please go back to bed, Dean," he had ordered, as if Dean were the one who needed rest.

When Cas returned to bed, Dean wormed one arm under his waist and wrapped the other arm around his shoulders. He squeezed Cas to his chest, silently begging him to stay. It didn't matter. In another four hours the alarm went off again. This time it took Cas nearly half a minute to blink his way groggily awake and turn it off. There was no point in Dean pretending to be asleep anymore.

"I'm sorry," said Cas when he noticed Dean staring at him.

"What happened to your reflexes?" Dean asked.

"You were holding me too tightly," said Cas, "I couldn't get to the phone in time."

They both knew that that was a lie. They both knew that Dean wanted to offer to take over, to let Cas stay in bed. And they both knew how Cas would answer.

So they skipped the words, leaving it at just a meeting of eyes.

Cas walked out. Dean rearranged his leg and tried to go back to sleep.

The next day, Cas was a mess. He stumbled through his chores like a zombie, and whenever he sat still for too long his eyelids would begin to droop. Every time he had a second to spare he flopped onto the couch with Dean, and every time he was curled up and asleep almost before he hit the cushions.

The tenth-odd time Cas returned to the couch where Dean was stretched out on it full-length, lying on his back and watching TV, he didn't so much as bother to ask Dean to scoot over and make room for him. He just draped himself over Dean's chest, laid his head on Dean's shoulder, and went out like a light.

For a second, Dean considered fishing the phone out of Cas's pocket and disabling the alarm. Or smashing it to pieces – that would have worked too. But he stopped himself only because he knew that Cas would blame himself if anything happened to the kittens, even if that something was just going without food for a few extra hours. The kittens were the whole point of this ordeal. Dean couldn't just force Cas to give up the work.

But on the other hand, this was getting ridiculous. Cas wouldn't be able to go on like this, not when there were more than two weeks to go before the kittens would be able to make it through the night. Two more weeks of this? Cas would be lucky to make it two more days.

As it turned out, he didn't even make it that long. The next night, around 2AM, Dean woke up to the sound of the hated alarm.

"NYA NYA NYA NYA NYANYANYANYANYA NYA NYA…"

"Cas," he groaned into his pillow.

"NYA NYANYANYANYANYANYA NYA NYANYANYA NYA NYA…"

He flipped the pillow over his head, trying to drown out the sound. "Cas, please!" he said, louder this time.

"NYA NYA NYANYANYANYANYANYANYA…"

When the alarm didn't stop, Dean finally uncovered his head, reached across the bed to Cas's nightstand, and grabbed the phone. He resisted the urge to throw it against the wall. Instead, he fiddled with it for a few seconds before he finally managed to find the button to silence the alarm, plunging the room back into blessed silence.

"What the hell, Ca…" Dean started to say. But when he looked down at where Cas lay next to him, the words dried up and stopped. Cas was sleeping so deeply that Dean had to check to make sure that he was still breathing. He was curled slightly, his arms limp all the way to his fingertips and his legs twisted awkwardly, his cheek so firmly smushed against his pillow that it was pulling his lip up and causing a puddle of drool to collect on the sheets below him.

For a few seconds, Dean just stared. Then he gently, very gently, rolled Cas over into a more comfortable-looking position. Cas didn't so much as sigh. But Dean did, slowly and deeply. He couldn't wake Cas up. He just fucking couldn't. He didn't have it in him.

But someone had to feed the kittens.

Dean wasn't sure if he could get his pants on over his cast without being loud enough to wake Cas, so he shrugged a shirt over his shoulders and hobbled his way to the kitchen naked from the waist down. He could hear the kittens mewing in the next room. They had learned well that noise from the kitchen in the middle of the night meant food, though they were probably less used to the loud thunks of Dean's crutches accidentally hitting the cabinets.

As it turned out, feeding baby kittens wasn't quite the same as feeding baby humans. Dean remembered his dad showing him how to dilute the liquid milk concentrate that they had fed to Sam when he was little, but the kittens' food came in a powder and Dean had to read the label to figure out how to mix it up properly.

Luckily, once he had managed to get the formula into liquid form, things mostly came back to him. He filled an entire bottle and warmed it up, even remembering to invert it a few times to even out any hot spots. Then he opened the door to the TV room where the kittens slept.

They were crying even louder than before, clearly not used to it taking so long to get their meal. "Shut your yaps," Dean hissed as he made his way toward them, "I've got your dinner."

By the time he managed to sit himself down, propped up against the wall by the nest box, the kittens had fallen silent and were instead looking at him suspiciously. "You are not the one who feeds us," they seemed to say. After a moment, Amber laid her ears back and hissed.

"Seriously?" Dean said to her, "Fine. Just for that, you're getting fed last."

He picked up Danny instead, who seemed to be much more accepting of the change in waitstaff, and tried to figure out how to translate his baby-feeding skills into kitten-feeding skills. He had cradled Sam in the crook of his arm, but Danny was way too small for that. He tried to approximate the position by putting Danny in the palm of his hand, and he was working on prying the tiny set of jaws open with the nipple of the bottle when a sound behind him nearly made him jump out of his skin.

"Dean?"

Cas stood in the doorway, hunched and bleary-eyed. Dean had to take several deep breaths before he could answer, "Jesus, Cas, you about gave me a heart attack. What are you doing up?"

Instead of answering, Cas asked a question of his own. "What do you think are you doing?" he said, and suddenly Dean felt all the air go out of him. Even after all the times Cas had refused Dean's help, Dean still believed in the back of his mind that Cas would be happy to find Dean stepping up and rescuing him from his endless cycle of work. But Cas didn't sound happy. He sounded pissed with a side order of utterly destroyed.

"I'm feeding your cats so you can sleep," said Dean simply, instantly on the defensive, "I'm helping you."

"I didn't want your help!" Cas snapped. Then, almost instantly, he pulled back. Surprised by his own outburst, his eyes flicked closed and his brow tightened. He sighed and the anger melted out of his face, leaving only disappointment. "I didn't want your help," he repeated, his voice softer this time.

"What?" Dean said. He was still frozen, a bottle in one hand and a kitten in the other. Danny wriggled impatiently until Dean put him down. "Why?"

"I didn't want your help," Cas said once more. He spoke slowly as if piecing together his thoughts with each word. "Not with this. This was my responsibility."

And now it was Dean's turn to feel annoyed, because this whole "responsibility" mantra that Cas had going on was bullshit. It made no sense for one person to kill himself with work when there was another willing to do half. "Dude, you were the one who gave me the lecture about accepting help when you need it," Dean sighed, "I'm doing this cause I love you, okay?"

Cas shook his head. "This is different. I needed to prove something."

"You don't need to prove anything to me," Dean insisted.

But Cas only shook his head again as he said, "I needed to prove it to myself."

Dean threw his hands up in frustration, making a few drops of milk fly off the bottle and hit him in the face. He set the bottle on the ground as he said, "What are you talking about?"

For a moment, Cas just stared at the ground. Then he crossed the short distance to where Dean was sitting and, folding his legs carefully under himself, joined him. First Cas leaned back against the wall as Dean was doing, then he tilted sideways so that he head was resting on Dean's shoulder. When he was silent for a moment longer, Dean thought he might have fallen asleep, but then Cas finally spoke.

"You care for people, Dean," he said, "You always have, all your life. You do it so tirelessly and so thanklessly that people begin to take it for granted. Even Sam. Even me. We lean on you without ever considering that you might fall under our weight. But you are only human, Dean, and you too need someone to lean on. I wanted to be that person for you, but through my own mistakes I have found myself needing your support more than anyone."

"No," dropped out of Dean's mouth almost before Cas had finished speaking, "You said it yourself: I'm the one who makes you feel useless, who treats you like a kid. You help me all the time."

Dean couldn't see Cas's face, but he could feel his sad smile in the way Cas's shoulders rose and tightened. "I try to help you in any way I can," Cas said, "But on the whole I am a burden to you. And you have too many burdens already."

"You're wrong, Cas," was all Dean could say.

"I'm not," Cas seamlessly replied, "I've seen the way you look at me when I… disconnect. You don’t trust me. You can’t, as long as I’m like that. I don’t blame you."

And Dean had no answer for that, because it was true. Cas’s episodes took Dean back to Purgatory, back to facing down the Leviathans when Cas was refusing to help. Back to the day Dean returned to the hospital, hoping that Cas would be able to take some of the weight off his shoulders, only to find him broken instead. However much Dean tried to rely on Cas, he couldn’t forget that fear.

Still, everything in Dean screamed at him to deny, deny, deny, because even though what Cas was saying was technically true, Dean felt deeply that it wasn't quite right. Cas was twisting the situation into its worst possible form. There had to be another way of coming at it, if only Dean could find the words to explain.

But Cas had already taken Dean's silence to mean that he agreed. He slid his hand across to grab Dean's, lacing their fingers together. Dean couldn't tell if Cas's grip was meant to give Dean comfort, or if Cas was trying to draw comfort from Dean.

"But," said Cas, "I want to get better. I have been getting better. Perhaps I'm not strong enough yet for you to rely on me, but at least I can do something.” He gestured toward the kittens in their box as he said, “Caring for them is easy; their needs are simple. I can take on this small responsibility. I should have been able to..." Then he stammered and trailed off, sounding so disappointed in himself that it nearly broke Dean’s heart.

Dean caught Cas's chin in his hand and lifted his head so he could see his face. Now that Dean finally understood what this was all about, the reason behind the sleepless nights and the stoic suffering, and what Dean had taken away from Cas by trying to do the work for him, he finally knew what to say.

"You think the kittens' needs are simple?" he laughed with an exaggerated wince, "Babe, you've got it backwards. These little things are bloodsuckers. Just look at that stack of pamphlets you brought home – they're so complicated that you need an instruction manual for them!"

Cas stared at Dean blankly, perhaps too tired to explain how badly Dean was missing the point. But Dean wasn't finished.

"Now, as for me?" he said, the joking laughter going out of his voice, "My needs are the simple ones. I need Sam, my car, a job to do, and some pie for after. And I need you. That's all. I've got everything I need right here, so don't go thinking you aren't good enough."

"But I'm not," Cas whispered, "Not anymore. I'm broken."

"Would you stop saying that?" Dean begged, "You're still you. So your brain doesn't work quite the same way it did; so what? That doesn't mean you're damaged goods."

"But the effect it has on you..."

The effect. Dean knew it well: that grip on his lungs, that stutter of his heart. That vertigo. It was terrifying to watch Cas go away within his own mind to a place where Dean could not follow.

But why?

Dean finally asked himself the question. They were not in Purgatory anymore. The Leviathans were gone. It wasn't as if their lives were in constant danger, so what was the harm in Cas checking out every once in a while?

Dean's mind filled in the answers for him: what if Cas got hurt, or hurt someone else, because he wasn't paying attention? But that was ridiculous. If anything, Cas was gentler and more careful than usual when he was having an episode. He avoided conflict. The closest he had come to hurting anything was dropping the milk glass, and that had been Dean's fault anyway.

And what if it happened in the middle of a hunt? But that was ridiculous too. Shit happens on hunts all the time, and Sam and Dean had a lifetime of experience dealing with that shit. If Cas were to go spacey for a few minutes, even in a really sticky situation, it wouldn't be anything they couldn't handle. Besides, if Dean had to protect Cas for that short time, and if Cas protected Dean the rest of the time, then by anyone's calculations Dean would still be in Cas's debt.

And what if Cas didn't come back? What if he stayed that way forever? By the way Dean's chest tightened at the very thought, that was the real question. That was the real source of terror.

But that wasn't fair, was it? Cas always came back. Always. Even when he was dead. Sometimes it took a while but no matter what, he came back to Dean. If death couldn't stop him, what chance did a little broken wall have?

Cas had proved time and time again that the last thing Dean needed to worry about was Cas leaving him. It was time that Dean showed a little faith in return.

Dean finally said, "That’s my problem, not yours."

"I'm the cause of it," Cas started to say, but Dean cut him off.

"No, I am. ‘Cause I worry, ‘cause I always think the worst is gonna happen," he said, "You're fine. And I just… need to learn to let you be fine. Look, we’re both messed up and together we're kind of a perfect storm of baggage and issues… but we're doing okay. I'm gonna lean on you, and you're gonna lean on me, and we're gonna hold each other up."

Cas was looking at Dean with an unreadable intensity.

Dean tightened his grip on Cas's hand. Then, unable to hold his gaze any longer, Dean retrieved the bottle and the kitten from where he had put them down and busied himself with trying to fit the former into the mouth of the latter. "Now," he said, businesslike, "How the hell do you get these things to eat?"

A slow smile crept over Cas's face. He reached over to still Dean's hands and gently flipped Danny over so that the kitten was lying on his belly instead of on his back. "They shouldn't eat in that position," he explained, "They could inhale the milk and contract pneumonia."

"Whoa," said Dean, "Maybe I should have read the pamphlets." But then Danny finally latched on, and from there it was easy. Danny suckled until his belly was round. When he couldn't eat any more, Dean passed him to Cas and started feeding Raz.

Amber mewed angrily, but Dean only pulled a face at her.

He had just gotten Raz into a comfortable position for nursing when he happened to look over at Cas. Cas had Danny draped over his knee, and was rubbing the kitten's back with two fingers in slow circles. Dean was about to ask him what he was doing when Danny suddenly opened his mouth and belched.

Dean snorted out a surprised laugh. "You burp them just like babies?"

With a tilt of his head, Cas answered, "They are babies."

Dean fell silent, preferring just to watch as Cas let Danny roam over his lap, steering the kitten with small movements of his hands. Finally Danny curled himself into a ball and fell asleep right between Cas's crossed legs. The look on Cas's face as he fondly regarded his sleeping charge, reaching down to stroke between the pair of fuzzy ears, was something that Dean was only just beginning to appreciate. Before, Dean had thought it a shame that Cas's hands, once so mighty, had been reduced to domestic labor. But now he saw what a blessing it was for Cas to trade in his sword for a bottle of milk and, if only just for a while, enjoy the chance to nurture instead of destroy.

The image sparked in Dean's mind a thought so pure and perfect that he couldn't stop himself from speaking it out loud.

"You'd make a good dad."

Cas looked up at him so suddenly and with such wide eyes that he almost seemed afraid. He searched Dean's face for any hint of condescension and, finding none, accepted the compliment with a smile.

"So would you."

Cas slept.

Once the kittens were all fed, burped, and returned to their nest box that night, Dean put Cas back to bed. Dean returned to the couch, taking the phone with him so that Cas wouldn't hear it when it rang, and for the rest of the night Dean was the one who got up at odd hours to cater to the kittens' every need.

When Cas didn't wake up the next morning, Dean kept covering his duties. By noon the kittens had learned that Dean was their new source of food, and Raz and Danny had resumed walking directly under his feet wherever he went in an apparent attempt to either catch any stray pieces of edible material he might have dropped or make him trip and die. Dean wasn't sure which. Amber continued to follow him at a distance, but even she became more likely to dart forward and maul his leg every time it looked like he was holding something tasty, even if that something turned out to be the TV remote.

Later in the day, Dean made a pot of soup. After feeding himself and letting the kittens lick a few drops off his fingers (which earned him a good bite from Danny, who hadn't quite grasped the notion that the skin underneath the soup was not part of the meal), he tiptoed into the bedroom and left a bowl on the nightstand next to Cas's head. Cas didn't appear to have moved an inch when Dean went back into the room that evening, but the soup was gone to the last drop.

Cas didn't properly wake up until late morning on the second day, by which time Dean was thoroughly exhausted from crutching all around the house, completely fed up with the phone alarm, and seriously wondering how Cas had managed to do all this on his own for so long.

"Feeling better?" Dean asked when Cas emerged. He looked better. He was standing up straight, and his eyes were bright and alert.

Those eyes sparkled as they regarded Dean, who was lying flat on his back on the floor. The two orange kittens were roaming over his torso and legs. Amber was sitting next to his head and chewing on his hair. "Much," he confirmed, "I take it you've… bonded."

Dean grinned as he admitted, "They're not so bad. Except they poop everywhere. Everywhere." He gave a little shudder.

Cas looked like he might have laughed, if he had been one for laughing. "I'll get them a litter box," he promised.

They devised a system of shared responsibility that allowed them both to get a reasonable amount of sleep and, to Dean's joy, the sex that had dried up in the last week or so came roaring back. It still wasn’t easy. When one of them had free time, the other was usually busy with his shift in kitten-land. Much of the time the kittens managed to preoccupy both of them at once. And even when they managed to catch a few minutes to themselves - no time for sex, but enough for a make-out - the kittens seemed to be able to sense that they were being ignored and would turn up the volume on their mews to eleven.

The anticipation built until, during one of the precious few hours when neither of them had any pressing kitten-related work to do, Dean found himself being slammed flat on his back in bed so that Cas could climb on top of him and ride.

Dean tended to be loud during sex, always producing a steady stream of groans and filthy commentary. Cas was quieter, almost as if he were going into himself and getting lost in the moment. His eyes were half-lidded and staring at nothing as he bounced rhythmically on Dean's cock, his mouth wide and gasping. His moans were soft, like breaths that had snagged in his throat for just long enough to become raspy and deep. Dean knew what to listen for – he knew how Cas sounded when Dean was taking him too hard, the way his voice changed right before his orgasm, and, if Dean wanted to, how to make those little groans turn into full-throated screams.

Of course, amazing screaming sex took some effort on Dean's part – more effort than he was really able to exert with one leg in a cast to his hip. So for as long as he was injured, he was more than happy to lie back and let Cas do all the work. Like now, he didn't even have to move - just stay sprawled where Cas had put him and enjoy the sensation of Cas's warm, tight ass sliding slickly up and down his cock.

"You almost there, babe?" Dean murmured, reaching up with two fingers to touch the smear of pre-cum on the head of Cas's cock. He brought his fingers to his mouth, and Cas let out a little whimper as he watched.

"You first," Cas answered breathily, grinding faster, making Dean arch and groan.

Through his panting, Dean gasped out, "No, no, not yet. I want us to come together."

Cas nodded as he slowed his pace and began to jack himself off. "Give me some time," he said.

"Well, hurry up," Dean groaned, "I've been thinking about baseball to keep from shooting my load, and I'm not gonna hold out much longer!"

While Cas brought himself slowly to the brink, Dean continued to exert what he was sure was a superhuman effort to keep his own orgasm at bay. The sight of Cas rocking his hips forward and back, sweat beading on his chest and thighs, his cock hardening and pulsing in his grip, was almost more than Dean could take. Cas's hand stroked faster and faster as his moans became sharper and louder until he finally shouted, "Now, now!"

Finally, blessedly, Dean let go and came hard into Cas, his hips thrusting weakly against gravity and the weight of his cast. Cas fell forward and pressed his forehead to Dean's as he shot a thick stripe of cum almost as far as Dean's neck. When he lifted himself off of Dean's cock, both of them still shaking from the aftershocks, and let himself fall flat, the cooling semen made their chests and bellies slide obscenely against each other.

"We are really good at that, aren't we?" said Dean, wrapping his arms around Cas and giving a self-satisfied sigh.

Cas returned the embrace, replying pleasantly, "We? I don't seem to remember you contributing much from there on your back."

"Hey, I watched you ride me for like half an hour without coming," Dean returned, "I deserve a fucking endurance medal for that."

They were silent for several seconds, just breathing and listening to each other breathe, letting their heartbeats synchronize through the walls of their chests, and then Dean said, "Can we just stay this way forever?"

"The kittens need to be fed in an hour," Cas replied dreamily, his eyes falling closed.

"Can we just stay this way for an hour?" Dean amended, and Cas hummed contentedly.

Dean's eyes were just beginning to flutter closed, his body giving in to a comfortable, post-orgasmic sleep, when a noise penetrated the bedroom walls from the direction of the cabin's front door.

"Guys?" Sam shouted, "I'm back!"

-----

As much as Dean had enjoyed having his alone-time with Cas, and as much as it had given them a chance to work out a few things that had desperately needed working out, it was clear to all of them that the family wasn't complete until Sam was home. To Dean, it was like having a missing piece of himself returned to him. For Cas, it was getting his best friend back. Dean and Cas were happy together, but they weren't whole without Sam.

"Did you have fun with Tamara and her girls?" Dean asked across the kitchen table. Cas was flitting between the sink, and oven, the stove, going all-out to make a dinner worthy of Sam's return. He was even making a pie from scratch. ("Why haven't you married him yet?" Sam had asked when he'd noticed Cas rolling out pie crust, which had made Dean choke on his beer and turn a shade of red not previously known to science.)

"I didn't sleep with any of them, if that's what you mean," Sam was saying now, rolling his eyes.

Dean waggled his eyebrows. "That's actually not what I meant, but it's good to know that it was on your mind."

And this time it was Sam's turn to blush.

After dinner, Sam went to the TV room to play with the kittens, complaining that he'd missed out on seeing them grow up and demanding to make up for lost time. Dean pushed Cas after him with a kiss, saying, "I've got the dishes. You two go get your gossip on."

When the dishes were in a gleaming, dripping pile to the side of the sink, Dean poked his head into the TV room. Sam and Cas were sitting on the couch, their backs to Dean, speaking just loudly enough for Dean to overhear.

Sam leaned over sideways to scoop Danny up from where he was pawing at the couch, begging for attention. "He really loves you, you know," he said to Cas as he placed Danny onto his lap.

Dean was about to say that of course Danny loved Cas – all the kittens did – but he held his tongue and stayed in the doorway, quiet and out of sight.

"I know," Cas replied, "I just want him to be happy."

Sam sighed heavily. "Dude, happy doesn't come easy to him. Ever since he was little, life’s been teaching him that if he's happy, that means something terrible is about to blindside him. Happiness isn't something he tries to achieve, you know? It's something that happens to him sometimes in between disasters."

And that was when Dean figured out that they weren't talking about the cats.

"But," Sam continued, "If anything makes him happy, it's you."

"You, too," Cas said quickly.

Sam tilted his head from side to side, equivocally. "Nah, he needs me," he said, "Same way I need him. We'd die without each other. That's not happiness; that's survival. Happiness is in the things you didn't expect, the things you choose to hang on to even when it doesn't make any sense. The things you can live without, but you don't want to. I keep Dean alive. You make him happy."

Cas turned toward Sam so that Dean could see his face in profile, his eyes wide, his mouth eagerly forming the words, "What should I do?"

Sam chuckled. "Exactly what you're already doing," he said, "What you've always done. Just be there for him."

Cas's face turned back toward the floor, and even though Dean could only see the back of his head he could easily imagine the thoughtful expression in those blue eyes. "I will," Cas said quietly.

Slowly, quietly, Dean closed the door and retreated back into the kitchen. He banged a few pots and pans around to make Sam and Cas think he was still busy with the dishes, and then he used the other door – the one that didn't take him through the TV room - to get to bed.

Not long after, Cas joined him. Neither of them said a word as they scooted toward each other, letting limbs fall across bodies until they were hopelessly tangled together.

Sam had been right. Happiness was never something that Dean had tried to achieve. And yet somehow he had achieved it. He was happy.

And he intended to stay that way.

-----

Dean had gotten so used to thinking of the kittens as little, helpless, milk-devouring, poop-dispensing machines that he was honestly surprised at how quickly they grew up over the next couple of weeks.

With a little encouragement, all three of them learned to use the litter box. Cas agonized about what kind of litter to use, telling Dean horror stories about how, according to the pamphlets, kittens could inhale clay dust and get lung infections. Sam came to the rescue with his internet-searching skills once again, providing Cas with a list of safe materials.

Weaning them took no time at all. They took to solid food happily and eagerly. Cas called them advanced for their age, but Dean was pretty sure it had more to do with the fact that he had been sneaking them human food for weeks. Amber especially had a ravenous taste for tuna-flavored kitten chow.

They ate five times a day, and then four, and then three. Somewhat to everyone's surprise, they started getting full nights of sleep. Sam finally showed Cas how to disable the phone alarm, and Dean made them promise on pain of death to never activate it ever again.

They settled into a sort of comfortable routine, and Dean found it easy to imagine that this was the way life was supposed to be. No fighting, no danger. Their sleepless nights were due only to a kitten getting the sniffles, not because they had to stake out a lair or break into an archive. If the world were about to end, they wouldn't know it in their little cabin, and it wouldn't be their problem.

Dean probably couldn't have lived that way forever, but it was nice for a little while.

That was why Dean was somewhat thrown when he woke up one morning to find Cas packing all the kittens' belongings into boxes. All the kitchen drawers they had taken over were emptied; all the piles of toys and laundry were tidied away. Their nest box was broken down, and their litter box cleaned out and leaning upside-down against the wall. As for the kittens themselves, Danny and Raz were sitting forlornly in a plastic carrying crate behind a metal mesh door. Amber was nowhere to be seen.

"Good, you're up," said Cas, coming up behind Dean with a box full of unopened cans of kitten food, "I can't find Ambriel. Will you get her for me?"

Dean let his eyes travel obviously between Cas's armful of cans to the boxes of supplies to the crate full of kittens. "Cas," he said tensely, "What gives?"

Cas immediately put the cans on the ground, freeing his hands to rest on Dean's shoulders calmingly. "Don't you remember?" he said, "Today is the day the kittens go back to the shelter."

To be perfectly honest, Dean hadn't even been thinking about it. He had expected Cas to ignore the deadline, to keep the kittens as long as possible. He had imagined finally confronting Cas about it, putting up a token resistance against Cas's pleas, and then grudgingly allowing the cats to come along with them in the Impala, logistics be damned. He hadn't considered the possibility that Cas would give them up according to schedule, willingly and matter-of-factly.

And he definitely hadn't planned on feeling as much regret as he did at that moment.

"Dean," said Cas gently, reading the subtle hints of distress on Dean's face, "We knew this day was coming. You'll be getting your cast off next week, and we'll be on the road again. To keep them…"

"It wouldn't make any sense," Dean agreed, "I know that. Hell, that's what I told you from the very beginning. I'll get Amber; you get the rest of this stuff packed up."

It didn't take Dean long to find the third kitten. As soon as he hobbled into a more isolated part of the cabin, away from the frightening bustle of Cas's packing, she flitted out from behind a doorframe and meowed peevishly at Dean.

"I know," said Dean in a conversational tone, having long since come to terms with the fact that he was the kind of person who talked to cats as if they could understand, "You were just getting used to things here, and now everything's changing again. I know how that goes. It's not all bad though."

Slowly, moving toward her only in tangents and never in a straight line, Dean managed to shuffle close enough to pick Amber up. That was a new development, Amber letting Dean hold her. She wasn't exactly thrilled about it, and she made it very clear that she would bring the claws and teeth into play if he ever tried to take her somewhere she didn't want to go, but she didn't let anyone else hold her unless they had food in their other hand so Dean figured she trusted him at least a little. He scratched her ears soothingly as he brought her into the TV room.

But as soon as he knelt to put her in the carrier with her brothers, she turned on him.

"Ow!" he growled, flailing his way upright and sucking his finger where she had gouged him with her claws, "Fine, fine. You don't have to go in the carrier." Seemingly soothed by the promise, Amber relaxed in Dean's grip once again.

"Do you need help with her?" Cas asked.

"Nah," said Dean, "I'll just carry her on the way there. No big deal, right?"

Cas looked at him dubiously. "Are you sure you're alright?" he said, "I didn't mean for this to catch you by surprise."

"It's cool," said Dean, placing Amber on his shoulder where she happily used her claws to latch onto his shirt, "I'm just surprised you're taking it so well."

"This was always the plan," said Cas.

"Right," Dean echoed, "The plan."

Sam helped them load everything into the Impala, including the carrier which he set carefully in the back seat, and he said his goodbyes to the kittens. He would have liked to come along, but someone had to start packing the rest of their belongings for when they finally got back on the road in a few days.

"It's kind of a shame," Sam said as he tickled Amber under her chin as she sat perched on Dean's shoulder, "I was getting attached to them."

"They’re going to better homes than we can provide," said Cas as he helped Dean into the passenger seat. Dean still couldn't drive with his cast, so with Sam staying behind, Cas would be behind the wheel.

"Oh, of course," Sam said quickly, "There's no way we can keep them."

"Of course," Dean muttered as he closed the door. Amber crawled from his shoulder onto the top of the bench seat, curled up, and fell asleep.

They had been driving for less than five minutes when Dean broke the silence by asking, "How far is this place?"

Cas answered, "Swarms of hundreds of fireflies can synchronize their flashes of light so that the trees they rest on appear to luminesce in a mathematically predictable pattern."

A quick double-take and, yes, Cas was far out of it. It had been weeks since this had happened last, and Dean had let his guard down. Now the familiar fear rushed back, made worse by the fact that Cas was currently steering them along a narrow highway at fifty miles per hour.

Dean lurched to the left, his instinct telling him to grab the wheel before Cas drove them off the road, but then he remembered his promise. Cas was not broken. He was an angel of the Lord, and even with half his brain occupied with fireflies he had more than enough attention left over to drive a car. Dean froze with his hands outstretched, and then slowly pulled them back. A deep breath. Another.

Cas was fine. Dean could learn to be fine too.

"I don't know about mathematical patterns," Dean said, leaning stiffly back onto his side of the seat, "But I know fireflies. Me and Sam used to catch them in jars when we were kids."

Cas nodded, responding to Dean's participation in the conversation. "You would need a very big jar to hold the entire tree, but it might make it easier to graph the function."

"That's not quite what I meant." Dean tightened his grip on the door handle as they approached a bend in the road, but Cas made the turn without incident. Dean forced himself to relax, loosening his fingers one by one and resting his hands casually on his knees. "We caught them one at a time."

Dean followed Cas's lead, letting the conversation meander whichever way Cas wanted it to. When Cas abruptly stopped talking about fireflies and switched to ocean wave dynamics, Dean kept asking questions and making observations as best he could. When the conversation abruptly jumped back to fireflies, Dean told Cas about how he had made Sam night-lights out of jars of the insects, only to let them out as soon as Sam was asleep so they wouldn't have to spend the whole night imprisoned.

Cas spoke to Dean, not with the same care and deliberation that he normally did, but with all the same affection. It hadn't occurred to Dean before just how amazing it was that, even with his mind wandering over all of space and time, Cas still chose to speak to Dean and ask his opinions. Cas was different when he was like this – distracted and absorbed and likely to say whatever came into his head without thinking about it first – but he was still Cas.

By the time they pulled into the parking lot of the animal shelter, Dean was slouching in his seat, comfortable and relaxed, trusting Cas to get them where they were going even as they talked themselves in strange circles and through obscure topics that Dean could barely follow.

Cas pulled into a parking space and turned the key in the ignition. The engine died. In the sudden silence, Cas turned his head to look at Dean, and the intense clarity had somehow returned to his eyes. There was no transition, no jolt, no interruption. One moment Cas had been elsewhere, and the next he was back. The smoothness of the return seemed to confuse him, and he gripped the car keys, grounding himself in the sensation of points of metal digging into his palm.

Dean reached across and gently uncurled Cas's fingers, taking the keys back from him. "You with me?" he asked.

"Yes," said Cas, "I… apologize." But for once he sounded uncertain rather than ashamed.

Dean smiled. "For what?"

-----

Cas set the carrier on the front desk of the shelter, and Dean set Amber down beside it. Amber sniffed the air, looking extremely unhappy, and promptly hissed at the receptionist.

The receptionist, for her part, didn't seem to take it personally. "They've gotten so big!" she cooed, "I still can't thank you enough for taking them. We were so worried that they weren't going to make it, and then you swooped in like an angel."

Dean glanced at Cas proudly. "Yeah, he does that," he said.

The lobby of the shelter was bright and inviting, and the receptionist young and cheerful – she looked like a student, and her nametag read "Kait." There were racks of dog toys for sale, a forest of free-standing cat trees made of PVC and carpet, and a large machine that would print your pet's name on an ID tag for a small fee. Doors toward the back led to the kennels – the sounds of barking and yapping were coming from that direction. Dean could easily imagine families coming through here, nice families with kids begging for a kitten or a puppy. This was a good place.

But Amber was still balled up on the desk, hissing at anything that came near her, looking miserable. Dean scooped her up and put her back on his shoulder, which calmed her down somewhat.

"Thanks for sending us those pictures of the kittens last week," Kait was saying to Cas, "We put them up here in the lobby, and lots of people saw them. We already have homes lined up for these two little guys." She transferred Danny and Raz from their carrier to a large, two-leveled wire crate just behind the desk. They both immediately began exploring their new surroundings, climbing on the platforms and nesting in the fleece hammocks hanging from the lid. "We'll keep them up here until their families come in to pick them up later today," said Kait.

"What about Amber?" said Dean, unconsciously bringing a hand up to his shoulder to shield her.

Kait reached for Amber next, only to draw her hands away when Amber took a swipe at her. "No one has adopted her yet," Kait admitted, "But that's not uncommon. Usually it's the more colorful kittens that go first. They stand out more."

"Let me get this straight," said Dean, "The boys are going straight to new homes, and Amber's not… because she's black?"

Kait shrugged apologetically. "That's just how it tends to go," she said, "But we'll put her back in the cattery with the other kittens. I'm sure someone will take her home within the next couple of weeks."

"What, back there where all the dogs are barking?" said Dean, turning his body to keep Amber farther away from the noise, "She'll pitch a fit!"

"The cattery is separate from the dog runs…" Kait said, still trying to reach for Amber and looking like she wasn't quite sure what to do with Dean.

"Doesn't matter. I'm not leaving her here." Dean surprised himself with his own vehemence, but he knew that it was true. Amber was special to him, even more so than her brothers. He knew her. He knew that she hated this place, and that she'd be traumatized if she had to spend more than a day here. He knew that she didn't trust easy – if she barely tolerated Dean and Cas, who had raised her, how would she ever adjust to new owners who she'd never met before? And though he loved all her little quirks, if he was honest, he knew that with the way she bit and scratched at the least provocation she was unlikely to ever be adopted.

Cas rested his hand on Dean's back. "Dean," he said, "What do you want to do?"

And that was enough. Dean's hands dropped down from where they had been raised defensively. His heart slowed. Just knowing that Cas had his back no matter what he decided was enough to make Dean calm down and think rationally for a moment about what it was that he wanted. And then it was clear.

"Shit," Dean sighed, chuckling quietly at himself, "I guess we're keeping her."

-----

Dean's leg was sore.

It was mostly healed now, three months after getting the cast off, but he couldn't really take it easy like the doctors had told him to. So sometimes, especially after a rough hunt like the one they had just finished, it would start hurting him again. He tried to hide his limp, but then he almost tripped on a tree root as he picked his way through the edge of the forest.

Without drawing attention to it, Cas sidled over and offered Dean his arm. Dean leaned on him gratefully. Sam noticed, and gave them both those misty eyes like he was thinking about what font he was going to use on their wedding invitations.

As the trio stepped from the dirt floor of the woods back onto the pavement of the parking lot, Dean dug his keys out of his jacket. The Impala sat right where they'd left her, basking in the low afternoon sun. And there was something else basking on top of her.

"You stay out of trouble while we were gone?" Dean called out to Amber as they approached.

Amber popped her head up at the sound of Dean's voice and gave a raspy yowl in response. She stood limb-by-limb, stretching in every direction, before sitting on the edge of the car roof like a sphinx, eye-to-eye with Dean.

She had grown since Dean had walked her into the shelter to give her away only to walk right back out with her again. Her orange markings had darkened and blended into the black of her fur, turning her into a handsome tortoiseshell cat. She was small for her age, but she was quick, and she was turning into quite the hunter (of mice and shrews, mostly, instead of demons). Her electric blue eyes had faded, and were now turning the shade of coppery green that she would wear as an adult.

Cas frowned as Amber doubled herself over and began licking her own belly, right in the middle of a patch where the fur was shaved short. "She shouldn't be licking at her spay scar," he said, "We'll have to put the cone back on her if she doesn't stop."

"Aw, she hated that cone," Dean protested, flicking Amber's ear until she left her scar alone, "I'll keep an eye on her instead." He leaned one shoulder against the roof of the car and Amber stepped onto it, perching deftly.

"Her last round of vaccines is due soon," Sam pointed out as he dumped their supplies in the trunk.

"That reminds me," said Dean, "We need to get more of those flea drops for her skin. The flea collar didn't work at all."

"I found a kind that prevents heartworm too," said Cas, "We'll start giving it to her when she's due for another treatment next month."

Uninterested in the concern for her health that was on display, Amber carefully extruded her dagger-sharp claws and poked them into Dean's shoulder.

"Ow!" he said, swatting her gently away, "Okay, okay. We're going."

Dean picked up the water dish from where he had put it safely under the car, dumped it out, and slid into the driver's seat. The others soon joined him: Sam beside him and Cas right behind. Amber left Dean's shoulder to balance herself on the seat back.

Sam pulled out a map. "Jody called with a possible job two states over," he said, "We might make it tonight if we head out right away."

"No rest for the wicked, huh?" said Dean, but he was smiling even as he complained.

Curled up on the seat back, Amber began to purr. Cas reached forward to scratch between her ears and then, as an afterthought, he gave Dean's head an affectionate rub too.

Dean laughed as he pulled out of the parking lot and headed toward the freeway.