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You Can Keep Holding On

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Here's an S11 hiatus fic for you all. This one's not a plotty epic like my usual hiatus fics — it's more an intimate character study (more in the style of my winter fics, like Winter's Tale, Most Important Thing, Twenty Dollars). I usually write a plotty epic in summers and an emotionally intimate character study in winters, but I was just in northern Alaska in the middle of snowy blizzards for the last several weeks and so I am in a wintry frame of mind. :)

 


 

"She only stayed for like, two minutes, tops," Dean says over his cell phone to Sam. "She barely even had time to say anything."

Sam's totally silent on the other end of the line. Cas doesn't say anything either (Dean's assuming Cas is standing there next to Sam listening to everything — because, Dean asked Cas to look after Sam, and that means of course Cas will look after Sam). But Cas hasn't said a word yet. And now Sam's gone silent too.

Dean's been walking along a deserted footpath in whatever park Chuck and Amara have stranded him in. He really has no idea what direction he should be going; once he found the path he picked a direction at random. (At least he finally managed to get a cell signal — which was a huge relief, because it meant he's still on Earth.) It's a nice enough place — the footpath's now taking him past carefully tended beds of roses, and lilacs and hedges and neat gravel paths that branch off here and there. Some kind of arboretum, maybe. But where the hell is he?

And what the hell just happened?

Chuck and Amara had vanished only a half hour ago, the long-estranged siblings twining together like some kind of hybrid alien smoke-monster (and, Dean thinks, there was definitely something kinda weird about that sibling relationship, but... whatever). The sun — the friggin' sun!had healed right up in no time flat. And then, as if that whole scene hadn't been batshit-crazy enough, all of a sudden there'd been the brain-bending, soul-searing discovery that Mom had been somehow resurrected. Or had ghosted down or something. And was wandering around the very same park. Dean had been thrashing his way through some trees trying to get a cell signal when he'd heard her calling for help.

She'd looked confused at first, even frightened. But as soon as Dean had said "Mom?" she came to her senses.

She stared at him for a long moment, and then it seemed everything flooded back to her. Her face lit up, and at once she seemed to know who she was. And who he was. She called out, "DEAN!" and actually ran to him, wrapping him in such a tight hug he could barely breathe.

Dean had seen her a few times before, in his adult life. Sorta. Kinda.

There'd been her ghost, eerily wreathed in flame, in their old house in Kansas. There'd been Dean's made-up version of Mom in the weird hallucinatory djinn dream-world. There'd even been the time travel, and a few other strange sightings.

But all of those had involved a very altered version of Mom, not the one Dean remembered from his childhood. This time didn't feel like any of those. This time, as Mom grabbed him and wrapped her arms around him, Dean knew immediately it was the Mom he remembered. Mom for real, Mom here and now, Mom with all her memories and her soul intact.

She'd even frickin' smelled the same. Dean had never even known he'd had any memory of her scent, but once he had his nose down on her shoulder, with her long hair brushing against his cheek, he breathed in some mix of... what was it? Some 1980's shampoo of hers? Her perfume, her hand lotion or something? It was a soft, slightly citrusy scent, and at the first whiff of it Dean was absolutely flooded with memories. Memories of being cradled by Mom; of scrambling into her lap on Sunday evenings for a snuggle when they watched TV; of being swung up into her arms when he'd been just a little kid.

It was really her. She was real, and her hug was real. And Dean's hug back was real too, and the way his breath stopped, the way his eyes stung with tears... All real. All real as hell.

But then...

"She only said a few things and then she just kinda wafted away," says Dean to Sam. Dean has to close his eyes as he says this, and he even presses his free hand to his eyes to try to block out the empty path before him, he's focusing that hard on the sharp image of Mom, actual Mom, right here in this very same park just minutes ago. As if he could call her back to him somehow, summon her back into being, if he just concentrated hard enough.

Sam repeats slowly, "She... wafted away?"

Sam sounds pretty confused. Sixty seconds ago he'd been overjoyed to hear Dean's voice. (Actually he'd been almost overwhelmed, swinging between weepy and triumphant, saying over and over, "I knew it, I just knew it, I knew you'd pull through somehow!") But now he just sounds kind of shell-shocked.

Dean knows the feeling.

"So... what did she say?" asks Sam.

Dean has some trouble answering. What Mom said is actually crystal-clear in Dean's mind, though. In fact every word's still echoing in his ears, like it's been permanently engraved on his brain. But his breath has seized up again, as he remembers it all, and it's surprisingly hard to talk.

 


 

I've only got a few minutes, Mom had said. Just enough time to tell you this: I love you so very much, Dean.

She released him from the hug, and stepped back half a pace, as if to get a good look at him, both her hands still on his shoulders. She went on:

I love you so much. You and your brother both. I love you both SO much. I've known what's been happening, you know. I'm not sure where I was exactly — I was in the house for a while, and then I went... somewhere else, I don't know. But, somehow I knew what's been going on. I wept, Dean, I cried for you; I knew when you were in Hell, and I wept. I wept for Sam, too, so many times.... I wept when you took the Mark. I wept to see it change you. I thought my heart would break all over again when you died. I've wept for you for so long. But NOW.... (A huge sigh here.) I'm so grateful that you both have your lives back at last. You can just live now.

She shifted both her hands up from Dean's shoulders to cradle the sides of his face. Dean stood breathless, transfixed.

I want you to know that I'm proud of you, Dean. I'm SO PROUD. (She gave each word its own deliberate weight.) You took such good care of your brother, all along. You always have. Since you were little. You grew up long before you should have had to. It broke my heart to see it. But you grew into such a fine man. So did your brother. And the two of you saved the world.

She paused, gazing up into his eyes, still cradling his face in both hands.

Will you do one thing for me? she said.

"Anything," Dean murmured, almost too stunned to speak.

Mom smiled, and she said, still cradling his face:

Let yourself be happy now.

Dean blinked, and she continued:

Let yourself be happy. Sam too, of course, but you're the one who fights it most. Don't fight it anymore. Let yourself be happy. Believe you deserve it, because you DO. Let yourself be happy at last. Do that for me.

She stood up on her toes to kiss his cheek, smiled at him one more time, and then she simply disintegrated into a cloud of blueish-white sparkles. They floated up into the sky, fainter and fainter, and then there was nothing up there but the evening sky.

Dean stared up after her for a while. The sun had set; the stars were out, crisp and clear against the velvet sky.

She was gone.

 


 

Dean tries to summarize all this now to Sam as, "She said that she loves us. That she's proud of us, and she wants us to be happy." It isn't quite a full description, but it's the best he can manage, and his voice goes rough as he says it. And Sam's gone dead silent again.

Dean starts walking along the footpath again, half-heartedly still trying to figure out where he is. Mostly for lack of anything else to do.

"It was really just two minutes?" says Sam.

"Yeah. She warned me right at the beginning that she didn't have much time. I never really got to say anything back," says Dean. It's dawning on him now that if Mom had only hung around a few minutes more, Sam could've got to talk to her too! Sam didn't get to see her at all, and Dean did; it seems awfully unfair, and Dean knows that's got to sting for Sam.

Why was the visit so short, anyway? Why hadn't they had even a little more time? Dean glances up at the sky again. The moon's starting to rise. The stars are clear and bright.

No Mom.

"Did she say why she'd come?" asks Sam.

Dean says, "I think it was some kind of last gift from Amara. Right at the end, Amara said something about, she wanted to give me what I need the most."

"What you need most is two minutes with Mom's ghost?" asks Sam.

Dean has to laugh at the way Sam summarizes it. And sure enough there's something off about the idea. First off, two minutes is indeed ridiculously short — hardly satisfying at all. But also... truth is, Mom died when Dean was four. Obviously Dean's missed Mom terrifically over the years, but Dean's a grown man now. He's been without his mother nearly his entire life. He's long since accepted it; he's adjusted. He's been standing on his own two feet for a very, very long time.

He's built his own little family, in fact. Him and Sam and, increasingly, Cas. They take care of each other, the three of them, they've been doing that for years, and... it's okay.

It's good, even.

Getting to see Mom again is something Dean knows he'll always cherish to the end of this days, but it actually doesn't feel like the thing he "needs most."

"Yeah, I don't get it either," Dean says to Sam. "I mean, I miss Mom a ton, of course, I always have. I wish we'd gotten to grow up with her, but...." Dean trails off. Finally he says, "It just seems kinda off."

Sam says, "Well, Amara's gifts always were a little twisted. A little dark."

"Dark, right," says Dean.

Suddenly they're both laughing.

It's incredibly wonderful to hear Sam laughing again. It seems like something Dean hasn't heard in a very long time.

Dean realizes at this point that he still hasn't heard Cas's gravelly voice, and that it would be really nice to hear that voice too, so he says, "Hey, can you put Cas on?"

"Oh! Cas got zapped away!" Sam says. "I totally forgot to tell you! What with you being alive and all. This English girl broke into the bunker and zapped Cas away and shot at me."

Dean's just turned down a different winding footpath, still hoping to find a way out of the damn park, but at this news he freezes in mid-stride, staring blankly at the curving gravel path ahead of him.

Dean finally says, "Don't we get even an hour off?"

"Apparently not," says Sam, with a rueful chuckle.

"What happened?" says Dean. He starts walking again, more briskly now. It suddenly feels a lot more urgent to figure out where he is and get back in action. "Where's Cas? He okay?"

"I've been trying to call him but he hasn't picked up since he got zapped. It's been a couple hours and no word. I'm thinking he went somewhere out of cell range, like you did for a bit? Hopefully he'll call soon."

I gotta find Cas right away is Dean's first thought, and Cas must still think I'm dead is the second, and third comes the memory of Cas's hug.

 


 

It had definitely been a night for chick-flick moments. There'd been a baker's dozen of them at least, and at the top of the list had been not one but three hugs, each heartbreaking in its own painful way. There'd been Mom's hug, there'd been Sam's too of course, but first of all there'd been that unexpected hug from Castiel in the cemetary. Dean had somehow been taken by surprise, for Cas had never before really given him that kind of one-on-one heartfelt hug.

For Dean, the hug had unfolded in several successive waves of understanding that had hit him almost like tiny little punches. At first Dean thought it'd be one of those super quick pro-forma guy hugs, not a real hug really. But then he realized it was lasting a hair long, and then it seemed maybe it was one of those Cas-awkwardly-mimicking-human-interactions moments, that Cas maybe didn't quite understand the nuances. But then Dean felt Cas's arms really tighten on and then Dean realized Cas actually had a perfect grasp of this particular human interaction and its nuances, and that he really meant the hug. Every moment of it. And a split-second later Dean realized that Cas was actually, truly, grieving....

Dean had already known that by dying, he'd be abandoning Sam. But it hadn't fully hit him, not till right that moment, that he'd be abandoning Castiel as well. That Cas might actually need him too.

So many things Dean wanted to say to Castiel then.

He wished he could tell Cas about all the sleepless nights. All those desperate hours, trying to find some way to evict Lucifer. He wanted to describe how much he'd longed to hear Cas's voice again, instead of Lucifer's eerily different (and indescribably disturbing) voice... how terrible it had been to see that beloved face distorted and changed by Lucifer's horrible mannerisms. (How was it even possible for the very same vessel to look and sound so different?)

Dean wished he could somehow convey how very much he'd missed Castiel.

Earlier, during the car ride to the liquor store, Dean had tried to tell Cas some of this. He'd managed to get some of it out, the "you're our brother" part at least, before Sam had called and they'd had to rush back. The "you're our brother" part was, of course, true, and it was important. It was very important. But it was not at all the whole story.

Now, feeling Cas holding on so tight, and then feeling him reluctantly let go, Dean found himself wishing he could pause time somehow, just in order to sit Cas down and tell him the whole story. Tell him all the things Dean had never told him.

But all Dean was able to say, in the end, was a totally incoherent "Okay... okay... all right."

"I could go with you," Cas had said next.

That, of course, had actually been an offer to die at Dean's side, and Cas had said it so friggin' casually. Like it was no big deal.

 


 

"— and I took her down pretty easy after that," Sam's saying, and Dean has to struggle to refocus. Sam's talking about the English girl. "I don't know if she's just a crappy shot," Sam goes on, "or didn't expect me to dive like I did, or what, but, c'mon, it's not like it's the first time I've been shot at, right? I dove at her knees, she missed, we wrestled, I won. Then we had a discussion." (Dean knows this means Sam had her tied up in a chair for a while. Maybe with her own gun trained on her too. A discussion, Winchester style, as per usual.) Sam continues, "I think I convinced her that we're on the same side. I pointed out how the sun's healed and the Darkness is gone and Lucifer is gone — she hadn't really realized everything was fixed. And then I let her go, which seemed to totally surprise her. Anyway, long story short, now she thinks we're just 'wayward rather than irredeemable,' is how she put it." Sam chuckles. "Then I showed her the library and we talked some more and now she thinks I need 'proper training'!" (Sam puts on a posh British accent here, pronouncing it "pro-pah.") "Says I missed my calling! Heh. I told her I'd think about it. She's headed back to London to argue with some other Men Of Letters, or Women of Letters I guess, about taking us off the hit list. Anyway, crisis averted."

"Okay," says Dean vaguely, who hasn't bothered trying to follow all this except the part about crisis-averted. "But I gotta find Cas now."

"Uh-huh, agreed," Sam says, "I'm gonna call Verizon and see if I can get a location ping off his phone. And I gotta come pick you up. Where the hell are you, anyway? Where did the big Chuck-Amara reunion go down?"

"Some garden," says Dean. "Kind of a park. I'm not sure where. I've been wandering around all these paths —" and at last the path he's been following opens out at the top of a hill, and Dean finally gets a view. He's on a wooded hillside looking down at a medium-sized, nice-looking city by a river. There are lots of bridges, and a neon sign of a leaping deer. And... the moon seems to be rising over a volcano, of all things, a volcano that's squatting on the eastern horizon all by itself, its snowy slopes bathed in the silvery moonlight. There's not a single other mountain in sight.

Well, that narrows it down.

"Portland," Dean tells Sam. "I'm at that rose garden in Portland, Oregon."

 


 

Sam's already hit the road while Dean's still hitchhiking down to the Portland suburbs and looking for a beat-up car to steal. By noon the next day Dean's coaxing an incredibly underpowered old Dodge Colt through the Idaho Rockies, while Sam's already reached Salt Lake in the Impala. By nightfall they finally connect at an all-day-breakfast trucker joint in Tremonton, Utah, where Dean ditches the tiny Colt.

They've been touching base on the phone throughout their respective drives, so it's not like they haven't talked, but just the same it hits them both hard to see each other in person. There's another hug, and it's a doozy, and about ten thousand times happier than the one the previous night. Dean finds he can't even make himself do the back-thumping thing (the "okay, we're sort of hugging, but really I'm just pummeling you" standard guy hug). Instead he's grabbing on tight to the back of Sam's head with one hand, and just hanging on with the other. Sam's doing something similar.

"It's a damn good thing I like chick flicks," mutters Dean as they finally separate. Sam gives a choked laugh; he's wiping his eyes, totally unable to hide that he's gotten all teary-eyed again. And of course so has Dean.

"We're bawling like little girls," Dean points out, as they both try to regroup.

"Yep," says Sam, who's even having to wipe his nose on his sleeve. "Even though I already knew you were alive."

"Cas doesn't know, does he?" says Dean. "That I'm alive? He got zapped before I called, right?"

Sam's eyes widen. "Shit," he says. "Damn. You're right." He gives a sigh, and adds, "You know, he was tagging after me like a puppy back to the bunker. Like, all of two feet behind me and showering me with words of support nonstop. I guess he was trying to be helpful but I couldn't even talk then. But later, after you'd called and I got a little more settled down, I realized he was probably tagging so close because he was upset."

"Also I asked him to look after you," Dean confesses. "Asked him to make sure you didn't do anything stupid."

"Oh," says Sam, and as the "anything stupid" phrase registers, he repeats, "Oh. Right. Damn." He pauses. Dean is watching him, and he knows immediately, from the evasive look in Sam's eyes, that Sam might indeed have done "something stupid" if he'd had more time alone.

"Well, he was certainly trying to keep an eye on me," says Sam. "Till he got zapped, anyway."

They're both quiet a moment.

"Let's go find him," says Dean. Sam nods and grabs his laptop, and they head into the trucker breakfast joint.

 


 

"So Verizon still can't get a ping," says Sam once they're at a table, hunched over his laptop while Dean scarfs down a late-night order of pancakes and bacon. "I've been trying to call him, too, off and on, every time I stopped for gas. Straight to voicemail every time. I'm hoping his phone battery's just dead."

"Or he's in the middle of nowhere," says Dean. "Stranded in the wilds of Montana or something. Somewhere with no service."

"Or Antarctica," says Sam. "Or some foreign country where his phone doesn't work."

"Or Mars," says Dean. "Or Purgatory or something."

Now they're both getting depressed. Dean tries to think optimistically, and he says, "Look, it may just take him a few days. Remember that time when he got zapped when he carved that sigil on his chest?"

Sam grimaces. "Like I could ever forget that scene."

"Well, it took him weeks to get back in touch after that, remember? We thought he was dead but he turned up fine."

Sam nods. "He'd ended up on a fishing boat, right? Offshore somewhere? And then in a hospital?"

"And he was in a coma!" says Dean, brightening as he remembers the details. It really had taken Cas quite a while to get in touch. "Remember, he said the doctors thought he was brain-dead? And it took him a while to revive, or reboot or whatever it is he does, and wake back up. But he did wake back up in the end."

"I always wondered if God, I mean Chuck, had something to do with that," says Sam. He looks pensive, and after a moment Dean realizes why.

It's kind of disturbing to realize that a lot of Cas's unlikely-survival moments have probably been due to Chuck resurrecting him.

The reason it's kind of disturbing is because Chuck's gone now.

"I don't think we can count on any more magic resurrections," says Sam slowly.

Dean's just reached the same conclusion, but he can't accept that Cas might actually be dead. That's.... that's simply unacceptable. He puts the thought right out of his head, sets his fork down to focus, and counters with, "But, remember, that was a sigil carved on his chest, like, it might have blown Cas right out of the vessel. That was a special case. What happened yesterday was just a regular sigil-zapping, right? The sigil was on a wall?" Sam nods, and Dean says, "A sigil on a wall usually takes him a couple days to return from, right?" He's trying to remember other times the angel-banishing sigil has been used on Cas. "Let's see, Cas got zapped once by Anna in that barn; I used it on him once in Bobby's panic room...." (Dean still feels a little bad about that one.) "A couple more times, too. Like when Hester was threatening us, remember? Cas ended up at that dog track in Australia, right? I guess he popped back from that one pretty fast but he could fly then; he had pretty good power. It's usually been a few days before we hear from him again."

"Yeah, it's been longer when he's low on power," says Sam, nodding. "The time when he ended up in a coma he was pretty low-powered. And ended up with zero power after. Does he have any power right now?"

"I don't know," says Dean, realizing he'd forgotten to check with Cas about this. During all the end-of-the-world doom and gloom yesterday, it had seemed much more important just to get to that liquor store. Cas had seemed more or less okay (if a little quiet) after Lucifer was blasted out, but, come to think of it, that Lucifer-getting-blasted moment, during the fight with Amara, had actually looked pretty rough. Cas had already been fairly low-powered before the whole Lucifer possession; could he possibly be at no power now? Even before getting zapped?

"He said Heaven's been sealed again," Sam points out. "Whenever that's happened before it's always meant Cas loses power, remember? Something about power flow, about him not having access or something."

"Okay," says Dean slowly. "So he might be low power. Or even no power. But he's not gonna be dead." (This is just not possible.) "But he might be out cold like happened with the sigil-on-the-chest. And he might have ended up in a hospital again. Let's... Here's an idea. Let's check for John Does. John Does who are in comas at hospitals. There's a national network for unidentified patients, isn't there?"

Sam's nodding, and he's already started tapping away on his laptop.

 


 

Sam gets into the John Doe registry (which also covers Jane Does, it turns out), but soon discovers it's going to take a while to go through it all, so they get a motel room for the night in Tremonton. It's a dive, with threadbare bedsheets and lukewarm water, but it'll do. They spend the evening completing a first pass through the entire John & Jane Doe registry (which is surprisingly large). But there's nobody who sounds like Cas.

"Maybe he's not in North America?" Dean suggests.

"Or he might not have been found yet," points out Sam. "Or at least might not have been entered in the registry yet. Looks like sometimes hospitals take a day or two to conclude that a patient is really an unknown John Doe. We should check again tomorrow."

Sam starts trying to ping Cas's phone again. Dean, meanwhile, starts a long round of phone calls to all their hunter contacts. But nobody's heard anything.

A half hour later Dean's gotten desperate enough to call Crowley, who hasn't heard a thing through his demon contacts either.

"At least that means he's not in Hell," Sam says, when Dean relays this news to him. "And I guess not in Heaven either, if it's really been sealed."

"There's still Purgatory," says Dean glumly as he tosses his phone onto his motel bed. Crowley had been his last idea. He eyes the motel room's minifridge; he's already emptied out the one miniature Jack Daniels bottle that was in there, and a liquor store run is starting to sound like a great idea. Never did get to the one last night, he thinks, remembering the conversation with Cas.

Sam is watching him, and he says "Way ahead of you," reaching into a brown paper sack that he's got tucked under the motel room's little table. He pulls out a sixpack of beer, adding, "Got this when you were checking us in. Figured you might need something, and you work better on beer than on liquor." Sam pulls a can off the plastic rings and tosses it to Dean, who grabs it gratefully and cracks it open.

Sam adds, "You said it yourself, he's usually gone a few days after a zap. We gotta be patient. Here, I brought your laptop — why don't you start in on North America news item searches, I'll start on the international ones, and we'll check the John Does again tomorrow."

Dean nods, takes a swig of beer and gets to work.

 


 

They still haven't found anything by the next morning and reluctantly they start the drive back to the bunker. Sam continues searching for new news items on his phone, looking for anything about mysteriously appearing people, or strange visitors in comas. And he checks the day's newest John Doe entries. Dean drives, making a few calls on his cell whenever he can; he's broadening his phone-call effort to include some witch and psychic contacts.

There's still nothing.

They're both a little quiet when they finally get back to the bunker.

"It would finally all be over," Dean points out, as they spread out their stuff in the library, "if we could just find Cas." Sam glances up at him from his laptop with a questioning look.

"I mean, think about it," Dean says. "God, the Darkness, Amara. The Mark of Cain. Metatron. Lucifer. All of it. It's over. It's been years, Sam. One damn thing leading directly to another damn thing, for years, and never a frickin' break, but now it's.... all.... I can't even really believe it...."

Words actually fail Dean, but Sam gets it; Sam's nodding, and he says, "Everything's actually fine for once."

"Yeah," says Dean. "Except no Cas."

"We'll find him," says Sam. He's got a thoughtful look on his face, and he adds, "Hey... so... now that Amara's gone, can I ask, um, do you still feel that... pull toward her? That, uh... attraction thing or whatever?"

Sam's tripping over his words, but Dean knows exactly what he's referring to, and he says "No. NO. It's gone." And best of all, he discovers, as he says it, that it's true! That weird pull he'd felt toward Amara, the half-attracted, half-fascinated (and more-than-half-brainwashed) sensation that's been driving him nearly insane for months, is simply gone. Erased as if it had never been.

Dean almost gets a little dizzy as he realizes this. He sits slowly down in one of the bunker chairs (Sam's watching him). Very deliberately, Dean makes himself think of Amara. He's trying to see if he can elicit any of that strange forced-attraction feeling that he used to always feel whenever he thought of her.

He makes himself picture her face; he pictures her wearing that ever-present slinky dress, with the bombshell cleavage. He pictures that way she used to look at him (that freaky stalker-ish stare she had, and the way he could never seem to look the fuck away). He pictures her lovely eyes, and her cascade of soft dark hair. And he feels... nothing.

Absolutely nothing.

He's elated, and he says to Sam, with a big sigh, "It's gone. I picture her and I don't feel a goddam thing! I swear to God — to Chuck, whatever — I swear it's gone. It's been eating at me for a solid year! Ever since the Mark got off me." He's never even wanted to talk about this before, but now that it's gone, it's suddenly much easier to talk about. Dean looks over at Sam and adds, "It was so friggin' weird, Sam. She just had this freaky hold on my mind somehow. It was like a Mark-hangover that I just couldn't wake up out of."

"Like a... spell?" suggests Sam, a little slowly.

Dean thinks about that. Sam might be on to something. "Something like that," he agrees. "Not normal magic, I think, but it definitely wasn't voluntary, not for me. It never really felt natural. It didn't feel like it was coming from me, not really. It was like she'd tweaked me, re-made me the way she wanted or something, forced me to feel how she wanted me to feel. But now I finally feel back to normal. Like now I can feel like I want to feel. First time in two frickin' years, actually."

Sam's smiling, and he says, "Glad to hear it."

For some reason, all this makes Dean think of Cas again. Maybe because of all those Amara staring-contests. Cas was always the original king of the long stares, of course, long before Amara showed up. But with Cas, those staring contests actually had felt real, like they meant something. Like there was an actual friendship there, some kind of mutual respect.

Amara had wanted to absorb Dean. To devour him alive. Cas, in contrast, had offered to die at Dean's side.

Hell of a difference, thinks Dean.

He pulls out his phone to make another call, saying, "Let's get back to work."

 


 

The next morning, Dean's doing his first daily check of the John Doe registry (he checks three times a day now) and as usual there's a few new entries. "Four new John Does today," says Dean to Sam, who's sitting across the table doing his own morning check of the news websites.

"What's the descriptions?" says Sam. He doesn't even bother looking up; there's new John Does all the time, and there's been nothing even close to a match.

Dean takes a sip of his coffee and starts clicking through the descriptions of the various new John Does that have turned up at hospitals across the country. "Guy in his twenties in Mobile, Alabama... nope, he's black. One in Chicago, nope, female.... One in Seattle... nope, teenager. Guy in Flagstaff...whoa. Whoa." Sam finally looks up, and Dean reads the description. "Caucasian male, six feet, slender build, dark hair, blue eyes, late 30s or early 40s." This could be a lot of people, of course, but so far it's a match, and Dean's heart's starting to pound. He reads further: "Tattoo! Tattoo on the abdomen! Cas has one there, right? That one that wards him from angels finding him?" He looks up at Sam, who's now looking back at him wide-eyed.

For the first time in days, Dean feels hopeful.

"It sounds right," says Dean. "Doesn't it?"

"Alive?" says Sam quietly.

Dean nods; he's only been checking the "alive" listings in the mornings. (He only looks at the "dead" listings once a day, at night. Really just for completeness — it's not really necessary to check those more often, since, of course, Cas can't be dead.) But Dean doublechecks the listing just to be sure and reports, "Alive and in stable condition! But unresponsive, it says. I bet he got knocked unconscious, just like we thought. He's probably just still rebooting."

"Any photos?" Sam asks. "Of the tattoo, or of the patient?" He's already tapping something into his own laptop.

Dean shakes his head. "They haven't uploaded any photos yet. Looks like they found him a few days ago but only logged him into the system now."

Sam's focused on his own laptop now. "Got it. Check this out. I just searched Google News for Flagstaff news items from the last three days, and here's a news item on a man found — oh shit, Dean, found in the Grand Canyon! It's a press release from the National Park Service. Man found unconscious down at the base of the canyon. Damn, I really hope he didn't fall all the way down there...."

"Maybe he can still fly a little?" says Dean hopefully. (Cas has never really explained much about the state of his wings; all Dean really knows is that Cas "can't fly" and "misses his wings.") "He always wanted to see the Grand Canyon."

"Well, he may not have got much of a view yet, since apparently he was unconscious the whole time and they had to airlift him out. Helicopter rescue, the works. The park service is calling him an 'unprepared hiker.'" Sam starts to chuckle. "There's a whole thing about how he didn't even have a water bottle. Oh man, LISTEN TO THIS, Dean, they describe the guy as wearing a trenchcoat! The park service is all pissed off about it. Here's the quote: 'We want to remind the public that a trenchcoat, business attire and dress shoes are entirely inappropriate clothing and footwear for hiking the Grand Canyon'." Sam looks up with a wide beaming smile.

"That's our angel!" says Dean, slamming both hands down on the table in triumph. He flips his laptop closed and jumps up; Sam's already jamming his own laptop into his shoulder bag. The rest of their stuff is already in the Impala. (They've been ready for days to head back out at a moments' notice.) Dean checks for the Impala keys in his pocket; they're right there, and the feel of the keys in his hand gives him a tremendous boost of energy.

As they get into the Impala and Dean revs the engine, he feels like he's practically got his very own wings. He feels that elated, that free, like an anchor's dropped away from him and he's soaring up into the sky. He pulls the car out onto the road, Sam is in the seat beside him, and they're going to get Cas, and the future is stretching out bright and expansive before them.

It's all clear as day in Dean's mind how it'll be. They'll collect Cas, who will probably have woken up already by the time they even get there. Cas'll be fine. They'll bring him back here to Kansas. He'll ride in the back; maybe he'll ride shotgun sometimes. Maybe Dean will even let him drive a bit! Cas'll be low-powered, so he'll need to eat, so they'll stop at lots of diners and buy him burgers and feed him up, and he'll be fine. And they'll get back to the bunker and all live together and...

They'll just... live.

They'll eat pizza, and watch movies. They'll do a hunt now and then.

And there'll be no Darkness, no Amara, no Mark, no Cain, no Lucifer, no Yelloweyes, no Leviathans, no Raphael, no angel wars, and no Apocalypse. Nobody will be possessed. Nobody will be soulless or crazy or brainwashed or under a spell or anything like that. It'll all be over.

They can just live.

Just like Mom said: "You can just live now." Then Dean remembers Mom's strange, sweet request about "Let yourself be happy," And he remembers Amara's last words too, and he thinks, You got it a little wrong, Amara. THIS is what I needed most. I needed THIS family back together. Not one from the past, but the one I have now: Me and Sam and Cas.

The whole world seems to be shining as the Impala speeds down the highway. Dean shoots a grin at Sam, and Sam grins back, flipping on the radio, and music starts playing. It's a classic old Doobie Brothers tune, "Listen To The Music", and they're going to get Cas, and everything's gonna be all right. Dean's on top of the world.

A little voice in the back of his head is whispering, It's never that easy, but Dean ignores it.

 


 

 

A/N - So I was working on this in Alaska. First fiction writing I've been able to do in months and it felt so good! Have been itching to start posting it! And then when the S11 finale aired I thought "This would actually fit PERFECTLY after the S11 finale! ....if I just completely disable both S11 cliffhangers in about 5 minutes of conversation in chapter 1", lol, so that is what I am doing.

Update schedule: I'll be aiming for my usual Friday updates. However, chapter 2's not written yet and I have to drive some sea turtles around the country this coming week - I'm currently wrapping up an insanely busy science job that ends the last week of July, and then going to Brazil and then moving cross-country, so it's kind of nuts, but I'm nonetheless optimistically aiming for weekly Friday updates. (If I won't be able to get an update posted on Friday, I'll at least post an edit in the previous chapter's A/N about when it'll be up.) After chapter 2, chapters 3-6 are already done, and that'll get me through end of July when the job ends, and then I can just write for a few months.

I hope you enjoy this fic!  Please drop a comment if you have a minute! And if there was something specific in this chapter that you liked, please do let me know.

Chapter Text

A/N - The sea turtles were successfully released, yay! They looked just great as they crawled into the sea! Crawling well, healthy and all healed up. Planning & doing the turtle release took up 3 days completely though, including the Tues-Wed-Thurs midweek evenings when I usually get a lot of fic editing done, so I'm only posting half of the chapter now. Second half is written but still needs a polish; it will follow next week as its own chapter. So, just a couple of scenes right now, but I hope you like it. :)

 


 

 

Dean's good mood lasts all the way through Colorado and about halfway through New Mexico, at which point, in mid-afternoon, he realizes he's getting nervous. Sam's tried Cas's phone a few more times and there's still no answer. Dean tries sending out a few quiet prayers, too (something he's been trying off and on, for days), in case Cas can pick up prayers even if his phone's dead, but there's no hint of a response. Which isn't all that surprising, but it reminds Dean that their friend is in a coma.

Shouldn't Cas have woken up and called by now? It's the fourth day since the zap.

What if he's in a permanent coma? What if he really got injured in the Grand Canyon? Could he possibly have actually fallen for part of the way, maybe broken some bones or something? Or did Lucifer damage him somehow? Is he having trouble rebooting?

What if something's wrong?

By the time the Impala starts climbing up into the high desert of the northern Arizona mountains, the little voice in the back of Dean's head has started to convince him that everything can't possibly be okay. Everything's going to get all fucked up again, somehow; he can feel it.

"Beautiful country," Sam remarks, as they pass Petrified Forest National Park. "They call all of this Red Rock Country, you know. All this part of the country. High mountain desert, for hundreds of miles." It's a striking, wide-open landscape, surprisingly cold for a desert, and with all kinds of strange rock formations — eroded walls and buttes and peaks, with bands of colorful striping on the rocks. Sam adds, "I came here once, to the Petrified Forest I mean, with some friends, back when I was in Flagstaff. Definitely worth a stop on the way back, actually. Bet Cas would like it."

"Yeah," says Dean. "Sure."

"The Grand Canyon's really close to Flag too, you know," says Sam, slipping into what sounds like a local's nickname for Flagstaff. "You remember I stayed in Flag for a bit, right?"

"Yeah," says Dean. "Uh-huh."

Dean's actually thinking, How could I forget. It's not actually a great memory. Sam had run away to Flagstaff for a few weeks as a teen, leaving Dean totally in the dark. Actually Dean had been terrified that Sam might've actually died, but no, Sam had just run away, straight-up disappeared, to go find himself or some teenaged angsty shit. And apparently Sam had loved being on his own; his memory of being in "Flag" had actually turned up in Sam's version of Heaven. (Which still kind of bothers Dean.)

For Sam, "Flag" means freedom. For Dean, Flagstaff means... losing family.

Which is not really what Dean wanted to be reminded of right now. In fact he'd been trying not to think about it.

"Bryce National Park isn't too far either," says Sam.

"Yeah," says Dean again.

"And Zion, and Arches, all the Utah parks. Canyonland's fantastic; people always overlook that one. And Painted Desert's really close. You can't swing a cat around here without hitting a national park. You think Cas'd like to see any of those?"

"Yeah," says Dean. "Sure."

Sam falls silent. Dean glances over a moment later to find Sam peering at him with his forehead all wrinkled up like a Shar-Pei. That's the Concerned-Sam look, of course, and it means Sam's about to try to get Dean to "open up" and "share his feelings."

"Can it," says Dean automatically, before Sam even gets started. "Some day your face is gonna freeze that way, you know."

Too late; Sam's already in gear. "Cas'll be okay, Dean," Sam begins.

"Of course he'll be okay," says Dean, shifting his gaze to the landscape ahead of them and scowling at the lovely rock outcroppings. "He's probably already okay. He probably already woke up. In fact he's probably left the hospital already. He's fine."

"If that's what you think," says Sam, "then why do you look so worried?"

"I don't. I'm not worried," insists Dean, even though his fingers are tightening on the steering wheel. "Everything's fine. You said it yourself, everything's finally okay. It's all over."

Sam takes a little breath, and Dean can tell he's about to launch on Phase 2 of the brotherly-bonding speech, the "Dean, you've got to talk about this stuff," part. Dean prepares to double-down on his stonewalling.

But something changes. Something about what's happened this week, maybe; something about the way Sam's voice had sounded on the phone when he'd first heard Dean was alive.

"C'mon, Dean —" Sam begins, but Dean's already bursting out with, "It's just, something always goes wrong. Always. Always, Sam! Something always goes wrong!" The little voice in the back of his head has taken over completely now, and he adds, "Nothing's ever this easy. Especially not with Cas!"

Sam thinks a moment. "I don't know," he says, thoughtfully. "I mean, I definitely know what you mean — something has always gone wrong. But you know something? I kind of feel more like... like with Chuck and Amara gone, maybe the whole universe has turned over a new leaf. Like maybe we can just start fresh, you know? Maybe even Cas can take it easy for once." He chuckles, and says, "I was even thinking, an hour ago when we crossed into Arizona, imagine what it would be like just to have normal-people problems."

"Normal-people problems?" says Dean, glancing over at him.

"Problems like, running out of gas. Paying the rent. Health insurance. Dental bills. Root canals, divorces, termites, I don't know. Stuff other than monsters. Point is, there might be problems, sure, but just as long as it's not the end of the world, you know? For once."

Dean looks over at him again. "You're saying, you'd rather have termites than the end of the world?"

"Of course," Sam says, with a shrug. "Nothing's ever perfect, you know? But whatever's coming, we can handle it. I'll take the termites."

"You'll be sorry you said that when the termites come," Dean says, and Sam laughs.

 


 

The rest of the drive is all national forest, national parks and Native American land, all pretty sparsely populated, and Sam's totally unable to get a cell signal for the last hour of the drive. Dean can't help reading that as a bad sign: what if they're never going to be able to get in touch with Cas?

They're driving on actual Route 66 itself by the time they pull into Flagstaff. It's night now — the sun set hours ago (it's been a very long drive) but Dean does get some glimpses of the town. It's pretty small, and what with good ol' Route 66 spearing straight through town, a genuine Native American reservation just over the hill and a giant railway track cutting right through the center of the tiny downtown, it feels like a classic Western town. Complete with a vintage old railway station (and also complete with a ten-minute wait at the tracks while a seemingly endless freight train goes by). It looks like a nice little place, actually; there's some kind of college, there's lots of signs to the Grand Canyon, there's a zillion bike trails everywhere, and a ton of coffee shops and tiny local breweries. Every third store seems to be a mountain bike shop. It's cute and all, but by now Dean's feeling so pessimistic that he just gets annoyed at the breweries and bike shops. He's muttering "college hipster kids..." to himself as they pass yet another brewery.

It doesn't help that Sam's in a fit of nostalgia now over his Flagstaff days. Dean's biting his lip to keep from pointing out that Sam was only here for a couple weeks; to hear Sam talk about it, it seems like he lived here for years. Sam's pointing out the Route 66 souvenir shops, some bike path he remembers using, he's talking about the dog he found, the mountain cabin he stayed in. Even when Dean's trying to focus on finding the hospital, Sam's still chattering on about whether Cas might want to go to "the Canyon" tomorrow or might want to visit some astronomical observatory up on a nearby hill.

Dean's starting to get irritated, but then it occurs to him that maybe Sam's actually just trying to keep his own spirits up. Maybe he's trying to convince both Dean and himself that Cas will be fine, and that they'll all get to tour Flagstaff together tomorrow morning — all three of them.

Sure enough Sam falls into a worried silence after just a few more minutes. A passing rainshower's blowing through town now and the windshield goes blotchy with big fat raindrops. Dean flicks the wipers on; Sam watches them in silence.

Then Sam says, "I should've been paying more attention."

"What?" Dean says.

"To the girl. That English lady," says Sam. "We walked right into a trap, Cas and me. I should've been more alert."

"You had stuff on your mind," points out Dean. "And Cas got taken by surprise too,"

"I was in front," says Sam. "I was leading. I led Cas right into it —"

"Don't start that," orders Dean. "It wasn't your fault."

 


 

The rain stops just as they finally locate the hospital. By the time they park and get out of the Impala, the whole parking lot's wreathed in an eerie low fog, streamers of steam trailing up into the air as the rain evaporates away into the cool mountain air. It gives the whole night-time scene a spooky feel, like the hospital's floating on a foggy lake. It seems ominous, and Dean's really bracing himself now for... something, he's not sure what. Cas still in a coma, maybe? Cas insane; Cas amnesiac again... or maybe Lucifer somehow survived and re-possessed him? Or some other angel could have found him (are the angels still hunting Cas?), maybe another crazy reaper, or some stray Leviathan, or....

"Settle down," Sam says, and Dean realizes he's drumming his fingers on the Impala roof, staring at the hospital entrance as Sam pulls his bag out of the back. "He'll be fine," says Sam, clapping Dean on the shoulder. "Come on." They head in.

As they walk up to the receptionist in the main lobby, Dean mutters, "I hate hospitals." Sam just nods. Too many bad memories, too many times. Bobby dying... Dad dying... Sam injured, Dean injured....

Everybody always getting hurt.

Everybody always dying.

The receptionist steers them to the ICU, warning them that it's a little busy there tonight. Apparently the Flagstaff hospital is a "major regional trauma center" and sure enough it's huge, and full of activity. There's a big central desk and four corridors branching off in different directions, and the ER's right next door. There's all sorts of people dashing around, whole crowds of residents and nurses and EMTs rushing around with newly arrived patients on gurneys who are being rolled here and there, some coming from the ER, some going to operating rooms. It's a little confusing. Dean actually gets shoved aside by some intern darting down the hall, and this gives him a sudden, visceral memory of Bobby's death (he'd gotten shoved just the same way, that night, right when Bobby had been dying). It rattles him much more than it should, and he's still trying to calm himself down by the time they get to the central desk of the ICU.

There's nobody there; all the staff are temporarily elsewhere (running around shoving people, apparently). But Sam manages to find a whiteboard half-hidden behind the desk, and it says that "John Doe" is in Room 8. It's the only John Doe listed. They go to Room 8.

They find it. The bed is empty.

It's empty.

The bed's empty. Cas is gone. Cas should be in Room 8, he's the only "John Doe" the hospital has right now, John Doe's in Room 8 and this is Room 8 and Cas isn't here. Dean checks with an intern about whether they've got the right room, but the intern just points to the gigantic "ROOM 8" sign on the door, making an obvious effort to not roll his eyes. They're in the right room; it's empty.

And it's not like Cas has been rolled away in his bed for a CT scan or something, because the bed is still here. Sam goes back to doublecheck the whiteboard while Dean stands in the room and looks around.

The bed's been stripped, and there's a mop in the corner. Somebody's been cleaning the room, and Dean knows what that means. It means the hospital's getting it ready for the next patient. It means Cas isn't coming back to the room at all.

"Maybe he finally woke up and walked out?" Sam says, walking up next to Dean. "Checked himself out?"

Dean pulls out his phone and taps Cas's number. Sam watches while he holds the phone to his ear.

But Cas still doesn't pick up.

If he were awake he'd pick up, Dean thinks. If he were awake, he'd have charged the phone by now, 'cause hospitals always have chargers. Especially ,"major regional trauma centers" are going to have a way to charge a patient's phone. And he'd have picked up. If he were awake he'd have picked up.

"If he were awake," Dean begins, but he can't finish the sentence. He stuffs the phone back into his pocket.

Sam says, "Maybe he got transferred somewhere else. Some other department." There's a sort of a forced-optimistic tone in his voice.

"Maybe," Dean says.

Or maybe Cas didn't get transferred. Maybe Cas's ICU room at the hospital is empty because....

Dean turns on his heel and starts walking back to the ICU desk, weaving through the flood of residents and interns and hospital staff. At last there's somebody at the desk, some harried-looking nurse who's grabbing charts and answering about three phone calls at once, and Dean starts gearing himself up to corner her and make her hang up all the phones and tell him where his friend Castiel is. (Or John Doe, or whatever they're calling him here). Dean's already scowling as he stalks toward her, steeling himself for an argument, getting ready to force her to tell him that Cas is okay. He's even getting angry in advance (why, he doesn't know), and starts walking faster, feeling his fists starting to clench as he zeroes in on the hapless nurse. Sam's hurrying to catch up and he even reaches out to put one hand on Dean's arm, murmuring quietly, "Whoa, Dean, slow down, slow down," but Dean can't stop.

And then, just as Sam puts his hand on Dean's arm, they both hear a familiar voice. A wonderfully — almost painfully — familiar voice, low and rough. It's saying, "The tests don't matter. I have to leave right now. I can't stay for more tests."

Dean screeches to a halt so suddenly that Sam barrels into his back. Dean grabs for Sam's arm even as Sam is grabbing his, both trying to alert each other about the voice. There's a moment when they're holding onto each other and looking around in all directions, trying to locate where Cas's voice is coming from — there's still so many other people around, and so much noise, that it's not even clear at first where he is. Then like magic the crowd parts, and there he is. There's Cas.

He's alive.

He's upright and on his feet. He's wide awake. He's talking.

He's in the middle of an argument with a doctor, actually. Cas has his back to Sam and Dean, and he's facing the doctor, who's planted right in front of Cas with his arms folded looking pretty skeptical. Maybe because Cas is looking a little disheveled. More than a little; seems Cas is in the middle of getting dressed, right there in the hallway, and he's trying to get his trenchcoat on and seems to be having some trouble. (It's the Lesser Trenchcoat, as Dean thinks of it; the Greater Trenchcoat, the original one, is long gone.)

At least Cas has got his pants and the white shirt on — barely. The pants at least seem to be fully on, but the shirt is unbuttoned, with the shirt tails dangling loose, the cuffs undone and the sleeves shoved messily up his arms. The shirt's also muddy and wrinkled. (Actually, everything looks muddy and wrinkled.) Cas has his blue-striped tie in one hand and both his shoes in the other. He hasn't even bothered with the suit jacket or his belt (both are in a heap on the floor by his stockinged feet) but as they watch he successfully gets one arm into one trenchcoat sleeve. But he's still groping around his back with his other hand, trying to find the other sleeve. That's the hand that's holding the shoes and of course there's no way he can get his arm into his sleeve while he's also holding the shoes, and the trenchcoat's also gotten all twisted behind his back, but he keeps trying, flailing around with one arm behind his back trying to stick the tips of the shoes into the sleeve. He's focused intently on the doctor through all this, saying, "You don't understand, you have to let me go, I have to get back to Kansas, I can't reach my friend — my, my brother, I can't reach him —"

Dean's already cruising over to him, closing the distance between them with long strides. Sam's right at his side. Cas still has his back to them and hasn't seen them yet.

"We really need to do more tests—" says the doctor, but Cas says "If my brother's not there then honestly there's no point anyway, no point in even doing the tests—" Dean and Sam come up behind Cas at that point, and, as smoothly as if they'd rehearsed it, Sam plucks the shoes out of Cas's hand, while Dean gently takes hold of the collar of the trenchcoat and gives it a little shake so that the coat straightens out and Cas finally gets his arm in the sleeve. Cas shrugs on the coat at last, calling a relieved "Thank you," over his shoulder before he's even fully turned to see who it is.

"No problem," says Dean.

"Our pleasure," says Sam.

Cas spins around so fast he almost loses his balance. He drops his tie, and he stares.

He stares at Dean for such a long moment that Dean briefly wonders if he's really okay. (Cas looks a bit of a mess — four-day-old stubble on his chin, his hair sticking up every which way, and still just half-dressed.) Cas then glances at Sam, twice, doing a classic textbook doubletake, before his eyes return to Dean.

"I'm alive," Dean announces, unnecessarily.

"Dean," Cas says.

There's a whole world in how Cas says that one word.

And now apparently it's time for another Heartfelt Castiel Hug, as Cas closes the gap between them in one quick move and wraps both arms around Dean. It's a really tight hug this time, as if Cas is trying to weld Dean right onto his own chest. Cas has also gone for the both-arms-on-top hug option, a little tricky since he's not as tall, but he pulls it off, one hand on the back of Dean's neck and the other wrapped tight over Dean's shoulders.

It's such an intense relief to find Cas alive and alert and upright that Dean, once again, totally forgets to do the standard back-thumping. He just wraps both hands around Cas's back, and lets Cas take hold of him. Lets him put his chin over Dean's shoulder. Lets him squeeze Dean tight.

Okay, maybe Dean's squeezing him a little tight too. Maybe Dean's got his chin tucked over Cas's shoulder too. Maybe Dean even lets himself close his eyes for a moment, just to soak it in

Cas takes a couple of jerky gasps of air, like he's so stunned he's forgotten how to breathe.

"I'm okay, I'm okay," Dean says to Cas. "I'm all right." Cas already has one hand on the back of Dean's head and now he moves his other hand there too. One hand's now a little bit up in Dean's hair and the other a little lower down on the nape of Dean's neck. Cas is even scratching Dean's hair a little. It's definitely a little odd, but there's something sweet about it too, for Castiel is so clearly overwhelmed.

Cas takes one more huge breath of air, almost a gasp, and at last he releases Dean. Sort of. He takes one step back but now he's slid one hand down onto Dean's shoulder, and he leaves his hand there. It's that old hand-on-the-shoulder position that he used to use when he was about to fly Dean somewhere; or, sometimes, about to tell him something.

Dean waits, but Cas says nothing. He just looks at Dean for another long moment.

It's such a long pause that for a strange and fleeting moment, Dean almost wonders if Cas is about to kiss him.

"You can stop holding on, you know," says Dean, laughing a little. "You can let go anytime."

Cas glances down at his own hand. "Sorry... of course," Cas mutters, and he finally manages to let go and step back.

A moment later he's muttered "Sam," and has turned and lunged at Sam too.

This turns out to be another pretty intense hug. Sam and Dean are both half-laughing now — Sam's exchanging a look with Dean over Cas's shoulder, while also trying not to bash Cas in the back with his own shoes (which are still in Sam's hands).

"Great to see you too," said Sam, patting Cas's back gently with one shoe heel. "But I'm not the one who had the soul-bomb in his chest, remember."

"Yes, but I didn't know what happened with that woman," says Cas. He manages to let go of Sam (more quickly than he'd let go of Dean) and adds, as Sam hands him the shoes back, "Also I was worried you might have done something stupid." Sam looks puzzled, and Cas explains, "You weren't answering your phone. I thought you might have done something... stupid. Something quite stupid." And he stops there, taking another slightly ragged breath and looking down at the floor, his shoulders slumping as if he's suddenly exhausted. He's clutching both shoes to his chest now, like they're all he's got left in the world.

Dean and Sam exchange a grim look. Something stupid. It's a code phrase, of course, one that Dean, when he'd said it, wasn't even sure that Cas would understand. But clearly Cas has figured it out.

"Didn't you get any of my calls?" said Sam. "I've been calling you for days. So has Dean. Is your phone dead?"

Cas grimaces, looking up from his shoes. "It's not working. Apparently I was found lying at the edge of the Colorado River. Lying half in, half out of the water." His eyes go a little unfocused as he adds, thinking back, "I think I remember sort of rowing myself out of the water? With what's left of my wings... I'm not sure. It turns out the banishing sigil can put one in a bad position, relative to the Earth's surface I mean, if the wings aren't... Well, anyway, some river-rafters found me, and I'm told I was soaking wet, and the cell phone's ruined." (The muddy, stained look of his clothes is starting to make sense.) He adds earnestly, to Sam, "But, Sam, they let me use the hospital phone. I woke up a few hours ago and I've been using the hospital phone and I tried calling you six times in the last hour."

"Oh, damn, I'm sorry," Sam says. "No cell service." He digs out his phone and looks at it. "Great. Now it says an unknown number called six times."

Dean explains, "We were on our way here, Cas. Lot of empty country in Arizona — which means, not many cell towers."

"Ah," says Cas, nodding. "Of course. I should have realized. I just —" He heaves a big sigh and runs one hand through his hair. It's an oddly human move, and Dean's struck by how mortal Cas looks right now: his disheveled hair, the four-day stubble, all his clothes with those dried mudstains and his shirtfront totally unbuttoned (whatever undershirt he used to have seems to be long gone). It all looks very... human.

The way he's blinking and rubbing his eyes also seems very human.

"I'm very glad to see you both," Cas finally says. "Dean, I have to confess, I promised you that I would look after Sam, but—" he takes a breath— "I was so careless, I wasn't thinking clearly, and, and, I'm so sorry, I wasn't alert enough and I let us walk directly into a trap and let myself get banished immediately and left Sam there all alone, with an aggressive woman—"

Dean almost laughs. It's exactly what Sam had been worried about earlier.

"Pretty sure we walked into that together, dude," says Sam, clapping him on the shoulder.

"But I promised Dean— " Cas begins, and he pauses. He shoots a look at Dean that's greatly relieved... and yet also still haunted. Dean realizes, then, that Cas must have woken up thinking not only that both Sam and Dean had died, but also that he'd failed to carry out Dean's very last request:

Look out for Sam, okay?

Of course.

"Sam's alive," says Dean gently. Sam nods, and Dean adds, "And I'm alive. We're both alive."

"I'm alive too," Castiel tells them, as if they hadn't noticed that yet. "So... we're all... alive?" At last his shoulders relax a little as he glances back and forth between Sam and Dean, taking it in.

"Hard to believe, isn't it?" says Sam, grinning.

At that point somebody says "Mr. Winchester?"

Sam and Dean both whip around to find that the doctor (who had faded away diplomatically during the whole reunion scene) has sidled back up next to Sam and is now saying, a little apologetically, "I really hate to interrupt, Mr. Winchester, but we do need to discuss a few things."

Dean's immediately on guard about how the doctor could have known Sam and Dean's last name. It takes a moment to register that the doctor was actually talking to Castiel. Cas clarifies, "That's, um, that's the name I gave," and he then says to the doctor, gesturing toward Sam and Dean, "May I introduce Sam and Dean. They're..." He hesitates.

He flicks a glance at Dean, and then at Sam, and that rare half-smile starts to creep onto Cas's face, one corner of his mouth crooking up. At once Dean knows what he's going to say.

Cas turns back to the doctor and says, straightening up a little: "They're my family."

 


 

 

A/N - And that's all we have time for this week. Just a sweet fluffy reunion. :)

More to come next week! Thank you for your patience, and as always, if there was anything in particular you liked, please do let me know! I love to hear from you.

Chapter Text

A/N - First off, an apology for not replying to all your lovely comments! Last week was really hectic after the turtle transport and I had to work all weekend, and I just ran out of time. (Also - to anybody who's tried to tweet me - Twitter's been nonfunctional on my phone since I left jibcon in April. I can receive tweets but can't send them! Really weird. Reinstalling hasn't solved it, sigh.) Anyway, apologies for the lack of responses last week, but please do know I really do read & cherish every comment!!

And - I'm so glad you all liked the happy reunion. It seemed like our boys needed at least one moment of peace together. :) Whatever comes next...

Now back to our heroes, who have just been reunited in the Flagstaff hospital. (PS - spoilers about "Some Like It Hot," if you've never seen it.)

 


 

 

The doctor seems greatly reassured that Cas actually has some family to pick him up, and promises to sign the release paperwork as soon as Cas "gets himself together." Only then does Cas seem to notice that he's still only half-dressed, and that the few clothes he's managed to get on are a mess. "I look filthy," complains Cas, frowning down at his mud-stained shirt and coat, and feeling at the stubble on his chin. "I'm not presentable."

It brings to mind a moment several years ago, when a very messy-looking Castiel (fresh out of Purgatory) had walked into a motel bathroom looking like a muddy wreck, and had come strolling back out all of five seconds later perfectly spotless, clothes clean and pressed. And freshly shaven on top of it.

Cas now just plucks at the mud stains on his trenchcoat with a sigh.

"So how are those magical clothes-laundering skills these days?" Dean asks. "On the fritz again?"

Cas just gives him a frustrated look.

"Low power?" Sam guesses.

"No power," says Cas, with another sigh, looking down at the stained shirt and patting at himself vaguely. "Everything hurts, actually. And I've ruined another set of clothing."

"Never mind," says Dean. "Get your shoes on. We'll fix you up."

 


 

They hustle him into a nearby men's room for a quick once-over — the idea is to give him enough of a sprucing-up to satisfy the doctor that Cas is actually sane and releasable. Sam whips the trenchcoat off and starts beating the dust and dried mud off of it over at the side of the restroom, while Dean takes a critical look at Cas's other clothes. The pants are dark enough that they hide the mud okay. The white shirt is more problematic, but Dean decides that the dark suit jacket, once buttoned up, will hide the worst of the shirt's stains. Soon Dean's buzzing around Castiel like a personal valet, helping him get the suit jacket on, handing him the belt and settling the blue-striped tie around his neck in a loose loop. Cas tucks his shirt-tails in while Dean's working his way around Cas in a little circle helping thread the belt through the belt loops, and then while Cas is adjusting the belt Dean tries to help him tie the blue-striped tie. They hit a minor moment of confusion when it turns out Dean is trying to put the tie on with the seam side up — the way Cas used to wear the original blue tie, years ago — while Cas actually wants it the normal way, seam side down, which Claire seems to have shown him at some point. At first neither of them realizes what the other's trying to do; Cas flips the tie one way, Dean flips it back, Cas flips it over again, Dean flips it back again. (Sam's finished dealing with the trenchcoat by now and is watching them from the corner of the room, coat slung over one arm. For some reason he seems to be stifling a laugh.)

"Oh, right, you want it normal," says Dean, finally remembering that Cas now wears his tie the usual way.

"I want it presentable," says Cas, twisting the tie back around.

"You want it boring," says Dean, flipping one end over again.

"I just want it orderly," says Cas, flipping it back.

"Okay, okay. Orderly," says Dean, giving in. Dean then tightens the tie a little, snugging it up Cas's neck in an "orderly" way. Cas loosens the tie before Dean even has his hands off it. Dean tightens it again. Cas loosens it.

"Oh, you want it disorderly," says Dean.

"I want it comfortable," says Cas with a frown.

"You two are a great comedy act," comments Sam. "Like Laurel and Hardy."

"More like the Odd Couple," says Dean, grinning.

"Or the couple in Some Like It Hot?" suggests Cas, trying to join in.

Dean and Sam both look at him. "Some Like It Hot", of course, is the classic old film where a man in drag accidentally ends up married to another man... who turns out to not mind at all when his spouse turns out to be male.

"It's a 1959 romantic comedy movie," Cas explains, "featuring a pair of male friends who have to impersonate women to escape from a gangster. It also stars an actress by the name of Marilyn Monroe. I don't know if you've ever heard of her?"

"You know what, Cas?" says Dean.

"What?"

"It's good to have you back," says Dean, grinning.

Sam's grinning too, and thankfully he doesn't say anything about "Some Like It Hot"; he just hands Cas the trenchcoat, and Dean and Sam both watch as Cas pulls it on. Cas is frowning at himself in the mirror as he adjusts it, and when he realizes both brothers are watching him, he turns toward them a little and even straightens up slightly, waiting for their verdict.

"He'll have to shave later," Sam comments to Dean. "Just fix his hair a bit and we're done."

At that comment, Cas unexpectedly produces a comb from the inner pocket of his suitjacket and starts combing his hair down, looking in the mirror earnestly as he does so.

Dean finds he needs a moment to adjust to the idea that Castiel the angel, soldier of God, warrior of Heaven and smiter of demons, apparently carries a ninety-nine-cent little plastic Walgreens comb around with him at all times. Some habit he picked up back when he was human, probably.

And then Dean realizes he has an opportunity here to finally fix something that's been mildly bothering him for a couple years now.

"Don't comb it down quite that much," Dean suggests, reaching over with one hand to block Cas's combing and ruffle his hair back up a little. "I think you should kinda fluff it back up. Like... this...." Dean fiddles with Cas's hair a bit more, till it's starting to achieve a nice amount of disarrayed fluffiness.

"What? But it's disorderly that way," Cas says, frowning into the mirror. He's peering around Dean's arm with his comb still raised. "What's the point of combing it if you then de-comb it? It's more presentable combed."

"It's more boring," corrects Dean. "It's fine to comb it — the comb kinda organizes everything and gives you a starting point — but then, I think, you should fluff it a bit." Cas's hair is still insufficiently fluffed. It's not staying up, so Dean wets down his hands at the sink and really goes to work, squaring up right in front of Cas and starting to work on Cas's hair with both hands, saying, "You did the tie you way you like, so let me do the hair. Fair's fair, right?" Cas is looking doubtful, but he's lowered the comb and he submits uncertainly, still craning his head a little to peer over Dean's shoulder at the mirror.

Dean wets Cas's hair just a tad and then scrunches it up, till it's clumping together just that perfect little bit, standing up slightly in front.

"But this is how it used to be before I learned about combs," complains Cas.

"Exactly," says Dean, remembering Castiel walking into a barn, wind-blown and dramatic, hair tousled, sparks flying, one evening long ago. "Trust me, girls'll dig this."

"Girls will dig this?" Cas repeats slowly, looking in the mirror and turning his head from side to side. He still looks doubtful.

"Girls... will... ," says Dean, fiddling with some stray tufts at Cas's forehead, "almost definitely... dig... this." He steps back and eyes his handiwork. "Not that you want to look like you care too much about your hair, mind you. There's a fine line."

"What Dean's saying is, he's always stifled a secret desire to be a hairdresser," says Sam. "He's about to tell you all about the joys of product."

"Bite me," says Dean — though in fact he does use a tiny bit of some mousse stuff on his own hair from time to time, which, unfortunately, Sam knows about. (But Sam uses a totally girly "volumizer" shampoo, and sometimes even borrows the mousse stuff, so they're even.) "So I want to look halfway decent, is that a crime?" says Dean. He turns back to Cas to say, "All I'm saying is, the perfect amount of tousle goes a long way." Belatedly he adds, "With the chicks."

"The perfect amount of... tousle...." Cas repeats, glancing at Dean's hair briefly, and then at Sam's.

"Don't look at Sam," Dean advises. "He's a freak."

"Hey," says Sam, aggrieved. "We both know who's spent half an hour staring in the mirror trying to get his hair to stick up at—" (Sam adds air quotes with his hands) "—the 'classic bad-boy angle'."

"Oh, come on, I was sixteen."

"You were doing it just last week, Dean," says Sam with a snort.

Sam is, unfortunately, correct, so Dean rolls his eyes, drops the topic and is about to suggest they head outside and find the doctor. But when he turns back to Cas, it turns out Cas is feeling at his hair with both hands now (still staring in the mirror), and then he's wetting his own hands down at the sink, apparently trying to copy Dean's method. Once both hands are dripping wet, he starts pushing around clumps of hair randomly, but he's got way too much water in the mix and soon there's water trickling down his hair and even down his face. Sam is stifling a laugh again, and Dean's biting his lip, but Cas keeps at it. Soon his hair is almost drenched, big clumps sticking every which way, and he catches Dean's eye in the mirror. (Somehow though he still manages to look pretty good. At least it's better than the High-School-Math-Teacher look he'd been going for before.)

"Like that?" Cas says, watching Dean.

"Close enough," says Dean.

Sam says, "That's a, um, slightly imperfect amount of tousle, Cas, just by the way. That's more the half-drowned look, actually. Little less water next time."

"But he carries it pretty well," points out Dean. "So we'll call it good."

"Girls will dig this?" asks Cas. He's watching Dean in the mirror again.

"Girls will definitely dig this," says Dean. And once again Sam's stifling a smile.

 


 

Thirty minutes later they're wedged in a booth together at a late-night burger joint. It's one of those semicircular booths with a curved padded wall; Cas is in the middle and Dean and Sam are on either side, and Dean's ordered burgers and fries for everyone. Even Sam's on board (none of his healthy crap tonight). They're all hungry, and Cas in particular seems to be downright starving. Soon Sam's even having to keep Castiel from trying to eat a spoonful of ketchup straight from the bottle before the food arrives. ("It's not a vegetable, Cas, I don't care what Claire says, you don't just eat it straight. You have to put it on stuff!")

Dean allows himself a moment to sit back and enjoy the sight of Sam instructing Cas in the appropriate culinary uses of ketchup.

Next Dean even allows himself a moment, quite tentatively, to think Everything's really all right.

For once the worried voice in the back of his head actually goes quiet.

It's a strange feeling.

It only lasts a few seconds. When the waitress arrives with the food and sets the burgers down in front of them, and then the fries, and beers for all three of them, and milkshakes too (Cas wanted both), and as Cas begins devouring his burger, and as Sam doles out a instructional dollop of ketchup next to Cas's fries, Dean starts to develop a new worry. He's now worrying about when he's going to wake up out of the dream.

Because it has to be a dream, right?

They found Cas, Cas is fine, everything's fine, all the horrible things are over, and it's all playing out exactly like Dean had imagined. Right down to the burgers.

There's even the bonus fun of getting to snicker quietly about Cas's crazily messed-up hair. It's dried all funny by now, tufts sticking out in all directions. (Of course somehow Cas still looks great anyway.)

Just don't wake up, thinks Dean to himself, as he starts eating.

Sam has shifted to updating Cas on the English-girl story (they'd given him quick summaries in the car, but he hasn't really heard the details yet). Cas once again starts bemoaning his carelessness in "letting" himself get banished, and then Sam and Cas slide into a half minute or so of arguing about which of them is more at fault. Dean's watching all this from the side, bemused, and he finally has to wade in with " "IT'S THE ENGLISH CHICK'S FAULT. It's neither of your faults. Now eat."

Cas, though, still has more questions, for he turns to Dean to ask, "But Dean, what about you? How did you survive?"

"Like I said in the car," says Dean. "Chuck disabled the soul-bomb."

"Yes, but what happened exactly?" asks Cas. "What did they say?"

Dean fills him in on Chuck and Amara's smoky double-helix finale. (He doesn't get around to describing about Mom. That's still too confusing to talk about.) Cas nods, slowly, as Dean describes the Chuck-Amara showdown.

"That all rather makes sense, actually," Cas says. "I have to say, seeing their way of interacting, their sibling relationship — such as it was — did at least give me some insight into why Heaven has always been the way it is. Why the angels have always acted the way they have." He heaves a tired sigh and adds, thoughtfully, "We're supposed to be siblings, we angels, yet it seems we're always in such conflict. Fighting each other, locking each other up.... correcting each other...." (Cas pauses here, long enough for Dean to wonder, Does correcting mean torturing?) "... I wonder now if Chuck had Amara on his mind when he was creating the angels. Maybe an echo of those tensions just sort of... seeped into us."

"Did you ever get a chance to talk much with Chuck?" asks Sam.

Cas goes quiet again, staring down at his French fries. He picks one up slowly, and looks up to say, "Very little. He was so ill, of course, and, to be perfectly honest, I wasn't feeling too well myself, after Lucifer's departure." He pokes at the dollop of ketchup with the French fry, looks at the result doubtfully, and adds, "When Lucifer left I found myself more drained than I may have let on."

"What, from the way he was torn out?" asks Dean.

"Or just from what he was doing to you all along?" says Sam. He and Cas share a brief look.

"Both, I think," says Cas, looking down at the fry again. He doesn't add more details, but just swallows the ketchup-tipped French fry.

The fry seems a revelatory experience. Cas closes his eyes as he chews, concentrating hard, and once he opens his eyes he immediately grabs several more fries, dips them in the ketchup and eats them too, one at a time, with obvious gusto. He closes his eyes for each one. Dean's smiling as he watches; there's something awfully endearing about watching an angel enjoy a French fry that much.

Sam finally says, with a grin, "I'm guessing it tastes like more than molecules?"

Cas pauses in mid-chew, opening his eyes. He nods at Sam, finishes chewing, swallows and says, "It's been quite a while since food tasted this good. I'm enjoying it." But then he adds, with a frown, "Though I'm afraid it also means that I'm really down to no power at all."

"Fully human?" Dean asks.

Cas nods again. He then returns to his half-eaten burger, picking it up and taking a huge bite. Again he's obviously relishing it, but after he swallows down his next bite he looks at the burger in his hands with a slightly worried expression. He says, slowly, "I'll guess I'll have to figure out what to do next."

"You know what?" says Sam. "I think you get to do whatever you want."

"What?" says Cas, looking at him. "What do you mean?"

Dean sets down his own half-eaten burger, angles himself a little toward Cas and even props one elbow up on the back of the booth to face Cas more directly. Cas turns slightly to look at him as Dean says, "Okay, listen. So, you don't have to follow Chuck's old orders anymore, right? You're not feeling like you've got to follow God's plan? I know you haven't been really doing that for a while, but it's totally off the table now, right?"

Cas nods his head emphatically and says, "For one thing, he's gone. I don't think there even is a plan anymore. And also... I've got to say, meeting Chuck was very freeing in at least one way. He was so... " Cas gropes for a word, gesturing in the air with his burger. "Fallible," he finally finishes. "Petty, almost, at times. I no longer believe what we angels were once taught, that God is infallible, that every act of his was inherently good, that he had a perfect plan." After a pause he adds, "Actually I no longer think he really had any plan at all." He takes another bite of burger.

Dean nods. "So you're free of that. And you're definitely not possessed anymore, right? Not even a little bit?"

"What? No, no," says Cas. He swallows down the bite of burger and looks at Dean quite seriously. "No, Lucifer's really gone."

"You're not under a spell?" asks Dean. Cas shakes his head again.

"Not brainwashed?" asks Dean.

Cas frowns a little, eyeing Dean now. "No."

Sam puts in, "There's no angel civil war going on?"

"Not that I'm aware of," says Cas. "I certainly hope not." He's looking back and forth between them now, more alert, and he sets down his burger. "What are you both getting at?"

"Got all your memories?" asks Dean. "You know who you are?"

Cas says "I do indeed," and now his chin lifts a little, and there's a hint of that smile again on his face; he seems to have figured out now where they're going with all this.

"Well, then," says Dean. "What do you think, Sam?"

"I think that sounds like a completely free angel," says Sam, and Cas looks at him.

Dean nods, and adds, "Us too, Cas. No wars, no Apocalypse, no Leviathans... nothing like that anymore. It's all over. Nobody dying, nobody possessed. We're free."

Cas is staring at Dean now, like he doesn't quite understand, so Dean gives him a wide grin and leans forward a little to drive it in. "Cas, there's nothing to worry about now, don't you get it? Nothing's wrong. We're all really free. At last."

Cas goes very thoughtful. He gazes down at his plate once more, staring at his French fries and the dollop of ketchup too, studying them as if they're deeply meaningful religious artifacts.

Sam explains, "We were thinking, Cas, on the way here, we can finally just do whatever we want. Have just normal-people problems for a change. Mortgages."

"Termites," says Dean.

Sam nods, and adds, "And I think the same's gonna be true for you."

"Meaning, I'm going to have termites?" says Cas slowly, glancing up at Sam.

"Meaning, you can do whatever you want," says Dean, laughing. "You've always been such a fan of free will, right? But you know, I don't think you've ever really been free." Cas flicks a glance at him, and Dean says, "Think about it. You've never really had a chance to do what you want without a looming disaster forcing your hand. But now..." Dean spreads both hands, looking around at the peaceful diner. "Now everything's fine."

Sam asks him, "So what do you actually want to do?"

Cas looks back and forth between them, an almost solemn look in his eyes. Then Cas gazes off into mid-air, a contemplative expression on his face.

"I need to think about that," says Castiel slowly.

"It may take a few days of getting used to," says Sam, "Just from personal experience."

 


 

A/N - More tomorrow. (Sorry for the string of shorter chapters, it's just the reality of my workload these days...) Hope you are enjoying my little story! And, as always, feel free to drop a comment if you want to make me happy. :)

 

Chapter Text

A/N - aww, so glad you liked the tie scene and the fixing of the hair! I just couldn't resist fixing Cas's hair AT LAST. :)

Here's the rest of the chapter. Thanks for your patience!

 


 

 

The dinner doesn't last too much longer. After all, it's late, Dean and Sam have just driven a thousand miles and Cas has just woken up out of a coma, and they're all exhausted. So they head for a motel, where Dean takes a certain amount of pleasure in booking two rooms for a change: one for Sam and Dean, and one for Castiel.

As Dean and Sam are unpacking in their room, Dean starts bundling together a few things to take over to Cas, who's right down the hall in the other room. Dean digs up a spare pair of new boxers for him, and an extra razor, and a clean t-shirt to sleep in.

"Here, give him a toothbrush," Sam says, holding out a brand-new toothbrush from his own bathroom bag. "I was going to toss my old one soon but he can have the new one — I'll just keep using the old one another day. And give him this toothpaste, here, I already brushed my teeth." Dean takes Sam's contributions and starts bundling the little pile of night-time supplies together. He's got them all wrapped up in the t-shirt when he has a brainwave.

Plunking the whole bundle in his own duffel, Dean zips the duffel closed and picks up the entire thing, hefting it over one shoulder. Sam raises an eyebrow and Dean says, "I think I'm gonna room with Cas tonight. There's two beds in there — plenty of room. Nothing personal, it's just, you snore, dude."

"And how do you know Cas doesn't?" says Sam, eyebrow still raised.

"Well, only one way to find out, huh?" Dean says.

Sam laughs, returns to his unpacking, and says, "Go for it. Seriously... the guy just got out of the ICU, and he's all of five days post-Lucifer. I was actually thinking of offering to stay with him myself. Keep an eye on him for me, would you?"

Dean nods, and a minute later he's heading down the hall to Cas's room.

Cas seems very pleased to see him. He makes a big show of inviting Dean in and saying, "Of course you can stay, of course, I'd be delighted to host you, it's my pleasure!" (Dean gallantly refrains from pointing out that it's actually Dean who paid for the room.)

Cas is grateful, too, about the t-shirt and the other supplies (though it's also clearly a moment when he's realizing that he's going to need to think about supplies like this again). It's an uneventful evening, though. Dean concludes, after watching Cas lay out his sleeping clothes and unwrap the toothbrush, that Cas is definitely seems tired. Sure, he's in pretty good shape for a coma patient fresh out of the ICU, but he's so tired he's stumbling a little, and he's almost a bit spacey, as if he's distracted about something.

There's barely even any time to talk, though, for Cas almost immediately disappears into the bathroom, where he takes a ridiculously long shower. (It's so long that Dean starts to wonder what exactly he's doing in there, and he even thinks, with a grin, Just how human is he now?)

When Cas comes out, though, now clad in Dean's t-shirt and the new boxers, he's just looking even more tired — so much so that Dean chivvies him right to bed. Where Cas conks out so completely that it's almost like he's gone right back into a coma.

Dean's soon ready for bed himself, but finds himself sitting on his own bed instead, watching Cas sleep.

Partly Dean's watching him to make sure he's not actually going back into a coma.

But partly...

Partly Dean just wants to watch him for a little while.

Even in sleep, Cas somehow still looks like Cas (and not at all like Lucifer, that is). Though it's a little odd to see him curled up in a bed like this — now that he's wearing Dean's t-shirt he looks even more human. His hair's still damp from his shower, he's curled up tightly on his side with his knees drawn up and with the motel blanket wrapped snugly around him. Curled up like this, he somehow looks much more vulnerable than he had in the hospital, so vulnerable that Dean even feels a pang of worry. Cas doesn't quite look relaxed; that habitual worried look is still on his face even in sleep, and he's also hanging on to an extra pillow with both hands, the pillow pressed to his chest and both his arms wrapped around it.

As Dean watches, Cas shifts in his sleep, muttering something. His fingers tighten on the pillow.

Dean wonders, What are you dreaming about?

There was a time, years ago, when Castiel had asked him the same question.

There was a time when Cas had even been able to visit Dean's dreams.

How tough Castiel had seemed then, back in those early days... how mysterious and unearthly; how alien. How powerful.

Especially compared to how weakened he'd become later. First when he'd rebelled and fallen, and later when he'd lost his grace and become truly human.

It comes back to Dean, then, how Cas had been hoping that Sam and Dean could be his "teachers" in the art of being human. But, of course... Dean had been forced to kick him out. Dean winces to think of it. He usually tries never to think about that moment, simply because the memory of the expression on Cas's face always makes Dean cringe, even now.

I could've done so much better, Dean thinks now, watching Cas stir uneasily in his sleep. I could've done better by you.

Cas had needed a friend. And Dean had let him down. Sure, there had been extenuating circumstances, sure, but that's what it really boils down to.

This time I'll do better, he promises Cas, silently. This time you'll have a place to stay. And food, and clothes. You won't have to work at a goddam Gas-n-Sip. You'll stay in the bunker, right down the hall from me, and if you need anything, I'll be right there.

Dean mutters out loud, "I swear, Cas."

At last Dean slips under the covers of his own bed, and for once he falls asleep immediately. There are no nightmares.

 


 

Dean wakes in the morning to find the tables have turned: Castiel's the one who's wide awake now, and he's sitting on his own bed, and he's watching Dean. Just as Dean was watching him last night. Just as Cas used to watch Dean years ago.

From the faint dawn light that's slanting through the windows, it looks like it's pretty early in the morning, maybe six or so. But Cas has already showered and shaved. He's also apparently tried again at the "perfect amount of tousle," and has again arrived at an imperfect amount of tousle, but he's getting closer — it looks pretty good now. All in all he looks astonishingly like he did back when Dean first met him, so much so that for a moment Dean wonders if this might actually be seven-years-ago Castiel visiting him on some time-travel mission. There's something of the old Castiel in the way he's sitting there watching Dean sleep, and also in that steady, almost steely, look in his eyes, like he's on a mission or getting ready for battle.

Though Cas still looks very tired, in a way he never really did as an angel. In fact he looks like maybe he hasn't slept well.

Definitely human again, thinks Dean, and it seems very important to make sure Cas knows he'll have a much better experience this time. Dean's still pretty sleepy himself, though, and what somehow comes out of his mouth is: "You know, if you're really human again now, there's much more fun things we could do together than you just sitting and watching me sleep."

Cas blinks, and looks away. He says, drily, "I'm aware."

Dean is instantly blushing — that hadn't at all come out like he'd meant it to. He's already scrambling mentally for some follow-up joke, but all he can seem to come up with is, "I mean, like, we could go to the Grand Canyon or something."

To which Cas replies, with calm equanimity, looking back at Dean, "You know, I met the angel who made the Grand Canyon, a few years ago. Back when I first lost my grace."

"What? Really?" says Dean.

"It was my first day as a human. I was trying to call you..." Cas seems to be thinking back, reliving that first day. After a brief pause, he goes on, "She recognized me, but I'm sorry to say I didn't know who she was. She was so confused.... So lost." Cas adds slowly, "She'd just fallen."

He's silent a moment and adds, perfectly matter-of-factly, "About five minutes later she tried to kill me." Dean blinks, and Cas continues, "I had to crash her car into a tree to disable her. I was quite fortunate to survive, actually. Then I still had to kill her anyway... " Dean's sitting up slowly in his bed, staring at him; he's never heard any of this. Cas seems to be in sort of a reverie now, like he's lost in the memory, and he continues, slowly, "It was the first time I realized I was going to have to kill my brethren just to survive. That's also when my coat got covered in blood. I don't suppose you remember that first coat I had? Jimmy's coat? I didn't have enough money to clean it. I only had a dollar and twenty-five cents and I had to buy some water instead. I was so thirsty...."

Cas is silent a long moment, and he looks down at the trenchcoat that he's wearing — the Lesser Trenchcoat, of course. Dean's listening intently; he's never known what happened to the Greater Trenchcoat.

"It's funny," Cas says at last. "I still miss Jimmy's coat. It seems... odd to get attached to an article of clothing." A faint smile appears on his face, and he cocks his head a little and says, "Isn't it odd?" As if human emotions still take him by surprise.

Dean nods uncertainly, and Cas goes on, "It was actually hard to walk away from it. But my vessel was desperate for water. I hadn't even really recognized the sensation as that of thirst." He's gone contemplative now, and he says, "Thirst, and hunger. Fatigue; pain. They were all so... unfamiliar."

Dean swings his feet out of bed, sits fully up on the edge of the bed so that he can face Cas directly, and says, "It's not gonna be like that this time."

Cas meets his eyes. There's something in his expression that Dean can't quite read; something of that steely look. Something guarded.

"I know," says Cas.

Dean says, "I swear, Cas." But Cas just looks away.

Before Dean can say anything else, a knock comes on the door; it's Sam, checking to see if they're up.

 


 

"So, I was thinking, Cas, you'll need a bed now," Dean calls through the bathroom door a few minutes later. He's getting dressed hurriedly in the bathroom while Sam and Cas wait outside. Dean goes on, "You know that room at the bunker, the one at the end of the hallway, down from Sam's room — that'd work well for you, wouldn't it?" Dean walks out of the bathroom to find Cas standing in the middle of the room looking at him steadily, while Sam packs up the few things they'd loaned Cas yesterday. Dean goes on, as he pulls on his shoes, "We could shift one of the extra beds there, from the dorms in back. Get you a tv and your own laptop so you could feast on all the Netflix you want. So, basically you can just have your own room. And for the hunts we can do just like we did here — two motel rooms. As long as we stick to Motel 6 or below, and don't get fancy, we can afford it ok. Me and Sam have been doing pretty well at the pool-hustling these days; a second room'll work fine."

Cas has still said nothing, which seems a little odd, so Dean says, "How about it? Sound good? And of course if you just want to rest up at the bunker for a while, without coming on hunts yet, just say the word."

Cas is still oddly quiet. He turns away from Dean and takes a few steps over to the window, where he gazes quietly out at the parking lot, hands hanging loosely at his sides, and he studies the parking lot outside for a long moment. Sam, who's just finished packing up, shoots an inquisitive look at Dean, but Dean can only shrug.

"Actually," Cas says at last, still looking out the window, "I've been thinking." He glances down at himself as if assessing the bedraggled state of his clothes and says, "There's something I want to do."

"Shoot," says Dean. "What is it? Grand Canyon after all? Maybe another park instead? Whatever it is, we can go do it."

"That's a nice idea... but...." says Cas. He's speaking a little slowly again, and Dean realizes he's choosing his words carefully. Cas turns around to face them and finally says, "The thing I want to do, I was thinking I would do it alone."

Dean and Sam both look at him, and Cas says, "I've got some loose ends to tie up. Why don't you two go on back to Kansas. Get back to your hunting. I'll come visit you later."

Visit. He'd said "visit."

Like he wasn't really planning on staying with them.

"Wait, what exactly are you doing?" says Sam. "What kind of loose ends exactly?"

Now Cas gets his tell-tale evasive look. He looks completely to the side, away from Sam and Dean, as if he's suddenly become fascinated by the lamp in the farthest corner of the room. "Loose ends that are... loose," he says vaguely. "And that need tying up."

All sorts of alarming scenarios are immediately running through Dean's head. "Okay, fess up," says Dean, folding his arms. "What's this really about? Chuck? Amara? Some spell? Angel wars? Leviathans?"

"None of those," says Castiel, almost gently.

"Crowley?" Dean guesses. It actually makes his stomach cramp to think of Cas falling into Crowley's clutches again. "It better not be a demon deal."

"Not Crowley," says Cas, looking him right in the eye now. "No demon deals. Nothing like that, I promise."

"Is this about Lucifer?" Sam asks quietly. "You need some time?"

Cas pauses a moment, and nods. "I guess it is about Lucifer, indirectly. And about Chuck having left." He takes a breath and says, "You were both talking last night about how we can do whatever we want now. I was thinking about that, early this morning, and it occurred to me that maybe you're right. Maybe this is the first chance I've had to... really do what I want. And I realized there is actually something I do want to do. I'm going to..." He hesitates. "....travel around a little bit on my own. See some people."

"Like who?" says Dean. "About what?"

Cas still has that slightly evasive look (which is setting off certain alarm bells for Dean, of course). "I'm perfectly capable of traveling on my own," is all he says. "I'll be fine."

"Okayyy," says Dean slowly, very much unconvinced. "But... don't you need to rest a bit first? Get on your feet? You haven't exactly had it easy lately. The bunker's a good place to rest, you know."

Cas nods. "I know. I'll come see you later."

"Don't you need your car?" says Sam. "The Continental? It's still at the bunker. You want to come back and grab it?"

Cas shakes his head. "I'll find some other means of transportation. I'll come get the car later."

The two brothers spend a little while more trying to get him to explain what he's doing, but Cas has gone into full-on cryptic mode now and simply won't talk about it — there's just more vague comments about "stuff to do" and "loose ends". The most he'll confess to is that it involves "traveling around" to "see some people."

And then all of a sudden Cas is just leaving. Dean, who's very grudgingly starting to accept that Cas might go off on his own for a few days, had assumed they'd at least drop him off at the bus station or something, but no. Cas just says a quiet "Till we see each other again, then." He hesitates, an uncertain look on his face for a moment, and then he's opening the door and walking right out. Without even any hugs. He's almost scurrying out, almost like he feels like he's got to get going before he changes his mind.

"Whoa, whoa, dude, wait, wait a sec," says Dean, running after him into the hall. "Look, you can ditch us if you want, but—"

Cas turns around, genuinely startled. "I'm not ditching you," he says. "Not at all. Quite the opposite. There's just some things I want to do."

"That you're being totally mysterious about," Dean points out.

Cas is looking frustrated now, and he says, "Dean, there's just some loose ends —"

"That need 'tying up', I heard you the first dozen times. Look, I can see you won't talk about it, but just promise me you're not doing some boneheaded self-sacrificing move."

Cas blinks. "This is not self-sacrificing. And it's not dangerous." He thinks a moment and adds, "Quite the opposite. It's something I want. If I'm going to be human again, then there are... some... things... that I... want to do."

"Okay, okay," says Dean. He's still feeling suspicious (and also strangely crestfallen about the whole thing), but he's determined not to let Cas head out there with just a mud-stained trenchcoat and no supplies at all. Especially not after last time. Dean finally says, "Hang on just two minutes. Will you at least let us help you out a little?"

Dean does, at last, convince Cas to at least come to an ATM with them, where Dean and Sam each withdraw $300 (the maximum the bank will give them). They force him to take the $600 in cash, and Dean also marches him to a nearby store and buys him a couple of shirts and a five-pack each of clean underwear and socks, and some toiletry supplies. And a shoulder bag to put it all in. And a new phone, as well, which Dean even sets up with some starter numbers, punching his and Sam's numbers carefully into the "Favorites" list.

"Here's a credit card too," says Sam, "And a driver's license." (Apparently Lucifer ditched Jimmy's wallet at some point, but Dean's had a stash of fake id's for Cas in the trunk for a while now, along with the usual id's for both Sam and himself.)

"Thank you, Sam," says Cas gravely, slipping the license and credit card into his inner jacket pocket. They're standing on the sidewalk now in Flagstaff, by the Impala, outside the store where Dean bought the phone. And as Cas looks at them, slinging his new shoulder bag up on one shoulder, Dean realizes he's really going to leave this time.

Cas is heading off on his own, and this is the goodbye.

It's not unusual, of course. He's done this before. Many times. It's just...

It's just that Dean's throat is suddenly tight. "You know to get in out of the rain, right?" is all he seems able to say.

Cas actually smiles. "I learned that some time ago. Don't worry, I know my way around now."

And, Dean realizes with a pang, he does. Dean kicked him out, all those years ago, and so Cas learned to get by on his own.

You reap what you sow, thinks Dean to himself.

Dean says, trying to make a joke out of it, "Guess you do, huh. Guess you can always go back to the Gas-n-Sip life." He rubs his nose and adds, "And if that's what you want, awesome, Cas, I mean it, but, you ever need anything... don't be a stranger."

"That means, come see us," clarifies Sam. "Come see us and stay a while."

"Long as you want," says Dean. "Whenever you want."

Cas looks back and forth between Sam and Dean for a moment, adjusting the shoulder bag on his shoulder. "Thank you," he says, quite seriously. It's the same kind of solemn, quiet "thank you" that he'd said after the you're-our-brother speech a few days back. The same strange pause after it, too; like there's more he wants to say, but he doesn't know how to say it.

At last Cas steps forward and gives them both a hug. He's slightly hampered by the shoulder bag, so it ends up being just a quick one-armed hug, one to Sam first, and then one to Dean. It may be quick, it may be one-armed, but it's strong. With Dean, Cas again does the hand-on-the-back-of-the-neck thing, and again he gives Dean a quick little scritch there, almost ruffling the hair of the back of his neck. When Cas steps back there is something sad in his eyes, and yet he's smiling too.

"I'm so very glad you're both okay," he says. "I'm extremely glad. And thank you for coming here to check on me. Thank you. It meant... a great deal. A great deal. I'll see you both soon." He turns and walks away down the sidewalk. Again there's that strange hurriedness to his motions, a stiffness in how he's walking, his head down. Again Dean has the impression that Cas is almost having to force himself to rush away.

But Cas doesn't look back.

 


 

There seems nothing more to do other than to go back to the Impala and drive back to Kansas. So off they go.

Sam and Dean are both a little quiet. There's no more talk about seeing the Grand Canyon or any of the other parks. Dean flicks on the radio and drives in silence for a while. He goes right past the turnoff to the Petrified Forest without a second glance, and Sam doesn't say a word.

Dean's resolutely telling himself that he doesn't feel at all let down or disappointed. At all. But there's no denying it feels strange to be driving home without Cas, after doing the entire drive to Flagstaff so worried about him. Yet... nothing's wrong, exactly. Cas is okay. Cas is perfectly fine. Everything's still fine, really. It's just that once they'd found Cas alive, Dean had somehow been certain that they'd be carrying Cas home in the Impala in a ceremonial homeward-bound parade.

Now that everything's finally really over, they were supposed to all end up together. Eating pizza together and watching movies. Living together in the bunker. It feels all wrong to be driving off without him.

But it's what Cas wants.

"I feel like I've been dumped," Dean mutters at last, as they're crossing into New Mexico.

Sam gives a little laugh. "Yeah, I know what you mean. Somehow I thought he'd be coming back with us. But, you know..." Sam goes pensive. "He may need some time to get over... you know... um... " Sam waves a hand helplessly; he's suddenly gone tongue-tied.

"Lucifer," Dean says for him.

"Lucifer," agrees Sam, with a grim sigh. "Cas was possessed for months. And, speaking from experience, it takes some time to feel like yourself again after that."

Dean knows there's some depths there that he should probably coax Sam into discussing sometime. For now though he lets it slide, and just points out, "He could be getting over it with us. We could help him get over it. Like, you especially, right?" Sam gives an extremely emphatic nod (he's clearly thought about this) and Dean adds, "And what's he got to do, anyway? Who does he even know to go visit?"

Sam shrugs. "Maybe he's got actual stuff to do. Maybe... I don't know, maybe Lucifer did some things that Cas wants to put right? He sure seemed reluctant to talk about it."

Dean's again fearing the worst, imagining angels ganging up on Cas, or some secret angel war starting up again that Cas is going to inevitably end up in the middle of.

"I don't like it," says Dean.

Sam nods. "Yeah, but, remember, Cas has always gone off on his own like this. Even when he couldn't fly, remember? He's always driven around or done weird trips or had things he had to go do."

"Not when he was human," Dean argues. "He's human now, Sam —"

"And he learned to get around on his own as a human," Sam says calmly. Because you kicked him out, Sam could have added, but diplomatically he doesn't. "In fact... maybe he just wants to enjoy being human? Be out in the world. Find himself." (The phrase makes Dean wince, and he thinks, Goddam Flagstaff. It's always Flagstaff.) Sam adds, thoughfully, "Maybe it's not Lucifer, even, or not entirely. Maybe he wants to just be human? Experiment with... I don't know, doing human things?"

"Doing human things?" says Dean skeptically. "Like what?" Though actually some alarming possibilities leap to mind immediately. Possibilities that Dean should probably be laughing about, things that could easily be turned into a joke really... but instead it all just feels depressing.

"Oh, I don't know," says Sam, all too vaguely.

Dean turns up the radio.

They drive on. From New Mexico to Colorado; from Colorado to Kansas. And throughout the drive Dean keeps thinking of the moment when Dean had first heard Cas's voice in the hospital. And, a moment later, the look on Cas's face when he'd spun around. How he'd called them "family".

But then we told him to do whatever he wanted, Dean remembers. And what he wanted was to leave.

Let yourself be happy, Dean thinks, then, remembering Mom's advice. And as the Impala motors onward, as Kansas cornfields roll past, it slowly comes to Dean that last night ... he was happy. He was genuinely happy. Being back together with Sam was critical, of course, but then finding Cas alive too! That hug... both Cas's hands wrapped around the back of Dean's neck.... Dean can almost feel Cas's ragged gasps of relief, even now. Dean and Sam and Cas, three of them, all together for once.

Even just being able to help Cas get his clothes back together had felt, somehow, so... rewarding. So right. Even that little moment of running his hands through Cas's hair and trying to fluff it up a little.... that one tiny moment, fiddling with Cas's hair, with Cas so puzzled and doubtful but letting Dean do it anyway (and Sam in the corner, stifling his laughter)...

Dean's astonished to find it almost makes his eyes sting to remember it.

Happiest I've been in ages, Dean realizes.

Now what, Mom?

 


 

They arrive back at the bunker the next day. Dean texts Cas that evening, just to check in, but Cas doesn't text back till late the next afternoon, and then it's just with a dry "I'm fine. How are you and Sam?" He doesn't add details, and Dean finds he's too shy to ask for any.

Life slides into a routine with almost depressing ease. The next morning Sam's already looking for cases, while Dean washes the Impala; then they head over the border to Nebraska, where Dean does a booze run while Sam gets groceries; and at night Sam fires up some Netflix movie or other, while Dean queues up an absurd amount of porn on his laptop and tries to act interested in it (and also tries to keep himself from texting Cas again). The next day there's some more searching for cases, some more fiddling with the Impala, another Netflix movie. The day after that is the same, and the day after that.

Sam gets a lead on a probable ghost case in Ohio one day and off they go, and they deal with it. Then there's some vamps in Tennessee and they deal with that. Days slide by; one week, then another.

And yet life's fine, really; it's good. In fact it's great. Really. All the end-of-the-world stuff actually does seem to be over. There's no Apocalypse, no Lucifer, no God, no Amara, no Darkness; there's no Leviathans, no Yelloweyes, no Metatron, no Mark and no Cain. No Lilith, no hellhounds. There's no looming end of the world. Nobody's crazy. Nobody's possessed, nobody's cursed or brainwashed or soulless or under a spell.

Everything's fine.

Everything's great.

Except that Cas is gone.

 


 

 

A/N - Ahhh, I'm sorry.... But you all knew something was coming, didn't you?  As plot twists go for me this is extremely mild, but a little unsettling nonetheless.

I'm aiming for the usual Friday for the next chapter, but next week will be an extremely heavy work week again so it might be Saturday or even Sunday before I get it up. Wish me luck. Hope you're still liking the story, even if it's taking a turn toward the angsty! As always please drop a comment - I hope to catch up on the comment-replying on Sunday. :)

 

edit: It's past 11pm on Friday night and I JUST got off work. Saturday for the next chapter! Sorry for the delay!

Chapter Text

A/N - Been working late every night this week - I'm in my last 3 weeks of my job! During which I have to get 3 last science papers written, which is kind of like writing one master's thesis per week, so I've been going 100mph on the science writing. Up every day at 6am, in at 7:30am, work nonstop till 9 or 10, go home, repeat. I actually managed to finish the first manuscript late last night (AND IT'S COOL, it's the one about whales having this other hormone) and got it shipped off to my co-authors at about 10pm Fri night, wooo, and now I get two whole days off, WOOOOOO, but am running behind on the fic. Sorry!

But I still got a little chapter for you today though! Hope you enjoy it. (And huge thanks also to my beta reader for super fast turnaround on my last-minute drafts!)

 


 


 

 

About ten days later, Dean and Sam are preparing to hole up all night in a possibly-haunted old silver mine in the mountains around Alta, Utah. It's late afternoon and they're both sitting at the mine entrance prepping for the night ahead, loading a big heap of rock salt cartridges and checking all their gear. They're not quite in the mine yet so there's still a bit of cell reception, but just the same Dean jumps when his phone vibrates in his pocket. He has to scramble to his feet to extract the phone from out of his jeans.

It's a text from Cas.

Dean hasn't heard from him in days. Cas has sent a text. All on his own.

It reads:

Hello Dean

"Don't overdo it with the details there, Cas," Dean mutters.

Sam, sitting cross-legged on the ground, glances up from his half-finished row of salt cartridges. Dean explains, "He texted two whole words: Hello, and Dean." Sam chuckles and returns to his work, as Dean starts drafting a text to send back:

Hey long-lost angel, how you been?

Dean pauses before sending it. He squints at the words for a moment — is "long-lost angel" too familiar? Too casual? Too... something?

He deletes the "long-lost angel" part, stares at the screen for a moment, adds one short word, and sends:

Hey bro, how you been?

Three blinking gray dots soon appear at the bottom of the screen: Cas is writing something. Dean waits.

But it's a long wait, the three gray dots blinking endlessly. Nearly an entire minute goes by.

"What's he saying?" says Sam, packing rock salt carefully into another cartridge.

"He's working on his novel," Dean says.

The three gray dots disappear. Cas has deleted whatever he was going to send.

A moment later the dots blink briefly, and a new text comes through:

Fine, reads Cas's text.

Dean sighs, swipes over to the phone app and stabs Cas's number.

The phone rings quite a few times. Cas isn't picking up.

It goes to voicemail. "I know you're there, Cas, pick up the damn phone," Dean says. He hits End Call.

A moment later a new text shows up:

Sorry, can't talk now. Just checking in. Are you and Sam well?

Fine, Dean writes. He's punching each letter hard, a little annoyed, which is making it come out with a lot of typos: Campung out toniggt in Alta UT. Possibke hainted mine, he writes. He sends that one off, thinks a moment and adds, taking more care with the typos this time, The mine's pretty big. Lot of tunnels. Could use some backup if you're free. We could wait for you & do it tmrw night?

There's another very long minute of the three blinking gray dots. They appear... they stay there for a long time... they disappear.

They appear again for a while.

They disappear.

Cas at last sends:

Afraid I can't. Will you be ok?

Dean stifles a sigh and sends, Yeah, we're fine. Just an invite. No worries.

Call if you have any trouble, texts Cas.

It's not worth mentioning that Dean's not going to be able to "call if he has any trouble" since there's no cell reception inside underground mines. (Obviously.) So Dean just sends, We'll be fine, and at last he adds, Take care, buddy. PS Sam says hi.

"You said hi," Dean informs Sam, stuffing the phone back in his pocket.

"Hi Cas," Sam says dutifully. He's loading both shotguns now with the new shells, and jamming some extra salt shells into his jacket pocket. He hands the rest of the extras to Dean, hauls himself to his feet and asks, "He coming to join us or anything?"

"Naw, he's busy."

Sam looks a little disappointed. "Could've used him. What's he doing?"

Dean shrugs. "Screwing around somewhere," he says, which he knows is probably unfair. (And hopefully is not literally true.) And he didn't mean to say it in such a snappy tone of voice. It makes Sam frown a little, so Dean shows Sam the exchange of texts, adding, "Just seems a little off that he didn't want to come, don't you think?"

Sam reads through the text exchange, but at the end he just looks thoughtful. "He may just still need more time," is all he says.

Dean nods; Sam's probably right; that's probably all it is. Cas just needs some more time. For... something.

 


 

 

The mine job ends up being fairly tricky. It turns out it's not just one vengeful-spirit but a whole set of them, linked to the bodies of an unfortunate dozen miners who'd apparently been left to die after a long-ago cave-in. It's hard to get to the bodies, which are buried under a pile of rocks down a deep side tunnel, and there's a particularly dicey moment when the ghosts try to get Sam and Dean hopelessly lost in the maze of old tunnels, which turn out to stretch for miles under the mountains. But at last, after they've pent the entire night stumbling around in the dark (and being flung against the jagged rock walls now and then), Sam finally manages to shoot a jet of lighter fluid through the tumbled rocks of the cave-in, Dean lights it and they manage to incinerate the bodies without having to uncover them. Then both brothers have to bolt for the surface as fast as they can to escape the resulting smoke.

It's well past dawn by the time Sam and Dean stagger back to the mine entrance, exhausted and coughing. They're both covered in soot, Sam's limping, and Dean's nursing some nasty bruises and a very sore shoulder from a particularly rough throw against some boulders. But they're alive.

"Didn't need no stinking backup," Dean says as they straggle out of the mine entrance, blinking in the bright outdoor light.

He's answered by a flood of simultaneous dings and buzzes from both their phones. They've just gotten back into the range of the nearest cell tower, and apparently somebody's been trying to reach them.

"Shit, I've got like 12 messages from Cas," Sam says, squinting down at his phone.

"Same," says Dean, studying his own phone. It's a whole series of voicemails and texts that seem to have started at around midnight. The texts begin with:

Hello Dean. How's it going with the haunted mine?

Dean? Did you get my last text? I was wondering how it's going with the haunted mine.

Dean, are you all right? Please contact me.

Dean I'm getting worried. Please write back if you get this. I'm hoping it's a cell service issue again, but please contact me. I'll try contacting Sam.

Dean, neither of you are responding. I'm going to call around and see if I can find anybody nearby who can check on you.

Dean it's nearly morning now and neither you nor Sam are responding and I'm very concerned. I have been trying to find someone else who can check on you. I did manage to locate two angels who are still down on Earth, but neither of them is close enough to Utah to arrive within a day, and they're both depowered anyway. I'm going to try to come myself after all. Alta UT, correct?

Dean I have stolen a car and I'm on my way.

Dean doesn't bother reading all the rest of the messages, but just hits Cas's phone number, and this time Cas picks up on the first ring.

"Dean!" Cas says, relief clear in his voice. "Are you all right? I've been trying to reach you all night!"

"Yeah, we're fine," Dean says. "We—" He's interrupted by a brief fit of coughing — Dean's still hacking the smoke out of his lungs. "Well, a bit beat up but fine. Could've used you actually, but we got it done."

There's a frustrated sigh from Cas. "I'm sorry I couldn't come till now. I was trying to reach you for hours," he says. "I know I only told you to call if you ran into trouble, but I got worried anyway and then I couldn't reach you. I waited up all night. Sam wouldn't answer either!" He sounds so much like a fretful parent that Dean can't help smiling a little. Sam, who's leaning against a tree a few feet away, seems to be overhearing most of the conversation, for he smiles too.

"Sorry, dude, no cell service down in the mine," Dean explains. "Appreciate the thought, though. Hey, where are you by now, anyway?"

"Partway through Utah," Cas says. Dean can hear, now, the tiredness in his voice. "Nearly there actually," adds Cas.

"Meet us in Sandy, then?" Dean suggests. "Sandy, Utah. It's on the outskirts of Salt Lake, just down the mountains from here. Lemme buy you a breakfast to make up for panicking you. Hey, you could stay with us tonight — we've got a motel room in Sandy."

"Oh, um," says Cas. "Actually, now that I know you're both okay, I think I'll...." He hesitates.

Dean waits through what seems to be an extremely long, very silent, pause, and he knows what's coming.

Cas finally finishes with, "I'll... just.... head back to what I was doing. I was sort of in the middle of something."

"Dude, you've been driving hours," points out Dean. "Why not at least grab a meal?"

Another long pause.

"No, I've got to get back," Cas says. "I'm glad you're okay, though. Please say hello to Sam as well." He pauses again and adds an unconvincing, "I'll see you both soon."

And all of a sudden he's hung up, and Dean's left staring at his phone.

Dean tries calling back, but now Cas won't pick up.

"Dammit," Dean mutters, stuffing the phone back in his pocket.

Sam's leaning over, gingerly prodding his sore leg. "He's not coming?" he says.

"NO, and now he won't pick up again," says Dean, annoyed all over again for reasons he can't even seem to figure out. "What's he got going on that's so damn important?"

Sam just straightens up and gives a noncommittal shrug. "Hey, at least he tried to get here. Maybe he's actually got some kind of life without us."

This seems like way too casual a statement. Sam doesn't seem nearly concerned enough about Cas's weird behavior, so Dean tries to point out, "But why wouldn't he—"

"Dean, he's not a pet," says Sam. "So he's busy. It's allowed. C'mon, let's grab breakfast."

 


 

They can't tackle any new cases till Sam's leg and Dean's shoulder both heal up, so for the next week they're holed up at the bunker again. Once Cas knows they're safely back home and healing, he goes totally radio-silent again. There's no explanation for why he suddenly started texting that night, and no explanation for why he never does again.

And still no clue where he is.

It keeps eating at Dean. He knows, though, that it's a little silly that it's bugging him this much, because actually Cas has always gone off on his own like this. It's nothing new. It should feel routine. Sam and Dean have always done almost all their hunts without him.

But ... why is Cas off on his own now? Why now, when everything's supposed to be over? He's not leading an army, there's no civil war in Heaven, he's not running around trying to hide a tablet... why now?

Why doesn't he want to be at the bunker? Why doesn't he want to be hunting with the Winchesters?

He called us family, Dean keeps thinking.

But, of course, "family" doesn't necessarily mean staying in touch. Come to think of it, family might actually not mean that much to an angel. One day Dean wonders if telling Cas "You're our brother" might even have given him the wrong idea. From the point of view of an angel who's been repeatedly abused, tortured and betrayed by his own siblings, for millennia, maybe being part of a family — and having new "brothers" — isn't really all that attractive an idea?

And yet Cas had seemed so pleased about it, in Flagstaff... So touchingly shy about using the Winchester last name, and so happy to be able to introduce Sam and Dean to the doctor as "family."

It doesn't make sense. It's like a nagging itch that Dean can't seem to scratch.

 


 

And then all of a sudden Cas is back.

He shows up on a routine evening. Sam's diligently researching a possible new case in Oregon, and Dean's helping Sam research. Well, in theory Dean's helping; in reality he's shamelessly watching Japanese porn, streaming video after video like it's his part-time job. The porn's only mildly interesting tonight, though. The truth is that Dean's attention keeps drifting (he's watching the porn mostly because it seems like what he's supposed to do, what he's always done). At least the regular shots of whiskey help pass the time.

Then the bunker door creaks open and there's Cas, walking right down the stairs like he's never been gone, calling out a "Hello?" as he enters.

"Whoa, Cas!" Dean says. He's been leaning back in his chair, feet up on the table with the laptop perched on his lap, and he scrambles to his feet so fast he nearly tips his chair over backwards. "We're in the library, wait a sec —" Dean calls, fumbling the laptop onto the table and hurrying over to the map-room just a step ahead of Sam. Dean pauses at the threshold into the room, watching as Cas comes down the wrought-iron staircase.

"Hello, Dean," Cas says, adding, "Sam," with a nod to Sam.

He's nailed the hair, Dean thinks. He looks good.

Cas catches Dean's eye on the way down the stairs, and smile spreads over Cas's face. It's one of those slightly-awkward, lopsided Castiel smiles, and it's wonderful to see; and then Dean realizes that there's a goofy grin on his own face too, for he's pleased beyond reason that Cas has returned.

Cas reaches the bottom of the stairs, and now Dean's expecting that Cas is probably about to launch into another round of those reunion hugs. And even though Dean's really not a hugger he's anticipating it enough that he takes a couple steps forward, arms already slightly raised. But Cas is gliding away around the far side of the map table.

Actually Cas seems to be deliberately maneuvering so that the table is between him and Dean.

It's subtly done; Cas trails one hand along the edge of the table as he strolls along its far side, gazing thoughtfully down at the map as if he's studying the Russian Arctic coastline with great interest. But it's not accidental. There's something slightly tense in Cas's posture.

Holy shit, Dean thinks, pausing in mid-stride. He's avoiding a hug.

Well.

Well, then.

Which is totally fine, of course. Dean's never been a hugger. Neither has Cas. Neither of them are huggers. So it doesn't matter. It's just... sort of interesting, is all.

"So how'd it go?" says Sam, who's still standing behind Dean — doubtless watching Dean now standing awkwardly in the middle of the room, and Cas sidling around the table away from him. Sam sounds totally unconcerned, though, as he asks, "Where you been? Did you find yourself?"

Cas frowns, glancing up from the map. "I hadn't lost myself," he says. "I knew exactly where I was."

"Tie up those loose ends, then?" asks Dean, sticking both hands in his pockets and leaning casually against the table, half-sitting on it, like he'd really just wanted to sit down and had never had the slightest thought in his head of any sort of hug.

"I think so," says Cas, glancing down at his trenchcoat, which seems to have been leaned (though some traces of the worst mudstains are still detectable). Cas traces one hand over the coat and adds, "For now."

"So... what are you going to do?" says Sam. "Just swinging by to say hi, or do you want to stay a while?"

At which Dean has a bright idea. "Hey, you know what, Cas," Dean says, still leaning casually against the table, "Sam just found a possible case. A bunch of people died of frostbite overnight at this campsite in Oregon, despite the fact that the weather's breaking heat records. You wanna come along? We were going to head out tomorrow, and —"

"Actually," says Cas. He stares down at the Russian Arctic coastline again, tapping his fingers lightly on the map. "I was thinking I might get a job. Actually... I might have found one. In fact I've already applied."

Dean blinks. "A job?"

"What kind of a job?" asks Sam.

Cas tears his eyes away from the Russian Arctic coastline to flick a very brief glance at Dean. There's a bit of a wary look in his eyes as he says, eyes dropping back down to the map, "I noticed there's a new store on Interstate 70, not too far away really, it's only a little bit of a drive, and they had a help-wanted sign, and it occurred to me that I have the requisite qualifications, and, um—" Cas is talking rather fast, like he's hoping Dean and Sam won't notice the details. He adds in a rush, "It's a Gas-n-Sip and they only need someone for a few weeks, I guess someone's sick, but I've got the experience and I only want a few weeks anyway so they thought that might work, it's just short term but—"

"A Gas-n-Sip?" Dean breaks in. "Are you serious?"

Cas pauses in mid-sentence and glances at Dean again, a dark look in his eyes now. Dean's about to launch into a whole set of disbelieving jokes about the Gas-n-Sip (starting with, "You'd actually rather go be a blue-vested peasant at a friggin' Gas-n-Sip then come help us save people's lives?") Dean's actually got his mouth half-open, ready to launch in on his speech, but then he notices the patient steady stare Cas is giving him now. Cas's posture's gone tense again, and though his face looks calm he's clenching one hand.

He looks resigned. Kind of like he's been expecting this.

There's a little pause.

"Yes, a Gas-n-Sip," says Cas finally.

Dean closes his mouth, and nods.

Sam breaks in with a gentle, "Probably a pretty good way to get some pocket change, huh?"

Cas relaxes a little. "Exactly," he says. "Pocket change."

"We could get you pocket change," says Dean. "Did that credit card get maxed? We can switch you to another one. We've got a couple extras kicking around that are probably still good."

"I don't want to be a burden," says Cas. "I'd rather earn it on my own. And it's just for a little while."

"Of course," Dean says, realizing now that he really ought be acting supportive. Though he's struggling a little with trying to remember how to act supportive. "Right. Yeah. Obviously," he rambles. "That's great. I mean, if a.... um.... Gas-n-Sip job is... what you want, um, then, I hope you get the job... I guess?"

"I'd love to come on hunts, of course," Cas says, "Ah... just not right now."

Dean can't help saying "So, when, then?" Sam's drifting closer.

Cas hesitates. "Sometime.... later?"

"Sometime later," repeats Dean. "Later than now, huh? Well, that's super precise." Cas is studying Greenland intently, and now Sam's inched close enough to step on Dean's foot, and Dean mentally reins himself back in. "No, I get it, Cas, I do. You do your thing, sure." Cas risks another glance up, and Dean tries to give him an encouraging smile. "Go find yourself at the Gas-n-Sip, and we'll... we'll be here if you wanna hang out! Right, Sam?"

"Absolutely," says Sam.

"I was actually hoping maybe I could stay here for a few days?" Cas says. "While I'm working the job. I could use... uh... somewhere to sleep, and the bunker's not far away from my worksite. An hour's drive or so. Maybe an hour and a half. Really not far at all. Maybe I could sleep here at night?"

And now there's something so uncertain in Cas's voice that it almost makes Dean's throat hurt.

"Pretty sure that empty room down the hall's still available," Dean says, and he hoists himself back up from his awkward half-sitting position to take a few steps around the table toward Cas, and raises an arm to clap him on the shoulder in welcome. But Cas flinches away.

It's a tiny move, almost imperceptible: Cas just shifts his weight to his farther foot, his body twisting slightly to angle away from Dean, leaning just an inch or two away. But it's unmistakable. After a slightly awkward millisecond of hesitation Dean claps him on the shoulder anyway (that's truly all that Dean had been planning), and steps back a little confused.

"Welcome home, cowboy," Dean manages at last. "I'll... I'll check on the sheets."

Sam also looks a little flummoxed, but he just says, "Hey, I was just about to heat some pizza. We were planning on watching some old westerns tonight, Cas, you interested?"

"I'd be delighted," says Cas, and all of a sudden he seems relaxed again.

Sam takes him to the kitchen to pick out a frozen pizza, Dean checks on the sheets... and twenty minutes later they're all watching movies ("Stagecoach" and "Treasure of the Sierra Madre") and eating pizza together. Cas sits in a wooden chair by himself, and Sam and Dean share the sofa.

It's almost like Dean had imagined it.

 


 

Sure enough Cas lands the job, and almost right away he's heading out bright and early, taking off at six a.m. or so in his gold Continental (he seems touchingly pleased when he realizes Dean's kept it ready for him). He starts putting in long hours immediately, and never returns before eight at night.

Dean and Sam both try, several times, to coax him to come along on a few hunts on his days off. Not just because they want him along (which they do), but also because they really could use more backup.

It'd be good to have a third. Dean's been thinking about it ever since they ran into that other pair of hunters, Cesar and Jesse. It'd be really smart, actually, to have some additional backup. Cesar and Jesse, of course had turned out to have other plans (which Dean usually avoids thinking about. Because it always causes a strange little pang, to think of Cesar and Jesse off on their horse ranch, probably surrounded by dozens of fuzzy little baby foals by now).

Cesar and Jesse aren't available. But Cas would be perfect.

"I know you're all into the Gas-n-Sip life now," Dean says one evening, when Cas has tottered home looking completely wrung out again after another fourteen-hour double shift. Dean's over at the tv trying to find the right cable to hook up Sam's laptop, and he glances over his shoulder to see that Cas is slouched in his wooden chair looking totally uncomfortable as they wait for Sam to return from the kitchen with tonight's popcorn. Dean says, "Jesus H. Christ, Cas, move over to the sofa, you look you're going to fall right out of that chair."

And Cas actually does move, shifting over to the sofa and collapsing down into it with a sigh of obvious relief. As Dean tries (unsuccessfully) to get the HDMI cable connected, he says to Cas, "You could take a day off now and then, you know. Come along on a nice relaxing hunt for a while. We'd only work you twelve hours a day instead of fourteen. Eleven for good behavior." He glances back at Cas to find that Cas has already slouched so far down onto the sofa that his body has gone almost complete horizontal. His head's wedged against the sofa back, his chin on his chest and his fingers laced over his chest; he looks as if he's about to fall asleep. He dresses these days in a strange hybrid of his Gas-n-Sip outfit and his Lesser Trenchcoat outfit, and tonight the trenchcoat's splayed out on top of his blue vest. Cas peers over the rumpled trenchcoat at Dean and says:

"I don't have any power now, Dean."

Sam pipes up at that point with "You're a hell of a fighter anyway." He's just arrived back in the room with three bowls of popcorn precariously balanced in his arms. Dean nods, taking one bowl and handing it to Cas. Dean adds, as Cas takes the bowl, "You know a ton of stuff, Cas, power or no power." He can already see a doubtful look crossing Cas's face, so Dean says, "You could take it easy at first, you know. You could just hang out in the motel. Ride around in the back of the Impala if you want. You could even take shotgun." (Sam nods at that.) "Then just camp at the motel. You don't even have to do the hunting part; you could just help us with the research. Or, hell, just come along for the diner breakfasts."

"That's... a nice idea," says Cas. "But, ah, I think I'll focus on... just living. For now." Then a thought seems to strike him, for he sits up so suddenly he almost spills his popcorn, and he adds hastily, "Of course, you must call me if you need any help. If you need any help at all, of course I'll come...." Cas pauses a moment, his feet fidgeting a little and his hands gripping tightly onto the edge of the popcorn bowl, and he adds, a little awkwardly, "... if I can."

"If you can?" says Dean. "You'll come if you can? If the Gas-n-Sip hot dogs don't need turning? If the light bulbs don't need changing?" Sam is shooting Dean another annoyed look, but Dean can't help it.

Cas looks down at his popcorn. He's quiet a moment, and then says, "Well, you know, I have a schedule." He glances back up at Dean with an almost pleading look, and adds, "But, of course you should call if you need help."

"Right," says Dean. "I'll do that."

"I mean it," says Cas, now looking worried. "Call if you need me. Please."

Sam's come over now and has grabbed the HDMI cable out of Dean's hands and is jamming the end into the laptop, apparently in a hurry to get the movie going, but it still takes Sam a few seconds. Which gives Dean a moment to study Cas.

Cas is hunched over his popcorn now looking distinctly uncomfortable. He's turning one piece of popcorn around in one hand, but he's not eating it, and he still has that worried look. He almost looks frustrated... and almost, maybe, a little ashamed. There's something a little familiar about his whole demeanour.

After a moment Dean places it: This is how Cas looked back in Idaho, the other time he was human.

Which makes Dean wonder if maybe, possibly, Castiel is just plain scared. Like he'd been with that Rit Zien case.

It's understandable, really. For someone who's used to always having magical healing powers and super-hero strength, it must be incredibly disorienting to suddenly end up with no power at all. And... in fact, Castiel had nearly been killed by the Rit Zien, hadn't he? He'd ended up on his knees, bloodied and with a broken wrist, mere moments from death, when Dean had burst in the door and saved him.

Not to mention that the Rit Zien had homed in on Cas from miles away because Cas had apparently been radiating some kind of borderline-suicidal psychic distress signals.

Dean's irritation has suddenly dissipated. He'd actually like to say something, but now the movie's starting (it's "High Noon" tonight), and all Dean can think to say is:

"Hey Cas, here's the salt."

Which is probably a less than ideal way to encourage a newly-mortal angel friend to take his time finding his way in the human world, but it's all Dean can come up with. Dean even makes a special trip across the room, way over to the sideboard where the salt shaker is, just to pick it up, and he walks all the way across the room again to hand-deliver it to Cas over on the sofa.

Cas takes it with a quiet, "Thank you, Dean." But then he gives Dean a small smile (even though all Dean has done is give him a salt shaker), and Cas salts his popcorn a little and finally starts eating some. And somehow everything seems to be all right again.

Though then Dean can't figure out where to sit. Cas is on the sofa in Dean's usual spot, and Sam has now sat down next to Cas, and it seems like it might be too crowded if Dean squeezes onto the sofa too. So tonight it ends up being Sam and Cas side-by-side on the sofa, feet up on the coffee table, while Dean sits in the wooden chair.

Which is fine. Sam and Cas both look comfortable now, and that's what really matters, after all.

 



 

 

A/N - There's another short chapter just about ready to go, but that one will have to wait till next week since the rest of Sat & Sun have to be spent packing up my house!

The next 3 weeks, while I finish my job & pack up my house, will have shortish chapters and sometimes they'll be delayed till Sat instead of on the usual Friday. But I'm really trying to post something every week even if it's short. Thanks for your patience!

As always, please let me know if there's anything you especially liked or that seemed to work well. I love to hear from you. :)

 

edit: wellll it's now 9pm on Saturday night and I **JUST NOW** finally finished my humpback paper working at it nonstop since 7am this morning - and that was after a week of 14hr workdays. But the paper's actually done! I emailed it off to the 2nd author just now!  woooo! I will shift gears to the fic tomorrow (Sun) - hope to have at least something little up by Sun eve. Sorry for the delay....

 

 

Chapter Text

Sorry for the huge delay! Usual lame excuse, been working till 10pm every night and then packing to move out of my room. After a string of really late nights I finished my last paper (science paper I meant, to send to a journal) at 9pm Saturday night! wooo!! In the last eight days of my job now - my last day is July 28, not that I'm counting or anything — and I just have 1 more paper I have to write, before my end date. The end's in sight.

Anyway, that's why this chapter is late. Next 2 wks are crazy since I'm moving so there might be a delay after this, but please keep checking in, and thanks for your patience.

 


 

 

Over the next few weeks, Dean and Sam figure out the weird frostbite case in Oregon (there's a little coven of witches in Corvallis that's getting a bit out of control, it turns out)... and Cas works at the Gas-n-Sip. The week after that, Dean and Sam take out a lair of shapeshifters down near Dallas... and Cas works at the Gas-n-Sip. The week after that, a case pops up in South Dakota involving a "ghost stallion". Reports are describing an actual horse ghost, complete with an eerie silver-colored mane floating in the breeze and sparks coming off its ghostly hooves, that's haunting a broken-down fairground racetrack. Dean's sure that one'll finally pique Cas's interest, and it actually does seem to catch his attention (he even calls Dean up the next day with an idea about luring the horse closer with "ghost carrots"). But still Cas goes to work at the Gas-n-Sip.

Every single day Cas heads out to the Gas-n-Sip. He's putting in long hours, too, with barely with a single day off. So once again Dean and Sam head off on the case on their own.

"He wasn't even all that clear about how to make a 'ghost carrot'," says Dean to Sam, as they're driving north through the Nebraska plains, heading up to South Dakota. "I mean, what do we do exactly, piss a carrot off and murder its fellow carrots? Treat it unjustly before we eat it?"

"I don't think Cas meant a ghost of a carrot, exactly," says Sam. "I mean, not a vengeful spirit of a carrot. I think he just meant, some kind of non-physical form of a carrot. He was talking about some way to send small objects to the Veil. We could call him back."

"He's at work," says Dean, who's already tried calling Cas earlier that morning. Cas had had customers at the time, and couldn't take any time to talk. "He doesn't get a break for a few more hours. He's pulling another double shift. I'll try later."

"Jeez," says Sam, frowning a little. "Has he been at work every day? Every time either of us called?" Dean nods, and Sam says, "Right back to the Corvallis case? That's, let me think—" (Sam starts counting on his fingers) "— that's sixteen days in a row at least. You know what, Dean, I don't think he gets any days off."

Dean considers that. He's known Cas has been working a lot, but hadn't really noticed the complete lack of days off. "Is that even legal?" Dean asks.

Sam snorts. "I'm thinking Gas-n-Sip Corporate probably isn't a paragon of fair labor relations. But it could be it's legit overtime. Maybe Cas just really wants to save up that pocket change."

"That's a friggin' mountain of pocket change," says Dean. "I still can't figure out what he even needs it for."

Sam shrugs. "Ketchup and French fries? A new trenchcoat? Could be anything. Who knows." He thinks a bit, and adds, "Maybe he's saving up for a white picket fence. You know... a house or something? A normal life?"

Dean shakes his head.

"Something's off," Dean says.

Sam glances over at him. "I know what you mean, but it seems like it's Cas, though. I mean, he's not...." He hesitates, glancing out at the rolling fields outside. "It's not Lucifer," he says at last. "I'm sure. I'm certain, Dean. It's Cas. "

"Yeah, he's not 'off' that way," Dean agrees. "I think you're right, he's still himself. It's just everything he's doing that seems off."

 


 

The "ghost carrots" turn out to work great, though it does take another long conversation with Cas that night before they figure out how to send carrots to the Veil. But once they get back from South Dakota, Dean keeps watching Cas out of the corner of his eye. After all the things that have gone wrong with Cas over the years, maybe a certain amount of paranoia is inevitable. Every evening when Cas straggles in from another long day of work, Dean finds himself watching Cas: studying Cas's behavior, his posture, his voice, even his little mannerisms and how he moves. Dean's trying to pick up on any signs of possible brainwashing or possession or curses or... something. But there's nothing obvious.

Yet there's still something "off," and it's still nagging at Dean. So one day he decides to drop by the Gas-n-Sip. Just to check things out.

He thinks of this at mid-day, long after Cas has already left, and as soon as the idea pops up in Dean's head he realizes he's never actually asked Cas which Gas-n-Sip he's working at. Dean could just call, of course, but he kind of wants to take Cas a little bit by surprise — maybe check out the Gas-n-Sip quietly, make sure nothing's "off" at Cas's workplace. Cas had at least mentioned something about "west on Interstate 70", so Dean takes the Impala down to I-70 and starts heading west.

Dean drives through flat prairie towns, wide agricultural fields and rolling Kansas hills. There's a whole string of Gas-n-Sips the entire way, of course, at just about every highway exit. Dean starts checking Gas-n-Sips after he's driven about forty minutes (hadn't Cas said that his Gas-n-Sip was about an hour away from the bunker?) but one after another has no Castiel. Dean keeps going. Around the one-hour mark he's convinced that he's bound to find Cas at the next Gas-n-Sip. But Gas-n-Sip after Gas-n-Sip has no Castiel, and no gold Continental parked outside, and nobody inside who recognizes the names "Steve" or "Jimmy" either.

Two hours in, Dean's gotten almost all the way across Kansas, and he's getting certain he's missed Cas at some previous Gas-n-Sip. Maybe Cas was on break or something? Took the Continental out for a lunch break? But Dean's not sure what else to do other than to keep checking Gas-n-Sips, so he keeps going.

He's practically to the Colorado border, still checking one store after another, when as he pulls into one last Gas-n-Sip in a tiny I-70 off-ramp, he catches a glimpse a dark-haired man moving around inside the store, sweeping the floors. Dean can only see part of the man's back, actually, but something about the slant of the shoulders is unmistakable, and the angle of the head. There's a prickle of delight at the sudden recognition. It's got to be Cas. Cas turns slightly and Dean catches the edge of his profile; yes. It's him. Dean's found him.

There's a moment of pure contentment at having found Cas, and discovering that he's actually at a Gas-n-Sip and appears to be okay. Dean sits there a moment longer in the Impala, quietly watching him, and checking out the surroundings. But everything seems perfectly normal. The edge of the Continental is just visible around the corner; the parking lot is tidy and clean; it's a perfectly ordinary little Gas-n-Sip, in an ordinary Kansas town, on a pretty day. Cas seems fine. It's not jolting anymore to see him in the blue Gas-n-Sip employee vest; Dean's seen it before, and somehow it look almost sweet. He's fine. He's just sweeping the floor. There's maybe something tired in his movements, and maybe he's moving a little slowly, but he looks okay.

But why has he chosen to work this Gas-n-Sip, practically at the state border? Dean's been driving at least two hours. They're almost out of the state.

Dean gets out of the Impala, walks inside and announces his presence with, "I've got a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore."

Cas jumps and spins to face him.

At once there's that crooked smile on Cas's face, and Dean feels the answering grin on his own face as well. It's good to see him — and it's remarkably reassuring to discover that Cas seems pleased to see Dean as well.

Dean stops several paces away, though. The last few weeks, Cas has been pretty consistent about the no-hugs thing; in fact there's basically no physical contact at all anymore, not even the hand-on-the-shoulder move that Cas used to do. The increased sense of distance is something Dean tries to accept without thinking about it too hard, so now he just reminds himself No hugs. And no shoulder-claps. He keeps his hands in his pockets, just in case that might help Cas relax a little.

"We are in Kansas," Cas informs him.

"It's a joke, Cas," Dean explains. At Cas's blank look he adds, "Number one joke about Kansas. You must have heard it? From the Wizard of Oz?"

Cas frowns, thinking. Dean can almost see him rummaging through some crowded mental file of the million movie plots that Metatron somehow stuffed into his head a few years back.

"Oh," says Cas, understanding at last dawning on his face. "Right. Um... we must be over the rainbow."

"What?"

"It's the next line," says Cas. "And actually, I believe the exact quote is 'I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore', not 'I've got a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore' and you're supposed to say it to a small dog—"

Dean snorts. "My point was, we're practically in Colorado. Jeez, Cas, bit of a long drive for you, huh?"

"It's not too bad," Cas says. But now he looks puzzled, and he adds, "Did you come all the way out here just to see me?"

"No, I was checking up on some leads in Denver," Dean lies, out of the blue. "Had to come out this way anyway. Just stopped for a snack." (He's totally unclear on why he suddenly wants to hide the fact that he just drove two hours for a five-minute conversation with Cas.) "But seriously, are you really driving this whole way both ways every day? That's got to be hours in the car every day." Dean's even about to add "There are a million other places you could stay in the evenings that would be a hell of a lot more convenient than the bunker," — but he bites off the sentence before it gets started, thinking maybe he shouldn't be giving Cas any ideas about leaving again.

Cas sets his broom aside, propping it carefully against a snack-food display rack, and turns, slowly, to face Dean. He puts his hands on his hips, and he's got a thoughtful look on his face, like he's preparing for a difficult conversation.

"Dean, I know you don't understand why I'm doing this," Cas begins, in a very serious tone of voice. "but I just want to—"

"No, I get it," says Dean.

Cas looks a little surprised. "You... do?"

"You gotta find your way," Dean says. "It's cool. Listen, Sam and I were kinda talking about it, and we both know this must be a weird transition for you. Not that you haven't been human before, but... it's gotta be weird, just the same. You do what you gotta do. It's okay. Just... maybe take a day off now and then?" Dean pauses, watching Cas, but Cas is just gazing back at him, still standing by the broom, looking very attentive. "I mean, don't drive yourself into the ground, you know?" adds Dean. "You gotta take care of yourself."

Cas is silent a moment.

"That's what I'm trying to do," he says at last. But Dean's noticing now that the dark circles under Cas's eyes seem worse than ever, and the familiar worried look is back too. In fact the worried look seems almost permanently engraved on Cas's face these days; he always seems to be carrying an air of burden and strain that never seems to fully leave him. He looks good anyway, though, thinks Dean, looking him up and down. He always looks good. (To Dean, at least.) His clothes are clean, he's got himself together. And he's got that hair-tousle thing just about perfect by now.

But he looks so tired.

"You don't have to do this alone, you know," says Dean, thinking of Cas trying to save up as much money as he can, on his own, for some unknown life goal. "You could let us help. I mean, I know you probably want to do it on your own. But you don't have to."

Cas is still gazing at him very steadily, and there's such a long pause now that Dean gets a little puzzled by the intensity in Cas's expression.

Cas finally breaks eye contact and turns, with a small sigh, to look at the Gas-n-Sip's hot dog display, and then he spends a moment watching the hot dogs rotate around and around in their little heater. It's probably just something to look at while he thinks, but Dean tries to crack a joke to lighten the mood, saying, "Just don't tell me you're falling in love with those hot dogs."

A million much worse jokes leap to mind then, about hot dogs and sausages and falling in love, and Dean has to grit his teeth to keep from saying them. (Or thinking about them, actually.)

Cas gives a tiny huff of a laugh. "Actually they've started making me sick," he says. "I can't eat them anymore."

"Not surprising," Dean says. "Just a tip: the pies are good, cause honestly it's hard to screw up a pie, but you don't even wanna know what goes into those hot dogs. It's a Gas-n-Sip; no offense but it's not exactly gourmet food, you know."

Cas gives him a sidelong glance and says, "You know, though, it's soothing."

"Soothing?"

"Knowing there's at least one thing I can control," says Cas. He turns and gestures around at the brightly lit Gas-n-Sip. Dean drifts a little closer, so he can stand next to Cas and follow his gaze. It's just a Gas-n-Sip, but as Dean tries to see it from Cas's point of view, it starts to look almost impressive, this little store full of provisions for human travelers. It's so full of odd-looking snack foods and brightly packaged treats, all brought here from a thousand different places, all arranged nicely to be purchased by a thousand different travellers on their way to a thousand different places.

It's spotlessly clean, and perfectly organized. The floor's just been swept, and the coffee pots are perking with a fresh batch that Cas must have made just minutes ago. The shelves are well stocked, and there's not a crumb on the counters. Everything's bright and colorful and clean. It's sparkling.

"I can't fix everything," says Cas, slowly. It takes Dean a moment to realize he's not talking about the Gas-n-Sip. "I can't fix anything," Cas continues. "Not anymore. I have to accept that." A flicker of something grim crosses his face, but then he brightens as he adds, looking around again, "But at least I can keep this one place clean. This one very tiny small piece of the world. Eight hundred square feet; I can keep it swept. And that's about all I can manage, I think."

"You can do a lot more than that," Dean says, but, oddly, Cas's shoulders drop at that, and he suddenly looks more tired than ever.

"I can't," says Cas. "I really can't." Now he's sounding sad, almost like he's grieving the loss of something that he can't seem to explain. And that Dean can't quite grasp.

What's bothering him? thinks Dean. It could be a lot of things. Losing his powers? Being kicked out of Heaven? Losing his angel family, and Chuck as well? Maybe Cas misses his old garrison?

Dean's struck by a sudden thought, and he says, "Do you miss your wings?"

And then Dean's wishing he'd kept his mouth shut, for Cas suddenly looks almost like he's been kicked in the stomach. His lips press tight together and he even crumples a little, his shoulders hunching and his chin dropping, and he crosses his arms over his blue Gas-n-Sip vest, rubbing one of his upper arms with his other hand, as if he's suddenly feeling cold.

"Oh, hey," says Dean. "Never mind. Sorry, I didn't—"

"I thought I'd be used to it by now," says Cas, who's staring at the floor now with both arms wrapped around his chest. "I always thought I'd adjust. But I can't even look at the birds anymore."

 


 

Several carloads of customers arrive all at once, and Cas shakes himself out of his wing-depression pretty fast. In fact, it's a little disturbing to see how well he can hide it, how in just a moment he's lifted his chin and squared his shoulders and got his calm stoic-soldier look on again. "I've got to get back to work," Cas says quietly to Dean, and then he's pressing an entire peach pie into Dean's hands and telling him "I'll see you tonight."

So off Dean goes, to do another two-hour drive home.

It was worth the time, though, he thinks, as he drives, the peach pie sitting in the passenger seat of the Impala beside him. And not just for the pie. It was good to see that Cas seems like Cas, even at work. Cas's voice seems like it should, that rough gravelly growl; the way Cas looks at Dean seems like Cas; the lopsided smile, the things he says, the way he reacted about the wings (and dammit, why did Dean even have to mention that?) It all seems like Cas.

It really is Cas; Dean's sure.

 


 

And so what if he doesn't want to hunt? Dean thinks a few days later. If he really doesn't want to, that's cool. The new routine is actually working out okay. They all still get to spend time together. Cas still comes back to the bunker in the evenings, after his ridiculously long commute, and it's actually kind of touching that he would drive so far just to spend an hour or two with Sam and Dean. They often grab breakfast together in the mornings, they watch a movie in the evenings, and Cas sometimes helps with the research as well. The "ghost carrot" tip turns out not to be an anomaly; Cas turns out to be full of helpful ideas, and when there's a case brewing he starts assisting in the evenings with research. Later, when the case wraps up, he always wants to hear every detail whenever Sam and Dean get back home from a road trip.

He just doesn't want to come along, is all. Dean and Sam both keep offering, on every hunt, that Cas could come along. But each invitation is greeted with the same array of excuses. Cas is "too busy;" he "just needs a bit more pocket change;" he "has a schedule" he has to adhere to; he'd "like to come on hunts.... later."

Always "later." Never now.

But he seems to be settling in. A sprinkling of his (few) possessions start appearing in the bedroom that Dean's set up for him; Cas starts hanging his trenchcoat and jacket neatly in the room's little closet, and he's got a little stash of three neatly folded Gas-n-sip vests as well, and a small assortment of boxers, socks and a few shirts. This is all a good sign because he had seemed remarkably uncertain about taking possession of the room at all, which was a little odd given he's been hanging out at the bunker off and on perfectly comfortably for years. But he's hesitant about actually sleeping in a bed, and having a specific room that's his very own.

Thinking it over later, Dean realizes Cas has never had his own bedroom here. In fact, the only other time he's slept in a real bed at the bunker, Dean kicked him out within a few hours.

 


 

They watch a lot of movies. Cas already seems to know every movie plot inside and out, yet it turns out he loves actually seeing them for the first time anyway. Together, Dean, Sam and Castiel finish a tour through the classic westerns ("I'm surprised they're not discussing the plight of the cows" says Cas). They work their way through Indiana Jones the next week ("The Ark of the Covenant doesn't melt people like that!" says Cas. "Well, only rarely."). Next is Star Wars ("At least Luke's father spoke to him at the very end. And spoke kindly," says Cas — after which he goes quiet for a while).

The seating arrangements start to evolve. The wooden chair turns out to be hellishly uncomfortable and Dean soon drags it back to the library, searches out an upholstered easy chair in one of the meeting rooms, and drags that over to the tv room instead. For a while then it's Dean in the easy chair. Cas smack in the middle of the couch (Dean's old spot), and Sam still in his usual spot at the end of the couch.

The easy chair's okay; it's fine, really. But the viewing angle's a little wrong and there's nowhere to prop a beer, and it's too far from the popcorn (which is usually right by Cas). One evening Dean realizes he'd rather be closer to the popcorn. He doesn't want to crowd Cas, though, so he tries perching on the couch arm, but that's a little awkward, and then he tries sitting on the floor just in front of the couch. Sam tosses him a pillow and then Dean's sitting on the pillow with his back leaned up against the couch, and Cas puts his feet up on the coffee table, and then Cas is rearranging till he's slightly closer, till the side of one of his thighs is in contact with Dean's shoulder.

Dean waits for Cas to flinch back. But he doesn't. Whatever Cas's problem is with hugs, apparently it doesn't extend to legs-by-the-shoulder positions. Cas stays right where he is, leg in firm contact with Dean's shoulder, and he even props the popcorn bowl on his knees so Dean can reach it.

The floor's actually not all that comfortable, not even with the pillow, but Dean watches the movies there every night for the next week.

One night Dean actually nods off. There's been a long hunt recently, and a very long drive back; Sam got some catnaps during the drive, but Dean's still a little short on sleep. They start watching "Men In Black" and Dean dozes off pretty early on, when Will Smith is just starting to take the Men in Black entrance exam, and wakes hours later to find his head is leaning heavily on Cas's knee. The movie's long over, the room is dark, and Sam is tiptoeing around picking up the beer bottles and the popcorn bowl.

"Shit," Dean mutters, lifting his head and wiping his mouth. He's mortified to find that he's been drooling on Cas's jeans. "Jeez, I'm sorry, Cas," he says, but when he glances back at Cas, it turns out Cas is fast asleep too, his head tipped back onto the couch cushions and his eyes shut fast.

"He didn't want to move," Sam whispers. "When he realized you'd fallen asleep he didn't want to wake you."

 


 

But then Cas leaves again.

 


 

"Oh, I won't be home in the evenings for a while," Cas announces one day.

"What?" says Dean. "Why?"

Cas shrugs. The shrug seems a little too staged and deliberate, like he's trying to convince himself (and Dean, maybe) that it's a very trivial matter. "I've been offered another place to live that's a little closer. It's a bit of a long drive from here, you know."

"What kind of a place?"

"Oh, just... " Cas hesitates. "There's a motel just over the state border where I can stay. It's quite cheap and it's a much shorter drive. I thought I'd stay there during the week. I can come home on the weekends."

Dean and Sam glance at each other.

And all at once that's the new routine: Cas is gone completely during his work week (Sunday through Thursday).

At least he's still back on weekends.

 


 

Till the day when Cas says "So, I might stay a little longer at my other place. A couple weeks. I've got some, ah, stuff to do on the weekends. But I've got a full week off after that and I'll come see you guys then."

He's gone for two full weeks this time. And then shows up out of the blue again.

Then he's gone for another two weeks and he's back. Then longer still - three weeks away. Then he's back.

Those aren't the only changes.

 


 

 

Cas's clothes start changing. The trenchcoat and suit have suddenly gotten dry-cleaned at one point; they're both spotless all of a sudden, the mudstains totally gone. Cas also has a new (spotless) white shirt, and the blue-striped tie is completely gone too, replaced with a solid blue tie a little more like the original one. He's not wearing the blue vest back and forth, either — he's apparently only using that at work now, and he's acquired a couple other shirts and a rather nice-looking short jacket that somewhat startles Dean with its snappiness.

The idea of Cas shopping for these clothes at some Colorado mall somewhere is a little disconcerting. But it's even more disconcerting when Cas can't seem to remember where he got them.

"A friend helped pick them out," is all he says. "I forget where."

"A friend?" Dean mouths, silently, to Sam when Cas has his back turned. Sam can only shrug. Dean's about to start quizzing Cas about who this "friend" is and whether the "friend" is trustworthy, but he realizes it'll seem a little too much like a doubtful parent grilling a teenager.

"Well, since you're a million years old," Dean says grudgingly, "I guess you're allowed to make a friend or two." Sam gives a snort of laughter, and Cas even gives a faint smile.

And then there's the hair. Cas has clearly been practicing the hair-scrunching all along, because he's long since nailed the "perfect amount of tousle". That's been really nice to see, but he's spending an increasingly long amount of time in the bathroom on his ever-shorter bunker visits. Dean swings open the bathroom door one day to find Cas already in there, staring in the mirror intently. Cas has apparently forgotten to lock the door, and he's got a palmful of Dean's mousse stuff in one hand, with Sam's "volumizer" shampoo sitting right out by the sink too, and Cas is fiddling with the tufts of hair on his forehead, tugging bits of hair this way and that. He's even craning his head around as if he's trying to get a look at the sides.

"Oh, sorry, were you trying to doll yourself up?" says Dean. Cas jumps about a foot in the air, spinning around to stare at Dean. He's already fumbling the mousse stuff out of sight behind his back.

"There's a lock on the door, you know," says Dean. "If you want to have a moment in private with your hair, I know you two need some time to catch up."

"Right, right," mutters Cas. "I forgot about the lock." He grabs the doorknob and whips the door shut. Dean's stifling a laugh by now. Because, Cas was most definitely flustered. It's a little cute, it was definitely funny, but it's also a little odd. Since when has Cas gotten flustered about bodily functions?

Come to think of it, Dean thinks, still chuckling, since when has Cas even paid the least bit of attention to his appearance?

Since a couple months ago, when he started going off on his own, Dean remembers. When Dean first told him that "chicks would dig" the tousled hair.

That day, that exact moment, is when Cas started caring about his appearance.

Dean's laughter starts to fade away.

After that Cas is very diligent about keeping the bathroom door locked. And then he starts taking incredibly long showers too. (That, at least, makes Dean laugh again.)

 


 

That's the first in a long string of what seem to be self-improvement efforts of various types. Sam finds Cas wandering around the bunker gym one day, and Dean even catches Cas weighing himself on the Men of Letters' old-style scale, clad in nothing but a t-shirt and boxers, sliding the little weights carefully along the balance arm. Again Cas jumps about a foot in the air when Dean surprises him, and there's something almost comical about how fast he lunges to grab a towel to wrap around himself (even though he already had the t-shirt and boxers on). "Relax, dude, I only saw your back," Dean says, "Not that it ain't a nice back." Cas just gives him a very embarrassed look and disappears at near-lightspeed around the corner, towel wrapped firmly around himself like a cape, leaving Dean still chuckling — but still a little confused.

The clothes continue to change. The Lesser Trenchcoat disappears entirely one day, apparently banished to the back of his closet for good, and now Cas is wearing either the jacket or a new sweater, a knit sweater in dark blue that's appeared out of nowhere. Then he's suddenly acquired a hand-knitted gray wool cap too. The hat's a little misshapen, obviously handmade, but somehow it suits him, and soon he's wearing it almost every day, when he heads out in the mornings in the chilly late-October air to his job, and when he comes back at night. Soon he's barely taking it off, and wears it even indoors. (Granted, the bunker gets pretty chilly in winter.) A cream-colored scarf shows up after that, and a pair of black gloves, and a nice looking shoulder bag.

He's a little cagey about all of them. The most he'll say about any of the new clothes is, "Oh, a friend gave it to me," or "I must have picked it up somewhere," or even, least convincing of all, "I don't remember where this came from."

And then there's the food.

"I might skip the fries," says Cas one day, just as Dean's ladling out a batch of truly awesome home-made steak fries onto Cas's plate. "Sam, do you have more of that salad?"

After that he totally stops eating most of Dean's meals and is almost slavishly copying Sam's health-fanatic diet, protein smoothies and all. Sam's thrilled, of course, and soon he and Cas are getting into long conversations over dinner about quinoa and yogurt. While Dean rolls his eyes. More fries for me, at least, he thinks.

Next Cas is coming home with recipes he wants to try. Things he's been eating somewhere else and apparently liked enough to try to copy at home. It's all annoyingly organic and Whole Foods-ish — free range chicken, and organic pasta, and suspiciously healthy looking salads.

The trips away continue. Around late October Dean finally succumbs to curiosity and manages to hack Cas's Verizon account enough to get a ping on his location. Both times Cas is in a town near Denver, at what looks like a Holiday Inn near the Kansas border. It's a reasonable place for him to be based, but when Dean asks him about it, Cas looks a little shifty but finally confesses, "Yes, I've been...." He hesitates. "Shopping. In Denver."

"Shopping," repeats Dean. "In Denver."

"Yes. Shopping," says Cas.

"Working in a Gas-n-Sip.... and shopping," repeats Sam. "And wearing clothes that just showed up somehow? That you don't remember where you got?"

Cas gives a completely deadpan nod. "Would you like to watch a movie?" he suggests.

 


 

The clues are everywhere, but somehow Dean's still just thinking of it as Cas being on a "self-improvement" campaign of some sort. It's willful blindness, of course, and Dean's dimly aware that he's missing something obvious, but it's not till weeks later, in early November, that he's forced to really think about it. Cas is disappearing out the door one day, heading off to his "temporary place of residence," as he keeps calling the Holiday Inn in Colorado. He's wearing his gray wool hat, and carrying his new bag, and wearing his spotless new sweater. Sam and Dean are in the middle of cleaning up the breakfast dishes as Cas heads out the door with a smile and a wave, promising, as always, to "be in touch soon." The smile's almost startling; he looks amazingly chipper, like he's really looking forward to getting back to Colorado.

They hear the grumble of the Continental starting up and pulling out of the bunker garage. As soon as Cas is definitely gone, Sam turns to Dean with a grin and says,

"Hope we get to meet her someday."

"What? Who?" Dean genuinely has no idea what Sam's talking about.

Sam flicks him an odd look. He's silent a moment but finally says, almost reluctantly, "Cas's girlfriend."

 


 

"Cas can't have a girlfriend," is Dean's instant response.

Sam gives a kind of a half-laugh, and starts making a new batch of coffee.

Dean sets down his stack of dishes and stares at Sam. "What are you talking about?" he demands.

Sam gives a little sigh. Once he sets the water boiling he turns to Dean, almost reluctantly, and says, "Week-long trips, Dean. Weeks long. Two and three weeks long. You know what that means. You know what that would mean if I did it. You know what that would mean if you did it."

"He just needs to be closer to his job," protests Dean. "It's like a two hour drive."

"He's closer to his job, sure," says Sam. "But... I'm pretty sure he's closer to something else, too. Why did he even pick that Gas-n-Sip in the first place, anyway? There's a zillion others that are closer. He shifted locations on purpose."

"He'd tell us if he had a girlfriend," says Dean. "He just took the job cause he needed money."

"Well then, why did he need money?"

Dean hesitates. This has actually still been puzzling him.

Sam has a reluctant look on his face, like he hates to even be forcing Dean through this discussion, but he says, "Think about it, Dean. Why did he even want a job?"

"To... contribute to society?" Dean says. "Just... take a break for a while? From the wars and all? He had this thing in his head about, trying to do at least something even if it was just keeping eight hundred square feet swept. And besides, he probably needed the money."

"If he wanted to sweep eight hundred square feet, he could do that here," points out Sam. "And why would he need the money? That credit card we gave him isn't even close to maxed. I checked."

Dean can't think of anything.

"We check the accounts of that card," says Sam. "And he knows that. I check our cards all the time to see if someone's watching us, see if anybody's stolen our numbers or run a credit check or something. You know that — I check them all the time. Well, Cas knows that too. He's seen me doing it."

"What's your point?"

"He knows we monitor that account, Dean! If he used the credit card, we'd know when and where he was buying anything. And he knows that. Don't you see? He doesn't want us to see what he's actually dropping all his cash on."

"Like... what exactly?" Dean is starting to understand where Sam is going with this, but, stubbornly, he doesn't want to be convinced.

"Hell, I don't know. Restaurants, maybe?" says Sam. "Flowers. Pairs of movie tickets. Stuff like that. Jewelry, little gifts." Dean's rolling his eyes now, but Sam persists. "C'mon, Dean, think about it. He doesn't spend money on himself, like ever. He doesn't have a car loan or a mortgage. Till recently he didn't even have housing to pay for, and we were buying the food. What's he spending money on? He's got to be spending it on somebody else."

"Okay, maybe," Dean allows, "but, seriously, a girlfriend? Maybe he's... I don't know, gambling it away, or saving up for a new pair of wings or something—" (Dean's startled to hear this idea come out of his mouth, and Sam just laughs) "— or a new trenchcoat, I don't know, there's other things it could be for!"

Sam takes a big breath. "Sure, Dean, but, for chrissake, why wouldn't he have a girlfriend? I mean, why would he not? He's been out and about for months. You seriously think he's going to spend all that time out there and is never going to meet anybody? It's been months."

Dean can only stare at Sam blankly. It has actually never occurred to Dean that it might be perfectly natural for Cas to pick up a girlfriend. Sam's silent a moment, measuring out the coffee, and he finally continues with, "Look, I know you kinda like having him around. We both like having him around, obviously. But... c'mon, you gotta admit, he gets to have a life too. And most of all — he's human now. I think we might've both forgotten what that really means. We've seen how human he gets. We've seen it before, right?" Sam's suddenly looking very awkward — he's even blushing a little as he fumbles the coffee scoop back into the coffee can, but he plows on with, "He's gotta be having human... uh... thoughts, right? Human ... desires. Human..."

"If you say 'urges', so help me," Dean says. "Or 'needs'. I don't want to hear about Cas having 'urges.' Ever."

"But what if he does?" Sam insists. "Dean, the guy has a right to live a life. He can do what he wants. We told him exactly that. You told him exactly that."

 


What do you really want to do, Cas?

I need to think about that.


 

Dean remembers how Cas took that long, long shower, that evening in Flagstaff.... thinking about "what he really wanted to do."

He'd thought about it, that night, hadn't he? He'd even woken in the middle of the night, apparently, and had sat there for hours in the early morning watching Dean sleep, and thinking about his "options."

And then Cas had decided to leave.

Maybe I was overthinking it all along, Dean thinks. Maybe it wasn't that something sneaky was going on. Maybe it wasn't even that he was scared, or not entirely.

Maybe he just wants a life.

A regular life, for once. A life that includes a girl. Dean's had a year like that. So has Sam. Cas has never really had much of a chance (not while he was sane and had all his memories, that is). Maybe he just wants a regular life... a regular job....

A regular girl.

The concept of Cas possibly having a girlfriend shouldn't seem so unexpected and alien, yet somehow it is. It shouldn't be the least bit surprising, either, but somehow it is.

It also shouldn't be depressing, but somehow it is. So much so that Dean has to try to cover his confusion by grabbing a couple beers out of the fridge (totally forgetting that it's only just after breakfast and that Sam is literally making coffee right this very second) and then he has to focus intently on twisting off the caps. Cas can't have a girlfriend, Dean wants to say. Cas lives here in the bunker. With us. He's part of my —our — family and he lives here with me — us. Most of the time. Some of the time. He can do trips, sure. He can sleep around, even, sure. But he can't possibly have a girlfriend. He opens one beer, he opens a second for Sam (which Sam takes hesitantly, with a pointed glance toward the coffeemaker), and he's already midway through opening a third for Cas before he remembers that it's only eight in the morning, Sam didn't even want a beer, and Cas isn't even here.

Meanwhile Sam's going through a whole pile of evidence now, like he's building a case. "He's even been paying attention to his looks!" Sam points out, with a laugh. "Have you noticed? He was so interested when you told him chicks would dig a different hairstyle, remember? He's been fussing with his hair ever since. Then, get this, my shampoo kept moving around on its own and finally I realized Cas was borrowing it! He used to use yours, remember?" (It's oddly disappointing to realize that Cas has stopped using Dean's shampoo.) Sam adds, "Since when does he care about 'volumizers?' When has Cas ever cared about that stuff before? He's changed up all his clothes, he's even watching his weight, Dean, he's trying to eat healthy all of a sudden, he was checking out the gym downstairs, he's trying to get fit! I mean, these are the signs, aren't they?"

"Hair gel," says Dean, taking a long swig of beer.

"What?"

"I caught him using that gel stuff I use," Dean said, forcing himself to add an amused little chuckle. "That mousse. Trying to, like... get his hair better fluffed or something. Looking in the mirror, and, um.... Heh. He was embarrassed about it." The odd scene, and especially Cas's shyness about it, seems highly significant now in retrospect. Dean adds another forced chuckle, which definitely comes out a little fake-sounding. and tries to cover it up by taking another huge swig of beer that drains nearly half the bottle in one go.

Sam, thankfully, doesn't seem to notice Dean's confusion, and just says, "Dead giveaway. I can't believe we didn't put it together before. I should've realized the second he turned up with that hat."

"Hat?" Dean's noticed the hat, of course, but hadn't thought much of it.

"That wool hat. It's hand-knitted, Dean, didn't you notice? The scarf too. I bet a friend gave them to him. Same friend who's been giving him all those recipes, I'll bet."

"A female type of friend, you mean?" says Dean.

Sam shrugs. "You know any guys who knit hats for their friends?"

"There are plenty of guys who knit," Dean objects.

"Name one," says Sam."

"Tons of guys knit," says Dean, who can't think of a single one. "Lots of guys knit. It's a whole thing these days. Hey, maybe Cas has taken up knitting." (Sam looks extremely doubtful, and actually chugs down a swallow of beer at that point, despite the early hour.) "Or maybe he made it himself, maybe he found it in a thrift store, I don't know. A hat doesn't prove a damn thing." At this point Dean realizes his beer bottle seems to be empty, so he starts in on Cas's beer.

"We shouldn't be surprised," says Sam, gently. "It isn't the first time."

"What do you mean?" says Dean, a little thickly, as he swallows down another huge swig of beer.

"Well..." Sam hesitates, now looking at Dean almost as if he's trying to break bad news gently, and finally he says, "Cas has had girls before, you know. I mean, hell, he was married once, right? That time when I was in the hospital after the trials?"

"Yeah, but he had amnesia," says Dean. "That didn't really count. And the wife was super religious and kind of... in awe of him, I think. That wasn't, like, a normal marriage." He manages to stop himself from adding I'm pretty sure it was never consummated.

"Still though. And he sorta had that thing with Meg, remember?" Sam says.

"Meg flirted with everybody," said Dean. "Cas was just, like... attached to her because she took care of him. He wasn't really into her, not that way."

Sam looks a little doubtful. "Pretty sure she liked him that way. And what about that reaper, too? What was her name? April?"

"Yeah but, that was just like a one-time fling deal," says Dean. "You know those don't mean anything. Besides, she was trying to kill him. And succeeded."

"But he liked her, didn't he? He said she was hot, didn't he?"

"Well, yeah... but...." Dean stops, realizing that he seems to be having trouble making a clear case to Sam about why none of those girls count. None of those had been real relationships. Cas had just been trying on a role, really; he'd been stuck in a male body and so he'd been testing out the part he thought he was expected to play in human society. He hadn't really known, or cared much, about any of those women. And none of them had really known Cas. Not really.

Not like... well, not like Dean knows Cas, just for example.

Sam's again giving Dean a bit of a strange look, and Dean scrambles to try to act like this is no big deal. So Cas might have a girlfriend. Sure. Fine. That's cool. "Well, anyway, if that's what it is, good for him," Dean manages, taking another big swig of his beer, mostly in the hope it'll wash away the weirdly disconsolate feeling that seems to clamping down around his stomach. "If that's what's going on, that's awesome. Really."

"We couldn't expect him to stick around the bunker forever," Sam says. Now he sounds a little wistful, as he adds, "And you know... it'd be nice if at least one of the three of us got to have some kind of an actual life, wouldn't it?"

"Of course!" Dean said, a little too emphatically. "Absolutely. Yes. It's great. Good for him for meeting someone. Hope it's someone great. Good for him. A Colorado girl, huh. Wish him all the best. To Cas!" Now he's actually toasting Cas, with his second beer, at eight in the morning, which is way too over-the-top and Sam's giving him that funny look again. But Sam joins in on the toast just the same.

 


 

A/N - and now I have to run around in my house like a maniac packing stuff up. I've got that 1 more science paper to write in the next 8 days, start to finish, so I am not sure if I can get a chapter up this coming weekend, but I will definitely try, so do check in. I'll put an edit in this A/N once I know for sure when I'll be able to post the next chapter. Thanks, as always, for your patience with the erratic posting schedule and my lameness about not replying to comments recently - there's just been zero time. But I PROMISE you I always read each & every comment, and it's like the highlight of my day!

And as always, please let me know if you liked the chapter! :)

 

Chapter Text

 A/N - Sorry I had to skip a week! Absolute crazy chaos in my life right now what with packing and moving out of my room and finishing my job. But the room is cleared out, I mailed 10 boxes to my new place today, and THE JOB IS DONE, WOOOO - Wednesday was my last day. Such a sense of bliss and freedom I can't believe it.

And then I spent all of Thursday working this up for you all. It feels so good to have time for writing again!  Hope you like it.

 


 

 

The girlfriend begins to take shape in Dean's mind. She's a bit bossy, Dean thinks. Like, Dean's got an impression that she must have been criticizing Cas's taste in junk food. (No more French fries at all — seriously? Dean's pretty sure she's probably also the reason that Cas doesn't like hot dogs anymore.) But apparently she's been making Cas some real home-cooked meals. And Cas seems to like her cooking, given all the recipes (hers, no doubt) that he's been bringing home.

The girlfriend's some kind of health nut, too, thinks Dean. Because, Cas is soon outpacing even Sam in the healthy-foods discussions, going on and on about healthy fats and nuts and B vitamins and probiotics, and of course Sam's totally thrilled wiht it all. Cas's breakfasts begin to shift, too, from Dean's pancakes-and-bacon favorite to stuff like steel-cut oatmeal mixed with "antioxidant loaded" (says Cas) blueberries, and "high protein" (says Cas) Greek yogurt and a dollop of "immune boosting" (says Cas) organic honey. 

Cas insists he loves this mix of tasteless breakfast goo, and tries to force some on Dean every morning. It's only edible if buried in about half a pound of the organic honey, but Dean piles on the honey and smiles and nods and chokes the stuff down.

Yet Dean has to concede, watching Cas assemble the oatmeal-and-blueberry-and-yogurt breakfasts in the mornings, that Cas is actually learning to eat right. He's finally ditching his awful junk-food habits.

Awful habits he just might have picked up from hanging out with a certain hunter....

It seems like the girlfriend, whoever she is, might be good for Cas.

Dean hates that.

 


 

The girlfriend must also have opinions about clothes. For one thing the Lesser Trenchcoat never reappears. Dean's grudgingly grateful to the girlfriend about this, actually, for he's in silent agreement with her that the Lesser Trenchcoat never was quite right for Cas. The Greater Trenchcoat always had more pizzazz. More... something. More drape, more billow when Cas walked, more like a cape or like... wings, actually. More like wings. And also more cuffs and belts and things. So Dean's hopeful that the girlfriend might be in the process of shopping for a better trenchcoat. Dean even starts to wonder if he should get in touch with her just to to give her a little friendly trenchcoat advice, about what sort of coat to steer Cas towards. Maybe she doesn't know that the original trenchcoat looked better? he thinks. I could give her some tips on what would look good on him.

But no, nothing like the Greater Trenchcoat appears, and Dean's too uncertain about the whole girlfriend idea to press Cas for a name or for actual contact infomation. (And also... maybe it's not a girlfriend? Maybe it's just... Claire or somebody? A group of Gas-n-Sip work friends? Dean can hope, anyway.) Cas's wardrobe keeps changing nonetheless, though, mostly in ways that seem to involve the acquisition of comfier and comfier clothes. Nothing as formal-looking as any kind of trenchcoat.

One day Cas has suddenly got a pair of soft drawstring sweatpants, and on his next trip he's also acquired a kind of dorky-looking, but also soft-and-fuzzy-looking, polarfleece vest. When Cas gets home he changes out of the snappy-looking new jacket and into the shapeless blue sweater and the fuzzy fleece vest as soon as he walks in the door. There's a day a few weeks later when Cas even shows up with a new pair of soft slippers (slippers that he says he got "somewhere"), and then he's changing into the slippers every time he comes back to the bunker, shuffling around in them on movie nights almost like an old grandpa.

"I think he's turning into Mr. Rogers," whispers Dean to Sam one day, as they're both idly watching Cas kick off his outside shoes and slip the fuzzy slippers on. Sam nods, and whispers back, as Cas shrugs off the Gas-n-Sip work vest, and pulls on his fuzzy blue sweater, "That's not a bad thing."

Dean nods back. Because it's kind of cute, actually, how much Cas seems to be nesting; how relaxed he seems in the bunker now, and how cozy he usually looks. It's undeniably a little drab and dowdy, but he sure does look comfortable.

The girlfriend's got a crappy sense of fashion, Dean concludes. There's that one nice-looking jacket, sure, but Cas only wears that outside and everything else seems to be some shapeless mass of polarfleece or hand-knit wool. Every time Dean looks over at Cas on the movie nights, Cas is all cozied up in his (somewhat shapeless) blue knit sweater, the gray knit hat (also somewhat shapeless), the cream-colored scarf, and the fuzzy slippers. Usually with the fuzzy vest on too, a blanket or two wrapped around him on top of all that. It's not exactly Male Fashion 101.

But the new stuff does, at least, all look soft and comfy.

The girlfriend seems to want Cas to be comfortable when he's at home.

Actually she's actually done a better job at that, it seems, than Dean's ever done.

Dean hates that.

 


 

A few weeks later Dean's strolling into the tv room to see which Netflix show Cas and Sam have gotten addicted to now. It's one of Cas's increasingly-rare weeks back at the bunker, and these days, Sam and Cas typically get a jump on starting the tv-watching. That's because they're usually eating the same healthy salad-type stuff, so the two of them often start eating a simple, fast-to-prepare, salad-type meal while Dean's still making something else for himself (something much more tasty. And much less healthy).

Tonight Sam and Cas have already finished some bland looking chicken-Caesar-salad type thing while Dean's been making himself some completely awesome burgers from scratch, complete with sauteed onions, hand-made patties, pre-toasted buns, the works.

Dean walks over to them munching on one of the burgers (a magnificent burger, it must be said, though it did indeed take some time to prepare). He's carrying two other burgers on a plate, just in case he can entice Cas (or Sam for that matter) to try one.

"Burger?" Dean offers, holding out the platter. "I swear it's tastier than whatever crap you two have been choking down.

Cas brightens at the offer, and even says, "Oh, Dean, thank you." But he's also shaking his head, and he adds, "But I'm full. Thank you for the offer, though."

Cas can't be full, though; he's actually only eaten a little bit of his own dinner. Dean sighs; Cas must still be watching his weight. He really wants to tell Cas, Don't let a girl try to change you. Be sure you still feel you can be yourself. If you like burgers, eat burgers, dammit.

But he bites his tongue. Cas has still been reluctant to tell any details about the mysterious "friend" who he's been spending time with, and Dean and Sam have both decided to give him a little space.

Sam, at least, grabs one of the burgers.

Dean sets the burger plate down on the coffee table and looks at them both for a moment. It's the middle of November by now, and of course the Men of Letters never seem to have thought all that much about insulation, so Cas is curled up on the couch all bundled up as per usual —slouched down on the sofa with his legs propped up on the coffee table, not only wearing all the hand-knitted crap but also with the inevitable blanket wrapped around his legs. Cas's half-eaten Caesar salad is in a bowl on the coffee table, a popcorn bowl is next to him on the sofa, Sam's now busily chomping on the extra burger, and they both seem to be fascinated by some new Netflix show.

Turns out to be some weird new show called "Sense8", which seems to involve ESP and mind-reading and lots of gay people having orgies, as far as Dean can figure out. Two lesbians are kissing on screen, and so Dean watches for a few moments (because lesbian make-out scenes are acknowledged, by everybody, to be universally hot). But the next shot is of two guys making out, and Dean finds himself feeling a little awkward about that — because, you know, it's gay guys, which, that's totally fine and all, but it's not Dean's thing. Not at all. There's nothing wrong with it but it's not Dean's thing at all. In fact it seems safest not to watch, so Dean turns his back to the screen.

Cas, though, seems to be riveted by the gay-guys-kissing scene; he's frowning at the tv in intense concentration, almost like he's studying for an important exam. Though his eyes are almost all that's visible of him; the blue sweater almost seems to swallow him. He's even got his hands tucked into the ends of the opposite sleeves of his blue sweater, so that the sleeves form sort of a seamless loop, and his cream-colored scarf is piled high around his face. He's so well wrapped that he just seems a just a pair of blue eyes in a big bundle of blue- and cream-colored wool, with the gray knit hat perched on top.

"Do you ever take that sweater off?" Dean asks, walking over to sit on the arm of the sofa. "It fits you like a burlap sack, you know." Sam pauses in mid-burger bite to slant a frown at Dean.

Cas straightens up a touch, emerging slightly from his wool igloo till he looks almost human-shaped again, and he looks up at Dean. "I like how the sweater fits," says Cas, glancing down at the sleeves. One hand emerges and he pats at the baggy sweater sleeve of his other arm. "It's comfortable. I can roll up the sleeves easily," he says, and he looks back at the screen, but it's moved on from the gay guys and it seems the new scene isn't grabbing Cas's attention as much, for now his gaze keeps flickering over to Dean.

"You can roll up the sleeves easily?" repeats Dean, a little skeptical. The sweater, and the hat too, are both just so... shapeless. "That's why you like it? That's, like, a selling point in sweaters? Where'd you get that thing, anyway, the thrift store?"

There's a stir of motion in Cas's blanket; he's shifting his feet. "Erin gave it to me," he finally says. "Apparently I wasn't dressing warmly enough."

Erin.

It's the first time Cas has mentioned a name.

Dean has to take it in for a moment. It seems a significant name, weighted with importance, and Dean finds he needs a long moment to assess the sound of it.

Erin.

Erin. Erin. Erin. It's amazing how significant it sounds. It's ringing in Dean's mind almost like a bell tolling, and Dean now realizes that he's still been harboring a little secret theory that there isn't actually a girlfriend. There have always been some other possibilities, of course; Cas could have been just saving money for something else. There was the Claire theory, too; there'd been the work-buddy theory.

But no, it's not Claire, it's somebody else. Somebody named Erin.

Sam has perked up with interest too; he's setting his burger down on the plate on the coffee table, and is looking over at Cas.

"Erin?" Sam says. "Is that your friend?"

Cas hesitates. A slightly alarmed look crosses his face, like he's just realized he's let a secret slip. "Yes," he says cautiously. He shuffles a little, puts his feet down on the floor and sits up a bit, no longer looking as relaxed. He takes a very small handful of the popcorn from the bowl next to him, just a couple of kernels, but then just fiddles with the kernels without eating them.

"Is Erin the same friend who gave you that hat, by any chance?" says Sam, in a totally innocuous tone.

"Yes...." says Cas. He's definitely looking guarded now, studying his popcorn kernels closely, but Sam keeps pressing. Sam's got a carefully innocent look on his face, but Dean's pretty sure Sam's hiding a grin.

"Is that the same 'friend'..." says Sam brightly, making apostrophe-gestures in the air with his fingers for the word friend, "who's been cooking for you?"

Cas is definitely fidgeting now. "Sort of," he mutters, and then he drops the uneaten popcorn back into the bowl, sets the bowl aside, pulls his phone out from some deeply hidden pocket, and makes a show of checking the time. And then he kicks off his blanket and stands up. "Actually I've got to go," he announces, winding the cream-colored scarf more tightly around his neck, as if he's armoring up to head out into a blizzard. "It's later than I thought and I've got a drive ahead of me. I have to get back tonight."

Dean blinks, and Sam shoots a glance at Dean, raising an eyebrow. This is the first Cas has mentioned that he's heading back tonight.

Sam's unfazed, though, and he continues with, "Going back where? To Denver by any chance?" He's still sounding like Mr. Innocuous. "Gonna do some shopping for a few weeks?"

"Going to see Erin, by any chance?" adds Dean, forcing himself to join in on the game.

Cas finishes tucking his scarf-ends over his shoulder and turns to Dean with a sigh. "Yes, Dean. Yes, I'm going to see my friend Erin. What of it?"

"How long you staying this time?" says Sam.

"This is like the eighth or ninth visit, huh?" says Dean. "Getting serious?"

At that, Cas gets an odd look on his face, and he eyes Dean a bit remotely for a second, like he's thinking about something. It makes Dean wonder if Cas even knows what "getting serious" actually refers to.

It makes Dean wonder (and not for the first time) has Cas ever had a real relationship?

Ever?

Dean's waiting for Cas to say something along the lines of "No, not really, we only just met," and he's already got a little reply prepared about how Cas should enjoy himself and feel free to go have some fun. But then Cas says, with a slow and thoughtful nod, "I hadn't really thought of it that way. But yes, I suppose it's getting serious."

All of a sudden Dean has a stomachache.

"We ever gonna get to meet this Erin?" says Sam. "Because we gotta give her the stamp of approval, you know."

Or Sam says something like that, at least. Dean didn't really hear the details because he's still hearing Cas saying, "I suppose it's getting serious. "

I'm going to see my friend Erin.

I suppose it's getting serious.

Dean forces himself to pretend he's interested by whatever it is that Sam just said. Actually what he really wants is to go somewhere very quiet, where he can sit down and think about the name "Erin" for a while, maybe just go lie down on his bed for an hour or two just to take in the fact that Castiel has an "Erin." But Dean knows he needs to join in with Sam on the brotherly-teasing, so Dean says, "Yeah, we definitely gotta check out the girlfriend!" He adds, doggedly, trying to make a joke out of it, "We gotta screen her. Silver and holy water, at least!"

"Yep, gotta make sure she's not a demon before you go and move in with her completely," says Sam.

Cas seems thrown by these comments. He's suddenly looking confused. He doesn't say anything for a moment, but just glances back and forth between Sam and Dean. Then he mutters, "I've got to go," fumbles his phone back in his pocket and turns to the side of the couch to get his bag. He almost trips over the blanket, which is still lying next to the couch by his feet, grabs the bag and walks, in something of a hurry, over to the door where his shoes are. Beyond that door is the library; beyond the library is the staircase to the outside world; and now Cas is saying "I'll see you both later," and he's changing out of the slippers into the shoes, and all of a sudden it's clear that Cas is truly about to leave. It's also clear that he's been driven away by the (fairly mild) teasing.

Sam's apparently just realized this too, for he drops the teasing entirely and calls out "Hey, Cas, seriously, have a good time," twisting around in his seat to try to catch Cas's eye before he gets out the door.

"Go get 'er, tiger," adds Dean, though the "tiger" phrase comes out maybe a little mechanically. "And play safe."

Cas has got the shoes on now, and he straightens up and pauses in the doorway, looking over at Dean with a distinctly uncertain look on his face.

"Play safe means condoms," Sam clarifies. "Seriously, dude. Every time. Don't take any risks."

At that point Dean remembers Cas's classic comment, a few years back, about how he'd used "protection" with that homicidal reaper chick — protection in the form of an angel-blade, that is. It'd been one of the Castiel All-Time Classics, one that Sam and Dean still laugh about from time to time, but it occurs to Dean now that Cas might still not understand how important all that stuff is. So, not to be outdone by Sam's advice, Dean says, "Wait, wait," digs out his wallet and actually manages to locate a spare condom. (He almost always has one stuffed in an inner flap of the wallet for emergencies.) It's a bit battered but the expiration date is still good, and it looks more or less intact, safe in its slightly-crumpled little wrapper. "Here ya go," says Dean, "A fifty-cent special. Don't say I never helped you out." He frisbees it at Cas through the air.

Cas is startled, but manages to catch it and then stares down at the condom in his hand looking totally bewildered, like he's never even seen one before. And maybe he never has? Cas now looks so confused that Dean feels a stab of worry. It's looking like Cas has, in fact, not been using condoms.

Could Cas be low enough on power that he might be susceptible to STDs now? Wait, does he even know about STDs? And... damn, what about good old-fashioned pregnancy? Cas must know the basics, but... has he at least had The Talk with the girlfriend? Or maybe she's on the pill or something?

Or... is she just being totally reckless?

What kind of girl is this Erin, anyway?

Scenarios start running through Dean's mind, each one worse than the one before. Is the girlfriend playing some I'm-gonna-get-pregnant-and-you're-gonna-have-to-support-me game? Is Dean going to have to give Cas the friggin' talk?

Or has Dean totally misread the situation? Maybe Cas looks so confused simply because he hasn't slept with this "Erin" yet? And if not... why the hell not? Cas has been making multi-week trips to Denver for a couple months now! Is Erin stringing him along or something?

Is she leading him on? Is she messed up? Or maybe she's super religious or just is one of those girls who needs some time, or...

Or... is she playing some kind of game?

Dean is standing there getting progressively more angry at the imaginary Erin in his mind when Cas finally glances back over at Dean. And now Cas just looks sad. And... fond, almost. Fond and worried. But somehow it's almost like it's Dean he's worried about, not himself at all.

Something about Cas's expression makes Dean drop all the teasing entirely, and before he knows it he's in dead-serious mode. "Take care of yourself," says Dean to Cas, as heartfelt and honest as if they're having another end-of-the-world, if-I-never-come-back moment.

There's a tiny pause. Sam and Cas are both looking at Dean now.

"Thank you," Cas says quietly to Dean, tucking the condom into the pocket of his frumpy Mr. Rogers slacks.

It's exactly like the thank-you that Cas said back when Dean gave him the whole you're-our-brother speech, just before the big Amara showdown. It's exactly like the thank-you that Cas said in Flagstaff, too. Like Cas doesn't really know what he wants to say. Or like there's so much to say that he can't say any of it, and he can only come up with just those two words.

Cas doesn't say anything else. He just turns and leaves.

 


 

"Maybe he isn't sleeping with her yet," Sam says, once Cas is gone. "Though god knows he's spent enough time with her." As Sam settles back in his chair, he looks up at Dean with a thoughtful look. There's an odd pause where Sam takes a couple short breaths, his eyes darting to Dean a couple times. It's as if he's considering, and discarding, several different things he could say to Dean.

What Sam finally says is, "We should be happy for him, you know."

"Of course," says Dean automatically. "Yeah. Of course I'm happy for him." He re-plays the phrase through his head a few times, trying to make it be true: I'm happy for Cas. Really I am. I'm happy for him.

I'm really truly happy for him.

Yet all Dean really feels is... well, that weird stomachache.

This sucks, because what the stomachache means is that Dean is actually an asshole, because Dean should be feeling happy for Cas. He should be genuinely happy for Cas. Especially after all the shit Cas has been through! After all those years of torment, all the hell, all the Rowena-spells and angel-battles and Lucifer-possession and all of it. God knows ("Chuck" knows, Dean corrects himself) that Cas deserves something good. He deserves a girlfriend who cooks for him, and helps him pick out clothes, and makes sure he wears a hat and a scarf and a sweater when it's cold. Cas deserves someone who notices that he isn't dressing warmly enough. And, thing is, Cas WASN'T dressing warmly enough, not at all, it's late fall now and it's literally freezing out and Cas has no power at all and the trenchcoat is nowhere near warm enough, and why the hell hadn't Dean noticed that earlier? Of course Cas needed something other than the trenchcoat, of course he needed a sweater and a vest and a scarf and hat, it's nearly friggin WINTER! How the hell did this goddam "Erin" notice that Cas was probably really cold when Dean hadn't?

Cas deserves someone who notices when he's cold.

Someone who keeps him warm.

Cas deserves someone who invites him to come over for long weekends, and whole weeks. Someone who maybe can give him a stable life. Maybe even a good life. Maybe even some sense of peace.

And maybe, just maybe, some love. Picket fence and everything.

Cas deserves this. He really does. Dean's happy for him.

Or at least, Dean tries to be.

 


 

Sam's muted the tv now and he's gazing up at the ceiling like he's still thinking about something. "Erin seems like she's probably nice, huh?" says Sam at last. "Takes care of him. Gave him that hat and all."

"The hat's terrible," Dean can't help saying, and Sam bursts out laughing.

"She has to have knitted that hat for him, Dean," says Sam. "Don't you think? The thing's obviously hand-made." Sam's even got a soft little smile now. "He has to wear it. If you really think about it... "He hesitates again, studying Dean a moment, and finally says, "It's sweet that he wears it all the time."

"It's terrible," Dean says, grumpily. "The scarf too. And that damn sweater. He wears them all the friggin' time and they're all horrible. The trenchcoat was better. Especially the original one."

Sam downs one last handful of popcorn and says around it, with a chuckle. "Did you get emotionally imprinted on that first trenchcoat or something? God knows you carried it around long enough."

It's supposed to be a joke, but Dean's suddenly acutely uncomfortable, and the stomachache feeling has gone much worse. He stands and grabs some of the leftover dinner plates that have gotten scattered around, and the extra burger that Cas didn't eat, and the half-full popcorn bowl too, and takes the whole precarious stack to the kitchen. He's hoping Sam will drop the whole topic and go away, and he's even thinking, Drop it, Sam, just drop it. But Sam trails Dean into the kitchen and leans against the tiled wall with his arms crossed, watching as Dean dumps Cas's uneaten burger in the trash.

"Cas is allowed to leave us, you know," Sam says, a little quietly. "I know you were looking for him all that time. I know that you've been wanting him to move in for... well, for years, really. But we gotta let him go."

"Well, obviously, " says Dean, who's now feeling incredibly crabby. "What are you even talking about?" The burger pan has some stuck-on crap on the bottom and is going to need a ton of scrubbing, so Dean concentrates on that. He reaches under the counter to grab one of the bunker's infinite stockpile of old steel-wool pads, the old Brillo kind that foams up with bright blue soap when they get wet. Dean starts scrubbing away so hard he almost sends a shower of blue suds over the edge of the sink.

"Didn't you say, back when we met Cesar and Jesse," Sam says. "... that if a hunter finally finds the finish line and gets out alive, we gotta respect that?"

Dean thinks of Cesar and Jesse, happy together on their horse ranch surrounded by hundreds of cute little fuzzy baby horses (every time Dean pictures Cesar and Jesse, there are more and more baby horses in the mental image) and something twists inside him. Something painful. He spins on Sam to say, "But what about this Erin?" Dean's waving the damp sudsy steel-wool pad for emphasis, and bits of blue soap start flying around. One almost hits Sam in the face; Dean barely notices as he demands, "Who is she? How'd they meet? Where? Did she ask him out? Did he ask her? How did this happen exactly? Is she really good for him, Sam?" Sam's watching him quietly as Dean goes on with, "I mean, does she deserve him? Cause she better deserve him! You know how he is, he can get taken advantage of. We don't know a thing about her! What if she IS actually a demon or something?"

"Cas is a grownup," Sam points out. "More than a grownup. You know that. And he's not an idiot. He'd know if she were a demon. And why would she be a demon, anyway?"

"Well, even if she isn't a demon," says Dean, frustrated at how logical Sam sounds, "what if she just isn't good for him? What if she, I don't know, doesn't respect him or something? Does she even know who he is, what he's done? She can't, right? I mean, does she know the sacrifices he's made, how important he is?"

Sam shrugs. "We gotta let him make his choices —"

"He let FRIGGIN LUCIFER WALK RIGHT IN!" yells Dean. "LUCIFER! He said yes to LUCIFER! HE LET LUCIFER TAKE HIM THE FUCK OVER!"

Sam blinks, and Dean goes on, still in a near-yell and waving both hands around, "And Cas was, I don't know, fucking STONED or something, the entire past year! Don't you remember that one time we got through to him, when Lucifer had him? Don't you even remember? He'd just CHECKED OUT, Sam, he'd GIVEN UP! He's been messed up for months, you know he has!" More blue suds seem to be flying around the room now, but Dean doesn't notice at all as he draws a big breath to add, "Not to mention, THE FIRST GIRL HE EVER SLEPT WITH STABBED HIM TO DEATH! The next time after that, that date he tried to do in Idaho, he almost got killed then too! He ended up with a BROKEN ARM!"

"Broken wrist," corrects Sam, mildly.

"The POINT is, he doesn't exactly have a good track record here, Sam!"

Sam frowns. "You really think any girl who's into Cas must be secretly trying to kill him? Couldn't she just be, y'know... a normal girl? Maybe she just likes him?"

Sam's got a point, but Dean blasts past it with "But even if she's just a normal girl, what if this Erin chick is just plain totally taking advantage of him? How would he even RECOGNIZE that kind of thing? How would he even KNOW? How would WE even know? Even if she's just a normal girl, she could be.... she could be trying to get pregnant! Or... she could be just manipulating him! Like, like, not even letting him get any!" Sam frowns at that, and Dean adds hastily, "Which, like, not that she has to, but, you know what I mean, is she good to him? Does she care about him? We don't know! Or, she could be... taking all his money or something, and walking all over him, or what if she's just... mean to him? Would he just let her do what-the-hell-ever to him, like he did with Lucifer? Would he even know there's an alternative? Does he even know what a relationship is supposed to be?!"

"You say that like either of us know any better," says Sam quietly.

Dean looks at him.

Sam says "We don't exactly have the best track records either, you know. Neither of us."

Dean looks at him for a long moment, and Dean thinks, Amara.

And, Ruby, of course, on Sam's side.

There've been other mistakes too... other bad calls.

In fact it's been probably ninety-nine percent bad calls, hasn't it?

Just like that, all the wind is gone from Dean's sails. He turns back to the pan with a sigh, chucking the Brillo pad back into the sudsy water. It lands with a cheery plop and Dean watches it sink.

"Dean, you don't have any reason to think this Erin is bad," points out Sam. "You're getting all paranoid about nothing. All we know is, she knitted him a hat and she makes him meals. Those are not bad things."

"I'm just worried about him," Dean says to the burger pan, unable to look at Sam. I'm just worried about him. It isn't quite true, it's not quite what's going on and Dean knows it, but it's close. "It's just... we don't know a thing about this Erin."

Dean glances up at Sam only to find that Sam's looking at him a little funny now, like a thought has struck him.

"Dean... you're not... you're not... jealous, are you?" Sam says, very slowly.

"What? No, of course not," Dean snaps. He turns back to the pot, plunges a hand into the water to grab the steel-wool pad and starts scrubbing again. "Don't be ridiculous. I'm just a little worried, that's all." But now that Sam's said it, the word jealous, jealous, jealous starts ringing in Dean's head. Sam's nailed it; that's exactly what this feeling is, this sick feeling in the pit of Dean's stomach. An unsettled, bereft feeling that's been there, off and on, for entire weeks now, actually. Ever since Cas started leaving.

It's like Dean has lost something he'd always thought he could count on.

Like an option that he'd had tucked away that he'd never used. An option he'd never even planned to use, really, but that he'd assumed would always be there, and that suddenly had been snatched away. An ace he'd had safely tucked up his sleeve, and... suddenly it's gone.

It's a strange feeling. Like losing something he'd never even had. Of missing a chance that he hadn't even known he wanted.

Dean closes his eyes, hands clenching on the rim of the sink. Jealous, he thinks. I'm jealous.

"It's not too late for you, you know," says Sam, and Dean is struck dumb by this statement. Dean stares down at the sudsy pan with his mouth dry. What is Sam saying? Dean can't even pretend he's cleaning the pan any more; he can't even seem to move his hands; because — what is Sam saying?

Then Sam adds, "Maybe it's not too late for me either?" Dean slowly turns his head to look at him, completely confused now, but Sam's just staring at the floor, and he looks kind of introspective. Sam gives a sad little shrug and says, "Maybe one of us will find a girl too? Some kind of partner... someday? Somehow." Sam glances back up at Dean. "I know you always write off that idea, but it's not impossible, you know."

"Right," says Dean. It takes a huge effort to keep his face neutral. He turns back to the pot. "It's not impossible."

A girl. Right. How he's been feeling about Cas is just jealousy about having a girlfriend. Right. Cas has a girl, and Dean just wants a girl too. Right. Of course that's what Sam meant; of course that's all that could be going on.

A few seconds tick by. Dean starts scrubbing the pan like a maniac again, and Sam's gone very quiet. When Dean checks Sam out of the corner of his eye he discovers Sam is watching him closely now. Drop it, Sam, just drop it, he thinks.

"He's still family," Sam says.

"I know," says Dean. Drop it, Sam, please.

"Doesn't matter where he lives or who he's with. He'll always be family. He'll always come if you need him."

"I know."

"You're going to scrub a hole in that poor pan. What did it ever do to you? C'mon, rinse the damn thing already and I'll get you a beer."

And just like that Sam drops the topic entirely.

 


 

 

A/N - Aw, poor Dean....

I hope to be able to keep writing regularly after this. Though btw, on Wednesday I fly to Brazil for an actual vacation (wooo!) before I move cross-country. (A vacation... hard to believe.) I will keep the fic going while I'm there, but I'm not sure of my email access, so if a chapter isn't posted on the usual Friday just keep checking on days following.

And thanks so much for all your positive feedback on this fic - I never got a spare second to respond in the last couple weeks but I read every comment. This fic is such a small-scale, intimate emotional character study that when it started off I didn't know if it would make sense, or be interesting, to anybody else but me. It's such a quiet, subtle little situation, yet still so painful for Dean nonetheless; a true tragedy for him, even. I didn't know if that would come across - so I'm really happy to hear it seems to be working.

Hope it's still working with this chapter too. Let me know what you think.

Thanks for reading my story!

 

Chapter Text

Erin soon takes form in Dean's imagination as a somewhat hypothetical, slender, vaguely attractive brunette, maybe in her thirties or so. Dean pictures her with a nice smile... though she's probably a little serious. She'd have to be serious, wouldn't she? To go out with a guy like Cas? Because Cas is kind of serious. And Cas a bit of an odd duck, really. In a good way of course, but definitely a little different. After all, he's a different species and he's a million years old, just for starters, so it seems like Erin might have to be a bit of an odd duck herself. Maybe she's kind of a nerd, or a little shy?

Probably she's a little conservative, too. Erin must not have been looking for a bad-boy edgy type or anything, in fact, since she'd apparently first hooked up with Cas a few months ago, which was back when he'd been wearing either his Gas-n-Sip blue vest or his unexciting Lesser Trenchcoat outfit. Apparently Erin is someone who doesn't really care all that much what a guy wears. In fact, Erin's someone who is happy to go out with a guy who works at a Gas-n-Sip.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. So maybe she's a bit serious, a bit conventional, maybe she doesn't care if her partners have ambitious careers or not, but that also means that Erin might be someone who cares more about who a person is, and not what they're wearing or what job they have.

That's a good sign.

Erin's probably nice. She's got to be nice.

She'd better be nice. (Or else.)

 


 

The Erin thoughts won't stop, and Dean doesn't sleep well that week. On a few evenings he tries killing time by watching a little porn, but can't seem to really get into it the way he used to. Next he tries watching late-night movies on his laptop, but nothing really holds his interest. The night after that he ends up staying in the TV room after Sam's gone to bed, trying to lull himself into a stupor with an endless marathon of the original Star Trek. It's a great lineup of classic old episodes, but Dean's mind keeps wandering.

Specifically, his mind keeps wandering over to how it's going for Cas and Erin. How it's going emotionally. How it's going physically.

How it's going right now.

Then Dean finds himself thinking, Maybe they're going at it right now. Right this very second.

It's unsettling to feel his thoughts floating in this direction, for it feels like something Dean's really not supposed to be thinking about. Yet he can't seem to control it; thoughts about Cas and Erin's love life, or lack thereof, have started to surface constantly, unbidden. And always accompanied by an almost queasy feeling of worry. It's actually bugging him a little — okay, maybe more than a little — that he's not totally sure if Cas and Erin are sleeping together yet.

Dean eventually gives up on the Star Trek and heads to bed. (Sam crashed a while ago. It's been a slow week, with no cases on the radar.) But Dean still can't sleep, and he lies in bed gazing at the ceiling in the dark.

He could just ask Cas, of course — ask about if Cas and Erin are sleeping together — but given how skittish Cas seems to be about the whole thing, that doesn't seem like the best approach. Cas is probably not going to appreciate Dean calling him up and saying, "So, I was just checking up to see if you and Erin are planning on sleeping together tonight? Just curious, that's all! Just checking in to see if you need The Talk!""

They must be sleeping together, Dean thinks. It's normal for him to have a girlfriend, and normal for him to make out with her and sleep with her. It's normal. It's good. He's pushing these thoughts at himself very deliberately, forcing himself to look at the idea head-on, trying to get used to it.

Even if they're not sleeping together yet, they must at least be making out a lot, right? They pretty much have to be by now.

At this point a vivid image springs into Dean's mind, as he lies there in bed staring at the ceiling, of Castiel making out with Erin-the-vaguely-attractive-brunette. In Dean's mental image, Cas's hands are stroking through Erin's hair, and Cas is kissing her; first tentatively, then more and more passionately. Till Castiel's almost curling around her, both hands on the sides of her face, kissing hungrily, like he's trying to make up for a million years of celibacy all at once. Maybe Cas would start sliding a hand up her shirt... feel her up a little... losing himself completely in the "hedonism," as Cas had put it once....

Dean sits up and flicks on the bedside light just to make the image go away.

He checks the time. It's midnight. A shot of whiskey or two would be just the ticket right now, wouldn't it? Whiskey's really the best approach for dealing with a bout of midnight insomnia, isn't it? Dean swings his feet out of bed and pads down the hall to grab the whiskey bottle from the library, and a glass. It takes several shots of whiskey in the end, and a couple sleeping pills too, but at last Dean manages to get to sleep.

 


 

The next evening, as Sam and Dean settle down on the sofa to watch some old comedies, Dean suddenly becomes convinced that Cas and Erin are also sitting on a sofa somewhere, right now, watching some show of their own. Sam starts the movie and Dean gazes at the screen sightlessly as the Cas-and-Erin scene shapes up in his mind: Cas and Erin have probably just finished dinner. They're probably on Erin's couch, in Erin's apartment, which, it seems clear now, is somewhere in Denver. ("Shopping in Denver." Right.) Dean can't help adding details to his mental movie stage-set: Probably Erin's got a small apartment, not expensively furnished, probably just Ikea stuff or something, but it'll be comfortable; Ikea couches aren't bad, after all, and maybe there's some of the winter sunset light still slanting in through the windows. There's probably a line of houseplants on the windowsills (girls always have plants) and some art on the walls (girls always have art) and one of those red mixer things in the kitchen (girls always have that red mixer thing). And Cas and Erin are probably sitting on Erin's sofa watching Sense8 on Netflix, watching those orgy scenes together maybe, and... Cas maybe has an arm comfortably over her shoulders. ...

Or maybe he's running his hand through Erin's hair. Maybe they're not paying much attention to Sense8 anymore. Maybe Cas is leaning in to kiss her.

Dean sits there staring blankly at the TV, trying to make himself get used to this image. After all, he's gonna have to get used to it. Someday he's going to meet this Erin, and Cas is going to kiss her right in front of Dean, and Dean has to be okay with it. Dean even wants to be okay with it, for Cas's sake.

Or maybe Erin would be the one initiating the kiss? Is she the bolder one? Cause Cas has probably been a little awkward and hesitant at first, right? Or... who knows, maybe he's bold, maybe he's diving right in, maybe he's taking to it like a fish to water. But he'll be a little clumsy. He has to be, he's still pretty new at all this, and even though they've been going out for a couple months now it's got to still be kind of new for him. Erin's probably nice about it, though. She'll be sweet, she'll guide his hands... she'll help him through it. So... probably it's working out... in fact, Cas and Erin must have gotten beyond kissing by now. They're probably moving on to... other things...

"You okay?" says Sam.

Dean jumps, realizing he's hanging on to one of the sofa pillows so hard that his knuckles have gone white. He's practically gouged holes into the pillow.

"Yeah," says Dean, forcing himself to loosen his fingers. He'd like to set the pillow aside, but then realizes, to his surprise, that he's actually got a bit of a hard-on. Not full-blown, nothing that Sam would notice. But still. What the hell. "It's just..." says Dean, clearing his throat, "... the scene kind of got to me."

Sam frowns at him. "You do realize we're watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail?"

Dean blinks at the screen. Indeed it seems to be Monty Python. "Yeah, but, you know," he says. "That whole thing with the coconuts and the swallows... it's kind of sad when you think about it. Isn't it?"

Sam just gives him a very confused look, and Dean says, "I'll go make the popcorn." As soon as Sam turns his attention back to the screen Dean scampers out of the room. The half-hard-on has pretty much vanished by now anyway, wilting away in the flood of confusion that's running through Dean now, but Dean takes some pains to keep his back to Sam nonetheless.

 


 

Dean finds a popcorn bag, sets the microwave timer for three minutes and then stands there staring at the rotating popcorn bag for the entire time. The timer counts down silently, the popcorn starts popping, the bag starts inflating, and all the while Dean thinks.

Sam was right, he thinks to himself. I'm jealous. And also turned on, apparently.

What's really going on here?

This obsession with picturing Cas and Erin has gotten out of control. And, though Dean knows he can ignore a lot of things about himself when he needs to, a genuine hard-on (even if not full-blown) is kind of difficult to ignore. Granted, it had happened when Dean was picturing Erin-the-brunette rolling around naked on the bed.

Okay... Erin-the-brunette and Castiel rolling around naked on the bed. And if Dean's totally honest with himself, it's not the first time this has happened, either. There've been a few other moments, in the past. A few other times when a strange thrill of interest had gone twining through him, when he'd glanced over at Cas, in any one of the thousand strange settings they'd found themselves in. Cas in Purgatory, scruffy and dirty; Cas handing him the blade, in Heaven's green room; Cas's tousled hair, back in the barn when it had all started; Cas staring him down in a hundred different places, his blue eyes boring into Dean like lasers. Cas gazing at him just a few months ago, lunging at Dean with that sudden hug. Saying "I could go with you."

It had been faint at times, that twist of interest in his gut, like a small bell ringing in the distance, but...

But it had been there.

And, thing is, Dean's not dumb, and he's not completely oblivious. (Just mostly oblivious, he thinks.) Despite his considerable skill at suppressing various uncomfortable feelings —a talent he's honed over many years — he's never really been one to hide from sexual thoughts, and he's aware now of the obvious possibility: has he gotten stuck on Cas somehow?

Have I fallen for Cas? he wonders.

Am I gay or something?

There's something close to the truth, maybe, in the first question. But the second question, the one about maybe being gay, really doesn't seem to fit. Dean's been around the block on this before in his life, after all. Sure, there's been a bit of experimenting now and then. There's possibly been a few moments in Dean's past that arguably could be categorized, by someone who didn't know Dean very well, as having the faintest tiniest hint of possible gay leanings, like for example the Dr. Sexy sort-of-a-crush thing and, oh yeah, there'd been that orgy with the male twins and Crowley that one time. And maybe a few other experiments as well. So, maybe there was just the tiniest hint of possibly being not one-thousand-percent straight.

But nevertheless Dean actually feels sure he's not gay. It's a conviction that has a solidity to it, a clarity, a weight of truth in his mind, that makes him certain he's right. He's actually truly not gay -- and not just hiding from it, that is.

Because, thing is, the draw he feels toward girls is genuine, and really is strong. Much stronger than those faint flickers that occur now and then with certain guys. The thing with Lisa was definitely real; and the thing before that with Cassie (Cassie... now, how is it that the first girl Dean ever got really serious about had a name so freakishly similar to Cas's?) That was real too. Those relationships were real, and the flings he has with bar chicks now and then are real too, and... well, just the way his eyes are always drawn to the female form. Male-twin-orgy aside, Dr. Sexy crush aside, the pattern is actually pretty clear: Dean's sexual desires have really truly been ninety-nine percent focused on women. Dean's simply not into guys.

Well, not into most guys.

There's still that one percent, isn't there?

And Cas has always been in a different category, hasn't he? Cas has always been in an entirely unique category. In all kinds of ways.

And one part at least is coming very clear:

I wanted him to just be MY angel, Dean thinks. I didn't want to share him.

It's all a moot point anyway. Since apparently he's straight.

The microwave bell rings. Dean sighs, and gets the popcorn bowl.

 


 

Later, after Sam has gone to bed, Dean gets into a little battle with himself about whether or not he should contact Cas simply to try to figure out if Cas is with Erin right now. A text, maybe? Or a phone call? Something like, "Hey, you with Erin right now?"

This is clearly a bad idea, and Dean decides against it. But it takes several shots of whiskey to fortify the decision.

Dean's very relieved a half hour later when a wave of sleepiness at last hits, for he knows then that he's finally going to be able to get to sleep without making some totally dumb-ass move like calling Cas about Erin and completely spooking him in the process. Pleased with this outcome, Dean is fumbling his way under the covers when he discovers he's grabbed his phone, just in order to give Cas a quick call to explain about how Dean's not going to call him. In the whiskey-fueled haze of sleepiness this plan actually seems to make sense, so he fumbles his way to the Favorites list and stabs Cas's number.

Despite the late hour (it's past midnight), Cas actually answers, with a sleepy-sounding, "Dean! Hello... Hello. How are you? How are you, Dean?"

Cas sounds like he's really only half awake, but Dean starts right in and announces: ""I'm just calling you to let you know that I'm not gonna call you." (He has to concentrate on enunciating each word, and feels rather pleased with how well the words came out. Hardly any slurring at all.)

"Uh-huh," says Cas.

"I'm not drunk, either." Dean pauses, and adds, in a spirit of honesty and openness, "Not very drunk."

"So you're drunk," says Cas.

"Yes," says Dean. "I'm drunk-dialing you."

"Okay," says Cas, apparently unfazed.

"I mean, about Erin," Dean says, who's now struggling to understand the logic of what he's saying. The whole idea of this phone call had all made total sense in his mind just moments ago, but already it's starting to seem more confusing than he was prepared for, so Dean starts over with, "See... I was gonna call and ask more details, about Erin, and see if you need The Talk, but I, I, I won't. Cause I respect your privacy. See?"

"The Talk?" says Cas. "What talk? Which talk? I don't need... The Talk?" He sounds fascinated by the concept. There's something a little odd about his speech; he's talking more slowly than usual, almost drawling as he drags out the phrases. "What if... Dean, what if I DO need The Talk? What if it explains everything?"

"You want The Talk?"

"I do. I want... The Talk," says Cas, as if Dean's about to tell him all the secrets of the universe. "I always want The Talk."

"Okay," says Dean, now vaguely aware that Castiel is not really sounding normal, but Cas wants The Talk so Dean takes a breath and dives in. Dean starts off with, "So the condom is like your angel-blade, you always carry one, but it should have, you know, room at the tip, and, you unroll it, just like... just like on a banana, if your dick were a banana, when your dick's hard I mean, you gotta get it hard first, cause, you don't want babies, right? Or... " What was the other reason for condoms again? "Chlamydia," says Dean.

He can't think of anything else to add.

"That about covers it," says Dean.

"Cool," says Cas.

"Awesome," says Dean, nodding in agreement. (Wait, did Castiel just say "cool?") "So you hanging out with Erin? You guys making out or anything? Like, right now?"

"Erin's working," says Cas.

"What, now?"

"Erin works late sometimes," says Cas.

Dean's very pleased to realize that he's got Cas all to himself. Though then he can't think what to say, and finally asks "So... if you're not making out with Erin, what are you doing then?"

Cas says, "I'm just holding time together."

"You... what?"

"Holding the seconds together. They keep coming apart. I have to keep them lined up in a row. Dean... is The Talk still happening? Is this still The Talk? Or is this a memory of The Talk?" Castiel sounds like he's had a sudden revelation as he adds, "Or wait. This is all a memory of a dream of The Talk, isn't it? It's not really happening, is it? Or.. is it? Did this already happen?"

"Uh," says Dean. "I'm not sure." A thought is dawning. "Cas, are you drunk?"

"No, you're drunk," says Cas.

"Right..." says Dean, thoroughly confused now. "I just wanted to be sure you understood about condoms."

"You told me," Cas informs him. "You told me my penis was a banana. In my dream. Just now. When I was dreaming."

"You were... dreaming?" Dean repeats, slowly. There's something familiar about how Cas is talking.

"I dream and I look at the stars," Cas says. "They're all lined up in a row, and I'm in the row too. We drink and look at the stars together. For hours, Dean. I wish you were here too."

It comes to Dean then, where he's heard Cas sound like this before. This same mix of oddly lazy-sounding speech with the occasional revelations and inspired tangents. Once before Cas had sounded like that. Once, in the future.

"Cas, are you... stoned?" asks Dean.

A slow, throaty chuckle then. "Yes," says Cas. "Erin showed me that too. Erin's showed me so many things, Dean... Erin's... so helpful. So kind...."

Dean's suddenly hating Erin again.

"Erin got a last name?" he asks, already planning a little secretive googling.

"Klein," says Cas, willingly enough, though he adds, "But don't bother checking up, Erin's no demon. I already investigated. You know, it's similar to time travel," he adds. "Being stoned, I mean. The minutes get all out of order. Remember when I got lost in time finding my way back to you? I never told you, I went back farther, accidentally. You're so cute when you're six! Of course, you're cute later too. But Dean, what really matters is, are you happy? It's much more important than anything else. I... understand that now. I understand so many things now, Dean."

"You're definitely stoned," Dean says.

"You're definitely drunk," Cas points out.

"Yeah, but that's legal!"

"This is legal too."

"Oh, shit, you're in Denver," Dean says, one last piece finally clicking into place. Denver, in Colorado... Colorado, the first US state to fully legalize marijuana.

"Mile-High City," says Cas with another slow rumbly chuckle, and as Dean's thinking It should be illegal to have that sultry a chuckle, Cas adds, "Dean, I should go, I'm supposed to call Erin. I'll see you in December. But... call me anytime, Dean. Anytime you want to talk about my penis again, you can call right back."

 


 

Dean's feeling far too mortified the next day to call Cas back. He's not even sure he's remembering the whole conversation, and he's hoping like hell that Cas won't remember a single second of it. All he mentions to Sam is that he and Cas "talked a bit," and Cas is "good"... and that Erin's last name is Klein. Dean's feeling too off balance now about the whole Erin thing to do the previously-planned googling, but Sam says he'll check her out.

Meanwhile Dean's image of Erin, and her apartment, starts shifting a little. Now her apartment is furnished (in Dean's mind) mostly with thrift-store chic, and it's cluttered with bongs, and her previously tight-laced conservatism has shifted to a stoner's slacker acceptance. Dean's feeling a lot more skeptical about Erin now, in fact. He really doesn't like the idea of Cas being stoned, of Cas falling in with some group of Denver hippies and sliding away, down into a free-fall into nihilistic hedonism, just as future-Cas had once done. (However, Dean's also aware that his own borderline-alcoholism is probably something very similar, so who's he to complain?) Though at least Erin still seems to be after Cas about "eating healthy". She's probably one of those Whole Foods hippies, Dean concludes. She probably does have the red mixer thing, but uses it to make pot brownies. I better warn Cas about edibles.

Cas-and-Erin mental movies keep springing to mind every day, now set in a picturesque Whole-Foods-hippie apartment complete with batik wall hangings and dozens of beaded throw pillows. Dean even starts mapping out their probable weekly routine. He wakes on a Monday morning and Cas still isn't back and he thinks, Cas must be waking next to Erin around now. Cas probably wakes up next to her every morning. They probably usually have breakfast together and then she goes to work (as... somebody who works late "sometimes". A waitress? a bartender? Maybe a grad student?) Meanwhile, Cas puts his blue vest on and drives back across the Kansas border to the Gas-n-Sip.

On Sunday Dean and Sam go grab pancakes in a diner together, and Dean thinks, Cas and Erin are probably getting brunch now. Brunch is the classic couple's thing, right? She's probably making Sunday brunch for him. Maybe healthy whole-wheat pancakes or something? Covered with that Greek yogurt stuff and Whole Foods organic honey? (Cas had always liked Dean's pancakes, before he went all healthy.) Dean wonders if Erin can make a good burger, too. Cas used to love Dean's burgers.

Used to.

 


 

By Sunday afternoon Dean is itching with restlessness. He can't shake the images of Cas happily eating Erin's whole-wheat hippie pancakes, probably in between by bouts of Sunday-morning sex, so Dean starts pacing around the bunker looking for things to do to get his mind onto something else. Soon the Impala's been washed and detailed, all the guns have been cleaned and oiled, and the bunker's spotless. Dean's run out of things to do, and he keeps walking around looking for more chores.

"Feels strange, doesn't it," says Sam, as Dean comes stalking back through the library on about his sixth circuit around the bunker.

"What?" says Dean.

"World's not ending," says Sam, leaning back from his laptop. "No cases. Cas is fine. Everything's fine. Nothing to do but sit here and twiddle our thumbs."

Dean lets out a heavy sigh. "It's driving me crazy."

"You could always go to Denver," says Sam.

Dean glares at him.

"I'm serious," says Sam. "You wanted to check out the girlfriend. You're climbing the walls about it, you know. So go check out the girlfriend. I still think you're being paranoid, but, thing is... I was thinking the other night about what you said, and, you may be right that Cas doesn't tend to have good luck. Might be worth at least a subtle holy-water check."

Dean snorts. "Just, bump into her and accidentally spill a vial of holy water on her? And drop some salt in her hair and stab her a little bit with a silver blade?"

Sam laughs and says, "Just tell her you're clumsy." But then he goes serious and adds, "Seriously though, go and check." He sounds a little worried, and Dean looks at him. Sam hesitates and finally adds, "Well, look, here's the thing. I can't find her online at all."

"What do you mean?" says Dean, frowning.

"I googled her. Erin Klein, in Denver. I've been working on it a couple days, actually." Sam turns his laptop toward Dean, and Dean leans closer to take a look. "See?" says Sam. "There's only two Erin Kleins in Denver that I can find any track of, and one's four years old and the other's seventy-eight. Somehow I'm doubting Cas is going out with either of them."

"Not everybody's online," says Dean.

Sam says, "Most people at least have something online. I tried different spellings of Klein, too, and I tried all the Denver suburbs — that's what's been taking me a few days. I was thinking we should just ask him about her, but...." Sam hesitates, worry clear on his face. Then he says, a little uncertain, "Maybe you could take a pass through his room? Just see if you can find an address for this Erin, or a place of employment or something? Just a little more info. Probably she's legit, but I'd feel better if I knew for sure."

Dean gives him a businesslike nod, trying to hide the stir of emotions that are suddenly roiling inside him: worry and concern for Cas; sharp suspicion for Erin; and an almost shameful sense of hope. It's a little disconcerting how much he's cheered up by the thought that Cas's girlfriend might, in fact, be up to no good.

Dean decides he might as well bring the whiskey bottle with him to Cas's room. And the glass.

 


 

A minute later Dean's walking down the hall past Sam's room, and gently nudging Cas's bedroom door open. He flicks the light on and stands in the doorway looking around. It's a simple room, not much decoration. Bed, dresser, desk, chair. The closet door's ajar, the Lesser Trenchcoat just visible in the back, where it's been hanging quietly for a while now.

Dean feels a little guilty being in here. This was supposed to be Cas's private sanctum, a room that Dean had promised would always be Cas's, and now Dean's snooping. It doesn't feel right.

But Erin Klein is not online. Sam can't find her online. Something's wrong.

Dean takes a step inside and starts looking around more closely. His eyes linger on the bed for a moment; Cas has left it neatly made up. Dean remembers, then, how Cas had looked back when he'd been curled up in the motel bed in Flagstaff, the bedclothes all in disarray around him, clutching a pillow to himself, fast asleep. Now that he's got Erin, does he wrap his arms around her instead?

Does Cas have his arms wrapped around her right now?

Dean sighs and turns away, mostly just to stop looking at the bed. There's a little calendar pinned to the wall above Cas's desk, and when Dean takes a quick glance at it, he finds that Cas has drawn lines through the weeks when he'll be away. The lines are even marked carefully with the word "DENVER." It's November now, and there are lines through the entire rest of the month. Oh, right; Cas had even said "I'll see you in December." He'll be gone the rest of November.

There's a line straight through this week, of course.

Which, Dean now realizes, as he peers more closely at the calendar, is actually Thanksgiving week. Today's Sunday; Thanksgiving turns out to be this Thursday.

Somehow Dean had totally forgotten that Thanksgiving is coming up. He and Sam have never been big on the family holidays, of course, but only now does Dean put together that Cas must be planning to spend Thanksgiving with Erin. Probably meeting her family or something.

Cas is going to spend Thanksgiving with another family.

Dean manages to force himself to think, Good for Cas. Good for Cas. I'm happy for him. Really I am. But the stomachache is back.

A glass of whiskey later, the stomachache has only gotten worse. Soon all Dean can seem to do is slouch on Cas's chair, bottle in one hand and glass in the other, as he gazes at Cas's empty bed.

He's probably with her right now, Dean thinks, as he refills his glass. Another of those vivid mental images suddenly flares to life uncontrollably in his mind, this one embarrassingly explicit: Cas naked, sprawled on top of Erin-the-vaguely-attractive-brunette, her legs wrapped around him, Cas moving slowly against her, inside her — slowly at first, then faster —

Dean lurches to his feet and turns to the dresser, draining the rest of the glass in one long swallow.

There's surprisingly few clothes in the dresser; presumably Cas has taken his favorites to Erin's. All Dean finds are a few t-shirts (several of which, it turns out, are actually Dean's — he's been missing them and had wondered where they'd gotten to), a stack of clean underwear, and a pile of warm wool socks (these look suspiciously new, and Dean's certain they're from Erin).

Dean chuckles when he finds some Rogaine tucked in the back behind the underwear, and then snorts with laughter to find some Preparation H next to that (hemorrhoid cream? Seriously?) along with some Gas-X pills for excess gas, and antacids for heartburn, and... Dean's not trying to snoop this deeply, really he's not, but (...but Erin's not online...what if Cas is in trouble...) — but he'd just pulled out a dresser drawer and there it all is in a heap. Even some stomach-ulcer medication, and headache pills, and an enormous amount of hand lotion, and eyedrops and sleeping pills, piles of Kleenex and a huge assortment of vitamins and — well, practically a whole pharmacy. As Dean glances over it all he realizes that Cas must have bought just about every single item that can be purchased over the counter at the local Walgreen's — looks like one of everything, just about, all jumbled together. This is all hilarious, of course. Apparently Castiel has had (or has simply worried about having) all sorts of embarrassingly human afflictions that he hasn't told Dean or Sam about. (The hand lotion and Kleenex have some pretty interesting connotations as well.) It's sweet, actually, to think of Castiel fumbling his way through all these strange details of having a human vessel — a vessel that must be some forty-plus years old by now, Dean realizes, with a start.

Is Cas aging? Dean thinks, with surprise. He thinks about that for a second, jolted by the thought that Castiel might age and die someday. And that Cas might be worrying about it. Or trying to prepare for it, apparently.

Then he thinks, Well, I'm aging too. We'll go down together.

It's actually a rather comforting thought.

 


 

Dean is still chuckling over Cas's miniature pharmacy as he moves on to the bottom drawer of the dresser. Where he's totally startled to find a box of artist's charcoals and about a million colored pencils in every shade of the rainbow, jammed in next to a huge jumbled stack of sketches.

Cas has been doing drawings.

There must be over a hundred of them. Dean's never seen him do any of this. The sketches are all jumbled in the drawer willy-nilly, a huge messy pile of them, not in a neat stack at all but more like Cas just flings them in there carelessly whenever he finishes one. Dean pulls the chair over to the dresser drawer and starts flipping through one side of the pile, puzzled and fascinated. In fact, he's so confused by the sketches at first that it takes him several moments to realize they're really Cas's, and by then he's so engrossed in looking through them that he entirely forgets that this might not be for public viewing.

He picks up a handful. A lot of them are nature sketches — the landscape around the bunker, detailed studies of trees, sketches of the wildflowers that grow in the fields around here. There's one of a deer, its head up, looking at Cas in the fog. He's got its ears and its large eyes perfectly. There's one of a blue jay hopping around on the ground. There's a close-up of a bumblebee on a daisy.

They're good.

They're wonderful.

Dean's smiling without even realizing it, muttering, "Damn, Cas, you're good at this." And he wonders, does Erin even know he likes bees?

Dean comes to a sketch of himself and Sam.

They're seated at the library table. Sam's bending over a book, his hair falling over his eyes. Dean's tipped back in his chair looking up at the ceiling, with his legs stretched out and his feet up on the table, one foot crossed over the other.

It's done in fuzzy strokes, the light of the library lamps bathing the whole scene in shades of gold.

It's beautifully done.

There's another of Dean in the Impala, drawn from the vantage point of the passenger seat. With a start, Dean recognizes the shirt he's wearing; it's the day of the Amara showdown. It's the time he'd taken Cas out on that last drive, to give him the you're-our-brother speech.

Dean's certain Cas never took a photo during that drive, so Cas must have done this sketch from memory, and it's astonishing how well he's captured it. The Impala windows and roof are almost impressionistic, just contours and shading, and the trees outside are just a blur, but Dean's face is very carefully drawn, each line precise. In the drawing Dean looks worn and tired, with a grim expression that's highlighted by a beam of light that's slanting diagonally down through the windshield and falling across Dean's face. Half Dean's face is in shadow, half in light. It's eerie, and beautiful, and very sad.

Dean's a little unsettled now, and he tries to put the whole handful of sketches back in the drawer, exactly in their original positions. But the next one in the drawer catches his eye; it's of Dean sitting by a lake. Probably from that dream Cas had visited, years ago.

The one under that is of Dean in Purgatory, filthy and muddy and in mid-stride toward Cas, with a big relieved smile on his face. Dean's pretty sure he knows what moment that was.

There's several of Sam, just as carefully drawn. Sam sitting on the Impala hood. Sam sprinting around the corner of some warehouse, gun in hand. Sam sitting by a fire gazing into the flames.

But more of the drawings are of Dean. 

There's an aerial view of the Impala. Somehow Dean's sure that it must be something Cas saw in flight. Back when Cas could fly, that is.

Then Dean comes to a study of a wing as seen from kind of a weird angle, as if looking over a bird's shoulder in mid-flight. The perspective must have been difficult to draw but it's perfect, the feathers slanting away from the viewer. Dean studies it for a long moment and finally realizes that it must be Cas's wing. It's an angle that Castiel must have seen a million times — whenever he'd glanced over his shoulder at his own wing. Spookily, though, the wing's on fire. The outer half is aflame, and even a lot of the inner feathers are smoking at the tips. One of the feathers seems to be falling out; it's floating loose, falling away from the wing. Far in the distance is another feather that's been totally lost, tumbling away in the wind, and it's completely aflame.

Dean swallows. He goes to the next sketch beneath that, which turns out to be a close-up detailed sketch of a small black feather. And right there on top of it, sitting right on the sketch of the feather, is the actual feather itself, a little black thing just four inches long. He picks it up, puzzled, and looks at it for a moment, and then he realizes what he's holding. This is Cas's feather. Dean's absolutely certain. This is Cas's feather, one lone feather that Cas must have managed to save somehow from his ruined wings.

Dean's really rattled now. It suddenly comes to him that he's stumbled across something intensely private, and that what he's been doing here is unforgivable. Rummaging through Cas's private possessions like this, in the room that Dean himself had sworn to Cas was Cas's room and Cas's alone — it's unforgivable.

And also he's certain that if he keeps going through the sketches, he'll start finding ones of Erin, and Dean knows already that he's not going to be able to handle that.

He sets the feather down exactly where it had been; then he gently lets all the other sketches slide back down on top of it, and he shuts the drawer.

Then he sits on the edge of Cas's bed for a few minutes, unsure what to do.

I should just call him and ask about Erin, he thinks. I should just talk to him. Tell him Sam couldn't find her online. Tell him to be careful.

Tell him I really do hope he's happy.

Dean takes his phone out. There are only two numbers in Dean's favorites list, Sam's and Cas's. (Crowley, annoyingly, still turns up in the "Recent" list, but Dean refuses to put him in "Favorites").

He taps Cas's number.

It goes straight to voicemail. Cas's phone is off. Dean hangs up without leaving a message.

He's with Erin, Dean thinks, and he sighs, glancing up at the calendar on the wall.

And then Dean has a thought.

He stands, slowly, and goes over to the wall and pulls the calendar off its little nail. Sitting at the desk, Dean starts flipping to different months.

He flips forward first, to December. Where Dean discovers that Cas has another long trip to Denver planned next month. Three entire weeks.

Including Christmas. The three weeks runs right to December 28th.

"Getting serious," Dean mutters. It looks like Cas is practically moving in with Erin.

On December 31, there's a big question mark in a circle, and Dean knows this must be about whether or not Cas'll be spending New Year's with Erin. Which is kind of an important decision, isn't it? After all, the traditional kiss at midnight to ring in the New Year is really kind of about who you actually want to spend the next year with. Sometimes it's just a random kiss, of course, but sometimes it matters.

Then Dean flips back in time. To the earlier months. To back when Cas must've first met Erin. He probably met her sometime in the summer, he thinks, just after the Amara thing, so he flips back all the way to May and starts paging forward.

There's some cryptic notes on the May and June pages that Dean can't make head or tail of — little abbreviations. Some of them seem related to Cas's travels after Flagstaff, and then the schedule at his Gas-n-Sip job — there are notations about how many hours per week he's working, and some Arizona phone numbers.

And then there it is. July 10th. The name "Klein" catches Dean's eye and he mutters "Yahtzee" to himself, before the first name even registers:

Aaron Klein, 4601 Madison, Denver, it says, in tiny, careful handwriting.

Aaron. Not "Erin" at all.

Aaron.

 


 

 

A/N - 

Many of you saw that coming!  It was so fun to read your comments last week - quite a few of you were all over the "Aaron" idea instantly!

And NOW what will Dean do? Make a move at last? Or maybe just some more drunk-dialing? (because there's nothing quite like drunk-Dean and stoned-Cas attempting to communicate with each other, ha ha) Tune in next week...

I'm in Rio right now at the Olympics (woo!) with an erratic schedule, but wi-fi seems to be pretty good at the house where I'm staying, so check in next Friday for the next chapter! I hope you're enjoying this story, and if you liked this chapter please let me know. :)

Chapter Text

 A/N - I'm in Rio now, running like crazy between the cheapest possible Olympic events. (Turns out you can see the preliminary heats and the obscure sports for not too much money!) It's fun and strange and confusing. I got to see the infamous green diving pool up close, saw Michael Phelps swim, met 2/3 of the Japanese women's archery team, saw the amazing horses galloping over the cross-country course and more. It's fun but exhausting; I've spent miles and miles walking, over ten miles a day sometimes, between wandering around trying to find the whitewater kayaking or ending up on the wrong side of the rowing lake. I did get a bit of time to write on the plane but it's so crazy here I don't know if I'll be able to get another chapter together for next week, but please keep checking in!

PSA: The fic's about to take a turn. You'll see what I mean.

 


 

 

Dean doesn't tell Sam.

He sit there at Cas's desk staring at the calendar, and he knows he ought to march right back into the library and tell Sam that he should have checked one more spelling. "You should've checked A-A-R-O-N," is how Dean should announce it, with just the proper tone of amused nonchalance, just the right hint of a smile. He can already see how it'll go: Sam'll be confused for the first couple seconds, and Dean'll have to repeat what he said. Then Sam's eyes'll widen as the implication sinks in. He'll go something like, "Wait, really? Are you serious?" Then there'll be some "Are you serious" back-and-forth-ing — "yes I'm serious", "really?" — then some disbelief, some smiles, maybe some jokes about angels "winging it" or "flying both ways," and then... probably Sam'll be cool with it. Almost definitely he'll be cool with it.

Ninety-nine percent chance he'll be cool with it.

But there's always that one percent, thinks Dean.

Will Sam truly be cool with it? With Cas being into guys? There's a distinct difference between being cool with it in principle, or cool with it when it's an acquaintance, or cool with it when it's total strangers like Jesse and Cesar, and being truly cool with it when it's somebody who's....

Well, somebody who's family.

Dean's suddenly got a nagging twinge of worry.

After about two more seconds of considering what it'll be like to stand there and watch Sam's reaction, the twinge of worry has flowered into a near-dread. What if Sam isn't cool with it? Or what if Sam suddenly puts together what's been going on in Dean's head recently? What if Sam looks at Dean and realizes that....

Okay, maybe telling Sam about Cas can wait till later. But what Dean really should do now, at the very least, is just give Cas a call and straighten everything out. Tell him it's all okay. Make clear to him that he doesn't have to hide having a boyfriend (wait, wait, is that why Cas left, is that why he's been hiding things?) Dean should really call him up and reassure him, just to let him know that Dean and Sam are totally okay with it (but what if Sam isn't?) and that they just want him to be happy.

Dean gets as far as pulling out his phone, and setting it on Cas's desk next to Cas's calendar, and pulling up the "Favorites" list. But it's suddenly far too terrifying to hit Cas's number.

Because, what exactly is Dean going to say?

Okay, maybe calling Cas can wait till later too.

A moment later Dean's fighting down a pretty strong impulse to stride over to the garage and just jump in the Impala and drive right out to wherever Cas is, drive directly to that address (Dean's eyes flick back to the calendar, to that momentous-looking address: 4601 Madison). And...

And what?

Knock on the door? Watch Aaron open it? Cas probably behind him on the sofa going "Who is it, Aaron?", and....

And what?

Dean doesn't do any of that. Instead he puts the calendar carefully back on its little nail, straightens out Cas's bedspread, puts the chair right back where it had been earlier, and slinks out of Cas's room, closing the door softly behind him. He retreats to his own room instead. Where he downs several more glasses of whiskey.

I'm gonna regret this, he thinks about twenty minutes later, already eyeing the bottle of hangover-headache pills that he keeps on his bedside table. He ends up swallowing down four of the pills with the last mouthful of whiskey, on the theory that if he takes the cure for tomorrow's hangover at the same time that he takes the cause, they'll somehow cancel each other out and the entire evening won't have happened at all.

The room's reeling a little as he flips off the light, kicks off his shoes, pulls off his jeans and starts struggling to get his socks off. He's drunk enough that the socks are not cooperating, and he realizes he also hasn't even bothered brushing his teeth. It's only about nine at night, in fact, but five (or was it six?) glasses of whiskey are doing wonders for making the bed seem appealing.

Aaron, he keeps thinking, as he manages, with effort, to yank one sock off. Not Erin. Aaron.

Could Aaron possibly be just some friend? Some work buddy, or a housemate? An acquaintance?

But Cas had been planning to call Aaron past midnight, the other night during that hopelessly confusing phone conversation. Dean can't think of very many other reasons that Cas would be calling somebody so late. Let alone with such a sense of routine... and with somebody Cas has been regularly getting stoned with... and eating with... and visiting... and who's been giving him gifts....

Dean finally gets the other sock off, balls up the two socks and throws them somewhere at random in the dark, and flops onto his back on top of the covers.

Aaron.

Of course, Dean's been pondering hypothetical what-ifs for days now. What-ifs like: What if Cas weren't straight? (Leaving aside the whole issue of what "straight" even means to an angel who can use vessels of either sex.)

What if Cas weren't straight?

What if he were into guys?

What if I really wanted something with him? (And Dean's not even sure about that part, actually. A certain door has definitely swung open, a door in his mind that seems like it might lead somewhere, but it's impossible to see where it's heading. It's like he's blundering into a pitch-black tunnel with no idea where it might go.)

What if I'd done something, what if I'd ever made a move?

What if I had a chance?

These questions, and many more, have until now been safely tucked away in the Impossibilities file. The Things-That-Can-Never-Happen file. Cas has always been far too critical — too important an ally, too necessary a friend — to take any such risks. Or to even think about taking any such risks. Only in the last few weeks, when it became clear that it was all impossible anyway (now that Cas has drifted away, now that Cas is with Erin), could Dean even look at it head-on.

But now the impossible questions are suddenly possible again.

What if I have a chance?

It's no longer hypothetical.

Which means it's terrifying, of course. Heart-crushingly terrifying. And there's one additional problem:

What if I HAD a chance, but I missed it? thinks Dean.

Because the situation here, really, is this: Cas has already left. He's found somebody else.

Cas had sat on that motel bed in Flagstaff for god knows how long, with that grim look on his face as he'd watched Dean sleep, thinking about "what he really wanted to do." Cas had thought about it, and then Cas had left.

What if I never had that ace up my sleeve after all? What if I never even had the chance?

Dean presses the heels of both hands to his closed eyes.

"World's worst chick-flick," Dean mutters to himself, hands still over his eyes. Because, he knows the script, he's seen the movie: This is dramatic-romantic-gesture time. Or it should've been. It should've been John-Cusack-with-the-boombox time. Dean should've been driving through the night straight to Cas's place (or Aaron's place, which is probably the same thing at this point), to burst in the door with a Hollywood speech. Maybe waving that little feather around too, just for effect, or clutching it to his heart dramatically. He should be leaving right now and be camped outside that address by dawn, playing "In Your Eyes" at top volume through the Impala's speakers.

It should have been John-Cusack-with-the-boombox time, but instead apparently it's get-drunk-and-pass-out-alone time.

Chick flick, Winchester style, Dean thinks, as he passes out.

 


 

He wakes long past dawn, to a splitting headache that's accompanied by a distinct hint of nausea. Not too bad actually, he thinks, as he maneuvers carefully out of bed and to the bathroom, trying to glide along the floor as smoothly as possible so that his head doesn't throb with each footfall. Only a four on the one-to-ten hangover scale. Last night's pills seem to have helped a little. Unfortunately that just means that Dean has to wake up and deal with the day.

A hot shower helps some, but nonetheless Sam laughs at him when Dean comes inching into the kitchen fifteen minutes later, fully dressed now but still using the soft-footed glide, looking for some coffee and orange juice to wash down another batch of the pills.

"Let me guess, five whiskeys?" says Sam, grinning at Dean from over the top of his laptop screen. "Or was it six? You don't look like you got to seven."

"I'm too old for this," Dean grumbles. "And definitely too old for your crap." Sam only chuckles, which is very annoying, though he does get up and hand Dean a welcome mug of steaming-hot coffee. Sam then even grabs a frying pan and, unasked, starts making Dean's tried-and-true hangover breakfast, a double-fried-egg sandwich on toast.

Dean sinks gingerly into a chair holding the coffee mug, and watches Sam puttering around the stove. Dean's trying not to move his head too much, and is also trying very hard not to think about anything.

The fried egg sandwich actually comes out looking pretty good. Though Sam insists on placing a vitamin pill and a glass of some suspicious-looking cloudy water by Dean's plate.

"What's that?" Dean asks, eyeing the glass doubtfully.

"Coconut water," says Sam. "I picked some up the other day. Cas said that Erin said it's rich in potassium, and I looked it up and she's right, it's good for—"

"Can you just not talk for a minute," says Dean, closing his eyes.

When he opens his eyes again Sam's still looking at him. Dean adds, "Sorry. Headache's worse than I realized." He gulps down the coconut water just to keep Sam quiet.

Dean's expecting it to be awful, but it's actually rather good.

There's blessed silence for a few minutes. Sam sits back down at his laptop and leaves Dean alone. Looks like Sam's doing the morning news check, looking for possible cases. Dean watches him quietly for a while, and sips the coffee and takes slow bites of the fried-egg sandwich. Gradually the coffee starts working and the new batch of pills starts kicking in. Maybe the coconut water's helping, who knows, but for whatever reason Dean's head starts clearing. The coffee's nice and hot, too. Dean wraps both hands around the warm mug and takes a few more swallows, and as the warmth spreads through his belly he starts feeling a little better.

Aaron is the one who spotted that Cas was cold, Dean thinks, partway through another sip of hot coffee.

Aaron gave him the hat.

Aaron is the one who noticed he was cold, and Aaron is the one who warmed him up.

I didn't even notice he was cold.

Dean sets his coffee mug down. It makes a little thunk on the table, and Sam glances at him briefly, but Dean barely notices, for he's just realized something.

What he's realized is that Dean is not the person who should be playing "In Your Eyes" through the boombox at dawn. In fact Dean shouldn't be in the scene at all.

For one thing, Dean and Cas don't even have a friggin' relationship at all, for chrissake. What was he even thinking, last night? They've never even so much as held hands! A few moments of extended eye contact now and then, spread out over eight years, is a pretty thin foundation to base a rom-com boombox scene on.

People like Cesar and Jesse get the happy ending. Not Dean. People like Cesar and Jesse, and, hopefully, people like Cas and Aaron. Not Dean. Cas and Aaron are the two people who are supposed to be in the big-romantic-gesture scene. Not Dean. Dean's never going to be the main player in those scenes; he never has been, after all, and he knows by now that he never will be. Dean's known for years that he's the peripheral character. He's the drifter, the cautionary tale, the bad choice, gliding in for a scene or two and then simply fading away. At best his role is as the supportive friend; at worst, he's the obstacle that has to be overcome.

Either way, his role here is to get out of the way and not mess everything up for Cas.

If Cas has found something good I'm not going to ruin it, thinks Dean, folding his hands around the coffee mug once again, and looking down into it thoughtfully.

And all at once he knows what he's going to do today. It's not a big romantic gesture; it's small. It's not noble or exciting. It's not going to be a turning point. He's just going take that open door, that door that has been slowly swinging open these last few weeks, and close it again. It's the right thing to do.

He deserves better than me anyway, thinks Dean.

"I'm going out," Dean says, pushing back his chair and standing up. "Be back tonight probably. Need anything?"

Sam's instantly on alert. (For the last few minutes he's been glancing at Dean off and on out of the corner of his eye.) "Where're you going?" he asks.

"Denver," says Dean, carefully not looking at Sam as he takes his jacket off the back of the chair and pulls it on.

He can hear Sam's grin, though, in Sam's next question, which is: "Gonna do the holy water check on the girlfriend?"

"Not exactly," says Dean, keeping his expression neutral, and still not looking at Sam at all as he checks his pockets for his keys and wallet. "I think Cas has that covered, actually. He says Aaron's clean, and I believe him." (It's easier than he expected to avoid any telltale pronouns about Aaron.)

"So... why are you going?"

Dean shrugs, and is in the middle of turning toward the door, about to leave without responding, when it occurs to him that Sam's actually been pretty nice about the fried-egg sandwich and all, and is only trying to help. And also, Sam's probably worried about Cas.

Dean sighs and turns slowly back toward Sam. He manages to meet Sam's eyes briefly as he says, "Don't laugh, but I'm actually just gonna bring some kind of, I don't know, I was thinking maybe a...." He hesitates, glancing around at the kitchen, and finally adds ".... a housewarming present for Cas, I guess? Since he's got his own place now." It's an idea that came to him just moments ago: swing by Denver, just make sure Cas is okay and that Aaron is truly legit, and maybe give Cas some kind of little gesture of support, something to help Cas set up their place together. "Something from Target maybe, I don't know," Dean says. He looks back at Sam with a preemptive scowl, adding, "I said don't laugh," even though Sam's just blinking at him with a perfectly neutral expression.

"Not laughing," says Sam. "It's a nice idea." But he's looking a little thoughtful now, and he swings his laptop partly closed, leaning back in his chair and tapping his fingers on the kitchen table for a moment before glancing back up at Dean. "Is this really a present for Cas, or for the both of them?" Sam asks, with unnerving perceptiveness. "You think Cas is gonna move in with her or something? White picket fence time? Is this like a, good-luck, we're-happy-for-you, we're-here-if-you-need-us kind of thing?"

Dean gives a noncommittal shrug. "Whichever. Dunno. Just thought I'd do something neighborly. And I said don't laugh."

"And I said, not laughing," says Sam, who's now got a slightly puzzled frown. "But what? Like, potholders or something?"

"Potholders or something," Dean agrees. "Yeah. That. See ya." He spins on his heel and leaves before Sam can say anything else.

 


 

The housewarming-gift idea feels a little weird and Dean is worrying about it, and second-guessing it, the entire time he's crossing Kansas. Sam's soon texting him with comments and ideas. Things like: You better not be planning on this gift thing being a jumbo bag of Doritos from a Gas-n-Sip and a six-pack of beer.

How about two jumbo bags, and a case of beer? Dean texts back, from the rest stop he's sitting at. (He is, in fact, at a Gas-n-Sip, embarrassingly enough. Cas's Gas-n-Sip, in fact. Though it turns out Cas isn't here today.)

NO, Sam texts.

Not even if it the Doritos are Cool Ranch flavor? texts Dean. Or Spicy Nacho?

NOTHING FROM A GAS-N-SIP, texts Sam. Nothing that you can ever find at a Gas-n-Sip.

Then what? replies Dean, who's really starting to think this has all been a bad idea. Were you serious about potholders? Because I can't find any potholders.

There's a pause in Sam's reply, and Dean's getting close to chickening out on the whole idea. He's outside the Gas-n-Sip now, standing by the Impala, leaning on its roof while he waits for Sam's reply, and he starts to look around to see if there's an easy way to turn around here and head back east. But then Sam sends: Don't chicken out. It's a good idea - show him some support. What other stores are you near?

Dean peers around Cas's Gas-n-Sip, feeling a little desperate now. This is one of those rest-stop wastelands that's surrounded by almost nothing but empty fields. Dean's turning all around, squinting into the chilly November wind, when he finally spots the distant hulking shape of a big-box store at a shopping plaza a mile or so off. There's a little orange sign way up on a tall pole, designed to catch the eye of the drivers on the nearby highway.

Just a Home Depot, he texts back.

That'll work, texts Sam. Try there.

What, you think he'll like a set of drill bits? Or a 50-pound bag of bark mulch?

They've got house stuff too. Go there and look around.

Dean roams around the Home Depot for nearly forty-five minutes, picking up and putting down totally impractical gifts. Maybe Cas and Aaron might need some motor oil for Cas's Continental? A set of paintbrushes? An artificial Christmas tree? (Christmas decorations seem to be in full swing by now.) Dean rejects one thing after another and it's soon getting absurd (a chest freezer? A ceiling fan? A twenty-foot extension ladder?). He lingers a long time in the barbecue section, which actually does have some potholders except that they're the firefighter-grade, industrial-strength type. And there's actual barbecues, of course, and then Dean's lost in a daydream about showing Cas how to do a real barbecue.

Then he remembers Cas no longer likes Dean's burgers.

He leaves the barbecue section, tossing the industrial-strength potholders onto a stack of Christmas ornaments in the next aisle, and he's getting pretty frustrated and discouraged when he happens to wander past the houseplant section. And amid all the way-too-girly orchids, stacks of too-Christmassy poinsettias and a lot of weird poofy hanging things, there's a display of little potted plants that look not too bad.

Dean veers over to the plants.

In the middle is a small one that's got glossy dark-green leaves, and a couple of yellow blooms poking up in the middle. The blooms are colorful and bright; it's a cheerful little thing, yet without being too floofy or frilly. It reminds him a bit of his mental image of the mythical Erin's apartment — her (fictional) windowsills had always been lined with (fictional) houseplants — and weirdly that somehow makes it seem like an appropriate gift. But what really catches Dean's eye is that the plant's in a little pot that has a couple of small painted honeybees on the side.

Honeybees! Cas likes bees.

Maybe Cas'll remember that time he turned up naked covered in bees, and maybe they can both laugh about it.

Bees and flowers. It's perfect. A little housewarming gift for Cas. Dean can say something neutral like, "Just something to help you settle in, wherever you are now," and he'll hand it over and that'll be that.

It's only $5.99. Dean grabs it and gets in the checkout line.

But by the time he's paid and is carrying it out of the store he's already having second thoughts. The plant suddenly seems totally silly, its little green leaves too feminine, the bee design too childish, the whole thing all wrong. It's starting to seem like the wrong gift for one guy to give to another guy. Yeah, Cas is apparently maybe gay or bi or whatever (and maybe Dean is too, whatever), but a flowering plant in a cartoon-honeybee pot seems too gay. It's too much a "now that I know you're gay, I'm getting you super-gay stuff" type of gift. Dean might as well have bought a rainbow flag.

Then he remembers more about the whole bee episode and almost groans — Cas had been insane then! And he'd been insane because of Lucifer. Who has until recently been driving Cas nearly insane all over again, through those long months of possession over much of the last year.

I should've got the barbecue potholders, thinks Dean, but the potholders weren't right either, and in fact the entire idea of getting a housewarming gift at all is starting to seem like an incredibly bad idea. Dean should have laughed it off the moment he'd thought of it.

Dean decides, on the spot, to throw the plant in the trash. And then I'm turning the Impala around and heading back east, he thinks, as he veers across the parking lot toward a Home Depot trash can that's sitting a few parking spaces away.

What the hell was I even thinking?

He's lifting the plant up to heave it into the trash can like a little leafy football when its cheerful green leaves wobble a little in a burst of chilly November wind. Dean pauses and looks at it, at its little yellow blooms and the happy little bees on the pot.

The plant's innocent.

It doesn't deserve to die unwanted in a Home Depot parking-lot trash can, just because Dean couldn't figure out what kind of present to buy for his sort-of-gay angel friend who's left and gone away.

Dean's standing there with his arm still half-lifted, looking at the little plant, which now seems an embodiment of innocence itself, and the trash can a metaphor of everything that's wrong with the world. It strikes him, then, that the poor little plant is almost a botanical version of Castiel himself. All alone, helpless, stripped of the company of its fellow plants, it's been exiled from its comfortable home (the heaven of the Home Depot plant department, apparently), and is about to be discarded, through no fault of its own. No fault at all.

Cas wouldn't throw it away, Dean thinks, and he lowers his arm.

Cas would water it, and he'd put it in the sun.

Dean carries it back to the Impala safe in his hands.

By the time he reaches the car he's feeling like the plant has somehow taken control of his life. It's a bit annoying, and he plunks the little plant too roughly on the passenger seat. It falls over and spills a tiny bit of dirt on the Impala seats. Then Dean has to take a minute to prop the thing up again, and carefully sweep the dirt up and put it back in the cartoon-bee pot, and wedge his jacket around it so that it won't topple over again. He arranges it so its glossy leaves won't get bent, and even buckles the seatbelt around it too, to hold the plant safely in place during the rest of the drive. "You better still like bees, Cas," he mutters, starting up the engine at last. "And you better water the damn thing, 'cause I'm sure not."

 


 

During the rest of the drive to Denver, Dean tries to come to terms with the fact that he is apparently going to give Cas (and, by extension, Aaron as well) a flowering plant that has cheerful yellow blooms and painted cartoon honeybees on the pot. He's ceased responding to Sam's texts asking for updates on the gift, and is considering outright lying to Sam and telling him that Dean got potholders. He keeps glancing over at the plant as he drives, preparing himself for the moment that's coming up. Here ya go, Cas, I got you a plant for your new place, he's going to have to say, and Cas is going to squint at him and say "Why on earth did you think I would want a plant?" and what's Dean going to say then? "It had bees on it?"

But by the time Dean reaches Denver and navigates to the correct quadrant of the city, he's relaxed a little and has managed to get into a more philosophical state of mind (or more fatalistic, at least) about the whole thing. There's not going to be any grand gestures. There's not even going to be much of a conversation. It'll just be a drop-by visit, a hit-and-run. If Aaron's there too Dean'll say hi, and if not then not, and all that's gonna happen either way is a quick hello and goodbye. Dean's already got a story lined up about how he had to come to Denver anyway for some case; it can even be the same mythical case as last time, when he went to Cas's Gas-n-Sip. "Just chasing down another lead on that case," he'll say. "Here, I picked up a plant for your new place. Okay, take it easy, see ya." And that'll be that.

He finds Madison St., which runs through nearly the whole city. Soon Dean's cruising down Madison keeping an eye on the street addresses and glancing at the map on his phone now and then. He's approaching the red pin on the map. He passes the 1000's, then the 2000's. 4601 Madison is getting closer. He sets the phone down, now just looking at the street numbers.

As block after block goes by, a quiet fatalism starts to sink into Dean, and, with one last regretful look at the little plant, at last he decides, I shouldn't give them the plant. It'll look weird. It'll BE weird.

He passes several blocks of house addresses in the 3000's.

In fact... I'll just check out Aaron's house from across the street first. Maybe not even say hello at first. Just look, from afar, make sure Cas is okay, make sure Cas looks happy, and then, once he's checked out the situation, he can assess whether to knock on the door.

Dean decides to leave the plant in the car. He'll give Cas the plant some other day.

He comes to the 4000's.

Dean knows by now that he's not even going to get out of the car. He's just going to park and watch 4601 Madison from a block away till Cas and Aaron show up, and he's going to make sure Cas looks okay, and then he's going to leave. Cas doesn't even have to know that Dean was ever here.

I'll keep the plant, Dean thinks. The honeybees might be a nice reminder of Cas, actually, once Cas has totally moved out. Once Cas is totally gone.

It'll be an interesting challenge, actually, for Dean to see if he can keep a plant alive. That's probably about the limit of my capabilities anyway, in terms of relationships with living things, he thinks.

Might be beyond my limits actually. But I'll try.

4601 Madison, however, is nowhere to be found. Dean's passing rows of houses in the 4500's and then there's a clump of big industrial buildings that take up whole blocks — a school and a hospital and a parking lot and a supermarket and some stores — and the next chunk of houses after that have numbers in the 4800's. Dean frowns, and pulls the Impala into an awkward three-point turn to go back down the street. Again he shoots through the area with the big buildings, and past the parking lot, and ends up back in the 4500's.

Now Dean's puzzled. Where's 4601? Where is Cas staying, exactly? Is this Aaron guy really legit?

Dean finally pulls into the parking lot, now planning to walk up and down the street on foot.

"All right," says Dean, to the plant. "All right. C'mon then." For no clear reason other than wanting the companionship, he takes the plant with him.

Now he's marching down the sidewalk with a plant in his hand. Its yellow blooms bounce with every stride and Dean's feeling more than a little ridiculous, but he keeps going. He's actually traversed one whole side of the street past the hospital and has somehow missed 4601 again and is crossing to the other side to circle back, thinking, Dammit, Cas, Aaron better be worth all this, when he finally notices the gigantic sign at the parking lot, a sign he drove right past just minutes ago.

It's an enormous sign: MERCY GENERAL HOSPITAL, it says, in huge letters, with large arrows below pointing to the emergency room entrance and to the visitor parking. In a smaller scrolly typeface below is: 4601 Madison St.

Dean stands still and looks at the sign.

Mercy General Hospital.

4601 Madison.

This is the address he's been looking for. The address that was in Cas's calendar.

Aaron must work at the hospital, Dean thinks, slowly. He's a doctor or something. Or a med student, a medical resident. This is his work address. This isn't where he lives at all. That first time, Cas must have met him for coffee at work or something.

The tiniest bit of research could have told him this. If he'd even bothered to google the address.... If he hadn't hopped in the Impala so fast, if he hadn't been so hung over....

Maybe I can find Aaron's home address from the hospital's employee records? he thinks, as he walks slowly toward a set of big front doors. Though there's probably a million residents and med students and doctors and everything...

I wonder how Cas might have met a med student....

There's an uncomfortable thought tugging at Dean's mind now, about Aaron, and about how 4601 Madison is a hospital, and his feet are moving pretty slowly by the time he drifts through the main doors. He crosses a quiet, almost empty lobby, passes a cafe, and finds a big building directory on an inner wall, a huge panel of department names with long lists of doctors' names below each department. Dean scans the directory looking for an Aaron. This is silly, thinks Dean; Aaron probably won't be listed. He probably works in the lab or he's an EMT or...

DERMATOLOGY, GASTROENTEROLOGY, LABORATORY, he reads, his eyes flicking down the several dozen doctor's names under each department. And then there's:

ONCOLOGY - 6th floor

Aaron Klein, M.D.

Dean's stomachache is back now, but for an entirely new reason. He reads all the rest of the directory. He scans through dozens and dozens of doctor's names, and even goes and asks at the front desk, but there's no other "Aaron Klein" listed in any other department, and the receptionist verifies that the only Aaron Klein at the hospital is not only a doctor, but is an oncologist, and that Dr. Klein is a chemotherapy specialist who works on the sixth floor.

Now Dean feels like he needs to sit down, so he finds a table in the cafe, puts the plant down and sits and stares at it a while. All Dean can seem to see, though, is Cas, in the bathroom at the bunker, staring into the mirror and fussing with his hair, and trying to fluff it up.

Castiel, studying his hair. Tugging on it, even.

Sam's "volumizer" shampoo. The Rogaine.

The hat, Dean thinks. The wool hat. Cas never takes off the hat anymore.

There are other things, too, but Dean's mind seems to be working very slowly, and all he can think about now is that Castiel never takes off his wool hat.

Dean manages to rouse himself after about five minutes. Clearly he's got to go to the sixth floor to check out Dr. Klein. He knows he ought to be going into investigative mode now; he ought to be pulling out his FBI badge or his CDC credentials and sliding smoothly into his professional role, sweet-talking some nurse into giving him access to the hospital records, but he can't seem to remember how to do any of that. Instead he slowly gets up, picks up the plant and drifts to a bank of elevators, moving on automatic pilot.

Dean spends the entire elevator ride holding the little plant close to his chest, cradling it in both his hands and looking down at its glossy little leaves and its yellow flowers. But still all he is seeing is Castiel staring in the mirror and tugging at his hair. And Cas's nervous jump when he'd realized Dean was watching him.

Cas, watching his weight.

Cas getting skinnier.

Cas trying to eat healthy. Cas trying out recipes, trying to get enough protein, enough vitamins.

Cas not finishing his salad. Fiddling with the popcorn and barely eating any. Cas has stopped eating burgers. And those hot dogs, at the Gas-n-Sip.... They've started making me sick, Cas had said. I can't eat them anymore.

A new diet of pretty bland food, a little tasteless. Like maybe he couldn't tolerate anything stronger.

The elevator doors open and it turns out Oncology's a big department. There's a huge open space and lots of chairs, and people sitting and waiting, and a lot of hallways branching off into different directions. Normally Dean always fakes like he knows where he's going, always ready to launch into a convincing story or flash a fake id at a moment's notice; normally he has a fast-moving, purposeful walk that he uses in situations like this. But today somehow he's just standing in the lobby gazing up at the "ONCOLOGY" sign like he's never seen a sign before in his life. A nurse asks, not unkindly, "Can I help you?" and Dean realizes he's been standing there with a totally deer-in-the-headlights look

"I'm looking for a friend," Dean says. "He's here... seeing... Aaron Klein?" There's still a faint hope in his mind that Aaron might be a boyfriend. Or a friend, at least. An acquaintance.

.... who happens to be an oncologist who specializes in chemotherapy, and who Castiel has been visiting every four weeks like clockwork. Three weeks on, one week off. At a hospital. Doesn't chemotherapy involve some sort of repeating schedule?

I have a schedule, Cas had said. I'd like to come on the hunts, I really would, but I have a schedule that I have to adhere to.

Cas, smoking pot. Which is supposed to be so good at helping control nausea and pain, isn't it? Here in Colorado they've had medical marijuana for ages. They've been doing that for years and years here, since long before they legalized recreational use.

Aaron had suggested the pot. Aaron's been so helpful....

"Are you checking in?" the nurse is saying. She glances at the little houseplant. "Oh, are you here for pickup?"

"What?" Dean says, barely able to focus on what she's saying.

"Are you meeting a patient? Picking somebody up after treatment?"

"Uh," said Dean. "Yes."

"I'm sure they'll love the flowers. Name?"

"What?"

She gives him a slightly impatient look. "Patient's name?"

"Castiel... uh...."

"Last name?"

Dean blinks at her. His mind has gone totally blank.

Then he thinks, You're our brother. He remembers the sketches in Cas's dresser drawer, and the one of Dean in the car.

Dean swallows, and says to the nurse, quietly, "Winchester."

"And your name?"

"Dean Winchester," Dean replies. He's a little surprised to hear himself giving his real name.

"Ah, family then?" she says, as she checks her computer monitor for Cas's name.

Dean gives her a jerky nod, and watches as she scans down a list of names. A few seconds tick by and she's still looking, and in those few seconds Dean manages to convince himself he's got everything wrong. That she'll look up and say "There's nobody here by that name." That the hospital's street address and Dr. Aaron Klein of the Oncology Department, and Cas worrying about his hair and losing weight, are all just some freaky coincidence.

But now the nurse is nodding. The nurse's nodding. She found Cas's name. She's checked the list and she's found the Winchester last name, and the first name too, which is undeniably unique, and she's fucking nodding. "I see you're listed as the emergency contact," she says, which somehow makes the bottom drop even farther out of Dean's stomach. (Cas has thought far enough ahead to plan who to put as an emergency contact. Cas put Dean as the emergency contact. Cas never asked, Cas never said a thing, but Cas had to have thought about all this, he must have been worrying about it, he had to plan....)

"I said, do you have an id?" the nurse says, a little loudly, and Dean blinks; he's been lost in thought. Dean manages to dig out the one and only id that actually has his real name, and gives it to her numbly. She nods, makes a note, returns the id and says, "You're almost a half hour early."

"What?" says Dean. His voice comes out as a croak.

"He's still in treatment. You want to go grab a coffee or something? Hey, um... You okay?" says the nurse. She's frowning at him.

Dean's having to wipe his eyes. "Allergies," says Dean. She shoves a box of Kleenex toward him and he grabs one and blows his nose.

"Allergies in November?" she says.

Dean blows his nose again, clears his throat and manages to say, "I'm allergic to hospitals," and she gives him a sympathetic smile.

 


 

The nurse goes away to check on where Cas is, and comes back a few minutes later saying, "He's got another fifteen minutes to go on the saline flush. You know the drill, right? You can sit with him while you wait, unless you'd rather go get that coffee. Come on, I'll walk you down there." She beckons Dean around a corner and starts leading him down one of the many identical-looking hallways. "You know," she says, "we didn't realize he had a family pickup today. I'd already arranged the usual driver. An oversight. I should have checked. I just assumed it was the same as usual — I apologize."

"What?" says Dean yet again, who can't seem to understand anything she says.

"I'd already arranged the usual driver. The driver from the home-ride service that he usually uses to get home. I'll call and cancel. It's so nice you were able to come get him today, you know. He's explained how his brothers have to travel a lot and can't come, but we'd wondered, of course."

Dean looks over at her blankly, and she gives him a slightly sad smile as they walk along. "Some patients don't have anybody to pick them up," she explains. "I'll confess, I'd started to worry that your brother might be in that situation, which was a bit concerning because... well, you see, it's always worrying to see a patient who has to go through this sort of thing alone. As I'm sure he's told you, we've been trying to set him up with some extra support — some warmer clothes, and a meal delivery service a few times a week, tips on what to eat, a few things like that; we do what we can, but honestly the funding for home support services is pretty thin so we always worry, with cases like this. So it's especially nice that you're here. I'll let Dr. Klein now; he'll be so pleased. He's even been having Castiel call to check in, you know, during the overnight shift after treatment — we do that with patients who have to go home alone, but if you'll be with him then that's less of a concern. You'll be with him, right?"

Dean nods emphatically.

"Well, that's good then. Anyway, here we are." She pushes open a big door and stands aside, waving Dean in. "Here you go, he's in Bay 8, go on in."

She's holding open the door. Dean goes on in.

 


 

It's a long room, with a bank of huge plate-glass windows all down one wall that look out over the city. There's a whole line of separate little treatment stations for different patients, each "bay" with its own little curtains that can be pulled closed on an overhead track. Most of the curtains are half-open, so that when Dean looks down the row of patients he mostly sees a row of feet. The patients seem to be not in hospital beds exactly, but in comfy reclining chairs that tip all the way back, the kind that blood banks use. The patients are all in their street clothes, not hospital gowns. Comfy street clothes, Dean notices; he sees people wearing things like sweatpants, and pajamas.

Comfortable clothes....

He inches past the first few people, who seem unsurprised to see him go past. Every patient has somebody sitting with them. Some patients are chatting, some sleeping, some watching TV. Every patient has an IV running and they all seem to have had instructions to drink as well, for they've all got little bottles of water that they're sipping from.

They're all in a row. I'm in the row too. We drink and we look at the stars....

Dean glances out the plate-glass windows. There's a surprisingly lovely view of the city. It's early evening now and the sun's set already, and the stars are coming out.

We drink and we look at the stars.

Dean, I wish you were here too.

Dean feels like he's drifting through a very strange, surreal dream as he wanders down the row of patients. Bay 8's curtains are partly closed, shielding the sides of the bay from view, and when Dean peers around one of the curtains, there's Castiel.

He's alone.

He's the only patient who's alone.

He's lying with his feet up, the chair reclined all the way back. His head's tipped a little to one side; his eyes are closed. Dean inches a step closer, saying "Cas?" softly, but then he discovers Cas is asleep.

Cas has his soft blue sweater on, and a blanket's been wrapped around his legs. His jacket and scarf are hanging on a hook on the wall, along with his shoulder bag. But for once he isn't wearing the hat; it's sitting on a chair by the bed.

For a long moment Dean's distracted by studying Cas's hair. Definitely thinner. Kind of patchy. But Cas hasn't lost all of it; he still looks like himself.

He's been wearing the hat, Dean decides, not because he looks all that bad, but just to hide the patchiness from us. Just to hide from me and Sam what's going on.

Cas, like all the patients, has an IV in one arm. The sleeve of his blue sweater is rolled up high on that side to make room for the IV.

I like the sweater, Cas had said. I can roll the sleeves up.

Both his arms are covered with bruises, some fresh and some yellowing and aging. It looks awful; there must have been a lot of IV's. Dean realizes now that he hasn't seen Cas with his arms bare for months, and he thinks, then, of the time he ran across Cas weighing himself in the little bunker gym, and how Cas had practically run away, pulling a towel over his upper body. Dean is suddenly certain that Cas had been trying to hide his arms. He'd been trying to hide the bruises. Likely it's also why he's been dodging the hugs; hugs simply would have hurt. Maybe there've been other painful spots too, who knows.

Dean takes a quiet step closer, puts the plant on a little table at the side of Cas's bed, and picks up the hat from the chair. He turns it over a few times, looking at it. There's a tag on the inside: "With Very Best Wishes, From The Ladies' Hospital Guild."

"Hand-knitted," murmurs Dean to himself.

A friend gave it to me, Cas had said. A hospital friend, apparently.

More memories are clicking into place. The doctor in Flagstaff, saying to Cas, "We really need to do more tests." Pulling Cas aside to talk to him in private.

When had Cas found out? That night in Flagstaff, or later? Dean thinks of the night when Cas had texted out of the blue, back when Sam and Dean had been waiting at the mine entrance. Dean had texted back "Hey bro, how ya been?" and Cas had spent ages writing an extremely long reply. Which he'd then deleted without ever sending it.

Fine, Cas had replied at last.

Dean gives a rough sigh, thinking now, I should've known something was up right then. Anytime Cas replies "Fine," he's NEVER fine.

All the meds in Cas's dresser. Every possible gut problem. Every possible skin problem. Every possible hair problem. Every possible vitamin he could ever need...

The Gas-n-Sip job. The way Cas has been scrambling to get enough hours. Probably hoping to qualify to be full-time? For the health insurance, maybe, or for the disability coverage? He'd worked a solid month before he'd started going to Denver... when does health insurance start, exactly, for new Gas-n-Sip employees? After thirty days' of full-time employment, or after a certain number of hours?

And of course he must've needed the cash as well. There must be co-pays, prescriptions, there's the gas money to Denver, the motel bills from wherever he's been staying....

I just need a little more pocket change.

Dean sits down in the chair, holding the wool hat in both hands.

There's a lot of questions, of course. How bad it is. What type, what stage. Whether it's spread. New questions keep surfacing, and each one brings a fresh wave of anxiety and dread, along with a kind of distant, unreal horror.

Dean thinks, Sam and I were insane to think we would ever get a break. That everything was "okay" for once, that all three of us were okay.

We were crazy.

We were dreaming.

Dean glances at the little plant that he's put on the side table, the absurd little housewarming gift for Aaron's Denver house. But Aaron is simply Cas's oncologist, not a lover at all; and Erin, of course, was never even remotely real. Erin, and her apartment and her imaginary little row of houseplants, and her red mixer thing and her knitting... none of it was ever real.

All of it disappears.

And Dean's ridiculous jealousy seems to have disappeared too. Because suddenly he is wishing with all his heart, wishing desperately, that Castiel had a girlfriend named Erin after all. He'd give anything, he'd give everything, for Cas to have a girlfriend named Erin. Or a boyfriend named Aaron, for that matter. It doesn't matter any more which. It doesn't matter at all. Even if a female "Erin" meant that Dean would lose Cas forever, that Dean would never have a chance at all, Dean's aching to be able to just close his eyes and wish Cas away from here and wish him to the mythical Erin's apartment. He's wishing for Cas to wake up next to "Erin" every morning, and sit together with her in the evenings with his arm around her, and make out with her, and have sex with her, and have whole-wheat pancakes together for Sunday brunch, and be happy. Even if Dean never saw him again.

"Anything, Cas," Dean whispers, as he sits and watches Cas sleep, and waits for Cas to wake. "Anything but this."

 


 

 

A/N - 

awww, dammit.

Poor Cas, and poor Dean.

Some of you figured this out early on, and many of you were homing in on it.  The fic takes a sharp turn here, obviously, and Dean is going to have to really switch gears mentally. Hope you are all willing to switch gears too and come along for the rest of the ride.

For anybody for whom this hits too close to home: I'll understand if you have to stop reading. It hits close to home for me too, which is why I had to write it this way. It's one of the worst things in the world that can happen to someone you love, and, heads up, it's not going to be pretty. But love is about more than the fun stuff and the attraction and the sex; this is a love story and there's a lot more to love, after all, than just the good times.

Next chapter might take 2 wks but if I can post anything at all next week, I will.

Chapter Text

A/N - I am overwhelmed and humbled by all your responses to the last chapter. I don't think I've ever gotten so many comments on a chapter, in any fic. I knew the last chapter would be rough, and honestly I was a little worried about whether it would feel worth it to all of you (worth it to keep reading, I mean). So I'm really grateful that so many of you want to keep reading, even many of those with very painful and very personal connections to what Cas is going through. I only hope I can do this justice!

If I miss the mark in any way, please forgive me; I do know what it means to tackle a story like this and I hope I can get it right.

I'm probably going to slow down the pace of writing a bit, both because I'm still traveling but also because I want to be sure each scene unfolds precisely as it should, shaped exactly as it needs to be. So this week there's just 1 little scene. (I have another scene written but it didn't feel ready yet.) Hope it's enough to hold you all for a week.

We return to a certain hospital in Denver...

 


 

 

Dean's still sitting there silently, holding the hat and keeping very quiet so as not to disturb Cas, when a nurse comes by to check on Cas's IV. She gives Dean a smile but Dean's so intent on watching Cas (as if he'll disappear if Dean takes his eyes off him for even a moment) that he can't even summon up a "hello" to the nurse.

She doesn't seem to mind; she quietly checks the IV bag, and touches Cas's arm lightly as she inspects the IV site. "Almost done," she whispers to Dean. "Just a couple more minutes." She slips away again, almost on tiptoe. But Cas must have felt the touch on his arm, for his hand moves a bit. His fingers close on the edge of the blanket that's wrapped around his legs, and he opens his eyes.

Cas happens to have his head turned away from Dean, and he lifts his head a little to look down at the IV in his arm. He touches one of the dark bruises experimentally with his other hand. The bruise must still be sore, for a grimace passes over Cas's face, and he gives a little hiss of pain, followed by a soft sigh.

Something about the sound of Cas's sigh — the clear fatigue in the sound, the air of resignation —makes Dean realize that Cas thinks he's alone. Dean thinks, Every time he's woken up here, this chair's always been empty.

Nobody's ever been sitting here.

"Hey, Cas," says Dean.

Cas gives a start of surprise, a sort of body-wide jolt that's accompanied by a distinctive flinch of his right hand, as if he's groping for an angel-blade that isn't there. His eyes dart over to Dean. But he doesn't seem to relax at all when he sees who it is; instead he freezes very still.

Cas then looks all around his little treatment bay, at the curtains and at the view outside, as if verifying he's really still in the same place where he'd fallen asleep. He glances at Dean again for a microsecond, and then looks at his IV bag, and at the IV line in his arm, and at the bruises.

There's a slight pause as Cas stares at the bruises.

He looks slowly over toward Dean once more. There's a distinct expression of dismay on Cas's face now, and this time his gaze lands on the hat that's in Dean's hands.

One of Cas's hands goes to his head, then the other.

Now Cas is sitting there with both hands covering his head. He's a little hunched now, his shoulders tensed, and he shifts his gaze to stare at the blanket that's covering his knees, not looking at Dean any more.

"May I have my hat," he says, his voice very quiet. He's still not looking at Dean.

"Sure, yeah, of course, of course—" Dean says, and he almost knocks the little plant off the side table in his haste to reach over and put the hat in Cas's hands. Cas takes it with his right hand (he's still shielding his head with his left hand, on the side closer to Dean) and he pulls the hat on, still not looking at Dean. Cas adjusts the hat a moment, both hands now firmly on the edge of the hat tugging it into place, and he feels gently at the small tufts of hair that still remain, a few dark tufts that are poking out from the edges of the hat in the back.

Cas then folds his hands in his lap with what seems a carefully controlled calm. He raises his head slowly and gazes out the plate-glass window. Dean's trying his very hardest not to look at Cas now, so he follows Cas's lead and looks out the window with him.

Together they look at the stars.

Dean hears another little sigh from Cas and risks a quick glance back at him to find that Cas has put both hands to his head again. But this time he's taking the hat back off. He pulls the hat off almost in slow motion and then, almost thoughtfully, runs one hand across his head. Dean can see now that there's a broad bald patch on the left side of his head. Cas traces his fingers over the area gently, and then feels at a few other regions where there's still some hair.

Several strands of dark hair come loose in his hand. Cas looks at them with almost idle interest, and shakes them onto the floor.

Dean's racking his brains desperately now for something helpful to say, and he even draws in a breath of air to speak. He's thinking of saying something like, It really doesn't look that bad, or, I don't care at all if you lose your hair. I really don't care at all.

Or, Some chicks dig bald guys. Lots of chicks. In fact just forget about that "perfect amount of tousle" crap. Forget I ever said that.

Or, Sam and me'll both shave our heads in support.

Or... Why didn't you tell us? There's dozens of questions to ask, really: How bad is it? What's the prognosis? When did you find out? How can I help, what can I do? Could the angels fix it, could the demons, maybe even Crowley, maybe Rowena? What have you tried?

Why didn't you call me?

Why the hell didn't you tell me?

But Dean can't seem to say anything at all. In fact he finds he's gone totally mute.

Both Dean and Cas are silent now, both gazing at the hat in Cas's hands. Cas turns it around a little, regarding it thoughtfully.

"What are you doing here?" says Cas at last. He's still not looking at Dean.

Dean swallows and shifts in his chair, bracing his hands against his knees. I thought you were running away with someone else, he thinks. I thought you had a girlfriend, or a boyfriend. I thought you were moving in with them.

I thought I'd lost you, and I came to say goodbye.

"Heard you needed a ride," says Dean.

Cas is silent a long moment. His gaze lifts; now he's looking at the stars again.

"I have a driver," he says at last. "There's already a driver arranged—"

Dean breaks in with, "The nurse called and cancelled." Cas looks disturbed at this news, glancing over at Dean with a frown. Dean adds, smiling a little to try to make it a joke, "Guess you're stuck with me, huh?"

Cas doesn't laugh.

"How did you find me?" he asks.

"Uh...." says Dean, and he stalls, suddenly realizing that this is where he's going to have to confess that he's been rummaging through Cas's things, "I, uh, I saw the address in your... calendar."

Cas's frown deepens. "My calendar... in my room?"

Dean shifts his feet, and his hands tighten on his knees. "Yeah," he says. "Um, sorry, I, um, Sam and I were getting a little worried and we just thought.... " He pauses. Don't blame it on Sam, he thinks.

"I went in your room," Dean says. "I shouldn't have. I'm sorry."

But Cas just gives a measured nod. "And... you saw the address," he says, slowly, as if he's trying to reconstruct the sequence of events. "And you... drove out here? Why?"

"I was tracking down a lead on that Denver case," Dean says, automatically sliding into the story he'd lined up earlier.

Cas nods again, as if this makes sense to him. "You had a case," he murmurs, almost to himself.

Dean's thinking that maybe he should explain that there actually isn't any case, when the nurse comes back, whisking the curtains aside all the way now. It seems to be totally routine for her to interrupt awkward family conversations like this, for she just barges in and walks right over and says to Cas, with a bright smile, "You're all done. Your brother showed up while you were asleep, isn't that nice?" She starts fiddling with the IV bag. "Must be good to have a family pickup for once, huh? Isn't it nice that we switched you to Monday? I told you it'd be worth it." She looks over at Dean and explains, "He's been on that Wednesday cycle till now, you know; Wednesday through Friday on week one, and then again Wednesday on week two and Wednesday again on week three, and then the fourth week off. But we shifted to Monday or Tuesday for almost all the patients this week, so that everybody will be feeling reasonably well by Thursday."

Dean blinks at her. She adds, looking a little puzzled that he needs an explanation, "Because of Thanksgiving."

"Oh," says Dean. "Right." He'd already completely forgotten about Thanksgiving. He adds, with a weak smile, "So this is week... uh... three?"

"Week two," corrects the nurse, with a slight frown. She glances at Cas (who is not meeting her eyes) and adds to Dean, "Which means you need to bring him back on Monday. But you know about all that, right?"

"Right, right," says Dean. "Week three's next week. That's what I meant. I knew that. I just got... mixed up." Cas, meanwhile, has gone dead silent; now he's just watching the nurse's hands as she does something with a complicated-looking computerized box that's mounted on the IV pole. She presses a few buttons, and there's some beeps.

"All set," she says to Cas, and without a word Cas straightens his bruised right arm, turns his hand palm-upward and swings the arm closer to her so she can take the IV out. All these movements have a well-rehearsed look to them. It takes only a few moments for the nurse to remove the IV tube and tape a little bandage on his arm. She discards a few things, wheels the pole out of the way and begins a businesslike check of Cas's vital signs, saying "How are you feeling?"

Cas hesitates slightly before answering, "About usual." (Dean has the distinct impression that he would be saying more if he were alone.)

"So... your brother will bring you back in a week, right?"

There's a slightly awkward pause. Cas clears his throat and starts to say, a little quietly, "Actually, I don't think —" but Dean overrides him, speaking up with "Absolutely. We'll be back Monday."

Cas gives Dean a very brief, very doubtful look, and goes quiet again, staring down at his folded hands. The nurse says, "You'll be okay tonight?" and Cas nods. "Have any questions?" she says. "Need any tips?" He shakes his head, and she says, "Then we'll see you Monday, all right?"

"All right," says Cas, almost whispering. She does something to Cas's chair and it's soon making a whirring noise and folding back upright, depositing Cas into an upright sitting position. The nurse takes the blanket off his legs, hands him his jacket and scarf, and holds out a form for Cas to sign. "See you Monday, then," she says. She's starting to look a little puzzled that neither Dean nor Cas are saying anything, and as she looks back and forth between them she starts to get a worried look, but at last she adds a "Happy Thanksgiving." Cas manages a weak smile and says "Thank you," and she pats him on the shoulder and walks away.

Cas begins unrolling the sleeve of his sweater, working it back down his bruised arm in silence, and Dean watches as the bruises disappear under the familiar blue wool sleeve. Then Cas puts the hat back on his head, tugging it firmly into place with both hands. Again he feels lightly at the remaining tufts of hair, a move that Dean now realizes he's seen Cas do many times. Cas then wraps the scarf around his neck carefully, and he's soon all muffled up in the sweater, scarf and hat once more. It's a familiar look, but Dean's startled by how obvious it now seems that Cas is ill. He's thin — nearly gaunt, actually; he looks pale and worn, his skin dry and lined, his lips much more chapped than usual, and there are dark circles under his eyes. When Cas stands to put his jacket on, it now seems incredibly obvious that he's moving his arms quite gingerly, maneuvering both arms carefully into the jacket sleeves to try to avoid brushing the bruises. It seems so clear now that he's hurting. It looks like he can't even raise his arms very high, and there's an air of fatigue in all his movements.

He's been moving like that for a while now, Dean realizes. I thought he was just tired....

Cas pauses once he's got his jacket on. Finally he mutters, not quite looking at Dean, "It's time to go," and he simply starts walking away from the treatment chair. Dean scrambles to his feet and is in mid-stride to follow him when he remembers that the little plant is still sitting on the bedside table. Dean hesitates, looking back at the plant, very uncertain whether to bother Cas with it.

Cas notices Dean's hesitation and pauses at the edge of the curtain to look back at him. He follows Dean's gaze back to the plant. "What's that?" Cas asks.

Dean picks it up. "It's a plant," he says, turning toward Cas with it.

"I can see that," says Cas drily. "I mean, where did it come from?"

Dean finds himself holding it out slightly toward Cas. Cas just stares at it, confused.

"Got you a plant," Dean says at last, taking an uncertain half-step closer, still holding it out.

Cas takes it slowly.

"What, from the gift shop?" Cas asks. Now he's turning it around and looking at it.

"No, it's from a Home Depot," Dean says, making a vague gesture toward the outside with one hand. He then shoves both his hands in his jeans pockets, his shoulders hunched as he waits for Cas to discard the plant. "A Home Depot back in Kansas," Dean explains. "That one near your Gas-n-Sip. Picked it up on the way here." He adds, "You don't have to keep it."

Cas still looks puzzled, and he regards the little yellow blooms and the dark green leaves for a long moment in silence. Then he looks up at Dean, and there's that familiar squint on his face now as he says, inevitably, "Why did you think I would want a plant?"

Dean can only shrug. Why did he ever think Cas would want a plant? "It had bees on it?" Dean says, hopelessly. He's looking around now for some place where Cas can leave it. Maybe some other patient might want it? Maybe the nurses would like a plant for the lobby? "You can just leave it on the table here," he suggests, gesturing back toward the little side table. But now Cas has tipped the pot a little bit to see the sides, and he turns it till the bees come into view, and then he's staring at the little cartoon bees.

Dean gives a stiff little laugh, and says, "You probably don't even like bees any more, huh." Cas looks up at him again, and this time Cas is truly looking at Dean, meeting Dean's eyes straight on and really holding his gaze for the first time in this whole awful evening.

Dean can only gaze back at him.

"I still like bees," says Cas, rather softly. He doesn't say anything else about it, just looks down at the pot again, and at the plant, but now he's cradling it against his chest. He looks up and says, as both his arms fold around the little plant, "I, uh, I do need to get home soon. Back to my motel, I mean. I know you probably weren't actually expecting to give me a ride, but..."

"I'll give you a ride," says Dean, nodding.

"I kind of need a ride," Cas adds. "Now that they've cancelled the driver—"

"I'll definitely give you a ride," says Dean, still nodding. "Wherever you need."

"It's just to a motel," says Cas. "It's not very far. I could get a cab."

"No cab," says Dean. "I'm giving you a ride. Car's right outside. Come on."

 


 

 

A/N - That's it for now, just one little scene but an important one. Baby steps, right? For both of them. 

More next week.

Thanks to you all.

Chapter Text

A/N - A slightly longer chapter this time; hope you enjoy it.

 


 

Cas looks at the plant for almost the entire elevator ride down, just as Dean did earlier on the ride up. The elevator's crowded with other people, so Dean can't say any of the questions that he still has stacked up ready to ask. Instead he stands by Cas's side in silence, watching him touch the plant's leaves lightly, and the yellow blooms, and watching him look again at the bees on the side of the pot. And while Cas studies the plant, Dean studies Cas.

There's been a running list going in Dean's head for the past half hour or so, of all the things that he should have been noticing during the last several months, and he keeps noticing more things to add to the list. The lines at the corners of Cas's eyes seem more noticeable than usual, aren't they? His posture's more hunched than it used to be, isn't it? And he's holding himself a little stiffly — hadn't he looked like that when he first came back to the bunker, a couple months ago? That day when he'd come walking down the stairs so slowly, and had gone sidling around the map-table so stiffly? He looks like he's feeling cold right now, too, even despite the hat and scarf and jacket, and even though he's not even outside yet. It's been getting really chilly out recently — does he need an even warmer coat than the one the hospital staff gave him? (Dean wonders if he should offer to run out and buy a better winter coat.)

Then there's the way Cas keeps straightening his right arm every few minutes. He periodically removes his right hand from the plant pot, straightens the arm, and flexes his hand lightly a few times, as if his arm still doesn't feel quite right after the IV. He also seems to have a habit of placing that hand on his stomach briefly — he's done that before, hasn't he? Running one hand down the front of his jacket, even glancing down at himself sometimes. Cas has been doing that particular little move for months. Dean had assumed, weeks ago when he'd first noticed Cas doing this, that it was something to do with the trenchcoat. But now he's wondering if Cas's stomach or abdomen has just been hurting, all along.

The list-of-things-Dean-should-have-noticed is getting longer and longer and Dean's eyes are practically glued to Cas by now. When Cas finally raises his eyes from the plant, Dean's keenly aware of everything Cas is looking at. There's a woman standing about a foot and a half in front of them, a hospital employee of some kind who's leaning against the elevator side wall with her arms crossed, and Cas's eyes drift to her and linger on her briefly, his gaze flicking up and down her body. He only does this for a moment (then Cas shifts to staring at the elevator buttons), and maybe it's only because she's standing directly in front of him, but it's a jolt because Dean is suddenly reminded, Wait, he isn't gay. The Aaron thing was all a misunderstanding.

He's not into guys. He's into girls.

Dean somehow hadn't fully taken this in until now.

Though it's utterly irrelevant now, of course.

And yet... it's not.

Stop thinking about that, Dean chastises himself. Stop it. Stop it. That doesn't matter now. It doesn't matter anymore.

By the time they reach the lobby, Dean's staring fixedly at the toes of his leather boots, no longer looking at Cas at all. It's taking some concentration to try to repack the last several weeks of Cas-related thoughts (some of which, it has to be admitted, qualify as fantasies) back into the box that they'd somehow escaped from. And shut the box. And put it away, back in the mental corner where it's been sitting quietly for years.

Forget all that, Dean orders himself. He's actually pretty appalled that the "is Cas gay" issue should have surfaced in his mind at all right now, even for a fraction of a second. That's not what he needs, Dean thinks, still staring at his boots. That's not what he wants. Just forget it. Forget all about it.

"Dean?" Cas says, and Dean lifts his eyes to discover that the elevator door's open, they've reached the lobby, and Cas is looking a little puzzled that Dean is just standing still.

They leave the elevator and cross the long lobby, Dean trailing a little bit behind Cas. Dean entirely fails, once again, to ask any of the questions he should be asking, and they reach the front doors in complete silence.

At the lobby doors Dean pauses, wondering if he should offer to go get the car while Cas sits here and rests for a moment, but Cas spots the Impala on his own and strides right out into the parking lot toward it. Dean has to scamper ahead of him, through the chilly night air, in order to reach the car first and unlock Cas's door. Then Cas just gets right in on his own and closes the door without a word.

As Dean's scrambling into the driver's seat, Cas says, without the least bit of preamble, "Pineview Motel, 6505 Colfax." He's got the little plant centered in his lap, both hands wrapped around the pot to hold it steady, and he's staring straight ahead out the windshield as he adds, "Also, um, it would be good to get there soon. I'd like...uh... to get settled for tonight."

There's something a little odd about his phrasing, but Dean doesn't push for details, just nods and says, "You got it." Dean enters the address into his phone, starts the car and at last they're moving. It's a great relief to have to focus on driving again.

 


 

The phone is soon calling out directions to guide them along the fifteen-minute drive to the motel, but Dean's having a little trouble concentrating and he misses a poorly marked exit. Then they get stuck in some rush-hour traffic while the phone tries to figure out which way to send them. Cas starts shifting in his seat.

"The drive usually doesn't take this long," Cas says. "Isn't there a faster route?"

"It'll just be a little longer," says Dean. "Sorry, that exit wasn't really marked that well."

"It's just that I'd like to get to my motel soon," says Cas. "Because... there's... a.... movie starting on the television soon. A movie that I wanted to watch."

Dean darts a glance at him. Cas evades Dean's gaze, turning his head to look out the side window.

"Sorry," Dean says again. "Sorry I missed that exit. That sign made it look like it was the next exit. It wasn't really clear. I, um... I'll get you there. We'll be there in just a few minutes."

Cas is silent, but Dean can practically hear his thoughts: My usual driver never misses that exit. My usual driver knows the way.

Dean speeds up the Impala a little, snatching opportunities to weave in and out of the road lanes where he can, to try to recover a little of the lost time.

Cas speaks up again with, "Maybe you can drop me off and I can take a bus the rest of the way. Or I could walk. We're not far away."

It stings, to a surprising degree, that Cas would consider cutting short this little ride in the Impala with Dean. Especially given that he doesn't really look like he's in great shape for walking. "It's just like ten more minutes," Dean points out. "And, I mean, look, dude, I'm not gonna just let you walk. It's cold out. And you just had... look, you just had... Didn't you just have... Back at the hospital, wasn't that...."

The word is extremely hard to say.

"Chemo," Dean says at last. "Right? That was, uh, chemo, right? Chemotherapy?"

"Yes," says Cas.

There's a moment of complete silence.

"For..." Dean starts.

The next word turns out to be even harder to say.

Dean finally manages to get out, "For, uh, for, is it, um, is it for cancer?"

"That's typically what chemotherapy is for," says Cas, in a very even tone. He's gazing straight ahead out the windshield now, fingers laced tightly around the little plant pot.

"I mean... that's what it is? That's... definitely what it is?"

"Yes," says Cas. He doesn't elaborate.

Dean had known perfectly well that's what it was, but it's terrible to hear the confirmation. It's like all the air has been sucked out of the car. Dean almost can't breathe for a moment, and he has to remind himself to take a long, slow breath, and keep his hands on the wheel, and focus just on steering the Impala.

Dean thinks, We dealt with the Mark of Cain. We dealt with the Darkness. We dealt with the Apocalypse. We can handle this. We can handle this. We'll find a way.

The phone finally guides Dean onto another street that's a lot less trafficky, and soon they're making much better time, cruising past a long line of darkened auto shops and car dealerships. The whole area looks completely deserted but nonetheless Cas says, "You know, Dean, how about if you drop me off at the next corner." He gestures towards a weedy-looking, poorly lit sidewalk. "I can take a bus."

Dean's fingers tighten on the wheel, and he says, his voice suddenly a lot gruffer, "Okay, let's get something straight here. I'm not 'dropping you off' in the middle of nowhere in the freezing cold to take a bus when you just had chemo. Okay? And besides we're all of two minutes away now from your motel. All right?" Dean whips the Impala around the next turn as quick as he can, hoping to shave just a few more seconds off the transit time. "We'll be there any second. Also I'm staying there too. At the motel. Tonight."

"Dean, no," Cas says, quite firmly. "No. I'd just be a... distraction. You should get back to your work. Besides, I sort of..." He hesitates. "My room works best for one person," he says. "There's not really room for anyone else."

Dean has to shove down a memory of sharing a hotel room with Cas in Flagstaff that one night, months ago now. He can't help picturing how happy Cas had looked, back then, when Dean turned up at his door.

"You don't have to share your room," says Dean. "You don't have to share. I didn't mean that. I'll get another room. I won't be in your way. But I'm not just 'dropping you off.' I'll get another room and stay and help."

"There'll be nothing for you to do," says Cas, a little stiffly. "You'd just be bored. I appreciate the offer, but I don't need any assistance beyond this ride." He takes a slightly uneven breath and adds, "I'll be fine."

"So just one more thing," says Dean, navigating one more rapid turn. "If you are not fine, then don't tell me that you're fine. Because, every single time you've told me you were fine? You were not fine. You ever notice you have a habit of that?"

Dean's aware, even as he's saying this, that the "I'm fine" thing is pretty much the Winchester way, actually, and he's expecting Cas to point that out. But Cas has gone silent.

Dean takes a breath. Now the awful "chemo" and "cancer" words have been spoken out loud, now that they're on this quiet darkened road, it's become a little easier to talk. "Cas, you should've told me," Dean begins. "You should've told us. Sam and me. You really should've. We could've been helping."

Cas doesn't say anything. Dean shoots him a glance and finds that Cas is leaning slouched against the Impala door now, with his hands still wrapped very tightly around the plant's pot. The wool hat has gotten slightly askew on his head, but he hasn't fixed it. He's staring out the side window with his jaw clenched.

"We thought you had a, uh.... a girlfriend, actually," Dean confesses, with a sad little laugh. "And, c'mon, dude, you just let us believe it. You knew that's what we were thinking, didn't you? You knew we were off on the wrong track. And you just let us believe it."

"I realize that," Cas says. His voice has gone a little faint.

"Why didn't you tell us?" says Dean. "I mean... how bad is it? What kind is it? What have you tried? Have you asked the other angels? Have you talked to Crowley? Because if you—"

"Dean," Cas interrupts. "I can't talk about this now."

"Well, too bad, you've kind of got to," says Dean. "Because we're gonna figure it out, and there's gonna be a solution, I promise. We'll fix this, I swear. But you gotta talk to me, Cas. You can't hide this kind of thing. We gotta work on this together, dude. I know we can figure something out, I'm certain—"

"No, I mean I can't talk about this now, I mean I can't talk, I—" Cas pauses, sits up a little and suddenly shoves the little plant over toward Dean with one hand, pushing the side of the pot against Dean's thigh. "Take this," says Cas, sharply.

Dean's confused at first. He slows the car as he glances down at the plant.

He realizes, then, that Cas is refusing the gift.

Cas doesn't want the plant.

"Okay," says Dean. "Okay, that's cool, that's totally cool, if you don't want it I'll just—"

"No, hold it, hold it," insists Cas. He's practically shoving the plant in Dean's lap now. Dean grabs it with one hand, even more confused now. Only when he glances over at Cas does he realize that Cas has gone pale, and that he's started sweating despite the chilly air. "Pull over," Cas says, his voice strangled, and now he's fumbling at the door saying, "Pull over, pull over, I'm going to be sick—"

Dean manages to pull over to the shoulder of the road just in time, and Cas barely gets the door half-open before he's retching out the door. It's hit him out of the blue, and it's powerful, a series of full-on retching spasms that are shaking him from head to foot. Dean catches a brief glimpse of a thin, watery vomit that's pouring out of Cas's mouth onto the ground outside. It sounds horrible, it looks horrible, and Dean's so startled by how suddenly it took over Cas that he can't even figure out what to do. At last he remembers to shove the Impala gear lever into Park and flip the blinkers on. Then for a long moment Dean's totally unsure whether he can best help Cas by just kind of waiting casually here in the driver's seat, acting like this is no big deal so as to help Cas laugh it all off later.... or whether Cas might actually need some physical assistance. Cas answers that question a second later by falling out the door.

Dean shoves the plant aside, bolts out of his own door and scrambles around the back of the car. Cas is on his hands and knees, still caught in a series of heaves that aren't even bringing anything up anymore, and he's half-straddling the puddle of vomit that's right outside the passenger door. Dean tries to help, hurrying over and reaching out to try to grab hold of Cas's shoulders to steady him, but Cas gasps out, "No—" and he shoves Dean away with one hand, surprisingly hard. He manages to scuttle on all fours around the puddle of vomit by himself, but he's so unsteady he almost faceplants into the gravel as he makes his way toward the back wheel. He's still half retching and Dean again tries to brace him by one shoulder, but once more Cas tries to shove Dean away, gasping, "No, Dean—"

But he no longer has enough strength to shove very hard. He ends up grabbing onto Dean's shirt instead, knotting his fingers into the front of Dean's shirt. Dean crouches next to him, holding on to Cas's upper arm with both hands, trying to brace him.

"You're okay," Dean tells him (though he's fairly sure this is not true). "You're okay. Just breathe. Breathe."

Then at last the worst of it has passed, though for several more moments Cas is still struggling to take a solid breath of air.

As soon as Cas can breathe again he starts apologizing. "I'm sorry," Cas gasps, as he releases Dean's shirt. "I'm sorry, Dean, I'm so sorry —" Now he's trying to get to his feet. "Sit a bit," Dean suggests, but Cas seems determined to stand, and he staggers up. Dean manages to get one arm around him, and wheels him around a little to prop his back against the Impala, where Cas braces his hands on his thighs, leaning half over. (Dean keeps his arm around Cas's back, and one hand on his shoulder too, in case Cas buckles again.)

"Dean, I'm sorry—" Cas says again. "I got some, I got some on—" He's still having a little trouble breathing; there are abortive half-heaves interrupting his speech on about every other breath, and it's hard to understand what he's saying. Cas finally manages to get out, "On your, on your car, on the door." He's waving one hand at the open passenger door. "I got some on your car, I'm so sorry. Don't touch it—" He points. Dean looks at where he's pointing: there's a little splash of vomit on the very lower edge of the open passenger door.

For a moment Dean's actually hard-pressed not to laugh, for a dozen memories instantly come to mind of the many much worse things that have happened to the Impala over the years. For vomit, let's see, there'd been several times with seven-year-old Sammy getting carsick in the Impala, and there'd been twelve-year-old Dean with the flu, and later a very drunk fifteen-year-old Dean, and then again a few times in his twenties....

Not to mention all the blood and gore. Dean's swapped out the floor mats and scrubbed down the seat upholstery more times than he can remember. Entire seats have been changed out, door panels replaced.

Cas takes an gulping breath and says, in a sudden flow of words, "I'm so sorry, Dean, I'm sorry, I was hoping to get to the motel first, I was trying so hard not to throw up, this whole drive; it always hits around now, the other driver always has a bag, just in case, he knows I always get sick, there's always a bag—"

"It's okay," Dean says, patting Cas's shoulder uselessly. Cas just goes on apologizing. It's occurring to Dean now that the "other driver" probably also doesn't get lost and miss a critical exit and get stuck in traffic and take ages to get to the motel.

The other driver probably doesn't pester Cas to answer a ton of complicated questions about his diagnosis, either. Especially not right when Cas has just finished a round of chemo and is probably feeling his very worst.

The other driver also probably doesn't whip around turns too fast. Cas was already feeling sick, thinks Dean, and I started driving fast.

"I didn't want to tell you about it," Cas is going on, "and there's no bag in your car, and I didn't want to mess up your car, Dean, I'm so sorry, I was trying not to throw up, I was really trying" Cas is trembling; whether it's shivers from the cold or something else Dean can't quite tell, but he's still got one arm around Cas's back and he can feel bouts of shaking that are running through Cas's ribcage. In fact Cas sounds like he's nearly on the verge of tears. And Dean, meanwhile, is having a moment of clarity. Dean's thinking, There's a problem with me being here.

The problem with me being here is, Cas wasn't expecting it. I totally messed up his routine.

And now he's having to worry about me.

But it's not about me. It's not about me at all.

With that thought comes a calmness.

"Can you stand on your own?" Dean asks. Cas nods, so Dean risks letting go of him for a few seconds to kick some dirt and gravel over the offending puddle of vomit, till it's fully covered up — enough so that Cas will be able to get over it safely to get back in the car. Cas, still leaning against the side of the car, watches this almost numbly.

"Can you walk?" says Dean, looking back at Cas. Cas nods again.

"Okay then, let's get you to that motel," Dean says, guiding him back to the passenger seat.

"I'm sorry, Dean," Cas says again, as he sinks down into the seat.

"Cas," says Dean, "Stop apologizing."

"There's some on the door," Cas says faintly, pointing again at the splash of bile-green vomit on the lower edge of the door. "Don't touch it," he adds. "I'll clean it up." With some effort he extracts a Kleenex from the pocket of his jacket (Dean immediately has a flashback to the piles of Kleenex in Cas's dresser) and now Cas is making a feeble effort to try to wipe the door clean. Dean says "Leave it. I'll clean it later."

"But, it's your door, it's the door of your car —"

"The door doesn't matter."

"It's the door of your car, Dean—"

"The door doesn't matter," says Dean, and he's so intent on making this point clear to Cas that it comes out sounding almost angry. Cas blinks up at him. Dean takes a breath and says, forcing himself to soften his voice, "It's not a problem. I swear." Now Cas is just gazing up at him mutely, and Dean tries to think what the next step is. "Do you feel like you're gonna throw up again?" he asks Cas.

"Uh," says Cas. He's visibly trying to regroup, and he straightens up slightly in his seat, pulling another Kleenex out of his jacket pocket and wiping his mouth. "Not immediately," he says. "Usually I get more warning. It comes in waves."

"Okay, um—" Dean says. Long-ago memories of dealing with little carsick Sammy are resurfacing, and Dean thinks, Bag. He needs a bag. A bag to throw up in. And water to rinse out his mouth. Dean looks around at the sidewalk, as if a bag is going to magically appear out of nowhere, and it occurs to him to check the back seat of the Impala. There's often a liquor-store shopping bag or two sitting on the floor back there, and sure enough Dean soon spots, through the Impala window, a stray plastic bag that's partly wedged under the seat. He opens the rear passenger door and grabs it.

"Here's a bag just in case," says Dean, coming back around to Cas's door and handing him the plastic bag. Cas takes it with a tired nod, and Dean adds, "Soon as we get back to your motel you can rinse out your mouth, okay?" Cas nods again; he looks exhausted now, his face almost slack with fatigue. Dean shuts his door carefully, now thinking just, Bag. Rinse out his mouth. Then get him to bed.

 


 

Dean gets back in his seat and starts the car up, taking a critical look at Cas as he does so. Cas looks like he's marginally holding together, but he definitely seems exhausted. He's curled up against the door almost as far away from Dean as he can get. He can't even seem to really hold his head up, and he's avoiding Dean's eyes.

Apparently he's still able to argue, though. As soon as the car starts moving, Cas says, "When we get to my motel, I want you to just drop me off. I'm serious. Drop me off and be on your way. I'll be fine on my own, I promise." He adds, "You should get back to your case anyway."

"There's no case," says Dean. There seems to be absolutely no point anymore in sticking to the original story.

"What?" says Cas, glancing at him. "You said you had a case."

"There's no case."

"What about..." Cas pauses. "What about when you came to the Gas-n-Sip?"

"There was no case then either," says Dean. They're arriving at the Pineview Motel now, and Dean says, as he swings the Impala (gently, this time) into the motel's parking lot, "I just came to hang out a bit."

Cas only gazes at him, looking mostly just confused and tired. He finally says, as Dean's parking the car, "Well... regardless... you should... You should go back to Kansas, then." He regains some momentum and adds, more forcefully, "Go back to Kansas. You've got to understand, this always happens. The vomiting. Every time. Apparently my vessel reacts more strongly than average. I'm used to it. It's normal."

Dean nods. "Uh-huh," he says, cutting the engine. "So I'm just gonna run into the office and see if the motel has a room next door to yours, okay? I'll be right back." He pops the door open and has even started to get out when Cas stops him with a hand on his arm.

"You're not getting it," Cas says. There's a note of frustration in his voice now. "The first twenty-four hours after treatment are... challenging. The first thirty-six, really." His hand tightens on Dean's arm as he says, "It's worse than what you just saw. It's more than you will want to deal with, trust me on that. And I do not need assistance. I've done it on my own many times."

"Yeah, and you're not doing it on your own anymore," says Dean. Cas releases Dean's arm slowly, and he looks so dismayed that now it's Dean who feels compelled to apologize. "Sorry, Cas," Dean says. "I know you've been on some kind of crazy campaign to see this through by yourself, but that's over now. I'm staying. That's the way it's gonna be."

Cas gives a tired sigh, and slumps down a little in his seat.

"What's your room number?" says Dean. "So I can ask for a nearby room."

Cas doesn't answer immediately; he shifts his gaze to staring out the windshield again. But Dean sees one of his hands tighten on his knee, and realizes that Cas has already got his motel key in his hand. A key that no doubt has a room number on it.

Dean says, "Or I can just take a look at that key that you're holding. Or watch till you go to your door and use it." Dean thinks a moment and adds, "Or I can sneak a look at the guest register. Your choice."

Cas is still staring out the windshield. His expression has been, until now, primarily a mix of fatigue and worry, so it's a bit of a surprise when one corner of his mouth crooks up slightly, and he lets out a very faint huff of a laugh.

"Should have known..." Cas mutters to himself.

"Sorry, it comes with the package," Dean says.

"Yeah," says Cas, with a nod. "I've been worried about that." His eyes shift to the little plant, which has been sitting between them for the last part of the drive. Cas reaches over to pick it up.

"I wasn't returning the plant, by the way," Cas says, putting it back in his lap and looking down at it. "Earlier. I wasn't returning it."

"I kind of figured that out when you fell out the door," says Dean.

"I just didn't want to damage it," Cas says. "I was worried I was going to drop it, or..." He hesitates before confessing, "... or vomit on it. To be honest I was rather worried I was going to vomit on it. I don't want to hurt it. I, um, I really want to be sure it's okay." He pauses, still looking down at the plant. "It's going to need light, and water," he says, touching one of its leaves again with one hand. "Maybe some kind of fertilizer."

"I can take care of it if you want," says Dean.

"No, there's a place in my room," says Cas. One of his hands is still on the plant, and his other hand tightens on the motel key. "My motel room has a window. I can put it there. I think there's enough sunlight. I'd like to keep it there."

They both look at the little plant.

"Want me to help you carry it in?" offers Dean.

Cas looks up at Dean with a frown. "I am still capable of carrying a houseplant for twenty feet," Cas says. He actually sounds a little insulted — though he looks, in fact, barely able to carry a blade of grass, and twenty feet definitely seems like a stretch. But Dean accepts his statement with a nod.

"But... maybe you could get the door?" Cas suggests. "And I'll carry the plant."

Rather slowly, Castiel opens his hand and holds out the motel key, and Dean takes it.

 


 

 

A/N - There's nothing like a real crisis to make Dean step up to the plate, right?  Poor Cas, though; in addition to feeling terrible physically, he hates to be seen this way, and he especially hates knowing he's causing worry and stress for Dean. (And, soon, for Sam as well.) But at least it's making Dean realize what really matters. And at least Cas will no longer be alone.

Next week's a travel week for me, from Brazil back to the US, and a few days after I get back I have to have all my stuff packed up to start my cross-country drive to my new home. It's going to be a long series of 14 hour driving days from Maine to Arizona so I'm not sure if I'll be able to get another chapter ready too! If I miss a week (or even two) please forgive me. I'll try to get something up though, even if it's short. 

If you liked this chapter please do let me know. :)

Chapter Text

A/N - Sorry for the skipped week, and sorry in advance if I have to skip next week. I'm in the middle of my cross-country move and there's just been no free seconds at all! It's all pack-pack-pack, drive-drive-drive. I finally got from Brazil to Miami to Philadelphia to Boston to Maine, and then more pack pack pack, and then to New York and then Michigan and now I have a whole 2 days in MIchigan in one place. I actually got some writing time in Ypsilanti yesterday and today, but even so I have only 1 scene for you. Just a tiny little bit of Dean and Cas's next hour together. (At this rate it'll take months of real time just to get through the next 24 hours in the fic!)  At least it's something, right?

Each minute in this fic seems to take such thought and care... this is actually only one very short scene, but I've been thinking about it for two weeks. Hope it feels right to you.

Many thanks to Beezy's cafe in Ypsilanti for the free coffee refills yesterday and today; it helped me see Cas and Dean through this next little part of their journey together.

 


 

 

There's a "Do Not Disturb" sign on Cas's doorknob. Dean pushes it out of the way, unlocks the door and swings it open to find a simple and very plain motel room. Even by Winchester standards it's a pretty rundown place. Dean takes a step inside, looking around at the worn polyester bedcover on the bed, the thin-looking blanket that's heaped on the floor, the home-made curtains, the dim lighting, the beat-up dresser with the crooked drawers. Cheap vinyl flooring creaks a little underfoot; an old minifridge tucked under the kitchenette counter is chugging noisily as if it's on its last legs. It's not dirty, exactly, but it's a step or two below Dean's usual minimum standards (and his minimum standards are pretty low).

The room's a bit of a jumble, too. In addition to the blanket on the floor, Cas seems to have kicked all his pillows onto the floor too, during the previous night. And some of the furniture's in weird places, chairs shoved haphazardly here and there in the middle of the floor. There's even some pots and pans strewn around on the floor too, and a few towels scattered around too, and even some drinks — water bottles and the like. Dean's frowning as he takes it in; Cas isn't normally so messy.

"You know," Dean remarks, turning to look at Cas, "If you don't put the Do-Not-Disturb sign up on your door, there's this person called a 'housekeeper' who'll come and clean up."

"I didn't want to be disturbed," says Cas. He's paused in the doorway, holding the plant carefully with both hands. There's a rather wary look on his face as he watches Dean assessing the room.

"It's not bad," Dean says, trying to give him an encouraging smile, "Clean, at least." (It may not be tidy, but there's no actual dirt visible anywhere.) "And look at you — you actually made it twenty feet," Dean adds to Cas. "With the plant, even. Wanna sit down?" But even as Dean's saying this, Cas's head droops a little, and his eyes go a little unfocused, as if he's listening to something very far away. He's still standing in the doorway, and now he puts one hand on the doorframe to steady himself. He leans over slightly.

His face has suddenly got that pale, clammy look again.

"Cas?" Dean says sharply, taking a step closer. Cas silently holds out the plant. This time he doesn't have to say anything; Dean just grabs the plant, and Cas totters rapidly past Dean to the bathroom, one hand over his mouth now, and he goes inside and shuts the door.

There's the sound of the bathroom door locking, and then there's the sound of the shower starting up. The shower noise almost, but not quite, covers the sounds of the retching.

Dean's left standing in the middle of the room, surrounded by the scattered chairs and pillows, holding the little plant. All he can do is watch the closed — and locked — bathroom door. Watch, and listen.

Long showers, Dean thinks. All those "long showers" he's been taking. For weeks now.

After a moment of standing there uselessly, Dean sets the plant on a battered linoleum table in the corner of the room and tries to occupy himself by straightening the place up a little. He puts the chairs around the table, and tosses all the pillows and the blanket back onto the bed. But he can still hear the sounds that are coming from the bathroom, not quite drowned out by the shower, and as Dean's picking the scattered pans and water bottles and towels up off the floor he falters, staring at the locked bathroom door again.

It's always disturbing to hear someone be sick, of course. But it's extremely disturbing, really almost unbearably disturbing, knowing that it's Cas. And, of course, knowing why it's happening. As Dean slowly sets an armful of towels and pans in a heap on the kitchenette counter, he thinks, An angel shouldn't have to go through this. It's not right.

Not that this kind of thing is ever "right", of course. But it must be especially bewildering for an angel. Castiel's even tried to explain a few times how overwhelming human sensations feel to angels — and he was talking, then, about very ordinary human sensations. Routine ones like hunger, and sleepiness, and the minor pain of a scraped hand. Nothing like this.

He didn't grow up with this, Dean thinks. Cas has been injured, of course, he's been weak, in the past; he's even had a bout with that "stolen grace" and a few scant seconds of illness during that brush with Pestilence, but he's never been routinely sick in quite this way. Cas doesn't know what it's like to get colds, even; he's never had those childhood experiences of having fevers, or the flu; he's never been carsick like little Sammy was. He's never really known extended human illness of this sort.

Had he even understood what was happening to him, the first time he'd thrown up?

And Cas is in there alone.

And... he's locked the door to keep Dean out. Which stings a little, actually.

Getting him to give me that motel key was only half the battle, Dean thinks. A tenth of the battle.

There's finally a pause in the retching sounds.

"Cas?" Dean asks, taking a few steps closer to the door. There's no reply. Dean raps sharply on the door with his knuckles, now starting to think about picking the lock. Or, maybe, just kicking down the door. "Cas! You okay in there?"

"I'm fine," says Cas.

Dean actually rolls his eyes at this. "What did I just tell you, about the I'm-fines? I swear, you better unlock this door, or I'm—"

There's the sound of the toilet flushing. Then the shower stops.

The bathroom door unlocks and creaks open, and there's Castiel, pale and shaky but on his feet. Dean takes a moment to look him over; Cas is having to steady himself with one hand braced on the wall. He's breathing a little heavily, like he's been running, and he's wiping his mouth with another Kleenex. He tosses the Kleenex in the toilet and gives Dean a tired look. "I'm fine now," he says.

Dean ignores that comment. "You should drink some water," Dean says, thinking about how much fluid Cas has probably lost just in the last hour. "If you can keep it down, I mean. You're gonna get dehydrated." He glances over at the water bottles that are now lined up on the kitchenette counter, suddenly realizing that's exactly what they're for. (And he's starting to have an idea about why they'd been all over the floor.) "Come and sit down—" Dean says, and he starts to put a hand on Cas's shoulder, thinking to steer Cas to the little linoleum table so he can sit while he tries to drink something. But Cas wards Dean off with one hand, knocking his arm away sharply.

"Go get your room," Cas says. "Go. You said you'd get another room." His voice is almost stern as he insists, leaning heavily on the bathroom doorframe, "Go, Dean."

It brings to mind a memory of another time, years ago, when Cas had shoved Dean's hand away like that. Another time he'd told Dean to "go," in fact. Back in Purgatory, when Dean had been forced to leave him behind.

At that memory, of course Dean's immediately extra-determined not to leave him. "Okay, Captain Masochist, how about we make a deal?" says Dean. "The deal is, you let me help you for all of one second, and in return I'll help you not fall on your face. Cause you are not looking too steady on your feet there, fella." Again Dean reaches out a hand toward Cas's shoulder; again Cas bats Dean's hand away, and then he tries to sidle around Dean. But sure enough he's only able to take two wobbly steps on his own before his knees simply fold right under him and Cas sinks to the floor. He looks almost confused as this happens, looking all around him as if he can't figure out why he's going down.

"Whoa, whoa there—" says Dean, grabbing him ineffectually around the waist as Cas starts to crumple. It's not a good hold, and for some reason it also makes Cas flinch. He gives an unmistakable gasp of pain and scrabbles hurriedly at Dean's hands with both of his own. That makes Dean let go at once, of course, and then Cas slithers right through Dean's arms to the floor, his fall broken only slightly by Dean flailing to grab one of his hands, while Cas somehow gets hold of the side of Dean's jeans with his other hand. He slides down Dean's side, hanging onto the pocket of Dean's jeans, and lands with a soft thump on his knees, his legs folding almost neatly under him.

"You okay?" Dean says urgently, bending over Cas now with both hands on his shoulders. "What was that? Did I hurt you?"

"No... I'm fine... but where's..." Cas says hoarsely. He's looking around again. "Where's my chairs?"

"Oh, dammit," Dean says, glancing over at the chairs, which are now neatly tucked around the linoleum table. "I moved them. Sorry."

Shit. I moved the chairs. I moved the chairs.

He was expecting a chair right here, a chair to sit on, Dean realizes. But I moved the chairs.

The chairs hadn't been placed randomly at all. They'd been stationed strategically, hadn't they? Cas had put them in those places on purpose. Dean straightens up a little now, still patting Cas's shoulders but also now eyeballing the room layout as he tries to remember where the chairs had been.

Two of them had been placed about two paces apart in a little line between the bed and the bathroom door. Those had been marking a path to the bathroom, hadn't they? A third chair had been positioned halfway from the bed to the kitchenette sink.

Rest stations. Placed about every two steps.

Dean's starting to understood why the pillows had been on the floor, too. He glances over at the kitchenette counter, eyeing the towels and pans and bottles of water. There'd been a blanket on the floor too. All of those had been on the floor by the pillows. Not on the chairs; not always close to the chairs, even; on the floor.

The chairs had been rest stations for when he couldn't walk very far. And, rather horrifyingly, Cas had also laid out a crawling path too. The pillows and the blanket and water bottles, set out every few yards along the floor; that had been a crawling path, for when he was too weak to even walk. And the pots and pans had been to throw up in, probably.

The thought of Cas setting all this up beforehand, putting the chairs in their positions, setting the pillows on the floor... buying the water bottles in advance.... The thought of him planning for it, preparing for it, is awful to contemplate. When had he put it all in place? Last night? This morning? He must have adjusted the arrangement over the weeks, refining his preparations as the months went by....

I moved his chairs, I moved his pillows, thinks Dean. I moved everything. I'm messing it all up.

"Okay, Cas, um," says Dean, a little hoarsely. "It's bedtime for angels, I think. And I'll put the chairs back, and the other stuff. I'm sorry. I didn't know." Dean crouches by Cas's side, delicately maneuvers one of Cas's arms over his shoulders, and carefully puts one arm around Cas's back. He's very conscious now about Cas's bruises and sore spots. "Tell me if this hurts," Dean says, but Cas just mutters the inevitable "I'm fine" and struggles to his feet, with Dean's cautious assistance. But then Cas says, in a rough whisper, as Dean half-drags him over to the bed, "Don't... Don't help me. You can't."

"Cas, come on," says Dean. He's so rattled now, both from having apparently hurt Cas a minute ago, and also from the new, terrible mental image of Castiel methodically setting out those pillows in that little row on the floor, that Dean's getting almost angry. They reach the bed, where Dean deposits Cas, as gently as he can, on the edge of the mattress. Cas sits there in a little heap, gets his breath and looks up at Dean.

"I'm fine," says Cas, and Dean has to laugh.

"This is ridiculous," says Dean. "You gotta let me help you. And you gotta tell me if there are things I'm doing that are gonna hurt."

"Dean, I don't need assistance," Cas insists. "If I need help I'll call you." He makes an effort to push himself a little more upright, bracing himself with one hand, but he looks positively woeful anyway; he's sitting all hunched, half-curled-up, his free hand clutching the scarf that's still around his neck (as if he's feeling cold) and he's shivering again. "I have my phone," he insists. "I'll call. I'll text. You should go."

"Cas, forget it, I'm staying with you," says Dean, as he drags the three chairs back to approximately their original locations.

"You can't be near me," Cas says insistently, shaking his head.

"Dude, you can barely walk!" Dean says, throwing a couple of pillows on the floor in what he hopes are roughly the right positions. Then he grabs a water bottle and a pan from the kitchenette counter, and sticks both in Cas's hands. Cas takes them silently, looking up at Dean with a truly exhausted look on his face. Dean says, "Look, I'm not gonna leave, you gotta get that through your skull."

"You're not getting it," Cas says, almost glaring at Dean now. "I'll be sick. Again. Many times, tonight. Look, you might... you might... " He hesitates, his eyes flicking over Dean's face, and he seems to recognize Dean's stubborn expression. Cas gives an exasperated sigh. "You might get some on you, Dean," he finally says.

"And so what?" says Dean. (Sure, the thought is a little gross, but no way is Dean going to let Cas be the one who has to clean the stuff up.) "If you get sick, I'll help you clean it up. I've dealt with way worse, believe me."

"But it's full of the drugs!" Cas bursts out, looking up at him in real dismay. "I'm full of the drugs! Don't you see?"

Dean blinks at him.

"It's full of the drugs," Cas repeats, with a pained look toward the bathroom, and another glance out toward the parking lot where the Impala is... and the Impala's soiled door, Dean remembers. Cas seems reluctant to say the next few words, but finally he comes out with, "The... the vomit. It's full of the drugs. The chemotherapy drugs. It's toxic. You can't touch it."

This hasn't occurred to Dean at all, and he stares at Cas blankly. Cas lets out a heavy sigh, puts the pan and the water bottle down at his side and points at himself emphatically. "I'm full of the drugs. Don't you understand? The chemotherapy drugs are all throughout my whole vessel right now, Dean, my, my, my body—" (It's odd to hear Cas use the phrase "my body." He's always just said "vessel" before.) "My whole body's toxic right now," Cas says. "I'm toxic. It's running all through me right now, it's in my blood! If you get any of my bodily fluids on you, any at all, if any even gets on your skin, it can make you sick too, Dean. Aaron warned me about it."

Dean can only blink at him again. This is a real health risk? Dean's never even heard about it.

"They warned me," Cas repeats. He's breathing rather heavily again; it's clearly costing him some effort to talk this much. He's now really having to brace himself with one hand just to remain mostly upright and he's again clutching the scarf tightly around his neck with the other hand, but he manages to lift his head enough to look Dean straight in the eye. "At the clinic. Dr. Klein warned me: Any caretakers have to wear medical gloves. I can't let you get sick too, Dean, I can't, I don't want you to feel like this, ever. I couldn't bear that. You have to keep your distance. Please. Go get your room, and stay there. I'll call if I need you."

He's trying to protect me, Dean realizes.

But he's forgotten something.

He's forgotten that Sam and I know how to keep ourselves safe. They've spent their whole lives dealing with bodies, after all. And "bodily fluids," of all sorts.

He's also forgotten that I'm not that easy to order around.

"For how long?" Dean asks.

"W-what?" says Cas, blinking up at him.

"How long are you toxic? The drugs don't stay in you forever, right?"

Cas gazes up at him for a long moment. "Twenty-four hours," he finally says. "That's what they said. About twenty-four hours. For the type of chemo I'm on."

"That's all?" says Dean, relieved. "Just the first twenty-four? That's it?"

Cas nods mutely, looking up at him. He looks almost like a little kid right now, what with the way he's sitting there all curled up, gazing up wide-eyed at Dean.

"Okay," says Dean. "I've got gloves. This is not a problem. I'll use gloves for twenty-four hours."

Cas blinks. "You've got... medical gloves?"

"In the trunk," says Dean. Now Cas looks doubtful, and Dean reminds him, "It's part of the gig, Cas. Morgues. Examining bodies. Digging up graves. Cleaning up the Impala after, y'know, beheading somebody or whatever. We've always got a few boxes of gloves in the trunk, some my size and some Sam's." And as soon as Dean says Sam's name, he remembers, Sam doesn't know.

Sam still doesn't know. And I'm going to have to tell him.

I gotta call him right away.

All Dean's thoughts stall a moment then, and he has to almost shake himself to table that problem for a while and get back on track. "That the only reason you want me gone?" Dean asks Cas. "That why you keep shoving me away? So, no problem, I've got gloves."

But Cas's eyes shift a little; his gaze slides away from Dean's face to the floor. Dean cocks his head, narrowing his eyes as he watches Cas's expression. Cas glances to the side, his mouth tight. It's not the Cas-is-about-to-be-sick-again look, Dean decides, after a moment's study. It's more the classic Cas-is-hiding-something look.

"What else?" Dean demands.

Dean waits through a long pause. He's aware, as he's standing there, that Cas is truly exhausted, and really needs to rest, but Dean's also increasingly certain that there's something else that Cas is not telling him. Something, that is, that's still preventing Cas from letting Dean help. So Dean waits, and finally Cas looks back up at Dean almost sheepishly and says, with an air of confessing something slightly embarrassing, "I also don't want you.... associated... with this. With any of this."

"Associated?" Dean repeats slowly, trying to figure out what Cas means. Now Cas is staring down at the floor with an look on his face that's downright bashful.

"Your... your..." Cas begins, and at last he gives a sigh and waves one hand up at Dean, at Dean's jacket and then at his hair. "Your scent," he says. "Your odor. Your smell. The smell of your jacket, your car, your hair.... all of it." Then Cas adds, apparently thinking this is going to clarify everything, "Olfactory conditioning."

"Olfactory... what?"

"Olfactory conditioning," Cas repeats, and, seeing the blank look on Dean's face, he tries to explain. "I get so very... so... nauseated," Cas says. "It's so strong, Dean. And it's such... a completely horrible sensation. So terrible. I'd had no idea, before, how awful it can feel. It's worse than pain. And, Dr. Klein warned me, if there are... distinctive... tastes, odors, scents, around me, when I'm feeling like this, then, later, those odors, they, um...." He hesitates a moment, glancing down at the water bottle at his side. (Plain water, Dean notices now. The only drinks that Cas has in the room are just bottles of plain water. There's nothing flavored.) "The problem is, you see, later..."

Dean's getting it now. "Later those smells can make you feel sick too? All by themselves?"

Cas nods. "It's already happened with some foods. The hot dogs.... Actually I got worried it would happen with your hamburgers too. It hasn't, but I stopped eating them just in case. I don't want to stop liking them. And, you see.... " Castiel pauses for a moment, and then, slowly, he looks up at Dean. He seems to have gotten over the shyness, for now he looks Dean right in the eye, and he says, very simply, "You have a scent that I like."

Dean just looks at him.

Cas explains, "Your jacket. Your car. Your, your, cologne, maybe, I'm not sure what it is, but it's you. It's your scent. I don't want it associated with this."

"Okay...." says Dean, as it sinks in. "Okay. I think I get it...."

Cas nods. Clearly he thinks he's made his point, for he seems to let himself collapse now. He mutters, "So you see, you have to leave," and with that he just folds right over onto his side on the bed, without taking off his jacket or scarf (or the hat, of course) and without even bothering to get his feet fully up on the bed. He ends up slumped on his side with his legs still dangling off the side of the bed, blinking blearily at the little houseplant that's sitting on the table.

Dean wants to help Cas take off his shoes, but he's now intensely aware of precisely how far he's standing from Cas's nose. There's a distance of four feet or so separating them right now; is that enough? The thought of Cas actually maybe feeling nauseated, in the future, just from Dean's very presence, is a truly frightening idea. Which way is the air circulating in the room? There's a little room heater installed in one wall of the motel room and it's blowing warm air around, and it's suddenly become very important to determine whether Dean is standing upwind or downwind of Castiel.

I gotta help him anyway, Dean realizes. I absolutely have to.

At least Cas doesn't seem to be feeling very nauseated right at the moment— he's just gazing at the plant now, almost calmly, and he's breathing more evenly — so at last Dean gingerly inches just close enough to reach down to take one of Cas's shoes off, and then the other. Cas lets out a soft sigh as Dean does this, but he says nothing; his eyes drift to Dean for a moment, and then he returns to looking at the plant. Dean carefully lifts his feet up on the bed, still oddly aware of the exact distance from his position at Cas's feet to Cas's nose. Then, gently, Dean shakes out the blanket over Cas.

Throughout all this, Dean's thinking about angels, and their exceptional senses, and about how good Cas's sense of smell has always been. Even when Cas has been mostly mortal he's always had that extra-sharp hearing... and that extra-keen sense of smell.

And Dean's also thinking about how Cas keeps simultaneously shoving Dean away and yet also (often mere seconds later) grabbing onto him again.

And then Dean remembers about werewolves.

Werewolves track people by scent. They're extraordinarily good at it. Better than angels, even; Dean's pretty sure werewolves have got to have the best scenting capabilities of all. Yet even so, there'd been that one time when Dean had worn another person's jacket to cover his own scent, and it had actually worked. He'd actually managed to sneak up on a pack of werewolves successfully.

The jacket trick worked for the werewolves; could it work for an angel?

I'll change all my clothes, Dean thinks, still standing a careful four feet away as he watches Cas's eyes drift shut. And take a shower. No cologne, and I won't use my usual shampoo or aftershave or anything like that, and I'll switch out of my usual clothes... definitely a different jacket.... Something with a strong smell. But something that's not MY smell. If he imprints on some smell I'm gonna make sure as hell it's not gonna be mine.

And there's the gloves, too. With any luck Cas'll just end up hating the smell of exam gloves.

But even if he does end up hating my smell, I'm staying anyway. That much is obvious.

Because it's not about Dean, after all. And it's not about what Dean wants. It's really not.

Cas's hands close on the edge of the blanket and he pulls it tighter around his chest. "Go, Dean," he mutters.

"I'll go," agrees Dean this time. "But I'll be right back. Will you be okay for, like, twenty minutes on your own?"

"Been doing this for months on my own," whispers Cas, his eyes still closed. He sounds barely awake, but what he says is true, of course. As Dean slips out the door with Cas's room key in his hand and as he gets in the Impala, as he spins the car out of the parking lot on a very hasty jacket-shopping expedition, he knows that it's true: Castiel has been doing this for months, all alone.

 


 

A/N - I have hopes of getting a bit written in motels on Mon & Tues nights, and hopefully having at least 1 more scene for you next Friday. But there might have to be another two-week skip since my drive doesn't finish till Thurs and then I have to move into my new house immediately on Fri. If you don't see anything on Friday, keep checking in over the weekend. (And yes, I've got a whole Winchester Road-Trip spotify playlist fired up for the road trip, thanks to the fine folks at fandomnatural.)

Thanks for your patience, and thanks for sticking with this so far. Hope it feels worth it.

 

Chapter Text

A/N - I finally reached my destination! 2700 miles of driving, all of it solo. 2/3 of it was on the original Route 66, with classic rock playing constantly on Spotify to put me in a Supernatural frame of mind. :)  (I went past so many classic old Rte 66 motels and diners, and even saw a museum exhibit about Rte 66, which even included Kerouac's hand-drawn cover illustration for the original manuscript of "On The Road", the novel that inspired the Sam and Dean characters in Supernatural. Suffice to say I now have SO MANY IDEAS for Supernatural Route-66-based road trip fics!) Anyway it's taken a while to get internet running in my new place but it's finally running now and I got a couple days of writing time. Here's the first couple bits. The next piece after this is nearly done and will probably be posted tomorrow.

 


 

I should call Sam, Dean thinks. The Impala's paused at a red light that seems to be lasting a while, and Dean's hastily looking up the location of the nearest stores on his phone. He finds a Target nearby that's still open, and then tries to place a quick call to Sam. The traffic light's still red, the pedestrian crossing light hasn't even started blinking yet, and it'll only take a second to hit the Call button and put the phone on speaker. Then he can talk to Sam while he drives. But Dean hesitates for a long moment, finger hovering over the Call button, and then a car behind him is honking. Somehow the seconds have slipped away and the traffic light has turned green already.

Not really enough time right now to explain things anyway, thinks Dean, tossing the phone on the passenger seat as he accelerates through the intersection. The rest of the drive only takes a couple of minutes and then Dean's finding a spot in the Target parking lot. Again he knows, as he gets out of the Impala and begins striding rapidly toward the big front doors, that he could really take just one quick minute to call Sam. He's actually got his phone in his hand again now and could easily place the call. But he doesn't. It still seems there's not enough time. And of course, Castiel is sick and alone, all alone, back in that depressing motel room, and he's going to need some help tonight (whether or not Cas'll admit it), and that means Dean needs to get this errand done as quickly and efficiently as possible. So there's no time to call Sam.

I'll call Sam later, Dean decides.

But he knows, as he shoves his phone in his pocket, that he's avoiding the call, just because he's dreading having to break the news. He's even starting to feel a qualm of guilt about it. But nonetheless the phone stays in his pocket as he grabs one of the big red Target carts.

Just buy some random weird-smelling stuff and get back the motel pronto, Dean thinks, rolling the cart along at such a fast pace that he nearly mows down a few people who are trundling ahead of him with a cart laden with food. He veers around them and almost hits another cart, which is also full of food, and then realizes that the whole store seems unusually crowded. Especially the grocery section, which seems crammed with people pushing carts that look totally overloaded with mounds of potatoes and vegetables and.... turkeys, and cans of pumpkin....

Oh, right, Dean finally remembers. Thanksgiving. It's Monday night of Thanksgiving week. One of the busiest food-shopping days of the entire year.

Dean hesitates, looking around at the chattering crowds of people. They're mostly in family groups, usually with one adult manning an overloaded cart while others dart off on special errands. Small kids are zooming around, sent off on targeted single-ingredient missions to hunt down missing items like butter or flour, while other people are going all the way to the kitchen section to grab the last of the pie plates and roasting pans, or to the fabrics area to get extra towels for all their houseguests.

Dean wastes a good fifteen seconds just watching all the people rushing around. But it's like he's watching a stage play; the whole holiday seems irrelevant. The festive Thanksgiving families who are flowing around Dean, carrying their rolling pins and their bags of cranberries and boxes of stuffing mix this way and that, seem to belong to another universe.

All that really matters, the only thing that's real, is that Castiel is back in that motel room alone.

Dean pulls his cart into a U-turn and heads to the other side of the store, away from the food area and the holiday crowd.

There's relative calm in the bath-products section, and the shampoo aisle turns out to be totally deserted. Dean wanders past shelves of bubble bath, shampoos, and conditioners, as well as dozens of other bath products he's never really noticed before: "body washes," "face scrubs," "body butter". He's not even sure what these all are (all kinds of strange new stuff seems to have appeared over the last decade or so, while Dean's been busy with Hell and Purgatory and various other things). He picks up one bottle after another, unsure what they're for exactly, and totally uncertain what to get. It's becoming clear that this "weird-smelling things" shopping mission might take more thought, and more time, than he'd planned.

Funny that Cas noticed how I smell at all, Dean thinks, as he picks up some "coconut-vanilla body butter", unscrewing its cap to take an experimental whiff.

He probably just noticed because angels have such a good sense of smell, he thinks, as he sniffs a "grapefruit and gardenia body wash."

Well, that and the fact that he's definitely been around me during some stinky times. Dean's always taken some pride in trying to keep himself clean and well-groomed, even when doing those tiring cross-country journeys in the lowest tier of motels. It's important, in this nomad life, to take care of oneself; it keeps spirits up. (Not to mention that a professionally tidy appearance helps sell the FBI role.) But he has to admit that there've been times when certain personal hygiene habits had to be tabled for a while. Purgatory definitely comes to mind; Cas must've got a noseful of some pretty foul odors back then.

These days, though, Dean's hopeful that his "scent" is only the everyday faint mixture that every person carries, that inevitable, barely-noticeable blend of bath and laundry products, maybe with a dash of cologne on top.

Along with that unmistakable hint of individual identity.

Cas's exact words had been, You have a scent that I like. Dean can practically hear it again in his mind.

Cas likes Dean's scent. Enough, apparently, to have actually done some planning about it. Planning aimed at ensuring that he'll continue to like it.

You have a scent that I like, Dean hears again, and now he's getting embarrassed at how much he wants to take a little time to think some more about this phrase; how pleasant the idea is, how much it somehow seems to warm his heart, even despite all the awful things that have happened today. How much he'd like to sit down and just contemplate what else it might mean.

Focus, dude, Dean orders himself. He picks up a "bath foam" at random and finds it's strawberry-scented. But it'd be a pity if Cas ended up hating the scent of strawberries, wouldn't it? What if he wants to eat strawberries later? Or coconuts, or grapefruits, for that matter. Dean puts down the strawberry-scented bath foam, finally realizing that nothing in this entire aisle is going to be suitable for a scent that Cas might end up hating. Everything's scented with flowers, or spices, or foods. Nice things, like cinnamon and apples and lavender. These are all good smells, from good things, things that Cas might conceivably want in his life later.

Later. There's a certain optimism to this whole scent-shopping expedition, actually; it implies that there will, in fact, be a "later" to worry about.

Come to think of it, if Cas has been avoiding Dean primarily (or at least partly) to avoid scent-associations, that means Cas himself has been planning all along that there will be a "later," doesn't it?

This is an incredibly encouraging thought. Especially since Cas hasn't dropped any hints at all yet about diagnosis — or, even more critically, prognosis.

Cas has been planning for a 'later,' Dean thinks, and there's a little more bounce in his step now as he starts cruising through the rest of the store, now looking for non-flowery scents.

Soon he's completed a circuit of the store and is staring down at a cart that's loaded with a very oddball assortment of every "weird-smelling", or least unique-smelling, item that Dean could find. The assemblage includes a bag of little cedar chips to store with one's clothes, a box of mothballs, some sunblock, a bottle of insect repellent, a citronella candle, a few sticks of incense, a tin of shoe polish, a bag of curry powder, a few bags of odd-smelling teas, and nearly a dozen other things. But what if he wants to polish his shoes someday? Dean thinks, picking up the shoe polish, and then the cedar chips. What if we end up in a cedar forest on some hunt? And then, as Dean's sifting through the jumble of objects, he catches a strange whiff of tea and mothballs together. It's a peculiar blend that somehow smells like neither one but, rather, like a new third thing, and it occurs to Dean then that maybe he could create a new and uniquely weird aroma simply by mixing a few of these unusual scents together. Maybe if he makes a mixture, a mix that Cas is unlikely to encounter anywhere else, then any single component of it won't cause Cas too much trouble in the future.

Dean buys a random assortment of the weird-smelling things, along with a quick selection of soaps and shampoos (mostly just distinguished by the fact that they're not Dean's usual brands) and a new set of clothes. Soon he's heading out of the store laden with Target shopping bags, and ten minutes later he's back at the motel.

He still hasn't called Sam.

 


 

Dean goes immediately to check on Cas, knocking on the door lightly first and then using Cas's motel key to pop the door open and peek inside.

Cas turns out to be up again; he's sitting on one of the chairs that Dean had hastily placed back in position, apparently on his way back toward the bed from yet another bathroom trip. When Dean first catches sight of him, Cas is sitting very slumped in the chair, his head down, and he's picking half-heartedly at the cap of the water bottle.

There's something awfully disturbing about the sight of Cas sitting there in that chair all by himself, in the middle of this barren, dimly lit motel room, just staring at the water bottle. But at least Cas seems more alert this time, and he lifts his head when he hears Dean at the door, and even puts a hand up to his wool hat, apparently checking that it's still in place. (He's still got his jacket and scarf on, too.)

"I'm back," Dean announces. "Hey, you trying to get back to the bed? Want some help?" Dean takes a step forward, but Cas shakes his head and holds his hand out in a "stop" gesture, as if to bar Dean from coming closer.

"Didn't I tell you?" complains Cas. "You have to stay away."

"Yeah, about that," says Dean. "I got a plan." He raises the Target bags with a grin. Cas stares at them blankly.

And then Cas sniffs the air.

"What is that.... smell?" says Cas. He straightens up a little in his chair, putting the water bottle down in his lap, and he sniffs the air again. "Is that... What is that?"

Dean grins at him. "It's not me, I'll tell you that much."

"It's certainly not," Cas agrees. He's looking puzzled now, as he sniffs the air a third time, and he says, "It's rather like... a giant ground sloth? Or something like it. But they're extinct."

"Hold that thought," says Dean. "I'm just gonna go take a quick shower and change my clothes, okay? You good for another fifteen minutes?"

Cas nods tiredly. "I'm not going anywhere," he says. He then manages to stand on his own, and even totters the two remaining steps to the bed on his own — though he immediately collapses onto his side again once he gets there. Dean risks taking a few steps closer, just enough to help Cas get his feet up on the bed once more, and then Dean picks up all the Target bags, slips back out the door, and hurries to the motel office to book a second room.

 


 

The girl in the motel office says there is indeed a room available that's right next to Cas's, so Dean books it immediately. It seems likely that Dean'll be spending much of the night in Cas's room, actually, but a second room seems like a good idea anyway. Mostly because it'll provide a second bathroom, one that Dean can use while Cas retains exclusive use of his own (which it seems like Cas might need).

The new room turns out to be furnished much like Cas's — cheap vinyl flooring, polyester bedspread and another creaky minifridge. But Dean barely notices the details; all that he's concerned about is the shower. He plunks all his Target bags on one of the beds, upends the bag that has the bath products and most of the new clothes, and rips the tags off everything. Then he strips down to take a quick, but thorough, shower, scrubbing himself all over with the new brands of soap and shampoo. None of his final soap-and-shampoo selections are strongly scented (the strongest scent will come later, on an item of clothing), but they're all different brands than usual. After the shower Dean continues his scent-transformation with new brands of deodorant, toothpaste and mouthwash. He tops it all off with a light spritz of Axe body spray (which is absolutely not Dean's usual brand), muttering under his breath, "Sorry, Cas, you'll never be able to go to a frat party again."

Then Dean pulls on his new clothes: underwear, jeans, socks and a new plain t-shirt. All of these have only the faint, bland, slightly chemical scent common to factory-made clothing (presumably it's the smell of Chinese factories, or maybe of trans-Pacific container ships).

Last of all Dean pulls out his piece-de-resistance. It's a cotton hoodie sweatshirt, rather than a jacket; the hoodie seemed like it might soak up new aromas more quickly than a jacket, and it'll also be easier to wash if there are any particularly messy bathroom episodes. The hoodie's been spending the last half hour wadded up in a plastic shopping bag along with a mixture Dean had created on the spot, right there in the Target parking lot: two mothballs, a few cedar chips, several crushed cilantro leaves, a single shredded menthol cigarette, a tiny spritz of insect repellent, a dash of yellow curry powder and a handful of smoky-flavored Lapsang Souchong tea leaves (it was the weirdest-smelling tea Dean could find). Just a dash of each scent; the idea is not to be overwhelming, but to be unique.

Dean shakes the hoodie out over a pan from the kitchenette. All the loose ingredients fall into the pan, and when Dean takes a whiff of the resulting smell that remains on the hoodie, it turns out the overall aroma actually isn't bad. But it's certainly unusual, which is just what Dean was hoping. Best of all, it smells less like any one of its components and more like its own thing. Giant ground sloth, apparently, Dean thinks. Huh. Who knew. Maybe giant ground sloths had a thing for Lapsang Souchong tea.

Dean's also pleased to discover that once everything's been shaken out, the hoodie doesn't smell extremely strong; it's just a faint (but distinct) aroma. Hopefully it'll strike that balance between covering up Dean's own scent while at the same time not completely overwhelming poor Cas.

"All right, here goes nothing," says Dean out loud. "Eau de Giant-Ground-Sloth." He pulls on the hoodie, and then grabs his keys to head out to the Impala to fetch a handful of nitrile exam gloves. He's halfway out the door when his phone buzzes with a text. It's Sam.

 


 

Sam's text reads:

So what'd you get for the gift?

Dean stares at the text for a long moment, and then he types, slowly:

A plant

... and he presses Send, even though he knows he should be calling Sam right away.

What kind of plant? replies Sam a moment later.

Once again, Dean finds himself not placing the phone call that he most definitely should be placing. Instead he texts back:

Potted houseplant. Don't know what it is

Sam asks, From the Home Depot?

Yeah, Dean replies.

Then Dean finds himself typing out:

Has yellow flowers

He types it very slowly, one careful letter at a time. He sends that, and then composes another one and sends it too:

And bees on the side. Painted bees I mean

Dean's actually grumbling to himself, "Frickin' call him, you coward," by the time he sends off the text about the bees. But he still doesn't call, and a moment later Sam replies with:

Not bad. They like it? What's she like?

Dean stares at that message for a long moment.

He's keenly aware, as the seconds slowly tick by, that every second that elapses without Dean telling Sam exactly what's going on is one more second of relative peace and happiness for Sam. Because Sam has actually been pretty happy for the last couple months. Maybe not shouting-for-joy happy exactly, maybe a little bored even, but the days at the bunker have been mellow and calm, and Sam's been acting relaxed and comfortable. It's been really nice seeing him so relaxed, in fact.

But the moment Dean tells him about Cas, Sam's peace and happiness will end.

Then Dean thinks, I bet this is exactly what Cas was thinking when he didn't tell us: Don't burst their bubble.

He didn't realize we would WANT to know.

Dean pulls up Sam's number and, biting his lip, he punches the Call button.

Sam answers with, "I was just relieved you didn't give him girlie mags. Though I guess you wouldn't dare with Erin on the scene, huh?"

The cheerful joking tone in Sam's voice knocks Dean into silence.

"Dean? You there?"

"Yeah," says Dean, and he starts pacing in a small circle around the empty motel room.

"So what's she like? Did you meet her?"

"Um. Listen. I, uh." Dean stalls a moment, then stops walking, sits down on the bed, takes a breath, and finally manages to say, "I got some news. About Cas." Dean knows, as he's speaking, that the tone of his own voice is not totally normal. Every word's coming out clipped and tense and low.

There's absolute silence for a long moment. Dean closes his eyes, thinking, That. That right there. That was the moment that the bubble burst.

"What news," says Sam finally, and the cheerful joking tone is completely gone, as Dean knew it would be. In fact Sam's voice is now pitched about a half-octave lower than usual. Dean realizes then that Sam's gone straight to the worst possibility.

"No, no, not that," Dean says hastily. "He's alive. He's alive." For now, adds an evil little voice in the back of his head.

"What, then?" says Sam. He sounds only very slightly relieved. "Lucifer? What is it?"

"No, not Lucifer," Dean says. He tries to say Cas has cancer but somehow it won't come out, and Sam starts filling the silence with random guesses:

"Rowena?" asks Sam.

"No, not Rowena," says Dean.

"Crowley?" says Sam next.

"No... it... uh...."

"The angels? Did Cas get stabbed or something?"

"No... no stabbing... He's not hurt... He's right here actually... But...."

"Well then, what is it? Amnesia again? A coma? Something about his grace again?"

"No, nothing like that. It's.... " says Dean. Still the words won't come. Sam's quiet now, waiting, and finally Dean gets out, "We had it all wrong, Sam. Cas doesn't have a girlfriend. Or a boyfriend."

"Oh," says Sam, "Okay...." Now he sounds confused, and belatedly Dean remembers that Sam had never been thinking about Cas having a boyfriend in the first place. Sam never knew about the whole "Aaron" thing.

"Okay... so.... " Sam says. "Um, what are you saying exactly?"

"He, uh, the 'Erin' that Cas was talking about, it's spelled A-A-R-O-N. It's a he, and he's a doctor and, he's, uh... he's Cas's oncologist."

There's silence for a moment.

"He's Cas's what?" says Sam.

"Oncologist," says Dean. "It's a kind of doctor, y'know, it's a doctor who treats—"

"I know what an oncologist is," says Sam, in a heated rush, as if he's trying to cut Dean off before Dean can say the word.

But it has to be said. "He's got cancer," Dean says. He takes a breath and says it again: "Cas has cancer. That's what's been going on. That's what all his trips are about. He's on chemo. He's been on it for months. Three weeks on and a week off. I tracked him down and I found him in this, um, chemo treatment ward, in a hospital here in Denver. That's why he's been wearing the hat. That's why he's losing weight, that's why he's changed what he's eating, that's why he's been doing all the trips."

There's a very long pause. Dean can hear Sam breathing; it's a series of stiff jerky breaths, as if Sam keeps trying to say something but can't quite come up with any words.

Sam finally comes out with a rough, "And he didn't tell us?"

"I know," says Dean.

"He let us think it was a girlfriend?"

"Yeah. Kind of a sucker punch, isn't it. I found out a couple hours ago."

"I don't believe it," says Sam. "He... he didn't frickin' tell us? For months? Dean, I.... are you serious?" Apparently Sam doesn't even need to hear the answer to that, for he goes right on with a series of the inevitable questions: "What kind? What stage? How bad? What's the prognosis?"

"I don't know."

"What do you mean you don't know? Have you asked him?"

"He's kind of puking his guts out right now. I guess this is the worst night for him, right after chemo. Didn't seem like the best time to put him through an interrogation."

"Fuck," says Sam. It's a word he doesn't often use, and it comes out in a kind of gasping breath, as if he wants to cry. "I can't believe this! After everything...."

"I'm gonna stay with him tonight," says Dean.

"Yeah, yeah, of course," says Sam, like this is so obvious it didn't need saying. He pauses a moment, and when he finally speaks again, his voice is a little more controlled. Dean knows then that Sam has already switched gears into planning. "I'm coming out too," says Sam. "Where are you guys?"

"Pineview Motel, on Colfax, in Denver," Dean tells him, and it's amazing what a rush of relief it is to know that Sam's on board now. Sam can start on the research, Sam'll be here soon, Sam's always been good at medical stuff, Sam'll be a huge help — but then Dean remembers how long the drive is. It took Dean all day to get here, in fact, and it's late now. So Dean adds, "But don't start tonight. Come tomorrow morning. "

"No, Dean, I could start driving right now. I'll just grab one of the other cars and —"

"And drive right through the night till five a.m.? Last thing we need is you wiping out pulling an all-night drive alone," says Dean. He means it; all those deadly everyday things that Dean's had the luxury of ignoring, like car crashes, like cancer, are suddenly seeming a lot more terrible, and a lot more likely, than he's really ever realized before. "Start in the morning," Dean says. "And you know what, now that I think about it, get a rental car that you can leave here in Denver. Otherwise we'll end up with three cars here. But you know what would be awesome: can you do some research tonight before you go to bed? Especially on chemo side effects? Like, what to do for chemo patients? And let me know if there's anything I really need to know? He warned me about needing gloves, which I totally didn't know, and, Sam, he's way sicker than I was expecting. Can you check up and see, like... how sick is normal?"

"On it," says Sam. "I'll text you with what I find out. You with him now? Can I talk to him?"

"He's next door. Barely able to talk though."

"Don't tire him out then. But tell him I said hi," says Sam. Then he adds, "More than hi. You know what I mean."

"Yeah," says Dean, "Got it."

"Okay, you get back to him then," says Sam. He adds one more heartfelt "Fuck," and heaves a tired sigh. "Well, we wanted normal-people problems, didn't we."

Dean almost laughs, remembering that conversation in the car a few months ago. Back when they'd left Arizona without Cas... back when Cas had chosen to remain in Flagstaff by himself. Probably for those 'extra tests', Dean realizes now. The tests that doctor in the Flagstaff hospital had wanted to run.

"Yeah, we did," says Dean. "And it turns out normal-people problems suck."

Sam gives a heavy sigh. "You told me I'd be sorry when the termites came," he says. "I really should've listened."

 


 

A/N - Next part will be up later this weekend - it just needs a bit more polishing - so keep checking in.

Thank you for reading, and please let me know if there was anything in particular that you liked in these little scenes!

Chapter Text

 

A/N - Here's the next little bit. Warning for any who need to know: more bodily-fluids ahead. I should also explain, for any who are dealing with chemo in reality right now, that Cas's symptoms are worse than the typical chemo patient will experience, for reasons that will become apparent.

 


 

Still clad in the Eau-de-Giant-Ground-Sloth hoodie, Dean heads out to the Impala to grab the gloves. But once at the car he finds himself putting a hand on the Impala's sleek roof and just standing there for a moment. He takes a couple deep breaths, sets his other hand on the roof too, and even strokes the Impala's shiny surface a little with both hands, as if the car can stabilize him somehow. He realizes he's trying to settle himself. Sam's reaction had been more or less exactly what Dean was expecting, but that heartfelt "Fuck", so loaded with shock and misery, is still echoing in Dean's ears.

He stares up at the sky. In most cities it's hard to see any stars at night, but Denver is pretty high and the atmosphere's clearer here; a few stars are actually peeking through the darkness. Dean looks up at them in silence. Often, in his cross-country journeys, he tries to pick out the Big Dipper in the nighttime sky. It's one of the few constellations he knows, and it's one of the very few that's always in view, from anywhere in America, in every month of the year. He looks for it now. After a moment he finds it, hanging low in the north.

Serene, unchanging, an infinity away, there it is. Untouched by the chaos on Earth, it just keeps wheeling in its slow, stately circle around the northern sky.

We've been to Hell and back, all of us, Dean reminds himself, as he gazes at the Big Dipper. We've stopped the Apocalypse; we dealt with Lucifer, we dealt with frickin' God himself.

We can deal with this.

Finally he pops the trunk, grabs a box of medical gloves and pulls a pair on, and heads on in to Cas's room.

 


 

Cas is still on the bed, but when Dean enters he seems to be in the middle of pushing his blanket aside and trying to sit up again. He's looking toward the bathroom door with an expression of great concentration, as if getting to the bathroom again is going to involve a long, complicated overseas journey that he has to think about.

"Hey, dude, how ya doing?" Dean asks. Cas glances toward him. One hand goes briefly to his head again, checking that the wool hat is in place. (It seems to be almost a reflex for Cas to keep checking the hat now and then.) Then Cas's eyes drop to Dean's hands, which are both now sheathed in exam gloves, in that CSI-classic shade of bright blue. Dean's carrying the box of extra gloves in one gloved hand and he waves the box at Cas, saying cheerfully, "Told ya. See, I got a whole box more."

Cas relaxes detectably at that; Dean can almost see one of the layers of worry disappearing from his face. Then, as Dean closes the door and walks across the room to set his keys, phone and the box of gloves on the table in the corner, Cas sniffs the air again.

"That smell," Cas says. "It's really quite... different."

"100% giant ground sloth." says Dean, and he plucks at the front of the hoodie to show Cas where the odor's coming from. "My alter ego. Giant ground sloth at a frat party, to be precise. Courtesy of Target's tea aisle, and a few other things."

"I can't smell you at all," says Cas, with another sniff. He sounds half relieved and half disappointed.

"That's the idea," says Dean. "And now you'll let me stay, right?" He says this with a hint of challenge in his voice, already bracing for another argument, but Cas, who's sitting up on the bed now, actually smiles. It's a pretty weak smile, really just a twitch at the corners of the mouth, but it's such a relief to see him smile at all that Dean gives him a big grin back.

"You definitely owe me one for the Axe, bro," adds Dean. "And don't think I'll forget it. That stuff's horrific." Dean takes a seat in one chair that's still by the little table (carefully leaving all the other scattered chairs untouched) and he tells Cas, "And by the way Sam's on his way. He'll get here tomorrow."

Cas's faint smile disappears. His shoulders drop a little, and he looks at the floor, one hand clenching a little on the edge of his blanket.

"I'd hoped not... to bother... either of you," he says softly. (He seems quite tired; he's speaking in very short phrases.)

"We want to be bothered," Dean tells him. Cas just gives him a very sad look. It's clear he still doesn't really get it, so Dean adds, "Look, dude, Sam's coming out to help because he wants to. You have friends who wanna help, and we're gonna help, and you're just gonna have to suck it up and deal with it. Oh and, Sam says hi. More than hi."

"More than... hi?" says Cas, frowning. He sounds puzzled by the idea.

"I think he meant bear-hug hi," explains Dean, "but he can tell you himself when he gets here."

Cas thinks about that, and at last he nods. He still doesn't look happy, exactly, about Sam and Dean both knowing, but at least looks more resigned. He takes a rather deep breath as if to say something more, but then just lets out the breath without saying anything. He takes another deep breath, and lets that one out too, and it occurs to Dean now that Cas has been having some trouble speaking, and that now he's not even getting out any words at all. Dean watches him closely, now studying his rate of breathing. It's accelerating.

It keeps accelerating. Dean feels a twinge of worry, and he suggests, "Better lie down again, huh? You don't look so good, if you don't mind me saying."

"Actually," says Cas, speaking with obvious effort, "I won't be able to... stay in bed... much longer."

That doesn't make much sense — Dean had been envisioning that Cas would certainly be spending the entire night in bed, if not the next day too. Cas glances at Dean and seems to see his confusion, for he says, managing this time to get out a whole series of phrases in between the increasingly deep panting, "I have to move to... the bathroom... next. I'll... stay there a while. I usually... shift there for... most of the night."

Dean frowns, trying to picture what he's saying: does Cas literally sit on the toilet all night? Sit on the floor? Sleep in the tub? What exactly? Dean's opening his mouth to ask what he means when Cas stiffens and starts scanning around the bed, looking around to his sides with a distinct air of urgency. He's even pushing the blanket around. He's looking for the pan, Dean realizes, the rectangular brownie baking pan that Dean had handed him earlier; it's sitting on the other side of the bed behind Cas's back. Dean scrambles out of his chair, hurries around the bed, grabs it and offers it to Cas.

Cas clutches at it gratefully and then sits very still, holding the pan dead center in his lap, his head bowed a little, still taking those heavy, deep panting breaths. He's almost frozen for a moment, and Dean, now standing over him watching him intently, is pretty sure he's going to throw up again right then and there. But then Cas suddenly lurches to his feet and begins staggering toward the first of the bathroom chairs.

Dean grabs one of his arms and steers him to Bathroom Chair #1 (as Dean's now thinking of it), where Cas collapses abruptly, his legs almost giving way under him. Somehow he's kept hold of the pan, and he clutches it in his lap again, and sits there panting for a moment, Dean hovering over him.

"You all right?" Dean asks. Cas looks up at him.

"You should put... the TV on," says Cas, with a nod toward the ancient little TV that's squatting on top of the dresser.

This is such an unexpected comment that Dean gives a little snort of laughter. Cas frowns up at him and says, "You're gonna... get bored."

"You seriously think I'm gonna just lie back and watch American Idol reruns or something?" says Dean, looking down at him in disbelief. "Just lie back and eat some popcorn, while you're staggering around the room doing your best Frankenstein impression?"

Cas actually nods.

"Holy...." Dean starts to say, but words fail him. He gives up and shakes his head. "Think again, dude."

"You're gonna... get bored," Cas insists, still frowning up at Dean. He's still speaking in those halting phrases, and he seems barely able to keep his hold on the brownie pan, but he manages to say, "It's a lot of... throwing up. A lot. Repetitive. And, Dean, don't worry, it's normal for me if I...."

He stops talking. All at once, from one breath to the next, Cas's face pales, the blood draining from his face. He's also suddenly covered in sweat. His eyes go glassy — wide and unfocused — and he manages to mutter, "I gotta lie down..." and starts almost keeling over toward the floor.

Dean grabs one of his arms and tries to haul him back to the bed. But it turns out that Cas is trying to go the other way, toward the bathroom. With the last of his strength Cas tugs against Dean's hold and in the end he goes nowhere at all, but just slithers out of the chair onto his knees, the pan clattering down unnoticed. Cas gropes for the floor with both hands, and then he's on all fours, head down, hat askew, scarf dragging on the vinyl flooring.

Dean crouches beside him, both hands on his shoulders, saying, "Cas, take it easy, take it easy there—"

"Don't... worry," Cas mutters, his head still hanging down. He wobbles forward in a weak crawl, inching forward a little bit on hands and knees toward Bathroom Chair #2, but then, quite suddenly, he gives up on the crawling, lies down on his side on the vinyl flooring and shuts his eyes. Dean's shocked to see that his face is almost a waxy grey now, his lips almost blue. And his panting is getting ridiculous; it's incredibly fast now, till he seems to be almost gasping for breath, as if he can't get any air at all.

"Cas?" Dean says, kneeling next to him and grabbing him by one shoulder. Dean had expected nausea and vomiting, but this is something else entirely, some kind of slow descent into fainting, maybe some crisis of blood pressure, and Dean's entirely unsure what to do. He wants to call Sam for advice, and casts a longing glance toward his cell phone — it's way on the other side of the room, on the little table. But Cas seems to be crashing right this very second, and Dean doesn't dare leave his side.

"Cas? Cas?" says Dean, shaking his shoulder again to see if he can wake Cas back up. "Cas, you okay?" It's a stupid question — Cas is very obviously not okay — and when Cas doesn't answer, Dean starts to feel around at his neck for a pulse, trying to remind himself, Whatever's happening, if his heart's still beating and he keeps breathing, he can get through it.

Dean does find a pulse, but it seems way too fast, more a thready series of rapid-fire little flutters than a proper heartbeat. He looks around frantically for a clock to time Cas's pulse. The other motel room, the one next door, had a big round analog clock on the dresser but this room doesn't seem to have a clock anywhere. But after a moment's searching Dean spots it; Cas has set the clock on the floor for some reason, propped at the foot of the bed (which is about as close to the bathroom as its electrical cord will reach). It's an old-fashioned squat alarm clock with a round dial, and it has a long black second hand that's sweeping its way slowly around the clockface. Dean watches it intently as he counts Cas's pulse.

Fourteen heartbeats in six seconds. That means 140 beats per minute.

That can't be right, Dean thinks, and he tries again and gets 145 the second time. Cas's heart rate is racing, even though he's lying absolutely still on the floor.

Dean's near to panic now, and again his eyes dart over to the cell phone that's on the far-away table. But then Cas stirs. His eyes flicker open and his feet shift on the floor. He's still panting so hard he can't seem to talk, but he glances up at Dean, and from the look in his eyes Dean knows that Cas has seen him, that Cas knows where he is and has recognized Dean. "It's okay, buddy, I'm here, I'm here," says Dean to him, patting his shoulder again. "Just hang in there." Cas still can't seem to say anything — Dean's getting a strong impression now that Cas has been clobbered by the kind of extreme, stunning fatigue that happens sometimes during fevers, the kind that makes it almost impossible to form words. But Cas does manage to shift one hand a few inches over to Dean's leg, and he touches Dean lightly on the knee.

It's unclear whether this is an attempt at reassurance or a weak grasp for help, but Dean's hoping it's the former.

Cas then seems to gather himself up: his panting gets even deeper and he grits his teeth, and with a grunt he makes a rather impressive effort to roll onto his stomach and get to all fours again. He succeeds, but the effort taxes him to the limit, for all he can seem to do afterwards is just hold himself there, head hanging low, arms braced and shaking. His scarf's still dragging on the floor, the wool hat a little askew on his head.

Dean's about to dart for the phone when Cas mutters, "Pan?"

The damn pan, Dean thinks, where'd it get to — There it is, a few feet away. Dean makes a lunge for it, grabs it and tries to slide it closer. But Cas is trying to veer over to the pan just as Dean's sliding it over to him, and somehow Dean's elbow whacks Cas right in the temple. Cas's hat fall off and lands halfway in the pan, just as Cas start throwing up, and some vomit lands on the hat.

Dammit, Dean thinks. Dammit, dammit, dammit. He pulls the poor hat gingerly out of the way with one gloved hand, but it's too late; it's already gotten some vomit on it. It's ruined. Toxic, Dean remembers sadly. He manages, at least, to rescue the scarf, whisking it smoothly off Cas's neck and flinging it to the bed; it's the only thing he can think to do to help Cas right now.

There isn't even all that much vomit this time (just enough to ruin the hat, it seems). Cas doesn't seem to have much left in his stomach to throw up, and the next bout of retching only brings up a thin stream of liquid. But the retching continues anyway, and his arms have started shaking, and it soon seems fairly likely that he's about to collapse face-down right into the brownie pan. At that point Dean realizes, I can hold him; that's what I can do, I can hold him, so he shifts closer and gets one arm under Cas's chest to help hold him up, saying, "I gotcha, I gotcha." With the other hand he tries to support Cas's forehead.

Dean holds him like that for what seems a very long time, a foot or so above the brownie pan, as Cas suffers through what seems an endless bout of retching. He's barely even bringing anything up now, just thin dribbles, but the retching just won't stop. It's not even clear he's even conscious anymore — his whole body weight now seems to be hanging in Dean's arm, his head limp and heavy against Dean's hand — but Dean keeps talking to him, between the spasms of retching, whenever it seems like Cas might be able to hear. Dean knows he's not even saying anything useful, just vague reassurances, but he keeps talking nonetheless, in a steady soft murmur: "I gotcha. It's okay. I gotcha. You'll be okay. Hang in there. Just breathe. We'll wash out the hat. It'll be fine. We'll get another hat. I gotcha."

Dean's slightly surprised, as he's saying all this, that he's not feeling grossed out by all the vomit. But he's not. The vomit's become completely trivial. It's like the world has suddenly and without warning narrowed down to a single battle, a critical battle that Dean and Castiel have to get through together. Everything else has vanished; nothing else matters. The vomit doesn't matter, the scarf doesn't matter, and even the hat doesn't really matter, not really; it's just collateral damage that has to be set aside if they're to get through the battle successfully. All that matters is getting Cas to the end of the battle in one piece.

And Dean's job is to hold him up. Dean's job is to make sure that Cas's heart keeps beating, that he keeps breathing, and most of all that he doesn't choke, and that means holding him up.

It turns out that Castiel is actually rather heavy, and he seems to be getting heavier with every passing second. Either Dean's getting tired, or Cas is letting more and more of his weight hang onto Dean's arms, or both. A full minute or more drags by, and Cas is still shuddering in Dean's arms, still retching so continuously that he can barely breathe. The arm that's under Cas's chest is soon starting to burn with fatigue, but Dean thinks sternly to himself, Keep holding on. You can keep holding on. You can. A series of tactical contingency calculations start running through a corner of his mind, a surprisingly calm series of decisions about things like: At what point exactly should Dean set Cas down and go for the cell phone? Will Cas be okay if he's left in the classic "recovery position," on his side, for a few seconds, or is there a chance he might choke on his own vomit even so? How many seconds exactly will it take to grab the phone and place a call? And who should be called first? Sam, or Dr. Klein's office, or those chemo-ward night shift people at the hospital, or maybe the motel front office? Or should Dean just go for 911 right off the bat?

Dean zips through all these decisions rapidly, considering and rejecting one possibility after another, and in about six seconds he's settled on a plan, which is this: if Castiel doesn't stop vomiting in the next thirty seconds, Dean's going to set him down on his side, but with the back of Cas's head propped up slightly on a pillow (so that Cas's mouth is tilted a little downwards and he doesn't choke). Then Dean'll lunge for the phone and then he'll call 911 first and Dr. Klein's office second.

Now Dean's got his eyes glued to the clock on the floor, watching the second hand sweep through thirty seconds. But at fifteen seconds in, Cas's retching slows. By twenty-five seconds he's finally slowed down to a few last jerky, gasping heaves, taking desperate gulps of air in between. Dean keeps holding him (Dean's arms are burning now, but there's no way he's letting go).

There finally comes a moment when Cas manages to swallow, and Dean's amazed how reassuring that is, what a relief it is to hear that tiny swallowing sound and to know Cas has regained even that minuscule amount of control.

Cas spits deliberately into the pan. He's trying to clear out his mouth. He reaches one hand up to his chest to touch Dean's, briefly and lightly. When he puts his hand back down to the floor, some of his body weight finally disappears from Dean's arm; he's holding himself up a little now. Dean helps him push himself up into a sitting position and takes a close look at his face. Cas is still deathly pale, but his eyes are open, and his breathing has at last slowed a little. He meets Dean's eyes.

"You okay?" Dean says, almost shaky with relief. "You with me?"

Cas gives a tiny nod. "Water," he whispers. The nearest water bottle is just a few feet away at the foot of the chair (it's the one Cas had been picking at earlier, when Dean had just returned from the Target). Dean hands it to him, and Cas fumbles at it with both hands but soon makes a soft little gasp of frustration. He's having trouble removing the plastic wrap that's around the cap, and Dean realizes this is why Cas had been picking at the cap earlier. Dean's instantly kicking himself for not having double-checked that the plastic wrap was off all the water bottles (no doubt Cas had already removed the wrap from the bottles that originally been on the floor, but Dean's rearranging must have swapped those for the wrong bottles). Dean grabs the offending water bottle from Cas's hands and rips the top off in one gigantic yank of fury. The entire bottle nearly explodes, the plastic wrap and the cap tearing off all at once and flying across the room, and half the water shoots across the floor. But the bottle's still got some water in it, and Dean holds it up for Cas to drink.

Cas takes only a few short swallows (apparently all he can handle), and he wipes his mouth with another Kleenex. The Kleenex comes away red, and then Cas spits more red into the brownie pan. Dean looks down at the brownie pan and realizes, in horror, that all the vomit is tinged with blood.

"Cas," Dean says.

"As I... was saying," Cas whispers hoarsely, "It's normal."

 


 

A/N -

:(

You see now why I wanted to post this part separately. It needs its own moment of attention.

The various symptoms, btw, are drawn from a combination of real-life experiences and do all have a medical rationale behind them; I won't explain more details just yet other than to say, Cas is having a worse experience than most, and yes, he did have a BP crisis there, but managed to pull out of it. And poor Dean, of course, is getting a trial by fire.

The ugliness and graphicness of these scenes are something I've wrestled with. It could be skipped over; but I find I want to go through each horrible moment. The reason to go through it all is... well, partly just because THEY have to go through it. There's a way in which I want to honor it, to witness it, instead of skating over it or hiding the ugly parts away. Also it has a huge impact on both Dean and Cas, emotionally, for them to go through these extremely physical moments in such close contact. Dean has to keep shifting gears, keep adjusting, keep strategizing. As for Cas, we are not in his head as much (or at all, really) and he won't be able or willing to verbalize his thoughts for a while yet, but...  though he hates to be seen this way, nonetheless it was a revelation to him how reassuring it was to have Dean there to lean on.

More next week. I'm unsure how my workflow will go over the next few weeks, but I'm hopeful that I can return to weekly updates. I'll try, at any rate!

Chapter Text

A/N - Been sick all week. Just got better today - been writing all day and just got this done. It's still un-beta'd - forgive me the inevitable typos, but it's 1:00 am now so I've just gotta post it! I'll fix the errors in an editing pass tomorrow.

 


 

 

Apparently bleeding can happen, Sam reports by text, after Dean's sent him a fairly panicky series of messages. Oral bleeding, mouth sores especially. Whole GI tract can bleed. Watch for rectal bleeding too. (By this point, the thought of problems at the other end of the GI tract doesn't even faze Dean.) Low platelet counts, Sam goes on. Also anemia - might be why he passed out. Make absolutely sure the bleeding has stopped. And you gotta make sure he keeps drinking. He's stable now though right?

Yeah but what if it happens again? Dean texts back. 

Call his dr's office, says Sam. Call 911.

Already been arguing w him about that, Dean reports. The last several minutes have actually been spent wrestling Cas for the cell phone, after Dean made an abortive attempt to call 911. Cas has been insisting (once he finally got enough breath to get a full sentence or two out) that 911 isn't necessary. And after seeing how worried he's gotten about it, Dean's reluctantly decided to wait on the 911 idea for now. Mostly because it seems like, if Cas is strong enough to knock the phone out of Dean's hands twice in a row (which he just did) and then grab it away entirely (which he also just did), only reluctantly giving it back when Dean promised just to text Sam and not call 911 after all — well, maybe Cas is in fact feeling a little better. (It turns out that even when Cas is this weak, he's still amazingly effective at wrestling, and surprisingly wily about it, too. All that angel-blade experience, presumably).

Dean's now hoping that the fainting was just due to Cas not having drunk enough water because of the plastic-wrap problem. Between the texts to Sam, Dean's been removing all the plastic wrap from the water bottles, and he's stationed water bottles everywhere possible. There's three near Cas right now. And though Cas is not looking exactly healthy (he's still lying on the floor, now half in and half out of the bathroom, while Dean sits on the edge of the tub), he's at least awake. In fact he's twisting his head around to glare at Dean suspiciously.

"No 911," Cas says to Dean now, for about the tenth time.

"I swear I'm just texting Sam," Dean says to him. "Promise. See?" He turns the phone toward Cas so he can see Sam's last text — remembering too late that Sam's last text happens to say, Call 911.

"No 911," Cas insists, eyes narrowing. He even props himself up on his elbows a little to state, intensely, "Tell Sam this is... all normal." And then, rather dramatically, he collapses back down on the pillow that Dean's set out for him.

"Right, dude," Dean mutters. "It's all normal."

He's saying this is normal, Dean writes dutifully to Sam, but then adds an editorial follow-up: Really not convinced he knows what's normal, though. Also I think he's worried he can't afford it.

Sam replies: I'll get on the health insurance thing, see what I can work out. For now - if he crashes again call 911 anyway. But also, haven't they given him antiemetics?

Anti what? writes Dean.

Anti-vomiting pills, Sam replies. There shouldn't be that much vomiting. It should be under control. There's drugs for that. Supposed to be part of standard treatment.

Dean looks down at Cas. He's sprawled out on the cool bathroom tiles, his head toward Dean, his legs extending halfway out of the bathroom door. He seems to be having a rare moment of calm right now, his eyes closed and his breathing fairly steady. Dean hates to disturb him just when he's finally lain down, but...

Anti-emetic pills, thinks Dean, and he levers himself quietly down off the side of the tub and onto the bathroom floor closer to Castiel's pillow, and says gently, "Hey, Cas, sorry to bug you—" He reaches down to put one gloved hand lightly on Cas's head, just to wake him enough to ask him a question.

He realizes a split-second later, when Cas flinches and hurriedly raises one hand to Dean's, that totally by accident Dean's put his hand right on one of the bald patches, where a broad patch of scalp is showing through Cas's thinning hair.

For a moment Dean's paralyzed, unsure whether to pretend he doesn't notice the hair loss, or whether to remove his hand. Hair loss doesn't actually hurt, does it? he wonders. Is he sore here too?

Cas has placed his hand over Dean's gloved hand now. But he doesn't say anything, and he doesn't make any attempt to pull Dean's hand away, so Dean decides to keep his hand where it is. And then Dean even finds himself stroking Cas's bare scalp with his thumb, very lightly, moving just his gloved thumb gently along the patch of bare skin.

There's a light, steady warmth coming off Cas's skin. Dean can feel it even through the glove. Fever, maybe?

After a moment Cas gives a small sigh. He removes his hand from Dean's, and puts his arm back down on his stomach.

"Cas, there are these things called anti-emetics," Dean says, still keeping his hand where it is. "Anti-vomiting pills. They're supposed to help. Didn't they give you any?"

There's a very small movement under Dean's hand; Cas is nodding his head. He doesn't even bother opening his eyes, but he lifts his hand a little, this time to point back toward the outer room.

"Already got 'em," Cas says, in a rather hoarse croak. Dean looks at where he's pointing, and realizes there's a little row of pill bottles lined up on the bedside table.

But Cas adds, "Don't work." He puts his hand back down, wrapping his arm around his stomach again.

"What do you mean they don't work? Did you try them?"

"Now why in the world would I want to try anti-emetics?" says Cas, this time summoning up enough energy to get out an entire sentence in one breath, complete with a genuinely sarcastic tone. It seems to tire him, though; he then takes several quiet breaths in a row without speaking. Dean keeps doing the tiny thumb-stroking move, hoping it might at least be cooling off Cas's scalp a little, and finally Cas adds, "Take 'em every time. Took 'em when you were... at that store. Just in case. But... they never work."

Dean frowns. "Does your doctor know?"

There's a little headshake under Dean's palm. Cas says, "He wouldn't know what to do. I think it's...." He pauses and stiffens, curling up slightly, his arms clamping more tightly around his stomach.

Dean knows the signs by now, and he removes his hand so that he can push himself up to his knees, ready to leap to action if needed.

But this time the moment passes. Cas lets out a slow, uneasy breath and says, now talking half into his pillow with his eyes still closed, "Think it's because I'm an angel." He pauses, and adds, "Or used to be."

"But you don't have any grace," Dean objects.

"Still some... grace... remnants," says Cas. (Dean remembers, now, that odd phenomenon of vessels still carrying pieces of grace, even long after the angel — or the main part of the grace, at least — is gone.) Cas adds, speaking with more difficulty, "And... the way I'm ... connected... to the vessel. It's different. Different than... a native-born human. Some drugs just don't work." With a quiet sigh, he stops talking.

Dean thinks about this.

Some drugs just don't work.

It occurs to Dean that chemotherapy is a kind of drug. Cas has mentioned the "chemo drugs" several times. Chemotherapy is, really, just a certain kind of drugs.

Dean says, slowly, dreading where this line of thought is taking him, "Cas... uh... if drugs don't work....then...."

Cas's eyes flicker open, and he raises his head a little. But it's already clear he's not listening to Dean anymore. He's suddenly got that look again: that intent, focused look, half urgency and half helplessness — as if he's being swept down some wild river, swept away by an implacable force that he's powerless to control. Dean scrambles up even as Cas starts pulling himself up onto all fours to make an uncoordinated lunge to the toilet. The toilet's only about two feet away but even so he almost doesn't make it; Dean has to reach forward, grab Cas by the scruff of his jacket with both hands, and physically yank him across the last foot over the slick bathroom tiles. Just in time; a moment later Cas is throwing up into the toilet bowl.

It turns out to be a bit easier to support him over the toilet than it was with the brownie pan. Cas can lean a lot of his body weight against the side of the toilet bowl, and Dean mostly just has to stabilize him from sideways collapses, and, of course, Dean can help hold his head up. Dean's determined that Cas shouldn't have to put his forehead right down on the edge of the toilet bowl, so he gets his hand between Cas's forehead and the rim of the bowl to provide as comfortable a resting spot as he can. With a few adjustments and some wriggling around, Dean also soon finds a way to brace his elbows so that he can hold Cas in place there for a very long time. For as long as necessary.

There's blood, again. Though now that Dean's prepared for it, he's less shocked. But he's still worrying about how much blood is too much, and so this time, he finds himself doing much closer observations. He keeps a watchful eye on the thin stream of vomit, and again it's surprising how Dean doesn't feel grossed out; but there's simply too much to think about, too many important things to keep aware of. This time, Dean's trying to assess how many tablespoons of fluid Cas is losing, how many electrolytes, how much iron, how many red blood cells. All of this will need to be replaced. Cas's vessel is a sort of a machine, after all; any body is, really, any human body. A machine like the Impala. And just like the Impala, this human machine needs certain kinds of fuel and care to keep running, and Dean's trying to make a list, trying to track exactly what Cas will need to replace what he's losing. Water, definitely, lots of water after every time, thinks Dean, bracing Cas through a long string of dry-heaves. Dean's murmuring constant reassurances to him even as he's thinking, I should ask Sam about electrolytes. Iron pills maybe? But water most of all. Then later he'll need fuel — sugar, carbs — as soon as he can keep anything down.

After, Dean helps Cas lie down again on the floor, and gets the pillow back under his head. Cas is shivering again now, and his forehead feels even warmer; is it really a fever? Is fever normal? (Dean doesn't bother asking Cas, for he doesn't trust Cas at all anymore to judge what's "normal.") Dean holds a water bottle for Cas to drink, watching carefully and coaxing him to drink more till he's sure Cas has taken in, in a series of tiny sips, more than he's lost. He gets the blanket back over Cas's legs, studies him for several long seconds to be sure he's breathing well, and then grabs the phone to start texting Sam with questions about fever and electrolytes.

 


 

Three more bouts of vomiting later, Dean is sitting against the bathroom doorframe, one hand resting lightly on Cas's head and the other hand holding the phone. Dean's exhausted with worry by now, but Cas actually seems to be holding his own after the last hour or so. (At least he hasn't bled much more, and he hasn't shown that terrifying kind of passing-out again.)

Sam's most recent text reads: So, some chemo causes mild fever right after, but be sure it doesn't go over 100.5. He'll need electrolytes, yeah, see if you can find some potassium, or a banana or Gatorade or something. Also did you get a flu shot? We both need flu shots asap, Cas is really vulnerable, his immune system will be shot to hell.

Dean's re-reading all this, trying to remember when his last flu shot was, when Cas speaks.

"Clock," Cas says, indistinctly.

"What?" says Dean, turning toward him. He leans a little closer, so Cas can whisper instead of having to speak out loud. "You need something? Want more water?"

"Can I see... the clock," says Cas, and Dean, looking around, realizes that Castiel can no longer see the clock that's sitting at the foot of the bed. Normally Cas would be able to see the clock from here, by gazing past his own knees into the bedroom. But Dean's blocking his view.

Dean glances at it. "It's ten-thirty," he tells Cas, trying not to show any obvious discouragement at the realization that it's not even close to midnight yet. Cas has been throwing up for hours already. (How long did Cas say this was going to last? Twenty-four hours? It's going to seem like a lifetime.)

"No, I... want to see it," Cas says. Dean looks down at him, a little puzzled, but he moves obediently, getting to his feet and carefully stepping over Cas, and then squatting down by the tub, back where he'd been stationed three vomiting-bouts ago. Cas shifts a little and Dean sees he's adjusting his position to get a clear view, across the bathroom floor and through the door, of the little round clock dial.

"That better?" asks Dean, still unsure why Cas needs to see the clock for himself.

"I like to see... the hand move," Cas explains. "The second hand." He takes a breath and adds, "To see that... time is passing."

Dean's looking down at him, puzzled, when Cas adds, "Means it's not Hell."

The phone happens to vibrate in Dean's hand right then, with another text from Sam, but Dean doesn't even notice, for he's staring at the clock now dry-mouthed, watching the second hand sweep slowly around. And all Dean can think of now is that horrible, strangely elastic way that time dragged in Hell; how time slowed; how it stuttered and stuck. Till one horrific second would seem to stretch out infinitely, lasting virtually forever.

Cas is right. In Hell time just wouldn't pass, somehow. A single moment could last a year, there.

Dean stares over Cas's shoulders at the clock, and it's an immense relief to see the little second hand keep slowly moving. Around and around it goes. It's not exactly fast — it's frustratingly slow, actually, crawling along. But it does keep moving.

"You're not in Hell," Dean says, leaning a little closer to Cas to make sure he can hear. "You're not in Hell. I swear to you. Time's passing." He puts his hand on Cas's head again, and leans even closer to say to him, "This won't last. I promise."

Cas nods under Dean's hand. He takes a slow breath and says, "Sometimes I think... I can't get through an hour. But I can get through a minute." He takes another breath and adds, "But only if time's really passing. So I watch the clock."

Dean strokes his head softly, and together they watch time pass.

 


 

The second hand crawls slowly onward, circling endlessly. Cas eventually slides into a brief doze, and Dean takes advantage of the opportunity to place a quiet call to Dr. Klein's office. Indeed there's a 24-hour night-nurse answering service, and the night nurse confirms, after a long series of detailed questions, that Cas's condition sounds "mostly stable." But she gives Dean some clear numbers to look for in terms of vital signs, and a list of changes that might mean a serious turn for the worse and that will require immediate action. Dean scribbles them all down and promises to call back, and to take Cas to the hospital, if Cas crosses any of those thresholds.

Between Sam's steady stream of texts and the night nurse's advice, Dean's soon got a little list of things to do that occupy his time pretty well (and, thankfully, it helps keep him from thinking about much else). He checks Cas's pulse and respiration every fifteen minutes; he makes a brief foray outside to the motel vending machines that yields the considerable prize of three bottles of Gatorade (with electrolytes!), and also discovers some potassium pills among Cas's set of pill bottles. When Cas wakes, Dean coaxes Cas to drink some more, and helps hold the water bottles, and the Gatorade. Dean checks Cas's temperature every half hour, with a little thermometer that he finds in the bedside table drawer. Cas is holding steady at 100.1°F, which according to both Sam and the night nurse is not exactly ideal but is acceptable.

Cas's brief doze doesn't last long, though. Bouts of vomiting soon start happening again, with miserable regularity. Dean helps Cas through each one.

A few times Cas rouses enough to chase Dean out of the bathroom entirely, each time locking the door behind him and turning on the shower. Dean's certain this is due to diarrhea, and he's willing to help even with that, but Cas seems to have drawn a line in the sand here and won't let Dean into the bathroom at all. It's frustrating, and Dean stalks around the outer room getting progressively more worried and planning to kick the door down if need be. But each time Cas gets through it on his own, unlocking the door after about ten minutes, though looking weaker and paler than ever.

After each such episode Dean cleans the toilet, though Cas keeps protesting, weakly, that he can do it himself. Once, the floor needs a clean too (Cas insists he's managed to get himself clean, at least, but scrubbing the floor too is definitely beyond his strength). So Dean half-drags Cas to the bed, despite more protests, and parks him there while Dean scrubs the bathroom floor clean and sets out a new bathroom-floor nest for Cas — a spare sheet over the tiled floor, just in case, and on top of that a new clean blanket and clean pillow.

By the time Dean's setting up the little floor-nest, Cas is already starting to totter back to the bathroom on his own. He's reached Bathroom Chair #2 by the time Dean realizes what he's doing. Dean's a little annoyed that Cas won't just let Dean take care of him — after all, Cas could perfectly well just stay in the bed full-time, with Dean bringing him bedpans and throwing-up pans as needed. But Cas seems absolutely determined he has to try to do everything on his own, and seems convinced he has to station himself in the bathroom. They've been around this topic a few times already and there seems to be no arguing with him.

Dean then discovers, as he helps Cas totter the final leg from Bathroom Chair #2 to the bathroom, that Cas is now muttering a constant whisper of "Sorry, I'm sorry. I'm sorry...."

"Would you stop apologizing," Dean tells him, as he helps Cas lie down. Dean gets the pillow under Cas's head and adds, "You sure you don't need any help cleaning yourself up?"

"No..." Cas says, clutching the blanket around himself. He's suddenly racked with a bout of shivering but still tries to say, "No... n-no. You shouldn't have to do... any of this. You shouldn't... I'm so sorry, Dean, I'm sorry...."

Try as Dean might, he can't seem to calm Cas back down. The fever seems to be making Cas restless and anxious, and the "I'm sorry's" just won't stop. The only thing that finally halts all the apologizing is that Cas starts throwing up again.

 


 

The night is interminable. Dean loses track of the bouts of vomiting somewhere around number fifteen.

 


 

At last there start to be moments when Cas is breathing relatively easily, lying there curled up in his little nest of the blanket and the pillow, and Dean can sometimes let himself lean back against the bathtub and close his eyes for a moment.

But then he wakes with a lurch, out of a deeply disturbing nightmare in which Castiel is drowning in a rain gutter in the middle of some kind of monsoon, lightning flashing all around while Dean tries to pull him out of a whirlpool. Dean blinks awake to find he's slumped against the side of the tub, his neck kinked painfully, and Castiel's crouching next to him, clutching his blanket around him with one hand and shaking Dean's shoulder with the other.

"You're all right," Cas informs him, and he slumps back to lean against the side of the toilet. "You were just dreaming."

"What time's it?" Dean croaks, rubbing his eyes.

"Three in the morning," says Castiel, and he turns to the toilet and starts throwing up again.

 


 

Much later, after several more nasty bouts, the worst of the vomiting seems to have passed at last. Cas is curled up on the floor again, now shifting restlessly through bouts of fever and chills that seem to come and go. Dean realizes that this might be a good opportunity to try one of the night nurse's recommendations for easing fever. He goes and gets a few ice cubes from the little minifridge, and wraps them in a damp washcloth, and then he sits just behind Cas's back and holds the ice cubes to the back of Cas's neck, bracing Cas's head lightly with his other hand.

After a moment Cas's eyes blink slowly open. He's not really looking at anything much; his back is to Dean, and he's just gazing dully at the white porcelain base of the toilet ahead of him. But then he murmurs, so faintly that Dean can barely hear:

"S'good."

"It's ice cubes," Dean informs him. "The night nurse said it might help some."

"S'nice," whispers Cas.

It's not actually clear whether he means the ice cubes, or Dean's hand on his forehead (Cas's head is still warm with fever, and Dean knows his own hand must feel cool in comparison.) Cas doesn't say anything else, and it's been clear for a while now that it tires him out to talk, so Dean just crouches there silently, holding the ice cubes in place and keeping one hand on Cas's forehead.

The steady ticking of the clock, and Cas's slow, rasping breaths, seem the only sounds in the world. The minutes drift by. Dean's in a somewhat awkward crouch just behind Cas, and his knees are soon aching; he shuffles around to try to get one leg straightened out parallel to Cas's back, with other one folded tightly under him. Then the folded leg gets crampy, but Dean stays there, watching the clock's second hand sweep through a full minute, and then another, and then another. He thinks to himself, I can't get through an hour, but I can get through a minute.

And he thinks, as he had earlier, Keep holding on.

After another minute Dean has to shift his legs again. He figures out a way to do so without kicking Cas in the back. Once the ice cubes are all melted, Dean gets creakily to his feet, and goes and gets some fresh ice cubes, and sits back down next to Cas, knees aching even more. Again he holds the ice cubes to Cas's warm skin, right at the back of his neck, till the ice cubes melt.

Can't get through an hour, but can get through a minute.

Keep holding on. You can keep holding on.

Can't get through an hour, but can get through a minute.

Cas hasn't vomited in a nearly an hour now, so maybe it's helping?

The ice cubes have melted. Dean goes and gets more ice cubes and does it all again.

And again.

And again.

 


 

A buzz on the phone makes Dean jump. He's still crouching by Cas, experimenting now with damp washcloths and ice cubes at various locations around Cas's head (it seems like Cas is rather soothed whenever Dean strokes the back of his neck with the damp washcloth, so Dean's been doing that for a while). Right now Cas seems to have slid into one of the rare, precious dozes, and he doesn't even stir when the phone rattles on the tiled floor. Dean fumbles to grab it before it wakes Cas up; it's a text from Sam.

I'm heading out, Sam has written. Be there by dusk I think.

Dean looks around blearily. Only now does he notice that there's a thin light streaming through the dusty windows out in the bedroom. He blinks at the clock and discovers it's seven in the morning.

Sam adds, You guys doing ok?

Been partying all night long, replies Dean.

Aw shit, Sam replies. He okay?

Hanging in there. Fill you in later, Dean texts. Drive safe. And then he thinks of something else and adds, Hey, could you bring a hat for him?

Sam replies: Sure, but doesn't he have the gray one?

It got messed up.

Messed up? asks Sam.

Needs a wash, Dean replies. See if you can find another hat. He's lost some hair. Self-conscious about it I think.

Sam replies: Roger that, and then, a moment later, Never seen Cas self-conscious.

Dean writes back: Yeah. Funny an angel would care about hair. He then adds, I mean, he already lost his feathers and he was fine with that.

There's a pause.

Sam writes something, deletes it, and writes something again.

Finally a text arrives: We don't know that he was fine with that

Dean looks at Sam's text for a long moment, and now he remembers Cas in the Gas-n-Sip talking about missing his wings. He looks down at Cas. There's a little oblique daylight slanting into the bathroom, and in the pale morning light Castiel somehow looks especially small. Curled up on the bathroom floor under the crumpled blanket, he looks like a little wounded animal.

Which, of course, is exactly what he is, now, isn't he? A little wounded animal.

Dean takes in the sight, studying the weakened human vessel that Cas is trapped in now. The vessel that is now Cas's only home. A vessel that has become Cas, blended with him almost, become his very own, in some unlikely way.

Dean reaches out and sets one hand against Cas's head once more, very gently, trying not to wake him, but wanting, somehow, to try to cover up the bald patch of scalp. The few remaining tufts of soft dark hair are lying matted and lank against Cas's skin. Dean strokes one tuft lightly with his thumb. Cas stirs, his hands shifting on the tile floor, and so Dean shifts his hand to the back of Cas's neck; stroking him there always seems to settle him somehow. Cas relaxes, with a quiet sigh, and he doesn't wake. Dean continues to stroke the back of Cas's neck, and he looks down at Cas's back, and he thinks, No wings.

No wings, no feathers, and soon no hair.

Dean finally replies to Sam, texting now with one hand: Right. Anyway could you bring a hat.

Will do, texts Sam.

 


 

"Think you can sleep a bit now?" suggests Dean. "I can get you back to the bed. I already changed the sheets, by the way. The motel girl dropped off a whole fresh set."

It's well past noon. Over the course of the morning Cas has slowly progressed from his near-coma on the bathroom floor to a point where he's actually sitting up, and he's now leaning back against the side of the tub, his arms propped on his knees. He hasn't thrown up in a few hours; and he's downed some more water, and he's even chewing on a saltine. Though he's nibbling around the edges of the saltine incredibly slowly. A field mouse would eat it about ten times quicker.

Worryingly, he's been very quiet, too, answering Dean's questions only in monosyllables and barely looking him in the eye. But Dean hasn't pressed him to talk; seems it's best to let him revive at his own pace.

"Bed's all cool and fresh," adds Dean, trying to make it sound enticing. He gives Cas a bright grin, which Cas doesn't return — Cas isn't even looking at him — and says, "You'll like it. Much better than a bathroom floor, I promise."

Cas nods, slowly. But he says, "I should get clean first." He eats approximately one more molecule off the edge of the saltine, nibbling an infinitesimal crumb off the side with delicate care, and then reaches up and sets the half-eaten saltine on the edge of the sink very carefully, like it's a precious artifact that he has to preserve. "I need a shower," he says, and he starts to struggle to his feet.

Dean grabs his elbow to help him up. Again Cas avoids Dean's gaze, keeping his eyes down.

"Maybe let me help you wash?" Dean suggests, for he's not altogether sure that Cas is going to be steady enough on his feet. "Or I could put one of the chairs in the shower," Dean adds. "You could sit while I wash you off."

Cas glances sideways at Dean, meeting his eyes very fleetingly.

"I can do it myself," he insists, "I always do, around now. Twenty-four hours on." It's actually been only twenty-two hours since the chemo, but Dean doesn't point that out. Cas then makes a clear effort to straighten up and not lean on Dean as much, and he even pushes Dean away, placing a hand square on Dean's chest and shoving him toward the door. Cas adds, with such a formal tone that he sounds rather like a diplomat thanking a foreign emissary, "You've done so much for me already. Thank you very much for your assistance. I'll be fine."

With that Cas shuts the bathroom door right in Dean's face.

Dean sighs. It's clear Cas does need some privacy for certain things. Nonetheless it's a little worrying, especially when considering the logistics of a shower, which suddenly seem very complex and challenging now that Dean really thinks about it. Shower floors get slippery, and soap gets slippery, and even getting one's clothes off requires some leaning over and some balancing on one foot, and there's the edge of the tub to step over too. There's just no way Cas is totally stable on his feet right now. What if he slips? What if he falls? What if he hits his head?

What if he passes out right in the shower? What if he drowns?

Dean paces around by the bathroom door for a few moments.

But Cas has been doing this on his own for quite a while. (Though, twenty-four hours on, not twenty-two hours.)

Finally Dean make himself turn away. He occupies himself for a few minutes with tidying up — cleaning out a last few pans in the kitchenette sink, opening the windows and airing out the room a little. He discards the gloves, too, and scrubs his hands, for it's pretty clear now that Cas is feeling much better, which implies he's probably non-toxic by now.

Dean's in the middle of shaking a fresh blanket out over the clean sheets on the bed when there's a thump from the bathroom.

"Cas?" Dean calls, striding over to the bathroom door. He raps sharply on the door. "Cas, what was that? You okay?"

There's no reply for a moment. Then a faint, rather wobbly, "I just dropped the soap." Dean can barely hear him over the shower.

But then there's another thump. This one's louder, and heavier-sounding, and is followed by a scrambling sound and then a gasp and then a ripping noise.

"Cas, I'm coming in," Dean calls, and he backs up half a step, bracing himself to kick the door open, when he thinks (at the last second) to try the doorknob. Rather to his surprise it opens right up. Cas hasn't locked the door this time.

Dean opens the door to find Cas kneeling in the tub, naked and soaking wet, the shower water drumming down on him. The bottom half of his body is partly shielded by the shower curtain, which he's clutching in one hand. The shower curtain has ripped off several of its rings.

All Dean really sees is a glimpse of Cas's bare side and his naked back. But it stabs at Dean's heart, it actually hurts, to see how vulnerable Castiel looks, how helpless, how pale and thin and weak, as he crouches there hunched under the streaming water. His head's down, his patchy hair clumped now into thin tendrils that are streaming with water. His ribs stand out starkly on his sides; his spine's a dramatically sharp line of ridges down the middle of his back. The bruises on his arms seem dark and malevolent, and it turns out there's other bruises too, everywhere, on his back and his sides and on his legs, and even some strange dark claw-like marks, streaks like he's been mauled by some animal. Dean catches a quick glimpse of a couple of angry red lines on Cas's abdomen, too, maybe some kind of half-healed surgical scars, which Cas seems to be trying to cover up with the shower curtain.

It's all terrible. Yet as terrible as it is, nonetheless, impossibly, Castiel seems beautiful nonetheless.

Beautiful and terrible and vulnerable and destroyed, all at once.

When Cas sees Dean, he tries to stand, still trying to shield himself with the shower curtain, and Dean's torn between wanting to help and wanting to give him some privacy. Cas lunges to his feet somehow, but staggers, and the shower curtain rips off one more ring with a pop. Dean hustles over to help then, but Cas lurches away so hurriedly that he nearly loses his balance and he thumps hard into the opposite wall of the shower. He's trying now to wrap the torn edge of the shower curtain around his hips, and Dean realizes he's trying to cover himself up. It's strange to see him so shy; Cas has never seemed concerned with human issues of nudity before. But something's different now. Everything's different now.

Dean grabs one of the motel towels from a little rack above the toilet, and hands it to him. The towel's instantly drenched, but it does give Cas some cover, and he lets go of the shower curtain and clutches at the towel, wrapping it around his waist. Dean helps him get the towel edges knotted over each other (discreetly not looking down — it's apparent that Cas is feeling miserably exposed, and Dean doesn't want to make him feel even more uncomfortable).

"There you go," says Dean, once the towel's securely in place. "See, you're okay." But when Dean glances at him he finds that Cas is staring down at the shower drain in silence. Something in his expression makes Dean take both his shoulders and try to catch his eyes. But Cas won't look at him.

"Hey, hey," Dean says, "Cas. It's okay. It's okay."

Cas shakes his head, and he says, with almost a philosophical tone, "You know, it's funny. I used to wonder, or I guess I used to hope, if, one day, if we might ever...."

He stops.

There's a long pause.

"If we might ever what?" Dean says. But Cas doesn't answer. The water's drumming on the tiles, and water's dripping off Dean's hair now too, and running down both their faces.

Finally Cas looks up at Dean. He says, softly, "I didn't want you to see me like this."

"I know," Dean says, for that's been obvious all along. "I know."

"Not like this," Cas says, and his eyes drop again. He seems to notice then, for the first time, that Dean's getting pretty well doused by the outer edge of the shower stream. "You're getting wet," Cas says, brow furrowing in concern. "Your clothes are getting ruined." He puts one hand on Dean's chest and pushes, lightly, trying to get Dean out of the shower.

Dean refuses to budge. "The clothes don't matter," he says.

"But they're getting wet," says Cas, gesturing at Dean's hoodie, which is, indeed, soaking wet.

"The clothes don't matter," Dean insists again. "I can get more clothes." Cas just shakes his head and tries to push Dean out of the shower again, and Dean says, suddenly boiling over with frustration and almost wanting to shake him, "Don't you get it? I can get more clothes, but I can't get another Castiel. You're the only Cas I've got. Don't you get it? You're the only one, Cas, and you gotta let me help. Please. I gotta help." All of a sudden Dean's desperate for Cas to stop pulling away, to stop closing the door, stop pushing Dean away, stop apologizing, stop avoiding Dean's eyes. Dean has been helping all night, of course, but it seems like Cas has never quite made his peace with Dean being here, and Dean's outright begging now as he pleads, "I need to help, Cas, please let me help. I have to."

The water's beating down; it's starting to cool off, actually, and Dean starts to become aware the hot water's running out, but Cas doesn't seem to notice. Something in Dean's voice seems to have reached him this time. Cas nods, and he says, in a whisper so faint Dean can barely hear him, "Okay. Okay." He nods again, and when Dean pulls at him, Cas lets himself be pulled closer; he turns toward Dean, at last, and buries his face in Dean's neck, and raises both his arms to put his hands around Dean's waist. "Okay," Cas says again, "Okay." He's leaning on Dean now, and he's still nodding. The water's getting chillier, but Dean doesn't want to let Cas go for even a second, not now. They cling together for a long moment, till Dean realizes Cas has started to shiver again. Dean says, "The water's cold," and Cas says, almost absent-mindedly, "Right, right," as Dean scrambles to turn off the now-freezing water. Dean then bundles Cas in several layers of white towels, first helping him exchange the wet one for a dry one and then wrapping several more dry ones on top of that. Cas seems almost in a stupor now, shivering and stumbling with fatigue; Dean has to guide his feet one at a time over the edge of the tub and then half-carry him to the bed.

Dean settles him in bed, and wraps another towel around his head as a makeshift hat. As he tucks the clean sheets and blankets around him, Cas says, yet again, "Okay, Dean. It's okay," and he's patting Dean's hand, and then Cas is lost in sleep. He's still holding Dean's hand as he drifts off.

Dean's clothes are indeed totally drenched. But that doesn't matter at all.

 


 

A/N - There might be a two-week gap to the next chapter since my new job starts Monday and I'm not sure what the week will be like. I'll really try to get something up next week though.

Hope you liked this one. This is a key turning point, obviously, where Cas at last starts to willingly let Dean in. A rather sad way for them to have their first real embrace, but at least they're together.

 

Chapter Text

Had to skip a week because of the new job starting, and even so I didn't get a full chapter written. It's just a half a chapter, a quiet interim scene, but it took surprisingly long anyway - this one's been oddly difficult in fact. At least it's something.

S12's underway too so this fic is officially off into A/U-land now! S12 will steam merrily away in some other direction, but I hope you still find the world of this particular fic worth following. (PS I haven't been able to watch the S12 premiere yet, so please no spoilers!)

And one last thing, I feel bad that I haven't yet been able to respond individually yet to all your comments. There have been so many heartfelt and wonderful comments, about so many real and intense experiences you've all had. I am having that happen again in my own life too... a dear friend just was diagnosed with breast cancer a couple days ago. Agh. It keeps hitting everybody I know. Anyway, I want so much to respond to everybody, but have just had no time w/the new job & the move. Hope to catch up soon, though. Please know I cherish every comment.

 


 

 

Cas is so sound asleep that he doesn't even wake when a trickle of cold water makes its way down the sleeve of the hoodie and drips on Cas's hand. Dean jerks back from the bed, looks around and realizes the edges of the damp hoodie are now slowly dripping all over the floor.

"Hang tight, Cas," Dean mutters, and he heads to the other room for a swift change of clothing.

Next door, Dean pulls the wet hoodie off and hold it out at arm's-length for a quick inspection. Should he could try to dry off the hoodie in a hurry, and revive the Giant Ground Sloth costume for tonight? Or... is Cas past that particular problem for now? Should Dean maybe be trying not to smell like a sloth anymore, now that Cas is feeling better? (Or a little better, at least.) Is it time for Dean to switch back to his usual toiletries?

These aroma-related questions have come to seem extremely important, so Dean ponders the issue for a few moments. He finally decides that he can probably retire the sloth hoodie for the rest of the week. I'll check with Cas when he wakes up, he thinks, but for now I'll switch to a Day-2-Scent. Something bland; not quite back to my usual routine, but not the sloth either.

He decides to let the hoodie air-dry, and spreads it out over an empty towel rack, planning to stick it back in the Target bag later, back with the tea and the other odors, for next week.

Next week.

Dean's hands slow as he's smoothing out the hoodie over the towel rack.

It's going to happen all over again next week.

Then there'll be one week off, and then it'll start all over with another whole month of treatment, doesn't it? Another "cycle."

The thought is incredibly discouraging, and Dean glances at the hoodie several times as he strips for a quick shower. As he gets in the shower he's thinking, How many rounds of this, how many "cycles," are there going to be? How many have there already been?

Has every time been as bad as this one?

Does Cas pass out every time, like he did last night? Does he always vomit all night long? Does he always end up spitting up blood, crawling across the floor, spending the entire night curled up on the cold floor, with barely even enough strength to drape himself over the toilet?

All those "trips" Cas has been taking come back to mind once more... all the times he's disappeared out the bunker door. All the times he's said "See you in a few weeks," hoisted his bag over his shoulder, and calmly walked away. Sam and Dean had always just waved a cheerful goodbye, and, once he was gone, had fired up another movie on Netflix.

We were watching frigging movies, thinks Dean, turning on the water full blast. The water's cold (apparently this room shares the same plumbing as Cas's) but Dean steps right into the icy blast, gritting his teeth.

Movies. We were watching movies.

They'd been on a sci-fi kick for a while there, he remembers; Star Trek, the first couple seasons of Battlestar Galactica, some cheesy Transformers flicks.

The thought of the sheer amount of suffering Cas must have been going through, while Dean and Sam had been sacked out in the bunker watching "Star Trek III: The Search For Spock," makes Dean want to punch the walls.

And then there's the risk that Cas has been taking! Now that Dean's got a minute alone, now that the immediate crisis seems to be past and he's got a second here in the shower to think it all over, it's making his stomach turn to realize how dangerous this must have been, all along. Dean's no stranger to the limits of the human body. He's seen (and he's had) injuries of all kinds. He's experienced the worst of trauma and disease, the extremes of exhaustion, he's kept watch by hospital bedsides many times, and he's seen a lot of people die. And he knows now, he's certain, that Cas has been walking a very fine line, here in this dingy little motel alone. The fainting, the bleeding; the racing heartbeat and the panting; the constant loss of fluid, the inability to drink or eat; none of that is good, and none of it is safe. Especially given that Cas has clearly been hiding (or at least downplaying) some pretty important details from his medical team.

And he said it's "normal," remembers Dean, a grimace passing over his face as he remembers how Cas had literally been spitting out blood while he'd said that.

Dean works a dollop of shampoo through his hair roughly, raking his fingers hard across his scalp with his eyes closed, as if he can scrub the frightening image away.

"Normal," my ass, thinks Dean. I am NEVER letting him do this alone ever again.

The shower helps a little. It's good to get some of that up-all-night grimy feeling rinsed away (along with the last of the Giant Ground Sloth odor). But the exhaustion doesn't seem to lessen, nor the grinding sense of worry, both of which seem to settle around Dean all over again, like a heavy fog, as soon as he gets out of the shower.

Just do what needs doing, Dean thinks. He towels off and does a quick shave, saying to himself, Next step. Do the next step.

The next step, of course, is to get back to Cas and keep watch over him till it's clear that the nausea and vomiting are over. At least Cas finally seems to be letting Dean help.

The next fight's probably going to be to get Cas to let Sam help too.

 


 

Dean goes with his "Day 2 Scent" plan: a bland mix consisting solely of the new shampoo and soap, with a change of clothes. Just his regular clothes this time, but clean ones from his duffel, ones he hasn't been driving around in for days: undershirt, jeans, and a flannel shirt that's worn loose and open like usual. And no cologne of any sort. (It's a definite relief to put the Axe away; Dean tucks it with the Lapsang Souchong tea and the other "sloth" ingredients).

Once dressed, he checks his phone; it's four in the afternoon. A text's appeared from Sam, asking if Dean'll be okay if Sam stops for a few "errands" that might delay him an hour or so. Errands? thinks Dean, puzzled and a little annoyed. What errands could possibly be worth slowing down for? Does Sam not realize what's going on?

Well, maybe Sam doesn't fully grasp how bad it's been. Once he gets here, he'll get it, Dean thinks. Besides, another hour or two doesn't really matter at this point, so Dean texts Sam a quick "Ok."

On the way back to Cas's room, Dean finds he's automatically patting his side where his gun holster usually is — even though the holster, and the gun, are actually sitting in Cas's room right now on the kitchenette counter. Dean realizes then that he's gone back on alert, as if Cas's little motel room is a battle zone where Dean might have to fight some unknown monsters at any second. But when Dean cracks the door open, all is quiet; Cas is still on the bed, still breathing, still asleep.

Dean shuts the door as silently as he can, tiptoes over to the bed and stands looking down at Cas for a long moment. Cas is taking those long, heavy breaths of the very deepest stage of sleep — hopefully the kind where there's not even any dreaming, just restful blankness and blackness. In fact it looks like he's barely even moved since Dean last saw him. He's in the same position, curled up on his side facing the door. One arm's even still outstretched, hanging off the side of the bed toward the door, as if he's still reaching for Dean's hand.

The edge of the motel blanket has worked its way down a little, though. It's now bunched up halfway down Cas's ribcage, and parts of various towels are visible: one wrapped loosely around his head, another one draped over his shoulders like a cape, and a third wrapped around his chest. There should be one around his hips, too, somewhere down there; Dean remembers now that he'd never managed to get Cas back into any kind of clothes or pajamas. Under that blanket, Cas is wearing nothing more than a messily wrapped set of white towels.

Dean half-smiles when he realizes it's almost the setup to a bad gay porno. (Or a good gay porno, even.) The thought of Castiel naked under the bedspread, all the towels coming undone....

But it's a hypothetical sort of thought. There's a wistfulness to it, a twist of regret and lost opportunity, but it's a could-have, should-have kind of feeling. Those kinds of imaginings were probably just dreams all along. Daydreams, really.... unlikely and foolish. Dean knows he needs to put them away. What Cas needs is support and care, and what he definitely doesn't need is Dean getting distracted by ridiculous gay-porno daydreams about towels falling off.

Dean's still standing there, trying diligently to stop wondering about whether Cas's lower towel has come unwrapped under the blanket, when Cas shifts position. Maybe he heard Dean tiptoeing into the room, or maybe he's just dreaming, but he gropes in the air a little with his outstretched hand and then pulls his arm in. Both his hands close on the edge of the blanket and he folds both arms, his hands pulling the edge of the blanket up under his chin and his head tucking down a little, as if he's trying to curl up and get himself a little more covered. He only succeeds in pulling the blanket (and the towels) more out of position. The head-towel unwraps a little and the shoulder-towel slips off his shoulders too. Suddenly that bare bald patch on Cas's head is showing, and one of those spooky claw-like bruises across the top of his shoulderblade too, and Dean remembers the scars on his abdomen as well; and just like that all the gay-porno thoughts are gone. The feeling that floods over Dean now, just from this one moment of watching Cas's small shuffling of position, is one of intense protectiveness. Cas looks too cold; Cas looks too exposed; Cas's bruises are showing—

I'm never going to get used to the bruises, Dean thinks, and he reaches down and gently extracts the edge of the blanket from Cas's hands and pulls it a little higher, tucking it up well over Cas's shoulders so that the blanket covers him right up to his chin, hiding all the bruises. Dean checks Cas's temperature, too, resting a hand lightly on his forehead for a moment, and he's pulling the head-towel gently back into place over Cas's head when he sees a few loose strands of dark hair lying on the pillow.

Dean pauses, looking at the little stray pieces of hair. He looks at Cas's face then, and notices something he hasn't seen before: there's no five-o-clock shadow. Dean just had to shave; looks like Cas won't need to. That stubble Cas has always had, that slightly scruffy look he often gets across his chin and cheeks, is gone. In fact his eyebrows are looking sparse, too. These are not obvious changes, but now that Dean's looking for them, they're there.

The words Diagnosis? Prognosis? float into Dean's mind.

Diagnosis, and prognosis. This is what matters now. What Cas has exactly; and what the outlook is.

Dean gets a chair, pulling it close to the bed so he can sit down by Cas's side. There's not much more to do, and now that the diagnosis, prognosis thoughts have started, it turns out that they won't shut up. It's like some kind of "Now let's think full-time about nothing but cancer" mode has kicked on, like an unwelcome visitor knocking insistently on the door, and the little voice in Dean's head keeps going Diagnosis? Prognosis? Diagnosis? Prognosis?

What kind, what organ, what stage, how bad? What kind of treatment, for how long, with what side effects?

How many years, what probability, what chance?

There's no answers yet. Dean's pretty sure, actually, that even after Cas wakes there still won't be any answers right away, for Cas has been acting like he won't be forthcoming with many of the details. Dean suspects he'll have to press Cas on this at some point. Probably soon. Because cancer's a killer....

No, wait. Cancer can be a killer, but it doesn't have to be. In fact, often it isn't, these days. Lots of people beat it now.

It won't be a killer for Cas, Dean thinks. He shifts position in the little wooden chair, trying to get comfortable for a potentially long evening shift. Not Cas. He's beat too many other things; he's too tough. There's no way this'll get him.

Besides, we've got some strings we can pull. We've got friends in high places, and maybe in some low ones.

If you stretch the definition of "friend" pretty far, that is. (Far enough so that it includes "enemy.")

 


 

Only fifteen minutes later, though, Dean's struggling to stay awake. The chair's not even that comfortable, but even so his head's actually nodding down on his chest now and then. The diagnosis and prognosis thoughts go blurring together into hazy dreamlike worries, interspersed with vivid memory-flashes of Cas being sick, of holding him over the toilet, of watching him on the floor. When a noise out in the parking lot catches Dean's ear, he snaps back to alertness, bringing his head up with a jerk and almost jumping out of the wooden chair toward Cas, certain that Cas is throwing up again and needs help.

But Cas is still sleeping. It was all just half-asleep dreams. Dean checks his phone and finds there's still probably another hour to go before Sam arrives, so he starts flipping through the other apps on the phone, planning to find some pointless games to play just to try to keep himself awake. But then somehow he's opened up a web browser, and then he's googling the keywords "cancer diagnosis prognosis" and immediately a whole set of hospital websites and NIH patient-information pages pop up.

Sam's probably already read all this, Dean thinks, but nonetheless he starts clicking his way through it all. He selects one hospital's website at random and soon he's squinting at the phone's little screen, trying to make his way through a huge alphabetical glossary about all the different types of cancer and their treatments. "Pancreatic cancer," "stomach cancer," "liver cancer," "lung cancer," — the names of all the different cancers go scrolling by. The phrases, the names of the cancer types, seem relentless and blunt and rude, and there's dozens of them, and each one is a clickable link to a whole separate world of misery. There's a lot of links.

There's quite a lot of links, and Dean doesn't know which one to click. He blunders through a few of them and only succeeds in discovering that certain cancers seem to be extra-awful, with horrible survival rates. Pancreatic's one of the very worst, apparently, and liver looks bad too, and stomach cancer's not good either....

It's soon clear that Dean won't be able to figure out anything truly useful till he knows what Cas has got exactly — though he's starting to truly dread that conversation. He finally finds another set of links, down at the bottom, for downloadable pdf's about basic types of treatment and general information. It all seems depressingly matter-of-fact; there's an almost corporate polished air to the glossy little brochures. Dean dutifully scans through the titles, planning which ones to download later when he's back at his laptop. "Living With Cancer" looks like it might be worth a look, and "What To Expect During Chemotherapy" for sure, and the one on "Nutrition and Cancer" might be helpful, and then Dean notices one called "When Chemotherapy Doesn't Work," and another one called "Hospice Care: A Patient's Choice."

All at once Dean finds himself twisting around to the bedside table, in order to plunk the phone face-down and grab the TV remote. Apparently the googling is over. Apparently it's time to watch TV. (Just as Cas had advised last night.)

Dean's so distracted and tense now, and also so exhausted, that he forgets all about muting the sound. When he powers on the TV there's a blast of deafening Spanish so loud it makes him jump, and it takes several agonizing seconds to find the mute button. Those few seconds seem like years, but finally Dean finds the right button, jabs it desperately, and at last a quiet silence settles over the room once again. Dean darts a guilty glance over at the bed, but, miraculously, Cas's eyes are still closed.

A cruise through the TV's few channels soon reveals that the motel only has a very sparse selection of basic cable. Dean's soon flipped through all the channels, still unable to concentrate much, and he ends up circling round again to the Spanish channel he'd started on. It's showing a telenovela. He gets the closed-captioning on, thinking maybe he can follow the Spanish a little (he's got enough broken Spanish under his belt to deal with a basic telenovela plot).

But when he tries to read the Spanish it seems like the only words he can see are "When Chemotherapy Doesn't Work" and "Hospice Care: A Patient's Choice."

Dean turns the closed captioning back off and watches the screen in silence.

Turns out he doesn't even need any Spanish to get the gist of it, though, for by some sort of cursed luck, the telenovela turns out to be in the middle of a hospital scene. There's some kind of dewy-eyed bride lying in a hospital bed looking noble and tragic (yet remarkably well made-up, her hair perfect and her lipstick flawless). Weeping family members are clustering around the bed having a series of excitable, teary arguments. They all quiet down when the patient launches in on an incredibly long speech (with unrealistically long sentences, thinks Dean — there's hardly any gasping for breath, and not even the least bit of hemorrhaging, diarrhea or vomiting). The weeping family members are soon weeping even more dramatically, and it becomes clear that this is a last-words speech. It's a death scene.

Dean manages to avoid hurling the tv remote right through the tv screen. "Goddam fricking telenovelas," he mutters, punching the remote's power-off button as hard as he can.

"You should lie down," says Cas.

Dean jumps, and jerks around to look at him. Cas hasn't moved, but his eyes are open now, and he's watching Dean. No doubt that brief blast of thundering Spanish woke him up. Dean doublechecks that the TV is really off, wincing internally as he realizes that Cas might have seen some of the hospital death scene. He turns back to Cas with a pasted-on smile. "Sorry if I disturbed your beauty sleep," Dean says. "How're you feeling?'

"You should lie down," Cas repeats. His voice is slurred with fatigue, and he looks very sleepy, his eyes half-lidded. He hasn't even shifted position or lifted his head at all. But even so he seems to be inspecting Dean critically, and he's frowning as his eyes flick over Dean's face. "You're tired," he says. "You need rest."

"Nah, I'm fine," says Dean. "Not my first all-night rodeo, you know. And you're the one who was the star attraction. Crawling all over the floor like a half-drowned kitten — you sure know how to play the pathetic card. Totally stole the show, you know." He realizes Cas is now looking at Dean's clothes; his attention seems to have been caught by Dean's flannel shirt.

"I retired the giant ground sloth," Dean explains, glancing down at the shirt and plucking at the flannel a little bit. "Thought maybe you might not need it now? But I can go back into ground sloth mode if you think I should."

Cas shakes his head. "First night's always the worst," he says. "Odors usually aren't a problem on— on the second—" His voice is already very hoarse, and it goes dry halfway through the sentence. Cas tries to clear his throat to continue, but just ends up coughing.

"Oh, hey, you need more water," says Dean, grabbing a water bottle from a small stack that are lined up on the bedside table. "Here. You gotta drink some more." Dean twists the cap off, scoots his chair closer and holds the bottle out. Cas makes a slight lurch upwards, as if to try to sit up and grab it, but he only gets his head about an inch off the pillow before he gives up and lets himself flop down again. "Lemme help," says Dean, leaning in and sliding a hand behind Cas's head.

And glory be, Cas lets Dean help. He accepts the assistance quietly; he lifts one hand to the water bottle to steer it a bit, but he's letting Dean carry the weight of the bottle, and he's also letting the whole weight of his head rest in Dean's other hand too. Gratifyingly, he takes a very long drink this time, longer than any he's taken in hours — not just tiny sips but several long thirsty gulps, big healthy-looking swallows, all in a row. He even closes his eyes for several long moments, his fingers tightening on Dean's, as if he's truly savoring the water.

Once he's downed two-thirds of the bottle he opens his eyes and pushes the bottle away."It actually tastes good this time," Cas says. Dean's beaming at him, like Cas has performed an incredible feat. Cas explains, "It didn't really taste like water before. It does now."

"You're definitely feeling better," Dean says, lowering the bottle. "Want to eat anything? Maybe another saltine?"

Cas shakes his head.

"One crumb?" suggests Dean. "Half a crumb?"

Another headshake. "Usually I still can't eat much on the second day," Cas says. "Though..." He gets a thoughtful look for a moment, like he's checking in with himself internally, and he reports, "The nausea's gone now. But I know it'll come back if I eat when I don't really want to." (Despite the discouraging topic of conversation, it's awfully good to hear him talking in such long complete sentences. His voice is still quiet and hoarse, but he's getting entire thoughts out now.) Cas adds, "Tomorrow I might be able to eat more. A little."

Dean rests the partly-drunk water bottle on his knee, tapping it with one finger as he watches Cas adjust the towel that's still wrapped around his head. Dean's thinking, again, of all the weeks Cas has been doing this, and all those informational brochures about "Living With Cancer" and "What To Expect During Chemotherapy."

"Cas," Dean says, "Is every week like this?"

"Oh, this is an easy week," Cas says. Dean blinks at him, and Cas says, "Week 1's always worse. It's three days of chemo."

"Three days... like... in a row?" says Dean, trying to sound casual, because this is a horrifying thought. Three days?

Cas nods, reaching for the water bottle again. "But that was last week," he says. "This is Week Two." His hand closes over Dean's on the bottle, and again Dean helps him lift his head again to drink.

But now Dean's thinking, Three days of chemo in a row.

That sounds bad.

And.... it sounds serious. Heavy-duty chemo. Major league treatment. Serious treatment... for a serious cancer?

Dean remembers the list of the especially dangerous cancers.... pancreatic, stomach, liver... and he realizes, with a jolt, that these are all abdominal cancers. Cancers of abdominal organs. At that point Dean also remembers the abdominal scars, those red lines he'd glimpsed when Cas had been in the shower. It looked like Cas has had some kind of abdominal surgery.

Dean's blood has gone cold now, and he's biting his lip. Cas doesn't notice; he finishes the water bottle, mutters "Thank you," and turns over onto his side again. He's now looking extra sleepy-eyed and is obviously about to drift off, but then Dean blurts out, still clutching the empty water bottle, "What kind is it?"

Cas stiffens, darting a quick glance at Dean. He's suddenly wide awake again. Dean's immediately kicking himself for asking. He'd planned to ask sometime, of course, but not now. This isn't the right time at all; this is a recovery night, and Cas needs to rest. Already Cas is getting that evasive look, his eyes sliding away from Dean's, and he shifts in the bed, his expression a strange mixture of worry and sorrow and uncertainty. It's hard to interpret, but it's clear he's uncomfortable.

"You can tell me later," Dean says, at exactly the same moment that Cas asks, "Can I tell you later?"

"Yeah, later, later," Dean says, with a bit of a laugh, but now he's unable to stop himself from reaching out to Cas. He really just kind of wants to give Cas some sort of a hug, but ends up covering that impulse with a whole series of bedding adjustments. Dean adjusts Cas's head-towel, and tucks the loose corners in, and wraps the shoulder-towel more snugly around him, and then Dean feels Cas's forehead again for possible fever, and he smooths the blanket over Cas's chest. Cas's expression has changed yet again; now he's squinting up at Dean looking almost puzzled.

"Sorry. I jumped the gun, " says Dean, smoothing out the blanket again and re-adjusting a loose corner of towel that's gotten flopped around Cas's neck. "Just... curious, I guess. Never mind. Later. So, you just rest, okay? You just—" Dean is still fiddling with the blanket-edge when Cas reaches up and takes Dean's hand.

There's a little silence. Cas squeezes Dean's hand lightly, and doesn't release it. The contact is oddly reassuring; Dean swallows, looking at him, and Cas holds his eyes for a moment.

"You need to rest," Cas says, as he had earlier. "You should lie down." He nods toward the other side of the bed. "This is a queen-size bed," he points out. "Quite large. Plenty of room. I don't need it all."

It's an incredibly tempting thought. But Dean's worried about crowding Cas, and he's also worried that if he does lie down, he'll fall asleep; and he doesn't want to leave Cas unsupervised (at least not till Sam gets here). However, the thought of sitting next to him, being that little bit closer, even if just to monitor him better, is very appealing.

"Maybe I could just sit on the bed," says Dean. "Just for a little bit. Till Sam gets here. Because, actually, this chair is a little uncomfortable."

"That chair's very uncomfortable," says Cas. "I've sat in it. I completely agree."

 


 

Dean props up a whole set of pillows on the other side of the bed so that he can sit upright and, hopefully, not fall asleep instantly. He brings his phone around to the far side of the bed in case Sam calls; he gets the tv on, too (switching channels to a basketball game that he has absolutely no interest in, but hoping, again, that the TV will help keep him awake). Cas has already drifted off again by the time Dean kicks his shoes off, sits on the bed and, very gently, swings his legs up.

Dean's on top of the covers; Cas, a couple feet away, is underneath them. The basketball game goes on and Dean watches it blankly. He's not really seeing the game at all, of course; he's thinking over Cas's worried expression when Dean had asked what kind of cancer it was, and he's wondering why Castiel didn't want to say what cancer it was.

Dean's thinking, too, about those abdominal scars.

The basketball game's gone on quite a few more minutes when Cas shifts in his sleep, turning to face Dean. Dean glances down at him, but Cas seems to be okay, still breathing evenly; he's just rolled over. It's starting to seem like this might be an entirely non-vomiting evening (which is, of course, a huge relief).

Dean returns to watching the game again, but he finally realizes he's now been watching it for nearly half an hour and still has no idea which teams are playing. He considers checking out the minifridge and seeing if it might have any whiskey. This thought instantly has a very strong attraction to it, but when Dean starts to shift his weight in order to swing his legs off the bed, there's a tug on his shirt. Dean looks down to find that Cas has taken hold, in his sleep, of the edge of Dean's flannel shirt. He's even kind of knotted his fingers into it.

"Well," Dean whispers, "Okay, dude. I'll stay a minute longer."

Dean waits a few more minutes, thinking Cas will shift position again and let go of the shirt, but Cas doesn't let go. The whiskey's still calling. Dean's soon wondering if he could extract himself from the shirt, shedding it quietly and leaving it behind on the bed (in Cas's grasp) while Dean makes a quick dash to the minifridge and back. But then there's a touch on his arm; Cas has now got one hand around Dean's wrist.

There's no going to the minifridge at all now, of course. Not while Cas is holding on.

Dean sits there a long time, with Cas holding on to his arm. For some reason the sleepiness is gone. Eventually Dean turns the TV off. Outside, the sun is setting. The light in the window begins to fade, and the little room grows dim. I could turn on a light, Dean thinks, but that would require moving, which would require disturbing Castiel, so he doesn't move. The room gets dimmer and dimmer, and Dean stays where he is, till he's sitting quietly in the gloom, with Castiel's warm hand on his arm.

Dean's phone buzzes. He manages to check it with his other hand, without moving; it's Sam, texting to say the "errands" are done, and he's just half an hour away now.

"Oh," comes a hoarse voice beside him the dark. The phone's buzz must have woken Cas up; the touch on Dean's arm disappears. "Sorry," says Cas. "I got onto your side of the bed, didn't I? Sorry." Cas shuffles a few inches farther away, and his hand does not return.

"You can keep holding on," offers Dean.

Cas doesn't move for a moment.

It's so dark now that it's hard to see anything, but finally there's a soft rustling sound of the blanket being shifted a little, and then the warm hand reappears on Dean's arm. It's so reassuring to feel that touch again; Dean feels better immediately, and he pats Cas's hand and settles back a little against the stack of pillows. After a pause, Cas adds his other hand too, both his hands around Dean's forearm now. Then there's a change in Cas's breathing and Dean knows he's fallen asleep again.

For many minutes more Dean sits quietly there on the bed, trying to think about nothing at all except for the feel of Castiel holding on in the dark, and the sound of his slow, steady breathing.

 


 

A/N - As I said, just a quiet interim scene. But so hard to write, somehow! The shifting direction-of-worry between Dean and Cas, each of them alternating worrying about the other... and that very delicate dance they're starting to do about physical contact and what it means to each of them. All overlaid with the medical details & related fears. Tricky.

Anyway, hope you liked it.

And yes, there's the fic title again, this time as a chapter title too. You saw it before when Dean said it to himself; now he's saying it to Cas; and it won't be the last time you see it.

Please let me know what you think, and if there was anything particular that you liked. Thanks so much for reading. I really hope you're all doing well.

 

Chapter Text

 A/N - Another last-minute, pre-beta posting, and another short chapter, which seems to be all I can pull together these days. But it's something!

 


 

 

There's a knock on the door. Cas only stirs slightly as Dean gently extracts his arm from Cas's hands and levers himself creakily to his feet. Grabbing his gun from the kitchenette counter (this is standard protocol), Dean cracks the door open a hair.

It's Sam.

"Jeez. You look—" Sam starts to say, in too loud a voice, and Dean makes a shh gesture, holding one finger to his lips and nodding back toward the room. Dean slips outside the door and edges it almost shut, so they can talk a little without disturbing Cas.

The motel's the kind where the door opens directly to a little parking lot, and the nose of the Impala's just a few feet away, its sleek finish shining in the soft glow of a nearby streetlight. Sam backs up a step and leans on the Impala's hood. He's got his duffel slung over his shoulder, and he hitches it up onto the hood. With his other hand he's balancing a couple of bulging shopping bags across his knees. He looks tired, and more than a little worried.

"Sorry," Sam says, in a much quieter voice, once Dean's gotten the door almost closed. "I was gonna say, you look like shit."

"Aw, quit it with all the compliments, you're making me blush," says Dean. Sam gives him only a faint smile, and Dean adds, "Drive go ok? Get your errands done?"

"Yep. Took a while. Got the bus to town, grabbed a rental car there," replies Sam. "Then I stopped for a couple things—" he raises the shopping bags slightly— "and I dropped off the rental already, at a place here in Denver a mile or so away. Walked over here." Dean's starting to understand why Sam looks so tired. But apparently Sam's not done with the driving yet, for he adds, "Thought I could maybe take the Impala right now actually and go get some dinner for you guys. You had anything to eat?"

It's not till Sam asks about it that Dean discovers he's starving. "Not much," he says, realizing, with some surprise, that the only thing he's eaten all the previous night, and all day today, has been a handful of rejected saltines — the ones he couldn't get Cas to eat. "Six saltines, I think?" says Dean.

Sam's worried look deepens, so Dean says, trying to make a joke out of it, "Maybe eight saltines, I lost count. And some crappy coffee from the motel office. You and your healthy-eating obsession, Sam, are you seriously gonna try and convince me that isn't a balanced diet?"

But Sam doesn't laugh. He just nods thoughtfully and says, "I'll go and get you something." Then he adds, dropping his voice even further and craning his neck a little to peer over Dean's shoulder toward Cas's door, "How about Cas? I mean, um, does he want some dinner?"

"He's already had his half-a-saltine for the day," says Dean. "Though I think he's got plans of working up to a whole saltine tomorrow."

Sam's quiet a moment. He hefts his duffel onto his shoulder again, stands, and takes a small half-step toward Cas's door. But he hesitates, pausing there while still a few feet away from the door, and looks uncertainly at Dean. "Do you think I could say hi? I mean, is he, uh...."

At this point Dean realizes that Sam's probably spent the entire drive wondering how bad things are — how bad Cas is going to look, whether he's capable of conversation... whether he's at death's door. Dean's about to suggest that they slip into the other room for a confidential pow-wow when there's a faint, rough, rather sleepy-sounding "Dean?" from inside the room. It's Cas.

"Yeah, I'm here," calls Dean. "Right outside."

Sam calls out, "Sorry, Cas. I was just, um—"

"Sam?" Cas interrupts, suddenly sounding much more alert. There's a creaking noise, like he's sitting up in bed. "Sam, is that you?"

"Yeah, um— " says Sam. He glances again at Dean and steps forward to give the door an uncertain knock. Only when Cas says, "Come in," does Sam gently nudge the door open (though only about four inches). Sam peers hesitantly into the dark room to say, "Hey, sorry, didn't mean to bother you. Were you asleep?"

"It's all right," says Cas. "Come on in. You can turn the light on."

Sam swings the door all the way open, Dean reaches past him to flick the light on, and there's Cas, blinking in the sudden light. He's actually managing to push himself up to a sitting position on his own. However, as he sits up, various towels start sliding off, almost in slow motion. Dean spots the moment when Cas remembers that he's not wearing any real clothes: with one hand Cas checks that the blanket is still covering him up to his waist (it is) and his other hand then grabs futilely at the shoulder-towel. The shoulder-towel's a goner, though — it's already slipping off the bed entirely, to the floor, and as Cas turns his head to see where it's gotten to, his head-towel slithers off too.

All the arm-bruises are suddenly vividly in view. And the hair loss. Dean, looking at him now with fresh eyes, is a little taken aback at how much Cas seems to have settled into the classic cancer-patient look. He looks like a frail, tragic figure straight out of a Lifetime movie.

Sam's blocking Dean's way, standing stock-still in the doorway, and he just stands there, apparently frozen. Dean thinks, I was so damn lucky that Cas was asleep when I first saw him. I got to have my freakout without him seeing.

Castiel slowly raises his eyes to Sam.

But Cas doesn't cover his head this time, and he doesn't cover his arm bruises. He just says, quietly, "Hello, Sam."

Dean's almost frantic now to cover Cas up, so he squeezes past Sam (giving him a quick pat on the shoulder on the way), saying to Cas, "Hey, dude, we totally forgot to get you some real clothes after your shower. Here, put this on." Dean's already pulling his own flannel shirt off before he's even halfway to the bed. He gets to the bed, flips the shirt over Cas's shoulders, helps him steer his arms into it, and even buttons up a couple of the buttons for him. Cas looks up at him with a small smile, as if what Dean's doing isn't really necessary any more but is appreciated nonetheless.

The shirt's big on him, especially with how thin he is now, but the bruises have successfully been covered. The hair loss, however, has not been covered at all. Dean's standing beside the bed now, and from this angle he happens to be looking right down at Cas's head, and it's startling all over again to see how much hair Cas has lost. It already looks worse than yesterday. Has Cas lost that much more hair just in the last twenty-four hours?

"Hey, Cas," Sam says at last, taking another step into the room and swinging the door shot. Dean gives him a pleading look, trying to telepathically convey to him, Don't act shocked. Don't make a big deal out of any of this.

But it turns out there's no need to worry; Sam just slings his duffel and one of his shopping bags on the floor by the door, and he asks Cas, "How you holding up?"

Cas shrugs. "Better now."

Sam nods. "Heard you had a rough night," he says, hoisting the second shopping bag in his hands. "If you feel up to it though, I got something to show you." Then Sam walks right over to Cas with shopping bag, pulls a chair up to the bed next to Dean, and sits down.

Sam looks completely unfazed. But Dean recognizes his tone of voice, and even the way he's moving: Sam's gone into his well-practiced victim-soothing mode. It's the same way he talks to traumatized witnesses and shell-shocked family members. It's got to be an act right now, of course, at least partly — because the hesitation and worry that were all over Sam's face just a minute ago, outside by the Impala, are totally hidden now. (Though they must still be there, somewhere, under the surface.)

"Dean mentioned you lost some hair," Sam remarks, with a mild glance at Cas's head, as if he's just commenting on a new haircut. Lifting the bulging plastic shopping bag, Sam says, "I brought you some hats. Wanna see?"

Hats, thinks Dean. Errands. Of course.

Cas shoots a puzzled glance at Dean, and then looks back at Sam with a nod. Sam then upends the bag right over the bed. A pile of multicolored fabric and wool tumbles out all over Cas's blanket-covered legs. It's a sudden profusion of colors and fabrics, blues and greens and reds spilling all over, and Cas and Dean both stare in surprise.

It is, indeed, hats. Lots of hats.

Dean asks, "So, uh, how many hats did you get exactly?"

"I think it's like ten or something?" Sam says, starting to sift through them. "Twelve maybe? Not sure. So, Cas, I wasn't sure which ones you'd like. By the way, some stores have this, like, serious deficiency in hats! And in colors. See, at first I was looking for a gray one like your other one, but I couldn't find any gray hats in the first couple stores, and then I realized I didn't know what other colors you like. So I ended up getting an assortment. Figured you could use some different hats anyway, like, different warmths? And in different colors." He glances up at Dean. "That's why I was late. Sorry."

"So..." Dean says, "How many stores did you check exactly?"

"Five or so? Six? I dunno. Finally hit some pretty good paydirt at that mall just over the state line. So, Cas, first off, there's these basic beanies—" Here Sam plucks a light-colored wool cap out of of the heap, a classic simple men's woolen hat designed to just cover the crown of the head. He holds it up for Cas to see. "Kind of the same shape as the gray one you had, right? Just a different color. They didn't have gray, like I said I looked for gray but they didn't have it, but I thought this white one with the gray flecks is decent. And here's another in blue. Then this one's a classic black watch cap, slightly different style, military, like the Army uses; might look good on you. And I kinda liked this dark blue one." Sam's pulling hats out of the pile as he talks, holding them up one at a time by Cas's face as if he's assessing Castiel for some kind of modeling photo shoot. Cas takes the blue one from Sam's hand and pulls it on, glancing up at Dean once he's got it on.

It's remarkable how much better he looks with a hat on. The "cancer patient" look disappears almost instantly. He's still pale and thin, and the hat doesn't quite cover his entire hairline, but he looks almost normal. Though... a new normal, actually. It's odd to see him with this new color of hat (the blue of his eyes suddenly seems especially vivid). And with the checked flannel shirt too, he looks quite different. He looks...

He looks kinda good, actually.

"That one's not bad," says Dean. Cas squints at him for a moment, pulls off the navy-blue hat off (he seems to have relaxed now about hiding the bald patches), and he takes a green one that Sam's holding out, and pulls it on. Cas glances up at Dean again.

"Nice one too," says Dean. Cas squints at him again, and pulls the green one off.

Sam says, "There's a couple other styles too. There's these ones with pom-poms, like this one here." (Sam picks up a black hat.) "I didn't know if you're a pom-pom kind of guy but I thought it might look good. Also they tend to be a bit warmer in winter, the pom-pom type."

"Pom... pom?" says Cas, quite doubtfully, as if maybe he's never heard that particular phrase before. He slowly takes hold of the black hat Sam's showing him, a thick cable-knit winter wool hat with a rolled-up brim and, indeed, a pom-pom on the top.

"Yeah, the pom-pom is the ball thing on top," Sam explains.

"But it only has one," Cas says, fingering the puffy wad of wool at the top of the hat. "There's only one pom."

"It's a big pom," Dean points out. "It's so big it's worth two poms. Pom-pom." Sam snorts, but Cas looks skeptical, glancing up at Dean with such clear suspicion that Dean has to laugh.

It's good to laugh. It's good to see Cas almost acting like himself again; even with just the last few hours of sleep he seems to have perked up a little more. He's still clearly not totally back to normal (in fact he's slumping a little tiredly, and Dean's starting to think he needs some extra pillows propped up behind him). But it's a great relief to see something like his normal alertness back in his eyes.

Sam reaches out and puts the pom-pom hat on Cas's head. While Sam is carefully adjusting the hat, Cas raises one hand to his head. It's that familiar gesture again, his head-shielding gesture, but this time he's not touching the bald patch on his head; he's only feeling at the "pom" on the top of the hat.

Dean is standing by the bed now with his hands on his hips, and as he watches this little scene play out — Sam reaching out with both hands to help Cas re-fold the edge of the hat, while Cas touches the "pom" curiously — Dean's suddenly almost teary, for no reason that he can figure out. Damn, I must be tired, Dean thinks. He even has to look aside and take a long, slow breath, and run a hand over his face. Then he busies himself by stuffing two more pillows behind Cas's back.

Once the pillows are settled, he walks around behind Sam's chair and sits on the bed by Cas's knees, where he allows himself one more deep breath to settle himself. He feels just about back to normal, and he's sure he's hidden the whole episode completely. But when he glances up again, it turns out Cas is watching him.

Not to be outdone, Sam flicks a glance at Dean too.

Neither of them say anything; they return to the hats. Sam has Cas try on a beige hat next (the color on this one isn't the best); then a plaid sheepskin-lined one that makes Cas suddenly look so much like a lumberjack that both Sam and Dean get almost into giggles about it. But Cas reports that it's warm, so they decide to reserve that one for colder weather.

Then Cas picks up a multi-colored one from the bottom of the pile, examining it curiously. "This one's different," he says.

"Okay, so, I know that one's kind of weird," says Sam. "It just caught my eye somehow." As Cas turns it around, it becomes clear that the hat's shaped like an animal head. A monkey, it seems. The color scheme seems to be designed after sock monkeys, those crude puppets made out of a gray sock that have just had eyes and ears added. It's got monkey eyes and monkey ears on the top, and even a big broad mouth that's spread across the front of the hat. There's a puffy red pom-pom on top. And it's got ear flaps — nice warm-looking ear flaps, each with a long red braided tassel that hangs down the side.

"I know it's totally weird," says Sam, now sounding a little defensive about it. "But I kinda liked it, I don't know why." Cas, who still has the plaid lumberjack hat on, is holding it in his hands, eyeing the monkey face with a rather puzzled look as Sam explains, "They were at this booth at that mall. Whole booth of animal hats. Different kinds of animals, I guess for Christmas gifts for your kids or whatever. There was a panda and a cat and all kinds of animals. Kind of a crazy design but the great thing about these is, they cover your ears."

"Quechua," says Castiel slowly, turning it around again. "A Quechua hat. But with a pom."

"What?" says Dean.

"Quechuas," Cas repeats, glancing over at him. "I think you'd call them Incas. This is a Peruvian design." He's examining the ear flaps now, and the long braided tassel at the end of each ear flap. "I mean, not the monkey, but the shape," he explains. "This kind of ear flap, with the tassels, and the way the whole thing is woven; this is a Peruvian style of hat. They used these in the Andes. It's a very traditional design." He's quiet a moment and then he adds, "I went there a few times, you know. Long ago." He strokes the monkey's face and runs one hand down a tassel, and adds, "I used to fly there... and... well, anyway, they used to put little llama designs on them."

"It's super soft on the inside," Sam says, breezing past the "I used to fly there" comment. "It's got a fleece lining. I thought it might be comfy."

Dean's about to say, "Yeah, but it's completely ridiculous," when Cas pulls it on.

Immediately it becomes clear that this hat's particular kind of design, with the way the earflaps extend pretty far down, has a unique advantage: it totally hides Cas's entire hairline. Even the part of the hairline that's behind his ears, and even the part that's low on his neck. With the monkey hat on, it's impossible to tell at all that he's lost any hair.

Of course, the pattern really is ridiculous — the monkey's expression seems huge, its face weirdly spread across the top of Cas's head. It's ridiculous... and it's hilarious. But Cas has put it on anyway, and, as seems the usual routine now, he then looks at Dean to check Dean's reaction.

There's something so incredibly incongruous about Cas's solemn, pale face, and the way he's frowning at Dean, with the garishly cheerful monkey design and the "pom" on top, that Dean can't help but smile.

Cas studies Dean's expression a moment, and then turns to Sam. Sam's grinning too.

"I like this one," Cas says to Sam.

"You do?" says Sam. He sounds surprised — and pleased. "That one was a long shot! You really like it?"

"I do," Cas says, with another glance at Dean, as he strokes one tassel. "I like the Inca design. And the ears. And the pom."

"Great!" says Sam. He's got a broad grin now. "That's just great! Cause, it's yours now. They're all yours, actually. Keep 'em all."

"Angel in a pom-pom," says Dean, shaking his head. "With a monkey to boot. You know, it's really not half bad."

There's a moment, then, when they're actually all smiling — even Cas, who's got one corner of his mouth crooked up a little now as he looks back and forth between Dean and Sam.

The half-smile doesn't last very long. "Sam," Cas says, a serious look coming over his face. He gathers all the unused hats up in his arms, cradles them to himself in a pile of wool, gazes down at them for a long moment, and then looks up at Sam. "Thank you for all the hats."

"Oh, sure," says Sam. "It was nothing."

"It wasn't nothing," Cas says firmly. "It was the opposite of nothing. It was... not nothing. And thank you for coming all this way. You didn't have to." He looks at Dean then, and adds, "Neither of you did."

"Yeah, we did," says Dean. "We wanted to." Sam nods.

Cas looks down at his bundle of hats again, and he lifts a hand again to stroke one of the monkey-hat tassels. He says, quietly, "I didn't want to worry you. Either of you."

There's a little pause.

Sam glances over at Dean with a cautious look. Dean can read the question in his eyes: Is this a good time to ask more details?

Dean gives Sam a minute shake of the head.

Cas doesn't notice. Still looking down at his armful of hats, he lets out a small sigh and says, "I realize now I probably should have told you both. But ...." He's silent a moment, and then looks back up at them. He meets their eyes levelly now, one at a time; Sam first, and then Dean. Finally Cas says, "You've both been through so much. I wanted you to have a break."

"Cas," says Sam. "We're in this together."

"And you're damn straight you should've told us," Dean can't resist adding.

"But, this isn't your job," Cas objects, with another glance down at his hats. "Either of you. It's not your job. It's going to be such a burden — it's already been such a burden — Dean, I heard some of what you said outside: you haven't even eaten!" Cas sounds appalled about this. "I should have realized. You haven't eaten at all, you've barely slept. You should go eat something right away."

"I ate six times more than you did," says Dean, "You're the one who needs to—"

"Sam, will you make sure he eats?" Cas says to Sam, talking right over Dean. "Take him somewhere and feed him. And you eat too." Sam nods; Dean gives up with a sigh.

"You'll be okay for an hour?" Sam asks.

"I'll be fine," says Cas. He's settling into his nest of pillows now, shuffling down till he's more-or-less lying down. The alert look is fading now, and he's starting to blink, as if he's having trouble keeping his eyes open. "I really am fine now, Dean," he says. "Assuming past patterns hold, I'll just sleep for the next sixteen hours. Sixteen or twenty." Wriggling down into the bedding even more, with his armful of hats by his side, he tugs the monkey hat a little more firmly onto his head and pulls the blanket up around his chest. Both Dean and Sam are still looking down at him, and Castiel says, "Go, both of you. Get something to eat. Oh, Dean, wait, you need your shirt back—" Cas half-sits up again.

"You keep it," says Dean. "I've got my jacket. Back in an hour, then, if you're really set on us stuffing our faces." Cas nods and slumps back down. Dean pats his knee, Sam pats his shoulder, and the two brothers stand to leave.

Halfway out the door, though, Dean hesitates, looking back at Cas. It feels wrong to be leaving.

"Go," Cas mutters from the bed. He already sounds half-asleep again. "I promise I'll be okay."

"Yeah, but..." says Dean. "You sure you don't want some food? I could open another pack of saltines. You need any water or anything? Your cell's still charged, right?" A thought strikes him. "Hey, if you want the TV on, the remote's right on that other nightstand, on the other side. Also there's water bottles on both sides. Also—"

"Sam," says Cas, and Sam has to physically pull Dean out through the door by the elbow, shut the door behind him, and even give him a little push toward the Impala.

 


 

A/N - YES, it's THAT hat, the one we've all seen in real life. As soon as I realized Castiel was going to need a hat, of course it had to be that hat. :)

And as for Sam - Dean only asked Sam to do one thing: bring a hat. So of course Sam spent almost the whole trip thinking about hats. It was the only thing he knew that Cas definitely needed. 

More next week! Thanks so much for reading.

 

Chapter Text

A/N - Sorry for the skipped week - I was hosting a visiting foreign musician all last weekend and had to be full-time translator/chauffeur/PA for all his workshops and stuff. It was awesome fun but there was no time to write at all! Whoof, I've never had a fic unfold this slowly... each chapter takes so much thought and it seems impossible to rush it. Thanks for your patience. (and thanks in advance to my wonderful beta, who's been so flexible about me sliding into posting stuff super late, and sending me fixes later. Any typos are my own and will be fixed soon!)

 


 

"But we need to know what stage. He hasn't said what stage it is?"

"No."

"And the kind. Like, y'know, which organ, which kind of cancer. Did he at least say what kind it is?"

"Nope," says Dean, swallowing down a bite of burger.

They're in a booth at a diner just a few blocks from the motel. Sam's sitting in front of a big chicken salad that he's barely touched, scribbling things on the little pad of scratch paper that he always carries around for making notes on cases. And Dean, sitting across from him, is about halfway through a burger.

The burger had been seeming reasonably decent before Sam had gotten going on the cancer questions; now it's become a little tasteless, and Dean has to coax himself to take the next bite.

"We gotta ask his whole chemo schedule, too," says Sam. Now he's clicking through the calendar app on his phone, flicking back and forth between months. "What's his chemo schedule? Did you figure that out yet? I was looking it up and there are these, like, cycles. I was trying to figure out when he started... " Sam flicks back to the summer months and shows the calendar to Dean. "Like, right after Flagstaff maybe? How many cycles has he done already? Cause... this seems like a lot of time. A lot of cycles. Shouldn't he be about done by now?"

"Dunno. Another round next week is all I know. And I think more after that, later." Dean says. He's now just staring at the burger in his hands. He adds, "And sometimes there's three days in a row. I guess that was last week."

"Three days...okay... " muses Sam, and he writes 3d last week on his little pad of paper, and Cycles still going. "And the weeks are different... Do you know what kind of chemo it is, then? I mean, which drugs exactly? There's different ones for different cancers. With different side effects. Three days is a lot... I wonder why they don't just admit him to the hospital on those weeks?"

"Dunno," says Dean. The burger looks extremely bland and unappealing now.

"They all have different side effects. We should figure all that out. That hair loss, man... and those bruises. The arm bruises are from IV's, right? But what about the ones on his shoulders? He looked like... " Sam hesitates. "He looked pretty bad. It's amazing how much that hat and the baggy sweater were hiding, y'know? Anyway, we gotta figure out what type of chemo he's on. Did you get a glance at his IV bag, in this hospital? To figure out what chemo drugs they're using?"

"Not really." Dean feels a twist of guilt that he hadn't thought to examine Cas's IV or medical chart more closely, yesterday at the hospital when he'd had the chance. (At the time, it had seemed almost more than he could handle just to sit very, very still next to the bed, and look at Cas, and wait for him to wake.)

"Didn't it have labels or something?" says Sam. "Didn't you look at his chart? Or talk to his doc? Didn't you say you called his doc's office or something, last night? Cause once we know what kind of chemo it is, then—"

"I don't know what kind of chemo it is," says Dean, a little too loudly. Several people at nearby tables glance over, and, even though their expressions are sympathetic, Dean glares at them and barks "What are you looking at? Haven't any of you ever heard of chemo before?"

The other people all turn back to their meals. A little hush has settled over the whole diner. Even the waitress, walking nearby with a stack of dishes, has stopped in mid-stride. After a diplomatic pause, she glides silently back to the kitchen.

There's really no point in trying to eat anymore. Dean sets the half-eaten burger down on his plate and looks up at Sam, who seems to have shrunk a little, slumping back against the booth's padded bench with both arms wrapped around his chest.

"Sorry," Sam says, quietly. He bites his lip. "Sorry. I'm grilling you, aren't I?"

"S'okay," says Dean with a sigh, balling up his napkin and tossing it on the plate.

"Damn. I promised Cas I'd get you to eat," says Sam. "Sorry."

"S'okay," Dean says again. "I ate some."

They both stare at their plates for a long moment, Dean looking at the half-eaten burger, and Sam staring at his chicken salad.

Finally Sam picks up a fork and pokes at his salad. Dean realizes then that Sam's barely eaten anything either.

"This is funny, huh?" says Dean, gesturing at both their plates. Sam looks up at him, confused, and Dean tries to explain. "We're the ones who can eat without puking. But we're not eating! So... heh. It's funny, isn't it?"

Sam just looks at him.

"Or maybe it's not funny," says Dean, leaning back in his seat with a sigh. "Look, Sam, I don't know any details yet. Like, none. He really doesn't seem to want to tell me much, and honestly he's been such a wreck. I've been pretty much just focusing on keeping him from faceplanting completely into the toilet bowl, y'know? That kinda seemed like the priority task. For, like, the entire past day."

"I keep forgetting it's been just twenty-four hours," says Sam, still poking idly at his salad. "Feels like a week already."

Dean snorts. "Feels like a month."

Sam's quiet a moment. He sets his fork down, and looks out the window at the night-time scene outside. The sidewalks are nearly deserted; only a few cars are cruising by now and them.

"I spent all night looking stuff up," Sam says, "and then I spent the whole drive trying to think what to do. I had a bunch of ideas." He looks back at Dean. "But of course you guys have probably really only had, like... five minutes to actually talk at all, huh?"

Dean shrugs. "Less than that. But at least he's talking in complete sentences now."

Sam gives him such a classic woeful puppy-eyed look that Dean almost laughs.

Dean says, "You're right, though. We gotta figure all that stuff out." Dean closes his eyes and rubs a hand over his face for a moment. Sam's quiet, waiting, and finally Dean lowers his hand and says, "He had this, like, row of pillows all laid out on his floor, Sam. All these pillows in a row, in a line, a line from the bed to the bathroom, and little pans and water bottles. So he could, like...just crawl along, on his own, a few inches at a time I guess.... It's, what, all of six yards to the bathroom? And he had it all laid out and organized like it was a frickin' Olympic marathon course. Water stations and everything."

Dean pauses, wondering why he's bothering to describe the details of Cas's crawling path; the details don't really matter. Sam's not even taking notes anymore; he's just looking at Dean.

Finally Dean says, "He was super borderline, Sam. Last night."

"I know," says Sam softly.

"We can't ever let him do that alone again."

"I know."

"We gotta figure out something." Dean says, and he adds, "We gotta fix him," and then finally he says it: "We gotta find a cure."

A cure. There. He's said it.

A cure for cancer.

The impossible dream.

Sam straightens up a little and glances down at his laptop bag (which is sitting at his side, on the padded bench), but he doesn't say anything. He doesn't object, though; he doesn't say it's impossible. Dean hesitates a long moment before saying anything more, thinking of all the other impossible tasks they've faced. All the apocalyptic disasters, all the angels and demons and God himself.

Dean pushes his plate aside, leans forward on his elbows and says to Sam, keeping his voice low, "I was thinking. You remember when Zachariah was being his usual dick self, that one time, and he did something freaky to your lungs? Made them vanish entirely or something?"

Sam nods, and says, "Like I could ever forget." And then his eyes widen. "And he gave you stomach cancer. Oh. Right."

Dean nods. "He gave me stage four stomach cancer and just like that I was coughing up blood and couldn't even stand. And it hurt like a motherfucking bitch." He pauses, remembering that Cas had, in fact, been coughing up blood last night; and he thinks again of the abdominal scars. Which Sam doesn't know about yet.

One of Dean's hands knots into a fist, but he makes himself continue with the story. "And then... Zachariah just fixed it. Fixed both of us." Dean snaps his fingers. "Just like that. He cured the cancer — and your lungs. Just like that. Piece of cake."

"Only because Cas made him," Sam points out, and of course he's right. There's layers upon layers to the memory, and for a moment Dean's reliving the whole thing (and, judging by the expression in Sam's eyes, he is too). Castiel had come storming in so dramatically for that last-second rescue, the Greater Trenchcoat billowing around him, and he'd launched into a pretty forceful speech to Zachariah. It'd been one of those times when Cas's low voice had somehow dropped even lower, as if he'd been reaching deep within himself to find his most intimidating Heavenly-Lecture voice.

And he'd actually managed to cow Zachariah into healing Sam and Dean.

By that point in his angelic career, of course, Castiel had already been well on his way to abandoning his old Heavenly family for the new Winchester one. Well on his way to his downfall, that is. Or his destiny... or his emancipation? (Dean's never been able to settle, in his mind, which it is.) But even though he'd been leaning that way anyway, the confrontation with Zachariah had clearly been a turning point. Dean can still see in his mind, even now, the flicker of relief that had passed over Cas's face when Zach had finally folded — when Zach had healed Sam and Dean, and had fled. That fleeting look of relief, and even of surprise, on Cas's face had told a whole secret story: Cas hadn't been at all sure of success. He'd taken a major risk. He'd been prepared to fight.

He'd probably been prepared to die.

Sam breaks into Dean's thoughts to say, "But Zachariah's dead. And now Cas doesn't even have any power, so he can't—"

"Yeah, yeah, of course, Cas can't heal himself, obviously," interrupts Dean, who would really rather not think about that point. "Or he would have already, I know. But the point is that some angels can cure cancer, right? So..." He takes a breath and leans a little closer to Sam, dropping his voice even more, to almost a whisper. "I was thinking of asking the angels to help. Sending out another broadcast prayer, maybe."

Sam frowns, and his lips pinch together. He obviously doesn't like the idea, so Dean says, "I know it's a desperation move. I know we don't have many contacts up there now. Gadreel, Hannah, even Metatron... I mean, not that they were our favorites or anything, but we had some pull with them at least, and they're all gone. But, Sam, there are still other angels. Lots of them. There's got to be somebody up there who could heal him in a flash, right?"

But Sam's staring down at his salad again.

"What?" demands Dean.

Sam gives a little grimace, and he finally confesses, "I was kinda trying some prayers during the drive, to other angels. For... like... a little bit... a few minutes..." He glances up at Dean. "Maybe an hour or so...."

Dean glares at him, and Sam says, a little defensively, "Don't give me that look! I was doing all this reading, last night before my drive, about how exactly cancer plays out and it is not good stuff to read, and then you started sending all these freaky messages about Cas collapsing and fainting and coughing up blood and it sounded like maybe he was at death's door, okay? It sounded like he was dying right that second. So maybe I panicked a little."

Dean considers that. It's understandable, really.

"Anyway, sue me, the next morning I just went for it," Sam goes on. "Tried some prayers. Nothing. And, one other thing. During the drive... well, it wasn't just the hat-shopping that slowed me down. I did one other errand too." He takes a breath. "I stopped at the playground."

"The... angel playground?" Dean says, frowning at him. "As in, portal to Heaven? That playground?"

"Yeah."

"Sam—" Dean says, and he can't even finish the sentence. Sam did this all on his own? Dean's stomach is practically turning. This is exactly how the whole Gadreel mess started, after all. It's also how Cas nearly got himself killed that one time — tortured and nearly killed: open-broadcast prayers without any backup. And while Dean's willing to take such a risk himself, and is willing to coordinate a plan to try it, it's a whole different thing to let Sam to go down that road all by himself. And with no backup! It was risky. It was sloppy.

But again Dean remembers those middle-of-the-night texts, and especially that terrifying moment when Cas had collapsed so suddenly, slithering right out of Dean's arms to lie gasping on the floor.

Dean leans back against the booth's padded wall, tapping his fingers on the linoleum table, and he sighs.

Maybe the lecture can wait.

It'd just be the usual lecture anyway, the one about not taking crazy risks alone. The lecture they already give each other at least five times a year.

"I'll skip the lecture," says Dean.

"Thanks, I know it by heart already," says Sam.

"So what happened? At the playground?"

Sam shrugs. "Nothing. Nobody's there. I tried a bunch of prayers...I even drew the sigil in the sand... nothing." He spreads his hands. "The weirdest thing was, there's not even any guards there anymore. It's deserted. It seems like... just a playground again, now. I'm kinda worried that maybe when Cas said the angels had sealed Heaven, he might've meant it literally. Maybe they're all sealed up in there and can't even hear us anymore."

They're both quiet for a moment. Eventually Dean picks up a French fry from his plate, mostly just to have something to do with his hands. He can't seem to eat it, though, so he just looks at it, twirling it slowly around in his fingers.

A memory comes to mind of Sam showing Cas how to dip French fries in ketchup. Cas had loved the taste, hadn't he? He'd never tried fries with ketchup before. That had been back in Flagstaff....

Had Cas already known, even then?

That had been the night that Dean had awoken to find Cas sitting silently on the other bed, watching Dean sleep.

Once Cas had seen that Dean was awake, he'd started talking about the first time he'd been human. There had been something a little odd about the whole conversation, actually, something strange about his rambling stories. It was like he'd been reconsidering what it meant to be human. Like he'd been gearing up for something.

Thirst and hunger, fatigue and pain, Cas had said, referring to the first time he'd lost his grace. They were all so unfamiliar.

Dean remembers now what his own reply had been: "It's not gonna be like that this time." He grimaces at the memory, at the way he'd worded it. Thirst and hunger and fatigue and pain were, indeed, all extremely familiar sensations for Castiel now, weren't they? No wonder Cas had given him such a strange look in return.

There's something I want to do, Cas had said a few minutes later, to both Dean and Sam. I've got some loose ends to tie up.

I was thinking I would do it alone.

"Loose ends," mutters Dean, shaking his head as he keeps spinning the french fry around in his fingers.

"What?" says Sam.

"I think it's Cas's term for chemotherapy," Dean says, finally setting the fry down. "Okay. We are not gonna give up on the angel cure idea, but we should explore other options too. I was even thinking, maybe, Rowena, or Crowley?" Sam's already shaking his head and opening his mouth to object, but Dean says, "Hey, at least my angel idea involved actually planning it. if you get to zip off and pray to all those psychotic angels totally on your own with no backup and without us even discussing it first, I get to come up with at least two stupid reckless plans of my own. That's the deal we've always had, right? If you get to be stupid, I get to be stupid too. So while I'm on the Reckless Train here, maybe there's spells we could try on our own. Never mind Rowena, we could just do some spells ourself, and — " Dean stops, because Sam's got that semi-guilty look on his face again. "What?" Dean demands.

"Still one step ahead of you on the Reckless Train," says Sam, and, looking a little sheepish, he reaches down to the laptop bag and flips it open. There's a few books wedged next to the laptop. Sam pulls two of them out and hands them to Dean.

One's a faded paperback. Dean takes it and looks at the cover: it's a cheap mass-market book that looks several decades old, a self-help type of book with a soft-focus cover photo of a 1950's type of happy couple who seem to be frolicking through a field of daisies. A title in scrolly font above them reads: "Beating Cancer Through The Ancient Art of Healing Spells."

The other book's much older — Sam's wrapped its crumbling cover carefully in a soft clean t-shirt, and when Dean unwraps it, the title turns out to be "On Ye Olde Spells and Dark Magicks for Cure of Bodily Ills."

"Already went through the library last night," Sam says. "But there's not much. These were the best two books I found and... honestly, Dean, I think they're worthless. These daisy people here—" (he's pointing at the couple in the photo who are gamboling through the field of flowers) "—it's complete bullshit, the whole book. And the other book just concludes that nothing works." Sam's looking grim as he adds, "People've been looking for a cure for cancer for millennia, Dean. We're so far from the first we're like.... ten millionth in line. Everybody's been down this path before us, and I do mean everybody, and nobody's found anything. I mean, I've only just started looking but... it's not gonna be easy."

Dean starts flipping through the books nonetheless, but he can tell at a glance that Sam's right; the books aren't going to be much help. The paperback's full of standard-issue sigils that Dean recognizes as just minor charms. "These are just good-luck charms, aren't they?" he says.

"And not even relevant ones," Sam says, nodding. He points at an illustration on one of the pages. "That one there's actually for keeping powdery mildew off your berry bushes. That other one, on the next page, is a bedbug repellent. Not really what Cas needs. The whole book's useless. The other one just ends up concluding that using black magic would be evil."

Dean sets the books down by his plate and resumes twirling the fry. It starts to wobble when he spins it; the fry is developing a fracture point, and finally it breaks apart, the top half flipping around in the air to land between their two plates. Dean stares at the broken fry and says, slowly, "You know... I did find one guy once who actually could heal anything. A true-blue healer. Cured blindness, disease, you name it. He's the only healer I've ever tracked down who was the real deal."

"I don't remember that," asks Sam, frowning. "Are you sure? When was this? Was I with you?"

"You were down with the Lucifer bug," Dean reminds him. "That was why I was looking."

Sam blinks. (Dean's never really filled him in on all the awful details of that desperate month.) "Oh. Well... did you ever find him? What's his name?"

"Castiel," says Dean. "Though he was going by Emmanuel at the time."

They're both silent now, staring at the broken French fry.

"Cas wanted you to eat," Sam says eventually, and Dean sighs.

"No fair playing that card," says Dean, "but I will if you will." Sam looks at him and nods.

A few quiet minutes pass while Sam eats a few half-hearted bites of salad and Dean dutifully chews through a couple of the French fries.

Dean finally checks his watch; it's been nearly an hour. "Time to get back," he says, and he flags the waitress down for the check. He finds himself suddenly restless, and he stands and pulls on his jacket and even picks up Sam's books, eager to get back to the motel. Eager, too, to stop with the depressing conversation about cures that won't work, prayers that don't work, and books that don't work, and just get back to Cas. While Sam checks the bill and tosses down a twenty and some change to cover both their meals, Dean pulls Sam's laptop bag up onto the table to shove the two books back inside. But there's a third book in there, one that Sam had never pulled out.

"What's that one?" Dean asks, nodding toward book #3. "Useless like the others?"

Sam gives a slightly embarrassed little laugh. "Just irrelevant, actually. Don't know why I dragged it along, because it's not even about cancer, or healing. But it's about angels so I grabbed it anyway." He pulls it out and spins it around toward Dean. The front cover reads, in silver-stamped letters on smooth black leather:

The Physiology of Angels

With Notes on Behavior

and

Additional Observations

by

Knut Schmidt-Nielsen

 

"I don't know why I even bothered bringing it along," mutters Sam, sticking it back in the bag, along with the other two books. "I mean, he's stuck in a human vessel with no powers... so...it's probably not relevant, huh."

"Probably not," agrees Dean, as Sam flips the laptop bag closed.

 


 

When they get back to the motel, Dean, of course, checks in on Cas first thing. Cas is sleeping again, quiet and still. It's hard to see him; the only illumination is a slanting rectangle of light that's falling across the floor from the open door to the parking lot. The rest of the room is pitch black, and Cas seems just a dark lump on a dark bed in a completely dark room. Dean has to tiptoe over to him to stare at him from very close till he's sure Cas is breathing.

Cas is, in fact, breathing. And Dean's mouth crooks up in a little half-smile when he realizes Cas still has the monkey hat on, too, even while sleeping.

A shadow blocks the light; it's Sam, standing in the doorway. Sam creeps into the room quietly and goes over to his second bag of purchases, the one he'd left on the kitchenette counter earlier. He pulls out some kind of plastic thing and hands it to Dean. Dean turns it over, squinting at it in the dim light. It seems to be some kind of pink-and-white little radio.

"Baby monitor," whispers Sam, holding up a second plastic device. He turns on both little devices — Dean's got the transmitter, Sam has the receiver — and Sam backs out of the door and fiddles with the controls on the receiver.

"Good thinking," says Dean quietly, into the transmitter. Distantly, he hears the tinny sound of his own voice coming out of Sam's receiver, and Sam gives him a thumbs-up. Dean parks the transmitter on Cas's bedside table, and the two brothers head together to the other room.

 


 

"When you called this morning," Sam says, as he pulls his night-time stuff out of his duffel, "it kinda sounded like Cas was in another room and you were having to go check on him. Thought those little monitor things might come in handy. Grabbed one at the mall. We don't need to use it, but, I thought, why not have one around."

"Great idea," says Dean. "And, Sam... thanks. For the hats, too."

"No prob," says Sam, and he doesn't even look up from his clothes-sorting. But Dean's aware now that Sam did not just one but four or five "errands" on his drive, all of them carefully thought out.

He's just as worried as I am, thinks Dean. He's been worried all day.

Sam's at the kitchenette sink now brushing his teeth, so Dean goes into the bathroom to change his clothes. It's a little hard to get into the usual night-time motel routine; it's difficult to let go of the knowledge of Cas being on his own in the other room. Even knowing that the baby monitor is there to relay any cries for help, any stumbling or falling or vomiting, it's still worrying to know that Cas is there alone. It's like there's a magnetic pull coming from the wall that separates them from Cas's room; Dean keeps glancing over in that direction, as if he could see through the wall with x-ray vision if he just tried, see Cas asleep and see that he's okay.

Dean manages, though, to get ready for bed. He changes into his usual t-shirt and boxers and gets under the covers of one of the beds. But the room lights are still on (Sam's now taking his own shower, in the bathroom; the night-time routine isn't quite over yet). So Dean ends up sitting up in bed, propping himself up against the bed's headboard and looking around at the room.

It's strange how normal this room looks now. Just another routine Winchester night in another routine low-rent motel. Now that Sam's arrived, with his stuff, the clutter all looks familiar: both duffels opened at the foot of the beds, stacks of clothes here and there, Sam's running shoes sitting by the door, both their jackets slung over two of the chairs. Sam's laptop is on the little table (along with The Physiology of Angels); both their guns are under their pillows, and the demon-knife and an angel-blade are out and ready, parked on the little table between the two beds. All the usual trappings of a normal Winchester motel-room stay. The "ground sloth" stuff is out of view in the bathroom. The only unusual item in sight is the little baby monitor, which is sitting incongruously between the two blades, looking oddly cheerful with its pink-and-white rounded-corners design.

It all looks nothing at all like the room next door, even though it's the exact same layout (just with two beds instead of one). There's no trail of pillows across the floor. No stacks of water bottles and Gatorade. No brownie pans, no saltine packets. No row of pill bottles lined up on the bedside table.

And, of course, there's no Castiel.

He's safe next door, of course. He's sleeping. He's fine now. Dean tells himself this over and over: Cas is fine now. He's just asleep. But he keeps looking at the baby monitor. He finally reaches over and picks it up to turn the volume up a bit more till he can hear a soft hiss of static.

If he turns it up enough, could he maybe hear Cas breathing?

But even once the baby monitor's turned all the way up, with Dean holding it in both his hands right at chest level, all he can hear is static.

As Dean sits in bed, looking down at the little baby monitor and listening to the static, it seems he can still, even now, see Cas gasping on the floor, spitting out blood.... curled on his side staring numbly at the clock.... It even seems Dean can still feel how Cas had relaxed, when Dean had stroked that damp washcloth with the ice cubes against the back of his neck...

How much noise had Cas really made, in that fainting episode? Say he passes out again, thinks Dean. Would we hear? If, say, Cas gets out of bed but then just slumps quietly to the floor, crumpling softly down without any retching, would any sounds really be audible?

What if he were to pass out right in the bed without even moving anywhere?

It's possible that an entire fainting episode, even a dangerous one, could be totally silent.

Sam comes out of the bathroom, now clad in his sleeping clothes — a loose t-shirt and boxers much like Dean's attire. He spends a few moments toweling off his hair (this is always a production, with Sam). He wipes his ears dry, he drapes his towel over a chair, he shuts his laptop... and he's watching Dean the whole time. Dean's still staring down at the baby monitor.

"Is it working?" Sam says.

"Yeah, I think," says Dean. He fiddles with the volume again. The static gets softer as Dean turns the knob, and then louder as he turns it the other way, but it's still just static. "Don't know. I think so. I just wish I could hear him breathing or something."

Sam walks over to his own bed and sits down on it, looking at Dean.

"Why don't you go back in there and test it," suggests Sam. "Go in and say something into the transmitter part. I'll stay here and listen."

This seems like a great idea, so Dean clambers out of bed, pulls on a pair of sweatpants and heads next door. He lets himself in, checks briefly on Cas (sure enough, Cas is still breathing, and still asleep), and then he leans over to the transmitter and whispers "Houston, do you copy?"

His phone buzzes a moment later with a text: Loud and clear. I even heard you unlocking the door.

The baby monitor's working.

Dean should, logically, leave Cas now. Dean should leave him to get some much-needed rest, without any disturbance from random people shuffling around the room and whispering stuff into the baby monitor. He should tiptoe right back to the other room and to his own bed.

But...

Dean stands by the bed for a long moment, in near-pitch black.

Finally he leans over to the baby monitor again and whispers, "Just gonna sit with him a bit, okay? Be back in a few minutes."

Roger that, comes a text on his phone. Hey. Sleep there if you want to keep an eye on him. I'm cool here alone.

"No, I'll be back," Dean insists to the monitor, still at a whisper. "Besides, you've got my wallet in there."

He can hear Sam's laugh, faintly, even through the walls.

Okay, with the baby monitor working and with thin walls to boot, maybe there's not much need to stay here after all.

Nonetheless Dean gets back on the other side of the bed, gently inching onto the broad mattress till he's sitting about where he had been earlier that day. He stays sitting up, on top of the covers, while Cas is hunkered down underneath the covers a couple feet away, facing away from Dean. Dean doesn't let himself really settle in; he's only gonna be there for a few minutes, after all.

 


 

But a few minutes pass and Dean doesn't leave. He keeps thinking he'll leave; Cas is obviously sleeping well now, and the little baby monitor is working. Any second now it'll seem like the right time to gently slide off the bed, tiptoe out the door, leave Cas in peace and go to bed.

The right time never comes. Dean stays, and stays longer. He starts to get fuzzy-headed with sleep, and allows himself to slump down on the covers till he's half-lying, his head crooked awkwardly against the headboard. Then, just to straighten out his neck, he wriggles down farther till he's fully horizontal. Then he shifts onto his side, because that's a little more comfortable, and now he's facing the dark shape on the other side of the bed. He's only looking at Cas's back, but it's reassuring just to know that Cas is so close.

It's getting chilly. Then Dean gets worried Cas might get chilly too, so he gets up and pokes around the room as quietly as he can, till he finds a second blanket in the room's tiny coat closet. Dean carefully spreads it over the whole bed.

Now would definitely the logical time to leave. Dean's up on his feet now and ready to go.

Dean doesn't leave. Instead he slips back onto the bed, right back on top of the covers, under the blanket, right back into the fully-lying-down position. This time Cas starts shuffling around when Dean settles down, and Cas rolls over till he's facing Dean. He hasn't really woken at all, but he puts one hand out in his sleep, and his arm ends up draped over Dean's. Whether it's just by accident or not is hard to tell.

Now Dean can't move.

After a while, Dean's phone vibrates one more time. The phone's in a back pocket of his sweats; Dean pulls it out with one hand.

I'm about to pass out, Sam's written. I'll text you tmrw am to see how he is. If you need anything just give a shout.

Dean's actually in the middle of writing "I'll just be here a couple more minutes" when he realizes that he is, in fact, going to sleep here, next to Cas.

"Night, Sam," he whispers out loud, to the baby monitor.

Nighty-night, comes the reply over the phone. Don't let the termites bite.

 


 

Dean wakes in the middle of the night to discover that he and Castiel have somehow gotten much closer. They'd been an arm's-length apart earlier, when Dean had dozed off, but now Cas is so close that his head is actually leaning on the corner of Dean's shoulder. Cas has practically got his nose smushed into the side of Dean's arm. Somehow he's still able to breathe.

At first Dean thinks it's Cas who's migrated over to Dean's side, but then he realizes that both their heads are right between the pillows, neither of them really on a pillow at all. Each of them has moved toward the other, it seems, and they've met in the middle.

Dean lies there for several long moments, feeling the warmth and heaviness of Cas's head, and the feel of Cas's arm draped over Dean's. It's closer than they were earlier tonight when Cas was gently holding on. It's the closest they've ever really been, physically... well, aside from all the vomiting last night, of course.

Dean wonders, briefly, what this might lead to, in the future. Could it be that... Might it be possible...

But then a different thought entirely surfaces, a menacing and dark thought: How much more time do we even have?

How many more weeks will Cas be here? How limited is the time?

How much longer will Castiel be in Dean's life, in any way at all? Years? Months?

Weeks?

What exactly happens to angels when they die?

Human souls survive. But, it seems, angels do not.

Dean's heart seems to clench up, a rush of icy cold running through all his veins, at the thought that someday soon this warm presence next to him, this staunch ally, this loyal friend, may be gone forever. Dean can't help himself then, and he rolls a little bit more toward Cas. Just a little. Just enough to put his other arm over Cas's shoulders, in a helplessly instinctive attempt to shield him, somehow, from all the terrors of the world. And just enough for Dean to nuzzle his nose down into the soft fabric of Cas's monkey hat.

And now Dean's wide awake, for the position they're in now is a familiar one: it's a sleeping position Dean has often used with girlfriends. That old habit of rolling sideways and reaching out for the other person, of shuffling closer, of getting an arm over their shoulders; this is something Dean has only ever done with... partners.

Cas wakes.

Dean feels him wake. There's a change in Cas's breathing, a shift in his shoulders. Then there's a slight indrawn breath; a moment of surprise, maybe, or of confusion, and Cas goes very still. He even stops breathing for a moment, and he lifts his head a little off Dean's shoulder. (Dean feels the weight of Cas's head lessening, as if he's trying not to lie on Dean's arm too heavily).

Cas holds himself there, very still, for a long moment.

"I was only gonna stay here a minute," says Dean. "Just got sleepy. Sorry. You said there might be room?" It seems a little absurd to be chatting so casually about whether there's room on the bed when Dean is not only on the bed already, but has been here for hours, and has even got his nose buried right in the top of Cas's hat. Not to mention the fact that Dean's arm is actually wrapped around Castiel's shoulders now. It's kind of glaringly obvious. And glaringly unusual.

Cas doesn't mention it.

He lets out a slow breath.

Slowly his head settles back down on Dean's arm, the weight re-settling ounce by ounce.

"There's room," says Cas. He doesn't mention the arm; he doesn't mention their close physical position at all, and Dean starts to worry a little about it. Is this too weird? Maybe Cas needs a little more space? This is supposed to be Cas's recovery night, after all, a night for him to relax, not a "Dean clings on for dear life" night. Dean's not exactly sure what the arm position even means, why exactly it is that he'd turned in his sleep toward Cas, and now he's trying, increasingly sternly, to tell himself not to expect anything. Don't play dumb here, Dean chides himself. Don't pretend you don't know why you ended up here. Cas is sick and he's tired... not to mention he's fricking straight! Don't take advantage, don't push. Just let him sleep.

Moving casually, shuffling around l'like he's just doing a minor repositioning, Dean rolls slightly away from Cas and removes his arm from Cas's shoulders.

Cas reaches out in the dark, gropes around till he finds Dean's shoulder, follows Dean's arm down to the wrist, and then he takes gentle hold of Dean's wrist and pulls Dean's arm back exactly where it had been. Then he wriggles slightly closer and puts his own arm across Dean's waist. And there he relaxes, with a little sigh.

There's something oddly innocent about the position, especially because they're still separated by the bedcovers. But with the upper blanket spread over them both, it feels like they've entered a little private cocoon of mutual safety and warmth, and finally Dean lets himself put his nose down on the top of Cas's monkey hat again. Dean closes his eyes, trying to blot out all thoughts of the future, all the persistent thoughts of Diagnosis, prognosis.... all the anxious guesses about what might be coming in the next weeks. And of what happens to angels when they die. He tries to focus just on the feel of Castiel being next to him; Castiel, Dean's guardian angel and ally and friend, warm and alive next to him in the night.

Cas's breathing slows; he's fallen asleep again. And finally Dean does too.

 


 

A/N - Next week I fly cross-country to start a three-week sea turtle thing. Also have a grant proposal due on one grant, and a mega report due an another, so, not sure if the next chapter will be up next weekend or the weekend after. Keep on checking, and again, thanks for your patience.

Thank you for reading my story! As always, please let me know if there was anything that particularly worked well for you... a plot motif, a scene, a bit of dialogue. I love to get your feedback.

 

Chapter Text

A/N - Sorry again for these terribly long delays - I'm desperately busy with travel, turtles and most of all a terrifying grant proposal that has had me stressed out of my mind. I had hopes of syncing the fic up with real time, but somehow real-life Thanksgiving has actually zipped on past while the fic is still slowly approaching fic-Thanksgiving! The last several chapters all took place early on Thanksgiving week. We're now just at Wednesday of Thanksgiving week, fic time. I have hopes of getting all the way to fic-Thanksgiving before real-Christmas arrives, ha ha.

Thanks for your patience. We return now to the scene of the platonic snuggles.

 


 

 

The next morning Dean wakes to find his arms wrapped tightly around a pillow.

Just a pillow. Cas isn't there. The blanket's been tucked around Dean, the lower edge folded under his feet and the corners curled down carefully around his shoulders. Dean's snug and warm, but Cas is gone.

Thin bright lines of sunlight are peeking around the edges of the curtain at the main window. It's still pretty dim in the rest of the room, though, and Dean blinks around at the gloom, fumbling with one hand at the empty mattress where Cas should be Then he realizes he's hearing running water, and that the bathroom door is closed.

Cas must be in the bathroom. Alone.

But wait, Cas-in-the-bathroom-alone doesn't always turn out so well, does it?

A rush of worry brings Dean awake, and as he shoves the pillow and blanket aside and swings his feet to the floor, he's already strategizing about what to do if it turns out that Cas has gotten sick again. It sounds like the sink, not the shower, Dean thinks, so hopefully Cas isn't passed out in the shower, but what if he's being sick again in the toilet and he turned the sink on to hide the noise and what if he had that blood pressure thing happen again and what if he passed out—

But then the sink turns off, and even as Dean's scrambling over to the bathroom door, it swings open and Castiel steps out fully dressed.

"Ah, you're awake," Cas says. "Good morning."

"Oh," says Dean, so startled that he backs up a few steps and sinks back down to sit on the edge of the bed. "Hey."

He's a little amazed by how normal Castiel looks; it actually seems odd to see him standing upright. Cas has changed his clothes, too, and looks almost dapper in a new clean pair of slacks and a clean white shirt. It seems he's just showered and shaved; he's patting a hand towel to the top of his head (apparently trying to dry off his thin remaining hair in the gentlest way possible) and there's even a damp pinkish post-shower look to his face. It's not exactly a ruddy healthy glow, but it's miles better than the ash-gray look he's had the last couple days.

The cancer patient's almost gone. It's Castiel again.

It's the Castiel that Dean remembers from last week, that is. The Castiel who's upright and talking and moving around, who looks like he's fine, who seems like he's fine, who acts like he's fine — and who, when asked, will always insist that he's fine. Just wrapping up some loose ends, this Castiel would say, his patchy hair carefully hidden under one hat or another, as he disappears on mysterious errands and long unexplained trips.

This is the Cas who might have had a girlfriend in Denver (or possibly a boyfriend...). This is the Cas who seemed to be drifting away so mysteriously.

Though there are clues, now that Dean knows to look for them. The shirt's a little baggy; it's draping more loosely over Cas's torso and arms than it used to. The belt is cinched up to its very innermost hole, and Cas's slacks are hanging a little loosely on his legs, as if even the muscles of his thighs have wasted away to some degree. Again Dean notices the thinness of Cas's face, how his cheekbones are standing out more than they should, and how the lines around the corners of his eyes are deeper. And then there's that slightly hunched way he's standing.

Cas hesitates in his towel-patting, narrowing his eyes at Dean, and he even glances down at himself; Dean's scrutiny seems to be making him a little self-conscious. "Do I look presentable?" he asks, glancing up at Dean again with a bit of a worried look.

Presentable. The word takes Dean back to a certain men's room in a hospital in Flagstaff, Arizona. Where the worst challenge he and Sam had faced had been to figure out how to tidy up Cas's trenchcoat and get him to fix his hair.

"You look weirdly okay, actually," says Dean. Cas narrows his eyes even more, clearly doubtful. "No, really," Dean says. You look really good, is what Dean wants to say, but it seems like that might come out wrong (is it okay to tell a cancer patient that they look good?), so he sticks to, "Definitely presentable."

"I hope you're right," is all Cas says. He turns to the kitchenette counter and does a rapid exchange of the towel for the monkey-hat, setting the towel down and putting the hat on so briskly that his head is uncovered for only about half a second. Then he heads across the room to the window. Dean watches all this in silence, from the foot of the bed, still transfixed by the incredible sight of Castiel walking around on his own two feet, conscious and alert.

Cas maneuvers the curtains partway open. A startlingly bright beam of sunlight slants into the room, so bright it makes Dean squint. There's a lumpy little shadow on the windowsill, silhouetted against the sun: it's the houseplant.

"I didn't want the light to disturb you," says Cas, "but I woke up a few hours ago thinking about the plant. I realized that it had gone two full days with no water and must be thirsty, and that it also had no sunlight in two days too. I got a little worried, so I set it in the window so it could get some of the morning light. I put it behind the curtain so that you could sleep." He leans over to examine the plant. "I watered it a little bit, too, but I wasn't sure how much to give it..." Now he's frowning at the plant, and touching the soil in a few places with one finger. "I think it's okay... I hope so. Do you know if two days without water or sun will have harmed it appreciably? I'm not sure of its requirements. Do you think I should give it some more water?"

"Sure," says Dean, who has no idea how much water plants need. "If the soil feels dry, give a little more, I guess?"

Cas nods, picks up a nearby water bottle, and starts watering the plant methodically, dispensing an even trickle of water all around the base of the plant while turning the entire pot carefully with his other hand. The plant's little leaves wobble as he rotates it slowly around, and for a long moment Cas and the little plant are both silhouetted in the golden shaft of sunlight side-by-side. The light is blazingly bright; they're outlined with such clarity it's like they'd been posed for a shadow play. The little plant's sleek leaves seem painted with gold around the edges, and its blooms seem practically on fire, the radiant sunshine streaming right through the petals. Cas's profile is so cleanly delineated it could have been etched by a laser. His head is bowed toward the plant, and the tassels of the monkey-hat lend his silhouette a mysterious look, as if he's some kind of long-lost shadowy Incan god.

It's like he's in a stained glass window, Dean thinks. Or a piece of medieval art: Angel Tending to Tiny Houseplant. The aura of sunlight around Cas is, of course, absurdly halo-like, so much so that Dean wants to make a joke about it.

But no joke comes, and instead Dean realizes, with a flash of absolute certainty, that he's never going to forget this sight of Castiel and the little plant outlined in the morning sunlight.

He looks like an angel, Dean thinks.

He'll always be an angel.

No matter what. No matter what vessel he's in, no matter what powers he's lost, no matter how frail and failing the body. No matter how little time may be left. Castiel will always be an angel.

Dean's throat is aching, his eyes almost stinging, when Cas says, "It's fortunate I didn't vomit on it, don't you think?"  Dean almost has to choke back a snort of laughter.

"Way to break the mood," mutters Dean, mostly to himself.

"What?" says Cas, looking at him in puzzlement.

"Nothing, nothing." says Dean. "Yes, it's fortunate you didn't vomit on it, and let's keep it that way." Dean gets up and maneuvers around Cas to open the curtains a little wider, to get a little more light into the room. "So, brand-new day today, huh?" says Dean, trying to focus on the next step: what does Cas need today? "You're looking a lot better, I gotta say. You slept okay?"

"Yes, very well, actually," says Cas, turning to Dean with a smile. "Did you?"

Dean's about to answer Yeah, slept like a baby, but he unexpectedly goes tongue-tied, for only now does he fully remember that they'd slept practically in each other's arms last night. He turns back to the curtain-cords, fumbling with them so clumsily that he accidentally starts re-closing the curtain instead of opening it.

Is Cas referring to that arms-around-each-other thing? Is that why he's got that little smile?

Dean had actually put his arms around Cas.

And Cas had actually pulled Dean closer. And put an arm over Dean's waist.

There'd still been the bedspread, of course. The critical bedspread. It had still been safely separating them. The positioning of the bedspread seems highly significant: Dean had been on top of the covers, Castiel underneath them, and therefore they hadn't really "slept together," not really. They'd just slept near each other.

Well... very near other, to be fair. But really Dean had just stayed in Cas's room in case Cas needed any help. (That's certainly how Dean'll describe it to Sam.) Maybe they'd ended up a little close on the bed, but it had all been completely aboveboard. Because of that bedspread! The bedspread matters. The bedspread's important.

The thought Oh, okay then, as long as there's a bedspread it's not gay at all drifts through Dean's head, and he almost laughs at himself.

What the hell am I doing? What am I trying to do? Was that just... me comforting Cas, protecting him, like it felt at the time? Or something more?

What do I even want?

More to the point, what does Cas want? And what does he need?

"Dean?" Cas prods. He's starting to look a little worried. "Did you hear me? Did you sleep all right? Do you need more sleep?"

"No, I slept fine," says Dean, now attempting to re-open the curtain all the way as he makes a focused effort to ignore the dozens of confusing questions that have all bobbed up in his mind. "You?"

"I also slept fine," Cas says. "And... how are you feeling now?"

"Oh, uh... fine," says Dean, finally dropping the curtain-cords. "You?"

"Fine," echoes Cas. "You?"

"Fine," says Dean automatically. The conversation has somehow gone into an infinitely repeating loop of "fine's," so Dean claps his hands, rubs them together briskly and announces, "All right then, I'll just run next door for a shower! Be back in a sec. You just take it easy."

Yet the thoughts of What do I really want? What does Cas really want? follow Dean all the way next door. They follow him through the chilly dawn air outside, back into the dark room where Sam is still fast asleep, and into the shower, where even the stream of hot water doesn't wash them away completely. And they're joined, soon, by the inevitable depressing drumbeat of:

Diagnosis? Prognosis?

 


 

Sam's soon complaining that Dean's "shaving too loud," but eventually Sam rouses enough to prop himself up on one elbow and asks, "How's Cas? He surviving?"

"Looks much better, actually," Dean says, staring into the mirror as he concentrates on shaving the last spots under his nose. "Up and walking."

"Well, that's a relief," says Sam. He sits up in the bed and stretches a little. "Do you think maybe he can eat some breakfast? Or even eat a bit of a Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow?"

Dean glances over at him in surprise.

"I totally forgot about Thanksgiving again," Dean confesses.

Sam laughs. "Well, it's tomorrow. I was thinking we oughta do something. Even if it's just turkey sandwiches. Some kind of family meal." He glances around at the little room. "We could do it right here. Get a meal delivered, maybe? There's restaurants that'll deliver, you know. We could probably find one that still had three meals left over. Maybe watch some movies? Seems like Cas has been liking the movies, don't you think?"

A slow smile spreads over Dean's face as he turns back to the mirror. Thanksgiving with Castiel; of course. (It's actually odd to see himself smiling in the mirror. Almost as odd as it was to see Castiel walking.) "Great idea, Sam," he says, as he starts wiping off the last of the shaving cream. "And let's start with taking him to breakfast right now. If he can eat. Your turn in the bathroom, and make it snappy, we don't want to keep Cancer Boy waiting!"

Sam actually flinches a little at the "Cancer Boy" phrase, so Dean flicks some shaving cream at him, saying, "Come on, get over it. If we say the word a lot, we'll get used to it, and then it won't be so scary. Right?"

"Right...." says Sam dutifully. But he doesn't seem so sure.

 


 

Sam showers and dresses pretty fast, but he slows down while he's putting his shoes on. Dean's gotten his jacket on and is all ready to go next door to get Cas when he realizes that Sam's sitting in a chair with only one shoe on, staring vacantly down at the other shoe in his hands.

"Sam?" says Dean, one hand already on the doorknob. "Pro tip, that shoe goes on the other foot. The foot without a shoe on it."

"Yeah...." says Sam. "Just thinking."

"Anything you want to share with the class?"

Sam says, a little slowly, "It's just... don't you think Chuck must have noticed?"

Chuck. That's actually something Dean has considered. And has been trying to ignore.

Dean turns away from the door, a little reluctantly. "What do you mean?"

"Well... he's God, you know," says Sam, looking up at Dean. "Don't you think he must have known if Cas's vessel had a... a tumor? I know Chuck was kind of sick and all, for a while there, and maybe he wasn't fully paying attention right then. But these things take time to develop. The tumor must've been growing for a while, right?" Sam stares down at the carpet. "He must have known Cas's vessel was sick. He must have. He's supposed to be all-knowing. He could have cured it like... like nothing, with just a thought. And he didn't bother. Did he want Cas to have to go through this?"

Dean sinks down into a chair, turning it to face Sam. "That seems crazy," says Dean. "He's saved Cas so many times."

"But he sure hasn't made things easy on him, either," Sam points out. "Could he have even given Cas cancer on purpose?"

Dean doesn't even want to think about this possibility, for he already knows it leads inevitably to: Is this all part of God's plan?

Is Castiel supposed to die?

Dean shakes his head emphatically, but then finds he's unable to come up with a logical argument. "Look, we're never gonna know," he says at last. "If we've learned anything about Chuck, it's that all our theories about him are always wrong. And you know... I kind of have the feeling that he was never as all-knowing as we've all been told. Didn't he seem kinda... I dunno... not totally.... Not as omniscient as we were thinking? Not as benevolent, maybe?"

Sam considers that. "He did seem a just a teeny-tiny bit lacking in empathy," he concedes at last.

"And in foresight," says Dean. "Okay, I gotta be blunt here, the guy was about a thousand times more fallible and petty than I ever imagined."

Sam gives a little laugh. "We were trying Psych 101 techniques, on him and Lucifer, that I picked up from watching Oprah, for chrissake. And it worked!"

"Well, Oprah's a smart cookie, you gotta admit that," says Dean.

Sam nods, with a faint smile, but soon the smile fades. "There's a whole other possibility too, you know," he says, "About where the cancer might have come from." He looks over at Dean again, the smile totally gone now. "Lucifer."

Dean nods. This thought's crossed his mind too. "You mean, just in case it wasn't bad enough to have to deal with cancer at all," he says, "we have to also worry about whether it's a divine tumor or a satanic one?" Sam gives another sad little laugh and Dean goes on, "But I know what you mean. Lucifer was using Cas's vessel and he might've done something to it."

Sam says, "Chuck could even have sent the cancer into Cas's vessel to try to get at Lucifer. Not to get at Cas at all. Or... maybe Lucifer caused the cancer. On purpose. He easily could have done it."

"Like, one last fuck-you to Cas?" says Dean.

Sam nods. "Or even just some kind of unintentional corruption. When he's in a vessel, you know, it feels.... " He hesitates. "It feels really frickin' awful, to be honest. It feels like damage is happening, every second. Not just to your soul and your mind, but, maybe, to the vessel too." He goes quiet then, and stares down at the floor.

And then he glances down at his own body and adds, "I always was kind of surprised that I seemed to come out of Hell unscathed."

"Well, you did get pulled out by an angel," says Dean. "And he's healed you up a few times since, too."

"We really just gotta ask him if he can get his healing mojo back," Sam says. "We gotta talk to him."

"Yup," Dean says with a sigh. "We need to ask him if Lucifer did this to him, or Chuck, or what. If he knows any clues."

"We also gotta ask him what the diagnosis is exactly," says Sam.

"And the prognosis," says Dean. "Don't forget the prognosis."

"And the treatment schedule," says Sam. "How many more rounds of chemo, what the drugs are, whatever appointments he has coming up, scans, surgeries, all of it." He finally starts to put his second shoe on. "You think he'll want to talk about it?"

Dean rolls his eyes. "So have you ever met my friend Castiel? His favorite hobby is to have an absolutely tormenting secret that he never talks to anybody about."

"Well, we just have to pin him down then," says Sam firmly. Shoes on at last, he stands and says, "C'mon. Let's take him out to breakfast."

"And grill him mercilessly?"

"And grill him mercilessly," says Sam. Together they head next door.

 


 

But when Dean knocks on Cas's door and pops it open, Sam close behind him, they're both a little puzzled to find that Castiel is loading the little houseplant carefully into a cardboard shoebox, padding the sides of the pot with a spare shirt. Cas's shoulder-bag's sitting nearby on a chair, all bundled up with the flap buckled shut, and laid out on the little table is a tidy row of clothing that includes Cas's blue sweater (now neatly folded), the cream-colored scarf (also neatly folded), and a small folded wad of blue fabric. Most of the rest of his meager set of clothing, along with the row of pill bottles, the pile of extra hats and the Lesser Trenchcoat, seem to have been packed into a small, battered suitcase that's sitting open on the bed.

It all looks surprisingly organized, and when Dean looks around the room, he realizes Cas has straightened up all the clutter from the last two days. The few water bottles that are still full are lined up on the kitchen counter, the empty ones have been thrown in the trash, and even the pans have been cleaned and put away.

"Good morning, Sam," says Cas cheerily, and Sam gives him a grin. "Check-out time is eleven," Cas goes on, "so I thought I'd start packing. It's nearly ten now. I know you two are probably going to want some breakfast, so—"

"Wait," says Dean. "What do you mean, check-out time?"

Sam adds, "Don't you stay here for the whole week?"

Cas shakes his head. He grabs the blue sweater from the table, gets both arms into it and pauses briefly to take the monkey-hat off. "I usually only stay two nights," he says, and he pulls the blue sweater on over his head. A second later his head emerges from the neckhole and he instantly gets the monkey-hat back on, adding as he tugs the sweater into position, "For a one-day week, I mean."

"A one-day... what?" says Dean.

"A one-day week," says Cas. He picks up the cream-colored scarf next, and starts looping it around his neck as he explains, "I mean, a week with just one day of chemo. On those weeks, I stay here two nights after the one day of chemo. Like, this week the one day was Monday, so I stayed here at the motel for Monday night and Tuesday night. It's usually only Monday night that's problematic, sometimes Tuesday. Usually by the third day I'm ambulatory again." He sounds perfectly businesslike about all this, as if the miserable hell that Dean witnessed him going through, just two nights ago now, was merely a minor, ever-so-slightly "problematic," logistical detail.

"You think being 'ambulatory' is good enough to check out?" says Sam. "Don't you want to rest up more?"

"Oh, two nights is enough," says Cas briefly.

Sam and Dean exchange a glance. Money?, mouths Sam, and Dean nods.

Dean says, putting his hands on his hips, "We can pay for the room, if that matters."

"We can easily cover the room," adds Sam.

Cas hesitates in the middle of arranging the ends of his scarf, glancing at them both. "I appreciate that," he says finally, tucking the scarf ends in, "but I'll be fine." He begins to busy himself packing a few last items into the suitcase on the bed. "I won't need any assistance for the rest of the week. You've both been so kind, but, um... I imagine you'll both be heading back to the bunker, right? For the holiday."

The holiday.

"Well, we were thinking we could do Thanksgiving here," says Dean. "Back when we thought our angel friend was still sticking around to eat with us. But if you've got something else lined up...." ‑ and as soon as he says this, he realizes maybe Cas does have something else lined up. For Cas is looking between Dean and Sam now with rather an odd look on his face —wistfulness mixed with regret.

Cas has turned back to the table, where the folded wad of blue fabric is still sitting. "To be perfectly honest," he says, "there's nothing I would like better. But... I do have another commitment, unfortunately." He picks up the blue fabric and shakes it out.

It's a Gas-n-Sip employee vest.

Cas slips it on over his sweater, and checks the nametag. "I've got to go to work now," he announces, and he takes a couple steps back over to the bed and starts to close his suitcase.

"Wait," says Dean, reaching out to grab one of his arms. "Wait, wait, just wait a minute there, roadrunner. What do you mean, you're going to work? And where are you going to sleep?"

Cas gives him a steady look. "Work. As in, my job. I work there four days a week. And I sleep in the stockroom."

Dean slowly releases his arm, too startled to say anything. Sam seems stunned too, and for a long moment they're both just staring at Cas.

"My shift starts in three hours," says Cas, and he closes and latches the suitcase.

There are so many things wrong with what Cas has just said that Dean can't even think what to say at first, and it's Sam who finally bursts out with, "Cas, you're still working? While you're on chemo?"

Cas starts to look a little uncomfortable. "Yes. I take the chemo day off, obviously, and the next day. But then I work half a shift the day after that... Then the next three full days, if I can get the hours. Sometimes a double shift on the last of those days..." (His shoulders have started to drop as he's saying all this, as if he's starting to feel tired just describing it all.) "... and then sometimes another half a shift on the last day.... Then I drive back here and it starts all over." He looks back up at them, and now there's no hiding the tired look in his eyes, but he says, "It's not so bad."

"Hold on, back up," says Dean, who's trying to comprehend the appalling schedule that Cas has just outlined. "Back up. You're going there now? This is the half-a-shift day?" Cas nods, and Dean says, "Forty-eight hours after chemo? And on Thanksgiving? And wait, you're, wait, you're sleeping where?"

"The stockroom," Cas says. He picks the suitcase off the bed with one hand and slings his shoulder bag over one shoulder. Last of all he scoops the plant-shoebox off the table, and then he looks at Dean, saying, "I used to do that years ago, in Idaho, remember, Dean? When you came and visited me? Remember how I slept in the stockroom then?" Sam gives Dean a startled look. Dean's totally confused for a moment — for he hadn't known at all, not till right this second, that Cas had been sleeping in the stockroom of that Gas-n-Sip back in Idaho.

"It's fairly simple," adds Cas. "One just needs a sleeping bag and a few supplies. A toothbrush, and deodorant, and shaving equipment... though I guess I won't need the shaving equipment much longer. Anyway I've got all the supplies in my car. There's a sleeping bag in the trunk. And a pillow." He squares his shoulders and raises his chin with what seems a deliberate effort, adding, "I'll be fine."

Dean takes a stride over to him and tries to pull the suitcase out of his hands. Cas resists, hanging onto it and saying, "Dean—" but Dean says, loading his voice with all the forcefulness that he can muster, "Cas, you can't live like this. You can't be working. Are you crazy? Not now. Not during chemo."

Sam's at Cas's other side now, tugging the precious houseplant gently out of Cas's grasp and pulling the shoulder-bag off his shoulder. (Cas grabs the plant back, safely in its shoebox, but seems to realize there's no chance of hanging on to the bag or the suitcase.) "Dean's right," Sam says gently. "You really need to rest, Cas. Human bodies just can't keep working like that when they're sick. Trust us on that one."

Dean says, "We're either staying here at the motel, or we're driving you back to the bunker, but either way you're going to rest. I'm serious."

"But, Dean," says Cas, clutching the plant-shoebox in both hands, "I have to work."

"No, you don't," insists Dean.

"Yes, I do," says Cas, and now he's sounding frustrated, as if both brothers are being very dense. "Don't you understand? I have to work thirty hours a week for the health care. I can't afford any of the treatment otherwise."

Sam and Dean both stare at him. And then they look at each other, appalled.

Sam sinks down onto the side of the bed with a sigh, still holding Cas's shoulder-bag. "God bless America," he mutters, shaking his head.

Dean sits next to him, plunking the suitcase on the floor. "You know, I don't think even Chuck could screw up something half as bad as the American health care system."

"I'm actually fairly certain that either Lucifer or Crowley has had a hand in it," says Cas. "Possibly both." He gives a faint sigh and adds, "I could swear I picked up the scent of several crossroads contracts, substantial ones, just when I was filling out the insurance paperwork."

"Thirty hours a week..." murmurs Sam. "Right. That's the threshold for full-time, right? And full time employees have to be given health care. But wait... isn't there disability or something? Some way you don't have to work?"

Cas shakes his head. "I don't qualify for that till I've been working six months," he explains. "I was lucky to get the health care at all." After a little pause, he confesses, "Also I need the money." They both look up at him to find him glancing around the room, and now the worry and strain is clear on Cas's face, and in his voice, as he says, "It's been so... so worrying. There've been so many expenses. This motel room, even if it's just for a few nights a week, comes to a hundred and eighty dollars, and it was the cheapest one I could find that doesn't have cockroaches." He slowly sits down in a chair, setting the plant-shoebox carefully in his lap. "And there's the gas for the car. And the water bottles and saltines and whatever food I can eat; and all the co-pays, and all the prescriptions....." He sighs. "There are these things called deductibles... The second surgery wiped out everything I had saved."

SECOND surgery? thinks Dean, and he and Sam exchange another grim look. Cas doesn't notice; he's slumping down into his chair now, looking so exhausted it's as if all the strain and worry has caught up with him all at once. "It was so confusing figuring this all out," he adds. "It was... nearly overwhelming, to be honest. There's so much terminology. And a truly incredible amount of paperwork."

The room's quiet for a moment, Cas staring glumly at the floor from his chair while Sam and Dean watch him from the bed.

After a moment Cas adds, thoughtfully, "You know, it all really does have Crowley's touch, now that I think about it."

Sam asks, softly, "This is why you were putting in so many hours?" Cas nods.

"This is why you got the job in the first place," says Dean, and Cas nods again.

Actually, I was thinking I might get a job, Cas had said, that day when he'd come down the stairs. Walking so stiffly, holding himself so cautiously... so reluctant to accept a hug from Dean that he'd actually maneuvered around a table to avoid it. Touching his stomach now and then, too. Those abdominal scars... Thinking back on it now, it seems likely that Cas had been just post-surgery, barely recovered enough to walk. The stitches had probably still been raw.

After that, there'd been all those late nights that Cas had been working, putting in double shifts, driving all those miles. Snatching a quick few hours of sleep at the bunker and heading right out again.

Dean's getting angry just thinking about it. Angry at the hospitals, at the stupid health care system... Angry at Lucifer, at Chuck, at Fate.

He has to make himself take a few slow, deep breaths just to calm down.

"Cas," says Sam, "The health care databases are hackable. You're getting mostly Colorado care now, right? And some in Kansas?"

Cas nods, and says, "Gas-n-Sip is a national chain, so they cover employees in any state. That was fortunate — I can work in Kansas near to you two, but get the treatments here in Colorado where the deductibles are a little less. And also my first doctor's in Arizona. I still consult with him sometimes."

"Okay, three states," says Sam. "I can work with that. I think I can pull together some fake id's for those three states. Fake id's that are on a health plan, I mean."

"And we can definitely pay for your motel," says Dean. "And the deductibles and all that. Jeez, Cas, you really should've told us. I mean... you really should have, you understand?"

"I didn't want to bother you," Cas says softly.

Sam's apparently still thinking about the hacking plan, for he says, "We might not be able to whip this together instantly. We gotta make sure you're covered for next week... Hm." He looks at Dean and says, "He might not be able to quit his job instantly. Like... not this week. Not till I make sure he won't be dropped from coverage right away."

"I've already signed up for the all the Thanksgiving shifts anyway," says Cas. "I wouldn't feel right abandoning my co-workers." He slips his phone out of his pocket and checks the time. "In fact, I'm a little worried I might be late for my shift today, and apparently it's a critical shift. Nobody else wanted to work on the holiday weekend so I said I'd cover Wednesday closing through Sunday opening, and they warned me that Wednesday, today, is the busiest travel day of the entire year, correct? And Saturday the next busiest?" Sam and Dean both nod, and Cas stands again, saying, "In that case, I'll be going."

"And we're coming," says Dean. "And we're helping."

Cas blinks at him, confused. But Sam gets it right away; a slow smile starts to spread across his face, and he says "I'll go pack up our stuff. You guys go check out." In a flash Sam's on his feet and out the door. Cas stares after him in confusion.

"I don't understand," he says to Dean.

"You're gonna have two assistants," explains Dean, as he grabs Cas's suitcase and shoulder-bag, and heads for the door. "Hope you don't mind doing a little training. C'mon, we're late for our work shift."

"No, you can't," says Cas, trotting after him with the plant. "It's a holiday, you two need to be with family—"

"Exactly," Dean interrupts him. "We need to be with family, so we're coming with you. Also we've never had a Gas-n-Sip Thanksgiving before. I hear there's some good pies!"


 

 

A/N - Health care details for certain states will deviate from reality a bit in this fic; all that matters for this fic is that Cas doesn't have any disability coverage, but does have his surgeries and chemo covered. But only if he keeps working. (yes, this combination can happen. argh)

I'll update again as soon as I can (I'm really eager to get to the next snuggle scene, to be honest! Where Dean confronts his snuggling-confusion once again) But with this grant report due I'm not sure how the next two weeks will go. Wish me luck. Very best to all of you, and I hope Thanksgiving treated you well.

 

Please do let me know if you liked this!

Chapter Text

A/N - Here I am late again but at least I've got something! For a while there I didn't think I'd get anything written at all. Hectic holiday travel, and the grant deadlines have gotten ever closer and scary. I did get a key paper off to co-authors yesterday, though. And even through all the chaos I had very many things to be thankful about this last week, and I really hope you all did too.

PS apologies for all typos - I've been having to post chapters unbeta'd recently, and fix the typos later when my beta kindly sends them to me, just in order to get anything posted all. It's 4am Sat night now and I figure, if I don't post it now I won't get it up this weekend at all.

We return to the Wednesday before Thanksgiving at a certain Gas-n-Sip...

 


 

 

On the day before Thanksgiving, Dean's lugging two bulging garbage bags full of bathroom trash down the Gas-n-Sip aisle, trying to get to the back door without bumping any customers with the bags. (Cas has been very insistent about following proper trash-removal protocol.) But he encounters an entire family coming the other direction down the aisle, and so he has to stop. The whole family, five strong, grinds to a halt at the pie display and gets into a long discussion about whether it would be totally inappropriate to bring some Gas-n-Sip pies to Grandma's Thanksgiving dinner, given that an "Aunt Janet" has been tasked with making the pies this year and "everybody knows" she always burns the crusts.

"They're actually pretty good pies," Dean tells them. "You could probably pass them off as homemade. Say you just got mixed up about who was supposed to make what, and in the end you brought them as a backup in case extra guests came."

That sparks some animated discussion and then a lot of consideration about which type of pie to buy. But they're still not moving, o Dean has to back up and try another aisle. The next aisle over turns out to be blocked by a set of pre-teen boys arguing over the merits of Cool Ranch flavored Doritos versus Nacho Cheese, as a long-distance-car-ride snack that needs to last them clear till St. Louis.

"Nacho Cheese," Dean tells them. "Cool Ranch is for chicks." (He's actually hoping they'll leave some of the Cool Ranch ones for him and Sam and Cas to eat later. It's already looking like the whole store's going to be emptied out by the holiday travelers.)

Dean finally manages to lug his garbage bags down the third, narrowest, aisle. Thankfully that one's all clear — except for Sam, who's restocking the drinks in one of the glass coolers.

Sam catches Dean's eye and nods toward Cas, who's over at the cash register dealing with a long line of shoppers who all seem to be buying an absurd amount of road-trip snacks. (Cas is still wearing the monkey hat; he hasn't taken it off all day.)

"We gotta get him to take a break," hisses Sam under his breath.

"I've only tried about a dozen times," Dean whispers back. It's past sunset, they've been working eight hours already, and the store's been flooded with people the entire time. Busiest travel day of the year, everybody keeps saying. Dean's been pretty dismayed to find out that running a Gas-n-Sip convenience store smoothly, and keep it all clean and functional and well-stocked, actually turns out to be a tremendous amount of work. Especially on the day before Thanksgiving.

And if Dean and Sam are both exhausted, how must Cas be feeling?

"He keeps insisting he's okay," whispers Dean. "And also he keeps worrying about how we're not really allowed to work here anyway. You know what he said, if the boss shows up—"

"Yeah, yeah, drop the mops and run," Sam says, finishing the sentence for him. "Or make like we're just buying hot dogs like everybody else. He's only told me like four times." Sam finishes restocking the last of the soft drink shelves and shuts the cooler door, turning to Dean to whisper, "But there's no way he can keep up this pace, even with us doing the heavy lifting. I know he keeps saying he's feeling all right, but.... look at him."

They both turn to watch Cas for a moment. He's across the store from them and he's got at least ten people waiting in line with food, several trying to pay for gas (one of the pump's registers is broken), one person asking for help with their car, another asking for lottery tickets, and a third who's just asked for a pack of cigarettes from the stacks behind the counter.

Cas deals with the cigarettes first and he has to reach up high overhead to grab a pack from a the top shelf. It's clear, even from across the store, that something about the reaching-up move is bothering him. He winces and sets one hand on his stomach, and then, after he hands the pack to the customer, he hitches himself up onto a stool, moving stiffly. He finishes the transaction sitting there on the stool, curled over a little. (He hadn't even had the stool at all till Dean found one in the back stockroom a few hours ago, dragged it out front and forced him to start using it.)

Sam whispers, "Well, at least he's finally sitting. Maybe you can convince him to take a break soon. Make him lie down in the back. Make him use that sleeping bag. He might listen to you."

"Me? Why me?" asks Dean, giving Sam a sharp look.

Sam shrugs. "I dunno. Seems like he listens to you a bit more these days, maybe? At least, about this health stuff. He opens up to you sometimes."

"What, you thinking we're married or something, just cause he's been up all night puking in my arms?" (Dean can't quite pin down why the "married" joke seems to jump to mind so readily.)

"I dunno," Sam says, with a little shrug. He shifts his feet. "I just meant—"

They both flinch when Cas looks over at them, and Dean's sure that Cas has overheard them. But he's beckoning them over to the line of people — and specifically, to a worried-looking elderly lady who's standing at the front of the line practically wringing her hands.

"Sam, Dean," Cas says. "Could one of you help this nice lady with her car tires? She says one of them seems to be the wrong shape." To the lady he says, "These are my friends. My family, actually. They're good men. They'll help you."

 


 

Dean volunteers to deal with the old lady, and a moment later he's following her outside to an ancient old Volvo that's been pulled up next to the Gas-n-Sip's creaky old air compressor. Dean glances over at the gas pumps to find that a long line of cars has formed at all four pumps, several cars on each side waiting their turn. He sighs; it's already felt like a very long day, and clearly there's going to be nonstop work for hours more, probably right up till closing at eleven o'clock tonight.

The old lady notices his sigh, and smiles at him sympathetically. "Busiest travel day of the year, they say," she says, as Dean begins checking the four tires. "I hope at least you'll get tomorrow off? Thanksgiving day?"

"Unfortunately not," says Dean, frowning at the tires. Sure enough, one tire is definitely low, and he pulls the air hose over and crouches by the tire as he explains, "We're working all weekend. Straight through Sunday."

She looks appalled. "That's just not right!" she says. "Couldn't they get any other employees?"

"Well... actually I volunteered," Dean explains, "Me and my brother, in fact. We're just helping out our friend, there, the guy at the cash register." Dean nods toward Castiel, back inside the store. "He was gonna work alone all weekend, right through the holiday."

Dean kneels on the ground to unscrew the little plastic cap on the tire valvestem. He sets the cap carefully on the ground by the tire (it's a point of pride, for someone who works with cars, to not lose the little plastic cap). He's fitting the air hose nozzle over the valvestem when somehow he finds himself saying, out of nowhere, to an old lady who's a total stranger: "He's got cancer. He didn't tell us. We just found out."

"Oh, sweetie," she says. Dean risks a quick glance up to see that she's turned to look at Cas. She watches Cas for a long moment, through the plate-glass window.

A moment later she says, quietly, "I can see it now. It's a very cute hat, but...."

She turns back to Dean with a soft, resigned sigh, and a little shake of the head, like it's a story she's heard — and seen — many times. She looks at him thoughtfully, and Dean finds he can't hold her gaze. His eyes drop to the tire as he hears her say, "I'm so sorry."

"Shouldn'ta told you," Dean mutters, staring at the tire.

"Sometimes it helps to tell things to strangers," she says, and she reaches down and pats Dean's shoulder. "You're so sweet to help him. I'm sure he appreciates it, probably more than he can say. You're a good friend."

Dean's staring fixedly at the tire now, cursing himself for having mentioned it at all. It was Cas's secret; it wasn't Dean's secret to tell. And now he can't even say anything else. He can only give another uncomfortable shrug, and then silently he holds the air hose in place on the valvestem as the tire slowly fills.

He checks the gauge, and gives the tire a bit more air, and checks the gauge again, and then realizes that he's paid absolutely no attention at all to the gauge numbers and that he's overfilled the tire. He has to let some air out, and now the tire's too low and he has to add a little more air again. The old lady doesn't seem to mind all the delays; out of the corner of his eye he can just see her shoes, and she's standing there patiently, still right next to him. Presumably still watching him, though Dean still can't seem to look back up to meet her eyes.

How old is she, anyway? 65? 70? Her shoes are definitely the classic old-lady kind, plain comfy pull-on trainers with elastic laces and thick rubber soles, in sensible black.

It occurs to Dean that the old lady probably hasn't always worn sensible shoes in sensible black. Once upon a time she must have been young; once upon a time she'd probably liked girly shoes, those feminine fashionable shoes that most girls go crazy for. She'd probably even worn high-heeled pumps, back in her day. Strappy sandals, maybe. Colorful party shoes. Once upon a time.

When exactly did she put all that away? Dean thinks.

Does there come a certain day when you realize it's over, and that you're always going to be alone? A day when you just put all the fun stuff away forever?

The tire pressure's finally right. 36 psi on the dot. Dean sets the air hose on the ground, and picks up the little plastic black cap.

"Is he going to be okay?" he hears the old lady ask. A quick glance up reveals that indeed she's still watching him; she's looking down with kindly eyes. "Your friend?" she adds. "Will he be okay? If you don't mind my asking."

Dean shrugs again and turns his attention back to the tire, trying now to focus on getting the little plastic screw cap back on, but his fingers seem to be getting cold: the little cap won't thread onto the tire valve. It slips out of his hand to the ground. He goes to pick it up but fumbles it somehow, and it rolls away and there's a bit of embarrassing scrabbling before he finally gets hold of the thing.

"I don't know," says Dean at last, finally getting the damned cap back onto the tire. "I don't know. He won't tell me much. He won't talk about it. He hid it for months. He won't tell me how bad it is."

"Maybe he just doesn't want you to worry," she says, as Dean stands and brushes his hands on his jeans.

"Yeah, maybe," mutters Dean.

She turns to look at Cas again, studying him now through the plate-glass windows. "You have to make him rest," she says.

"I know. He won't take a break."

"You may have to force him," she says firmly, and she turns back to Dean and adds, "And you have to cherish every moment, you know. But I'm sure you know that."

"Yeah, I know," he says.

"Even one day is precious," she says, "Even one day more." She looks at her car, and only now does Dean realize she's traveling alone. That's why she'd needed help with the car tires, after all; there's nobody else with her. Whatever husband or companion or partner she might once have had, she's traveling alone on this Thanksgiving holiday.

Dean asks, "Hey, uh... you got family to go to? For the holiday?"

"Oh, I've got some friends," she says. Dean glances down at her left hand, to see if she might be wearing a wedding ring, but she slips her hand into her jacket pocket before he can get a clear look.

Then she reaches out with her other hand. She's holding something. She seems to be offering it to him. Dean peers at it and realizes it's a neatly folded five-dollar bill.

"It's just a tip," the old lady says. "I know it's not much. I'm just hopeless with car things."

"No, I can't," Dean says, waving it off. "Just part of the job. Glad to help."

"Well, then, buy a slice of Thanksgiving pie to share with your friend," she says. "And your brother, too. In fact —" She fishes another five out of her purse. "Get a whole pie." And this time when she reaches out, Dean lets her tuck the two five-dollar bills into his fingers.

"Thanks," he says, in a whisper.

"No, thank you. For your help with the tire, I mean," she says. "Joe used to do all that sort of thing, but, well, you know how it goes." She pats Dean on the arm one more time and gets in her car. Just as she's about to close the door she looks over and says, "Even one more day is precious." Dean nods, and he watches while the ancient Volvo drives away.

 


 

It takes a bit of arguing, and Cas insists on giving Dean a twenty-minute tutorial about the lottery tickets and the cash register (demonstrating with the purchases of a series of increasingly impatient customers), but at last Dean convinces him to lie down in the back and rest.

Dean's first solo act at the cash register is to buy the best-looking apple pie, and set it aside for later.

 


 

Cas conks right out, back his stockroom-sleeping-bag nest; Dean and Sam have to rouse him at eleven o'clock to have him show them how to lock up the store. They have to fend off a few last-minute customers who are apparently desperate for Doritos and Slim Jims even at eleven at night, but they finally get the place closed up. Then both brothers have to vehemently veto Cas's confident suggestion that they all might be quite comfortable sleeping on the floor of the stockroom side-by-side, if they simply spread out the single sleeping bag as much as possible and pad its edges with paper towels. But they finally manage to drag him to a nearby motel. The Continental (which Sam drove from Denver) stays parked at the Gas-n-Sip; they all head to the motel together in the Impala, downing a few slices of pie in the car on the way.

Cas, of course, frets the whole way there about how to pay for his room, even though Dean's told him several times that Dean'll be covering both motel rooms. But when they get there, the motel clerk announces brightly, "Unfortunately there's only one room left, fellas. You'll all have to share." He adds, with a cheery laugh, "Busiest travel day of the year, you know!"

"No, really?" says Dean, "I've never heard that!" He turns to Sam with a look of mock surprise. "Did you know the day before Thanksgiving is the busiest travel day of the year, Sam? Because I, personally, did not know that. Until this very moment I had no idea."

"But I've told you that multiple times, Dean," says Cas, frowning at him. "And most of the customers mentioned it too. Don't you remember?" (Sam has to elbow Dean in the ribs to keep him from snickering.) With a sigh, Cas adds, "At least you only have to pay for one room now. Though I'm afraid I'll be crowding you both."

 


 

The room has two queen beds. Sam immediately plunks his own duffel and Dean's on the same bed, and he grabs Cas's bag out of his hands and puts it on the other bed.

"Cas, you should have your own bed," says Sam. "Don't you think, Dean? He should be comfortable, right? Enough of the sleeping-on-the-floor business. You get to stretch out in comfort tonight, Cas."

Cas and Dean glance at each other.

Cas is still wearing the monkey hat, and the tassels are swaying a little bit as he gazes over at Dean. It looks good on him, Dean thinks. And he remembers how nice it had been to bury his nose right in the top of that monkey hat. How good it had been to pull Cas close.

"Right, of course," Dean replies to Sam. "Obviously. Yeah, Cas, you take that bed."

Cas says, "But... Sam's quite tall. Are you sure that you both will fit?"

"Oh, Dean and I are used to sharing," says Sam, and he reaches over to clap Cas on the shoulder. "Don't you worry about it. You know..." Sam hesitates, but then forges ahead with, "Look at it this way, if you don't my pointing it out, it's kind of a perk of having, um, having cancer, I guess!" He gives a slightly awkward laugh, and adds, "I know there sure aren't too many perks, so why not use this one? Take your pick of the beds. You know... now that I think about it, you really should play that cancer card every chance you've got. You deserve it."

"The cancer... card," says Cas uncertainly. "Of course."

Sam heads into the bathroom for a quick shower (a full day's work at a Gas-n-Sip makes a night-time shower imperative). Once the bathroom door's closed, Cas and Dean look at each other again.

"Sam's right," Dean says, a little reluctantly. "You really should stretch out. You need your own bed."

"That's thoughtful of you..." says Cas, though he doesn't sound all that convinced. "Well... I suppose we all do need to get some rest. We do have to get up early tomorrow. The store needs to be open from eight to noon, have I mentioned that?"

"Only about a dozen times," says Dean.

"But I'm worried you and Sam will be too crowded."

"Cas," says Dean, "Sam's right, you really gotta learn to play that cancer card a little more."

"I don't think I really understand what he meant by that," Cas says, narrowing his eyes a little.

"Like this," says Dean, launching into an exaggerated speech: "Oh, woe is me, poor me, I have cancer, so I get the bed to myself. I have cancer, so I get the last piece of pie. I get everything I want. I'm too weak to wash the dishes or do any chores or even to lift the tv remote by myself, you have to do it for me."

Cas is only looking even more confused, so Dean says, "Don't you get it? It's the trump card. It's the ultimate sympathy ploy. Nobody can resist it."

"You mean..." says Cas, "one plays the cancer card as a tactical strategy? To get things one actually wants?" Dean nods, and Cas says, "As in, for example..." He thinks a moment. "I have cancer, and.... my bed is too... cold?"

"Right," says Dean, "Exactly. Uh.... " Dean hesitates. "So.... was that just an example, or do you want another blanket or something?"

"I don't know," says Cas, and they look at each other.

Just then Sam emerges from the bathroom, to find Dean and Cas gazing at each other in mutual confusion. "What's up?" asks Sam.

"My bed is too cold," announces Cas.

Sam nods. "I'll call the front office and see if they can drop off some more blankets."

 


 

Dean gets the next turn in the shower, and he reminds himself, as he lathers up and rinses off, that tonight certainly won't be the first time Sam and he have shared a bed. Not that it's Dean's absolute favorite way to sleep, exactly, but when it's a sibling whom you've shared motel beds with for years and years of travel, while growing up together, it's not a problem. It's completely routine.

And Cas should get his own bed, of course.

When Dean gets out of the bathroom Cas practically tiptoes past him to take his own shower, whispering "Shh, Sam's already asleep." Dean sees he's right; Sam's already snoring. So when the motel clerk knocks quietly on the door with a stack of extra blankets, of course now it's up to Dean to spread them out over Cas's bed.

Then Dean stands at the foot of both beds and takes stock. Sam is a gigantic behemoth. Cas was completely correct about that. Sam's all sprawled out like the world's biggest starfish and he's got one huge, mile-long leg going all diagonally on the bed, right onto Dean's side. And he's already hogging the covers.

Of course, Dean can just shove Sam over when it's time for lights-out, but it seems like a fine idea to sit on Cas's bed in the meantime. Just for a few minutes, just while waiting for Cas to be done with his shower. After another few moments, Dean realizes he's a little chilly, so he gets under the two extra blankets (but on top of the bedcovers) — because, why be cold unnecessarily when those nice two extra blankets are right here?

It's very late and of course Cas is right about how they'll have to get up early tomorrow. But Dean's always found it soothing, whenever they're in a motel at night, to spend a few last minutes just before bed flipping through some tv channels. So he finds the remote and puts the TV on with the sound down low. Then once Cas comes out from his shower he immediately wants to watch TV a little bit too. (He seems wide awake, actually, maybe since he's had that nap earlier today.) Cas gets under the covers, Dean stays on top of them, and Dean finds an HBO channel that's showing an old rerun of Flight of The Conchords.

The episode's hilarious, to Dean at least, though explaining it to Castiel proves to be a little difficult. ("Are business socks a sexually alluring item of clothing?" "It's just a joke, Cas. It's a joke song." "Oh. Because, you see, I have socks exactly like that." "Oh...") It's fun to watch it again, but turns out to be fairly challenging to explain, and by the end of the episode Dean's yawning. Eleven hours of Gas-n-Sip chaos have apparently taken their toll.

"Bedtime, I think," Dean finally says. "Time for me to jump ship and see if I can push Gigantor over there back onto his own side of the bed. You all done too?" Dean raises the remote and points it at the screen, ready to click the Power button off.

"I have cancer," Cas states quietly, "and I want to keep watching TV with you."

There's a little pause.

"Dammit," says Dean, lowering the remote. "Should've known you'd be a fast learner."

Another Flight Of The Conchords episode starts up, and though Dean's nearly certain now that Cas still isn't getting most of the references, Cas seems to be enjoying it anyway. Dean's truly exhausted by now, but then Cas lets his head lean a little on Dean's shoulder and of course that wakes Dean up a little. Every day is precious, Dean thinks, and when the impulse comes to put an arm over Cas's shoulders, he doesn't second-guess it, and he doesn't try to talk himself out of it; he just puts his arm over Cas's shoulders.

It seems that Cas's head sinks a little more heavily onto Dean's shoulder. After a few minutes Dean lets his own head lean onto Cas's, too, and now Dean's totally losing track of the Flight Of The Conchords plot as he finds himself turning his head toward Castiel more and more, and leaning more fully onto him, till once again Dean's got his nose just about buried in the top of Cas's monkey hat.


 

Then Sam's tapping him softly on the arm; it's dawn, and Dean's still on Cas's bed, lying down fully now. And despite the fact that they're still safely in Innocent Bed Position #1 (Cas under the bedcovers and Dean on top of them, with the extra blankets spread on top), nonetheless they seem to have ended up in a spooning position. Dean is spooning Cas. It's not a super-close spoon, of course (it can't be, not in Innocent Bed Position #1), and there's a few inches between them. But Dean's arm is undeniably over Cas's waist. Furthermore, Cas has even got Dean's hand tucked between both of his own. Thankfully the exact configuration of the hands is hidden under the extra blankets, but nonetheless Sam starts right in on the teasing.

"You two look just adorable," Sam whispers. "A match made in Heaven. Literally! You'll have to let me know how it goes."

It's clear Sam's just joking — there's only a laughing, casual bantering tone in his voice, as if he truly thinks it's all innocent and is merely pleased to have found a rich new motherlode of potential jokes. But Dean feels himself flush anyway. "Can it," Dean hisses back, slipping his hand quietly out of Cas's grasp. "Just fell asleep here. Didn't mean to."

"Tell it to the judge," says Sam. "C'mon, we'll be late for work. And you know how the boss is."

 


 

A/N - Hm, right, Sam, it's all totally innocent.

I hope to have something more up next week, but the grant deadline's looming (budget has to be done in 1 week, full text in 2 wks) so I can't promise.... wish me luck.

Hope you are still liking my story! As always, if there was something in particular that you liked, please let me know. I love to hear from you.

Chapter Text

A/N - A surprise Monday update for you! Three days late on this, sorry - here's the Thanksgiving chapter at last. The grant's sucking up my life. It's due Friday, so the next chapter will be late too.

Warning, spoilers ahead for "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" if you haven't seen it.

 


 

 

On Thursday, Thanksgiving day, they only have to do only a four-hour shift; the store's scheduled to close at noon. And it turns out it's a much easier day. There's less traffic, and even from the scattering of drivers that do stop for gas, very few come inside to buy snacks. The travelers today are just on short journeys, headed an hour or two down the road to local family get-togethers, and most of them seem to be trying to hold back from snacking so they can feast at the big meal later.

Most of the action is, therefore, outside at the gas pumps, with only a small trickle of people coming in for coffee. Cas ends up spending much of the time curled up in the back again, while Dean and Sam man the store.

"It's going pretty smooth today, isn't it?" Dean says, about midway through their morning work shift. The store's deserted at the moment; Sam's in the middle of wiping down the coffee corner with a damp paper towel, Dean's at the cashier station, and Cas is still asleep out back. Everything's nicely under control.

Dean leans back on his cashier's stool (Cas's stool, actually), adjusts his blue employee vest (Cas's vest), straightens his nametag (Cas's nametag), and says, "You know, I really feel like I might have a promising career ahead of me in the Gas-n-Sip world."

Sam pauses in his coffee-wiping to look over at Dean, and gives a little snort of a laugh. Dean cracks a smile, but then confesses, "Only half-joking, to be honest." He glances around the tidy store and says, "I'm starting to see what Cas meant about having just one little corner of the world that you know you can keep control of. I'm actually starting to feel some pride in this place." He points out a minor coffee spill that Sam hasn't wiped up. "Speaking of. You missed a spot."

Sam turns to get the spot, still laughing a little, and he shakes his head. Coffee-cleaning finally done, he wads up his paper towel and tosses it toward a far-away trash can. It hits the rim and bounces out.

"You're messing up my store, you hooligan," says Dean.

"My store too!" protests Sam. "That coffee machine doesn't refill itself, you know." He scoops up the paper towel from the floor, tosses it in the trash again (successfully this time), and then turns to Dean with a thoughtful look. "Seriously though... you definitely feeling like you got everything under control here? You think you could hold down the fort all by yourself? Even with Cas asleep?"

Dean frowns at him. "You gonna abandon me or something? But, Sam— " (he gestures expansively around the Gas-n-Sip)" —this kingdom could all be yours."

"It can be mine tomorrow," says Sam, walking over toward Dean's counter. "Today, though, I got an idea. How about I take off an hour early and meet you guys back at the bunker in a few hours? I'll take Cas's car now, and you guys follow in the Impala after you've closed up. You could get back there by, like, three or four, right?" Sam checks his watch. "Hand me my jacket, would you?"

"Wait, what for? Where're you going?"

"Well, I just happened to notice this morning, while you two snuggle-bunnies were getting your extremely slow asses dressed," says Sam, "that the supermarket down the road's open till noon."

Dean blinks at the "snuggle-bunnies" comment. Then he's momentarily paralyzed by a set of surprisingly complex mental calculations about whether it would look most natural to Sam if Dean continues the "snuggle-bunnies" theme with a related type of joke (maybe some joke about Sam's masculinity?) or some self-deprecating joke (something about spooning? Something that shows that Dean's so completely un-threatened and un-rattled by the snuggle-bunnies comment that he can even crack more jokes about it?); or whether Dean should switch to a different joke; or whether it would seem smoothest and most natural of all to loftily ignore it.

These hypothetical options all go flying through Dean's head in a split second. But it's rather like being trapped in a mental hamster wheel; over the next few moments his thoughts only manage to spin around in circles, and he soon realizes he's not coming up with anything at all to say.

Fortunately, Sam doesn't even seem to notice. He's staring off into space, apparently thinking about something else entirely, and finally he says, "They might not have a whole bird left, but they probably have some of those little turkey breasts or something." He adds, with a grin. "Not saying I'm the world's best cook or anything, but I can throw a bird in an oven. If it's a little one I think it'll only take a few hours. Might even be able to rustle up some potatoes."

"Oh," says Dean. It slowly sinks in what Sam's talking about. Today is Thanksgiving! Earlier they'd been planning on a very low-key meal for delivery to the nearby motel, the classic Pizza Thanksgiving of their nomadic childhood. But this...

Dean feels a smile spreading over his face. "Sam. You're a genius. Yes. Do it. But, you gotta make sure there's some kind of pie, too. In fact... " He casts a worried look at the Gas-n-Sip pie rack, which is totally empty after yesterday's frenzied shopping. "There's only a couple slices of pie left from the one I bought yesterday. You better leave right now." He grabs Sam's jacket from below the counter and tosses it at him. "Scoot. Get going. There's last-minute pies to buy!"

"You sure you're okay here on your own?"

"Am I not the very model of Gas-n-Sip efficiency?" says Dean, spreading his arms and looking down in not-entirely-mock pride at his blue employee vest. "I got this place figured out. It's ticking like a Swiss watch. Also it doesn't hurt that there are zero customers."

 


 

At noon sharp Dean closes up, loads a still-sleepy Cas into the back of the Impala, and they head home to the bunker.

It's a couple hours of driving. During the long drive it occurs to Dean, multiple times, that he probably really ought to be quizzing Cas about all the diagnosis and prognosis questions. But Cas seems comfortable relaxing in the back, and most of the time he's asleep...

... and it's Thanksgiving day, after all.

Can't they take just one day off from this cancer thing? (It's not even been a week yet, and Dean's already exhausted from thinking about it.)

Can't Cas just have one good evening? One holiday? One family get-together?

Besides, there's plenty of time still, before the next round of chemo, to get the truth out of him. Three full days at least — Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Plenty of time.

Cas only finally wakes when the Impala turns onto the bumpy, rutted bunker driveway.

"Hey, Sleeping Beauty," calls Dean over his shoulder, as Cas sits up, yawning and looking around. "We're home!" Dean pulls the Impala into the bunker garage, and together they walk into the kitchen to a sight that's so startling they both stop short: Sam's wearing an actual apron (one with a 1940s style flowered print, no less), he's got two puffy oven mitts on his hands, and he's holding a pan that actually seems to have a perfectly roasted turkey breast. He's in the middle of carrying it over to the kitchen table. A heady aroma wafts over to Cas and Dean, a positively mouth-watering scent of warm roasted turkey and potatoes and biscuits. And pies.

"Holy shit, dead-on perfect timing," says Sam, pausing in mid-stride to grin at them. "Everything's ready. Welcome home! Happy Thanksgiving!" He plunks the turkey breast down on the kitchen table and says, "What do you think? Not bad for a few hours work, if I say so myself."

Dean and Cas can only stare. The kitchen table's completely laden with food. Sam's somehow summoned up practically the whole traditional meal — turkey, potatoes, hot biscuits fresh out of the oven, savory green beans, gravy, cranberry sauce — the works.

"It's just a turkey breast and not the whole turkey," Sam points out.

"That's okay," says Dean.

"The biscuits are just from one of those little tubes," says Sam, a little apologetically.

"That's okay," says Dean.

"The cranberry sauce is out of a can, sorry," says Sam. "And the gravy's from a jar."

"That's really okay," says Dean. He glances over at Cas, who is actually open-mouthed as he stares at the table, and Dean thinks, Has he ever even seen a real Thanksgiving meal before?

"But I did actually cook the turkey. Not in a microwave, either," says Sam, gesturing at the turkey breast proudly with one oven mitt. "Cooked it in the actual oven. Googled the timing and everything. And I did do one thing from scratch, the mashed potatoes. And, look, Dean—" Sam points with his oven mitt to the sideboard, and Dean realizes there's not just one but a full four pies laid out there. "I even just heated them up."

"Oh my god," says Dean, and he walks right over to the pies as if magnetically drawn, bending over to give each one a whiff. "Apple... berry... peach... and... what's this one?"

"Chocolate pecan," says Sam.

"Oh my god," says Dean again.

"I doubt God had anything to do with this," Cas says. "I think this was entirely Sam's doing." He's now looking only at Sam, regarding him very thoughtfully, as if Sam has revealed himself to be a completely different sort of creature than Castiel had ever been aware of.

"It even all smells amazing," says Dean, still bent over the pies to huff in the warm-pie odors. "Though... " A thought strikes him, and he turns to Cas. "Wait, Cas, is this gonna be okay for you? All the smells and stuff? How are you feeling, anyway?"

Sam's forehead creases in concern and he says, shucking off his oven mitts at last and taking the apron off as well, "I was worried about that too. Cas, just tell me if it's too much. Here, lemme take your coat, you should sit down—" Sam helps Cas get his trenchcoat off and steers him to a chair, saying, "I know this is a bigger meal than you might have been expecting, and I know you haven't been eating much, so, if the smells are too strong or if food just puts you off or something, don't feel like you have to eat. You could go just sack out and watch a movie or something if you want."

"No, this is wonderful," says Cas. He lets Sam take the trenchcoat and settles into the chair, gazing around at all the food for a long moment. Finally he looks up at Sam to say, "To answer your question, don't worry, I'm feeling good today. And also, so far I've managed to keep the bunker safely associated with... feeling good, you might say. So, every odor here is... a good odor, for me." (Cas glances at Dean, very briefly, as he says this.) "I might have smaller-sized servings, though, if that's all right, Sam — they stay down more reliably — but, it's actually a huge help to have food presented this enticingly. It makes it so much easier to eat when the food looks this good."

Sam gives him a wide grin. "In that case," he says, "let's get started! Sit down, Dean, there's a beer right there for you. Um... we can skip grace, right?"

"If I had any grace I'd loan you some," says Cas. "But I don't, so let's eat."

"That about sums it up," says Dean, pulling up a chair. "Let's eat."

 


 

It's still an open question, in Dean's mind, whether Cas will really eat anything. Cas nibbled a bit last night, and he's nibbled a bit today, but he still hasn't had what Dean considers a real meal. Not since Sunday, presumably. So Dean pays close attention as Sam starts assembling a plate of food for Cas.

It's soon clear Sam's taking some pains to arrange Cas's plate as attractively as possible, apparently taking Cas's comment to heart about "smaller-sized" yet "enticing" servings. A minute later Sam ceremoniously presents Castiel with a lovely-looking plate that contains two perfect slices of turkey, a dollop of choice cranberries, a drizzle of warm gravy, a tiny serving of steaming-hot green beans, and a modest scoop of the mashed potatoes. It looks beautiful — and not overwhelming. Cas seems delighted, and, for the first time in months, Sam and Dean get to see him dig into a meal with a real appetite.

"Thank you," Dean mouths at Sam, behind Cas's back. Sam just smiles.

Dean takes his cue from that success, and an hour later when they've reconvened at the sofa for the traditional post-meal evening of TV watching, Dean manages to coax Cas to eat a perfect sliver of pumpkin pie with a tiny round puffy dot of of whipped cream on top. Again Cas actually seems to enjoy it — and he actually eats the whole thing.

An hour later, while Cas is frowning doubtfully at the football game (Sam's in the middle of a valiant attempt to explain the cryptic distinction between a fair catch and a fumble), Dean sneaks off to prepare an equally perfect slice of apple pie, flanked by an appealing — but small — scoop of vanilla ice cream. "You have to try every pie," Dean explains, when he returns to present Cas with the tiny pie slice. "It's traditional." Cas hardly even needs convincing; again he eats the whole thing.

A couple hours later, when the game's over, Dean coaxes Cas to take a few bites from perhaps the most attractive plate of Thanksgiving leftovers that Dean's ever put together in his life.

"I found the key!" Dean says to Sam when they cross paths in the kitchen a few minutes later. "He's actually eating! The key is, put things on little salad plates and make everything small, and laid out really nice. Like, arranged. Pretty. And not too much at once. Lots of little meals. That's the key."

"It's either that or it's my stunning culinary skills," says Sam.

Dean considers that, and gives a grudging nod. "The fact that you completely knocked it out of the park here, and that the food does not remotely suck, just might also have something to do with it. Lesson learned, I gotta step up my food game. Sam.... You smoked it tonight. Seriously. I haven't seen him eat so consistently in... like... weeks. Maybe each bite is small, but they're adding up." Dean peers out of the kitchen — he can just see Cas on the sofa. Cas looks all right, but...

Dean adds, dropping his voice to a whisper, "We gotta make sure he eats the next several days. Cause, you know, he's basically gonna fast for all Monday and Tuesday and half of Wednesday again." He turns back to Sam to mutter, "Bit hard to put on weight when you're fasting three days a week."

"Hey... um.... " says Sam. He, too, darts a look at Cas, and then he pulls Dean a little farther out of earshot, to a corner of the kitchen, to ask, "Should we ask him... about... you know. The details?"

Diagnosis. Prognosis.

"We need to know," Sam points out. "And ideally before the next round of chemo."

But Dean shakes his head.

"It's Thanksgiving, dude," he whispers back. "I was thinking about it on the drive, but, it's a holiday. It's his one night back here with, like... real family. We got all weekend to talk about that. Let's just give him a real Thanksgiving for once. In fact..." Dean checks his watch. "Movie time, I think."

"And a constant stream of leftovers," says Sam with a grin.

"For Cas and for me," Dean says. "In fact, I believe Cas may need a perfect piece of peach pie just about now, and I'd better taste-test another slice too—"

"A different kind of pie? That sounds lovely," Cas says just then, walking into the kitchen with a small stack of plates. "And I'd like to help clean up."

Sam and Dean smoothly separate, as if they hadn't at all been having a huddled discussion in the corner. Cas regards them with a touch of worry, and asks, "Is everything all right?"

"Just discussing which movie to watch," Dean tells him.

"But... don't we need to clean up? I was going to help with that."

"Movie night is traditional," Dean tells him. "Besides, did you forget about the cancer card? This is like the all-time perfect way to play that card. Getting out of the Thanksgiving clean-up is a time-honored American family tradition, you know, and you've got the world's best excuse. "

"Dean's right, this is the ideal time to play that card," agrees Sam, "You really should be telling us you're far too tired to help clean up."

"But I'm not feeling very tired," objects Cas. "I had a nap, remember? I could definitely help cl—"

"You're far too exhausted from that long car ride," Dean says, overriding him, "and in fact, I'm pretty sure you only have exactly enough energy to spend the entire rest of the evening sacked out watching movies. C'mon, let's pick a movie." He steers Cas back to the TV room and pushes him back down on the sofa, instructing him, "Now, you lie there and relax. That's an order. The dishes are almost done anyway." Dean flips through a few channels and soon crows with excitement. "Jackpot! Planes, Trains, and Automobiles — this is a Thanksgiving classic! Sit and enjoy, angel." He bellows toward the kitchen, "Hey, Sam! It's Planes, Trains and Automobiles! Leave that turkey pan to soak, we'll get it later!"

"And I didn't even have to play the cancer card," comments Cas. "Not with you both playing it for me."

 


 

Planes, Trains and Automobiles is an old comedy classic that Dean remembers watching on several different Thanksgivings, usually with Sam, usually while they were stuck in a random motel having yet another pizza Thanksgiving. The movie's always kind of struck close to home, of course, what with the main plot involving two men, Neal and Del, who have to embark on an epic road trip together while attempting to get home for the holidays. It's cheesy and a bit dated, but it's one of the few movies that's actually set on Thanksgiving, and it's still funny. And it's got heart, too. The slowly growing friendship between the two men (played by Steve Martin and John Candy) has always been one of Dean's favorite parts about the movie.

It's been quite a few years since Dean's last seen it, though. But it's just as good as he remembers. He and Sam laugh like crazy through the opening parts of the movie, genuinely enjoying every scene as the Steve Martin character gets diverted to the wrong airport during a snowstorm. It becomes clear that he's going to be stuck for the night with a very annoying travel partner. The humor's broad enough and universal enough that even Cas seems to be getting all the jokes, and Dean's delighted to find that it all holds up pretty well.

That is, until the bed-sharing scene.

In the movie, there's a scene where the two men find the last room available in the last possible motel, and the room has only one bed. Like Dean and Cas, they end up sharing one bed... and, like Dean and Cas, they end up accidentally spooning in the middle of the night.

Unlike Dean and Cas, however, these two male characters in this 1987-vintage movie are horrified when they wake in the morning and realize what position they've ended up in. Somebody's hand has ended up where it shouldn't, and both men fairly fly apart from each other at light speed, nearly levitating out of bed to opposite sides of the rooms, where they spend several minutes writhing in revulsion. Disgust and horror are clear on their faces, as if they've both been contaminated by a near-brush with something truly hideous. At last the Steve Martin character says "How about those Bears?" and both men embark on a desperately macho conversation about football.

Dean's always remembered this whole motel sequence as being pretty funny. But in the many years since he's last seen it, this spooning scene has somehow escaped his memory — till now, that is. Sam still finds it funny, apparently; he's chuckling at all the over-reactions to the spooning, and laughs out loud at the Bears comment. But Dean's gone dry-mouthed.

"Damn, I love this movie," comments Sam. "Such a classic."

Dean risks a glance over at Cas, who's been sprawled on the sofa but is now squinting at the scene in confusion. "I'm not sure I'm understanding this plot," Cas says. He hitches himself up on both elbows so that he can study the TV more closely. "Why are they suddenly talking about bears?"

"They mean the Chicago Bears," says Sam, still chuckling.

"Oh... the football team?" says Cas.

"Yeah," says Sam. "They're trying to act more manly, get it?"

Cas hesitates, and he sits up fully, tucking his feet down under him and hauling himself up to a sitting position. He's still frowning at the screen, and even hunches forward a little as if to study it from a few inches closer. "But why do they want to look more manly?" he asks. "Presumably they're normal human men already. Normal and... uh... healthy. So therefore, they're already manly. Why would they want to be even more manly? Isn't one, by default, already sufficiently manly, if one is a man?"

Sam tries to explain with, "Well, they woke up spooning, y'know."

"Spooning...." says Cas, and it seems clear he hasn't run across this particular phrase very often. Dean can see the moment when it clicks for him: Cas's eyes widen slightly, he glances briefly at Dean, and he asks Sam, "Oh, you mean, like two spoons in a drawer?" He glances at Dean again, his eyes flicking over for just the briefest instant this time. "Lying parallel? Nested together?"

Sam says, "Yeah. Hey, just like —" (Dean is holding very, very still) "— like you and Dean did this morning! Ha, that was exactly the same situation, wasn't it! Only one room left at the motel, stuck in the same bed, and ended up spooning! Ha ha, just the same!"

Except for the cancer part, thinks Dean.

And the fact that he's an angel, and didn't really understand any of this.

And... the fact that I sorta liked it.

"Though you two didn't react the same way, heh," Sam says, and he glances over at Dean with a tentative smile, as if expecting Dean to parry with a smile of his own, and counter with another joke. But once again Dean can't seem to come up with a joke. He can't seem to fake a smile, either, not even a tiny grimace of one; he can't even meet Sam's eyes. All Dean can seem to do is stare fixedly at the TV screen.

Sam's smile fades away, and he finishes, a little lamely, with, "You two didn't seem nearly as wigged out, either."

"Why would we be, um, wigged out?" asks Cas. He thinks a bit and adds, "Should we have wigged out?"

"Well, you know, it's just that..." And here Sam pauses.

He pauses for a very long moment.

He shifts his feet, delicately, with rather the air of someone who's just noticed that he's been casually strolling through a minefield. "Oh... no reason," Sam says — and, when Dean finally glances at him, it turns out Sam's gone a little red. "No reason at all," Sam says, running a hand through his hair. He clears his throat. "You guys, uh, you guys know each other. Those guys in the movie didn't know each other. They're strangers. So... you know."

Cas is quiet for a long time after that.

And so's Dean.

And so's Sam.

The movie carries on, and now the parallels start to hurt: the growing friendship between the two men, the discovery that one of them has no home at all, and no family, and nowhere to go for the holidays. And the almost romantic-movie moment when one chases after the other to invite him back home. (Followed mere seconds later by a gratuitous shot of a generic wife, complete with fluffy 80s hair, as if to clarify there's not anything even the teeniest tiniest bit gay about the men's friendship.) The awkwardness about the spooning scene begins to fade as Dean's swept up in the sentimental ending: everybody ends up home for the holidays.

"Sam," says Cas at the end. "Dean." They both turn to look at him, and Cas says, quite formally, "I want to thank you both for inviting me into your home."

Dean says, "It's your home too."

"No, it's not," says Cas. "It's yours." Dean and Sam both draw breath to object, but Cas says firmly, "You are both of the lineage of the Men of Letters; I'm not. And you've invited me in, both of you. And I just want you to know that I so... I so appreciate it. I don't really..." He pauses. "I suppose I'm like the fellow in that movie. I haven't had a home, or a family, in years. You both took me in. You fed me Thanksgiving dinner. I just want you both to know that I'm thankful. I truly am."

 


 

There's a cozy warm glow of family feelings after that little speech. Yet Dean already knows there'll likely be no spooning tonight. Last night had been a totally unplanned accident, after all, just a consequence of all being stuck in one tiny motel room together. Cas very likely hadn't meant anything by the fact that he'd ended up holding Dean's hand; he'd been fast asleep by that point. Cas probably hadn't even realized there was anything weird about two grown men spooning together. Now he knows better.

And, also, they're back at the bunker now, where they each have their own bedrooms. There's no TV in Cas's room (Sam's the only one who has a TV in his bedroom) so there's not even any possibility this time of late-night Flight of the Conchords.

Cas doesn't mention his bed being cold. Dean goes to his room to give him a big stack of extra blankets anyway, just in case, and Cas merely nods and accepts them. As Dean hands over the blankets he's feeling a little let down, for reasons he can't quite pin down, and he reaches out a hand to Cas and pats the top of his monkey hat. Cas smiles at him; it almost hurts to see the smile, and to know that Cas is still here, and still alive, and that he's smiling at Dean. Every day is precious, Dean thinks, and he lets his hand drift down to cup the side of Cas's face for a moment.

"Glad you're here," Dean says, patting Cas's cheek. "Glad you're feeling good. Sleep well, okay?"

"I will. But, Dean, are you two sure you want to keep helping at my job tomorrow? I'm really feeling better now."

"We're absolutely coming with you," says Dean, finally dropping his hand to his side. "Tomorrow and Saturday too, and that half Sunday shift you mentioned. And then we're taking you to Denver, later on Sunday, soon as the work shift's done."

"You don't have to, you know."

"It's already decided, Cas. Just accept it." Dean reaches out again to give him one more pat, on the shoulder this time, and Cas lifts a hand to squeeze Dean's forearm lightly in return.

But Cas says only a soft "Thank you, Dean. Good night."

As Dean's turning away he's rather hoping that Cas will call him back for some reason. But Cas doesn't; so Dean walks away.

Dean could, of course, figure out some plausible reason to return to Cas's room.

Given a few more minutes, he could probably even come up with a plausible reason to spend the entire night there.

In fact it has begun to seem that there are constantly little such schemes going on in the back of Dean's mind, schemes that always seem to involve Cas. Rationales for being near Cas, usually; reasons Dean might need to contact him or check on him, reasons Dean might need to go to his room to chat about something, or even might need to hang out in his room for a while. It's even become second nature to be constantly assessing the validity of these potential reasons-to-stay-near-Cas, as if some part of his mind is always pondering whether they'll realistically stand up to external review and outside opinion. (Like... just for example... Sam's opinion.)

It seems, at times, that Dean can almost feel these gears whirring in his own mind... and, in the brief moments when he allows himself to think about it, he knows the reasons that those gears keep whirring.

Part of it's the cancer, obviously. A very large part of it is genuinely about making sure Cas is okay, and cherishing his company.

But part of it is about something else, isn't it?

Every day is precious, Dean thinks as he reaches his room. Today was a good day, really, and as he's changing for bed he reminds himself to appreciate what an amazing job Sam did with the food, and Cas's sheer delight at the meal, and what a relief it was to see Cas eating again, and how sweet Cas's little speech at the end of the evening had been. And how nice it had been just to see Cas smile. Dean tries to focus on all those things, and let everything else go. Yet when he clambers into his bed and discovers that actually the bed is quite cold, the mental gears begin, inexorably, to whir again. The bed is cold, and it occurs to Dean that Cas now has all the spare blankets and therefore that it would make incontrovertible, positively unassailable sense for Dean to go to Cas's room right now to discuss the blanket situation. Surely even a jury of one's peers would regard that as a perfectly good reason to go to Cas's room.

Dean's already halfway out of bed. But then, all of a sudden, all he can hear is Sam's laughter at that Planes, Trains, and Automobiles bed-sharing scene.

He sinks back into his chilly bed, rolls onto his side and buries his face in the pillow, trying his best to think about nothing at all.

Just as Dean's drifting off he finds himself thinking, Maybe tomorrow night.

 


 

 

A/N - Aw, Dean. Just go down the hall!

Several of you have noticed that Sam, last chapter, is actually not quite the classic shipper-Sam. Not yet. Rather, in this fic he's actually been a bit oblivious. He loves his brother, he loves his angel friend, he's not homophobic in the least, but he actually hadn't been picturing them together (he has been assuming they're both straight). He knows they have a close friendship, of course, but to some extent it's going to take him by surprise to realize that the friendship is becoming romantic. I haven't written him this way before but it's been really interesting to consider the case in which Sam actually doesn't notice for a while. Only in this chapter does he start to get a clue for the first time. And he's still not at all sure... but he suddenly got just enough of a clue to make him blush. :)

... and that exact same moment has sent poor Dean down a rabbithole of worry! Stick with it, though, the fic shifts gears here from Thanksgiving to Christmas, and Castiel is starting to understand what he really wants for Christmas this year. Or maybe before Christmas.

Grant is due Friday so I think the next chapter will be up Sunday. If you have any feedback please let me know what you are thinking! Thanks so much for reading. :)

 

Chapter Text

But the next night, Friday night, doesn't really work out either. On Friday morning they have to re-station back near the Gas-n-Sip for a long three-day-weekend of work. And that means staying in the nearby motel again, the motel near the Gas-n-Sip — the "Colorado Border Special", as Dean's been calling it. And it turns out that the Colorado Border Special has two rooms available now, instead of just one. So Dean books two rooms for Friday night, and for Saturday night too.

Sam asks, a bit tentatively, if they're going to divide the rooms "like usual." Meaning, Sam and Dean sharing one room and Cas in the other.

"Cas probably needs a room to himself?" says Sam. "So he can... relax?" He seems a little hesitant about the suggestion, even though it's clearly the obvious arrangement. But it makes sense, and there seems no obvious reason to suggest another arrangement. (No reason that would stand up well to external review, that is.)

So Dean, reluctantly, agrees.

There's not much of a break the next couple days. The floods of travelers pick up again on Friday, and Saturday is a madhouse. It's nonstop work. Dean tries, several times, to get Cas alone to talk to him in private, but it always seems that there's some Gas-n-Sip crisis to deal with. On the rare occasions when there's some downtime, Cas is snatching more nap time in the back room, and Dean's reluctant to disturb his rare moments of rest.

Somehow the whole weekend slides by in a blur of bathroom-cleaning, floor-mopping and hot-dog-restocking. Then all of a sudden it's noon on Sunday and Cas is scurrying around the store hissing, "Put the mops down! Pretend you're just here to pick me up! Dean, I need the vest back!" There's a car pulling up in the back; it's the store manager, come to relieve Cas for the Sunday night shift. The Thanksgiving weekend is at long last over.

They're all tired on the drive to Denver. Cas has brought the houseplant along; he seems to want it with him in Denver, which means it's spent the whole weekend propped in the Gas-n-Sip window behind the counter (with Castiel fussing over it every morning and adjusting its position constantly, so that it always had the best exposure to the sunlight). Now he's cradling it in his lap again, as he sits next to Dean. But they're barely into Colorado when Cas falls asleep. (Sam's in the back seat.) Dean has to pluck the plant out of his hands and set it back in its little shoebox-nest, which is propped between them on the front seat.

Sam and Dean hold a quiet whispered conversation for a while after that, but eventually Sam drops off too. For the rest of the drive Dean's the only one awake, with not much to do other than listen to his brother and his angel both snoring lightly while an old Creedence album plays softly from the tapedeck, the volume down as low as Dean can stand to put it.

The hours slide by. There's a thin icy haze hanging in the air today; the sky seems an endless flat white, and it looks much more wintry than it had last week. A weak sun is barely breaking through the cloud cover, just a pale silver disk hanging in the sky, as faint as a moon. Dean regards it thoughtfully as he drives past endless flat winter fields, and at last comes into the foothills of the Rockies.

It's almost winter. Time's sliding past.

How much time is left?

Dean can only grit his teeth. Literally, in fact, and he does so for so long that his jaw starts aching — something it's been doing, off and on, for a few days now.

He wants to pat Cas's knee, but doesn't want to risk waking him. So he settles, instead, for patting the glossy leaves of the little houseplant.

 


 

As Dean takes the exit off the interstate into Denver, the sun's already setting. It's nearly dark by the time he guides the Impala into the motel's parking lot.

"Rise and shine, boys," calls Dean. Sam and Cas both blink awake.

"I'll check us in," Sam volunteers, yawning as he shrugs on his jacket. "You two sit tight. Hey Cas, do you usually get the same room?" The back door creaks open as Sam starts to clamber out. "Want that same room again?"

Cas doesn't answer at at first. His head's twisted around to the side; he's looking out the passenger window, gazing at the door of his old room. Dean glances over at it too, and is startled by how foreboding it seems. Just the simple sight of that one motel door, with its familar scratched paint and its slightly crooked room number, brings back a shockingly vivid memory of Cas crumpling in Dean's arms, panting and pale, to lie gasping on the floor.

Sam's still sitting in the car with one foot out the door; his door's wide open, and an icy wind's swirling into the Impala interior. Cas shivers, and turns to face front.

"Sure," Cas says softly. "Same room." He's not looking at either Sam or Dean. He's gone a little pale, and now he's staring down at his lap, both arms wrapping slowly around his midsection. He shivers again, visibly, and from the stony look on his face Dean's suddenly certain that Cas, too, is caught up in some unpleasant memories.

"Sam, can you swing that door shut for a sec?" says Dean. There's a creak from the back seat as Sam pulls his foot back inside and edges the back door shut. The icy wind settles down; Dean reaches to the dashboard to crank up the heat.

"Cas, you okay?" Dean asks.

"Um," says Cas. He clears his throat, and says, "Yes. I'm fine. It's just... " He risks another quick glance sideways at the motel door, and glances hurriedly down into his lap again. "This place does have some associations, I suppose," Cas says, and with a little sigh he adds, "It usually doesn't get to me till I get inside the room. There's a certain combination of odors here. The laundry detergent, I suppose? Or the floor cleanser... I'm not sure, but the place has a distinctive smell, and..." Another glance sideways, and Cas shivers a third time, this one a strong shudder that even shakes his shoulders, even though the air in the Impala's warming up now. His lips pinch together for a moment, and finally he swallows and says, "I haven't had such a strong reaction before to just seeing the parking lot and the door. It's nothing, though. Just... just a minor moment of nausea. I'm fine, really."

"Sam, could you start checking out other motels," Dean calls over his shoulder.

"Already on it," Sam says, and in fact he's tapping away busily at his phone, settling back into his seat as Dean pulls the Impala into a quick three-point turn and spins it around, heading out of the parking lot.

"Wait," says Cas, "Where are we going?"

"Somewhere else," says Dean. "Ideally somewhere that won't make you puke just from the sight of the parking lot."

"But, Dean..." says Cas. Dean glances over at him, and this time Cas meets his eyes. Cas is already looking better; he's straightened up a little, and he's starting to unwrap his arms from around his waist. But he's shaking his head. "That's a sweet thought, really," he says, "but I'm afraid any place I stay will end up with the same odor-associations in the end. I'm going to be sick tomorrow no matter what; I may as well be sick in a place where I know the layout. And they've been good to me here."

"Well, if you really wanna stay in the Chemo Motel again, we can come back here tomorrow night," says Dean. "It can be your Monday night place. Your favorite puking place. Tonight, though, we're gonna level up." Cas frowns at him, puzzled, and Dean explains, "There's actually some better places to stay in the world than dive motels, and I'm thinking maybe the last night before chemo deserves a nice plush king-size mattress for once." He calls over his shoulder, "Whaddya think, Sam? A Marriott? A Hilton?"

"But those are terribly expensive, aren't they?" says Cas. "It's a nice idea, but I only really have enough money for—"

"Sam, should we go corporate?" asks Dean, talking right over Cas, "Or is there some indie place that looks good? Hey, does Denver have one of those places that have the two-story water slide into the pool? Pull up Tripadvisor or something."

"I'm not sure I'm up to a water slide just now—" Cas is saying.

"Got one," says Sam. "Decent restaurant, good reviews, big rooms, modern, just a mile away. They've got two rooms tonight, too. Take the next right, I'll steer you there."

 


 

Cas spends the rest of the drive saying things like, "But isn't this terrifically expensive?" and "You two really shouldn't have to to go to so much trouble." In the end, though, when Dean pulls into a sparkling clean modern hotel near the airport, he quiets down and starts to look curious. The lobby turns out to be beautiful, and as Cas looks around at the sleek polished lines of the place, and at the Christmas decorations that are being hung, his last objections seem to fade away. Once Dean's checked them in they explore their two rooms. Maybe the place doesn't have the retro charm of some of Dean's favorite small-town motels, but both rooms are wide and clean and impeccably furnished, with spacious kitchenettes to boot, and the beds are huge, new, and comfortable. Cas reports, with obvious relief, that the odors are "quite unfamiliar." They get him settled in a roomy single room with a king-sized bed and a gigantic new flatscreen TV, while Sam and Dean take the room next door, a decent room with a little dining area and two queen-sized beds. (Sure enough, they seem to be dividing the rooms "like usual" again.)

It's getting late already and none of them want to waste time at a restaurant, so Sam orders a pizza, after some consultation with Cas about toppings. They eat in Sam and Dean's room, Dean carefully slicing the enormous pizza slices into tinier (and hopefully more attractive) slices and setting one out neatly on a paper plate for Cas, with a tidy serving of a little side salad. He's gratified to see Cas start eating; cas seems to have started enjoying the idea of a "plush hotel."

The plan is that they'll all relax together over pizza and beer and maybe watch a movie together, sharing one last pleasant night in congenial comfort before the chemo ordeal starts all over again tomorrow. But of course there's some discussion they have to have about tomorrow's chemo, and somehow the pizza conversation ends up focusing entirely on the looming hospital visit and the likely aftermath.

It turns out Cas still thinks it best to switch back to the "Chemo Motel" for the worst of his sickness, moving back there after tonight's luxury stay in the modern hotel. So Sam volunteers to take care of the checking-out fro the current motel tomorrow and checking-in to the "Chemo Motel". Then Sam asks which room Cas wants, and inquires about where exactly Sam should set out Cas's stuff in the room. And where he wants the pillows and pans. It's a little depressing to have to go into such detail, but of course it has to be discussed. Cas has to be coaxed through some balky shyness about discussing it at all, but eventually he ends up giving Sam the details, and even starts drawing a neat little sketch for him, on a piece of hotel stationery, about how he usually sets out his crawling-path to the bathroom. Sam's clearly having to hide his dismay as Cas draws a set of little arrows on the diagram, each arrow showing how far he can usually crawl in one go, but by the time Cas finishes the sketch and looks back up at him, Sam's managed to mask his reaction with a calm air of business-as-usual.

"Great, thanks, I'll set it all out just like you drew," Sam says, folding the diagram neatly and putting it in his wallet.

Then tomorrow's schedule has to be discussed; when Cas has to be at the hospital (apparently he has a set of appointments before the chemo even starts), how long the drive will take, whether Sam should drop them off or whether they should get a cab. And Dean has to explain to Sam about the odor issue and about setting up a second Ground Sloth hoodie (Dean's brought his own, currently triple-sealed in three plastic bags in the trunk of the Impala, but Sam'll need one too.) Sam's soon scribbling down a long shopping list.

"Lapsang Souchong," Sam mutters. "Different soap... no aftershave tomorrow morning... Anything else?"

"Oh, look for bendy straws," says Dean.

Cas looks puzzled, and he pauses in the middle of a (small) bite of pizza. "Bendy straws?"

"The kind where you can bend the straw in the middle. I mean, so you can sip from a water bottle while...." Dean hesitates, looking at him. Cas looks so normal right now, and so healthy (relatively speaking), that it seems almost surreal to be planning for how weak he'll likely be tomorrow. But last week there had been a solid sixteen hour stretch when Cas had been unable even to lift his head off the floor. He'd needed a lot of help every time he needed a drink of water, and Dean's still worried that he'd gotten dehydrated. Straws might help.

Dean explains, like it's no big deal, "Bendy straws make it easier to drink while you're lying down."

Sam hesitates the briefest instant, his eyes flicking to Cas as he registers what Dean means.

"Bendy straws," says Sam smoothly. He adds it to his list. "Got it." He look over the list for a moment. "Okay," he says. "Just to recap, I've got here: a Ground Sloth hoodie for me — Dean can use the one he made last week — a case of twenty-four more water bottles, some Gatorade in different flavors, a box of saltines, plain white bread to make plain toast, some microwavable rice, a couple bananas, a couple apples for later on, and, um, bendy straws." He looks up. "Anything else?"

"Maybe some baby wipes?" says Dean, thinking of the bathroom episodes; baby wipes might help Cas keep clean during the worst of it. They could just put a stack of them in the bathroom for him to use.

Cas sets his pizza slice down. He hasn't eaten much of it.

Sam adds "baby wipes" to the list. "Bendy straws, baby wipes," he says. "That everything? You need anything else, Cas?"

There's a little silence.

"No, that should be sufficient," says Castiel. He makes no move to pick up the pizza slice again.

"Okay, so," says Sam, "So, you guys'll take off at ten in a taxi, and I'll check us out here, and I'll have the Impala and I'll go pick up all this stuff at Target, and check in to the other motel, and I'll set out Cas's pillows and things, and uh... wait for you guys to get there, I guess. And Dean, you'll text me when you're on your way. Right?"

"Sounds good," says Dean.

"Yes, that's a fine plan," says Castiel, a little stiffly.

"Cas, you get a week off after this, right?" says Sam. That, at last, coaxes a real smile from Castiel, and he relaxes a little.

"A full week off," Cas agrees. "That's when I used to relocate back to the bunker." He glances back and forth between them. "If any hunts come up, maybe I could help out? As I have before. I could assist with the research, maybe? Or any advice you might need?"

Sam and Dean exchange a glance. It's odd to realize that Cas's periodic bunker visits — during which he has, indeed, often helped them with research — have actually been his only weeks off from the chemo. His only respites. And he'd spent them doing research.

Dean holds Sam's eyes for a second, and Sam gives a faint shake of the head.

"I was thinking we might take it easy for the rest of December," says Dean.

"Oh," says Cas, and he looks a little crestfallen. "Oh... okay."

Sam then asks, "And what happens next? After your week off? Another cycle?"

But Cas has gone quiet. After a moment he pushes his chair back, stands, picks up his paper plate and tosses his half-eaten pizza slice in the trash, and then he busies himself with clearing away a litter of crumpled napkins and drink cups that Sam and Dean have left scattered over the table. There's still two slices of pizza left in the pizza box, and Castiel carefully puts one slice more on Dean's paper plate, and one on Sam's as well, saying, "You should both eat a little more. You've been working so hard all weekend. I really appreciate all your assistance—"

"How many more cycles?" Sam asks.

Cas folds the pizza box shut. He doesn't answer for a moment.

But Sam's quietly relentless. "Is there another cycle after this one?" His voice is calm, but he's clearly not letting Cas off the hook, and Dean, sitting in silence by Sam, is immensely grateful that Sam's taking on the role of the bad guy. Or the pushy guy, at least. (Because they do, of course, need to know.) Sam presses on with, "Will there be a cycle that goes through Christmas?"

Cas turns away and carries the empty pizza box to the trash. Then he comes back to the table, picks up a clean paper napkin and starts wiping the pizza crumbs off the table.

Dean reaches out one hand and rests it on Cas's arm, gently halting his crumb-cleaning for a moment.

"Cas," Dean says.

Cas look up at him slowly, and finally he says, as he resumes the table-wiping, "One more cycle for sure. After that it depends on... " He pauses briefly, his hand hesitating in mid-wipe. "On how things go," he continues smoothly. "I've got two more treatments before Christmas, and the day after. And then they'll be doing some tests, the week after Christmas. To... see how things are going. I've got a set of appointments on the twenty-eighth. Aaron, my doctor, he said they should be able to tell me by the thirty-first whether.... " He hesitates again. "Whether it's working, I suppose."

Cas is speaking with deliberate casualness, but the dates he mentions, the twenty-eighth and the thirty-first, ring bells in Dean's memory. Cas's little calendar, back in the bunker... there'd been lines drawn through certain weeks. Chemo weeks, Dean now knows. The last line had ended on the twenty-eighth. And a few days after that there'd been a big question mark in a circle, on December 31st.

Dean had assumed, originally, that the question mark must be about some New Year's Eve decision, maybe something about going to a New Year's Eve party with "Erin."

But it hadn't been about a New Year's party at all, had it? It had been about the cancer. About the results of the tests.

About whether or not the chemotherapy is working.

They never work, Cas had said last week... about anti-emetic drugs, though. But chemotherapy is just another kind of drugs, isn't it?

I think it's because I'm an angel, or used to be.

Some drugs just don't work.

Dean's gritting his teeth again, thinking to himself, It has to be working, it has to be, he can't be going through all this hell for nothing, when Sam asks, "Cas, how bad is it?"

Sam's voice is, again, perfectly calm, just as when he'd been pressing Cas about the number of treatment cycles. But Cas (who's still wiping the table) comes to a complete halt now, freezing in mid-motion. Dean's almost holding his breath as he watches; Cas is motionless as a statue for a long moment, half bent over the table, one hand poised at the edge of the table to catch the crumbs and the other still pressed to the table, clutching his crumpled napkin.

"What kind is it?" says Sam. "What stage?" He's shifted into his Gentle-Sam voice, quiet and encouraging, as if Castiel is an extremely skittish horse that Sam's trying to calm down.

There's another beat of silence. Finally Sam says, shifting forward a little in his seat, his voice soft as velvet, "Cas. You can tell us." Dean can only nod.

Slowly, Castiel resumes motion, brushing the remaining crumbs off the table and into his hand with one long sweep of the napkin. His face is impassive. He turns away, to the trashcan, shakes his handful of crumbs into the trash, brushes his hand clean, and tosses the napkin in the trash too.

He turns back to them, and Dean knows that Cas isn't going to answer. Castiel has that ready-for-battle look now, a look that Dean's seen many times: his chin's up, his jaw tight, and he's looking not quite at them but rather over their heads, to the far wall of the room, with a thousand-yard stare that seems so remote he almost looks made of stone. A memory flashes into Dean's mind of a time he'd once seen Castiel cry tears of blood — a sign of true and deep distress in an angel, Dean learned later — yet all the while perfectly expressionless.

"We can talk more later," Cas says smoothly. "I'm afraid it's going to be a long night tomorrow, so we should probably all get some rest now. Thank you both, very much, for all your assistance this weekend, and for such a pleasant hotel; it'll be awfully nice to have such a comfortable bed for a change. Dean, I'll meet you in the lobby at a quarter to ten tomorrow." He turns and leaves the room.

 


 

The door clicks shut behind him.

There's a quiet silence for a moment.

Dean lets out a tired sigh and takes a long swig of his beer, draining the rest of his bottle in one swallow. He looks over at Sam, who's slumping down a little farther in his chair, gazing almost sightlessly at his little shopping list on the table.

"Shut you down cold, huh," comments Dean.

"Ice cold," Sam agrees glumly. He looks worried — and regretful. "Dammit. Sorry. I thought maybe I could just go for it, kinda force it out of him. But he just really doesn't want to talk, does he?"

Dean tries to give Sam a reassuring smile. "Cas isn't easy to force. About anything. But it was worth a shot. I'm glad you tried."

Sam looks only slightly reassured. "I tried to ask him a couple times over the weekend, too" he says. "But he was always suddenly busy. Or suddenly needed a nap."

That makes Dean think. An entire week has somehow slid by now without even the slightest clue emerging about Cas's exact condition, and now that Dean looks back over the week, he realizes there've been quite a few times that he, too, has tried to get Cas alone for a chat. But somehow all the moments have slipped away. Just as Sam says, each time suddenly Cas was busy, or suddenly he was dozing off, or already asleep. It becomes clear, now, that it's not just that Dean's been reluctant to bring up the topic. Castiel himself has been avoiding moments of quiet conversation.

"Wonder if he was even ever asleep," Dean mutters, half to himself.

"What?"

"Nothing. Just... He's been avoiding the topic all week."

"He's not ready to talk," Sam says. "He's still not used to us knowing." He adds, with an uncertain but hopeful air, "He'll come around. He'll talk to us eventually. It's only been a week. Could be he's, sorta... unsure about it?" Sam pauses a moment, thinking, and he adds, "Must be weird for an angel to feel so physically vulnerable. Maybe he just feels shy about the whole thing? About, you know, being so sick and needing our help and everything. And with it all being so physical and messy."

"Maybe," says Dean.

Or maybe he just doesn't want to crush us with the truth.

"Want any more pizza?" Sam says. Like Cas earlier, they're both just staring down at their uneaten slices now.

Dean shakes his head, realizing that not only is his stomachache back, but his jaw, is aching again too. Just as it had in the car. "Not hungry," he says.

"Me neither," says Sam with a sigh.

 


 

An hour and a half later, as Dean's staring up at the ceiling in the dark, he's starting to be glad that the stomachache is back and that his jaw is aching nonstop, because at least it's a distraction from the sleeplessness. He's been lying here in his bed for what feels like ages, waiting for sleep, but sleep just won't come.

It's odd to be awake for so long. Dean's long had a soldier's ability to snatch sleep at any opportunity, no matter how uncomfortable the surroundings and no matter how much stress he's been under. So it's kind of ridiculous that now that he's got such a nice bed he can't seem to fall asleep at all. He glances around in the dark, squinting to see if he can make out any details of the room, but there's only a thick black inkiness, broken only by the occasional tiny winking light of a smoke detector. The window drapes must be very thick; there's no light at all leaking in from the city lights outside.

In fact it's strange being in such a nice hotel. The bed's very plush, the room's very dark, and it's very quiet. They're several stories up, and there's no sounds of traffic outside; there's no noise of late night arrivals laughing as they unload their car from a nearby parking space, no headlights shining through the window, no car doors slamming nearby like Dean's used to.

In fact, there's no noises at all from the hallway or the adjacent rooms. The only noise Dean can hear is the soft, slow sound of Sam's breathing. All the walls in this fancy hotel must have been built with sound-proofing.

Which means that if Cas calls for help, Dean probably won't be able to hear.

He worries about this for a few minutes, wishing he'd thought to give Cas the baby monitor again. Or at the very least, he should've checked to be sure Cas's phone was charged, so that Cas could text or call if he needed anything.

But then again, Cas should be fine tonight. He's been fine for several nights. It was really only that one night, the Monday night, not even a full week ago, when he'd seriously been in trouble.

Not quite a full week ago...

A week ago, I didn't even know, Dean thinks.

A week ago I had only just figured out — or, thought I'd figured out — that Cas had a boyfriend and not a girlfriend. It's Sunday night, now; last Sunday was when Dean had gone into Cas's room at the bunker. He cringes now to remember how he'd rummaged through Cas's things (the drawings, the feather... the medications). But on the other hand, that's also the only reason he'd found out Cas's secret. When he'd spotted the "Aaron" note on Cas's calendar.

It seems now like it was years ago. It's odd to recall the strange rush of mixed emotion that the "Aaron" discovery had elicited. That mingled, conflicted sensation of lost opportunity... of jealousy...

... and of hope.

Dean makes himself shut his eyes; he rolls onto his side, he tries some deep-breathing to send himself to sleep, he shifts around looking for a better position, and rubs his jaw a bit to try to make it stop hurting, but still sleep won't come.

He thinks, then, I wonder if Cas is having any trouble sleeping too?

Without even really planning it, he finds he's pushing the covers aside and sitting up on the edge of his bed, swinging his feet to the floor. He gropes around in the dark for his duffel, looking for a pair of socks. So that he can put his shoes on. So that he can go padding softly next door. Just to check on Cas quickly.

When Dean drags his duffel closer over the carpet, it makes a soft scraping noise, and Sam's breathing changes slightly. Dean knows that sound; Sam's woken up. Then there's a slight shuffling noise in the dark, rather like a hand being slipped under a pillow. Dean knows that sound too — Sam's groping for his gun (which, of course, is always under his pillow). Just in case.

"It's just me," Dean says softly. "Sorry. Didn't mean to wake you. Can't sleep."

There's a click as Sam turns on the bedside light. He yawns sleepily and blinks at Dean, who's still sitting on the edge of his own bed, leaning over with one hand on his duffel bag, as if he was just rummaging in his duffel in the middle of the night for no reason.

"Something wrong?" asks Sam.

"No, just...." says Dean. He leans over, pokes randomly at some flannel shirts in the duffel, and shrugs. "Just can't sleep."

Sam looks at him a moment. "You worried about tomorrow?"

Dean hesitates before answering.

"He'll be fine," Dean says. "It's not gonna be pretty, but he'll be fine. You're gonna get those bendy straws, right? Don't forget the bendy straws."

"I'll get the bendy straws," Sam reassures him. "And the Gatorade. And the baby wipes and saltines and all the other stuff." He studies Dean a moment, looks at the duffel, and suggests, "Why don't you go check on Cas?"

Dean pretends to consider the idea. "Yeah, maybe," he says, and he pokes at the duffel again and idly pulls out a pair of socks as if he's only just thought of putting some on. "Sure," he adds. "Good idea. I'll get some shoes on and run next door for a sec. He's probably asleep already though."

"He might be awake," says Sam. "Go and check."

"I could just text him," says Dean, glancing at his phone, which is over on the bedside table.

"No, go and check," says Sam. Dean looks at him, and Sam makes a shooing motion toward Cas's room.

"You know..." says Dean. "If he does turn out to be up, I might stay in his room a bit. Just to keep him company a little. I mean, if, um, if he doesn't mind. For like, maybe fifteen minutes or so, if he doesn't —"

"See you tomorrow, then," say Sam. He rolls over, pulls an edge of his blanket over his eyes and says, "Turn the light off when you leave, would you?"

 


 

Dean's a little nonplussed by Sam's encouragement, but it does give him the impetus to get out the door. (Without his shoes. In the end Dean slinks down the hotel hallway wearing just his pj's and a pair of wool socks hurriedly shoved on his feet. He's clutching his phone and his hotel room card in one hand, and his pistol in the other, mostly out of habit, but has nothing else.)

Cas doesn't answer the first knock on his door, and Dean knocks again and says, quietly, unsure if his voice will even carry through the door, "Cas, you up? It's me."

The door opens a tiny crack. The safety chain's in place, and Cas is peering alertly through the crack, an angel-blade at the ready in one hand. (Seems that he, like the Winchesters, has learned to be cautious about who might be knocking at his door in the middle of the night.) But when he sees it's Dean, a smile flickers onto his face and he lowers the blade, unlocks the chain and swing the door wide open. "Come in, Dean, come in," he says, with an inviting sweep of his blade. Dean inches in past the blade, suddenly feeling quite uncertain about what exactly he's going to say.

Looking around, he realizes Cas hasn't even gone to bed yet. Cas has at least changed into his sleeping clothes (a t-shirt and sweats that Dean gave him at the bunker) but the bed's untouched. It seems he's been sitting at the room's little round table, where a chair is half pushed back. There's a large book lying open on the table, and a clutter of pencils and a pad of paper, and there, too, sitting in the exact center of the table, is the little houseplant with the yellow flowers and the cheerful painted bumblebees on the pot.

Cas walks over to the table and sets his angel-blade down on the table by the book. "What can I do for you?" he asks. His smile at the door had seemed genuine enough, but as he sees Dean regarding the things on the table, he seems to raise his guard. The formal tone's back in this voice, as it had been when he'd said goodnight earlier; and that slightly steely impassive look is back in his eyes.

"Oh, nothing, I just couldn't sleep," Dean says, taking a few steps closer to set his gun and phone down. "Thought I'd just see if you were up too...." As he takes another half-step closer, he realizes three things about the items that are spread out on the little round table.

One, the big book is open to an illustration of a wing. A huge wing, fully spread. It could be some kind of bird wing, of course, an eagle or a hawk or something, but even from a brief glance Dean's sure it's an angel wing. It has just the same proportions as Cas's wings. (Or rather, the shadows of Cas's wings, which Dean's seen only a few times, but he's never forgotten the sight.)

Two, there's an actual black feather here too, lying at the base of the plant's little pot. It's propped up slightly so that one broad vane is leaning on the pot, just below the colorful bee design. It's black, it's about four inches long, and it looks very familiar.

Three, Cas has been making another drawing. The pad of paper turns out to be an artist's sketchpad, and the pencils are artist's pencils. There's a box of lots of colored pencils. The ones scattered out on the table are all in shades of black and green and yellow, for the sketch he's been working on is a still-life of the houseplant with the little black feather. It's fully outlined already, the bumblebees and the feather and the little flowers all sketched out neatly, and half of it is filled in with delicate countershading and bursts of color. Dean stares at the drawing for a long moment, a little taken aback, and then his eyes are drawn to the shining black feather.

"Is that the feather that was in your room?" Dean says, before realizing that he still hasn't quite confessed just how much he'd been rummaging through Cas's stuff. "Um... sorry, I... when I was in your room, um, I might not have mentioned, I looked in your... in your dresser."

"I know you did," says Cas.

"You do?" says Dean, a little startled.

"I felt you touch my feather," says Cas.

Dean stares at him.

"It's a feather from my wing," says Cas. "My left wing. From my last molt." He reaches past Dean, picks the feather up and places it directly on the drawing, and then he folds the sketchbook closed. The drawing and the feather both vanish from view.

Cas's feather. It's Cas' feather.

Of course it's Cas's feather.

Of course it is.

And Cas felt me touch it... This is an entirely new piece of information; angels remain connected to their feathers? Angels can feel when somebody touches one of their old feathers?

"You saved one of your feathers?" asks Dean at last, and Cas just nods. Groping for something else to ask, Dean says, at random, "And you're, uh, drawing it? With the plant?"

"It's called art therapy," Cas says briefly. Now he's gathering up all his pencils and setting them neatly in the little plastic container, and he spends a moment turning a few of them around so that their pointed ends are all facing the same direction. "They have sessions at the hospital sometimes, for the patients who are still waiting for the chemo or who are in between appointments," Cas explains, padding the pointed ends with a crumpled paper towel. He clicks the little pencil-case shut. "They bring wigs and hats and various free items, like my sweater and scarf, and sometimes they have activities. There's an art teacher who comes once a month. She suggested we draw things that we want to remember. Moments we'd like to focus on, and preserve, and... re-live, in a way, I suppose." He picks up the pencil case and the closed sketchbook (feather safely tucked inside) and sets them in his little battered suitcase nearby. He adds, "It's restful. I've been doing about one a day."

And Dean's left standing there mute.

Moments we want to remember.

Moments we'd like to preserve. To re-live.

The drawings in Cas's dresser.... some had been just pretty scenes — a deer in the fog, a bird, a bee on a flower.

But then there had been all the drawings of Dean, too.

Dean in the car, that time he'd told Cas he was family.

Dean striding toward Cas in Purgatory, greeting him with a wide, relieved smile.

Dean and Sam in the library, relaxed, their feet up on the tables.

The Impala, seen from overhead...

Sam, relaxed by a fireplace, looking into the flames... There'd been a few others of Sam, as well.

Dean sitting in a deck chair by a lake.

A burning wing, seen from over one shoulder. Had that been a memory? Why would Cas have wanted to remember that? Let alone re-live it?

Then it slowly dawns on Dean that of all Castiel's long life, apparently the primary moments he wants to "preserve" are ones that involve Dean and Sam.

Dean slowly raises his eyes to Cas's, and finds that Cas is looking him up and down with narrow-eyed scrutiny. "Why are you still awake?" Cas asks.

"Why are you?" Dean counters. His mouth is a little dry, and he has to struggle to get back into the flow of conversation.

Cas gives a short laugh. "I suppose I didn't really tell you two this," he says, "but often I stay up late the night before. It's my last good night for a while, you know.... It's hard not to want to cherish every moment. I almost always stay up later than I should." He narrows his eyes again at Dean. "You look stressed," he adds after a moment. "Is something wrong?"

Is something wrong. Dean almost laughs.

Where should he even start?

"Cas, about what Sam was asking earlier...." Dean says. He hadn't planned on this; Cas has certainly made it clear that he doesn't want to talk about it. But it just comes out. "We gotta know," Dean says.

Cas's head bows a little.

"I know," says Castiel. "I know you do. And I'm sorry I've been avoiding both your questions." His gaze drops slowly to the table, and it takes Dean a few moments to register that Cas is looking, now, at the wing illustration in the big book. Cas adds, a little regretfully, still looking at the wing illustration, "I do hope I wasn't too rude to Sam. I felt bad about it, after. I know you both mean well. And I do appreciate it. I hope you know that."

He doesn't say anything else. But throughout the whole conversation the formal tone has been slowly disappearing from his voice, and the impassive look from his face, and now Cas is starting to look sad. With one hand he reaches down and actually strokes the old illustration, letting his fingertips run along the illustrated lines of the feathers. Then he does it again; it looks almost as if he's trying to pet the wing, or feel its feathers.

A horrible idea comes into Dean's head then, and before he can stop himself he blurts out, "Wait... it's not... it' s not some kind of wing cancer, is it?"

It's a totally weird idea — especially since Cas has repeatedly referred to having "lost" his wings, as if they're gone entirely. But somehow now the idea of the wings themselves being riddled with disease is all Dean can think of. He's greatly relieved when Cas only gives a little chuckle.

"No," Cas says. "No....I don't think angel wings can even get cancer, actually. No part of an angel's true form ever does. Cancer is a, um..." He glances down at his body. "... a mortal affliction. A flaw in Creation." But when he looks back at the wing illustration, he's biting his lip, and he's blinking a little, with such a clear sorrow in his eyes now, that for an awful moment Dean's sure that Cas is about to cry.

He doesn't cry. But he says, his voice unusually hoarse now, "I almost wish it were a disease of the wings. Because my wings are already destroyed, of course, so it doesn't matter what happens to them anymore. They could even theoretically be amputated, if need be. Maybe that would be better: to have them cut away cleanly, rather than just remain in such tatters, and so useless...." He pulls his hand away from the wing illustration, and his fingers curl into a fist. Slowly, he drops his hand to his side, adding, "The old tales say that angels aren't supposed to be able to survive the loss of both the wings. But it's never been clear if that's just true. And at least, if the cancer could have been simply cut away, in a clean stroke, maybe my chances would have been better. I don't know."

Dean's chilled by the implication.

"You still, uh, have your wings, then?" Dean asks, tentatively. "I mean, are they still... Are they still attached to you, then?" He's aware this is drifting a little off-topic, but now that Cas has started talking about the cancer, suddenly all Dean really wants is to hear more about the wings instead.

Cas slips one hand under a corner of the book's cover and flips the heavy cover shut. The elegant wing illustration vanishes, and together they look down at the sober black leather cover. The Physiology of Angels, says the title, the gold-leaf lettering glinting quietly in the dim light, and only now does Dean realize it's the book that Sam brought, on their last trip to Denver. For some reason Castiel's brought it along again.

"My wings are still attached to me, yes," says Cas. His voice has gone stiff and stilted. "They are in the etheric plane, as always. But they're crippled. I won't ever fly again."

"Do you know that for sure?" says Dean.

Cas is quiet a long moment, staring down at The Physiology of Angels.

"I guess I don't, really," he says, and for the first time he sounds uncertain. "There's actually been some debate, among the angels, about whether the wings of the fallen angels might heal, with enough time. But with present realities..." He gestures down at his body. "Given my present condition, even if wings could heal, I won't have enough time to heal them in any case."

He turns toward Dean then. They're standing just a couple feet apart , and it's almost overwhelming to meet Cas's gaze directly, face to face, from so close. And it's overwhelming, as well, to see the regret and the sorrow so clear in his face. "I don't have much time, Dean. I have to accept that," Cas says.

"No," Dean says, shaking his head. "You'll have time. You got plenty of time. And your wings will be fine. Someday. You'll see."

"Dean, I don't think so," says Cas, with a slow shake of the head. There's a very gentle look in his eyes now, as if his primary concern now is just to break the bad news gently, and he says, "You will need to accept it too."

"Don't say that," Dean snaps. "Don't. Just don't. I don't have to accept a damn thing if I don't want to." But Cas is still looking at him with that steady, level gaze. The soft light of the room is catching his eyes now, highlighting the blue, and now it seems his eyes are infinite pools of sorrow that Dean could fall into if he's not careful. Fall into and be lost forever.

Now Dean's worried that he's the one who's going to cry, and he's determined to not start crying in front of Cas when Cas has so many other things to worry about, so he spins away and says roughly, "Do we have to talk about this right now?" (He's entirely forgotten that it was Dean, not Cas, who'd raised the subject in the first place.)

"No, no, of course not," say Cas hastily, and he gives an unhappy sigh. "Oh, no...." He shakes his head. "It's starting to happen as I feared it would: I've become a source of stress to you, haven't I? A source of stress, and worry...."

"Maybe," Dean says. (For there's really no point in denying it.) "Maybe, yeah. But it's a hell of a lot better than you carrying it all on your own. This is what family is for, you know. It's what we do."

"More than anything I wanted to spare you this," Cas says.

"You're worth it," Dean says flatly.

"I'm really not at all sure that I am," Cas says. "And now you're having trouble sleeping. Dammit... There must be some way I can help you relax." He starts looking all around the room now, as if searching for something that will help to magically de-stress Dean. Dean's well aware that there's some X-rated options that he could be joking about, but he seems to have lost all capacity to joke these days, so he remains quiet, watching Cas turning in place as he studies every item in the room, from the minifridge to the easy chair.

Then Cas's gaze lands on the TV. "How about a TV show?" he says, brightening, like he's sure he's found the solution. "You wanted a movie earlier, didn't you? And we never got to watch one. Let's find a show for you to watch." All of a sudden he's taking Dean by the hand, wrapping his own hand around Dean's and pulling him toward the bed. "There must be something on that you'd like, right? I know it's late, but, you seem so tense, and I'm afraid I've been worrying you, and maybe some entertainment will put your mind at ease—" Still tugging Dean toward the bed, Cas scoops the TV remote up off a side table with his other hand, and soon he's clicking his way through a few channels. Apparently the TV stations have wasted no time shifting gears to the Christmas season, for almost immediately Cas finds a late-night holiday-weekend rebroadcast of "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer." It's just started.

"This one's excellent," says Cas solemnly, pausing by the edge of the bed with Dean in tow. "It's quite touching. I've seen it before. You should watch it." He turns to Dean and says, very seriously, "It's about a juvenile caribou with a congenital nasal deformity."

"Reindeer," says Dean, who's now feeling almost too confused to laugh.

Cas is unfazed. "Well, yes, but a reindeer is, of course, a domesticated strain of caribou."

"Yeah, but the song is about a reindeer— starts Dean, but Cas interrupts (a little impatiently) with, "It's about a juvenile caribou and he has a congenital nasal deformity and he's exiled by his kin and he needs some friends. Sit down and watch."

Dean doesn't even get a chance to explain that he has, in fact, seen Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer once or twice (or twenty times), for now Cas is rearranging all the pillows on the bed, making a long double row of pillows that he lines up along the headboard. "Sit," Cas says, pushing Dean firmly onto the mattress, and now Dean is experiencing the sensation of being swept helplessly along by some sort of completely implacable oceanic tide. The tide cannot be disobeyed; Dean settles down on Cas's nest of pillows.

Dean's on top of the bedcovers, of course, and Cas slips into his now-customary place under the bedcovers, and they sit side by side against the mound of pillows.

Dean's still feeling quite shaken by the cancer discussion earlier (during which, he's slowly now realizing, Castiel once again somehow failed to provide any actual details). But Cas leans against his side, and Cas is warm and he's alive and he's right here, and eventually Dean puts an arm around him. Dean starts to relax a tiny bit, and hears himself let out a slightly shaky sigh.

"Are you feeling any better?" Cas asks.

"Actually, yeah," Dean says.

"I knew you'd like a TV show," says Castiel, a little smugly, and he leans his head on Dean's shoulder.

They watch in silent companionship as Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer unfolds with all its charmingly familiar stop-motion animation. Dean flinches, though, when they get to the part where the young reindeer are learning to fly. But Cas turns to him and says, softly, "It's okay. I already knew the plot; I knew it was about flying creatures. But flying doesn't actually work like that, and they don't even have any wings, so it's all right." He adds, as he lets his head sink back down on Dean's shoulder, "Actually I wanted to watch it because of his friendship with the elf. It's rather rare to find shows about friendships between species. And, you know..." He pauses. "The little caribou is exiled by his kin because he's different. But in the end, his difference is what they need. I suppose I can't help feeling some familiarity with the story. Though I don't think I'll ever get that sort of ending...."

Dean then spends most of the rest of the show wishing that he and Cas, and Sam too, could all just run away together to the Island of Misfit Toys.

At the end, Dean says, reluctantly, "I guess I shouldn't keep you up too much longer."

"Right, we probably should get to sleep," says Cas. "I'll get the light. Get under the covers."

Dean looks at him.

"Maybe I wasn't clear," says Cas. He's acting calm and confident, but there's a flicker of uncertainty in his eyes as he raises his chin a little and declares: "I have cancer, and I want you to get under the covers. And stay the night here." He hesitates, and adds, "I mean, that is... if you don't mind."

"I don't mind," says Dean.

 


 

 

A/N - One thing I do love about Cas, he can definitely be bold sometimes, even when he's unsure of himself.

Grant's done, I get almost two weeks off now, and I hope to give you another chapter very soon, within a couple days, so keep checking in. The next chapter continues this scene, by the way. Part 2... under the covers.

I hope you're enjoying this! If there was a particular scene you liked, please do let me know. I love to hear from you.

 

Chapter Text

Merry Christmas! Here's a Christmas gift for you all: the under-the-covers chapter. A reminder to anybody who forgot: this fic is rated Explicit.

 


 

 

The rest of the world disappears.

All those outside opinions that Dean's been worrying about — the jury-of-one's-peers, the external review, the obsessive need to find all those logical justifications for every visit to Cas's room — those considerations all, at last, evaporate. Even the awful possibility of a some sort of sub-optimal reaction from Sam fades into the background; the worry on this front is not quite gone but it's not, at the moment, a priority.

Everything goes to the back burner, completely outweighed by the simple fact that Castiel wants Dean's companionship tonight.

And what Castiel wants, Dean will provide.

It doesn't hurt that this happens to be something that Dean wants too, of course. In fact, as he kicks his wool socks off and folds his legs up to his chin (to try to maneuver the edge of the bedcover around his feet), he's aware of a self-centered sense of thrill, a greedy delight even. It's still not clear what, exactly, Castiel might conceivably want beyond mere companionship, but just to get to spend the night with him is a precious treat.

Dean has to remind himself about the chemo. And the cancer.

It ain't all fun and games here, he thinks. It's the night before chemo. Don't push it. Just keep him company.

One foot's stuck; Dean's left heel, the one closer to Cas, has somehow gotten caught in a twisted fold of the top sheet. Finally Cas sits up a little, grabs the edges of the bedding in both hands and gives an impatient yank. Everything comes free all at once, the bedcover and blanket and top sheet all lofting up together like a great warm sail over them both, loose and light and free. Dean slithers underneath and stretches his legs out, the covers settle down as soft and warm as a layer of silky cloud, Castiel's right next to Dean now, and Dean's stunned at how it all feels. The difference between covers-in-the-way and no-covers-in-the-way turns out to be like a quiet, peaceful moon compared to a blinding noontime sun. The mattress seems a mile wide; the bed's an entire realm, a whole kingdom stretching out around them, full of limitless possibility, and Castiel's a blazing beacon of warmth. He's lying stretched out along Dean's left side and he seems suddenly to have acquired the bulk and physicality of some sort of huge wild animal. Every sense Dean's got is tuned in his direction, as if it were a half-tamed panther or leopard that was lying here in bed with Dean rather than a mere human vessel, something Dean has to pay intense attention to. Cas is also radiating heat like a furnace. Dean had actually been getting pretty chilly on top of the bed while Cas has apparently been cozy and warm underneath, and the warmth feels wonderful. Paradoxically, it makes Dean shiver.

"You were getting cold," says Cas. "This is better." He turns off the bedside light.

The room's plunged into darkness. Cas shuffles around a little, the covers tug slightly, and Dean senses, rather than sees, that Cas has rolled toward Dean. Dean's lying on his back, a little afraid to make any sort of a move, but Cas curls comfortably toward Dean till his chin rests against Dean's left shoulder. Other than that they're not in contact; there's a safe couple inches between them.

Cas reaches out and rests one hand on Dean's chest, placing his palm lightly on the center of Dean's t-shirt. Right over Dean's heart.

Not-so-Innocent Bed Position #2, thinks Dean.

But Castiel doesn't move any closer. In fact he doesn't move at all. His hand is quiet on Dean's chest.

Maybe it actually is still an Innocent Bed Position, for Cas?

He's an angel, Dean reminds himself. He doesn't know what this sort of thing means to humans. Cas knows about sex, obviously, but as far as Dean's aware he's had very limited experience. It seems likely that Cas is not going to have a good handle on the subtle implications that can accompany these apparently-minor acts of physical contact. Things like, oh, chins on shoulders, and hands on chests... things that can slide a session of mere companionship into something... more.

He might have just wanted me to warm up, thinks Dean. Just that, just warm up, literally.

Relax, he instructs himself. Just keep him company. This is his last night to get any rest, after all. It's the night before chemo.

At the phrase "the night before chemo", the lines of an old Christmas poem jump to mind. But with one change:

'Twas the night before chemo, Dean thinks,

And all through the house,

Not a creature was stirring,

Not even a mouse.

Well, something's stirring, actually. Just faintly, only a twitch of possibility at the moment, but something below the waist is definitely stirring. It's totally the wrong reaction for a night before chemo. And it's more than a mouse, Dean thinks. Bigger than a mouse too, or I sure like to think so at least, and then he has to bite back a slightly hysterical laugh. He holds his breath a moment, lets it out carefully, and commands himself, once again, to relax.

Cas's hand shifts on Dean's chest.

"You're tense," Cas says.

"Oh," says Dean. "Um... just... settling in."

"Are you still cold?" Cas says.

"No," says Dean. In fact he's starting to feel more like he's overheating.

"Oh, okay," Cas says. "If you do get cold, though, we might be able to share body warmth. That might help."

I should've said I was freezing, Dean thinks.

"Are you comfortable?" Cas says. It's odd to hear him talking from so close; his low voice is mere inches away from Dean's ear, and with the way Cas's chin is resting on Dean's shoulder, the rumbly sound of his words goes thrumming right through Dean's bones.

"Yeah, I'm fine," says Dean, who's still lying extremely still, now hoping to avoid alerting Castiel about certain physical reactions that may not be what Cas wants. And that really are probably not the best idea on a night before chemo.

"Are you..." Cas hesitates, and his breathing pauses a few times, as if he's trying to ask something but is unsure how to word it. At last Cas says, "Angels sometimes rest with close companions, in nests, rather like this. Especially during molt. But, for humans, with the way that you sleep, with... your other habits, I'm not sure if this will be comfortable for you—"

"It's fine," says Dean. "I'm comfortable."

"I meant sexual habits," Cas says bluntly. "I'm aware, of course, that humans do both activities, sleeping and also sometimes sexual congress, in a nest such as this — " He stops and clears his throat. "Bed, I meant to say. Bed, obviously. Anyway, I'm not sure of the exact protocols. I don't mean to cross any lines that might make you uncomfortable."

"I'm comfortable," lies Dean.

"My hand's all right here?" Cas presses lightly on Dean's chest.

"Yeah, totally. It's fine, Cas."

"Okay. I won't get closer than this," Cas assures Dean. (This is a bit of a bummer to hear.) "I just wanted to be sure you were warm enough." And he goes silent, for what seems a very long time.

The quiet minutes tick by. The bed is vast and wide and warm, and Dean's instructing himself, This is innocent, it's all totally innocent, he just wants a companion, an angel companion, that's all this is, it's just an angel thing about wanting a nest companion.... I gotta read that angel book and see if has anything about nest companions....

And if that's all that Castiel wants, then that's what Dean will provide.

Dean tries to concentrate on neutral sensations. He makes himself note, dispassionately, the pocket of coolness far down in the bed at his feet; he considers the perfect softness of the mattress (it's one of those fancy pillow-top kinds, and it seems to be almost molding itself around both Dean and Castiel). The pillow's got just the right soft fluffiness, the sheets have that silky feel that Dean suspects must have something to do with "thread count", and everything's got a clean, fresh smell. We should splurge on hotels like this more often, Dean thinks. But none of this is very successful at diverting his thoughts; he's still exquisitely alert to Castiel's presence, the weight of his hand, and his tantalizing proximity.

After a time, Cas spreads his fingers over Dean's heart.

Dean closes his eyes.

"I can feel your heart beat," says Castiel. "You know, I used to be able to feel your heart beat, like this, whenever I had a wing on you. But I didn't have to be touching you on your chest. I could feel it from anywhere nearby. When I had my wings...."

He stops. For the space of several breaths he's silent. His fingers have tensed and curled slightly, and each fingertip's now making a little dot of pressure through Dean's t-shirt.

"Wait..." Dean says slowly. "When did you 'have a wing' on me?"

"Oh, many times," says Cas, and there's a tiny motion in his arm and in the covers, as if he's shrugging. "I shielded you with them whenever I was able to, of course, during battles or attacks, if we were standing close enough. Sam too, obviously. Didn't you know that?" (No, I did not know that, thinks Dean.) Cas goes on, "They were usually still in the etheric plane. In those situations I rarely had enough energy, or enough advance warning either, to bring them over. But they can provide a small degree of protection even so. And then also.... occasionally I'd just..." He hesitates; there's a tentativeness to his voice, as if he's a little embarrassed, as he adds, "Well, sometimes I've brushed you accidentally with a wing. Like, often that would happen when I was flying you somewhere." He hesitates again and repeats, now sounding a little defensive, "It was accidental."

"That's okay," says Dean.

"It was almost always accidental," says Cas. "But, you see, the thing is, whenever I had a wing on you I could get such a clear read on your physical state. On your injuries, on whatever healing needed to be done. The times when I've healed you I almost always put a wing on you — just briefly, from the ether, I mean — in addition to touching you with my hand. Angels always have better sensation with their feathers than with their vessel's hands. It's actually our main sense of touch."

Curious despite the abundant other distractions, Dean asks, "What's that like?"

Cas takes a slow breath, and he moves his hand a little, sliding it back and forth a few inches over Dean's t-shirt, as if he's trying to adjust to using just one hand, and no wings at all. "It's hard to explain," he says. "It's a sense humans don't have, and it's one I'm lacking now."

Dean turns his head toward him a little. "Can't you still put your wings on me now?"

Cas hesitates. "I could, but... they're ruined. It wouldn't be right. I keep them well tucked now, always. It wouldn't be right to put a ruined wing on you...."

Dean's taking a breath to say it would actually be just fine, but Cas adds, "And besides, the feathers are gone. I don't have the same sensations without them. With the feathers, it was if I could see your whole body all at once. See through it, almost."

"Like... x-ray vision?" Dean says. "X-ray wings?"

A soft chuckle from Castiel. "Not a bad way to put it, actually," he says, "It's a fair analogy. But the mode of perception is far less material than that, less physical. What I really would see is the way the energy is flowing through you. It's like shades of energy, and of spirit." Cas reaches out then, shifting his hand from Dean's torso over to Dean's right arm. Unerringly, his fingers brush the exact site where the Mark of Cain had once been.

His touch is delicate, his fingertips cool against Dean's skin.

"I used to be able to see what had been damaged," Cas murmurs, "And how to put it right...."

The past tense that he's using seems to hang in the air: I used to be able to.

"It feels different now," Cas says, and he slides his hand back onto Dean's chest. "But, you know, human hands have their advantages too. Some senses are gone now, others are muted, but there are new sensations too. Did I ever tell you, the first human sensation I felt was that of pain? When I first fully lost my grace, when I fell, I injured myself right away. Scraped my hand." He runs his hand softly over Dean's shirt, back and forth from right to left. "This hand, my left. Just from a clumsy fall, in my very first moments here. It was minor, but the pain was so... bright! So commanding. So loud, really. Human sensations can be so amazingly strong. Overwhelming. Though... fortunately there are a few sensations that are good ones, aren't there?"

Dean bites his lip, staring up at the ceiling in the dark. It's impossible to tell whether Cas is deliberately guiding the conversation this way.

"Yeah," Dean finally says, carefully. "There's some good sensations too."

"It's remarkable, really, what a fine degree of sensation the human hand can provide..." Cas murmurs, and again he slides his hand across Dean's chest, gliding back and forth over the t-shirt. "It's not like my wings... but... I must say... it has its own charms...."

Once again Dean has to order himself to calm down. Whatever Cas is doing, whatever he's up to, it can't be what it seems; it can't be what Dean's thinking. All the objections and counter-arguments come parading through Dean's head: Cas is an angel, he's practically asexual anyway — either that or he's straight — either asexual or straight but not gay, and besides he's not even human, and this isn't even his own body, not to mention he's sick, he has frickin' chemo tomorrow; he just needs a friend, he just wants a nest-companion. Surely he's just exploring the sensory capabilities of human hands? He's just missing his wings, he can't possibly be—

"Your breathing's accelerated," murmurs Cas.

"Uh," says Dean. "Yeah. It does that sometimes."

"I see," says Cas. "Does that mean this feels good for you?"

There is no way Dean is going to lie about this one. "Yes," says Dean, right away. "Yes. This is, ah, really nice actually."

"Oh, good," says Cas. "Because I'm enjoying it too. It's most pleasant to have you here. But your shirt's probably dulling the sensations, isn't it?" — and with that he slides his hand right under Dean's shirt, working his way under the hem and pulling the shirt up a little till he gets his hand on Dean's chest. Again he places his hand directly over Dean's heart. It's exactly where he'd been before, but without the shirt in the way, the skin-to-skin contact is electrifying.

"Your breathing's accelerating again," comments Cas, as he begins gliding his hand around on Dean's chest. "Your heart rate too, I believe."

"Yeah, it's gonna keep doing that probably," says Dean. "Don't worry about it. You just... keep... ah... checking out those sensations."

Cas spends a while at it.

His hand doesn't go anywhere sensitive. That is, he doesn't go below the waist. (Rather to Dean's regret.) But he certainly goes everywhere else. He moves slowly, sliding his fingers with excruciating laziness back and forth. His fingertips drift all over Dean's chest, up and down and side to side, exploring every inch.

Partway through this Dean sits up to yank his shirt off. He throws it somewhere completely random in the dark and lies right back down. Dean hadn't announced he was going to do it, and since he's not quite sure what to say about it, he says nothing. Cas, too, makes no comment, but his hand starts moving in broad sweeps now. He still is staying to the innocuous areas only, but now he has more freedom, and he traces his way over Dean's collarbones... over one bicep... down Dean's arm again... back up the arm... He traces every rib.

He drifts right over the nipples. Dean can't restrain a shiver. It's starting to seem very important to figure out, or maybe even just to ask, whether Castiel might possibly interested in continuing all this exploration below the waist.

But then Cas starts exploring Dean's face.

He runs two fingertips lightly across Dean's cheeks; he goes down the line of Dean's nose, up his forehead, around his eyes. He's moving very slowly now. Cas pauses, briefly, at Dean's forehead, two fingertips touching Dean's skin, as if testing out the old healing-touch that he used to use.

Nothing happens. Cas lets out a small sigh, and his hand moves on.

Next his hand traces through Dean's hair. He runs his hand over Dean's head, still move with exquisite slowness. There's something so gentle and caring in his touch, that Dean finds his breath catching, and Dean realizes with surprise that he's very near to tears. It now doesn't even seem to matter if this turns into something sexual or not; either way, Dean just wants it to continue.

Dean dearly wants to start reciprocating, too, but Cas seems almost in a trance and Dean's somewhat afraid to break the spell. After a few more minutes of head-stroking, though, it becomes imperative that Dean get his own hands into contact with Cas somehow, so wriggles around till he manages to get one arm under Cas's head and around his shoulders. Cas doesn't understand at first, and doesn't lift up his upper body to help, and Dean has to almost to shove his arm under Cas's shoulders by sheer force, as if excavating a path into the mattress. But with a little rearranging it works out.

"Oh, I see," says Cas; now his head pillowed on Dean's shoulder.

"Yeah, this is a classic position," says Dean, turning his head toward Cas till his cheek's resting against Cas's monkey hat. "And now I can get to you better, see? Return the favor a little." Dean starts running his own hand over Cas's back and up to the nape of his neck.

Cas goes very still. There's a sharp intake of breath when Dean brushes his hand across the nape of Cas's neck, and the next time Dean's hand sweeps over Cas's shoulders, Cas actually shivers. Only then does Dean remember those odd bruises that had been visible on Cas's shoulders and back, that time in the shower.

"Wait, is this hurting you? Are you sore?"

"No, this area's fine now," murmurs Cas. Dean strokes Cas's shoulders again, more carefully this time, and Castiel shivers again.

It occurs to Dean, then, whether this counts as touching Cas's wings. In some ill-defined transdimensional way.

"This okay?" Dean asks, and Cas nods, vigorously, against Dean's shoulder.

Cas remains quiet for a while as Dean continues running his hand back and forth across Cas's shoulders, occasionally drifting up onto Cas's neck. It seems clear that these two areas mean something to Cas, or are doing something to him at least; he does that little shiver almost every time Dean strokes his shoulder-blades. And whenever Dean gets to the nape of the neck Castiel seems to relax, his head sinking more heavily onto Dean's shoulder, almost always with a quiet sigh.

"You like this?" Dean asks. Cas nods.

Dean ventures, "Am I, like... am I getting near your wings or anything?"

Again Castiel nods, without speaking.

"And that's okay?"

Another nod. So Dean keeps doing it.

After another minute or so Cas clear his throat. "I should perhaps tell you," he says, "that, um, these areas that you're touching, it's, um... It's where nest-companions tend to preen each other. The feathers at the back of the head especially. It's hard to preen there on one's own so we assist each other. I mean, I know I don't have feathers there now, not in this form, but it still carries that connotation."

"What, does it mean something?" says Dean. A tantalizing thought strikes him, and he adds, a little hopefully, "It's not, like, a turn-on or something, is it?"

Cas shakes his head. "Not a turn-on in the sense that you think of it, no. We don't function that way. Our true forms aren't built with the capacity for that sort of arousal. Preening at the back of the neck is more like... " He's quiet a moment, thinking. "Well, it's soothing. Comforting. And... " He hesitates here, and Dean feels him tense slightly. At last Cas says, "I guess I should probably tell you that among angels, preening in that location is generally regarded as a sign of affection."

He's a little tense now, as if he's expecting Dean to remove his hand. "I guess you should know that," he adds.

Of course Dean doesn't remove his hand; of course what Dean does instead is shift his hand fully onto the back of Cas's head, running his fingers up under the edge of the monkey-hat and stroking his skin softly. Almost all the hair in this area is gone now, but Cas's skin is very soft, and Dean caresses him there, gently, over and over.

"You don't have to do this," Cas whispers.

"What if I want to do it?" Dean whispers back, and they lie like that for a while, Dean stroking the back of Cas's neck while Castiel seems to almost melt in Dean's arms.

This all seems to be going very well, so after another minute or so Dean gathers up his courage and asks, trying to make it sound matter-of-fact, "Anything else you want to do? I know it's late, but if you had anything else in mind—"

Cas is already nodding, and his left hand shifts on Dean's bare chest. It starts sliding down. Dean freezes. Down, down goes Cas's hand, gliding down slowly, to the waistband of Dean's sweatpants. Cas doesn't even hesitate; he worms his hand right under the waistband and slides his hand lower still, and then he's got his hand directly on Dean's cock. Which is not erect exactly — the long, meditative minutes of the "preening" have been sending Dean down into a quite peaceful state — but Dean can't restrain a little gasp as Cas takes hold. A moment later, while Dean's still trying to take in the fact that Cas has gone directly to Dean's cock without the slightest hint of shyness or hesitation, Castiel starts feeling at Dean's balls.

After a moment Dean realizes that Cas seems to be exploring the anatomy. He's tracing out the shapes of things. Cockhead, cockshaft, balls, upper thighs — he goes over all of it, every part, every inch; and all with that same air of gentle care as Cas had used earlier on Dean's face. Weirdly, it's still totally unclear if this is intended as sexual or not, but whatever Cas's intent, of course the hard-on is returning. After just a few more moments of anatomical exploration, Dean's got a full erection and Cas calmly shifts to exploring his way up and down the cockshaft. It's getting a little awkward now — Dean's increasingly-stiff cock is now stuck along the left leg of the sweatpants, pointing down. Cas shifts Dean's cock around till it's pointing up toward the waistband.

He cups the shaft and Dean's balls in one hand-hold.

He squeezes, lightly; Dean lets out a hiss.

Cas wraps his fingers around the shaft, traces the pad of his thumb lightly over Dean's cockhead, and starts stroking the shaft up and down.

His intent seems crystal clear now, but nonetheless Dean feels like he ought to check.

"So, you, you, uh, you wanna jerk me off or something?" Dean finally asks.

Cas's hand doesn't pause. "Honestly, Dean," he says, huskily, into Dean's ear, "I thought you would have figured that out by now."

"Yeah.... just...." says Dean. (Dean's having to concentrate now to get his words out without any gasping.) "Just doublechecking. Just wanna be sure about... uh!" (Cas has just run his thumb over Dean's cockhead again.) "... about where we're going here."

"I want to bring you to orgasm," says Castiel.

"Okay," says Dean. "Okay, that's fine, that's...." (his breath's coming in uneven hitches) "... that's a good plan. No objection."

If that's what Castiel wants... Well then. That's what Dean will provide. But there's one more layer to get rid of. First the bedcovers, then the shirt, now the sweatpants. Dean arches his back a little to work the sweatpants down off his hips, and kicks them off his legs entirely, down to the foot of the bed. Cas waits till Dean's settled back into place and then goes right back to work.

For all Cas's boldness, though, he's a little unskilled, and soon Dean needs firmer pressure, and faster movement. "Harder," Dean says, almost in a grunt, and he wraps his right hand over Cas's to demonstrate. A little pre-cum starts to flow; Dean adds a little of his own spit and he starts to work Cas's hand up and down. It's only been a few minutes and already Dean knows he's getting lost in it all; the sensations are so good, and the need for more, more, more has become so urgent, that Dean's soon using Cas's hand like a sex toy, gripping Cas's fingers hard and working them up and down ferociously. At one point Cas flinches slightly and Dean realizes his left arm has somehow clamped very tight around Cas's shoulders, and that he's hanging on to Cas for dear life — right over those bruises! Or over the invisible wings, maybe. "Sorry, sorry," Dean gasps, forcing his arm to relax.

"That's quite all right," says Cas. By now he's getting the hang of the rhythm and he takes over the rhythm of the jerking. He adds a little of his own spit, spitting into his hand, and spreading it over Dean's cock. This is intensely exciting and Dean's cock is rock-hard now. Dean's sinking into it, all his focus on his own sensations, when all at once he realizes how selfish this is: Cas is jerking off Dean instead of the other way around. And this is all wrong, for it's all for Dean's pleasure, and it's Cas doing all the work.

"Wait, no, I gotta take care of you—" Dean starts to say, already trying to twist around to reach his right hand over to Cas's crotch. But Cas grabs Dean's hand with his own right hand, pinning it across Dean's chest, and with his other he continues jerking Dean's cock.

"This is what I want," Cas says, right into Dean's ear, in such a throaty, husky voice it sends a shiver right down Dean's spine. "Tonight, I want to do this for you. Just let me do it, okay?"

"Okay..." says Dean. "Okay— ah — okay—" He soon has to give up any other attempts at speech when Cas shifts into an erratic rhythm that Dean's never shown him, sets of rapid jerks at Dean's preferred tempo that are interrupted, very unpredictably, by an excruciating pause of about one or two seconds, during which Cas's hand goes absolutely still on Dean's cock. The first time this happens, the pause is completely maddening; Dean groans with frustration, twisting his hips and trying to thrust into Cas's hand, desperate for motion. But a second later Cas's hand starts moving again and it feels, somehow, twice as exciting as before, twice as wonderful; Dean can't help letting out a groan. Cas keeps doing the little pauses, and each time the sensations ratchet upwards, like a roller coaster car creeping up the first big hill.

Soon Dean's cock's like iron. It feels red-hot, ridiculously hard; it's throbbing almost painfully. Cas spits into his hand again and spreads the spit over Deans cockhead and Dean almost cries out.

"I'm— really close—" Dean manages to grunt. "You should probably— grab some tissues or something—"

"Oh, wait, I've heard about another option," says Cas. "I'm sure you know of it. I haven't tried it myself though. Wait, let me give this a try—" He dives down under the covers, squirming around to rearrange himself, sprawling out at right angles to Dean. Thank god we got the king-sized bed, Dean thinks, as he pushes the covers down to give Cas some air (besides, Dean is definitely overheating now). There's just enough time during this rearranging for the imminent orgasm to fade a little bit. And then Cas's mouth is on Dean's cock.

Dean has to turn his head into a pillow to try to muffle his moans. It turns out not to matter at all that Cas is clearly inexperienced at this. His pressure's tentative, and he's only got the cockhead in his mouth and none of the shaft, but none of that matters in the least, for his mouth, even if just on Dean's cockhead, is burning hot and silky wet. And most of all it's Cas, and Dean's just learned that Cas has never blown anybody before and as it dawns on him that he's going to be Cas's first, he nearly comes right away. He makes himself count backwards from ten to try to buy a little time. "That's so good," he grunts to Cas, wanting to give some feedback, any feedback. "S'good, s'good, s'good—" Cas does a few exploratory head bobs, and he starts to take in a little more of the shaft on each bob. Dean's got a death grip now on the poor pillow with his right hand. His other hand's down on Cas's head caressing the monkey-hat, and it's taking every bit of self-control he can summon up not to just shove Cas's head all the way down, not to start pounding his mouth like crazy. Let him set the pace, let him get comfortable, Dean's chanting at himself. Another inch of cockshaft disappears into Cas's mouth, then another, then another, and each move feels unbelievable. Dean's groaning and gasping with every move now, and his balls begin to tighten up incrementally, everything going hotter and harder with every head-bob. Dean grunts, "I'm close, so close, I'm so close—" He's desperate for release now, nearly keening with need, his feet thrashing in the sheets, clutching the pillow for dear life.

Cas's tongue swirls over Dean's cockhead, firm and hot and silky; Dean nearly shouts into the pillow. Another tongue-swirl and Dean's cock gives an exquisite, dry, preliminary twitch and Dean shouts again, his hips thrusting involuntarily up into Cas's mouth. A third tongue-swirl and that's the end; Dean convulses, hard, curling up, his whole torso coming up off the mattress, and his cock starts spurting into Cas's burning-hot mouth.

The orgasm wrings its way through him, spasm after spasm. Dean thrashes on the bed, bucking helplessly, groaning with every spurt as Castiel sucks him dry.

Cas rides Dean through it all. He's swallowing everything, and even after it's mostly ended Cas stays there, his mouth still on Dean's softening cock. He holds Dean in his mouth for a very long time, all through the last faint erratic twitches, and longer still, through the nearly-painful hypersensitive phase (Cas seems to sense that this is a delicate time; he goes very still, his tongue quiet along Dean's shaft, a soft and velvety and incredibly soothing warmth). He holds Dean's cock longer still, all through the slow minutes of afterglow as Dean catches his breath,

It's a new sensation for Dean; he's never had a partner give his cock quite such attention for so long after orgasm, and it's blissful. Not to mention it's nice to feel that Castiel wants to keep holding on, that he must be enjoying the whole process and wasn't just aiming at the single moment of orgasm.

Several minutes have slipped by; Dean's caressing Cas's shoulders now with both hands, spending a great deal of time at the back of his head the nape of his neck.

Twas the night before chemo, Dean thinks, And all through the house... Something's definitely stirring... much more than a mouse.

Then Dean really remembers about the chemo.

And the nausea. The nausea that's coming tomorrow.

"Oh, god, please tell me you're not going to get a taste aversion from this," Dean blurts out. "Please. Please."

Cas resurfaces from the blankets, and he clicks on the bedside light. He wipes his mouth with one hand as he says, "Does that mean you'd like me to do this again sometime?"

"Definitely yes," says Dean. "But, Cas, don't you see, you've tasted me now, and you're going to be sick tomorrow. What if the taste thing happens? Blow jobs won't start making you sick, will they?" (The thought is horrifying.)

"I already thought about that," says Cas. "The night before is usually perfectly safe. Just to be on the safe side, I was planning to go brush my teeth. So that the dominant flavor when I fall asleep — and tomorrow when I wake up — will be that of toothpaste."

Dean sits up and nearly shoves him out of bed. "Go brush your teeth right now," he orders. "Brush them really well. Promise. Use mouthwash. And floss. Brush your tongue, too. Maybe eat something. Something with a different taste."

"Something with a taste other than semen?"

"Exactly," says Dean, shoving Cas again. "Please. I've got some gum—" He looks around. "Oh, damn, it's next door, I'll run and get it—"

"Dean, it's all right, really. I've got some mouthwash that has a very strong wintergreen flavor. I'm confident this won't be a problem. Also, anything I eat before sleep is usually fine. The sleep seems to provide a psychological dividing line; as long as I get some sleep before the nausea hits, it'll work out."

"Okay, then, we have to get you to sleep immediately," says Dean. Cas gives him a rather self-satisfied smile, and finally slips off the bed to pad his way to the bathroom.

Dean flops back on the bed, pulls the covers up over himself and stares at the ceiling.

I didn't know how much I wanted this, he thinks. He'd known, to some degree, that it was a fantasy, of course. But the reality is a hundred times better. And a hundred times more addicting, apparently, for now all Dean wants is more of this, all night, every night, Cas by his side every time.

And I really, really want to return the favor, he realizes.

Cas returns to the bed, crawls right back into the bed next to Dean and turns the light off.

"I'd like to take care of you too," says Dean, and he's already reaching out toward Cas, sliding a hand to his waist and trying to slide it downward. "We could do it quick, it'll just take ten minutes—"

But again Cas catches hold of his hand.

"I would like nothing better," whispers Castiel, as he folds Dean hand in both his own, and sets it carefully on Dean's waist. "But... I..." he hesitates. "I've got some bruises... Some surgical wounds, some other issues. It's not fully healed; I have to be careful. And, as you just pointed out, I really should get some sleep. There won't be any sleep tomorrow night, after all. I just wanted to do that for you while I still could. I didn't dare wait any longer... I hope you understand."

It crashes down on on Dean then: Cas has chosen, deliberately, to spend the last moments of his last good evening trying to make Dean feel good. Cas has cancer, Cas has chemo tomorrow, Cas thinks he's not going to live long enough for his wings to heal, Cas thinks he has limited time... and he wants to make Dean feel good.

Dean rolls toward Castiel in the dark and wraps both arms around him, kissing his cheek and his nose and his forehead, and the top of his hat. (Dean wants to kiss him on the mouth, too, of course; but he catches a whiff of Cas's wintergreen mouthwash and remembers, at the last second, about the taste aversion. Best not to risk it.) Castiel doesn't react immediately to the kissing — he doesn't seem to have an instinct to kiss back. But right away his hands go up to the back of Dean's neck and his fingers start stroking through Dean's hair again.

A sign of affection, Dean remembers, and he shifts one of his hands to Cas's neck, and starts running the other across the his shoulderblades (where, he now suspects, Cas's wings lie folded, in their little pocket-dimension). Cas gives a shaky gasp, and leans against Dean, curling up against him, in full contact from head to foot now as Dean caresses his neck over and over.

Cas relaxes by degrees; his breathing steadies, and slows. At long last he falls asleep, but even after that Dean continues to stroke him at the back of the neck, trying to preen the nonexistent feathers, and trying to caress Castiel's invisible, ruined, wings.

 


 

 

A/N - In the original plan for the fic it was going to take another couple weeks for Dean and Cas to get to this point, but it started to become clear that they both are in a very carpe-diem frame of mind. And Cas, especially, decided on his own to just go for it (he would have gone for it whether or not Dean had given him that little verbal invitation). Castiel in this fic seems to have his own intentions, no matter what my original plans may be.

I was unsure also originally how explicit to go; whether to go hard-core a la A Room Of One's Own, or keep it subtle as in Flight. As the fic has unfolded, though, it's become clear that this story shouldn't, and can't, pull any punches. Every physical detail is in here — all the awful details of the nausea and the chemo are laid out in full, and so it seemed all the details of the good times should be in here as well. It seemed it wouldn't be fair to Dean and Cas to take them through all the bad parts in such 3D Technicolor without giving them the good parts too. Love is love through good times and bad, and the details are their own kind of truth.

The fic continues to unfold at its own pace. The real-life calendar has gotten ahead of it, but that's okay (especially since this chapter felt like a Christmas chapter anyway! Even though in fic time they're still 3 weeks before Christmas, this was the best present Dean could ever have gotten). I'm continuing to let it go at its own speed. There seems no way to rush it; every scene takes so much rewriting! But I think I'll have another chapter next weekend.

I hope you're all having a wonderful holiday. Many thanks for all your encouragement along the way, and I hope you enjoyed this chapter.

Chapter Text

A/N - Posting this in a hurry just as I'm getting booted out of my favorite writing cafe - they're closing early for New Year's. Apologies in advance for any typos, I'm now crouched outside the cafe in subfreezing temps (am literally standing in a snowdrift) trying to post this before they turn off their modem, ha ha. Typos will be fixed later!

 


 

Dean wakes very early in a state of blissful comfort.

In his half-awake doze he's aware at first only of a sense of serene warmth that seems to be all around him. There's even three or four different kinds of warmth: there's a steady, reassuring warmth behind his back, there's a comfortably heavy line of warm pressure that's lying across his ribs, and there's a gentle puffing heat that's happening every few seconds or so on the back of Dean's neck.

And mixed through it all is an almost imperceptible sensation of some kind of overall embrace, a gentle radiance that's wrapped around Dean's entire upper body like some kind of cape.

He opens his eyes, blinks around in the dark, and sees he's in a dim hotel room. But there's no second bed in sight; where's Sam? Realization comes a moment later: ah yes, the plush hotel, the second room — Cas's room. The warmth behind him is Castiel; the comfortable weight across his ribs is Cas's arm; Cas's hand is even tucked up so that it rests right on Dean's heart. And the soft puffing feeling behind him is Cas's breath. Cas seems to have his mouth almost directly on Dean's skin, in fact, as if he'd been kissing Dean on the back of the neck and had fallen asleep in mid-kiss.

Yep, this is another case of full-on spooning... but this time, it's Castiel who's spooning Dean. And there is definitely no bedcover in the way, and, how had they ended up in this position, exactly?

The memory of last night comes blazing back then, and it's so vivid and unbelievable that it takes Dean's breath away. At first Dean's even sure it must have been a dream. Surely it can't have been real? He folds one hand over Cas's as he tries to figure it out: Surely it must have been some sort of fantasy that had only played out in a dream? But Dean is most definitely under the bedcovers right now, and not on top of them. Not only that, but he also seems to be totally naked, which seems like a little bit of a clue. (Though Cas, in contrast, still seems to have his own sleeping clothes on.). There's even a large cloth lump down at the foot of the bed, pressed up against some of Dean's toes, that he's pretty sure is his crumpled-up sweatpants. And he remembers, very clearly, the moment when he'd kicked them off.

It was real. It really happened.

Best of all is the realization that it was Cas who made it happen.

It's Castiel who took the lead, every step of the way. Dean, in fact, had been absurdly paralyzed for much of the opening phase, far too nervous about screwing things up with Cas to be able to even think of how to make a first move. (Thinking back on it all now, he's even cringing a little, for he's fairly sure it's the clumsiest and most unsure he's ever been, even given that new relationships always tend to be a little awkward at the start.) The stakes had felt terrifyingly high, the risks extreme. Thank god at least one of us has some guts, Dean thinks. Cas made it happen. Cas chose it, actively, which means it was what Cas wanted and not just Dean.

Cas wants this too, Cas wants this too, Dean thinks, and as he takes it all in, lying there in the semi-dark holding Cas's hand to his chest, it's almost making him giddy now.

It's as if a shuttered window has somehow been flung wide open and the sunshine is pouring in. And now something's blooming, some long-knotted, long-frozen bud that's been waiting, patiently, in darkness all these years. Dean can practically feel it expanding and unfurling within him, and the sense of relief and rightness is overwhelming.

It slowly dawns on him, as he lies there with Cas, that there is no need at all to fight it anymore.

There's just no hiding it now. Not from Cas and not from himself. There's simply no doubt at all now. The green light has been given, the starting gun's been fired, the sky's the limit. And it seems so clear now to Dean how intensely he's been craving Castiel's touch all along. It's so ridiculously obvious now that it almost makes him laugh, to think back on how desperately he's been wanting it — and how miserable he's been while trying to hide it all away.

There'll have to be the telling-Sam thing, of course, which is still downright terrifying but can be dealt with later. Right now Dean's much more interested in thinking about all the things he and Cas might be able to do together. More sex, much more, seems like it should be the very first item of consideration, and Dean's almost licking his lips as he assesses the likely menu. Tons more blow jobs for sure, mountains of blow jobs, obviously, for starters. That Cas's very first blow job should have felt so incredibly fantastic, even despite his initial clumsiness, bodes very well for the future; and there's so much Dean wants to show him! So many tips and tricks, so many interesting techniques and types of caresses; those tricks of places to lick and ways to apply pressure, all the delightful nuances of friction and speed and timing and pacing.... and it'll definitely go both ways next time, of course. Dean's actually only very rarely been the blow-er himself (he has about a thousand times more experience as the blow-ee), and he's a little startled to discover that it's something he's very much looking forward to.

In fact surely the very first thing that needs to happen next is that Castiel needs to be given his very own blow job. Has he even ever had one? Does he even have any idea how intensely amazing it feels?

Not to mention there's a whole other orifice too to explore (which Dean's investigated with female partners, quite a few times really, but never with a male one). This thought, too, is intensely intriguing. Let's see, we'll need some lube right away, Dean's thinking now.

And next he realizes, with almost a physical lurch of surprise, that they haven't actually even kissed yet! Somehow they entirely skipped kissing, last night. Or, more precisely, Castiel skipped kissing, for some reason. (Dean had just been following his lead.) Could it be that Cas doesn't really know about human kissing? Well, he must know about it... but does he get it, at an intuitive level? He must have at least kissed that April chick at some point... but of course April had been trying to assassinate him and all, which possibly might have affected the whole feel of that evening. Maybe Cas has never experienced any really good kissing?

All at once Dean is burning with the need for a serious make-out session. What does Cas's mouth even taste like? What do his lips feel like, his tongue, what's he like as a kisser? Dean doesn't even know yet! This needs to be rectified immediately, so Dean starts wriggling gently around to face Cas. Cas is still asleep, and once Dean gets a look at him, the first thing that catches Dean's eye in the dim light is the wide white mouth of the monkey on Cas's hat.

Cas never took off the monkey hat last night, not even once. All the way through that incredibly hot experience, all the way through that fantastic blow job, he kept that absurd hat on the entire time.

There's a reason he kept it on, of course.

Somehow Dean had forgotten till now.

It feels like a physical blow to remember that today is not, after all, going to be one of those wonderful, exciting Morning-After days of a new relationship. There'll be no wild morning sex, no lazy brunch, no slightly-awkward transition to domesticity; there'll be no second night of bliss, not tonight anyway. Cas will not be getting a blow job today at all, nor tonight either, and neither will Dean.

And there'll be no making out. At all. Because today is Chemo Day.

 


 

Dean spends the next two minutes gradually inching both his arms around Cas's head. He's trying to do it so extremely slowly and gently, so that Castiel never wakes. Dean's phone alarm hasn't gone off yet, which means it's not time to get up yet; and every single minute of additional sleep that Castiel can get right now seems extremely valuable, like a precious currency that Cas needs to save up for tonight. So, though Dean still dearly wants to kiss him, and though he can't help thinking wistfully of the morning-blow-jobs that could have been, he settles for embracing Cas instead, rearranging his arms around Cas with as much caution as if he were de-fusing a bomb. He succeeds — Cas never wakes — and then spends the next twenty minutes lying very still with Cas in his arms, holding him while he sleeps.

During all the slow rearranging, Dean again has the odd sensation, several times, of some kind of gentle warmth that keeps shifting around across his upper shoulder and arm. It's barely perceptible now; it feels like a loose corner of bedsheet might be lying across his shoulder, maybe tented up a little so that he can barely feel it, just enough to trap some body heat.

But when he glances at his shoulder, there's nothing there. His shoulder's bare. Nothing's touching it, and nothing's above it.

It's a little puzzling, but it's not top priority. Dean ignores it and returns his attention to Cas. But a few minutes later, he allows himself a very light stroking motion across Cas's shoulderblades. Cas gives a slight shiver, much as he had last night. Simultaneously with the shiver, there's the faintest of fluttering sensations in the air across Dean's shoulder.

Dean goes still, thinking.

Cas shifts slightly, nuzzling his face down into Dean's chest. His arm tightens across Dean's waist; just as his arm tightens, the warmth across Dean's shoulders somehow seems to tighten too.

Sometimes I've brushed you accidentally with a wing.

Dean can still hear the slightly embarrassed tone in Cas's voice.

It was almost always accidental, Cas had added (and only now does Dean think to wonder why Cas had said "almost" always).

They're usually in the etheric plane, but they provide a slight degree of protection, even so...

They're ruined. I keep them well tucked now, always. It wouldn't be right to put a ruined wing on you.

Now Dean almost doesn't want Castiel to wake at all, for he's suddenly become certain that this faint and puzzling "warmth" that seems to be lying across Dean's shoulders might be an actual wing. Or at least some sort of wing-related aura.

And he's fairly sure Cas would only do this in his sleep.

I don't give a damn if they're "ruined," Dean thinks. I want your wings on me, ruined or not. He closes his eyes, and holds Castiel, in the dark, concentrating fiercely on that faint, barely perceptible warmth across his shoulders.

 


 

At last Cas shifts, and stirs, and yawns. He's coming awake on his own. Dean's been thinking about what the best sort of "good morning" might be. A good-morning kiss seems off the table for Chemo Day, but of course now Dean knows of another option that might (from Cas's point of view) even be better. So Dean shifts one hand up to the back of Cas's neck, slides his hand under the edge of the monkey hat, and strokes Cas's skin there, gently. Cas makes a faint noise, a pleased little "mm" sound. His eyes flicker open. Dean watches as Cas focuses on him. "Morning," says Dean, and he watches as a slow smile spreads across Cas's face. Dean can't help smling back, and Cas's smile broadens, and so does Deans's, and for a moment they're just grinning at each other like idiots. Cas's arm tightens around Dean's waist again.

The mysterious warm wing-aura tightens too. It's barely detectable; but now that Dean's alert to it, he's certain.

There's just the briefest flicker in Cas's eyes of an alarm, or maybe it's a hint of embarrassment. He takes a quick breath, and the blanket of faint warmth disappears abruptly from Dean's shoulders, whisking away.

He just folded his wings, Dean knows. He just realized where they'd ended up, and he folded them back up, behind his back.

"Put 'em back where they were," he says to Cas. "I liked them there." Cas's eyes widen. And at that look in his eyes... despite knowing perfectly well that today is not a kissing day, it turns out a lifetime of chick-flick reflexes are hard to erase: all of a sudden Dean's just a hair's-breadth away from kissing him, starting to shift closer and even already starting to tilt his head to angle around Cas's nose. At first Cas just looks confused, but then understanding seems to dawn, and there's a breathless moment when it seems certain Cas is going to kiss Dean back. Dean's close enough now to smell his breath (it's minty; last night's hurried tooth-cleaning session seems to have paid off). Dean drinks in the scent, and leans in further, and there's only an inch between their lips when the phone alarm goes off.

Chemo Day.

Dean freezes.

Taste aversion, thinks Dean. Odor aversion.

Cas's whole body stiffens. He tucks his chin down a little and turns his face a little into Dean's shoulder, effectively removing his mouth from Dean's potential range of kissing targets.

"Ground sloth time?" Dean asks.

"I'm afraid so," says Castiel.

Dean settles for a kiss on the top of the monkey hat, and then he disengages entirely. It's surprisingly hard to make himself separate from Cas — it feels as if he's having to yank a powerful magnet off a refrigerator. And Cas, too, seems to be reluctant to let go; his hand drags across Dean's waist as Dean pulls away. But it has to be done. It's time to disguise all the body odors and shampoo odors and soap odors, and it's time to get Cas ready for the hospital.

It's also time for Dean to head back to the other room. There's a chance he can sneak back in there and maybe get into the shower before Sam wakes. With a little luck, maybe Sam won't even realize that Dean spent the entire night in Cas's room. (Not that Dean's planning on hiding everything from Sam — well, not forever, at least — but, given that today is Chemo Day, it might make things a little easier if that particular conversation can be put off for a while.)

Dean stands and starts grabbing his clothes. He's still naked, of course, and he realizes, as he walks over to the table to turn off the still-beeping phone alarm, that Cas is watching him. Cas even sits up in bed and turns the light on, apparently just for a better view. He's shamelessly curious about it — he even rearranges himself to sit cross-legged in the bed, watching Dean with bright-eyed attention as Dean, who's now feeling extremely naked, has to lean over to pick up his scattered socks. It's odd to feel this shy; normally Dean's fairly confident about his body, and the occasional morning-afters with random bar girls are usually pretty low-stress.

But Cas isn't a random bar girl, is he?

He's not a random anything. He matters.

And his opinion matters, and Dean's not really all that sure what a not-quite-human, not-really-male, angel might actually be into; that is, what sort of body might come across as attractive. So Dean can't help feeling a little self-conscious as he retrieves the socks, and fishes the sweatpants out from the covers, and starts looking around for the t-shirt (turns out he'd flung it completely across the room — it's lying at the base of a lamp clear in the opposite corner.) The entire time, Cas sits and watches, his eyes tracking Dean steadily with a warm and focused attention, and Dean gradually starts feeling a little more comfortable. Whatever this particular not-really-human, not-really-male angel might actually find attractive, he certainly seems very attentive.

"Enjoying the view?" Dean asks Cas, grabbing the t-shirt.

"Most definitely," says Cas.

But then Dean remembers the Chemo Motel last night, and how Cas had gone practically green just at a certain familiar sight. A familiar sight. Just of a door, not a person, but...

A new wave of shyness comes over Dean, and now he half-shields himself with the t-shirt as he turns to Cas to ask "Hey, um, sight aversion's not a thing, too, is it?"

Cas blinks. "I certainly hope not," he says. With an obvious effort he wrenches his gaze away from Dean and looks down at his hands. He clears his throat and adds, apparently thinking out loud, "I've seen you in many other contexts, of course. Hopefully you have enough other associations, in my subconscious I mean, that you wouldn't be linked with chemotherapy. But... now that I think about it...." He hesitates. "I really haven't seen you without clothes that many times. Not since I rebuilt your body, I mean."

The casual mention of "rebuilding" Dean's body is a little startling.

"I'd better not look at you," Cas adds sadly. He's still staring at his hands. "It's an awful temptation, though. Maybe you should just... get dressed?"

"Yeah..." says Dean, and he yanks on the sweats and the t-shirt and the socks, in rapid succession. Once he's clothed Cas finally risks a cautious look back up at him.

"I detest cancer," Cas says. "I'm not sure if I've ever made that clear."

"Yeah, you didn't really have to, actually," says Dean, as he grabs his pistol, checks the safety and tucks it in the waistband of the sweats. "Pretty sure we're on the same page on that one. Pretty sure everybody's on that page, actually." He picks up his phone and room card and adds, "We gotta refocus here, much as I don't want to. Hospital time. I'll go get that ground sloth hoodie. Meet you in the lobby like we said?"

"Yes, that's probably best," says Cas. He's staring down at his hands again. Dean glances around to make sure he's got everything. Pistol and phone and the room card.... that's everything; time is short, and really he should be leaving now, hurrying next door to sneak in before Sam wakes, and take that shower and then wake Sam and pack up all the stuff. Dean takes a step toward the door. But Cas is still looking down at his hands, a fixed expression on his face that's positively woeful. He looks like a little boy whose ice cream has just fallen out of his ice cream cone, and suddenly Dean can't leave him. Not quite yet. Dean has to take a couple quick steps closer to the bed, so that he can reach out a hand to give Cas another stroke on the back of the neck, just under the edge of the monkey hat.

Cas almost jumps. He gives a quick, grateful glance up at Dean. Dean strokes him there for a long moment, and Cas closes his eyes and even leans the side of his head against against Dean's arm. If he were a cat I'm pretty sure he'd be purring, thinks Dean.

Dean finally removes his hand. "Hey, so," he says as he steps back, "I know your schedule's kind of booked up this week. But, just wondering if you're free Friday? We could hang out or something."

It's coming out absurdly like an awkward Tinder conversation, or like he's asking a bar hookup for a second date. And it should be obvious, it should be incredibly obvious, that there's going to be another time just as soon as Cas feels up to it. But maybe it needed to be said, for suddenly Cas's face is beaming with relief. He nods, his eyes wide and eager, and says, "Yes, I'd like that. I'd very much like that."

"We could watch a movie, maybe."

"A movie would be excellent. Or more fellatio."

Dean blinks.

"Or both?" Cas suggests. "I was, ah... I was thinking I'd like to try out the fellatio again. If you liked it last night, I mean."

Dean almost rolls his eyes. "Liked it is kind of an understatement," he says. "And, yeah, definitely part of the plan. But next time you gotta let me have a try too." One more quick pat on Cas's neck and Dean makes himself pull away and leave the room.

 


 

No wonder these places make Cas feel sick, thinks Dean, as he paces back and forth in one of the waiting rooms at the hospital, where Cas seems to have an endless series of tests, scans and appointments before the chemo. It's making ME feel sick and I've only been here once before. And I'm not even the one who's thrown up here!

At least the general idea is familiar, now. The hospital's layout is now a little bit familiar, and the whole idea of the weekly cycles is starting to make sense. And of course it's quite a relief knowing Sam's nearby and is getting everything all set up for the evening. But it's weirdly maddening having to wait for the horrible parts to start. Over and over, as Dean paces back and forth, he wishes he could just fast-forward Castiel through the next twenty-four hours; press some magic button and whisk him past all the bad parts, to the part tomorrow where he'll hopefully just be sleeping.

But there's nothing to do but wait.

They finally get to the chemo treatment room in mid-afternoon, and after several more frustrating episodes of being separated from Cas (nurses keep shooing Dean away for almost every single procedure) at last the nurses let Dean sit by Cas's side in his chemo-treatment bay. It's the same area as before, the long line of reclining chairs facing the endless plate-glass windows. Cas is in a different chair today, but nonetheless it brings back jarring memories of the awful moment last week when Dean first tiptoed in here to find Castiel, angel of the Lord, soldier of God, lying asleep a chemotherapy ward, so fragile and frail.

Dean makes himself give Cas a cheerful grin now. Cas gives him a somewhat forced smile back; he's already got an IV running in his right arm, but it's still just saline and there's still more time to wait. It seems there's a half-hour or so more until the actual chemo will start, something to do with a delay in the schedule of the drug-delivery machines that hook up to the IVs.

In fact, it seems everybody's schedule has been pushed back a half-hour or more. Some people seem too sick to care; some pass the time stoically, reading or doing little drawings (the art therapy, presumably) or simply staring out the window. Others seem to be going on little visiting tours of the patients in the other treatment bays. It seems that many of them know each other, and there's quiet conversations happening here and there. Cas asks Dean to pull the bay curtains back fully, exposing as much of his chair as possible; apparently this is an informal sign that he's available for visits, and after that several other patients stop by to say hello. Cas knows all their names, and they know his. It turns out a lot of them have been on the same sort of weekly cycle, sitting for hours together in the chemo wards.

In between the sporadic visits Castiel keeps glancing at Dean, like he's continually surprised to find that Dean's here with him, sitting by his side. Dean, for his part, is feeling weirdly out of place; he doesn't know the routine, so he feels like he's not being very helpful. Also, more than a few of the other patients are giving him a puzzled look, as if they're used to Castiel being alone. Soon Dean's experiencing a nearly constant desire to take hold of Cas's hand. But it's hard not to be a little worried about potential reactions from others. Or a lot worried, in fact. It's a disturbing and disheartening feeling. Dean's long known, of course, that public display of affection must feel a great deal different when one is part of a same-sex couple; he's long known that even mildly affectionate gestures, like holding hands or a kiss on a cheek, can be downright risky. Even in a fairly liberal city like Denver, there can be prejudice, and looks, and comments, and much worse.

Dean's known all that in principle. But feeling it in person, in the form of this gut-level uncertainty about even just taking Cas's hand in public, is very disturbing. It's like an actual anchor is holding down his arm.

So he settles for patting Cas on the arm now and then.

A few minutes later, Dean's gotten involved in rerranging a blanket around Cas's legs (if he can't hold Cas's hand, tucking a blanket around his feet seems somehow to be the next best thing), and he glances down the long aisle of chemo patients to see that a little girl is now slowly coming their way, accompanied by a woman who must be her mother. The girl's about eight years old and she seems to be the patient — she's wheeling an IV pole by her side. Oddly, she's wearing what looks like a complete Disney princess costume, a shiny blue faux-satin gown that looks like it's been hand-fitted, complete with puffy frills of lace around the neck and the hem. As she gets closer it becomes apparent that the lace-covered neckline is almost hiding some kind of permanent IV-port thing that is slightly visible through the lace at her neck (the IV line is snaking its way through the lace). She's wearing a pair of ridiculous long white satin costume gloves, which Dean soon realizes are probably to hide bruises. Her head is bundled up in a blue satin turban that's decorated with a little tiara pinned to the top, as if she's half a princess and half a genie from an Arabian Nights tale.

She looks a little tired, and she's moving a little slowly — her mother's hovering very closely behind her, obviously ready to help her if necessary, but the girl's actually getting around pretty well, all things considered. She makes a slow-but-steady beeline directly toward Cas's treatment bay.

Cas greets her with a warm smile. "Hello, Emily. Are you a princess today?"

"Yes, Castiel," says Emily, with a regal air. "You may call me 'Princess Emily.'" She performs a slightly wobbly, but very solemn, curtsey.

"Hello, Princess Emily," sys Cas dutifully, inclining his head. "Should I rise to greet you?"

"No, no," she says, waving one white-gloved hand graciously. "My subjects need not tire themselves on my account. I bid you rest."

"Thank you, Princess," says Castiel. "Dean, this is Princess Emily. And her mother Sharon."

Dean rises to shake Sharon's hand, and he says to Emily, giving her a deep and formal bow, "Very honored to meet you, Princess Emily."

But when he stands from his bow he finds that Princess Emily has fixed Dean with a beady-eyed stare. She demands, "Who are you? Castiel never has anybody with him."

"Emily," whispers Sharon.

"Well, it's true," says Emily, throwing an unrepentent look over her shoulder at her mother. She turns to Cas to say, "That's how we became friends, remember, Castiel? I came over to chat because you didn't have anybody with you."

"I remember very well," says Cas. "I was grateful. But, I do have some family, actually."

Emily seems unconvinced. She gives Dean another suspicious look and asks Cas, "Is he one of the brothers you mentioned?"

"Yes, exactly. This is Dean. My other brother is named Sam."

Emily still looks doubtful, and she says to Dean, "Why haven't you ever been here before? Castiel's always here alone. We felt sorry for him, didn't we, Mom?"

"EMILY," says Sharon again, shooting an apologetic look toward Dean.

"Well, we did," says Emily, again unrepentent.

Dean's starting to squirm a little (he's still automatically standing at attention, with his hands clasped behind his back, as if really in a royal court). For, of course, Emily's right: Dean and Sam should have figured out long ago that something was wrong. Sure, Cas hadn't told them, but the signs had been obvious. They should have figured it out; they should have been here.

Dean finally says to Emily, "I'll be here from now on. Sam's helping too — he's getting Cas' room set up. He'll be here later."

"But why weren't you either of you here before?" says Emily.

Dean's not sure how to answer. He hesitates, glancing at Cas.

Sharon breaks in with, "Emily, honey, grownups have very complicated schedules sometimes, and can't always get free, and I'm sure Mr. Dean here had very—"

"He didn't know," says Cas to Emily. "I didn't tell him."

Sharon stops in mid-sentence. She and Emily both look at Cas, and then at Dean.

Dean's awfully uncomfortable now, but he nods. "Didn't know till last week," he says. He adds, a little gruffly, "Would've been here."

"Oh," says Emily. She thinks about that, looks back at her mother for a long moment, and then shuffles closer to Cas's head, where she leans up to Cas's ear with one hand cupped over her mouth. She even goes up on tiptoe to try to get closer to him. Cas shifts closer to her, angling his ear toward her mouth, and Emily whispers to him, in a hoarse whisper that's so loud that everybody can hear it perfectly well, "Did you not tell him because you didn't want him to worry?"

Cas says to her, softly, "Exactly."

Emily nods. Another glance at her mother (who's now staring fixedly out the window, pretending not to hear) and Emily leans in for another loud stage whisper to Cas. "I understand," she hisses.

She straightens up and says to Dean, "Everything'll be okay. Castiel will be fine."

"Yeah, I know," says Dean, who's getting ridiculously choked up now. He adds, "Of course he'll be fine. And, um, so will you."

Emily looks at him. After a moment she starts making her way toward Dean. He's on the other side of Cas's reclining chair from her, and she has to wheel her IV pole carefully all the way around the foot of the chair. She comes straight up to Dean; he's a little startled by how tiny she seems close up. She's going up on tiptoe again now, with one white-gloved hand cupped around her mouth again, and Dean realizes she wants to whisper something to him, too. He bends at the waist to hear her. She's so short he has to fold himself almost all the way over.

Emily presses her cupped hand right up to Dean's ear.

"Actually I might—" says Emily, in another loud stage-whisper. But this time she seems to realize her whisper might be a little loud; she stops in mid-phrase, glances at her mother (who's now watching them both with an incredibly wobbly look on her face). Emily starts over again in a much quieter whisper, so quiet this time that Dean has to strain to hear her:

"Actually I might die," whispers Emily. "But don't tell Mom."

She settles back down from her tiptoed stance and backs off a step, looking up at Dean expectantly.

Dean straightens up slowly. "Oh," he says, unsteadily. "Um—"

Emily says, now back in a normal voice. "But, it's okay because everybody who dies of cancer goes directly to Heaven." She turns to Cas and says, "Like, remember Charlie, Cas? He was here two weeks ago? Remember, Charlie with the stage-four lung cancer, and his friend snuck in his dog Lobo to see him, remember how soft Lobo's ears were? Me and Mom just heard, Charlie died two days ago. But, see, it's okay, because that just means he's in Heaven now. Someday Lobo will be with him too."

There's a moment of quiet as the three adults all look at her.

Emily adds, "That's what you told me, Cas, right? Everybody who dies of cancer goes straight to Heaven."

"Yes, that's true," says Cas. Dean shoots him a doubtful look, assuming this must be some fiction he told Emily to make her feel better (because, surely some cancer patients must end up in Hell?). But Cas looks completely serious, and Emily seems satisfied. (Sharon, though, is biting her lip and staring at the floor.) And thankfully Emily at last changes the topic, saying to Cas, "I really like your hat. Did you lose the rest of your hair?"

"Most of it, yes," says Cas, "Do you want to see the hat?" She nods, and with a casual familiarity she scooches herself up to sit on widest part of the chemo-chair, by his hips, the blue satin dress poofing out around her like a big fluffy mushroom. Cas moves over a bit to make room for her, and he slips the monkey hat off his head and hands it to her. Dean's a little surprised by how easily Castiel does this; for once there's no hesitation at all about uncovering his head.

Dean's also a little surprised to discover that almost all of Cas's hair is gone now. Has he lost that much more, just in the last week? There's still a few little patches of soft strands, but he really looks bald now.

Emily takes in the sight with complete equanimity, gazing at Cas steadily as she holds the monkey hat in both white-gloved hands. "You kept your hair much longer than the rest of us," she says.

"Yes, some of the drugs affect me a little differently," Cas answers.

Emily nods, without surprise, as if she already knows there's something different about Cas. "Like how your nausea meds don't work?" she asks. Cas nods, and she then asks, "Did the marijuana work?" She turns to Dean to explain carefully, "Castiel's been trying medical marijuana. But he wasn't sure if it would work."

"It didn't, really," says Cas. "Though at least it distracted me. That helps, actually. But there was still the nausea anyway." Emily nods, but her attention's drifted to the monkey hat now, as if discussion of medical marijuana and chemotherapy is a fairly routine (and fairly boring) topic. She's soon fascinated by the monkey-hat, and she turns it around in her hands, looking at the monkey's grinning face.

"You can try it on if you like," says Cas. At once Emily pulls off her tiara-topped blue satin turban and hands it to her mother. Emily turns out to be totally bald. Which of course was to be expected — every patient here, including Cas, is in some stage of hair loss. But it's a jolt anyway to see that sort of look on an eight-year-old girl who's dressed up like a Disney princess, so much so that Dean's suddenly got the surreal imprression that they're all trapped together in some kind of sickeningly heartwarming — or heartbreaking — Lifetime movie.

Little bald Princess Emily pulls the monkey hat on with her white satin gloves while Dean, Cas and Sharon all watch. The hat's too big for her; the sides come down far over her ears, almost to her shoulders, and the front almost covers her eyes. But she seems to like it anyway. She tilts her chin up, peering under the hat's rim and grinning at all three of them, and feeling at the tassels with one hand. "I'm gonna go look at it in the mirror," she announces, and she hops off Cas's chair and starts making her way toward a bathroom at the end of the row of treatment bays, dragging the IV pole behind her. "Stay with Castiel, Mom," she instructs her mother. "Be back in a sec."

Sharon's still standing by the window, holding her daughter's tiara-topped turban as she watches Emily, complete with blue satin princess dress, long white gloves, monkey hat and IV pole, enter the bathroom.

Once the last glimpse of blue satin has disappeared behind the closed door, Sharon turns to Dean and says, almost defensively, "She's fine in the bathroom on her own. She really likes it if I don't follow her absolutely everywhere, and this is the only time when I know she'll be okay — there's staff everywhere and they all know her, and there's a call button in there and she knows about call buttons, and also we've still got half an hour to wait."

"Yeah, of course," says Dean. "I'm sure she's fine in there. Absolutely."

"She's trying to give you a break," says Cas. "She worries about you."

Sharon nods. "Yeah. I try not to let her see how much it, um, how much I, how much—" Her voice is suddenly shaking, and her eyes are watery. She grits her teeth, turns to stare out the window again, and takes a long, even breath. With one hand she smoothes the edges of the absurd little blue-satin turban, and she glances down to check the safety pins that are holding the plastic-rhinestone tiara in place.

Dean has a sudden vision of Sharon pinning the tiara in place, getting it perfectly centered; and, very likely, hand-sewing the little blue satin princess dress as well. Including carefully designing the little sleeves and the neckline for easy IV placement.

Into the silence Cas says, to Dean, "Emily always comes over to talk to me."

Sharon turns back to them with a nod. She seems to have composed herself, and she says, her voice steady again, "She gets worried if somebody's here alone. She kind of adopted Castiel here."

"She seems like a really sweet kid," Dean asks. "How's she doing?"

An instant silence falls.

Sharon shrugs. "Last round of tests hasn't come in yet," she says. "Round before that wasn't too awesome. Cas, where'd you get the hat, anyway? I think she likes it."

"Dean's brother Sam got it for me," says Cas, following her abrupt change of subject willingly enough. "He got me the most wonderful set of hats, actually. This is my favorite."

"Do you know where he got it? Do you think they might have kid's sizes? She likes it," Sharon says. She seems to be thinking about something. "I could do a jungle theme for her next costume, maybe." To Dean she adds, "She couldn't do Halloween this year and she was so bummed about it, so I told her we could do Halloween every week if she wanted. She can't keep any candy down anymore, but she still loves to dress up."

"It's been a different outfit almost every week," says Cas.

Sharon nods. "Not always as elaborate as this one — just, anything but hospital gowns, was what she wanted. It's all washable. And everything's velcro so it can all come off in a hurry if we need."

"I'll ask Sam about the hat," says Dean, anxious now to be helpful. He's still chiding himself about the earlier faux-pax, thinking to himself, For chrissake, Dean, do NOT ask the mother of a cute little eight-year-old cancer patient how her kid's doing. Might as well just say "So, is your kid gonna die or what?"

He's still kicking himself about it a minute later when Princess Emily comes out of the bathroom. She's beaming with delight about the monkey hat. When she returns it to Cas, Dean promises to ask Sam where the hat came from, and even sends Sam a text about it right then and there while Emily watches. And Sam, thankfully, replies right away ("Yes there were kids sizes. Can grab one next week").

Then Emily's name is called — the nurse actually calls out "Princess Emily" — and they have to head back to their own treatment bay, far at the end of the corridor.

Once they're safely out of earshot, Dean can't help asking Cas, "So what was that about a guaranteed ride to Heaven? Did you make that up?"

Cas shakes his head. "It's true. Cancer is a flaw in Creation." At Dean's puzzled look, Cas explains, "It's an inherent flaw of multicellular life. All life forms will get cancer if they live long enough, and if they don't die of anything else first; it's inevitable. It's widely regarded as a design flaw. Or at least that's been Legal's interpretation."

Dean's nearly sidetracked by the discovery that Heaven has a Legal Department (which, really, should not be a surprise), but he shakes that off and asks, "So, if it's a design flaw that means... what exactly?"

"It means it's an entirely innocent death. It's considered a breach of the implicit contract between God and his Creation. A mild breach, to be sure, but a breach nonetheless."

"And so... what, then you get a free pass upstairs?"

"Essentially, yes," says Cas, "For any human, that's how it works."

But now Cas is staring out the plate-glass window, studiously not meeting Dean's eyes, and Dean thinks, Humans. "For any human."

It's true for humans only. That's the part he's not saying.

Humans have souls. And the soul is the part that goes to Heaven.

Angels, though, don't have souls.

Dean's long been certain they must have something, some sort of spirit or essence or core self. But whatever that may be, it's long been clear that it's not a soul.

The burning question resurfaces then: What happens to angels when they die?

Does anything survive when an angel dies? Anything at all, any piece of them, in any form? Dean doesn't know, and he desperately wants to ask; he desperately wants to know the answer, and desperately fears it too. But he doesn't want to harass Castiel with this issue right now.

Especially since it seems like Cas might not even know.

"They're coming," Cas says quietly, and Dean looks up to see a pair of nurses headed down the aisle. One of them's wheeling that large boxy IV thing that Dean recognizes from last time; it's the chemotherapy drug-delivery device, the thing that measures out the precisely timed little aliquots of poison that will be injected into Cas's IV line. It's an innocuous looking thing, really, but now that Dean knows what it does, it seems to have the menacing aura of some kind of medieval torture device. He looks at Cas; Cas is watching it approach, and he seems calm and collected. But his jaw's a little tight, and his breathing is a little deeper than usual. And when Dean reaches out and takes his hand at last (in full view of everybody, in the end), Castiel grabs on tight.

 


 

 

A/N - More soon! Next chapter's almost done - I was intending to get to the part where we learn more about the diagnosis, but little Emily appeared out of nowhere (one of those totally unplanned things...) and we didn't quite get all the other stuff in. Next update will finally have more about what exactly Cas's condition is.  I'll aim again for Friday but might get a short chapter up earlier. Also I am really hoping to catch up on replying to all your incredible comments - I really wanted to take proper time for the replies and of course fell behind completely. But please do let me know if you liked this. OK, fingers nearly frostbitten now, must run.

Happy New Year to everybody! Here's wishing you all a healthy and happy and wonderful year. Full of all the love, and none of the stress. And no health problems at all.

PS I really do believe the bit about the free pass to Heaven.

Chapter Text

Spent all last week at a major science meeting and now I've got another terrifying grant proposal due next Thurs - this one to NSF, so, hellish and complex and unlikely and pie-in-the-sky, yet also exciting. I just got back from the meeting late Mon night and have been chugging in the lab late every night till tonight to try to generate some last pilot data to try to convince NSF that we know what we're doing. With all of that I had to skip a week on the fic, sorry! And even so I only got half of this chapter done. Here's the first half; second half to follow whenever the grant-writing allows.

 


 

 

It's just as bad as last time, thinks Dean, at about eight o'clock that night.

No, he corrects himself, some hours later. It's worse.

 


 

At first it seems like it'll be easier. In the late afternoon Sam brings the Impala over to meet Cas and Dean at the hospital, and at that point Cas still seems totally okay. Sam even seems a little nonplussed to find Cas on his feet and walking around, and Dean's actually starting to feel cautiously optimistic.

But as they're all walking together across the hospital parking lot to the Impala, Dean remembers that Cas seemed totally okay last time, too, didn't he?

Until all of a sudden he wasn't.

So just in case, Dean insists on taking the wheel for the drive back to the Chemo Motel. He grabs the car keys from Sam, chivvies him into the back seat, and directs Cas into the passenger seat where Dean can keep an eye on him. "I'm the one who knows the way to the motel," Dean says, as he slides behind the wheel. Sam gives an exaggerated sigh. It's nothing new for Dean to grab the keys, of course, but the real reason Dean wants to drive is because he's determined that, this time, he won't miss that critical exit. This time, Dean's going to steer the Impala extra-smoothly; this time, there'll be no sudden lane changes, and no unnecesary swerving around. This time, Dean won't be peppering Cas with difficult questions, either. This time, Dean's going to get Cas back to the motel in one smooth, swift journey, in the blink of an eye....

So that poor Cas doesn't end up crawling on his hands and knees again in the gravel at the side of the road, as helpless as a wounded dog.

Now that they're all in the Impala together driving, once again, to that miserable motel, that awful moment from last week is once again fresh in Dean's head. And more than anything, Dean wants tonight to go as smoothly as possible for Castiel.

Indeed Dean doesn't miss the exit, and indeed he takes all the corners as gently as possible. Indeed the drive goes smooth as silk, and they make it almost all the way to the motel before Cas starts throwing up.

Fortunately, one more modification to today's drive is that there's now a whole stack of plastic bags heaped in the middle of the front seat. Cas has clearly been reassured by their presence, for he's been clutching one in his hand for the entire drive. He's also taken a few other precautions, taking his scarf off and removing his monkey hat well in advance. (He's handed the hat carefully to Sam, swapping it for a plain blue one - another one from Sam's recent hat-shopping expedition. Apparently the blue one's made of some machine-washable knit, and it doesn't have any vulnerable dangling tassels). Cas also seems to not be bothering much anymore with wasting energy on trying to hide symptoms from Dean and Sam. So when the nausea hits him, at least he's somewhat better prepared.

At least he's got the bag in his hand this time, thinks Dean, as he pulls the car over and throws the gearshift quickly into Park so that he can help brace Cas's shoulders while Cas retches, repeatedly, into his plastic bag. (Sam's trying to do what he can to help from the back seat, popping open a water bottle in case Cas needs to drink soon, and also shaking open a couple more of the plastic bags in case they're needed.)

At least he's got the bag, thinks Dean again, as he tries to hold Cas steady. At least Sam's here to help. At least Cas can stay in the car, where it's warm. At least he switched out the hat already.

At least he's not faceplanting into the gravel.

But it's terrible just the same. It's terrible seeing Cas so helpless, it's terrible seeing him so overwhelmed by it — the first burst of retching has hit him so hard that he's almost in convulsions, buckling over with each spasm with his head nearly to his knees, heaving rough gasps for breath in between the spasms. It's terrible to see him so desperate for air, so racked with misery. And it's especially terrible realizing anew that despite all of Dean's and Sam's careful preparations, Castiel is going to suffer tonight anyway.

He's going to suffer a lot.

It's also weirdly, eerily terrible to have the memory of last night still drifting around in the back of Dean's head. The contrast is beyond surreal; Dean keeps trying to put it out of his mind but it keeps floating back up anyway, with brief and tantalizing visions of the extraordinary events that had occurred just one scant evening ago. Mere hours ago, really. The memories seem now almost like they're taunting him; memories of Cas smiling at him from just inches away... memories of the way Cas's hand had traced its way so magically over Dean's skin. The stunning moment when Cas's intentions had suddenly become so undeniably clear — how plainly he'd said it, how he'd just reached right out and grabbed what he wanted. The surprise of it, the shock and the amazed disbelief, the relief, the delight, the sheer unstoppable joy....

Could there possibly have truly been such pleasure in the world? Just last night, in this world, this very same world that also has the cancer and the chemo?

It's as if Dean had stumbled, last night, into a private, magical garden that he'd barely even dared dream might exist... only to watch helplessly a few hours later as a Category-5 hurricane came barreling down and tore it all to shreds. It all seems blown to pieces, in the face of the misery Cas is caught in now.

Dean watches Castiel retching, and all he can do is try to brace him through it, and now and then pat him uselessly on the back.

Cas finally reaches some kind of pause point. He unfolds slightly, lifting his head up a little, and his gasping slows. Dean takes the little plastic bag out of his hands, careful not to spill the ugly contents as he tries to zip it shut. When Sam says, "Give me that, I'll take care of it," Dean's beyond grateful. Sam whisks it away somehow. Maybe he's triplebagged it for disposal later, maybe he chucked it outside; Dean doesn't quite see, for he's busy now coaxing Cas to drink a little water. Cas takes a few sips and slumps back against the window bonelessly. He tilts his head back against the seat and closes his eyes.

"Sorry," he mutters, eyes still closed. "You can drive on now."

"Look on the bright side, at least we almost made it to the motel this time," remarks Dean, trying to put a cheerful face on things. He puts the Impala back in gear and maneuvers (very gently) back onto the road. "And no face-down-in-the-gravel at the side of the road. Better than last week at least, huh, Cas?"

Cas doesn't answer, but from the back seat Dean hears Sam mutter, quietly, "This is better?" Dean catches Sam's eyes in the mirror.

As if everything else weren't terrible enough, it's also terrible just to see the look in Sam's eyes.

Dean shakes his head at Sam. Meaning: Act like everything's no big deal. Sam's mouth thins, but he gives a brief nod, and says nothing more.

 


 

"He's so bad already," Sam whispers to Dean. "And it's only been, like, one hour. How long did you say this goes on for? I mean, how long did it go on last week?"

They're just outside Cas's room by the open trunk of the Impala, their shoes slipping a little on the icy pavement as they don their ground-sloth hoodies in the frigid night air. They'd left Cas, just a moment ago, in fairly good shape — he'd been sitting upright on the bed insisting that he was "fine" ("Really, you can go don your sloth attire") and it seemed a good time to get the hoodies on and grab some more of the blue nitrile gloves. It's also a good opportunity to have a brief whispered consultation without Cas overhearing.

"A full day, pretty much." Dean whispers back to Sam, pulling on a pair of gloves. "A night and a day." Sam looks thoughtful, and as he takes his own pair of gloves, he stares at the glove-box a moment, as if trying to decide how many more he might need. Dean realizes he'd better give Sam the complete picture, so he adds, "Puke and blood and the works, all night long, and most of the morning, till, like, noon or so. Then he just went kinda comatose for all the rest of Tuesday. Like, all Tuesday afternoon and all night, he just slept and slept and slept. Still not able to eat but not as much actual throwing up. He only really started eating on Wednesday."

Sam thinks a moment, and then takes a huge fistful of extra gloves and jams them all in his back jeans pocket. "That sounds like he's way too likely to get dehydrated," he says. "I really think we should call the night nurse —"

But Dean doesn't get a chance to respond, for there's a thump and a crash from Cas's room. Sam slams the Impala's trunk shut and they both rush back into the room, where they find Castiel lying crumpled on the floor halfway to the bathroom, the nearest chair overturned by his side. He's at least landed on one of the pillows that Sam had set out, but he's fumbling for the nearest pan, and when Dean dashes over to check on him, it turns out Cas is trembling with fever. Then he's retching again, and there's blood now too, and he's going pale.

Sam and Dean don't get to talk again for a while after that. There's a flurry of activity while they both haul him back to the bed, and get the pans positioned by his pillow for him to throw up in, and mop up some of the mess that's somehow gotten onto the floor. Finally things are settled down enough that they can break away to have a hurried discussion about whether Cas is losing too much blood, because, just like last week, Cas seems to be dripping blood from his mouth, slowly but steadily. Sam and Dean have both learned over the week (through diligent Googling) that bleeding from the "oral epithelium" is fairly common during chemo, but apparently "excessive" blood is still cause for concern.

Soon the two brothers are having a tense, whispered debate in the corner of the room about how much blood is "excessive." Cas takes advantage of their distraction by trying, once again, to get out of bed to make his way toward the bathroom on his own (he seems to have reverted to his old plan of lying all alone on the bathroom floor through the worst of it). This time he pitches head-first right off the end of the bed before they realize what he's up to. He falls so hard he smashes his face straight onto the floor and ends up with a gushing nosebleed.

"Okay, see, that's excessive blood," says Sam, scrambling for ice cubes and towels while Dean grabs a fistful of Kleenexes and tries to help Cas stop the bleeding. Cas is now crouched on his knees, holding both hands to his nose. Blood streams through his fingers as he mumbles, "Don't get any on you, don't, don't touch the blood—"

"We know, Cas, don't worry," says Dean. "We've got zillions of gloves. And we know how to clean the floor." He manages to tilt Cas's head up slightly to get a look at his face, and actually it's not too much blood (in the grand scheme of Winchester injuries), but still Dean is aching with frustration and worry and guilt. He'd turned away from Cas for a split second; he'd let himself get distracted talking with Sam, and he'd turned away — they'd both turned away! — and Cas had fallen, and now poor Cas is bleeding like a stuck pig. There's a huge bruise spreading across one of Cas's cheekbones, and it's looking like he's split his lip too.

And suddenly Cas's eyes widen, and his face goes even paler under all the blood smears. He's about to throw up.

Dean can barely even figure out how to help him, other, than, once again, to hold him as he vomits, this time with the cascade of blood from his nose pouring out on top of everything else. There's a truly awful moment where Cas can't seem to get a breath of air — it seems he can't breathe through his nose now, and for a few terrifying moments he seems to be truly choking. Dean gives him a rattlingly hard thump on the back, and Cas coughs out a gout of blood and catches his breath with a huge gasp. After a few moments he finally seems able to breathe steadily again.

"I'm okay," he says. "I'm fine."

"You are going to stay on the bed," Dean orders him. Sam's hovering nearby with more ice cubes for Cas's nose, and the bleeding is slowing a little, but Dean's so shaken now that he's getting angry. "We already talked about this!" says Dean. "You're supposed to stay in bed this time! Don't you remember? We were gonna bring you pans so you don't have to spend the night on the bathroom floor! That means you stay ON the bed. You don't go falling OFF the bed! Got it?"

"I know, but..." Cas says. They both haul him back toward the bed, Dean still pressing a wad of bloody Kleenexes to Cas's nose with one hand. Cas goes on, his voice half-muffled through the Kleenexes, "I know, but, but, the nausea's worse today, Dean, some weeks are worse, and I'll mess up all the bedding, I just know I will, it'll be ruined, I can't help it—"

"The bed's got a lining," Sam says, as they hustle him into the bed. Cas is still weakly resisting, trying half-heartedly to sit up, and Dean finally loses patience, strongarms him into place and physically shoves him down with both hands, until Cas finally subsides.

"I put one of those plastic covers underneath the sheets," Sam explains (diplomatically ignoring the lopsided Dean-Castiel wrestling match). Cas is at last lying still, and Sam checks Cas's Kleenexes, which are now just a sodden lump of red, and swaps them out for a washcloth, which is instantly ruined. Sam goes on cheerfully, "So the mattress is protected. And all the sheets are from Goodwill, they're not even the hotel's sheets, and then see all these towels on top?" (Sam's now wedging a group of clean towels under and around Cas's torso.) "I didn't have a chance to tell you, I found about a billion towels today at the local Goodwill. They had a whole stack of them for just twenty-five cents a pop and I thought I would pick up a bunch. So you can just stay on the bed, Cas, really. You just rest. Dean and I can just swap out the towels when we need to. Here, hold this ice on your nose. Wrap it up in the washcloth first—"

"The point is," says Dean, who's been trying to calm himself back down while Sam talks, "you can throw up right in the comfort of your own bed. Think of it as luxury chemo."

"Okay..." Cas mutters. He's definitely losing steam, and finally he just curls up on his side and closes his eyes. The battle's been won, apparently — though Dean and Sam spend the next ten minutes dealing with bloody ice cubes, bloody Kleenexes and bloody washcloths (and trying to coax Cas to drink some water in between all the bleeding). But Cas is at last lying still.

He does get sick again, of course. Many times. And he keeps disarranging the bedding and the towels — in fact he seems to get more and more restless over the next hour, till he's constantly pushing the pillows and blankets in odd directions, his feet stirring in fitful bouts, now and again muttering, "I'll mess everything up, I'll, I'll ruin it all—"

His speech is getting a little slurred, and finally Sam thinks to check his temperature. Of course it turns out that Cas is well into chemo-fever again. His forehead's radiating heat and soon he seems to be half-delirious with it. And he still keeps throwing up. But with Dean and Sam working together, it's manageable. A grim but efficient division-of-labor develops: whenever a real bout of retching hits, Dean arranges himself on the bed just behind Cas, crouching on his knees behind Cas's back with his arms around Cas's shoulders. From this angle he can hold Cas up, and help him aim his head so that he can throw up right into the pan that's always propped ready by his pillow. Sam, meanwhile, becomes the pan-and-towel wrangler. He's amazingly unfazed about this task, facing the filth and the stink unflinchingly: he holds the pans steady while Cas throws up, he swaps in a clean pan when needed and takes the used ones away and rinses them out in the kitchenette sink, he runs out for more ice cubes, and he keeps changing the towels and bringing Cas water and Gatorade to sip.

Sam calls the night nurse a few times, too, to see if maybe they should bring Cas in to the emergency room. Surprisingly, though, every time the night nurse quizzes Sam about Cas's vital signs, it turns out that Cas seems to be staying reasonably stable and hydrated (probably because both Sam and Dean keep badgering him to take more sips of water, about every other minute). And though Cas is clearly exhausted and feverish, his pulse is staying steady this time.

"Want to... stay here," Cas mutters at one point to Dean; he's apparently overheard Sam's quiet conversation to the night nurse from the walkway outside. "It'll be... just as bad there. At.. the hospital. Their meds... don't work anyway."

Which, Dean realizes, is a fair point.

So they keep monitoring his vital signs, and Sam keeps calling the night nurse with updates, but, so far, it's looking like they might simply ride it out here in the motel room.

Even through his feverish delirium, Cas seems to recognize all the work Dean and Sam doing. Or, at least, he can't seem to stop apologizing about it. Both Sam and Dean eventually get accustomed to hear Cas' constant little whispers, in the brief windows of time when he's even got enough energy to speak, of: "I'm sorry, Sam... Dean... sorry."

He alternates apologies to Dean, to Sam, and to the two of them combined.

But as the evening drags on, Cas finally stops talking entirely. Eventually he's lying in Dean's arms almost completely limp, eyes shut, while Dean keeps holding the ice to his bruised nose and face.

Near midnight, at a juncture when Cas is curled up shivering and clutching fitfully at Dean's arm, Sam comes over with two clean, wet washcloths. "Blood's dried," Sam whispers. "I think his nose finally stopped bleeding." Sam wipes Cas's mouth clean with one washcloth, sets that one aside, and then very gently wipes his face with the other. Dean watches, struck by how gentle Sam's touch is. Cas's eyes flicker open as Sam's softly wiping Cas's face clean of all the flecks and smears of dried blood from the nosebleed.

"Can you drink?" says Sam to Cas, once Cas's face is clean. Cas gives a faint nod, and Sam holds a water bottle carefully in position for him, bendy straw in place. (The bendy straws have turned out to be a godsend.) Cas succeeds in taking a few sips without even having to lift his head.

Cas finishes drinking; Sam removes the water bottle and pats Cas's face dry with the edge of a clean towel. "There you go," he murmurs. Cas's eyes are already closed again.

"Sammy," Dean says, as Sam's walking away toward the kitchenette. Sam shoots him a quick glance over his shoulder.

Dean's hard-pressed to even know what to say. It's not just this face-cleanng moment; it's everything Sam's been doing. All day, and all night. All week, actually.

"Thanks," Dean says at at last, in a very quiet whisper.

Sam gives him a slightly puzzled look, and a little shrug. As if to say, Well, of course, it's Cas, what did you expect?

 


 

The night crawls on, past midnight and into the wee hours. The retching gradually becomes less frequent, and Cas drifts into an almost catatonic state. At times he barely seems aware that Sam and Dean are even there.

They've already hatched a plan to trade hour-long shifts through the darkest hours, one brother sitting awake by Cas's side while the other snatches brief naps curled up in some blankets on the floor. That's the plan, anyway, and Sam's even brought a pile of blankets over from the other room already and has laid them all out on the floor. But as soon as Dean lies down for his designated sleep shift, he realizes that he's not going to be able to sleep even a wink. It's not that it's all that uncomfortable; the problem is simply that Cas is up on the bed, Dean's down on the floor, and Dean can't see him. Castiel is out of view, and he's too far away.

After about five minutes of lying tensely on the floor and staring at the ceiling, Dean kicks the blankets aside and stands back up. Sam, who's sitting in a chair near Cas's head, gives him a quizzical look.

"Can't sleep," Dean whispers to Sam.

"You only tried for five minutes," Sam points out.

"Not gonna be able to sleep," Dean says firmly. He tiptoes closer to peer at Cas, who's actually looking halfway calm by now; he's still huddled in a little ball under the covers, but he's breathing evenly. (Both his arms are wrapped around a clump of clean towels, as if he needs something to hang onto.) Dean adds, "Thanks for setting up the blankets and all, but, I just can't sleep."

"Floor too uncomfortable?" Sam guesses.

That's not really the problem, but Dean nods.

"What if you lie on the bed?" Sam says. Dean looks at him, and Sam points to the far side of the bed, beyond Castiel. "Bed's big enough," Sam whispers. "You might be a little more comfortable. You could just lie on top of the covers. I don't think he'd even really notice, if you use the far side. "

On top of the covers.

Once again, the contrast with last night is positively surreal. Dean can't help glancing at the clock. Just twenty-four hours ago....

But sleeping on top of the covers near a comatose Castiel, as sad a situation as it is, is still a more appealing option than sleeping on the floor too far away from a comatose Castiel. A minute later Dean's gingerly stretching out on the bed, a careful two feet away from Cas, pulling one of the spare blankets over his legs for a bit of warmth.

He's barely breathing as he lowers himself down; he's trying to move so gently that he won't disturb Cas at all. He gets all the way down, and starts to relax, fairly confident that he's succeeded in not jostling the mattress even the slightest bit. But nonetheless Cas notices after all. He stirs a little, and moves his head, and then he's slowly, creakily, rolling over to face Dean. (Sam hurries to adjust the towels, and moves the throwing-up pan to a more convenient position.)

"Dean?" Cas mutters, eyes only half-open. He reaches out to Dean, and both his hands close on a loose fold in the sleeve of Dean's ground-sloth hoodie. Cas's eyes slide shut again.

Dean meets Sam's gaze over Cas's shoulder. Sam only smiles.

A moment later Dean feels a faint, vibrating heat descend across his own shoulder, along with a strange, subtle sort of pressure. It's rather as if something's shuddering in the air above him. Whatever it is, it's warm. Dean soon has to kick off his blanket to keep from overheating. Then he realizes Cas's hands are trembling too; Cas is shivering again. Dean reaches over to set a hand on Cas's brow; it's hot again; ah, yes, the fever.

It's not just his hands that are shaking, thinks Dean. And not just his human body that's feverish. That vibrating, heated sensation in the air all around Dean has to be Cas's wings, right? The wings are trembling in fever just like Cas's hands are, and the wings seem to be radiating heat even from their pocket-dimension.

But apparently Cas is trying to wrap them around Dean even so, sloth hoodie and all.

"He feverish again?" Sam whispers, leaning closer. "Maybe some aspirin? The nurse suggested aspirin if he can keep it down. She said no Tylenol, by the way — it'll stress his liver too much on top of the chemo."

Dean props himself up on his elbows to study Cas more closely. The heat sensation is coming and going now, sliding up and down across Dean's head and shoulders as if Cas's wings are shifting restlessly. He still looks pale, too. "No," says Dean, "I think he'll just throw it up."

"Maybe more ice? The nurse said, try ice. Ice in a damp washcloth, on his head. Like you were doing before with his nose. She said it can help with nausea and also the fever."

Dean nods. "Yeah, let's do that. Could you go get a bunch more ice cubes? In a bowl with some ice water, maybe? And a washcloth. Wait, two washcloths."

"For his forehead?"

"And the back of his neck," Dean says.

 


 

Over the next few hours there's still sporadic retching, there's a few hurried bathroom visits, and there's occasionally a little more of the mysterious blood-from-the-mouth, which prompts Sam to make a couple more calls to the night nurse. Dean keeps massaging the back of Cas's neck, using a damp washcloth that Sam has carefully folded around a few ice cubes. It does seem to be helping a little with the fever, but more than that, Dean's hoping that it'll soothe him.

And, in fact, gradually Cas does improve. He seems to settle down; his hands slowly stop their restless plucking at Dean's ground-sloth hoodie. And the faint sense of vibration finally stills, as if the wings (wherever they really are) have at last quieted.

"You could take a break," Sam whispers. "I can do that washcloth thing. It seems like it calms him down?"

"Yeah, it does. But don't worry, I got it," Dean tells him. "Why don't you go call the night nurse again, maybe? See if there's any more advice?"

Dean never does sleep, not really. Instead he stays sitting up in bed by Cas's side. In theory, Sam and Dean were supposed to trade shifts; in reality Dean sits by Cas's side for the entire night, stroking Cas's neck with the cool damp washcloth whenever he can. Sam, at least, manages to catch a few catnaps on the floor, but both of them are too worried to sleep much, and Sam spends a fair bit of time pacing around outside the room door in the chilly night air. Dean can hear him, faintly, through the window, as Sam talks to the night nurse about fever, and "oral cavity bleeding", and blood loss, and anti-emetics.

Sam calls her at least half a dozen separate times, and he's on a first-name basis with her (her name is Sarah, apparently) by the time the thin light of dawn starts to break outside.

 


 

By Tuesday the worst of it has passed. Dean still stays close to Cas, and after a little nagging from Sam he manages to remember to eat something himself, munching down a couple sandwiches that Sam orders from a take-out lunch place down the street.

By afternoon Sam's switched his focus to the health-insurance problem, and soon he's putting in long stretches of hours huddled over his laptop on the little table, trying one hacking attempt after another, while Cas dozes on the bed and Dean steals some (slightly guilty) naps by Cas's side.

"Got it," Sam at last reports. It's late Tuesday night by now. Cas finally seems to be getting some real rest; the fever's broken and he's breathing now with the slow, steady pattern of the very deepest stages of sleep. Dean's sitting next to Cas on the bed, staring mindlessly at some old Stargate reruns on the little tv with the closed-captioning on, while Sam chugs away at the health insurance problem. When Dean glances up, Sam whispers, "Found a loophole. Or a hack I guess, technically, but never mind the details. Got him on the Gas-n-Sip's disability plan for his whole next chemo cycle." He taps a few more keys, says, "There. Done," heaves a sigh of triumph, leans back in his chair and closes the laptop.

"Meaning...."

"Meaning he doesn't have to go to work tomorrow," Sam says, and they both look at Castiel.

"Which is lucky," adds Sam, "since he looks kinda like pushing a broom around a Gas-n-Sip would be about as easy as flying to the moon, at this point."

The analogy's an odd one, and Sam blinks once he's said it. Dean looks down at Cas's shoulders, remembering the faint shuddering feeling of Cas's wings twitching restlessly in the night, hot with fever.

Sam says, slowly, "I wonder if he really could have done that? Once? Fly to the moon?"

"I'll be happy if he can just wake up and eat a saltine," says Dean.

 


 

"I'm sorry, Dean," Cas says, inevitably. It's late on Wednesday. He's actually walking now, though he's still a bit wobbly. They've finally gotten back to the bunker, and Dean's steering him by one elbow as they make their slow way down the hall, while Sam unpacks the Impala in the garage.

"Thought I told you to stop apologizing," Dean says. He nudges Cas's bedroom door open with one hip and guides Cas inside. "Pretty sure Sam told you that too. A hundred times or so."

"I don't just mean about the vomiting, though," Cas says. "I mean it in a different sense. I'm sorry that... " He pauses as Dean shepherds him over to the edge of the bed and sits him down. Cas sinks down obediently on the edge of the mattress. He looks thoughtful, as if he's unsure how to finish his thought.

At last he looks up at Dean and says, quite gravely, "I'm sorry I can't do more for you. I can't tell you how much I regret it."

At first Dean doesn't understand what he means. Then Cas adds, "I just have no... No energy. I'm still just... I'm so tired, Dean, it's the most amazing fatigue. It's like I'm at the bottom of the sea. Like my wings are covered with, with, I don't know, with tar or something, and I can't even fold them up..." Indeed he's slumping already, his shoulders rounding and his head hanging low, as if it's a substantial effort just to try to sit upright. It was a long drive from Denver, and Cas looks like he can barely keep his eyes open.

"All I seem able to do is sleep," Cas adds sadly. "But I so want to make you feel good... " (Oh, Dean thinks.) "But all I can do is sleep. All I can think about is just... " He gives a slow sigh. "....just, hoping the vomiting is over, trying to keep the next little bit of food down... and wanting to lie down." Cas drags his eyes back up to Dean's and says, softly, "You deserve so much more. You deserve so much better."

Dean thinks a moment, and asks, "I don't need the ground sloth hoodie anymore, right?" 

Cas shakes his head, and so Dean sits right down next to him, as close as he can get, and wraps both arms around him. He feels Cas give a little twitch of surprise, but Dean only tightens his grip.

Cas starts to lean on him. Dean puts one hand up on the back of his neck, slides it under the edge of the hat (it's the monkey hat again) and strokes the back of Cas's head.

"You are far more than I deserve," says Dean. "Sick or healthy, you are so much more than I deserve."

Cas shakes his head. "One of those random women that you meet at those bars could do so much better for you. And I so wanted to do this right." His voice is very quiet, but steady, as if he's been thinking about this. He says, "I wanted to do the very best possible for you. I know I'm unpracticed, but I wanted it to be as good as possible. I know that the beginning of an.... encounter like we've had, um... an...." He hesitates, his forehead tucked down on Dean's shoulder. "The beginning of an.... interaction, a, um, development, such as we've had — " (Cas seems to be talking his way around the word "relationship," as if he's really not sure if it applies.) "The beginning is important. I know that. And I wanted to show you the very best experience. I thought maybe I had a window of opportunity, on Sunday.... but I see now this was such an awful beginning."

"Sunday night was the best I've ever had," says Dean. Which actually isn't precisely true — parts had undeniably been awkward, parts had been nervous. In one way, it had only been a rough start. But even so it's already standing out in Dean's mind as a precious diamond of an evening; a perfect encounter; a dazzling moment to be cherished forever.

Because, of course, what matters is not just the mechanics of the act, but the person. The companion that one has chosen. And what it means, what it truly signifies, to be with them at last.

"It was... " Dean repeats, but he can't seem to come up with the right word. His all-time go-to praise word, "awesome," just isn't going to cut it here, is it? And everything else he can think of ("perfect", "wonderful," "magical") seems either totally lame or ridiculously flowery.

"It was the best," Dean repeats, and he tightens his grip around Cas's shoulders.

"But since Sunday I haven't been able to—"

"That doesn't matter," says Dean.

"But you deserve so much m—"

"I just want you to feel better."

"But it might be a while before I —"

"All I want is for you to get better," Dean says. Maybe his meaning comes through this time, for Cas falls silent. Dean then says, pulling back a little to look him in the eyes, "Your only job right now is to sleep, and get better. That is your only job, and that is what will make me happy." Then he adds (desperately hoping it's true), "Cas, we'll have time. We'll have more time. You just rest. That's all I want."

Cas relaxes (slightly) then, and when Dean pulls him close again he lets his head lean more completely onto Dean's shoulder. Dean kisses him on the top of the monkey hat. This seems to have become the default kissing location, and though Dean's getting awfully fond of the hat, it reminds Dean that there are other kissing options that haven't been explored. Not that now is the time for any of that, but he wonders if he could at least just kiss Cas on the forehead or something. Yet when he tries to pull back slightly to get another look at Cas's face, he realizes Cas is starting to slump over. His head's not just "leaning" on Dean's shoulder — it's gotten about ten pounds heavier, for Cas is actually falling asleep.

Dean gently pushes him over onto his side and maneuvers him under the covers. Cas wakes only slightly (just enough to shift around and grab at Dean's hand, totally unhelpfully, just when Dean's trying to get his shoes off). Dean manages to get him settled, and once the covers are tucked up under Cas's chin, Cas falls back asleep at once. He still has hold of Dean's hand, and though Dean's exhausted too, he sits for quite a long time on the edge of the bed, watching Castiel.

 


 

 

A/N - This fic is so strange to write. Things I don't originally intend to write about end up clamoring for attention - not like the classic plot bunny, but more as if they demand a sort of respect and attention. Originally I wasn't planning to write any details at all about this particular chemo-night. (I was going to skip right over it to Wednesday.) But, the chemo in this fic requires respect; when it takes the stage it's as if some terrible ancient god has come into view and simply must be attended to. The helplessness and misery of it demand their own kind of respect; it didn't seem right to skip over it. Also, this was Sam's first time seeing it all, and he really rose to the occasion, and it seemed that deserved to be told. 

And finally, poor Dean and Cas are both caught between two worlds right now, on this day more keenly than any other - both of them with the memory of Sunday in their minds, and both now miserably just trying to survive the horror of the Monday. It seemed that such an awful emotional dissonance, which is hitting both of them very hard, demanded respect as well, and needed to be shown.

I have the next part almost ready but it needs some more polishing, and I have to switch gears tomorrow to that proposal. I think I can get the next bit up on Sunday or Monday though, so keep checking back in.

Please let me know if you liked this chapter! And I swear to chuck I'll find time somehow to reply to all your comments this week - every SINGLE day for the last two weeks I was positive I was going to find time to do that, and never did, so, what better time to finally actually do it than six days before an NSF grant proposal deadline? :) 

Anyway, thanks for reading my story; I really hope it has been worth it so far.

 

Chapter Text

So guess who was up in the lab past 2am all last weekend, and up past midnight every other day, hard at work on a certain grant proposal. No holidays for proposal-writers... Yeahhhh did not get the fic stuff posted that I meant to! But the proposal went in yesterday and now I have the weekend free. Here's the next little bit. More as soon as I can.

 


 

Dean finally hauls himself up from Cas's bed and goes back to the kitchen, thinking to grab a beer before bed... because, he could really use a beer right now. Sam's already there, slumped in one of the kitchen chairs, and he's in the middle of a huge yawn. This, of course, immediately makes Dean yawn too.

"Gotcha," say Sam, breaking into a chuckle.

Dean's already choking back a second yawn. "Damn, I'm beat," he says, and he checks the time on his phone only to find, with some surprise, that it's not even that late. "Jeez, it's only a quarter to ten," he says, pulling up a chair opposite Sam. "I feel like it's three in the morning at least."

"Been a long couple days," points out Sam. "He okay? He seemed pretty good in the car."

Dean nods. "Yeah, he seems pretty good now too. Crashed right into sleep though, like he'd been hit by a truck almost, but I think it's just normal sleep now." Fell asleep right when I was hugging him, he almost adds; but he bites back the comment, and takes a long swallow of beer instead.

No need to complicate things unnecessarily tonight.

"Dean... the last couple days...." Sam begins. He's looking thoughtful now, and he says, slowly, "That was kinda brutal, to be honest." Dean can only nod as Sam goes on, rubbing both hands over his face like he's trying to wake himself up, "I'm totally exhausted, and I wasn't even the sick one. I still can't believe he's been going through that alone." He lowers his hands and says, "But at least he gets a week off now, right?"

Dean nods. "Full week. Week and a half, really — rest of this week and all of the next one."

"We gotta make it count," say Sam. The sentence has a disturbing finality to it, as if this might be Cas's last good week ever. Sam fiddles with his beer, rotating the bottle in a little circle on the kitchen table, and adds, "I just meant—"

"I know what you meant."

"I just meant, we should make sure he has a nice week. Y'know, let him stab some werewolves or something."

Dean can't help laughing at that. Sam gives him a grin, but then adds, his expression going serious, "And also, we gotta really get cracking on some other options here. I mean, there's gotta be some strings we can pull, some healing spells we could try or something. Or find somebody who could do something."

"If we could just find a full-powered angel, we'd be all set," points out Dean. "They can heal all kinds of stuff. Not that they ever seem to give a damn about Cas, or about anybody actually, but maybe there's at least one angel up there who might be willing to help him out?"

Sam nods. "I was thinking exactly that. Really not helpful that Heaven's sealed now... maybe there's still some way we can make contact, though? And we should ask Crowley, too."

Dean frowns, and takes another swig of beer. Sam's right‚ but any dealings with Crowley always make him squirm a little. Especially since... well... there was that one time with Crowley and the male twins. Not all that long ago, even.

Though, of course, Dean had been both drunk and a demon at the time. And at least there'd been no actual direct physical contact with Crowley himself (And thank the fucking stars for that, Dean thinks now). But still....

That whole year. I wasted that whole fucking year with the Mark of Cain and doing all that bar-diving with Crowley.

I could've been with Cas the whole time, couldn't I?

Instead I wasted an entire frickin' year. And for what? Just to finally get the Mark right back off again, and release Amara, and screw up everything even worse....

I could've been with Cas all along....

Dean takes another long swallow of beer, trying to put the could-have's, should-have's out of his mind. But the whole Amara thing is now in his mind again and, all of a sudden, something clicks into place.

The reason Cas is powerless now — the reason he can't heal himself, the very reason he can't cure his own cancer — is because Dean freed Amara.

Because, it was the Lucifer possession, and the way Lucifer was torn out of Cas, that drained all Cas's power, wasn't it? And the reason all that came about — going into the Cage for Lucifer, Cas saying yes, Cas getting possessed, and of course the big battle at the end — was all because of Amara. It was all part of the effort to defeat Amara. Cas is still paying the price, even now.

And... the reason Amara had been freed in the first place is because of Dean.

So is it Dean's fault that Cas can't cure himself now?

Does it all trace back to that moment when Dean accepted the Mark?

Dean shifts in his chair, staring at his beer bottle as he tries to force his thoughts onto another path. He's long known that it's pointless trying to figure out blame or responsibility in situations like this. The long, bizarre chain of events of the past year (okay, the past entire frickin' decade) has always felt something like a runaway train headed down a mountainside, totally out of control. All the agonizingly difficult choices that he (and Sam, and Cas) have had to make, over the years, have usually been made blind — random throws of the dice, pretty much. Maybe they did manage to switch the train to a new track now and then, but it seems like it always kept barreling on downhill anyway, no matter what they did. It's impossible to unravel it all now.

You just gotta keep moving forward, he instructs himself. It's the same pep talk he gives to other people, the same ol' "Don't blame yourself, you did the best you could." It rings a little hollow now, but he tries anyway: You gotta put all that aside, and move on. You just gotta play the hand you've got, the best you can.

Never mind how the cards ended up that way.

Dean's now scowling at his beer. Sam seems to misunderstand what the scowl is about, for he says, "Hey, don't blow off the idea. Crowley might be willing to help, you never know. The dude's got some serious chops, you know that. And so does Rowena. They might be able to do something, or at least they might know something. It's worth asking."

"No, you're right," says Dean. "We should ask. I'll call him tomorrow." With a sigh, he takes another swallow of beer.

 


 

After about only another five minutes of silently finishing off their beers, they head to bed. As they walk together down the hallway, Sam asks, "Hey, do you think one of us should stay up to keep an eye on him?" He eyes Dean from the side, looking him up and down. "You look wiped out, but I could stay up with him."

But Sam looks like he's struggling just to keep his own eyes open. Dean shakes his head.

"He says he's good now, just tired," says Dean. "And remember, I've got that baby monitor thing you bought last week. So, I'll be able to hear him if he needs any help."

This is half true; Dean will be able to hear him, but not because of the baby monitor (which is actually still packed away in Dean's duffel). The reason Dean'll be able to hear Cas is because Dean's planning to spend the night right next to him.

He's unclear on why he doesn't just say this to Sam. It wouldn't be a big deal; it's clear Cas still might need some help, and Sam wouldn't think anything of it. But...

Jury of my peers, Dean thinks. It's late, and they're both tired, and it seems simplest not to go into it just yet.

He's really not planning to mislead Sam, and yet somehow it develops that way. An absurd little dance develops while Dean and Sam are both prepping for bed, in which Dean keeps trying to calculate when Sam has retreated permanently to his room — when, in other words, it'll be safe to walk down the hall to Cas's room. Dean's hovering in his bedroom trying to decide whether the coast is clear, but just when he steps out of his door, there's Sam making a last-second bathroom visit. So Dean veers to the kitchen for a glass of water.

Then it seems like the coast might be clear again, but suddenly Sam's walking down the hall to check on the laundry, of all things. (Apparently there's a big load of chemo-soiled towels that Sam's putting through a couple cycles in the washer.)

Dean ends up sitting in his own room for nearly an hour until Sam finally finishes a whole series of unexpected late-night tasks. Dean passes the time by setting up the baby monitor in his room, just to complete the charade.

This is ridiculous, Dean thinks, as he props the receiver on his nightstand and checks the transmitter over. But still he waits, checking the batteries and adjusting the volume, and then he sits quietly on his bed in the dark. Until, at last, he hears Sam shuffle down the hall one last time to his own room.

"G'night," calls out Sam, softly, as he passes Dean's door.

"Night," Dean replies through the door.

Dean waits another ten minutes, just to be sure.

The bunker's quiet. The hallway's empty. Sam's gone to bed.

Dean inches his door open. The coast is clear, this time. Finally! He makes his way down the hall almost on tip-toe, on stockinged feet, safely past Sam's door to Cas's room. Dean's got the baby monitor's transmitter half in one hand, and his phone in the other. The transmitter is, of course, completely unnecesary, and the phone is really just so that he can set himself an early-morning alarm in order to scoot back to his own room in the morning, before Sam gets up.

He's aware, as he slips into Cas's room and inches the door shut behind himself, that this is all absurd. Nonetheless he sets up the baby monitor, and carefully sets his phone alarm for six-twenty in the morning. Sam usually gets up at six-forty or so, to do a seven a.m. morning run before breakfast, even in winter. Dean's actually rolling his eyes at himself as he sets the alarm, putting the volume down low so it won't wake Cas, and sets it on the little bedside table, on the far side of Cas's bed. (My side, Dean's already thinking of it.)

I'll sort it out later, Dean thinks. I'll tell Sam later.

One step at a time.

Then, at last, for the first time since Sunday night, he slips into bed next to Castiel.

Under the covers.

But nothing exciting happens. Dean's exhausted, and Cas is still practically comatose. In fact, Cas barely stirs when Dean first slides under the sheets; he rouses only slightly, murmurs, "Oh, you're back," rolls over clumsily toward Dean and falls right back asleep. Cas ends up tilted a little awkwardly against Dean's shoulder and side, snoring a little, with one hand draped at random over Dean's stomach. Nothing's happening, and nothing's going to happen. But that's fine; Dean wasn't at all expecting anything to happen.

It's enough just to be here.

It's enough just to be close. Despite the exhaustion, despite even that ridiculous farce he just went through with the tiptoeing down the hallway and the baby monitor and the phone, it's all worth it just to feel Cas so near again. Cas's body weight is lying heavily against Dean's side now, and he's wonderfully warm, and solid, and close. A wave of something like relief goes rolling through Dean. It's as if he's found his way home at last, making his way out of a blinding blizzard into a warm, cozy home, and he even finds himself letting out a couple of big, deep, exhausted sighs.

And after a couple more moments of lying there, Dean realizes there's a familiar sensation in the air above him. That faint soft presence, once again; that hint of warmth. As if something long and large and soft, something invisible, something that is not there but is there in some sense, has just extended across Dean's chest.

Dean leans his head against Cas's, closes his eyes, and slides into sleep.

 


 

All too soon Dean's phone is buzzing on the nightstand. He almost groans as he scrambles to turn it off before it wakes Cas, and then he blinks at the screen in sleepy confusion for several long moments; can it really be morning already? Dean's still so incredibly tired. And Cas's bed (not to mention Cas himself) seems so very warm and appealing that it's simply horrible to think of getting out of the bed.

But it has to be done, doesn't it?

Or else Sam will find out.

Dean drags himself out of bed. Cas gives a faint murmur of complaint as he slips away, and Dean leans back over to him to whisper, "You sleep a little longer. Sleep as long as you want."

"'Kay," mutters Cas, wrapping his arms around Dean's pillow. He seems to already be back asleep again, so Dean tiptoes through the dark to the door. But just as Dean sets his hand on the doorknob, Cas says, suddenly sounding much more awake, "Dean, wait."

The light clicks on; Cas is sitting up in bed now, one hand still stretched out to his bedside lamp. The monkey hat's slightly askew on his head, and he's blinking with that just-woken-up look. But as he folds his hands quietly in his lap, his eyes flick up and down over Dean's body with disconcerting alertness. He seems to be scrutinizing Dean, and he's got that classic squinty frown on his face.

It's the look he gets sometimes when he's trying to assess whether Dean's acting normal. Whether or not Dean might be in trouble. And whether Cas can do anything to help.

"Are you going back to your own room?" Cas asks, with alarming prescience. When Dean hesitates, Cas adds, "Dean, do you want me not to tell Sam anything?"

Now Dean's totally tongue-tied. Somehow it had not occurred to him, at all, that hiding things from Sam means asking Cas to hide things from Sam too.

Which essentially means asking Cas to lie. To his own friend.

The room's so quiet that for a moment Dean can hear his own heartbeat.

Cas takes a breath and says, into the silence, "I know that there's... well, societal constraints, shall we say. I won't say I understand them, but I really don't want to cause you any trouble. Whatever arrangement you prefer, just let me know. And also... uh...." He stops here a moment, glancing down at himself, while Dean blinks at him mutely. Cas's hands tighten slightly on each other, and he's still gazing down into his lap as he says, "I recognize that this vessel isn't the type you'd normally be interested in. It's the wrong sex for you. I'm aware of that." A rueful look passes over his face as he repeats, "I'm very well aware of that. And also, now, my vessel is... well... in very substandard condition, let's say. In all sorts of ways." He takes a slow breath and adds, "You've already been so generous, Dean. But you don't have to continue with all this. If you want to return to the way things were, that's fine." He raises his gaze back to Dean, his eyes dark and solemn as he concludes, "Just because I'm ill doesn't mean you have to keep sleeping in my bed."

And just like that, all of Dean's plans for the morning shift. All his plans for the day, and for the week; all of his plans for his life, really.

Dean takes a breath, lets it out wordlessly, takes another, and finally says to Cas, "I'll be back in, like, an hour tops. I'm just gonna go talk to Sam. I'll bring him up to speed. You don't have to hide anything."

"But you don't have to sleep with me," Cas repeats, now with extra emphasis, as if he's worried Dean didn't fully hear him the first time. "You don't have to. You don't have to do anything you don't want to do. Honestly, I just want you to be happy."

It's a blunt declaration, disarming in its simplicity: I just want you to be happy.

All at once Dean's reminded of a similar phrase he heard not all that long ago: Let yourself be happy.

Mom's advice, back in that weird rose garden in Portland. That strange episode seems so long ago now that her final words to Dean had almost slipped his mind, but it all comes back now: Let yourself be happy, she'd said.

Had she known?

Had she seen it, somehow, from up there in Heaven?

"I'm doing exactly what I want to do, Cas," says Dean, and as he heads out into the hallway to tell Sam frickin' everything, he knows it's the truth.

 


 

Dean walks down the dark hallway, but he doesn't tiptoe back to his room as he'd planned originally. Instead he goes to the kitchen, starts the coffeemaker, and sits in a chair and waits.

He's on his second mugful of coffee, turning the mug around in his hands nervously, when Sam finally comes shuffling into the kitchen. Sam's already clad in his winter running outfit (fleece-lined running tights that Dean never misses an opportunity to make fun of, and a light polarfleece jacket). He's got his running shoes in one hand, and he's rubbing his eyes sleepily with the other. "Oh, hey," he says to Dean. "You're up early. Cas okay?"

"He's fine," says Dean. "Slept all night. No issues."

"You checked in on him yet?" says Sam, glancing over his shoulder toward the hallway. "Today, I mean? Or should I?"

This is it. Dean steels himself and says, "Actually...uh, I spent the night with him."

"Oh, yeah?" says Sam. "That's probably smart." He turns away to pour himself a mugful of coffee and slugs down a few swallows, his back to Dean.

He seems totally cool with it! Totally unphased!

.... though he's so cool with it, so blase, yawning now as he shuffles back to the table and drinks some more coffee, that it's clear that Sam isn't really getting it.

So Dean forces himself to add, "Yeah, um.... I spent Sunday night with him too. Couple other nights recently too."

Sam takes this in without apparent interest. "Yeah, I noticed you were gone on Sunday. He's okay though, now, right?"

"Yeah. Look, I just..." Dean takes a breath. "I just wanted to say... I might be spending the night in his room again. Pretty often, maybe. Just wanted you to know."

"Yeah, okay," Sam says. He's bending over to his feet now, fiddling with his socks. Dean's heart sinks; Sam's still not getting it. In fact he seems much more interested in his socks than in anything else right now — apparently they're both bunched up wrong, for Sam spends a few moments adjusting each sock, one foot at a time, before he shoves his feet into his shoes. Partway through this, he glances up and seems to notice Dean's tension, for he says, "Just so long as the two of you aren't getting married or anything, right?"

Sam chuckles at his own joke, and Dean goes absolutely still.

Sam says, "Chill, dude, I was joking." He yawns again and starts tying his shoes, adding, "I know it's not like that."

As Sam finishes tying the first shoe and starts on the other, Dean sits frozen, trying to figure out what to say.

Was that just a completely innocent joke, the thing about the getting-married? Or could there have been a barbed edge to it?

Could it possibly even have been a deliberate warning?

.... or no, probably it was just a half-awake lame joke that Sam hadn't really even thought through. Right? Right?

There's still time to say something; there's time to clear this all up and set Sam straight before he heads out on his run. There's a wide open silence stretching out now, and there's plenty of time here to explain. But a horrid possibility has arisen now, one where Sam actually truly isn't cool with it. Scenarios start coming to mind, playing out rapidly in Dean's imagination like tiny glimpses into possible futures; one where there's a long awkward phase of Sam adjusting... another where he never adjusts at all, where he totally freaks out about it, so badly that maybe Dean and Cas have to actually move somewhere else.

The worst possibilities are parading through Dean's mind now, in bright and vivid color, and for a very long several moments he can't say anything at all. Instead he stands and pours himself yet another mugful of coffee (his third), and leans against the sink to drink it. He slugs it down in a single long swallow, and realizes he's having to grip the mug in both hands because his hands are shaking. And he's pretty sure it's not because of the caffeine.

A full minute ticks by; Dean pours himself a fourth mug of coffee and then just holds the mug in both hands, not even bothering to try to drink it. Sam's finished tying his shoes, and now Sam's pulling on the polarfleece running jacket. Dean watches while Sam does up the zipper, and checks that his running gloves are in the pocket. Sam heads for the map-room. Towards the stairs, that is, and towards the front door.

The moment's slipping away. Dean trails after him into the map-room, still clutching his mug of cooling coffee.

"Well, see ya," says Sam, and Dean drifts to a halt by the map-table, watching Sam go up the stairs.

Sam's halfway up the staircase, his feet clattering noisily up the iron steps, when Dean finally manages to blurt out, "Actually, it is like that."

Sam pauses near the top of the staircase and turns toward Dean, one hand on the iron staircase railing. There's a puzzled expression on his face as he looks down at Dean, who's still standing at the map-table, gripping the coffee mug tightly in both hands.

"What?" Sam says. His head's a little cocked in confusion, like he's not sure what he just heard.

Dean feels his face going warm.

"It is like that," repeats Dean.

Sam's just staring at him blankly.

Dean tries to clarify with: "You just said, it's not like we're, uh... getting married... and, um, what if it IS like that. I mean, not the married part exactly. We're not getting married. Heh, well, I don't think. Who knows. Early days, right? But..."

An incredibly terrifying silence follows this disjointed statement. The silence seems to grow, and grow, till it's pressing down on the entire room like a tremendous invisible boulder. Finally Dean's compelled to break the awful silence with something, anything, so he takes a jerky breath and adds, "Anyway, it kinda is like that. I think."

Sam's still just blinking down at him.

"You think?" Sam finally says. "You're not sure?"

"Just the one time so far," Dean says. "Though it was kinda just... one-way...."

"One... way?" says Sam.

He sounds so confused that Dean literally has to bite his tongue to keep himself from saying "I haven't had a chance to blow Cas yet." Dean swallows back that unwise phrase, and his throat now seems to be getting so tight that he wonders if he's about to choke, or might be having some kind of peculiar heart attack. But he finally manages to continue with, "But... the point is, uh... there's, y'know, something going on, I guess. And I wouldn't mind if... uh.... if the something continues. I mean, I wouldn't mind, is all I'm saying, though, uh, I don't know what he wants really. Honestly, I think he's just in this carpe-diem frame of mind or something, cause, I mean, I don't think I'm all that, not at all, but, he just sorta went for it... and, I, just... well, anyway, not complaining here, but it kinda accelerated all of a sudden. But, Sam, he's so sick. I mean, there's things like... he doesn't even think he's gonna be around long enough to heal his wings! He doesn't think he even has that much time yet! And, shit, he still won't tell me what the hell it is! What stage or anything." All the worries are suddenly spilling out, all the gnawing uncertainty about Cas's cancer, as Dean goes on, "He seems so sick this time, Sam, it's worse than before, it's worse even than last week— I don't know what's gonna happen." And right around here Dean realizes he's not talking at all about the sex anymore. The sex is not the most important part; he's talking, of course, about whether Cas is going to die.

Dean goes on, while Sam watches silently, "I just don't know what's gonna happen. I was thinking, we should take him to see some national parks or something, and just... fun things, you know? Like, I don't know, an amusement park? But it's the middle of winter. Maybe just some movies? He really likes movies, you've seen how into them he gets, so I was thinking he might like to go to an actual theater, the new kind with the fancy seats. He could just lay back in the fancy seats. With some popcorn. Maybe see the new Star Wars or something. We just showed him the old one, right? He just saw A New Hope just last week, right? And all those plots Metatron stuffed into his head, that was all just past movies, not future ones, so, I realized, he knows all the past Star Wars but he doesn't know the new ones! So I thought he might like to see the one that just came out. But what if this week's the only chance? What if it's the only chance, Sam? Cause, Rogue One's been selling out all week!" Dean's a little confused to find himself zeroing in on the topic of how to make sure that Castiel gets to see Rogue One in a theater with the fancy reclining seats, but suddenly he can't seem to think about anything else, and he adds, "I already checked, and, in Hastings, there's just that one good theater and Rogue One's been selling out like every night—"

"Dean," Sam says.

"Yeah?" (It comes out as a soft little gasp of a word, for Dean's having some trouble drawing a full breath of air.)

"He's gonna be okay."

"You think?" Dean says, and his voice goes almost squeaky in his desperation to believe this. His eyes are stinging now, and he has to set the mug down on the map-table just in order to swipe his hand across his eyes.

"Yeah, he's gonna be okay," Sam says. "That's really what I think." Dean glances up to find, though, that Sam's actually still got rather a deer-in-the-headlights look, and he still seems pinned in place, in mid-stride halfway up the stairs. Sam says, slowly, "So, just to back up a second here, if I can set aside the Rogue One ticket issue for just a sec... ah, just to be clear here... uh... did you mean that you... and Cas... are... uh.... like... sleeping.....together?"

"Um. Yeah, I guess."

"You guess? I mean, by sleeping you mean... not sleeping?"

Dean nods. He manages to add, "But just the one time, like I said. So far."

"Just the one time so far," Sam repeats, a little robotically, like he's still taking it in. "And... there's gonna be more times?"

"I don't know," Dean says, and once again he's perilously near tears.

Sam's regrouping. He sounds a lot steadier as he asks, "What I meant was, do you want there to be more times?"

That's the question, isn't it? That's the real question; that's the reason for this whole talk, but Dean can't even speak now. So he nods. He nods several times; he nods a dozen times. He wants to convey to Sam how strangely this has all unfolded, how unexpected it's been, and yet how right it feels, how right and wonderful and... downright thrilling, really; but how awful and terrifying it's been too, what with knowing that Cas may not have much time left. But all he can do is nod. And now Sam's clattering back down the staircase, and striding over to the map table very fast, and giving Dean a sudden, very much unexpected, and completely rib-crushing hug.

Stop fucking crying, Dean then has to tell himself, because it's not just a single-man-tear this time, and not just a single manly swipe of a manly hand across the eyes; he's getting downright snuffly and he needs a frickin' Kleenex now. Not to mention his hands are shaking again. Whether it's from relief about Sam or from worry about Cas is hard to tell, but whatever the cause, Sam must feel it, for he tightens his grip and hangs on for surprisingly long, till Dean says, "All right, all right, jeez, let go already, what the fuck, are you gay or something?"

At that Sam lets out a bark of laughter and lets go, and suddenly it's all okay.

"Okay, I, uh, I'll admit I did not entirely see this coming," says Sam.

"But it's cool?" Dean asks.

"Of course it's cool, are you frickin' kidding me?" says Sam, sounding almost insulted. "What kind of a question is that? Oh and—" (Sam suddenly looks dismayed) "—oh, damn, promise me you will forget completely about that stupid joke I said. The married thing. I was just kidding, I swear. It was just a joke, a really lame joke, and it was only a joke just because I was thinking it wasn't that, y'know? But if it is that, that's fine, I just didn't know that that's what it was — oh wait, shit, did I crack another joke like that earlier?" (Sam looks practically consumed with guilt now.) "Back when we were watching, what was it, Planes Trains and Automobiles? Why didn't you just punch me? Dean, man, you should have punched me! I just didn't know. I just thought... I assumed... look, I always thought you were only into girls, y'know?"

"Mostly into girls," Dean corrects.

"Mostly..." Sam repeats. He takes a breath, running a hand through his hair, and mutters, "Mostly. Got it."

"Not a hundred percent of the time, apparently," says Dean.

"Yeah... got it...." says Sam. After a moment he says, rather thoughtfully, "You know, I really should've realized when you about passed out when we met Dr. Sexy that one time—"

"I did not pass out!"

"No, just blushed like a frickin' twelve year old girl and lost the ability to talk for like five minutes, that's all. Look, uh, just, uh, putting the puzzle pieces together here. Gimme a sec to adjust, okay?"

"Take all the seconds you want," says Dean, wiping his nose on his sleeve. "I'm still not adjusted myself."

Sam takes a long look at Dean, rummages in his pocket, pulls out a Kleenex and hands it to Dean. Dean blows his nose, muttering, "I'm such a frickin' mess."

"It's allowed," says Sam. "Dean, he's gonna be okay, I swear."

"I really fucking hope so," says Dean, stuffing the Kleenex in his back pocket.

"I got some ideas. Remember, there's some things we can try. Crowley and all." And just like that, Sam seems to have shifted gears to the much more urgent topic: the cancer. He looks toward the library, and says, nodding toward the library table (where, Dean now realizes, a certain black book is sittting), "And also, that book there. The angel book. I think we gotta read that whole book. I've only gotten up to chapter 5, but it's definitely got some info about angels that we didn't know. Maybe you can take on some of the other chapters? The more we learn about angels, about how their bodies really function, how they fit into vessels and all — the more we learn, the better, I think."

"I'll get right on it," says Dean, nodding eagerly. "Chapter 6. I'm on it. I'll read Chapter 6 while you're on your run."

"Okay, you do that, and I was gonna do some thinking about other options while I run, and we'll pow-wow when I get back." Sam starts to turn toward the staircase again, but then pauses and glances over his shoulder at Dean with a narrow look. "You weren't thinking I was gonna truly freak out or anything, were you?"

"What? No," says Dean. "Of course not. No, not at all."

"Cause I'd be pretty insulted if you that's what you were thinking," Sam says. "You weren't thinking, oh, what if Sam totally freaks out and we have to move out, or some bullshit like that?"

"Of course not," says Dean. He hesitates and adds, "Well, only a little."

"Jerk," Sam says.

"Bitch," Dean replies automatically. Sam grins at him, and Dean can't help grinning back; then Sam lunges at him with one more hug, thumps him hard on the back, says, "Don't move out," and with that he lets go and dashes upstairs.

"Don't forget Chapter 6," Sam calls out as he's headed out the door.

"On it," Dean replies, and Sam's gone.

 


 

 

A/N - More as soon as I get a chance. My samba band's leading one of those pro-women, anti-Trump marches tomorrow, apparently through a howling blizzard and two feet of snow, but they say that a volunteer  "shovel brigade" has materialized to shovel the snow in front of us so that the march can happen. So, I gotta do my civic duty there and drum my little hands off for the cause, with a flask of Trump-B-Gone in my pocket to help out, but assuming I don't die of hypothermia I will get back to the fic Sat evening or Sunday. Hope to have more for you soon.

Thank you for reading! As always, please let me know if you liked this. I always love to hear from you!!

Chapter Text

A/N - Just got this one done. Hope you enjoy.

 


 

Once the front door's closed, Dean stands there a few moments longer, rubbing his forehead with one hand as he tries to settle himself back down.

The world's turned upside-down. Definitely upside-down.

Yet, impossibly, it's ended up rolling all the way around until it's somehow gone right-side-up again.

"Weirdest brother chat ever," Dean finally mutters to himself. He needs to blow his nose again; he knows there's a big box of Kleenex in the kitchen, so he picks up the mug of coffee (now ice-cold), heads to the kitchen, grabs a huge fistful of Kleenexes and blows his nose. Twice.

Then he throws out all the used Kleenexes, and stuffs his pockets with a bunch of clean ones (just in case). He sets the mug in the sink and splashes some cold water on his face; it feels very good, and Dean lingers there by the sink for a moment, dampening a dishtowel and holding it on his closed eyes. As he wipes his face dry with another towel, he's a little startled to find that he despite all the completely ridiculous tears, despite all the confusion, and despite all the lingering anxiety and fear about Cas, he's actually feeling hopeful.

He feels downright good, actually. And not just because Sam had been so frickin' cool about the whole Cas thing, the coming-out speech or the Rogue-One speech or whatever the hell that had been. Obviously Sam's support is great — really great. But the other reason Dean's feeling hopeful now is also just that Sam seemed so sure that Cas'll be okay.

Not that Sam has any inside info or anything about Cas's condition. But still, it's tremendous boost even to just be reminded that the future is not necessarily hopeless.

Dean pats his face dry and starts to wash out his coffee mug. He glances down the hall as he does so, and something occurs to him: he can go to Cas's room any time he wants. Even when Sam's around.

It's a heady thought. Dean actually pauses for a moment, coffee cup frozen in his hand, tap water running down the drain unnoticed, as it sinks in.

I can go to Cas's room and hang out for hours, he thinks. Sam won't mind. Sam won't think anything of it.

I can sleep there at night! In Cas's room. In his bed. WITH him. (His next thought is, Though, probably should keep the volume down.)

Or he can come to my room. That'd work too.

I can take him out for drives or whatever, and Sam'll get it. I can take him to see Rogue One, and Sam'll get it. I can take him out see the Grand Canyon or whatever, and Sam'll get it. I don't have to come up with a story, I don't have to come up with some stupid rationale, I don't have to even think about it. I can just do it.

We can even sit together on the couch in the bunker when we're all hanging out....

Not that Dean's planning to rub Sam's face in it or anything, of course. Gonna act civilized, of course, around Sam, he thinks. No wild make-out sessions. No horny teen stuff. Because, as awesome as Sam has acted today, it's gotta be an adjustment nonetheless. It's an adjustment for everyone. (Not to mention that's never that fun to feel like a third wheel, regardless of the genders involved. And even if the other two wheels are your best buds.)

And it's an intense relief, too, to realize that he's not going to have to ask Cas to lie about anything.

Dean's almost humming to himself as he finally gets moving again. He scrubs out the mug almost merrily, rinses it and sets in the dish strainer, and then he grabs another dishtowel and heads to the library. Where he stands by the broad table, drying his hands carefully on the towel, as he looks down at a certain large black book:

 


 

 

The Physiology of Angels

With Notes on Behavior

and

Additional Observations

by

Knut Schmidt-Nielsen

 


 

Dean dries every finger thoroughly before he lets himself touch the book, for it's clearly an old book, and very likely a rare one. It's been read before; the corners of the thick black cover are rounded with wear, the spine creased with use. The Men of Letters must've studied it, thinks Dean, as he drapes the dishtowel over one shoulder and picks it up.

It's an intimidatingly big book, actually — almost a foot tall, some eight inches wide, and at least an inch and a half thick. It's heavy in his hands. He balances it in his left hand, strokes one forefinger over the worn cover for a moment, then lifts it open.

The heavy cover falls open quietly, leaning against his forearm. A soft scent wafts up from thick cream-colored pages, a faint mixture of worn leather, of inkwells, of old paper and dusty library shelves. Dean can almost imagine the Men of Letters sitting here as they read it, sipping their martinis and whiskey as they sat and studied in the big upholstered chairs; there'd have been a soft hum of activity in the background, dishes clattering in the kitchen, the old radio playing quietly in the background...

Dean leans over and sniffs the pages for a moment. It seems there's a hint of some other scent, too... not just a Men-of-Letters library odor, but something else. The faintest scent of heather, or, perhaps, of mountain air.

Dean straightens up, flips past the title page and comes to the Table of Contents. It reads:


Author's Preface

  1. The Variety of Angels
  2. The Angel's True Form
  3. Dimensions, Wavelengths and the Etheric Plane
  4. Vessels and Possession
  5. Grace and Power
  6. Wings, Feathers and Flight
  7. Senses And Communication
  8. Healing, Time-Travel and Other Angelic Abilities
  9. Holy Fire and Other Weaknesses
  10. The Question of Lifespan and Death
  11. Behavior and the Expression of Emotion
  12. Additional Observations

Glossary (with Publisher's Note)

Acknowledgments


 

Chapter Ten, "The Question of Lifespan and Death", catches Dean's eye (the word "Death" seems to jump out rather aggressively). But Dean resolutely turns to Chapter Six instead, still balancing the book across his left hand and forearm as he flips through the pages. Illustrations start flickering past, and when Dean comes to Chapter Six he finds there's a carefully detailed illustration of a single feather on the left-hand page, opposite the first page of the chapter text. The feather illustration is printed on a smoother, more expensive paper stock and is protected by a translucent sheet of rice paper. Dean leafs the delicate rice paper aside and studies the illustration, which is of a small snow-white feather about four inches long, slightly curved.

Every detail of the feather is perfectly captured, each and every tiny fibril laid out with a precisely hand-inked line. There are tiny text labels pointing out certain parts, a whole feather-vocabulary that Dean has never known existed: Outer vane. Inner vane. Rachis. Notch. Calamus. Barbs. Plumulaceous section. Pennaceous section. After-feather.

"And I thought a feather was just a feather," Dean mutters. It occurs to him, then, as he looks at the illustration, that the dimensions and the shape of the white feather look familiar. Soon he places it; in shape and size it looks remarkably like the black feather from Cas's dresser drawer, the one that Cas had been making a drawing of the other day. Other than the white color of this one in the book, it could be exactly the same feather.

Below the illustration is a neat hand-lettered legend:

Figure 6.1. Fresh-molted alula-feather of an adult seraph, from left wing, while seraph inhabiting human vessel. Drawn to 1:1 scale.

Dean flips past a few more pages and soon comes to another illustration, this one showing a fully spread wing. It's an impressive arc of a wing; a human vessel is drawn for scale and the wing seems truly immense in comparison, far bigger than even an eagle's wing. It must be some eight or nine feet long, a gleaming fan of dozens and dozens of perfectly aligned feathers stretched out in parallel arrays, almost architectural in their tidy organization. Groups of feathers are labeled with more of those tiny, elegant hand-lettered notes: Primaries seem to be the longest flight feathers on the outer part of the wing, Secondaries the ones on the middle part, Tertials on the inside. Layers of delicate smaller feathers are labeled Greater Coverts, Lesser Coverts, and "Superior Coverts (Seraphs only)." Two tiny little extensions at the main joint of the wing are labeled "Alulae (cf. alulas)." There are a dozen other labels as well.

The figure legend reads:

Figure 6.2. Spread wing of an adult seraph, with major feather tracts labeled. The alulae, or alulas, are doubled in seraphs only.

"Adult seraph," murmurs Dean, reading the figure legend again.

Adult seraph. It's odd to think of Cas in such dry terms. It hammers home that Cas is a different species. Angel... seraph....

Not just a man at all, as much as he may look like one.

It's always a little odd to be reminded of that fundamental truth. It's also odd to realize, as Dean studies Figure 6.2, that Castiel probably has (or, at least, had?) this full impressive array of feather types. All the different shapes, with all the different names; this is part of Castiel's true body. So of course, Cas must know all this stuff inside and out... the terms, the vocabulary, all sorts of stuff about wing anatomy. He's had these huge wings his whole long life. It must all be second nature to him.

And it's clearly something he cares about. Or else why would he be making drawings of his very last feather?

It's something that matters to Cas, and Dean knows absolutely nothing about it.

I gotta read this whole book., Dean thinks, closing the book thoughtfully. Not just Chapter Six like Sam said, but the whole thing. The whole thing.

But there's something else he needs to do too — something he needs to do first, actually, a promise he needs to keep. Earlier this morning, Dean told Castiel that he'd be back in an hour. He checks his phone now; it's been an hour, and the "adult seraph" might be waiting. So Dean tucks the big book securely under one arm and heads down the hallway.

I'll just talk to Cas for a bit, he thinks. Give him the update. And then I'll get right to work on Chapter Six. And the rest of the book too.

 


 

It turns out Cas is awake. When Dean knocks on the door and slowly inches it open, Cas is seated at his desk, his drawing-pad in front of him and a cardboard box of messy-looking charcoals lying open, a few chunky-looking big gray erasers sitting here and there and a water bottle off to the side. He's turned on his little desk light (the houseplant is sitting directly under it), and he looks up with a pleased smile and a warm, "Dean. Come in."

He's still in his sleeping clothes (t-shirt and sweats), supplemented now with the blanket from the bed, which he seems to have wound around his waist for extra warmth.

"You didn't go back to sleep?" Dean says. "I thought you'd be exhausted."

"I am, actually," Cas confesses — and now Dean can see the dark circles under his eyes, and a certain heavy-lidded look to his expression. "I couldn't fall back asleep." He turns back to his drawing-pad with an expression of forced nonchalance, and as he adds one more dark line to the page, he adds, a little too casually, "So... uh... I happened to hear Sam's door open, a while ago. And... so... I... suppose I was wondering if...."

"He's totally cool with it," says Dean, with a grin.

Cas's head snaps up and he looks at Dean sharply, all the nonchalance gone.

"You spoke with him?" says Cas.

"Told you I would, didn't I?"

"Yes, but I thought you'd chicken out," Cas says.

Dean can't help laughing. "Jeez, dude, have a little faith!"

"I have far more faith in you than I do in God," Cas says, quite seriously, "but even so I thought you'd chicken out."

"Yeah, okay, to be honest I almost did," Dean confesses. He sets the book down (Cas gives it a sharp glance, one eyebrow raised), and adds, "But, well, y'know, this one matters." Cas just blinks at that, looking back up at him, and Dean goes on, "Anyway, yeah, I spoke with him. Told him everything."

Cas narrows his eyes. "Even the fellatio?"

Dean laughs again. "Word to the wise, I don't think he's gonna want the exact anatomical details. But he's got the general idea. He's cool with it, Cas; he was, like, amazingly cool. Still adjusting to the idea in general, I think, but honestly it couldn't've gone better. I think we can, like.... sit together and stuff, you know? Like, for movies, at dinner. I mean, if we want to."

Cas still seems a little skeptical. He thinks for a moment, still looking up at Dean, and then he asks, "Did you have a heartwarming brotherly hug?"

"What?"

"A heartwarming brotherly hug. I've noticed you two do that sometimes. It's generally a good sign."

"Uh... Yeah, actually. Yeah, we did."

"Really?" Cas brightens at the news, and he finally sets down his piece of charcoal and leans back a little in his chair. "That's... that's... quite a relief, actually," he says. "A considerable relief, I have to admit. I was getting a little worried. You were gone for quite a while. I could hear there was some kind of a conversation going on — I snuck out to the back bathroom at one point for a shower, but I didn't want to eavesdrop, so I just had the shower and came back here." He lets out a sigh, repeats, "Oh, that's quite a relief," and now he's slumping so much in his chair that Dean wonders if Cas spent the entire last hour here just worrying about how it was going.

"Dude, it's really okay," says Dean, taking a step closer to squeeze his shoulder. Though, in fact, Dean's now feeling a little hesitant. There are green lights and go-aheads from all sides now, but, paradoxically, the fact that all obstacles seem to have suddenly been removed makes Dean totally unsure about what to do next. (Do they have to be totally couple-y now? Or can they just chill? What's the normal next step?) He settles for patting Cas's monkey hat, and adds, "Have you been up this whole time? Just sitting here?"

"Oh, I was just doing a little drawing," Cas says, and suddenly he goes a little tense again. He starts to pile the scattered charcoals and erasers into their cardboard box, adding, "It's nothing, though, just something to pass the time." He now seems to be trying to subtly shield the drawing from view, mostly by leaning forward and blocking Dean's line of sight, so of course Dean sidles sideways, leans right over him and stares at the drawing pad, even angling the desk lamp shamelessly to give it some more light. Cas gives up pretty easily; with just a little sigh, he slumps back in his chair again and lets Dean take a look. "It's not coming out right," he complains.

At first Dean can't even figure out what it's supposed to be. The painting seems to be just a sheet of darkness, all muted shades of dark grays and blacks, with indistinct lines and contours here and there. It's like a close-up view of a dark storm cloud. In what way is this a moment to remember? , Dean wonders, leaning closer still, and all at once it snaps into focus: it's a view of somebody's shoulder, viewed from behind.

The angle is unusual, as if peering over a sleeping person's shoulder from very close. Most of the foreground is just the dim rounded hump of one shoulder, and there's a muscled bicep partly visible. Beyond the shoulder is a faint impression of a hand curled on a bundle of bedding. There's a dreamy aura of restfulness over the whole painting; the soft grays and blacks lend it a calm, peaceful quality, and the more Dean looks at it, the more the soft lines seem to come into focus. Over at one side, he realize, is the slope of the person's neck; just below that, a curved, folded line is the collar of their t-shirt; the impressionistic strokes above that are the dim outline of their head in the dark. There's even a very delicately detailed rendering of the short hair at the nape of the neck.

Oh.

"Is that... me?" Dean asks.

Cas colors a little, and swallows, but he nods. "I hope you don't mind. I just... well, since I couldn't get back to sleep, I thought I might try to capture this image while it was still fresh in my head. It's nothing much." He folds his arms over the wad of blanket that's still rolled up around his waist, frowning at the drawing. "Just a view in the dark. I woke up last night for a little while and I just happened to have this angle for a little bit. Just for a few minutes. I didn't want to wake you." His initial shyness seems to be evaporating; now he seems to be caught up in evaluating the drawing, and soon he's virtually scowling at it. "It's not quite right though. It's missing something. I haven't captured it...."

"Looks like you captured it fine," says Dean, who's slowly starting to take in that this hazy middle-of-the-night view of Dean asleep, just Dean asleep in the dark and nothing really happening at all, was apparently a moment that Castiel wants to preserve and remember.

"No, I haven't captured what it was like," says Cas. "What it felt like, I mean." He reaches out and starts putting the last of the charcoals away. Some of the charcoals seem to be normal pencils, but some seem to be more like raw chunks of something like actual charcoal, and Cas's hands are blackened with it. They're getting blacker still as he fiddles with the charcoals, and after a moment more of watching Cas rearrange the charcoals in their little box, and arrange them again, Dean realizes Cas is probably as uncertain about the next move as he is.

"We could, um," says Cas. "I guess we could have some breakfast. Or, you know, I wouldn't actually mind lying down again—"

"Let's lie down then," suggests Dean.

"Yes," says Cas in relief, nodding. Though his face falls a moment later. "I actually am quite tired, is the only problem. I'm still a little concerned that you shouldn't feel obliged to upend your life—"

"Cas," Dean say, and Cas falls silent, looking up at him.

An almost magical stillness settles over the little room. Cas is looking up at Dean now with a studious frown on his face, and Dean has the impression that Cas is trying to memorize the contours of Dean's face, maybe for some later drawing. The quiet pool of amber light from the little desk lamp is slanting over Cas's face from the side; half his face is in shadow, and the tassels of the monkey hat frame the sides of his face What with the pile of bedding wrapped around him like some kind of peculiar old-time cape, and the darkened room behind him, he looks, once again, like a medieval angel from some ancient painting.

He's beautiful, Dean thinks. Many times Dean has found himself looking at Castiel; many times, for many years. But he's never quite allowed himself to verbalize it to himself in this way:

He's beautiful.

No matter how thin he is, no matter how tired, no matter how ill, he's beautiful....

Though Dean's pained to realize, as he gazes at Cas, that in addition to the thinness and the general air of fatigue, Cas is still bruised from when he fell on his face in the Denver hotel three days ago. The next day he'd insisted he was fine, but there's still a dark purplish shadow across one cheek and partway up his nose. His split lip's partly healed, at least; but it's swollen on one side, with a dark scabby spot still showing at the place where it had bled.

"I still think you should've let us get that lip sutured," Dean says, gesturing at Cas's mouth.

"It's healing pretty well, actually," says Cas, lifting one hand to feel at the swollen spot on his lip. "I just have to remember not to smile too much — that's the only time it hurts. I'm not worried about it." He feels at his lip for a moment longer, and then traces his fingers over the bruise on his cheek and nose as well. "Everything's healing fine," he says. But, of course, since he's just been handling the charcoals, everywhere he touches his fingers leave broad smears of black and gray.

Dean can't help grinning. "You doing a new charcoal sketch right on your face?" he points out. "Your bruises weren't dark enough already?"

"Oh," says Cas. He glances at his charcoal-dusted fingers. "I forgot." There's a small damp rag sitting on a saucer nearby, and Cas pulls it closer and starts wiping his hands clean — or relatively clean. Cas then makes a move to wipe his face with the dirty little rag, but Dean reaches out a hand to block him.

"Not sure it's medically advisable to rub art supplies over injuries," Dean points out. "Lemme just— hold on, I actually have some clean Kleenexes here." (Not that he's about to confess that the reason his pockets are full of Kleenex is because Dean was bawling like a baby not twenty minutes ago.) He pulls a clean Kleenex out and dampens it with a bit of water from Cas's water bottle.

"Sit still," Dean orders, leaning closer. As as gently as he can, he wipes the charcoal off of Cas's cheek.

The light's a little wrong; Dean's now casting a broad shadow across Cas's face, so he kneels by Cas's side to get out of the path of the light. Then he has to brace Cas's chin with one hand, in order to angle Cas's face a little toward into the light for a better view. Cas lets Dean turn his head willingly enough. But Cas is watching Dean closely now, his eyes tracking up and down Dean's face. Their faces are only about a foot apart, and the light strikes Cas's eyes. That dazzling blue....

...and all of a sudden the air is crackling with potential, as Dean realizes exactly why he's ended up volunteering to clean Cas's face for him, when Cas could've done this perfectly well on his own. He's a grown man, after all. (Or rather, he's an "adult seraph.")

If he were a girl I'd already be going for the kiss, Dean thinks. But Cas isn't a girl — Cas isn't even a human — and also he's got that bruised lip — and the whole situation is just unfamiliar enough that now Dean's frozen in place, one hand still on Cas's chin. Cas is absolutely motionless too, as if waiting to see what Dean'll do.

Then Dean thinks, If there's a reason I offered to clean his face, there's also a reason he's letting me do it.

The uncertainty shifts into a delicious sense of anticipation.

Charcoal. Get the charcoal off first, Dean thinks. Moving slowly and deliberately, Dean wipes the charcoal from Cas's nose. Stroke by stroke, changing once to a new damp Kleenex, Dean gently cleans the bruises. Then, with extremely delicate dabs of yet another clean damp Kleenex, while kneeling at Cas's side and still bracing Cas's chin with his other hand, Dean cleans all the charcoal off of Cas's split lip.

Cas's eyes are on him every moment.

Dean finally lowers the Kleenex. (His other hand's still on Cas's chin.) Cas lets out a long, slow breath.

"Thank you," says Cas, quietly.

Cas raises his own hand to his chin, places his hand over Dean's, and squeezes Dean's hand lightly. Their faces are only about eight inches apart now as Cas says (still holding Dean's hand to his own face, still watching Dean closely), "I appreciate all the... all the assistance, Dean. All the care. More than you can know. But, you must understand, you really don't have to—"

"Yeah, I'm gonna kiss you now, okay?" says Dean.

Cas shuts up right away, with a rapid little series of nods, so Dean leans in and kisses him.

Dean first kisses him on the unbruised cheek, not right on the mouth (a memory has come to mind of Cas's seeming unfamiliarity with kisses-on-the-mouth, so Dean's planning to home in on that area gradually.) One kiss on the cheek; another; Dean goes slowly, tasting his skin, feeling the odd softness and sparseness of his cheek stubble. Dean turns Cas's chin a little, letting his lips almost glide over Cas's skin, and kisses once more, very near the corner of Cas's mouth now. Cas is breathing a little faster now, and Dean closes his eyes for a moment, breathing in Cas's scent.

Dean's picked up this scent before, in their few evenings together, but now he finally lets himself really concentrate on it. He drinks it in; it's a mix of that mint mouthwash Cas has been using, and the soap he must have used in the shower, and toothpaste... and something else. Something almost outdoorsy, like wind and ozone; like rain, or desert dust, or heather.

Feathers, Dean thinks. Feathers of an adult seraph, and he breaths it in again, their cheeks very close, letting his own warm breath puff out over Cas's skin.

It's Cas who turns his head then, quite suddenly, and goes for the mouth.

It's a little awkward, actually. Cas's first sudden lunge takes Dean by surprise and their teeth knock together, and their noses too. They're also not quite at the right angle; Dean's having to lean forward and reach up a little, while Cas is having to twist his head down. None of this matters at all. It all seems absolutely perfect in every way, for there's nothing in the world but Cas now. Cas is all Dean can see, all he can taste, and all he can feel. Both Cas's hands are cradling Dean's face now, and Dean's somehow got hold of both the tassels of the monkey hat (which turn out to be a really great way to pull Cas closer; almost instantly Dean realizes he can almost steer Cas's head, by pulling on the tassels like reins). As he pulls Cas into a better position, mouth to mouth at last, Cas's mouth is hot and wet and minty and coppery all at once, and again that tantalizing feather scent is in the air. There's abruptly a sense of something all-embracing, something all around. Wings, Dean thinks. His wings are on me, and Cas is all over Dean's mouth now, nibbling at Dean's lips hungrily, the tip of his tongue running over Dean's lips too, probing and curious and delicate, like he's trying to taste everything all at once. And that taste, that scent... heather, mint, copper...

Copper? Wait.

Dean pulls back. Cas's lip is bleeding.

"Dammit!" says Dean, grabbing another Kleenex and dabbing at the cut again. "I was gonna avoid your cut! I was totally gonna avoid it. I forgot, I'm sorry—"

"Oh, that started bleeding right at the beginning, when our teeth bumped," says Cas, "But I don't really care about that at all. Unless it prohibits further kissing, in which case it's a tragedy. Would you like to go back to bed?"

Maybe Chapter Six can wait just one more hour, thinks Dean. Or two.

 


 

 

"I know you're tired, though," Dean says, as Cas shakes himself out of his toga-blanket (he's got it so well wrapped around himself that it takes him a minute to unbundle). Together they spread the blanket out over the bed, and then Cas slides between the sheets on his side, while Dean goes around to the other side. Cas is giving Dean a rather narrow-eyed look as Dean goes on, "I mean, we don't have to do anything, like I was saying last night. If you need more sleep, then just sleep. I even brought a book to read, in case you just wanna conk out. So if you're tired, you just—"

"Yes, yes, Dean, if I get tired I'll sleep," says Cas, reaching out with both hands and yanking Dean closer. "I'm not tired right now though."

"I thought you said you were tired—"

"I've woken up. Could you just get these clothes of yours off before you lie down?"

Mere moments later Dean's stripped down completely. Just like last Sunday. Yet once again Cas has kept his own clothes on. He's just wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt, which really isn't much of a barrier at all, of course, but it makes Dean wonder if Cas might be feeling uncertain about how he looks. About how thin he is, how bruised, how battered.... How ill, really. So Dean tries to remind himself to go slow, and give him time. But Cas seems to have gone straight from zero to sixty again, for just seconds after Dean has finally gotten his own clothes off and has lain back down, Cas shifts closer, presses very close, and then, just like Sunday, he reaches right out and grabs Dean's dick again.

Which of course is getting hard by now.

Cas goes right to work, licking his palm and working his hand up and down, and Dean's soon getting lost in the sensations, eyes closed, starting to thrust into Cas's hand. It's incredibly tempting to just let him continue, but when Cas starts to shift around and burrow his way down under the bedclothes, obviously thinking about giving Dean another blowjob, Dean remembers that Cas still hasn't had his own turn yet.

"Not so fast," Dean says to him, grabbing him the shoulders to halt his descent. "Not that I wouldn't love it, but — your turn, angel. Get back up here." He hauls Cas up, ignoring Cas's inevitable protests ("But, Dean, you deserve—"), rolls toward him, and slides one knee between Cas's legs. Cas shuts up fast then, and there's an electrifying moment when Dean realizes Cas is hard too. Dean can feel it, against his own leg, and the half-formed plan Dean had been developing about how to get Cas's clothes off then has to be tabled for a bit, because all of a sudden it's imperative that Dean just yank him even closer and press even harder against him.

Though, there's a odd hesitation on Cas's part, just for a moment; Cas even makes the faintest move to pull away, but a second later he reverses direction and pushes right back against Dean, hard. Oh, yes, there it is, definitely, a hard rod of pressure nudging through Cas's sweats, pressing right against the side of Dean's cock.

Dean works his lower arm under Cas's waist (Cas helps, lifting up a little), wraps his upper arm around too, and now he's got both hands on Cas's ass. Perfect leverage, Dean thinks, perfect, perfect, pulling him closer, feeling that hard rod press even more firmly against his own stomach. Dean shifts around till their cocks are lined up perfectly, and pulls again. They both let out a gasp at the sensation, and Cas's hands are around Dean's shoulders now. Dean starts kissing him (forgetting all about the split lip, then remembering, then forgetting again), and now Cas seems to be doing genuine hip thrusts, soft rolling movements that seem to have just come over him instinctively. That tantalizing rod of pressure pushes, and pushes again, and pushes again, and it seems even warmer now, and definitely firmer, nudging hard into Dean's stomach. The damn sweatpants are still in the way though, and the more they press together the harder it's getting to get the sweats off. Cas is nibbling Dean's ear now as Dean tries to maneuver the waistband of the sweats down, but he doesn't make much progress, for Cas can't seem to stop his steady thrusting against Dean's stomach. Cas then starts clawing at the waistband too, and all of a sudden Cas's cockhead is free — just the cockhead, poking out above the waistband, but that's a start, and Dean gasps to feel it rubbing, velvety and hot, against the side of Dean's own naked cock.

"That's it, angel, there you go, that's it," Dean mutters, head down against Cas's shoulder. "Oh, man, do that some more. Just keep doing that..."

Cas wraps both arms around Dean's shoulders, buries his head in Dean's shoulder, nibbling at his neck now (Cas's kissing locations may be somewhat random, but wherever he does it, it feels wonderful). He just keeps thrusting, long, slow movements, and more and more of the shaft of his cock is sliding along Dean's. Back and forth, and back and forth. A line of dampness starts smearing along the skin of Dean's stomach; Cas's cockhead is dripping.

"Holy fuck," Dean mutters.

"Is that... a joke?" gasps Cas.

Dean has to laugh. "It wasn't, but— " Cas thrusts again, and Dean forgets what he'd been about to say. "Ah, damn, you feel so fucking good, Cas—"

"I should... be careful..." mutters Cas. "But... this... you..." He gives another long thrust, slower this time, like he's savoring it. "Uh," he gasps. "Ah. It's good. It's good, it's good. But, I need to be careful..."

"We'll be careful," Dean promises, not really sure what Cas's referring to, till he remembers: The surgical scars.

Scars on the abdomen. Recent surgeries.

And Dean's probably poking him right there, now.

"I'll be careful," Dean repeats, thinking, get away from his belly. Reluctantly, he pulls back. "Let me just, lemme get at you. Get these clothes off—"

"Careful— " Cas says again, but he seems to have mostly forgotten now what he was trying to be careful about, for as Dean fumbles at Cas's sweatpants, trying to get them off, Cas just grabs at Dean's dick again, pulling at it gently. Cas's sweats are not cooperating, and the bed's also getting way too hot (they didn't need that blanket at all), and Dean's getting so impatient that he finally just yanks Cas's waistband lower down, low enough that he can pull it down around the base of Cas's balls. It's a move that Dean's done many times himself, with his own sweats; the elastic-waistband-down-under-the-balls maneuver is a tried and true way to get quick access to everything without having to strip totally. (Not to mention it can almost act like a half-a-cockring if it's positioned just right.)

But as Dean pulls the waistband down, Cas hesitates. It's not quite a flinch, more a slightly apprehensive tensing-up, but Cas's thrusting stops. He's not sure how it'll feel, Dean thinks. Yet Cas is still hard, and Dean's pretty sure he's going to like this arrangement. And now it's getting a little hard to think about the details, because Dean's finally got his hand on Cas's cock.

There's an electrical shock at the skin-to-skin contact. Cas outright groans, and Dean almost does too, just at the feel of Cas's cock. It's thick and hot in Dean's hands, the dimensions slightly different from his own, both familiar and strange. Combined with the fact that Cas's hand is also on Dean's dick, there's a moment of upside-down sensory confusion, a mirror-world juxtaposition when the two sets of sensations seem fantastically superimposed on each other. Cas is stroking Dean's dick firmly, and Dean can't help but mimic the moves exactly on Cas's dick as well, and for a moment (till Dean gets far too excited to keep the rhythm steady) they're stroking each other with near perfect synchrony. Cas's hesitant moment of uncertainty seems to have passed; he's moving again now, and his breath is coming faster, in a steady series of gasps that are starting to turn into grunts. Dean feels Cas's cock throb in his hand and it seems the most exciting thing he's ever felt; Dean squeezes and pulls at Cas's cock, and it throbs again and Cas lets out a helpless whine, his whole body shifting, almost squirming. So now, going just on instinct, Dean does to Cas exactly what he always loves done to himself at about this stage: he starts jerking Cas's dick very fast and hard, with one hand, and simultaneously he reaches down to Cas's balls with the other, giving them a gentle squeeze, and pulling them down over the elastic of the sweatpants.

There's a split second where Cas seems to be loving this.

But something feels wrong—

Cas gasps. It's not a good gasp; it's a lurchy indrawn breath of shock. Something's definitely wrong, something's not right, and Dean freezes, but it's too late; Cas lets out a cry of unmistakable pain, and now he's scrabbling backwards, batting Dean's hands away hard with one hand and fumbling at his sweatpants with the other, gasping, "Stop, stop—". He scrambles so far backwards he goes completely off the bed. It's not a fall exactly but more a desperate exit. There's a clatter and a scrape, and Dean knows that sound, it's sound of the throwing-up pan that's always ready on the floor. Cas is grabbing for the throwing-up pan, dragging it over the floor toward him, and now he's throwing up.

Dean has already flung himself across the bed after him, crossing the mattress in a mad scramble on all fours and tumbling down the far side in such a hurry to get to Cas's side that he lands a little wrong on one ankle. It gives a sharp stab of pain, but at least now Dean's down on the floor by Cas, both of them half-wrapped in the tangled mess of blanket-and-bedding that have slithered down the bed after them both. Dean's own erection is wilting away, utterly forgotten, as Dean reaches for Cas and tries to brace him, saying, "You okay? What is it? What'd I do, what'd I do? Shit, I'm sorry, did I hurt you? Cas? Cas?"

Cas can't seem to talk yet. The retching, thankfully, seems to be over already — whatever triggered it, it was very brief (since he's only had a bit of water so far this morning, there probably isn't that much to throw up). But he's still crouched on his knees, gasping for breath, curled up so tightly he's almost in a fetal position. Dean's can't even get a clear look at him at first, so he lunges at the bedside table to flick on one more lamp to provide a bit more light, and he then finds that Cas's face has gone very pale. Cas is folded over so far his head is almost on his knees; one hand's wrapped tightly around his waist, clinging to the waistband (which is back up in its normal position). His other hand's gripping the side of his own knee so tightly his knuckles have gone white. After a moment he lets go of his knee, grabs a loose edge of blanket and stuffs it in his mouth. He bites down very hard, eyes screwed closed. Dean knows the signs: Cas is trying not to scream.

Dean's afraid to touch him now, and can only hover nearby, heart hammering, repeating, "Cas? Cas? What is it? What's wrong? Cas, can you talk?"

A terribly long thirty seconds pass; finally Cas spits the edge of blanket out of his mouth. "I'm sorry," he gasps. Dean's greatly relieved to see him taking a few deeper breaths and uncurling slightly; whatever's happening to him, the pain seems to be easing. "I'm so sorry — " Cas says, around ragged breaths of air. "I'm so sorry, Dean."

"But what'd I do? Did I hurt you? What's wrong?"

Cas gets his breath a little more and he starts to uncurl a little bit more, till he's almost sitting upright. His breath is coming more freely now, in heavy, deep breaths like he's been running uphill. It seems like it might be safe to touch him now, so Dean puts an arm over his shoulders to try to steady him, and discovers that Cas is shaking.

"Whatever I did, Cas, my god, I'm so sorry," says Dean. "I'm so sorry—"

Cas turns his face to Dean and says, "Promise me you will not let this stop you. Promise we will do this again. Promise. Please."

Dean blinks. "Uh—"

"Promise," Cas hisses. He's almost growling with ferocity. "Promise we'll try this again. Please. I couldn't bear if you give up on me, Dean, I couldn't bear it. It was feeling so wonderful, but I should have warned you — this is my fault, it's my fault — I'm so sorry. Please, promise we'll try this again."

"Okay, I promise. I promise," says Dean. "But not till you tell me what the hell is going on, because, Cas, dammit, I don't want to hurt you like this!"

Cas sags a little, and he nods. Dean hands him a water bottle, and Cas takes in a mouthful and rinses his mouth, spits it out in the pan, and takes a long drink. He seems a bit steadier; and finally he shifts around little till he's leaning back on the side of the bed. Dean sits next to him, wrapping the blanket around them both.

Dean's almost got whiplash now from how fast things changed. Could that have gone ANY worse? he thinks, letting his head sink back against the bed. It's still not clear what happened exactly, but already Dean's kicking himself for doing anything at all tonight. It's only been THREE FRICKIN' DAYS since FRIGGIN' CHEMO, he chastises himself. You knew he was sick, you knew he has scars, you even knew something was off! He froze up, he even said that thing about needing to be careful, and you FRICKIN' PUSHED ANYWAY.

The next thought that floats through Dean's head is that instead of giving Cas pleasure, Dean seems merely to have tortured him instead.

What did I expect; I'm a demon, he's an angel.

I'm a torturer of Hell. (In one way, that was long ago, many long years ago. But in another way, it was an eternity that has never left Dean at all, not even for a single day.)

I'm a torturer of Hell. Of course my touch is going to hurt him.   Dean knows he's getting a little bit illogical here, melodramatic even, but he's so shaken that the crazy thought somehow worms home, and finally Dean ends up curling up himself, wrapping both arms around his own knees, and wondering if he should just leave Cas's side entirely. But then Cas turns toward him, shifting closer till he's leaning right against Dean's side. He's still got his own knees tucked up too, but he shifts around till his knees are almost in Dean's lap, and his chin on Dean's shoulder.

They huddle together that way for a few moments.

"Holy fuck," Dean mutters, at last.

"I'm afraid not," says Cas. "Not yet, anyway." He begins stroking the side of Dean's face with one hand. There's a warmth in the air around them now, and Dean thinks, Wings.

Wings, wrapped around a demon....

"I'm so sorry, Dean," Cas says. "I'm so very sorry. This is my fault. I should have told you. It's testicular."

"What?" Dean says. He's still trying to shake off the demon thoughts, so much so that he almost doesn't hear what Cas said. He looks at Cas, who's still stroking Dean's head now, studying him with worried intensity — as if Dean's the one who's been hurt, as if Dean's the one who needs soothing. Cas runs his fingers through Dean's hair, slowly and gently, over and over, from Dean's temple back to the nape of his neck.

"They had to cut one away," says Cas, and it seems such a non sequitur that Dean can't figure out what he's talking about. "It's still not healed. It turns out it's such an incredibly sensitive area. Much more sensitive than I ever knew. I should have warned you but I didn't realize it was still so raw. The elastic band caught the stitches, I think...." He pauses, as Dean stares at him. Cas's eyes have gone a little unfocused; he's still stroking Dean's hair but he's thinking about something, and when he speaks again it's in an almost philosophical tone.

"It's strange, you know... " Castiel says. "Because, I already lost my wings. I already lost my feathers. This shouldn't matter. It shouldn't matter if I lose my hair too, or any other part; it should feel like it's just the vessel, that it's not really me. But it is me, now. Or at least, it certainly feels like it." He pauses a moment, and adds, "I think I was hoping that if I couldn't be an angel anymore, that at least I could learn to be a man. But I'm just... well, I suppose I'm nothing now, really. Half an angel, half a man.... " He's stroking Dean's hair now with infinite gentleness, his hand moving slower and slower, as he says, quiet and rueful, "I should have told you long ago, but I was ashamed. This was my fault, Dean."

"What are you talking about?" says Dean.

"It's testicular," Cas says. "It's testicular cancer. Stage 3B."

 


 

 

A/N - Dammit....

And now you know why Cas has been so hesitant to explain what type of cancer he's got. In case it wasn't clear, Cas has had to have one testicle removed. (as well as other surgeries, which we'll learn about later.) This has gotten badly mixed up in his head about what it means to be a man, and to be an angel. Angels have wings, and feathers; men have testicles; humans have hair; and even though those are not really the defining features of angel-ness or manliness or humanity, Cas has lost most of those classic features and is really struggling with his sense of self, and it has all hit him in a bad way. (He knows it's illogical; but the illogical thoughts are sometimes the most powerful.)

A couple of you noticed his comment about the "Planes, Trains & Automobiles" movie about how any "healthy" man is already  "sufficiently manly"  - this was what was really at the root of that comment.

Poor Dean... poor Cas. I feel really bad that they should have such an awful U-turn right in the middle of what should have been a glorious encounter. But sometimes things go wrong; sometimes sex doesn't work out (especially if one partner is hiding something important!). The true test is, will they help each other through it? And you know they will.

More when I can. Hope to have another chapter up next weekend (but no promises - you know how crazy my life has gotten!) Hope you are enjoying this story. As always, please let me know if there is anything particular that you liked or that worked well for you. I love to hear from you.

 

Chapter Text

 A/N - Gahhh, sorry for the long delays. This time my excuse is that I was haranguing my 2 senators & state representative nonstop over email and phone calls about the 10,001 executive orders from our "So-Called" President (that guy who tweeted "see you in court" TO A COURT... omfg...). Not that my calls & emails did any good, but there is this sensation now that popular pressure is having a slow, cumulative effect, and there has been sort of a whirlwind in my mind about it all. I have never been a very political person but this is becoming one of those rare moments in life when you realize you are witnessing history, and when you further realize that you are not going to be able to look at yourself in the mirror any more unless you do everything you can to stand up for what you believe in. Anyway, some significant time got diverted to all that (all my free time last week, basically).

I did get a little bit of writing done this week though. This is just one scene - it follows immediately after the previous one, and it's really primarily a recovery scene as they both get their bearings again. But also, at last we start to hear some of Castiel's story. There's much more written that is almost ready, but I wanted to post at least something this weekend, so here's the 1 little scene. Hope you like it.

 


 

3B, Dean thinks.

Cas, beside him, has fallen quiet, but the echo of his voice still seems to be reverberating through the room. Testicular cancer, stage 3B. Testicular cancer, stage 3B.

Testicular's one of better ones, right? It's curable, isn't it? Dean's been reading up on types of cancer all week, of course. Cas's scars had been giving him a creeping worry that Castiel might have one of the really nasty abdominal cancers, like maybe stomach or pancreatic — the ones that never seem to get discovered till it's far too late — but testicular cancer hadn't even been on his radar. Dean's struggling now to remember anything specific about it.

Isn't it kinda like breast cancer? he thinks. Often curable? Celebrities get it and seem to bounce back from it... so, kinda curable? But, stage 3B. How bad is 3B? Four's the worst stage, right? Four's worst and one's best, I know that much. So stage 3 isn't the worst. But what's the B? Is there an A? Is A worse, or is A best? Three's better than four... but three's still pretty bad....

A potentially bad stage of a kinda-curable cancer: what does that average out to?

Dean's sitting against the bed as all these thoughts go running through his mind. His right knee's folded up to his chest, and his left leg's now stretched out straight along the floor, the blanket wrapped a little haphazardly around him. Cas is still leaning against Dean's left side; his shoulder's against Dean's, his folded legs slumped a little sideways so that his knees are almost in Dean's lap. A moment ago he'd been stroking Dean's hair with one hand; now he brings his arm down, pats Dean's thigh almost absent-mindedly, and wraps both arms around his own waist. With a little sigh, Cas tips his head back against the bed. Dean looks over at him and finds that Cas is gazing up at the ceiling, apparently lost in thought.

"Is B better than A?" Dean finally asks.

"B's worse than A," Cas says.

Right on cue Dean's stomach starts hurting.

Cas takes a breath, levers himself away from Dean, unfolds his legs and stands. He straightens up cautiously, in stages, as if uncertain how his groin will feel. But the pain seems to be truly gone now; after a moment he relaxes, takes another, deeper, breath and straightens up fully. He smooths out his t-shirt and adjusts the waistband of his sweatpants one last time, traces one hand over his stomach, and then he offers Dean a hand, apparently to help him up.

It seems rather backwards, after what just happened, to have Castiel reaching down to help Dean up, instead of the other way around. But when Dean takes his hand there's a solid firmness to Cas's grip, and he tugs Dean up to his feet with reassuring strength.

Dean's still naked. He keeps hold of the blanket as Cas pulls him to his feet, and then there's an odd moment where he and Cas are looking at each other — Cas fully clothed but Dean nude — with Dean hanging on uncertainly to a corner of the blanket, which is sort-of-but-not-really covering him up. Dean's entirely unsure what to do next. Cuddle together, with Dean still naked? Get dressed and cuddle clothed? Or... no cuddling at all? (Has that ship already sailed? Certainly the momentum's gone, the mood ruined, the red-hot excitement fizzled away, but... is everything really over? Dean's still almost in mourning about it.) Cas starts looking around at the floor and soon he reaches down to pick up Dean's sweatpants, which turn out to be in a crumpled heap almost directly at Cas's feet.

Cas smiles as he hands the sweatpants to Dean. But it's a warped and worried smile, only one corner of his mouth quirking up, and it somehow makes him look rather sad.

Mutely, Dean pulls on the sweats, and then finds his t-shirt and pulls that on too. Meanwhile Cas picks through the tumbled blankets and sheets and starts straightening them out. He extracts the top bedsheet from the messy pile of bedding on the floor, turns it around a few times to figure out which side is which, and shakes it out over the bed.

Dean's all dressed now; a little numbly, he moves around to the other side of the bed to help Cas arrange the bedclothes.

They straighten out the sheet. B is worse than A, thinks Dean, as he pulls the edge into position.

Cas flips the blanket up onto the bed; Dean grabs the far end and straightens that out too, evening out the edge carefully. B is worse than A.

B is worse than A. That means Stage 3B is almost Stage 4.

Everybody knows Stage 4 is bad. Everybody knows Stage 4 of a cancer means it's gotten everywhere, "metastasized" or whatever it's called, tumors all over the place. Everyone knows Stage 1 is the best and Stage 4 is the worst.

So what, then, what exactly, are Stage 2 and Stage 3? And what are the A and B?

Almost stage 4, Dean's thinking now. He closes his eyes, one hand pinching the bridge of his nose as if he can drive the thought away, drive the world away, if he just blocks it all out.

"Dean," says Cas, and Dean opens his eyes. Cas is looking at him from the other side of the bed, his expression soft.

"Come back to bed," Cas says, and as if to demonstrate he starts getting under the covers on his own side.

Cuddle with clothes on, okay, good, I can do that, thinks Dean. He discovers he's very relieved that at least they're not going to just go to the kitchen to sit in separate chairs and drink their coffee and pretend like nothing even happened.

Dean gets under the covers too, on his side. But he's feeling hesitant now; a stray echo of the "My touch will always hurt him" thoughts even go drifting through his mind again. Mentally he chastises himself for getting melodramatic, but it might, in fact, be literally true right now. Cas does seem to still have some real injuries; obviously, some kinds of touch really can hurt him. So Dean leans back on his own pillow cautiously, fingers knotting on the edge of the blanket; he's unsure whether he should even reach out to Cas at all. Cas, though, immediately wiggles closer, and a half-second later he seems to be looming right at Dean's side, warm and large, and then he's working his right arm insistently under the edge of Dean's pillow. "Lift your head," he orders, and soon he's got Dean's head cradled against his own shoulder.

Dean settles into the embrace uncertainly, letting the weight of his head sink by careful degrees onto Cas's shoulder and collarbone. There's so much here that's new that he can't even seem to settle on which emotion to be feeling — dread about the cancer, or joy and pleasure about getting to cuddle like this, or dismay about what just happened. It's so new even to have this kind of embrace at all with Castiel, this sort of gentle touch between them; it still seems shockingly strange, in fact. (But good. Definitely good.) It's new to be able to put his head on Cas's shoulder, it's new to feel Cas's arm wrapping around the back of Dean's neck, new to be able to curl toward him, to feel him breathing. Dean wants to be able to enjoy it, all of it, but now he can't seem to relax. At all. For one thing he's still far too worried about accidentally bumping Cas's crotch. Or anywhere near Cas's crotch. Or Cas's abdomen for that matter. (What about those scars? What are they?). Just to be on the safe side, Dean tries to leave a delicately careful space between his own hips and Cas's, a few safe inches of room, so that they're only really in contact from the waist up. It's frustrating, and a little depressing. He even has to resist an urge to put an arm around Cas's waist.

Finally Dean dares to rest one hand, very lightly, right on the center of Cas's chest.

Cas covers Dean's hand with his own. "I won't break," he says.

"You better not," mutters Dean.

Dean knows at once when Cas's wings fold around him. It seems so clear now, so obvious, that that's what it is. Cas rolls slightly toward Dean, that lovely faint warmth settles around Dean's shoulders, and simultaneously Cas tightens his hold a little on Dean's hand.

The wings immediately make everything feel a little better. It also begins to seem like Cas really isn't breaking (not yet, at least) and at last Dean lets himself close his eyes. There's a long moment of silence then, and despite all the stress and worry, an almost peaceful air of calm settles over the room. Dean keeps his eyes closed and finally he's able to focus on the sensations around him: the solidity of Cas's shoulder and collarbone under his cheek, the way Cas's arm is wrapped so securely around Dean's shoulders. The light warmth of the wings. Cas's heartbeat under his hand.

He's alive, Dean reminds himself.

He's alive. He doesn't seem like he's dying. His heartbeat's strong. He's doing okay. He's gonna be fine. Whatever happened just now must've been just superficial, just a yank on stitches in exactly the wrong place. But it's okay now; he seems totally recovered from it. He's fine.

He's gonna be fine.

Testicular cancer, Stage 3B....

It occurs to Dean, then, that this is why Cas has been keeping his clothes on.

Tonight and last Sunday too, he remembers. He kept all his clothes on. Took mine off but kept his own on. He wouldn't really let me get at him, either; not really. He wouldn't let me look at him.

And this is why he tried to hide in the shower last week.... Another puzzle piece is slotting into place, a vivid memory of Castiel practically cowering in the Denver motel shower last week, and how he'd hurriedly wrapped that plastic shower curtain around his waist as soon as Dean had come into the room. How careful he'd been to cover up everything below the waist.

Cas never gave a damn about nudity before. I should have realized there was something he didn't want me to see.

"I really didn't mean to hurt you," says Dean at last.

To his surprise, Cas actually laughs. The chuckling makes his chest shake.

"You don't have to explain that," says Cas. "It was quite clear what your intentions were. Dean, I meant it when I said it was my fault. I brought this on myself."

"You've got to tell me about this stuff, you know," Dean says, a little surge of frustration rising up suddenly (and, with it, even a flicker of anger). "You've got to tell me all of it."

"I know," says Cas. He sounds resigned, and even apologetic. "I see that now. I think I was hoping I could go as long as possible without you finding out."

"What would it even matter if I found out?" says Dean. He lifts his head a little to try to look Cas in the eyes, but Cas turns out to be gazing over Dean's shoulder toward the far wall. "Cas, I don't give a damn how many balls you've got, don't you know that? How many balls your vessel's got, I mean. Two, one, zero, who gives a damn? That kind of stuff just doesn't matter. You must know that. I mean, jeez, after all the shit we've been through — you actually thought something like that would matter? Seriously?"

Cas doesn't speak at first, but the arm under Dean's head shifts a little and soon Dean feels a soft touch on the side of his head; Cas has begun running his fingertips lightly through Dean's hair. "I should have told you," he murmurs.

"Damn straight you should've." The way Cas is threading his fingers through Dean's hair reminds him of something else, and Dean adds, "And it doesn't matter if you have any hair, either! Or any feathers for that matter. Or working wings, or any of that. It doesn't matter at all. Wings aren't what make an angel. Hell, Lucifer's still got his wings, and he's not exactly the ideal angel, now, is he? You're worth ten times any of those cowardly dicks up in Heaven. And you're ten times most men, too. Feathers, and hair, and, and, balls and all that, none of that matters worth a damn. Cas, you gotta see that—" Dean's revving up into a big speech, an impassioned pep talk, but when he looks again at Cas it turns out Cas is still staring past Dean's ear to the far corner of the room, his eyes a little unfocused, as if lost in a memory.

"I found out when I woke up," Cas says.

Dean blinks at him.

"In Flagstaff," Cas adds. "I found out when I woke up in Flagstaff." He catches Dean's eye and adds, "You said to tell you all of it. You're right. So I will."

Dean falls silent, and waits.

At last Castiel begins to talk.

 


 

"They found me at the base of the Grand Canyon," Cas says. "While I was unconscious they did a number of tests to try to find out why I wasn't waking up. Of course, I was unconscious simply because of being hit by a banishing sigil while at minimal power, but they didn't know that. They thought I'd fallen, and that I might have head trauma, or internal injuries. So they performed several types of X-rays and then an MRI, I believe, and also one of those feline scans."

"A CAT scan?" suggests Dean, quietly.

"Yes, though I didn't get to meet the cat," says Cas. "I was still unconscious. There was also a full physical examination as well, of course. Head to toe."

Cas pauses, and takes a breath. "Of course they never figured out why I was unconscious. But when I awoke they told me that during all the tests they'd found an anomalous mass in one testicle. An anomalous mass. That's what they called it. And apparently the cat discovered a number of small areas in my abdomen as well, some small dense areas that they thought might be enlarged lymph nodes." Cas gives a little shrug. "I didn't pay it any mind, to be honest. It didn't seem to matter, for I had awoken thinking only one thing: Dean's dead...."

Cas voice falters here, and he pauses for a long moment. There's a soft pressure in the air; Dean's pretty sure the wings are tightening around his shoulders.

"I woke thinking, Dean's dead, and maybe Sam's dead too," Cas goes on, his voice calm again. "I thought, Dean saved us all, but I've failed him; I let him down. I was supposed to take care of Sam and I didn't."

"That crazy British chick wasn't your faul—"

"And if Sam's gone too," Cas goes on, talking right over Dean as if he's barely hearing him, "then, I thought, if they're both gone, then what's the point? The doctor explained it might be a tumor, or several tumors, and I knew those are almost always fatal to humans if left untreated. And therefore fatal to my vessel, obviously. Unless I could heal the vessel. And I knew already that I had almost no power left, especially after being blasted like that. Minimal power; very likely no ability to heal. The medical staff started explaining that some initial surgeries would be required, surgeries where they take some little pieces to inspect them—"

"Biopsies," murmurs Dean.

"Yes, biopsies. Those first, then maybe other surgeries, and rounds of chemotherapy and maybe radiation. And though they were only speaking hypothetically at that point, it became very clear that if indeed it was a tumor, the treatment would be... well, quite an unpleasant process. With no guarantee of success. And, I thought, what was the point? If you were both gone, what's the point, anyway? I realized there was really no need to undergo any sort of treatment at all."

Dean discovers at this point that his own hand, the one that's resting on Cas's chest, seems to be closing into a tight fist, all on its own. Folds of Cas's t-shirt end up bunched up between Dean's fingers. Cas just pats Dean's hand and keeps talking, while Dean tries to make himself relax.

"So I told the doctor no," Cas says. "No treatment, no tests. And I prepared to check out of the hospital and just go search for Sam. I'll admit I didn't have all that much hope. But then you both showed up...."

Cas heaves a long, slow sigh, his hand pressing Dean's again, and for the first time in a while he takes his eyes off the distant wall, and meets Dean's gaze directly. "Such relief," he says, looking right at Dean. "Such relief, Dean. I can't even convey it. When you both arrived — such relief. And such surprise! So much so that I actually forgot about the anomalous mass entirely. For several hours, till dinner that night." His gaze drifts away to the far wall again. "Do you recall, you asked me, during that meal, 'What do you really want to do?' And suddenly I remembered about the anomalous mass. And I thought... do I want to treat this illness, or not? We went to a motel that night, you may remember, and I took a shower, in that little motel room, and I examined my vessel—" Cas pauses, closing his eyes, and corrects himself: "Myself. I examined myself, in the shower."

Dean's thinking back. That was the night when Dean had slept in the other twin bed, in the same room, wasn't it? Cas had, in fact, taken an unusually long shower that evening. Dean had even chuckled over it at the time, thinking Cas might be up to something in there. Something physical, maybe... Dean had even entertained a little fantasy that Cas might be... well, might be jerking off in there. He's mortified now to remember it, to recall how secretly delighted he'd been with that thought, and what an appealing little fantasy it had been.

It had been something physical, all right, but no fantasy at all: Cas had been checking out his cancer. Alone.

"There was definitely an anomalous mass," Cas says, "in the vessel's left — in my left — testicle. I couldn't figure out how long it had been there. I'd never noticed it before, but then I hadn't really looked, not recently at least. Not since before Lucifer. I don't know if Lucifer... or if Chuck..." Cas pauses here, and shakes his head, his eyes closing, as if he doesn't want to think about that part just yet.

Dean's got some thoughts of his own on that topic, the potential involvement of Lucifer or Chuck, but he stays silent. Cas has never really talked like this before, after all; Dean's becoming aware, listening to all this, that it's incredibly unusual for Castiel to talk this much about himself. In fact Dean can't think of a single other time when Cas had voluntarily offered so much backstory about one of his own problems. (Then again, Dean's never really asked before, has he?)

Dean's a little worried that if he interrupts too often, it'll break the spell. So he stays quiet.

After a long moment Cas opens his eyes and continues.

"Well, anyway, I looked at myself in the mirror, trying to determine if there was anything else wrong with my vessel. Anything beyond the one anomalous mass, I mean. But I couldn't see deeper inside; I couldn't scan myself as I used to be able to do, and I couldn't heal myself. I kept trying anyway; I must have tried a dozen times to summon up some scrap of healing ability, and that's when I discovered how little power I really had left. I tried, and I tried... finally I managed to scrape the bottom of the barrel, as it were. I found one little quantum of Heavenly power still left to me, one tiny speck that was somehow still clinging to the blood-root of one of my alula feathers. It took all my concentration to scrape that up and pry it free and use it. But all I could do in the end was get one brief glimpse inside my abdomen, and I saw.... "

He hesitates.

"The cat did a better job than I could," he says. "It had discovered several spots, but I could only get a clear look at one of them. One of the lymph nodes, I suppose. It had a feeling of... of terrible wrongness to it. I could see it was diseased tissue and not healthy; it had something very wrong. It had a... not a conscious malevolence exactly, but a destructiveness. A natural destructiveness. And a selfishness; it was simply... contrary to life. But I couldn't heal it at all. All I succeeded in doing was to wear myself out entirely. And that was the use of my very last scrap of grace. Rather a waste, in the end; I used up the last of my power only to confirm what the cat had already seen."

Dean remembers, now, how Cas had staggered out of that motel bathroom almost pole-axed with fatigue. He'd stumbled to bed and fallen asleep almost instantly, totally exhausted. Even in sleep he'd still had that worried look on his face, and his arms had been knotted so tightly around his pillow that Dean had actually watched him for a while, a little concerned that Cas might be worn out from some kind of after-effect of the banishing sigil.

I should've known there was something wrong....

"I woke in the middle of the night," Cas says quietly. "It was beginning to sink home: I was mortal, I was truly one now with this mortal vessel, and it — I — was dangerously ill. I couldn't sleep any more, so I got dressed and sat on the bed and considered my options. My original choice had been, I could continue to tell nobody and do nothing and let my life draw to a close. Or, the other option: I could fight it. I could try to survive; I could go back to the doctors, ask them to do their tests, their biopsies, all their treatments.... ask them to help me. And if I chose that course, I could either tell you and Sam, or I could do it alone."

Cas pauses for a long moment. "You were sleeping...." he says. "While I was thinking all this, you were sleeping, in the other bed; I realized you and Sam must have driven a long way that day, just to find me. I didn't want to disturb you, but I will admit, I sat and looked at you for a while."

He pauses again. Dean feels him shift; Cas is pulling back a little, turning to face Dean fully and backing away a few inches, as if he wants now to get a very clear look at Dean. They end up side-by-side, squared up and facing each other directly, both their heads on the same pillow. Cas is looking right at him. The little bedside lamp is the only illumination; it's behind Cas, casting his face into shadow, but Dean can still see his eyes. Cas looks at Dean very thoughtfully for a moment.

"I watched you sleeping," Cas says, "and I thought, I do want to live, I do want more time; I'm not done here yet. I thought, I want more time with Dean."

It takes Dean's breath away, that calm statement. And there's a certain look in Cas's eyes now, too, a soft, steady gaze as he studies Dean's face, and now it's getting a little hard for Dean to draw a full breath. A few seconds later Dean's having to blink quite a bit, just to clear his vision.

"In whatever capacity," Cas adds, watching as Dean steadies himself. "Even if just as a friend, or a guardian, or an ally of some sort. I wanted to be by your side a little longer, just a little longer — in whatever capacity." He hesitates; a look of slight embarrassment crosses his face, and he adds, "Though, maybe I should make clear, I didn't.... I wasn't planning.... I didn't have any idea that we might.... I wasn't planning all this, you understand."

"I know," whispers Dean.

"I mean, I didn't have a secret fellatio strategy," Cas explains.

Despite himself, Dean can't help laughing. It breaks through the tightness in his throat, and finally Dean can talk more-or-less normally again. He says, trying to joke about it, "But you're supposed to be such a master tactician."

"My experience is primarily with four-dimensional aerial battles, though, not fellatio exactly," says Cas. "I mean, not that the thought hadn't crossed my mind. I haven't always been in male vessels, you know. I do see my vessel's memories, if the vessel is willing to share them; I see something of the vessel's thoughts, and I have seen the possibilities that humans tend to gravitate to... so I'll admit that I had considered.... Well, anyway, I had always assumed you wouldn't be interested. But, the point is, regardless of the exact nature of our friendship, I just wanted to be here a little longer."

Cas takes a long breath and goes on with the story. "Anyway, I thought, when Dean wakes I'll tell him about the anomalous mass. But it was still quite early — it was an hour yet till dawn — and during that hour I got thinking about how you had looked the night before, at the diner. You and Sam both, you were both so.... so relaxed, Dean. So at ease, so comfortable. So happy. Your face can change quite a bit, you know...." Cas is silent for a moment, studying Dean's face again. His hand's now resting on the pillow right between their faces, and Cas lifts one finger and touches Dean's lips. "You have a very different smile when you're truly at ease. It transforms your face; did you know that?" (As he says this he's running his fingertip lightly over Dean's lips, as if tracing out a smile.) "Your voice changes, too, and the things you say. You joke more. And the jokes are kinder. At the diner you had been smiling like that, and joking with Sam and with me, and I thought, I've never seen him so relaxed. I've never seen him smile so. Sam too, but you especially. And so... I pictured the moment when I would tell you about the anomalous mass, and I could see, exactly, how the smile would disappear." (Again Cas's fingers drift across Dean's lips.) "I saw it as clearly as if it were actually happening; your smile vanishing. Your face changing. How all the weight of the world would settle on you again. Dean.... I just couldn't do that to you."

"Dammit, Cas..." Dean whispers.

Cas's fingers are still on his lips, and Dean takes hold of Cas's hand and turns it and kisses the palm.

Cas draws in a quiet breath, and he caresses Dean's cheek with the tips of his fingers, while Dean kisses his palm again. Dean pauses, afterwards, but Castiel seems to have reached some kind of intermission in his story; a soft quiet settles over the room and all Cas's attention now seems to be devoted to stroking Dean's cheek. So Dean leans in close and kisses him full on the mouth.

It's a gentle kiss this time, very soft and very slow, almost in slow motion, with every movement drawn out. Dean soon puts both hands on Cas's cheeks and, gradually, he slides the palms of his hands up under the monkey hat, up to Cas's temples, till his hands are wrapped right around both sides of Cas's head.

In direct contact with the bare skin. Even the bald patches.

It's the first time, since the cancer, that Cas has let Dean touch his head directly.

The hair doesn't matter, Cas, see, the hair doesn't matter, Dean thinks, and it's true; it doesn't matter at all. In fact, soon Dean actually forgets all about the hair issue, because Castiel is kissing him back.

Just as soft, just as gentle, mimicking Dean's pacing. He's getting the hang of this kissing thing, it seems, more and more, with each and every kiss.

Eventually they break the kiss. Dean leans his forehead against Cas's and draws a slow breath.

"I'm sorry I didn't tell you," says Cas. "I just couldn't. I couldn't."

"I get it," says Dean, nodding, for he really does get it. (How many times has he hid things from Sam, so that Sam wouldn't worry? From Cas, too? The Mark of Cain immediately comes to mind, for one thing.) "I get it, Cas, I do. But from here on, we're in this together."

Cas nods.

Then Dean feels Cas tense a little. Cas turns his head; he's listening to something. Dean listens too, and a moment later he hears it. The distant creak of the front door, footsteps coming down the stairs. They both listen quietly, as Sam walks down the hallway outside, heading to the bathroom for a shower after his run.

"Sam probably needs to hear all this too," Dean says — a little reluctantly, for he hates to end this private phase of the conversation, this cozy nestling together on the very same pillow. But Sam's involved too, and he definitely needs to know the details.

Cas nods. "I'll tell the rest to both of you," he says.

 


 

A/N - Part 2 next, with the rest of Cas's story (and what exactly the "3B" means). Oh and - yes, for those who asked, Dean will remember about Schmidt-Nielsen's Chapter 6 very soon. 

Hope you liked this! I fly to Brazil on Friday for a couple weeks so my schedule's about to go nuts again, but I've already got the next part written and just need to polish it. Look for something Friday night - I'll try to post something from the airport. 

Chapter Text

A/N - I should've remembered that Carnaval in Rio always means about a thousand commitments I didn't expect, always including an unbelievable amount of logistics picking up costumes and drums and tickets and moving them all around. Everything seems to perpetually need to be moved from one side of the city to the other, always crossing about five hundred parades that are clogging the streets everywhere. And all of a sudden I had to learn snare drum parts for 25+ different songs to play in shows here on Thurs and Sun that I wasn't anticipating being in.... Thursday night's show ended up pretty hilarious since it turned out none of the other snare drummers near me knew their parts either (though by about the 3rd time through each tune, we'd sort of homed in on a best guess of the snare pattern, kind of an on-the-fly telepathic community effort). Survived that show and then last night, Friday, I was up till dawn at the gigantic escola parades helping a couple friends carry costumes around (they seemed to be dressed as Portuguese bullfighters? Or fishmongers? It was a little hard to tell); running very short on sleep now and tonight at about 1am I'm parading myself, with the formidable escola Imperio Serrano, this time dressed as a gigantic stork (along with 99 other people in my group who will be dressed as identical gigantic storks. We are a whole flock of storks). I have to get the stork costume across town early tonight of course, and have also spent quite a while trying to memorize this song for Imperio's parade not to mention nail down those damn snare patterns for the Sunday show tomorrow.

Long story short, not much fic writing time! I've backslid right back to that every-two-weeks update schedule that seems to be the very best I can ever do these days. Sorry... business as usual, it seems. I guess this has really been an every-two-weeks fic for a while now and I probably just have to accept that every-two-weeks is the best I can do!

(On the plus side, I have had the coolest A/U idea involving Dean as a tourist in Rio who notices a certain parader who is dressed as an angel. But the wings seem oddly realistic...)

We now return you to our heroes. Setting: Kansas, in the Men of Letters bunker, and Castiel is about to continue his story.

 


 

Sam looks up from the coffeepot when Dean and Cas come into the kitchen, but his smile of greeting fades as he takes in how grim Dean looks. His eyes flick back and forth between Dean and Castiel, and Dean can almost see him bracing himself, as if Sam's waiting for some soap-opera development, maybe wondering if Dean and Cas have suddenly broken up.

But then Cas says "Sam, I've been telling Dean about my cancer, and he thought you should hear it too."

The uncertainty disappears from Sam's face. He still looks like he's bracing himself, but now for a different kind of news entirely.

Sam just nods. He grabs two more mugs from the shelf above the coffeepot, and quietly pours them all some coffee. Cas takes his mug with a nod back, and a small smile, but he says nothing; without comment he leads the brothers to the map-room, where he sits down at the very end of the table, gazing thoughtfully down at the map of the Pacific Ocean. Dean and Sam sit on either side of him. Sam's shooting Dean a series of quick worried looks, as if hoping Dean will somehow clue him in telepathically about what exactly is going on; but, Dean knows, it's Cas's story to tell.

They wait while Cas takes a slow swallow of his coffee, and finally he begins to speak.

 


 

"When I left you two in Flagstaff," Cas starts, glancing up at them both, "I walked two blocks in the wrong direction to throw you both off the trail, and then doubled around and went right back up the hill to that same hospital. Sam, I just told Dean how they'd already found an anomalous mass, when they examined me after the Grand Canyon incident. Also their cat discovered some small lumps in my abdomen—" (Dean mouths "CAT scan" to a slightly puzzled-looking Sam) "—and I'd decided.... Well, to be honest I just really didn't want to worry either of you about it. Anyway, I went back to the hospital on my own and they did more tests, and two days later they did the first surgery, just a little one, a biopsy of the primary anomalous mass."

Neither Sam nor Dean have touched their coffee, but Cas takes another sip of his own.

"The biopsy verified it was testicular cancer," Cas says. At this news, Sam shifts in his chair with a little intake of breath, and this time the look he darts at Dean is almost hopeful. Dean gives him a warped half-smile back, thinking, Yeah, Sam, but it's nearly stage 4.

"Also there's a blood measure," Cas is saying. "Something in the blood that can be indicative of that sort of cancer, and they measured that as well, and it's elevated. So... testicular cancer, definitely. There were a few days then where nothing happened... I went to the public library to learn more about it, and meanwhile the doctors had to consult about exactly how to remove the primary anomalous mass. How to, um, to remove the testicle. I gather there's some inadvisable methods that can sprinkle the cancer cells all around, so they were considering all the logistics and all the options. While they were deciding about all that, they scheduled a second surgery to assess the lumps in my abdomen that the cat had discovered. "

(Sam's completely silent. He seems to have made the same snap decision that Dean had made earlier, to not interrupt Cas's story with a correction about the "cat" issue.)

Cas then says, rapidly, in one long breath, "That abdominal surgery was in the morning and I woke at mid-day and the doctor came to see me in the afternoon and he told me the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes, and that though it was a little difficult to classify they had decided it was testicular cancer Stage 3B, which means it's progressed quite far." He pauses a moment and adds, in a totally unconvincing tone of voice, staring down at his coffee, "Though.... it's not as bad as it could be... really, it could be worse... all things considered."

"Uh," breaks in Sam, "if I could just, uh, clarify about the B thing? I know stage 1's where it just stayed in one spot—"

Cas nods. "Stage 1 is still contained within the original source organ," he says, shifting gears into carefully formal phrasing, and he seems to settle himself as he goes through explaining all the terminology. "Stage 2 is larger and has gotten to nearby lymph nodes, but only the very nearest ones. Stage 3 has gotten to farther lymph nodes and sometimes to the lungs. You're aware that all blood always goes back to the lungs before it goes anywhere else?" (Sam nods confidently; Dean gives a "I totally knew that" sort of half-shrug.) Cas goes on, "So that's why the lungs are considered separately — they're essentially a waystation on the journey to the rest of the body. Stage 3 is distant lymph nodes and the lungs. And stage four's gone all the way through the lungs and beyond them, all the way back out to the rest of the body again, into the systemic circulation, and has gotten to other organs. I'm told the classification details vary a little with different cancers, but the numbered stages are basically a series of distances from the source: source organ only, right near the source organ, a little farther still —and last of all, everywhere else."

"And the A and B..." says Sam. He glances at his phone, which is lying on the map-table in front of him; one of his hands actually twitches toward the phone, as if he's itching to pull up Google and read all about "Testicular Cancer Stage 3B"right then and there.

"3B is worse than 3A, but not as bad as 3C," says Cas calmly. "and not as bad as 4. The A and B and C are several different substages of how far it's gotten to the lungs. Basically 3B means several lymph nodes are affected. So anyway, they explained all this, that evening — they told me they were classing it as 3B, and explained what that meant and that I would need chemotherapy and probably radiation. And they explained about prognosis." Cas hesitates here, both his hands wrapping more firmly around his coffee mug. His lips press together for a moment, and he bows his head slightly, the tassels of the monkey hat swinging free of his shoulders. "The prognosis is fairly good actually. Five-year survival rate of approximately 70%, given the markers in my blood and the stage. So, about a two-out-of-three chance of survival."

And a one-in-three chance of death, thinks Dean. Cas sounds almost calm about it, but Dean's chilled as it sinks in. Fucking hell. One in three. That is way too fucking high.

"So it's really not that bad," says Cas, with a rather forced cheerfulness, "but it was at that point that I realized that mortality was a real possibility. And, you know...." He hesitates again. "I don't have a human soul, of course. So... well, if my vessel dies..." He gives a little sigh as the awful words echo through the room, and he concludes, "I believe I would simply end."

There's an eerily silent pause, Sam finally replies, in a low tone, "Don't say that." (Dean can't even talk.)

Sam swallows and adds, his voice a little stronger, "That's not gonna happen."

"I don't know what's gonna happen," is Cas's quiet reply. He takes a slow sip of coffee, and Dean and Sam just look at each other.

"I wish we'd known," says Sam at last. "I mean — I know that's in the past now, but we would've been happy to help, is what I mean. You could've told us, you know that, right?"

Cas gives him a small smile. "I almost did tell you," he says. He glances at Dean to add, "I texted you that night, Dean, remember? Right after they finished the first abdominal surgery and told me it was Stage 3B. You were both at that silver mine in Utah."

Dean and Sam look at each other.

The silver mine. That night when Cas had texted Dean out of the blue.

"I wrote a long message explaining it all," says Cas. "Asking for... advice, I suppose? Or just, I don't know, I suppose I just wanted to tell you about it. But then I thought I should ask what you were doing, and it turned out you were both preparing for a potentially dangerous evening. So of course the last thing you needed was a distraction, and I thought I shouldn't bother you right then." He pauses a moment, thinking. "Then it occurred to me that maybe I just shouldn't bother you at all. Because, I mean, you two are always preparing for a potentially dangerous evening."

Dean's thinking back. Cas is writing his novel, he'd joked to Sam, watching those blinking dots on the phone. Cas had spent a very long time writing, and then the dots had disappeared; Cas had erased the whole message.

Then Dean remembers what had happened next.

"Wait," says Dean. "Wasn't that the night you stole a car and drove all the way to Utah? So, wait a sec, you were coming from Flagstaff?"

"You'd just had surgery?" asks Sam.

"You'd just had surgery that day?" asks Dean. "Earlier that same day?"

Sam adds, "Abdominal surgery?" Both brothers know very well, of course, that abdominal injuries of any kind tend to knock people out of commission for quite a while. All hunters learn fast that even a simple gut wound can kill. Even a relatively clean abdominal surgery still has a long recovery. Abdominal surgery means full anesthesia; it means cutting through some major torso muscles; it means serious risk of infection, and barely being able to move for weeks afterwards.

Cas just nods.

Dean's appalled, and Sam looks pretty horrified too. Sam says, "But that means you drove, like... eight hours to come see us! When we got out of the mine we had all these messages from you. You almost met us at a diner the next morning, didn't you?"

Cas nods again. "Neither of you were responding to my inquiries so I snuck out of the surgery-recovery ward in the middle of the night," he says. "There are fewer nurses at night; it was fairly easy. Then I stole a car from the hospital parking lot." He seems to misunderstand Dean's and Sam's frustrated looks, for he adds, "Don't worry, I returned the car the next day; I think the owner didn't even realize it had been borrowed. Anyway, it turned out you were both okay, and when you invited me to breakfast, Dean, I realized you'd both undoubtedly notice that I was only wearing hospital patient clothing, with several rather raw surgical wounds. I still even had that little identification bracelet on, and the IV port in one arm. I thought of trying to hide it all, but I knew I wasn't walking very well, and knew you'd both notice. So I turned around and drove back."

Dean and Sam stare at him. Cas takes another sip of coffee and says, with a little sigh. "The nurses gave me quite a lecture when I returned," he says. "I suppose they may have had a point, for I had a little bit of a relapse and... um... maybe a little bit of an infection after that."

"Cas—" Dean starts, gritting his teeth.

"It cleared up after just a few days in the ICU," Cas says blandly. "Anyway, by the time I got over that, they finally had a surgical plan and so then there was the third surgery, to remove the affected lymph nodes and... the... um... the testicle." He's staring down at the world map again as he says this. "They removed the left testicle," he adds, though he now seems to be speaking only to the map. "So now I only have one. They warned me it would probably be painful. It turns out they have to sever the testicular nerve. Which in retrospect is quite obvious, isn't it, but I hadn't fully realized that that implies some potential discomfort afterwards. In some people it heals rapidly but in others there can be these, um, these little stabs of pain for a while. I knew that's a sensitive nerve but I admit I didn't really appreciate just how sensitive it can be."

Dean finds he's hunching a bit in his chair, his knees even drawing together in an automatic sympathetic reaction. Cas's agonized reaction in the bedroom not long ago is starting to make a lot more sense. Must've felt like I'd kicked him right in the balls, Dean thinks. Full-on hammer blow, probably. Dammit....

"It was after that surgery that I came back to the bunker," Cas continues. "I was still very sore, but I was able to walk by then so I thought maybe the two of you wouldn't notice, if I were careful about how I carried myself. I had to be cautious to avoid physical contact, though; the abdominal wounds were still raw and.... so was the other wound." Cas is quiet a moment. His eyes flick up to the front door, and around at the map-table, and he glances, briefly, at Dean, a rather rueful look on his face. They'd been standing right here in this very room, of course, on that day when Castiel had returned; that day when he'd come down the stairs walking so stiffly, and had cautiously sidled around the map-table to avoid Dean's welcome-home hug.

I had to be cautious to avoid physical contact....

Cas goes on, "One of the odd things about cancer treatment, you know, is that it turns out the doctors can really be quite uncertain about whether the treatment's even necessary. After the various surgeries there's an entire second phase of much more prolonged treatment, all the chemotherapy and radiation, that often is just in case there are still some surviving cancer cells somewhere. But they often can't really tell for sure! In my case, even after all those surgeries they apparently aren't sure they removed all the little tumor cells. They're worried there may still be some very small problem spots somewhere that are still too small for the cat to detect. I gather it's something that's apparent from that blood measure; apparently it hasn't gone as far down as it should have. So they think there might be a few surviving tumor cells hiding out in another lymph node or in my lungs. A month later I began the chemotherapy, and next week they're going to decide about radiation."

"Wait, why a month later?" asks Sam. "Why didn't you start chemo right away?"

Cas sighs. "I had to get health insurance at that point. Those first surgeries were all covered -- I believe they somehow classed them as emergencies that had to be done immediately, and somehow, in Arizona at least, that made it possible to do it under some kind of emergency-care category, basically as part of the same event that involved rescuing me from the Grand Canyon. Not that they didn't charge me for it eventually, of course, but, as I'm sure you're aware, for emergency treatment they do the billing later. To a, um, I'll confess I may have given them a not entirely accurate address and I made up one of those 'social security' numbers. Anyway, the rest had to be scheduled differently and apparently it all goes under a different category of non-emergency treatment and can't even be scheduled at all if one doesn't have insurance. So I had to find employment. Of course I thought at once of the Gas-n-Sip possibility, since really that's my only relevant experience." He adds, with a sad little smile, "There's not much call in your society for angel-blade close combat instructional skills, I'm afraid, or aerial defensive strategies.... " Just as Dean's thinking, Wait, can he still fly?, Cas's shoulders drop a little, as if he's just remembered that he can't.

"The Flagstaff doctors recommended a certain oncologist in Denver," Cas says, now apparently talking to his coffee mug. "Aaron Klein. That was how I met him. He does research on the most recent forms of chemotherapy for this stage of testicular cancer. And then I found that Gas-n-Sip does cover treatment in Denver, even for an employee in nearby states, but their health-care arrangements for employees don't begin till after thirty days of full-time employment. Also I knew by then that there'd be this cost called a deductible, an enormous sum of money that one must be able to pay right at the beginning, and it has to be paid anew every year, so I was saving as much as I could for that. There will also be another deductible in January..." He sighs. "That's why I was working overtime wherever I could. Saving up for the deductibles and waiting to get past thirty days of employment. And..." (at last Cas looks up from his coffee mug) "... here we are. Or here I am, at least. There's one more chemo cycle left, which will take up most of December. After that they're going to recheck the markers in my blood and I gather the cat will re-assess everything — they say I could do that in Flagstaff again if I wish to use the same cat. And then they'll determine whether, um... " He hesitates. "Whether it's working."

"Why wouldn't it be working?" asks Sam, and Dean nearly kicks him under the table.

Cas hesitates only a moment. "Some drugs don't work on me as they would on a natural-born human," he says. "The anti-nausea drugs don't work, for example."

"But the chemo must be working or it wouldn't be making you nauseous in the first place, right?" asks Sam. "It's gotta be working. Right?"

Castiel just shrugs. "I don't know," he says. "Sometimes a drug may work in some ways but not in others."

Sam's silent a long moment. He then says, "I'm sure this isn't what's gonna happen, but, um, just out of curiosity, what's the prognosis for if chemo doesn't work? I mean... what's the prognosis for a regular patient who doesn't do chemo at all?"

It has to be asked. But Dean's almost cringing as he waits for the answer.

"Well... " says Cas thoughtfully? "They don't really calculate it that way, but I did ask what happens if the cancer is totally untreated. About five percent, as far as I can tell."

There's a short silence before Dean finally clears his throat and says, "Five percent... of what?"

"Five percent chance of survival," says Castiel.

 


 

They're both peppering Cas with questions for a while after that, trying to pin down the details of what drugs he's been taking for the chemo, what his treatment schedule's been, and what comes next. Sam's zeroing on the radiation possibility (and it seems clear why; if chemo might not work, does radiation have a better chance? Or are angels immune to radiation too?) Sam's also got about a thousand questions about the Gas-n-Sip health plan and where the Flagstaff medical records ended up. But soon Cas is almost sagging in his chair, his head beginning to droop a little and an all-too-familiar look of fatigue settling around his eyes.

Dean finally interrupts Sam in the middle of a long health-insurance question, breaking in with, "I think our angel here could maybe use a rest from the Spanish Inquisition." He checks his watch and adds, "Nine a.m. That's gotta be siesta time somewhere, right?"

"Oh," says Sam, taking a sharp look at Cas. "Yeah. Right. Of course. You wanna just chill for a bit, Cas?"

"I wouldn't mind," Cas confesses. He's looking downright exhausted all of a sudden. "Maybe I'll just head to the sofa for a little bit... maybe watch a little TV?" Dean and Sam both nod, and Sam stands to collect the coffee mugs and take them back to the kitchen, saying, "Dean, why don't you pick out a show for him to watch?" It's a move that's rather obviously calculated to give Dean and Cas a little bit of alone time. Not that it leads to anything; Dean's only just gotten Cas settled on the sofa and has just turned the TV on for him when Cas almost instantly falls asleep, before Dean even has a chance to ask him what he'd like to watch.

Dean sighs and clicks the TV back off. "Some start to the nice relaxing week off, huh, buddy," he murmurs, picking up a folded blanket from the easy chair nearby and gently draping it over Cas. Cas doesn't even stir. Dean watches him for a few moments, till he's sure Cas is breathing evenly and looks fairly comfortable.

 


 

Cas sleeps for hours there, on the sofa. "Probably needs it," comments Sam quietly, near eleven o'clock, when Dean comes back to the library after another quick Castiel-check. (The two brothers have both spent most of the morning burrowed deep into their laptops, reading up on testicular cancer, Stage 3B and all its various forms of treatment.) "He seems really wiped out. Just tired, you think?"

"He didn't really have that relaxing a morning," comments Dean, settling back down in his chair. Sam cocks an eyebrow at him, and Dean adds, "So, turns out that severed testicular nerve is still alive and kicking. And not in a good way."

"Oh, shit," says Sam. He ponders that for a moment, and then adds, "Does that mean... you two... uh...." He pauses again, fidgeting a little with his laptop, and he even starts to blush a little. "So, really not trying to pry here, but...."

"I kinda kicked him in the balls accidentally, if that's what you're asking," says Dean. "Or, in the ball, I guess. But, the one that's gone." He sighs and adds, "Let's just say things really didn't go as planned."

Sam looks like he can't decide whether he wants more details. He seems oddly calm about it, though — especially given that the whole coming-out thing has only been a couple hours ago. Then again, Dean thinks, cancer sure does wonders to focus the mind. For Dean, it's certainly been blowing every other consideration aside (including certain mental blocks that have been firmly in place for decades). Maybe Sam's experiencing a similar clarity of perspective.

"I really wish you guys didn't have to be dealing with this shit," Sam finally says.

"Yeah, it really fucking sucks," Dean says, startling himself a little with how intense his voice sounds. But it's true, after all.

Sam just nods. He thinks a moment more and asks, "Is it just me or does he seem kind of... like... almost shy about it? I mean, about the type of cancer? That they had to cut off a nut? I wouldn't have thought he'd even care what body parts got removed. It's not really his body, y'know?"

"I think it kind of is now," Dean answers slowly. "You know... he said something about..." Dean glances toward the TV room. They've closed the door to that room and Cas is safely out of earshot, but just the same Dean drops his voice. "I don't think he'd mind if I tell you: he said something about, half a man, half an angel. Which in his head kinda adds up to nothing, I think."

"Okay now, that's complete bullshit," says Sam immediately, in a heated whisper. "That's bullshit—"

"You know that and I know that," Dean whispers back. "But he was still just learning how to be human, y'know? I mean, I know he's not really human — hell, he's not even really male I guess, not originally — but he's been in that vessel quite a while. And Chuck kinda... resurrected him right back into it a bunch of times now, and I think he's felt like that was a hint or something, like it's really his body now, I guess? And with his wings so messed up too...."

Sam's nodding. "Yeah. I guess I can see how it would rattle him." He adds firmly, "It's bullshit anyway, though. Balls sure as fuck don't make the man. And wings don't make an angel. I don't care what he says, he's a full-on man if that's what he wants to be. And definitely a full-on angel too. Whatever the wing situation."

"Oh. That reminds me," says Dean, and he stands and flips his laptop shut. Sam gives him a questioning look and Dean says, "I got a chapter I'm supposed to read."

 


 

Dean ends up fetching The Physiology of Angels from Cas's room and bringing it back to the TV room. He sits in the easy chair by the sofa where he can keep an eye on Cas as he sleeps, and after a little adjustment of the lights — pulling one of the vintage 1950s reading lamps a little closer, and carefully angling its green lampshade so it won't shine directly into Cas's face — he finally opens the book.

The black book's got a comfortable weight to it; it leans heavily against his knees as he flips it open. Chapter 6, "Wings, Feathers, and Flight," is his assignment today, but Dean finds himself flipping slowly through the preceding chapters, taking in some other information on his way to Chapter 6.

From the very first paragraph of Chapter 1, "The Variety of Angels," he immediately learns that "seraph" is not a title as he'd rather assumed, but a type of angel. "Seraph" turns out to be sort of subspecies or race, a genetic strain of angel that seems to have certain physical characteristics and abilities, and even some unique anatomical characteristics of the wings. Dean's long had a fuzzy notion that Castiel had once been promoted to seraph from some non-seraph position, but apparently Cas had been a seraph all along. The promotion hadn't altered Cas's inherent nature as a seraph.

There's more to that chapter that looks potentially interesting, but Dean flips on to Chapter 2, "The Angel's True Form," which also turns out to be far more interesting than Dean had expected. Cas's true form, it seems, is something truly vast and stunning to behold. And confusing to behold, apparently, for the chapter begins with a compendium of a variety of myths of large flying creatures from around the world, and a first glance the stories seem to completely contradict each other. There are descriptions of enormous birds of prey from the Middle East; of fire-breathing dragons from Asia whose bodies are a full mile long; there's accounts of "eyes of lightning" and shining halos on the head and "legs that gleam like chrome"; there's tales of griffins with the front half of an eagle and the back half of a lion. There's sphinxes and harpies, strange blends of feathered flying creatures with human faces. There are dizzying impressions of blinding light, and even of a multi-headed form bearing no less than four different faces: a human, an ox, a lion and an eagle.

The Physiology of Angels goes through each legend in detail and summarizes it all with:

The truth, of course, is that a full-grown angel has traits reminiscent of each of these animals. Just as the intrepid travelers of the 17th and 18th centuries once described the elephants of Africa with a confusion of metaphors — ears like palm fronds, tusks like those of an immense hog, a magical snout like a monkey's tail, and so forth — with the result sounding like a dozen quite different things blended together — so too did the ancients attempt to describe angels, layering metaphor upon metaphor until later readers concluded that angels even might have several different faces or heads, all springing from one body. The description of Ezekiel is perhaps the most famous example of this assemblage of different traits, with elements of ox, lion, eagle and human described almost as different "faces" upon the same body.

The human "face" is easiest to explain. All references to angels occasionally having human faces — this occurs not only in Ezekiel but also the sphinx and harpy legends — are, of course, a reference to the simple fact that angels often can take human vessels, i.e. at times they literally do have human faces.

As for the odd blending of traits of ox, lion, and eagle, as well such oddities as "legs of chrome", these are at once resolved with a single clear look at a real angel. The author has recently had the privilege of viewing one angel at close proximity, a most accommodating seraph who generously (if somewhat reluctantly) permitted a glimpse of his true form. This viewing confirmed that this seraph, and presumably all seraphs, sports a lush mane of long plumes around the neck, rather like the mane of a lion (though composed of feathers and not fur); additionally it has a long tail that is again reminiscent of a lion's (though again, feathered and not furred). It is four-footed (like a lion) yet also two-winged (like an eagle). The front pair of feet are armed with an impressive set of talons that gleam like silver; there are additional two dewclaws partway up the front legs that also are of the same silver substance; hence "legs gleaming like chrome." These silver talons are, in fact, one of the two natural weapons that angels can employ against each other (the other being holy-fire) and indeed the "angel-blades" that angels typically carry while in human form are, in fact, carved from their own dewclaws, traditionally from the dewclaw of the left front leg.

The elder and larger angels are often horned (i.e. somewhat like an ox), with rather elegantly curved bilateral horns that are coated the same shining silver substance as their talons, hence the occasional reports of "lightning" about the head, and, of course, the famous halo. In overall form and shape, though, the head is rather like that of an eagle, i.e. bearing an impressively large raptorial beak and with large, keen eyes facing forwards, resulting in a piercing and rather eagle-like gaze (not to mention superb binocular vision).

Ox, lion, eagle, and human are thus are all just partial glimpses of the whole. It is the author's opinion that the angel's true form is best captured by the old legends of griffins: a large feathered creature, four-footed and winged, with a long neck and long tail, bearing two taloned feet in the front and two padded paws in the rear. In fact, the oldest legends of griffins consistently describe them as "guardians of the divine", an additional clue that griffin stories are very likely based upon angels.

One last strain of mythology that must be mentioned is that of the dragon, and the related myths of the basilisk and cockatrice. Angels use holy-fire as a weapon, and in their true form they can apparently generate holy-fire at will. Are the dragon legends, as well, based upon angels? A salient feature of the dragon legends is always their immense size; it may be relevant here that angels display indeterminate growth, i.e. they continue growing as they age (rather than stopping at a certain adult size as the mammals do) and the eldest angels are truly enormous, indeed dragon-like in overall body length.

One can thus imagine a lonely shephard of distant times glimpsing an angel in the far distance as it winged its way along the distant horizon. Perhaps the shepherd might sight the four legs, the gleam of silver upon the feet, the great wings and tremendous size, the glint of the curved horns upon the head, the plumed mane around the neck; perhaps he would even be half-blinded by the etheric energy if the angel materialized close by. Upon running home to his humble village to report the bewildering sighting, what name would our shepherd choose for this fantastical apparition? Whether the word chosen to describe the great creature be "griffin," "dragon," or simply "angel,", these immense creatures of flight seem to have been spotted in all eras, on all continents. And though many of the stories have become warped with the passage of time, certain common themes remain: two wings, four legs, silver upon the feet, fire and brightness, and very large size.

NB: An important note to any readers who might be inspired to try to sight an angel for themselves: the repeated descriptions of "lightning" and "brightness" also can refer to a decidedly hazardous bleed-through of etheric energy that can enter our own mortal realm when an angel first reveals its true form. Put bluntly, direct exposure to this energy can cause blindness and even death. Thus it is often unsafe to view an angels' true form directly in the mortal plane from close proximity, particularly if they have only recently transitioned from the etheric plane and are replete with Heavenly power, which can, at a full charge, leak back out through the shafts of the main flight feathers, with catastrophic results for any nearby humans. [See Chapters 3 and 5 for discussion of the relevant physics.] The author risked a direct viewing of a seraph only after taking into account some rather strongly worded advice from the seraph in question, with the viewing at last occurring only obliquely, via a shield of protective opaque-glass built in accordance with the techniques described by Galileo's pupil Benedetto Castelli in 1612 for the safe viewing of solar eclipses.

 


 

It's not till Sam pokes his head into the TV room, cautiously whispering a nearly inaudible question about whether Cas might want some soup or cheese toast for lunch, that Dean realizes it's past noon already. They both look over at Cas — he's now flopped on his side with one arm dangling off the sofa, snoring lightly. Dean whispers back, "Another half an hour, maybe? Honestly a bit more sleep time wouldn't hurt."

Sam nods and whispers back, "I'll just start cutting the cheese and just kinda prep everything. Half an hour, then."

After another long glance at Cas, Dean returns his attention to The Physiology of Angels. It's already clear he should probably read the whole thing, but it's taken so long to get through just Chapter 2 that he's realizing this book is probably a week-long project at a minimum. The next few chapters look pretty dense, too. A quick flip through Chapter 3 ("Dimensions, Wavelengths, and the Etheric Form") reveals several intimidating-looking pages of neatly numbered calculus equations, and Chapter 5 ("Grace and Power") seems to have a fair bit of math as well, along with a fold-out diagram of a wing that has a bewildering array of little arrows going in all directions up and down the various feathers. "Figure 5c. The Flow of Heavenly Power Through The Fully Feathered Wing," Dean reads in the figure legend below.

With a sigh, he carefully folds the wing diagram up again, tucking it back into the book. Time to skip to Chapter Six ("Wings, Feathers, and Flight"). The rest can be tackled later.

 


 

The first part of Chapter 6 is all about the different types of feathers. It turns out wings aren't just a random bunch of fluffy feathers stuck on the wing haphazardly. rather, there are rows of certain types of feathers that always grow in a certain order — the tremendous long "flight feathers", rooted right down into the bones of the wing (further divided into neat sections called primaries, secondaries and tertials), and rows of tidy little "coverts" covering the bases of the flight feathers. All the feathers seems to grow in a very precise sequence, forming a precision array of such predictable structure that it starts to seem that every single feather has a name and number.

"And probably an address and a zip code," Dean mutters to himself. It's certainly a lot of detail but Dean's a little surprised to find himself getting interested in even the nitty-gritty details. Partly this is because it's relevant to Castiel, of course. (Dean's already feeling determined to discover some way to heal up Cas's wings). But also, wing structure is starting to seem surprisingly like a type of engineering. Force and power, acceleration and maneuverability — these are familiar concerns, and Dean is starting to get the odd impression that a seraph's wings might be something like the Heavenly equivelent of a fighter jet (or maybe, just maybe, a Chevrolet Impala): formidably engineered and built for blazing speed.

A feathered Impala, Dean thinks. He glances over at Castiel, who is not really looking very Impala-like at all at the moment, as he shifts in his sleep on the sofa, his feet tangling in the blanket. Even in his sleep he still looks tired and thin, and Dean's eyes linger on him for a long moment; the cancer's suddenly in the forefront of Dean's thoughts again.

But Dean also remembers the Impala being nearly destroyed, time and again. Smashed to pieces by a tractor-trailer, mangled in a dozen different crashes. Each time Dean had put it back together, piece by piece, till shone mirror-bright, and ran as smooth as silk again.

"I'll fix you too," Dean mutters to Cas. "I swear." He turns the page and keeps reading.

 


 

 

A/N - I so wanted to post the next bit too but it's 8:21pm and I have to really run fast now with my stork costume to the Imperio parade which is (no surprise) all the way across the city. More as soon as I can. Please forgive the inevitable typos - they will be fixed as soon I ever get back to my laptop.

Thank you all so much for reading!

 

PS! I forgot to mention - I was pretty blown away yesterday to find that Galileo really did have a pupil named "Benedetto Castelli" who devised a safe method of looking at extremely bright Heavenly objects. "Benedetto" means "Blessed," and as for "Castelli", draw your own conclusions, but my headcanon in this fic is that Castelli was really Castiel, trying to quietly convey to the great Galileo a safe method of looking at angels.

 

Chapter Text

A/N - Since last chapter: Been to Rio de Janeiro for another thrilling Carnaval, paraded as a giant stock with 99 other giant stocks, stayed up till dawn 5 days in a row, flew back, instantly got sick, put my house on the market (cue massive drama about whether the condo will approve the buyer's dog), met 10 horses including 2 mustangs who turn out to have the most adorable fuzzy winter ears right now, had another cancer scare (one of the reasons for this fic is that I've been dogged by weird symptom of my own recently) but then the symptoms just went poof and now it all seems fine; tried to get caught up at work - and through it all, tried to write Chapter 6 of The Physiology of Angels so that Dean could read it. At last I think the next bit's ready. I know this fic is proceeding only inch by inch, but I hope you are still enjoying it!

And get this. My grad student came running into my lab on Thursday all excited. I asked her what was up and she said "I just managed to score a real letter by Knut Schmidt-Nielsen! Signed by him!" I was like WTF?!!! and she explains, turns out the biology office for some reason had a bunch of letters from Schmidt-Nielsen and they were THROWING THEM AWAY if you can believe it. Yes, he was a real person and he is still one of the greats of physiology. She showed me her letter; it was a totally scathing review of an awful book, ha ha ha. And he has the most lovely signature. (I missed this whole drama while in Rio, but it turns out a bunch of grad students have rescued all the letters, thank goodness.) Oddly the student is Brazilian... while I was in Brazil writing about Knut Schmidt-Nielsen, my Brazilian student was rescuing letters by the acutal Knut Schmidt-Nielsen. There is something oddly lovely about all this.

May I now re-introduce you to my (fictional) version of Knut Schmidt-Nielsen, and a newly found section of his little-known classic, The Physiology of Angels.

 


 

Chapter 6.4 — Alulas

We have seen that an angel wing is essentially, in its bony structure, a feathered arm (refer back to Fig. 6.2). The great flight feathers — primaries, secondaries and tertials — are in a sense simply extensions of the hand, forearm, and upper arm, respectively. But there is another type of flight feather as well, one that is much smaller and that can easily be overlooked, but one that has a unique importance.

When an angel fully spreads its wings before a human observer — a quite overwhelming sight, it must be noted, especially since angels typically perform this display as a deliberate show of their (considerable) power — if the observer can keep his composure enough to note the smaller details, he may perceive that both the angel's wings bear a small bump or pointed extension on the leading edge, sometimes barely detectable, just at the bend of the wing (Fig. 6.2). Some observers, and not a few medieval artists, take this as just a disarrayed feather, but it is not; it is a consistent anatomical feature; it is the alula. Far from being a mere stray clump of feathers, it is a fully functional winglet that is supported by its own little bones — it is, in fact, a feathered thumb (Fig. 6.3). It can be considered almost a tiny second wing. It is a functional, albeit small, airfoil, and can even be moved independently, flared out from the main wing in flight for better control in turbulent air.

The alula is not unique to angels. Birds have alulas (cf. alulae) as well. The number can vary; the newer races of angels such as cherubim, and the modern birds too, all bear one alula per wing. However, the elder races of angels (e.g., seraphs), and all ancient fossil birds yet discovered, have two alulas per wing. (See for example the excellent specimen of Archeopteryx that resides in the Natural History museum of Berlin, and which, thankfully, has survived the recent war intact). This additional alula is a feathered first finger, and it is longer than the thumb.

In seraphs, these double alulas provide the additional ability to hold and even manipulate objects. Woe betide the unwary demon who may be unaware that even if a seraph's taloned forefeet are immobilized, it almost always has a spare angel-blade tucked under its alulas as well, ready to be deployed at a moment's notice. The author has noted that seraphs retain this habit even when in human form, invariably tending to conceal their blades within the folds of their coat-sleeves, as if in the feathers of a wing — i.e., rather than securing the blade in a scabbard or an inner pocket as would seem to be far more practical.

Thus, in a sense, angels (and birds) have not just two wings but four (or in the case of seraphs and Archeopteryx, six); it is only that the additional "wings" are very small. This is undoubtedly the source of the ancient legend of seraphim having six wings.

The alulas are another example of a pattern that must by now be abundantly clear: the wings of birds and of angels are built on a very similar plan. Perhaps our Heavenly Father was so pleased with his first attempt at a feathered wing (the first such effort being the angels, presumably) that he re-used the blueprint later for the birds, possibly even steering their evolution deliberately toward feathered wings. It is likely no coincidence, as well, that He has shaped the wings of both creatures as such clearly aerodynamic surfaces; this implies further that the fundamental mathematics of lift, drag and thrust (see previous sections) must act in the etheric atmosphere of Heaven much as they do upon the Earth. Angels, like the birds, are creatures of flight.

Alulas, unsurprisingly, have alula-feathers. Here we must pause for a moment to consider the rarity of the alula-feathers and the extraordinary lore that has built up around them. Many a thrilling folk tale has been told of the remarkable value of "angel feathers"; these "angel feathers" are usually named only vaguely, but a closer reading reveals that such stories are, in fact, referring to alula-feathers specifically. That such is the case is clear from the size and shape of the feathers described in the stories. The feathers in these tales are flight feathers, i.e. with a central shaft, yet are quite small, able to be held in one hand or hidden in a pocket. A angel's primary- or secondary-feather would be the size of a medieval broadsword; even a tertial is often the length of a garden-spade. (The coverts and down feathers, conversely, are too small and flimsy to match the descriptions in the stories, lacking the firm central shaft.) Only the alula-feather matches the story descriptions of a small flight feather, with the shaft just off of center, able to be held in one hand. With this in mind it is striking that such tales invariably describe the alula-feathers as being so very valuable. Wars have been fought over the possession of these feathers, whole cities and empires rising and falling in their wake. What, then, makes them so precious?

Alula-feathers do indeed have some unique traits. Firstly, their shape and pattern is characteristic to the class and subspecies of angel. The rounded and barred alula-feathers of the cherubim, for example, are easily distinguished from the characteristic slender, slightly curved, four-inch-long feather from the longer alula of a seraph (refer back to Fig. 6.1).

Secondly, the alula-feathers have an unusual growth pattern during molt: they are invariably the very first feathers to drop from the wing at the onset of molt, as well as the very first feathers to grow anew. In fact, it seems the alulas are always the first feathers to reflect the angel's current state — the first to dull if the angel ails, the first to brighten when the angel regains power, the first to change color at the next molt if an angel's character has significantly altered. Why is this so? Why should these feathers, more than the others, so closely reflect the angel's identity and current state of mind? The angels themselves seem uncertain of the answer, but the old saying "a bird is not an ornithologist" comes to mind, i.e., the subject of interest does not always study itself. The author (who has had the good fortune of studying with many noted ornithologists, as well as physiologists) most humbly suggests a possible explanation. Recall from Chapter 5 that the angel's grace permeates the hollow centers of all the wing-bones (an arrangement similar to the air-sac system of the birds), and further recall that the flight feathers are so deeply rooted into the wing bones that the feather-roots can actually contact the outer surface of this grace, such that power can sometimes stream directly to (or from) the grace through the shafts of the feathers. Since the grace is one long interconnected system, extending uninterrupted through all the long bones, it follows that the grace must somehow cross through the wrist joint of the wing, i.e. on its way from the humerus to the ulna. This wrist joint is the main bend of the wing that is visible in flight. At this juncture, the grace cannot be shielded by the major bones and must, due to the basic anatomy of this narrow region, pass very near the surface of the skin. This is exactly the spot where the alula is connected. It therefore seems possible that the roots of alula-feathers do not just contact the very outermost surface of the grace as other feathers do, but may actually be rooted within it. The alula-feather may thus be in the most intimate contact with the angel's core essence, continually bathed in a direct flow of Heavenly power.

What we do know for sure is that a molted alula-feather often retains a tiny portion of that angel's grace (along with whatever power the grace may have been holding), in the form of a tiny tendril of power running within the feather-shaft. This is the only type of feather that contains its own store of power.

 


 

Dean's been reading along steadily, his feet now propped up on a nearby upholstered footstool and the book angled up against one knee. He's already feeling certain that the feather Cas has in his dresser-drawer must be an alula-feather. It matches the text description exactly, not to mention that it looks exactly like the seraph alula-feather in Figure 6.1 — four inches long, slender, and slightly curved. Dean's even been on the verge of bouncing up from the chair and running to Cas's room just to doublecheck the shape and size of the feather.

But when he reaches the paragraph about alula-feathers having a piece of grace, and their own store of power, Dean pauses. He puts his feet down and sits up a little more, tilting the book more toward the little lamp. He reads the paragraph again.

Grace.

Power.

With a glance at Cas (he's still asleep), Dean turns the page and reads on.

 


 

Alula-feathers do not always carry this small spark of power. If the angel was at low power during the start of the molt, the alula-feathers that drop from the wing may even have no power at all. But in most cases, the alula-feathers that drop during molt do retain a scrap of power, and when they do, they can fuel spells of considerable scope and complexity. They can even transfer life-force under special circumstances (though unfortunately at very low efficiency). Perhaps most famously, they have the ability to heal. This, then, is why these feathers occur in the stories. This is why kings, sultans, and tsars alike have, for eons upon eons, scoured the Earth to find these invaluable feathers: even a partly charged alula-feather has power enough to restore the health of a dying man. A fully charged alula-feather can in some cases contain enough power to heal not just a man, but even an ailing angel.

...

Dean find he's risen to his feet without even realizing it. He's clutching the book in both hands now, his breath even coming faster as he re-reads the final sentence:

A fully charged alula-feather can in some cases contain enough power to heal not just a man, but even an ailing angel.

He reads the sentence a third time, and a fourth; and then he realizes he's pacing back and forth, restless, still clutching the book in both hands. He glances over toward Cas again, still asleep on the couch; he almost calls to Sam, who's finished his lunch prep and seems to have disappeared to the laundry room again.

But then it dawns on him: Cas must already know this.

Cas has to know this. Cas must. There must be some reason Cas hasn't already used the feather.

But... Cas doesn't always know everything about angels! A bird is not an ornithologist, Dean thinks; a bird doesn't know everything about bird biology, and maybe the book has a point, maybe an angel doesn't necessarily know absolutely everything about angels either. There's things Cas hadn't known about Lucifer, in fact. For that matter, there's lots of things he hadn't known about Chuck, and about Amara; about why Chuck has always treated the angels the way that he has, why angels are built the way they are, why Heaven is set up like it is. Cas has even mentioned something about Naomi messing with his memory. So... maybe he's forgotten a few things, or never knew them?

Maybe Cas doesn't know that alula-feathers can heal.

Dean knows this is unlikely, but now he can't help seeing the tantalizing vision in his mind of how it might play out: Dean waking Cas and telling him the news that alula-feathers have the power of healing, and Cas somehow not knowng this. He'd be skeptical, maybe, but he'd be hopeful too. He'd look up at Dean with his eyes wide. He'd scramble to his feet and they'd both run straight to Cas's bedroom, where Cas would scoop the feather out of his dresser-drawer and...

And what? Wave it around? Press it to his abdominal scars? Eat it? How does one use an alula-feather, exactly?

Well, anyway, Cas would do something with it. Dean skips over that part of the puzzle — surely Cas could figure out what to do. He'd come up with some Enochian chant or something. Dean goes on to picturing the next step: the feather would probably start to glow, and maybe then Cas would have one of those spectacular shiny silver glowy moments. And when the glow faded... magically he'd be healed.

The scars would be gone. The bruises would be gone. The gaunt look would be gone.

The cancer would be gone.

A moment later, as the glow faded, Cas would straighten up slowly. He'd take off that monkey-hat, one hand slowly pulling it off, and he'd have a full head of hair again (perfectly tousled, of course, in Dean's mental picture). He'd pat his hair, disbelieving; maybe he'd look down at himself with that slightly shocked look that he gets sometimes when something has really startled him. But he'd adjust rapidly (he always does, whatever happens); a moment later he'd probably glance over at Dean with that endearing little half-smile of his quirking up one corner of his mouth, and he'd say some dry comment like "I believe the left testicle may be back in place, should you wish to make use of it."

And Dean would laugh. And Dean would have to hug him then, and....

And Cas's wings....

Cas would bow his head and close his eyes, the monkey-hat dangling unneeded from one hand. With a crack of thunder there they'd be, both those glorious wings, back at last. He'd flare them out so beautiful and wide.... Sam would come running in to see what was going on, and they'd both gape to see Cas standing there with those huge wings raised, fully feathered, streaming with power and light....

Stop it, Dean orders himself. For this whole daydream is starting to feel even worse than the old Cas-and-Erin fantasies that he used to torment himself with. This one, somehow, hurts even more. Dean even closes his eyes and tips his face up toward the ceiling, just to force himself to look away from the book. Stop it. Just stop it, he thinks. Because, it's just a fantasy, of course. It's not going to happen, and that's because, Cas must know all this. A bird may not be an ornithologist, but Cas is no bird, and he's smart, and he can read — in fact he's even seen this book already! He had it in his hotel room just last week! He's been around a long time, and he's seen the book, and he knows a lot of stuff, and he must have molted about a thousand alula-feathers already. There's just no way he doesn't know all this.

But maybe....

Dean turns to set the book down on the upholstered footstool. He's going to head for Cas's room after all, to look in the dresser-drawer — he just can't help it; the feather almost seems to be calling him by now. But first he needs to glance back through the book to check the illustration of the alula-feather in Figure 6.1, that pretty little illustration at the front of the chapter with the rice-paper sheet, so that he can remind himself exactly what an alula-feather should look like compared to other kinds of feathers.

The pages make a soft ruffling sound as he flips hurriedly back through the chapter, and Cas stirs on the couch.

Dean abandons the book at a random page and turns, and there's Cas blinking sleepily at him. Cas gives Dean a little smile; he's been lying on his stomach, but he rolls over and sits up a little, one hand going to his monkey-hat to check that it's still in place. Then his gaze goes straight to the book, which is still lying open on the footstool right behind Dean.

Dean says, "Hey, bucko, you're finally awake," and finds he's trying to nonchalantly sidle in front of the book to hide it a little (for some reason, he's a little shy about it). But Cas has obviously caught sight of the book already and he sits up all the way now, craning his neck to try to get a better view around Dean's knees.

"Have you been reading Schmidt-Nielsen?" Cas asks.

It takes a moment for the name to slot into place: Schmidt-Nielsen is the author. "Knut" Schmidt-Nielsen, Dean remembers; it's stamped in little gold letters right on the front cover.

"Yeah," Dean says, with a casual wave of one hand back toward the book. "Um... Chapter Six. Good ol' Knut, huh?"

Cas gives a slow nod. He's still craning his head to peer around Dean's legs, frowning now as he catches a glimpse of the illustration. Cas must be getting only a partial view, but he says, "Figure 6.2, right?"

"Um," says Dean, glancing briefly back at the book. It has indeed ended up open to Figure 6.2. "Yeah, I guess. So, Cas, listen, I know you must know this already, but, there's this part in Chapter 6 about these certain feathers on this one part of the wing. Little winglets like thumbs. They're called, um—" Dean's suddenly unsure how to pronounce it. "A-loo-las?"

Cas just nods. "Or alulae if you favor the Latin plural," he says, "Alula actually just means winglet, you know. Little ala; ala is the Latin for wing." He cocks his head, studying Dean for a moment. "How far did you read?"

Dean says, "Far enough to get to this part about how alulas can... um, apparently they can heal? Um, Cas, so, isn't that an alula-feather that you've got in your dresser? The book says —" Dean spins around and grabs the book and turns back to Cas, flipping rapidly to the crucial paragraph; despite all his caution earlier, he's filled again now with the desperate hope that maybe Cas doesn't kn