“I think we should have a garden,” Cas says.
Dean looks up from his beer. He hasn’t had that much to drink, but Cas still has a vague look of unreality about him, a splash of living color that doesn’t fit in the bunker’s echoing stillness. Dean didn’t hear him coming. A lot of the time, Cas is so unobtrusive it feels like Dean has the bunker to himself, with Sam away.
Dean shakes his head to clear it. “A — garden?” he repeats.
Cas raises his chin a fraction, that look that communicates his intent to be completely unreasonable and absolutely refuse to acknowledge it. “Yes,” he says. “A garden.”
“Why?” says Dean, at a loss. And then, as it occurs to him: “Where?”
“I like gardens,” Cas says. “Here. Outside.”
“You like gardens.” Sweet Jesus. “Cas, remember that whole thing where we live in a secret bunker? You think having a tidy row of — begonias by our front step won’t tip people off?”
“I never said it would be tidy,” Cas objects. “Or anything about begonias.”
Chuck, Dean thinks, if only you could see what your kids are up to now.
“Besides,” Cas adds, “all of our enemies already know exactly where we live.”
Which, point. They really should see about upgrading security.
“Whatever,” Dean says. “Knock yourself out.”
He promptly forgets about the garden thing.
Cas doesn’t bring it up again, either, and a hunt the next week in Wyoming brings them close enough by Jody’s that it would be dumb not to drive a couple hours out of their way to see everyone. Dean’s feeling a bit banged up, doesn’t want to bother Cas about it, and they’re both dusty and still sneezing from getting thrown around a hayloft by an angry ghost, but Jody embraces them both anyway before packing them off to the shower, and Sam grins, hand broad and warm on Dean’s back as he pulls him in for a hug.
Dean takes first shower, and changes into a more-or-less clean flannel he found in the Impala’s trunk before going back downstairs to mingle. He feels a little old and faded, surrounded by all these kids. Jody’s house is packed to the gills these days, and she’s the smiling center of the chaos, somehow extorting enough food out of the still-exactly-the-same-size kitchen to feed all of them and then some.
“I’ve had practice,” she says when he compliments her on the spread, shooting a meaningful look at his brother. Sam grins and drops his eyes, and Dean feels this weird surge of pride that leaves his chest uncomfortably full.
It’s not that it surprised him, exactly, when Sam started spending more time crashing at Jody’s. They’ve been rock solid since forever, and yeah, Dean’s thought a few times that if Sam ever did want to settle down, find himself a girl, he could do a lot worse. But it’s also — they’ve never actually been with a hunter before. Either of them. And Dean’s brain still can’t quite dissociate the idea of an actual relationship from the decision to leave the life behind, still can’t move “sex” over from something you do from time to time, when you have the chance and you’re in the mood, to somewhere important, permanent, central.
So it kind of threw him, when Sam announced, almost two months ago now, that he was headed up to Jody’s.
At first, Dean just blinked. “What about the hunt?” Cas had dug up what looked like another pack of werepires out in Maryland, and honestly, he was pretty excited about it.
“You and Cas got it locked down,” Sam said with a shrug.
Dean considered this. Something didn’t add up. “Jody got something she wants help with?”
Sam shifted uncomfortably. “No, I — look, Dean. I — think I might stay up there. Like, for a while.” At Dean’s nonplussed stare, he plunged on. “I mean, there’s a lot going on with the girls right now, right? And I think I can help them, especially Patience, get a better handle on her powers. If I get more than an afternoon with her here and there. And —” He ran a nervous hand through his hair. “Well, we don’t really need three of us on every hunt.”
“Hang on,” Dean objected, “hang on. If you’re saying Cas is some kind of third wheel, then —”
“No,” Sam cut in quickly. He leaned in, earnest fucking puppy dog eyes turned up to the max, and continued, “No, I’m not saying that. I’m saying — I am.”
Dean stared. “That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard,” he said.
Sam raised his hands. “Just hear me out, okay? I think I could really do some good there. Something — more than just knocking out another hunt.”
And Dean remembered, as if from another lifetime, that conversation on dwindling oxygen and hope: Hunters on that scale, working together... how much good we can do. And I just followed, because it was easy. Easier than leading.
Dean’s throat felt unaccountably tight. “You and Jody,” he said.
Sam glanced up, startled. “Yeah?”
“It’s a thing, isn’t it?” He couldn’t quite meet Sam’s eyes. “I mean — it’s serious.”
And Sam’s lips curved in a smile Dean hadn’t seen in years, not since — since — he didn’t know. Jessica, maybe.
“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I guess it is.”
After that, raising any objections would basically make Dean the world’s biggest asshole. And Sam was right, he and Cas still made a great team, and the werepire hunt was straight-up awesome, and he was still laughing so hard over Cas commanding a struggling, severed head to EAT LINCOLN, YOU — FUCKER, both because Cas was a nerd and because he’d never heard Cas swear properly before, that the bunker didn’t even feel empty when they got back and Sam was gone.
No, that sense of emptiness arrived over the following few days, and left a cold, miserable detachment in its wake. Dean’s not even sure whether he’s more bothered by Sam’s absence or by his own pathetic inability to get over it, but, hell, he basically raised the kid, and even after all these years, he figures there’s still some kind of a — Jesus, empty nest syndrome or some shit, and just thinking those words makes him kinda want to put a gun in his mouth.
He found them another hunt within the week, and that was good, they were off again, ganked a nasty shifter in Elko, Nevada and got back to the bunker and Dean drank half the liquor cabinet and that’s when Cas started getting weird.
There was the day he decided he wanted to play cards, culminating in the revelation that he had no idea how to play cards and spent most of the game analyzing the implications of Bicycle’s artwork. There was another day, even more bizarre, when he asked Dean to let him help work on the Impala.
Which just — didn’t work. Yeah, Dean’s taught Sam some stuff over the years, and if Cas had asked for help on an oil change for his own truck, that would’ve been fine, but the whole time, Cas was just — way too persistently eager to be useful, and constantly putting his tools in places they didn’t belong, and besides, Dean and the Impala, it’s — well. She’s his Baby, and he knows it sounds dumb, but it’s just not the same, with Cas there. He needs that time in the quiet of the garage, just him and his girl. There’s something meditative about it. Sometimes he thinks the safest he’s ever felt is flat on his back on a trolley, face to face with Baby’s engine, her wheels to his right and left like a sheltering embrace.
He ended up snapping at Cas so badly he left the garage in disgrace, and Dean felt bad about it for days. Though really, Cas didn’t have to wear that hangdog look of crippling guilt all that time.
And Dean gets it. This is weird for Cas, too; Sam gone, Jack spending most of his time off straightening out Heaven, feeling anchorless and rudderless in the face of the new world they’ve made. He’s not really sure why Cas doesn’t take off, too. But hell, Dean’s not proud enough to look a gift horse in the mouth, and as much as he’s been a shit friend, he’s grateful that Cas has chosen to hang around.
Now, watching Sammy’s smile, seeing how at home he looks here, how confident, he can’t help thinking that whatever bullshit his own brain wants to put him through about it, that look on his brother’s face is worth the world.
Cas makes it down in time for dessert — a tiramisu Alex brought over, and Dean remembers a time when that girl couldn’t cook a pancake — and leans on the arm of Dean’s chair, because there are more people here than there are seats. Something about his presence is calming, warm and immovable. It makes Dean feel less like his happiness for Sam is going to burn out his eyes and through the walls of his throat.
They stay for a while after dinner, catching up and sipping on whiskey, but when Jody offers Dean a spot on the couch he trades looks with Cas and says, “No, I think we’ll make the run back while the highways are clear.”
He’s always loved night driving. Can’t really explain it — or rather, he can, there’s less traffic, fewer cops, and hunters keep pretty nocturnal schedules anyway — but none of those are the real reason. There’s just something about speeding through the darkness with his music playing low, or just the hum of Baby’s engine to keep him company; his passenger, if there is one, sleeping beside him. Cas doesn’t sleep, but that’s okay, because Cas seems to understand that they, right now, are all that exists in the universe. A solitary pair of headlights tracking their way across a theoretical Nebraska. If they stopped, if those headlights flicked out, so would go the world.
They reach the bunker just after dawn, and okay, Dean will admit to another motivation: that he’s tired enough now for his own bed to look welcome, the oblivion of sleep ready at hand. But when he groans back into awareness, some hours later, he’s surprised to find himself in a good mood, the bunker not nearly as claustrophobic or as enormously empty as it has been.
Cas is nowhere to be found, so Dean turns on the radio and scrounges through the fridge to see what they have lying around. There’s not much, and he considers making do, but winds up driving into town for groceries. He puts some pasta sauce on and lets it simmer all afternoon, and when Cas reappears, Dean commands him to try some.
“And I don’t care about the molecules,” he adds sternly. “They’re molecules I made for you, and you’re going to damn well appreciate them.”
“Actually,” says Cas around a mouthful of spaghetti, “unless you burned it, the molecules would be largely unaltered from their original —”
Dean points his fork at him across the table. “No.”
Cas relents. “It’s very good, Dean.”
Dean smiles, and shovels another smug forkful into his mouth.
The next morning, Cas walks into the library and declares, “I’m going to Lawrence today.”
Dean squints at him. He got Cas to join him for some of the top-shelf Scotch last night, an endeavor that unfolded out of the molecules discussion and was actually pretty educational, but he’s hurting for his coffee a little more than usual this morning. He takes another sip. “Lawrence,” he repeats. “Uh — why?”
“To the University of Kansas,” Cas says. “I have a meeting there.”
Dean blinks. “Is this a case? Who are you meeting with?”
“Elizabeth Schuster,” says Cas, “and no. She’s a botanist. I want to ask her about the garden.”
It takes Dean a moment to even remember their previous conversation. “Okay,” he says, frowning. “Do you — want me to come?”
Cas inclines his head. “You’re welcome, of course,” he says, “but it’s not necessary.”
Something clenches in Dean’s gut. Cas hasn’t had a chick on his horizon in a long time; he shouldn’t interfere. “Nah, I’m good,” he says, trying to inject confidence into his own voice. “Have fun.”
He means to wink. He does. But when Cas nods and turns away, Dean’s still standing there motionless, grip tight on the back of his chair.
After Cas is gone, Dean does a circuit of the bunker, because he is pretty fucking sure they don’t have a garden.
There are no begonias out front. (Well. Dean doesn’t actually know what a begonia looks like. But he’s pretty sure the only flowers out front are dandelions, poking up through cracks in the derelict sidewalk.)
He hasn’t had much cause to venture up the hill to the west of the abandoned power plant that conceals the bunker’s entrance, or around back to the north, aside from standard security checks. He does now.
It’s late summer, verging into fall, and the sun is warm on his back. Behind the bunker is a weedy, overgrown yard, buzzing with grasshoppers loud enough to drown out the sound of a plane passing overhead, but no garden. Beyond to the north, farmland for miles, mantling the gentle swells and curves of the landscape. The sky is blindingly blue and empty.
Maybe Cas wants to ask about a garden he’s planning to start.
That’s pretty pathetic, Dean, he thinks. You’ll just tell yourself anything to believe your buddy might not want to see some chick more than he wants to hang out with you. You are a miserable sack of shit, aren’t you.
No wonder Sam left.
They’re stupid thoughts, angry thoughts, and he knows there’s no reason in them, but that doesn’t ease the bite. Back inside, he Googles Elizabeth Schuster. She’s a real person — head of the greenhouses at KU. There’s a photo of her on the staff page, but her face is hidden from view, buried in some plant. Cute, he thinks derisively.
Dean could do a full background check. Pull up her birth certificate, criminal record, academic transcripts, utility bills, vehicle registration. Check for social media. Make sure this floozy isn’t some witch with a bead on Cas.
With effort, he closes his laptop. Cas can handle himself.