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Bless this Mess

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Chapter 1.

Castiel hadn't heard his own name in two months. After eons of surviving wars, an apocalypse or two, and a species change it seemed laughable that he really cared about this detail. Especially when you consider how insignificant the time scale of months had been to him in his old life. Nothing was the same now, and he really wondered whether he could have coped better--or at least made some basic sense out of the fact he did, in fact, still exist--if he'd maintained the basic continuity of his real name.

He could hear Dean in his head deriding him for this picayune complaint. Dean seemed to relish the opportunity to swap names with rock stars on the job, gamely bedded any nameless human who aroused him with no expectation for more, and never complained about almost everyone he had known dying (usually horribly). This was happening more and more lately--comparing himself to Dean, having Dean’s face and voice conjure itself unbidden, painfully vivid in all his disappointment in Castiel, his disgust for his bad decisions or absent skills. Perhaps worst of all was his long-suffering tolerance of Castiel falling short of being a “real man,” even when he hadn’t been a man at all. But these constant visitations of Dean’s image, and opinions, should have been a moot point. Dean might even feel violated by Castiel thinking about him at all, now that their bond had been dissolved so thoroughly. It was always clear that to be an intimate, in Dean’s inner circle, one of the few on earth to interact with Dean Winchester in an ongoing way, was a very sparingly conferred honor. There was no reason the privileges of envisioning Dean’s face, wondering what Dean would think of him, should extend into his unceremonious exile in Idaho. Punching his fingers one by one onto the cash register buttons, Castiel decided this was one privilege he would claim for himself, Dean’s new cold attitude be damned. Afterall, he had to consult some human to know how to blend in, even if it was a memory of a human. And he had to blend in to survive. And he had to survive to…

His stomach felt leaden again and the floaty muffled distance that passed between his eyes unhooked him from the world around him, eclipsed everything for a moment, leaving him hissing air in outer space without energy or wherewithal to even attempt to draw in another lungful. A customer coughed expectantly and he used the small tether to consciousness to pull himself out this state before he lost his job and got one step closer to the ultimate death by starvation that felt like an inevitability these days. He stared at the face before him for five seconds without reacting, nothing really computing and another wave of pins and needles swaddling his brain in static.

“Beef jerky and a pack of menthols!” drifted over the Gas-N-Sip counter in a voice that must have been a flashback, should have been a dream, and felt like a nightmare. Half of Castiel felt rooted to the spot and utterly unresponsive, and half felt like breaking into an uncontrolled burst of something, whether anguished tears, murderous anger, blasphemy, or amorous clasping. In the instant in which to choose a path, he felt so equally frustrated by both active and inactive possibilities that in the end he just made a small, accusatory squawk from somewhere in his throat and then gritted his teeth with eyes closed.

“Gee it’s nice to see you too, Cas,” Dean grumbled. Castiel’s thick-flowing brain took a moment to hang on the resentment that the first time his name was taken of the shelf after all these months of him longing to hear it, alienated from his very identity and life force, should be this scornful scold about “bad manners” from a man who had abandoned him. Who had become his whole existence, promised a path more fulfilling than his life of heavenly duties, and then kicked him to the curb.

“I never said it was nice to see you,” Castiel answered automatically. Dean winced a little before brushing off the remark, and Castiel was pleased at the wince, even if nothing else about this moment held any other certainty to ground himself in emotionally.

Dean talks. Castiel hears. He feels his feet dragging himself to do whatever Dean needs, Dean wants, Dean asks for. He hates it. He’s pacing inside his own brain like an animal, confused, angry, desolated, and worst of all, speechless. He thinks they investigate something, he thinks they solve something, but his presence of mind has been on the fritz for a whole day before he has a real honest-to-God thought. And that thought is simply “No.” He takes comfort in having a word to cling to while he thrashes in the cold, dark waves crashing over his head every moment. He wants to get the neon pastel window markers he uses to announce sales and loop his way through that word over and over and over and over.

“So how about a beer, huh?” Dean says as he caps off some self-congratulatory speech about having to take the wins when they get them, and drown the future in alcohol.

“No!” erupts from Castiel with no warning, no nuance, and no context.

“No?” Dean steps backward before shifting his weight from foot to foot uncomfortably, head kicked back to inspect an unremarkable streetlight with sudden fixed attention while simultaneously shielding his eyes from the light of the same streetlight. “Got a hot date or something?”

“No,” Cas seethes. “I don’t have a hot date. I don’t have anything.”

“Ok, sheesh, looks like being human hasn’t softened you out at all. Might want to try a ‘no, thank you,’ next time, you know, for the next guy who doesn’t know you’re a warrior of God in a tax accountant meatsuit.”

“Dean, what do you think this is? A friendly visit between ‘buddies’?”

Dean sniffs sharply while throwing his chin at Castiel and scuffing the asphalt in a lazy half circle. “A beer is a beer, Cas, we gotta fuckin’ label it?”

“No, we don’t have to do anything. /You/ don’t have to do anything. I think it’s disingenuous of you to pretend you don’t know that, after evincing your comfortable relationship with that fact for several months now.”
“What? Cas, come on, have a heart and let me get a beer in me before you start lobbing your big words at me.”

“Is everything a joke to you? Am I a joke to you? You know I never would have left Heaven for you if I knew how little you thought about anything but yourself, what disdainful disrespect you have. I thought ‘free will’ meant something more than ‘I don’t want anyone with a grand plan to stop me from being a churlish schoolboy.’”

Dean blinked for several moments, then turned on his heel and strode to the Impala.

Castiel was glad he was leaving. He wanted to be glad. He wanted to be done. But he wasn’t done, and he was pissed, and he was apparently following Dean in hot pursuit. These disorienting periods in which the forces of consciousness, intention, and action desynchronized and jockeyed for supremacy were among his least favorite parts about being human.

He grabbed the human by the throat and walked a surprised Dean backward a few long strides till he was pinned against his beloved car, but Castiel didn’t have any follow-up actions planned and left the situation as it was, a tense standoff daring Dean to break eye contact. He hadn’t felt this alive, this himself, in months. In years, actually.

“You’ve got that imperious stare thing going on again,” Dean husked out absent-mindedly, with a clicking throat and eyes full of wonder.

The staring continued for several long minutes as their chests pumped air in aggressive heaves. Cas clenched his jaw and sucked in breath multiple times with no words coming. On one of many identical attempts to speak, he caught his own cresting momentum and managed to bark out one invocation with fiery bluntness. “We need to TALK!”

Dean was dazed and quiet, like a charmed snake. Eventually he swallowed and blinked slowly, eyes casting down to Cas’s elbow.

“I know we do.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 2.

 

Despite their agreement, they remain locked in physical stand-off until Dean's discomfort with "awkwardness" forced him to speak.

"Your place or mine?"

"Yours."

"Okay."

Dean turns slightly before Cas's dominant (though not injurious) hold lets up, and each particle of his skin is wailing guitar solos at the touch of each particle of Cas's hand as the surfaces drag across each other. Get it together, Winchester.

Dean drives to his hotel nervously, trying to Zen-out like he would on a hunt. He’s in too deep. Cas has never called him to account before, and everything in him wants to crumble in shame at how ill-equipped he feels to be having this conversation, to be friends with a being like Cas at all. And it’s making him feel petulant and resentful of Cas, like anytime he’s backed into a corner by emotional intimacy. But Cas deserves answers, even if they have to be lies.

And there are truths he could tell. Yes, he would never have let himself kick Cas out if it hadn’t been for Sam’s life on the line. But he’d felt a guilty relief when Cas walked out the door, too. Less to think about, less responsibility, less self-blame and mess and feelings. He’d trod the path of denial so well that he could actually manage to put Cas out of his mind during his waking hours, keeping his mind on the case, on Sam. It was easy because he was used to not being a person, to being just a machine that was programmed to do, and win, and start over. His dreams were not so tractable, and he’d drank more and more to prevent the memories, the questions, the guilt, and the longing from surfacing in his sleep. He told himself it was the job. He had to stay on task.

Now he wonders, why has “the job” always meant “Sam?” Why wasn’t protecting Cas part of “the job,” Cas who’d given his life over to their common cause and was a truer friend than he’d ever deserved?

He needed alcohol, and he needed not to be hurtling toward a talk in an empty room alone with Cas. So he swung a hard right into a liquor store and popped out of his seat before Cas could speak a word.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3.

The hood of the Impala was immaculately buffed and shone like an oil spill, gracefully bending a reflection of the illuminated word Coors as it flashed on. And off. And on. And off.

It was so familiar--sickeningly, exhilaratingly, beautifully, tragically familiar. He couldn’t remember how many times he had rode in this car. Surely the total distance he’d covered in it was a fraction of how far he could have traveled in ten beats of his wings. But this car was familiar in the same way his wings had been familiar. He hadn’t known to enjoy them while they were in his life. Maybe he hadn’t been capable of enjoying them. He’d felt fond of his wings and this car. Fond, proud, pleased with, grateful for. But the profundity and complexity of human feeling had been an indecipherable language to him. And now existence was too much, too raw at moments and frighteningly numb at others. He wouldn’t have understood what feeling “numb” meant before, but now he knew: neutral existence simply wasn’t enough to fulfill a human mind. The innumerable, dragging moments of the little life he eked out in Rexford felt empty, restless, and above all, wrong. The painful lack of a real, personal reason to keep his body and mind moving. The fact that no one really knew him, making him feel less and less certain he really existed. These were human problems.

Dean was a human problem for him now. He had cared for Dean poignantly as an angel, more than an angel should have been capable of caring. He had cared unconditionally, zealously, ecstatically, peacefully, with selfless and spiritual depth of feeling. He cared about Dean the way he’d cared for the sunrise. He gloried in the sight of Dean, the beautiful humanity and grace he demonstrated by existing as himself. He wanted good things for Dean because he deserved them, and also because seeing Dean happy made Castiel happy, excited, personally fulfilled. Was he a fool then? Or was he being selfish now, with his roiling mass of bitter feelings? Perhaps being human meant being biased by a thousand biological drives, desires, and ego-driven sensitivities.

He was thrown back to the moment of hearing he was not wanted in the bunker. The pain, the humiliation, and the guilt at the burden of his own existence. Was anger at Dean an appropriate response to those feelings, or should those feelings have been his own business? Entry into someone’s home isn’t a right. Tragedy exists beyond any individual’s control, and no human should have to personally answer for the suffering of another. Dean had tried to shoulder the burden of saving all humanity his whole life, and it had always broken Castiel's heart. Sometimes Castiel was repulsed by his own entitlement in asking for help, the blame he placed on Dean for simply setting a boundary, for having other priorities, for wanting to escape the endangerment Castiel could have brought upon his house and family now. He felt he had somehow violated Dean by even asking for shelter without anything to give in return, without any way to protect him and Sam. Needing shelter made him think of April, or the reaper who had posed as April, and the emptiness gnawing at his gut suddenly bottomed out and the static returned. The only remaining mental activity that resembled a thought was that he wanted to be lower, he wanted to be close to the ground.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4.

Dean had about made himself sick with all his stalling in the liquor store aisles, as if an accomplished alcoholic like himself really needed to think about what alcohol he wanted, so he finally checked out and headed back to Baby.

Cas wasn’t there. Dean’s heart seized up as he started berating himself for thinking he might deserve another moment with Cas, even a painful one. Cas was human now, so he could see through Dean’s shit now. He knew other, better people now. He was a better man after two months than Dean had been with decades of practice, and even if he wanted an apology, he wasn’t about to wait around for Dean to grow up and give him one. Dean looked down at his two six-packs and found the dosage vastly inadequate for the new circumstances he found himself in. The circumstances of being reminded what an idiot he was.

He was perched on the curb and near the bottom of a bottle within moments, in one fluid movement. But as he went to crack open his second bottle with his ring, he saw a dress shoe and some cheap Chinos just behind the far front wheel of the Impala.

“Cas!” Of course, his real idiocy had been to accept Cas’s absence without a moment’s worry about his safety. Hadn’t they just now hunted an Angel-o-Matic 3000 and discussed how every freakin’ member of heaven’s baseball team wanted Cas’s ass?

But he couldn’t find a wound as he pawed at his friend’s tacky clothes and the uniform he’d illogically put back on at the end of his night of babysitting, in true Cas fashion. Cas was staring sightlessly but he was breathing, rapidly. “Cas, talk to me, dammit, what is this? A spell?”

He kept scanning his surroundings but found no enemies or any clue of what had happened. “Cas, hold on. Hold on, I’ve got you.” The former angels limbs were stiff in places and yielding in others, and it was a bitch a to fold him into the passenger seat. Dean peeled out of the parking lot and high tailed it to the hotel with an eye on the road, an eye out for anyone tailing them, and about ten eyes on Cas.

“Just hold on, buddy, we’ve got this,” Dean swallowed, thinking he was about as far from “having this” as he’d ever been.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5.

Castiel must have eased into consciousness at some point, but it happened so imperceptibly as to barely disturb him. He felt no lapse in time and nothing he needed to be aware of or make up for. Very like a human child of three years old, he felt he had always been in this moment, with a hazy untroubled awareness that something must have come before, and a ready-enough understanding of where he was without any urgency to assume responsibilities. The present moment was all that mattered to him, and that brought him a sort of comfort. The most distressingly alienating part of becoming human had been adjusting to the concept of having “a future,” or rather “having” a future. As an angel there had been Castiel, and Existence, and Duty, and The Future, but the connection between himself and The Future was non-existent. It was impersonal.

As “Clarence,” and now “Steve,” he had learned that a personal relationship with a personal future was not a gift he could refuse. If he simply stood on a street corner, just another part of creation with no battles or quests to undertake, he would grow hungry, he would grow sore, he would grow tired, and he would eventually die from neglecting these needs. He had to consider a future with himself in it, and that meant thinking ahead and filling his own needs.

Six weeks ago, he had begun to suspect there was an ineffable human need beyond those he had identified that as yet remained unfulfilled. He had desperately wanted to call Dean when he first noticed it. Instead he had taken to surreptitiously searching the internet at the local library, attempting to determine exactly how he was failing as a human organism. The list of possibilities was too long, and too overwhelming, to continue the search. He could barely stand to handle the basics of eating and bathroom habits, and lately he couldn’t bear to consider any other uses for the organs at the juncture of his legs. Therefore, the vivid pictures of possible ailments painted by WebMD were too disgusting to even contemplate. He inured himself to being a failure of a human and to accept this disease. Whatever it was, it making him sluggish and listless, and, at times, made him wish he did not exist, or believe he had already ceased to. So it was a victimless malady, and no one’s business but his own.

Something was warm. It felt pleasant. He wasn’t sure how many minutes had elapsed, but all-to-soon the warmness was removed and he was left with a clammy, open coolness. “I’m just gonna…” he heard Dean mutter. Dean. He was in Dean’s hotel room. He felt something, with his foot, with his toe. He flicked at a strap on Dean’s dufflebag up and down with his socked toe for a minute before noticing he was on a bed. He turned his head slowly to the left. Slowly to the right. One bed.

Dean was here again, and he had a washcloth dipped in warm water. It was warmer than it had been a minute ago, and it was on Castiel’s forehead. Dean’s jaw was clenched. Eyes were fixed, on his hand on the washcloth. Castiel existed a few more moments before it occurred to him he could speak. He thought maybe he should, but nothing was coming. It actually didn’t feel like anything could. Trying to move his mouth or throat, lungs--beyond him. He didn’t know where to begin. He could move his toe, though. And everything was ok.

“Your eyes are moving,” Dean said. Had he read his thought about his mouth and his toe? “Scared me, there, buddy. Total trance.” Dean’s voice was tighter and more gravelly than usual. Maybe he hadn’t talked for a while...maybe he’d gotten a dose of whatever was immobilizing Castiel. If Castiel had passed his mysterious illness on to Dean... he would never forgive himself.

“What happened?”

Castiel wished he could say. He wished he could remember how to use words. He began to feel guilty for introducing more “awkwardness” to Dean’s life by not replying. He closed his eyes so he wouldn’t have to deal with this.

“Ok, Cas, just rest.”

Chapter Text

Dean wrung out the washcloth while avoiding his own eyes in the bathroom mirror. His hands shook no matter how much he told himself to get a grip. That hadn't happened before--he had always prided himself on getting a job done before falling apart, even as a little kid. But the truth was he'd never felt as little as he did right now.

There was something about this situation. Something about how small Cas, the biggest badass he knew, looked in that king-sized bed. Something about how it was his fault and his responsibility to fix that. Something about how clueless and out of his own depth Dean was. Something about how alone he was with this situation--no one to help was one thing, but no one to even witness his actions was another. There had always been someone else present he had to reassure with bravado, or someone whose belief in him as a swaggering, untouchable, tough-as-nails man kept him from overthinking things. That had been his dad, from the instant the fire swept through their house in Lawrence. Even before Dean knew how to know himself, John had reflected back to him an indisputable image of Dean as unbreakable. He never thought to question it, and in the moments he felt vulnerable, his emotions felt less real than that picture of himself in his head. He sometimes felt ashamed that all his accomplishments could be chalked up to this mental trick that kept him going despite his internal weakness.

Now he stood rooted to the tiles in the bathroom, unsure how he'd gotten locked out of his own body and life, and at a loss about why his fake-it-till-you-make-it luck had run out. He suddenly couldn't do the simplest thing like shut off the faucet, much less call Garth or Google lore on sightless-ly staring former angels. He just stood and shook. He was just as relieved that no one was here to see it as he was exasperated that his mojo had evaporated.

As time stood still, his wild, pacing mind kicked down a door to a dusty back room of memories so long-forgotten he hadn't ever tried to drink it away. He was in a motel room not much different than this one. He was lost, panicked, guilty and ashamed. His dad was wheezing more and more quietly on the pillow, with tired rage and disgust still painted on his face as he was rapidly losing consciousness. Sammy was crying pitifully in a dirty motel roll-away crib in the corner. And Dean was shaking, with a cloth in his hand, staring eye-level at the gashes on his dad's legs. He was stupid, he was so stupid, but he just couldn't think what to do. He didn't want to touch the blood, he didn't want to fuck this up, he didn't want to lose his dad, to kill his dad, through his own stupidity. And he didn't want his dad and Sammy to see him fail. He didn't want them to know he was so useless, didn't want to see the disappointment and loss of pride from their eyes. But he just couldn't move. He wanted his mom. And he was ashamed to want something so childish. He knew she was gone and he didn't deserve her in the first place.

He became dimly aware that his cell phone was ringing, and his thumb somehow swiped it while his body remained locked beyond his conscious control. "Yeah," he choked.
"Dean, how's the case?"
He felt 30 seconds go by and thought Sam repeated his name some more.
"S'okay."
"Is it? You don't sound ok."
Dean shook his head and coughed a bit, "Yeah, yeah. Just... fell asleep. Case is done."
"Ok, good! So... how's Cas?"
"Uh..." Dean's brain turned over laboriously but the clarity he produced all went straight to booting up his default operating system. "You know..."
"He's Cas. Right," Sam laughed. "Well, I found another case when you're done there. Sleep it off first, it's not a rush."
"Mhm. Yeah. ...bye, Sammy." He pocketed his phone in a daze and walked back out to face this latest FUBAR situation.

Chapter Text

Castiel wakes near dawn, in a grey crepuscular world of memories and fantasies. He feels all too real and present, but ill-prepared for the situation he finds himself in. Dean is slumped over a table in the corner of yet another hotel room, head lightly propped on an awkwardly outstretched arm near an open laptop, chair too far from the table to make this position sustainable. The right-hand edge of his tailbone and hipbone barely perch on the edge and arm of his seat while his legs cascade heavily, one sprawled and one tucked under, toward the carpet. Castiel feels the tension in his own limbs as strong as ever, a loyal companion these months since his first foray into the world as an ex-Winchester. A hazy memory suggests a period of relaxed consciousness must have intervened between now and last night's thoughts about cars, wings, and homes, but it doesn't matter much, as he is once again poised on a knife's edge between vigilance and a feeling of utter defeat.

He thinks about waking Dean so the man can find a safer posture for sleep, but a jolt of anger arises with the mental image of spending more energy for Dean's comfort. He grimaces at the discomfort of being perpetually indecisive and full of mixed motives. He is angry at Dean for complicating his life like this, but as much as he is sick of Dean's influence on his life, he feels a panicked craving to keep Dean here. Anger builds and builds till he is clinging to the top of a teetering tower of superiority, neediness, and bitter resentment. One more wrong move from Dean, one expression that is either too soft or too unfeeling, and he'll finally hit his limit, whether that means snapping, crumbling, or both. But right now Dean is asleep and that is the greatest affront of all. Castiel didn't ask to be here, in this human hell, and he deserves answers, help, comfort, groveling, rescue, and maybe even an almighty human sacrifice.

He thought seeing Dean would help him process or move on. It should have, by all logic. But the stewing anger and empty grief of his unwitnessed life as "Steve" are nothing compared to the sour disappointment and shrieking, steaming agony of seeing Dean finally here yet not feeling one iota better. The horrifying anticlimax of Dean not... fixing Anything. Of simultaneously feeling terrified of asking for what he wants and taking up any physical space, yet NEEDING to scream at Dean until Dean breaks and gives him anything he wants. The desperate need to be in control here. A thought pops up asking what he'd ask for if he *could* scream, but he knows he'll never have an answer to that question. He wants impossible things, opposing things, or he wants nothing, utter oblivion...or maybe very visceral conflict full of destruction, devastating insults and burned bridges. He doesn't know what he'd ask for, but Something is just Not Right. What he needs is someone to hear that, care deeply, and figure out how to meet his needs. The weakness of that position makes him so sick of himself. This isn't him. He misses his wings.

Between heaving breaths, jaw clenched and eyes trained on the ceiling, he hears a quiet scuffing sound and prepares his brain to kick into a higher gear of righteous anger. But when he glances down to the foot of the bed, there's Dean, with a tightened mouth and bloodshot eyes somehow wordlessly saying the exact, ridiculously specific yet ineffable thing he wanted to demand of him--he knew Castiel's pain, he cared, he was sorry, he wanted to help, and he was just as lost as anyone.

Chapter Text

Dean wanted to make a joke, get a drink, go back to sleep, take a suspiciously long shower, anything but stand up like a man and face Castiel. He had fallen asleep rapt in uncharacteristically authentic prayer to God, or anyone powerful who might be more or less beneficent, bargaining for Castiel to come back to responsiveness. Now Cas seemed to be awake, eyes flickering with thought and breaths coming rapidly and harshly, and Dean wished for a few more minutes to rev up his own courage or try to grow up about 20 emotional years so he could find the right thing to say. In the end, he found his instincts dragging himself to his feet to stand trial, or at least show Cas he wasn't alone. Maybe Cas would make the next move.

Cas, of course, did not make the next move. Despite being a newly fledged red-blooded, male-ish human, Castiel had apparently not lost his uncanny poker face and a supernatural ability to wait a body out till he was a nervous wreck. But as awkward and painful as it was, Dean found himself desperately grateful to have one more chance to engage in an awkward staring contest with the weird dork lying in his bed. A being he loved more deeply than he knew how to describe. After all his fuck-ups, his inability to communicate, his powerlessness to fight his own spiteful and callous knee-jerks when Cas got too close to his heart, and now a clumsily accomplished abandonment with an undefined expiration date, Dean was here. Cas was here. And they were still, quite obviously, them.

Dean swallowed and sucked in a breath around a strained, too-revealing smile of several overwhelming emotions. "How you feeling?"

"I'm... not good at assessing that."

"Yeah, no, 'course. I get that." Dean scuffed at the short hairs on the back of his head awkwardly, "But...like...well, how 'bout physically, are you...Breakfast?"

Cas made a face of deep concentration for a moment. "Yes, I think I am breakfast."

Dean made a sudden sound that should have been a laugh but was more of an embarrassing fox-like choking cackle mixed with hiccups. His face burned and eyes prickled, but he couldn't suppress a soft, resilient grin and he couldn't look away from Cas' dead-pan stare and barely-there smile. Whether Dean himself knew it, his gaze had been constantly bouncing between Cas' two blue eyes, searching them for redemption, purpose, and a future worth all they'd been through.

Chapter Text

Dean held the diner door open for Castiel and had a momentary freak-out about whether Cas might interpret that as flirting. No, that was crazy, since when had Cas understood any subtext of any kind. He just couldn't shake the feeling that this was a "morning after." Not that he'd ever had one, a real one. He'd had the "oops-gotta-go-feed-my-imaginary-cat-I'll-call-ya" kind of morning-after a couple times. But this was a whole new, fragile baby-bird, crying at rainbows, magic-eyes kind of vibe, and he was hoping Cas wouldn't pick up on it. Because it wasn't intentional. He was just glad to be back with his friend, in a plausibly-real unspoken truce, with no lost limbs or monsters attacking or apocalypses.

Come to think of it, there hadn't been that many times he'd been alone with Cas in a passably-chill setting, without Sam. And they certainly hadn't both been living breathing human animals at the same time. He had to admit it was different, knowing Cas was feeling the sensations of his human body in a personal, immediate way, no filter. It was like that "profound bond" of meaning and comfort between them was more of an electric dog collar... but... in a good way. A disturbing but good way. Dean found himself wanting to stand up straighter, feeling a little less safe and complacent. He was probably feeling protective of Cas. But maybe also a little intrigued, off-script, off-road, out of his depth, in an unexplored terrain. He genuinely hadn't thought much about the specifics of interacting with a human Cas. Cas had just been Cas. His angelic nature was inextricable to Casness, he had thought. But here was a very Cas Cas right in front of him, who at the same time was an undeniably close, somewhat approachable, warm-blooded, human man. In a body Dean could relate to, making expressions and gestures with a little more ease and transparency. And it made him want to know everything about how Cas was feeling right now, what Cas liked, what Cas wanted. That was probably what prompted that false morning-after feeling--since when had he wondered so intimately about a friend's experiences of having a body?

Point was, none of this should matter. He was letting himself get distracted from his mission to set things right with Cas. He didn't know where to begin, really, but making amends or offering explanations were probably on the docket, as was correcting his many (er, most recent) dumbass moves that had gotten Cas here to this place of physical neglect that had made him lose his freaking mind or whatever happened last night. So food. Food he could do.

"What do you like Cas?" Dean asked, before second-guessing his motives in asking. What exactly was an innocent interrogation of Cas' embodiment experiences, when the prospect of any kind of answers was so inexplicably titillating to Dean? He was having trouble knowing anymore.

"About what?"

"Food, and drinks, or whatever. I'm buying."

"I'll have whatever you're having."

Dean resisted making a When Harry Met Sally joke, for obvious reasons. "What, that's crazy, what's your favorite? I owe you a good meal." Dean felt his agitation increase. He couldn't bear to acknowledge out loud how pathetic of an understatement of his obligation that was.

"I don't know what I like."

"What do you usually pick to eat when you're hungry, then?"

"I rotate."

"'kay, you rotate what?"

"We throw out the hot dogs and nacho cheese at the end of the day or two, and there are some chips and cheese snacks that expired last month that I was supposed to throw away. So between those and some expired soup. I save those for Fridays."

"What, don't you know how to buy food? You work that cash register all day, same principle applies at the grocery store."

"I don't have money for groceries."

Dean is at a loss for a minute. He wants to ask why, where the money from his paychecks goes, but he thinks better of it. They need food, and then time and space to figure this all out.

"Ok, well... I was going to get a chicken sandwich, a burger with fries, spaghetti, a salad and a milkshake so why don't we just split those half-and-half?"

"Bullshit," Cas intones, as if he's sworn for years. Dean's eyebrows are lost somewhere behind his head. "You don't eat salad."

"Watch me, Cas. There's a lot you don't know."

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While Castiel felt a little frustrated and disoriented, he supposed it was nice to be doing something that felt like old times. There was a mostly companionable atmosphere between him and Dean, whether they deserved it or not. Some inner tension remained in his body, as always, but he welcomed Dean's distraction from the oppressive echoing emptiness of Castiel's own mind, where listening to the existential footfalls of his aimless human life had grown tiresome and unsatisfying.

Dean was being kind, and Castiel wanted to lap it up like a thirsty stray dog at the same time he felt wary about it. If Dean could be kind, wanted to be kind, to Castiel, why was he only here now? And where would he be tomorrow? At moments, it took everything in his power to keep from asking Dean a hundred questions about being human. From telling him the thousands of beautiful things he'd experience, and the ten thousand heartaches he'd felt in lonely hours of the morning. At other moments, he felt his muscles tense into a planned action and in the intentional centers of his mind hallucinated himself out the door and out of Dean's life. He pictured Dean's crushed face and his lack of audience robbing him of the satisfaction of a witty rejoinder. Castiel leaving Dean, for once, so that Dean could no longer shake off Castiel like dust from his shoes.

But Castiel hadn't moved. He felt like a gun with a partially depressed trigger. He stayed, and observed, and let himself explore the borrowed feeling of human friendship. The diner was full of locals, and for once he felt like he could be one of them. He felt proud that they could see him here with another human, as if he deserved to be listened to and cared about. He felt proud that Dean could see him here, an equal, a fellow American male who was acting calm and collected, unlike his embarrassing departure from sanity yesterday. But he didn't want to get too comfortable.

A lot of food arrived, and true to his word, Dean scooped a small portion of salad to his plate before pushing the rest of the bowl toward Castiel. It was limp, bitter and tasteless, especially in comparison to the cheese puffs and salty snacks he had been eating these two months. Castiel went back to the chicken immediately, but Dean pressured him to eat more of the salad first. Dean gave Castiel at least half of everything they'd ordered, and often more. Maybe Castiel had ruined Dean's appetite with his hysterics, his negativity, and the ugly sight he must have made last night when he had no energy to carefully think about his posture, his expressions, and his mannerisms. He had tried so hard to assimilate, and he took every opportunity to prove that now. He wanted Dean to see that he was just fine without him, and maybe even better.

He thought he was making a pretty good impression. He made sure to exhibit the fact that he an honest living, he didn't cheat people, he was frugal and ascetic, and yet he was capable of detecting deception and aloof in the face of Dean's concern. When Dean reached across the table for the check Castiel's hand was there first. Dean's hand was warm, much warmer than he had remembered. He almost lost his focus with this sudden rush of sensation, but quickly recovered and counted out several bills from his wallet with shaking hands. Dean insisted this was a faux pas, that the human who suggested the meal was universally known to be the one to pay, and Castiel flushed with embarrassment. He didn't want Dean to have the moral high ground of having paid, nor the obligation to Dean that would entail. And he couldn't tell if Dean was being honest about the custom. Thoughts washed over him...Dean might be lying. Dean might be laughing at him for being so gullible, or for looking distressed and out of his element. He might be scrutinizing his facial expression, enjoying the power of inspecting someone floundering in vulnerability. He might be planning to collect on an obligation Castiel hadn't known he was walking into... perhaps accepting a meal meant Castiel waived all rights to feeling angry with Dean. The rushing was back in his ears and he felt the solidity go out of his spine as he swallowed a dry lump in his throat and was yet again lost to space and time.

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"Cas... Cas... please, buddy, not again, stay with me."

Dean was at a loss, standing stock still where he'd jumped up from the booth. He started racking his brain for emergency medicals procedures and answers--natural or supernatural--to how Cas went so quickly from counting out his money to unresponsive. He looked like a marionette whose strings had been dropped suddenly, body not entirely lifeless but all his parts left in a jumble of aimless positions with no one home. Dean’s first thought was a demon leaving Cas’s body suddenly while the real Cas was still knocked out, but he’d checked the anti-possession tattoo last night and even tried some holy water for good measure.

There was no doubting that the Cas he interacted with yesterday and today was the real Cas, even if humanity had changed him. He thought he’d heard something about some kinds of seizures leaving people staring into space unmoving. His mind raced. All he knew about treating seizures is you were supposed to do something with their tongue. Grab it to stop them from choking? Or maybe the tongue would be a different color? He had no freaking clue, but it was worth a shot.

As he hastily kneeled onto Cas’s side of the booth and grabbed his jaw as gently as possible, Cas startled and flung himself backward. His eyes were wide and his breaths heaving, his hands forming claws thrust vaguely in front of his chest and one foot up poised for kicking, inserted between him and Dean’s body in a heartbeat. It finally clicked. This was PTSD.

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Castiel was very disoriented. Dean had a hand on his low back and was shepherding him out of the diner door speaking softly and moving with slow fluidity. Castiel felt like he was floating and at peace, but Dean’s motions were dripping with the silent, big-chested nonchalance he donned whenever he became aware he was being tailed. Castiel didn’t feel anxiety about the thought that unknown enemies were trailing them, but neither did he feel especially trusting of Dean’s handle on the situation. He just didn’t care. It was nice.

“Cas?”

Dean had the Impala’s door open and was looking at Castiel with gentle expectation. Cas’s brain supplied the context that Dean wanted him to get in. But Cas’s body was bobbing gently on waves of endorphins, and his sparingly few movements oozed out of him from some unknown instinct unbidden. He couldn't help Dean.

“Cas, would you like to get in the car? I can take you somewhere to rest.” Dean spoke slowly and gently, with a lightly lilting tone. It made Castiel want to sleep.

Cas took several top-heavy steps toward Dean, touching at his arm with the barest pressure. He felt as if his face hadn’t moved in hours, and his gaze felt locked on minutia in the middle distance, several bushes in a pebbly space by the diner door. His face was the tiredest part of him. His throat felt much larger than usual, choking him lightly and throbbing a little in the same slow pace as his jaw, temple, and the space between his eyes. Maybe he had been drugged. It was a nice drug. But he was getting much too tired.

Dean slowly touched the two fingers Cas had left on his arm. Cas had forgotten about those. Stroking the fingers for a moment, Dean then progressed to taking Cas’s hand lightly and squeezing it. He ducked to try to catch Cas’s eyes, his face smoothed into simple expressions to match his slow, easy questions. “Hey Cas, I’d like to help you into the car. Can I touch your shoulder?” Cas nodded. “Ok, can you bend your knees a little for me? That’s it. You’re doing good, just breathe.”

Dean buckled Castiel into the passenger seat. Castiel’s unmoving face was pressed up into Dean’s pulse point for a minute, and the wave of familiar scent brought Cas a wave of warm comfort. Dean would take care of him.

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Dean took the turns slowly, braking gently. He kept his right hand on Cas's shoulder the entire time, stroking the tip of Cas's clavicle slowly. Later, he could kick himself for not putting the pieces together, but right now he was calm and focused. Cas needed him, and he wouldn't let him down. He had a choice now, and he could make things better than they were now, even if he couldn't undo the pain he'd inflicted. Taking stock of a shitty status quo and improving it was his sweet spot. He could do this.

"Let's play a game, Cas. Let's name everything red we pass by."

Cas' face was unchanged, but Dean figured the more he spoke to Cas as if he were responsive and there with him, the sooner Cas's brain would want to surface into the outside world. As long as the questions were easy and participation was optional.

"Here's a good one--that fire truck. How about you--see anything red, Cas?" Dean reminded himself to speak slowly. If he could attune to Cas's wavelength, Cas would get a shot at jumping back into consciousness. If he talked too fast, Cas might get overwhelmed, and speaking up would feel like stepping onto an escalator going way too fast.

“The stop sign is red, too,” Dean remarked, undeterred by Cas’s silence. “Plus that new Camaro--nice car.”

Dean was having a little trouble suppressing the guilt the longer he was here talking alone. How could he have abandoned Cas like that? How had he assumed Cas would be fine, should be fine? It was like the second he saw Cas here in Rexford, he had snapped into some macho routine of ribbing Cas and shutting him down when he alluded to feelings. Had he felt threatened about a human Cas? Competitive? Or was he just trying to keep himself from feeling anything, projecting that prohibition onto Cas as well, keeping any discussion of personal accountability off the table?

“Dog,” Cas murmured deeply, in a voice too reminiscent of the Enochian coding they overheard from Samandriel in Crowley’s brain-needling procedures.

Dean was startled and confused for a minute but followed Cas’s fixed gaze to a big black lab crossing the road, wearing a red collar and leash. “Oh! Yeah, yeah Cas. Red leash. Great job.”

Dean was almost back to the hotel, but he wasn’t sure if that was where Cas should be right now. It was confined and scuzzy, and probably only served to remind Cas of the depths to which he’d fallen in becoming human. He thought about what he knew of Cas’s past. He was old as dirt, quite literally. Not that he’d necessarily like old dude activities, like chess at the park. But it seemed like he’d be into some mature, spiritually-attuned setting that could offer some familiarity and bring him back to himself.

Using the super powers of someone who literally grew up on the road, Dean could intuit exactly where a town like this might put in a public park. He swung a left in front of a library and progressed up a slightly-inclined backstreet lined with firs and pines. He thought for a minute about what Cas would want--to be left alone or ushered from the car to a bench or something. In the end, Dean pulled the car in a westward-facing spot and just turned the engine off to sit. He kept stroking Cas’s shoulder.

“Can I put your window down, Cas?” Cas blinked. Dean reached over very slowly, giving Cas’s body a wide berth and telegraphing his movements. He cranked the window down gently and then settled back in his seat.

Cas’s breathing seemed a little deeper and less frighteningly slow than it had outside the diner. Dean synchronized his own breath with Cas’s. The mid-morning sun cast long shadows across the town and the scent of conifers and sounds of birds filled the air.

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Castiel felt powerless. He had shattered his good work toward proving his self-sufficiency in an instant, and now he felt like he was underwater. He couldn't even hold a conversation. They were pulling into the park where he had spent his first few nights here. Dean probably didn't know that, but Castiel felt irrationally worried that Dean had taken him here for some sort of lesson, to make him look at his sorry life. He wondered if Dean's gentle tone was a way to lull him into some peace before putting him out of his misery. He didn't believe Dean was capable of that, but he pictured it with hope anyway.

In the meantime, the sounds of birdsong and feel of the gentle breeze on his face were comforting. He still couldn't get over how different it sounded to him now. How these sounds that used to carry mere information could tug at his heartstrings now.

"I'm sorry," Castiel ground out from his throat. As fast as life drained back into his limp body, it manifested as tension. He couldn't move his locked limbs, but he could at least try to smooth things over with Dean.

"Cas, what are you sorry for?" Cas paused; the question didn't compute. His brain was still sluggish. Dean grabbed Castiel's hand as if he'd done it a thousand times. It was warm, and Dean's gaze on his face was warm. Cas still couldn't look at him.

"You don't have anything to be sorry for, you hear me? This is on me." Cas couldn't. He just couldn't put up with this again. He was suddenly near a tree, walking rapidly. Maybe he could make do without wings after all.

"Cas!" He didn't stop. "Cas, what the hell, man, we need to talk!"

He spun on his heels to face Dean--now practically on top of him--to give him a piece of his mind, his frustrations, his hopelessness. He knew everything Dean would say. He didn't need to hear it. He didn't need to hear some lecture about what was appropriate. He didn't need to hear how clueless Dean thought he was about human customs and relationships. He didn't need to hear Dean blame himself as always, to assume some patronizing role and teach Cas how to behave. Castiel was eons older than Dean. If he was defective, it was because of this stupid situation, and he'd brought this situation on himself. He didn't want it fixed, he just wanted to die before he endured any more humiliation.

But nothing came from his mouth. All the building energy bubbling from deep inside him found his throat and mouth locked up, was shunted to his pounding head, pouring out his eyes in shameful rivulets. He shut his eyes tight but couldn't stop it. The harder he tried, the more light-headed he felt. Suddenly Dean's hands were grasping his upper arms.

"Breathe, Cas, you gotta breathe." He tried to comply, but his body was shaking and the breath was only making it to the back of his mouth before it huffed right back out of him. "Cas!"

As the edges of his vision got hazy and his confusion mounted, he suddenly found himself buried in Dean's chest, breathing in that comforting scent in the side of Dean's neck. Dean's bear-like grip around his torso was giving his lungs some context to ground themselves in, and the soft scratching of Dean's nails through the back of his hair gave his racing thoughts a place to land. "I'm so sorry," Cas mumbled, losing himself in the sensations and not caring one bit what happened next.

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Castiel felt so small in his arms, it scared Dean. The being who had pulled him from Hell was so much smaller than he was now. It shook him, it made him feel lost and worried, but something deep in his gut started growing fierce, pushing small but badass roots into the concrete of his powerlessness. Castiel didn't deserve this. No matter his size, he was the strongest and purest being Dean knew, and he hated that anything could make Cas talk like this, and move as if he didn't deserve the space he took up. He would fight it with everything left in him, even if it killed him.

"Cas, I've got you. I've got you. It's ok, I've got you."

Cas kept shaking and apologizing as if he couldn't hear Dean's reassurances. Dean closed his eyes shut hard and tried to breathe steadily to show Cas he was strong enough to lean on. His face heated with suppressed tears, and a few he couldn't keep from spilling. They stood among the pines while time stood still. Cas's shaking slowed and his weight pressed harder into Dean little by little. Dean had never felt so important and so focused. He would make this right.

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Dean's body was warmer than he had remembered. Maybe it was the emotions that Dean's warm body evoked in him that felt warm. He began to feel his feet on the earth again and leaned into Dean for more of whatever healing power Dean was bringing to him. It was a more potent magic than he'd ever experienced. He had known Dean's soul was powerful and strong, but he'd never allowed himself to let it work to Castiel's own benefit. He hadn't felt the need--he had thought himself so powerful, so invincible. Now, at his weakest and most unsure, his respect for Dean blossomed into a deep and personal admiration, a sense of profound wonder.

Dean cleared his throat gently and deep automatic forces within Castiel's newborn soul made him nestle deeper into Dean's chest, cherishing the closeness and not ready to let it end. "How you doin', Cas?" Dean said, as he'd said a hundred times in the years they'd known each other. But this time he understood why Dean asked, what it meant, and what it cost Dean. How Dean's softness was a gift he offered Castiel alone, how he wanted Cas to see Cas's own worth in that simple question whose answer meant so much to Dean. He hadn't realized.

"I'm... with you." Cas answered, not quite knowing what he himself meant.

Dean pulled back, resting a strong hand on his right trapezius as he'd always done and ducking to search his eyes. His face was so beautiful, drawn to such raw and pure intention and purpose. He was still the strongest being Cas had ever known, and the anger and resentment started evaporating from Cas's chest. He rejoiced that everything he had previously seen in Dean was still real, that Dean's failings and what he'd perceived as rejection didn't invalidate Cas's worth or their bond. He was humbled that Dean was making Castiel the focus of his deep, transformative compassion and allegiance--the life force that was so unique to Dean. Dean seemed to understand exactly what Cas meant, drinking in Cas's wide-eyed gaze and hearing the words Cas couldn't articulate. Dean's other hand floated to rest gentle against Castiel's jaw, thumb in front of his ear and fingers pushing into his soft overgrown hair. "I'm so glad," he whispered.