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Castiel wakes up alone. The air returns to his lungs with a sharpness that he hadn't anticipated, mostly because he hadn't anticipated ever breathing again. His vision comes into focus slowly, with a darkness around the edges that slowly gives way to light, too much light, and his arm is heavy as he picks it up to shield his eyes. His whole body is tingling, as if his whole body had been asleep, and his blood is only now returning to all his limbs.

Probably because it is. It must be, because he died -- right?

After a few seconds, he closes his eyes again and drops his arm, even that effort too much for right now. Maybe he falls asleep, or maybe his eyes have finally adjusted, because when he opens them again, the light of the sun doesn't seem as bright. Picking himself up requires effort, but not as much as before, and only his fingers are still coming back into themselves; he flexes them as he takes in his surroundings.

A graveyard, fallen trees splayed out in a circle all around him; a deeply, crushingly familiar scene. His breath catches, and not because his chest is still remembering how to do its job. Is this some kind of torture?

He looks down at his hand, his palm tingling faintly, and finally takes stock of himself: his coat; his tie, still crooked. Everything as he was before he was taken; and how long ago had that been? Is he only just now waking up? He has no real sense of time, no memory of anything past the Empty taking him and Dean, small and quiet, watching from a distance.

His eyes close and he tries to catch his breath again. It'd been one thing experiencing that true happiness, the just saying it. He'd accepted Dean's silence, even as he saw that Dean didn't want him to go.

But not enough. He didn't want it enough.

Anyway, none of that was a surprise, was it? It all played out exactly how he'd imagined it -- even if there had been a second, a split second, when he'd hoped that maybe he'd been wrong.

Well. No point in standing here, wherever that may be, and he's not taking for granted that it's real. It feels real, the more that he walks, the more that his feet meet the ground, solid and dusty, the more that he breathes in the air, dry and crisp, with a touch of snow in it, though the sun is too bright, the air too warm to really let that happen. The cruel irony continues as he approaches an empty gas station, but he'd known that it would be there. He knew precisely where it was, how long it would take to get there. When he approaches the door, he half expects it to be the same as it was then: clean, well stocked, but empty of people.

He's surprised to find it dusty, with empty cases and turned-over shelves. And covered in shards of broken glass. There's graffiti on the walls, evidence that people had taken shelter here periodically over the years, as if years had actually passed. He's still not entirely convinced this is real, but -- why alter a memory? Why update it?

He turns around, searching, and spots a pay phone, but when he picks it up, it doesn't have any service. He half expects a car to be waiting just outside the booth, but there isn't, and instead he starts a long walk up the dusty road.

A car approaches before long, and he squints, trying to discern anything about the driver as it slows to a stop and a man rolls down the window. He looks as curious about Castiel as Castiel is about him.

"What are you doing all the way out here?"

Castiel evaluates the situation and decides -- well -- it's better than walking. "Could you give me a ride into town?"

The man looks him over again and decides that he doesn't look threatening, Castiel supposes, because he nods and Castiel hears the doors unlock.

"I'm Dennis," the man says, and Castiel nods at him as he buckles his seatbelt.

"Castiel."

Dennis clearly finds this to be an unusual name, but he drives on anyway.

"Seriously," Dennis says, glancing over as he drives, "what are you doing out here? You look like you just stumbled out of an H&R Block."

Castiel doesn't know what that is, but is too busy watching the scenery as they drive, trying to piece together where he really thinks he is, to ask.

"I'm not sure. I don't remember how I got there."

After a moment, Dennis gives a low whistle. "That must've been some party."

Castiel glances over, his eyes scouring Dennis for any sign: demon? Angel? Empty? Hallucination? Or, most strange and seemingly likely of all: human? When Dennis realizes that Castiel is not the talking type, he reaches over and turns up the music on the radio. Castiel's first thought, as always, is that Dean would not approve. The thought makes him smile, though it hurts, and he resumes his study of the passing countryside.

Once in town, Castiel looks around at the people, at the cars, at the stores. He finds a newspaper; it's been several months since he was taken.

It's the first time he's allowed himself to really think, really believe -- is he back? Again, somehow, miraculously, defying death to have been made whole again? Somewhere in the back of his throat is a small, wry laugh. If he is, does that certify him as a Winchester?

While he himself seems to be intact, his pockets aren't, and he doesn't have a phone or money to buy one. This whole time he's been still, calm, refusing to believe what might actually be real, but now that it's a possibility, there's a growing sense of urgency, of frantic need, and he laments the lack of pay phones. He tries at the convenience store where he's been squinting at the news.

"Please, may I use your phone?"

The cashier, named Grace of all things, looks him over suspiciously, and then turns the store phone around to him. He dials, his hand starting to sweat, his fingers fumbling slightly over the keys.

There's a ring, and another ring. And another. And another. His heart starts to sink before he hears the click, the start of a voicemail message.

"Leave it at the beep." Dean's voice is gruff, curt; Castiel never thought he'd hear it again. There's a beep, and Castiel opens his mouth, his eyes fixed on a shelf in front of him, but there aren't words because suddenly he's trying to imagine how this conversation will go.

He confessed because he knew: that was the end. Either Dean would tell him that Castiel was wrong, or he wouldn't, and either way: Castiel would never see him again. Would never have to look at Dean, talk to Dean, be near Dean with his feelings heavy in the air between them.

Grace is pretending like she isn't watching him when Castiel hangs the phone up and leaves the store.

~

Dean doesn't pick his head up from his hands until he hears the beep that he got a voicemail from the random number that he'd assumed was a robocall, somewhere out in Illinois. His throat is burning with the whiskey he's been drinking since --

He'd been sure, so sure that he'd done it. He'd fought his way in, tore through the Empty, pulled Cas from the nothingness, watched him come back to himself; he'd been so sure he'd pulled Cas out, like Cas did for him, like he owed it to him to do, like he's repaid the debt he's been carrying around for years.

But then Dean emerged -- and Cas didn't. Purgatory all over again, in every sense of the word.

Sam and Jack tried to comfort him, but Dean just sat on the floor, staring at the wall where he'd lost Cas, where he'd tried to follow him, where he'd failed.

Sam doesn't know just how much Dean failed Cas that day, and Sam can never know. Now, more than ever, Dean is sure that that secret, dark part of him can never see the light of day.

He checks his voicemail, his eyes still shut, his other hand around the glass. There's nothing on the other end but a hesitant breath, the tinny sound of the news in the background. It's nothing; it's silent; it's meaningless, but Dean leans back in his seat and listens all the way until there's a click.

The timing is too good, but it can't be -- why wouldn't he say anything?

And then Dean scrubs his hand over his eyes because he knows why. He knows why.

He tries to redial.

"Pontiac Pit Stop."

He ignores the icy chill of realization, of the wonderment at where Cas must've ended up.

"Hi, yeah. I just got a call from this number?"

"Oh, um. Yeah, I guess?"

Helpful. He tries not to sound too irritated, but he's already forcing himself to remain seated, not to believe until he confirms.

"Yeah -- who called? They didn't leave a message."

"No, he didn't say anything; he was super weird."

"Right -- what did he look like?"

"Um..." He can hear her being weirded out on the other end, but he wishes she could be weirded out faster. "Like a businessman? But one who had a rough night. Dark hair..."

"Great, that's -- great, thank you. Where -- did you see where he went?"

Maybe it's the sudden shift, the hopefulness that's vibrating through the phone now, that Ms. Pontiac Pit Stop seems to want to be a little more helpful.

"Oh. He just turned around and left; he was maybe headed for the bus stop?"

Dean mumbles a thank you maybe, but he's already too busy grabbing his keys and running for the door.

~

For two impossible weeks, Castiel has figured out a life for himself. He hasn't emerged; he doesn't want to risk anything or anyone. Better to lay low, better to hide himself away. Safer for people that way, probably; probably someone, or something, is looking for him, and he isn't necessarily going to say no to being found.

He was ready to go; now he's trying to figure out what to do with this sudden extension, and he settled on a little abandoned cabin in the woods. It's nice there; he watches the deer in the evening, listens to the mice in the walls at night, stands in the rain as it falls through the leaves. This can't be forever, he knows that, but what even is forever for him anymore? How long does he even have? Why can't it just be this, until it can't be anymore?

He's on the porch with a book, taking the time to read something not about angels or demons, not about monsters, not about hunting; it was left on a shelf, and it's sort of interesting, but what's more curious is the time he can take to sit here and read it. Surely there are fights somewhere that need his attention, but he's not sure he has much fight left in him to give.

There's a crunching of leaves, but there's always a crunching of leaves, but this one gets louder, and louder, and finally Castiel looks up to see a familiar sight, the black metal glinting in the few rays of sunlight that manage to reach through the trees.

It's odd. He's both surprised and entirely not; he's elated, and filled with dread. He closes the book and sets it aside, but otherwise doesn't move as Dean pulls up, gets out of the car.

Sam is here too, but Castiel's eyes are fixed on Dean. He looks alive, whole. Castiel saved him after all. There's a bitter happiness there as he drags his eyes up to Dean's, as he tries, again, to see something there that isn't there and he knows he should stop seeking.

Besides, Dean looks angry.

"Cas -- what -- what the hell are you doing?"

"Reading." He gets up now, now that Dean is approaching, and he doesn't -- he finds he doesn't know how to act, what to say to Dean, what Dean might expect him to say. What more can Castiel give him? (Everything, he knows, inevitably, but he's not sure he has anything left at the moment.)

"Cas..." Sam's disbelief is evident, and Castiel looks over at him, trying to evaluate his reaction. Perturbed, perhaps, but relieved. "I can't believe it. We didn't think it worked."

"You saved me," Castiel says, suspicions confirmed, and Sam shakes his head after a moment.

"We helped, Jack and I, but..." He looks over at Dean, and Castiel follows his gaze.

Now that Dean is closer, Castiel realizes that his initial inspection was incorrect. There are bags under Dean's eyes, deeper than usual, and a blackness staining his fingernails. He's wearing a long-sleeved jacket, but peeking out from the sleeves are scratches, deep ones, also black around the edges. He finds Dean's eyes again, not sure what to expect to find there. Because, after all, isn't this exactly what Dean does? Isn't this exactly why Castiel loves him, why Castiel did for him what Dean stupidly did right back?

"Why -- Why didn't you -- Why didn't you come home?" Dean's fumbling over his words, over his anger, over something else that Castiel knows is a sense of betrayed loyalty. Castiel is family, regardless of the nature of the bond, and Castiel did not come home.

His heart is full upon hearing that word, even though he's not sure he would like to call that home anymore, even though he wishes he could.

"I..." He has no words, actually. He trails off, his hands opening and closing loosely at his sides. How can he say that he wasn't sure how Dean would welcome him back? That he wasn't sure he wanted the kind of welcome that Dean would give him? And how could he say any of that in front of Sam, who Castiel knows shouldn't hear any of this?

He can feel Sam watching all of this carefully, can see Dean shooting Sam a look as he moves closer, ducks his head, hides his eyes from Castiel. Shame is written all over him. Self-loathing, regret, resentment. Oh, Dean. He never changes.

"Listen, Cas, I..." The anger of betrayal has flooded out of him, but Castiel can see him struggling. He decides he doesn't want to do this, after all.

He turns on his heel, grabs his book, and opens the door.

"Come in. You may as well have dinner."

Dinner is filled with awkward silences in between explanations of the rescue, the particulars of which are expectedly unrealistic, expectedly full of classic Winchester loyal stupidity, the kind for which the brothers have become famous. Sam knows something is delicate here, but Sam also knows the need to have a life apart. He's clearly still evaluating why Castiel is here, why he didn't call, and isn't yet ready to ask, isn't yet ready to disturb Castiel's world too much.

Dean can't meet Castiel's eye, but also can't stop staring whenever Castiel isn't looking at him. He can feel the weight of Dean's gaze heavy like a blanket, at times suffocating, at times comforting, and he can't decide if he wants to keep it.

The brothers start cleaning up, and Castiel drifts outside, needing the wide open air, needing to take a breath without inhaling gunpowder, salt, whiskey. His back is to the door when it opens, as he knew it would, as he'd been almost counting the seconds before he heard the creak of the hinges.

"You don't owe me anything, Dean," he says, before Dean can even begin whatever speech it is that he may have rehearsed. This doesn't have to change anything is what he wishes he could say, but he isn't sure that's true for Dean, and he isn't sure he wants it to be true for himself.

He hears Dean's sigh behind him, twisted, conflicted.

"No, Cas, I -- " The words are forced. Castiel is almost sure he doesn't want to hear them. Behind him, in the cabin, the sink starts, the sound of running water and clinking dishes a domestic backdrop to this utterly un-domestic scene, to this swan song of a domesticity that he used to chase.

"It's okay, Dean," he says finally, and finds that he does mean it. It isn't Dean's fault for who he is. Castiel manages a smile, manages to half turn and give it to him, to look at Dean hurting beside him.

"It's not -- " Dean sounds angry again, his hand clenching at his side, and he glances back at the cabin before he moves around to face Cas. "Dammit, Cas, it's -- I -- "

"I didn't expect anything," Castiel says quietly, tearing his eyes away from Dean trying to make this right because Castiel hates to see Dean fail. "I meant it when I said that I knew I couldn't -- that just the saying of it would be enough. Please, Dean, don't..." He's not sure what he's asking for, so he stops, stops himself before he outright lies because he so desperately wants Dean to correct him. But Castiel is tired of hopefulness.

"Would you let me talk?" Dean grunts, annoyed, but when Castiel looks up at him, patient and a little longing -- for this conversation to be over, for it to have a happy ending, for it to never have happened -- Dean's words run dry again.

"This isn't easy for me," he says finally, and Castiel narrows his eyes (it was easy for him?) but otherwise remains silent. Dean's head ducks, dodges his gaze, his eyes sneak up to look at Sam through the window, but the sink still runs, the dishes still clink. "Look, I want to -- I'm sorry."

The words come out rushed, but painfully, and he's searching Castiel's eyes now.

"You don't have to apologize -- " Castiel starts, but Dean shakes his head and steps closer.

"I do. I was -- I'm a coward. Okay?" He splays his hands out and states it like a fact, though Castiel knows that isn't true. "I'm a coward. I didn't -- I couldn't say anything. To you. When you..."

Castiel watches Dean try to process this, tilts his head, unsure of where this is going (but really, unwilling to guess).

"Listen, I... I..." He squeezes his eyes shut, but then seems to make a decision, and he finds Castiel again, steps in closer still. "You changed me too. Okay? You did. I -- Remember when -- Remember way back, when we were going to summon Raphael?"

That is way back, but Castiel remembers clearly, sharply. He remembers a hand on his shoulder; he remembers his tie being adjusted; he remembers the sense of teamwork, of a partnership, of a friendship. He remembers a smile, and a laugh, that he didn't understand in the moment.

"I told you that I hadn't laughed like that in a long time, that I hadn't felt -- I hadn't felt that way in a long time." Dean's voice is turning softer, gentler, his eyes too, and Castiel realizes they're both holding their breath.

"I remember," he says quietly. "It was a meaningful night for me, too." A confession, maybe too much, maybe unnecessary, but the surprise that touches Dean's eyes is satisfying.

"Right. Well..." He breaks off again, his eyes flicking away, into the darkness, then back to the window, then back to Castiel. He seems to be searching for words, when suddenly he laughs, self critically, a little hysterically. At Castiel's questioning look, Dean explains, "I just remembered, the -- the Bert and Ernie thing..."

"Yes. I still don't understand that reference." Castiel watches Dean's face crumple with a smile even as his eyes are starting to shine with something like tears.

"I know. Trust me, it was a good joke."

"I trust you," Castiel says, and Dean stops laughing.

"I know." His voice is heavy with sediment, and his throat bobs as he attempts to swallow, as he licks his lips, as if his mouth is suddenly dry.

Several long eternities pass between them then, standing in each other's space, and Castiel remembers fondly: Personal space. We talked about this. His eyes trace the familiar lines of Dean's face, the familiar restraint in his eyes, the familiar tension in his frame.

"Oh, fuck it. Cas -- " Dean starts, stops, fights a war with himself, and then he kisses Castiel and Castiel is frozen. It's quick, and Dean steps back, fear, uncertainty, doubt swirling on his face as he desperately tries to read Castiel right back.

Another few eternities go by. Castiel isn't sure he's breathing.

"Fuck," Dean says again, bowing his head, bringing his eyes back. "Would you -- Would you say something?"

The irony is painful, and Castiel can't help an uncharacteristically bitter laugh, but before Dean overanalyzes it, Castiel places a hand on his shoulder and kisses him, firmer, more sure of himself, though still as if he were stealing something that was not his.

Dean is frozen at first, too, but soon enough Castiel feels him move against him, feels a hand on his shoulder, feels an arm at his back. Dean's mouth is soft against his own, warm, pliable, willing, and Castiel wonders if it's possible to feel at home somewhere you've never been before.

Yet another eternity or two pass by, but they've been at this for far longer, when the door creaks behind them and Castiel realizes that he hasn't heard the water in a few minutes. He feels Dean leap away from him, and though Castiel is less repentant, he is fearful for Dean (and, underneath, for himself) as he turns to look at Sam in the doorway.

There's surprise there, maybe, though Castiel notices it's mostly turned on Dean. Dean's mouth works, his mouth seemingly dry again, and Sam seems equally at a loss for words before he finally raises his hand and opens his mouth.

And remains silent. The wind rustles the leaves, the sound deafening. Sam finally cracks a smile and steps forward; his hand lands on Dean's shoulder, and his other on Castiel. He looks between them, silent, smiling, gives their shoulders a squeeze, and then steps off the porch.

"I'm just going to go for a walk," he says, smiling over his shoulder, and then moves into the night.

Castiel watches him go, feeling grateful, until he disappears in the darkness, because he's afraid to look at Dean who is still rigid, still cold beside him.

After a long moment, Castiel tries, "You still don't owe me anything, Dean."

"Fuck, Cas." That seems to break Dean, and Castiel looks over at him even as Dean's hand finds his shoulder and starts thumbing at a flap on his coat. "I do. I do. I do," he says, softer each time, until he's pulling Castiel in and murmuring it against his lips.

It isn't until just now that Castiel finally lets himself believe in this. He needed to know if this would be allowed off this porch, out of this moment in time, and Sam gave him that reassurance. Now, it's Dean giving him another kind, a hesitant, but increasingly hungry kind of reassurance, as their gentle embrace becomes more confident, starts to reach back in the years and look to the future at the same time.

Castiel, as ever, is content to go where Dean leads, a mixture of naivety and deference and eagerness to learn. He matches Dean's movements, and when Dean's hand finds the back of his neck, the tips of his fingers brushing in the back of Castiel's hair, Castiel puts his arm around Dean's waist and pulls their bodies together. Dean is warm, alive, gentle in the way that Dean never thinks he is. Dean thinks he's all hard lines, all brusqueness, violence and imbalance. Castiel knows better, and this kiss is proof as Dean keeps them steady together on the porch, not rushing the moment, just reveling.

When Dean does pull away, it's only briefly, and then their mouths are joined together again, but Dean pulls away quicker this time, as if he's only just realizing that he actually does need to breathe. Castiel watches him, fascinated, disbelieving, and he's reminded again of those early days when Dean would continue to surprise him, to draw things out of Castiel that he didn't even know he was capable of.

He knows that Dean's still uncertain, can feel it in the way that Dean doesn't say a word, but drops his head to Castiel's shoulder and hugs him, tightly, and Castiel can feel in this embrace a release of all their previous hugs, laced with restraint. He turns his head to breathe in Dean's scent, and against his neck he feels Dean realize what he's doing. They pull apart, but Dean's hands don't leave him, sliding up to his arms, up to his shoulders again, his fingers rubbing.

Castiel doesn't have a clue what his hands are doing but doesn't care; as much as he's wanted to be in this moment, he's mostly ever wondered at what Dean would do, and so is drinking in every second.

"So..." Dean finally says, uncertainty filling every moment and word, "what do we... What does this mean?"

Castiel blinks at him, then cracks a smile, and then a laugh, and it's Dean's turn to watch, fascinated, as Castiel composes himself. "I don't know." He shakes his head, still grinning. "I don't know." With a hand on Dean's neck, he kisses him again, flooding it with all the happiness that until now had been held back by a kind of fear of dropping something fragile and watching it shatter.

It doesn't shatter. Dean meets him this time, matching his emotion, and suddenly there are teeth here and there, and a breathless kind of need before they need to resurface. When they do, Castiel is laughing again, and after a moment of insecurity, Dean is too. Castiel leans in, his forehead against Dean's neck, and he's clinging to Dean and laughing at the impossibility of all of this.

When they go inside, there are no motives other than to sit down, and to put a door between them and Sam, whenever he gets back. He may have given his approval, but Castiel recognizes that Dean isn't ready to flaunt any of this. There are pauses in which one or the other of them seems to want to say something, to address anything that's gone unspoken, but neither one can seem to think of anything worth saying, and so it becomes exploration: tentative, hesitant, joyous, and also chaste, innocent. There's time yet for more than that.

Castiel never hears Sam come back before he and Dean wind up asleep, still clothed, still on top of the covers, still wrapped up in the newness and brittleness of this thing they're building together.

~

Dean wakes up to find his arm asleep under Cas and the scent of breakfast being cooked in the kitchen. His heart hitches in his chest when he takes in the scene: Cas, hair mussed, laying heavy on his arm with a leg thrown over him. And in the kitchen, Sam, making what smells like sausage. The pit of his stomach churns, though he can't say in what direction, and he extricates himself from Cas as best he can.

His ears are a little red as he steps out of the bedroom, spots the blankets on the couch, realizes Sam spent the night out there and gave him and Cas their privacy. They've been fully aware of each other's love lives and socks on doorknobs for years now, but Dean is shy about this one, embarrassed, apologetic.

"Morning," he says, feigning confidence, and Sam's wide smile that he tosses over his shoulder almost makes that confidence wobble.

"Morning." Sam seems almost smug as he turns back to the breakfast he's cooking, and Dean isn't sure his feet are touching the floor as he approaches him. "Sleep well?" There's a sing-song note in his voice that Dean's pretty positive he hates.

"Sam -- "

"Dean." Sam puts the spatula down and turns around. "Please." Sam's withering look stops Dean's progress toward him. "Whatever it is you're about to say -- I don't care. I'm a little surprised, yeah," Sam says, and Dean's chest constricts, "but I -- Dean, all I've ever wanted is for you to be happy." Sam gives Dean a harder look, raising his eyebrows. "Are you happy?"

That's a big question, and probably unfair for Dean Winchester, of all people, to have an answer for. Dean looks down the hall, sees Cas turn over and his tie slide over his shoulder. It's even more rumpled than usual.

"Yeah, Sammy," he says thickly, afraid to meet his brother's eyes, but then he forces himself to. "Yeah, I think so."

Smiling, satisfied, Sam grabs a spatula and tosses it to him. "Then help me make breakfast, and then we can go home."

Dean glances down the hall again to see Cas stirring in bed, pushing himself up, rubbing a hand over his hair, a look of bewilderment on his face and maybe, perhaps, a sliver of fear before he sees Dean watching him. His hair is totally a wreck, his tie is hanging undone, his jacket half off one shoulder. Cas is still, staring at Dean, and slowly, he smiles.

Home, Dean thinks, before Sam tosses a kitchen towel at his chest.