Pairing: none, but possible Dean/Cas undertones.
Spoilers: Through 7x17, "The Born-Again Identity"
Summary: Dean's getting some messages on his voice mail.
The first time, Dean means to pick up the phone, he honestly does. But he's snoozing in the passenger seat, because for the first time in ages Sam's feeling well and awake enough to drive, having slept for a full day and gotten back into a regular rhythm over the course of the past week. It's a blessed respite, because with Sam not sleeping, Dean hasn't exactly been getting a hell of a lot of rest, either. So he's snoozing, and drooling a bit on the seatbelt strap, and he finally jerks awake just as the sound of the last ring chokes off in that way that says I'm going to voice mail.
He wipes his mouth and casts accusing eyes on Sam. "Why didn't you grab it?"
Sam just nods at his jeans. OK, so getting it would have meant Sam touching him in a not-good place, so that's understandable. Sighing, Dean turns over in the seat and retrieves the thankfully-not-squished phone from his back pocket just as it beeps to inform him of a new message.
He doesn't recognize the number. Frowning, he hits the button and holds it to his ear.
Dean, hello. I... I am having a few minutes where my mind is clear, and they asked me if I would like to call my friends. They say I am making progress...
Sam sees it on his face, the surprise and the discomfort, and he smirks. "Who is it?"
Dean drops the phone into his lap, ignoring the rest of the message. "Nobody," he says. "Wrong number."
He's not sure why he lies. He just does. And Sam knows it, most likely. But Dean doesn't want to talk about it. How it feels, what it means.
He doesn't erase the message, either.
When the call comes next, Dean ignores it willfully. Sam shoots him a look, but doesn't say anything. Dean finishes ganking the monster they were hunting with the message burning in his pocket. It's a while before it feels at all natural to excuse himself and take a moment in the men's room. He goes into the stall, pulls his pants down to his ankles, and takes out his cell phone. Which sounds dirtier than it is.
I hope you don't mind my calling again. I thought you should know, my status has been changed to voluntary. The medicine appears to be having some effect. I hope you and Sam are doing well. I... I have to go.
He sounds hurried, and Dean's first thought is to get his ass there as fast as possible. But said ass is bare right now, and it's hours since the call came in. If there was trouble, it's either passed or too late. Not much to do either way.
He settles for saving the phone number as "C-Hosp." in his contacts. Well, he tries. His finger slips on the hyphen and it ends up as "Chosp." Dean doesn't bother fixing it.
He's stupid enough to have left his phone on the table when it rings next. Sam picks it up. "Who's Chosp?" he says.
"Don't get that," Dean snaps. Sam drops the phone like a hot potato. Dean realizes his shoulders are tensed and tight around his ears. He tries to relax them. "Just... let it go to voice mail."
"Guy's a pain in the ass," Dean says, "Dude we met on our last case. Don't ask. Long story." Not a lie. Except for the lie about why he wants the call to go to voice mail.
He just wants to have the message there. Where he can listen to it.
This will be the third message Cas has left him. He's keeping them like a secret cache of treasure. The messages don't belong to Sam, they're Dean's, and Dean's keeping them for posterity. And... and for listening too, when he ....
When he wants to. Yeah. That's good enough.
He forgets he has them, forgets to listen to the newest one, and when "Chosp" shows up in his caller ID again, he's too busy to get it. He doesn't really want to, to be honest. A conversation would be live and confusing and would stir up all kinds of hornet's nests. Messages, on the other hand, are static, and he can listen whenever he wants, whenever he has time.
But they have leviathans to hunt, and now that demons are back in the mix there's twice the paranoia and twice the running around. Even when the phone rings again, shortly afterward, Dean is too busy playing pin-the-knife-on-the-demon to do anything. Another message is added to the stack taking up residence on his phone. It'll keep. No hurry.
The instant the demons are dispatched with, he grabs the phone.
He listens to the messages one by one, from the beginning, slumping against the side of the car. Sam's having a beer, enjoying the quiet of the night post-hunt. Dean could care less what he's up to right now.
The first two have the sound of familiarity to them. The third message, the one from a few days ago, is short. Is it all right if I keep calling you? It does me good, I think. To know I have friends...
The fourth starts, Dean, I think... I think I'm having a relapse. I... I spoke to Daphne today, I explained the situation. Now I'm... oh. He's laughing in my ear, Dean. I can't-- I'm sorry. I shouldn't have called. And a click and nothing.
The next: I wanted to apologize. That is ... it's just happening in my mind, I don't want you to be concerned. I'll be fine. Click. Nothing.
Dean stares at the phone, then presses it to his forehead and closes his eyes. There's nothing he can do. He should just erase the messages. Cas has made his choice. This is the penance he wanted to pay. Dean doesn't have any responsibility to him.
"You OK, man?" Sam, over his shoulder. Apparently paying more attention than Dean thought.
"Yeah." Dean sighs. "Damn telemarketers. That whole message was in Spanish. How the hell did I get a message in Spanish?"
"Beats me," Sam says, but his voice is muted, and if Dean had the patience to listen he'd probably get that Sam's not buying it.
The next time Cas calls, Dean holds his hands together to keep himself from answering. Damn it. He wants to answer. He wants that voice in his ear again. The gravel and sand of it. He wants ...
He erases the message without listening to it. He erases the one before it, too.
He can't bring himself to erase the first few. He wants Cas' voice there when he needs it.
He listens to the messages before he goes to sleep sometimes, when he's sure Sam's not watching.
Castiel doesn't call again for a week. Dean's not worried. He's not.
Sam's looking at him funny sometimes. Here and there. Right now, in the car. Dean frowns, takes out his phone, glances at the recent-calls list, snaps it shut again. Like it was gonna change what it's been telling him for a week. Idiot phone.
"You want to talk to him, you should call him," Sam says evenly. It's a good thing Sam's driving, because Dean almost slams himself forward into the windshield.
He tries to recover. "The hell are you--"
"Cas." Sam nods at the phone. "That's who's been calling you, right? Call him back. He wants to talk to you."
"Shut up." Dean crosses his arms over his chest and looks stubbornly out the side window. Sam lets him, for a minute, shrugging and driving ahead.
A moment later he says, "You want to go see him?"
This time Dean does slam his head against the window. He curses and raises a hand to where the bruise will surely blossom into a technicolor mess of ugly. "Why would I want to--"
"To see how he's doing. I don't know. He did take a hell of a hit for us." Sam takes a breath. "For me. I'd kind of like to know he's still hanging in there."
Dean's silent. He doesn't know what to say. Seeing Cas again terrifies him. The messages are safe, they're self-contained. They give him his Cas fix without requiring any effort on his part. Sam's skirting dangerous territory. But it's Sam, and what Sam wants is more important to him than anything. "You really want to go back there?" he says cautiously. "After everything?"
"I guess it's kind of dumb," Sam concedes. "We're supposed to stay on the move and not double back."
"Right." Dean nods sagely. The soon-to-be-bruise on his forehead is throbbing. "That's what I was thinking."
Sam's eyebrows lift briefly, but he stays silent.
The phone rings in the early morning hours. Dean's half-asleep and picks it up without thinking to check. "'Lo?"
Instant awareness. Instant trembling. Dean's throat dries up. He can't move. Seconds pass.
"Hello? Are you there?"
God, he can't. He can't. He's afraid of what he'll say, what will come up.
But here's Cas live and real on the line and how the hell could messages compare to this? He can feel the blood flowing, the life resonating through Castiel's voice. Through the airwaves, through his phone, seeping into his body and Jesus Dean's shaking hard, he wants to take that step and say hello back, and he can't, he does that and he can never cross back into the safety of having Cas far away, accessible through little packets of information and memory, convenient and untroubling. He inhales, exhales hard. Hard enough that Castiel can hear it.
"Dean. Thank God. for a moment I thought--" Castiel cuts himself off. "I hope you're well. And Sam. I-- I wish you the best."
Dean thinks he's about to get something out of his throat when the phone starts beeping its version of a dialtone. What comes out is halfway between a cough and an aborted word. It sounds to his ears uncomfortably like a sob.
The phone rings. Dean checks the Caller ID and frowns, then puts the phone down.
Or tries. Sam grabs it out of his hand and thrusts it at him. "Answer it."
"None of your business--"
"He keeps calling, Dean. He wants to talk to you. Answer it."
Dean scowls. "You want to talk so bad, you answer it."
"He's not calling me. Dean, why the hell are you being like this?"
"He wanted it this way!"
The phone keeps ringing. Sam takes a step back. "What the hell does that mean?"
Rage is heating Dean's face. "He wanted to take on your demons, Sam. He wanted to be there." It hurts to say. Hurts to think about. "Why the hell should I talk to him, when he didn't even want to--"
The ringing stops. Sam looks at it briefly, then returns his eyes to Dean. They're painful in their empathy. "Dean, don't you get it? You're doing to him what I did to you, when I came back from Hell. Do you really think he wants you to just leave him alone?"
Dean's face drains of its rage. He blinks.
The phone beeps its new message. They both start. Then Sam opens the phone, hits the button, and turns on speaker.
Dean. I'm sorry to bother you again.
Please understand. I have been seeing you. Sometimes it's the devil, sometimes it's Raphael. They take your form and they talk to me in your voice. It helped me to call you. It helped me to leave you messages, because you didn't call back. You -- the real you -- weren't talking back to me.
But now I'm seeing you and you're not talking to me. And I can't tell the difference. Sometimes I think I'm calling you and then I realize there's no telephone nearby. I hope this is real, but I'm not sure. I-- I'm losing reality again. I need...
I want to see you. You and Sam. I told you I would be all right, that I could handle it. I wasn't lying. I can be strong enough to beat this, to keep the pain inside.
I just don't think I can do it alone.
A final beep, and the phone goes silent.
Dean's eyes rise in alarm. Sam's meet his.
Then they break for the car.
At first light they're back in Indiana and they make it to the hospital by midday. Dean's pulse is jumping as he walks down these halls. He's nervous, even more nervous than he was the first time he was shown to this ward, when Sam had been laid up there. At least he'd known what was going on with Sam, known where they stood. This time he had no idea what he would see.
Sam lays a hand on his shoulder. "It's all right," he says, but his voice is trembling too. Dean can only imagine what else this place means to him. Maybe he thinks Lucifer's still in a corner ready to jump out at him. Guilt hangs on him, and he's two seconds away from bolting, deciding this was a bad idea and he shouldn't put Sam through this and--
And blue eyes are focusing on him from the other side of an open doorway.
Dean meets them. For a moment a surge of rightness, of uncompromised connection, sends electric pulses through his nerves.
Castiel's eyes unfocus. He turns on the bed, faces the other way. "Not real," he mumbles to himself.
"Yeah, I am," Dean says loudly. Too loudly. The halls echo with it.
Castiel's shoulders tense, but he doesn't turn back. Dean turns to Sam, who nods and rolls his hand in a go on gesture.
"I got your messages." Dean's voice is softer now, but he still has the weird feeling of listening too carefully to himelf, and he halts too much, gets confused in the middle of syllables and stops. "I listened to them all. All but one. I kept most of them, too. I-- I liked hearing your voice, Cas. It was good to know that you were still out there, that I hadn't imagined that I found you again. Cause it-- it felt like a dream, you know?"
He takes a step into the room. Castiel's shoulders have dropped, and he's very still. His head has turned slightly, but he's stuck there, half-ready, waiting. Dean goes on. "I meant to say thank you. For what you did for Sam. It must really suck for you to be here. And I stayed away because there are things hunting us, and I didn't want you to be in danger, and--"
"Meg is a nurse here," Castiel says.
It's not what Dean's expecting he falls silent.
Castiel still doesn't turn to face him. "She's here, and a few other demons. They appear to be keeping watch on me. I think... they want me to recover my full powers."
Dean explodes in anger. It's an easy emotion for him. "Jesus, Cas, why didn't you say anything?"
"Because I have nothing to fear from them," Castiel says. "They can no sooner control me than you can. It's better for me to wait here and discern their plans."
It makes sense. Dean falls silent.
"Besides," Castiel says, "you didn't want to speak to me. If I had told you, you would have felt obligated to return. I've laid enough on your shoulders."
He turns. Dean didn't notice before, but his face is pale.
"I appreciate you coming," he says. "It has helped. But you should go. I don't want to be a burden."
"God damn it, Cas," Dean bursts out. "You're not a burden, you're a friend."
His jaw snaps shut and he stands there trembling with the force of what he's said. Behind him, Sam takes in a breath.
Castiel's eyes go dark. They're glittering. Oh, God, they're tears.
"Thank you," he says, and he swallows hard. To hold back the tears. It's such an alien movement for Castiel -- stoic, unmoved, awkward Cas -- that Dean doesn't realize the tear on his own cheek until he feels the wetness hit his lower lip.
Is Sam pushing him through the door? Is he moving on his own? He's not sure, but at once he's inside the room, and Castiel's rising from the bed, and they meet in the middle and crush away the space between them. Castiel's shaking like a leaf as he holds on to Dean, nods his head onto Dean's shoulder, and Dean finds a way to still his own trembles long enough to be the solid, sure thing Castiel needs to cling to. He keeps his arms around Cas until they're both warm with the touch of each other's bodies, until the tears, traitorous things that they are, have all been either shed or swallowed.
He withdraws his hands to Castiel's shoulders, looks in his eyes. "We good?"
Castiel nods. "Yes."
"You gonna stay here?"
"For a while longer, yes." Castiel backs out of the embrace, moves to Sam. They do an awkward little dance of hesitation, but in the end Sam lays a hand on Castiel's shoulder and pats it. Good enough for now, Dean figures. His own arms are almost overwhelmed with heat from having actually hugged the guy. He doesn't think he'll be getting over that any time soon. "If you need me..."
"We'll call," Dean says. "Meantime, you concentrate on getting better. Stay strong, man."
"What he said." Sam nods. "We'll be in touch."
They're backing through the doorway when Castiel blurts out, "I may call again."
Dean grins at him. He doesn't say aloud that it's all right, but he thinks Cas gets the message.