Title: Paper Tigers
Author: The Artful Dodger / dodger_sister
Category: Altered-Reality, Angel-Turned-Human, Angst, Birthday, Schmoop
Warnings: Abuse of ice cream and pop culture references.
Summary: It’s been one year to the day since Cas turned human and Dean can’t stand to see him drowning his sorrows. Not today.
Word Count: 1,795 words.
Date Written: 04/11/13
Disclaimer: Supernatural is not mine. Dean & Cas are not mine. Clearly if they were we’d all be eating ice cream and holding hands. But I did write this story, all for fun, not profit.
Feedback: Bring it. dodger_sister / TheArtofDodger@comcast.net
Author's Notes: I decided to write a fic for princesslanie’s birthday, came up with the idea, outlined it and wrote it, all in the course of three hours. I don’t think I’ve ever had my process, from conception to the words ‘The End’, ever be so fast. Then the next day. I realized I needed to do a few rewrites, but still...it was pretty awesome. The title is from a quote by Amelia Earhart that I found when I went searching for quotes on ‘paper’, since Cas is insistent that this is his one year anniversary, not his birthday, and paper is the one year anniversary present.
Dedication: For princesslanie. Here’s to this year of your life being all ice cream and sunsets, darling!
Dean entered the bar, the bright light of late afternoon flooding in behind him as the door swung open, then shut. It was dark inside, dim and smoke-filled somehow, despite the law against smoking in public areas. Dean scanned the room, eyes adjusting to his surroundings as he went.
Cas was at the bar, slumped forward on the swiveling stool, shoulders hunched under the weight of his trenchcoat, though the weather was getting warm enough these days that he could probably go without. Dean suspected it was a nostalgia thing, today of all days.
He moved to Cas’ side, slid onto the stool next to him and signaled the bartender.
“I would rather be without company right now, Dean,” Cas told him and didn’t turn away from the in-depth inspection of the bottom of his whiskey glass.
The bartender placed a beer on the counter and Dean let himself take a long pull, let it rush down his throat, pushing everything else down with it.
“A man shouldn’t be alone on his birthday, Cas,” Dean told him and rolled the bottle between his hands.
“It is not my birthday, Dean. It’s simply the anniversary of the day I fell from Grace.”
“Right,” Dean told him. “That’s what I said...your birthday.”
Castiel turned then, body tilted slightly towards Dean, casting the flicker of a shadow across the top of the bar as he moved.
‘Birthdays are days you celebrate,” he said, voice a low burn against the place where the whiskey had forged its path. “I don’t celebrate this day.”
“I do,” Dean said, but his eyes were straight ahead, fixed on the glass mirror on the wall behind the bar, his own face staring back at him. “I will always celebrate the day you died and then came back to me.”
Cas said nothing for a long while, until at last Dean turned towards him and found Cas watching him with an unreadable expression.
“I would choose this path a hundred times over,” he said and Dean tried hard not to waver under the gaze, “but this...this is not what I imagined. It...it sucks.”
Dean felt one corner of his mouth turn upwards, despite his efforts otherwise. “It sucks?”
Cas’ eyes flickered away and then back again, before his whole body crumpled and sagged, like he was deflating in front of Dean’s eyes.
“Yes,” he said with disdain, “it sucks. Being human is terrible and awful and hard and slow and just...”
“Sucks,” Dean finished for him.
Cas turned back to his whiskey glass, downing the remains in one quick burst.
“It can’t be all bad,” Dean said quietly.
Cas nodded. “Of course not. There are many good things about being here,” and he looked over at Dean, gaze lingering for a moment there, something in his eyes that Dean had never been able to read. “It’s just that sometimes it is hard to remember what I gave up, as if that other person isn’t me,” and Cas looked away again, over the bar at his own reflection in the mirror. “As if it’s all just pieces of a movie on some screen that are slipping away from me. My own self, slipping away from me. And then other times, it is hard not to remember what I’ve lost. Other times I can’t forget.”
Dean took another drink from his beer, let it settle in him. He’d always known Cas had made a sacrifice to be here, with him, with them, but Dean had never really let himself think about how much Cas had lost, little pieces of himself that were floating away on a memory.
“This won’t do,” he said at last and threw a wad of bills down on the counter. “We mustn’t despair. Not today. Not on Rex Manning Day.”
“Who is Rex Manning?” Castiel asked him in confusion, but when Dean reached over, wrapped his hand around Cas’ wrist, there was no complaint.
Cas came willingly from his stool and let Dean lead him out into the bright light of afternoon.
“Lick faster,” Dean said, one hand on the steering wheel, the other balancing his own ice cream cone.
“I’m trying to get the chocolate side,” Cas told him, voice rising slightly in alarm. “It’s all deteriorating inwards.”
“It’s chocolate and vanilla swirl, man. You’re suppose to eat it together. Like this,” and Dean demonstrated by taking his tongue and swiping it across the ice cream, turning his cone as he went, licking chocolate and vanilla in one long motion.
When he looked over, Cas was staring at him, lips slightly parted, gaze zeroed in on Dean’s mouth, and Dean couldn’t help but grin at him.
“Pervert,” he said, but took another lick of the swirl, letting his tongue flick the ice cream into his mouth as he went.
When he glanced over at Cas a second time, Cas merely rolled his eyes, stared down at his ice cream and said, “But I want to eat the chocolate part first.” It almost sounded like a pout.
“Dude, you’re killing me,” Dean told him. “Is this like that weird thing you do where you pick all the mushrooms off your pizza and then eat them last?”
“I like mushrooms,” Cas told him and licked a stripe up the side of the cone, where ice cream was seeping its way downwards. “I like to eat them apart from the other food, so it doesn’t inflict on the taste of the mushrooms.”
Dean shook his head and turned onto the side road, a short dirt lane that ended on an overhang, where the world almost seemed to drop off into nothingness. He put the car in park at the end of the lane and got out.
“Watch your sticky hands on the upholstery,” Dean said as Cas fumbled with the door and his cone at the same time.
“Quiet, you,” Cas barked at him and continued his careful quest to keep the ice cream from dripping all over his fingers.
Dean settled on the hood of the Impala, Cas next to him, and they just sat there, the silence filling in all the spaces around them.
“It’s a complicated situation,” Cas said then and Dean didn’t know if he was talking about the melting ice cream or the fall from Grace, but he figured it was true, either way.
“Have I ever told you about my seventh birthday?” Dean asked him.
“I don’t believe so,” Cas answered, eyes still intent on his ice cream.
“We were actually at Pastor Jim’s for a few weeks and Dad was off on a hunt. Jim had gotten some church member to make me a cake and he bought me a present - a new tackle box for when we went fishing together - and he told me that we’d celebrate after his noon service.”
Dean took a bite of his ice cream, teeth pushing into the soft-serve.
“It was going to be a pretty good birthday, all things considered,” Dean went on after a minute. “But all I really wanted was my dad there. I didn’t think he was going to make it. And then at the last second, he drives up and tells me to go get my present out of the backseat. So I run out to the Impala and there is a brand new bike. A big boy bike, no training wheels. You’d think I’d have known how to ride a two-wheeler by then, but with all the moving around, I hadn’t really had a proper chance. But this...man, this bike was gorgeous. All shining and silver and black handlebars. And you know what? Dad spent all day teaching me how to ride that thing.”
Dean took another bite, cone and cream this time, and let his eyes flicker over to Cas, still licking away at his own, tongue circling and lapping at the vanilla now.
“I must have fallen off that bike a hundred times that day. I was scraped and bruised and Pastor Jim went through more band-aids,” and Dean chuckled at the memory of Jim’s face every time he came traipsing through the door asking for another. “I wore those marks like badges of honor. And at the end of the day, I knew how to ride a bike, dammit. Me and my dad, we’d conquered that thing together. You’d think the birthday I walked away from with bloody scrapes all over my legs would be the worst birthday memory of them all. But somehow...it wasn’t. Somehow it was the best.”
“Do you want to teach me how to ride a bike?” Cas asked suddenly.
Dean laughed. “No, man. I just meant...it was a good day. That birthday.”
“I’m very glad you have some fond memories, Dean,” Cas told him and laid a hand on Dean’s arm, squeezed the flannel into a bunch beneath his fingers, before taking his hand back.
“You’ll have good memories of your own, you know. It won’t always be this hard,” and Dean looked at Cas, who was biting into his cone.
There was a smear of vanilla on the corner of Cas’ upper lip and Dean reached over, wiped it off with his finger and sucked the cream into his mouth.
“I could though,” he said when Cas looked up to meet his eyes. “Teach you to ride a bike, I mean.”
“Will that be a useful skill?” Cas asked him and Dean just grinned.
“You never know when you might have to steal the neighbor girl’s bike to go chasing after your kid brother because he decided to go hunt pirate treasure,” Dean said with a chuckle.
“I don’t get that reference,” Cas told him, but seemed more intent on his ice cream than making sense of Dean’s remark.
“It might be useful,” Dean told him instead. “But it also might just be fun, to learn.”
“I believe I am onboard with this plan,” Cas said and stuck his tongue out, licked into the open pit of the cone, circling the ice cream inside. “This is very good,” he told Dean. “Thank you for the birthday ice cream.”
Dean felt something in him lock up and then let go, in an instant, and he looked at Cas in the light of the orange evening sky and smiled.
“You’re welcome, Cas.”
When his hand slid into Cas’ own, it felt cold and sticky, but their fingers curled together just right and Dean could swear he felt Cas’ pulse rushing through his body in a way it never would have a year ago.
They ate the rest of their ice cream in silence and the sun faded into night, while the skin of their hands stayed pressed against one another, warm and soft and alive.