When the leaves go from bright green to a mellow orange and a bite fills the air, Dean has an epiphany.
Less about the seasons changing, more about getting lost amongst YouTube. He'd started with fighting stances and martial arts, and he somehow ended up on self-help inspirational videos. The man who changes his life looks an awful lot like Ash, but strangely reminds him of Bobby.
Dean's ten seconds into the video, munching on whatever snack is nearest to him, and he's just about to skip it when the man leans into the camera and says, “Where do you think you're going?”
Dean freezes for a second, eyes going wide. As the man leans back, eyebrows arched in a challenge, Dean has a moment of complete confusion. He draws his head back, stops chewing, and points to himself. The man gives a small nod.
“Yes, I'm talking to you. Now, hear me out. First question, are you scared to die?”
Dean blinks rapidly, and he swallows his food, sitting the bag of chips to the side carelessly. The man waits, and Dean has to think about it for a moment. Ten years ago, if he was asked this question, he would've said - without hesitation - that he wasn't. But he's died so many times at this point, and it never really gets any easier.
Dean glances around the room, checking to make sure no one is around, even though he'd been left alone in his room for the past three hours without interruption. Then, he looks to the man and carefully nods at him.
“Those who say they're not are liars,” the man states matter-of-factly, shrugging shamelessly. “Dying is the end, of course it's terrifying. Even if you die and come back, it's still scary, because you never really know when your time is up. It's the unknown that gets us; that's just human nature.”
“What the fuck?” Dean breathes out, astonished.
The man leans back into the camera. “Now, let me ask you this. Are you scared to love?”
The man backs off and waits, arms crossed, eyebrows raised impatiently. Dean knows the answer, though every part of him wants to fight it, wants the man to be wrong. But the man's gaze is needling at him, seeming to look right through him, like he knows the answer anyway.
So Dean saves himself the trouble of being called out and mutters, “Yeah, but who the fuck isn't?”
The man snaps his fingers and winks. “Exactly! Think about it… you may assume you're not scared, but you really are. Be honest with yourself, okay? Fearing love is instinct to us; it's the base of humanity. Why love when loss exists? Rejection? Judgement? Heartbreak? Such negativity shrouded in hope. It is terrifying, you know that.”
Dean snorts. “You're preaching to the choir, buddy.”
“Now, the final question,” the man says softly, shuffling closer to the camera, looking straight into it with dark brown eyes so piercing that Dean can't look away. “Are you scared of fear?”
Dean blinks rapidly and shoves a hand at the screen, grimacing. “The fuck kinda question is that? That doesn't even make sense!”
The man waves a hand like he's batting away Dean's words. “Hear me out. Fear itself doesn't seem so scary, does it? I mean, it's just the essence of everything that holds you back. No big deal, right? It's not like it's an everyday presence, it's not like it's a battle you're not aware you're fighting.”
“Fear is just fear, dude,” Dean argues, scowling at the man. “Just like anger, just like joy. An emotion, not a fucking thing.”
“Still not convinced?” The man tuts, rolling his eyes and looking at the camera flatly. “You think that it's just a description, but it's not. Fear is learned, taught, picked up and put down. Wanna know what else is? Love. Tell me, why is love its own separate thing; an emotion, a description, a being, but fear isn't?”
Dean opens his mouth to argue, but no words form. Slowly, he closes his mouth and sags against his bed, staring at the man in awe. Because, fuck, that makes a lot of fucking sense.
The man holds his hands up like he's going to pray, taps the tip of his finger to his chin. “I'm going to ask one more time, and be honest… are you scared of fear?”
Dean swallows and casts his gaze to the comforter wrapped around his head, piling down his sides. He's laying on his stomach, warm and comfortable, but he's never been so unsettled in his life. The answer should be no, because who the fuck fears fear, but Dean starts thinking about it, really thinking about it.
Truth is, fear is really fucking scary.
“Shit,” Dean chokes out, “I am.”
The man smiles serenely and nods. “If you're honest with yourself, you know deep down that the answers to all three of my questions is yes. Death, love, and fear; they all have something in common. Terror.”
“No shit,” Dean huffs, wrinkling his nose.
“But I'm here today to tell you how to overcome it. You're not going to believe me, not at first, but that's okay, because I'm right. I've been right so far, almost scarily so,” the man says confidently, winking into the camera like he's making a joke. “I will continue to be right, and you can have your doubts, you can fight it every step of the way, but if you listen to me, stick by what I say… there will come a day when death no longer terrifies you, when you accept love into your life, and when fear stops being your greatest downfall. All I ask is genuine effort.”
“Oh, you're so full of shit,” Dean mutters, shaking his head and rolling his eyes.
He's about to click on the next video when the man snaps his fingers in front of the camera and makes a weird hissing sound. “Ah ah, don't you dare. We got this far, we will see this through. You think I'm full of it, or fake, or a crock, and there isn't anything I can say that will change your mind. But I can provide results, so I entice you with this… what do you have to lose? You're not scared, are you?”
Dean jolts back from the computer, eyes wide. Jesus, it’s like the dude is actually talking to him. It's so fucking surreal, but Dean literally can't force himself to click the next video. The man smiles and points at the bottom of the screen.
“If you're sticking around, go ahead and subscribe to my channel. Down below are some links to my books, but don't feel pressed to buy them. I'm not chasing your money. I'm going to tell you everything you need to know for free. Are you ready?”
Dean bites his lips, feeling like a fucking idiot when he hits subscribe and waits patiently. Immediately after he's subscribed, the man nods and starts talking, maintaining eye contact the whole time.
Twenty minutes later, Dean's scrambling for a credit card that isn't his to purchase all of the man's books.
“Hey, Sam, wanna go for a ride?”
Sam looks up from his laptop, eyebrows furrowed. Dean swings his keys around his finger, waiting patiently. Sam heaves a sigh, like it's an inconvenience for him to move, but Dean can tell that he wants out of the bunker. Cas is entranced in his book, eyes never so much as lifting; he clearly has no plans to move from his spot.
“Where are we going?” Sam asks casually, pocketing his phone and following Dean out to Baby.
Dean slides in his car, pulls them out to the road, then answers, “I got to go pick up some books. Bought them and had them sent to our dropbox.”
“Oh,” Sam hums, sounding slightly surprised, “I thought we were sneaking away to go on a hunt.”
Dean sighs. “Still haven't found one case. It's like all the monsters in the world took a holiday.”
“Not true,” Sam replies immediately. “Claire and Jody went to Wisconsin just yesterday to handle a ghost.”
“Yeah, but that's pretty tame. I can't find anything worth our time. All the other hunters are handling everything now, so we're kinda stagnant,” Dean mutters, waving a hand.
Sam hums. “We'll pick something up, just can't tell Cas about it.”
“About that,” Dean says, taking a deep breath and sending Sam a serious look, “I know what I said before, but I think we should stop lying.”
“Wait, seriously? You're the one who suggested it, Dean. I mean, I'm cool with not lying to Cas; I didn't particularly like it anyway.”
“Well, yes, I mean about Cas, but I also mean… in general. Like, stop lying altogether.”
There's a beat of silence, the Sam says, “What?”
Dean clears his throat, keeping his gaze straight ahead. “I think it would be a good idea if we all stopped lying to each other, and to ourselves.”
“I don't lie to you,” Sam argues, huffing quietly.
“That was a lie,” Dean replies immediately.
Sam turns in the seat and stares at him. “Okay, who are you, and what have you done with my brother?”
Dean rolls his eyes. “Don't be like that, Sam,” he says, throwing him a smile. “I just think lying is kinda… negative.”
“Yes, because you're all about positivity, aren't you?”
“Don't be an ass. I'm being serious.”
“Okay,” Sam challenges, suddenly all little brother, doing his best to prove Dean wrong, “tell me a truth then? Something you never say.”
Dean has to take a deep breath, but he remembers the video and manages a weak, “I love you.”
There is complete and utter silence.
Dean is suddenly reminded why he doesn't say those three words. The silence behind them are suffocating, and not to have them echoed hurts. They don't make it a habit to say those words, and Dean honestly can't remember the last time he told Sam that, or the last time Sam told him.
It's known, mostly. Not saying it is safer. But Dean has a video lingering at the back of his mind that just won't leave him alone, and it's important.
Sam clears his throat. “Okay, I, uh, love you too. You know that.”
Dean does, but his chest loosens a bit at hearing it. Just like that fucking video predicted. He sighs, glances at Sam, mutters, “It's a truth I should speak about more often.”
“It's okay, Dean. I mean, you haven't done anything wrong. It's- it's not like I am upset about it,” Sam reassures him quickly.
“Yes, but it's a truth that needs to be said,” Dean insists, setting his jaw. “Anyway, I'm being serious about not lying.”
Sam coughs awkwardly. “Yeah, I'm getting that. You sure you're alright, Dean?”
“Perfectly fine,” Dean says casually, then, “I love you, Sam.” The words feel strange in his mouth, but he feels better after saying them.
“Okay, no, what's up with you?” Sam asks carefully.
Dean narrows his eyes. “Is there something wrong with me telling you that I love you?”
“No,” Sam murmurs.
“Be honest,” Dean reminds.
Sam huffs, clicking his tongue. “It's just… you don't say that. It's not a normal thing, so I'm kinda confused where it came from. Are you having a midlife crisis?”
“No, I'm not,” Dean snaps, reaching over to cuff Sam on the back of his head. “I'm just… doing something different, okay? It's a good thing, so you can relax. I think you should do it with me.”
“What, be honest?” Sam asks warily.
Dean shrugs. “That, among other things.”
Sam makes a small noise of discomfort, like if there is more besides suddenly not lying to each other and Cas and themselves, it's only going to be worse.
Dean rolls his eyes in faint amusement, but makes no move to reassure him.
Dean shakes out his hands and moves into the kitchen, his stomach a ball of nerves. He thinks he might puke, or laugh, or cry. Maybe he won't be able to do it, maybe he'll just flee.
He has to try, according to the video and the books.
“Good morning,” Dean says as heads towards the fridge. He pulls out one of Sam's water bottles and turns to find Sam and Cas staring at him like he's grown a second head. He blinks, mutters, “What?”
“Coffee?” Sam suggests, like he's reminding Dean what his routine is.
Dean's mouth waters at the thought of coffee, but he refuses to give into temptation. Getting his mind off of it, Dean turns to Cas. “I have to tell you something.”
Cas shares a look with Sam before focusing on Dean, dipping his head carefully. “Okay.”
Dean stops. The words freeze at the back of his throat, getting caught there. He doesn't know why it's infinitely harder to say it to Cas than Sam, but it feels impossible. Which is stupid, because Dean loves Cas; he knows he does. Cas is his best friend, his family, someone as important to him as Sam.
“Yes?” Cas asks softly, one eyebrow sweeping up.
Dean gathers himself, reminds himself of what the books say. Truths held within yourself are unknown to the world, translating to fear. To overcome it, the truths must be set free. It sounds like such fucking bullshit, but it fucking worked with Sam anyway. So, Dean forces himself to just do it.
“I love you.”
Sam's spoon drops into the cereal bowl, slipping from his mouth when it drops open. His eyes are wide, blatant shock and disbelief there. Cas just stares at him, no expression on his face. Again, Dean's reminded why he doesn't say that shit.
It feels like eternity before Cas casually replies, “I love you too, of course.”
Dean relaxes immediately, the weight slipping off his shoulders, chest unclenching. And yeah, Cas does love him, Dean knows this, but the words feel nice in his head anyway.
Right then, the world could come to an abrupt end, but that would be okay, because Dean had told Sam, had told Cas, and they had returned the sentiments. It's known, it's out there, and nothing can take it away, and that feels so fucking good, just like the man had promised him it would.
“Awesome,” Dean says, because it really is.
Sam makes a small sound, something stuck between disbelief and confusion. “But… coffee?” he asks, like that will make the world make sense again.
Dean's mouth doesn't water, and he gives Sam an indulgent smile. “I'm not drinking coffee anymore. Just water from here on out.”
Cas pauses then. “What?”
“Yeah,” Dean confirms easily.
“Are you feeling alright, Dean?” Cas asks carefully.
Dean nods. “I feel fantastic.”
Cas looks unconvinced, Sam looks as if he's in some alternate reality, and Dean feels amazing.
The following day, Dean feels like absolute shit.
He wakes to a throbbing headache, and his body feels more sluggish than it usually does. He has to drag himself out of the bed and force himself into the kitchen. The coffee machine chugs away as Sam starts it, and Dean has never wanted something so desperately in his life.
Miserably, he drags himself to the fridge and steals a water bottle. “Good fucking morning.”
Sam shoots him an amused look. “Where's all that positivity this morning?”
Cas tuts from the table, looking over the newspaper with faint amusement. “He has a caffeine headache, be gentle.”
“I'm fine,” Dean mutters and plops down at the table, lowering his aching head to the cool surface.
“Maybe you should drink some coffee,” Sam suggests in slight concern. “It can't be a good thing to quit cold-turkey.”
Dean peeks open one eye to glare at Sam before deliberately turning his head to face Cas, hoping that he, at least, won't betray him. “I will be fine.”
“Eat some chocolate,” Cas tells him.
Dean considers this. The books didn't say anything about chocolate. He didn't usually eat chocolate, but it's a welcome idea to have that if he isn't drinking coffee. Then, Sam had to go a ruin the idea.
“That has caffeine,” he says slowly.
“Fuck,” Dean mutters, turning his head to press the tip of his nose and forehead on the cool tabletop.
“One bite shouldn't hurt,” Cas chides Sam.
Sam sighs. “Dean, what exactly are you doing here? Are you on a diet? You cutting out caffeine? What?”
“Just… no more coffee,” Dean mumbles, because that's what the book had suggested. “More water.”
A cabinet opens and a miniature snicker bar is pushed near his eye. Dean reaches out and grabs it, unwrapping it slowly. He eats it and closes his eyes, humming around the taste. He doesn't exactly feel better, but it soothes his brain to think he's had some caffeine today.
“It probably doesn't help that you haven't been drinking,” Cas announces without preamble.
Dean's head snaps up. “How'd you know that?”
“You're quitting drinking?” Sam blurts, sounding in complete awe.
Cas looks at him in an unimpressed fashion. “I'm not blind, Dean. You haven't drank a drop in two days.”
Which, that's entirely true. But he hadn't planned on telling anyone about that just in case he… well, in case he fails. Compared to coffee, alcohol seems like a harder mountain to climb, but the books and video had been very specific about that.
“What in the fuck is going on?” Sam barks sharply, crossing his arms.
Dean grimaces and glares at Cas. “Nothing, I just figured I'd at least try.”
“I'm ecstatic about that, really, but why?” Sam presses, moving over to sit on Dean's opposite side, across from Cas.
“It's a good thing,” Dean mumbles, looking down at the table, trying to keep from flushing in embarrassment.
“Yes,” Cas agrees, sending Sam a scolding look full of seriousness, “yes it is. And we will help you in anyway that you need.”
Dean takes a breath, looks between them, and very carefully says, “I love you.”
Cas doesn't hesitate. “We love you too.”
Sam grumbles, rolling his eyes, but nods his agreement. And suddenly, Dean feels like he'll be able to do whatever he puts his mind to.
Dean is sitting at the table in the war room, arms folded over each other, chin propped on top. He is eye level with the label on the whiskey bottle, and he reads it over and over. Underneath the table, his legs quiver and bounce.
He doesn't even look up, just waits until Cas comes to sit at the table, then says, “I can still taste it.”
“Do you want to tell me why you've been being more… positive lately?” Cas asks carefully.
Dean tears his gaze away from the bottle and stares into Cas’ steady gaze. “You remember how you kinda fell into a Netflix hole a while back?”
“Yes,” Cas says.
“Well… I fell into a YouTube hole, I guess. I came across this video,” Dean explains, his eyes turning back to the bottle. “It was a stupid self-help video, but it makes sense. I dunno, it kinda felt like the dude was talking to me. I had to try.”
Cas watches him for a moment, then hums. “Are you still trying, Dean?”
“I tell you and Sam that I love y'all every day. I haven't had coffee in almost a week, same with alcohol, not even a beer. What do you think?”
“I think you're torturing yourself by staring at a bottle of whiskey at nearly three in the morning.”
Dean heaves a sigh, looking away from the bottle again. “I haven't been without a drink since… god, I can't even remember.”
“Can I ask what you're supposed to be doing? Self-help usually implies more than just drinking water, telling people you love them, and stopping a harmful addiction.”
Dean leans up, sitting back in his chair. Cas watches him curiously, not teasing or judging. Dean hums and pushes the bottle to the side, leaning forward. A part of him wants to grab it up, take a big swig, relish in the burn, but Cas keeps on watching him, and Dean finds himself unable to.
“It's more than that. It's- it's not lying, not to myself, not to others. There's more, obviously. Like, okay, can I ask you something?”
“Are you scared to die?”
Cas blinks. “I'm not afraid of death, but I'm afraid of leaving this world. Does that make sense?”
“It does,” Dean says, fighting the urge to fidget before the next question. “Are you scared to love?”
Cas almost immediately averts his eyes. “No.”
“Don't lie,” Dean whispers.
“Then… yes,” Cas murmurs, slowly dragging his wary gaze back to him.
Dean nods, moving on. “Are you scared of fear?”
Without hesitation, Cas answers, “Yes.”
Dean's surprised at how fast Cas answered that. It had taken Dean a minute to understand why fear was something to be scared of, but Cas doesn't seem to have any doubts about it. It kinda makes Dean feel sad in a way, to think that Cas, an angel, knows exactly what that means.
“I'm sorry,” Dean says, because he's trying to be more honest now.
Cas rewards his kindness with a small smile. “That's quite alright, Dean.”
“Okay, so they all have something in common, right? Death, love, fear. What if, what if you could change that and get over your fears? Would you try?”
“Exactly,” Dean says, spreading his hands wide.
“And that's what you're doing?” Cas asks.
Dean nods. “So it's like this, right? The man explains it better than me, but there are certain reasons why all that's so terrifying. Like death. We fear it because it's the end, because it's finality. All those times we died, it wasn't final, but one day… it will be. And there's always something we wanna say, or do, or finish, but we can't, because… fear.”
“So…” Cas says, drawing out the word, leaning forward and urging Dean to continue.
“So, you do them. You stop being scared. You say what's on your mind, you do what you gotta do, and you finish everything you can, until you can't anymore. It's the bigger shit, obviously, not some side project, but other stuff.”
“I see. And love?”
“Right,” Dean mutters, takes a deep breath. “Being scared of love isn't because of love. It's, like, the stuff that comes with it. Fear of rejection, of failure, of losing any love you get.”
Cas folds his hands together, frowns. “That seems impossible to stop fearing.”
“Yeah, exactly! But the loophole is to add fears instead of try to take those away. Those are normal, and they don't just go away.”
“What fears are you supposed to add? That's seems a bit redundant, doesn't it?”
“Well, you'd think so, but the fears you add make it different. You're supposed to start being scared of people not knowing you love them, start being scared that you'll miss an opportunity, be scared that you'll never experience it. That way you'll be open to it instead of running from it.”
Again, Cas looks surprised. “That's… highly intuitive. That could possibly work.”
“Makes fucking sense, doesn't it?” Dean scoffs, rolling his eyes in amusement.
“Indeed. And what of fear itself?”
“That's the hardest one.”
“Explain it to me,” Cas insists.
Dean takes a deep breath, lets it out, tries to put it the same way the books do. “Fear is like some cascading wave, right? So, it crashes and crashes, and you're dragged under because you went too far out from the shore.”
“An ocean metaphor,” Cas notes, nodding in approval, like it makes sense.
“Right,” Dean murmurs, hides a smile. “The shit you fear is the shit you can't really change. Fears of spiders or heights, those are just… footnotes. Those can be fought, pushed away, ignored. It's the other shit that really matters. And it's not about what you're scared of, it's about the fear.”
Cas looks interested, eyebrows raising. “Elaborate.”
Suddenly, Dean feels fucking smart, and he sits up with excitement. “Fear is more than just an emotion, it's this tangible thing. It kinda just needles at you, a solid reminder of all the shit that you can't do.”
“So… you face them.”
“Face your fears?” Cas asks, sitting back in slight disappointment. “That's it?”
“It? It? That's everything, Cas. I'm not talking about a freak out when you see a spider, I'm talking about panic attacks when a gun gets pointed at Sam. You face them,” Dean insists seriously.
“And just how do you plan to face them?”
“Acknowledgement. The worst of our fears are usually hidden. If we admit them to ourselves, we're already a bit exposed. We gotta go and find the fears, the ones we hide from even ourselves, and we gotta inspect 'em. Find out why they're scary, find out what we'd do if they happened, face them like they can happen tomorrow. And the biggest part… we have to let ourselves be afraid of them.”
Cas looks confused now. “Isn't the goal to not fear them? How does that help in anyway?”
“We're scared of fear 'cause we give it weight. We think we can't be afraid, that we shouldn't be, or some shit,” Dean says, grimacing. “But the thing is, we are gonna be scared anyway, might as well accept it. Fear ain't always a bad thing; sometimes it's the only thing that keeps us alive. But running from it, hiding it, pretending it doesn't exist… that's what makes us scared of fear.”
“Force of habit,” Cas realizes softly, blinking.
Dean nods. “Yeah.”
“So… you're being honest, giving and accepting love, and facing your fears,” Cas lists off carefully.
“I'm tryin’,” Dean says, because he really is.
“What does this have to do with the removal of coffee and alcohol?” Cas demands, squinting his eyes like he can't see how those things correlate.
They don't, really, and Dean fights a blush, averting his eyes. “That's not exactly a requirement, just a strong recommendation. Considering it's not that good for you, it's not gonna help with doing all that. Clean mind, healthy habits, or whatever.”
There's a long beat of silence, then Cas breathes out into the quiet, “That man is a miracle worker.”
“Oh, shut up,” Dean huffs, rolling his eyes. Cas gives him a small smile, clearly pleased, so Dean finds himself whispering, “I love you.”
Jesus, that really is becoming a habit.
Cas looks at him, blue eyes sweeping across his face, and it feels so different than the last time when he murmurs, “I love you too, of course.”
Cas helps him toss all the alcohol out, packing them in boxes without any complaints. They even get rid of the leftover eggnog from last Christmas. It almost physically pains Dean to slide his finest whiskey into one of the boxes, but Cas gives him a stern look when he fiddles with the bottle too long.
Sam watches the proceedings in a dazed fashion.
He's too pleased and hopeful to make a noise of complaint, but he doesn't move to help, apparently too caught up in how fucking unlikely the events are. He just watches them walk the boxes outside, head swinging back and forth, mouth parted in awe.
Cas doesn't let Dean clean out his room on his own, and he finds half-empty bottles in places that Dean doesn't even remember losing them. But once every inch is scoured, they move to the next room. Sam lingers in the doorways, just watching.
Dean wants to say something, wants to be annoyed with Sam, wants to snap at Cas, but the boxes keep adding up, and they keep finding alcohol littered all over in the strangest places. So, Dean stays silent and forces himself to admit that he drinks too much. It's a hard thing, and the honesty makes him grit his teeth, but he's trying.
“Done,” Cas announces, holding the last box, staring at the last bottle in Dean's hands patiently.
Dean gazes down at it. Nine days have passed since his last drink, and his hands tremble with the loss. The bottle contains cheap whiskey that won't even begin to get him drunk, and there is only maybe a swallow left in it, but Dean desperately wants it.
He can taste it at the back of his teeth, a sharp layer on his tongue, a pleasant burn in his chest. He wants it, and he swallows thickly as he stares down at the brown liquid sloshing in the bottle. And it's only a swallow, just one for the road, and he can be done.
Bargaining for the toxicity, he hears the man from the video say, reciting words from his book. If you're doing that, then you need to let it go, or it will consume you. Unless, of course, that's what you truly want; is that what you want?
“Take it,” Dean orders sharply, practically yelling at Cas, needing to throw blame somewhere.
“Put it in the box, Dean,” Cas says gently.
And Dean really needs to be the one, needs to sever himself from his fucking crutch, or he'll find someway to avoid blame if he comes back to it. It can't be there for him, numbing the pain, numbing his senses, coaxing his lies… not anymore.
So, Dean forces himself to watch as he places it in the box. Cas smiles at him, doling the sweet expression out like a reward, and Dean takes in a shaky breath, his whole body sore.
“Let's go,” Dean says, tipping his head towards the door.
Cas just turns and walks the box outside, placing it in a row with the others. Sam follows them out, lingering on the sidelines, still watching like it's the most interesting thing he's ever seen. Dean stares at the boxes, counts them; there are eighteen in all, packed to the brim with alcohol.
“Ready?” Cas asks, picking up a bottle and opening it, pouring its contents out over each of the other boxes before throwing it in the last one.
Dean watches, mouth watering. “No,” he croaks, because he's being honest now.
Cas hands him a pack of matches anyway and takes a step back, waiting patiently. Dean can smell the whiskey all over the boxes, can practically feel it burning his nose. He looks at them, hesitating.
It's a waste, such a fucking waste.
But Sam's eyes are wide in awe, and he looks like a child again, just in this moment. Like he's seeing something truly amazing for the first time. Like he's bearing witness to something he never knew he wanted until this very moment. Like he's forming dreams, and hopes, and a future in his mind.
And Dean can't.
Can't just see that, can't breathe at such a fucking aching display. Their father should've done this long ago, should've burned it all down, should've made the decision to choose family over substance, and when had Dean taken up such dilemmas?
Cas looks as if he knows that Dean needs to look at him instead, like he's aware that seeing Sam's hope is too much. Cas doesn't look as if this is something he wants; he looks accepting, like he'll take Dean as is, as was, as he'll ever be.
That's almost as hard to see, because if that doesn't make Dean want to be better, what the fuck will?
But ultimately, it's about him. Cas doesn't drink, can't really get drunk, but he'll nurse a beer if Dean insists. Sam drinks, either to dull pain, or to share a moment with Dean, or to just enjoy the taste, because people can do that, people who don't need alcohol to breathe, to sleep, to exist.
Dean isn't one of those people.
Drinking has been in every stage of his life. Loss is when it's the worst, the burn of the liquor warming the numbest parts of him. Even when he's happy, he drinks to silence any untoward thoughts his brain might come up with. Drinking has never been healthy for him; it's not casual, it's a necessity.
The video and the books… they say there are only five true necessities to lead an enriched life.
Alcohol isn't one of the five.
Dean takes a deep breath and stares at the boxes, thinks about all the fears he's buried behind countless bottles, and realizes that this is a fear too. His lips curl into a faint smile, and he sinks into it, grips the anxiety and uncertainty and pure, unadulterated fear, and strikes a match.
The first box goes up in flame, glass shattering, heat cascading in waves, and Dean watches. Cas takes a step up beside him and holds out a hand. Dean passes over the pack of matches, listens to the scrape and whoosh, blinks as the second burns too. Cas waves Sam forward, passes him the match, and the third joins in.
Dean does the rest, sweating against the heat, hands trembling around the matches. When he stops before the last box, he has to fight to keep calm. His hands can't really hold the matches properly, so he grips it close to his chest.
It feels as if his bones are rattling under his skin, and he thinks there are waves crashing over his head, drowning him. He breathes, easy and slow, doesn't look at Cas or Sam, just strikes a match. It goes out when he lets it burn to the end.
The second match starts burning down, and Dean steadies himself, forces himself not to think of all the times he's lost himself into a bottle, tries not to see the little snapshots of his father and himself in a state of inebriation, doesn't want the images to overlap as they stack into one person. Dean is not his father; he is more than them both.
The last box goes up as the first dies out into ash.
Dean is reading one of the books, soaking up the words, trying not to eye the cup of coffee Sam is sipping on, when Cas says, “I think I found a case.”
Sam and Dean's heads snap up in perfect sync, surprised into wide-eyed stillness. They haven't heard not hide, nor hair about a case in months. All the cases are being picked up by all the other hunters, just small things passed between a restless community.
Plus, Cas hasn't wanted them to go hunting, not after the last near-apocalypse. He'd insisted on resting, healing, pleased with the lack of abundant cases. It's why Sam and Dean had planned on lying to him if they could ever find one. But Cas seems to have changed his tune, either thinking they've rested enough, or going as stir-crazy as them.
“What have you got?” Sam asks immediately, leaning over to look at the laptop Cas is perched behind.
“I'm fairly certain it's a Wraith,” Cas says with a small frown, sliding the laptop over so Sam can read whatever is there. “Look, all the victims are left with dried, shriveled brains and small, circular puncture wounds behind their ears.”
“How many dead?” Dean murmurs.
“Six,” Cas replies with a frown.
Dean's eyebrows jump. “Over time?”
Sam blinks rapidly, leaning back from the laptop, shaking his head grimly. “In the last two days.”
“Jesus,” Dean mutters, eyes widening. “Where are we going?”
Sam stands, pushing from the table. “Not too far, just Omaha. I'll go pack.”
Dean pushes back from the table, intending to do the same, but pauses and looks at Cas. “How'd you find the case?”
“Claire sent it to me,” Cas admits with an awkward shrug. “We've been talking recently, and no one is too keen about going for this one “
“You and Claire talk now?”
“After our discussion… I reached out to her. It seemed important to inform her that she is loved.”
“Oh,” Dean murmurs, ducking his head to hide a sudden smile, pleased for some reason, “well, that's good. I'm glad y'all talk now.”
Cas gives him a soft look. “Me too.”
The moment is gentle, careful, and the words come up without direct permission. “I love you,” Dean tells him, meeting his eyes.
He hasn't said it today, so he tries to make himself feel better about it. He's been trying to say it everyday, either casually, or when it seems they need it, but again, this feels different. He rarely ever tells them separately, simply because of the confusion it causes when he tells Cas specifically.
As always, Cas replies, “I love you too, of course.”
Dean nods and makes his escape, breathing easy in his room. It feels like a fucking lie, but he can't figure out why. The books had told him there would be things that he wouldn't be able to admit to himself, or tell the truth about, simply because he wouldn't know, but he's not supposed to run from the vague feeling of repression, he's supposed to try and figure it out, try and find the truth.
It's frustratingly difficult, especially when he has no idea where he's supposed to start.
The coroner keeps looking at them strangely, but it's not anything new to Dean. He just gives the man a big smile, lays on the charm, and hopes it works. The man considers the three of them, wary, his senses no doubt telling him this is all bullshit.
So Dean says, “How about we go up to that amazing cafe next door and I buy you a coffee while my coworkers do all the hard work, hmm?”
The man seems to hesitate, but when Dean dips his head and winks, he gives in with, “Alright. I could use a break actually, thanks.”
Dean gives Cas and Sam a curt nod as he leads the man out the room, giving them the space they need to take in the details. They have to do this sometimes, have to convince civilians that their gut feelings could just be indigestion. Besides, it doesn't take three to examine bodies.
“What's your name?” Dean asks politely, climbing the stairs to the upper level.
The man gives him a shy smile. “Jay Johnson. You said yours was Ted, right?”
“That's me,” Dean chirps, leading them outside into the brisk air. “How do you take your coffee?”
Jay purses his lips, considering, then says, “Blonde and sweet. You?”
Dean doesn't hesitate, replies reflexively, “Black and strong enough to pull my ass outta hell.”
Jay bursts out into laughter, chortling in amusement as they enter the cafe. Dean sends him a grin, watching how he tips his head back and laughs openly. He seems happy, if not a bit tired, but carefree and relaxed, like he's okay with himself. Dean wonders if he'll ever be like that, wonders if he even wants to be.
“That sounds terrible.”
“Well, I don't drink coffee anymore, so maybe it was.”
True to his word, Dean buys Jay coffee, purchasing himself some nasty fucking tea, and follows Jay to the little table beside the window, letting them watch the cars go by outside. Dean passes over the coffee, vaguely wondering how much longer Sam and Cas will take. But Jay leans forward, grabs Dean's attention, mentions Baby, and that's it.
Dean's so caught up in his conversation about Baby, and cars, and engines, he doesn't even bat an eye when Jay's shoe bumps into his ankle. And the conversation transitions easily into books, then comic books, then movies. Dean suddenly knows more about Jay than he does any other witness on any other case he's ever worked.
Amazingly, it feels natural.
Jay is just a calm dude, exuding relaxation and ease without it being overbearing. Dean doesn't feel forced, or like he has to watch what he has to say, or as if he has to pretend to be someone he's not. Jay's just… chill; he leans into Dean's space, touches his arm, smiles kindly, and it all feels genuine.
Dean says something about classical rock music, and Jay snaps his fingers, pointing at Dean and announcing, “You, I like you.”
And that's okay, because it feels nice to hear, and Dean's trying to let himself enjoy things. He's supposed to, supposed to admit to himself that he deserves nice things, supposed to believe compliments, supposed to bask in nice moments. So, he does, kind of stumbling awkwardly into it, but trying nonetheless.
Jay listens, smiles, and his shoe runs up Dean's leg, tickling his skin through his pants. Dean blinks at the sensation, coming back to himself, and he realizes oh shit, he's flirting.
He doesn't get to examine how he feels about that, or even react at all, because Cas is suddenly sweeping into the cafe with a stormy expression. Dean would be worried, but Sam follows him in at a calmer pace, face relaxed, lips curling in amusement. Jay's head snaps up, but his shoe doesn't stop nudging him, and Dean jerks back quickly.
“We're done,” Cas grinds out, very obviously annoyed about something, “time to go, Ted.”
Which, yeah, that makes sense, even if Cas’ behavior doesn't. Maybe he and Sam had an argument, and the thought fills Dean with dread; he really doesn't want to mediate between the two.
“That's my cue,” Jay says with a regretful sigh, dropping his foot and standing up. “Maybe I'll see you again, Ted, if you need to come back. But just in case you don't,” he picks up Dean's cup of tea and grabs a pen from his pocket, clearly writing his number there, “you should call me.”
With that, Jay winks at him, gives Dean his tea back, and walks out, leaving everyone behind. Sam rocks back on his heels, clearly amused, and Cas follows Jay's retreat through the window with his gaze until his body disappears, eyes narrowed in annoyance. Dean decides now isn't the time to figure out how he feels about being flirted with by a man, even though he knows he should, considering the mixed emotions he has about it. He has always brushed it aside, or ignored it, but he's not doing that anymore.
“Well, let's get back to the hotel,” he says as casually as possible.
Sam immediately turns away, heading out the door. Cas grunts and falls into step with Dean as they follow him. Cas is still scowling, still annoyed, and Dean wants to ask, but also doesn't want to know. He hopes it will fade, and he takes a sip of his tea to cover the awkward silence.
Cas’ eyes flick to him, bulging for a moment before sliding into angry slits. Dean slowly lowers the cup, not quite sure what he's done wrong, and he blinks rapidly when Cas plucks it from his fingers.
“You won't be needing this,” Cas tells him, dropping the cup in the trash on the way out the door.
Dean blinks down at it, but lets himself be pulled roughly outside. “Hey, I was drinking that!”
Cas gives him a stern look. “No,” he says simply.
And Dean has no idea how to argue with that, so he just shuts his mouth and doesn't.
Sam goes down with a solid thump, grunting as he hits his head, and Dean watches helplessly. Sam hits his head way too often to be normal, and that needs to stop, like yesterday.
The Wraith, a seriously ugly older woman, descends down onto Sam, wrenching his hair to the side. Dean thrashes against the ropes wrapped tightly around his wrists, tying him to the massive wooden beam in the middle of the room.
“Dinner,” the Wraith cackles madly, waving a hand to Sam before moving it to Dean, “and dessert.”
And it's close, far too close. Dean can see how she's seconds from turning Sam's brain into a dried-out husk, and it fills him with such panic and shock that he nearly breaks his wrists trying to get free.
This is fear, true fear. It's one of his deepest fears. Just a hint of a chance of Sam reverting back to his state before Dean ever sold his soul, like everything he's ever done was useless, and it's so utterly terrifying that he goes mindless with it.
Whatever the video and books ever tried to prepare him for, it doesn't matter. Looking at Sam lying there, knocked out, seconds from death, it makes Dean feel as if everything he's done has been pointless. He wants a drink so badly, wants to never tell them how much he loves them again, doesn't even want to hear it returned, can't bare the thought that all the good he's been trying to do still hasn't changed one fucking thing about him.
But then, Cas bangs in like a fucking hurricane, all storm and unstoppable force, and nothing about it is quiet. As she screeches, choking on her own blood, Dean closes his eyes, tries to breathe.
He tells himself it's okay, that he's going to have doubts, but it feels like failure anyway.
And when her body is discarded, silence rings in his ears, the only sound he can hear is the frantic beating of his heart. Cas checks on Sam, brushes his hair back in place, wakes him up and smiles like he didn't nearly rip a Wraith apart with his bare hands. Sam takes a glance at the mangled body and smiles up at Cas in thanks, nods like everything is okay, like Dean's not freaking the fuck out.
It happens all the time, sometimes nearly every week, and it's so normal that Dean thinks he shouldn't even fear it anymore. But it's so fucking fucked up, so wrong in every conceivable way.
Sam dying, or nearly dying, or hurt beyond repair… that's a fear that he has to face. He hates to, isn't sure how to even begin, but everything else has worked so far, so he tries. He sinks into the panic, accepting the worry, lets his body rack with trembles, pushes out the shaky breaths, admits to himself that he's so utterly terrified of losing his brother that he can't fucking stand himself.
He doesn't reassure himself, doesn't ignore it, doesn't brush it off. He lets himself know that it's too much, too close, and he accepts that it scares the ever-loving shit out of him.
And just that… just that is so relieving.
“Dean?” Cas asks softly, moving over to cut the ropes away, looking at him carefully.
Dean stands up and looks between their patient expressions, their calm demeanors, says, “That was fucking terrifying.”
Sam blinks at him. “What, the Wraith?”
“No,” Dean replies, because it's true, “you nearly dying was. It scares the shit out of me.”
“Oh,” Sam says faintly, but he doesn't look too surprised, seems to understand and relate.
Dean thinks there isn't a better time than now to say it, so he mutters, “I love you.”
The words seem to kind of make Sam sag, and he gives a small smile, like words have taken away all the tension from his body. He walks over and wraps Dean in a bug, leaning his chin into Dean's shoulder, clapping his back. It's not that it's rare, they hug, but it's usually not so casual. But Dean allows it, gripping Sam tight for a moment.
He doesn't tell himself he's not afraid, and somehow, he feels better than if he had.
As they break apart, Cas walks beside Dean to Baby. He's quiet, not pushing anything, but Dean can feel a question lingering in his frame. Dean fights a smile, because he knows what Cas is waiting for.
“Thank you,” Dean tells him sincerely, well aware that Cas basically just went head to head with one of Dean's darkest fears and won.
“Anytime,” Cas replies honestly, “every time.”
There's nothing else for it, so Dean gives them both what they want and murmurs, “I love you.”
Cas looks pleased, blue eyes bright, lips curling up as he confirms, “I love you too, of course.”
Dean knows he's acting different. He's well aware of that, even without Sam teasing him, playfully suggesting yoga when he's really needling at Dean. Even when Cas assures him that it's a good thing, like maybe Dean has doubts, he's aware just how different he is now.
He hasn't had a drink in a solid month, a fact celebrated subtly. Sam makes a big dinner, Cas bakes a pie, and Dean tries not to let it show just how much he wants a beer with the meal. He's getting better, he is, but even without the alcohol, he's a fucking alcoholic.
He doesn't really crave coffee anymore. It even kind of starts to smell bad after a couple of weeks. Sam doesn't stop drinking it, but he starts looking less guilty when he does. Whenever Dean complains about lack of drinks, Cas just says that water was the original drink to begin with.
His daily I love you happens without fail, slipping out easier and easier with time. Sometimes, he says it so casually that it flows into conversation without an echo. It stops hurting when Sam and Cas don't say it back, either from attention averted or simple forgetfulness. Telling Cas alone, not grouped with Sam, still isn't easy; Dean still has no idea why.
About three days after the hunt they'd went on, Cas had went out and bought him a present. Cas had given it to him in the shelter of Dean's room, where no one could see but them. Cas hasn't said a word, just gave it to him and left. Dean had stared down at the journal in slight surprise, not entirely sure what to do with it. The journal isn't girly, looks almost like a place to write business plans. Instead, Dean writes out his fears and nightmares, sometimes to accept them, sometimes just to find out what they are.
Dean's as honest with himself as he can be. He's already figured out that he doesn't want to be like his dad, that he misses sex and intimacy, and that he's really fucking confused about his sexuality. He isn't quite sure where the last one leads, and he's pretty fucking wary to find out.
And somehow, all of it stacks up into this ridiculous mess of a human being who actually feels fucking better than usual. Yeah, he still gets hit with tremors when he randomly gets a taste for a glass of whiskey. Sure, he still has no idea about half of the shit he holds within himself. And yes, he is still fucking terrified of all the shit he's scared of.
But… he feels better.
So, Dean watches the video again, reads the books almost religiously, fucking studies, and he tries.
Tries so hard to do something he's never done before. And it doesn't feel like him, doesn't feel as if this is the direction he was meant to go in. It's the last thing anyone had expected of him, least of all… himself.
It's been a month, and it's good, really good, right up until it isn't.
Sam says, “Dean, Cas has been taken.”
Dean doesn't know how to react.
Everything after is autopilot. Cas had been out to pick up some fucking milk, because Dean asked him to, and someone had grabbed him. Scooped him up, right out of the slot in their lives, like he isn't a bundle of power and ruthless energy.
They follow the trail right until the end, and there is nothing, nothing at all.
No body, no blood… nothing.
“We'll find him,” Sam swears viciously, angry and bereft and fucking upset.
Dean gives a slow nod, croaks, “Okay.”
He is not angry, or frantic, or panicking; he is defeated. Dean thinks long and hard about that, laid out on his bed, staring at his ceiling.
He thinks that this isn't something he's afraid of, it's something he expects. The after, the part that leaves a Cas-shaped hole in their lives, that's what scares him. He has never handled that well, never really coped with that in the best way.
With Sam, it's demands, fighting, trying. Sam is meant to be alive, always, for as long as Dean is. If not, the world is out of balance; it is his job to keep the world upright. So, Sam has to come back at all costs, no matter what.
Cas is… different.
He goes, and goes, and goes again, over and over. It's like the worst fucking looping in the world, and Dean sometimes feels like he's waiting for it to start all over again. Cas is dead, Cas is back. Just that, on repeat.
And he lives in the inbetween, scrambling for the high points, trying not to slide down to the low points. It's like emotional whiplash, and this is the very first time he's ever thought to stop and examine it.
It fucking sucks.
With Cas, it's grief, giving up, waiting. He's always leaving, all the time, in some way or another, and Dean has to wait for him to come back. He wallows, is reckless, has no direction, just has to wait and hope. It's that inbetween that he's never stopped to think about, to figure out.
He has no plans to start today.
Cas is gone, and Dean gets in Baby at one in the morning, drives right to the liquor store. It's not Sunday, so it's open 24 hours, home to everything that will make breathing easier.
His phone buzzes, and he stares at Sam on the screen, blinking slowly. It rings, rings, rings, and Dean gets out of the car. He walks in, finds the most expensive whiskey the run-down store has available, buys it with a credit card that isn't his, gets right back in Baby, and just... breathes.
His phone buzzes again, so he turns it over face down, not even looking at the screen.
Dean considers the bottle for a long time. It's cool in his hands, will feel good going down, will feel even better when it starts working. He won't have to think about Cas somewhere, being tortured, trying to escape, maybe even calling out for him and Sam in the daze of his pain. Angel or not, if the person has the right tools, they can keep him locked up and cause him some serious pain.
Dean hates this world with a burning passion, hates coffee and journals and I love you, of course. Fuck, it's all so goddamn stupid; he wants to feel absolutely none of it. And there's a bottle of “fuck it all” gripped tightly in his hands, practically begging him to leap off whatever wagon he's placed himself on.
Vaguely, he hears the man whisper, times will get hard, usually when you don't think they can, and you'll have to decide to let it.
His phone buzzes back-to-back now, a constant background noise that drowns out the cap unscrewing from the bottle. He leans forwards, inhales the strong scent of whiskey and warmth and numbness, and his mouth goes dry instantly. He's got a headache now; he hasn't had any water all day.
This will do.
The first swallow sets fire to his throat, and he hacks at the assault. He'd almost forgotten the feeling, but it spreads through his chest, and he is reminded sharply of what it does. He pulls from the bottle again, sucking down large gulps, tilting the bottle back more and more. It goes down harsh, burning, hurting, and it's what he needs.
Two pulls, and the bottle is nearly empty.
“Too late now,” Dean laughs to himself, bitterly amused and careless.
He polishes off the rest in record time, opening the door and letting the bottle hit the ground with a dull thunk. Closing the door, Dean leans his forehead against the steering wheel and breathes quietly. He can still hear himself think, so he clambers out of Baby, goes back into the store, buys some more.
He goes back and forth, buying and drinking, burning through the cash he'd hustled on the last case, burning himself from the inside out. He drinks and stumbles through the same loop until he can't get back out of Baby, until he's nearly drooling with how fucking drunk he is.
And it's bliss, absolute fucking bliss.
There's not a single thought in his mind, and he can't even sit up straight, let alone feel anything. He knows he'll sleep, pretty fucking well in fact, and that's all he wants. Just to sleep and wake up and not remember this horrible fucking day.
Before he nods off, he grabs his phone and turns on his GPS, blearily looking at the screen. Then, he slumps back over the steering wheel and closes his eyes, drifting into nothingness.
The door to Baby peels away, and Dean careens to the side before his eyes are even open. He makes a sound in the back of his throat, disgruntlement and slurred confusion garbling out loudly. Hands catch him by the shoulders, lift him up, and Dean peels open his eyes to stare at his savior.
Cas looks so fucking sad.
Dean blinks blearily, staring at Cas, then over his shoulder to Sam, who has his face pointed away, like he can't stand to see this. Dean blinks, mutters, “Where'd you go?”
“I was taken,” Cas informs him, voice the same as always, no judgement anywhere. “Rowena located me, and Sam came and got me. He tried to call, but…”
Dean had been here, drinking himself into fucking obliteration, and he's still wasted. He feels sloshy, and sick, and full of so much guilt that he's pretty sure it might just get up and walk away with him. Just like that… he has failed.
“Time is it?” Dean manages.
“Four AM,” Cas replies quietly.
Sam doesn't look at them when he says, “I'm going to head back. Cas, drive him home.”
“Of course,” Cas says, throwing a gentle look over his shoulder, looking back at Dean with a solid expression.
Of course, like how could he ever do anything else? Two words, so simple, so meaningful. Dean thinks about I love you, of course, and he suddenly wants to cry like a fucking dumbass.
“I love you,” Dean chokes out, because he didn't get do tell Cas that before he was gone, because his 24 hours aren't up just yet, because it's so fucking true that he feels as if his chest is being cracked open.
Cas doesn't look like he believes him, and when he replies, his gaze is averted. His words are resigned, sad, helpless. “I love you, of course.”
“Not now, Dean… just, not now. Let's go home, you need your rest.”
So, Cas takes him home.
Dean has never, in his entire life, had a hangover this bad. His mouth feels like cotton decided to throw a fucking party there, his head pounds relentlessly, and his body is so heavy and sore that he hates the mere idea of movement.
Usually, Dean doesn't have to deal with hangovers. He either drinks to drown it out, or knocks back some medicine (with a beer) and goes back to sleep. This time, today, he can't.
He has to stand up and find his family, move through the halls on the verge of falling over, clutching his head and trying not to be sick. But he has to, because he needs to apologize, to look at Sam and make promises he'll try to keep, to reach out and make sure Cas’ presence wasn't some fever dream. So, he moves carefully into the war room.
They watch him enter, eyes tracking his movements, acting like this is normal. Dean guesses it is, for the most part, but that was before.
“I'm sorry,” he whispers, wincing at the volume of his own voice.
Sam levels him with a frown. “It's called relapsing, Dean; it's actually very common.”
“What matters is what you plan to do now,” Cas tells him seriously.
Dean stares at them blankly. “What?” he croaks out, chest pinching in discomfort.
They share confused looks, and Dean realizes like a bullet between the eyes that they aren't angry, that they don't hate them, that he's already forgiven. If he had the energy, he'd lash out, yell at them, demand them to stop giving him so many goddamn chances. How many times does he have to fuck up before they realize that's all he is?
And woah. Okay. Pause.
That's… that's a fear. A deep, dark one that he's absolutely terrified of. He's in a habit of picking them out now, pulling them down and looking them over, finding the best way to face them. But is he even allowed anymore? Can he still be doing good when he's just failed so terribly?
Cas makes a small sound and stands up, walking over and putting two fingers to Dean's head, brushing away his hangover with ease. “There, now make sense.”
“You should've left it,” Dean mutters darkly, rolling his shoulders, hating the absence of his penance.
Cas rolls his eyes. “You needn't punish yourself, Dean. You simply messed up; that's what humans do. The more pressing issue is how you plan to move forward. It has to be your decision.”
“Can I? Am I even still allowed?” Dean whispers, dropping his eyes away from them both.
“Dude, you don't just stop going to the gym because you had a brownie. You don't just stop hunting a monster because it kills someone else,” Sam tells him seriously, sounding slightly exasperated. “You keep going, you keep doing better, you keep trying.”
They're completely right, Dean knows this, but it doesn't make it any easier. He feels like he's done something terrible, made a mistake he can't fix. But he hears the man in his head, reassuring, genuine, soft. It's okay to fail, it's okay to fall off. It makes getting back up and trying again that much more meaningful. And if you don't, it's no better than messing up to begin with.
So, Dean looks up, announces, “I'm scared y'all will realize I'm just one big fuck-up.”
Cas and Sam look stricken for a moment, then it clicks that Dean is still trying. Cas steps forward, face open and proud. “You aren't, but even if you were, nothing would change.”
“Flaws and all,” Sam agrees, smiling slightly at Dean, continuing with, “we love ya, anyway.”
And it's a new day, so Dean tells them in a clearly relieved tone, “I love y'all a stupid ass amount.”
Sam smirks. “We know.”
Cas smiles. “Of course.”
Dean's hands shake for days, and his stomach rolls with guilt and nausea. He can't eat, can't get his mind to work right, can't stop fucking trembling. The third day finds him stuck in bed, sweating, teeth cackling as his body rattles under the sheets.
Sam feeds him soup, keeps him full of water, and is pretty gentle with him through it. Cas manages to get him out of the bed for a few moments so he can change the bedsheets and wash the filthy ones. After, Dean falls back onto his bed and sleeps.
He sleeps all the way through the fourth, and the fifth dawns with him hungry and feeling much better.
“Morning,” he rasps as he walks into the kitchen.
“Feeling better?” Cas asks, nodding to the omelets and orange juice on the table.
Dean nods, making himself a plate. “Where's Sam?”
“Jody called, said she needed an extra pair of hands, so he went,” Cas tells him, flipping a page of his newspaper.
“No. She's cleaning out her shed.”
Dean snorts. “She didn't actually ask, did she?”
“Not exactly,” Cas replies with a faint smile of amusement, looking up from his comics.
Dean just chuckles and starts shoveling food into his mouth. Cas doesn't eat much, only when he's in the mood, so he just watches Dean enjoy his meal. About halfway through his plate, he realizes that Cas must've cooked him breakfast.
“What's up?” Dean asks without preamble.
Cas puts down the newspaper, not even going to act like he doesn't know what Dean means. “Why did you drink?”
Dean frowns down at his plate. “I dunno.”
And okay, that's a lie.
He feels guilty for it; he hasn't told an outright lie like that in awhile. But he doesn't really want to admit it out loud why he'd picked up the bottle again. Unfortunately, Cas knows him all too well.
“I thought you weren't lying anymore.”
“Dean,” Cas says gently, looking at him as if he's made of glass, “you can talk to me.”
Dean nods. “I know, I just… I don't want you to blame yourself; it's not your fault.”
“Because I was taken.”
“Because I'm… stupid. You were taken, and I didn't know if… I didn't know. And it scares me, you know? That's a fear that I don't know how to face; one day you'll be gone, and you won't come back.”
Cas ponders this quietly. “Have you told Sam this?”
“It's not the same for him,” Dean explains, shaking his head. “I know he's gonna be gone one day, but I'm not going to be here to see it. His finality will come after mine, that I'll make sure of.”
“You can't be sure of that.”
“Maybe not, but I'd spend every moment of the days after trying to figure out a way.”
That seems to make sense to Cas, and he gives a slow nod. “But for me?”
“You always leave. I have to wait for you to come back. The fear revolving around you is… one day you won't. I don't- I can't handle that,” Dean murmurs, pushing away his plate. “After Sam, it's single-minded purpose, a mission, a plan. There's no waiting. With you, I have to.”
“I see,” Cas says softly. “So, you drank?”
Dean swallows thickly. “Yeah. It's… easier, I guess? Kinda numbs everything, makes it feel like I can breathe again. Stupid, I know.”
“What is it you said, about fearing death? It's the things you don't say, or do, or finish that truly scares you. Do you think, possibly, that it flows both ways?”
“Fearing someone else's absence for all the things you didn't tell them, do with them, start with them.”
Cas gives him a brief smile. “Yes, that.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Dean allows, averting his eyes, swallowing thickly. “I mean, it makes sense.”
Cas just hums quietly. “So, is that why? Because you don't think I'm finished?”
“Because we're not finished.”
And, and that's it, isn't it? Just a slip of honesty that's become too much of a habit at this point. Falling in the air between them before he's even looked at it from all sides. It's new to him, but it's not. He knows it, just hasn't had the chance to accept it yet.
“Because of fear,” Cas says, thinks he's figured it out, but he really hasn't.
And he has no grip on the honesty as he realizes things, because without thinking, he announces seriously, “Because I love you.”
Cas rattles off, “I love…” and stops.
That truth had become habit for him as well, an easy admission, but it's not a truth at all. The words trail off, and Cas blinks slowly, mouth parting. Dean can almost see the cogs coughing up dust as they start to turn in his brain.
And yep, there it is!
This time, when he says it, the words sound heavy with the real truth. “I love you, of course.”
It's a lot. Just… a lot of information to process in one moment. He's not sure what he's supposed to be doing about it, so he just smiles at Cas and lets it hang there. He'll have to figure it out later.
Feeling like a dirty, rotten liar, Dean decides to keep his truths to himself and mull it over.
Dean's still up at midnight, brain working in overdrive as he tries to make sense of things. Everything feels connected somehow, all the things he's still confused about dangling on the same string.
Sam's about his only constant. Him, he's sure of. He's simple, straightforward. Brother, family, love. There's no confusion around him, even when times get tough, even when they have issues.
Shouldn't Cas fall into the same category?
He's still trying to figure it out when his bedroom door opens and Cas sticks his head in. As soon as he sees Dean awake, he drops his eyes and lets his hand fall from where it hovered over the light switch.
“What's up?” Dean asks, sitting up in bed.
Cas shrugs sheepishly. “Just checking on you. I'd assumed you fell asleep, so I was going to cut off the light for your comfort.”
And it's such a fucking Cas thing to do that Dean can't help but smile.
Like a lightbulb, Dean realizes many things at once. With radiant fondness pouring through him, things suddenly click together in his head. Just to be so fucking soft about Cas caring, it's so… stupidly obvious, actually.
Dean blinks rapidly, thinks, oh.
It's not even something Cas wouldn't do for Sam, or something Sam wouldn't do for Dean, or vise versa, it's just about how Dean reacts. How Cas is, how he does, and how Dean feels about it. Just there, a little tapping on his heart, a small whisper in his mind, a formless warmth in his soul.
“I'm in love with you,” Dean says out loud, blinking rapidly as he fucking finally understands.
Which, yeah… that's not something someone just says without warning, without lead up, but it's so honest and undeniable that's it's fucking nuts.
Cas opens his mouth, closes it. “Oh,” he finally manages, breathing out a long breath, “okay.”
Okay? Okay? That's not exactly the reply Dean expected, not with Cas’ own earlier come-to-Jesus meeting at the table.
Unless… he was terribly, stupidly wrong. Misguiding himself isn't all that unusual, he has to admit.
There's a beat, then Dean's suddenly having an internal freak-out. Out of his whole journey that he's been on, this was the one thing he didn't expect to have to deal with. Love, romantic love, and all the stupid bullshit that comes with it.
“You can shut my door,” Dean says, voice weak and uncertain, and definitely losing his goddamn mind.
Cas nods. “Sleep well, Dean.”
The door closes and Dean falls back, staring wide-eyed up at the ceiling. In a bout of hysteria, he thinks to himself, plot twist! But he's not sure if it is, because it feels like it's always been there, just waiting for him to officially take notice. There's the quiet sound of Cas finally taking a step away from the door, and Dean sits back up, ramrod straight.
“Cas!” he calls out sharply.
The door opens immediately, and Cas steps in with a worried expression. “Dean, are you-”
“Cas, I'm in love with you.”
“Ah, yes, you said that.”
Dean scowls at him. “You absolute asshat, I'm serious. I'm, like… into you, dude.”
Cas arches an eyebrow. “Eloquent, Dean.”
“And you love me too, because that's like… existing for you, or some shit. You were jealous of Jay, and you forgive me way too easily, and you care about me with your whole being like it's an afterthought, and you says of course, because of course you do. You love me too,” Dean explains rapidly, jerking his hands forward, explaining with his whole body.
At this, Cas looks a bit more wary. “Dean, I'm not sure if… well, no, to put it plainly.”
Dean's hands drop, and he pauses. “No?”
“No,” Cas confirms, and he looks so fucking awkwardly sorry that Dean doesn't know whether to laugh or cry.
“So… I'm wrong,” Dean says, confused.
He kinda is, actually. He thought… well, he thought it made sense. It sure as hell makes sense in his head. But it's not hurting him, doesn't feel like rejection, isn't making his heart crumble in his chest, so he has to be wrong about it.
Cas gives a feeble shrug. “I guess?”
“Oh,” Dean mutters, frowning, “okay. I'm sorry.”
“Don't be,” Cas says quickly, eyes widening. “It's okay, it's fine. Actually, it's kind of… flattering?”
Right, because Dean is in love with him.
“You're welcome?” Dean offers, because that's honestly all he's got right now.
It's really awkward, and Dean keeps waiting to be hurt by it, because he's still being honest, and he knows it's true; he really is in love with Cas. But he doesn't feel rejected, or scorned, or bitter, or even negative in any way. Miraculously, he's not even embarrassed.
Cas gives him a wobbly smile. “Goodnight, Dean.”
“Goodnight, Cas,” Dean says, watching him back up to the door, finishing with, “I love you.”
Cas stops, Dean waits.
Then, “I love you, of course.”
The door clicks shut, and Dean sits still for a long time. He gets up mindlessly, cuts off the lights, and climbs into bed. His lamp is still on, so the room is only dim, so he stares at the ceiling until his eyes grow to heavy to hold up.
Just as he drifts off to sleep, Dean feels the hot tears on his cheeks and thinks, there's the pain.
The following morning, Dean is back to feeling fine about the whole ordeal. He has a text on his phone from Sam, letting him know that he'd stayed at Jody's the night before and has plans to help her into today.
Dean calls him as he makes breakfast.
“Hey,” Sam answers, “what's up?”
Dean flips a pancake. “Did you know that I'm in love with Cas?”
There's a long stretch of silence, then Sam clears his throat, says, “Y'all aren't fucking on every available surface, are you?”
“You knew?” Dean blurts, kind of offended.
“Well, not really, but I don't care about y'all being a thing. Just keep it in the bedroom,” Sam tells him.
“What do you mean, not really, that doesn't make sense. You either knew, or you didn't,” Dean grumbles, carrying his plate to the table.
Sam sighs heavily into the phone. “I mean, I didn't know, but y'all have always been… close. I could see it, is what I'm saying. And can you please confirm that y'all aren't doing weird shit in the kitchen?”
Dean hums and pours syrup on his plate. “We're not together,” he says distractedly, licking syrup off the side of his hand.
Cas enters the kitchen, gives Dean a smile. Dean returns it, pointing down at his pancakes as an offering. Cas eyes them, then wrinkles his nose, shaking his head.
“But you said…” Sam mutters warily, trailing off.
“Oh, yeah, I do, but Cas doesn't love me back,” Dean tells Sam, watching Cas narrow his eyes. Dean sticks his tongue out at him.
Sam sucks in a sharp breath. “Oh, shit. Dude, I'm sorry; are you okay?”
Dean rolls his eyes, looks at Cas and gestures at the phone like can you believe this guy, and quickly reassures him. “Yeah, I'm fine. Why wouldn't I be?”
Cas looks at him strangely, eyebrows furrowing. It's actually pretty adorable.
“Oh, I dunno, Dean, maybe because you're in love, and the one you love doesn't feel the same,” Sam snaps sarcastically, then continues even more bitingly, “Do I need to come home? Want me to kick his ass? I'll kick his ass.”
Cas’ lips tug down, like maybe he's heard.
“Nah, I'm good,” Dean chuckles, shaking his head with a small smile. “Everything is fine; it's actually not that big of a deal. Live and let live, right?”
“Sam, relax, man. Listen, finish up there, then come home and see how fine everything is, okay?”
Sam huffs. “Fine, but call me if you want-”
“I'll be sure to call you up if Cas hurts my fragile feelings and needs a good ass-kicking,” Dean mutters, heaving a sigh when Sam grunts. “I love you. Good bye, Sam.”
Then, he hangs up and looks at Cas in exasperation.
“Sam wants to kick my ass,” Cas notes sadly.
Dean snorts. “That he does. I'd like to see him try. It'd be like a toothpick rattling around in Baby's engine.”
Cas quirks a smile. “Strange analogy,” he says, sounding vaguely perplexed.
“But accurate,” Dean replies, clicking his teeth and winking. “Also, good morning.”
“I would like to apologize if I've managed to hurt you in any way, Dean,” Cas blurts out, suddenly all earnest eyes and sad frowns, like hurting Dean is the absolute last thing he's ever wanted to do.
And Jesus, how can such a creature with endless bouts of knowledge be so fucking stupid?
Dean realizes, very abruptly, why he's not exactly racked with pain and suffering at Cas’ rejection. Because it's an outright lie.
Dean sits up straight. “You're lying.”
“What, no,” Cas breathes, eyes going wide.
“No, not about that,” Dean mutters, waving a hand through the air. “You're lying about not loving me.”
“I love you,” Cas replies immediately, “of course.”
“Of course,” Dean agrees, rolling his eyes, “but I'm talking about you rejecting my offer to go to prom.”
Cas automatically looks cautious. “I'm not-”
“Can I kiss you?” Dean asks, cutting him off.
It's more about the experiment than the actual desire to. Dean still hasn't figured out if he is even attracted to guys yet, which makes being in love with Cas really fucking confusing.
Cas’ mouth parts, and he blinks slowly, like he can't believe Dean just said those words, directed to him no less. But Dean just waits, halfway out of his seat, intentions very clear, and Cas seems to realize just how serious he is. Then, Cas is considering it; Dean watches him weigh the pros and cons, can practically hear them in his own head.
If we kiss, and there's no reaction, then the point is proven, but then he'll be upset.
Eventually, the need to dissuade Dean from further pain wins out, and Cas gives a slow nod.
Dean gets up from the table and walks over to stand beside him. Cas tilts his head back, looking up at him patiently, and Dean can see the way his throat bobs as he swallows. Curious, Dean bends at the waist, grabs his chin, runs his free hand through the thick hair at the top of his head, and just kisses him.
Mouth sticky and sweet with syrup lands over Cas’ chapped lips, meeting tenderly. It's not really different than kissing a woman, there's just stubble on Cas’ jaw, and shorter hair to touch. He hums into Cas’ mouth, gently parting his lips, and lets his tongue glide across his bottom lip.
The difference, however, comes when Cas suddenly reaches up and yanks him down, sending Dean practically perched in his lap. Then, his arms are resting against a firm chest, and thick thighs are the platform that keeps him steady, and the angle changes just like that.
Cas reaches out, curls his arms around Dean, tugs him close. Dean lets him, mostly distracted by Cas’ lips on his, kind of taken by just how deeply Cas kisses him, almost desperately. It feels incredibly nice, and tingles run up and down his body, circuits of pleasure that only seem to be gaining more energy. He's almost buzzing with it when his brain suddenly tells him that he's made a point.
Dean jerks back, sucking in a sharp breath, taking quick stock of himself. Okay, maybe he's a lot more affected than he originally assumed. He's panting, definitely hard, and Cas’ wide eyes and puffy lips are the most amazing things he's ever seen.
He thinks, top fantasy from here on out is fucking Cas’ obscene fucking mouth.
And wow, guess he's got the answer to whether he can be attracted to dudes, or rather, male-shaped people. That's a mystery easily fucking solved. He's so pleased, he can't help but grin at Cas.
“See?” he teases, arching an an eyebrow.
Cas squints at him. “I love you?” he guesses.
Dean looks at him, rolls his eyes. “Well, don't you?”
“Of course,” Cas replies, because it's the fucking truth.
“I was right,” Dean tells him with an impish grin.
Cas lets his head fall back against the chair, lips twitching into a smile. “Yes, you really were.”
Sam bangs his way into the bunker, pent-up and pissed, and stomps right into the war room. Dean looks up at his entrance, blinking in surprise.
“Where is he?” Sam demands. “I'll kick his ass.” He swings around and catches sight of Cas in the doorway leading to the kitchen, eyes wide. “Yeah, I'm talking about you. What's wrong with Dean; he's great, so what's your problem? C'mere, I'm gonna kick your ass.”
Dean thinks it's actually kind of sweet to see Sam like this, but Cas keeps throwing him SOS signals with his wide eyes, so he stands up. Walking right past Sam, ignoring his affronted noise, he grabs Cas’ cheeks and pushes them in, making him resemble a fish. Then, with a small chuckle, he leans in and gives him a short kiss.
“Please do not attempt to kick my ass,” Cas says blandly when Dean pulls back.
Sam blinks. “Oh,” he mutters awkwardly.
“He came around,” Dean explains, flicking Cas’ nose playfully. “Just some gentle persuasion, and he caved like a stack of cards in a storm.”
“Oh,” Sam repeats, this time less confused and more happy, then frowns. “Wait, attempt to kick your ass?”
Dean snorts and leans into Cas’ side, smiling as they start lightheartedly bickering. “I love you,” Dean murmurs quietly.
Sam shoots him a soft look. “We know.”
Cas presses a kiss to his cheek, whispers sweetly in his ear, “I love you too, of course.”
Dean hums, closes his eyes, and basks in the moment. He knows it won't be easy to keep doing what he's doing, knows he'll fail over and over again, knows he'll always have shit to work over in his mind, but he's never been more thankful for fucking YouTube than he is in this moment.
This, this is what makes all the fear worth it.