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the meanest thing you ever did

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Almost every Saturday like clockwork, Dean visits the post office, solely to keep his box clean. Why he even pays for the damn thing, he doesn’t know. Sometimes, though, he gets an application for a credit card, or letters from other hunters, or misplaced mail belonging to someone living just down the street.

Today, plastic key between his teeth, he flips through the stack of mail in his hands while the employee at the register looks through the stamp book out of boredom. She has other places to be today, and admittedly, so does Dean.

A thin strip of paper catches his eye between the junk letters and an extremely late Christmas card all the way from Idaho. Squinting at the small print, Dean reads, large package, see front desk, and sighs. Sam probably ordered something again and sent it to the wrong address. “You got anything for Winchester?” Dean asks from across the room, tossing all but the Christmas card into the trash.

“Came in yesterday morning,” Delilah, he remembers, says, and disappears into the back room in three steps. She comes back less than twenty seconds later with a small box in her hands. “They all came in at once, so we put them in here.”

“Super,” Dean says. Walking over, he takes the box and lifts up the untapped flap, sighing at the contents. Card stock—the least she could’ve done was throw it in the trash. Whatever it is, he’ll look at it later, or use it for kindling—whatever comes first. “What are these, anyway?”

“Postcards, I think,” Delilah says—and Dean’s heart pangs. “I didn’t really get a chance to look at them. James boxed them up yesterday, said they’d been collecting in the back for like… a month? All got your name on it.”

Great—just great. His palms sweat as he stares at the box in his hands, heart racing. Just postcards—probably from another hunter. Whoever it is, they didn’t have to send him at least a hundred, all crammed into a six-by-six box, some bent around the edges, others torn. “Guess I know what I’m doing today,” he says, offhand. Delilah turns back to her stamp book. “See you next week, I guess.”

“See you,” she says and waves him off without even looking up.

Summer stubbornly hangs on in the air, humidity thick and cloying the minute he steps outside into the direct sunlight. Squinting, Dean makes his way to the Impala and tosses the box inside, uncaring of how many cards spill out onto the floorboard. Part of him knows he should head home, leave them there and pick them up later. They’re trash anyway, probably junk hocked off to the first person that happened to wander in.

A photograph of a palm tree catches his eye, along with the words Greetings from Hollywood, Florida.

Sitting in the front seat, Dean looks between the spilled postcards on the floor and the others littering the bench, and wrings his hands together. It’s not a big deal, he tells himself, repeatedly. He sweats, and not just from the early morning heat. Because no one sends postcards anymore, unless they’re in hiding. A person wandering the country with no home, with apparent unlimited access to stamps.

Castiel left one month ago, almost to the day—If only it didn't make sense.

Blood rushes through his ears as he reaches over to pick up one of the cards, this one with an image of trees along the side of a mountain, dyed every shade of red and orange imaginable. Acadia National Park, it reads—the second he flips the card over, his heart sinks into his shoes.

Dean Winchester, P.O. Box 82, Lebanon, Kansas.

Castiel.

“Shit,” Dean says through a wheeze, flinging the card back into the floorboard. He slaps the steering wheel with his palm, sparks shooting up his arm with the force. Shit, shit, shit. Cas left—Castiel left, and somehow, he still has the nerve to want to keep in contact. After weeks of ignoring Dean’s calls and texts, he has the gall to send postcards. Fucking postcards.

He punches the dashboard this time. It doesn’t make him feel any better.

-+-

A few miles outside of Lebanon, Dean pulls over onto the shoulder of a dirt road and climbs out of the driver’s seat, box tucked under his arm. Flannel stripped off and the first few buttons of his Henley undone, he sits atop the hood and stares, thumb running over the frayed edges of the cards. Admittedly, he should’ve destroyed them the minute he saw Castiel’s scrawled signature, but after the fact, he can’t bring himself to, knowing that this is the one scrap of Castiel he has left in the world, the one piece of evidence that says he’s alive and actually gives half a damn.

Idly under the sweltering sun, Dean picks through the cards and sets them aside once he’s done, not in any particular order. If he wanted, he could pinpoint exactly where Castiel’s been, just from the date stamp and the picture on the front. Clearwater, Florida; Callaway Gardens, Georgia; Outer Banks, North Carolina—Up the coast, across into the Upper Peninsula, all the way down Route 66. After a while, Dean loses track.

Somehow, this hurts more, knowing that Castiel left him—hates him, despises him, even—and still took the time out of his day to buy stamps and do whatever… this is. No message, no ‘Hope you’re well.’ Nothing but his own name and Dean’s address, all written with the same hand, the same haste.

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way, Dean thinks, a ripped card from El Paso in his hands. Castiel was supposed to fight back, to try to shove some sense into his head, like he always did. Like Castiel tried to do, even when all hope was lost, when all Dean had left to cling to was his own sanity. The world is a complicated three-headed beast, where all of his emotions and experiences swirl before his eyes, amorphous and pulsing and stealing whatever breath he has left. Nothing makes sense anymore—God, monsters, angels, demons, allies, enemies, they might as all he the same side of a coin, all conspiring against him, to make his life a living hell.

He has to give it to Chuck, he sure as hell succeeded.

None of it was Castiel’s fault, though. Objectively, Dean knows this, but he can’t help but shove the blame on him. As he always has, a fact that’s always come back to bite him in some form. Now, it just hurts worse, not having him here, or even in the same state, for that matter. As far as Dean can tell, Castiel hasn't stepped foot in Kansas since he left. Not that there’s much to see, but Dean is here, and Sam, and—

Not much else, anymore.

“Shit,” Dean says and rubs his eyes, sucking in a breath through his teeth. Breathing hurts—existing hurts without Castiel. The old adage feels even more true now, knowing that this was his fault. Pushing Castiel away felt like a good idea at the time, but in hindsight, the minute the words left his mouth, he knew. Knew just what he’d done, how far he’d gone. And Castiel took the bait. Castiel left, and missing him feels like losing all over again.

He lost Mary, Jack, Rowena—and now Castiel. All he has left is Sam, but at what cost?

“Fucked up,” he says, voice raked over coals. He fists a postcard, the one with the most recent date of just last week, from Reno, crushing it between his fingers. “Can’t fix this, Cas,” he tells the empty road, the sky above. “Can’t…”

His phone sits heavily in his pocket, silent, unused in days. Shoving the card into the scorching hood, Dean reaches for the device and hits Castiel’s number on speed dial. The last few times—fifty, if he’s actually counting—it went straight to voicemail. Today, the line rings twice and falls silent, aside from the rumble of an engine on the other end, the quiet noise of nothing in particular. Castiel answered—Castiel answered.

“I’m sorry,” Dean mutters, a hand over his eyes. “Please—”

The call drops, blipping in his ear. He could throw it—could hurl it into the unplowed field and wait for the combines to destroy it in the fall. What he does do is pitch the box as far as he can instead, watching postcards fly into the dirt, a few catching the wind and soaring just that bit farther. And as loud as he can, he screams. Screams, damning God for picking him over everyone else, for taking his family from him. Screams, his face searing with the force of his anger, fingers ripping into his hair. Screams, until his voice is hoarse and he can’t bring himself to stop, even when he coughs up bile into the dirt.

Fuck God. Fuck Castiel, fuck the world, for putting him through this torment. Tears in his eyes, he kneels in the middle of the road and presses his forehead to the earth, all at once wishing it would swallow him whole, take him out of the equation.

Nothing comes. Nothing ever will.

-+-

A car rumbles up the road about an hour after Dean lies down across the front bench, the engine rattling as it goes. It never does pass, nor does it stop running. No, it just sits there, and after a while, a door creaks open and slams shut, jarring enough for Dean to contemplate sitting up. He doesn’t get the chance—the perpetrator barges into the passenger seat without so much as a hello, shoving Dean’s feet out of the way. The trench coat is gone, sadly, replaced with a blue-black blazer and a button-down left half undone, tie askew. Sand dusts his hair—Dean’s heart clenches.

“Take this,” Castiel says, and shoves a frigid vial into his hand. It pulses bright, illuminating the veins in his palm. All at once, the air leaves Dean’s lungs. “I don’t care what you do with it, but take it.”

“Cas,” Dean croaks. Sitting up, he tucks a leg underneath and glares down at the vial, at the fizzling bubble of Grace staring back at him. Not even a sliver—Castiel really was dying. And he wasn’t there to help. “Cas, you just—What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking, I would rather cut ties with the one thing that’s been killing me for so long, and the one thing that you despise so abhorrently,” Castiel says, not in the least bit gently. Looking at him, Dean can’t help the guilt that threatens to spill out, the anger simmering just below the surface. “Isn’t that what you wanted?”

“No,” Dean blurts, clenching the vial. It doesn’t break, but the glass splinters, webbing spreading up the side; the Grace inside shudders, curling in on itself. “No, it’s not fucking—What the fuck do you want from me, man?” He shoves the vial into his breast pocket before continuing, “You fucking left and sent me what, letters for a month? What am I supposed to do with that?”

“I don’t know,” Castiel says, flat, motioning toward the road, “but I can see how much you appreciated it.”

Shit. “You know what?” Sitting up straighter, he grabs the back of the bench, knuckles blanching. “Fuck you, okay? Fuck whatever you think you’re doing, because whatever it is, you’re just making it worse.”

“I’m making it worse?” Castiel huffs. He stares straight ahead, anger turning his features into sharp lines. “You’re the one who pushed me away, Dean. You’re the one so wrapped up in your head, that you couldn’t see that someone maybe, just maybe, gave a damn about you. So forgive me, if I’m sticking up for myself for once.”

Leather crunches; Dean barely resists the urge to reach across the car and yank him over by the collar. “You’re really an asshole, you know that?” he says, to Castiel’s noncommittal shrug. “No, I mean really. You can’t just…” He stops, chews his lip. “I’m… I messed up, man. You know that, Sam knows that. Hell, the people at the fucking liquor store probably know that. But you can’t just take me at my word—”

“Then what am I supposed to do?” Turning, Castiel drapes an arm over the bench, digging his fingers into Dean’s bare forearm. “Tell me, Dean. Because ever since Mary… Ever since, you’ve barely taken time out of your day to listen to me, let alone even look at me. All I’ve ever done is try to explain myself to you, and you turn your back on me. You may not trust me anymore, you may not even like me, but part of me still… Part of me still believes that we had something. Part of me believes we meant something. And you destroyed that.”

“What do you want me to say then?” His fingers itch—to fight, to drag Castiel closer, he doesn’t know. “Tell me, Cas, just—I’m sorry, okay?”

“No you’re not,” Castiel says, verging close to a sigh. “Because if you didn't mean what you said, you would’ve never said it.”

His next move, he isn’t exactly proud of, but he grabs Castiel by the tie anyway and drags him in, until their lips meet and Castiel bites his lip for his trouble. Their first kiss could’ve gone a thousand different ways, but never did he imagine it would feel like this—like hatred in its purest form, the angry press of two souls together, struggling to survive. Castiel tugs Dean’s hair by the root—Dean rips at Castiel’s clothes and tears at a seam, sucking in air whenever he can. The Impala rocks; Castiel shoves him onto his back, straddling his hips with one foot in the footwell.

It hurts—still, Dean chases it, pulling Castiel in for kiss after kiss, despite the teeth and tongue and everything in between. “Fucked up,” he pants in the scant seconds in between, “Shouldn’t’ve blamed you—”

“But you did.” Castiel shoves him down with a broad hand to his breastbone. “You’re angry, I understand. You’re angry at God, at yourself, at the world, but you can’t lay the blame on the people you care about. I’m not the enemy here, Dean.”

Swallowing, Dean shudders a breath. “What if when God brought you back, he did it to torture me?” he says, to Castiel’s horror. “You’re part of the machine, Cas. You can’t even see it, what he’s done to you, to me—”

“You really—” Castiel stops, laughs. “You think God wants this?”

Dean nods. “He wants us at each other’s throats, like we’ve always been. And look where we are. We’re—we’re doing it again, Cas.”

“God wants us to fight, yes,” Castiel says, pressing their foreheads together. “He didn’t want us to love each other. He doesn’t have the capacity to feel.”

Love hurts—love always ends up in pieces, but Dean clings to it, clings to Castiel like a lifeline. “I need to know,” he says in haste. “I need to know if you’re lying. Because I can’t take much more of this—”

This time when Castiel kisses him, he doesn't bite or tug, doesn’t fight. Castiel soothes the bruise he undoubtedly left to Dean’s lip, and moves slower, easing him into it. The longer Dean lies there, Castiel in his arms, the more he starts to believe that this might be real. It’s a start—but not enough. “I’m sorry,” Dean repeats, clawing at Castiel’s jacket. Closer—he needs Castiel closer. “Not your fault, it’s me—”

“No.” Castiel nuzzles his throat, pressing kisses along his jaw. “You're not to blame either. We’re both pawns here, but we can fight. You just have to trust me.”

He wants to—every fiber of his being wants to trust Castiel, but trust is hard these days. “I’m trying,” Dean sighs. Castiel’s hair slides through his fingers easily, sweat-sheened and incredibly soft. “I’m trying so hard.”

Castiel blows out a breath, steals another kiss. “If it’s any consolation, I’m trying too.”

Good—Dean can work with that, rebuilding what they were, what they’ve lost. “Ain’t asking you to forgive me. Just… Just stay, please. Can’t do this without you anymore. Didn’t realize how much I needed you.”

“I know.” Softly, such a contrast to how he blew in, Castiel kisses Dean, and sweeps him up in an entirely new wave. “I need you too.”