Dean's phone doesn't ring on the drive back to the Bunker, but that's okay. Because—well, maybe Cas lost his cell, what with getting shuffled back and forth between a cosmic void dimension and all. And anyway, Dean doesn't want this conversation to happen over the phone, he wants to—he wants to talk to Cas face-to-face. They should talk face-to-face.
Dean will tell him—
Dean doesn't know what he'll tell Cas. Dean is, in fact, terrified by how utterly and completely he does not know what he'll say to Cas. But he does, in an equally terrifying way, know that there's something stirring, in the figurative hole that got punched through his chest in the empty storage room mere days ago. It's something immense and tender and too bright for him to look at head-on, which is why he is resolutely not thinking about it, not until he sees Cas again. Not until he can put his hands on Cas, curl his fingers in the sleeve of Cas's coat and confirm that he's solid, that he's real.
He thinks of Lucifer and has to suppress a shudder. He probably wouldn't even trust Cas's voice coming out of a phone, at this point.
Sam is busy with his own phone but keeps looking at him sideways, between the constant chirping of his message alerts. Probably Eileen, although Dean wonders if he's also texting Cas. He wants to ask. It burns against his tongue.
"Should I text—?" Sam finally says, hesitantly, as if he's read Dean's mind. (In fairness, Dean's thoughts are clamoring so loudly that he's surprised they aren't being broadcast in neon from his forehead.) "Cas, I mean. He hasn't—"
"He'll be there," Dean cuts him off. "Jack dropped everybody back exactly where they were, Cas'll be at the Bunker."
Would've been nice for Jack to just beam Cas down right next to them, Dean thinks sourly. Not like there wasn't plenty of room in the car. How hard would that have been, kid? Two seconds more before enacting his big hands-off policy.
But part of him, deep down, is almost relieved that Jack didn't zap Cas right into the middle of that street, right into their midst. He doesn't want to examine it too closely, because it probably points to him being a big sad coward, but yeah, a bit of him is relieved that he has just a little more time, because when he sees Cas—they'll have to—they'll need to talk, about—
"How's Eileen?" he asks, to distract Sam from the topic, and to distract himself from the gnawing pit of anxiety in his stomach. Something flutters under his ribs.
"Uh—good," says Sam. He cracks a smile, a real one, something soft and tender that makes Dean's heart ache. "A little confused about where her car went. But she's okay."
"And the others?"
"Bobby and Donna texted me. Jack brought everyone back. He really did it, Dean."
Dean laughs a little breathlessly. "Sure did."
There's that fluttering under his ribs, again. Something warm and sweet unfolding in his throat. It wasn't a goodbye, he thinks. It wasn't a goodbye, Cas.
Dean presses his foot down a little harder on the accelerator, and drives a little faster, toward home.
He takes the Bunker stairs two at a time, his heart in his mouth. Scans the map room, peers into the library.
"Cas?" he calls, low. There's no answer. Something cold starts to twine through him, a tiny lick of uncertainty.
Sam ducks back out of the kitchen. "Dean, I don't see him in here."
"The storage room," says Dean immediately, and then he's striding through the Bunker, running almost, because—and his pulse is ratcheting up at the thought, juddering painfully in his ears—what if Cas is hurt? What if something happened to him in the Empty, and he's back but he's hurt, and he's been here all this time, alone, and Dean just—
Dean should have called—Dean should have fucking gotten his shit together and called—
—or texted, checked on him—
—or, said something, anything, before, in that howling two seconds of disbelief before Cas was dragged away in front of him—
He throws open the storage room door and looks around, panting.
No Cas. The room looks—exactly the same as when Dean last stumbled out of it, his face wet and his breath coming in shaky heaves.
What the hell, Dean thinks.
Aloud, he repeats, "What the hell, Jack." Fear opens up its spiny maw inside him, rakes at his insides with frigid teeth. "You get your—your godly ass down here, kid, because if you didn't bring him back then we are not done. You hear me? We are not done—"
His phone rings.
He almost drops it, in his haste to pull the damn thing out of his pocket. But it isn't Cas's name on the screen, or even Jack's.
"Hello?" says Dean. The word comes out strained.
"Dean." Jody's voice is hesitant, furtive almost. Dean feels his body clamber, somehow, even further into fight-or-flight mode.
"Jody? What's wrong? Is Claire—"
"Claire's fine," Jody interrupts. "We're all fine. Sam texted me, he told me what happened—well, you know, obviously we don't remember shit, but..."
Dean tries to calm down, tries to bring his heart rate back to a manageable level. "Not that I don't appreciate the call, Jody, but...why are you calling, again?"
There's a brief but distinct pause. "I, uh," says Jody, and her voice sounds strange, like she isn't sure whether she's delivering good or bad news. "I think you guys should get up here."
"Jody, what is going—"
"Dean, he's here." Dean hears shuffling, hears a door slamming—Jody getting into or out of a car. "He just showed up, in the middle of our yard. I almost shot him. I mean, I guess he would have been fine even if I had, but Jesus."
Dean opens his mouth, but no sound comes out.
"Castiel," Jody clarifies, unnecessarily.
Dean swallows around the sandpaper in his windpipe, tries again. "Is he, is he hurt."
"No, no, he's fine, he seems...uh, normal enough. He said Jack got him out. Out of—wherever he was. If I'm honest, the explanation got a little metaphysical for me."
"So he's...he's fine?"
"Listen," says Jody, and her voice drops even lower. "He asked me not to tell you and Sam that he was here—"
"What?" Dean chokes. The floor drops out from under his feet and he has to put a hand on the door jamb to steady himself.
"—but clearly I'm not just going to let some friend of yours come waltzing back from the dead and then just not tell you. Did something—did something happen with you guys? I mean, of course I told him he could stay as long as he wanted—Claire's delighted, obviously. I think they're, um, planning to renovate the tool shed."
"Renovate," says Dean blankly. "Tool shed."
"I just think you should maybe come up here," says Jody. "I mean, if you aren't busy. I'm assuming we have some time before the next apocalypse, so. Yeah. If you want to swing by, or something, Dean. He's here."
"Sure, Jody," says Dean. "Thanks. We'll—I'll text you." He hangs up.
Cas is back, he thinks. Cas is back, and he's fine.
And he doesn't want to see Dean.
Relief wars with a sudden, spine-snapping sense of anguish.
He wonders if Cas left the Bunker the instant he was brought back. Brushed off his coat, took one of the cars, and just...left. Or maybe Cas just asked Jack to snap him right to Jody's. Pluck him out of the Empty and deposit him somewhere, anywhere else on Earth. Anywhere that Dean wasn't coming back to.
Unbidden, the memory of Cas swims to the forefront of Dean's mind. Not surprising—not like it hasn't been playing on loop in his brain for the past forty-eight hours. A tiny eternity of remembrance.
I love you. Cas's smile, wide and bright and full of such terrible sorrow, such terrible joy.
I love you.
Dean thinks he can, sort of, see another version of himself, some past iteration of his psyche, taking this differently. A world diverging from this timeline like a tributary off of a river. There's a world, a path, an option, in which the hurt of this coils and burns and festers in his gut and so he writes it all off. A world in which he writes Cas off, because if Cas doesn't want to see Dean then Dean sure as hell doesn't need to see Cas. Because Dean's always known, hasn't he, that Cas is going to leave. Whether it's by dying, or by sacrificing himself, or just by...not coming back. He's always known that Cas would never stay.
That version of himself tugs at him, a hook in his brain, a nagging clamor of look what you are, look at all you are and how it's nothing at all. It echoes weakly in the back of his head, insistent but ultimately futile, because—well. That isn't who he is, not entirely, not anymore.
Sam is standing by the map room table, his entire body taut with barely contained worry. He looks like he's a few seconds away from full-on pacing. "Dean?" he says urgently.
"He's at Jody's."
"Dunno," says Dean. "Apparently Jack brought him back and he asked to be dropped there." He walks past Sam into the kitchen, rummaging through the fridge. It's looking pitifully empty and he jots a mental note to make a grocery run soon. Apocalypse averted and all, but they still gotta eat.
"Okay," says Sam slowly. "So...what are we going to do?"
Dean emerges, holding up the beers he retrieved from the fridge. "Well, we're about to have a drink, because if I recall correctly, we just saved the world. And then we're gonna go up to Sioux Falls, and we're gonna collect his feathery ass, and we're gonna bring him home."
Jody's carrying an armful of firewood across the yard when they pull up. She dumps it unceremoniously in the grass in favor of wrapping her arms around Sam, then Dean. "Boys," she says warmly.
"Heya, Jody," says Dean. There's a lump in his throat. He presses his cheek against her hair.
She pulls free and pats him affectionately on the jaw. "You just missed the girls—they went to pick up some lunch. He's out back, though."
"Right," says Dean. "Tool shed."
Jody rolls her eyes. "I've been trying not to check on the progress. They've been watching a lot of YouTube videos but I'm not certain any of them know what they're doing."
Dean looks toward the house and his heart constricts painfully. He'd spent the drive up making small talk with Sam, chatting and laughing and singing along to the radio to keep his mind off their destination. Now that they're actually here, and the distance between him and Cas is measurable in yards instead of in miles, there's a distinct light-headedness rising in him that he identifies as terror. He has to resist the urge to dig his fingers into his own chest like there's a chance it might rip itself apart of its own accord.
"Try not to step on any loose nails," Jody advises drily, and crouches to start gathering up the firewood.
"Let me help you," says Sam immediately. "Dean, you go ahead—I'll be right there."
Dean snaps his head around. Sam holds his gaze, smiles crookedly for a moment, just a little. It's an expression that Dean has seen before, so many times, on Sam's face, and maybe he just never admitted to himself what it meant, what it was trying to transmit, until now. He wonders if he looks like that when Sam talks about Eileen.
He thinks he does. Yeah. He thinks he probably does.
Something unfurls inside him, a swell of love, of gratitude, so deep that it hurts. He's aware of a tightness in his chest as he stares at Sam, a sharp and painful joy, the unbearable ache of being known.
"Go," says Sam gently, again, and bends to take the stack of split logs out of Jody's arms.
Jody's backyard is tidy but lived-in; in one corner Dean can see neatly stacked bags of rock salt, in another corner a passable vegetable garden only slightly beset by weeds.
The tool shed is a lot larger than he would have expected, and in fairness it's in a pretty sorry state: the wood is weather-worn and grey, any paint long since chipped away, and it looks like quite a few shingles are missing. The door is open.
Dean walks toward it. His palms are sweating and he wipes them surreptitiously on his jeans as he stumbles to a halt in the doorway of the shed.
Cas is standing in the middle of the structure, bent over a paper-strewn table. Sunshine is slanting in from the gaps in the roof and lighting up his hair, turning it white-gold at the edges. It limns him in radiance; he glows with it, warm and alive and solid and real.
It shouldn't make Dean feel any differently. Cas should look the same as he always does. And he does, but Dean can't unsee him the way he looked when the Empty took him. Can't unsee Cas with tears rolling down his cheeks, Cas with his face open and unguarded and earnest and splitting apart under the weight of his own words.
Dean looks at Cas through the gold motes of dust floating through the interior of the shed, and his heart hammers itself against his ribs with the same mixture of awe and fondness that he always feels, watching Cas. And with something more, too: a warm and winged thing, an awareness of something possible, immense and delicate and just within reach.
Maybe Dean makes a sound, as he stands there with his heart lurching and the vise around his chest clicking tighter and tighter. Maybe Cas just knows he's there, the way Cas always seems to know.
Either way, Cas whips his head up, and Dean gets a full-on, perfectly sunlit front-seat view to the way Cas's eyes go wide and terrified, the way his shoulders lift and his entire body goes tense under the boxy lines of the trench coat.
Dean had figured, on the drive up, that he would open the conversation with a casual, clever one-liner. God knows he has enough of them. But Cas just stands there and stares at him with an expression like a wild animal caught in a trap, and what Dean hears himself actually say is, "Were you ever going to come back?"
"Dean," Cas says, and fuck him, because that's not an answer.
"You heard me," Dean says, and his voice rises. "Were you ever going to come back? Or were you just going to hide out here playing fixer-upper, forever?"
It's not—fury, exactly, welling up under his skin, on his tongue. It's something else, a torrent of grief and longing and the sudden desperation to be done with it all. To have Cas look him in the eyes and just say the words, just take back what he'd said, just tell Dean that no, he was never coming back, that no, he was done with Dean for good, that no, he hadn't meant anything he'd told Dean in the storeroom, under siege by Death herself.
Cas looks away. "Dean, I was going to—" He stops himself. Closes his eyes for a moment. When he opens them, they're filled with anguish. "I was afraid," he whispers. "I just—I just needed some time."
"Afraid of what?" Dean's legs have regained some semblance of life and are carrying him forward. He strides deeper into the shed, toward Cas. "Afraid of me?"
"No," says Cas miserably. "Yes." He looks back at Dean. "I was afraid to—to face you, after what I said. And what you said."
"What I said—" Dean sputters.
"I never planned to—to burden you with this, Dean," Cas snaps, sudden bitterness heating his voice. "I know it was something you didn't want to hear. I did it because it was the only way to save you, but I would never have jeopardized—I would never have risked your friendship, if there had been any other way. I know that you don't—"
"You know that I don't what?" Dean comes to a stop and plants his feet in the ground, a few scant feet from Cas. This close, he can see the trembling line of Cas's mouth, see the way his hands hang limply at his sides. "You know everything, is that right? Tell me, Cas. Tell me what you know about me, huh? Because people keep telling me what I am and what I'm supposed to feel and I'm kind of over it."
"Dean, you said it. You said, don't do this. You told me—"
"I said don't do this as in don't die, you asshole!" Dean yells. He rakes his hands through his hair. "You were killing yourself, in front of me! What the hell was I supposed to—how the hell was I supposed to—"
"You weren't supposed to do anything," says Cas, visibly pained. He looks at the ground again and Dean watches his hands curl into fists. "I told you, I know that this is something I can't have. It is not something I expect, Dean, you understand that, right? To—to share in life with you, to be counted among those closest to you, that has been a privilege I never thought to earn."
"Shut the hell up," says Dean. Heat is rising in his face. "Cas, just shut up for a minute."
Cas, perhaps predictably, does not shut up. Instead, he raises his head, his eyes burning with a fierceness that rocks Dean back on his heels. A tear slides down his cheek. "Dean, do you not understand, that I don't need to have more? That I always knew I could not have more? That it's enough to be near you, that I love you—and you mean everything to me, and I love you, and I love you, and—"
Dean moves. He shoves into Cas's space, curls his hands in the fabric of Cas's coat, keeps plowing forward until he's walked Cas backwards into the wall of the shed. Garden tools rattle on the shelves at the impact. Cas stares at Dean with eyes so wide and dark that Dean thinks he might fall in, and live curled in the warmth of that gaze, forever.
It'd be his choice, he thinks, if he did. Everything is his choice, from here on out.
Dean kisses Cas.
Cas freezes for a moment, body going rigid against Dean's. Then his hands are on Dean's shoulders and he's kissing back, his mouth open and hungry, a single low sound juddering from his mouth. Dean swallows that sound, presses closer, kisses harder. Heat rushes down his throat, through his chest, into his limbs. He moves his hands from Cas's chest to Cas's face, cupping it carefully between his palms, and wonders if there's lightning sparking between their joined mouths because that's what it feels like—it feels like his entire body is electric, like there's a surging current connecting him to Cas, drawing him inward, a kind of urgent and defiant gravity—
"Dean," Cas gasps, pulling back the barest hairsbreadth. His eyes are, if possible, even huger than before. His breath ghosts across Dean's lips; his face is wrecked, awed. "Dean, what—"
"I'm in love with you," says Dean.
Cas makes the sound again, his body sagging against the shed wall so that Dean moves his hands, in alarm, to Cas's shoulders. They hang on to each other, panting, their foreheads pressed together.
"You're—" Cas chokes. His hands tighten on Dean's shoulders.
"I love you," Dean says, firmly, and it's like strings are being cut loose in his chest. Tension he didn't know he'd been carrying, for years maybe, easing free, sliding away like a tide going out. Cas doesn't seem like he's about to fall over, so he risks putting one hand back on Cas's cheek, using his thumb to smear away the solitary tear. "I love you, and you're an idiot."
"There's." Cas exhales shakily. His eyes still full of that mixture of wonder and disbelief. But his mouth—his mouth, Dean could stare at his mouth forever—starts to curl into a smile, ever so slight. "There's no need to be rude."
Dean surprises himself with the laugh that bubbles up from him. He thinks he's only heard himself make that exact laugh when he's around Cas. "It was a compliment. All the best people I know are idiots."
Cas's hands come up and thread through his hair. "All the best people I know, too."
"Alright, then," says Dean quietly. He kisses Cas again, gently, quickly enough that he misses the mark just a little and it lands against the corner of Cas's mouth. "Well—" A sudden surge of shyness leaves him tongue-tied, just for a moment. "—well, are you going to come home with us, you idiot?"
"Yes," says Cas, soft and earnest, the way he says everything. "I'll come home with you, Dean."
"And." Dean ducks his head. It's not just shyness, he realizes. It's deeper—a trepidation coiled up in his marrow, a deeply-rooted thing that he could spend the rest of his days trying to weed out. He resolves to try. For Cas—for Sam, for his family, for the whole life that stretches out ahead of them, he'll try. "Will you—will you stay?"
Cas presses his lips to Dean's forehead. "For as long as you'll have me."
Forever, Dean thinks.
Cas's fingers stroke softly through Dean's hair. "Although I just remembered," he says, a laugh thrumming just under the surface of his voice, "I did promise Claire I would help her renovate this shed."
"Yeah? I'd better stick around, then." Dean straightens up and smirks, just a little, at Cas. "Doesn't seem like you're making much progress without an expert around to help."
Cas tilts his head, and the expression on his face is so achingly fond that it makes Dean's eyes sting.
"Well," says Cas, "in fairness to us, we haven't had very much time to work on it." He touches Dean's cheekbone, feather-light. "You didn't let me stay away for long."
"Damn right," says Dean, and he reaches up to catch Cas's hand in his own. He entwines their fingers. "Never again."
The sound of conversation and laughter floats faintly toward them from the direction of the house. They walk out of the shed together, into the afternoon sunlight.