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Rowena doesn’t answer her first summoning, or the second.  She doesn’t even answer on the baker’s dozen where Dean begins shouting frustrated obscenities at the clay bowl as the sickening scent of burnt lilac, crushed monarch chrysalis, and his own blood finally burn out.

“Do it again,” Dean demands, already reaching for the knife to put a fresh cut in his hand now that the old one has gone all sticky and clotted over.

Sam grabs the knife before Dean manages to palm the hilt, tucks it away in his belt at the small of his back and only looks sad when Dean scowls and takes a step toward him.  “Dean,” Sam says evenly, holding up his hands in entreaty, “maybe we should give it a rest for the night.  Or pray to Jack—”

“No,” Dean whirls on Sam, “no the kid’s done enough, has enough on his plate without us calling in favours. Anyways wouldn’t that be, like, aphorism or whatever?”

“Nepotism,” Sam corrects and Dean could rip his bushy eyebrows off his Frankenstein head. “An aphorism is—”

“I don’t care what it is!   I don’t care about anything but getting Cas out of that wannabe The Blob- Deepwater Horizon oil spill looking motherfucker petty bitch, are you listening to me? !”  Dean shouts, spinning on his heels with his arms out.  “You thought Castiel Angel of The Lord was annoying?  Just wait—just you wait asshole, I’m going to stick in your shadowy craw like a chicken bone until you cough him back up I promise you!”  He’s out of breath by the time the rant peters out into dead air.  For a few blessed moments Dean feels a little lighter for having lashed out, but it fades fast into the same bitter heartache of before when he’s forced to accept that bullying the Empty into giving up Cas just isn’t going to work.

“Jack loved Cas like a father,” Sam says gently when Dean puts his hands on his hips, turning back to his futile pacing.

“Yeah,” Dean mutters, “which means there’s probably a good reason he hasn’t done it by now and this is just him telling us to figure it out.  We have to be missing something.  There has to be a way.  There’s always a fucking way.  A rule just lookin’ to get bent—”

“...or a price you have to pay.”

“Then I’ll pay it!  Pay it like we always do.”

“Dean.. you can’t—”

“No? Then what use am I?” Dean asks, because that’s always the question, and slams his hands down on the table. “Tell me! What’s the point of me if I can’t— what’s the point in any of it! What. Is. The point?”

“Okay, okay just… okay,” Sam says, that placating tone in his voice indicating that he has Some Opinions and is just trying to keep Dean from going off the deep end.  “But you’re tired, I’m tired. Let’s try again in the morning when—”

“When what?” Dean half-shouts again. throwing his hands in the air then letting them fall to grip hard at the edge of the tabe, “when what, Sam? The longer he’s gone, the harder it might be to get him back.  You know how easy it is to get lost in those kinds of places!  Time doesn’t move right!  They suck you in, bury you there until you forget who you are.  I can’t—we can’t let that happen to him, Sammy.  Please. I can’t do it on my own, I’ve never been good at the man-witch stuff, not like you.”   Sam doesn’t argue but he looks away, his mouth pursed into that thin line he makes when Sam is putting up a deliberate effort to keep something to himself.  “Spit it out,” Dean grates, already pissed about it.  

“No, I—”

“Just fucking say it man,” Dean says, shrill and a little desperate because he knows what it is Sam is thinking, because Dean is thinking it also but is too stubborn, too ate up with guilt to admit it himself: That maybe it isn’t possible.  Maybe this is it, and there’s no take-backs this time because Jack restored the natural order of things and now when you die, you die, and you’re moved on to whatever is next.  The way it’s supposed to be.  Isn’t that what Dean wanted? No more railroading, no more being stuck in a B-plot they can’t escape, no more paying in other people’s blood in order to come back alive and do it all over again. 

Problem is, when Dean imagined true freedom, he always thought Cas would be there to see it. Experience it. More than any of them, Cas never even got a chance to labour under the delusion that he had been given free will because he wasn’t designed for it.  The concept wasn’t even meant for him.  Still he rebelled over and over, sought it out and fought for it, and for what?

 

...Because of you.  

 

The words are burned into Dean’s brain, and as long as he’s moving, doing something—as unavailing as it might be—he can keep a step ahead of those last words. Won’t have to feel them like an open wound.  Won’t have to remember the great slur of nothing closing over Cas’ face and taking him to a place Dean has no hope of reaching—not even when he’s finally dead and gone.

“Maybe—” Sam starts, closes his mouth and shakes his head, some resolve sparking back into his eyes.  “You know what, you’re right.”

“What?” Dean says, a little surprised, “I mean, ‘course I am, but..”

“I mean you’re right. It’s Cas. We have to keep trying.  Whatever it takes.”

 

Dean loses track of time.  For all he knows they’ve been down here weeks.  Rowena continues to ignore their calls, so they get dumb and desperate and start in on the spirit world— communication between realm incantations, some actual Enochian divination spells that involve having to look into an actual crystal ball like it’s Goblin King Jareth fucking amateur hour. Things that pass through the in-betweens of existence sometimes have answers and information, some of them have been there long enough that they know the weak points where, with a little help and a lot of magic, a human can navigate into one realm and out the other.  

They cast out dozens of lines, and still a whole lotta fuck all. Just a bunch of useless spirits wanting to be left alone.  One gets a little gutsy, ricochets off Sam and accidentally ends up possessing the Belgian waffle maker which immediately explodes, so now not only have they run through a significant portion of their herbal supplies, but Dean is also out thirty bucks and the promise of a fluffy, golden breakfast.

 The whole damn bunker smells like stale coffee, burnt herbs, burnt blood, Sam is passed out on the sofa, his legs hanging off the end.  Dean knew he needed to give him a break when sleep deprivation and the energy loss from all that mojo had Sam’s speech slurring so badly that he misspoke the evocation and pulled through the business end of a hellhound. Dean realised the mistake before things could get messy and dumped water over the summoning spell, severing it and half the hellhound in the process. 

Dean closes the door to the library, pours himself too much scotch, sits back down at the table and thumbs through another dust covered tome for the answers he knows he won’t find there.  His brain is sluggish and everything looks like nothing when he tries to read, but his body is still keyed up—jittery and nauseous from too much coffee and barely any calories.  

“I could mix you up a tonic,” a voice says,  “Help you kip down.  Promise you won’t even dream.”

Dean doesn’t even have it in himself to yell.  “We’ve been calling you.”

Rowena emerges from behind a column, pauses there and gives Dean a look he doesn’t care to interpret because his gut is telling him it’s pity.  “I know,” she says solemnly, pushes away from the column and walks over and sits across from Dean at the table.  She pours herself a drink. “I heard you.”

“So you were just avoiding us.”  

“Please,” she clicks her tongue, “more like leaving you on read, dear.”

“That’s the same thing.  And I’ve been to Hell, spent the whole summer having a bronanza with the king— your kid. Don’t act like there’s not down time to—”

“I thought you might want to have this conversation alone,” she amends, her eyes drifting toward the room where Sam’s sleeping. 

Dean doesn’t have anything to say to that.  All the raging he did earlier now flickers incipient and dull at the center of his chest. “So.. how is it going—being the Queen of Hell.”  He leans back heavily in his seat and tosses back the rest of his whiskey before pouring another.  “Planning the next apocalypse already?”

“S’not so bad. Can watch Margaret Thatcher roast on a massive kebab skewer every Thursday, and we’re having the first karaoke mixer next week.  I’d invite you boys, but..”  she gives Dean a once over and winces, “wouldn’t do to have you turn up all wilting like it’s Harvest bloody Festival to serenade us all with the City of Angels soundtrack or some shite.”

“Never even seen it , ” Dean lies.  Hasn’t looked a Bosc pear without feeling a compulsion to sob since 1998. 

Or some shite—that’s not exactly the energy I’m trying to cultivate in my Hell.”

Dean snorts.  “Karaoke. Uh huh. I’m sure your little demon horde just loves that.”

“Actually, I think they’re quite relieved.  Suppose even Hell is due a bit of reprieve after, well—” she does a twirly gesture with her hand, indicating All Of It, Dean imagines. “Am thinking of taking on a more isolationist policy. No more unnecessary drama—keeping to what we’re good at.”

“Torturing Margaret Thatcher for eternity,” Dean surmises.

Rowena shrugs. “It’s honest work, you know.  In general, most of the people who are in Hell do actually deserve to be there.  And now that the order is set to sorts, we’ve set up a repeal process and everything for reformed souls.  Believe it or not, we’re working with the ang—” she stops herself and edits, “with Heaven. Healthy communication! Humans could learn a thing from it,” she says with the arch of an implicatory brow.  “Course I can’t promise we won’t have a few troublemakers popping out of the pit from time to time, but I don’t care what you lads do with those.  I prefer to keep the balance, and so do most of my own.”

“Good to know,” Dean mutters, because it is actually.  He doesn’t want to fight Rowena, just like he didn’t want to fight Crowley toward the end— they’re just one god awful, complicated, dysfunctionally evil, fucking charming family . He raises his glass, “I’ll drink to that.”

Rowena smiles and returns the gesture, drinks and sets the cup down, but when she looks back up at Dean, her eyes have that look in them again.  “Dean,” she says quietly, “I know what it is you want me to do, and I wish I could help, I really do. Y’know I was fond of the wee angel myself.” She pauses in consideration.  “He was rather fit as well.  A shame that khaki nightmare always covered up his pert little—”

Dean snaps his gaze up to her.

“—heart,” she finishes, plastering back on her My Deepest Condolences expression.  “Such a dear lad.”

“You turned him into a rabid dog and had him kill your son.”

 “That was once, and I apologised! It’s Dean’s turn to raise a brow. “Right so perhaps not, but it was before I got to know you lot.  What am trying say is—”

“I don’t want to hear it,” Dean interrupts.

“Aye ano, but you need to. Some doors are closed off to us for a reason, Dean.  The Empty, it isn’t like Heaven or Hell, it’s older and more powerful than both of them.  We’re lucky that all it wants to do is sleep, the lazy bastard .

“But we’ve always found a way.  He didn’t die Rowena, he was taken! He was taken from us, from—” Dean swallows past the thickness in his throat, “from me.”

Rowena doesn’t respond, but she reaches across the table and covers Dean’s hands with both of her own.  “It’s hard isn’t it—losing someone before you had a chance to really love them properly.”

Dean yanks his hands away, uncomfortable and embarrassed and not having that conversation.  “All you need to say is that you’ll try to find something.”

“Humans..” she mutters, as if she was never one, “always doing this.”

“What?”

“You never know when to stop.  Keeping hope alive until it bloody just—” she shakes her head and makes a frustrated sound with her mouth, “until it breaks you.  Believe it or not, I don’t want to see that happen to you.”

“Then help me.”

She sighs, casts her eyes away from Dean’s.  “I’ll look again, but Dean dear— am saying this from personal experience: Accept the regrets. Grieve him, and let him go.”

Dean chokes on a laugh. She might as well be asking him to reverse his genetic code and turn into a fish, that seems more doable.  He clenches his teeth together to keep his lips from trembling.  “And if I can’t?”

A sad smile touches the corners of Rowena’s lips.  “Then you live with it.”

 

—-

 

It’s the same dream, over and over again. The apocalypse before the final apocalypse, the day they stuffed all those souls back down into the pit, the day Rowena died saving them.  The day Dean blamed Cas for all of it and let him leave.

Cas, desperate to get through to him, to make Dean understand:  The plan changed, Dean. Something went wrong. You know this. Something always goes wrong.  Dean replays the scene, hears his own voice, accusatory, choosing the words he knew would hurt Cas the most:  Why does that something always seem to be you? 

The stunned look on Cas’ face.

The way Dean wanted to take the words back as soon as they were out. He wanted to beg Cas to please stay as soon as he was gone, that he didn’t mean it, he never meant it.  There’s just something wrong with Dean that when he’s angry and wounded it can’t just stay contained, the hurt explodes out of him and infects anyone that stands too close.

Instead Dean’s mouth stuck shut and he watched Cas leave.  Watched him walk out the door believing he was nothing but a burden to be removed from their lives, as simple as wiping dust from glass.

It wasn’t even true.  Dean didn’t mean it.  Why does he do that—always says the wrong thing when he should shut up and listen, and says nothing at all when it might make a difference. 

In the dream, Dean is less than a ghost, stuck in an off-centre point of view, watching it all happen—helpless to stop those words from coming out of his mouth.  Helpless in making Cas stay no matter how hard he fights to find a voice to scream it into existence and make Cas hear him.

No matter how many times Dean re-watches it, he can never scrub away any of the awfulness, and every time is as cruel as the first.  

 

——



It takes a solid month for reality to finally crash into Dean, but when it does, the fallout is vicious and absolute.

He’s standing at the threshold to the room Cas sometimes used.  The door is closed, and for a moment, Dean feels the need to give a courtesy knock before barging in—that should have been the first sign, the painful way his heart clenched when he realised there was no need to knock.  He should have turned around, should have walked away and let the dust gather in that small, empty space.  Dean goes in knowing no good could come from it, knows nothing he’ll find behind that door will bring him any comfort or closure, it won’t bring Cas back, but he twists the knob and enters anyways.

It’s the same as ever—books, an assortment of bunker storage overflow on the shelf.  Dean opens the books one by one to see if Cas might have left something between the pages—a letter, a note saying good-bye, anything.  Dean doesn’t know why he’d set himself up for disappointment like that, it’s not really something Cas would have done.  What possibly could have been left to say that would have made any difference?  As it was, Cas had already resigned himself to silence up until the moment where they were out of options.  

Dean doesn’t find any letters trapped between the pages of books, but he does find pieces of notebook paper covered in Cas’ tidy cursive.  It’s all lore from the look of it, occult shit written in ancient languages that Cas must have been transcribing into English for Sam.  Dean traces the easy loop of a Y and wonders when Sam asked Cas for help with this stuff.  Maybe Cas just did it on his own—saw a possibility that one day he wouldn’t be around to take a call, or be able to walk in and translate off the cuff, and they would need these texts in order to get out of whatever crazy fucking mess.

There it is again, that constriction in Dean’s chest, strong enough to make Dean stagger backward a step.  The backs of his legs hit the edge of the bed and he sits automatically.  He puts his face in his hands, fingers clenching painfully at the hair over his ears just to feel something other than the full weight of grief bearing down over him. It doesn’t get any better when Dean looks down and can still see the imprint of Cas’ body on the sheets—tiny wrinkles on the pillow from his head, the covers all scrunched this way and that from Cas’ restless legs because it’s not like the guy really needed sleep most of the time  He’d just lie there squirming. 

Dean smooths his hands over the wrinkles in the sheets, over the pillow, not hard enough to press them away.  Each indent in the fabric seems massively important, an artifact confirming Cas was ever here at all, and if he destroys it, then Dean will have to admit that Cas is gone. All the way gone.  He’s seen this dozens of times—a grieving family unable to bring themselves to pack away their loved one’s belongings, a room that once was ordinary and familiar turned into a sort of shrine that they enter in order to feel closer to the person they lost.  But Cas, he didn’t have much of anything.  He’d been alive since before the world began but had so little to his name—some shirts and slacks, suit pieces and ties, the coat he was so attached to.  He must have had his fake little FBI badge on him whenever he—when it took him—because it’s gone from the spot on the nightstand where he kept it.  The walls are blank and sterile, there’s nothing to show he lived here, nothing to indicate Cas’ interests and passions were as rich as they were.  There’s nothing here but empty hangers.

People should have things.  It shouldn’t be this hard to tell if someone was ever really here.  Why didn’t Dean give him more things? 

He used to think it was comfort which kept people from clearing out the rooms of the loved ones they lost, but here, now, Dean can’t imagine anything in the world that would make him feel more helpless. These rooms stay intact because the people left behind can’t accept them being hollow— the door stays closed and all the mess, all the wrinkles in the sheets and half written notes left on the shelves can keep on staying locked away.  You can pretend there’s still a chance that person will come back, pretend they’re still here even though they aren’t and never will be again.

Dean’s beginning to feel light-headed, his chest hurts, but at the same time he feels disconnected from the sensation of it.  Outside of himself. Dean’s hand trembles when he reaches for a small, crumpled wad of cloth that’s half fallen off the bed.  

It’s an old, worn AC/DC shirt that Sam had nicked from a gas station in Hastings, Nebraska with Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap printed all down the front in Old English font.  There's an inexplicable design of angel wings down the back which had no relationship whatsoever to the song.  It was, like, 2010—the Jersey Shore craze was at its height, and this goofy, overstyled type of graphic tee was an important wardrobe staple for every aspiring douchebag in the country.  Dean would never wear it in public on principle, but the material was soft and a little stretchy, comfortable enough for bed.

He’d let Cas borrow it, years ago, for that small window of time where he was human, or some precarious mix of human and slipshod grace.  Cas had come to them with that grateful but beat to hell look in his eyes, his few belongings stuffed into a plastic bag, and when he’d turned up in the study still wet from a shower with only a towel slung around his hips—

“W—woah, wow okay. Hey Cas, ” Sam had said because Dean was suddenly struck dumb at the sight of it, and Cas looked down at his body, shivered a little from the cold and the wet.  Little puddles gathered around his bare feet and he wiggled his toes until they made a small splashing sound against the floor.

“Still feels strange,” he said, then when he finally noticed Dean's eyes burning a path across his chest, “all my clothes are in your washing machine.  I’ll change when they are dry.”

The thought of having to sit and talk shop with Cas three feet away, basically naked, had been more than Dean was willing to handle. He didn’t understand then, didn’t want to try to understand why it made him tense up so much to see Cas open and vulnerable that way.  Cas was always just out of reach somehow, at least that’s what Dean told himself— built it up in his own head to explain away why the hell it was so unnerving to be close to him, while at the same time feeling never close enough.

 A drop of water slid slow and possessive down Castiel’s neck, pooling in the little hallow of his throat, and Dean had lurched away from the table without a word and sped-walked to his room.  He’d dug out a pair of plain sweatpants and the douchebag angel wing AC/DC shirt because he thought it might get him one of Cas’ characteristic head tilts and a dirty look for the irony.  Maybe that would restore the familiar.  Dean practically threw them at Cas and ordered him back to the room to get dressed, but all Cas did was smile gratefully at Dean, gave him those big baby blues like Dean had just given him some priceless gift he could never repay, and made that unbalanced feeling in Dean’s gut tip even further.

He’d never gotten the shirt back.  Dean had forgotten about it honestly, but holding it now—this ridiculous Ed Hardy knock-off looking motherfucker—he might as well be holding a bomb.

Things go blurry all at the edges here.  Before, Dean was distantly aware that his cheeks were wet somewhere between the bookshelf and the bed, but one second he’s holding the shirt, and the next it’s like all the oxygen has been pulled out of the room and Dean’s lungs can’t expand from the absence of it.  It feels like he’s dying.

“Sam—” Dean gasps out his name, clutching at his chest. He tries to stand, but only ends up brought to his knees, pulling the bedside lamp down in the process.  It smashes to the floor in small, ceramic bits.

Sam flings the door open, stands there for a split second as he takes in Dean’s state before rushing over to help.  “What happened?” he asks urgently, his hand on Dean’s shoulder, his cheek, down to his wrist where he begins counting the pulse rate.

“I think—” Dean squeezes his eyes closed and gasps for air, “it’s a heart attack or—or someth—” he can’t finish the sentence.  His vision begins to tunnel out.

“Right, um.. Listen to me,” Sam says calmly, “I need you to take a deep breath.  Try and count to ten.”

“The fuck—” Dean rasps out, “is that supposed to help?”

“Dean I think it’s, uh,” he hesitates and winces like he’s apologising before it’s even made it out, “anxiety.”

“A panic attack? No.”

“Deep breath,” Sam commands, “come on man, you can do it,” and Dean inhales painfully, but manages to let it out with some control.  “Again.” 

Eventually Dean stops feeling like he’s about to die, but he’s still left there shaking uncontrollably on the floor with the broken lamp and Sam keeping him from collapsing by bracing Dean with his shoulder.

“It’s okay, it’s gonna be okay,” Sam says over and over again, even though it’s not okay and it never will be again.  The world might be fixed, but Dean is still the same old fucked up.

“It’s my fault,” Dean says, unable to keep the free flow of tears from running out onto Sam’s stupid plaid shirt.  “I’m the reason.”

“It’s not,” Sam says, “don’t say that.”

“It is. It is, you don’t know,” Dean gulps, voice a ragged pathetic thing, “he—” he shakes his head. Even now Dean can’t say it out loud. Can’t tell Sam why the Empty came when it did and took Cas with it.  

“He what, Dean? Talk to me.”

Admitting it won’t make Dean any more inconsolable than he already is, and he’ll never feel Cas’ absence any more or any less acutely than he does in this exact moment. “He’s gone,” Dean finally admits, because it seems like the only thing left to say.

When the terrible, swollen vacancy of the room offers no recourse, Sam says, “I know.”




—-



The best thing about the bunker, aside from the open floor plan, is that there’s always something to fix. It might have been pimped out with the best sigils and wood nymphs that shady secret society dudes could muster, but the infrastructure is old as fuck .  Solid, but old. It keeps Dean busy, gives him something to focus on now that hunting jobs have slowed down with the decrease in outside interference.  They haven’t seen any evidence of monster infestations either.  Seems like the only ones to make the cut into Jack’s new world were  peaceful examples of their species like Garth and his family, Mia Vallens, Ms. Butters (who still sends them tins of home baked goods for birthdays and holidays). Sam thinks this is Jack’s way of giving everyone a fresh start, allowing everyone to have a chance to be and do something different.  

Dean is more cynical and just thinks everyone has retreated to their corners and nobody wants to be the first one to start shit again.  Not after All That.

The oven crapped out yesterday while Sam was making that quinoa salad he’s started meal-prepping with, and while Dean is grateful that it meant they would eat take out for dinner instead, he needs the oven to bake that shitty tube of Pillsbury’s cookies at 3a.m. when he can’t sleep.

Back before— Dean would stumble his way into the kitchen in the middle of the night when the nightmares wouldn’t quit, needing comfort food or just something to do.  When Cas was home and after everyone had gone to bed, he liked sitting in the kitchen nook, reading, or teaching himself solitaire.  On those nights, Dean would pause on the other side of the doorway, admiring the way the hood light over the stove limned Cas in soft gold. He’d seem so peaceful and easy with his shirt unbuttoned, sleeves rolled up, the tension in the set of his shoulders smoothed away, and something needy would boil up inside of Dean, eager to have Cas’ attention on him.  Eager to be alone with him there in the half-light.

So Dean—he’d barge in and shatter the silence, get Cas’ eyes on him, get him up and put him to work helping Dean cook blueberry pancakes in the dead of night. There was always a reason, always an excuse to touch him in a way Dean wouldn’t be able to do in the light of day when Cas was wrapped up in all his layers, and Dean was Dean again.

Dean’s hand at the small of Cas’ back as he got around him to the fridge. 

Cas’ fingers brushing over Dean’s when he handed over a stick of butter. 

Small, reckless touches. Gentle smiles and lingering gazes that left Dean confused and unsatisfied.

He knows now that they were flirting, but had Dean known then?  Knew what it was doing to Cas? 

He did, Dean thinks, maybe not on the surface, but deep down he did, and he encouraged it almost every step of the way. Part of him knew the only reason Cas stayed in the kitchen at night was because of the possibility that Dean might eventually be there as well, and that thought made Dean feel good.  He wanted to keep feeling the way Cas made him feel: Special.  Went out of his way to seek it out. 

Dean has spent so much time sacrificing himself over the decades and inevitably it’s taken out its pound of flesh on an already precarious sense of self-worth.  At some point, Dean isn’t sure when exactly, he internalised it—always feeling like he was just a body, a tool to be used, and any of the personhood attached to that was just consequential, in the way. It didn’t matter if Dean wanted other things from life, or if he was ever happy, or that he was tired—as long as he made sure everyone else had those things, it was okay.  Dean is so small compared to all that.  One man’s dreams are nothing when weighed against the whole world.

Then Cas dropped into Dean's life like a goddamn comet crashing through fragile glass—forsaking Heaven, his mission, his family, for Dean— always trying to be better for Dean.  Zero to sixty, just like that.   Dean hadn’t known how to respond to it.  What was he supposed to do with that?  He didn’t understand what he’d done to earn that sort of devotion—just knew he’d do anything not to lose it, and he kept pulling Cas back to himself even when he shouldn’t have. Even when it probably hurt.  Could never just leave him be.

“Could have just fucking asked me, Dean grumbles to the clump of wires he’s disemboweled from the back of the stove. He knows he would have responded the wrong way—sabotaged it the way he does every good thing.  Feels better to complain though.  Dean was always the best at the anger portion of the grieving process. 

“Seriously!  Why say it out loud then? Why not before when it wouldn’t—I dunno— kill you?  So now I gotta live with it? You can’t just dump that on a guy and peace out!” Dean says a little louder, throwing down a spanner and putting his hands on his thighs, “Sure, I woulda been an ass about it and probably would have freaked out and said some awful shit and things would have gotten weird. But that—you—” The more Dean says it out loud, the more he understands why Cas never said anything at all.  “And why the hell would you want that with me, anyways? I’m this, I’m a mess. Look, and now you got me talking to myself so I’m friggin’ crazy too! You were wrong,” Dean says, deflating, “you were wrong about me.”

“Hey uh—” Sam clears his throat and Dean turns to see him leaning against the doorway, “you need help?

“Naw,” Dean feels heat crawl into his cheeks and he scrambles for a set of pliers, “just trying to sweet talk this mess.  Check it out,” he holds up the mass of wires, “Men of Letters might have been genius occult book nerds or whatever, but they sure as hell didn’t know how to wire a stove.  I mean—I’m really having to Hurt Locker this thing.” He shakes the knot again before swiveling back around to his work.  “Jeremy Renner doesn’t have shit on me,” he mutters to the stripped red wire.

“I’m not talking about the stove.”

Dean pauses before continuing to strip the casing off a six gauge, hackles already up.  “Dunno know what you mean then.”

“Yeah.. yeah okay,” Sam rubs the back of his neck. “Look, Dean you can talk to me, you won’t—” he pauses and seems to be choosing his words carefully, “you can’t tell me anything that will—and I won’t think any—” Sam sighs.  “You’re my brother.  I love you and I’m here for you.  Nothing you could say would change that.” 

Dean’s hackles go right up. “Don’t wanna talk.”

“Wanna fight about it then?”

Dean laughs and turns around, “And mess up that precious mug?  No thanks.  Don’t need Eileen coming after me.”  Dean’s smile falters when Sam doesn’t take the deflect and continues to stare at Dean with concerned expectancy.  “You wouldn’t understand. It’s,” Dean sighs hard and makes a screwy motion next to his temple with the pliers, “it’s complicated.”

“Dean, think about who you’re talking to,” Sam says, patient with Dean even though he doesn’t deserve it, “ I wouldn’t understand?”

“Yeah, but you got Eileen back.  You’re all Happily Ever After now.”  A frisson of resentment rolls through Dean.  He’s happy for Sam, is the thing.  Sam is even thinking about getting back into college, starting with a couple online classes and seeing how he feels about it.  His life is course correcting and Dean is grateful, and relieved, and jealous.  Sam is finding ways to move forward, while Dean creates his own purgatory and lives in it every single moment of the day and sees no future beyond it.

“Remember Jess?” 

Oh.

Dean goes silent, because yeah, actually.  He’d sort of forgotten.  It’s been so long and they’ve been through so much that for a moment, Dean forgot what started Sam back down this path to begin with. 

 “I loved her.  I would have spent the rest of my life with her. Then she died because of me—”

“No—”

“Because of me,” Sam repeats, “and I died too, in a way. I can’t ever get that part of me back.  I had to become someone new, and it was hard, it was hell, and I wouldn’t have survived it if I didn’t have you.  So let me—let me help you.  Just talk to me.”

Dean wants to, is the thing.  He can feel all the words right there stuck in his throat, but that’s it—they’re stuck there, and pathetically, all Dean can manage is a stilted, “Wasn’t like that with Cas and me.  We weren’t… It wasn’t like that.” Dean scrubs his hands over his face, “Look Sammy, thanks for the offer. I mean it.  But just—let me do this. I might not be able to get Cas back, or correct all the fuck ups I made with him, or fix whatever it is that made me this way in the first place—but I can fix this stupid oven.  Please just—just let me fix it.”

Sam looks at the ground.  “Alright. Just.. promise that you’ll tell me if you’re thinking about doing something…” he trails off.

“Stupid?” Dean supplies and Sammy winces, obviously unsatisfied with the word.  “Self-destructive?  C’mon, when have I ever handled anything in a way that could be described as well-adjusted.  It’s all just a part of the process,” Dean finishes loftily, and hopes wiping a little good-natured self-deprecation on it will get Sam to stop looking at him like he’s afraid for him.  Afraid of what Dean might do.  

If Dean was a better man he wouldn’t be putting Sammy through this for the hundredth time—sneaking out at night to bars, getting drunk and belligerent and starting a brawl with the gnarliest pick of the litter, because he wants to get hurt. Aside from the obvious reasons why this isn’t a thing stable people do, it’s also deeply embarrassing having his kid brother appear behind his shoulder while Dean is busy talking shit to a meathead twice his size.  It’s not a good look, him dragging Dean out by the collar, bitching the whole time as he seatbelts Dean into the car, mouth a thin, tight line before he finally says something that’ll put Dean’s tail between his knees.  Don’t do this to me.  Don’t you dare fucking do this to me.  You think this is what Cas would want?  

Which is the problem.. That’s it exactly. That’s why Dean is out here hurting all over the place, so desperate to turn that pain into something tangible, something he can see and put his hands on—because all he can think about is what Cas would have wanted.  Dean doesn’t know if this is some kind of self-punishment, or if it’s the small, pleading part of himself that hopes if he suffers enough, that Cas will come back like he always did and save Dean from it.  

“Just promise me,” Sam says.

“Okay,” Dean agrees, and hopes he isn’t lying.



—-

 

It happened a couple times.. him and Cas. Together together. That.  

Shouldn’t be hard to admit it in the safety of Dean’s own godforsaken head, but it is, and it has been ever since it happened. 

There had been other times when they’d gotten real close to it— when Cas had his wings he had a habit of appearing dead center in Dean’s space where he could have literally tripped and made it look like an accident.  Then there were those weird, fucked up episodes with one of them—usually Dean—bloody and pinned to the wall.  He probably would have let Cas do just about anything to him in those moments because Dean’s wires get all mixed up sometimes in a way he doesn’t want to examine too closely. Later, when Dean would be lying in bed, somewhere between awake and asleep, his vigilance would falter and the truth would slip in: There was something living between him and Cas that was so different, so intense, that Dean had to force himself to look in the opposite direction. It went beyond the unspoken gratitude that happens when one guy pulls another guy out of ACTUAL hell, beyond the strength and the power and, well, Dean’s thing for brunettes.  

It was just Cas, who he was as a person, and something in Dean responded so forcefully to it, that the only thing Dean knew how to be was terrified of the feeling.   All of that tension, all their time together, and the multitude of opportunities that could so easily have become realities—still Dean only slipped twice.

The first time it happened—Dean doesn’t know when precisely—somewhere in those three months of Cas being human.  After Gas Station Steve, before the Gadreel exorcism.

Dean had felt so alone back then.  He could barely stand to be around Sam, the guilt of what he’d allowed gnawed away in his gut and at his resolve.  Bobby was gone. Cas was mostly gone, hurt and confused by Dean’s behaviour toward him, feeling the totality of being human without much help.  One morning Dean woke up and being home was too much, so he did something easy—found a job and went on a hunt.  He made his excuses to Sam and got the hell out of there.

Before he’d even pulled out of the garage, before he’d given himself a minute to think better of it, Dean was on the phone asking Cas if he wanted to run back up.  Dean missed him.  Missed his awkwardness.  Missed getting the chance to infodump on Cas about all the music and TV shows that he’d never seen, and how Cas would hold on to every last word like everything Dean had to say was just so damn important to him.

Besides, Cas still had a brain full of lore and could hold his own in a fight.  Even without all that angelic strength he was still pretty scrappy.  It made sense to bring him along. 

The hunt wasn’t the important part, rogue vampire doing their same old schtick, but it managed to get the drop on Dean and sent him flying through some plaster, thwacking his head on a support beam in the process and making everything go black for a bit.  His vision cleared up just in time to watch Cas get flung through an entire dual pane sliding glass door, and for a moment: Absolute terror.  Dean had still been so accustomed to thinking of Cas as resistant to things like blunt force trauma, angel immunity to vampire bites, that he didn’t really know how to act with a Cas that could be killed as easily as any other man. The glass shattered around him as Cas was thrown beyond Dean’s line of sight, the vamp not far behind— then silence.

Dean screamed Cas’ name, tried to get up but vertigo had his knees buckling. Eventually he managed to hold his own weight and stumble out beyond the broken glass, so scared of what he might find out there—but there Cas was, blinking and panting on his back, headless vamp half on top of him, Dean’s spare machete still in hand.  Blood was oozing from a nasty cut on his forehead, one to mirror Dean’s own.  He was holding his left arm across his chest in a way that made Dean nervous, but he was alive.  He’d managed to hold on to the machete during his trip through the door, and when the vamp came in for the kill, Cas stopped playing dead, rolled, and took the thing’s head off.

Problem was afterward they were too far out from Sam to go back home for a patch job, and most other hunters Dean knew in the area would just as soon kill him themselves, so the only option was the closest A&E.  Head wounds you don’t play with, especially when Cas got up, fell down, then puked on a bed of daylilies.  Dean was struggling to keep down that patty melt he’d scarfed down earlier himself, still woozy and weak at the knees.

Probably would have been safer to call for an ambulance.  Dean spent the whole 20 minute ride into town trying to keep Baby between the lines and shouting at Cas to stay awake.  Didn’t seem any better options available though, brain bleeds are a timely fucking thing and Dean wasn’t about to wait on some bodunk transportation service to come pick them up.  They’d hobbled in through the doors to the Emergency room, relying on each other for support, and when the triage team tried to separate them Dean had panicked.  

“We’re together!” he’d shouted, meaning in work, hunting, but did he really mean it like that?  He knew how it sounded and felt a horrible reflex to qualify it when one of the nurses gave him a raised brow, but he swallowed the impulse down and said it again.  “We’re partners."

The fucking look Cas had turned and given him. Dean didn’t have a name for whatever that look was, mixed up of everything and not any one thing. 

They were put into the same room, Cas was given a pair of someone’s lost scrubs as an alternative for his clothes that were covered in mud and blood—his own and that of the vamp’s. They were only separated for a while when each of them were carted off for head scans.  Concussions, no surprise there, but nothing worse than that.  Dean had had worse hangovers. Both of them sat for stitches, and Cas was given a sling for a relocated shoulder which he immediately discarded.

 At some point in the process they’d been given Percocet for pain and for awhile both of them had turned into a couple of dumb, giggly teens.  One of them laughing would start a chain reaction that would end in both of them gasping, tears in their eyes, and the doc telling them to hold still for their stitches. Without the burden of all his inhibitions, it didn’t feel like such an impossible thing to touch Cas with other people in the room.  Dean was just playing it up at first, the whole sham, putting his arm around Cas’ shoulders, ruffling his fingers through Cas’ hair, letting lose a darlin’ or a sweetheart for good measure and watching Cas’ cheeks go hot and ruddy. And when Cas started playing back, brushing their shoulders together and smiling instead of doing the Deer In The Headlights routine, probably high for the first time in his existence—everything felt golden.  The excess of dopamine being poured into their brains blocked the sharp throbbing of injuries, until all that was left was Cas’ laugh and the sense of triumph Dean felt that he was making Cas smile at him for the first time in months.

Later, Dean would blame what happened on this.  He’d feed the line to Castiel, knowing good and damn well that by the time they were discharged and stumbling their way into that empty hallway right outside of the ER, that the dopamine intoxication was barely a dopamine buzz and the only thing Dean was high off of, was Cas’ presence next to him, and how grateful he was that they both were alive.

Dean had trouble figuring out the lock that would get them through the ER’s exit and into the hallway that led back to the main entrance.  He kept pulling the handle, then pushing, and Cas was behind him trying not to laugh and kept repeating, “The button.  No not that— the button .  You have to press the button Dean.”

“What fucking button?” Dean asked, whirled around and saw Cas pointing to a silver square affixed to the wall, which only made Dean more inclined to pull on the door handles.  “No. Why even have these then if they don’t work?” he asked, continuing to pull.  

“It’s America,” Castiel said, matter-of-fact, “perhaps with better gun control laws there would be less need for lockdown security measures in public facilities,” and with that he closed his fist and hit the button.  The doors swung inward, nearly rapping Dean back against his afflicted skull.  When Dean turned to glare, Cas said a Cas thing, something like, “Also I believe it is a preventative against demons stealing babies for nefarious purposes—such as dinner parties.”

Dean squinted at the wheelchair accessibility sign printed onto the button and said, “M’sure that’s it Cas,” grabbed him by the front of that ugly green scrub shirt and hauled him through the door.  

Halfway down the hall, Dean still cutting up to earn those little smiles from Cas, he threw out an arm to push Cas against the wall when some poor transport tech came barrelling through with a ninety year old broad on a gurney shouting about how he was making her miss the Jim Shore sale on QVC, dropping F-bombs the entire way.  You could still hear the ruckus after the elevator shut them away and began to ascend.  

“Damn, Blanche Devereaux,” Dean said.

“Impressive cursing,” Castiel agreed, like a nerd, and Dean adored him.  

The two of them, standing there cackling in the hallway like a couple of lunatics, every wheeze setting off a bright flare of pain that eroded through the last layers of the perc. Still, Dean wanted to draw that moment out, keep Cas there in that easy liminal space, put off having to step outside and back into a world where Dean was always failing at something and Cas was once again out of reach. 

Still panting from laughter and pain, Dean looked over at Cas the same time Cas let the base of his head swivel against the wall to look back at Dean.  He could feel the vague warmth of Cas’ breath on his cheek, the bloodshot of Cas’ eyes throwing the blue into sharp, vivid relief.  Dean could never fathom what it was Cas saw when he looked at him, and how he kept looking even after having seen Dean’s soul in its totality.  There wasn’t anything he had missed, so what possibly could have been left that was so damn interesting?  And why was it, that even at their worst, Dean never could look away either. 

“You’re so—” Dean swallowed, trying to figure out a safe point on Cas’ face on which to fuse his gaze, “Cas, you know that I—” his voice trailed off and Cas cocked his head.

????

What was it?  What the hell had he been trying to say?  What was it that Dean needed to tell him that was so important that what came next was the only way he could convey it?

Cas’ lips were chapped, but still soft, soft and lovely.  The cloying sweetness of that hawaiian punch juice box one of the nurses had given him still clung to his mouth. 

Funny how the taste of hawaiian punch registered to Dean first, and not the realisation that he and Cas were kissing.  That didn’t happen until a solid 3 seconds later when Dean felt Cas’ fingertips trembling where they slid against his jaw, not trying to break the kiss, but just touching there, his lips closed and unmoving against this abrupt departure from rationality.  

Dean pressed into it, unsure and heart-racing but needing it badly.   Christ, when was the last time he kissed someone like this? Probably not since his first kiss where Dean was terrified and wondering what the fuck he was supposed to do with his hands.  That same bubble of terror was still there in this kiss of course, but it wasn’t born of inexperience— rather a fear of the moment that lay beyond the current one where reality would come calling for answers. Dean wanted to put that moment off indefinitely.  He wanted to stay there in the cold sterility of the hospital walls, feeling their shoulders pressed together, the dull ache in Dean’s neck from the awkward way they were turned toward each other, touching Cas in the only way that ever made perfect sense.

That was all Dean had meant to do.  Swears that was it.  He hadn’t meant to take everything.

It wasn’t until Dean began to pull away, regretful of having to do it, heart in his throat with nerves when the kiss had gone on too long and the moment in which it had started to stretch out too far in either direction, that Cas snapped to life against him.  Suddenly it was less about those words still sloshing around in Dean’s head and the reckless choices hatched from brushes with mortality, and a hell of a lot more about an armful of ex-angel wrapping himself around Dean, chest to chest.  Cas’ palms set off the sore bruises on Dean’s ribs and shitshitshit— the tip of Cas’ tongue slid against Dean’s bottom lip and just like that, Dean was too far gone to fight it.

By the time Dean knew anything again his hands were already under the hem of Cas’ shirt, possessing the smooth-hot skin at the small of his back, the swell of Cas’ hips.  Cas let out a soft, hollow sound when Dean’s teeth found the blunt line of his jaw, tasting the bitterness left from antiseptic where it was dabbed over the small cuts sustained from shattered glass.  He shivered when Dean’s fingers pushed into his hair.

Within a handful of moments Dean was desperate, certain that if he hesitated, all the reasons why this was a disastrous idea would come pouring back in, and Dean needed him too fucking badly to let it happen.  So Dean clung to him, his hands rushing up and down Cas’ body, feeling him up right there in the middle of that hall. Anyone could have walked by and seen them there, seen Cas pushing his hips against Dean’s like he was just going to give up and fuck him through the wall.  For all Dean knows someone did.  There could be some grainy X-tube soft-core out there recorded by a pervy security guard called HOLE-istic Therapy .

“Cas, hold—wait,” Dean gasped between one kiss and the next, surprised he was even able to form the thought out loud, “not here.”

Cas pulled back a couple inches, chest heaving, never taking his eyes off Dean’s mouth like he resented the space for keeping him from it.  His hair was fucked up from Dean’s hands, sticking out all messy and on end so the only other guesses as to what he’d been up to in the past 30 seconds were limited to sticking a fork in a light socket.

God.  He was always so damn weird, some hunch punch gatorade-cooler mixer of fucking nuts as he shifted between Awkward Nerd to Hot Guy Brooding in the Corner, to the part of Cas that was harder to pin down—incomprehensible by nature because no matter how close Cas came to being human, the core of him would always be ancient and arcane. There was no one else like him, and Dean never wanted anyone the way he wanted Cas—uncompromisingly.  Even at their worst, Dean still craved Cas’ presence in his life, and when Cas was gone, Dean wanted to be gone too.  All the years of not having had only aggravated the feeling instead of forcing Dean to accept it.

“Of course not here,” Cas muttered, his eyes were gleaming with that manic, determined look Cas would get sometimes, and then he was snatching up Dean’s hand and Dean went staggering behind him down the hall until they came to one of those family bathrooms with the diaper changing station.  A laminated note with an inexplicable smiling sun with Please Do Not Flush Hygienic Products printed in a speech bubble, hung next to the fire exit route.

The sound of the button lock on the door knob clicking might as well have been a gunshot with how it made Dean jump, it was almost enough to make the alarms go off in Dean’s head of the unfolding situation.  That imminent voice of reason was squashed the moment Cas pushed him back against the wall. Dean’s breath left his lungs in an awkward exhale from the force of it, and then they were kissing again—Cas’ perpetual stubble burning a path along Dean’s jaw, the world contracting down to the smear of groping hands and saliva

Dimly, shamefully, Dean noticed small sounds rebounding in the space between them. Jesus.  It was just a kiss.  A really good, lip-bruising kiss that had obsessively preoccupied Dean’s thoughts ever since he saw Cas lay one on Meg in that filthy fucking corridor—but still. Then it clicked that it was Cas making those noises.  Cas who was sucking in sharp breaths and letting them out in tight moans, Cas with one hand clenching into the fabric of Dean’s jacket, his other hand trapped between the back of Dean’s head and the wall.  He was kissing Dean so hard, barely letting him breathe.  Star spots started going off behind Dean’s eyes—partly from the lack of oxygen, partly from the lingering concussion.  

“Jesus, Cas,” Dean managed, dazed, “you really want thi—”

Cas made a sound deep in his throat, brows knitting together as he yanked Dean down into another kiss, not letting him finish.

It was that, Dean thinks, which broke something open inside of himself—the eagerness of Cas responding to him and how it pulled to the surface all that longing and hunger, all the needing that Dean had been growing in his marrow for so long.

Dean was all over him then, rough with intent—snatching Cas’ hair, digging fingers into muscle, ripping at Cas’ clothes because he couldn’t rip whatever it was Dean actually needed from him and this was as close as it got. “It’s okay, it’s all right,” Dean kept saying, breathless and nonsensical.  He didn’t know who he was trying to convince, Cas or himself.  

Until that moment, physical sensation was a language Dean mostly understood— torture and pleasure, hungry or full, a blade splitting his skin versus lips against it —those things are controllable. Quantifiable. They aren’t that needy, senseless pit that would rupture inside of Dean the moment Cas would get within his line of sight, and resisted all efforts at compartmentalisation. Dean was convinced if he could just.. tear it from him, everything would stop feeling so damn much all the time.  So he kept grabbing, and taking, and the way Cas pushed back with his own searching hands, it took the pain off that indefinable sharp edge. Maybe Cas was searching for relief from all the aching he did for Dean as well, and that’s why he let it happen, even knowing how it would end.

The sudden addition of a thigh slotting between Dean’s legs forced him to wrench his mouth free, choking out a shocked, battered sound as Cas pressed himself up against the bulge in Dean’s trousers. Dean tipped his head up to blink dumbly at the flickering ceiling panel above them, and Cas said, “Dean,” all low and fucked up with desperation.  Me too, Dean couldn’t, wouldn’t say, I need you too.   Instead he stopped gaping at the ugly over-bright fluorescents, palmed the back of Cas’ neck and pulled until Cas’ forehead was tucked against his shoulder, his breath hot and erratic over Dean’s collarbone.  Both of Cas’ hands went flat on the wall behind Dean, his fingers curling into fists against the glossy white cinderblock, keeping them anchored so they could ride the frantic, graceless rhythm they had built together. Cas’ hips moved in stilted little thrusts, still in those threadbare scrubs from some intern’s locker, no decent barrier at all to any of it, and Dean was moving and pushing back against the hard length of him.

It took so little that it should have been embarrassing.  Dean regrets that too.  He should have taken his time, gotten them out of that bathroom and into a bed.  Gotten Cas bare and horizontal, felt the heat of him without layers. Always those damned layers, caught between them.  Always so hard to overcome until the option is removed from you, and then it all seems so simple, so clear to see what you should have done differently.

Dean felt Cas groan, felt him nose the jacket and shirt underneath it out of the way so he could bite down against Dean’s shoulder.  It hurt a little between the sharp edge of teeth, to the chafe burn spreading over Dean’s thigh from their rutting, but Dean didn’t care.  He didn’t care about anything that wasn’t Cas’ weight against him, his scent, the bossy way he kept Dean smashed to the wall and hardly let him move but for Dean to palm his ass to help pull them together.  

God.  He wanted more of him.  Wanted to get his hands down the front of those scrubs and curl his fingers around Cas’ dick.  Wanted to taste him, turn over under Cas’ hands and let his fingers wander.  It was shocking to have those desires so close to the surface.  Dean just wanted and wanted, and wanted things he had barely allowed himself to admit for so many stupid fucking reasons.  Old, smothered fantasies—ones he’d held captive save for moments of weakness when he was awake in bed, too tired to lie to himself—about what he’d do to Cas if this ever happened, all congealing toward one objective:  Ruin him for anyone else.  Make it to where no one else could ever measure up.  

It wasn’t right.  It wasn’t an okay thing to want and Dean knew that, hated himself for it.  But he’s always been selfish over Cas.

It never really occurred to him that this ill-formed, vague ulterior motive would rebound against Dean so spectacularly. 

Dean turned his mouth to rub his lips feverishly over the crest of Cas’ cheek and ear, telling him, “There, right there,” then groaning when Cas sucked in a breath, stuck a hand over the place in Dean’s jeans where he was straining and jumping at the touch.  A thumb traced the outline of the head before Cas rubbed an open palm down the length of Dean’s cock. Then doing it again, and again, his movements a blur.  “ F-fuck ,” Dean managed to grit out, small and a little shrill, with a sudden strangled feeling in his throat—that thickness you feel when you’re about to cry, and Dean didn’t know why it was there now.

If Cas noticed, he didn’t say anything, he was too engrossed in getting them both off through sheer willpower because there was no reason a frenzied dry hump in a hospital bathroom with the toilet three feet away should have made them that hot.  It smelled like fucking lysol and piss for crying out loud, but it didn’t matter to either of their bodies.  The hand on Dean’s cock retreated, grabbed hold of Dean’s hip and spun him around fast to face the wall—Cas not even missing a beat before he was rolling his hips against Dean’s ass.  He didn’t give Dean a chance to think about it and get antsy, just threw his weight against Dean, holding him there, his hands over the tops of Dean’s hands, stronger than he should be.  He threaded their fingers together. Dean’s scabbed knuckles were cushioned against the pad of Cas’ palms and that’s what did it—not just the unmistakeable mimicry of Cas fucking him from behind, or how Dean’s dick was wedged against the wall and his stomach, and how every thrust made his blood burn.  

It was the affection that Dean didn’t know what to do with.  The crush of their bodies together was brilliant, but Cas holding him steady by the hands, his thumb stroking soothingly over the knuckle of Dean’s thumb, that was different.  It felt personal, like those quiet, choked sounds that Cas tried and failed to keep in check and how Dean was being allowed to hear it.  He shook apart right there with his cheek pressed to the wall, groaning and coming so hard that he would have fallen if it hadn’t been for Cas holding him up. Before Dean was even finished twitching out the aftershocks, the warmth of Cas’ palms abruptly left, the pressure of fingertips returning to Dean’s hips as he held him in place and pulled Dean back and back and back against him, rubbing himself against space between Dean’s thighs until Cas plastered himself to Dean’s back, exhaling raggedly before going still. 

Dean lost track of how long they stayed that way, still cocooned in that bubble of pleasure, Dean listening to Cas’ shaky breaths as he tried to bring his respiration to heel. He could feel Cas’ heart racing where he was curved against Dean’s spine. Slowly, Cas lowered his forehead back down against Dean’s shoulder, his mouth pressed against Dean’s neck.  He felt something warm, damp—didn’t know if that was Cas kissing him, or maybe it was just the humid in and out of his breath.  Sweet, intimate.  

Too intimate.

And then it was there:  The moment of stunned realisation of what they’d just done, what Dean had let them do.  Haltingly, his elbows stiff now from supporting both of their weight, Dean turned in the shelter of Cas’ arms.  Whatever Cas read on his face was enough for him to clench his hands into fists and back up a step, a look of trepidation set into his eyes when Cas looked over to the locked door.  He tried tugging his scrub shirt down over the damp spot spreading on his scrubs.  Dean swallowed and tried not to look, shed his jacket, handed it over for Cas to hold in front of himself.  

That silence had been like nothing else Dean has ever experienced.  It wasn’t awkwardness or anger or even uncertainty.  It was the surreal silence of shell-shock.  Neither one of them knew what to do or how to act.  

“I—” Dean started, stopped.  “I um.” Cas just waited there, staring at Dean like he was facing a firing squad.  He knew what was coming, knew nothing was going to stop Dean from saying it.  “I just.  Hunts, sometimes, man. Adrenaline.  All those damn happy pills you know, makes everything…”  he swallowed.  “Everything weird.  I’m not—yeah,” he finished, hoping Cas would fill in the blanks with something.  Whatever it was, it’d probably be right.  Cas’ expression immediately shuttered and Dean tried not to flinch, cast his eyes down, guilt already gnawing away.

“I understand,” Cas said quietly.  

Dean wanted to grab him, shake him up.  He wanted Cas to get angry and hit him, turn it back into a language Dean was familiar with.  Wanted to scream no you don’t, you can’t understand.  What you want from me I don’t have, not for you, not for me, not anyone. 

But none of that happened, because Dean, the way he is, was never taught how to move forward as a whole person instead of an assortment of complexes.

Dean mostly blocked out whatever came next.  He recalls the dark walk to the car and how the moon illuminated the tense downturn of Cas’ mouth, the uncomfortable ride home.  Castiel rode shotgun, staring out the window. His elbow was propped up on the window shelf, chin resting on his knuckles, left hand palm down between them on the seat and Dean was aware of it, and aware that it would be so easy to let go of the steering wheel and touch Cas’ hand. Hold it.  If Dean wasn’t a fucking coward he would have done it. It would have felt good. That compulsion to touch Cas had already crawled back, it had barely been an hour and Dean already needed to take the edge off that heated, prickling sensation in his blood. They’d done a whole hell of a lot more to each other’s bodies, a little brush of hands would have been nothing.

But it felt like something.  Seemed like more ground than Dean was prepared to give there in the quiet of the car with the moonlight casting shadows over them through the Cottonwood trees.  Dean knew if he did it, Cas would turn those big questioning eyes on him, looking for an answer that Dean couldn't give, and it would only hurt them both.

No. It was better this way.  Safer.

Dean tightened his hands on the steering wheel, kept them from wandering until the grip squeaked in his palms.

Cas looked over, a small furrow to the set of his brow.  “Are you tired? I don’t mind driving.”

“Huh?  Nah, man,” Dean cleared his throat and tried to be okay. “Are we.. good?” he asked, tentative, selfish, after several more minutes spent not talking.

Cas sighed quietly, turned to look at Dean. “Of course Dean, we are good,” and it was a lie.  Cas was a godawful liar.  The little head nod and lifeless smile didn’t fool Dean for a second.  Their status quo might have been okay, but they weren’t okay.  Cas wasn’t okay.  His eyes always broadcasted exactly what he felt and there it was so clearly—confusion, hurt.  Dean should have said something.  Told him he didn’t do anything wrong , it’s just Dean that’s all wrong in the places where love should be.

The space between them grated at his skin and it hurt. It hurt then the same way it hurts now.  

The next time Dean would see Cas, he’d be an angel again, and it would be as if it had never happened.  Some unspoken treaty of silence had been agreed upon, willingly or unwillingly.

He should have known.  Dean should have known the vengeance with which the silence he kept would one day turn back against him.

 

——

 

Dean wakes up to the darkness of his bedroom.

Before he registers the persistent chirp of his alarm, before Dean even remembers who he is or why he’s there, he remembers that Castiel is gone.  

Death would be simpler, Dean thinks, despite their track record for mangling it up as a clean and unquestionable process.  He’s used to it, people are always dying around Dean, and sometimes when it happens, it’ll be Dean’s fault. Sometimes it won’t. He’ll carry on with all the grief because it’s there, always right fucking there, and always a part of him.  

Dean used to think it was the anger that kept him sharp, motivated, but at some point the grief took over, stuck itself everywhere Dean was, and nothing was left untouched by it—not love, or joy, sadness or fury.  Even when mom died, then died all over again, it was never like this.  At least she was somewhere, happy and without pain, finished.  Dean could make peace with that, slowly and begrudgingly, but he got there all the same. But Cas is nowhere— trapped in an endless void, quiet and alone in a way Cas shouldn’t be because—because Cas doesn’t belong in the dark—because Dean, Dean he—

Waking up is a process now:  Open his eyes. Remember Castiel is gone.  Feel the truth of it weighing him down to the bed, feel it in his bones, and just when it gets to be too much, just when the grief and regret is excruciating enough that Dean is silently begging please, I can’t do this anymore.  I don’t want to do this anymore—  Dean remembers there isn’t much choice.  He can’t lie here in bed, alone in the dark, giving all this heartache room to spread until all that’s left is the bitterness.  He can’t do that to Sam—give him a front row seat to watch Dean become a husk of the person he once was.

Dean gets up.  Turns on the light.  Says good morning! to Sam the same as always. Puts coffee grounds into the filter. Eats and it tastes like nothing. Thinks one day this feeling, too, will become a habit. In a year it won’t sit as heavily on his chest, and Dean’ll breathe again.  

He breathes, and breathes, and breathes.

The grief and regret festers there, unmoving, and never lets Dean forget.

 

 

 It’s difficult to remember everything from that summer when Dean had been a demon.  He remembers the dying, the pain and anxiety of it at first as his heart desperately tried to maintain pressure— then how the pain subsided as his blood ran out and all he felt was warm and sleepy with the growing distance from life.  There was the moment right before real death where his brain was still trying to save him, and his consciousness was so narrowed down that Dean felt shattered down to each atom left moving.  He never talked to Sam about that.  Never asked if it felt the same way to die for him as it did for Dean:  That moment where you forget the crashing white noise is wrong, and you cease to be a person. You’re just what’s left of a sensation, experiencing sensation, and it’s peaceful.  Even as the last neuron left fires, there is peace.

When Dean opened his eyes, he didn't remember anything other than feeling the loss of that peace—and then came the anger, devouring and endless, beyond anything Dean ever experienced as a human even at his worst.  The true spark of Dean’s soul was a twisted wretch of a thing. 

Even after they’d fixed Dean back to his human state there was a lot his mind had tried to block out and save him from remembering— but bits and pieces still sneak in.  Murky recollections often replay themselves in Dean’s sleep, or as intrusive thoughts when a day has gone too well and Dean’s traitorous brain decides to ruin it for him.  Most often it’s disjointed flashes of memory: Slick bloodspill over his wrist from a knife twisting in a gut, impossibly cruel words spoken to whatever innocent bystander crossed paths with him at the wrong moment, some really… sweatykinkyweird moments with Crowley inexplicably present.

And then there was the bunker, with Dean cuffed and strapped down to a chair in the middle of a Devil’s trap. That one was catalogued with explicit clarity.

Sam had left the room to tend to whatever buckwild thing was happening outside of it, and left Cas alone to keep watch over Dean.  Cas stood outside the trap, concern etched into every line on his face.  Any other time, Dean quietly revelled in it, Cas’ attention was addictive.  The way Cas wanted to save him all the time could almost make Dean believe he was worth the trouble it took.  The other Dean though, the black-eyed one Cas was meeting with, felt no need to be fixed and resented Cas for believing different.  If only he knew how much better this version of Dean was, what exactly was on the table that he could have that human Dean would never give, surely Cas would have agreed.

Dean remembers the deliberate effort to change his posture in the chair, lounging against the restraints to present a body that was open and inviting—something Cas would covet and hate himself for.  

How did it start?  Something like, “Finally, thought he’d never leave us alone,” and of course Cas didn’t reply so Dean had ramped it up.  “C’mon angel, don’t just stand there, at least talk to me, I know you wanna.” Silence, then Dean pouting, “Look, I’ll even ask nicely: Pretty please? We can talk about whatever you want.”

Cas examined the metal shelf.  

“That’s right—you’re a shower, not a teller.”  Cas’ fingers faltered then froze against the weld line and Dean smiled.  “What? You didn’t think I would remember?  I never forgot, trust me.  Hey.. between us girls,” he whispered conspiratorially, touching his tongue to his bottom lip and bending his neck to try and catch Cas’ eyes, “it’s the most popular footage in the ol’ spank bank.  Whose name do you think I said when I would—”

“That’s enough.”

“Oh please, don’t tell me you’re holding out for Original Flavour Dean.  He’d be the first round draft pick for a closet competition, you’re wasting your time.  Now me, I don’t have those hang-ups anymore. I’d be happy to prove it.”

“I said that’s enough, Dean.”

“Really happy I’ve got the better part of a decade’s worth of his sexual frustration rattling around in my head.  You wouldn’t even have to uncuff me. I’m kinda into this whole scene—little bit kinky with the bondage and all.. And, woah, the potential for this hate fu—”

“Stop.”

“Promise I wouldn’t do nothin’ to hurt you—nothing you wouldn’t like.”

“This hurts me,” Cas said, “seeing you like this hurts me.  My Dean would not—”

Your Dean? HA!” And even as a damn demon Dean felt a wild lurch of jealousy that Cas would prefer someone over him, even though this was, technically, him.  “He’d be no homo’ ing you over drinking from the same beer can right now.” Dean bit out. “C’mon, I know you swing both ways—demons, humans—don’t pretend this crosses some line in the dirt.  We got enough time to play doctor before your shift is up, let’s go Clarence.”

Wrong. Too heavy on the swing.  Cas went back to his in depth examination of shelving units, and it was pissing Dean off.  “So what is it?  Do you have a fetish for broken dudes with daddy issues, or do you just like pain? Because Cas baby, that’s just sad . Gotta say didn’t think you were that much of a masochist— me on the other hand—”    

“He isn’t,” Cas said, quiet but firm from his side of the room.

“What’s that, angel?”

“You— the real Dean—he isn’t broken.”  The conviction with which Cas said it made Dean toss his head back and laugh, but Cas seemed unphased.  “Pain, like fungus, is ubiquitous to the human experience.”

“..the hell.”

“Humans hurt because they are alive, they sustain damage because it is the nature of the soul, and this changes them with time.  But it does not mean they are broken.  Simply.. transformed.”

“Still don’t know what this has to do with fungus.”

“Well, you see, both trauma and fungus are everywhere, both spread so easily..  You can’t always visualise it as it happens—well, you can technically see fungus spreading.  The spores themselves are microscopic. Unless you’re an angel or nature spirit, you would need to be carrying a microscope with you in order to—”

“Buddy, I think the metaphor is getting away from you.”

“Sorry.  I find fungus incredibly fascinating,” Cas admitted sheepishly and that small, voiceless consciousness buried under layers of hellfire hatred and bottomless rage, began to pulse with fondness.  Dean needed it crushed. 

“So, you think you know him, huh. Is that it?  Because I am him, and he’s me.  I just finally get to be the loud one.  Get this through your pretty head: I’m free. I don’t want to be fixed. I get to say and think all the things that your version of Dean can’t even look at and it’s not because he was hurt, it’s not the fucked up childhood or the weight of the world and aaallll those lives he didn’t save—it’s because I’m the real Dean.  Deep down, I’m it baby! And what do you think that says about you.”

All Cas did was shake his head, a small smile touching the edges of his mouth.  “I already know.”

 

——

 

Claire comes over sometimes, hustles Dean in Mario Kart and eats all their food.  They don’t talk much beyond typical pleasantries and sarcastic banter because it ain’t like either one of them are particularly good at the feelings thing—but Dean thinks she’s having trouble adjusting to the post-Chuck world too.  Doesn’t really know what to do with her time now that hunting is scarce, and ‘course Claire, she’s still so young.  She still has so much time to figure out what she wants to do with herself now that she can’t lean into the certainty of a depressingly short lifespan as a hunter.  

But what Claire does have is Kaia, and Kaia has Claire, and they’re so damn good for each other. She talks every once in a while about how Kaia brought home paint and canvas because once Claire mentioned she used to draw a lot as a kid, wanted to be the next Georgia O’Keefe or something, but when her world went sideways so did all the little things that she used to enjoy.  Now Claire is painting again, even decided to present a piece at an open gallery over in Cincinnati just for the hell of it.  Next thing, she’s got an email from some curator over in New Orleans asking if she would be interested in working on a collection—can even come live in the studio above the venue rent-free in order to dedicate all her energy and attention to it.  

“Course you know me, I thought there had to be a catch.  Gotta be a trap or something.  I was ready to write it off,” Claire says through a mouthful of BLT.  “So Kaia says fine, let’s go stake it out.  We go to New Orleans, spend the next three days following this person around.”

“And?” Dean asks, grimacing when Claire swipes some half-masticated sandwich crumbs off the table and onto the floor. 

“And nothing,” Claire says, incredulous, “they are literally a normal human who runs a gallery, talent scouts around the country, and promotes their shit when they find something good.  Like, the most evil thing I saw them do was leave the buggy in the parking spot at a Trader Joe’s.  I feel kind of bad for stalking them honestly— just normal,” Claire repeats, blinking into the distance like she still can’t believe it

“So, you gonna do it?  Go be a starving artist in Louisiana? The roads are shit.”

“Drive-thru daiquiris,” Claire counters.

“You know that’s a red state, right?”

Claire snorts, “Dean. I live in South Dakota first of all, it's about as friendly as a 700 Club fan convention.  And… maybe.  Yeah?”  She looks up from her lunch at Dean, a small, nervous smile creeping across her face and it hurts Dean a little to look at her.  He knows he’s seeing Jimmy Novak in the blue of her eyes and straight, toothy smile, but Dean didn’t know Jimmy like that and all he sees is Castiel.  

Dean clears his throat and picks the L off his BLT.  “What about Kaia?  You kids gonna long-distance it?”

“Hell no,” Claire scoffs, “Kaia is looking into some grants and Tulane has a good nursing program, Alex knows people there.  It’s something, right?  I mean, this is how it’s supposed to be I think? That’s what Jody keeps trying to tell me.  You have all those dreams when you’re a kid, of growing up and doing something you love. I think people like us, we stop being kids so early that we forget to dream like that anymore.  Hunting becomes our life, and yeah, sometimes it feels good.  Felt good to save people.  But it also.. hurt?  All that surviving, I mean.  After a while it sort of fucks you up.  I don’t know if I want to be your age and still feel the whole weight of that.  I don’t want it to keep me from loving people the way I should because the whole time I’m waiting to lose them, or for me to screw it all up when it turns me mean.”  She winces. “Sorry.”

“No I—”

“No it came out wrong, I didn’t mean—”

“You’re right,” Dean stares at her for a second then looks down at his feet, taps his fingers on the table. “You’re right, that’s what happens,” he says, because it’s not wrong. He’s seen it happen plenty. A person can survive so much that it kills them—maybe not in body, but it can kill something inside you.  Something important.  Makes your feelings stop working right.  At some point the violence turns inward and you’re just trying to run the clock down against yourself.

“So, what about you?” she asks, faux-casual because it stinks of Jody and Sam saying Dean isn’t okay, maybe he’ll listen to you . She pops a potato chip in her mouth and crunches down, settles her elbows on the table and leans toward Dean like it’s suddenly an interrogation.  “Got any plans? Something in mind that’s not wasting away in an underground bunker and slowly dying of vitamin D starvation?  Seriously. I know there’s just dirt out there, but would it kill you to put in a window?”

Dean rolls his eyes.  “Old dog, new tricks, you know how it is.”

“Okay you’re a geezer, but you’re not that much of a geezer.  You’re never too old to get a life, ” she says, “besides, this is just—ugh,” she sits back in her seat, gesturing once around the room before folding her arms across her chest.  “I think you’ve earned a little vacation.”

“I’m sitting around on my ass, how is that not a vacation?”

“Oh my god, have you ever actually been on a vacation?  Like, you do realise there’s a whole world out there with cool shit to do in it, right?”

“Like what?”

Claire opens her mouth, then closes it, and Dean begins to wonder if she’s ever had a vacation that she was old enough to remember either.  “Beaches and stuff, I don’t know! Catch a crab? Climb a mountain and turn around!”  She snaps her fingers a few times,  “What is it—DisneyLand? Disney...World? Whatever. I heard there’s a museum in Iceland that has over 200 penises preserved in formaldehyde.  It’s a museum for dicks, I’m sure you’d fit in just fine there.”

They stare at each other in silence for a full 10 seconds, then Dean can’t hold it in anymore and a wheezing sound erupts from him as he doubles over in laughter.  Claire tries to look stern a moment longer, but then she’s cracking up too.

“Fine! Okay, maybe not some of that. But come on— don’t you want to find something that’s just yours?”

 “I did,” Dean murmurs, looking down at his fingers splayed atop the table. 

Claire’s expression softens. She leans back into her seat and folds her arms across her chest.  “You know, it was complicated.. having him there when my dad was gone. I wanted so badly to stay hating him for that.  Couldn’t though.  Don’t know why I couldn’t.  Thought maybe it was just because he looked like my dad and my head wouldn’t let me. But I think it was him—just him.  Don’t know what it was about him, even after all that, he was just sort of a.. lovable doof.  Never asked or expected forgiveness for his part in what happened to my parents.  Lots of people expect it from you—think you should just get over it if they’re nice enough and get pissed when you’re still dealing with the baggage. Not him. I think he knew he could never do completely right by me—but it never stopped him from trying.”   Claire slouches back into her seat and wipes underneath one eye. “I liked it that he tried.”

“Yeah, me too.”  Dean can’t say anything else, lets his eyes burn a hole into the tabletop. 

“Some people just pull it out you I guess,” Claire murmurs, and doesn’t press for any more than that.

 

—-



There used to be a time where Dean could sort of navigate around the big whatever he felt about Cas.  He’d rescued him from Hell, which, yeah, sort of inspires a complicated brand of gratefulness.  Add in the strength, power, the whole undefiled celestial being tucked away in a disheveled 5’11 package with a come hither gaze and inexplicable attachment to trenchcoats— having the undivided attention of a literal angel is going to make most people feel a certain type of way.  

Then, as their time together spun out and they’d gotten to know each other more, those feelings amplified and augmented, they became more than they started as.  Deeper, more real. Built on how Dean felt about Cas as a complex person with hang-ups and idiosyncrasies and talents and the way Dean missed him when he was gone.  Feared for him to the point of distraction when Cas was in danger.  

It’s hard to believe now how much Dean struggled not to feel those things. He could be such a dick about it, too.  Maybe it’s because Dean always knew he didn’t deserve whatever it was Cas would offer him.  He hadn’t earned it.  Hadn’t made it easy for the guy.  Dean steeped himself in Cas’ love and attention, held onto it like a lifeline, and stagnated there.  Even as Cas was ripped away, he left this world thinking that Dean was beyond his reach.  

And maybe he was right.  Maybe Dean would have sat there forever clutching to his silence in order to hold on to all his misery and the anger and all the things Dean thought defined him.  It was the only control Dean ever knew.

Those things seem so small now, and Cas’ absence is a soul-piercing scream that resonates and brings Dean along with it, but nothing else. That’s what real death is, he thinks, it’s the emptiness.  It isn’t a concept, it’s not something written down on pages or turned into music and art, it’s not a place you go:  Emptiness is the place in Dean’s chest when he walks in Cas’ room and sees the crumpled up, discarded shirt left on the ground.  It’s the chair in the kitchen where Cas sat at night, waiting for him.  It’s the bloodstain on a door, in a room Dean can’t go in, where Cas bought them those last few minutes to say goodbye.  It’s how all these memories are slowly being colonised by grief instead of existing as something quiet and familiar.  It’s the look in Dean’s eye that the widow drinking coffee at the diner in town recognises and asks how long?  And suddenly Dean has the ability to turn the booth closest to the exit into this mutual abyss of sorrow and ache.  

The loss of Cas is a fracture in his soul that Dean hauls around, with no way of ever healing it.  He’s stopped really wanting to anymore.  It’s all Dean has left of him now. 

 Maybe it feels like this for Cas, too.  

Dean really hopes not, hopes the Emptiness is just oblivion for Cas, an eternity of nothing.  That sounds better, comforting, to simply stop and not know anything anymore.

He hopes it’s not this living emptiness, where even the numbness feels raw and aching.

There’s a sudden shift of air and the back of Dean’s neck prickles when he senses a presence that wasn’t there before.  On instinct, Dean snatches the gun he keeps under his pillow, bolts upright in bed, cheeks still wet, and points in the direction of that presence.

He hadn’t known what to expect, but it certainly isn’t who Dean sees now sitting in the corner of the room, posture still awkwardly perfect and hands clasped together and resting on the tops of his knees.  He isn’t looking at Dean, eyes instead focused on the hem of the sheets dangling off the side of the bed, head bowed deferentially.  

“Jack?” Dean gasps, immediately wrenching the gun aside to take Jack out of its sights—not that an accidental shot would do much more than tickle the guy, “the hell—” he takes a deep breath to clear the fight or flight nerves leaping in his chest, scratching his head with the butt of his wrist.  The backstrap of the gun clacks against his forehead.  “Oh shit, sorry about—” he does a funny gesture with the gun and finally puts it back under the pillow, “old habits you know.”  Jack doesn’t say anything, doesn’t move a centimetre and doesn’t make eye-contact with Dean.  

“Hey,” Dean says, stooping himself a little on the bed to try and catch Jack’s eyes, “you okay, kid?”  When Jack only sighs miserably, Dean feels a little protective spirit rear its head.  “Somebody bothering you? Is it the Evangelicals?  Because I’ve told you before those guys are douches and just ignore whatever Sodom and Gomorrah bullshit they’re praying about.”

“No,” Jack finally says, “not that.”

“Alright,” Dean rubs the back of his neck, at a loss, pulls himself from the tangle of bedclothes to sit on the edge of the bed and face Jack.  “Well.. you hungry?  Want something to drink?  I mean, it’s three in the morning and you’re God, but I’m up for pizza and beer twenty-four seven so if you want to—”

“I’ve tried,” Jack blurts, “I am still trying,” he lets out another one of those anguished sighs and finally looks at Dean.  His eyes are shiny-bright and sad.  “I need you to know I will never stop trying to reach through to him.”

Dean swallows.  “Jack—”

“It is just that the Empty—it is beyond the dark or light, beyond creation.  Beyond me.  I keep trying to negotiate passage, but the Shadow never speaks to me.”

“Jack—”

“Sometimes, when I reach out,” he squeezes his eyes shut, “it is as if I can almost— almost sense Castiel, or the shape of him, his edges.”  Jack’s shoulders droop and he slowly opens his eyes again. “But then it is gone, and I—then I realise I am just feeling his presence as it lives through you.”

“Jack.”

Jack’s voice cracks, his lips trembling as tears spill over onto his cheeks.  “I hear you calling out for him.  I can hear your grief.  I wanted so badly to make a world where there was a chance for you to finally find healing and happiness, to make your own choices.  To live instead of existing between one tragedy and the next.  After everything you and Sam have done, you deserved that.  After what I have taken from you—”

“Jack,” Dean says, firm but gentle, and Jack takes a shuddering breath and hushes.  “Listen.  You didn’t take Cas from me. That wasn’t you.  The deal Cas made to save you was his choice and he did it because he lo—” Dean’s voice falters, “he loved you.  That’s who he was.  And all this,” Dean presses his fist over his heart, “this pain?  That’s not your fault either, okay?  That’s my fault.  That’s what I have to live with because I was too chickenshit to—” Dean shakes his head and can’t find anything more eloquent, “too fucked up to say anything when I had the chance.  I always thought I’d have more time, more chances, until I ran out of both. That’s on me.  To us, I did that.  To myself.”

“Your mother..” Jack says, shame evident as any weight on his shoulders.

Old hurt flares up for a moment, but fizzles out.  “If you know the number of the hairs on my head or whatever it is—”

“That’s a rumor,” Jack murmurs, “no one needs that kind of information.”

“Then you know that I know you, the real you, the soul you would never have done that.”

“Even so,” Jack says, before looking back up at Dean, “I’m not done being sorry for it yet.”

Dean tries to smile.  “Buddy, that kind of work is never finished.  Making peace with the things we regret, that’ll go on forever.  Gets easier though.”  

“It does not seem to have gotten any easier for you.”   

“Yeah, pretty sure that’s just what you’re supposed to say.” Dean spreads his hands in front himself, huffs a laugh, “Maybe they’re right, though.  Maybe I’m just a stubborn sonofabitch.” 

Jack blinks and cocks his head in a way that's so very Castiel in demeanour that for a second Dean has to remind himself that somehow Jack and Cas don’t actually share common DNA.

“You’re right.”

“Uh..”

“You have to be stubborn.  Keep trying.  Try new ways.”

“Well, there’s therapy but—”

“I’ve got to go,” Jack blurts, and with a displacement of air he’s gone.

Dean sits there staring at the abandoned seat.  “Weird kid,” he says, and lies back down until sleep covers him again.

 

—-

 

It was because of Michael the second time—not even a full twenty-four hours after Dean woke up in the woods without a megalomaniac archangel in his head, and a keloidal scar on his arm.  He’d stumbled through the doors of that abandoned chapel, disoriented and terrified and a half-dozen other emotions he didn’t have the vocabulary for, only to be confronted by Bobby, mom, and Sam standing there—just as confused as Dean was.

It’s crazy that they just let him come back to the bunker—not knowing for certain what he might be carrying in the back of his mind.  If Dean had been in any condition to think straight, he would have said so, made them leave him somewhere isolated because he knew, knew it couldn’t be that easy—but he wasn’t thinking straight, and all Dean wanted was to go home.

He’d been the one who had made Cas do it, that little jog through Dean’s mind, he needed something to help silence the queasy feeling of dread.  He had to know he was alone inside of himself, needed proof, and Cas was the only one there with the power to do it.  If there had been another way, Dean wouldn’t have asked, wouldn’t have made Cas do that. Doesn’t matter if you’re only looking for something in particular, it’s an extremely intimate, vulnerable fucking thing to brush two minds together, and Dean had just come out of a place where his consciousness was put into a chokehold.  Even as he asked for it, Dean wasn’t sure he’d be able to follow through.  

Cas reached for him, softly pressed his fingertips against Dean’s temples, and made it happen.

It was a brutal rush of the past few months of life flashing before Dean’s eyes.  All the people he’d hurt, the ones he killed, all the pain wrought from Dean’s own two hands and the sense of violation it had left Dean with—but there was also Cas’ presence alongside it all.  His concern for Dean cut into the reel of memory.  As it was, Dean was already so desperate to prove himself, that Cas’ belief in him was almost too much to bear.  He touched the scar on Dean’s arm and there was pain and rage, but also Cas’ control, his cool certainty.  

Cas pulled away, and Dean felt deprived of that certainty once again.  Later, when he was back in his room, he looked in the mirror and didn’t trust the eyes looking back at him.  

It wasn’t long before it cycled to night and everyone began leaving the main areas, headed toward bed. Dean had waited, pacing the threshold with the door cracked, watching and listening for the right footsteps to pass by.  It wasn’t going to be impulsive like last time and Dean had about five minutes to come to terms with that.  This was a deliberate, premeditated choice he was about to make—one of the first since he’d made since saying yes to Michael.  One of the first choices he would make, after being robbed of the ability to do so.  His hands were shaking, nervous and jittery, but those minutes came and passed and Dean still hadn’t found any reasons imperative enough to change his mind—and then Cas was right outside his door.

With both hands Dean reached through and grabbed Cas by the tie, dragged him into the room.

“What—” Cas managed to get out before Dean was using his back to slam the door shut, pressing their mouths together, and not letting him get a word in edgewise.  Dean isn’t stupid enough to think that Cas couldn’t have stopped him if he wanted to, thrown Dean off and left him there shaking. A part of Dean, the bit that he’d have to live with after this, wanted him to.  After what happened last time, Dean would have deserved it.  But Cas never did try to stop him.  Each time he’d try to murmur some confused question, Dean would bite at his lips, roll his body into Cas’ body, let the words cut off into a gasp or a moan.  Dean pushed the coat off Cas’ shoulders, yanked his tie loose, got his fingers between the gaps of buttons on his shirt and ripped.  

Dean has been through and done a lot of disorderly shit, but he’d never been that out of control with another person before.  Not like that—every inch peeled open and without the ability to disguise or protect himself from it.  Unable to hide it, hating himself for it.  

Eventually Cas stopped trying to talk, but kept up an effort to gentle Dean with his hands, calm him down from this turned out state, and that wasn’t what Dean needed either.  He was too panicked for that, too mangled and distorted on the inside, and he was desperate to be seen, to be recognised.

Dean bit at Cas’ neck, down to his collarbone, back to the hot-wet swell of his mouth.  Cas kissed back, one hand holding Dean at the waist, the other spanning his jaw and throat. A thumb caressed the hollow of Dean’s cheek and no, wrong.  Dean couldn’t bear any tenderness from those hands He jerked his head back, gritted out, “Give it to me, or I’ll find someone else who will.”  

Later Dean would tell himself that it wasn’t a lie.  It didn’t have to be Cas—whatever he was going through that night could have been resolved by someone else. It could have been anyone.  But there wasn’t anyone else who saw Dean the way Cas did.  It was only ever him.  But the threat seemed to work because Cas’ eyes narrowed, and with a growl he yanked Dean in by the hair, kissed him rough and messy, pushed his back off the wall and began crowding Dean toward the bed.  Dean doesn’t know how his clothes came off so fast, he barely remembers unbuttoning and getting his fly down as Cas tore into his shirt and toppled him onto his back.  

Cas pulled his jeans down the rest of the way, let his heels flop back down against the floor, and then he wasn’t looming over Dean anymore.  He was kneeling on the ground in front of him and Dean had all of half a second before he felt strong hands immobilising him at the hips, and then—

“Oh fuck,” Dean gasped, mouth open, eyes squeezing shut.  Blood pounded in Dean’s ears.

His back arched off the bed when he felt Cas’ mouth close around him all at once and begin to suck. It was shocking, somehow, don’t know why it should have been.  He’d had his dick sucked before, it wasn’t some new sexual revelation, but something incandescent shuddered down every nerve-ending in Dean’s body and burned hot in the middle of his chest—almost too much, too good.  Maybe it was just because it’d been so long since he’d done this—sex with people who were little more than strangers to him had long since lost it’s appeal.  Or maybe it was because he’d been trapped with Michael, stripped of autonomy, and it just felt so good to be able to connect his mind to a sensation again. Felt good to have a choice and give permission and know that if he changed his mind, Cas would instantly comply. Maybe it was about control.

Maybe it was simply because of who was doing it.

Dean must have said something, had to have said something, because Cas pulled off for a second, breathing hard against Dean’s hip.  He shook his head, his lips damp against the thin skin there. “You don’t mean that,” he said quietly, more to himself than Dean, then swallowed him back down again, not letting up until Dean was shaking.  This wasn’t part of the hazy plan Dean had cobbled together in his head, it was too fast, he wanted more than this and wasn’t ready to stop, but the word wait never made it to Dean’s lips.  He was already too close and he wanted it too much.

 Dean propped himself up on one elbow to watch, the other hand reaching down to bury itself in Cas’ hair.  It was almost too much to take in—the sound and sight of him doing that to Dean—wet lips, the occasional pink glimpse of his tongue, his low, choked moans.  The dark shock of his hair bobbing between Dean’s legs. It was hard to reconcile this image to the knowledge that this was Cas, a literal angel, going down on Dean of all people.  Words like defile and corrupt rose up in Dean’s head, and he crushed them back down.

He felt like he couldn’t take in enough air, breathing hard and loud into the stifling room before his fingers clenched—soft hair scratching against his palm.  He didn’t warn Cas or anything, let himself fall over the edge—and then Cas was swallowing around him, the hand splayed against the outside of Dean’s thigh tightening to hold him still.  The sound of Cas sucking him through it was choked and wet, Dean can’t even remember any noises of his own, just the obsessive thought pounding against his skull that he’d come in Cas’ mouth. When it was over, Dean went boneless, elbow giving out as he fell back against the mattress.  

Dean already wanted him again, didn’t care about riding out the shuddering aftershocks into a satiated stupor. The need sat there, just as out of control and volatile as before, Dean still half-hard with it.  

Luckily he didn’t have to ask Cas to keep going.  After what he’d been through the past few months, helpless inside of himself, it probably would have killed him to beg.  Cas was off his knees and over Dean within seconds, his hand moving between their bodies as he undid his trousers, his knuckles brushing Dean’s belly as pushed them down.  He kissed up Dean's chest before sliding his hand around Dean’s throat, stunning him with a kiss, sliding the bareness of their bodies together.  The heat of him engulfed Dean, soaked down into his muscles and loosened the knots there.  Dean didn’t remember him being this hot last time, not noticeably so. The grace burned fever bright underneath his skin.  Cas rubbed his hard dick over where Dean was still damp and twitching, letting his full weight drop against him when Dean’s body gave an involuntary jerk.  Held him there, overwhelming him with sensation, almost smothering him.  

Grounding him, Dean thinks now.  That’s how it felt.  Not the rough or punishing thing Dean had tried to start it as—Cas was steady and definite, where Dean was all urgency and recklessness.

Dimly, Dean felt his knee was being shoved, then Cas put himself between Dean’s legs and grinding himself on the inside of a thigh— wouldn’t let himself be jostled or moved when Dean arched up against him. He’d barely made any sound this whole time, only letting out a tight, turned-on grunt when Dean scratched his nails down Cas’ spine. The way his chest heaved with every breath was the only other evidence this was affecting him at all. 

Cas twisted his hips and his dick pushed into the sweat-damp place between the crack of Dean’s ass and the bed, slowly thrusting as much as friction would allow. Dean’s heart began pounding against his ribs.  Cas had pulled Dean’s head aside, was busy kissing and licking against his pulse.  He must have felt the way Dean’s blood began to throb in that pathetic little artery because he pushed Dean’s legs open even farther and ground down against his rim.

If this was happening under different circumstances, if Dean was the kind of person who could admit in daylight what he did with Castiel in the dark, he would have put on a sly grin and told him it was a bold gamble. Probably would’ve teased and told him to work harder to convince him just because Dean knows Cas really puts his back into it when he gets focused on something—does all the research, pays attention to the details.  He’d probably be a goddamn wonder in the sack if he went in for anything more than demon delinquents, reapers for hire, and fuck-up humans with undiagnosed clinical depression and anger management issues.

But he didn’t have the words for it then, only needs and impulses and that greediness he had when it came to Cas.  

“Do it,” Dean bit out against Cas’ cheek, the words skittering over his ear when Cas shuddered and thrust against him again.  “C’mon just do it.”

“No,” Cas rumbled out the word against him.

“Why the hell not?” Dean asked, angry, his face hot.

“Because you’re not sure,” Cas murmured, not deterred by Dean’s anger, and obviously still wanting to fuck him.  So why wouldn’t he? 

“Don’t tell me how I—you don’t fuckin’ know —”

“Yes I do,” Cas said, firm and brooking no argument, “I know you,” kiss, “I know this ,” kiss, “is just a means to an end for you.” He took himself in hand and rubbed the head of dick against Dean’s hole, hot and wet and perfect, before moving back to the inside of Dean’s thigh. Dean was caught between pulling Cas back in, or else squirming away to eliminate the possibility.  Cas was right, Dean wasn’t sure what he wanted, but he was just going to suppress that voice of indecision and deal with it later.  

“So what?”  Dean meant to snap, but it came out breathless and quiet.

“Because you’re not the means to an end for me,” he said, and Dean felt like he’d been slapped in the face. Before he could register what that was even supposed to mean, Cas moved up, pressed them together from forehead to cock—one hand possessive and unyielding against the scar he’d put on Dean’s shoulder opposite the newest one.  The nerve endings hadn’t been burned away like they would have in a normal scar, it was still sensitive to touch in general—but when Cas touched him there—it was different.  It had been so long since he’d felt it that Dean had forgotten the rush of warmth, the peace and the weightlessness of it, the whisper of Cas’ presence still left inside of Dean, inextricable from him.

How could he have forgotten that?  How could he have borne the division afterward? 

It was that, more than Cas’ other hand stroking Dean, that did it for him. For a moment, Dean forgot all the fear and doubt, all those treacherous thoughts lurking in the back of his head whispering that this could all be taken away in a snap of fingers. That he didn’t deserve this.  He was being washed away in a tidal swell of sensation, mind emptying out all the danger and uncertainty that waited for Dean outside those four walls, of all the brutal expectations placed on Dean of which he always fell short.  The only part that mattered was that Cas was there, and Dean was as safe as he was ever going to be.

“Dean, you look—” Cas said, then cut himself off and stroked them together harder, faster, slicked with Dean’s sweat, both of them leaking onto one another in Cas’ grip.  He held on to Cas, planting a foot against the mattress and thrusting upward, suddenly two steps ahead and starting to writhe past the rhythm set. The heat and weight of Cas’ dick against Dean’s disappeared, replaced by the pressure of his hand again as he held steady and let Dean fuck up into his fist. Dean could feel himself being watched and shut his eyes against it.  Cas always looked at Dean like he was this incredible gift that Cas had the privilege to touch sometimes, when it was always the other way around. Dean couldn’t stand to see that right now.

Dean babbled out mindless curses, then Cas’ name when the pressure finally peaked and he started to come.  His final rasping moan seemed distant when Cas went down to lap up those final, dimmer pulses.

Who taught him this, Dean had thought. Then, more dangerously has he been thinking about this?  Did he imagine doing this to me?

Dean blinked away the haze and before he could consider it, he hauled Cas back up to face him.  He was trembling, eyes closed, the muscle in his jaw flickering as he let out small, short exhales. Dean pushed his hands over Cas’ ass, pulled him closer until he could feel Cas’ fist moving against his stomach, and then Dean did what he shouldn’t have done—he watched.  Watched as Cas’ face ran through the cycle of pleasure, how his cheeks flared red under the stubble, how his lips pursed and parted, how his brow furrowed, the way his muscle moved under his skin.  

It was difficult to see him like that—so open and vulnerable.  Of course, Cas often seemed that way, imminently touchable—the guy tended to wear his heart on his sleeve—but it never disturbed Dean as much as it did that night. It wasn’t difficult like when a stranger cries in front of him and Dean feels a compulsion to avert his eyes to afford them some privacy—but difficult not to match that openness and vulnerability. Difficult not to reach out and cup Cas’ cheek in his palm, difficult not to stroke his hair and cling to him in a different way.  The tenderness was the difficulty, and Dean was afraid his hands had forgotten how to shape it.  He feared reciprocity.

When Cas opened his eyes, Dean hadn’t expected it.  Cas probably hadn’t expected to see Dean staring back either, cocked an eyebrow even—figured he’d have his eyes shut to distance himself from what they were doing, which yes, that had been his first instinct.  Dean watched Cas, and Cas watched Dean watching him, the only reprieve those involuntary moments of fluttering eyelashes.  He could feel it when Cas’ body locked up, the rhythm of his hand faltering, a white-blue glow surging up into his eyes.  Cas moaned then, low and wrecked, finally breaking eye-contact to look down between them as he began to come onto Dean’s stomach and chest. 

It made something frantic break open inside of Dean.  He snatched Cas by the hair on the back of his head and pulled until they were kissing again—messy, barely coordinated, the last of Cas’ quiet whimpers buzzing against Dean’s lips—then good again.  So good.  Soft mouth pressed against Dean’s own, the flick of the tips of their tongues, the occasional bite to the bottom lip. Kissing Cas was always good.  He always put his whole heart into it, like there wouldn’t be another chance.  

Maybe Dean had known then—some extrasensory instinct whispering in the back of his mind to make it count, that their time together was growing short.  That this would be the last time they’d ever be this close.

Afterward they laid there, sweaty and unmoving.  Cas knew well enough not to hold Dean, not to wipe him clean or kiss him anymore.  They stared up at the ceiling, only touching at the seams, the silence of the room loaded and thick. 

“Thanks.  That was— I needed that,” Dean said, which was kind of weird and probably why Cas didn’t say anything back.  He cleared his throat.  “This can’t—” he started, “we—”

“You don’t need to tell me again. I remember last time perfectly well.”

“I mean, ” Dean pressed on, “we can’t afford to get distracted.  There’s so much shit going down right now.  Jack, Michael, whatever made this,” he held up his fresh scar, “all those people out there are depending on us to pull them through.”

“Of course,” Cas said in monotone.

Right there—right there he should have been honest.  Should have said I’m confused or I’m afraid.  He should have told Cas that Winchesters are cursed to lose the people they love in terrible ways, and Cas was more than Dean could bear to risk.  Instead, Dean swallowed.  “We can’t do this again,” he said, more for himself than anyone, and wanted to take it back as soon as it was out.  

Cas didn’t even flinch, he just sighed and said to the ceiling, “Don’t you think I know that?” then rolled off the bed, got dressed, and left Dean there with himself.

 

Dean tries to stay away from this memory.  It makes him feel ashamed of himself—but not for the reasons he’d expected. He hadn’t taken anything that Cas didn’t want to give, nothing happened that either of them didn’t want to happen.  It wasn’t the ever evolving Dean Winchester Sexuality Crisis, either.  The truth was worse than that, because that night he reached for Cas and used him to regain whatever it was Dean felt he’d lost. He could’ve blamed it on Michael and what he’d done, on the endless traumas that left endless baggage, on Cas for having dug Dean out in the first place—but in the end it was all still Dean.  Dean and his choices, and who suffered their consequences.  It was the last time they would ever be together like that, and Cas came away from it thinking he was the means to an end.  

He hadn’t known then, but It was the beginning of the end for all of them—right before everything started to go wrong.  Before Michael made another play for Dean’s body, before Jack burned his soul to save them.  Before Mom.  Before Cas walked out of the bunker believing Dean hated him. Before the universe itself began to collapse. A timer had started, and it was counting down to that night in the storage room where Cas says I love you and is wrenched from life.

All the time Dean spent trying not to love Castiel because he thought it would keep him from one day losing him, and Dean still lost him anyway.  

That swirling black mass, Cas’ smiling, tear-stained face—Dean sees it again and again.



—-

 

 A haunting pulls them back into work.  Ghosts still pop up and pull their crap from time to time.  No matter how much Jack worked to create a stable supernatural balance, human beings are still going to die in ways that are so violent and abrupt, that it continues to echo long after their hearts have stopped beating.

The worst part.. Dean was almost excited when they got the tip. It had been a couple months since the last actual hunt. He was ready to gear up and get Baby on the road—but maybe it’s been too long since the last fight, or Dean has finally hit the wall of how much suffering he can witness.  Maybe he’s gone soft, because when they roll into town and start interviewing the people, suddenly the only thing Dean wants to do is leave.

The evidence originates with a family whose 13 year old daughter disappeared ten years ago—no leads, a smattering of suspects who never panned out, only a bloodsoaked shoe left in the woods, and no closure to any of it. Three men in three weeks have turned up dead in those same woods.  Two guys out during hunting season, one birdwatcher, all dead of a sudden heart attack with no prior medical history.  

Doesn’t take Columbo to reckon something horrible happened to that kid out there in those woods, and now ten years worth of negative energy festering over the injustice of a life cut short—she’s begun reaching out.  Can’t tell the difference between friend or foe, maybe never knew who killed her to begin with and so she’s taking anyone who disturbs her death site. She probably is just desperate to inflict the same kind of pain she’s reliving for all these years, making other people suffer as she does. That’s the depressing thing about ghosts—how so many of them start as innocent victims themselves, but in the end all that’s left is the terror and rage.  A grim facsimile of a person who was once loved and missed.  

Dean doesn’t even finish the case.  

Sammy is talking to Mr. Lowell, the partner of the birdwatcher, kindly nodding and accepting a cup of tea as the man passes it to him with shaking hands.  Dean barely knows what Sam is asking, and from the look of it, his words are barely registering to Mr. Lowell either.  He has a glazed look in his eyes as he flips through the last pictures captured by his husband’s camera, still too shocked to cry, moving automatically.  He doesn’t even flinch at the faint, greyscale image of a 13 year old little girl standing in the distance just past a Wood Thrush foraging on the forest floor.  

All Dean can think is how Cas probably would have loved this shit, would have enjoyed something nerdy and peaceful like birdwatching.  He could have gotten his own bucket hat and binoculars, little notebook and ugly cargo pants, and Dean.. Dean, he would have driven him anywhere to go look at some damn birds because it wouldn’t have mattered.  It wouldn’t have mattered how boring it was or how he didn’t see the appeal himself, they would have been together.  And now Dean doesn’t have a chance to know what kind of stupid bird Cas liked best, because Dean never thought to ask.  

‘I’m sorry,” Dean says, rising abruptly from his spot on the sofa, “I can’t—” he looks over and sees Sam’s concerned face.

“Dean, you okay?”

“I just can’t,” Dean says, desperate for Sam to understand why, “I’m sorry man.  I’ll call Donna, she’s good with gh—with these kinds of cases.”  He turns to Mr. Lowell and shakes his head, mouth moving with words he can’t seem to find the voice for. “I’m sorry.. So sorry for your loss Mr. Lowell.”

 

Dean drives three hours to Jody’s after he puts the call in to Donna—doesn’t think he can stand going back to the silence of the bunker right now, and for the first time in months, Dean doesn’t want to be left alone.  That’s new.  Past year he’s been driving these old backwood logging roads, aimless and numb, just to feel the distance opening up around him like a scream—just to feel alone with Cas, even if it’s only the memory of him.  But Dean has gone far enough now to know there’s not a place out there that will wash away the old longing in his soul.

Jody is waiting for him when Dean pulls into the drive, all ready with a warm meal and peach cobbler fresh from the oven.  She’s such a damn good mama, knows when to press into a person who so clearly needs to talk, and knows when to wait and let it come out on its own.

“How do you do it,” he asks her later, once she’s made up the sofa for him and is turning off the lamp.  Jody pauses for a moment, fingers still on the switch.  She flicks the light off and sits down there in the darkness with Dean. “It’s almost been a year and it still—” Dean’s voice turns thick, “ so much,” he strains out, his hands balling into fists under the sheets.  

It’s a moment before Jody says anything.  “That doesn’t change,” she says, “what you’re feeling this second, you’ll still feel it another year from now. Ten years from now.”

Dean groans and lets out a delirious laugh that does nothing to disguise the panic he feels imagining being this heavy for the rest of his life.

“It’s still new for you-”

“A year,” Dean stresses.

“Is nothing,” Jody continues, “a year is so small, Dean.  When Owen died, the—the first time— I don’t know how many people said that time would heal me.  It just takes time. Time will heal your wounds.  Then Owen came back, died again and took Sean with him, and the same people.. time, time, time ...and they meant well, I know.  But it’s all bullshit. I still miss them just as much, I still grieve.  Some days I still don’t want to get up—hell, some days I don’t.  I just lie there and hurt.”

“I don’t—” Dean swallows, “not sure if the pep talk is helping, Sheriff.”

Jody laughs quietly and pats Dean’s leg.  “It will. One day you’ll feel more alone than you’ve ever felt, sick and tired of all the aching, and for a second you’ll feel all alone. That’s when you’ll remember.”

“Remember what?”

“That you aren’t,” she says, “you’ll think back to this conversation and how I told you it would happen, and you’ll remember that grief, like love, connects us.”  She pauses for a moment while Dean tries to make that sink in. “Gets awful gloomy upstairs on those hurting days though, I know from experience. It’s hard to see through to the next moment where loss stops feeling like an enemy.”

“Isn’t it?”

“No,” Jody says and shakes her head, “no, because what you’re feeling right now isn’t just despair, it’s the gratefulness underneath.  It’s the love that we still hold for the people we lose, it’s the beauty that they were ever able to exist at all.”

Dean digests this even if he can’t yet relate to it.  It’s true that the grief is so large and certain that even when it’s strangling him, Dean is desperate to keep it close. That’s where he still feels Cas’ presence the most.  But it all still just...hurts.  He isn’t grateful for it.  He doesn’t want to learn anything from it.

“What do I do?” Dean asks, not sure what he means exactly.  He just wants someone to tell him what to do.

“Keep going,” Jody says.  “You’ll get there.”

 

——

 

It was October 2016, a few weeks before Halloween—that was the year of Amara and the Darkness.  The year where the British Men of Letters came and did fuck all.  It was the year Cas killed a reaper to save them all.  It was the year mom came back.  

Dean thinks of that night a lot— the night he and Sammy and mom were all safe under one roof for the first time as a family.  Everyone had finally gone to bed, but Dean couldn’t.  It was a mismatch of joy at their reunion, and fear that it would immediately be snatched away.  There wasn’t anything to do about it in either case, so Dean had sat on the kitchen floor, head propped against the cabinets, drinking a beer and flipping through old photos.

When he heard footsteps he thought it must be Sammy, coming in to process a day that began with him being tortured by a chick with sensible shoes and a blowtorch, and ended in meeting the mother that died before he was old enough to remember the sound of her voice.  Dean was reeling enough as it was, he couldn’t even imagine how aggressive the whiplash must’ve been for Sammy.

But as the footsteps neared, Dean could tell by the sound of his soles that it was Cas come to check in on him.  He paused on the other side of the cabinets.  Course he already knew Dean was in there, probably heard his heart beating from the hallway and honed in, sensed Dean’s presence and was guided there—but he was waiting for permission. Knew it had been a hell of a day—shit, not but 24 hours ago Dean was a man-bomb chockablock of souls, ready to die—and he didn’t want to intrude on whatever feeling Dean had landed on about any of it.

But Dean wanted him there, the way he always wanted Cas close enough to touch, and reached for his beer resting on the countertop and waved it in the air.  “Down here.”

Cas came around and looked down as Dean patted the empty space next to him on the floor. When he sat, Dean cracked open another beer and passed it over to Cas, turned his eyes away when Cas let his posture mimic Dean’s, head thunking back against the cabinets as he brought the bottle to his mouth.  They sat there in silence for the longest time, shoulder to shoulder, the heat between them sharp and distracting, but endured the way it had been since the last time.

Dean was the first one to speak.  “Thanks by the way,” he said, and Cas turned and tilted his head in a silent for what?  “Y’know..for the—” Dean made a broad gesture at his face, “and for Sammy too.  Lady really did a number on him. Fucking embarrassing.”

Cas narrowed his eyes.  “Because she’s a…”

“Because she’s British.  What did you think I was gonna say?”

“Oh,” Cas said in a knowing way that made it clear he had no idea what Dean meant by it.  “There’s no need to thank me.  You know I dislike seeing you in pain.”

Dean’s stomach flipped.

“Either of you..” Cas amended helplessly when Dean felt his face do something complicated that Cas must’ve interpreted as trepidation.  The reality was that it was taking all of Dean’s will not to lean in and kiss Cas.  He wanted to.  Needed.  It all felt the same anymore.  Dean was just so grateful— for his mom being back, for Sammy alive and able to see it, for Cas’ and how even though his insides were jumping wild, Dean also felt soothed by Cas’ being there .

Cas reached over and took the pictures from Dean’s hands, smiling sometimes as he flipped through them.  Finally he paused on a picture of Dean standing on the Sleeping Bear Dunes in Empire, Michigan, his small five year old’s arms curled into a strongman pose while mom stood below, ready to catch him if the sand slipped underfoot.  

“Cute kid, huh,” Dean drawled and took a drink.  The picture is one thing, but Dean doesn’t remember the sun bearing down on his shoulders or that look of childlike invincibility. He remembers mom and dad fighting because dad wanted Dean to jump.  Dean had been afraid, and the more Dean showed that fear, the more insistent dad had been that he had to do it.  He knows his dad called him a sissy boy at some point, thoughtlessly joking.  Dad even laughed, but it didn’t feel funny.  Somewhere inside, Dean knew it wasn’t, it was meant to make him feel small and embarrassed.  Mom hadn’t laughed.  She was pissed.

Dean doesn’t remember their argument, only that it happened, and how sometimes he can still hear those not-quite-a-joke comments echoing in his dad’s voice when Dean fails to be anything less than what he was told a man should be.  It all started there on those sandy dunes, a small seed planted that whispered Dean wasn’t enough—an idea that would spread over time, its roots coiling around and smothering away the person he might have been. 

The more Dean watched Cas stare at that photograph, the more he suspected Cas already knew this somehow.  The place between his brows creased as he studied it, as if the boy he was seeing was a complete stranger to him, not the same person Cas bore up from Hell and meticulously rebuilt.  He was right, in a way.  This was who Dean was before he learned to be ashamed of himself—a person who might have been unafraid to cross out the distance between them.  The kind of person who would have held Cas’ hand while driving down a dark road toward an uncertain future. Someone who would have sat beside Cas on a park bench to watch the literal birds and bees, just to exist with him in silence.  Dean might have been the loving type.  There could have been a version of himself that would have been good at it.

Cas never said anything though, just carefully placed it with the rest of the pictures and handed them back to Dean.  “I am glad you have your mother back.”

“Me too,” Dean said quietly, balling his hand into a fist, and setting it on top of Cas’ knee.

 

——

 

It’s morning.  Wednesday.  It’s been thirteen months, three weeks, five days, and eleven hours since Castiel was taken away.  There’s a fresh mug of coffee in front of Dean with steam still curling upward from it.  He’s picking at the bowl of apple cinnamon steel cut oats that Sam has him eating most mornings to offset the semi-regular plates of bacon .  

Eileen sits at one end of the table, yawning. The whole house still has nightmares, even Eileen who stays over more and more these days, who Dean can sometimes pacing another hall over. Every now and then she’ll give it up and come hang out with Dean, share a 2a.m. carb overload, teach him how to sign dirty words since they don’t exactly put those in the youtube tutorials Dean has been watching.  Eileen works up at the high school teaching A.P. History. Turns out she has a master’s in Folklore and Mythology with a focus in Celtic lore.  It hadn’t necessarily been about a passion for the topic, but a need to understand what destroyed her family.  Maybe that’s why she shrugs and says it doesn’t bother her working for public high school teachers’ wage in Kansas, when she could be doing research for some badass institute somewhere.  

  Sam has already been up a couple hours at this point, going for his morning jog, then working through an online course he picked up through KU.  Doesn’t seem interested in going back where he left off at Stanford, said that the prestige didn’t matter to him anymore, that he doesn’t have anything left to prove, and he never liked Cali to begin with.

Dean is only somewhat suspicious that leaving his older, self-destructive, still grieving brother up to his own devices, factors into that decision.  Still, Sam seems.. good.  He’s moving forward, even though sometimes he’ll still get that real distant look in his eye, still jump and get his hands up ready to fight at sudden sounds.  He gets restless because they’re still hardwired for war, but then again so is Dean, so is anyone who has lived through what they’ve lived through. None of them will ever be finished with the trauma, and it won't ever be finished with them either.

Dean sits between them at the table, Sam at one end tip-tapping away at his laptop, Eileen on the other end carefully handling a dusty scroll Dean hasn’t even seen before.

“How’s school coming,” Dean asks, because he’s tired of hearing himself chew oats like a goddamn horse.

“Fine,” Sam answers absently. 

“Good,” Dean repeats, nodding. “That's it?”

“Yeah.”

“Mh.”  Okay.  Guess morning small-talk isn’t on the menu unless Dean wants to hear about the interpretations of constitutional law.  “I was thinking about driving to the lake la—”

Days should come with warning signs, a sort of polite alarm to inform you of the oncoming whiplash. Something to tell you that you’re going to end the day vastly different than how you started it—something better than mushy oats and half-formed plans to go fishing.

Dean gets no such warning.

One moment: Third wheel at the breakfast table.  Next moment: Unendurable pain totally unprovoked.

Dean doesn’t even know if he’s screaming or not, if he even has a mouth to do that sort of thing anymore.  This is the kind of pain that makes your whole body lock up, steals the breath from your lungs, whites your vision out into a crackle of pressure phosphenes.  The only thing Dean can feel outside the pain, is the blessed coolness of the bunker floor as he falls and begins seizing there.

He hears Sam’s terrified shouting and Dean thinks this was probably those goddamn oats.  He knew they didn’t smell right.

Except he’s never heard of a heart attack described like being cleaved in two on an atomic level, and it doesn’t feel like the chest-squeezing signs of an anxiety attack either. Dean has had the energy forcibly drained from his body more times than he can count, and that’s only part of whatever is happening.  It’s draining, that’s for damn sure, but it’s weird.

Without knowing how or whyDean is certain of it when it finally dawns on him— deep, deep deep down, maybe in a place that doesn’t exist on any anatomy diagram, something is happening.  An exchange is taking place.  

A fresh wave of sensation pours over him, and Dean arches with it like a live wire, but this time there’s less pain.  It feels… complicated.  Familiar, sort of the way it felt when Cas would brush his fingers against Dean’s forehead and make something crazy happen—one of the biggie miracles like throwing him decades back in time, or transporting him halfway across the country in the blink of an eye.  Not to say it’s a comfortable sensation, not like the soothing wash of grace knitting injuries back together, but this at least is tolerable—unlike the drawing and quartering of a moment ago. It’s sort of how he imagines the actual physical experience of the camel through the needle's eye would feel, except Dean is both camel and needle in the scenario and it’s all just a mad ouroboros in there.  It jolts through Dean in waves, subsiding and fooling Dean into thinking is it over, before building again in greater intensity. At a certain point it’s going to explode, Dean is absolutely positive of that.  He just isn’t sure of the details—if he’s going to pop like a party balloon with it when it finally reaches the zenith.  He hopes that’s not it.  Always looked so damn unpleasant when he’s seen it happen to other people—Cas included.  Well, quick maybe, but not exactly the last image he wants to leave Sam—globs of small intestine and detached spine flying through the air like fucked up Mardi Gras beads.

There’s another voice in the room now, shouting too, and between whatever is going on with Dean drooling and writhing on the floor, he manages to catch Sam holler, “Jack, what’s going on!”

Then Dean is screaming and screaming, blue-flame light erupting from behind his eyes.  He’s isn’t sure how he hasn’t passed out by now, it’s too much.  Too much pain, too much aching, too much of something Dean can’t describe as that place deep inside him divides and something leaves his body.

And it stops.  

Dean is left hyperventilating on the floor, slicked down in a cold sweat head to toe.  Half afraid his eyes have been burned away, Dean looks up. The first thing he sees as his vision clears, are the bunker’s support beams above his head.  Papers are slowly drifting down all around Dean, which doesn’t make sense.  He tries to say What the fuck was that, but all that passes between his lips is, “Whff,” in a barely audible exhale.

The next thing Dean notices is the silence of the room.  That’s what gives him the most pause.  A sinking feeling in his stomach delivers the worst case scenario that the “detonation” sensation Dean experienced, projected outward into the room and hurt someone.  It’s that fear that gets Dean’s legs underneath himself, struggling to stand.  He pulls himself up by the leg of an overturned table, an oddly unbalanced feeling settling into him, separate from the weakness of his body, as something in his gut gives a hard tug.

Dean follows that tug as it pulls him past the study table with its chairs blown backward across the floor several feet away.  It’s a mess— papers, books, their breakfast dishes—all flung around the space like a small tornado entered the room and wreaked havoc before spinning itself out.  Obviously some sort of energy discharged itself from Dean, but it seems unimportant.  Wherever Dean needs to be is just past the columns that lead into the common room. 

He sees Sam’s back first and feels a little pissy that he’s over there examining—what—the grout job??  Rather than checking on his brother who just spazzed out on the floor like a dying fish.  Then he sees Eileen, and Jack—all there, all staring at the same spot on the floor.  

Whatever it is they’re seeing, it has something to do with Dean.  For the life of him he can’t understand how he knows it, but a part of him is over there instead of in here, and Dean needs to be close to it if he wants to ever feel whole again.

“Guys,” Dean rasps, still shaky and beginning to feel queasy, “guys move, I need to—”  Sam spins around so fast that Dean almost falls down in surprise.  Blinking, Sam grips his upper arm to steady him, mouth open and fishing for something to say.  “What?” Dean asks, officially starting to panic.  “What did I do?”

“You—” Sam murmurs, clears his throat, “you might want to sit down.”

“Oh shit, who's dead,Dean demands, shouldering past Sam to where Eileen and Jack are standing, and then he looks down.

The knot at the middle of Dean undoes itself, but the whole rest of Dean freezes in place.  Aside from the steady pulse of his heart, and the soft in and out of breath, all is still.

His eyes are closed, either unconscious or asleep, mouth slack, lips chapped the way they always were—body curled inward on itself on the floor.

No.  No that can’t be—that can’t be right.  Can’t be real.  

Dean knows his brain is going into shock because the naked state of the body below him doesn’t register anything besides a distant peal of concern that he might be cold.  Dean can see goosebumps raised up along a tan expanse of skin.  That’s something that happens to alive people, right?  Real people?

He is alive.  Dean can feel the force of it humming inside of himself and doesn’t stop to think how that’s possible.

“Cas?” Dean asks quietly—then the world tilts sideways.

 

—-

 

The way Jack explains it, between Sam interjecting from the corner looking afraid and a little constipated with it, sounds a lot more like soul-play than Dean likes. Part of him is unnerved, he thought they’d—well, Jack in particular—had learned their lesson about experimenting with soul splitting.  Soul related anything .  It’s some pretty precarious shit.  Dean still has nightmares about losing his soul.  He’s seen some kinds of stuff, deaths that he wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy, but nothing unsettled and disturbed Dean as much as seeing souls ripped right from their homes and watching a shell of a human walking around in its place.  

But the rest of Dean doesn’t care, couldn’t even begin to care what the implications are for himself.  Any price was worth paying—his life, his body, his soul, any of it, if it meant getting Cas back.

“It’s not like what happened to me or Donatello, where the soul is simply devoured or destroyed,” Jack explains.

“It is gone, it’s not in him,” Sam says shrilly, waving toward Dean who is sitting next to a still unconscious Castiel, currency incapable of digesting much more than the man lying in front of him.

“Only half!” Jack defends as Sam emits a jumble of panicked syllables, “and the other half is not gone either!  It is just..” Jack looks toward Cas and winces, “relocated.”

Sam’s hands fold across his chest. “Relocated.”

“Temporarily.”

“Temporarily?”

“...I think.”

“You think?”

“Sam, c’mon,” Dean tries to say, feeling surprisingly calm, “give him a break.”

“Jack, you’re infallible, what do you mean think?”

“I’ve only been God for a year!” Jack says, finally raising his voice, “I’m still part human!  That part isn’t perfect, it is not meant to be!  That was supposed to be the tether— me, my soul!  Not Dean’s!”

Sam goes silent. Stops gesticulating.

“It wasn’t supposed to be Dean, it was supposed to be me ,” Jack says in defeat.  “I know you value your freedom more than anything, Dean,” he says, turning, “no matter your feelings for—” he swallows, looks at Cas’ sleeping face, then at Dean.  “I will figure out how to fix this.”

Dean doesn’t care about any of that.  He sits bedside to Cas, both hands clasped low over his forearm, thumb tracing the knobbed ridge of Cas’ wrist.

“He won’t—” emotions flip in Dean’s chest when the familiarity of grief rubs at odds with the new reality, and his throat closes up momentarily. When he speaks again, his voice is rough. “He’s going to stay, right?  Whatever you did… it means the Empty, it can’t take him away again. Right?”

Jack’s eyes soften.  “What I did—” he opens his closed fists and Dean sees the faint golden glimmer of power playing across his palms.  “The Empty can only keep souls that are no longer human, or never were. Even if an angel loses their grace and seems for all intents and purposes human, their soul is still different than yours.  A different material.  It kept me from finding Castiel and taking him back.  But then I thought about what you said, about being stubborn and…  I thought I could use my love for him as a father, find my way along those most human parts of him and entrust a piece of my soul into that space so the Shadow could no longer hold him.”

“Why didn’t it work?”  Sam asks from his corner.

Jack looks into Dean’s eyes for a moment.  “Dean is already connected to Castiel through this—” he places his hand over the faded scar of a handprint on Dean’s left shoulder and even through layers of clothes it still draws up a warm flicker of sensation.  “Part of Castiel echoes in Dean.  A small piece of Castiel’s grace, the power it took to raise you from Hell and build you again, was left behind.”  Jack gives Dean a significant look which makes Dean believe there is a bit more to it than that.  “When I tried to channel the connection for myself, it diverted to Dean.  It went.. home.  I thought it would be me, just because I’m more, well..”

“God,” Dean surmises.

“Yes?”

“Profound bond,” Sam mutters to himself, huffs a laugh and shakes his head.  

“That’s.. Basically it I suppose,” Jack says, despite sounding discomfited by it.  Must be weird to have so much knowledge, so much power, just to have some guy in a JcPenney Memorial Day Sale flannel try and reduce your cosmic miracle into layman’s terms. 

“Wait,” Sam says, “is he still an angel?”

Dean’s head is splitting down the middle. He just wants the conversation to be over.  

“Well, the answer is technically yes. It is the species he was created as. Even when his grace drained to almost nothing he was still never human.  He will have human needs until his grace regenerates, now that he is no longer cut off from Heaven, but that could take decades, and even then only if he wants it.  It seemed...presumptuous not to give him the choice.”

“Enough with the existential crap, at least until I pop two Excedrin,” Dean interrupts, removing his hands from Cas to rub his temples.  “All I need to know is am I gonna go all Norman Bates because Cas got the impulse control part of my soul and now I think a casual murder spree is no biggie.”

“Do you feel like committing a murder right now?” Jack asks.

“No.”

“There you go,” he says and raises his hands up in a shrug.  “Again, I can not stress enough that no part of your soul has been destroyed.  It is right next to you, sleeping in the bed.”  Jack gives him one of those brilliant Look Dad, I did a good! smiles, that always thaws Dean out a bit.

“Okay, okay— just tell me what’s the catch.”

Jack lowers his hands and starts looking nervous again.  “I was not concerned about.. side effects.  You see I am already immense, omnipresent.  I am everywhere, and well... You might find it—” he searches for a word, “ uncomfortable, to be far away from that piece of your soul for too long.  You sense it even now, don’t you.”

Dean does. It’s that same yank within his body pulling like gravity toward Cas, but stronger than it was before. More physical. Dean looks at his hands and feels weak, a little sick to his stomach.  He touches Cas’ arm again and the feeling fades instantly.  “It’s fine. I can handle it.”

“What exactly does it mean,” Sam asks, obviously unsatisfied with Dean’s lack of interrogation.  

“It means,” Jack says, “they are tied together in a way.  They’ll be very aware of one another. It might even be painful to be apart.  There could be physical consequences.  A level of emotional transference.  Souls are not made to be scattered, and it’s rare that they are shared to this degree.  The pursuit of the whole is usually much more metaphorical than this.”

“God, Plato would really bust a nut if he was hearing this right now,” Dean grumbles.

“You’ve read The Symposium?” Sam asks suspiciously.

“The what? ” Dean lies, and takes a minute to digest that thought.  His first reaction is to cringe away from it.  Who would want that with Dean specifically?  He’s a fucking one man apocalypse.  Then, who would want that in general?  There’s the intimacy of it, the lack of privacy. The never being alone.

It’s a lot to take in. 

Cas stirs in bed and everyone quiets. A nervous chill runs down Dean’s spine when he shifts, body curving toward Dean, but he doesn’t open his eyes.  Disappointment and relief clamour for top spot in Dean’s chest.  He has spent the last year wanting nothing more than for Cas to look at him. Funny how you miss something like that—the certain way someone sees you.  The last time Dean had Cas’ eyes on him, the moment had been filled with fear and panic, which had given way to a very different fear and panic. Cas had been crying. Dean can’t get that image out of his head.

On the other hand, Dean still has no idea what he’s going to say.  

“Not the alligators again, how many times do I have to tell them—” Jack sighs, and with no preamble announces, “I really am sorry, but I am receiving notice of a water park emergency in Heaven and I—” he blinks out of existence.

Neither Sam nor Dean seem to have the energy to even speculate further on this.  Upside: Water park in heaven.  Downside: Potentially infested with gators.  

After a few moments sitting there in silence Sam asks, “You okay?

Dean huffs a laugh and doesn’t look up.  “You’re asking me that a lot these days.  What about you, you okay?”

“I’m worried,” Sam admits, “about both of you.  But, yeah.. Yeah,” he says, a smile in his voice even though it wavers with emotion, “it’s really good to have him home.  Really good.”  When Dean can only grunt a response, Sam starts to get up and walk for the door.  “I’m gonna get some air, update Eileen.  I’ll be back in—”

“I think… I think I love him, man,” Dean blurts, heart beating its way through his ribs.  He looks up at Sam, eyes wide with fear.  It’s the first time he’s admitted it, said it out loud where the words can live and breathe without Dean strangling them into submission.  To go from a locked room into open air after a lifetime of one and not a moment of the other—it’s probably the scariest thing Dean has done.

Sam sticks his hands in his pockets, his eyes soft when he looks back at Dean.  “I know.”

“No you—you don’t get it.  I think I love him. Not the way I love you. Not like a brother.  In the—.”

“Yeah, I’d hope not.”

“—the gay way. Wait, what?”

Sam opens the door.  “You love him,” he says with a shrug, “I thought maybe in time you both would—I don’t know—work it out.”

“Wait, this isn’t news to you?” Dean asks, accusatory for some reason.  

“Dean, come on, I know you.  I saw the way you were with each other.  Also, I think the part where your souls still sought each other out across a cosmic abyss kind of drove the point home.” When Dean keeps on staring, Sam shifts on his feet.  “Maybe I should have said something before he—before.  Asked you.  I thought I was doing the right thing not pressuring you to admit something you weren’t ready to say.”

“Probably would have been an asshole about it if you did.”

“Probably.  Maybe not though.”  Sam nods to Dean and goes to leave again.

“It’s not…dunno,” Dean blurts, “weird for you?  Not just—” he looks down at Cas and now that the confession is out in the open, Dean just keeps going as if someone finally took a lock off his tongue and it has released the verbal flood.  “I mean, sure Cas is only sort of a guy.  Angels are real fast and loose with that stuff.  But listen, I got really up close and personal with the goods—”

“Oh wow, okay, that part probably isn’t my bus—.”

“—and it wasn’t just because of the profound bond or whatever . I was into it . He isn’t the only one either!  Well, I haven’t..you know.. With other guys.  But I’ve wanted to.  I definitely was not looking at Patrick Swayze’s shoulders in Roadhouse like a normal kid.  That’s why dad threw out the tape I think, even though he said it was because it was too violent. Like he wasn’t teaching me how to machete off vamp heads after school.”

“Dean,” Sam interrupts with a hand in the air,  “this is probably the most normal thing that has ever happened to me.  De-Godifying God?  That is weird shit.  Growing up monster hunters?  Weird.  This?”  he gestures from Cas to Dean, “is just… good.  All it is, is good.”

“I—” Dean clears his throat.  “Just like that, huh.  Wow. Wow, That’s..yeah alright. Good.”

“And you should probably talk to him about the part where you’re in love with him,” Sam suggests, and lets himself out of the room.

 

—-

 

It’s been a week and Cas is still asleep.  Dean nearly goes mad with it, each hour dragging on and on, and Dean has never been the most patient of people.  After the first 48 hours they manage to get ahold of Rowena. As always there’s great deal of over-curious questions about the science behind the soul-splitting, and a magical check-up where she pushes up Cas’ shirt to spread her fingers on his bare chest (during which Dean side-eyes her very hard) before she declares him perfectly lovely and healthy, now calm down and stop giving me that look Dean Winchester.  Try being ripped from the clutches of the actual embodiment of Nothing and having your soul dissected all in the same day—well.  That’s enough to make anyone a bit peely-wally.  He’ll come around in his own time.

 For the first couple days, even going down the hall to take a shower invokes a sickening feeling in Dean’s stomach.  By the time he makes it back to Cas’ side he has a lump in his throat, and a fine sheen of sweat across his forehead.  Dean has met plenty of hunters missing something as small as a finger, or large as a limb, and they’ll talk about the phantom sensations they feel from a part of their body no longer there. It’s the only way Dean can come close to describing how it feels, a piercing incompleteness, as his mind reaches toward something that used to be immediately present.

It vanishes as soon as he’s close to Cas and finally feels whole again. If he’s being honest, it metaphorically doesn’t feel any different than all the yearning and aching he’s done for Cas over the years.  He was sick with it then, and he’s sick with it now—just in a more tangible way.

Dean tries to focus on that sliver of his soul trapped in Cas, tries to wake him up from within, but maybe the reception is dim with Cas all Sleeping Beauty the way he is now.  More likely Dean isn’t sensitive enough, shut off, too inexperienced with his only feelings to render anything intelligible. 

So, in light of Dean’s restlessness, he begins testing the physical limits of the bond.  It’s hard to put mind over matter when every atom of his body rejects the suggestion of distance, and it’s not like Dean wants to leave Cas’ side either—but it’s just impractical not to have some space.  Everyone needs room to breathe.  

Also, if Dean can ever manage to get things right with Cas, it would sort of ruin any honeymoon phase to drag Cas with him to the bathroom after making poor choices at a Pizza Hut buffet. The discomfort of being apart has got to come second chair sometimes to the potential loss of dignity.

Making plans around bathroom autonomy might not be a grand gesture, but baby steps.  

By the end of the week, Dean feels confident he can make it on a supplies run—nothing big, little convenience store up the road where he can grab a few snacks to fuel his bedside vigil.  Eileen strongly discourages it, since she had been the one to find Dean passed out in the garage with a bloody nose on Wednesday and had to drag him back to Cas’ room all by herself.

Vacuuming out the impala was worth this? she signed at Dean, index finger jabbing in front of his eyes with expression of mild irritation, every day I find newer, dumber ways to slip a disc.

But he’s got it now.  For real.

He’s got it all the way to the till where Dean nearly wretches on the counter in front of the cashier trying to ring him up, sweating profusely and on the inexplicable verge of tears as he throws a twenty at the poor kid, leaving without change.  

That’s not even the worst part..  

Halfway back to the bunker Dean feels it—the first real resonance of something not his own convulse with energy within him, shocking enough to make Dean gasp and slam on breaks and pull over to the margin.

The piece of his soul in Cas has been subdued this entire time, a quiet passenger against the restlessness Dean always feels jittering away inside of himself.  Dean knows immediately what has happened.

Cas is awake.

When he feels it’s safe, Dean wrenches the clutch into drive and pulls back onto the road, tires peeling with the force of acceleration.

Course he would.  Course his ass woke up when Dean wasn’t there to be the first thing he saw. What’s the opposite of serendipity?  Shit luck?

 

Sam is sitting in the parlor when Dean careens into the bunker, mouth opening to announce what Dean already knows, so Dean shouts, “I know!” and skids around the corner, rubber soles of his boots squeaking.

“Jack is with him!” Sam calls after, but Dean is already there and throwing open the door to the room.  He stands there half in, half out, one arm still on the handle, the other hand flattened to the wall outside of the door frame.  He knows he must look pretty shit, still sweaty and pale-faced from his trip to the convenience store, panting in the doorway like a fucked up Kool Aid Man.  

Jack backs up a step from where he’s blocking Cas, and—

“Hello, Dean,” Cas says.  His voice is small, a little timid and awkward. 

It’s the most beautiful sound Dean has heard in over a year.

“Hi,” Dean says stupidly, unable to take his eyes away from Cas’ face—his messy dark hair, the wide set of his bright eyes, the mouth that perks with a smile at one edge.

Dean jumps when Jack clears his throat, finally unfreezing himself from the doorway and stepping into the room, closer to Cas.  “I have been explaining what um—what happened and—”

“Is he okay,” Dean asks, interrupting, “are you okay?”  

“I—” Cas furrows his brows and looks thoughtful for a moment, “I believe so? I am having trouble remembering how I...” he trails off and Dean jerks his eyes to Jack who gives a small shake of his head.

“You don’t remember how you got there?” Dean says slowly.

“I must have done something to— or something happened that I—” Cas’ gaze flashes with something—alarm?—when he looks back up at Dean, then he blinks down at his hands. “No, I. I wouldn’t forget that,” he mutters to himself.

Dean almost says it, but something stops him.

“It will come,” Jack says, then more to Dean than Cas, “when you’re ready.”

 

—-

 

It’s awkward.  It’s the weirdest tip-toe around a subject Dean has ever managed, he isn’t used to being this indirect in general.  There’s this huge subject of their whole soul time-share that neither one of them seem able to even bring up despite it being hugely significant.  Cas hasn’t talked much at all.  They haven’t even set up ground rules as to the physical side-effects, which is just fucking ridiculous—so much so that Dean gets offended when Cas doesn’t bring it up first, and well, two can play that game.  If he isn’t going to say anything, neither is Dean!  Not like Dean hasn’t been dragging himself around the country with all the enthusiasm of a corpse over this guy for the past year, and Cas is just back to business as usual—no recollection of a love confession, no idea what it’s been like living with those last words.

If Cas gets uncomfortable when their bond pulls too far, he doesn’t let on much. Hasn’t once said so in the past four days he’s been awake and ambling.

It’s starting to make Dean feel insecure, like he needs Cas’ presence more than Cas needs Dean’s and maybe it’s because Cas is stronger, more resilient against discomfort, but Dean at least wants him to notice.   So Dean takes a walk, keeps straight ahead on purpose when the aching begins and his insides get twisted up in longing for its other half.  He’d wanted Cas to chase after him, wanted to hear his shoes on the gravel, a sigh of relief to have closed the distance, and maybe, just maybe, hear him fuss a little. Just so Dean knows it affects him too.  Maybe a little, “ Dean, at least tell me when you plan to hyperextend our soul so I can be prepared,” in that sort of bitchy tone of voice he gets when he knows Dean is being petty for attention.  But none of that happens, and eventually Dean grates his teeth together and turns around before he reaches the breaking point, begins a sullen march back to the bunker and slams the door behind him once inside. 

The only sign that Cas was distressed at all by the whole experience is a narrowing of the eyes, and a slightly frosty, “Did you enjoy your walk?”  

To which Dean replies, “Yeah, it was friggin’ great.”

“Great.”

“Uh huh,” before throwing himself down in a chair the next room over to pout, because he’s still shaky and needs to be close, but doesn’t know how to ask for it.  Knows that if he does ask for it Cas would be more than happy to oblige, so why does it feel complicated?  Why is it, even after the grief of the past year and promises he made in the dead of night that if he had one more chance he wouldn’t screw it up like he had the other six—that Dean is still stuck at the starting line?  The vicious cycle threatens to begin again, with Dean slipping back into a former self.

He can’t let that happen. It can’t all be up to Cas, it has to be Dean too.

“Get dressed,” Dean announces from the chair when it’s clear no trivial vindication is going to come from sulking.  “We’re going out.”

“You were just out,” Cas says, this time that little pissy edge comes across and Dean feels a triumphant jolt.

“Come on Roma Downey, together I mean.  There’s somewhere I need to take you.”

“Fine,” Cas sighs, but Dean sees the pleased set of his expression as he walks off down the hall.

 

“Dean, what are we doing here?” Cas asks, shutting the car door and looking up and down at the small shops lining the road.  He’s dressed in the usual Tax Accountant Midnight Special, cheap black suit and tie askew. Looks weird seeing it without the coat, actually.  Empty might have given up the ghost, but it sure did keep the Burberry.  

Dean digs around in his wallet and pulls out the no-limit credit card Charlie gave them way back.  He isn’t sure how it works, exactly.  Something about diverting untraceable funds from Elon Musk holding accounts, but maybe she’d been joking.  All Dean knows is that he never has to worry about grocery money, and Sam didn’t have to take out any student loans. 

Dean holds the bit of plastic between his index and middle finger and waves it at Cas.  “You’re going shopping,” he announces, and when Cas does a double take up the main road, Dean adds, “It’s no Rodeo Drive, but there’s gotta be something here you like.”

“I—” Cas does a confused thing with his face, “I do not need anything.”

“First of all—not true.  I know you’ve been using my toothbrush.”

“We can share.”

“Gross. No. Toothbrush spit swapping isn’t the same as—” Dean suppresses a shudder when a sense memory of Cas’ wet mouth against his own pops into existence, “Second of all—yeah,” his train of thought still hung up on the previous mental note.  “You don’t have to need anything, just—pick out some stuff you want.”

“But—”

“Cas,” Dean interrupts, thinking back to the cold sterility of that bare-faced cement room, “you should have things.  You should—I want you to have things.”

Cas cocks his head. “This is important to you.”  A statement of fact. Dean swallows.

It would be irrational, considering their current bifurcated state, to say what Dean is really thinking.  If it feels like home, you’ll be less likely to leave and I can’t give you much, but I can give you this .  Instead he says, “It is.”

“Okay,” Cas says, easy as pie, not asking for any explanations otherwise, and begins walking.

 

The car ride back home is probably the best half-hour Dean has experienced in over a year.  The days are getting warmer, so Dean rolls down the windows to air out the lingering scent of gun oil and drive-thru meals that Dean can’t help but associate with the bitter melancholy of this past year.  He’d spent hours and hours driving these roads, never finding anything anywhere, the seats mocking in their vacancy.  

Now Cas sits alongside him, faintly bopping his head to Dean’s classic mixtape, his dark hair blowing around, sunlight streaming between his spread fingers as he holds them out into open air.

Without thinking, and before his brain can analyse it into something impossible, Dean reaches across the head of the bucket seat and slides his arm until his thumb is resting against the top knob of Cas’ spine.  Warmth curls up in Dean’s chest at the contact.  If Cas notices it for being out of character, he doesn’t say anything, and maybe he even presses back into it.

 

Dean helps Cas arrange his room how he likes it.  There are several green houseplants now set on the shelves and nestled into corners. Dean knows Cas would prefer something bright, something that might attract bees and butterflies since he’s always going on about them, but they live in a hole in the ground and it’s not exactly conducive to UV light.  The lady running the nursery helped Cas pick out a few succulent type plants, a couple Peace Lilies that look more and more vaginal the longer Dean stares.  Dean never went in for plants really, but he does have to admit that it breaks up the air of the room.  Makes it feel fresher.  

Cas is sorting his new wardrobe into piles for the washer.  It’s a pretty eclectic mix of clothes, all purchased from the consignment shop, a mix of colours and styles and Cas had said I don’t know what I like yet, which made sense.  It’s always been business, efficiency, and never about comfort or personality for Cas. The same with the library discards that Cas threw into a box without even glancing at the titles.  Bound to be something he hasn’t read yet because it bore no philosophical or instructive relevance.  Dean peeped a couple bodice rippers in there and can’t decide if he’s psyched or scared that Cas might put in the same attention to detail to those that he gave to blurry channel 77 pizza man pornos. 

The only thing Dean grimaced at was the old cuckoo clock Cas found in an antique shop and had immediately become enamoured with.  It’s carved from walnut with intricate maple leaves decorating the house facing, and  Dean is absolutely going to shoot that thing by accident.  Which would blow because shit wasn’t cheap.  Every time the damn bird emerges to raise hell in it’s melodious little voice, Dean jumps.

“This is starting to look better,” Dean says while mounting a painting onto the wall, standing back once he’s finished.  “Definitely less like a solitary cell.”  He studies the painting—a young boy standing on the other side of a canyon, staring from across the heavy mist which lies between him and a distant city filled with light.  There’s something both wistful and sad about it, and he wonders what it is about it that drew Cas’ eye.  Where is he in this painting?  Is he the traveler, or the light in the distance?  

“Thank you for this,” Cas says, and Dean turns to find him sitting at the foot of the bed, his hands in his lap. He smiles.  “You were right, this is.. It feels nice, even if it is strange.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m not sure I know how to.. do this. To settle down?  The world has always been ending in some way.  I know it’s such a terrible thing to have become accustomed to.” He tilts his head and stares at his hands, rotating them left then right—furrows his brow when he seems unable to tap into the divine power that he used to wield at a touch.  “Historically speaking, I don't do so well when I’m useless.”

That one goes right through Dean’s heart.  “You were never useless, Cas.”

“That’s very kind of you to say.”

“I’m not just saying it, it’s true.”  Cas gives him a flat, placating smile.  “It is!”  And no, Dean’s not about to allow this.  “Okay fine, if you’re useless, then I’m useless.”

“Demonstrably untrue.”

“Would you feel the same way if I never helped save the world, or anyone?  If I was just some guy.”

“Of course.  Your inherent worth as—

“Well there you go.”

Cas narrows his eyes at Dean, then sighs.  “It is going to take some mental adjustment.”

“Team freewill in theory, but not in practice, huh?”

“Something like that.”

“Yeah, I’m still figuring it out myself,” Dean admits, looking back to the painting.  “Guess we’re both works in progress.”

“I hope so,” Cas hums thoughtfully, before coming to stand shoulder to shoulder with Dean.  “It’s my favourite part of humanity,” he says, looking up at the boy, the blur of fog, the light in the distance, “you are always becoming.”



——

 

They drive over to Jody’s on a weekend for Claire and Kaia’s going away party—well, as much of a party as any of them really recognises.  Jody has broken out the Dollar General streamers and paper plates, hung little crepe paper puff balls from the fixtures.  There’s a Bon Voyage! banner taped up in the dining room.  Some of the letters look like they’ve been assimilated from a former Happy Birthday sign because they have been converted with a sharpie.  Everything is pink and sparkly unicorns, and not even close to Claire or Kaia’s style, but when they walk in the front door and see everyone standing there with shimmery unicorn party hats—Dean has never seen Claire smile that much.  

At dinner there’s a big pot of spaghetti, the room is filled with laughter and the sounds of contentment, and Dean can’t process how it is, after everything, that they’ve managed to hold on to this family.  Through actual blood sweat and tears they’ve helped make this happen, and Dean doesn’t take it for granted one second.  

Claire is talking to Cas near the end of the table, showing him pictures on her phone.  He looks a little tipsy off the wine, cheeks pink and making those rare smiles with the teeth showing, and Dean can’t help it, doesn’t mean to do it with Cas just sitting three feet away, but a rush of hunger overcomes him so completely that a sharpness arcs through his entire body.  He knows Cas felt it too because he gasps a little, fingernails scratching at the tablecloth. Claire touches his arm, brow furrowed, but Cas shakes his head and makes some kind of excuse while Dean, embarrassed, tosses back the whole glass of red.  When he glances back up, Cas is giving him a puzzled look as if to say was that you?  

Donna nudges Dean and starts asking him about a transmission problem in her new Jeep before Dean can start broadcasting fucking Marvin Gaye across whatever metaphysical FM radio wave their conjoined soul exists on.  

 

While everyone is waiting for dessert to come out of the oven, Dean walks over to Jody’s mantel and looks at all the pictures in their mismatched frames.  He picks up one of Jody and Donna with all the girls at a state park, Big Manitou, 2019 written on the canvas matting.  There’s a waterfall in the background and Claire is pretending to jump off into it while everyone else’s hands are linked, pulling her in the opposite direction.  Behind this, is a 4x6 school picture of Owen against a fireworks backdrop, one of those polite, posed smiles plastered on his face that kids make as the photographer shakes a stuffed animal at them.  Dean doesn’t even need to question why his picture is behind others.  Same reason why he wouldn’t go through the pictures in his phone even when it began chirping with a full memory.  It hurts to look.

Eileen comes to stand beside Dean at the mantel, watching as he replaces the photo back behind the others.  It’s her first time meeting Jody’s bunch and of course everyone loves her because Eileen is great—smart and funny and down to earth—but Dean thinks maybe it’s a little overwhelming for Eileen too.  She grew up with even less family than Sam and Dean, mostly hunted alone.  Now her world is opening up into more people to care about, which also means more people to worry over.  

“Nice family, huh,” Dean says, nodding toward the pictures.

“I like them,” Eileen replies. “I was always a little jealous of people with big families.”

“That right? You and Sammy thinking about—” he doesn’t know the sign for knocked up specifically so he just waggles his eyebrows.

She narrows her eyes, thwacks Dean on the shoulder.

“Fine, fine.  Uncle Dean has a ring to it though,” he says, even though it’s hard to imagine any one of them being fit to raise kids, not ate up with trauma the way they are.  They’re barely fit for society.  “Hey, Eileen..” Dean says, then signs can I ask you a question?

She nods.

Dean looks around to make sure no one is listening to them.  “When did you decide that it didn’t matter if Chuck had made you and Sam.. happen.  How did you know it was real?”

She purses her lips and thinks for a moment.  “I never decided .  I can’t know if it would have still happened without,” she shrugs and signs what Dean thinks might be divine intervention .  “But it felt real.  It still feels real. And until it doesn’t feel that way anymore, I am just going to be happy.”  Who cares about Chuck anyways, he’s an asshole, she signs, then pats his chest over his heart.  “Do what feels right.”

“That’s just it though,” Dean whispers, “How do you know it's right?  What if it only feels that way because there’s always been this… this magnetic thing between you—this connection.  Like, super intense.  Almost too intense.”

“What you’re describing is—wait,” Eileen pauses, then signs slowly so Dean catches it all: Have you ever been in love before?  

Dean scoffs. “Yeah!  Of course!”

Eileen arches her brow.

“Of course, I mean there was Cassie.” He considers the relationship for a second.  “Well.  It only lasted a few months, and she did break it off once I told her I was a hunter.  But it was definitely headed that way.”  Eileen sort of gives him a polite smile, and yeah, sure, he’s not buying it either, but, “And there was Lisa, that’s a big one.”

“The one whose memory of your relationship was erased?”

“Yeah I got Cas to do that, ”  Dean pauses.  “I know how that sounds, but I did it to keep them safe.  They were better off that way.” The decision had been easy, but the choice had been hard to make, wasn’t it?  That relief he felt afterward, it was just because he’d been content with them being safe even if he wasn’t a part of their lives.  It wasn’t because he never really felt like he fit there to begin with, and that sometimes it felt like he was playing a part, or how the old pent-up longing in the back of his mind belonged to someone else.

Other than that, Dean’s best relationship was with an imaginary nurse from a Djinn induced fever dream, and teenage puppy love—again, short-lived and only halfway honest.

“What the fuck, that can’t be right,” Dean mutters to himself, racking his brain, not ready to have the epiphany at 42 that until now, he’s never really been in love in love.  “No, no way.”

Eileen half-smiles, half-winces, and nods.  

“How—what—no, this feels crazy, is that normal?”

Eileen laughs then, “Oh yeah. And if you two have been,” dancing around it,  she signs, “for this long?” She sucks in air between her teeth and shakes her head.  “Look, forget about Chuck, forget magic and fate and whatever.”  Stop thinking, she signs, then thumps him in the middle of the forehead, Start talking.

“Okay, alright,” Dean rubs the sore spot on his forehead, “sheez.  Good talk, coach.”

“Go team,” Eileen says, and clinks glasses with Dean.

 

When it gets late, Alex takes off to her apartment in town and Sam and Eileen get her old room for the night.  Dean is fully prepared to kip on the sofa.  Cas isn’t very good at sleep yet, doesn’t like it, doesn’t trust the cues his body gives telling him to rest.  It’s always I’m fine, Dean, and five minutes later he’s passed out at the dining room table, the parlor floor in front of the TV, in the tub.  (He’s actually lost bath privileges, it’s showers only after Dean had felt a sudden choked off feeling in his throat, a wave of anxiety, which stopped as suddenly as it came.  When Dean tracked Cas down to the bathroom and demanded to know what the hell that was, he calmly said Oh, I fell asleep in the tub and inhaled water, like it wasn’t that big a deal.  Dean informed him yes, it is, because Dean can feel it too when Cas tries to go and take an underwater siesta and almost fucking drowns.)  

Basically, Dean expects him to wander around the house and eventually pass out on some moderately acceptable surface when the ol’ Energizer bunny taps out.

“You guys take our room,” Kaia says, sidling up next to Dean and Cas as they watch Jody walk Alex to her car. “Claire and I can use the blow up mattress.”

“What?  No, we’ll kick it in here.”

“You’re guests, or whatever,” Claire says, eyes rolling.  “Plus you’re like, 50 years old, how much do you think your back can take? That sofa isn’t exactly a Tempur Pedic.”

“I’m not kicking you out of—,” Dean holds up his hand, ready to list off more reasons, but he thinks better of it.  “The hell am I saying, enjoy the crick in your neck suckers.  C’mon Cas,” he grabs Cas’ arm and heads off toward the stairs. 

 

He meets Cas at the bathroom door after they’ve both changed and washed away the bouquet of spaghetti and garlic bread.  Dean doesn’t trust him not to go wandering around the yard if left to his own devices. The few hours of sleep Dean actually manages, suck when Cas is up and Dean is down.  Honestly, Dean doesn’t know how Cas stands it, feeling that acute wrenching in his chest all night long.

Cas reels backward a little when he opens the bathroom door and finds himself nose to nose with Dean.  “Hey,” Dean says with his most flirtatious smile, elbow propped against the doorway. “Come here often?”

Cas’ eyes drift left, then right.  “No, not really.  This isn’t my house.”

“Yeeahhh..” Jesus fucking christ.  Dean forgot that Cas is about as dense as lead when it comes to flirting.  “Whatever, time for bed.”

“I’m not tired,” Cas lies, and Dean knows it’s a lie because deep down he can feel it. 

“And I’m not spending another night playing soul tug o’ war, we’re going to sleep .”

“We’re?”

“Gonna get our full five hours.”  He pulls Cas out of the bathroom, down the hall and into the bedroom.  “Not like we haven’t spent the night in the same room before,” he grumbles, a little offended. Why is Cas making this so damn difficult?  Has something changed? Did the Empty beat his feelings for Dean out of him? He’s offering to share a bed, and Cas looks like he’d rather jump out the window.

Cas cuts his eyes to the bed, then back at Dean.  “It’s not a good idea.”

“Jesus Christ, Castiel!” Dean doesn’t mean to, but he raises his voice, and fuck.  Cas’ whole posture and expressions shutters.  “I’m sorry,” Dean rubs his hands over his face, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have yelled.  I’m just tired.”

“You’re mad.”

“No—”

“You only use my full name when you’re mad.”

“I promise I’m not mad, I just—” Dean sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose.  “Look, I can’t make you do anything, but I need rest.  You need rest.  You’re way closer to human than angel right now, and burning yourself out isn’t going to do either one of us any favours, now will you—” Dean makes an effort to take the gruffness out of his voice, takes a deep breath, “ please, get in the bed?”  Cas looks at the ground and mumbles something Dean can’t parse.  “Come on Cas, you know my hearing’s shit.”

“It’s not you,” he says, eyes still averted, “I don’t care—don’t mind sleeping with—,” he rubs the back of his head.  “Sharing the bed does not bother me.”

“Alright.”  Sort of a relief.  Sort of not.  “So, what is bothering you?”

“I don’t like—” Cas says, haltingly, like it’s not something he wants to admit, “I don’t like..the dark.”

“Oh,” Dean says, suddenly understanding and feeling like an asshole for not understanding sooner.  “Cas that’s… that’s okay.  We can leave the lamp on.”

“But I still have to close my eyes, and when I do—”

“It feels like you’re back there,” Dean finishes. “I get that.”  They stand there in silence for a moment.  “Do you want to just lay down for a minute?  You don’t have to sleep, just rest.”  Cas nods and Dean takes him by the elbow.  “C’mon.”

Dean arranges himself under the sheets, lying face up.  Cas does the same and folds his hands low over his chest.   

“Cas?”

“Yes?”

“Do you remember much from there?” Dean asks, then thinks better of it, “You don’t have to talk about it.”

“No, it’s—honestly it’s difficult to bring it into focus.  Emptiness by nature is suppressive, I wasn’t always.. conscious? I suppose that’s the right word.  Perhaps if I had not crossed the Shadow personally, I might have remained suspended in the oblivion.  Nothing is not so terrible when you lack awareness.”

“Not exactly paradise though,” Dean grumbles.  “So you were though…aware, I mean.”

“Sometimes.  It was...unpleasant. Most of the time it was only darkness and nothingness.  When you’re alone like that for long enough, unable to move or speak or connect, your mind turns against you. Time has no shape there, so moments feel endless. You feel endless.”  Cas’ eyes go distant and pensive.  “I never realised how much we rely, as finite beings, on our own boundaries.  It is deeply uncomfortable to defy the architecture of your own creation .

“I—” Dean tries to wrap his mind around it and finds himself unable to.  “Yeah man, I can’t really imagine.”

“It was worse than the actual torture.”

“What?”

“Well yes, just your average torture except you’re scattered and interminable so pain is constantly echoing through you.”

Dean starts breathing hard, teeth and fists clenching.  He wants to hit something.  Cas looks over and furrows his brow as if he can’t understand this reaction.

“It wasn’t physical .  I lacked physical form for that.  It was memories, moments of terrible distress or regret or grief, replayed over and over. Mental anguish.”  He says this like it makes it better.

“You do see how that’s worse, right?”

Cas shrugs.  “I found it preferable to being alone and unbound in the emptiness.  It meant I could still see you,” he pauses, “and Jack, and Sam.  Everyone.  Left the other way for too long, I would begin to forget.  That’s what happens to all the beings in the Empty.  Eventually they unravel, go silent, they become a part of the darkness itself.”

Dean swallows, hating the understanding that he is a part of some of Cas’ worst nightmares, used against him to cause pain. “Did you ever think that might have been better?”

“No,” Cas says, and offers no other reasoning for it.

The clock in the corner of the room ticks away.  Crickets chirp loud and erratic outside the window.  There’s a dull throbbing in Dean’s chest, and he’s working up his courage to say something about it.

“Cas?”

“Yes, Dean.”

“Hey uh—soul is kind of twinging over here, you mind if we um…” he rolls his eyes at himself and pushes the words out, “Hold hands?”

“Are you sure?” Cas asks, a little in disbelief, maybe Dean reads hopefulness into it.

“Yeah, it helps to be uh, touching, you know.” 

Dean hears the sheet fabric sliding as Cas moves his arm.  First his hand pushes underneath Dean’s, then he turns it palm up and interlocks their fingers.

“Is that better?”  Cas asks.

“S’great,” Dean sighs, feeling the relief of connection pulsing through him, and risks a glance over at Cas’ face. He’s still lying there, face up and eyes open toward the ceiling, but a small smile touches the corners of his mouth.  

“You’ve changed,” Cas says after a few moments of holding hands and Dean not changing his mind and erupting into a conniption fit, or spinning it into something less than what it is .

“Is that a bad thing?” Dean asked, a little nervous for the answer.

“No, no it’s— you seem different is all. You’re asking for help instead of suffering in silence, to start.  Of course I can still sense your anger, and you’re still just as frustratingly obstinate, and you could probably benefit from years of intense psychological therapy—”

“Woah hold on, I thought you said not bad.”

But— ,” Cas continues, squeezing Dean’s hand to keep him from interrupting in a way that seems absentminded, habitual, and makes Dean’s heart pitch against his ribs, “even those qualities seem different.  Less...acute.  You seem,” Cas swallows, “softer.”

Another version of Dean would have balked and blustered, but now Dean lies there considering it.  Doesn’t know if he’s ready to talk about how once he let that whole knot of grief expand inside of him—beyond the anger and self-destruction and despair that he’d clung to for so long— everything seemed insignificant when measured against it.   And it wasn’t just grief over losing Cas, but years and years of it bottled up—mom, Bobby, of all the irreplaceable friendships ripped away, his own failures and regrets.There’s the grief he still has left for Dad, but it’s all tied up in mourning a lost childhood and the possibilities of the person Dean could have been had he not been robbed of it.  

It isn’t like Dean doesn’t still get up in his own head, it isn’t like the anger disappeared— but Cas is right, it feels changed.  He doesn’t know why or how, or when it happened.  Maybe he’s coping?  That would definitely be new in comparison to the chronic running away from it.

“It’s been a hell of a year,” Dean admits.  He taps his index finger against Cas’ knuckles a few times, still feeling a little too wired with the contact and not yet ready to shut down.  “Cas, you still awake?”

“Mh.”

Dean takes a deep breath.  “So, you know, this past year with you gone, I had a lot of time to—to think.  About what’s important to, uh, me. I guess.  We barely hunt anymore, and y’know, we haven’t had an apocalypse in over a year, and I know you’ve probably seen the whole Earth since you’re—yeah.. But I haven’t.  Flew the red eye to Scotland to pick up Crowley’s bones, but that wasn’t exactly a vacation.  Great sheep though, really great sheep out there...literally in the middle of the road. Little scary at night, actually.”  Cas seems to be waiting for him to make his point, so Dean keeps rambling.  “Anyways, I was thinking, maybe when you feel like you’ve got your feet underneath you, we could go on a little.. road trip or something? Just us. Doesn't matter where.”  

Silence.  

“Course it’d have to be us anyways,” Dean rambles, letting out an awkward laugh and jesus wasn’t there a time Dean had game? Or did he always just get by on a pretty face?  “Because you can’t leave me,” Dean mouths what the fuck at the ceiling. “You can think about it,” Dean says, when Cas still doesn’t say anything.  “You’re right, we should think about it.”  Dean sits up a little and turns to look at him.  “Cas?”

Cas’ chest rises and falls in a deep, even rhythm, his lips parted as he breathes, eyes closed to the world. Dean brushes the hair off his forehead and Cas startles—but it’s only to roll over onto his side. Dean stares at him like that for a while, how the worry line between his brow is smoothed away, the way he sleeps curled with a hand trapped under his cheek.  Dean hopes he’s not dreaming of endless, empty space.  Hopes Cas senses he’s not alone.

Dean nestles in behind him—nothing too presumptuous, just his chest to Cas’ back, giving the curve of his body a warm place to settle.  He rests his forehead against the nape of Cas’ neck, puts one arm around him to grab back the hand he lost. 

“I promise I’m going to tell you this when you’re awake one day—don’t know if I’ll ever be any good at using my words—but I think this is a long time coming,” Dean says, and Cas breathes in, then out, in, and out.  “I’m sorry,” Dean says to his back, “for all of it. I made so many mistakes with you.  Most of the time I knew better and did it anyway. I want you to know that I’m working on that.  If you—if you give me a chance—if you can forgive me for—” Dean sighs when the words stop coming.  “Yeah.. I should really save it for another day.  Let you sleep.”  He pulls the covers up where they’ve slipped down past Cas’ shoulders.  “Good night, Cas.”

 

Dean wakes in the morning to the smell of bacon and coffee, the sound of Sam laughing downstairs, daylight streaming between the gaps in the curtains and warming his skin. Before he opens his eyes, he registers a weight across his chest and abdomen.  Slowly, careful not to disturb, Dean cranes his neck and looks down at his body.  

Of course he would.  Of course Cas would be a cuddler.  It’s probably the least surprising realisation Dean has ever had.  

His head is nestled underneath Dean’s chin, one arm slung across the rest of Dean’s torso, his hand stuffed between Dean’s back and the mattress.  A leg is draped over Dean’s hips, knee bent, his foot on the outside of Dean’s upper thigh.  He might be drooling, which is fine, Dean doesn’t care.  Dude is starfished across him, leg inches away from the morning wood situation, and there’s no inner crisis of whether or not Dean’s allowed to like it.  

There are nerves, Dean’s definitely nervous, but it’s the kind made of both excitement and anxiety—an old, mostly forgotten feeling that anyone else would call butterflies.  He used to get those around Cas quite a bit in the early days, before he began suspecting what it meant and it all got wrapped up in layers and layers of complication and impossibility.

Cas stirs against him, his body rolling into a stretch and loosening his limbs from where they’re wrapped around Dean.  His breathing tapers away from the steady rise and fall of sleep as he begins to come around and—there it is.  Cas goes stock still. Dean can’t even feel him breathe.

“Sleep okay?” Dean asks, before Cas can assume the worst and pull away.

“I. Yes actually,” he answers, disbelief in his voice, still totally motionless aside from the hinge of his mouth moving against Dean’s chest.  “You?”

“Best sleep I’ve gotten in a year,” Dean admits because it’s true. There’s no ache in his chest, metaphorical or actual—the bond between their souls hums contentedly at having it’s other half so close.  

Cas sits up, faces away from Dean with his feet off the side of the bed, and the feeling is lost.  “I must have moved in my sleep. Thank you for—” he makes a vague gesture back down toward the bed.  “Sorry if I—”

“Anytime,” Dean cuts in, a little too eager, and Cas jerks his chin down to look at him, brows knitted together, holding Dean’s gaze like he’s trying to find an answer there. “I don’t mind,” Dean says, propping himself up on his hands and leaning over back in Cas’ space. Anticipation thrills down Dean’s spine, settles sharp and hot in his chest.  The only way Dean knows it’s something beyond his own restless heart, is the sympathetic shiver that goes through Cas as his eyes flick down to Dean’s mouth, and back up again.  Dean licks his lips and leans in closer.

“It’s really,” Dean murmurs, closing in and letting their noses brush, “ really ,”  he slips two fingers under Cas’ chin, tilting his head just so, “fine.”

Cas shuts his eyes, lips parting.  For a brilliant moment Dean thinks this is it. They’re so close Dean can feel the warmth of Cas’ skin sinking into him, and this time Dean isn’t going to ruin it all by saying the wrong thing and running away.   

Then Cas is shaking his head and saying, “Sorry.  I’m sorry, I can’t.  I want to, I really want to, I just—” and he’s getting up, pulling the sweater he laid out last night over his head. “I can’t.”

Dean reaches toward him, “Cas wait, wait w-wait, hold on a second it’s not like—”

“I know,” Cas says bitterly, even though he clearly doesn’t. In his haste to leave the room, Cas bangs his knee on the dresser and hisses out a curse.

“Are you okay?” Dean asks helplessly, reaching toward him.

No!” Cas half-shouts, whirling on Dean with his coat and shoes hugged protectively to his chest.

Before Dean can scramble his thoughts together on how the morning turned on him so fast and figure out what to say to fix it, Cas is out of the room and thudding down the stairs, a stunned silence in his wake.

Dean groans and flops backward onto bed when the dull ache takes up residence in his chest once again.  He pulls a pillow over his head and screams into it.

 

Breakfast is awkward.  Claire keeps sending Dean dirty looks from across the table when she observes Cas sullenly pushing food around his plate.  As they get the car ready to leave she comes up beside Dean at the trunk and hisses, “What happened?”

Dean rolls his eyes and slams the lid shut.  “Nothing. Something. Look, I don’t know.”

“He looks like he just found out that there’s no Santa.”

“I ever tell you about the time we thought we were hunting anti-Claus?”

“Don’t change the subject.”

 “But it was just a sweaty dude in a trailer.”

Claire jabs a finger in Dean’s face and says, “Fix it.”

 

The car ride home is even worse.  Dean drives as usual, but instead of Cas riding shotgun like he did the way over, he gets in the back before anyone else.  Sam tries to make small talk, but Dean has cycled into the part of the self-loathing where he gets snappy so eventually the car lapses into silence while Sam and Eileen exchange meaningful looks in the rear-view mirror.  Cas just sits in the back brooding his ass off, and Dean replays the morning over and over in his head looking for mistakes.

A whole six hours Dean deals with this.

When they finally make it home, Cas is the first out the car, the first inside the bunker, shutting himself into his room before Dean even unpacks his suitcase from the trunk.  Dean has no idea what to do with that.  Doesn’t know what that’s supposed to mean, and if it would make it worse to walk in and demand an explanation, or if that’s what Cas wants him to do.  Dean just wants to know what to do.  

Then the darker thoughts start trickling in:  What if Cas wants to leave?  Why would Dean even think he would want to stay in the first place when Dean is this, and Cas is capable of so much better?  What if it’s too late?  What if he doesn’t want Dean anymore?  Why did Dean ever think he could make Cas happy in the first place?  Dean’s no good at this, he’s no good at any of it, and Cas will eventually figure that out and realise he was wrong. He’ll leave, and what will Dean do then? 

Dean pours himself a whiskey, tosses it back, pours another.  The sharp throb in his chest doesn’t let up the slightest.

 

—-

 

They have a rogue demon stirring up trouble outside of New Castle, Colorado.  A couple bodies turned up down river in what looks like a ritualistic killing, another person missing under sketchy circumstances.  Rowena drops the tip via one of those beefcake demons that serve as her personal guard.  He appears in the middle of lunch, dressed in his Baby Gap black tee and well-fitted trousers, looking closer to a Greek god than a demon flunkie. 

He introduces himself as Orzan, and explains how some douchebag named Simeon is talking up a return to “the old days,” and intends to open up a spiritual nexus that will imbue the him with enough power to challenge Rowena for control of Hell—something Dean just can’t see happening.  She’s sort of the authority on using spiritual energy as a power source.  That’s probably why she isn’t topside handling this personally, simply isn’t threatened, and figures her time is better spent handling the political fallout with any of his pals down below when their would-be leader goes out for milk and never comes back.

Orzan wraps it up a curt nod, before scanning everyone in the room, his eyes landing on Cas.  

“You,” he says, in a deep, rich voice.  “The handsome angel.”

Cas does a double take up from the map in front of him, “I—former, sort of. Yes?”

Dean narrows his eyes.

“The Queen says welcome back, and asks me to deliver this,” and Dean has to watch as this guy kisses his palm, blows the kiss in Cas’ direction, and in a puff of fragrant, purple smoke, a dark lipstick mark in the shape of Rowena’s lips appears on Cas’ cheek.

He touches it with his fingers and the tips come away stained red.  “Oh,” Cas says, and blushes, does that shy thing where he smiles and won’t look you in the eye, and Dean seethes. “Tell her I said thank you?”

“Okay Romeo you heard the guy, bye! ” Dean blurts, rising up from the table to shoo him away with a newspaper or attack him with a knife.  Orzan smirks and disappears, and Dean lurches toward Cas and starts rubbing the mark away with his cuff, telling him you don’t know if she put mojo in there!  Wouldn’t be the first time! while Cas tilts his head and silently allows this.

 

They track the demon all the way out to  White Wilderness National Forest.  It’s a bit of a hike, but at least it’s all beautiful scenery and fresh air, the sound of running water—until the trail disappears into the mouth of a cave.

“Oh come on,” Dean complains, turning around to Sam who is already unloading his backpack and digging around for the flashlights.  Cas stands there, staring into the darkness, spine rigid with tension.  “Hey,” Dean says, walking over to stand closer to Cas, says quietly, “why don’t you wait outside and make sure those hikers we saw back there don’t come round for some spelunking.”

Cas stares a moment longer, then shakes off a tremor.  “I’ll be fine.”

“God would you—” Dean throws his hands up, grabs Cas by the bicep and walks him away where Sam can’t hear.  “You don’t want to go in there, I don’t even want to go in there.  Stop being stubborn and just keep watch outside.”

“I said I’ll be fine, Dean .”

“Look, that’s part of my soul you’re using and I can feel it when you’re freaking the fuck out.  It’s distracting.  If I could go two miles without feeling like someone is ripping me in half, I would have kept you home!”

“I’m sorry if I’m such a burden to you—”

“No—”

“If I could fix this for you I would.  Do you think I like it when you take every opportunity to air our past grievances and use it as a reason to—”

“That’s not what I’m doing!”

“You still don’t trust—”

“It’s because I want to keep you safe, dumbass!” Dean whisper-shouts, and Cas blinks. “I want to keep you safe,” Dean says, “and I don’t want you to go in there and remember how it felt to be—to be lost in the dark, not if I can help it.  I don’t want you to feel like that ever again.”

Cas opens his mouth, his expression still annoyed like he’s caught on the former tangent, but then Dean’s words seem to compute and his teeth click shut.  He shakes his head a little in confusion.  “What?”

Sam clears his throat and waves the flashlights in his hands.  “Hey um..so, what’s the plan?”

Cas looks at Dean for a while longer, then turns and grabs a flashlight and marches off toward the cave.

 

It takes them god knows how long to stumble through the cavern tunnels, leaving markings in chalk to eventually direct themselves back through from whence they came.  Finally they hear an echo chanting in Latin and from there it’s just following it to the source.

When the action breaks out, it’s definitely not the worst fight they’ve been in, not by a long shot, but it's the first one in a while that has given them a run for their money.  Sam sets right to the task of fighting his way toward the partially activated magical nexus to shut it down, and Cas barrels ahead of Dean and smashes into Simeon before Dean has a chance to get there first.  He lands a solid punch across the jaw before Simeon uses that goddamn demonic telekinesis to fling him into the air and against a stalactite.  

“Careful,” Cas strains out, “these can take over 190,000 years to form, have a little respect!”

Dean is on his way to stick the demon blade in Simeon’s back when something smashes against the back of the skull.  His vision swims and Dean feels himself stumble and land hard on his knees against the cavern floor.  It must’ve been bad enough to cause him to black out for some length of time, because the next thing Dean is aware of is his body being dragged across uneven rocks, his tailbone and shoulders hitting bumps and jagged protrusions along the way.  His hands are bound in front of him. It’s pitch black, wherever they are.  Whoever got the drop on him is navigating by echolocation??  Dean guesses??  Then Dean remembers how Belphegor once possessed Jack’s eyeless, burned out corpse, and got around just fine. 

Dean lets out an involuntary groan as the bond stretches beyond the average discomfort, burns away in his chest as his soul tries to reach across the distance.  He feels his nose beginning to bleed from the pressure pain in his body.  “Back,” Dean slurs weakly, still disoriented, only really knowing he needs to find Cas and stop the pain.  “I need to go—”

“Yes, you’re going,” a nasally voice comments, “going to die.”

Dean wheezes.  “Oh my god, that’s so corny.”  At least Crowley had the decency to exude pure sarcastic wit when he was threatening to kill you.  

He struggles against the hand on his collar, but still being in the recovery part of regaining consciousness the best he manages is a firm jerk of his body that causes him to be dropped.  His head smacks against the rock floor.  Whatever is carrying him curses and Dean feels hands grabbing at him to readjust, before it’s back to the dragging again.  At least that confirms it’s human-shaped, and there’s not something else fun and horrific in the cave snatching Dean up for a to-go meal. 

Then the demon starts talking.  They always have to do it—can’t ever just shut up about their plans.  “Your brother and the fallen angel will probably be killed when the nexus opens, but Simeon told me to keep you alive for the final sacrifice—the heart of a Winchester.  Hell will bow before their new king and we will return once again to raze the earth!”

“You guys need a new hobby,” Dean rasps out, fumbling against his captor again, stronger this time, but still not strong enough to throw off a demon.  “Maybe take up gardening or something.  Fly-fishing.”  He tries getting a hand in his pocket to check for his extra blade, but meathead here must’ve thought to disarm him before hauling him away.

“The blood of humanity will flow like—”

“Water?” Silence.  “Wine.  Like wine?  Where are you getting these lines, dude?”

“Shut up,” the demon hisses, dropping Dean and turning to kick him once in the ribs, luckily not hard enough to break bone, before picking him up by the collar again.  “You won’t be alive to see it anyways.  Your brother is probably dead already, and if your broken-down pet angel is still alive, maybe Simeon will let you watch him get taken apart, piece by piece.”

“You’re gonna regret saying that,” Dean informs him, matter of fact.

He laughs.  “What’re you going to do, flail around until—”

Dean doesn’t know how it happens, is too busy gasping in relief from the way the bond suddenly contracts to a bearable state, but the hand dragging him abruptly falls away and the sounds of a violent scuffle ring out behind him in the passage.  Dean hears a familiar grunt, a hiss of pain.

Cas, Dean thinks, and,“Cas!” Dean shouts, scrambling to his feet, reaching out in front of himself toward the sound and finding mostly solid walls of rock.  There’s a loud bellow, a brief flicker of light ahead that illuminates the shape of Cas crouching over a body almost twice his size, and Dean stumbles toward it.  His feet eventually make contact with something softer than rocks after a few yards, and Dean falls to his knees, his hands blindly feeling for Cas.  “Are you okay?  Cas!  Are you okay?”

“Yes, I’m fine, so is Sam,” Cas tells him, still panting heavily.  He moves, hands tripping over Dean's shoulders, patting upward until he finds his face and brackets Dean’s cheeks with his hands. Dean fumbles for Cas’ shirt pocket, hands still tied, finds the zippo lighter he’d slipped in there earlier and flips it.

In the weak, orange glow, Cas’ eyes are still full of fear and concern.  He wipes away some of the blood above Dean’s lip with his thumb.  Dean mimics the gesture, trying to clean away the mess of their matching nosebleeds.  “I turned around and you were gone,” Cas says.  “I felt you go.”

“I know, damn demon clobbered me with a rock or something,” Dean explains while Cas carefully cuts through the rope binding his wrists.  Cas’ mouth tightens into a line when he finds rope burn abrading the skin there. “Just a scratch, doesn’t even hurt.” Not in comparison to the bump on his head at least. 

Cas frowns but keeps talking.  “Once I knew Sam had the nexus under control I followed the bond, followed it all the way here.”

“Simeon?”

“Angel blade.”

“Ah,” Dean says, “hasta la vista, douchebag.”

“Then everything was black, and I thought maybe—” Cas is still breathing hard from the tussle, his eyes charting all over Dean’s face.  Without warning he lurches forward and grabs Dean up in a hug.  “That was very unpleasant,” he says in a small, shaky voice.

“It’s alright,” Dean says, “it’s okay.”  Slowly, his hand trembling, Dean strokes the nape of Cas’ neck.

 

—-

 

Cas has been alive for four months. It’s been approximately twenty-four hours since nearly losing each other in passages of that sprawling cave.  Dean knew on the way back home that being there had triggered something for Cas.  He’d been so quiet in the car, staring out of the window with his eyebrows drawn, lips pursed—his I’m thinking face, except there was something distressed about it.  Something in his eyes that read frustration and unease.  But Dean wrote it off as Cas having a rough go of it, fumbling around in the dark, in pain, after all he’s been through.  When they got back home Cas mostly just seemed tired, but then again, everyone was. They all helped each other re-dress wound coverings and said good night.  Dean wanted to ask Cas to stay with him in bed so that they could both get some meaningful rest, but ever since what happened at Jody’s he’s been too afraid.

However much later, Dean isn’t sure, he wakes up sweating in his sheets, a metallic tang in the back of his throat.  He doesn’t even think, just bolts out of bed, not even caring about what direction his legs take him in because he knows wherever it is, he’ll find Cas there waiting for him.  The floor is cold on his bare feet as he pounds down the final corridor and past a heavy door.  

Before Dean even takes a minute to register where, he knocks into Cas and grabs him up into a hug.  Well, it’s less of a hug and more just smashing their bodies together to make the bisection stop.  “J—jesus fucking christ man,” he pants into Cas’ shoulder as the feeling of pain and incompleteness fizzles away into it’s bearable default state, “don’t do that again.  You could have gotten me up, I wouldn’t have cared.” 

Cas’ doesn’t hug back, just places his hands on either side of Dean’s waist and says nothing.  It’s the reticence that causes Dean to look up and into the room.  He knows that wall.  He knows these shelves and their pointless contents. “Why are we here,” Dean holds tighter, “Cas, why are we in here.”  

Dean hasn’t entered this room since the last time he left it.  He was afraid he’d end up sitting with his back against the wall all over again wishing for death— more afraid that he’d come in here and find a reason to keep living.

“That blood sigil, I put it there,” Cas murmurs, and Dean doesn’t need to turn around to see the half-burned away mark painted onto the door he just ran through, he doesn’t need to see the flakes of old blood still bearing some shape.  “And right here, right where we’re standing, that’s where I—”

“Yeah,” Dean whispers into his collar, heart skittering in his chest. Slowly, Cas pushes Dean away to arms length, his expression nothing that can be placed.  Dean swallows.  The moment is here and he’s still afraid.  “You remember.” 

“Dean, what I s—”

Fuck it.  

Dean pulls Cas back to himself by the front of his shirt and presses their lips together—achingly, bruisingly—closed mouthed and determined.

For a moment, Cas kisses him back, whether it’s reflexive or some small allowance, because just as quickly he’s pulling backward. Dean tries to chase him, but Cas murmurs, “Dean,” into the kiss, then more sternly, “Dean.”

“Please,”  Dean blurts, he doesn’t know why, then squeezes his eyes closed and shakes his head.  “I-i-i-it wasn’t just you,” he stammers out, panicking  that he’ll lose his nerve and with it, the moment.  “I felt it too, for a long time I—I just didn’t understand. Or maybe I didn’t want to, I don’t know, it’s a lot to unpack with growing up the way we did and thinking I had to live up to this expecta—look, forget that for now— it wasn’t just you.  You didn’t think you could have this, us,” Dean motions between them and doesn’t look Cas in the eyes.  “I didn’t think I could, either. But then you were gone and I—fuck—I should have told you.  I should have said it.  But I was afraid of what it would mean.  And so much has happened between us that I can’t—I just can’t take back.”

“Dean, it’s—calm down,” Cas swallows and shuts his eyes briefly.  “What are you trying to tell me?”

“That—me too,” Dean struggles to push the words out. 

Cas’ eyes go big and luminous, but then his mouth thins and he takes a step backward. “You don’t have to say that because you think it is what I want to hear.”

“I’m not.”

“Then I don’t understand.  Is it guilt?  You don’t owe me this, I-”  

“No!  I mean yes!  No, I don’t feel like I— I owe you or whatever. Yes, I feel shitty for my mistakes and I want to stop making those mistakes.  That’s what I’m trying to do now!”

“Would you feel the same way if I weren’t carrying a piece of your soul?”

“How can you even ask—”

“It’s confusing, how do you know you are feeling what’s yours, or what’s mine?  Can you tell the difference, because sometimes it’s even difficult for me to tell.  How do you know you’re not just feeling what I want you to feel?  What I wish you would?”

“Because this was going on before Jack did a soul vivisection!” Dean says loudly.  “For years maybe, I don’t know when!  And I always told you like a brother, like a brother, because I didn’t—didn’t know how to be like this.  Didn’t know if I could— still don’t know if I can.  But it was different with you, it always has been!  And I know, I know it’s not fair for me to say any of this, because you’re so good, Cas.  You always try so hard to do the right thing, and you’re kind and—and gentle, nothing like me, and I have done nothing but give you grief over it. If I was a better man I’d figure a way to get you free of me so you could find someone who would treat you the way you deserve, who wouldn’t fuck up the way I know I’m gonna fuck up.  But I want to try, and it’s selfish, but Cas, I swear I’ll try and—” Dean stops knowing what to say and just inhales deeply and casts his eyes around the room.

He doesn’t know what reaction he was expecting from Cas, but it’s not the human equivalent of a modem restart. Cas’ face is entirely blank—not shock or confusion or contemplation—just blank.  

“I,” he says, then begins looking suspiciously around the room like Ashton Kutcher is going to jump out with the Punk’d team.  Or, more likely, Cas is questioning his reality the way Dean catches him still doing sometimes.

Dean, frantic to be believed, throws out a hand and pinches Cas’ upper arm. That at least gets a reaction—Cas wrenching his arm away in surprise, a hand over the pink spot Dean left behind. He gives Dean the biggest-eyed what the hell?? look that he’s ever managed.  In hindsight there might have been better ways to convince him.

“This is real,” Dean explains, “'Pinch me, I must be dreaming!’ Oh come on, you know the saying.”  

“No?” Cas says, eyes still big as saucers.

“Oh..” Dean huffs a nervous laugh, “well would a dream be this goddamn awkward, then?”

Cas’ brows go low and he looks at the ground, shaking his head.  “I need to—” then he turns around and walks out of the room.

It takes several long moments of Dean trying to replay in his mind everything he said to sort out where he went wrong, before giving up and mechanically manoeuvring out of the room and into the hall. His soul aches and aches and aches until Dean doesn’t know what part of it is his own, and which is Castiel’s.  It all tastes the same.

 

Eventually Dean finds himself slouched over a glass of whiskey in the main room, zoned out on self-loathing because at least that’s an easy thing to feel.

Sam walks in from around the corner dressed down in his jogging clothes—must mean dawn is about to break.  Fucking great.  He doesn’t say anything for a minute, just pauses when he sees Dean, before coming to sit across from him.  “Little early, don’t you think?” he asks, then doesn’t wait for an answer and pours himself a single.  He looks down into the glass and takes a sip.  “So… um. Boy trouble?”

Dean lets his head swivel toward Sam, “Seriously?” 

“Seems like it.”

“You know, I think you’re micro-aggressing me, but I’m not one hundred percent sure what that means yet, so I’ll let it slide.”

“Thank you. Now answer the question.”

Maybe the alcohol has loosened his tongue, because Dean spills it all out for Sam—the whole messy truth of it: How Dean started feeling about Cas before he realised what those feelings even meant. The times he and Cas had sex, and how Dean careened them right into a brick wall over it immediately after. About that night in the storage room, and what Cas had said before the Empty took him and how saying it out loud broke open the truth inside Dean, only it was too late. The morning when Dean had tried to move in for a kiss, and how Cas got spooked, took off, and has been freezing Dean out ever since—all leading up to now.

Sam sits there and listens to all of it, his face only twinging when Dean overshares about the sex.  When Dean finishes Sam nods and sets his glass on the table.

“Let me get this straight.”

“Yeah.”

“The last time you and Cas even got near this subject was—”

“After Michael when we—”

“Uh huh,” Sam says, holding up a hand. “Right.  And the night he was taken, you didn’t say anything back.”

“I didn’t have time to think!  Everything happened so fast!”

“No, no I’m not—I get that. That’s understandable.  But until now, Cas was blanked out there.”

“Yeah. So?  How does that help me?  I wouldn't just bust up on the guy and say HEY!  Remember when you told me you loved me and died? Sort of?  Pepperidge Farm sure as hell remembers! It’d be fuckin’ weird and you know it.” Dean takes a drink when Sam gives him A Look. “Or maybe he came to his senses in the Empty.”

“Dean, I’m not trying to be harsh,” Sam says, grimacing slightly, “but for him, the last time the topic was even close to being broached, was after you two—” he makes a vague motion with his hands, a sort of patty-cake.

“Sex, Sammy, we had sex.  Grow up.”

“—for the second time, and for the second time you told him that it was a mistake. He’s still back there— before he made that deal, before Billy chases you guys through the bunker into that room, before he plays the only card he has left to save you.”

“But I just told him—”  

“He was working under the impression that you’re basically down to scratch an itch, but that’s as deep as it goes. Maybe after last time, he promised himself he wouldn’t put himself through that again.  I mean, I’m making a lot of assumptions here but.. That’s where my mind would go if it were me. And the way you said it, he had convinced himself that you would never feel the same.  And now he’s carrying a part of your soul, so he’s being constantly reminded of all of this while you’re still there making eyes at him like you have the past few years, but as far as he was concerned you just have really fucked up platonic relationships with guys, and you know what, don’t even get me started about Benny—”

“Okay! Okay Carrie Bradshaw, you’ve made your point, I get it. I blindsided him. Shit. A means to an end.  That’s what he thinks it is to me.”  Dean sets his wrists against his forehead.  “But he’s not, I swear.  Even then it wasn’t—I just didn’t know how.”

“I know that,” Sam says gently, “Eileen, Jody, Claire, Jack, everyone—we all know.  We were all there, we saw what losing him did to you.  We know.  But Cas wasn’t here, he doesn’t know.  I think he’s just afraid of getting hurt, Dean.”

“I’ve gotta fix this,” Dean mumbles to himself, rubbing his hands through his hair.  “How do I fix this?”

“Probably communication.”

“I always say the wrong thing.”

“Try not doing that.”

“Very helpful, thanks so much.”  Dean rolls his eyes. “I need you to go to the store for me.”

“I’m going for a run, do it yourself.”

“Do you want me to rip my soul in half?  Gonna hold Cas’ hand for me while he writhes in pain?  That’s really gonna set the mood.

 “Fine,” Sam grumbles and gets up from the table, says, “keys.” 

Dean throws the keys and Sam catches and pockets them.  “I’ll send you a list.  You’re a great brother. Get the hell out of here.”

 

—-

 

It’s after noon and Dean is in the kitchen. This isn’t an unusual place for him to be at this time, but the fare certainly isn’t typical.  Strewn about the table are jars of peanut butter and jelly, some opened, some closed and set aside.  He has a skillet going and the panini press—isn’t even sure how a panini press ended up here to begin with.  Dean actually thought it was a George Foreman, either way those straight little grill marks are oddly satisfying.

“Goddamnit, not again,” Dean mutters to himself, gripping the edge of the table and bowing his head when a sharp tension rolls through his body.

Cas is still up and roaming, Dean can sense that.  He really thought they’d sort of gotten a handle on functioning separately within a reasonable amount of space without the worst of the side-effects.  Dean still walks around constantly hyper aware of the gravity pulling him toward his other half, but the wrenching pain of it is limited to a quiet throbbing—something Dean associates with homesickness.  A constant longing to return. It’s not a happy feeling, but it’s tolerable and familiar from all the years spent feeling like he didn’t belong anywhere.

Ever since the botched endeavour of the morning at Jody’s, a wave of melancholy will overcome Dean so completely that it’s all he can do to stay standing and not curl into a ball on the floor.  Fucking hurts too.  It hurts to feel incomplete. It feels unnatural to be this far away from something that he’s always carried within himself. Every step between him and Cas screams to be closed and Dean isn’t sure how long he can hold out.

The panini is burning.

“Shit!” Dean reaches for the handle of the press and throws it open. Rather than a pleasant, deep brown—the grill lines are black with char.  Dean tries to pick it up too fast, burning hot jelly and peanut butter attempt to ooze out the sides onto his palms.  He makes a sort of ooh ooh ah ah sound, fumbles it around to disperse the heat from his fingertips while Dean tries to locate an empty plate.  This is all still going on when the door bangs open.

“Dean, we need to—” Cas freezes just inside the kitchen and Dean freezes with a burned panini dangling between his thumb and forefinger.  They stare at each other for a moment.  A blob of melted peanut butter falls onto the floor with an lacklustre splat.  “What are you doing?” Cas asks, now eyeing the plates of sandwiches everywhere like they’re landmines.

Right.  Dean was trying to do something.  He attempts a smile, but it feels awkward and nervous as he bins the burned panini.  “Well, um,” he says, clearing his throat and wiping his hands on the waist apron, “so I remember you saying, back when you were human that first time around, about food.  What food you liked?”

Cas keeps staring at Dean, and Dean is beginning to feel insecure and lopsided.  He never quite realised just how much he held the power in this, in whatever it was going on between them, and now it feels reversed.  Or perhaps this is balance. Parity always feels unequal when before something was weighted in your favour.  

Dean swallows down an instinct to just say nevermind and not subject himself to this level of vulnerability, but he forces that aside.  “Jelly, not jam, right?” Dean says, and Cas blinks.  “You liked jelly better.”

“You.. remember that?”

He sounds a little impressed, sort of taken aback, and Dean knows it’s an insignificant detail, it’s just a goddamn sandwich, but he wants Cas to know that he has paid attention to this stuff over the years.  It’s not insignificant. “I do,” Dean says, looking down at the jars of jelly on the table top and back over to Cas.

“Oh,” Cas says, quiet.

“Anyways—but I didn’t know if you had a favourite flavour or whatever so I just got, uh, a lot.  I mean, course’ we got your average grape and strawberry.  We got your apple, blueberry, blackberry, peach—at least I think that’s peach.  You might want to sniff it first.  I know one was pineapple-habanero and the colour was sort of the same.  This pile over here—that’s all crunchy peanut butter.  This one here, that’s smooth.  I want you to know you’re a freak if you like crunchy better.”

“Dean—”

“I told Sammy to get whatever they had.  And, you know, there’s different bread too.  Wasn’t sure if you were a white or wheat guy, so I made one of each.  Oh..!” Dean walks over to the assortment of grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  “Saw this on Food Network, they said do em’ up like grilled cheese and you’ll never go back.  Did you know we had a fuckin’ panini press?  Wait, hold on… have you ever had grilled cheese even?”

“Dean..”

“Yeah?”

“This is…” he opens his mouth, closes it and raises his eyebrows.  “I don’t know what this is.”

“Well,” Dean starts, trying to levity, “you know they say the way to a man’s heart is through his…” he looks at the plates on the countertop and back at Cas, eyebrows raised, willing him to understand.

“I.. well, through his chest presumably.”

“Okay no, let me try to—okay.”  Dean’s shoulders slouch into a sigh and he pinches the bridge of his nose, rethinking everything.  “I thought this was—I wanted you to know that I know you.  And how you feel about things matters to me.  Matters a lot.  Even dumb stuff like,” he flings an arm at the mess he’s made, “food preferences.”  

Cas still isn’t saying anything, but he’s definitely listening so Dean presses forward.  “I feel like we understand each other most when we're at our worst—when we’re the most desperate and afraid, when everything is fucked up.  I know how you look when you’re scared—the way you’re looking at me right now—and I know you get bitchy when you’re stressed out, and I know you spend too much thinking you’re a burden— still not true by the way.”  Dean pauses when a lump forms in his throat.  “I know we’ve done some great things, saved the world even, at our lowest.  But I want us to know each other at our best, too.  Hell, not even that—I want to know you at your boring.  I want to sit down and do nothing with you.  I just want..” Dean almost says a dozen different things, but it all focuses down to one word, “you.”

Cas cocks his head.  “And this is why you’ve… made three dozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Because you want to..do nothing. But.. together?”

“Really, man? That’s your takeaway? I realise it’s not blasting Peter Gabriel from a boombox outside your bedroom window, but give me a break!  This is sort of virgin fucking territory for me, too.  It’s a grand gesture, Cas,” he seizes up the panini maker by the plug, dangles it, plops it back down, puts a hand on his hip.   “I’ve been in here fighting for my life against goddamn panini pete—forget the sandwiches, asshole.  I love you.”  A blinding ache passes in his chest and Dean hisses and grasps the side of the table.  “Jesus, Cas,” he says tersely, “let up a sec will ya, I’m still trying to tell you something.  I don’t use the L-word a lot and you—you’re sort of the only person I’ve ever said it to and understood what it means.. I know you probably need some time before you trust me with that but—”

“I don’t want to do this,” Cas interrupts.

“Cas, I am telling you I’ll give you space, but you’re feeling so loud and I can’t just igno—”

“I said I don’t want to do this anymore,” Cas says, and in two strides he’s in Dean’s space, one hand clasped over the nape of Dean’s neck as he pulls him down into a kiss.  

It’s deep, but softer and unrushed, very unlike their kisses from before—borne out of mutual fear that any moment the other might come to their senses, or it might be their last chance to touch.  This is what their first kiss should have been.  Dean’s fists unclench from his sides and he slides his hands up Cas’ back, brushes his fingers in his hair.  Dean gives a light tug and Cas’ breath hitches, the tips of their tongues licking together.  He has Cas pulling back and switching the angles of their heads, the ledge digs into the small of Dean’s back as Cas presses him up against it.

Dean loses any sense of time, he doesn’t know how long they’ve been making out.  Long enough for Dean to have lost the scent of peanut butter and jelly, and for it to be replaced with Cas’ clean detergent-and-pheromones eau de parfum.  It’s too hard to even consider stopping, every kiss feels like Dean is shedding off this ugly, great weight from his shoulders, and now he’s lighter than he’s ever been.

Hands roving, bodies straining together, Dean squeaks out a, “W—wow—,” and is immediately muffled by Cas’ eager mouth. “Really?  You’re letting me off the hook that ea sy?”  Dean finishes, shrill at the end when Cas’ fingers dip below the waistband of the front of Dean’s jeans, barely brushing over the tip of his cock. Dean fumbles backward to get his hands on the ledge of the table, head tipping back on a groan when Cas’ fingertips push down farther, thumb petting over the fraenulum.  They both shudder.

“I can feel it, I’ve felt it,” Cas breathes against Dean’s neck, “but I—I didn’t know what it was you were broadcasting.  I thought I was reading what I wanted into it, and I didn’t think you’d ever let yourself—or if I would ever be an acceptable—” he says, voice faltering in the middle, uncharacteristically unable to articulate, but Dean understands.  There’s so much history, so much leading into this, where do either one of them begin other than right here?

“We’re gonna fight,” Dean warns, “and— ah, shit, do that again— we’re going to have to talk, and it’s gonna take work, I get that—”

“Yes. Work. Can we start it tomorrow?” Cas breathes against Dean’s neck. He pushes their mouths together and then presses his forehead against Dean’s.

Dean's hands bracket over Cas’ ears and the enormity of it crashes down over him. “I thought I lost you.”

“Me too.”

“I thought it was forever.”

“Me too,” Cas whispers, kissing the side of Dean’s mouth, his cheek, his lips.  “Do you want to—” Cas murmurs, eyes closed as he brushes their noses together.

“Yeah?” Dean asks, head already buzzing from the anticipation.

“—eat these sandwiches?”

Dean pauses, pulls back minutely, both hands still cupped against Cas’ face.  The blue of his eyes are almost totally edged out with pupil.  “Uh..right. Right. Sorry, that’s not what I thought you were gonna ask. I guess..”

Slowly, a grin turns up the edges of Cas’ mouth.

Oh, so you got jokes? Seriously.  At a time like this.  Emotionally stunted guy finally gives you a love confession in the middle of a badass sandwich pile and instead of—”

“Shut up, Dean,” Cas says gently, taking Dean by the hand and leading him out of the kitchen.



Cas fingers are frantically undoing Dean’s button down.  “I don’t know if I’ll be good at this.”

Dean chokes out a laugh.  “Trust me, you were— yeah— before.  I don’t think you have anything to worry about.”

“It has been a couple years since then, and now that we are acknowledging it, there’s a level of performance anxiety I think I am experiencing.”  He flings Dean’s shirt over his shoulder, and betrays absolutely zero of that anxiety as he stoops a little and licks over Dean’s nipple, up to his collarbone.  Steadies the base of Dean's head with one of his hands and prints wet, sucking kisses up the line of muscle in his neck.  The other hand cups itself over Dean’s left pectoral, Cas’ fingernails scratching against the skin there.

“It’s like riding a bike,” Dean says, breathless and pushing into the touch.

“I don’t know how to do that either,” Cas admits, then topples Dean backward onto the bed, kissing the life out of Dean the way he’s always done.  

The bond novas every instant their lips touch.  It feels like Dean’s stepped into fire—if fire were starlight in your veins, and the rest of your body weightless as smoke.  He doesn’t know if it’s the soul in Cas making it feel like that, or Dean’s own piece in himself, but the connection goes wide open, the feedback looping through Dean as finally, finally the bond does something other than ache within him.  

Dean didn’t account for that, and goes a little incoherent with it.  He snatches Cas and rolls them until Dean is on top—biting and kissing Cas’ neck, pulling up his shirt over his head and kissing down his chest.  Cas groans and digs his fingers into the hollow of Dean’s hips and starts to push and pull at him.  

“Holy shit,” Dean rasps out, shocked, lost in it. 

Their hands and arms tangle as they shove down each other’s underwear until they’re skin to skin, heat against heat. Dean straddles Cas’ upper thighs, and grabs both of their cocks in one of his hands.  His fingers can’t reach around them completely, but it’s enough for there to be friction and Dean watches in open-mouthed, lust inspired awe, as the flushed heads of their cocks disappear in and out of the circle of his palm.  It’s the first time he’s touched Cas bare like this, Dean realises.  Both times he always skirted around touching Cas here, made him do it on his own.  For why?  Because of some flimsy plausible deniability he could retain afterward?  What a waste, this fucking rules.  Cas feels amazing in his hand, blood hot and twitching out little drops of precome that leak down over the head of Dean’s cock, and Dean’s mouth should be there, somehow.  He needs to—

Cas arches up into Dean, a loud, broken groan escaping his throat when Dean reconfigures his limbs, slides his mouth over the tip and sucks—and god, oh god, Dean can feel that everywhere. One of Cas’ knees bend, and Dean wraps an arm around the calf to steady himself, trying to go down farther, then back up.  He feels his own cock leaking a wet spot onto Cas’ brand new sheets, and for one delirious moment Dean thinks this is how he’s going to come—just from Cas feeling Dean sucking his dick—but then Cas is pulling Dean up by the hair.  Does it so swiftly that Dean can’t even complain about his mouth no longer being full, or the scalp pain from being manhandled.

Honestly, he’s kind of into that part.

Cas rolls Dean back underneath his body, licking into his mouth and trembling.  “Dean,” he murmurs, voice deep and rumbling against his lips as Dean presses down at the small of Cas’ back until his hip bones press into the sensitive undersides of Dean’s thighs.  He can feel the leftover stickiness of his saliva as Cas rolls his hips and catches at the rim.  They’ve come this close before, exactly this close. Cas hisses, lips pulling back from his teeth as he takes himself in hand and rubs the head against Dean’s hole, smearing precome against him, a steady, inexorable pressure that makes Dean want to bear down and take it and Cas is dirty.  He’s a little fucking dirty. Dean tells him that.

“I’m not—hygiene or—”

“The other one,” Dean gasps when Cas presses in a little harder, enough for the very tip to sink inside, “oh fuck.” His heart hammers inside his chest, nerves and excitement, and the smallest nagging voice in the back of his mind— Dean Winchester spreading his legs and taking it up the ass, what would dad say. 

Then , who fucking cares, Dean thinks.  It’s because of him that Dean never felt worthy of being loved like this in the first place.  How many years did Dean walk around feeling like he was cursed and that it would spill out onto anyone who got too close. What kind of parent lets their kid go around feeling that way about themselves—like they are only worth what they can provide for other people, until there’s nothing left of their own.

“Want you—” Cas says, his speech hurried so Dean almost has to ask him to repeat himself, “I want to be inside you,” he exhales hard, and holds himself still and shaking, like he can’t trust himself not to go farther than where he’s shallowly dipped inside of Dean.

“Yeah, yeah okay. Okay, we can do that, Dean says, wanting it too badly to engineer any wit into his response.

It doesn’t take much more convincing than that.  In an instant Cas is reaching across to the nightstand beside the bed and pulling out a small bottle of clear liquid and pouring it over his fingers.  That’s something that he has.

“When did you get that?” Dean pants out as Cas adjusts Dean’s legs, opens them wider.

“Does it matter?”

“What have you been doing with it?” Dean needs to know.  For reasons.

Cas just says, “Hm,” and twists a finger into Dean, making him arch, an inhale hissing between his teeth, and Dean definitely wants this.  He wants this— the quiet familiarity of Cas’ body against his, the smell of him on the pillows, the echo of him beaconing in Dean’s chest.

Cas bends over Dean and kisses him down from it, distracting him from the slight twinge of pressure-pain when after a minute, a second finger slowly pushes in against the first.  “I wish you could see yourself— you’re beautiful like this.  I knew you would be,” Cas murmurs, voice so sincere and reverent that Dean has to shut his eyes and look away.  It’s different when Cas says things like that.  He’s seen galaxies born, the earth emerging new and glistening with life throughout eons, and Dean is just some blip in the scheme of all that.  He knows Cas doesn’t just mean physical beauty either, but the rest of it as well, the intangible kind that Dean struggles to find within himself.  

“Sure hope you never come to your senses,” Dean tries to drawl out.

Cas, who had been charting the line of Dean’s shoulder with his lips, suddenly bites down.  “Stop that.”  Dean jerks, then moans, and Cas smiles against his collarbone. "Stop trying to convince me into not loving you. It won't happen."

“C’mon, I’m just kidding.”

“No you aren’t,” Cas sighs, “but we will work on it.”  He pushes in a third finger, slicking them in and out, analysing which angle makes Dean jolt in pleasure.  “You’re going to believe me one day.”  When he’s finished, Cas lets his fingers slip out and frames Dean’s hips with his palms, thumbs brushing over the ridge of his iliac crest.  He looks down at Dean consideringly.  “I think you’re ready,” he says.

“Is that your professional opinion or—”

Cas cuts him off with a kiss, and Dean is dimly aware of the snick of pop lid being flipped, the sound of a hand slicking over flesh, but it’s a secondary notion next to the feeling of being kissed by Cas—all soft lips and soft sighs.  It’s easy to get lost in it.  Cas makes his way down Dean’s throat, simple affection contrasting against the sharp sensation of his cock breaching Dean’s body.  That bit—the feedback of fucking into and being fucked into—it cuts through the ache, burns it away until the only the silvery thread between their souls resonates.

When Cas bottoms out, Dean grasps desperately at him, overwhelmed, holding Cas still with his arms banded across the broad expanse of his back. They’re so close, so completely intertwined, everything is being shared across the bridge between their soul.  “Can you feel that?” Dean breathes.

“Yes,” Cas grits out, unable to keep himself from a small, shallow thrust.  “I feel all of it,” he makes a tight, urgent sound in the back of his throat, twists his hips and sinks in a little further.  Dean gasps, a bright surge of pleasure sparking up along his spine, feels wetness slip down from the tip of his dick, and suddenly it’s imperative that Cas moves.  He slides his hands back over Cas’ shoulders, down his chest, reaches down between them where they’re connected and palms his balls—feels how tight and drawn up they are, how soft and vulnerable the skin feels. Cas shakes, and closes his eyes, still trying to give Dean time to adjust. It’s very considerate and all, Cas is a considerate guy, but Dean is less so.  He smears his hands up Cas’ sides, then grabs one firm handful of his ass, smacks the other cheek with an open palm.

Cas was supposed to get the hint.  Instead he snorts a laugh, then looks guilty about it.

“Unbelievable,” Dean mutters, “your dick is literally in me.”

Cas shudders a little at that, which is a better response. “I know.”  He braces himself over Dean, hips retreating, then returning in a slow, but steady thrust—hard enough that Dean can hear the smack of their skin together at the end.  He does it again, and Dean feels himself relaxing around it, opening to it.  Cas keeps at that pace forever, can’t be tempted into anything faster no matter how much Dean writhes and moans underneath him.

They were both verging on sweaty before, but now Dean’s body is covered in a fine sheen of it. The tips of Cas’ hair are slicked black and wet from exertion.  Cas has always been strong as an angel, but even now with his grace still in a rebuilding state, he still has a good bit of muscle on Dean and is not shy about using it to his advantage.  After a few more experimental shoves, Cas finds a new rhythm and proceeds to— if Dean didn’t know the meaning of it before, he certainly does now— fuck Dean into the mattress.   

Not usually the most vocal in bed aside from a little dirty talk—enough to let his partner know he’s into it—Dean is now condensed down to vowels and slurred curses, Cas’ name panted and wailed and unintelligible.  Everything feels new and intense in a way Dean hasn’t experienced before. He’s never felt this connected, this wanted. There’s no bit of Dean carefully cast aside because there was no way he could bring all of himself to the table.

Cas pulls Dean’s wrists over his head, coaxes his spine into an arch and fucks him that way, his lips and teeth a gentle soothing presence in comparison to those rough and powerful thrusts.  Dean loves it.  It feels like Cas is desperate to be lost in him, to make his mark, like he’s waited forever to have Dean blissed out and vulnerable underneath him, and for some reason—that does it for Dean too.  Cas wants Dean completely—the whole battered length of him—not just some idealised version someone made up, placed in Dean’s hands like an unwanted gift, and demanded he live up to it.  

Dean has so many shortcomings and weaknesses, and Cas loves him not in spite of those things, but because they are a part of him.  It hurts a little, to be wanted like that, to discover for the first time that you’re allowed.

Without warning, Cas pulls out, swiftly flips Dean over at the hips until his belly is flat against the bed.  Dean’s already so gone on endorphins, more pliant than he ever remembers being, that he accommodates automatically, pushes back into it with a moan when Cas lies down on top of him and slides back inside.  He flattens Dean to the bed, his hands over the tops of Dean’s hands, Cas’ head nestled between Dean’s shoulder blades.  His thrusts become longer, harder, nearly all the way out, before finishing with that little extra slam of strength that pushes Dean up against the sheets.  His cock is trapped between the mattress and his stomach—there’s pressure and friction, the fullness at the end of each thrust driving Dean closer to completion, making the desperation for release shout in his blood.  He has no idea how Cas has ridden the edge this long, some holdover angel stamina or some shit.  Dean can feel Cas’ need ricocheting off his own, but he’s in far more control of it.  On the next thrust Dean chokes something out sounding so raw and needy that it’s shocking to feel his mouth give shape to it, to connect it to himself.

“Just—” Cas pants out, pressing a shaky kiss to the top knob of Dean’s spine, “a little—more.”  His thumbs dig into Dean’s hips, rearing up from where he was moulded over Dean’s back and up onto his knees, pulling Dean with him.  Scrambling, Dean braces his hands on the mattress, surprised he’s getting his knees and back to even cooperate into this position—the dull throb of old joints and the ragged pull of oxygen into his lungs barely feels any different from pleasure at this point. Everything feels good.

“Cas,” Dean strains out as Cas’ hands flatten and hold at the small of his back, pounding into him, and Dean contains all of it.  Takes it panting and shuddering, pushes upright onto his knees and palms the back of Cas’ head, twisting his chin to take a kiss—though it’s less of a kiss and more of them just breathing into one another, lips smearing.  

Dean’s thighs are burning, his heart pounding away against his ribcage. When Cas’ hand slides down Dean’s throat, his chest, down his abs, and wraps around his dick, Dean is lost.  Cas jacks him twice, his breath heavy against Dean’s jaw as he hooks his chin over Dean’s shoulder to watch.

“You’re gonna make me come,” Dean pants out in a rush, eyes closed, not knowing why he feels the need to say this, and repeats it again like he’s surprised by it.  “Cas, Cas—”   He can barely breathe with every sensation chasing the next one through his blood.

“I know,” Cas whispers, his mouth against Dean’s pulse, “I know.”  And then there aren’t any words left at all—just the staccato of Dean’s voice echoing with each pulse wrung out of his body, Cas’ sympathetic groan.  He feels heat and fresh slick covering Cas’ fingers as he works him over the crest.  There’s a bright, sharp ache blooming against Dean’s shoulder and Dean jerks with it, realising it’s Cas’ teeth.  

When only those final, half-delirious convulsions remain, Dean collapses forward, boneless and unable to sustain his own weight against Cas’ momentum.  It doesn’t seem to phase Cas at all, he helps Dean down to the pillows, pressing him at the hips to turn him face up again, and sinks back inside with a gasp.  Dean can feel Cas’ arms trembling where they bracket on either side of him, he fights to keep his eyes open when Cas lets his forehead drop, lowering it to Dean’s.  

The echo of Cas’ need is growing into that solitary breaking point.  Syllables are jerked from Cas’ mouth, the solid and relentless rhythm of earlier is falling apart at the seams.  He bears one of Dean’s thighs back toward the mattress as his hips snap forward in tight, urgent thrusts.  

“Cas,” Dean manages to breathe out, stroking his hands up into Cas’ hair, down his back, trying to soothe away a desperation that goes beyond Dean’s understanding of it.  He only knows it’s there and Cas feels it, which means Dean can feel it too.  “C’mon Cas, you’re right there.”

“I’m not—I’m, I don’t—”

“Come on,” Dean pleads with him, needing to feel Cas let go as much as Cas needs it himself, “Jesus Cas, come on, come on.  Kiss me.” 

Cas does without hesitation, falls into Dean and smears their lips together, then drives up hard into him once, twice, his entire body locking up against Dean’s as release washes over him.  For a moment, Dean forgets how spent his own body is, goes mindless when Cas’ orgasm reverberates through him—feels how it burns away the bitter edge of all that breathless, ceaseless yearning.  Feels a heat and wetness spilling into him, and all Dean can do is pull Cas farther inside, wanting everything, all of it, anything Cas can give him.  They’re joined together, body and soul, and in the great merging of it, Dean struggles to tell himself apart from Cas. Their hearts race together.  The pleasure of it surges through them, together.  Dean is unmade and restored, and for the first time in his life, there is no fear in the back of Dean’s mind that this love comes attached with conditions.  He must only accept it and return it and protect it, and allow Cas to do the same.  

It's the allowing which is the hardest, of course. It helps to know in those inevitable moments when Dean is at his most self-loathing, that Cas will still be there, believing in his worth, believing Dean is enough even when Dean can’t.

Sometimes people need that, Dean thinks, and maybe that’s okay.

 

Cas has collapsed on top of Dean, chest to sweaty chest, mess to fucking mess.  He’s still kissing Dean like both their lives depend on it though, as if he hasn’t just come inside him after fucking Dean incohorent, and Dean tries kissing back as best he can.  But his body is warm and floating still, his mouth and limbs don’t obey when tries kissing back and stroking Cas’ wild hair—the best Dean manages is a clumsy swipe that drags across Cas’ cheek, a loose puckering of his lips, letting the tip of his tongue flick lazily against Cas’.

Cas has the audacity to twitch where he’s still gloved inside of Dean’s ass.

“Oh my god,” Dean slurs, “how can you still—”

“Sorry, it’s, ah, ” Cas murmurs against Dean’s throat as his hips give a small, helpless thrust. Dean shivers in oversensitivity.  Cas does it again, really just making a mess.  Unfortunately Dean is maybe into it. Cas pulls out, slides three fingers back inside, and Dean has to amend that to definitely into it.

“It’s all the suppressed carnal intention I’ve harboured toward you over the years.  Fantasies and— there are several things I want to try with our bodies. I’ve thought a lot about it.”

Dean huffs a laugh. “Wow, okay.  Okay, hot,”  Dean thinks about it for a split second, wondering if his body can rally for round two in 30 seconds flat, before coming to terms with his 42 year old reality.  “And I’d be very interested in hearing those—but Cas, babe, afterglow alright? We’ll get around to those things when my legs are working again.”

“Some of them don’t require use of legs,” Cas says, matter-of-fact, but lets his fingers slip away.  

Dean blows air between his teeth and looks over to where Cas’ head is resting above his shoulder, chin propped over the top of a hand.  He’s got those big, innocent eyes fixed on Dean.  “God, I love you,” Dean tells him, plain and earnest and worth repeating even if it makes Dean’s face burn.  “I’m sorry that it took so long for me to understand it.” It’s hard not to feel bitterness for that, for all the lost time and stolen possibilities.  He wishes love and fear hadn’t been taught to him as inextricable from one another. That it was possible to love without the fear of it crushing you to death.

“I never held that against you,” Cas says quietly.  “But if you want my forgiveness—”

“Some things you can’t —”

“I’ll be the judge of what I can and can’t do,” he says with such plain certainty that Dean doesn’t even try to argue.  “I don’t require qualifiers, or for you to attach disclaimers to yourself.  I forgive you and I love you, as I have always done. The matter is settled.”

“Oh.” Dean says, taken aback, and a little speechless. “Well, shit. Fine.”

Cas smiles, a warm, closed lipped thing that he turns and presses against Dean’s skin. The cuckoo clock trills and Dean doesn’t even startle or fuss.  He lets the song fade into the back of his mind as he gathers Cas against him, fingers tracing idle designs between his shoulder blades.

 

—-



“Dean, you need to stay on the right side of the road.”

“Who cares, we’re the only ones on it!” Dean says, gesturing toward the winding expanse of empty highway in front of them.  

“Yes, until we’re not.”

“Come on Cas, we’re in Fuh—fyuhduhhubuh—”

“Fjarðarheiði,” Cas pronounces flawlessly.  At least Dean thinks he does.  Cas speaks all the languages so Dean just assumes.

“That! Iceland, whatever.  Look, just calm down and enjoy the ride.”

Besides, it isn’t Dean’s fault.  He keeps getting distracted by the scenery—the snow capped mountains to one side, a body of water with a name Dean also can’t pronounce to the other, the soft sweep of silver clouds overhead. “Oh fuck—” Dean mutters when he comes round a bend in the road and manages to swerve back into the right lane after nearly meeting another car head on.

“Would you like me to drive?” Cas says in a very pointed told you so sort of way.

“I got it, I got it,” Dean grumbles, making a renewed effort to stay in the right lane instead. 

“It would be embarrassing to die en route to the phallological museum. Sam would never recover.”

“Just say dick museum.”

“Hið Íslenzka Reðasafn.”

Dean smiles, looks over at Cas with his elbow resting against the door panel, temple nudged against his fist.  His eyes flick to the side and clock Dean watching him.  The sides of Cas’ mouth begin to turn up. “Watch where you’re going,” he reminds, much less passive aggressive this time.

The dawn opens up all around them, the warm, cleansing wellspring of it casting light over the water, and refracting across the snow.  One of Dean’s hands lets go of the steering wheel, he slides it toward Cas and walks his fingers up onto Cas’ thigh, taps a knuckle.  He turns over his palm in an offering. Immediately Cas interlaces their fingers, and how strange, Dean thinks, that even this used to take so much courage.

“Hey.. hey,” Dean says, “C’mere.”  He leans toward Cas, chin turned toward him as much as he can without looking away from the road.  “Don’t make me stop this car, we’ll never get to the dick museum on time.”

Cas releases a sigh, grabs either side of Dean’s face, kisses him as passionately as he can for one swift half-second before releasing his hold.  “Or we can stop the car at the next fjord.”

“Or we can stop at the next fjord,” Dean agrees, feeling a hint of fire licking at the thread between their soul.  It’s their soul now, that’s how Dean thinks of it—no longer the bit that Cas is borrowing .  It’s ours.  Dean could never reclaim that part as his own again, can’t think of anything that would make him want it back.  He remembers how much it hurt, carrying it all alone.

Dean is more whole now, than he ever was in one piece.