In high school Dean had a girlfriend who treated dream symbols like the key to unlocking the secrets of the human soul, carrying a damned dream dictionary around with her the way nuns carried Bibles, a small book bound in dark blue and complete with a ribbon marker. The idea that Dean might have to talk about—and potentially be judged for—the nighttime wanderings of his subconscious mind unsettled him beyond belief. Once he even mentioned it to his father in passing; John had simply levelled him with a look and said, “It’s not bad enough to see the shit we do in our line of work, you gotta go lookin’ inside people’s hearts, too?” like he thought Dean was plain off his rocker.
It was crazy shit, even by Dean’s standards, and he learned the hard way never to bring up in conversation a bad dream or nightmare he might have had the night before. That girlfriend became a thing of the past not long after, and the Winchesters rolled on to the next town, same as they always did. Dean never really forgot that exchange, though, and sometimes caught himself looking askance at anyone who talked about a particularly fucked-up dream they’d had, before he quickly reminded himself of the truth of his father’s words.
Even after learning of Sammy’s psychic abilities, which should have been enough to turn him into even more of a paranoid sonofabitch, Dean preferred not to give too much thought—ha!—to the mysteries of the human mind. That is, until he met Castiel. He certainly never thought his mind could be an open book to anyone, certainly not an angel. Despite weeks dreading this possibility, hairs lifting on the back of his neck whenever Castiel looked at him a certain way, or made off with a line almost too perceptive to be real, Dean more or less convinced himself his thoughts were still safe, still a mystery, memories of Hell and death and torture nothing more than a closed book. Castiel himself was such an enigma that Dean almost refused to believe the universe could be so unfair as to let that street run one-way. He knew that was bullshit, of course, because the universe was plenty capable of tipping the scales against him time and again, but it was like he needed to hold on to the illusion that Castiel was as ignorant to the true nature of his thoughts and feelings as anyone else. Maybe it was because Dean plain didn’t trust the angel, but deep down he also knew it was mostly to do with not trusting himself.
Of course, meeting at the end of a quiet lakeside dock changed all that: after the first time Castiel stepped inside his dreams, reaching out in desperation, Dean stopped lying to himself and accepted that he could expect to meet Castiel coming around the corner in a dream at any time, and Dean would have fuck-all to do about it. He never asked whether this was something Castiel could do with anyone, or just him, because they seemed to share some freaky link with each other since Castiel pulled him out of Hell. Naturally, Cas didn’t volunteer the answer. He never did it again, either, preferring to conduct their strange, silent conversations in person only. But it never quite escaped Dean’s knowledge that Cas could, if he wanted to. It should have made Dean afraid to go to sleep, nervous about the secrets to which Castiel might be helping himself to in the night, but oddly enough, he never was. In some ways Dean thinks he started sleeping better after that, knowing there was someone out there who could protect him from the horrors in his own head when he was powerless to stop them himself.
Not anymore, though. Ever since Castiel sucked up enough souls to make a nuclear reactor look like a meager gas flame, Dean has started to avoid falling asleep at night, wondering, despite what Castiel says, if the monster wearing his best friend’s face is going to steal into his bedroom and kill him—and Sam and Bobby, that goes without saying—while he slumbers on, unaware. It would be a shitty, almost embarrassing way to go for a hunter, which Castiel would know were he in his right mind. But Dean knows the angel who calls himself God doesn’t care. He doesn’t give a shit what Dean Winchester wants and needs; in fact, it often occurs to Dean that Castiel might happily obliterate anyone who stands in his way, or who doesn’t want or need or love him the way he expects. Even if that person was Dean. Hell, he wouldn’t put it past him to somehow manipulate Dean into going along with the whole crazy plan. Wouldn’t be the first time an angel pulled that kind of stunt, mutated or not. Dean wouldn’t—couldn’t—think of this false god that way, and so he knows it’s just a matter of time before he’s in Castiel’s sights, too.
But a man can’t stay awake forever, and so it comes as no surprise when one night Dean finds himself standing at the edge of a familiar lake, a fishing rod and tackle box in his hands as his ears fill with the sound of gentle waves that lap, lap, lap against the wooden dock before him. If he had to pick a spot for it, he’d say this was somewhere in pine-drenched New England, the reds and golds of the turning leaves giving the air a burnished quality despite the crisp, cerulean sky. A blue-collar paradise, maybe, but paradise nonetheless. Aside from the frisson of fear that runs through him at the knowledge he’s asleep, Dean doesn’t think anything of it—he’s visited this lake so many times in his dreams, it’s practically a favoured retreat, a place he comes when in need of solitude and comfort. He always looks around to see if Cas might be there, too, though Dean is always alone.
Except, this time, he isn’t.
It’s not the trenchcoat that alerts Dean to the figure sitting with his legs dangling off the edge of the dock, because that’s gone. Rather, it’s the ruffled dark hair and narrow, vulnerable set of Castiel’s shoulders beneath the white dress shirt as he hunches forward, hands braced on either side of him. His shirtsleeves are bunched haphazardly at the elbow, while the discarded trench, suit jacket and tie sit in a pile off to the side. Dean smiles to himself and starts forward, and for once doesn’t give much thought to the way his stomach flips and quivers inside him at the sight, eyes pausing to trace the fragile outline of the figure in front of him before he alerts Cas to his presence.
Dean sets down the rod and tackle a few feet away and goes to settle himself next to Castiel, mirroring his posture with legs swinging over the side; he notices Cas has also removed his shoes and socks, rolled up the hems of his black pants in order to let his toes skim the surface of the quiet lake. Pausing just barely, Dean starts pulling off his boots so he can do the same, wanting almost nothing more than to feel that cool water swirling about his feet. It’s nearly enough.
Cas doesn’t look up, staring down at the lake as though it’s lulled him into a trance-like state; Dean doesn’t know how or if he should disturb this appearance of calm. They can sit here in silence without much difficulty, having done so numerous times before in other places, but for once Dean wishes he were the type of man who could lay a hand on Cas’s shoulder and say, I’ve missed you, because goddamn, he has.
It’s been an ache inside him these past few weeks, a living, breathing ball of hurt nestled between his lungs and against his heart like a cancer. He can’t talk about it with Sam or Bobby, especially with Sam dealing with his broken wall and Bobby still of the opinion that Castiel in his current incarnation needs to die if he can’t be saved. But Dean knows they understand what he’s feeling, that they recognize coiled pain in the defeated set of Dean’s shoulders and the way he can never quite hear Cas’s name spoken without flinching. Not being able to stop Cas, not being able to save him, is just another thing for Dean to add to his mile-long list of regrets.
Now, though, he should find out who he’s sitting next to before he goes making any grand declarations of brotherhood. “You still evil?” he asks, glancing once more at Cas and then out across the lake. Even from the corner of his eye, he can see the alarmed, confused look Cas shoots his way, jumping like Dean snuck up behind him and blew a foghorn in his ear. Since Cas is pretty much impossible to sneak up on, Dean turns back to him with a frown. “Cas?”
The angel is still staring back at him with wide eyes and lips pressed bloodless white. It’s freaking Dean out a little, if he’s honest, but then Cas says, “We don’t speak here,” somehow managing to make the statement sound surprised and disapproving, like Dean should know better. Like Cas isn’t the one who’s got no right being here.
Well, okay. Dean lifts an eyebrow. “We seem to be doing a pretty good job of it, dude, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
With an imperceptible shake of his head, Cas starts to pull himself to his feet, obviously trying to put distance between himself and Dean. Not the easiest thing to do on a dock less than five feet wide, but his determination rattles some fundamental part of Dean’s calm, makes him instinctively want to pull away so Cas feels less threatened. “I said don’t, not can’t,” clarifies Castiel in a rush. Almost prissily, he brushes nonexistent dust off his pants. “This is not a place for talk.”
“I thought that was church,” retorts Dean, brow still deeply furrowed; he can feel the little ridges in his own forehead like they’re trying to crawl up and escape into his hair. He pauses a moment, and when nothing bad happens—like Castiel smiting him—he lets go of the breath he’s been holding and figures this must be the Cas he remembers, a little uptight but otherwise willing to let Dean get away with the odd blasphemy. “Are you okay?” he asks instead, peering up at Cas’s face.
“I—yes.” Cas frowns. “You startled me.”
Dean cracks a smile that is not returned, but throws out a glib, “Always did like to keep you on your toes,” for good measure.
He decides this dream is a little tense for his liking, since as far as he’s concerned his unconscious mind is the one place he can do whatever the fuck he pleases without worrying about the consequences; plus this water is too damn nice to go to waste. Dean springs to his feet next to Cas, who is still watching him with wary eyes, and promptly goes about stripping off his T-shirt, then unbuckling his belt and unbuttoning his jeans.
Cas frowns like Dean has gone completely insane. “What are you doing?”
“I’m going for a swim,” announces Dean.
He shoves his jeans down his legs and kicks them off, not bothering to check that they land on the dock and not in the water. When he’s down to his boxer-briefs, feeling far less exposed than he probably would in front of Cas under normal circumstances, Dean plants his hands on his hips and smiles the biggest shit-eating grin he can muster, then turns and executes a dive that’s pretty damn perfect, if Dean says so himself.
The water is clear and blue and caressingly perfect against his skin, bubbles ticking against his ribs as he swims as far down to the bottom as he can before propelling himself back up. The lake is deep; even twenty or so feet down, he can see nothing but dark. He kicks his way back up to the surface and breaks through with a joyous whoop. Cas is hanging back apprehensively.
“Well?” Dean shouts, feeling all of fifteen again, nothing to do on a bright afternoon but enjoy life the way the living seldom do. The way he hasn't in a long time, not even in dreams.
Dean snorts and gestures wide enough to send water droplets flicking in Castiel’s direction. “Clothes off, dude. This ain’t a peep show. Kind of impolite to just stand there with all your clothes on while the other guy is naked.” Not even in a dream could Cas fail to look mildly affronted, eyes raking over Dean’s bare body, seal-like and slick in the water, as though he should come with an instruction manual.
But his hands hesitantly go for the buttons of his own shirt. “We don’t normally swim, either,” he ventures, working his way down with nimble fingers Dean absently thinks could be just as suited to playing a piano as wielding an angel blade.
Since when does Cas tell Dean what he can and can’t do in a dream? “Live a little, Cas,” says Dean, gliding backwards through the water so he can maintain eye contact.
Dean knows he should look away as Cas reaches the last button of his shirt and shrugs it off his shoulders, but he doesn’t; instead Dean lets his words die as he watches from the water, treading silently. If this was the waking world, Dean would have turned his eyes away by now, following the unspoken rules respected in locker rooms the world over. Dean’s always been careful about obeying them, never letting his gaze linger too long on another man, not wanting to risk it.
And yet Dean can’t avert his gaze from the first band of skin he sees on Cas. He feels almost compelled to look. Dean tells himself Cas is like the shy, pale boy ubiquitous to high schools everywhere, the type you never see down at the beach unless Hell has frozen over good and proper. It’s such a rarity, Dean thinks, to see the fair, taut flesh of Castiel’s belly exposed to sunlight, the narrow chest and pink nipples always hidden beneath the suit, Dean’s almost obligated to commit it to memory, just in case he’s expected to testify later. Cas—or Jimmy, rather—has a body that is predictably slim but not skinny, toned but not muscular except for his legs which, as Castiel lowers his pants, Dean sees are powerful the way only a runner’s could be, corded and tight. It’s an inadvertent reminder of how peaceful a guy Jimmy was, dedicated to taking care of himself and his family; so non-combative he probably never even played a competitive sport in his life. But Jimmy’s gone, Dean knows, though he and Cas have never talked openly about what became of the man. After a second, Dean remembers that technically Cas is gone, too.
Shaking off the thought, Dean opens his mouth and is about to say, Just jump in, rather than try to coach Castiel through how to execute a dive. Then Cas hesitates one second longer and swan-dives into the water as easily as cold steel through blood, body slicing into the depths with precision and speed that takes him halfway across the lake before he emerges, smiling wanly. His hair is plastered to his forehead in slick little whorls. For a moment Dean is impressed Cas knows how to handle himself in the water, then realizes there are a whole host of things Cas knows that Dean didn’t teach him, like how to laugh or smile or kiss. Of course Castiel is full of surprises, far more than Dean could have even imagined; however, he still clings to the notion that Castiel’s hidden depths are unrelated to their so-called new God, however much Bobby insists the two are inextricably intertwined. And this is a dream, after all. Dean has no idea whether Castiel could actually swim in real life, but that doesn’t matter here. Or anywhere. At least not anymore.
Though he continues to look apprehensive a while longer, Castiel eventually loosens up and begins to enjoy the water—Dean sees the precise moment it happens, tension bleeding from Cas’s body in a slump of suddenly relaxed shoulders, muscles tensing to propel himself through the water, but nothing more. Even his face looks faintly slack with what takes Dean a moment to identify as pleasure, a softness about the mouth and eyes he hasn’t seen in nearly two years; not since the last time he and Cas drove around on a quiet night with no destination, something almost like peace between them in the silence of the cab. It’s enough to make him regret not doing this sooner, among other things, though he knows deep down he never could have done something like this with Cas in real life.
“You’re happy here, aren’t you,” murmurs Dean, the statement starting off as a question but ending in something closer to certainty.
“Happy?” Cas furrows his brow like he doesn’t quite understand… or agree. “This place feels safe,” he says instead. “I come here to be alone.”
But he isn’t alone, thinks Dean, and besides—this is his dream, one in which Castiel is rarely found. By the sounds of it, though, Castiel retreats here often, for nothing other than to sit quietly with Dean and stare out at the lake. These two versions seem so impossible to reconcile in Dean’s mind, he finds himself growing confused in every way but one: Cas’s definition of ‘alone’ has somehow shifted to indicate not himself, but them, he and Dean alone together, protected from the waking world. Dean doesn’t know what to do with that information or the way it sits in his gut like a grain of sand inside an oyster. He’s never produced a beautiful thing in his life, though, so Dean doubts any pearls will result.
“Didn’t you feel safe before?” he asks. “Ever?”
Cas stops swimming long enough to let himself submerge almost up to the eyes, which stare back at Dean from beneath the mop of water-dark hair. It’s a little creepy, or would be were it anyone but Cas, and Dean almost has to fight off a smile as Cas glides closer with still nothing but his eyes above the water. When they’re about a foot apart, limbs brushing occasionally as they tread water—Dean doesn’t stop to question what it means that he doesn’t back away anymore—Castiel comes back up to speak.
“Before, yes,” he allows, which is probably too generous. Dean knows he did a piss-poor job of ever keeping Cas safe or alive or well. If he’d done any of those things, he and Cas might be having this conversation right now on a park bench somewhere, and not the unconscious recesses of his mind. Still, Dean appreciates the effort. “I didn’t come here before unless it was for a pleasant escape, or to gather my thoughts. But a lot has changed, Dean. Now I must take sanctuary where I find it.”
“Sanctuary from what?”
Brow furrowed, Cas opens his mouth to answer, and quickly closes it again as Dean feels a gush of ice-cold water tickle at the bottoms of his feet and sweep up his legs; he guesses Cas feels it, too. While it’s not unheard of for spring-fed lakes to have occasional pockets of cold water rising up from the bottom, Dean’s been around a bit too long to trust that the reasonable explanation is ever the right one. Besides, unless this lake formed on top of a glacier, he can’t see how it could turn so shockingly brisk, when before it was roughly the temperature of a cool bath.
“What the hell was that?” he asks. Instinctively, he nudges one hand against Cas’s shoulder to urge him to begin swimming back in the direction of the dock. He can’t say for sure it’ll be any safer there, but right now he feels seriously uneasy at the thought of staying in the water. “Come on.”
Typically, Cas doesn’t budge, continuing to tread water and staring down into the murky depths of the lake like he can see all the way down. Seeing as it’s a dream, Dean isn’t sure there is a bottom; surely it’s just a resting place for his secrets, everything dark and nasty and terrible, and he’d rather Cas not be peering too closely at that, anyway.
Then there is another blast of that freezing water, so cold it’s like the scrape of knives down Dean’s legs, and Cas glances up with eyes wide and terrified. “Dean,” he says, voice urgent and afraid—that scares Dean more than anything, that fear—and suddenly Cas is pushing Dean away, shoving him back and unbalancing him in the water, but making it clear he wants Dean paddling for safety like yesterday. Dean’s all for that plan, except he can’t for the life of him figure out why Cas wouldn’t come with him.
In answer, Castiel bobs in the water as though tugged sharply downwards, disappearing in it up to his ears for a split second before he bobs back up, looking more alarmed than before. “Go, Dean!” he orders, and Dean still has no idea what he’s supposed to be running from, though he has a feeling Castiel might.
“What’s down there?” he demands, grabbing hold of Castiel’s arm and trying to pull him bodily in the direction of the shore. “Is it a monster?”
“No,” snaps Cas. “Just go!” He’s dragged beneath the water again, this time with a great deal more force that submerges his whole head for a second. Then he’s popping above the water again, and Dean thinks he knows what comes next. Seeing as how his favourite retreat just turned into some kind of Jaws nightmare, it probably won’t be pretty.
“We need to get out of the water,” Dean says, with what to him sounds like sheer, dumb obviousness. “Both of us, Cas, come on.”
The words are barely out and then Cas is slipping beneath the surface once more; whatever’s got hold of him is pulling him down for longer and longer periods, and Dean kicks out at it, with a frantic shout of “Cas!”, but he can neither see nor feel anything down there except Castiel’s legs and feet. Dean doesn’t care whether it’s a sea monster or a giant shark; he just knows he needs to kill it, needs to stop it from taking Cas. To stop himself from losing Cas all over again.
He barely gets hold of Castiel’s hands when the angel resurfaces, face distressed and pale white with fear. “You can’t stop it, Dean,” he gasps out, and Dean knows a brush-off when he hears one, the finality in the words not so different from his shout of, I’ll hold them off, I’ll hold them all off! before Cas dared face Raphael’s wrath. That didn’t end so well for him, and Dean can’t possibly see how this will either. Why the hell isn’t Cas moving? Though his eyes are wide and scared, his movements taking on an edge of desperation as he splashes and fights to stay afloat, it’s like he refuses to leave this spot and swim for safety. “You must go, now!”
The fourth time Castiel is yanked under, the sick feeling in Dean’s gut tells him he won’t be popping back up so easily; the angel’s hands are ripped from his grip in a downward trajectory so sharp and fast Dean is nearly pulled down with him. He barely has time to register the thought before he’s diving down after him, feet kicking powerfully, arms sluicing through the water with every ounce of his determination.
Dean’s a good swimmer: he can hold his breath like a fucking Marine and has decent eyesight underwater. What’s most alarming, though, is that he can’t see Cas anywhere, and the water is still bitter cold in the wake of whatever snatched up his friend. Realistically, it’s not so much that Castiel needs to breathe down here—in that respect, he’s probably better off than Dean, even in a dream. But Dean knows this is bad, both that something is hidden beneath the depths of this lake, and the fact that Castiel seems to accept it. Maybe that’s why he responded so strangely when Dean tried to strike up conversation and then dove into the water; maybe Cas knew this would happen, knew Dean’s actions might disturb something dangerous, but jumped in anyway. Followed Dean in like he always does. Did. Typical.
However illogical, the thought that Dean might have caused this only spurs him on harder, sends him onward through that black, frigid water even as his lungs start to burn and his muscles ache from a combination of exertion and the constant shudders that wrack his body from the cold. Telling himself this is just a dream, that he ought to be able to breathe underwater, has no effect.
Soon his vision starts to flicker and fade, too, but Dean can’t let himself stop, has to keep going and bring Cas back from wherever he’s been taken. This time, he has to be the one to save him, keep Cas from falling into darkness like Cas has saved him so many times before. Dean knows he tried to reach out to the angel when it was clear his friend was in danger of becoming lost, but it bugs him, constantly, if he could have done more. If maybe there was something he never came out and said that might have counted, might have prevented this whole damn mess when it was most important. Sometimes, when Dean can be honest enough with himself, he thinks he first lost the opportunity after Sam went into the Pit. When Cas could have stayed, and Dean never gave any hint he might want him to. Cas was family, and didn’t he always say you kept family close? But for a long time Dean told himself he wasn’t at fault for that, not really, because Cas never asked Dean not to go, either. Then there were the secrets, the lies, the refusals to let Dean help even when asked; that was on Cas, the stubborn bastard.
So why does Dean still feel like he’s missed something important?
He does realize, however, that he's out of air. With a sharp, water-muffled, “Fuck!” that escapes along with a small stream of air bubbles, Dean waffles between returning to the surface and taking his chances down here, though realistically he knows there’s no choice left to him but to find oxygen. Turning himself back upright and tucking his arms tight to his sides, Dean flutter-kicks his way back to the surface on an angle to cut through the water pressure, cursing himself all the while. He’s not going to make it, he realizes, having held his breath for almost three minutes already. Perhaps staying still he could stretch it out to four, maybe four-and-a-half minutes, but Dean’s spent too much energy in his frantic swim after Cas, his lungs now clenching and spasming so painfully in his chest it feels like being punched repeatedly.
The surface is within his sights now, though, glimmering just out of reach, and Dean tries to tell himself to stay calm and keep kicking, to keep his movements strong and controlled so as not to waste air he hasn’t got. The burn is more like a searing scream now, and Dean’s consciousness is far less sharp than he’d like to admit. But he keeps swimming and fighting his way topside, promising he’ll be going right back down again to look for Cas. It’s a goddamned miracle when he breaks the surface with a ferocious gasp—
—and promptly finds himself jerking awake on the couch in Bobby’s study, the house eerie quiet and still around him. Quiet, that is, except for Bobby himself standing over him, and his concerned, “Dean?” His hand is poised near Dean’s shoulder like he was about to shake him awake.
“What the hell?!” snaps Dean, batting the hand away to hide how startled he is, both by Bobby’s unexpected presence and the dream’s lingering sense of horror. Dean remembers it all vividly, right down to Cas’s wide, frightened eyes as he was pulled under.
Looking unimpressed, Bobby takes a step back and folds his arms. “You were having a nightmare, son,” he answers. “Sounded like a doozy.”
“I’m fine. Quit your hoverin’.” He knows he’s being unfair, and he never, ever talks to Bobby this way, not even when he wants to, but the old hunter needs to back off, give him some room. He feels like he can’t catch his breath. And while he might confide a lot of things to Bobby, things he doesn’t breathe a word of to anyone else, even Sam, right now Dean thinks he might be about to have a panic attack, and would kind of like to do so in private.
Naturally, Bobby ignores him. Says, “Was it a dream about Feathers?” and at this, Dean’s mouth snaps shut.
“What makes you think that?” he asks uncomfortably, still bristling.
“Because, Dean,” Bobby says tolerantly, like he’s talking to a five-year-old, “you kept saying his name.” When Dean doesn’t answer, Bobby correctly reads his silence as confirmation and sighs. “Do you want to talk about it? I know this has been… tough for you.”
Dean rolls his eyes, tries to mask the quiver of anxiety in his gut same as he always does. There’s no way he’s heaping this onto the pile of bullshit they’ve already got to deal with; no way he’s going to burden Sam—or Bobby, by proxy—with worrying about Dean’s nightmares, not when he can barely handle his own. It’s best locked away with the rest of it, best buried. With any luck, this nightmare is a one-time thing.
“What I want is to go back to sleep,” he answers finally. “And I don't want you telling Sam about this... whatever it is you think you heard. He has enough of his own crap to deal with right now.”
Bobby stares at him disapprovingly for a moment, but eventually sighs and returns to the kitchen, muttering what sounds like, “Damned fool Winchester,” under his breath. As Dean cranes his neck around to see, he watches Bobby fill a glass of water at the sink before returning upstairs to one of the bedrooms not filled with junk and cobwebs. Eventually, too exhausted—mentally, emotionally, physically, doesn’t matter—to fight it, Dean falls back to sleep. His last thought is not an observation, but rather, a prayer he won’t dream again that night.
He doesn’t. The next time, however, is days later, and he finds himself sitting with Bobby inside a poorly lit barn on the outskirts of Pontiac, Illinois. Together they’re watching a barricaded set of double doors like the Devil himself might come strolling through. Dean starts, limbs jerking as though he’s just been rudely awakened from a dream, and not the opposite. Surrounding him is row upon row of sigil and spell, black paint harsh against the grubby white interior; a desperate attempt to safeguard them against God-knows-what. The scene is familiar, the lingering smell of livestock and old machinery from the barn’s previous incarnations, the faint tingle of electricity in the air. After a second, Dean recognizes the setting of his first encounter with Castiel, Ruby’s knife familiar and solid in his hand where he plays with it against the tabletop upon which he sits.
This is a strange one, thinks Dean; he’s present in the dream but weirdly separate from it all, like he can see and feel everything but has no control over what’s happening, a movie of himself in which he’s no more than an audience member. Dean doesn’t know what to do with a second-hand experience of something that actually happened to him, what it’s supposed to mean. He’s never dreamed about his memories of Castiel before—hell, never really dreamed much about Cas before, period, before last week. Stranger still is how there’s no doubt in his mind this isn’t real; the dream sits awkwardly over his unconscious mind, like a belt pulled too tight.
Dean doesn’t have to watch what happens to remember how that night unfolded—the most violent, breathtakingly fantastic storm he’d ever witnessed; and at its centre, in the midst of exploding light bulbs and rattling metal, an angel of the Lord. He can feel the rough grooves of his shotgun as he fires round after round into Castiel’s chest, eardrums popping with each blast until they were little more than distant cracks, like fireworks from far away. Dean’s thunderous heartbeat, getting faster with each step Castiel makes as he draws nearer, drowns out all other sound in the room, and then, right there, is a pair of blue eyes so bright and intent they drown out everything else. Then, like now, Dean’s first experience of Castiel was that of sensory deprivation, erasing history and time and every single preconceived notion Dean might have had about the universe.
When Castiel is finally within striking distance, Dean rattles at his own consciousness like the bars of a cage, fighting to break through, to take control. If this is a dream, he should be able to call the shots, right? But his dream-self is as unaware of his presence—his desperation—as Castiel, fingers closing once again around the hilt of Ruby’s knife as they circle each other.
Dean hears himself ask, “Who are you?”
At the time, Dean had considered Castiel’s response, the quiet smile on his face, as smug, the words themselves proud as they were baffling: “I’m the one who gripped you tight and raised you from Perdition.” Watching the exchange again, however, Dean sees what he never did before: the familiarity and recognition in Castiel’s bearing, something Dean can only understand now that he knows the angel better, knows he and Cas had been to Hell and back, had already forged something he might spend a lifetime trying to understand. As far as Dean was concerned, back then he’d never seen Castiel before in his life—how could he begin to understand what the angel had already done for him, all he would do in the years to come?
Dean watches his dream-self quip, “Yeah, thanks for that,” and Dean knows what he’s about to do next, the second his grip shifts on Ruby’s knife and he whips it forward to attack. But instead of the demon blade, the weapon Dean withdraws is the sharp, gleaming length of an angel sword, easily recognizable by its unusual heft and shape. Dean is useless. Useless to make the strangled, animal noise that wants to pull itself from his throat, useless to lurch forward and respond, to fling himself at Cas like he will suddenly be able to shove the angel out of the way. The blade plunges deep into Castiel’s chest, tenting out his trenchcoat where it emerges from the other side; Cas falls to his knees and stares up at Dean with a startled expression while his dream-self looks on in triumph.
Meanwhile, Dean is fighting for control, beating his fists against a reality that refuses to acknowledge his presence, the scene playing on as though he were never there, a flash of incredible light building from where Castiel has been stabbed. It explodes like a supernova, whiting everything out with a burst of impossible pain that seems to shatter Dean’s body from the molecules up.
He awakens with a jerk on the same couch as before, except this time he’s alone, no concerned brothers or father-figures to be found anywhere. A headache pounds behind his eyeballs with vicious force. After sparing a quick, knee-jerk glance around to be sure, Dean lets himself give in to the urge to gasp and splutter and clutch at his chest, feeling like his heart might come bursting through at any second. It hurts on more than just a physical level, the memory of the dream still so vivid, the knowledge he watched Castiel die in front of him the way he’s come to dread. Having witnessed the angel’s demise only a few nights previous, Dean feels horribly, inexplicably guilty, like he destroyed Castiel with his own hands. It could only have been a dream; if he were expected to kill Cas in real life, Dean thinks he never could. Dean hopes it’s not a preview of what’s to come.
Dean looks out at the backyard covered in a perfect, rust-coloured blanket of fall, and knows just where he is. There’s something about raking leaves that feels like coming home, even to a home that doesn’t exist.
The beauty of living one’s life on the road, Dean thinks, is there are never many chores to go with it; his main responsibilities growing up came down to keeping the guns clean, Sammy safe and the Impala in working order if John wasn’t around to give her a tune-up. In a way those duties were all about looking after their home in the same way normal people vacuum or clean out the eaves. Neither Dean nor his brother mourned the lack of household chores they heard about from school friends, whoever they happened to be that week. But upon moving into Lisa’s house, Dean found he developed a soft spot for yard work as much as he did the flat-screen television or stainless-steel espresso machine in the kitchen. He remembers raking piles of dried leaves together that October with Ben, great, tidy cushions in red and orange and brown that the two of them belly-flopped into like a couple of five-year-olds.
Despite the seriously fucked-up dreams he’s been having lately, Dean doesn’t, at first, consider anything amiss when he finds himself staring at his counterpart from almost a couple of years ago, quietly raking some of autumn’s earliest victims off the back lawn. By the jacket dream-Dean wears, the breeze still lacking that particular crispness of the later months, he can tell it’s early fall. This looks to be another out-of-body-experience kind of dream, judging by the overwhelming lack of acknowledgement from the leaf-raking contingent, and rather than be disturbed by it, as he was the first time, Dean takes the opportunity to look around, to linger over the details of the life he used to inhabit in a way he never did at the time. To his surprise, he finds he doesn’t miss it as much as he thinks he should.
What does surprise him, however, is that he isn’t alone. Standing several yards behind him, almost blending into the small copse of trees Lisa’s house used to back onto, is Castiel. His hands are shoved deep into the pockets of his coat, his shoulders hunched as though cold, and the way he stares at dream-Dean, engrossed in his yard work, indicates both he and Cas are invisible, although Cas can’t see him, either. The expression on Castiel’s face is impassive, but that bullshit doesn’t fool Dean, hasn’t fooled him in a long time. He knows exactly the pain behind the tense set of Castiel’s eyes, the way his mouth is drawn tight as if to hold back a shout. Through it all, dream-Dean rakes on, oblivious.
For a moment Dean can’t be sure whether the scene is memory or invention. He certainly doesn’t remember Cas coming to him that whole year—he would have made note of something like that—but he also learned the hard way that not seeing Cas didn’t mean he wasn’t there. Some of his last words to Cas before he went nuclear—“I was there. Where were you?”—come back to Dean in a rush, and the thought that maybe Cas was there the whole time, unseen, makes Dean’s chest clench tight.
Dean would very much like to wake up now, but movement from Castiel’s quadrant distracts him, forces him to straighten and watch as the angel squares his shoulders and takes a step forward, then another and another until he is striding straight across the backyard and toward where dream-Dean continues to work. He expects Castiel to march on past, though to what end he can’t possibly imagine; his gait is so determined and full of purpose. But he stops just a few feet short of dream-Dean, close enough to reach out and touch, and Dean knows the second Cas ceases to be invisible, because the other man startles so badly he almost jerks himself off-balance, dumping the bag of leaves he’s been systematically filling. A curse emerges in a strangled yelp that borders on a shriek. No, Dean thinks, this definitely never happened. Curiosity piqued, he stands back to watch.
Much as in real life, the dream version of himself doesn’t take kindly to surprise, glaring at Castiel with the rake clutched to his chest, cheeks hot and red with embarrassment at having been caught off-guard. “Cas!” he barks. “What the hell are you doing here?” He glances around as if he expects Lisa and Ben to come running outside any second.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” says Cas calmly. Hesitating, he adds, “You look... well.”
Dean can see how his whole body is coiled with restraint and anticipation alike, the angel visibly wavering like he wants to reach out to Dean but doesn’t know if he should, if it would be welcomed or refused. Just do it, goddamn you, Dean wants to yell at him, because he knows the other him will never make the first move, will never admit how much he’s missed Cas’s abrupt appearances. Dean thinks that if Cas had shown up like this in real life back then, he wouldn’t have been able contain his joy, his relief that Cas gave a damn after all. As it stands, he can’t really figure out why the dream-him isn’t doing the same, why he’s standing there looking affronted rather than pleased.
Castiel doesn’t seem to understand the chilly reception, either, but dream-Dean fails to notice his confusion, demanding, “You couldn’t have called first or something?”
If possible, Castiel’s hesitation is even worse now, shifting from unsure to visibly alarmed. “I... I’m sorry, Dean,” he murmurs. “I deliberated over coming to you, but I...” Cas trails off with a small note of frustration, eyes downcast, but then his gaze flickers back up to look at Dean. “There’s a war in Heaven,” he says, voice gentle but growing firm, “and it is worse than even I could have anticipated. Raphael wishes to start the Apocalypse all over again, and I’m not... My back is against a wall. He’s winning.” The last word almost comes out in a rough whisper, and then Castiel’s eyes are back staring at the dried grass between him and Dean like he wants it to cover him up, swallow him whole.
For a moment Dean sees the other him pause to consider, face softening, but a second later it hardens again and he casts his attention back to the bag of leaves that was upended when Castiel showed up. “I’m sorry to hear that, but I don’t really know what you expect me to do about it,” he says. Turning away, dream-Dean throws down the rake and begins gathering the leaves up again with his bare hands, shoving them into the sack with forceful movements. “In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m retired.”
“I know, and again, I’m sorry.” Cas says. “I would not have come at all, but you told me once that if I needed anything, if I were ever in trouble...” Throat clicking in a swallow, Cas lets his eyes fall shut for the space of a few breaths. His hands return to the trenchcoat pockets. He attempts, “We’ve always dealt with these things together...” and trails off again as though the notion sounds even more foolish out loud. “I need help.”
Dean hangs back and wishes he could go to Cas, do something. With a shock, he realizes the only time he’s felt this useless was the last dream he had about Cas, where he watched himself stab a sword through the angel’s heart with nothing but a smile. Triumphant, like he’d just slain another piece-of-shit demon, whereas Dean woke up screaming.
He wants to fix this so badly, not just the dream, but the whole year, take Cas by the shoulders and say, Let me help you with this. Why his dream self isn’t doing so is so far beyond Dean’s comprehension that it’s approaching parody—what the fuck is wrong with his psyche, that he’s dreaming about making the situation worse instead of better? If Cas has to be gone, just out of Dean’s reach, then he wants his nights to be filled with dreams where the angel is still around, still alive and sane and, most importantly, at Dean’s side. Things as they should be.
Instead, dream-Dean drops the bag and faces Cas with his hands on his hips, face angry and cruel and—Dean notices with a start—ugly. Not for the first time in his life, he wants to punch himself in the fucking face. “What part of ‘I’m retired’ don’t you get?” he snaps, getting up in Castiel’s face. Like Castiel really needs to be reminded who he’s speaking to, Dean’s imaginary counterpart gestures angrily at himself, and then at the house in the background. “Maybe you’ve forgotten, but getting involved with you and the rest of your asshole family has brought me nothing but trouble and pain. Sammy’s gone and everything else has gone to shit, but in the meantime you have the balls to show up here and ask me for more? To walk away from a life that finally makes me happy?” Dream-Dean shakes his head with a hollow laugh. “Fuck you, Cas—you can shove your stupid freaking holy war up your ass and get out of my sight.”
The way Castiel’s mouth opens and closes would be comical if Dean didn’t feel it like a slap to the face, the two of them watching his other self storm away with nary a backward glance. The door to the house slams shut behind him a moment later. Dean sees the curtains flick violently closed, like dream-Dean doesn’t even want to have to look at Cas still standing there in the yard, surrounded by dead grass and barren trees. The discarded leaves blow about his feet as if Cas were no more than a statue, just another motionless fixture amongst the planters and rocks of Lisa’s garden.
He may as well be. An indefinable amount of time passes and Castiel does not budge an inch, continuing to stare up at the house until the temperature drops and the sky begins to darken, the reds and purples of a breathtaking sunset edging out the blue. The night creatures begin to sing from the bushes, and still Cas doesn’t move. Unable to do anything else, Dean stands with him, edging up next to Castiel’s shoulder, pausing a careful distance away even though Cas doesn’t know he’s there. He feels like a wraith keeping vigil while Castiel manages to shatter without twitching a single muscle; thinks that if he reached out to touch his shoulder, Cas would crumble into so many dead leaves and blow away.
Dean squeezes his eyes closed; when he opens them again, he is no longer in Lisa’s backyard, but suddenly standing in the middle of the brightly lit living room of Lisa’s old house, hearing rain patter against the windows and watching himself argue with his girlfriend.
Maybe the scene with him raking leaves could have taken place at any time, but Dean remembers this night with perfect clarity, the first real knock-down, drag-out fight to take place in the Braeden household after he moved in. He’d been there for a month, maybe two; if Dean was honest, it still amazed him the other shoe hadn’t dropped sooner. He was a mess, and both he and Lisa knew it. He did what he could to fit in, helping out around the house where he could, hanging out with Ben and finding a job that covered his share of the bills. But he spent most days just trying to hold it together.
Dean’s vantage point of the whole scene is a few feet beyond Lisa’s shoulder, watching her dark hair fly about her face as she gestures angrily and gives up on trying to keep her voice down for Ben’s sake. Behind Dean’s dream-self is, of course, Castiel, watching the fight unfold with a neutral expression.
“You’re here, Dean,” Lisa is saying, “but your mind is on another planet half the time, or you’re drunk. I knew you had issues when I let you in, but do you think it’s okay to expose my kid to that crap instead of trying to deal with your baggage like an adult? We need you to be okay, to be here.”
Dream-dean snorts and rolls his eyes, looking away with a sardonic expression on his face, but Dean can see the way his fists are clenched, the way a muscle jumps and leaps in his jaw like it’s making a bid for freedom. Not only is he angry, but he’s scared, knowing he could lose this all, lose what he’s been trying to build with Lisa. Every moment since he walked back into Ben and Lisa’s lives has been spent feeling like an interloper, a destructive force to which they shouldn’t be exposed. Maybe Lisa’s not the one he wants to be fighting with, but that they’re having this discussion at all is enough, Dean knows, to make him feel like a cornered animal. And Dean never did well with confined spaces.
“You knew exactly who I was when I showed up on your doorstep,” he argues, trying to keep his voice from reaching a shout. “My background, the kind of life I led, the whole ugly, messy story. You knew all that. Jesus, Lise, I’m trying here. I’m doin’ my best.” He points at himself in a way that’s not so different from how he did in the last dream, when he was arguing with Castiel in the backyard. Dean’s eyes flicker over to the angel, but if he registers the similarity of dream-Dean’s mannerisms, there is no acknowledgement of it on his face.
”The Dean I know can do better than his best,” Lisa sighs, voice becoming softer.” Drinking a fifth of Jack every night and passing out? Bottling it all up and refusing to talk about it? You’re better than this, Dean. You know I’ve never given you a hard time for this stuff. I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like, what I’d do if I lost Ben the way you lost Sam. I’m trying to understand, but I’m not going to just watch you destroy yourself and not say anything. No one’s forcing you to stay, but do you really think it’s unreasonable for me to ask that you meet me halfway?”
“I don’t know!” Dream-Dean throws up his arms and spins angrily around, making to storm out of the room and stopping himself at the last second. “Believe me when I say this is my best,” he adds, voice gruff. “It’s my goddamned best that I’m even alive right now, as opposed to hanging from one of the fucking rafters with a noose around my neck, or putting a gun in my mouth somewhere.” At that, Lisa recoils a little bit, though surely it’s nothing she hasn’t thought for herself before, and Dean’s dream self doesn’t seem to take any pleasure in slapping her across the face with that particular tidbit of reality. His shoulders slump a little, everything about his body language suggesting this would be a good time for him to disappear completely.
Dean remembers that moment, remembers how close to the surface those thoughts use to get. Lisa seems to understand; she steps closer and reaches out to cup Dean’s cheek in her hand, persistent, even though he initially tries to jerk away.
“Listen to me, Dean,” she says gently. Hurting yourself is not what Sam would want, and I know it’s not what me and Ben want, either. That kid wants you around for a long time, and if you want to be a dad to Ben, too, then you’ve just got to do it. Stop trying to lose yourself in alcohol and all this anger and take a look at what’s in front of you.”
“Yeah, well.” Dream-Dean swallows. “Maybe you ought to think about leaving me in the rearview mirror before I can make things even worse.”
For a moment Lisa just looks at him, and then quietly nods to herself and withdraws from the room. All of them—Lisa, Castiel, Dean, and his other self—notice Ben standing tremulously near the bottom of the stairs, watching the argument, and the first thing Lisa does is sweep him into a hug before herding him back up to bed. A bedroom door closes behind them a few seconds later. Castiel looks back to the man standing silently in the middle of the living room, and eventually so does Dean, remembering keenly all that’s left of this memory is when he drinks himself to sleep and spends the rest of the night on the couch.
All told, it takes less than an hour. Dream-Dean doesn’t waste time chugging back the rest of the bottle of whiskey he’d been working on before the argument, taking deep gulps and only pausing to catch his breath in between. He doesn’t bother to watch television or anything that might pretend his sole mission isn’t to black out as quickly as possible. If it makes Dean’s chest ache to watch himself doing that, he refuses to acknowledge it.
There’s no twelve-step program for his life.
When his other self has dropped into a silent, sleeping sprawl upon the couch, Castiel advances, creeps up to the quietly snoring man as though picking his way across glass. He gazes down at Dean, taking in the carelessly flung limbs and half-open mouth, the closed eyelids that soon scrunch and crease as a nightmare or dream takes hold. Expression fond, Castiel crouches near dream-Dean’s head and stares at his face a while longer.
Dean can’t, for the life of him, figure out why he’s seeing all this—first events that never happened or became twisted in some way, and now things he can’t possibly know. Castiel, to his knowledge, never visited him on this night or any, and Dean wouldn’t have seen him standing there anyway, could have never filed away the gentle hand Cas reaches out to brush away the sweaty hair from his forehead. Nor could he recall how Cas places the softest of kisses to that same spot, strokes against Dean’s stubbled cheek the way he might a child—the way he might, for all intents and purposes, caress the skin of someone deeply loved. But then, Dean thinks, Castiel has never thought of him as a child, despite the many times Dean has flung that particular insult Cas’s way.
No, this is something else entirely. It should turn his stomach, he thinks, but doesn’t; it should fill him with panic and shame, but doesn’t. Instead Dean swallows, feels something tight twist in his chest. There were so many times Lisa did this for him, tried to soothe him when he was hurting and upset—after this fight, when Dean finally smartened up and started trying to be the man he wanted to be for Lisa and Ben—and the memories come back to him with vivid clarity that, yes, while in the Braeden household, he was given love and loved in return. And here’s Cas doing the same thing, even if Dean never knew.
Nor should he know, really. This isn’t for Dean to see, but he can’t look away. A sudden, ludicrous thought strikes him that he’s watching a memory that belongs to someone else. Is that even possible? Either way, he feels like a trespasser in his own head.
The starkness of Castiel’s voice, when it emerges, startles Dean in the quiet of the room. “I’m sorry this is such a struggle for you,” he murmurs, fingers continuing to play along the edge of Dean’s jaw. “It hurts me to see you so alone, knowing I can’t help. I feel very alone too, these days.” He sighs, and Dean hears so much pain and frustration in the sound. “It won’t be long now until the war is lost entirely and Raphael starts the Apocalypse again—before everything you worked so hard to protect is destroyed. As much as for my own beliefs, my own survival, I wish I could stop him for you.”
Dean sees his sleeping counterpart’s head turn slightly in Castiel’s direction, nuzzling into his palm, following the sound of a voice heard even in slumber. The small action seems to break something in Castiel’s gaze. “I wish I could be with you here instead of fighting a war I cannot win,” he whispers. His voice catches. “I miss being at your side.”
The hushed admission makes Dean want to say, I miss it too, man, because yeah, he does—always did, even during that year—all the freaking time; it’s like a sickness he can’t sweat out and can’t drown at the bottom of the bottle. Losing Cas is the mountain in his rearview mirror he can’t ever seem to leave behind. Maybe these are the sorts of dreams that will haunt him for the rest of his life.
“Ah, Castiel. You’re so predictable, it’s almost sweet.”
If, like the Devil, one must do little more than speak God’s name for him to appear, then it’s no surprise when Dean and Castiel both look sharply up to find them suddenly in the presence of their new god, his cold eyes and smile gazing down on them like a barely animated statue. Castiel jerks to his feet and his expression almost can’t contain his fear, panic making his eyes comically large in a face that’s drained of blood.
“How are you here?” he blurts out, stumbling away from Dean. Even now, he’s trying to divert the God’s attention a safe distance away from the sleeping man, a knee-jerk protective instinct not even diminished by the unconscious mind.
God smiles at Castiel, and steps forward until the two are only a few feet apart. Neither of them seem to notice Dean even now, but he can see them both clearly, has no trouble distinguishing between which one is Castiel and which of them God. For one thing, God is the one who doesn’t look like he’s about to shit himself. “You should know by now there’s nowhere you can run that I cannot follow,” says God, voice patient and deceptively kind. “This game of yours has exhausted my patience, Castiel. I know of everything you do, everything you think, and I cannot be defeated. Surely you’ve figured that out, considering...”
Considering what? wonders Dean, but then he doesn’t have to wonder much longer when God gives a wave of his hand and Castiel begins to, for lack of a better term, fray at the edges like a seam come unpicked. Light bleeds through the cracks, and Dean starts forward with a curse on his lips, because seriously—not fucking again. There is an instant, as he’s fighting his way to Castiel as if through slow motion, that the angel turns and his gaze lands squarely upon Dean’s, eyes huge and blue and backlit by impossible energy trying to force its way out past every pore and cell. He shouldn’t by any means be aware of Dean’s presence, but he is looking straight at him as the light becomes brighter and brighter, a supernova about to explode.
He says, distinctly, “Dean,” and then once again Dean is jolted out of the dream by a flash too profound for his brain to comprehend.
This time, when Dean hollers Castiel’s name, it fails to attract the attention of both Sam and Bobby. No one comes stumbling out of bed to where Dean has snapped awake on the couch, and there’s no one for him to wave off or narrow skeptical eyes at as he insists he’s okay—and he knows, just from the worried glances and the way Sam always looks on the verge of asking a question when they’re alone, that his brother has started to suspect about the nightmares. But right now there’s just silence and a searing afterimage of wide blue eyes. An echo of Dean’s name in a voice he never thought would speak to him again.
Fighting the urge to shout, Dean swings his legs over the side of the couch and gropes his way into the kitchen for a glass of water. He momentarily considers reaching for a bottle of something stronger, but resists; the memory of watching himself pass out in a drunken heap on Lisa’s couch is also a little too close to the forefront of his mind.
No matter if his eyes stay open or squeezed shut, Dean can’t block out the image of how Cas bent to kiss the forehead of the sleeping man in the dream; the way those nimble fingers stroked against his jaw; the way he whispered something Dean hadn’t been expecting to hear. Despite his talk of affection and purpose for the Righteous Man, that kind of bond isn’t something this new God could understand, of that Dean is certain. As a matter of fact, Castiel probably would have kept these scenes hidden from Dean forever, were he in a position to control his own mind. So why is Dean seeing this now?
The answer is pretty obvious, but it’s nothing Dean can think about right now. And yet, when he tries to slam shut the lid on the box, he finds it won’t close all the way. Willful, kind of like the angel in question—but undoubtedly Castiel.
“You stubborn son of a bitch,” Dean murmurs suddenly, out loud. “You are still alive in there.”