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finding hope (and finding him)

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There are certain moments in one's life when things go exactly as planned. It's like the stars align and the skies open up to reveal rays of sunlight and, against all odds, everything seems to be in perfect harmony. This is a phenomenon that Dean is genuinely not accustomed to, as it doesn't really happen for him. 

 

He's not expecting it to this time, either. 

 

"Great idea, Dean, just dive head first into the prison void with no preparation," Dean mutters to himself, staring out at the continuous stretch of nothingness surrounding him at all sides. 

 

The Empty is not Dean's ideal vacation, to say the least. It's an unfathomable abyss that seems to submerge him, endless and cracked open like a split into the hidden depths of loneliness, something even deeper than that. It's something more than just the epitome of nothing—even nothing is something, for nothing is nothing, not really, but this place makes the idea of nothing seem like something, while this is less than nothing altogether. It's not something one knows how to explain, just a hollow cavern that isn't even a place at all. Stillness. Infinite. 

 

Dean starts walking. 

 

It takes approximately thirty seconds before he starts to feel like he's approaching the brink of insanity. He realizes really quickly that this place is what true hell would be for him—he'd rather be in constant pain for the rest of eternity than be in a place where he can only exist in his own head. He starts picking up his pace, trying to outrun what isn't there. Trying to outrun himself. 

 

At some point, he starts yelling just to remind himself that he can, that he's alive, that the silence hasn't suffocated him. He just needs to hear something, anything, and so he shouts. He yells a name, searching, endlessly searching. 

 

It's a senseless journey. He could be moving in circles, or just walking forward into nowhere with no end in sight. It could be hours, or seconds, and somehow feels like both. His heartbeat is too loud in his ears. His breathing seems to echo in his head, but not in this void of a landscape. It's so quiet. 

 

And then, a huff from just behind him, making him whirl around, heart in his throat, to see—well, the last person in the world he expects to see. Dean blinks, faltering for a moment. 

 

"Benny?" he breathes out, heart tripping his chest. 

 

"Oh, if only," Benny says—except, no, not Benny. The mannerisms aren't the same. The accent isn't quite there. "This one is...was important to you, once, was he not? I choose my forms carefully. Aren't you glad to see a familiar face?" 

 

Dean feels his expression turn stony, jaw clenching, lips pressed into a thin line. "You're...It, then? The Empty. That—that thing." 

 

"That thing," It echoes, Benny's lips curling up in what is, tragically, very familiar to Dean. "I've heard worse, I suppose. Then again, I do not wish to be hearing anything at all. Tell me, just what are you doing here, waking me?" 

 

"Cas," Dean says, standing taller. "Castiel. You know him. You took him." 

 

"That was the deal, yes." 

 

"Yeah? Well, screw your deals. I'm taking him back."

 

Benny—not Benny—arches an eyebrow. "Is that what you've come here to do?" He—It—sighs and raises a hand, seemingly annoyed. "I'm assuming, by my recent ability to measure the overwhelming lack of intelligence in other species, that you actually believe in some way that this is something you'll achieve? Genuinely, yes?" 

 

"Where is he?" Dean asks, firm and resolute. 

 

"Nowhere," comes the irritated reply. "Everywhere. There, and here, and wherever I wish for him to be. He is mine. That was the deal. You cannot have him, and you are not meant to be here, so you will leave. Now. Get out." 

 

"Not without him." 

 

"Do you wish to be trapped forever? What of your life back home? What of your family?" 

 

Dean's nostrils flare. "You think I didn't think this through? Weigh the risks? You think I didn't have a plan when I came here?" 

 

This is, of course, all bluster. Dean did not actually think this through, or weigh the risks, or have a plan. Hell, the closest he got to telling Sam what the fuck was going on was hugging him this morning over breakfast, just a little too long, just a little too tight. Sam had wavered, uncertain, but he'd allowed it and hugged back, almost like he knew that Dean needed it. He didn't know it was goodbye, couldn't have, and Dean's glad he didn't. It's better that way. 

 

Dean had known there was a chance he wasn't coming back. He hadn't really thought about it in length—not so much as something he considered very seriously, but just a deep understanding in the pit of his chest. He's here now, and that's all there is to it. Getting out is the next goal, only attainable if Cas is with him, and Dean has done more with less and worse odds. Here's to hoping his luck didn't run out the moment that Chuck kicked it. 

 

"And what is your grand plan?" There's a sigh, and Benny's face contorts into something oddly tight—a permanent etching of annoyance. "You will be able to do nothing but move here, and shout for someone who will not hear you, and waste away as your human mind breaks. Life will pass by back in your home, and you will be here, not living and not dying and perpetually alone. Is that your plan?" 

 

"If that's all I got," Dean says, "then that's what I gotta do, huh? But hey, at least we'll be in this together, right? You and me—eternity in this void, entertaining each other. God, I wonder how long it will be before I start singing. You know Led Zeppelin? Genius. Life-changing. You ain't lived until you—wait, sorry, is that insensitive?" 

 

"Dean Winchester," Benny—except not—hisses out, like the name itself is poison. Eyes sparking like steel glancing off each other, a flash. 

 

Dean clicks his teeth, doing a finger-gun and winking. "That's the name. Don't wear it out." 

 

In between one second and the next, Benny—It—is just...gone. It's empty once more, the stretch of nothing seeming to shift and expand, closing in and warping out. Too big and too close. Dean takes in a deep breath, then slowly lets it out, wondering if perhaps this is some Alice in the Wonderland type of shit. Maybe this is where she actually ended up, and it just drove her insane. 

 

Well, Dean knows a thing or two about endurance.   He also knows how to locate a weakness and exploit it. That thing—the Empty—doesn't want him here, not awake, not up and walking around, not talking whether anyone can hear him or not. 

 

So, this is exactly what he does, of course. 

 

He remembers, distantly, a time when Cas had said that he annoyed an ancient cosmic being so much that it sent him back. He never gave the particular details of how he did it, but Dean's pretty sure he's capable of being even more annoying than Cas. 

 

He walks and he talks. He keeps walking and talking, calling out Cas' name, or just rambling on about not much of anything at all. There's just darkness around him, boxing him in and stretching out always. It feels like forever and no time at all. 

 

As Dean walks and talks, he idly wonders what the hell Sam is going to do about this. Admittedly, this is one of Dean's more idiotic moments. 

 

It hadn't been anything concrete, not at first. After Cas died, Dean wasn't coping well. A decision to go into a tattoo parlor with a funny name changed that. It was where a woman a green afro—with the sides over her ears shaved off for tattoos of her own—put him in a chair and cracked him open wide, listening with a steady ear to a story she didn't believe in, drawing his life from him with every prick of the needles in her tattoo gun. She listened to him when she didn't believe, and when she spoke about hope, he decided to do the same. 

 

And so, he's here. After a month of squirreling away in his room, hiding research, wasting hours late into dawn just waiting for a breakthrough...he's here. It's probably the hardest Dean has ever worked on something, actually, which is saying a lot. His work ethic rarely comes into question, after all. But this? Oh, Dean had run himself ragged over this. 

 

It took some deep digging. Different archives, various codexes on deities and entities and cosmic beings, books upon books on locations, so many translations that he learned there are more languages than he even realized, and holy hell do not get him started on the hours—the days—spent staring at a screen with endless scrolling of text that blurred before his bleary eyes. The cross-referencing across multiple platforms, and making connections that barely held any weight to them, and following leads that went absolutely nowhere? Yeah, the sooner Dean doesn't have to think about the effort he put into this, the better. 

 

So, he's here, and he worked very fucking hard to get here. Alone, no help, no back-up. This wasn't Sam's responsibility; this was on Dean. It's his mess to clean up, his burden to bear, and he'll be damned if he lets some fucking goo render everything he's done obsolete. Dean is many things, but he isn't someone who gives up, especially when the alternative is to let go. Fuck that noise. He's not doing that. 

 

The fucking goo in question returns in what feels like minutes and days, and it doesn't show back up alone. Once again, it looks like Benny. At his feet is the sprawled form of Cas, eyes shut, face slack, out cold. Dean's heart jumps in his chest. 

 

"You two. Oh, you two…" Benny's broad hand comes up, a finger waving back and forth, the Empty releasing a harsh chuckle. "What is it about you two? Oh, I was wrong about you, Dean, I really was. I told him, once, that there was nothing for him back where he wanted to go. Surely you don't return the sentiments of his heart's desire. Surely not." 

 

Dean ignores that entirely and moves closer, kneeling down to inspect Cas from a better vantage point. He's breathing. Alive. Dean's breath shudders out of him, and he glances up. "I'm not leaving here without him, so you may as well send us back. We'll be on our way, no problems. And, trust me, you don't want any problems." 

 

"Don't I?" Benny's head cocks. His fingers flick. 

 

Cas abruptly surges up with a gasp, like he's coming up for air, eyes snapping open. He jerks forward, blinking rapidly as he looks around, patting his own chest. Dean immediately leans forward to grab his shoulders, trying to steady him, and Cas' gaze snaps to him. For a second, they just stare at each other, eyes wide, lips parted, not even breathing. 

 

"Dean?" Cas breathes out, his voice rough. 

 

"Hey, Cas," Dean whispers, a lump forming in his throat. Now isn't the time. It's not. They need to get home first, but fuck, they have a lot of shit they need to talk about. He swallows. "You didn't think I was gonna just let you rot away in here forever, did you?"

 

Cas blinks at him. "How are you here? Why are you here? Dean, you shouldn't be here." 

 

"Save the lecture for later," Dean mutters, squeezing his shoulders. "Let's just get the hell outta here first, how about that?" He glances towards the Benny shaped thing. "Sorry to cut this short, but—" 

 

"My sentiments exactly, Dean, but I am so very tired. I'm ready to rest." Benny's lips curl up, mocking. 

 

"Dean," Cas says, his voice cracking in the middle. 

 

Head snapping towards Cas, Dean falters the moment he sees it. Like splintered glass. A cracked shell. Dean stares at the lines on Cas' cheek, a sharp jolt of dread twisting in his stomach. They spread slowly, at first, then quicker—he's crumbling inward, like a statue shattering. Dean suffers through an overwhelming swell of utter panic, gripping Cas' shoulders harder, trying to hold onto him, but Cas just caves in under his touch. 

 

"No, no, no," Dean chants, breathless. "Cas. No, wait, please." He barely gets to tug Cas closer before he turns to dust right in his hands, slipping through his fingers. He fades away, crumbling and folding into nothing, every single inch of him reduced to ash so miniscule that even what's left of him disappears. Dean stares at his fingers, flexing them, not quite breathing as he wheezes, "Wait. Cas, wait." 

 

Except Cas is already gone. 

 

Dean slumps backwards, staring at his hands, eyes burning. The figure of Benny crouches down, peering at him from up close. Dean barely even notices, too busy with what he vaguely becomes aware is hyperventilating. Not this shit again. He can't do this again. Why? Why? 

 

"Do you see what I can do, Dean Winchester?" the Empty says softly. "I can do it again, and again, and again. I could do it until you break, until you beg me to let you out. You want to be stubborn? You want to annoy me? I'll make you suffer every second that you try, and there's nothing you can do about it." 

 

That—well, that draws Dean up short. He blinks, the burning in his eyes fading. He stares at the form of Benny, mind churning. The Empty can do it again? On repeat, right? But that means that Cas isn't gone. 

 

It's an illusion. 

 

And oh, Dean can do an illusion. He can handle a goddamn illusion. If the Empty thinks he hasn't been watching Cas get taken from him every night in his dreams for the last seven months, it's got another thing coming. Dean is prepared for this, almost like he's trained for it. 

 

All he seems to do is lose Cas. It breaks him every time, whether it's a dream, illusion, or reality. But, the thing is, no matter how much Dean might want to give up, he can't. He doesn't think he knows how. He'd need the right kind of opportunity, the right kind of finality, and this? Well, this isn't that. 

 

This is something like a purpose, a reason that he should get right back up. Because, yes, it will suck. He'll break. He'll suffer. But knowing that there's still a chance, still a possibility, no matter how slim or unlikely...that's enough. If he's going to put himself through the despair of trying when failure is an option, he's going to make damn sure that failure is the only one. 

 

Like Mitzi says, there's always more than one. 

 

Dean looks up at the Empty, lips twisting grimly, the battle of wills. He says, stubborn and contrarian as he can be, "Give it your best shot, bitch." 

 

With a lip curling up, the Empty does. 

 

It's torture. Of course it is. Over and over, repetitively, Dean has to watch Cas die. It happens in different ways, but one thing that's constant is the way Dean can't stop himself from feeling the pain of it. He knows that it's not real. He knows it's not, because some of these Cas illusions will plead with him to stop making this happen, saying that he remembers every death, that he feels it every time.

 

And Dean apologizes—he always apologizes, every single time—even though he knows that Cas would never say some of these things to him. Cas wouldn't blame him, not like these illusions do. Cas wouldn't beg him to give up, give in, and go home. Not for his own sake. For Dean's, yeah, but not his own. He never considered own agony enough, resigned to it, and this? Well, Cas has always had a strong will. 

 

Dean sort of hates that he can identify these as illusions of Cas by how adjusted to torture, used to pain, and how defiant and flippant with their own well-being that they aren't. 

 

Every single time the illusions cry out, or plead with him, or say things that make him feel guilty, Dean flinches. His heart breaks. He apologizes. He says he's sorry over and over, meaning it each and every time that he does. Even if there's a part of him that knows it's not Cas, there's always that small seed of doubt. That maybe. That what if. That inescapable, unshakeable belief down in the hollow of his bones that losing Cas is less something that happens to him and more something that he makes happen. 

 

This, right here, could be supporting evidence of that claim. It seems like proof, stark and real before his very eyes, and the only thing that he has to combat it is hope. That's all. 

 

Dean doesn't know how many times he watches Cas die. Even just once, ever, is one too many. This? He thinks, at this point, that there has to be something on the other side of all of it. Something has to give. Otherwise what's the point? The point is what you make it, so Dean will stand here for eternity without budging if he has to, just so he can make his. He is not leaving here without Cas, and he won't break before he sees that through. 

 

Mitzi once said that humans are creatures of endurance. This turns out to be true, because Dean endures and endures and endures, and the Empty? Well, its not human, and it gives out first. 

 

Gives out really isn't the term for it, though. 

 

"Just what is it going to take?!" the Empty snarls, advancing towards Dean with Benny's face twisted into a slightly deranged scowl. In the background, the latest Cas replica suddenly stops screaming as his body burns—an abrupt cut off that serves as a hint that it's fake. The Empty outright hisses in Dean's face, but stops short of him. Never touching. 

 

"You can't touch me," Dean blurts out as soon as he realizes it. He blinks rapidly. "This isn't even a form, not really. It's another fucking illusion. You—you're this entity, not a being. You're all the empty space. Every second I'm here, you feel it." 

 

The Empty raises a hand, Benny's fingers digging harshly into his own temple, jabbing at it. "I am Nothing. Do you understand? I am meant to be Nothing. Absence. Empty. You, Dean Winchester, are something. How can I be Nothing if something has interrupted?! Hm? Hm? Do you see my dilemma here? Do you?!" 

 

"No, hey, I get it," Dean says. "I mean, this must be really fuckin' irritating for you. And listen, I would like to get out of your hair, I really would, but this is just something I gotta do. I can explain why, if you want. It'd be like a bedtime story, really, and I think it'd change your mind a little. 'Cause, ya see, I recently opened myself up to someone. New experience for me, won't lie, but it ended up being kind of a good thing. And I think I could do it again, maybe even better the second time around. I gotta warn you, though—my life story is long. But that's okay, right? 'Cause you got forever for this little something to be all up in your nothing. So, why don't we see how long it'll take before you break?"

 

"You want Castiel that badly?" the Empty asks, eye twitching just a tad. 

 

Dean coughs. "Pretty bad, yeah. What if—I mean, I can promise we'll never bother you again. Me and Cas? We're like a couple of problem children. Cosmic beings and us don't tend to, uh, get along well. We sort of suck at falling in line and just doing what we're told, or what we probably should do. Especially if we want something bad enough, and I—well, I want him really fucking bad." 

 

"You're attempting to bargain with something that is stolen," the Empty snaps, nostrils flaring. "You come to me with promises to leave me be in exchange for him, for something that is mine, and you come with something that should be a given! Castiel knew his deal when he took it!" 

 

"Yeah, well, Cas is fucking stupid," Dean retorts sharply. "He does dumbass things sometimes, no matter how many times I try to stop him. You're goddamn lucky that I didn't find out about his deal until then, because before? If I'd had time? You would have never been able to take him at all. We'd have gotten him out of it, somehow. So, you've had your little fun with him, you've gotten more than you should have, but I'm taking him back now. And you're gonna let me, 'cause I'm not leaving here until you do. You think this is it? You think it stops with me? You ain't met my brother yet. Even if you could break me, and ya can't, it won't be too long before Sam jumps in here to do the same thing I'm doing right now. You wanna deal with that, all because of some terms and agreements, or do you wanna give Cas back?" 

 

The Empty releases a high-pitched shriek and whirls away, marching and pacing back and forth. It keeps clutching at Benny's head, muttering quietly, letting out strangled sounds of fury. But what can it do? Truly, what can it do when all it wants is for Dean to go? Nothing. It can't do anything. 

 

Annoying an ancient cosmic entity, as it turns out, is a lot easier than it sounds. Dean's almost a little insulted. All he's gotta do is exist. 

 

Finally, finally, the Empty seems to come to some kind of conclusion. It whirls towards him, eyes blazing, Benny's face contorted. "I will keep a portion of his grace." 

 

"What?" Dean mumbles, unease sliding through him at the ultimatum. 

 

"He is mine to have, even if it's just a sliver of him. I cannot take it all, because it will cease to exist here without a tether. But a piece—oh, I could do a piece. See, I'll have a portion, and that will be what I claim." The Empty waggles a finger at him, head tipping too far to the side. Unhinged. "Do you dare to speak on his behalf? Hm?" 

 

Dean swallows, wavering for a second. He knows how important being an angel is to Cas. Not having all of his grace—that likely won't feel very good. Even with depleted or malfunctioning grace, Cas never had some of it sliced and taken away. When he lost it, he lost all of it. Dean doesn't know what losing a portion of it would do, or feel like, and he has no idea if Cas would be okay with it. 

 

But, at the same time, it's not like he's doing much with his grace in the fucking Empty. Maybe it's selfish of Dean, but he'd rather Cas be alive to complain about it, as opposed to being whole...but dead. Besides, Dean's pretty sure Cas would forgive this. Out of his own mouth, he said Dean was the thing he wanted but couldn't have, the thing that would make him happiest over everything else. Him, more than wings, more than grace, more than the world. Maybe he deserves all those things, but Dean can only give him one. And he plans to. 

 

"Fine," Dean declares, his tone clipped. "Just let me take him back. Give him back." 

 

"Oh, I won't be giving him back to you, Dean Winchester," the Empty tells him with a high, shrill laugh. "If he's meant to come back, he will find his own way. Tick-tock, or I may change my mind." 

 

Dean jumps a little when the Empty just disappears. Gone, just like that. He swivels in place, then gets stuck. Like, he literally gets stuck. He can't move. 

 

He looks down at his feet, trying to work out why he can't step forward or back or to the side. The sound of a sharp inhale from in front of him makes his head snap up, and Dean feels his heart turn over at the sight of Cas on the ground. He's starting to push up onto his elbows, eyebrows pinched together in confusion, blinking rapidly. 

 

"Cas," Dean calls out, and there's absolutely no reaction at all. Cas doesn't even glance in his direction, as if Dean's not even there. He pushes to his feet, head swinging around as he blinks again. He looks confused. He looks lost. "Cas. Hey, can you hear me? Cas!" 

 

For a beat, Cas pauses. He cocks his head a little, like he's hearing something in the distance. With a small frown, he reaches up and rubs at his chest. Again, his head starts swiveling around, clearly looking for whatever reason he's awake. 

 

"Oh, Jesus fucking Christ," Dean mutters, swinging his arms a little wildly, trying to get Cas to see him. For one heartstopping moment, Cas' gaze lands on him, but it slides right on by like Dean's not even there. "Fuck. Cas! Cas!" 

 

And it is in this vein that it continues. For how long, Dean doesn't know. Cas walks around. He walks away, getting smaller in the distance. He turns around and comes back. He strolls right past Dean without even stopping, still too far away. 

 

Cas calls out, "Hello?" and—no matter how loud Dean is—doesn't seem to hear any response. 

 

In short order, Dean can feel his frustration skyrocket. This is a torture of a different kind. Cas is right there, but Dean can't get to him. It makes him curse colorfully and yell until his throat is hoarse. Cas never hears him, never sees him, never seems to even realize that he's there at all. Dean thinks there's a chance Cas will never find him. 

 

Except, one time that Cas walks past him, he's a little closer than before. He comes to a screeching halt, head cocking again, inquisitive about it. His lips tip down, and he slowly takes a step closer to Dean, eyes narrowing. Another step. Another one. Hesitant about it, but getting closer. There's concentration marring his features, and his eyes slowly flutter shut, focusing. 

 

Dean doesn't know what it is, and he doesn't care. Whatever it is, it's fucking working. Without even looking, Cas is carefully moving in, step by achingly slow step. He's walking directly for him, and Dean raises his hands the moment Cas gets in reach, darting out to fist the lapels of his trenchcoat and reel him in harshly and quickly. 

 

Cas stumbles, clearly not expecting that, and his eyes snap open just as they collide into each other. Dean can suddenly move again, something that becomes apparent when they both tilt and start to fall, heading right for—

 

"Son of a bitch!" Dean spits out the moment they land in a tangled heap of elbows and knees on the floor, right in the middle of the war room. 

 

Sam's voice cuts in almost immediately, calling out a shocked, "Dean! Jesus," and then an even more disbelieving, "Cas?! Oh my god!" 

 

Dean and Cas have landed a little precariously, meaning it hurts like a bitch. It takes a moment for them to disentangle themselves, and then Cas is raising himself up above him, his face hovering over Dean's, blinking slowly. 

 

"Hello, Dean," Cas says softly. 

 

"Hey, Cas," Dean replies, his voice strained. "Your knee is in my gut, dude." 

 

Cas blinks. "Oh. My apologies." 

 

With some more shuffling, they finally manage to roll away from each other, and then Sam is swooping in. He helps haul Dean to his feet, looking very stressed out. It's clear that he's spent some time being frazzled, and he's looking between Dean and Cas with wide, worried eyes. 

 

"Dean, what did you do?" Sam asks, genuine concern in his gaze. "How did you—what deal did you—" 

 

"How long have I been gone?" Dean interrupts. 

 

Sam's face twists into anger, jaw clenching as his hand tightens on Dean's arm. "Three days, you asshole. What the hell were you thinking?!" 

 

"Only three days?" Dean blurts out, surprised. He raises his eyebrows, inwardly impressed with himself, just a little. "Huh. Only took three days to break the son of a bitch. I'm good." 

 

"Break the—break who?" Sam gives him a little shake, eyes slightly wild. "Dean, what the hell did you do? I had no idea what happened, or where the hell you went, or how to—to—" 

 

"Okay. Okay, hey," Dean cuts in, his voice softening because he can sense that Sam is actually distressed about this. "Look, I'm sorry, alright? I didn't tell you because I didn't want you to worry. I didn't want you to feel like you had to come with me, 'cause who even knows if we could have made it back? And you got things here. You got Eileen here. I couldn't ask you to—to risk that for something I didn't even know was gonna work." 

 

Sam's nostrils flare, lips pressing into a thin line. He's upset. Seriously upset. "You should have told me. Dean, you—do you know what I thought happened to you? I thought you went to find a hole to die in! I thought—" 

 

Dean flinches when Sam yells, and he looks down when Sam jerks back to whirl away, and he closes his eyes when Sam pushes both hands through his hair and yanks on it, hanging his head. 

 

Okay, well, Dean's a dick. This is not new information. Maybe he should have told Sam. Maybe he should have left a note, at least. Something. But he meant he wasn't going to drag Sam into something big like this, not again, not when Sam's been doing okay for himself. If it wasn't going to work, Dean didn't want Sam to be stranded, not getting to live. He couldn't ask Sam to give up the peace he's finally found for himself, not a second time. 

 

"What did you do?" Sam asks again, his voice tight and cutting. He still hasn't turned around. 

 

"I—" Dean glances over at Cas, who has his eyebrows crumbled together, lips pressed into a thin, chapped line. Swallowing, Dean averts his eyes, unable to look at him head on when he admits it. And he has to admit it, because neither of them are going to believe that this came without a price. "I found a way into the Empty, and then I drove it a little nuts until it agreed to give Cas back. But it wouldn't—it only agreed to do that if it got to keep a small portion of Cas' grace." 

 

"That's it?" Sam grits out, finally turning around to glare at Dean. 

 

"Well, it...uh, it sort of tried to drive me nuts, but I guess I'm more annoying than it is," Dean mumbles, shuffling a little restlessly. "And, well, Cas had to find me at the end, except he couldn't hear or see me." He glances over at Cas again, clearing his throat. "How did you find me, by the way?" 

 

"I'm not entirely sure," Cas tells him, lips curling down in the corners. Puzzled. Dean's stomach does something stupid in response. "I didn't know you were there, but I felt… I didn't notice at first, but there was something that pulled at me. It was so faint, and I was already adjusting to missing some of my grace. I don't know what it was." 

 

"No deals? No trading your life in? Dean, you better freaking tell me if there's more. I swear I'm not joking," Sam says sharply. 

 

Dean holds his gaze, pouring every inch of his sincerity into his expression, because this is the truth. For once, he doesn't have to give good news that is a lie. "Sammy, I promise you that's it. I mean, that's bad enough. I didn't even get to ask Cas if he was okay with giving up some of his grace, so I just had to make that choice myself. And—and, like I said, the Empty tried to drive me crazy, but I'm nothing if not spiteful. No deals. I didn't trade my life or any of my years, okay?" 

 

"If something goes wrong," Sam starts. 

 

"Nothing will as long as we leave the Empty alone. It just wants to be left alone," Dean assures him.

 

"This, I can attest to," Cas adds. "It truly does get annoyed with having Its rest interrupted. There is a strong possibility that Dean simply won in a battle of wills. My grace… Having some of it does, in a way, fulfill the deal I made with It." 

 

Sam swallows, his shoulders slumping. "It's not that I'm not happy to see you back, Cas. I'm thrilled, man. Over the moon. You have no idea. But…" 

 

"You're worried," Cas says simply. 

 

"You don't need to be," Dean tells him. "I was going to do everything I could, but that didn't include getting stuck in another cycle of stupid deals. I meant I was gonna do it without that, one way or another, and I did." 

 

"But you went in there prepared to not come back out," Sam says, the muscle in his cheek twitching. 

 

Dean looks away. His eyes flutter shut again when Sam walks out, stomping down the hall. His door slams loud enough to echo back out to them, and Dean exhales heavily as his eyes ease back open. Slowly, he glances over at Cas. Just fucking seeing him is like a shock straight to the system. 

 

"What you did was very stupid, Dean," Cas murmurs, still frowning. 

 

"Yeah. Yeah, I know," Dean rasps. "I ain't gonna apologize for it, not to you, because you're back. But I'm—about your grace, Cas, I—" 

 

Cas shakes his head jerkily. "Stop. It is not something you should feel guilty for. I would have made the same choice, had I been given the chance. I would have given all of my grace, in fact. I'm fine. Sam, however, is not. Go speak with him." 

 

"I will, but Cas, you gotta promise me you're not gonna leave." Dean steps forward, holding his gaze, despite the fact that it makes his heart go fucking crazy in his chest—just getting closer, just looking into his eyes. "Hey, I'm serious. Don't jump in your truck and get going the moment I leave you alone for five minutes. Because I—I need to talk to Sam, yes, but I need to talk to you, too. So just—just don't leave. Stay. Wait. Tell me you're gonna wait." 

 

"I'll wait," Cas vows, his voice a soft rumble that Dean can absurdly feel in the back of his knees. 

 

Dean clears his throat, bobbing his head. "Okay. Yeah, good. Just—just give me like ten minutes, okay? Maybe, um, twenty. Depends on how badly Sammy wants to kill me."

 

"I'll be in my room," Cas says. 

 

"'Kay," Dean chokes out, then has to force himself to actually start backing up. It's very, very hard to do. If it was for anyone else than Sam, he doesn't think he'd be able to manage it. 

 

He ends up nearly tripping over the threshold to the hallway, and Cas' eyebrows fly up as stumbles, curses under his breath, then bumps into the wall. Face going hot, Dean does a weird, spastic gesture with hands and beats a hasty retreat. 

 

By the time he makes it to Sam's door, his mortification has fled to be replaced by dread. God, he does not want to have this conversation. He doesn't think he's going to be able to get through it without fucking losing it a little, and he doesn't really want to do that. He wants this to be a lot simpler, something to rejoice. But it can't be, not yet, because Dean did something stupid that he would do a hundred more times if he had to, and there's nothing really fair about it, not to Sam. 

 

Knocking is pointless, so Dean doesn't even bother. He just barges in and shuts the door behind him before Sam can try to shove him back through the open gap. Thankfully, Sam doesn't body-tackle him the moment he comes in, and instead, he continues to perch right on the edge of his bed. His hands are fisted, hanging between his knees, and he won't look at Dean at all. 

 

At the top of the bed, near the pillows, Miracle is flat on his back with his paws sticking up straight in the air. He doesn't even get up when Dean comes in, paws twitching like he's running in his dreams. Great, so Sam has commandeered his dog. It's been three days. Miracle is probably pissed at him for being gone, too.  

 

"I know you're pissed," Dean begins, "but you gotta understand that I—" 

 

"You could have been trapped there for eternity, Dean!" Sam bursts out, and now he's looking at him. He's furious. "You risked your life, and you didn't even tell me! Do you have any idea what that would have been like for me, if you didn't come back, if things just so happened to not work out?" 

 

"Do we gotta dwell on it, man?" Dean asks, grimacing. "Come on, Sam, it did work out." 

 

"You didn't know that it would!" 

 

"I didn't know that it wouldn't. It was a risk I was willing to take. My risk. So, just take the fucking win, because it is a win." 

 

"That's not the point," Sam hisses. "I'm so glad that Cas is back, and with minimal damage too, but that's not what this is about. You didn't tell me." 

 

Dean reaches up and scrubs at his forehead. "I didn't know how, okay? I didn't—I had no idea how I was gonna tell you without you getting involved." 

 

"Of course I would have gotten involved."

 

"That's my point. I didn't want that for you. This was on me, Sam." 

 

"You don't get to decide that for me! You can't just make that choice, and then make my choice for me, Dean!" Sam yells, his voice raising, his anger palpable in the air around them. 

 

"I wasn't going to put you in that position where you had to choose, where you had to give up so much. You've got your freedom," Dean tells him wearily. "You've got peace. You've got Eileen—" 

 

"And you had me!" Sam bursts out, making Dean's face fall slack with shock. Sam's expression twitches, lips trembling on a harsh exhale. When he speaks next, it comes out in a croak. "You had me, and that wasn't enough. I was still here, and you were going to leave anyway. You left." 

 

Dean's heart drops. "No, it's not like that. It was never about you not being enough. Sammy, I've lived for you my whole goddamn life, and I don't know how not to do that. It's in my blood. This? This wasn't me trying to check out, I swear it wasn't." 

 

"Then what was it?" Sam whispers. "Because, the way I see it, you were willing to throw away your life without a second thought." 

 

"This was about hope," Dean admits, swallowing thickly. "I had to try. I had to, because I was never going to be able to make peace if I didn't do everything I could to get him back. These last seven months? Sam, you know what they've been like for me. Doing this was the only thing that was gonna help. I had to try." 

 

"I spent the last three days worried you had crawled off somewhere to drown in the bottom of a bottle or find your way to the end of a muzzle, because it's happened to so many hunters before. Do you know what that's like?" Sam asks, his breath hitching. 

 

Dean blinks hard. "I'm sorry. I know I've been… I know, okay? Even if I failed, I had to know that I did everything I could. I would have done it for you. Probably sooner, even if Cas was here. You're one of the few things that have made these last seven months bearable, do you know that?" 

 

"I've been trying, too. I've wanted to help you, but I couldn't," Sam murmurs. "I would have brought him back if I knew it was possible. I would have gone with you in a heartbeat, Dean." 

 

"I know that, I do, and I would have let you if things were different," Dean tells him. "Is it so wrong of me to want you to have a good, happy life? I was just taking care of you, is all. It's what I do." 

 

"You've never done it like this before," Sam croaks, sniffling and looking away. His face is splotchy, and he dashes angrily at the tears that escape. 

 

"Sammy," Dean whispers, "I love him." 

 

Sam jerks his gaze towards him, and he doesn't do anything but give a jerky nod. "I know." 

 

"If it was Eileen…" Dean trails off. 

 

"Don't," Sam chokes out, hands raising up to dash at his cheeks again. He hides behind his palms for a second, shoulders jerking. When he drops his hands, his breath shudders out of him. 

 

"I tried to accept the freedom I got, but my tattoo artist sorta convinced me that it wasn't so selfish to go after a freedom I could be happy with," Dean murmurs. "Maybe it's selfish, maybe it's not, but I want him, Sam. I want him here. It's not that you're not enough; it's just that I let myself hope for more. We deserve more, don't we? All that shit. All the years of grit and blood, and I just—every goddamn breath I took after he was gone was for you more than me. I just wanted to breathe easier. It wasn't me choosing anyone but myself, for once. I did this for me. I know you know this. I know you were just...scared. And I'm sorry. I'm sorry." 

 

"I know," Sam says, his face crumbling as he ducks his head. "I know all of that, Dean. It just scared the shit out of me. I was so—I was—" 

 

"Okay, hey, stop that. C'mere." Dean moves forward to yank him up and haul him into a hug, his chest tight and aching. 

 

"It isn't good, man," Sam chokes out, hugging him back. "How bad you got, it's not good. I wanted to help, but I couldn't. You were heartbroken, and I couldn't fix it." 

 

Dean thumps him on the back, his voice gruff when he says, "I was trying to figure it out. It was taking time, that's all. I would've learned how, even if it wouldn't stop sucking. But I couldn't figure it out without trying this first." 

 

"Okay," Sam croaks, and he swallows thickly when they break apart. 

 

They're both kind of bad at being vulnerable like this. For a split second, Dean wishes Mitzi were here. She'd make a comment about her eyeliner, and things would be a little easier. Moments like these can get so heavy that they're stifling, and Dean struggles with them. Sam isn't much better. 

 

"You can punch me if you want," Dean offers. 

 

Sam huffs a weak laugh, sniffles, then reaches out to punch him in the arm—it's a little weak, but that's fair, considering. "I'm still pissed at you." 

 

"Yeah? Well, you'll get over it," Dean says. 

 

"So, it was just some hope because of Mitzi, huh?" Sam asks, clearing his throat and doing a quick scrub of his hands over his face, like he's trying to wipe away the evidence of his tears. 

 

"Mitzi's more convincing than she seems," Dean tells him, lips twitching. "She gave a few good speeches and just—" He waves a hand, shaking his head. "I dunno, man. She believed that I'd be able to at least try, and as soon as she mentioned it… Well, I knew I was going to have to. In the end, she was right, and hey, it all worked out for the best." 

 

"Yeah," Sam agrees, blowing out an explosive breath as he raises his eyebrows. "Cas is back." 

 

Dean feels those words in his spine. He tries not to smile, then fails. "Yeah, he is." 

 

"And you—you love him," Sam murmurs, blinking at him. "I...can't believe you actually told me that." 

 

"I want you to understand." 

 

"I do. Dean, I really do." 

 

"I just thought you should know why I—" Dean swings his hand out in a wide arc, trying to encompass all reasons why he gets really stupid about Cas, summed up quickly by three simple words. Three words that explain so much. 

 

"I've known that for a long time. That you love Cas, I mean," Sam informs him, apparently not joking. 

 

"Oh." Dean drops his arm, then immediately raises it and punches Sam in the shoulder really hard, huffing. "Fuck you, Sam. You knew?!" 

 

"Well, I'm not blind," Sam snaps, reaching up to rub at his shoulder, eyebrows dipping down. 

 

"See, this is why I didn't invite you on the field trip to the Empty. You woulda got on my nerves." 

 

"Too soon, dude. I will actually punch you."

 

"Not the face. I don't want a shiner when I go talk to Cas, which is something I should be doing right now," Dean says, taking a deep breath and flexing his fingers, shaking his hands out. 

 

Sam snorts. "Want a pep-talk?"

 

"Shut up, Sam." 

 

"Heh, you're nervous. Wait, so you're actually going to confess your love and hope for the best? Not try to, like, get a feel for his feelings first?" 

 

"Oh. Oh, Sam," Dean breathes out, blinking. It's in this moment that he remembers that Sam still doesn't know about Cas' epic love confession before kicking the bucket. Holy shit. "Um, okay, so this might put some things into perspective. Before Cas died, he told me he loved me. Like, in a gay way."

 

"He—" Sam's teeth clack together, and then his mouth hangs open for a moment. He shakes his head like he's trying to get water out of his ears, his eyes wide. "Well, no freaking wonder you were struggling so much. Jesus, that's so—that makes these last seven months even worse." 

 

Dean nods. "See? Perspective." 

 

"So, Cas confessed first," Sam murmurs, huffing out a quiet laugh. "Shit, I gotta call Jody. She owes me fifty bucks. I told her that her faith in you was misguided, but she didn't listen. To be fair, she didn't know Cas and only knew you, but still." 

 

"You bet on this?" Dean blurts out, then rears back in offense. "You bet against me, Sam? Where's the fucking family loyalty?" 

 

"Tossed out the window when competing against your issues, up to and including repression. You didn't stand a chance, I'm afraid." 

 

"I was not repressed. You're repressed." 

 

Sam fixes him with a flat look. "Really? The whole I know you are, but what am I thing? Yes, take me back to middle school. I loved it there." He rolls his eyes so hard that his head tips. "Whatever, I won fifty bucks, and you've got your boyfriend back. We're both winners. Have fun with your gay tendencies. Goodbye and get out. I want to facetime Eileen. 

 

"That was a shitty pep-talk," Dean mutters, pursing his lips as he starts backing up towards the door. He clicks his tongue. "Half-gay, by the way." 

 

"Bi," Sam says. 

 

"I'm going, Jesus," Dean replies. 

 

"No, I mean—" Sam cuts himself off with a sigh, tossing his hand up. "Bi as in bisexual, Dean." 

 

Dean pauses, eyebrows raised. "Took the saying that it's Adam and Eve a little too literally, huh?" 

 

"I hate that you just said that," Sam tells him, "and I hate that it was funny." 

 

"I'm a sexual chimera," Dean says. 

 

Sam wrinkles his nose. "You're going to be absolutely insufferable about this, aren't you?" 

 

"Well, yeah," Dean answers, waggling his eyebrows at him. "All that repression, you know? Everything is gonna come flowing out now." 

 

"Get out." 

 

"Of the closet?" 

 

"Dean," Sam says, jerking his hand towards the door. 

 

Dean grins. "You find out this, and you suddenly don't want to have anything to do with me? That's homophobic, Sammy." 

 

Sam shoves him out of the room and slams the door behind him. How rude. 

 

Sighing, Dean feels something in him relax. Clearly, Sam is still going to be upset about this for a little while. He'll let it go eventually and stop sulking, but he handles the idea of Dean and death only slightly better than Dean does in regards to him. So, basically, he's shit at it, just like Dean. 

 

For all that Sam is better at opening himself up and having heartfelt talks, there's still things that can shut him down and get to him. Like Dean, he doesn't always respond to those things rationally. It fucks him up. Dean knows it because he's seen it, and not just this time. He remembers when he wanted to stuff himself in a box and sink to the middle of the ocean, and Sam pretty much lost his collective shit. They've been through a lot through the years, and one of the main things that stayed consistent was the way they've struggled to accept the idea that they could lose each other. 

 

Dean knew it wasn't going to be pretty if he actually made it back. He'd still do it again if he had to, and he knows—deep down—that Sam understands why. Doesn't make it less terrifying and hard to handle, but he gets it. He'll let it go, because he's sensible most of the time, and also because Eileen will probably bully him into it. She's the best. 

 

Also, Sam likes Cas. They're friends. He's going to soften right on up having him back again, especially since Dean will stop moping all the time. Well, moping is an understatement and a half, but still. 

 

As for Cas… 

 

Well, Dean stands outside his door for a long time, his heart racing. Admittedly, half of his jokes and easy declarations to Sam were mostly just...bluster. Putting up this front of confidence and calm when it comes to this new transition in his life. 

 

And listen, okay? Dean has been pretty much aching for this transition for a long, long time, but especially within these last seven months. It was like an intrusive thought that just wouldn't go away, no matter how much it hurt him. Just the thought of what could have been, of what it would be like if Dean could have Cas back within reach, if he could tell him everything he's never figured out to say. It has haunted his goddamn nightmares. 

 

Telling Sam first? That was a hurdle. That was something he forced himself to do. Because, one, Sam was hurting, and Dean knew an explanation could help—it may have been daunting to give it, but he did. Because, two, if he can't even say it to his brother who—arguably—gets exposed to the facets of Dean's life the most, then who the fuck can he say it to? How the fuck is he going to do this, and tell Cas, if he can't even...be it? It's in just being it, Cas had said, and yeah, that's exactly it. Dean's gotta let himself be it, because there is happiness in it. 

 

Truthfully, Dean's on cloud fucking nine right now. It may be a tad inappropriate because Sam's going through it, but they've had their heart-to-heart, and Sam will actually move on at some point. Outside of that, though? Oh, hell, Dean's fucking giddy. He's got this undercurrent of delight rushing through his veins because, no matter what else, Cas is back. He might not know exactly how it's going to all work out, but that doesn't change that Cas is here. 

 

It's still kind of intimidating, though. Dean has known in broad terms what he'd want if Cas actually came back just one more time. He'd want Cas to know, mainly. To know that he can have exactly what he wants, to know that Dean wanted so desperately to tell him and just found himself unable to speak, to know that Dean will be so, so bad at this and will try and try and try again for as long as Cas will let him. 

 

He's just got to get in the room first. 

 

Eventually, the fact that Dean knows Cas is back and isn't with him beats the stifling surge of muted panic about how this could go. He can fuck this up so easily. He's probably going to fuck it up. Cas is better at words than him, as his love confession proves, so maybe Dean can just shut up and let Cas fill in the words for him. Dean would love that. He could just nod along and do what he wants to do the most, which is—absurdly enough—move Cas around like a piece of furniture because he just really wants to touch him, feel him beneath his hands, and it's only weirder because of the fact that the urge isn't even sexual. 

 

Taking a deep breath, Dean takes the plunge. He knocks on the door and pokes his head in, his heart immediately vibrating wildly in his chest when he sees Cas. Not just Cas, either. Jack is here, too, which isn't really that much of a surprise. Of course he'd want to reunite with Cas the moment he realized he was back. They're pulling away from a hug, and Dean's throat goes tight when he sees the way Jack is beaming right now. 

 

"You saved him," Jack announces happily as Dean slips into the room. 

 

Dean clears his throat, darting his gaze towards Cas, then focusing back on Jack. "Something like that, maybe. S'good to see you, kid. I mean, I know it's only been three days, but still."

 

"I was concerned," Jack informs him. "Sam was very worried. I feel we should have known what you were doing, now that I think about it." 

 

"Aren't you, like, omnipotent now?" Dean asks, narrowing his eyes. 

 

Jack's eyebrows furrow. "I don't think it works like that. I know certain things. I know...strange things, such as the location and time of the next natural disaster, or the full expanse of space and every star in the universe. But I don't know everything. There was a riddle on a piece of candy I had earlier. What two things can you never eat for breakfast? I don't know, Dean. I can't think of anything." 

 

"Lunch and dinner," Cas tells him. 

 

"Lunch and dinner!" Jack bursts out, eyes lighting up with that internal aha moment. He smiles at Cas, pleased. "That makes sense. I wish I knew that, but I don't know everything. Chuck didn't know everything either, just a lot of things." 

 

Dean thinks that's less to do with not knowing and more to do with not understanding, being too cocky and self-assured. Being God, he had a right to be, in fairness, but it still came back to bite him in the end. As for Jack, it just seems like he doesn't particularly care. Being God isn't really...interesting to him, funnily enough. In fact, it's like he forgets it entirely when he's not away doing things that he doesn't talk about, and he pretty much acts like he always has when he's at the Bunker. He visits when he can, more frequently in the past few months as things start to even out more and more. Dean suspects that he'll be even more of a permanent fixture now that Cas is back, if only because Cas will probably get like those moms whose kids finally went off the college, moping and calling every day. 

 

"Jack has been busy reconstructing Heaven," Cas tells Dean, lips curling up. "Apparently, he had the idea to get me out of the Empty for assistance and bring me to Heaven. You...beat him to the kick, I believe. Or, however that saying goes." 

 

"The punch," Dean murmurs, mouth twitching into a broad smile, a burst of warmth and affection swarming him. "I beat him to the punch. And Jack, I thought you said you weren't gonna interfere?" 

 

"Castiel would have been an extremely wise and uncomplicated exception," Jack says slowly, nodding along to each word like he's reading off a script, like he's practiced it. "My promise to not interfere revolves around humans and Earth, and Castiel had no affiliation with either at the time of retrieval. Or, ah, when I planned to retrieve him." 

 

Dean stares at him. "Who told you to say that?" 

 

"I don't know what you mean," Jack says, a little too innocent, blinking. 

 

"Uh huh," Dean grunts, raising his eyebrows. 

 

Jack suddenly cannot look him in the eye at all, unable to lie to him and make eye contact at the same time. Someone up in Heaven fed Jack a speech. Dean doesn't know who, but someone up there is clearly enough of a fan of Cas getting out of the Empty that they gave Jack lines he could use to justify it. Well, Dean isn't gonna argue. 

 

"Ah, I have—other matters to attend to. The duties of the divine," Jack says, shifty and so clearly lying that it's painful. "I will return." 

 

Dean snorts as he goes, looking over at Cas. "How much you wanna bet he just popped over to somewhere that he could watch Teen Titans on his laptop? He can't lie for shit." 

 

"Does he often come and go?" Cas murmurs, eyebrows furrowed as he stares at the spot Jack was just standing. 

 

"In and out," Dean confirms. "Ya know, he's the big man upstairs now, I guess, so it's nice that he even takes the time to come see me and Sammy. We're family, but he's still—well, he's God, so."

 

"He is a child," Cas states. 

 

"Oh, yeah, without a doubt," Dean agrees, because he watched Jack get unreasonably excited about a new episode of some cartoon he's watching only two weeks ago, so he's very aware. "He's definitely still a kid. He got upset last month because I wouldn't let him have some cookies before dinner. He could have, like, made me spontaneously combust with a snap of his fingers, but he mostly just complained and looked like he was gonna cry until I gave in. We enjoyed the cookies, by the way." 

 

Cas looks at him with vague amusement, his gaze warm and fond. "Cookies before dinner matter very little to his diet. You must know this, being aware that he is God." 

 

"It's the principle of the thing, Cas," Dean mutters, waving a hand. "Anyway, he'll be around, probably a lot more now that you're back. So, that's—ah, that's a good thing. A great thing, I mean. Pretty, uh, great. Very—super great." 

 

"Very super great," Cas echoes, his eyebrows raising slowly. "Is it?" 

 

"Yeah, 'course it is. I mean, having you back is… It's really—just, if I haven't said it yet, I'm glad," Dean says, waving his hands in front of him a little weakly. He's so bad at this. Why is he so bad at this? He's usually so much better at things like this. Jesus Christ. "Obviously you know that, because I went in and pulled you out. So, I mean, it's kind of a given. If I was cool with you being gone, I would have left you there. Which I didn't. Well, I kinda did for seven months, but I wasn't really sure how to even get you out, or if I could, or if I should even try. So."

 

"If you weren't sure of those things," Cas muses, frowning, "why did you do it? The risk—Dean, as I said before, it was incredibly stupid." 

 

"My tattoo artist said some pretty profound shit, and then I realized I had to," Dean mutters. 

 

"Your tattoo artist?" Cas blinks, then squints at him, flicking his gaze over Dean critically. Searching. 

 

Dean glances down at himself. Oh, right. He's in his usual layers, including a jacket with sleeves all the way down to the wrist. None of the tattoos are even visible. "Oh, yeah. I have, like, a lot of tattoos now. Sort of just all over my chest, and back, and arms." 

 

"I've never known you to be interested in body modification, outside of your anti demon possession tattoo," Cas says, eyebrows furrowing. 

 

"Yeah, well, they can get addicting," Dean mutters, chuckling under his breath. "Want a tattoo tour?" 

 

Dean starts shucking his jacket while still shaking his head is amusement. Truly, tattoos can become addicting—or, that's what it felt like to Dean, at least. He didn't go into it expecting to actually like it, and he sure as hell wasn't prepared for it to be something of a therapeutic experience. The biggest surprise was probably that he made a normal, stable friend without ruining her life, even when she came around to actually believing everything. She's still a tattoo artist. She's still living her happy life. 

 

Cas blinks rapidly when Dean tosses his jacket aside and pulls off the flannel. He feels like he's stripping, just a little, and it's not suggestive, it's not, but Dean's face is prickling with heat anyway. Cas, at least, seems utterly distracted. His gaze goes to Baby's tattoo first, which is fair. It catches the eye. Mitzi did a really good job. 

 

"Baby," Cas rumbles, like he didn't know what he was expecting but he knew that she'd be involved somehow. He sounds fond as well as amused, but his gaze is sharp, taking in every detail of the tattoo, studying it like he has to learn it. 

 

He sort of does have to. It's new. He probably knows Dean inside and out from building him up after hell, but this is a new thing. Dean's unaccountably nervous for some reason, like he's waiting for Cas to approve of the adjustments to the model, which is stupid because it's his body. Yet, still, he finds himself waiting for a reaction. 

 

"Sigils," Cas murmurs a moment later, his gaze starting to move along Dean's skin, intense enough to feel like a tangible touch. "Enochian. Arrays. Warding. Dean, you have—why do you have—" 

 

"I know they don't work, really. Not without blood. I mean, if they could work, hunters all over the map would be covered in 'em," Dean mutters, looking down at his arms. "But I just—I dunno. So much happened in our lives, and at the end, it was like too much of it got...lost, somehow. This is like—" 

 

"Momentos. Commemoration." Cas tilts his head slightly. "A tribute." 

 

"A reminder, too." Dean swivels his arms, holding them out, a lump in his throat. "This is my life, Cas. Just 'cause things are supposed to be easier now, it doesn't mean we can just—forget. Or, I can't. I don't want to."

 

Cas glances up at him, his face softening. "I understand, Dean." 

 

"It's not all just that, though," Dean admits, lifting one arm and turning it to show off the slice of pie that Mitzi talked him into getting. "Some of it is fun, I guess. Mitzi said tattoos don't always have to mean something all the time. It could just be something someone likes, and that's fine, too. She asked me to name something kinda normal off the top of my head that I liked, and the first thing that popped out of my mouth was pie. Next thing I knew, she was drawing this up, and then I was getting it. And I actually like it, which is probably stupid, but maybe not. She's got a tattoo of a Pine Sol bottle because she likes the way it smells." 

 

"She sounds...interesting," Cas says. Again, he spends a few more moments taking in the tattoos that he can see on that arm, and then his eyes flick towards the other one. His gaze pretty much instantly snags on the flower. "And that one?" 

 

"For Jack. Um, it's a jumping-jack flower, or otherwise known as Johnny jump-ups." Dean turns his arm so Cas can see it in full. "Jack liked it." 

 

"That's very nice," Cas murmurs. 

 

Dean clears his throat. "Yeah, well, s'just a flower. Anyway, you haven't seen 'em all. Hold on." 

 

With that, with no further warning, without thinking it through at all, Dean lifts his hands and ducks his head as he reaches back to bunch up his shirt and tug it over his head. It's purely to show the tattoos—a tattoo tour, as he called it—and not an idea to make things awkward for them. For some fucking reason, it never crosses his mind that taking his shirt off is going to spur a reaction. 

 

Nonetheless, it does. When Dean tosses the shirt on the bed and glances up, Cas' eyes look like they're about to roll right out of his head. They're wide—bulging, even—and he looks like he's getting bombarded with too much information at once. He doesn't seem to know where to look, gaze bouncing around like he's trying to take everything in, but he's too overwhelmed to really manage it. He can't seem to adjust to taking Dean in all at once, as if he needs to pace himself and do it in pieces. 

 

Huh. Well. Dean allows himself one moment to be surprised. Because, sure, he knew Cas liked him. That's pretty obvious at this point. But he didn't really wrap his mind around the whole thing. It's at this moment that Dean realizes and fully accepts that Cas is actually, genuinely gay for him. 

 

It is incredibly nerve-wracking. 

 

It also leaves him smug as shit, too. He has to work really hard not to wriggle his shoulder in a little dance, just that pleased to be treated like some kind of amazing specimen that can make Cas flustered. He feels very attractive right now. It's nice. 

 

And then, all at once, Cas snaps right out of it. His face smooths out as he straightens up. His gaze sharpens. In the next second, Dean is yelping purely from surprise as Cas marches forward and darts his hands to grab his arm and wrench him around. He braces one hand on the line of Dean's shoulder, the other tracing the first tattoo Mitzi ever gave him. He's transfixed, focused, completely zoned in. 

 

Despite being manhandled without permission, Dean doesn't say anything. He knows exactly what Cas is looking at. He isn't that surprised that Cas is barging right past any lines they might have put up, getting his hands on Dean without even asking. In his defense, the tattoo means something. 

 

The altered angel banishing sigil. Dean remembers altering it. He remembers not moving out of bed for days, other than to go to the bathroom and eat the saltines he could stomach. He remembers Eileen bringing him a journal and telling him that it sometimes helps her to write down her nightmares, and maybe it would help him, too. 

 

Dean didn't write down his nightmares. He didn't need to, because it was always the same one, and he knew every single detail of it. Instead, Dean would trace the symbols, sigils, and—later—the Enochian he knew into the pages. The angel banishing sigil wasn't the first thing he drew in the book, but he remembers staring at it and hating it with a burning passion. It represented the opposite of what he wanted. He didn't want Cas to be banished from his life. He wanted Cas to come back. 

 

So, he fixed it to represent that. He made it into a request, instead. A question. A plea. Come back to me, come back to me. 

 

"Dean, this is…" Cas lifts his head, still holding onto him, his fingers resting gently against the center of the tattooed sigil. He swallows, his eyes wide and blue and flickering with so much emotion. 

 

"I know it doesn't really work," Dean mumbles. 

 

Cas' eyebrows furrow. "I think—I believe it did, actually. In the Empty, I had no way of finding you, and you could not reveal yourself to me. That tug I felt, it was faint. Almost non-existent. Possibly even less noticeable because a portion of my grace was missing. However, it was there. I felt it. When I focused, I could follow it, like it...drew me in." 

 

"That's what it's designed to do," Dean admits. 

 

"You designed it," Cas says softly. 

 

Dean swallows. "Yeah. I just… It was the first tattoo that I got out of all of these new ones. I wanted you to come back, and I knew that feeling was never going to go away. It was permanent. Wanting you to come back, and just you, Cas, you—it was under my skin, you were under my skin, man, and I couldn't get you out. I didn't even want to. So, I just—I just figured I might as well get that on my skin, too." 

 

"Oh," Cas breathes out, lips parting around the soft exhale. He looks at Dean like he's been stunned, like his feet has been abruptly swept right out from under him, and he doesn't know how to get his balance. 

 

"Yeah. Oh," Dean agrees in a rasp, and it's somehow one of the easiest things he's ever done to turn under Cas' hands, reaching out to grab him by the lapels of his coat and pull him in. 

 

It seems to happen in a rush, the way they sway into each other, folding the space between them until there is no more, and then everything just...slows down the moment their lips meet. 

 

There's not a shock to his system, or an initial jolt where he has to freeze and take a second to adjust. It feels right from the moment it starts, seamless, as easy as breathing. It's not even necessarily a deep kiss, or a heated one. There's just the press of mouths, the motion of it, the both of them rocking closer together. It's like they've been waiting for so long now that it could be the worst kiss in the world and neither of them would even notice. 

 

It is, fortunately, not a bad kiss. It's actually really nice. Dean doesn't think he's ever had a kiss that felt like a comfort. Making out as a teenager wasn't about feeling safe and secure. Kissing for the lead up to sex with his hookups over the years was about the heat, the mutual arousal, the gateway to feeling good with bodies and not necessarily an abundance of emotion. Hell, even kissing Lisa and Cassie long ago wasn't like this—pecks were simple and an afterthought, not necessarily a bad thing, and the deeper kisses were for flirting, or a lead-up to sex, or even to simply enjoy it. Nothing wrong with any of that; he just never knew it could be like this, too. 

 

Like this, where he is being smoothed over in places he didn't even know he was frayed. Where he's settling, calming, sinking into it. Where he feels steady, as if this kiss grounds him, solidifying a platform he didn't even know was crumbling at the edges. Where every single shitty thing that weighs on him almost all the time seems to evaporate entirely for as long as he's doing this. 

 

And it's not about sex. It's not about getting their hands all over each other. Not now, though that's sure to come later. This is the first, the moment they can't come back from, the point of no return. Maybe it's sappy and silly and stupid, but Dean is inordinately pleased that it's like this. 

 

When they break apart, they're not breathing hard. They're not clawing at each other. They're just blinking open their eyes, looking at each other, in so deep that they sort of just—accept it. 

 

"Been wanting to do that for a while," Dean murmurs, sliding his hand up Cas' chest to track up the side of his neck, pressing his thumb against his bottom lip. It's soft. He'd know. 

 

"How long?" Cas asks. 

 

"Too long," Dean admits, stupidly enamored with the way Cas' lips move under his finger. He traces it along the bottom lip, gaze following the motion of it. "I, uh, know you said that I was the one thing you couldn't have, but that's the thing, man. You got me. You got me, and I—" He rocks forward, dragging his hand to cup the side of Cas' neck. He closes his eyes, pressing their temples together, murmuring in Cas' ear as his heart races in his chest. "I love you. I really fucking do, Cas. You're not allowed to say goodbye to me ever again, you hear me? If you go anywhere, you say see you later, because you gotta come back every time. Don't leave and not come back to me. Never again." 

 

"Okay, Dean. Okay," Cas whispers, his head turning, seeking. Their noses brush, lips fumbling for each other again, finding their way. Coming back. 

 

And it is here that Dean finds his peace. It's even more than he expected, because there's the happiness he didn't even have the energy to hope for. It bursts warm in his chest, pulsing and spreading, and it's so easy to just curl into it. Maybe he doesn't deserve it. He can't really figure out how to make himself believe that he does, not yet, but he thinks he will one day. And that? That's enough. 

 

Cas hums in rough and tumble approval when they part yet again, murmuring, "You know I love you, of course," and Dean has to huff out a quiet laugh and kiss him again for another few minutes. 

 

"Of course," Dean teases, practically speaking into Cas' mouth. He feels sort of lazy, like he imagines a cat does when they're relaxing in a patch of sun. He thinks he could stay here like this all day. 

 

"Mm, as long as you're aware," Cas says, sounding so damn pleased that Dean can't help but grin. 

 

"Hey," Dean mumbles. 

 

"Hm?" 

 

"I'm not gonna be good at this, just so you know." 

 

Cas pulls back a little, blinking at him. "I think you're doing extremely well." 

 

"You're biased," Dean points out. 

 

"And I will continue to be," Cas agrees. "As I understand it, love will do that to someone. You're biased, aren't you?" 

 

"Maybe a little," Dean mumbles, cracking a weak smile. "I think you're one of the best things that's ever happened to me, and you nearly fucked up the world good and proper once. Maybe twice. So, yeah, probably biased. But I'm way worse, and trust me, I've recently rehashed my whole life, so it's all pretty fresh in my memory." 

 

"You've never done anything wrong." 

 

"I've done so many things wrong, Cas, oh my god." 

 

"We'll have to agree to disagree," Cas informs him placidly, giving a small shrug like he's decided that he simply does not see it. Knowing it, having it pointed out to him, looking at it head-on, and the stubborn bastard acts like it's not even there. 

 

Dean kisses him again because—well, because he's more than earned it that time. He can't just go 'mistakes, what mistakes, Dean has been perfect his whole life' and not get a kiss like it's a reward. It's encouraging bad behavior, it is, and Dean knows that, but he can't help it. He's happy. Sue him. 

 

The more they do this kissing thing, the better it gets—and really, it was never bad. It works wonders to shut Dean's head right on up, sensation claiming him wholly and completely. He sags into it every time, sighing, eyes fluttering shut. It's so good. 

 

When they break apart yet again, Cas reaches out and traces the tattooed feather on Dean's arm, his touch gentle. "For me?" he asks, curious. 

 

"Not really." Dean glances down, eyebrows pulling together. "I don't actually know what your wings would really look like, or your feathers. But I guess this was more for angels in general. They've been a pretty big part of our lives. Another reminder." 

 

"Ah," Cas murmurs. "I like it. It's very good." 

 

"Yeah, Mitzi's got skills." Dean looks back up at Cas, watching him take in more of the various tattoos littered on his skin. "I got that flower for Jack, and the amulet for Sam, just here." He taps his chest, just below the hollow of his throat, not even needing to look. He hasn't worn the amulet in years, but he remembers exactly where it used to sit, and that's where he got it tattooed. "And I got something in Enochian for my mom. Got something on by back for Charlie. Even got a tattoo for my damn car. But you—that altered sigil was to you, not for you. I didn't get a tattoo for you, Cas." 

 

Cas' gaze snaps to his, not hurt, curious. He cocks his head a little. "You say that like there's a purpose behind it. Why?" 

 

"I already had something for you, and it wasn't a tattoo." Dean shuffles to the side a little, lifting his arm to put the handprint into better view. "Mitzi asked if I was gonna get it covered up, but I said no. You already left your mark on me, I guess. No tattoo was never gonna do it justice. It kinda stands out more with all the tattoos around it, though." 

 

This time, it's Cas who kisses Dean, and he does it with a hitched breath and growing urgency. Dean chuckles, pleased by the reaction, and then things stop being funny the harder that Cas kisses him. Okay, now it's getting a bit heated. He is so on board for that. He's fucking stoked about it. 

 

Cas' voice is rough when he jerks back and declares, very firmly, "I want to touch them. All of them." 

 

"Yes, okay, we should definitely do that," Dean wheezes out, suddenly so goddamn thankful that he decided to get tattoos at all. Best decision he's ever made, really, if it means Cas' hands will end up all over him. Tattoos are the fucking best. 

 

They do end up in the bed, and Cas gives himself the tour of Dean's tattoos. He traces them like he's imprinting the shape of them into his fingertips. Some spark conversation, soft things said back and forth. Charlie's does. Cas traces the length of his spine, outlining the sword and chainmail and crown. He says it's beautiful and that he thinks Charlie would have loved it. Dean basks in the bittersweet of it, because it stings, but it's nice as well. 

 

Others need no conversation at all. Cas traces the Enochian for Mary without a word. The protective warding that won't actually do anything for him gets a kiss, Cas' soft mouth pressing in, warm and adoring. Dean's heart thumps unevenly in response, anticipation clenching in his gut. 

 

"I like them," Cas tells him once he's explored every single one. He leans over Dean, punctuating his simple declaration with a kiss. 

 

Dean's a little dizzy when they pull away from each other to breathe, and he chokes out, "I like them, too. I think you'd really like Mitzi." 

 

"She sounds nice," Cas murmurs. 

 

"She is. I think she'd fucking lose it if she met you."

 

"Why?" 

 

"Cas, I wasn't—" Dean licks his lips, his throat going tight. "After you were gone, I was in a bad spot. It was—really bad. I mean, it's always really bad. Losing you is… That fucks me up every time. I didn't have any hope, man, and she was just—I don't know. She listened to me, even when she probably thought I was one loose screw away from a padded cell. In the end, it was her that gave me something to hope for. It's because of her that I tried." 

 

"I'll have to thank her one day, then," Cas says. 

 

Dean cracks a smile. "One day, yeah. For now…" 

 

"Mm, yes, I agree," Cas tells him, then proves it by swooping in to kiss him again. 

 

When he moves, his tattoos move with him, a part of him. Permanent. A promise in his skin. The way Cas touches him feels much the same, and Dean thinks—Dean knows—that life is what you make it, that there's a point if you're willing to believe it, because this? A brother, a kid who's God, an angel who comes back?

 

This is his.