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psalm 40:2

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There’s a man watching him from across the bar. 

Dean keeps one hand curled tight and close around the bottle in front of him. Keeps his head down. 

There are a couple people watching him, actually: the bartender who winked at him when he sat down and bent low enough that he got an eyeful of her cleavage as she served him, and two college-aged chicks giggling enough that he could probably have fun with both of ‘em if he wanted to. 

Their gazes are different though, just carousing admiration, a heat behind their eyes that’s too far away for Dean to warm himself against. Flattering, but nothing he has to act on if he doesn’t feel like it. 

And Dean doesn’t feel like it. Not tonight. Not with the gouge running up the shell of his ribs from a hunt he let get too messy, that Dad let him know real quick was his own damn problem to deal with before he left him high and dry in the middle of Minnesota. 

Not with that man’s eyes on him—right on him, a weight against Dean’s skin. 

Dean drifts his free hand down to the gun tucked beneath his jacket, and then Dean meets his gaze. 

The guy—he doesn’t startle, he doesn’t flinch from being caught out. He also doesn’t wink at Dean, doesn’t tip his head slow to the bathroom or the front door. 

He gets sad around the eyes. Longing around the mouth.

Dean goes white-knuckled on the gun. 

“‘Nother round, hun?”

Dean flashes his best smile up the bartender’s way without thinking about it, already sliding out of his chair. “That’s all for me, sweetheart, thanks,” he says, tossing down a few wadded-up bills onto the sticky bartop and leaving his half finished beer where it is. “You have a nice night.”

She says something back, she’s still looking at him, it would be so fucking easy to turn around and touch the back of her hand and ask when she gets off— 

The man stands when Dean does, and with a last long look, he heads out the door. 

Dean follows him. 

It’s cold outside, cutting down beneath the layers of his jacket in the way only a midwest January can. It fills Dean’s lungs up like glass shards when he breathes in deep, even colder against the pump of his blood as he ducks around the corner of the bar in three long steps, following the tan slope of the man’s shoulders. 

He’s waiting for Dean right there on the other side, just leaning back in all those shadows, silent as a prayer.

Dean fits his gun up in that notch beneath the man’s chin. 

Guy don’t even blink. 

“Dean,” he murmurs. 

Dean’s hand is shaking and he doesn’t know why. He grips the man’s shoulder, right over the crumpled fabric of the ugly trench coat he’s wearing, and presses the gun up harder until the man has to lift his head a little. “How the fuck do you know my name?” he hisses. 

The man doesn’t look scared. He is watching Dean like there is nothing else worth watching, lips a little parted, eyes a little soft. And blue. Real blue, like the ocean on a postcard. 

The ice spreading down Dean’s spine makes him shiver. 

“I suppose you could say I’m your guardian angel,” the man murmurs. His breath fogs pale between them. All of him is unnaturally warm, like Dean’s touching somebody with the sun sewn up beneath their skin. “I have known you, Dean Winchester, for a very long time.”

“Wrong thing to say if you want me to lower this gun, pal,” Dean says, and his voice is only slightly unsteady. He can hear the roar of cars on the highway behind them, barely audible beneath the rush of his own blood. “Angels ain’t real and everybody knows it.”

He fucking smiles. It’s slight, but it’s there—this crazy motherfucker has a gun beneath his chin and he smiles at the guy who’s holding it. 

“I assure you, Dean,” he says. “We very much are.”

The man is still drinking him in. Drinking him in. It’s hard to see in the low light, but Dean thinks those eyes are damp, and it makes something in him go wild, volatile, like a can shook up too hard. 

“Listen,” Dean says, low, angling his body in toward the man as the arc of a passing headlight cuts too close for comfort. “I don’t know who you are or what you want from me, but I’m not in the businesses of letting things that can hurt me walk free. So either you tell me what’s really going on, or I do what I gotta do to make sure I don’t have a stalker on my tail when I leave this place.”

His gaze flits around Dean’s face like shadows passing over a riverbed. “It’s so difficult for you to trust already, isn’t it?” he asks. “Even so young.”

That wild thing in Dean makes his throat hot. “I ain’t alive because I trust people,” he growls.

For a moment more, the man is quiet. He is guarding Dean’s front from the acerbic air like a furnace. 

“My name is Castiel,” he says finally. “I am, for all intents and purposes, an angel of the lord. I’m from the future. I have—I have known you for a great many years, Dean. I have fought battles at your side. I have saved you, and been saved by you in return.” His voice dips lower, rough like a gravel road. “I have sacrificed everything for you, and I would do it again.”

John would tell Dean to kill him. Don’t think twice. Pull the trigger. 

John isn’t here. 

Slowly, Dean lowers his gun. 

There is something about him. There is something—Dean lowers the gun but doesn’t let go of his shoulder, and the smile Castiel gives him at that makes Dean’s skin heat. 

“We’re not done,” Dean says roughly. The gun is lowered, but still very much in his hand. Castiel could be a shapeshifter, a skinwalker, a ghoul. He could be a demon. He could be a thousand things Dean hasn’t heard of yet, sent here in the shape of a man who looks more like a tax accountant than any kind of monster, here speaking devotion to Dean that he doesn’t want to hear. “But it’s cold as shit out here. Walk ahead of me and get in the car when I tell you to, and don’t try anything funny.”

“Of course,” Castiel says. “Nothing ‘funny.’”

He emphasizes the last word carefully, as if he’s testing out its colloquialism on the tip of his tongue and finding it strange-shaped. He lets Dean turn him around with no hesitation at all, presenting his back to him fearlessly. 

Dean stares at him for a moment. The back of his neck, pale above his collar and beneath the ends of his mussed hair. A tender place for a bullet to slip into. 

I have saved you, and been saved by you in return. 

Dean nudges Castiel between the shoulder blades, walks him like that from their dark corner to where the Impala is parked beneath a streetlight. 

Castiel glances back at Dean over his shoulder as he slides into Baby’s passenger seat, as if not staring at him for the thirty seconds it took to cross the parking lot was some kinda hardship. He’s careful where he touches the car, hands gentle, almost reverent; it’s true, honest respect with which Castiel pulls Baby’s door shut behind him. Like he knows her. Knows what she means to Dean. 

His eyes track Dean as he moves around the front of the car. 

Dean’s got a silver knife in his duffel in the back, and a vial of holy water. He gets behind the wheel and twists until he can grab them, then he holds his hand out for Castiel’s, fixing his face into a scowl that he hopes won’t invite any argument. 

Castiel complies immediately. Even rolls his sleeve up a bit, courteous and succinct. Like he’s done this before. 

Dean’s pulse is still doing something nasty in the side of his neck, throbbing fast beneath his skin. He takes Castiel’s wrist in his hand, and Castiel’s palm is big and wide and warm, and Dean makes a neat slice across his life-line. 

Blood bubbles up sluggishly. Castiel doesn’t even wince. 

He’s sitting turned completely toward Dean, one knee resting on the seat; as he breathes, the shallow cut knits itself back together before Dean’s eyes. 

Dean grits his teeth. Upends the holy water over Castiel’s healing flesh. 

Nothing. It runs off him like rain, puddles in a dark spot in a fold of his coat. 

“Alright,” Dean says. Even to his own ears he sounds grim. But Jesus—it’s been a hell of a goddamn day, and by the looks of it, it won’t be slowing down any time soon. “Sit still.”

Castiel just looks at him, one eyebrow lifting into an arch, as if to wryly ask Dean what else he would be doing. Dean can think of a couple things. Gouring him to death with a knife, mainly, or possessing him and making him steer Baby off the nearest cliff. 

Dean scowls again. He stretches past Castiel’s lap to root around in the glovebox, where he’s got the salt stored; he ignores the solid line of heat Castiel makes, gently warming Dean’s side. 

His injured side. He’d forgotten all about it in the wake of Castiel and his bold claims and his tragic eyes, but it goes sharp-white with pain as he straightens up. 

Castiel frowns at him. “Are you hurt?”

“No,” Dean says shortly. He grabs a handful of salt and tosses it Castiel’s way, internally mourning all that he’s gonna hafta do to get that out of Baby’s interior. Castiel blinks his eyes shut as it hits them, and then back open, brushing grains smartly off of his lapels. 

“Dean,” he says. Castiel speaks Dean’s name like it fits nicely in his mouth. Like he’s said it a thousand times. “I saw your expression.”

Ignoring him, Dean shoves the bag of salt into one of the cupholders, his other hand still hovering pessimistically over his gun. It’s not quite midnight; Bobby’ll probably still be up, drinking himself to sleep in front of one of those shitty documentaries he likes to watch, and if anybody’s gonna know anything about angels it’ll be him. Would’ve been nice if he’d mentioned something like that before, though— 

“Dean,” Castiel says, more insistent this time, enough of an edge to it that Dean’s helpless to look up. 

Dean was right earlier. Castiel’s eyes are still a bit damp, a bit red around the rims like he’d been crying about something before he decided to go all Fatal Attraction on Dean’s ass. People don’t—nobody—it’s not—nobody looks at Dean like that. Like there’s nothing else they’d rather see. 

So close that Dean feels flayed, skin from blood from bone. 

“May I heal you?

What the absolute hell. Dean thinks of the way Castiel’s skin had knit itself back together effortlessly, leaving not so much as a smear of blood in its place. He wants to do that to Dean? He wants to take away the evidence of his own recklessness, this injury that he wears as a hallmark of his own mistake, as if it had never happened in the first place?

No, Dean thinks. No, no, and then “Why?” is what comes out of him instead. 

Castiel looks confused for a moment—a slim little line between his eyebrows—and then sorrowful. It’s uncomfortable enough that Dean shifts where he sits. 

“Because you are in pain,” Castiel says. “And you do not deserve to be.”

This is blatantly untrue. Were it some other injury, maybe, some other poor fool’s mistake that had cost Dean and John their hunt, Dean might not feel this hot sour rebellion rising to the back of his throat at those words—but it isn’t anybody’s fault but Dean’s own. He’s the one who let himself flag, let his exhaustion get in the way of his common sense; he took one moment to rest during a restless job, and the ghoul they were after got the jump on him. That’s how this shit works. 

“That’s not your job to decide,” he says tightly. Castiel is sitting too close. He’s warmer than the heat pumping out of Baby’s vents. “And—how am I supposed to trust you? For all I know you could lay a hand on me and burn me to death, if you’re really an angel like you say. Which I still don’t buy, by the way.”

“I would never hurt you voluntarily, Dean,” Castiel says. There’s too much weight in the way he stares. He seems genuinely bothered by the prospect, too, in a way that makes Dean’s throat dry. “But I suppose it’s reasonable of you not to believe me, given the life you lead. What could I… what could I do to convince you?”

“Of the angel part or the time travel part?” Dean asks, and there’s a definite snap in his voice. He wants to tell Castiel to get out of his car and never bother him again. He wants to know why Castiel says his name like it’s his favorite word. “Oh I dunno, Castiel, smite something. Tell me something only I would know.”

Castiel tips his head, as if he’s seriously considering either of those options. Dean has time to worry about more than a little salt ruining the Impala’s leather before Cas says, “You are less angry that Sam left you and your father than you are that Sam is the one who got out.”

The air goes still around them. Heavy. 

Dean’s fists are clenched so tightly that his nails cut into his palms. 

“Keep Sam out of this,” he growls. 

“I would never hurt him either,” Castiel says, slow and measured and calm. “Sam Winchester is my friend, too, and on top of that he is one of the best men to whom I have ever had the pleasure of being acquainted.” 

This gives Dean pause—and something tells him that Castiel knew it would. He says, keeping his voice as hard as he can make it, “You know Sammy too?”

“I have known the both of you for over a decade,” Castiel murmurs. He smiles slightly, and it’s somber. “When I come from, at least.”

“So he, uh.” Dean wipes the salt from his palm onto his jeans, looking for an excuse not to have to meet Castiel’s probing gaze. “He comes back."

Another car passes them by. It washes Castiel in pale yellow light. 

“Yes, Dean,” Castiel says quietly. 

Dean nods. His side really does hurt. “He happy about that?”

Castiel’s hesitation tells him all he needs to know. 

“I really don’t think I should reveal much more about your future, Dean,” he says apologetically. “I don’t—it is unprecedented, what has happened to me to put me here with you. I don’t want to alter the course of your life.”

God, of course. Dean meets a time traveling entity who’s maybe the only person in the world that can give him any kinda information on the little brother who won’t answer his calls, and the dude refuses to speak. Even though Sam is apparently some sort of saint in the future or something—and Dean can buy it. Sammy’s always been the good one out of the two of them, the just one, the kind one. The one who thinks to comfort a victim’s family before jumping in to ask them how their loved one was killed. 

The one who got out. 

The one who gets dragged back in. 

“So what did happen?” Dean asks. He stares through the darkness beyond Baby’s headlights to the bar he’d been wallowing in thirty minutes ago, the trickle of people leaving it on unsteady legs. “Assuming you’re not makin’ all this up, which I’m still not convinced of, by the way.”

Another hesitation, where Castiel stares at Dean until he goes warm again inside. “Perhaps I should save that story for another time. It seems that you have had quite the day, and this is a lot to take in.”

“What makes you think I’m gonna let you hang around long enough for there to be another time?” Dean asks, but he sounds more weary than truly upset, and the way Castiel looks at him like he knows it makes his ears burn. 

“I think that your curiosity will win out over your instinct for self-preservation,” Castiel tells him. He doesn’t quite smile, but the corners of his eyes go soft. “Fortunately in this instance, that’s not a foolhardy decision, although I certainly wish it was a trait you would work on overcoming.”

Jesus. This guy talks like he more than just knows Dean—he talks like he knows every part of him. It’s… strange, to say the least. The flayed-back feeling persists. 

“Shut up,” Dean says, and then “You gotta leave before Dad gets back.” It isn’t a yeah, Castiel, you can stick around, but it also isn’t a no, and of that they’re both aware. “He ain’t gonna be choosy with the bullets, if you know what I mean.”

Castiel hasn’t exactly been restless before, but Dean notices it anyway when he goes still. 

“John Winchester,” Castiel says. If Dean’s name in his mouth sounds treasured, John’s sounds reviled. “Are the two of you no longer traveling together?”

The burn-out ache in his ribs. “Apparently not.”

They’d been in the same hotel room—paid for for two nights, a rare luxury—but John had held the keys, and he’s skipped town by now. It’s certainly not the worst punishment John Winchester has ever doled out, but it’s far from the most convenient: Dean’s gonna need to find another cheap motel in the area if he doesn’t want to sleep in the Impala injured like he is, and he can only hope this Castiel guy brought a wallet with him from the future because Dean didn’t have time to make any money tonight and he sure can’t afford two rooms. 

“Did he leave you behind?” Castiel asks. 

For the first time, he sounds upset. It’s slight—a tightening to his voice, a bit more of a rasp than usual—but Dean catches it easily. What the hell does an angel have to be upset about some guy’s dad leaving town?

“He had his reasons,” Dean says. He doesn’t know why he’s jumping in to defend John just like he always does. He doesn’t know why it’s this—the unwarranted and unwanted concern in Castiel’s face, the indignation on Dean’s behalf—that is making Dean’s eyes prickle hot. Goddamn mortifying is what it is. “I fucked up. Moved too slow, nearly got us both killed. He’s right to be pissed.”

He starts Baby and maneuvers her smoothly out of his spot. The low rumble of her engine calms him, like a strange sort of lullaby. 

“You don’t deserve to hurt, Dean,” Castiel says softly into the space between them.  

Dean’s shoulders are too tight, and his jaw and his hips and his spine. He seeks out the blank darkness of the highway as if it’ll hold him in. “What are you, a fucking shrink?”

“No. I’m an angel of the lord, so you should listen to what I say.”   

Dean snorts. He’s pretty sure Castiel wasn’t angling for a laugh, but neither of them wanna see the other reaction Dean’s wavering on the edge of. 

“Look, man,” he says, and it comes out mean, an edge to it, but one more bump in the road of this day might just shake Dean apart and he’s gotta use what armor he has, “you may know future me, but you sure as hell don’t know me now. So stay out of it, ok?”

Castiel is silent for one moment, two, three. Dean can feel Castiel looking at him. Dean refuses to look back. 

He turns up the music and he drives. 

 

*

 

Dean pulls off at the first motel he sees that looks to be about his price range: one of those that’s just called MOTEL, half the letters in the vacancy sign blinking out, cracks in the barren pavement outside the width of Dean’s forearm.

“Got money for a room?” Dean asks gruffly. 

They’ve been quiet for the ride over. Dean’s not sure if Castiel is mad at him or John or if he’s sitting there plotting Dean’s murder; still, Dean can’t help but feel like he’s done something wrong. 

It’s a cold, heavy feeling, and it sinks down into his bones. It’s familiar. 

“I don’t sleep,” Castiel says, and Dean must make a face because Castiel clarifies, “No angel does. So I can… I suppose I can wait out here in the Impala for you until morning if you are uncomfortable sharing a space with me—”

“Not gonna leave you out here in my damn car,” Dean says, twisting the keys in the transmission and pocketing them. It probably says something about him that he’d rather risk his own life by falling asleep in the same room as an all-powerful entity than give that entity the chance to steal his car, but it’s something Dean isn’t willing to examine. Not on this dogshit day. “You can take the couch. Or something.”

“Thank you, Dean.”

Dean doesn’t take out his gun as they cross the parking lot. He’s sure Castiel notices. 

If he does, he gives no comment. 

Dean goes to give Castiel first shift in the bathroom—like he’s John, like he’s human—before he catches himself with that heat in his chest again. Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. You don’t extend showering courtesy to a guy who stalked you in a bar, even if you are having one of those days where you feel like you gotta repent for every little thing. 

Castiel, already seated at the rickety desk chair in the corner, looks at Dean from beneath heavy lids. The smile he gives him is fond. The smile he gives him is for another man. 

Dean grabs the cleanest clothes he can find in his duffel and shuts the bathroom door tight behind him. 

The water pressure is weak, sputtering. He turns it as hot as it’ll go and steps in close to the wall. Leans his forehead against it. Shuts his eyes. 

It fucking hurts. The gash along his side. It hurts and—and Dean knows he’s lucky the wound isn’t deeper, or further down over the soft fragile flesh of his stomach, he knows he’s damn lucky this is all that happened to him after that stupid, stupid move he pulled— 

He scrubs at his eyes, harsh. Here in the privacy of this room, the first privacy he’s had since Dad left him, he feels small and dumb and scared. It’s been years since Dean’s been so busted up about being on his own, but it’s different this time. With Sammy gone already and not taking any of his calls, with John so disgusted that he couldn’t even look Dean in the eyes before he’d left. Just tossed Baby’s keys his way, hands shaking with anger. Hadn’t even stayed to help Dean clean his wound. 

Not that Dean needs his goddamn dad to survive—hell, he’s twenty-two, and he’s been on hunts by himself before. If he’s being honest, he’s been taking care of Sammy and himself for most of their lives. 

But Sam isn’t here to take care of anymore. And with just himself to look after, it almost doesn’t seem worth it.  

Dean stands there until the water’s gone cold on him, and it stops running pinkish down the drain. He washes with the tiny, bad-smelling soaps they stock places like with, and dries off with a thin towel, shivering a bit as he climbs out onto the cracked tile floor. 

He wonders what it would feel like to be healed by an angel. By Castiel. Warm, probably, like the heat that pours in a miasma from Castiel’s skin. 

Not that he’s going to take Castiel up on it. Dean doesn’t know him, and he has some self-preservation left. 

And he does deserve this. Doesn’t matter what Castiel says. 

He’s half-asleep by the time he wanders back out to the main room, the hair he was too tired to dry dripping cold down his neck. Castiel is still sitting sentinel in his chair: his back is straight and tall, his shoulders broad. He has his feet planted a hips-width apart, and his big hands rest atop his thighs. He looks almost relieved to see Dean—again with the sense that he doesn’t like to not be looking at him. 

Dean wonders if he’s used to it, in the future where Castiel is from. Used to the low-grade fever of Castiel’s blue, blue gaze. 

“You gonna kill me while I sleep?” Dean asks. 

Castiel looks upset by this, and Dean feels a swift flash of guilt. Dean thinks of his insistence from earlier. I would never hurt you voluntarily, Dean. Voluntarily. Like maybe it’s something he’s been forced to do before. 

“Quite the contrary,” Castiel says softly. “I’ll watch over you. I will keep you safe.”

“Guardian angel,” Dean says. He wants to scoff. He wants, ridiculously, for it to be true. “Right.”

There are a lot of things he should be doing right now. He should be salting the windows and the doorframe, he should be trying to contact Dad or Sam or Bobby, he should be drilling Castiel for information. He shouldn’t have even let Castiel in this room.

Dean’s pulling his gun out and slipping it underneath his pillow on autopilot, and his knife, too. He’s climbing beneath the covers. 

He’s letting Castiel watch him do it. 

“You’re gone tomorrow,” Dean murmurs, eyes slipping closed. The pillow is flat and the mattress is lumpy and he is weary down to his bones. “Soon as you answer my questions.”

The room is silent save for the sound of their mingled breaths, gentle in the darkness. “Goodnight, Dean,” Castiel says. 

That wasn’t an answer. Dean’s asleep before he can point it out. 

 

*

 

Something in the darkness. A shape. A light. 

Dean moves forward. 

It is gray around him, like water-stained granite; for a moment that’s all he can see, and then the grayness resolves itself into walls and a floor, crude and stark. 

Dean is in a room. 

It pulsates with a single repeated sound, over and over again—something ringing and rhythmic, like bone on bone. A heartbeat. 

A heartbeat. It surrounds him. It slips up under his skin and nestles in close ‘round the sinew of his tendons, and he beats with it. 

 

*

 

Dean wakes up. 

He’s not sure, for a moment that clouds his brain with fear, what startled him awake: the motel room is empty as far as he can see, ugly wallpaper stained lilac with the sunrise, nothing watching from the still-shadowed corners. He registers the heaviness of his gun in his hand before registers that he’s picked it up at all, but there is no figure looming over him to aim it at. 

No ghost seeping in through the window cracks. No John stumbling in drunk through the door. 

And oh—

Nobody. That’s it. Castiel is gone. 

Dean just sits for a second and lets his pulse wind down. There’s sweat at the small of his back. The nape of his neck. He can hear somebody’s dream-heart sounding in his ears. 

The front door is unlocked. 

Dean’s cold when he slips out of bed and across the room to shove his feet in his boots, but he doesn’t bother grabbing his jacket. He opens the door as quietly as he can, peering out into the hazy pre-dawn. 

Castiel is sitting on the edge of the sidewalk a few paces away. 

They’re in one of those motels where each room has an outdoor entrance, no need to go through a lobby—perfect for a hunter, who might be passing through at all hours of the day covered in all manners of substances. Perfect, too, for a breath of fresh air when everything inside is getting to be too much. Dean would know. 

“What happened to watching over me?”

Castiel doesn’t startle, doesn’t turn around. Of course he doesn’t. Dean doesn’t know anything about angels, but if this guy really is one, he probably knew the second Dean woke up. 

“I can watch over you perfectly well from out here,” Castiel says, confirming Dean’s thoughts whether knowingly or not. He glances at Dean when Dean moves to sit beside him a careful couple of feet away, arms wrapped around himself against the chill. Castiel’s eyes are even more striking in the daylight—otherworldly. It seems like an angelic enough trait. Or maybe that’s just him. “You are very loud.”

“Hey,” Dean says, vaguely offended. His sweat is already starting to dry down tacky and cold. “I don’t snore.”

Castiel smiles at him, and it’s strangely indulgent—the crinkles at the corners of his eyes, the soft curve of his mouth. “No, Dean,” he says. “You don’t snore. Your soul is what I was referring to. It is… quite vocal.”

Dean stares. He has no clue why the words make him go hot again, flustered like an itch beneath his skin that he can’t scratch, kinda—kinda embarrassed. Bashful, maybe, and Jesus. Dean Winchester doesn’t get bashful. 

It’s too fucking early for this. 

“My soul,” he repeats flatly. 

“Indeed.” Castiel’s hands are curved over his knees, his scuffed shoes resting evenly in the gravel. He speaks quietly. “I have always found it to be lovely.”

Castiel looks more tired than he did yesterday in the dark, with shadows hiding out in the swoops beneath his eyes, with the permanent echo of a frown across his forehead. Dean wonders how far in the future he’s from. Dean wonders if he’s told his own Dean this. 

“God,” Dean says. He should’ve grabbed his jacket before he came out here; he shivers a bit, and grips his elbows. “What the hell, Cas.”

The nickname slips out before he can think about it, and he searches Castiel’s face quick for any sort of annoyance. He finds none. He finds, instead, a measure of that hollowed-out sorrow from before that hits him in a place he can’t reach. 

“I don’t apologize for believing so,” Castiel says. The gentle purple light makes his edges thin. “Though I am sorry if voicing that makes you uncomfortable.”

“It’s fine, Castiel,” Dean says. He’s careful to pronounce his full name, wary of making Castiel gaze at him like he wants something from Dean that Dean doesn’t understand again. “Only, that’s a helluva thing to say to a guy you just met.”

‘Course, they haven’t just met, according to Castiel. God. 

“Oh, Cas is…” a pause. Castiel’s coat pools around his hips on the dirty pavement. “You may call me Cas, if you’d like.”

He doesn’t quite look at Dean when he says it, and that must mean something. It’s gotta. His throat bobs as he swallows, one hand tracing something on the knee of his pants that Dean can’t see. 

“Alright, Cas,” Dean says. He doesn’t say that he won’t be calling him much of anything here soon—sometime overnight it’s become important to Dean that Cas and John never meet, and that means getting Cas out of here as soon as possible. The idea of John letting something that calls itself an angel and claims to know his son walk free is laughable, and Dean ain’t willing to risk it. “Think you can answer a couple questions for me?”

Somebody a few doors down from them ambles out onto their own stoop, a cigarette held in long gray fingers. Cas glances at them and then at Dean, and the fan of his eyelashes spreads a shadow over his cheeks. 

“I can try,” he says. “Inside, though.”

He stands, brushing road dust and parking lot grit off his coat as he does so. He looks down at Dean. He extends a hand. 

Dean takes it. Cas’s palm is warm in his, and broad, and he’s got calluses in different places than the men who have touched Dean before; he pulls Dean easily to his feet. He gives Dean a look when Dean winces at the bite of pain in his ribs, which Dean ignores, because Dean doesn’t know him. 

He lets go of Dean when they’re both standing. 

They go inside. 

The bed is a wreck from where Dean left it in a hurry, a twist of colorless sheets. The gun sits abandoned on the pillow. Dean perches at the foot, and Cas takes the wobbly desk chair again. 

“Ok,” says Dean, and for a second he reminds himself of Sam: gathering up all the loose threads of an event and sorting through them until they make sense. Dean can’t ever wrangle them quite right. Tugs too hard. “So you’re—you’re tellin’ me you’re an angel.”

“I thought we had been over that,” says Castiel. 

“This is a lot for me, man,” Dean snaps. His eyes are dry from too little sleep, and he’s got a meandering sort of headache crawling beneath his skin. “I don’t—I mean, I’ve been in the life for years. Hunting, seeing all kinds of shit. You’d think that if angels were real I’d have at least heard of one.”

Cas sighs. “Heaven is… taciturn. Secretive. They don’t wish to involve themselves in earthly business more often than they have to.”

“I can think of a couple times I coulda used some heavenly involvement,” Dean mutters. He thinks of Mom. He thinks of Sam. 

He wonders if Cas can tell. If the regret putting lines at the sides of his mouth means anything, he can. 

“I know,” Cas says. “One of my greatest regrets is that it took me until I knew you well to see the wrongness with which heaven operates.”

He really doesn’t hold back, does he? Dean tries not to look like that statement does much to him. “Right,” he says a bit weakly. “All that stuff about knowing me. What’s that about? How’d we meet? Why did we meet, if heaven don’t like you guys mixing with us?”

The look on Cas’s face tells Dean he won’t be satisfied by his answer, but he groans when he hears it anyway. “I don’t think I should tell you that, Dean.”

Dean lets himself scowl. “You can’t just storm in here and tell me I’m bosom buddies with a fucking angel in the future and not offer any explanation,” he says. “What’s to keep me from just ganking you right here? How am I supposed to believe anything you say?”

“I didn’t choose to be ripped from my timeline, I’ll have you know,” Cas says, and for the first time there’s some heat behind his words. He looks upset again, and his hands are restless. It’s difficult, just looking at him right now, to think him anything other than utterly human. “I expected something entirely different, in fact. So forgive me if I am not well-versed in how to deal with a situation of this sort. Right now, ensuring that your future is unharmed is of more importance to me than answering your questions.”

“Whatever, dude. Sorry, I guess,” Dean says, oddly chastened. There is something so sincere about Cas, so genuinely worried, that Dean Winchester, known pusher, isn’t gonna push. 

The light outside the window is starting to sharpen up into a flat winter day, the color of gunmetal and cold just to look at. It turns Cas monochromatic there in his corner, sketchy dark lines like a charcoal drawing. He sighs again, looking at Dean. Looking. 

“Heaven has a plan for you,” he murmurs, and it’s a second hand extended: appeasement. Not quite successful. “Something that neither you nor I could stop, in any timeline. It is the reason you and I meet at all.”

Dean snorts, incredulous. He thinks of his coarse, hard body, the gun on his pillow, the alcohol in his veins. The blood on his hands. “Heaven don’t want anything to do with a guy like me,” he says. 

Cas is unwavering. Softly, he says, “You’re wrong.”

“Yeah, ok.” Dean rubs at the ridge of his knuckles. He sounds like he doesn’t believe Cas, and he leaves it that way. “Sure.”

There are a thousand things he wants to ask Cas that lay quivering on the tip of his tongue, almost too tangled to parse through. He wants to ask what kinda guy he is in the future, and if he’s still hunting, and if Sam is happy. He wants to ask how Castiel got here, to him. He wants to ask how close they are. If Cas is someone Dean leans on. 

He doesn’t. Can’t, maybe. Like maybe he’s scared of the answers. 

I have sacrificed everything for you, Cas had told him. And I would do it again. 

“So uh,” Dean says. The dream-heartbeat has faded, and he didn’t notice when. “How old are you?”

It’s a stupid question, and Dean only half cares, but Cas appears to consider this with all the gravity that he considers everything else. “I am older than the ground itself,” he tells Dean at last. “I am older than human comprehension.”

“Oh. Um, you look about forty.”

That small smile again. “Thank you, Dean. I’ve found that this vessel retains its moderately handsome appearance remarkably well considering what I have put it through.”

There is so much in that sentence to be hung up on that Dean decides to think about none of it very hard. Tries not to, at least: thinks, with an itch in his palms, that Castiel is a whole lot more than moderately handsome, and chews on the soft skin of his lip until it tastes like copper. 

“Well,” he says. “Well. Good.”

“Mm,” says Cas. He tilts his head, lips parted for a moment before he provides voice to his thoughts. “And you. How old are you now, Dean?”

“I’ll be twenty-three at the end of the month,” Dean says, and then tries not to blush, unsure why he said it that way. Like a little kid eager to announce his birthday to somebody older and cooler than him. 

Cas unbalances the hell outta him.

“So young,” Cas says quietly. He had said something like that last night, too, when Dean had him pressed up in the shadow of that bar with a gun on his pulse. He is marveling at it. 

Dean hasn’t felt young since he was born.  

“Jesus,” he says, digging his heels into the carpet, “Cas, s’not like I can’t drink yet or somethin’.”

“No, pardon me, of course not,” Cas says dryly, “that would mean you were one year and eleven months younger than you are now. A veritable infant. How could I be so foolish.”

“Fuck off,” Dean says, wrongfooted and unclear how he feels about it. He’s saved from answering by his phone ringing from his jacket pocket across the room.

He holds up a finger in Cas’s direction— stay —though Cas seems disinclined to cut up and run again, even just for some fresh air. His eyes are still on Dean when Dean fishes his phone free and checks to see who’s calling. 

Dad. 

He’s been—it’s been—this morning’s been ok. His side feels like it’s stuffed full of hot coals and there’s an angel across the room with a fuckin’ mouth on him, but considering how yesterday went, Dean’s been alright today. Maybe even calm. 

Not so now. Those three letters shoot his heart somewhere up in the back of his throat, big and beating fast for him to choke on. 

“Hey,” he says, turning to face the wall. “Dad, hi.”

“Got a lead on a hunt down in Illinois,” John says.

Dean’s used to no introduction when Dad calls him, no hello; the guy’s busy. Don’t have time for shit like that. “Alright,” Dean says, hating the way his voice forces itself deeper just ‘cuz of the man on the other end of the line. “Need me to meet you somewhere?”

John is silent for a beat too long.

“Going at it alone this time,” he says, gruff. Dean can hear the roar of the highway behind him, something playing loud and tinny over the speakers. AC/DC, maybe. “‘Bout time you learned how to take care of yourself anyway. Get a couple solo kills under your belt. Figure out how to survive without your old man.”

The plastic of the phone is cold against Dean’s hot cheek, hard in his hand. Dean stares at the dirt ground down into the baseboard. Swallows, tight. 

“Yessir,” he mumbles. 

“What was that?”

“Yes, sir,” he says, louder. His spine is so straight that it hurts. 

“Can’t make stupid mistakes when there’s no one there to cover for you, ain’t that right?”

Dean thinks of the look on John’s face when he saw that ghoul on Dean. Anger, pure and simple. Dean thinks of the way he’d killed it right there on top of Dean, so its blood got on his skin. 

Breathe in. Out. “Yes, sir.”

“That’s what I thought,” John says. “I’ll find you when I need you, son. This’ll be good for you.”

“Yes, sir,” Dean says, but the line goes dead before he’s finished. 

Castiel is standing behind him when Dad hangs up. Dean can feel him. A disruption of air. 

Dean has had a lifetime to develop the skill of knowing who is standing at his vulnerable spine. 

He turns around. He is holding the phone so tightly that it cuts into the meat of his palm, cheap plastic straining; Cas’s face, when Dean can look at him, is wearing an expression so foreign that he can’t name it with a glance. 

“Dean—”

“Where are you going?” Dean interrupts. His voice is still that low-down scrape, older than himself. He drops his gaze to Cas’s shoes. “After this. Back to where you’re from?”

Cas is quiet for a moment too long. The weight of what he wants to say rests between them, pushing at the air. Pushing. Dean thinks of the way he’d scowled at John’s name last night; Dean thinks of a curled fist. 

“No,” Cas says finally. Just that. 

Dean makes his smile like a knife. “Wanna hit the road?”

Chapter Text

When Dean Winchester was sixteen years old he kissed a boy behind a bar. 

The children of parents who like to drink know how to entertain themselves in the back of a parked car. The oldest children of parents who like to drink know how to make it seem like that’s ok. 

Dean was good at it: he was an expert at keeping Sammy occupied for forty-five minutes with a handful of Army men and a quick imagination by the time he was five. Hell—he taught the kid to read like that, in the back of the Impala behind a series of dives, struggling with a copy of The Hobbit he’d stolen off a library shelf in Lexington. Until Dean and Sam were old enough to follow John inside without getting suspicious looks, they passed their time outside together, and they got on just fine. 

Until a podunk town outside Cincinnati. Until some other kid waiting for some other father in the passenger seat of a sedan, watching Dean through the window. 

John went back three nights in a row—the case was falling through, full of dead ends: a mother and her children burned to death in their beds, too close to his past for sobriety—and the kid was there each time. He had dark hair and a mouth that didn’t smile. 

On the third night he slipped out of the sedan and curved around the back of the bar, throwing Dean one last glance. 

“Just a minute, Sammy,” Dean mumbled, one foot already out the door. 

“Dean?” Sam asked. He had his nose in a book. He always did, at twelve. “Where’re you going?”

“Gotta piss,” Dean said, which couldn’t have been further from the truth; and he shut the door quiet behind him, and felt like his feet weren’t part of him as he followed the boy. 

He had slender wrists and his hand on Dean’s cheek was warm. 

John didn’t say anything when he found them. He’d smelled like whiskey as he dragged Dean back through the gravel, and his hand had shook as he boxed Dean’s ears. 

“Do not,” said John quietly, like a thunderclap, and Dad wasn’t angry, Dean thought then—he was devastated. “Leave your brother alone. Ever. Do you want something to happen to him? Is that what you want, Dean?”

I don’t know what I want, Dean thought. Even then, it was a lie. 

John had Dean drive them back to the motel. Dean kept one hand curled inward like a fist on his lap, nails sunk down deep into his skin so he wouldn’t cry. 

The boy’s mouth had been soft. 

Three months later Dean turned seventeen. John gave him the first birthday gift he’d given Dean since the shotgun when he was six: a solo hunt. 

It was just a salt-and-burn—easy. The kinda stuff he’d been doing practically since he could walk. 

Two nuns haunted a church in Wyoming. They’d loved each other. They were in love with each other. 

They had been caught, and they’d killed themselves before anybody else could do it. 

Dean wasn’t sent on a solo hunt for a long time after that. 

He never touched another boy. 

 

*

 

This is what it means to hunt on your own: I am disappointed in you. You are wrong. 

You are wrong. 

 

*

 

Cas doesn’t say a word as Dean loads them both back into the Impala and peels out of the motel lot. 

Dean doesn’t know where he’s going—just that he needs to go. Needs to get some distance between himself and this fucking town, and hear the roar of the highway beneath his wheels while he’s doing it. He slams a tape into the deck without checking to see what it is first and he turns the volume up high.  

Metallica. He’s too tense to drum out the opening rhythm of “Enter Sandman” but he feels it rushing right there under the surface of his skin anyway, like a current—like something he can let sweep him away. 

Castiel is watching and he is making no move to hide it. Dean keeps his eyes on the blur-black road.

A couple of hours pass with nothing but James Hetfield’s voice filling up Baby’s cabin. The sun has turned the world as bright and frigid as a frozen lake, and there’s a loose bundle of swollen gray snow clouds gathered on the horizon; Dean turns off at the next exit he sees, and out of the corner of his eye he watches Cas sit up straighter. 

He turns the music down. “Hungry?”

“Angels don’t eat, either.”

Dean makes a sharp noise. “What do you do?”

“Me specifically,” Cas asks, and it’s calm but there’s wryness under that thunderstorm voice, “or my kind?”

“Got a feeling you’re not much like the rest of your kind,” Dean says. He glances at Cas. 

Here, in the harsh metallic daylight, with Cas’s cheekbones all lit up and his irises shimmering, he’s back to ethereal: maybe Dean doesn’t believe him about being an angel quite yet, but in the way he looks now it’s easy to start falling for it. 

He catches Dean staring with a lift of an eyebrow. Dean’s throat goes hot and he looks out the windshield again. 

“Me specifically, then,” Cas says. He hums soft, from his chest. “For the first several millennia of my existence I would have classified myself as a soldier. Dutiful and obedient—and numb. I had no agency, no thought to do anything but what my Father had writ.” 

A pause. Dean pulls into the diner right off the exit, parking close to the doors. “Then what?”

The corner of Cas’s mouth lifts. “Then I met you.”

 

*

 

Dean ain’t hungry but he orders himself a burger and fries anyway, because he gets bitchy when he doesn’t eat and he needs to keep a little charm about him if he wants to wrangle any more info out of Cas today. 

“And for you, sir?” the waitress asks, leaning her hip on the edge of the table with her notepad open. She’s pretty enough, soft brown hair and hips that would fit nicely in the curve of Dean’s palms—but it clearly isn’t him she’s looking at. 

He doesn’t think Cas notices. The guy has been gazing out the window at the looming storm clouds while Dean orders, holding his menu open but not bothering to scan it. When she speaks to him he looks up with a polite, if vague, glance, and there’s nothing like the few smiles he’s given Dean so far lingering around the shape of his mouth. 

“A coffee for me, please,” he says. “And a slice of whatever pie you think is best.”

“Sure thing, sweetie,” she says. Her fingers graze the back of his hand as she takes his menu, and her eyes roam the line of his shoulders long after it’s appropriate. 

Dean clears his throat. Cas’s attention comes to rest back on him, steady and close. 

“Gotta make a call,” Dean says. Now that he has begun speaking, he can’t figure out why he did in the first place. Not like he needs Cas’s permission or anything. Still, when Cas nods at him and settles back onto the slick red vinyl of the booth, Dean doesn’t tell him to turn away. 

Bobby picks up on the last fucking possible ring like he does every goddamn time Dean calls him. 

“You better not be in any trouble,” Bobby says, rather than anything like a hello. “Don’t feel like having to come rescue your sorry ass.”

“Why?” For the first time since they left the motel, something all knotted up and ugly at the base of Dean’s spine unwinds a little. Gives him a little room to breathe. “Hot date?”

“That’s for me to know and you to find out,” Bobby grumbles. “Nah, I just hate doing your dad’s job for him.”

Dean winks at the waitress as she sets down their coffees—instinct—but she doesn’t even turn his way. “Don’t wanna talk about that, Bobby,” he says. 

Bobby’s quiet for half a second, doesn’t jump in immediately with some kind of insult or complaint; Dean’s heart sinks down into his belly. 

“I’m serious, old man,” he says. Across the table from him, Cas has stirred three packets of sugar into his joe and is working on a fourth, eyes never leaving Dean. There is a faint frown on his face. Dean scowls at him—that’s instinct, too. “We ain’t talkin’ about that. You let it go or I’m hanging up.”

“You called me, dipshit,” Bobby says, but he shuts up. 

“That’s more like it.” Dean kicks Castiel when he reaches for a fifth, making an unintelligible motion that Cas somehow manages to interpret as give it here. He does: places it just-so in the soft dip of Dean’s palm. “Hey, what do you know about angels?”

“Angels?” Bobby repeats doubtfully. “Little kids with fluffy wings?”

“That’s cherubs,” Dean says, rolling his eyes broadly. “Nah, I’m talking angels -angels. Like, came-down-from-heaven-with-a-fucking-agenda angels.” 

This time Bobby’s silence is as judgemental as a silence can be. “You been drinking, boy?”

Dean sighs, emptying the contents of the sugar packet into his coffee and stirring it with his spoon. “It’s one pm.”

“Ain’t ever stopped you before.”

“Not drinking. Just… curious.”

“Damn moron,” Bobby grunts, and then makes the sound he always makes when he sits down on that couch Dean’s been saying is too low for his old back for years. “Well, short answer’s no.”

“Long answer?”

“Long answer is that there’s a shitload of lore on angels but none of it’s ever been proven, and no hunter’s ever seen one before. All a bunch of hooey if you ask me.”

“Yeah,” Dean says. He tries not to feel disappointed. He tries not to think about why he doesn’t just tell Bobby about Cas outright. “Thanks, Bobby.”

Bobby snorts. “Sure.” There’s the low mumble of patchy voices on his end, like the TV’s turned on low. “And Dean? Listen. You call me if you get into any trouble. You hear? I might not like doin’ John Winchester’s job but dammit, I will if I need to.”

“Yeah, Bobby,” Dean mutters, dipping his head even though he’s not here to see. “I’ll keep you posted.”

“I know you will,” Bobby says. “Bye, Dean.”

“Bye.”

When he looks up, Cas is sipping his disgusting coffee slowly, cup cradled in both big hands. He’s watching Dean archly over the rim. 

“You’re pouting,” Cas says. 

“Absolutely I am not, what the hell,” Dean mutters. Their waitress deposits his burger in front of him without preamble, and slides Cas’s pie across to him with a little grin. Dean digs in before he says something that’ll get him in trouble, chewing as she walks away. “I didn’t think he’d have anything.”

“You wanted him to,” Cas says. Not a question. “You wanted to prove me right.”

The burger is kinda dry and kinda tough and sits heavy in Dean’s stomach. “Yeah, well,” he says. He nudges his fries, which are pale and unappealing. “Me not wanting the guy I’m letting ride around in my car to be a lying crazy person ain’t anything to write home about, Cas.”

“I suppose not,” says Cas. “It took you a while to believe me in the future, too.”

Cas still has that big ugly coat on even though they’re inside, fitted snug at his shoulders but loose all down his sleeves. Dean, who feels weirdly hot in an intangible kind of way even though it’s freezing outside, had shrugged out of his leather jacket the moment they walked in. 

He wonders if Cas knows he radiates body heat like a supernova. He wonders if future Dean has ever told him. 

“What convinced me?”

“I believe it was mostly necessity,” Cas says. He still hasn’t touched his pie, and he’s got that distant sheen in his gaze that descends when he talks about… his Dean. The Dean who knows him. The Dean he got taken away from. “There was so much going on at the time that I believe it was simpler for you just to accept who I was.”

He gets that now, on some level. There’s never really been a time in his life when there isn’t a lot going on, so it makes sense that he’d just compartmentalize and move on. Especially if Cas was helpful to whatever he was trying to do—which hasn’t been proven, but as kind as he has been to Dean in the eighteen hours since Dean’s known him, it’s easy to believe.

“And you still don’t wanna tell me how we meet?” Dean asks. He forces himself to finish the burger, but he abandons the fries. Lost cause. “Not even a hint?”

The indulgent smile again. He looks like he’s seconds away from telling Dean his soul is brighter than any of the stars in the sky, or something; Dean braces himself, although he can’t decide if he wants to hear it or not. 

“No, Dean,” Cas says. He reaches out and pulls Dean’s plate toward him, switching it with his slice of pie—lemon meringue, looks like. There’s a fork balanced on the edge, and Dean blinks at it dumbly. “I hope you’ll accept this as a consolation prize.”

“Dude, I’m not gonna—I mean, that’s yours, you don’t have to—

“Dean,” says Cas. God, his eyes. He tips his head, a little quirk to his mouth. “Angel, remember?”

Dean’s laugh wobbles out of him, just a breath. “Yeah,” he says, picking up the fork. “I remember.”

 

*

 

Cas is actually not a bad person to roadtrip with. 

He doesn’t try to fuck with the music, and he doesn’t complain about whatever Dean plays. Sometimes he mouths the words to Dean’s favorite Zep songs beneath his breath like he knows them real well, like he loves them too—Dean wonders if this is something he and Cas share in the future, if they listen to music together a lot, the two of them and a tape deck and Robert Plant—but he never sings too loud. He doesn’t eat, so Dean doesn’t have to tell him not to throw his trash in the cupholders. When they stop at a gas station Cas fills up Baby’s tank without being asked, while Dean runs inside to grab a bottle of ibuprofen for his ribs that won’t stop hurting. 

The only iffy thing is all that staring, but Dean, he… well. It’s not all that bad. 

It starts to settle against Dean’s skin like a touch. 

He pops a few painkillers and swallows them dry as Cas finishes pumping gas. He’s got a high tolerance, so there are a couple hours left in him, probably, before the pills make him too sleepy to drive or those clouds perched menacingly on the horizon decide to open up. After that, well. 

There’s always something to chase. 

Cas slips back into the passenger seat, letting in a blast of cold air and the acrid scent of gasoline in with him. Dean shivers when it hits him, cranks up the heat. He thinks Cas sees, maybe. Or maybe he’s just always frowning a little bit. 

He settles into the Impala with that familiarity Dean noticed yesterday night, one arm up along the window, his hand tapping an absent rhythm on his thigh. She curves around the both of them, warm and safe. A cocoon of metal and well-worn leather. 

“What about Baby?” Dean asks as he pulls back onto the highway. “Do I still have her?”

“You do,” Cas affirms, bestowing Dean with a smile that is almost bafflingly fond. He and Dean must be real close friends. Best friends, even. “I don’t think there is a force on this earth, supernatural in nature or not, that could convince you to give her up.”

“Hell no,” Dean says with zeal. There is something nice about hearing Cas refer to Baby like that, like she’s a she, that settles down warm in the same place where the knowledge that Cas likes Zeppelin resides. “She’s my best girl.”

Cas rolls his eyes. Castiel, angel of the lord, rolls his eyes. That’s fond, too.

“Your attachment to this car is heinous,” he says. 

“My attachment to this car is pure and loving,” Dean says, and skims the flat of his palms over her steering wheel. He might be smiling, he thinks. An achievement, after the past couple days he’s had. “She’s trusty. Seen us through a lot.”

Me and Sam, he doesn’t say. It’s been nearly half a year since Sam left, but sometimes it’s still hard to say his name. 

The two of them quiet down again as Dean drives, letting the sounds of the road and the low-level music fill the air. 

The horizon grows blue-black and bruise-shaded as the sun sets and dusk gathers in close, elongating the shadows and giving Dean the feeling that it’s much later than the paltry seven pm it really is. There’s not much of anybody but them on this stretch of road between two towns; four mile markers whiz by before Dean spots another pair of headlights sweeping across the horizon, startling in all this darkness. 

It’s exactly the kind of night that would’ve lulled him and Sam to sleep easy when they were little kids, before they grew gun-calluses on their hands. The rocking sway of the Impala. The slightly musty heat spilling out of the vents like an exhale. Somebody older and wiser than them in the front seat, who they knew intrinsically would keep them safe. 

Ain’t been a night like that in a while. 

Is that what you want, Dean? Dad’s voice comes, that constant beat in the back of Dean’s head. You wanna be small? 

He is here in the cupped cradle of the highway’s hand. There is an angel in the seat beside him.

He wants to be so small that the eye of God can’t see him. 

 

*

 

Usually he’d just sleep in the passenger seat while Dad drove, the two of them taking shifts across the country until some monster or other required them to stay in one place for a bit, and not spring for a motel room two nights in a row. But he doesn’t really know Cas, doesn’t know if all his familiarity with Baby means he can drive her or that he simply appreciates her many qualities, doesn’t know the protocol for asking an angel you just met to get you over the state line while you sleep. 

So he gets another motel room. 

Speaking of protocol—it can’t be polite to expect the guy to sit in one of those shitty uncomfortable chairs all night. Dean uses the last of the cash he won at a bar a couple nights ago to get a second bed, bearing the weight of Cas’s gaze on the back of his neck as he does so. 

“You didn’t have to do that,” Cas says in a low voice. 

He isn’t touching Dean, but in the narrow hallway he has to walk close, and one of his wide shoulders almost grazes Dean’s with every step. 

The single lightbulb before their door is weak and yellowed. Turns the shadow on Cas’s face deep. 

“No big deal,” Dean mutters, even though he made a very big deal about it the night before. He gets the key in the door, blinking away that strained-wide pall of exhaustion that always clings to his eyelids after driving a whole day. “You’ll throw your back out sitting in a chair all night.”

He has to jostle the door in its frame to get it open; the lock’s all jimmied, scratched up like it’s been picked before. It hurts to raise his arm, a beneath-the-surface ache that’s been dulled by the painkillers and seems distant right now, unimportant compared to the lure of a mattress and some mostly clean sheets. 

“My bones would realign themselves almost before they could even shift from their proper form, Dean,” Cas says. He grazes his fingertips across the small of Dean’s back as he moves past him and into the room, and the touch feels like a thank you. 

Dean doesn’t realize he’s frozen where he stands until Cas throws a quizzical look back at him over his shoulder. 

That heat bundles up beneath Dean’s jaw. It’s swiftly becoming familiar. 

“Well, ok,” Dean says. He shuts the door and then he heaves his duffel onto the bed closest to him, digging through its contents so he doesn’t have to look up. “Sit on the floor next time, Stretch Armstrong, see if I care.”

He wants very much to crawl into bed and bury himself there for a good four hours, but he still smells like bad diner food and gas and exhaust spilled out into winter air, and he’ll scratch his skin off if he doesn’t shower. He stocks his pillow with weapons like usual, he digs out the t-shirt he slept in last night— 

“Oh,” says Cas behind him. A gentle realization. “Thank you, Dean. I should have said.”

It should make him feel good, but it makes him feel stupid instead, crumpled like a can crushed under a bootheel. The fact that he was shameless enough in his disappointment over—over what? Not being thanked? Like it’s some big thing to get a bed for the person you’re sharing a motel room with. Like he needs a goddamn reward every time he does something decent. 

“Sure, yeah, Cas,” Dean says, too offhand. He escapes to the bathroom. 

Don’t be selfish, John had told him years ago. They had just finished up a hunt, and it was Dean’s seventeenth birthday the next day, and he wanted to take Sammy to the arcade and fuck around on the coin-ops for a while, and John had said Don’t be selfish, said you boys need to learn how to shoot better in real life, not in a video game. Had taken them both to the range the next day before handing Dean the keys to the Impala and a case file and telling him not to come back until there was nothing left, with a grin and a wink like he was proud. Don’t be selfish. 

The gouge across Dean’s ribs is red and grim-looking, puffy around the edges, sickly yellow where it shouldn’t be. Dean looks at it in the mirror and presses it hard, hard, hard, until his eyes water. 

Sammy got Dean three of those sci-fi paperbacks that Dean liked to pretend he didn’t eat up like candy for that birthday. He handed them to Dean all casual, because even at twelve he knew that Winchesters didn’t give gifts without subterfuge and enough forced nonchalance to smother a man, unless the gift was something you could use to kill someone else. He stayed up with Dean that night too, whispering quietly under the blanket so they didn’t wake John in the next bed, and not saying a damn word about the tremble in Dean’s hands. 

Dean’s image is blurred in the mirror. He tugs his shirt on and he goes to sleep, ignoring the way Cas stares at him from the next bed over. 

 

*

 

The room again. 

The room—only this time it is so eerily quiet that Dean gasps in a rattling breath that tears at his throat like a sob. 

He’s never felt grief like this before.

It subsumes him. It winnows up beneath his flesh and it crushes him, from the outside and the inside, it presses him back back down into the frigid stone floor at his back and his arms. I miss you, Dean thinks, with an emptiness in the bowl of his chest that wails. I’m going to be killed with how much I miss you. 

“Dean,” says a voice, and there’s a moment of terrible hopeless elation that has Dean crying out, reaching out, thinking you, you, you— 

“Wake up,” says the voice. “Dean, wake up.”

*

 

He does, and it’s like shattering.  

He doesn’t reach for his knife or his gun simply because he’s still searching for that person, the owner of that voice, whoever it is who has left him and replaced themselves with a rip in Dean like a rip in the universe. Dean wakes up saying it, saying the name of the person who left him with this exit wound as big as a canyon, wakes up and says “Cas, Cas—”

Cas is on the edge of the bed. He catches Dean’s searching hands in his own, he’s warm, he is saying Dean’s name, he is curved over Dean as if he’s a shield and Dean doesn’t know him and Dean can’t fucking breathe with all the things that room made him feel, all of this ache, and it was Cas’s name Dean woke up calling. It was Cas who he missed. 

“Dean,” says Cas again, like he’s gentling something feral and afraid. Dean would jerk back if he didn’t taste salt and iron on his tongue. “Oh, Dean, please let me heal you.”

Something makes him say yes. Dean knows what makes him say yes. 

The curve of Cas’s palm fits over Dean’s convex ribs, his fingers rest in those uncharted dips between bone. He touches Dean’s opposite shoulder with his other hand so he’s bracketing him in and then he… he glows. 

He is beautiful. Untouchably so. There is blue-gold light pouring from him into Dean, filling up all his hollow places, taking away the fevered gnaw of his wound and some of that terrified petrifying unkillable missing someone pain that makes him gasp again. The light is a sunbeam. A solar flare. 

Dean has the fabric of Cas’s sleeve pinched tight in his sweaty hand. His fingers relax, subconscious, as Castiel’s light suffuses him, but he doesn’t let go. 

Cas’s face is almost too much to look at. 

He draws back. Dean wants to chase after him. Wants to demand Cas get his hands on Dean again, and not let go. Dean checks his side instead. 

The skin is unmarred, no hint that there has ever been anything wrong there. 

“God, Cas, I missed you,” Dean rasps. 

It’s the mightiest frown Dean’s seen on him yet. His eyes flicker all over Dean’s face, less steady than his unerring gaze has ever been, as if there could possibly be any untold injuries on Dean that he missed. There are none on the outside. 

“Dean,” murmurs Cas. Always saying his name. He must’ve said it a hundred times already since he found Dean in that bar—how many times has he said it in the future? How often has he had to form it on his tongue to make it sound like it was born there? “What do you mean?”

“In my dream,” Dean says. He feels a little drunk—on the adrenaline rush of waking up like that or on Cas’s healing, he has no idea. Both, maybe. He’s still holding Cas’s sleeve. “I was—god, I dunno, Cas. In some kind of gray room, and I was on the floor, and you were gone, and it fucking hurt. Like I’d known you forever.”

Like somebody took you away from me, Dean thinks, but doesn’t say. It’s almost a thought outside of him. He hasn’t known Cas long enough to be that devastated by the loss of him. There’s no way. Is there?

Cas is just staring at him, his lips parted, his eyes deep in the darkness. “Like a memory,” Dean says to him. “Felt like I should… like I should’ve known what was missing before you said my name.”

“I sensed your nightmare,” Cas tells him, and distress rolls off of him in waves. “But I couldn’t tell what you were dreaming about. Just that you… I could sense, as well, that I could help ease your pain.” He breathes in, and it shakes a little. “I thought that the fever from your wound was affecting your dreams, giving you nightmares. I’m sorry.”

“Hey, you didn’t do anything wrong, pal,” Dean tells him. He lets the side of his hand bump Cas’s. He’s breathing quick, up-and-down jolts of his chest. “You’re probably right. Didn’t realize my ribs were that bad, probably hallucinated or something.”

He knows it’s not true even as he says it: thinks of the gray room from his dream the night before, and the despair that even now tinges the edges of his consciousness.

“You had let it get infected,” Cas says quietly. “It wasn’t cleaned properly, and you wouldn’t let me heal you the first night we met.”

He has a way of listing the things Dean has been an idiot about almost softly, like they’re not really shortcomings at all. It’s ridiculous. Dean wants to know him. 

“That’s what I get then, I guess,” Dean says, and tries to sling his signature careless grin Cas’s way. He can tell it falls short. The tears on his cheeks are cool in the night air, drying into tracks, and he’s still breathing too hard to be anything but messed up about all this. He lets it fall away as quickly as it came. 

Cas looks like there are a thousand things he wants to say. He’s still searching Dean like a floodlight, running those eyes over every inch of him, a determined, ceaseless sweep. The sorrow is back in that hitch of his breath, in his furrowed brow. It’s worse this time. Dean understands it this time, even if he doesn’t have the words to make its shape. 

“What was that?” Dean asks him, quieter. “That… light.”

Cas is a foot away, the bed tipping down at the edge with his weight. Half a second of letting go of the tension at the root of Dean’s spine and he’d be tipping over onto him, and maybe then he could catch the glow under Cas’s flesh. 

“It was my grace,” Cas says. “The closest thing to a soul that an angel has, and the source of our power.”

It had certainly felt that way. Powerful. Dean could have flown for that moment it was rushing down his veins. 

He remembers Cas telling him that his soul is loud and is—is lovely. Jesus Christ. Dean can’t imagine anybody’s soul or grace or whatever looking more lovely than Castiel’s had looked just now, as incandescent as starfire. Dean has seen a lot of beautiful things, a lot of beautiful people, during his life on the road, and none of them can top what Cas just showed him. Not one. 

“If you can… if you can heal me, and sense my dreams… I mean, I dunno if you know this Cas, but that’s all a little more impressive than a fucking party trick.” He shakes his head, almost at a loss. It’s difficult to wrap his flimsy human mind around something so holy. “You’re powerful, man. Why can’t you use that power to reverse whatever brought you here? Jesus, don’t waste it on me. Get yourself home.”

“First of all,” says Cas, letting their hands bump again. Dean’s fingers go lax instinctually, and then Cas covers them with their own, and then the two of them are just holding hands. Holding hands in the middle of an anonymous dark motel room. “Healing you is not a waste. It is an honor.”

Dean says, weakly, “Oh.”

“And as for going home, well.” Cas, for perhaps the first time Dean has known him, avoids Dean’s gaze. He turns it down on their clasped hands, on the overlap of their fingers and palms, silvered in the moonlight. “My grace is finite. I have lived a very long and storied life, and I have spent time both as an angel and as a human as fallible as yourself. My grace has been weakened, with transformation and with strain. With sacrifice. Even as I wish to return home—and I do wish it, Dean, more than almost anything—I’m unable to.” He drags the pad of his thumb over Dean’s knuckles, a whisper of skin on skin. “Though I didn’t know this exactly would be the result of my deal, I did make a deal, and it’s my duty to bear it.”

There’s a note running through his voice: something bruised, old blood and desperation. Like recognizes like. 

“You miss him,” Dean says, low. “The Dean you know. You miss him bad.”

Cas smiles at him sadly. “More than I can possibly say.”

Dean doesn’t know how to look at him. Can’t possibly look away. “You guys always together?”

“We are apart much more often than I would like,” Castiel says quietly, and keeps up the careful sweep of his thumb, the careful touch. “Often through forces outside of our own design. Each time it happens I feel this way, but now, knowing that I will never see him again… it’s difficult. More difficult than I could have imagined.”

“Sorry you got saddled with a shitty stand-in for the real thing,” Dean says, with a horrible soft laugh. 

Dean ,” Cas says, sharp enough to be an admonition. It almost looks like he’s angry, but he brings his other hand up and cradles Dean’s tight, leans in closer so the mattress dips. “You are the best and most loving person that I have ever known, and whether there are years of history between us or simply a matter of days, it is evident to me that you burn brighter than I can fathom. I have seen civilizations rise and fall, and I have seen the first living organisms pry themselves out of the primordial ooze, yet there is nothing— nothing— I have ever seen in my very long existence that can compare to you.” He takes in a deep breath, and his eyes are shining. “So please do not discount the respect, and the loyalty, and the—the depth of my feelings for you, for every version of you. I miss the relationship that you and I have built for ourselves in the future, born of hard work and trust and a decade of choosing each other over and over again, but that does not change the fact that you are Dean Winchester in any timeline, and I am Castiel, and I think you are… wonderful, Dean.”

Dean can’t fucking breathe. Nobody has ever… god. God. 

“I don’t understand,” Dean says. His voice is broken. 

“I know,” Cas tells him quietly. It has started to snow beyond the curtains they didn’t close before bed, and the streetlight shadows shift here in their room. “You never do.”

 

*

He doesn’t fall back asleep.

He curls up on his side beneath the blanket and watches Cas, stretched out on his own bed just a foot away, and thinks about saying his name again.

Chapter Text

Bobby calls with a case while Dean’s eating breakfast. 

“You up for a hunt?” Dean asks around a mouthful of scrambled eggs, hanging up his phone and glancing across the table. “Salt-and-burn in South Dakota.”

Cas is nursing another over-sugared cup of coffee, wearing those same rumpled clothes he’s always wearing. He’s got snow in his dark hair, on the width of his shoulders, melting quickly beneath the warmth of the diner they’re in. 

“Of course,” he says. He’s watching Dean eat intently, like it’s perfectly riveting instead of, as Dean has been told on many occasions, really visually unpleasant. “Can we make it by this evening?”

“This afternoon, probably.” 

Cas makes an agreeable sound. He’s really not big on decorum: he keeps his eyes fixed on Dean’s face as he chews and swallows, and Dean tries not to go red. 

At least he’s willing to go on a hunt. It’ll be nice not to be completely alone. Salt-and-burns are obviously old hat at this point, but still, Dean’s not stupid enough to refuse backup when it’s sitting right there in an ugly trenchcoat and a backwards tie. 

Assuming Cas knows his way around a shotgun. 

It makes sense that Cas would know how to hunt monsters. He’s a fucking angel, afterall. Dean thinks of the way Cas had given no reaction when Dean sliced his palm that first night, when he tested him with salt and holy water; those aren’t procedures that folks unused to dealing with the supernatural would be so accepting of. 

“Hey Cas?”

“Yes, Dean?”

Dean’s not sure why this next question feels like a big one—compared to all that Cas told him in the middle of the night before, compared to the strange and intrinsic and compelling conviction Dean woke up with to not let Cas out of his sight, it’s fuckin’ hum-drum—but it does. He watches his fork scrape through the residue of bacon grease on his plate as he speaks. 

“Me and Sam, we’re still, uh. Are we still hunting in the future?”

Cas is quiet for a moment, as if considering his words. “Yes,” he says finally. “You were when I left you. You two always choose the right thing, in the end—the selfless thing. So far, neither of you have been presented an opportunity where you felt that your departure from the world of hunting would be justifiable.”

Dean absorbs this, drinking a cup of coffee that tastes like dishwater and continuing to avoid Cas’s gaze. Makes sense. Sam and him. Hunting for the rest of their days, saving people’s lives because it’s the right thing to do—and it is. Dean knows this. They were born hunters, and hunters don’t get to leave. Either they die on the job, or they get dragged back in eventually. 

Because, well. Cas was right. Half of this sour twisting anger that rises to the back of his throat when he thinks of Sam running off to Stanford is really just jealousy, and the other half is plain ole missing him. 

It’d be nice to know that they get a break eventually. 

“I like to think that the two of you get out after I leave,” Cas continues, and it’s almost wistful, that current beneath the regular burr of his voice. “Save the world as you always do, and then take the rest that you so deserve. Pass the mantle down to someone else.” 

Dean lets himself smile at Cas across the sticky tabletop, though maybe he shouldn’t have. He’s sure it’s grim. “Hunters don’t get out,” he says, echoing his own thoughts. Echoing the words John Winchester had said to him and Sam a thousand times, whenever they’d talk about growing up to be firefighters or doctors or lawyers or cowboys. Dean had learned quickly to stop talking about doing anything but hunting until a monster put him in his grave; Sammy never had. “Was stupid of me to ask.”

“It’s never stupid to be hopeful, Dean,” Cas says, in that solemn-soft way of his. 

Last night he had healed Dean. He had set his hands on him, warm and the opposite of harmful, and the light that he had poured down through Dean’s skin was his soul. It is overwhelming, how good he is; it gets caught in the back of Dean’s throat all over again. 

“Naive, then,” Dean says. He doesn’t know why he’s arguing. Something beyond his breastbone fizzles, a spark looking for a wick to ignite. Sometimes it’s better to burst into flames, if only to burn away the evidence. He knows exactly why he’s arguing. “I’m gonna die hunting, Cas. I’ve always known that.”

“Dean—”

“Anyway,” Dean interrupts, bulldozing over whatever lovely thing Cas was going to say to him. Cutting it off like chaff from wheat. Grinding it to dust beneath his heel. “So, you ever hunt with us? Know how to gank a ghost?”

It was a hamfisted transition—and a desperate one at that. There’s something not quite like pity in Cas’s face, something close enough to make Dean’s jaw hurt. 

“I have,” Cas says. He is letting Dean get away with this in every way but one: his knees press against Dean’s beneath the table, and Dean grips his fork too tight. “I do. I won’t be a burden on this hunt.”

That hadn’t been at all what Dean was worried about, and realizing it puts that hot tightness back in his throat, because it should have been. Stupid, says John. Stupid, thinks Dean. 

“Good,” Dean says, meaning it, because this way it’s a good idea to bring Cas along now, instead of making Dean act like a little kid, thinking up any desperate silly reason not to be left alone. “Right. Good. Let’s get a move on.”

When they leave, Cas walks close enough to Dean that his coat licks Dean’s shins. 

 

*

 

When Dean Winchester was seven years old John left him alone with his gun. 

Recalling the memory now is like watching some other family through a fogged-up window, some other father and little boy, some baby other than Sammy sleeping in the motel bed on his back atop a soft pale blanket. John had smelled like whiskey, but his hands hadn’t shook with it yet; his face had been unshaven and rough, but he still slipped Dean smiles like secret gifts; later in the evening John would go, head out into the muggy Mississippi evening and leave Dean with explicit instructions on how to take care of the baby and how to heat up a frozen dinner in the microwave, but for that moment, he was still there. 

“Like this,” John said, kneeling next to Dean on the scrubby tan carpet. His big hands moved methodically, flipping the safety back and forth, back and forth, and to Dean the tangle of fingers and metal was a blur. “Got it?”

“Yessir,” Dean said, which was not true. He already knew that the right thing to say was whatever John wanted to hear, whether it was true or not. 

“Good job,” John said gruffly. He’d cuffed Dean on the shoulder, hard and affectionate. “You keep this thing on you while I’m gone, you hear? Nobody’s gonna try to get in here, but if they do, you shoot ‘em. Don’t hesitate. Just like I showed you, yeah, son? Gotta keep Sam safe.”

“Yeah,” Dean had said. Dad left them at night sometimes, but he’d never had Dean use his gun before, and it was thrilling for a moment, an excited, righteous sort of thrum, to be trusted with something like this.

The excitement had faded the moment the Impala’s engine roar faded from Dean’s ears, smelted itself down into a hard cold lump of fear. 

What was different about this place that Dean needed a gun to keep him and Sammy safe? What was so terrible beyond the thin door of the motel that Dad didn’t even want Dean to set the gun aside to eat?

Dean hadn’t slept that night. He’d sat on the edge of the bed over Sam’s soft little body until John got back, one eye on the rise and fall of Sam’s chest and the other on the door. 

Heart in his throat, hand on the trigger. 

 

*

 

Dean fucking hates digging graves. 

This one, specifically, is a real son of a bitch. The South Dakota dirt in January is harder than diamonds—they may as well be trying to shovel their way through a shelf of stone, with the way this is going—and Dean’s got sweat gathering frigid on his lower back, on the nape of his neck, in his armpits. 

It’s another moonless night, too. Black as pitch. The cloud cover makes the sky seem low and close, like the lid of a pot, pushing Dean down into the grave as fast as he can dig it, and he can’t see shit even with the flashlight Cas swings Dean’s way haphazardly from time to time. 

Speaking of Cas. 

“Can’t you get this done faster?” Dean pants. They’re maybe three feet down, and there’s gravedirt clinging like tar to the lines of Dean’s palms. “Use a little angel mojo?”

In all fairness, Cas is the main reason they’ve managed to get this far at all: he’s really fucking strong—whether for angel reasons or because, as Dean is starting to suspect, he’s actually pretty jacked beneath that trenchcoat—and the rock-hard earth is giving him about as much trouble as sand would. Cas ain’t sweating his balls off. 

He shovels dirt methodically, a calm, focused expression on his face. He really knows how to use those shoulders. 

Dean turns his gaze away. 

“And what do you mean by that, exactly?” Cas asks, and Christ, he’s not even a little short of breath. Dean, who is panting like a fucking racehorse, tries to muffle a couple of his worst gasps into the collar of his jacket. “Am I not being helpful enough?”

“No need to get bitchy,” Dean mutters. “Couldn’t you just… I dunno, blast a hole in the ground?”

Cas doesn’t answer for a couple seconds, and the sound of his shovel beating rhythmically against the dirt has stopped. Dean looks up again, scowling protest ready on his lips, but it fades away at the look Cas is giving him: arch and amused, with enough fondness gentling the edges that Dean doesn’t feel like he’s being made fun of. 

It’s… nice, in a way. Cas looking at Dean like he’s done something endearing. Like Dean is a thing he wants to look at. 

“What?” he says, making his expression as affronted as possible. It hits him that they must be standing real close together, in order to see each other’s faces like this. He hopes he doesn’t have dirt all fucking over his. 

“That certainly wouldn’t attract any attention during our clandestine grave robbery, would it?” Cas says wryly. “A blast of light shooting into the earth? Although if you’re tiring, you are welcome to take a break while I finish up.”

The thing is that Cas is kind of a dick, but he’s also also maybe the sweetest guy Dean’s ever met.

“I’m,” says Dean, “no, I’m. Whatever.”

He slams his shovel into the ground as hard as it’ll go, ignoring Cas’s soft chuckle. 

They work in relative silence for a while longer, back-to-back in the pit. 

It had been fairly easy to figure out where their ghost’s body was buried. Just a scan of who’d been laid to rest in this little town cemetery in the last two hundred years, and the cause of all the activity locals had been reported was quickly narrowed down: Quincy Harrison, 1913-1952, killed by his brother and stuck in the ground a few feet away from the family plot after that same brother married his surviving wife. Dean gets why the guy’s pissed, although it’d be nice if he wouldn’t blame his brother’s grandkid who recently moved back to town. It’s his great nephew, after all. And… kinda his great stepkid?

Ok, fine, Dean gets it. 

Still, they can’t let Harrison hang around running people’s cars off the road. 

It’s been a bit since Dean’s done the research for a case—Sam, clearly the smarter of the two of ‘em, had a head for that sort of thing and had ever since he was a kid, and then after he left John had mostly picked cases for him and Dean that didn’t need much more research than what was written in his journal—but he doesn’t have Sammy’s steel-trap brain to memorize obscure facts for him now, and doesn’t have Dad’s journal to flip through for helpful hints. Just him, and Cas, and the ramshackle handful of charm possessed between the two of them. 

Dean had pretended to be annoyed back there in the library when Cas just sat to the side and watched him work, but he’s got a sneaking suspicion he didn’t pull it off. It’s difficult to stay pissed when you’ve got the full force of that earnest blue gaze turned your way. 

Plus, halfway through, Cas had run to the gas station across the street and bought Dean a sandwich and a coffee. He’d sat at Dean’s side, turned sideways, his broad shoulders blocking Dean from the librarian’s view. He’d handed Dean the first half of the sandwich and then, when he’d finished it, the second, as if it was a task of equal importance to anything else he could be doing with his time. 

They’d shared the coffee. Cas had sipped it with a smile when Dean offered, even though it wasn’t fucked up on sugar the way he liked, and the fact that Dean’s still thinking of that smile now, up to his head in a grave, says enough. 

“Go do something useful,” Dean had muttered. 

“Ensuring that you have enough nutrition in your system to remain healthy is the most useful job for me at this moment in time,” Cas had said in a library-whisper. 

He just opens his mouth and says the craziest shit. 

Half an hour later and Dean hears Cas’s shovel hit wood, a fibrous hollow thunk. He meets Dean’s eyes across the dirt and nods once, sharp, before tugging himself out of the hole and extending a hand down Dean’s way. 

Dean takes it. Cas’s palm is dry, slightly rough, very warm; he pulls Dean up and out of the grave like it’s nothing, untold strength in the line of his arms. 

Jesus. He could probably pick Dean up if he wanted to. Ain’t that a fuckin’ thought. 

“Thanks,” Dean says, quiet here among the clustered headstones. He takes a second to catch his breath as he digs in his pockets for a lighter, watching Cas pour a slow circle of kerosene down into the freshly-turned earth. Watching him move there in the dark. 

He has a split second to register Harrison’s ghost showing up in the corner of his vision before he is being picked up and hurled into a tree.

“Come on, ” Dean groans. The back of his skull smarts like fucking crazy, and there’s a hollow sort of ringing sound low in his ears that can’t be good: before his eyes Harrison flickers, snarling low, and he looks horrible with half his own head permanently bashed in, so Dean’s not that bent outta shape when his vision goes wonky and suddenly there are two out-of-focus ghosts all up in his grill. 

The lighter had fallen out of his hand as Harrison threw him. If he cranes his neck he can see it a few feet away, glimmering there in the dark, and if he can just reach it he might have a chance of tossing it into Harrison’s grave before the guy decides to pick him up and brain him on another tree.

He hurls himself to the side, half his body passing through Harrison as he does it: it’s a horrible kind of cold, one with a presence, one that clings to him as he army crawls the last foot or so to the lighter and finally grasps it. Goddamn ghosts, he thinks, struggling to his feet as his vision swims. Always so combative—

Harrison picks him up again, jerking him wildly like he’s a puppeteer and Dean’s a marionette he doesn’t particularly like, and Dean says “You are an inconvenient piece of shit,” as meanly as he can when his air passage is being closed off by fucking spectral energy or whatever, and then there is a bang and Harrison disappears. 

Dean falls to the earth hard, right on his ass, knocking his elbow on a tombstone on the way down. It jostless the breath out of his lungs. He looks up. 

Cas stands a few feet away, shotgun still raised and aimed at the patch of air where Harrison had been. 

You’d think Dean had just been ripped in half with the way Cas is looking at him, all wide worried eyes and the frown across his forehead and the way he almost steps in Dean’s direction but doesn’t quite. Just sways a little. 

Dean tosses him the lighter, tongue feeling heavy in his mouth. Cas catches it one-handed, easy, and lights up the grave without looking. 

“That went pretty well,” Dean says as Cas comes closer to him. He’s still a little lightheaded but it’s fading fast; probably not a concussion, then. Although he’s certainly got a helluva bump rising back there. “All things considered.” 

“Are you alright?” 

“Peachy.” 

Cas has lowered the shotgun but he’s still holding it, almost careless. The fire lights him up golden from behind, and standing above Dean who is still splayed upon the ground, he looks glorious and untouchable. He raises an eyebrow at Dean, that gesture that Dean’s come to understand means that Cas is absolutely not going to take any shit. It always makes Dean’s throat sorta dry. 

Today is no exception. 

“Come along,” Cas says. He doesn’t bother waiting for Dean to comply, though Dean had been scrambling to do so anyway; he stoops slightly and gets one of those broad hands around Dean’s upper arm, hauling him to his feet and marching him across the graveyard to where Baby is parked. 

Dean goes. Heart thudding, Dean gives into the command of Cas’s touch and Dean goes. 

“I should drive,” Cas says, opening Baby’s trunk like he’s done it a thousand times and stowing the shotgun quickly. He still hasn’t let go of Dean. “You were quite loud, and now something is on fire, and I don’t think we should risk you being too dazed to get us out of here quickly.”

Dean makes himself tug his arm away. “I’m fine,” he says, a bit more bite to it than he’d meant to use. He doesn’t need to be coddled, and the implication that Cas thinks he does makes him feel dull and young and stupid again. At the same time, he likes the feel of Cas’s hands on him, and he likes the gentle, unyielding way Cas takes charge. Likes it too much. 

Cas shoots him another look, and it’s worried, but it isn’t pitying. He also has not scolded Dean for letting his attention slip, or even appeared to be angry about it. He just seems to care about Dean’s wellbeing, and that’s it. 

Something deep inside Dean softens, like ice cream in the sun. 

“Dammit, Cas,” Dean grunts, handing over Baby’s keys. Their knuckles brush. “If you crash her I am kicking your ass so fast you won’t see what’s coming.”

“Your faith in me is astounding,” Cas says dryly, but the corner of his mouth twitches, even as Dean stomps around to the passenger seat and slides in. 

And Dean would never admit this in a thousand years—not to Cas, not to Sammy, not even to a perfect stranger and barely to himself—but god, it’s such a relief to be able to sit back after a rough hunt and trust that somebody else is gonna get them to a safe place. Because he does trust Cas, he realizes: he’s only known the guy a couple days, but already be’s been unselfishly kinder to Dean than almost anybody Dean can think of, and probably saved his fucking life at least twice. He has asked Dean for nothing, and in return he’s given him companionship, and someone to listen to him whine, and an anchor point to wake up to when the nightmares get too bad. He has helped Dean for no reward, and healed him, and said the most wonderful, unbelievable things that have ever been said about Dean in his life. 

Maybe that’s why, instead of sitting there tense and rigid and on-edge like he is any time he lets Sam drive Baby, Dean lets himself relax back into the cradle of her leather seats and watches Cas calmly. 

He looks good behind the wheel. Hands properly at ten and two, shoulders relaxed, eyes on the road, handsome even with that smudge of dirt along his strong jaw. He looks like somebody that would drive you for miles and miles, just to keep you safe. 

Cas was right. Dean’s faith in him is astounding. 

 

*

 

“I’m going out for a little while,” Dean says later, after he’s taken a good long shower and washed the dirt from his hands and the smell of gas from his skin. “You wanna come?”

Cas is stretched out on his bed in the motel they’re in tonight, ankles crossed, watching some late night talk show host with a rapt, if slightly horrified, expression. He slides his eyes over to Dean at this, though he doesn’t turn his head. 

“Out,” Cas repeats. “You mean, to a bar?”

Dean shrugs. He feels restless, jittery, blood active in his veins the way it always gets after he wraps up a hunt. He needs to—do something. Flirt with somebody, swindle a couple tens off somebody else, drink until he can sit still without feeling like he’s gonna peel out of his skin. 

“Guess so,” he says. 

“And I won’t be, ah.” Cas hesitates. “‘Getting in your way?’’ 

Jesus, he uses air quotes. Where the hell did this guy come from?

“You’ll be alright, man,” Dean says, and lets his smile loose, the slow, easy one, as he slides his jacket back on. He finds that it’s true. He doesn’t have any plans to actually go home with a girl tonight; just satisfy this itch that dances beneath his skin, this urge to be appreciated by somebody willing and warm. “Don’t worry ‘bout it.”

“Alright, Dean,” Cas says, and smiles back at him from across the room. He rolls smoothly to his feet and the TV turns off with a flick of his wrist. 

“Show off,” Dean mutters. Cas laughs as he moves by him, an admittance that’s somehow utterly shameless, and touches Dean’s elbow seemingly just because he wants to. 

The bar is just across the street from their motel, a fall-down place with a couple people minding their business as they smoke out front and a neon sign missing half its letters. Inside, it smells like spilled beer and fried food and familiarity, and Dean wades in easily with Cas at his side. 

They sit at the bartop towards the back, with an equally good view of the entrance and the rest of the patrons. It’s a force of habit for Dean, who has probably hasn’t entered a room without thoroughly casing it since he was four years old. As for Cas, well. He seems content just to follow Dean, as long as Dean isn’t walking into trouble.

He orders them both a beer, resolving to take care of Cas’s for him if it turns out angels don’t drink alcohol, either. Cas watches him do it with his elbows propped up, his hands clasped loosely in front of him. When Dean glances to him as the bartender walks away, Cas smiles.

“Thank you, Dean,” he says. 

“Just a beer, dude,” Dean says. Cas’s knee is pressed to his between their stools, undemanding and tangible and firm. Dean doesn’t pull away. 

Turns out angels can drink, but Cas doesn’t really enjoy the taste so Dean just keeps doing it for him. When he’s done with his own bottle he swaps it for Cas’s full one and Cas doesn’t say anything, just wraps his hands around Dean’s empty and continues to sit comfortably next to him. 

He’s a pretty good drinking buddy, for someone who isn’t actually drinking. He follows Dean’s threads of conversation with genuine interest, even though they get increasingly less easy to string together as Dean switches them to whiskey and gets increasingly tipsy, and by the time Dean’s pleasantly buzzed Cas has him laughing, his cheeks flushed and his insides warm as gold. 

“Do you guys ever do this?” Dean asks him. “Hang out?”

He’s gone from letting Cas’s leg touch his at the beginning of the night to actively leaning against it now, and when he turns to catch Cas’s eye it presses them firmly together from thigh-to-thigh. Dean’s heart is beating fast for absolutely no reason. 

Cas doesn’t have to ask Dean who he means. He drums his fingers softly against the empty glass held in his loose grip, looking at Dean close. “When there’s time,” he answers. “We certainly enjoy each other’s company, though we aren’t always in a position to capitalize upon it. We make do.”

It isn’t the answer Dean’s looking for, though he’s not sure exactly what he wants to hear. He takes a long drink, considering his next question carefully. 

“We’re… you two are friends, right?” He feels himself flush even darker at the question, and prays it can be blamed on the alcohol in his system. “You and your Dean.”

Cas’s eyes soften. “Of course,” he murmurs.

Dean nods. “Best friends?

He wants to take it back as soon as he asks it, embarrassment sparking all along his skin. It’s like he’s in middle school again, passing a note over to his crush: do you like me? Circle yes or no. 

Only—well, it obviously isn’t like that. Obviously not at all. 

But Cas says, “Yes, Dean,” and he sounds so damn sure. Like he wants Dean to be sure. “You are the best friend I have ever had.”

He said something like that last night. You are the best and most loving person I have ever known. 

It would be easy to believe Cas is just blowing smoke up his ass if it weren’t for how goddamn earnestly he says everything. Every word out of his mouth would be a confession if Dean said them, but to Cas they are simply facts of life. The sky is blue and the grass is green and Cas thinks Dean Winchester is the best man he has ever met. 

Dean doesn’t know what to do with it. All this praise heaped upon him. All this brilliance creating a standard to hold himself to. 

He wants Cas to see him for the piece of shit he is, just so he isn’t disappointed later down the line. He wants Cas to think he’s wonderful for the rest of time. 

Suddenly the bar is stifling, and the pleasant babble of conversation that’s been around them all evening is so loud that Dean can’t think. Cas is gonna find out. Shit, it’s a miracle that he hasn’t yet, in either timeline of knowing Dean. Something is gonna flay back the hard cold layer Dean keeps pulled up over himself at all times and Cas will look in, see all Dean’s rotten parts, see the nastiness that has a permanent home beneath his skin, and he’ll know who Dean really is. What he really is. How unworthy he is to his very core. 

“Dean?” Cas looks concerned again, for the thousandth time in the handful of days Dean has known him, and just like every other instance, it’s Dean’s fault. He touches Dean’s thigh an inch or so above the knee, just a light thing, but Dean feels it zip through to his core. 

Selfish, says John. 

“Bathroom,” says Dean, slipping off his stool. Cas’s hand falls away; Dean wobbles, unsteady; Cas’s hand lifts again and then there it is, warm and large and gentle in the dip of Dean’s waist, and Dean’s pulse is going to give one good shiver and explode right out of him. “I gotta…”

Cas is so close like this. If Dean wanted to (Dean wants) he could sit back down and let Cas lean up against him again, bone aligned if with bone, and if Dean wanted to (god, he’s so selfish, he takes things and he marks them with his hands just so they’ll belong to him) he could forgo that and tip forward into the pocket of warmth that Castiel make wherever he goes, his hand on Dean’s waist, Dean’s face tucked into the curve of his neck. 

“Be right back,” Dean gets out, pulling away from Cas’s steadying touch. He makes his way to the bathroom blindly, locking himself into the first open stall he finds and sinking his head down into his hands. 

There’s nobody else in here. The door slams closed, muffling the chatter on the other side, and all Dean can hear now is the slow drip of the faucet, the breath in his throat, the blood in his ears. 

This has always been the problem. This—the wanting. Wanting things that he isn’t supposed to want, that he isn’t allowed to want. A night of sleep in a warm bed and the knowledge that his little brother is happy and protected, safe from the things they killed and the father who taught them how; that same brother to be happy when he sees him, instead of looking at Dean and seeing only the life he’d do anything to escape; a future that looks like something other than a bloody end; a boy’s mouth on his, gentle eyes and hands steady even if Dean’s shake. 

He kicks the leg of the stall hard, and it aches up through his foot. Not enough pain to ground him completely, but enough that he’s able to struggle through a full inhale. Pain is good. Pain is something to focus on, something that is common enough in his day-to-day that he can use it to chart his way through life like points on a map. 

Selfish, selfish, selfish. If Dad could see him now he’d kick Dean out all over again. 

But Dad can’t see him, because Dean’s too much of a disappointment to keep around. 

“Shit,” Dean mutters into the butt of his palms. His air supply is nothing but a tight tangled handful at the base of his throat, and he’s a little bit drunk already which is just making everything worse. More dramatic. He’s being—fucking dramatic. Who cares what he wants? What goddamn difference does it make if he wants something so bad that he feels it like a physical pain in the tender core of him? He’s a hunter—he’s a man. He is supposed to shove want like this down. 

So he does. 

Leaning against a dirty bathroom stall Dean breathes in, and out, and he wraps up all this desire that’s trembling through him on unsteady legs as small as it will go. He shoves it down. Down. Away. 

He doesn’t know how long it’s been when he leaves the stall. He glances at himself in the cracked mirror as he splashes some water on his face—he’s pale as a ghost, his jaw set like stone, expression dark enough that he has to look away—and then he dries his hands on his shirt and leaves the bathroom, bracing himself for Cas’s… for Cas. 

Dean can see him there at the bar. He still looks worried, and he hasn’t ordered anything else; even from this distance, Dean can see how tense he is. His shoulders and the line of his neck are rigid enough that he looks physically uncomfortable, and that’s all Dean’s fault, too. Dean shouldn’t’ve run like that—

He slams into somebody hard, letting out a grunt of air. 

“Fuck,” Dean says, hands coming up automatically to steady them. “Shit, sorry…”

She’s small, soft under his hands. She’s scowling when their eyes meet but it turns into a look of surprise and then a small, sly grin the longer Dean stares. 

“Watch yourself, handsome,” she says, low. 

The itch is still there in his blood. The thirst. And she’s warm, and she’s smiling at him, and the ends of her hair air soft when they graze the backs of his hands. 

“Rather watch you,” Dean says, deep and honey-slow. 

His voice is a little too rough for just running into a pretty stranger, a little torn up from something else that’s very obviously not her, but she doesn’t seem to mind. She laughs, the kinda laugh somebody gives when they’re willing to act like everything’s amusing if it’ll get them a good time, and something drops out of Dean with relief. 

It’s so much easier when they don’t expect anything out of him but that he’ll make them feel good. 

“That line usually work?” she asks. She’s got big round eyes and a raspy tone, like she smoked a pack before strolling in here. Her hands are small on his chest. 

“Does it matter?” Dean asks, and her hands are small but they’ve still got power when she pushes him back into the corner by the jukebox. 

They talk a bit more, but not much. They each know what they want, and Dean likes that she don’t try too hard to sugarcoat it. Her name’s Candace, and she likes touching his chest and his shoulders and his arms, and he doesn’t have trouble letting her kiss him. 

And it does feel good to be touched like this. Soft and close, a little rough when she puts him where she wants him with a hand on the back of his neck. It’s nice when she makes a little sweet moan against his mouth when he parts his lips, it’s nice that she clearly loves the way his hands span her hips and stroke easily up her spine. It’s nice to feel wanted. It’s nice to make someone feel good. 

There’s no aching heat in his gut. No consuming want that leaves him hot and breathless and shaky. 

He doesn’t mean to do it, but he does. She draws back for a sip of air and Dean opens his eyes, and they stay open as she moves back in, and then—

He meets Cas’s gaze. 

Cas is watching. Unabashedly. Closely. Candace squeezes the back of Dean’s neck and bites a little at his lip, and Cas’s hand goes tight in his lap even from all the way across the room, Cas’s eyes are so fucking dark, his lips are parted so slightly and he’s just watching, watching Dean kiss her, watching her kiss him, and suddenly that aching wanting tumultuous heat punches through Dean so fast that he whimpers.

Cas swallows. It moves down his throat, visible in the low light that limns him. 

Dean’s hands are shaking. She is mouthing along his jaw and Cas is shifting in his seat, and she says, “Wanna get outta here, baby?” soft in the dip of his throat. 

He’s hard. He never—he doesn’t get hard from just that with a girl, just kissing her, not without something seriously different playing in his mind to keep him in the moment. He feels like a fucking newborn kitten, weak-limbed, pinned into place against this wall with Cas’s gaze alone. 

“‘M sorry, Candace,” Dean says. He pulls out of her hold, and he knows she huffs at him, rightfully annoyed, but he still can’t look at her. Can’t look away from Cas. “I’m a piece of shit, god, sorry.”

She laughs, harsh. “You fuckin’ are,” she says. “Jesus Christ. Good kisser—not that that means shit from me, apparently.” 

“So are you,” Dean says, “A good kisser. Sorry. Sorry.”

He ducks back into the bathroom, ripping his eyes away from Cas’s at the last possible second. 

Cas had licked his bottom lip as he’d watched, his eyes so fucking vivid, fever-blue, and he’d gripped his thighs like it was Dean he was holding onto—

Dean comes hard, locked into that same stall, moans bitten quiet into his forearm as he spills into his hand. 

After, he feels as dirty as the walls around him. 

Chapter Text

They take a hunt in the western part of the state, and then two in Wyoming, and then one in a little town on the edge of Idaho and Oregon, and then Dean looks up one day and three weeks have passed. 

He hasn’t heard from Dad since that day back in Minnesota. He hasn’t heard from Sammy in a thousand times that long.

Cas is still as good to travel with as he’s ever been. Lets Dean take the reins, but still keeps him pretty solidly out of trouble. Don’t complain when the motels are dirty and the food is bad. Listens to whatever music Dean plays, and sometimes even sings along. 

Dean dreams of the empty room sometimes. The gutting loss of him. 

When he wakes up Cas is there, watching Dean closely in the darkness. 

Life goes on. 

It’s a Sunday, and this sleepy little town—down one werewolf, thanks to Dean and Cas, not that any of its residents will ever know that—is pretty much barren as Dean eases Baby down the main drag. Dean figures most everybody’s in church; it seems like that kinda place. 

He imagines their faces if they knew he had an angel in the front seat next to him—one that can shoot a gun and heal wounds and decapitate a werewolf with a strong clean sweep. He wonders if Cas can hear their prayers, or if that’s the kind of thing only the big guy upstairs is privy to.

“What are you smiling at?” Cas asks him. 

“Nothing,” Dean says, and laughs. It’s a bright day, winter-bleached, spilling sun all in through Baby’s windshield and lighting Cas up. “Nothing at all, Cas.”

Cas gives him that look—that silly human look, fond and exasperated. Dean keeps driving. 

They don’t really have a destination in mind right. Dean’s sure that if he called Bobby the old man could send him halfway across the country chasing after something, but shit. Dean’s tired . And maybe angels really don’t sleep, as Cas claims, but the guy’s got weary lines dug into the corners of his mouth that Dean would love to soothe away. Just because Cas got sent back into time for some eternal punishment—the details of which he still refuses to disclose to Dean—doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve rest. 

Plus it’s Dean’s birthday in a couple days. Sue him. 

He points the Impala’s nose toward the coast with the vague feeling that he’s doing something he shouldn’t be, and Cas doesn’t ask him why.

 

*

 

It starts to rain in the late afternoon, heavy as sheet metal. 

Dean sits forward in his seat, turning the music down as he squints out into the darkness. It’s really coming down out there: it beats out a roar on the metal hood of the Impala, lashing at her windows until he can’t see a damn thing beyond the place where her headlights get swallowed by the rain. 

He feels Cas turn to look at him, lowering the paperback he’d been reading. It’s one of the books Dean has squirrelled away in Baby’s trunk beneath the guns and the salt and the holy water, though Dean’s not sure which one; Cas slips a finger in to mark his place, and Dean forces his eyes back into the road before he crashes and kills them both. 

Dean crawls along the highway for a little while longer, Bruce Springsteen trickling through Baby’s speakers beneath the thunder’s growl. There’s water standing on the road now, frothing at Baby’s wheels, and pine trees loom like dark watchers on either side. 

He has to pull over finally, as far to the side of the road as he can get, and wait it out a bit. The wind howls like someone sobbing. Dean turns his hazards on. 

Cas doesn’t ask what he’s doing. He just turns to face Dean in his seat as if he knows they’ll be here for a while, inviting Dean in with the angle of his shoulders. 

“Good thing we ain’t in a hurry,” Dean mutters. He tips his head back against the window and peers up at the sky, gray as wet pavement between the tree boughs. Watching the rain come down from this angle makes him dizzy, in a gentle, rocking kinda way. The glass is cool against his cheek. 

“Where are we headed to?” Cas finally asks—not like he’s on Dean’s ass about meandering this way, skipping across the country as if there’s nothing in the wide world to be afraid of. Just like he’s vaguely curious. 

Dean makes himself stay leaning back, staring up. “Thought we could go to the coast, maybe,” he says, unsure why the words trip themselves in his throat. As usual, he sounds too gruff. “Thought we deserved a day off. I dunno.”

Cas is silent for too long, and Dean breaks his own rule and looks at him. 

He’s smiling. The small one. The one that Dean wants to hold in the cup of his hand. 

Dean thinks Cas knows. 

“We do,” Cas agrees. The hand that isn’t clutching the book—and oh, god, it’s Mary’s copy of On the Road, creased and bent up, one of the only things of his mother’s that Dean owns, and there is so much behind the fact that Dean’s first instinct isn’t to make Cas put it back where he found it—the hand that’s resting palm-down on the seat slides over to Dean’s knee. Touches it briefly, just fingertips. “Especially you.”

Dean scoffs. Tries to look offended. Doesn’t let his leg fall to the side, into Cas’s hand, into his open touch. “I’m not the one who just time traveled, though,” he says. 

Cas cocks an eyebrow at him. “Dean, I am an all-powerful cosmic entity the likes of which you will not be able to truly understand for many years yet to come. I am not ‘wiped out’ by mere time travel.”

“Yeah, alright, tough guy,” says Dean, another laugh spilling out of him, and the heater is fogging up the windows and the wind is swaying Baby like a cradle, and he’s tired. He’s tired. “Excuse the fuck outta me.”

“Dean,” says Cas, just looking at him, just smiling. Sometimes his face goes so helpless when he looks Dean’s way, folded into a smile that he’s powerless against. Dean’s powerless against it, too. 

Dean turns a little more sideways. Leans his shoulders against the door and eases a leg up onto the bench seat, knee bent, the other still dangling in the footwell. “Cas,” he says. Cas is holding Dean’s book carefully in his big hand, so he doesn’t crease it further, and Dean’s heartbeat is loud, and Dean scowls at him, but he’s sure it melts into a grin. “Cas.”

Without warning Cas winds his palm around Dean’s ankle, pulls Dean’s leg up into his lap. He leaves his hand there, warm beneath the hem of Dean’s jeans and the top of his boot. 

There’s static in Dean’s brain. 

“You looked uncomfortable,” Cas murmurs. He drags his eyes over Dean’s face, skimming from his own eyes to his mouth and back up again. 

Dean’s holding the edge of the seat so tightly. “Not really your call to make.”

Cas tips his head, slow. 

“Jesus,” Dean mutters, too unsteady to be the growl he wants it to be. “You fucker.”

Cas laughs. His thumb rubs over Dean’s ankle bone, an easy stroking circle. And then, like it’s nothing, he opens the book again, one-handed, and goes right back to reading. 

And Dean, he fucking—he sits there. He lets Cas do it. He gets this soft patient circle rubbed into a place of him that nobody has bothered to touch before, and Cas’s lips move when he reads, and sometimes it’s like someone took a knife, baby, edgy and dull, The Boss says, crooning over the rain, cut a six inch valley through the middle of my skull. 

Dean lets his eyes drift closed. He still ain’t that comfortable wedged against the glass like he is, despite Cas’s best efforts, but… but Baby as much a home as he’s ever had, and he feels safe held by her warm interior. 

Held by the weather. Held by Cas. 

“‘What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing?’” reads Cas, low and rough and lulling. There is an ache in his voice beneath those familiar words, and Dean can’t soothe it. “‘It’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye.’”

 

*

 

He expects it when the dream comes again. 

It’s changed slightly over the passing weeks, shifted into a different shape. The room again, the loss like a fist to the gut—but something else. Something warm at the edge of the room, dependable, the only spot of light in all this blurred gray nothing. 

Dean is standing this time. His heartbeat hurts each time it comes and the air in his lungs is a rattling mess, but he’s on his own two feet, not slumped bonelessly to the floor. 

There’s an empty chair in the middle of the room. 

Somebody says his name. The warmth at the edge of the room moves, looms closer; Dean glances that way—

Sammy. 

“Dean?” he says again, a question this time, and he’s frowning in concern, and god he looks different, he looks old , so much older than the gangly kid Dean saw walk away six months ago, and Dean takes a step forward to get his arms around him, something, anything, and Dean—

Dean wakes up. 

 

*

 

Dean wakes up when the rain has turned to pale heavy fog, when the storm-darkness of the sky has been replaced by evening. 

He blinks the nap out of his eyes. Cas is watching him from a small distance away, and when he sees Dean looking at him, he smiles.

Still touching him. Dean’s leg is cramped and his back is cold from the window and Dean says, “Can you tell me how long it’ll take before I meet you for real?”

Cas’s throat makes a quiet sound when he swallows. “This is real,” he says softly. 

“I know, Cas,” Dean says. He’s so tired. “I know. I just.”

The quiet stretches so long that Dean thinks Cas isn’t gonna answer, and it’s not really anger that Dean feels, but it’s all he knows how to show. “Forget it,” he says, sharp, pushing his leg off the seat and turning around even though he’s sore all over. “Don’t know why I asked.”

Cas opens his mouth like he wants to say Dean’s name, but nothing comes out. 

Dean pulls back onto the road. 

 

*

 

When Dean Winchester was eighteen years old he lost his virginity to a woman who called herself Cherry. 

She was much older than him, and her experience was evident even in the sway of her hips as she moved in close. When she kissed Dean her mouth tasted like wax, lipstick-thick and cool. 

It was Dean’s birthday. An hour before, John had handed him a six pack and the keys to his own motel room and told Dean to go inside and wait, to “have fun, son,” and winked at him in the way that always preceded Dean finding something out that he was supposed to have known all along. Dean had sat there on that bed with his palms sweating, and he was drunk before she walked in the door. 

Cherry told him he was pretty. She was nicer to him than he deserved, especially since she’d already been paid, and afterward she had pretended not to notice the way he laid flat on his back and stared at the ceiling, eyes wide open and so dry they burned. 

“You have a good time, honey?” she had asked him, propped up at his side. Her breasts were soft and dusky-brown, and he thought she was pretty too, of course he did, but he knew he thought it the wrong way. He felt about her the way you feel about a painting in a museum: distant admiration, and no sharp tug of want to have it as your own. 

“Yeah,” he had said to her. Her hair was dark and curly and looked nice around her shoulders, swaying around her face. It was pity that made her smile at him. “Yeah, real good.”

He got up to escape to the bathroom, dizzy. He stood there for a long time in front of the mirror just looking at himself. 

Cherry’s mouth had left color on his own, lipstick smudged bright red on the pout of his bottom lip and a little below his chin, and Dean knew that he should wipe it off, but Dean couldn’t move. Dean was immobile there against the counter, his bare feet freezing on the linoleum floor, goosebumps rising on the flesh of his arms. 

He was supposed to feel different after this—more whole. Grown. 

Dean was a haunted house, and the wind blew through his eaves. 

When she caught him staring he blushed dark red, but she didn’t laugh at him. She grabbed her purse from the other room instead, and then she sat her ass on the lip of the counter and drew him close between her soft thighs, one hand on his hot cheek and the other on the slope of his neck. 

Dean kept himself still as she dragged the lipstick crayon around the circle of his mouth. He turned his face where Cherry guided him, those gentle pushes of her fingers, that light tug of his hair; when it got too hard to look into her sharp brown eyes he let his own close, and she said nothing. 

“There you go, honey,” she said. She slipped off the counter around the back of him, getting her hands around his soft waist. “Look at you. Pretty as a picture.”

He knew that he should hate himself as he opened his eyes and stared into a different face—a better face. A… beautiful face. 

He didn’t. He tipped his head back against Cherry’s shoulder and watched himself pant as she kissed his neck, as she jerked him off there in front of the mirror, a thousand times dirtier than anything he’d ever let himself want and a thousand times better than what they’d done in the other room half an hour before. 

“You keep that,” she told him later. She pressed his hand closed around the lipstick tube, fingers over fingers, and all the beams holding Dean up shivered. She didn’t try to kiss him again. “Happy birthday, baby.”

He threw it away the next day, ‘cuz lipstick ain’t something a man can carry around when he lives with his brother and his dad. And if his eyes and the back of his throat went sharp and hot while he did it, well. 

Wasn’t anybody around to watch him, anyway. He made damn sure of that. 

 

*

 

The morning Dean turns twenty-three, he wakes up to a text from Sam. 

Happy birthday. 

That’s it. No update on how he’s doing, no questions about Dean. Not so much as a fucking exclamation point. 

It doesn’t matter to Dean. He is like a dog: desperate for any bit of positive attention, drooling all over himself for a kind word. It’s embarrassing how his heart leaps when he sees Sam’s text, the first thing on their six-month-stale thread full of Dean’s increasingly desperate attempts to reach out before he gained some self-respect and shut the hell up. It’s embarrassing how quickly he hits the call button, and it’s even worse the way he wants to break something when Sam doesn’t pick up. 

Dean calls again, just to listen to Sam’s stupid fucking voicemail message, his trying-too-hard voice on the other end: You’ve reached Sam Winchester. I’m not available right now, but please leave a message after the beep!

Dean doesn’t leave a message. He hangs up each time before the beep can sound, cutting off the tail end of Sammy’s voice and starting over again. 

He sits in bed for a long time doing this, the blankets pooled around his waist. It’s raining again outside the window, drizzly and gray. He’s cold. Cas is out. 

Dean ain’t gonna break down and fuckin’ cry, because Dean ain’t a fuckin’ baby. He might go out and have a couple beers for breakfast if Cas doesn’t get his ass back here soon, though. 

Thanks man, Dean types, as if he hasn’t been calling Sam over and over for the past twenty minutes and being resolutely ignored. As if one strong breeze couldn’t blow him over. Hope you’re kicking ass. 

Miss you, he thinks, but doesn’t say. You fucking dick.

Something’s about to give, and Dean feels the brittle bend of it when he breathes in. 

Cas walking through the front door keeps the snap from splintering him at the last second.

There’s a takeout bag clutched in one of his hands, and one of those cardboard drink carriers with two coffees nestled within in the other. He looks tired today, the bags beneath his eyes blue. 

“Good morning, Dean,” he says. Something about him is sad in that low-down untouchable way, that bruise Dean can’t see but knows he had a hand in causing. He looks at Dean like he misses him, even though he’s right there. Cas smiles. “Happy birthday.”

“Yeah,” Dean grunts. He wipes the sleep from his eyes with the back of his hands, mouth dry, and tosses his phone down onto the nightstand so he doesn’t fucking have to look at it anymore. “Where were you?”

“Across the street,” says Cas, crossing to the end of Dean’s bed. He sits on the end, legs folded up beneath himself so his goddamn shoes are on the bedspread, but it’s not like they’ll be here another night so Dean lets it slide. He doesn’t really have the energy to argue, anyway. “I brought breakfast.”

Cas hands Dean one of the coffees, keeping the other for himself. Dean sits up a little further, resting back against the headboard and wrapping both hands around the warm cardboard. 

He watches the way Cas’s hands move as he sets the plastic bag down between them and peels back the translucent layers, drawing something small out from within. 

It’s one of those boxed pies from a gas station, dense and dry and full of fake fruit. Cas presents it to Dean with a shy sort of smile—and shit. Shit, for a second Dean thinks he might actually fucking cry this morning, over a shitty pastry and an absent brother and an angel who tries so hard to make Dean smile. 

“Thanks, man,” Dean rasps. He doesn’t feel like eating, but he probably will go for those breakfast beers if he doesn’t, so. Crappy heartfelt overly-emotional pie it is. “I didn’t figure you’d, um, know. When my birthday is. Didn’t figure I’d celebrate it in the future.”

“You don’t, really,” says Cas. His elbows rest on his knees, coffee held between them, and he watches Dean eat with enough of a self-satisfied tilt to his mouth that Dean’s on the verge of blushing. “And of course I know when your birthday is.”

“Alright,” Dean says. “Shit, ok.”

Cas grins. 

 

*

 

He drives the last four hours to the coast without stopping, Cas quiet at his side. 

It’s raining again when they reach a place that Dean can pull off, the kind of drizzle that clings to the back of Dean’s neck and fills up his lungs when he crosses around to Baby’s trunk and pulls out the cooler. There’s a thick line of fir trees between them and the beach, swaying like a wheat field in the gusty wind, but Dean can hear the ocean anyway. The distant roar. 

Cas steps around Baby’s side. Glances at Dean, waiting for him to move first. 

Well, ok, then. 

There’s a little path, picked out in a jumble of crushed shells and stone, leading from this packed-dirt parking area through the dense wall of trees; Dean sets off that way first, breathing in the salt-fresh air. 

He’s never been to the ocean before. He and Sam had always tried to get Dad to stop off at one when they passed through a coastal state, especially during the summer when the air inside Baby stifled their skin like a weight—of course he never did it, wouldn’t have even if they did have time for a luxury like that, but they’d always hoped. 

It doesn’t feel right going somewhere sunny without Sam. Somewhere with hot golden sand and lifeguards in ugly red shorts and fuckin’ striped umbrellas. 

Emerging on the other side of the treeline, this slate-colored shore seems perfect. 

Dean doesn’t bother going down to the water. It’s freezing, actually, the briney air sneaking up under his layers and sending a shock of shivers down his skin. He sticks to the border of pines and leads Cas to the first fallen log he sees, good for sitting on and drinking and looking gloomily out at the untouchable ocean. 

He drops the cooler. Settles down onto the waterlogged wood, Cas joining him a little closer than anybody else would, and grabs a beer. 

Dean’s heels drag lines in the pale gray sand. It clings in granules to the hem of his jeans. 

The ocean swells and crashes and swells again. 

All along his left side is Cas, sitting so close that Dean is warm despite the chill rolling in off the surf, and utterly heedless of the way the log they’re on is soaking moss and water up into his coat. Cas breathes in deeply, his head tipped up to face the sky. His eyes are closed. It could be prayer, Dean thinks, if there wasn’t that divot between his eyebrows. 

“I'll have to wipe your memory at a certain point,” he murmurs. “You do know that.”

He’s barely distinguishable from the crashing waves, the bullet-rattle of rain hitting the ocean far out from their cover of pine boughs, and Dean wants to lean in to catch his words but he feels himself draw back instead. Draw himself still. 

“Guess I hadn’t really thought about it.”

Cas looks at him now. It feels better to be looked at somehow, and then, at the same time, indescribably worse—like Cas is just slipping past Dean’s outer layer and taking a peek at what’s beneath, reading Dean so that Dean both doesn’t have to explain himself and also doesn’t get the chance to. 

“I think if I—” Dean stops. Takes a long drink, like a piece of punctuation, and knows Cas doesn’t miss it. He delivers the rest of his words to his knees. “I think if I gotta forget you anyway, I at least deserve to. To know.”

A bird alights on the rocky beach a few yards down from them, quick and light, like a smudge of white paint on the horizon. Dean drinks again. The bird is gone. 

“Does it matter?” Cas asks him. “Isn’t it enough to know just that we do meet?”

It hits Dean then. 

Cas is afraid. 

Dean’s settled by it, in a way that feels as wrong and as instinctual as sinking a bullet between something’s eyes. What use is he, if not to be strong in the face of someone else’s fear?

Dean nudges Cas’s foot with one of his own, leg falling to rest against leg. “‘Course it’s enough,” he says, too hoarse. “But I’m a selfish bastard, and I ain’t ever satisfied.”

Cas slips his leg forward, trapping his ankle beneath Dean’s. Winding them up in each other. 

“It’s a little over half a decade before we meet,” Cas tells him. 

Jesus. Half a decade. Dean’ll be—what, thirty? That’s enough time to become a different person in, a couple times over.

He wonders if this Cas will stick around all that time, wait to wipe Dean’s memory until the very last second. He wonders what this Cas will do once future Cas rolls into town. Where he’ll go, and who will take care of him. 

Not that he needs taking care of—he’s a fucking age-old soldier of God—but still. Still.

“What,” says Dean, “so you meet some middle-aged guy somewhere and decide he’s the one you wanna pal around with on earth?”

Cas huffs a soft laugh. “You’re hardly middle-aged when I meet you, Dean,” he says, and touches the knob of Dean’s wrist where it pokes out beneath his jacket sleeve. “And it’s… it’s certainly not that simple. Though, ultimately, it is you that I choose to ‘pal around with,’ much to the dismay of basically every other celestial force in this universe. And a few earthly ones, too.”

“Jesus,” says Dean.

“Not him.”

Dean smiles. “Fuck off,” he says, and lets himself slump a little further into Cas’s warmth. “Tell me how we meet?”\

Cas is breathing slow and steady against Dean, rising and falling like the tide. “I’ve told you before,” he says quietly, “that heaven has a plan for you.”

It’s not a question, but Dean nods anyway. He finishes his beer. 

Sometimes it’s hard to believe heaven has a plan for a man whose own father and brother don’t even want him around, but he’s been trying. Turning the idea over and over in his head so the light shines through all sides. 

“I don’t want to tell you exactly how we meet,” Cas says. “I don’t want to risk heaven interfering with the course of your life because of something I’ve said, even if I know—even if you won’t remember I told you after a while.”

“I’ll be ok, Cas. I can take it.”

“I know you can.” Cas’s fingers are wrapped around Dean’s wrist now, the pad of his thumb nestled against Dean’s pulse-point; the wind picks up the salt of the ocean and the scent of him, something a little like metal and a little like the Impala and a little like the road. Dean wants. Fiercely Cas says, “But you shouldn’t have to.”

There it is again—the kinda thing that should probably make Dean mad. Affronted. The kinda thing that, on John Winchester’s tongue, would be a slight rather than an offer to take some of this weight off Dean’s shoulders. 

But it’s Cas. Cas, who cares about two versions of Dean so deeply that it’s almost overwhelming. 

Cas, dipping down close to speak to Dean so that his hair brushes Dean’s temple. 

“The first time you will remember seeing me is in a barn in Illinois,” Cas murmurs. “You’ll sink your blade into my chest, because you don’t know what I am and you don’t know that I would do anything not to hurt you. It won’t harm me. It will make me—I will want to know you.” Cas breathes in, and out. “More destructively than I’ve wanted anything before.”

Dean turns on the log and tucks his face into the crook of Cas’s neck, down there in that soft spot between the worn fold of his collar and the hot skin of his throat. Dean closes his eyes. 

There is a moment of hesitation. Then Cas lifts his arm and slips it around Dean, presses his hot palm to the middle of his lower back. 

“Sorry,” says Dean softly. “That I stab you. Figure I never apologize for that in the future.”

Castiel presses closer to him. It doesn’t answer the question either way, but Dean, well. He figures he’s forgiven. 

“I’ll know you for twelve years after that,” Cas continues, letting his cheek come to rest on the top of Dean’s head. Dean’s heartbeat stutters. “And though I was born before the air you breathe, they are the best twelve years of my very long life.” 

Mine too, Dean thinks. Sure, he hasn’t lived them yet, but something in him just knows. He has a feeling that Cas has saved his life more times than Dean—or maybe even Cas himself—has given Cas credit for. 

He might’ve done it here, now, in this timeline. Just by showing up. 

“Yeah?” Dean says, slightly wavering. “Well I’m pretty friggin’ great, I guess.” 

Cas is stroking his fingers along the line of Dean’s nape, and Cas doesn’t laugh. “Yes,” he says. “You are.”

“You are too, you know,” Dean says. “I dunno what I’m like in the future but I’m probably still an idiot so I’m sure I don’t tell you that enough. Or, uh. Ever.”

Cas does laugh this time, and it’s just a puff of air on Dean’s temple. He says, gently, “You let me know.”

Dean doubts that’s true. He keeps his eyes closed. 

It’s… it is unbelievably good, sitting here with Cas’s arm around him—good in a way that he can’t look directly at, like the sun, like his reflection in the mirror after a hunt gone bad. There’s guilt there, of course, tucked away inside of him where his guilt always lives, but it’s dulled. It’s muffled. 

All its sharp edges worn off by the slow gentle sweep of Cas’s palm on Dean’s spine. 

The thought slides in like a knife between two ribs: Cas’s careful hands and his soft mouth and the way he looks at Dean like there’s nothing so good on earth as him. The way he lets Dean get closer and closer, has never once stopped him. 

Dean could tip his face up. Could move that last inch closer and not be stopped—be welcomed instead. 

His heart is jangling around like a fucking loose coin in the bottom of somebody’s purse and Cas is still breathing just as calmly as ever, still just sitting there, a rock and a buoy and the very tilt of the earth that’s dislodging Dean all at once. 

What could have happened to Cas? What deal could he have wrought that gets him hurled back to this time, back to a Dean that doesn’t even know him yet? 

Dean should ask. 

Dean can’t ask. The words stick in his throat like cold tar.

Chapter Text

A werewolf slaughters young men like hogs in Nowhere, Oklahoma. 

The body lays killed at Dean’s feet, hunched over on its front with the knobs of its spine pressing up through its shirt like mountain peaks. He had been easy to kill, even though the bodies of his victims are also in this rotting barn, chest cavities gaping and open—a clear sign that the guy had been feeding well. 

He was packless, though. Abandoned by those he ran with, it seems, and left to gather the gruesome approximation of a community around him in order not to go insane. 

Dean nudges the body with his foot. The pallid skin, the dirty clothes and unwashed hair. 

It’s unsettling to see that even monsters can’t bear being left alone. 

Dean tucks his gun away. 

Movement from the other side of the barn: Dean lifts his gaze to see Cas bending and scooping one of the human bodies into his arms, heedless of the blood that’s dried down to something dark and thick and clinging all over the boy’s form. Cas lets the head come to rest on his shoulder, holds the bent knees close in the crook of his elbow, and meets Dean’s eyes. 

“We should burn them,” he says. 

Dean nods. There are five of them in total, all around Sammy’s age—hell, the monster himself didn’t look much older than Dean is now—and they haven’t been here long. The one that Dean lifts is still warm, barely an hour dead. They could’ve saved him if Dean had just driven a little faster. Just been a little smarter. 

There’s snow up to Dean’s ankles outside. Their footprints track bloody through it, and it melts away as the fire burns down. 

 

*

 

It’s late when they get back to the motel, and Dean is tired, stomach sour-sick with guilt, and he tells himself that that’s why he doesn’t notice the car parked next to Baby in the lot. 

Dean swings himself out of the Impala as soon as they pull up, just wanting to wash away the blood dug down deep in the cracks of his palms. It’s been a while since he hasn’t been good enough to keep actual lives from being lost, and something about Cas being here to witness Dean’s inadequacy is making it harder to deal with—when he messed up with Dad at least Dean knew where he stood, and what was in store for him because of that. 

With Cas… fuck. He doesn’t think Cas is even gonna mention it. Doesn’t think Cas even thinks Dean has done anything wrong. 

Dean’s free-falling in the empty sky, hard ground rising up to meet him. 

He digs the motel key out of his coat pocket and listens to the sound of Cas shutting Baby’s door, his footfalls crunching through the sludge of mud and ice and cigarette butts coating the sidewalk. Cas hasn’t tried to talk to him on the ride home, or touch him; Dean’s not sure if he’s relieved or if he wants to let Cas hold him up—

“Dean,” says Cas sharply, a hissing whisper, and Dean freezes automatically with his hand half-raised to the door. 

The hairs on the back of Dean’s neck lift. He turns to face Cas, shoulders gone rigid. 

“What, man?”

Cas holds up a hand and Dean falls silent. Cas is staring at the motel door with a look Dean only sees when they’re in the middle of a fight: eyes slightly narrowed, laser-focused like he can see straight through whatever’s in front of them and on to the other side. 

“There’s someone in there,” Cas murmurs to him, low. Dean clenches his jaw, flicks his eyes to the only window; still curtained. He can’t discern any movement inside. 

Dean pulls his gun out of his waistband and flips the safety off, heart thumping fast. He trusts Cas, entirely and consumingly. If the guy says there’s someone in there, there’s someone in there. 

“Get behind me,” Dean says, and Cas does, solid and warm and steady. He doesn’t have a weapon in his hand, and he doesn’t need to. Dean’ll protect him—or his grace will. “One, two, three.

Dean kicks the door open. 

John Winchester sits at the foot of the bed.

For a moment, none of them speak. Cas has gone rigid, and the ozone scent of him flares briefly stronger, an electric snap, and John’s eyebrows have furrowed, his mouth turned down at the corners making lines in his face like craters and a bottle in his hand, and Dean—Dean—

Dean can’t fucking breathe. Can’t fucking move. John is here, in the place that Dean wanted to come back to and be safe in, sitting on the bed that Cas was going to sit on and make sure Dean was alright while he slept. And John is drinking. And two hours ago, Dean let a boy die. 

“Who the hell is this, son?” John asks. 

His voice is rough and the ends of his words fall off, slurred. His jaw is unshaven. His eyes are red. Dean should have been with him, taking care of him, making sure he didn’t get to this point again. Dean should have been better. 

Dean can’t unstick his clumsy tongue from the roof of his mouth, and somehow, Cas can tell. “My name is Castiel,” he says. His voice is sharper than Dean has ever heard it, an unyielding steel beneath the usual kindness with which he addresses everyone. Dean would shiver if it was directed toward him. “Are you John Winchester?”

John doesn’t answer him. His eyes are like flint. He has a shotgun tossed over his lap, careless, but Dean knows the things those hands can do with a weapon. Dean knows. 

“Dad,” Dean says, and then has to try again because it comes out sounding like nothing at all. “Dad. How did you—why are you here?”

Dean still hasn’t lowered his gun. Dean needs to lower his gun. Dean is frozen, every muscle of him, by the way John Winchester stares at Castiel with nothing but contempt in his eyes. 

“Is it a fucking crime to wanna see my son now?” John barks. “Tell me who this is, Dean.”

“Castiel,” Dean says, “Cas, he’s. Cas is a friend.”

He and Cas are still standing halfway inside, the nighttime blowing in cold along their backs. 

“Oh yeah?” John says. “What kinda friend has you pointing a gun at your own goddamn father?”

“Sorry, sir,” Dean says, and clicks the safety off, and hates himself. He steps forward. Cas follows him, shutting the door. “Force of habit. Learned from the best, right?”

John grunts. Drinks. Doesn’t set his own gun aside. “Bobby told me you were traveling alone.”

“I was.” Dean forces his shoulders back up from the curl they’ve fallen into, pulled forward to protect the soft middle bits of him. John’s boots are getting dirt and melted snow all over the carpet, and for some reason the sight makes Dean’s next inhale too short. “Met Cas—”

John cuts Dean off, pointing at Cas with the bottle in his hand. “Wanna hear it from him.”

Behind Dean’s body—away from John’s eyes—Cas skims his fingertips along the dip of Dean’s back.

Dean hates it, hates it, hates it. Wants to touch him. 

“My name is Castiel,” Cas repeats, just as measured as before. If you didn’t know him you wouldn’t be able to hear the barely-tethered power surging beneath those words. Dean knows him. “I am an angel of the lord.”

John scoffs, and it’s so loud. Things haven’t been loud for weeks, Dean realizes. He and Cas haven’t once had to yell. 

“Bullshit,” says John. Dean can smell him from here, four feet away—the whiskey on his breath, the sweat at the back of his collar. Been a long time since he’s ended up like this; little more than six months, and that week after Sam left. Dean thought he might die then. Dean watches John’s hand tighten on the gun, watches him lift it as he gets unsteadily to his feet and glares at Cas, and Dean wishes terribly and fervently and like the worst man in the world that he had. “Get the fuck away from my son.”

“Dad, dad, stop,” Dean says, setting a hand on John’s arm. John shakes him off and Dean stumbles back. “ Dad. He’s telling the truth.”

“Bullshit,” John says again. “What are you? What do you want with us?”

“I’m telling the truth,” Cas says. He’s calm, but Dean isn’t between Cas and John anymore so he sees the way Cas’s hands are curled into fists. The white of his knuckles. “And you may rest assured that I want nothing with you, John Winchester.”

It was the wrong thing to say. Dean knows it like he knows the bruise-shape of his father’s hand on his skin. Dean knows it like he knows the weight of a gun. 

“So it’s him you want?” John growls. Finally he looks at Dean, and it’s an expression that Dean’s seen him wear a hundred times. 

Loss. Loss of faith in his son, loss of respect for the man he tried so hard to mold Dean into. 

Dean saw John wear it when he picked Dean up from school at thirteen and caught him standing too close to the only friend Dean would make that year, a boy with a laughing smile; Dean saw John wear it when Dean got back from his first solo hunt with anguish tearing a hole in his chest that hasn’t healed yet; Dean saw John wear it outside of a dive bar in Kentucky as he boxed Dean’s ears until they bled, and the morning after his eighteenth birthday when he caught Dean crying in an empty motel room, and when he forgot to flirt with a girl on a hunt and when he let a man teach him how to play pool with his broad warm hands on Dean’s waist, standing close the whole time, even though Dean already knew. Dean already knew. 

Dean knows what happens when you lose something. You do everything in your power to get it back again. 

“You ain’t thinking right,” John tells Dean, voice hard. There’s no room for a fight in those words. They slam into Dean as John intended them to, already working at molding him back into a shape with a handle and a place for bullets to launch out of in whatever direction John Winchester points. “You let a monster get the better of you. Step aside.”

God, Dean should’ve made Cas leave that first morning. He’s so stupid. So fucking stupid, letting himself be lulled into thinking anybody could be safe when they’re traveling at Dean Winchester’s side. 

Dean’s hands are shaking again, like a little goddamn kid. “I can’t do that, Dad,” he rasps. 

John is struck dumb as Dean moves back to stand directly in front of Cas. Dean has never disobeyed him this blatantly; Dean has never put himself between his father and a bullet without some sort of armor on.

“Dean, he can’t hurt me,” Cas murmurs, and his voice is so different when he speaks to Dean that it can only make everything worse. Dean can imagine how Cas is gazing at him: those soft eyes, those heavy lids, the gentle shape his mouth makes when he says Dean’s name. “It’s alright. You don’t have to protect me.”

“I do,” Dean snaps, though he didn’t mean to. He wants Cas to touch him again, and he wants to kneel at his father’s feet and beg for forgiveness, and he wants John to lift that gun and let loose a bullet so Dean can take it within his chest and finally do something right and he wants to never see John’s face again and he wants Sam to come back and he wants and he wants and he wants. He is a creature made of wanting. “I do, I do have to protect you.”

John yells. It is a low snarl of a noise, tearing out of a place inside him that Dean doesn’t understand, and Dean flinches so badly that he nearly drops his own gun. 

“You’re out of your damn mind, son,” John hisses. He’s has gone ruddy with rage, with disappointment. John’s face is nakedly disgusted, so clearly horrified at the thing his son has become that Dean almost has to shut his own eyes. “Move aside before I make you move aside, and let me kill whatever that is like you should’ve done.”

John staggers as he moves closer to Dean, but move closer he does. His breath is arid on Dean’s skin. 

“No,” Dean says. His throat burns. “No. You don’t get to fucking touch him.”

John lifts the hand with the bottle in it and shatters it against Dean’s face. 

There is a moment where Dean falls to his hands and knees while the blood rushes in his ears; there is a moment where Dean thinks, I want my father, and he is as small as he has ever been. 

“Dean,” says Cas, and oh—his voice thunders in this small room, not so much words as it is a storm, a frisson of electricity—“close your eyes.”

Dean’s nose is broken, surely. Dean drips blood onto the carpet below his face, and chokes on it when it floods the back of his throat. Dean closes his eyes. 

The room explodes. 

Now John screams, and it twists out of him like a mangled sheet of metal, and there is something wrong with Dean that he doesn’t leap to his feet to make the sound stop. That he doesn’t want, with all of his being nor any shred of it, to get rid of whatever is so clearly causing his father harm. 

There’s nothing beyond the flimsy shield of Dean’s paper-thin eyelashes but impossible, incomprehensible light. Scalding blue and breathlessly bright. The heat of a sun on Dean’s skin. 

It’s Cas. It’s Cas hurting that scream out of John Winchester, inhuman and all-powerful of him—and yet Dean knows in his bones that he could lean into this light, into Cas, and be safer than he’s ever been in his life. 

You are an angry, pathetic, mean little man, says Cas. He isn’t speaking, but Dean understands him anyway. He resonates through Dean like a song. You do not deserve the goodness of either of your sons, and you do not deserve the years of Dean’s life that he has devoted to you. If you ever touch him again, I will find you, and I will end you. By the grace of God, John Winchester, this is a promise of mine. 

Slowly the light fades away, and with it the crackle of a lightning storm on Dean’s skin. 

The room is silent. Just Dean, and the blood in his ears and on his tongue, and the rattle in his lungs. 

Someone touches him between the shoulder blades. He flinches, hands skittering through the shattered glass that litters the floor beneath his knees, and Cas says, “Hush, Dean, shhh. You may open your eyes now, it’s ok. You’re ok.”

He can only peel one open. The other is swollen shut along with that half of his face, already going sticky and matted with blood, and Cas is blurry where he kneels before Dean. 

“It’s alright,” Cas murmurs, cradling Dean’s face in his palms. Dean wishes he could see him clearly. “Dean, I’m so sorry.”

“Dad,” Dean says, and every time his heart throbs it sends a pulse of pain through every inch of him. He’s crying, he realizes. He’s sobbing like a fucking child, and he doesn’t know if it’s the pain or the fear or Cas’s hands on him, healing him like there’s no way he deserves. “Is he—what’s—”

“John Winchester is incapacitated,” Cas says gently. He strokes beneath Dean’s eyes with the pads of his thumbs and some of the pain leeches away. Slowly, Dean blinks open his other eye. Slowly, Dean’s vision clears. “He won’t hurt you again.”

“I’m fine,” babbles Dean, even though he clearly isn’t, even though he’s falling apart. “I’m ok, it’s not that bad, Cas.”

It smells like whiskey down here on the floor, in the rubble; it’s splashed all down Dean’s jacket, his hair, the carpet. Stringent and pungent. It turns Dean’s gut. 

Dean was fifteen when his father gave him a drink for the first time. Dean was thirteen the first time he stole one. Dean was four when his father lifted him and his voice smelled like Jack Daniels, and Dean was twenty-two when he found his father passed out in a gutter behind a bar two nights after Sam left them, and Dean is twenty-three and the glass of a whiskey bottle from his father’s hand is stuck in his cheek like gravel in a scraped knee. 

“It is that bad,” says Cas. His voice trembles, discomposed. Dean tries to breathe in but it’s closer to a gasp, air clawing for purchase in his lungs, so Cas cups his jaw and suffuses Dean with grace again, warm and lulling. “I am not a vengeful creature,” he murmurs. “I am not made for unnecessary violence. But when I saw him hurt you I was angrier than I have been in ages. You don’t deserve that, Dean.”

Dean should get to his feet and clean all this up—the blood and the glass and the booze. He should find John and make sure Cas didn’t fucking kill him. 

Dean curls his hands around Cas’s wrists; leans his cheek into Cas’s palm. 

As his vision clears completely and Cas comes fully into view, Dean tries not to react to how exhausted Cas looks. He’s paler than Dean’s ever seen him, lips white, sweat beaded along his hairline; when he blinks it’s heavy and slow, like it takes work to lift his lids again. His pulse beats birdwing fast beneath Dean’s fingertips. 

“Are you ok?” Dean asks him. He can’t see around Cas’s broad shoulders to where John was standing before, and he doesn’t care to look. Dean’s blood is ground into the carpet where they kneel. “Shit, Cas, did he hurt you?”

“No,” Cas murmurs. His eyes are wet too, though he’s shaking in anger rather than whatever fucked up maelstrom of emotions is rocking Dean. “No, Dean, I’m alright. Just… exhausted. It’s been a while since I took on my true form, and with my grace not quite as strong as it used to be, I’m tired.”

And then he healed Dean, and that must have taken it out of him, too. Dean can’t stop crying. He’s such an idiot.  

“Your true form?” he asks. He’s holding onto Cas too tightly. “Is that—was that your grace? All that light I couldn’t look at?”

Cas nods. “It’s too much for humans to bear. I’m still not as powerful as I once was, but this… much of my grace has gotten stronger since I was sent here. To you.”

Too much for humans to bear. Dean thinks of the warmth of it. The—the peace of it. The way he wants to fall into Cas, weightless, and let himself be held. 

“God,” he breathes. “I bet you’re beautiful.”

Something in Cas’s face changes, softens. It almost hurts to be looked at this way. “Dean,” he says, very quietly, and then nothing more. 

Dean swallows, tight. That wasn’t—it wasn’t anything that Castiel just said, but for some reason rejection stings the surface of Dean’s newly-healed skin anyway. Jesus, he’s fucked up. He doesn’t ask Cas to stop touching him, because he doesn’t want to. 

“Ok,” Dean says, nodding. “Ok. Let’s take care of John.”

 

*

 

He is flat on his back on the dirty carpet. The left side of his face is mangled and swollen, matching what he’d done to Dean. Unconscious, but breathing. A thin trail of blood runs down his neck from both ears. 

“He’ll be fine,” Cas says. He and Dean are both standing now, shoulder-to-shoulder. Holding each other up. “I didn’t kill your father. I know that would have been rude.”

Dean wants to laugh, or maybe sob again. He leans into Cas. “Thanks.”

“Hm,” Cas says. “I think we should leave him here. Perhaps he’ll believe he had an accident when he sees the glass, or perhaps not.” Cas tilts his head, gazing down at John with contempt. “I would wipe his memory, but I believe he won’t remember any of this anyway.”

“Please wipe it,” Dean says. “If it’s not gonna take too much out of you. I don’t want him to wake up and…” 

Dean doesn’t say it. Doesn’t have to. Cas looks at him, serious as a heart attack. “I meant what I said,” he murmurs. “I won’t let him touch you again as long as it’s within my power to stop him.”

“I know, Cas,” Dean says, and he does. But still. Still. 

Cas nods. Bends, and places two fingers on John’s bruised forehead, letting a wisp of grace sink beneath his skin. 

Dean steadies Cas as he stands. Before they go, he turns John on his side. 

 

*

 

There isn’t another motel in this town so Dean drives an hour to the next one, his time nearly doubled by the thick fall of snow on the uncleared road. 

He’s got a tension headache by the time he finds a place, and his eyes sting with the effort to keep them open—even Cas, who doesn’t technically sleep, looks like he’s nodding off over there with his cheek resting on the glass of Baby’s window. 

They don’t talk as Dean grabs his duffel from the back. Cas touches the curve of Dean’s elbow, and Dean lets him, and they stomp through the drifts and into the lobby. 

A sleepy-looking teenager mans the front desk, painting her nails black while she reads a book held open with the computer mouse and a cup of pens. She doesn’t even look at Dean as he gets them a room, and makes sure that they can tell she’s annoyed at being interrupted as she slides across their key. “Have a good night,” Dean says a little pointedly, and she rolls her eyes without tearing her gaze away from the page. 

It takes a minute to get the door unlocked. Dean’s so fucking tired. Dean’s so—he gets the key in the right direction this time, face hot, and shoulders the door open. 

The icing on the fucking cake of the shittiest day he’s had in half a goddamn year is that the kid didn’t even give them the right room. Dean knows he asked for two doubles but there’s just one king sitting there in the middle of the floor, off-white sheets and bowed middle and all, and Dean lets out a sigh so long he feels it in the bottoms of his feet. 

“It’s fine, Dean,” Cas says, before Dean can even march himself back down to the lobby and raise hell. He’s still got his fingers tucked in the crook of Dean’s elbow, all gentle like they’re a couple of ladies in the eighteen-hundreds going for a stroll, but his hand slips all the way around and tightens and suddenly it’s a feat of strength not to turn into his chest and go to sleep on Dean’s goddamn feet. “Do you really mind?”

“No,” Dean mumbles. He lets his duffel fall into the chair by the door and starts toeing off his boots. “Thought you might.”

“I don’t sleep,” Cas says automatically, and then at Dean’s look, softer, “No. I don’t mind at all.”

Dean nods, wordless. It’s easier just to do what Cas says. Dean’s done thinking for today. Dean just wants—Dean wants—

“Come along,” Cas says to him. He helps Dean shrug off his coat like Dean’s little or something, and Dean knows he should protest, but it feels so damn nice to be taken care of. “You need to rest.”

“You too,” Dean mumbles, tugging on the lapel of Cas’s coat. “You’re wiped out, man, don’t try to hide it. At least lay down.”

Cas watches him for a moment. Then he slips out of his coat and jacket, folds them both properly in half, and drapes them over the chair as well. 

Oh. Dean was right. Cas is jacked under that ugly thing. 

Dean drags his eyes away, stumbling into a pair of sweatpants as Cas takes his shoes off. 

The both climb into the bed, and Dean buries himself down beneath the covers without preamble. It should all be a lot more awkward than it is—Cas is propped up against the headboard above Dean, looking down at him as Dean surfs the three channels their TV gets for something to fall asleep to, and Dean’s head is so close to Cas’s hip that he might as well go all the way and tuck it onto his lap—but instead Dean feels himself start to breathe easy for the first time all day. 

When he feels Cas’s hand in his hair, carding so carefully, he pushes into it like a cat with barely any shame. 

He settles on an infomercial channel, the volume turned down low. He closes his eyes. 

“You didn’t seem surprised,” Cas says after a while. His nails scratch at the tender scalp behind Dean’s ear, sending a shiver down his spine. He’s quiet. “When your father… when he hit you.”

Dean’s breath goes tight again, a taught handful of panic in his throat. “I dunno how much you know about Dad—”

“Enough,” Cas interrupts darkly. 

“He tried, Cas,” Dean whispers, keeping his eyes closed. “I ain’t—I don’t—I know things could’ve been… better. And I know some of the stuff he did to me was, was wrong. I know that. But his life hasn’t been perfect either. And he’s my dad. He’s my dad, Cas.”

Cas doesn’t answer. Just touches Dean with so much care, right over the place where he’d been bleeding from an hour ago. 

“I think I hate him sometimes, Cas,” Dean whispers. “I love him—of course I love him—but dammit, I hate him, too. And I am—there’s something wrong with me, and maybe that’s why I feel like this, because when he looks at me I can tell all he sees is whatever’s… whatever’s rotten in me. He makes me remember what a piece of shit I am.”

Dean knows what this is. This is hatred reflected back on the self back onto the source, an endless loop that he ain’t ever going to break free from. He hates the man his father made him into, and his father hates the man Dean has become, and Dean hates the man who gave him life in the first place, on and on in an unbroken cycle. 

He sucks in a shuddering breath, and Cas catches the dampness beneath Dean’s eyes. Dean didn’t even know he was crying again until Cas did that. 

“Dean,” says Cas in his low, roughshod voice. “Please sit up so I can look at you.”

He does, pulling the blankets around him as he does so, but he can’t meet Cas’s eyes. Not yet. 

Cas ducks his chin down to find them anyway. 

They’re in a shitty little motel in the middle of nowhere. Cas has been at Dean’s side for weeks. Cas wanted to kill Dean’s father for hurting him. Cas is beautiful like this, and Dean knows he’s beautiful in his true form, too. Cas is still touching Dean more softly than he’s been touched since his mother died. 

“You will never remember this,” Cas says, low, “but the first time I’ll ever meet you, I will touch your soul. You will have gone through unbelievable horror before I can reach you, the likes of which would extinguish a lesser person like snuffing a candle—but not you. I will see you for the first time in untold darkness, and taking you in my hands, so resplendent despite your scars, will be like trying to hold onto the sun. Even though you’ll be in immeasurable pain, I will look at you and I will think you are so good. And I will never change my mind.”

Cas looks nearly naked sitting here in just his shirtsleeves, and still more exhausted than Dean’s ever seen him, with the dim blue glow of the TV screen shining back in his eyes, turning the shadows beneath them deep and boundless. Dean looks at him until something in his chest gives. 

He bends forward and brushes Cas’s mouth with his. 

Dean waits one beat, two, three, every inch of him poised for the moment that Cas pushes him away—but that moment never comes. Cas’s mouth is warm and yielding beneath Dean’s; Cas makes a soft punctured sound, and his hands come up as if to hold Dean to him, one at his jaw and one gentle at the side of his neck. 

A pause. Dean breathes, his eyes closed, and Cas murmurs “Dean,” with their mouths still touching. 

It’s humiliating, the way Dean shivers at that. Cas pulls him back in and kisses him again and again and again, slow, lingering presses, and oh, Dean thinks, oh, this is dangerous. 

Cas’s lips are parted when he leans in again. Dean winds his hands into Cas’s shirt collar. 

“Dean,” says Cas again, rougher, and Dean can feel the beat of his carotid on the side of his hand. Cas thumbs the notch of Dean’s jaw. “What do you want?”

It shouldn’t be a question that slices him through the middle as if he is soft dough. It shouldn’t have him going still on his knees in the V of Cas’s legs, suddenly immobile with indecision. But it does. 

What does he want? Everything. Everything and more, with a hunger that has teeth. 

He lets his forehead come to rest at the crook of Cas’s neck; he places a kiss there, and listens to Cas’s next inhale tremble. “Want you,” Dean whispers. 

Cas makes an overwhelmed sound, low in the back of his throat. He slips a hand down Dean’s spine and spans his waist with the width of his palm, thumb pressed into the soft give of Dean’s hip, and pulls Dean closer until Dean has no choice but to straddle Cas’s thighs; he sinks down onto them, still mouthing at Cas’s warm neck, and his stomach swoops wildly when Cas cups his nape. 

It feels good. A little possessive, in a slow burn liquid-heat kinda way. It feels like Cas wants him back. 

“You,” breathes Cas. He slides his hand around to Dean’s chin, lifts it up so Dean has to meet his eyes. Cas’s are gorgeous. Brimming, full of something Dean can’t quite name. “You overwhelm me.”

Dean laughs weakly. “You’re one to talk.”

Cas smiles. For a second there’s so much clashing joy and sorrow on his face that Dean has to lean in and kiss him again, just so he doesn’t go blind. 

Not like it’s a hardship. 

They make out for a while, hands roaming, hearts beating. Dean catches each small sound Cas makes down in the pit of his chest and vows to keep it there, secret and safe, even as he makes a couple of his own. 

It’s so different kissing Cas—different in a way that has Dean feeling like he’s about to collapse softly inward. Dean’s exhausted, emotionally and physically, but that don’t seem to matter: he feels shivery and kindled and unmoored all over, cast out to drift and burning up at the same time. Cas sweeps his hand up Dean’s spine once more and Dean’s whole body bends into the movement, arching toward his every touch with the sort of hunger that Dean has always done his best to starve to death. 

Dangerous, dangerous. Now that he’s got this, he’s never gonna be able to let go. 

“You are so beautiful,” Cas rumbles against the skin of Dean’s throat. He’s as intense and dedicated in touching Dean as he is doing anything else; he kisses Dean again, again, open-mouthed and warm beneath his jaw and over his Adam’s apple, leaving no inch of flesh untouched. 

Dean’s shaking apart. “Shut up,” he murmurs. 

Cas mouths at his pulse point. “Why would I do that?"

“That ain’t…” Dean’s voice is rough, trips over itself. His eyelids lower down as he pauses, and one hand winds its way into the thick dark hair at the back of Cas’s head. “That ain’t the sort of thing people say to me. That’s shit that gets said to hot chicks in movies.”

Cas pulls back, and Dean lets the small disappointed noise out of his throat before he can think to stop it. Cas smiles at him, slow; he reaches up and skims the pad of his index finger along Dean’s bottom lip, back and forth and back again. 

“Why is that an adjective exclusive to attractive women?” he asks. “It’s the truth; you are remarkably beautiful, and it brings me great pleasure to tell you so.” He pauses, his eyes flickering across Dean’s flushed face, and his voice drops low when he says, “I believe it brings you pleasure to hear it, as well.”

Dean’s gonna go supernova. Self-immolate right here on his angel’s lap, more turned on than he’s ever been. 

“Cas,” he gets out. He can barely speak, tongue thick and slow in his throat. “I…”

He’s not sure what makes him do it; just that Cas is looking at him so closely, eyes heated and hooded, and Dean is half-high on being touched like this, and—and when Cas traces Dean’s mouth again Dean tips his head forward slightly, taking Cas’s finger into wet heat of his mouth. 

“Oh Dean, ” Cas says, more of a groan than a word. It is thrilling, knowing Dean’s affecting Cas just as much as Cas is affecting him; Cas’s head falls back to rest against the headboard for a second, lips a little swollen, a little parted, and Dean shivers again as he circles Cas’s fingertip with his tongue. 

The hand on Dean’s hip slides forward, nudging up his t-shirt and stroking at his stomach before drifting forward to flirt with the waistband of his sweats. Dean’s pulse leaps. Cas says, “May I?” so polite and formal and enchanting in his awkwardness, so fucking hot in how straightforward he is, and Dean nods fast as he clings to Cas’s wrist and takes another finger in his mouth. 

Cas’s breath stutters. It’s visible: that jagged movement of his chest. He tugs at Dean’s sweats and Dean raises up slightly on shaky knees so Cas can tug them down to Dean’s thighs, still lapping at the slightly-salty taste of Cas’s skin. 

Cas leans in to kiss the corner of Dean’s full mouth, Dean’s mouth which is full of Castiel’s own hand, and Cas wraps his other hand around Dean’s cock and something in Dean cries out.

“Look at you,” Cas says. He sounds reverent. He swipes his thumb over Dean’s cockhead and Dean tightens his fingers around Cas’s wrist, holding tight so he doesn’t buck up into Cas’s fist—and Cas catches this restraint, because of course he does. He kisses Dean again, jacks him a little clumsy and entirely overwhelming, says, “That’s it, Dean, don’t hold back. Show me. Show me how you feel.”

Dean would roll his eyes or say something glib if the center of his universe hadn’t shrunk down to this bed, to Cas, to the points where they touch. Cas slips his fingers free but keeps Dean’s mouth open with a thumb beneath his chin and a finger on his bottom lip, guiding him into a kiss that starts off warm and wet and leaves Dean as shattered as the hand sliding friction-rough up and down his shaft. Dean clings to Cas’s shoulders. 

Dean lets his hips thrust forward and Cas’s roll upward, and—and Cas is hard through his suit pants, and Dean moans against his open mouth. 

He doesn’t realize he’s scrabbling at the buttons of Cas’s shirt until Cas pulls away to undo them for Dean, his mouth red and wet and smiling, his pupils huge. Dean dives in to kiss him again, not caring in the slightest that he just slows down the process. 

“You too, Dean, please,” Cas says as soon as he shrugs his shirt off. He’s slipping his palms up Dean’s stomach again, tugging Dean’s t-shirt as he goes, so Dean just lifts his arms weakly and lets Cas pull it over his head. 

They look at each other for a moment, bare chests heaving. 

They’ve barely done anything. Already Dean knows he’s changed. 

“What do you want?” Cas asks again, and the words are tender on his tongue. He can’t stop touching Dean: his hands map Dean’s shoulders, his chest, his upper abs and his soft belly. “You know I would do anything for you, if only you’d ask.” 

Cas’s hair is sticking up everywhere, downy, untameable. Because of Dean. Dean did that. 

Somehow, it’s easier to answer him this time. “Just keep touchin’ me, Cas,” he breathes. “Please don’t stop.”

Cas doesn’t answer him, but he doesn’t need to. He drifts forward. He finds Dean’s mouth again. 

They kiss for a long time, but something about it is slower now, unhurried, intense in the kinda way that builds and builds beneath the surface of Dean’s skin. Dean lets himself touch every part of Cas that he’s been longing for weeks to touch: his broad strong shoulders, his forearms, the point of his chin and the divot between his eyebrows and thick, muscled width of his thighs. He slips off of Cas’s lap so he can tug away his sweats and has Cas do the same, and when he climbs back up Cas flips them so Dean is spread beneath him, gazing up at the fever-flush of Cas’s face. 

Dean fucks into Cas’s fist without shame now, his skin buzzing hot; Cas ruts against Dean’s hip, and each punched-out breath of air he releases gets caught up in the seal of Dean’s mouth. 

“You’re beautiful,” Cas says again, panting hot into the hollow of Dean’s throat. He strokes his hand up Dean’s arm, pins his wrist to the pillow beneath his head. His hips falter, rhythm shot with his approaching release. “You are so wonderful, so incredibly singular. I took one look at your soul, Dean Winchester, and was irrevocably changed.” 

“Cas,” Dean sobs out, gripping the back of his neck like a lifeline. Something surges beneath his skin, bigger than bone or blood. 

“You’re so good,” Cas whispers. 

“Jesus,” Dean gasps, “ Cas .”

Dean comes like that, Cas’s name held in his mouth. 

He’s kissing Cas again before he can even catch his breath, hungry though he’s just been sated, mouth moving lazily as Cas tightens his grip on Dean’s wrist and grinds messily down against him. “C’mon,” Dean murmurs, mouth sticking slick to Cas’s as they both pant. “C’mon, baby, come on me, Cas.”

Cas shudders against Dean. With one last roll of his hips, with a moan stifled against Dean’s skin, Cas does. 

After, Cas cleans them up with a flick of his wrist and a tinge of grace that ghosts sunbeam-warm over Dean’s bare skin. He rolls off of Dean but pulls him close, and Dean tugs the blankets up over both of them, chest so full as Cas wraps his arms around him and kisses him gently that he thinks he might cleave in two. 

They stay like that, trading sleepy touches in the blue light of the television screen. It feels so good. So unbelievably good that Dean almost wants to thank him. 

“Thank you,” whispers Cas, quiet across the pillow. Dean has to bury his face in Cas’s neck. Dean has to hold on. 

“Don’t have to thank me,” Dean says. “I—I—s’not like it was a chore, Cas.”

Cas laughs his low quiet laugh, vibrating pleasantly against Dean’s skin. “All the same,” he murmurs. “I am grateful.”

Amen to that. 

Dean falls asleep with Cas’s arms around him. With the beat of Cas’s heart beneath his ear. 

Chapter Text

There is a boy standing in front of Dean, and he wears Cas’s face. 

“Sam wanted me to tell you that there’s dinner in the kitchen, and to please come eat it this time,” the boy says. He stands in the door frame with his hands empty and open at his sides in a way that reminds Dean of Cas, and in the shadowed golden light emitting from the lamp beside Dean, his eyes hold something that Dean can’t name. 

Dean doesn’t recognize the room he’s in. It stands tall around him, walls covered in shelves of books that look like the dusty things Bobby’s got laying around at his place. He sits at a table, three or four of those books lying open around him. The chair is uncomfortable: puts pain at the base of his spine, his hip, his knee where it rests gingerly extended beneath the tabletop.

Dean is… he is weary. Bone-deep and ancient. 

The boy in the doorway moves, calling Dean’s attention back up to him. It’s hard to focus on anything, the edges of every sensation around him slightly numb—all but this hollow ache inside the cradle of his rib cage. This wailing sorrow that he’s actively swallowing down. 

“It’s working, Dean,” the boy tells him, and he’s gotten closer now and Dean didn’t notice, and… and it’s a matching sorrow in his eyes, Dean sees. Brimful and heart wrenching. “I—I promise. I can feel him. We’ll get him back.”

Dean looks at him. At his downturned mouth and his blue eyes, at the softness of his hair where it falls across his forehead. At his slim shoulders, bowed with the burden of this pain they share between them. 

Dean looks at him and sees Cas. Dean looks at him and sees Sammy. 

He doesn’t know this boy. He doesn’t—he doesn’t think—

Dean wants to comfort him. 

He lifts his hand, watches the boy’s hands twist restlessly in the hem of his t-shirt, and says, quiet, “Jack.”

There’s a heartbeat in this room, and it presses down on them both. It gets loud like yelling in Dean’s ears. He can taste it on his tongue. 

Jack’s face crumples when Dean takes his hand in both of his. 

“I’m trying,” Jack whispers. 

There is something inside of Dean that sobs long and low and lonely, like wind through an abandoned house. 

“Me too,” he says. 

 

*

 

Dean wakes up with his heart beating too fast, with his breath twisting harshly out of his lungs. 

He’s in a bed. He’s… warm, all over, but especially all along his back, and—

Cas is breathing slowly at the nape of Dean’s neck. Peacefully. His arm is heavy around Dean’s waist, one big hand tucked up along the softness of Dean’s belly. He’s got a leg wound up between two of Dean’s, and his other arm nestled beneath Dean’s head so that his cheek rests on Cas’s bicep, so that he can see the loose curl of his fingers on the pillow beyond his face, the fleshy dip of his palm, the ridge of his knuckles, all lax with sleep. He’s holding Dean.

It feels good to wake up held by someone. 

It feels good to wake up held by Cas.

Doesn’t offset the panic that’s rocketing through him right now, though, kicking at him and pushing away what’s left of how drowsy and good and languid sleeping in Cas’s arms makes him feel. 

It’s the dream weighing on him—though he doesn’t truly believe they’re dreams anymore, and they surely aren’t memories; it’s like he’s really living them, swapped out with some other Dean he hasn’t gotten to be yet—but it’s everything that happened yesterday, too. Losing all those kids, letting ‘em die. John, and what he’d done, and the horrible guilty relief Dean had felt at seeing him there on the floor. 

Cas. And kissing him, and being kissed by him. And, and, and. 

Dean’s eyes are still pressed tightly closed, but he must have stirred when he awoke. Cas makes a snuffling sort of wakeful noise behind him now, the air of his voice stirring the hairs at the base of Dean’s skull, and tugs Dean closer to him, nuzzling at his skin. 

“Dean,” Cas rumbles, rubbing his cheek along the top of Dean’s spine like a cat seeking affection. He sounds blissful, he sounds. He sounds delighted by Dean. Dean wants to shrink into the heat of him. “Good morning.”

The sound just falls out of Dean, unbidden, unwanted. Small and high and shameful, a needy little thing that he wants to shove back inside himself with a fist as soon as it escapes. 

But Cas doesn’t seem to think he should. Cas caresses Dean’s flesh where he touches him beneath the blankets, palm skimming from Dean’s bellybutton to his hip to his sternum to the wing of his ribs; he pulls his other arm free until he can prop himself up with it, and then he leans down and burrows a lingering kiss into the pink flush of Dean’s cheekbone. 

Instinct. That’s what’s got Dean turning his face up as Cas lifts back to breathe, and that’s what’s got him meeting Cas’s mouth with his. That, and this sweet-edged desire inside him that makes him sing. 

Cas hums, low and a little rough, and melts into it. He licks past the seam of Dean’s sleep-soft lips and Dean lets him in, cupping the pointed slope of Cas’s jaw in his hand even as his heart continues to thud. 

He wants to shift back and press himself between Cas’s thighs. 

Cas retreats to let Dean sip of the air between them, but he doesn’t shift away at all: stays right there against Dean’s skin like the living thing he is, sturdy gentle heat within Dean’s reach, and looks at him. 

Thoughts clamor at Dean’s mind, too many to untangle, to sort through. There are more important things lined up in the wrong order; what comes out, rough with tiredness and kissing and doing a piss-poor job at being casual is, “I thought angels don’t sleep.”

Cas rolls his eyes. The gesture manages to be fond despite the mild exasperation, and Dean thinks—Dean thinks that maybe it’s just Cas. Maybe it’s just how he looks at Dean, every Dean, regardless of what they’ve done to him. What they’ve had him do. 

“Angels don’t usually access their trueform after years of being unable to do to a finite amount of grace,” Cas says. He’s using a bitchy little tone, but he’s still touching Dean, running that palm in wide gentle swaths, leaving tingles in its wake. “Forgive me for requiring rest.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Dean says. Somehow his hand has found its way to the back of Cas’s head, fingers wound up in his dark hair. He runs his thumb along the pink arch of Cas’s ear, and Cas’s eyelids flutter briefly closed. Voice smaller, Dean asks, “You’re ok, right?”

Cas turns his head. Kisses the center of Dean’s palm. 

“Yes, Dean,” Cas murmurs. “I’m ok.”

Dean swallows hard, throat thick with something as yet unnamed. “You still got bags beneath your eyes.”

Cas tilts into Dean’s touch and Dean obliges him: he touches the corner of Cas’s eye where laugh lines have gathered as if he can take that shape up within his own skin and keep it forever. 

“I always look like that,” Cas says. He bends forward and kisses Dean’s forehead, so unexpectedly tender that Dean’s eyes immediately spring hot. He has to close them. “We’re alright, Dean. We are.”

Dean nods. Doesn’t look up. 

They’re still for a moment, wrapped up in each other and in the blankets, touching with tentative exploratory touches like they hadn’t made each other come last night on these same damn sheets. Like Cas don’t turn Dean on more than any woman he’s ever tried desperately to be into. 

And that’s part of the reason Dean still can’t quite get a full breath in this morning, isn’t it? Dean wants him because he’s Cas —but Dean wants him because he’s a him, too. 

He’s probably holding onto Cas too tightly, but he can’t let go. “You’re, uh. You’re the first guy I’ve kissed since I was sixteen,” he blurts. “First guy I’ve ever been with.”

If Cas is discomfited by the non sequitur, well, Dean don’t fuckin’ know because he’s not about to open his eyes now. Not after saying that stupid shit. Not after opening his big damn mouth and letting all that out like letting all the infection out of a wound, that seeping aching pain that he shoulda just let live inside him until it ate him alive. 

“Do you know that already?” Dean asks him before Cas can get an answer in. He’s suddenly grippingly afraid that this is a part of himself that’s gotten revealed before he was ready, before he allowed it to, and it makes his chest tight. “Have I told you that before?”

“No,” Cas says quietly. There is something all caught up behind his voice, like hesitancy or caution, and Dean bristles at it even as he’s grateful. Relieved. “It’s not something we’ve ever discussed.”

Dean nods. Nods again. Now that Cas has told him that, he’s not sure if it’s worse. That Cas, someone he seems to know so well in the future, someone who he seems to care about so deeply, still doesn’t know this part of him. 

Sometimes Dean thinks he doesn’t even know this part of himself. 

It’s so—it’s so damn easy for everybody else. Sammy. John. Men who can look in the mirror and see everything they are right there on the surface, good and normal or even angry and broken and obsessed. They are what people expect of them. They have nothing beneath their skin that the whole world frowns at; that the whole world would hate them for. 

It ain’t about the whole world right now, though. It’s just about Dean. 

“You’ve slept with men since I’ve known you,” Cas says in his usual blunt way, and keeps touching Dean like he’s afraid to press in too hard. Dean wonders if this is something they’ve fought about. If this is a secret only in the frailest sense of the word. Dean thinks that if Cas stops touching him, he’ll lose it. “Not that we’ve addressed it. There were times that you simply… didn’t hide it.”

And there it is: that hesitancy again. That thing beneath Castiel’s eyes that’s thin as tissue paper, that Dean at once yearns for and is terrified to rip away. 

Dean digs his blunt fingers into the meat of Cas’s shoulder, searching for a grip that’s offered to him without pause. 

“With you?” he asks. His throat’s so dry. “Have I—have we…”

He’s grown to hate the sorrow that Cas wears so well. 

“No,” Cas murmurs again. 

It should surprise Dean—he wants it to surprise him so badly, to believe he has, just once, asked for something that he wants—but it doesn’t. He’s a coward. He puts on a brave face, but killing monsters is easy when your other option is telling somebody how you feel. 

Dean holds the curve of Cas’s jaw like the precious thing he is. “I love you though,” he rasps. “Don’t I?”

Cas’s eyes have grown wet as he gazes down at Dean. He smiles, small and tremulous and sad, and it breaks Dean’s goddamn heart. 

“I think so, Dean. You’ve never said so out loud, but you… you don’t have to.”

It’s a damn shame that he’s never said so to Cas, because the guy deserves to hear it as often as he wants. Every day, if it’ll make him smile like that. 

“Can I tell you something?” Dean says, and his voice only shakes a little. “I’m a damn coward, but I think that guy you had to leave back there in the future is going crazy without you. I think—I think every time you leave him it tears him up inside but he can’t tell you, ‘cuz telling you would make it real. Cas, I think he loves you so goddamn much he’s stupid with it.”

Cas tucks his face down into the hollow of Dean’s throat, hand going tight on his waist. Dean feels him breathe there. Just feels him breathe. 

“I love you too,” Cas says, and then he laughs wetly against Dean’s pulse, and Dean smiles even though he hurts inside. He’s gonna lose Cas soon—and he’s gonna lose him again in the future—but god, it’s good just to have him now. “I love you so much, Dean.”

Dean kisses the top of his head. It’s messy with sleep, and with Cas’s natural state of being, and Dean wants to eat him whole. 

There must be so much love in this man. To love a Dean he’s known so long, and a Dean he’s only just met. 

“I know I’m not your Dean—”

“You are,” Cas cuts in swiftly. He lifts his head, and his eyes are red, irises standing out shock-blue. “You are my Dean. Always.”

And what the hell can Dean say to that?

He kisses him. 

There’s as much emotion behind it as there was last night, but it’s different now. Dean’s not burying himself in Cas for protection, for sanctuary; he holds onto him because he wants to, and because Cas wants him to, and because that inextricable pull between them that Dean’s been conscious of since the moment they met has tugged taught as a rubber band, looping them together.  

Cas nips at Dean’s bottom lip, hands roaming, breath ragged. He’s enthusiastic and thorough, cataloging every inch of Dean like there’s no other creature on this earth he’d rather study: when Dean lets out a high, breathy sound at the heat of Cas’s wet mouth on the soft pocket beneath his jaw, Cas doubles down and repeats the movement again, again, again, so devoted to Dean’s pleasure that Dean almost wants to shrink from the focus. 

Almost. The rest of him fuckin’ glows golden, tilting faceward into his touch like a flower tilts toward the sun.

Dean is hard beneath the blankets—has been since he woke up and felt Cas breathing there at the back of his neck—and when Cas shifts so he’s more fully straddling Dean’s hips, Dean feels that he is, too. 

Something ignites itself way down in Dean’s bones at the slow, deliberate roll of Cas’s erection against his.

“Cas,” Dean says breathlessly, and paws at his cheek, “Cas, c’mere.”

Cas’s eyes are half-lidded when he lifts his head to look at Dean, sleepy and smoky and mile-deep. His mouth is kiss-swollen, flushed—Dean wonders what he looks like. If his skin is pink and raw, rubbed that way by Cas’s stubble, by his lovely, insistent mouth. 

“Are you alright?” Cas asks heavily. 

He’s so kind to Dean, so perfect, always making sure Dean’s ok and that Dean feels good and that Dean’s needs are met. Well it’s Dean’s turn now. It’s Dean’s turn to take care of him. Dean’s turn to make him feel so good that he smiles that too-rare blinding smile. 

“Cas,” Dean husks again, a hand on his chest to nudge him back to sitting. “Let me suck you off.”

Cas goes a little dopey-looking at that. Dean smiles. 

They never redressed last night, so all they have to do now is scramble around in the pale gray morning light and situate themselves until Cas is leaning back against the headboard, Dean kneeling between his legs. They laugh a little when Dean thwacks his elbow against Cas’s knee on accident; Dean goes head-rush breathless stupid for the tenderness behind Cas’s grin. 

Dean clears his throat, steadying himself with a purposefully light grip on Cas’s big thighs. 

“I’ve never done this before,” he says. He knows he’s blushing from the roots of his hair to the top of his stomach, freckles standing out dark against embarrassed skin, but strangely—strangely he can’t quite bring himself to care. He’s never been in love before, either. Next to that, it’s all just small stuff. “So, uh. Yeah. Just so you know.”

“You don’t have to, Dean,” Cas says, trailing his fingertips down the splotches of color on Dean’s chest. Slow and steady, like connecting constellations. 

“I want to,” Dean says, surprising himself with the fierceness of his voice. He bends forward suddenly and kisses the side of Cas’s knee, all that warm skin, only feeling halfway stupid for it. “I want to take care of you.”

Cas’s breath is unsteady in his chest, a fledgling. Low, he says, “Dean.”

“Let me,” Dean whispers. “Let me make you feel good.”

He watches Cas close his eyes for a moment as the words seem to wash over him. Watches a tight swallow travel down the line of his throat. Watches him nod. 

Dean lowers himself down, and takes Cas’s cock into his mouth. 

It is awkward, right off the bat, and slightly clumsy. Dean is too eager and much too full of himself, tries too hard to take too much of Cas into his throat at once and has to pull back. He feels like shit at first—he wants this to be good for Cas so badly, he wants, he wants to be good for Cas—but Cas makes a soft, gut-punch noise of pleasure at the flex of Dean’s throat around him even though Dean gags a little, a hand going to rest cupped over Dean’s temple, and the knot of tension in Dean’s shoulder blades relaxes. 

He knows Cas doesn’t mind. Cas doesn’t mind that Dean can’t take him all the way in one smooth motion, or that he can’t fuck in hard until he hits the back of Dean’s throat, or that Dean wraps loose fist around the base of Cas’s cock and jacks him with more hunger than skill. 

Cas likes it. That hand on Dean’s head tightens, fingers winding through Dean’s hair. 

After a moment of adjustment, Dean sinks into the movement. He loves the weight of Cas on his tongue. The place where his tip presses into Dean’s cheek, and the salt-musk taste of him, and the little sounds he makes when Dean laps at the vein running along the underside of his cock or slides his hand back to roll Cas’s balls in his hands. 

“Dean,” Cas says, breathless. He tugs at Dean’s hair, like a reflex—and something bright gold shivers its way from Dean’s scalp all the way down his spine, turns him light and boneless. “Oh, Dean.

Dean hums contentedly around Cas. His jaw hurts some from holding it open this long, spit runs down his chin from the corners of his mouth and it’s sloppy and too wet, his muscles shake with the tension of keeping this position, with the chill of the room around him, with that need inside of him to make this perfect—but Dean doesn’t care. He can tell Cas is holding himself back from thrusting right down Dean’s throat, can tell he’s almost panting with pleasure, and that knowledge alone makes Dean glow. 

“Look at you,” Cas whispers unsteadily. He said something like that last night, too. Like Dean is wondrous. Like Dean is a marvel. There is so much gentleness in the thrum of Cas’s voice that Dean could die from it. “You are so good, Dean. So good, perfect—and mine.” 

He tugs on Dean’s hair again as he says it, and Dean can’t help the mewl that brings forth. He doesn't want Cas to hold back anymore. He wants Cas to drive into him with everything he has, to take his pleasure from Dean until he’s satisfied. 

“You like that, don’t you?” Cas asks him. His voice is a rough throb—and Christ, he’s got a mouth on him. Dean is nothing but the inferno inside himself. “When I call you mine?”

It’s a rhetorical question if Dean’s ever heard one, because the answer’s fucking obvious. He’s hard between his own thighs, rutting desperately and without much concentration against the rucked-up sheets between him, arousal mounting in his belly with every word Cas says. 

Cas is the one getting his dick sucked, but Dean’s the one falling apart. 

Dean drifts away on the rhythm of it. Feels himself relax even further after an amount of time that passes him by like a lazy current, somehow able to take more of Cas’s length down his throat between one shudder and the next. Cas is murmuring to him, fervid things between the ragged tatter-panting of his breath, but his voice is shapeless, wordless: all that falls upon Dean’s ears is that thunderstorm voice, the rolling building aching love in it, the evidence that Dean is doing what he is supposed to, Dean is taking care of him, Dean is making him feel good. That Dean is good. 

When Cas tugs Dean off of his cock with a firm, guiding hand, Dean moans. 

“I know,” Cas whispers to him, low and jagged. “I know, Dean, just, I was going to come and I don’t want to yet. Not yet.”

Dean feels limp, drunk on the conflagration of desire stoked just to the left of his sternum. He’s putty in Cas’s hands. He licks the taste of Cas off his lips. 

“Shit,” Cas swears, so fervent and filthy in its rarity that it sends a bolt of flame through Dean’s core. His eyes are all pupil now, sweat beaded along his sooty hairline, and his hands shake when he reaches out to tug Dean up to him so he can kiss any last bit of control Dean withheld right the fuck out of him. 

“You are so,” Cas murmurs, but the rest of it gets stuck. He pulls Dean’s thigh up and over his hips, situates him so that Dean’s face is in the crook of Cas’s neck and Cas can grasp desperately at Dean’s waist. Dean licks the salt-taste from the line of Cas’s neck, blood rollicking in his ears so loudly that he can barely hear Cas’s answering gasp. “Dean,” Cas whispers, a prayer, a plea, and then, “ Dean,” and wraps his big hand around both of them between their stomachs. 

“Love you, Cas,” Dean slurs. He’s glad it isn’t the first time. The words pour out of him, secret themselves into the warmth of Cas’s skin. He couldn’t stop them if he wanted to. 

Cas’s hand speeds up, breath rising with it. 

Dean grips Cas’s hand beneath his own, not really helping, but not willing to let go either. He just needs to be touching Cas. Needs to be as close to him as physically possible, and then closer still, wants to climb into his chest and stay there pressed up to his spinal cord and live off the marrow between his bones. 

He isn’t sure who comes first. Just that they’re shaking in each other’s arms now, gasping into each other’s skin. 

Sweat and heat and touch. 

 

*

 

After, Cas bundles Dean toward the shower, shaky legs and all. 

“Could just mojo us clean again,” Dean mumbles, leaning against Cas as he tests the temperature of the water with the underside of his wrist. Dean used to do that same thing with Sammy’s bottle: a drop of milk to his skin, waiting to see if it would leave a red mark or wipe away like it was never there. 

Cas seems satisfied with the heat level because he nods to himself absently, pulling the curtain back and helping Dean inside. “Yes,” he says. He turns so that Dean is under the spray, hands on his waist. “But I’d like to wash you. Is that alright?”

Dean hadn’t really minded, had just been pointing something out mostly because his brain to mouth filter is shit after a good orgasm, but now it suddenly feels like the nicest thing anybody has ever wanted to do for him. He blinks fast and heavy, forcing back the feeling that’s taking advantage of his weak defenses. He nods. 

Cas smiles like it’s Dean doing him a favor. 

“Thank you,” Cas says quietly. He strokes away the strands of Dean’s hair already beginning to stick to his temples beneath the water, gentle and slow. 

“There you go, thanking me for things that I don’t even hafta work for,” Dean says. His heart beats in his throat. He watches Cas flick the cap of one of the mini shampoo bottles this place came stocked with, watches him squirt a dollop into his palm. Watches Cas watch him back. “Gonna give a guy a complex, Cas.”

Cas reaches up and begins to massage the shampoo through Dean’s hair, fingertips working little soothing circles into Dean’s scalp. Dean has to reach out and grip Cas’s hips; has to hold onto him so his knees don’t turn to liquid and send him toppling to the slippery floor. 

“You do have to work for it,” Cas says. He is cupping the back of Dean’s skull, right at the place where tender flesh meets the top of his spine. Right at the place where Dean has been taught to aim a killing blow. “You have to work to let yourself accept my care.”

Dean can feel how hot his face is, and it ain’t ‘cuz of the shower steam. He palms Cas’s wet-warm hip again, looking at Cas’s winged collar bones because he can’t quite manage to look him in the eye after that. 

“What can I say,” Dean says, trying on a grin. “I’m a masochist.” 

“No,” murmurs Cas. “I don’t think you are. I think you want somebody to be kind to you so badly that you punish yourself for it.”

It’s quiet between them now. Just the beat of water pressure against the shower’s tile walls, and the fuzzy scrub of Cas’s fingertips through Dean’s hair. 

Dean swallows tight. 

“Just relax, Dean,” Cas whispers to him, and drags his thumb beneath the hard crook of Dean’s jaw, working out tension he didn’t even realize he was holding. Dean droops into him, instinctual and subconscious, and Cas is right: he does have to work to let himself stay there. “Please just let me do this.”

There is water collected in droplets along the fan of Cas’s eyelashes, and there’s something like yearning in the shape of his mouth. He misses his other Dean. This Dean can tell. 

“Ok, sweetheart,” Dean husks, and doesn’t miss the softening of Cas’s brow. He tucks a kiss into Cas’s wrist as it passes him by. “Alright.”

And Dean shouldn’t be tired—he slept a good three hours last night—but he gets so sleepy here in the warm steam, lulled by Cas’s touch, that he finds himself nodding off as Cas works his hands through Dean’s hair. It’s overwhelming to be touched like this, in the way that suddenly being presented with a three course meal after months of starving overwhelms: it’s dizzying. So fulfilling that even while Dean is glutting himself on the feel of Cas’s touch, he’s dreading the day that it’ll be taken away from him again. 

“It’s ok,” Cas tells him, so close, so quiet that it’s barely a breath. He kisses one of Dean’s closed eyelids and then the other. His mouth is shower-wet. Velvet-soft. “It’s ok, Dean.”

It isn’t. But Dean can’t do anything to change that.

 

*

 

“Who’s Jack?”

They’re in the Impala, I-44 whipping by them with flat gray sameness, and Dean can’t stop staring at Cas’s hand. 

It sits in a careful curve along Cas’s thigh, half-open and waiting. Dean has wanted to reach across and take it in his own since they piled into Baby an hour and a half ago, but something that feels very much like a bottle smashed against the side of his face has been stopping him. 

So he’s just looking. So he’s just hoping that Cas will realize, and take initiative. 

So he’s distracting himself. 

It seems to work, because Cas looks up at him with sky-blue eyes as wide as fists. “Jack?” he repeats. There’s a drive to his voice, a sharpness that Dean’s only rarely heard, a pointed tip of sorrow that makes Dean think of how like Cas’s eyes Jack’s own had looked, wet with unshed tears. Slowly, awareness begins to trip its way down Dean’s spine. “Why? Did you dream of him?”

“Dreamed of him, remembered him… saw him somehow, yeah.” Dean shifts his hands on the steering wheel, an itch in his palms. He can’t tell by the way Cas is looking at him whether this is good or bad, and it's making him brace for… something. Rejection, maybe, or anger. “Same way I’ve been seeing things since, uh. Since you got here.”

“What did he say to you?” Cas demands. 

Cas is staring at Dean like he can find answers written beneath his skin. 

“Said that it was working, whatever it is. And that he could feel someone, and I know this don’t make sense, but I just knew that someone was you.” Dean thinks of the way Jack had crossed to him. That slump in his shoulders. “He seemed real sad, Cas. I didn’t know who he was at first, just knew I was supposed to… to comfort him, like it was my job to, the way I feel about Sammy. So I reached out and took his hand. And then it was like earlier, when I knew he was talking about you: I knew he was Jack. And I knew I cared about him.” Dean didn’t realize he was tearing up, but the road blurs in front of him now, bleeding out like a watercolor painting. “He started to cry, Cas. Told me that he was trying. I think he—he really misses you.”

Cas’s hand is gripping his thigh now, no longer open and facing Dean. “What did you say to him?” he asks quietly. 

Dean breathes in deep, lets it out slow. Slips Cas half a smile. “I said ‘me too.’”

One mile marker passes by them before Cas speaks again, and then another. 

“I can feel him, too,” he says quietly. “I dismissed it as too hopeful at first—I can’t tell you what led me here, but it was an inevitability, and seemingly an irreversible one at that—but the longer I’m here, the stronger that feeling gets, and with the strengthening of my grace as well… I can’t help but think that perhaps it isn’t entirely foolish of me to think you’re all doing your best to reach me.”

Dean knows they are. Knows it like he knows his own name. 

“Can you tell me who Jack is?” he asks. 

He can see that familiar hesitation in Cas’s eyes, that reluctance to tell Dean anything of their future together, and it stings like it does every time. He knows Cas is just doing it out of an urge to protect him, but it’s an urge Dean doesn’t understand: Dean is Dean, in any timeline, and he can take care of himself. 

“Please, Cas,” he asks. He pushes past that tangle of shame and fear and grips Cas’s hand, holding it tight. He already feels better. “You’re gonna have to wipe me anyway, man, you’ve said so yourself. Please.”

Cas sighs, and it doesn’t mean anything. He’s holding Dean’s hand too gently for it to mean anything. 

“Jack is our son,” Cas says finally.

Dean goes hot all over, and then cold, and only because he’s been driving since he was eleven does he not send them careening into the median. Still, he has to try three times before he can get his mouth to work. “He’s our what?”

Cas smiles at Dean faintly. “Our son. Mine and yours and Sam’s. He’s a nephilim. Not biologically any of ours, but that doesn’t matter. He’s three years old, and he’s ours.”

There is so much to unpack in that statement and Dean feels all of it, battering against his brain like a bull. Their son. Jesus Christ. What the hell. Future Dean can’t tell Cas he loves him but they’re co-parenting a kid? A nephilim kid? With Sam?

He latches onto about the only thing he can wrap his head around right now. “Three?” he says weakly. “But he’s—he looked… old. Older than that. Just a little younger than Sammy is now, maybe.”

“Well, yes,” Cas says, and then he shrugs. “Jack was forced to age much more quickly than the average child. In the physical sense, at least.”

Dean nods, because there’s nothing else he can possibly do to help himself process this information. Cas is stroking a comforting thumb over Dean’s knuckles, so Dean focuses on that. Lets the touch ground him a little.

He’s got a kid. Sammy is all grown up and apparently likes Dean enough again to be a dad to this kid, too, and Dean loves an angel and he loves Dean back, and the three of them are raising a speed-grown magic kid together. 

They’re a family. Dean has a family. 

That family wants Cas back. And Dean can’t even blame them. 

“I was sitting in a library,” Dean tells Cas. “There were books open all around me, and my spine hurt, like I’d been sitting there for a really long time.” He feels Cas’s eyes on the side of his face. That gaze like a touch. Dean thinks he’ll miss it when it’s gone, even if he can’t remember what it is he’s missing. Knows he will. “We’re trying to get you back, Cas. Of course we are.”

Cas doesn’t let go.

 

*

 

There’s nobody in the gas station when Dean runs in to buy snacks, and he doesn’t hear anyone enter behind him, which is why he notices the two men standing at the end of the aisle when he turns around. 

Dean doesn’t hesitate. He drops his beef jerky and pulls his gun, cocking the trigger and aiming at the man in front with one swift, steady movement. 

“Who the fuck are you?” Dean snarls. His heartbeat tastes like metal. 

As quickly as Dean draws his gun, the man in front does too. “You know who we are,” he says. He looks back at Dean with his own green eyes, lined with age and sharp with wild grief, but identical. Unmistakable. His voice is low like a punch. “Now where’s my angel?”

Chapter Text

The cashier is making high pained noises behind the counter, sharp and wordless like a dog caught in a trap. 

It happens quickly. One moment Dean is staring down the barrel of a pistol held in another pair of hands that look just like his; the next, that same pistol is being turned and tilted and slammed tenderly into the cashier’s temple, and he drops to the ground. 

Dean can hear his own breath in his ears. Harsh and ragged. 

“Tell me something only we’d know,” Dean says. The second man is standing perfectly still where he’s been the whole time, and Dean wants desperately to look at him, Dean wants desperately for him to be real—but he refuses to glance away from this other version of himself. 

Dean doesn’t like the way he looks. Other Dean. Dean doesn’t like the caustic laugh he gives at that order, or the way he wields his gun like he hates it more than the thing it’s pointed toward. 

“Cherry,” says Other Dean after a minute, and stares at Dean with those tired eyes, lit with a sort of determination that seems to be the only thing keeping him on two feet. “Eighteenth birthday. Lipstick. You’ve never told anybody.”

His voice scrapes out of him like it’s being forced. He sounds like he hasn’t spoken in weeks. 

“Lower your gun first,” Dean says finally, his own voice coming out forced-deep too, simply on instinct. He’s trying to sound tough, he thinks; though Other Dean is the same height as him, but Dean can’t help but feel tiny in his presence. Something insignificant standing in the way of his goal. “And then I’ll think about cooperating.”

A muscle ticks in Other Dean’s jaw. “Tell me where the angel is,” he growls, “and I’ll think about lowering my gun.”

The second man finally speaks. “Dean.”

They both look at him. Dean’s eyes flood with tears immediately, and he hates it, and there’s not a thing he can do to make it stop. 

Sam. It’s Sammy. 

He looks the same as he had in Dean’s dream weeks ago, which is to say so different from the kid Dean watched walk away last year that he almost can’t breathe through it. He’s a fuckin’ giant still, towering a head and shoulders over both Deans, but where Dean’s Sam is still nothing but a slim-shouldered kid, this guy is broad. Strong-looking. Stands with his shoulders relaxed and curled a little inwards like he’s tipping down to hear everybody else, and his hands casually in his pockets like Dean’s Sam does, and his chin tilted down. His hair is longer than Dean’s ever seen it. His eyes are kind. 

Dean doesn’t realize he’s lowered his gun until Other Dean lowers his own.

“Sammy?” Dean breathes. Jesus, he sounds like a fucking kid, but—but god. God, it’s good to see him. “You—are you ok?”

“Yeah.” Sam smiles at him so softly. It goes through Dean like a blade. “I’m ok, Dean.”

He’s not used to anything but pushback when he asks that question; not used to Sam letting Dean look out for him without yelling that he can take care of himself, or telling Dean that he’s not a baby, that he’s his own man, that he doesn’t need Dean breathing down the back of his neck like he thinks he’s Dad. 

And Dean never needed any of that shit—he didn’t take care of Sammy because he wanted thanked for it, he took care of him because he’s his brother and he loves him and their goddamn father was never gonna do it—but something about Sam acting like Dean wanting him to be alright isn’t the worst thing in the world is just riding that edge of too much to take in. 

Dean doesn’t let himself think about it. He steps forward and throws his arms around Sam’s shoulders, tugging him down close like he’s still that little kid Dean got to watch out for. 

Sam hugs him back immediately. This, too, is a shock: the Winchesters ain’t huggers unless somebody’s on death’s door, and even then they try to avoid it. 

But Sam sinks into Dean like he wants to be there, like he wants his big brother to just hold him for a sec. 

Dean blinks hard and fast, forcing his tears back. He cuffs Sam on the back of the head, soft, and then just leaves his palm there. 

“Shit,” Dean says shakily. “ Shit I miss you.”

He can see Other Dean over Sam’s shoulder. He can see the stutter of his eyelids when he blinks, and the flex of his throat when he swallows. He can see the hollows beneath his cheekbones. That shadows beneath his eyes. 

“I’m at school, right?” Sam asks him as he draws back. Dean’s hand falls to the nape of his neck, and he gives it one last bracing squeeze before he steps away, too. “How long’s it been since we’ve seen each other?”

“‘Bout eight months,” Dean says. He doesn’t tell Sam that he feels each of those months like a wound. “You texted me on my birthday.”

Sam nods. He looks like he’s going to say something, a wrinkle between his brows, but then the front door opens and they all three turn. 

It’s Cas.

“Dean?” he calls, stepping inside and letting the door slam behind him. When he sees the cashier in a heap behind the counter he comes up short, whipping his gaze around the station with a frown. “Where…”

Dean sees the exact moment Cas spots Other Dean. Can read it on his face like a book. 

His face goes pale, and his eyes go wide. He starts to run at the same moment Other Dean does. 

They crash into each other in the middle of the store, knocking into a display of beef jerky and sending its contents rattling to the ground as Cas catches Other Dean up in his arms, as Other Dean sinks into him like he needs him to breathe. Cas has handfuls of Other Dean’s jacket wound up in his fists; Other Dean is curled over himself like his spine is made of something brittle, forcing himself into as small a shape as he can go in order to tuck his face into Cas’s neck and be enveloped by him. 

Other Dean is completely silent, but Dean can see from here the way he shakes. Like he’s falling to pieces where he stands. 

“Dean,” Cas murmurs into Other Dean’s hair, his eyes shut, one hand coming free to run gentle trails up the length of that breakable spine. He says that name the way he always does—like there’s no other word he’d rather house on his tongue—but the fact that it isn’t directed at Dean stings. “Dean—it’s alright. It’s ok.”

It’s all so—Dean doesn’t know what to do, where to look, if it’s wrong to hate the fact that Cas is being so loving with another person when that person is technically Dean. Is he really so stupid that he’s jealous of himself?

Dean watches Cas drop a kiss into the fine hairs of Other Dean’s temple and thinks, yeah. 

“I love you,” Other Dean says finally, muffled into Cas’s neck, and he sounds wrecked: his voice is softer than it had been earlier, but in a way that’s broken down, a way that’s been pummeled and bruised like the skin of a peach. It cracks in the middle. A chasm. “You asshole, you dumb, stupid, self-sacrificing asshole—I love you, too. Of course I do.”

Cas’s smile is tragic. He takes Other Dean’s cheek in his hand, draws his face up from its hidden place. He looks at him for a moment with that long gaze. And then he kisses him. 

Dean thinks of that bar back in South Dakota. Kissing that woman—Candace—and looking up to see Cas watching him do it. 

Other Dean shudders and then sways into him, hands losing their claw-like grip on Cas’s biceps to skate up his shoulders, his neck, to come to rest at the stubbled sharpness of Cas’s jaw. There’s no other word for what he’s doing: he’s cradling Cas. He holds him desperately. 

“You found me,” Cas murmurs, threading his fingers through the hair at the nape of Other Dean’s neck. They’re swaying a little in the center of the gas station, a man bleeding on the floor to the side of them, two other people looking on. Dean gets it. When Cas looks at you, it’s easy to forget anybody else exists. “You really did it.”

Sam steps forward now, and then it’s just Dean hanging back, Dean watching this reunion scene with his heart still lodged in his mouth. 

“It was mostly Jack,” Sam says. When Cas looks at him Sam opens his arms with a smile, and Cas steps into them, hugging Sam with considerably less passion but no less relief than he’d embraced Other Dean with. Other Dean is watching, eyes fixed on Cas like he could fade from existence if Other Dean looks away. “He—well. We can explain it all later.”

“I’d sort of like to know,” Dean says. “Seeing as you all were in my damn head.”

His voice sounds way too loud, blistering the tenderness of the reunion to which he bears witness. They all look at him, like resurfacing from a daze: sharp. They’d forgotten he was even there. 

Dean is still holding his gun. 

“You can put your weapon away, Dean,” Cas tells him, a hand half-stretched his way as if to touch him. As if he could reach around the collapsed shelf, the body, the two men on either side of him, the blood smeared across chipped linoleum. “It’s really them. I can tell.”

Cas’s eyes have caught on his, and they stick, and they stay. Dean wants to cross to him and nestle himself between Cas’s arms like Other Dean had done, a mean, perverse little twist down in the core of him longing to show that Cas is his, that he belongs to the Dean he is right now as much as Dean belongs to him—but something stops him in his tracks. 

It’s joy that lights Cas’s eyes from within like that. It’s unfettered joy with which he’s holding Other Dean’s hand, all gentle-like, fingers folded over Other Dean’s knuckles as if they aren’t scarred and torn and bruised. 

The sorrow that has haunted Cas since he and Dean met is gone. Dean’s never seen him this happy, and he is unbearably beautiful with it. 

Dean knows it’s really Sammy and Other Dean here. His throat is dry. He asks anyway. 

“How d’you know?”

Cas’s whole face softens. This morning, when he’d looked at Dean like that, he’d kissed him. 

He says simply, “Your soul.”

Other Dean’s gaze skips to Cas like a stone across a pond, and where it had been so heavy looking at Dean a few minutes ago, deadened, now it’s… it’s so vulnerable that Dean almost feels like he shouldn’t be allowed to see it. 

And Jesus, Dean thinks, gripping his free hand into a fist. Jesus, do I look at him like that? 

“Our souls still look the same?” Other Dean asks Cas. His voice still sounds like it had when he’d confessed to Cas, all rough and soft and exhausted, edges folding in on themselves. His own hand has a death-grip on Cas’s. “Even after… everything?”

Everything. Dean thinks of what Cas had said: that they meet while Dean’s going through some sort of great pain. Dean wonders if he can somehow get Other Dean to tell him what that means. Dean wonders if he even wants to. 

“Of course,” Cas murmurs. “Dean, you’re still you no matter what time you’re from. You are… ineffable.”

It’s trippy as hell to watch his own face go dusky red like that; to watch his own lids lower in a gesture weirdly bashful for such a hardened man, and watch the half-baked shrug of his shoulders as he tries to slough the compliment off, and watch the way he tilts into Cas anyway, shameless, seeking him like he’s sunlight. “Well that ain’t true,” Other Dean mumbles. 

“Hm,” says Cas. He’s smiling. He can tell Dean’s eating those words up like candy—shit, even Sammy can, if his own grin is anything to go buy. “I believe that I’ll be the judge.”

Dean tucks his gun away. 

Only Sam seems to notice. He nods at Dean, quietly communicated acknowledgement of what that gesture means—’cuz even if he doesn’t get the way Dean’s chest aches when he sees Cas treating someone else like that, he surely gets the lengths Dean has to go to trust anyone. They were both raised—if you can call it that—by the same man. They both have a thick layer of fear mongering built up beneath their skin. 

“Why don’t we go somewhere else to talk about everything?” Sam says. “Jack is gonna bring us back in three hours, because we thought it might take a while to find Cas, so we’ve got some time.” He glances at the cashier on the floor. “I’d hate for this guy to wake up and we’re still here.”

Three hours. That’s all Dean’s got left with him. 

“Of course,” Cas says. He lets go of Other Dean to cross behind the counter; Other Dean’s hand flexes at the loss of Cas’s touch, eyes pinned to him as Cas kneels on the dirty floor, coat pooling behind him, and places two fingers above the man’s wounded forehead. 

It’s different from the way Cas had healed Dean in that motel room after his dream, warm and close and careful with his hands curved over Dean’s skin. He doesn’t touch this man at all: simply concentrates for half a moment, blue eyes flaring brightly as his grace flows into the man’s bleeding skull. 

There is a snap of ozone, bright and clear and intoxicating on Dean’s tongue. The wound clears up instantly. Cas rises, and the glow of his eyes fades. 

“My grace,” he says, looking to Other Dean and Sam. “It’s stronger than it’s been in years.”

“Yeah,” Other Dean says. He’s stepped in close to Cas again so that their shoulders just barely brush, his whole being so obviously drifting toward Cas that Dean would roll his eyes if he didn’t know he does the same damn thing. He’s not sure Other Dean realizes it’s happening. It gives him a strange sort of satisfaction to have something he doesn’t, even if it’s just a bit of embarrassing self-awareness. “Well, we can talk about that too.”

They clean up the gas station as best they can, both Deans righting shelves and picking up scattered product, Sammy propping the still-sleeping cashier up against the wall as comfortably as he can manage, Cas clearing away any lingering bloodstains with a flick of his fingers. 

Dean’s real grateful that this stretch of Oklahoma is as barren as it is: he can’t imagine having to explain this scene to somebody if they happened to wander in. 

As they step out the door Cas touches Dean, fingers grazing the stretch of arm from his elbow to his wrist, and Dean has to stop for a moment. Has to waver there in the doorway, breath gone tight and flighty in his chest. 

Cas is looking at him. Looking, looking, in the way that makes Dean feel shucked bare. 

“Are you alright, Dean?” Cas asks quietly.

Dean says, “Yeah, Cas. Yeah.” And Dean swallows the hunger down.  

 

*

 

There is a moment, standing beneath the wide gray sky, where both Deans reach for Baby’s driver side door. 

Dean arches an eyebrow at his older self, feeling that itch that always springs to his veins when there’s too much going on around him and just needs to hit something to settle himself down. 

“Easy, cowboy,” Dean drawls, and tosses Baby’s keys into the air just to catch them while Other Dean looks on. “Ain’t your car yet.”

“Ain’t your car yet either, kid,” Other Dean snaps. He’s got a look on his face that Dean knows well: a little mean, a little helpless, knowing that he’s gotta say something that cuts to the soft underbelly of his opponent or risk revealing his own. “Still belongs to John, far as I remember.”

Cas, who has been watching this exchange with a frown that Dean can’t quite interpret, goes on ahead and lets his face darken at the mention of John. At the way Dean goes a little stiff hearing his name said so soon after what went down a day ago. 

“You see him anywhere?” Dean asks before Cas can say anything, sweeping an arm out wide to encompass the whole of what stands around them: the cracked pavement lot, the pump Baby’s pulled up against, the fields that roll fallow beyond the station, winter-yellow poking up from beneath dirty snow. It’s just them standing here. Just them and the lonely highway. 

Other Dean doesn’t answer. Sam rolls his eyes at both of them. Cas tucks his hand up against the dip of Other Dean’s lower back and guides him into the back seat, murmuring something that Dean can’t hear. 

“Didn’t think so,” Dean says. He climbs into the front seat, slamming the door behind him. 

For a good long while they ride in silence, thick and steeped in more emotions than Dean can even name. 

Cas has his arm around Other Dean. Other Dean, who is an inch or so taller than Cas but certainly not more broad, is tilting toward Cas like he wants to burrow into him, like he—like he wants to live there, fuse his cells with Cas’s, not have to bother with existing as two separate beings. Dean gets it. Dean gets it. 

He holds the wheel tight, forces his eyes back to the road. 

The thing is… the Dean back there is the Dean up here, just later on. So Dean doesn’t need to feel this hollow ring of abandonment, so it is—it’s stupid of him to, actually, because he gets to have everything Other Dean gets to have eventually. Technically the man experiencing both of these sensations—the euphoria of even Cas’s simplest touch, and something that tastes too much like loneliness—is the same man. Dean is allowed to have this. Dean is allowed to want it, and that want is gonna be fulfilled. 

It’s just that Dean wants it now. He doesn’t want to wait until he’s old. He doesn’t want to forget Cas. 

He pulls off at a Waffle House that sits on the side of the interstate like a gargoyle without being asked, parking in the mostly-empty lot and killing the engine. Nobody objects so he figures this is as good a place to talk about traveling through time as any: a Waffle House at three pm, sat alone on a stretch of highway that’s looked the same for the past thirty miles. 

Dean goes to get out but Sam stops him, a hand on Dean’s forearm. 

“You guys go ahead and get us a table,” Sam says, turning halfway so his arm runs along the length of Baby’s front seat and meeting Cas and Other Dean’s eyes. “We’ll be just a sec.”

Other Dean looks askance, gaze darting quickly between Sam and Dean, but he doesn’t say anything. Just sits still with his jaw too tight, halfway turned toward Cas like he’s been since they got in the car. 

“I will order us all coffees,” Cas says. It’s one of those charming things he says, on the verge of being awkward but so earnest that it can’t quite manage, and it’s on instinct that Dean meets his eyes in the rearview mirror and smiles.

“Thanks, Cas,” he says fondly. 

Cas smiles back at him. His small one, his quiet one, the one that feels like something special tipped gently into the cup of Dean’s outstretched palms. 

Other Dean stiffens slightly in Dean’s peripheral, his mouth a tight pale line. 

Dean and Sam watch the two of them cross the parking lot, the backs of their hands touching, their shoulders brushing with each step. Other Dean holds the door for Cas, and Cas stays close to him as they walk through. 

And then it’s just them. Just Sam and Dean. 

If he was given a thousand tries, Dean doesn’t think he would be able to explain the way looking at this Sammy makes him feel. There is pride coursing through him—pride at the enduring kindness in Sam’s words and in his eyes, pride at the absence of bitter anger that’s fueled Sammy since he was a kid and first learned how bad their lives were, pride at the fact that he’s still living, breathing, existing—but Dean can’t deny a low, dull twist of sadness. 

This must be how parents feel, Dean thinks, when they send their kid away to school. Because the kid might come back, but they aren’t gonna need you anymore. 

“Sammy,” says Dean, cutting in soft before Sam can say anything. There is something else here too, brewing in that swill of emotions coursing through him. A guilt so sour he can taste it. “I’m sorry.”

Sam clearly hadn’t expected that. Dean gets it: Dean’s never been big on apologies. He tries not to wince. 

“I dunno what happens between us,” Dean says. He’s staring at his own hands because he can’t look at Sam while he says this: the points of his knuckles, the lines in his palms. “Cas says I can’t know ‘cuz it’ll mess up our timelines or something, and I’m not gonna fight him on it. I just know that whatever I fuck up to get you back in the life, I’m sorry, and if I could remember any of this after you all go home, I would leave you alone and let you be happy like you always wanted.”

Dean hates the catch in the back of his throat, and the tremble running down his wrists. Dean hates the silence that sits heavy between them after he’s done.

But this older Sam is gentler, too. A little slower, a little more thoughtful. When he reaches out and grips Dean’s shoulder, searching for Dean’s gaze and finding it, Dean almost can’t bear it. 

“Dean, listen to me,” Sam says. “I’m—the Sam you know right now is an angry, angry kid. He’s so blinded by the hate he feels for the life he was forced to live that he’s cutting himself off completely from the only good constant he’s ever had: you.” Sam smiles sadly at him, his eyebrows tugged up in the middle, as Dean tries to take a deep breath. “I don’t hate you now and I never hated you then, no matter what it might feel like. I’m grateful you come find me, even if the circumstances suck—and they do. You raised me, Dean. You’re my big brother and you’re my best friend, and there’s nobody I look up to more than you. Don’t apologize. Not for this.”

Dean hugs Sam again. He’s never hugged him twice in one day, not since they were little kids, but sue him. He’s gotta say goodbye soon anyway.

Sam lets Dean wrap him up in his arms, going easily where Dean tugs him. “Whatever you say, bitch,” Dean mumbles into Sam’s shoulder, voice thick with tears that he refuses to let fall. 

Sam laughs. Dean appreciates that it’s a little teary, too. “Jerk,” he says fondly. 

They stay like that for a while. When Dean pulls back Sam’s eyes are red so Dean laughs loudly, needing to gain back at least a bit of his dignity. 

Sam sighs at him. It doesn't escape Dean’s notice that he’s smiling anyway. 

 

*

 

Inside, Cas and Other Dean are sitting on the same side of the booth, shoulders pressed together. 

They aren’t even speaking, and they don’t have to. Other Dean is sipping his coffee slowly, eyes closed; he’s leaning into Cas, something disarmingly fragile in the way he’s trusting Cas to be there for him, steady and assured. They’re holding hands on the tabletop between them and Cas is staring at Other Dean’s profile like he can’t believe he’s real. 

They’re just existing together. Dean would hate to interrupt them if he wasn’t a jealous bastard. 

He and Sam slide in on the opposite side of the booth, Sam across from Other Dean and Dean across from Cas. Dean dives for his own coffee and takes a long drink, telling himself that it absolutely isn’t the case that he’s avoiding Cas’s gaze. 

Other Dean opens his eyes when he hears them, taking the two of them in with a raised brow. “You guys talk it out?” 

Sam just rolls his eyes. “Sure, Dean,” he says.

Beneath the table, Cas touches Dean’s foot with his. 

Nothing crazy. Just a little nudge, his shoe fitted up alongside Dean’s boot, casual enough that it could be played off as an accident if Dean didn’t jerk his head up to look at Cas immediately and see the barren, measured focus of his gaze turned right Dean’s way. 

He wants to say something. He wants to reach across the table and take Cas’s hands. He wants to go back to this morning when they were curled up in bed together, nothing but the beat of their hearts, the whisper of their breath, the safety of their mutual touch. 

They order—well, Dean and Other Dean do: Cas and Sam stick with coffee—and everybody acts like they don’t see the weird looks both Deans are getting from the waitress. She makes it quick at their table, maybe sensing the weird tension radiating off all of them; she tucks her notepad away and promises to have their food out ASAP, and then she’s gone. 

They’re alone in here, or mostly. There’s a man with a trucker cap slung low over his eyes at the countertop, but that’s it. Still, Dean keeps his voice quiet as he goes to speak.

“Alright,” he says. “Spill.” 

Other Dean glances at Sam. Shrugs, as if to say you first. 

“Right,” Sam says. “Well, like I said it was mostly Jack. Dean, I don’t know if you know who Jack is—”

“I do,” Dean says. Cas’s foot is still touching his. “Cas told me.”

Sam nods. “After you got taken, Cas—and after we defeated Chuck, which we don’t really have time to get into right now—we tried everything we could to get you back. Every ritual we could think of, every spell. Nothing worked. Jack kept trying to sense your grace but either it was too faint to feel, or you were just too far away.”

Cas nods slowly. “I believe that if I had gone where I was supposed to, Jack could have felt me easily. He did the first time, after all.”

“That’s what we figured,” Other Dean says. The hand that Cas isn’t holding plays restlessly with a loose sugar packet, flipping it across his knuckles over and over again; Dean frowns to catch himself fiddling with his jacket cuff the same way. “We thought… um. Thought you were dead at first.” He squeezes Cas’s hand tight, eyes staring someplace none of the rest of them can see. “Almost lost hope.”

Dean is watching Cas stroke his thumb over Other Dean’s knuckles. Soothing over the ridges and valleys of bone.

“Luckily Jack managed to catch a flicker of something that felt like you eventually,” Sam says. “We were all confused when he realized it was in a different fold of time—shit, I still don’t really know how he could tell—but he singled it out anyway. He said he could probably only feel you because you were so different from everything around you. Present day you in the past.” Sam smiles a little, though Dean doesn’t miss the way his glance flicks his direction at these next words. “He got most of Chuck’s powers after… everything. But he’s using them for good this time.”

Dean has no idea who this Chuck guy is and he’s pretty sure nobody’s gonna tell him, but he’s still unreasonably proud of Jack. Even if he doesn’t know him yet. 

Looks like Cas is, too. “I’m sure he is,” Cas says, and smiles. “It’s incredibly impressive that he was able to do what he did.”

“Sure is,” Other Dean says. “Especially when he was able to pick up on me with you, since I don’t got grace.”

Dean thinks of what Cas told him that first night he had healed him, staring at Dean so tenderly across a creaky motel bed: that an angel’s grace is the closest thing to a human’s soul they have. 

Dean doesn’t think they’re so different at all. 

“Cas told me my soul was real loud,” Dean says. “Maybe Jack can hear it too.”

“Probably,” Other Dean says. It’s the first time he’s spoken directly to Dean since the gas station, and while he’s still kinda gruff, he doesn’t seem as angry as he did earlier. 

It’s still too strange to look at him too long. Dean sips his coffee again, even though the action is an obvious excuse. 

“In any case,” Sam says, “Jack started to try… well, a couple of things. He started out with the grace first: sort of funneling it toward Cas across time, hoping that Cas’s grace would pick up on it and merge with it easily. He thought that if Cas got to be powerful enough he could time travel like angels have always been able to, and come home.”

Other Dean has been shaking his head at this last sentence, gaze on Cas as usual. “I knew you wouldn’t do that,” he says quietly. Cas watches him, the shape of his eyes soft. “You’re as big a martyr as I like to pretend to be. Knew you’d never come back to us on your own, because you made a deal, and you believe in holding up your end of a bargain.”

Cas is doing that thing he does where he takes in every inch of a person’s face in small, thorough looks, leaving no part of Other Dean unbeheld. The corner of his mouth lifts, though it’s sad in a way Dean doesn’t have the knowledge to understand. 

“You think too highly of me,” Cas says quietly. “I find that there’s very little I wouldn’t do in order to come back to you.”

Face burning, Dean glances at Sam expecting to see him equally uncomfortable, and doesn’t find what he’s looking for. 

Sam seems almost… revlieved. Seems invested in the relationship between Other Dean and Cas, in a way he’s never been with any of Dean’s relationships before. He wants them to be happy. He wants them to be happy with each other. 

The fact that Dean will eventually get his little brother’s wholehearted support in a relationship he has with another man nearly bowls Dean over. 

He half-misses Sam’s next words, too caught up in the race of his own thoughts. 

“...was also trying to bring Dean to the future at the same time. We couldn’t pinpoint exactly what year you two were in, so Jack couldn’t risk stopping off at each year of Dean’s life just to try and find you guys—who knows what that could’ve messed up. By trying to bring you to our timeline, Dean, Jack thought that you could tell us when in time you’re from, and then we could all travel back to your year and get Cas.”

It’s all so fucking complicated, and Dean’s sure he looks like an idiot sitting here trying to take it all in. Six months ago he didn’t believe angels existed, let alone time travel; now he’s sitting at a table with future versions of his brother and himself and the man he’s in love with getting ready to lose them all again. 

“Why didn’t that work, then?” he asks, nodding his thanks when the waitress delivers his and Other Dean’s food. Dean shouldn’t have ordered anything. His stomach’s got a pit in it, hollow and roiling, and there’s nothing he can do to fill it. 

“You said we were in your head,” Other Dean says. It’s not an answer. Dean notices that he hasn’t picked up his fork, either. “What do you mean by that?”

Dean shifts where he sits, thinking. He hasn’t had to explian this to anybody but Cas, and it was hard enough to put into words then. 

Although if anybody’s gonna understand him, it’s going to be these guys. 

“I kept having… dreams, I’ll call them, ‘cuz they happened when I was asleep.” He hesitates, and then he meets Other Dean’s eyes. “I was you, I think. Like I was experiencing what was happening to you. I was sitting in a cement room for the first couple, and it was cold, and I was—the only time I’ve ever felt somethin’ like that was when Mom died. Like there was a part of me that had been ripped away. Just… gone.” He has to swallow once, and then twice, his throat thick. “I knew it was ‘cuz Cas got taken. Was all I could think about.”

The table has gone quiet around him. Dean can’t look at Cas. Other Dean’s eyes are red, but he nods stiffly. 

“Yeah,” he rasps. “Uh, similar thing happened to me. Except. Except it was like I was you. Like I’d be sitting there in Baby and I’d glance over and Cas was with me, singin’ along to the radio while I drove through a town I haven’t been to in fifteen years. I thought they were dreams at first too, because I knew I’d—I knew there was no fucking way I could forget something like that. Just bein’ happy with him.”

Other Dean doesn’t say it, but Dean can tell: those dreams probably upset him as much as Dean’s did his. While Dean was waking up knowing what it was like to have Cas ripped away, Other Dean was waking up having to remember that that was his actual reality. 

“So we… what, so we switched places?” Dean asks, though even as he’s saying it he doesn’t think it’s true. The dreams were all so brief, and not quite tangible enough to be reality. It was more like they switched memories. Sensations. 

“Maybe,” Sam says doubtfully, frowning that way he does when he can’t quite work something out. “I think Jack would have been able to tell though…”

“I think it was the grace,” Cas says.

Even Sam looks surprised at that. 

“I wasn’t aware while it was happening,” Cas says, tipping his head slightly. He’s thinking. Dean watches the slow flutter of his lashes, the delicate furrow in his brow. “Though now I believe I see the signs. Angels can manipulate dreams, you know. I’ve visited Dean in his before, and shown him things that are both true and simply fabrications. It wouldn’t surprise me if Jack, in trying to send me grace and bring Dean to the future at the same time, got his ‘wires crossed.’ Let some of the grace into Dean, so to speak.” 

Dean’s chest feels tight. “Showed me the truth.”

Cas meets his eyes across the table, as gentle and as unyielding as a summer storm. “Yes,” he says. He shifts his foot against Dean’s, tapping his ankle lightly. Tap. Tap. “Both versions of you.”

It sounds crazy. But it all sounds crazy. 

“We finally found you two when Cas’s grace flared, bigger and brighter than it had been since he got taken. Jack was able to feel it across decades,” Sam says. He looks from Dean to Cas quickly, but Dean can tell he’s putting things together in that big brain of his. “He said to have felt your grace that purely you must’ve been outside of your vessel, Cas.”

“Yes,” Cas says simply. 

A moment of silence, in which Cas doesn’t elaborate. “Ok then,” Other Dean says. 

There’s been a tight knot of fear in Dean’s chest for a while now, and it loosens when Cas doesn’t mention John. He thinks he might shake apart if Cas did. 

“Jack’s bringing us back soon,” says Other Dean to Cas in that low tangle of a voice. “He said he had to bring us back in three hours whether or not we found you, but then we were gonna try again.”

Cas has not let go of his hand this whole time. He still doesn’t. He says, “I know you were.”

 

*

 

Other Dean sets a heavy palm on Dean’s shoulder as they’re heading toward the door. 

Dean looks at him. 

He jerks his head back toward the booth. “A word?”

Sam hasn’t noticed, but from the doorway, Cas meets Dean’s eyes. He nods once, slight, and then he leaves too. 

Dean thinks about saying something shitty, just to get under his older self’s skin—but something stops him. The way they stand eye-to-eye, maybe. The fact that he still looks dead on his feet, even after getting Cas back. 

“Sure man,” Dean says. 

They sit down on opposite sides of the table 

They watch each other for a moment. 

Identical posture and identical eyes and identical frowns. 

But different, too. Other Dean is bulkier than Dean across the shoulders and the chest, and the cut of his jaw is almost gaunt-looking in the yellow light, a combination of his baby fat long gone and the kind of hollowness that Dean well knows comes with grief. He’s got more scars than Dean has. Wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and between his brows. His right leg is stretched out stiffly beneath the table like it was injured a long time ago and never really healed right, and there is tension, there is… there is defensiveness in the way he sits and stands and moves that Dean just doesn’t possess. 

Always on the lookout. Always expecting to be attacked from any corner. 

“You love him,” Other Dean says.  

“Of course I do,” Dean answers, but no sound comes out. 

Other Dean nods again. It’s a softer movement than his earlier gesture, heavy with understanding. His tongue darts across his lips and wets them before he speaks, a nervous habit that Dean recognizes as his own. 

“He loves us, too,” Other Dean says. On his voice these words sound harsher than anything he’s said yet, in a way that sinks itself into the soft meat of Dean’s heart. “He—he—he is the best thing that ever happens to us.”

Dean feels unsteady, shaky inside. He says, “I know.”

Other Dean watches him for a good long while. Dean gives back as good as he gets. 

“Do you know he saves your life?”

“Already has,” Dean says. He thinks of the brilliant beautiful safety of Cas’s trueform. He thinks of Cas healing his ribs. He thinks of Cas showing up one cold night when Dean’s own loneliness had been threatening to eat him alive, not flinching even when Dean pulled a gun on him, looking at Dean like he longed for him even though Dean was standing right there. “So I ain’t surprised.”

Other Dean smiles slightly. It isn’t a smile for Dean. 

“He’s gonna wipe my memory,” Dean says—and his voice does shake now, but he doesn’t bother to hide it. Why should he? This is nothing more than talking to a mirror. “Will you tell me how I meet him?”

Other Dean breathes in. Breathes out. 

“He pulls you outta Hell.”

Dean should be shocked by that, maybe. He can’t quite muster up the feeling. 

“Is it my fault I’m down there?” he asks—and he hates, hates, hates the tears in his eyes. Hates the fear that turns his gut sour. “Do I fuck something up?”

“No,” Other Dean says, so fiercely that it startles Dean. “It isn’t your fault, and you would do it a thousand times again.”

There is another question forcing its way onto Dean’s tongue. He makes it small. 

“Do I do it for John?”

Other Dean closes his eyes for a moment. When he opens them, they’re sad. “No,” he repeats. Lower this time. “He isn’t around to control you anymore by then.”

Dean knows the relief he feels is broadcasted all over his face, and what’s more, he knows it’s shameful. But he can’t stop it. He doesn’t want to stop it.  

“Look,” Other Dean says after a moment. He leans forward across the table, vinyl creaking beneath him, and doesn’t break their gaze. “I know… I know what John’s like. I remember. All that stuff he put on us as kids, and the way he wanted you and I to be a mother and a solider and a gun at the same time… I know what a piece of shit he is. He hurt you growing up right? Kicked you around some? Told you learnin’ to take a beating was part of growing into a real man?”

Dean can only nod, throat gone dry and wordless. If Other Dean were anybody else—maybe even Cas—Dean would fight a little, try to argue that John was making the best he could of a shitty situation, that he is a military man and don’t know any different. 

But this isn’t anybody else. This is his future self, and only he can know so intimately what it’s like be John Winchester’s oldest son. 

“He’s wrong,” Other Dean says flatly. He ducks down to meet Dean’s gaze again when he tries to look away, forcing him to keep eye contact, and Dean breathes through the tightness of his lungs. “Every time he hit you when a hunt went wrong or when Sammy cried too hard, and those names he calls people who are different from him. He’s wrong about all of it.” Other Dean’s eyes are wet. Dean hates that, too. Dean can’t look away from him. “He’ll tell you there’s only one way to be a man, a soldier—that you gotta kill anything that’s different, and sleep with any woman you meet, and never ask for help from nobody—and that fucks you up. I still haven’t worked through that crap. I couldn’t tell Cas I loved him for twelve years with the way that shame John dosed me with ate me up inside. Hell, I was still tryin’ to tell myself I liked sleeping with women for almost that long. 

“I know—I know I ain’t good at speeches, or saying shit that matters,” Other Dean continues quietly. “And I know you might not listen to a word I’m saying, because we’re Dean Winchester, and there’s nobody Dean Winchester has less faith in than himself. But kid, I hope you think about it. Because there’s—there’s more to this sorry world than the blood that poisons you. You got a family that loves you waiting for you here in the future, hard as that is to believe. You got Sammy, and Jack, and… and Cas.” He swallows, tight. When he speaks of his family, of Cas, his tired eyes go soft. “Yeah, you’re loved. And you’re loved ‘cuz of who you really are, not ‘cuz of that person John tried to force you to be. You’re your own man. And you’re… you’re a better man than him. You are.”

Even Other Dean looks almost stunned at the admission. His chest moves too fast beneath his flannel, like he’s just run a mile. 

Dean doesn’t know what to say. 

It’s all almost too much. Everything he’s ever wanted, sure—but still too much. And it isn’t a small part of his brain which tells him he doesn’t deserve it. 

But then he looks at this man before him. His strong hands and the love in his eyes and the weariness he bears upon his shoulders like a yoke. 

Maybe there is a future where Dean deserves goodness. Love. A family who will stick around. 

Maybe that future is closer than he thinks. 

 

*

 

Sammy says to pull over a few miles down the highway, in a field covered in snow half turned to slush. 

They all get out of the car. It feels too small in there, it feels—it feels cooped up. It feels like the air’s so thick Dean’s about to drown. 

Ten minutes until Jack takes them all back. 

Dean leans against Baby’s door with his hands shoved deep in his jacket pockets, hoping it isn’t obvious the way he shakes. Hoping it isn’t obvious the way he stares at Cas, who is standing so close to Other Dean that they must be able to feel each other’s breath. 

He hears Sam’s footfalls crunching the ground next to him. He doesn’t look up. 

Sam is silent for a while. Above them, a hawk cries one long, lonely shriek. 

“I’m sorry we have to leave,” Sam says finally. 

Dean sniffs. The wind is making his eyes sting. “Not your fault, kid.”

“No,” Sam agrees. He brushes Dean’s shoulder with his. “But that doesn’t mean I’m not sorry.”

Eight minutes. 

“Take care of yourself,” Dean says. “Ok Sammy? Please?”

“Always do,” Sam says, and there’s a smile in his voice so Dean looks up at him. His laughter lines, the hair he’s finally grown into, the body that Dean has taken on as his mission to feed and watch out for and make sure gets enough sleep. All these years between them that Dean hasn’t gotten to see. “But in case I drop the ball, I’ve got you for that.”

Dean can’t speak. He punches Sam’s shoulder affectionately, and then he has to walk away. 

His eyes are on his boots so he doesn’t realize he’s walked up next to Cas until he feels him. The incredible sunbeam heat of him, all along Dean’s side. 

They’re standing a foot apart but it doesn’t matter. Dean stares at him, at his eyes as blue as the midwinter sky, and Cas stares back. 

Distantly, Dean takes note of Other Dean moving away. 

“Dean,” Cas whispers. 

Five minutes.

The tension that has existed on the surface of this day since Sam and Other Dean showed up snaps now, folds in like a house of cards. Dean crashes himself into Cas’s arms. 

Cas squeezes Dean so tightly around the ribs that his breath billows out of him, and he clings to Cas’s coat, and he doesn’t care. Cas feels so safe, like a home that Dean’s never known, and he smells like ozone and the inside of the Impala and a thunderstorm—and he holds Dean, holds him tight, with his cheek pressed to Dean’s hair. 

For a long time they say nothing. They hold each other, and then Dean flinches at the echoing roar that opens up behind him, at the feel of a vaccuum pulling them apart. 

“I wanna—fuck, Cas,” Dean whispers into the warm dip of his neck. He’s crying again. God, he just—he just—“I wanna keep you.”

“You have me,” Cas murmurs. “Dean, you have me, for the rest of your life. I will meet you soon, and I will love you, and I’ll be yours at the end.”

Dean knows the right thing to do is to let Cas go. 

But goddamnit—for once in his life, he wishes he could be truly selfish. 

They turn around together.

There’s a portal in the middle of the field, a swirling vortex of yellow-white light that Dean has to lift a hand against. Dean and Sam stand a few paces away, their own eyes squinted against the blaze. 

It’s time. 

“Sammy,” Dean says. His voice is wrecked. “I love you, little brother.”

Sam’s face crumples a little when he smiles, but smile he does. “I love you too, Dean,” he says. 

Other Dean next. 

He stands with his hand raised in Cas’s direction like it’s taking everything within him not to grip Cas and yank him through, and Dean can only respect that. Dean can only be grateful for that. 

“Dean,” he says. He waits for the other man to meet his eyes. He takes a shaking breath. “Thank you for taking care of them.”

Other Dean’s gaze doesn’t waver. “Of course,” he says. 

When Dean turns around, Cas is smiling, even though tears run down his cheeks. He is beautiful like this: here in a field in the sharp winter, his eyes red and his smile brilliant. Dean loves him. Dean loves him. 

“Kiss me again?” he asks, and he sounds so small when he says it. 

Cas steps forward and cups his cheek, and then he echoes Other Dean: “Of course.”

The kiss is a knife-twist, the sweetest softest ache. Dean closes his eyes, and he keeps them closed as Cas moves the kiss to his cheek. 

“I’ll see you soon, my love,” Cas whispers. He touches Dean’s forehead with two fingers. There is darkness. 

 

*

 

There’s a man watching him from across the field. 

The sun—for it must be the sun—is heat-white and brilliant behind him. It burnishes his skin, his hair. For a moment Dean thinks he knows him: something about his shoulders, his eyes… 

The wind blows. Dean blinks. The man is gone.