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Louder Than Ever (Cold War Kids)

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It started on a Thursday, the sound. Jess told him it was probably tinnitus, but when he looked it up, he dismissed that idea immediately because how would that even happen? He worked in a library and listened to classical music, no history of ear infections and no exposure to consistent, loud noise. After a while, though, he admitted she might have a point and made an appointment with his GP. As he sat on the cold deli paper (ha ha, just a piece of meat after all, huh, Cas?), legs swinging over the end of the exam table, trying to describe the problem to Dr. Singer, he realized how crazy he must sound.
“Bugs?” The gruff old man said incredulously, hands in the big pockets of his white exam coat.
“Well, not bugs, exactly. More like the sound of someone scratching their nails across a piece of paper in the next room, kind of?” Cas was really regretting this check-up.
“Your ears’re so good you could even hear something like that, boy? At your age?” The doctor’s level of disbelief had just been ratcheted up tenfold.
Cas threw his hands up. “I don’t know! I don’t know how to explain it! I don’t know what to do, I’m starting to hear it everywhere, all the time! I can’t even sleep through the night anymore!”
“Alright, alright, cool your jets, hotrod! I believe you’re hearing something. I don’t think you’re crazy. I don’t see anything wrong with your ears, not from the outside, anyway. We can do some more involved tests, MRI’s, PET scan, CAT scan, all that jazz, if you really insist. Or I can give you something to help you sleep and maybe a few night’s rest will clear everything up for you. Up to you, son.”
Loathe to be poked and prodded anymore and definitely not enthusiastic about the amount of radiation he might absorb from all those test, Cas took the script and thanked the doctor profusely. Two weeks later, he called the doctor’s office and scheduled every test they could think to give him. A week after that, he read over the results and sobbed into his hand, leaning his forehead against the wall to steady himself. No abnormalities found. So, that was it, nothing physically wrong with him, he was just losing his goddamn mind.
Jess must have talked to Sam about Cas’s little “issue” because it wasn’t even a day after his little breakdown about the test results that he came home to his brother-in-law sitting patiently on his front porch.
“Hey, Cas. Need a hand with that?” The power of Sam’s puppy dog eyes had not diminished with his advancing age, but Cas had long ago become immune.
Looking pointedly at the single paper grocery bag in his arms and back at Sam, “I think I can handle it, but thanks.”
Sam rushed down the steps toward him, grabbing the bag out of his hands before he could protest further, “Oh, it’s no trouble, Cas, you know that. You just get the door. How have you been? You look a little tired. You been sleeping okay?”
Cas stopped at his front door and turned slowly to face Sam. “I’m fine, Sam, but I see your wife has been blabbing, so why don’t you just ask me what you really want to ask me?”
Sam at least had the good grace to look abashed by Cas’s statement, dropping his eyes to the porch and rubbing the back of his neck. “Is this problem you’re having…does it…I mean, is this about…”
Cas closed his eyes and held his hand up to Sam to stop his stammering. He sighed heavily and unlocked his door, stepping over the threshold and turning back to Sam.
“No, Sam, this has nothing to do with him. How could it? He’s gone. He’s dead. I’m okay, I’m fine, really. No, I’m not sleeping great, but it’s getting better. It’s going away. Jess was probably right, it was probably some kind of temporary tinnitus. But it’s getting better now, so please don’t be so worried about me.”
“But Jess said the tests all came back clear and…”
“So, what? They just missed something, happens all the time. They’re doctors, not gods. But it doesn’t matter because I’m getting better all on my own, okay?” They stared at each other for a long minute. “Can I have my groceries, please? I want to eat something then I think I’m going to lie down for a bit. I’m sure I can sleep now.”
“You’re really better? You’ll get some sleep? You swear?” Sam’s puppy dog eyes were very strong this afternoon.
“I swear, Sam.” Cas’s poker face could trump Sam’s puppy dog eyes any day of the week and twice on Sunday, at least, that’s what Dean had always said.
Sam’s shoulders sagged in relief and he quickly handed over the bag of groceries. “Okay, Cas. I’m sure glad you’re feeling better. I’ll tell Jess you’re okay. She’ll be so relieved. We’ve both been really worried.”
Cas felt like total shit for lying to Sam, and by extension, Jess, because he knew they loved him so much and he loved them, too. They were family, after all, the only family any of them had left, but they wouldn’t understand. They wouldn’t understand at all.
When it had first started, it had been annoying, but as it got worse, as it got louder and more consistent, it had gotten frightening. The negative test results had Cas thinking he was losing it. He could just hear the old biddies at the library gossiping about the old queer who lost his husband and then his mind, all within three years. If only they knew what he thought was happening now, they’d really think he was koo-koo for Cocoa Puffs.
After six months of hearing the sound, Cas was pretty damn sure it was his husband trying to communicate with him from beyond the grave.
As the volume had increased, Cas had started to be able to make out words, maybe one in twenty, very scattered, very faint. Lying in his queen-sized bed, by the window, not the door, the side by the door was and always would be Dean’s, Cas strained to pick out the words among the background noise, which he thought of as “scritching” now. Inside the scritching, he heard words like “love” and “sweetheart” and “baby” and “don’t”. It took him weeks to start piecing together whole sentences out of words that would be strung out across hours, in what was, unmistakably, his husband’s voice. He would never, could never, forget that voice, like silk over gravel. So warm, just remembering it gave him chills, even after all this time. 23 years together had not been enough and three years apart had been far too long. He knew if he admitted to Sam or Jess or Dr. Singer or the old biddies at the library that he had completely forgone sleep and only ate quiet foods so that he could listen for the voice of his dead husband through the ethereal static that filled his head 24/7, they would have him committed to the closest version of Shady Acres. Oh, they would do it for his own good, of course, the poor dear, lost the love of his life and it just broke him. So, that was why he had to lie to Dean’s brother, who had cried and wailed but eventually moved on. Dean hadn’t contacted Sam, he spoke only to Cas and for Cas, that told him all he needed to know about who had loved Dean the most.
He was pretty sure he was close to deciphering the message Dean was trying to send him. The whole thing became his reason to keep the minimal amount of nutrition in his belly, to keep up a basic hygiene routine, to catch short (no longer than thirty minutes) naps throughout the day, his only reason to keep breathing. Even if he was wrong and he really was losing his mind, at least he could have this one thing, this one piece of Dean to keep him warm in the cold dark of lunacy, he could have his voice, forever whispering words of love in Cas’s ear.
But he didn’t think he was wrong. He thought tonight was the night, he just had a feeling. Maybe Sam’s visit had been a test. If it was, he felt he had passed with flying colors, assuaging his loved ones’ worries and keeping his beloved’s message a secret. He quickly put his meager (and quiet, no more rice cakes or potato chips for this boy) groceries away and slipped into his flannel pajamas (Dean’s favorite, of course). He quietly rushed through his bedtime routine and glided into their bedroom where he stealthily slid under the covers, just as the scritching started to ramp up a bit, which meant the words would be coming soon.
It seemed like hours before they started coming through, but when they did, Cas’s heart soared.
Scritch…scritchety scritch… “…me, baby?”
“…Love…” Scritch… “…don’t be…” scritchety scritch…
Scritch… “…you so much…” “…waiting for…” scritch…scritch
“I…afraid but…” Scritchety… “…here, baby, right…” scritch…scritch
Scritchety… “…mine, Cas…” scritch… “…be yours, baby…”
Cas’s heart was racing, his breath shallow to reduce the noise it produced and he was starting to feel light-headed from lack of oxygen but he hadn’t been so happy in three years. He thought he understood what Dean had been trying to tell him and it brought tears of relief and gratitude to his eyes. The briefest sob escaped his lips when he thought he had it all pieced together. He grabbed his little notebook from the bedside table and hastily began filling in the missing words to form what he thought must be the complete message.
“Can you hear me, baby? Love you so much, baby, don’t be afraid. I love you so much and I’m waiting for you. I know you’re afraid but you don’t have to be. I’m here, baby, right here waiting for you, baby. Love you, baby. You’re mine, Cas, and I’ll always be yours, baby.”
Cas’s hands shook so much he could hardly read what he’d wrote on the notebook, but he didn’t really need to, not anymore. Every word was seared into his brain, branded there like his love for this incredible man who had reached across the Void to offer his love and reassurance that one day, they would be together again. Cas clasped the notebook to his chest and fell back onto his pillow, tears of joy overflowing his eyes and a smile he couldn’t stop stretching his lips. So great was his relief at finally figuring out what Dean had been trying to tell him that he fell into an actual sleep, not a nap but full REM sleep. As he drifted off, he hoped to dream of Dean, prayed he could just touch his cheek, kiss him again, even if it was just a dream. Maybe that could be his reward. He curled up into Dean’s pillows and slept, with a relieved smile still on his face.

 

“Can you hear me, baby? Love you so much, baby, don’t be afraid. I love you so much and I’m waiting for you. I know you’re afraid but you don’t have to be. I’m here, baby, right here waiting for you, baby. Love you, baby. You’re mine, Cas, and I’ll always be yours, baby.” Dean tried to keep the tears out of his voice, even if he couldn’t keep them from falling from his eyes. He stroked Cas’s limp hand through the rails of the hospital bed, then held it to his forehead and let the sobs come full force. He didn’t hear the door open, but his brother’s voice brought his head up.
“Hey Dean.” His brother entered, holding his wife’s hand. It was clear they’d both been crying, though they had tried to hide it.
“Hey guys.” God, when did Sammy get so old? And since when did Jess have so much silver streaking her golden hair? He shrugged internally, guess he must look even worse. It had been three weeks since he’d first sat down next to this bed and he’d hardly gotten up the entire time. He only napped briefly, ate the soft food the hospital staff brought him, and kept a bare minimum hygiene routine, more for the comfort of others than himself. He just couldn’t leave his husband’s side, not when there was any chance he might wake up. He just had to keep telling Cas that he was here with him, that he loved him, that he would wait for him, forever if he had to. Cas had to know all these things so he would come back, come back to Dean and open his damn eyes.
“No change may be a good thing, Dean, the doctors said so, remember? It means his brain may still be rebooting.” Jeez, Sam’s puppy dog eyes had never been this powerful. But Dean thought he must be pretty much immune after all these years because he kept a straight face, kept his jaw from quivering and no more tears fell.
“I know, Sammy, you’re right. They’re right. I haven’t given up. Give me another hour and I’ll take a break, get something to eat and some sleep, okay? I swear, Sammy, just one more hour, k?”
Sam shook his head but patted Dean’s shoulder in that way that said he could agree to those terms and started moving to the door. Jess bent down to kiss Cas’s forehead then moved around to kiss Dean’s. “One hour,” she whispered.
“Yes, ma’am,” Dean reassured her, a little of his old charm sparkling in his eyes.
Jess just shook her head at him as she and Sam quietly left the room, pulling the door shut behind them.
Dean sighed heavily, his shoulders sagging with relief now that he didn’t have to pretend not to be so tired and heartbroken anymore. He stood up and smoothed a lock of Cas’s unruly hair back from his forehead and bent down to whisper into his ear once again.
“Can you hear me, baby? Love you so much, baby, don’t be afraid. I love you so much and I’m waiting for you. I know you’re afraid but you don’t have to be. I’m here, baby, right here waiting for you, baby. Love you, baby. You’re mine, Cas, and I’ll always be yours, baby.”

With a tremendous effort, Cas pried his eyes open. Everything was a blur, until two green eyes, wide with shock, came into focus. Green eyes, Dean’s eyes. Cas smiled, he knew he must be in Heaven.
“Hello, Dean.”