Cas hasn't gotten off the couch in three days when Sam looks at Dean, gravely, and whispers, "Do you think there's anything he wants to do before he...?"
It's actually worse that Sammy doesn't say it, that there can be a "worse" in this case. That they're dancing around the truth, that they smile at Cas and bring him food where he's propped on throw pillows, that Dean sits with him for hours with Cas's legs heavy on his lap, that Sammy has to remind him to use the bathroom. It's like he's just given up.
Cas is dying, and they're trying to pretend he's not. Sam's unfinished sentence hovers, ominous and unsettling, like a reaper’s outstretched hand.
"What do I look like, a freaking psychic?" Dean snaps before withering under Sam's sympathetic gaze. He rubs the back of his neck and studies the TV. Cas is watching nature shows. It's the only thing they've had on for a week. To Dean, the colors flicker, and the sounds are just static.
"I think you should ask him," Sam says quietly.
"Why don't you?" Dean spits.
Sam gives him a long, calculating look that has Dean scowling. It's not judgmental, just searching. Sam squeezes his shoulder and says, "I'll let you figure that out." Dean reads novels in the ambiguity, in the way Sam's fingers tighten as his eyes flick to Cas, and he gives a half smile.
Dean's face grows hot. There's a bad taste, like peroxide, in his mouth but he's nodding, shrugging out of Sam's hand, muttering, "Dude, whatever" and wondering where his duffel bag is.
"Pack your shit. Enough for a couple days," he says to Cas, holding a bag over the back of the couch, which Cas takes with a hurt expression.
"Dean?" he asks uncertainly, like he honestly believes Dean might be asking him to leave again, as if Dean could.
"We're taking a road trip," he explains, softer, curving a hand over Cas's shoulder before he goes to raid the kitchen.
Sammy's eating a bowl of cereal, a hip against the counter, chewing thoughtfully and noisily.
"You coming with us or what?" Dean demands, opening the cabinets and pulling out a box of granola bars, pack of jerky.
Sam shakes his head and swallows before he answers.
"You guys need this," he says, wiping away a smear of milk with the back of his hand. Before Dean can protest, Sam prods the cereal with a spoon, adds, "You'll regret it if you don't."
"Yeah? How do you know?" Dean challenges. He snatches the cereal box, digs out a handful.
"Because I would've given anything to have a few more days with Jess," Sam says, quietly, pointedly. Dean winces but for once he doesn't protest, doesn't pretend to misinterpret Sam's words. He thought he'd done a solid job hiding this thing he feels about Cas, but, well. Apparently not. He crunches the dry cereal. It hurts to swallow, but he does, forces it down his throat, to his stomach, which twists at the thought that Sam knows, Sam knows and is encouraging him anyway.
"Maybe there's still a way," he says, but Sam’s shaking his head before Dean’s even finished speaking.
"Dean, we've checked every book," he says gently, "talked to everyone we can think of. Even Cas says it's not possible to regenerate grace, unless his father—"
"I know what Cas says," Dean cuts him off. He scowls, and his throat hurts instantly from the way it tightens. He bites his tongue to stop it. "Dude's not all-knowing."
"I think, in this case, he knows more than we do."
Dean can feel the anger down to his fingers, pooling into a fist. He’d punch Sammy square in the jaw if it weren’t Sammy. The effects of the Mark linger, even though it’s no longer part of him. He exhales hard and changes the subject, but his palms still itch with dissatisfaction.
"How are we for money?" he grits out.
"Don't worry about it," Sam says. "Just...have a good time."
It's bullshit. Dean knows it's bullshit; they've never been fine for money, but just this once, he wants to pretend. He frowns, closed-lipped, presses them together until it hurts, and nods once.
"I'll call you when we stop for the night," he says.
"Any idea where you're headed?"
Dean shrugs, overwhelmed, but he knows Sammy's right. He has to do this. He runs through a list of places they can get to easily, says the first thing that comes to mind, "Vegas, maybe," though the image of Cas on the Strip is incongruous, almost absurd. Still, it's a destination.
Sam sighs a laugh and shakes his head. "Romantic," he says, which makes Dean cringe and swat at his head. "Get going," Sam says, ducking the blow.
They pull out of the garage and putt through town, out into the long stretches of farmland that lead to the interstate. It's hot out, sun beating down on the flat, flat surround. The grass and crops have gone brown from drought, burned and curled at their tips. Dean keeps the windows rolled up and switches on the air. He cranks up the volume on the radio to cover the rumble of Baby's engine, of her tires, leans an arm out the window, mouths the lyrics but doesn't sing.
Cas is watching him. Cas has been watching him since they left Lebanon, since they climbed into the Impala and Dean threw it in gear, since Sammy waved with a knowing expression and Dean's face turned red. He's twisted sideways on the seat, with both hands positioned politely on his knees, just watching.
"Dean?" he asks after a handful of miles, the confusion almost palpable. He laces his hands together and his knuckles are white. Dean turns to look at him brightly, afraid of giving away how terrified he is. He can't break down in front of Cas, he can't. It's not fair. Dean only has to watch him die; Cas has to freaking do it. He grips the wheel too tight.
"Yeah?" he replies breezily, smiling, because smiling at Cas has always worked. But Cas's face remains stormy with apprehension, so Dean clears his throat, sucks it up, and reaches a hand over to pat his knee.
"We thought you could use a couple days, you know. Out of the bunker."
Cas is quiet for a few seconds, twists up his mouth as he thinks. Dean glances to the road and back, attempting to keep his expression neutral.
"With you," Cas adds.
There's no rise in his voice, but the question is plain, laid bare between them. It's reflected in Cas's eyes, in the way his eyebrows pinch together.
"Uh, yeah," Dean says. He should be embarrassed, but there's no time. "With me," he says and squeezes Cas's knee once, slides his hand back a key few inches to Cas's thigh, then forward again. He hopes Cas understands the meaning in the gesture, gets where this is going. That Dean is right, that Cas feels this thing too. That he wants it. Dean swallows again and checks the rear view mirror, the road in front of them, before meeting Cas's eyes.
Cas looks hopeful, doe-soft and besotted, and Dean's throat tightens. He squeezes Cas's leg again and clenches his jaw against the grin tugging the corners of his mouth. He retrains his attention on the road but leaves his hand in place. His heart speeds up and pushes the giddiness through every part of him. If anyone had told him, even a week ago, that he'd be doing this, he would've cut them. Cas's leg is warm and welcome underneath his palm. He can only laugh a little in disbelief, grip the wheel a little tighter with his other hand.
This is brand new, scary as hell, but he has days, maybe only hours—Cas hasn't said. Maybe he doesn't know. There's no time for nerves, no time for second guessing. There's only right now, and right now he has Cas.
"Thought we'd stop somewhere for the night after it gets dark, roll into Vegas on full steam," Dean suggests. "Sound good?"
"That's fine," Cas answers. He licks his lips and smiles.
The pink flash of Cas's tongue makes Dean shiver. Dean's never kissed a guy, but he knows in that instant that he's gonna kiss Cas, gonna fit his mouth over Cas's lips and go for broke. Desire flares in the center of his chest, dissolving outward like a firework. He shifts in his jeans, adjusts so he's comfortable again, and smiles back.
He puts the pedal to the floor and drives.
Eight hours later lands them in Glenwood Springs, a town just a couple hours outside Denver. The whole place reeks of sulfur, like they just rolled into a demon convention. Dean's never heard that the city has a suspiciously high concentration of supernatural activity, but he says, "Dude, place stinks like hellspawn" and considers hightailing it out of town.
"It's the geology of the region," Cas says, unconcerned, "the hot springs," but he wrinkles his nose in solidarity as he climbs out of the car in the motel parking lot, laces his fingers behind his back and stretches. Dean is rendered speechless for a moment, watching the way his back curves, the length of Cas's exposed throat.
"I'll get us a room," Dean says with a dry mouth and leaves Baby idling. He pats her steering wheel and squints through the office window, orders, "Stay with the car" before getting out and trudging inside.
The man behind the counter is bored but friendly, punches up the hotel's current availability, and looks at Dean expectantly.
"Two queens," Dean says on autopilot. Then, clearing his throat, "Sorry. A king, if you've got one."
He should've asked Cas if one bed would be okay, but he takes a chance and throws down his credit card when the desk clerk nods that a room is available. If Cas freaks, well, Dean'll sleep on the floor. It won't be the first time.
"We're around the side," he announces when he returns to the car and finds Cas leaning against the hood, watching the stars.
They park in a space just outside the room and take out their bags. He locks the car, double checks the windows, and unlocks the room without a glance over his shoulder.
"Bet you missed this," he declares even while he's turning shades of pink. He flicks on the light, hears Cas enter softly behind him.
Cas sees the bed. There's no way he doesn't see the bed, like a floral-gift-wrapped invitation into Dean's pants. Dean loudly clears his throat and makes a beeline for the sink, splashes cold water on his face, and tries to tell himself he won't be upset by Cas's reaction, whatever it is.
He expects to find Cas staring at him, a little confused, a little intrigued. He doesn't expect the hand on his that switches off the water, a hand that smooths back to his wrist, encircling it. He doesn't expect the touch on his waist, easing him back from the sink, coaxing him upright. He doesn't expect Cas to turn him in place, tilt his head, smile lazily and kiss Dean, but that's what Cas does: kiss him, easy, like they've done it a thousand times.
Water drips from Dean's face onto his collar, down his neck; streams over his face to his lips, where Castiel licks it away. Cas's mouth is stale, lips chapped, and his cheeks are rough under Dean's palms. It's not the best kiss of Dean's life, but it's the one he'll never forget. His heart is racing so fast, he can hear it roar in both ears, thinks of that poor bastard whose heart beat right out of his chest and can only shudder, pull Cas against him.
Cas lacks finesse, shifts from tender to bruising in seconds, but he makes up for the lack of experience in the way he presses close, moans softly, whispers, "Dean."
Dean laughs into his mouth, kisses him again before stepping away and grabbing a thin towel. He dries his face and neck and hands.
"Desk clerk said there's a few good places in town," he relates, checking his hair in the mirror. His face is flushed, and he's smiling, really smiling, the first time in a long, long while. "What do you feel like?"
"Cheeseburgers," Cas declares. "The greasy kind."
So they end up in the most diner-like joint they can find, tucked into a booth, get patty melts and split a basket of curly fries. Cas's foot repeatedly bumps his underneath the table, so Dean puts an immediate kibosh on his standing anti-PDA policy, plants a boot between Cas' s feet. He shoots a quick message off to Sam to let him know they're in Colorado, will get to Vegas in the morning. He drinks coffee when the food is gone and orders Cas a chocolate milkshake. Cas eyes it warily.
"Trust me," Dean says, flushing when Cas's lips close around the straw.
Cas takes his hand in the car and holds it, which is the sweetest and gayest thing that's ever happened to him. But it's simple, the way their fingers interlock, the way Cas rubs Dean's knuckles, the way their palms sweat and suction together. Cas's hand is as large as his, smooth and strong. Holding it makes Dean feel settled, somehow. They could've been doing this years ago, on every one of those cross-country drives, sitting together like this. He brings Cas's hand to his mouth and kisses it, holds it against his chest, over the tattoo.
He has no idea what's going to happen when they get back to the hotel, if Cas will want to take things further, or if they'll just watch TV and sleep. Dean's fine either way. He gets the basic mechanics of sex between guys, knows how his own dick works. Logically, that'll extend to Cas, and they'll just...figure it out from there. But if Cas wants to lie down and hold hands, whisper to each other across the pillow, well, that's what Dean'll do: give Cas the most hardcore hand holding Dean Winchester can manage.
When they're a couple minutes out, Dean gets his answer when Cas extracts his hand from Dean's grasp and slides it to his inner thigh, then his groin. His fingers delicately explore, tease until Dean's boxers get tight. Jerk knows what he's doing. When Cas massages a circle over the head of his dick with his thumb, Dean gasps out of shock and excitement, floors it. Baby growls beneath them, and Cas just smiles.
Dean is so nervous that he parks crookedly, then fumbles the key when they're shoulder to shoulder in front of the door. He watches, helpless, as it falls to his feet. Cas smirks and ducks his chin, bends gracefully to retrieve the key, and unlocks the door with an easy turn of his wrist. He strides in like he owns the joint, lays the key on the dresser, and switches on the bedside lamp. The glow makes him look orange. He pulls back the comforter and the sheets and turns to look at Dean. He's still standing in the door, mute. Cas crooks a finger at him, and Dean follows.
First times are awkward, and this is no exception, except it's Cas, who probably doesn't know (or doesn’t care) that humans are usually uptight and embarrassed about sex. He approaches it with unsettling confidence, strips off his clothes and stands next to the bed, holds out a hand, says, "Come here."
Dean's still got on his shoes and jacket, but he takes Cas's hand, lets Cas tug him forward until they're falling onto the mattress, Dean sprawled on top of Cas, shaking. Cas is naked and warm and wrapping around him like a squid. There isn't time to process that Cas is naked—he's just seen Cas naked, and he's about to be naked on purpose with Cas—before Cas's mouth is on his, rough with impatience. Dean doesn't tell him to slow down, just goes with it, kisses back with equal force, groans into it.
From there it's just instinct, Cas's hands belying his innocent curiosity, exploring the shape of Dean's body, relieving him of his shoes, then his pants and shirt. He leaves Dean's boxers on, bears Dean back on the mattress. Cas straddles his waist, aroused and unashamed.
Dean gets a look at him and thinks, Wow, nice. Cas's dick is pretty comparable to his, a little thicker, flushed red at the tip. Dean's thought about doing this, but he's never had the guts—ain't that a laugh, considering the shit he's done. Cas rocks his hips forward, so Dean takes a breath and wraps a fist around him, like he'd do for himself, swipes his thumb over the head, slow and steady, swallowing his nerves as he struggles to push up on an elbow, watch as Cas's head drops back between his shoulder blades. Cas writhes on top of him, chest mottled red and shiny with sweat, abdominal muscles tight, mouth parted, gasping. It's the hottest thing Dean's ever seen. Cas grunts Dean's name when he comes.
He lies down to catch his breath and reaches right into Dean's boxers, like he's got a standing invite. His hand is smooth and clumsy, too tight and too loose. But Dean rolls into him, presses his face into Cas's shoulder, sucks a mark onto his skin, fucks his dick into Cas's fist.
"Yeah," he gasps, flattens his tongue against Cas's neck and tastes salt. "Yeah, like that."
"I've dreamed of you like this," Cas confesses, a whisper against his ear, before Dean shudders and it's over, good but too fast. He pants and looks at Cas, astonished, trying not to quantify all the sex they could've been having.
"Dumbasses," he says between breaths, kissing Cas with newfound reverence. "We're both dumbasses."
Cas doesn't disagree.
The sheets are wet, so they slide over to the other half of the bed and kiss themselves drowsy. Cas falls asleep with his head on Dean's arm. It goes numb, but he doesn't wake Cas up, doesn't try to reposition himself even when it starts to ache. He kisses Cas's jaw and his hair and his ear, is still kissing him when he drops off.
In the morning, he wakes to Cas draped across his back, arm slung heavy over his waist. They're spooning by any definition of the word. Cas rubs his face into Dean's neck as he's waking up, noses his hairline, rolls him over. Dean’s mouth is dry and tastes disgusting, but he kisses back when Cas initiates it, arches into the hand snaking between his legs.
It's slow and easy, lazy. He doesn't open his eyes until Cas is wiping him down with a washcloth. It’s too cold and makes him shiver. Cas must've gotten out of bed. Dean cracks a smile and croaks, "Morning." Cas tilts his head, murmurs, "Hello." He traces the outline of Dean’s lips.
Dean decides right then and there: Cas has to try everything, experience everything. No sense in holding back—they’ve wasted enough time. He flattens a hand on Cas's chest, eases him back onto a pillow, settles between his legs. He takes Cas in hand just like he did last night, wraps his fist around the base, sucks in a breath, and lowers his head.
"Dean," Cas says, earnest, and closes his eyes.
It turns out dick tastes like skin, a little bitter, not nearly as repulsive as Dean thought it'd be. It’s amazing, actually, being with Cas like this, doing this for him. He’s velvet smooth between Dean’s lips.
Dean's technique is dreadful, he’s aware. He's drooling onto his own fist to keep from choking, but Cas is flushed and moaning against the headboard, so Dean doesn't stop even when his jaw begins to ache. He tries to remember the way Lisa did this, thinks about what he likes. He's mindful of his teeth, pays attention to the head, swirls his tongue around it, tongues the slit, pumps his fist simultaneously. The rhythm is awkward but effective as hell. Cas is bucking up into his mouth, hands finding his hair, petting gently.
He swallows to be polite, and that's not bad either, different from his own, maybe sweeter. It leaves his lips tingling. Cas kisses him lushly, lovingly, after.
They shower together, then head to the hotel lobby to check out and score free breakfast. Dean drinks a shitty cup of coffee while Cas munches a bagel and orange juice, stealthily gropes Dean's thigh under the table. He's flipping through a couple brochures he picked up at the front desk.
"What d'you got there?" Dean asks, nudging him with an elbow.
"Information about the hot springs," Cas says, turning the brochure over. "There's an outdoor pool, and there are caves you can pay to visit."
"Yeah, I think it's a health spa," Dean says and adds cream to his coffee until it's beige. "Sammy's into that new-age crap. What's the other one?"
"The Grand Canyon," Cas says, fingertips alighting on a glossy picture. Dean can tell from the way he touches it—delicately, like he might damage the image—that Cas is fascinated.
Dean tears open twin sugar packets and upends them into his mug. "You ever see it?" he asks, nodding to the brochure. He stirs his coffee with a finger and sips. Better.
"A long time ago," Cas says.
Considering his age, Dean wonders just how long ago "a long time ago" was, for Cas to label it that: if the Colorado was just a young stream, a trickle, etching the first groove into the land; or if it roared like the winds in Purgatory, howling out the canyon.
"It wasn't so grand, then," Cas adds. "Have you?"
"Never been," Dean admits. He sniffs and drinks.
Cas hums and scans the caption, touches the photo again, like a bee settling on a flower. Longing is naked on his face, in the frown lines standing out against his forehead. Dean no longer hears the siren call of Vegas's flashing decadence, envisions looking down, down, down into the canyon, Cas at his side. Sonofabitch, when did he become such a frigging sap? Sammy’s rubbing off on him.
"Hey," he says, lowering his voice. He scoots closer, puts a hand on top of Cas's arm with a quick glance around them, vows he'll beat the shit out of anyone if they so much as look at them funny. "How ‘bout we check out those caves after breakfast, then head to the Grand Canyon instead."
"What about Las Vegas?" Cas asks, looking up. He's clearly interested, eyes wide and crinkling at the corners with excitement.
"We'll go some other time," Dean says with a shrug. It's a good lie. He needs to believe it's true. "What do you say?"
"I'd like that," Cas says. He presses a lingering kiss to Dean's cheek before finishing his orange juice.
"We should probably try to find a room out there," Dean considers, rubbing the damp imprint of Cas's lips, craning his head around to look at the front desk. He's slept in the Impala before, but Cas shouldn't have to do that. "Wonder if they have one of these motels there. Maybe they can book us something."
But Cas already has his phone out and is tapping away at the screen like he's a bona fide member of the frigging Geek Squad.
"What're you doing?" Dean asks around his mug.
"I'm looking for a hotel room in the national park," Cas says, like it's obvious. He clears his throat, scowls, and rubs at it like that’ll help.
"On your phone?"
"Sam's been teaching me," he confides and slides his fingers, taps, and spreads them to enlarge an image.
"Course he has," Dean sighs and drops his wallet onto the table in defeat. "Get something nice."
The stench of rotten eggs that hangs over the town is repugnant, but it's close to unbearable as they descend the stairs into the humid, black swelter of the cave. Dean's hunter instincts are on full alert. He grips the edge of his towel instead of a knife. He reminds himself that he's on vacation. There aren't any demons down here, sweating out their vessels. What would be the point, when they could just take a dip in hell for free?
"It's hard to breathe," Cas observes behind him. Dean sucks in lungful after damp lungful and wonders if you can get pneumonia this way.
He can hardly make out the steps in front of him, illuminated by weak yellow lights. Cas has a towel around his hips and motions to his left, disappears into the first room. Dean blinks into the dark and stumbles after him.
Slowly, his eyes adjust. Around the edge of the room are pools of water. He can't guess their depths, but chunks of sulfur bob on the surface. It's an eerie, silent approximation of hell, devoid of the screams.
Cas has found a bench and is sitting on it. He blinks dazedly a few times, then nods his head to indicate Dean should sit next to him. Dean's already soaked from the humidity. He wipes his forehead, but sweat drips into his eyes and stings. Breathing doesn't get easier. It's too hot to hold hands, but they try for a while, nip at each other in the dark. Cas pauses to breathe. His fingers steal underneath Dean's towel and touch him until Dean is biting Cas's lip and whimpering pathetically.
"We're gonna have a problem if you don't stop," he warns.
But there's no one around, and even if someone were in the room with them, it's too dark to see much of anything. Cas doesn't stop, moving his hand steadily up and down, until Dean smiles "You asshole" into Cas's mouth and it's over.
When Cas says he’s starting to feel woozy, they head to the cool-down room and stand underneath the showers for a while, greedily breathe the fresher air. This room is brighter. Dean can make out five people who slump, lethargic, around its perimeter. Cas reaches for his hand and Dean lets him, listless, lolling his head against the cave wall. An older woman with wrinkled thighs gives them a sideways glance. Dean's too drowsy for a fight, so he locks eyes with her, nods toward Cas, and winks.
They repeat the cycle two more times, until Dean feels boneless and isn't sure he can climb the stairs back out. His legs are rubbery. Cas kisses his cheek and says, "I'll help you," and keeps a hand on Dean's back the whole way.
While they're changing back into street clothes, Cas takes a photo of them in just their towels, with his phone held up at an awkward angle. ("These are called selfies," he says, and Dean wonders exactly how much influence Sam's had over him.) They shower lazily, kiss under the stream, and towel dry. Cas buttons Dean's shirt for him, leaves the top two undone, fingers the hollow of his throat.
"So," Dean asks. "What did you think?"
"I'm not sure I understand the point," Cas says. He coughs once and clears his throat, then adds, "but I enjoyed being with you in the dark."
Dean snickers and kisses him, mutters, "I'm gonna need coffee for the road."
They both grab a cup when Dean stops to refuel Baby. Cas opts for hazelnut because he likes the smell but decides it tastes about the same; Dean gets regular and a gooey bear claw from a glass case. At the register, he buys Cas a Milky Way and tosses it to him in the car.
"Here, these are good," he says, merging back onto I-70 as the wrapper crinkles in Cas's hand.
Cas spends most of the ride up against Dean's side, head leaning against his shoulder, fingers drumming the rhythm of each song onto Dean's thigh. Cas tells Dean he likes Led Zeppelin but doesn't like the Rolling Stones, and he's indifferent to Creedence Clearwater Revival. Dean scoffs but picks up a bag of Cheetos at the next gas station.
"Sammy likes these," he says and listens to Cas crunch his way through the bag. Cas feeds them to Dean, allows his hand to linger at Dean's mouth, so Dean sucks the cheese from his fingers. Best bag of Cheetos ever, hands down. Cas coughs when they've finished it and blames the powdered cheese.
"The flavor is strong," he says, sounding a little judgmental. "I don’t think that was actually cheese." Dean snorts and fits his hand over Cas's knee, doesn't let go.
When the light falls and they approach the national park, Cas slides back to his half of the seat and whips his phone out to check directions. He looks like a specter in the glow off the screen.
"What's this place called?" Dean asks.
"Bright Angel Lodge," Cas informs him.
"We have a private cabin," Cas adds, a little hesitant. "For two nights."
"Awesome," Dean says and feels the anticipation down to his toes. He's relieved Sam opted to stay behind in Kansas. He can just imagine the soppy, proud look Sam would give them before handing over their key, then trotting off to his own room. He'd probably go on about acceptance over waffles. Dean would never live it down. The two of them and a cabin by themselves for a couple days—that's just what they need.
It's past sunset when they arrive, so there's no point hiking out to the rim—it's too dark to see anything. They check in and drop their bags in the cabin, a sparse one-room deal with a patterned red bedspread and rough walls. Cas kisses him up against the door, fisting Dean's shirt and grinding against him raunchily yet politely, and they head to the on-site restaurant.
It's a large, open room with carved support beams, honey-colored wood tables, and sparse decor. It's nice but casual, so Dean doesn't feel so bad strolling in sporting wrinkled jeans and boots. They get a booth against the wall and prop open menus. Cas fiddles with the ketchup bottle. He can't decide between the battered mushrooms and zucchini or the guacamole and salsa, so Dean orders both. He gets a burger for himself. Cas asks for trout because he says he's never had it. He declares he prefers trout to Cheetos.
There are three kinds of pie on the dessert menu (blueberry, cherry, and apple), so they take the lot a la mode. Dean opts for cappuccino because it looks fancy and Cas gives him a blank expression when Dean asks if he's tried it. Cas asks their waiter to take a picture of them holding up matching cups of foam. Dean raises an eyebrow but leans in when Cas slides into Dean's side of the booth, puts a hand on his leg.
"Say cheese," the waiter directs, which is why Cas looks confused in the picture when the waiter hands the phone back and goes to get their check.
"What did that have to do with milk curds?" Cas asks when the waiter is a safe distance away, staring at the picture with a frown.
Dean snorts his laughter and knows to his core that he'll miss this. God, he'll miss this. His throat closes up with a premature wave of grief, but there's no way he's crying in this restaurant. He won't cry in front of Cas. There'll be plenty of time for that, later. Right now, they've got a bed to break in.
So he kisses Cas instead, tastes vanilla and cinnamon on his mouth. He's kissing Cas in public. Well, screw anybody who's got a problem with that. No one's taking this from them. He forces a smile and scribbles his name on the signature line once the waiter runs his card, thumbs the bits of pie crust stuck to the edge of his plate, feeds them to Cas before they get up.
Cas holds his hand on the way back to the cabin. The weather is mild, just a light breeze, so they sit outside to watch the stars, their backs up against the cabin's exterior.
"They've moved positions," Cas says of the stars, leaning into Dean's side, "over the millennia."
Dean nods quietly. All around them, insects are chirping steadily, the heartbeat of the woods. He swats one away that buzzes close to his ear. Cas angles his chin up and sighs contentedly. Dean wonders if he's scared, or if he's approaching death the same way Cas approaches everything else, as a part of the natural order, an entry on his father's plan. He wonders if Cas will be allowed in Heaven, or if he'll be trapped in Purgatory, without grace and without a soul. He wonders the same about himself.
Dean is pulled from his reverie when Cas takes out his camera and snaps a photo. Their faces are blown out by the flash and a little out of focus, but their eyes are bright. The background is black. Cas frowns and takes another, then another with his mouth pressed to Dean's cheek.
"Afraid you won't remember this?" Dean asks, smiling when Cas's thumb hovers over the shutter, sees his own face backwards on the tiny screen.
Cas shrugs and watches as the picture fades. The screen goes dark. He tucks the phone back into his pocket. "I want you to have something of me," he says.
It's the first time either of them has acknowledged why they're doing this, the inevitable conclusion: Cas is going to die, he's going to die soon, and Dean will be left behind. He can't help the way his face contorts at Cas's words, the quiver in his chin. He drops his head to his knees and tries to catch his breath, hoping he can play it off as exhaustion. Cas shouldn't be comforting him, but he rubs Dean's back soothingly as Dean tries to force himself to calm down.
"The stars are beautiful," Cas murmurs, trailing a hand down Dean's spine and settling at the small of his back.
In the dark of the cabin, clutching each other in the stillness, he kisses their pattern onto Dean's skin.
Dean wakes up before the sunrise. He wakes naturally, opens his eyes and takes a filling breath, lets it out slowly. His phone says it's a little before five. A lifetime of hunting has ruined his ability to sleep in. Maybe it's Pavlovian, something about sleeping on a borrowed mattress one too many times. He feels plenty rested for sightseeing, anyway, and stretches himself fully awake.
There's enough light that Dean can see Cas asleep beside him, mouth slightly open. It's disconcerting that he sleeps now, even though it's only for a few hours at a time. He's snoring, which is irritating and kind of cute. Dean buries his face in the pillow to keep from laughing, then presses his face to Cas's shoulder and breathes in deep.
He likes the way Cas smells, clean like laundry detergent. The skin on his shoulders and chest is soft. He pets it for a while and studies Cas's profile, scratches fingernails through the stubble on his jaw. He's looked at Cas so many times, but he's never allowed himself to do this, to simply appreciate him, lie together quietly, listen to him breathe. He could shut his eyes again and probably drift off, but he doesn't want to, doesn't want to miss a minute of this, of the stillness. Maybe this is why Cas used to watch him sleep, time after time, because of how still he looked.
He feels sticky. It's hot in the room, and there's no air conditioning. He gingerly gets up and flicks on the ceiling fan. It's enough to wake Cas, who yawns and holds both arms out wordlessly. Dean comes back to bed and lies on top of the sheet. They're quiet for a few minutes, resting with their hands clasped, letting the movement of air cool them.
Cas yawns again and rolls into Dean's side. "I read that we should walk out to the rim before breakfast, to see the sunrise," he murmurs into Dean's neck.
"Okay," Dean says. "You're the boss."
Cas slips his arm around Dean's waist during the hike. It's already warm out, a little foggy. There's a viewing point not far from the cabin, but they opt to follow the path that leads along the canyon's edge to a lookout point. Dean's sweating by the time they reach it, plucks at the collar of his shirt to bellow air into it. There's a woman already at the lookout, bent over adjusting her tripod. Cas says hello to her as they approach, and she smiles at him. They lean up against the railing and look out across the canyon.
"Damn," Dean mutters, taking in the sheer size of the thing. To call it grand doesn't begin to describe it. It's another world, vast and deep, like an alien landscape. He can see layer upon layer of rock, in shades of beige and red, rising up through the ages. He's struck by the heady knowledge that Cas is older than the deepest deposits, created long before the canyon was carved.
"Jesus, Cas," he breathes and draws Cas against his side. The floor of the canyon appears purple—the sun hasn't touched it yet. It's dark and shadowy, craggy angles of rock. The top of the far wall and the flat surfaces of the plateaus are flame yellow with morning light, slipping into orange.
"Jesus had little to do with it," Cas whispers, working his hand underneath Dean's shirt, resting it on the small of his back. It's intimate and reassuring.
"It's beautiful," Dean says. "Your dad did a good job."
"I'm happy that I got to see it again," Cas says fondly.
They stand there for a long time, not talking, just looking at the shifting colors and shadows. It's crazy to think a river did all of that, cut the earth open to reveal so much beauty; that the canyon is a scar, a handprint on the earth's shoulder.
More hikers approach. They crowd in against the railing to take pictures. One family has two small children who complain they're hungry. Dean's stomach growls empathetically. On the ground beside them, the woman with the tripod continues to take pictures.
The hikers move on, and Cas takes out his phone. They turn around so the canyon is behind them, and Cas snaps a picture.
"We need to talk about this selfie addiction," Dean says, but he smiles as Cas adjusts the camera angle, tilts his head so their temples touch.
Cas presses the shutter and murmurs, "I wish I had taken a thousand photographs of you."
Dean doesn't know what to say. It's the sort of thing he'd usually laugh at, but he can't laugh. He looks Cas in the face and can only smile a little sadly. Cas looks so open and honest when he curves a hand over Dean's cheek and says, "I want to remember you like this."
"We both know I’m gonna be great looking as an old guy," Dean teases.
Cas touches the front of his shirt but doesn't say anything in response, and Dean realizes that Cas doesn’t believe they’ll see each other again; that their fates, whatever they are, don’t intersect.
It's too much. Dean kisses him against the railing. He wraps an arm around Cas's neck and kisses his cheek, the corner of his mouth, his top lip, eases Cas's mouth open. Tears pool hot and embarrassing beneath his eyelids, but he keeps them closed and continues to press kisses to Cas’s face in benediction.
He pulls away abruptly when he hears the shutter on Cas's camera app go off again, feels his throat start to close up. He turns and holds onto the railing, pretends to be awed by the sight of the canyon, though it's a watercolor through the blur of tears.
"Do you want me to take your picture?" he hears the woman offer. Dean is grateful for the interruption. He swipes at his eyes while Cas's attention is averted.
"Thank you," Cas says and hands over his phone. He puts an arm around Dean's shoulders, turning him around. The woman is late fifties with untamed brown hair and running shoes. She says, "On three," so Dean plants a grin on his face and hopes his eyes aren't red as she counts. She taps the screen and checks the image, squints, and hands the phone back to Cas.
"Is that okay?" she asks. Cas enlarges the picture and nods.
"Thank you," he says and slips it in his pocket. He motions to her tripod. "That's a nice camera."
"It's a hobby," she says. "Figured I can't go wrong photographing this place. What about you two? Honeymoon?"
"Just a vacation," Cas says.
"Well, you have great chemistry. It comes across on camera. How did you two meet?"
"He pulled me out of hell," Dean deadpans.
She laughs. "I felt that way about my husband," she confides, picking up her tripod. She folds it and tucks it beneath her arm. "Well, best of luck! Enjoy the rest of your trip."
"You too," Cas says. She walks off down the trail, probably to another lookout point. "She was nice," he says.
"Yeah," Dean agrees. "Not everyone's an asshole."
His stomach chooses that moment to growl again. He rubs it and thinks of hot coffee, a stack of pancakes, maybe some bacon.
"You're hungry, aren't you," Cas says. "So am I. I think you'll like their breakfast menu."
He looks out over the canyon before they head back. Dean stands behind him and rests his chin on Cas's shoulder. "One hell of a view, huh?" he asks. Cas hums his agreement and coughs, pounding a fist against his sternum, and frowns.
"You okay?" Dean asks. He smooths a hand down Cas's arm, stops at his wrist.
"Just swallowed wrong," Cas says. He angles his face back to smile at Dean sweetly. "Swallowing is a strange sensation."
Dean has to bite his lip to keep from laughing, kisses the corner of Cas's mouth and says, "Come on." He takes Cas's hand this time on the path. The cough echoes in his head as they walk.
They eat breakfast in the same restaurant where they had dinner the night before, at a table instead of a booth. The room is bright in the daytime and buzzing with patrons, blessedly scented with coffee and grease. Dean calls Sammy while Cas goes to wash his hands, mouth watering in anticipation.
"Hey," Sam says brightly. Dean hears him mute the TV and adjust himself on the couch. "How's it going?"
"It's going," Dean says and signals the waitress for a cup of coffee.
"How does Cas like Las Vegas?" Sam asks.
"We ended up at the Grand Canyon instead," Dean says, though he suspects Sam already knows that from the pre-packaged "Oh!" he gives in response. Cas probably texted him one of the pictures from this morning. Knowing Sammy, he's got it printed and stuck to the fridge.
"So did you guys… make any progress?" Sam prompts. He actually sounds hopeful. Dean can picture his face, the way his eyebrows are probably both raised, mouth pursed as he waits for Dean's answer. He rolls his eyes.
"Think we might hold hands soon," he reports.
"I'm being serious," Sam replies, voice shifting into disappointment. Dean exhales.
"Yes, okay? Yes, we made progress. Hours and hours of progress. Happy?"
"I'd be happier if you didn't treat it like a joke," Sam says with reproach, but he sounds pleased by the news, at least.
The waitress brings two cups of coffee. Steam twists from the surface. It's freshly brewed, not burned. Dean inhales indulgently, takes his time, adds cream and sugar, listens to Sam sigh heavily on the other end of the line.
"Hey, can I get a couple menus, sweetheart? Thank you," Dean calls to the waitress. She gives him a thumbs up and bustles to the service station.
"Hello?" Sam asks. He sounds tired.
"What," Dean says.
"Look, I know this must be hard on you, but you don’t have to put on the tough guy act for me. Really. How're you holding up?"
Dean takes a deep breath, pinches the bridge of his nose between his index finger and his thumb. How is he supposed to answer that? Normally, he'd be a dick about it, make Sam wonder why he even bothered asking, but Sammy's genuinely worried about him. This is a shitty situation. Dean's going to lose someone he cares a whole hell of a lot about, someone he loves, and Sam's gonna have to pick up the pieces. But how does he feel? He can't put words to it. He's scared but grateful, happy and heartbroken. Every emotion conflicts.
He swallows hard. The bad taste in his mouth is back. "I don’t know," he says and drowns it in coffee. It's too hot to drink and scalds the roof of his mouth, but he drinks anyway.
"That’s normal," Sam consoles him. He's quiet for a pause, probably wondering what he can get away with saying. Dean listens to him breathe into the phone, a comforting static. "I'm glad you have each other."
"Yeah," he says. Dean catches sight of Cas emerging from the bathroom. It's still strange to see him in jeans and a button-down. Cas smiles at him across the restaurant, grinning broadly. Dean's a little smug when a few heads turn as Cas walks by. But Cas doesn't acknowledge them, keeps his eyes on Dean until he's back at their table.
"Is that Sam?" he asks as he takes his seat. When Dean nods, Cas adds, "Tell him hello."
"Cas says hi," Dean parrots.
"Hi, Cas!" Sam says. "I'm glad my brother finally grew a pair and took you somewhere nice."
"Bitch," Dean accuses.
"Jerk," Sam replies affectionately. "Go eat your breakfast."
"Whatever, man," Dean mumbles, trying for nonchalant. It comes out in a laugh. "I'll call you later."
"What's your opinion of granola?" Cas asks as Dean hangs up.
He decides on an omelette. Dean settles on something basic: fried eggs and bacon with a side of potatoes. It's satisfying, decent portions, not as greasy as diner variety. He's mopping egg yolk from the plate with the edge of his toast when Cas's foot nudges his under the table and trails up his calf.
"You're blushing," Cas whispers, looking mighty pleased with himself.
Cas announces he's tired when they finish eating, so they head back to the cabin for a while. It has started to rain, a constant drizzle that creates a hypnotic pattern on the roof. The rain caused a drop in temperature, so the inside of the cabin is cooler. They crack a window for air. It lets in a light breeze, so Dean leaves the ceiling fan off. He peels off his shirt and jeans, lies down in just boxers. Cas fits himself naked along Dean's side, laying an arm across his stomach, and they listen to the rain.
It falls, and Cas maps Dean's chest with his mouth, slowly, like he's worshipping. He moves progressively downward, peeling off Dean's boxers; kissing his stomach, the jut of Dean's hipbones, the thatch of hair. He positions himself between Dean's legs and licks him once, then again. Dean groans in encouragement and fists the sheets, seeks out Cas's face.
"Am I doing it right?" Cas asks hesitantly when Dean's hand brushes his ear, skims his temple. Dean pushes the hand back into Cas's hair. It's soft, tangled between Dean's fingers. He strokes it gently, coaxing Cas to continue.
"You're doing awesome," he promises. "Just watch your teeth."
Cas's lips close around his dick, warm and wet and soft. Dean gasps when Cas begins to lave his tongue over it, murmuring, "Yeah, that's good," and lets his head fall back. "Cas, baby, that's so good."
Cas's thumbs knead his inner thighs, easing them further apart. Dean squirms and tries to arch up into his mouth, curls a hand into the sheet, into Cas's hair. Cas holds him firmly in place. Outside, the wind blows, stirring the trees. Dean moans with it.
"I think," Cas says, pulling off to catch his breath, "I prefer you like this."
"Smartass," Dean mutters, but he fists Cas's hair tighter when he starts up again, begins to massage his scalp.
They prove that two grown men can fit into a single shower stall—not comfortably, there's no elbow room, but there's enough space for Dean to wrap his arms around Cas's neck, kiss him until he's delirious from it. The water pounds and pounds on his back.
"If it keeps raining," he asks as they towel dry, pull on clothes, "wanna grab an umbrella, check out the sights? I think there's a museum."
"I want to stay here with you," Cas admits. "But yes. Let's do that. I'd like to get something for Sam."
"What for?" Dean asks and sits on the bed to tie his boots.
Cas smiles, but there is a distance on his face. "To say thank you," he says and shuts the window.
They buy Sam an ugly Christmas ornament. It doesn't even cost $10, a silly circular thing with the condor flying over a colorful representation of the canyon. Dean thought Cas was joking until he carted it up to the register. Dean pays for it with a straight face. It's just as well. It's the sort of thing Sammy will like, sentimental and frivolous. Plus, Cas picked it out.
And Dean knows right then, that ugly thing will always be his favorite Christmas decoration.
"Do you think Sam will like it?" Cas asks, folding the bag over so it doesn't get wet.
"He'll love it," Dean promises.
It continues to rain all afternoon, so they hike out to the geology museum. They're both water logged by the time they get there, but Cas smiles good naturedly and goes to the bathroom for paper towels. Dean hears him coughing from the gift shop and scowls. He'll get Cas into dry clothes when they go back to the room, and maybe he should bring him dinner in bed, just to be on the safe side.
The museum is small. It contains a handful of colorful exhibits that provide information about the bedrock and the various layers above it, the fossils they're likely to find. Dean spends a couple minutes skimming the information. He twists up his mouth as he reads, thinks how Sammy would find it fascinating. He likes science okay, but these are rocks. Dean likes chemistry and physics and shit blowing up. But rocks are Cas's speed, so he tries.
The real gem of the museum is the viewing window, which spans the length of the building. It provides a widescreen view of the canyon. Dean's got his mouth open, just taking in the sheer magnitude of it, the angles and colors, when Cas sidles up beside him, leans his head on Dean’s shoulder. He's damp and smells like rain.
"Think we oughta send Sammy a postcard?" Dean asks after a while, motioning to the adjoining gift shop.
He hears the frown in Cas’s reply, "Why would we do that? We’ll see him in two days."
Dean shrugs. "Just something you do on vacation," he says. "I think."
"Oh," Cas says, considering. "In that case, we should send him one."
"One postcard for Sammy," Dean says. "You got anyone you want to send one to?" When Cas doesn't answer right away, Dean prompts, "What about your old boss, Nora? She seemed...nice."
Cas laughs against his shoulder. "I knew you were jealous of her," he says. He sighs contentedly. "When you told me you couldn't let me go on the date with her, I hoped that was why."
Dean’s quiet for a while, thinking. He replays the choking tension in the car, how nausea had curled in his stomach, twisting it as he watched Cas make his way up the walkway to the house’s front door. Don’t go inside, he wanted to shout, pull Cas back into the car, peel away. He couldn’t take his eyes off of him.
"Thought you were gonna hurl in the car," he begins, staring out at the red, red rock. He lets his head rest against Cas’s and exhales. "You were so damn excited. I didn't want to ruin that."
"It was so quiet, after I fell, being cut off from Heaven," Cas says, "and when you asked me to leave, I didn't even have your voice. I never cared for Nora, not like I care for you. I just needed to fill the silence."
Dean doesn't answer, just rests his hand on the small of Cas's back, rubs it gently.
"I'm glad I got to experience love as a human," Cas says. "It's my favorite aspect."
There are so many things Dean should say in this moment. They create a turbulence in his head: I need you, Cas. I want you. Nobody's ever wanted you more than I do.
But he doesn't say any of them. It's too much and not enough. They stick in his throat. He thinks Cas understands, though, from the way Dean burrows a little closer, noses Cas's hair. Cas lifts his chin to catch Dean's mouth. His upper lip and chin are scratchy; he needs to shave. They kiss for a while, and then Cas drags him in front of a display of postcards.
They pick out one for Sammy and a handful to display like photographs. Dean mentions they can make a scrapbook, maybe. Cas seems excited about that, so Dean promises that once they get back to Kansas, they'll find a craft store: get some paper and glue, whatever the hell people use to make them.
Cas takes his time filling out the postcard. He sits in the hotel lobby, on a fat chair, and taps a pen against his mouth. Dean is patient and waits for him, arms crossed over his chest, and flicks a stack of brochures, watches water drip from the umbrella and pool on the floor.
"Any time, Hemingway," Dean quips when ten minutes have gone by.
Cas mails the postcard at the front desk and charges the postage to their room. He doesn't let Dean see what he wrote.
"You can read it once it arrives," he says. "Maybe it will beat us home."
"Assuming I can read your damn chicken scratch," Dean says, though something in Cas's words rings melancholy. They step outside, and he opens the umbrella. The rain knocks dully against the taut fabric. He slings an arm around Cas's shoulder, guides him down the steps. "You hungry yet?"
When the rain stops mid afternoon, they hike a couple miles around the rim. Dean keeps the pace leisurely, even though Cas doesn't complain about being tired again. He does take Dean's hand on the way home, which causes a couple sideways glances. Dean shoots one guy a nasty look, which makes the guy drop his eyes immediately. It's probably the kind of look Dean would've given someone himself, not too long ago. He wishes it hadn't taken him so long not to give a damn what other people think.
When they get home, if Cas is feeling up to it, Dean's gonna suggest they take a day trip to Lawrence. Make a visit to the graveyard. Take flowers to his mom. It's been a long time since they've done that. Sammy'll come along with them. It'll be just the three of them, like old times. His mom would've liked Cas. Hell, he thinks his dad probably would've liked him too, once he got over the shock.
He imagines a family dinner: mom, dad, and Sammy sitting around a well-scrubbed wooden table, and maybe Bobby is there. He and Cas tuck in at the end. Mom passes a big bowl of mashed potatoes around (Sammy eats twice the amount of anyone else), and dad makes a mess when he cuts the bread. Cas keeps a hand on Dean's thigh while they eat, and Bobby calls them all idiots.
His family is dwindling. Soon, it'll be just him and Sammy.
It's overwhelming to contemplate, a pressure in his chest, tightness in his lungs and around his heart. So he doesn't think about it anymore, just lets Cas guide him along the trail, burns the shape and size of his hand to memory.
They get an early dinner. Dean texts Sammy that they're heading out tomorrow morning, will try to make it home in one haul but will probably stop halfway like they did on the way out.
Sam writes back, "Take your time."
They slump against the door to watch the sunset, with Cas sitting in the vee of Dean's legs. Dean rubs his neck and shoulders.
"Sure you don't want to walk up to the edge?" Dean asks, massaging his thumb in a circle just below Cas's hairline. Cas shakes his head, reaches up to still Dean's hands, and pulls them over his shoulders, so Dean's draped across his back. Dean tightens his hold on Cas, lets their heads rest together. They rock as the sun slips away and leaves the world blue.
Cas is quiet when they go to bed. Instead of taking off his own clothes like he has every other night, he approaches Dean, draws Dean's hands to his chest, against the line of buttons. He wants Dean to undress him, so Dean does: slowly, methodically. He unfastens each button, leans down to kiss Cas's collarbone as he slips his arms inside the open shirt, around Cas's chest. Cas is shaking.
"You okay?" Dean asks.
But Cas doesn't answer. He take several breaths with his mouth open, brings his fingers to Dean's face, alighting on his jaw. There's something not right about him. His eyes are glassy, feral, unfocused, and Dean wonders for a moment if he's going to drop dead on the spot. He tries to step away, but Cas puts a firm hand on the back of his neck, angles Dean's head down.
It's not like any of the kisses that have come before this one. Cas is scared. His kisses are painful. He bites, but Dean doesn't tell him to stop, not even when he tastes blood. He takes it, lets it go on until Cas slows, stops moving and just pants into Dean's mouth.
Dean finishes undressing Cas, eases him onto the bed, onto his back. He lies down next to him. Cas fumbles for Dean's buttons, his zipper, yanks his belt—he's shaking but determined, a wildness in his eyes. He makes a frustrated noise when the zipper sticks; he tries to force it, tugging too hard on the puller. It won't give, strains like it'll break. The noise from his throat slips into despair.
Dean says, "Cas, hey, hey, slow down," and stills his hands.
Cas glares at him across the pillow, nostrils flared with irritation.
"Think you overdid it today," Dean says, kissing the peaks of Cas's knuckles. Cas's hands tremble against his mouth. "Maybe we should sleep, do this in the morning when you aren't so tired."
"Don't tell me how I feel," Cas snaps and instantly recoils, wrenching his hands back. He closes his eyes and rolls away from Dean, curls into himself, like he's shrinking into the bed.
Dean's quiet for a few minutes, jams a fist against his mouth, and tells himself that Cas isn't mad at him, just mad at the world. He's not sure what to say, if he should say anything or just let Cas ride this out.
He wonders what Sam would do if he were here. Sam would probably try to get Cas to talk, make him coffee and wait for him to speak. But Sam's not here. This is up to Dean. They can't end things like this. For all he knows, any minute could be Cas's last.
"You're allowed to be pissed off," he says and rubs the back of his hand against Cas's shoulder blade. "You should’ve seen me before the hellhounds came."
It's a while before Cas says anything, but Dean can tell he's still awake. He can hear Cas breathe, swallow thickly, the way Dean does when he's got something on his mind. Cas's breathing changes as Dean continues to stroke his back, a gradual slowing in the rise and fall of his shoulders. Dean keeps at it, hoping to soothe and calm him by touch, but Cas shudders.
"Hey," Dean says, sliding his hand to Cas's shoulder. "Hey. Talk to me."
"I hate this," Cas whispers. "I hate that my body is breaking down. I hate that I have no control over when I die. I hate that I got so little time with you. I hate that we didn't do something about it sooner."
Cas hasn't shrugged off his hand. Dean takes a chance and kisses from Cas's shoulder to his neck, noses the back of it. Cas seems to relax. The tension eases from his muscles, and he melts back against Dean's chest. Dean holds him and lets him breathe.
"Dean?" Cas asks after a while. The anger is gone from his voice, leaving it quiet and small. Dean speaks against his shoulder.
"If I weren't dying," Cas says, with emphasis on the last word, spilling heavy and awkward from his mouth, "would you have brought me here?"
The question causes a shameful, wretched thing to coil in his stomach. He denied feeling anything about Cas for years, even to himself. And he would have gone on denying it, encouraged Cas if he'd met a nice woman, played best man at his wedding, teased him about kids. He would've buried this love deep, deep within himself, in the maze that conceals his childhood scars, his fears.
Cas is waiting for his answer, tensing in his arms. It would be kinder to lie, but Dean can't, not about this.
"I don't know," he says instead, lips soft at the base of Cas's neck.
But Cas doesn't seem upset by his answer. He rolls on top of Dean's body, his warm weight bearing Dean into the mattress. He kisses, deep and urgent, as he unfastens Dean's belt with steady hands.
They do a quick wash up in the morning, grab coffee and a muffin at the hotel's coffee shop after checkout, and hit the road. Dean tosses the keys to Cas and says, lightly, "You take the first leg."
Cas looks surprised, opens his eyes wider like he's waiting for the punch line, but he nods mutely and unlocks the car. Dean throws their bags in the trunk and climbs into the passenger's seat.
Cas looks content as he drives, leaning one arm out the window, keeping the other halfway up Dean's thigh. Cas moves his fingers in lazy patterns, glances to Dean every few minutes when he checks his mirrors.
He looks tired, especially around his eyes—they're more heavily shadowed than usual—and Cas has been coughing steadily since mid morning. Dean picks up a pack of Ricola at the first gas station they hit up, but the drops don't seem to help much, and Cas doesn't like the taste. Dean stashes them in the glove compartment. They're made out of herbs or something, so Sammy will likely use them.
"You look good driving my Baby," Dean compliments. Cas looks smug, so Dean points a finger at him: "Don't tell Sam I said that," he qualifies.
Cas laughs, but it dissolves into another coughing fit, so Dean tries not to make him talk much after that. He convinces Cas to take a sip of water from a half-drunk bottle, fiddles with the tape deck, hums along to the music. Occasionally, he pats Cas's hand where it rests on his thigh.
They stop for gas and food around noon, so Cas can stretch his legs. While he's in the bathroom, Dean orders him chicken soup for lunch, because maybe he's just coming down with a cold. Everyone knows chicken soup's the remedy when your throat's sore. He asks for tea, too, with a packet of honey. Sammy's always making that crap when he's under the weather. Cas says he likes the soup more than the cough drops, but that he would rather have a cheeseburger. He eyes Dean's and licks his lips. Dean pushes his plate across the table and watches Cas sink his teeth into it with satisfaction.
"Better?" he asks and reluctantly takes the soup.
"Much," Cas says with a ketchup 'stache. He uses three packets of honey in his tea and sips contentedly.
Dean takes back the wheel after lunch so Cas can rest. He lies down across the front seat, knees tucked up awkwardly so he'll fit, head pillowed on Dean's thigh. Dean drops a hand onto his hair and strokes it, working it between his fingers, memorizing this too.
They drive straight through Glenwood Springs, neither of them anxious to spend another night smelling like Eau de Demon. Cas finds a reasonable hotel just a few hours from Lebanon with his phone (thanks, Sammy), so they decide to stop for the night, even though Dean's pretty sure he can make it the rest of the haul.
Cas looks grateful when they pull into the parking lot. He goes inside for their room key while Dean parks the car. It's an honest-to-god hotel, with access to the rooms from the inside. Cas waits for him by the elevator while Dean schleps their bags.
"Sam's gonna love the credit card bill," he says under his breath, watching as the call button glows white around the edges when Cas pushes it.
"They have make-your-own waffles," Cas tells him, holding out a hand for his bag, but Dean scowls and shakes his head, adjusts the strap on his shoulder.
"And they wash the duvet covers between guests."
"You're a sucker for advertising," Dean says. "Think they've got a hot tub." He wrinkles his nose at the sharp bite of chlorine.
"It's better than sulfur," Cas says, and he has a point. The elevator arrives and slides open. "We're on three," he says. He seems to get a childlike thrill out of pushing the button, watching the doors slide shut at his command.
The room's nice, one of the nicest hotel rooms Dean's ever stayed in. It has generic but decent art—black and white abstract pictures that could've been taken anywhere—but the furniture is all real wood, surfaces are dust-free, and the comforter does look clean. Dean drops their bags on the floor and shrugs out of his jacket. Cas kicks off his shoes, sets his phone on the dresser, and situates himself in the center of the bed. He picks up the TV remote and starts flipping through channels.
"I'm grabbing a shower," Dean says, rapping his knuckles on the doorframe. "Then we can get some food."
"The woman at the front desk said there's a pizza parlor not far from here. They deliver until eleven."
"Awesome," Dean says. "Out in ten, unless you wanna join me?"
Cas smiles but shakes his head.
"Your loss," Dean says, winks, and closes the bathroom door.
There's a mini bottle of shampoo and a mini bottle of conditioner on the counter. He never used conditioner except when he lived with Lisa, and he'd try it out because it was there. It did make his hair soft, but he's not weird enough to invest in the stuff like Sammy does. He pours half the bottle into his palm, rubs the thin bar of soap all over his body, and rinses off. There's a bottle of mouthwash, so he uses that too, since they're already paying for it. He swirls it in his mouth while he pulls his jeans and shirt back on.
He hears Cas coughing in the next room and winces in sympathy. It sounds like it's going to settle, but then it starts back up again: deep and rumbling, painful from the way Cas moans. Dean spits out the mouthwash.
"You want a glass of water?" he calls through the door, scooping a palmful of water to rinse his mouth. He waits a couple seconds, hears Cas coughing again, rougher, then—
"Cas, you okay?"
But Cas doesn't answer him. Dean quickly wipes his hands on his jeans and pushes the door open.
Cas is on his stomach, collapsed on the bed. He's struggling for air, gulping in strained, wet sounds. His eyes are wide and scared. He holds both arms out toward Dean, who scrambles to the bed, eases Cas into a sitting position.
Cas's lips are moving. He's trying to speak, but Dean puts his fingers over his mouth.
"You gotta calm down, man," he says. "Don't talk." But Cas is shaking his head, and his eyes are watering. Dean thinks about taking him to a hospital, but he has no idea if they'd be able to help, if there’s even time.
"Dean," Cas rasps against his fingers.
"Yeah," Dean says, cupping Cas's cheek. "I'm right here," he says. "I got you."
"D'you want me to call him?"
Cas's words come slowly. "The ornament," he says.
"You’re gonna give it to him yourself."
Cas's face crumples. Dean's afraid Cas is going to start crying, so he cards his fingers through Cas's hair and swallows, promises, "I'll make sure he gets it."
It has the effect Dean wants. Cas appears to settle, coughing but relaxing his face. He turns it into Dean's palm.
"I loved you," he whispers, "from the moment I glimpsed you in Hell." He seeks out Dean's other hand, locks their fingers together. "I had never seen a soul so beautiful."
"No," Dean says, shaking his head roughly. He squeezes Cas's hand. "Don't you do that. I’m gonna go get the car. We're gonna haul ass home, and Sammy will figure something out."
But Cas shakes his head, and his mouth flickers into the barest of smiles. "The grace is leaving me," he says gently, but with resolution. He coughs again and looks apologetic.
"Bullshit," Dean says, stroking a thumb across his cheek. "That's bullshit, Cas. We make our own rules, always have."
"Dean," Cas says, just one word, but somehow that word, the way it falls from Cas’s lips, imparts everything that exists between them, from their first meeting until this moment, every look and touch in between.
Dean swallows hard, swallows the fear rising up, the sorrow, holds it in his chest, heavy and terrible, nods that Cas can continue.
Cas untangles his hand from Dean's and slides it up his arm, to his shoulder, fitting it over the place where his handprint once appeared. "It's a nice parallel," he says, pausing to take a breath, "that we meet and part like this."
Dean leans in close, until their foreheads touch.
"I love you," Cas murmurs. "You need to know that I love you."
The words are a warm breath against Dean’s lips, beautiful and terrifying in their finality. Cas isn't being sentimental. He says what he believes to be true, and he says what is necessary. Dean kisses him desperately, for just a few seconds, until Cas pulls back enough to suck in air.
"Don't go," Dean begs into his neck, twists his hands in Cas's hair. "I need you to hang on, man. Don't go."
"Don't cry," Cas says. "I'll see you again."
Dean rocks back until their eyes meet. Cas is crying too. The swell of tears intensifies the color of his irises, a flash of blue in the stark white room. Dean will never forget that color, not as long as he lives.
He’s never asked Cas about Heaven, if it's possible for him to go home, if he even wants to. Heaven would be dangerous for both of them, Hell impossible, and Purgatory—
Cas looked so lost, kneeling beside the river. Dean thinks of him beside that river again, this time in khakis and one of Dean's plaid button-down shirts. He thinks not of a year but the whole of an existence, running from the Leviathan. Dean wouldn't be surprised to end up there himself. They could make it work, maybe. Set up a perimeter. Piece together a cabin. Find Benny again. Without his grace, Cas wouldn't be a target, and Dean would be dead. They shouldn't attract more attention than any other soul trapped there.
But he doesn't want that for Cas. He wants Cas to go home. What he did to Heaven, what he did on Earth—Cas will never fully forgive himself, but he needs to. He has to.
"Yeah?" Dean’s voice wavers with the unasked question about their fates.
"I'll find you," Cas vows, a cracked whisper. It's a lie. Dean knows it's a lie from the sad, sad look on Cas's face. He's lying for Dean's sake, but Dean rolls with it, drinks it up.
"Okay," he chokes out and tries to smile through his tears. He futilely swipes a wrist over his eyes. The tears fall anyway, roll down his face and neck. "Yeah. Real soon, alright?"
Cas smiles. His skin has gone clammy and cold. Dean pushes the hair from his forehead, combs his fingers through it gently, wishing he had done it sooner, weeks ago, years ago. Cas coughs again and braces himself by gripping Dean's shoulder so tight, it's painful. Dean cradles him, murmurs soothingly against his ear, "I got you, I got you," until the worst of it passes.
It's an agonizing handful of seconds before Cas relaxes in Dean's arms, but he does, goes soft and breathes easier, caresses Dean's shoulder. Dean guides him back, tucks a pillow beneath Cas's head, hastily covers him with the comforter. He's got to keep him warm. He's got to keep him calm. Cas paws at his hands.
"I'm not leavin’ you," Dean says and takes one of Cas’s, holds it between his. Cas looks up at him, beaming, before the coughing splits his face in pain. But he keeps smiling.
For a few seconds, Dean thinks he's fighting through it. He holds his smile in place, hopeful, encouraging. Cas's eyes snap closed as he gasps and the room is still. His hand loosens incrementally in Dean's grasp and goes slack. Dean squeezes it, but Cas doesn't squeeze back.
For a few seconds, Dean just stares, uncomprehending. But then his chin begins to quiver, and the initial streak of panic blazes in his stomach. He shakes Cas’s shoulder.
"Hey, Cas, come on, don’t do this," he says and slaps his face, but Cas doesn't respond. He doesn’t move. Dean pulls in a shaky breath.
"Cas?" he asks again, louder, heart slamming beneath his ribs. He holds a hand under Cas's nose to check if he's breathing. Nothing. He keeps his hand in place, muttering, "Come on, Cas, c'mon, baby, breathe."
But Cas remains still. He's got no pulse, no heartbeat when Dean lays his head on Cas's chest and listens. Dean's own heart pounds and pounds, and he can't stop the quaking in his hands, the tremors that course through him. He buries his face in Cas's stomach and chokes on a sob. It echoes like a gunshot. He stands up and stumbles away, crowds up against the dresser.
He reaches behind himself, feels for the edge, turns around to face it. He seethes in red hot anger, uncontrollable, just like the Mark eked from him, swirls the acrid taste of it in his mouth, sucks it down as air. He holds it in his lungs until they burn.
Dean is on fire. He grits his teeth, whips his left arm and shoves everything off the dresser. The coffeemaker and mugs clatter to the floor; the lid to the ice bucket spins at his feet. Cas's cell phone thuds dully on the carpet but doesn't break. Dean leans forward on his palms, against the edge of the dresser. His head hangs down, low, toward his chest.
Three days. They had three days together, and so many wasted years. All he's got left are a handful of crappy photos Cas snapped on his phone, a couple personal items he left at the bunker, and a Christmas ornament.
The nausea sweeps up and through him. Dean crams a fist in his mouth but can't contain it. He lurches into the bathroom and throws up, with his arms crossed over the seat, retching until there isn't anything left in his stomach. His throat stings from the acid. He collapses with his back against the shower, head lolling against the curtain.
What's he supposed to do? Should he call an ambulance? Should he call the cops? No—he'll take Cas's body home, wrap him in a bedsheet, sneak him down the stairwell and carry him to the trunk. He can't leave his body in Colorado; Cas deserves a hunter's funeral, and Sammy should be there. Cas would like that.
Sammy. He's gotta call Sammy. He pulls out his phone, stares at it in his palm but can't dial. He lays it on the floor beside him.
Dean owes him a million apologies. He'd accepted Sam's distress over Jessica's death but he never really understood it, not until now. Because right now it feels like a hound clawed his chest open. Hell, that hurt less.
He can't breathe. He doesn't want to breathe. He wants to lie down on that bed next to Cas and die himself. He never thought about how he would feel when Cas died, when Cas actually died, because he's survived Cas's death before but—
That was different. Cas was an angel, then. There was always a chance, however small, that he could come back, that's some unseen force would resurrect him.
Dean should've grabbed him by his ragged wings and shoved his ass back up to Heaven, forced him to go home. The other angels would've taken care of him. Cas was their brother. No matter what he did, Cas belonged with them. He didn't belong down here on Earth. Dean's not worth it. One human's not worth dying for.
"Dammit, Cas," he moans. His voice is a sharp echo off the tiles.
A part of him wishes they'd never taken this trip, that he didn't know it could be like this between them, that he can't still taste the wet of Cas's mouth or feel the way his hands play across Dean's skin. He wishes he'd tried harder to save Cas instead of wasting his last days living out a fantasy they can't have. It doesn't matter what Sammy said. There has to be someone who could've helped them.
But he thinks of Cas's face just before he died, of how happy he looked. As much as his loss hurts, Dean wouldn't have denied him anything.
He wonders if Cas can see him now, if he can hear him again, if Dean prays. He'll pray every day for the rest of his life, if there's a chance that Cas can hear him calling. He drops his forehead to his knees, and breathes Cas's name.
He looks up at the ceiling, like it'll give him a sign, stares at a bad patch job next to the air return, focuses on the shift in color, lets it lull him to a stupor. He can breathe again, breathes through his mouth, sucks in air through parted lips until his bottom lip is taut and his tongue feels dry.
Maybe it's been a minute, maybe an hour since he came in here. He has no concept of time. The tiles are cold against his palms, but they're holding him upright. He's past discomfort, legs and back numb. His tongue moves in his mouth, sluggish and clumsy, but there aren't any words.
His eyes well and spill over, then go dry for a while before welling up again. He shakes from the extremes. But he swallows through the tightness in his throat, pants until it eases, until he's able to take small, controlled breaths.
He feels for the phone, the solid weight of it in his hand, thumbs to Sam's number but doesn't dial. He can't deal with Sam's pity just yet. It's too much.
There's a rustle in the next room, like the brush of leaves over a window. Dean thinks he imagined it at first, but there it is again: the telltale flutter of wings. He's heard that sound too many times not to recognize it.
Heaven must be aware of Cas’s death. They've sent someone. If those bastards think they’re laying claim to Cas’s body, he’ll tear them apart and scatter their freaking molecules across the whole damn cosmos.
He wrenches himself upright, heart in his throat, hauls ass into the bedroom in time to see Cas struggle upright on an elbow.
"Cas?" Dean croaks.
Cas gasps in a breath, like he's been trapped underwater. He gives a wet, rattling cough that seems to dislodge something and breathes in deep, easily, for the first time in two days.
Dean drops onto the floor next to the bed and clasps Cas's hand. He’s inexplicably, irrationally furious.
"You're supposed to be dead, you asshole!" he bites out. "What the hell happened?"
"Dean?" Cas asks groggily. He blinks rapid-fire, like he's confused. He appears unsure of his surroundings, eyes darting about the room. Cas is shaking, his entire body trembling. He's terrified, Dean realizes. His own anger dissolves.
"Hey," he says gently, stroking Cas's hand. "It's okay. Cas, it's okay."
Cas continues to blink unnaturally fast, his mouth opening and closing like a fish.
"Cas, hey," Dean pleads, touching his cheek. His skin is warmer. "Cas. Castiel, look at me. Can you look at me?"
Cas's eyes snap to his and lock in place. They swim with confusion.
"Are you real?" he asks.
"Yeah," Dean murmurs. "Are you?"
"I...think so," Cas says. He presses a hand to his forehead and closes his eyes. When he opens them again, he proclaims, "The grace is gone."
"You weren't breathing," Dean confesses. "Your heart stopped. I thought you were—"
"I was home," Cas says faintly, as if he can’t believe the truth of it. He has a faraway look in his eyes, like he can see something Dean can’t.
"Home," Dean repeats. "As in Heaven?"
Cas nods slowly. "I heard my brothers and sisters. I heard them announce my return. But there was something tethering me to Earth. They said I couldn't stay, that I had to come back."
"But they let you in. That’s good, right?"
Instead of answering, Cas sucks in his lower lip. He slowly reaches for Dean and begins to unbutton his shirt. Dean frowns but lets him, uncertain of Cas's intentions. Cas pushes the shirt open, off of Dean’s chest and down his arms. It lands softly on the floor beside him. Cas drops his gaze to Dean's shoulder.
"Oh," he says.
"What?" Dean asks, before he looks himself.
The imprint of Cas's hand is emblazoned on his skin again, only this time it isn't red. It's silvery white, cool to the touch and smooth, not raised. Cas stares at it in awe, brings his own fingers down to match.
"I think I understand," he says.
"Understand what?" Dean asks. When Cas doesn't immediately reply, Dean continues, "Cas, I don't speak befuddled angel. Can you bring me into the loop here?"
Cas takes a deep breath before replying, "I think I left a part of my grace behind, in you."
Dean blinks. "Say what?"
"When I remade you," Cas explains. "I reshaped you, from your molecules. It permanently weakened my grace. I thought that was because the task was so great, but now…" His tongue darts out. Cas wets his lips, eyes flicking up to Dean's momentarily, then down again to his shoulder. "That grace must have remained with you."
"Wait. So as long as I have your grace in me, you can't die?"
Cas dips his head. "It appears that way."
"But what happens to you when I, uh…?" Dean makes a cutthroat motion with his index finger.
Cas lifts one shoulder and lets it fall. "I assume I'll die when you do," he says.
"Is there any way to get it outta me?" Dean asks.
It's the wrong thing to say. Cas's eyes harden. He directs his line of vision to the mattress.
"I can call Hannah, if you like. I'm sure she would be able to remove it."
His voice has gone flat. He removes his hand from Dean's shoulder and angles his body away.
"Cas," Dean says quickly. "I didn't mean it like that. I didn't mean—shit."
He has no idea what to say, and he's never been good with words, so he does what comes naturally to him: he climbs onto the bed, turns Cas's face toward him, kisses him slowly, shows Cas how much he means to him.
"I don't want you to die," Dean insists between kisses, with Cas's face framed in his hands. "I don't wanna live without you, Cas. You've gotta know that."
"Dean?" Cas asks against his lips.
"Yeah?" Dean asks breathily.
"Did you vomit while I was dead?"
"Little bit," Dean admits.
"I thought so," Cas says and tucks his face into Dean’s neck instead. "Your mouth tastes terrible."
Dean laughs and gathers Cas in his arms, rocks and rocks and rocks him against the headboard.
It’s no shocker that Sam loves the ornament. Cas presents it to him in the paper bag from the store, holding it out and waiting for Sam to take it.
"It’s great, you guys. Thanks," Sam says with a huge, soppy grin and hangs it on a cabinet knob.
Cas folds Sam into a hug. Dean hears him whisper something. Cas's voice is too low for him to make out, just a rumble against Sam's shirt, but Dean thinks he knows what Cas said anyway, the same words scribbled on the postcard that arrives a few days later.
Dean flings it to Sam across the breakfast table. Sam reads it and chuckles, glances to the couch where Cas is sitting with his coffee. The television is off. He's nose-deep in a book, face stern with thought. Dean looks at him and smiles, scratches his shoulder, feels warmth and gratitude bubble up in his chest.
Sam lays the postcard next to his laptop, picture side down, taps an index finger against the black scrawl.
"You're welcome," he says.