The angels—scattered and chaotic and mistrustful, seething with hatred for Castiel and the humans who engineered his downfall—are nonetheless how Castiel first realizes: something is wrong with Dean Winchester.
Castiel is in a bar in Wisconsin, his eyes trained on the television, when he hears the first whisperings. He’s been waiting for the bartender’s shift to end so he can interrogate her, thumbing through old text messages on his cell phone without mustering up the courage to contact Dean.
Angel radio, as the Winchesters like to call it, has hardly been reliable lately. It’s broken, broken like Heaven and like the faith they all used to have in the justness of their creator. Castiel tries his best to tune it out, but he’s growing weaker and messages make it through anyway.
Winchester. The word catches at the edge of his awareness and he sits up straighter, fingers tightening around his half-full bottle of beer.
He refocuses his senses. It takes an effort, siphoning the stolen grace into reaching for those intangible waves of communication. Even then, it’s subtle and diaphanous, trying to slip out of his grasp. Castiel steels himself, his vessel’s jaw clenching, and reaches.
Dean Winchester. Do you think he even knows?
Something like a laugh, a dissonant jangle of bells.
Do you think Castiel knows?
Another angel, their voice overlaid with building anger. Not if we can find Dean Winchester first.
His mission forgotten, Castiel tears out of the bar. He calls Dean; no answer. He tries again.
Paralyzed and impatient behind the wheel of his car, Castiel wishes he needed to sleep. To pass the time, for a distraction.
In the morning, Sam calls.
The creeping vertigo, though—that’s new. The flutter of weakness in his hands when he grips the edge of the mattress. His knees giving out as he climbs to his feet, the bedframe digging into his back while he sprawls on the floor and tries to wait it out.
He stays like that for a long time, head tipped back and breathing shallow, not thinking. Lately, he’s pretty good at that, at focusing on the white noise in his head instead of letting anything catch and sink in. He’ll get his shit together in a couple minutes—yeah. Get back to what he needs to be doing.
Time passes, maybe. There’s a fog in his head distorting the seconds, making every breath he drags in feel like minutes of his life, and Dean’s just waiting for it to recede into something bearable. Pain does, eventually, even if it doesn’t really go away. He’s figured that much out.
A handful of missed calls, his phone tells him. From Cas. Why the hell—
“No, we’re a little preoccupied right now, but—”
Sam’s voice. Dean sits up straighter, the knots along his spine protesting.
“Yeah, okay, I’ll put it on the list. Near the top, yep, absolutely. Yeah, you too. Um, ma’am.”
There’s a silence long enough that Dean’s feeling satisfied Sam has moved on, but there it comes, two tentative knocks on his door. Dean scrubs a hand across his face and presses the heels of his palms to his eyes.
“Dean,” Sam says, careful with the name in that new way Dean hates hearing. “I’m coming in.”
“I’m fine,” Dean starts. It’s a pathetic rasp, though, and he’s not fast enough anyway. The door swings open.
Sam practically looms over him, hands lifted uncertainly. “Hey, what’s—I thought you were all gung-ho about finding Abaddon. That’s our thing now, right?”
The pain in Dean’s arm tightens for a second, sharp and sudden, as he lifts his head, squinting up at Sam. “That’s our thing. Just give me a second. I’m good.” His fingers twitch at his side, itching for the heft of a weapon. That would make getting up and facing the day a hell of a lot easier.
Sam doesn’t give him a second. Sam hovers, like he wants to give Dean a hand but can’t nut up and offer with regular English words, while Dean claws himself into standing and wrangles himself into a mostly-clean pair of jeans. Sam walks a half-step behind him while he shuffles toward the war room, doesn’t say anything while Dean pours himself some bourbon because the best cure for a hangover is to drink some more, and watches while Dean leans down to flip through the papers that are piled up on the table.
After all that, Sam’s still not close enough to catch Dean when his knees buckle again and he goes down hard, so fast he doesn’t have time to grab for the table, biting out a goddammit before the world swims, tilts, and fades clean away.
At first he figures the voice is part of his dream, something that’s echoing off these endless shining arches as they break off into fractals, the splinters of splinters of more splinters making his head hurt even in unconsciousness. He’s covering his face with his hands, waiting for everything to get less fever-bright and ignoring the almost-familiar rumbling, Dean Dean Dean at the edges of his consciousness.
“Dean.” Jesus, give it a rest, he thinks.
“No.” That word feels good in his mouth, so he spits it out again: “No.”
Dean groans. It’s dark, thank fuck, when he opens his eyes, just the low light coming in from the hallway around the door, which is cracked open.
The planes of Cas’ face are shadowed, thrown into soft relief. “Hello, Dean.”
“Cas,” Dean says, his heart trying to sink and rise at the exact same stupid time. His right arm, tucked under the covers, feels too warm, inflamed. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Cas cocks his head, the way he does. “Sam called me. I’ve been trying to bring you back around.”
Sam, who’s nowhere to be seen. Dean closes his eyes again, just for the space of one word. “Why?”
Cas starts to reach for him, but he stops when Dean draws in a quick, startled breath, reflexive. “You know why,” he says. His hand drops awkwardly back to his side, fingers curling around the edge of the chair he’s pulled up to the side of Dean’s bed.
The insides of Dean’s eyelids are too bright. “Maybe you could use your words.”
Dean fixes his gaze on the ceiling, but he sees the quick little twist to Cas’ mouth out of the corner of his eye. “I’m not exactly sure what’s wrong with you,” Cas admits, neatly dodging the previous topic of conversation, “though I have some ideas. Either way, I don’t want to risk trying to make a diagnosis when you’re—incapacitated.”
“What, you think it’s me, or—” Dean pushes the covers down and rolls his right sleeve up to his elbow. The mark throbs so hard it pounds in his ears, its angry red visible even in the dim of the room.
Maybe Sam didn’t spill all the beans, because Cas’ eyes widen. Or maybe that’s just thanks to the unexpectedly gruesome visual, all those little veins spider-crawling their way up and down the skin of Dean’s arm. Dean’s kinda gotten used to it, but he’s gotta admit it’s looking particularly freaky today.
“Oh, Dean,” he says. Dean can’t figure out his tone, angry or disappointed or just resigned. He knows the feeling, but he still doesn’t want to look at Cas’ face.
“It’s no picnic,” Dean says, “but it’s fine, all right? It’s a—we need it to gank Abaddon for good.” Cas waits a beat, like he’s expecting the next part of that plan, the we’ll figure it out. The part that comes after the goal. “She’s a friggin’ menace, Cas.”
“There’s no arguing with that. Sam told me about the souls.”
“See?” Dean’s hand clenches into a fist, and this time the ripple of painful heat is good; it’s invigorating, clearing the sparks from his vision, and he tries to sit up, smacking Cas’ hands back away. “We got bigger things to worry about than whether I’m gonna look good in a bikini in time for summer.”
“You…” Cas hesitates. “You passed out, and Sam couldn’t rouse you. I drove for several hours to be here, you know, and I’ve been trying to wake you for some time.”
That stupid car. He almost forgot. Dean wants to laugh, but he’s not positive that wouldn’t hurt too. “Well, you can hop back in the driver’s seat, pal.”
“Come on. Finding Metatron, that’s important, that’s what you’re working on, not—”
“Not what?” Cas’ voice drops, going steely. “Dean, this isn’t some fleeting human illness you’ve contracted. That mark—”
“Look, I wanted this. I’m the one who asked for it. You think I haven’t noticed it’s not all perks?”
Cas’ face and voice go all gentle, both at the same time, and when he puts his hand on Dean’s elbow, this time Dean doesn’t move away. He thinks the shard of ice lodged in his gut might be fear. “Listen to me. That mark wasn’t meant for you.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“What were you dreaming about before you woke up?” Cas has never been so hot at giving straight answers.
“Nothing.” Dean tries to shrug out of Cas’ touch, but all he manages is a little twitch. It’s pathetic. “It didn’t make sense. Just a dream, anyway.”
“I’m not convinced of that.” Cas hesitates, his palm sliding down Dean’s upper arm. “Can you walk?”
Cas’ hands look out of place around the cheaply laminated menu, his long fingers turning the pages with care. “Do you have a preference, Dean?” he asks, like they’re just two dudes, coworkers or something, out for crappy Chinese lunch together.
Dean’s not totally clear on how they got here—Jade Garden, according to the pixelated font on the front page of his own untouched menu. There was Cas, steady with his arm around Dean’s waist as he guided him out of the bunker past Sam’s curious, concerned expression and into Cas’ stupid ugly car because Dean wasn’t gonna let him get anywhere near the Impala, no way no how. They drove, but Dean doesn’t know for how long, didn’t feel like counting miles when he could lean his forehead against the cool glass of the passenger’s side window, close his eyes, and leave the whole thing behind even for a little while.
“What, you didn’t get yourself some opinions on food while you were human?”
He’d been dreaming on the way, maybe. He thinks. There were feathers rustling, loud in his ears, and an insistent itch in his shoulder blades that made him want to reach back and rip until the skin peeled off in strips and left muscles and bone bare for the breeze to stem the rising heat in his body. The mark still aches, but it’s background noise for now.
Cas’s brow furrows. “I did eat more widely than before,” he says, “but rarely anything that couldn’t be obtained from the Gas-N-Sip where I was employed. The selection of non-Western foods was…” He trails off evocatively.
“Gotcha.” Dean’d left Cas with a couple fake cards and a wad of cash, plus an admonishment to use it all sparingly. Not a ton of spare income for going out to eat when you work at a gas station, apparently.
Cas softens. He sets the menu down and slides it across the table toward Dean. “I would appreciate your input.”
Well, Dean can take that offering for what it is. A couple minutes of normalcy and knowing what he’s doing will set him right. “Sure.” He reaches for the menu with his left hand. “Can’t go wrong with some egg rolls. Y’know, for starters.”
Cas nods, apparently solemn. “Then that’s where we’ll start.”
Dean plays along. “Uh, orange chicken’s a pretty safe bet…” There are lots of pages, and this is a relaxing distraction. He’s gonna take his time. Anyway, he likes the little quirk Cas’ mouth gets when he reads the menu descriptions out loud.
Dean barely notices when the waitress materializes at the side of their table. She’s quiet, no welcome to Jade Garden, how are we today, may I take your order, which is kind of weird, but Dean’s watching Cas pour himself a tiny cup of tea, so he doesn’t really notice.
Well, until he looks up, rearranging his face into a grin with hey there on the tip of his tongue, and sees the look on her face. Dark eyes wide, lips parted, jaw hanging slack. There’s no mistaking that she’s staring right the hell at him, either.
“Uh,” Dean says, “you okay?”
He sees Cas shift, straightening, out of the corner of his eye. “Marifiel,” Cas says. It’s low, sounds like a warning.
The waitress’ hands clench, balling into fists clutching at the yellow-stained apron she’s wearing. “Castiel,” she hisses.
Okay, not a waitress. Gotta be an angel, with a name like that.
“Dean,” Dean adds. “Janet. Rocky. Dr. Scott.”
Marifiel ignores him, all that passive horror sneaking its way right into what looks like fury. “How dare you,” she says, too flat to be a question. “This is how you take advantage of the trust we have placed in you.”
“I’ve told you.” Cas puts both hands on the table, palms up. “I’m no leader. Your trust is appreciated, but—”
Sitting right across the table from Cas, Dean’s got a spectacular, head-on view when Marifiel rears back and smacks him so hard across the face that the people in the damn kitchen probably hear the impact. It’d be funny if this were the movies. Cas gasps, sinking back into his chair.
“Unconscionable,” she says. Her voice wavers on the last syllable, and she darts a quick glance back at Dean. Cas has a hand on his own cheek, checking for damage.
“Hey.” Dean pushes his chair back from the table, takes a careful step toward Marifiel. “Whatever Cas did, I can pretty much guarantee he had good intentions.”
She’s silent, wide-eyed gaze fixed on him now. He risks another half-step closer, gritting his teeth against the pain in his arm and trying like hell to keep his expression neutral, and that’s when everything explodes: the mark, blossoming into searing pain; something slamming into his stomach hard enough to bowl him over, no questions asked; a deafening series of cracks like someone taking an ax to a log cabin.
“Holy shit.” Dean’s staring up at the ceiling, but all he can see are the spots dancing in the front of his vision. He’s not sure which hurts more, his ribcage or his arm.
“Essentially, yes.” Cas, somewhere above and to his left. He thinks. His head hurts too.
“Cas, what the hell.”
“I didn’t mean for Marifiel to resort to violence like that,” Cas says, like a normal guy would apologize for bumping into you in the hallway. “You’re no more permanently injured than you were when we got here, though.”
“Awesome, thanks. That makes me feel so much better.”
Cas hauls Dean to his feet with a hand flat against the small of his back and a grip like steel around the elbow of Dean’s good arm. “I’m sorry,” he says, then. That regret sounds a lot more genuine. His lips are pressed together, thin.
“Son of a bitch,” Dean says. There’s a hole in the restaurant’s opposite wall big enough to drive a Hummer through. “That angel. She must’ve done that.”
“Yeah.” Cas huffs out a breath. When Dean tries to make eye contact, Cas’ gaze skitters away. “Like I said, I didn’t intend…”
“Yeah,” Dean cuts him off, “you almost never do. You didn’t intend for her to resort to violence or, you know, massive property damage, okay, fine, but you did know she was gonna be here. And you knew she was gonna get all upset like that, and that she’d probably fly off the handle some way or another. So what gives?”
Cas is silent. He’s not like a human; he doesn’t feel like he has to fill up silences with bullshit or small talk. He just waits until he figures out what he needs to say.
“Cas, if you’re not going to tell me what the hell is going on anytime this century, we better get out of here.” There’s a frantic-looking man who probably owns the place approaching them, and Dean’s not sure he can get through that conversation without resorting to massive dickishness or a whole heap of lies he hasn’t had time to think up yet.
“I can’t fix that damage,” Cas says. No one asked him to. “I’m not—not anymore.”
“Out.” Dean jerks his arm out of Cas’ grasp. He might be a little fucked up on—on whatever, but he can damn well walk all the way to the car. Maybe it helps that Cas trails barely two feet behind him.
It’s obvious that Cas doesn’t feel like spilling the beans on the drive, and Dean’s not going to piss off the guy behind the wheel. But he’s not letting Cas off the hook, either. Cas stares straight ahead at the road, probably taking every driving safety tip out there as serious as a heart attack, the little crease between his eyebrows deepening as they go and the set of his jaw stubborn. Whoever taught Cas to drive, Dean’s gotta have a word with them about loosening up.
Before they can make it all the way to the bunker, Cas pulls over. Off to the side of the road, stray cars occasionally whooshing by against the backdrop of the early evening sky. A lot like Dean and Sam used to do when they had crap to work through and nowhere to do it in.
Maybe whatever Cas has to say is still percolating, judging by the thoughtfulness of how he glances sideways at Dean, but a battering ram got taken to Dean’s ribs and his arm’s on goddamn fire and he’s out of the amazingly tiny amount of patience he had in the first damn place. “Tell me,” he grits out. “Everything. What’s wrong with me, besides the painfully obvious. Why you just had to make a pit stop to visit your pal with anxiety issues and low impulse control. And, if you’re really in a sharing mood, what your problem is.”
Cas laughs, so small and quiet Dean wouldn’t recognize it if he didn’t already know that sound.
Not the reaction Dean was going for, but it comes close to deflating his irritation. “Massive property damage, buddy. I could’ve gone for that lunch, too.”
“You’re hungry. I am sorry about that, too. My—juice isn’t what it was before I was human. I’m weaker.” Cas’ hands slide off the steering wheel and fall into his lap, palms against his thighs.
“Shit happens. You got any idea how many windows I’ve broken in my life?”
“Dean.” Sometimes the unflinching solemnity of how Cas can look at people still sucks all the breath out of Dean’s lungs. “I wish I still had my grace—I could be much more accurate with this explanation—but you and I both know there’s something seriously wrong with you.”
“Gee, way to make a guy feel special.” Dean swallows, the skin on the back of his neck crawling. Cas being this direct feels like bad news.
“You are special,” Cas says matter-of-factly. “For a number of reasons. I’m pretty sure this is one of them, actually. I can’t tell you everything because I don’t know everything, and I’m sorry, for all of that.”
Dean snorts, anxiety buzzing too fast and close in his veins for a real laugh. “No shit you don’t know everything. Starving man here. I’ll take crumbs.”
“That mark is doing something to you, Dean. Something more than what it’s meant to do. I can’t tell you exactly what, but I know it’s nothing good. Your body and soul are fighting something and they’re fighting each other at the same time, and they’re not stopping to consult you.”
The mark knows they’re talking about it, maybe, because his arm burns afresh, a shock of sharp pain like razor wire tightening around his muscles. Dean’s not, not gonna let himself pass out like some overwhelmed Victorian lady again.
Focus on the details, Winchester. Dean’s heart is thumping loud in his ears, the world tilting around him in a way that’s getting familiar pretty fast. “So Marifiel. That’s why she went nutso.”
“That’s why she went nutso. She is, or was, willing to be loyal to me, and I wanted to see if I really was right about you.”
“That was you testing out a theory.”
“Technically. I hoped she’d stay calm long enough to bring us our meal, though. And then stick around to tell me whatever she sensed.”
“You drama queen,” Dean says in disbelief.
“I didn’t want to tell you anything before I had a better idea of what you’re dealing with. More information would be better, but Marifiel’s reaction was so dramatic that, well…”
“I need this mark,” Dean cuts in. He shoves his sleeve up again, the skin of his forearm hot to the touch, angling his body toward Cas and slapping his hand against the dashboard to show it off. “It doesn’t really matter to me if it gives angels the vapors.”
Cas’ lips thin as he reaches out, brushing cool fingertips against the crook of Dean’s elbow. It’s just a regular, human brush of skin on skin, no zap of angelic healing or crazy sudden overreaction like he got from Marifiel. Cas stays put, walking his fingers down Dean’s forearm. “It gives angels the vapors, as you say, because they can feel it acutely when something happens that’s wrong on a cosmic scale.”
“You’re not heading for the hills.” Dean pulls his arm back, leaving Cas’ hand hovering. He’s not touching that cosmic crap. “Who’s to say Marifiel wasn’t just an extra insane variety of angel?” Grasping at straws, like always.
Cas looks down at himself, smoothing his hands down the front of the new coat. “The rest of the angels, regardless of rank,” he says. “They’re still in touch with their grace. With the shifting of the spheres.”
“You’re not. You don’t feel that stuff anymore. Whatever about me’s scrambling angel brains.”
“No. This grace—isn’t mine.”
“Hey, least you can stand to be around me.” Dean wills down the lump in his throat and the accompanying flutter of panic.
“It’s not that I can’t tell at all.” A little smile twists Cas’ mouth as he studies Dean. “I know you very well. Your soul. I don’t need access to angel radio or any of the rest of it to feel it when you’re hurting, when you’re off your game.”
“I felt fine.” Whatever that means anymore. “It was okay, you know, up until—”
“You held the First Blade,” Cas says.
“Right.” Dean’s fingers shudder and curl into a fist. He’s got a second headache building right on top of the first one. Fucking nesting Russian dolls of pain.
It hadn’t felt good, the blade in his hand, but it had felt powerful, like all the other crap in his life sliding out of focus and into the background. The it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter, move on and get the hell over it actually working for the first time in decades. “That thing’s supposed to be so badass it can gank a knight of Hell, and this is what it’s doing to me? I can’t kill Abaddon if I’m benched.”
“You’re special.” It doesn’t sound so complimentary a second time.
Dean groans, his head going thunk back against the window. “Shit.” His reaction is flat, cursory, and Dean would love to freak out more, can feel the anxiety that’s gonna creep up on him eventually. It’s waiting in the corners of his head, too polite to barge in just yet.
He’s so tired, and everything hurts, and if he has his way, this isn’t gonna change what he has to do, no matter what some whiny, infighting angels have to say.
He closes his eyes. Cas’ll get them back home.
Second time in one day he’s woken up in his room with almost no idea how he got there. It’s almost pitch-dark now, his door shut firm and the covers pulled up neat around him.
He didn’t dream this time around. It’s a blessing so small it’s friggin’ miniscule, but Dean’ll take it.
Careful, wary of toppling right back to the ground, Dean pushes himself to his feet. There’s a half-empty glass of lukewarm water on his bedside table, so he knocks it back as he switches on the light.
Almost ten p.m., according to his watch. More hours of his life washed down the drain.
In the bathroom, washing his hands after he takes a piss, he avoids looking at the mirror. The fleeting peripheral vision glimpses of overgrown scruff and red-rimmed eyes are more than enough for him to get the picture on just what flavor of crap warmed over he looks like today.
“—may need your help,” Cas is saying as Dean edges his way toward the kitchen.
Dean leans against the wall and waits in the hallway.
“Okay.” Sam’s voice, followed by the creaky thump of the refrigerator door falling shut. “But I don’t think he’s gonna want—”
“That’s irrelevant.” Cas sounds frustrated. “If Metatron hadn’t taken my grace, I’d have a better idea how to guide you, but all I can tell you is that Dean is in danger. And that I don’t know how long he has before it’s too late to help him.”
“Because of the Mark of Cain.”
“Yes, and because he’s—he’s strong enough to have taken it on the first place, but his soul and body can’t keep feeding on each other and fighting each other indefinitely. If you had told me…”
“I didn’t know it mattered, Cas.”
It’s quiet. Dean leans his cheek against the wall, which is deliciously cold on his skin. Probably he’s missing some meaningful looks.
“Linda—and Kevin, I’m guessing—they want my help too. Research stuff, like they can’t really do while they’re on the road.”
“Yeah, but I don’t know if anything here’s gonna be helpful with what they’re trying to do.”
Thank God the conversation’s moved on from him. Dean gets this creeping feeling when he knows people are talking about him, wants to ask them if they don’t have better things to be wasting their lives on.
His stomach growls, announcing his arrival in the kitchen a lot more effectively than anything he could have said. Cas and Sam’s heads both snap up and toward him, Sam with this guilty look on his face and Cas staring at him with what might be concern and is probably just angelic impassivity.
“Carry on with your pow-wow,” Dean says, yanking the fridge back open so hard that a half-empty bottle of ketchup topples over. The contents are pathetic. “Haven’t eaten today.” He tries the freezer next. Great, some bread that’s probably months old and a bag of frozen peas. He might as well just drink his breakfast, lunch, and dinner in one go.
Sam shuffles, clears his throat. “I could order a pizza.”
“Don’t bother.” His stomach protests again, so he drops two slices of bread—only a little freezer-burned—into the toaster. Cas is watching him, following his motions with his eyes. “What’s going on with Kevin and Mrs. Tran?”
It feels really good to talk about Kevin in the present tense like that. Can’t last, of course it can’t, but he’s gonna hang onto that for as long as he can. It clears away some of the leaden weight in his gut.
The apparent conflict clears out of Sam’s expression, and he sits up straighter. “You remember how Kevin was saying what a crapfest it is in the veil right now?”
“Yeah, like more backed up than me after riding the angel express, right?”
That makes Sam’s lips twitch up for a second, so mission accomplished. “Ew,” he says, “but yeah. Guess it’s interfering even with regular hunting.”
“Hard to send spirits on if they have nowhere to go,” Dean says.
“Right. But Kevin, you know, he’s smart and he’s got that prophet thing… I think the two of them have some kind of plan.”
“Mrs. Tran really seem like the type to sit around helplessly while her kid maybe goes vengeful?”
Dean chuckles lowly. “Point.” There’s an open, mostly empty bottle of Jack near Sam’s elbow. Maybe Sam won’t say anything if he grabs for it.
“They’re on their way,” Sam says. He turns, then, following Dean’s line of sight, but he doesn’t comment. “Sorry, man, I know it’s not awesome timing.”
“Hey.” Dean avoids eye contact with Cas, who’s studiously flipping through an old newspaper. Since his stint as a real boy, he’s better at mimicking human casualness, but Dean can see through him. Cas is listening. “The Trans’ve gotta do what they’ve gotta do. Just like me, right?”
Sam’s brow crinkles.
“It’ll be good to see them,” Dean adds, relenting some.
“I like Kevin,” Cas says quietly. He licks his thumb and turns a page without looking up.
More present tense. Sometimes Cas actually comes through.
“He’s a good kid.” Dean’s toast pops up, ding, and he crams about half a slice in his mouth all at once. It’s like the act of chewing and swallowing triggers his body’s acceptance of the reality that he’s fucking starving, because piece number one is gone in about thirty seconds. He tears off a huge chunk of the other one with his teeth, only barely registering flavor.
He makes it through four more slices of toast before he can convince the gnawing pangs of hunger to shut up. There’s another bottle of Jack, mostly empty but good for a couple numbing swigs to wash it all down, tucked into the back of his closet. Sam and Cas don’t have to know about that.
“You find a hunt, or anything—literally freaking anything—about Abaddon,” Dean says, “you let me know. Got that?” He comes close to touching Sam’s shoulder, and in the moment of awkward hesitation as he doesn’t, he makes eye contact with Cas. Cas doesn’t look away.
“Okay. Get some more sleep, Dean.”
Dean wants to tell him just how damn sick he is of sleeping. He could be doing, making himself useful, hunting down Abaddon.
“Sleep well,” Cas says, and smiles at him.
He swipes a folder of documents off the table on his way back to his room.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor, he thumbs through all the photocopies of academic bullshit. The whiskey, already room temperature, is warm as it goes down his throat, and the words blur in front of his eyes.
“Dammit, dammit, dammit.” He rubs at the mark. It’s not that it itches, at least not right now, it’s that he can never forget it’s there. It makes itself known all the time now, lurking in the dark corners of his head. It’s the opposite of getting used to something the way he’s done with all his old, regular scars.
This isn’t gonna work. He falls asleep with a mass market thriller in his hand instead, his hands and breath smelling like cheap liquor.
Nightmares are nothing new, is the thing. Dean Winchester has a damn Ph.D. in nightmares. Flashbacks, racing heart, cold sweats? You don’t get used to them, but you get used to how it feels to have to deal with them again, for the umpteenth time in your too-long life. The routine of talking yourself down and out from under the weight of dread.
He’d know what to do with these if they were nightmares.
Dean’s feet are bare, slapping the marble as he walks. The echo’s improbably loud, and he thinks there might be someone following him. It’s that old prickly feeling, the hairs at the back of his neck standing at attention.
He turns down the next hallway. And the next, and the next. Every time he turns, it’s the same. Vast expanses of light, so bright it hurts his eyes and so bright he can’t stop. He has to find out what’s at the end. Maybe this is it, the tunnel they’re always talking about. Funny how many times he’s kicked the bucket and never seen anything like this before.
When he hears the heart-dropping, familiar whoosh of wings beating, he thinks, Hey, Cas, smiling until he remembers that Cas doesn’t have wings anymore. Cas is grounded; Cas has to tool around in a gas-guzzling car just like they do.
It’s coming from behind him, so Dean turns. He wishes he was armed.
There’s no one there, just that fucking light that burns. And again, wings flapping, enormous, cool air against his cheeks. Just over his shoulder, right the fuck there—
His palms want something to hold onto. His head wants something to fight.
Nothing is fair up here, though, because when he gets his hands buried deep in the feathers and pulls as hard as he can, Dean’s the one who hurts and Dean’s the one who screams so loud that his eyes snap open to his own ceiling and the low murmur of voices.
Cas’ breath is warm against his hair. “I need you to shake it off, Dean. Okay? Can you do that?”
Dean takes a half-hearted swing. Cas catches his wrist, smooth and strong.
“You’re awake. You’re alive.”
“Motherfucker. Not again.”
Cas’ hair is disheveled, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows. Dean grinds the heels of his palms against his eyes, but it doesn’t clear away the knobs of Cas’ knuckles, the dips between them where his hands are braced against the edge of Dean’s bed.
“Hannah, can you…?”
“I can try, sir.” A woman—or another angel wearing a woman, more like. Dean pushes himself up, biting his lip through the split second during which his elbow feels like it’s about to buckle.
“Y’know, normally I invite girls back to my room on purpose,” he says.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” Hannah says. Her eyes are thoughtful, wide and blue and sharp, and there’s this little smile tugging at her lips, which Dean thinks is kind of out of place, considering.
“Whatever.” He’s not totally sure he’s awake. The lamp by his bed is hurting his eyes, and Dean’s terrified of drifting off again. “Lay hands on me or whatever yanks your chain.”
Hannah steps closer, Cas steps back. She sets two cool hands at the sides of his face, thumbs against his cheekbones, and closes her eyes. Warmth seeps through from her palms to his bones. It’s nice for maybe a second, and then it’s setting him on fire, making the mark blaze up with heat and pain, and that, he’s pretty sure, is when he loses it.
“No,” Dean hears himself snarling. The room twists precariously around him and he’s up, out of his bed, slamming a much smaller body up against a wall. Hard. Harder than should be possible.
It feels good, a little. Solid and sure.
Hannah’s eyes aren’t so kind anymore. She narrows them, trying to tug her wrists out of his grasp.
It should work—she’s an angel, and he’s just a man. But her efforts feel weak, and he tightens his grip.
“Dean.” Cas’ voice comes over his shoulder, an obvious warning.
“Shit.” He lets go, holding both hands up. Hannah slides away without taking her gaze off his face, rubbing at her wrists with her fingertips. “I didn’t mean to… hey, that was an accident, all right?”
Hannah considers him, all angelic squint without the open curiosity Cas used to show when he looked at Dean. “I can’t help him,” she says finally, turning to Cas. “I’m sorry.”
“I appreciate the attempt,” Cas says, nodding like he’s dismissing her. Didn’t he say he told the angels he wasn’t gonna lead them again?
“Castiel,” Hannah adds, low. Conspiratory, maybe. She leads Cas out of the room with her hand almost touching his elbow. She doesn’t look back at Dean, and it feels pointed, like some kind of statement.
Dean’s studying his own hands, flexing his fingers and watching his veins jump and twitch, when Cas sidles back in. Who knows where he sent Hannah, how he chose to apologize for his brute of a human friend.
“She said she can’t help me.” Dean leans against the wall. Being upright’s a fun change. “With whatever’s happening. Whatever freaky demon disease I’ve contracted.”
Cas hovers uncertainly before he tugs the door shut after himself. “I was after a diagnosis more than a cure, actually.”
Dean raises an eyebrow and cracks the knuckles of his right hand. “I dunno, man, I feel okay.”
Okay’s actually an understatement. It’s like taking a deep, easy breath the first day after you get over some shitty, lingering cold, how you don’t realize how crappy you felt until the sickness is gone. His head doesn’t hurt; he doesn’t want to smash all the light bulbs in his room or sleep for the next million years.
“Better, right?” Cas tilts his head.
“Way better. Maybe you were off the mark before, pal.”
“No.” Cas’ hand is warm at Dean’s shoulder through the worn cotton of his T-shirt.
“What, then? Gimme somethin’ here.”
“You didn’t make some kind of miraculous recovery, Dean. And I don’t think this is going to last very long.”
“Cas, for the love of fuck, just—”
Cas’ mouth is set in a hard line. “Hannah was weak against you because you absorbed her grace.”
At least with this fucked up revelation, nothing tries to spin around Dean. He’s levelheaded as he stares at Cas, the tired gravity in Cas’ expression that says he definitely didn’t just develop a taste for kidding around.
“I’m human, man.”
“Believe me, I’m aware of that.” The hold Cas has on Dean’s upper arm relaxes, but his palm remains a weight against Dean’s bicep. “Special, remember?”
“Screwy angelic breeding experiment special! Not—not angels are the new beef jerky special.”
“Michael’s one true vessel special,” Cas corrects him.
“That was—that’s not—”
What the hell’s he gonna say? Michael’s gone, that was at least three insurmountable crises ago, there’s no way God (that asshole) and his plans can still be haunting him?
“Michael is gone,” Cas says, like he could hear Dean’s thoughts tripping over each other. “But you’re still here.”
“Because we won.”
“Yes.” Cas’ fingertips drift down, brushing the bare skin of Dean’s forearm. “We did win. And no one expected that.” The lines of his throat shift and contract as he swallows. “We did expect the rest. Your existence isn’t happenstance. You were created to be the Michael sword, Dean. He was meant to don your form in battle, and when Heaven set events in order to make that happen, we had to make sure you were ready.”
Dean remembers Michael smirking. Unlike my brothers, I won’t leave you a drooling mess when I’m done wearing you.
“Meaning… what? This wouldn’t’ve been relevant, I dunno, four years ago?”
Cas looks extra frustrated for a second. “That mark you took on—your soul and body won’t accept it. You were touched by Heaven from the minute your existence was so much as conceived of, long before you were actually born.”
“Touched by Heaven,” Dean repeats flatly. “Sounds kinky.”
“It’s protection. You’re the Michael sword, the righteous man. An agent of good.”
Dean almost wants to laugh. He turns his own hand over, examining the bumps and whorls of his knuckles, then the calluses on his palm. Same as ever.
“Hey,” Cas says, his voice dropping lower and quieter. “No one ever planned for this. An archangel’s vessel taking on the mark of a demon? It’s not right.”
“Means to an end.”
Cas’ hand cups his elbow, squeezing gently. “Dean, it might be the end. You feel better now, but it’s going to get worse. Your soul wants to fight off the mark.”
“Better get a move on ganking Abaddon, then, huh?”
Before Dean can really figure out what’s going on, Cas has taken hold of his hand, slipping his fingers in between Dean’s. “What do you feel?”
Dean bites his tongue against the flood of obvious answers, like surprised and kind of dizzy or like I didn’t realize this was a date and I would’ve done something nicer with my hair if I had. “Uh, Cas?”
Cas smiles at him, a sad little thing that doesn’t do Dean’s sense of equilibrium any favors. “Do you feel anything unusual?” he prompts again, holding up their linked hands in the small space between them.
Trying not to be an asshole, Dean concentrates. Cas’ hand is warm, his palm smooth and soft against Dean’s. With some effort, he drags his attention away from that, from his hyperawareness of Cas’ pinky finger curled around the back of his own hand.
Warmth. Somewhere in the pit of his stomach, he thinks, or—his ribs twinge, and he remembers the sigils Cas carved into them years ago. Whatever he’s feeling, it’s warm, but it’s sour somehow and it makes his teeth hurt a little.
“Okay, yeah, I feel it. You gonna tell me what it is?”
Cas slides his hand out of Dean’s carefully. “The grace I took. It’s not mine; I shouldn’t have it. It doesn’t like me using it.”
“What, is that gonna happen with—I didn’t even know I was taking anything from her.”
“I don’t know,” Cas says for what feels like about the billionth time. “You’re still human, but the angelic parts of you are trying to purge the demonic influence. They’re trying hard enough that you can sense my grace, and take it from another angel in self-defense.”
“Awesome, I have an overactive heavenly immune system.”
“Essentially. You’re sick.”
“And… then I’ll get better?” Dean chuckles. Yeah, ’cause he always catches a break like that.
Cas doesn’t laugh. He doesn’t even answer right away. He puts his hand at Dean’s shoulder again, looking up at Dean for a moment long enough that Dean gets it. The expression on Cas’ face is fear. “If I have anything to say about it,” he says, finally.
“Meaning I’m screwed.”
“Meaning we’ll figure it out.” Dean’s said those words so many times they’re practically meaningless in his own voice, but coming from Cas, they have a new kind of weight.
“Fine.” There’s already a new headache starting to crawl up the back of his neck. Jesus, you vamp out on an angel’s grace and you don’t even get more than a few minutes of relief from crazy celestial disease? At least it’s got a leg up on ghost disease.
He’s saved from figuring out where to go from here, how to even start dealing with this one, by the door to his room slamming itself open with a whoosh of air.
“Um,” Dean says, staring at the empty doorframe.
Cas touches the small of Dean’s back. “We should go find Sam. I suspect you have company.”
Great. The Dean of later can do whatever he needs to do. This Dean can ignore it all for a couple minutes, hopefully longer. He kinda has the feeling it isn’t gonna be pretty.
“Yeah, but pretty much everything I’m finding is at least a little contradictory.” Sam pushes a pad of legal paper across the counter toward Mrs. Tran.
Linda frowns down at Sam’s notes. “So find the common thread. You have more experience with this than we do, don’t you?”
“Kind of,” Sam says, pushing his hair back from his forehead, “but by the time we really got mixed up in this angels and demons stuff, we had actual angels and demons around to explain it to us.”
“Hey, I got an actual angel right here.” Dean nudges Cas through the doorway to the war room, gratified by the flash of surprise in Sam’s expression.
“Dean.” Linda eyes him. Dean fights the urge to fold his hands behind his back and tuck his shirt into his jeans. Damn, he really should’ve done something better with his hair. “And… Castiel.”
“Linda Tran.” That’s gotta be one hell of a long time no see.
“Hey,” Sam says warily, retrieving his pad of paper while Linda’s distracted by the stare-off with Cas. “I thought you were, y’know…”
“Passed out and possibly hallucinating, if not basically dead?” Dean deposits himself in the chair next to Sam’s. “Nope, yeah, I’m good now. Got a shot of angel juice.” Let Sam interpret that one however he wants to.
“Hannah helped, then,” Sam ventures. He’s looking at Dean like he’s afraid Dean’ll collapse or explode at any second. “She seemed pretty okay, as angels go.”
“We didn’t get a whole lot of touchy-feely alone time, but sure.”
Someone clears his throat behind Dean. “I’m here too, y’know.”
That is definitely not Cas. Dean’s heart rate kicks up a notch, but he knows that voice and when he turns, he feels an actual goddamn smile twitching at the corners of his mouth. “Kevin.”
“I was trying to say hi earlier, but I guess you were too busy with your heart-to-heart.”
Dean can’t touch him, can’t clap him on the shoulder or ruffle his hair. Couldn’t even see him a couple minutes ago. “Shit, you could’ve picked a better calling card.”
Kevin’s rueful smile widens. “Ghost, remember? Limited options. Anyway, I’m better at being a person when I’m close to my mom.”
No way does Dean have the heart to crack a joke about that one. His gaze flicks over to Linda, who’s smiling at her son, and some little anxious knot loosens in his chest.
“So you guys are here to talk business,” he offers. Cas slides into the chair across from his.
“Sort of. It’s kind of my whole, uh, life or lack thereof now, though.” Kevin stays standing, his fingertips passing right through the surface of the table as they huddle together. Even Linda sits back down. “Things aren’t getting any better in the veil. People are still dying—I mean, that’s what people do, right? They don’t have anywhere to go. And, uh, they’re pissed off. A lot of them expected to get the fast pass to paradise, but thousands of souls crammed into a line that’s getting longer and longer isn’t really Disneyland.”
Better than Hell, Dean thinks but doesn’t say. He gets it. These are normal people, with decent, normal lives. They’ve all earned their chance to rest.
“Heaven is completely closed,” Cas says, his hands folded together on the table. “Not even the most powerful angels can get in. Human souls are remarkable, yes, but—”
Kevin flickers in and out of view so quick Dean doesn’t have time to freak out. “That’s what I’m saying!”
They all wait. Except Linda, who’s obviously heard this spiel before.
“Human souls are supposed to be this big energy source, right? I mean…”
“Look how much of a powerup Cas here got off them,” Dean finishes for him. He sees Sam grimace out of the corner of his eye.
“Kevin isn’t only some hapless dead human boy,” Linda cuts in. “Waiting around for you three to get around to opening Heaven isn’t to our taste. My son is a prophet. He’s strong.”
It’s hard to tell for sure, but Dean thinks Kevin looks a little more solid, casts a longer shadow, when Linda talks about him like that.
“That’s what I’ve been talking to them about.” Right, while Dean was busy swooning and having his soul try to rip itself apart. Sam flips demonstratively through a couple pages of his notepad. “And trying to research, without a ton of success. What’s the connection between the veil and Heaven, and can you get from one of them to the other. Et cetera.”
“I think you can,” Kevin says. He sounds pretty sure. “I can… I can sense it, I think. Sometimes. Maybe it’s a prophet thing. I can hear the other souls, I mean, the ones who got through before shit hit the fan, when I’m not trying too hard. They’re kinda rattling around in there, y’know. Heaven’s pretty empty.”
“That’s what Metatron has wrought,” Cas murmurs.
“It sucks,” Kevin declares. “For everyone. So, Castiel?”
Cas drums the fingers of one hand against the knuckles of the other. “They’re not connected, not exactly. There’s no direct link from one realm into the other. But they are, ah… adjacent, I guess is how you would describe it.”
“I could’ve guessed that much,” Kevin says.
“Adjacent isn’t quite evocative enough,” Cas amends. “Parallel, maybe. It’s hard to explain in human terms.”
Dean rolls his eyes and manfully bites back the of course it is.
“Like my mom said. I’m a prophet. That’s at least a half-step up from being a regular human, right?”
Cas is still hesitating, his gaze fixed on something indeterminate halfway to the surface of the table. Linda looks about ready to start snapping some angelic necks if he doesn’t answer, so Dean clears his throat.
“Look, I’m definitely still garden-variety human, but what I wanna know is, when you say parallel, do you mean it? Exact same distance apart all the way through, or…?”
The outlines of Kevin flicker again, back in a split-second, so quick Dean doesn’t realize right away that he’s closer, one of his thighs passing right through the corner of the table. “I definitely don’t think so. It doesn’t feel like that.”
Sam flips his notebook shut. “This is already more than anything concrete I could get trying to do research, that’s for sure.”
“This wasn’t my area.” Cas glances quickly at Dean; Dean’s not sure why. “But given the usual tendency of the heavenly spheres to fluctuate, I would guess that Kevin’s right. There must be places—so to speak—where the barrier between the veil and Heaven is thinner. That doesn’t mean it’s permeable, though.”
“Not the way it is now, sure,” Kevin agrees.
“We may have a plan.” Linda actually smirks. “Thank you, Castiel.”
Cas looks even less sure of himself than he did a minute ago. “You’re welcome,” he ventures. Something softens in Dean’s chest for a second.
“We certainly are.” Linda pushes back from the table, dusting her hands briskly on the weirdly hot blazer she’s wearing as she stands up. “We won’t be long.”
Even Kevin shoots her a startled glance, but as Dean gets to his feet, his mouth halfway forming the hey, where are you going, his knees give out and he stumbles. “Shit—” He catches himself on the edge of the table.
“Dean.” Cas is at his side so fast it literally defies the laws of physics. “Don’t strain yourself.”
“Shit,” Dean mutters again. He leans back against the solidity of Cas’ hand at his back, determinedly avoiding looking at any of the others’ faces.
“Why don’t you rest until we’re back,” Linda suggests. “Sam told us you haven’t been well.”
There’s not really any arguing against the weight of four people staring at you like you’re about to fall over or break. Especially when one of those people is Linda Tran, mom extraordinaire. It makes Dean’s skin crawl a little, but he clenches his hand around the table and nods shortly.
Something tingles at the back of his neck. It could just be the warmth of Cas’ fingers pressing into the crook of his elbow, but then there’s Kevin’s voice right in his ear: “By the way, you’re an idiot. We’re gonna fix this, okay, Winchester?”
“Hey,” Dean starts, but when his head snaps back up Linda and Kevin are both gone. Crazy ghost powers, crazy Mrs. Tran powers, or is Dean just losing time? Fuck.
“Yeah?” Sam frowns at him.
“Nothing,” Dean says. He thinks about shaking off Cas’ hand, but he’s felt worse things than that gentle, comforting pressure and anyway that sounds like a whole lot of effort just now.
“You look like you need to go back to bed.” Sam swallows visibly, pushing some of his hair out of his face. “Man, you don’t have to prove anything to us.”
Jesus, this is annoying. Dean clears his throat. “You’re gonna have to hold me at friggin’ gunpoint to get me back in that bed. Shit, at least let me watch TV and bring me some ice cream or something if you’re gonna treat me like I’m about to keel over and die.”
Sam chuckles, but Cas just tightens his grip on Dean’s arm.
“That can be arranged,” Cas says, voice low and breath warm against his ear.
“Before I was human, this would have stretched the boundaries of my disbelief,” Cas remarks, perching on the arm of the couch.
Exhausted for no good reason but better, not as pissed off, Dean wiggles his bare toes near Cas’ thigh. “Oh, yeah?” The mark gives a sort of dully irritated throb, which Dean elects to ignore.
“Yeah.” Cas squints at the screen. “How can a person be so ignorant?”
“People are dumbasses.” It’s a rerun of I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant on one of those cable channels in the four or five hundreds. Dean likes these stupid shows when he feels like crap. Thinks they’re funny. “C’mon, that’s not news to you.”
“No,” Cas agrees. Dean’s pretty sure he catches a flicker of a smile. “And I didn’t understand the human capacity for deceiving oneself. How easy it is to force yourself to believe that everything’s okay, just because you want very, very badly for it to be. In the face of all evidence to the contrary.”
“Damn, Cas.” Dean taps his spoon against the bottom of his empty bowl. Cas was as good as his word. Chocolate chip cookie dough from the closest convenience store. “You get a lot out of shitty reality TV. That why you’re so into infomercials?”
Cas heaves a quiet, deliberate sigh. “I’m not sure reality TV is completely real, anyway.”
“You got that right. Here.”
Dean fishes the remote out from under his ass, wedged between two couch cushions, and holds it out until Cas gets the picture and takes it.
“Change it,” he prompts. “I don’t care what I watch, long as it’s funny or has enough explosions to keep me awake.”
“You’re tired,” Cas says, not asking.
Dean snorts. Yeah, he’s tired. And he’s fired up as hell, too, his veins ringing with restlessness, the urge to go out and hunt until he gets what he needs. Abaddon’s head on a stick.
At least Cas doesn’t take his failure to answer as an insult. He considers Dean for a second longer, just enough to make Dean want to tell him to take a picture, it’ll last longer. Then the channels start clicking by. Sports, commercial for some kind of blender, more sports, the crappy edited-for-TV version of The Princess Bride, some kind of nature documentary—
Cas stops there. There’s a guy with a deep voice talking about how all these lions are gonna fuck each other up and then fuck each other. Not what Dean meant when he said funny or explosions, but Cas is rapt just like that. The light from the screen plays over the angles of his face, and it’s like he doesn’t even remember Dean is watching. He licks his lips, brow furrowed.
They have about a million things to talk about. Yeah, Dean knows that. He didn’t recognize the feeling of Hannah’s pilfered grace when he had it, but now that it’s gone, he misses it. It gave him some purpose, tricked him into thinking he could hack his way out of this one. You know, the way he’s lied and cheated and dodged his way out of every other damn thing that’s tried to get him.
Now he wants to bury his head in the sand and ignore the time bomb that’s attached to his arm and his soul. Stick to the plan. Kill Abaddon, take care of Metatron and wipe out Gadreel on the way.
He feels the absence of Cas’ hands on him now, in the wake of how close they were before. Dean doesn’t touch people like that; tries not to, sometimes afraid he won’t be able to stop before he’s clinging too tight. All those light, easy touches, though, they add up. If Cas is just extra hands-on when Dean’s on the possible verge of death, if being human changed something in him and loosened him up—whatever it is, Dean doesn’t hate it.
Cas laughs out loud.
“Whoa.” Dean’s definitely staring.
Cas glances back at him, one corner of his mouth still lifted. “You’re not looking at the screen.” He gestures with the remote. “The lion cubs are endearing, see?”
“Yeah, yeah, I see.”
“They don’t listen to their mother. It reminds me of some of the angels I used to know.”
“Uh, that reminds me of an angel I know right now.”
Dean watches the movement of Cas’ throat as he swallows. “It’s true that God doesn’t necessarily have gender the way you think of it.”
“Dude, you’re sitting on a couch watching nature documentaries with one of Heaven’s most hated. Talk about not listening to your mom or dad.”
Cas huffs out a breath that might be another laugh. Harder to tell this time. “Most of Heaven doesn’t consider you to be of consequence anymore. Me, on the other hand…”
Another stark reminder of all the crap Dean’s avoiding, just by sitting here stewing in feeling like death warmed over instead of—something. Figuring out how to get rid of the mark, maybe. “Well, that’s gonna come back to bite them.” He hauls himself up straighter, takes a second to cough into his fist. “You said this whole thing is ’cause of me being Michael’s vessel, yeah? Sounds like I just might still matter.”
“You would matter either way,” Cas says, the skin between his brows wrinkling just a little as he looks at Dean. Always so damn steady and level when he says that shit. “But yes, that’s the cause. I don’t… know what will come of it, exactly.”
Dean rolls his eyes, like yeah, of course you don’t.
“Dean. You’ve been to a strip mall, right?”
“Dude, of course.” He’s probably driven past more strip malls than Cas has ever seen in his whole damn existence.
“You’re… Earth is like a strip mall.” Cas pauses, frowns, like not even he’s sure where he’s going with this one. “It seems unremarkable and predictable most of the time. Steady. But if something changes, you notice, even if all you’re doing is… passing by on your way to work each day.”
Maybe Dean doesn’t have to wonder where Cas is getting this from. “Okay,” he prompts dubiously.
“And you’re the Wal-Mart.” The smile that accompanies that is so fleeting Dean’s not even sure it happened. “Vital. You give off so much light, even at night, that it’s hard to imagine that light going dark. Until, of course, it does.”
Dean’s mouth feels dry. “I could go for another bowl of ice cream.”
“Dean,” Cas repeats, narrowing his eyes. “You’re upsetting the balance of the universe.”
“What, and that means I don’t get a second helping of dessert?”
Cas’ jaw tightens with exasperation, so Dean offers up a grin. “Kidding.” He sets his bowl on the ground, crossing his legs and leaning closer to Cas. The mark throbs weakly. “No offense to the universe, but didn’t I already upset it kind of a lot? You, too, pal.”
“This is different. It’s you, not just your actions. Angels are noticing. Even if they don’t know what they’re noticing, they can sense that something is very wrong. It throws them off balance. The factions are starting to fight amongst themselves.”
Dean snorts. “Not sorry about that one.”
“I didn’t think you would be.” Cas’ hand comes to rest at his shoulder, warm and heavy. There you are, Dean thinks stupidly. “You’re not required to care about my siblings. But I would like you to care about yourself.”
Man, Dean hates being lost for words.
Cas takes advantage of his hesitation to push back and unfold himself, smoothing his coat down with his palms. He never used to do that. “Please think about that. I need to attend to my brothers and sisters.”
“Come back with more ice cream next time,” Dean tries to joke. It’s not really funny, judging by the look on Cas’ face.
“I will come back,” he promises. For a second, Dean can feel Cas’ gaze heavy on his face, his throat, his shoulders. Maybe the like always is implied at this point. Cas’ll come back eventually. That’s what he does.
“Hey, don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
By the time five o’clock rolls around the next day, Dean’s about ready to chew his own arm off.
Cabin fever, the way the mark keeps twitching and twinging, how his own thoughts won’t stop straying—first to Cas, whatever he’s doing and whether he’s okay; then Kevin and Linda, if they’re really gonna come back like they said they would or if he should’ve gone with them to make sure they were okay; how Sam’s eyes slide away from his every time the two of them are halfway to making eye contact. Flipping randomly through old files and books, too disoriented to focus on any one paragraph for longer than a couple seconds, doesn’t get him too far and for once he’s not so keen on letting Sam do all the research. Not like he has much choice.
He insists that Sam drive him to the dive bar a couple miles from the bunker for a drink. He’s sick, he argues in the face of Sam’s uncertainty, not dead, and it’s not like it’s a cold or the stomach flu. Drinking won’t make it worse. Hell, it might make it better.
Sam says okay, but only after Dean shovels a container of leftover mac ‘n’ cheese down his gullet. Dean can’t remember the last time food seemed so damn unappetizing.
The highball glass of Maker’s Mark, bartender’s skeptical expression apparently complimentary, doesn’t actually seem much better. Dean brings it up to his mouth and the smell alone makes his stomach flip.
“Thanks.” He tips more than he usually would.
Sam just keeps watching him, nursing a beer. Like hell Dean’s gonna back down. He’s forcing down a too-big sip of whiskey when Crowley’s voice cuts in, and Dean knows from the fact that he doesn’t even come close to choking that yeah, in the back of his mind, he was expecting this.
“Goodness, two Winchesters for the price of one. My cup runneth over.”
The bottle Sam is holding squeaks as Sam grips it harder and his fingers slide over condensation.
“Seriously? Dean, did you—”
“No,” Dean grits out. It’s not totally a lie. He didn’t know Crowley would be here.
“My spidey sense was tingling,” Crowley drawls, and slides into the booth next to Dean. Uncomfortably close, like Dean didn’t want to puke enough already. “How’re you feeling, Deano?”
“Don’t touch me.”
Crowley’s brows lift, along with both his hands. “I’m not, strictly speaking. You’re extra prickly today, hmm?”
“Leave us alone or I break out the Latin,” Sam says flatly.
“You and I both know that would barely tickle.” Crowley’s got this uncanny ability to flip the switch from playful to ominous in about half a second. Dean hates that it’s getting to him.
“And you and I both know you aren’t just here to talk,” Sam counters.
Crowley’s attention oozes its way back to Dean, who scowls down at his mostly-full glass. “I repeat the question,” he says, drawing out the syllables. “How are you feeling, Dean?”
“Peachy fuckin’ keen,” Dean grits out. He chokes down another swig of whiskey for the sake of the distracting burn in his gut. “You must have some puppies to go kick or somethin’.”
Crowley leans closer, apparently perfectly happy to act like Sam doesn’t exist now that Dean’s responding to him. “I know what you’re wondering, and the answer is yes, of course there’s still time. The question is whether you’re man enough to use the time you have.”
Keep looking for Abaddon, then. Go out in a blaze of glory before it’s too late.
Dean’s heard worse plans. Or so says the thump of his heart as it goes faster, keeping time with the mark burning fever-hot where it’s nestled into the crook of his elbow. His glass is frigid against his fingertips.
Dean feels Crowley’s smile rather than seeing it. “Of course, that leads directly to my other question: what are you waiting for?”
“If you’d just hand it over—”
“I don’t think so,” Crowley says, icy, and Dean distantly hears Sam’s voice saying Dean, no. “You get the Blade when you find her. Not before.”
It takes Dean a few seconds—too long, another reminder that he’s way the hell off his game—to concentrate over the roar of his own blood in his ears. He drains the rest of his drink and slams the glass down so hard it jars his shoulder. “We’re looking.”
“Crowley.” Sam’s gone all low and threatening.
“Don’t get your knickers in a knot, moose.” Crowley unfolds, straightening his tie and flashing a smile at first Dean, then Sam. “I just wanted to drop by, check in. I’m out of your impeccably groomed hair.”
And he is, but Dean doesn’t feel any better. He gets another drink before Sam ushers him back home. They drive in silence; Sam keeps sneaking glances at him and Dean presses his forehead harder against the window.
Dean’s partway through an old episode of Star Trek that he’s half-watching, some dusty old book of lore open and unread in his lap, when the TV flickers, then pauses on William Shatner squinting determinedly off into the distance of some alien planet. “Dude,” Dean starts automatically, ready to tell Sam that he’ll go to bed when he’s damn well ready, but when he looks up there’s no one there.
Okay, no, wait.
“Kevin,” Dean ventures. Being buddies with Cas has gotten him kinda used to talking to empty air.
“Pretty good place to pause, huh?” Kevin materializes next to the TV, cocking his head at the frozen image. “Shat’s looking good.”
“Hey, this is a good episode,” Dean protests. He’s smiling as he pushes himself up off the couch, even through his knees threatening to give out.
“‘The City on the Edge of Forever’ is the best, if you ask me,” Linda says, folding her coat over her arm. Sam’s looming behind her, flicking a wary glance toward Dean.
Dean knew he liked this lady. “Classic,” he agrees. “I was just starting to think you guys weren’t coming back.”
Linda scoffs. “It’s barely been a day. Kevin, how are you feeling?”
“Good,” Kevin says. He actually looks it, practically solid against the backdrop of the bunker. “I feel good. I...”
Dean takes advantage of the pause to lean against the back of the couch. His muscles are so fucked up lately, he’s pretty sure he’ll topple right back over otherwise.
“It can be done.” Kevin crosses his arms, radiating determination. “There’s just the one way into Heaven from the veil right now, yeah, but it doesn’t have to be that way just ’cause someone designed it like a freaking bottleneck.
“Castiel could probably explain this better, but… like we said before, you guys know human souls are a pretty powerful source of energy.”
“Oh, we know,” Sam says dryly.
“I don’t know how to describe it—it’s not like it’s a physical place, y’know?” Kevin makes a vague gesture with both hands, trying to sketch out something that’s probably literally indescribable. “But if you could see it, or—or sense it, whatever… it’s crowded as fuck right now. It’s like a high school hallway between classes, except no one ever actually goes anywhere and more people just keep showing up.”
Sounds like Hell, Dean doesn’t say.
“That’s a whole lot of souls in one place. Just… twiddling their—our,” Kevin corrects himself, his edges blurring for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it second or two, “twiddling our thumbs.”
There’s quiet, Linda’s smile growing while Sam and Dean exchange skeptical glances.
“Oh,” they say at the exact same time. “Dude.”
Kevin laughs out loud.
“You want to freaking blast your way into Heaven?” Dean says, and whistles lowly. “I gotta admit, Kev, I’m impressed.”
“That’s Winchester-level crazy and desperate,” Sam agrees.
“Hey,” Kevin protests. “It’s not crazy and desperate if I’m pretty sure it’ll work. Given certain conditions.”
“It may take some time,” Linda adds, still glowing with that obvious look at my son, look at what a badass he is even after you jerks got him killed vibe. “Kevin ran some experiments.”
“Oh, yeah, all very scientific method,” Kevin says with a faint grin. “It’s not the same as being a ghost up there. It’s easier to control yourself.”
Dean trades another knowing look with Sam. They both remember being all ghostified.
“What the hell are you waiting for, then? What conditions?”
“Dude, just ’cause it’s not crazy and desperate doesn’t mean it’s not a little bit stupid. Picture, I dunno, just setting off a huge bomb in the middle of an office building.”
Dean does, and cringes.
“We’ve got the energy and the willingness, but I’m the worst prophet ever if all I do is blow a big hole in some kind of celestial fabric of space-time and, I don’t know, we all go whooshing out into a black hole.” Kevin clears his throat, scuffing his toes against the floor almost like he’s a real boy again. “Just for an example.”
“Okay,” Sam says evenly, “so that’s not gonna happen.”
Linda turns her steely gaze on him. “You have an idea?”
“Well.” Sam hesitates. “Not yet. But—I mean, I have a better idea of what I should be researching now.”
So Dean’ll be all on his own with the Abaddon stuff. No surprise there, one part of his brain says reasonably, and this is important to Kevin, anyway. The rest of him practically pulses with automatic irritation, the mark squeezing tighter around his arm.
“Dean?” Kevin’s voice, suddenly closer, startles him. “You’ve been pretty much everywhere. Metaphysically speaking. I know you’re sort of out of the game for right now, but… any ideas?”
Nice of Kevin to try and include him. Maybe they can all hold hands and sing Kumbaya later on. Linda and Sam’s heads are bent together. Comparing notes, or maybe she’s chewing him out for not figuring this stuff out sooner.
Dean blinks, shakes his head to clear that insistent haze of red out of the corners of his vision. “You guys can get your nerd on,” he says. “I got my own stuff to do, in case you all forgot.”
Find Abaddon, get the Blade. That’s what Crowley said. If A, then B.
Kevin’s brows draw together, but he nods. “We’re family, right? Don’t go getting all—Lone Ranger, I have to do this alone, blah blah blah. Okay? Not now that I’ve literally died for you guys and your problems.”
“Sure,” Dean agrees easily. He’s gripping the back of the couch so tight his knuckles’ve gone white, then red. “Sammy’ll help you out.”
It takes so long for Kevin to answer to Dean looks back up from where he’s practically staring a hole in the floor. No Kevin, but Linda and Sam are still talking—she’s sketching something out for him with a fingertip on the back of her hand.
Linda spares a glance down at the ring she’s wearing, touches it, spins it around her finger. “My Kevin gets tired,” she explains. “He’s getting better at this, of course, but it takes a lot out of him.”
“Yeah, okay.” Dean knows that feeling. What he wants to do is grab that book off the couch and prove that he can track down Abaddon without their help, maybe without anyone’s, but what he feels like doing is knocking back a couple more shots and then passing the fuck out.
Sam’s eyes are prickly on the back of his neck as he shuffles down the hall toward his own room, but Dean doesn’t look back.
Cas is in his dream that night. Not the real Cas—that’s old stuff. Apocalypse stuff. He’s not sure he’d want real Cas seeing these dreams.
Anyway, this Cas isn’t lecturing him, or looking at him with disappointment worn into the familiar lines of his face, or telling him how he’s pretty much about to die. There’s no message here, at least not one Dean can figure out.
“We’re almost there,” this Cas whispers in his ear, his breath hot, skipping all the way down Dean’s spine where the heat pools at the small of his back. All of him’s warm, too warm, but for the first time in a while, it feels good.
“Almost where?” Dean asks, pressing his forehead to the cold marble. He thinks he’s been leaning against this wall for hours. Shit, it could be days.
“It’s not a place,” Cas says. His fingers are spread against Dean’s back, long and delicate. “It’s you. Dean, you just have to—”
His neatly-clipped fingernails dig into Dean’s back, through bare skin and muscle, and he rips.
Dean screams, but all it does is echo uselessly down the long, long hallway. “What the fuck,” he gasps.
“It’s like I said.” Cas’ lips brush the back of Dean’s neck and even now, half-knowing it’s some crappy fever dream, his heart trips right over itself. Couldn’t this at least have been a sexy dream? “Almost.”
He pulls again, and then again, until Dean is waking up tangled in sweat-sticky sheets with his head and his heart both pounding. He grabs his watch off the bedside table: too fucking early o’clock.
The mark doesn’t hurt. Using that word’d be doing some kind of injustice to the whole concept of pain. It’s coiled around his arm like a tourniquet, so tight he’s afraid to move in case something snaps.
“Coffee,” Sam announces, pushing the door open with his shoulder.
It’s not water—the glass by Dean’s bed is empty, who knows when that happened—but it’s something. He sits up, holds out his hands without saying anything.
“There’s a shot of whiskey in there,” Sam adds.
Dean hides an unbidden grin in the steam that’s wafting toward his face. “Guess I taught you okay.”
Sam takes that as a cue to sit at the edge of Dean’s bed, like he doesn’t even care about how gross the bedding is. “Guess so.” He folds his hands across his thigh, not looking at Dean. “Are you gonna let me know what’s going on anytime soon?”
“What, Cas didn’t tell you?”
Sam’s mouth twists in apparent amusement. “No. Think he was a little busy being your nursemaid.”
Dean takes a big mouthful of coffee, savoring the taste before he swallows it down. Warmth slides down into the pit of his stomach, distracting for a second from the uncomfortable heat in his arm.
“Don’t know exactly.” Dean shrugs. The whiskey burns his throat just enough. “I don’t plan on dying before I do what I have to do.”
The sound that comes out of Sam’s throat isn’t exactly a laugh. “That’s really reassuring, man. Thanks a lot.”
“Yeah, well.” Dean’s just plain out of answers. There’s stuff he should say here—he’s not so freaking tone deaf, or such a complete asshole, that he doesn’t see that. If he could figure out the right thing, the easiest way to phrase it, maybe everything between him and Sam would fall back into place.
Maybe they could hunt down Abaddon together.
Dean grits his teeth, hands wrapped tight around the mug of coffee. Hey, he always knew that was something he was gonna have to do on his own.
“If it’s any consolation,” Sam starts, “I’m pretty useless. Between the two of them, Kevin and Linda have all this research stuff in the bag. He definitely got the kid genius thing from somewhere.”
Dean hides a little smile in his coffee. “Sure as hell wasn’t from hanging around with us.”
“Advanced placement, man. Linda’s asleep, but I’m pretty sure she’ll kick my ass in a couple minutes now. Hell, I’m not even sure if she sleeps or just… you know, waits.”
Dean snorts out a laugh. “Chuck Norris’ spiritual fuckin’ heir.” His shoulders ease some, and the next couple minutes of silence don’t feel quite so shitty. It’ll break in a second, when Sam remembers. Or when Dean has another damn fainting spell or something. Doesn’t mean he can’t enjoy it while it lasts.
There’s another careful knock at Dean’s door. His eyebrows fly up, incredulous, in almost perfect sync with Sam’s.
“You’re already in there.” Not a question. When the door swings open, Cas’ gaze fixes on Dean immediately, his eyes narrowed. “Hello, Dean.”
Dean bolts down some more spiked coffee, resolutely avoiding meeting Sam’s gaze. “You’re back.”
“I said I would be.” Cas frowns. “Sam.”
“Hey.” Sam’s eyebrows go up again, and he glances quickly from Dean to Cas and back again. “You need to talk to the invalid here?”
Dean grunts in annoyance. He can feel the whiskey creeping in around the edges of his head already, the looseness in his limbs a reminder of how little he’s been eating lately. He misses food. He misses liking food.
“I don’t need to,” Cas says, “but I’d like to. If you don’t mind?”
“Okay,” Sam says. His mouth twists into something that looks like amusement while he stands. “Whenever you two are done, I’m gonna bet Kevin and Mrs. Tran want to talk to you again, okay, Cas?”
Cas hums distracted-sounding agreement, touching the crook of Sam’s elbow briefly as they pass each other.
“Now I really feel like some kind of loser stuck in the hospital,” Dean grumbles in the wake of his mouthful of coffee. “Taking visitors one at a time. Where’re my flowers, dude?”
There’s a twinkle of wry amusement in Cas’ expression as he cocks his head to the side. “I could leave and come back,” he offers.
“No!” Shit, that was way too desperate. More coffee down the hatch. “What’s the deal?”
Cas’ whole face softens so fast it’s kind of freaky, and he sits, closer than Sam had. He looks ruffled, tufts of hair curling up around his ears and at the back of his shirt collar, the collar of his coat slightly off-kilter. “I’m worried about you, Dean.”
Dean snorts, ducking his head so he doesn’t have to see that look on Cas’ face anymore. “What, just ’cause I’m all laid up with crazy mysterious apocalypse disease?” There are a million better things Cas could be doing with his time. Kevin needs his help, for one obvious thing. “I’ll be fine. Git along, little doggie.”
“It’s not that mysterious. Not when I’m almost sure it’s going to kill you.”
Cas never was too good at pulling punches, and a line like that is… well, even when you already knew it, it throws you for a loop. Dean chugs the rest of his coffee in one go, wishing he couldn’t feel the brush of Cas’ tentative fingertips against his shin through the twisted-up blankets. It’s like they’re having a totally separate conversation. Is this okay, Cas says, and as long as Dean doesn’t call him out on it or move away, he’s answering yes.
“You haven’t told Sam that part, have you.”
“Don’t see the point.”
“Spare me, Cas.” There’s no damn point. At least not until he’s finally gotten Abaddon, and who the hell knows how long that could take? Long as it’s shorter than whatever the rest of his lifespan is, he still has time to let Sam know what’s going on.
Cas purses his lips like he knows exactly what Dean’s thinking. “You shouldn’t tax yourself. It won’t help.”
“Oh, yeah? I shouldn’t do something useful with myself before I’m finally saying hasta la vista to this mortal fucking coil?” The burn of the whiskey had been pleasant, fortifying, but it’s creeping down his arm, curling right around his veins and pulse. Dean doesn’t even want to look down at himself for fear of what he’s gonna see, how much angry red, when he does.
“I’m almost sure it’s going to kill you,” Cas says, clipped. “That doesn’t mean I want to watch you throw your life away before you even try.”
Dean’s shoulder blades twitch. The false memory of Cas’ breath against his ear whispers under his awareness. For a totally insane second, he thinks of asking Cas to just do it. No more almost, just rip him apart and let whatever’s under there free for good.
He coughs. “Not sure killing a Knight of Hell counts as throwing my life away.”
“Abaddon can wait,” Cas says. His voice and his eyes are flat, annoyed. “I know the Mark of Cain is clouding your judgment—”
“Yeah, shut up,” Dean hisses. “You got no idea what this feels like.”
“I’ve got plenty of idea what you’re like, Dean. I know you.” Cas slides closer on the bed, too close, right up in Dean’s space, and suddenly Dean’s heart rate kicks up a notch or three. Fear or annoyance or—he has no idea.
Maybe it shows on his face, because Cas pauses. His hand, fingers curled loosely, hovers near Dean’s forehead.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he says quietly. He waits, not touching, the question in the hesitant lines of his face.
No, something growls, so low in Dean’s throat it doesn’t even make it all the way out. He’s not even sure it’s his own voice.
“Okay,” he says instead, embarrassingly breathless.
“Okay,” Cas echoes, polite enough not to ask after that first abortive attempt at an answer. “Try not to take any of this grace. I need what’s left of it for as long as it’ll hold out.” Long, cool fingers curl around the side of Dean’s face. He’s not sure he signed up for this. Definitely not that thrum of nervousness. “I just want to see…” Cas trails off, eyes closed. From this distance, Dean can see the exact shape of the furrow between his eyebrows, the faint growth of stubble shadowing the angle of his jaw.
His whole arm aches. Now that he knows what he’s looking for, it’s easy to feel the weirdness of Cas’ grace, the way it jars like biting too hard into something and getting through to your own tongue. He’s not sure he’d want to take this even if Cas hadn’t warned him against it.
“Okay,” Cas says again. That’s how the moment breaks, Cas all business as he leans back and looks appraisingly at Dean. “Thank you.”
Jesus, Dean hopes he’s not blushing. His face feels hot, but then, so does the rest of him. “What the hell was that?”
Cas looks at him like he’s startled by the question. “I told you. I’m worried about you. I wanted to see how you were doing, but I’m not as attuned to the state of your soul as the other angels. I needed to touch to be sure.”
“Yeah,” Dean says weakly. “Obviously.”
“By the way.” Cas straightens his coat as he stands. “I have it on reasonable authority that Metatron is on Earth. If you could hear the way angel radio sounds right now—he must be worried.”
Dean sees red, and that is not a fucking metaphor.
He’s scrambling to his feet before he knows what he’s doing, swaying for a second in his sweaty boxers and ratty T-shirt.
“Dean,” Cas says, obviously alarmed.
“Do you know where he is?” The room spins slightly, but Dean gets his jeans pulled on, raking his hands through his hair so he’s half-presentable. Where did he leave his gun again?
“Dean, drop it. This is—I can take care of this, okay?”
“Yeah, okay, Cas.” Dean pulls his shirt off, chucks it in the laundry, and grabs a fresh one. “’cause you’re historically real awesome at taking care of stuff without screwing everything up all to hell.”
Cas goes quiet. Dean’s not sure if that’s hurt or anger pulling his features into smooth impassivity, as if the last however many years never happened and Cas is the same guy he met in 2008.
Dean’s chest is hollow, a wide empty space where the regret for saying that should be.
“Hey, man.” He shrugs, pulling on his socks while he leans heavily against the wall by his door. “I’m just saying. Maybe you’re the one who should drop it.”
Cas’ lip curls. Yeah, that’s anger. Good. “I’m trying to help you.”
“Well, I’m not a fucking dog, Cas. You always had some issues with figuring that out. And I swear to whoever’s left rattling around up there, if you try and stop me, I’m gonna suck all the grace out of you.”
Whatever Cas’ face does next, Dean doesn’t stick around to see it. He brushes past, deliberately letting their shoulders knock together on his way. If he’s really this much of a freaky beacon for angelic chaos, he should be able to track down Metatron all by his own damn self. It’s not killing Abaddon, but making that self-righteous bastard pay would be nearly as satisfying.
“Whoa—” Sam and Kevin stop their conversation while Dean breezes past. They’re watching him while he gathers up his weapons, and the knowledge makes the back of his neck prickle, but he doesn’t look.
“Dean, hey, what do you think you’re doing?” Sam, sounding just as pissed off as Cas.
“Look, we think we’ve got a way—” That’s as much of whatever Kevin was saying as Dean is gonna get. He’s out the door, strapping a spare angel blade into the padding of his jacket and stuffing his feet into already-laced-up boots.
“Dean!” Sam can get serious volume when he wants to. “Get back in here!”
This one is just going to be Dean, his baby, the open road, and a mission. He’s smiling as he pulls out of the garage and steps hard on the gas.
“Okay there, buddy?”
Dean squints, wiping sweat out of his eyes with the back of one hand. “Huh?”
“Do you need me to call 911 or somethin’?”
“No,” Dean answers automatically. “No, man, I’m good.”
He’s not. The high of getting out of the bunker was pretty sweet and it didn’t last much past the Kansas-Nebraska state line. Dean’s a fantastic driver, but every last part of him hurts at least a little and the buzzing at the back of his head that says he’s about to lose it if he doesn’t punch someone isn’t getting any quieter.
“Umm, okay. If you’re sure.” The gas station attendant peers at him, fiddling with his name tag. Brandon, apparently. “We sell water.”
Dean’s got it together just enough to know he shouldn’t take out that urge on this guy. Unless he says something else stupid. “I’m good,” he repeats, his jaw clenched.
He’s somewhere not too far from Lincoln, sweating his balls off while he fills the tank. The sky’s gray like slate but he’s hotter than friggin’ Hades, almost tempted by the mention of bottled water.
Going by the way Cas was talking about it, the angels are seriously half-assing their usual gig of staying hidden from humans, even worse than usual. If he could just find and follow some signs, he figures he’ll be golden. The pump gurgling quietly, Dean swallows his pride and follows the skinny attendant back into the convenience store.
It’s a damn Gas-N-Sip. Jesus, of course it is.
“Son of a bitch,” Dean mutters, earning himself a startled look from Brandon. The flash of unease in the kid’s expression pulls a smile out of him. “Not you,” he adds. “You got the newspaper?”
Brandon narrowly avoids rolling his eyes as he thwacks a Lincoln Journal Star down on the counter.
Dean buys it. Plus a jumbo-sized bottle of water and, telling himself he’s earned it, a pack of buffalo jerky.
No matter how much as he’s apparently screwing with them, the angels aren’t gonna find him unless he wants them to, not with what Cas did to his ribs all those years ago. Half the bottle of water down the hatch, Dean spreads himself out at the next rest stop with the newspaper strewn across his picnic table.
Foreign policy, crappy unfunny comics, advice columns, classifieds… blah fucking blah. Dean chugs a huge mouthful of water, so distracted by how good it feels on his scratchy throat that he comes close to flipping right past the little article that’s tucked away in the corner of a back page.
Some shitty dive bar in Lincoln, having lots of trouble with bar fights over the past couple weeks. Sounds like nothing, but he’s found bigger leads on less. It’s a start.
He tromps back to the Impala with his eye on the prize and comes within about half a second of tripping right over the little girl zooming past his legs on those dumb sneakers with wheels. Sam used to beg Dad to buy him a pair.
“Whoa, what the fuck?” Dean bites out.
She skids to a halt and stares up at him, wide-eyed. Too young to talk or just shy? Maybe freaked out by the profanity. Shit. Where are her parents?
Something too hot squeezes tight, starting in his arm and sliding all the way up the back of his neck until it sparks at the base of his skull and he snaps.
“Would you get the hell out of my way,” he hisses, grabbing her by a fistful of her neon orange top and dragging her onto the side of the path.
He doesn’t stick around to see her reaction or, if they’re even around, her parents’. It takes him a couple tries to start up the car, his hands are shaking so bad.
Driving into the city sucks a lot worse than it should. Sharp pain creeps in around Dean’s temples, cradling his cheekbones and jaw, no matter how much or how fast he drinks that water. The jerky tastes good but makes him thirstier, and he ends up refilling the bottle in the bathroom of a friggin’ Arby’s. He’ll have to pee like nobody’s business in a few hours.
“What the fuck,” he mutters to himself under his breath. It’s practically his new mantra. “What the fuck.” His phone rings for maybe the eleventh time since he took off. He grinds it face-down against the seat to muffle the tinny sound of Sam’s ring tone.
It’s a dirty old building, graffiti on the side and only a handful of cars out front. Dean noses the Impala in between a couple cheapass sedans, has to suck in his gut while he squeezes out of the car.
“What the fuck,” he says one more time, then again while he shoulders the door open and drags in a lungful of cigarette- and PBR-flavored air. Home sweet home.
The girl wiping down the bar glances incredulously at him.
“Hey.” Dean arranges his face into a smile. “I know it’s kinda early, but I was wondering if you could answer a few questions for me.” All his suits are back at the bunker, but he scrounged up an old FBI badge out of the trunk. Voila, he’s undercover.
She doesn’t answer, though her motions slow and then still, her eyes not leaving his face.
“Uh.” Dean yanks the badge out of his jacket and holds it up. Maybe he looks even more like he’s dying than he thought. He’s not sure about the last time he was brave enough to look in a mirror.
It all happens pretty much at once. “You,” the girl hisses, honest-to-God hisses, and her eyes flash and she’s not alone and Dean gets it, suddenly, why that expression looked so unnervingly familiar. He’s taking a step forward, ready to explain or defend himself or even just find out if he can do that grace-munching thing on purpose in a pinch, when a hand takes hold of his elbow and hauls him all the way back out of the bar.
“I thought I told you not to touch me!”
Crowley rolls his eyes so hard it’s nearly audible. “Winchester, please.”
“The hell? Are you following me?” Dean hates, hates, that he has to keep hanging onto Crowley’s shoulder to keep himself upright.
“You always did have an amazingly inflated sense of your own importance.” Crowley narrows his eyes. “I’m here for just the reason you are, I imagine. The angels are getting, mm… feisty.”
“I was about to handle myself, you self-righteous dick.”
“You were about to get yourself killed and leave me empty-handed against Abaddon, actually. What are you, throwing a little tantrum? Cas not doting on you enough?”
If he knows what’s good for him, Cas is back home at the bunker. Helping Kevin do his thing. Not getting into any more angel trouble. Of course, Cas usually doesn’t know what’s good for him.
Like they’re trying to punctuate Crowley’s point, a knot of angels slams the door open, all of them with hot gazes fixed on Dean. The mark aches, a sharper thing than usual.
“Is our exile not torment enough?” one of them, a burly guy with a really unfortunate moustache, demands. “You—day and night, your idiocy haunts us, dogs us, and you hide from us like a coward with those sigils on your ribs. You consort with a demon ¬while you grasp at the title of righteousness.”
Dean takes a wobbly step backward. A shining silver blade slides from nowhere into the angel’s fist, and the others assembled behind him murmur in obvious approval. The angel blade he brought is warm inside his jacket, but there’s so many of them and Jesus, Dean can barely stand. He’s an idiot, never should have come here and knows it.
Crowley sighs. “Oh, for the love of… well, anyone with a brain larger than a walnut. Dean Winchester to the highest bidder; auction starts right now.”
“What the fuck?” Dean spits out. One more time with feeling. He tries to jerk out of Crowley’s grasp, but Crowley’s stronger than he looks and Dean’s weaker than he should be.
“Say that again,” the angel says.
“You heard me,” Crowley says, but now he’s addressing the clump of angels. They look about as unsure of how to handle Crowley as Dean feels, but Mr. Grumpy is perking right the fuck up. “He’s more trouble than he’s worth, and I’d rather make it out of here alive.”
“I told you,” Dean says, his jaw clenched, “not to friggin’ touch me.” He’s pissed off and scared, his whole body throbbing with pain. Whatever he does next, it’s not on purpose—a shock of white heat through him, from his shoulder right down to where Crowley’s hand is clamped around his wrist.
“Ow.” Crowley loosens his grip and stares at Dean. His mouth is slack, his eyes wide; he actually looks—scared.
Whatever it was, it worked. Dean smirks, savors the next millisecond, then bolts for the Impala with his heart in his throat.
He gets the hell out of dodge as fast as his baby’ll take him. Runs red lights, doesn’t signal early enough, blasts the music so loud it hurts his ears on top of everything else and he doesn’t even mind. He drives the first few miles with a fist pressed against his ribs, willing those sigils to do their job and get him off the angelic radar.
He can’t get the look on Crowley’s face out of his mind. The arched eyebrows, his mouth slack with apparently genuine shock. If he knows something about what’s happening to Dean, it’s not the whole picture.
Dean just hopes those angels took advantage of his new superpower and killed the bastard when they had the chance.
He hits up the third motel he sees on the way out of Lincoln, slaps a handful of cash on the desk and takes off with the key he gets in return. Coward, they called him. Yeah, maybe he is. Never would have thought of himself that way before, but he’s sure doing a whole lot of running lately. Away from home, away from figuring things out with Sam, away from the fight he’s supposed to be winning.
The toothpaste-stained mirror in the bathroom confirms that he looks like something the cat dragged in. Too many days’ worth of stubble, pale, his eyes glassy and weary. His lips are worn and cracked where he’s been biting them against the pain.
Dean debates with himself, but not for very long.
“Castiel,” he says, swallowing back embarrassment and addressing the carpet, “I could use some help.” Hopefully that, and reading off the address printed on the stationery next to the bed, is enough. He settles in to wait.
This time, he dreams about killing Abaddon. It’s so good, better than he could have imagined, the First Blade singing in his hand and the little gasp before the light leaves her eyes. He wants to do it again, and it’s a dream, so he can: rewinds, replays, four or five times before he gets sick of it.
The last time around, the blade is gone. He doesn’t need it. Abaddon watching, sneering at him, he sets his hand at the front of her skull and concentrates and that’s all it takes before she’s burning out, bright light spilling out of her eyes and mouth until she crumples into dust in front of him.
The warm press of a hand between his shoulder blades pulls him out of it, gasping for breath.
“Dean,” Cas rumbles from above. “I let myself in.”
“Yeah, I coulda figured that one out on my own.” Dean’s mouth tastes like ashes. “Son of a bitch. I didn’t mean to fall asleep.”
Cas’ tone drops to something kinder. “It’s your body’s defense mechanism. It’s the best it knows how to do.”
Cas talks about it like his body is something totally separate. Makes sense for a guy who’s wearing one like a favorite jacket, but it gives Dean the creeps. Can’t even control his own body.
“Well, it’s doing a pretty crappy job,” he says, rolling onto his back to grind the heels of his palms against his eyes. “Nightmares like friggin’ Ambien mixed with really bad acid.”
“You’re safe,” Cas observes, hovering instead of sitting down next to him. “I was… worried.”
“Yeah, barely. Got mobbed by a bunch of your pissed off siblings.”
“They don’t know any better.”
“Well, they should!”
Cas seems to hesitate, then curls the fingers of one hand around Dean’s ankle. Under his jeans, over his socks. They probably smell—most likely all of him does. “They should,” he says. “You scare them.”
Dean tries to laugh. It comes out as something closer to a hiccup, verging on a sob. Fuck. “I scare me.”
The room’s quiet enough that Dean hears it when Cas swallows, the muffled click of his throat. He rubs the pad of his thumb against the swell of Dean’s ankle. “I’m not afraid of you. I’m afraid for you.”
“That too.” Dean keeps one hand over his eyes, blocking out the dim motel lighting. He doesn’t want to look at Cas’ expression while he talks. “Crowley showed up. Said he wasn’t following me, but I dunno about that. He was gonna trade me so they wouldn’t gank him. I freaked and I—man, I don’t know. Zapped him or somethin’.
“Not like Sammy used to do, but it hurt him, y’know? I could tell. Enough so I could make my getaway, anyhow. Cas, what did I do?” The next breath in hurts, dragging against his lungs. “What’s happening to me?”
Cas is quiet for a couple seconds. He breathes, a reassuringly human sound. “Dean, you should come home. I have a proposition for you.”
“Aw, Cas, you could at least buy me dinner first,” Dean jokes automatically.
He deserves the blank, awkward silence he gets.
“Kevin and his mother can explain, if you’ll let them. Sam, too.”
“Yeah,” Dean says, defeated. The longer he keeps his eyes closed, the clearer he can see that little girl, wide-eyed with fear. The surprised pain on Crowley’s face. It could have easily been her, probably not so hardy under whatever freaky new powers Dean’s wielding. She could have died right there.
Later, he’ll be pissed at himself for agreeing to let Cas drive the Impala. Better that than leaving her behind, though—and not even Dean’s dense enough to think he’s fit to get behind the wheel.
The fond set to Cas’ mouth as they pass by the Continental in the parking lot catches Dean by surprise. “We’ll come back,” he says, lets his fingertips brush the back of Cas’ hand where it’s curled at his waist, holding him up.
“Yeah.” By Cas’ voice, he might almost be smiling. “Okay.”
Dean doesn’t sleep on the drive home. He comes close, his eyelids heavy; every time he thinks he’s about to nod off, he pinches the skin of his elbow, hard. Right above the angry red of the mark.
It works like a charm.
“Jesus Christ, you’re all serious?”
Linda stares right back at him, steely and unfazed. She must’ve been completely killer as a mom; Dean sneaks a sympathetic glance toward Kevin, who’s hovering by her side looking slightly indistinct, if not straight-up translucent.
“We’ve all discussed this,” she says, “and you could have had your say if you hadn’t thrown a temper tantrum and made poor Castiel drive out to get you in the middle of nowhere.”
Poor Castiel? Seriously? Before Dean can comment on that gem, Cas touches the back of his neck, light and reassuring. His fingers are blessedly cool.
“Dean,” Kevin cuts in, “you don’t have to do this. I know it seems like a crazy idea, but Castiel is pretty sure it’ll work. And so am I, for what that’s worth.”
Sam nudges Dean. “This is big, okay? Thousands of people. Abaddon… we can figure that out.”
Or Sam can, on his own, if Dean and Cas don’t make it.
“I feel like you guys are giving me a friggin’ intervention,” Dean grumbles.
“Well, we’re not,” Linda says. Okay, jokes not welcome here. “We’re asking you to make a choice.” Her expression softens. “And I’m asking you to help my son.”
Kevin shuffles from one foot to another like he’s embarrassed, but his gaze is steady when he looks back up at Dean. The kid’s grown up a lot. Still is growing up, somehow, even beyond the grave. “I’m not an angel or anything. I can’t see your soul. But the prophet gig comes with a couple perks, and dude, I can tell you’re fading. Fast. I don’t know if you could kill Abaddon right now if she were here and begging you for it.”
“If I had—”
“But you don’t, and freaking Crowley is not going to give it to you. Hey, I tried doing things your way and that backfired like crazy.”
Dean drags both palms across his face. Sparks go off under his eyelids. Sam squeezes his shoulder, and maybe that would be nice if it didn’t hurt.
“Cas,” Dean says into the expectant silence, “I wanna talk to you for a sec.”
The closest private place is one of the half-used storage rooms, dusty shelves lining the walls with bottles and boxes, yellowing slips of paper serving as labels. Cas catches Dean by the elbows before he can humiliate himself by collapsing again, helps him get purchase so he can lean against the wall by the door.
Dean licks his lips, nervous in the barely-lit quiet.
The way it works—okay, no, he corrects himself. The way it’ll apparently work, or the way Sam and Kevin and Linda and Cas all really want to believe it’s gonna work, is this: take a hit off Cas, which hopefully won’t kill either of them. Traipse on up to the veil with Kevin, which hopefully won’t kill either of them. Pass go, collect a bunch of soul-fueled firepower, get out of jail free.
“Yes, Dean?” Cas prompts.
“Like I said,” he says, so low he almost can’t hear himself, “I’m scared. Apparently scared to die.”
“As we said.” Cas is still hanging onto him; he tucks his fingers into the crook of Dean’s good elbow. “You don’t have to.”
Dean’s gotta get ahold of himself, ask what he came here to ask. He straightens, careful so he doesn’t dislodge Cas’ hands. “If I—if we do this. What happens, exactly? Walk me through it.”
Cas hesitates. “I don’t know exactly what happens,” he admits. “We know you’re capable, now, of siphoning grace.”
Dean nods, nausea rising in his gut. “Yeah, among other things.”
“All defense mechanisms,” Cas says gently. “You’re sick. But—so am I, sort of. You’ve felt this grace; it isn’t mine. It doesn’t belong in me, and it’s turning against me the longer I hold onto it in spite of that.”
“So I take it from you,” Dean says.
“Yeah. All of it, all at once.”
“If I’m right—if the grace interacts with your soul the way I think it will, and the way it should—you can help Kevin. Instead of a dangerous explosion of energy on his hands, he’ll have control in the form of… well, you. You can let those souls back into Heaven.”
“If it works.”
Obviously reluctant, Cas nods. “If it works. You’re a unique case, in the most literal sense of that word. There are angelic… trappings to your soul that have always been there, and Cain’s mark has been awakening them. Coaxing them to fight off the demonic taint. They should respond to my stolen grace.”
Dean has to gulp in a big deep breath. The room’s alarmingly off-kilter around him, his fingers twitching and curling into fists. If he’d just gotten his shit together and found Abaddon. If Crowley would just give him that stupid fucking blade.
Cas’ hands feel so good on his face, cool and smooth. “I’m scared too,” he murmurs, thumbs gentle against Dean’s cheekbones, “for me, and especially for you.”
“Pretty sure, right? That’s what Kev said.” Dean closes his eyes under Cas’ solemn scrutiny.
“Pretty sure. Yes. But not positive.”
“Shit, Cas.” Dean forces out a stuttering little laugh. Cas is right there, close like he hasn’t been enough over the past year, and it’s easy, practically natural, to steady himself with his hands at Cas’ hips. “Getting a crazy angelic power-up and going soul-nuclear is not what I was supposed to do with this thing.”
Their foreheads knock together, so light that it’s not jarring. Dean’s not sure whose fault that was. “Hey,” Cas says, “since when do you care about supposed to?”
God. Dean’s heart squeezes so tight in his chest that he can’t breathe, and he opens his eyes to Cas’ eyes dark and thoughtful, dust motes spangling the tired and beautiful lines of his face in the half-light of the room.
“You got a point,” Dean says. His voice comes out thick like he’s been crying.
Cas doesn’t say anything. His eyebrows quirk up, careful, and Dean knows Cas knows what he’s been thinking and wondering, and he’s just waiting on Dean to catch up.
“Yeah, Cas, okay.” Dean’s maybe more tired than he’s ever been in his long and sorry life, but it doesn’t feel like any effort at all to pull Cas in and kiss him with his heart in his throat and his hands too tight against the sharpness of Cas’ hipbones.
“Yeah, Dean,” Cas echoes, breathing the words into Dean’s open mouth. “Okay.” He kisses back.
Dean’s way off his game. He’s clumsy, kissing Cas over and over without stopping to figure out what he’s doing, yanking at him until they’re flush against each other and the weight of Cas’ body holds him pinned against the wall. Dean’s phone buzzes in his jeans pocket, but Cas’ hands are fluttering at his chest. He ignores it.
Cas makes some low sound, almost pained, slides his hands to cradle the back of Dean’s head and neck and kisses him deeper, open and heated until Dean is panting against his parted lips. This probably isn’t the way their first kiss should’ve gone, all these desperate little noises and the moment when Dean’s teeth scrape Cas’ lower lip. Dean’s terrified, though, can’t stop himself. If this is it, if this is all they ever get, he’s taking everything he can get until he can taste Cas no matter how long he rots in the bowels of Hell. He clutches at him, nothing in this tiny room but the slick sounds of their mouths moving against each other, shaking with all the things he wants and all the time they don’t have to get this right and how much it’s burning him up from the inside out.
“Dean.” Cas pushes at his chest, rocking backward. Dean stares. “Dean, breathe.”
“No time,” Dean manages, his fingers twisting in the fabric of Cas’ coat.
“Shh,” Cas says. He laces his fingers through Dean’s, lifting Dean’s hand from his side to turn it and push his sleeve up. The mark is swollen now, ugly and itching. He wants to tear it out with his teeth.
“Jesus, man, don’t look at that at a time like this.”
“It’s affecting you even now,” Cas says, glancing back up at him. His lips are red and wet. “I can tell.”
Dean can’t say he’s wrong. He can’t say anything, because he doesn’t know. Where the mark ends and where he begins anymore. He sneaks his hand under Cas’ coat, rubs his thumb at Cas’ hip through his shirt. At least he’s not hard; he can’t really remember the last time he actually felt like thinking about sex. When a dog doesn’t eat, he can hear Sam saying in the back of his head.
“They’re expecting an answer,” Cas adds, his tone reluctant enough to soften the blow there. “We can’t stay in here.” His pause says the but I wish we could so he doesn’t have to.
Dean nods agreement and pulls him in for one more kiss anyway.
He doesn’t remember to check his phone until they’re pushing the door open again, Cas’ arm solid and strong for him to hang onto. He digs the thing out of his pocket with his free hand and unlocks the screen.
Still kicking. Not patient. Chop chop, Winchester. :)
That is fucking it.
Dean snarls, or something like it. Cas stops in his tracks, eyes wide.
“We are fucking doing this,” Dean says flatly. He deletes the text message, unanswered. Paradoxically, he wants the blade so bad he can feel it in his teeth. Wants to take it to Crowley and slice his grinning face clean off.
There’s a question somewhere in Cas’ expression as he readjusts his grip around Dean’s waist. “You’re sure.”
Surer than he was when he agreed to take on the mark in the first place. Surer than he was when he gave Gadreel the go-ahead to make himself at home in Sam.
“Kevin,” Dean calls out into the war room, rewarded by the prophet in question materializing right between Sam and Linda the second he and Cas round the bend. They’re all staring at him, Cas included.
“Dude, sit down.” Sam scoots over, clearing a chair for him. It doesn’t really feel like he earned this—Sam fussing like they’re okay and he’s just got a cold or something—but it’s nice anyway.
Dean lets Cas deposit him in the seat, slumping forward onto the table. In the wake of kissing Cas, everything should be sunshine and goddamn daisies, but his shoulders still hurt, his head is still pounding. “Yes,” he says without preamble. “Yeah. Yes. I’m down. Kev, how do we do this?”
Kevin actually gapes at him. “Seriously, just like that.”
“Normally we save alive people, but I’m figuring why not expand my horizons and be a hero to a bunch of dead people too.”
Sam snorts incredulously off to Dean’s left.
Linda squints, looking down her nose at him. “Don’t,” she says, all clear and slow like he’s dumb, “fuck with us.”
“I’m not,” he bites out, lifting his head enough to meet her eyes levelly.
“Guys!” Kevin’s hand flutters through Dean’s shoulder, a weird electric sizzle in its wake. The mark doesn’t like that—it twinges—but the mark doesn’t like much of anything these days. “Hey, I’m not the expert. I think we just…”
“We just do it,” Cas finishes for him. His hands are on Dean’s shoulders, his thumbs pleasant points of pressure against Dean’s aching muscles. “Dean takes my grace. Now, if he’s ready.”
Dean’s maybe as ready as he’ll ever be, but he asks for a drink first. Last hurrah or whatever, just in case.
It’s obvious that Sam’s indulging him—he offers to go find a fresh bottle of whiskey from the garage, since Dean apparently worked his way through all the supply readily available in the kitchen—and normally Dean would hate that, being treated like a kid, but just this once it’s not so bad. He doesn’t want to look a gift sasquatch in the mouth if he could be on the verge of signing his own death warrant.
He kind of thinks he might puke, sitting around waiting; he sneaks into the bathroom, leaning hard against the wall on the way, and splashes cold water in his face.
“Shit,” he mutters when he sees himself in the mirror. Dean never much cared for wax sculptures, and that’s gone double since Canton, but now he thinks there might be one staring back at him, wide-eyed and gaunt.
Deliberately, he rolls his sleeve up and takes a good long look at the mark. He’s been avoiding it, and for good reason—it looks like hell or maybe worse, squeezing the life out of his veins all deep red and obviously pissed that he’s not doing what he signed up to do.
He could’ve killed someone. Maybe a kid. And the thing is, it would have felt good. That knowledge is dark and undeniable, lurking around the back of his head and the base of his spine.
“Fuck you,” Dean tells an imaginary Crowley.
“Really? To the guy who’s bringing you a drink?”
“Jesus, you’re eighty feet tall, how do you friggin’ sneak up on me?” Dean snatches the glass out of Sam’s hands, clutches it tight enough so his own don’t shake, and downs about half of it in one go.
“Dean…” Sam’s brows draw together and oh, no, they’re not doing this.
“You don’t get take-backs on the no-brother thing just ’cause I’m maybe about to explode,” Dean says.
“And you don’t get take-backs on being a dick who violated me just ’cause you’re maybe about to explode,” Sam answers easily. “I never said we’re not brothers, you know.”
Dean scowls, nursing his drink. “You implied it.”
“Dude, I was pissed. I am pissed. That doesn’t erase, you know, everything.”
Dean sags down against the sink, then gives up and perches on the toilet seat. They’ve had heart-to-hearts in worse places, and the timing may be shitty, but Sam’s talking to him. That’s enough. “I know, and—yeah, I know. Gonna make it up to you somehow.”
Something close to a smile tugs at Sam’s mouth, and he cuffs Dean gently on the shoulder. “Looking forward to seeing you try, asshole.”
“You know how to do this already,” Cas tells him, his eyes dark and the lines of his face completely serious. “Just reach for it.”
“I’m ready,” Kevin adds from behind him, half-translucent against the backdrop of the war room. Already reaching outside the physical world.
Crowley would scold him, purr in his ear and wag his finger and tell him that he’s come so far, he shouldn’t be abandoning his cause this way.
Dean grits his teeth, flexes his fingers. He curls both hands around Cas’ shoulders and tunes everything else out: Linda with her arms crossed, watching them like a hawk. Sam tapping at his phone like he’s not paying just as much attention. Kevin, his presence wavering in and out the longer he tries to stick around.
“You can do this.” Cas’ focus on him has been steady, but that half-second of his eyes flicking down to Dean’s mouth is what makes up Dean’s mind. Gotta give it the old college try.
He grabs onto it quicker than he expected to, that uncomfortable but familiar low hum of energy around Cas, and it almost seems normal until Dean reaches and he can feel the uneasiness of it. Like taking a swig of milk that’s just too long past its expiration date, slightly off.
“Got you,” he says, and he pulls.
And he pulls again. It’s saltwater taffy, resisting him the longer he stretches it out, malleable and foreign and humming with power that means that in his gut, he wants it. He’s greedy for it.
Then it snaps, and everything is heat all at once.
Sam went through a Tetris phase. Dean, meanwhile, went through a phase of watching Sam play Tetris while vehemently denying that he wanted to start any games of his own. Doesn’t mean he can’t remember the moment of bone-deep satisfaction whenever Sam had gotten a whole row to click and the whole thing vanished, easy as pie. Everything fitting together, clearing way for some brand new understanding of the way things work.
When Dean opens his eyes, it’s that, but on every drug in the universe.
“Castiel,” he breathes, because he can see. He can see all the impossible angles that make up the real Cas. He can see the shadow of wings that used to be there, the tattered and gorgeous exhaustion in every line of Cas’ form, and even better, he can help. He can take it away. This mess of not-right grace, it’s not how Castiel is meant to be. He’s bigger and better.
“Finish it,” Cas says, human hands cupping Dean’s human face and pressing their all-too-human foreheads together again. “Please. I don’t want it anymore.”
Dean pulls harder. He takes.
The mark screams, so shrill it just might be inaudible to the rest of the room. It hurts like nothing Dean’s felt before, not in Hell or in Purgatory or in his godforsaken time on Earth.
Pain is nothing new. What’s new is how he breathes in deep, fresh air in his lungs and right down in the depths of his goddamn soul, and he fights back.
No. Dean’s hands twitch into fists, fingernails digging hard into the meat of his palms. I’m Dean Winchester, you piece of shit. I’m the righteous man, I’m the fucking Michael sword, and I’m as stubborn as a bag of fucking rocks.
Cas’ light flickers. It goes out. Human eyelids fall shut over dazed human eyes and he crumples.
Dean wants to panic, but he doesn’t have the time. Later, he tells himself; that’s a familiar mantra, and thank fuck it works this time. Worry about it later.
The people in this room are so small, he’s realizing. Tiny things who live tiny lives, so fragile they could make the wrong move at any moment and—
And, case in point, the awareness of Kevin’s still-bright soul seeps into the back of his mind.
Quit gawking. Laughter, or whatever the spiritual equivalent of that is. Jesus, this is above Dean’s paygrade. What is it you guys say? We got work to do?
“I’m ready,” Dean says. Or maybe Kevin’s not on the human speech wavelength anymore. I’m ready now.
The calm luster of spirit that is Kevin curls around him. It feels good if Dean doesn’t pay attention to the spots where it rubs him raw, where his guts still ache with the persistence of Cain’s mark on him. It had—has—its claws in deep in ways he’s only really getting now that he’s working on ripping it back out.
Next thing Dean knows, they’re gone. Way, way gone.
“Hey, want to know how many times you’ve said that? My last count says four hundred and fifty-seven. You going for a world record?”
“Could you get your elbow out of my—”
“Guess what? I’ve tried. And guess what? No. I can’t. Can you believe we even still have elbows up here?”
Silence, sudden and blissful. The gratitude is almost literally palpable, all these souls pulsing with it.
Dean makes a mental note to tell Kevin that he’s a lot more of a badass than Dean gave him credit for.
If there’s an afterlife equivalent of someone tapping on a mic, that’s what Kevin’s doing. These soft pulses of energy, undemanding but totally attention-grabbing all the same.
Dean’s—not his skin. Does he even have skin anymore? He wriggles his fingers experimentally. They’re in working order.
Dean’s veins, or something deeper, bones and heart and muscle and everything, prickle. When he drags in a deep breath, the lungful he gets isn’t of air. It’s energy, light, humanity, and it’s like a cold beer after you’ve spent the whole day digging graves in a Midwestern summer.
All these souls, thousands of them, crammed together and bickering and yearning for release—their attention is on him.
I guess I’m the guy.
They all sort of rustle in what he hopes is agreement. So okay, he doesn’t have to talk with his real-person voice.
Uh, hi. I’m Dean. I’m just here to help out my buddy Kevin. You guys know Kevin? Honestly, what is he, a stand-up comic at a dive bar?
When hundreds of human souls feel the same way at the same time, and when that feeling ripples through your ebbing grace and your soul and your mind all at once, you notice. Curiosity. The dead people want to know what the hell Dean is.
He’d be interested in the exact same thing, thanks a lot.
Don’t worry about it. Kevin’s got these guys in the palm of his hand. We better do this soon, Dean. I don’t think that grace is gonna last in you much longer.
Kevin’s right. As good and strong as he feels, the transience of this power is undeniable. They’re so close to Heaven and the stolen grace wants to go home, whether Dean’s willing to take it there or not. It tugs at him, practically whining in his ear.
Just like we talked about, Kevin instructs the sea of souls. Some are brighter than others, but they’re all shining eagerly. Even Dean can tell it’s beautiful. Dean’s gonna make this work for us. Just go toward the light. Seriously.
They rush in toward him, close and close and closer and too fucking close, all the precious brittle power of individual human existences pressing in against each other. Everything’s heat again, but it doesn’t hurt this time—it’s not pain. It’s power, pure and easy and tangible when Dean grasps it. He uses his hands out of instinct; tucked into the crook of his elbow, the mark, or what’s left of it, burns hot with the reception of more undiluted humanity than it’d ever been prepared for.
Holy hell, is this what it felt like for Cas? Probably even more intense, back when he had his own grace.
Dean wonders if any of these people are ones he saved, or if he hasn’t been doing enough of that lately.
He hopes this counts.
They’re not wings, whatever those things are that twitch and shudder and spread from his back to steady him. Not exactly. The impression of wings, maybe; a shadow, the phantom sensation of feathers brushing his arms and shoulders and relief of pressure in his shoulder blades so good it borders on orgasmic.
He breathes in and takes them.
The one time Dean rode a mechanical bull, it took him a couple minutes of stomach-wrenching terror to figure out the trick. He’s quicker on the uptake this go-around, but it’s not all that different. Don’t fight it. Don’t cling so hard you lock up and hurt yourself. Don’t panic. Relax, go with it, figure out the pattern—and hang on for your life.
Right there, Kevin directs him. Dean can barely perceive anything that’s not this bustling mass of souls straining at the edges of him, but he goes with it. He trusts Kevin.
He steels himself, takes aim as best he can with the knowledge of Kevin’s presence grounding him against total panic, and lets them go. He opens himself up, slackens the defenses, and they pass through him. One by one by one, but so fast he barely has time to know each one—oh, your soul is tarnished but it’s good, congrats or hey, you must’ve been incredibly kind when you were alive—before they’re careening on by.
It’s a little weird to think of something as an explosion when it doesn’t make sound, but that’s what happens next.
This light, Dean’s pretty sure, should blind him. Should pop his eyes right out of their sockets like what happened to Pamela back in the day. No way were living human beings meant to see this.
He’s not human right now, though. Not totally, not anymore. Thanks, Cas.
Where there was nothing before, nothing but the endless gray void and anticipation of the veil, there’s a passage. Dean steps through it.
The souls who were left behind follow him.
Last time he was in Heaven sucked and it looked nothing like the improbable landscape that’s stretching out before him now. He wouldn’t even recognize it if it hadn’t been for the dreams. Now he gets it, sees that he’s been dreaming—having nightmares, maybe—about something like this, marble and arches that bend in on themselves more times than the eye can follow. Nonsensical and beautiful and hard to look at. Dean’s hopped up on angel juice and even he’s getting a fresh headache.
Souls spill out all around him, sparking with sudden joy at their newfound freedom. Some mill around while others fade into the paleness of the background.
“Looks like we’re in the clear,” Kevin says, the suddenness of his speaking out loud making Dean start slightly.
“You’re the expert, kid.”
The light is strong and even here, and it lights up Kevin’s face, not to mention his growing smile. “I barely even knew if this was gonna work. I’m so freaking relieved that it actually did.”
Dean’s chest feels light, clean and hollow. He smiles back. “So how’s this gonna go? Everyone gets their own cute little heaven the way it used to be, or what?”
Kevin spreads his hands, nearly grazing a passing soul. She stops, squinting at Dean. Thank you, she tells him before she melts away.
Man, Dean could get used to that. People used to thank him, years ago. Before Hell, before the angels.
“Like I said,” Kevin says, “I’m no expert. I’m gonna stick around, though, and make sure everyone’s okay. Seems like the kind of thing a prophet should do, right?”
“Yeah, Kev.” Dean offers up a hand, expecting a handshake or a high-five and so fucking glad when Kevin yanks him in for a hug. Kevin’s solid and corporeal against him up here, his chin tucked against Dean’s shoulder. “Yeah,” Dean says again, quiet. “You’ll be awesome.”
Kevin gives him another sheepish smile as he steps back. “I better not see you too soon. Didn’t I tell you jerks to work it out and quit whining? You’re alive.” He hesitates, attention drifting toward a knot of souls who obviously want to talk to him. “Tell my mom I love her and not to go too hard on the hunting thing.”
“You got it.”
Dean doesn’t need to ask how to get back down. The grace is twitching at the core of him, impatient. It doesn’t give a shit whether Dean wants to go back, whether he’s ready to let go of this rush of easy confidence and peace.
It’s a second or two of concentration, gathering up that pinprick feeling where it crawls in his gut and his heart. He reaches in, the hand that was meant to bear the First Blade plunging into his own chest, and he pulls it out. Lets it go.
For the first time in a long time, nothing hurts. Dean falls.
He lands with a crash that seems way too literal, the earth jarring his heels and knees as he skids to a stop.
Wait, earth? Okay, first question, where—?
“Ow,” Dean whispers to himself, curling in around the searing pain in his arm. Not rid of that, then, huh.
“Dean,” someone says, sliding long-fingered hands through his hair. “Welcome home.”
“If you could still call it that.” That’s definitely Sam, tired and bitchy. “Hey, Dean.”
“Dude, what?” Dean pushes himself up, gripping Cas’ shoulders so he doesn’t topple back over. “What happened?”
“Maybe you wanna take this phone call first,” Sam says, shoving his phone into Dean’s hand.
“H’lo?” Sounds make his head hurt. He shuts his eyes.
“Dean Winchester!” Linda Tran, snappy and authoritative in that weirdly sexy way of hers, fire and brimstone in her voice. “You made it back.”
“Kevin says he loves you,” Dean answers without having to hear the question. “He’s got some stuff to do up there. I think he’s gonna be busy.”
She makes a small sound, close to a sob, and Dean feels like he’s violating something just having heard it. “Good,” she says stiffly. “He’ll be good at that.”
“Damn straight,” Dean agrees. “Sorry I couldn’t…”
“Kevin can take care of himself,” Linda says. “And, if you can pull your head out of your ass, I can take care of some of your business. Is that ugly thing still on your arm?”
Of course she knows about it. Dean’s too chicken to look just yet. “Don’t think so,” he admits. He knows what that means: Abaddon still at large, Crowley on the rampage.
Linda clucks her tongue, tinny across the middle-of-nowhere, Kansas cell connection. “You boys are so uncreative,” she says. “You think these Abrahamic methods are all there is, and that you have to play by their rules. I have some ideas for Abaddon.”
“Crowley?” Dean ventures.
He can actually hear the smirk in her voice. “That one needs some more time.”
“I want his head,” Dean says.
“Ah, then I want his balls. I’ll be calling you.” Click.
Cas strokes Dean’s hair, presses a kiss to his forehead, and Dean doesn’t care that Sam’s watching. He hands the phone back blindly.
“I think I want to go home,” he says. “Debrief later.”
“About that,” Sam starts.
Cas squeezes Dean’s shoulder. “The bunker is…”
Oh, shit. Dean hauls himself to his feet, thrilling quietly at how much easier that is than just a couple hours ago. Or however long he was gone. He opens his eyes.
Okay, he’s outside. By the side of the road. Boring and familiar; they used to park here ’til they finally stumbled their way into the garage. He doesn’t move to look behind himself.
“The bunker is what,” he grits out.
“It’s still there,” Sam says hastily. “Turn around.”
The sun hangs low in the sky. If Dean went quiet, he’d probably hear cars and trucks humming in the background. He turns, Cas’ hand warm and broad where it fits against the curve of his spine.
The door to the bunker is fucking wrecked. The metal’s warped all to hell and back, the bricks are scorched, even the surrounding concrete looks like it got on the bad side of a pissed-off dragon with heartburn.
“Shit,” Dean says.
“Your brother carried me out here once it was safe,” Cas says quietly. “I was indisposed.”
Sam chuckles, sheepish. “Yeah, it was really heroic. Mrs. Tran helped. She’s stronger than you’d think.”
“I did this,” Dean says. Cas, quiet and steady next to him, looks fucking exhausted, he finally notices. Dark hollows under his eyes, his lips cracked, a bruise blooming darkly along his temple.
“You and Kevin,” Cas corrects. “The energy overflow from your transformation and the journey into metaphysical space was—well, considerable. I’m sorry I didn’t get to see it, actually.”
“Nerd,” Dean says weakly.
“It’s not as bad as it looks,” Sam offers. He looks even more exhausted than Dean feels, circles under his eyes and his hair unbrushed. It occurs to Dean to wonder if Sam’s been sleeping lately.
Sam’s telling the truth, sort of. It’s just the first level or so, and it’s not total devastation like what flashed before Dean’s eyes in those first couple of seconds. The biggest loss is the books, lore and records and everything the Men of Letters thought was important enough to keep near the surface.
He did this, apparently. Him and Kevin, winging off merrily toward the veil and toward heaven, so that Sam and Linda had to haul Cas behind closed doors and wait out the blast. Dean’s almost okay with the sinking guilt in his gut. It’s familiar, anyway.
“Man, it’s gonna be fine.” Sam looks him in the eye when he says it, like he actually believes it. “We got along okay without all this info before. We’ll get along okay now. And I’m… I mean, I’m gonna salvage what I can.” The corner of Sam’s mouth crooks up. He’s always liked a project.
“Yeah, well.” Dean squeezes Sam’s upper arm, tilts his head up to meet his gaze head-on. “Me too, Sammy.”
Cas is waiting in his room, straightening the messy sheets with a look of total concentration. He moves slowly; it could pass as intentional, but Dean sees the pained set of his jaw and knows better.
“Hey, you,” he says.
Cas turns, acknowledging him with a tilt of his head and the ghost of a smile. “I remember this,” he says. “Being tired.”
Dean’s breath catches in his throat before it claws its way out. “Shit, Cas.” He’s crossed the room before he knows it, hands hovering around Cas’ face, then his shoulders. “You’re—”
“Human again,” Cas agrees. “That was part of the plan, wasn’t it?”
“I was kind of thinking of it as necessary collateral.”
Cas’ lips press together, his hands folding. He has gorgeous hands, and it’s a quiet relief for Dean to just up and acknowledge that in his own head. “This time,” Cas says carefully, “it’s going to be better. I think. I’d like to see to that.”
“I’d like to see to that.” Dean’s hands slide down Cas’ arms, gauging the reality of his presence, human and weary and standing in Dean’s bedroom making Dean’s bed. “How’re you feeling?”
“I could ask the same of you.”
Dean hasn’t stopped to take stock in a while, completely on purpose. Honestly, he’s afraid of what he might find.
“Good,” he says slowly, leaning into Cas’ space with the surprise of it. “I feel good.”
He’s not even bullshitting. His head is clear, his stomach is settled, and his hands aren’t shaking.
“I think I hurt,” Cas admits, then. “My joints. I didn’t fall this time, but maybe some kind of sense memory, I—I don’t know.”
“Human bodies just hurt, man. For no good reason sometimes. I have tons of aches and pains even when my soul’s not trying to eat me from the inside out, or whatever.”
That description earns him another lopsided little smile. “I remember that, too. It’s coming back to me.”
“You’ll get the hang of it,” Dean says, and touches two fingertips to the curve of Cas’ cheekbone.
Something goes zap the instant he hits bare skin, Dean bites back a high-pitched yelp, and he stares down at his own hand.
Cas’ eyes are wide, too, when they make eye contact.
“I let it go!” Dean wriggles his fingers. “I—that stupid grace, it’s swimming around in Heaven with all its new buddies. I didn’t want it anymore.”
Cas takes Dean’s hand, twining their fingers together, and Dean’s skin hums. Maybe this is just what touching Cas feels like, he thinks for an idiotic second as Cas rolls Dean’s sleeve up, exposing the place where the mark is—
It’s a smear of red there now, dull and faded, like scar tissue but under the skin. Dean tenses when Cas brushes his thumb against the spot, but nothing else happens.
Cas sighs, barely audible, and his breath is warm against Dean’s unshaven jaw, and Dean’s gotta try. Maybe he doesn’t owe Cas, maybe the scales are too screwy and unbalanced to figure that out, but what he’s pretty sure matters is that he wants to.
“Sit down,” he says, nudging Cas toward the half-made bed.
“Dean?” Cas eyes him with trepidation but sits anyway.
“I think I might—” Dean doesn’t bother finishing the sentence. He leans down, fitting his palms against Cas’ cheeks. Cas blinks at him, eyelashes a dark sweep against his tired face and the fading circles under his eyes.
The fire’s gone now, the overwhelming heat of angelic grace dissipated with the souls he set free. It’s barely more than a spark, tripping its way from Dean’s fingers and sinking into Cas. That, Dean’s sure this time, was the last of it. “It’s all yours,” he says.
Cas, whose eyes widen again and whose fingers grip tight at the edge of Dean’s mattress. “Oh,” he says, his gaze flicking to something over Dean’s left shoulder, then his right. “Dean, you’re—” He frowns, pauses. “Oh,” he says again, lower.
“Dude, what? I’m what?” Dean’s hands skim down the sides of Cas’ neck.
“I could see them,” Cas says, his chin lifting. “You had wings for a moment. They burned away. They were beautiful.”
Dean’s too busy gaping at him to come up with a real answer.
Cas cocks his head to the side, his jaw working experimentally. “I feel… better.” He squints up at Dean. “You did that.”
“Guilty,” Dean says. “Sorry the wings didn’t stick around. Just plain shoulders now, I guess.”
Some kind of defiance flashes across Cas’ features. “Strong shoulders,” he says, reaching to walk fingertips along Dean’s biceps through his T-shirt. “Shoulders that carry more weight than they should. I’ve added to that weight more than I like to think about.”
“We’re not kindergarteners, man. I don’t care about keeping score.”
“No,” Cas agrees. He bites his lip, narrows his eyes, and drags Dean down for a kiss.
Holy shit. Dean would say it out loud if it wasn’t for Cas’ thumbs stroking at the soft skin of his elbows, the easy movement of Cas’ mouth against his own, the wild thrum of his heart in his chest.
“Sit,” Cas urges him. Cas’ voice is raw—with emotion, or exhaustion, or the jarring transition of becoming human all over again, Dean doesn’t know. All he knows is it turns his spine to liquid and he goes, sliding onto Cas’ lap with his knees bracketing Cas’ thighs.
This carefulness, the quiet of his room and Cas’ hands gentle on him, the slow way they’re feeling out how to coax each other’s mouths open like they have all the time in the world, this is more like how Dean imagined it. When he let himself imagine it, every once in a stupid, humiliating while. Less than two hours ago, he had more power in his callused human hands than he’s ever had in his life; he could see all the fractured beauty of what was left of Cas’ true form; he could have leveled cities, if he’d really wanted to go rogue.
Now, when Dean opens his eyes, all he sees are pink lips, a few days’ worth of stubble, and Cas’ pupils dark and wide, fixed on him.
“As an angel, you would have been… awe-inspiring,” Cas says. “Even if the mark had taken you, you would have been a formidable demon. But…” He clears his throat, a small gesture that already screams human. “I have to confess I prefer you as you were meant to be.”
Dean kisses him again. He’s sloppy, using too much tongue and teeth, clutching at the collar of Cas’ coat like he’s gonna fall over if they don’t hang onto each other.
“Dean,” Cas keeps saying, breathless into his mouth. He pulls Dean closer, strokes at the back of Dean’s neck and the totally ordinary space between his shoulder blades and they just keep kissing each other, everything from gentle to desperate and all the degrees of need in between.
It takes a long time for Dean’s heart to slow back down. They curl in close to each other, on their sides on Dean’s memory foam mattress.
“Now my bed’s gonna remember you too,” Dean tells Cas, their foreheads bumping. They’re not exactly kissing anymore so much as they’re sharing each other’s air, so Dean can feel it when the corners of Cas’ mouth quirk up in a fleeting smile.
“You’re tired, Dean.”
Dean groans. It’s true, overwhelmingly. The good kind of tired, though; a coming home from a long day of a job well done sort of exhaustion. He’d gotten so used to the insidious wrongness of the you’re dying tired that some part of him wants to hang onto consciousness and savor this one.
“There’s work to be done,” Cas adds. He pushes up on his elbow, touching the backs of his knuckles to the inside of Dean’s arm.
Dean looks down to see pale and freckled skin, otherwise unblemished.
“I’ll be damned,” he murmurs.
“You’ll be okay,” Cas says.
“I’m not dying anymore,” Dean says. “That doesn’t mean I’m okay.”
“I said you will be okay.”
Dean kisses Cas on the mouth, letting their noses bump and weirdly loving the awkwardness of it. “You wanna get the lights?” he asks without thinking.
“I do want to,” Cas says. He has to climb to his feet, switch the lamp off after a couple seconds of fumbling like a regular dude; Dean’s into it and feels guilty at the same damn time. The scales tip a little in favor of the former when Cas sheds his coat by the side of the bed.
The darkness seals the deal, plus the rustle of sheets when Cas comes back. Dean falls asleep right there, in the same clothes that just came back from a round trip to Heaven.
Dean jolts awake hard, kicking at the thing that’s crowding his bed.
The thing makes an oof sound and curls in on itself and oh, fuck.
“Jesus, sorry about that,” Dean says, quiet in automatic deference to the darkness. His eyes’ve adjusted by now and he can make out the outlines of Cas, a broad-shouldered lump in his sheets.
Cas does something that’s hilariously close to whining and scrubs his hands through his hair. “I was asleep,” he says with blatant irritation. “And so were you.” There’s a beat, and his tone goes a lot softer: “Are you still having nightmares?”
“Okay, for one thing, they weren’t nightmares.” They were just crazy ass dreams about turning into an angel. Oh yeah, and sometimes you were there, and it was kind of sexy. “For another thing—no.”
“No,” Dean says, confident. “I’m… good, actually. Didn’t dream. I’m just… not as used to sharing a bed as I used to be.” Especially not this bed.
Cas’ eyes are the brightest thing he can see in the dimness. “I can spend the rest of the night elsewhere,” he offers.
“Hey!” Dean clears his throat. “No, hey, are you kidding? I…” He’s alive and unexpectedly exultant with it, with his own humanity and even with Cas’. It’s ass o’clock in the middle of the night and practically everything about his life is still fucked but they’re gonna work it out, the three of them—hell, the four of them, with Linda on their side, and Dean’s burning with some foreign goodness bubbling up in his chest and throat.
Cas watches him curiously. His hair’s a wreck, his collar askew.
“C’mere,” Dean says, but he doesn’t give Cas a chance: he hooks his arm around Cas’ waist and fits their mouths together, easy and fond.
For a second, Cas doesn’t move and Dean considers that he might’ve miscalculated. That’s before Cas sighs and goes all relaxed against him, kissing him back and sneaking his hand up where Dean’s T-shirt’s rucked up over his hipbone.
Cas tastes a little musty—probably they both do—and the angle’s wrong and Dean’s heart clenches hard anyway.
“I saw Heaven,” Dean tells him.
“Oh,” Cas says, one syllable heavy with a couple dozen shades of surprise and longing.
“It was pretty gorgeous,” Dean goes on, nosing his way down the sleep-warmed stretch of Cas’ throat. “Hurt my head a little. I don’t think things are gonna be the same up there whenever you get back.”
Cas doesn’t say anything, but he makes this shivery, quiet noise, and all Dean’s nerves go liquid and hot and shit, it’s been so long since he even jerked off.
“I saw you, too.” Dean kisses the sharpness of Cas’ collarbone, breathing in the smell of slightly sweaty skin under his shirt. “Before I left.”
“I—” Cas’ breath hitches when Dean bites at a soft place under his jaw. “I was more impressive, once. Before. Much before.”
Before Hell, before the apocalypse, before the civil war, before Purgatory, before he fell. Before Dean.
Dean looks for the guilt and doesn’t find it. Not yet, not until morning at least. He pushes up the back of Cas’ shirt, the roughness of his palm catching on Cas’ skin. The dip of his spine, tiny fine hairs there, Cas stretching out into his touch.
“Dean,” he says one more time. Low, weighted, rolling into the space between them and expanding until it’s crawling under Dean’s ribcage. “Come back up here and kiss me again.”
Dean obliges, fisting his hands in Cas’ shirt and almost missing his lips, he’s so eager. Cas course-corrects for him, licking into Dean’s mouth. Dean’s so distracted by the slow slide of Cas’ tongue that he nearly doesn’t register what’s happening when Cas fucking rolls on top of him.
“Oh, Lord,” Dean groans.
“Castiel,” Cas says, his smirk audible even if Dean can’t totally see it in the darkness.
“You learned that from me, you little shit!”
“Mm.” Cas doesn’t deny it. He pets at Dean’s hair, resettling his weight and drawing an embarrassing little strangled gasp out of Dean with the press of a solid thigh against his half-hard dick.
Cas pulls back and stares at him.
Automatic heat rushes to Dean’s face. “Sorry, dude, I’m—it’s been a while.”
“You misunderstand me,” Cas says gravely. He strokes Dean’s side; Dean shivers, then downright goddamn moans when Cas shifts again and rocks his hips down, too deliberate to be anything but intentional. Cas is hard too, Jesus fucking Christ.
“I could’ve killed someone,” Dean blurts out like some kind of professional moodkiller. “I mean, someone who didn’t—it was a kid.”
“You didn’t,” Cas says, and he swallows up Dean’s next would-be confession with another kiss, consuming and heated and good, really good, Cas’ hands just short of too warm as they slide up under the cotton of his T-shirt.
Dean pants, exactly coherent enough to grab two generous handfuls of Cas’ ass—still in his slacks, and next time they are doing this right so he can really touch. For now, he buries another moan against the side of Cas’ neck and tugs at him, urging him into some kind of rhythm.
“Oh.” Cas again, biting it out on a shudder. They’re not moving with much grace; apparently Dean’s forgotten everything he ever knew under the weight of Cas’ body, the desperation of their kisses and the sparks of heat that grab at his spine every time their erections slide together just right.
“Yeah,” Dean agrees. He’s breathless and hoarse. “Yeah—yeah, Cas, don’t stop.”
“Like hell,” Cas says.
That’s half a lie, because Cas slows and Dean nearly whines in protest. “Liar.”
Cas glares at him, reaching down between them to wrestle with Dean’s jeans until Dean bats his hands away and undoes the button for him. There’s only just enough room, with Dean lifting his hips, to get his pants shoved down and his erection free of his boxers.
“Okay—okay,” Dean says, his voice faltering as Cas’ fingers ghost against his dick. It twitches, overeager. “Aw, shit.”
“I just wanted to see.” Cas smiles, the smug asshole, and rubs his thumb against the slit, down under the head, like it’s his life’s fucking mission to coax that wavering whine from the back of Dean’s throat.
“It’s a dick, and the dude attached to it hasn’t gotten off in a long freaking time and he’s totally a hero and he thinks he deserves—”
Dean stumbles to a stop, transfixed by the sight of Cas working his way out of his slacks. He’s not good at it, the motions unpracticed; his hands linger tentatively at the long muscles of his thighs, his boxers pushed up. God, it’s dark but he’s pretty sure there’s a faint wet spot in the fabric.
“Uh.” Dean licks his lips reflexively.
“Yeah,” Cas says, like Dean asked a question. “Not stopping.”
And he doesn’t, Dean’ll give him that much. He leans down, nuzzles at Dean’s neck, presses a line of open-mouthed kisses down his throat, and he moves. Slow, rocking against him with one hand spread out against Dean’s belly. Still in his boxers, his erection rubs heavy and solid against Dean’s, and God help him, that’s gonna be more than enough for Dean.
“’s good,” he hears himself saying, bucking up against Cas, who kisses him obligingly. Dean’s heart’s going a mile a minute, every graceless slide of his dick against Cas’ making him squirm and grab at the sheets, grab at Cas’ shirt.
“Yeah, Dean. Yes.” Cas breathes his name again, all low and gravelly against his temple and in his ear. “You are.”
Dean comes all over Cas’ boxers and his own stomach, clutching the back of Cas’ neck until his fingers slip in the sweat gathering there.
“You’re okay,” Cas is saying. “You’re okay.” He kisses Dean, an almost-chaste brush of their mouths.
“Fuck,” Dean says. “Cas.” The shudder of Cas’ breath, the way he’s still moving above Dean—Dean gets a clue, realizes that Cas is goddamn jerking off with his hand shoved down his underwear.
“That was overwhelming.” Cas’ voice is tight and strained.
“Whoa, hey.” Dean’s too boneless and sated to move the way he wants to, but he gets his free hand in, wrapped around Cas’ fist. Close enough to feel the heat of Cas’ erection, to touch the silky slickness of it through the gaps in Cas’ fingers. He squeezes, letting Cas set the pace and use his hand for extra pressure.
“Dean,” Cas says, sounding shocked or maybe just amazed. “That’s—” His orgasm hits before he gets a chance to finish, his breath harsh in the quiet room, his legs tightening around Dean’s thighs.
They part slowly, the lateness of the hour finally pressing back in around them as they tug their clothes back into place. They’re messy and rumpled but it doesn’t seem like it matters yet, not with Cas’ arm around his waist, his nose pressed to the damp hairs at the back of Dean’s neck.
“Thank you, Dean,” Cas says, kissing the first knob of his spine through his T-shirt. His breath is cool on Dean’s skin, the sweat that’s drying there.
Dean thinks about telling him that it’s weird to thank a guy for getting you off, but he likes the gravity that laced Cas’ voice just now. “Anytime,” he says instead.
Cas chuckles, short and sweet. He’s more somber when he speaks up again. “I… think I have unfinished business. Metatron.”
“Pretty sure Kevin’s not about to let him back in. Knowing that kid, the front door’s pretty well closed for business.”
Cas frowns against Dean’s neck. “He’s down here. Somewhere. And he’s my responsibility.”
“Morning, dude. Can’t take on crazy douchebags without your beauty rest.”
“If you say so.” Apparently it’s that easy; Cas lets his breath out and his grip on Dean loosens.
“You’re gonna be okay too.” Dean laces his fingers through Cas’, listening to the thump of his own heart until he slides back into sleep.
The morning sort of sucks at first. They were lazy last night and now they have to deal with their stained clothes and the dried jizz crusted on Dean’s stomach and in Cas’ happy trail. It’s the boring part of being human, and Dean resolutely doesn’t say out loud that if Cas still had his grace, he could just fix them up with a snap of his fingers.
To top it all off, Dean hurts again. It’s an annoyingly indefinable ache, somewhere in his back or maybe his gut, and no matter how he stretches, he can’t pinpoint it.
“Can you get a soul hangover?” he asks Cas, spitting toothpaste into the sink. He gets a quiet little kick out of watching Cas do the same.
Cas considers him regretfully. “Something like that. But you’ll—”
“Be okay,” Dean finishes for him. It actually makes him smile.
Sam’s already made coffee; the kitchen smells awesome when Dean makes it out. He’s starving, could eat a horse or three, and he makes a whole mess of bacon and eggs just to prove it. Cas eats too and tells him it’s good. Another stupid smile.
Fortified, fed, and caffeinated, Dean goes looking for Sam.
He finds him easily, crouched in the middle of the remnants of the war room and flipping gingerly through a mostly-disintegrated book.
“G’morning,” Dean says, holding his coffee closer to his chest. The heat of it loosens the knot in his stomach.
“Hey.” Sam looks up and tilts his head to get his hair out of his eyes. “You wanna lend me a hand?”
They sit for a while. Long enough that Dean loses track of time, sifting through the piles of remains for anything salvageable. Dean hums under his breath, off-key, and Sam rolls his eyes but doesn’t ask him to stop. Dean knows they have to talk sometime before they can really get themselves fixed up, but the companionable silence—he missed that. He’ll take it, for now.
“Good morning, Sam.”
Sam starts, almost dropping the half-burnt folder he’s holding. “Whoa. Hi, Cas.”
Cas, wearing one of Dean’s button-downs and holding his own mug of coffee, clean and showered and disheveled all to hell anyway. His top buttons are undone and Dean makes a Herculean effort not to smile about that. “I think I need to leave.”
Dean’s heart sinks so fast it could set some kind of world record. “Okay.”
Cas’ face lights with comprehension. “No, just to—Dean. What we talked about last night. I need to take care of this.”
“I want to go with you,” Dean says before he can talk himself out of it. “Linda’s gonna call with info, right? One of us should be on the road.”
He exchanges a glance with Sam. Seems like all their unspoken communication is still pretty much intact, if slightly worse for the wear, because they both get it: Dean making himself scarce, for real this time, might not be such a bad idea. When he’s done—when they figure shit out with everything, Crowley and Abaddon and Metatron—then Sam and Dean can figure their own shit out.
Dean hopes, anyway.
He packs quickly; Cas has a lot less to pack, and Dean feels bad about that, resolving to stop on their way and pick up some more clothes. Cas should have his own stuff. They leave with the sun still up, taking Sam with them as far as Nebraska so they can pick up the Continental where it’s been waiting patiently in that motel parking lot and Sam can take the Impala back home.
It’s a peace offering to Sam. And some kind of clean slate for Dean. New car, new lease on life, whatever.
Dean’s good and only threatens Sam about half a dozen times on behalf of his car’s honor.
“You’ll call,” Sam says in the motel parking lot.
Dean rolls his eyes. “C’mon, Sammy, really? Hey,” he says when Sam’s jaw clenches, “yeah, dude, I’ll call. You remember to shower regularly.”
After that, it’s open road and mid-spring sun coming in through the windows. Cas has some lead out in Wyoming, something he read in the morning paper they picked up at a gas station. Dean watches Cas lean out the passenger’s side window, intent on absorbing the sights, the road signs and semi-trucks roaring fast. His cheeks are flushed with the wind and he could use a shave and he’s so unreasonably gorgeous, Dean can’t wait to check into a room tonight.
When Dean’s phone rings on the seat between them, Cas picks it up.
“This is Castiel. Yes—yes, Mrs. Tran, Dean’s here. Would you like to speak with him?”
Dean’s grinning as he takes the phone from Cas. “What’ve you got for us?”