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a face in the water

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Dean doesn't die immediately. He dies like a hunter, dies fighting, dies alone until Cas appears, hearing his last prayer.

By the time Cas gets there, Dean's eyes are already closing and the shaking has left his hands. There's blood at the corner of his mouth. Cas kneels next to him, ignoring the tears in his eyes, and holds Dean's hand.

"Cas," Dean says, "fuck." His breathing is harsh, heart beating frantically. "We never made it to that garden, did we?"

Just before Dean goes to a place Cas can’t follow, Cas kisses his forehead and whispers, “I’ve always loved you.”

Cas can’t follow to Dean’s afterlife, but he can still bend space and time. So he goes.

At three, Dean is a fat and happy toddler, hair blonde in the sun and eyes green like spring. Cas’s vessel is equally fat and happy, and he thrills at this version of Dean, so much potential for an open heart, so much possibility in his chubby hands and stumbling feet. Mary helps him up when he falls, and she hugs him close to her chest, and Cas knows Dean will never remember, but he still uses his hands gently when they play in the sandbox.

At eight, Dean is the new boy at school and makes shy friends with Cas’s blue-eyed vessel. They play hunters and demons using sticks for guns, pretending all the other kids are Big Bads, sneaking around the strand of trees behind the playground while Dean waits for Sam to get out of school. Dean’s so young but has already been taking care of his little brother for years.

At twelve, a pretty girl named Elle with wavy dark hair and eyes like Texas skies tutors Dean in math at a new school. Dean insists he’s too dumb, will never understand it, but he gets his first A on a test ever. John doesn’t care, and the next week, he picks them up and heads to the next hunt.

At fifteen, there’s a sweet boy with a shy smile and eyes that shine like sapphires when he looks at Dean. Dean’s not sure how -- he’s too busy wearing his dad’s leather jacket and smoking cigarettes instead of going to class to socialize -- but he and this boy become friends. “There’s a garden,” Cas says with another vessel’s mouth, “acres and acres of wildflowers.” He looks at Dean hopefully and Dean says, “Let’s go sometime.”

When sometime comes around, Dean borrows (steals) the Impala while John is out cold with a hangover and drives them to the south side of town. Cas -- except Dean calls him Taylor in this iteration -- grins wide enough that Dean relaxes to smile back, and Cas drags Dean around by the hand pointing out all the different species of flowers, the bees buzzing from bloom to bloom, and Dean has never been happier.

It’s not his first kiss, not by far, but it’s Dean’s first kiss with a boy. He’s never touched softer lips or seen longer eyelashes or tasted someone whose tongue moved like honey in his mouth. “Dean,” Cas gasps against his lips, and Dean whispers, “You’re ok, you’re ok, I’ve got you.”

Cas knows he’ll leave soon, as is the Winchester life, but he still cries when he walks to Dean’s apartment to find it empty.

Seventeen brings them together again. Cas is Remi now, a redhead just like Dean likes, and they kiss but she holds out on anything else, instead just opting to have secret sleepovers where Dean whispers all his fears into the dark. He has so many of them, and more than once Cas can see tears tracking down his face, glinting in the moonlight. Before Dean goes, he leaves her with one of his old band t-shirts and tells her not to forget him.

Twenty puts Dean walking into a bar to get trashed, confident in his fake ID, and there’s a guy with dark hair and blue eyes so familiar Dean almost asks if his name is Taylor. Cas -- going by Wes now -- does shots with Dean until they are both stumbling when they head back to Dean’s motel room. Dean hasn’t touched a man without money being involved since Taylor, wouldn’t admit that he’s wanted to, but he lets Cas slide into him, slick and slow, and leave marks on his neck while Dean scratches fingernails down the muscles of his back. They do it more than once, until Dean is sore and exhausted, but Dean won’t kiss him. It’s too intimate, too much an admission of what they are doing, something that would shame him too much if anyone ever found out.

Cas leaves a fake number, but it’s weeks before Dean musters up the courage to try to call anyway. “This number has been disconnected” has Dean throwing his phone across the shitty motel room, not sure why he’s so angry.

By twenty-one, Dean is doing tricks again, just sometimes, and Cas drives by to offer him some cash for the night. Dean looks hungry and his ribs loom from under his skin like so many monsters making a home near his heart. Cas takes him back to a hotel room, a real hotel with keycards and water pressure, let’s him take a bath (a bath!) and orders room service and, because Dean would never accept payment without rendering services, lets Dean go to his knees and suck Cas off until Cas is dizzy with wanting. Cas kisses him after, and Dean seems surprised by the caress of Cas’s lips, like he doesn’t know the last time he was touched gently.

Twenty-three, and Cas swoops in in time to heal Dean from what would otherwise be life-threatening injuries. He’s only there long enough for Dean to blink open his eyes and say, “What the hell?” but it’s so Dean that Cas laughs and gives him a rushed kiss. Dean will think it was all an unconsciousness-inspired dream anyway.

Twenty-five, and the only place to really find Dean these days when he’s not hunting is at bars. Cas -- as Christine now -- is light-eyed, dark-skinned, and brash, and Dean takes a liking to her immediately. They shoot whiskey and pool together all night. At one point Dean acts like he’s going to ask her back to his room, but they end up just talking shit the way Dean used to be able to do with Sam until last call.

Dean is harder to find after that. Not literally -- his soul shines so brightly that Cas could follow him anywhere in any time -- but the hunting lifestyle makes it difficult for Cas to work himself into Dean’s life. Every now and then he gets a quick fuck, as a man or a woman, but they never share sweet kisses and certainly never talk. It’s not nearly enough for Cas, but he makes do.

At twenty-nine, after forty years or four months, Cas is a ball of screaming, burning light that pulls Dean out of the pit. While he’s putting Dean back together, Cas so carefully sifts through his memories and removes all the moments they shared, all the bright glimmers that cast shadows on the rest of Dean’s life. Dean’s soul already knows Cas, clings to him all the way back to Earth, clings to him even as Cas tries to drop him back in his grave. Don’t leave me, Dean’s soul cries, and Cas comforts: Not for long.

Dean looks at the handprint and, despite his shock and disgust and fear, there’s a part of him that feels like it belongs there. The first time he looks into blue eyes in a barn full of thunder, he thinks he might belong there, too, and there’s memories -- distorted like a face in the water -- trying to surface, memories of kisses and kind words and soft eyes. But no one has ever treated him the way he’s trying to remember, so they must be lies.

In the bunker, Cas talks about the garden -- maybe too much -- where they shared their first kiss that Dean doesn’t remember. They end up back in Dallas more than once, but never find the time between demons and angels and goddamn witches to visit the place Cas once pointed out a sunflower that stood taller than Dean, giggling, and Dean rebelliously picked a rose and presented it to Cas with a flourish.

It’s a long time before Dean and Cas stop dancing around each other, before Dean shoves Cas up against a wall in a moment of desperate, desperate fear and kisses him with bruising intensity, hands cradling Cas’s face so he couldn’t break away if he wanted to. “You could’ve died,” Dean says, foreheads pressed tight together, as if this isn’t a true statement every other day.

Despite the roughness of their first -- what Dean thinks is their first -- kiss, that night he brings Cas into his bed and touches him delicately, smoothing his fingers over Cas’s bruises and kissing his scars and making love in a way Cas has never experienced from him. He didn’t even know, not really, that Dean had it in him to give such kind touches, having never experienced any on his own, and Cas cherishes every moment.

It’s not like that all the time. Sometimes Dean falls asleep with his head on Cas’s lap on the couch, and sometimes he begs Cas to hold him down and hurt him. Cas does whatever Dean wants, whatever Dean needs, because Dean does whatever Cas wants and needs without questioning. That’s how they’ve always been.

At forty-three, Dean is slowing down, and he still drinks too much and doesn’t sleep enough and goes out on hunts alone, despite everyone else’s better judgment. It’s not some Big Bad that gets him in the end, just a garden-variety bad that never should’ve been a problem, but his knees aren’t what they used to be and his recovery time has slowed enough that the monster gets one over on him.

Dean doesn't die immediately. He dies like a hunter, dies fighting, dies alone until Cas appears, hearing his last prayer.

By the time Cas gets there, Dean's eyes are already closing and the shaking has left his hands. There's blood at the corner of his mouth. Cas kneels next to him, ignoring the tears in his eyes, and holds Dean's hand.

"Cas," Dean says, "fuck." His breathing is harsh, heart beating frantically. "We never made it to that garden, did we?"

Just before Dean goes to a place Cas can’t follow, Cas kisses his forehead and whispers, “I’ve always loved you.”

Cas can’t follow to Dean’s afterlife, but he can still bend space and time. So he goes.