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Lost & Found

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“Alright, well, call me if you hear anything, will you? Thanks, brother.” Dean hung up the phone and placed another tally mark aside the second to last name on his list. Jesse Cuevas. There are twenty-four tally marks next to each name now (save for the last one, which only has twenty-three), representing each of his twice per week calls to every living hunter he knew of for the past three months. He'd waited by the phone the entire twenty-four hours after he booted Castiel unceremoniously from the bunker, but despite strict instructions to do so, Cas never called. Despite Sam's protests that he was overreacting, he started this routine the very same night after Castiel had failed to check in with him.

At first, Dean had made his calls, sure, but he wasn’t overly concerned. Cas was probably pissed at him, and rightfully so. He knows for damn sure he’d be furious if the tables were turned. Sometime during the second week of no contact from his friend though, Dean started kicking himself. He should have been more upfront with Cas. Just because he had no choice in kicking him to the curb didn’t mean he had to hide the reason. Why had he done that? Castiel would have understood, surely. In fact, he probably would have reassured Dean that he was doing the right thing, self-sacrificing bastard that he is. Right?

As the third week rolled on, Dean became less sure. Yea, Cas was old as the stars, but wavelengths of celestial intent didn’t get cold. They didn’t need to eat or shower and shave. They had no use for practical knowledge like how to hustle a couple of preppy collegiate types out of their last $100 when you got nothing left in your own pocket and your stomach is trying to eat itself. Cas didn’t have one damn clue about being human. That night, Dean had gone to sleep with his own belly empty save for half a bottle of Jack, plagued by thoughts of his angel sleeping cold and wet from the rain underneath a park bench.

As the fourth week dawned and none of his contacts had any leads to speak of, Dean realized how much he’d really cocked this one up. His cell phones all lay silent, not a text or call in sight, and the burner phone Dean had hooked Cas up with now rang once before going straight to a message about how the phone number was no longer in service. 

Dean was a goddamn idiot.

To make matters worse, he and Sam were holed up in the bunker with Kevin now, hardly ever getting out any more, not even for routine hunts. While Sam had no idea why Dean was sidelining him, the fact remained that it was necessary. Sam only felt healthy because of Ezekiel, and that dude’s motives were getting shadier by the day. Dean honestly couldn’t decide if he wanted him in or out of Sam’s head more. Regardless, keeping a low profile and forcing Sam to get some rest was clearly the smartest thing to do. The only thing to do. Unfortunately, that basically sidelined Dean himself from doing any actual, hands-on searching of his own for Cas. He was reliant on the systems they had in place to track and locate someone from the bunker and while make no mistake, they had some great resources, Castiel remained elusive.

While Dean may have forced himself to limit calls to his fellow hunters to two times per week, he checked the rest of his resources multiple times a day. On his computer, he set up news alerts, angel activity alerts, and name usage alerts for every alias Dean could think Castiel might try, from Clarence to Emmanuel to Jimmy, and even a few of the FBI names he knew Castiel was fond of Dean using. But nothing showed. Dean didn’t rely only on the automated alerts either, he scoured the news by hand from east to west coast, looking for anything suspicious, for any breadcrumb, any clue, any hint. And yet, he continued to come up empty-handed. He’d even programmed their traffic cam hacker software to scan for Cas’ face, but that seemed even less likely to produce a hit, and so far he’d been correct.

Three months. 

Dean’s done his best to convince himself daily that no news is good news, but it’s hard. It’s even worse because he doesn’t have Sam and his perpetual optimism to annoy the hell out of him, assuring repeatedly like a broken record on uppers that everything will be fine, Dean. It’s not like he can tell Sam he kicked Cas out of the bunker, and Sam’s response to Castiel going off the radar was, “Well, he did leave pretty quickly. He probably just needs some time alone to figure some things out. He’ll be back.”

But at the very least, if there's one small comfort, it's that Castiel hasn’t been found dead. There’s just  no way that Castiel, branded traitor to Heaven and to humanity, being found with burnt wings and his eyes singed out wouldn’t have at least hit the hunter grapevine. Dean didn’t get the impression that the angels who were after him intended to show mercy, more like they were intent on making a loud, public display of what they thought of Castiel and his actions. No news almost had to be good news, at least that’s what Dean told himself to get through the day. But at night, when his thoughts were loosened by whiskey and he was alone in the dark of his room, the side of the bed he’d set up with an extra pillow and a bedside lamp lonely and cold, other ideas and images would weave through his brain uninvited. Castiel in chains in a dungeon somewhere, broken and bleeding. Castiel having his brains drilled out in Heaven until they oozed out of his skull and puddled onto the floor. Castiel begging for his life, his body, screaming his innocence as faceless demons or angels or god knows what else tore him apart over and over and over again while Dean screamed.

More often than not he woke up sweating and panting, terrified and ashamed and so regretful that he’d not only kicked his best friend out on his ass in his time of need, but that he’d been too cowardly to even tell him why, or that it was the last thing he’d ever wanted to do.

He misses him.

But life went on, as life tends to do, ignorant and uncaring of Dean’s increasing worry and pain. And so Dean went on too, because that’s what he’s done his entire life, and in the end, what other choice is there? Feeling bad for himself won't bring Castiel back. All he can do now is to try and find him, and hope that he isn't too late when he does.

And so, at the end of the twenty-fourth week since he last saw Cas, Dean picks up his phone and tries the last name on his list. Asa Fox. He’s not connected for more than three seconds, barely enough time to grind out a, “Hey man,” before he’s cut off abruptly by a grumpy Asa informing him succinctly that he hasn’t heard a damn thing about the angel before promptly hanging up.

“Sheesh,” Dean grunts, staring at the disconnected phone in surprise. “Better think twice ‘bout callin’ a Winchester for help next time, dickbag.” He’s about to toss the useless phone across the table and go back to searching the web when something new happens.

His phone rings.

In twenty-four weeks, his phone hasn’t rung once, unless you count Sam calling to ask for Dean to bring back some sort of disgusting green leafy shit from the grocery store.

Garth Fitzgerald IV, the display announces, and Dean scrambles to pick it up before shaking his own head. Who would have guessed he’d ever be excited to talk to Garth? Nevertheless, he picks up the phone and does his best not to sound too hopeful.

“Hey man, how’s it hanging?”

“Oh uh, mmph, I --” There’s a loud thump in the background followed by scuffling sounds and Garth’s voice cursing in the distance.

Dean knits his eyebrows and leans forward in his chair, pressing the phone to his ear in the hopes that he can better distinguish what’s happening on the other end, but it’s all just a mashup of noise. There’s a  clang and the sound of something heavy being dragged, and then finally Garth’s voice sounds loud and clear on the other end.

“Hey, Dean! Sorry about all that, I just adopted a couple of ferrets and man, are they wily.”

Blinking in confusion, Dean starts to get irritated. “Ferrets, Garth? You called me to talk about your ferrets?” Laughter rings sharp and tinny through the speaker and Dean yanks it away from his ear.

“No man,” Garth replies. “Well, kind of. I mean, I did hope you’d be interested --”

“So help me, Garth, if you don’t get to the point I’m gonna drive down there and shove those ferrets so far up your --”

“Whoa, whoa, no need for the violence, compadre.” Garth cuts him off and Dean rolls his eyes as he launches into his best Cool Hand Luke impression. “Seems like what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate!”

Dean growls. “I’m hanging up.”

“No, Dean, wait, I’m sorry. I’ve been a little… isolated lately, s’good to talk to you is all.”

“Then talk,” Dean prompts, drumming his fingers on the table.

“Yea, alright, so see, there’s this thing going on in Florida. Got wind of it yesterday, was planning on heading down to check it out myself, maybe hit the beaches after, but then this ferret opportunity came up and I just couldn’t say no. You should see them, Dean, they’re just the cutest little --”

“Hanging up, Garth,” Dean reiterates.

“Anyway, so it seems like the city of Fort Lauderdale has a vigilante on its hands. Crime is down, and not just a little, both human and supernatural. The police haven’t got a single lead so whoever it is, they’re good. Maybe too good,” Garth emphasizes dramatically.

Dean sighs. “So what you’re telling me, Garth is that you have zero news on Cas.”

There’s a moment of silence on the other end of the line and then Garth stammers a reply. “Dean, this could be a really big case. When’s the last time you heard of something like this happening without there being a catch? I have finely tuned instincts now, and they’re telling me something is off here. Listen, I dunno when the Winchester brothers turned into the “run and hide” duo --”

“Whoa, unnecessary! Didn’t realize we owed you an explanation, but if you’re gonna be like that, you should know that we got some heavy shit going down over here, too.”

“Yea, well, we all got heavy shit to deal with. Listen, I gotta…” Garth stops talking for a moment and in the background, Dean can hear metal creaking and the sound of something squeaking and rustling. “I gotta get going, you want this case or not?”

He hesitates for a moment. He is dying to get out of the bunker, and the case seems simple enough. Find this vigilante, figure out his angle, deal with it. If it turns out to be more than he bargained for, he’ll turf it, or call for some backup. He can do all the same virtual searching for Cas on the road that he can do at the bunker, and who knows, maybe he’ll get lucky and pick up his scent. At least if he’s already on the road he won’t have to lie to Sam’s face about what leads really he’s chasing down. And Kevin’s here to keep Sam company, Dean reasons to himself. Nerd heaven here, practically doing them a favor getting out of their hair.

“Alright,” he agrees. “I’ll do it. Send me the details.”

***

As it turns out, Sam does not have the same outlook as Dean on whether Dean going on a solo hunt is “doing him a favor.”

“You’re being ridiculous Dean, I’m fine. I’ve been fine for months! I’m not going to stay locked up in the bunker like some useless ferret in a cage.” Sam folds his arms and leans against the frame of the door to Dean’s room.

Dean stops shoving clothes into his duffel bag and narrows his eyes at his brother. “You been talking to Garth?”

“What? No.”

“You sure? Because --”

“Dean, can you focus, please? You shouldn’t be going off on your own, anyway. Not with all the angels running wild, Crowley loose out there, Abbadon, dude, we have no idea what you could be walking into. Have you even considered that this might be a trap?”

Dean raises his hands and then drops them, rifling through the closet in search of a particular jacket. “Won’t know until I check it out, Sammy.”

With a frustrated sigh, Sam grabs his shoulder and forces him to turn around. “I’m coming with you. Kevin can come too.”

The universe must be on his side for once because just then Kevin Tran walks by his door holding an open laptop, just in time to overhear Sam volunteering his services. “I’m not going on some monster hunt,” he replies in passing, not even stopping to see whether his comment was acknowledged. "I'm not a hunter." Dean lifts his hands and raises his eyebrows.

“You heard ‘im, Sammy. He’s not going. And he can’t stay here by himself, his nerdy ass will get into the inventory and blow the place up. Or give himself a tail. Or open a portal to Narnia, who knows?” Dean grabs his duffel and heads for the door that Sam has returned to blocking with his enormous body. “You gonna let me by, or are we gonna rumble?”

Sam throws him a bitchface but in the end, he moves aside. With a resigned sigh, Sam shuffles after his older brother as he makes his way towards the stairs to the garage. “This is the last time, Dean. And you call to check in, or if you need backup. You know I’ll be right there.”

Stopping halfway up the stairs, Dean turns to look at his little brother. Sam’s staring up at him earnestly and with so much concern in his face that Dean feels a pang of guilt stab through his chest. “I know man,” he replies, reaching down to clap Sam on the shoulder. “I’ll call you. Get some rest,” he adds, as he turns to jog the rest of the way up the stairs before Sam can change his mind.

“I’m rested, ” Sam calls out. “Watch your back!”

***

Dean feels good for the first time in months, being back behind the wheel of his Baby and out on the open road. With no wet blankets (Sam) there to complain, he plays his favorite music as loud as he wants and drives with all of the windows down. He stops periodically for the greasiest fast food he can find and chews through three bags of beef jerky, indulging in not being lectured at for once as much as he enjoys the food itself. It’s a twenty-five hour drive from Lebanon to Fort Lauderdale, and for the first half, the freedom of the road is all Dean focuses on. By hour sixteen, he’s bored, overly full of burgers, and his eyelids are drooping, so he’s forced to take a real break.

He stops overnight at a shitty roadside motel, pays the extra $20 for a king size bed so that he can really sprawl out, and passes out almost before his head hits the pillow. He doesn’t bother to set an alarm.

Dean’s dreams come on like a summer storm rolling in across the Kansas plains; dark, heavy, and suffocating. Visions of Sam dying in his arms outside that church, of Sam surviving only to be burned out from the inside, left an empty husk by the angel who promised to heal him, and then something far, far worse tumbles through his brain. He hears Sam screaming at him in anger, sees Sam whole and free and perfectly healed, turning his back and walking away from Dean forever as punishment for what he’s done. He screams, begs his brother for forgiveness, and tries to chase him down, fingernails popping off like buttons as he claws at the dirt he’s laying in to force himself forward. He’s following Sam, he’s almost within reach when suddenly he’s hauled back and held down by nothing as Sam disappears into the dark without so much as glancing over his shoulder. Dean looks down the length of his dirty, bloody body only to find himself chained to the earth.

He wakes up soaked in sweat with his heart threatening to beat right out of his chest. Stumbling from the bed, he makes his way to the bathroom and splashes cold water on his face until the memory of the dream feels less concrete. Despite guzzling down three glasses of fresh, cold water, Dean swears he can still taste the coppery tang of blood and the damp, musty taste of earth inside his mouth. When he looks down at his hands, he’s not surprised to see them shaking, more so that they’re clean, free of dirt under the nails and of blood streaking his palms. It feels wrong to be clean.

By some small miracle, the motel has a minibar and Dean quickly determines that now isn’t the time to belabor healthy coping mechanisms. He drinks small bottle after bottle until the residual fear starts to fade and his panic at the very real threat of losing Sam starts to ebb away. He drifts off atop the comforter, empty bottles strewn all around him.

This time it’s Cas. It’s not abstract like his dream about Sam, either. It’s cold and hard, and way too real. The moment where he’d busted down the door to April’s apartment, the look she’d given him, the split second where he’d hesitated, where he’d been too slow, where he’d failed, playing on repeat and trapping him in a torturous loop. The sound of the angel blade sliding into Castiel’s all-too-human chest echoes in his ears, the slick slicing of skin and muscle and Castiel’s face, contorted with pain and then completely blank. Each time it’s the same.

“NO!” He screams the same word at the top of his lungs, bolting forward and reaching Castiel’s side just in time to see the light go out in his eyes. “CAS!” There’s so much he wants to say, so much he needs to tell him, and he’s gone, all gone, his face slack and his eyes empty and it’s all Dean’s fault. The scene cuts to the library in the bunker, and Dean watches from across the room as his doppelganger calmly tells a miraculously living, perfectly whole and beautiful Castiel that he can’t stay. “No,” he whispers, “Tell him anything else, anything but that.” But he’s powerless to stop what’s already happened, unable to do anything at all as he watches Castiel’s heart break into a million pieces. He finds himself, even in his dreams, becoming furious with the doppelganger version of "Dean" standing before him. He wants to rip him to pieces for doing this to Cas, to himself.

As Castiel and his sad eyes ascend the bunker stairs with nothing but a backpack and a few token items from Dean’s bug out stash, he moves to stand in front of his double with fire in his eyes and fury in his voice. “You,” he grinds out. “You break everything you touch.”

That Dean doesn’t seem to hear. He’s watching Castiel go, sad and disappointed, but not nearly enough.

Nothing he’s done has been enough.

Castiel closes the door to the bunker and is gone, and the next thing Dean knows he’s busting down the door to April’s apartment again, just in time to watch Castiel die. Again. Over and over and over, his own personal, eternal hell.

The next time he wakes, the sun is streaming through the partially closed curtains and into his eyes. His hair is damp with perspiration and his cheeks are wet with tears. He pushes to a sitting position at the edge of the bed and stays there for several long moments, trying his best to shake off the nightmares and replace them with the hopeful light of day.

He’s as successful today as he ever is.

***

Once he’s showered and dressed, soiled nightclothes tucked into the plastic bag that comes in the courtesy ice bin for washing later, he slides back in behind Baby’s wheel feeling moderately better. Briefly, he considers grabbing some greasy, sodium-laden comfort food to mope into but begrudgingly decides against it. He really wants to get back on the road and bacon and eggs aren’t exactly a driving sort of food. In the end, he stops at a rest stop off of the highway to grab a coffee and a reasonably healthy smoothie, glad Sam isn’t here to mock him for it. His kale-loving freak of nature self would probably go on for the next two hours about Dean’s body “basically crying out for something green,” and Dean rolls his eyes at the thought. Still, he gives Sam a call as soon as he’s back on the road.

Sam seems relieved to hear from him and says he’s been poking around on the internet regarding the mysterious vigilante.

“It’s weird, Dean. I get why Garth wanted to check it out. There are tons of people this guy apparently saved, and all of them can describe the rescue in perfect detail, but none of them can remember a single thing about the guy himself. You know, except that he’s a guy. The descriptions are so generic they could literally be anyone. I can understand wanting to protect someone who saved your life, but it almost seems as if there’s gotta be more to it. I don’t know. Are you sure you don’t want me to come down there?”

Dean nods his head even though Sam can’t see it. “I’m sure, Sam. Let me at least get a lay of the land, see if I can’t make some of these people talk. Maybe it’s just cops they aren’t keen on spilling their guts to, who knows?”

“Yea,” Sam agrees, though he sounds anything but confident. “Maybe. Just keep your wits about you, alright? I can’t put my finger on it but this is ringing some bells for me. Call it a gut instinct.”

Clearing his throat, Dean licks his lips and pauses before replying, only because he’s had a similar feeling while researching Garth’s claims. Nothing concrete, nothing he could explain out loud even if he wanted to, just… something not being quite right. But he doesn’t tell Sam that because he knows he’ll have the same reaction, and then there’s no way he’ll stay put at the bunker. Dean decides he'll just be extra cautious, shoot first, and ask questions later. “You know me, Sammy,” he replies eventually. “Careful is my middle name.” He hears Sam not even try to choke back a snort and purses his lips. “Whatever dude. Make yourself useful and send me the info on the most recent attacks.” He hangs up his phone and tosses it on the empty passenger seat, cranking the radio back up to obscene levels and settling in for the rest of the drive.

***

By the time Dean’s making his final approach into Fort Lauderdale, turning off the highway and winding his way through the side city streets, it's evening but still fairly light out for this time of the year. He drives around aimlessly for a while, bypassing motel after motel for no reason other than he really has no idea where to start with this entire case. The seedier side of town where the cheapest motels are soon gives way to a more industrial district that seems to have been rehabbed recently to a certain extent. There are a bunch of trendy looking bars and what looks like a handful of loft-style apartments, but the streets are dark and shadowy and the vibe has Dean on edge. He comes to the end of the street he’s meandered down and finds himself facing the ocean, so for lack of anything better to do, he turns left and parks along the sidewalk.

His back and knees crack and pop as he unfolds his body and stands up straight, making him wince as he pulls his arms far above his head into a luxurious stretch. He locks Baby and opts to hop the concrete barrier between the sidewalk and the beach instead of walking down to where there’s an opening. He contemplates taking his boots off, but that seems like more trouble than it’s worth at the moment. The beach is empty and doesn’t really look like the part of town one would come to for light recreation or sunbathing, considering the buildings and businesses it’s surrounded by. But at the same time, it’s peaceful and attractive with the dying pink rays of the setting sun reflecting off of both the water and the sand. Dean does his best to bat away the passing thought that this is the kind of place Cas would have appreciated. He’s only partially successful.

He sinks into the soft, sun-warm sand and pulls out his phone, flipping to his email and opening the most recent one from Sam. He pulls up the “Maps” app as well and starts dropping location pins for the spots Sam has identified as previous attacks stopped by this supposed vigilante. It’s not long before the mess of pins combined with the small blue dot that indicates his current location have him coming up short. Somehow, he’s planted himself right in the middle of the vigilante’s territory. Not that there haven’t been isolated “saves” all over the city, there have. Some have even been reported to have occurred inside buildings and businesses, but that’s neither here nor there because the major concentration of events is within the immediate area that Dean’s sitting in right now. Either this person is some kind of Bruce Wayne wannabe, or there’s a big bad that doesn’t want anyone else encroaching on its territory. As far as Dean’s concerned, either option is equally dangerous until proven otherwise.

He’s dialing Sam’s number and the phone is on its second ring when it happens. A piercing scream that sounds like it’s coming from across the street, the kind of scream that Dean recognizes immediately as one of terror and fear, ruling out the brief wave of hope he’d felt that it could just be a day-drunk kid messing around.

Dean has a moment where he’s not sure whether he should be surprised at how “lucky” he’s already gotten, or whether he should kick his own ass for not hauling it back to the Impala and gearing up while he still had the chance. He shakes it off and twists to his feet, taking off across the sand in the direction of the noise without delay. But running on sand is not something Dean’s used to, and he slides several times before eventually overturning his ankle and going down hard on the side of his face. His cheek grates harshly against the tiny grains and he wonders absently how something that felt so soft could now be so painful. Whipping his head back and forth to shake the sand out of his hair, Dean pushes back to standing as quickly as he went down. The screams have subsided, but that doesn’t deter him from seeking out their source.

He bypasses Baby but pulls his gun out from where it’s tucked into the back of his pants, stalking quietly across the deserted street and into one of the dark alleyways between buildings. At the other end of the narrow passage he can barely make out three dark figures, two that are embracing and one that’s lying still on the ground.

“Hey!” He calls out, and the standing figures turn to look at him, the taller one appearing to straighten in alarm at Dean’s voice. The figure’s hands drop from where they were wrapped around the smaller one, and they appear to say something before turning and bolting in the opposite direction from Dean. “No, hey! Wait, man, I just want to… fuck.” Dean swears as he jogs the (farther than it looks) distance down the length of the alley. Oddly, the smaller figure doesn’t run, and when Dean gets close enough he sees that it’s a wiry little hipster-looking kid with giant glasses, a beanie and a fresh bite wound on his neck.

“You aren’t the cops,” the kid observes with a frown.

Dean ignores him for a moment, jogging forward to look out the end of the alley. He’s disappointed to see a million possible escape routes his vigilante could have taken staring back at him. Turning back around, he stoops to check out the body on the ground. When he gets down close enough he realizes that the dark pavement had been concealing a pretty sizeable puddle of blood and that the dude’s head is only attached by the barest piece of skin. Following a pretty obvious hunch, Dean uses his gun to poke at the guy’s lip and gum and sure enough, extra teeth. “Huh,” Dean murmurs to himself before turning his attention to the kid.

“You alright?” The kid looks at him warily, but nods. He’s got a handkerchief in his hand, and he’s dabbing off and on at his neck. “Here,” Dean offers, holding his hand out. The kid looks at the square of fabric in his hand for a second before reluctantly handing it over. “You gotta hold pressure or the bleeding won’t stop.” Dean folds the handkerchief into a smaller square and presses it to the boy’s neck. “What happened? And why’d your buddy run?”

The boy’s eyes narrow and he doesn’t answer at first. Dean looks down at him and raises his eyebrows, and the kid sighs. “You wouldn’t believe me even if I told you. I told him the cops wouldn’t believe me either, but he said he’d --” The kid stops talking abruptly and eyes Dean suspiciously. “I think I’ll just wait and talk to the cops.”

Dean shrugs his shoulders and dips his head. “You could do that. But I bet it’d be pretty hard to explain how some necking in an alley turned into someone losing their head.” He pauses to let his words sink in before continuing, “He was a vampire, wasn’t he? Lured you out here and then bit you? And let me guess, you screamed and that’s when our masked superhero came to your rescue.”

“He isn’t masked,” the kid says, clearly confused.

“Aha!” Dean grins. “So you do know what he looks like.”

Scrunching his nose and pulling away from Dean to take over tending his own wound, the boy looks at Dean in disgust. “Even suppose I do, I’m not telling you.”

Internally, Dean contemplates his choices and goes for the one he’s most familiar with, the one he’d take if the situations were reversed. “How about we make a deal?”

***

Twenty minutes later Dean’s got vampire remains in his trunk and the name of a bar. No matter what he’d offered, the kid wouldn’t give up a name or a description, but in exchange for being turned loose and not having to talk to the police, he eventually coughed up the bar. He wouldn’t say what it meant or explain what Dean was supposed to do once he got there, but Dean didn’t suppose he had much choice other than to accept the offering and hope that it panned out into a real lead. A quick google search shows the bar is right nearby, but Dean’s got business to attend to first. He drives around until he finds an abandoned lot and digs a shallow grave into which he dumps the vamp’s remains and lights him up. By the time he’s done, it's pitch black outside and well past dinner time.

Dean figures he’s got two choices at this point; call it a night, get some dinner and crash at the most decent shitty motel he can find (hopefully with some Skinemax), or hit up this bar. He’s hungry, and the decision is a close thing, but after witnessing what he had earlier he just doesn’t feel right quitting for the day just yet. He decides to put all his eggs into hoping this place has semi-decent bar food and turns Baby around to head back to the industrial neighborhood. He parks in the same spot and opts to walks the few blocks over to where the map on his phone says this bar is.

“Oh,” Dean says out loud when he spots it, surprised but not disappointed. The backlit letters above the entrance that spell out “Good Friends Bar” would be ambiguous enough, but the four rainbow flags flapping in the warm breeze below them definitely are not, nor is the “Open To All” sign on the door. As he stands there staring, Dean finds himself wondering if this was ever a hint at all, or if the kid was just mocking him. Feeling suddenly exhausted, the fatigue of spending over twenty-four hours behind the wheel of his car and running on fumes hitting him all at once, Dean can’t summon up the energy to care. He reverts back to the plan he’d had when he decided to come here in the first place; grab a drink and hope for food. That’s going to have to be good enough for tonight. And hey, not that he’s planning on bringing anyone home, but Dean’s not one to deny himself a good look. And gay bars… they’re the best place to look if he’s going to indulge that way.

He pushes through the double doors to the bar and can’t help but take a moment to admire the stylish interior. The industrial theme from the neighborhood is continued throughout with iron pipe fixtures, exposed hanging bulbs, and polished, grey and brown toned wood covering the floors, ceilings, and the sleek, polished counters. It’s not bright, but it’s not dim either, well lit enough for Dean to be able to see clear across the deep room. The area the entrance dumps into is a dance floor, and a few people are on it, grinding obscenely to some techno music. It’s not obnoxiously loud, which Dean is grateful for, and it fades into the background as he moves across the floor and into the back section that houses the actual bar. The bar is a masterpiece, a three-sided thing with iron shelving across the fourth and more shelving suspended from the ceiling with those same iron pipes. Decorative bottles scatter across the high shelves, and functional, top-tier bottles litter the fourth wall. In the middle of the bar, on the other side of the space the bartenders' occupy, is an insane array of liquors and spirits, and Dean rubs his hands together in excitement. Most pleasing of all though, are the bar menus neatly laminated and left out strategically at various places on the counter. Jackpot, Dean thinks happily. Doesn't get any better than this. 

Dean takes a seat and picks up a menu, scanning it quickly before deciding easily on a cheeseburger and fries. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, he thinks.  He doesn’t look up as the bartender appears in front of him, instead fumbling in his pocket for his phone and scrolling Sam’s recent messages, firing his order off without a second thought.

“Hey buddy, I’ll take a cheeseburger, medium, fries and a couple fingers of whatever whiskey you’ve got that’s at least hit puberty. Thanks, man.”

The phone falls from his hands, clattering noisily onto the counter when the bartender speaks.

Soft yet gravelly, and so painfully familiar, Dean knows that voice, would know it anywhere. His mouth goes dry, and he raises his eyes slowly, completely unprepared and borderline terrified of what he knows he’ll see.

“How did you find me?”

Cas.

Chapter Text

lizleeships - Cas behind the bar

“Cas, ” is all that will come out of Dean’s mouth. Between the pure joy, the utter relief at seeing his friend alive and safe and the crushing guilt that came with seeing him here , Dean’s tongue is tied and he’s essentially frozen in place. Of all the scenarios, all the ways he thought his search for Castiel would eventually play out, this was not one of them. If he’s being honest, he’d resigned himself weeks ago to the idea that when he did finally catch a break and unearth a lead he could use, he’d be following bloody breadcrumbs to a grisly, painful outcome. That if Castiel somehow had managed to survive his theoretical captor’s imprisonment and torture, he would be in bad shape, both physically and mentally when Dean finally swooped in to save him. He was prepared to come face to face with a shell of the former angel; a broken, bleeding version of Castiel that he’d have to slowly put back together and whom might never be the same again.

This... is not that.

This is the opposite of that, in fact. Castiel looks… well, let’s just say that Dean’s almost grateful for the emotional storm raging inside his head, because without it he’s not sure that he would have been able to fully suppress a physical reaction. Castiel looks good, is what it all amounts to. He looks like himself, but better, healthier. He’s wearing the same style long sleeved white button down he always has, but this time it’s paired with a fitted blue waistcoat instead of a too-big jacket, and the sleeves are rolled up to his elbows. Dean can’t tell from looking if his biceps are actually thicker, or if the outfit just lends that suggestion. His face and hands are tanned and smooth, and his hair is gelled up the way Dean himself usually wears it. The whole effect is really doing a number on Dean, at least until Castiel crosses his arms self-consciously across his chest, and Dean suddenly remembers he’s been asked a question, though he’s not entirely sure what it was.

“You’re here,” he says instead, getting to his feet and leaning across the bar with his arms open, in hopes of a hug.

How did you find me?” Cas’ voice is firmer and has a sharper edge when he repeats the question, and Dean shrinks back into his seat. Right. He’s not exactly the hero of this story, and Cas has every right to be frosty with him. He opens his mouth to reply, but is preempted by the arrival of another man at Castiel’s side.

Dean starts a little as the man seems to pick up on Castiel’s discomfort immediately, dropping a protective hand to the small of his back before nodding in Dean’s direction. “Is everything alright, Castiel?” His voice is smooth and slightly lilted, and Dean can’t get a read on him at all. He’s taller than both of them with dark skin, earrings and patterns drawn under each silver-shadowed eye that reminds Dean of the friggin’ Wifi symbol. He’s wearing a floor-length black dress with a slit in the side, and despite that, his mere presence is intimidating as hell. Dean can’t help but feel a RuPaul meets Nick Fury vibe, and he’s not sure whether to be fascinated or scared.

Castiel doesn’t react or take his eyes off of Dean to answer. “I’m fine, Pree, thank you for asking. You are a supportive and considerate friend to show concern for my well-being.”

So that’s how it’s going to be, Dean thinks. Alright then, he’s entitled to it. He holds Cas’ gaze and nods. “I deserve that.”

Pree, or whatever, raises an eyebrow and Castiel finally turns to glance at him. Dean bristles at the closeness of their bodies, the natural ease that falls between them. Castiel’s arms relax minutely, his bicep brushing against Pree’s chest.

“This is Dean,” Castiel announces, waving a dismissive hand in Dean’s direction.

Pree’s gaze sharpens, and he looks Dean over with renewed interest. “Hmm,” is all he says, but his hand drops from Cas’ back down to the wrist that’s now dangling at his side, squeezing in what’s clearly meant to be a reassuring gesture. “I’ll leave you to it, then. Holler if you want me to toss him to the curb for you, baby.”

“No need,” Castiel deadpans, and Press shrugs before flouncing off, if flouncing can also look deadly.

Dean licks his lips, feeling even more lost and percolating with a rage he knows he has absolutely no right to feel. He does his best to keep his voice calm and neutral. “So uh, the two of you…?”

“Answer my question, Dean,” Castiel demands. “If you were able to track me then my life is in danger. I realize that my safety is not something you have a particular regard for but I am all that I have in this world, so if you don’t mind, I’d like to know whether or not I need to abandon this life that I’ve built for myself here.”

Whoa. Dean had been prepared for Cas to be hurt, to be angry, to have any number of emotions or feelings regarding what Dean had done to him, but he hadn’t realized the extent to which he’d thought Dean didn’t care. He hadn’t been prepared for Cas to be so cold, though clearly, that was naive.

“Cas,” he breathes, genuinely floored and at a loss for what to say so as not to make things worse. Probably best to lead with the part where he isn’t in imminent danger, then. “First of all, I didn’t find you. That’s not to say -- I mean, I’ve been looking. Everyone has been looking, but no one… anyway, I’m here on a case, I had no idea about you.” Castiel’s posture relaxes another iota, though if Dean didn’t know him so well he doubts he would have been able to tell. “Cas, do you really think those things about me? You think that I don’t care about you?”

The look Castiel shoots him, Dean surely deserves. “What should I believe, Dean? That you show affection and concern by putting your newly-human and resourceless loved ones out on the street to fend for themselves?”

Dean gulps. “Well, when you put it that way…”

Castiel slams his hands down on the bar and leans forward so that he’s only inches from Dean’s face. “I was alone, Dean. I was hungry, I was hurt, I had no way to achieve gainful employment or to even charge the stupid phone you were so kind as to give me. I am not stupid, Dean, contrary what you seem to think. There is nothing on this earth that would ever have you placing Sam in such a predicament, or Bobby, or Charlie… I could go on. You made it explicitly clear what I was worth to you, and this is exactly why I made it impossible for you to find me. I gave up everything for you, Dean Winchester and you tossed me to the curb like yesterday’s garbage.” When he finally stops speaking, Castiel’s eyes are narrowed and glossy, filling with tears that are clearly more angry than sad. His chest is heaving and his fingers are white where they’re pressed tight against the shiny wood.

He looks… incredibly, blindingly human, and for the first time the full weight and impact of what Dean’s done hits him like a ton of bricks. Of course he’d known that kicking Cas out wasn’t the most sensitive choice he’s ever made, but… fuck, having it all laid out like that? He was scum. He was the lowest of the low. He abandoned his best friend when he needed him most. There’s nothing, nothing he can say or do now to make this right, that much is clear, but at the very least Castiel deserves to know the truth.

He gathers himself and take a breath. “Can you take a break?”

“Why would I want to?”

Dean lets out a frustrated sigh and then holds up a hand, apologizing quickly when Castiel’s expression darkens. “Cas, please. Give me two minutes. Two minutes, and then if you never want to see me again, I’ll go. Please.” He looks up at Castiel’s stony face and can practically see the gears turning. Finally, he blinks and nods curtly.

“Alright. Two minutes. Wait here a moment.”

Dean pretends to check his phone while actually watching like a hawk as Castiel seeks out Pree and brings his lips close to the other man’s ear to speak. He sees Pree nod and say something in return, to which Castiel shakes his head and cracks a small but genuine smile. It makes that simmering anger deep in Dean’s belly roil and bubble again, and he forces himself to knock off the out of place possessive bullshit before Castiel returns, notices, and tells him to fuck right off. He debates shooting a message about finding Cas off to Sam, but decides to save that for a time when he can actually answer any of his inevitable questions.

When Castiel appears on Dean’s side of the bar, he heads directly for a side exit while motioning for Dean to follow. Dean does his best not to stare at the way Cas’ dark wash jeans hug his ass and legs, the way the corded muscles in his back flex visibly under his shirt. He closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose with his fingers, chastising himself internally for letting his mind go there. If ever there were a less appropriate time and situation, Dean can’t imagine it. It’s just that, he and Castiel have always been drawn together like magnets, always had something simmering just below the surface of best friends and brothers in arms. It’s hard after all these months of not being able to see him, talk to him, fight by his side to stand in front of Cas and feel like he’s still a million miles away. But it’s Cas’ right to hate him if he wants to. All Dean can do now is lay out the truth and hope it’s enough to earn himself a second chance.

God, he wants a second chance.

Lost in thought, he slams right into Castiel’s back as he stops to open the door. His hand slips to Castiel’s ribs to steady himself, and the man tenses palpably under his fingers. “Sorry, sorry Cas,” he stammers, backing up quickly as soon as he’s sure he won’t fall on his face. Castiel’s lips press into a thin line, but his only reply is to open the door and lead them outside.

The side exit dumps into an alleyway much like the one Dean had been in earlier while chasing down the vigilante. It’s damp and chilly compared to the main streets and the beach, but the salt air easily overpowers the faint notes of all the normal gross smells usually found in alleyways outside of bars. The buildings on each side go up several stories blocking the moon, but there’s a lantern style light outside the bar’s door that illuminates the immediate area. Castiel turns and crosses his arms over his chest again, defensive and bristly. He raises an eyebrow at Dean as if to say, get on with it. In this less flattering light Castiel looks tired, the lines at the corners of his eyes casting deeper shadows than Dean remembers being there before.

“Cas,” he starts, not quite knowing how to proceed. Might as well go for broke, he decides. “I never wanted you to leave.”

Castiel rolls his eyes, and his jaw twitches. “If that’s all that you have to say, then we are done here. I will not be patronized, Dean.”

“No, no, that’s not-- will you let me finish?” Castiel cocks his head to the side and looks incredibly skeptical, but he remains silent. “Thank you,” Dean tells him, doing his best to sound sincere, because he is. He paces back and forth a little and keeps his gaze down, unable to look Castiel in the eye. “Sam’s possessed,” he blurts out. “Remember that angel I asked you about? Ezekiel? It’s a long story but the relevant part is that I let him in Sam’s head to save his life after the trials and he told me that if you didn’t leave, then he would and Sam would die. You know and maybe that doesn’t make things any better for you, because that was still a choice and I still put you out on your ass when you needed me. I get it, man. I understand if you hate me, believe me, I hate me too.”

He chances to look up, hoping for some sign in Castiel’s expression that will give away what he’s thinking, but the man has a poker face to rival the best of them. He doesn’t say anything either, just stands stock still with his arms folded, waiting. And of course, that makes Dean nervous, so he starts to ramble. “I shouldn’t have done it, Cas. I know that now. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. As soon as you walked out that door, I regretted it. I was scared for Sam, but that’s no excuse. I could have helped you, could have put you up somewhere, came to check on you, brought you food, I dunno, anything. But I didn’t, because I’m an asshole. You got every right to want to pound my face into the ground.” Against his will, Dean’s eyes start to sting and well up. He finds himself sniffling, and his own inability to control his goddamn emotions makes him furious, and Cas is still just standing there.

“Come on man, say something,” he pleads, daring to wander a little closer, but Castiel just stares. “Cas, come on. Tell me you hate me. Tell me we can’t fix this. I hurt you, I get that now, but I swear, Cas I swear it’s the last thing I ever wanted to do.” He’s face to face with Castiel now, and the tears are starting to fall. He swipes at them in frustration, then wipes his hand on his jeans. Castiel tilts his head to the other side, searching the depths of Dean’s eyes with his own, still silent. 

“I get it,” Dean laughs bitterly, looking skyward and dropping his hands to his sides with a loud clap as his palms hit his thighs. “I’ve really done it this time. There’s no coming back for us, huh? Cas, this is… this is the opposite of where I thought we’d be now, that day I brought you home. And it’s my fault.” He’s borderline hysterical now, delirious from the day’s events and he knows it, but he can’t stop, doesn’t want to stop. He can hardly think straight anymore except to hear his own voice in his head, screaming on repeat how he’s been the worst friend, the worst brother, the worst person to a guy whose biggest crime was being too devoted to him. To him. He deserves to be punished, Castiel deserves to punish him, to make him hurt the way he hurt him. He fists his hands in Castiel’s shirt and pulls their faces close together. “Hit me, Cas.” A flash of surprise or shock flies across Castiel’s face, but only for a moment and then he’s back to being unreadable. “C’mon, Cas. I deserve it. Hit me, split my lip, give me a black eye, whatever you want, just do it, please.”

Frowning, Castiel disentangles Dean’s hands from his shirt, but that just makes Dean scrabble at him harder. “I’m not going to hit you,” he says quietly. He grabs at Dean’s shoulders to steady him but Dean twists loose, hot, angry tears escaping now and catching in the collar of his shirt. He’d rather be bleeding, than this.

“You have to,” he pleads, “ You have to, Cas,” he grabs hold of Cas’ shirt again, dropping his head to his firm chest and sinking to his knees in exhausted resignation when Castiel tenses beneath him. Get it together, he thinks, not that it has any real effect. You’ve got no right to ask him for anything. He kneels on the hard ground and for some godforsaken reason the pleas won’t stop coming. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I’ve ruined… both of you. I don’t deserve forgiveness. Just hit me, please.” The last words come out of his mouth barely above a whisper, and Castiel’s still standing there, looking down at him with what can only be a mixture of pity and disgust on his face. “Oh, god,” Dean cries, when he realizes that Castiel is going to leave him there, on his fucking knees in a dirty alley, crying like the piece of shit he is. He’s going to walk away and leave, and Dean’s not even worthy of the business end of his fist.

But that isn’t what happens.

“Get up,” Castiel’s voice is firm and irritated, and when Dean doesn’t - can’t - comply he fists his own hand into the collar of his shirt and hauls him to his feet. He holds him there, albeit at arm’s length, until Dean’s knees can keep from buckling and his pathetic sniffles stop. Once Dean is steady, he lets him go long enough to produces a bar rag from his back pocket and hand it over. Dean reluctantly cleans his face and blows his nose while Castiel continues to stare at him almost clinically.

“I never realized,” he says eventually, his gaze sharp as a razor.

“What’s that?” Dean coughs into his arm and clears his throat, embarrassed and ashamed and unable to look at Castiel’s face for more than a quick second.

“You’ve hated yourself like this long before today.” It’s not a question, and Dean’s too bone-deep tired to pretend that it is. He shrugs, and fiddles with the rag, keeping his eyes low. Castiel pauses for a long breath before continuing, and Dean finds himself holding his own, wondering which moment will be the last, the one where Castiel turns and leaves and doesn’t look back. Which is why the next thing he says is surprising. “You should have told me. I can’t imagine why you thought that I wouldn’t understand. But then again, you never were very good at trusting anyone other than Sam.”

Dean can’t help but look up at that, and his stomach lurches when he sees the softened expression on Castiel’s face. “I didn’t think,” he answers honestly. “I told you, Cas, I’m garbage. I did it all wrong.”

“Yes, you did,” Castiel replies with a nod, but he steps closer to Dean, into his space instead of away. “But you are not garbage, and I will not let you goad me into hurting you as some form of atonement.” He’s so close that Dean can smell the remnants of suntan lotion on his skin, and what was probably coconut-scented shampoo in his hair. It’s such a Florida cliché that Dean almost wishes they were in a place where he could make a joke. As it is though, Castiel’s still trying to bore holes in his face with his eyes, and Dean still kind of wishes he could melt into the ground.

He swallows hard and shakes his head to clear it. “So, uh, what do you want, then?”

Somehow, he must have said the right thing because Castiel’s eyes crinkle, just a little bit at the sides, and the ghost of a smile flits across his lips. And then Dean couldn’t say what Cas’ face looked like, because he’s busy being grabbed by the edges of his open flannel and shoved roughly back against the cool brick wall of the bar. And Cas’ mouth is pressing insistently against his own.

***

Dean hardly has time to even consider reciprocating before Castiel’s pulling away, taking the comforting warmth of his body with him. As unfamiliar as it was, Dean immediately misses being pressed together, reaching out reflexively to pull Castiel back in before he can cognitively recognize what he’s doing and drop his arms down to his sides. As soon as his brain kicks back online, it’s setting off all kinds of alarms, screaming deafeningly loud and drowning out any other thoughts he might have with, you don’t deserve this playing on repeat. It urges him to cut and run before he can cause Castiel any more pain, that if by some miracle this isn’t a huge cosmic joke then it’s almost certainly a misunderstanding.

But Castiel doesn’t look regretful, he looks pleased with himself. He licks his lips and runs his fingers down Dean’s arm before pausing to stare again, presumably evaluating Dean’s face for a clue as to what he’s thinking. Apparently satisfied with whatever he sees, he curls his fingertips into Dean’s and sets off down the alleyway, making his way through a second door in the wall and up two flights of rusting, iron stairs. Dean doesn’t protest, is too fucking tired to protest, as Castiel slips through a beat-up iron door and continues down a short, dingy hallway that dead ends at a sliding panel. There’s a keypad lock but he still has to let go of Dean’s hand to open the actual door, and Dean’s honestly expecting the worst.

“What is this, Cas? Like, storage or something for the bar? Why are we up here?”

Castiel glances back over his shoulder as he leans into the door and graces Dean with a small smile. “This is my home, Dean.”

As the door opens, Dean finds himself holding his breath, expecting a dark, dirty space with torched walls and a bare mattress tossed haphazardly on the floor, considering the neighborhood (and the access route). And for the umpteenth time today, he’s glad to be proven wrong.

Cas’ space reminds him of the bar downstairs; an equally industrial, loft style apartment, but obviously recently refurbished and well taken care of since. The walls are concrete and the pipes are exposed, but the floor is shiny hardwood and the decor is polished and welcoming. Immediately to his left as he walks in is a small but efficient kitchen with what looks like brand new, stainless appliances. There’s a bathroom off to the right and an open living area in front of them with two comfortable couches and tall windows that look straight out over the beach and ocean across the street. When Dean turns around, he notices a ladder that leads to the loft, where presumably Castiel’s bed is. He tries to look around casually for any signs of cohabitation, because no fucking way Cas is affording a place like this on a shitty bartender’s salary, but he doesn’t see anything obvious.

Castiel’s watching him closely, his hands twisted together in front of his waist. “I would give you a tour, but…” he gestures around. “This is the tour.”

Dean tilts his head to look up at the two-story ceiling with its exposed piping and ductwork in awe. “This is really nice, Cas,” he says, and Castiel smiles at his hands as Dean drops his gaze back to him and makes his way to his side.

“You uh, you sharing it with anyone?” Cas’ bright blue eyes are narrowed in confusion when he looks up at Dean.

“No? Should I be?”

Shrugging, Dean goes for casual, but he’s not sure how well he pulls it off. His eyes are starting to get heavy. “I dunno, Cas. People, well, normal people, sometimes get roommates if they don’t make enough money to live on their own. Or they live with someone they care about.” 

Castiel’s still squinting like he doesn’t understand as he clarifies, “You mean the way you live with Sam?”

A laugh bubbles out of Dean’s chest against his will as he wanders away from Cas’ side and he decides that now is just not the time for this conversation. “Sure Cas, yea. Like that.”

“Or is this about Pree?” Surprised, Dean’s head snaps up to see Castiel staring with his arms folded again.

“I don’t know what you’re--”

“I thought we were past you lying to me.” The edge has returned to his voice, and his expression is dark.

Dean swallows, ashamed at being called out, despite how miniscule this particular sin might be in comparison to the one that had brought them here in the first place. He faces Castiel, his arms open, palms up. “You’re right. I’m sorry. And I am, Cas, I am done lying to you. I’m trying here, alright? I’m… you can’t expect perfection overnight.”

The hard line of Castiel’s jaw softens slightly as he sighs and uncrosses his arms. “I know that Dean,” he says, rubbing his hands absently on his jeans. “This is… all very unexpected.” He heads for the larger couch and motions for Dean to follow. “For whatever it’s worth, Pree and I… he has been very kind to me. He owns the bar and he took a chance on me when he had no reason to. He rents me this space for far less than it’s worth. And yes, we have been intimate. But we are not together, and he knows better than I suspect even you do, what it is you mean to me.”

Doing his best to hide his surprise at Castiel’s casual declaration of something so big, Dean sits down and fights every instinct in his body begging him to lean back and succumb to sleep on the soft cushions. Castiel sees right through him though, patting his shoulder before standing up. “There is much more that we need to discuss, but now is not the time. Wait here.” Before Dean can protest he’s gone, the sound of his heavy front door rolling shut echoing throughout the apartment. Dean does his best, he really does, but he doesn’t last more than another minute upright. He touches his fingers to his lips before drifting off to sleep; they still taste like Cas.

***

When he wakes, he’s so groggy that it’s almost painful to open his eyes. He’s still exhausted and now he’s got a pounding headache as a side dish. But something woke him, something good. Dean sniffs the air and picks it out immediately as his stomach knots angrily inside him, empty and angry as hell about it. He groans and pushes to sitting, the painful hunger winning out just slightly over the desire to sink back into the soft cushions, close his eyes and drift off to sleep. And then Cas is there, his thigh pressing firmly up against Dean’s own, his hands pulling the glass coffee table closer and placing a styrofoam takeout container on top of it.

“Cheeseburger, medium, fries. No whiskey tonight, I’m afraid. I think you’re tired enough.” He puts a bit of space between them, just enough so that Dean can eat comfortably.

Dean groans with happiness and tucks in, tearing off a huge mouthful and swallowing it down way too quickly. “Caf, I coob kiff yoo,” he manages, the words coming out mangled by another mouthful of food.

“Perhaps later,” Castiel replies, but he’s got a real smile on his face as he watches Dean eat, and that makes Dean’s head throb a little lighter. He swallows and returns Cas’ smile with a big one of his own, because despite the exhaustion, the pain, and that humiliating display down in the alley, it’s hard to be unhappy when he’s here with Cas. Here with Cas. In Cas’ apartment. It’s a lot to wrap his head around. Dean’s still coping.

“Oh, he makes jokes now,” Dean shoots back before cramming the last of his burger into his mouth and chewing loudly, moaning his appreciation as it goes down. “Fucking delicious, Cas, tell your… Pree he’s got great taste in cooks.”

“I do lots of things now,” Castiel replies loftily. “Including cook. I made that.”

Dean does a double take. “You- seriously? Shit, if I’d known you could put together a burger like this, I never would have kicked you out.” He cringes immediately at his own bad joke, but luckily Castiel’s laughing. He looks up at him guiltily and tries to sound as apologetic as possible. “Too soon?”

“That’s alright.” Cas’ smile is wide, and he edges his hand closer to where Dean’s is braced on the couch without actually touching him. Dean takes a deep breath, shoves the disapproving voices in his head deep into a closet, and interlaces their fingers.

“Are you sure?”

Castiel shifts closer and pulls their hands onto his own thigh. “I missed you, Dean. I missed your voice and your smile, your ridiculous flannel shirts. I missed your humor, and how you always choose the most difficult way to go about things. I was very hurt when you told me that I couldn’t stay with you in the bunker, but being on my own has been… enlightening. Overall, a very positive experience for me, and I have learned much. Having said all that, I must now admit that I do feel an overwhelming sense of relief at learning the reasoning behind your actions was something that I can understand, and more importantly, forgive. I want to forgive you, Dean.” He pauses long enough that Dean starts racking his brain for something equally profound and sensitive to reply with, but his sleep-addled brain is struggling.

Fortunately, Castiel doesn’t seem to expect anything from him. He stands without letting go of Dean’s hand and so Dean stands too, allowing himself to be tugged over to the walk-up ladder that leads to the second level he still hasn’t seen. Castiel pauses at the bottom and turns to Dean with a semi-panicked look on his face.

“It’s just occurred to me that I’ve been extremely presumptuous with you, and for that I want to apologize. Dean, I was simply going to offer you my bed to sleep in, nothing more. It’s not that I regret…” He trails off, suddenly unsure of himself, and this Castiel is a lot closer to familiar territory. Dean steps closer and brings their joined hands up between them.

“Go on,” he encourages, and Cas’ big blue eyes blink up at him, looking lost. His lips part silently, sticking together as they separate, and Dean can’t take his eyes off of them. “Cas, I missed you too, buddy.” He winces as soon as the familiar epithet slips out of his mouth, it’s always been a bit tongue-in-cheek so to speak, but now it just feels mocking. “Sorry,” he shrugs, and Cas seems to understand. “For whatever it’s worth to you, I don’t, uh, have any, you know, regrets or whatever either. About earlier.” Cas is still silent, worrying his bottom lip between his teeth but not moving away. “Fuck it,” Dean sighs, leaning forward to close the space between them and lock their lips together for the second time. The fingers of his free hand come up to touch the left side of Castiel’s jaw softly, and he watches as Cas’ eyes slip closed, staying that way even when he pulls back.

“I could still take the couch,” Castiel whispers, “If it would make you more comfortable.”

“I don’t want that,” Dean replies quickly, shaking his head from side to side. “The last three months, I spent every waking moment searching for you, Cas. I had nightmares almost every night about what you might be going through. I prayed to you, even though I knew you couldn’t hear me. You know what? I’m just gonna lay all my cards on the damn table here, alright? The truth is, if you’re tellin’ me now that you’re crazy enough to want me back, then you need to know that I don’t have the energy to push you away. And, in the spirit of honesty,” Dean hesitates, taking a moment to gather his courage, “I’m feeling a little… vulnerable, after today. I really fucking thought you were gonna leave me in that alley. And… that’s it,” he finishes succinctly, dropping his free hand to his side and leaving their joined ones swinging between them.

Castiel pauses for a moment before nodding cautiously. “We should take this slow,” he replies. “There are things about me… we should get to know each other again. You and I have always had a special bond, Dean. That it translated to attraction is hardly surprising, despite your personal hang-ups with male affection and masculinity.”

“Hey,” Dean protests weakly, and Castiel shrugs.

“We need to find out if we even fit together. Is it a safe assumption that you still wish to live at the bunker and continue to hunt?” Dean nods, and Castiel continues. “And my life is here, now. We have no idea whether or not those choices can be compatible with a lasting romantic relationship.”

Dean’s trying to follow, he really is, but with his belly full and the promise of a warm bed lingering in the back of his mind, his lack of sleep is creeping up on him fast. “Cas,” he says, and it comes out whinier than he would have liked. “This is all really important and stuff, and I don’t want to come off as insensitive, but if you don’t point me in the direction of a flat surface in the next two minutes, I’m going to be unconscious on your floor.” He looks at him meaningfully and Castiel flushes.

“Oh. I apologize, Dean. You’re right, of course. I… are you sure you wouldn’t prefer me to sleep on the couch?”

“Cas, do you want to sleep on the couch?”

Castiel stops with one foot on the ladder and turns to size Dean up. He wets his lips and looks Dean dead in the eye. “In the spirit of laying our cards on the table, if it were up to me, I’d never sleep without you by my side again.”

Dean blinks at the naked honesty in Castiel’s voice, but he does his best to keep his tone casual. “Well alright then,” he replies. “Lead the way.” Castiel’s pleased expression at Dean’s easy acceptance of his admission is worth the trouble he has accepting that it’s true, or that it’ll mean anything in the long run.  

Castiel’s king-sized mattress is elevated on a wooden platform, simple yet functional, with a low table on one side that houses a lamp and an alarm clock. There’s a wide dresser against the far wall, and a small bookcase with more space in it than books. The only exceptional thing in the entire room is what’s on top of the bed - two giant comforters, three patterned throw blankets, and about a million pillows of all shapes, sizes, and textures. Castiel begins digging through them, moving some off of the bed and onto the floor, and leaving others behind. Dean can’t help but picture him here, snuggled up in what’s very clearly some sort of nest, hugging those same pillows to his chest and doing his best not to feel alone. With that image in mind, he kicks off his boots and shuffles on his knees across the bed.

“Hey,” he says, grabbing Castiel’s hands and stopping him from his pathologic pillow sorting. “Thank you. Just… thank you.” Castiel blinks at him for a moment and then melts into his arms, burying his face in Dean’s neck. Dean holds him for a moment, but he’s warm and heavy in his arms, and he’s genuinely afraid he might fall asleep upright, so he pushes him back gently. He strips down quickly to his t-shirt and boxers and kicks his way under the covers while Castiel watches, mesmerized. “Cas,” he prompts, and the other man shakes his head a little.

“My apologies,” he demurs, with a small smile and a rosy flush creeping across his cheeks. “I’ll just…” He clicks the light off and follows Dean’s lead, undressing down to the same level and sliding in beside him. Their feet and knees brush under the covers, and Dean can still make out Cas’ wide eyes staring at him in the dark.

“Is this okay?” Castiel’s shadowy profile nods, and Dean settles in. Much as he’d love to lie here and relish being allowed this, he’s not going to last. Within seconds of Castiel joining him, he’s already being pulled under. He falls asleep to Cas’ soft breath on his cheek and Cas’ fingers seeking out his own to tangle together.

He finds himself praying tonight that this isn’t some kind of elaborate fever dream, finds himself worrying that he’s still asleep in that sticky motel and that Cas is a prisoner, living out his own personal hell somewhere far, far from Dean’s reach.

***

Chapter Text

Castiel’s woken by screaming. In reality, he’s not woken by it at first, the sound just sort of… wanders into his dreamscape and sets up shop, which should probably be concerning, but Pree’s been very clear that nightmares are something humans are expected to accept and deal with, and Castiel’s nothing if not practical. Eventually he does sort out that the sound doesn’t belong there, though once he sifts his way back to the waking world it still takes him a moment to determine what’s happening, especially because the sun is up and the room is bright, and those things are supposed to chase nightmares away, not bring them on. There’s also the small matter of who is screaming, because Castiel has definitely screamed before, and he’s ninety or so percent sure it isn’t him.

He rubs the sleep from his eyes with his fists and turns his head to the side, in the direction the noise is coming from. His sleep-addled brain is shocked to see someone lying next to him, until like a freight train, it all comes flooding back.

Dean.

Dean, showing up in his bar, so out of place and yet perfectly at home the way he’s always been, the way Castiel’s always wanted him to be, in his space. Not that he’d even known whose space it was, and isn’t that completely ridiculous, and so like Dean . Disruptive and distracting, in any time and any place Dean will always be the center of his universe, just by walking in the room. Which is exactly why Castiel had to cut ties completely to begin with, but it’s apparent that the universe will not be thwarted so easily. Castiel had been sure from the moment he saw him that Dean’s arrival was bound to herald the beginning of the end to all he’d built here, but perhaps he was simply flashing back to the last time Dean strolled into his life and systematically dismantled the very fabric of his existence. Dean, with his disarming smile and his hopeful expression, who dared to plead for a second chance when he knew, he knew he didn’t deserve it. To find out that Dean was just as surprised to see him was both a relief and a crushing disappointment, as if he hadn’t spent every day since his ejection from the bunker torn between never wanting to see Dean again and praying he’d walk through that very door.

And wasn’t that the crux of the issue? He could never hate Dean, though he wasn’t so pathetic that he couldn’t resent him or hold a grudge. He was only human, after all. Well, these days, anyway. Castiel can’t say that he’s ever sorted out an excuse for the way Dean affected him as an angel, and the implications of that are now too big for his very human brain, or at least that’s what he’s telling himself. For all those reasons and more, seeing Dean sitting across his bar, in his new life, begging to be let back in had made Castiel furious. At Dean for finding him, at himself for not traveling further, burying himself deeper, and at the universe for continuously pushing them back together. He hadn’t wanted to listen, and at the same time it was all he wished to do, and finding out Dean’s true reasoning - that this entire affair was about Sam and not him at all… he wasn’t sure whether to be increasingly disappointed or relieved. Not that Dean had left him much room for anything but forgiveness at that point, begging and clawing at his clothes and sinking to his knees in supplication, overcome with pure exhaustion and self-hate.

Castiel didn’t hate him, and that was disappointing because hate would certainly be easier to deal with than the confusion mix of emotions swirling about his head.

Only human. He’s only human.

And Dean hadn’t pushed him away, when he’d pressed their mouths together. Castiel doesn’t have any deep, well-thought-out reasoning behind the choice he’d made there, but he had been reasonably sure at the time that it would be the straw that broke Dean, the tiny push that would send him running for the hills, and then Castiel wouldn’t have to make any hard decisions and he could go to sleep knowing he was honest and true to himself. Dean was still Dean, but Castiel had no way of knowing that he was equally fed up with the way they’d been dancing around each other for years now, no way to know that he’d touch his face so gently, that he’d kiss him back and hold him like he was something precious. And yes, perhaps he should have recognized that Dean’s exhaustion and desperation for forgiveness might have taken a few more bricks out of the walls in his head than Dean normally would have allowed, but nothing is precious to Dean, nothing but Sam, and yet…

But had Dean really changed, or had Castiel just pushed the right buttons at the right moments? He’d lain awake listening to Dean’s soft snores, resisting every instinct to pull him close and never let go. He supposed he’d find out what Dean really thought when he woke up. He’d either run for the hills, or he wouldn’t.

Castiel didn’t know which one to hope for.

He had envisioned a slightly awkward morning that went one of two ways. Either Dean would make some excuse to leave, promising to call or stay in touch somehow before disappearing as quickly as he came, or they’d have to talk. That conversation would also be awkward, and there was no telling how Dean would react to certain aspects of Castiel’s new life in Florida. There’s also the small matter of what seems to be going with time itself, but Castiel isn’t entirely sure Dean should have that particular bit of information, at least, not yet. Not until he knows Dean’s intentions.

What he hadn’t anticipated was this; being hastily ripped from sleep only to be confronted with a sweating, writing Dean in obvious agony. His bowed legs are twisted in the sheets above him, his fingers fisted in the ones underneath, and Castiel has no goddamn clue what to do. He knows he’s woken up in a similar state next to Pree (ironically, from night terrors starring Dean), but he also remembers that Pree’s attempts to provide him comfort were equally as likely to result in one of them coming out bloody as they were to be helpful. Still, he can’t just leave Dean like this.

The first attempt at gathering Dean up ends rather quickly in abject failure when Dean knees him in the stomach. He groans and doubles over, but sucks it up and dives right back in, this time from a slightly different angle, and somehow he’s successful. He’s not used to being so evenly matched with Dean; a year ago it would have been nothing for him to scoop the other man up and keep him safe from himself. But a year ago Dean would never have allowed him this close, would have been furious at him for trying, would have gone on endlessly about “ personal space, Cas,” as if he hadn’t been the one to huddle into Castiel’s side for warmth and protection while they were in Purgatory. Pretending as if he didn’t want Castiel, too. Castiel had known then and he knows now, that Dean does want him. He just wonders whether Dean is truly ready to admit it, never mind act on it.

Castiel sinks back against a pile of pillows with Dean in his arms, moaning and squirming and doing his best to either get away or beat Castiel to a pulp, he’s really not keen on finding out which. He whispers what he hopes are comforting words in his ear, drops soft kisses into damp hair, and moves his hands soothingly over the parts of Dean’s body that he can reach with his arms wrapped tightly around his torso. Miraculously, Dean settles and is soon blinking those stunning green eyes up at him in confusion.

“Cas?” Dean’s voice is thick and rough with sleep, and hearing his name said like that does things to Castiel, inappropriate things that this is definitely not the right time for.

“Hello, Dean,” Castiel says quietly, relaxing his grip on Dean’s body so that the other man can push himself up to sitting. He does, but Castiel notes that he doesn’t go far. He’s still close, close enough to kiss, though Castiel resists.

Dean takes a few deep breaths and rubs at his eyes. “Sorry,” he murmurs, his shoulders bouncing up and down once.

Before he even realizes what he’s doing, Castiel finds the tips of his fingers trailing down Dean’s cheek. “You can’t control it,” he reassures him, as Dean drags in another shaky breath. “I’ve… learned that myself these past months.”

Dean looks up from where his thousand yard stare has been focused on the pillows and meets Castiel’s gaze. His expression looks equal parts embarrassed and pained, and yet it still surprises him when Dean replies the way he does. “I should have been there,” he says firmly, reaching for Castiel’s hand.

Caught off guard, he replies with the truth, plain as it is. “You’re here now,” he says with a small smile, and then goes for broke. “What were you dreaming about?”

Dean wavers, his eyes flicking away and his expression unsure, but Castiel is patient, and he’s not about to apologize for showing interest, not unless Dean forces his hand.

But again, Dean surprises him as he visibly gathers his courage before replying, “You.”

“Me?” Castiel’s surprise is not exaggerated.

“Yea,” Dean affirms. “S’always you. Or Sam. Sometimes both of you. You know, because of what I did.”

That disclosure gives Castiel pause in a way nothing else Dean’s said has done. “You’ve been having nightmares about me?”

Dean picks at one of the textured pillows. “For months,” he answers, obviously trying to sound casual.

“Dean,” Castiel breathes, his heart swelling in his chest because Dean does care.

“Cas?” Dean’s looking at him with his eyebrow raised, confused and probably concerned that Castiel’s smiling, but he can’t help it. He rises up on his knees and tugs Dean up with him by his bicep. “Cas, wha-- mmph,” Dean’s words are cut off by Castiel’s lips on his, his arms circling around Dean’s waist to pull him close. Kneeling face to face they fit perfectly, two halves of a whole, and these kisses feel different. Neither of them are being kissed, no, this time they’re equal; and as Dean nips his lower lip and cants his head from side to side as they touch and pull away, Castiel feels genuinely hopeful about their future together for the first time.

***

Their kissing session seems to relax Dean, enough that he appears to be his normal, sarcastic self by the time they break apart to get ready for the day. It’s early, but Pree will have opened the bar for brunch considering that it’s Sunday, and Castiel plans to take full advantage of the spread he knows is down there, if only for Dean’s sake. They take turns showering, and Dean puts yesterday’s jeans back on but borrows one of Castiel’s clean shirts. His pants are a smidge too short to share, but Castiel thinks he could probably fit into Dean’s, and files that away for the future. Dean talks about the case that he’s in Florida looking into, and the pieces finally slot together in Castiel’s head regarding how Dean came to be in his bar. When Dean casually mentions about needing to get his Baby and take his things to a motel, Castiel wants badly to invite him to stay, but he can’t - not yet, not before he really “lays his cards on the table,” so to speak, as they’d discussed the night before. But that’s not something that needs to be done on an empty stomach.

Navigating both space and conversation with Dean while not having to struggle to hide his feelings is strange, and yet not at the same time. Dean touches his waist as he comes out of the bathroom and Castiel goes in, Castiel lets his hand linger when he hands over a shirt. They exchange a toothpaste-fresh kiss that makes Castiel laugh and his laugh makes Dean’s grin stretch even wider. It all feels easy and natural, and very much the opposite of what he expected. He’s glad that things played out way they did, glad he didn’t hesitate when Dean asked him what he wanted, glad that Dean seems to have let his own guard down enough to let him in, glad that he found out Dean has been worrying about him . While nearly everything about being human is difficult, emotions are particularly confusing and tiresome and Castiel knows that he’s no expert on concealing them. He’s thankful he doesn’t need to try.

They make their way down to the bar the same way they went up, Castiel leading with Dean’s fingers curled into his own between their bodies. Out the door at the bottom of the rusty stairs and through the alleyway. But before Castiel can pull the door to the bar open and make his way inside, Dean tugs on his hand, prompting him to turn around. As soon as he does, fingers are threading into the hair at the base of his skull, tipping his head back so that Dean can kiss him properly, warm and thorough and deep.

“What was that for?” His voice is husky and his eyes crinkle as he smiles up at Dean, but Dean just shrugs.

“Just because,” he replies. “Also, I know that Pree dude is here and I figured…”

“You can’t pee on me, Dean.”

“I wasn’t! We’re not even… he can’t see us,” Dean huffs.

Castiel pats his cheek and turns to open the door. “You have nothing to worry about, Dean,” he reassures as they move inside, and while Dean doesn’t reply, he does squeeze Castiel’s hand firmly. Pree is at the bar when they walk in and he tips his head to Castiel in greeting. Unlike him, Pree is excellent at concealing his emotions, though Castiel knows him well enough to pick up on some smug approval in his face. Castiel turns to Dean and motions first to a table and then to the buffet, inviting Dean to go help himself, so long as he brings a second plate back for him. When he drops Dean’s hand and sets off for the bar, he doesn’t have to look back to know that Dean is watching him.

Pree’s slicing oranges for garnish and trying (maybe not that hard) not to smirk when Castiel walks up and leans heavily over the bar.

“What?”

“Nothing at all,” Pree replies. “Looks as if you made good use of your night off.”

“Nothing happened,” Castiel insists. “And thank you, for the time.”

Something happened, Castiel, with the boy who broke your heart and who you’ve been pining over messily for months. And if it didn’t, then why is he in my bar doing his best to skewer me with his eyeballs?”

“He’s jealous, not suicidal,” Castiel replies. “We… I’m not entirely sure yet, but I believe that we are working things out. That’s part of why we’re down here this morning. I have to tell him, and I thought that you deserved a ‘heads up’.” Castiel puts the last words in air quotes and Pree snorts. “You’ll be pleased to know that you were correct all along.” Castiel catches himself, and points an accusing finger at Pree’s chest. “About Dean showing up here, that is.”

“But that’s not why you were doing it,” Pree teases, and Castiel rolls his neck to relieve some of the tension.

“Of course not. Not everything is about Dean.”

“Mmhmm, if you say so. You tell him whatever you need to, baby, but a blind man can see you two could benefit a lot more from some wordless conversation, if you catch my drift.”  

“Pree, please don’t rile him up. Dean and I… it’s complicated.”

“Being an excellent host is in my job description, you of all people should know that. What, you don’t think he’d want to share you? His loss. Mine too, I suppose. Gotta say, Castiel, I get it now. He struts like he has the IQ of a summer sausage but I wouldn’t say no to letting him bend me over that table. I can’t wait to see him fight.”

“Rein it in, Pree.”

“Not in this lifetime,” he replies smoothly, scraping his knife across the cutting board to collect all the orange slices onto a plate. Castiel turns around with a big smile on his face and catches Dean’s eye immediately, his fork paused halfway to shoveling three whole pieces of bacon into his open mouth at once. Dean’s eyes dart between his face and Pree’s retreating form, and the bacon goes back down to his plate.

Castiel sighs and returns to their table, braced for Dean’s insecurities to come out in full force. As he slides into the seat across from him, Dean starts eating again, more slowly this time, as if he’s intentionally trying to keep his mouth full so that he can’t say anything dumb, as if that’s ever stopped him before. He’s silent though, so Castiel turns his attention to his own plate, spearing a piece of fruit and taking a bite. He doesn’t give Dean the rope he so obviously wants to hang himself with, but Dean is nothing if not persistent.

After several more minutes of attempting to cut bacon into ridiculous one inch pieces, Dean breaks, tossing his utensils down in a clatter. “What’s the deal with him and you, Cas?” His tone is demanding, and Castiel can’t help but be annoyed. Dean must pick up on the irritation in his face and he softens quickly. “Look, I know I don’t have any right… so I’m not askin’ about whatever went on before I showed up here, but you guys look pretty damn cozy together, and don’t think I don’t hear him callin’ you ‘baby’, alright? Cas, i care about you, and I want to try and fix whatever’s between us, but you gotta be honest with me and tell me if I’m barking up a tree that’s in someone else’s yard.”

Calmly setting his fork down and wiping his mouth with a napkin, Castiel fixes Dean with a steady glare. He ignores Dean’s rant and instead launches into the discussion he’d meant to have all along. “I want to be clear, Dean. The things I’m about to share with you I’m doing so because I want to, not out of some misplaced sense of obligation or your apparent entitlement to what I choose to do with my life.” Dean’s jaw ticks, and his eyes are narrowed, but he nods stiffly.

“I came to Florida because I knew that it was warm here, and Kansas was cold. Sleeping on a park bench is far more comfortable in seventy degree weather than thirty.” Dean shrinks a little further into his seat as Castiel  speaks. “The small amount of money you gave me allowed me to purchase bus tickets, and this is the city in Florida that my ticket brought me to. When I first arrived, I was staying in homeless encampments and eating at soup kitchens. It wasn’t an easy life, but I was surviving, and doing my best to pick up odd jobs here and there. Of course, there was no way for me to make a legitimate living or achieve real housing without any form of ID, but that’s neither here nor there.” Castiel picks at a crack in the table and does his best to keep his voice level. There was plenty that went on during that time period he has no interest in discussing with Dean, at least, not now and not here, especially when Dean is already looking a bit green from the little he’s heard. Castiel pauses and after a moment of thought, collects their plates and stands. “Come with me."

He leads Dean up to the bar and motions for him to take a seat while he rounds the other side, pulling out two glasses and pouring a couple fingers of a half-decent whiskey for each of them. “I know that this is how you prefer to have your more serious conversations.” Dean scoffs, but he takes the glass and sips, already looking slightly less distraught.

“Thanks,” he grunts, and Castiel nods.

“Of course, Dean. As I was saying... I was surviving, yes, but I was without purpose. You have to understand, I have lived for millenia. I’ve spent thousands of years observing a single star be born, grow, and die, but I have never been without purpose. Being human is very strange in that way. Regardless, living on the streets lends itself to a certain amount of intimate knowledge of a place, and it soon came to my attention that this city has a significant problem with the supernatural. Vampires, shapeshifters, wraiths in particular seem to gravitate here, and the low income apartments seem to be an idea place for Rawheads. And so… I started hunting them.”

The glass slips out of Dean’s hand, though fortunately it had only been raised a few inches off the bar to begin with. Pree’s head snaps in their direction from where he’s been nonchalantly washing dishes and, Castiel is sure, pretending not to eavesdrop. Dean’s face goes through several contortions and Castiel waits patiently as the pieces slot into place.

“You’re the vigilante,” he declares, eyes wide. “Fuck, Cas, why didn’t you tell me?”

“I am telling you, Dean. I’m telling you right now.” He hesitates. “Also, I needed to give Pree a heads up.” Pree finally stops his dishwashing pretense and saunters over to join them, dropping his dishrag onto the counter and leaning on it casually. Before any of them can say another word though, a questionably legal kid appears next to Dean, and orders a beer. Castiel recognizes him immediately as the victim he’d rescued the day prior, just before unknowingly running away from Dean.

“Hello, Jason,” he greets him, filling his request without asking for ID. The boy gives him a meaningful look and slides a $50 bill across the bar. “The drink is on the house,” Castiel tells him, not failing to notice Dean’s eyes narrowing in suspicion. “And that isn’t necessary.”

“I can afford it,” Jason insists, picking up the beer and turning on his heel, the $50 left behind to soak up the condensation from his glass. He turns when he’s a few steps away, speaking over his shoulder, “And, you know, thanks again.”

“It was my pleasure,” Castiel nods solemnly.

Dean looks around and settles his attention back on Castiel with aggressive confusion. “The fuck was that, Cas? Are you selling your vigilante services? That’s very ‘ Florida Man’ of you.”

Pree laughs and Castiel sets down the glass he’s wiping a little harder than necessary. “Of course not, Dean. But parts of this city have close-knit communities. They were bound to notice when their streets magically started becoming safer, and neither Pree nor I are exactly inconspicuous. We didn’t ask for this, but it seems to have become a sort of… tradition, for rescued victims to show up at the bar and tip their appreciation.” He pauses for a moment to consider. “It’s not always money. There’s a very friendly Cuban neighborhood that was particularly grateful for our services in taking care of a vampire nest, they brought us home cooked meals for nearly a week.”

Pree closes his eyes and makes a low, growling sound while touching his stomach. “Ugh, those tamales,” he groans. “Best I’ve ever had. That was a good night,” he adds conspiratorially, poking Castiel in his own stomach.

Castiel keeps his eyes on Dean, who’s looking increasingly annoyed. “So you two are like, what? Batman and Robin, but with less erotic subtext? Is that what this whole,” he motions up and down at Pree’s latex-on-latex look, “Underwear on the outside thing is about?” His tone is rough and sarcastic but Castiel can read Dean’s body language like a book, and he’s clearly feeling insecure and defensive.

So of course, Pree makes things worse. With a wolf-like smile, he leans closer to Castiel before shooting back, “And you’re like, what? Superman, but without the interesting back story and a truckload of daddy issues?”

“Dude,” Dean retorts, sending his chair sliding back as he stands.

“Bring it, baby,” Pree says with a smile, moving to climb up onto the bar and only stopped from actually throwing down by Castiel sliding onto the bar between them and placing a hand on each of their chests.

“Enough,” he says loudly but calmly, the irony of their positioning not lost on him. “Both of you, enough.” Pree and Dean don’t stop glaring at each other, but they do relax back onto their respective sides of the counter. “Dean, knock it off. As I had started to explain earlier, I began hunting here on my own. It was difficult, especially without assistance or weapons, and I often found myself barely surviving various encounters. Pree had been doing under the radar hunting work for years, but had run into many of the same issues. As you well know, Dean, hunting is much safer with a partner. Anyway, he caught wind of me through the grapevine and was luckily on my tail the night I was caught and very nearly eaten by a Rugaru. If it weren’t for him, I would not be here today. So, perhaps some gratitude would be in order.” Castiel eyes Dean pointedly and tilts his head towards Pree.

Dean grinds his teeth but manages to grunt out a grudging “thanks,” though he doesn’t so much as glance in Pree’s direction.

“You’re so welcome,” Pree replies smugly. “Castiel’s been very well taken care of here.”

“Pree,” Castiel snaps, and Pree grins.

“He’s just so easy, Castiel,” he retorts before turning back to Dean. “You’ve got nothing to worry about, you know. He’s only ever had eyes for you. Not that from where I’m sitting you’ve done much to deserve it.”

Castiel sighs. “If the two of you are done, there’s something far bigger than all of this that we need to discuss.”

***

The bar closes after brunch and doesn’t reopen until evening, so once everything is cleaned up and the patrons and other employees have taken off, Pree locks the door and disappears into the back. He says that he needs to tend to some business before they all sit down and hear about Castiel’s concerns, but Castiel suspects that he’s giving them a bit of space. In the meantime, he and Dean settle down at a table. Dean’s edge seems to have worn off a little, though he’s still casting wary glances in Pree’s direction every chance he gets. Castiel’s not about to work any harder to set his mind at ease though, either Dean’s going to trust him or he’s not. He doesn’t owe him any apologies for living the life that was forced upon him.

But he does need Dean. Beyond the obvious and the emotional, Dean’s timing is impeccable. That he showed up now, can’t be a coincidence. Not with the things Castiel has been seeing. He checks his phone before bringing his attention back to the man across from him, and there’s finally an unread message from Hannah.

You were right. Can’t say more this way. Coming to you. It will take me at least a week. Stay put.

The message makes him nervous, being told to “stay put” when there’s a target on his back, but he has little choice other than to trust Hannah. None of the other angels will even deign to speak to him, even the ones he would have considered friends before. Presuming they aren’t actively seeking to kill him (and most of them still are), the ones he’s managed to contact are unilaterally uninterested in even acknowledging his existence.

No one seems to care that something is drastically wrong with their universe.

He pockets his phone and looks up at Dean, who is studying him carefully. “Cas, I’m sorry about earlier,” he says, and Castiel raises his eyebrows. “I got no right acting like that towards someone who was only cleaning up my mistakes. He did right by you where I messed up. I promise I’m done with the macho posturing.” He taps his own phone on the table and his next sentence grinds out of him like glass, his face looking like it genuinely pains him to admit the things he’s saying. “Pree seems like… a decent guy.”

Castiel bites back a smile and nods his head. “He is. And, thank you, Dean.” Dean dips his head in acknowledgement.

“So… you’ve got me on pins and needles here. What’s this big thing you wanted to talk about? There another vamp nest or something? We gonna roll on it together like the LGBTQUIA-team?”

The reference is completely lost on Castiel, so he just squints and looks at Dean sideways. Dean sighs and mumbles something about his best jokes being lost on Cas. “Anyway,” Castiel starts, to reclaim his attention, “No. It’s much bigger than that. I will wait for Pree’s presence to explain it all fully, but before he returns I wanted to ask you to stay.”

“To… stay?” Dean echoes his words and leans forward in his chair. “What, like, for a couple of days?”

“It will be at least a week until we are even able to receive any useful information on what we are up against. Longer still after that to create a plan and tackle it, presuming that there is indeed, something to tackle.”

The lines in Dean’s forehead crease, but he doesn’t say no. “Not gonna lie buddy, you’re scaring me a little. But if there’s a case to be worked then hell, that’s what I came here for. Can’t imagine Sam will mind, he and Kevin are in lore Heaven back at the bunker. Heck, if we can keep them busy with research, Sam’ll be less inclined to try and leave. Sounds like everybody wins.” Castiel nods. Dean’s voice softens and his hand finds Castiel’s knee under the table. “I’d uh, I’d want to stay anyway, you know,” he says hesitantly as his cheeks flush the barest pink. “You know, if you’d want me too, of course.”

“Of course,” Castiel replies automatically, covering Dean’s hand with his own. “Dean, please stay with me.”

“Yes Dean, please stay with him,” Pree says sincerely as he plops into the chair next to Castiel and across from Dean. Dean gives him a sidelong glance but Pree throws up his hands. “No shade,” he insists. “I haven’t seen him smile in two months as much as he has since you showed up.” Castiel’s eyes shift from Pree back to Dean, hoping he sees this for the peace offering it’s meant to be.

“Yea, Cas,” Dean replies softly, his eyes lifting to meet Cas’ own. “Whatever you want. I’d like to stay.”

“Excellent!” Pree’s exclamation sounds pleased as he rubs his hands together and moves to sit up straight. “Then let’s hear what has sweet Castiel’s pretty panties in a bunch.”

“Pretty?” Dean mouths at him, and Castiel shrugs. Not the time.

He takes a deep breath. “There’s something wrong with our timeline.”

***

Ultimately, Castiel’s declaration doesn’t have the impact he thought it would. Dean doesn’t like the sound of it and Pree is concerned, but ultimately they’re both mostly confused, so he’s forced to back way, way up.

The first time Castiel had noticed that things (and by things, he really means time, but it’s almost impossible to explain to a human what time looks like when it isn’t functioning properly, so things it is) were not right, he was in a bus station in Lebanon, Kansas. It had been especially jarring, because he was supposedly human and shouldn’t have been able to pick up on such fluctuations any longer. He’d been staring at the departure board contemplating his options and had essentially settled on taking the next bus out of Lebanon to anywhere at all. 

At the time, he’d simply wanted to put as much distance between himself and the bunker as possible because it hurt too much to be nearby, to be so close to Dean and everything he cared about, to feel his rejection so keenly. As it happened, the next bus was destined for a place called Rexford, Idaho. It sounded like as nice of a place as any, and Castiel had stepped up to the ticket counter with the intention of purchasing a one-way ticket. But just as he had, a poster at the far end of the room caught his eye, drawing him out of the line. It looked bright and new in comparison to the other dingy advertisements that covered the rest of the walls, as if someone had just hung it up.

Need a Fresh Start? Why not do it somewhere warm and exciting? The Sunshine State is calling YOUR name! 

Underneath the tag line, “Florida!” was written In big block letters with tacky drawings of the beach and the sun inside each letter. Florida, Castiel had thought to himself. It’s probably warmer than Idaho. He checked the departure list again, and sure enough there was a bus heading to Florida leaving shortly after the Idaho one. He counted his money and found that he had just enough, twenty dollars more than he’d previously counted. At the time, he’d figured two of the bills had been stuck together, or his anxious fingers had made a mistake. Looking back, he’s not so sure. But none of that was disturbing, in and of itself.

It was when he stepped up to the counter and asked for a one-way ticket to Fort Lauderdale that things changed. The air in front of him shimmered and shook, the woman counting his money disappearing completely for a full three seconds. Castiel had stood there shocked, completely unsure what had happened other than he’d changed something.

While he wasn’t an angel any longer, there was no mistaking those ripples. Angels are and have always been gifted with being able to see past linear time. They’re able to travel through and manipulate it when necessary as he, Dean, and Sam had done together so many years ago. Along with being able to travel through and manipulate time, angels are also able to see when someone else has done the manipulating. As he explains to Pree and Dean, changes in history create ripples, like a rock skipped over the surface of water. The bigger the rock and the farther it’s skipped, the greater and farther reaching the ripples stretch. Humans are oblivious to them, but angels can always tell. 

Castiel had no idea why he was able to see such a thing in his now-human form, and after apologizing for frightening the ticket lady he’d pocketed his ticket and change and rushed outside to check for any other residual powers. He’d even scratched his arm open with his fingernail, wondering if it would heal, but nothing had happened. And he still had to urinate. He was as human as they come, save for this one strange thing. And there were no further ripples, either. Castiel had briefly contemplated returning to the counter and changing his ticket back to Rexford, but he was afraid that would only make the problem worse. Without knowing what exactly he was changing, it was probably safer to let it go.

He didn’t see any ripples again for a while. The next time was after his first successful hunt. He’d beheaded the vampire, but not before its victim had gone unconscious. Castiel had called 911 and waited in the shadows as the girl was loaded up by paramedics and whisked away. As the back doors to the ambulance were closed, there they were-- ripples. He’d changed something again. At least this time it was fairly clear what it was he’d changed; that girl had been destined to die. Castiel had returned to the tent city he’d been staying in confused and unsure what to do next that night. He had no resources to try and sort out why this was happening, but allowing people to die from monster attacks that he had the power to stop seemed barbaric, and like free will didn’t matter at all.

Ultimately, he decided that unless the ripples got bigger and became more widespread he’d continue to hunt, because it was the right thing to do. Whatever had been done to his timeline, he wasn’t the one doing it. In fact, he shouldn’t even be able to see it, and if he couldn’t see it, he certainly would never have questioned his path.  

Pree had shimmered and rippled when they first met. In fact, the moment Pree walked into the room where Castiel was being held prisoner, the whole world had seemed to vibrate around them and disappear for a few seconds before flooding back in full color as if nothing had happened. Castiel wondered if that meant he was supposed to die there, in that room. He doesn’t tell Dean that the ripples returned the first time Pree fucked him. He’s still afraid himself for what that might have meant. Who was that intended to be?

It seems to be happening more often now, though Castiel isn’t sure whether he’s actually changing more things, or just seeing the outward ripple effects from what already been changed. The victims he saves seem to retain a light ripple around them permanently, and Castiel sometimes catches sight of them out in public. At the bar, on the streets, or in the grocery store, their ripples distorting the cookie aisle as if it’s an everyday occurrence.

He’s almost become used to it now.

Except that when Dean walked in, it had happened again. And again, in the alleyway, and again when Dean had kissed him before they’d gone to sleep. Nothing so far today, but Castiel’s hackles are raised, waiting for the ripples to show. It’s a bit nauseating to see it happen to Dean, if he’s being truthful. It’s disturbing to know that he’s changing Dean’s path without his consent. But is he changing Dean’s path? Or has it already been changed, and there’s nothing they can do about it? Castiel truly has no idea. According to Hannah’s text message though, she does. And when she arrives, she can help him decide what to do about it.

He checks in with Dean and Pree at this point, who have been mostly silent, listening in slack-jawed disbelief. They both claim to still be following the story, but admit that they’re having a hard time wrapping their heads around the implications.

Which is why Castiel has a hard time breaking the news to them that there’s more.

“Metatron,” he says darkly, and Dean stiffens.

“Metatron? The douche that tricked you into letting him steal your grace? The reason all the angels are grounded? You think he’s behind all this?” Dean looks furious, and Pree’s face gets stonier the more he hears.

“It makes sense, though I don’t have any proof just yet. That this is a series of fluctuations or changes in the timeline that should be visible only to angelic senses has to mean something. I’ve cobbled together a theory of sorts, and that’s how I was able to convince Hannah to listen and help me. She was unable to give me any further information over the phone except that she apparently believes I am correct.” He touches Dean’s hand. “That is why you’ll need to stay for at least a week, she isn’t able to get here until then.”

Dean nods his acceptance, but pushes for more concrete answers. “So, are you going to tell us your theory, or what?”

“I wasn’t sure if you’d want to speculate. It isn’t an encouraging theory.”

Rocking back in his chair with one foot propped on the edge of the table, Dean spreads his arms wide. “Hit me, Cas, you know we’ve dealt with worse.”

“As you wish,” he replies. “I believe that Metatron has seen the future, most likely the outcome of his hostile takeover of Heaven. These ripples are very similar to the ones I saw when Balthazar un-sunk the Titanic, and the ones that surrounded your body when you returned from Zachariah’s little foray into the future. I’ve never seen them quite so widespread or common, but they are undoubtedly the same. All that means is whatever he has changed or is attempting to change, it’s big. With everything that I know about Metatron and his desire to become the next God, I think it is safe to assume that he is attempting to ensure his continued reign in Heaven. Unfortunately, we are working at somewhat of a disadvantage. We have no idea whether the world he’s trying to avoid is better or worse than the one that will come to pass if he’s successful in changing things. In fact, we have no idea whether this current world is better or worse than what was meant to be here in its place right now.”

The three of them sit quietly for several minutes, processing everything Castiel has said. Surprisingly, it’s Pree who breaks the silence.

“Castiel, you know I’m good for whatever you need, but this is above my paygrade. How would three humans --”

“Five,” Dean corrects. “I’ve got two in a holding pattern, if we need to break them out.”

“Five,” Pree amends, “How would five humans take on an angel who thinks he’s God, and has the power to alter the fabric of space and time?”

“Also he’s in Heaven,” Dean adds helpfully, and Pree laughs.

“Heaven,” he repeats. “Do we just walk right in, or..?”

“Yes,” Castiel replies to nothing in particular. He chews on his thumb nail. “These are excellent questions. Add to that, do we truly wish to do anything at all? With no idea exactly what’s been changed, we could end up inadvertently making things worse.”

That renders them all silent once again, and they sit there for several minutes before Pree abruptly stands. “Well, I am understanding correctly, there’s nothing to do until your angel friend shows up, right? Then my vote is we all sit on this, and reconvene when there’s an actual decision to be made.”

Dean looks up at him and to Castiel’s surprise, he nods. “Can’t believe I’m saying this, but I agree with scary RuPaul.”

Pree steps back and points a finger at Dean. “You and I… we may be friends yet,” he says, before turning and disappearing into the depths of the bar, leaving Castiel and Dean alone.

“Are you alright?” Castiel can’t deny his urge to reach across the table and take Dean’s hand any longer, so he stops trying. He’s relieved when Dean doesn’t pull away.

“Shit, Cas,” Dean huffs, “I don’t even know how to answer that. It’s a lot, you know? But I’m a simple guy. This is the world I see in front of me, so unless I’ve got a reason to do something else, then this is the life I’m gonna live. And I guess I’m just not gonna think too hard about it in the meantime.” Something must show on Castiel’s face because Dean rushes to continue. “Unless you’re asking if I’m okay with you, in which case… yea, of course. You ain’t doin’ this on purpose, man.”

Relieved, Castiel squeezes Dean’s hand and pulls him up out of his chair.

“I think we deserve a bit of relaxation after all this, don’t you? Would you like to go to the beach?”

***

Castiel finds a spare pair of swim trunks to loan Dean, openly admiring his bowlegs in them once they’re on. Dean doesn’t need to know that they’re ones that hug his own ass particularly tight, and Castiel finds himself marveling at how easily he’s slipped into the human tendency to manipulate for personal gain. Dean drives them to one of the main beaches in Baby, and Castiel relishes being next to Dean in the front seat again. The car is just as he remembers it, smelling of leather and Dean and provoking the distinct feeling inside Castiel that he’s come home.

They stop to pick up a chilled six pack on the way. The main beaches have a no alcohol policy, but Castiel assures Dean that it isn’t enforced strongly this time of year. He doubts they’ll have an issue, and he knows Dean enjoys relaxing with a beer. After everything he’s dealt with today, he certainly deserves it. Castiel tucks it into a duffle, just in case. The beach is significantly nicer than the one near his house, but it’s rarely crowded and almost never unbearably so. Castiel’s heard horror stories about something called Spring Break, but he hasn’t been in Florida long enough to experience that particular nightmare for himself. Today the beach’s population is sparse, and although the ocean is nowhere near its peak summer temperatures, several brave souls are splashing and swimming around in it.

Castiel touches Dean’s elbow gently as they step off the sidewalk and onto the sand. He gestures to the exercise area to their left that offers a variety of weights and different bars for chin ups and such. “I run this way most mornings,” he explains. “I like to take a break and workout here as the sun comes up. It’s very beautiful.”

Dean stops short and his eyes dart to Castiel’s biceps. “Knew you were lookin’ buff,” he murmurs, turning back to look the way they’d come. “You run all this way? Every day? Cas, that’s like, five miles at least.”

“Yes, Dean,” Castiel replies patiently. “I enjoy running. It helps me clear my mind.”

“Sound like Sam,” Dean mutters. “Speaking of which…” He pulls out his phone and shoots off a message. “Told him I’d call him later tonight. Figured I’d fill him in so he can start pulling relevant lore. Can’t hurt, right?”

Castiel nods and then hesitates. “Are you going to tell him about us?” Dean looks up, obviously caught off guard by the question.

“Uh, I dunno. Hadn’t really thought about it.” He pauses and then ventures, “Do you… want me to? Not want me to? What are you thinking, Cas?”

“Oh, I… that’s not really up to me, Dean. I was just curious how many details you were intending on giving him.”

Dean runs a hand through his short hair and makes a frustrated noise. “I dunno. Guess I’ll see how the conversation goes. It’s a fine line with him, ya know? I ain’t worried about him knowing about us, don’t get the wrong idea about that. Though, you better prepare yourself because when Sam finds out he’s going to be insufferable. He’ll probably buy us all matching rainbow sweatshirts. Anyway no, the problem is that if I give him too much info, he’s gonna wanna come down here. And he’s got no idea why that isn’t safe right now. Ezekiel ain’t above sidelining him in his own head, either. Last thing we need is Sam out of service because Zeke took control and won’t let him back out. Fuck, I hate being away from him like this.”

“Dean… I know what I said, but I hope that you know I understand if you can’t stay. I’ll be disappointed, of course, but I can always communicate with you over the phone regarding whatever Hannah has to say.”

Dean chews his lip for a moment and stares off over the horizon before fixing Castiel with a piercing look. “No,” he says firmly. “No, I’m not gonna do that. I told you I’d stay, and I’m staying. ‘Bout time I did something for you. And for me, too,” he adds hastily.

Castiel doesn’t bother with words this time, just reaches up to cup the back of Dean’s head and kiss him silly.

***

They relax on the beach well into the late afternoon. Dean makes an attempt to brave the chilly water, darting back out almost immediately after plunging in, wet and salty and smiling from ear to ear. He straddles Castiel where he’s laying on a towel and blankets Cas’ body with his own freezing cold one. Castiel yelps and shoves at his chest until he rolls off into the sand, laughing like he doesn’t have a care in the world. Eventually, they have to pack up and get back so that Castiel can work his shift at the bar, and Dean is clearly reluctant to leave.

“We can come back tomorrow,” Castiel promises. “You could come running with me.” The look Dean gives him is the same one he imagines he’d get if he suggested sending Baby to the scrapyard. “It was just a thought.”

“I’ll think about it,” Dean grumbles reluctantly.

“You could watch me do chin-ups,” Castiel offers innocently.

Cas ,” Dean exclaims in mock offense, “Who taught you that?!” Castiel just laughs and continues to walk to the car, leaving Dean behind with his hand clapped over his chest. “I am in so much trouble.” But he’s smiling as he runs after Castiel to catch and kiss him against the car before they leave.

Castiel’s always known that happiness is an important human emotion, and he’s definitely caught glimpses of it in his limited time spent as a mortal, but he’s never truly understood, not until now. Because this… having Dean here with him, touching him, returning his looks and smiles and soft gestures, his affirmations that he wants to be here… he had no idea how much it would change his entire perspective. Dean makes the breeze feel softer, his apartment feel cozier, makes him feel warm and wanted. It’s incredible. It also scares him a little, because there’s no telling what the future might hold. Dean is here now, but he’s made no promises regarding what comes next. Castiel has his own concerns, true, but he’s starting to worry that getting a taste of what having Dean really means will make it impossible to go on without him. He hopes desperately that he won’t have to go on without him.

***

Chapter Text

Although he’s aware most people would not describe his job as such, Castiel usually finds bartending to be a very zen activity. While he no longer has the infinite memory of an angel, his is still quite close to photographic, allowing him to easily memorize several books’ worth of drink recipes and recall them on demand. While most of Pree’s regular clientele are the non-fussy variety, the kind who order drinks by type and not by name (Castiel’s filled at least twenty requests for “beer” tonight alone, despite their carefully curated draft list), Good Friends  is  a gay bar, so he gets to practice his skills enough. Something about the measuring and pouring of precise amounts of various ingredients, the shaking, stirring and straining, the creating of something from nothing... it’s all rather soothing. Even the cleaning of the equipment and glasses, the managing of the money, and keeping track of the stock levels are things Castiel takes pride in doing well. Serving people alcohol may not be the noblest profession, but it does make people happy, and in some small way, Castiel feels like he’s making people happy, too.  

But tonight he’s having a hard time finding his zen. He’s anxious and distracted, impatient for his shift to end so that he can return to Dean. Pree’s apologetic, telling him several times that he wishes he could spare him, but the bar is hopping and Castiel understands. So he pours and mixes, makes change and does dishes, all while constantly looking towards the clock and wondering why it never seems to move. His shift started at six and he manages to hold out until ten to send Dean a message, quite an accomplishment if Castiel does say so himself. He doesn’t hear back though and while he’s disappointed, he assumes that Dean is either still on the phone with Sam or that he’s fallen asleep. He’d left Dean upstairs with his bags, ready to get settled into the apartment, encouraging him to unpack his clothing and utilize however much space he needs in his own sparsely filled dresser. He hadn’t said so, but he’d secretly been hoping Dean would get bored and come down to see him. Certainly, Pree wouldn’t mind if he just sat at the bar. So sue him, if he couldn’t touch, he could at least look.

On the subject of touching, he wonders what will happen when he returns to his apartment tonight. He  had  been the one to tell Dean that they should “take it slow,” (whatever that means, because Castiel certainly has no idea) but the plain fact is that when Dean is nearby, the last thing he wants is to go  slow.   There was more than one reason he’d been so quick to shove an ocean-soaked Dean off of him this afternoon, and it had nothing to do with the cold. Still, he has no idea whether Dean wants to have sex, or if he's ready to have it with  him . To his knowledge, Dean doesn't sleep with men, or at least isn't open about it if he does. Castiel wonders how humans sort these things out, how one knows when wanting to kiss translates to wanting to have sex, and more importantly, when it doesn’t.  It’s all very stressful,  he thinks.

Pree had made it seem so easy. He was open and honest and straightforward, unashamed of who he was, transparent about what and who he wanted. There was a night shortly after they’d begun hunting together that Castiel had been injured and Pree had sat him on the bar and fed him shots until he was buzzed enough to tolerate stitches. Castiel recalls that he’d been feeling especially lonely and touch starved that day, and the wound Pree was tending to was on the outside of his thigh. He hadn’t even particularly realized he was becoming aroused until Pree indelicately pointed it out. 

Castiel scrubs beer glasses in the sink as he tries to think back and remember what had happened next, because he  knows  there was a conversation prior to the very pleasant activities that followed. The details come trickling back slowly but solidly enough that Castiel begins to form a sort of plan for approaching Dean. He remembers also that some of the questions Pree had asked he hadn’t understood, and that he’d been grateful when Pree had patiently explained things to him without making him feel stupid. He’d been careful and gentle with Castiel, respecting his boundaries but also empowering him to embrace his human desires and explore them freely.  Pree has truly been an excellent friend to me,  he thinks to himself, watching the man as he gracefully breaks up an escalating argument across the room.

I could do worse than following his example.

He gets a text from Dean at 1:30, a half hour before his shift is scheduled to end, apologizing for falling asleep and asking if it was okay for him to come down. Before he can reply, Pree’s at his side, touching his hip and telling him that it's cool if he wants to cut out early, that he’ll be fine to close up shop on his own if Castiel wants to go get laid.

“That’s an excellent question,” Castiel murmurs under his breath. “I suppose I should go and find out.”

“Mark my words,” Pree replies, even though Castiel’s mumblings weren't necessarily directed at him, “Regardless of what he tells you, that boy is a bottom.”

“Is this an appropriate conversation, Pree?”

Pree shakes his head. “Definitely not,” he says with a smile. “Go on, get out of here. Tell me stories about them bowlegs tomorrow,” he calls, raising his voice to be heard as Castiel slips out the side door.

***

When Castiel shoves the sliding door to his apartment open, the first thing he sees is Dean, stretching his arms as far in the air as they’ll go, his shirt riding up and exposing his abdomen. His jeans are sitting low on his hips, and the sight does nothing to help Castiel keep his thoughts straight. Regardless, he’s determined to have what he’s dubbed, “the talk” with Dean.

Dean’s smile widens when he catches sight of Castiel, and he bounds across the room, stopping just short of crashing into him.

“Hey,” he says with a grin, and Castiel recognizes this look, this tone. It’s not unlike the mannerisms he’s seen Dean take on when trying to impress various girls he’s met at a bar.  Girls that he wants to sleep with, Castiel realizes Despite all of his mental preparation for this moment, Castiel finds his mouth going dry and the words flying out of his head like water through a cheese grater.

“Hello Dean,” he manages, before Dean is leaning down to capture his lips and pull him in tight. He goes, because he’s only human and Dean is sleep-warm and feels deliciously good pressed up against his own body. He lets himself be backed up against the refrigerator and kissed for several minutes before he finally works up enough sense to put a hand on Dean’s chest and push gently. Dean’s eyes are glassy and his smile is soft when he pulls back, licking his lips like he can’t get enough. And if Castiel lets out a tiny groan when he sees Dean’s tongue dart out and wet his already shiny lips, who can really blame him?

What was he doing, again? Oh, right.

“Dean, we should talk.”

Dean blinks a few times and shakes his head as if trying to force himself to switch gears, but he seems to manage. He nods. “Right, um, well everything went well with Sam. As expected, he whined a lot and made a big fuss about coming down here, but I think I talked him down for the time being. He and Kevin are going into hyper-research-mode, or whatever dorky thing they do together, I wasn’t really listening.” Humming his acknowledgment, Castiel leans forward and kisses the skin just under Dean’s jaw, making Dean shiver beneath his hands. “Whoa there, thought you said you wanted to talk?”

“I do,” Castiel affirms, nipping at the lobe of Dean’s ear, “But not about Sam. Come,” he says, taking Dean’s hand and leading him to the couch. “Will you sit with me?”

“‘Course, Cas,” Dean replies, allowing Castiel to pull him down. “Is… everything alright? You’re kinda sending some mixed signals here.”

Castiel knows he isn’t smooth or practiced like Pree, but there’s no reason he can’t be confident and brave. If he and Dean are going to work, conversations like this need to happen. They can’t continue hiding their feelings and desires from each other, it will only end in pain, as they’ve both discovered the hard way so many times over.

“Dean,” he says slowly, intentionally, “I would like to know if you are interested in having sex with me. Please don’t misunderstand my question as pressure to do so if you aren’t interested or aren’t yet ready, but I feel it is important that we are both on the same page regarding this issue. Also, as a follow-up, if you would be interested in having sex, is anal penetration something you enjoy, and if so, would you prefer to --"

“Whoa, hey, alright. Let’s slow down and take a step back there, tiger.” Dean cuts him off with an odd look on his face, the pink flush that Castiel’s come to enjoy seeing coloring his cheeks returning full force. “You can’t just -- where is this coming from? Pree put you up to this?”

“Of course not,” Castiel replies, squinting in confusion. “Although he did teach me the importance of communicating both your desires and limits prior to engaging in sexual activity. Oh, we should also discuss STI testing and condom usage.”

“Jesus Christ,” Dean mutters, wiping a hand over his face and sinking back into the couch.

Feeling somewhat frustrated, Castiel withdraws his hand from where it had been resting on Dean’s knee. “Open communication is an important part of maintaining a healthy relationship, Dean. I would think that after everything we’ve been through, you of all people could appreciate that.”

Dean’s silent for a moment, eyeing him from between his fingers. Eventually, he pushes himself back upright and shifts so that he’s facing Castiel, one leg pulled up onto the couch in front of him. “You know what,” he says, “You’re absolutely right.”

Relief washes over Castiel, and he mimics Dean’s position. And so they talk. Dean admits that he has indeed had sex with a man before, and although he’s wanted to, he’s never bottomed because the idea makes him feel too vulnerable. Castiel discloses that he’s never topped, and has no idea whether it’s something he’d enjoy or not. They’ve both been tested recently and used condoms since. It’s perhaps not as sexy as the conversation he and Pree had, but it’s open and honest and that’s more than he and Dean have  ever  had when it comes to each other. Most of all, Castiel now knows that Dean definitely does want to have sex with him, but that he’s at least as nervous as Castiel is, possibly more.  Yes, he’s sure that he wants to,  he insists when Castiel pushes him, he’s just afraid of how things will change.

“Haven’t they already changed?” Castiel’s question in response is innocent and genuine, and Dean is silent again for a moment as he contemplates his reply.

“Yea, I suppose they have,” he finally agrees. “And that’s been pretty damn good so far, I gotta say.”

“I apologize if I ruined the moment with this conversation,” Castiel adds sincerely, letting his hand creep back so that his fingers overlap Dean’s.

“Nah,” Dean replies. “I dig your weird ass style. Besides, you were right. This was important.” Castiel nods. “Is there anything else you wanted to talk about?”

Pausing to rack his brain for any pieces of this conversation he might have missed, Castiel comes up empty. “I don’t think so,” he tells Dean.

“Good,” Dean replies with a sly smile. “Because I have something.” He reaches a hand down between the couch cushions and fishes out a piece of shiny, light blue cloth. Castiel recognizes it immediately. “You didn’t, uh, you didn’t say which drawer to put my stuff in... I might have come across a few things.”

“Oh,” Castiel breathes, and it’s his turn to feel a blush creeping across his cheeks. “When I was shopping for clothes for the first time, I saw a pair and they just looked…” He shrugs. “I was curious, and as it turns out, I enjoy wearing them. If you hadn’t noticed, Pree’s particularly dismissive of gender norms. He was very… encouraging. I don’t always wear them,” he adds hastily. “Do you think it’s strange?”

Dean’s worrying the soft fabric between his fingers as he listens to Castiel talk. He ignores his last question and instead says, “Gotta say, Cas. Not exactly what I expected from you.” Castiel’s stomach jumps into his throat as he braces for Dean to mock him. “You’re really grabbing humanity by the horns, aren’t ya?” Dean drops the pair of panties on the couch between them and lets his eyes drag over Castiel, leaning closer so that his lips can ghost against the line of his jaw. He whispers his next words into Castiel’s skin. “To answer your question, no, I don’t think it’s weird. I guess I’m just hopin’ I’ll be lucky enough to see you in them someday, maybe even lucky enough to get to share.”

Oh, ” Castiel sighs happily, his eyes drifting closed as Dean’s mouth drifts along his collarbone. “ Dean,”  he murmurs, “Dean please come up to bed with me.”

Dean pulls back and kisses him softly. “I’d really like that,” he says with a smile. “Lead the way.”

As it turns out, they don’t end up putting any of their discussion to use, because halfway up the ladder to the bedroom, Castiel feels an incredible wave of fatigue hit him like a freight train. He almost tumbles backward off of the ladder, but fortunately Dean’s right behind him with a steadying hand in the middle of his back.

“Whoa, whoa, you alright?” 

Castiel’s holding onto the railings for dear life but he is, in fact, alright, so he nods. A light sweat breaks out on his forehead though, and the fatigue is quickly followed by dizziness. 

“Cas, what’s wrong?” Dean’s voice sounds a little distant, but Castiel figures he’s just been overdoing it and not getting enough sleep. Plus, there’s the entire issue of  Dean  himself, which has been positively exhausting.

“I’m sure that I just need to rest,” he manages, forcing his body to move upward, his hands releasing and finding a new grip higher on the railing an inch or so at a time. If they hadn’t been most of the way to the top, Castiel doubts he would have made it up the ladder, but he’s able to pull it together enough to reach a high enough step that he can turn and sit on the platform. He waits there until the room stops spinning and his breath stops coming in pants. Dean climbs up around him and slips strong arms under his armpits to drag him back and away from the edge. “I’m not a baby, Dean, just give me a moment,” Castiel grunts, but he’s secretly relieved to be on solid ground.

Thankfully, Dean ignores his protests and comes around to his side, lifting Castiel’s arm so that it wraps around his neck and sliding both of his own around Castiel’s waist. “C’mon, on three,” he says, counting them down and then hauling Castiel to his unsteady feet. He leans heavily on Dean for all of the five steps it takes to reach his side of the bed, plopping down heavily and collapsing onto his back.

“I’m quite alright,” he insists, despite Dean looking down at him like he’s crazy. “Just need some rest, it’s been a long few days.”

But Dean clearly isn’t convinced. “Cas, are you sure? This doesn’t seem… you were completely fine ten minutes ago. Look, I’m not claiming to be any kind of expert on angels or humans who used to be angels but had their grace stolen by the Bernie Madoff of Heaven, but this is setting off some alarm bells for me. I’m just saying.”

Castiel nods against his pillow and sounds a lot more sure than he feels when he replies. “Yes,” he says. “I just need to…” He tries in vain to sit back up so that he can undress, allowing himself several false starts before simply giving up and resigning himself to sleeping in his clothes and shoes. Dean just watches him with increasing concern written plainly all over his face, but in the end, he opts not to argue, just bends down and undresses Castiel himself, starting with his boots.

“This is not as sexy as I’d imagined it,” Castiel quips weakly, but Dean laughs softly and it feels worth it.

“You imagined us together?” He smiles up from where he’s crouched over tugging Castiel’s pants down his legs revealing carefully chosen, boring boxers. “Disappointing,” he smirks.

“It’s the sickness,” Castiel replies. “I can’t be held responsible for what I might say.”

Dean swings a leg over and straddles his hips, sliding cool hands up underneath his shirt, pushing it up until it’s far enough that he can drag it off over his head. “Shame,” he says, still hovering over Castiel’s pelvis. “I was looking forward to hearing about that in excruciating detail.”

Castiel manages to catch hold of Dean's wrist before he can move off of him, stealing his attention away from messily folded clothes and back onto his face. “Please don’t do this out of pity, Dean,” he says softly. “I couldn’t bear it. I will be fine, I just need some sleep.”

After looking down at him thoughtfully for a moment, Dean slides off and disappears down the ladder. Castiel’s heavy eyes slip closed. Dean left the light on, but Castiel’s too tired to reach up and turn it off. He figures he’s seen the last of Dean, at least for the night, when the bed shifts next to him. Somehow, he drags his eyes back open only to find a stripped-down Dean up in his space, holding out a glass of orange juice and a couple of small pills.

“Uh, that’s just some ibuprofen and Vitamin C. I take it when I travel, helps ward off colds and stuff. Sucks there isn’t an anti-germ ward.” He nudges his arm under Castiel’s head and lifts him up far enough to take the pills and have a drink without making a mess. Castiel’s slightly embarrassed but also grateful, he  was  inexplicably thirsty.

“Thank you, Dean,” he says with a smile as he lays back down. Dean puts the glass on the bedside table and clicks off the light.

“Are you hot?” Dean asks, and Castiel shakes his head no. “Then come here.” He opens his arms and Castiel forces his now-aching body to roll over and fall into them. He pillows his head on Dean’s chest and feels something cool and damp be draped across his forehead. It’s quite soothing, but not nearly as much as Dean’s hands, which are gently rubbing up and down his back. He makes a few fairly undignified grunting noises into Dean’s skin and lets himself relax.

“How…mmph... this is very nice,” he mumbles, and Dean squeezes his shoulder.

“My mom used to do this for me when I didn’t feel well. S’one of the few memories I really have of her. Always made me feel safe.”

“Nnghhh,” Castiel replies, already most of the way asleep.

“Cas?” Dean’s voice sounds vulnerable, and Castiel really wants to give him the attention he deserves, but he just can’t seem to force himself to stay awake. Dean keeps talking regardless, or perhaps  because  he thinks Castiel is asleep. “I never want you to feel alone or unsafe again because of something I did. Don’t get me wrong, this ain’t pity. I hope you know pity isn’t something I do. But I uh, I need you, Cas. And… I want you to know that it’s okay if you need me too.”

Castiel tightens his arms around Dean’s torso and hears him suck in a breath. He turns his head the short distance so that his lips meet Dean’s skin, and presses a kiss there. Just that small movement exhausts him, and he hopes desperately that Dean got the message. His hands don’t stop moving over Castiel’s back, so he decides that he must have. He goes to sleep.

***

Castiel wakes as the early light of morning pours through the oversized windows in his loft.

Pree had offered to find him suitable curtains but Castiel had declined, enjoying how the light acted as a natural alarm clock and generally the way the warm, bright sun filled up the space in a comforting way that furniture and decorations never could. It was  almost  like not being alone. And now that he is, in fact, alone no more, the sun’s rays seem even more pleasant on the side of his face; warmer and somehow brighter against the dirty glass. Dean doesn’t appear bothered by the light streaming across his eyelids, obliviously snoring away happily, sprawled out like a starfish underneath Castiel’s own body.

Castiel rolls onto his back to stretch and notes that he does, in fact, feel better. He’s awake for one thing, and not struggling to stay that way. The oppressive fatigue that had hit him so hard seems to be gone, and the aches and pains are a distant, albeit unpleasant, memory.  Perhaps it was Dean’s Vitamin C,  he thinks with a pleased smile. Dean had been so…  attentive  the night before Caring and sweet, all of those things that Castiel had always known were the  real  facets of Dean’s personality, the bits hidden just beneath the surface that only those he considered family were ever allowed to catch a glimpse of. He’d seen those traits come out before, but only towards other people. Sam, of course. Lisa and Ben. His parents. Never in a million years had Castiel dreamed that one day  he’d  be the recipient of such affection.

Those thoughts fill him with incredible warmth and energy, and he makes a split decision to go for his morning run after all. Whatever had come over him last night seems to have passed, and he’s already skipped yesterday’s workout, eating a giant breakfast in its stead. Castiel pokes at his taut, flat stomach and grimaces when he thinks about how much upkeep a human body is. Food is delicious, but the most enticing food is rarely good for you. On top of that, hunting requires muscle, strength, and endurance, things that a human body has to  train  for to really retain. Castiel’s often wondered throughout the past few months how Dean did it, eating cheeseburgers and pie every chance he got and rarely working out while still looking like he strolled off an underwear ad on the side of a bus. He sighs and pushes himself up to sitting.  We can’t all be so naturally blessed,  he thinks and then scrunches his nose at the gross irony of his own wording.

He is a little dizzy when he stands, but he chalks that up to changing position too quickly and puts it out of his mind. He strips out of his tee and boxers, pulling on jogging shorts and a long-sleeved tee since the mornings lately have been chilly but he strongly dislikes running in pants. No matter what brand or type he tries, they all seem to hug his thighs too tightly. It’s uncomfortable, though it does attract his fair share of compliments. He wishes he were brave like Pree, brave enough to wear a dress or those flowy capri pants he likes so much. Those garments just seem far more comfortable and suitable for the warm Floridian weather, but he’s seen the attention Pree garners on the street as what appears to be a man in women’s clothing. While Fort Lauderdale is a reasonably tolerant place, Castiel’s definitely watched him deal with his fair share of assholes, some who feel strong enough about defending their bigotry to threaten violence. Perhaps when they get this whole time mess sorted out and after he helps find a way to repair Heaven, maybe when it’s not such a big deal for him to stand out and be noticed then he might feel free to dress the way he wants to.

Castiel writes a quick note for Dean and tacks it to the fridge using a little magnetic bottle of sand and tiny shells that says “FLORIDA!” in the same blocky print with pictures inside as the poster he saw in the Lebanon bus station. It was the first thing he’d bought for his new apartment, an impulse buy at a gas station, and he has quite a fondness for seeing it stuck to his fridge. Slipping the smartphone he’d also managed to purchase for himself only a few weeks prior into his armband, Castiel selects his running playlist and exits the apartment as quietly as possible. He jogs down the stairs and steps out the side door into the alley, again ignoring a wave of dizziness that goes as quickly as it comes.  Just a little dehydrated,  he tells himself as he sets off down the street.

Running is therapeutic for Castiel, and he’s very glad that he discovered its merits outside of chasing down and escaping from monsters. The air is the perfect temperature; not too hot or cold and with a light breeze that caresses his exposed skin as he moves. His sneakers bounce lightly on the pavement as he focuses on breathing deeply and staying in the moment. About halfway to his normal stopping point, the beachfront area with the exercise equipment that he enjoys working out on, Castiel is forced to stop running. His breath is coming much more tightly than it should for such a short run, and his head is outright spinning. He drops to his knees on the sidewalk and braces with his hands on the gritty pavement, nails scratching in the dirt. After a few moments of breathing deeply and forcing himself to relax, the strange feeling disappears completely, leaving Castiel feeling foolish and suddenly hyper aware of every sharp pebble beneath his knees. He looks around and is relieved to see that no one seems to have witnessed his minor breakdown. Getting to his feet, he sets off at a slower, more measured pace just in case, but the dizziness doesn’t return.

He briefly contemplates packing it in for the day and returning home but it seems sort of ridiculous to do that when he’s back to feeling perfectly fine. He looks around uncertainly, as if the answers might have taken corporeal form just for the purpose of stalking and annoying him, but obviously, there’s nothing there, even if it feels like there should be. He makes it to the beach gym without further incident and goes about his normal routine. Crunches on the bench, then push ups, chin ups on the bar, lunges, then leg lifts. He’s feeling pretty damn good when he makes it through his regular set and decides to reward himself with a quick dip in the ocean. The beach is completely deserted, which isn’t surprising for this time of day on a weekday in the fall, so Castiel thinks nothing of stripping off his shirt and leaving it, his shoes, and his phone in the sand.

The water is chilly as it rushes in around his ankles, but it feels refreshing on his hot, sweaty skin. Castiel wades out until the water is well covering his thighs and then dives in. He floats for a few minutes, staring at the sky and thinking about Heaven and his lost grace, but the water really  is  chilly, and he decides he needs to swim to stay warm if he’s going to stay in it. The rush of the waves breaking over his shoulders and the soothing, rhythmic sound in his ears is distracting, allowing him to get a bit further out than he intended, which becomes an unfortunate thing when he starts to feel dizzy again. Panicking a little, he kicks his legs into overdrive and strokes towards the shore with single-minded intent; just get to where he can stand before the sensations overwhelm him.  Fuck,  he thinks, as he starts to weaken and a wave crashes over his head, plunging him down into the undertow briefly before he’s able to fight his way back up.  I’m not going to make it. Oh God, I’m not going to make it!

He doesn’t stop fighting. The waves help somewhat, buoying him forward twice as far as his own arms would have taken him, but it's not enough. There are ripples everywhere, and the dizziness doesn’t abate, it only gets stronger. He feels hot and cold at the same time, and it’s becoming impossible to get his mouth all the way out of the water to suck in air. Cold, briny liquid floods inside, making him choke and sputter and leaving him weaker for it. He’s almost able to touch the ocean floor but it’s still  just  out of reach, his toes sifting through the sand and leaving them floundering without purchase. His eyes sting, both with salt and the heaviness of  whatever this nightmare force  brings along with it. Castiel realizes far, far too late that this can’t all be a coincidence, that none of these things are isolated events. And then he’s sinking down into the water, the waves closing over his head, and there’s nothing he can do. He’s just too exhausted, too dizzy, too broken.

A warm hand closes around the wrist that's still above the waves, pulling him up and in tight against a hard chest, both he and the miracle rescuer rocking and bobbing viciously in the current. Castiel tries to help, he tries to swim or kick or at least get his head to the surface but he just can’t. The water around him feels like it’s vibrating at a subsonic frequency, so intense that he thinks he can  hear  it, and the noise, the sounds, the sensations all combining with the lack of oxygen are too much - he passes out, and slips from his rescuer’s grasp.

***

Waking up after a near death experience is never pleasant, in Castiel’s experience. He’s done it before, in the water even, and yet it never seems to get any easier. This time is easily the worst of the lot.

“Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty...”

His chest feels like it’s been smashed in with a hammer and then used as a punching bag. It also feels  full  and his lungs are  burning  and…

Castiel gasps, loudly and deeply, the air rushing into his deprived lungs and displacing the fluid in his throat. He coughs and sputters and feels his stomach turning in on itself in what feels like a direct attempt to escape his body. Hands push and pull him onto his side, one holding up his head as he gags and retches and expels all kinds of fluids into the sand. Castiel’s own hands scrabble at the grains in an attempt to brace himself against the lurching of his own body, but they slip and slide as the sand moves under them.

“Cas, here, come on baby, let me --” Castiel’s still too disoriented to make sense of the words or the voice ringing in his ears, but for some reason he feels vaguely comforted and doesn’t fight when the hands pull him roughly up against something solid that feels a lot like another body. His stomach is still doing it’s best to escape though, and he’s fairly certain he vomits directly on whoever is trying to help him. Thankfully, they don’t seem bothered, since the arms around his torso simply tighten, and fingers slide gently through his hair. “Shh, it’s okay, it’s alright. You’re alright. Cough it up, sweetheart, there you go.”

A second voice rumbles in the background, but he can’t make it out. The coughing and dry heaving seem to be subsiding, but the vibrating ripples are ramping up again and droning out anything else that would otherwise be occupying space in his head. It hurts. It’s loud and annoying and everything about it is so wrong and Castiel does the only thing he can think to do... He prays. Fractured, abstract prayers begging his Father to have mercy on him, to show him what to do, to forgive him the trespasses that have led him to this point. He pleads for compassion, for Death or at least the restoration of his grace so that he might bear this as an angel is made to do.

Instead of having his prayers answered, he finds himself reflexively wrenching his way out of his savior’s arms back into the sand, his stomach attempting a second round of trying to strongarm its way out. This time nothing comes up, and soon he’s collapsing onto the rough surface, completely spent. Mercifully, the ripples start to abate, and as soon as they do he’s closing his eyes and slipping off to sleep.

“Oh no, you don’t,” the comforting voice says from just above him, and then he’s being dragged upright, each of his arms slung around a different pair of shoulders, his feet stumbling but mostly dragging in the sand. After a few minutes of that (and the owners of the shoulders bickering back and forth in a blurred haze of words Castiel doesn’t even try to focus on) his legs are lifted up and he’s being carried quite haphazardly. His head lolls and finds something solid to lean on, and that feels  good.  The last thing he recalls before passing out is being clumsily loaded into the backseat of a familiar black car that smells, even through the brackish salt still clinging to the insides of his nostrils, like home.

***

Castiel’s aware enough by the time they reach his building to understand that somehow Dean and Pree had come to rescue him. He’s still drifting in and out, but mostly because he’s exhausted and not (he thinks) because he’s in any kind of medical danger. Although he does wonder if some of his ribs are broken because it hurts like hell to breathe. Aside from the pain in his chest, his throat hurts, his nose hurts, his head is pounding and there’s goddamn  sand  all over him, in places that sand should never be. It’s very unpleasant. But he’s safe, and he’s grateful. Dean’s still clinging to him like simply holding on tight will fix all of this, but Castiel can’t complain. Dean’s as wet and sandy as he is, but he’s warm and solid and Castiel thought he might never see him again.

They’re in Baby’s backseat, Dean splayed half-sideways so that Castiel’s entire six-foot self can curl into his lap with his face tucked into Dean’s neck. Despite the pain, the discomfort, and the overwhelming sensation that things are getting  very bad  very quickly, this is the best way Castiel’s ever spent the minutes following dying or nearly doing so. He’s also with it enough to note that if Dean is back here with him, that must mean  Pree  is driving, which means Dean  let  him drive, and that chills Castiel to the bone more than anything else. He must have been in bad shape.

Pree navigates Baby straight down the alleyway, parking her just behind the entrance that leads up to the apartments. He opens the door and Castiel lets him argue with Dean for all of two minutes before he coughs to clear his throat and interjects that he thinks he can walk, with help.

“Cas!” Dean’s voice is blatantly full of relief and Castiel squeezes his shoulder reassuringly.

“I’m alright,” he says hoarsely, pushing at Dean’s chest until he’s mostly sitting up on his own. Pree’s hand appears in the middle of his back to steady him, and it’s a good thing because he immediately starts to tip sideways.

“Dammit, Cas, what were you thinking?! When I’m sure you’ve fully recovered I’m gonna kick your ass,” Dean grunts.

Castiel just nods wearily. With Dean not much use until Castiel’s extricated, it falls on Pree to orchestrate his removal from the car. Somehow he manages to get arms around Pree's shoulders and let himself be dragged until he can get a foot down and stand. It's painful on his ribs, but Pree takes the majority of his weight and Dean pushes from behind until he’s up. As soon as he’s free, Dean hops out the other side of the car and comes around to help. With both men supporting him, Castiel’s able to bear weight enough to shuffle along slowly. He has to stop frequently because breathing deeply is so painful it nearly incapacitates him, but the awkward trio finds themselves making slow and sure progress. One step at a time, one stair at a time, both Pree and Dean holding on tight and encouraging him. When his legs give out completely half a landing from his floor, they’re quick to scoop him up and carry him the rest of the way. Dean even manages a bridal carry on his own for a minute while Pree gets the door open, and even in his exhaustion, Castiel doesn’t think he’s ever felt more taken care of, more cherished.

Everyone hesitates once they’re inside, unsure what to do next, but Castiel pleads to be cleaned up before being checked over and left to rest. Dean reluctantly agrees, and Pree comes with them into the bathroom just long enough to get Castiel into the tub fully clothed. Dean swears he can manage from there, so Pree says he’ll be just outside and to holler if they need anything. It’s said as a general statement but he directs a meaningful look to Castiel anyway, who waves him off. Dean’s too busy pulling at his shoes to notice. Castiel tries to help things along by attempting to tug off his own shirt, but his exhausted muscles betray him halfway through, leaving him stuck inside the wet garment and flailing like a four-year-old.

“Dammit, Cas,” Dean curses as he yanks the tee the rest of the way off. “What the hell were you thinking? You couldn’t even do a set of stairs last night but you thought you’d go for a run AND a swim?”

“I also worked out on the equipment,” Castiel contributes helpfully. “I was fine, Dean. Or, well, perhaps I wasn’t  fine,  but I had no way of knowing…”

“You almost died!” Dean’s outburst takes Castiel by surprise, though it probably shouldn’t. Dean sounds furious, but Castiel can tell that anger isn’t for him, and of  course,  Dean would blame himself. He reaches out to place a shaky hand over one of Dean’s, the one that’s gripping the side of the tub like it personally wronged him. Dean’s avoiding his eyes, instead turning his attention to running the water and making it warm, despite the fact that Castiel’s still sitting there in his shorts.

“Dean…” he starts.

“Don’t,” Dean bites back.

Castiel licks his dry lips and heaves a sigh, withdrawing his hand from where it clearly isn’t wanted. “This is my life and these are my decisions, Dean. You are not responsible for what I choose to do, period. Also, I find it quite patronizing when you act like this. I don’t need a babysitter.”

That makes Dean’s head jolt upright and his eyes turn sharp. “That’s not what I’m doing.”

“Isn’t it?”

No,”  Dean snaps, and then runs his hand through his hair, sighing regretfully. He turns to face away from Castiel and slumps against the side of the tub so that it’s hard to see his face. “That’s not… It’s not what I  meant  to do. I just can’t stand that something  else  shitty happened to you when I could’ve stopped it. I’ve let you down so many times.”

Castiel waits to ensure that Dean’s done speaking before reaching out a hand again, this time to squeeze his shoulder. “But you  couldn’t  have stopped it, Dean. And need I point out, you did rescue me.” He struggles to roll onto his knees and drag himself up over the side of the tub. Ignoring the stabbing pain in his chest, he drapes himself around Dean and rests his chin on his shoulder. “Everything is alright. It’s no worse than anything we’ve been through before.” Dean huffs a suspiciously congested laugh at that and manages a small nod. He turns in Castiel’s arms, pushing them down so he can thread his own around Castiel’s neck. They kneel there like that on opposite sides of the tub until Castiel’s legs get weak and he has to pull away.

“Not that I’m not enjoying this moment,” he says, “But perhaps we could clean off and continue someplace a bit drier.”

“Take your pants off,” Dean replies, with a poke to Castiel's chest.

It’s far from the way Castiel had envisioned Dean seeing him naked for the first time, but he figures that he rebuilt Dean’s body from ash and bone, it’s not like a little washing is any kind of big deal. And Dean is wonderful; gentle and thorough, confident in a way that dissolves any lingering self-consciousness Castiel might have had. He pushes Castiel’s hands away from his own head so that he can massage the shampoo in, rinsing it away with the sprayer as if they’d done this a thousand times. That feeling of being cared for and protected returns in full force, and Castiel can’t help but look up at Dean with unrestrained affection from where his chin is resting on his own knees.

“What?” Dean asks, wiggling his fingers through the strands of Castiel’s hair to rinse the conditioner out. “You’re looking at me funny.”

“I am just appreciating you, Dean. I  do  appreciate you.”

Dean’s cheeks turn a little pink, which is strange considering what  hasn’t  embarrassed him, but Dean’s never been great with emotions and feelings.

“No chick flick moments,” he says gruffly, slapping the shower head back in its holder and bending down to haul Castiel to his feet. He’s slightly less exhausted now, so he manages to make it from the tub to the toilet with only Dean’s help. Dean slips into the shower then, stripping and rinsing off quickly, his wet and sandy clothes slung haphazardly over the edge of the tub. “I’ll get them later,” he promises, but Castiel just shrugs.

When they’re both reasonably dry and with towels around their waists, Dean opens the door and shrieks when he finds Pree standing right on the other side, a pile of clothes in hand. 

Pree doesn't react, just casts a glance at Castiel and raises his eyebrows. “Jumpy, this one,” he quips and turns on his heel back into the apartment. Dean slams the door with a scowl.

Which reminds Castiel, “Dean, how did you and Pree both come to be at the beach?”

Dean glances up from where he’s stepping into fresh boxers. “Oh, uh… when I saw your note, I got worried right away. I remembered where you said that you normally go, but I was thinking about what would happen if I went and you weren’t there. Figured Pree would know better where else you might be. And you know, in case you were hurt. Made the right decision there, clearly. Though do you think he’s going to stay all night?”

Biting back a smile, Castiel accepts the soft pair of pajama pants tossed his way, pulling them on slowly. “You like him,” he says.

“I do not,” Dean grunts.

“Whatever you say,” Castiel replies, smiling outright as Dean shoves a plain white t-shirt over his head and stands there with his arms folded while Castiel struggles to get into it. He’s laughing by the time he gets his arms through, and generally feeling pretty good, though his chest is still sore and he’s very tired. He reaches out a hand and his smile widens when Dean softens and takes it. “Dean, will you come to lay with me? Please. It would be of great comfort.”

“‘Course, Cas,” he says quietly. “Whatever you need.” When he bends down to help him to his feet, Castiel catches Dean’s chin between his thumb and forefinger, holding him in place to press their lips together firmly. Dean melts, sliding his arms around Castiel’s torso and hoisting him up without breaking the kiss. Things might have even escalated, but being pressed so tightly together makes Castiel wince, and Dean pulls away quickly, looking guilty as sin.

“It’s alright,” Castiel reassures him. “Just sore.”

“C’mon, let’s get you something for that,” Dean prompts, moving his arm to Castiel’s waist and supporting him gently as they make their way out the bathroom door.

“Ugh,  finally,”  Pree groans from where he’s kicked back on Castiel’s couch. “I almost had to entertain myself by nosing through Dean’s things.” Before Dean can retort, Pree closes the magazine he was paging through and uses it to gesture at the far corner of the living space. Castiel’s mattress has been relocated from the loft and is waiting for them, blanket nest and all.

A sincere  “thank you”  is on the tip of Castiel’s tongue but before he can get it out, the room starts to spin and vibrate. Ripples explode from almost every direction, making him stagger and lean heavily into Dean’s side to prevent ending up on the floor. He grabs his head with both hands and vaguely recognizes that he’s yelling, but he can’t stop. He can hear both Dean and Pree but they sound miles away, part of another universe entirely. When he opens his eyes again the entire world is warping in on itself, bending and stretching and flickering in and out of existence as he slumps helplessly into Dean’s chest.

And then it’s gone. It’s all gone.

***

Chapter Text

“It’s gone, gone, it’s all gone… all gone, all gone…”

That’s all Castiel will say as he tosses and turns deliriously on his mattress for the fourth day in a row. Despite his posturing, Dean’s incredibly relieved at Pree’s willingness to stick around and help out. For almost a full day after Cas had collapsed on their way from the bathroom to his bed, Dean had held him while he screamed and writhed in apparent agony. He’d clutched his head, sobbed and moaned, sometimes seeming to drift off only for his eyes to suddenly shoot wide open, blank and unseeing, and it would all start over again. Dean felt helpless, was helpless. All he could do was watch over him and take care of his body while he suffered. At least with Pree around, Dean didn’t have to leave his side.

On the second day, Castiel had spiked a fever. Between him and Pree they’d been able to force some liquid Tylenol down his throat, but it had no effect. Pree had disappeared for a while, leaving Dean to do his best with cool washcloths, ice packs and the miniscule sips of juice Castiel would occasionally take. Dean was this close to cursing him out when he’d blown through the door with an entire bag of medical supplies and a determined as hell look on his face. Dean didn’t ask where the supplies came from and Pree didn’t offer, but at least this way they had some ways of making Cas comfortable. Pree inserted an IV and ran fluids for hydration, as well as gave medications for fever and pain. Dean did his part by bandaging the IV site so that Cas couldn’t pull it out, cleaning him up and changing the sheets so that he was resting on clean ones that weren’t soaked through with sweat.

When there’s no change by later that night and Castiel still hasn’t regained awareness the way he was before, both of them get desperate. Pree takes to the streets to scope out the locals for any inside information, and Dean calls Sam. He’s careful to give an edited version that won’t have Sam hopping on the next plane to Florida, but this is actually one time where Dean’s glad his brother is at the bunker for reasons other than his own safety. If there’s any lore on what this could be, that’s where it’ll be found. After hanging up with Sam, he checks Castiel’s IV and makes sure he’s comfortable. His outright writhing and screaming has reduced to a low level, constant moaning, and neither Pree nor Dean are sure whether it’s the pain medication or just Castiel’s body becoming worn out and accustomed to dealing with whatever assault it’s under.

After he’s done, he sits cross-legged at the end of the bed with Castiel’s legs in his lap. He rubs his calves and feet because he thinks he remembers dating a nurse once who mentioned they do that for coma patients. Helps with circulation or something. Maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t, but Dean at least feels like he’s doing something for Cas. He’s massaging and staring blankly at the evening news and generally feeling useless when a thought occurs to him. It’s so obvious that he kicks himself for not thinking of it sooner.

Looking around the loft, he spies Cas’ armband that he uses to hold his phone while running sitting on the kitchen table where Pree had left it. He’d scooped it up off the sand before they’d dragged Castiel away, and Dean was suddenly glad he did. The phone was still inside, dead now after two days without charging, but Dean plugs it in and it powers up immediately. There’s a fingerprint lock, but that’s easy enough to bypass with Castiel lying right next to him. Dean goes right to the messages and hopes that -- yes! Hannah. Castiel has her number saved, and a recent string of messages still intact. Dean hits the button to call and finds himself sent directly to voicemail. He leaves a short, irritated message describing the situation as well as he can and demanding she call him back. He hangs up and fires off a text message stating the same. This time he includes: Hannah, this is a 911.

There’s no reply, and he has no other choice but to sit and wait. He microwaves some leftovers that Pree had brought up from the bar and only manages to choke down about a third before the sight of Cas’ unconscious body drives his appetite away. He gives up on doing anything productive after that, turning all the lights off and sliding in next to Castiel on the mattress. Even though he doubts Cas has any awareness of it, he still pulls the man into his chest and holds him tight. He strokes his back, the way Castiel liked that second night they slept together. Slept together. Dean abruptly realizes that this the first time he’s done anything like that since Lisa. Sleeping in the same bed with someone without expecting sex. It should be more intimidating, more frightening than it is, but perhaps his current perspective has caused things to shift. Before his thoughts can go on too much of a tangent, Cas’ phone screen lights up.

Hannah: I have changed my plans and will be there as soon as I’m able.

It’s not quite the answer Dean was looking for, but it’ll have to do. Dean hits the power button and wraps his arms back around Castiel, who’s shivering a little. He moans when Dean jostles him, probably because his chest is still sore, like he doesn’t have enough going on without having to deal with recovering from CPR. In the moonlight, Dean can see that his chest is blooming with bright purple-red bruises, and he feels somewhat guilty. Not that guilty though, since his actions are the reason Castiel is here at all. Not that he’s really here in his current state, but at least there is hope.

He lets his fingers skate over Castiel’s ribs, and wonders if it’s his imagination that the former angel snuggles into him a little tighter. He pulls the blankets up around them and decides to believe that it’s not. Castiel is still in there, he is. And Dean will find a way to bring him back if it’s the last thing he’ll ever do.

***

As it turns out, what Dean actually ends up doing is a lot more of the same. Sitting, waiting, cleaning, changing, assessing, medicating…. On and on, all of the somewhat mundane aspects of keeping an unconscious person alive and cared for from day to day. Pree tries to help, of course, but Dean waves him off most of the time, preferring to care for Castiel himself. He knows exactly what he’s doing, knows that no matter how much care and affection he shows for Castiel now it still won’t make up for putting him out, but he’s damn well going to try anyway.

And Castiel… he gets worse. Despite the IV fluids and the medications, he gets paler despite the fever-flush in his cheeks, weaker in the few movements he tries to make. He whimpers in his otherwise catatonic state and shakes regardless of whether he’s warm or cold. His fever rages, so high one night that Dean is on the verge of taking him to the hospital, despite the knowledge that this is mystical, and not medical. The lack of positive effect from the anti-fever medication is proof enough of that, as if they needed it. Instead, he and Pree carry Castiel to the tub and Dean sits with him propped against his chest, both of them submerged in cool water. It works, at least; his temperature comes down to 101. Dean doesn’t sleep that night.

So when the fourth day bleeds into the fifth, Dean’s exhaustion has come dangerously close to transforming into delirium. He’s at the end of his rope but completely unwilling to admit it, stubbornly plodding along with tending to Castiel’s needs and ignoring his own. He’s snappy and short and he knows on some level that Pree’s about one backhanded insult away from stepping up and whooping his ass, but he’s so fucked from this whole thing he’s kind of looking forward to it.

Which is why Hannah’s arrival is nothing short of heralded. Dean had received a message on Castiel’s phone over a day prior that just said, “I am close,” accompanied by a picture of her current vessel so that Dean would recognize her.

The knock on the door comes in the afternoon, and neither Dean nor Pree is expecting anyone, so they both are on their feet in a hurry. Pree takes point. He cracks the door while Dean stands off to the side with his gun cocked and at the ready.  The moment he sees Hannah though, relief floods his entire aching body and he has to resist an out of place urge to hug her.

“Take me to Castiel,” she demands coolly, and if things weren’t so dire Dean would definitely be knocking this bitch down a peg.

“Nice to meet you too, I’m Dean and this is Pree,” he replies sarcastically, but he’s already turning and walking towards where Castiel lays. Pree closes the door and follows behind them at a wary distance.

“You know who I am,” Hannah replies distractedly, not bothering to so much as glance at Dean. She kneels next to Castiel and runs her delicate fingers over his bare, bruised chest. Dean clenches fists at his side to stop himself from doing something stupid because one, angel, and two, here to help Cas. But that doesn’t mean he has to like her. “Tell me what happened,” she prompts, and Dean complies without complaint for Cas’ sake.

He runs her through an abbreviated version of everything Castiel had told them, plus the events of the beach and the last few days. Hannah’s brow furrows and she looks increasingly concerned the more he talks. “And he’s been like this pretty much ever since,” Dean finishes. Hannah nods and moves her hand to Castiel’s head, closing her eyes as a warm blue glow appears beneath her palm.

“I think I understand,” she murmurs, and Dean doesn’t ask for clarification because it’s pretty clear she’s not talking to him. Hannah reaches into her coat pocket and removes a small vial with a stopper, then shakes out her sleeve until her angel blade drops into her hand. In one fluid motion, she removes the stopper and slices a clean line in the hollow of Castiel’s throat.

“Whoa, hey, what the -- Not cool,” Dean shouts, lunging at the angel and managing to snatch the blade away, most likely because she was already putting it down, but that’s neither here nor there. “What the hell, Hannah?”

“Dean,” Pree says, directing Dean’s attention back to Castiel with a flick of his chin. When Dean turns to look it’s already over. A small wisp of electric blue grace has floated out of Castiel’s neck and into the vial, where Hannah has already trapped it with the stopper. She then leans forward and heals the cut on Castiel’s neck before placing a palm back in the middle of his forehead.

“I will heal his body now,” she announces, and the blue light shines between her hand and Castiel’s skin once again.

As if by magic, the purple and blue bruises on Castiel’s chest recede back like the outgoing tide before disappearing completely, leaving his skin perfectly unblemished, as if nothing had even happened. The dark circles under his eyes fade away, his breathing slows to normal, his skin turns from pale to its normal healthy glow, and his lips go from dry and cracked to pink and plush. And he stirs.

When his eyes blink open, Dean has to shove down a very unmanly wave of emotion that rises up and threatens to spill directly out his eyeballs. He blinks and stares up at a light in the ceiling instead of down at Castiel until Pree pokes him pretty hard in the back.

Stop that,” he hisses in Dean’s ear. “Did you really not learn your lesson?”

“I’m not--”

Nope,” Pree interrupts, poking him again.

You stop,” Dean grunts back, slapping at his hand. He forgets his current circumstances for a minute, almost giving into the temptation to pick a fight just for the sake of expelling some energy, but then he hears his name.

“Dean?” Cas’ voice is soft and cracked, and when Dean looks down he’s struggling to push himself up to sitting. Ignoring Pree’s huff of satisfaction, Dean goes right to his side, dropping to his knees and taking Castiel’s face in his hands.

“Cas,” he says with a smile that trembles a little more than he’d like. “Don’t you ever do that to me again,” he chastises softly, and Castiel smiles. “Fuck,” Dean whispers as a rebel tear escapes from his eye, “It’s real good to see you up, man. Real good.”

With some difficulty, Castiel pushes the rest of the way off the mattress and surges forward into Dean’s all too willing arms. “Thank you for staying with me,” he murmurs, lips brushing the side of Dean’s neck.

“Wait, you knew?” Dean’s shocked, but Castiel just nods into his shoulder.

“I did, at times.”

Dean’s not sure what to do with that. He’d been so sure Castiel was completely gone to the world that he’d definitely held a few one-sided conversations, said some embarrassing things that he likely never would have gotten up the courage to say to his face. Oh well, he thinks. Can’t take it back now. Besides, if anything, Castiel seems pleased. He holds Dean for a moment longer until Pree clears his throat, prompting him to slide back into a sitting position against the mountain of pillows. He motions for Dean to join him and he does.

“Hello, Hannah,” he says, finally taking note of her presence. “Thank you for coming, and for the assistance. How did you know what to do?” His face scrunches a little, the way it does when he’s thinking, and before Hannah can reply he adds, “And what exactly did you do, if you don’t mind my asking? The last day or so I was actually quite unconscious for.”

Hannah’s pleasantly placid face suddenly turns troubled. She looks over to Pree and then at Dean before returning her gaze to Castiel. “I am not sure it is wise to trust humans with the information that I need to share with you, Castiel. Would it be possible for us to speak privately?”

Castiel doesn’t flinch, just replies smoothly, “If it weren’t for these particular humans, I wouldn’t be here for you to tell at all. They are allies, and I have more reason in these uncertain times to trust them than I do many of our brethren.” Castiel slips his hand into Dean’s and tugs it to his lap, a gesture that clearly doesn’t go unnoticed by Hannah. While her eyes track the motion with obvious disdain, she seems to know better than to say anything else disparaging out loud.

Instead, she sighs. “As you wish, Castiel. I hope that you know what you’re doing.” She pauses as if to give him time to change his mind, but Castiel just raises his eyebrows and waits.

Eventually, Hannah gives in and tells her story without trying to make Dean and Pree leave.

“I was working on rounding up the angels who weren’t allied with either Metatron or Bartholomew’s factions,” she begins. “You know this part of this story already Castiel, as it begins with my coming here to try and recruit you as well.” She goes on to explain who Bartholomew is in great detail, but Dean zones out after gleaning “another dick with wings trying to fuck over humanity,” preferring to direct his concentration toward memorizing the profile of Castiel’s face in detail, and imagining it doing… more interesting things than talking.

“Yes,” Castiel agrees. “At the time, I didn’t see the point in joining you without my grace. I felt that I’d be more hindrance than help, what with my reputation preceding me.”

“After I left you, Metatron set out to infiltrate and break up my team. I confess that I wasn’t the strongest leader and many of our brothers and sisters were killed on my watch. Metatron came to me when I was at my lowest. He spoke of prophecy and time, among other things that I didn’t understand. He offered me a place at his side and apologized for not recognizing my importance sooner. By then I’d started noticing the time fluctuations and with how much he talks, it was not difficult to start putting the pieces together.”

“Is this going to be a long story?” Dean interjects, and gets to his feet. “Because I could use a beer. Anyone else? Beer?” Castiel closes his eyes briefly and motions for Hannah to go on. Dean shrugs and retrieves his beer (plus a spare, just in case) anyway, returning to the mattress and plopping back down next to Cas, making himself comfortable amongst the pillows. Their loss. All stories are better with beer.  

“I decided to accept Metatron’s offer in the hopes that I could gain information to be used against him,” Hannah continues. “I did my best to portray a change of heart and interest in his mission, though I doubt that it was necessary. Metatron is exceedingly arrogant, and unconcerned about loyalty in his inner circle. Because of that he was loose with his words. It was not long before I felt that I had gleaned everything from him that he was apt to share. I escaped through a portal back to earth, though I do believe he has sent his lieutenants after me.”

Castiel sits in rapt attention as she speaks, his brow furrowed and his iron grip transferred from Dean’s hand to his own knee until the story comes full circle back to him. He hardly moves as Hannah goes on to explain how she believes that Metatron is attempting to alter the natural course of this timeline after seeing the future it will bring about, but Dean doesn’t miss his sharp intake of breath.

“You believe that at some point in the original timeline’s future Metatron was defeated, perhaps even killed, and that in learning this he became determined to change things so as to wrought a different outcome. It makes an immense amount of sense… With his wings intact, he’d certainly have the ability.” Castiel pauses and seems to wrack his brain. “But how does this involve me? And why was I able to see the time ripples as a human?”

Hannah nods. “From what I was able to learn while in his inner circle, Metatron has quite an obsession with you, Castiel. The timeline has already been significantly changed but in the original, I believe that it was you who ultimately brought him down and re-took Heaven for the rest of us. It follows that he would target you directly.” She pauses and waits for Castiel’s nod to continue, assuring that he’s following. “I believe it has something to do with your grace. I was able to ascertain that in the original timeline he simply hid it in a library, and you eventually were able to get it back. In this timeline, he’s gone to much greater lengths to keep it from you.”

“He kept it in a library?” Dean looks between Hannah and Cas, sloshing his beer around in disbelief. “Seems like a rookie move to me. What kind of idiot is this guy?”

Castiel waves Dean off, shaking his head and running a hand through his hair. “This doesn’t make any sense, Hannah. If I’m such a danger to him, why wouldn’t he just kill me? Why go to these extreme lengths? I’m human, I’m no match for him like this. It would be no trouble to simply remove me from the picture. In that same vein, if you are a similar threat, why allow you into his inner circle at all? Why not just kill you when he had the chance? How can we trust that anything you are saying is true, and not a trap?”

Hannah just sighs. “Castiel, I would have thought after everything we’ve been through together that I would have earned more of your trust than that.”

“Hael tried to hijack my body and believed she was being generous in offering to let me ride shotgun,” Castiel mutters. Dean looks at him sideways; they’re definitely coming back to that later.

Regardless,” Hannah continues pointedly, “It’s been centuries since you knew Metatron, and that’s why he was able to fool you. Despite what you think, you don’t know him. He’s… different from the rest of us.

“Many of our brothers and sisters have said that about me, you know,” Castiel points out.

“This is not the same,” Hannah insists. “He believes in stories, in drama, in heroes and villains, and he believes himself to be the greatest of them all. His conquest of Heaven means nothing if he can’t paint himself as the hero and have everyone believe it.”

“Yea? How’s that going for him,” Dean snorts, and Castiel bites back a smile.

“Not well,” Hannah shoots back, “And therein lies the problem. He needs a villain. In the other timeline that was you, Castiel, at least as far as I can discern. To bring things back to your questions, killing someone in cold blood has never been his style. He believes in concepts such as ‘narrative poetry,’ and would see simply killing us as stooping beneath his level. What he wants is for us all to join his game, to play our roles so to speak, but in a way that has him coming out on top this time.”

Dean’s never done well with being told to “play his role,” and he has no intentions of starting now. “Alright, so, Metatron bad, Castiel good, tell us something we don’t know. How do we get this timeline back on track to taking his arrogant ass down? ‘Cuz that’s the happy ending I know I signed on for.” He cracks his second beer and props his feet up on a pile of blankets.

“If anything, it is indeed his arrogance that will be his downfall,” Hannah agrees. “The answer is simple, and at the same time it’s not, but Metatron has taken the first step for us.” She reaches into her pocket and produces the small vial that contains the shred of Castiel’s grace. She leans forward and hands it over to him without pretense. “I didn’t know for sure, but I suspected when you spoke of seeing the time ripples.” 

To Dean and Pree she explains, “No human is able to see such a thing. It’s not possible, and for good reason. You are not equipped to deal with it. As it is, I can see the ripples around you now, but with my grace fully intact they don’t bother me, they just are. I believe that Metatron returned this miniscule piece of your grace with the specific intent of weakening you, Castiel. He may have wished it kill you, but at the very least he must have been hoping it would put you back onto trying to take him down. Of course, without the rest of your grace as you had in the original timeline, your chances of success would be greatly reduced. And similarly, his ability to paint you as the villain would increase.”

Castiel stares at the swirling bit of blue light in confusion. “But… I haven’t seen Metatron,” he says. “Surely I would have known if --” He stops short, remembering what had happened two or so days after being booted from the bunker. “I was in the hospital,” he says suddenly. “I was… my state of mind was not healthy, and I was not well-versed in how often humans need to eat to sustain their bodies. The last thing I remember before waking up in the hospital is falling asleep on a town bench.”

“You passed out,” Dean clarifies, donning the same look on his face that he always gets when Castiel speaks of the time between getting kicked out of the bunker and when Pree rescued him. Half guilty, half horrified, one hundred percent miserable. He realizes he’s doing it when he sees Castiel’s echoing sympathetic expression (of which he’s completely undeserving) and so he does his best to school his face back in line as quickly as possible.

“Yes, I do seem to be prone to that,” Castiel agrees, turning his attention away from Dean, which he’s grateful for. “I was taken to the small county hospital just outside Lebanon. I was warded by that time, but that wouldn’t have stopped anyone who had already located me by other means. As you proved in Detroit,” he nods at Dean and then at Hannah in turn, “And you here, Hannah, it was certainly possible. And anyone could have entered my room during the time I was unconscious. Any of his lackeys or even Metatron himself, I suppose. It also explains why I only saw the shifts in the timeline for the first time at the bus station. I went there directly from the hospital. But... if I had some of my grace, how was I at such low power? And why did it take so long for me to become ill?”

“Though I cannot say for sure, I suppose that it’s no different from any human sickness,” Hannah replies contemplatively, reaching out to take and then study Castiel’s meager grace where it swirls at the bottom of the vial. “It’s my understanding that even fairly common and predictable illnesses have variable incubation periods. And as for the amount, look at it, Castiel. It’s just a whisper. Nothing that you would have been able to notice, as I’m sure he was counting on.”

Castiel takes the vial back and Dean leans in to look closer as well. “It is indeed. Perhaps you’re correct.”

Dean holds up a hand as if he’s in school, though he doesn’t wait to be called on. “I thought angels always left behind traces of grace when they left a vessel? You tellin’ me any poor sap who’s ever played host to one of you winged dicks is just a ticking time bomb for the Heavenly flu? No matter what they do, eventually they’re going to get sick and die from whatever’s left behind?”

Hannah opens her mouth to answer but Castiel cuts her off. “ Vessels, Dean. Humans are vessels. This,” he gestures to himself, “This is just me. Obviously, I do look like Jimmy, yes, but this body is not his. It hasn’t been since I was resurrected after Lucifer. Obviously there is some difference between a true, human vessel and an angel occupying what is essentially a copy.” He tosses the vial in his hand once before slipping it into his own pocket. “Regardless, it is not of import. What matters is that we now know how to fix all of this.”

“We do?” Everyone startles a bit at the sound of Pree’s voice, drifting over from where he sits on one of the couches. Dean had completely forgotten he was there at all.

Castiel just looks at him and nods. “Yes. If retrieving my grace was the first step in dismantling Metatron’s hold on Heaven in the unaltered timeline, then we must find it. Hannah, I take it he stored it somewhere a bit safer than a library this time? Did you find out anything regarding where it might be, or are we starting from scratch?”

The uncertainty from earlier returns to Hannah’s face. “About that, Castiel… This is where I believe Metatron may be rightfully smug about his changes to this timeline.” Everyone waits, but she doesn’t continue.

And?” Dean’s voice is probably a touch more irritated than necessary, but this conversation is dragging on way too long for his liking. Whatever needs to be done, he’ll be happier once they’re actually doing it.

“He split your grace, Castiel. I know where each piece is, because he’s extremely proud of what he’s done, telling every angel he comes across all about it.” She pauses again, her hands fidgeting in her lap, so unlike an angel that it causes even Dean to start to feel concerned. “He split your grace and scattered it.”

Dean blinks. “What, like into the sun?”

“No,” Hannah replies slowly, “He hasn’t destroyed it, and he’s left it accessible enough that he could retrieve the pieces should he need to. It may be that the spell he performed to lock Heaven is tied inextricably to the grace, perhaps reversed once it’s fully restored to Castiel or eliminated. Either way, it seems that he won’t take the chance that it’s the latter.”

“Alright,” Castiel replies. “So then the pieces are possible to retrieve. That’s good news, isn’t it?”

“In a way,” Hannah replies, noncommittally. “It’s just that the pieces aren’t hidden in a particular place at all. They’re on four different planes; Earth, Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. And while Metatron shared that information freely, he was careful to say nothing more specific. You’d have to travel to those planes as a human and then hunt the pieces down from there. If it isn’t outright impossible, retrieval would almost certainly be suicidal.”

Hannah’s revelation is shocking enough to render them all silent. They sit there for several moments, the atmosphere in the room suddenly feeling much heavier. Dean, for his part, has no idea where to even begin so he in the meantime, he slurps his beer noisily and earns himself a glare from Hannah. But then Castiel speaks.

“Well,” he starts, looking around at each of them in turn. “If that is the situation, then it seems that we have our work cut out for us.”

***

Starting with the piece of Cas’ grace that’s hidden somewhere on Earth seems like the logical choice. With Hannah’s assistance and the use of the tiny sliver of grace they have, Castiel is able to perform a tracking spell that narrows the location to somewhere in the Caribbean. In an act of pure coincidence, this is about the time Dean switches from beer to whiskey. After obtaining a more specific map (surprisingly easy, considering Florida is just northwest of the island chain) they repeat the spell and are able to narrow it even further, all the way down to specific coordinates. Unfortunately, those coordinates aren’t exactly good news.

It’s official: the first piece of Castiel’s split grace is resting in a watery grave just off the coast of Paradise Island, Nassau, in the Bahamas.

Dean’s the first to state the obvious because it needs to be said. “Did that seem a little too easy to anyone? I mean, shouldn’t this thing be warded and impossible to trace?”

Castiel tilts his head from side to side, appearing to weigh his thoughts before answering. “I think it’s very likely that it is warded. However, this spell is only useful with a piece of the grace itself, something it seems Metatron presumed we would not realize we had at our disposal.”

Still skeptical, Dean swallows a good third of his second two fingers of whiskey before responding. “Alright, so say that we buy this is where it is. It’s not like it’s in the middle of a well-guarded museum and we can Ocean’s Eleven it out of there. It’s in the ocean. Last I checked, humans don’t do so well down there.”

Before Castiel can answer him, Hannah decides that right fucking now is a good time to bail. She stands and smooths her wrinkleless coat. “I must be going, Castiel. I have already stayed too long. Metatron’s angels will be close, I’ve put you at risk by coming here at all.” Castiel nods his understanding and embraces her awkwardly; Dean raises an eyebrow when she doesn’t hug back.

“Of course,” Castiel says as he pulls away. “Thank you, Hannah. Please keep in touch.”

“You as well,” she replies, and then she’s gone, Pree checking the hallway and bolting the door behind her just in case. As soon as the door is closed, Castiel sets about warding the entire apartment thoroughly against angels. Dean considers asking why he hasn’t done that before now but decides it doesn’t really matter.

Instead, he kicks back on the couch after refilling his glass of whiskey. “Is no one going to point out that we just let the only one of us who doesn’t need to breathe underwater walk right out the door? No? Alright then.” He sips his whiskey and stares at the ceiling until Castiel appears above him, staring down with those concerned eyes of his. Dean might be a little tipsy, but he can’t help thinking that aside from all this Journey to the Center of the Earth shit, Cas is still really fucking hot, and not unconscious, and Dean’s a little unclear as to why they’re still talking shop.

“Are you alright, Dean?” Cas voice drags him back to reality, and he shrugs.

“Yea. Sure. Why the hell wouldn’t I be? We’re talking about going to the bottom of the ocean and then maybe to Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory like it’s a family trip to Disney World, more logistics than anything but yea, I’m fucking fine.” He laughs then, and once he starts he can’t seem to stop. He laughs at the sheer ludicrous nature of it all, at the fact that the world is once again at risk and he has to save it, at the knowledge that he and Cas finally use their goddamn words and this is what they get. It’s never going to be easy for him, for them. Cas’ grace is at the bottom of the goddamn ocean and all he can do is laugh. He laughs so long and hard that his sides start to hurt and tears track down his cheeks. Cas eventually shakes his head and disappears from sight, right around the time Dean rolls off the couch and onto the floor where his laughter peters off into an occasional huff or sigh. His cheek presses against the cool hardwood floor and he has exactly zero motivation to even bother trying to get back up.

He thinks he hears Cas and Pree’s voices on the other side of the room and then he’s pretty sure the door opens and closes again, but Cas doesn’t return. Not that Dean can blame him. He sniffs and giggles at his own ridiculous behavior and thinks that Cas probably went down to the bar just to get away. He hears the shower running and supposes he was wrong about Cas leaving, but he’s still in no mood to get up and act like an adult. Why? He thinks, No matter what we do, where we go, what we try, we always end up here. The last poor saps between humanity and the end of the world. And now we’re going to the bottom of the fucking ocean. It’d be funny if it weren’t so fucking stupid .

Feeling a little more sober and a lot less amused, Dean finally shoves himself up off of the floor and back onto the couch. The shower’s still running, and Dean vaguely wonders if Cas passed out in there.

“Pree?” He calls out, but there’s no answer, so Dean pops his head up and looks around. Surprisingly, he finds himself alone for the first time in almost a week. The shower turns off, and Dean’s relieved that at the very least, Cas is alive in there. He lets his head drop back onto the decorative pillow (because of course there are more pillows on the couch, as if Cas doesn’t have enough on his bed), flops an arm over his eyes and waits. Soon enough, he can feel Castiel standing at the end of the couch, staring down at him and waiting.

“Not gonna lecture me, are you sweetheart?”

“Does it look as if I’m interested in talking, Dean?”

That gets Dean’s attention and he lets his arm drop from his eyes, only to come face to face with what can only be described as one of his most spectacular wet dreams come to life. He scrambles up onto his ass and rubs a hand over his face to make sure that he is not, in fact, dreaming after passing out in a drunken haze. Nope, he confirms. Tipsy, not drunk, and definitely awake.

“Jesus, Cas,” is what comes out of his mouth as his eyes rake over what’s on display in front of him. “This is… usually takes me a lot more singles to get something like… you know what? Never mind.” He holds up a hand and mentally kicks himself. “Sorry.”

And doesn’t Castiel just stand there, naked save for those goddamn blue panties from the other night, his hands folded innocently in front of his belly. He looks nervous but sure of himself at the same time, and beyond that, he looks good, healthy . Dean had almost forgotten, considering the last few times he’d seen Castiel naked it was essentially the opposite of a sexy scenario. But he looks… he looks untouched, in a way that if Dean were an emotional sort of guy he might feel some type of way about. But he’s not, and he definitely doesn’t focus hard on the curve of Cas’ ass in those panties to get his mind back on a safer track. That curve is something fuckin’ else, though, he thinks to himself, letting his eyes drift down to Cas’ thick thighs and up to his firm, toned stomach and broad chest. He’s tan all over, like he’s been sunbathing without clothes and knowing this new Cas, he probably fucking has been, not that Dean needed more fantasy fodder.

“Is this… I can take them off,” Castiel says hastily, and Dean shoots a hand out to grab at his hip before he can go anywhere.

“Oh, you bet we’re gonna take them off,” he says with a grin, and Castiel relaxes under his hand, cracking a smile of his own. Dean tugs forward until Cas is dropping into his lap, one leg on each side of Dean’s hips. He slides his hands up Cas’ back and gently pulls him forward into a kiss. It’s just a soft press of lips, kind of at odds with Castiel’s state of undress and their positioning, but it’s what Dean wants. Not like there’s anyone here to judge him if he wants to take things slow, and not like Cas would even know any better. His traitorous mind briefly wonders what sort of sex Cas and Pree had, but he manages to spank that thought back to the depths of his compartmentalized self-loathing and slam the door. He’s here with Cas now, Cas wants him , that’s all that matters.

“I know you hate this,” he says suddenly, and Castiel’s brow creases above him. “Being human,” he clarifies. “I know that it's been hard on you, especially when you were on your own. But you're adapting. And I'm proud of you.”

Castiel flushes a little. “Thank you, Dean. And likewise, I know that this… quest to find my grace wasn’t what you were expecting when you came down here. Or when we…” He trails off and doesn’t finish his sentence, but Dean nods encouragingly. “It’s just, the angels, humanity -- they need help. Could I really sit this out? Even if I wanted to? This is my mess, and as you told me once before, it’s on me to clean it up. I must find a way to get the angels home and unseat Metatron.”

Dean nods and lets his fingers skate up Castiel’s bare ribs. “And we will. We’re both human now and Cas, I’ve never had powers. Never let it stop me. We’ll figure it out together. Get you Angel-ed up again, save the world. You, me, and Sam. Kevin too, I guess.” Castiel is quiet for a minute before taking Dean’s hands and confidently relocating them to his ass. Dean smirks. “Something you wanna do in the meantime there, cowboy?”

“Yes,” Cas replies decisively. “I would like to have sex with you, if you’re still amenable.”

Dean throws his head back and laughs. “Amenable,” he mutters, still smiling as he surges forward to kiss Castiel’s plush lips and toss him onto his back on the couch. “He wears satin panties and talks like a dictionary. Man, I have some weird kinks.” He bites Cas’ lower lip and licks into his mouth as soon as Cas opens for him. His angel might still be inexperienced but he’s not lacking in enthusiasm, that’s for sure. He’s noisy when he’s trapped underneath Dean’s body, sighing into his mouth and moaning when he’s touched almost anywhere. He threads greedy fingers into Dean’s hair and palms down his back to pull him closer. His hips grind up in search of Dean’s, and it quickly becomes clear that slow is not something Cas is used to when it comes to sex.

Resolving to change that today, Dean pulls away and stands up, taking an amused sort of pleasure in the grumpy pout that appears on Castiel’s face. How a six-foot tall wall of muscle could look so goddamn cute is beyond him, but there Cas is.

“C’mon,” he entreats softly, taking Cas’ hand and pulling him up and into his arms. He grabs a handful of satin-covered asscheek and winds his other arm around bare torso, swaying and turning and dancing them back over to the mattress in the corner. As they move, Dean works on stripping out of his own clothes, stepping clumsily out of his jeans and boxer briefs and managing to unlock his lips from Castiel’s for just long enough to pull both of his shirts over his head in one go. “Wait!” he exclaims, stopping just short of dropping them both down to the bed. “Hang tight,” he adds, darting off to the bathroom where he’d seen a new bottle of lube in a drawer a couple days ago. He almost wipes out on the wet floor in his rush, and is glad Cas isn’t there to witness the undignified display that was his attempt to regain his balance. He grabs the lube and is back at Cas’ side, Cas’ arm threading around his neck and their mouths pressing hot together like Dean had been gone a week and not less than sixty seconds.

“Missed you,” Dean murmurs between kisses. “You were right here, but you weren’t.” Dean’s pushing forward as he mouths at Cas’ neck, and Castiel loses his balance in an attempt to tip his head back and give Dean better access. He sends them both tumbling to the mattress in a heap, but Dean doesn’t miss a beat. He climbs over him to mouth and nips along Cas pulse point, sucking new bruises into his skin that mean mine and not hurt. His hand drifts down between Cas’ legs, fingering the soft material and the hard line of his cock underneath. His fingers dip below the shiny-soft edges of the material and he feels nothing but smooth skin.

Cas,” he groans, “Did you shave? Like, everything?” Castiel stares up at him and nods slowly.

“I find pubic hair frustrating and itchy, and it serves no useful purpose,” he says plainly. “It was mostly a practical decision.”

Mostly? Fuck, Cas, who are you?”

Castiel just blinks and cocks his head to the side as Dean mouths at his nipple. “I do enjoy the aesthetics as well, if I’m being honest.” Dean can’t help but laugh as he lets his lips slide down Castiel’s abs and over the edge of his panties. Using his teeth, he drags them down and over Cas’ cock, letting the fabric slide tightly against his sensitive skin as he squirms with the need for more. “Please… don’t tease me, Dean,” he begs softly, and it’s Dean’s turn to moan a little with how wrecked he sounds. He kisses the insides of Cas’ thighs not to tease him but because he wants to, can’t resist, and then tongues his way back up to the crease of his groin. Dean tugs at his balls and licks a firm stripe up the side of his cock, making Castiel arch and cry out as his hips come off the bed. Dean relocates his hands to one hip each before opening wide and swallowing Castiel down. He still manages to buck and twist under Dean’s hands, and it’s quite the ego boost, if Dean does say so himself. Within only few minutes of swirling his tongue around Cas’ shaft as he moves up and down, he feels him tightening up and so he pulls off with a wet pop.

“Not yet,” he growls, his voice low and husky from having Cas in his throat, and somehow that’s even more of a turn on. Cas looks destroyed, laying there on his back with his legs spread wide, chest flushed and heaving, pretty lips parted and slick. His eyes are half-closed but still trained on Dean, always on Dean, and he can’t resist covering Cas’ body with his own again to kiss the hell out of his mouth. This time, Castiel grabs his ass and yanks him close, shoving his hips up to meet the forced thrust.

“Come on, Dean, fuck me already,” he rumbles, low and smoky-hot.

“Yea, alright sweetheart, let me just--” Dean grabs the lube and rips the plastic off with his teeth, squeezing some onto his fingers. But before he can reach down, Castiel grabs his wrist and shakes his head.

“Don’t,” he says. “I don’t need that. I don’t like it,” he adds, sounding insistent.

Slightly confused, Dean hesitates. “Yea, I don’t know what you were taught, Cas, but this part is not really something you should skip.”

Castiel grunts in frustration. “I know what I like, Dean. It’s called a preference. I might not be as experienced as you are, but I know what I like and I don’t like that.” He says the last part so forcefully that it surprises Dean enough that he drops the bottle.

“Hey, alright, alright,” he replies, leaning down to kiss Castiel soft and smooth and slow, blurring the hard lines that had cropped up between them until everything is sweet and heated once again. “Whatever you want,” he murmurs as he kisses down Cas’ stubbled jaw. “Just want you to feel good.” Cas feels around for the dropped lube and squeezes some onto his hand, wrapping it around Dean’s cock and pulling several times. He then leaves Dean speechless when he tips the lube directly into his hole and squeezes, tossing it to the side when he’s done. He doesn’t say anything further, just raises his eyebrows at Dean in a silent challenge.

“Well alright then,” Dean says, with a dip of his head. He pulls Cas’ panties the rest of the way off before he lines himself up and pushes in slowly, reveling in the hot, tight heat and the smooth slickness. It’s fucking heaven, and not for the first time, he wonders how the fuck Cas is even real. When he’s fully seated he has to take a second to adjust, dropping his head to Castiel’s chest and breathing deeply.

“Come on, Dean,” Castiel orders impatiently, his heel digging into Dean’s asscheek. “Move, Dean, please,” he moans, circling his hips to try and entice Dean on. He gathers his wits and every baseball play he’s ever learned for this explicit purpose and does his best to satisfy, fucking Cas slow and deep and thorough. But Cas has other ideas.

Harder,” he demands, and Dean does his best to comply, his eyes basically crossing at how good it feels and how hard it is to not explode with every thrust. He gathers Castiel up in his arms and uses his shoulders for leverage, snapping his hips as hard as he can as Castiel meets him thrust for thrust, moaning his approval and raking his nails down Dean’s back. “ Yes, Dean, yes,” he whimpers, and then he’s flipping them, those incredible thighs tightening around Dean’s hips until before he knows it, he’s on his back and Cas is on top, riding him like a fucking pony. His head is thrown back and his hand is flying over his own cock in time with his thrusts. Dean just hangs on for the ride but this view, this version of Cas is too fucking hot, too fucking much, and he’s barely able to give Castiel warning before his entire body is tensing and seizing and the hot coiled heat in his belly and spine is rushing upward and exploding out into Castiel’s body. Dean knows he’s hollering, knows he’s squeezing Cas’ hips so tight he’ll leave bruises, but he’s not remotely in control as his vision whites out and Castiel rides him through his orgasm.

When he opens his eyes again, Cas’ hand is braced in the center of his chest and he’s still breathing hard, but his belly is wet and Cas isn’t moving anymore, his head dropped forward like he’s still recovering. When he does finally look up at Dean, all hazy blue eyes and that dark mess of a mop he has the audacity to call hair, he’s got a lazy, sated smile on his face and he leans down to kiss Dean slow and sweet as if he didn’t just fuck him within an inch of his life.

He slides off of Dean’s cock and collapses next to him on his side, his lower lip pulled between his teeth. Dean drops his head back to the pillow and stares at the ceiling in shock.

Cas,” is all he can manage at the moment.

Soon enough, Castiel’s head pops into his field of vision, and his face looks concerned. “Was that too much? I’m sorry, I… I’ve been told that my lack of inhibitions can be overwhelming when it comes to sex.”

Dean just reaches up behind him to pat his head and at the same time lets out a short, almost hysterical laugh. “Cas, that was like… boss level shit,” he finally says, but it’s clear from Castiel’s expression that he doesn’t understand. “Phenomenal,” he tries again, and this time he gets a brilliant smile in return.

“I hope that means you’ll want to do it again,” Cas says hopefully, and the look on his face is so earnest and innocent and sweet that it’s impossible to reconcile with the sex maniac that was in Dean’s lap only minutes ago.

God yes,” he says anyway, because it’s true.

Castiel stretches before getting to his feet and heading for the bathroom. “Don’t take my Father’s name in vain, Dean,” he scolds over his shoulder as he walks away.

Dean makes a mental note to keep his blasphemy to himself so that he never has to hear that weirdness again, but on the flip side, he’s all too happy to watch Cas walk away.

Strange day, he thinks.

If only he’d known what was coming.

Chapter Text

Castiel’s known for a while that Pree has some pretty major connections, not just in their little corner of the world, but far beyond. Not that he went around advertising such, but in the same way that Castiel never really questioned how all of the people they’d saved seemed to know to find their way to Good Friends, Pree’s penchant for making things happen just goes without saying. 

He supposes he has Dean to thank for their current situation, as well. Dean, who had thrown an out and out hissy fit at even the mention of boarding a plane to the Bahamas, acting like a petulant toddler when anyone so much as insinuated he was being somewhat dramatic. His whiny, repeated gripes about “miles in the air over an ocean,” and “landing on an island smaller than the bunker,” plus various other complaints were all followed up with the same, “No fucking way, Cas.” Pree had sat silently, kicked back on a barstool long after closing time, listening while Dean ranted before disappearing into his office and reappearing an hour or so later with a handful of printed documents and a plan.

He’d opted to stay behind since Good Friends needed to stay open, but that didn't stop him from hooking them up with a non-airborne way to get there. Recently the bar had seemingly transformed from a simple place to drink and occasional safe haven into a bit of a base of operations for their blossoming vigilante network. Some of Pree and Cas’ rescuees have since turned into aspiring hunters, and Pree thought it irresponsible to leave them on their own without an experienced leader or at least someone to patch them up after a bad hunt. Dean had lots of thoughts on that, too, but Castiel had managed to convince him that it wasn't the time to air them.

Regardless, as it turns out, Pree had booked them on a cruise. A five-day cruise leaving out of and returning to Fort Lauderdale itself, a round trip itinerary that includes two days in Nassau and the rest at sea. “You’ve driven farther for domestic cases,” Castiel helpfully points out when Dean complains about it taking too long. Dean sulks for a while but finally admits that it’s the actual retrieval part of this mission that's informing his bad mood. Apparently, diving to the bottom of the ocean seems like a really terrible idea and also he’s not a fan of sharks.

With some coaxing from Castiel and a promise that he doesn’t have to actually go into the water if he doesn’t want to ( “as if I’m going to let you go off on your own when we got no fuckin’ clue what’s down there, Castiel”) , a really stellar blowjob, and a threat to leave Dean’s whiny ass behind if he doesn’t knock it off, he reluctantly agrees. Convincing Sam that he doesn’t need to come with them is yet another stumbling block, but somehow, eventually, Dean is successful. Then it’s just a matter of forging a passport for him since Dean already has three, and Pree’s connections make short work of that task as well.

Which brings them here, to the Port Everglades cruise terminal. Pree dropped them off and wished them luck, instructing them both to call if anything went wrong or if there was something he could do from Florida, and then he was gone and they were on their own.

Castiel’s been watching Dean closely every since, observing from a safe distance as his anxiety began ratcheting up notch after notch since they exited the car. Between that and his comments about how the cruise terminal looks suspiciously similar to an airport, Castiel estimates he has about fifteen minutes to get Dean onto the ship and locked away in their room before he loses his nerve completely and bails. Fortunately for Castiel, whatever strings Pree pulled to get them on this ship didn’t end with simply providing them a room.

Both he and Dean are each carrying a large duffel over their shoulders, adorned appropriately with the luggage tags that Pree had given them this morning. The tags are shiny gold, and Castiel can’t help but notice that they’re a bit different -- flashier, he supposes -- than what the other passengers seem to have on their own bags. It’s not long before a gold-vested staffer eyeballs the tags too, moving swiftly over to usher them aside out of the incredibly long line and assembly style check-in counters over to a cordoned off walkway that dead ends in a closed door.

“Whoa, hey, watch the jacket buddy,” Dean snaps as the staffer touches his elbow gently to direct him.

“My apologies, sir,” he replies smoothly, while Castiel elbows Dean and gives him a pointed look that he hopes says, behave.

Dean swallows and gives the guy a grimace, which is more than Castiel had hoped for. “Sorry, man. Just.. you know, a little anxious,” he explains weakly, but the man maintains a pleasant expression and appears completely unbothered.

“It is no problem sirs. If I could just see your boarding passes…” Castiel hands them over and the man nods. “Excellent, Mr. and Mr. Winchester, congratulations on your nuptials. If you’ll follow me this way,” Castiel ignores Dean’s indignant squawk as he finally realizes what Pree’s done, doing his best to dig out his passport while trailing the staffer as if nothing he said was out of the ordinary. “...we’ll get you situated in your suite in the Sanctuary as quickly as possible. For future reference, Sanctuary guests need not wait in any lines during your stay. Your bracelets will allow you to bypass waiting lists for restaurants, excursions, boat tendering, and any shows or events.”  

“That’s… excellent,” Castiel replies distractedly, finally grabbing the little book out of the depths of his bag and flipping it open. He hadn’t bothered to look at it closely when Pree had handed it over but now that he does… A lump appears in his throat as the name Castiel Winchester jumps out from the top of the demographic page. “Oh my,” he says quietly, and then Dean’s sputtering in his ear and he has to dig nails into his wrist to get him to shut up before he makes them look suspicious. Too late, the staffer is eyeing them in confusion, stilled in his motion of opening up the door to what Castiel can only assume is the private check-in for “Sanctuary” guests, whatever that is.

So he does the only thing he can think of and forces a laugh. “I didn’t tell him that I was changing my name,” he explains with what he hopes is a rueful grin. “Right, my love?”

Dean’s eyes are still glued to his passport, and so Castiel digs his nails into the soft flesh of his wrist again until he snaps out of it. “Uh, yea, that’s right. Just… caught me off guard.” But then he’s smiling, and if Castiel’s not mistaken, it doesn’t look forced at all. He feels the corner of his own mouth ticking up in return, and then Dean’s leaning in to kiss him softly, looking for all the world like he’s completely forgotten where they are. Castiel understands… he feels that way every time he looks at Dean. When they pull apart, the staffer is smiling, the door is open and he’s gesturing them inside.

***

Castiel is going to have to find a way to thank Pree. This is not just a means to get where they need to go, it’s the most luxurious experience he’s ever been afforded and there’s no way that Pree got it for free. He tries to send him a text message but the terminal has terrible reception and his service is glitchy.

The room they’ve been led to is indeed a private check-in space. Never having been on or anywhere near a modern cruise ship before, it isn't like Castiel has anything to compare his experience to. Though as he stands at the elaborate marble countertop and gazes out the two-story floor to ceiling glass windows that put their ship on full display in front of him, it isn't difficult to hazard a guess that they are a far cry from the standard experience . In addition to the check-in counter, the room also contains plush furniture and an elaborate spread of pastries, fruit, and cheese. There is coffee and juice and a man in a tuxedo holding a tray full of champagne glasses. By Castiel’s count, Dean's already downed four and no one has even blinked.

Castiel glances over to check in on him as the girl at the counter processes his information. She hands over two bracelets and a booklet stuffed full of various items including what she describes as a cruise schedule. Castiel barely glances at it before closing it up. Dean’s fine, he notes, clocking him over at the buffet, his cheeks puffed out like a chipmunk where they're stuffed with food, and he’s got another croissant waiting in each hand. He turns his attention back to the attendent. She's sunny and pleasant and doesn’t rush Castiel along. “Would you like to book any excursions while I have you here?

He thinks for a moment before replying, rifling through the paperwork Pree had given him. “Ah, yes, actually. Is there any way you can help me charter a boat for a…” he pauses to read Pree’s specific wording off of the instructions. “Sorry, a crewed boat for a private scuba diving expedition?” He looks up and expects the worst; perhaps confusion or suspicion but there’s neither, just a warm smile and a nod.

“Of course, Mr. Winchester. Would that be for the first or second day in Nassau?”

“Both, actually. We are… interested in diving a particular location and I want to ensure that we have enough time there. To… see the fish. And…uh...”

“Shipwreck?” The clerk makes her suggestion brightly, with no indication that she finds anything he’s said the least bit odd. “There are some really good ones off the coast there, or so I’ve heard. A lot of our passengers prefer private tours so that they can pick and choose the wreck. Most of them aren’t very deep, plenty of good spots for any experience level. Will you be needing gear or just the boat?”

“Gear,” Castiel answers decisively. At least that answer he knows. “Thank you for all your help,” he adds sincerely, accepting the documents she prints and scribbles on for how they’ll go about locating their hired crew after disembarking in the Bahamas.

“It’s my pleasure, Mr. Winchester, I hope that you and your new husband enjoy your stay with us in the Sanctuary.” Castiel smiles and nods but can’t help feeling the whole vibe around the “Sanctuary” is a little cult-ish. But perhaps he’s just not educated on the culture of cruising.

He finds Dean still monopolizing the buffet, chewing away like he hasn’t eaten in months.

“Aw, shit Cas, you gotta try one of these,” he enthuses through a mouthful of food. “They fuckin’ melt in your mowf!” The last word of his sentence is garbled as he shoves another pastry in where Castiel is one hundred percent sure there’s no room. “So,” Dean continues after swallowing his giant mouthful of food with some difficulty. “We’re married now.” His tone and expression are neutral but his eyes are twinkling and something inside Castiel’s chest loosens.

“I didn’t know,” he assures him, holding Dean’s eye contact. “I wouldn’t have… I’m sure that Pree thought he was being helpful.” Castiel finds himself bracing for Dean’s anger, but it doesn’t come. Instead, he shrugs and dips his head, kissing Castiel’s mouth again softly. When he pulls back, he’s smiling.

“I’ve pretended to be worse for less,” he admits, and Castiel threads their hands together, partly for show but mostly because he wants to. Before he can say anything else, they’re interrupted by another attendant in a gold vest offering to take their bags and show them to their suite. Dean refuses to hand over his bag and so Castiel follows suit, but they accept the escort. Thanks to the attendent they end up bypassing another long line on the main gangway in favor of a separate, shorter ramp that leads up and inside the ship. When they’re three or four stories above the water, Dean looks over the side of the walkway. He doesn’t visibly react but Castiel feels his hand tighten its grip on his. They're both soon distracted though, because the ship is pretty spectacular. Dark wood, ornate finishings, plush carpet -- the last passenger ship Castiel had been on was the Titanic, and while it was extraordinary, it doesn't hold a candle to this. There’s not much time to gawk though, as they’re ushered directly from the gangway into a glass elevator that shoots them up and dumps them out on the very top deck, the one with the pools and hot tubs and from what Castiel can see, an awful lot of bars.

But the steward escorting them doesn’t lead them out onto the deck. Instead, he turns right out of the elevator galley and brings them face to face with a set of heavy wooden doors bearing a sign that says, “The Sanctuary.”

“Your bracelets will give you access,” he explains as he swipes for them and opens one of the doors, holding it wide so that they can pass through. The inside hallway is dark in comparison to the daylight, lit by soft torch lighting overhead and backlighting for each numbered doorway on the left side. As they pass by, Castiel realizes they’re probably the suites. When a series of glass doors come up on their right, the steward gestures and explains. “The private bar and private restaurant, as well as the Sanctuary pool and sundeck, are through here and here,” he says, and Castiel catches glimpses of more plush furnishings, a well-stocked bar, and the briefest hint of turquoise water beyond another set of glass doors. He looks up at Dean and isn’t surprised to find his eyes wide and his mouth hanging open.

Dean sees him looking and leans down to whisper in Castiel’s ear, “ Did you see that bar?” Without waiting for an answer, he straightens up and goes rigid. “Uh, hey, hey man,” he says uncertainly, brushing the steward’s starched white shirt with his fingertips to get his attention. His cheeks are a little flushed, and Castiel wonders if he should be concerned. “I, uh, I think I may have underpacked,” he says awkwardly. “Left my tuxedo in my other duffel. You think that’s gonna be a problem?”

The steward just gives him a strange little half-smile and claps Dean on the shoulder reassuringly. “Mister Winchester, rest assured that anyone staying in the Sanctuary has paid enough to be able to dress however they feel comfortable. Generally speaking, formality isn’t something this particular ship is known for, despite appearances. However, in certain restaurants, you may feel more at ease in a jacket, and the last night is a formal one, which means black tie optional. There are a number of shops on the ship including one that specializes in tuxedo rentals, should you choose to go that route. But again, whatever you choose is acceptable.” He stops in front of one of the lit doors, and Castiel can’t help but notice that they’ve traveled the entire length of the hallway, this door being the last. They must be almost at the front of the boat. He finds himself a little nervous, wondering what else might be in store for them behind that door. It’s just a room, he reminds himself. It’s just a room. At least Dean is looking reassured at the knowledge that dressing like a lumberjack won’t stop him from hitting every restaurant on the ship with his iron stomach and hollow leg.

“Please,” the steward encourages, standing back and motioning at the touchpad again. “Either one of your bracelets.” Castiel snaps back to attention and steps forward to bump his wrist against the sensor, his stomach flipping when the door clicks open and the steward rushes ahead of them to open the inward-swinging door. As it turns out, he’s still unprepared for what he sees.

“Holy fucking shit,” Dean exclaims as they walk into the surprisingly open and airy space. “This is as big as your loft!”

“It looks like my loft,” Castiel agrees, his brow furrowing. As he wanders through the space, he can’t help but note the major similarities in both construction and decor selection to that of his own place. Suddenly, Pree’s connection to this ship feels somehow both more tenuous and more concrete at the same time. The suite is loft style, boasting the same floor-to-ceiling, two-story windows as his own, except these have a much more interesting view and a balcony that runs the width of the entire room. They also wrap around to the right side wall of the suite, which happens to also be the most forward wall of this floor on the ship. When Castiel stands in front of those windows, he finds himself looking straight down at the bow of the ship, including the anchor feed and the big “H” that marks the emergency helipad. Beyond that, it’s all clear, open ocean.

He turns back and finds Dean descending the ornate stairway that leads to the loft ( that’s certainly different from his home, and a significant improvement on the ladder) and making his way out to the balcony. Castiel goes to follow but is stopped by the steward, who hands him a folder that had been lying on the wet bar. “Inside here is another daily cruise schedule, some recommendations for activities and excursions, and a review of the amenities available to you. If you have any questions or require anything at all, please feel free to press the doorbell above the light switches over here.” He gestures to the button on the wall and Castiel nods. “That will alert me or one of the other butlers and we will be with you promptly. Mister Winchester, is there anything that I can get for you as we prepare to set sail?”

Castiel bites his lip and catches sight of Dean doing his best impression of Rose in Titanic, leaning halfway over the railing to better see whatever is going on below. He sighs. “Perhaps two whiskeys, on the rocks? Something in a seventeen, eighteen year?”

The steward smiles and bows slightly. “Right away, sir.”

Castiel winces. “There’s no need for formalities, please, I’m Castiel and my--” he trips a little over his tongue and catches himself just in time, “ Husband’s name is Dean. This is all quite a new experience for us, so you’ll have to forgive any missteps we might make.”

The steward hesitates where he’s bending over to open a cabinet above a small refrigerator. “You are guests of Mister Dezz, are you not? Forgive me if I overstep.” He pulls out a bottle of Macallan, a high-quality twenty-five year, the likes of which Castiel’s never even seen in person. “We take excellent care of Mr. Dezz’s friends,” the steward informs him solemnly. “This bottle is a gift from him.”

It’s another gift from him, Castiel clarifies to himself as he recognizes Pree’s last name, wondering how he’ll ever be able to thank his friend, and why the hell he’s running a bar in Florida if he has these sort of resources.

Noticing his indecision, the steward cracks the bottle open and pulls two cut glass tumblers off of a shelf, adding ice from a bucket on the counter and spilling two fingers of whiskey into each. He replaces the bottle in the cabinet and heads for the door. “Please let me know if there is anything else at all I can assist you with,” he repeats before disappearing into the hallway.  

The decision made for him, Castiel picks up the glasses and makes his way out onto the balcony where Dean is still standing. Upon stepping out, he notices that there’s a hot tub in the corner, its top already pulled off and the water bubbling away invitingly.

Dean turns to greet him with wide eyes. “Cas, this is… I’m gonna stick out like a goddamn sore thumb here,” he says with a shake of his head. “All this fancy shit, this isn’t me. I’m a burger and fries kinda guy, not a shrimp forks and dessert spoons.”

Looking at him sideways, Castiel bumps their hips together. “If you can tell the various pieces of silverware apart then you’re ahead of me,” he replies mildly. “We’ll stick out together. We’ll just spread a cover story that we won the lottery and we’re still adjusting.” Dean laughs at that, and accepts the glass Castiel offers him.

“Or,” he suggests between sips, “We could just hole up in this suite that has a bathroom bigger than my entire room in the bunker and have a shit ton of sex until we dock in Nassau. Your call.”

“Tempting,” Castiel replies. “But while I can’t envision having any regrets with that plan, this is a bit of a once in a lifetime opportunity. We’re stuck on this boat until it docks, we might as well make the most of it. Here,” he says, offering Dean the folder the steward had given him. “Look this over. There must be something in there that interests you. We could swim? Dance? There’s a casino, and I’m fairly certain I saw something about a driving range. There’s also about fifty bars and a twenty-four hour burger shop down in the lobby,” he finishes with a knowing grin.

Dean’s eyes light up at the mention of the burger joint and he settles down in one of the deck chairs to peruse the folder. Castiel drops into the identical one next to him and leans back. It’s quite comfortable; if he isn’t careful he’ll undoubtedly fall asleep and then this trip won’t start off very memorable at all.

“Did you know all our alcohol is included, too?” Dean’s incredulous as he sifts through the paperwork. “You know, as fun and awesome as this is, it don’t exactly sit right with me that Pree spent all this money on us.” Castiel doesn’t respond right away, sitting quietly until Dean notices and looks over at him. “What?”

He sighs. “I don’t know, Dean. I will ask him when we return but… something is telling me Pree didn’t have to pay for this at all. The steward said something about “taking care of his -- Pree’s -- friends.” He shrugs. “It doesn’t matter, anyway. We’re here now. I will deal with Pree when we return and make appropriate restitution if necessary.” Not that he’ll accept it, Castiel thinks to himself as he rests his head back against the cushioned lounge again and closes his eyes. “In the meantime, we should relax and enjoy ourselves. You of all people deserve it.” He can hear Dean scoff but pretends not to, because if there’s one thing he knows for sure - Dean Winchester will never admit that he needs a break.

***

Castiel wakes to the sound of a low but powerful whistle blowing and cheering coming from what seems like all around him. The sun is setting, and the ship’s engines have shuddered alive, navigating it gently away from the dock and out into the channel that will lead them to open water.

“Who? What?! Where’s my gun?!” Dean’s on his feet, patting his jeans and stumbling around on wobbly legs until he smashes into the railing and ends up leaning over it until he gets his bearings. “Fuck, I can’t believe we fell asleep.”

Sitting up and rubbing his eyes, Castiel yawns. “It was not my intention but I must admit, I feel quite refreshed. We must have needed it. It doesn’t matter anyway, Dean, cruise ships don’t sleep. The entertainment for the evening will only be just beginning if you’d still like to go out.”

Dean stoops to pick up the folder and scattered papers that are now littering their private deck, stuffing it all back together before nodding. “Yea, sure, Cas. Whatever you want. Might be fun to walk around.” He stops in his tracks then, eyes narrowing as he selects one piece of paper in particular and tugs it back out of the pile. “Uh, Cas?” He waves the paper in Castiel’s face. “I’m not sure if you realized this, but buddy -- this is not just any goddamn cruise. Shit,” he swears, running a hand through his mussed hair. “I knew that activity list sounded way too loaded with innuendo.”

Confused, Castiel picks up the paper from where it’s fallen into his lap and stares, trying to make sense of what’s gotten Dean suddenly anxious and riled up. When he finally puts two and two together, he can’t help but laugh. “Oh,” he says, looking up at Dean with a smile still plastered on his face.

“Yea, oh,” Dean snarks back at him. “It’s a goddamn gay cruise, Cas!”

“It’s not a gay cruise, Dean, it’s a cruise that caters to men who are interested in other men. Really, it’s not like this changes anything except that I suppose we won’t have to be concerned about receiving any judgment or nasty looks from elderly church ladies should we choose to hold hands.”

Dean snorts. “Cas, you got a lot to learn about the gay community, cupcake.” He stomps back inside the suite muttering something about “Fire Island,” and “wrong kind of body shots,” and "dudes playing buttcheeks like bongos.” Castiel ignores him, taking the opportunity to look more thoroughly through the folder and finding several dead giveaways regarding where exactly they are. Those clues include invitations to a "Tops & Bottoms" singles mixer, a gay couples’ meetup, and the list of nightly themed circuit parties. In that same vein he finds out that the last night is actually "Tucks and Tuxes," in lieu of the supposedly formal night their butler had alluded to. While he’s a bit concerned about Dean’s newly irritated disposition, he also finds himself even more interested to get out of their little bubble and check out the goings-on. It’s all a bit overwhelming but in a good way, and he’s not going to pretend that he isn’t excited.

He makes his way back inside and finds Dean grumpily rifling through his duffle bag, clothes flung everywhere. “I hope you know how much worse this makes our ‘fitting in’ problem,” he grunts. “I don’t have one goddamn outfit in here that’s not going to make me stick out like a sore thumb.” Castiel bites his lip and glances down at the pamphlet in his hand that has a picture of a man in lingerie on the front. He holds it up for Dean to see.

“I disagree,” he replies very seriously. “I think you may have one or two outfits that would fit in quite well here.” Dean glances up at what he’s holding and goes fully red.

Cas,” he splutters. “You can’t just... don’t… UGH,” he finally concludes, grabbing a black t-shirt and ripping his ratty undershirt and flannel off in one go.

“Or you could just go like that,” Castiel continues, hiding a smirk. “I saw many pictures that --”

Dean shuts him up by crowding into his space and kissing him, hard. He shows his discontent by biting Castiel’s bottom lip and dragging it through his own teeth. “You’re a dick,” he says, finger pointing as he draws back. “You may not have wings anymore, but you’re still a dick.” Castiel smiles and runs his hands up Dean’s bare chest to cup his neck.

“You’re overthinking this, Dean. If the crowd and the atmosphere are overwhelming or uncomfortable for you, we’ll return to the cabin and enact your Plan B. The way you were bent over the balcony earlier is something that I would greatly enjoy seeing again, but this time with far less clothing covering your body.”

My body? What about yours?”

“I’ve heard that it can be extremely arousing to be penetrated naked while your partner is fully clothed,” Castiel continues casually, and Dean’s pupils dilate right in front of his eyes. Castiel watches intently as he licks his lips and swallows reflexively.

“I don’t wanna go out,” Dean announces. “Cas, there ain’t nothin’ out there that’s gonna top playing out the thing you just described, so --”

“Another thing I’ve heard,” Castiel interrupts, “is that anticipation and denial are also very effective tools in heightening arousal and pleasure. Put your t-shirt on, Dean,” he finishes sternly, and Dean looks positively torn between wanting to obey Cas’ command and wanting to get his way. Eventually, he palms the front of his jeans with a small groan and tugs the tight black tee over his head. “Yes,” Castiel says approvingly, looking him up and down and touching his fingers gently to where the sleeves hug Dean’s cut biceps. “That will do nicely.”

“Fuck off,” Dean shoots back weakly, and Castiel can’t help but grin.

“Shall we?”

***

Since he can’t restore his grace until he has all of it for fear of becoming sick again, Castiel’s been wearing the little he has in Hannah’s vial on a chain around his neck. Ironically, it’s quite the apt piece of jewelry for the circumstances, like a glowstick that never runs out of juice. He even gets a few compliments on it, but not before he’s stopped Dean from turning around and fleeing back to their room at least three times.

The latest is before they even make it out of the Sanctuary, when a door in front of them opens and closes behind a man wearing assless chaps and a leather harness in place of a shirt.

“Nope,” Dean says, shaking his head as he spins on his heel to head back where they came from. “Can’t do it.”

“Dean,” Castiel calls after him, grabbing his wrist and boxing him in between his own arms against the wall. “If you really want to go back to the room, I won’t stop you. But if you’re allowing the way you were brought up, your fear, and your toxic ideas of what makes someone a man dictate where you go, what you enjoy, and who you love, I’m asking you, to please try harder.”

Dean just stares down at him, unblinking. “You know, you’re really developing a knack for boiling incredibly complex issues down so that they sound stupidly simple.”

“Thank you,” Castiel replies, his grip still tight on Dean’s arm.

“Not entirely sure it was a compliment.”

“Well, I’m taking it as one.” Castiel pauses and lets Dean’s hand drop. He takes a step back and does nothing to disguise the hurt that’s starting to seep in. “Dean, do you not feel safe with me? Do you not… trust me to protect you?”

Dean deflates, whatever defensiveness he was holding onto melting away as he takes in Castiel’s questions. “Fuck, Cas. It’s not like that,” he says immediately. He looks down at his shoes for a moment and then mutters, “You had it right the first time.” Castiel steps forward and wraps his arms around Dean’s neck, holding him tightly despite Dean’s best attempts at pushing him away. “Geroffame,” he protests, his words muffled by Castiel’s collar, his hands ineffectual as they push on his chest. When it’s clear that Castiel has absolutely no intention of letting go, Dean finally relaxes, but he doesn’t lift his head before speaking again. “Canned change moos with ham,” is what Castiel hears through the fabric.

He nudges Dean until his chin moves up onto his shoulder, but doesn’t let him go or force him to make eye contact. “One more time?”

“I can’t change who I am, Cas,” Dean repeats quietly. “At least, not overnight.”

“You don’t need to. No one is asking you to, least of all me. Just… take a walk with me. This is a safe place.” Soothing his hands over Dean’s shoulders and up into his hair, Castiel murmurs words of praise and affection, not failing to take note of the way Dean stiffens slightly when he hears them. “You know, it may have escaped your attention, but Good Friends is a gay bar,” he says, ignoring Dean’s snort. “And I have learned much there. Most importantly, I have been shown how this community cares and looks out for each other. Equally important, the majority of us have experienced being disparaged, outcasted or otherwise been made to feel less than for who we are. You are amongst friends here, Dean. No one on this boat knows you, but they all know your struggles. If you want to… if you’re ready, you are more than free to be yourself here.” He goes silent then, not wanting to come off like he’s preaching at Dean and have his message lose effect, but Dean’s hands tighten in the fabric over his back. He keeps their bodies pressed together a moment longer than perhaps necessary after hearing Dean sniffle, wanting to allow him the illusion that he hadn’t noticed.

But when he pulls back, there are so many emotions written across Dean’s face that it’s impossible to keep his own expression neutral. “Oh, Dean,” he murmurs, but Dean just shushes him, grabs his face and crushes their lips together. Castiel kisses back just as forcefully, opening up and letting Dean take whatever he needs without question.

They only pull away when Castiel feels a light touch on his shoulder and a low voice saying, “Aw, y'all are so darn cute together,” the words incongruent with the gruff tone speaking them. He turns to see a drag queen in full wig and makeup, decked out in heels and a corset, standing there beaming at them. “I’m Sharon. Sharon Needles, it’s my pleasure to meet you both. Are y’all coming out to the party?”

“Thank you for the compliment,” Castiel replies with a smile. “I’m Cas and this is my husband, Dean. I’m afraid we’ve led somewhat sheltered lives, and my husband is feeling a bit anxious. It’s our honeymoon, so I’m not sure that we’ll be --”

“How the hell do you stand in those?!” Castiel glances back at Dean, and instead of the wary defensiveness he expected to see, Dean just looks fascinated, staring down at Sharon Needles’ six-inch stilettos like they’re the seventh wonder. “Dude, I would break my ankle, one step.”

Sharon’s glance darts between Cas and Dean and Castiel silently wills her to stick around. Somehow, she seems to sense she’s needed, strolling forward and looping her arm through one of Dean’s. “Well I’d be more than happy to show you, honey. Come with me, let me introduce you to the girls and we’ll get you a drink and a lesson. You’ll be workin’ the deck like Heidi Klum by the end of the night, gorgeous. Also, look at these calves!” She pauses to kick up a leg and flex a foot, showcasing the bulging muscle in her lower leg. “These babies look like my knees swallowed a grapefruit.” She tosses a look at Cas over her shoulder and winks, nudging Dean conspiratorially. “You need a pair of these, sugar. Great for keeping up stamina when you’re on top.” Castiel grins as Dean flushes, though he's secretly relieved that Dean doesn’t turn and bolt. 

As soon as they saunter out the exterior door to the Sanctuary and there’s room, Castiel appears at Dean’s other side, slipping a reassuring arm around his waist. But Dean looks… happy, surprising as that is. He lifts his own arm to wrap it around Castiel’s shoulders and kisses the side of his head.

“Good lord, you two are painfully adorable,” Sharon gushes. “You are going to fit right in.” This time, Castiel can see something visibly loosen in Dean’s face, his usual twinkle returning to his eyes as they stroll along.

The pool area is packed, wall to wall with hundreds of men all dressed differently. Some are in casual clothes or swimwear, some are in elaborate costumes, and some are in very little at all. The music is pumping, the alcohol is flowing freely, and everyone’s spirits are high. There are men from all walks of life and all ages everywhere Castiel looks, touching and kissing and having a good time. Young men dance alone or with strangers, couples tangle around each other's bodies, groups of friends laugh and toast and shove at each other good-naturedly. As always, Castiel’s attention is continuously pulled back to Dean. Sharon is chattering his ear off about something, and he’s smiling his real smile, the one that crinkles the skin at the corners of his eyes and shows off his perfect teeth. He looks relaxed, though Castiel doesn’t fail to notice how he’s still looking around and carefully taking in the entire scene with sharp eyes.

Sharon leads them to an overcrowded table next to the pool, the occupants of which cheer loudly upon seeing her arrive. Several of them stand and make room, adding three more chairs without having to be asked. It seems to Castiel that the makeup of the group at the table couldn’t possibly be more diverse, and he prays that’s a good thing for Dean. Please let him see that he’s not alone. Please let him realize he’s safe.

“How’s it hanging, bitches?!” Sharon drops her sparkly purse onto the middle of the table as a burly, hairy man with a beard and boardshorts leans over to kiss her cheek. “This is my boyfriend, Carl,” she says. “Carl, everyone, this is Dean and Cas, they’re brand spanking new husbands, so cute, am I right?!” The table cheers and like magic, three fizzy and very purple drinks with umbrellas are dropped onto the tabletop, one in front of each newcomer. “Thank you, sugar,” Sharon says without missing a beat, squeezing the hand of a man in a black and neon green singlet, who’s either wearing a giant cup or is packing a dick that’s a borderline medical problem. Castiel’s not sure he wants to know, but he accepts the drink and thanks the man anyway. Sharon goes around the table and introduces everyone then, and by the time she’s done Dean’s inhaled his entire drink and signaled for another.

Castiel’s hand finds Dean's knee under the table to squeeze it reassuringly, and Dean's hand comes up to thread their fingers together as soon as he does. He’s still worried, but when Dean turns his head to look Cas’ way, he really does seem okay. And then, knowing full well the attention of the entire table is still on them, he leans in and kisses Castiel on the lips, lingering long enough to have him smiling and reaching up to cup Dean's chin.

“I’m proud of you,” he says softly, once there's space between their mouths. Dean smiles shyly, ducking his head and returning to sipping his refilled drink with gusto.

The whole table cheers.

Chapter Text

The rest of the night goes by in a blur of bright colors and loud music, sticky spilled alcohol and soft lips on Castiel’s skin. Despite handling alcohol for a living, Castiel’s surprisingly not all that experienced with its effects. As a human, anyway. An occasional beer or couple fingers of whiskey sipped over the course of an evening or for medicinal usage are generally all he has cause or interest in imbibing, and the last time he was really drunk, he’d been the angel who drank an entire liquor store. If he’s being honest, that experience was quite similar to how he’s feeling tonight. Shot after shot pressed into his hands, drink after drink, glasses clinking, friends yelling and toasting, it’s been incredibly easy to get caught up and overdo it. But Dean is happy, dancing and smiling, pulling Castiel out of his seat to press their bodies together and grind in time with the music, and Castiel just wants to see more of that. Dean eventually gets drunk and loose enough to accept Sharon’s offered pair of high heels, wobbling down the running boards surrounding the pool with both hands out to the side like he’s walking a tightrope and a shit-eating grin plastered on his face. After making it all the way down the length of the pool and back, he flexes his guns, points at Sharon and lets out a low roar of triumph. Castiel smiles so much his cheeks hurt.

Dean refuses to put his own shoes back on after that, wandering around barefoot and confidently ordering what has to be his tenth fizzy purple drink. He gets hit on, of course, because he looks like a Greek god with his chiseled features and beautiful smile, but every time it happens he does the same thing. Castiel tries his best to not make it obvious that he’s watching, but he can’t help being pleased with Dean’s response. He’ll smile brightly (and increasingly sloppily, as the night wears on), then hoist himself up to standing on the nearest chair so as best to scope out the crowd. When he locates Castiel, he points and proudly declares (because Castiel’s been close enough to hear him a few of the times) that he’s “the property of an actual angel, man."  The men all seem respectful, apologizing or congratulating him and backing off, although a few do seem to make motions that would suggest to Castiel they’re open to including him, too. In his drunken state, Castiel thinks he wouldn’t exactly be opposed to that idea, that it does appeal to his adventurous, “experience every aspect of humanity” side. Except that he can’t imagine sharing Dean with anyone else, and when he tries to imagine having Dean and another person in bed with him at the same time, it seems absolutely ludicrous that he’d want to spend any time touching them when he could be touching Dean.

The men at the party are extremely free with their affections, kissing and grinding and getting into various sexual acts right there on the sundeck. But while the sexual aspect is very much there, it’s hardly the primary focus. Camaraderie, blossoming friendships, solidarity in being able to be free and be themselves are what it feels like this night is really about, at least as far as Castiel is concerned. That is until Sharon pushes one of her friends into the pool, and then it becomes about straight up revenge. When Dean inevitably joins the fray and gets knocked in sideways, Castiel makes his way over, kneeling at the edge of the pool to give him a hand up and out.

I really walked right into that, he thinks as the water closes over his head and Dean’s shrieks of laughter become muted. The pool is only about five feet deep so he stands back up and jumps immediately onto Dean’s back, wriggling around obnoxiously until Dean’s legs give out and he goes under. He comes up sputtering, and then swims quickly into Castiel’s space, wrapping those same legs around Cas’ waist and his arms around his neck and kissing him thoroughly. Also messily, because he is drunk, but so is Castiel and they’re soaking wet and it hardly matters. The water is warm and the lights in the floor light it up an inviting blue. Their new friends splash all around them, screaming and playing and Castiel can’t help but wonder how he’s actually here, how he’d gone from being completely alone in the whole goddamn world, sleeping on a park bench and raiding dumpsters for something to eat to this. A month ago he’d been sure that Dean hated him, or that he’d at least washed his hands of him after declaring him no more useful than a tool, and now he’s in Castiel’s arms, eyelashes dark and dripping with water, beautiful green eyes blinking up at him like there’s no one fucking else in the room, maybe even the world. Here he is, risking life and limb to help retrieve Castiel’s lost grace on the simplest excuse that Castiel shouldn’t have to go it alone.

I forgive him, Castiel thinks, and as soon as he does he realizes he means it. Castiel’s watched humans and been human for long enough now to know that saying you forgive someone is for them, and it’s all too easy to pay lip service without truly feeling or meaning the words. But as Dean’s eyes track from his own down to his mouth and back, a slow smile curling his lip, Castiel can see the bare affection in his gaze. It’s almost like being an angel again -- he thinks that if he just looks hard enough, close enough, deep enough, he could somehow see Dean’s soul. And Dean’s soul is beautiful, he knows that first hand. And Dean is righteous and brave, and he hadn’t meant to hurt him. As if Dean can sense what he’s thinking, his arms tighten around Castiel’s shoulders, and the expression on his face becomes serious.

Castiel realizes a few seconds too late that his eyes have welled up with tears, and Dean’s far too close to him not to have noticed.

“Cas,” he says quietly, sweetly, his wet thumb swiping across Castiel’s cheekbone to brush them away as they spill, leaving more wetness behind than he cleans up.

Castiel shakes his head. “I’m not… I’m perfectly fine,” he insists, wiping his own eyes on his forearm and making his best attempt at a genuine smile. “Really, Dean. I’m just… I’m so very happy that you found me. I’m happy that we were able to work things out. And I am happy you are here with me now.”

Dean studies him for a long moment and his drunken skepticism would be amusing if what’s between them weren’t so serious. “You sure?”

“Surprisingly, yes,” Castiel replies. “But I would not say no to calling it a night… we still have to…. What did Sharon call it? Christen the bed?” Dean throws his head back and laughs.

“You’re fucking awesome, do you know that, Cas?”

“Yes,” Castiel replies seriously, wading over to the ladder and pulling himself out of the water, sopping wet clothes and all. Dean doesn’t follow, just stands at the bottom and gets dripped on, staring up at Castiel with wide eyes. He looks down and realizes his white dress shirt is clinging and essentially see through. “Come on, Dean, this is nothing you haven’t seen before,” he says with a smile.

Dean hops up the ladder and grabs him around the waist, pulling him in tight. “I’m allowed to look at your smoking hot body all I want,” he declares. “Besides, everyone else is.” Castiel definitely does not look around to confirm or disprove that assertion, but he’s reasonably sure Dean’s exaggerating. “Cas, do you know how many men told me how lucky you are to be with me?” Castiel rolls his eyes, preparing for one of Dean’s “I’m adorable,” speeches. “But they’re wrong, Cas. They’re wrong. I’m the one who’s lucky.”

Castiel pulls back far enough to meet Dean’s eyes and finds them to be earnest and sincere, if a little glazed. “I won’t fuck this up, Cas,” he whispers into the space between them. “I saw your face a minute ago and I…” He trails off and then dips his head as if re-centering his train of thought. “Like I said, I won’t fuck this up. I’m really glad to be here with you, too. And you were right about going out, for whatever it’s worth. I had an awesome time.”

Smiling and kissing Dean softly on the lips and then on his knuckles, Castiel leads him over to their table to collect their belongings. “It’s worth a lot,” he says.

***

Their goodnights to the group are the most drawn out ones Castiel has ever participated in. Everyone wants to hug him and Dean and welcome them to their little clique, kissing their cheeks and demanding they come back tomorrow night. Sharon even invites them to come to some private beach club in Nassau after they dock tomorrow, but obviously, they have to turn her down, citing their previously booked excursion. She gives them the information anyway, “in case you change your minds.” They’re finally heading out to a chorus split fairly equally between goodnights and lewd comments, and Castiel slips his hand into Dean’s free one, as the other is busy holding his shoes.

“How do you want me tonight?” Castiel drops the question casually, and Dean’s head whips around.

“Uhm…”

“I was thinking that I’d enjoy it if you’d fuck me from behind. Perhaps over the back of the couch? You can see out the windows from there.” He continues walking, swinging their hands between them as if they’re discussing nothing more substantial than the weather. “Or we could sixty-nine. I haven’t done that myself, but I’ve heard that it’s extremely satisfying.” Dean’s silent, but Castiel catches him stealing sidelong glances. After several minutes of pretending he doesn’t notice, Castiel breaks. “What’s wrong, Dean? If you’re not in the mood for sex, that’s perfectly fine too. I am a little tired myself.”

Dean makes a frustrated noise but still drags out the silence before he replies. Finally, he responds, “That thing you said earlier… ‘bout me, on the balcony…” Castiel stops dead in his tracks and turns to face him, releasing his hand and reaching up to cup Dean’s face with both of his.

“Oh, Dean, I apologize. I should never have made you feel pressured to do that. Dean, I don’t care if you ever bottom, not if it isn’t something you want, I --”

“Cas, will you shut the fuck up?” Dean huffs his words out in impatient annoyance, but he’s still not looking Castiel in the eye. His gaze tracks from the ground up to the deck overhead before it finally lands somewhere over Castiel’s shoulder. His mouth closes and he waits patiently for Dean to continue. “I, uh, I was into it,” he says. Castiel just raises his eyebrow and stays quiet. “I wasn’t just playing along. I want you to, you know… do that.”

When Dean doesn’t elaborate, Castiel replies, “You know, I think that if you’re doing it, you should be able to say it.” He takes Dean’s chin between his thumb and forefinger and forces him to make eye contact.

Dean rolls his eyes. “Yea, alright, I want you to fuck me, Cas. I trust you. It… I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and I’m ready.”

“Alright,” Castiel replies evenly, taking his hand and resuming their walk towards the Sanctuary. Dean trips over his own feet in his haste to catch up.

“Alright?! That’s all?” Castiel shoots him an amused look and leans over, tilting his head so that their lips slot perfectly together.

“Yes,” he says, after pulling away. “That’s all. I’m suddenly feeling done with talking tonight if you don’t mind. I’d much rather show you what I think about your request.”

Dean sucks in a little breath and seems to decide that he’s done wasting time too. His jeans leave dark puddles on the varnished wood beneath him as he hurries ahead, pulling Castiel along as fast as he can go without, Castiel’s assuming, chafing himself.

***

Having Dean spread out on all fours is a spectacular thing. It turns out that Dean is quite the expressive bottom, even before he’s actually getting fucked. He’d been very clear with Castiel that his own “no prep preference” wasn’t transferrable, and stated clearly that if Cas wanted to fuck him, he’d better get on board with prep or he could “damn well fuck himself.” Recognizing Dean’s thinly veiled nerves for what they were, Castiel had let him go off as much as he felt he needed to, but it had been unnecessary. Castiel has had plans for this moment, probably since the first time Dean had kissed him back in the alleyway, maybe even before that, if his dreams were to be counted.

And here Dean is now, relaxed and open and very nearly ready for him, and the lube bottle hasn’t even been cracked. It’s ready to serve its purpose and is sitting nearby on the crisp white sheets, but Castiel’s been doing just fine on his own making Dean moan and arch and loosen up slowly. He drops down to tongue at Dean’s balls again, licking his way back up the space behind them and circling his hole. He squeezes Dean’s ass cheeks with his hands, kneading them gently as he spreads them apart. Dean responds so beautifully by moaning and spreading his knees even wider, and Castiel knows he’s doing his best to maintain some semblance of control. The last he saw, Dean’s hands were fisted in the sheets, the side of his face pressed firmly against the mattress. His cock hangs heavy between his legs and Castiel humors him by wrapping his fingers around and stroking it firmly. That action makes Dean rock back and into his face and he’s all too pleased to oblige. He’s beautiful in a way Castiel never could have imagined him being like this, pliant and soft and stunningly yielding. It makes sense, in a way, that sex would be a natural avenue to fulfilling Dean’s desire to completely shed his performing side. With his body and not his words, he can bare his soul and ask for what he needs because speaking about these things is still far too difficult for Dean.

And Castiel will gladly listen, hear him, give him anything he needs. He wants to give this version of Dean everything. Wants to fall at his knees and worship him, and that’s dangerous - that’s how he’d gotten his heart ripped out and stomped into a million pieces before. But this Dean is different; this Dean is vulnerable, open, and willing, and Castiel is lost for him.

He uses probably half the tube of lube in slicking Dean and himself up because there’s no way in hell he’s letting this be a negative experience for Dean in any way he can prevent. Dean’s whole body is tension-free, and he’s resting his head on his arms now, softly rocking back and forth while he waits for Castiel. The second Cas’ cock touches his hole he tenses, but Castiel just stops and soothes a hand up and down his back, whispering sweet words until he relaxes again. And then he pushes in. The slide is slick, and Dean is as hot and tight as Castiel had imagined on all those lonely nights. He moves cautiously until he hears Dean moan and feels him push back against him, bringing them flush together. Castiel leans forward and kisses up Dean’s spine, licks a path from his shoulder to behind his ear, bites at his earlobe. He rolls his hips gently and Dean whimpers. He checks often on how Dean is doing and receives repeat reassurances and words of encouragement.

He thrusts slow and deep and the angle he’s at is good, it certainly feels good for him and it seems to be hitting all the right spots for Dean, but Castiel still wishes he were closer. He whispers to Dean to hang on before wrapping an arm around his waist and tipping them to their sides without unseating himself.

“There,” he murmurs in Dean’s ear as Dean’s hand comes up to tangle in his hair and keep him close. “Much better.” Dean hums his agreement and circles his hips until Castiel starts gently thrusting again. The build is slow and hot this way, Castiel’s chest pressed to Dean’s back, his strokes on Dean’s cock matching his own languid movements. Their skin gets hot and sweaty but that only helps them slide together more easily as a familiar warmth and coil build low in Castiel’s stomach. Dean manages to turn his head so that their mouths can come together, open and messy, and Castiel’s only regret is that he can’t do more. He wishes he could have his hands, his mouth, every part of his body on every part of Dean’s body all at once. The thought makes no sense but all Castiel knows is that he wants it. His free hand tightens on Dean’s gyrating hips as he picks up the pace a little, and then Dean’s moaning and arching into Castiel’s hand until he comes all over both it and his own stomach. It’s a glorious thing to watch, and again Castiel’s only regret is that he can’t see more. Dean comes down panting and sighing and pushing his ass out in offering.

“C’mon, Cas. Come for me, come in me,” he murmurs sleepily, and Castiel does his best to comply. He speeds up his thrusts until Dean’s grunting and gasping again, finally spilling inside him with a low groan and his teeth biting carefully into Dean’s shoulder. Dean reaches back to hold Castiel in tight to his own body as he works him through his orgasm, shivering a little when Castiel finally slips out and rolls onto his side. Dean grabs a stray shirt from where it’s been discarded on the bed and wipes them both off before rolling over and pillowing his head on Castiel’s chest.

“Shit,” he says into the quiet dark. “Shoulda done that years ago.”

Castiel chuckles and pats his head tiredly. “We’ll talk about your sexual repression tomorrow. Go to sleep Dean.”

“Yea,” Dean replies with a big yawn. “Big day tomorrow. Night, sweetheart.”

“Goodnight, Dean.”

***

It’s blazing hot under the Bahamian sun when they disembark in Nassau around noon the next day, but the water is beautiful; aqua blue, crystal clear and inviting. Castiel and Dean had spent the morning eating breakfast in bed and then taking turns rubbing each other down with suntan lotion. That had led to rubbing each other down in much more interesting ways, which had almost made them late to meeting their hired excursion team. They get it together though, and thanks to the Sanctuary’s exclusive exit, they’re off the boat just in time.

Their crew is waiting with a sign that says, “Winchester”, and Castiel does his best to tamp down the spike of pleasure he feels at seeing the name and knowing it’s for him. They introduce themselves and find the crew to be friendly and welcoming. Castiel hands off a scrap of paper with the coordinates written on it and the Captain nods in recognition right away when he reads it.

“The Bond wrecks,” he says. “A very popular choice, you will have an excellent time.”

“There’s a shipwreck there?” Castiel’s sunglasses probably hide most of his concern, but he still does his best to keep his tone casual. This could be good news or bad news, knowing Metatron. His grace could be inside one of the ships, or it could be buried ten feet under the ocean floor, he has no way to know until he’s down there. As a last resort, he’s got a spell memorized that might turn the little grace he has into a sort of homing beacon, but he’s not sure whether it will work underwater. There’s only one way to find out.

“There’s one ship, the Tears of Allah, that was intentionally sunk in the eighties for a Bond movie. In a past life, it had been a drug-smuggling vessel. There also remains the metal frame of a fiberglass plane, also intentionally sunk for the 1965 film Thunderball. Both are excellent for spotting marine life and if you have an underwater camera, they photograph beautifully.”

“Holy shit,” Dean says, his face lighting up with glee. He elbows Castiel in the ribs. “Didja hear that? James Bond,” he repeats.

“Yes, Dean,” Castiel replies patiently, taking his hand and patting it. He breathes in a deep, stabilizing breath. “Alright then, I guess that’s where we’re headed.”

***

They board a catamaran to sail out to the dive site and Castiel has to admit, he’s been on worse hunts. The air is just a touch cooler out on the water, more comfortable with the breeze and ocean spray than simply standing on land and baking in the heat. Paradise Island spreads out to their right, the hotels and houses all becoming a blurred backdrop to the ocean and sky. Dean doesn’t crowd him but he does stay close, touching his hand or elbow from time to time, and Castiel appreciates it. He knows he’s projecting a bit of nervous energy, and that might be easy enough to pass off as first time diver jitters to the crew, but Dean obviously knows better. This whole trip could be a failure, he thinks to himself. We might have come all this way, wasted all this time, just to discover that I’m too human to recover my own grace. What if it is buried?

After those thoughts surface, Castiel finds it harder to just relax and enjoy the scenery, his mind running through all the ways he’s now completely useless to Dean, to his own mission, and to restoring rightful order to Heaven. Even when Dean slips arms around his waist from behind and kisses the side of his neck, it doesn’t take away the lingering sensation that he will never be enough. Not like this.

When the cruise ship is long out of sight, one of the crew members takes Dean and Cas down into the galley and fits them with short sleeved wetsuit shirts. Dean makes several inappropriate comments about the way Castiel’s chest looks in his skin-tight look and then they’re all sitting down at the back of the boat to talk gear. Regulators, depth gauges, decompression methods, safety while diving; their lesson is far more thorough than Castiel anticipated. They’re also instructed not to attempt to move anything inside of the wrecks, as it could be dangerous not only to them but also to the ecosystem that’s developed on and around it. They go over their time estimates under the water, some basic hand signals, and how to perform a safety stop when they’re surfacing. Castiel starts to get a bit nervous; there’s a lot more to diving than he realized, and he’s honestly surprised they could pay their way into an excursion like this. There seem to be about ten different ways he could end up dead just from diving incorrectly, never mind the dangers of the ocean itself and the daunting task of locating and retrieving his grace.

Dean seems to be developing similar concerns, and as soon as the crew leaves them to have a few moments alone, Castiel’s quick to sit him down on the bench seat at the back of the boat and address the elephant in the room.

“You don’t need to come down with me, Dean. It’s not necessary.”

“The hell it isn’t Cas, s’not like you’re any more experienced at this than I am. Neither of us knows what we’re doing.”

“All the more reason that only one of us should risk our health and safety doing it.”

“Oh, and that automatically gets to be you? Real cool, sideline the human.”

“Dean, I’m human.”

“Whatever. I’m going.”

In truth, it is somewhat comforting (and terrifying) to know that Dean will be down there with him, so Castiel relents and limits any further indications of his displeasure to exactly one more (but very put upon) sigh which Dean promptly ignores.

All too soon, their small craft is bobbing in place over the site of the coordinates Castiel had provided. Their Captain tells them that Castiel has somehow managed to pinpoint the location of the Tears of Allah almost exactly and that all they have to do is swim down. This lifts Castiel’s spirits somewhat since that certainly increases the likelihood that his grace is hidden somewhere inside the ship and not buried under the sand or at the bottom of a trench. He suits up alongside Dean and the member of the crew who is diving with them for safety, donning all of his gear and then stepping off the platform at the stern of the ship and into the water like he was shown. The ocean is warm and comfortable on his skin, and Castiel quickly throws up the “OK” symbol as instructed. The crew member who is already in the water with him claps him on the shoulder in approval. As Dean enters the water after him, Castiel gets his weight belt and the air in his jacket adjusted by their guide, performing a safety dive down to five feet with him to make sure everything is properly set. He chooses to wait at the five foot depth, taking in the vast emptiness of the ocean while Dean receives the same safety treatment, and then it’s really time to go.

They descend slowly, taking extra time to pop their ears and adjust to the increasing depth. When they’re about three-quarters of the way to the ocean floor their guide motions for them to follow and starts swimming directly towards the wreck. Castiel could see it below him from where he’d been waiting at the safety stop, its outline almost ominous in its dark, deconstructed appearance. As far as he’s concerned, the Tears of Allah resembles a ghost ship coming out of the mist, the way the ocean’s depth and visibility obscure its features. Plus it’s silent under the water, aside from the hiss of his regulator and the occasional bubbling of air, and that’s unnerving. It’s so painfully quiet that if Castiel had been alone, he thinks he would have found it frightening. It’s what he imagines death or the Empty might be like; vast, endless nothing and unending, unyielding, unforgiving quiet. Suddenly anxious, Castiel works to slow his breathing so that he doesn’t rip through his air tank before he even gets to the ship.

Dean appears at his side as they come upon the submerged vessel’s bow, bulky fins treading water to stay in place as his fingers wrap gently around Castiel’s bicep. Dean holds him steady until he gets his full, undivided attention in the form of eye contact. Of course, they can’t speak, but Dean’s eyes are expressive enough to convey his thoughts clearly. Castiel does his best to reply in kind, using his own eyes and careful, intentional body language. The underwater situation certainly adds a new dynamic but their silent conversation is not so different from the many they’ve had over the years. In that extraordinary way that they’ve always been able to sense what the other is thinking, Dean’s managed to parse out his discomfort fifty feet below the surface of the sea, and he’s intent on helping him through it.

They hover next to the prow of the ship, facing each other and speaking without words.

Are you okay?

Yes, Dean.

Liar.

Yes, Dean.

We can leave.

No.

I can go, you wait here.

No.

Together then.

Yes.

I’m here for you.

I’m grateful.

 

They set off hand-in-hand but are soon forced to let go as swimming at this depth while balancing an oxygen tank isn’t exactly easy, and their inexperience means they need both hands. Their guide beckons them to follow as he swims up and over the bow and then motions to a square opening in the middle of what used to be the deck. Castiel gets momentarily distracted, the diving experience is much different now that he’s actually at the ship. There are fish everywhere; single, brightly-colored tropical fish and large schools flitting in and out around the rusted and silt-covered metal remains. The bridge has some sort of algae growing on the underside of its roof, and multiple green-scaled fish congregate there to feed. It’s all very surreal and despite Castiel’s initial misgivings, he’s reluctantly starting to enjoy this.

Dean snaps him back to reality by tugging on his arm and tipping his head towards the hole in the deck. They descend one after the other, their guide staying behind. As soon as Castiel’s managed to lower himself into the cabin, all the pieces snap together in his head. The walls are covered with Enochian warding that’s far newer than the boat’s deteriorated condition and there, in the center of the room, is an out of place iron door, ripped from its hinges and decorated with a protective symbol etched right in the middle. It sits strangely on the floor of the ship as if it’s balanced awkwardly on top of something.

He swims towards it and Dean follows, seemingly having come to the same conclusions as Castiel. They do their best to tug and pull at the heavy piece of metal, but it doesn’t budge. Frustrated, Castiel swims down and tries to see underneath without moving it. He activates the small flashlight on his vest and can just barely make out a small box trapped between the door and the floor. It too appears to be warded and is barely out of reach of his fingers when he almost dislocates his shoulder trying to touch.

Castiel drifts back in defeat and surveys the room. Some of the sigils he recognizes, and some he doesn’t. He picks up a stray rock and tries to use it to scratch through the warding, but he’s unsuccessful. He’ll have to use his angel blade then, though how he’s going to get it down here without garnering suspicion is anyone’s guess. He glances again at the heavy door, wondering if he and Dean will even be able to lift it themselves after the warding is broken. It’s entirely possible that they won’t be able to. He tilts his head back in frustration and closes his eyes for a moment before he feels Dean’s hand on his chest. Castiel drops their foreheads together for a moment and rests there. He’s suddenly incredibly thankful that Dean insisted on coming with him.

They spend the rest of their dive playing the part of normal tourists, although Castiel does give the outside of the ship a good once over just in case he missed any sigils or something unexpected. He’s all too glad to be notified that their time is up, their air tanks are low, and that it’s time to surface. He’s ready to be dry and to mope in Dean’s arms for a while, maybe with whiskey. He and Dean do hold hands as they make their way towards the shimmering light and the dark outline of the bottom of the catamaran. It’s mostly slow upward movement and a several minute rest at the safety stop and Castiel becomes impatient. He can see the increasing concern written all over Dean’s face and when their heads finally break through the surface of the water, Castiel barely has his mask off for a second before Dean is on him, swooping in to cup his face and kiss him repeatedly.

“It’s okay,” Dean murmurs into his mouth. “It’s okay, Cas. We’ll come back tomorrow, we’ll figure out a way.” The waves lap at their necks and the sun shines down, as unforgiving as the endless sea. 

Chapter Text

They arrive back to the cruise ship downtrodden and discouraged. Their hired crew had easily picked up on their glum moods and worked valiantly to try and cheer them up, unsure of what had transpired to have the pair so unhappy. They’d promised a better dive the next day and broken out a bucket full of rum swizzles, offering unlimited refills to both of their guests. Castiel and Dean had taken full advantage of the offer and subsequently, the walk back to the ship ended up being more of a stagger. Castiel’s never been more grateful to skip a line than when they’re re-boarding, and he buries his sun-kissed face into Dean’s bicep as the express elevator shoots them up to the top floor. They stumble into their suite exhausted and sticky with salt, Dean heading straight for the shower and Castiel the phone. He sits on the arm of one of the couches but still fails to keep from getting sand and salt everywhere, using the suite’s ship to shore line to ring Pree, who thankfully picks up.

After a brief conversation that serves to relay all they’d discovered at the bottom of the ocean, Castiel’s concerns and his (lack of a) plan, Pree goes silent. He stays quiet for so long that Castiel has his mouth open to check if he’s still there when he finally pipes up again. He says that he has an idea, and promises to get back to them as soon as possible. He tells Castiel to check his email in about an hour or so for an update, but won’t elaborate further.

Castiel thanks him profusely until Pree hangs up on him, and then stands to stretch. The sun is starting to dip over the horizon, and the view from their panoramic windows is really something else. Pinks and oranges light up the sky which is reflected back by the ocean and Castiel truly wishes he had the energy or at least the enthusiasm to enjoy it. He turns his back on the sunset and makes his way to the bathroom where he can still hear the water running.

Their suite’s giant glass shower has multiple heads, and it appears that Dean has them all blasting. The room is thick with steam so Castiel flips on the fan, which catches Dean’s attention. He cracks open the shower door and blinks the water from his eyes.

“Hey.” He greets Castiel with a soft smile. “You comin’ in or what?” Castiel nods and strips quickly and efficiently, leaving his swimsuit and shirt in a puddle on the floor. As soon as the glass door clicks shut behind him, Dean’s arms wrap around his ribs and pull him close. Castiel goes easily, fitting his own arms around Dean’s shoulders and tucking his nose into the crook of his neck. The hot water pounding his back feels soothing and Dean smells so good -- clean and musky like his body wash, soft and warm everywhere he touches. Dean’s hands slide up and down Castiel’s back and he belatedly realizes he’s being washed. “Pree have anything useful to say?” Dean’s voice rumbles against his collarbone, and his lips drag close behind it.

Castiel shrugs his shoulders up and down instead of answering and Dean’s head bounces a little against his ear. “Possibly. Hard to know with Pree. He claims that he has an idea but that could mean any number of things. I suppose we’ll find out if and when he emails.” Dean seems to accept that, resuming sudsing up Castiel’s back without comment. Eventually, he moves to his armpits, then each of his arms, and his chest. Of course, it’s when he sinks down onto his knees to wash Castiel’s legs that he opens his mouth again, because would he really be the inimitable Dean Winchester, otherwise?

“What about you, Cas?” His tone is casual, conversational, as if he isn’t inches from Castiel’s cock, his fingertips skating by it like he’s totally unbothered. “You uh, you got any ideas? Thoughts? Wanna... bounce anything off of me?” Castiel narrows his eyes and glares down at him, not fooled in the least by Dean’s innocent expression, especially not when his soapy hands have drifted between Castiel’s legs and are very thoroughly cleaning between his ass cheeks. Sensing that Castiel’s not in the mood to be teased, Dean stands back up and cups his neck, dragging him in to touch their foreheads together. “Don’t be discouraged, not yet,” he insists. “Let’s wait to hear from Pree. Plus, we know how to break the warding and there’s no reason to think we won’t be able to just pick that thing up and chuck it to the side. Yea?”

Castiel sighs and nods reluctantly, pressing in to kiss Dean’s mouth, just for the sake of kissing him. Dean lathers his hair while their mouths move together and then rinses it out, and Castiel finally feels himself starting to relax. The feel of Dean’s fingers rubbing his scalp is heavenly, and he never wants it to stop. Equally though, he’s really done with being wet today, and so the desire to be dry and snuggled up with Dean wins out. They towel off with the obscenely fluffy ones provided and slip into soft robes. Castiel shuffles behind Dean as he grabs two bottles of water from the fridge and leads him upstairs to their bed. Sinking into the mattress and feeling his tired muscles surrounded by softness is one of Castiel’s favorite human sensations. He lets out an indulgent sigh which makes Dean laugh softly as he curls his body into Castiel’s side. In typical Dean fashion though, he can’t stay still for long; after only two minutes or so of “manly spooning”, as he calls it, he’s pushing up to grab the room phone on the bedside table and calling in a food order.

“An hour,” he announces when he hangs up. “Damn, that’s a long time.”

“You did order the equivalent of an entire cow,” Castiel reminds him. “And anyway, we could use that time.” Dean hovers over him on an elbow and wiggles his eyebrows. “To sleep, ” Castiel clarifies, and Dean flops back onto his pillow in mock affront.

“Cas, for a guy who went millennia without sleep you sure like to nap.”

“I’m making up for lost time,” Castiel mumbles, his eyes already closed.

“We should make up for lost time in other ways too,” Dean murmurs as he kisses the skin just beneath Castiel’s jawline. Castiel threads an arm around him and pulls him in.

“We will,” he agrees, stifling a yawn. “After nap.”

He falls asleep to the sound of Dean chuckling in his ear and the taste of Dean’s mouth stealing a goodnight kiss. Things could be worse.

***

Castiel’s feeling a lot less self-pitying when he wakes, though he’s disappointed to find the space in the bed next to him empty and Dean nowhere in sight. He blinks at the ceiling and luxuriates in the soft linen for a bit before stretching and yawning as he rolls off of the bed and makes his way over to the balcony railing at the far end of the lofted area. He looks over and sweeps the space with his eyes; still no Dean, but the glass doors out to the balcony are pushed wide, a warm breeze flowing through them alongside the sounds of two male voices. Castiel shucks his robe in favor of stepping into a pair of ( Dean’s, so sue him, he enjoys wearing Dean’s clothes) soft pajama pants before descending the stairs.

He shuffles out onto the deck and finds Dean sitting beside a man sporting short and spiky platinum blond hair and black wide-rimmed glasses. There are a bunch of empty beer bottles littering the floor between them and Dean has the remains of a steak on a plate in his lap. They both look up when Castiel wanders out, squinting despite the nearly absent sun, obviously not quite fully awake.

“Mornin’ sunshine,” Dean says as he flashes a bright smile. He shoves his plate onto the table and holds out a hand, clearly intending to pull Castiel down onto his lap.

“Dean, you can’t be serious. That chair will collapse underneath the two of us. Also, I will not fit in your lap,” Castiel mutters grumpily, opting for the chair next to him. Dean shrugs.

“I wouldn’t mind seeing you try though,” the blond man interjects with a devilish smile. He looks and sounds insanely familiar, but Castiel can’t quite place him. It’s true that there’s been no shortage of new faces to remember, but for some reason, this one feels different.

“Cas, this is Aaron,” Dean says helpfully, and no lightbulb goes off in Castiel’s head.

“Hello,” he says politely anyway.

Aaron,” Dean says again, more firmly this time, like it should mean something. Castiel just raises his eyebrows and shakes his head.

Sharon,” the man corrects with a grin, and Dean shrugs. “You can still call me Sharon, cupcake, everybody does.” Of course, then the pieces snap together in Castiel’s head and he’s left wracking his brain for a way to apologize for not recognizing their literal welcome wagon.

“My apologies, Sharon,” He settles on, trying to sound as sincere as possible while also attempting to subtly kick Dean in the shins. Sharon appears unbothered, waving him off and standing to gather up a purse and a half-empty beer from the table.

“We’ll see you two later? White party tonight, same spot by the pool. Gonna be wild.”

Dean swills down the remainder of his own bottle and nods. “Hell yea,” he says enthusiastically. “Wouldn’t miss it.”

With a manicured wave, Sharon disappears out their front door, heels clicking away rhythmically.

“Man, I still don’t know how people wear shit like that all the time. Fifteen steps and I needed a foot rub,” Dean remarks. He looks at Castiel sideways. “There’s another steak inside if you’re hungry. Potatoes, salad, rolls… pie.” He tugs on Castiel’s hand until he leans forward and gives up a kiss. Castiel’s fingers graze the prickly scruff coming in over Dean’s jaw, bringing their lips together again before he stands back up.

“Naps are sneaky,” he grumbles, shuffling inside to the room service cart he hadn’t noticed before. There’s a covered plate waiting that thankfully is still warm to the touch. He picks it up and returns to the table on the porch. “Sometimes you wake feeling more tired than when you fell asleep, how is that possible?”

“Perks of being a human,” Dean replies, raising his fresh beer in a mock toast. “Fun, huh?”

Instead of answering, Castiel digs into his steak, making noises around a big mouthful. “Now this is a perk,” he says after swallowing. “This food is excellent.”

Dean nods. “When you’re done, I thought we could see the ship. You know, just walk around like we meant to do yesterday. Thought maybe you might want to hit some of the stores and get something nice to wear for tomorrow night.”

Pausing with the fork already halfway to his mouth, Castiel narrows his eyes. “Since when do you care about formal wear?”

“Since my choices are ‘Tux or Tuck,’ like the flyer says. Ain’t no way in hell I’m going out there in lingerie, so tux it is,” Dean replies smoothly.

“Hmm,” Castiel replies. He chews a few more bites and then puts his utensils down, dabbing at his mouth with the provided cloth napkin. “I can understand why you perhaps wouldn’t feel comfortable walking around the ship in lingerie. However… perhaps some of our new acquaintances would be interested in coming to a house party, of sorts. Here, where you would be comfortable. Not that anyone out there would judge you, but it certainly would be easier amongst friends.”

Dean’s fingers tap at the side of his beer bottle. “I get what you’re trying to do, Cas, I do, and you’ve been right up until this point, but I dunno.” He takes a long drink. “Yea, it feels really fucking good to be able to be me for once, but this is… this is darkest fantasies Dean, you know?”

“I do,” Castiel nods. “If it helps, I’d be happy to do it with you.”

“Oh no,” Dean says, shaking his bottle in Castiel’s direction. “No matter what I decide, your ass is wearing a tux.”

“Oh?”

Oh,” Dean affirms. “Don’t deprive me, Cas. Wear the goddamn tux.” Castiel chuckles at Dean’s insistence.

“As you wish,” he replies mildly. “I can’t say that the idea of seeing you in a tux is in any way disappointing either.”

Dean snorts. “Finish your steak so we can hit the road.”

***

They throw on khaki shorts and white t-shirts for the party later, and Castiel checks his email on his phone before they head out. That turns out to be a good thing because Pree has apparently come through for them once again.

“Dean, listen to this… Pree says that he was able to get in touch with a local friend… Oh, hang on. Well, it appears she isn’t so much a friend as a mostly-friendly monster.” Dean almost knocks over a lamp in his haste to read over Castiel’s shoulder, but Castiel knocks him away. “Just let me… she’s a Pishtaco.”

“What? A fish taco? What the hell kind of help is that?”

“A Pishtaco, Dean. It’s a fat sucking creature. I’d actually thought they were purely mythological but I suppose many people say the same about angels. Pishtacos are South American in origin, Peruvian specifically, if I remember correctly. Pree says that he encountered her and her brother working at a spa in Fort Lauderdale about a month before we met. They were using the spa to run a “special weight loss program,” which was really just them feeding off of their clients. While the female was simply siphoning off just enough fat to survive, her brother was apparently killing his meals. Pree dispatched the brother and struck a deal with this one; if she agreed to leave the country, he would let her live. Apparently, she relocated here. She’s now working at the spa in the Atlantis resort. It’s quite ingenious really, feeding off of rich vacationers who’ve gained a few pounds that they don’t want to bring home with them? No one’s ever going to question her methods.”

Dean looks incredibly skeptical. “And how do we know that we can trust her?”

Castiel worries his lip. “I suppose that we don’t, other than she’s kept in touch with Pree, updating him on her location and her business of her own volition. She’s also married to a human, whatever that might count for. And according to Pree, there haven’t been any suspicious, fat-sucking deaths in the area.”

“That just means she’s good with details. Come on, Cas, how is this helpful?”

“Pree says she’s supernaturally strong. Also, she’s all that we’ve got.”

With a put upon sigh, Dean shakes his head and throws up his hands. “S’your call, sweetheart. You wanna take the fish taco, we’ll take the fish taco.”

“Her name is Maritza , and she’ll meet us on the pier tomorrow morning. Considering how much we paid for the private diving expedition, there should be no issue bringing her along but I will confirm with the concierge tonight. Oh, there’s a picture. She’s pretty.” Dean snorts and Castiel looks up. “What?”

Dean puts his hands up in surrender. “Nothing,” he insists. “What about your angel blade?”

“I thought I’d strap it to my thigh. Under my swim trunks.”

“No speedo tomorrow, huh?”

“What is a speedo?”

“Never mind,” Dean says. “Please tell me I get to strap that thing on you.”

“I would appreciate the assistance, of course, Dean.”

With a predatory smile on his face, Dean launches off the couch where he’d previously settled during their discussion, stalking towards Castiel with intent. He takes the phone from his hand and tosses it onto a chair without hesitation, crowding into Castiel’s space and fisting a handful of his hair. Castiel’s mouth is already opening as Dean closes in, his breath tangy with beer. He lets Dean kiss him roughly for a minute before shoving him off, pushing him back until his knees hit the couch and he topples over. Dean wriggles with anticipation as Castiel climbs on top and pins Dean’s wrists beside his head, licking into his mouth and biting at his lower lip. Just as things are getting heated he slides off, wiping his mouth and straightening his clothes.

“Wha - what the hell, Cas?”

Castiel just looks down at him as innocently as he can muster. “I thought you wanted to go shopping.”

“The hell with shopping,” Dean growls, “I was halfway to happy town just now!” Castiel leans down to where Dean is propped on his elbows in affront and kisses his lips softly.

“I may be developing a bit of an appreciation for leaving you worked up,” he says with a grin. “It panned out so well for me last night.” Dean makes an indignant noise and bashes Castiel with a decorative pillow. “Come on,” he insists, tugging on his elbow. “We need to go if you want to see me in a tux.” Still grumbling under his breath, that at least gets Dean up and moving. “I’ll make it up to you later,” Castiel promises.

“You’re damn right you will,” Dean grunts.

***

The rest of their night flies by. They visit the shops down on the lobby level and both of them get fitted for tuxes, although after Dean sees Cas in his they barely make it out of the dressing rooms without receiving a lifetime ban from the cruise line. They hit a novelty gift shop second and Dean buys a bunch of stuff; a t-shirt for Sam, a magnet, a bottle opener, even a Christmas tree ornament. Castiel accuses him of being sentimental and he gets huffy, but eventually admits that this has been a good experience, and it’s not like the three of them get a lot of those. After hearing that, Castiel adds a baseball cap, a tacky-looking picture frame with the ship on it, and a stuffed bear wearing a rainbow shirt with the ship’s name on it to the pile.

“I want to remember too,” he says simply.

Laden down with their purchases they wander the lower decks, checking out a piano bar, an ice bar, a cigar bar, and a comedy club. They stroll the lower promenade where they’re much closer to the ocean and sit at the stern for a while, fingers just barely touching between them, listening to the sounds of gentle waves lapping at the side of the ship. It’s quieter down here than on the top deck, peaceful and more romantic. Other couples stroll by or sit near them, and Castiel catches Dean watching them with a soft, happy smile on his face. A ship photographer cajoles them into posing for a picture by the railing and Dean steals a kiss at the last second, just as he clicks the shutter. Castiel buys it on the spot and has several copies sent up to their room.

“Don’t you dare let Sam see that,” Dean warns him, but he’s biting back a smile.

They hit the burger joint and then the casino before heading to the party, and Dean is like a kid in a candy store with the slot machines. Somehow his magic gambling hands manage to turn $20 into $200, and Castiel drags him away before he can lose it all again. Needless to say, Dean’s in a great mood when they arrive at the pool, and it’s only amplified by the round of cheers that happen when everyone takes notice of their arrival. Pretty soon, Dean’s on his third fizzy purple drink and is engaged in a deep, technical discussion about engine maintenance of classic cars with Carl. He’s as at ease as Castiel’s ever seen him, and it almost hurts to know they’ll have to leave this comfortable safe haven behind.

Eventually, Sharon drags him over to the pool and they sit side by side with their feet in the water and drinks by their sides, talking about nonsense for a good long time. Until there’s a lull which Sharon breaks by asking, “He’s the Dean Winchester, isn’t he? The Hunter?”

Stunned, Castiel just stares down at the pool water, unsure where exactly this is going.

“I’m sorry,” Sharon apologizes, touching Castiel’s arm. “I could’ve been more tactful there, but I’ve been dying to ask.”

Castiel turns his head and studies her, doing his best with his limited human capabilities to parse out any danger or malintent but finding none. “How much do you know?”

Sharon kicks her feet in the water. “Enough to recognize who he is, and to be real fuckin’ proud to meet him, I guess. I mean, you see my look,” she gestures to her makeup, which is more goth tonight than it was the night before. “Maybe you aren’t familiar with my schtick, but the thing is, I don’t just attract the wanna-bes. Dean and his brother, the hottie with the hair? They took out a vamp nest that had a leader who was obsessed with me. Probably saved my life, not I ever got to thank them for it.”

Castiel looks over to where Dean is chatting and sees him throw his head back to roar with laughter. He says something in return as he slaps Carl on the bicep and the whole table breaks out in deliriously happy sounds. “I think you’ve thanked him in the best way possible,” Castiel replies. “It’s not been easy for him. I know that I for one am very grateful to see him so at ease.” He and Sharon watch Dean for a while longer, and Sharon doesn’t bring up hunting again. Castiel’s grateful for that, too.

***

The next morning, Castiel and Dean disembark again, strapped and ready, to find a slight, attractive brunette waiting on the dock with her arms crossed. Her features are delicate, and her long hair is pulled back into a ponytail. She looks annoyed.

Cas,” Dean hisses with Castiel points her out. “She can’t be a buck ten soaking wet. How the hell is this useful?” Castiel shoots him a sidelong glare.

“Preternatural strength is not dependent on appearance, Dean. You know that,” he replies, giving an experimental wave to the waiting woman. Reluctantly, she waves back, and they approach. “Hello,” Castiel offers.

“Yes, hello,” she replies, the look on her face clearly revealing that she’d rather be anywhere else. “You are Castiel? I am Maritza.” Castiel holds out his hand and she shakes it, eyes darting between him and Dean nervously.

“This is Dean.” Castiel touches his hand to Dean’s lower back in what he hopes is a gentle reminder to play nice, not failing to notice Dean’s stiff posture, folded arms, and skeptical gaze. Dean just grunts and Maritza seems all too happy to keep their introduction to a nod of her head.

“So you’re a monster,” Dean declares bluntly and Maritza takes a step back, looking around like she’s not sure whether to flee or grab a tourist to use as a shield. “Kinda like a vampire, the way I understand it.”

“I’m a Pishtaco, ” she corrects him defensively. “I would not call myself a monster. I only eat just enough to survive, we are parasites more than anything else. You won’t hear any of the spa guests complaining. They lose their extra vacation weight, I survive another day. I am not a monster. Pree knows that,” she finishes softly, but still with an edge. “I owe him a favor for sparing my life and so I am here to help you, despite my own instincts. It’s no secret that Hunters think first with their weapon, second with their bloodlust and only third with their brain.” The muscle in Dean’s jaw ticks and Castiel steps in front of him just as he surges forward.

“Dean, please,” Castiel urges, placing a hand in the middle of his chest. “ Please. We need her.” Dean doesn’t take his eyes off the Pishtaco, but he does relax minutely, stepping back with a tight nod.

“Yea. Alright, Cas. But I ain’t gotta like it.” Castiel takes his hand and the three of them start walking towards the end of the pier where their excursion leader should be waiting. They only get a few steps before Dean’s looking behind Cas’ back to point at the Pishtaco. “And everyone keeps their suckers to themselves, hmm?”

Maritza rolls her eyes. “Your fat is probably pickled in alcohol,” she replies sharply, and Castiel finds himself holding Dean back a second time.

***

The boat’s crew seems relieved to find their clients in less sour moods this morning, somehow skating over the obvious tension between Dean and Maritza, who, it turns out, they’re more than happy to accommodate. Maritza claims she knows how to dive, so on the way out to the site the three of them lay on the catamaran’s rigging, away from any prying crew ears. When they’re sure that they have privacy, Castiel fills their companion in on the plan.

“The plan ” really isn’t much to speak of, but he’s banking on this being one of those situations where keeping it simple stops them from overthinking. Maritza seems pleased that her only real job will be to help lift the door, and to Dean’s disgust announces that she “fed this morning,” which apparently makes her even stronger. Castiel finds himself reaching down to touch his angel blade where it’s strapped to his upper leg with a converted version of the thigh holster Dean uses for his gun. He prays it doesn’t loosen or slip off in the water. That would be hard to explain, at best. The crew has their names and the ship they came on, if they’re perceived to be doing something illegal it’s possible they could end up deported and kicked off the cruise. Castiel supposes that for a worst case scenario that’s not so bad, but he’s still not particularly interested in learning the consequences of failing to smuggle his grace through airport security. Or dealing with Dean and his flying anxiety on an actual airplane, for that matter. With Castiel’s luck, they’d both end up in Bahamian jail and he’s not sure Pree’s reach stretches much farther than it’s already gone.

This time, Castiel’s sharp memory has him noting sites and landmarks as they sail, even when the scenery becomes almost completely open ocean. He’s up and headed to the rear of the boat at almost the same moment the captain begins slowing down. They all suit up and laugh at the crew’s jokes in a way that Castiel hopes appears natural and free from nerves. This time when he shuffles to the end of the boat’s running board to leap off, he holds his angel blade tight to his thigh and his mask onto his face. By some miracle, he ends up in the water in one piece and although the blade shifts awkwardly as he kicks his fins, it doesn’t loosen or drop to the ocean floor. He makes eye contact with Dean as he gives the “OK” sign, watching him breathe a visible sigh of relief. Maritza is next, hopping into the aqua water like a pro and performing her own safety checks. He doesn’t stick around to watch Dean get in, instead swimming down automatically to the safety stop with their guide and allowing the air in his vest and the position of his weights to be properly adjusted.

The routine goes quicker this time now that everyone’s done it before, and all too soon they’re starting their descent into the darker blue depths. Of course, these are tropical waters and “dark” is relative, but Castiel can’t say he’s a fan of the way the fuzzy ambiguity still make it feel like shadows are closing in slowly on all sides. What a ridiculous fear, he thinks to himself. He’s been to many corners of the universe, places where it was far darker and much more lonely than this. Dean can’t be but five feet away, he reminds himself, swimming a little closer to him just because he can. The color of the water in the distance reminds him of the swirling gasses of Uranus, a fact he laments not being able to share with Dean and hear his inevitable laugh as he turns it into a schoolboy joke. When they reach the boat, Castiel heads directly for the ocean floor beside it, digging his hands into the coarse sand and hoping it will ground him. The wash of feelings and emotions that are overwhelming him right now are so much harder to deal with when he can’t speak, can’t share, can’t even breathe without the stupid mask on. He tucks his knees in below him and looks up to where their boat’s outline is black against the bright sun, fighting back the urge to shoot for the surface like a cannonball. He fights a similar urge to rip off his mask and vest and accept whatever consequences would come along with that as well. Clenching his hands further down into the sand, his right one closes around something smooth and cool. When he lifts it up, the sand around it sifts away through his fingers and into the water like dust in the wind.

In the middle of his palm sits a round piece of sea glass, brightly colored an otherworldly blue. It hardly looks like it belongs down here, and especially not next to the rusted out wreck. He knows he’s not supposed to take anything, but it’s not like that’s a rule he’s planning to abide anyway. Following an impulse he’s not sure is sensical, he wedges the stone between the thigh holster and his skin and then swims up and over the railing to the deck of the ship where Dean and Maritza are pretending to explore. Their guide is off the other side of the boat a ways, taking pictures of a sea turtle and paying them very little attention. Castiel motions for Dean and Maritza, and they make their descent down into the hull. It’s quick work for Castiel to break the warding with his angel blade, and thankfully, Maritza’s assistance is just enough to move the door. As soon as it’s lifted high enough, Castiel snatches the box from underneath and the door comes crashing back down, sending debris and dirt flying, clouding up the water and obscuring their vision completely for several minutes. When it clears, Castiel finds himself holding a warded, hinged wooden lockbox. Aside from the etching, it looks perfectly ordinary. He quickly breaks both the seal and the lock, and pops it open to find… nothing. He checks for a false bottom, a hidden compartment, but there’s really nothing. It’s just a regular old wooden box with some lines scratched into it, and it’s empty.

The box is empty.

The box is empty.

The box is empty.

How was this possible? The entire boat had been warded, extremely warded, beyond anything Castiel has ever seen before. Why go to all that trouble to protect an empty box? Was it a decoy? And if it was, why did Castiel’s locator spell lead them here? In a mix and of anger and despair, he hurls the box in the direction of the wall of the boat, but of course, the water resistance prevents it from floating more than a foot or so away. Castiel leaves it to sink to the boat’s floor, swimming manically out of the access hole and setting off to scour the vessel from bow to stern. He doesn’t have to look at Dean to know that he’s doing the same, and he doesn’t have the energy to care what Maritza is doing. They do end up finding a few more sigils on the outside of the ship that Castiel apparently missed the day prior, and even a few more carved right into the surface of various rocks that seem to form some sort of perimeter around the boat. They break all of those sigils too but nothing happens and there’s nothing else for them to go on; no leads, no more strange boxes, no hope.

Castiel doesn’t let Dean hold his hand as they surface this time, doesn’t let him kiss his frustration and pain away when he rips off his mask after broaching the surface. He sheds his gear and stalks off to the very tip of the bow of the ship and plants himself there, holding onto the forward mast for balance as they set off back to the port. He doesn’t so much as glance over his shoulder their entire trip, just closes his eyes and feels the wind in his face, the ocean spray on his legs. If he lets his mind go blank enough, it almost feels like flying.

Not that Castiel will ever fly again.

Dean doesn’t come to him, and Castiel’s glad. He doesn’t want to be comforted or given platitudes. This was their chance, and it’s over. They’ll have to find some other way to defeat Metatron because his grace is lost and it’s time that he accepts that. Even if they stay in the Bahamas and continue their search, they could go at it for years, constantly falling inches short and never knowing it. No, the only way Castiel is retrieving this piece of his grace will be if Metatron gives it up, and the likelihood of that seems pretty fucking slim from where Castiel is sitting. He almost laughs at how ludicrous it is that he had intended to storm all four planes when he couldn’t even take on Earth. The Angel Castiel, who laid siege to Hell and fought its armies to raise the Righteous Man from Perdition, was defeated by fifty feet of water.

How far he has fallen. How weak he has become.

When they reach their destination, Castiel goes through the motions of collecting his things and tipping the crew with basically everything he has left in his wallet. It isn’t their fault he’s such a goddamn failure. They’re certainly confused, but they’re polite enough not to say anything. They probably assume it’s a lovers’ spat, Castiel thinks, laughing humorlessly. They part ways with Maritza and the fact that Dean simply thanks her and lets her go should probably chill Castiel to the bone, but it doesn’t because he’s numb. Dean’s concerned look of pity makes him feel nauseous though, so he makes it a point to walk two or three feet in front of him the whole way back to the ship. In the elevator, he drops his head against the wall and closes his eyes, Dean’s stare boring into him without reprieve, but he doesn’t relent.

Dean snaps about thirty seconds after their suite door has clicked closed.

“Cas, why the fuck are you taking this out on me? Let me fucking help you.” Dean explodes, rushing forward to catch and close fingers around his wrist that Castiel promptly shakes off.

“I’m not in the mood, Dean,” he sighs, wandering over to the windows and still refusing to face him. “Why don’t you go get a drink or find your friends? I’m sure they’ll be better company tonight.” He accidentally catches a glimpse of Dean’s face in the mirror, and he looks terribly hurt. As Castiel’s watching though, his expression shifts from hurt to anger and Dean stalks forward.

“I don’t want to be around anyone else,” he growls, grabbing Castiel’s wrist more firmly this time and yanking him roughly until he turns around. Castiel does his best to pull away but Dean’s determined, holding his wrist tightly to his chest and wrapping an arm around his shoulders to pull him in and hold him there. Castiel fights, twisting and pushing at Dean’s body.

No,” he rasps, finally ripping his arm free only to be met with Dean kicking his legs out from under him and knocking him to the ground. “ NO,” he cries out, tears welling up in his eyes as he shoves up against Dean and knocks him on his own ass, temporarily freeing himself and getting to his feet until Dean manages to catch hold of his wrist again and yank him off balance so that he falls into his chest. “Arrrgh, Dean, DEAN,” Castiel roars, but Dean doesn’t let up. He lets Castiel struggle and punch at his chest and rage until the screaming turns to sobbing and then he just gathers him up and holds him. The angry, pained tears feel cathartic as hell as they streak down Castiel’s face, and once the floodgate is opened, it won’t close. He cries for so many God-forsaken things, so many regrets, and every one of his proven failures so much so that they all start bleeding together. And when the tears slow to a stop Dean is still there and still holding him, his t-shirt somehow wadded in his hand, held out in offering for Castiel to use as a tissue.

“I told you once that being a human never stopped me,” Dean says softly. “I know that this sucks. I can’t even imagine how much this sucks. But it doesn’t have to stop you, either.”

Castiel sucks in a few heaving breaths and wipes his eyes again. Dean doesn’t look pitying anymore, he looks bizarrely calm and somehow sure. It’s fortifying, in a way Castiel hadn’t been ready to accept earlier. More importantly, Dean’s not looking at him in disgust and Castiel suddenly realizes what it is he really wants. He blinks up at Dean for a moment before surging up and claiming his mouth, kissing him hard and messy and with obvious desperation that he hopes Dean understands.

“I hate this,” he rumbles into Dean’s mouth between kisses and bites to his lower lip. “I want… No. I need to feel you. I need to feel what my being alive, being human means to you.” He drops his head to nuzzle at the soft flesh of the side of Dean’s neck, and then bites down, making Dean’s hands flex and tense in the fabric of his shirt.

“Jesus, Cas,” Dean pants, and Castiel can feel him swallow hard where his cheek is pressed against his throat. “Yea, alright. Whatever you need.” They’re pulling at clothes after that, no more room for talking, nothing left to say. Dean’s hands slip up under his damp t-shirt, warm and electric as they slide up his ribs and push the shirt over his head. Castiel does his best to shove Dean’s swim shorts down as Dean works at the clasps on the thigh holster, fumbling blindly to get it free since Castiel won’t relinquish his mouth for any longer than he absolutely has to.

He’s brought up short when the forgotten rock slips free and falls to the hardwood floor with a clink.

The sound stops Castiel dead in his tracks. Clink? Rocks don’t clink. Barely daring to look, sure that it’s a coincidence, that he misheard, that there won’t be anything at all there when he glances down, Castiel stills Dean’s movements and closes his eyes to gather himself before he breaks his own heart all over again.

Clink.

Dean, it seems, has no such hesitation in investigating the sound. “ Cas,” he breathes, and just like that, Castiel knows. He knows before he opens his eyes to see it, but somehow he’s still surprised when he does.

The rock is gone. In its place on the floor sits a small glass bottle, stoppered with cork and swirling with bright, electric blue angel grace. His grace.

“What in the… how? Cas, how did you get this?”

Ignoring Dean for the time being Castiel gingerly scoops the bottle up in his open palm, as if he’s afraid that closing his fingers or taking his eyes off of it might cause it to disappear again. “It was a rock,” he murmurs.

“A rock? Cas, what the fuck are you talking about?”

“A rock,” he insists. “It was buried in the sand next to the boat. I thought it was… pretty,” he says, though pretty is the wrong word. He was drawn to it somehow, in a way that he can’t quite explain with words, at least not that Dean will understand. And now he knows why.

“So… what, Metatron magicked your grace into looking like a rock and you just happened upon it?” Castiel finally looks up from the bottle to meet Dean’s eyes, and he’s not sure he’s ever seen him look more confused.

“The warding,” he replies. “It must have been the warding. Somehow it disguised the appearance of my grace while simultaneously misleading anyone looking for it. Either breaking the warding or leaving the area must have dissolved the glamour. It’s a brilliant idea, I should have considered it.”

They sit in silence, both of them just staring at the small miracle in Castiel’s hand until he comes to his senses and combines it with the grace already around his neck.

“I’m sorry for pushing you away,” Castiel says softly, as he ties the necklace back on. Dean just sighs and collapses onto his back on the hardwood floor.

“Forget it, sunshine. We’re both a shit ton of work. Good thing we found each other, cuz ain’t nobody else gonna put up with us.”  Castiel cracks a small smile and lies down next to him, exhausted and uncaring if the floor is hard. They stare at the ceiling until the sticky feel of salt on their skin becomes too much. “Do you still want to have sex?” Dean’s question is slightly less enthusiastic than Castiel would like, so simply he chuckles and squeezes Dean’s hand.

“Perhaps later. Let’s shower and go out. I think I’m in the mood to dance.”

As they help each other up, the ship’s engines shudder to life and the horn blows. It’s time to go.

***

Dean does end up inviting everyone back to their suite for a party, and after twelve or so beers he unbuttons the crisp white shirt he’s wearing to reveal a bright red corset underneath. That’s as far as he gets and his face is as red as the material itself, but everyone cheers him on and Castiel kisses him like he’s the most perfect thing on the planet, because he is. At the end of the night goodbyes take almost an hour, because a drunken Dean won’t let anyone leave without first writing down their contact information and friending him on the brand new facebook page Sharon set up for him. By the time they make it to bed, both of them are too exhausted to do anything but fall into a deep sleep, still half-dressed in their rented tuxes. Castiel passes out with his head on Dean’s chest and his fingers wrapped around the vial at his throat.

 

One down, three to go.

***

Chapter Text

Leaving their suite and getting off of the ship for the last time is surprisingly hard on Dean. He’d come into this trip prepared for a case, a hunt, maybe having to fight off a few sharks ( worst case) and hopefully wringing a tiny slice of R&R out of their spare moments, if he was lucky. Instead, he’d found himself dropped feet first into a whole different world, one that had accepted him and met him exactly where he was with open arms, no expectations, and no judgment. He’d stumbled unknowingly into a place and a group of people who didn’t give one single fuck about upholding the idea that you had to look, act, and feel a certain way in order to be considered a real man. He hadn’t said so, but Dean had been relieved for so many reasons beyond the ones he knew he was supposed to feel when Cas had discovered he actually did recover his grace after all. Selfishly, he didn’t want this experience forever tainted by their failure and Castiel’s loss. It would have been painful not to be able to take what he felt on this trip and carry it with him; a small, safe pocket in his mind where the person he’d always been afraid to admit he was could be free.

And maybe carrying that small reminder will help him be less of that other guy in his daily life, the one he’s never particularly liked, the Dean who pretends to hate everything he loves because that’s what John Winchester expected of him. But his dad is long gone and maybe it’s past time for a change. It’s not like that persona has served him particularly well all these years, except as a shield. A shield that didn’t protect so much as isolate him and almost destroy Cas. Dean finds himself flipping through various possible situations and thinks that if he can just keep this moment in the back of his mind then he at least might have a shot at being someone better, some of the time, anyway. Maybe he could hold Castiel’s hand in public without feeling the need to scope out who around him is looking back. Maybe he could stop fucking caring what a bunch of hunters he’d only ever met a handful of times think of him. Maybe he’ll be able to admit what he and Cas are to Sam without making a huge asshole of himself in the process.

“We’ll come back someday, right Cas?” He’d posed the question as they’d been packing up their belongings but his phone had started dinging furiously before Castiel could answer. When Dean picked it up the notifications had taken him straight into to his new facebook account, where he had been added to a “secret” group in which all of their new cruise ship friends were already posting about planning for next year. “Oh shit Cas, you gotta see this.” He’d passed his phone over, and Castiel had smiled a little sadly before handing it back.

“I very much hope that we will have vanquished Metatron and be in a place this time next year where this will be possible,” Castiel had said, and fuck, when did Cas become the sensible, focused one? Dean had opted not to think too hard about that, and to simply chalk being off his game up to all the alcohol he’d put away the night before. He’d gone back to packing and sorting out his internal thoughts. Where was he? 

Right. Sam. Fuck, that one is going to come up sooner rather than later, isn’t it?

And now, as they drag their bags off of the ship, Dean finds himself already slipping back into hardened hunter mode, though a few run-ins with friends soften him right back up. I can do this, he thinks, I can change. Real change probably also means coming clean with Sam about certain other, angel-possession-related issues, but goddamn, he’s not a fucking miracle worker. One life-changing personality shift at a time, alright? He is going to have to call Sam though, probably as soon as they’re out of this overcrowded terminal, in fact. He and Cas haven’t talked about it yet, but getting in and out of Purgatory is known territory for him and Sam at this point, except that Sam’s the only one with the details on the actual "getting in" part. He’s pretty sure he remembers the location of the alley Ajay hung out near, but he’s got bupkis when it comes to opening the door. They’ll have to loop Sam in on at least that part, and then hope that he’s not too salty to drive Baby up to the 100-mile Wilderness so they aren’t stranded in Maine if they make it out the other side.

When, Dean corrects himself. When they make it out the other side, together this time.

Dean’s pretty deep in his own head as he and Cas make their way through the main section of the terminal, a wide open space that is wholly reminiscent of an airport, fuck what Cas thinks . Dean’s just glad to be exiting this time because it presses all of his anxiety buttons. He’s doing his best to sort through his mental “to-do list” while trying not to automatically shelve his PDA impulses towards Cas and for that reason, he doesn’t immediately notice the short stocky dude blocking their path or the way Cas’ posture goes tense, his hand reaching inside his coat to where he’s stashed his angle blade. A sharp pain slices through Dean’s head as a vision of the newcomer standing in a parking lot, trapped in a ring of holy fire flashes behind his eyelids. It’s accompanied by a feeling of incredibly strong deja vu, and somehow Dean recognizes the curly haired man in front of them without any further introduction.

Not that he can do anything about it. Dean’s head goes kind of fuzzy as he watches Metatron and Castiel talk, before finally noticing that everyone around the three of them has slowed to almost a complete stop. The noises of the terminal, of people talking and bags being thrown around or rolled over the slick linoleum have disappeared, replaced by a slow, echoing vibration that’s quickly giving Dean a headache. It looks and sounds exactly like time itself has been set to slow motion. Only Castiel and Metadouche himself seem to be functioning at normal speed, and although their lips move, Dean can’t hear a thing they’re saying. He tries to lift his hand, staring down at it and willing it to move, which technically works but it's so slow that it hardly matters. Frustrated and angry, Dean strains against the magic keeping him in place even harder, which is unfortunate because as soon as it disappears he goes sprawling face first onto the floor.

When he looks up, Metatron is gone and Castiel is crouching next to him with his hand on Dean’s shoulder and an irritated look on his face. Without a word, he hooks an arm underneath Dean’s and helps haul him to his feet. A few people stare but their looks seems to be related to the accidental show Dean put on and not the time warp they’d all been caught in only moments earlier. No, no one seems to have noticed that, but they all somehow managed to tune in just in time to see Dean’s face get acquainted with the floor. Fucking great. Dean shakes himself off and hurries after Castiel who’s booking it out of the terminal like his ass is on fire.

“Is he gone? What the hell was that? What did he want?”

Castiel closes fingers around Dean's wrist and makes a shushing noise before dragging him along even faster. “Not here, ” he mutters, stressing the last word. Outside the terminal, Baby is easy to spot, and Pree must read correctly whatever is all over Castiel’s face because he doesn’t waste any time with pleasantries or small talk. They shove their bags into the trunk and Pree tosses the keys to Dean. While he’s obviously worried about what just went down and annoyed with Cas for shushing him, he’s still pleased as hell to see his Baby in perfect shape and to be sliding in behind her wheel once again. The broken in leather welcomes him home and Dean inhales a deep breath, happily reveling in being back in the one place that’s always felt like he belongs.

Dean,” Castiel hisses, breaking him out of his reverie.

“Huh?”

“Any time today,” he snaps, gesturing to the road, and Dean doesn’t miss Pree raising his eyebrows from the back seat. Dean just nods and pulls out of the parking spot, because fuck if anyone’s going to take away this particular happy moment from him. Cas can be pissy if he wants. Metatron will still be a problem whether he enjoys being reunited with Baby or not.

When he's merged safely onto the highway, he turns his attention back to Castiel. “Alright, Joan Crawford, spill the drama. What did Bette Davis want with you?”

The space between Castiel’s brows crinkles and he tilts his head. “I only understood about five of those words,” he replies, glancing back at Pree who, despite not knowing the Metatron context appears to be suppressing a smile, and that pleases Dean. At least someone thinks he’s funny. “In any case,” Castiel continues without waiting for an explanation, “Metatron… wanted to recruit me. Or so he said.”

Recruit you?” Dean’s incredulous. “Well, that makes the kind of sense that isn’t.”

“Yes,” Castiel agrees. “I agree. I believe that his goal was a bit more subtextual, in reality. He had to have known that I wouldn’t join him, so that leads me to believe that he was simply trying to either frighten me or egg me on. You remember what Hannah said, about how this may be exactly what he wants.”

Dean shakes his head. “Yea, I heard her but I gotta be honest, that part never made much sense to me. I mean, he already has what he wants, so why risk it? If you got your grace back and brought him down in that other timeline, why would he risk that happening again?”

Castiel chews his lip for a moment before replying. “Hannah was correct in her description of him. The things he said, it almost sounded like he was reading off the pages of a book. It was very strange. Regardless, he knows that the other angels still see him as the villain, and it’s clear that no matter how many changes he makes to this timeline, he’s still unsure what to do in order to get that perception to shift. I believe he is just so arrogant that he thinks I will never be successful in defeating him again. He told me that the timeline has changed so much already that it’s ‘anyone’s game, now’.” Castiel uses actual air quotes and Dean smiles despite himself.  “He also said that there’s no guarantee restoring my grace will lead to the same circumstances, and that it’s irrelevant because he has the last piece anyway. I have to think on his words some more. It was all very confusing. Perhaps I will send a message to Hannah.”

The car is quiet as Dean navigates them the rest of the way back to the bar and parks across the street next to the shitty beach. He turns to Castiel before getting out and says, “Forget what Metatron said for a minute. He still took the time to come to you. I guess that means we’re officially players now.” Castiel stares for a moment before nodding.

“I only wish we were sure of the game,” he replies.

Dean doesn’t say so, but Metatron catching them off guard seems like more than an unfortunate coincidence, more than the ploy of a tricky, dangerous angel. His guard had been down, he had been soft, weak, and the one thing he knows about this game for sure is that it’s  always life and death on the line. This is why John Winchester had brought him up the way he had. There’s no place for weakness in the world they live in. No place at all, not as long as there’s bad shit out there and Dean’s responsible for hunting it. He vows not to let his guard down, not to be weak again. As he unloads their bags from Baby’s trunk, he realizes their cruise ship is still visible in the distance. Although he feels a pang of sadness, he doesn’t let himself dwell on it, closing the trunk and heading in after Cas and Pree without looking back.

***

Sam’s so goddamn happy to be let out of the bunker and to be going on a hunt that he barely asks a single question. And if Dean skates past the part where Sam won’t be doing any actual hunting, well that’s on Sam for not clarifying, isn’t it? He does seem kind of surprised that they were actually able to retrieve Castiel’s grace from it’s watery grave, leaving Dean so offended by his lack of confidence in him that he might have also accidentally forgotten to mention the part where it was more or less luck that brought them out on top there. He changes the subject and they end up hashing out a plan for Sam to take one of the crappier cars from the bunker’s garage (in case it has to be left behind) and drive out to meet them in New York City. They’ll both cut the drive into two days since it’s about 20 hours give or take for each of them. Dean makes Sam promise to bring whatever lore they have on Purgatory and makes a plan to call and check in when he and Cas stop for the night.

By the time he hangs up with Sam, Cas has unpacked and repacked both of their bags and is ready to go. Everything Dean had shown up in Florida with has been cleared out of Castiel’s apartment, and Dean can’t help but feeling some type of way about that, not that he’s sharing. They’re headed out the door when he’s seized with a wave of fear that once this is over, Cas will go back to being an angel and he won’t need this apartment at all. This could be the last time Dean ever sees it. He finds himself looking back over his shoulder in exactly the way he promised he wouldn’t do, but he just can’t help it. This place kept Castiel safe, kept him alive when Dean failed him. It brought them together. It means something, and Dean finds himself reluctant to leave. Of course, then he also finds himself wondering if, when Castiel is an angel again, will there be just as little tying the two of them together? A knot forms in his chest against his will as his eyes sweep over the mattress that’s still tucked in the corner, the place where he’d held Cas as he almost died and where they’d eventually had sex for the first time.

Fuck it, Dean thinks, dropping his bag to the floor and unzipping it. He reaches in and fishes around, coming up with one of his favorite flannels. He shows it to Cas and then tosses it onto the kitchen counter. Castiel just watches, his expression unreadable, so Dean explains, “You know, so I have a reason to come back.” Castiel smiles then, a wide, genuine one that reaches his eyes and lights up his whole face. He drops his own bag and steps forward to cup Dean’s face and kiss him thoroughly. He doesn’t let up either, licking Dean’s mouth open and tilting his head this way and that as he sucks and nips at his lips. Dean’s getting backed up towards the counter and not remotely complaining about it when Pree’s shadow darkens the doorway and his voice fills the room.

“Not that it’s any of my business but y’all are burning daylight, here. Thought you wanted to get on the road as soon as possible.” Castiel pulls back regretfully, his thumb wiping across Dean’s lower lip as he goes and Dean just barely resists the urge to suck it into his mouth. Fucking Pree, he thinks, half of his brain actually contemplating letting the guy stand there and watch if it’ll get Dean laid. He shakes that one off quickly though, and re-shoulders his bag alongside Castiel. Pree walks them out to the car and hugs Castiel for a long time after their bags are loaded up again.

As Dean watches them, he finds that the stab of jealousy he’s come to view as normal when watching Pree and Cas interact isn’t there anymore. And like a lightning bolt, it hits him. The apartment might be a special place as far as their relationship goes, but it didn’t save Cas. Pree did that. Pree found a homeless man begging for scraps on the street and saw the good in him, the potential, the human being underneath the dirt and scruff and lack of social skills. Pree saved Castiel when Dean failed him. He not only gave him the means to nourish and protect his body, he also gave him purpose. A human job and a way to continue fighting the good fight while also keeping him safe. Pree cherished him; made him feel worthy and confident and brave, maybe even loved him. One thing is for sure, Pree has given Castiel everything, including the first piece of his grace back. Because while Dean was there in person, Pree was the driving force.

Dean is an asshole.

When their hug finally ends and because he’s looking for it, Dean notices Pree’s eyes flick over to him with the masked concern of someone who’s afraid he’s going to be chastised for overstepping. I am such an asshole, he thinks again. Before he can stop himself, he’s taking a deep breath and launching himself at Pree, dragging all six feet of him in for a bone-crushing hug.

“Thank you,” he whispers, his words catching a little in his throat, “Thank you. Sorry I was a dick.” It takes Pree a minute to catch up, but he’s an intuitive guy and he gets on board quickly. Soon he’s hugging Dean back, patting the space between his shoulder blades and assuring him that he feels like the lucky one for having found and gotten to know Castiel.

“And now you too, my friend. Keep each other safe. Don’t hold back,” he adds pointedly, as if Dean should somehow know what that means, and maybe he does. He touches a finger to Dean’s chest lightly before stepping back. Castiel’s staring at them with a weird mix of confusion and pride on his face but he doesn’t say anything, just squeezes Pree’s shoulder one last time and heads for the passenger side of the Impala.

“I’ll keep you updated,” he promises before getting in, and Pree winks in response. He stands in the middle of the street waving as they drive away, his ankle length black skirt blowing gently in the Florida breeze.

***

Castiel seems anxious, at least to Dean. He gets it, in a way, he’s been there. Once he finds a hunt or a case and decides to take care of it the moments in between then and actually digging his teeth in are always frustrating and boring. As much as he enjoys driving Baby (and he does), those hours upon hours of sitting and doing nothing when there’s something out there he should be killing are rough. Dean guesses it’s like that for Cas right now, especially considering that he’s gotten a taste of what it’s like to succeed in their mission. He touches the vial around his neck a lot, though Dean doubts he realizes he’s doing it, staring out the window or using his phone to text Hannah or research god knows what. Because of that, because he gets it, Dean drives as quickly and with as few stops as possible. They do break for the bathroom and to grab food or gas a couple of times, but other than that they drive straight through for over eight hours. Dean’s eyes start to burn around that time, and considering the late night he had plus this whole day, he guesses he shouldn’t be so surprised.

He reluctantly relinquishes the wheel to Cas on the side of Interstate 95, and if he weren’t so damn tired Cas’ ass sliding over his crotch to change positions most definitely would have started something. Fuck, how friggin' old am I that I’m choosing a nap over a quickie? Dean’s internal musings are overshadowed by his own yawn, and he’s out before Cas has even pulled back onto the highway, though not before muttering a slurred warning about treating Baby better than his first born child.

Dean wakes up to a bright, neon pink light shining directly onto his face, his cheek plastered to the window uncomfortably and a puddle of drool collecting below his chin on the Impala’s leather. He unsticks his tacky cheek from the glass and wipes his mouth with his sleeve, quickly realizing the car is parked in front of a motel and Cas is nowhere in sight. He debates on whether to wait around or launch a search party, but fortunately, his addled brain doesn’t have to do too much work because Cas comes striding out of the rental office not thirty seconds later. He smiles when he sees Dean sitting up, and gives a little wave. Dork, Dean thinks affectionately. He shoves open the door and stretches, stumbling a little and shivering in the surprisingly cold air.

“Shit,” he says. “Forgot it was fall for a minute.” Castiel just hums and grabs Dean’s bag out of the back. “You want me to get yours?” Dean offers, but Cas shakes his head no.

“Seems excessive for one night. We can share, can’t we? We’re the same size.” Dean nods and does his best not to give away how pleased the idea of Cas in his clothes makes him.

“What time is it anyway?”

“It’s almost midnight,” Castiel answers. “I have burgers, if you’re hungry. And you need to call Sam,” he reminds him as he locks up Baby and heads for the room number presumably marked on his key.

“You know, you’re doing pretty good for bein’ the new guy,” Dean remarks. “Halfway decent motel and you remembered decent food? Sam can’t do that half the time and he’s the farthest thing from new.” He doesn’t wait for Cas to reply before swiping open his phone and pulling up Sam’s contact information. “Hey, you make camp for the night yet?”

“Hey Dean, yea I’m pulling off the highway now. I’m in Indianapolis, made pretty good time. Tried to talk Kevin into coming with but he had less than zero interest.” Sam’s voice crackles through the speaker like his reception sucks as Dean trails Castiel into their room, which he’s not displeased to find boasts a single king-sized bed.

“Fair enough,” Dean acknowledges, though he’s somewhat relieved. Kevin needs to stay where he is and keep researching that tablet. He wanders over to one of the bedside tables and opens a drawer, finding a handful of brochures. “Apparently we are in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Huh. You sure you don’t need to draw this out an extra night? You should take it easy.”

“Dean, I’ve been doing nothing but taking it easy for months now. I’m fine. Honestly, it feels good to stretch my legs. If I didn’t know you were stopping, I would have kept going.”

“Yea well, just don’t bite off more than you can chew, alright?”

“Whatever, Dean. I don't even know what that means. Text me when you’re on the road tomorrow. We’ll figure out where to meet up when we get closer.”

“Ten-four, Sammy. Don’t let the bedbugs bite.” Dean hangs up and turns around to find Castiel offering him a paper-wrapped burger.

“Eat. Sleep,” he commands, and Dean snorts.

“Okay, mom,” he replies, but he polishes off the burger in a handful of bites and strips down to his underwear obediently. By unspoken agreement, neither of them tries to start anything, but Castiel’s all too quick to fit himself up against Dean’s side to sleep. Not that Dean’s complaining. If anything, his angel's warmth and even breathing lull him to sleep even faster. It crosses Dean’s quickly fading mind that all things considered, this is turning out to be the most pleasant hunt he’s ever been on.

***

The sun streaming in through the not quite closed moth-eaten curtains wakes Dean early the next morning. He rubs the sleep from his eyes and pads quietly across the room to pull them shut so the light doesn’t rouse Castiel. Fat chance of that though, he thinks to himself as he watches him sleep. Castiel’s spread out on his stomach like a starfish, mouth open and hair completely destroyed on his head. It seems only fair he let Cas sleep in since he’d gotten two extra hours in the car while they drove. He slips into the bathroom and showers quickly, pulling on fresh jeans, a t-shirt, a flannel and his green jacket since they’re far north enough now to be subject to normal fall temperatures instead of the weird semi-tropics of Florida. Castiel hasn’t moved an inch by the time Dean exits the bathroom except to usurp Dean’s spot on the bed and smash his face into his vacated pillow, so he quietly grabs the keys and sneaks out the door.

There’s a diner across the way which is exactly what he’s looking for, so he heads over and loads up with two to-go breakfasts and two coffees. While he waits for the food he texts Sam that he’s up and getting ready to hit the road and Sam responds in kind. So far so good, he thinks. Team Free Will, all-human variety, coming to a city near you. He purposefully doesn’t dwell on what the new “Team Free Will” might become when Sam eventually finds out Dean let an angel set up shop in his head.

Dean notes that the curtains are cracked open again as he pulls up in front of their motel room, so he doesn’t bother trying to sneak in quietly. Cas is up but he’s sitting in the middle of the bed with his arms folded on top of his knees and his head resting on top of them. He squints miserably at the additional sunlight the open door allows in, and groans when the curtain is pushed back fully. The muscles in his upper back flex as he hides his face, and Dean does his best not to get distracted by imagining them under his hands. If we didn’t have to start driving, though...

“Up and at ‘em, sunshine,” is what he says out loud, though, with what he hopes is a bright tone. “Come get it while it’s hot.”

***

Today’s drive is less relaxing, even for Dean. Times like these where just getting to a place and back is more time consuming and involved than the hunt itself are not his favorite thing. Dean takes the wheel for the first half of the ride but they switch at right about halfway. He calls Sam and they manage to find a motel on the outskirts of the city to meet up at, and Dean offers to stop for pizza and beer when they get close. Thanks to their detour, Sam ends up beating them by about an hour, and when Dean knocks on the door of the room number Sam gave him, he swiftly realizes his mistake. Sam’s chosen a room with two doubles and a pull out bed, so Dean’s either going to need to man up and get over his shit real fucking quick or accept that he’ll be sleeping alone tonight. Next to his brother. Who snores like a train. Fucking fantastic.

He drops down onto the bed that doesn’t have Sam’s shit strewn all over it, and leaves Castiel squinting in the doorway and juggling two six packs. It’s just for now, he wants to say. We need Sam, we’ve got research to do. We’ll tell him later. We’ll get our own room when we call it a night. But he doesn’t say anything, and Castiel averts his eyes as he puts the beer down on the table.

Sam, for his part, gets right down to business. “Alright, so the way I see it there’s good news and there's bad news,” Sam says from where he’s sprawled out on his own bed. “The door to Purgatory should still be in that back alley. Bad news is, we don’t know anyone who can get us through it. I’ve exhausted our network and no one knows of any more rogue reapers. There was one, uh, we know her, actually. Tessa,” he admits, looking at Dean. Dean shrugs.

“Chick always did seem a little left of center, can’t say I’m surprised.”

“Anyway,” Sam continues, “Word on the street is she got into it with some angel named Hannah who’s leading the Heavenly resistance effort against Metatron. She’s dead, Hannah killed her,” Sam finishes up.

Across the room, Castiel’s suddenly sitting bolt upright in rapt attention. “Hannah is killing angels? Where did you hear this, Sam?”

Sam hesitates a beat too long and Dean’s on him. “What did you do?”

“Relax, Dean,” Sam sighs. “It was all really low-risk.”

“Dude, what was low-risk?” Somewhere in his head Dean knows he’s pushing too hard, that Sam doesn’t answer to him, least of all about making stupid, reckless decisions, but his big brother instincts just don’t turn off like that.

“Kevin and I summoned Crowley. We thought maybe we could get him to read the tablet.” Before Dean can blow his top, Sam rushes to continue. “He was contained, it was in the dungeon, and anyway it didn’t really work and he’s gone now. He gave us like, one line in exchange for some of Kevin’s blood. Apparently, dude’s a blood junkie now, so yay for our team, I guess. But while he was there he made some comments about you, Cas, and that’s how the Hannah stuff came out.”

Castiel’s brow is still deeply furrowed and he looks lost in thought. “Did he say anything else specifically?”

Sam hesitates again, and now Dean’s really getting irritated, but he speaks before Dean can mouth off. “Yea, he uh, made some weird comments about me that didn’t make much sense. And I’m pretty sure he’s got part of your grace. He said to call him back when we’re ready to make a real deal.”

Dean sinks back against the chipped wooden headboard and groans. “Fucking nothing about this is going to be easy, is it? Where’s Crowley now?”

Sam shrugs. “Hell, I’m presuming.”

Dean shakes his head. “Alright well, one fucked up recovery mission at a time. So we know where the entrance to Purgatory is, but not how to get through it.”

Castiel clears his throat. “That shouldn’t be a problem. It’s a gateway between worlds, the veil will be naturally thin there. I can perform a spell that will allow us through easily. Once we arrive, we’ll do the locator spell using the grace we do have. We will not, however, be able to return the same way we came. Without a reaper, that alleyway is a ‘one-way ticket,’ as you say.”

“I was already kinda counting on that,” Dean admits. “Hence, Sam. We can use the portal that got me and Sam out before, but if no one’s waiting on the other side we’re gonna be doing a whole lot more walking than these legs were made for.”

“What exactly are your legs made for?” Castiel’s tone is snarky when he addresses Dean directly, and Sam snorts as Dean’s mouth snaps shut, unsure whether Cas is making innuendo or just poking fun at him. Either way, what the fuck? Castiel just shrugs and opens Sam’s laptop, clicking around without meeting Dean’s eyes. Dean changes the subject quickly.

“So, same rules as last time? No eating, only occasional sleeping, we can travel light. Weapons, lighters, get in, get out, get gone.”

“Eloquent as always,” Castiel scoffs.

“Can we get back to the part where I’m sidelined again? You guys are going to Purgatory, you need all the backup you can get. Give me one good reason I shouldn’t go with you,” Sam argues.

Dean waves his hand in response. “I literally just did, dude. Read my lips: Hundred. Mile. Wilderness. That’s one hundred miles… of wilderness, in case I wasn’t clear. Somebody’s gotta provide the ride home.”

“We can get someone else,” Sam persists. “Another hunter, someone we trust. I’m sure there’s somebody local. Anyway, what am I supposed to do in the middle of nowhere in Maine for god knows how long? Unlike you guys, I will have to eat.”

Dean shrugs. “You’re just gonna have to like, camp out there or whatever. You eat rabbit food, what’s the big deal? Just eat the grass. Plus, I’m not gonna hand over Baby’s keys to some douchebag I’ve never even met. Hard pass on that one. And anyway, we don’t know Metatron’s plans. You said yourself that Crowley is running around with Cas’ grace, it’s not like this isn’t time sensitive,” Dean replies. He takes in Sam’s defeated silence and relents slightly. “Listen dude, next one, okay? We’ll all go back to the bunker and you can summon Crowley all by your big bad hunter self. Hopefully, we won’t even have to go to Hell at all but if we do, you can third-wheel it all the way there and back.”

“Third wheel?” Sam asks, scrunching up his nose and of course, that’s what he picks up on out of all that. Dean ignores him, standing quickly to grab a slice of pizza and do his best to shove the entire thing into his mouth. Castiel snorts and rolls his eyes without looking away from the computer screen. Sam’s gaze darts between the two of them, and Dean can just feel it coming. He swallows and the food feels like it’s stuck in his throat. “What’s going on with you guys?” Sam looks puzzled, but also suspicious. “Dean, why are you acting so weird?”

“I’m not --” Dean starts, but petty ass Cas has to open his mouth at the same time.

“Because he doesn’t want you to know that we’re together, I’m assuming,” he replies,  still without looking up from that goddamn laptop.

Not that he can see for himself, but Dean has no doubt that his face is bright fucking red. “ Cas,” he growls, but Castiel just tilts his head up with a blank expression on his face and stares him down. “That isn’t -- argh. Yea, alright, fine that’s what I was doing. You happy?”

“Ecstatic,” Castiel deadpans, returning his gaze to the laptop screen. Irritated and unwilling to subject himself to what Sam’s face is undoubtedly doing right now, Dean stands there and weighs his options. The cat’s out of the bag now so the way he sees it, he can keep wandering down this (admittedly, poorly chosen) path where potentially both Castiel and Sam end up hating his guts (for very, very different reasons), or he puts on his big boy panties, begs for forgiveness and maybe doesn’t get sentenced to the pull-out couch and a night of Sam’s snoring symphony.

“So you two are…”

“Shut up, Sam,” Dean grunts. He holds his hand out in a pacifying gesture without turning to look at his brother, because this is already difficult enough. “Just… one second.” He refocuses on Castiel and licks his lips, fidgeting where he stands. “Cas, I’m sorry,” he finally says, dropping his arms to his sides so they smack his jeans. “I’ve been… fucked up since we got off of that cruise and Metatron blindsided us. I got all up in my own head and I can see that I hurt you. Listen, I’m not afraid of what Sam thinks, fuck Sam.” He winces and glances at Sam over his shoulder. “Sorry man, you know what I mean.”

“I have absolutely no idea what you mean,” Sam replies gleefully and then sobers. “But Dean, you can’t seriously have thought I’d have an issue with this? I’ve known you were bi since like… twelfth grade.”

All set to ignore Sam, Dean finds his attention suddenly and unexpectedly diverted. “Wait, say what?”

Sam raises his eyebrows. “Yea, that time Dad left us in New Jersey for a month? You dated that cheerleader, Shannon or something, but every time you went to watch her cheer at a game you’d have your eyes glued to the quarterback. You’re not as subtle as you think you are, Dean.” 

Dean opens his mouth and then closes it, sucking in a deep breath and then blowing it out with intention. “Alright, great, cool. Everyone knows everything about Dean, bully for me. Thanks for the support but me and Cas are gonna leave now.”

“We are?” Castiel’s still monotone, but he doesn’t resist as Dean grabs his bicep and tugs him to his feet.

“Yes,” Dean replies firmly even if his teeth are gritted a little. “We’re getting a second room.”

“Thank god,"   Sam replies with a grin and a wave towards the door. “See you in the morning. Oh, Cas, do you need me to get anything together for the portal spell?”

Castiel’s still glaring Dean down, but he softens when he replies to Sam. “I would appreciate it,” he says, and turns back to the table to jot a few things down. “I’m fairly certain everything we require is in the trunk of the Impala or can be found at your standard grocery store. It’s a very basic shift of the veil.” Sam nods and holds up the folder paper between two fingers.

“Got it. Uh, so, night.”

And then Dean finds the door shut tight in his face, a minute too late realizing his beer is on the wrong side. Fuck his life. He turns to face Castiel and finds him looking grumpy, but not quite as frozen and emotionless. He actually looks… thoughtful, maybe, and his eyes roam openly over Dean’s body.

“I’m going to pay for that, aren’t I?”

A slow smile spreads over Castiel’s face, and Dean’s never seen him look quite so… yikes. Purgatory, here we come, he supposes.

“I hope you have lube,” Castiel tosses over his shoulder as he sets off for the rental office. “We’re going to find out exactly what those legs can do.”

***

Chapter Text

Dean’s not unaware of the irony that two nights in the row he’s ended up with his cheek pressed so hard against an unforgiving surface that it’s uncomfortable. At least this time it’s a headboard instead of Baby’s window, and things are looking good for a much happier ending, so to speak. Cas has been calm and detached since he returned with their room key, swiftly turning dominant and forceful in a way Dean’s never seen him outside of a fight. His demeanor has Dean flashing back to that time he’d carved sigils in his own chest and blown himself across an entire ocean without so much as blinking. It’s a reminder that Cas -- Castiel -- wasn’t always so soft and snarky, so touchable and within Dean’s reach grasp. What Castiel is really made of is raw power, strength, and speed a human can’t even properly conceive of. And while yes, right now he’s stuffed inside a mortal body and constrained by the limits of time and humanity, a part of him is still Castiel, Angel of the Lord, the fearless warrior and soldier of God.

Dean wonders if it’s a sin to find that idea hot as fuck but then Castiel shifts behind him, yanking him back into his lap and therefore seating himself as definitively far in as he can go. Despite the lube, there’s still a little burn especially like this, and Dean has to admit, there might be something to this no-prep thing, at least on special occasions. It’s way more intense but at the same time he’s pretty sure that if Castiel would let him have his hands he’d have come all over the sheets ten minutes ago. Unfortunately for him, they’re still tied behind his back and Cas is currently using the binding ( his own goddamn FBI tie) as leverage.

Cas’ free hand moves from where it had been pressing in the middle of his chest, drifting upward to rest just a hair's breadth from his throat and Dean groans. Cas isn’t going to choke him, is he? Fuck, he can’t decide whether that idea is more terrifying or more arousing, but damn is it ever going in his spank bank. His hand stays hovering there like the threatening promise it is, but his thumb and forefinger grab Dean’s chin and tilt his head to the side. Castiel’s teeth graze the taut skin at the side of his neck and his lips settle on the shell of Dean’s ear.

“It felt like perhaps I’d lost your attention,” he murmurs, dropping his hand from where it’s been clutching at the tie and wrapping his fingers around Dean’s hip. He thrusts sharply a few times and Dean can’t even pretend that he’s capable of coherent thought, never mind speech. His dick is screaming, he doesn’t even dare look down at it for fear that acknowledging its predicament will only make things more painful. All he knows is that it’s hard as a goddamn rock and leaking like a fountain. He drops his head back onto Cas’ shoulder and prays as Cas’ hand on his hip drops lower, flattening against his pubic bone and holding him steady as he spreads his own knees forcing Dean’s apart too, making him completely open and vulnerable. Fuck face down, ass up -- this is the most goddamn submissive thing Dean’s ever seen in his entire life, nevermind been a part of, and he’s not just a little disturbed at how much it’s definitely working for him.

“I like you like this,” Cas growls, his voice low and possessive. “Perhaps you should hurt my feelings more often, if this is what comes after.” Dean grunts as Cas’ thrusts find his prostate, his mouth open and panting now, right against the bolt of Castiel’s jaw. He makes an effort to close his mouth and lick his dry lips, wiggling a little in Cas’ lap as the discomfort in his dick threatens to cross the line into unbearable. He doesn’t beg, though, because Cas dips his chin right at that moment and captures his lips in a soft, tender kiss that’s way out of place in whatever they’re doing here. And when Dean kisses back just as softly, Castiel wraps strong fingers around his cock and gives him the relieving few strokes he needs to come, firmly and gently working him through it as he makes a bunch of very unmanly noises into his mouth in return. The tie comes off as Castiel manages to finish himself off like he’s the one who's been holding back, and where the fuck did Cas learn all this shit?!

Honestly, Dean can’t quite bring himself to care, floating on cloud nine as Castiel returns from the bathroom with a wet washcloth and a bottle of water. Dean chugs it and then tries to bury his face in the pillow, but Cas has other ideas. After putting the lights out, he climbs into bed and proceeds to nudge and tug at Dean until he’s more on top of Cas than off, but he does have to admit; it feels good.

“M’sorry, Cas. For real. M’an asshole,” he slurs, as Castiel rubs his back.

“I knew that when I signed on for this,” Cas replies without any trace of malice or resentment, and even in Dean’s sleepy state he’s aware enough to know that should make him feel worse. 

“M’workin’ on it,” he slurs again, quickly losing the battle with sleep.

“I know.” Castiel shifts as he gets comfortable in the bed, and hugs Dean to his body just a little bit tighter. Dean thinks he feels a kiss drop somewhere in his hair but he’s just so tired. “It’s alright, Dean.”

Cas’ voice is soothing.

***

It’s hard for Dean to leave the shower the next morning. Castiel had gone first so he’s not overly concerned with saving any hot water and as such, he lets himself just stand there, the surprisingly decent water pressure beating down roughly on his back. He inhales the steam and washes his entire body a second time, scrubbing until his skin is bright pink all the while knowing it’ll be some time before he’s able to do so again. Purgatory is pure, in a way, in that its inhabitants all share a single purpose: Survive, kill. Rinse, repeat, except not literally. But the realm also has a way of clinging to a person, settling into your bones and changing the very fabric of what makes you, you. It’s beyond the dirt and blood that’ll inevitably cover his skin and saturate his clothing, but those things certainly don’t help. Dean’s not sure he’s prepared to be so perpetually dirty again.

So he washes. Everything twice, including his hair, plus the best, most thorough job of shaving he’s done in years. When he finally turns the taps to “off” and throws the shower curtain wide to find Cas sitting patiently on the closed toilet seat, he almost has a heart attack. He yelps as he stumbles a little in his effort to grab a towel and cover himself up ( force of habit).

“Jesus, Cas. The hell are you doing?”

“Waiting for you to finish showering?” Castiel tilts his head and stares Dean down as if stalking a guy in the bathroom is perfectly normal human behavior.

“Yea, but… you know what? Doesn’t matter. You need something or you just wanna watch me brush my teeth?”

Castiel squints. “Why would I want to watch you brush your teeth?”

Dean spreads toothpaste onto his brush and shoves it into his mouth. “I’unno, Caf,” he says with a shrug before spitting. “I’m not the one hanging out in occupied bathrooms.” There’s silence for a moment as Castiel plays with his fingers and Dean continues to brush. “Dude, seriously, tell me what’s up,” he insists when he’s done and Cas is still playing the quiet game.

“I just… I wanted to make sure that I didn’t cross any lines last night,” Castiel says, quiet but sure. “I may have gotten… a bit caught up in the moment, and I was concerned that may have resulted in choosing to push past certain limits with you that we should have discussed first.”

Oh. This is that kind of conversation. The kind Dean never has to have because he’s too busy skating out of bed in the dead of night, leaving his hookups basking in the glow of his tail lights  and keeping any shame and loathing he might accidentally allow himself to feel locked up tight inside his own head, where it belongs.

“Cas, we’re good,” he insists, and surprisingly, he thinks it might actually be true. “I’m a big boy, I’ll use my words if you’re doin’ something I don’t like.”

“Yes, but--” Castiel starts, but Dean holds up a hand to cut him off.

“Look. I might, uh, have some thoughts about some of the stuff we did, but it’s nothing…” He trails off and scratches at the back of his neck awkwardly. “Fuck. Can we table this for now? I’m trying, Cas but my mind is already on the mission. Let’s bang this thing out and then we can talk all you want about how much I like your hand wrapped around my throat, alright?” Castiel’s mouth quirks and his expression eases, so Dean assumes he’s managed to say at least part of the right thing.

“Alright,” Castiel agrees. “Thank you Dean.” Dean catches him around the waist as he tries to slip out the door and pulls him into a kiss.

“M’not used to anyone giving a shit about what I want,” he admits softly, and Castiel looks up into his eyes with an almost imperceptible shake of his head.

“I’ve always cared about what you want, Dean,” he replies, and Dean’s completely taken aback when he realizes how true that statement is.

***

According to Sam, the heavily graffitied alleyway is basically as he remembers it. There’s a weird heaviness to the air, the kind Dean’s felt plenty of times before when walking into somewhere haunted or in particularly restless graveyards. It’s clear that Cas feels it too, looking around and nodding before setting to work drawing the sigils for a containment circle. Dean would help but, the whole point of one of those is to prevent the temporary door they’re opening from spilling outward and swallowing this entire plane, and sigils have never exactly been his strong suit. Wouldn’t want to land everyone on Earth in Purgatory because he dotted an I when he should have crossed a T, or whatever.

He shifts from foot to foot, mentally taking stock of the few things they’re bringing along. Purgatory being more of a state of existence than anything else, food and shelter aren’t necessary. At least he won’t have to fight monsters with some kind of giant pack on. At the same time, he wonders if what he’s got right now is enough. They’d decided this morning to bring a small backpack with lighters, salt, silver and iron, plus some emergency first aid, because getting hurt in Purgatory is definitely a thing. Even as a human Dean had experienced accelerated healing the last time he was there, but he’s not taking any chances now -- especially because not even Cas is sure of what would happen were a human to actually die there. He'd speculated that the human would regenerate in the same way the monsters do, but that dying might tether them to Purgatory permanently, and hell if that’s something Dean is gonna let happen to him.

He slides his blade between his hands, the one he’d fashioned from bone and wood while fighting alongside Benny and searching for Cas. Over the past year it had been tucked discreetly into a special place inside the trunk of the Impala, right behind the left tail light, and part of Dean is almost excited to use it again. His nerves are starting to get the better of him, and he wishes Cas and Sam would hurry up already.

When they do finally finish, he runs down the plan with Sam one more time. If it takes longer than expected (and he doesn’t clarify exactly how long that is, let Sam make that judgment call) for them to turn up in Maine, Sam will leave them supplies and a means to contact him when they do make it out. Dean makes him promise not to follow them in, not for anything, and Sam huffs a protest that he thought he wasn’t being sidelined.

“You’re not,” Dean shoots back. “But if we don’t make it out for some reason, no sense in you gettin’ stuck in there too. Alright?” Sam runs a hand through his floppy ass hair and Dean resists the urge to tell him to cut it for once when Sam finally nods in agreement. “Catch you on the other side, man. C’mon.” Dean opens his arms and they clap each other on the back.

“Jerk,” Sam mutters, and for some reason that's the thing that  makes Dean’s emotional. He blinks back the wetness in his eyes before anyone can see.  Manly tears, he thinks to himself. 

“Bitch,” he replies out loud, sniffing and shaking it all off as they separate. He turns to Cas. “You ready?” Castiel nods and holds out his hand, which makes Dean crinkle up his face. “Really?”

With a roll of his eyes, Castiel grabs his wrist. “You need to be touching me so that we can pass through together. Unless you’d like to stay behind.”

“I’m good,” Dean replies with a warm smile. “I can think of several way more interesting ways I’d rather touch you but, go on. Click your ruby slippers together and send us over the rainbow, Dorothy.”

Castiel cocks his head to the side. “I’ve actually seen that movie, and I don’t think you’re using that reference correctly. It’s meant to be --”

“Alright, whatever, c’mon Cas I’m on the edge of my seat here. Let’s get this show on the road. Don’t take off on me this time.”

Castiel ignores his dig, instead focusing on explaining, “It will happen quickly, this is a simple matter of shifting the veil. This alleyway isn’t actually here. Just don’t let go or try to move until I say it’s okay.” He clears his throat and starts reciting the incantation. Dean’s not quite sure why but it somehow sounds vaguely familiar. It’s not that he recognizes any of the words, it’s more of a feeling… regardless, Dean might not know the spell but whatever interdimensional hotspot they’re standing in certainly does. The air starts to shimmer and shake before Cas has even managed to smash his little potion onto the ground. When he does, a cloud of purple smoke rises up around them and the buildings start to fade from view. Dean keeps his eyes on Sam until suddenly, he’s gone too.

When the smoke clears, everything is different. It’s as if someone took a remote and turned down the color from vibrant to something closer to grayscale. They can’t have had their feet on the ground for more than fifteen seconds, such a short period of time that Cas hasn’t even managed to give him the all-clear to move, when three black bullets drop out of the sky. They hurtle down and smash into the earth only feet away from where the two of them stand, and Dean's suddenly grateful he came prepared. Castiel drops his hand to reach for the machete he has tucked in his own belt, and Dean launches at the nearest Leviathan, assuming the ironic “all clear” is implied now.

“Hell of a welcoming committee!” He yells over his shoulder to Cas and can’t keep the grin from spreading across his face as he slices and dices the overgrown worms with teeth like he was born to do it. Black goo splashes across his clothing and he gets knocked to the ground repeatedly, taking on two to Cas’ one and still coming out on top. By the time they’re done both of them are already covered head to toe in dirt, muck, blood, and god knows what else. Dean’s breathing heavily and he can see that Cas is doing the same, standing across the clearing from each other and shaking their heads at their luck.

“We need to get moving,” Castiel says, the first to break the stunned silence as he strides over to Dean and takes his arm, marching them out of the clearing and away from the mutilated monsters. “I can perform the spell that will turn my grace into a divining rod while we walk, but I can’t be interrupted or I’ll have to start over. The spell will only last a few hours, and then we’ll have to re-cast it. It’s not difficult or time consuming, just short-lived. After I start, I won’t stop to fight should the need arise, unless you explicitly say that you need me.”

Dean nods his understanding as he walks alongside his friend. “Do it up,” he says, flipping his blade in his hand. “I got your back, sunshine.” Castiel gives him a half smile and leans in to kiss his cheek as he unzips the pack on Dean’s back at the same time. He reaches in and pulls out a small ziplock full of ingredients, one of ten or so that they’d put together for ease of use, which Dean suddenly understands and is thankful for.

“I should warn you,” Castiel starts, and then is immediately interrupted by the oncoming rush of a group of vampires, snarling and baring their teeth. Dean sees Castiel manage to shove the baggie into his jacket pocket before again pulling his machete and arranging himself behind Dean so that they’re back to back. They fight defensively, watching over each other’s blind spots and letting the vamps come to them. Despite being outnumbered, they work flawlessly as a team and dispatch the entire group in minutes, save for one. Dean ends up having to chase that one down to behead it, but he’s successful. His adrenaline is really pumping now, and he can’t help but thrill a little at how right this all feels. It’s so much easier than dealing with feelings and emotions and needs. Kill or be killed; fighting like this is pure, it’s clear, it's purposeful, it’s fucking simple.

They walk. Dean keeps a sharp eye out as Castiel does his little spell, and only has to take out one monster in the time it takes him to get his grace tugging forward in the air, the little vial around his neck straining and pointing like a compass does towards due north in the direction they need to go. It doesn’t appear strong enough to bother Cas, but when he tucks the vial back under his shirt it makes a little outward indentation against the fabric, still doing its best to indicate the way to its missing piece.

“That way.” Castiel points, as if it weren’t already obvious, and Dean salutes.

“Aye aye, Captain.”

They walk in silence for a while, every snapping twig setting Dean’s teeth on edge and making his muscles tense in preparation for coming face to face with the monster doing the snapping. They take out several more creatures with little issue before Castiel starts to talk and the real trouble starts. Part of Dean wants to throw his head back and cry, moan, whine, anything to get him to shut the hell up. Is it so much to ask for one damn day to enjoy Purgatory for the very few redeeming things it has to offer, namely the extreme lack of bullshit and emotions and feelings, none of which have any place in maintaining the razor-sharp edge and awareness needed to fucking stay alive here? But Cas obviously has other ideas or he’s really that fucking dense, Dean’s honestly not sure which it is today, but nonetheless he’s making some comments that have Dean’s temper rising.

“I’m just saying, Dean, my grace is obviously still attracting monsters like a beacon, and that is an extra danger to you. I understand your feelings on the matter and yet I can’t help but feel that I am putting your life unnecessarily at risk. You could make your way to the portal, I wouldn’t even ask you to leave without me. Waiting there would at least reduce the risk to your life significantly.”

Dean spreads his arms and turns his torso from side to side. “Does it look like I’m struggling here, Cas? Last time I checked, it was me protecting your ass these past coupla hours. And what the fuck, dude,” he adds, shoving at Castiel’s shoulder and sending him stumbling a little. “We talked about this.”

“Yes, but I’m not asking to leave you, Dean,” Castiel argues. “There’s no need to get upset, I’m simply trying to protect you.”

“No, you’re asking me to leave you, which ain’t any better. You’re no more powerful than me buddy, and if you think I’m gonna leave your defenseless little human ass out here to fend for itself, I’m gonna have to wonder if you’ve been secretly snorting that magic fairy dust or whatever is in those baggies, because that logic spells brain damage.” Castiel stops in his tracks but Dean keeps walking. “C’mon Cas, ” Dean snarks, “You’re the one who said we need to keep moving.” He can hear Castiel shuffling behind him in an effort to catch up, but he isn’t prepared to be grabbed by the sleeve of his jacket and jerked back around. He’s so on edge that he almost takes a swing, managing to reign it in at the last second.

“Why are you so cavalier about your own safety?” Castiel’s eyes are dark and angry and that makes Dean furious.

“M’not, not any more than you are,” he challenges. “We came here together, Cas. You think, what? That I’m too stupid to have figured out this might happen? That somehow dumbass Dean wouldn’t be able to put two plus two together and figure out that heavenly grace is still four? That it’s still big, shiny, monster-magnet-wielding grace whether it’s around your neck or inside of it? I’m not an idiot, Cas, I knew what I was signing on for. So stop kid-gloving me and at least treat me like I’m useful muscle, even if you don’t think so highly of my brain.”

Cas’ eyes widen, and he looks like he’s been slapped. “Dean, I --”

“Forget it, let’s just keep moving.” Dean slides his blade into his own belt and takes off in the direction they’d been headed before. After a moment or two, Castiel turns up at his side again.

They walk on quietly for a few minutes before Castiel dares to open his mouth again to speak. “You can't really believe that I think so poorly of you,” he says, sounding hurt and sad. Dean just sighs and shrugs.

“Doesn’t matter what I think, Cas, let’s just do what we came here to do, and we'll both agree to stop trying to be the bigger martyr.” Dean’s eyes avoid Cas' gaze, sweeping constantly across the brush line even as they talk, not wanting to be caught unaware and prove Castiel’s stupid point in the process. He thinks he sees a shadow in his peripheral vision, but by the time he looks, it’s gone, but that’s not unusual for Purgatory.

“It matters to me,” he hears Cas saying from his other side. “Dean, please, I’m trying to talk to you.” Rolling his head back to crack his neck, Dean heaves another sigh and turns to face Cas.

“One minute,” he says, holding up a single finger. “You get one minute.” He’s feeling salty and irritable, but then Castiel takes his hand and turns on the puppy dog eyes, and goddamn, he’s a sucker for that look. “Fucking hell, Cas,” he mutters. “This place doesn’t kill me, you’re gonna do it for sure.” 

“I can’t stand the idea that you believe I think so little of you,” Cas says, ignoring his last comment. “Please, Dean. I care about you very much. It’s why I left the last time, though I understand now that I hurt you more than I helped, and I will continue to be sorry for that through all of my days. Dean, I pulled you out of hell. You were my responsibility. I will never stop worrying about you or wanting the best for you. As you say so often… I’m trying, but I can’t change overnight. Being back here… it is pulling at me in a way that I didn’t anticipate. Resurfacing some very old and strong memories and feelings. I apologize that those issues manifested this way, I never meant to make you feel inferior, or imply that I see you as anything less than brilliant.”

Some of the tension goes out of Dean then, and he steps forward so he’s toe to toe with Castiel. “We’re partners now,” he says into the small space between their faces. “I ain’t lookin’ for a guardian angel, m’looking for someone to have my back and trust that I’ll have theirs. Yours. Shit, that was fuckin’ deep.” That gets a smile from Castiel, and they lean in at the same time to kiss. Dean pulls away pretty quickly, though not because he isn’t interested in continuing that train of thought, they’ve just been standing in one place for an awfully long time.

He continues to scan their surroundings as they set off again, but he doesn’t protest when Cas slips a hand into his.

“So,” he says conversationally. “You know any warding we could put up that might keep the baddies away? Don’t I remember you scratching some sigils or something into trees when me and Benny would want to rest?”

Castiel nods slowly. “Yes… there are a few things that should help. They’re only useful if we stay in one place, though. Similar to a devil’s trap, but in the reverse. What’s outside can’t get in but protection is limited to remaining inside of the circle. Not particularly useful for walking. Why do you ask? You can’t be tired yet.”

“No,” Dean agrees. “Not tired.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a small bottle of lube, waving it at Castiel with a devilish smile. “But you did hurt my feelings, and maybe I feel like you owe me one.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“Hey,” Dean says with a shrug. “I don’t make the rules, I just follow them. And thanks, by the way. Pretty much accepted that I’m never gonna live down Sam noticing that I was walking funny this morning. Least there’s no one here to laugh at you when I tear that ass up.”

“No, just the monsters that will eat me when I can’t fight properly,” Castiel scoffs.

Dean winks. “Don’t worry, baby. I got your back.” He laughs so hard at his own terrible joke that eventually Castiel joins in.

***

They trek on until long after it’s gone dark, which in Purgatory seems to happen more frequently than on Earth, or maybe it just feels that way. Castiel redoes the spell that turns his grace into a makeshift divining rod once, just to make sure they’re going in the right direction and they are. The two of them continue to walk side by side, fighting off various monsters as they come upon them. A few recognize their faces but none come close to besting them and Dean has to hope that as word of their presence spreads, the idea of encountering them becomes a deterrent rather than the challenge it seems to be now.

The part of Purgatory they’re pushing through now is thick with trees and brush. As the dark settles in, Dean starts to feel like their human eyes are really putting them at a disadvantage. Thankfully, Castiel agrees and they decide to make camp. They find a small open space, a clearing that's maybe ten feet or so across and surrounded by trees. Dean lays a salt circle before turning to check in on Cas.

“Will this stuff actually keep anything out here?”

Castiel makes a face. “I honestly don’t know the answer to that, but it can’t hurt,” he replies, returning to carefully carving sigils into the trunks of the trees. Dean guards him carefully while he does, his blade drawn and at the ready, the pitch blackness making every shadow look as if it’s moving and shifting, every flash of light the eye of some lurking predator. And because this is Purgatory, that is all probably true. Goosebumps break out over Dean’s arms at that thought, and he finds himself well and truly fearful for the first time since arriving back here. Everything is more ominous in the dark.

But for the first time, nothing comes to wield an attack. Maybe the beasties feel the same way about them, it’s not like they must encounter humans all that often here to know better. Thankfully, Cas makes quick but efficient work of his task, soon enough announcing that they’re safe.

“Stay near the center,” he advises, “Just in case, but the perimeter is up. Nothing can pass until we both step out. That doesn’t mean they can’t watch though. We should still do our best to keep track of what might be out there, so we don’t end up surrounded and outnumbered.”

“Fuck lot of good knowing will do while it’s dark like this,” Dean remarks.

“Well, if it’s any consolation, I don’t think we are that interesting,” Castiel muses. “Fewer and fewer monsters sought us out as the day went on, so I can only assume that our reputation began to precede us, either that we’re deadly or simply just boring and not worth chasing down. It’s equally likely that they all went back to killing each other.” It’s an interesting thought and Dean’s willing to buy it, especially since they haven’t been attacked since it got dark. Still, he lays his blade out on the forest floor where it’ll be within easy reach after he bunks down.

He straightens up again, preparing to ask Cas if he wants to snuggle and make out instead of keeping watch like they’re supposed to, because what are magical barriers for, anyway, if they can’t steal a couple minutes of peace? But when he does, he’s rendered speechless because Cas is quite literally stripping. His jacket and layered shirts drop to the ground in a pile, one after another until his beautiful toned chest is bare, and even in the thick darkness Dean’s mouth is watering over every damn curve.

Cas,” he whispers, and embarrassingly, his voice cracks.

Castiel stops what he’s doing and stares at him. “What? You wanted to fuck me, didn't you?”

Dean swallows and lets himself reach out and touch, even though he knows he should probably clear up a few safety things, first. The tips of his fingers skate up Cas’ smooth chest, brushing over an already hard nipple and coming to rest on the side of his jaw. He pulls him in and gently brushes their lips together before forcing himself to get a grip. “Cas, man, you know i was mostly kidding back there, right? I mean, no, I wasn’t, I definitely always want to fuck you, but I’m also not going to put us in danger so I can get laid.”

“We’re not in danger,” Castiel says matter of factly. “After what we discussed earlier, do you really think I would put you at risk? You can trust these sigils, Dean. Here, watch.” Cas bends down and scoops a small rock off of the ground, those muscles in his back Dean loves so much flexing as he moves. He straightens back up and tosses the rock once in his hand before winging it at the empty space between two of the trees surrounding them. The pebble bounces in mid-air as if it had been thrown directly into something solid, glancing off and landing on the ground. In the meantime, the air it touched turns a shockingly bright purple and ripples outward the way you’d expect water to react under a skipped stone. The purple waves surround them completely, illuminating the entire circle as Castiel looks on thoughtfully. 

“Perhaps not the smartest demonstration considering, but I suppose we’re already a homing beacon as it is.” He bounces his shoulders and turns back to Dean, threading an arm up and around his neck. “So if you’d like to punish me… I would be more than pleased to oblige.” Dean swallows thickly as Castiel steps back to kick off his shoes and socks, dropping his pants and underwear unceremoniously.

“You wanna fuck naked in the dirt? Seriously?”

Castiel raises his eyebrows. “We’re already dirty, Dean. At least this will be the rewarding kind.” Dean can’t exactly argue with that, especially not with Castiel walking forward to invade his space again, pressing up against his chest and rutting his naked body against Dean’s. And shit, if Cas is gonna get on his hands and knees in the dirt, the least Dean can do is show some appreciation. Which is how he finds himself on his own knees, Cas’ hand wound tight in his hair as he moves inside Dean’s mouth, not too rough but not all that gently, either. And as it turns out, sex in Purgatory is a lot like fighting. Some kind of base, animal instinct that takes over and eradicates any doubt, any self-consciousness, any fear. Dean gives over to it, just like he does the fighting. Pure is still the word; pure, simple, right. He chases Cas’ pleasure with his own; letting the other man take what he wants and listening to him groan in satisfaction, feeling immense delight at the idea that he’s providing it.

Soon though, it’s not enough for Dean to be simply giving; he needs to feel Castiel around him, under him, all over him. He pulls his mouth away and uses a hand against the ground to shove himself back up to standing, already ripping at his clothes to sending them flying down into the dirt. Cas lets him go until the instant his clothes are gone and then he’s on him again. They crash together, Castiel’s strong arms crushing him as they stumble a little and almost stagger outside the circle, Cas catching them at the last second and shoving them back. Cas wraps himself around Dean’s body and kisses him hard and rough like it’s air, like he can’t breathe without taking it from Dean. Some part of Dean knows this was supposed to go another way, that he was supposed to be in charge here, but truth be told he can’t be bothered to care. He and Cas feel like equals right now, and the push-pull between them is addictive in a way it’s never been, and it was really fucking good before.

And Cas is demanding, yanking at his hips and clawing at his shoulders, making Dean work for it in a way he’s entirely unused to. Cas might be on his back in the dirt with Dean between his legs, their cocks sliding together and his legs parted in a way that makes him look submissive, but Dean’s no fool, Cas is anything but a passive participant. He dips down to take his mouth again, their tongues sliding together slick and hot, only to have Cas fist his hair and yank it to the side so he can mouth and suck at his neck before changing tacts and shoving Dean back with two palms on his chest. As soon as he’s free to, he flips over onto hands and knees, the skin on his back patchy with dust, Dean surging forward to kiss all of it anyway. Castiel pushes back at him with his ass as he’s fumbling for the lube that went tumbling to the ground along with his pants.

Sliding inside Cas is different this time. Maybe it’s because they’re both dead sober, maybe it’s Purgatory, maybe it’s the argument they had earlier, Dean doesn’t know. Whatever it is, it’s powerful, the world around them feeling like it’s shuddering to a halt as the two of them connect.

Dean ,” Castiel grunts, shoving himself up and back so that he’s sitting in Dean’s lap, the exact reverse of how they’d fucked the night before coming here. Castiel rests his head on Dean’s shoulder while his hands grip his thighs. Dean’s own hands slip up and down Castiel’s sides, slide down to his groin, skate over the rough stubble that’s already coming in there. “I wanted you just as much the last time we were here,” Castiel continues, sounding like he’s half-babbling nonsense and half-confessing his deepest sins. He moves in Dean’s lap as he talks, gyrating his hips and pulling on the back of Dean’s neck as leverage. 

“I was guilty, undeserving, and you came for me anyway. Each time you prayed, I cried for what I’d done to you and prayed to my own Father that you’d stop, that you’d leave me behind and save yourself.” Castiel grunts again and readjusts the angle he’s grinding at, forcing Dean inside even deeper. “And then you found me, and I was as weak as I’ve ever been. I’ve never been able to resist you, Dean.” Dean’s climax is building, heat pooling tight in his groin ready to snap at any second. This is the most bizarre form of dirty talk he's ever experienced, but it's Cas, and for that reason it only adds to the intensity he's experiencing. Castiel’s pelvis surges up, almost completely freeing Dean's dick before slamming back down and fully sheathing him. Dean’s hands tighten on Cas’ hips, holding him in place as he grinds and thrusts back to meet him, fully chasing his own orgasm now. He releases Cas’ right side leaving red finger marks behind and closes his fist around Cas’ cock. He jacks him hard and fast using the fluid that’s leaking out to slick the way and Castiel rocks into it without hesitation. He moans and tips his head so that his lips brush Dean’s cheek.

“I love you. I’ve loved you for so long, Dean,” Castiel murmurs, his voice punched out with Dean’s thrusts. And then his words are gone, dissolving into whines and moans as he closes his own hand around Dean’s and comes all over both of them. Most surprisingly, instead of Cas’ words being the bucket of cold water Dean would have guessed they’d be in this particular moment, they fuel his arousal, make him cling to Cas tighter, fuck harder, and come more intensely than he previously thought he could.

But he can’t say it back. It’s not that he doesn’t have feelings for Cas that are maybe of that same flavor and variety but it’s too fucking much, right here and right now. It’s too goddamn soon, he thinks to himself. I just got you. And everything I care about dies. As his orgasm fades, he doesn’t say anything at all, just drops his face to the back of Castiel’s neck and breathes him in, wrapping shaky arms tightly around his chest. 

It's so unnaturally quiet.

“Cas,” he starts, broken and cracked, but Castiel shushes him.

“It’s alright, Dean.” He’s reassuring him because of course, Cas knows. Dean wishes, he prays things were different, that he was better , but life doesn’t work that way, and even if it did Purgatory is a place where you pay for your sins on repeat, a scratch in the record that can never be reset. It’s so fucking fitting. No wonder Cas left him before and no way it’s not simply a matter of time until he leaves again.

Over and over and over again. As he sits there, face pressed to Castiel’s skin, clutching him close and doing his best to hold onto the moment despite the self-hatred doing its best to drag him under, Dean comes to a realization. It would be bone-achingly funny, in fact, if it weren’t so goddamn depressing.

His body might be back in Purgatory, but his mind has never left and probably never will. He’s a monster of his own making, trapped in a prison he built himself, surrounded by walls only he can tear down. Dean could say the words, could probably even mean them, but he knows he’d be hurting Cas even more if he did. Monsters can’t be taught to love, not when their purpose is to bring pain.

Castiel holds on a little tighter, and Dean lets himself have it. It’s enough. The barest light begins to crack through the tops of the trees; it’s time to go. It’s always time to go.

Over and over and over again.

***

Chapter Text

They don’t talk about it. Dean doesn’t offer and Castiel doesn’t push (or worse, say it again) and that’s just going to have to be enough for now. Dean manages to stuff his insecurities and emotions back into the lockbox in his head where they belong, at least for the time being. He needs every ounce of focus he can get, and worrying about Castiel’s feelings on top of his and Cas’ future is the opposite of paying attention. 

So they walk. Silently, for quite a while, though Dean keeps stealing glances out of the corner of his eye and Castiel doesn’t seem bothered by the quiet in the least. It’s almost as if he expected Dean to act this way, which means that his emotional constipation is so obvious to Cas that of course he’s unable to reciprocate his feelings, verbally or otherwise, and that is so much worse than him being mad or upset.

Focus, Dean has to remind himself again as he trips over a tree root and almost goes sprawling. Goddamn tree roots are catching him off guard, this is not shaping up to be a good day. At this rate maybe he should just ask Cas to throw up the barrier again and they can sit down and hash this out and - nope, never going to happen, Dean thinks, internally chastizing himself for even considering it. Besides the epic waste of time, what the fuck would he even say? Sorry I’m emotionally stunted and so full of self-hate I’m not even sure that I’m capable of the L word anymore? Or maybe, sorry, Cas, but I can’t say those words because the universe takes everything I care about away from me and I don’t want to lose you? Or how about, sorry that none of this makes sense but I haven’t been sensical about that word since I was four?

Yea… fat lot of help that would be , Dean thinks to himself, and then thanks to his rebellious, wandering mind he almost gets taken out some kind of misshapen animal-like beastie that squeals like a pig as it jumps out at them from inside a bush.

Focus, he thinks, slashing wildly at the beastie until it stops moving (and squealing).

He does better after that, if only because he couldn’t stand for his incompetence to be the reason Castiel got hurt again.

***

Eventually, the direction they’re traveling requires them to cross a river. Cas says it’s the river, the only one that runs through Purgatory, which means it’s also where the two of them were reunited after Dean finally tracked his ass down. Neither of them bring that up either, but those images stay at the forefront of Dean’s mind as he prepares to wade across. He finds himself wondering if Castiel hadn’t hugged him back that day because he’d been afraid to; afraid that if he allowed himself that one small comfort, a dam would break and he wouldn’t have been able to hold back anything at all. Dean’s familiar as hell with that particular feeling and the concept of keeping your emotions to yourself for the sake of protecting someone else, much as he despises other people doing it to him. He wonders what might have happened if Cas hadn’t held back, though. If, when Dean had found him crouching beside the water and run up to throw his arms around him he’d hugged back, kissed him, told him how he felt. Would Cas have forgone staying behind? Or would it have steeled his resolve to find out that Dean cared for him in return? It’s impossible to say, of course, but that doesn’t stop Dean from thinking about it.

Their journey into the water (and Dean’s down memory lane) is temporarily halted by the crash landing of a handful more Leviathan. Thankfully, as a group they don’t seem to have become any more skilled in the year they’ve had to practice fighting, and Dean takes two of them out easily. Castiel isn’t quite so lucky this time, taking a pretty major hit that Dean catches out of the corner of his eye just as he’s slicing his last attacker down the middle. He sees him go flying head first into a tree, landing at the base crumpled and unmoving like a balled up piece of paper tossed aside in a game of trash can basketball. 

Dean whips around and manages to behead the dick who threw him thanks to the element of surprise and a sneak attack from behind, but the last remaining chomper rounds on him as he does, grabbing his right arm and yanking so hard that Dean feels a pop and sees stars. His machete goes flying as the force of the attack knocks him to the ground. The Leviathan follows him down, mouth unhinging and saliva-covered teeth bared in preparation for swallowing his head whole. Dean struggles to fight back but he’s pinned under the creature’s weight, his only free limb his injured right arm which is completely useless to the point that he can’t even lift it. He cringes and closes his eyes as the thing’s mouth opens wider, gurgling and lunging towards him as it sprays hot drool all over his face.

He’s still bracing for the first bite when he hears rather than sees the swish-thwick sound of a blade cutting through flesh and then, because he’s distinctively not being eaten alive, the thud of what he can only assume is the Leviathan’s head landing on and rolling across the forest floor. He blows out an immense sigh of relief as he cracks his eyes open, preparing to kiss Castiel into the next dimension for saving his ass at the last second but apparently, this day isn’t done fucking with him yet. Towering over him, his silhouette outlined by the hazy Purgatory sun is a man who is definitively not Castiel. And while the figure may be dirty and unshaven, he still manages to look pleased as hell with himself as Dean stares up at him from the ground.

“Holy shit,” Dean gasps, slapping a hand over his still-pounding heart. “Benny!”

“Long time no see, cher,” Benny replies with a smile and an outstretched hand. He pulls Dean to standing using his good arm and yanks him straight into a bone-crushing hug. Dean winces as his dislocated shoulder is jostled, but his happiness at seeing Benny is surprisingly hard to overshadow.

“That’s some timing you got, brother. Here, hold this.” He uses his good hand to place one of Benny’s on his injured shoulder and the other on his limp forearm. “Tight, don’t let go.” With a sharp, practiced twist of his body he snaps his shoulder back into place, rolling it out in relief as soon as Benny lets him go. “Thanks,” he says, touching his blade to his head in a mock-salute. He then makes his way over to Cas, who’s still lying unmoving on the ground.

Benny just shrugs. “Not as much as you’d think, with the timing. Been following you two since yesterday, had to make sure y’all weren’t some sort of Purgatory mind-fuck or a coupla monsters wearing your faces. You understand.” Dean rolls Castiel over and tugs him up into his arms. He checks a pulse and is relieved to feel his heart still beating and his chest still rising and falling with every breath which means he’s just out cold, and understandably so, if the nasty gash splitting open his forehead is any indication.

“Yea,” he replies distractedly. “C’mon Cas, wake the hell up.” He slaps repeatedly at the side of Cas’ face to no avail. “Benny, you wanna make yourself useful and grab me some gauze outta my pack?” Benny nods and is quick to comply, handing the supplies over and watching from above, one eye on them and one trained on the forest. Dean makes a compress to hold against Cas’ still-bleeding wound and hazards a glance up at Benny. Not much else to do but wait, now. “So uh, what changed your mind? About us, I mean?”

Benny crouches down next to him, somewhat relaxed but still on guard, light blue eyes piercing and amused at the same time, and Dean’s never been so relieved to see a familiar face. “Nothing,” Benny admits. “I still wasn’t sure just now when you got jumped. Truth be told, Hot Wings here is why. Between the two of you doing the horizontal tango last night and his grace being kept in a jar, I didn’t know what to think.”

Dean’s ears get warm and he fixes his eyes safely on Castiel as he realizes what Benny’s referring to. “You saw that?”

“Hey, I’m the one stuck with the visual of your naked ass humping away seared into my brain for the rest of eternity,” Benny replies with a laugh. “But I’m happy for you brother, if you’re happy. Surprised, is all. Didn’t think you’d ever get your head out of your ass long enough for this to happen but hell if I’m not glad you proved me wrong.” Dean opens his mouth to reply but is miraculously saved from accidentally diving further into chick flick territory by Castiel moaning and shifting a little in his arms.

“Cas? Cas, wake up, buddy. C’mon man, we gotta go,” Dean urges, slapping at Cas’ cheek again and shaking him a little. Benny’s gone back to standing and keeping watch, and Dean’s grateful.

“Mmph, unngh,” Castiel manages, his eyes fluttering open and blinking dazedly up at him. “Dean,” he grinds out, low and gritty. “Oh, thank god.”

Without bothering to look down, Benny snorts. “You two haven’t changed a bit, never did care about anything but each other.”

“Hey, I resent that,” Dean shoots back pointedly. “Got your ass outta here, didn’t I?” He helps Castiel sit up, using his own bent knee as a backrest for him to lean against. Castiel winces as he moves but he still does a doubletake when he finally catches sight of the vampire standing over them.

“Benny.” He greets their sometimes-ally with obvious confusion in his voice before turning back to Dean, who’s busy poking at his forehead.

“Benny thought we were monsters,” Dean explains distractedly as he does his best to make the edges of Castiel’s torn skin line up. “He hid in the bushes and watched us fuck like some kind of creepy playground stalker. But we forgive him because he also saved our asses just now.”

“You two regularly fuck in playgrounds? Damn. I’d almost forgotten how you and your sorry ass can be, Winchester,” Benny interjects with a grin and Dean flashes him one back. “It really is good to see you both.”

“This reunion is touching and all, but we need to get moving.” Castiel attempts to push up off of the ground and falls back on his ass with a grimace. He looks at Dean. “Perhaps a painkiller? You did bring some, didn’t you?” Dean nods and fishes out the bottle from his bag, shaking out a couple of pills and handing them over to Cas who promptly dry swallows them like the badass he is. “I have no idea if they’ll even work here, but I suppose we’ll find out. I’m fine though, we should go.” Dean stops him from trying to stand again with a gentle hand on his chest.

“Cas, this wound on your head is deep. We should stitch it before we move on. I don’t know if you can get infections in Purgatory, but with our luck, it’ll be some kind of monster bacteria that’ll turn you into the walking dead and I ain’t playin’ the Aaron to your Eric.”

Castiel just stares at him and for a moment Dean worries he’s going to refuse but then he replies sincerely, “That’s the most romantic thing you’ve ever said to me, Dean.” Dean flushes, not having anticipated that Castiel would understand that reference, and hides his face by fishing around in the bag for the sewing kit he’d brought along for this very purpose. He holds it up and Cas nods his permission, so he sets to work. Benny continues to keep watch for them, fighting off a werewolf and another vampire who appears quite affronted that he’s taken their side. Castiel keeps his eyes locked on Dean, and if he they hadn’t almost just lost each other, Dean would have told him to quit it. But they did and so he doesn’t; focusing instead on his task and completing each stitch as cleanly and gently as possible. 

When he’s done stitching he cleans the drying blood off of Castiel’s face with some water and the used gauze, touching his skin gently and layering a thin smear of antibiotic cream over his handiwork. He finally looks down the two inches or so to meet Castiel’s gaze and finds himself trapped. Those wide blue eyes are staring up at him from less than a foot away with such open concern, love, and fear he can hardly stand to look back. Despite everything and despite their audience, Dean does the only thing he’s capable of right now, which is definitely not words. He leans in and kisses Castiel softly, lingering long enough to try and will everything he feels in his head to magically be transferred to Cas’s, by osmosis or telepathy or Jesus, God even. But there’s no time for this, not now.  

“Time to go,” he says quietly. “Let me help you up.”

***

Benny obviously wants to know what they’re doing in Purgatory but Dean waves the question off for the time being, promising to do one better and show him once they make it across the river. They’ll need to reactivate Cas’ grace again anyway for tracking purposes so it makes sense to wait and kill two birds with one stone. The three of them strip and wade slowly across the river in their underwear; their clothing, weapons, and pack held high above the water’s reach.

“Don’t let your guard down,” Benny advises. “The river’s mostly just over knee deep all the way across save for the middle, but there's a handful of holes out there and they’re occupied, if you catch my drift.”

Dean wheels around, almost dropping his belongings. “What, like sea monsters?!”

“Water monsters,” Benny corrects. “Never seen ‘em myself, but you hear things.”

Dean wades faster after that. In the deepest part of the river they stop briefly to wash up despite the lingering threat, because what the hell, everything in Purgatory is a threat. The water’s up to Dean’s chest there and yet it doesn’t feel cleansing, not in the way water should. He hands his things off to Cas and scrubs at his skin and hair. Some of the blood, dirt, and goo do wash away and his skin looks somewhat cleaner, but he still feels dirty all over. “Is this even really water?” He voices the question despite dreading the answer.

“As much as anything is really anything here,” Castiel answers, and that’s more than Dean was hoping for. He and Benny take their turns while Dean holds their belongings and then they all make their way towards the shore, thankfully exiting the river without encountering anything tentacled or otherwise fishy. When they’re all dressed and ready again, Castiel pulls out one of his spell baggies and prepares to cast it on his grace.

“Hold up there Feathers, is that what you’ve been doing this whole time?” Benny yanks the baggie away and holds it out of reach of an annoyed Castiel. “No wonder you’re attracting so much attention.” He lifts the baggie again when Castiel swipes for it, holding out a hand in an attempt to pacify him. “Relax, cher.”

“You’re speaking to me as if I’m a child,” Castiel retorts. “I am aware that the spell is drawing attention to us, but we have no other choice. We’re here…” He stops talking and looks around, as if someone might be nearby and listening in. Dean rolls his eyes, he’s pretty sure that the monsters in Purgatory aren’t really the subtle eavesdropping type, but he lets Castiel do his thing. “We’re here searching for something that was taken from me. A piece of my grace. And without this spell, we have no way to find it. So you will return my ingredients or I will cut your arm off and take them back myself.” He raises his eyebrows and stands there with one hand out and the other on his hip, challenging the vampire to call his bluff.

But Benny’s got a strange glint in his eye that Dean recognizes all too well. He’s up to something.

“Sure thing,” he replies, dropping the baggie into Castiel’s hand all too easily. Castiel huffs and sets about beginning to cast the spell, but Benny keeps talking. “It’s just that, I already knew what you were here for, and I know where it is. But by all means,” he adds, with a bitten off smile and a dismissive wave of his hands. “Use your little spell if you want.”

***

Dean can tell that Cas is too excited to remember to be annoyed at Benny. He follows closely at his heels, asking a million questions but forgetting the most important one; where is it? Dean finally has to interject and ask, and is thrilled when Benny tells them that they’re less than a half hour’s hike away.

“Everyone, everything here knows about the tree,” he explains. “As you might have noticed, nothing really grows here. Sure, it looks like there’s trees and bushes and shit, but those things just are. They don’t grow and they definitely don’t change. Nothing here does. Nothing except this tree.” Dean listens to Benny but mostly watches Castiel’s face, every trace of irritation and anger vanished, replaced with rapt attention. He’s beautiful, Dean realizes. He’s untouched by all of this, by Purgatory and humanity and all the dirt and grime in the world couldn’t dim what makes Castiel special. He fights a ridiculous urge to scoop him up in his arms and kiss him senseless because hello, not the time or place, but he can’t stop looking, can’t stop thinking about how goddamn beautiful he is, inside and out.

Somewhere in the background, he hears Benny still babbling on, so he does his best to tear himself away from his sappy thoughts and tune back in.

“So pretty soon I decide I’ve gotta see this thing for myself,” he’s saying, “And sure enough, the stories are true. In the middle-- In the exact middle, far as I can tell -- of all this nothingness sits a living, growing tree. First time I laid eyes on it, I think I stared for hours. All kinds of monsters did. Word had spread like wildfire, and things that normally would have been beating the shit out of each other, tearing each other’s throats out, were just standing in a circle, staring up at a tree like God himself was paying us a visit. And fuck, maybe he was.”

Benny goes on to describe the tree as “magical, beautiful,” full of life and color, with all sorts of different flowers springing up at the base and endless, healthy leaves at the top -- all of it growing and thriving in the midst of otherwise endless gray. Growing despite Purgatory, not because of it.

“I dunno who figured it out first because it almost seemed like everyone suddenly knew all at once. I figured the rumor had to be right though, because I knew you.”

“My grace is in the tree,” Castiel supplies, filling in the blanks where Dean isn’t quite following.

“In it, under it, maybe it is the tree, your guess is as good as mine. Here’s the thing, though. That’s not even the particularly interesting part.” Benny scratches at his beard thoughtfully. “You’re probably wondering why no one’s gone and torn that tree apart,” he guesses, and Castiel nods. “It’s because no one can get near it. ‘Bout… twenty feet out in every direction, there’s some kind of mystical barrier that seems to keep anything meant to be in this realm out. If I had to guess, though, I’d say y’all won’t have that problem. Just a feeling.”

It’s only a few more minutes of walking until they’re pushing through the thick, overgrown brush to step into a wide clearing and then Dean suddenly understands. The tree stands before them, smack in the middle of the open space, limbs stretching outward at the top and towering high over their heads despite the trunk sitting quite a few yards away. Its body is thick (thicker than Dean could get his arms around), with healthy, brown bark covered in moss and ivy and snaking green vines winding round and around until they disappear into the leaves which themselves are bright green and abundant, lushly twisted into a living canopy overhead. At the base of the tree are hundreds of flowers; every shape, species and color Dean could imagine, all woven into a botanical quilt of sorts that covers every inch of the ground beneath them. And for several more feet beyond where the flowers end, there’s a carpet of lush green grass that Dean can almost smell the earthy, fresh-cut scent of from where he stands. It would be a stunning display anywhere, but here, set against the stark bleakness of Purgatory, it’s unearthly.

He and Castiel wander forward somewhat aimlessly as Castiel’s eyes fixate on the tree almost trance-like.

“I’ll just wait here then,” Benny calls after them, sounding just a little bit petulant, but he’s soon distracted by the arrival of several more monsters which he sets about fighting, waving away Dean’s help when he turns around to offer. “No worries, brother - gotta keep busy somehow, that’s the gig.”

When he turns back, Castiel has himself pressed up against the tree from cheek to chest to toe and he’s dragging his left hand down the bark in a soft caress. Dean moves to join him, feeling slightly guilty about the flowers he’s crunching underfoot until he notices that they simply regenerate as soon as he steps forward again. The closer he gets, the more it becomes apparent that this is no ordinary tree, as if its appearance wasn’t an obvious enough giveaway. There’s power radiating off of it, drawing Dean in and… soothing him? That can’t be right, he thinks, but it’s undeniable. The tree’s energy feels almost like it’s calling to him, like it recognizes him somehow.

“Impossible,” he murmurs, touching his own fingers gently to the trunk and feeling the draw pull harder. Castiel looks over at him and places a hand over the one Dean’s got on the bark.

“You feel it too, don’t you?” It’s not really a question, but Dean nods anyway. “My grace is here. I believe that it’s likely seeped into the root system, resulting in the growth you see. Incredible,” he murmurs. “But that isn’t all. Dean, the energy here… divine grace was never meant to fuse with this plane in the way that it has. I have no idea if this was intentional on Metatron’s part or a mistake, but this is a portal.” Castiel’s eyes are wide and awe-filled, and he looks at the tree a lot more than he looks at Dean.

“Another portal? Like, back to earth?”

“No, Dean,” Castiel explains patiently. “To Heaven.”

“Holy fuck,” Dean replies, staring up at the tree. “That seems… kind of unsafe? What with creation’s oldest and most dangerous monsters running amok and all?”

Castiel stares for another moment and then shrugs. “Perhaps. The barrier seems to be doing its job, though. If nothing can get near it, then nothing can get through it that isn’t supposed to,” he says, and sure, if you want to be all logical about it, but Dean’s still stuck on the fact that yet another back door into and out of Purgatory exists.

“You know, this plane doesn’t really live up to its ‘VIP access only’ rep,” he complains, but Castiel ignores him, busy studying the different parts of the tree, the visible roots system, the flowers surrounding it. “So… what, you just say some magic mumbo jumbo like in the alley and poof, all dogs go to Heaven?”

“Not quite,” Castiel replies, fingering a carnation and then pulling it from the ground. Another grows in its place immediately, and the one in his hand promptly wilts and turns brown. “There’s a specific sigil, you’d need to carve it into the bark and then say the proper Enochian words.”

Dean’s already pretty much lost interest, so he hums his acknowledgment and takes the opportunity to check in on Benny, who’s now sitting on a rock and sharpening the new blade Dean had given him. He figured it was the least he could do, considering Benny was stuck here saving Sam by his request. “So… what’s the word on your grace, Cas? Do we start digging, or what?” Cas doesn’t answer, just makes a thoughtful face and uses his machete to stab into the ground, shoveling away dirt, grass and flowers until there’s a small hole in their place. Already the top of the root system is exposed and Castiel presses on, chopping off some of the smaller roots and tossing the refuse aside. He pauses for a moment to rest, and right before their eyes the root system regrows and the small dirt hole becomes lined with grass and flowers.

“That’s a problem,” Dean announces helpfully.

“I was afraid this might happen,” Castiel mutters, getting to his feet. He paces for a few moments, deep in thought, before turning to Dean. “I have an idea, but it will require you to trust me.” He raises his eyebrows and maintains steady eye contact, which unnerves Dean because that means Cas is about to say something he’s not going to like. He waits for it, and isn’t disappointed. “There’s a creature that may be able to assist us. It’s far more animal than monster, although I suppose that depends on your perspective. I’ll need to track and capture it. I’ll take Benny with me, but I need you to stay here.”

“What? Fuck no, Cas. Not an option. I thought we discussed this, man.” Dean’s angry, but instead of getting defensive or upset, Castiel steps closer and slides an arm around his waist.

“Dean, stop. Please let me finish. This is not whatever it is you’re thinking. You need to stay here.” He motions towards Benny, who is currently fighting off a werewolf. “You heard him. Monsters are making pilgrimage to see this tree, many of them, perhaps most of them. And in all likelihood those numbers have increased since word of our arrival has spread. If someone doesn’t stay here and take them out as they come, they may very well outnumber us by the time we return.”

Goddamn logic again, Dean pouts to himself. “I don’t like the thought of you out there on your own.”

“I’ll be with Benny,” Castiel reasons. “And you’ll have this circle for safety, should you need to retreat.” He clearly senses Dean’s continuing reluctance and pushes on. “Benny kept you safe for a year in this place,” he reminds Dean. “You trusted him with Sam and so I know that you trust him to do the same for me. So trust me, too. Please, Dean. This is our best chance.” There are things Dean could say about that, about how it’s different, and Sam was good as dead otherwise, and most of all, you matter more than me, but everything his brain comes up with is way too close to those three little words that he’s still resolutely ignoring and so he says nothing, just gives Castiel a tight nod and a lingering kiss.

“Thank you,” Castiel tells him sincerely, touching his chest and kissing him a second time. The air is heavy between them and Benny’s still fucking with that werewolf just outside the circle, so Dean takes the opportunity to break away. He leaves Castiel standing there and comes up from behind to skewer the monster through the heart.

“Oh, my hero,” Benny scoffs, and Dean can’t help but grin. They fill him in on the plan and sooner than Dean would like he’s watching the backs of their dirty jackets fade into the dense forest beyond. He supposes there’s nothing much to do now but sit and wait. As he makes his way back to the tree he swings his arm a little, testing his shoulder. Good as new, so far as he can tell. Accelerated healing for the win, he thinks. Guess that’s technically a perk of this place. He sits down on the grass and marvels again at how healthy and soft it feels, a relief after all of Purgatory’s hard edges and unforgiving everything. He’s fairly certain he could stay right here for hours and not even get bored, that’s how good it feels to be near something truly living, but as it turns out, that’s not in the cards for him today. Just as he’s getting comfortable, a pack of vampires meander out of the brush. They don’t notice Dean at first, enraptured by the presence of the tree, and he takes full advantage.

“Time to go to work,” he says as he pulls out his blade and moves to swing.

***

While there aren’t exactly countable days in Purgatory, the cycle from dark to light is predictable and reliable, and at least serves to mark the passing of time in a way that Dean is familiar with. If he hadn’t used it himself for an entire year then he might not have felt so confident in his estimations, but as it is, he’s fairly confident that Cas and Benny have been gone for over a week. And that’s not sitting well with Dean in the least. He becomes restless, wandering further and further away from the tree in search of any sign of his friend and his… Cas, finding nothing save for some trampled shrubbery which really, that’s just a Purgatory staple. He thinks about setting off on his own, beating up monsters as he comes upon them for information just like old times, but without someone to watch his back he knows it’s a suicidal plan. Although, his traitorous brain argues, if they’re dead or dying in a ditch out there somewhere, you’ll be on your own eventually anyway.

But every time he thinks of chucking in the towel and just setting off on some foolhardy rescue mission, Cas’ pleading face shows up in his head. Trust me, Dean, he’d said. Trust me, and Dean wants to, but trust is fucking hard. But he did agree, and so each time the depths of the forest seduce him onward, he forces himself to turn away, to head back, to trust in Cas for once. He vents his anger, frustration, and okay, he can admit it, fear, by killing the monsters that show up near the tree in the most painful ways possible.

On the twelfth day of Castiel and Benny’s absence, Dean’s lying in his favorite patch of grass and looking up through the leaves at the gray sky beyond. It’s been almost two weeks and this tree is still a fucking trip. He hears the telltale rustling of the bushes beyond his little circle and forces himself to stay perfectly still. He can usually get the jump on whatever comes through them if he doesn’t give himself away too soon. The rustling continues so he flips himself over and army crawls to where the edge of the barrier is, pushing up to a crouch and waiting. The second the monster steps through the brush Dean leaps, throwing the full force of his weight into the thing’s side and knocking it to the ground, getting his knife all the way up to the hollow of its throat before he realizes -- it’s Cas.

“Jesus, fuck, I almost killed you!” Castiel blinks up at him as Dean ducks his head to touch his forehead to Cas’ chest before daring to look back at his face again. Cas is dirty and beat up with his clothes half-ragged on his body and a full ass beard on his face, but his eyes are big and blue and more beautiful than Dean remembers. They hold each other’s gaze for a very full moment before it breaks and they’re both surging forward almost violently, teeth clacking together and the taste of copper filling Dean’s mouth but he can’t stop, won’t stop, needs to feel Castiel alive and whole and warm against his own skin. “Benny?” He doesn’t stop mouthing at Cas to ask, just speaks the word right into the scruff and skin underneath Cas’ jaw.

“He’s giving us a -- a moment ,” Castiel gasps, hand tightening on Dean’s ass. Dean’s got a million other questions but they can all wait because he was completely unprepared for Cas to come walking through that bush. And like a floodgate opening, all of his worry and fear from the past two weeks comes bubbling up to the surface and spilling over until tears are tracking down his cheeks and making Cas’ damp in return. He sees Castiel’s face crease in concern, but he must understand because he doesn’t say anything, just kisses Dean harder, jamming his tongue down Dean’s throat and framing his face with his big, warm hands. Dean wraps an arm around his back and hauls him to his feet, half pulling, half shoving him over the barrier line and into the safety of the shade of the tree. Cas is shoving at his own pants, shaking them off and kicking them away as he pulls Dean down on top of him in the soft grass, fumbling at his belt buckle and pushing his jeans and underwear down to his thighs. His half-hard cock has barely hit the air before Cas has got it in his mouth, swirling and sucking until he’s rock hard-ready, which is almost embarrassingly quickly. 

He doesn’t really register what Cas’ goal is until he’s pulling back, a thin trail of saliva stretching between his cock and Cas’ mouth and god he’s as spectacularly alien as the tree itself when he’s like this. And then Cas is leaning back and tugging Dean down, begging to be fucked and kissed and touched. So Dean gives it to him, because this is something he can do, and maybe on some level Cas knows that. Cas thrusts back against him, biting his lip and sucking at his ear, one arm slung around his neck and the other urging at his hip to move harder, faster. Cas comes first, loud and long with barely a hand on him and Dean quickly follows, slamming into his body and crying out with happy relief that he’s okay and here.

He doesn’t roll off right away, instead holding them tight together and sliding a hand up into Cas’ dirty, matted hair as he presses his face into his neck. Home. That’s what this feels like, that’s what it is. And that is terrifying, but that’s a fear for another day. Castiel pulls his head back to kiss him again, soft and sweet and apologetic this time and Dean lets him, would let him do anything he wanted right about now.

“I’m sorry we took so long,” Cas tells him softly when he pulls away. “But you waited,” he adds with a smile. “I wasn’t sure you’d have the patience. Part of me wondered if I’d return and find you gone.”

“Thought about it,” Dean admits. “But you asked me to trust you. So…” He shrugs and looks away. Castiel touches his cheek and turns his head back so he can’t avoid eye contact.

“Thank you,” he says sincerely.

Dean manages a small smile and kisses him again before pushing away and tucking himself back into his clothes. “Should probably get some pants on before Benny shows back up. Think we scarred him enough the last time.”

“You’re damn right you did.” Benny’s voice booms across the clearing as Castiel moves to pull on his pants with very little sense of urgency. “Least you could do is buy a fella a beer or two before subjecting him to this shit.”

Dean’s about to snark back at him, but when he turns around his priorities refocus in an instant. His mouth goes dry and he has the sudden urge to either vomit or attempt to climb the damn tree behind him despite knowing monsters can’t cross the barrier line. Because it’s not just Benny waiting outside the circle, it’s Benny and a monster on a leash (a makeshift leash that looks to be made of his and Cas’ belts, at that), and this thing is like nothing Dean’s ever seen. He can hardly believe Benny’s just standing there so fucking casually when the thing next to him is the size of Saint Bernard, except it’s no cuddly puppy. No, it’s more of a… well, Dean’s not entirely sure his vocabulary contains the descriptive words needed to fully encompass all that he’s seeing but he supposes the best comparison would be a giant fucking pincer beetle. All shiny and black with a shell and bug-like legs, complete with not two but three antennae and big curved pincers jutting out in front of a mouth full of sharp teeth and dripping drool. The giant beetle... is drooling. Dean looks over at Cas (who is thankfully now fully dressed) with his jaw threatening to unhinge and just gapes. It’s not often that Dean’s rendered speechless, but this? This’ll do it.

“Dean,” Castiel says calmly. “Meet Betty. She’s going to help us retrieve my grace.”

***

Chapter Text

“Betty,” Dean repeats, incredulous. “You named that thing? What, like after the song?” Castiel looks affronted at his blatant dislike for the slobbering giant bug with teeth because of course, he does. If Dean had to hazard a guess, he’d be all in to bet he’s about to get a lecture on not judging books by their covers. Except, in this case, they’re in Purgatory, and he’s judging the giant, carnivorous-looking bug by the size of its pinchers and the sharp points of its teeth. His hand actually itches where he’s stuffed it into his pocket to prevent instinct (and, if he’s being honest, just plain old want) from winning out in his internal war on whether or not to kill this thing where it stands.

“I don’t understand that reference,” Castiel replies defensively. “And she responds to it! It’s not as if she speaks English, Dean. Or at all. I needed to use what worked.” He walks over to step outside the circle and to Dean’s horror, starts petting Betty on the head. The creature’s wide, glossy black eyes suddenly appear almost sleepy as they’re half-covered by droopy eyelids, and Betty makes some kind of gross snorting sound. Fucking weird, Dean thinks, but he keeps his mouth shut because Cas has that same look on his face that Sam gets any time there’s a dog around.

“This is fucking weird, Cas,” he blurts out, with a shake of his head and okay, maybe he’s not capable of keeping his mouth shut. “That thing is terrifying and you’re treating it like it's a house cat.” He turns to Benny, hoping for some backup. “Tell me you don’t think this is weird,” he demands. Benny just looks down at the bug and makes a face that suggests he really isn’t that invested.

“Honestly, brother, the things I’ve seen here? She’s not so bad. Friendly, at least.”

“Friendly?! Ok, be honest, did Cas talk you into snorting the fairy dust powder with him?”  

“I believe I may have figured out a way to bring her across the barrier,” Castiel interrupts, apparently tired of entertaining Dean’s quips and eager to get a move on. “Benny too, of course. And if this doesn’t work, it won’t matter what you think of her, because she’s useless from out here, so perhaps we could table this conversation for the time being.” Dean raises his arms and drops them to his side in defeat as Castiel pulls out his machete, making a clean slice along the inside of his forearm. He dips his fingers without hesitation into the steadily pooling blood and sets about fingerpainting a sigil onto the top of Betty’s hard shell. Dean screws up his face as he watches Cas touch the shell and then touch his open wound, but refrains from reminding him again about potential monster bacteria since Cas isn't an idiot and doesn’t seem concerned in the least.

“So, uh, what exactly is she?” If Dean’s going to be getting all up close and personal with this thing, he figures he should at least have some basic information about (how to kill) it, lest she try and bite his hand off.

“She’s a monster,” Castiel answers simply, at first. “But in name only, really. She walked the earth during a time when only monsters did so, alongside dinosaurs and other things long gone from the modern world. I realize that she looks intimidating, Dean, but she’s an ancestor of the Periodical Cicada.” When that gets a blank stare and silence from Dean, he sighs and explains further. “She’s a herbivore. Of course, she’s capable of defending herself if threatened, but her pinchers and teeth are used primarily to latch onto root systems and suck the juices from plants for sustenance. These creatures spend the majority of their lives underground and bother no one. She’s capable of digging through dirt faster than you can run. That’s why it took so long for us to locate her… I had to find her tunnel first, and they are clever at concealing the entrances. Of course, here in Purgatory there’s no sustenance to be found, and I suppose, that is part of Betty’s eternal suffering.” Castiel’s face changes and he uses his clean hand to pat Betty’s head again. 

“It’s unfair,” he says quietly. “She never acted like a monster. She doesn’t deserve to be trapped here.” He turns then to Benny, picking up his hand and replicating Betty’s sigil on the back with what’s left of his drying blood. He doesn’t look up at as he works. “But I suppose it isn’t news to anyone that my Father has made many mistakes and that life and death are rarely fair. Alright, let’s see if this works.”

“What’s the sigil?” Dean asks curiously. From where he’s standing (not very close, despite Castiel’s apparent affinity for the not-monster bug), it looks a bit like a banishing sigil but with a few extra added flourishes. 

“Enochian,” Castiel replies and duh, Dean wants to say. “A symbol of exception and acceptance, though that’s not a direct translation. I’m not sure that there are human words for what precisely it means but drawn in my blood, as long as the barrier was erected with Enochian magic then it should allow them to pass. My vessel was created from scratch by God himself, it should be enough.” And there it is again, as Castiel’s blue eyes flash fierce in his direction, Dean sees it, sees him, a passing glimpse of him, anyway, and every bit of holy power and might he contains.

“Hot Wings here thinks our new little friend will be more than happy to dig down under the tree,” Benny elaborates, apparently realizing Castiel didn’t quite explain the entire plan. “Thinks his grace is stuck somewhere in the root system, and that’s Betty here’s favorite place to hang out. She should realize pretty quick that this is a real tree, and that she can eat to her heart’s content if she gets down there, so basically, she’s a train that runs itself.” Dean nods and shrugs.

“Well alright then, you gonna stand out there and talk all day or come on in?” Castiel and Benny exchange a glance, and Benny hands over Betty’s leash. As soon as there’s a bit of slack, she’s darting forward, romping easily over the edge of the barrier just as Dean and Cas have been able to while simultaneously prompting Dean to jump to the side for fear of being bowled over. Benny steps forward too, raising his marked hand to where he’d previously been met with an invisible wall, and closing it slowly around nothing but air. Looking surprised as all get out, he steps through too, albeit a bit more cautiously than Betty. And if Dean notices him tearing up a little bit and exhaling as the tension really bleeds out of his shoulders for the first time since they’ve reunited, he’s discreet enough not to call attention to it. Betty, on the other hand, is the goddamn opposite of subtle. Cas has dropped the leash and she’s bounding around the tree and the surrounding fauna with a glee Dean’s only ever seen in a golden retriever. So, right the first time, definitely a puppy, not a cat. He still can’t help the heebie-jeebies that wash over him when she skids by too closely, but maybe the oversized beetle isn't quite as disgusting overall as he initially thought.

She heels easily to Castiel’s side when he puts a hand out and walks beside him when he picks up the trailing leash. Dean follows behind and watches with morbid curiosity as Castiel leads her to the base of the tree and crouches down beside her. Betty’s antennae droop, and if Dean didn’t know better, he’d say she seems a little sad, almost like a kid caught with their hand in the cookie jar. But Castiel just strokes her head and whispers to her softly, and eventually, her antennae perk back up and the back of her body shakes in what can only be excitement. And then she digs. Castiel glances back at him with a big smile on his face as dirt goes flying and the front half of Betty’s body disappears, and Dean gives him a bit of a shocked thumbs up. Benny comes to stand next to him and they both look on together, heads tilted to the side in wonder.

“That angel of yours is something else,” Benny says quietly, chewing on a plucked blade of grass that’s already gone greyish-brown.

“Don’t I know it,” Dean replies automatically, slight embarrassment suffusing his face once he realizes what he’s said, but Benny just looks sidelong at him, his expression thoughtful.

“Don’t let your bullshit ruin this for you.” Dean glares and Benny holds up a pacifying hand. “I know, I know how you feel about words and all that, and I promise, I won’t say another thing about it. But take it from a man with regrets… your pride, your ego, it ain’t worth it, brother.”   

Dean keeps his eyes fixed steadily on Betty’s ass end as she disappears down into the ground under the tree, but he shakes his head. “It’s not like that, Benny. It’s complicated.”

“Sure,” Benny agrees easily. “Always is.” He rocks back on his heels and claps Dean on the shoulder. “Anyway. I just thought I’d let you know since I wasn’t real easy on him the last time we were all here. Guess it’s like you and me, you don’t really know a man until you’ve fought him or fought with him back to back. But he’s as tied up in you as you are in him, and I just figured… you might wanna know.”  

Chancing a quick glance in Benny’s directly, Dean’s relieved to find that he’s no longer staring him down. “Thanks,” he replies sincerely and means it. “And, you know, I’m sorry again about Andrea.” But Benny just shrugs him off with a smile.

“Ancient history, these days.”

Castiel’s half into the hole himself now, and Dean stalks forward to yank at his pants and prevent him from crawling in after Betty. Herbivore or not, who knows what she might do if she feels her new little sanctuary is being invaded. Aside from that, the roots could grow back at any time, and with Cas’ luck he'll end up with one in the rib. He pulls him back by his clothing and is greeted with an incredibly annoyed expression as he looks between Dean and the hole.

“I believed she would bring me my grace,” Castiel admits sullenly. “I thought she understood.”

“She’s an overgrown bug, Cas. Don’t get upset. We’ll just grab the leash, drag her out and--” Dean abruptly stops talking as a small vial comes shooting upward out of the hole, landing softly on a patch of peonies. “Holy fuck,” he breathes, and Castiel’s smile is as radiant as he’s ever seen it.

“Thank you, Betty,” he calls down into the empty space, and right as they’re all hovering there looking, the hole closes over with intertwined, twisting roots and an array of colorful flowers, sealing Betty inside.

“Oh, shit, should we like, help her out?” Dean’s surprised at his own concern for the weird bug-thing, but whatever, Cas likes her and he likes when Cas is happy. But Castiel just shakes his head no as his fingers close around the small bottle of grace.

“I assure you, she’s extremely happy down there,” he replies, untying his necklace. “Betty’s likely been in Purgatory for thousands of years and this is the first time she’s been able to do what she was made to do. She doesn’t need sustenance, of course, but… think of her feeding as a security blanket. This is as close to a Heaven as Betty will ever get.” He says the last part a little sadly, glancing back towards the closed-over hole. “Besides, you saw her dig. She’s perfectly capable of getting herself out again, should the need arise.”

“And what will happen to the tree?” Dean finds himself looking up and taking in the lush scene above their heads, so at odds with everything else around them, one last time. “Now that your grace is gone, will it shrivel up and die?”

Castiel finishes combining the newly retrieved grace with what he already has and strings it back around his neck. He looks at Dean and then towards the tree and reflexively touches the vial. “It’s impossible to say for sure, but I don’t think so.” He pushes to his feet, steps forward, and places his hand against the bark of the tree, closing his eyes and remaining very still. “It still feels like Heaven,” he finally says. “When I… when I listen. It’s hard to explain, but I believe the portal is still active. Perhaps the essence of my grace fused permanently with the root system and will allow it to continue to thrive. Regardless, the barrier is separate from the tree, so everything inside of it will remain safe whether it lives or dies. Including Betty,” he finishes affectionately.

From deep under the tree, Dean can hear a soft rumble echoing out from the grown-over hole where Betty had disappeared. It’s almost like a purring sound.

He turns to Cas, pointing at the hole. “Is that…?”

Castiel just smiles softly.

***

Benny stays with them until they’re less than a day’s hike from the portal back to Earth. He offers to go the whole way if Dean thinks he could use the backup, but hesitates short of saying that he wants to. Dean understands because while he’d gladly do the ritual to take Benny out of here, there’s nothing waiting for him on the other side by way of a body. He himself had made sure of that, burned Benny's bones and everything, a decision he’s now not positive was the right one. If the situation were reversed, he wouldn’t want to be anywhere near that portal, a reminder of everything he’d had stolen from him when he was turned into a vampire. Not just life, but afterlife, and everything that comes along with that. Honestly, if he were Benny, he’s not sure he would have even sought him and Cas out. 

But Benny was always something different, something better than what he was supposed to be, what he was told he was. Dean should promise to find a way to get Benny out of here, should tell him that he doesn’t belong, that he deserves better. He should vow to him that he won’t stop looking, even if it takes his whole damn life. But what good would that be? Both of them would know that his words weren’t any more than lip service; false hope or outright lies, at best. But like he always does, Benny lets him off the hook for apologies and everything else with a grin and a tight hug.

Dean hugs him back, his eyes pricking painfully when he realizes this might actually be the last time he ever sees his unlikely friend. All too soon, Benny pulls back and holds him at arm’s length. “Brother,” he says with a smile. 

“Yea,” Dean replies, his smile shaky.

“Take care of him,” Benny says to Cas, tugging him in for a hug that’s shorter than Dean’s but still unexpectedly warm for the two of them.

“I will,” Castiel replies.

“Thanks for the weapon,” he grins. “Until we meet again?” As they watch Benny walk away, Dean swallows the lump in his throat and calls after him. “Hey,” he yells, which makes Benny turn around. “You know, uh, it doesn’t have to be too late for you, either. Andrea… she’s gotta be around here somewhere, right?”

Benny just stares at him for a moment and then throws his head back in a short, powerful laugh. He points his new knife in Dean’s direction. “Maybe you’re right,” he says and tips his hat as he sets off once again into the forest.

“What was that about?” Cas’ voice is gentle, but Dean just shakes his head as he watches Benny’s back disappear into the brush.

“Nothing,” he replies with a soft smile, and thankfully, Castiel lets it go.

***

“I keep forgetting that I am not an angel right now,” Castiel tells him conversationally as they walk. “Being back here… it’s so familiar and yet so different.” He shakes his head and points to the thin scar just below his hairline. “Benny had to cut these out. They’d almost grown over when we realized. It’s just -- Purgatory is confusing. I don’t have to eat or sleep or urinate and I find it almost… comforting. But it makes me forget that I still don’t have my powers.”  

Dean hesitates before replying, not sure this is a path he really wants to go down, but in the end, his curiosity wins out. “Do you miss them?”

Castiel looks up at him, clearly taken aback. “My powers?” He asks, and Dean nods. He licks his lips and thinks for a moment. “I miss being able to protect and heal you,” he replies. “To protect others and be able to fight the threat of evil more easily. But I’ve adjusted. The bodily functions of a human vessel can be very annoying, but my ability to fight and heal is by far my greatest loss.” He stops talking then, remaining silent for so long that Dean thinks that must be all he has to say. But just as he’s about to change the subject Cas speaks up again. 

“It’s a trade-off, I’m learning. I feel things… differently as a human. Which is not to say that I didn’t feel things as an angel, but it’s all so much… sharper, clearer, inescapable now. Pain, of course, but also love. Sex, naturally. My drive for sexual intimacy as an angel was quite low. Although,” he lets his eyes drift to Dean’s body, and it doesn’t go unnoticed. “I wouldn’t say that it was non-existent.” He grimaces, and shifts a little, pulling at the fabric of his pants where it creases a little at his crotch. “And pubic hair. I had no idea that a small patch of hair could be so eternally frustrating and itchy. The devil’s creation if I ever saw one,” he mutters under his breath, and Dean barks out a laugh which makes Castiel scowl. “It’s awful, Dean,” he insists, his nose scrunched up.

“Tell you what, sweetheart,” Dean offers with a wide grin. “When we make it outta here, we hit the road back to the bunker and we stop at the nicest motel in the first hundred miles. Give or take with the wilderness situation. And when we do, I’ll help you shave, and then you help me.” Castiel’s making a weird face when he glances over. “What?”

“That sounds absolutely awful, Dean. Your solution to my hating pubic hair is to make me deal with more of it? No.” In response, Dean grabs Cas’ wrist and swings him around, backing him up against the nearest tree and pressing their bodies together. They fit just right with one of Dean’s legs slid neatly between Cas’ spread ones, the curves and hollows of their hips and torsos slotting perfectly together like the precisely cut pieces of a 3D puzzle.

“I take it you haven’t actually done the thing I’m talking about with a partner,” he purrs, holding Castiel’s wrist above his head and intentionally keeping his lips a few inches away from his mouth. Castiel wriggles beneath him, but Dean holds firm. “It’s incredibly intimate. Requires a lot of trust.” He kisses the left side of Cas’ mouth. “And restraint.” He kisses the other side. “It’s a very...” He dips his head to kiss Cas’ neck at the point where his scruff ends. “Sensitive...” And then the other side, letting his tongue drag down to the hollow of his throat and feel him swallow heavily, “Task.” Cas is all but panting now, straining up against Dean as if he can barely contain himself from ripping him apart. It’s fucking sexy. But instead of obliging, Dean drops his arm and steps back, resuming his walk in the direction they’d been headed.

Castiel soon catches back up, grabbing his wrist this time as he passes, and yanking Dean along. “Walk faster, dammit,” he demands, and Dean grins.

***

Monster attacks are unusually sparse during the remainder of their journey towards the portal. That alone is enough to make Dean wary, he’s been a hunter long enough to know that nothing comes this easily, especially not when you’re a Winchester right on the edge of maybe being happy.

They hear it before they see it; the snapping and crackling of a passageway breaking open between one realm and another, increasing in size the closer the out of place humans get. Pure energy, burning blue and white against the stark landscape, reminiscent to Dean of Castiel’s grace which makes sense, in a way. Both unearthly, both wrong and violently intrusive on this plane, both with visuals that provide the barest clues as to the power and strength they actually wield, the earth-shattering transformations they’re capable of.

Climbing the hill up to the magical gateway drops Dean feet-first into an unnerving tidal wave of deja-vu. He does his best to shake it off but finds it only strengthens when Castiel turns to look back at him with some kind of look on his face and his lips parting to speak. He never does get to hear whatever it was he has to say, though, because of fucking course that’s the moment the farewell party shows up. It has to be coordinated because one minute there’s nothing but the roaring of the portal in front of them and the next there are monsters coming at them from all sides. Leviathan shoot out of the sky, blasting the ground around them and below with sprays of dirt and rock debris. Werewolves, vampires, Dean’s pretty sure he sees the spike of a fucking wraith -- all advancing on them, and all he can do is swing and hope for the best. He takes a few out and sees Cas do the same, but the numbers are just too great, there’s no way they can climb and make it into the portal while working to beat them back.

And then, from somewhere below them and behind the tree line there comes a horrific, ear-splitting screeching noise that makes even the monsters flinch and reach for the sides of their heads. Which is just enough time for a familiar shiny black shape to come bursting through the shrubbery like a bat out of hell.

“Holy shit,” Dean exclaims, taking the opportunity and the distraction of Betty tearing rip-wild through the clearing to swing and behead the three closest creatures. He sees several monsters dive for Betty, trying to crush or wound her, but she avoids them easily, skidding sideways and then launching her way up the side of the cliff path towards them, bowling over monsters like ten pins and sending them tumbling down the rocky mountainside.

“Come on!” Castiel’s yelling behind him, tugging on his jacket which sets Dean back into high key survival mode. Betty’s thinning the herd surprisingly well, though it’s hard to watch between his own fight and their attempt to keep climbing, but he manages to tune back in just as she systematically dismembers one of the monsters she couldn’t topple using only her pinchers.

“Man, I’m glad she’s on our side,” he says, though he’s not sure if Cas is even listening. Finally, the cliff side is clear enough that together he and Cas can scramble up the last five feet of sheer drop to where the portal waits. They claw against roots and crumbling dirt, Dean using his shoulder to give Cas a final nudge up and over the edge. His own feet scrabble for purchase, though and when he looks down, there’s a vamp right on his heels. But all of a sudden like some kind of miracle, there’s Betty beneath them, jumping up like a mutated puppy to clamp down on his leg just as he’s reaching out for Dean’s still-dangling foot. Betty pulls the vamp down as Castiel pulls him up and into the portal, tucking himself tight against Dean’s side, Dean’s arm around his waist. The last thing they see before Purgatory vanishes is Betty high-tailing it for the woods, a group of very angry monsters hot on her trail. Dean finds himself sending up a quick prayer to a god he knows for a fact isn’t listening, that she makes it. Stupid bug.  

***

When the rays of the portal are done flaring and swirling around them, dying away and revealing the Hundred Mile Wilderness just as Dean remembers it, he can tell it’s daytime by the bright light streaming through the spaces at the tops of the trees. The bright red, orange and yellow canopy high above their heads practically screams “fall,” and the earthy, damp smell of the mulch, moss, and soil beneath his feet almost makes his heart ache. It reminds him of what he’s now dubbed “Cas’ tree,” and Benny, and what feels like a little bit of him left behind. It’s not that he likes Purgatory, or that he’d want to stay if given the choice, but Purgatory will always call to him in a way that regular people, people who don’t carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, who don’t understand the purity of hunting without the burden of human needs will ever understand.

He shakes it off and turns to look for Castiel, who had fallen away from him almost as soon as they’d landed, presumably from the impact. He finds him about ten feet away at the edge of the small clearing they were dumped into, pulling something off of a tree. Sam must have gotten bored waiting, Dean thinks. Not a big deal, they’ll just hike out and meet him by the road. He’s probably holed up at some snotty B&B, drinking tea and reading geek stuff and Facetiming with Kevin, or whatever it is he does when he’s being too dorky to get laid. As he gets closer, Dean can see that Castiel’s reading something written on a piece of paper sealed inside a plastic bag. Smart, he thinks. Really Sam-like to make sure his note didn’t get wrecked by weather. Dean doesn’t think he would have thought of that. He finds himself anxious to see Sam and at the same time nervous, since he’s going to have to come clean about Ezekiel, probably within the next few days. After he talks to Cas. One thing at a time. Sam, shower, food, sleep. That’s the list.

But then Castiel looks up at him with eyes that are somehow panicked and woeful at the same time, and Dean’s stomach drops.

“It’s Sam,” Castiel says, but Dean already knows. “Or rather, it’s not Sam at all.”

***

Dean’s fuming. He’s never been so angry in his entire life, save for maybe that time John forgot Christmas and Sam figured it out. That winged fucking dick, he thinks.

His fingers flex on Baby’s steering wheel, the one saving grace in all of this. They’d found her parked by the side of the closest main road, exactly where the note said she would be. It was signed by someone named Gadreel, alongside the phrase, “ Metatron sends his regards.”

“I’m gonna tear his wings off,” Dean growls. “That sneaky motherfucker. Gadreel? Why would he call himself Ezekiel? And now he’s teamed up with Metatron, and stolen Sam? Poor bastard’s probably locked away somewhere in his own head, thinking he’s working some lame ass ghoul case in Wichita or something.” 

Castiel doesn’t answer, but his fingers fly furiously over the screen of his phone.

“And why pretend, you know? That whole time… How long do you think it was? Was it every time I’ve called since I left the bunker? Before that? Sam didn’t even know we were in Purgatory. Sam doesn’t know any of this, fuck,” Dean smacks the steering wheel, causing Castiel to jump, and lets out a frustrated groan as he shifts Baby roughly over to the side of the road and cuts the motor. “This is all my fault,” he says softly. “I was selfish, and now Sam is a prisoner in his own head. Cas,” he says, somewhat urgently, turning what he’s sure are wild eyes onto his companion. “Please tell me you’ve got a plan. An idea. Anything.”

Castiel hesitates but reaches out to put a calming hand on Dean’s thigh. “I do have something,” he says slowly. “Hannah sent me some information while we were away, attempting to warn us about Gadreel being the one possessing Sam, and that he was seen working with Metatron. I’ve spoken to her, and she’s agreed to lead a team of angels to attempt to capture him.”

“We need to help,” Dean replies immediately, throwing Baby into gear. “Where? I need to be there.” 

“Dean,” Castiel sighs. “They won’t accept your help.”

“Uh, then we’ll make them accept my help. Jesus, Cas, you can’t honestly expect me to leave Sam’s survival up to a handful of rogue angels.” He stares Castiel down, but the man doesn’t flinch.

“That’s exactly what I expect you to do, Dean. You know…” He trails off for a moment and visibly attempts to compose himself. “You just told me that you felt guilty for allowing your selfish wants to hurt Sam. I’m trying to prevent you from doing the same thing again. Dean, Hannah and her followers are good. They are also angels and are the best equipped to bring Gadreel in. She’s assured me that she will make every effort to keep Sam himself safe. Not to mention, Gadreel has no idea of their motives, so he’ll have no reason to use Sam’s body or soul as a weapon or bargaining chip. This is the best possible plan for now,” he finishes insistently.

Dean clenches his teeth so tightly they grind together painfully, the muscle in his jaw almost locking up, but inside he knows Castiel is right. That doesn’t mean that he’s capable of admitting it, though, and it definitely doesn’t mean he has to like it. Instead of replying, he takes his foot off of the brake and eases his car back onto the road, sending them on their way in silence.

***

After a half hour or so of driving, Dean cools off enough to be able to remember that it’s not actually Castiel he’s mad at. It takes him another fifteen minutes, three false starts and some copious lip licking to grunt out an apology, though.

“I’m sorry,” he finally manages, pulling off the road and into the parking lot of what actually does look like a fairly nice motel, because he also remembers the promise he’d made to Cas back in Purgatory. “I shouldn’t have… I know you were just trying to help,” he adds gruffly. Castiel reaches over to take his hand, and while he doesn’t say anything, he does look at Dean sideways like he’s dying to tell him just how sick of his shit he is. In the end, though, he yanks Dean’s arm instead, the unexpected force toppling him over sideways so that Castiel can lean in and kiss him, his hand coming up to cup the side of Dean’s face.

“Keep your promises and we’ll call it even,” he says, when he’s done attacking Dean’s face, not that anyone’s complaining. And that makes Dean flush with hope and want because apparently, Castiel remembers too.

“Getting clean is dirty business,” he says with a waggle of his eyebrows. Castiel looks down at himself and tilts his head in agreement.

“I am quite dirty.”

“Yea,” Dean replies, letting his gaze drift, and his eyes lock with Cas’ when they look back at him. “Purgatory will do that to you.”

***

The bathroom in their room is nicer than almost any motel bathroom Dean’s ever been in, just by way of there being no mold or mildew anywhere in sight, but also the big ass glass shower that ’ll easily fit two fully grown men inside. He gets the water going and lets it warm, stripping off his clothes and leaving them in a pile on the floor. He stares down at the dirty mess for a moment and decides he’ll see if Cas wants to just burn it all later, seems more efficient than trying to scrub Purgatory from in between the fibers from now until eternity. He doesn’t wait for Castiel, who’s supposedly out in the main room placing an order for take out and gathering their shower supplies, to step in under the steaming spray. As the hot water hits his back, he can’t help but let out a moan of relief.

Sure, human needs are suspended in Purgatory, but that doesn’t mean you don’t feel the absence of them. The grime that never fully washes away, even in a river. The emptiness where hunger should be, the gnawing sensation that you should want something when the desire for sleep just doesn’t come. It’s all part of what makes Purgatory an endless punishment, and not just a constant fight. It’s why, no matter how pure and simple, he could never truly miss it or want to stay. Such a mess of ideas is almost impossible to understand, much less put into words, though. He knows Sam never really understood.

Sam. Fuck. Dean feels his own rage and despair rising steadily inside his chest again, and he resists the urge to lash out and punch the shower wall. He dumps some of the complimentary shampoo into his hands and takes his frustration out on his hair instead, scrubbing angrily with rough fingers, scratching at his scalp unkindly and ripping through tangles with little care. He repeats the whole process a second time, not because his hair needs it (though, it probably does) but because the sting of the soap in the tracks his nails leave behind is grounding him. It’s the least of what you deserve.

And of course, that’s when Cas shows up, strong, muscled arms slipping around his torso from behind, hands pressing flat to Dean’s chest and holding him close, preventing him from doing any further damage to his own head. Cas’s own hands drift upward, eventually making their way into his hair and gently rinsing the suds free. Half of him wants to cry and scream, to push Cas away, to beat his fists into the tile until they’re bruised and bloody. The other half wants nothing more than to turn around and take solace in a way he knows he doesn’t deserve, isn’t entitled to, no matter how much Cas wants him. 

But hell. It’s been so many years of feeling like this, and it only ever gets worse. There’s no break, no reprieve, no soft landing in between bouts of pain. Except for Cas. And pushing Cas away did nothing except hurt both of them more, hell, it almost killed Cas. And he was certainly no closer to coping like a normal human being, no better at learning to save the world without sacrificing himself or the people he cares about to do so, nowhere near letting Sam make his own goddamn decisions about his own godforsaken life. 

Dean suddenly realizes he’s shaking and goosepimpled all over, despite the blasting heat of the shower. He sucks in a deep breath, doing his best to steady himself before… before doing something he’s never done before. Something that a few weeks ago, he knows he wouldn’t have been capable of even considering. Self-destructive martyr Dean has got to go, that much is clear, but how? Dean knows he doesn’t have the answers, fuck if he even has the questions, but he’s got an idea, and that’ll have to do for now.

So instead of shoving Castiel away, instead of punching the wall, instead of taking off in a spray of gravel and Baby’s squealing tires to find a liquor store and drink himself into oblivion, Dean does one simple, new thing. 

He turns around.

And Cas is there, wide-eyed and beautiful, still covered in dirt, grime, and god knows what else but his face is open, and honest, and so expressive he might as well be pleading for Dean to let him in down on his knees. And while it’s more than he could have hoped for, it’s too fucking much. So Dean does the only thing left to do... He cries. His head drops as the first tears fall, and Castiel tucks his face swiftly into the crook of his neck, cradling him gently, like a child. His left hand soothes up into Dean’s hair and the right drifts slowly up and down his back.

Dean’s never, never in his whole miserable life been held like this, and while the part of him that was trained militantly by John Winchester rebels against it fiercely, a bigger part of him clings to it like it’s oxygen. Doesn’t he deserve this? Doesn’t everyone deserve this from someone? His shoulders and chest heave as he sobs freely but quietly, his tears washing away as quickly as they come by the water still streaming down over Cas’ head. He cries for Sam, for Cas, for Benny and Betty and all of his mistakes, for everyone he’s known who died (or didn’t die) because he wasn’t enough or he made a mistake. For Lisa and Ben, whose lives he destroyed and then erased, for Bobby, Ellen and Jo, for his mother, and for John, who both loved him and ruined him. And pretty soon the words are coming out of his mouth unbidden, and somehow he and Castiel are on the floor of the shower, clutching at each other as Dean spews apology after apology.

“So fucking sorry, Cas,” he gasps, his nose running and tears flowing and probably drooling at this point, despite the shower doing its best to wash it all clean. “I’m so --” He sucks in deep breath after deep breath, and Castiel shushes him, holds him, and doesn’t tell him not to say it. He doesn’t try to fix anything, doesn’t offer solutions or reasons or tell him that it’s all okay. He doesn’t spill platitudes or cop that Dean did his best or even suggest that sorry doesn’t need to be said. For all those things and more, Dean is grateful. His arms are around Castiel’s waist now and his knees hurt like fuck where they’re pressing into the tile, but he just can’t seem to move, can’t seem to stop the contractions in his abdomen and the sharp pain in his chest. “Need you,” he finally manages around a deep breath, dropping his head to the middle of Cas’ chest and inhaling the scent of him as slowly and deliberately as he can, even as he shakes. It works, a little, so he does it again, letting Cas’ earthy musk fill his senses and ground him. When his breathing is finally under control, he puts a hand in the middle of Cas’ chest and pushes back slightly, still not ready to meet his eyes and instead focusing on the freckle to the side of his right nipple. “I really… I need you, Cas,” he says more clearly, and Cas’ arms come around him, soft kisses dropping onto the top of his head. 

“I understand,” Castiel murmurs softly, and Dean really hopes that he does.

He’s wrung out after all that, but when he’s finally calm he somehow manages to get back to his feet with Castiel’s help, gladly accepting his gentle assistance with soaping the rest of his body down. Exhausted as he is, he’s determined to show Cas that he’s changing, that he’s ready to change, and aside from accepting help for himself, he reciprocates the gesture. He soaps Castiel from head to toe, scrubbing his skin until he’s pink and then kissing away the irritation. He shampoos his hair carefully, working up a thick lather and then rinsing it out with soft strokes against his scalp. Castiel drops his own head into Dean’s neck and lets him, seemingly sensing that this is something. His careful fingers find Dean’s hip while he’s tucked there, and not for the first time Dean marvels at how carefully Castiel touches him, how soft and tender he is. Instead of brushing the thought aside like he usually would, Dean does his best to believe that he’s worthy of it. He kisses Castiel’s fingers when he’s done washing, just because he can.

They don’t bother with clothes and dinner ends up going cold on the small table as they fall into the plush bed together instead. The mattress feels incredible on Dean’s aching back, but it doesn’t hold a candle to having Cas’ naked body pressed flush against his own. Cas doesn’t ask him to talk or explain, just pillows his own head on Dean’s chest and accepts the fierce cuddles he gives. Dean shamelessly wraps himself around Cas in the opposite of their usual, and feels really fucking good about it. He falls asleep feeling worried and sad, but also really fucking relieved, and just the tiniest bit lighter than he had in the shower. It’s small, but it’s something.  

It’s something.

***

Cracking open the front door to the bunker is almost a relief, despite the absence of Sam. Dean had let Cas drive more of the way home than he usually would have, still exhausted and emotionally wrung out despite his good night’s sleep in Cas’ arms. It’s another attempt to release a bit more of the slack to Cas, to show that he trusts him, that he wants to build something together and that he’s sorry. But that doesn’t mean he has to let Cas try and pull Baby through their narrow garage door and risk him denting the shit out of her sides, hence parking out front.

As nice as it is to be home, it’s also strange, because Cas has made it clear that he doesn’t consider the bunker home anymore, even if Dean still does. But he pushes aside those thoughts for the time being, and resolves to enjoy being back here together and safe for what it is. And Sam will be back soon enough, he reassures himself. Just like that time Jimmy got de-Cas-ed, they’ll boot that slimy dick’s lying ass back to Heavenly jail or whatever and Sam will be home free.

He’s so deep in thought about Sam as he and Cas descend the stairs into the war room that at first, it doesn’t register to him how deathly silent the bunker is, nor the strange, rotting smell coming from somewhere beyond the entryway. There’s an unnerving stillness in the air that belies the assumption that Kevin must simply be holed up somewhere, sleeping or researching in some quiet corner. All the same, Dean fails to notice and fails to see Cas take notice, until he turns to him to ask how in the hell they’re going to de-angel Sam when Metatron is the one running Heaven…? He’s about to open his mouth to ask when Castiel drops his bags and takes off across the room towards the Library. Left staring at his back, Dean can’t see beyond him to know what he’s running after, but he’s been in the game long enough to know it can’t be anything good. And then he sees.

Castiel darts across the room immediately to kneel at Kevin’s side, but Dean finds himself frozen in the doorway, unable to process the scene. He blinks long and slow several times, doing his best to will himself to wake up from what has to be a nightmare. But of course, nothing changes because this is his life, and the hits never stop coming. When he finally comes to grips with the fact that Kevin is long-dead on the floor of the Bunker’s library, his eyes burned to charred sockets and only one plausible suspect to put on the list, all he feels is rage.

Castiel doesn’t try to stop him, doesn’t even flinch or move a muscle as Dean destroys everything he can get his hands on in the library.

***

Chapter Text

If there’s one thing Dean Winchester knows how to do, it’s put aside his own shit to focus on a mission. In days gone by, Castiel would have listed this as one of Dean’s greatest strengths; his ability to persevere through just about anything. Today? He almost wishes he weren’t privy to what a setback all of this has become. Physically and as far as hunting is concerned, he’s the same Dean he’s always been; focused, determined, ready as always to do whatever it takes to get the job done. Emotionally, he’s been drop-kicked back to somewhere around the third grade. He won’t let Castiel touch him or really, get anywhere near him. It clearly goes beyond not wanting to be coddled; this is a man who believes he doesn’t deserve to be loved or shown affection at all. Castiel watches Dean keep himself busy by preparing Kevin’s body, building the pyre, and paying his respects while it burns. He makes the choice and the effort to stay out of Dean's way after being brushed off repeatedly in his attempts to help with any of it, but he doesn’t give up on Dean.

“This is my mess,” is all Dean will say, avoiding eye contact and stomping around the Bunker in a permanent dark cloud.

And still, Castiel tries. He gives him space. He jumps in to help without waiting for permission but that only makes Dean angry, which then makes him feel guilty and frustrated and stop talking at all for half of the day. He tries both gentle and tough and nothing at all but Dean isn’t even there, doesn’t even seem to register that Castiel’s trying so hard to give him whatever it is he thinks he needs. Apparently, he thinks he needs to suffer alone.

Before, Castiel had thought they might take a few days off before strategizing and tackling Hell. They already had a fairly solid lead thanks to Sam (or perhaps Gadreel, or maybe the clue is from Metatron himself, Castiel’s hardly sure who wants what at this point), so all they need to do is summon Crowley to follow it. But now, Dean isn’t interested in taking a break, in resting, in literally anything that will result in downtime or cause him to have to be alone with his thoughts. Castiel knows he’s not sleeping, that the pretense he’d put on of climbing into bed the night after Kevin’s funeral was just that, since as soon as he’d reasonably been able to dub Castiel asleep he’d slipped away to spend the rest of the dark hours scouring the Bunker’s kitchen from top to bottom. It’s been two days since then, and Castiel guesses Dean can’t have slept more than six or seven hours total. This morning he’d tried to pull him into the shower and replicate the intimacy they’d shared back in the motel, but Dean was resistant and irritable, shrugging him off and refusing to even try and play along. 

Castiel had showered and groomed himself anyway because from where he was sitting, there was only one thing left that he hadn’t tried.

After stepping out of the shower, Castiel considers himself in the full-length mirror on the back of the bathroom door. He knows that by human standards he’s attractive, and he has good reason to believe that Dean thinks so too. But still, he worries. Is he really enough for Dean? In this vessel or otherwise? He lotions up his body so that his skin is supple and shiny and puts gel in his hair, spiking it up the way Dean seems to like it. When he's done, he wraps his clean towel back around his waist and heads out to where he knows Dean is sitting and sulking with a glass of whiskey in the war room. A tube of lubricant is clutched in his hand and he makes no pretense about dropping it onto the table in front of Dean before straddling his lap. 

Dean’s drunk, his eyes make that much obvious, and when Castiel leans down to kiss him, he doesn’t pull away. His breath tastes like whiskey and something a little bit sour, but Castiel loves him, needs him, wants to do whatever he can to pull him back from the brink of whatever chasm he's teetering over. He grinds a little in Dean’s lap and somehow that flips a switch, the lights coming on in Dean’s eyes as he suddenly becomes extremely invested in what Castiel’s offering. He grabs two handfuls of his ass through the towel and squeezes as he stands up, Castiel hooking his legs around him right at the last second to just barely avoid falling to the floor. Dean’s chair goes sliding back as he launches forward, dumping Castiel unceremoniously onto the map table and climbing up after him. 

It’s not romantic, nothing about this is soft or intimate as Dean rips at the buttons of yesterday’s jeans and shoves them down just far enough to get his cock out. Castiel reaches for him, tries to pull him down into a kiss or gentle touch but Dean isn’t having any of it. He slicks himself up and pushes Castiel’s thighs up and back, the towel falling limply to the table and exposing him completely. 

This was not a good idea, Castiel thinks, but that doesn’t mean he regrets it, because this is still Dean, and Dean needs him. He pushes inside in one smooth stroke and wastes no time setting about pounding away at a brutal pace. Castiel reaches for him again, but he’s only able to grab the shoulder of his left arm. He holds onto it anyway, and it’s hard not to dwell on the fucked up symbolism of placing his hand over the spot on Dean’s skin where his angelic mark used to be while Dean’s inside of him like this. If Dean notices his reticence then he doesn’t seem to care, thrusting hard and fast until he tenses up and spills hot inside Cas’ inescapably human body. Despite not having come and Dean's careless treatment of him, there’s a moment right after where Castiel actually thinks he’s broken through to him, and for that, it all seems worth it. Castiel holds his breath as Dean relaxes, dropping his head to Castiel’s chest and brushing his lips softly over his sternum. Castiel tentatively threads a hand into the hair on the back of Dean's head and prays. But just like that, the moment is broken and Dean’s pulling out roughly, tucking himself away and stumbling out of the war room whiskey bottle in hand.

“Tomorrow morning,” he slurs over his shoulder. “We’re summoning Crowley. No excuses.”

Castiel doesn’t reply, because there’s nothing else to say.

***

There are apologies the next morning, Dean’s cheeks pink and his eyes regretful in the harsh light of day, not that there’s any daylight to speak of down in the Bunker’s dungeon. Castiel tells him without malice or reservation that there’s nothing to forgive and Dean seems to accept that, though he isn’t any more interested in being hugged or shown affection than he had been the day before. They prepare the devil’s trap together and make sure that the room is secure before gathering the summoning ingredients. Everything is done silently, and Castiel finds himself reluctantly wondering if on some level Dean is punishing him as well as himself. But then the time to actually begin the summoning arrives, and Dean hesitates. He finishes aligning the candles with Crowley’s summoning sigil, mixes everything into the bowl except for his blood and then abruptly stops what he’s doing, turning to Castiel and picking at his own fingers. He looks like he desperately wants to say something but just can’t get the words out.

“Dean,” Castiel says softly, almost afraid to hope, but Dean crumbles, making short work of the few strides it takes to get across the room and fall into his arms. He tucks his face into Castiel’s neck in what’s become a routine way for him to seek the comfort he's so unable to ask for, his breath hot and moist on Castiel’s skin. He doesn’t cry or break down but he does let out a little noise that sounds a lot like a wounded animal.

“I don’t know what I’m doing here, Cas,” Dean mutters, clutching at the collar of his shirt and rubbing his face into the fabric. “Everything I touch dies.”

Castiel shoves down the frustration he feels at Dean's constant need to not only shoulder every damn burden, but to exaggerate his own part in things and instead rubs the space between his shoulders. “Sam is not dead. I’m not dead,” he reminds him bluntly, and it seems like that’s precisely the wrong thing to say because Dean goes tense all over before pulling back to search Castiel’s face. His breath quickens visibly and an unspoken “Not yet,” hangs thick in the air between them. Dean swallows heavily before pulling away.

“Let’s get this done.” 

Castiel lets him go when he does, there will be time to unpack all of this later. This was actually a good thing, he thinks, despite appearances. Dean isn’t intentionally shutting him out, he’s just scared and falling into his normal self-blame routine. The devil you know, Castiel thinks wryly, not unaware of the irony to their current situation. It’s fine though, Dean’s normal bullshit he can work with, that he can do. In the meantime though, there’s a conversation that he’s been putting off and he’s running out of time to have it.

“I hate to bring up a difficult subject, but before we do this Dean, how do we know that the information regarding Crowley having a piece of my grace is even accurate? If it came from Gadreel, it might as well have come from Metatron. It’s not like we trust Crowley, either.”

Dean huffs a little over the bowl where he’s mixing ingredients again. “You got a better lead? Should we just pop back over to Purgatory and head down to Hell through there? Wander down and stroll around the pit turning over stones and shit? ‘Cause, I gotta say Cas, that sounds about as appetizing as a shit sandwich.” Castiel rolls his eyes.

“We still have the locator spell,” he reasons. “It worked in Purgatory, we have no reason to believe that it wouldn’t work in Hell.” He shifts a little where he’s standing. “I… Dean, I don’t claim to have the best answer here, but isn’t it worth at least having a conversation about? Crowley is slimy.”

Dean snorts. “You would know, wouldn’t you.” Cas’ jaw snaps closed at that, probably more hurt than he has a right to be, but he'd thought they were past this.

He clears his throat but his voice still comes out tight and strained. He speaks anyway. “Yes, Dean I would. That’s exactly my point.” Dean puts the bowl down again and eyes him sideways, not quite apologetic.

“You shouldn’t let me talk to you like that,” he says gruffly. “You shouldn’t let anyone talk to you like that.” Castiel throws up his hands and lets them clap loudly on the sides of his legs, but Dean isn't done, settling back on his heels and looking at the ceiling as he speaks. "Thing is, Cas, I can’t just sit around here and do nothing. Seems like all over the place people -- angels -- are cleaning up my messes or suffering because of them. But this? This I can do, and if Crowley wants to deal or hook us up with a lead, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. It’s safer than most of the shit we've done this past month. He can’t get out of the circle, you know that.”

 “Heaven and Metatron are my mess,” Castiel reminds him, but Dean just grunts. “Alright,” he relents. “If you insist. I suppose there’s no harm in hearing what he has to say.”

Dean barely acknowledges him as he sets the potion down by the sigil and drags the demon knife across the inside of his forearm, pocketing it after he’s drawn blood and let it drip into the bowl. Then all there is left to do is light a match. Crowley doesn’t leave them waiting, appearing straight away in the midst of a cloud of red smoke, wearing his trademark smirk.

“Hello, boys,” he remarks, sizing them both up. “I heard you were down a player. Poor Moose.” He looks down at the red lines of the devil’s trap he’s standing in and gestures to it. “Is this really necessary? We’re all friends here.”

Dean’s face betrays nothing as he ignores Crowley’s second comment and addresses the first. “Yea? What do you know about it?”

With a quirk of his lip, Crowley spreads his hands palm up in front of him. “Only what I’m told. And what I’m told is that there’s only one person responsible for Sam’s current state, and it’s not me. It’s not even Metatron, is it, Dean?” Castiel reaches out to grab Dean’s bicep before he can lunge forward and do something they’ll all inevitably regret (probably, anyway, it is Crowley), but the demon doesn’t even flinch, just keeps talking. “Isn’t the question you really want to ask about Feathers here? In regards to how I came to be in possession of something that used to belong to him?” Crowley reaches into the pocket of his black coat and draws out a familiar vial, waving it at them and then disappearing it into thin air as quickly as it came.

“What’s your game, Crowley?” Castiel’s not interested in doing this whole back-and-forth. Crowley would have resisted the summoning if he didn’t already know what they wanted and have a deal in his back pocket that he’s willing to make. “Just tell us what you want so we can tell you it isn’t going to happen.”  

“Aw, no reason to be brash boys,” Crowley replies. “You haven’t even heard my offer yet. And I do have one, but first I want to make something clear.” He turns to Dean and points his finger. “ You and your overgrown mutt of a brother fucked me up on human blood, got me addicted, and then left me in the  trunk of your smelly relic of a car . Metatron is the one who let me out and who gave me this sweet little bargaining chip. All he asked for in return, is that I not give it back to you. Considering the circumstances, I think you’ll find that it’s quite reasonable that I’m disinclined to do anything at all to help you and your ilk.”

“So you don’t have an offer,” Dean responds, crossing his arms and leaning back against the dungeon's shelving. In Castiel’s opinion, he's trying way too hard to look bored, but clearly, Dean doesn't care what he thinks.

“I didn’t say that,” Crowley snaps back. “I’m simply illustrating how you are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to negotiations.”

Castiel furrows his brow, squinting at Crowley in confusion. “Negotiations for what?”

“There it is,” Crowley replies with a sharp grin. “As it turns out, there is something I want and I think you two just might be able to make it happen.” Dean and Castiel remain silent, staring Crowley down and waiting for what he obviously thinks will be a grand reveal. “Abbadon,” he announces finally, after a significantly dramatic silence. “I want her dead. I'd do it myself, but on top of being almost impossible to kill, I can’t get near her. Last I checked she’d fixed up that fire-crotched vessel she likes so much and was up holed up in her castle in Hell, surrounded by all her minions.”

With a heaving sigh, Castiel turns to Dean. “You might as well just banish him back to Hell now. There’s no deal to be made here. He clearly has no intent on doing anything besides mocking us.” Dean raises his eyebrows and tips his head in agreement.

“Your loss,” Crowley coos. “But, for the record, it’s not impossible. I did say 'almost,' didn't I? The thing is, with big power comes big resistance where Hell is concerned. There are plenty of demons down there who would love to have a shot at unseating Abbadon. Unfortunately, they’d also love to unseat me, and therefore I’m getting nowhere near them. But you could. Rally the troops, make with the inspirational bullshit you Winchesters seem to love so much. I’m sure you’d be extremely successful with recruitment.”

Dean pulls out demon knife from where it's been stashed in his belt and tosses it between his hands. He drags his finger along the sharp line of the blade and lets the moment linger before he acknowledges Crowley again. “Alright. Let’s say we do deal, and we assume me and Cas can rally an army of demons and convince them to follow us like some kind of fucked-up demonic Pied Pipers. We’re not stupid, Crowley, that won’t help us actually kill her. Don’t think I’m not seeing straight through this. Far as I can tell, you’ve got no intention of returning Cas’ grace. Dude, we dismembered that bitch, lit her on fire and she still came back.” 

Dean’s at the edge of the devil’s trap now, as close to Crowley as he probably dares to get but Crowley doesn’t shrink away. On the contrary, he steps right to the edge, seemingly daring Dean to try something. Castiel looks on with reservation if only because outside that trap, it seems pretty unlikey that he and Dean would be able to take on the King of Hell.

“I told you,” Crowley sneers, right into Dean’s face, “It’s not impossible. I have a weapon that is capable of killing her. It’s yours, if you decide to go through with this. Call it a… gift with purchase.”

“What is it?” Castiel interjects, but Crowley keeps his eyes on Dean and that alone is more than a little unnerving.

“It’s the Lance of Michael,” Crowley replies, and Dean shakes his head, because of course, that doesn’t mean anything to him, but Castiel sucks in a breath before he can stop himself. Cards on the table, and alright, now they’ve got a game . “You hear that?” Crowley smirks, pointing in his direction, “Your angel understands the value of this offer.”

“Dean.” Castiel starts, reaching out anxiously to touch Dean’s shoulder, but like a knife to the gut, he’s shaken off. “Dean,” he persists, and Dean ignores him.

“We still need to hammer out details,” he’s saying to Crowley. “No loophole bullshit, no soul currency.”

“We’ll do it at my place,” the demon replies smoothly, and Dean’s nodding and no, no, this is a bad--

“DEAN,” Castiel yells, but Dean’s already using the heel of his boot to scratch a line through the devil’s trap and fuck. Crowley snaps his fingers, and everything goes black.

***

When the lights come back on, Cas can see that he’s in an unfamiliar room, standing about the same distance behind Dean as he had been in the bunker. The room is a good size, like that of a ballroom, with vaulted Cathedral ceilings and ornate marble floors and wide, carved pillars. It’s dark and moody, with thick burgundy drapes framing enormous floor-to-ceiling windows that look out over… Hell. 

Castiel isn’t sure why he’s surprised, of course, Crowley would bring them to Hell; it’s his domain. And yet, just the idea of being here again sends a chill down Castiel’s terribly human spine. The last time he was here, it was on a Holy mission from God to rescue the Righteous Man himself from the Pit, and now look at him. Look at them. Foolish and unprepared, what the fuck has Dean gotten them into?

The Hellscape is different than he remembers, though there’s no mistaking it for anything other than what it is. In a twisted way, it holds some similarities to certain places on earth. They must be fairly high up on a mountain right now, because simply looking out the window allows Castiel to see the far off spotty glow of various Hell-towns, the places demons live and gather when they’re not torturing or otherwise spreading evil. The “sky” is lit in permanent sunset-red, not that there’s a sun to rise or fall along with it, and it burns a bloody smear behind jagged black mountains that etch far into the distance. Castiel had heard once that certain big players in Hell -- the Princes, maybe some of the Knights -- had built themselves Castles high in the mountains where they could lord over their own minions and not be bothered by the common demon muck suffusing the Hell-towns. He supposes it’s similar to the way celebrities on Earth seem to sequester themselves away in mansions behind iron gates; no one wants to be mobbed by fans on their off time, apparently not even Abbadon. But this place… he chances a glance around the room again and finds them to be surrounded by what must be Crowley’s minions, and if so, well-chosen.

Crowley’s still there, but he’s stepped away and he’s motioning… no... no! Castiel realizes what’s happening only as it begins, but he still does his best to lunge away, aiming for Dean like if he could just get to his side and they could fight together then they’d have some sort of chance. But he’s too slow, too late, and they’re both being grabbed from what feels like all sides. Demons in big, hulking meat suits, humans that would be a challenge for Castiel and Dean to take on even if they weren’t possessed, are grabbing and holding them down.

“Crowley!” Castiel hollers, and he knows Dean’s yelling too but he’s so angry he can barely think straight, never mind focus to parse out his words. Despite being clearly outnumbered they both fight their hardest because that’s what they do. Castiel kicks and headbutts and manages to wrench an elbow free, bloodying a nose or two and coming this close to shaking at least two out of three of his captors off. Unfortunately, both his and Dean’s valiant attempts are predictably short-lived and hopeless in actuality, and pretty soon they’re both on their knees with their hands tied behind their backs, shoved down to wait in front of a cascading set of black marble stairs leading up to an elegant black throne.

“Boys, boys,” Castiel tuts at them in a scolding tone as he casually descends the stairs with his hands in his pockets. “Is that any way to act when you’re invited guests in someone’s home? Honestly Dean, what did you expect? Did you think I was going to give you free run of the place? I do have some sense of self-preservation, you know. So let’s talk terms.” He holds a hand out and a female demon rushes forward to bring him a parchment scroll. With an overly dramatic flourish, he drops one side and it bounces, unraveling down the remaining stairs and coming to rest in between where Cas and Dean kneel at each other’s sides.

“Fuck you, Crowley,” Dean spits, his lip split and bloody but curled up in a defiant snarl. “The deal’s off. I dunno what you think you’re playing at, but consider us off limits. We’ll find another way to get Cas’ grace back, preferably one that takes you out in the process.”

This time, Crowley turns to Castiel. “Does he always embarrass you like this when you go out?”

A growl rises in Castiel's throat, but he swallows it for Dean's sake. “Cut the crap, Crowley. What is it that you want? Why even bring us here?” Castiel asks sharply, but Crowley just shrugs.

“I’d have settled for a threesome, but you two are way too uptight for that to be any fun.” Castiel glares as Crowley steps up in front of him, reaching down under the collar of his shirt and ripping the vial of grace carelessly from around his neck. Castiel feels the anger boiling up in his stomach but that’s nothing compared to Dean’s reaction. Bound or not, Dean manages to surge up off of the floor and tackle Crowley with exactly no free hands and nothing but his own body weight. Of course, he’s yanked away within seconds but he doesn’t stop; kicking and hollering away, his face beet red and his eyes stormy, his body language makes it clear that he won’t kowtow, King of Hell or not. Crowley watches him with reproving eyes as he stands back up and dusts himself off, pocketing Cas’ grace as he goes.

“That wasn’t part of our deal,” Dean rages.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you said you weren’t interested in my deal any longer?” He steps down the last few stars and gets up in Dean’s face, blatantly unafraid despite how he still struggles to break free. It hurts Castiel to watch. “I keep my end of my bargains, Winchester. All you had to do was say yes. I should have known you’d make things difficult.” He steps back and rolls his neck. “No matter, we will simply proceed with Plan B, which I think will help you see things my way a whole lot quicker.” He snaps his fingers and the three demons that had initially restrained Castiel are back at his side and tugging him to his feet which makes him start to panic.

“No, Crowley, whatever it is you’re doing, you don’t have to--” His pleading is silenced by a rag stuffed roughly into his mouth as he’s pulled towards the door. Castiel focuses on Dean while the demons attempt to drag him from the room, and works his ass off to make their job as difficult as possible. He writhes and lashes out, all the while keeping his eyes on Dean. Their eye contact seems to fuel Dean anew, and suddenly he's straining so hard to get away from his captors that the vein on the side of his forehead looks like it’s about to pop. Castiel throws every last ounce of energy he’s got into his fight too, and with one well-placed kick to a groin and a clever twist, he manages to break free. Though his arms are tied and his mouth is gagged, he bursts forward and away, launching himself at Dean and managing to tuck himself into the crook of his soft neck for several wonderfully comforting moments before he’s being manhandled away again.

“Just hold on,” Dean murmurs frantically in his ear during those too-brief seconds. “I’ll find you, Cas, I’ll find you, don’t give up, you hear me?” He keeps his eyes locked on Dean’s distressed face as he’s again dragged towards the door, the demons with unrelenting iron grips this time. With his mouth stuffed full, he does his best to project all of his emotions, his feelings, his love into his gaze, into Dean’s eyes as best he can from all the way across the room.

I love you, he thinks, as hard as he can in Dean’s direction. You’re strong, you’re brave. I love you, and I believe in you. I love you.

Dean doesn’t stop fighting. He struggles until heavy wooden doors close in between them, though his voice carries through the halls long after he’s out of sight.

“CAS! I’ll come for you! CAS! CAAAAAS!”

As soon as he has the chance, which is only a few steps away from the throne room, Castiel headbutts his closest captor. For his trouble he gets bashed across the back of his head with something blunt and heavy that he never sees coming, and once again, everything goes dark. But he can still hear Dean.

***

It’s panic-inducing when Castiel finally wakes only to discover that he can’t see. After a few moments of terrified blinking and fearing that the hit he recieved took his sight, he realizes there’s pressure across his face and cracks of reddish light at the very bottom of his field of vision. He’s not blind, he’s blindfolded. Small fucking miracles, as Dean would say. He remains still and does his best to take stock of his surroundings without the use of his sight. The surface he’s lying on isn’t altogether uncomfortable, in fact, it’s rather soft where the material rubs against his face. He’s positioned on his side and his hands are still tied behind his back so there’s nothing overly useful about any of that, but he can tell from the steady vibrations and jostling that he’s moving. Being moved, to be precise, if the kidnapping and now blindfolding are any kind of clues . He nudges his face into the fabric below him, unfortunately unsuccessful in his attempts to dislodge whatever’s wrapped across it, so he turns his attention to his remaining usable senses.

While his mouth is also fairly useless, his nose determines easily that the air around him remains very much thick with sulfur and ash, and for that Castiel thinks it safe to assume he’s still in Hell. So where is he going? Why would Crowley bother with that deal if his plan was to kidnap him all along? Perhaps he just wanted more grace, he thinks to himself. To sell, or bargain with somehow. Without warning, whatever Hell-vehicle he’s in shakes and jostles him from side to side so roughly that he goes tumbling off of the soft surface and onto a much harder one, breaking the fall with his face. His arms do their best to flail as he goes flying, but being that they’re secured at his back the movement only serves to strain his shoulders. He groans into the gritty surface he’s now pressed against and feels wetness on his face. Now the smell filling his nose includes hints of copper and iron, which makes Castiel wonder whether it’s his blood he’s lying in, or someone else’s. He’s not sure he wants to know the answer. 

After a bit more raucous jostling, Castiel can feel the vehicle start to slow and eventually come to a stop. Absent of the road noise, other sounds come more clearly into focus. Muffled male voices, distant enough that there’s likely a barrier between them and him, speak quickly and gruffly but nowhere near clear enough for him to be able to discern individual words. Beyond that, there’s another noise Castiel can’t quite place. It’s almost like a shoed horse stepping in place, on rock or another hard surface, but there’s something about it… something familiar, yet just out of reach for his limited, human memory. He swears he hears a snort and whine, though, but that’s… that's implausible, there aren’t horses in Hell. There have been tales, of course, of the Knights of Hell using thestrals attached to carriages to ferry them from place to place as a sign of status, but Castiel had assumed it was a joke since no one had even seen a thestral in centuries. He would have pegged Crowley as flashier than that regardless, but perhaps he acts differently in Hell. Or perhaps it has more to do with where you’re going than where you’re coming from, a voice in the back of his head warns.

The other voices get a bit louder and are overlayed by the sound of a door that’s badly in need of oil unhinging. Castiel tenses, unsure if he should prepare to fight or just play dead, but soon finds himself in the position to do neither as his ankles are grabbed and he’s yanked swiftly sideways. It’s unnerving to find oneself floundering in mid-air without the use of one’s hands, Castiel finds himself musing as he crashes to the ground once again. But no sooner do his knees make contact with gravel than he’s being yanked back up by strong limbs tucked under his armpits, hauling him forward and then up an extremely long flight of stairs. Castiel finds that if he crosses his eyes just right, he can see a tiny sliver’s worth of the ground below him. It hurts to keep his eyes trained that way, but it’s that or possibly break his ankle trying to keep up with the demons dragging him mercilessly along. Black marble again, he notes in regards to the stairs. And then, plush red carpeting, hints of gold just out of sight. Wherever they are, it's not dissimilar to Crowley’s lair, which was presumably the actual throne for the King of Hell, as opposed to that farce Crowley had thrown up in that shitty asylum.

The forceful, disembodied arms jolt him to a stop and Castiel can just make out the bottom edge of what must be heavy wooden doors. There’s whispering, and then the doors open and he’s thrust forward once again. He’s shoved down onto his knees but no one makes any move to remove his blindfold or even address him at all. Soon enough, the room goes silent, save for the audible shifting of fabric next to him which lets Castiel know he’s not actually alone. The next voice he hears is distant but sharp, feminine and yet piercingly dark. Once again, there’s something about it that Castiel is sure he should recognize, but can’t quite place. Human brains are as infinitely frustrating as they are limited, he decides as he continues to wrack his accessible memories.

“If Crowley,” the voice spits, like Crowley’s name is a contagious disease and Castiel can’t argue there, “Wanted to send me a real peace offering then he would have sent me the Winchester. You know, the one he says kills me? Don’t think that I've forgotten about that.”

“Of course not, my Queen,” one of the male voices murmurs.

“So what am I supposed to do with this?” Castiel feels something press into the middle of his back, blunt on one end and sharp at the other. A shoe, most likely, probably a stiletto. Its owner leans forward and puts pressure on the shoe, but Castiel doesn’t bend or show weakness, just grits his teeth as the heel digs into his flesh, probably breaking his skin. “Tough one,” the voice remarks, and the pressure on his back disappears. “Well alright then boys, I suppose we could use a new pet around here. Besides, if the rumors are true, that godforsaken Winchester should be charging headlong in here any minute.” She pauses, and Castiel can almost feel the air go tense. “Oh,” she continues. “I see what Crowley’s doing. Pretty fucking smart, can’t say I blame him, playing both sides like this. Kind of insulting though. Thinking Dean Winchester would have any chance at taking me out, here on my own turf. Not the greatest double cross he’s ever attempted, but what can you expect from a salesman?” The demons laugh as the heels belonging to the voice click ominously on the marble floor in a circle around Castiel. That sound is followed swiftly by the unmistakable noise of metal slashing through air and then flesh. There's a thud and then a man's head rolls into Castiel’s limited vision, it’s eyes stuck in a permanent expression of surprise that clearly reflects how much he did not see that coming.

“Take that back to Crowley, make sure he understands what I thought of his peace offering.”

The shoes click on the floor again, finally coming into Castiel’s line of sight as they kick the head away. Bright red, shiny. Stilettos, just like he thought. The blindfold is ripped off without pretense, and Castiel blinks furiously even though the light is dim. A face swims into view in front of him; pale skin, fiery red hair, pretty features, blood red lipstick.

“Abbadon,” he growls, the pieces finally clicking into place. She smiles, and if Castiel were a lesser man he would have to admit that the sight is terrifying.

“My very own clipped-wing angel,” Abbadon coos, stroking perfectly claw-shaped nails down the side of his face. “Pretty eyes, I’m going to make you beg, bow down, and worship me like it’s all you were made for.”

“That’s never going to happen,” Castiel retorts, doing his best to keep his expression neutral.

Abbadon’s grin only widens. “I guess we’ll see.” She motions, and the guards pull Castiel to his feet. “You can scream if you want to, baby. This is only going to hurt a lot.” She moves close, touching the side of his chest and letting her fingers run down his flank. “Such a shame, this is a beautiful vessel.”

“Dean is going to kill you,” Castiel says defiantly, meeting her empty, black-eyed gaze without flinching. “He’ll come.”

“Oh,” Abbadon replies, touching his nose before turning to walk away. “For his sake, I hope not. But wouldn’t that be fun? You hang onto that fantasy, angel. You’re going to need a happy place."

***

Chapter Text

He may have snapped. This time, Dean Winchester may actually have fucking snapped. As he’s made to watch helplessly while the lo -- Castiel-- is dragged, trussed up and struggling from the room, all of the stress and bullshit of the last few days comes crashing down hard and heavy onto Dean’s head. The realization of what he’s done, how he’s somehow manifested the exact opposite of his intentions, hits him like a freight train going full speed ahead. In his every angsty attempt to use boundaries and distance to protect both Castiel and his own heart, he’s now put them both in mortal danger, perhaps already sealed Castiel’s fate. He’d like nothing more than to collapse in on himself, to curl up into a ball and wait for death to show him mercy but he can’t. He can’t. Not if there’s the slightest chance, the faintest glimmer of hope that he can somehow get Cas back, and lift them both out of this everliving nightmare. And then he’ll spend the rest of his stupid, worthless life apologizing and making it up to Cas. After everything he’s sworn never to do again, somehow he’s fallen into old patterns, taken Castiel for granted, and thanks to that, Cas is gone. He’d fucking promised, he’d made a vow to himself and to Cas, and then he let himself forget about it.

He doesn’t deserve Castiel. That’s the voice in the back of his head, and while he knows it’s true, he also knows that it’s listening to it that got him here in the first place. So maybe he’s not ready to believe he deserves Cas, never mind that he would ever have a shot at being allowed to keep him, but he can certainly fucking start with believing that Cas wants him back. Yes. He can start there. Castiel’s certainly proven that despite Dean’s bullshit, he’s not going anywhere. Dean can at least repay him by learning to not treat that precious gift like trash. You know, if he ever manges to wrangle yet another do over from the grips of certain death and his own failings.

He yells until his throat goes hoarse, unwilling to stop when there’s the chance that Cas can still hear him, wherever he is, and Dean hopes that’s nearby. He struggles against the demons holding him back until the skin on his arms starts turning from red to purple, but still, Cas is gone. It doesn’t escape his notice that Crowley acts completely unbothered by the entire scene. He retreats up to his throne with a stack of parchment papers and begins to sort through them like this is just another day at the office. When Dean’s voice finally gives out and his legs go limp from exhaustion, the demons dump him to the floor in a heap. Crowley takes notice of the change, drops the scroll he’s reading into his lap and looks down at Dean from his throne at the top of the glossy marble stairs.

“Are you quite finished?”

Dean chokes back a sob and pushes up from the floor with some effort, he truly is exhausted. Crowley stands, puts his work away, and reaches behind the intricately sculpted throne to pull out what looks like a hunting spear. From where Dean’s sitting it’s hard to tell, but it sort of looks as if Crowley might be pulling the thing out from thin air. It’s about as long as the King of Hell is tall and the handle is covered with carefully carved runes and symbols. The sharp head is silver with multiple fused blades that curve to a point; well-polished but nothing overly special in appearance. Crowley shifts it from hand to hand as he walks purposefully down the stairs towards Dean, and Dean’s never been so conflicted in his life. Crowley’s clearly coming towards him and his demon bodyguards have backed off. He could probably take him, definitely so if he could somehow wrench the spear free, but if he kills Crowley now, what will happen to Cas? It’s that thought that convinces him to grit his teeth and bide his time.

Crowley ends up stopping not two feet away from where he sits, donning a smarmy grin that doesn’t help Dean hold himself back in the least. But then he does something unexpected. He presents the spear to Dean and looks surprised when he doesn’t immediately reach out to take it.

“This is the Lance of Michael. Good for killing just about anything, though the ‘how’ of it somewhat depends on whether the thing you’re stabbing is good or evil.” Crowley speaks matter-of-factly, almost conversationally, as if nothing out of the ordinary had transpired between their discussion in the bunker’s dungeon and now. God, he’s conceited, Dean fumes internally.

“What’s the catch? Is it coated in poison or something? Is it a Portkey that’s gonna take me to directly to Voldemort as soon as I touch it? No fucking way do you pull the shit you just pulled and then hand me a weapon that can kill anything it touches, present company included.” Against his brain and body’s wishes, Dean pushes himself to standing and takes a step back, crossing his arms to prevent anything from being thrust into them.

“You’re not going to kill me, Dean,” Crowley replies easily. “Not today, anyway.” He motions to the edges of the room where it appears that even more demons have since joined them. “You’re smart enough to realize that if you do somehow manage to kill me, they will kill you, and then your angel will be tortured for the rest of eternity by Hell’s most depraved Knight.” As the wheels turning in Dean’s brain move faster to make sense of what Crowley’s just said, Dean’s breath catches in his throat.

“You didn’t,” he manages, the fury rising in him like vomit, threatening to spill out and all over Crowley no matter what the consequences.

“You clearly needed some incentive to get the job done. Call it inspiration, motivation, if you will,” Crowley affirms with a shrug. “And I needed Abbadon to think that I care about making nice with her, so she doesn’t suspect. It’s a win-win all around.”

“Uh, feel like I’m pointing out the obvious here but, not for Cas, ” Dean says angrily. “You should have sent me. I’ve done this gig, I can take it. Bring him back, alright? Send me instead, I’ll go willingly.” He pauses for a moment and then grudgingly grinds out a stilted, “ Please.”

But Crowley just shakes his head. “It’s a done deal, Squirrel. They’re long gone by now and in all fairness, Castiel doesn’t possess that je ne sais quoi you Winchesters have when it comes to tracking down and rescuing the people you love.” His eyes flick up to meet Dean’s head on. “It’s why I knew from the start that this plan would work.” He holds the weapon out again and raises his eyebrows. “Now take the fucking lance, and let’s talk terms.”  

Dean reaches out and lets his fingers close around the polished wood. It’s not like he has a choice.

***

The last time Dean made a deal with a demon, he hadn’t bothered to read the contract’s fine print ( or at all) . Back then, it hadn’t mattered because the end result was his life for Sam’s. Nothing complicated or difficult, no reason to think that the demon he had dealt with might have hidden some sort of sneaky clause that would ruin his life even further. Hard to care about contract details when you’re looking down the barrel of several decades on the rack. But this time? Dean hasn’t even signed anything and he’s already gotten Castiel into just about the deepest trouble he can think of. Still, he pours over the paperwork Crowley presents, reading and re-reading until his already tired eyes burn and cross, refusing to focus even after being given a short reprieve behind Dean’s eyelids. He presses the heels of his hands into them and breathes, willing them to hang on just a little bit longer, because he hasn’t found any loopholes or hidden clauses, and that’s far more worrying than if he had. It just leaves him wondering what he must have missed.

All the while he sits on the hard steps and strains himself looking over the agreement, Crowley lounges above him on the throne, paying him little to no attention at all. He answers questions if Dean has them but otherwise goes on attending to the various business of being the King of Hell, as if this entire affair has been all in a day’s work, and really, isn’t that very likely the case? In the end, Dean grudgingly accepts that the contract says only what Crowley claims it does. The major points are as expected; Crowley will hand over the spear. Dean will kill Abbadon in exchange for Crowley returning the entirety of Castiel’s grace (both the piece he received from Metatron and the stolen vial) and returning both Dean and Castiel safely to earth. Everyone walks away free and clear, with no further obligations to the other party. Feeling like he’s selling his soul for the second time, Dean signs on the dotted line and accepts the incredibly sloppy kiss Crowley insists upon to seal the deal.

“Minty,” Crowley proclaims as Dean wipes his mouth in disgust.

“Whatever,” Dean grunts. “Lance?” Crowley’s still standing there, holding it just out of reach, even as Dean swipes for it. “What the hell, Crowley?”

“There’s one more thing,” he adds, and that statement makes Dean’s blood run cold, though at the very least, he doesn’t look amused or like he’s about to pull another fast one. “You need to rest. You’re about to fall over. You’re no good to me or to your angel running on fumes.”

Dean scowls. “This is Hell,” he says, swinging his arms wide and gesturing around. “It’s like Heaven or Purgatory, no one needs to sleep here.”

Crowley inclines his head slightly. “This is true, but you’re not a demon, you’re a soul, and you’re still in a human body. Being unable to sleep is part of the torture here, and while that’s something I can usually appreciate, I happen to want you at your best.” He produces a small potion from his pocket and holds it out to Dean.

“You got some kind of Mary Poppins enchantment on that coat? Damn,” Dean remarks. “Also, you’re more nuts than I thought if you think I’m going to drink some random liquid that came out of your pocket, buddy."

Crowley shrugs. “The more time you waste, the more Castiel suffers. You’re not leaving here until you rest, and to do that you need some assistance. It’s a sleeping potion, good for one night’s sleep and nothing more. The sooner you drink it, the sooner you’ll be on the road to rescuing your fairy princess.” Dean scoffs but still doesn’t take the offering. “Dean, look around you. If I wanted to kill you, then you’d be dead. If I wanted to pull one over on you, I would have slipped it into the contract that you already signed. Understand? Don’t be difficult. You’re no use to me worn to the bone. Contrary to what you must think, I want you to be successful. At least where it concerns my interests, and this does.”

Dean reluctantly closes his fingers around the glass bottle full of a dark purple liquid and eyes Crowley warily. “Would have been easier to be successful with Cas at my side,” he snipes.

“Agree to disagree,” Crowley replies, reaching out to touch the potion again. “Bottoms up.”

Feeling like he’s undoubtedly adding another bad choice to what’s quickly becoming an entire day’s worth of horrible ones, Dean uncorks and downs the contents of the bottle in one go. “Shit,” he manages as the effects hit him all at once, tunneling his vision down to nothing and stealing him away from consciousness before his body can even hit the floor.

***

Dean dreams in shades of red and black, faces swirling and voices calling, always just out of his reach. Sam. He knows. He knows what I did to him. Sam’s face… he looks furious and sad at the same time. Dean tries to move, only to find that he’s lying on the ground, looking up at his brother and desperately trying to communicate that he’s hurt. Must have been a hunt gone wrong … he can barely move and there’s blood… blood everywhere, he’s lying in a pool of it. He reaches a hand out to Sam, please help me, brother, but Sam just stares down at him coldly before turning to walk away. Dean forces himself to roll over and it hurts -- a thousand knives stabbing up and down his body, fire and ice ripping through his veins as he pulls himself hand over hand army crawling, SAM! SAM! 

But Sam’s form retreats into the swirling red and black void without so much as a look back. SAM! He calls and calls, but Sam doesn’t come, and maybe he isn’t even speaking . He turns his head, letting his cheek drop into the muck beneath him, his tears stinging behind his eyelids but refusing to come. He opens his eyes again to find that Cas is lying there next to him -- wide-eyed and staring. Big beautiful pools of blue, glazed over and... No. Not wide-eyed, dead. NO. He pushes himself up with the same intense pain pervading every cell of his body and sees the full damage. Castiel isn’t just dead, he’s broken. Ripped apart, skin flayed to the bone in some places, charred to ash in others. Limbs hanging by tendons, and blood, oh god, all the blood, it isn’t mine, it was never mine, it was Cas’ all along. Dean sits up, panicked, but there’s no reprieve, no soft place to land. Beyond Castiel is Kevin, stiff and still with his eyes burned out in their sockets and beyond that, hundreds of bodies, all different yet all the same, all his fault, all his fault, all his fault.

He sits bolt upright in bed, skin slick with sweat and hair clinging limply to his forehead, breath coming fast and hard, aching as he tries to pull air deep into his chest and convince himself he’s alive. It’s nowhere near as satisfying or calming as waking up from a nightmare usually is, because one quick glance around the room and out the floor to ceiling windows tells Dean, he’s still living it. Does he need to breathe in Hell? Dean’s never been one for delving into the operative physics of various planes, but he doesn’t think so. Probably goes along with the whole, don’t need to eat or sleep thing, and yet, Hell seems to be a whole other animal when it comes to actual human bodies being down here. Subject to some rules and not to others; you can get tired and you can sleep, but it won’t be restful and it won’t make you feel any better, that’s for sure. He guesses it has to be that way, wouldn’t be very effective if no one could feel anything in Hell. Pit would be out of business, that's for sure. He does note that his eyes are no longer burning and the bruises on his arms have disappeared, that also tracks with Hell’s own needs - have to heal in order to be tortured on repeat for all eternity.

Dean pushes his lanky hair off of his forehead and shifts to lean forward, dropping his face into his hands and waiting for it to clear. When he feels a little less fuzzy he looks up and around again, taking in the new room he’s somehow been transported to ( don’t think about that too hard). He’s in the middle of a giant four-poster king sized bed, and the rest of the room looks like… well, sort of what he’d imagine a guest room in a royal palace might. Rich, dark wood, heavy shag carpet, woven tapestries on the walls, and thick, luxurious velvet curtains framing the windows. Gold accents everywhere, no way that’s not Crowley’s doing, the pompous bastard. Dean pushes off the bed to shuffle over to the window and look out. He’s high up, that much he can tell but beyond that it mostly looks like mountains and darkness. A few pockets containing a smattering of lights brighten up what must be the valley below, but Dean has no idea what they might represent.

In his four decades in Hell, he hadn’t actually left the Pit, hadn’t ever wanted to. He’d known that other demons did, known that some of them even had what they considered homes down here, but Dean had never wanted that. Even broken by the rack he’d never truly belonged, and that was fine by him. Back then, at least. Now, he’s not so sure. How the hell is he supposed to convince a bunch of demons to follow him on some epic quest to kill a Knight of Hell? What’s to stop them from killing him and taking the Lance for themselves? Where is he even going to find these demons? Fuck. And every minute he wastes is another minute of suffering for Cas. With that in mind, he turns away from the window and makes his way towards the only door in the room, a great heavy thing with a big handle plated in gold. Of course, when he tugs it doesn’t budge. Okay, plan B then, he thinks, curling his hands into fists and banging on the wood as hard as he can.

“HEY! I’m awake Crowley, you fucking bastard. HEY!!”

“No need to yell,” comes a smarmy voice from behind him, and Dean wheels around in fight-ready position. Crowley’s caught off guard, and despite his better instincts Dean takes the opening for what it is, pulling back and cracking him across the face with his fist. It’s not quite as painful as that time he’d punched Cas back when he was an angel, but Crowley’s face does have a bit of that brick-wall effect and Dean’s fist throbs. The King of Hell just quietly removes his pocket square and dabs at the blood leaking from the corner of his mouth.

“You get one of those , Dean. Don’t try it again, or I’ll ship you off to Abbadon myself to join sweet Castiel. I understand that you’re angry with me, but it was only business.” He re-tucks the handkerchief into his jacket pocket and meets Dean’s stony gaze. “Now then. Shall we get down to brass tacks? I imagine you’d like to learn how to do this.” He reaches behind his head and when his hand comes back up, it’s holding the Lance of Michael, drawing it out from thin air. “Unless you’d like it taken off of you while you’re walking around down there.” He nods his head towards the window and presumably, the lights below. “First demon you encounter, I’d imagine.”

“What, you’re not coming with me?” Dean scoffs sarcastically. “You know, Cas was the one with the leadership experience. I don’t have any idea what I’ve got to offer that would make a bunch of demons trust me, never mind want to help me out.” Crowley holds the Lance out for him to take, and Dean finally accepts, barely holding back the pulsating rage that courses through him, relentlessly demanding that he take Crowley out. Cas, he reminds himself. Cas needs you.

“You’d be surprised,” Crowley tells him. “I didn’t lie to you. Most of them down there want Abbadon dead and would jump at the chance to unseat her. Unless you decide between now and the moment you run her through with that pretty toy that you also want to throw your hat in the ring as their permanent leader, trust me, they want what she has and will have no problem using you to get it. And besides, you never know who you might run into down there.”

Crowley doesn’t expand on that mysterious remark, just jumps right into showing Dean how to hide the Lance and retrieve it. It’s really a simple trick considering that the Lance’s power does the majority of the work, and Dean masters the technique quickly. With the weapon concealed and Crowley ready to point him in the right direction, there’s nothing left to do but get the show on the road.

“I’m gong to drop you just outside one of the larger Hell-towns. It’s about halfway between here and Abbadon’s digs. Start there. I think if you search carefully enough, you’ll find what you’re looking for. Best of luck, Dean. I really am rooting for you.”

Before Dean can protest, “Wait,” Crowley’s placing a hand on his shoulder, making the room fall away in a rush of noise and blurred colors. Dean can’t help but blink heavily, squeezing his eyes shut for an extra moment against the unpleasant sensation of teleportation. “Ugh, why,” he groans, but as he opens his eyes, he finds himself alone. The plush room has been replaced by desert that stretches endlessly in one direction and buts up against the darkened mountain range in the other. The sand is lit dimly by the pervasive dark red sky and the sulfer smell is a thousand times stronger here than it was inside. Off in the distance, Dean can just make out the shape of what appears to be a castle, tucked tightly into the side of the rock, high up on a ridge. 

He wonders if that’s where he’s come from, and turning to see the sprawling buildings of the Hell-town behind him, he decides it must be. Which means that Abbadon’s place is somewhere directly beyond the other side of the town. Dean estimates the distance to Crowley’s presumed castle as ten miles, and does his best to squint and see if he can make out anything in the mountains at approximately that distance the other way, but it’s no use. The mountains amplify their own shadows, making picking out any distinguishing features downright impossible. There’s that word again, Dean thinks.

Instead of focusing on what he can’t see, he sizes up the town. When Crowley had said he was dropping him on the outskirts, that had been quite a generous description. From where he’s standing Dean can see clearly that the small blip of apparent civilization simply ends, the clusters of buildings and streets not petering out the way small cities do, but simply coming to an abrupt and complete stop where concrete meets sand. It looks like someone had used a giant pie knife to carve out the absolute worst part of any given city, scooped it up and plopped it here. 

Even from his place a few hundred yards out in the sand, Dean can see that the rows upon rows of dark grey buildings of varying heights are swaying and dilapidated, the kind of last-ditch shelters that are held together mostly by rust and hope, and Dean has a nagging feeling there isn’t much of that second thing to go around here. He makes his way towards the street that runs between them anyway, the too-hot wind whipping sand unpleasantly into his face as he goes. He steps up from the shifting sand and gravel onto what looks like regular blacktop, although it’s badly cracked and warping down the length of it. The road seems to travel straight through the Hell-town, and if Dean looks carefully and concentrates, he thinks he can see the desert out the other side, maybe a mile away.

Demons are definitely around, shuffling down the street, hanging out of windows, sitting on stoops and smoking cigarettes. Most of them pay him no mind, though a few size him up as he walks by and it’s completely unclear whether they’re just interested in what he looks like, or if they know he doesn’t belong. If they recognize him as Dean Winchester, Righteous Man, broken on the rack and reshappen into Master Torturer by the demon Alastair, Ruler of the Pit, no one says so. Dean wonders what he looks like to them; if they’re able to tell that he has a soul, that he’s alive, that he doesn’t look or smell quite right to be one of them . But a human in a Hell-town can’t be a common occurrence, so perhaps they don’t believe their own senses even if they are able to deciper that he’s different. Regardless, none of them bother him and Dean counts his blessings. Strange as it may seem, he’s here to find allies, not make enemies.  

He’s walked about three blocks when a demon in a meatsuit that looks like it belongs in a tent city anyway calls after him. The guy’s beat, sprawled all over a set of crumbling stairs that lead up to an even more crumbly building that doesn’t even have a front door, just a space where a door should be. He’s waving around a paper bag with a bottle stuffed inside, and he’s every bit the picture of a bum, which is strange because this is Hell, and can demons even get drunk? Maybe the rules are different here for that, too. Dean guesses that would make sense, would sure explain why so many of his “co-workers” so to speak were so keen on leaving the Pit when there was so much to do there. Dean pushes that slightly disturbing thought aside and wrestles with whether to acknowledge the man. He’s going to have to talk to someone, at some point, and although this particular gentlemen seems like perhaps not the best starting point for the sort of army that might have a shot against Abbadon and her minions, maybe he’s got some thoughts on finding someone who is.

“Hey, buddy,” Dean starts, and the man peers back at him from between dirty, matted bangs and a thick bushy beard. He smells worse than sulfer up close, like piss and vomit and weeks of going without a shower. What the fuck, Dean marvels. You can pick any meat suit in the world and you go with this? He keeps his distance, but the man slides down the steps and wobbles to his feet, hanging onto the concrete railing of the steps for support. Dean takes a step back.

“Yer preddy,” the demon slurs, eyes suddenly flashing from hazel to black. “Hows ‘bout you an’ me go’on isside?” He lets go of the railing and stumbles, flinging himself towards Dean who stumbles back further into the street.

“Oh hell no,” he mutters under his breath. “I did not sign up for this.” He paces quickly away, leaving the man ( demon) yelling obscenities at his back. “Shit,” Dean swears, after he’s put a decent amount of space between himself and his wanna-be new friend. He runs a hand through his hair and looks around aimlessly. What now? He supposes he could keep walking, there’s got to be some sort of town center or any kind of gathering place where perhaps some of the more together demons might gravitate to. He can’t very well just go around knocking on doors, who knows what might be hiding behind them, most likely far worse than a random drunk guy? He’s about to set off again, frustrated already but willing to at least try out his plan to look for a gathering spot when he hears a quiet voice coming from the dark alleyway beside him.

“Hey there,” it says, and as his eyes adjust, he realizes the soft, feminine voice is attached to a young, pretty girl. Dark hair, light blue eyes, pale skin, delicate features, now this is the kind of vessel he’d pick if he were a demon. His eyes travel reflexively down her body, taking in her slim waist and curvy chest, and man, in another fucking life this girl was exactly his type. But here, despite her beauty, what she is remains more than obvious. If the sulfer smell weren’t enough to give it away, the fact that she’s standing on the side of the road in half-ripped capri pants with a hole very obviously cut out of the crotch and a ratty sports bra is more than enough. Her high heels don’t even match; one is green and one is red and they’re several inches off from being the same height. As Dean looks closer, he can see that her lipstick is smeared and her hair is ratty and knotted but only in certain spots on her head, places it might be easy for someone to grab onto. Dean can’t help but feel devastated for the girl this once was and hopes fervently that she’s long dead, her soul resting in a better place than this, never to witness what her body’s become.

“Uh, hey,” Dean says politely as if he didn’t just learn his fucking lesson about engaging with these random things. The demon smiles brightly but it’s hollow, there’s nothing behind it and Dean can tell. She takes a few steps forward and he takes a few back.

“I ain’t gonna bite,” she says softly, “Unless that’s something you like. We could have fun together,” she offers. “Don’t you wanna have fun? Everyone here likes to have fun.”

“Yea, uh, maybe later,” Dean replies quickly. “I’m actually visiting… from the town over that way.” He points vaguely in the opposite direction from the mountains and hopes she doesn't ask for specifics, but the demon just stares and flutters her eyelashes. “I was hoping to find out if anyone was in charge around here? You know, like a leader?” The demon’s forehead creases and she tilts her head in response to his question, but she doesn’t look suspicious.

“So you don’t want to have fun?”

“Uhm, you know, ‘course I do,” Dean lies, “Just gotta handle some business, then I’ll come back. We can… have fun.” He flashes her his best panty-dropper smile, and she seems to buy the act.

“I love to have fun,” she says with a grin. “We would have a lot of fun together.”

“Totally,” Dean agrees, shaking his head and keeping that smile plastered on his face for all he’s worth. “Right after I finish my job. It’s official business, from the King.”

The demon girl’s expression changes at that. “Oh,” she says. “Well, that’s different. You can’t keep the King waiting. He won’t let you have any fun.”

“Right,” Dean agrees. “So… any chance you could point me to where the big wigs hang out? Is there a place like that?”

The girl nods. “You’re looking for The Paradiso, ” she explains. “It’s that way, over one street and down almost all the way. You’ll see it. And then you’ll come back, won’t you? We’ll have fun. I love to have fun.”

Dean starts to back away. “Yea, of course. We’ll… we’ll have fun. I’ll uh, catch you later.” He thinks he can still hear her calling after him as he flees, turning the corner onto the side street she’d pointed out just as soon as he’s able so that he’s out of her sight. Fucking weird. He follows her vague directions, and finds the next street over to be somehow even worse than the main road. The buildings over there are all multiple stories, some even as tall as ten stories or higher. But over here, in their shadow, it’s a shanty town. Shacks built on top of other shacks, facing the tall buildings of the main road, only steps away and yet so much worse than them for the wear. Most of these truly look as if a stiff breeze would blow them over, and Dean has no interest in finding out what’s lurking inside each dilapidated facade. He keeps to the middle of the street and makes his way down as the demon girl had said, to within an eighth of a mile of the road ending completely.

And here, the town livens up.

The shanties disappear again in favor of row-home style buildings and store fronts. It honestly looks to Dean like one of the shittier sections of New York City they’d walked through to get to the Purgatory portal, only darker, dingier, and with the eternal red lighting doing its part to make everything look just a little bit surreal. Music of various kinds spills from open doorways and demons stand in groups in the street and on stoops, talking and laughing. Some of them fight, there are a handful passed out face down on the cement, and Dean passes at least two couples fucking right there in the open; one on the sidewalk and one up against the brick wall of a building. It’s shocking at first, and he has to remind himself that he’s in Hell, not some public thoroughfare. He sees drugs being used, alcohol being drunk, and in general this street seems like a nonstop version of the wildest rock’n’roll party ever to be thrown.

He’s so wrapped up in trying to remain inconspicuous while lowkey scoping out the goings-on that he almost misses the bar, but the sign catches his eye at the last second. It really is called The Paradiso, and Dean’s inner nerd can’t help but chuckle in amusement. The windows of the establishment are completely blacked out so he can’t scope it out before going inside, but he still decides to risk it. Hell with it, right? Come this far. He’s blended just fine as far as he can tell, no reason to think that won’t continue. He gathers his courage and takes a last look around the street, but no one’s paying him any mind or seems like they’ll be particularly useful to him either, so onward it is. He pulls open the door and steps inside.

The bar is dark, dingy, and remarkably similar to the dive bars Dean enjoys so much on earth. He catches himself thinking about how he can’t wait to tell Sam about this when it’s all over, and then has to shove that thought and the feelings that come with it down so far he might never be able to retrieve it. There’s a long bar with a full selection of liquor lined up on the other side that catches his interest, darts in the back, a couple of pool tables and at least two games of poker going that Dean can see. All of that is great, and considering places like this are his bread and butter, he still thinks his plan was a good one. And it might have been, except for one thing.

As soon as he enters, the entire place goes silent. Dean’s helpless except to stand there and wait for a reaction as every single demon in the bar simultaneously stops what they’re doing and turns to stare him down.

Fuck.

***

Chapter Text

Guess that’s one way to break the ice, Dean finds himself thinking as his eyes dart from black-eyed face to black-eyed face across the room. Theoretically, he could turn around and walk out, though there’s no guarantee the entire bar wouldn’t follow him. No, probably best to stay and do his best to pretend as if he belongs. There’s still a chance he can blend. He steps down the three half-rotten wood stairs into the sunken bar, summoning a cocky smile that he hopes does a decent job at covering his nerves.

“Howdy,” he says in greeting as he strides forward, “This a good place for a wayward demon to grab a drink and kick up his heels?” No sooner has he spoken than a giant man with spiked hair, tattoos, piercings all over his face and muscles to rival a bodybuilder’s throws down his poker hand and pushes back from his table. At full height, Dean realizes his challenger is several inches taller than Sam and almost twice as wide. Inside he’s shaking like a leaf but he keeps that smile pasted on the way his dad always taught him. Never let them see you sweat.

“It is,” the demon answers him. “But it’s no place for humans, especially if those humans are notorious demon hunters.” He bangs his fist on the table, rattling the chips and causing the other demons sitting around it to grab for their drinks. “Did you really think a Winchester could walk around a Hell-town unnoticed? I’d heard you had better survival instincts than that.”

So much for fitting in. Dean forces a chuckle and looks around again. Several other demons have risen from their seats to form a barrier between him and the door. “Yea, you’d think so. Listen, fellas, I come in peace.”

The big demon snarls. “There’s no peace to be found here, and none of us are interested in what you have to say. You’re a pretty little present now, a toy for us to play with until you break or we get bored, and we like our toys to be quiet unless they’re screaming. I bet you scream real pretty, don’t you, Winchester? So, so pretty, just like that face.” He grins an ugly distortion of a smile and makes his way around the table towards where Dean is standing. He can feel the row of demons behind him closing ranks too, which leaves him very little choice.

“Really wish everyone would stop calling me pretty,” Dean mumbles, reaching behind his head to whip out the lance. He swipes it forward and pokes the nearest demon in one swift movement. As the demon shrieks and poofs to dust in a powerful blast of ashy grey, Dean takes advantage of the distraction and manages to get his back against a wall. It’s no door to the outside, but it sure beats being surrounded. “Look, I’m sorry, you kinda forced my hand, here!” Dean yells to be heard over the ruckus of gasps and angry chattering that erupts, still holding the spear with the business end ready for action.

“You’re going to wish you were never born,” the big demon roars, using the back of his hand to send the table that’s currently in between him and Dean flying along with several of the demons seated around it.

“Wait!” Dean hollers. “I’m here for a reason, Abbadon! I’m going to kill Abbadon.” That at least gets the advancing demon to pause, but only long enough to glance around the room and burst into hysterical laughter alongside his peers.

“Did you hear that boys? The human Winchester is going to kill Abbadon. Because it’s that easy. Fucking hell, why didn’t we think of that?! It’s so simple!” He throws back his head and howls, the entire bar joining in, many of them calling out heckling insults in Dean’s direction. 

“Yea, yea, alright, I get it,” Dean nods. “But that’s why I’m here, risking my ass in a demon bar in the worst part of an already shitty Hell-town. No offense,” he caveats with a quirk of his head. “You can think what you want about me, call me names and poke fun, but I gotta think that on some level if you know my last name, then you also know that a Winchester wouldn’t come here unless he had a reason to and a plan.” When Dean dares to look back again at the hulking mess of muscle hovering over him from far closer than he’d like, he’s surprised to find an almost thoughtful expression gracing his otherwise brutal face. Dean swallows and continues, doing his best to talk while he still has the chance. “This,” he says, shaking the lance, but not lowering it from its defensive position. “You know what this is? Anyone? It’s the Lance of Michael, the Archangel. It kills anything it pierces, including Abbadon. You saw what it can do. I just need some help, some backup. Get me to her, knock out her protection detail, and I promise I’ll take her out."

The tattooed demon lifts a hand and strokes his jaw, eyeing the Lance. “I don’t understand. This is a bid by a human to become the next Ruler of Hell?”

“No,” Dean denies firmly, shaking his head for emphasis. “I give exactly zero fucks who’s in charge down here. Abbadon’s got someone I care about, I’m just looking to get him back. Help me, and whatever power she’s wielding is yours to take. I swear. I can’t take on all of her minions on my own, I got no idea how many she even has or I’d be there now doing this myself.” Dean hesitates and looks around. All eyes are still on him but they seem to look slightly less murderous, and that’s encouraging. He takes a deep breath. “Assuming that I make it out of this bar alive, I’m going with or without your help. But with it will make my success a lot more likely.”   

The demon that Dean’s decided is clearly the leader drags a finger across his lip, eyeing Dean up from head to toe as if he’s really seeing him for the first time.

“And what’s stopping me from just taking your weapon and killing you on the spot?”

“You could try.” Dean shrugs, sounding a lot more confident than he feels. “One poke and you’re dust, though.” The demon starts to look defensive again, and Dean decides that it’s time to go all-in. In his riskiest move since letting Crowley take him and Cas to Hell to begin with, Dean relaxes his arms and drops the sword, twirling it around and disappearing it once again behind his back. “There’s also that,” he says defiantly, looking the demon in the eye. “Now you need me.”

“Hmm,” is all the demon says before turning to his cronies and motioning to the overturned table. “Pick that up,” he orders. “Reset the game.” He turns his jacked body turns back towards Dean, and Dean isn’t sure that he likes the new glint featured in his now-grey eyes. “Are you up for a little game, Winchester? I like to get to know the folks I work with before I put my life on the line for them. Maybe we see what sort of man you are, what you might be willing to give us all in return for our help.” The demon’s eyes travel up and down Dean’s body as he speaks, and it’s not difficult at all to see where this is headed. Most of Dean is voting for the cut and run option, fighting his way out if necessary and booking it as fast and as far as he can away from the bar. With all the twists and turns of the shitty streets nearby he thinks he stands a decent chance of escape, but the thought of what Cas must be going through right now stops him from pursuing that train of thought any further. He needs these monsters. This is what he came here for, and if paying for their services with his body is what they want, Dean can do that. It’s not like it would even be the first time.

***

January 26, 1997. Fall River, Massachusetts.

Only two days after Dean turned eighteen, John Winchester left him and Sam to fend for themselves while he went off on a hunt. Now that Dean was older, John would have usually taken Dean with him, leaving Sam to fend for himself or dropping him off at Bobby’s if they were going to be more than a couple of days. But Sam was attached to the school he was currently enrolled in and had begged to be allowed to stay, at least until the end of the school year. John either couldn’t or wouldn’t commit to that, but the school had been on his ass about Dean’s attendance anyway, so he’d told him to stay behind, work at graduating, and watch out for Sam.

“Might be a long one, anyway,” he’d grunted as he packed up the car and handed a disgruntled Dean an envelope full of cash. “Spend it wisely,” he’d warned. But John either hadn’t paid attention to how much he’d left for them or he hadn’t cared, either way, he’d gotten his boys into trouble almost from the jump. The owner of the motel they were staying at had come knocking bright and early the very next morning after John had left, inquiring as to whether they intended to leave or settle up for another week. As Dean counted out the correct amount of cash and the envelope got lighter and lighter, he realized very quickly what dire straits they were in. With the room paid for, they had all of twenty dollars left. In another week they’d owe the motel again, saying nothing of food, bus fare, or any other needs in the meantime.

And so Dean set out to find a job and miraculously, he got lucky. While he had no experience with cash registers or retail, making him unattractive to the local stores and gas stations, the owner of bar that John had frequented while he was in town had gotten to know him as the good son who came and drove his drunk dad home at closing time, even on school nights. So when Dean had wandered in begging for any kind of scut work, offering to scrub the toilets and take out the trash, the guy had taken pity on him. He admitted that couldn’t afford much, apparently, the bar was on its last legs as it was but he was willing to pay Dean under the table so long as he worked hard and did what he was asked to do. 

And Dean was more than willing, going into work most every night of the week straight after getting Sammy home from school, fed, and set up with his homework. He busted his ass cleaning, hauling crates from the storage area, clearing tables - any odd job he was capable of doing, he did. He’d work until an hour after closing time scrubbing sticky floors until they shined even if it meant he was only getting four hours of sleep or so a night, a phrase he’d pull out later when he and Sam were on long hunts. Not that he knew what he was practicing for at the time.

He’d wake every morning when Sam did, pour him cereal, make sure he looked clean and presentable not because Sam wasn’t capable, but because he deserved to have someone looking out for him, someone making it clear that they cared. And Dean did care. No matter what happened to him, if Sam was good, then he was too. And he was saving up pretty quickly. The bar owner was as generous as he could afford to be, and the bartenders would sometimes tip him out if it was a good night. Dean was actually happy, and he didn’t mind the work. Sometimes when it was slow, he talked with the bartenders and they showed him how to mix drinks. He thought he might eventually take a class or something, pouring drinks seemed easier than hauling heavy crates of beer. He found himself occasionally eyeing the pool and poker games that would go on with envy; it would be so much easier to hustle some of those poor saps out of their easily offered up money, but Dean knew better. Small town like they were in, hustling wouldn’t work more than a handful of times. No, better to stick to the straight and narrow, so long as the getting’s good.

It all went to shit in the middle of March. Two months of maintaining a reasonably stable life for him and Sam, two months of not having to steal to put food on the table or keep a roof over their heads. Sam had friends and was doing well in school and to his own surprise, so was Dean. He actually had a shot at graduating, so long as he kept his grades up. Dean should have known, should have seen the storm clouds rolling in because nothing stays good for long when you’re a Winchester.

On the day it all came crumbling down, he and Sam had been walking home from the bus, shooting the shit about some dance that was coming up. Dean had of course been giving his little brother the requisite hard time regarding asking the girl he liked to go with him, laughing and making terrible suggestions for how he might do it. Sam had blushed and shoved him, and Dean had felt so proud that they’d carved out this little slice of normalcy for themselves, against all odds. And then they’d reached the motel parking lot. Dean could see from where he was standing under the flashing neon sign that the door to their room was open. Housekeeping, was his first thought, not that he’d seen a housekeeping cart more than twice in the entire time they’d been there, nor was one visible now. A wave of panic rose inside of him and he took off at a dead run, hoping against hope that whoever dared violate their little sanctuary was still inside so he could kick some ass. He reached for the knife tucked deep inside his pocket and flicked it open as he ran, but there was no point. As he skidded across the threshold, it became obvious that the room was empty, the intruders long gone.

The place had been tossed. Cabinets in the tiny kitchenette were left wide open, drawers to the dresser had been pulled out and clothes were strewn haphazardly all over the floor. But Dean ignored all that, making his way to the closet, the door to which was also left swung wide. When he laid eyes on the open shoebox left lying on its side on the floor, he fought to push back tears. All of their money, all of it, was gone. Dean had no idea how anyone would have known about his shoebox, it wasn’t like he’d told anyone, but perhaps this was a random hit and the thieves just got lucky. It didn’t matter, they were penniless and the rent was due in two days, the kitchen shelves were bare, and Sam needed money for some class trip that Dean had told him ages ago would be no problem to pay for.

He swallowed his anger and despair and turned to Sam, not letting on about the money situation but making some sort of bad joke about how the thieves must have been real idiots, wasting their time robbing people who had nothing of value to take. That night, he’d gotten ready early and gone to the bar as soon as Sam was settled. He’d explained the situation and begged the owner shamelessly for an advance, just enough to cover their rent. Dean’s boss had looked at him in sadness, spreading his hands in supplication while he demurred that unfortunately, there was no money to give, that he was barely covering costs while paying Dean at all. And Dean had understood, thanking him anyway and retreating out to the back alley to crouch against the cold, damp brick with his head in his hands.

And it was there that one of the bar’s frequent patrons found him and called him pretty in a way that other men had done before, but Dean had angrily discarded as gross. This time though, he hesitates, staring wide-eyed in response, and the man offers him $20 for a blowjob.

It’s cold for March, even for  New England, and Dean’s jeans stick to the icy surface of the cement when he kneels. He’s not good at this, has never done it before, and while yea, maybe he’s been a little curious he certainly never envisioned that the first time he’d be weak enough to let a man get close to him would be like this. But the bar patron doesn’t seem to notice, slipping his cock from his pants and into Dean’s open mouth as quickly as possible considering the cold air. Maybe Dean’s a natural or maybe the guy doesn’t give a shit about good technique because he mumbles nonsense about hot and wet and so pretty, and Dean doesn’t have to do much more than sit there and bob his head a little while hoping his feet don’t go numb from cold or the position or both. When the guy comes he pulls out so his semen dribbles down Dean’s chin, and he’s never felt so dirty in his life. He wipes his mouth as the guy zips back up, getting to his feet and coming face to face with a crisp $20 bill.

“Thanks,” he says, half-grateful to not have been taken for a fool and half-filled with shame. He pockets the money anyway.

“You be around?” The guy asks him with hopeful eyes, and really, he doesn’t seem like such a bad dude. He smelled clean and he wasn’t rough or mean. Dean’s no idiot, he knows he could have done far worse for a first wander down this road.

He clears his throat. “Uh, yea,” he replies. “Probably.” The guy nods and returns to whatever he was doing inside the bar, leaving Dean to his self-loathing and what’s quickly shaping up to be the most desperate plan he’s ever had to put into motion to protect Sam. The sign he’s looking for to decide whether this is too crazy comes just as he’s about to head back inside, in the form of a second man who steps out the back door and zeros in on him immediately.

“My friend said I might find someone out here,” he says casually, holding Dean’s eye contact and giving him the opportunity for an out if he wants it. He doesn’t take it, just holds out his hand and gets down on his knees. He returns to work after that and finishes his shift. The bar’s owner surprises him at closing time with his full day’s pay, more than Dean knows he can afford right now, and he’s grateful, but the extra cash in his pocket weighs heavily on his mind.

There’s not much else to do but keep it up after that. He works at the bar and then he works out back. Word gets around and he picks up a couple of regulars. Sometimes they want his hand and sometimes his mouth and it’s not hard to close his eyes and repeat, do  it for Sammy, when the going gets tough . It’s nothing, it’s nothing at all. Just flesh and salt, skin and air and nothing more. These people don’t want him, and he doesn’t need to be there while they take what he has to offer. He goes somewhere else, somewhere far away, and he gets through it. But god, does he hate himself for it, forever thinking of how ashamed his father would be if he ever found out.

Their motel bill gets paid. Sam goes on his class trip. There’s always food on the table and Sam always has lunch money. That’s what’s important.

Do it for Sammy.

The owner of the bar finally catches wind of what he’s been up to and calls him in to talk about his “little side hustle.” It’s bad for business, he says, explaining that the cops know it’s happening, they’re set to bust Dean and him while they’re at it. Dean hangs his head in shame, apologizing and damn near ending up in tears, but he holds it together. The bar owner says no, he’s the one who’s sorry. Tells Dean that he likes him, that he’s a good kid and he deserves better than his shithead of a father, but that he has to fire him. Liability plus other employees complaining, or some other reason Dean doesn’t hear. He nods numbly and gets up to leave. His boss, ex-boss now, presses some cash into his hand and for some reason, it feels like the dirtiest transaction he’s handled yet.

Jobless and desperate since John still isn’t returning his calls, he sucks some guy off under an overpass for the promise of $20 and gets busted by the cops. He calls Sam, who’s completely fine, and gets the worse news of his entire life. His father is back.

John lets him sit in jail overnight before coming down the next morning to bail him out. He’s silent as he drives them down to the deserted trainyard where he says he’s going to teach Dean a lesson where they won’t be interrupted. He beats the shit out of Dean, calls him a failure, calls him weak, calls him terrible names that Dean’s blocked from his memory. Dean gets the message, though. It’s worse to John that he was sucking cock than the fact that he was doing it for money.

Be a man, he’d yelled, spit flying in Dean’s face. What kind of example are you setting for your brother? You’re a hunter, Dean. Hunters are better than this.

Hunters are better than this, Dean had repeated to himself as he spit out the blood that had pooled in his mouth.

It would take almost two decades to undo the majority of the damage John did to him that day. And if it weren’t for Castiel and how much Dean owed to him, how much better he deserved than Dean himself, how much Dean loved him despite all that, perhaps it would have taken longer.

***

Present Day, Hell, Unnamed Hell-town

However uneasy, Dean sucks it up and takes a seat at the poker table when and where the big demon ( Morax, as he finally introduces himself,) tells him too. He shifts nervously in his chair before he realizes he’s doing it, and the demons seated next to him definitely take notice. In an effort to distract himself while the table gets reorganized with new drinks and such, Dean checks out the rest of the room more thoroughly. Most of the other demons have already lost interest in him or at least, they’re doing their best to make it seem that way, but several are still stealing glances and a bold few are openly staring. Not all of them are in human meatsuits, either. Just from his limited vantage point, Dean can identify talons, hooves, and even a beak though not on the same body, thankfully. At the next table over from his another poker game has resumed, and a human-looking Billy Idol wanna-be complete with platinum hair and a long black coat is challenging a dermatological nightmare that looks like a pig someone tried to melt in a microwave.

“Three of a kind, you owe me two,” Skin Flaps declares happily while Billy Idol grumbles and digs around in a bag next to his chair, pulling out two live and mewling kittens.

Kittens?” Dean blurts out. “Seriously?”

Billy Idol turns to Dean with an eyebrow raised, and Dean’s perceptive enough to catch a glimpse of teeth that are sharper than they maybe should be. “Yea, what of it? Not like you’ve got any room to talk. This is Hell, you know.” With a grunt and a raise of his glass, he shoots the remainder of his whiskey and stands up with a dramatic flip of his coat. “Til next week, Clem,” he bids to the floppy-eared, kitten-eating nightmare still sitting at the table, and then he’s gone.

Clem watches him sweep out the door and then turns back to Dean. “He cheats,” he whispers emphatically. “Last time I won a hand against him was during the apocalypse.”

Dean blinks. “Which one?” Clem laughs but doesn’t answer, busy corralling his spoils into his own bag. Dean shakes his head in shock and turns back to his own impending disaster, feeling absolutely no better about it and even worse when he notices Morax is staring him down in a way that’s uncomfortably similar to how Dean’s been known to eye up a burger. He clears his throat and does his best to sound confident and casual. “So, what are we playing for? If it’s kittens, someone’s gonna have to spot me.” No one laughs, but Morax grins, sharp and deadly.

“I thought that would be obvious,” he sneers. “We’re playing for you. Or rather, you are playing for you. The rest of us are just playing to decide who gets to go first.”

Dean gulps. Do it for Cas, he reminds himself, forcing his mind back to considering what horrors might be befalling his friend at this very moment while Dean sits and stalls for time. Do it for Cas. Still, he gathers up the nerve to at least clarify the terms. “What if I win?”

Morax shrugs as if the question poses a theoretical so unlikely that it’s hardly worth answering. “Then you win. We’ll accompany you to fight Abbadon, you agree not to make a play for her power, and you owe us nothing. But you’ll have to win every hand for that to happen.”

“And if I don’t?”

The demon stops shuffling the deck of cards to glare at him. “What, are you stupid? You’re the one who wandered into our territory, pretty little human, not the other way around. My boys here,” he leans back and gestures with both arms to the demons surrounding him. “They’ve got needs, needs that Hell don’t always do the greatest job of meeting, and they don’t get to go above ground all that often. You lose, you’re on the hook for making them happy. You do a good job, we’ll take you to rescue your damsel in distress or whatever. And if you don’t survive us, well, I guess maybe then we’ll have a lot of time to figure out how to retrieve your special disappearing weapon.” Morax licks his lips and bares his teeth. “Either way, feels like we're coming out on top.”

As much as Dean already knows this is a trap, he doesn’t see another way out. Nothing he found in the rest of the Hell-town would lead him to believe there’ll be a better opportunity than this, and really, it’s just flesh. He’s let so many people use his body in his lifetime, what are a few demons in the grand scheme of things? This is Hell, it’s not even real. I did it for Sam, I can do it for Cas. He repeats those things over and over in his head and vows to see it though.

Do it for Sammy. Do it for Cas.

Dean can make the right choice for once, can put himself on the line for the greater good, for his family that deserves it. His family that he let down. He has to get back to his brother, he has to rescue his friend. He can do this.

For Sam. For Cas.

***

To exactly no one’s surprise, Dean does not win, not one single hand. The demons pay him no mind as they play, drinking and laughing and bartering places in line, sexual acts. He distances himself mentally, doesn’t even listen to what they’re discussing because it doesn’t matter. If this is the price he has to pay for Cas’ safe return, he’ll pay it and do it gladly. He stops even trying to win somewhere around the tenth hand, signaling the bartender and drowning himself in whiskey instead. Of course, when he drinks the whiskey doesn’t dull things the way it should, because this is Hell, and he should have expected that.

At some point, Dean’s arm is grabbed and he’s dragged up onto the table. Hands pull at his clothes and he doesn’t resist, letting them make him naked and vulnerable, all the while talking and laughing and otherwise ignoring Dean completely, save for as an object, a potential plaything, and right, of course, no one talks to their toys . It’s right around this time that Dean starts to question the situation, starts to wonder what’s stopping all of them from using him until he’s dead and then worrying about the rest later. What incentive do these things really have to uphold their end of the bargain? He’s distracted from that train of thought momentarily as fingers swipe between his ass cheeks and that starts a brawl, not because of Dean’s reaction ( flinch) but because whoever did it had tried to skip the line.  

“You know what, fellas? I’m thinking this was a mistake,” Dean tries, doing his best to scoot between them and off of the table but he’s jerked back by two different demons and slammed flat onto his back with his arms pinned above his head, preventing him from reaching for his weapon.

No,” he yells forcefully. “You don’t need to do this!” He kicks his feet, managing to bash one the demons in the side of the head but that only gets each of his ankles grabbed and held down. “Fuck,” Dean grunts, and Morax laughs as he shoves his way in between Dean’s legs.

“That’s the idea, pretty,” he says with a grin as he unbuttons his belt with one hand, the other holding Dean’s thigh open. “Oh, I forgot to mention. Me and my boys? Some of us got certain… physical incompatibilities that tend to tear human boys and girls up. So it’s none too likely that you’ll be making it out of here in any shape to take on a Knight of Hell. Too bad, but a deal is a deal,” he finishes and the demons roar with laughter.

Dean rages, fighting and bucking with every last ounce of energy he’s got, his brain singularly focused on one blinding thing. Cas. Have to survive. Have to save Cas. But it’s no use, even if he’d been free and able to access the Lance, he’d never be able to take on this entire crowd.

It’s hopeless, he realizes. This is it, I failed. He closes his eyes and Morax climbs up on the table, and hell, if this is it, then he’s gonna pray. He prays for Cas, for Sam, for rescue and failing that, for his own death to be over quickly. And he waits.

But Morax’s little party is interrupted by what sounds like a small explosion and a flood of red light. Dean opens his eyes to find that someone’s kicked down the door to the bar and is standing there, backlit and creepy. The party crasher’s features are too dark for Dean to make out, but he can feel demons stiffening and stepping back all around him.

“Let him up,”  a deep voice commands, sending a completely different wave of fear and emotion shooting like lightning down Dean’s spine. 

No, it can’t be… 

“Are you idiots fucking deaf? I said, let him up.” At that, Morax snarls and slides off of Dean as the demons holding his wrists and ankles all let go at once. Dean, however, is frozen solidly in place as John Winchester steps from the shadows and into the light.

“Hey, son.”

***

It’s probably a good thing that there’s no time for small talk, at least not at first. Once Dean’s senses return to him, he scrambles off the table and steps back into his jeans, though to his surprise John doesn’t even blink at his debauched state. He strides casually down the stairs and into the bar with a handful of what Dean can only assume are cronies trailing behind. He looks just like he did the last time Dean had seen him in the cemetery, and before that on the day that he died. A vice closes around Dean’s heart as he realizes that John was never set free at all, that he’s apparently been in Hell this whole time. Add that to the list of my failures, he thinks miserably.

“Did they hurt you?” That’s the first thing John asks, standing there calmly tapping a barbed wire-wrapped baseball bat against his palm and Dean wonders why his would-be attackers are all just standing around waiting.

“No, sir,” he answers reflexively, old habits kicking in like gangbusters and John snorts.

“Which ones were going to?” Dean hesitates and looks carefully between a very angry Morax and what definitely appears to be his father. John snaps his fingers once. “Come on Dean, you’ve got a mission and I don’t have all day.” And if he had any doubt...

“All of them,” Dean manages, and hearing that, John’s eyes narrow and turn black. Before Dean can even really process what’s happening, John and his crew have taken out the entire bar, bartender included. The only demon who’s not in pieces is Morax, and two of John’s crew have him restrained, hauling him over to Dean.

“Go ahead, son,” John encourages, his eyes already back to their normal color. Dean doesn’t wait for clarification, just pulls out the Lance and stabs Morax right through the heart. He doesn’t flinch away or break eye contact as Morax screams and poofs out of existence, the world and even Hell clearly a little bit better for it.

John (and Dean’s pretty sure it is John, not some thing wearing him) comes up behind Dean and puts a hand on his shoulder. “Sorry I was late,” he says. Dean turns around, having absolutely no idea what’s coming next.

“You were right on time, actually,” he replies nervously, fidgeting with the Lance. He can’t help but wonder, is John going to kick his ass, imprison him down here, or what? He can’t imagine that the demon version of his father is going to be easier on him than the human one, and the number of ways that this entire situation is the worst Dean’s ever let his father down doesn’t escape him. Which is why what comes next is both confusing and even scarier in some ways than a beating. John surges forward and hugs him.

“No, Dean,” he says, as he pulls back. “Not for this, though that too. For the first time you sold your body because of me, and I treated you like garbage because of it. That entire situation was on me, not you. In fact, all of this is. But I’ve got you now, son. And I hope that late is better than never.” Dean just gawks, his brain short-circuiting at what sounds like an apology coming from not only his father’s mouth but a demon version of him at that. John takes note of his reaction and chuckles. “I suppose I deserve that,” he says, clapping Dean hard on the shoulder. “C’mon, let’s get out of here. Don’t you have an angel to save?”

They exit the bar with John’s arm around Dean’s shoulder, and Dean suspects it’s more of a statement for other demons than for him, but he’ll take it, because it’s still his father, and Dean’s having a hard time shoving down the emotions and rough realization of how much he missed and has needed him. Abusive, neglectful, and undeserving as he is, Dean’s always loved his father, always wanted nothing more than to make him proud.

Outside the bar, there’s a hoard of demons and they all seem to be waiting for John. “What do you think?” John squeezes his shoulder and motions to the group. “Rallied the troops for us. I hear we’re taking on Abbadon?”

Dean stares incredulously. “How..?”

“It’s a small town, Dean. You didn’t really think Crowley dropped you here by accident, did you?” Before Dean can answer, John’s yelling at his “troops” to move out, dropping his arm from around Dean so that they can start walking briskly. They reach the end of the town quickly and move out into the sand. “So,” John says. “How’s your brother?”

Dean winces. “Can we maybe come back to that? This whole thing, Dad, why are you in Hell? We saw you, we got you out.” He’s only partially deflecting, he’s definitely dying to know how and why John is still stuck here, but John just chuckles.

“Turns out, Azazel’s deal wasn’t the only thing that got me sent this way, guess that’s why he wasn’t willing to deal on years. Seems like whoever weighs the good against the bad when it comes to souls doesn’t take kindly to a lot of the things I put you boys through. And I’ve had 800 or so years to hear about that.” John’s tone is even, and without any hint of resentment or malice. He’s so unlike what Dean would have pictured his father as a demon would be, he’s almost too stunned to comment. “Anyway,” John continues, “I clawed my way out when the gate opened, and Azazel dying broke our deal. But Hell claimed my soul for itself anyway.” He shrugs and kicks at the sand as they move along. “Rack didn’t break me, though. Damn well did it’s best but eventually, my soul warped and my eyes started doing this.” He looks at Dean and his eyes flicker to black briefly before turning back. “And here I am. Stuff of legends ‘round these parts, that’s how I picked up the following. Demons respect that sort of thing.”

Dean can’t stop staring, but his throat is dry and empty when he goes to speak.

“Jesus, Dean,” John says. “It’s still me.”

“I know, I know that,” Dean replies, swallowing heavily. “It’s a lot to take in. And honestly, I was pretty ready to hear how ashamed you are of me, how much of a failure you think I am.”

Johns eyes narrow, and he watches Dean with a tilted head and a thoughtful gaze. “I really did a number on you, didn’t I? Guess they were right about which way to send me.” They walk along silently for a few minutes, and then John speaks again. “I keep tabs on you boys, you know. Much as I can.”

“Yea?” Dean does his best to keep his voice even, though there’s a giant lump in his throat as he prepares for the worst, but John just nods.

“I know about Sam, and what you did, how it backfired and he’s out there somewhere being driven around like a holy Porsche.” Dean sucks back a broken sob and John shakes his head. “You were just doing what you could, Dean. We’ve all made bad deals when we’re backed against a wall and the people we love are on the line. Just look at me, look at your mom.”

“Mom’s not here, is she?”

John shakes his head with a wistful smile. “Hell no,” he replies. “Your mom was wonderful. Loved you and your brother more than life itself. Loved me, too, for some reason I still can’t figure out. She’s not here.” Dean breathes a sigh of relief at that, but there’s still one thing his dad doesn’t know. He clears his throat.

“Dad, about why I’m here…” He trails off. He wants to tell him, but he just can’t do it, can’t make the words come out of his mouth. Miraculously, he doesn’t have to.

“Your angel, you mean? The one Abbadon’s got trussed and carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey? Cas? Did I get that right?” Dean stops dead in his tracks, his eyes wide, and John makes a face. “Sorry,” he shrugs, with a quirk of his mouth. “Demon.”

Dean shakes it off and starts walking again, though inside he’s chilled to his core. Cas. “Yes,” he affirms. “Castiel, he… he’s my best friend.”

John snorts, and then apologizes again. “Sorry. But Dean, you don't have to dance around it. I know all about you two.”

For the second time, Dean stops walking and waits. This is it, he thinks. He braces himself to be insulted, berated, beaten, but it never comes. John just pats him on the back and encourages him forward, not speaking again until Dean returns to putting one foot in front of the other. “Yea,” he sighs. “I fucked you up but good.” They walk on quietly for a few moments as John seems to gather his thoughts. “Tell me about him,” he suggests.

Still, Dean hesitates. Maybe he’s not going to get his ass beat, but that doesn’t make this situation comfortable. For Cas though, he’ll try. For Cas. “He, uh, he’s a badass,” he finally offers. “Real black sheep, far as angels go. He’s brave and kinda nerdy, selfless, reckless as hell sometimes, but he’s family.” Dean thinks for a moment and then adds, “He always has me and Sam’s backs. Saved our lives more times than I can count. And it’s my fault he’s being tortured. I brought him here, guess I had some kind of delusion that we’d work our way through Hell and take on Abbadon together, you know, his Virgil to my Dante, but less Beatrice at the end. But Dante didn't have to contend with Crowley.”

John’s jaw works, and he strokes the thick stubble on his chin. “I’m gonna get you both outta here, Dean. I promise you that. And I know that you probably need some time with all this, but I want you to promise me something in return.”

“Anything,” Dean answers automatically because after all, this is still John Winchester.

“When you leave, you leave all this bullshit here. It’s enough,” he says firmly. “You don’t need to carry the weight of the world the way that you do. Everyone makes mistakes.”

“I’m only doing what you taught me,” Dean replies.

“Yea,” John agrees. “I know that, son.”

Dean ponders his father’s words, but deep as they are something else is still worrying him, and he summons all of his courage to bring it up again. “It really doesn’t bother you? Cas, I mean. And me.” He braces himself for the stinging reply that doesn’t come.

Instead, John laughs heartily and looks at him with dancing eyes. “I’m a fucking demon, Dean, why would I care that you like cock? Listen, I may not be the man I once was but you’re still my son and for reasons I don’t necessarily understand because I’m technically evil now, I want you to be happy.” He pauses for a moment and then amends his words. “I want you and Sam to be happy. Cas too, if you’re tellin’ me he's family now. Don’t make me think too much about it, I might change my mind.”

They walk on, and John leaves Dean alone to grapple internally with the fact that nothing and everything has changed all at the same time. He’s still in Hell, Cas is still in grave danger, Sam is still possessed, and the world might be ending. But somehow, he feels lighter and freer than he has in years. It feels like it’s possible there could be a light at the end of the tunnel. Dean just hopes against hope that the light isn’t an oncoming train.

***

Chapter Text

Dean’s green eyes keep him on just the right edge of sane.

The things that Abbadon and her lackeys put him through are beyond anything Castiel’s ever experienced in the entirety of his existence. In a way, that makes what they do to him easier to cope with. In more obvious ways, not so much.

Castiel has been exposed to his fair share of torture before this, both in the unpleasant position of being on the receiving end as well as several almost equally awful but necessary stints as the torturer. He’s witnessed from the sidelines as others engaged in it as well; Naomi and her predecessors spared no angel in their quests to run as tight a ship as possible in Heaven and the Pit… well, the Pit is exactly as one would expect it to be. But the thing Castiel’s experiences of torture wielded by both Heaven and Hell had in common were that they were ultimately business. They were deemed necessary by someone and carried out as such. Even the most sadistic demons the Pit has to offer are still essentially grunts in a corporate system. Evil souls need to be punished and therefore, as gruesome as the things that are done to them might be, they’re still somehow understandable, perhaps even righteous in their own way. At the very least, they’ve been deemed necessary. Of course, Heaven and Hell’s individual reasoning deviated quite a bit, and upper management certainly wouldn’t agree that the other team’s reasoning is anything approaching reasonable, but those are the checks and balances of a bigger system at work.

At any rate, Castiel could understand torture in those scenarios. He’d never been the sort of cosmic being who enjoyed it, but he was willing to carry it out in the name of a greater good. He could watch Dean Winchester tearing apart souls in the Pit and understand that nothing he did touched who he was inside. He was performing a job, one that the cosmic order had deemed necessary, and his soul was no less bright or Righteous for doing so. In that same way, Castiel could take his fair share, too. Not that having one’s eye drilled into while wide awake or being hung from the rafters and beaten by other angels was pleasant, but mental toughness was part of the gig, and his training as a warrior for Heaven had prepared him well. He knew how to curl inside his own mind, tuck himself away in a comfortable and familiar corner and focus on a beautiful memory until the pain and agony passed.

So that’s what he tried to do when Abbadon started in on him, and it worked, for a while. He thought about the first time he and Dean had made love and every time after, he focused on Dean’s bright, amused smile when he wore Sharon Needle’s high heels for the first time, he buried himself in a memory of the way Dean clung to him and kissed his mouth when they were reunited in Purgatory. But Abbadon didn’t like that, was furious that it was apparently so easy for him to disengage and retreat into the safety of his head. She very quickly upped the ante; more, worse, harder, deeper, again, all words Castiel had become quite used to hearing her demand. And the more intense, painful, and terrifying her sessions, the harder it was for Castiel to drift away. Abbadon was truly a master of her craft and as such, she learned as she worked, adjusted, changed. She dug deep enough to decipher the things that really pushed Castiel’s buttons, the things that made him sit up and take notice, so to speak. Combine that knowledge with round-the-clock, nonstop traditional torture, and even a veteran like Castiel was woefully unprepared to deal.

And as Castiel was made to become present and pay attention to his own repeat bodily destruction at so many demons’ hands, he realized something that was far more chilling than the actual torture. Something that set Abbadon apart from the multitude of tormentors in Heaven and Hell alike. She enjoyed what she was doing, with nothing more substantial to it than that. Perhaps that shouldn’t have been such a revelation, but even demons like Alastair who were arguably as sadistic as they come still served a purpose. Their participation and drive to torture was rooted in a job, so even if they enjoyed it, as disgusting as that might be, it was somehow understandable. They were weapons of a system that was fucked on so many levels anyway, that what they did was hardly more than a cake topper. But Abbadon… there’s a darkness there that has edges and fingers and spreads like a disease to anyone who dares to get close to her. She is torture, Castiel realizes. She lives it, breathes it, revels in the ability to cause pain and fear and hurt just for what they are.

It’s then that Castiel finally grasps that there’s nowhere in his head he’ll be able to go to fully escape her. She won’t stop, won’t allow him a single moment’s peace because it’s the causing of pain itself that she craves and thrives on, and he’s fucking doomed. Every time he finds a brief respite in his own mind she’s right there waiting to twist the knife. And in doing so, ruining that moment, that memory forever. So Castiel stops letting her taint the pieces of his mind. He stops retreating into his head at all, lest it become a place that’s never safe for him to go again. Because he will get out of here, he will escape. Dean will come for him, he knows it, believes it with every fiber of his being. Dean will come. This is not the end. He allows himself one thing, one small comfort that he knows no amount of agony or suffering will be able to smear-- Dean’s beautiful, clear green eyes. It’s too simple to be a real escape, but it’s comfort nonetheless. And in the moments where he thinks he can’t possibly hang on a moment longer; when his body is twisted and cut, broken and bleeding, where he contemplates opening his mouth and begging his tormentor to end him, end it, end it all, that’s what he holds onto.

Dean’s green eyes.

And hold on he does.

***

Blunt.

Sharp.

Hot.

Cold.

Loud.

As far as Castiel has been able to inventory, these seem to be the major categories of torture Abbadon favors. There are, of course, others, as well as so many variations within, but for whatever reason, these seem to be the ones she enjoys most in action, regardless of whether she’s watching or participating. If he had to guess, Castiel’s money would easily be on sharp taking the lead spot in her favorites list. Whether her weapon of choice is a shard of glass, a knife, or her own manicured nails, sharp means blood, and the sight of blood beading and dripping and pooling at Castiel’s feet never fails to bring a demented smile to the Knight’s face. Castiel, for his part, constantly wonders how much blood a human can lose in Hell before it becomes fatal. Considering how much he’s seen come out of him, he’s determined pretty quickly that he must be healing, because whatever the answer to that question is, he’s undoubtedly lost more. Healing is slow going and unpredictable though, as by Hell’s design, and almost as painful as the precipitating injuries themselves. He’s watched as his skin knits slowly back together, gritted his teeth as the edges of bones grind past each other to realign, felt the agonizing itch as burns un-char and disappear inward, blackened edges slowly becoming pink and healthy only for it all to start over again.

Sometimes Abbadon disappears and leaves her minions in charge, and those moments are better than others. The minions don’t share her innate drive to keep Castiel on the knife’s edge of sanity, don’t care if he has a moment or two to recover, and he’ll take what he can get. But unfortunately, this moment is not one of those. Abbadon’s here and she’s wanting to play. Castiel’s lashed roughly to a pentagram so similar to the one he’d once tied Alastair, arms out and legs spread wide. The method du jour is some ancient curved blade, held casually swinging in Abbadon’s fingers as she contemplates her canvas, and the fact that she bothers with actual tools when she can wave her hand and rip out his guts really explains everything that’s beyond horrifying about this situation. Castiel thinks that this might be the most ruthless, soulless monster he’s ever come across. He’s slashed up already from neck to toes; shallow, painful cuts that don’t seem to heal and which Abbadon’s proclaimed as positively artful but aren’t deep enough to slice nerve roots and dull the pain. Blood blossoms slowly from each of them and leaves wet, reddened streaks as it rolls down his naked body. To Abbadon’s delight, he whimpers.

She’s advancing on him again, blade poised to carve into his skin when a noise outside the throne room gets her attention. Her face rapidly shifts from one of hungry pleasure to one of put-upon frustration and to Castiel’s relief, she drops the knife and turns away from him.

“What in Satan’s name is going on out there?” Her voice raises and carries, echoing off of the high ceilings and sending the demons that line the edge of the room scattering, doors thumping carelessly closed behind them in an attempt to hurriedly suppress whatever it is that’s ticked off their Queen bee. But for whatever reason, the noises beyond the thick wooden door don’t stop, in fact, they only get louder. As Abbadon stalks forward to presumably see what all the fuss is about, the doors suddenly blow wide, revealing a massive, battle-style fight in the enormous great room beyond. From his position far back in the room, Castiel’s hard-pressed to be able to tell what exactly is going on or even which demons belong to which side, but there’s no mistaking the raging fight for anything other than what it is. They’re being invaded, or rather, Abbadon is. There appear to be at least two factions, and as he watches the divisions becomes more obvious. There’s a crowd of demons pressing in and forward towards him, and another group, presumably Abbadon’s lackeys, working hard to beat them back. A thrill of adrenaline shoots through Castiel’s body, and he tugs at his bindings more roughly than he’s bothered to up until this point. Before this, he’d stood no chance of escaping even if he’d happened to be able to wrench himself free being that he was never alone, but now… The demons that usually line the throne room are gone and Abbadon’s distracted, disappearing into the fray herself and flinging demons left and right with a flick of her hand.

If he can just get loose from his bindings, he might have a shot at disappearing into the fray as well. He just needs to… ugh. The ropes around his wrist aren’t even particularly tight but they aren’t loose enough to slip free without doing some major damage either. Weighing his options, Castiel quickly decides that a broken wrist will be well worth the trouble, considering the alternative. He twists and yanks until his hand is almost bent backward, hearing the snap and pop of his bones as he finally manages to pull himself free. Ignoring the pain and the swiftly blossoming bruises, it’s manageable, it’s nothing, you’ve survived ten times worse here, he steels his mind and urges himself onward in his own head. His hand is still somewhat usable, perhaps only fractured, but because of how he’s tied, he can’t reach his other wrist or either of his feet. The battle rages on beyond the door, some of it spilling over and edging dangerously close to him, and the sight makes him work even harder to shake loose another limb.

Frustrated and near tears because of it, Castiel quickly realizes that he’s not getting out without breaking his other hand. He prepares himself to do it because it’s not like he has a choice, though how he’s going to escape from here naked and with two broken wrists is pretty well beyond him. One thing at a time, he supposes, preparing himself to twist and pull. He’s gritting his teeth for the onslaught of pain when a voice rings out from across the hall. And because he hasn’t been able to properly slip into a daydream or fantasy of being safe and loved for days, he knows instantly that it’s real.

“Cas! CAS!” He lets his arm go limp and lifts his head to see Dean limping across the room, bloody and bruised but alive and here and clutching Michael’s Lance in his hand, and Castiel has been so strong. He’s been so strong, holding on and not letting Abbadon and her minions break him, never letting himself cry or acknowledge how desperate and hurt and pained he really was because then they would win. And Castiel was determined; Abbadon could break his body, she could kill him if that was what she decided to do, but he’d never give her the satisfaction of seeing him cry, of knowing she cut him down to his soul. Those emotions, those feelings, they were sacred, they were for Dean, and Castiel had truly underestimated how quickly simply seeing Dean would open the floodgates. Crying is not a thing that Castiel often does; he didn’t shed a tear when he lost his grace, when he was kicked out of the bunker and Dean’s life, or when he was hungry and homeless except for a cold park bench. Not when he was on the verge of death from the time-ripple sickness, not when his own Father forsook him, or when Abbadon ripped out his stomach with her bare hands. But now? He’s straining against his bindings and the tears are already falling by the time Dean reaches him. They don’t have time for this, but it doesn’t matter, it’s happening.

Dean’s hand sweeps across his cheek and around the back of his head to thread into his hair and hold him tightly against his chest. Castiel nurses his injured wrist between them and is torn between wanting Dean to free his other arm so he can grasp him back, and never wanting him to move again. He sobs into the crook of Dean’s neck while Dean presses kisses and murmurs urgent, devastated apologies in his ear. Castiel’s tears soak Dean’s shirt and his breaths come in gasps, not just at the utter relief of being reunited but for the pure comfort and bliss of being touched in a gentle, loving way. A deep, shameful part of him had wondered if he might never feel that again, if he was destined to live out the rest of his days feeling only pain. He wants so badly to burrow inside Dean, to cling to him and forget everything else, damn the consequences.

But Castiel is nothing if not a warrior, and there will be time for the rest later. They’re by no means out of danger, and if Abbadon’s shrieks from the battle outside are any indication, it’s headed their way. When Dean pulls back his clothes are streaked with Castiel’s blood and he grimaces, dropping to his knees and setting to work untying one of Castiel’s ankles. Blinking final tears away, Castiel surveys the room and notes that many more demons have stumbled in, most fighting but some forming what looks to be a protective barrier around him and Dean.

“Dean!” One of the ones surrounding them calls out just as Dean’s knife slices through the ropes binding one of his legs. “Dean, she’s coming,” the demon warns. He turns slightly, just far enough for Castiel to see his face and recognize him, but before anything else can be said about John Winchester being in Hell, Abbadon appears in the doorway, eyes black and rage emanating off of her in waves.

“Okay,” she declares, “This was fun while it lasted, but now I’m bored.” With a wave of her hand, the doors to the room slam shut. An onslaught of demons take a run her from all sides, but she sends them all flying back before they get anywhere close and the cycle repeats. John hurries over and places his hand on Dean’s shoulder.

“We need a distraction. You’ll never be able to get close enough otherwise. She doesn’t know about the Lance, Dean, you can catch her off-guard if you come from behind. You ready? We need to go now before there aren’t any demons to cover you, and she sees that thing.” John turns to walk away and Dean catches his arm.

“What will you do?”

John flips his bat around in his hands to ready position and his eyes flicker to black. “I’m gonna be your distraction,” he says with a grin, and turns to move out, but Dean catches him again. He pauses and looks from Dean’s hand fisted in his jacket up to his distraught face. “We aren’t all gonna make it, son. That was always the gig, right? And if I don’t, at least this time I’ll be doing right by you.” He pulls Dean in for a one-handed hug and then shoves him away. “Tell your brother I said hi. Now, go! Go, Dean, go now,” he insists, and Dean only looks back once before he melts into the crowd of demons, still doing their best to advance on the Knight of Hell and being thrown back like waves in the ocean. John winks at Castiel before attempting the same. “Take care of my son,” he says pointing a finger for emphasis, and Castiel just nods, what else can he do?

“Hey!” John’s yell makes the crowd of demons part, and if his goal was to draw attention to himself, it’s working. Castiel scans the crowd to try and locate Dean, but he’s unsuccessful so he turns his attention back to his father. “Hey, Scarlet Fever, why don’t you pick on somebody your own size?” He’s grinning and sauntering out in front of Abbadon casually, swinging his bat like he’s got all the time in the world. She lets him come, raising her eyebrows and quirking those blood red lips in a semblance of a smile.

“John Winchester,” she greets him. “Interesting. I assume if you’re here, then your nightmare of a son has to be lurking close by.” She sighs and then shrugs. “When will your family learn? It’s like the lack of brain cells got passed down twice. I killed your father, in case you weren’t aware. Although, I suppose it would be sort of neat to score a three-generation streak. Your funeral,” she finishes thoughtfully.

“Suppose so,” John replies, his grin never wavering. He charges forward and Abbadon stops him easily with a hand thrust out, using magic to elevate him off the floor as he struggles and kicks wildly. At the twist of her fist, John’s eyes start to spark and another wave of demons rushes forward, thrown back easily by Abbadon’s free hand, but Dean catches the momentum just right, darting out from wherever he was hiding and sprinting forward while both of her hands are occupied. Abbadon sees him, Castiel sees her recognize him and strains helplessly where his two limbs are still tied, but Dean makes it, jamming the spear through her back and straight through her heart, just in time. Abbadon still reacts, her fist colliding with Dean’s face and sending him flying backward into a wall, collapsing in a puddle to the ground and going still.

It’s too late for a defensive play though, and that becomes clear as John’s body drops from where it hung in midair, hitting the ground with a sickening thud. Flashes of reddish-orange light shoot through the red-haired demon’s body, sparking and fizzing until finally exploding outward in a great cloud of black and red dust that fills the room and hangs in the air like oil suspended in water. Castiel slumps briefly against the wooden cross he’s tied to, daring to breathe the first sigh of relief that she’s gone, Dean did it, before reality sets in and he realizes that he has no idea if Dean is alive, and if any of the demons in the room are any better than the ones who had been torturing him for days.

The dust and ash do clear, and when they do Castiel’s eyes land first on Dean. He’s sitting on the floor in the middle of a circle of demons, holding the body of his father. He looks up with tears in his eyes, and Castiel squares his shoulders, finding himself bracing for the worst. Until another demon gets down on one knee beside Dean and puts a hand on his shoulder, speaking to him quietly. Dean nods and relinquishes hold of his father, gently lowering him to the floor. He stands and makes his way over to Castiel, his face sad, but determined.

“C’mon, sweetheart,” he says, pulling out a knife and sawing away at Castiel’s remaining bonds. As soon as he’s free, Dean shucks off his outer flannel shirt and helps him into it. A demon comes up to them with pants and a pair of boots that Castiel is pretty sure must have come off of someone no longer with them, but he’s not about to walk around hell with his junk out. He puts them on without complaint, Dean’s arm around his torso carefully keeping him balanced. When he stands back up, Dean cups his face. “I know you’re hurting, but we gotta go. They’re going to burn it.”

Confused, Castiel clarifies. “Your father’s body?” Dean hesitates a little at those words, but he pulls himself upright and tucks Castiel’s good arm around his shoulders.

“Yea. And everything else.”

Castiel doesn’t ask questions, doesn’t really care how they make it happen. He and Dean limp their way to the bottom of the hill leading up to Abbadon’s castle in the mountains and stand there quietly, watching as flames explode from the windows and doors, eating up the architecture like termites on old wood. He feels a little guilty, if he’s being honest, knowing that John’s body is in there and that this is, in effect, a memorial service for Dean’s father, but it’s cathartic to watch this monstrosity burn. It’s even more satisfying to know that every bit of Abbadon’s desecrated remains and every single one of her surviving followers is trapped inside, burning in flames he hopes never go out. He slips his hand into Dean’s and squeezes. Dean keeps his eyes on the fire, but he tugs Castiel closer to him and squeezes back.

***

It turns out that John’s demon following thought rather highly of him, several of them offering to act as a protection detail for the long journey back to Crowley’s castle. As bizarrely nice as that is, Castiel voices concerns about both him and Dean being able to make the trek in their current conditions, and thankfully, the demons have already thought of that. They give the signal and a carriage drives up from around the mountainside, pulled by the animal Castiel had previously believed to be a myth.

“I was right,” he says, more to himself than anything else as the carriage comes to a stop in front of them. The creature looks like a hybrid between a black stallion and a skeleton, the skin it has pulled sharply over its bones and creating a sort of ghastly effect. It sports a skull-like head with silvery-black orbs for eyes, and giant black leathery wings sprout from its back. It neighs and stomps lightly, though Castiel’s able to quiet its protests easily with a soft hand on its snout. “It’s a thestral,” he marvels. “Truly incredible.”

“Looks like a bat and a malnourished donkey had a baby,” Dean grunts, and Castiel sends him a chastising look.

“I had thought they were a myth, or at least, extinct. They’re quite gentle and they don’t belong here,” he explains, still petting the creature. “We should find a way to free the ones that have been trapped.” Dean rolls his eyes.

“Yea, I see where this is going. Leave it to you to stumble on another creature being unfairly punished for existing. “Listen, we’ll make a list, alright? Track down God, maybe. See if his ass can lend a hand. I think we’ve done enough.”

“Do you really?” Castiel lifts an eyebrow and Dean considers his words.

“No,” he finally says. “‘Course not. How about, one thing at a time then. Let’s, you know, finish one terrible quest before we start on another, yea? Alright.” He squeezes Castiel’s bicep and opens the door to the carriage. The blood on the floor makes Castiel do a double take, but he figures it probably was his, after all, and gives it no further thought, stepping in and taking a seat on the surprisingly comfortable bench. Dean hesitates, staring up at the castle where the flames are still going strong. His reverie is broken by a pale man with platinum blond hair and a long black coat sweeping around from the other side of the carriage. A cigarette hangs from his mouth and Dean starts in obvious recognition.

“I know you,” he says, shaking a finger at him. “Kitten poker guy.”

“You’re quick,” the blonde man replies, not unkindly, though Castiel’s surprised to hear a British accent come out of his mouth. He looks like he walked straight out of 1975 New York City’s punk scene. He holds up two fingers to Castiel and then extends his hand to Dean. “Spike,” he offers. Slightly confused, Dean shakes his hand. “So,” he continues. “Crowley’s?” Dean nods and the man turns to mount the carriage to where the driver sits.

“Wait,” Dean calls after him, and the guy looks back with his eyebrows raised. “Did you… you left, and then my dad…” He stammers a little, obviously struggling to organize his thoughts. “Do I owe you a thanks?” Spike just winks and grins, tilting his head for Dean to get in the carriage.

“No thanks necessary, pet. Just saving the day like the hero I am, not that I get any thanks for it,” He gestures to their surroundings as if that should mean something. “Good guys have to stick together. Now get in, already. Places to go, people to bite. I’m kidding,” he adds when he sees the look on Dean’s face. Turning to the rest of the demons still hanging around he yells out, “It’s called security, people! I can’t very well drive and fight, what do I look like, Optimus bloody Prime? ” Looking somewhat shaken, Dean does as he’s told and hops into the carriage. It shakes as the weight of some of the demons climb up onto the outside and the thestral lurches forward, but Spike doesn’t even break in his chattering on, something about an onion that blooms. To Castiel’s relief, they leave him and Dean alone to lick their wounds.

Though there’s plenty of room on the cushioned seat, Dean presses up right beside him, warm and real. The spear lays diagonally across the carriage, ready to be used if they’re attacked. Dean holds Castiel’s hand in his lap, and after some time, turns his head so that he’s staring. Castiel leans back and turns his own head to meet Dean’s gaze, and though their mutual exhaustion prevents them from engaging much further than that, something passes between them that feels important. Castiel knows they’ll need to use their words eventually, but for now, this will do. Everything else can wait until after they’ve rested. Of course, sleeping itself is not actually a possibility, though Castiel already feels as if he’ll need a week of straight of shut-eye to feel even remotely rested again. They bump along in companionable silence, listening to the patter of thestral hooves and the mumbled chatter amongst the demons. The Hell scenery is boring and repetitive and provides no distraction from his own thoughts but surprisingly, considering what he’s been through, Castiel feels relatively okay. It’s strange; they’re not out of danger by any means and they’ve yet to determine whether Crowley will actually uphold his end of the bargain, but as far as Castiel’s concerned, he feels finished, like this part is just details and will quite obviously work itself out. He can’t explain it, but he believes it.

***

Crowley’s holding court when they stumble in, and Castiel feels a wave of fury rise in his throat. In an oddly impulsive move for him, he swipes the Lance from Dean’s hand and flies up the remaining stairs in front of them to pin the sharp end firmly to Crowley’s chest where he sits in his throne.

“Give me one good reason,” he growls, and Crowley calmly slips a hand into his pocket, pulling out Castiel’s grace, both vials of it. Castiel snatches them up and tucks them in his own pocket, but doesn’t move the spear.

“While I respect your anger Castiel, part of the deal Dean signed was that we all walk away unharmed. By each other, anyway,” he caveats quickly. “Nothing is stopping you from killing me, but rest assured that if you choose to, neither you or Dean will make it out of here alive.”

“I like our chances,” Castiel sneers, digging the tip of the Lance further into Crowley’s clothing. “Dean just took out a Knight of Hell and all of her followers.”

Crowley sighs and has the nerve to look genuinely put out. “Do you know where you are? Not Hell, I mean, above us. The asylum contains the entrance to this place, if you walk right out that door you’ll be in Massachusetts. You’ll have to hotwire a car, drive all night, it’ll take you ages to get home in the decrepit states you’re both in. I can make you a deal. You’re mostly healed by now, yes? Broken bones are knitting back together? Just some bumps and bruises, a few cuts and a crapload of psychological trauma to work through, I’m assuming. Let me up and I’ll pop you and Squirrel here off to that cabin in the woods in Montana you like so much. I’ll even swing by the bunker and grab the Impala over, too, since you left her outside.”

Castiel risks a glance at Dean and he shrugs like he doesn’t mind either way, and Castiel loves him all the more for it. Dean, who just took on a Knight of Hell, her army of demons, and lost his father, is still willing to go to bat for his honor if he were only to ask. But of course, Castiel would never. It’s an easy decision; Dean deserves to rest.

“Take us now,” he demands.

“Easy, Feathers,” Crowley soothes with a smirk, as Castiel reluctantly lowers the Lance and steps back to take Dean’s hand. Crowley smoothes his clothing as he stands and places a hand on Dean’s shoulder. The world tilts and spins and Castiel squeezes his eyes shut against the vertigo, but it’s over before he can hardly react. When he opens his eyes, they’re in front of the cabin and from the light, it’s late afternoon. The relief Castiel feels at seeing the color, the living trees, smelling the crisp, fresh air… it’s incomparable. He takes several deep breaths just for the sake of filling his lungs before turning to Dean, who is… not beside him. He turns around and there he is, draped over the hood of the Impala. Castiel rolls his eyes fondly, before turning back to Crowley.

“Go,” he says simply.

“It was just business,” Crowley replies, hands out and palms up as if he’s the one who’s been misunderstood. Castiel’s about to tell him off, possibly with his fists, injured or not when Dean appears at his side again, the leaves crunching under his feet the only warning that he’s there.

“Did you know?” Dean stares Crowley down and at first, he looks like he’s going to bluster. After a moment though, he seems to change his mind, and Castiel has to wonder why. Perhaps it’s the blood addiction he still has raging, or maybe it’s something else, either way, he doesn’t lie, and that’s enough for Castiel. Dean deserves that much.

“You really think I’d lose a Winchester down there?” He holds eye contact and that’s apparently good enough for Dean, who nods. Crowley shifts like he’s going to disappear, and then stops at the last second and says, “Sorry about your father, Dean.” Castiel turns his head sharply to take in Dean’s reaction, but the man at his side looks… peaceful. His hair waves gently in the wind as he squares his shoulders and gives Crowley a curt nod.

“My dad loved me,” he replies, and that’s all he says. In the space between one eye blink and the next, Crowley is gone. “Come on,” Dean says to him, holding out a hand to take Castiel’s good one. “Shower, injuries, rest. Everything else can wait a day or so.”

“Agreed,” Castiel replies as they step in unison up the sagging wooden steps that lead to the front porch. Dean reaches for the door handle and then stops, turning to face him.

“Cas,” he says, a little sadly. “I’m so…” But Castiel puts a finger to his mouth and shushes him. Whatever Dean has to say, it can wait.

“Shower, injuries, rest,” he reminds him, and Dean nods, stealing a kiss that Castiel’s all too eager to let linger.

“Right,” Dean says breathlessly. “Shower it is.” He turns the knob to the front door, and steps through, Castiel right on his heels. The door closes softly behind them as the birds chirp happily in the trees above.

***

Chapter Text

Something breaks,  shifts in Dean when Castiel pulls his clothes off in the cabin’s cramped little bathroom, Castiel sees it. Solo showers hadn’t even been discussed; at the time it had seemed obvious that both he and Dean were on the same page as far as not wanting to be apart and also not wanting to be alone. Castiel wonders if Dean will want to speak about what he’s gone through, now or ever, and finds himself torn on his own preference. If Dean speaks, he’ll have to, as well. And while he doesn’t want to hide anything from Dean, he also doesn’t want to add to his guilt or burden him with the graphic particulars of his time with Abbadon. Castiel stews on his options and eventually makes the wise decision to just table the entire train of thought for another day. What Dean had said outside the cabin rings true on so many levels; they both need and deserve a rest and a few moments of simply being together in peace before they try to tackle anything else. Of course, Dean’s mind will never not be drawn back to Sam and his well-being, so even before the shower they’d plugged Dean’s phone in (since Castiel’s is currently burning for all eternity in Hell with his favorite shirt and the rest of his clothes) and texted Hannah for an update. In doing so they’d also checked the date and despite knowing full well how time in Hell moves differently, were still surprised to realize it had not even been half a day since Crowley had whisked them away.

That made Dean feel better about the Sam situation, anyway.

“One hundred and eighteen days,” Dean had muttered to himself as he scrolled his phone’s messages.

“What now?” Castiel mumbled back from where he was tucked firmly into Dean’s side, his fingers pushing beneath the band of Dean’s jeans and under his shirt with the sole purpose of feeling some skin-on-skin.

“Huh? Oh.” Dean looked up briefly, distractedly from his phone and then returned to it as he spoke. “I uh, calculated once how long each day is on Earth in Hell-time. It’s like one hundred and eighteen, hundred twenty days, depending on how long the month you’re using is. We were only down there a couple of weeks. Translates to a handful of hours up here.”

Castiel nudged his face into Dean’s shirt and found that it still smelled potently of ash and Hellfire. He tipped his nose away and into the space beneath Dean’s jaw instead where it smelled only like Dean. “I can’t decide if I feel like our time there was longer or shorter.” Dean had paused, cocking his head and eventually nodding in agreement, his chin bumping Castiel’s forehead. He’d locked his phone and set it down, pushing Castiel away just far enough to look him in the eyes. “I’m sorry I wasn’t faster,” he’d said, the picture of apologetic sincerity. “Rescuing you. I don’t think either of us is up for getting into it right now, but there was a lot more walking, strategizing and waiting than I would have liked. Felt like I was letting you down every single minute.” Castiel had slipped arms around his neck and pulled him close, placing his own hand in the middle of Dean’s shoulder blades the way he likes but won’t ask for. 

“Whatever you did has to have been the right choice, Dean. You saved me and you kept yourself alive. Let’s not dwell on anything else for the moment.” Dean had agreed easily, grabbing his hand and tugging him into the bathroom, which brings them to the present and Dean’s hands still haven’t left him for a moment. Actually, now that Castiel’s thinking about it, aside from a quick dash out to Baby for shower supplies and his bag (Rufus’ cabin doesn’t appear to have seen visitors since probably since the last time they were here) Dean’s maintained physical contact with him constantly in some form since the moment he’d been freed from the cross. Even now as he faces away from Castiel, adjusting the water to a steamy but not skin-flaying temperature, he keeps the tips of his fingers on Castiel’s waist, just resting there, an apparent reassurance that he’s actually here. Castiel understands, feels the same, and is suddenly pulled back to that moment in Abbadon’s throne room where Dean’s hand made contact with his skin for the first time and he’d wanted nothing more than to rip him open, climb inside his body and stay forever.

The shirt he’s holding drops from his hand onto the floor with a soft whump sound, and that makes Dean turn around to look at him. This is the first he’s been naked since… since, though this time there’s nothing innately unsettling about it since it’s only him and Dean, and Dean won’t hurt him. Not like that, a traitorous voice from the dark-set recesses of his mind pipes up. Castiel ignores it, has no energy for it, not today, not yet . He refocuses on his body, Dean’s eyes on him, and the sensations around them. It’s warm and comfortable in the bathroom, and Castiel feels… fine. It’s strange, he might have thought there would be difficulty in being bare this way again considering all he’s been through, but Castiel feels no shame, no discomfort, no fear in being vulnerable and naked in front of Dean. You’re being reckless, the voice chimes in again. He owes you more than this.

And that’s when he sees the flicker pass over Dean’s face. It’s something , maybe a thought, maybe an emotion he can’t quite put a name to but whatever it is physically changes Dean’s demeanor right in front of his eyes. Up until this point Dean’s been unconsciously seeking connection and reassurance, but now his full focus is laser-sharp on Castiel. He undresses quickly, never taking his eyes off of Castiel’s skin, gaze roaming wildly up and down his body in an apparent attempt at cataloging the numerous still-healing cuts and bruises that mar the landscape. As soon as he’s free of his own clothes he steps forward into Castiel’s space and reaches out tentative fingers to touch each injury. Hell did its part to speed up the healing of his wrist, it’s dark purple and blue but not nearly as painful, so perhaps the fractures managed to knit back together before they left. His cuts though, souvenirs from his very last torture session with Abbadon, are hardly even scabbed over. Castiel hadn’t given it much thought before now but he supposes the blade she used must have been cursed or enchanted or some other thing designed to make his pain linger. That would certainly explain why she didn’t bother to cut very deep. Regardless, though they cover a significant portion of his skin, they’re only a nuisance and should heal at a normal human rate.

And if they don’t, he’ll simply reabsorb his grace and that will take care of it. He’ll have to do it soon anyway, to access Heaven. Despite Dean’s fingers on his skin, his mind wanders. He’s not looking forward to that conversation; Dean likely won’t take well to being left behind for the final part of this mission, but it’s not as if they have a choice. Dean’s alive, and Castiel’s not about to entertain any discussion on how that fact might be bent to allow him access. No, they’ll recover together here, and then Castiel will have to go the last part of his mission alone. Oddly though, he’s less excited about the prospect of powering up again than he thought he would be. And at the same time, the idea of being able to put his feelings and emotions in a box, to ignore them if he wants to, to be able to put a wall up between his heart and the things Dean puts him through, well…

Also, the prospect of not having to urinate anymore is very enticing.

“Hey,” Dean says softly, fingers tipping his chin up so he’s at Dean’s eye level. “You still with me? Where’d you go?” Castiel just smiles and shakes his head, hands flattening against Dean’s ribs. Focus on this, he tells himself. You need this, you want it. Dean’s chest feels warm under his palms, and Castiel can feel the echo of his beating heart even through his ribs. It’s thumping faster than it normally beats, and Castiel can’t help but lean down to press an ear against Dean’s chest to listen. Arms close around his back and Castiel can hear and feel the pleased breath Dean sucks in, filling his lungs and rushing back out again. His heart rate slows to a more normal pace the longer they stand there, and Castiel wants to stay here forever. Forget the grace, forget Heaven, forget it all. How could anything be more important, more beautiful and special than this? He straightens back up to find Dean still watching him closely, soft and earnest. Careful, his sinful, disobedient mind warns again, and now Castiel’s going to go out of his way to do the exact opposite, because he’s nothing if not stubborn, even if he’s fighting himself.

“Dean,” he says, a hand sliding up to Dean’s stubbled jaw to caress it gently with his thumb. “Will you kiss me?” The side of Dean’s mouth quirks into a half-smile and Dean’s eyelids drop as his gaze darts down to Castiel’s lips.

“I wasn’t sure…” he trails off, eyes shifting back up to meet Castiel’s own again. He doesn’t have to finish his sentence though, because Castiel understands. Unasked questions hang in the air between them as Dean waits for him to take the lead, to give him permission. It makes sense, of course, for Dean to be cautious. He has no idea what Castiel might have gone through in Hell and is clearly trying his best to be careful and considerate. It’s sweet, and completely unnecessary, and perhaps a little bit frustrating.

“Please don’t be afraid to show me affection, Dean,” Castiel replies insistently, and this, both warring factions of his mind definitely want him to say. “They could never... “ He shakes his head. “I want you to.”

“Good,” Dean says, his face serious. “Because I want to take care of you, Cas. Please, let me.” Dean’s hands skate over the angry red gashes crisscrossing his chest and Castiel can’t help the hitching of his breath. He was holding things together so well. But the pads of Dean’s fingers sending little shocks of papercut pain are the worst sort of way-too-casual reminder of everything that’s happened. And while most of Castiel just wants to forget, to move on, to take comfort in the remorseful, caring Dean that’s in front of him, part of him is angry and that little voice won’t let him forget it. He does believe that Dean had good intentions, that he would never put him in harm’s way on purpose, but the fact remains that after everything they’ve been through and a thousand promises to change, he still let his self-hating bullshit overwhelm him. And because of that, Castiel had suffered. Oh, he’s sure Dean suffered too, one look at the haunted look in his eyes, the residual bruises and the tight, stilted way he’s been moving easily reveals that Dean didn’t escape Hell unscathed. But he wasn’t tied to a cross and ripped limb from limb by one of Hell’s most fearsome on a record-scratch repeat for weeks because of someone else’s bad choices.

Whatever he’s thinking must show in his expression, and as Dean’s face falls, Castiel takes that opportunity to move a step back.

“Cas,” Dean tries, his voice desperate and low. He reaches out a hand and lets out a low little moan when Castiel doesn’t respond, just stands there, staring at him. “This is my fault,” he replies with realization, eyes bright and face pleading. “Cas, I am so sorry. I’m not an idiot, I know that nothing I say is going to be enough to fix this. What can I do? Tell me, I swear I’ll do it.” Dean starts pacing, tugging at his hair in frustration. “I can go,” he says, turning back to Castiel with his arms spread wide. “I can… take you back to Florida or to the portal to Heaven, whatever you want. I won’t blame you, Cas, if you want me out of your life. I’m no good for you, I never deserved you at all.”

He’s just standing there , staring at the ceiling, eyes filling with tears and Castiel feels… furious.

“We did this already,” he growls, stalking forward and grabbing Dean by the shoulders, shoving him up against the cold tile. The shower steams away in the background, fogging up the mirrors and making the air thick and hot. Castiel ignores it, using his good arm to pin Dean up against the wall by his chest. “You’re unbelievable,” he scoffs. “You’re so conceited and wrapped up in yourself that you believe I’d be here if I didn’t want to be.” Dean opens his mouth to protest but quickly shuts it against Castiel’s withering glare. “I can’t be any clearer with you than I already have been. I love you. I want you. I want for us to be a team, to lean on each other when things get hard and to seek each other’s counsel when life presents us with impossible choices.” Everything that’s happened to us in the past few weeks happened because you refused to do those things, and yet, here you are, still doing it. This isn’t about you not being good enough, it’s about you refusing to hear me and value my opinion. You can’t be my shield if you won’t let me be yours.”

Dropping his arm, Castiel steps back and lets Dean go. They’re both still naked and it should be six ways of fucked up but the air between them is too fucking charged for it to be anything more than an afterthought. Dean’s cheeks are reddened and his soft pink lips are parted as he struggles to catch his own breath. He licks them, and despite everything, Castiel can’t help but watch. Still. As he does, Dean puts his hands up in a gesture of mock surrender.

“You’re right. Cas, of course, you’re right.” He visibly takes a moment to gather himself and then steps forward into Castiel’s space. “You’re right.”

“You said that,” Castiel replies icily.

“But I was right too,” Dean continues, more confidently this time, and Castiel’s doing his best to stay put and hear him out because he so, so badly wants things to be okay. “There is nothing that I can say, maybe nothing I can do to fix this or erase what I did. But I don’t know what else to do besides apologize and try, and if you’re telling me that there’s a chance, then I have to. I want to,” he adds, echoing Castiel’s own phrasing but missing the most important part. “You want me to change? I’ll change. Cas, I-- some things happened down there, I don’t want to get into it right now because they’ll just sound like excuses but I promise, if you let me, things will be different from now on.” Dean is only inches from Castiel’s face now, and damn him, Castiel wants to believe it’s true.

“There won’t be another chance,” he warns, hoping his face is sharper than his words. “You know, assuming that the next time you screw up we both make it out alive, again.” Dean winces, but nods.

“I deserve that,” he acknowledges and then raises his eyebrows. “So… is that a yes? I’m at a loss here, Cas. I know I was wrong, I want to make it up to you, but all I can think of to do is take care of you now and prove the rest as I go. As we go. So… Let me?” Their chests are almost touching now, and this is unfair, never get into an argument naked, Castiel thinks remorsefully. He’s pretty sure that between the heat and the moisture on their skin, plus that magnetic way he can’t keep from being drawn to Dean even when he’s angry, he’s lost the upper hand. There’s only one surefire way he can think of to fix that. He places the tips of his fingers in the middle of Dean’s chest and stops him from coming the last inch or so.

“Tell me you love me,” he requests softly, and Dean starts, actually drifting a few terrible inches away. “Oh.” Castiel can’t help but react viscerally with disappointment, his stomach folding in on itself and threatening to attempt an escape through his mouth, but Dean’s body language says a lot. He stoops to grab his borrowed clothes, feeling ridiculous and shamed.

“No, wait--” Dean starts, becoming instantly frustrated and stopping to wipe a hand across his face almost immediately. “Cas, listen. It’s not that I don’t… feel that way about you.” He hesitates and looks away, and Castiel waits, despite his patience running painfully thin. “I haven’t, uh. I haven’t said those words in years. Not since before my mom died. Not even to Sam.” He turns back to Castiel with a look of determination on his face, reaches out to knock the clothing away and take both of Castiel’s hands. He doesn’t let go. “I haven’t wanted to, until pretty fucking recently. Because you? For you, with you, I do… and I will. I swear to you, Cas. Just… I need a little time,” he explains. “You don’t want it like this. You deserve better.”

And for the first time in this entire conversation, Castiel actually thinks Dean might have a point. “Alright,” he says simply, as Dean drifts closer again.

“Cas, please let me kiss you,” Dean whispers urgently as if he might be on the verge of losing it if Castiel says no. But Castiel doesn’t want to say no, is tired of depriving himself, and wants so badly to believe Dean, to believe in Dean again, so he nods. The very instant he has Castiel’s approval, Dean surges forward and grabs both sides of his face, pressing their lips together and kissing more passionately than maybe he ever has. Castiel understands, this is definitely Dean’s M.O.; to pour into action what he’s unable to say with words. Perhaps he’s gullible or weak for accepting such a substitute, but is it a substitute if it means the same thing? Castiel isn’t sure, but what he does know is that he wants this, wants Dean loving him in whatever form he’s capable of expressing it. It’s enough, he tells himself. It’s enough for now.

As far as Castiel can tell, Dean’s not attempting to turn the kiss into anything, his cock soft against his thigh and Castiel’s grateful. The longer and sweeter he’s kissed the more he finds himself melting, molding himself to Dean and this is exactly what he wants and needs right now. Affection, comfort, care, and provided willingly in overflowing excess from Dean. Dean works his mouth over, kissing him slowly, tenderly, licking into his mouth gently so their tongues brush and slide together, all the while curling the tips of his fingers in so that they caress the sides of his face. Castiel could drown in this, and fuck words, who needs words? He feels loved like this. Dean drops his head to mouth at the line of his jaw, sweetly, carefully, intentionally. His hands drop from Castiel’s face down to one shoulder and a hip so that he can guide them both in under the spray of the neglected showerhead, and Castiel lets himself be maneuvered. Miraculously, the water’s somehow still hot and it feels good on Castiel’s skin, like an extension of Dean’s fingers moving to soothe him. Dean’s careful as he lathers up a washcloth and wipes away the residual traces of blood, sweat, ash, and everything else Hell left behind. He gets down on his knees and kisses every one of Castiel’s scars, looking up through dewdrop-wet eyelashes with sorrow written all over his face.

And Castiel thinks, decides really, that it’s enough.

***

The towels they have to dry off with are old and worn, ratty with frayed edges and holes dotting the seams, likely stolen from a motel somewhere down the line. Castiel finds it hard to care though because Dean’s hands wield them so carefully he can almost pretend they’re as soft as silk. When he’s done patting Castiel dry, Dean wraps him in his own robe and leads him to the only real bedroom the cabin has to offer. It’s the one with the queen sized bed that Bobby occupied once upon a time and Castiel doesn’t want to think about that now. He waits as Dean makes up the bed with sheets and a comforter that had been tucked away in plastic, a bit musty smelling but clean and dry and looking as good to Castiel right now as what he imagines must be offered at a five-star resort. But Dean doesn’t lay down, instead guiding him to sit on the edge of the bed with his feet on the floor as he pulls out a first aid kit and sets to work. He kneels between Castiel’s thighs with neither wisecrack nor complaint about the hard, unforgiving wood or the chill that must be settling over his bare, still-damp body, and when he opens Castiel’s robe to take stock of his injuries, he doesn’t flinch away. On the contrary, he shifts forward, dropping his head briefly into the middle of Castiel’s chest, taking a deep, grounding breath that paints hot on Castiel’s skin as he lets it back out. He pulls back long enough to grab first aid ointment, bandages, and tape before setting determinedly to work attending to each and every cut. When he comes to Castiel’s wrist, he presses a kiss to the sensitive skin on the inside of his arm before wrapping it up securely with an ace bandage. He puts ointment on but doesn’t cover every cut, at this point some of them are barely visible, but he gets all the larger ones and any that haven’t scabbed over completely. He’s serious and methodical, gentle and thoughtful as he moves the length of Castiel’s body. Castiel knows this doesn’t mean everything will be perfect from here on out, hell, it hardly means anything at all. But it’s a start, and it feels wonderful to be doted on and cared for.

When he finally declares himself finished, Dean wraps up by feeding Castiel two pain pills, packing up the first aid supplies, and standing with a grimace as his back cracks and his knees protest. Castiel goes to help but Dean waves him off, stretching and shaking himself out, which is somewhat distracting with his junk at Castiel’s eye level. Dean catches him looking and winks, to which Castiel promptly rolls his eyes. Unphased, Dean steps forward to slip warm hands under the edges of the robe draped over Castiel’s shoulders, sliding them down his arms to remove it completely. It’s affectionate, and sensual, and completely unnecessary which makes Castiel smile and reach up to touch Dean’s face. He blushes, which makes his freckles really pop, and the corner of his lips quirk upward before he leans in for another kiss, this one lasting. Dean slides strong arms around Castiel’s back and hauls him up the mattress until his head is almost to the pillows. Castiel uses his own elbows and feet to shove himself the rest of the way while Dean grabs the sheet and blanket, pulling them up to cocoon them both before wriggling down and wrapping himself around Castiel in a way that will definitely take more than a moment to untangle. Dean looks exhausted but he doesn’t close his eyes, just tucks their bodies more firmly together and lets his fingers graze endlessly over every part of Castiel he can reach.

It has the intended effect of making Castiel very sleepy as he takes stock of his surroundings and current situation. He runs it all down in his head like a post-hunt recovery checklist. Safe, clean, warm, dry, loved. A check for each, or so he prays. Castiel swallows thickly against the lump in his throat and tucks his head more securely under Dean’s chin, letting his eyes drift closed as he feels Dean kiss the top of his head. He floats away.

***

When Castiel wakes it’s dark outside but light is beginning to punch its way through the grimy, curtainless windows. Dawn, Castiel surmises. I must have slept all night. As unlikely as that seems, he does feel much better, though it’s hard to shove down the surprising disappointment of finding himself alone in bed. Fortunately, that feeling doesn’t last for long. He’s hardly finished wiping the sticky sleep from his eyes when a t-shirt and pajama pants-clad Dean backs his way noisily through the door, using his body to push it open since his hands are occupied with a tray. Even from across the room Castiel can smell something positively tantalizing, though his stomach is so empty he guesses that almost any food would smell appetizing at this point. As if it has ears or a direct line to his brain ( doesn’t it?!) and could hear him complaining, his stomach twists and rumbles painfully in his belly.

“I heard that,” Dean says with a grin, taking a seat in the spot where he’d previously lain. Castiel pushes up to sitting, very much aware that he’s still naked under the covers, and Dean places the tray in his lap. Scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, and coffee. Coffee. If he’d been on the fence about forgiving Dean, that was officially a thing of the past. “You’re not gonna believe this, but I think Crowley stocked this place with food. Human guilt is a beautiful thing.”

“You would know,” Castiel retorts before he can stop himself. He looks up guiltily, meeting Dean’s eyes and breathing a sigh of relief when he doesn’t look angry or hurt. “I apologize,” he says quickly, doing his best to appear sheepish.

Dean just sighs and shrugs. “I deserve worse than a couple of snide comments, Cas.” Castiel doesn’t say anything, just turns his attention back to the tray and eyes the eggs warily. While he's not overly keen on eating anything that came from Crowley, the pain in his abdomen swiftly wins out over worry and fear. Besides, if Crowley wanted them dead, he’d certainly had ample opportunity. The eggs are probably safe. He stuffs a forkful in his mouth and closes his eyes at how good they taste - perfectly seasoned, light and fluffy with a pinch of salt. Castiel shovels the rest in before pausing to look up or drink and then leans back against the headboard in sated happiness. He picks up his coffee and takes a long sip, catching Dean watching him over the rim of his cup with obvious amusement.

“Thank you, Dean,” he says warmly and means it. “This was very thoughtful.” Dean just smiles, and for a moment Castiel thinks he must have something to say, but then his expression shifts and he pulls out his phone.

“Hannah sent us a message,” he reports. “I’ll read it out loud while you eat.” Dean clears his throat. “Castiel, we were successful in recovering the Winchester vessel. He is unharmed, safely contained, and will stay that way until Metatron is no longer holding a position of power in Heaven. If we expel Gadreel now, he will simply find another vessel and return to Metatron’s service. Contained, Metatron is down a Lieutenant. If you are amenable, I would urge you to complete your quest as soon as possible. Metatron’s allies become stronger every day. When you are ready there is a portal, a back door that can access Heaven. I am ready to show you when you are.” Dean’s brow scrunches up and he stares at his phone, biting at his bottom lip and tapping his finger absently. “Did that seem… I don’t know, off? Weird? Something? To you?”

Castiel swallows the last bit of bacon and licks his fingers clean as Dean’s eyes follow the motion. He lingers on the last finger intentionally, pulling off with a pop. Dean blinks and shifts against the sheets. Castiel takes another sip of coffee before replying. “Hannah is more socially awkward than I was when you met me. Weird is her default setting, to humans, at least.” He shakes his head. “As much as I would love to stay curled up here with you for several more days, Hannah is probably correct in her assessment. I should access this portal, seek out the remainder of my grace, and vanquish Metatron as soon as possible. The sooner I do, the sooner we can get Sam back, and we can all move on.”

Dean takes the tray from his lap, turning and placing it on the rickety old bedside table before sliding closer to Castiel and placing a palm on his thigh. He licks his lips. “Cas, I know that I can’t go with you to Heaven. I, uh, I’ve been thinking about how to bring this up, how to handle it. I just want you to know that I’m not going to do anything stupid. You go, I’ll wait for you at the portal or the bunker-- you pick, and I’ll do it. I promise. I trust you, and I believe in you. So, you know. If you’re ready to go kick some Meta-ass, say the word. I’ll bring you as far as I can, and like I said, I’ll be waiting to kiss the shit out of you when you get back.” Dean pulls his lips in over his teeth as soon as he finishes, working them over in an obvious display of nerves, but his hand stays warm and solid on Castiel’s thigh. Castiel covers it with his own.

“Thank you, Dean,” he says sincerely. “I will send Hannah a message. We should probably get going as soon as she replies. Only if you feel up to it,” he adds quickly. “If you’re not well enough…”

“I’m fine,” Dean assures him. “I promise I would tell you if I wasn’t.” Castiel nods and slips Dean’s phone from his hand, firing off a message to Hannah that’s promptly returned with a location for them to meet.

“That was fast,” Castiel mutters, his eyes still focused on the screen. “It usually takes her several hours to reply. She must be anxious about finishing this.” Dean looks skeptical, but to his credit, he doesn’t say anything just raises his eyebrows and shrugs. Castiel chews the inside of his cheek for a moment and then closes out of the conversation, putting the phone aside. “We could get going right now, but I truly had planned on having a few more hours to spend with you here. Unless…” He trails off, letting his fingers dance up Dean’s bare forearm in a light, easy tease.

Dean’s eyes are wide like he’s hard-pressed to believe Castiel might actually be offering what he’s definitely offering and Castiel suspects he's afraid to cross a line. “I believe that it’s my turn to be on top,” he continues, as casually as possible without bursting into a wide smile at Dean’s face doing it’s best to look calm while flashing between excitement, lust, and disbelief. He withdraws his hand because Dean’s making this far too easy. “Unless you aren’t up for it,” he adds, placing pointed emphasis on the word up. Dean looks down for a moment and his mouth opens slightly, but Castiel cuts him off. “Don’t you dare ask me if I’m sure,” he rumbles. “I’ve already told you what I want, the ball is in your court now. So... you'll have to let me know if you’re amenable,” he pinches off the last word with a barely suppressed smirk as Dean nods enthusiastically. “Then take off your clothes and straddle my lap.” He’s never seen Dean’s mouth snap closed so fast. He whips off his t-shirt and stands on the bed to drop his soft PJ pants, kicking them aside and stepping forward to sink down across the width of Castiel’s legs smoothly.

Neither of them are hard yet, though Dean’s dick seems to appreciate the position they’re in and is beginning to fill where it rubs against Castiel’s stomach as he rocks gently back and forth, just enough to get a bit of friction. Castiel grabs Dean’s ass and drags him in firmly so he can’t do that, though the manhandling doesn’t seem to discourage his erection any. “Prep or no prep?” He asks plainly, careful not to insinuate that he cares one way or another, this part is up to Dean alone.

Dean stares down at him from his perch over Castiel’s lap, and he’s a truly stunning sight. He winds arms around Castiel’s neck as he licks his lips and it’s very clear that he’s doing his best to try and verbalize what’s in his head. “Uh, no,” he manages, finally. “Like the drag, like feeling you stretch me out. Feels…” Dean tries, but he comes up a loss for words and eventually just shrugs, his cheeks pinkening.

Carefully, Castiel dips fingers between his cheeks and brushes fleetingly over his hole anyway, making Dean shiver. “You know that I don’t expect you to have the same preferences as me,” he says lightly. “I’m happy to finger you open if that’s what you enjoy.”

Dean visibly struggles for a moment, but he recovers. “I uh, I like that too. Fuck, this is easier with a drink or two in me.” He drops his head and takes a deep breath. “Guess I’m still figuring out what I like. I want to do it like I said,” he insists.

“As you wish,” Castiel agrees with a soft smile. Using his hands on Dean’s hips, he urges him up on his knees, putting his semi-hard cock right in front of Castiel’s face. “Is it alright if I make a short detour?” He looks up at Dean through his lashes, and Dean swears softly, touching the side of his face as he nods enthusiastically. Castiel opens his mouth and takes the entirety of Dean’s cock since he’s still half-soft, feeling him swell and harden inside his mouth. He moans around him as Dean tips his head back and swears at the ceiling this time, and his noises are only a little bit for show. He focuses on the moment, on all the sensations and having Dean like this in front of him, though of course,  his mind won’t let him simply have something he wants. This time he’s bombarded with thoughts about what if?   What if he’s unsuccessful in his mission to Heaven? What if it’s a trap ( it’s probably a trap)?   What if his incomplete grace makes him sick before he can retrieve the last piece? What if, when he’s an angel again, his grace is a barrier that prevents him from loving Dean completely?

Wha t if. What if this is the last time?

Castiel does his best to bury those thoughts, pulling off of Dean’s now very hard cock and knocking him over onto his back. Dean scrambles to flip onto his stomach and get up on all fours and Castiel only has the slightest pang of regret about that, but perhaps it’s for the best. He’s sure that what he’s worried about is written all over his face and at this point, maybe it’s best that Dean doesn’t see it.

“Shit, lube,” Dean grumbles, half into the pillow beneath his head. “I can get it.” Castiel places a firm hand in the middle of his back and makes a noise that definitely means no.  Dean wiggles in anticipation or frustration underneath his hand.

“You stay. Stay exactly like this, will you?”

“What? Fuck no, Cas, my ass is--” Castiel reaches between Dean’s legs and squeezes him with a long, drawn-out stroke that twists at the head and Dean cuts himself off with a pithy little whine that he’ll undoubtedly deny until his dying day if Castiel brings it up. “Whatever,” he grunts, after clearing his throat. “Hurry up, would you?”

Castiel smiles privately to himself and moves off of the bed, making his way out into the main living area where Dean’s left his bag. He grabs the lube from its normal spot tucked far at the bottom with all of Dean’s other odds and ends and is again blindsided smack in the face with reality. Specifically, with how very soon none of those things will be necessary for him anymore. He rummages around a little, taking stock. Deodorant, toothpaste, hair gel. An old packet of condoms that Dean hasn’t had a use for in a while. That find makes Castiel pause as well. They’re probably only there because Dean didn’t throw them away. Or for practicality’s sake, fucking with a condom is a lot less mess. That thought could have been a gateway to some very interesting ideas and future conversations with Dean about having sex discretely in public places, but all that potential is tossed by the wayside as Castiel wonders if Dean is keeping them for a time after him. He strokes himself idly as he returns to the bedroom, but the momentum is gone and he finds that it’s a useless effort. He could try, he’s quite sure that a few minutes of staring at Dean’s ass or blowing him again would give him back the mindset necessary to get through this, but that feels wrong. Sex with Dean is too good to treat like that as if it's something to get through and not treasure. 

The door to the bedroom has drifted closed since he left and he pushes it open gingerly, running scenarios in his mind on the most tactful way to explain this to Dean without making him feel rejected. But when he steps inside, he finds something quite unexpected. Dean’s not on all fours anymore, he’s sitting up against the headboard with the blankets pulled up over his lap. He looks up when Castiel walks in, and his face is guilty.

“I’m sorry, Cas,” he says. “I don’t wanna disappoint you man, but this doesn’t feel right, not right now. And I told you that I’d try, that I wouldn’t lie to you or shut you out, so…” He doesn’t continue, just waits and blinks at Castiel expectantly, as if braced for being dressed down or rejected, just as Castiel feared. Quite the opposite, Castiel blows out a sigh of relief, tosses the lube, and climbs clumsily across the bed before throwing himself into Dean’s arms. The force of his body weight in motion sends them tumbling down on their sides though Dean manages a confused, “Cas?!” before he’s dragged over and trapped by the blankets and Castiel’s limbs.

“Me too,” Castiel says simply, and Dean relaxes where he’d previously gone tense. “Thank you,” he whispers, clutching Dean even tighter despite the awkwardness of their positions and his quickly numbing arm. “For being honest with me. I love you very much.” Dean stiffens incrementally, but Castiel catches it right away. “You don’t have to say anything. But I will keep telling you until you believe it, and perhaps one day you’ll feel free enough to say it back. I’ll be here,” Castiel promises, and desperately hopes that what he’s saying is true.

“I’ll always come when you call.”

It’s not a lie if I intend to follow through, he reasons to himself, but he doesn’t say that out loud to Dean. In truth, there’s no time for everything he wishes he could say. Instead of pushing it, he merely holds on and Dean clings right back, breath hot and lips soft on Castiel's chest. And if there’s wetness on his skin where Dean’s head is tucked, he doesn’t call attention to it.

Let him have this. Let us both have this.  

The moment is over far too soon.

***

Chapter Text

Leaving the cabin far before they’d intended to was hard. Driving the long, boring distance to the portal without getting overwhelmed by the implications of their destination was harder. Dean was quiet for once, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel in time with the beat of softly-played music but otherwise focused on the road. Castiel’s sure that he would have driven the ten hours or so straight through if he hadn’t been there to make him pull off to stretch his legs and eat somewhere around hour eight. If Dean hadn’t periodically reached out to offer his hand or a reassuring smile, Castiel might have wondered if he was anxious to get this over with, to get rid of him. His less paranoid side suggests that Dean simply doesn’t want to chicken out on letting him go and giving himself over to faith and trust, neither of which have ever been his strong suits. They’d pulled over at a nondescript greasy spoon, comforting and familiar in that all roadside diners are basically the same, and sit across from each other now on broken-in leather seats that no longer squeak when you slide across them. Castiel fingers the vial still around his neck and contemplates the idea that this could be his very last meal as a human. He'll miss burgers. He won't miss what they do to his body.

Diners in whatever state they’re passing through apparently can’t serve beer so Dean begrudgingly settles for coffee and water, nursing his mug like it’s a lifeline to sanity. Castiel wants to say something but it’s all really been said at this point, and he fears that any attempted words of comfort will come out the way they feel in his head; empty and hollow, meaningless because nothing is promised in this world, and being heroes means their stories never end. And that’s a realization, isn’t it? Castiel thinks, as his eyes skim over the laminated menu without really seeing it. There can be no happy ending if the story is never allowed to end. He chances a glance up at Dean to find him already looking back with a sad little half-smile curling his lip. It’s terrible to see Dean looking so defeated when they’ve accomplished so much together. He shifts forward awkwardly in his seat, bumping the table and jostling it sideways as he shoves himself up onto his knees and leans across to kiss Dean, feeling relief and an all-too-brief swell of happiness when Dean closes his eyes and kisses back.

The sound of a throat clearing above their heads sends Castiel jerking back, stuffing himself back down into the booth without pretense as an older waitress, looking out of time herself in her bright pink smock and white ruffled apron, stairs down at them in disapproval.

“Apologies,” Castiel murmurs, touching his fingers to his lips, but he’s not. The waitress sighs and pulls out a notepad.

“You boys going to order something, or just sit here and make moon eyes at each other ‘til you catch the wrong kind of attention?” Castiel scowls but Dean just collects his menu and hands it over in a pile with his own. Dean’s nothing if not a charmer, completing the action smoothly and with a captivating smile Castiel’s yet to see anyone successfully resist.

“Two cheeseburgers sweetheart, extra onions.” Dean winks and the waitress presses her lips together in a line but doesn’t say anything further, making off for the kitchen with their orders and a skeptical backward glance. Dean smirks as he rearranges the table back into position, rescuing his coffee cup from where it’s been shoved to balance precariously on the edge.

“Felt like a Disney Princess there for a second. You know you could have just gotten up, didn’t have to put on a whole damn show.” Castiel squints, still eyeing the waitress warily where she’s clearly off whispering with another waitress and the short-order cook through the cutout window.

“Yes,” he says slowly. “That may have been an error in judgment.” Dean takes notice of his sightline and does a doubletake, turning to look in time to see the cook staring back with his eyes narrowed, spatula in hand. He sighs heavily.

“C’mon, Cas. We don’t want to eat here.” He reluctantly drains the dregs of his coffee and seems to lament that there isn’t more before standing and grabbing Castiel’s hand to drag him to his feet. He fishes a five dollar bill from his pocket and leaves it on the table for the coffee.

“I’m hungry, Dean,” Castiel replies petulantly, resisting being tugged forward. Dean’s hand drops from his, relocating to his waist as he shuffles closer and Castiel can’t help but feeling that Dean is the one putting on a show now, though the reason why escapes his understanding. Dean leans in and food momentarily forgotten, Castiel closes his eyes and relishes Dean’s affection. Fingers squeeze firmly at his hipbones as Dean’s lips brush the shell of his ear.

“Unless you’re hungry for a wad of spit on your burger, you don’t want to eat here,” Dean whispers warningly, and Castiel’s eyes fly openly, inadvertently seeking out their little audience.

“They would do that? Because they don’t like that we’re together?” Castiel’s lived a very long time and seen a great many things, from the first fish flopping its way out of the ocean and into the mud to the bloodiest wars, the harshest famines, and the most brutal swaths of hate and human corruption. And still, he forgets, he always forgets how downright cruel the average human can be. How they raise their own to hate and fear and terrorize without a second thought to the other humans on the receiving end. It makes him furious and terribly sad at the same time, but mostly it makes him tired. Love shouldn’t be this hard, it shouldn’t. Dean’s still hovering close, far too close for the diner employees’ liking if their glares are anything to go by, but Castiel just glares back, slipping his hand defiantly back into Dean’s.

“Oooh baby, the smiting face,” Dean teases with a grin. “You gotta know that does things to me.” He licks his lips as his gaze darts from Castiel’s eyes to his mouth. “Let’s go. We’ll make out in the car and then hit a drive-through where homophobia isn’t being served as a side dish. So, you know, not Chick-fil-A.” Dean tugs him forward again, and this time Castiel goes. They’re almost to the glass doors that lead outside when Dean stops suddenly, whirling around and backing him up against the cashier’s counter, the unrounded edge digging into Castiel’s back painfully. Not that he cares too much, because Dean’s hands are on his face and he’s being kissed thoroughly. The people in the diner are no longer silent, noises of protest and disgust rippling through the air as thickly as the smell of grease and coffee. Dean pulls back with a giant smile on his face, his cheeks pink.

“Run,” he says to Castiel, right as the overweight cook, stains all over his white t-shirt and a sneer on his face comes barging out from the back of the house, slamming the galley door as he goes. Dean’s hand tightens in his and they bolt out the glass doors, jumping into Baby and peeling back as the cook finally catches up, winging something at their taillights that misses and smashes in the gravel as they leave him hollering in the dust. Dean whoops and laughs loudly out the open driver’s side window, stealing self-satisfied glances at Castiel as they merge onto the highway that he returns with a smile. The flowing air that forces its way into the car is cold but refreshing on Castiel’s skin and it’s nice to see Dean amused and acting like his normal, ridiculous self again. Castiel checks the map on Dean’s phone. They’re just over two hours away.

***

When the map GPS indicates they’re starting to get close, Castiel sits up and begins to pay attention to the passing scenery. He points out three different motels and refuses to leave Dean alone until he commits to spending the night in one.

“You’ve been driving all day, you can’t expect to make the trek back to the bunker safely without some rest,” he reiterates as Dean grunts noncommittally. “Dean, you promised me you wouldn’t do anything stupid. Attempting the drive back to the bunker without resting would be stupid.” Castiel sighs. Dean rolls his neck and flexes fingers on the steering wheel, keeping his eyes focused straight ahead. Castiel opens his mouth to really give him the third degree but Dean waves him off.

“I get it,” he replies. “It’s just gonna be weird without you or Sam there. If I’m gonna be alone, I’d rather do it in my own bed.”

Castiel sits on that for a moment before replying, “Something could go wrong in Heaven. I could have to escape quickly back through the portal. It would be best if you were still nearby, don’t you think?” He hopes that the offering might make Dean feel useful and needed, two things that normally make him feel more at ease. Dean nods reluctantly and leans over to tap open the glove compartment.

“Grab a burner, just in case. Make sure my number’s in there.”

After doing as Dean instructed, Castiel pockets the burner and returns to Dean’s smartphone where he’s been carefully scouring the internet for any signs of angelic activity. Whether fortunately or unfortunately, there’s plenty to be found. Metatron himself appears in several videos apparently uploaded by bystanders who bore witness to him performing miracles in the street. A man, hit by a car, resurrected without pretense in front of a large crowd of people. Multiple healings of homeless people, a little girl with incurable cancer, birth defects… the list goes on, all healed and all by the same being.

“Metatron appears to be going by the name Marv,” Castiel shares with Dean. “He seems to be amassing a following that believe him to be some sort of Messiah or even God himself. It’s good that we didn’t delay any longer… Who knows what his endgame is? Besides the obvious...” Castiel scrolls some more and stumbles upon something even more disturbing. “Dean, look at this.” He turns the phone so Dean can see the pictures of a crime scene, the apparent site of a suicide bomber. He swipes across the screen to show more. “There were several of these… No pictures of the bodies were released but these accounts… all the witnesses say the same thing. I believe these were angel kills, targeted attacks against Metatron’s people perpetrated in the name of… Hannah?” Castiel’s head snaps up, looking over at Dean in disbelief.

“Hannah? Walking robot, stick up her ass Hannah? Gotta say, Cas, doesn’t really seem like her kinda gig. Hard enough to believe she’s even got her own little following, never mind that she’s organizing mass terror strikes. But hell, you think you know a guy.”

His brow furrowed, Castiel returns to scrolling. “I agree. Something is very strange here.” Dean snorts, and Castiel dips his head in recognition. “ More strange than usual,” he corrects before continuing to push down the little voice in his head that’s worried they don’t have enough information to be taking on Metatron just yet. “All the more reason to put a stop to it at the source as soon as possible,” he says out loud, completely aware that it’s not Dean who needs convincing. He looks up as Baby turns jarringly onto a narrow, out of the way road that winds its way between endless trees and below a thick canopy of leaves. The sight makes Castiel flash back to his own tree in Purgatory, and he spares a thought for how Betty is doing. And then the GPS on Dean’s phone beeps, signaling that they’re approaching their destination, and he’s pulled quickly back to the present. He squints and leans forward, hands on the dash to try and parse out what’s beyond the end of this thicket of brush. Abruptly, the road does end and at what appears to be a deserted playground smack in the middle of the woods. There’s an energy here, the same kind he felt at his tree in Purgatory… the portal is definitely here.

Rather than exit the car right away, Castiel turns his attention to Dean, planning to propose that they actually conduct the make-out session Dean had promised him in the diner before saying their goodbyes. But when he shifts to face him, he finds Dean’s eyes wide and his mouth open, focused somewhere beyond the hood of the car.

Sam,” he whispers, voice laden thick with disbelief as he throws open the door and frantically hops out. Castiel’s eyes follow his movements from where he still sits in the car, and sure enough, there Sam is, or there whatever’s wearing him is, anyway. He’s standing on the far side of the playground holding something in his hands, looking around like he’s confused. While there’s no way to know for sure without his powers, for his part Castiel believes it might actually be Sam.  As he gets out of the car (quickly, but not as fast as Dean) and shuts the door behind him, he sees Sam visually lock onto Dean and shake himself out of whatever stupor he’s in, opening his arms as Dean rushes forward to hug him. Castiel fingers the vial around his neck as he treads slowly across the grass surrounding the play area. He’d wanted to say goodbye to Dean without his grace potentially muting his feelings and emotions, but now… He closes his eyes for a moment, just a moment, remembering how Dean felt in his arms, the way he kisses, what it was like to look him in the eyes and feel like the only person in the universe. Let it go, he tells himself. Sam needs you.

“Dean! Sam!” He calls out to get their attention and waves when they both turn to look. “Shut your eyes,” he adds, before popping the cork and tipping the grace into his mouth.

“No, Cas, wait--” He can hear Dean calling but it’s too late, the deed is done. He braces as he feels the rush of grace powering through every fiber of his being, coursing through his veins, washing over the damage inflicted in Hell, erasing, restoring, renewing until there’s nothing left but pristine skin and undamaged bone. He stretches, flexing his trueform within the confines of his vessel, and feels them, they’re really there. His wings. Though they’re wrecked and completely useless for flying, he feels each one stretch and fluff within the ether, undoubtedly casting shadows onto the late afternoon sunlit grass behind him. The bright flash of his newly angelic body ratcheting up to full power overwhelms even his own sight for a moment, turning the entire clearing blindingly white hot before dissolving away and leaving him standing there with two Winchesters peeking out cautiously from between their fingers to see if the coast is clear. Castiel looks down at his body and suddenly feels uncomfortable in his borrowed jeans, t-shirt, and flannel. He passes a hand over his torso and in between blinks, just like that he’s back in his dark blue suit, blue tie, white shirt, and trenchcoat. When he looks up again, Dean looks devastated. He schools his face quickly, of course, but not in time to hide it from Castiel.

Unfortunately, the other thing he sees immediately are time-ripples flowing off of both Dean and Sam in waves, Dean especially. It’s not intolerable to be around with his grace at almost full capacity, but there’s no way he could stand it for an extended period of time. It would be like a human attempting to stare into the sun; it’s certainly not comfortable but you can force yourself to do it briefly. If you try to stare longer than a moment, however, you’ll find yourself walking away with at least some matter of damage. Using that same metaphor, if Sam is the sun, then Dean is a supernova. It’s becoming painful just standing next to him, and Castiel does his best not to let it show. He spares a moment to wonder what could have possibly changed Dean so much? But there’s no time to dwell because Dean’s staring back at him and this is not a discussion he can have right now. He clears his throat and turns to Sam, stepping forward to place a palm on his head.

“Wait,” Dean urges, reaching out to stop him with a soft hand on his wrist. As his fingers close together Castiel realizes that the action feels just as good as it ever has and has to resist the urge to lean into Dean. “He doesn’t remember anything, Cas. Anything. Last he knew, I was leaving to go check out a case Garth gave me in Florida.” Castiel doesn’t meet Dean’s eyes ( can’t) and though he does hesitate for a moment, he shakes his head and steps forward again. “Irrelevant to the current predicament,” he says out loud, placing his palm on Sam’s forehead. He closes his eyes and reaches into Sam’s mind, careful to remain unobtrusive regarding his private thoughts. There are signs of residual grace but no angel in hiding, thankfully. Castiel lets out a sigh of relief as he drops his hand and steps back. “It’s him,” he says simply, careful to skirt the major talking points that Dean’s clearly still working up to. “Only him.”

“Cas?” Sam questions, obviously confused. “Dean? What’s going on? Seriously, how did we get here? One minute I’m sitting at the library table with Kevin and the next I’m here.” Castiel doesn’t have to look to see the pained expression he knows is crossing Dean’s face right now at the mention of the prophet’s name, and he reaches out blindly to squeeze his shoulder.

“You two have much to discuss,” he says gently, motioning between the brothers. “And I have a mission to complete. Time is of the essence now that I have my grace. With any luck, Metatron is off performing miracles and I can locate the remaining piece of my grace before he returns. Worst case scenario, the time ripples overwhelm me before I can. So… I’m going to go,” he finishes a little awkwardly. With his grace back in action, it’s easy to tell that the portal is in the sandbox, which makes sense considering the runes scrawled into the sand.

Castiel turns and heads for it, ignoring Sam’s little, “Time ripples?” as he converses with Dean behind him. He’s about to step in when Dean’s voice stops him, because of course, Dean can never just let something go.

“Wait, Cas, wait, read this!” Dean’s voice is urgent though, and so Castiel turns around, finding an envelope and a folded piece of paper being shoved into his hands. The envelope says, “Dean Winchester or Castiel”, which makes his senses tingle as he unfolds the paper and reads it to himself.

To Dean or Castiel -

I am the angel who called himself Ezekiel. I owe you each an apology, for I was never who I claimed to be. I betrayed your trust and stole both the Angel and Demon tablets for Metatron. I am ashamed to have helped him and am trying to set things to rights which is why you must listen to me. Beware - you cannot trust any of your allies. Do not, under any circumstances, communicate with any other angels or attempt to access Heaven. I have freed Sam as a gesture of good faith. I will return when I have retrieved my original vessel.

Wait for me.

Gadreel

Seeing the name written at the bottom makes Castiel suck in a sharp breath. Gadreel. He smacks the paper with his free hand. “This is all lies,” he declares. “Dean, I realize we haven’t discussed this in detail and that is on me, I didn’t want to worry you more than you already were over Sam. But this…” He shakes the paper and thrusts it back at Dean. “This is the most untrustworthy angel on the planet, Metatron excluded. This is the angel who let Lucifer into the Garden of Eden, he is the reason humanity is corrupt.” Castiel realizes he’s yelling and does his best to pull it back. “We can’t risk believing anything he says, even considering Sam.” He shakes his head. “It’s too big of a risk. Gadreel has been imprisoned and tortured for thousands of years by his own kind, my brothers and sisters. He’ll want revenge on us all. Even if he’s no longer an ally of Metatron’s, if he ever was, that doesn’t mean he isn’t setting us up. The best plan of action right now is to stay the course. You two ward yourselves carefully so that he can’t find you, get back to the bunker and stay there. And I will go deal with Metatron.”

“Is anyone going to explain any of this to me, or…” Sam looks between him and Dean and Castiel nods.

“Dean has a lot to fill you in on, don’t you, Dean?” He says, pointedly, but Dean just nods distractedly. “And Sam, I must ask you, as a personal favor to me, no matter what your reaction is to the things you hear, please stay with your brother and don’t leave the bunker. For your own safety.”

“Uh, okay, but--”

“Yea, Sam, hang on one sec,” Dean interrupts, stalking forward and taking both of Castiel’s hands so that he can’t turn away. “Cas,” he says insistently. “I really can’t talk you out of this?” Castiel shakes his head firmly and squeezes Dean’s hands. It hurts, but he forces himself to look at Dean’s face. It really is like looking into the sun, the way Dean’s haloed and glowing with all the ways he should be someone, some thing else. It’s painful for reasons that are still half-buried deep in his mind and tears Castiel up inside in a way that he’s surprised he can still feel now that he’s an angel again.”Alright,” Dean says reluctantly. “Then at least say goodbye to me properly?” Castiel chances a glance at Sam who’s looking on with intense confusion written all over his face. “I fucked this up once, not gonna do it again.”

And with that, he leans in and kisses Castiel’s mouth, soft and firm at the same time, a hand at the back of his head and one on his waist and oh. It’s just as lovely and it still comes accompanied by fireworks and a symphony bursting across his mind, all so overwhelming that Sam’s confused noises are completely drowned out. When they break apart, Dean holds eye contact as he says, “Me an’ Cas are together, Sammy. That cool with you?”

Castiel can see Sam scratching his head and raising his hands in what appears to be a, “Whatever makes you happy,” sort of motion. “Uh, yea,” he finally says. “Of course. Not that this really feels like the time, but when did you get over your big gay hangups, Dean?”

“Hell,” Dean replies easily, still looking at Castiel.

Gathering the little sense he has left after that kiss, Castiel backs up until his shoes hit the sandbox, prompting him to step up and in lest he trip. Light punches through the sand and begins to swirl around him, swallowing him whole. He keeps his eyes on Dean as the world disappears, taking the Winchesters with it.

***

In retrospect, Castiel should have been suspicious from the jump.

 

When the swirling light show effects of the portal finally clear, Castiel finds himself in an elevator that opens up outside what used to be Naomi’s office, though of course, Naomi is nowhere to be seen. In fact, no one is anywhere to be seen. The appearance of the reception and its adjoining hallways, as well as what he assumes is now Metatron’s office, is quite different than he remembers it being. Where everything was once white and clean and pristine, now there’s dark wood, carpeting, and art on the walls. It’s more reminiscent of a very wealthy person’s home than the Heaven he recalls. Perhaps caught up in the apparent good fortune of finding the place deserted, Castiel creeps forward without hesitation. He passes by an empty desk that appears to be for an assistant and walks straight up to the wide oak double doors that lead into the room that functions flexibly as Heaven’s Head of Operations for whoever happens to be in charge.

Before entering he presses an ear against the door and listens closely, only moving again when he’s sure that he hears no movement in the room beyond. He closes his eyes and tunes into Angel Radio as well, but there’s nothing besides static to be heard. As satisfied as he feels he’s going to get, Castiel slips his angel blade down from his sleeve and into his hand, holding it at the ready before trying the knob. Even more surprising than the place being deserted, the knob actually turns and Castiel is able to push the heavy door open without difficulty. He supposes it makes sense. Heaven essentially has a lock on its doors from the outside except for those who know where the portal is, and it’s while considering that concept that Castiel realizes the glaring problem with the information he’s been given.

If Hannah has her own following and they all know about the portal, why aren’t they already here? Every angel Castiel encountered after the fall wanted only one thing; to go home. It’s so painfully clear now that he can’t believe he didn’t see it before, can’t believe he’d let himself be manipulated again by Metatron and God knows who else . He’s torn- there are still no signs of life, but he knows now that the countdown to the reveal of the trap he’s walked into is on, at best. At worst, the portal’s already sealed behind him. After a lingering moment looking back towards it, Castiel makes a decision and turns to enter Metatron’s office. There still might be something in here he can use, though he might have to dig.

He’s completely unprepared for what he sees. Metatron has a giant, heavy wooden desk that takes up a good portion of that side of the room. It sports a typewriter, the PA for Angel Radio, and an assortment of papers and books. What it also displays, right in the middle, is the vial containing his remaining grace. The little glass tube is suspended dramatically in mid-air inside a domed glass case, the air around it almost sparkling. Castiel finds himself drawn forward like a magnet; reaching out with one hand to claim the final item on the sadistic collection list for the worst scavenger hunt the world has ever seen. He’s so close and there’s nothing stopping him! He reaches the desk and lifts the glass dome, fingers closing around his grace and honestly surprised to find that it isn’t a mirage or some sort of trigger to cage or kill him. He’s just about to pull the cork when a familiar, condescending voice sounds from somewhere behind him.

“Hello, Castiel.” Castiel hesitates before turning to face the stumpy, grey-haired angel who’s been causing him all this trouble. “Welcome,” Metatron says.

“Metatron.” He glares, Metatron smirks, and Castiel decides to follow his gut for once and hold off on absorbing his remaining grace. “What’s the catch?” Metatron grins from his place in the doorway and shrugs with his palms up as Castiel watches the reception area beyond filling with angels.

“Sit down, Castiel,” Metatron says casually, and Castiel finds himself falling back into a chair that’s come flying across the room all on its own. The door to the office slams shut as Metatron strolls forward, unwinding his scarf and draping it over a standing coat rack. “I have to say, it took you longer than I’d guessed to make it here.” He wanders around to the other side of his desk and sits heavily in his swiveling chair, letting out a sigh. “Ahh, that’s the stuff. So come, come tell me. What have you figured out? I’m dying to know.”

Castiel’s hands flex on the vial and a growl rises in his throat. “What are you playing at, here? Are you going to tell me what’s wrong with my grace, or not? Obviously, you wanted me to find it, so I can only assume that it’s… poisoned, somehow.”

“Oh, Castiel,” Metatron replies, oozing false sympathy. “Poor, naive Castiel. No, your grace is fine, and yes, I wanted you to have it. You’ve certainly proven yourself worthy, haven’t you? Go on, take it if you want. It’ll stop those nasty symptoms you’re getting from the time fluctuations.” His grin is too wide to be anything but another manipulation, so Castiel remains still. “Go on, Castiel, power on up. It won’t matter, not to me. There are twenty angels waiting outside that door to escort you to your new home in Heaven’s prison and you don’t even have the other ingredient necessary to reverse my spell.” Metatron stops and laughs. “It’s so poetic,” he says, after taking a moment to compose himself. “At first I thought that the key to really changing things was isolating you from the Winchesters, changing your path so that there would be no way for them to find you. Took me an embarrassingly long time to sort out how off the mark I’d been.”

Rolling his eyes, Castiel moves to stand. “Perhaps your followers are interested in gritting their teeth through your nonsense babble, but I don’t enjoy listening to you speak even half as much as you seem to, so if you don’t mind--”

Sit,” Metatron commands, pointing down, and against his will, Castiel finds himself folding back in half to fit into the chair. He groans, but Metatron ignores him, unhinging the typewriter from where it appears to be concealing a small storage compartment. He flashes its contents in Castiel’s direction brazenly, as if Castiel is so obviously not a threat. Despite his irritation, Castiel sits up when he sees what Metatron is so proud to show him. The Angel Tablet. Without hesitation Castiel attempts to dart forward, knowing that if he can just get his hands on it, throw it to the ground and smash it, he’ll at least have a fighting chance. But it’s pointless, his ass is glued to his seat, his torso flopping forward with the momentum he’d summoned. “Useful thing,” Metatron continues, unphased. “Gives me these handy God-like powers. Even if you were at full power, you wouldn’t be able to take me.”

“Let’s find out,” Castiel growls, moving to pull the stopper from the vial.

Delightful,” Metatron says, clapping and grinning. “Let’s. After all, you’ll never get the last ingredient now.”

“Which is…?” Castiel’s patience has all but run out, and he’s starting to think he’d prefer Heaven’s reprogramming room to this particular brand of torture.

“Love,” Metatron says simply, honestly, leaning forward in his chair and waiting for Castiel’s reaction. He sighs in disappointment when the pieces don’t seem to click and grudgingly continues talking, getting up to pace around the desk and lean against it, only inches from Castiel’s knees. “Across every timeline I’ve seen, only two things have always remained true. The first being that this was always a story about love and heartbreak and… love. The second is how Dean Winchester never changes. He’s not capable! But you’ve learned that for yourself, haven’t you Castiel?” His smirk is making Castiel’s blood boil, but he does his best to focus, to concentrate on what Metatron is saying.

He frowns. “You’re wrong. Dean has changed immensely, I’ve seen it for myself. Just last night, he --” He cuts himself off, glancing up to clock Metatron’s far too interested expression and stops before revealing certain things that aren’t his to know. Metatron bites back a grin.

“Oh, he has, has he? So he’s told you that he loves you?” He lets that last sentence hang, thick and pointed in the air between them.

“I don’t see what that has to do with anything,” Castiel mutters, ashamed to have been made to feel ashamed.

“It has everything to do with everything,” Metatron persists. “Come on, think Castiel. Heaven’s best and brightest and you still haven’t put it together? The spell that locked Heaven required ingredients, but it also required symbolism. What did you collect for me?”

Castiel clears his throat, shifting in his chair. “Uh, we killed a Nephilim, retrieved a cupid’s bow, and you stole my grace,” he says and Metatron nods enthusiastically, clearly ignoring the implications in Castiel’s tone. He waits for a moment, and when Castiel offers nothing further, he throws up his hands. “You have no idea how difficult it is to be the only one of us who understands nuance, metaphor, poetry,” he laments, but Castiel just stares.

Finally, Metatron sighs. “A Nephilim is the ultimate manifestation of the love between a human and an angel, we destroyed that. A cupid’s bow is representative of love created by angels, usually between humans, you took that power away. And your grace… it couldn’t have been just anyone, Castiel, don’t you see? It had to be the grace of an angel in love with a human. That spell was specifically designed to destroy the connection between angels and humanity, and the only way to do that was to use love. Which is why this is so poetic,” he continues excitedly. “Pushing you together, giving Dean Winchester every opportunity to do what he needed to and he still falls short and you still come for your remaining grace, not realizing that you missed the most important step.”

Slowly, the sun begins to come up inside Castiel’s head as he realizes what a grave error he’s made. “Dean… Dean was the key?” He dares to look up into Metatron’s eyes, overwhelmed with sorrow but determined not to let it show. “Dean loving me was the key,” he recites dully, eyes drifting away.  

Metatron jumps up off of the desk and claps, only once but it echoes, or perhaps that’s only in Castiel’s own head. He’s dizzy, feeling faint and sick at the same time, which is why he barely hears Metatron’s next words.

“The key to reversing the spell and unlocking Heaven’s gates is simple, Castiel. Dean Winchester has to tell you that he loves you of his own free will before the last piece of your grace is restored.” He smiles widely. “But it’s too late now. Dean can’t get into Heaven without dying, and you’ll swallow it yourself before he’ll ever have a shot at figuring out a way around those rules. Unless you want to die a slow, agonizing death yourself from time-sickness.” Castiel starts. “Oh yes, I know all about that,” Metatron says before turning to press the intercom button on his desk phone. “Hannah? You can bring your team in now, Castiel is ready to go get acquainted with his new home.”

Castiel turns in his chair as the door opens and Hannah walks in flanked by multiple other sharp-suited angels. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” he growls.

“The only one here who should be ashamed is you, Castiel,” Hannah replies swiftly. “Take him,” she instructs, gesturing to her team.

Metatron continues rambling while Hannah’s team rudely and roughly gathers Castiel up under his arms. “Once upon a time I offered you the deal I gave to Hannah, Castiel. She was simply smart enough to take it.” He smirks. “In another life, she was your second in command. I’ll admit, I do have a certain penchant for taking things away from you.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Castiel mutters. “But I can assure you that I would never work by your side, not for this blasphemous betrayal , in this lifetime or any other.” He glares at Hannah as he’s dragged from the room, his arms hooked behind his back. “This isn’t over,” he calls back to Metatron. “It never will be, not so long as I’m still alive.”

“I’m not overly concerned about that,” Metatron calls after him, following behind the crowd to his door. He snaps his fingers and Castiel feels sharp pain dart through his head, the world spinning and tilting on its axis. It’s the same feeling that precipitated his near-drowning episode, the one that sent him spinning into a coma that could only be reversed by one thing. The thing in his fucking hand.

“Oh, I do love a bit of dramatic irony,” Metatron chortles. “Anyway, as I was saying, it’ll all be over soon now one way or another. You’ll die, or you’ll consume your grace. Either way… I win.”

***

Chapter Text

Dean looks up hopefully from where he’s nursing the end of a lukewarm cup of coffee at the table as Sam wanders into the bunker’s kitchen. It’s been four days since they arrived home, and Sam hasn’t said one single word to him, but perhaps today is the day. Well, that’s not entirely true. He did tell Dean that the only reason he wasn’t taking a car and driving as fast and as far as possible in the opposite direction from him was because of Cas and his warning, but to not for one second take him staying in the bunker as anything even approaching forgiveness. He also said something vague about them not being brothers anymore, but Dean’s choosing to allow his memory to be selective about remembering that. He’ll cool off, Dean had assured himself, many times over. He’ll get over it, he’ll come around. We’ll be fine, we always are. Dean had gone about his business, cooking their meals which Sam ate in silence, monitoring the news for any angel activity, and praying to Cas, all the while hoping Sam would change his mind.

But Sam continues to ignore him, bustling around the kitchen making himself a salad and putting on a fresh pot of coffee. Dean knows that he should give him his space, but masochistic tendencies are hard to break and Dean is no quitter. He waits until the pot has dripped halfway full and until Sam has poured his own cup to clear his throat and speak.

“Okay if I grab a refill?” Alright, not the most insightful or compelling opening, but at least it’s nothing he can get angry at. Dean stays in his seat as Sam grunts something unintelligible and goes on ignoring him. “C’mon man,” Dean tries, half-heartedly. “Do you, uh, you wanna talk? Yell at me? Punch me in the face? I get it, man, I deserve it.”

“No, you don’t,” Sam replies calmly from where he stands eating at the counter, but the way he stabs his fork into the salad bowl betrays his demeanor.

“Look, Sam, I--” Dean’s cut off by Sam’s fist slamming down on the counter and his fork clattering to the floor. His jaw tenses and works as Sam struggles to compose himself before speaking.

“Clearly, you don’t ‘get it’, Dean,” he finally says, his dorky air quotes unwittingly reminding Dean of Cas and arguably better times for them all. “If you did, you wouldn’t be trying to get me to talk things out with you. I told you already that I need space.”

“Well, we don’t have to talk… I also suggested fighting,” Dean reminds him, only half-kidding, spinning his mug nervously on the table. Sam lets out a frustrated breath and dumps the remainder of his salad into the trash can, dropping the bowl into the sink with a reverberating clatter. He turns around with his arms folded and glares at Dean.

“You just can’t help yourself, can you? I ask for one thing--”

“Oh, come on Sammy, don’t you think you’re being a little dramatic? If you knew half the shit I’ve been through in the past months--”

“Half the… Seriously, Dean? What about what I’ve been through?”

Dean scoffs. “An angel took you for a joyride. You also came out the other end in better shape than you went in, the same can’t be said for me, you know.”

Sam laughs, but it’s hollow and bitter. “Oh, yea. Shacking up with Cas and getting drunk on a cruise ship must have been real hardships,” he sneers, and Dean stands up roughly, his chair scraping back across the tile floor. He points a finger at Sam’s chest.

Don’t talk about shit you don’t know,” he growls, and Sam stalks forward, gets right up in his face.

“Oh, yea? What are you gonna do about it?”

They stand there breathing heavily and glaring at each other for a long, suspended moment, and Dean knows that if he pushes any further, Sam is going to snap. Fortunately, they’re saved by the extremely timely rapping of what sounds like a fist on the bunker door. They both flinch minutely at the sound, eyes darting in the direction of the door but unwilling to be the first to walk away.

“Expecting someone?” Sam asks sarcastically.

“Maybe it’s Cas,” Dean replies hopefully, ignoring his brother’s cutting tone, and the suggestion makes Sam visibly soften. He sighs and steps back, scrubbing at his face and then extending an arm in the direction of the stairs. “We should gear up all the same,” Dean continues, pulling his gun from where it’s been tucked into the back of his pants. “Just in case. Grab that angel blade,” he instructs, pointing to where a pile of weapons waits on the war room map table to be cleaned. Sam rolls his eyes but doesn’t argue, grabbing the blade and holding it at the ready as he ascends the stairs in Dean’s wake. At the top Dean cocks his gun before turning to make eye contact with Sam, who readies his blade and nods. It’s comforting, that they’re still in tune this way, that even at the worst of times, inches from ripping each other’s throats out, they’ll still drop everything to have the other’s back against a threat. Dean shakes that thought off and focuses on what might be on the other side of the door. He holds up 3 fingers and drops one at a time to signal Sam. As the last finger falls he leans forward and turns the knob, pushing open the door with a loud creak and jumping back into ready position, hands on his weapon.

Crisp fall air rushes into the bunker, a few dry leaves skittering across the threshold and Dean has to blink against the afternoon sun to be sure he’s seeing correctly. Of all the people (and things) Dean might have suspected would turn up at his home, the angel who tricked him into cracking open the door to Sam’s head was not one of them. In retrospect, it probably should have been. “SAM!” Dean yells as soon as he registers the angel’s presence, despite the guy standing there looking relatively harmless with his hands already in the air. Dean jerks his head forward to indicate that Sam should move which he does immediately, stepping outside the door and advancing on Gadreel bravely. Surprisingly, the angel keeps his hands up and lets Sam all the way into his space until he’s pushing the tip of the angel blade into his clothing.

“You’ve got about five seconds to give me one good reason not to skewer you,” Sam says lowly. “After everything you did to me.” He swallows and shoots a quick glance sideways at Dean. “And my brother.”

Gadreel nods swiftly and has the decency to look ashamed. “I have made many choices that I wish I could take back. But I did keep my promise to heal you,” he tries, looking oddly sincere and Sam actually growls as he moves a step closer. Dean’s a little worried about picking a fight with an angel but honestly, he’s mostly just glad Sam’s taking his frustrations out on someone else. He opens his mouth to butt in, but Sam’s got a handle on it, leaving him to lean suspiciously against the bunker door as he watches them interact.

“You violated me,” Sam spits. “My mind, my… my memories. You pretended to be me and used my hands to kill my friend ,” he rants, face turning pink and spit flying. " Five seconds. That’s all you get. Five…. four…”

“Castiel is dying,” Gadreel interjects, and Dean stands up straight, heart thumping wildly in his chest.

“What?” Dean asks. “What do you… how? And how do we know we can believe a word you say?”

“It’s complicated. It would be better if we could speak inside the warding, somewhere that we can be sure there are no prying ears--”

How,” Dean bursts out, strolling forward until he’s shoulder to shoulder with Sam, grabbing Gadreel’s collar and shaking him. Except, he’s an angel, and he doesn’t budge. Dean lets go and steps away, pacing as he wipes at his mouth with the back of his hand, distressed.

“Castiel suggested that I sing a song called, ‘Black Betty,’ but I do not sing. So he gave me this,” Dean’s head snaps up at the reference, and he watches warily as Gadreel moves his hand to his pocket.”

“Watch it,” Sam warns, pressing the blade against him more firmly.

“I do not wish either of you any harm,” Gadreel insists. “I’m going to reach into my pocket and remove a piece of paper. Hopefully, then you will believe me.” He does as promised, withdrawing a folded slip of parchment. Sam moves to take it but Gadreel shifts his hand away. “Castiel specified that only Dean would understand,” he explains, and his tone is apologetic. Dean reaches out and plucks the folded square from Gadreel’s hand. Glancing up between his brother and the angel as he unfolds it, he clears his throat but then thinks better of reading aloud at the last second. All things considered and despite what they’re still facing, what’s written on the paper makes him smile.

Castiel’s List of Magical Creatures that Deserve to be Rescued From Punishment Realms:

If that isn’t the most Castiel thing he’s ever seen, Dean doesn’t know what is. He keeps reading, a small smile plastered on his face. The list reads: 

 

  • Betty and her Kin - Purgatory
  • Thestrals (unknown number) - Hell
  • Poker Kittens - Hell
  • ?

Dean can’t help it, he throws his head back and laughs, quickly sobering when he sees the line of text sitting at the very bottom of the page.

You can trust Gadreel, but whatever happens next is your decision. It’s okay not to be able to fix this. I love you, Dean, without hope or expectation. No matter what. Never forget that. -C

Dean swallows around the lump that’s risen in his throat and swipes at his eyes, doing his best to make it look as if they’re itchy. “So uh, what am I supposed to do with this?” Dean smacks the paper and waves it at Gadreel before folding it back up and pocketing it. It weighs in the side of his jacket like something much heavier. “You said Cas is in trouble, so why are you here and not doing something about it?”

Gadreel shakes his head. “I must implore you, to move this inside… your fortress’ warding is good, I can feel it, but out here…” He pauses to scan the sky and Dean looks too; nothin’ but blue skies and happy birds, far as he can see. “It’s not safe, ” Gadreel hisses quietly. Dean and Sam exchange a glance and Dean scratches his forehead before throwing his hand in the air.

“Whaddaya think, Sammy?”

Despite himself, Sam’s jaw ticks. “It’s Sam,” he corrects. “And I think that if you believe that letter is from Cas, then we should probably hear what he has to say. Can’t hurt to do it inside in Enochian handcuffs, though.”

Dean nods and finally tucks his gun away again, not that it would have been much use against an angel. “Alrighty then.” He gestures for his brother to go first and Sam takes the opportunity to shove Gadreel roughly through the door and into the bunker, angel blade still poised and ready for action. Dean follows, tugging the door closed behind him until it locks “Fortress,” he repeats to himself. “Don’t hate that.”

***

Gadreel sits quietly in his chair in the middle of the library while Sam takes every precaution to render him impotent, just in case. They slap the cuffs on him, push the tables to the side and drizzle a ring of holy oil, light it up. Gadreel looks slightly uncomfortable, but he doesn’t protest.

“You know that you will have to let me out of here eventually in order to help your friend,” is all he offers.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, buddy,” Dean replies, kicking back in his own chair with a glass of whiskey, despite Sam’s judgmental faces. So sue him. His… Castiel is sick and stuck in a plane he can’t even access without kicking the bucket. No way Sam would handle something like that any better. “So,” he addresses their captive audience. “Spill.”

Gadreel nods and obliges right away. “Castiel is a prisoner of Heaven, of Metatron’s. What happened is precisely what I warned you about in the note I left with Sam. Luring him in with the last piece of his grace was a trap so that Metatron could catch him and force him to consume it without being able to use it to reverse the spell. Fortunately, Metatron’s ego is far bigger than his common sense, and as such, his desire to see Castiel suffer has bought us some time. While Metatron has amplified the effects of the time-sickness Castiel has been suffering from, your friend is a much stronger angel than I gave him credit for. He is fighting hard.”

Dean slides his glass onto the table beside him and leans forward. “I’m uh…” He shakes his head. “I’m not sure I’m following, man. Castiel can’t consume the rest of his grace because if he does, the ability to reverse the spell that booted all you assholes out of Heaven won’t exist anymore? Am I warm?”

Gadreel nods gravely. “That’s correct. There’s a missing piece, something that must happen before he consumes the last piece, and then the spell will automatically reverse. Completely, in fact. Heaven’s gates will open and every angel should have their wings restored.”

Alright, Dean supposes he’s following so far, but he’s still got a crap ton of questions. Like, “So where do you fit into all this? You sure know a lot about Metadouche’s plans for a guy that says he’s on our side.”

“Agreed,” Sam chimes in from across the table. He hasn’t taken his eyes off of the angel, not for a second. “And, no offense Dean, but Castiel’s judgment has been pretty off when it comes to all this, hence why he’s in prison right now.” He addresses Gadreel. “Not that we even know what you want from us yet but this whole thing already smells like a triple cross to me.”

“I told you, I am not here to fight,” Gadreel insists. “Metatron, he… something needs to be done. More angels than ever are dying by his hand, all in the name of elevating him as the new God. I can help you. You don't trust me, fine. I understand. I've...made mistakes. But haven't you? Haven't we all? At least give me a chance.” Neither Sam nor Dean replies at first, Dean sucking his teeth and tapping his glass thoughtfully against the varnished wood. Gadreel sighs and gets visibly frustrated for the first time since his arrival. His hands ball into fists and he stands up from his chair. “I sat in the hole that is Heaven’s prison for thousands of years, thinking of nothing but redemption, of reclaiming my good name. I thought of nobody, no cause, other than my own. I made a mistake in thinking Metatron was the way to that redemption, I was wrong. But none of that matters now. The only thing that matters, in the end, is the mission -- protecting those who would not and cannot protect themselves --you humans. No angel is bigger than that. And I will not let my fears, my self-absorption prevent me from seeing it through. Not anymore. You may not trust me, but you must believe that humanity deserves better than Metatron. Failing that, if you’ve lost your own missions, then you must at least want Castiel to live. You know him. You know how stubborn he is. He’ll die before he destroys the only way of reversing this spell and ousting Metatron.”

Gadreel pauses and looks between the brothers. “And he will die. Soon, if you keep wasting time.”

Dean searches Gadreel’s expression and finds only sincerity. He weighs his options and realizes that for him, it’s no contest. Save the world, then Castiel, and if it’s a two-for-one deal, even better. He grabs a blanket to smother the flames and is relieved when Sam doesn’t move to stop him.

“So what do we need to do?”

“Thank you,” Gadreel breathes, visibly relaxing when the flames around him go out. While Dean does that, Sam pulls the key and releases the handcuffs.

“One wrong move,” he warns. “Give me half a reason.”

“Understood,” Gadreel replies, rubbing his wrists. “What I am going to tell you next is the most difficult part of all of this.”

Once they’re all sitting again, Dean listens as Gadreel goes on to explain the details of the spell that locked Heaven, the symbolism, the ingredients, Castiel’s part. He does his best to pretend as if he doesn’t see Sam’s head whip around when Gadreel talks about love, specifically, Castiel being in love with him, just acts like his normal, cocky, well duh, everyone loves me, self. Of course, then Gadreel moves on to the “missing piece” that’s required to break the spell, and even Dean can’t muster up the kind of moxie to pull off unphased in the face of that news.

“Fuck,” he groans, sinking further into his chair as Sam continues to stare in disbelief.

“That’s it?” Sam questions. “That’s all he has to do?”

Gadreel tilts his head, considering. “He can’t just say the words, no. He has to mean them, or it will not work.” Dean slumps so that his head is hanging over the back of the chair and covers his arm with his face. “There’s also the issue of access. I would have broken Castiel out of Heaven’s jail if I could have, but all of Metatron’s followers are currently in Heaven on his orders, likely for this reason. The portal is never unguarded. If I’d tried to help him escape, we’d both be in there now. Fortunately, Metatron still believes I am loyal to him. I simply told him that you had been fighting back and that it was easier to let you go. He didn’t seem to suspect anything was amiss. Truly, I was lucky to steal the moments alone with Castiel that I did.”

“How did he seem?” Dean finally forces himself to ask the only question he really cares about right now, even if he does it with his eyes hidden firmly behind his arm. Gadreel hesitates.

“Sick,” he finally replies. “But he is strong and he is fighting, as I told you before.” He pauses and Dean waits, not sitting up yet. “There is something else. He did not want me to come to you at first. He did not want to burden you with this, knowing that there was likely nothing you could do, anyway. Dean, you must understand, if we cannot find a way around Heaven’s laws, he does not want me to take you through the portal. Castiel does not want you to die for him, or for the world.”

Dean grunts. “S’not really Cas’ decision to make.” The library is silent for a moment before Dean ventures, “What about prayer? Let me guess, too easy, right? Don’t suppose there’s cell phone service in Heaven?” Gadreel makes a noise that sounds negative.

“No,” he affirms. “To both. Castiel’s prison cell is warded heavily, he cannot hear prayers inside it. As for the phone, we made an attempt, even tried a spell, but it was ineffectual. Metatron may have done something to prevent outgoing communications for that exact reason. Also, Castiel wasn’t sure you would welcome the request. He… rambled quite a bit about boundaries and respect and how forcing you to say something that you don’t feel would be worse.” Dean drops his arm immediately and sits up when he hears that. The room blurs a little, and he hasn’t had nearly enough whiskey to blame alcohol. Fuck, he’s really fucked up.

“He thinks… he thinks I don’t?”  

Now both Gadreel and Sam are looking at him with a mix of pity, sympathy, and concern. It makes him hot with embarrassment and shame and he’s never wanted to flee from a room more. “I wouldn’t presume to speak for Castiel,” Gadreel replies, maddeningly neutral.

“Yea but… that’s what he said? Just like that?” Gadreel narrows his eyes and nods. Dean sinks back into his chair, defeated. Where did he go so wrong? All that fuss about words and not being ready… he caused this, he realizes. If he hadn’t been such a wussy asshole about sharing his feelings, Castiel wouldn’t be dying. Castiel wouldn’t be sick and dying, alone in a prison cell, about to leave Dean alone forever on Earth. Because he’s emotionally constipated, the only person who ever saw every crack and every flaw in him and still loved him back is going to die. Dean shifts and Castiel’s note crinkles in his pocket. He draws it out and unfolds it carefully, resisting the urge to bring it to his face and sniff (because he does have an audience), just to see if there’s some remnant of Castiel still lingering there. He lets his eyes drift mournfully over Castiel’s gentle handwriting and adorable list. His eyes are drawn to the first item.

Betty. Betty and her tree.

And that’s when Dean gets an idea.

***

Standing once again in a back alley of one of the seediest corners of New York City, bouncing on his heels, Dean waits. He stiffens up as Sam rounds the corner, straining to look behind him and see if anyone is following. Nothing, not yet. He sighs.

“Relax, Dean, he only left twenty minutes ago. Pretty sure if Gadreel wanted to fuck off, he would have by now.” Sam shoves big hands into his pockets and scuffs his shoe into the layer of grime covering the cracked cement. Dean watches as he shivers a little, pulling his coat tighter around his chest. “Fuckin’ cold,” he murmurs to himself. Dean looks up at the sky, clear blue but the kind that comes only with the frostiest of days, winter is coming on fast now. In fact… is it December? Late November? Did they miss Thanksgiving? Dean remembers looking at his phone for the time, maybe even registering the day of the month in passing as a means to calculate how long he’d been on another plane, but not the significance of the day itself. He realizes he has no idea what the date actually is. His phone is in his pocket, but he finds himself not even wanting to know anymore. He supposes he’ll cross that bridge when he and Cas come out the other side of this mission intact. If they don’t, then it won’t matter anyway. A gust of wind sweeps through the alley and fits its way underneath his leather jacket; not nearly warm enough for the weather, but where Dean’s going, it’s not like it’ll matter. There’s no cold in Purgatory, not really, not any more than there is any other source of discomfort. Perhaps it’s the complete lack of heat or cold there that’s meant to nag at you, that would certainly track.

Sam’s really getting on his last nerve, kicking his feet and rustling his jacket around, and Dean finally gets fed up and snaps. “Will you knock it the hell off? What, do you need a fidget spinner or something?”

“Fuck off, Dean,” Sam mutters, continuing to scrape his foot along the ground. Dean rolls his eyes but doesn’t push. “Look,” Sam finally says, appearing unsure as hell about what he’s even saying or how to continue, it’s written all over those dumb puppy dog eyes. “We’re not okay, and I can’t pretend that we are, but I also don’t want to end things like this.”

Dean snorts. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, little brother.” Sam drops his hands to his sides in frustration.

“We don’t know that this is going to work, Dean! We have no idea what will happen when you cross through the portal in Purgatory. You know as well as I do that this is a 50/50 shot in the dark that you might not come back.” Sam’s not fidgeting anymore, facing Dean with his hands back in his pockets and a pleading look on his face. “I just want you to know that… I’m angry. I’m really angry.”

“Uh, thanks but--”

“Let me finish. I’m angry, but I still love you. I was wrong to say we aren’t brothers. So, I hope you make it back because you owe me.” Sam walks forward, his expression turned from pleading to hopeful as he enters Dean’s space. “You owe me,” he says again. “I don’t want this to be it for us, I want you to spend the next five years doing my laundry and cleaning the toilets and whatever else I decide you need to do to make it up to me.” Dean averts his eyes, struggling not to get choked up as Sam’s own eyes well with tears.

“C’mere,” he says gruffly, swallowing the lump in his throat. He throws an arm around Sam’s neck and yanks him in, squeezing tight. Sam hugs back and it’s a goddamn relief. They’re not okay, but they’ve trudged through worse, both of them, and come out the other side stronger for it. It’s all the more reason for Dean to make it back alive, and it makes it all that much harder to go. He blinks back tears as they rock from side to side for a long moment before Sam pulls away and wipes his face. Dean sniffs and shakes his head.

“So,” Sam says. “Let me run it all by you again, make sure I understand.” Dean can’t help but groan, they must have been over the plan and it’s mechanics fourteen times by now, but if it makes Sam feel better… He raises his eyebrows and motions for Sam to continue. “Cas’ grace infusing with one of the trees in Purgatory created a portal to Heaven. Gadreel knows the symbol and incantation to carve into it to actually access the portal’s energy. You think that by going through the portal in Purgatory, you’ll be exempt from the whole “dying” thing that prevents you from using the portal here.” Dean nods.

“That’s the idea,” he affirms. “Purgatory... it’s a state of being, even humans don’t need to eat, sleep, or shit there. You’re not alive, you’re not dead, you just… are. Seems like it would follow that something not alive or dead couldn’t be killed moving between planes then.” Dean shrugs and scratches the back of his neck. “I mean, it’s just a working theory. Won’t know ‘til I pass through it if it’s anything more than a load of wishful thinking.”

Sam studies him intently and Dean gets uncomfortable, using the excuse of cold hands in need of being rubbed together and blown heat into to turn away. But Sam’s persistent, and he touches Dean’s shoulder to turn him back. “You’re really smart, Dean. I don’t think you’ve heard that enough. And anyway, short of having this option I think we all know you would have gone through the Earth portal regardless. It’s not just Cas at stake, here, it’s… free will, maybe even humanity itself. But I’m glad you have a shot at living through it, and I hope you come back.” He pauses, hesitates a little before continuing. “I wouldn’t have gone with you, you know,” he says as if Dean would have let him. “Despite what I said before… I’m glad that I’m alive now and I want to make the most of it. I dunno if that means continuing to hunt or not, anymore. But thanks to your selfish bullshit, now I have the chance to figure it out.” Dean meets Sam’s eyes and swallows hard. He nods.

“Thanks, Sammy,” he replies. They’re saved from any further delving into chick-flick territory by Gadreel rounding the corner of the alley. He’s carrying a plastic grocery store bag in one hand and a silver bowl for spells and summoning in the other. Dean can’t help but feel a pang of relief that he’s actually returned. Sure, he could probably pull off the spell Cas did to open Purgatory with Sam’s help, but Gadreel is an angel, it’s like a hundred times easier for him. Plus, Purgatory isn’t the kind of place you want to be navigating and facing on your own if you can help it. Not that he fully trusts Gadreel, but he’s better than nothing. He watches as Gadreel goes about setting up the spell, and turns to Sam. “You sure you’re gonna be OK getting back on your own? No stopping, Baby’s warded and I don’t want you outside of her, just in case.”

“Yes, Mom,” Sam replies pointedly, and Dean puts his hands up.

“Sorry, “ he says, and Sam just rolls his eyes. They’re silent for a moment, waiting for Gadreel’s word and then Sam speaks.

“Dean?”

“Hm?”

“You uh, you think this is gonna work? You know, with Cas.” Dean darts a glance sideways. Sam’s tone might be casual but Dean can tell it’s forced, just like his posture. He knows he’s treading on sensitive ground but he must be feeling brave thanks to their little talk. Dean works his jaw but decides to humor him.

“Yea,” he says simply. “I do.” Sam looks at him then, and if Dean’s not mistaken he thinks he sees a new sense of respect in his eyes.

“Oh,” he says, more surprised than Dean would like. “Well, that’s… I’m really happy for you, Dean. Seems like… like you really have changed.”

Dean’s silent for a moment before nodding. “I hope so,” he finally replies. “I’m sure as fuck trying my best.” Sam nods and seems to be content with the answers he received. He’s going to have to be, because Gadreel is done, standing back up and motioning for Dean to come forward.

“Are you ready?”

“As I’ll ever be,” Dean replies, checking the leather holster he’d fashioned to strap across his chest and hold his bone blade. Intact and ready for action. He leaves Sam behind, walking to Gadreel’s side and taking his hand without pause. With a short incantation and a puff of purple smoke, Sam and the alleyway are fading again, dissolving into a harsh, unforgiving landscape of greyscale black and white.

“Home sweet home or whatever,” Dean murmurs when the spinning finally stops. There’s no apparent welcoming party this time, thank fuck, but he’s a paranoid asshole so he drops Gadreel’s hand and takes a good long look around. “Alright, let’s uh, let’s get to it. Pretty sure we went this way last time.” They set off into the forest, the darkness closing around like it’s swallowing them whole.


***

Dean does his best to track the passage of time but it’s difficult as hell with the way the light comes and goes, especially under cover of the tree canopy. Still, by his best guess, they’ve been walking for twelve to fourteen hours at this point. He’s not tired, not exactly, but there’s some form of achey exhaustion that fills him and follows him, combining with the dreary atmosphere to make it very difficult to feel anything but depressed. Gadreel is boring company, to top it off. Walks along silently, doesn’t laugh at Dean’s jokes. The guy can fight though, as well as Benny or Cas, maybe better, and that’s all that really matters. Dean’s familiar enough with Purgatory by now, knows the sound of a Leviathan whooshing through the air, the scuffle of footsteps trying to keep silent on leaves, the complete, abnormal stillness that occurs in the moments before something watching him makes its movie. It’s almost safe to zone out. Not quite, but safe enough that as long as Dean’s eyes keep scanning and his ears keep listening, his brain can drift off a little.

He thinks about Sam. Wonders if he’s made it home by now, then realizes the drive back to Lebanon is longer than that. He hopes Sam sleeps in his car or at least warded whatever shitty motel room he got for the night. Of course, he did, he’s not some newbie, he’s a seasoned hunter. He’ll be fine, Dean reassures himself. No one’s looking for Sam. Probably, anyway. Who knows what the fuck Metatron’s up to. When his brain is done worrying about Sam it moves right on to Cas, and worrying about Cas is exponentially worse. Dean’s almost scared to find out what shape Cas is in, probably worsening by the hour. That thought makes him pick up the pace. Eventually what passes for night does fall, and while Dean knows the smart and safe thing to do would be to stop and hide out, the image of Castiel unconscious and fever-stricken from that mystical angel-illness blazes across his mind and he can’t bring himself to do so. Fortunately, Gadreel is all angel, and that means no problem seeing in the dark. In what could pass for the most awkward conga line in existence, Dean holds onto the loops of his belt and follows behind him, heeding any verbal warnings as they come.

They’re lucky enough to make it through the darkest hours without being attacked more than once; a Leviathan duo that Gadreel smites with very little effort. Dean had forgotten what hunting with a fully powered up angel could be like, and he can’t help but look forward to switching Gadreel out for Cas. If you make it in time. If you don’t die crossing through the portal. Yea, yea, fuck ton of ifs, he admits to himself, cursing his own brain that clearly doesn’t know what’s good for it while he does his best to bury that particular thought.

But like a buzzing gnat, it won’t go away. Dean finally resigns himself to contemplating the fact that this could be his last mission, could be his last… everything. With some horror, it occurs to him that his last meal was cereal. Fucking cereal. Should have stopped at that place in the city that sells double cheeseburgers served on donuts.

His thought stream is rudely interrupted by two vampires, stepping out from the brush in front of them and blocking the path. Almost immediately, two more appear on each of their sides and then when Dean turns to look, two more behind them. Eight, he considers. Not great odds, but I’ve taken worse. With a sidelong glance at Gadreel, they go to work slicing and dicing and smiting. Dean’s doing his best to stop the advances of two at once when he sees Gadreel rip one of the vamp’s heads off with his bare hands. Fucking yikes, Dean thinks, I’m glad he’s on our side. That moment of distraction proves fatal though, as Dean’s caught off guard from his left, sent sprawling to the ground with the vamps closely following him down, teeth bared and glistening. His head thumps against the hard ground and his vision splits into two, which means four vampires and no idea where to swing. He slashes blindly, but it’s no use, he’s fucking pinned. The first vamp is closing in on his neck when from out of nowhere he hears a terrible, high-pitched shrieking sound. The vampires immediately sit back on their heels while clutching at their ears, but Dean fucking knows that sound, and it’s never been more welcome. He takes the opportunity to pop a two-for-one beheading as Betty skids recklessly into the clearing, kicking up all matter of dirt and leaves behind her. She takes on one of the remaining vamps herself as Gadreel reaches to smite the other, and when both of them are burned out and in pieces, she gallops happily over to Dean.

He’s just managed to claw his way unsteadily back to his feet and shake out his aching shoulders when Betty slams into him full force, almost knocking him all the way back over. Dean stumbles and swears but he would honestly hug the thing if he could. After brief consideration and considering there’s nowhere to thread his arms that won’t get him covered in bug drool, he settles for an affectionate head rub as Betty knocks against his legs and purrs.

“You’re one hell of a bug, Betty,” he says with a grin, looking up to see what Gadreel makes of all this. He’s obviously confused, but Dean figures he was probably rotting in Heaven’s dungeon even back when Betty’s kind roamed the Earth so he decides not to rub it in. “Cas,” he says simply, by way of explanation and Gadreel seems to accept that. Betty, on the other hand, gets upset, letting out a series of squeaks and chirps and darting away from Dean only to run right back. “What’s up, Betty?” He asks, before realizing the ludicrousy of asking a bug to explain its thought process. He rolls his eyes at himself and tries again. “Uhh… Cas is in trouble, you understand what I’m saying?” Betty squeaks once before dropping her front feelers flat on the forest floor, haunches up like a dog who wants to play. All three of her antennae droop.

Gadreel coughs. “Uh, if I may?” Dean looks up, surprised.

“Oh. Do you actually understand her? Thought Cas was just being his normal weird self when they were together.”

“I understand enough. She… Somehow she knows why we are here and she wishes to help. She’s asking if you’ll allow her to lead us to the tree.” Gadreel looks to Dean, apparently wanting approval before enlisting Betty in their mission.

“Shit, yea, Jesus Gadreel, I don’t actually have a fucking clue where we’re going, tell her before she runs off!”

“She is not leaving us,” Gadreel replies calmly and then stares at Betty for a moment. “But she wants you to tell her,” he says eventually. “Also she knows that Castiel is in danger. I think in consuming the juices from the roots of the grace-powered tree she may have forged some sort of connection with Castiel.”

Hearing that, Dean can’t help himself. One-sided language barrier forgotten he turns directly to the bug and asks urgently, “Is he alright? Cas-- is he…” But Betty’s antennae only droop farther, and she repeats skittering off a few feet and then running back.

Gadreel is quiet for a moment before he translates. “She says that we should hurry,” is all he’ll tell Dean, though that pretty much speaks for itself. With that in mind, Dean sets off as fast as he can go behind Betty, who scuttles along just slightly ahead of her companions. With Betty leading, at least Dean doesn’t have to try and navigate by memory and the sun and the river and shit , he’s not a fucking survivalist.

It’s still a journey, at least another day’s worth by Dean’s miserably poor Purgatory time-keeping skills. They walk, and fight, and wade through a river that requires Dean to push the floatable but ineffectual paddler Betty across like some sort of terrifying bath toy. While they’re in the river a gigantic tentacle as big as a tree randomly breaks through the surface of the water not ten feet away from them, but all it does is hang in the air and then sink slowly out of sight back into the deep, presumably one of those “holes” Benny had warned him about. Dean wades a little faster after that. Betty seems to get increasingly excited the closer they get, speeding up too much only to have to fall back so that Dean and Gadreel don’t get lost, over and over. Definitely a golden retriever, Dean decides. Finally, they cut a swath through the thick brush that encircles the clearing and stepping through, there stands Castiel’s magnificent tree. Betty bursts forward at the sight of it, clearing the barrier with no issue and beelining for her hole. She digs and rips away the roots that have grown over in her absence and disappears from sight, but Dean can hear her purring happily.

“She was able to cross the barrier,” Gadreel observes, and it’s only then that Dean realizes the blood-painted sigil Cas had adorned her shiny black shell with had rubbed off. “That is very interesting. She must have ingested enough of the tree to be recognized by the barrier as something that belongs.”

“Uh, anyway,” Dean says pointedly, pulling out his pocket knife and flipping it open. “You wanna get to carving?” Gadreel takes the knife without another word and does just that as Dean stands by, tapping his fingers on the biceps of his crossed arms, edgy and anxious. His display of impatience is unnecessary though, it’s only a few short minutes before Gadreel is stepping back to nod at him.

“Are you ready?” He asks seriously. “You can still change your mind, Dean. This is… In Castiel’s words, it’s too much to ask of any human.”

“Good thing no one’s askin’, then,” Dean snorts. “I’m offering.” He turns to the hole which is already sporting new roots and calls out. “Betty! Betty, we’re leaving.” With a panicked-sounding squeak, Betty bursts from the hole and almost bowls Dean over for the second time. She races around the tree frantically and comes to a stop beside Gadreel’s legs. Her beady eyes tilt upwards and she squeaks. Dean waits with his eyebrows raised and Gadreel looks up at him, surprised.

“She wants to come with us,” he reports, making Dean start. As quickly as possible, he weighs out the pros and cons and then shrugs. “I mean, we got no idea where this portal is gonna spit us out. Could be right in front of Metatron for all we know. Wouldn’t hurt to have a little backup. He looks down at Betty.

“It might be dangerous,” he warns her, feeling ridiculous as he does since clearly, Betty’s proven herself to be far more than some creepy bug monster and is probably more useful in a fight than he is. “You could get killed.” Betty squeaks again and rams her head against the tree, dislodging some bark. Dean looks at Gadreel and shrugs again. “Her funeral,” he declares, and Betty makes a REEEE sound, maybe in protest of that sentiment, maybe in excitement, Dean doesn’t know because he still doesn’t fucking speak bug. They line up, some part of each of them touching both the tree and each other. Dean does his best to steady the trembling in his hands, squeezing his eyes shut so that he doesn’t have to see the transition happen. This is it, he thinks. Please, he adds, almost as an afterthought, and maybe it comes out a bit closer to a prayer than anything else. I don’t want to die. Please.

Gadreel says a few Enochian words that Dean doesn’t even try to parse out and then the portal erupts with light. Bright, warm, beautiful light that feels the same way Cas’ grace does when it’s coursing through his body to heal him. The light moves, it feels alive as it swells and shoots out around them. Swirling, flashing, enveloping, welcoming them home. And then it all clears away as quickly as it came, leaving Dean to carefully crack an eye open, in fear of what he’s about to see. His surroundings are simple; nothing more than a bright white room with a single door, plus Gadreel and Betty. With no imminent danger to be seen, Dean has a moment to take stock of his body. Somewhat surprised, he registers that his heart is indeed beating, his knees and back are sore, and he’s hungry. He’s alive. Dean Winchester is alive… and in Heaven.

***

Chapter Text

What makes a story work? Is it the plot, the characters, the text? The subtext? And who gives a story meaning? Is the writer? Or you? Tonight, I thought I would tell you a little story and let you decide…

***

“What is this place?” Dean asks, looking around expecting to see something --anything-- but finding only smooth, perfectly white walls. There’s no source of light that he can see and yet the space is lit as brightly as high noon on a Kansas midsummer’s day. Gadreel turns to consider him.

“It’s someone’s Heaven,” he explains. “Someone who is not currently dead, and as such has no active memoryscape programmed here. When they do die, this space will transform into whatever their happiest memory looks like. Most people never notice the difference.” Gadreel wastes no further time in walking over to the single door and turning the handle. Dean follows. “There’s no reason to conceal the exit when no soul is meant to be in here,” he explains, even though Dean didn’t ask. As he opens the door, Dean catches sight of the plaque adhered to the outside, and it stops him dead in his tracks.

Dean Winchester

1979-2008

2008-2010

2010-2010

2010-2014

2014-2016

2016-2017

2017-

He turns around and stares into the blankness of the room, his newfound knowledge of what he’s really standing in somehow making its emptiness seem sinister. And the dates… “Gadreel,” he says, reaching out to touch the angel’s shoulder as he leans out the doorway to assess the threat level in the hall. Gadreel follows the motion of his hand to where he’s pointing at the door sign, but his expression doesn’t change. Instead, he nods slowly.

“Yes,” he says quietly. “It makes sense that the portal would pull you to your own Heaven. Just wait here one moment - there is an access door to the jail just down the way, but the coast is not clear yet.”

Dean’s gaze flickers to the plaque again. “Yea,” he persists. “But did you notice the dates?   It’s 2013. Is this… I mean, shit, this looks a hell of a lot like free will is a damn illusion. And why are there some future death dates but not others?!” Betty squeaks softly, bumping at both his and Gadreel’s legs, but Gadreel shushes her with a hand on her head. She vibrates between them, clearly anxious to move on.

Initially, Dean gets ignored completely but after several long moments Gadreel straightens up from where he’s been leaning out the door and motions for him to follow. They move quickly down the hallway, Betty at their heels, until Gadreel locates an unmarked door and opens it, beckoning them through. He shuts it quietly behind them as Dean takes in yet another hallway, this one appearing as though it’s made of stone.

“This is the walkway to the jail,” Gadreel explains.

“You gonna answer my question?” Dean prods. Normally he’d chalk something like this up to Heaven simply being the shitty place that it is, but if there’s one thing he’s learned on this adventure, it’s to not take even the tiniest clues for granted.

“No,” Gadreel replies, strolling along so quickly Dean almost has to jog to keep up. He pauses, and then sighs. “There’s no clear answer to that. Not very many people truly die and then come back to life. Near-death experiences don’t count. But, for what it’s worth, those humans who do experience a death that is not destined to be their last usually do have the dates marked on their doors before that death happens. Some do not, though. And some dates change. Don’t read too closely into it. Haven’t you learned by now that you’re in control of your own fate?”

“I suppose so,” Dean mutters, falling behind again as his mind refuses to stop wondering exactly how many deaths he’s destined to have. The murmur of voices up ahead drags him right back to reality and his current mission, though.

“The main cells are guarded,” Gadreel warns, steering him over to conceal themselves in the shadows next to an arched opening in the wall. Betty veers behind them and waits at their feet without prompting, still vibrating up a storm. “There will likely be two or three angels on the other side of this wall prepared to fight. If we can take them out, no one else should be along any time soon. Guard duty is a loathsome task that most angels feel is beneath them.”

“Lucky us?” Dean ventures. “So, what’s the plan?”

“I thought we’d kill them, take their keys, and free Castiel.” Dean blinks at Gadreel for a second as he waits, until abruptly realizing that was the entirety of his plan.

“Okaaay,” he says, drawing the word out as he slouches against the wall. “Nothing wrong with simplicity but then what? Do we have an escape plan or…”

“Well,” Gadreel replies, contemplatively. “It’s not as if the reversal requires anything more than what we’ve discussed. It will be effective immediately after Castiel consumes his grace, and should become quite obvious. Our wings, for one thing. I should think that if and when all of our wings are restored, Heaven, and more specifically Metatron’s office, will be flooded with a horde of very angry angels. At that point, the only thing left to do will be to smash the angel tablet and either kill or imprison Metatron.” Dean takes a deep breath and nods.

“Then let’s do this.”

Gadreel stands and steps past him to peek around the edge of the opening in the wall. He holds up two fingers,  two guards, and draws his angel blade. Fuck, Dean thinks, he knew he forgot something. A fat lot of good his bone blade is going to do him now. “Don’t suppose you’ve got a second…” He starts to ask but Gadreel is already charging forward and into the room. Dean sighs. “Someone needs to teach that guy about countdown fingers,” he mutters before drawing his blade anyway and charging after him. When he rounds the corner, Gadreel’s already taking on both angels, blades clanging and clashing, tiny flashes of grace seeping out from the places each of them has managed to make contact with the other's skin. “HEY!” Dean yells, just to draw some attention and give Gadreel a break, and just like that he’s in the thick of it. One of the angels charges him, and Dean manages to duck, twist and kick him in the back so that he goes slamming into the wall. He was hoping the dude would drop his blade, but no such luck. The guy turns with a punch at the ready and slams his fist into the side of Dean’s face, making him see stars. He goes down like a stone, but he’s not out. As he’s pushing himself back up, Betty comes careening in from the side.

“What the f--” is all the guard has a chance to say before Betty is on him, ripping at his arms with her pinchers. She manages to get an entire limb torn off before she’s flung away, hitting the wall with a sickening crunch. Dean dives for the dropped angel blade and picks it up, jamming it through the douchebag angel’s chest in one smooth motion. He shields his eyes with his free hand as the guy explodes with Heavenly light, his peripheral vision clocking Gadreel in the same position with the other angel. He breathes a sigh of relief. That wasn’t so bad. As soon as his guy is dead, Dean withdraws the blade and tucks it into his belt, hurrying over to where Betty is lying capsized on the floor, her legs in the air. For a second Dean fears she’s dead, but he quickly realizes she’s just unable to flip herself back over. He’ll add “being tipped over” to the list of Betty’s weaknesses, which up until now have only included “hungry” and “swimming.”

As soon as she’s feet first, Betty chirps at him and takes off, rounding the bend at the end of the hallway without stopping. Gadreel grabs Dean's sleeve and tugs at him to follow.

“Castiel,” he says urgently, and that’s all Dean needs to hear, he takes off like a shot. As he rounds the corner and sees another whole line of cells, his eyes tracking Betty as she stops halfway down the row to crawl up the side of the wall until she’s vertical on two legs and able to slide through the bars. Dean can hear her squeaking in what is very obviously distress, no translation needed. He skids to a stop in front of the cell she chose and takes in the very picture of his nightmares. Castiel is cheek-down on the cement floor, stripped to his white button-down, his blue jacket and trench coat a crumpled heap in the cell’s corner. His cuffs are open and the sleeves are pushed up, he looks like he was in the middle of attempting to get undressed. He was probably hot, burning up from the fever, Dean realizes, taking the rest of him in with growing horror. A trail of dried blood runs down his forehead and onto the floor, presumably from a gash that he must have sustained when he fell. Dry, Dean notes fearfully. How long has he been like this to not be healing?!”

“CAS!”

He grabs the bars and rattles them, but naturally, nothing happens. “Where’s the key?! Gadreel, get the fucking key!” Gadreel doesn’t even make it to the cell, just nods and turns around, running at a dead sprint in the other direction. “Come on, come on,” Dean murmurs to himself, feeling frantically at the metal of the bars and the lock, checking for any weaknesses even though he knows it’s useless. If escape were possible sure Castiel would have already. Despite that, he sticks the tip of his blade into the lock and tries unsuccessfully to pick it. Meanwhile, inside the cell, Betty’s using her pinchers to nudge Cas over like she’s part forklift. She’s clearly tired and working hard, squeaking pitifully as she strains to shove her body under his much larger dead weight. Not dead, Dean chastises himself. He can’t be. We’ve come so far.

“Cas, CAS!” He wedges his shoulder into the space between the bars and stretches his hand out as far as it will go. He can almost touch Cas’ hair, almost but it’s just out of reach. “ GADREEL!” He screams, forgetting briefly that they’re supposed to be on stealth mode and then retroactively hoping that the walls are truly as thick and this area is as isolated as Gadreel claims. He feels slightly relieved when the angel calls back to him because surely he wouldn’t risk yelling if he thought it would expose them.

“I can’t… the keys aren’t here! They’re not on either of the guards.” No sooner are the words out of his mouth than he hears a yell that is distinctly not Gadreel, and then the familiar sounds of fighting. “Fuck me,” Dean groans. Turning his attention back to the cell he sees that Betty’s been successful in rolling Castiel over, and is now nudging his face and chirping at him with no response. Cas looks… well, he looks bad. Somehow flushed and grey at the same time, blood all over the side of his face where he’d been lying face down in it, and breathing so shallow it’s hardly there at all. Do angels need to breathe? No, right? What about when they’re mystically ill?!  

“Betty,” Dean says, realizing he can’t afford to sit around and hope Gadreel survives this last fight and miraculously stumbles upon the keys. “Betty!” She raises her head to look at him, and Dean points to Cas’s arm, splayed out lifelessly on the floor beside him. He gestures between Cas’ arm and himself. “Push it, Betty, push his arm towards me.” Betty squeaks agreeably and gets down next to Cas, dragging her head against the floor to shuffle Cas’ arm forward. “C’mon baby, just a little more, who’s a good buggy, that’s it!” Finally, the tips of his fingers graze the edges of the fabric of Castiel’s shirt. With one more shove from Betty, he’s able to get a grip on it. Sitting down and sliding forward so that he’s got a leg on each side of a bar inside the cell, he reaches through and uses Cas’ arm to drag him closer. Betty does her best on the other end, hopping around Castiel’s body to shove him forward towards Dean.

Together, they manage to haul Castiel onto Dean’s lap and Dean cradles him in his arms the best that he can. His shirt is soaked with sweat and his skin is burning with fever, just as Dean had feared. Castiel’s eyes are closed, but up close Dean can see that he is moving air, and a hand to his chest reveals a frighteningly slow but still steady and real heartbeat. Dean closes his eyes for a moment, wanting to do this right. He opens them.

“Hey Cas,” he murmurs, thumbing softly across Cas’ hot, waxy cheek. “I remember the last time this happened, afterward you said you could hear me, that you knew I was there, sometimes. Well, here’s hoping you can hear me now, ‘cause I got something to say.” He takes a deep breath. “I’m so fucking sorry, Cas. I never should have let myself get hung up on words like that. If I hadn’t, neither of us would be in this position right now. But I swear to you, Cas I fucking swear, you get better and get out of here, I’m gonna show you and tell you how much I love you. Every goddamn day until you’re sick of me.” Dean swipes at the traitorous tears that are escaping his eyes now, sniffling and letting out a bittersweet laugh. “They’re just words, aren’t they, Cas? Just like the building blocks to a song or a spell. It’s not the words themselves but what you do with them, how they make you feel when you use them the right way, put them together so that they mean something to someone else. God. I’ve loved you for so long, Cas. I’m sorry I didn’t realize sooner that the words were never something to be afraid of. I love you. Of course, I love you.”

He kisses the knuckles on Castiel’s hand softly and then looks up to see Betty staring at him wide-eyed, her head on Castiel’s thigh. She sees him looking and makes a “ murrrrphhurrg” sound, and Dean decides to take that as approval. It’s then he realizes that Castiel’s grace is nowhere in sight, but a quick pat down reveals the last vial to be tucked safely in his pants’ pocket.

T hank fuck something went right.

Just then, there’s a clatter at the end of the hallway and Dean glances up with fear stabbing icicles into his heart. But it’s only Gadreel, rounding the corner looking bloody, leaking grace, and generally appearing somewhat worse for the wear but he’s holding a keyring above his head in triumph and smiling.

“No time,” Dean calls out, popping the cork of the vial and gently pulling down Castiel’s chin with his thumb so that his mouth opens. Here goes nothing. Hope it was enough. The grace flows freely from glass vessel to living one, and for several moments, nothing happens. Gadreel has time to jog to his side, coming to a stop and looking down on Castiel as they wait.

“Shit,” Dean says softly. “I really thought --”

BOOM.

Something that feels like a small explosion rocks the prison, shaking them so hard that Dean's legs jerk, causing Castiel to roll off. Once free, he scrambles to his feet. “Get the gate open!” Gadreel moves to try but it happens again, BOOM! This time making the floors tremble and causing both Gadreel and Dean to stumble backward and fall to the ground. Dean sees Betty skitter from the cell just in time as a rain of dirt and rock falls from the ceiling. “What the fuck is happening?!” He yells, but Gadreel just shakes his head, apparently as clueless as he is.

“Cas!” Dean yells, but Castiel stays motionless on his side. “CAS! Come on, you gotta get up!” He tries to push to his feet but the ground is still shaking and it’s too difficult to even crawl forward. Betty trembles against his side and it's all he can do to stay up on all fours. Suddenly, both Gadreel and Castiel are jerked onto their backs at the same time. Castiel doesn’t respond but Gadreel lets out a yell. Bright, white light shoots out from underneath where both of them lay, getting stronger and brighter by the moment as if they’d each lain down on an exploding star.

“SHUT YOUR EYES!” Gadreel yells out as the light stretches and burns, engulfing him. Dean wants to, but he can’t look away, especially not from Cas. Castiel’s light is bigger, more powerful somehow, and as it grows it lifts him up off of the ground with it. It’s unlike anything Dean’s ever seen. The ball of light continues to increase in size and intensity until Castiel is swallowed up and the glow is finally is way too bright for Dean’s watery, pained eyes to blink through. He ducks his head and covers up, shielding Betty’s eyes too where she’s cowering next to him. BOOM! One more explosion rocks the prison, and now Dean suspects all of Heaven itself, and this one he can feel explode outwards. It washes over him in a wave, pulsating and spreading and Dean knows, he knows they did it. With one final roar, Gadreel falls silent, and the world beyond Dean’s eyelids dims once again. He cautiously opens one eye before releasing Betty, and his mouth reflexively drops wide at what he sees.

Both Gadreel and Castiel are standing in front of him, eyes glowing grace-blue with real, corporeal wings spread wide. Castiel’s cell door is completely gone with no sign that it had ever been there, and he’s stepped outside of it to fully stretch his wings the solid fifteen feet they span. Dean glances at Gadreel and while he has to admit that his heather grey and gold-tipped feathers are beautiful, Castiel’s… he has no words. They’re something beyond description. Inky black where they spread across the tops of his wings, fading to midnight and then royal blue as they cascade down, the very edges tipped in silver. It’s unquestionably the most beautiful, incredible thing Dean has ever seen, no holds barred. And Cas- Castiel, Angel of the Lord, looks better than good as new. He looks like Cas, his Cas, with his sleeves rucked up and blood on his shirt, a cocky, pleased smile spreading across his face when he sees Dean.

“Oh thank fuck,” Dean chokes out, and even to his own ears it sounds like little more than a moan. He jumps to his feet, rushing forward into Castiel’s open arms.

“You’re alive,"    Castiel proclaims, utter relief and pure happiness infusing his voice. He clutches Dean tight, fingers digging into the skin of his back through his shirt and Dean can’t get close enough.

You’re alive,” he retorts, turning it back on Castiel whose responding laugh is slightly hysterical. By mutual agreement they pull back just far enough to come face to face, and Castiel is glowing. His eyes are his normal, ridiculous blue again but they sparkle like Dean’s never seen before.

“I love you,” Castiel says simply. “I knew you’d find a way.”

“You did not know that,” Dean protests. “You were ‘bout three minutes from eternal emptiness there, Mr. ‘I know everything,’” he humphs.

“Not everything,” Castiel replies, smile still doing its best to stretch all the way across his face like it might rip him in half. “Just that you love me.” Dean flushes and licks his lips, eyes searching Castiel’s.

“Yea,” he says huskily. “I really fucking do.” Castiel leans forward to kiss him and naturally,  that’s when Gadreel decides to clear his throat.

“Far be it for me to interrupt, but angel radio is humming,” he says apologetically, and Dean notes that his wings have been tucked away to wherever they’re normally hidden.

“Yes,” Castiel agrees, squinting a little as if he just realized he should be paying attention. “I hear that.” In the blink of an eye, his own wings disappear, and Dean can't help but feel disappointed. They’re definitely coming back to those later, he decides, his mind inadvertently drifting somewhere slightly inappropriate. He clears his throat.

“So what’s going on?” He asks the question hoping it’ll deflect from any odd staring into space he might have been accidentally partaking in, but seeing the smug look on Castiel’s face he realizes his thoughts must have been somewhat loud.

“It’s nothing to be concerned about,” Gadreel replies. “Things are moving along exactly as we anticipated. But I should be getting up there to ensure that the angel tablet is destroyed and Metatron’s connection to it is broken as well as confirm that he is dead or locked away properly. Our brothers and sisters will have questions, I would imagine.” He looks sideways at Castiel. “Unless of course, you would want to handle that yourself.”

Dean’s honestly never seen Castiel react so quickly in declining Heaven assistance as he now shakes his head in a violent hell no. “I have no interest in the day to day operations of this place. Besides,” he adds, looking at Gadreel consideringly. “I think we are overdue for a leader who has learned the hard way the value of both freedom and free will.” He claps Gadreel on the shoulder and smiles. “Good luck to you brother. And thank you.”

Gadreel stands proudly, though it’s easy for Dean to tell that Castiel’s words have moved him. He wonders when the last time was the guy was told anything besides that he’s a complete and total fuckup.

“I owe you one,” he says, and Gadreel bestows upon him the same surprised and grateful look. “Thank you,” he adds sincerely.

“It was… it was my honor,” Gadreel replies. “Oh,” he continues with a gentle smile. “I’d almost forgotten. About Betty, if you’re not opposed, I know of a Heaven I think she will enjoy. It belongs to an environmentalist and is all green and clear streams as far as the eye can see. Enough trees to keep her happy for infinite millennia.” Betty purrs at the suggestion, and Castiel looks around in surprise, his eyes finally landing on the tired bug still wedged in next to the wall.

“Betty!” He yells, ducking away from Dean and almost sliding across the floor to her side. Despite her obvious fatigue, Betty musters up the energy to jump into Castiel’s lap and slobber all over him.

“Nice to know where I rank,” Dean complains, but he’s grinning. “Cas, you gotta know Betty’s the real hero of this story. Honestly, no way we would have gotten here in time without her.”

Cas is happily hugging Betty, though how he gets around the pinchers and the mouth full of teeth Dean still has no idea and he likes Betty so he’s just not gonna look that closely. She purrs as Castiel rubs her head and murmurs to her the way he’d done what feels like decades ago now. After a few moments, he looks up and nods at Gadreel. “She loves your idea,” he says. To the bug, he kisses the top of her head and murmurs a few more things before letting Betty wiggle away. “I’ll come to visit you,” he promises, and Betty squeaks. “Gadreel,” Castiel nods, and with that, Gadreel bends down to touch Betty’s shell, and they both disappear.

For some terrible reason, Dean feels his eyes welling up again and does his best to scrub at them before Castiel notices. He’s unsuccessful, because that is his life, and rolls his eyes at Castiel’s amused little smirk.

“You like her,” he accuses playfully.

“Do not,” Dean replies defensively. “She’s just… she’s a good bug, that’s all. Still a bug, though.”

Castiel sighs. “I see you’re still stubborn as ever.” He slips a hand into Dean’s and squeezes. “Come,” he says, touching their lips together softly. “Let’s go home.”

“Just one thing.” Dean stops him, putting a hand between their bodies as Castiel tilts his head to the side in question. Dean's face breaks out into a wide, playful grin. “Can I see your wings again?”

***

Sam comes running into the war room just as the door to the bunker slams closed behind them, relief flooding his face when he catches sight of both Cas and Dean alive and in one piece.

“Hey,” Dean greets him, shrugging off both his jacket and the makeshift leather holster as he clomps tiredly down the stairs.

“Hello, Sam,” Castiel says warmly.

“Hey,” Sam replies, unable to suppress a grin. “Hey, Cas. It’s really good to see you.” He steps forward and accepts a hug from Castiel before turning to Dean, obviously unsure if he’ll welcome the contact. Dean sizes him up for a moment before shrugging.

“Ah, what the hell. Bring it in,” he demands with a smile, opening his arms and squeezing his younger brother tight. “‘S’good to see you, Sammy.”

“It’s Sam,” Sam insists, his reply muffled by Dean’s shoulder. He claps Dean on the back before pulling away. “So listen, I don’t want it to seem like I don’t want to hear about what happened or that I’m not over the moon that you guys are back, but I kind of have a thing.”

“A thing,” Dean repeats, his eyebrows raised. He drapes his jacket over one of the chairs surrounding the map table and drops his gear on top. “What, like a date?”

Sam hesitates. “Uh, not exactly. More like... A job interview?” He grimaces a little and rushes to explain. “The bar in town is looking for a bartender, and I’ve done the job before, didn’t even hate it. I just thought, with everything that’s happened…”

“Whoa, whoa. Slow down there, buddy. Hey,” Dean says carefully, waiting for Sam to look up and meet his gaze before continuing. “I think it’s great.”

“You do?” Sam’s tone is full of skepticism and while he might deserve it, Dean has to admit that the idea he’s conditioned Sam to think so little of him hurts.

“Yes,” he says with a nod. “I told you, man. I’ve changed. You want out, you’re out. Really, I’m fine with it. Happy for you.” Sam runs a hand over the hair on his face that’s quickly turning from stubble to beard and looks between the two of them, searching for the catch he’s so sure must be coming.

“Really? Well uh, thanks, Dean. And, you know, I’m not sure that I want to be out , not completely. Maybe just cut back. Grab my own slice of normalcy and only hunt when I feel like it.” He gestures between Dean and Cas when he says normalcy, and Dean doesn’t miss the smile that flickers across Castiel’s face at the sight.

“Whatever you want, man,” Dean says encouragingly. “Anyway, get going. Knock ‘em dead. Bring me back a souvenir.”

“It’s a bar, Dean.”

Dean flashes him his brightest smile. “I know.”

***

After Sam had left, Castiel disappeared off into the bunker, mumbling something about “cleaning” and “the old-fashioned way” that Dean had only caught every other word of, but he figured Cas just wanted to shower or whatever in peace. It’s not like the guy needs to rest or eat or anything, his priorities are all kinds of fucked up. Dean, on the other hand, still has a host of human needs that need tending to, and showering is just never gonna make it higher on the list than appeasing his growling abdomen. He ransacks the kitchen, throwing everything in the fridge onto the counter in a way that would horrify Sam and makes a sandwich so tall he has to smush it down to fit inside his mouth.

“Mmmphhh,” he groans around the first bite, letting his eyes roll back in ecstasy. The mouthful hurts to swallow but Dean forces it down, his empty stomach finally scoring something to clench around. Downside of alternate planes of existence; your body catches up in full force as soon as you leave. Dean houses the rest of the sandwich and makes himself another, chomping his way through half of it almost as quickly as the first. He’s about to down the second even though he’s mostly full by now when he stops and thinks better of it. Instead, he grabs a small plate and puts the remainder of the sandwich on one side and a pile of chips on the other. Castiel might not have to eat, but maybe he’ll want to. Dean figures he can at least offer. He grabs the plate and moves to leave the kitchen, quickly thinking better of it and returning to clean up his mess so that Sam doesn’t pop an aneurysm when he gets home.

Except, as Dean makes his way down the hallway to his room he’s not sure how much the bunker feels like home anymore. He’ll always have a soft spot for the place and it would be great to turn it into some sort of hunter safehouse, but the tiny slice of the life he might have had with Cas nags and follows him, forcing him to wonder what their relationship could possibly look like now. Cas had made it clear that he didn’t want to be tied solely to the bunker, but now that he’s an angel again what will that mean? Will he want to go back to Florida? Will he spend time in Heaven now that it’s rebuilding (yet again)? And if he chooses either of those things, where will that leave Dean? Could he really leave Sam behind to make a home halfway across the country? Strangely, the idea of following Cas somewhere that makes him happy isn’t a difficult one at all to swallow. Against his better judgment he likes Pree, he likes Cas’ apartment, he likes what the two of them have been building there. Maybe if they’re able to shore up the Hunter’s network they’d inadvertently created a little more, they could all have a bit of a work/life balance.

Dean looks around, surprised to see that he’s ended up in his room. He must have been really lost in thought. Cas is nowhere to be seen though, so he puts the sandwich down on the bedside table and wanders back out into the hallway. He ducks his head into Cas’ room; empty. Farther down the hall he hears the water running in the main bathroom, the one with like, fifteen shower heads and no dividers in between. And from what Dean can hear, it sounds as if all of them are currently in use. What the fuck? What possible use would self-cleaning Cas have to turn on every showerhead at once? If they had a water bill to bitch about, Cas would so be getting a piece of his mind. He stops outside the door and listens, yep , definitely a crap ton of water being wasted in there. He hesitates for the briefest moment before pushing the door open and walking inside as the tiniest part of his brain, the part that still harbors his fear of being left and a painfully difficult to eradicate inferiority complex suggests Castiel might not welcome his presence.

But every worry, every fear, hell, every thought in general cluttering up his head disappears when he actually sees Castiel. All of the showerheads are indeed on, and Castiel’s standing just outside the spray of the one in the very center, artfully positioned so that the water is coming down square in the middle of his back. In the middle of his back where his two spectacular, corporeal wings stretch outward from, all the way to the exterior walls of the bathroom. Dean’s sure that under normal circumstances he’d be plenty entranced with the way the water sluices over Cas’ shoulders and down his naked chest and abdomen, rivulets flowing like a map to where his tongue should be and oh yes, he should be getting up close and personal with all that right fucking now. But instead, he’s riveted to the spot where he stands, Castiel’s beautiful body relegated to boring side dish next to his wings. They’re in constant subtle motion even as Castiel stands still; lazily drifting up and down the way a person might roll their shoulders to work out an ache. The feathers of each wing spread and come back together, the small ones at the top alternately fluffing up and tamping back down under the hot spray.

And the colors… Dean’s never seen anything that compares and is positive he never will again. He knew the blended blacks and blues were stunning when he’d first seen them in Heaven, but that entire moment was full of distraction and adrenaline, no time to take in specific details like the way the inky black of Castiel’s upper wings actually seems to reflect the light, revealing an oil-spill rainbow pattern as the feathers ripple and shift. His eyes track that pattern as it drifts downward, spilling into midnight blue and then a deep, royal shade, ending with sparkling tips that look as if they were dipped in liquid silver. The water cascading down the feathers makes all the shades sparkle in the light, and Dean’s suddenly painfully aware that his reaction may not be entirely appropriate. What is the appropriate reaction to seeing an angel’s wings for the first time? Probably not the pants-tightening one he’s currently experiencing, that’s for sure. Although, Castiel’s always been attractive to him, and these are just another part of his real body, and will Castiel even still want him that way now?

“Dean,” Castiel calls out softly, one corner of his mouth quirked up in the ghost of a half-smile. Dean blinks rapidly, clearing his head of that polluted stream of thought as he shifts his gaze back to the actual man in question. Only then does he notice that he’s not alone in his arousal; Castiel’s hard as a rock, dick in hand, stroking himself slowly. Dean licks his lips as he watches Cas’ hand slide over his cock, pull, pull, twist, just the rhythm Dean likes to use on himself and Castiel knows it. It’s enticing as hell, not that Castiel wasn’t doing the job all by himself perfectly fine. Castiel raises an eyebrow at him and only then does Dean realizes he’s been standing there staring like an idiot for what has likely amounted to a ridiculous amount of time. He flushes a little and uncertainly steps back towards the door, which makes Castiel narrow his eyes.

But instead of speaking, he simply tilts his head back so that the shower rains down in his hair while simultaneously speeding up the hand that’s on his cock and moaning freely. And fuck, Dean knows an invitation when he sees one, tearing off his clothes as he strides swiftly across the floor and up into Castiel’s space, bumping their chests together so that Castiel’s forced to step backward and let Dean in under the stream of hot water. He pulls his head back upright again and opens his eyes, blinking up at Dean through the droplets of water that cling to his lashes. Dean’s not entirely sure who moves but in an instant there’s no space left between them, mouths moving against each other in a delicious slide that Dean will never take for granted again. Cas’ hand slides up his chest, coming to rest on the side of his neck and Dean leans into him, wanting more, needing to touch and feel and be reassured that yes, they’re both here, they survived, and they’re going to be fine.

Reassurance that Castiel not only loves but wants him too, even as an angel.

Castiel gets it, because of course he does, and it shows as Dean feels cool plastic press into the palm of his hand courtesy of Cas' free one. It’s lube. He looks back up and Castiel shrugs, his little half smile evolved into a full-on smirk. In a flash, his wings disappear and Dean opens his mouth to protest but Castiel puts a finger to his lips before he can.

“Step back,” he instructs, and Dean complies automatically, feet shifting back onto the cold tile as a puddle of water collects around them, arms goose-pimpling in the thick, steamy air that still can’t compete with hot water. Castiel turns around so that he’s facing the rear of the shower, looking over his shoulder at Dean as the lights flicker and his wings pop back into existence, just as glorious from the other side. “It’s alright, Dean,” his voice soothes, “You can touch.”

Drawn forward like a magnet, Dean reaches out to skate fingers over feathers. They’re soft, like satin, and Dean has to resist the urge to rub himself all over them. He lets his face drift closer, closing his eyes as the feathers brush his cheek and ear. He sighs, letting his hand mover farther across the wing, sinking in between the feathers to where there’s muscle and bone that shift underneath his fingers. Carefully, he presses and Castiel presses back with his whole body and another moan.

“That feels good?” Dean whispers, the side of his face resting on the curve of Castiel’s left wing, his mouth near his ear. “You like that?” Castiel just moans and rocks against him, Dean’s cock sliding temptingly into the cleft of his ass. Dean can see Cas’ arm moving steadily now, working his cock as he presses back against him. He tucks the lube underneath his left armpit so that his other hand is free and experimentally mimics what his right hand is doing on the other side. Castiel cries out when he works both hands into his wing muscles at the same time and his feathers tickle all up and down Dean’s arms and chest. Castiel turns his head, mouth seeking Dean’s and Dean wraps an arm around his chest to pull him close, kissing him fiercely, Cas’ tongue licking into his own mouth without hesitation.

“Come on, Dean,” Castiel murmurs against his lips, and his half-closed eyes are glazed, pink lips spit-slick and swollen where Dean’s been sucking on the bottom one. “Want you,” he insists, grinding back in Dean’s grip. Dean kisses his lips, the shell of his ear, the side of his neck, and lets the lube drop into his hands. He flicks the cap and slicks himself up, the head of his cock pushing at Cas’ hole for only a second before popping in, and Castiel moans again. He braces hands on the tile wall, drops his head forward and pushes back right away, sinking Dean in straight to the hilt. It would appear that angel Castiel isn’t all that different when it comes to sex; he’s still demanding and bossy and wants it as hard as Dean will give it to him. As such, he fucks him against the tile, the wings and slippery surfaces complicating things a bit, but Dean finally gets the hang of it after Castiel growls and forcibly relocates Dean’s hands from his hips to the arch of his wings. The leverage and grip are much better than with human shoulders and Dean thrusts with abandon, his hands in Castiel’s feathers clearly doing something that amplifies things for his angel because Castiel is moaning and groaning like he’s never heard him before. He feels him tense up and come, probably all over the tile in front of him, and Dean steadily fucks him through it. Barely holding out from his own orgasm, Dean pulls out and whispers in Cas’ ear for him to put his wings away.

Between one blink of an eye and the next, they’re gone, and Castiel is turning to face him with a sated but confused look on his face. Dean shakes his head in reassurance and pulls him close, wrapping a hand around his head to drag him in for a kiss. He gently pushes Castiel up against the wall and lifts his thigh, angling his hips so he can push back inside. Castiel grunts and his eyelids flutter as he does, over-sensitive as he is, but he keeps his eyes on Dean and accepts what's given to him. Dean starts moving again, letting his climax build in a slow crescendo, Castiel’s hands clutching at his ribs and waist, his leg wrapped around his hip.

“Nothing’s worth not seeing you,” he finds himself saying, and it’s such a disgustingly cliche bullshit comment that he would have laughed if Cas had said it to him. But Castiel just smiles, a small, genuine thing that warms Dean’s insides in a completely different way than his building climax. It’s only another minute or so before he’s spilling inside, gentle and powerful, like a wave reaching its crest and tipping over, not the hard and violent release he’s used to. After, he tucks his head into the crook of Cas’ neck to catch his breath, and Castiel strokes his hair.

It’s hard to believe he almost lost this because he was hung up on a few little words.

“Love you,” he murmurs, because Castiel deserves to hear it. Castiel squeezes him tighter.

“I love you too, Dean.”

***

Later that night, Cas lays naked in bed with him even though he no longer needs to sleep. He claims that he still enjoys resting and Dean’s not about to call him out on his bullshit since he suspects he’s only doing it to give Dean an excuse to cuddle in the first place. Not that what they do is cuddling, because Dean Winchester may be a lot of new things but a cuddler will never be one of them. No, this is simply the manly sharing of body heat. That’s his story and he’s sticking to it.

Castiel’s fingers card through his still-damp hair where his head lays on his chest, stopping for a moment to reach over and turn out the lamp. Dean finds himself missing the way the moon shone in through the floor to ceiling windows in Cas’ apartment, illuminating his chiseled features in the dark.

“Dean?” Castiel asks, voice tentative. “Are you asleep?” Dean sighs and pushes up off of Castiel’s chest, propping himself up on an elbow.

“What’s up, buttercup?"

Castiel hesitates, and then reaches over to flick the light back on and pull his trench coat off of where it’s draped over Dean’s desk chair. Rustling around inside it for a moment he comes up with the vial that held his grace throughout their entire journey. From the bottom of the ocean, to Purgatory, to Hell, Heaven, and back. He must have pocketed it after he powered up at the playground. Dean notices that it even still has the leather cord attached that Castiel used to wear it around his neck.

“Got yourself a little souvenir there,” Dean says, a weak attempt at some humor. But his smile feels forced and he knows his tone is probably unfairly bitter. It’s hard not to be when that vial represents so much more than he’d realized, everything that’s between them stopping this thing with Cas from ever living up to its full potential. That vial put Castiel on Dean’s level for the first time ever. It made them equals, made him touchable. And sure, clearly he can still touch Cas now, but it isn’t exactly the same. That connection, the need, the fire the human version of Castiel carried with him is dulled somehow, masked behind power and surety and immortality. Not that he isn’t happy for Cas, on the contrary. If Castiel wants to be an angel, if he feels that’s what he’s meant for, then that’s what he should be. Dean’s just feeling selfish and mopey. He’ll grieve the “could have beens”, the life they might have shared as humans together, and then he’ll move on and be happy with this new version. Because Castiel deserves the world and Dean loves him enough to give it to him. Castiel deserves everything Dean can give him, everything Heaven owes him, and more.

But Castiel’s staring him down like he’s got something weighty to dump on his shoulders, and Dean finds himself bracing for impact. “I’ve made a decision,” Castiel tells him, his words deliberate and careful. “I hope… well, I hope that you will understand, I suppose.” Dean crinkles his forehead because he can’t imagine what would be so important that Castiel would need to bust up their afterglow and don his Seriously, Dean, no joking right now, face. His eyes search Dean’s as his hand moves down the length of Dean’s arm before falling away. He purses his lips and then abruptly sits up and slides out of bed, jostling Dean as he goes. “I think it’s better if I show you,” he adds evasively, scooping up his coat and the vial and heading for the small bathroom attached to Dean’s room. Before Dean can reply, he’s closing the door with a soft snick.

Confused and not a little bit worried, Dean pushes himself up to where he’s sitting with his back against the headboard, covers bunched in his lap. Fortunately, Cas doesn’t keep him waiting long enough for his head to really start compiling all the possible bombs that might be about to drop. Instead, he comes out of the bathroom within a minute or two looking… different, somehow. He’s still holding his trench coat in front of him but now he’s clutching something in his right fist and there’s blood on his neck like he nicked himself shaving except…

There’s a cut on his neck, far too big to be a shaving nick. A small line of already scabbed red that isn’t disappearing into Cas’ skin the way it should be. Part of Dean already knows what it means, but a larger part of him is afraid to hope. His eyes skip down to Cas’ closed fist and he pushes up from the bed, forgetting that he’s stark naked. He grabs at the blanket, dragging it up and over his crotch.

“Feels like this might be more of a ‘pants on’ kind of conversation,” he says sheepishly, grabbing boxers off the top of a clean laundry pile that he might as well accept is never going away. He tugs them on and then faces Cas again, a hand out in offering. “Cas,” he says when Castiel doesn’t move away from the door. He raises his eyebrows pointedly. “What’s in your hand?” Suddenly Castiel looks nervous like maybe he’s done something he’s afraid Dean will be angry at him for, and he ducks his head, drawing his fist into his chest. “Cas,” Dean repeats.

Castiel takes a deep breath… oh god, a real deep breath, and extends his hand towards Dean, opening it to reveal the little vial, except it’s no longer empty. No, it’s filled completely with swirling, glowing blue grace.

“You better not be doing this on my account,” Dean whispers, and Castiel shakes his head, stepping forward finally to come within a foot of Dean’s chest and vaguely Dean wonders if Cas can hear or see his heart beating because the noise is roaring wildly in his own ears.

“I’m not this anymore,” Castiel says quietly. “If I ever was. Dean, I like being human, despite the rough start. I like the life I’ve built with Pree and the one we have together. I like hunting and bartending and running. I like feeling my toes in the sand and salt water drying on my skin under the afternoon sun. I like the wind in my face when we drive with the windows down in the Impala. I like the first bite of a perfectly cooked burger when I’m hungry, and falling into bed exhausted. I like touching you, just to feel you there. I still don’t enjoy urinating. Or pubic hair,” he emphasizes, screwing up his face in disgust. “But the things I don’t enjoy are a small price to pay for loving you. Sex… not that what we just did wasn’t good, but in a way, it’s no different to an angel than eating or sleeping. So while I can partake in those things with my grace intact, they’re empty, tasteless, without form and void, so to speak. I can’t… I don’t ever want you to be tasteless, Dean. I love you, and I want to live. I hope that this isn’t too disappointing to you, I know that I’m much more usef--”

Dean silences Castiel’s ridiculous protests with his mouth, batting the trench coat out of his arms and onto the floor so that he’s free to wind them around his body. He cups the bolt of his jaw and kisses him deep and steady, firmly enough to hopefully erase any lingering doubt in Cas’ mind that this is most definitely what he wants too. “Oh thank God,” Castiel breathes when they finally pull back. “I don’t know what I would have done if you’d been upset.”

Taking a deep breath and internally cheering himself on, Dean fully commits to being the changed guy he keeps telling everyone he is. “I’ve never been happier in my life,” he says. “I wanna come with you, Cas. I want to move to Florida. I’m all fucking in, you hear me? I’m all in.”

The answering smile on Castiel’s face is brighter than the grace in his hand could ever be.

***

Moving day comes more quickly than Dean anticipated, but he’s no less ready. Sam was surprisingly fine with it, especially when Dean described the budding Hunter’s network down there. He’d gone on and on about “training the next generation” and the benefits of having multiple bases of operation, and had been so damn excited that Dean didn’t have the heart to cut him off, at least not until he received a text on his phone that turned out to be a picture of Cas that -- well, let’s just say he’s glad he hadn’t opened it in public. Point being, Sam seems perfectly content to mentor other hunters and even organize an entire nationwide network of them just as long as he can start building his own normal life and work his normal job on the side. In the days since then, Sam also hasn't stopped "casually" mentioning how he thinks he might get a dog after Dean and Cas leave, just to keep him company in the bunker. He appears to be genuinely content, promising to drive down and visit them in Florida as soon as they're settled in, and that makes it a lot easier for Dean to leave him behind.

Still, as he carries the last box of things up to the Impala, he lets himself admit that it’s not easy to say goodbye to the bunker. Not that he can’t come back, and surely they will; for visits or to bring new hunters for training, or any time they’re in the area for a case, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is the end of an era. The bunker is the first place Dean’s ever really called home, besides the Impala, of course. It’s bittersweet, but it’s right. It’s time to grow up, time to move on and to let Sam do the same.

Nothing changes if you don’t change.

Still true, and if Dean’s learned anything, it’s that change isn’t nearly as scary as he once thought. And anyway, home isn’t a place. It’s not four walls and running water. It’s the feeling he gets when Castiel takes his hand across the bench seat of the Impala. It’s how he always seems to know when Dean needs something before he even realizes it himself. It’s how Cas sticks by his side, even when he’s being an unrepentant asshole, and it’s not like that’s an uncommon thing.

And then there Cas is, gorgeous as ever, leaning over the hood of his car and tapping out a message on his phone. He looks up when he sees Dean come through the front door of the bunker and smiles brilliantly. Dean will never, not ever get used to seeing that smile directed his way, nor will he ever take it --take Cas-- for granted again.

“Hello, Dean.” He straightens up and pockets his phone. “Pree is expecting us in a few days time. He also mentioned that the bookings for our cruise this fall open on Saturday if you’re still interested.”

"Fuck yea," Dean replies immediately.

“Ooooh,” Sam exclaims, rounding the car from where he’s been rummaging inside the trunk, probably trying to ensure Dean hasn’t stolen any of his geeky shit. “Count me in, would you? It sounded like so much fun when you guys talked about it.”

Dean snorts. “You’re not gay,” he points out and gets a major bitchface directed his way for his efforts. “What?! I’m just trying to save you from having to see random dicks hanging out if it’s not your thing.”

“You don’t have to be gay or even bi for that matter to go on a gay-friendly cruise. Besides, you don’t know that I’m not curious,” Sam replies defensively and Dean holds up a hand.

“Alright, you can stop right there, Samantha. I don’t need to know the details of your wildest fantasies. Me and Cas gotta hit the road, anyway.” He stuffs the box in his hands into the back seat, tetris-ing it into the last available space with some difficulty. He contemplates the possibility that he may have overpacked, but without Sam around he’s gotta at least have some research staples, and Cas’ kitchen is sorely lacking in quality cooking gear. Sam is gonna be pissed when he realizes Dean took all the pans, though. Good thing he’ll be three or four states away when that happens.

He slams the car door, turning to Sam and dragging him into a hug. “Take care of yourself,” he says sincerely, and his voice definitely doesn’t waver, because manly . “Bitch.”

“Jerk,” Sam replies, and if he sniffs a little, Dean’s nice enough to pretend he doesn’t hear. They clap each other on the back, and then the whole scene repeats with Cas and Sam. Dean slides behind the wheel and turns Baby around, honking the horn at Sam who’s standing at the railing to wave goodbye. He watches his little brother in the rear view mirror until he disappears from view. His hands flex on the steering wheel and he takes a long, steadying breath. He glances over at Cas only to find him already looking back, all-knowing as usual. Dean’s hand comes off the steering wheel to touch the hollow of his throat where the vial of Castiel’s grace rests, entrusted to him forever for safe keeping. The feel of it under his fingers grounds him.

Castiel’s not going anywhere. Sam will be fine. This is the right decision, he reminds himself, and as they turn off the frontage road and onto the main highway, Dean actually believes it.

He drops the vial and reaches for Castiel’s hand, only to find that it’s already making its way across the seat and into his.

“I love you,” he says, unprompted and for no reason other than he can for the very first time.

“Ditto,” Castiel replies, and Dean laughs.

They’re going to be fine. No, they’re going to be happy.

***

EPILOGUE

Of course, they don’t live happily ever after because they're heroes and a hero’s work is never done. There will always be battles to fight and evil to face down but in the meantime, they have each other, and they have time. And when the bad times come --and they always come-- they’ll gear up and face whatever the threat is together. Because in the end, this story was always about one thing… love.

[METATRON’s office, METATRON is typing on a COMPUTER]

Didn’t turn out quite as I’d planned, but that is why we re-write. That was God’s problem, you know… he published the first draft. You’ve got to keep at it until you get all your ducks in a row. Obviously, the existence of a universe where Dean Winchester actually tells Castiel he loves him, well, that was a surprise. But, hey, what writer doesn’t love a good twist? My job is to set up interesting characters and see where they lead me. The by-product of having well-drawn characters is… They may surprise you. But I know something they don’t know… the ending. How I get there doesn’t matter, so long as everybody plays their part.

[DEAN and CASTIEL embrace on the beach at sunset. The IMPALA sits in the foreground. SAM reclines on his bed in the bunker, patting the head of a DOG. GADREEL nervously stands in front of the THRONE OF HEAVEN, surrounded by kneeling ANGELS. METATRON continues typing. DEAN kisses a smiling CASTIEL. METATRON looks up at the camera and smiles. His fingers hit CTRL-ALT-DELETE.]

 

END CREDITS