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take the bones, begin anew

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Cas comes back on a Thursday. 

Later, everybody will see the irony in that. It’s lost in the moment. One second it’s quiet, just Sam and Dean in the bunker library. Sam is texting Eileen, who’s on a hunt out in Boise. Dean is tipsy, bordering on drunk, reading up on the Empty and searching for cases.  It’s been two weeks since they nerfed God, and Dean’s near itching to get out of the bunker if only so he doesn’t have to keep looking at the walls. They don’t look right anymore, or something like that. He keeps expecting them to open up to nothingness.

(There’s also the fact that he can’t go down to the basement. He has a jacket stuffed into his closet that he’s neither looked at, cleaned, or burned. Things he’s putting off for now, and hopefully will until the end of time.)

Then, there’s a wet gurgle, and out of nowhere there’s Jack with Cas hanging over his shoulders. They’re both smudged in black, with more than a few cuts and bruises. Jack manages to give a little wave before they both pass out on the ground.

Dean doesn’t remember much after that.

He must’ve done something, because the next thing he knows he’s in an uncomfortable 50’s office chair facing a sleeping Cas. He’s still got scratches and bruises all over, but some of them are stitched up, and he’s gunk-free. He’s wearing one of Dean’s AC/DC t-shirts. Dean’s got blood under his fingernails, and his knees ache.

Dean asks Sam about it later, once things have settled. Cas and Jack wake up eventually, and the next few days are mostly a lot of playing nursemaid and gleaning what little they can about what happened. As far as anyone sees it, Cas’s grace is still in the Empty, so he’s effectively human now. Jack is still his own little ball of weird, but he’s not God anymore. Apparently Amara’s taking care of things—all for the better, Dean realizes in retrospect. The weight of the universe shouldn’t be on the back of a three year-old.

They sit in the kitchen. It’s somewhere in the dead of the night—everyone’s sleep schedules have been fucked to hell. Sam sits at the table while Dean prepares some midnight breakfast for Cas, who has recently relearned the emotion of “hangry”.

“It’s better than what he was a few days ago,” Sam says. “With the…” He gestures broadly to his own face. “Well, you remember.”

Dean plays along, and goes back to knocking Cas’s food back and forth on the pan. “Yeah,” he says, clearing his throat.

Sam doesn't buy it, because of course he doesn't. Dude may not be psychic anymore, but he’s apparently got the emotional perception of a shrimp. “ remember that, don’t you?”

Dean shrugs. “I mean...pieces, yeah. I think I blacked out for a bit. Big day, you know.”

Sam nods. “Makes sense. You were kind of out of it.”

Dean frowns. “Out of it like how?”

“Like...when they passed out, you kind of started yelling Cas’s name,” Sam says. He says each word like it’s a ticking time bomb, “Like, a lot. I was busy, y’know, with helping Jack, but you stayed on the ground with Cas for a while.”

Dean gets a vague sense of his knees on the floor, and a heavy feeling in his chest that he wills away. “Huh.”

“And I mean a—a while,” Sam goes on. “Like maybe an hour. I think at one point you were holding him, kinda like a pieta moment or something.”

Dean snorts. “Haha, very funny.”

“I’m not joking, Dean,” Sam says, and his face tells Dean he’s dead serious. “You were pretty upset. You don’t remember any of this?” Dean weighs the pros and cons of lying, realizes it's all futile anyway, and shakes his head. Sam let's put a breath. “You, um. Once we got Cas into his own room, you wouldn’t stop talking about cleaning him. And then, when I was walking by I think you were like, using a washcloth on him and crying.”

And okay, maybe Dean woke up with his eyes all sore, but come on . He doesn't cry publically if he can help it. He's not willing to embarrass himself like that. But then he remembers what he woke up to—the stitched up wounds, the t-shirt, and feels something well up in his throat.

He lets out a dry laugh and points his spatula at his brother. “Okay, now I know you’re joking. You’ve got a fucked up sense of humor, Sam.”

Sam’s frown deepens. “Dean, I’m not. It was kinda scary, to be honest. I’d never seen you act like that.”

There’s not much Dean can say to that. He returns to the food, suddenly sheepish, and finds it’s done. He dumps it on the plate. “Yeah, well. It’s been a messed up couple of months, I dunno.”

“Yeah, but that’s kind of normal for us. Did...did something happen, with you two? You never told me what happened when Cas summoned the Empty.”

Dear god, not this conversation. Anything but this conversation.

“Yes, I did,” Dean says, and punctuates it by dropping the pan in the sink. “He summoned it. End of story.”

Sam, the little shit, presses on. “Yeah, but that can’t be—”

“Why do you want to talk about this, Sam?”

Sam blinks. “Because we can? Chuck’s not in charge anymore, Dean, which means we can finally...I just think that we’ve finally got the chance to talk about things we weren’t allowed to talk about before, y’know? Because Chuck wanted us to—to suffer in silence. So we should talk about the things we don’t want to talk about.”

Kid’s got a point there. A real good point, if Dean’s honest, but he just...he can’t do this right now.

Dean nods and scratches the back of his neck. “Okay. Uh, so.” He clears his throat. “In Hell, they had this really fun trick. It was where they would rip my jaw off its hinges, and then use it to scoop and uh, scrape through my own insides.”

Sam goes wide-eyed. “What the fuck?”

“You wanted to talk about this kind of stuff, Sammy. You get what you asked for.” He picks up the breakfast tray on the counter. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, Cas needs his breakfast.” And with that, he leaves.

Dean passes by his own room on the way, and pauses in front of the door for a moment. He hasn’t really been using it, opting to take care of Cas or sleep in the library. Maybe it’s because if he goes in there, he’s going to see that he needs to do his laundry, and then he’s going to have to look inside the closet and see the jacket. Or maybe it’s because he’ll wake up alone in the dark if he sleeps there, heart racing, Cas’s voice playing like a scratched record of I love you. Goodbye, Dean. I love you. Goodbye, Dean. I love you. Goodbye, Dean.

He feels like he doesn’t fit in his own room anymore, and isn’t that the saddest thing you’ve ever heard? And it’s not just his room. It’s the basement. It’s the library. It’s even the goddamn kitchen, sometimes. Before Cas came back, he was looking at every opportunity to leave, every hunt to pursue. Part of him wanted to stay behind, crack open a few books and do his best to get Cas out. And he would try: he’d sit down and get to work, and it would be fine for all of five minutes before he’d get antsy. He’d get damn near itchy , and all of his research would go into finding the next case. By the time he hit the road he’d feel much better, and by the time he hit Lebanon city limits he felt guiltier than ever.

Even with Cas back, the itch is still there. He ignores it and keeps walking, until he makes it to Cas’s door. He opens it, balancing the tray on one arm, and closes the door behind him.

Cas is sitting upright this time around, bruises gone from black to sickly yellow, but he must’ve dozed off again. The laptop at the foot of the bed is asking him if he’s still watching Blue Planet . Dean takes a moment to marvel at the fact that the guy is alive, living and breathing in Dean’s clothes. When Dean sets the tray down on the nightstand, Cas jolts slightly and blinks awake.

"Hey there, sleeping beauty,” Dean says, smiling. Oh god, is he flirting? Is that what’s happening? Why is that happening? Cas doesn’t seem to notice, opting to blink owlishly at his breakfast. Dean sits down in the office chair, still positioned next to the bed, and takes Cas on a tour of the food. “This one is uh, orange juice. Bacon, obviously, and some toast. And some fruit because Sam insisted, but you can just ignore that."

Cas looks at the tray, turns it so the fruit faces him first, and looks up. "Thank you, Dean. I appreciate your kindness."

Dean fights the blush creeping up his neck. The bitch of it is, despite not discussing the…’event’, Cas’s earnestness hasn’t really stopped. Yesterday he called Dean a ‘shining example of human goodness’ and Dean felt twitchy for hours afterward. "It's not kindness, Cas, it's breakfast. You're bedridden, what were we gonna have you do, eat your own sheets?"

"Still. I do appreciate it." Cas picks up a clementine from Sam’s bowl of fruit and starts to pick at the skin absently. "You have an unending talent for kindness, Dean."

He says with this look on his face, all open eyes and a soft smile, and it reminds Dean of another, worse time. Neither of them have brought it up—Dean because, well, he’s Dean. He’s not so sure why Cas hasn’t, though.

"Yeah, well, that's..." He clears his throat. Sam’s words echo in his head. "Actually, I think that's something we need to talk about. Or, not this, but y'know. What happened. What you said."

Cas’s expression immediately changes, and he looks down at his own lap. "Do we?"

"Yeah, I think we do,” Dean says. He feels his heart in his throat. “You, I mean you told me that, that you—"

"I love you,” Cas completes. It’s a shock to hear it again, and he says it so easily . “Yes, I remember. I was there."

He clears his throat again. "Yeah, that. Let's talk about that."

Cas’s eyebrows raise. " You want to talk?"

"New world, new leaf, new me.” He spreads his hands in a grand flourish, hoping to relieve the tension. Instead, Cas goes back to looking at his own lap, fingernails worrying and peeling the clementine in bits and pieces.

"I...I don't know if there's much else to say,” he says. “I've said everything." 

Well, what about me? I haven’t been able to say shit. The response is on Dean’s tongue, but everything after that is blank. What would he say? He hasn’t thought it out this far. He’s got this tight feeling in his chest, and he’s not sure what it is. Or, maybe he does, but the word for it circles his brain and he isn’t able to get his hands on it. Every time he tries to form a reaction, his mind goes blank.

He must be too quiet for too long, because the next thing he hears is a sigh from Cas. "Dean, you don't have to do this."

Dean frowns. "I don't have to do what?"

"Let me down easy. I already know. You care for me greatly, but as a—friend. A...a brother." And god, does he look sad. Not devastated, or heartbroken, but resigned

It’s an opening. It’s an easy way out, so Dean doesn’t have to keep thinking about these things that keep making him feel like shit warmed over. "Yeah,” he says, and continues to feel like crap. “Yeah, that's...yeah. But that—that can't be enough for you, can it?"

Cas looks at him now like he’s stupid. "Dean, being in your life has, and always will be, a gift to me. That's never going to change." 

Dean snorts. "Some gift." Cas gives a look of protest, but doesn’t say anything. It's an old fight, though, they don't have to talk about it. "Cas, I..." Something still feels wrong. He’s not...he’s not , but he wishes he was, if only to make the guy feel better. But then Cas would be stuck with him, with this mess who doesn’t even know what’s going on in his own head. He blows out a sigh and shakes his head. "I don't know, never mind." 

His throat feels heavy. The silence in the room is near oppressive, and Dean’s willing to do anything to break it. He eyes the breakfast tray, leans forward, and snatches a piece of bacon off the plate.

"Dean, that's my food,” Cas argues.

"I know,” Dean says, and grins. “Damn good, too. You should eat it before I do."

Cas watches him eat before going back to his clementine, popping a slice in his mouth. The room smells citric and alive. 

“Let’s watch a movie,” Dean suggests. Anything to distract from this feeling, this situation, this fucking life he’s decided to lead. “Have I shown you The Outsiders yet?” Cas shakes his head. “Oh, man. You’re in for a treat. Matt Dillon is…” He clears his throat. “Anyway.”

He queues the movie up on the laptop and props his feet on Cas’s bed. Just like old times , he thinks to himself, and can’t quite figure out why that makes him feel so sad.

Sam figures his Sundays would be better spent digitizing bunker artifacts, but Cas really only has two pairs of underwear. And it’s not like he doesn’t wash them regularly, but it’s the first time they’ve been out of the bunker in a while, so once an errand run comes up they high tail it to the first Goodwill they see.

Sam, for the most part, is ambivalent towards Goodwill. He has a lot of fond memories of him and Dean playing hide and seek in between the sweater racks as kids, and it was always a good place to go for presents. He owes like, the majority of his material possessions to this place. The cashiers all seem to hit on him when he comes in, though, which is weird.

Dean, though—Dean loves Goodwill. The guy perpetually lives in the basement of 1970s, and even though that thing is coming back into style now for some reason, this is the only place where he can get his fixings. He beelines for the clothing section, telling Cas that he’s going to make him look like “the most badass sonofabitch alive” before making a quick pass at the bins and picking up a leather jacket that’s two sizes too small. Jack instantly breaks for the toys and appliances section, as he always does.

Sam splits off with Cas after that. The poor guy looks like he’s caught in a death maze of fleece vests and wicker baskets. Sam grabs a 5 pack of boxers off one of the add-on hooks and leads him over to the men’s section. “Look,” he says. “Dean lives thirty years in the past, but that doesn’t mean you have to. Just go with whatever feels natural.”

“Thank you, Sam, but I have picked out my own clothes before,” Cas tells him, glaring. He looks back to the racks and racks of clothing. “I’ve just never had this many options.”

“Well, it’s all up to you,” he tells him. He picks out a random article of clothing and takes it off the rack. It’s a red shirt with a random school sports team on it. “Try this.”

Cas takes the shirt. “I’m not even a fan of the Marion High Wolves.” After a moment of contemplation, he nods and lets the shirt hang on his arm before scanning the racks with a little more intent. “Thank you, Sam.”

Sam leaves Cas to it from there, wanders a little bit. He thinks there might be something for Eileen that he could get her—she has a thing for ironic mugs, and even though no one in the family really celebrates Christmas, he thinks he might give her one for New Year’s. He finds one that reads “Unlock, Unload, and Unwind” with a little illustrated gun on the side. He texts her a pic of it and waits with bated breath for her response. He’s glad Dean’s too preoccupied to make fun of him for it.

He catches glimpses, between filing through jackets and contemplating getting a vase, of Cas and Dean shopping, eventually meeting in the middle of the men’s section. They continuously ask each other for their opinion on this and that, with Dean making faces and going on long winded rants at Cas’s choices and Cas simply regarding Dean’s choices with a neutral face before silently putting them back on the rack. At one point, it looks like they’re agreeing on something, and their faces light up. 

Sam’s not one to presume—and Dean’s touchy on the subject, like a weird amount, but he knows something is going on. Cas won’t stop making what can only be described as heart-eyes whenever Dean’s not looking at him, and Dean’s been acting weird ever since Cas died in the first place. He’s either overly snippy or overly happy, and there’s no in between. 

Actually, now that Sam thinks about it, Dean’s mood always seems to elevate like this whenever Cas comes back from the dead. He’s surprised he hasn’t poked and prodded Dean about it before. Maybe it was something Chuck did, but it certainly means Sam’s gotta make up for a lot of lost time.

When Sam sees them again, Dean has moved them from clothes to the shelves of discarded electronics in the back, adding some bits and pieces to the already overflowing shopping cart. Castiel is crowded next to Dean, studying the object in his hand. It’s a knockoff Walkman, one of the ones that’s got an AM/PM radio built into it. Sam honestly thought they stopped making those in 2006. Dean’s frowning. Neither of them have noticed Sam lurking ten feet away from them.

“Whaddaya mean you never listened to the tape?” he asks.

“Dean,” Cas says, “I just learned how to use the email. What do you expect?”

“So, what, you just kept it without listening to it? Why?”

“Because it was a gift,” Cas says slowly. “You keep those.” Dean opens his mouth, closes it. “And I love you.”

Dean goes red, and okay, something definitely happened that Sam doesn’t know about. He’s had, like, inklings about this kind of thing. Or, more than inklings. Him and Cas would do this thing, especially when Dean was missing, where they would get drunk together. They’d usually end up scouring spellbooks for some harmless magic—fireworks, or the occasional blood ritual to ensure no one tracked dirt inside, etc—and talking. Cas was a silent drunk, but when he talked, all he’d talk about was Dean. His worries, his admirations. 

It got to the point of being overbearing. And, honestly, a bit irritating. Sam loves Dean and all, but not like that. And certainly not enough to hear Cas wax poetic about him for two hours.

Still, it’s weird to see said inklings proven correct. And even weirder to realize Dean’s not saying it back, and that’s a whole other mess. Sam, all at once, is too tired to do anything about it. The world stopped ending a month and a half ago. He needs a break.

Dean clears his throat and changes the subject. “Well, I still think you should get it. All the kids today are all about records, which I get,” Dean rambles on. “But tapes…nothing beats tapes. You can’t play records in your car. Plus, they’re more portable. I mean have you seen a CD player? They’re friggin’ huge. But these.” He holds it up, smiles. “Just the right size.”

“There’s always iPods,” Sam points out. Dean jumps a bit, Cas stays stock still. “Smart phones, too.”

Dean frowns, the obvious bubble he had going on now popped. “Yeah, well. Something to hold in your hands is better, and also fuck off, Steve Jobs.” He turns to Cas. “As I was saying, you should listen to that, uh. The tape I gave you, so.” He places the Walkman in Cas’s hands, smiles. Their hands linger a little longer than they should. “Go wild, dude. They got other tapes here, too.”

They end up buying a shit ton of stuff.  Cas manages to find a whole new wardrobe, consisting of a lot of sensible, hunter-esque kind of clothing, but also veering into thick cardigans and a fuckton of t-shirts shouting support for random high schools, work events, and tourist spots. There’s also an assortment of toys, a jean jacket, and a lamp for Jack, and the mug that got Sam a heart emoji from Eileen, and a few various bits and pieces that seemed interesting in the moment.

They also purchase the knockoff Walkman, and three tapes.

Dean shuffles through them as they exit the parking lot, the bags in Sam’s hands because “Jack’s a kid, Cas is an invalid—”“I’m not an invalid”“—and I’m driving”. Jack takes some of Sam’s bags, and it’s hard to imagine that for a month this kid was essentially God when he manages to almost trip over the parking curb on the way out.

“A Mormon Tabernacle Christmas,” Dean reads aloud. “The Animal House Soundtrack, and Billboard Top Hits of 1983.” He nods. “Interesting choices, Cas.”

“They have songs I recognize,” Cas reasons. “Also, you mentioned that you enjoy the movie. I figured that I could at least know the music since I haven’t seen it yet.”

Dean’s face goes a little pink at that, and clears his throat. “Fair. Hey, we’ll watch it when we get back to the bunker, yeah?”

Cas smiles, looks Dean in the eyes. “I’d like that, yes.”

Sam, who can’t stand this any longer and is also carrying twenty pounds worth of clothing in his hands, shouts, “Hey guys, not that I’m not enjoying this little moment, but we’ve got groceries, so.” He gestures to the car by swinging the bags lazily in its direction. “Let’s get going.” Dean grumbles, but his heart isn’t in it, and he and Cas awkwardly shuffle into the car.

Sam and Jack unload the bags into the trunk, and Jack looks pensively at the two heads in front of them.

“They’ve been acting odd,” he says.

Sam huffs a laugh. “Yeah, that’s one word for it.”

“Cas told me...” Jack says. He swallows, frowns, then looks at Sam. “He told me, when I was retrieving him, that he wasn’t sure it was best if he came back. He sounded…”

“He sounded what?” Sam asks.

“He sounded sad,” Jack says. He shakes his head and puts back on a smile. “I’m sure it was nothing. We should get going.”

Sam closes the trunk, and has a sinking feeling that his brother is an idiot. After everyone’s situated in the Impala, Dean puts the Animal House soundtrack into the cassette slot, and “Louie, Louie” plays as they peel out of the parking lot.

Castiel thinks he has a good grasp on linear time. He’s been experiencing it regularly for the past 12 years or so. He remembers birthdays, and significant dates. He is, however, still baffled as to why New Year’s is in the middle of winter.

“Many pagan societies considered the new year to occur in the spring,” he says as he hangs streamers up around the bunker library, feet balancing on the rolling ladder, “as there was new life after the dead of winter. It makes the most sense. I myself have been very fond of Ugadi. It certainly has better decorations.” He regards the shiny set of streamers in his hand, and imagines them as mango leaves.

“It’s an excuse for people to get drunk and exercise,” Kaia explains. They’ve been put on decorating duty as Dean, Claire, and Jack get the food and Patience and Alex are preparing what they call ‘The Spritzer of the Century’. Last Castiel saw, they were pouring an entire bottle of Amaretto into a surprisingly orange-looking bowl. Donna is on her way back from ‘borrowing’ confiscated fireworks from the police station, and Jody is taking a much needed nap. Sam and Eileen are...elsewhere. Castiel didn’t bother to check in after Sam had handed Eileen a small mug, and Eileen had practically dragged him down the hall.

Castiel frowns. “Well that’s an extremely ill-informed decision.”

Kaia rolls her eyes. “Not at the same time. It’s like...resolutions and whatever. Goals for the year. People usually make it a month and then give up.”

Castiel hums. “And they do this every new year?”

Kaia nods. “Every new year.” Castiel smiles, mostly to himself, and pins another streamer to the shelf. “You got any resolutions?”

Rubbing the shiny plastic between his fingers, Castiel contemplates. “I’m not sure,” he says. “In all fairness, I’m still getting used to being alive in this dimension.”

Kaia snorts. “Preaching to the choir.” She finishes hanging up the ‘2021’ sign and steps off the library ladder. She goes to where Castiel is still balancing himself and leans against the shelves, hands stuffed in her hoodie’s pockets. “I guess I’d think about the kinda stuff you wanted to do when you were in that other place, then. Or stuff you haven’t been able to do until now. Like, I kinda want to get into baking? There was so much weird shit I had to eat in the Bad Place. And I wanna save up for an apartment with Claire. No offense to Jody and Donna or anything, but there’s something about having a place to call your own, y’know? Me and Claire, we’ve never really had that.”

Castiel hums. Claire and Kaia had arrived earlier than the rest, and though Claire was still prone to sarcastic quips and rolling her eyes, there was a definite...shift in her, since Kaia returned. She was happier, looser around the limbs. She was more prone to joking.

Castiel thinks about what he wants. The first thought is easy, but now unattainable. He feels very gracious for the fact that Dean still wants his company, but his unreciprocated love still hangs heavy on him. This is a familiar conundrum, however, so he focuses instead on what’s past that.

“I was always jealous of Joshua,” he says. Kaia frowns, confused. “The gardener of Heaven. I’ve spent so much of my life as a...a hammer. Something made to destroy. I think I would like to grow something this time around.” He pauses, considering. “I’ve also contemplated opening an account with Facebook.”

“Okay, get a cactus or an herb box or whatever,” Kaia tells him. “But don’t...don’t do the Facebook thing. They have, like, algorithms. It’s freaky as fuck.”

Castiel nods, only vaguely understanding what she’s saying. “Noted,” he says. There’s the sound of the door opening, and they both turn to see Dean, Claire, and Jack coming down the spiral staircase, paper bags in their arms.

Dean’s grinning as he walks, swaying with a bag in each arm. There’s still a bit of snow on the shoulders of his coat. This is the Dean Castiel most likes to see: joyous and carefree. He’s been seeing more and more of this Dean lately; a logical transition to make, when your life isn’t being controlled by the whims of a sad hack author. “Three words,” he says. “Cheddar-stuffed cheeseburgers.”

“Another three words,” Claire responds. “Instant heart-attack.”

“We also have three different kinds of chips, and four kinds of dips,” Jack says. “Oh! And Rocky Road ice cream— don’t tell Sam.”

Dean peers inside the library and whistles. “Looks like a real party,” he says.

And soon enough it does become a real party. Castiel is beginning to realize how, even though he’s been on this planet for 12 years and has observed it for eons, there are still things he’s learning about. Like how cold rooms seem to get warmer, when they’re filled with people you care about. Dean shows them all how to make the burgers, despite the fact that no one in the room will remember it later, and once they’ve all had dinner the drinking starts. They all migrate from the kitchen to the living room, Patience and Alex’s mystery punch managing to elicit slurred speech out of anyone who partakes in it.

From there it is the natural ebb and flow of a party, one Castiel has only observed once or twice. Usually when they were convinced the Apocalypse was nigh. It’s nice, he muses, to see them celebrating the beginning of something rather than the end. It’s...lighter. People are dragged from room to room, needing to grab one item or another. Jody regales the group in a tale involving Donna, Alex, and a dishwasher that Castiel doesn’t quite understand, but laughs along to anyway. Jack, prohibited from drinking the punch, has opted instead to play checkers with Patience, who always wins.

It’s a lovely night, but Kaia’s question about resolutions itches something funny in Castiel’s head. It becomes apparent more so as the night progresses. Things have been good. They’ve been like how they’ve always been. Dean will pat his shoulder as he leaves, and convince him to watch movies. And Castiel, in turn, feels like he’s simultaneously doing both too much and not enough. He will compliment Dean, and something will flash in the man’s eyes that Cas can’t reasonably name. He will leave Dean alone, taking walks outside with Jack or simply perusing through the extensive bunker library, and in under an hour Dean will be asking where he was.

Castiel doesn’t know what to do with this. Loving Dean has always been easy, loving openly even more so. But there are rules to this, and he’s growing to hate them more and more as the days pass by. He wishes, distantly, that things could go back to what they once were. That was at least a familiar ache.

This is all to say that, as the minutes towards midnight tick closer and closer, the ambient warmth of the room starts to feel all too hot, and Castiel eventually finds himself needing some air.

There’s no access to the roof, since the factory is all but a facsimile for the bunker, but there is an emergency exit. One has to journey through a series of identical, chilled hallways to reach it. It is an 8x8 square of concrete with metal railing, and a set of stairs that go into an open field. Donna’s fireworks sit in a pile in the center, a tall innocuous silhouette among the snowdrifts and shallow shrubbery. The cold air is bracing—he forgot to grab his coat—but in a way he appreciates its open bite. 

For a few minutes he leans against the railing, marveling at the large expanse in front of him. He can see house lights in the distance, little flecks of orange in an otherwise navy-coded atmosphere. He doesn’t wish to go back inside. In fact, something in him wants to go down those stairs, walk across the field, and keep walking. It’s a fleeting thought, but a frightening one nonetheless.

He hears the door open behind him, and is both relieved and disappointed to see Kaia. “Oh,” she says. “Sorry, I wasn’t expecting anybody to be out here.”

“It’s alright,” he says.

Kaia nods, sleeves pulled up over her hands, and leans against the railing with him. “It’s just...sometimes parties are too much for me, y’know? I’m not used to having this many people in one place.”

Castiel nods. He understands her sentiment.

They sit in silence for a few minutes—neither has anything to say, and neither have really grasped the significance of small talk. Eventually, though, he remembers their earlier conversation. The silence suddenly feels deafening, and he has the compulsive need to speak.

"Can I tell you a secret?" he asks. 

Kaia starts. "What kind of secret?” she asks. She frowns. “You're not dying, are you?"

He chuckles. "No, no. But is about when I was dying, before."

"Oh,” Kaia says, her face sober. “You sure you wanna tell me about that? No offense, but we barely know each other. I mean, I am dating your daughter, I guess. Even though she hates it when I call you her dad."

That makes him smile, a warm affection for Claire blooming in him. "It''s nothing, really,” he says. “Just something I need to get off my chest."

Kaia nods. "Okay. Go ahead."

Castiel takes a breath in, then one out. "When I was dying, before,” he says, “I told Dean that I loved him." 

Kaia’s eyes go wide, and she goes to look back over the field. "Shit,” she says. "And did he...?" Castiel thinks back to Dean a few weeks ago, face pained and words catching. He looks at Kaia and shakes his head. Her eyes grow wider. " Shit.

"Yeah,” Castiel agrees. “I don't...I'm not surprised, but I do find myself overwhelmed. It was something I kept secret for so long, and now I feel like I am overexposed. That and my recent reintroduction to humanity have caused me a great deal of stress."

"Yeah, I can imagine,” Kaia says sincerely. “That’s heavy, Cas, I’m so sorry.” She’s a very good person to talk to, never overbearing with advice or offering half-baked condolences. She fidgets for a bit, hands going into her pockets. “Hey, um. Feel free to say no, but I might have something that can help. It’s kind of what I came out here to do in the first place."

"What is it?" Castiel asks, frowning.

He's expecting possibly some sort of dreamwalking concoction, or possibly an enchanted amulet. Instead, Kaia pulls out a small glass pipe, a lighter, and a baggie. She begins to stuff the weed into the bowl in earnest, before looking back up at him. "Wait, do you know what this is?"

He fights an eye roll. "I used to work at a gas station. I know what marijuana is." He remembers one of the teenage employees, a lanky kid named Mark, offering a joint to him. He doesn’t know if it was the stress he was under or some odd angelic after-effects, but he never found himself intoxicated, even after a couple puffs. He’s hoping for a different result now.

"Oh, good,” Kaia exhales. She lights the bowl and takes a hit. “It just, it calms me down, y'know? Sometimes the world's too big and I just need it to shrink down a little bit."

"I understand.” He takes a pipe and relights it, letting the smoke fill his lungs. He lets it sit there for a moment or two before watching it escape up into the night sky. He passes the pipe back to Kaia, and they go on like this for a few minutes until there’s nothing but ash.

It doesn’t hit him all at once, but there’s a noticeable shift in how the world feels. Kaia’s right, it does feel smaller. Much like a blanket. There’s only them, the field, and the fireworks. "My limbs feel much lighter than my body,” he says, and laughs a little at the statement. His body, now on autopilot, hiccups out a few more laughs than he supposes the statement warrants.

Kaia starts giggling as well. "Hell yeah, dude. Let it all out." And they stay there some more, the laughter slowly fading, and the cold becoming more and more apparent.

"This is....this is very helpful,” he tells her. “Thank you, Kaia."

"No problem, Cas.” She grins and bounces off the railing. “Now if you'll excuse me, I'm gonna go ring in the new year with my girlfriend."

Cas hums and hears the door shut behind him. He’s starting to shiver, but he’s high enough now that part of him is convinced the inside of the bunker is a different plane of reality, and he’s done enough dimension hopping for one lifetime. Besides, he prefers it here. The little orange house lights in the distance unfurl something soft in his chest. Even overcast, the snow reflects the landscape bright and blue. It reminds him of a Heaven he once visited, of a Scandinavian researcher. She was doing amazing things with fish eggs.

He doesn’t know how long he’s been out there, but eventually the door squeals open again, and he’s momentarily bathed in warm light. When he turns, he sees Dean, who has a glass in one hand and something cloth in the other.

Dean sighs. "God, fuck, there you are. I've been looking all over." He shuts the door, and all goes blue again.

Cas smiles. He loves Dean, and the feeling floats out of him like helium. "I needed some air,” he explains. 

Dean scoffs and walks up to him. "You need a jacket.” He thrusts the cloth towards Cas. It’s one of his newer articles of clothing, a beige suede coat with wool lining. “Here. Kaia told me I'd find you outside, figured you'd be the kind of dumbass to die of frostbite. She also called me a dumbass, for some reason." Cas slips the jacket on, and feels Dean’s hand slide up and down his back, warming him up, before giving a light pat and dropping to its side.

"Thank you,” Cas says. He studies Dean, the way the lack of light brings out the most important parts of him—his hair, his smile, his eyes, his crow’s feet. The warm thing in his chest unfurls further. I love you so much , he thinks. It’s a mundane realization, one that happens almost daily, but it still manages to astound him.

Dean smiles. "What's that look on your face for?"

"I'm...appreciating you,” Castiel says slowly.

Dean smiles, but his eyebrows draw together. "Man, that punch must've gotten you bad."

"I believe it's called the Spritzer of the Century,” Castiel corrects.

"Yeah, well, whatever it is, it's got me feeling tipsy,” Dean says. He takes a sip from his glass. “ Me. Those fucking honor roll kids, man, I tell ya. They know how to party."

Castiel remembers the Dean he met all those years ago. That Dean would’ve been furious to see his counterpart now, he would imagine, drinking something so light and fruity. He fights back another giggle.

"What are your resolutions for the year, Dean?" he asks, apropos of nothing.

Dean finishes another sip. "Resolutions?"

"Kaia told me about them."

"Uh. Man, I dunno. Exist? Drink less?” He regards the drink in his hand, shrugs, and continues sipping. “I haven't thought about it."

Castiel hums. "Those are good resolutions."

“And you?”

“Small things. Plants. Avoiding Facebook.” Dean looks at him, confused. Castiel shrugs. He’ll tell him more in the morning. “I like your idea about existing.”

They sit there for a few moments. Dean downs the rest of his drink. His elbow leans against Cas’s. "So,” he says, words starting to slur. “Kaia told you all about New Year's traditions, huh?" Castiel nods. "So know what happens when the ball drops, right?"

Cas frowns. "You...catch it?"

Dean snorts out a laugh. "No,” he says. “I're supposed to kiss someone when it hits midnight."

"Oh,” Cas says. “I didn't know about that."

Dean looks him up and down a moment before hanging his head. He chuckles a little. "Right, of course you didn't." He sniffs. "Well, y'know. I had to double check. Make sure you didn't try anything."

Castiel has never understood the term ‘harshing one’s buzz’ until tonight. The fizzy helium feeling he’d been enjoying seems to crash down all at once. His stomach turns. "You know I wouldn't."

The laughter in Dean’s eyes fades quickly, and Castiel is glad to see it go. He clears his throat. "Right, right. I wasn't—"

"You're implying that given the opportunity, I would express my desires,” Castiel explains. The anger seeps out of him, low and exhausted. “I've loved you for 12 years, Dean. I've had plenty of opportunities to express myself."

Dean blinks. " have?"

Castiel lets out a heavy sigh. "Yes.”

Dean nods, continues nodding, then frowns. "Like when?"

Castiel wishes he could go back to five minutes ago. "I don't wish to talk about this."

Dean nods again, but it’s short and succinct. "Sure. Sure.” There’s another few moments of awkward silence before a regretful look graces Dean’s face. He inhales sharply. “I' know I'm happy to have you back, right? Really, Cas. No matter what happens, that's always gonna stay the same. We’ll be back to normal in no time."

That is precisely the problem , something horrible in Castiel says. Despite it, the rest of Dean’s words soothe him. It's always a good reminder that he’s wanted in any capacity. "Of course."

The door squeals from behind them, and Claire and Jack come spilling out. It becomes immediately obvious that Jack has somehow managed to sneak some of the Spritzer of the Century, and that’s a conversation for another time. “Thirty seconds to the new year!” Donna whoops from behind them. Everyone from inside piles out onto the concrete patio.

“Alright, everybody!” Jody yells, a smile on her face and her eyes on her watch. “Twenty seconds! Jack, you got the fireworks?”

Jack nods with a small smile. His eyes glow gold, and out in the field something sparks.

“Ten, nine, eight!” Jody calls. Castiel joins in around six, and Dean at five. They all hit one with a shout, various cheers coming from everywhere. The first of the fireworks launch into the night sky, turning the air all sorts of bright yellows, reds, and blues. On either side of them stands a couple. Eileen pulls Sam in for a kiss to their left, and Claire to Kaia on their right.

Castiel looks out ahead at the field, at the fireworks. He can feel Dean’s eyes on him, but doesn’t look back. He won’t, in fear of hoping for something. For now, he will swallow the bile in his throat, and watch the sky erupt.