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The bar’s a little busy for Dean’s taste, mostly because it’s a Saturday. He doesn’t know if he even would’ve come if he knew that, but the days run together when you’re on the road. Sometimes he’ll catch a Tuesday by accident or a Sunday through Ohio when all of the churches down Main Street are letting out. But the days of the week don’t care too much about him, and he doesn’t care right back.

Until he’s in a packed bar on a Saturday night when he really wishes it were an empty Wednesday.

It makes Dean wonder if he should just turn in. There’s a perfectly good if not musty-ass motel room waiting for him, Sam lounging on one of the twin beds with his Gigantor legs in front of him and a newspaper in hand while he looks for their next case. Dean could always make his way back for the night after this beer is finished off, maybe even help out on the case front. Or just bitch at Sam for a little bit and then go to bed.

But he’s not hurting for anything, and that’s a win, he guesses. Not drinking to forget something in particular or to numb a fresh-stitched wound to the leg. Those are always the worst. Same with broken toes. No one tells you how much you use your lower body until it’s shredded to hell and every step you take makes you want to toss your lunch.

So he keeps sipping at his Budweiser and lets its residue cool his palm. There’s a football game on the TV over the bar, and every once in a while a sloppy group of men cheer at it, yell heckles. It makes tension crawl along Dean’s shoulders, loud voices like that. The type of men to get rowdy in a second, to look at each other the wrong way and suddenly be throwing punches without warning. And then Dean feels obligated to get into the middle of it, especially if a waitress is involved in trying to break it up, and it’s always a goddamn mess.

Still, the loud voices two tables behind him also make him invisible. No one is watching the lone guy on the second to last stool of the bar huddled up in his leather jacket shell taking pulls from a beer. He might as well be the wallpaper, and that anonymity is almost worth the chance of there being a bar fight over Louisiana State losing.

Also, there’s alcohol here.

So Dean watches. Watches the pretty bartender pour shots, watches the group gathered at the pool table and wonders if they’re worth hustling, watches the drunks watching the LSU game. Watches the door, but that’s a given.

A woman who wants to be twenty years younger than she is walks in with her lips done up in an unnatural shade of pink. She joins the drunk cheering men, kisses one of them on the cheek and leaves a neon print behind.

Dean smirks at the hand he has around his beer. Who said bars didn’t have culture?

The door opens again in the periphery of his lazy observation of the lipstick lady trying to fit her whole body in one of the drunk dudes’ laps. Now, the newcomer is a man in a beige creeper jacket that comes down to his knees. And Dean tracks his movements towards the bar, another body in the sea, a boat getting lost in the waves of rowdy Louisiana fans until he emerges out the other side in one piece. Closer than Dean had anticipated.

Dean doesn’t do anything as noticeable or stupid as tensing, but he waits. There’s a gun in his waistband that presses against his hip with a cold brand of security. He finds his wariness growing, the gun feeling heavier, when the man practically walks behind him to sit on the stool directly to Dean’s left. The last stool of the bar, crammed up against the wall. Dean knows a vantage point when he sees one. It’s why he’s tucked into the corner himself in the first place.

Taking a demonstratively relaxed sip of his beer, Dean pretends to watch the swarming movement of uniforms on the TV while he surveys the man from the corner of his eye.

Dark hair, notable scruff, sharp nose, that very specific beige trench coat. Could be anywhere from five to ten years older than Dean. If he needs to ID the man later or find him in a crowd, he doesn’t think it’ll be all that hard.

The bartender makes her way over to the newcomer, and Dean takes the opportunity to eavesdrop through the noise of the drunks.

“What can I get ya, hun?” she asks around the gum clenched between her back molars.

“Uh-” the man starts awkwardly, “the- whiskey.”

Dean stares up unseeingly at the timer on the TV screen counting down in the bottom corner and tries to school his expression because this dude’s voice could not sound any less real. Either he’s talking like a movie villain for kicks or he smokes about three packs a day. Not to mention it’s like he’s never been to a bar before, considering his order. The whiskey?

And Ms. Bartender seems to agree, albeit slightly more flirtatiously, because she twirls her hair and smacks her gum while she says, “Whiskey, huh? Well, I got a lot of that back here, if you know what kind you want.” When Mystery Man doesn’t immediately answer, the bartender is quick to step up. “Maybe I could help you out. I know all different sorts of stuff… and some of it’s even about whiskey.” The coy laughter that follows is all vocal fry.

But Mystery Man doesn’t really seem to give a shit about the come-on and Dean can’t blame him when the lady has a laugh like that, no matter how cute she is. “Any whiskey is fine. No ice. Please.”

The bartender raises an eyebrow at Mystery Man’s cold shoulder and blows her gum out into a bubble that pops when she sucks it into her mouth. “Right,” she says shortly before turning away. Dean bites back a snicker.

She returns to set a tumbler down on the countertop in front of Mystery Man about a second later because whiskey neat takes literally no time to pour, and then she’s looking at Dean.

“You still good, sugar?”

He doesn’t bother responding with words, just raises his half-full beer towards her in appreciation alongside a toothy grin and a wink, to which she responds with batting eyelashes and more of that crusty laugh. Then she’s on her way down the bar to where someone from the group of football drunks is trying to order shots for the whole table.

And she may be gone, but Mystery Man is still a suffocating presence to Dean’s left. Dean watches him carefully even though he doesn’t seem to be doing much of anything. He hasn’t even taken a sip of the whiskey yet. Maybe it really is nothing, and the dude’s just a normal guy who’s awkward as hell and doesn’t understand that if a handful of the bar stools are empty, you’re not supposed to sit this close to someone else.

Dean’s just about to give up on his futile corner-eye watching game when Mystery Man finally raises the whiskey tumbler to his lips. And promptly downs the entire thing in a single gulp.

“Dude!” Dean exclaims before his brain catches up with his mouth. There’s no use trying to be covert now, so he turns and stares at the guy. “Who drinks whiskey like that?”

Mystery Man looks back at him with obvious shock on his face. His eyes are scared wide and so blue that the light of the bar television seems to bounce off of the backs of them. And he’s just looking at Dean, not saying anything. Seconds tick by in silence that makes Dean’s hackles raise again. He finds himself scowling.

“The hell are you looking at me like that for?” It comes out closer to confused than it does to threatening, but Mystery Man’s face warps like he got slapped anyway. He blinks owlishly and then whips his head back down so that his eyes are drilling into his empty whiskey tumbler. They stay glued there resolutely. Dean knows genuine fear when he sees it, and the lines of stress on Mystery Man’s face don’t seem like they’re lying.

His chest fills with an uncomfortable sort of guilt at having been so snappy, and his hand clenches and unclenches around his beer bottle. With the way Mystery Man just downed that whiskey, the last thing he probably needs right now is some dude at the bar harassing him for making eye contact for too long.

Dean startles on his stool when Mystery Man speaks up again in that ashtray voice. “I apologize, I didn’t mean to… ‘look at you like that’.” He quotes Dean’s own words back to him haltingly, with sincerity, and it makes Dean frown. “I was taken by surprise. You remind me of someone I know.”

Mystery Man continues to stare down at the glass in his hands, like if he even glances in Dean’s direction he thinks Dean’s going to hit him. Which is a little laughable, considering the dude’s definitely got a few years on Dean and he’s not exactly scrawny. Not to mention there’s something arresting about the angle of his nose in profile. Severe, that’s what Vonnegut would describe him as, even hunched in on himself.

But his words make Dean raise an eyebrow. He knows a pickup line when he hears one. In fact, he thinks he’s used the ‘Have we met before?” schtick on a waitress last week in Alabama. And it worked too. Suddenly things are clicking into place. The awkwardly close sitting, ignoring the bartender’s flirting, the hunched position like he thinks Dean’s gonna throw a punch at him.

Both of Dean’s eyebrows raise in realization. “Oh- um- uh, I’m sorry, man, but I don’t swing that way.”

Mystery Man’s head tilts and he squints at the tumbler. “You don’t… swing?”

Did this dude just crawl out from under a rock? “I’m not into guys,” Dean clarifies himself plainly.

And for some unknown reason, that makes Mystery Man smile for the first time since he sat down. Dean might have actually gotten heated over that, except it’s not a mocking smile like he doesn’t believe Dean, like he thinks Dean’s gay and repressed and just needs a dick in his mouth. It’s soft. It’s closed-lipped and almost sort of sad.

“I wasn’t trying to be flirtatious,” Mystery Man replies. “You truly do remind me of someone.”

Now Dean feels like even more of an ass. But something still doesn’t sit exactly right, not with the way Mystery Man looks so unnervingly somber right now, the type of sad that’s just under the surface and spreads out in vines that suffocate you. Dean knows that sadness. So he runs the stats again in his head.

Downing the whiskey like it was apple juice. The quiet sullenness. The abrupt panic on his face when he looked at Dean. The staring. The fear afterward. You remind me of someone I know.

Dean likes this new conclusion even less than he liked the last one.

Because he remembers just last week, in that same no-name Alabama town as Have we met before? waitress, Sam looking at the pretty blonde daughter of the motel manager behind the front desk and freezing up, all pale and clammy and scared. Dean had taken one look at him and known something was wrong. Still, it probably took him longer than it should have to connect the dots on that one.

Especially because Dean’s been there before. Some diner a few years back, and the hostess had looked just like Mom. Dean had thought he was gonna puke, but he couldn’t seem to look away either. Like a car crash. The same smell of death in the air. The same fascination.

“Did you-” Dean starts over the steady noise of the drunks before he thinks it through all the way. This is absolutely not something you ask a stranger at a bar. But he already went and opened his mouth, can tell that Mystery Man is listening, so he clears his throat and tries to keep his voice nonchalant when he finishes, “Did you lose somebody?”

Mystery Man glances up at him sharply, catches one good eyeful, and then he’s staring down at his glass again. If Dean had blinked in that exact moment, he thinks he might have missed it. But Mystery Man doesn’t say anything.

“I’m not trying to be nosey, I swear. Just, I know- see, my brother sorta just lost someone and he gets the same way sometimes.” Dean pushes out his lips. “Or maybe I’m makin’ an ass out of myself.”

“No,” Mystery Man finally responds, “you’re not. You’re very observant in a way others aren’t.” The compliment is so genuine that it makes Dean's fingers twitch, that someone he just met at a bar could find anything good about him. “I haven’t lost anyone in the sense that you’re referring to. But I suppose you look like…” He swallows thickly. “It is possible to lose parts of a person without them dying. That maybe it can be even more painful to see them living and know that not all of them made it to that moment.”

The label of Dean’s beer bottle is starting to peel from the condensation on it. Dean thinks about Dad. About who John was after Mom died.

“Yeah,” he finds himself saying, “I think I know what you mean.” More silence, but it’s the settling kind instead of the tense kind. “So this guy- I mean, I hope it’s a guy- I, uh, look like him?”

Mystery Man huffs a half-formed laugh. “It is a man, though there’s nothing wrong with resembling a woman. They’re far superior in many ways.” You know what, the dude kinda has a point. “And yes, you look like… him.” The parts of him that didn’t make it goes unspoken.

Dean passes the beer bottle back and forth between his hands.

He jumps, feels Mystery Man jump too, when LSU scores a touchdown on the TV and the entire bar breaks out into cheers. The drunks are standing and jumping, shouting, and Dean’s teeth are on edge more from instinct than from thought. His heart hammers in his chest from the scare. Adrenaline can be such a bitch when it’s not actively helping him survive a near-death experience.

Until it shudders out of him in streams that he can’t explain, and he feels his shoulders relax without his permission. Like his body is responding to some stimulus he can’t see.

When he throws a glance at Mystery Man, Dean’s shocked to see that the guy is already looking at him, and this time his face is a little grimmer. Somehow, though, his eyes are powdery gentle in contrast.

Dean doesn’t remember the last time someone looked at him like that. Certainly not Dad, certainly not Sammy. His tongue feels too thick in his mouth.

But Mystery Man is turning away again, down to the safety of his tumbler.

And Dean thinks back to that hostess all those years ago, and how he wished she would’ve known what was going through his head enough to say, “It’s alright, you can look at me,” so that he wouldn’t feel so bad about staring. Until he couldn’t even risk glancing her way because it felt like he’d never be able to take his eyes off of her.

“I get how it is, when you see someone like that. It kinda feels like you can’t even look at ‘em cause you know you won’t be able to stop, and you don’t wanna be a freak about it or anything.”

Mystery Man’s hand grips his empty glass so hard that his knuckles turn white.

“So,” Dean fumbles awkwardly, “so I’m saying you can. Look at me, I mean. I won’t make it weird, promise. And I’m sorry that I got on you for it earlier.”

Slowly, Mystery Man raises his head. And when his eyes meet Dean’s again, they are so full that Dean is nearly leveled by it. Just. There’s love there, affection, fondness, all in that haunted cornflower blue. They’re greedy, too, like they’re consuming every detail. Dean forgets to breathe. “You sure this guy ain’t dead?” he manages. “Cause you’re looking at me like the last time you saw his mug was ten years ago.”

Mystery Man inhales sharply but doesn’t so much as blink. “He’s very much alive. He made pancakes this morning.” No further elaboration.

“Right…” Dean says a little awkwardly. “Well, since this is happening, apparently, what’s your name?”

Now, Mystery Man hesitates, frowns. Finally, he says, “My name is Cas.”

...Cas?

“Cas? Like, Casper The Friendly Ghost?” Dean internally cracks himself up with that shit. He’s yet to meet a friendly ghost.

A thoughtful pause, more hesitation. “It’s short for Castiel.”

Castiel?

“So you see why I go by Cas?”

And is Mystery Man Cas smiling? Does this dude actually have a sense of humor? A surprised laugh bubbles from Dean’s throat. “Touché, Cas.” Then he remembers his manners, “I’m Dean, by the way.”

“Dean,” Cas rumbles in confirmation. It’s- He says it all warm, like he’s cradling something precious in his mouth. Dean feels his eyebrows pull together against the kindness of it and the way that kindness is a shock to his body at the same time that it’s a hot shower after a dirty hunt. His throat works over.

He clears it and looks back down at his beer. Still half-full. He takes a pull from it for no other reason than to do something with his nervous energy. Something about Cas almost seems… familiar isn’t the right word at all. In fact, he seems the opposite of familiar. He seems other. But Dean’s never met other like this before, an other that is… comforting. An other that is somehow awkward at the same time that it is severe at the same time that it is kind. He wants to resist it just because of how much he doesn’t.

“So, this guy- the one I look like. What’s his deal?” Dean finally says and chances a glance back up at Cas. He’s not surprised to find Cas watching him.

Cas is really watching him now, with some deep intent, as he turns all the way on his stool so that his legs are halfway facing Dean. Dean takes that as his cue to do the same and makes himself hold the eye contact even though it feels like he’s being looked through. Like Cas can see all the way to the back of his brain, and even Dean doesn’t know what’s back there. Scared of what’s back there just out of his reach.

“The man you look like is the best person I’ve ever known. Will ever know. I have very little doubt of that. And I’ve met many people.”

Severe. Dean’s brain can’t seem to stop catching on that word, especially with the way Cas looks in this bar. Office attire and an empty whiskey tumbler held thoughtlessly in hand on the counter and a face that commands respect without ever demanding it. And those eyes-

Dean has met a lot of people, too, in his lifetime of living out of motels. Somehow he knows there ain’t a man in this bar more dangerous than the one in front of him. But dangerous things are only as deadly as the person wielding them, and if there’s one thing Dean trusts, it’s his own instincts.

Something unrecognizable is raveling out inside of him to tear at every belief he has.

Because Castiel is the most dangerous person in this bar, and he’s here talking to Dean in a tender voice about a guy who lost his pieces.

“He is… righteous, and loyal, and fiercely protective of those he loves. Which becomes a long list, because he loves freely, though he would never admit it or believe it if someone told him. He could see a lost girl on the street and love her, even if it was just for the twenty minutes it took to find her mother. For those twenty minutes, that little girl would be the most deeply loved person on Earth.”

There is drunken hooting and the clack of pool balls in the background, but they sizzle into white noise in Dean’s ears, and Dean is having trouble breathing properly. He blinks rapidly against the swell of it. Because Cas is- is lit from the inside, somehow, where every awkward, severe, kind part of him overlaps into adoration that’s so big it’s almost hard to listen to. And Cas is staring into Dean while he says it. And he just keeps going.

“He’s been through things, things that pain me to even think about. Burdens that he never deserved to bear. But he bore them so resiliently that-that I wonder how he ever did it. How he came out the other side still being able to love strangers more intensely than some love their own kin. But he has hardened, too. It would be impossible not to be hardened, with the things that he has witnessed.”

For one long moment, Castiel closes his eyes like he’s collecting himself. In the reprieve of the absence of that gaze that’s too knowing, Dean truly watches Cas back. The stretched cast of his eyelashes in shadows down his cheeks from the dim bar lighting, and the bags they cover now that they’re closed. The weariness of him.

Someone Dean feels like he might have known in a different life.

Who are you? he wants to ask. Who are you, really, Castiel? Why do I want to trust you so bad? When I can barely trust my Dad or Sammy.

“There has been true violence in his life,” Cas abruptly starts again and opens his eyes. “He is a fighter, a killer, ruthless when he needs to be. His very body is a weapon. But still, there is a part of him that has never known that cruelty.” And then Cas is reaching forward into the space between them, and Dean watches his hand grow closer like it’s in slow-motion. Until Cas’s fingers tap so fragilely against his chest through his thin-worn t-shirt that Dean only knows they’re there from sight and not the sensation of touch. “This muscle in his chest.”

Dean stares back at Cas, and he can’t explain why there are unshed tears in his own eyes. Why there is a lump in his throat.

“My heart,” Dean confirms weakly.

“Yes,” Castiel blazes, “your heart. The things it does outside of moving blood.”

Dean is caught. Dean is spun-tight in a web of spiders that weave him a blanket instead of a trap. Pinned in by Cas’s eyes that know too much, and Dean had been right. ‘Cause this- this- people don’t look like this, don’t talk like this. And Dean doesn’t think he’s ever seen love like that before either. The kind that hurts to observe head-on.

Because Cas can’t be human, but Dean doesn’t know if he’d really try to escape even if he knew how to.

“Castiel?” Dean asks, hears the crack in his own voice as he looks down at Cas’s hand on his chest. He blinks, blinks, and he doesn’t know how to get a fucking grip.

It’s like Cas suddenly remembers himself because that hand is pulling away, with Cas saying, “Dean, I’m sorry, I don’t-” until he’s struck silent when Dean traps Cas’s hand against his chest with his own.

The skin of Cas’s knuckles is warm under Dean’s palm. Cas’s palm is warm over the muscle in Dean’s chest.

“Cas, what...” When Dean looks between fleece eyes that drill into him with the most frightened affection Dean has ever seen, he finds the words he planned to say dying in his throat. “It was you, just now. When I got all jumpy about those guys yelling. You did something that zenned me out.”

Cas’s face turns guilty, and for the first time in minutes Castiel looks fully away. Dean decides that guilt isn’t a very good expression on that face that’s apparently more suited for sweeping declarations of love to strangers in seedy sports bars than shame. Finally, Cas simply gives a single sharp nod. “You were unsettled by them.”

Dean doesn’t know what to make out of any of this. It’s just out of his reach. A bigger picture that’s still fuzzy. He’s missing something here and it should be driving him crazy, but Cas’s hand is weighing him down to the ground. Because suddenly he’s just holding hands with the dude. He knows he should be all squirmy about it, but-but Cas isn’t just some guy. Dean doesn’t even know how he knows that.

He’s grateful to be holed up in this corner where no one pays them any attention because the LSU game is in the fourth quarter and the bartender is busy mixing the drinks that one drunk table bought for the other.

“Yeah,” Dean finds himself agreeing. Honestly a little bit stunned. “I- uh- I was. Thanks for that.”

When Cas turns back to him, his eyebrows are drawn together. His eyes rove Dean’s face before falling down to where their hands are still overlapped on Dean’s chest. Dean doesn’t know if anyone he hasn’t ended up fucking has touched him for this long.

“You remind me so much of him,” Castiel says. His voice is reverent and heartbroken and Dean wonders how this- whatever Cas is- could be so many different things at once.

And what do you say to that? When a stranger tells you that you remind him of the best person he knows? Apparently, little shy flowers shudder and bloom in your stomach.

“Yeah?” Dean asks soft. Hopeful. But he knows Cas would never call him out for it somehow. Here where it’s just the two of them.

But Jesus Christ.

If Dean thought that love was hurtful before, it’s downright torturous now. Cas is- Cas looks at him like maybe Dean is the center of everything. And he wishes that it made him uncomfortable to be looked at like that by something that at least presents itself as a dude, but he isn’t. He isn’t uncomfortable. He is filleted alive.

The flowers in him grow up into his throat and he never wants Cas to stop looking at him like maybe he is worth more than being ordered around or being a parent to Sammy or being some girl’s one-night stand.

Cas’s hand lays right over the flower stems.

Can you feel them? Dean thinks almost manically. Do you feel those flowers? Oh, they have leaves now. Do you feel that? I’ve never had flowers in me before.

And what are you what are you what are you-

“Yes. Yes, Dean. You’re-” The hand on Dean’s chest twitches under his own. “I wish I could make you understand half of what I see when I look at you. How good you are.”

The flowers choke him. “I don’t really know about that, Cas.” It’s supposed to be sort of joking, so Dean doesn’t understand why it sounds like he’s about to cry.

Cas’s fingers twitch under Dean’s again before they move to break free, and Dean reluctantly lets them. But they don’t go far, just up until Cas’s hand is hovering beside Dean’s head.

“Would it be alright if I…”

Dean nods even though he barely knows what he’s agreeing to. And Cas’s deft fingers cradle his skull gently through his hair, back behind his ear. Dean feels himself leaning into it. Supported. His eyes close on their own account. Cas’s fingers move back and forth through his hair like Dean is something delicate. He has to remind himself to breathe. When he finally does, his exhale is trembling. He gulps and strains out, “Well, this is embarrassing,” and he actually semi-hits the humor mark this time.

“For who?” Cas says it so sternly that Dean’s eyes startle open at the tone, only to find Cas looking through him again. “From what I understand, there has to be an entity of judgment for there to be the result of embarrassment. And the last thing I’m doing right now is judging you.”

Dean unsticks his tongue. “Then what are you doing?” he croaks.

Castiel flinches. Dean almost gets whiplash with how fast Cas’s face falls into uncertainty, embarrassment of his own. It’s just as unpleasant to witness this time as it was before. The most dangerous creature in this bar, maybe even in this town, and he looks so scared.

“It’s okay,” Dean finds himself soothing even when he’s not certain of a single thing. Not a single thing. Just that Cas’s hand cradling his head feels real good. “I mean, it’s nice. You don’t have to stop, I just-” He shifts on the stool. “What if someone sees?”

And Cas’s face is all twisting lines again. Dean’s eyes widen.

“They can’t see us... can they?” He asks because he already knows the answer. Why the bartender hasn’t come back to check on them. He wonders how long they’ve been invisible. “You did something.” What are you?

“I’m sorry.” It’s a sincere apology, a genuine sorry. Maybe like it hurts a little bit. “I shouldn’t have come here.”

No.

“No. No, Cas, don’t leave. Please don’t leave.” Dean doesn’t care that he’s begging. For once in his life, he doesn’t give a fuck about what he sounds like or what he looks like. Because Cas can’t leave, just leave Dean like this in this stupid fucking bar full of drunks and football and cigarette smoke and a bartender with a laugh that makes him wanna stuff his fingers in his ears.

Not after Cas looked at him like he was a person. Not after Cas touched him like he was a person. And all the awkward kind severity. Until no one could hold a candle to whatever Castiel is. Other and comforting.

Dean’ll keep begging if he has to, just for a chance to have those blue eyes on him for one more second.

But Cas doesn’t make him. Of course he doesn’t.

“Dean…” Cas hedges, looks through Dean again, all unsure. “Alright. I won’t leave. I’m not going to leave.” It must be Cas’s turn to do the soothing because even though his face is full of overwhelmed surprise, his voice is full of reassurance. His hand remains tucked up into Dean’s hair.

Thank god. Dean needs Cas’s hand to stay there forever. And that’s why he doesn’t let anyone get close enough to touch him. ‘Cause whatever Cas is, he’s not gonna be around forever. Dean doesn’t even know why he’s here in the first place. But Dean- he wishes- he wishes he was small, small enough to curl up into Cas’s palm and sleep there in the cage of fingers that would make sure nothing bad happened to him.

“I’m not… very good at this,” Cas continues, and just like that he’s awkward again. From anyone else, it may have sounded like some sort of flirting excuse. Probably one Dean has used himself. But from Cas, somehow Dean knows the ‘this’ he’s referring to isn’t romantic shit, but all of it. Everything. Cas says ‘this’ like he could be talking about their entire conversation.

For some reason, Dean finds himself laughing.

Because what the fuck? What the fuck? He’s here trying to drink a fucking beer, and suddenly Mr. Creepy Coat pulls up to give him some sort of existential crisis, not to mention Mr. Creepy Coat ain’t a human, and has the power to somehow turn both himself and Dean invisible, power that could probably kill Dean with a single thought. And the dude has his hand in Dean’s hair while he apologizes for being bad at… what? Being a person?

Dean laughs until there's tears in his eyes that are clenched shut. He lets it all go in this liminal space where he knows the only living thing that can hear him is Cas. It’s a little deranged, maybe, but he thinks he gets the pass on that one from what a fever dream this whole thing is.

Then he realizes he probably looks like a dickhead straight up laughing in Cas’s face. But when he opens his bleary eyes, it’s to find Cas smiling back at him.

A real, clumsy smile with teeth and one corner of his mouth ticked up. It fits that severe face so honestly. Dean doesn’t think he’s ever seen a more honest smile, a more pleased expression. More fondness.

Cas’s hand is cradling Dean’s head.

The laughing turns to crying before Dean can even track the shift. Little tears running down his cheeks and not enough air in his lungs. He watches Cas’s smile fall while Cas slowly sits up straighter.

“Dean-”

“Sorry,” Dean chokes. “This doesn’t normally happen.”

The hand in Dean’s hair drops to the back of his neck and it’s pulling. Dean goes with it easily, his ass sliding closer to the left edge of the round stool. Until he’s leaning forward as Cas’s grip guides him into the space between Cas’s neck and shoulder. His arms fall to curl around Cas’s waist on instinct.

There are big, warm arms around him and there’s no one to see him or evaluate him or judge him. The skin of Cas’s neck is stubbled near the top under his jaw, against Dean’s cheek. It smells like sweat and the damp air that tells you when you’re a mile out from a sea coast. Dean gives a shaking breath.

He wonders if there has been a point in the last twenty-two years of his life where he felt this safe. Because the most dangerous thing in the radius of this state is holding him. This strong body.

Castiel is not dangerous like a gun. Castiel is dangerous like a mother.

“It’s okay, Dean.” His gravel voice in Dean’s ear is a lullaby. “It’s alright. It’s alright. You’re going to be okay.” Then, astonished, “Oh, Dean.”

It’s quiet and dismal and full of love. The way that you say someone’s name when you already know everything about them, when you already understand that the name is just the label for the person under it. But that doesn’t make any sense either ‘cause he and Cas have only been talking for twenty minutes, and Dean knows he’s showing his fucking hand with his emotions right now, but there’s no way that Cas has that sorta understanding of him.

Or maybe he does. Maybe whatever he is can see right through Dean and all of the things he pretends to be.

One of Cas’s hands moves to settle broad on the back of Dean’s head and holds him even tighter. An anchor. Until Dean isn’t adrift anymore. Until he wants to believe it when Cas says he’s going to be okay because Cas seems so sure of it. Like it’s a god-given fact that Castiel somehow knows.

Click. Click. Click. Everything settling into place like Tetris blocks.

“It’s me, isn’t it?” Dean cries against Cas’s neck. His throat feels swollen closed. “Jesus. It’s me. I’m the guy you- I’m him.

Fuck, does that mean- What does that mean? All those things Cas said, all that fucking affection, and it was for Dean the whole time. Every adoring word.

Dean almost expects Cas to let him go with the realization, but his hands hold dearer and he gulps next to Dean’s ear. When he nods, his stubbled jaw catches Dean’s temple.

“Yes,” Castiel admits in a sticky voice. “You’re him. Or maybe he is you. You’re- the most loving man. The kindest man, the most hopeful. You’re him already. Right now, exactly as you are.”

“Cas, that ain’t true. You and I both know that ain’t true.” God, he’s so miserable with it, pleading for Cas to understand that Dean is barely anything, and certainly not anything good. All he does is leave people behind, along with his bloody footsteps. All he does is get left behind.

“Do not put words into my mouth, Dean Winchester.”

Dean is positive he never told Cas his last name. He hasn’t told anyone his real last name in probably a decade. Cas knows him, inexplicably, somehow. What a messy metaphor for it all, for what Dean hides versus what he pretends to be versus what he is. Dean sobs. The high collar of Cas’s dress shirt is there to catch his tears.

And if Cas is the only motherfucker on this planet who knows him, the only motherfucker to hold him, then Dean wants to be known.

“I don’t know what to do. Cas- I’m so- I can’t find my dad and Sammy’s fucking girlfriend just died- and I- and I- can’t fix it. It’s my fault. He shoulda been there with her! He shoulda been there with her and I took him ‘cause I’m a selfish bastard! Cas, Cas, there’s no one. It’s so hard. I’m alone. And Sammy isn’t gonna stay. He’s gonna go back to school and leave me with Dad, and I don’t- fuck, Castiel, I don’t know what to do!”

Cas is clutching at him now, where their knees are slotted together and their shoulders are pressed up awkwardly against each other.

“What happened to Jessica is not your fault, Dean. Nothing would have prevented her death, as tragic as it was. Please, understand that and stop blaming yourself.” There is no room for doubt in Cas’s unyielding tone, deep and heating like good, dark roasted coffee. “Not to mention that you are the furthest a person could be from selfish. Sam came with you, and you have your brother now. That is how it is supposed to be. I shouldn’t be telling you this but- but Dean, please hear me. Your father is unharmed, and you will find him. Sam isn’t going to leave you. Understand that there is an end to this loneliness that you feel. Where I am from, you have so many people in your life who love you. Do not forget this.”

How? Dean wants to ask. For all of it? How do I find Dad? How does Sammy stay? How does anyone love me?

Instead, Dean brings his arms up underneath Cas’s to hug him just below protruding shoulder blades, and asks, “You too, right? You’re there? And you lo-... love me?”

Cas’s mouth is closer now, until his breath is warm against Dean’s ear and he whispers, “More dearly than you could imagine.”

Dean nods against Cas’s neck, takes big calming breaths that all smell like Cas until the tears finally stop. Suddenly, he’s exhausted. He clings onto the back of Castiel’s trenchcoat like a child.

“I bet I do, too. Love you.” It feels like a confession.

With how close they’re pressed, Dean can feel the way Castiel’s exhale shudders out of him. The hand cradling Dean’s head pets down once, twice, before Cas is turning to press a kiss into Dean’s hair. The moment, the peace, all of that security, stretches on between them. Dean closes his eyes and lets himself believe that somewhere, maybe months, maybe years from now, he is making pancakes for them both. It catches in him.

“I know I do,” he mumbles with resolution.

They hold each other in this Louisiana bar.

Dean isn’t sure for how long exactly, but it’s long enough for his muscles to relax, for his fear to settle out of him. He never wants to forget the way that Cas smells.

Finally, Cas says, “I should return you to your motel.”

Dean’s brows furrow where Cas can’t see them. “Return me?”

When Cas pulls away, Dean is forced to lean back as well.

It definitely feels like it should be awkward to look Cas in the eyes right now, especially because Dean’s positive his face is all splotchy and red, but Cas doesn’t react any differently to his new appearance than he did to Dean before. It’s strangely reassuring.

“I can transport us both back to your motel so that you don’t have to drive.”

Dean blinks. He knew, like, of course he knew that Cas wasn’t human. Literally everything he’s said and done has been very much not human. Somehow Dean’s still not really sure what to say to that. So what comes out is, "I’m not leaving my car here, man.”

There’s something like amusement in Cas’s deep eyes. “I would transport Baby as well, of course.”

Jesus, this is so fucking bizarre. The way he refers to Dean’s car by name, like an entity with a soul. Something that could have only been picked up from Dean himself. There’s no doubt in his mind that that’s exactly where Cas picked it up from.

“Right. Um, okay. So how does that happen?” His voice is nasally from his sniffly nose.

Cas puts up two fingers on his right hand and places them in the middle of Dean’s forehead. “Are you ready?” When Dean nods, Cas finishes, “Close your eyes.”

Then there’s rushing, tugging, Dean is being pulled apart and through the eye of a needle and it doesn’t hurt at all. Compressed so thin that he’s just molecules. He swears- He swears his sees wings, massive beating feathers in a swirl that he can barely catch.

And then it’s over as rapidly as it started, and Dean is standing solidly in the motel parking lot. Cas’s fingers drop from his forehead. When Dean gives a disbelieving look around, he sees Baby parked in front of their door number.

Dude.” Dean gapes at him. “A little warning?”

“Apologies,” Cas says and doesn’t sound very sorry. “Though I did tell you to close your eyes.”

Dean’s mouth falls open even further in indignation before it clicks shut. “So you’re a part-time comedian, huh?” Still, he can hear the humor in his own voice.

“Being a comedian is a full-time employment, Dean,” Cas deadpans.

With a shocked burst of laughter, Dean shoves at Cas’s shoulder. “Yeah, well so is being an asshole.”

A merry, good-natured silence settles between them. It feels like the curtains closing slowly and gracefully, like an ending. Dean knows it’s an ending. And if he wants to say something to Cas now, he better fucking say it. He licks at his bottom lip with nerves.

“Will you be back again, before we, ya know- meet officially?” God, does that feel weird to say. Weird to think about.

“The chances of me returning like this for a second time aren’t high,” Cas answers calmly, a little apologetically. And it makes Dean’s heart trip over sadness even though he knows somewhere down the line he’ll see Cas again. Cas surprises him when he continues, “That doesn’t mean I won’t be watching over you, Dean. I’ll do my best to check on you when I can.”

The grip of Dean’s chest loosens.

“Will I know? Or is it some omniscient, eyes-everywhere shit?”

“It doesn’t have to be, if that bothers you,” Cas says as his head tilts to the side and he frowns.

“I mean,” Dean shifts awkwardly, “it doesn’t bother me if it’s you. I just, it’d be nice to know. To be able to clock you if you’re around.”

Cas’s frown morphs into that funny little honest smile. “Well, I have grown extremely fond of honeybees. Perhaps if you find one being particularly friendly with you, you’ll know that it’s just me saying ‘Hello’.

An answering smile blooms onto Dean’s face at Cas’s words. It feels good.

“Yeah, alright. I’ll make sure not to swat at any of ‘em.”

“You shouldn’t be swatting at them anyway, Dean,” Cas says all stern. “They are one of Earth’s miracle workers.” Before Dean can even think of a response for that, Cas looks around and then gives a sad sigh. “I believe it’s time for me to go.”

Dean swallows around his own disappointment. “Yeah.”

He almost expects Castiel to just snap out of existence the same way that he got them back to the motel parking lot, but Cas steps closer and pulls him in for a hug. Dean returns it gratefully.

“You were the first person to ever hug me,” Cas murmurs without any prompting. Dean’s throat goes tight again. “You’re very good at it.”

Dean’s incredulous laugh is all choked off.

“So’re you.”

“I learned from the best,” Cas states simply, appreciatively. There are tears welling up in Dean’s eyes again, and he lets one of them go with ease. It falls in a single wet line down his cheek. “Goodbye, Dean.” A pause, then a hesitant, “I love you.”

It’s hard to say it, but Dean wants to, so he makes himself. “Love you, too.”

Cas holds on so tight. One final squeeze. Then Dean is hugging the Louisiana night air.

He doesn’t tell Sam about Cas. He doesn’t want to. When Sam asks the next morning what has him all chipper, he just responds that he got laid real nice and hard- until Sam practically begs him to shut up. But Sam seems happy that he’s more hopeful, smiling easier. And maybe in moments like these, he really believes that Cas wasn’t lying about Sam staying.

As it turns out, Sam actually had struck gold on a case while Dean was in that seedy Louisiana sports bar that he’ll never forget, and the two of them are on the road to make the day's drive to Savannah, Georgia for a ghost haunting by noon. Dean even lets Sammy play his music for some of the trip without complaint.

It’s a pretty simple case, and they get lucky with how much of Savannah’s history has been documented because it makes the research easier. Even then, it still takes three full days to pin down the motives of the ghost and find its burial spot. He doesn’t mind though. The urgency to track down Dad isn’t so all-consuming anymore, the stress of it not hanging so heavily over Dean’s head. They’ll find him when they find him. Because they will.

Maybe he and Sam’ll even stop by one of the nearby beaches before they head out to their next adventure.

Night falls after a sunset that makes Dean maybe a little bit happier to be alive, bringing with it the cool winds off of the ocean that chill you to the bone. Dean would know. He’s out digging up the grave while Sam keeps watch for any nosey tourists at the graveyard’s fenceline.

Still, it’s familiar, too. Comforting. That light scent of it. Dean pauses his digging to raise his nose high into the air and take a deep lungful.

God, Dean wishes he had brought a jacket or something.

He’s about three feet down, nearly to the halfway point, and covered in dirt. When he’s still like this it’s easy to hear the approach of a singular little buzz. It gets louder, closer, and Dean’s awareness is immediately raised. Ghosts can be crafty bastards when they realize that you’re about to torch their bones and slap them on the ass into the light, and Dean doesn’t really feel like having his ribs broken if there’s a chance of seeing the beach tomorrow.

But when he gives the graveyard a swift once over, the only other soul there is Sam about twenty yards off. The buzzing is undeniable now, and Dean jolts so hard when he feels something touch his hand that he damn near drops his shovel.

His other hand is raised on instinct, ready to deter whatever the hell kinda bugs they have in Georgia, when he looks down and sees a lone honeybee sitting on his middle knuckle. He flexes his fingers and the bee doesn’t move an inch.

Dean beams so bright he’s afraid Sam might see it across the tops of the headstones.

“Hey, Cas,” he breathes down at it. The little creature's wings flutter. A beat, and then it lifts off again in flight, for what Dean assumes is whatever busy life Cas leads somewhere in a different point of time.

To his surprise, it doesn’t bumble back into the darkness. It flies right up to Dean’s face and perches on the bridge of his nose until Dean has to cross his eyes to see it. Its tiny wings and legs tickle when it moves, but for the most part it stays content in its spot.

“You gonna hang out while I commit a felony?”

The only answer Dean receives is the bee staying put exactly where it is. He huffs a laugh.

And the little bug remains content on the bridge of his nose for the rest of the dig, through foot numbers four and five and six.

Dean smiles the whole time.