The first time is in Hell. Or it isn’t, because Dean doesn’t really have eyes in Hell, and Cas doesn’t really have wings in Hell, and the whole thing is muddled and molten in his head — jagged bolts of red and black and blinding light, screaming —
He remembers this:
It’s easy, being a monster, when everything is monstrous around you.
Those first wings are arcs of white. Weapons. Slicing through everything — in his memory Dean seems to see them snap chains, burn demons on contact, disintegrate tortured souls.
He remembers wanting to run. Feeling that light hit him, a body blow, and thinking he’ll be erased by it. Flattened. Only instead it’s wrapping around him, curling tight, and it feels horrible — all this inside-of-him, seen, known, and the worst part is that it’s reaching for everything, not just the creature he’s let himself become.
It can see his mother cutting the crusts off his sandwiches. His hands groping for the fatal wound in his baby brother’s back. It can see him lying awake in a thousand motel rooms, flipping bleary TV channels and missing his family like a ribcage, like a limb, and it can hear the voice he never asked to rise in his head: Just keep him safe, okay? Just — if you’re out there — keep him safe.
Dean’s never believed in any of that shit. Angels. A higher power. Deserving a goddamn thing. He’s never been one for praying.
The second time is in a barn, surrounded by every warding symbol Dean knows and plenty he doesn’t, demon knife buried in this thing’s chest.
Cas looks down at it. His face shows mild interest. He gently pulls it free.
His wings that time are shadows, not light — something cast by a flash of lightning, high and enormous in the rafters, carving new shapes of the writing on the walls. That time, Dean thinks, okay, so now we’re really screwed.
He’s kind of right, he figures out eventually, only never in any of the ways he could have guessed.
The third time Dean sees Castiel’s wings is when he dies. So is the fourth, and the fifth, and the tenth, and the thousandth — they’re burned there in his mind, waiting for him every time he closes his eyes.
He hunts and he drives. Puts one foot in front of the other. Blinks, and there’s mountains, a pyre, a setting sun; there’s black shadows scorched on dusty soil.
They might be gone by now. A hard rain might be all it takes.
As it turns out, they aren’t.
Cas looks down at the prints of them. “I didn’t think —”
His voice sounds faraway. He stops. His fingers twitch, a little, toward Dean’s — almost like they want to touch.
“Yeah, well.” The words come out rough; Dean squares his shoulders. “That was years ago, Cas; you made it back.”
“You would think the marks might lose their permanence,” Cas muses, “with the reversal of my death.”
It's just dirt — just grains of soil, scorched black against dusty brown. They should scuff and scatter with time. Meld with everything else.
Dean could test it with the toe of his boot. He doesn't. Each feather is still perfect; the arch and sweep of Cas’ wings.
He remembers hefting Cas’ body from the center of them. One arm under his shoulderblades, one under his knees. Sure left a permanent fucking mark on me.
He clears his throat. “Should we, uh —”
“Yes. We’re here on a mission.” Cas leads the way inside.
Every room — every corner — is a goddamn memory.
There’s the table Dean laid Cas’ body out on. The chair — he remembers gripping the back of it, the indents it left in his palm. Three windows with gauzy curtains, a fourth one bare.
Upstairs, the lights that flickered wildly have long since burned out. A single triangle of glass sits upright in its shattered window frame. There are footprints still burned into the floorboards, and Cas bends down to touch one briefly, then studies the sooty tips of his fingers and moves on.
The bed where Kelly Kline gave birth looks untouched. No blood, the covers barely rumpled. “You burned her too?” Cas asks.
The answer has to work its way past the lump in Dean’s throat. “Yeah.”
Cas runs his fingertips across the pillow. “I told her Jack would bring about paradise,” he says quietly. “And I believe he has — I believe the Heaven he’s building is one worthy of the souls that rest there.”
They’ve been over this. “And that’s why we need to seal it off. I get it, Cas.”
No more angels dropping in on them; no more demons clawing up from Hell. Just people. Living their lives, and moving on.
“Ah.” Cas lifts his hand, thumb and finger pinched together, and Dean sees he’s holding a strand of hair. Kelly’s.
“You think that’ll work for the spell?”
Cas’ eyes look like they’re focused on something far outside the little house. “We needed something associated with Jack’s coming into this world. He was born of Kelly’s sacrifice.”
Dean takes that for a yes. “Great,” he says, and feels hot fingers clutching in his chest. “Super.”
Cas stops outside the door, so suddenly Dean almost walks into him.
He has to catch himself with a hand on Cas’ hip. His body is warm through his trenchcoat. Does Cas need to be warm? Does he do it out of human habit, or to make people comfortable?
“My truck,” says Cas. “What happened to it?”
It takes Dean a moment to put together the question, another for the answer. “We, uh — shoved it into the trees. Over that way, I think.”
They find it quickly. It’s along the path Dean cleared chopping wood for the pyre.
The door groans a protest when Cas pulls on the handle, and a sheet of moss peels off the cab when it grudgingly opens. “Cas,” Dean says, “I don’t think —”
“I just need to get something.” And Cas has one knee up on the seat, reaching across to the tape deck, jamming eject twice before it yields.
Cas’ trenchcoat rides up around his hips when he slides back out of the cab. He takes a moment to smooth it. Then he holds out his prize.
Dean’s Top 13 Zepp Traxx. “You gave it to me,” says Cas. “Remember?”
He can’t find voice to say anything about it until they’re back in the Impala, rumbling comfortably down the left lane of I-5 south, Lebanon bound. “You think you’ll have anything to listen to that with,” he asks, “in Heaven?”
He can feel Cas’ eyes on him. A long minute that stretches to two.
“I expect I will,” Cas says finally.
Dean grunts an agreement. Reaches to tune the radio.
It’s two nights later that Dean breaks.
Sam is back from his own errand, retrieving the last of the ingredients they need. They stand together in the bunker’s library and go over, one more time, every last detail of the spell they’ll do in the morning.
“Cas,” says Sam, with worried, liquid eyes, “are you sure you can’t stay? I mean — even if you wanted to try —”
He glances at Dean, and Dean wants to hit him, just a little bit.
Cas looks at him too. But then he looks back at Sam and answers, gently, “It’s the only way. If we are to succeed in sealing off Heaven — I can’t continue to walk as an angel among you.”
Dean hasn’t even had any whiskey, but his throat still burns.
He finds Cas an hour later. He’s tidying up his bedroom; strange. It’s always seemed hopelessly tidy, barely inhabited, to Dean.
He stands in the door and says, “I don’t want you to go.”
Cas turns to look at him. He does that sad little smile that makes the wrinkles bunch up around his eyes, the ones Dean loves. “I’m so sorry, Dean.”
Dean swallows and takes a step inside. “When you died —”
What’s he supposed to say after that? I stopped functioning? It was all I could think about? I don’t know how, how the fuck, Cas, I’m supposed to go through that again?
“Your wings,” he says instead, roughly. “Did they come back the same?”
Cas frowns. It takes him a moment to answer: “Yes, I think so.” He takes a step closer, then another. “Dean, your hand.”
Dean looks down. His right hand is clenched into a fist, fingernails digging half-moon divots in his palm; he hadn’t noticed. He releases his grip and shakes it out a little, tendons creaking, and then Cas is there — catching Dean’s hand in both of his.
He turns it palm up, and his thumbs brush over Dean’s life line, or his heart line — Dean couldn’t say which is which. For a moment, as Cas studies the white marks of his fingernails, Dean thinks he’s going to heal them. A small, pointless act. But he doesn’t, just keeps looking, fingertips light on the back of Dean’s hand.
Eventually, Dean says, “Cas —”
Cas looks up without releasing him. “Did you want to see —?”
It takes Dean a moment to trace the question: his wings.
He nods mutely. He doesn’t know what else to say.
A look of concentration knits Cas’ face, and a moment later, they’re there.
Dean’s not sure what he expected — the flash of lightning, maybe, blue flaring in Cas’ eyes, shadows flung against the walls. Instead, there’s a change in the air. Forms taking shape all around him, and they’re somehow bright and dark at once. Distorting the light that passes through them, or intensifying it, or both.
Long feathers sweep past his shoulders. They arch up to the ceiling and beyond it, somehow, filling the small room. And he’s at the center: cradled in the circle of them, sheltering, untouched, unseen.
He hears his own gasp the same moment he feels it hitch in his chest. And he’s turning his wrist, freeing it from Cas’ hold, asking, “Can I —?”
Cas nods, and Dean reaches out to touch.
What he finds is smooth and warm and rustling. Feathers sliding between his fingers — they give at his touch. But something else, too. Something that makes his breath hitch and his hand jerk back — then reach out, instinctively, to test it again.
It immerses Dean in a shock of warmth — rushing up his veins, climbing his neck, racing down his spine. It’s love, and Cas loves him — loves him with his smile and his heart and his squinting blue eyes, loves him with the mixtape sitting in his breast pocket, loves him with the hand that drops to Dean’s hip. Cas loves him with the songs of stars and with the currents of eons and with every last atom of air in this room.
Dean yanks his hand back and staggers. His heart is pounding. His breath feels thin, inadequate, in his chest.
Cas steps forward to take his arm. “I’m sorry,” he says, “it can be overwhelming —”
His wings are gone again. Invisible. Only — Dean can still feel them, somehow, or maybe just imagine them, a protective circle around them both.
“Is that,” he manages. “Do they do that to everyone?”
Cas hesitates. Shakes his head.
“Cas,” says Dean.
“I don’t want to go, either.”
Dean kisses him.
He thinks he takes Cas by surprise. There’s an unph and they almost lose their balance — Cas’ fingers still tight on Dean’s arm — and then he seems to get with the program. His hand is sliding through the hair at the back of Dean’s neck, and his lips are soft and warm and wanting, and it turns out not to be just the wings after all, because with every touch Dean’s electric. He’s illuminated. He is loved, loved, loved.
They break apart — not far. Cas looks at him fiercely. “Dean,” he says, “I promise: I will see you again.”
In the morning, Cas leaves.
Then they perform the spell, and seal off the gates of Heaven forever.
He’s going to be okay.
That’s what surprises Dean most, in the weeks and months that follow: that his spine still carries him upright. That the ache in his chest doesn’t empty him out, or bring him to his knees. That he closes his eyes and thinks of Cas and smiles as often as he cries.
Sam worries, because he’s Sam. Dean’s not sure how much he knows or doesn’t, but it’s enough to carefully bring up Cas at opportune moments, to coax out conversation or reminiscence, and Dean finds he doesn’t mind. “He said,” he tells Sam, “before he left, he said — we’d see him again. We’ve got that.”
Sam goes kind of still at that comment. “Dean,” he says, “you seem like you’re doing — good, but just — please tell me you’re not considering — accelerating, um. That reunion.”
Part of Dean wants to argue back: I mean, it’s not like I ever considered it. That time, in Grand Junction — man, I just did it.
But it feels faraway now. “Nah,” he says lightly. “I mean, who’d look out for my pain-in-the-ass little brother?”
Sam smiles, a little forced. But Dean doesn’t mean it in a bad way, he thinks. Not in the desperate, helpless way he has in the past.
Still — it gets to be too much, sometimes.
He’s been visiting Mildred at Oak Park a lot. She calls it healing and says it’s supposed to be hard — that what you do is watch the sun set. Talk about it when you want to. Don’t when you don’t. Let the grief breathe, let it shudder out of you. She says the crying and the smiling are important in equal parts.
We could’ve had years, Dean thinks, sometimes, and sometimes he thinks: We did.
There’s a place he likes to go outside the bunker, on nights he needs to be alone. It’s up on the hill in the trees, and Sam frets about it sometimes, but it’s just that Dean needs quiet. Needs to sit out there with a beer in his hand and watch the sky; needs to let the dark and the cold work their way inside his coat. To let himself be still.
It’s not a clear view. In summer, it’s closed in and green, but in winter bare tree branches lattice the sunset, try to catch Orion in their arms. Dean thinks Cas would like this spot. Maybe Cas knows something about the stars that roll over the horizon as the night stretches on. Maybe he’s been to them.
Dean wonders if he misses that — being able to visit the stars.
Sometimes, if he sits out long enough, he’ll spot a passing satellite, or sometimes a meteor. There are times of year when the meteors come thick and fast — the Earth is passing through clouds of interplanetary dust, Dean learns when he Googles it — but even when they don’t they’ll pop up now and again. Some are brighter than others. Some seem to sizzle through the sky, or even break apart on their way to earth.
In February, there’s one that seems close — so close it makes Dean lurch to his feet, the hair on his neck standing on end.
It disappears behind the trees. After a moment, Dean laughs — rubs the back of his neck. He’s getting jumpy in his old age.
He stays a while longer. Finishes his beer while the moon rises. Then picks up his empty and starts the walk back around the hill, down to the road toward home.
It’s when he rounds the bend onto the moonlight-dappled section of the gravel that he sees him. A rumpled-looking man in a long tan coat.
Dean’s gun is out and a bullet chambered before he can think twice. And then he’s lowering it, elbows wavering, because —
The man steps closer, and he is.
For a moment, he just stares at Dean, and Dean stares back.
There are twigs in Cas’ hair. A rip up the side of his trenchcoat — but he looks good. Clean-shaven, his posture erect, a helpless smile tugging at his lips.
“Cas,” says Dean, stepping forward as he shoves his gun back into the waistband of his jeans.
But Cas is raising his hands. “If you have holy water and silver, I’ll happily comply.”
Dean stops short.
He finds a silver knife in one of his pockets. “Ow,” says Cas when he cuts himself, then frowns over the wound and doesn’t heal it. He makes a face when he swigs from the flask — it’s warm from Dean’s body heat — then hands it back. “I didn’t think the first thing I’d taste as a human would be that bad.”
Dean caps it and struggles for words. “Cas,” he says again, finally. “You — how?”
Cas is smiling again. “I told you I couldn’t walk among you as an angel. I never said I couldn’t as a human.”
And Dean’s breath is dizzy in his chest. “You asshole,” he manages. “You let me think — you promised we’d see each other again —”
“Well, yes.” There’s a puzzled tilt to Cas’ eyebrows. “I needed to make sure. I didn’t want to promise what I couldn’t guarantee —”
He’s real, and there, and beautiful; the stars in the sky behind him look, for the barest instant, like wings.
“Cas,” says Dean, “shut up.”
Cas shuts up.
Dean sets down his beer bottle. He sets down the holy water, and the gun, and the silver knife. He straightens. And he steps into Cas’ arms.