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Dark.

Cas wakes up with the sense of it deep in his lungs.

The Empty was an equalizing nothingness. Dean made him watch a movie once about a man who took drugs and went into a sensory deprivation tank, where he then experiences hallucinations that alter, per the film's title, his physiology, reverting him to more and more primitive forms until he regresses to a mass of primordial matter and, eventually, nothing but energy until the endangerment of a loved one brings him back. The Empty was like that—eerily so, considering how Cas was returned from it first by Jack and then by Dean. On the whole, though, the sense of weightlessness, masslessness, nothingness was seemingly all-pervasive. To an ordinary angel, this would be no matter. Literally. But to Cas's long evolving senses, he did the human thing and began to see things: to imagine shapes and colors where there was nothing, not even the mocking embodiment of the planar force, which was apparently so irritated with him that it left him alone once the torturing got boring.

Nothing. Dark. The two became less and less synonymous as time went on, but apophenic phosphenes only do so much against the latter, and it made the nothing worse. There was nothing to feel: nothing to think, his mind barely over matter and unorientable in the Empty with no brain, not even in true form, to fire off the neurons or angelic equivalent of. It was just nothing. Barely the essence of Cas's self, floating around in a hell of a lot of nothing.

Nothing. Nothing. You started to feel like it was inside you, imagine you had an inside and an out just to feel something, even if it's a choking sensation, a body filling, suffocating, nothing in your imaginary lungs. Cas's habit of picturing himself in a human body backfires when that body is being smothered by lack, something he can't cough up no matter how badly his reflexes want him to, something he can't spit out or expel from himself in any way because inside is out and there is no discernable difference when you're both swimming and drowning and constituted entirely of the same void of substance.

Earth's darkness is not the same, but in the hazy state between consciousness and unconsciousness, Cas's now-human senses are easily mistaken. The bed and sheets under and around him have mass, but it doesn't matter once the panic has set in. He awakes on an inhale, two lungsful of air forced too quickly through his nostrils. The stifling grip anxiety has on his chest keeps him pinned to the bed, but he knows that as soon as it loosens he still won't be able to move. This darkness, that of waking, is warmer, but it is equally empty.

Eventually—Cas isn't sure how much time passes, but it isn't enough that the light has changed—he remembers where he is. Their bed, his and Dean's, in the house they had bought when the world stopped ending long enough to fix it up. It was the same bed he had fallen asleep in, down the hall as it should be from the empty room where ordinarily Jack would be asleep. Right now, he's having a sleepover with a friend in town, which Cas is glad about both because it's heartwarming to know Jack has friends but also because it negates the impulse to go wake him up and hold him close, just to hear his heart beating as proof it was all an awful dream.

Dean, though, should be here, within reach, wrapped over and around Cas's trembling body with his usual unconscious octopus-ness. That's the way Dean falls asleep with a partner, Cas knows now from experience, waking every morning on his back with Dean atop him like an extra blanket. Now matter how they arranged themselves the night before, that was always how they woke up.

And Cas had fallen asleep alone, he now remembers, but Dean was still supposed to be there: he'd been rewatching his favorite season of Dr Sexy in the living room when Cas left for bed, uninterested in watching the same storylines in different permutations but happy for Dean's happiness. It wouldn't be the first time that he's accidentally fallen asleep on the couch, and Cas has been happy for him for that too, knowing how much it means to Dean to have a couch to fall asleep on, but he wishes he hadn't tonight. He wishes he could have woken to a full bed and not more silence and darkness.

In the dark, he fumbles for the soft sleep shirt he knows will still be under Dean's pillow, if he really never came to bed. It is, and Cas pulls it on against the night chill. The hardwood floors aren't as cold through his socks, but he almost wishes it was; though it's less preferable to warmth, any proof of the physical world—thermal, concrete, sensory—is welcome right now. He would rather have his husband draped over him, of course, but...

With every step, Cas tries to memorize every detail of each moment: the creak of the stairs, the TV in the distance, the pull of cotton as he fists his sleeve cuffs, the slight draft from the corner of the window on the landing, the way the moonlight plays over the picture frames as the big oak outside sways. It's October in Minnesota, hence the cold, and their house is tucked into the woods, none of them really too interested in sharing fences with too-close neighbors. The only sound out there is the nocturnal occupants of the forest behind the house and maybe, if he strains, a car on the main road, but it's more than enough to remind him where he is—where they, collectively, are.

He counts the photos as he goes: Jack and Claire, who had never met before. Older photos of the Winchesters and Bobby, from before Cas's time but that he still hadn't seen until Dean pulled them out of safekeeping to put in their permanent fixtures. The photos Sam made them take after they told him they were skipping a wedding and just considering themselves married. Things that are real, he reminds himself. Things that are more than a dream.

Mary in the bunker. Mary in Lawrence. Jack in the same backyard currently whistling with wind in trees. His fingers graze the corner of each frame like a touchstone proving this is real, this is now, this happened and is happening.

Though he's zoned out slightly in his descent, Cas comes back to himself by the time he reaches the last few sets of stairs. From there, he can make out the words coming quietly from the TV.

"But doctor—!"

The voice is half familiar as one of the many that run around Dean's show. Cas can't keep them straight, not for lack of trying but because, as even Dean will eventually concede, they all kind of blur together. He knows enough to recognize that the TV hasn't moved on from the marathon Dean was so adamant on watching, despite owning every season on DVD. He does that... a lot, which Cas has never understood, but it's made the sounds of it playing in the other room a soothing presence. It's not as good as hearing Dean himself in the next room, but it's close and, more to the point, the next best thing when Dean's asleep.

"Hey."

Cas freezes where he is, back foot still on the last stair. When he doesn't appear immediately, Dean's head pops up over the back of the sofa, wide awake and (Cas realizes once his eyes adjust to the light) pleased to see him.

"Thought I heard you tip toeing around up there," he continues, oblivious to the confusion roiling through Cas. His hair is smushed like he's been lying down, but there are no pink creases in his cheek: he hasn't even fallen asleep. "Change your mind? Dr Sexy's mom's about to go to rehab again, it's the one with the dance number."

Cas doesn't say anything as he rounds the end of the couch, propelled forward only by putting one foot in front of the other. It's something like relief, he realizes, coursing through him at Dean's voice, and he follows it like a thread onto the long line of Dean splayed across the cushions. He folds himself into Dean, the broad, warm mass of the man he loves most in the world, and breathes, out, then in, out, and in. It's like falling into the bath. It's like the encompassing embrace of the mid-morning sun.

"Hey." There's a bit of laugh in his voice as Dean's arms wrap around him. "All good there, buddy?"

When Cas manages a hum, the sound rebounds in Dean's chest, echoing back to him Dean-ified. Don't ask him what that means. There's just something Dean about it, something imbued by the closeness that makes it a better sound to hear on the rebound. If he were an angel still, Cas would probably attribute it to some filtration through Dean's soul, but as is he has no rational explanation, only emotional. Everything feels better when he's touching Dean.

As Dean's hands settle in their customary places, one on the back of Cas's neck and one in the center of his back between his shoulder blades, Cas feels his mood shift from pleasant surprise to concern. Silently, Cas begs for him to forget his thought process for a moment and go back to happy affection. He likes happy Dean best, and that was the whole point, to absorb Dean's happiness as best he can through skin to skin contact. So if he would only stop thinking for a moment, there'd be nothing to worry about.

"Hey. What's up?" Dean rubs his cheek against Cas's hair. "You good?"

"Yes," Cas grumbles, voice rough with disuse and senses happily filled with Dean, Dean, Dean. "Stay still."

"Alright then..."

Because Dean is a good man, he hefts Cas closer and wraps his leg around one of Cas's calves once he wiggles it through the lack of gap between them. Cas loves him very much, not in the least because he's soft and breathing steadily and his shirt is very soft underneath Cas's face. He smells like laundry, and Dean, which is a very good combination both generally and for their purposes here: this is not something the Empty would know how to mimic, not the human appreciation of a late developing domesticity. The last time Cas could smell like this, they didn't have this detergent before they moved north and had to switch generic brands. He didn't have time to savor it either. No faking that, as Dean would say.

The Empty didn't smell like anything.

Dean is also a restless man, though, and soon enough he's wriggling underneath Cas, shifting in tiny but constant ways. When Cas sighs and starts to raise up on his forearms, Dean quickly reaches to mute the TV and mumbles, "Hold on, gimme a sec," before unzipping his sweatshirt between them.

"There." He tucks the open edges around Cas, wiggling until Cas's hands are tucked between his back and the sofa, caught up in the fleece warmed by his body. Their legs get tangled together, both in pairs of Dean's sweatpants but warm and tactile anyway. "Alright. Snug as a freaking bug."

"Thanks."

The skin under Dean's jaw is softer than even the lining of the sweatshirt, at least as far as Cas is concerned. Which is saying a lot: it's a very soft hoodie, slightly too large and made of sleek, downy fleece inside and out. It's the softest thing Dean owns, and recently bought as well, because Dean allows himself soft things now, just as he allows himself to hold and be held in return. Against Dean's pulse, Cas blinks back tears.

Above him, Dean exhales, high and slow. "This is nice."

It's too innocuous. "Yes."

"Just some nice, random cuddles..."

Cas grumbles in warning, "Dean..."

"Any specific reason you've gone all huggy bear on me all of a sudden?"

"Maybe I just love you," Cas snipes back, but his heart is not in it.

In a testament to how far they've come, Dean drawls, "Maybe... Or."

Dean is also a very annoying man. Cas sighs again before throwing one of Dean's favorite phrases back at him: "One more minute."

"Alright, alright. Lucky you married the cuddliest son of a bitch this side of the Mississippi, s'all I'm saying."

Still, Dean acquiesces, his chin digging comfortably into the top of Cas's head shifting to eye the TV, somehow giving Cas privacy while they're plastered together. He reverts his judgment: Dean is a good man. Besides, his steady breathing underneath Cas's weight, rising and falling like a boat in the tides, works better than any of the anti-anxiety techniques Sam has ever tried to teach him.

Once he's settled enough, Cas sighs again, this time marginally more content, and shuffles up Dean's body until his chin is hooked over Dean's shoulder, as close to face to face as they can be without Cas exerting effort to hold himself up. Underneath him, Dean turns to brush his nose against the bristly ridge of Cas's cheekbone before turning back so he isn't speaking directly into Cas's ear.

"Nightmare?" He rubs one hand down the center of Cas's back. "You were only up there for like an episode and a half."

Even shorter than Cas had thought when he realized Dean was still awake. "Only when I woke up."

Dean makes a sad sound, half ironically exaggerated and half genuine. "Poor baby. Want me to kiss it better?"

Though still twined together, Cas manages to elbow him within their fleece cocoon, earning himself an actual laugh from Dean, quiet but still there, soft like the moment they're wrapped in.

"You okay, though?" He doesn't need to say more. They've known each other too long to have to guess which of the myriad of horrible things they've done and been subjected to has cropped up tonight. At this point, all that matters is that they find a way to move on: to make things right again, however impossible that may be.

"Better," Cas answers. "Or at least, getting there."

"Well hey, there you go." Dean squeezes him, just this side of too tight. "You need anything?"

It's not a question Castiel has a lot of experience answering, almost none of it honestly, but he wants to tell the truth. He wants to say it, to put it into words the fear that the cold hollow he's afraid of realizing he carried out of the Empty with him will never leave, will consume everything they've built in the meantime, the fear that he will open his eyes one day and not be able to tell the difference because he's back there—

But there aren't words for that, at least not that he can think of now. Instead, the honest answer that he comes up with to best summarize what he truly needs is this:

"Just love me."

Cas doesn't need to be looking to know what breaks across Dean's face before he pulls Cas up enough to kiss his forehead.

"Now that I can do," he says, his voice going exponentially softer with each word as he tucks Cas's face back into his own shoulder. "No problem, sweetheart."

Things don't go back to total quiet then; as if aware without Cas ever having to say it, Dean keeps the silence at bay by humming something very quiet, only amplified by their closeness. It's a song Cas doesn't recognize, probably from the show still playing silently in the background, the reflections of which Cas could see if he turned his face back into Dean's but is content to imagine in the abstract. He keeps his eyes open, but all that matters is Dean's voice, higher than he would usually let himself get, reverberating against the back of Cas's head as he curls up into the shadow of space between Dean's neck and the sofa. 

Love. Love. The Empty was nothing: no light, no matter, no smells or sounds or even the primal sense of how much open air surrounds one's body. Left alone with not enough stimulus, the human mind will begin to create things to occupy itself: something to channel attention towards rather than the distressingly utter lack, the absence of anything else to see or feel or think forcing the mind to imagine. The sentient mind wants to make sense of things, seeking out patterns where there are none, making shapes of clouds. Angelic minds want this more than most, perhaps, so used to all things having ordained Meaning. Caught between the two—human sensation, heavenly significance—the base nothing of the Empty is perhaps a better torture for Cas than anything the entity that guards it could come up with. Halfway fallen, he'll be driven mad by his own actions, not for the first time but for a perpetual last that will last forever.

That was what he'd been doing when Jack and Dean and Sam fished him back out, all of them so full of love it was hard to convince himself it was all part of the Empty's tricks and making things easy in the daylight. That's still what his body wants to default to when left alone too long.

Now, though, instead of nothing, he sees Dean's chest rising and falling beneath him, outlined by the silent flicker of the TV's light cast on the back of the couch. Instead of nothing, he hears Dean's dulled heartbeat thudding directly under his ear. Instead of nothing, he smells the body warm laundry-ness of Dean's clothes, the sweat and soap and remnants of dinner clinging to his body underneath, and he tastes the phantom of that dinner at the back of his throat beneath the toothpaste still clinging to his teeth, and he feels Dean, beneath and over and all around him, the island Cas has washed ashore on, and he falls back asleep to the rhythm of the hands smoothing down his back, awash in a sea of something.