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The chime above the door to the diner dinged, just as Cas and Dean slid into opposite sides of the booth from each other, Dean smoothing down his tie while Castiel glanced curiously toward the door, expecting Sam.

            “Did your brother say how long he thought he might be?” Their eyes met across the table, the hunter arching a brow. Just seeing the other man shouldn’t hurt like this. “Should we wait for him or go on asking questions?”

            Scoffing, Dean waved him off, returning the waitress’ smile and nod of greeting as she signaled she’d seen them. He wanted to act normal, like everything in him didn’t want to beg Cas’ forgiveness, beg, plead, and grovel that the angel take him back, even though it had been the hunter who’d said to leave.

“No. That’s the great thing about a team, I guess. He can do research while you and I do the running around. Saves time,” he said as they scanned over their menus.

            The waitress came and took their orders then, Dean watching curiously the ease with which Cas interacted with the woman, smiling openly and head angled as he gave her his full attention, even going so far as to throw the harried woman a wink, making her to grin as she scurried off with their orders. The moment she was gone, Dean watched the shift in the other man’s demeanor take place, the way the smile full of warmth was suddenly gone, expression turning serious instead, as long fingers folded together on the table top. Castiel pivoted toward Dean as he opened his mouth, clearly ready to ask a question, but faltered at whatever expression was on his friend’s face.

            “What?” he wondered, blue eyes searching.

            Shifting his expression to something neutral, the blond pursed his lips and shook his head, trying to ignore how hard it was to breathe. “Wha- Nothing, was just thinking.” The way the other man tilted his head in confusion coaxed a shadow of a smirk out of him, easing the tightness in his chest. This was familiar. This was Cas. The Cas he knew. “You’ve gotten better at interacting with others, is all.”

            This Cas was both his Cas and a stranger, if felt like. Dean had watched him all day, fascinated and sick, as Castiel interacted effortlessly with people, put on faces and took them off like masks, like a hunter, wielding his expressions like a weapon. The former angel could be charming when it would get him his way, or as gruff soldier-mode as he needed to be to get what he wanted.

It made Dean feel like he were losing his friend, the man that had such a place in Dean’s heart that his death had been the final straw to break the hunter, when not even losing Sam had been able to. It felt like Cas were drifting like smoke, sliding through his fingers and falling away from Dean.

            In his mind, he saw the alternate future version of Castiel, the one that was a broken shell of who’d he’d once been, that had completely lost his hope and will, a world where both Cas and Dean’s other-selves hung on and stayed alive more out of habit than desire.

            How long did it take for his Cas to become the Cas in that timeline? What had to happen to push the angel that far?

            Across from him, Castiel shrugged elegantly and leaned back in his seat, leg barely brushing Dean’s under the table as he stretched out. The hunter took a sip of his drink, tried to dissipate the dryness of his throat and mouth.

            “Survival demanded adaptation after…” Cas let the sentence hang unfinished, making a vague gesture with one hand instead.

            “After I threw you out.”

            Something in Cas’ eyes flashed, hard and hurt and angry all at once. Even though Dean was the one to say it, though they had been his actions, it still made him want to flinch, dropping his gaze guiltily. Telling Cas to leave had hurt more than Dean knew how to articulate, had hurt more than he thought himself capable of enduring. He’d wanted to go running after the angel as soon as he’d left, to do whatever he had to to make the angel come back home where he’d be safe and with the people who loved him most.

            But he couldn’t. Was reminded why he couldn’t every time Sam looked at him with that worried expression, hazel eyes studying his features, leaving Dean to wonder if it was Sam watching him, or Ezekiel. Even after he’d spun the half-truth to Cas about why the angel was having to stay away, that he risked bringing Heaven down on them while Sam was still healing, and that not even the bunked could withstand all of Heaven raining down on it… it didn’t ease the barbed wire wrapped around Dean’s chest, the way it’s metal thorns sunk deeper every time he remembered Cas was out there on his own.

            Sighing, Cas shifted in his seat, leaning forward to rest his forearms on the table as he ducked his head trying to catch Dean’s gaze. The hunter glanced at him.

            “I know why you did it, Dean,” he said, sounding so understanding it only made it hurt worse and Dean couldn’t hold his eye anymore, casting his gaze to the side, staring at their reflections in the winow instead. Cas mimicked him, propping his chin in his hand. “Sam always comes first for you, it’s been your whole life. If you were willing to sell your own soul to save him, this really is mild by comparison. I think I needed it.”

            Dean did look at him then, head snapping sharply to look at the man across the table. Blue eyes slid to regard him, the corner of the former angel’s mouth curling up in a look that was playful. The angel clearly had no idea how his trying to be strong was killing Dean one knife under his ribs at a time.

            “Had to learn I could stand on my own two feet, you know? See for myself I was still capable- even without my grace, without being what I had always been and taken for granted.” His smirk became a grin, teeth and gums in a way Dean had never seen from him. How was he always so beautiful? Even without his grace, Dean couldn’t ever mistake him for anything but an angel. “I could hear the same ass chewing Bobby gave me last time I was human.” A huff of laughter escaped the hunter, some of the tension easing out of his shoulders as he imaged the lecture Bobby would probably give all of them were he still alive. God, Dean missed him. He could really do with the other man’s counsel given recent events.

            As the waitress came out with their food, Cas threw him a smile, but this time it was warmer, more private. “Besides, you’ve never done anything but amaze me with what you’re capable of. You’re my reference when I don’t know what to do. I end up mimicking you a lot.”

            Snorting, Dean bit his bottom lip, giving his head a light shake. “I’m gonna go ahead and tell you I am so not life-model material, buddy.” He grinned cheekily and prayed Cas couldn’t see the way it was forced.

            Giving a one sided shrug, Castiel angled his head and winked at him. “Oh, I don’t know. I think you turned out alright,” he drawled, giving the hunter a look Dean would swear- coming from anyone else- was flirtatious.

            He huffed a laugh and looked down at his drink. “Dude, I’ve got a list of flaws and fuck-ups longer than my arm. Can’t seem to stop making them no matter how hard I try.” The truth of his next words made him look up at the angel. “Maybe it’s best you’re free of me now before you get hurt- or worse, killed, like I seem to get everyone around me killed.”

            The man on the other side of the booth canted his head, eyes impossibly blue even without his Grace, studying Dean in a way that made the hunter feel naked. Then, in a flash, one hand had snapped out, yanking Dean forward by his tie, Castiel meeting him half way over the table until their noses nearly brushed, gaze still studying even as the hunter’s eyes had widened in surprise and a twinge of fear, remembering the other times he’d pushed too far.

            His eyes grew wider still as Cas closed the distance between them and pressed their mouths together, other patrons of the diner be damned. It was a soft kiss, barely more than a press of lips together before the former angel was pulling away and sitting back in his seat, his eyes fathomless and mouth curled at the corner in a way that was possessive and sad.

            “Push me away all you want, Dean, for my own sake or the sake of yourself and others,” he said lowly with a shake of his head, “but you’ll never actually be rid of me.” He winked, and it was definitely flirting. “You walking away only means I have to follow you, not that you get to leave me behind, Winchester.”

            Tongue darting out over his lips, Dean made an aborted move to reach for the hand the angel still had on the table, drawing his hands back and dropping them beneath the booth instead, gripping his knees to hide how badly he was shaking. He kept his gaze locked on the table top.

            “Cas… I will find a way to be able to bring you home one day.” He lifted his gaze, willing the angel to understand. “I just need time.” Please don’t give up, he thought. Don’t give up on this, or on me.

            Castiel nudged his foot beneath the table as he inclined his head curtly. “I’m looking forward to that day, Dean.”

            A bitter laugh escaped the blond and he shook his head, before forcing himself to meet the other man’s gaze.

            “Not as much as I am, Cas.”