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The Strength To Say

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Sometimes Dean has imagined what the words would sound like in Cas’ mouth.

Cas is blunt, taciturn at the best of times—if he and Cas ever made it to a point where they could be honest with each other, maybe he would just bite it out like something annoying, like the way he complains about having hiccups or being unable to stop laughing several minutes’ after the joke has been made. Then again, there are those moments when Cas treats him gently, when he crowds into Dean’s space to murmur truths that Dean isn’t ready to hear yet. Maybe it would be like that. Maybe Cas would speak softly. Maybe his voice would crack.

When Cas whispers, “I love you,” it doesn’t sound like anything Dean imagined. It sounds awful. It sounds like goodbye.

Dean’s throat tightens like a fist. There is this dull, aching pit in his gut and all he can think is that it isn’t supposed to happen like this. He’s supposed to have years, yet, to fumble around it, to avoid Cas’ eyes and keep his hands to himself and never tell him what he wants—Cas isn’t supposed to blurt it out with blood in his mouth.

Afterwards, it’s awkward. Almost embarrassing. Castiel stands, unsteady, staggering a little, and his hand is warm and rough and tacky with blood where Dean holds him upright. Dean holds onto him longer than Sam does—can’t figure out how to let go. Then he does, and aside from the stains on his shirt and trenchcoat, black and bloody, there is almost nothing left to suggest that it ever happened.

Castiel clears his throat, knuckles roughly at his eyes. He says nothing, but Dean can hear the shaky rasp of his breathing. Whether or not he’s miraculously in one piece again, he can’t take the words back, or the tearful desperation with which he said them.

Dean can’t look at him.

He retrieves the lance. Might need it someday—even now, shattered into pieces, it’s bound to be useful. He leads the way out of the barn, ahead of Sam and Mary, moves in quick, decisive strides across to where they left the cars, and he tries his hardest not to think.

The lance is too long to fit in the back of the Impala so he tosses it in the back of Cas’ truck, and then his hand comes up to brace against the side of the flatbed and he can’t breathe right. Thinks of coming out here without Cas. Having to decide what to do with his truck. Having decide where to build the pyre—fuck. Fuck. Out of nowhere, Dean’s eyes are stinging and there is that ice-cold, dripping grief in the core of him again.

I love you. His voice faltering, as though with fear or uncertainty. As though even then, staring down the end, Cas’ wasn’t sure whether it was worth saying.

Dean squeezes his eyes closed. He breathes through his teeth.

He can hear the footsteps coming up behind him—slow, scraping, as of someone stumbling, unsteady on their feet. Someone wandering, lost.

Castiel says, “Dean—”

Dean turns, snags him by the arm, and pulls him in. He doesn’t say anything, just gets both arms around him in a hug tight enough to bruise. He presses his face into Cas’ throat, throat thickening. He gets a hand in the back of Cas’ hair, the other fisted tight into the back of his coat. He tries to breathe. He tries to remember how.

Slowly, Cas’ arms fold around Dean’s waist.

Dean wants to say it back. God, he wants to, but the words are bottlenecking in his throat and it’s all he can do to hold it together even holding him like this. His jaw is clenched so tight that his teeth hurt, and the pressure in his chest is fierce enough that he feels like his ribs could crack with it, and he can’t say anything. His fingers tighten in Cas’ coat. He can feel that he is breathing wetly into the crook of Cas’ neck, and he is silent.

“Thank you,” Cas says, and there it is again, his stupid fucking gratitude, like he has been given more than he deserves. “Thank y—”

“Shut up,” Dean manages. Those two words betray him, his voice hoarse and scratched raw, like he’s been screaming. He almost wishes he had. Anything would be better than this terrified, cowardly silence. He backs up a step then—he’s already given himself away, no sense to carry on hiding his face in Cas’ shoulder—and scrubs a hand roughly over his face. “Shut the hell up with that—that bullshit. You don’t need to—”

Cas’ hands fall away from Dean’s sides.

Dean pushes past Cas to where Sam and Mary are loading up the Impala, tossing their guns and bloodied knives into the trunk. He keeps his head low and doesn’t look at them. His eyes are aching, and he doesn’t need his mom seeing that he’s been crying. “Mom, Sam, I’m—” God fucking damnit. He clears his throat, tries again. “I’m gonna go back with Cas. You take my car. We’ll be right behind you.”

Mary nods. “How is he feeling?”

Dean pushes the toe of his boot through the gravel, buries his hands deep in the pockets of his jacket. “Dunno. He’s not vomiting tar anymore, so he’s peachy.”

Mary makes a soft noise, huffing her breath—might be a laugh, might be something else. Hard to tell without looking. “Alright,” she allows. “We’ll see you back at the bunker.”

He’s just about brave enough to glance in Sam’s direction. Sam’s expression is carefully without judgement; his mouth tilts up in a half-smile. It’s not much but it tells Dean what he needs to know. It’s fine. You’re alright. Go get him.

Dean ducks his head and goes.

Back at his truck, Cas is in the driver’s seat. Dean shakes his head as he walks over.

“Nice try,” Dean says. “Move over.”

“I’m fine,” Cas says, even as he shifts up to let Dean into the front—by this point, he must realise that arguing with Dean on things like this is a lost cause. He hands over the keys.

Dean doesn’t answer. He doesn’t turn over the engine immediately, either. He shuts the door and he just sits there, in the dark and the quiet, with Cas two feet away across the bench-seat. They don’t look at each other.

Ahead of them, Sam slams the trunk of the Impala. He speaks to Mary over the roof of the car, and then they climb in. After a moment, they pull away into the night. The twin red eyes of their tail-lights are visible for several hundred yards down the long straight of the road, and Dean watches them go without speaking.

Cas isn’t watching. He looks instead out of the side window. “I’m tired,” he says quietly. “Can we go home?”

The word home sounds foreign in his mouth, like he’s trying out some new vocabulary and he isn’t accustomed yet to the pronunciation of it.

Dean jangles the key distractedly in one hand. Only the one key—nothing else on the fob. No key to the bunker; no key to his own room.

He is acutely aware of his own breathing, the stillness between them. The longer he waits without speaking, the worse it gets, until the silence echoes in the space between their bodies and Dean can hear his pulse in his ears. He shifts his feet in the foot-well, his boots creaking. He takes a deep breath, steels himself to speak.

Cas says, “Let’s not talk about it.”

Dean nods. He pushes the truck’s keys into the ignition, but doesn’t turn them. He yanks them back out. “What you said in there—” he starts, and gets no further.

Cas lets his breath out, slow, like he’s deflating. He sags in his seat, tilting his weight heavily against the door on the far side. “Dean, I said let’s not—”

“No, I want to talk about it,” Dean says. “I want to talk about how it took a goddamn poisoned angel spear to your intestines for you to say anything.”

Cas sits very still. His hands, in his lap, are loose, lethargic. “I assumed you knew.”

Dean beats an agitated fist on the side of the steering wheel. It takes him a long time to answer. “I mean—yeah. Yeah, I knew.”

“So why do the circumstances matter?” Cas’ voice is quiet, heavy. “It isn’t as though you would have done anything.”

That fucking hurts. It hits Dean too hard, too fast, for him to keep from flinching. It’s one thing, knowing that he’s a coward, too terrified of being happy to do anything about it; it’s another to have Cas throw it in his face. It’s humiliating: here, Dean, is what you could have if you could only find the stomach to reach for it.

“Jesus,” he mutters. “Say what you think, Cas.”

He thinks sometimes—cruelly, perhaps—that Cas has got too used to falling, has crash-landed in the dirt and fought his way back up so many times that he leaps now without looking. Dean can’t even get off the ground.

Cas surprises him, then. He turns in his seat to face Dean. In the low light, illuminated only by a distant street-lamp, sparse details of his face are picked out—his jaw, the line of his nose, the furrow of his brow—leaving him alien, unknowable. Dean wants to touch him so badly that it aches in his throat.

Cas says, “Prove me wrong.”

It throws Dean off-balance. He wanted a second chance, an opportunity to be honest with Cas without a knife at their throats. He didn’t expect it like this. He blinks at Cas. “What?”

“You want different circumstances? I love you.” Cas’ voice is soft, but brooks no resistance.

Dean’s throat closes off. “Cas—”

“I love you,” Cas says again. This one is closer to the way Dean imagined it—low, earnest, unexpected. The shape of his mouth in the dark. “Dean, I love you.”

“Yeah,” Dean manages, and his voice cracks. “Yeah, okay.”

“You have changed me irrevocably, and I am immensely thankful for every moment I have with you—even when you’re belligerent and uncommunicative—and I—”

The rest is lost; Dean gets a hand curled into the collar of Cas’ jacket and he kisses him.

Cas makes a soft noise in the back of his throat, gets two hands up to cradle Dean’s jaw with a gentleness and reverence that makes that awful, scraped-hollow pit in the centre of Dean start up aching again. Dean crowds him back against the door of the truck, pushes in closer until his nose is crushed against Cas’ cheek, and keeps his eyes closed.

He kisses his mouth, over and over, dragging in scattered, shaky breaths, and he can’t find the words for, I love you, too, but he presses it into Cas’ skin. He traces hesitant, trembling fingertips over Cas’ hip, over the place where the wound has healed over.

Cas catches his hand, threads his fingers through Dean’s. “I’m fine,” he murmurs into the corner of Dean’s mouth. “It’s alright.”

Dean stares at their tangled fingers, his thumb rubbing a distracted, instinctive rhythm of comfort over the backs of Cas’ knuckles. “Scared the hell out of me,” he says. “Thought you were—”

“I know,” Cas says.

“Thought I wasn’t gonna get to—”

Cas’ lifts his other hand back to Dean’s face, brushes his thumb over Dean’s bottom lip. “I know.”

“You know everything, huh,” Dean mutters, but he can’t meet Cas’ eyes. He swallows. His voice is very small, then: “You know I, uh.”

Cas’ hand becomes still.

Dean’s throat works. “You know,” he says faintly. “You know I—that I love—”

That’s as far as he gets. Dean drops his head, chin tucked into his chest, and studiously avoids looking at Cas, his face burning.

“I didn’t,” Cas says quietly, and there is something soft and shaky in his voice, all awe and understanding and wonder until he sounds full to bursting with it and close to tears again. His hand sweeps slowly across Dean’s cheek, over his jaw, to palm over the back of his neck and pull him in again. “I do now.”