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Long Way from Home

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Dean drives with both hands on the wheel. White knuckled, braced for impact.

Three in the morning, rain wet asphalt, Impala flying down the highway at well past ninety.

The engine growls, the tires scrape the slick pavement, fighting for traction. Dean is silent, mouth curled in a sneer, brow furrowed. The radio is off; cassettes under the seat that Dean has always thought of as Sammy’s—he glances at it from the corner of his eye and redoubles his grip on the wheel. No one’s riding shotgun, no one can ride shotgun. Dean’s jaw clenches and he hits the gas.

Nothing ahead but miles of regret, and he doesn’t want to keep it waiting.

¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬
Castiel doesn’t know what to do with Sam. He sits curled towards the window of Castiel’s car, a tense, quiet mountain, trying to occupy as little space as possible, but radiating tension. It’s a strange thing; having a car; stranger still to have the younger Winchester brother ‘riding shotgun.’ Castiel glances over at Sam periodically, but he’s never been good at what people would call ‘small talk,’ and he’s even less certain how to approach someone who is so clearly upset. He doesn’t want to make the situation worse through social ineptitude, so he allows Sam his silence and concentrates on the mechanics of taking them both from Pennsylvania to Kansas without the use of his wings.

Castiel’s borrowed grace feels familiar and alien at once, settles uncomfortably inside of him. His wings exist only as phantom appendages, a pain he suspects he’ll always carry. He attempts to ignore the discomfort. They drive in silence through two states, until Sam falls asleep and the quiet is punctuated by his soft snores. His newly restored ‘mojo’ makes rest unnecessary, so he continues their journey through the night and into the following afternoon.

He wishes Dean were here. It’s amazing, Castiel muses, how frequently that thought has been at the forefront of his mind in recent times. “If Dean were here…” or “What would Dean do…” or “I miss him…”

He understands why he could not go with Dean; knows why he is needed here, but the separation aches, as it always does. His foray into humanity served only to define that ache in new and more painful ways.

When they arrive at the bunker, Sam is slow to waken, appears groggy and disoriented, but refuses Castiel’s offer of help. He takes in the wrecked furniture just inside the door: Kevin’s abandoned work station, the broken lamp, the flipped chairs. A muscle in his jaw jumps and his fists ball at his sides.

“I—uh, I’ll clean up,” Castiel suggests, “You should rest.”

Sam looks like he might argue, but instead he nods sharply, and stalks away, leaving Cas alone with the remnants of Dean’s grief.
Over the next two weeks Sam heals, and Castiel hoovers, carefully monitoring his progress. He sleeps more than is strictly normal, but otherwise continues to improve physically. Sam is clearly troubled, angry, resentful, and Castiel suspects that his exhaustion extends well beyond the corporeal. Sam maintains that he “isn’t ready to talk about it.” He keeps his anger with Dean from spilling over to Castiel, channels it into cataloguing and reading, and Castiel thinks that that might be enough for now. The brothers need time apart; need time to nurse their wounds separately. Castiel understands that all too well. He carefully watches over Sam, knows that is what Dean wants, but he cannot help but be unsettled by Dean’s absence even as Sam recovers.

Dean doesn’t pray to Castiel, and the silence is a small bereavement, worse, in its way, than losing the ability to hear prayers all together. Sometimes at night, after clearing away the dishes and making sure that Sam is settled in the library, Castiel will wander to Dean’s room. His feet lead him there without his conscious direction, and he hesitates on the threshold, unsure of his welcome. Things have been so uneasy between them for so long. There is so much he wishes could be different, and he is unsure if his desire for closeness is an act of betrayal, a violation of trust so fragile already.

Dean’s room is undamaged. It is neat, orderly, well cared for, clearly cherished. Castiel stands still for a moment, breathing deeply before he wanders a familiar path. His fingers trail gently over the keys of the typewriter and the well-worn spines of the books that rest on Dean’s desk—Vonnegut, Homer, Martin, Bukowski—each a subtle nod to Dean’s intellect, each a friend, carefully kept through the years and miles that finally brought him home. Castiel regards the much loved photograph of Mary with reverence and affection, offers the memento of Dean’s childhood a tiny smile, touched by sorrow. He wonders what it would have been like if Dean had invited him into this space, how it would have been for Dean to ask him to come in, to show him, perhaps with that unique blend of shyness, pride, and embarrassment, couched in bravado, this place that he has carved for himself in such a cruel world. This space that is so personal, so intimate, such a clear reflection on the man that Castiel has come to treasure above all others...

The human capacity for imagination, for longing, has not left him. It is both a blessing and a curse to be haunted and taunted by “what ifs?”

He perches carefully on the very edge of Dean’s bed, careful not to disturb the tidily arranged blankets and he clasps his hands loosely. Castiel bows his head and he prays.

He prays for Dean to come back; for Sam and Dean to reconcile. He prays for Dean’s safety and Sam’s health. He prays for courage and clarity. He prays for another chance. He prays for the touch of Dean’s hands and the kindness of his eyes. He prays that Dean will know how much he is loved, how much he is cherished, how much he matters. He prays not to some nameless father, nor to his warring siblings. He prays to the one thing that he believes in in this whole universe. He prays to Dean and he hopes against all hope that Dean can hear his prayers.

¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬
Dean kills two ghouls in New York, cleans out a vamp nest in Ohio. He sprains his wrist during a Wendigo hunt in Michigan, gets thrown across the abandoned mine, and lands hard before he can fry the bastard.
Careless. That’s what Bobby would call it, but Dean doesn’t give a fuck. He’s had worse than a concussion and a few bruises, and he deserves a hell of a lot more. He forgets when he’s on the hunt. He can bury the pain and the grief in the adrenaline, but, at night, alone, sore and aching—he’s not as young as he used to be—in some random motel, he turns his phone over and over in his hands.

There’s a twisting knot in his stomach and a mantra in his head—SamCasSamCasSamCas—he hopes they’re okay. He knows they’re better off without him. He knows, but he imagines the two of them eating dinner or talking, and the scene that should bring him comfort makes him want to throw his phone across the room and scream.

I’m sorry, he wants to say.

I don’t want to hurt you, he thinks, not any more.

It’s my fault.

He buries his face in the pillow. His sleep is troubled, dark with hellfire, blood, and the familiar faces of the damned.

¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬
Sam doesn’t want to talk about it. Not this. Not with anyone. He’s brusque and avoidant, when, in other circumstances, he would be, perhaps not eloquent, but definitely vocal about his feelings. This…it’s just too much, and he can barely dance around the issue in his own head without feeling an overwhelming desire to break something, but Dean’s already broken two lamps, several plates, and the bindings of no fewer than five antique books, so Sam restrains himself. There’s a dark pride in being better than his brother in this respect at least.

He was glad when Cas had cleaned up, so that he couldn’t see the evidence of what he had done, what he had wrought. It didn’t matter what Cas, or Dean, or fucking Crowley said to the contrary. He felt Kevin’s blood on his hands—a cloying, clinging, heavy sensation. He takes two showers a day and scrubs his hands thoroughly in the sink, until his palms are chapped and his knuckles are lobster red and bleeding, but he cannot get rid of the sensation of uncleanliness, the weight of guilt. Kevin is just the tip of the iceberg…there are so many missing moments…months of missing moments and he has no idea…

He tries to focus on the task at hand: organizing the archives, trying to find a way to track Gadreel (whom Cas consistently reminds him, is the real culprit) and Metatron. He knows more about angel physiology after two weeks than he’d even thought possible and they’re still no closer to tracing the bastard.

Cas is worried about Dean. Sam can tell. The angel’s face is tense and drawn and his eyes constantly hold a question. He pleads Dean’s case whenever he can, but Sam cuts him off quickly with sharp words and sharper gestures. “I’m not ready, Cas,” he tells him, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Just drop it, all right?” he snaps, “He left, he’s gone, just leave it alone.”

He as good as told Dean to go, but that doesn’t change the fact that his brother had actually gone; vanished into the night for points unknown, for a fucking vengeance quest that would make their dad proud. Anger and self-righteousness curl thick and heady in his chest. Cas nods, mouth a thin line, sadness in his eyes that somehow, gives a millennia old being a strong resemblance to a kicked puppy.

He knows why Dean did what he did. He knows the desperation that powered the decision, but, he shouldn’t have done it. After everything they’d been through; after everything, how in the hell could Dean possibly think that…Sam takes a deep steadying breath through his nose and rubs a hand over his eyes. His brother hadn’t thought at all, and that, he decided, was the problem.

¬¬
The alcohol makes everything simultaneously better and worse. Dean’s not clearheaded enough to be sure. Everything is pleasantly foggy; a dampened blanket laid over all the mental anguish—things are quieter after he spends a little quality time with John, Jack and Jose. He can still function. He comes from a long line of functioning alcoholics, but after his time at the bunker, he’s gone soft, doesn’t take as much to get him to a good place. He doesn’t ever let himself get to the point of a hangover, and he doesn’t give a fuck.

Sleazy bars, skuzzy motels, a string of shitty food and no sleep—that’s his life now. It’s what he was raised to be after all.

Disappointment haunts him. Judgment lies heavy on the faces of those who know him. How have the mighty fallen, he laughs. He can feel the weight of his father’s disappointment in Tara’s glare. The pity in the eyes of bartenders and servers, asking him if he’s okay, if he needs a lift, want them to call someone for him.

“Isn’t your family worried about you, pal?”

Dean knocks back another shot, laughs derisively.

Cas texts him at least once a day.

“Where are you?”

“Please, come home.”

“Sam is improving.”

“Dean, we can fix this.”

“Please, answer.”

He hasn’t replied to a single one, but he scrolls through them like a fucking masochist at night, when he’s finally had enough, when he’s alone and exhausted, and drunk enough that he can barely stand the thrill and ache that Cas’ messages give him.

The brand burns on his arm, a constant needling pain that flares and recedes. He touches it absently, traces its raised edges beneath his shirt, wonders if Cas will even be able to fucking look at him when he finds out what he’s done.

When “Highway to Hell” plays in the bar he laughs coldly, almost hysterically, he barely notices the wetness on his cheeks.

Later that night, leaning over the sink, he catches slight of his reflection, the barest glimpse of his face and he punches the bathroom mirror without even thinking, a swirling helix of hate, thick and sharp rises to the back of his throat and the glass shatters. Dean relishes the sting, flexing his hand, watching the blood run across and between his fingers. It’s fitting.

 

Sam is healing quickly physically and mentally, and Castiel is relieved. Their relationship continues to mend as well. Conversations long overdue and regrets long unspoken now aired and absolved (in so far as possible) lend an air of amity that has not existed between them in years. Nevertheless, he worries for Sam; for his soul, for his peace of mind, he worries about the way Sam’s anger festers within him.

That is almost nothing compared to Castiel’s worry for Dean, which has attained previously unattainable heights. Though Castiel no longer requires food or sleep, his growing concern manifests in physiological sensations. He feels nausea, and tension, as if all of his muscles are preparing to leap at the slightest provocation. Something in the general region of Castiel’s heart clenches unpleasantly at the slightest mention or thought of Dean, and this feeling intensifies whenever he imagines Dean alone, injured, dead. It’s intolerable—those situations are intolerable, untenable. Castiel has a new appreciation for the phrase ‘worried sick.’ He has developed a nervous twitch—clenching and unclenching his hand, almost astounded by the movement.

Dean still does not pray to Castiel. He does not reply to Castiel messages. He does not answer when Castiel calls. Castiel’s worry increases exponentially the longer that Dean remains silent. His mind provided increasingly incredulous and increasingly desperate reasons that Dean doesn’t respond to him.

Sam is also concerned, though, his anger and resentment towards his brother take precedence.

“Dean can take care of himself, Cas,” he says when Castiel voices his worry.

Castiel glowers at Sam, looking down upon him, with something like angelic fury, but he raises his brows with all too human incredulity, “Do you really believe that?”

Sam clenches his jaw and sighs.
“You and your brother need to talk,” Castiel states.

“Cas,” Sam half groans, “we have nothing to talk about.”

“Sam,” Castiel says warningly, “that is untrue. The importance of things that you have to discuss outweighs your reluctance to do so. Separation is doing no one any favors.”

Sam stares at Cas like he’s never seen him before.

“You said that your brother did not understand ‘the problem’” Castiel continues, “Perhaps you should try explaining it to him.”

Sam grits his teeth, “Fine.”

That’s how, roughly twelve hours later, with the aid of Sam’s technological prowess, Castiel finds himself standing outside a motel room in central Michigan.

He knocks on the door, waits for a moment, knocks again. There is another uncomfortable twist in his heart as he waits.

Castiel raises his hand to knock once more just as the door is torn upon with tremendous force.

“What the—,” Dean begins, angrily, before spotting Castiel. His jaw drops and his eyes widen in shock, “Cas.”

“Hello, Dean,” he doesn’t know what else to say. It’s been a little over a month. Dean is agape, not a foot away, and Castiel is unbelievably relieved to find him alive, something inside him flutters wanting to take flight, to rejoice, despite the fact that Dean does not look particularly pleased to see him.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Dean sounds defeated more than anything else. Caught with the proverbial hand in the cookie jar. His voice is deeper, rougher. His clothing is rumpled and unwashed. Dean’s hand trembles slightly, his eyes are bloodshot, framed by dark circles. His facial hair has grown out into a beard, unkempt and grizzled. He clutches his forearm reflexively.

Castiel narrows his eyes, taking it all in.

“I came for you,” he replies, puzzled. He would have thought the answer obvious once…he had always come for Dean, just as he always would.

“Jesus fucking—” Dean rubs a hand across his face and for the barest moment Castiel fears that he will be turned away; told to leave, have the door slam in his face, but then—“just get in here.”

The accommodations are less than ideal, Castiel notes. Dean has not been here long, but the available surfaces are strewn with empty liquor bottles and damaged property. The bed is poorly made and the room smells of sweat, cheap detergent, and stale whiskey. Castiel traces his fingers across the dresser; one of the drawers has been removed, thrown against the opposite wall, where it now rests in three separate pieces. He thinks of Dean’s room in the bunker—the neatly made bed, his folded clothes, treasured possessions held in places of honor. Why has Dean forsaken his home, himself, for this?

 

Dean has never felt so uncomfortable in his life. He can feel the embarrassment like tangible thing, all-consuming and stifling. He rubs a hand against the back of his neck as Cas surveys the damage. He never wanted Cas to see him like this. He never wanted Cas to see him as he saw himself. For fuck’s sake, the guy had seen him in hell, wasn’t that enough? Wasn’t that enough shame for one lifetime?

“I, ah, didn’t expect company or I woulda cleaned up a bit,” he snarks; it comes out more genuinely apologetic and genuinely ashamed than he would have liked. He feels unsteady, disconnected, overwhelmed. He wonders if he might be sick. His heart is beating too fast; he was calmer facing the hordes of hell, outnumbered twenty to one, than he is now standing in this room alone under Cas’ scrutiny.

Cas turns to face him and his heart goes into triple time. The piercing gaze is fixed on him, and he’s terrified that somehow Cas knows, but he just tilts his head to the side. His eyes wide and sad for some reason, and Dean doesn’t like that. Not at all.

“You didn’t respond to my messages,” Cas states.

“Must suck,” Dean retorts, snidely.

Cas ducks his head, abashed, apologetic. He knows just as well as Dean does how many unanswered fucking messages lie between them. Castiel is basically the king of unanswered prayers, so he can fucking suck it up and deal. Dean tries to focus on his anger, his righteous fury; it’s easier than remembering how hard it was not to reply to Cas; how many times he’d reread the messages, how many times he had picked up the phone ready to call back, just to hear his voice on the damn voicemail, only to put it down because he couldn’t, because he wasn’t even worthy of that measure of fucking comfort.

“I perhaps deserved that,” Cas admits, he looks up at Dean again, “but you, do not deserve this.”

He gestures expansively at the room, the destruction, Dean himself.

Dean rubs his eyes; he’s just so fucking tired of everything, “Just go, Cas.”

Cas huffs slightly and shakes his head, “All these years, and you still don’t think you deserve to be saved.”

Dean remembers a barn, sparks, wings, and his own hammering heart (“Good things do happen.” “Not in my experience.”)

Dean laughs and it’s a hollow, empty sound, “’s cause I don’t.”

Less so now than ever.

“Not everything is your fault, Dean,” he continues, relentless, “you did what you thought was right—”

“Yeah, and look what it’s got me?” he spits, “Cas, I’m bad news, man. For fuck’s sake, I’ve gotten you killed how many times now?”—as if Dean doesn’t remember each and every one in vivid detail, as if they don’t still haunt his nightmares—“my dad, Bobby, Kevin, Jo, Ellen, you want me to keep goin’? It’s a long fucking list.”

Cas stares at Dean so intensely, with such fucking pity that Dean has to look away.

“You and Sam are better off without me,” he concludes, “so just get out of here.”

“No,” Cas says. He sits down next to Dean on the bed. Perched on the edge, close enough that their knees are brushing and Dean wants to run away before he can drag Cas further down into the muck with him.

“I have made bad choices for what I thought were the ‘right’ reasons,” Cas reminds him softly, “many times and at great cost…” he looks at Dean, and even though Dean refuses to meet his eyes, he can feel Cas’ gaze on his skin, sending shivers across his spine, “yet, still, you believed that we could ‘fix it,’ that we could make it right.”

“Cas—”

“You are not the only one among us who has made a bad choice, Dean, why are you the only one who doesn’t deserve forgiveness?”

Because I’m the fucking root of the problem. Because the mistakes that you’ve made were my fault, because I should have done better, been better, I should have stopped you. I should have stopped Sam. I should have stopped myself.

“You said we were family once,” Castiel continues, and Dean’s heart stops when a hand comes to rest on his shoulder, “and I am asking you to come home, because we need you—” Cas’ hand shifts, hesitantly, it brushes against Dean’s cheek, and Dean flinches from the soft touch—he doesn’t deserve it, but god, does he want it. There’s something wounded in Cas’ eyes as Dean finally looks at him, something wounded and worried and something else, something warm and welcome and fucking terrifying—“I need you.”

Dean turns away. Shakes his head.

“Please.”

¬When they arrive at the Bunker, Dean goes to his room and sleeps for fifteen hours. When he wakes up, he refuses Cas angelic hangover cure all. He takes a long, hot shower, trying to scrub away the past. As always, he has little success in the endeavor. He does manage to remove the top layer of filth, so that’s at least something. He doesn’t shave. He can’t stand looking at his reflection for the length of time it would take to get rid of the beard.

Cas makes breakfast, which has Dean’s eyes almost popping out of his head in shock, but Cas shrugs and places eggs, toast, and coffee on the table in front of him. It’s the best food he’s eaten in what feels like an eternity.

Sam is pissed. Dean has not seen Sam this pissed in years, and Sam has every right. For a fleeting moment he wishes they could fix this like they had as children; a well-deserved punch to the face, before they would move on. Given his present infraction, Sam could probably beat him to death and it would not compensate for his actions.

The fight goes about as well as one would expect. Castiel is a strange sort of referee, who intervenes when things get too out of hand.

“—it’s not about your track record, Dean, it’s about the fact that this was my decision, mine, not yours, and you couldn’t even respect—”

“—I couldn’t just let you die—”

“That is the fucking problem!”

“You want me to just give up on you?”

“No, I want you to give me a choice.”

“To commit fucking suicide?”

“To live or die on my own damn terms.”

“Sam—I can’t lose you.”

“We’ve been here before, Dean—we just keep going in circles—your soul for my life, my life for revenge, your life for mine—we just keep doing this and it doesn’t end—it has to end.”

“Sam, I can’t.”

“Well you’re gonna have to, because that’s the only way this is going to work.”

Sam rises to his feet, and, for all that he walks out calmly, he slams the door behind him. Dean sits alone at the table, running his hand over the mark, haunted by memories he’d rather forget.
______________________________________________________________________________

He and Sam reach something of an impasse. They’re cordial enough, but their conversation echoes between them unpleasantly. It’s awkward mostly. Dean knows Sam is right, but…even admitting that to himself goes against every instinct he has. He’s not sure that, if push comes to shove, he won’t do everything in his power to bring his brother back.

Dean goes to find Cas that night. Cas is in his room, the one that Dean made for him; the one with the blue blankets and the framed painting of stormy sea on the wall. He feels strangely embarrassed that Cas should be here, feels intrusive when he knocks on the door of a space that he created. He wonders if Cas hates it, feels a stinging pang of regret when he remembers that Cas never got to spend the night here when he actually needed to sleep, when he was human and could feel the softness of the sheets and the warmth of the bed.

Cas looks up from the book that he’s reading and, when he sees Dean, places it down and beckons him inside.

“So, you, ah, found this, huh?”

Cas looks confused for a moment before he realizes to what Dean is referring.

“Yes,” Cas nods, “thank you.”

Dean snorts derisively, “Not like you actually got to use it when you needed it.”

Cas frowns, “I don’t blame you for that.”

Dean rolls his eyes, “Now,” he corrects.

Cas bites his lip, “Now that I understand your reasons, yes, at the time I was a bit…” he hesitates and his face looks troubled, deeply so, and Dean hates himself even more, “forsaken.”

“I didn’t—”

“You already apologized.”

“Yeah, well, doesn’t really feel like it’s making anything better.”

He closes the door and sits down on the edge of the bed, loosely folds his hands together and rests his elbows on his knees. Cas watches him carefully.

“Do you think Sam is right?”

Cas leans forward, unconsciously mirroring Dean’s posture, “About what?”

“Me,” Dean continues, “being the only one who gets to have Free Will…”

Cas hesitates, organizing his thoughts, his fingers flex and clench around one another, and, when he finally answers he’s watching the motion of his own hands, rather than Dean’s expression, “I think, that you have a great capacity for love, Dean, you love fiercely and unconditionally; and this sometimes leads you to be overly protective of those that you care for, take responsibility for their actions, and, yes, sometime refuse them the ability to make their own choices.”

Dean’s jaw clenches and he nods tightly.

“Those choices are not your responsibility, Dean,” he continues, and he looks at Dean this time, his brow furrowed and his eyes wide, “their repercussions are not your fault.”

Dean persists “So you think Sam’s right?”

Cas tilts his head, shrugs his shoulders, “Sam deserves to live and die as he chooses, but you deserve the same.”

Dean inhales deeply through his nose and nods again.

“I understand why you did what you did…” Cas’ gaze is understanding, gentle, it’s painful for Dean to have it focused upon him, “Sam does, too. He’ll forgive you. He just needs time.”

He pauses and bites his lower lip; Dean’s never seen him do that before, it’s strange somehow to see the way that humanity has left its traces in Cas, the shades and shadows of experiences that Dean should have shared with him, but didn’t.

“You should forgive yourself,” Cas tells him softly, and Dean laughs, harsh and biting.

“Fat chance.”

“Dean—” Cas sounds pained, agonized.

Something burns at the back of Dean’s throat, “Drop it, Cas,” he spits.

Cas straightens and fixes Dean with a penetrating gaze that he hasn’t seen in years. It’s pure Castiel, Angel of the Lord, “No.”

Dean is inadvertently cowed, blinking at Cas’ determination, his intensity, as it shifts from something divine to something bizarrely, achingly human.

“Cas—” Dean begins, trying to warn him off, make a joke or dissuade him, but Cas is suddenly on his knees before Dean, and his hands resting atop Dean’s own, and Dean wants to shove him away, flinch back and run because he is dirty he is trash he is fucked up and wrong and Cas shouldn’t be able to even be in the same room as him at him let alone touch him so reverently, look at him like he’s fucking precious. It’s wrong. It’s so wrong. Cas is kneeling in front of him and he shouldn’t, he should be casting Dean back into the Pit where he belongs.

His eyes burn and his throat is closed shut, tightened uncomfortably around a lump that’s formed there.

“Dean,” Cas voice is a low rumble, but it is tender and soft, and it feels like a slap to his face, Dean cringes away, but Cas maintains a hand against Dean’s and he reaches the other to cradle Dean’s cheek, “Dean, look at me.”

He does. Cas’ eyes are so bright, they’re so sad, and they’re filled with so much fucking affection that Dean can barely stand to see it. It’s like looking into the sun, it leaves afterimages burned into your retinas, bright colors blossoming behind closed eyelids, tears forming in the corners. It’s overwhelming; it’s undeserved.

“Cas,” he tries, forces the word out; it feels like his voice has been scraped raw, dragged over glass.

“Dean, you are worthy,” he whispers, he strokes his thumb against Dean’s cheekbone, brushes his hand back to card his fingers through Dean’s hair. His touch is gentle, like he’s afraid that he might break, like he cannot believe that he has been given the gift, the privilege to even look upon him, let alone touch him, like Dean is the most precious thing he’s ever seen, the most important. Dean is held in place by that reverence, suddenly afraid to breathe.

Cas raises one of Dean’s hand to his mouth and he places a kiss to the palm, against the thickest callouses and scars, his eyes on Dean’s all the while; Dean can hear his heartbeat in his ears, “You are brave,” he rests his mouth against each of Dean’s fingers in turn, “You are kind.”

Cas threads their fingers together and he raises himself up onto his knees so that he and Dean are face to face, so that Dean can see the flecks of silver in Cas’s eyes and the three freckles on the bridge of his nose, and the way his pulse beats in his throat.

He places his mouth to Dean’s forehead, and Dean blinks hard against the benediction, “You are brilliant,” there’s wetness on Dean’s cheeks, his vision blurs. Cas’ hand is back against his cheek, warm and soft, and he looks at Dean again, awed; he hesitates for only a moment before he presses his lips against Dean’s, as if afraid that Dean will turn him away. His mouth is warm and wet; and he pulls back just as Dean begins to respond; presses their foreheads together, “You are beautiful, Dean.”

“Cas, I’m—”

“You are the best man I know,” Cas interrupts, “you are worth—”

Dean can’t take anymore, he can’t hear any more, so he surges forward before he can stop himself and he kisses Cas. He kisses Cas deeply and openly, with his heart overflowing in his chest and his pulse pounding in his veins. He kisses Cas with everything he’s got in his twisted fucking soul. He kisses Cas like he’s imagined for years, and, yet, like he’s never imagined at all, because the reality is better—the reality is here and now, Cas tongue warm and wet against his own, Cas’ neck, alive beneath his palm, and Cas’ hand pulling him in, wanting him, needing him—it’s more than Dean deserves, it’s more than—

It’s a wrench, but he pulls back, stops, and, fuck, Cas’ hair is messy and his pupils are blown wide, and his lips are red and swollen and he’s gorgeous, so fucking gorgeous, and Dean wants, but…

“Cas, we can’t,” his voice is firm and pained.

Cas breathes heavily, whether from necessity or habit, Dean’s not sure.

“Dean, I lo—”

“Don’t,” he barks, and Cas looks as if he’d been slapped, but he’s rallying quickly to volley back, and Dean can’t stand it, “Just don’t, Cas, you wouldn’t if you knew what I’ve done.”

Cas frowns, “I don’t understand.” He’s seen Dean grieving and fighting and living and dying; he’s seen torture and pain and defeat, he’s seen Dean at his best and Dean at his worst, and fuck all, he’s seen Dean’s fucking soul, and he doesn’t understand how damned he truly his, and Dean wants to throw something, break something, because it would hurt lest that this ache in his chest.

He tears up his sleeve, viciously, and turns away from the glaring red brand set into his forearm. He turns away from Cas’ face because he can’t stand to see that warmth turn to ice. He’s fucking lived that once already and he can’t do it again, even if he deserves it. He grinds his teeth and waits, staring at the far wall, the picture of a storm tossed sea.

“Oh, Dean,” Cas’ voice is a soft, broken thing. Gentle fingers trace the mark, and it’s enough to startle Dean, to have him turn and face Cas. His eyes are wide and sorrowful, but not disgusted, and somehow, that’s worse; harsh judgment and rejection would have been easier, would have had Dean out into the night again, alone, detached; this…this is, it’s overwhelming, it’s an anchor lodged in his sternum that pulls him towards Cas when he would have run away, “What have you done?”

Dean’s gut twists with hatred, with the desire to run and never look back, but Cas’ hand is a tether, keeping him there, so he snaps, angrily, bitterly, “I was damned anyway,” he laughs and it’s a mirthless, sharp thing, “figured I might as well go down swinging.”

“You will not be damned,” Cas’ voice is fierce, brooks no argument.

“Not much you can do about that, Cas,” he retorts.

“Dean Winchester,” Cas says and he’s forcing Dean to meet his determined gaze, the ferocity of his intent, “you will not go to hell.”

“Yeah, what’re you gonna do about it?”

Cas’ spine straightens, and, if he still had wings, Dean would lay money that they would be flared wide, “I will find a way.”

“Now, who’s not giving someone a choice?”

Cas’s eyes narrow into a glare, “As I said, it is a side effect of fierce, unconditional love.”

Dean blinks, slack jawed, for once, without a sharp retort.

“You,” Cas surges up and meets Dean’s gaze, lays a hand against his shoulder; a brand that has long since vanished, but a connection that remains, “have the brightest, most beautiful soul that I have ever seen,” Dean scoffs, but Cas glares him into silence, “you do not deserve to go to hell; and I will not allow you to throw yourself away like that. Do you understand me?”

Dean is floored by Cas’ face, by the depth of emotion, by the desperation. He’s afraid, Dean realizes, startled, he’s afraid of this.

“Cas—I…I’m sorry,” he mutters. For everything really, for fucking up his family, for getting Cas killed, for dragging him through this shit, for not being there when he should have been, for letting Cas think he was worthless and alone; for missed opportunities, and stupid decisions, and the look on Cas’ face right now.

“You are infuriating,” Cas admits, low and deep, “but we will fix this.”

He searches Dean’s eyes, traces the lines of Dean’s face. Dean places his hand on Cas’ wrist and, when Cas places a kiss against his mouth, Dean turns it from something careful into something desperate, holding on for dear life.

Yeah, he thinks, as Cas slides his hand against his side, as he moves against Cas and breathes him in, Yeah, we will.