Dean’s eyes droop, words on the page blurring considerably. Neat lines become scribbles and those grow infinitely larger the closer his head dips towards the book. He catches himself seconds before he completely presses his face against the book. Drags rough and bruising hands over his face, attempting to claw the tiredness off like its a cheap face mask. Most of the suds wipe away. A few linger, stuck in the creases and lines of age. Having been there for far longer than he likes thinking about, Dean leaves them and returns to reading.
Half a page later and he hears footsteps. They grow louder with each passing beat until the figure rounds the corner. Dean stiffens when Cas comes into view, relaxing only when the other man sees him.
Cas freezes under the entryway, a bottle of beer in his hand. Squinting, he studies Dean. “You’re still up?”
Dean nods, snatching the book and wiggling it slightly. “Chuck isn’t gonna kill himself… as much as that would make our lives easier.”
Huffing in agreement, Cas slowly shuffles over to where Dean sits. Trails gentle fingers across the page closest to Dean’s hand while the other brings the neck of the bottle towards his lips. Dean watches the other man sip his beer. Thirst tugging at his own heart. Cas senses his heavy gaze and turns to him, Dean slinking back in shame with cherry-stained cheeks. “I’m sorry,” he says, “do you want me to get you one -”
“No, no,” he waves the offer off. Clearing his throat, Dean attempts to climb out of the turtle shell he hid in. No such luck. Dean continues talking to his lap. “I’ve drank enough beer for a lifetime.”
Cas scoffs, twisting Dean’s nerves. “Really? Shocking words to hear from you, Dean.”
“Yeah, well,” he shrugs, “I’ve decided I need to make some changes. Starting… small.”
“Not drinking small?”
“Something like that.”
Drinking is one thing. Changing his clothes was another. After leaving the infirmary Dean dragged his duffel to his room and shoved it into a corner. Then Dean stripped until he wore nothing. Throwing on a random shirt and pants he detoured towards the incinerator to drop his clothes in. Undershirt, blood-stained jeans, even his boxers and both socks. And especially the red shirt. Dean waited until the button-down sparked alight and left it for the War Room. Took up his brother’s station while he recovered. “Making up for lost time,” he calls it.
Dean stretches under the table, crossing his feet at the ankle. Tries on an air of casualness like an ill-fitting suit. “What about you?” he asks, “Anything change since you left”
Silence rolls in like the tide, drenching them in its awkwardness. In its wake Dean curses his mouth for bringing up that horrible memory. As if he didn’t already relive it every night when he stares at his ceiling hoping for sleep. Cas’s face burned in the darkness between each blink, the last he ever thought he would see of him.
Chuck’s return has its blessings.
Cas tips the bottle towards him, scowling. “Do you really care?”
Ice claws plunge into his chest, puncturing his heart. “What -”
“Look,” He interrupts, moving away, “you don’t have to ‘play nice’ with me. Sam’s with Eileen… you can return to your research. I’ll… I don’t know, I’ll see if there’s anything good on Netflix.”
Dean jumps from his chair, grabbing the other man’s wrist and holding tight. “No!” he says, voice soft and shaking. Clearing his throat, he drains some of the panic from his tone. “No… you don’t have to leave. You can… you can stay.”
A wry chuckle breezes past his lips. His brows scrunch in confusion while sick delight flickers across Cas’s face. “Really?” he asks, “You want me here?”
“...Why wouldn’t I?”
“A loaded question,” Cas tells him, “but… why would you want me here when it means the risk of things going wrong .”
Dean’s shoulders sag from the weight of his past anger, the toxic from that moment sapping his strength. “That’s, that’s not true -”
“I mean I arrive and the first thing that happens is I almost kill Sam,” he scoffs, “If I didn’t have Eileen or Bobby on hand I doubt things would have ended much differently.” Cas squints, trembling with the force of a hurricane trapped in his being. “You were probably preparing yourself to come home to a funeral pyre -”
“That’s not true, Cas,” Dean says. “That’s… that’s not…” His grip loosens, enough for Casto tug free. Cas stays rooted to the floor. “You want to know what I was thinking on my drive home?”
Cas folds his arms over his chest, shifting into a state of disinterest. “Might as well get on with it,” he says, “it’s not like you’d listen if I said no.”
His lips thin in a tight line, Dean debating whether or not he should bother. Nothing about the other man’s body language expresses any interest. But the lessons he learned in Texas drive him forward. To carry on even when the situation looks hopeless.
He closes his eyes and imagines a softer Cas from the past, and it flows easily. Dean begins with the case, giving a basic overview. How his investigation led him to a friend he hadn’t seen in the longest time. Stumbles through the wild night they shared, embarrassed to admit how he enjoyed himself while Cas rushed around trying to save Sam. Peeking slightly Dean sees Cas wearing a guarded expression, head skewed to the side. Reserving judgment until the end, thankfully.
Good times shift into bad when Dean comes to the part where Leo betrayed him. He struggles to explain the darkness that leeched all the goodness and hope from his former friend, leaving him a husk with no moral code. “Leo turned into a monster,” Dean says, “Convinced himself that all the lives he took were worth it because they were owed to him. All because life dealt him a shitty hand.”
“If that were the case,” Cas says, “then we’re owed a genocide for our happiness.”
“He tried to convince me that was the case,” Dean shrugs, “that doing what we do isn’t worth it because, in the end, no one cares. Except sitting there with my blood dripped into the monster’s cage like a damned hamster’s water bottle… I considered letting it have me. Better food than fodder for Chuck. But if I died then no one would be able to stop Leo. I couldn’t sit and wait for death… that isn’t me. If I’m going out it’s by doing what I do best. Because even if no one else cares… I do.” Dean shudders at the admission, mind bringing forth the scene at Swayze’s. Leo inches from him, bleeding, pool cue piercing him. “I wasn’t like him… I couldn’t be. No matter how hard I try to turn my damn feelings off… choking on food or drowning in booze, it doesn’t work. Hasn’t in a long time. Leo might’ve been able to cut out his heart but mine’s too damn big. And that isn’t a weakness… it’s a strength. Should start treating it like one…”
A weight unsettles from his chest after. Chains that wrapped around his soul breaking and clattering to the ground. Not fully free, but more than it was before.
Something brushes his temple and Dean’s eyes fly wide open.
Cas inched closer during his speech, their gazes locked like nothing had changed between them. His fingers hover over Dean’s wound. Sparks of grace crackling at the ready, his steady blue pulsing with a faint glow.
“What?” Dean asks, rasping, “What are you doing?”
“I finally noticed your wound,” he tells him. “Figured after all you went through I might offer some assistance.”
Dean quickly glances at his lips, too brief to give anything away. “You don’t need to, Cas. S’just a cut. It’ll heal… I’m fine. ”
The scorching heat fades to a more familiar warmth while Cas’s eyes return to a dimmer setting. His fingers remain, however. Skimming closer to trace the glass scratches. Dean hitches a breath at the contact.
“I applaud you for your realizations,” he says, drawing Dean’s soul back down, “Your ability and prowess at caring about others far surpasses that of a regular person’s.” Cas’s thumb tenderly strokes Dean’s eyebrow, palm glued to his head. “It is one of your strengths… but your blessings can be curses. In a heart so big, people can easily be lost. Whether they’re given the bare minimum of your attention… or forgotten, pushed out and left to waste without notice.”
Cas applies pressure to the wound, Dean hissing. In the next moment he retreats, hiding behind his beer bottle.
Dean deserved that.
“That wasn’t all I got from my trip,” he says, powering ahead, “Leo said something off-hand but it… it stuck. How being a best friend doesn’t mean you can’t be awful… s’not mutually exclusive. And there’s a lot I’ve done that could win my worst friend of the decade . Yet you stuck by my side until my crap was just too much to wade through. You did the right thing, walking away. Now it’s my turn…”
“I…” The words bunch in his throat, so he breathes and ushers each one slowly through his lips. “I’m sorry. For being awful to you. Not being there when you needed me when you always came, whenever I called. For taking my pain, starting from mom’s death and everything after, and dumping it all on you. To make you feel as bad as I did. You didn’t deserve any of it… and I hope you can forgive me. Because I meant what I said about making changes in my life. Chuck can go screw himself, at the top of my list is being a good friend to you.”
His confidence shakes, and Dean scratches at his neck. “So what do you say?” he asks, chuckling, “Can we start fresh? Put all this mess behind us and go from here?”
Seconds tick by without answer. The longer Cas doesn’t speak the worse Dean feels. After five days cycle through three minutes, Dean chances a look at the other man.
Cas’s glare smites with no help from his power. He resembles every bit of the soldier from their first meeting, as if taking Dean’s request too seriously. But behind the tough facade of a soldier he sees the truth in how Cas’s lips tremble and the unshed tears glistening in his eyes.
“How,” he growls, voice rich and thick, “How could you ask me such a thing?”
Nothing he thinks of seems good enough to answer. Fear strangled his throat, afraid he will only stoke Cas’s anger.
“You want my forgiveness?” Cas asks, shoving the bottle into his chest so forcefully it adds to the series of bruises littering his body. “You think a few words will fix the fallout you caused?”
“No,” he says, “that’s why - that’s why I’m willing to prove it. It could take years, hell - I could be bald, grey, and with barely a sense of who I am anymore and I would never stop being the friend you deserve. I’ll go as long as it takes.”
He breaks. Cas’s mask of anger cracks into a more terrifying, manic glee. His laugh sends chills through Dean’s spine.
“I… I can’t,” he gasps through chuckles, “I can’t do this anymore.”
Dean stumbles. “What?”
“We’re going round in circles, chasing after different things we cannot achieve,” Cas says, “Dean… you could be the best friend in the history of the world and that wouldn’t be enough. Because friendship isn’t enough for me anymore.”
His world tilts so suddenly Dean is thrown into space. Left to drift in an unknown void. Cas’s plaintive cry echoes inside, casting him far into his memories.
Of high schools where an assigned tutor would lean too close when helping Dean catch up, and the smell of his deodorant would distract him from the lesson. Cruising bars for the easy marks - men who craved the attention of boys so desperately they wouldn’t notice missing wallets until too late. John always watching to make sure it never went too far, his glare on Dean’s back a reminder that an act was better than the truth. Of meeting Leo and being too caught up in trying to impress the other man to handle the case. Happy when he didn’t realize how Dean truly felt when they first met.
Men were friends. Brothers. Nothing more. “Unnatural,” John scoffed, sipping at his flask while a rerun of Will & Grace played in the background, “Makes me wonder if there’s anything worth saving. If it weren’t for ol’ Yellow Eyes…”
Dean let him rant, watching the TV screen carefully while Will tenderly embraced Vince. Wondering how it might feel to be wrapped up in someone’s arms. Specifically another man’s.
Curiosity drove him to taste. And the sweetness made him crave more.
Never openly out like Will. Hidden hookups in bar bathrooms instead of casual dinners in restaurants. Deflecting, joking, and denying that part of himself when the spotlight overhead grew to hot. In the safety of darkness he gave into those desires. Too scared of how much life would change if he spoke truth to power.
Except change swept through his life without Dean’s approval. When Dean began his journey with Sam, he was a child. As an adult he knows better. Not everything, but enough. To start tearing at the walls he built so long ago. Let people in certain areas he thought would never see the light of day. Have them sweep up the cobwebs and make a home.
Dean’s heart was big, but the important people have their special place. The difficulty of fitting Cas lay in how he couldn’t allow the angel-wearing-a-man to sit in one place no man was allowed.
Compared to losing Cas, did that rule make any sense?
“Dean?” Cas sighs, “If that’s all… I think my time is better spent elsewhere.”
Pure dread rips into his soul. “No!” Dean says again, “Cas…” His voice cracks into nothingness.
Cas pauses, the slightest drop of concern slipping through his carefully constructed shield. “Dean?”
It’s on the tip of his tongue. A confirmation that what Cas needs is something he’s finally willing to give. That the shadows cast from so long ago have no power now that Dean sees the light. Screw small changes, Dean readies to make the biggest change so his angel will know their story isn’t a tragedy.
Except what defines a story isn’t the characters, the plot, or the author. It’s timing.
Timing is an uncontrollable, unforgiving bitch .
“Dean? Cas? What are you still doing up?”
Sam shuffles into view, yawning. Running fingers through his sweat-matted hair. Dean deflates, creating a canyon between him and the angel with how far he slips back.
Cas’s feelings shutter, too. He finishes his beer, leaving the empty bottle on the table. “We were talking, Sam.”
“Dean?” Cas turns to him, challenges him. “What was it we were talking about?”
Bile rises in his throat while he looks between his brother and Cas. The desire to vomit the pitiful gas station food fights with the confession rattling in his chest. He swallows both, muttering weakly, “Research…”
“Yes, Sam,” Cas sighs, “Research. Although I am all researched out. If you’ll excuse me.” He strides from the room, a hole in Dean’s chest and a piece of his heart smashed under his shoe.
Dean collapses onto his chair, scrubbing his hand across his mouth. Sourness remains despite the fierce attack.
Sam joins him, grabbing a book and opening it. “You get far?”
“Far into what?”
“Research,” Sam asks, smirking, “Look, I know it’s been awhile but you weren’t wallowing for so long you forgot how to do it, right?”
He rolls his eyes, flipping a page on his forgotten book and stares at it. “I’m far in it, Sam,” Dean says, “far in nothing .” Dean casts a wry glance at his brother. “You sure you should be up and about? Your nurse didn’t strap you in?”
Sam’s face brightens at Eileen’s mention, and Dean regrets doing so. “She’s asleep on the cot,” he explains, “after you two left, she and I…” Launching into a story about what adorable, nineties will-they-won’t-they dynamics they got into, Dean rubs at his cheek with his knuckle.
Halfway into Sam demonstrating the different signs Eileen taught him earlier, Dean interrupts. “Hey Sam?”
He pinches his lips and mimes dragging them from one point to the other. “ Zip it .”