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Nothing Equals the Splendor

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Maybe it’s the cynic in him. The hunter, always under the surface of any quietude he ever found. Or maybe it’s just that he has always had trouble with blind faith. But after a while (a blink? A decade? A century?), Dean raises his eyebrows, looks around, and says—

“Uh. No.”

It’s so close. Just so slightly imperfect. And maybe, he analyzes—because that’s what the good hunters do, they finger through the card catalogues of their lives and try their damnedest not to be the ultimate sucker by believing—maybe that’s the final knell of this bell called contentment. Dean’s experience with happiness has always been that last rise in the road, right before it turns. Right before fate comes barreling around the corner head on.

He turns in his spot on the bridge, and suddenly Sam is like a cellophane film through which he can see the light streaming, and the taste of cheap beer on his tongue is much, much older a memory than it should be.

“Oh, you’re good,” he says, and means it.

It’s not God. That understanding dates back to the sap-smell of a field in a forest, blood on his teeth and one more holy hand grenade in their wheel well, and it fixes into his bones the knowledge that all the godliness truly has fled from his life, leaving only the mundane behind.

Which, really. What did he expect, when he walked into a barn full of vampires?

“When did you get me?” he wonders, half trying to puzzle it out. And did it get only him, or is Sam here too?

Cellophane Sam watches him like a blank doll. Monstrously mundane. Predator versus prey plus straight up opportunity, old as the hills.

“Were the vampires even a thing?” A new horror occurs. “Was the pie?”

Cellophane Sam snorts, and bleeds ink back into the skin of its arms and face, and Dean’s heart is breaking because the pie, the motherfucking pie was not in fact a thing, and his tastebuds, so lately assaulted by pseudo-nostalgia-beer on top of everything, are weeping at the incredible affront.

So much fluffy pastry in one place. Of course it was too good to be true.

“You humans can’t ever just be happy, I’ve found,” Once-Sam shrugs, leaning on its elbows on the bridge railing. Its eyes are eerily blue. “I used to go in for the little edens. Home scenes on repeat. A nice day at the park. But the good meat, the ones that last...” It looks Dean down and up, and Dean immediately wants a shower. “You always need something a little more engaging than the average cattle.”

“Okay, Agent Smith.” Dean looks around for a weapon, but of course there’s nothing, and no lamb’s blood anyway. Wouldn’t matter here. He spreads his hands. His back itches in a horrible way, right between his shoulder blades, and he wonders how much of that is actually part of the illusion. The other half of his mind tick-tick-ticks away through that card catalogue, and hell, he’s a damned lunatic for not seeing this sooner, because—

Cas helped, Bobby had said. Dean hurts all over again, the way he has for weeks, ever since the last time Cas helped.

Cas can’t help anyone now.

Not-Sam-At-All-Anymore looks around, thoughtful. “Gotta say though, I kinda like this place. Heaven.”

Dean hates this place, hates everything about it. Of course this isn’t heaven, what was he even— He knows heaven. He’s been there, and he hated it then, but is he really such a credulous bastard, so un-chary, still innocent enough somewhere that little gopher heads of hope pop up to be slugged under by the next monster’s mallet? He throws his hands out, suddenly tired, furious, feeling every one of his forty years plus however long he’s been here, in this gutter-feeding asswipe’s construction of his perfect reality—where apparently he dies by rebar through the back, what is his damage anyway?

“So, what now? This is obviously a wash. You kill me? Move on to my brother? Those kids?” Are there even kids? Probably not. Dean is apparently so busted inside that he creates a kidnapping on his journey to the Good Place. “We just stand around jawing about the good ol’ days?” Fuck, what he wouldn’t give for a grace-to-the-face archangel to punch. Good ol’ days indeed.

“It’s your own fault if you’re upset. I can only work with what’s already there.”

Dean just shakes his head and tries not to grind his teeth to powder.

“What was it, exactly, that tipped you off?” The Djinn comes closer, squinting into the soft and heavy sunlight of pretend paradise. “I was about to give you love, too.”

Someone appears on the bridge, right outside Dean’s line of vision, standing as still and sober as he ever did.

That cuts, under the ribs, and tears spring to Dean’s eyes. He will never, ever heal this wound. It’s beyond infected, crushed down inside his chest where his heart is still determined to beat, and for an endless, hellish second, pretend paradise fades, and all he can do is stare into the dark of an empty basement at an empty space slightly off center of an empty devil’s trap, and scream the name he will never be able to say again with any degree of calm.

He swallows, and swallows, and doesn’t look. “Well, that would have been game over regardless.”

“You don’t believe you can be loved.” It looks like it’s analyzing him now, wide and gleeful at a dead frog on a high school lab table. Dean wants to tire iron its skull in.

“Oh, I know I can be,” Dean bites out. That’s the problem, really. He can’t unknow it anymore. The other presence hangs behind him, and abruptly he feels the familiar heat of a body at his back The scent he has tried in vain to recall every night since the basement clogs his throat.

The Djinn cocks its head, opens its mouth, and then it’s gone, ripped right out of the pine-fresh air with a weird stretching sound, and Dean is alone.

Almost.

“Don’t,” he begs, eyes blurring. He’s terrified that the thing behind him might speak, that his mind might let it. He doesn’t want the last words he hears in that voice to be anything but Cas’s own.

The forest beckons in the breeze, and the light is yellow and cool. It’s tempting to turn around, lean back on Baby’s hood, and look his fill.

But there’s really only one way out of this, easy to envision for all the time it’s spent in the back of his mind lately. An abstract. A Hail Mary.

Not so abstract now. So Dean walks back to the railing, climbs through, and dives off, head first onto the rocks and freezing water.

He comes to in a barn, shivering and starved, Sam desperately slapping his face and lifting bottled water to his lips. Turns out, he is on a nail after all, but it’s not through his chest, just the meat of his left trapezius to hold him in place, which is going to be a serious bitch to PT through. Realism, he decides, coughing as he’s lowered painfully to the floor, his heels scuffing for purchase in an attempt to stave off the agony. Points for realism.

There’s a blade to his right where Sam dropped it, sticky with lamb’s blood and black ichor, and dusted with barn dirt. He stares at it as Sam checks him over, damn it, Dean, I thought you were—what were you thinking, hunting alone? and thinks of the fucked up nature of his fondest wish.

**

He wants to be loved. He wants Cas to be—to have been right. For those words to be true, about him for once instead of projected outwardly by him, onto Sam, onto Mom, with such a pure, childlike yearning at their base. Dean knows what it is to love. He knows what it is to feel so completely right about someone else, to trust so absolutely, to place his tattered and darned scrap of faith so squarely around another’s shoulders and feel warmed as though he were the one wearing it. To know that this soul is one he will never, ever forsake.

Oh, Dean Winchester has loved. Still loves, with a hole squarely through his heart, bleeding endlessly onto the ground as each new trickle counts out how unforgivably late he was to realize.

**

He heals, as much as a middle-ish aged human without an Angel of the Lord can. His left arm is shot in terms of melee weaponry: can’t lift as high anymore, and bringing anything down with force enough to separate a head from a neck sends stabbing pain down his back. But most of the guns are fine, so he brushes up on those lefthanded, leaves his right free for the jiggier stuff.

He can still throw a ball for Miracle, and that’s the important thing.

At night he dreams of pretend paradise, and regrets furiously not having turned around. Just one glance, one good look. That’s all he would have asked for. For a brief time, he regrets the death of the Djinn too, because anyone, anything that could offer that—He feels like a junkie, desperate for his next fix.

I love you, he could have said, on that bridge in the confines of his own mind where that love is all tangled up in befuddlement and distress and all kinds of red tape. I love you, and I don’t know what you want from me, how you can want it from me of all the souls in this universe, but I will try. I’ll try my damnedest to give you whatever you need.

In his dreams, he’s so scared, his body shaking and so, so close to that presence behind him, anticipation flavoring his mouth and sweat forming on his brow. One turn and he could touch, finger stiff khaki and the silk swipe of a tie, hear that long sigh through the nose, a sound he knows better than the backs of his own hands.

He would turn. He would face the one behind him, and lift his hands and touch his jaw. He would see his hair again, and the sea blue of his eyes, so unlike any Djinn’s, the dark brows lowered over them and the purse of his mouth. He would pull him in by a handful of sleeve and then—then—

**

One day, when Sam has driven to Sioux Falls, Dean sits down in the war room, passing a sweating beer between his hands, mad at himself and determined to actually think about it. Card catalogue it, whatever. But he finds he can’t, not there, so he does something stupid and goes down to the bowels of the bunker where Cas saved his life, and he slides down to sit against the wall, knees up, shoulder burning with the effort. And he thinks about it there, while Miracle trots around to sniff in all the corners: what whatever you need actually means and could Dean Winchester ever deliver? And it’s not really about Cas at that point, but more a generalized reinterpretation of sex, which he knows, and bodies, which he also knows, and love, which… Well.

By the time he’s done, it’s definitely about Cas again. And he’s crying hard, his arms now full of distressed dog, half amazed at himself and half disgusted at his complete misunderstanding of this very simple truth:

Yes. Yes, he could and would deliver, if—

God.

If ever given the chance.

**

Would Cas have even wanted that, though? It’s damned difficult to bring an angel down to human levels of physicality, even in the safety of his head. They don’t… feel. Or they didn’t, until Cas. Cas feels. God, he… It’s hard for Dean to wrap his head around: true happiness, as a secret, as a bargaining chip. As a religion. There is no question that at least one angel feels, to a degree that is not really fathomable. Chuck said there was a crack in Cas’s chassis, but damn it, there was nothing wrong with him. Not a thing.

Dean wishes he’d killed Chuck sometimes, just for saying that about Cas.

And what Cas—He shakes his head, makes himself continue the thought instead of backing away from it as he always does. What Cas said to him. The way he said it. It involves more… earthly aspects, for lack of a less idiotic word. Aspects, desires, that Dean has never been able to assign to angels. But maybe he’s wrong about that, too.

There’s a lot that’s unfathomable about this. Dean knows he’s likely missing whole facets of the thing, a re-re-interpretation of sex as he has always known it, on a cosmic level, things his paltry human brain cannot comprehend even if he tried his hardest until the day he died, but it’s all useless anyway, isn’t it, when Cas, his Cas, isn’t coming back.

He’s doing a lot of crying, mixed with stunned laughter, these days.

“I love you,” he tries into the darkness of the basement. “Cas, I love you, too.”

Whatever else, it feels good to say that aloud. There’s a ghost of what happened down here, a hush hanging in the air, as though something is listening.

**

If you please, please come back to me, just, please.

He never utters that out loud. He doesn’t know what he’d do if his wish were granted, and he’s downright scared of what he’ll do if it isn’t.

**

“I feel bad,” Jack says, appearing hunched in a kitchen chair with no fanfare at all. Dean, in his robe, manages not to drop his coffee at the sudden arrival. Jack gazes at the other mug, the one that never made it away from its home by the toaster, the one into which hot coffee was poured but rarely drunk, the one with a cracked silver wing for a handle.

Dean sighs, and rubs Jack’s shoulder. “Don’t.” This kid has spent too much of his life feeling bad.

Jack squints at him, mouth pinched and nose ascrunch, and he looks so much like Castiel that Dean’s heart misfires. “Don’t feel bad?”

Instead of what comes on instinct, the quick well, you know or I just meant, Dean thinks about it. “Not on my behalf. For yourself, though... That’s okay. He was your dad.”

“You were all my dads,” Jack says, plaintive, and even though it was always kind of this unspoken thing, Dean feels punched in the chest hearing it said aloud to his face. Like something in him still didn’t know. He thinks about god as a child, grieving and hurting and trying to do good all the same.

Probably it’s the same part of him that didn’t know he was so in love he’d lost himself.

“Of course we are,” he says, and drags Jack into his arms. “C’mere.”

**

Jack leaves, because Jack has bigger things to think about than a morose old hunter trying so hard not to be a drunk anymore.

Dean goes out; he saves people and he hunts things. He makes coffee. He reorganizes one of the library alcoves and vacuums the big TV room where everyone used to meet and walks Miracle along the creek at twilight, back where the fence has been taken to ground by ivy. He gets groceries and ribs Sam over dinner and stares into space and tries his best not to drink and lies in bed with a dog dreaming on his chest and thinks of Cas, and prays he’s not forgetting his face.

**

He wakes from a deep sleep, the pain in his shoulder blessedly absent, to find someone he knew he’d never see again kneeling at his bedside not two feet from him. The clock ticks for an eternity. One breath. Two. Then Dean struggles up onto his elbows, his throat a clotted mess. “Cas?”

“I was watching you.”

It’s gravelly and low, and there’s a lifetime in those words. The same dark hair curls at his brow; the same unshaven scruff peppers his jaw. Cas’s eyes are a preternatural blue that Dean forgot, then forgot he forgot, reimagined and came up woefully short. He makes a low sound in his throat and raises his hand, and before he knows it, he’s cupping Cas’s cheek.

It’s warm, beating with life. He looks older, though, somehow.

“You,” Dean says, and again: “You.” The rest won’t come, just sticks down there where the rest is bubbling up, and he knows it’s going to overflow.

“I missed you, Dean,” Cas says.

Dean chokes on a laugh, at so many words that are so small they can never contain the magnitude of their meaning. He struggles with the blankets, but they’ve snaked themselves around his feet, and it’s ages before he gets free. Cas remains where he is, heedless of Dean’s bare legs now over the side of the bed. Dean half reaches, then stops, doesn’t know what to do with himself.

“Cas, how?”

Cas smiles up at him, and he looks so beatific, except his eyes, which climb over Dean’s face like he’s sitting parched at the foot of a desert fount. “Jack.”

Dean scrubs at his face, cursing the kid. Thanking the kid. Building a fucking palace in his mind for the kid. Little idiot, worrying about people he shouldn’t have to clean up after anymore.

His kid, already jammed into a corner between his morals and Dean.

Cas wipes a tear from Dean’s cheek, and Dean gives up pretending it’s not there, and that there won’t be more. There are issues he needs to address, but he can’t stop looking, can’t stop half reaching.

“How do I know you’re…” He gestures, unable to voice such a temptation to fate. “You’re…”

Cas leans back a little. His eyes glow ice white and he spreads his wings against the walls of the room and—

Holy mother.

It’s been a long time since Cas was at full power. Since his wings, dark as pitch, reached corner to corner and floor to ceiling in lush, razored plumes. The walls flicker and spark, outlining each brick in a sizzle of blue. The air heats minutely. Dean clears his throat and adjusts his seat.

A moment later, Cas’s wings are gone, the room shrunk back to the gold of Dean’s bedside lamp. But the feeling. The feeling is a breeze on his face and a blanket around him. It’s as familiar as his brother’s love, as well known to him as his own heartbeat.

“Did you ever ward the bunker against me?”

“No,” Dean manages. “No, I wouldn’t.” He doesn’t think he physically could. Lift a brush. Paint those sigils. He would shake like a hex bag had him, until the brush fell from his hand.

Cas sinks to his knees again, and this time, his coat brushes Dean’s shins. “Then it’s me, Dean.”

You died. The words fill his head. You saved my life, and you left, and for a while I couldn’t face it as a real thing that had happened. I thought when we won, when we beat Chuck, that’s when it would be corrected, so you weren’t really gone until then, not in my head. And then I cracked. I didn’t see it coming, I was so sure we would fix this. And we didn’t. And I broke in half and never really came back, to the point where I drink my weight in beer some nights and pretend everything is normal and go hunting alone like a green fucking idiot. One of these days I’ll let Sam down because of it, and I miss you so damn much, I don’t know how to be me anymore. It all tumbles together, a heap of joy and shock and grief, until he can’t tell one thought from the other, can’t hope to untangle the mess.

So he tells the truth. “Cas, I don’t know what to say.”

Cas’s face changes, a near imperceptible aging around the eyes and mouth. His smile turns sad in a way that squeezes Dean’s heart. “Sometimes there’s nothing to say.”

But there is. Dean loses a battle he was never going to win, grips Cas by the shoulder of his coat, and drags him up onto the bed. Cas comes off his knees without fuss, just the rustle of his coat and that long, untroubled exhale Dean has been aching to hear. His eyes blur anew, but he only has two hands, and both are employed getting Cas situated just the way he needs him to be. He doesn’t have a plan. Didn’t know until this moment what his needs were. Simply, closer. Closer, and never leave again. “Just... be here. With me.”

Cas settles into a long, warm line up Dean’s flank and a steady heartbeat against his side. Dean tightens both arms, curls his fingers in the loose fabric of Cas’s clothing to hold him there, and prays, fervently, that this does not turn out to be a dream.

The space calms around them, and even though Cas has never been in Dean’s bedroom quite like this, the place finally feels full.

“If you need me,” Cas says, soft into his ear, “if it’s at all in my power, I will always come.”

What does Dean do with this? He’s unequipped for this responsibility, for the sheer weight of such a promise.

“You know that, don’t you, Dean?” Querulous in a quiet way that plunges straight through Dean’s ribs to the sweet spot.

“Cas,” he starts, hoarse, brimming, and then thinks, fuck it, words do not always work. He’s always been a man of action. He slides a hand up Cas’s nape into his hair, and he noses in, kisses Cas’s mouth.

And the sound Cas makes.

It’s as small, as wrecked, as Dean’s insides. Something in Dean answers, immediate, yanking at his heart. “Cas,” he breathes, again. It might be the only word he knows anymore. Cas kisses him hard, a hand splaying across the breadth of Dean’s throat, until every movement bumps Cas’s palm, and Dean feels caged and cradled and fiercely protected.

His hands, already full of Cas’s shirt, tighten into fists. Cas draws back a scant inch, enough to look Dean solidly in the eye.

“Please.” Dean can’t manage more than a whisper.

Cas obliges, and the book Dean fell asleep reading hits the floor with a thump and a flap of pages.

Cas shrugs out of his jacket, bent half over Dean with his eyelids dipped close and smoky, his mouth hovering over Dean’s as though he finds it physically impossible to be more than an inch away. Dean chases him, tiny pecks he can’t stop taking, brushes and bumps, the damp hint of tongue.

God, this… At every touch, every press of Cas’s lips, the belt Dean has had strapped around his chest loosens. Cas’s coat drops somewhere out of mind, and Cas slips button after shirt button free one-handed, the other trailing down Dean’s side from shoulder to hip in a rapt, syrupy stroke. The attention is so painfully plain that Dean shivers. But the room is heating, he’s not imagining the stir of air, as though something is coiling to launch itself skyward. He’s sure to be dragged with it, a scrap born up in the oncoming blast. And still Cas kisses him, over and over and over. Halfway through, Cas’s fingers fall away from his shirt like he’s forgotten about it, and he takes Dean’s face in both hands. Dean clutches him as Cas lavishes his mouth with tongue and teeth. He feels himself melting into the bed, muscles slipping loose one after another with every drawn-out kiss.

At last, Dean has to breathe. He pushes Cas up, but his other hand is not on board with this, and squeezes Cas’s nape, holds him in place just over Dean.

Cas looks slightly surprised. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’…” Dean sucks in one last haul. “Don’be sorry.” God, he’s slurring, he feels delightfully drugged, but his thoughts are razor-clear. “Don’t ever be sorry for that.”

He could laugh, sudden and hysterically happy. He fidgets instead, itchy with it, dragging a foot up the back of Cas’s leg, and Cas’s pupils blow dark. His eyes rove Dean’s body, coming back to rest on his face where they track and track, each flicker shoving Dean’s pulse higher.

On the next trip down, Cas finds the hem of Dean’s t-shirt, and together they free him of it.

Feeling Cas’s bare chest against his for the first time, revealed as Dean frees the remaining buttons of that blasted shirt, is both lulling and a shock of static. It occurs to Dean through a roiling haze that he should be hurting, stretching like he is after Cas’s every kiss, leaning on his bad shoulder in all the wrong ways. “Did you,” he asks (and their mouths meet…and their mouths meet), “heal me?”

Cas gives a single nod, a duck of his chin like a shy stranger. “While you slept.”

Dean thinks of his dream, of dying on a spike in Sam’s arms, of so much to say that would never be said, of mourning even as he went that wherever he ended up going, it was nowhere that Cas was.

He takes Cas’s face in his hands, catches his body up between his knees. “Thank you.” For every wound before this and every breath after.

Cas watches him for a long moment, then bends to kiss Dean’s chest over his sternum. He stays there until Dean inhales, rises into it. Cas shuffles up, easing further between Dean’s legs and fitting them together.

“Dean, have you ever…” He lets the sentence hang, and for a wild moment, Dean could end it with anything, anything at all, and be surprised at the answer.

Perhaps this needs more thought. But Dean has thought enough. It feels organic, a fate he’s been dodging, or that has been dodging him, for years. All he can do anymore with Cas is feel, every ripped sinew, every shorn thread holding his heart together. Every ache of the empty space next to him. He needs Cas; having him gone was a hole torn out of Dean’s side.

“Done a lot.” When did his voice go so raspy? Like Cas’s voice. “Haven’t done this, exactly.” Something like it, once, in what feels like another life. His heart rabbits in his chest. He wonders if Cas can hear it.

Cas crawls forward, eyes never leaving Dean’s face, and Dean gasps at the intent in them, the weight at his pelvis, the heat of the body all over him. He pushes the shirt off of Cas’s shoulders entirely and reveals the spidery ink blocked over his side. The Enochian seems to glide across Castiel’s skin, flickering as his ribs expand and contract. A living thing. Dean lays his fingers against it, almost afraid to touch, but in the end, it’s nothing but a sweet warmth rolling out to envelop his hand. And then it’s like he’s fixed there, tethered by a spell. The angelic letters tug at him, until Cas lays his own hand over Dean’s.

“Thank you,” Cas says after a stretched moment. “For giving me this.”

As though he isn’t worthy.

It’s something I know I can’t have. Dean feels the blow of that day all over again, crushing ruthlessly around his heart. It hurts, and maybe that day, it was true, but now, now and probably ever since the instant the Empty swallowed him up… Dean forces down the grief and strokes Cas’s hair back from his face. “Can’t give you what’s already yours.”

Cas stares at him, so much asked in one look. The room surges at Cas’s back, the heaviness of thousands of years waiting to fall. Dean feels slight and insignificant, and most of all, unable to give a coherent answer.

Then Cas squeezes his eyes shut, turns his head as though to get away. The grimace on his face is tight, but when he looks back at Dean, his eyes are full of tears.

“Dean,” is all he says.

It’s a sucker punch. The last time he saw Cas cry, his life tore in half.

Cas picks him up and resettles him higher on the bed, then crowds him down until he loses track of who’s body is whose. And Dean will never get over that, the effortless lift, the way it felt as though Cas’s arms weren’t actually doing the lifting, but that parts of Cas he can’t see are churning the air around them.

It comes like an afterthought, a phantom etched by all his nights of deliberation: gender never mattered here, bodies don’t matter. All that matters is Cas, and the light steadily streaming into Dean’s soul again, so bright and hot it could light up his fingers and lance from his toes.

Cas sheds his trousers, leans up long enough to help Dean squirm free of his boxers, and as he does, the darkness above them rolls again, swallowing the lamplight whole and glinting in its depths like the flashes of an oncoming storm.

“Is that you?” Dean asks, awe tying his tongue.

“I wish you could see it all,” Cas murmurs, nosing the line of his jaw. Dean stares up into the living black, then into the ocean-blue of Cas’s eyes.

A seraph. Seraph, six wings, spirals of eyes, made of fire, who loves him, who bends all that might to him, who broke fate and the world, for him. Dean doesn’t know if his human body is capable of absorbing that kind of love. He can’t even look upon Cas’s true form without his eyes burning from their sockets, the memory too immense for his brain to hold, and he must make a noise, something alarmed, because Cas’s fingers are soothing his lips and ghosting the dip between nose and cheek.

“Never, I’ll never let that happen to you.” Cas’s voice is guttural now, bedrock. He touches Dean’s body like he’s tracing his form into being, and Dean can’t stop panting, shuddering, trying to wet his dry mouth. A weight descends around them, the heaviest of mantles sliding silkily over Dean’s arms and legs, and yet somehow still cool, clean, and Dean realizes he’s just touched Cas’s wings.

“Oh, god,” he chokes out, desperate for the feeling again, the oscillation at every nerve. He can hear their tremor as thousands of feathers brush together. He reaches, and they’re everywhere, a relentless stroke and shush, the bars of the strongest cage and at the same time softer than down.

“I wish you could see their real colors,” Cas rasps at the corner of Dean’s mouth. “I wish you could feel what it feels like. To touch you with them.” The word touch breaks. “Dean, I will never hurt you, not like this.”

“I know,” he whispers. He cannot stop kissing Cas. “I know—” and he doesn’t know where his lube is, hasn’t felt the urge in so long, he doesn’t, god, doesn’t know if he even needs it, is that something that—with an angel—

He laughs then, sharp, and covers his eyes with one hand. The other hand flat out refuses to leave Cas again, so he should probably just give it up for lost at this point. “I think I’m stuck to you. Sorry. I’m sorry.”

Cas takes his hand from his face and presses a kiss to the bend between Dean’s thumb and forefinger. “I can think of worse things.”

So can Dean. “Just… Okay.” He swallows, gathers his nerve back, and nods downward at himself. “Go to town.”

Cas gives him a look.

And then it should feel strange, to be studied so intently as Cas readies him. Instead Dean has never felt so seen. Cas’s eyes seem to be everywhere, and that’s not a celestial euphemism: he tracks each jump in Dean’s breath and gentles his touch in response; he notes the thrum of Dean’s pulse, which must be damn near beating out of his throat, and pushes further. His fingers are warm, careful, and they are wringing Dean’s body unbearably from the inside. Dean drops his head back and blinks at a blurred ceiling. Fists the bedsheets. Reminds himself twice to breathe. He can’t stop the roll of his hips, call and response, instinctive, a mounting ache in his core, and he knows all about his prostate, thank you, but this is. Is.

“Cas,” he hisses between clenched teeth, gripping the arm under his hand. “Cas, I… I’m.” He doesn’t know what he’s saying. Doesn’t care. He is exquisitely on fire.

The instant he feels he can’t take another second without combusting all over the bed, Cas withdraws. The sense of loss reminds Dean of the hole Cas made when he died. It’s so unwelcome that he clamps a leg around Cas’s thigh and hauls him back in.

“Dean?” Cas sounds shredded.

Dean stares. Cas’s shoulders glisten with sweat, his cheeks red and hot. His eyes are glazed, a little too wide. He looks as mortal as Dean feels.

Cas bumps Dean’s lips with his nose. He tucks a hand under Dean’s knee and squeezes, and Dean moans into his mouth, nodding, nodding frantically.

And then Cas is… in him. In him entirely. Dean knocks his head back onto the pillow with half a shout, and the remains of that hole are just gone, filled to overflowing. Tears flood Dean’s eyes.

“Dean?” Cas has frozen utterly; even the ever-billowing black has gone still. There’s no way Cas could mistake the sound he made for anything but a sob.

Dean presses a hand to his mouth, squeezes his eyes shut, stubbornly stays silent. But he can’t remember a time when he didn’t have some kind of wound in him. He can’t reconcile the crushing loss of before with the having again; now it’s all spilling in front of him, years and years if he’s lucky, time he never had such a reason to look forward to.

Fingers alight on his face. “Dean.”

Cas’s eyes… are glowing. Dean reaches up with trembling hands and pulls him down.

He doesn’t know what Cas is doing to him but—wow. Wow. Re-re-re-interpretation. His whole body has turned into an erogenous zone, and half of what he’s feeling he’s pretty sure he never had nerves to feel, yet there it is, pitching and swelling, striking his veins like piano wires, teeming just under his skin. Cas moves like water, crowding Dean down to the bed. Everywhere he touches trail rivulets of fire and his hands never stop moving, sliding over Dean’s body, clenching at his waist, thumbing his lower lip, cupping his elbow, palming his flank, pulling them together, and then Cas utters three more far-too-simple words in a cracked voice:

“I love you.”

Dean lurches up from the bed, hands tangled in Cas’s hair, arcing his hips and bearing down, and the snap jars the room, sends pens clattering to the floor and a glass rattling off the desk into a spray of shards. He’s so close, right on the edge and somehow climbing higher, higher with each of Cas’s answering thrusts. Oh, he’s not going to survive this, and he’s truly not going to care. Nothing in pretend paradise could even come close. Cas’s grip on him tightens further, bearing him down into sweaty, humid sheets, and he fumbles for the headboard to brace himself, huffs air in and out of taxed lungs, winces at the delicious pull on his muscles, watching Cas’s face in dazed astonishment until Cas finds his hand, winds their fingers together against the pillow at Dean’s head, and it’s so perfectly human. Dean clenches so hard he would have broken the fingers of a mortal man. He jerks his head back, can’t breathe, can’t speak, can’t rightly see. Cas sucks at the bare arch of his throat as though he’d like to bite it, and Dean clasps Cas’s head to him, desperate to hold all of him, buries his lips in the damp crown of Cas’s hair.

He doesn’t remember coming, in the sense he always knew it. He has no idea how to describe what has happened to him, except in words that don’t exist for humans.

He becomes aware of his own breathing, and the hitch and shudder of Cas’s in his arms. His skin feels overwarm and slick as he lies there looking at the ceiling, his mouth working with absolutely nothing to say. He realizes he’s rhythmically clutching and releasing Cas’s shoulder, his arm folded tight across Cas’s back. His other hand is still knotted with Cas’s against the pillow. He tips his head to the right, completely wiped, and sees the state of his desk, his room, all the guns off the walls and the floor aglitter with broken glass and bourbon, records and ammo and papers strewn everywhere, the new fissures in the wooden doorframe, the dust sifting gently from god knows where.

“Holy mother of…”

Cas laughs, a muffled, slightly crazed sound against Dean’s throat that grows as he lifts his head. He blinks like a drowsy cat, then meets Dean’s gaze.

Cas’s eyes are aflame in scorching blue.

It hits Dean: an aftershock of the seething darkness, the flooding light, sex like he’s never had, the sense of something so sublime billowing out from the center of his body, of Cas in him in ways that shouldn’t be possible, of things he’s never felt, never dreamt, and he’s just… He’s human. He’s just a cleverly categorized bundle of cells, warm-blooded, small, finite. What does Cas see when he looks at him? What does he even feel when he—when they—

Dean fumbles his hand free of Cas’s and presses his eyes until he sees spots. His other arm—surprise, surprise—clutches Cas to him, too scared to let him go.

“I can’t,” he gasps, trying for air he’s pretty sure doesn’t exist. He bites his lip until it stings, but it doesn’t push the pitiful understanding away. “What you just… I’m not… I won’t ever be able to do that for you. To you.” I’m not eternal like you. I’m just a human. This is all I’ll ever be. He wipes his face, thinks about hiding again in his hand.

“Dean.” Cas lifts up over him like he’s keeping out the world. He takes Dean’s hand and retangles their fingers, resting their joined hands beside Dean’s ear. “You do that for me every day.”

“Kiss me,” Dean asks, faint, eyes darting over Cas’s brow and chin and nose, until Cas leans in and does.

**

He tries, lying in his bed with Cas draped bonelessly over him, his head under Dean’s chin, but he can no longer grasp the immediacy of the pain that had defined him for weeks. He can see the void and remember its edges. But the whole of it is dim. Something from a long time ago.

Yet he’s aware of the lie of that, and the true fragility of what he now holds in his arms. He presses his lips to Cas’s head and shuts his eyes.

Eventually, though, he has to come back and gape at the state of his life now. And there is a lot to gape at. “Is it always gonna go like this?” He doesn’t know how much a bunker, even a ward-reinforced one, can take.

“No,” Cas says, drowsy. His fingers play over Dean’s ribs, rising to trace carefully around his anti-possession tattoo before traveling away again. “No, that was… my mistake. I should have expected.”

Dean raises an eyebrow, gesturing at cracked beams, scattered belongings, a desk three feet from where it began the night. “Expected this?” It’s only a matter of time before Sam comes banging down the door, demanding to know what’s going on; he’s frankly shocked it hasn’t happened yet.

Cas rises onto his elbow to catch Dean’s eye. He’ll always catch Dean’s eye, Dean has no desire to look away.

“You overwhelm me, Dean.” He touches Dean’s cheek, and for the space of a breath, that living darkness, the creak of unfurling wings, presses into the room once more.

It dissipates.

“I…” Post-sex insecurities aside, how can he possibly overwhelm a being such as Cas? But it’s that instinctual gut-twist that makes him pause. His first reaction to chaos looming on the horizon is always the same, the familiar clenching that had stopped all thought in its tracks, that froze his words to the back of his throat just before Cas threw him out of the Empty’s way.

He doesn’t know what he might have said then. It almost certainly wouldn’t have been what Cas needed to hear. But the point is, he hadn’t let himself think. He thinks now, cheeks flaming under Cas’s caress, about the sheer heat of what they’ve just done, the space they inhabited together and all the unseen between. His own body full of light, Cas’s wings spanning the dark. The enormity of really looking at Castiel, with open eyes.

I know how you see yourself, Dean.

And maybe Dean doesn’t really see at all. There’s something inside him of which he has no real understanding: a spark, cossetted in flesh and blood, guarded by angels and coveted by demons. Manipulated by gods. A source of light strong enough to destroy entire worlds. He never imagined it was pretty. Not his soul, not anymore… until Cas died showing him otherwise.

Maybe that’s what Cas sees with supernal eyes, and touches with elemental fingers.

“That’s good to know,” he croaks at last. They stare at each other. Unexpectedly, Cas’s cheeks pink up, and he burrows back down into Dean’s chest, chin digging into his sternum. Dean is growing rather attached to the way their naked bodies feel together.

“Well,” Cas huffs, a spill of air across Dean’s skin. “Don’t let it inflate your cranium.”

Dean sputters a laugh, rubbing a fond hand through Cas’s hair. “Yeah,” he sighs. “Too late.”

**

The interruption comes at last, a tumult of footsteps in the hall and a pounding on his door. It can’t have been all that long, but Dean’s a little fuzzy at the edges, drained and euphoric, and time isn’t behaving as it should.

“Dean? Dean!” Sam calls through the door. Dean can just see him striking the wood over and over with the side of his fist. He doesn’t want to move. His room, his bed, everything feels like a placid bubble that will pop if he twitches a muscle. But it’s Sam, and Dean can’t leave him in that corridor imagining all kinds of worst-case scenarios.

“Sammy?” he calls. It takes a lot of effort. “S’alright, just… hang on.” He disentangles himself from a Castiel who seems to have misplaced all the bones in his body, whispered words cut by somnolent, dragging kisses, and finally gets to his feet. His legs feel like jell-o. He finds his shirt and pulls on his boxers. Behind him, Cas is moving too, and Dean scrubs his face hard as he stumbles to the door. “Sammy.”

His brother waits on the other side, brow bent in consternation. “You alright? The entire bunker just…”

“Yeah.” Dean drags a hand through his hair and looks back over his shoulder before sighing. “Yeah, it’s… Everything’s fine.”

Sam stares at him. “Dude, you didn’t see what happened out here. I almost couldn’t get out of the records room, and then the entire staircase went up like a live wire, I thought the windows were all gonna—”

“Sam, I know. But it’s… it’s okay.”

Sam opens his mouth, and then his eyes slide past Dean and he sucks in a chopped breath. His mouth works, as years fall from his face, leaving him boyish and baffled, and just a little bit wild around the eyes.

“Cas?” he whispers at last.

Cas steps out of the darkness, fully clothed, his hair as tousled as it always is. “Hello, Sam.”

Dean can taste the smile in those words.

Sam makes another garbled sound, then throws himself halfway through the door and drags Cas out. He runs his hands down Cas’s trenchcoated arms like a parent looking for bruises. “You—Are you—Are you?”

“It’s good to see you again, too,” Cas says, clasping Sam’s arms in his own.

As unperturbed as he ever is with emotional spill, Sam snuffles noisily and wipes his eyes, then laughs this wet, watery thing that makes Dean want to take his baby brother into his arms and crush the sadness right out of him.

“I just—Wow, was that you coming back? That’s—I don’t understand, we all thought—How did you—”

“Jack brought me back.” Cas’s eyes drift sideways to Dean and hold. “I had to come back.”

Sam hasn’t grinned this wide in… Dean can’t remember. He watches his brother step back, walk in an aimless circle, and run both hands through his hair. Huff out a hard breath, then fall into disbelieving laughter. He looks up again, to Dean, then to Cas, to Dean again—and stops.

Oh, hell.

Sam tilts his head, just a touch. His gaze trails from Dean’s brutally wrung hair to his overwarm face, his throat, lower, lower, and with every inch, his eyebrows climb higher. Dean knows damn well what he’s seeing, and it’s fine. It’s fine.

“Okay,” he grunts, scratching his ear, looking anywhere but at his brother. “You’ve seen him, bunker’s still standing. We good?”

Sam says nothing, just pinches his mouth up like he’s desperate not to laugh. Or cry. He gives Dean another torturous onceover that Dean winces his way through, then turns mercifully to Cas.

“Welcome back,” Sam murmurs, pulling him into a full-bodied hug.

Cas’s hands clench fistfuls of Sam’s flannel shirt. Dean watches his eyes slide shut. “Thank you.”

“Come find me later, alright?” Sam releases him with a shake of his shoulder, eyes Dean up one last time, then winks at Cas and heads down the hall the way he came. They hear his wheezing laugh again after he turns the corner.

And then there they stand, in either side of the doorway to his room as the bunker goes quiet around them.

“Okay, let’s just…” Dean gestures vaguely, then turns too quickly back through the doorway, heart knocking at his ribs. Cas shuts the door behind them with a squeal, and Dean stands in the dark, a hand over his eyes, and curses.

Arms come around him, settling in a loose clasp. Cas, behind him, naked again as the day the world was born. Dean sighs and leans back. Already the warmth is seeping back in, Cas’s familiar smell, the universe righting itself from its brief, hectic tilt. He feels lips at the tender spot just beneath his jaw.

“God, I missed you.” His voice cracks. Castiel just holds him tighter.

~fin~