Cas whirls around. If he was standing on a normal floor, his shoes would have squeaked with the abrupt turn. In the Empty, though, his feet don’t make a sound. “Dean?” he calls back, his heart soaring in his chest.
“Cas? Where are you, man?”
Cas spins in another circle, his eyes straining against the darkness. The oppressive blankness of nothing presses against his eyeballs like an almost tangible film. He tries again, “Dean?”
“Dean!” Cas takes off in the direction of Dean’s voice.
“Are you there?”
Cas walks faster, anticipation quickening his heels. “I’m coming!”
“I can’t find you!”
“I’m here!” Cas calls back desperately.
“I’m running out of time here, buddy! Spell’s not gonna last forever. Where the hell are you?”
Panicked, Cas breaks out into a run. “I’m coming, Dean!”
Cas stops dead. If he was back on Earth, he would have fallen flat on his face with the momentum. He turns to his right, where Dean’s voice just came.
“Cas? You there?”
Dean’s voice definitely came from his left that time.
“I need you.”
Cas swallows. Dean’s voice is coming from directly in front of him now. Icy dread creeps up his spine, but he feels hot all over.
“You make it too easy, Castiel.”
Dean never calls him by his full name, not in more than a decade. He is not talking with Dean.
“Nobody is coming for you.”
Cas doesn’t respond. Shamed beyond reason, he just stands there because there is nothing else to do. He can’t hide from the Empty. The Empty is everywhere.
Black ooze, blacker than the surrounding darkness, bubbles up from the floor. The Empty resolves into Cas’s own face, to his surprise. He’d been expecting Dean.
It shrugs, a knowing smirk playing on its lips. “What can I say? If you’re determined to keep me awake, I might as well amuse myself.”
“Your sense of humor leaves much to be desired,” Cas says as tonelessly as he can manage.
The Empty crosses its arms over its chest. “My options are limited, aren’t they?” it says snidely. “I can’t put you to sleep, so I can’t sleep. I might as well make this experience as hellish for you as it is for me.”
Cas frowns. “You could always negate our deal. Send me back to Earth.”
The Empty laughs. “That’s not how it works. That was a one-way trip.”
Cas grinds his teeth. “Then it seems like we’re at an impasse.”
“An impasse requires two forces of equal power,” the Empty tuts. “And you, my little gnat, have no power in this equation. You are my plaything. What was it that Gabriel said? A thousand channels and nothing’s on. Except you.”
Before Cas can respond, the Empty disappears, dissolving into a tarry splatter and absorbing into whatever passes as the floor in this place.
Cas wanders. He used to sleep while he was bored, but the Empty truly reigns supreme in his dreams. Cas killed Naomi’s Dean facsimile a thousand times, a million times. He watched Dean rake leaves, Crowley whispering poisoned promises into his ear. He walked away as Dean hurts and rages silently behind him in the Bunker.
So Cas stays awake. He’s an angel. It isn’t hard.
Dean’s voice occasionally calls for him.
Cas ignores it.
He wanders for what seems like miles, like hundreds of miles. Nothing ever changes in the Empty. With every step forward, he meets the same bleak blackness. The closest comparison in his long memory is the fraction of a second before the Big Bang - there was emptiness then too, but it was filled with a pregnant sense of promise. In the Empty - nothing.
Dean is running towards him.
Cas blinks a few times to make sure, even though his vision is perfect.
“Cas,” Dean breaks the silence first, “I found you.”
“Dean,” Cas breathes - any louder, and Dean will hear the trembling. “You’re here.”
“The real deal, sweetheart,” Dean says with a wink. “Now, come on. We’re getting out of here.” He takes off in the direction he came from, glancing behind him to check on Cas.
“We are?” Cas asks, following.
Dean throws him a disbelieving look. “Of course, dude. Sam and Jack are prepping the spell to get us back to the Bunker. We got Chuck by the short and curlies, but we’re one power player short. So we gotta get a move on.”
“So you need me?” Cas asks.
“Your mojo is the ticket,” Dean says with a little grin. “Chuck wiped all the angels off the Earth except Michael. And that dick isn’t answering our prayers, so you’re our next best bet.”
The joy at seeing Dean wavers. “I am?” he asks haltingly.
Dean shrugs. “We gotta work with what we have. And we just remembered you were here, out of Chuck’s reach. Our own spare angel!”
Cas barely holds back his flinch. Hunching in on himself, he mutters, “Yes, I suppose so.”
“Don’t worry,” Dean assures him, misreading his reaction completely. “We have a plan.”
Cas sighs. “Of course you do. What is it?”
“Sam found a spell,” Dean says. “It’ll rip Chuck apart, and, since Amara’s inside him - which, gross - it’ll maintain the balance when the spell takes her apart too.”
Dean stops walking.
Cas looks around, but nothing sets aside this patch of emptiness from any other. No illuminated rift, no magic symbols, no X marking the spot - nothing.
“The catch is,” Dean says as he turns to Cas, his face regretful, “the spell needs an angel’s grace.”
In a blink of an eye, an angel blade drops into Dean’s palm.
Cas blinks. No beings but angels can manifest that particular weapon.
Dean raises the blade, fingers flexing on the handle. “You know,” he says conversationally, “Now that I think about it, we don’t actually need the angel himself - just the battery.”
Cas stands his ground, his eyes darting over Dean’s face, taking in every nuance and tell.
“I told you once,” Cas says warily, a horrible foreboding coming over him, “I’m always happy to bleed for the Winchesters.”
“Happy to hear that, Cas,” Dean says, his face impassive, “because you’re gonna bleed a lot, not gonna lie.” He shoves the blade in Cas’s chest, right above his heart.
Cas staggers back from the blow, pain and shock radiating out from the bloodless wound.
Dean raises his eyebrows, his mouth curling into a mocking smile as Cas meets his smug face. “What, were you expecting to go poof? We’re in the Empty,” he throws his hands wide, “everyone’s in stasis here, including you.”
Cas yanks the blade out of his chest, but it - and Dean - turns into black goo before he can stab anything with it.
The Empty doesn’t mimic Dean next. Instead it takes Meg’s shape, Samandriel’s, Duma’s. Every one of the thousands of angels Cas killed up in heaven.
And there’s no escape. Cas can do his best not to listen, but if he retreats too far into himself, it almost counts as sleeping. With the Empty’s nudging, his thoughts will veer into his worst regrets, sooner rather than later.
The Empty is in the middle of lecturing him in the form of Balthazar when it explodes in a burst of light and sound.
Dean Winchester stands in the aftermath.
“Come on,” he says roughly. He strides forward to grab Cas’s hand and tug him in the other direction. “That bomb doesn’t last forever.”
“Who else?” Dean yanks him sharply to the left. “This place didn’t turn your brains to scrambled eggs, did it?”
“I don’t think so,” Cas says shakily. “Dean are you really...”
Cas can’t help looking down at their clasped hands. A fleeting thing, barely more than a glance. Still, Dean drops Cas’s hand like it burned him. “You good to run?” he asks shortly.
Cas barely nods before Dean takes off. They hurtle through the Empty, their rapid footsteps impossibly silent. Dean’s breath comes in sharp pants, and Cas’s useless wings ache, not for the first time, to fly them to their destination.
“Dean,” Cas starts, and Dean slows. “Where are we going?”
“Where I left my stuff,” Dean says shortly. “The spell to get us out of here needs a shit-ton of crap, and I couldn’t haul it all over this goddamn place while I was trying to find you.”
“How did you know your way back?”
The corners of Dean’s mouth lift in a faint smile. He points to the floor. “M&Ms.”
Cas squints at the ground, and, sure enough, they are following a trail of tiny candies. “Ingenious,” he murmurs.
“Hey, it worked with a Wendigo,” Dean says, shrugging. He directs them in a few more twists and turns before Cas sees Dean's duffle bag in the distance, topped with a bright yellow bag of M&Ms.
As they get closer, Dean pulls out an angel blade from inside his jacket.
Dean shoots him a puzzled look as he hands it over to him. “It won’t kill anything here, obviously,” he says, unzipping his bag. He pulls out a copper bowl and bundles of herbs, “But having a weapon’s never a bad idea in unknown dimensions.”
“Yes, Dean.” Cas surveils their inky surroundings, already on high alert for any trespassers.
“Watch my back, okay?” Dean glances over his shoulder. Various ingredients get dropped into the bowl with outsized clangs and dribbles that seem to echo in the void around them.
Cas stays vigilant.
“This was easier than I thought it would be,” Dean mutters as the bowl’s contents start to smoke.
“Don’t jinx it,” Cas mutters out of the side of his mouth.
Dean chuckles under his breath. “I didn’t think angels believed in jinxes.”
It’s not like Cas has been especially angelic these past few years. He says shortly, “I’ve found you can never be too careful.”
Dean hums his agreement. “Need your blood for this part,” he says, shuffling over to make room. “Wait,” Dean says before Cas can press the blade againt his skin.
“This is the last step,” Dean says seriously. “Once your blood goes in, it’s liftoff. So I wanted to get a couple things straight before we’re back in the Bunker.”
Cas doesn’t need to breathe, but if he did, his breath would have hitched in his chest at the closed-off look on Dean’s face. “Of course.”
“What you said - what you told me,” Dean starts, his voice hard, “before you got sucked to this hellscape.” He drops his gaze to the bowl cradled in his hands, “That’s not me.”
Cas presses his lips together, struggling to keep his face impassive. Once he regains control of himself he says, “I did not expect you to reciprocate when I told you about my feelings for you.”
Dean actively recoils at the mention of feelings. He gives the bowl a little toss, and a few of the contents spill onto the floor. “Just, forget it,” he says brusquely, gathering everything up again.
He turns to Cas, his eyes blazing. “But - you know what? I can’t forget it.”
Cas opens his mouth, but Dean is not done.
“How could you offload all that shit on me right before you fucked off to parts unknown?” he demands, voice rising in anger and volume. “Of all the goddamn things you could have said to me - that takes the fucking cake. You were my best friend -” he breaks off, shaking his head. “Worst moment of my goddamn life.”
Cas takes a step back, a sickly horror trickling down his spine. “I didn’t think-”
But Dean’s not listening. “I had serious doubts about coming here at all,” he continues, and the last Dean had stabbed him in the chest - how is this so much worse? “But Sam gave me those goddamn puppy dog eyes, and don’t even get me started on Jack-”
“I understand,” Cas interrupts stiffly. He inhales a deep breath he doesn’t need and continues, “Once we return to the Bunker, I’ll stay out of your way.”
“Probably for the best,” Dean mutters.
Cas cuts his forearm, watching with perverse fascination as the blood wells up and drips into the bowl waiting below.
There’s a violent burst of light and sound.
In the aftermath, Cas can only make out Dean’s mocking laughter. Before Cas can say a word, it turns into Meg’s delighted giggles. And then Gabriel’s howls of mirth.
Cas sleeps after getting deceived for the third time. Anything is better than seeing the smug face of the Empty, whether it’s wearing Dean’s face, Gadreel’s, or Ruby’s.
He breaks the wall in Sam’s head.
He lets Lucifer possess him in a futile plan.
He beats Dean to a bloody mess for the Angel Tablet.
Occasionally, the Empty grants him release, and Cas gets to deliver a bad joke to Uriel in Mesopotamia or Dean calls him a baby in a trenchcoat in a diner.
Time passes. Cas has no idea how long. There’s no sun - no moon - no cycling of the heavens. Only emptiness.
He gets shaken awake.
Cas blinks up at a pair of very familiar green eyes. “Dean,” he says, more or less resigned.
“Jesus,” Dean says as he sits back on his heels, “Way to make a guy feel welcome. I’m here to save your sorry ass, in case you were wondering. A full week of tearing my hair out over how to get you outta here, and this is the thanks I get.”
Cas sits up. “My apologies,” he says tentatively as he studies Dean’s face. There’s no sign it isn’t really Dean.
Then again, none of the others showed signs either.
Cas gets to his feet, asking, “Are you alone?”
Dean glances around them warily. “Yeah, Sam and Jack are keeping the portal open in the Bunker. They wanted to come,” he says, his eyes raking over Cas’s face, drinking him in. “They’ll be over the fucking moon to see you again.”
Cas swallows. “And you?”
“I -” A dull flush comes over Dean’s cheeks. He looks away.
Cas’s face shutters. “Right,” he says as he stands in front of Dean. “Now what?”
“Hey,” Dean says, reaching out to grasp his left shoulder, a mirror of the mark Cas left on him so long ago and so recently. “I missed you too. You have to know that.”
Worst moment of my life.
Cas looks away, Dean’s own raised voice echoing in his head.
“Hey,” Dean says again, gentler this time. His green eyes bore into Cas’s face. “What’s going on in that celestial brain of yours?”
The words catch in Cas’s throat, a lump of embarrassment and fear keeping them there. Embarrassment that the Empty deceived him. Fear that the Empty was right.
“Look, I know we didn’t leave things on great terms,” Dean says awkwardly, “and maybe this isn’t the best place to talk about it, but I’m so fucking happy to see you, man.” He chuckles ruefully. “’S making me lose my goddamn mind.”
Even if it’s only a facsimile of Dean - and there’s no way to tell for certain - seeing his face not contorted in anger or mockery is like a balm on Cas’s soul. If he had one, that is.
“About what you said before you got taken-” Dean starts.
Cas’s heart sinks.
“No,” Dean says, his voice low and gentle, “listen to me. I get that happiness for you might just be in the being, but for me-”
“It’s fine, Dean,” Cas interrupts. “I meant that, truly. You don’t have to-”
“Jesus Christ,” Dean says, smiling slightly, “You’re not making this easy are you?”
Cas bites his tongue to keep from contradicting Dean again.
“As I was saying,” Dean continues pointedly, his green eyes shining, “For me, happiness isn’t in the being - whatever the hell that means. It’s in the goddamn having.”
Cas bites his tongue harder, the pain hardly registering against the burst of hope fluttering wildly in his chest. “Dean,” he forces out, “You can’t mean…”
“Cas,” Dean starts, and Cas’s heart breaks - or mends. He can’t tell. He has no idea who he is talking to, and it’s, to borrow a phrase from the real Dean, an epic mindfuck.
“Cas,” the Dean standing in front of him repeats, and Cas’s gaze automatically draws back to his face, “Good things do happen.”
Cas chuckles wetly. He has no choice but to say, “Not in my experience.”
Dean takes a step closer, far into the personal space he’d shown Cas so many years ago. Brows drawing together, he raises a hand to cup Cas’s face. “Someone told me a while ago that having faith was important. Seems you’re a little short there, buddy.”
Cas tries to duck his head, but Dean won’t let him. Eventually, he admits, “My faith has been tested recently.”
“But you didn’t give up, right?” Dean asks, leaning in close enough that Cas can feel the warmth of his breath in the air between them.
Cas shakes his head minutely. “No,” he murmurs, “not entirely.”
“Good,” Dean says, pausing just shy of Cas’s mouth. Waiting.
Cas steels himself and closes distance.
Just before their lips touch, Dean implodes in a burst of inky ooze.
Cas breaks several knuckles on the floor of the Empty. There are no walls to punch, no blade to send heads rolling. Cas works with what he has.
The real Dean would probably approve.
Dean shows up again before too long. This Dean goes so far as to tell Cas he loves him.
Cas turns his back on Dean’s heartbroken face. He refuses to engage.
He wanders instead.
Cas hears the footsteps before he sees his next Dean.
“Cas!” he pants, “Thank fuck. I thought I was never going to find you.”
Cas merely sighs.
Dean makes a face. “Way to roll out the welcome wagon,” he says, clearly offended. “I would’ve thought you were sick of this place by now.”
Cas purses his lips. “I am.”
“Shocker,” Dean says with a little smile. “Look, we don’t have a lot of time, so you gotta follow me.”
Cas doesn’t budge. He’d rather roam this place for eternity than suffer at the hands of another Dean facsimile. And he had thought he saw enough of them under Naomi’s tutelage. He’d been so naive.
Dean stares at him like Cas just stripped naked and danced the macarena. “What are you doing?”
“You’re not real,” Cas says bluntly.
Dean gapes. “Of course I’m real! Chuck’s de-powered, and Jack… well, it’s a long story. Bottom line: nobody’s pulling our strings but us.”
Cas lets out a derisive laugh.
Dean’s eyebrows rise, but he barrels on, “So it’s time to get a move on. Up and at ‘em, sunshine.” He jerks his head off to the right.
Cas stays where he is. “No.”
“What the hell?” Dean has the gall to tug on Cas’s sleeve like he’s a wayward toddler. “Come on. You’re not making any sense.”
“You’re not making any sense,” Cas retorts. It’s not his best rejoinder, but he’s been very stressed lately.
Whatever Dean was about to say dies on his tongue as he stares at Cas in confusion. “What’s wrong with you?” He shakes his head before Cas can respond, saying, “Doesn’t matter. We’ll figure it out later. But now, you’ve gotta come with me.”
Cas levels him a flat glare. This one is more stubborn than the last, more like the real Dean. “Why should I?”
“Because you don’t deserve to be stuck here?” Dean says, gesturing to the void around them. “You saved the world, Cas.” He swallows. “You saved me. Getting you out is the least we can do.”
“Because you need me to take on Chuck,” Cas says.
“No?” Dean says, his eyes narrowing. “I already told you, Chuck’s off the playing board.”
“Because you feel guilty about leaving me here.”
“No - wait, I do, but,” Dean breaks off, irritated, “you know what I mean.”
Cas doesn’t, so he continues in the same vein as before, “Because you love me.”
Dean hesitates. “I’m working on it.”
Cas snorts. At least the last Dean had the balls to say it. Many times. While crying.
“What?” Dean throws up his hands. “You just sprung it on me, dude! I didn’t even know angels could feel things like that, and it took me by surprise, okay? I’m only human, and sometimes we need time to get used to ideas. Like when we found out Snooki was a demon. Yeah, the signs were there, and it makes sense, but still - you sometimes need it spelled out for you.”
Cas pauses. None of the other Deans had referenced pop culture. “How long ago was this for you?”
“Since we summoned Snooki?”
At Cas’s icy look of disdain, Dean hedges, “A month? Give or take.” He glares. “First we had to deal with Chuck, and it took a while to find a spell to get here. Remember, we didn’t even know this was a place before you died the last time. The Men of Letters weren’t a shit ton of help, for once.”
Cas crosses his arms over his chest.
“Just… hear me out,” Dean says. “There’s a portal to get us home. Sam and Jack can’t stall the Empty forever.”
That was new. “Jack and Sam aren’t in the Bunker?”
“No,” Dean says as he takes off in the opposite direction, all but forcing Cas to follow to find out more. “They’re up in Heaven.”
“Because the Empty can’t get to Earth without a summoning spell, which, as far as we can tell, doesn’t exist?” Dean says, checking over his shoulder to make sure Cas is still within earshot. “But you made that fucking stupid deal in Heaven, so we knew it could at least travel there. Jack zapped Sam to the Pearly Gates, and they’re hopefully making a distraction while I get you out.”
Still not entirely convinced, Cas asks begrudgingly, “And where are we going?”
“A portal,” Dean says confidently. “This place is a little like Purgatory, apparently. If it senses a human here, it’ll create a portal to spit them out again.” He flashes a grin over his shoulder. “So here I am, a 100% genuine human to bail your ass out.”
“Don’t mention it,” Dean says with a wink.
Cas scowls. The first Dean had winked at him too.
“Jesus, tough crowd,” Dean mutters as they head further into the Empty.
Cas scans the ground, but there are no small candies lining the way. “How do you know where to go?”
“Turns out, Sam could find a spell for that,” Dean says as he holds up his left hand - clutching his amulet. The Empty must have really hunted around in his memories for that one, even more so than the Wendigo case. He hasn’t seen the real amulet in nearly five years. “It heats up when I’m on the right track towards the exit.”
“So no M&Ms?”
Dean turns to him. “I told you about that?”
Cas stares straight ahead, willing his face to fall into an expressionless mask. The real Dean had told him about the Wendigo over dinner with Sam and Mary while she was still alive, or the Empty wouldn’t be able to use it as inspiration now.
Dean shakes his head, smiling. “Man, I haven’t thought about that case in forever.” He glances at Cas, his face sobering. “You really don’t believe this is real?”
He can’t. Not again.
Dean sighs as he steers them slightly to the right. “Come on, I’m almost getting third degree burns from this thing. We must be close.”
Sure enough, a blue swirling portal comes into view, a pinprick of light in the distance at first, elongating into an exact replica of the Purgatory exit as they approach.
“Finally,” Dean mutters, his face impassive. He turns to Cas. “Just… don’t stay behind,” he grimaces, “again.”
This version has been the most true to Dean - less callous than the first, more caring than the second, more guarded than the third. It will hurt the most when this one falls apart. Maybe it would be better if Cas heads it off at the pass instead of letting the whole painstaking ruse play out all the way through.
If the Empty could get it over with, Cas will go back to sleep. Anything is better than this torture.
Cas takes a step back, away from the portal. “This is pointless-”
“Jesus Christ, Cas!” Dean throws his hands in the air. “I don’t get it at all. You don’t think you deserve to be saved?”
Cas gapes at him.
Dean continues heatedly, “If an ex-demon with anger management problems and rap sheet a mile long deserved to be saved, I think a legit angel should get the same.”
Cas shakes his head. “I’m hardly a prime example of an angel anymore.”
Dean raises his eyebrows. “Have I ever cared about that?”
“Well, no, but-”
“Glad we can agree on something,” Dean cuts him off. “Now, are you going to go through the portal or am I gonna have to drag you? I’ll do it,” he threatens. “Don’t test me.”
Cas wavers. Everything in him says to follow Dean. But this isn’t the real Dean - this is the Empty waiting for the glorious moment when it can yank the illusion away, leaving Cas a little more broken than before.
Dean’s eyes narrow. “Fuck you,” he spits, “You can’t trust me just a little-”
“Trust?” Cas echoes as he strides forward to grab the lapels of Dean’s jacket, his voice rising in a mixture of outrage, desperation, and heartache, “You want me to trust you? After you’ve lied to me, deceived me - after you stabbed me, after you told me I put you through the worst moment of your life the last time you saw me, after you made me think you returned my feelings only to - only to-”
Dean shakes his head slowly. “But I didn’t do any of that.”
“You did,” Cas says fervently, shaking Dean a little - or maybe that’s his trembling hands. “You did - you’ve been putting me through hell since I got here, and I’m sick of it. I’m sick of you.”
Dean’s expression hardens. “You don’t mean that.”
“Oh, I do,” Cas swears. “I’m done pretending.”
Dean his eyes flicking down to Cas’s mouth. “What do you know,” he breathes, “so am I.”
Cas freezes, waiting for Dean to dissolve into a puddle of goo in his hands.
Dean kisses him instead.
At the first touch of Dean’s lips to his, Cas jerks back in surprise and horror.
He falls straight into the portal.
The Empty vanishes in a blur of too-bright light.
Cas comes to in the middle of a field. The sun shines overhead. Noon, Cas registers distantly as he looks around. Dean’s sprawled on the prairie grasses next to him, already waking up judging by the groaning noises.
Dean opens his eyes, glances at the sky, and closes them again. “Oh great, we made it.”
Cas tentatively picks his way closer to Dean’s side. He stands over him for a moment, shuffling to the side so he doesn’t block the sunlight falling on Dean’s face. “We’re on Earth.”
“Well, it’s sure as shit not Mars,” Dean grumbles, eyes still closed. “Are you watching me right now? I feel like you’re watching me right now.”
Cas stares around the field. “Not anymore,” he says, and a genuine breeze blows against his face. What a marvel.
“‘S okay,” Dean says as he wiggles a little on the grass, getting more comfortable, “’M used to it.”
Cas turns to him. “It’s really you.”
“The real deal, sweetheart,” Dean cracks his eyes open, one corner of his mouth lifting into a lopsided smile. “You believe me now?”
“This could be the most elaborate ruse yet.”
Dean lifts his head up. “Seriously? You dick, I did not haul ass all the way-”
“I don’t really believe that, however,” Cas says before Dean can work himself up too much.
“Good.” He meaningfully thumps the grass next to him. “Sit. You’re giving me serious Law & Order vibes.”
Cas’s brow furrows. “I don’t get that reference. I know about Law & Order-”
“And how does every episode of Law & Order start?” Dean interrupts, “With someone standing over a dead body in a field.”
Cas takes a seat. “Not always a field. Most episodes show corpses in urban areas, or, once, a yacht.”
“Pretty sure it was more than once. I hate procedural cop shows.”
“They are very formulaic,” Cas admits, stretching out his legs, “and lack the drama of soap operas.”
“I’m just saying, if a long lost sibling doesn’t pop out of the woodwork or if the main character isn’t killed off at least six times, is it really worth watching?”
Cas levels him a flat look. “Dean, all those things have happened to you.”
Dean snorts. “At least none of us got amnesia.”
Cas rolls his eyes. “Speak for yourself.”
Dean turns his head to stare at him, a wide grin spreading across his face as he laughs. “Oh shit, you're right. How the hell did I forget?”
“Because of supreme irony, most likely.”
It takes Dean a moment to get it, but when he does, he laughs even louder.
Cas doesn’t have anything to add, so he lets the conversation peter off into silence, listening to Dean’s even breathing and the grass rustling in the gentle wind.
“I didn’t think it would be like this,” Dean says in an undertone.
Cas turns to him. Dean’s eyes are closed again, but everything else about him radiates a quiet tension Cas might’ve missed anywhere else. But here, in this field, nothing prevents Cas from honing on Dean’s whole being with everything he has. “What do you mean?” he asks carefully.
“I dunno,” Dean says, his face scrunching up, “I thought it would be more awkward. But… it doesn’t feel any different.”
Cas blinks. “Why should it?” he asks, and though he’s not definitively sure what Dean means by ‘it’, he has a very strong suspicion.
Dean shoots him a pointed look. “Because you don’t tell someone you love them and expect everything to be OK after.”
Cas lays down next to Dean. Staring up at the wispy clouds overhead, he says, “If it changes anything, I didn’t expect to be around for the after part.” Dean’s head turns to look at him, but Cas can’t bring himself to see whatever expression is on his face. “If you’d like for us to go our separate ways after this, I understand.”
“You stupid bastard,” Dean mutters vehemently, “for the last goddamn time, I did not piss off the immortal Blob just to tell you to go fuck yourself in person.”
Cas inhales a slow breath, breathing in the dirt, wildflowers growing nearby, and Dean. “You kissed me,” he says.
“You said you loved me,” Dean shoots back.
“Did you mean it?”
Cas grimaces as he turns his head to face him. “I thought it was obvious.”
Dean swallows. “No, it wasn’t,” he says quietly, “but I’ve never been good at that stuff.”
Cas squints at him. “You are the most emotionally intelligent man I’ve ever met.”
Cas rolls his eyes. “You expertly navigate and manipulate people’s emotions to get them to talk to you, open up to you, have sex with you,” he lists. “It’s extraordinary to witness.”
Dean makes a choking noise. “Dude,” he says, which tells Cas absolutely nothing. A few more clouds pass by before Dean speaks again. “I guess the signs were there - with you. But I didn’t want to put them together.”
Dean shrugs, his shoulders scraping almost inaudibly against the soil and grass stems. “Just didn’t.”
“Then that’s why I didn’t tell you. But, Dean-” Cas breaks off. This part of the conversation, despite what Dean said earlier, does not feel the same as others between them.
Dean’s eyes flick to his. “Yeah?”
“You kissed me.”
Dean inhales a sharp breath. “I did,” he says at last.
Cas waits, but Dean doesn’t elaborate. “Was it just a ploy to get me to leave the Empty?”
Cas grimaces as Dean refuses to elaborate. Not for the first time, he thinks his life would be so much easier if Dean could communicate without speaking in riddles or hiding every third word he truly wanted to say. “Dean...”
“I told you I’m working on it,” Dean says defensively.
Cas closes his eyes. “What does that mean?” he asks, his voice strained.
“It means I’m working on it,” Dean says shortly. But before Cas can press him further, he lets out an explosive sigh. “It means I don’t want to hear any more goodbyes from you. It means - it means that kiss wasn’t too bad, right?”
“I thought you were a fake version of yourself created to torture me for eternity,” Cas says flatly.
Dean props himself up on his elbows. “So all I’m hearing is there’s room for improvement.”
Cas rolls his eyes as Dean scoots closer, peering down at him. “I suppose that’s one way you could look at it.”
“Would you wanna... do something like that again?” Dean asks, his expression confident while his voice is anything but.
“Only if you want to,” Cas says seriously.
Dean licks his lips. He nods once, the movement stilted.
“Should I sit up?” Cas asks, frowning, as he half-lifts his head. “Or do you want to lay back-”
“Cas,” Dean says impatiently, “it’s kissing we’re talking about here, not Twister.”
“I have played that game before.”
“Yeah, I remember now,” Dean says, a tentative smirk hiding in the corners of his mouth. “You ever do it naked?”
Cas frowns. “There was a strict policy against nudity in the psychiatric ward.”
Dean ducks his head, laughing silently. His forehead lands on Cas’s sternum, his breath warming Cas’s chest from the outside in.
“You were trying to say something arousing,” Cas says, a beat too late.
Dean shakes his head, grinning. “Something like that.”
“I would like to play naked Twister with you,” Cas says.
Dean’s eyes sparkle with amusement. “Glad to hear it,” he says as he leans over Cas. Cas goes a bit cross-eyed to keep him in view until Dean murmurs, “Relax. ‘S just me.”
In the instant before their lips meet, Cas half-expects the whole world around him to splatter apart in a tidal wave of black, otherworldly goo. But Dean is gloriously solid, gloriously human, as he cradles Cas’s half-raised head, his fingers tangling in his hair.
The midday sun shines; the grass whispers in the wind; and Cas is saved.