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The first time Dean tells Cas that he needs him, he doesn't say it with those words. He says people, families, that's real, and look at me, and if there's anything worth dying for, this is it. He asks Cas to help him, and he paints it large—armageddon, the world, humanity—and the whole time he wonders if Cas can see inside his head, if Cas can tell that what he really means is that he needs Cas. That he, Dean Winchester, needs Castiel, angel of the Lord, to stand with him in this, to not leave him to face down the coming apocalypse alone. Help me, now, he says, please. He says that out loud, but I need you hums, unspoken and obvious, in the air between them.

And Cas, the self-righteous motherfucker, looks away and says nothing, and then he fucking leaves.

He comes back, of course—comes back in spades, saves Dean's ass, sends him to Sam, sacrifices himself, loses more than Dean can fathom in that one fell swoop. But Dean can't forget the sting of that initial rejection, that instant in his heavenly jail cell when he looked over his shoulder (I need you ringing through his head, I need you, please stay, please stand by me) and Cas was gone.

***

He doesn't say anything near it after Stull. In the car, he's angry and he snaps at Castiel, rages at God, destiny, heaven, whoever and whatever he can blame for his brother's fall into Hell. And his jaw is clenched so tight it hurts, there's a tightness in his chest and his eyes burn, because Sam is fucking gone, and he wants nothing more than to pull over on the side of the road and let himself crumble.

He doesn't ask Cas to stay. When Cas talks of returning to Heaven, Dean doesn't say I need you more than they do, doesn't ask Cas to stay and hold all the pieces of him together. And so Cas leaves. Cas leaves him.

Dean goes to Lisa and falls apart in her arms, and all he can think is that he's so fucking alone.

***

He begs Cas, who's strange and cold-eyed and beatific in his newfound power, to come back to him. Don't make me lose you too, he grits out, and even after everything that's happened, everything Cas has done—what he's done to Sam—Dean means it. He needs Cas—the real Cas, the old one, not this calm and radiant and juiced-up nuke. But this Cas, Dean feels sure, doesn't care what or who needs him, doesn't give a damn that Dean's lost so much he loves already. He doesn't tell Cas that he needs him, but already he feels the gap of the angel's absence, already he can feel himself recoiling from the wrongness of millions of souls residing in the shape of what was once Castiel, angel. Castiel, friend.

You're not my family, says Castiel, god. And leaves.

***

He almost says it in the deserted parking garage, hours before going in to fight Dick. But what's the point? He's tired of asking, tired of demanding Cas for help that the broken angel clearly can't or won't give him. Still, truth is truth, and when he says I'd rather have you he still means it, all the way down to his very marrow. He isn't sure he forgives Cas, for any of it. But he can't deny that with the angel by his side he feels safer, and that, he thinks, means there's trust left somewhere.

Less than twenty-four hours later, when he's standing alone in a damp, dark forest that's nothing all like Earth, he hangs on to that thought, trusts Cas with everything he's got as he calls for him. Prays, with words that bleed desperation, while he runs for his life. Whispers, it'd be really fucking nice if you'd show up, Cas, into the harsh light of the next morning, and often in quiet moments throughout the following months.

There is no answer.

***

He says it for real in Purgatory. Weeks of searching, long endless days of fighting tooth and claw to stay alive, no way out in sight, no goal except to find the angel, find the angel, and when the trees part and he sees Cas crouched by the stream something loosens and floats free inside him, a light that he'd buried under bloodshed and death. He's found Cas. They can go home. He'll go home with Cas.

Cas, of course, is a stubborn son of a bitch about the whole thing, and so Dean says it. Buoyant with relief at finding Cas alive, too exhilarated to take no for an answer, he says it.

Cas, he says.

I need you.

It slips out like it weighs nothing, but Dean feels the reverberation down in his chest like he's just freed a secret. And maybe he has—it's not a statement he's ever voiced in so many words, after all. Saying it, saying it for real, that's important, that means something—Dean gets it, a moment after blurting it out, gets that he's made it pretty damn clear what he means, what Cas means to him. And the way Cas freezes and stares and shakes his head, the way he hesitates over Dean's name, the way his eyes soften with wonder and care and a strange, aching sadness, make it fairly clear that he gets it too.

I need you. He doesn't say it again, doesn't think he has to, but it stays true in the weeks, or perhaps they're months or years, that follow. Truth grinding away in his chest and gut; now that it's said it can't be unspoken.

In some ways it's a relief to have it out there, to have it admitted—he needs Cas, always has, maybe always will. The steadiness of him, the loyalty and courage, the quiet strength. Dean needs it all. And, he's realizing, in many ways he just needs Cas—not for his attributes, not for his abilities, just for him, for the simple and pure fact and form of him.

He doesn't mean to do more than think that, in the small corners of his own mind. Doesn't mean to lean on Cas more than he already is, to take devotion that he hasn't earned. But the bloodlust of Purgatory, the purity of its violence, the way he has to live close to the bone, close to the blood, right on that knife's edge of savagery, feels good in ways that terrify him. It dredges up the memories of Hell that he'd tried to subsume, leaves them raw and pulsing just below the surface. At night he dreams of gory blades and pitiful screams and the wet dark sop of blood—and Alastair, of course, always there is Alastair, with his wide white grin and the lilting sound of his voice.

My boy, my beautiful boy, Alastair croons from the seams of Dean's nightmares, and his breath is sulfurous against the back of Dean's neck and his fingers dig deep into the flesh of Dean's back to grip his vertebrae. Night after night Dean screams and laughs and cuts with knives whose handles are sticky and red. Night after night Cas drags him out of the nightmares, hauls Dean into a sitting position with one arm around his chest and one hand pressed against his mouth so Dean's cries won't draw the attention of the monsters that hunt them.

"I'm his," Dean babbles into the black Purgatory night, into the darkness where Benny will probably hear but will pretend not to. "I'm his, I belong to him, I belong there." He should be in Hell, in the dark and the fire and the pain. He's always belonged there. He'll always belong there.

Cas presses up behind him, warm and solid where Alastair's touch had been ice and fire and smoke; Cas rests his chin on Dean's shoulder and insists, low and vehement, "You belong to no one." Again and again until Dean stops shaking and his hands unclench from the folds of Cas's sleeve.

When the sun rises Cas is always sitting or standing a respectable distance away, as if he knows Dean can't face whatever it is that they have, not in the light of day. Cas seems to have accepted that it's only in the darkness that Dean can peel away everything extraneous, everything around his core, and allow himself to be vulnerable. And so in darkness Cas is always there, night after night as Dean judders awake from the bloody nightmares that his reality echoes too closely. And some mornings, in the grey half-light just before Purgatory's sullen excuse for a dawn, Dean allows himself to marvel at it, at the angel at his back. Allows himself to think that maybe, just maybe, he can have this, that maybe it's okay to need someone the way he needs Cas.

But of course, Cas doesn't stay with him. Cas lets go. Cas stays behind. Cas fucking gives up, fucking chooses Purgatory and penance and pain over Dean, and yeah, that feels pretty shitty. Dean goes through the motions, tries to ignore the hole in his heart. The absence of arms that wrap around him when he wakes from a nightmare, the void by his side where his best friend should be.

***

In Lucifer's crypt, he spits it out through swollen lips and a mouth full of blood. He's on his knees and dizzy with pain; he doesn't try to mask the desperation in his voice. The thing beating him to death is not Cas; there's something cold and cruel and other working Cas's limbs and words and face and Dean will fucking fight it with all his might because what Cas gave up, he gave for free will, dammit, not to be brainwashed by Heaven or any other force under the sun. He lifts his head and puts it all on the line because Cas is trapped somewhere in there and Dean's out of options and possibly about to meet his end on the point of an angel blade, but so help him, he loves that son of a bitch too much not to try.

I need you.

It drags Cas back from whatever is controlling him, banishes the robotic emptiness and stays the angel's descending hand. Cas comes back, and Dean collapses onto his side and tries to breathe and tries to keep from croaking out stay, please stay.

Cas doesn't stay.

Cas leaves.

Cas fucking leaves him.

***

Much later, Dean faces down one weary angel in the bunker's living room, and when Cas—loyal, stubborn, stupid Cas—says I won't let you walk out of this room he almost laughs. The Mark is welded to his arm and it's never coming off, it's never going away, and he doesn't care. It might be dragging him down into the darkness but he's always known that's where he belonged anyway—alone in the dark, with blood on his hands and Alastair singing in his ear. The Mark doesn't smell of sulfur but it hums the same song of pleasure, roaring for blood, hungry for more, always more. It's a cold, ruthless symbiosis, but it's forever and he'll take it. The Mark is strength and grace and power, thrumming in his veins, and Dean doesn't need anyone now.

He doesn't kill Cas. He beats the angel to a bloody mess, leaves him gasping and dazed on the floor. And as he turns to go he feels a hard, joyless kind of triumph, because for fucking once he's the one leaving.

I don't need you, he thinks.

I don't fucking need you.