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“Cas, I just - I don’t think we can do this,” Dean says.

And Cas, sitting beside him in shotgun, tastes loss in his mouth. He stares straight ahead.

He’s been waiting for this, if he’s honest with himself. It was too good to be true. He and Dean have been - things have been different between them, recently. They’ve been saying more, showing more. It’s been filling a part of Cas that he hadn’t even understood was aching and empty, until suddenly it wasn’t.

But now…

“It’s - you know, we got jobs to do,” Dean says. Outside, the night rolls past. They’re driving home to the bunker, shopping bags in the back. The trip was domestic, even sweet; but at the check-outs, Cas saw Dean’s face. He’d known that something was shifting. He’d known that there was trouble to come.

“Jobs?” he manages.

“Yeah, Cas, jobs. We got the world to save. Half the time we’re throwing ourselves under the bus so it won’t drive off the cliff, and that’s good, because the bus won’t crash, but…” He pauses; Cas says nothing. “But - God, Cas, it’s so much harder to throw yourself under the bus when you got someone out there who makes you think you shouldn’t have to.”

Cas frowns, and turns to look at him. Dean is watching him, his lips half-shaping new words but not speaking them.

“I dunno, man,” Dean says eventually, looking away. “Just lately… you make me think…” He swipes a hand over his mouth. “God. I don’t know. All I know is, it was a lot easier to lie down and die when I knew I wasn’t worth shit.”

“You were never worth -” Cas begins, and Dean shakes his head.

“See? This is what I mean, you say stuff like that and - I can’t - what if I can’t do my job, what if I can’t save people, when I think I’m - you know - worth something? And that makes me not want to jump in front of that damn bus? What then? No, I’ll tell you what. Then people will die, Cas.” Dean swallows. “People who can’t come back. What if it’s someone else we know, what if it’s - what if it’s Sam?”

Cas is silent, thinking. Dean half-starts a few more sentences, and then lets them go.

The night is dark. In the back of the car, the plastic shopping bags rustle. Cas thinks of the things that they bought: pasta, vegetables… some bleach to clean the floors. Ordinary things, he thinks. Ordinary enough, to humans. And yet, to him - extraordinary.

“I don’t want to stop,” Cas says. His voice betrays his confusion, his hurt, that Dean could think of giving up - that the pain isn’t too great for him to even consider it.

“For God’s sake, Cas,” Dean says, and Cas understands, then, just how much it hurts Dean, too.

“We don’t have to stop,” he says. “Dean, it doesn’t have to stop.”

“I just - what if one day, I wake up, and I think - I think I’m too good for it all? I think I’m worth too much to lose? What if I let someone die, because I end up wanting to believe you when you tell me I’m -” Dean cuts himself off, and shakes his head.

Cas wonders how to shape the thoughts in his mind. He has millennia of watching humanity on his side; he knows how Socrates would answer this, or Nietzsche - but he needs to answer as himself. He presses his lips together, thinking.

The Impala hums beneath them, the road easing past under her wheels.

“I don’t know if I can do it,” Dean says. “Sometimes, I look at you, and I - I want to be selfish, Cas. I want to say, fuck it, let the world sort out its own screw-ups. Let’s buy a house and paint it blue and go shopping every Wednesday, and argue about who forgot to buy the milk. Sam can do the crossword in the newspaper every morning. You can grow plants. I’ll work on the car. Let’s just… do what normal people do, and spend most of our time trying to be happy, instead of trying to keep everyone else alive… let’s just - let’s just be selfish. Because if I’m not so worthless, then why shouldn’t I get that too? Damn it.” He strikes the steering wheel with the heel of his hand. “I just need to - I need to think that I deserve to come last. I need that, to do my job right. See?”

Cas shakes his head slowly.

“No,” he says.

“No?”

“No.” He exhales sharply, trying to marshall the diaspora of his thoughts into order. “Being willing to do anything for someone because you think they’re worth more than you… is a poor man’s kindness.” He’s speaking to the windshield, eyes a little out of focus, as he thinks aloud. He sees Dean turn to look at him out of the corner of his eye. “Perhaps in the past you have put yourself last because you thought you were the least. And perhaps now, it is time to see that you are not the least, and you never were.”

“But if I didn’t deserve it…” Dean begins, and then breaks off. There’s a little pause.

“Someone has to come last,” Cas says somberly, after a while. “Someone, somewhere, has to be last. Has to be the one to… throw themselves under the bus. And you can choose it to be you, not because you deserve it, but just because it’s got to be someone. And you decide that, out of all the equal someones, it’s going to be you.” Cas sighs. He’s not making himself as clear as he wants to. “When you know your own worth - when you know you are lesser than no one, and you would still lay yourself down for them… that is true courage.”

Dean is silent, listening. He’s turned back to face the road. Cas shakes his head again; he’s talking too much, he knows, spinning out what he has to say in the hope that it will change Dean’s mind, and they’ll be able to keep being themselves, keep building a little happiness.

“You don’t have to hate yourself to be selfless,” he says. “And being willing to give everything you have for others is not the same as thinking you are worth nothing. One of those is… insecurity, and the other is bravery.” Cas tightens his hands into fists. “You can know yourself someone’s equal, and still step towards the point of a knife for them.”

Dean looks towards him. His eyes are ever so slightly lighter than they have been - just a little hope in them.

“You think so?” he says.

Cas nods.

“Yeah,” Dean mutters, more to himself than to Cas. “Yeah. I think - I think I get that. It’s something to aim for. Different to before.”

“Maybe,” Cas says. “Or maybe not so different. You are the Righteous Man, after all.” He offers the gentle side swipe as a way to lighten the mood, but Dean doesn’t leap on it like he normally would, like a drowning man; tonight, he seems happy to tread the deep waters.

“So… you think we can do this?” Dean says. Cas watches his profile for a moment.

Do you think we could be brave enough?  Dean asks, silently. Do you think we could be loved that much, and still turn our faces towards the hordes of Hell? Do you think we could love each other, knowing that each day could be the last? Do you think we could stop hating ourselves, and still be the people the world needs us to be?

Do you think we could be brave enough?

“I think… you’re the bravest man I’ve ever met,” says Cas. “And I would gladly walk beside you to stand at the last of humanity, and protect them with you. Knowing that I love you, and am loved by you.”

Dean draws in a breath, and lets it go.

“And as for being selfish,” Cas says, “I think we can do that, too, sometimes. Just a little.”

*

If you’re looking for Dean Winchester, look to the last. Look to the end of all hope, the falling of the wall, the breaking of the final heart. Look to find him there, bloodstained, knife in hand, advancing on an enemy who is stronger and older and not nearly, not half, as brave.

Beside him will be his brother, and an angel.

They will tear out their own lungs to save humanity, give the world their breath to breathe. They will hold their heads high, proud, the equals of the people at their backs. And they will walk towards the point of the knife.

They go shopping every Wednesday. And their house is painted blue.