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When Dean was ten, John had a friend named Roger. He was a wiry guy, owner of a shock of salt and pepper hair and a mouth so determinedly turned down at the corners Dean was afraid if he ever smiled his whole face would crack in two. Dean once overheard Roger telling John about how all liberals were—something. The rest of the sentence was drowned out by the cocking of a shotgun as Roger showed off his latest wares. Dean was much more interested in catching frogs in the creek out back than he was learning about his dad’s boring old friends who lived in houses where half the doors were always locked. The closest human civilization to Roger’s house was Adamsville, Ohio, a village of about one hundred thirty, and even then, it took half an hour in his rusty truck to get there.

During their brief stops at Roger’s between motels, Dean would be tasked with making sure Sam didn’t wander off too far. John always warned him about the bears in the area, and made sure Dean knew how to handle it should he ever run into one—Sam behind you, make yourself big (“you’re already a big brother, Dean, you know how to do this”), yell till you can’t yell anymore.

Dean’s penchant for following streams often took the two of them deep into the forest surrounding Roger’s sagging house, play-shooting at squirrels and pretending like they were in Stand by Me. Sam had never seen it because he was a baby when it came out, but Dean had snuck in twenty minutes after it started playing in a tiny theater in western Iowa and had been transfixed. Dean wouldn’t see his first dead body until he was eleven, and until then, he liked to pretend that’s what him and Sam were looking for in the woods behind Roger’s place.    

This particular day, however, it wasn’t a dead body they would find, or even a bear as John had so sternly warned. Dean was crossing a fallen tree trunk, both arms held out to either side for balance. Sam was only a few steps behind him, bottom lip sucked between his teeth as he did his best to follow Dean’s lead. Mid-way through Dean explaining to him why Captain Kirk was just so cool, there was a scratch, a shout, and then a soft thud. Dean thought Sam had just fallen off the log, but that didn’t stop his heart from jumping into his throat.

His heart was so loud it took him a second to register the faint hum coming from beneath Sam, because as it turned out, Sam had landed on—and broken open—a nest of yellowjackets. The first yellowjacket trickled out slowly, just as surprised to find Sam sitting on its home as Sam was. It landed on his cheek, crawled around for a second, then sunk its stinger in as an afterthought. Sam and Dean both screamed, and between one blink and the next the air became so thick with wasps Sam was almost lost in the cloud. He followed Sam’s cries, arms windmilling to keep stingers away from his face, grabbed Sam’s hand, and they ran like hell. Dean got stung twice, once on the back of his neck and once on his hand. Sam got stung six times, the most notorious two the one on his northern cheek and one on the southern. It took years for Dean to be able to laugh about it, especially after the dressing down he received from John when they showed back up at Roger’s sopping wet from the creek they jumped into, Sam still taking great, heaving gulps of air between sobs.

Dean hasn’t thought about that in a long time. Roger got torn to pieces by something later that year—no one to go on a lifelong revenge quest in his name—and Dean has a vague recollection of returning to his house so that John could relieve the dead of some of his possessions. They stayed inside for that particular visit, and Dean finally learned what lined the walls of the ever mysterious locked rooms. It was one of Roger’s guns that became Dean’s first. He killed a lot of cans with that one.

He remembers the yellowjackets because it’s what the vamps in this dingy Wisconsin warehouse remind him of. First there was one, then three, then six, then too many to count. They surround them in a tight circle, and Dean instinctively moves until he’s back to back with Sam and Cas. He checks his ammo level. Low. Figures. Their intel was off, gave them an estimate of five vamps at the most. They came in stupid and unprepared and they’re going to pay for it, most likely with their lives.

The vamps jostle for position, anticipation heavy in the air as they wait for someone to make the first move.  They appear to be led by a collective hive mind, a pack mentality that would have Dean making a crack about werewolves if he wasn’t so desperately aware of Cas’ shoulder pressed firm against his own. This could quite literally be, he thinks, his last chance. So he takes it, audience be damned. May as well give ‘em a show.

He doesn’t think past the initial decision. He lets instinct and fear and adrenaline guide him as he frees two fingers from his grip on his Colt and hooks them into the front of Cas’ shirt, spinning him around and yanking him in for a kiss that momentarily sucks all the air out of the room. That same instinct that had the yellow jacket hold back before stinging Sam’s cheek grips the vamps now as they watch Dean and Cas with wide eyes. There’s a quiet “holy shit” from Sam behind them. In one hand Cas holds a machete, but his other is free to come up and palm the back of Dean’s neck. It’s not a long kiss, but it’s more than an ample distraction, had any of the vamps decided to make a move. One of them, from the back of the pack it sounds like, wolf whistles as Dean and Cas pull away from each other. Cas’ hand falls back to his side. They blink at each other, and then return to their original position, back to back. Dean twirls first his Colt, and then his machete. He smirks, emboldened only because he thinks this is it.   

“Alright, fellas?” he says, and the spell is broken. The pack closes in.

***

The last vamp head falls to the concrete floor with a wet splat. Dean, Sam, and Cas stand among the bodies, covered in blood and viscera. Watery late-afternoon light streams in through the dusty windows, illuminating the dark puddles that now dot the floor around them.

“Well,” Sam finally says, breaking the silence. His chest is heaving and he has a long gash across his right cheek. Beside him, Cas holds a hand to his ribs with a grimace. Dean, nursing a sprained wrist of his own, slaps his other hand to cup Sam’s shoulder. When Sam meets his gaze, Dean raises his eyebrows and Sam nods. They both turn to Cas, and Dean shuffles a step closer than he needs to, post-fight adrenaline still coursing through him.

“You alright?” he says.

“Yeah.” Cas speaks through gritted teeth, and the same dull pang Dean’s felt under his ribs since Cas decided to fall permanently makes itself known, thrumming through him like a second pulse. He perfunctorily pats Cas’ shoulder as he surveys the room.

“Clean up’s not worth it,” he decides. His hand falls back to his side. The first dip in adrenaline has him afraid to meet Cas’ eye. “We may as well torch the place. Some sucker will probably get a payout anyway.”

Sam offers up an exhausted laugh. “Yeah, if they don’t notice how the place is kind of littered with bodies.”

Dean limps over to where the meaty body of one of the more difficult vamps lies and gives it a half-hearted kick. “Dude, I am not digging a mass grave today.”

“We can just--”

Sam is interrupted by the sound of a match striking, and they both turn to look at Cas, holding a matchbox in one hand and a lit match in the other. He drops it onto a particularly thick concentration of bodies before either of them can say anything else. “I agree with Dean,” he says. He bends down to rummage through Sam’s duffel bag. He pulls out a container of lighter fluid and starts spreading it around the room, dousing everything. The match he threw onto the pile of corpses goes out in a tiny puff of smoke. Once Cas has finished with the lighter fluid, he comes and digs his matchbook out again. “That one was for, ah.” He pauses, searching for the phrase. “Dramatic effect.” He pulls out a second match. “We should probably be outside the room when I light this next one.”

Dean and Sam share a glance. “You’re the boss,” Dean mumbles.

They stand just outside the door while Cas strikes his second match. He tosses it inside, and Sam closes the doors behind it. They watch the warehouse light up from a safe distance away, leaning against the Impala. The sun’s fully down by now, and the flames are bright against the blue-dark of early evening. They’re in the middle of a field that normally would present too much of a fire hazard to risk burning the place down, but the grass is still wet from this morning’s rain. Soon, the warehouse becomes entirely consumed in flame. Once it starts belching dark grey smoke into the sky, they get into the Impala and drive away. For the next hour, the smoke follows Dean in his rear-view mirror. 

***

Things return to normal after that, more or less. Dean feels Cas getting closer, a shadow pooling beneath him as the sun rises overhead. He doesn’t move away, but he doesn’t move closer, either.

Touch normally exchanged between them, once casual, lingers. Dean counts the press of fingers into his shoulder like he would the seconds between thunder, to determine how close the storm is.

***

Sam urges them to take a case a couple days later, slapping a few newspaper clippings down in front of Dean while he’s trying to drink a cup of mediocre coffee.

“Just to keep us busy,” Sam says. “It looks like an easy one.”

Dean snorts into his mug as he reads the small town headlines screaming about a local house supposedly terrorized by poltergeists. “What, no town hall bake sales this weekend?” He tosses the clippings across the table, where one of them flutters down onto Sam’s empty plate and lands in a glob of leftover marmalade. 

Sam seems to choose his next words carefully. “To keep us from… dwelling,” he says.

Dean keeps his eyes firmly focused on his coffee as he tries not to read too much into that or think too hard on whether Sam’s been the one dwelling, or Sam thinks Dean’s been the one dwelling. Either way, he doesn’t want to know.

“Fine,” he concedes shortly.

Cas walks into the kitchen then, still half-asleep from the looks of him. Dean’s voice sounds just a bit too chipper when he says, “Perfect timing. Pack a bag, Cas. We’re going to Iowa.”

***

1996

He’s seventeen, and the truck stops all look the same. The flickering fluorescents, the coffee grounds that mysteriously appear in dark smears all over the tile, the smudges of dirt and grime the bathroom floors leave on the knees of his jeans. Every truck cab and back alley and even john starts to look the same after a while.

Dean stands up and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. The guy passes him a handful of damp, crinkled bills and shoves by him on his way out of the stall. The bathroom door swings open and then shut, and Dean stands there, unmoving, listening to the buzzing of a fly above and the tiny patpatpat sounds it makes as it continuously flies into the whirring light. It slams itself against the plastic casing over and over again.

He kicks at a stray piece of dirty toilet paper and it rips beneath his shoe. He crushes the money in his palm, realizes he didn’t even count it before the guy tore out of here. Rookie mistake. He takes a deep breath and loosens his fist so he can stare at the cash in his hand.

The guy didn’t skimp, and if Dean’s careful he can stretch this out to last the week, or at least until John finally gets back from his hunt in the next town over.

He steps out of the stall and stares at himself in the cracked bathroom mirror, wiping anything he missed off his cheek and chin. He flattens his hair and ignores that he’s half hard, the familiar disgust sweeping through him in its usual nauseating wave. He shoves the money into his pocket and washes his hands, unsurprised when he can’t find any soap or paper towel to dry himself off.

The gas station clerk watches him as he browses the aisles, bright blue shadow caked onto her eyelids and a mushy cigarette hanging listlessly from between two fingers. He’s itching to get back to the motel, knows he needs to check on Sam as soon as possible. If Dad knew that he left Sam in the middle of the night, not just once but multiple times per month, he’d flay the skin off his back. Dean wouldn’t even argue, knows he’s a piece of shit for leaving his thirteen year old brother alone and defenseless for hours at a time. But he’d be an even bigger piece of shit if he couldn’t send Sam off to school with money for a field trip, or have something to make him for dinner every night. He’s seen the food guide pyramid in school and even nicked a copy from one of his health classes a couple months back, but tricking Sam into eating gas station spaghettios is hard enough, let alone anything colorful or green he manages to steal from empty grocery stores.

Dean drops his spoils onto the counter and the cans hit with dull thuds. The clerk gives him a slow up and down, and Dean’s stomach clenches. He’s been caught before, faced his fair share of dirty looks after following a guy out of a bathroom to find they’d taken so long a line had formed. He tries to plaster on a crooked grin, one John’s told him multiple times not to get attached to because getting teeth knocked out is part of the job.

“Howdy,” he drawls, and it comes out half-hearted at best. His throat is still a little raw, his voice raspy. “How you doin’ today, doll?”

She takes her last puff on her cigarette and snubs it out in a tacky ashtray that says “Welcome to Ohio!” The last O is chipped off.

She doesn’t say anything when she starts ringing up Dean’s items. Her nails clack on the counter. She could easily call someone as soon as he leaves the store, so he’s already mentally scouting out places to hide during the walk back to the motel. Just in case.

He drops about half the money he just made on the groceries, thanks her with a wink, and is almost to the door before she calls after him, “Hey, kid.”

He turns around and she’s leaning against the counter, her expression hard to read. She points at him, and for a second he thinks he’s about to get an earful, but then her hand drops.

“Watch yourself out there,” is all she ends up saying, before busying herself with a limp magazine.

Dean swallows and leaves and it isn’t until he’s halfway back that he realizes working as a gas station clerk can’t pay a whole lot.

***

Present Day

Walkerville, Iowa, has a rousing population of 897 and a welcome sign in the shape of a corn on the cob. They roll into town just after nightfall, book a couple rooms at the local skeezy motel, and eat doughy pizza that makes even Dean’s iron stomach churn.

The next morning, Dean and Cas knock on Maria Burns’ door with business cards made at Kinko’s introducing them as traveling ghost hunters, which is only kind of a lie. The place is an old farmhouse, but as far as Dean can tell, any farm-like aspects of the property were stripped long ago. The white paint is chipping, and a green shutter hangs crookedly off a second floor window. Dean turns on the charm to give Maria the shakedown, explaining that they keep an eye on local newspapers and we really think you’ve got something here, Ms. Burns. She doesn’t seem impressed until Dean assures her the only payment they ask for is to keep any “evidence” they find for future study, and then that she uncrosses her arms and invites them in, warning them she’s got the sheriff on speed dial.

She tells them about the attacks, that it started small after she moved in about six months ago, things that could be chalked up to mere forgetfulness like not finding her car keys where she left them. It’s been escalating since then, ratcheted up to knives being flung across the room and tables overturned in the middle of dinner. “No wonder I got the place so cheap,” she murmurs, about as close to good naturedly as one can get when their house turns out to be haunted.

Dean’s casting his gaze around the living room, all too aware of Cas’ knee pressing into his own, when his eyes fall on a vase set in the middle of the mantel over the fireplace.

“’Scuse me,” he cuts in, and Maria trails off in the middle of detailing one of the latest incidents. “Sorry, but, uh--” He points at the urn, “Who’s that?”

As always, he could have been more delicate with the phrasing, but being shut up in close quarters with Cas almost constantly since yesterday morning has been wearing him a little thin, patience-wise.

Maria’s lips thin, like she’s about to chew him out for being an insensitive ass, but she must decide against it because she takes a deep breath instead. “My daughter passed away last year,” she says. She’s been casual enough for the majority of their conversation, just dismissive enough to make it sound like she doesn’t buy a thing they’re selling, but Dean notes how she’s slowly rubbing her palms together now, words coming slower. It’s grief, and Dean will have to feel like a dick for that later, but he knows unfinished business when he sees it. There’s a new tension in the air.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Cas says. Maria nods and looks down at her clasped hands. Dean can feel the sideways glance Cas sends him, the same one Dean usually has to throw his way if he’s being a bit too tactless during an interrogation.

“What was your relationship like with your daughter?” Dean asks, and at this point he knows it’s just padding, because he’s going to have to try to convince a woman to go through her daughter’s ashes and make sure the morgue got everything when it burned her body. He worked a case like this back in early 2005, between John taking off and picking up Sam from Stanford. Re-burning the ashes of a young girl’s father, who had a bad habit of slipping nooses around his sleeping family’s necks, wasn’t the most rewarding case he’s ever worked. On the way out of town, he had pulled the Impala over and buried his face in his hands until they stopped trembling.  

Maria sighs heavily. “Complicated. I loved Kendra more than life itself, of course I did. But she was an angry kid. Her dad left when she was young, she fell in with the wrong crowd. Y’know. Typical teenager-from-a-broken-home stuff.” She gestures at the ramshackle room around them. “I worked twelve hour shifts at the paper mill until she was fourteen, but,” she pauses. “By the time I quit to get my GED it was… I don’t want to say too late, but I was… lagging behind.” There’s a certain detachment to her voice, one Dean knows comes in those purgatory-like months after a family member dies, when you’re repeating the same stories so often you almost become numb to them. She spreads her hands in a hopeless gesture. “We fought a lot. What can I say.” Her chin trembles.

Dean’s about to break into his usual spiel, the “I don’t think your insert-loved-one-here is all the way gone quite yet,” but he stops himself at the last second. Tries to add it all up and fails. He pats Cas’ knee and stands up.

“Would you excuse us for a minute?” he asks. Cas reaches forward to clasp Maria’s nervous hands between his own, then draws away as he stands next to Dean. “We just need to… confer.”

“Yeah.” Maria waves them off, gaze somewhere else. “Whatever.”

Dean leads Cas out onto the sunken front porch, leaning against the peeling railing. “Are you alright?” Cas asks before Dean can even open his mouth.

“I-- what?” He picks at a spot on the railing. “Yeah, I’m fine.” It’s chilly out today, and he can see his breath.

“You were… abrupt,” Cas says. “In there.” He sways closer, like he’s been wont to do since pretty much the moment they met. Dean can read the difference the years have made, however. The difference the last few weeks have made, even. Cas moves into Dean’s space not as an outsider, but as someone who’s already set up shop. They haven’t talked about the kiss.

“M’just tired,” Dean says. His nerves are frayed and being close to Cas is hard in a way it didn’t use to be. Certain expectations are sinuously curling beneath his ribs, and it makes his palms sweat and his stomach clench. They’re on a case, not in some dirty gas station bathroom. He hasn’t been seventeen in a long time.

Cas rests a careful hand on Dean’s forearm. “Dean,” he rumbles quietly.

The sound of a car backfiring echoes over the trees and has Dean sidestepping out of Cas’ grip, clearing his throat. Cas’ measured gaze holds only an echo of that cursory, bird-like way he used to regard Dean, long since replaced with something more lived-in. “It’s gotta be the daughter,” Dean says, bulldozing past any avenues of conversation that aren’t case-related. “Usually cremation gets the job done, but-- it’s gotta be her, don’t you think?”

It takes Cas a moment to recalibrate. “Yes,” he agrees. “I imagine so.”

Dean’s already got his phone out, sending a text to Sam, who’s on standby back at the motel. Even after the text is sent, he continues staring at the screen, grip tight. He’s been around the block a couple of times. He knows where this thing is going with Cas and it’s only going to be more painful the longer he draws it out. He keeps staring at his phone screen, at that last sent text. Cas’ eyes are on him, patient but unsure.

back by 7, he texts Sam.  That gives them an hour and a half. He looks up at Cas, tucking his phone back into his pocket.

“We should fuck,” he says, the trace of a tease on the tip of his tongue. He slips back into character like he never slipped out of it, knows how to angle his neck and cast his gaze down, may as well be in the cab of an 18-wheeler parked at a rest stop circa 1996. Cas’ eyes widen, myriad emotions scrambling across his face. Genuine confusion seems to win out. His brows draw together. “What--” he starts, but at that moment the front door opens and Maria stares between them expectantly. She seems to have composed herself, her expression returned to its original tempered annoyance at their presence.

“Well?” she says. “Is my house haunted or not, ghost-boys?”

***

They promise to return to Maria’s tomorrow with their “consultant”. She watches them drive away and doesn’t wave. Her place is in the middle of nowhere, and Dean doesn’t have much to look at as they’re heading down an old country backroad other than a lot of sky and a lot of corn.

Silence sits heavy between them for the first few minutes. Dean can hear the gears turning in Cas’ head as he attempts to parse Dean’s proposition, and he tries to keep his nervous drumming on the steering wheel to a minimum. He assures himself he knows what he’s doing. That if he can get ahead of this thing they can keep it on his terms, inside his comfort zone.

It doesn’t take long for the anxiety to prompt something from him. He pulls the Impala over to the shoulder of the road, puts it in park, and turns to Cas, eyebrows raised.

“It wasn’t a skill testing question,” he snaps.

 “It wasn’t a question at all,” Cas says, more restrained, but his eyes are narrowed. Since falling, being caught off guard makes him haughtier than it used to. It’s the slowed reflexes, Dean’s decided. Cas takes a deep breath. He’s dabbled in meditation since falling as well, and all efforts at engaging Dean have been met with nothing but condescension. “Dean,” Cas says, softer, always with the name. Always with the name and it makes Dean’s chest hurt. “Maybe we should talk--”

“It’s a yes or no question,” Dean says shortly, trying not to curl in on himself. “Or, statement, whatever.” If he can’t do it his way, he’s not going to be able to do it at all. “You don’t need to show your work.”

Cas doesn’t answer immediately. In fact, it feels like hours pass as he does nothing but stare at Dean, an impenetrable despondency settling behind his eyes.

“For fuck’s sake.” Heat’s creeping up under his collar, shame forcing his gaze away from Cas’. He clenches his jaw and stares out the window. “If you don’t want to, just fucking say--”

“Yes.”

Dean’s eyes snap back to Cas’, whip-quick. “What?”

 “Yes,” Cas repeats. His voice is careful, composed, and his expression has settled, any protests seemingly filed away for another time, another day. He reaches out a hand, rests it against Dean’s cheek. “Yes,” he says again, bringing Dean forward and kissing him.

Dean has to figure out how to adjust to the stubble, the jawline sharper and broader than he’s used to—it’s been a while. Cas’ lips are warm and gentle and inquisitive, and he doesn’t have the heat of the moment adrenaline coursing through him like he did last time. This time he feels every inch of it, opens immediately when Cas shows interest in exploring past the seam of his lips. He can feel his system attempting to recalibrate and understand the simultaneously familiar and alien feeling blooming and curdling in his chest. Cas, as both Cas and a man—those are new. But lips on lips are a language Dean’s fluent in, at least. It helps to try not to think so much about who they’re attached to.

He has an end game here that he’s not sure he can reach at the moment. It’s hard to focus when Cas is kissing him so diligently, one hand in Dean’s hair and the other on his waist. It was supposed to be something quick that Dean could clean up with wet wipes and leftover napkins later. But it’s amazing how messy he can already feel things getting and no one’s even stained the upholstery yet.

“Incredible,” Cas murmurs against his lips. “Absolutely--” He nips at Dean’s bottom lip, kisses the corner of his mouth. “Incredible.”

That snaps Dean out of it. He pulls back, away from Cas’ pink mouth, eyes wide. His chest is heaving, and there’s a peculiar decrescendo happening behind his ribs, constricting his lungs and making everything in him go stunningly, frighteningly quiet all at once. He’s not even sure he can dredge up a sentence, let alone a word to pass off as some blithe excuse.

Cas’ eyes are dark, angled with worry as his hands move to frame Dean’s face. Dean can see his own name forming again on those lips, and suddenly something terrifying and black and huge rears up inside him, crashes through him like a tidal wave and if his name leaves Cas’ mouth right now he knows he’s going to get sucked under and some ancient, primal fear of drowning has him in its overwhelming clutches and it sounds like something is screaming as he’s clawing towards the surface and it’s not water he’s swimming through but dirt, he’s digging himself out of his own grave, swallowing down insects and worms and this time he’s not going to make it, Cas saved him once but he’s too far gone, he’s panicking, he’s choking, he’s--

Phone. The screaming he heard, it’s-- his phone is ringing and Cas is still staring at him, face pale and downright waxen. He has both hands tight on Dean’s shoulders as Dean digs through his pockets, finally coming up with his phone. He’s not thinking straight, just swipes his thumb to accept the call and ignores whatever Cas is saying to him in increasingly desperate tones.

“’lo?” he rasps out, hoping it’s not someone official checking on credentials or something. For a second he hears nothing but static, then it’s Maria’s voice tearing through the line. There’s a loud crash in the background, and then the sound of shattering glass. A dial tone blares in Dean’s ear. “Fuck,” Dean hisses, tossing his phone onto the seat and throwing the Impala into reverse. “Fuck.” He’s shaking, feeling scraped out and raw as his body runs hot and cold.

He comes around enough just in time to catch the end of Cas’ panicked sentence: “--the hell is going on?” As he’s slamming the Impala into gear he grounds out Maria’s name and peels out, rubber burning and Cas’ eyes glued to him like a spotlight.

***

He crashes through Maria’s front door, Cas less than half a step behind him. Cas had tried to talk to him on the way back, panic bleeding into his tone, but Dean stayed locked up tight, damn close to grateful he had something to focus on that wasn’t Cas. Right before scrambling out of the car, Cas grabbed him by the elbow and held on tight.

“Cas, we have to go,” he’d snapped, but Cas’ grip didn’t loosen.

“Tell me you’re alright,” Cas said, infuriatingly calm despite the giant crash that just came from what sounded like Maria’s living room.

“Jesus fucking Christ, I’m fine,” he hissed, still trying to release himself from Cas’ hold.

Cas searched his face, mouth drawn into a thin line. He nodded and let go of Dean, and must have flipped a switch somewhere in his brain because he was immediately all business, flying out of the passenger seat, digging salt rounds out of the trunk and tossing a shotgun to Dean as he rounded the corner.

The first floor of Maria’s house is totalled, the furniture in the living room either knocked over or completely upside down. Stuffing has been ripped out of the couch cushions, and all the books have been flung off the bookshelves, the floor covered in ripped pages. There’s a fireplace poker embedded in the doorframe.

“Maria!” Dean shouts, tread heavy as he follows the commotion that’s moved upstairs. Maria screams from behind a closed door, and he rushes over, hand fumbling for the knob. Whatever’s in there with her has locked them out, and Dean’s ushering Cas over, the two of them ramming their shoulders into the door once, twice, three times before it finally gives way, sending them both sprawling into the room.

Cas is on his feet first, hauling Dean up. The room is small and full of unpacked moving boxes. On one of the nearby boxes, marked in black, is Kendra’s name, and it doesn’t take long for him to realize they’ve just stumbled into a bedroom for a daughter who’s no longer here.

Maria is huddled in the corner as multiple boxes are being thrown around at once, hands over her head. A robust one slams into Dean’s side, knocking the shotgun out of his hand and sending him into the wall. Cas shouts his name, but Dean waves him on with his good arm, scrabbling for where his shotgun’s lying on the ground. There’s an indistinct shape in the middle of the room, blurred and glitching like an old computer monitor that’s just had water spilled on it. It’s advancing towards Maria, reaching out for her. The lights are flickering madly, and a photo album flies across the room into the wall right beside Maria’s head, hard enough to leave a sizeable dent.

Dean’s struggling to aim his shotgun with his bum arm, his shoulder protesting more the higher he raises it. He’s just about ready to take a shot when the stack of boxes next to him collapses, knocking him off balance and sending him stumbling backwards.

He’s about to yell at Cas to hurry the fuck up when he appears from beneath a pile of the rest of the photo albums, bringing his crowbar down right through the center of the ghost. It dissipates around the iron, the lights stop flashing, and everything is suddenly very quiet.

Dean and Cas make brief eye contact, and then they’re each grabbing one of Maria’s arms and leading her downstairs and into the kitchen, where at least a few chairs haven’t been overturned. Her hands shake as she runs her fingers through her hair, and Cas locates and fills up the electric kettle in silence as Dean draws a salt barrier around the room. When he’s done, he drops heavily into the chair across from her, ignoring the twinge in his shoulder. Her head is in her hands.

“Your house is haunted,” he tells her flatly.

“Thanks, ghost-boy,” she says, voice muffled by her palms. She laughs blackly. “I’m not an idiot. I know it’s Kendra.”

Cas puts a steaming mug down in front of Maria and takes the last remaining seat at the table. He shares another brief glance with Dean.

“What makes you think it’s Kendra?” Cas asks carefully.

Maria looks at them, eyebrows raised. “Please,” she scoffs. “I know my daughter. Besides, you…” She cups the mug between her palms, blows on it. “You asked about the urn. It wasn’t the craziest leap of logic I’ve ever made.”

Dean swallows. “About that, I’m--”

Maria holds up a hand. “Don’t worry about it. I wasn’t exactly forthcoming earlier, but I guess since you just saved my ass with, uh. A crowbar and some salt, I may as well come clean.”

Under the table, Cas’ knee knocks against Dean’s, and Dean runs his thumb across his bottom lip.

“I’ve known it was Kendra since the beginning,” Maria says. “I mean, what was I supposed to say to these two random guys who show up at my door with fucking business cards? I thought I was humoring a few internet weirdos and if you didn’t murder me then maybe you’d have some kind of clue for me to latch onto.” She huffs out an unamused laugh. “That newspaper article you said you found me from? Trust me when I say I didn’t exactly agree to being front page news. It’s brought around a bunch of creeps and you’re the first ones who have actually managed to be of any help.”

“You called us, though,” Cas says. “When you were being attacked. If you just thought we were weirdos…”

Maria shrugs one shoulder. “What can I say. It’s not exactly fun being attacked by an angry ghost, and I’m tired of calling the sheriff’s department and them arriving after the fact. Everyone in this town thinks I’m fucking crazy, which is why I moved here in the first place. To get away from the last town that thought I was fucking crazy.” She shakes her head. “I’m never gonna be anything but the woman with the dead daughter.”

Dean drums his fingers lightly on the table.

“Well, we can’t help much with that,” he says. “But we can at least make that title a little less literal.”

“We’ll put your daughter to rest,” Cas assures her. 

***

Once Maria assures them she’ll stay with a neighbor for the night, Dean and Cas drive back to the motel in silence. After promising to fill Sam in once he returns with dinner, they find themselves alone in the room.

As Dean’s trying to pull his t-shirt off, his shoulder protests and he slumps down onto the bed, annoyed. It’s not a sprain, but it’s definitely tweaked and he’s not as young as he used to be. He’s resigned himself to just living in this shirt for the next few weeks, but then gentle hands wrap around his waist and land on the hem.

“Let me,” Cas says, voice a low murmur in Dean’s ear.  He carefully lifts the shirt, fingertips light against his skin, threading Dean’s good arm out before guiding it over his head and then off his bad side. It’s all very quick, a passing glance at intimacy, but Dean’s face is hot and he mutters a thank you before hiding in the bathroom until Sam gets back with burgers.

***

Two days later, the four of them are still sorting. Dean makes sure Maria is out of earshot when he says, “Jesus Christ, I’ve never met a dead person with so much stuff.”

They’re in Kendra’s room, methodically going through her things, searching for anything her spirit could still be attached to. It had taken a bit of prodding on their part to get Maria to agree, but it was a hell of a lot easier than digging up a grave in the middle of the night. Maria assured them Kendra’s ashes are all exactly that-- ashes. And she kept no hair clippings, no biological material of any kind. Nothing sentimental sprang to mind either, so they found themselves neck deep in boxes of a dead teenager’s things while attempting to help Maria put her house back together.

“I don’t get it,” Dean says, sorting through a box of books. It’s the heaviest box he’s encountered so far, and the dent on the side of it makes him think this might be the one that did his shoulder in the other day. “She’s a kid who’s been dead not even a year. How the hell is she strong enough to bust up an entire house on every day ending in Y? Vengeful spirits usually take longer than that to get going, and what would she even be avenging anyway?”

“Maria hasn’t told us how she died,” Cas offers.

“And,” Sam adds, digging through a box of stuffed animals, “She was an angst-filled teenager. You must remember what it was like.”

A muscle clenches in Dean’s jaw. “Yeah,” he says stiffly. “I guess I do.”  

***

Dean’s exhausted and about to angrily suggest they just burn it all when a slim brown notebook falls out of a school textbook he’s been idly flipping through. Its spine is cracked enough it stays flat on the floor as Dean bends to pick it up.

“… Bingo?” he mumbles, flipping through the pages.  “Hey,” he says, and Sam and Cas each look up from their respective boxes. Cas is surrounded by piles of sweaters and Sam’s since moved on to a box stuffed with CDs and old records. “How morally reprehensible would it be for me to go through the diary of a dead teenager?”

Sam’s in the middle of rolling his eyes when one of Kendra’s old lamps flies clear across the room. Dean manages to hit the deck in time for it to fly over his head, and can’t do much more than watch as the journal is dragged across the floor by an invisible hand, out of his reach.

“Sam,” he snaps, pointing to where it lands, scrambling to his feet only to be pushed hard square in the chest. There’s a shifting behind him, and then his arms are pinwheeling as he falls over a box that most definitely wasn’t there ten seconds ago. “It’s the journal!” he shouts, covering his head with his arms as the textbook he was just looking at aims directly for his nose. One of the corners tears along the back of his forearm, opening a long red gash.

Both Sam and Cas start to move in the direction Dean’s pointing, but they’ve only made it two steps before Cas’ feet are swept out from under him and Sam, who’s had the unfortunate luck of ending up too close to a window, is tossed through it with a shatter that floods Dean’s veins with ice. “Sam!” He scrambles towards the window, everything else momentarily forgotten. They’re on the second story and not terribly high up, but if he landed the wrong way, there’s no guarantee he’s not lying on the lawn right now with a snapped neck or a piece of glass embedded in his gut. He’s almost there when something slams into him like a bowling ball, and he only realizes after the fact that the solid thing that just collided with his nose was Cas’ forehead. Almost immediately, blood is spurting down his face, and he ignores Cas’ frantic voice as he waves him off and stumbles to the window.

Relief crashes through him with all the grace of a car accident when he sees Sam dangling from the window’s ledge. He’s dangerously close to slipping but he’s fine, and Dean thrusts his arm through the broken window to grab Sam’s sleeve. He barks Cas’ name and Cas is there right away, grabbing his other arm.

They’ve got Sam about halfway in when Cas is tossed through the air like a ragdoll, hitting the opposite wall and landing in a heap. He’s moving, but it doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere anytime soon, and Dean’s left with the entirety of Sam’s weight.

“Feel free… to put… your back into it,” he pants through gritted teeth as he yanks. “Gotta lay off the… salads.”

“Cause now’s really the--” Sam’s interrupted by a telltale tinkling, and manages to free Dean’s grip on him and shove him back before the last jagged shards of glass left in the window drop lethally fast into the sill where Dean’s forearms had just been. They make a set of cragged teeth, and Dean realizes there’s absolutely no way he can pull Sam back in over them without risking some seriously deep lacerations.

“Sam, do you think you can shimmy--” There’s a force on his back now, this time shoving him towards the window. He throws his hands out to either side of the window frame, but he’s knocked down onto his knees and being slowly inched down towards the glass. Sam’s yelling his name and struggling to pull himself up, but the windowsill is too thin and there’s not enough purchase for his hands. Dean pushes back with everything he’s got, but he knows that glass is on its way into his eye and soon. He desperately casts his gaze around for anything he can use to gain some leverage, but the only thing he notices is that Cas isn’t where he was a minute ago.

He’s pushed down further and his nails scrape against the wood, losing ground fast. The glass is an inch away from his eye. Sam is still shouting, but there’s nothing either of them can do. Dean’s trying to decide whether he wants to keep his eyes open or not for this when someone cries out Kendra’s name from behind him, and the pressure on his back immediately disappears and he falls hard to the ground. He’s afraid to move from this position, afraid to even roll over, watching the scene in front of him play out upside down.       

Maria is framed in the doorway and for the first time, Kendra has manifested into a shape resembling a teenaged girl. Dean can’t see Kendra’s face, but Maria’s expression crumples as she takes a few slow, tentative steps forward.

“Kendra, baby,” she says, voice wavering. “They’re only trying to help.” Kendra’s form flickers, but she doesn’t say anything. “Please,” Maria begs. She reaches out, but her fingers pass right through Kendra’s. She blinks back tears. “I’m so sorry,” she whispers.  Kendra raises her arm and Dean tenses, but she only brings her palm up to cup Maria’s face. Maria closes her eyes, tears spilling down her cheeks.

From somewhere behind the mountain of boxes, Dean hears the brief click of a lighter. Seconds later, Kendra burns out. It’s probably the quietest Dean’s ever heard a ghost go, and as he finally rolls over and stands up, uneasiness settles heavy in his gut. Maria isn’t moving, staring at where her daughter was just standing.

Dean turns to check on Sam, but he’s disappeared from the ledge. Minding the glass, Dean sticks his head out the window and can’t see him anywhere.

“Sam?” he calls out.

“Here,” Sam says from behind him. Dean turns, and he’s in the doorway, one hand on Maria’s shoulder. “I shimmied,” he says, in response to Dean’s raised eyebrow.

Dean turns to look for Cas just as he comes around the stack of boxes, tucking the lighter back into his jeans pocket. Blood is trickling down his temple, but otherwise he looks fine.

“I’m sorry,” he says to Maria. His glance lands quickly on Dean and then away. “I couldn’t risk giving you more time.” Maria holds a fist up to her mouth, closing her eyes again. When she opens them, her gaze finds Cas’.

“Thank you,” she says quietly. “I mean it. But I need you to leave now.”

Sam looks at the chaotic room around them, gaze lingering on the broken window. “We can help you clean up,” he offers gently.

Maria shrugs out from under his palm, shaking her head. She puts a hand over her eyes. “Please,” she says. “Please just go.”

***

Dean’s got a killer shiner courtesy of Cas’ forehead and a couple stitches in his arm thanks to a high school chemistry textbook, but otherwise he’s fine. He washes the blood out of his mouth in their motel bathroom.

“It feels kinda… weird,” he says during their informal debrief in their room. Cas has the room beside them, but he’s currently sitting on Dean’s bed with one leg tucked under him. Dean’s standing in the kitchenette, arms crossed. “Like the unfinished business has unfinished business.”

“You said you saw her flame out,” Sam reminds him from where he’s sitting on his bed.

“I did,” Dean says. It’s hard to explain the feeling that’s plaguing him, like he keeps looking over his shoulder expecting to see something that’s not there. “It was just… quiet. And ‘I’m so sorry’? What was that about?”

“It’s not the first time we’ve heard someone say that to a loved one who’s died,” Sam says. “‘Sorry you died’ is a pretty common one.”

Dean purses his lips. “Something feels hinky,” he says.

Sam shrugs. “I mean, we can go back and check on her? Maria seemed pretty adamant about us taking off, though.”

“Which is understandable,” Cas chimes in. He’s passing the lighter between his hands.

Sam looks at him sympathetically. “It’s not something you need to feel guilty over,” he says.

Cas doesn’t look up from the lighter. “I know.”

Dean clenches his jaw. “Let’s just go home,” he says.

***

He sneaks into Cas’ room once Sam has fallen asleep. They don’t have any lube, so Dean straddles Cas’ lap and grinds against him till he’s hard, then carefully unzips his fly, spits on his palm, and jacks Cas till he comes all over Dean’s hand. Cas leans forward to kiss him, murmuring his name, and Dean looks up at the ceiling while Cas mouths at his neck. His fingers wander towards where Dean’s dick is straining against his jeans, but Dean goes ramrod still.

“Did you hear that?” he asks. There was nothing to hear, but Cas doesn’t need to know that.

Cas pulls back, breath ghosting against Dean’s neck. “Hear what?”

“Ah, shit.” Dean stumbles off the bed, hastily righting his mussed clothing. “I think I hear Sam moving around in our room, I gotta get back before he tries calling me or somethin’.”

Cas regards him carefully. “If you’re worried about sneaking back in, you can stay here.”

Dean shakes his head. “Nope-- uh, I mean, it’s alright. I think it’s just easier this way.”

Cas watches him cross the room in silence. When he has a hand on the doorknob, Cas says, “What happened in the Impala the other day?”

Dean takes a second to compose himself before turning around. “What?”

“You…” Cas seems uncertain of how to phrase it. “You panicked.”

Dean licks his lips. “Yeah,” he says slowly, “because Maria called.”

“No,” Cas says. “It was before that.”

Cas’ face is hard to make out in the dark. When he doesn’t answer, Cas continues, “Are you having second thoughts about this?”

Dean scoffs. “Dude, I just snuck into your room to burn a little midnight oil. Relax, it was nothing.”

“Fine,” Cas says after a moment. “You should head back, then. I think I can hear Sam now.” He’s calling Dean out, but Dean’s not brave enough to step up to the plate.

“See you in the morning,” Dean says, shutting the door gently behind him.

***

Every time he hugs Sam it’s bone crushing. His Dad wasn’t exactly a stranger to taking a swing when he hit the booze especially hard. He kept as few points of contact between him and the johns as possible.

Cas touches him so gently. He hasn’t been conditioned to understand it.

He’s not an idiot, he knows he’s in the kind of love with Cas that’s more likely to break him than save him. But even Cas brushing the underside of his wrist with his fingertips makes him feel like shattering, has him wanting to run away and burrow deep at the same time.

They’re on the way back from an easy hunt, just the two of them. It’s been about a week since Walkerville and this was the first one that came up on their radar since. It was a routine salt’n’burn a couple hours away, definitely not something that required all three of them.

Dean got knocked around a bit, just enough to activate Cas’ furrowed brow. He had offered to drive but Dean shooed him off, wanting something other than the confines of the car to concentrate on as his veins buzzed and the slice on his cheek throbbed. When the Impala’s habitual eating of yellow dividing lines fails to relax him, he realizes it’s not leftover adrenaline from the hunt that’s making him jumpy. He eases the car onto the shoulder of the road, and when Cas turns to look at him, question on the tip of his tongue, he rests a palm on Cas’ thigh and leans across the seat.  His lips find the bolt of Cas’ jaw, his fingers trailing along the seam of his mud-caked jeans. “Hi.” He smiles into Cas’ neck.

There’s a quick intake of breath from Cas, and then he turns his head, obviously intent on catching Dean’s lips with his own. Dean pulls back, and he knows the smile he’s currently wearing isn’t one Cas has ever seen, isn’t one he’s seen in the mirror since he used to haunt truck stops and gas stations.

“I’ll take care of you,” he promises, fingers tripping up to Cas’ zipper. “Real good, I promise.”

He’s got Cas’ zipper halfway down before a strong hand catches his, stilling him. “Dean,” Cas says, and his voice is flat enough that Dean can’t help but look up, the sting of rejection immediately starting to bloom like a drop of cream in black coffee.

“I’ll make it good,” he says, trying to soldier on. “It’ll be good, Cas, I swear.” The desperation starts dripping into his voice, and he’s trying to tamp down on the panic. This is all he has to offer, all he can give Cas.

Cas’ grip on him softens, but then he adds his other hand, so both are enveloping Dean’s. He gently pulls Dean’s hand into his lap, his thumb stroking along the back of Dean’s palm.

“That’s the least of my worries,” he says. “Dean, you don’t have to…” He trails off, as if unsure of what he wants to say next. “You don’t have to try and make it good,” he decides. He frees one hand to press to Dean’s cheek, and Dean instinctively nuzzles into it. “It already is good,” he says earnestly. He slides his hand from Dean’s cheek to curl around the back of his neck, and Dean leans forward, his forehead pressed to Cas’ shoulder.

Dean hears what Cas is saying, but he lets it fly over his head and doesn’t try to catch it. He’s run on instinct his whole life, both learned and natural, and one of the things he’s learned is that he’s allowed to love women, but with men it’s only ever a transaction. And if Cas doesn’t want to buy, then he doesn’t want anything. Dean doesn’t know what he’d do with that, if he became nothing to Cas.

“Please,” Dean mumbles into his shoulder, and he doesn’t mean for his voice to break to like this. Cas’ grip is loose enough he can pull out, cupping Cas through his jeans.  “Just let me do this for you.”

Cas swallows, growing hard beneath his touch.

“I want to make you feel good,” Cas says, speaking against his hair. He presses his lips there, and Dean blinks rapidly, finding Cas’ fly again and getting it all the way down.

“This is what makes me feel good,” he reassures Cas, wrapping his hand around him. “Just this,” he murmurs, stroking Cas nice and easy. His own arousal simmers in his gut, ignored.

“Dean,” Cas says on the end of a gasp. “Dean.” 

“Make it so good for you,” Dean says. “Always gonna make it so good for you, Cas.”

Cas pants against his neck, pressing his lips to Dean’s shoulder. It almost feels like that game him and Sam would play as kids, drawing numbers on each other’s backs and trying to guess what it was. He doesn’t know what Cas is kissing into his skin, and he tries not to think about it.

Cas comes with a low gasp, and Dean wipes his hand on his shirt.

When Cas tries to reciprocate, Dean grins at him again, the lazy one that would sometimes get him a couple extra bucks. As a kid, he had a whole set of smiles in his back pocket, down to the nuance of every situation. All he ever had to do to find one was pluck through the card catalogue.

“M’good,” he assures him. Then, for authenticity’s sake, “I wanna get to the liquor store before it closes, and we’re already pushing it.”

Cas doesn’t say anything this time, just looks at him straight on for way too long. They’re back on the road and twenty over the speed limit before Dean finally lilts, to disguise the way his fingers are tingling, “Geez, Cas, take a picture.”

Cas shakes his head minutely, and turns his gaze out the passenger side window.

***

“No pressure or anything,” Sam says, “but are you and Cas together?”

Dean’s trying to eat scrambled eggs and inhale coffee at the same time, but the sound of chair legs scraping against the floor puts him off that quickly enough. Sam chose a good time to ambush him, at least-- Cas isn’t exactly a morning person.

“No offense or anything,” Dean says, “but is that any of your fucking business?”

Sam, who was halfway to sitting down in the chair opposite Dean, immediately straightens up. “Okay, not in the mood to talk,” he says, coffee in hand. “Roger that.”

Dean stares down at his plate. The eggs, which only moments ago had been the best thing about his morning, now look lukewarm and watery. “Sam,” he says flatly, and Sam lumbers back towards the table.

“Seriously,” Sam says. “If it’s an ‘it’s complicated’ thing, I get it. I’ll back off.”

Dean rolls his eyes. “Just--” He flaps his hand uselessly at the chair. “Sit.” Sam sits, and for a moment, neither of them speak. Dean pushes his plate off to the side with a clatter of cutlery, and folds his hands on the table. “Now, Sam,” he starts, “when two people like each other very much--”

Sam scoffs, shoving away from the table. “If you’re gonna be an ass about it--” he starts, but Dean interrupts him.

“Okay, for real this time, I swear,” he promises.

Sam regards him warily, but doesn’t seem a likely flight risk anymore. Dean actually does take his time, trying to find the words. He’s never been one hundred percent sure if Sam knows about what he used to do. He can never ask, because if he asks and Sam doesn’t know anything, that’s gonna open a can of worms Dean doesn’t even want to consider at this point. He assumes Sam knows he used to go out at night sometimes, but as far as Sam was concerned, he could’ve just been off doing whatever it is that big brothers do. The point is, if Sam doesn’t already know, Dean’s sure as hell not gonna tell him.

“You’re right,” he says shortly. “About the ‘it’s complicated’ thing, I mean.”

Sam takes a sip of his coffee and nods thoughtfully. And to think this all could’ve been avoided if Dean had channeled his This Is It kiss into literally any other kind of PG gesture towards Cas. Unfortunately, as things currently stand, he pulled a boner move in front of his brother and now Cas and his own brain aren’t the only ones he has to answer to. 

“Makes enough sense,” Sam says. “You guys have a complicated history. He was an angel. There’s a lot to unpack.” All of those things are true, but not quite hitting the bullseye. Dean nods along like he’s really considering what Sam is saying. He doesn’t have much of a response to that, and after a moment Sam continues nonchalantly, “He loves you, y’know.”

Something thunks in the back of Dean’s mind like someone just dropped a chip into a Plinko machine.

“I’m sorry?” he says.

Sam raises his eyebrows from behind his mug. “That was meant to be more of a rhetorical statement,” he says carefully. “I thought… you mean… did you honestly not know? It’s hard to miss, man.”

Dean slumps back, both his hands palm-down on the table. It’s not so much that he didn’t know, just that he never thought about it in such blunt terms. It was never something he’s had to consider before. Didn’t necessarily think it was important, since love was never what he exchanged for money.

“Good question,” he says.

***

1996

The truck’s cab smells like stale coffee and staler cigarettes. Dean’s got his hand on the guy, and they’re alone in the Denny’s parking lot, the eerie yellow-neon glow from the sign making the late night mists pale and sickly.

This guy isn’t much different from the rest, in the same beat up ball cap and ratty plaid that all hunters and truckers seem to share. He’s not as squirrelly as some of the other guys, so Dean keeps it light on the talking. Sometimes it helps the more squeamish ones if he talks like a girl, breathily chanting, “you feel so good, baby”, or, “fuck, sugar, you’re so strong”. He learned to stop feeling self-conscious about it soon enough, saw how they lapped it up and how it calmed some of the ones he was really wary about, the ones who had at least a hundred pounds on him. If it comes down to it, he can really play up the fairy act. It works well enough as a scapegoat, has probably saved him a knuckle sandwich or two for not trying to compete with a nervous john’s overcompensatory masculinity.

Everything is going fine until the guy leans in, face much too close to Dean’s. Dean turns his head, staring out the windshield. “No kissing,” he says, without bite. Sometimes they just need a reminder.

The guy ignores him, moving in again. Dean takes his hand off him, snaps, “No kissing.”

The guy grabs Dean by the back of the neck, and Dean’s hands automatically ball into fists. He’s not huge, but he’s bigger than Dean, and stronger.

“I paid for this,” the guy growls. “I paid for you.” 

“Kissing a whore’s the hill you really wanna die on?” Dean says, the bravado masking the very real fear that’s started coursing through him. Since he started this, his main concern has been getting beat to death by a guy who decides his mouth isn’t as pretty as he thought it was, and getting found out post-mortem by John, who’d probably disown him on principle. He’d take Sam and leave this podunk town behind, his oldest son in the dirt along with it.

The guy’s grip tightens, and before he can shove himself back, Dean’s being yanked unceremoniously forward, lips met with enough force to bruise. He keeps his mouth firmly shut, wishes he had never taken his hand off the guy’s dick so he could have some leverage. As it stands, he throws a punch as hard as he can, landing clean on the temple. At least one bone in his hand breaks, and before he can reach for the door handle, a blow lands across his cheekbone that sends him slamming back against the seat. For a split second, the two of them just stare at each other. There’s something wet trailing down Dean’s cheek. The guy was wearing a ring.

“Think you can finish yourself off tonight, buddy,” Dean says, refusing to let his voice shake quite yet.  It doesn’t come out with near as much heat as he means it to, but as he’s saying it his gaze lands on the glove compartment—the guy had put his wallet in there when they got started. Dean takes advantage of the brief lull to click the handle and snag it.

“You little f--” Dean’s out of the truck and sprinting hard across the asphalt, the familiar insult landing heavier than any of the john’s blows. If there’s one advantage he has in this situation, it’s speed. He stands at the treeline at the edge of the parking lot, waving the wallet over his head, giddiness flooding him.

“Compensation!” he yells, laughing his way into the trees, whooping one more time to really rub it in. He zigs and zags through the woods, keeping a careful eye on the North Star. He knows he’ll come out on the other side soon enough, somewhere on the edge of town. After that it’s just an hour or so walk back to the motel.

He flips through the guy’s wallet, pockets the cash and credit cards, and then chucks the rest of it into the trees, somewhere far off his own trail. His face is really starting to throb-- he’ll have to come up with a reason for waking up with a broken hand and black eye. With a bad hand he’s hardly any use to John, and that’s gonna earn him more than an earful. He’ll say he went out to a bar and got into a scrape, something an irresponsible idiot kid would do when he has a night off. Coming back with cash and credit cards to show for it might smooth the way a bit. Not a lot, but a bit.

He laughs as he sifts through the twenties from the trucker’s wallet, and even to his own ears he knows it sounds off, on the edge of hysteria. He’s gotten hit harder by guys bigger than that before. This shouldn’t be any different.

He unconsciously starts to lick his lips, but as soon as he realizes what he’s doing he reels his tongue back in, wiping the back of a trembling hand across his mouth. His steps slow until he’s not moving anymore, he’s just standing alone in a dark patch of woods, opening and closing both fists. He sinks onto the forest floor, pulls his knees up to his chest and presses his forehead to his knees, breathing as steadily as he can. He’s being a baby, because this isn’t even about him. The money in his pocket is going to feed Sam for at least a couple weeks. Everything else is background noise.

He puts his hand on a nearby moss covered rock, fingers sinking into the spongey green plant. Touches the stump beside him, running his fingertips over the old and withered bark. Closes his eyes and breathes in, and then out. There’s a dying tree a few feet to his right, and he crawls over and rests his back against it. If he stays like this for too long he’s going to lose his way, but he’s afraid his legs won’t support him if he stands up. An owl’s hoot echoes through the woods, and Dean looks up at the sky. They’re in a pretty rural area, and the stars are brighter than Dean’s seen in a long time. Maybe the last time they were this bright was a few summers ago when they spent a week at Bobby’s while John worked a daunting series of cases in North Dakota. He had been working with a hunter Bobby contacted, and Dean sometimes heard the two of them fighting on the phone about John’s “shit-brained inability to play nice with others” when he was supposed to be asleep. About midway through the week, Bobby had caught him eavesdropping on the phone calls, and instead of threatening to tear Dean a new one, like he usually would, he barked at him to get the hell down here if you’re so damn insistent on it. Bobby glared at him for a moment, moustache twitching, before grabbing a beer and heading for the door.

Dean followed him out into the scrapyard, the moonlight glinting off the piles of junked cars. Bobby popped the tab on his beer as he walked. “Your daddy…” he started, shaking his head and sucking in air through his teeth. He took a long swig, changed direction. “Sam conked out?”

“Yeah. Checked on him before I came down.”

Bobby took another swig. “Apple fell awful far from that tree,” he mumbled. Dean didn’t think he was supposed to hear that.

Bobby led him to a stack of cars on the edge of his property. “Now be careful,” he stressed. “Last thing we need is you getting tetanus cause you went and scratched your fool rump on a rusty Jetta, of all things.”

“Yes sir,” Dean said as he climbed up. He didn’t like how the rust felt against his hands, but Bobby’s midnight adventure had stoked a long stifled sense of adventure in him. It was like the junkyard in Stand by Me, except the mean old junk man wasn’t mean at all. Just a little (a lot) crotchety.

Dean was still pretty skinny at the time, and the cars hadn’t protested at all when he climbed up. When Bobby followed, though, they groaned under his weight. He lost his balance twice, (trying to climb a stack of cars with a beer in one hand will do that) and swore much more than that, but eventually settled beside Dean. Dean had learned from John not to ask questions during times like this, so he sat in silence. There wasn’t a whole lot beyond Bobby’s property line on this side. Just an old dirt road, some dead fields, and the start of the forest that shielded him from the rest of Sioux Falls.

“Now, don’t tell your daddy,” Bobby said, and finished his beer in two long gulps before dropping the can through the broken windshield of the car they were sitting on. He leaned back, hands laced together behind his head. “But sometimes I like to come out here at night, when the stars are nice and bright, and take it all in.”

Dean almost laughed. Not because he was making fun of Bobby, but because he was surprised. “Take all what in?” he said.

Bobby harrumphed. “Well if you’d just shut your pie hole and lie back, maybe you’ll know what I’m talking about.”

So Dean did exactly that. He laced his fingers together and laid back and looked at the stars. They were bright. He had never thought much about the stars before, beyond what he had read in books about sailors using them to navigate in ye olden days. “They’re nice,” he said.

Bobby pointed to the brightest star. “That right there is the North Star,” he said. “You ever get lost in the woods and the stars are out? That’s the one you want to follow.”

“I knew that already,” Dean said. “I read it in a book.”

“Would you shut up and let me impart my wisdom?” Bobby said in a fond voice.

Dean shut up.

“That’s all I got,” Bobby said after a minute, and Dean laughed.

“Sorry.”

Bobby harrumphed again, and they lapsed into silence. The books Dean read had mentioned the names of the stars, but he’d forgotten them by now.

“My dad’s gonna be done soon, isn’t he?” Dean said.

“He should be back to claim you two hellraisers sometime over the weekend,” Bobby said. His moustache twitched again, but pulled down this time instead of up.

Dean’s stomach clenched. “He’s gonna be taking me on those hunts someday.”

Bobby took a couple seconds to answer. “That’s the plan.” He had scratched at his beard. “North Star, son. It’s always there.”

Dean sits back against the tree and pulls his knees to his chest once again. John isn’t in North Dakota. He’s working a case not far from here and Dean needs to beat him back. Dean takes a big breath and uses the tree as support to pull himself up. He wraps his arms around his midsection and starts walking. 

***

Present Day

The two of them are watching TV in the den, the lights low and the room a sleepy shade of blue. Dean’s eyelids are drooping and he’s dangerously close to conking out on Cas’ shoulder. Knuckles softly ghost over Dean’s cheek and he stirs, blinking blearily.

Cas pulls his hand away. “Sorry.”

It takes Dean a second to catch up, sleep still eager to pull him under and his skin tingling from Cas’ touch.

“S’okay,” he breathes out, dropping his head fully onto Cas’ shoulder. He’s gone enough that it’s hard to acknowledge the muted panic his brain is attempting to pump into his bloodstream, especially when Cas is right here and warm.

Cas goes still for a moment before he runs his fingers through Dean’s hair. “Is this okay?” he asks quietly.

In the morning, it won’t be. In the morning, he’ll be mortified and angry with himself for seeking comfort when he’s only supposed to be providing it. But right now isn’t the morning. He nestles deeper into the crook of Cas’ neck.

“Mmhm,” he hums, and lips press against his hair.

***

He’s quiet for the next couple of days, skittish and on edge whenever Cas comes too close. He knows what he wants to happen; it’s just a matter of getting there. It doesn’t help that Cas seems reluctant to touch as well, watching Dean with worried eyes whenever he thinks he’s not looking.

He plays it down as much as possible. Smiles big when a song he likes is playing on the radio. Flirts with Cas in innocuous ways so long as there’s a car or a table separating them. Whistles a tune when he knows other people are in the bunker but they think he thinks he’s alone.

It’s overkill, judging by the increasingly concerned looks Sam is sending him, like he thinks he’s about to snap or something. He just shelves it all. Remembers what the guys liked. The only fuckable baggage he’s ever been able to bring to the table is daddy issues, and even thinking about that turns his stomach.

He makes sure to be a few drinks deep before going for it. As a kid, he had a hard and fast rule of no turning tricks while inebriated in any way, but this is Cas. It only existed in the first place so he could be clear headed enough to get out if things went south. That doesn’t apply to Cas in the same way, so Dean breaks his own rule for the first time ever.

Cas is in the library doing some sort of translation for the Men of Letters records when Dean swaggers in, putting both hands on Cas’ shoulders and leaning down, gently nipping at his earlobe. Cas lets out a breath, and Dean watches as the tail of the Y he just finished writing skids off down the page.

“Hiya.” He grins against Cas’ skin, running his hands up and down Cas’ arms. Cas drops his pen and catches Dean’s hand in one of his own. He kisses his palm and Dean’s resolve wavers, if only slightly.

“Hi.”

Dean continues to drag his lips along Cas’ neck, pressing kisses on his way. “Can we try something?” he murmurs. Cas turns around with a surprising amount of gusto, out of his chair in a second but somehow still holding Dean’s hand.

“Yes,” he says immediately. “Anything you want.”

Dean kisses his way back up to Cas’ ear. “I think you want to fuck me,” he says.

The thing that he doesn’t expect is the disappointment that flashes in Cas’ eyes before Dean drops his gaze, leaning forward again to focus on Cas’ pulse point. Solutions immediately start flipping through his mind, and he thinks, okay, changing course. He’s already breaking one rule tonight, may as well break another.

He kisses Cas on the lips, ignores the desperate whimper trying to crawl up his own throat. Catalogues the stubble and the taste and the way his lips part before Cas can even ask, inviting him in. For a second, Dean forgets this isn’t supposed to feel good for him. He revels in the press of Cas’ fingers to his waist and the way their stubble rasps together. Maybe I want you to fuck me would get things moving, but then everything is stopping and Cas pulls away, something dulling behind his eyes.

“How much have you had to drink?” he asks, voice hard.

Dean scoffs. “That’s not even--” he begins, but Cas is already shaking his head.

“Not like this, Dean,” he says, almost pleading. “I’m not…” He takes a deep breath. Argues with himself for a moment before finishing, “I’m not them, okay?”

Dean freezes. “I don’t--” he swallows. He never told Cas about what he used to do. No one knows about that. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The lie is transparent even as it comes out his mouth, and he feels something long ugly and long buried rearing its ugly head. Cas must see the way he curls in on himself, because he keeps a hand on Dean’s waist and the other rests against his cheek.

“All I’m saying is you don’t have to put on a show,” Cas says quietly. He squeezes Dean’s hip protectively. “There’s no one here to impress.”

Dean’s not equipped to handle a direct confrontation about this. He’s never had to before, and now he feels like an ant under a magnifying glass. He wriggles out of Cas’ grip, keeping a safe amount of space between them. “There’s nothing--” He cuts himself off, throat working. “Whatever you think you know … it’s--” He doesn’t have an excuse, so he does what he’s always done and pushes back, despite the fear that curdles in his stomach like sour milk. “Look, Cas,” he says, forcing a hard edge into his voice. “This is how I do things. This is what you’re getting with me. You got a problem with it?”

Keeping steady eye contact with Cas for those ten seconds and not breaking is probably one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do, but he holds. 

At first, Cas has an air about him like he’s going to argue. Then he sighs and shakes his head, conceding.

“No,” he finally says. “No problem.”

Cas does end up fucking him that night. Dean’s never been fucked without a condom before. He flips on his stomach and lets Cas wrap his palms around his hips. He arches into the kisses Cas leaves down his spine, remembers how much they used to like it when he talked. “Love your dick, baby,” he pants out. “Feels so good.” Cas slows down at that, and for one horrible second Dean thinks he’s going to throw in the towel. Then, lips brush his shoulder. Fingers trip their way around Dean’s waist to gently encircle his dick. Before he can catch it, a gasp slips out of him, and he thrusts forward into Cas’ hand.

“Are you close?” Cas murmurs, nosing just behind his ear. He thumbs at the head, spreading precome down his dick. Dean squeezes his eyes shut, trying to focus.

“Are you?”

Cas times the next couple thrusts with his strokes on Dean’s dick, gently nipping at the shell of his ear. Dean’s fingers curl in the sheets, his mouth slack and thoughts churning sluggishly. “I asked you first,” Cas reminds him, rolling Dean’s balls in his hand before lightly walking his fingers back up to the tip. He rubs his thumb just under the head and Dean swallows back a groan, knowing he’s done for when Cas starts in with the thrusting again, stroking him at a relentless pace. “You’re beautiful,” he comments idly, just before snapping his hips back in. Dean grits his teeth and mashes his forehead into the pillow.

“Don’t start with--” Cas thrusts in again and Dean pants, “--that bullshit.” For a moment, Dean forgets he’s supposed to be playing coquettish.

“It’s not bullshit,” Cas says.

“Fuck off.”

 Cas doesn’t argue the point further, but his disapproval is a tangible thing in the space between them. Dean should’ve shut up and taken the compliment. Sometimes Cas will say something to him, but it’s not Cas’ voice Dean hears. There are times when Cas touches him, but it’s not Cas’ hands Dean feels. Sense memory is a powerful thing. He can spend months without firing a gun, and his brain may forget, but his body will have him shooting bullseyes again after twenty minutes in the range.

Cas fucks him good and keeps a steady hand on his dick. Neither of them says anything else and Dean breathes hard into the sweat-damp pillow. His entire body tightens up before the tension releases all in one warm hazy glow and he presses his cheek to a cooler patch of sheets and finally loosens his white-knuckle grip. Cas is running his sticky fingers gently up and down Dean’s side, murmuring things he’s not paying attention to. Dean blinks rapidly, waits for the tidal wave that’s about to swallow him whole. He stares at the wall as Cas moves on top of him, kissing his hair and neck and shoulders and back, and Dean’s body instinctively moves with his. When Cas comes, Dean sighs into the sheets, tries to cling onto that, that he can feel Cas’ satisfaction inside him. He lets himself feel that particular victory, that Cas enjoyed it. Cas got his.

When Dean’s crawling out of bed, jelly-limbed, moments later, Cas watches him with dark eyes.

“I just--” Dean blusters, hastily throwing a thumb over his shoulder. He stumbles into his sweat pants. He’s talked his way out of the apartments of multiple one night stands. It shouldn’t be this hard. The empty space next to Cas looks unbearably compelling. “I’m-- uh, tired. Gotta shower, y’know. For tomorrow. Gotta get ready….”

He’s spouting nonsense until he’s in the doorway, and Cas still hasn’t said anything by the time he’s walking down the hall, feeling like the world’s about to come crashing down all around him. He feels claustrophobic, suddenly too aware of the fact that he’s literally underground, and he pounds up the steps to the front door, taking great, heaving gulps of night air as gravel crunches underfoot and far off in the distance a dog howls at the moon.

He heads up to the overhang just over their front door, lies back and tries to calm himself down, to untangle the knots of disgust that are trying to pull themselves ever tighter in his stomach. There was a john whose real name he never knew. He lived somewhere in Nebraska and was the closest Dean ever had to a regular. Any time either of them were in the area, they’d meet up for a fuck and a smoke. Dean’s pretty sure the guy was married. He wasn’t the nicest, but he obviously didn’t want to ruin whatever he had at home, so he took what he could from Dean.  Afterwards, they’d smoke in bed and trade dirty jokes. The guy-- Jack was the name he gave-- was older, maybe in his 40s. Rough and tumble, probably a construction worker or some kind of day laborer. Privacy dictated he never actually said.

Jack was the only guy Dean ever considered waiving his fee for, if only out of his own misbegotten sentimentality. But every time he tried to voice it, Sam would turn up needing new school books or money for a class trip, and that would be that. Every minute they were together was paid for, and Dean only thought once about telling him monsters were real. That one at least was pretty easy to talk himself down from.

One night, a couple months since they last saw each other, Dean dialed the number he had for Jack and found it disconnected. He stared at his phone for a long time before slipping it back into his pocket, and jumped when it started ringing almost immediately. He was careless and didn’t even look at the screen before answering.

“Thought you could get rid of me, huh?” he said in greeting, voice warmer than it ever should have been.

The second his father’s gruff voice came down the line, Dean’s insides went cold. When John asked, Dean made up some weak excuse about a girl from school. That made him laugh and he said, “Don’t worry about her, son. We’re moving on soon. There’ll be others.” He was right about that. There were others, and they all paid in full.

***

It’s useless to think about, but sometimes he wishes Cas had floated down into a Jenny Novak all those years ago. Long dark hair, ice blue eyes, thick thighs and dangerously deft hands. They would’ve made it work. Maybe he would’ve been less of a complete fuck up, although he figures Cassie and Lisa would have something to say about that.

And yet, every time that uninvited thought crosses his mind, he can’t help wonder at the pang of loss that stings his gut. There would be no stubble burn, no hands larger than his or hard muscle pressing him down into the mattress. Sometimes-- most of the time-- it scares him how much he feels for Cas. When Cas is reaching for something in the kitchen and his shirt rides just over his hips, or when he’s just come inside from gardening all day, smears of dirt across his face and covered in a sheen of sweat. Dean would rather avert his eyes like he’s trying to preserve Cas’ honor, but it’s not about that at all.

The thing is, Cas’ hands deftly stroking up his spine aren’t supposed to make him shudder. The deep rumble of Cas’ voice in his ear isn’t supposed to make him want to crawl out of his own skin and hunker somewhere deep in Cas’ chest.

He told himself, back then, that it was just a necessity. That he didn’t like it. That was true, most of the time. But sometimes one of the johns would be just gentle enough, or say something or touch him a certain way and there was no way he couldn’t--

He wrote it off. Every time it happened it was just a fluke. The self-hatred and confusion that came along with it just proved that it wasn’t something he was interested in. Something that good making him feel that bad couldn’t be real, not for him.

***

All things considered, nothing changes that much. They hunt, they hustle pool, and they go home. When they can afford a second room, Cas stays in it. When they can’t, they pay for a cot or a mattress or whatever shitty excuse for a third bed the motel of the week can come up with. If they’re lucky, there’s a couch. On the mornings Dean wakes up with springs digging into his back and the lukewarm shower does nothing for him, Cas will guide him to the edge of his bed and work strong fingers into the knots. Dean will sit in silence, because on those kinds of mornings it’s easier than arguing, and try not to lean into it. When he starts getting too comfortable, he’ll shrug Cas off and grumble about how he’s too old for this shit and no magic finger massage is gonna change that. It helps when Sam comes back with breakfast, gives him the excuse he needs to retreat. He can always feel Cas’ eyes on his back as he walks away, and it weighs on him.

It gets easier to goad Cas into fucking him. Easier to convince himself it’s what they both want when he turns over onto his stomach, burying his face in the sheets as Cas uses his fingers to open him up, then slide in as he peppers Dean’s spine with kisses. He asks Dean once if he can use his tongue to prep him, and with an embarrassingly pink face Dean makes a brave attempt at rerouting, drawling, “C’mon, darling, you got nothing else you wanna use?” He rolls his ass back against Cas’ dick, and Cas drops his forehead onto Dean’s shoulder, groaning. He pants for a moment, breath ghosting against Dean’s shoulder blade.

“Maybe some other time,” he murmurs, mouth hot where he’s moved it against Dean’s neck. It’s not a demand or passive aggressive, merely a seed planted for Dean to water if he feels like.

He wraps his arms under Dean’s shoulders so that one hand is splayed across his chest, the other stroking his dick, fingers still slick with lube, as Dean grips the sheets and fakes the sounds but not the orgasm. Cas is all over Dean, rolling a nipple in one hand as he continues working Dean with the other, Dean heady and practically incoherent with oversensitivity. Cas’ breath is hot in Dean’s ear, his voice hoarse as he grounds out, “I want to see you,” something so naked in the plea Dean’s horrified to feel the corners of his eyes stinging, rushing up on him as quickly as he buries his face into the pillow to try and hide it.

He swallows past the lump in his throat, lifts his face up so he can speak directly to the headboard.

“I’m right here,” Dean says, purposefully obtuse. Cas lets go of his dick, finds Dean’s hand where it’s still clenched in the sheets, threading their fingers together.

Cas rests his forehead against Dean’s hair. “Please,” he says quietly. He gently runs his hand up past Dean’s throat, lightly encircling his jaw. He kisses Dean’s temple and a full body shudder runs through him, not sexual, but intimate in a new and unfamiliar way. The nausea doesn’t come as frequently anymore, but there’s still an immovable pit in Dean’s stomach, something dark that tries to constantly draw him in like a black hole, collapsing the space around it.

Despite his wet eyelashes and how tightly he’s gripping Cas’ hand, he gives into the gravitational pull as he always does and always will, musters some horrifying kind of nonchalant chuckle out of him as he turns his jaw in Cas’ grip and kisses him on the mouth. The angle is killer on his neck and he can’t hold it for more than a couple seconds, but he makes sure to speak it into Cas’ lips, presses the words onto his tongue, murmurs, “Sluts stay on their stomachs, hon,” the first thing that comes to mind that’s going to drag this thing back on track. The word lilts strangely off his tongue, and he realizes he hasn’t said it out loud in years. It’s an uncomfortable fit in an adult mouth, like the training wheels have been put back on, but that can’t be right. He knows how to do this. Johns used to love that word, would spew it at him faster than they could thrust with their just-before-the-expiration-date condoms. Dean learned to grow brazen with it, would use it and others as cocky shields to lure in the twitchier guys who weren’t as versed in the world yet-- maybe not as bold as a bright red “A” stitched onto his jacket but he knew how to use it, and use it well.

Until now, apparently. Cas freezes, and Dean can practically hear the gears churning in his head, the ones that crank out the few human contexts that haven’t yet started coming naturally to him. When he moves again, Dean’s surprised to feel him thrust all the way back in, letting out an unintended, pleased gasp. Both of Cas’ hands rest on either side of him on the bed, and then he’s carefully lowering himself, pressing Dean into the mattress, a warm, solid weight on top of him. He interlocks their fingers with one hand, then the other. He kisses the back of Dean’s neck, almost chastely, before guiding Dean’s hands beneath his so they’re crossed just under his chest, Cas wrapped around him in almost every possible sense of the word.

Dean drops his forehead to rest on their clasped hands, is pressing his lips to the back of Cas’ hand before he can stop himself. Cas tenses as he starts to move again, thrusting in and out of Dean so slowly Dean’s convinced by the third pass he’s going to turn inside out with it. He breathes heavily into the space in front of their hands, is surprised but accommodating when Cas urges him to suck not only Cas’ index finger into his mouth, but his own as well. He tries to tell himself the groan that’s pulled from the absolute soles of his feet when his mouth closes around the two fingers is a put-on, but he’s not sure he’s ever heard a sound like that come out of himself before.

Cas is going like he’s on a Sunday drive, obviously not chasing any kind of orgasm of his own, though he’s still hard. When he tries to focus solely on Cas’ finger in his mouth, Cas wraps his finger around Dean’s, forcing him to pay equal attention to both.

There are lips in his hair, moving along his scalp and behind his ears. Dean knows the tears are falling whether he wants them to or not, chalks it up to overstimulation instead of the way he feels surrounded on all sides by warmth, by intimacy and the inescapable ache in his chest that beats out a litany of home, home, home.

***

Dean’s not quite as willing these days to carelessly and needlessly stick his neck out, but like hell he wouldn't bet his remaining years on this being a one in a million, once in a lifetime chance.

Because not only is Cas drunk, but he's telling jokes in Enochian neither Dean or Sam can understand, gesturing wildly as he explains each one in painstaking detail after the punchline inevitably fails to land. He’s laughing so hard there are legitimate tears rolling down both his cheeks as he attempts to bring them into the fold.

"And then--" Another peal of laughter shakes him and he takes a long swig of his beer, snorting into the bottle and accidentally spilling some down his chin. "The goat said, 'no room at the inn!'" More laughter bubbles up from within him like a champagne bottle that was just popped, and Dean trades equally amused and bemused looks with Sam, who's sitting across from him at the table. Cas is between them, knee pressed warmly to Dean's (though at this point in the night Dean wouldn't be surprised if that were purely accidental).

Cas came in from gardening earlier in the day grumpy and sunburnt, complaining to anyone who would listen--Dean, briefly, Sam much longer, because he's more polite-- about how that shouldn't even be possible because it was cloudy out all day and the fact that UV rays are that strong was an error in his Father’s judgement that should have been remedied eons ago. Dean made some kind of terrible joke about the penetrating strength of UV light, before promising Cas that beers were on him tonight and disappearing to find the aloe. By the time they got to the bar Dean suspected Cas was still a bit sun drunk, and he knows he didn't get him to eat enough beforehand so he's already planning out routes home that'll take them through a 24 hour drive-thru.

Dean is utterly fascinated with the crow’s feet at the corners of Cas' eyes, the way his nose scrunches up when he laughs, and the increasingly frenetic hand gestures that Sam has been saving their empty bottles from for the past ten minutes. He’s never seen Cas like this, so baldly enjoying himself. There’s almost a bit of hysterical twinge to it, and the sort of hollow-y echo Cas’ voice takes on when he’s talking about anything angel-related is still there, making itself known in the moments between esoteric hilarity, but it doesn’t stop Dean from being so incredibly taken with the sound, warmed by the kind of human experience Dean’s wanted for Cas for so long. He knows it won’t last, can feel the moment slipping away already, but he’s tucking it into the less frequented corners of his mind, the kind of memory he’ll save only for when he’s at his lowest, or his last.

When Cas realizes once again they aren't laughing along with him, he sobers (only in theory) and points a sloppy finger at the two of them. "You have no sense of humor," he slurs, one eyelid drooping slightly. He goes to take another swig, but Dean swiftly relieves him of the bottle.

"Aaaaaaand I think that's the check," he says as he watches Cas try to drink from a beer bottle that's no longer in his hand. He asks the waitress for a glass of water each after paying the bill, then proceeds to force Cas to drink all three of them. Cas continues trying to tell them jokes, and Dean pats him perfunctorily on the back.

"Good one, buddy," he says after Cas' latest, yet another in a long line of jokes that inexplicably feature a goat. Sam tries not to laugh around the one beer he’s been nursing all night, having pulled the designated driver short straw. (The game was rigged, but no one needs to know that.) Dean climbs into the backseat of the Impala with Cas, who immediately leans his head on Dean’s shoulder.

“I’m… quite drunk,” he observes. It draws a laugh out of Dean, who puts an arm around him.

“Yes,” he agrees. “You are. Don’t throw up on the upholstery or I’ll kill you.”

Cas hiccups. “Roger that,” he says.

They end up in a McDonald’s drive-thru stuck behind a few cars that all seemingly decided they needed a cheeseburger at 3 in the morning. Sam’s got a soft rock station going on low, the Carpenters singing about birds being near in the background. Cas starts murmuring Enochian into Dean’s shoulder in the backseat, but it doesn’t sound like he’s telling jokes anymore. He holds Dean’s hand in his and kisses his fingertips as Sam throws a greasy bag full of burgers back at them.

"Eat," Dean orders through the tightness in his chest. He shoves the bag at Cas, reclaiming his hand but not lowering his gaze until Cas gives a frustrated sigh and starts unwrapping a burger. They make it back to the bunker without further incident, though Cas somehow manages to get both them and the seat covered in ketchup between the drive-thru and home. Dean can't find it in him to care, too busy telling Cas that no, he doesn't want a bite of the burger, thanks. He’s also too busy being distracted by what it felt like to have Cas’ head loll onto his shoulder, how the casual intimacy of it all makes his stomach flip.

At home, he forces Cas to take some painkillers and drink another three glasses of water before bed. As he's helping him wrestle his boots off, Cas leans down to cup Dean’s face in his hands, drawing him up to kiss him slow and sloppy. Dean ends up in Cas' lap, knees on either side of him as they make out lazily, Cas tracing Dean's features with his fingertips. Dean’s not drunk but he's firmly in the tipsy column, grinding down in Cas' lap without really thinking about it.

Cas sighs out contentedly, hands on Dean’s hips and their foreheads pressed together.

"I'm not supposed to say this," Cas whispers to him like a secret, "I don't want to burden you with this--because, since you're you, you would carry this as a burden-- but, I'm drunk. And you're beautiful."

Dean blinks, thinking that's what Cas wasn't supposed to say, and then-

"And I love you," Cas continues. "So much, Dean. And you won't let me show you, so I'm telling you.” He traces a fingertip up Dean’s side, “I know it’s hard, but I wish you would let me in.” He swallows. In the pause, Dean feels numb. “There’s a wall,” Cas continues, suddenly, horrifyingly desolate. The kind of emotional turnabout only an incredibly drunk person is capable of. “And I don’t know how to get to the other side, and every time I fail I feel like it’s getting taller and taller and I’m getting further and further away from getting over it and-- do you know how frustrating it is? To be with you, but be so far away from you at the same time. I saw you, your soul, in Hell. But now all I can see is what my eyes—my human eyes—will allow me.” His voice trails off. “I miss knowing you,” he finishes quietly.

Dean doesn’t know what to say. It feels like there’s some kind of yawning, gaping hole opening up in the middle of him, swallowing every single word Cas says and spitting it back out somewhere in a galaxy far far away. Through the haze of alcohol, even the heady high of being this close to Cas, Dean has a startling moment of clarity, something that caves his chest in and catches his breath in his lungs.

He’s broken.

He’s known this for a long time, but it’s not every day he’s hit with the inevitably pervasive nature of said brokenness, reminded of how it’s ingrained into his bones alongside the rock salt and the angel warding symbols Cas carved into his ribcage years ago. He’s going to the grave held together by dental floss and Ace bandages with more than a couple pieces missing, and for a long time he told himself he was okay with that. It never occurred to him someone might come into his life looking for those pieces, asking him for something he wasn’t sure he had ever learned to give.

Cas is asking for pieces he doesn’t have. Pieces that went missing a long time ago, lost in truck cabs and gas station bathrooms and thrown out moving car windows alongside the cigarettes he had never really been interested in smoking in the first place. It’s all locked up inside him and he doesn’t know how to let it out, thinks that’s maybe what those pieces were for.

For the first time, he really, truly wonders what they’re doing. What he had expected to get out of this whole mess in the first place. He can’t give Cas what he wants. He can’t be the kind of person who’s going to make Cas happy, or let him in. He doesn’t know how to sit down and say, “Hey, I turned tricks when I was a kid and it kind of destroyed my ability to emotionally and physically connect with men despite my attraction to them, so if I seem a little fucked up, that’s why.” He doesn’t know how to say the most open he could ever be with Cas is only in places like Hell, and only because he wouldn’t have a choice.

He climbs off Cas’ lap.

“I can’t do this,” he says faintly. The words sound all wrong coming out of his mouth. “Whatever this is.” He gestures vaguely between them, “It has to stop.”

The numbness has settled back in, humming along in his veins. His tongue is huge in his mouth and his throat is tight and he doesn’t realize he’s been retreating until his back hits the doorframe.

“I--” He stumbles, started talking before he knew what he was going to say. “Sorry,” he ends up mumbling uselessly, crossing into the hallway and disappearing, feeling more of himself sloughing off with every step he takes.  He wonders if Cas still hasn’t moved from where he’s sitting on the bed.

Dean scrawls a note for Sam: Caught a case, phone dead. One man job. Will charge when I get there. –D

He climbs back into the Impala, the alcohol burned off in the wake of stubborn, stunning sobriety. Drives off down the road, hoping for once a hunt will find him instead of the other way around.

***

It’s late enough that it can be called too early, and an older, heavyset woman is pouring him coffee at a diner somewhere in a smudge-on-the-map town called Lucas.

“Don’t see many people in here at this hour,” she says as she pours, friendly enough but not overbearing. “‘Less they’ve just killed a man or found themselves in the doghouse real bad. No offense, but I hope it’s the latter.” When Dean isn’t able to wrangle up more than a twitch of the lips, her demeanor softens. “Hon, I was just joking,” she says.

Dean gives up the half-laugh, staring down at his mug.

“You got me pegged,” he allows. After a beat, he clarifies, “Doghouse, I mean. Not the murder thing.”

She sizes him up, clucking her tongue. “No girl’s gonna stay mad at you for long,” she says, and Dean feels his stomach twist. “Bring her some roses and write how sorry you are on the card, and you’re golden.”

“Thanks,” Dean says hollowly. “Maybe I will.”

She seems satisfied at that, and when Dean tells her he’s not interested in food she disappears out back, pulling a pack of cigarettes out of her apron.

The thought crosses his mind that with Cas, that’s how it would always be. Always clarifying that no, they don’t need a room with two beds. Yes, they are celebrating their anniversary. It would get out in the hunting community eventually. All it takes is one run in at a bar or chance meeting on a hunt, and suddenly Dean’s life is on display for everyone to see. Imagining one of the few hunters he was ever with (he always tried to avoid shitting where he ate, but a few slipped through the cracks) hearing about him and Cas makes it hard for him to swallow, anxiety churning in his gut. He sips his coffee that’s still too hot, trying to quench it or at least focus on how it burns his tongue instead of how fucking out of his head he is right now.

It’s not that that alone would make him turn away from Cas. Not in a million years would he give up on them if that was the only problem.

But if the last couple months have been any indication, that’s not the only problem. Not by a long shot. Dean wants to keep Cas, wants to keep him so bad it makes his chest hurt. The only way he knew how to do that completely blew up in his face and only seemed to hurt Cas more, so what he did makes sense, he convinces himself. Ending it now, before it could’ve become a thing that actually stood the test of time, it’ll hurt less for the both of them in the long run.

Dean shakes his head, holds his coffee between his palms. Frowns. That’s not right, though. Not really. Because technically, they have stood the test of time. A long time, actually. Years.

“Fuck,” he mutters under his breath, squeezing his eyes shut. It’s different, he assures himself. He’s put Cas through so much over the years already, he can’t make him responsible for gluing him back together, or even just letting him deal with the broken machinery as is. It’s not fair, and it’s selfish, and maybe if Dean saw some glimpse of a future version of himself that was even just a little less fucked up, he might stick with this thing. If he could promise Cas that there was a better version of himself waiting somewhere down the line, things might be different. But he can’t, so they won’t. It’s a nihilistic outlook, even by Dean’s standards. But he’s the one who’s lived with himself for almost four decades now. He has the lay of the land, so to speak. Knows what potholes keep coming back every winter, no matter how resolutely they fill them in April.

He finishes his coffee and drops a couple bills on the table. Snags one of yesterday’s papers that are still sitting on the counter by the door on his way out. It’s not a local paper, one imported from one of the bigger cities for when people are tired of reading about community bake sales in church basements. Their kind of stuff doesn’t always make the papers, especially if it doesn’t start out gory, but if he’s being honest he really doesn’t care what he finds, so long as it’s a distraction.

He books a room to grab a few hours of shuteye, some fleabag a little ways off the main drag. He plugs in his phone and falls asleep staring at a stain on the ceiling.

***

He wakes up mid-morning, grabs his phone and watches as notifications from Sam fill his screen. He doesn’t respond, but showers and clears out, heading east with no real destination in mind. Earlier in the morning Sam’s asking about the case, making sure Dean’s alright. By noon, the newest message in his inbox says you’re full of shit, which Dean takes to mean Cas is awake and has filled Sam in on the fact that no, actually, there is no case and Dean’s just being Dean.

He dinks around all day in various little tourist traps, trying to keep himself occupied. Running away from his problems is stupid and unhelpful, but at least it’s easy. If only out of habit, he considers picking up a woman at a bar tonight because that used to be his go-to, but even the thought makes him queasy. Not that he expected it, but Cas hasn’t texted him or tried to call. He puts his phone face down on the passenger’s side seat.

It’s past dark when he rolls into a gas station in eastern Kansas, the neon sign advertising it flickering through the mist that’s fallen along with the night. He taps the handle of the gas nozzle as he fills up, staring out at nothing over the parking lot. There’s a rest stop attached to the gas station where a few trucks are lined up, the florescent light spilling out the windows onto the asphalt.

He’s halfway inside to pay when a saccharine giggle drifts across the parking lot, and with a knowing sinking feeling in his stomach he looks up to see a young woman in a tight, short dress being led into one of the truck cabs by the kind of guy Dean can’t imagine knows his way around a toothbrush. He stops.

Humans aren’t his gig, and never have been. They get tangled up in the occasional false alarm, but most of the time they try to leave that kind of shit to the cops. And this guy isn’t a monster. Not even the human kind, not necessarily. It might not even be saving her by pulling that guy out of the cab and shoving him up against the door and reminding him--just in case-- how to respect people who supply his demand. Dean knows what it means to have to put food on the table at any cost, knows that she could lose desperately needed money–maybe he’s a regular-- if he decides to play hero. 

Instead, he watches. Not in any kind of invasive way. He pays for his gas and he comes back outside, pulling the Impala into an empty parking spot and pretending to be engaged with one of the old maps he still has kicking around in his glove compartment.

Seeing this kind of thing play out right in front of him isn’t exactly new. Even Sam has frequented enough places like this over the years to know the signs, his only response usually nothing more than a slightly furrowed brow. Dean has wondered before what kind of reaction he’d get if he told Sam he used to be like them, except instead of hanging off their arms like one of the girls he’d wait two minutes, then follow them to a previously chosen, discreet location somewhere nearby.

Priceless, he’s sure.

Twenty minutes later the girl is out of the truck cab, straightening her dress and tossing her small knapsack over her shoulders. Dean watches the exchange of money, waits for both the truck to drive away and the girl to disappear into the attached diner. Dean folds up his map and follows her in-- at this time of night it’s almost completely dead. There’s a haggard looking couple sitting at a table in the corner, but that’s it.

For a second, Dean thinks he’s lost her. Then she appears moments later, bathroom door swinging shut behind her, wearing a sweater that’s too big for her over her dress. She sits in a booth by herself and toys with the salt shaker. She’s wearing makeup, but Dean can still see the circles under her eyes.

“You can grab a seat anywhere you like,” a waitress informs him as she passes by with a steaming coffee pot. 

“Thanks,” Dean says. Then, before he’s thought it through he says, “Hey, wait--”

The waitress turns back to him.

“Sorry,” Dean says. “Uh, listen. That girl in the booth over there, you know her? She seems like a, um. Regular.”

The waitress surveys him, suspicion ticking in her expression. “You a cop?”

“What? No. No, I’m.” Dean licks his lips, casting around for any excuse, doesn’t find one. “Look, I just. She looks like she needs something solid to eat.”

The waitress doesn’t look impressed, her eyes narrowing slightly. “Look, buddy, if you think this is some kind of game… You want to buy, you talk to her.”

“No,” Dean says, “No, god, that’s not what I’m talking about. I mean food. Literal food. For God’s-- listen.” He pulls out his wallet, hands the waitress a couple of bills. “Can you just-- for tonight, give her something more than coffee.” He’s never done something like this before, but suddenly it seems like the most important thing in the world. He knows how empty it can feel in the aftermath, like you just sold your entire worth as a human being for a couple cans of ravioli and some Chex Mix.

The waitress still seems unsure, and Dean doesn’t blame her. But he’s getting skittish, heat pricking his skin and afraid that she’s going to look over at any moment and see him pitying her, something he knows would’ve made him even feel worse when he was in her position.

“Just-- fucking take it,” he says, not meaning to sound as clipped as he does. “Don’t let her leave hungry,” he warns before retreating, out into the cold night and then back into the Impala. He deliberately doesn’t look back through the window, slams the Impala into gear and peels out of the parking lot as fast as possible, leaving that place far behind.

As he’s driving on a straight stretch of highway, he grabs his phone and glances at it, not really expecting to see anything new. However, there’s Cas’ name across his screen, and a single word text.

Coward.

Dean barks laughter into the empty night, and he retreats, and he retreats, and he retreats.

***

He’s been gone four days and is sitting in a 24 hour café in Colorado when his phone buzzes with a message from Sam. he’s been splitting logs in the backyard for days what the fuck happened and then, a follow up half an hour later, can you at least let me know you’re not dead in a ditch somewhere. please

Dean texts back, not dead. After a moment, he sends another. wanna find me a case?

no, Sam says, I want you to come home. seriously, man, what’s with the disappearing act?

Dean contemplates not answering, but sighs. He gives up the meaningless doodle on his napkin and drops the pen he nabbed from the front counter. me and cas split.

Ten seconds later his phone starts ringing and he already regrets saying anything.

“What?” he snaps.

“‘What?’” Sam mocks. “What the hell, Dean? What’s going on?”

Dean shrugs. “Thought that text was pretty clear.”

Sam makes an affronted noise. “That doesn’t even make sense,” he protests. “I didn’t even know you were properly-- what happened to ‘it’s complicated’?”

Dean closes his eyes and rubs his temples. “You really want the gory details?” he bluffs. He can hear Sam’s hesitance in the static.

“I just--” Sam clears his throat. “I just… didn’t see this coming, I guess.” A beat, and then, “What’s gonna happen?”

“Well, running away from my problems has worked out swimmingly so far.”

“When you come back,” Sam clarifies, uninterested in Dean’s bravado. “What’s gonna happen when you’re back?”

“Just because Mommy and Daddy are splitting up doesn’t mean we love you any less, Samuel.”

“Fuck off, Dean. Can you be serious for one second please?”

Dean rolls his eyes. “What do you mean ‘what’s gonna happen’? Like, what, am I gonna kick him out again? Cause fuck--”

“No,” Sam cuts in immediately. Then, more hesitantly, “I dunno, I guess I thought he might be the one choosing to leave.”

Dean’s insides go cold at that. Truth be told, when he ended it, he wasn’t considering the aftermath. Didn’t bother thinking he was ending a quasi-relationship with someone who is also his permanent roommate.

He has a headache. He’s an idiot. He’s a hypocrite because if Cas leaves, he’s done for. Absolutely cooked.

“I don’t know, Sam,” Dean says tiredly, “If he has any plans to scram he hasn’t mentioned them--or anything, really-- to me.”

Sam’s silence is soft, and a moment later he says quietly, “I’m so sorry, Dean.”

Dean swallows. “Yeah,” he says, like it’s not all his fucking fault in the first place, “Yeah, me too.”

***

Sam takes pity on him and sends him on a string of hunts. He tackles the smaller ones alone, meets up with a couple other hunters for a few of the bigger ones. He doesn’t know them like he knows Sam or Cas, never quite syncs up to their particular style of hunting. But they manage to clear out a vamp nest and in a rush of adrenaline, hit up a bar afterwards in celebration.

Dan and Thomas are both older than him, and harder. They’re cousins from somewhere in Nebraska, got into the biz after a mean brush with a pack of werewolves while on a fishing trip as kids.

After shooting the shit for a bit and one too many beers deep, Thomas turns to Dean and says, “How’s that pet angel of yours doing?” Cas is hardly a secret anymore, and word gets around in the hunting community. Once Cas started tackling cases on the reg with Sam and Dean, it didn’t take long for people to learn he was shacking up permanently with the Winchesters.

“Peachy,” Dean says gruffly. It’s been almost three weeks and he’s still thinking about that text Cas sent. They haven’t talked since, and Sam’s updates mostly consist of how he’s lucky if he even bumps into Cas in the library once a day.

Thomas chuckles. “Trouble in paradise, huh?”

The alcohol in his veins has Dean bristling at the comment even though he knows nothing was meant by it. Instead of taking the bait, however, he forces a laugh of his own. “It’s like Three’s Company without any of the fun,” he quips.

“Christ,” Thomas takes another sip of his beer. “Still find it hard to believe you guys would take in a stray, especially after all the shit his kind has pulled down here over the past couple years.”

Dean takes a sip of his own, trying not to sound defensive when he says, “Cas is one of the good ones.” His multitude of beers is to blame for when he adds, “The best one.”

“They’re all the same,” Dan argues. “Suited up pricks with sticks jammed up their asses, if you ask me.”

Dean aims for a grin, ends up baring his teeth instead. “Maybe once upon a time,” he says. “But Cas saved the world, you know. More than once.” He knows it’s a stupid thing to say before he even says it, but it gets blurted out anyway: “He saved me.”

Dan and Thomas exchange a brief look.

“No disrespect to your… friend,” Thomas says carefully.

“Yeah, well, it kinda sounded like it,” Dean says. He’s dragged Cas through enough mud. No one else needs to pile it on. The fact that these two don’t realize just how much Cas deserves punches a sudden surge of anger through Dean. They don’t know shit, but Dean can change that.

“He stopped the apocalypse,” Dean says heatedly. “Y’know, the thing that would’ve wiped you two off the face of the planet while you were too busy standing around with your heads up your asses.”

Thomas’ eyebrows raise, and he snorts into his drink.

“No disrespect to your boyfriend, then,” he amends. “Jesus.”

Fucking hell if that was the wrong nerve to hit today. Dean’s tired and tipsy and it feels like the last two weeks are finally catching up to him as he throws his chair back and a punch to boot.

The ensuing chaos can’t last more than two minutes since the bouncer interrupts almost immediately, throwing Dean out on his ass. Doesn’t stop him from feeling the knock he took square in the face, though. He knows he’s over the limit but he drives back to the motel anyway, parking crookedly and fighting with the lock on the door that seems to keep moving.

“Fuck’s sake,” he mumbles as the door finally swings open.

His instincts have been dulled enough by alcohol that he doesn’t notice the figure sitting on his bed until he’s already walked right past them, and then he’s whipping around, yanking his gun out of his waistband, only to point it at…

“Jesus Christ,” he says, dropping his arm. “You almost gave me a heart attack.”

Once Cas gets a good look at him, his eyes widen and he’s off the bed in a second, hands carefully cradling Dean’s face.

“What happened?” he demands. Dean tries to fight him off, but Cas isn’t having it. “Dean, are you alright?”

“I’m 110%, doc,” Dean grouses, succeeding in batting Cas’ hands away. “What the hell are you doing here?”

Cas pulls back a bit, his attention now divided between Dean’s black eye and the rest of his face.

“What do you think?” he says. “I’m here to bring you back, Dean.”

Dean lets out a harsh bark of laughter.

“Get out of here, man,” he says tiredly. “Go home.” He can feel the exhaustion creeping in as the adrenaline from the day wanes, leaving him hollow. He tries his best to quash that flicker of hope Cas’ initial presence instilled in him, reminding himself how they got here in the first place.

Cas, however, seems intent on standing his ground. “I’m not leaving here without you,” he says.

Dean sinks onto the bed opposite Cas, bent at the waist and resting his forehead on his palm. “You don’t owe me anything,” he says.

“I was thinking more along the lines of you owing me something,” Cas says flatly. Before Dean’s stomach even gets the chance to drop, he continues, “An explanation.”

“Cas--” Dean raises his head, but Cas interrupts him.

“No, Dean,” Cas snaps. “You drunkenly end things and then disappear for almost a month? What am I supposed to think?”

“Well, surprise, I’m drunk now too,” Dean shoots back. “And for the record, I know what you think. I got your text, and weeks of radio silence after that certainly got the message across.”

Cas actually looks shamefaced at that. “I was angry,” he says. “And to add to the record, I had also been drinking that night. After that…” He swallows. “I didn’t know what to say. I don’t have… a lot of experience with this kind of thing.”

“Yeah, well, it sucks.” Dean says churlishly. “Take it from someone who’s been dumped before.”

Cas flinches at that, but steadies himself and reaches across the chasm between them to rest a hand on Dean’s knee.

“I didn’t mean it,” he says. “I’m sorry.”

Dean nods but doesn’t say anything. Knows this is the moment he’s supposed to blame everything on the alcohol and take back what he said as well, but he can’t.

“You weren’t wrong,” Dean says instead. He stares hard at where Cas’ hand is still on his leg. “But neither was I. I still can’t do it, Cas. I can’t.” Not to you, he doesn’t say. 

Cas is silent for a long time, and the two of them just sit there, opposite each other on different beds, connected only by Cas’ touch. His palm is warm.

Eventually, gentle hands grab one of Dean’s own. Cas is examining his knuckles, caked in dried blood.

“Let’s get you cleaned up,” he says quietly. He stands, holding Dean’s hand. Helpless, Dean lets himself be led into the bathroom. Cas turns on the warm water and runs it over Dean’s knuckles, massaging the skin around them. He uses a facecloth to rub off the blood that’s really stuck, and then continues running his fingers over Dean’s palms long after they’re clean. Cas doesn’t say anything while he’s doing it, but he does turn the water cold and then presses cool, soothing fingertips to the edges of the bruise blossoming around Dean’s eye.

Cas’ touch is so completely lacking in the ulterior motives Dean’s been used to his whole life that he ends up kissing him against the bathroom sink, less than an hour after he told him they couldn’t do this anymore. He’s sober enough to know what he’s doing but drunk enough not to stop himself from doing it, and his heart is hammering away in his chest and every place Cas isn’t currently touching him aches for it. He hates himself for being so weak, and he’s terrified Cas is going to pull away and ask him what the fuck he’s doing (because he really doesn’t know), but no such protest ever comes.

Cas kisses him deep, kisses him warm. There’s old lube in Dean’s duffel he didn’t even realize was there, and he’s so grateful he doesn’t think to redirect like he usually does when Cas murmurs to him, “Let me see you,” prompting Dean to flip over onto his back on the bed. They’ve never had sex face to face before, but Dean crosses his ankles behind Cas’ lower back and digs his fingers into Cas’ biceps. Cas preps him with deft fingers and Dean tries not to thrust back on them, tries to remember his place. But when Cas pushes in for the first time he forgets himself for a moment and gasps into Cas’ neck.

“Good,” Cas whispers to him, “That’s good. You deserve to feel good, Dean.” He kisses Dean’s temple. “I want to make you feel good.”

Dean squeezes his eyes shut tight, trying to ignore Cas’ words. Regardless, his hands trace up and over Cas’ shoulders until he’s practically wrapped around him, begging the guilt starting to pool in his stomach to at least hold off this once. He wants to feel Cas just this one time like some kind of prophecy, the what-ifs and the maybes and the never-gonna-happens, the future they could’ve had if Dean was functional enough to get them there.

He comes when Cas is buried deep in him, gasping into Cas’ mouth with the slow intensity of it and how it pulses though him in waves, leaving him searching for a shore to crash on.

I love you, he almost confesses. God, I love you more than I’ve ever loved anything.

Instead, he turns it back on and says, “C’mon, baby. Feel so good for you.”

***

1996

He’s quiet as possible as he sneaks into the motel room. It’s just before four and Sam was already out like a light when he left around midnight, so he doubts he’s going to have to cajole his bleary, nosy little brother back to sleep this time at least.

The room is dark and he doesn’t realize what his hunter’s instincts are picking up on until he’s shut the door behind him. He turns around, and there’s a person sitting in the rickety chair by the desk, hidden from the moonlight.

His breath catches in his throat, heart frozen as he looks for the familiar shape of Sam under the covers, can still hardly function when he sees his brother’s mop of hair peeking out, seemingly unharmed. His hand whips behind him to grab his gun from the back of his jeans, but before he can even get a grip on the handle the figure already has one pointed at him.

“Too slow,” it says, and Dean almost sags with relief at the sound of his father’s voice. The respite is only momentary though, as Dean realizes what he’s just walked into. That ice that was just encasing his heart slowly starts pumping through his veins, leaving him breathlessly still.

John doesn’t say anything, and the longer the silence draws on, the colder he gets. He knows he still smells like sex, knows if John catches a proper glimpse of his face he’ll see how pale he is, how distressed his hair from a client who liked to tug.  The wad of cash in his back pocket suddenly weighs a thousand pounds.

After what seems like an eternity, John lets his gun fall to his side.

“You need to be on your guard at all times,” he says, voice low as he sends a pointed look in Sam’s direction.

Dean swallows. “Y-yes sir,” he stammers, and hates himself for how his voice shakes. Sneaking out after being tasked by John to watch over Sam, leaving Sam vulnerable like that, exposed-- that’s the ultimate sin in John Winchester’s eyes. He caught Dean, apple in hand.

What his version of kicking his first son out of the garden is, however, Dean doesn’t know. This has only happened once before, not quite a decade ago now, when John was hunting that shtriga in Wisconsin. The aftermath of that had been bad enough, but now that he’s supposedly learned from that? Now that he’s old enough to truly understand what kind of things live in the dark?

Well. He’s scared of a lot of things, but his dad might just be at the top of the list.

John takes his time working up to a question. Dean wonders if he knows it feels like his nerves are being pulled tight as piano wires the longer he’s waiting for him to break the silence.  Probably.

“Where were you?” John asks, and there’s a dangerous undercurrent to his voice, something Dean’s only heard once or twice in his life. His dad likes to fight, likes to get loud. When he gets quiet, though, that’s when Dean really braces himself.

When Dean fails to explain himself, John continues, “I gave you an order, and you disobeyed it.”

He can’t see John’s face, all he can see is darkness. His throat is dry and his mind is blank, his tongue sandpaper. He’s not supposed to be here, is all he can think. He was supposed to be two towns over drinking shit beer and hunting ghouls with his old buddy from the marines, and wasn’t expected back until late tomorrow night.

“I--” Dean starts, his voice wavering. “I was hustling. We ran out of groceries and Sam needed lunch money for tomorrow and—and--”

John raises his hand, cutting him off. Dean shuts up immediately.

“Your number one priority is protecting him,” John reminds him. “That means being here.”

Anger washes through Dean suddenly, and it takes everything in him not to scream that Sam already went to bed hungry last night, that the money John left with them didn’t stretch far enough, that he’s fucking tired of eating hot pockets and gas station sandwiches and he still doesn’t know what to say when Sam tells him that the other kids think it’s the greatest thing in the world they get to eat McDonald’s three nights a week. He tries, he tries so fucking hard, that stupid food pyramid is still crumpled up at the bottom of his duffel, but good food is so expensive.  John’s warned him that if he gets caught stealing again and thrown in jail, he’s going to leave him there. And he can’t leave Sam. Not like that.

“Yes sir,” Dean manages to say, keeping his voice neutral as possible. He’s angry, but that only tempers the fear.

John sits in contemplative silence for a moment. Then: “Get your things,” he says, even quieter.

Dean’s stomach drops out. “What?”

“Pack your bags,” John says, voice even. “You think you’re more useful to this family on your own? Fine. Get out.”

“I--” Dean’s almost incoherent, the terror settling deep in his bones. He pictures himself alone and on the road, no one to talk to, no one to be close to. And if Sam’s not around, he has no way of knowing if he’s okay, or helping him with his homework, or giving him lunch money when John forgets. “Please, Dad,” he begs, “don’t--”

“There’s a hunt across the state line,” John says. He shifts his weight in his chair and Dean flinches, but he’s only reaching for a pen and a piece of stationary. “Here’s the info.” He scribbles something down, but Dean’s not paying attention. He’s light headed. He feels like he’s going to throw up.

John holds out the piece of paper to him, and it takes Dean a second to move, grabbing it robotically. He crumples it in his fist and doesn’t look at it. “We’ll pick you up when everything’s done,” John says. “You have my number.”

“I can’t--” Dean scrubs a hand over his jaw, and even though it’s been a couple days there’s only a smattering of uneven stubble. “I can’t--”

“Are you refusing an order?”

Dean’s never been on a hunt alone before, and he knows that’s not how John views this anyway. It’s a punishment, not a rite of passage.

Dean takes a deep breath. It rattles in his chest.

“No, sir.”

“Good. Now get your things.”

Dean stumbles around in the semi-dark of the room, collecting his clothes. He grabs his toothbrush, but leaves the toothpaste and shampoo because he shares those with Sam. He shoves it all into his duffel bag and hikes it up over his shoulder, while John doesn’t move from his perch. A tiny spark of proud rebelliousness strikes in his chest as he gently runs his fingers through Sam’s hair before stepping away, knowing it’ll aggravate John but there’s not much he can say about it.

As soon as he’s standing at the door, however, the fear comes rushing back in. John must notice his hesitance because he says, the closest to tender Dean’s ever heard him, “You’ll learn from this, son.”

His knees are weak. He doesn’t hear himself say “yes, sir,” as he pulls open the door and leaves without looking back. Just in case John’s watching him through the window, Dean makes sure to disappear from view before he allows his chest to cave in and he crumples to the ground, breathing heavily.

Dean stares up at the sky, seeing his own face reflected in the stars where they’re spattered haphazardly across the night like the freckles across the bridge of his nose. He’s so small and he thinks there’s nothing worse in the whole entire world than being alone.

***

Present Day

They wake up together, Cas’s chest to Dean’s back and their legs intertwined. Dean’s leaning back into the warmth before he fully comes to, realizing where he is and what he’s done.

He squeezes his eyes shut, just for a moment. Pretends that he’s not himself, just an anonymous body tangled up with another anonymous body: it’s creature comforts, seeking out safety and warmth, nothing more. When lips start moving sleepily against the back of his neck, he swallows hard. There’s an arm draped over his waist, a large palm slid under his shirt and resting against his stomach.

He’s saved from having to say anything, or, God forbid, nestling back into Cas’ warmth, by Cas’ phone vibrating on the nightstand. For a second it seems like Cas is going to ignore it, judging by the way his grip on Dean tightens, but then he sighs and rolls over, extricating himself from Dean along the way. Dean doesn’t move, but he swallows hard at what now feels like a gaping chasm between them. He didn’t realize last night how cool the room was.

Cas fumbles for his phone, knocks it off the nightstand, swears under his breath, then finally rumbles out some kind of garbled greeting with almost his entire upper body hanging off the mattress.  A second later it vibrates again because he apparently hasn’t answered it like he thought he did, and he sighs overdramatically enough that Dean feels laughter bubbling up in his chest, sudden and bright. He’s woken up with Cas in the morning before but he’s never woken up with him, and for a second everything in him washes away in favor of a wave of endearment at Cas’ absolute resentment of anything that exists in the world before 11 a.m.   

“Sam,” Cas finally grits out, still half-lying off the bed. “Yes, it is early. I hadn’t noticed.” While he’s talking, he sits back up and reaches out, sweeping a gentle hand up Dean’s back, completely at odds with the barely concealed annoyance in his tone. “I remember. In Iowa, right?” Dean can’t hear what Sam is saying on the other end, can only hear that he’s saying something. Cas’ hand stills in its ministrations. “… oh,” he says. The bed shifts as Cas sits up. His tone has changed enough that Dean forgoes feigning sleep and turns over. They’re both still naked, and it feels like Dean’s gaze has to track up miles of torso before landing on Cas’ face. Once Cas realizes he’s awake, his expression softens and he reaches down to cup Dean’s cheek in his palm.

“Dean?” he says in response to something Sam has asked. “Yes, I’ve… caught up to him. Last night, yeah. Okay… okay.” Dean doesn’t want to move. Cas’ hand is still cradling his face and the rumble of his voice in his chest is soothing and Dean is just so tired. He doesn’t know or care what’s in Iowa but the longer Sam and Cas keep talking the longer Dean can give into this and not think about it.     

Which, as it turns out, isn’t much longer. Cas says “Okay,” one more time and ends the call, and suddenly Dean’s left without an excuse. He’s never stayed with Cas an entire night before. It’s been a long time since he’s woken up next to someone, let alone someone like Cas.

Cas’ thumb makes one more sweep across Dean’s cheekbone, and then he carefully retreats.

“I have to meet Sam in Iowa,” he says. Dean’s stomach plummets.

“Walkerville,” Cas continues.

It takes Dean a second. “Maria and the kid?” he asks. It’s been a while. 

Cas rubs the grit out his eyes with his palms, nodding. He throws the covers off and rests his feet on the floor, and Dean automatically averts his eyes, which is all kinds of stupid. Cas yanks on his jeans from yesterday and stands, doing them up. He hesitates, tapping a finger on the button.

“Are you coming?”

Dean swallows, uncomfortable.

“Uh, yeah,” he says. “It’s unfinished business. Would be pretty shitty of me not to be there.”

Cas nods once, stiff, expression cooling. “Right,” he says flatly. “Unfinished business.”

***

 Dean follows Cas in the Impala. About six hours out from Walkerville, his phone vibrates. He puts it on speaker.

“Yeah?”

“We should stop for the night.”

“You know you shouldn’t talk on your phone while driving, right?” It’s supposed to lighten the mood, but he’s only met with stony silence on the other end.

“There’s a motel off the next exit,” Cas finally says, and hangs up.

They get a double, and neither of them says a thing about it.

***

Maria looks like she hasn’t slept in weeks. She stares listlessly into her cup of coffee, Sam on one side of her and Dean and Cas crammed together on the other side of the booth.

“I thought I could handle it,” she says quietly. “When she came back.”

“When did she come back?” Sam asks.

Maria’s mouth twists. “The night you guys left.”

Sam, Dean, and Cas all exchange a look.

“It was the journal,” Dean says. “We all saw how she freaked when I grabbed it.”

“Obviously it wasn’t,” Cas says, a bitter edge to his voice. “Or we wouldn’t be back here.”

 In front of a grieving mother isn’t exactly the best time to fight, but Dean feels the indignation rising in him regardless. If Cas has something to say he can just--

“Maria,” Sam interrupts. He’s pretty good at reading the room, could probably see Dean gearing up for a few rounds and decided to step in on everyone’s behalf. “Is there anything else you can think of Kendra might’ve been attached to? Anything at all.”

Maria chews on her bottom lip. “I burned it.”

“You...” Dean blinks. “You what?”

“I burned it,” she repeats. “All of her things.”

Sam’s brow furrows and he stares into his coffee. Cas takes a sip from his own mug.

“Why?” Dean asks bluntly. Sometime in the past thirty seconds, his brain switched to autopilot.

“I said goodbye,” Maria tells him. “I couldn’t--” She takes a deep breath. “I knew that if I didn’t do it then, I’d never be able to.” She laughs blackly. “Guess it didn’t matter much in the end anyway.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” Dean says.

Maria shrugs. “It’s all gone,” she says flatly. “I took it out back and burned it all. Even threw some salt on the pile cause I remembered you guys talking about it.” Another humorless laugh escapes her. “I love her so much but I just want her gone. World’s best mom, I know.”

An uneasy silence falls over the table until Maria slides out of the booth, digging in her pockets until she comes up with a pack of cigarettes. “Back in a few,” she says, and leaves before anyone can say anything.

Despite the regular diner chatter happening around them, Dean may as well be at the bottom of the ocean for all he’s hearing. Sam and Cas are burbling along beside him, but he has no idea what they’re saying. He doesn’t even realize he’s moving until Cas puts a hand on his forearm when he’s halfway out of his seat.

“Dean?”

It takes his brain a second to catch up to his body.

“I’m just gonna check on her,” he says, taking his arm back from Cas. Sam’s watching him as well, and the double scrutiny only makes things worse. He bails.

Maria’s huddled around the corner of the diner, leaning against the brick wall. Dean does his jacket up and hunches his shoulders against the cold.

“Can I bum one?” he asks, nodding at the cigarette in her hand.

She raises her eyebrows but hands one over. When she offers Dean a lighter, he holds out his own and lights up. “Didn’t take you for a smoker,” she observes.  “Too good looking.”

Dean snorts.

“I’m not, really. Haven’t had one since I was a kid. If I embarrass myself, take pity on me.” On cue, his chest constricts and he starts coughing. Maria watches him, darkly amused.

“I started in college,” she offers when Dean’s eyes are still watering. “Never found the time to stop ‘cept for when I was pregnant.”

“Must’ve been rough.”

She shrugs. “Spent most of it with more going out of my mouth than coming in. Not sure I’d have had the stomach for it even if they didn’t have all those scary statistics about birth defects.”

Dean takes another drag and tries not to lose his lunch this time. The smoke burns going down and it reminds him of Jack. He’s probably dead by now, guy like him, Dean thinks idly, and despite the years and despite the distance, he feels the ghost of a loss creep up and over him.

“You’re not a bad mother for wanting her gone,” he says. “There’s nothing for her here.”

She makes an ugly noise. “I’m here.”

Dean chuckles, shaking his head.

“Yeah? What are you gonna do for a ghost?” He taps ash off the end of his cigarette. “They don’t eat. They don’t sleep. They just get pissed off the longer they’re stuck.”

“So what do we do, then?”

Dean holds up his cigarette between two fingers. “We finish our cancer sticks. And then we figure out what you missed.”

***

Once Maria assures them she’ll be okay for the night, the three of them check into the same motel they stayed in last time. Sam and Dean share a room, and Cas gets his own. 

Dean lies awake for hours, listening to the wall-mounted clock quietly tick away. His chest aches, and the darkness only makes it worse.

He gives up on sleep and stumbles into jeans that he doesn’t bother doing up. He shoves his boots on and leaves those untied as well. It’s lighter outside with the flickering neon sign buzzing away at the entrance to the parking lot and the ugly old lights installed along the walkway. He sits on the little curb barrier the Impala is parked in front of, leaning back against her grill. His fingers twitch and he wishes he had a cigarette, if only for something to occupy his time.

At some point Cas’ door opens. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if Cas has been sleeping or not, since his usual demeanor is only a few shades shy of local dumpster diver. He stands there for a good thirty seconds in his doorway in his dumb white t-shirt with his arms crossed.

“You want to come in?” he finally asks.

Dean shakes his head. “Not really.”

Cas is halfway to shutting his door when he must reconsider, because there’s a deep, resigned sigh, and then he comes outside and leans against the Impala next to Dean. Dean tries not to make a face at Cas standing in the cold in his bare feet.

Neither of them say anything for a while. They don’t touch. Cas doesn’t sit beside him, just stays where he is.

“Sorry I’m so fucked up,” Dean says. It only comes out as casually as it does because he didn’t realize he was going to say it.

Cas makes a small noise of dissent from above him. His hand settles on Dean’s shoulder, but Dean’s face is burning and he can’t bring himself to look up. “I’m sorry I’m not always the most accommodating,” Cas says. His grip on Dean’s shoulder tightens. “You’re the bravest man I know.” 

Dean hears it for the apology it is, but it sours in the back of his throat.

“I can’t even look at you right now,” he says bitterly. “I’m too afraid to look you in the eye, Cas. That’s not--” He swallows. “That’s not bravery.”

Cas’ hand moves from his shoulder to the back of his neck, gently massaging. Dean braces himself for a response, for a fight, for something, but nothing ever comes. After a few minutes Cas starts running his fingers through Dean’s hair. Dean’s throat is tight, his eyes itchy. He hesitantly rests his head against Cas’ thigh and closes his eyes. 

***

They spend most of the morning sifting through a pile of ash in Maria’s backyard, then they spend most of the afternoon combing through her house searching for anything she might’ve missed.

Dean’s on his hands and knees peering under a couch in the living room. “At this rate we should probably just burn the whole place down and hope for the best,” he says, his knees grumbling at him even though the floor is carpeted.

“If only insurance fraud were that easy,” Maria says from somewhere behind him, and Dean whirls around, momentarily blinding her with his phone flashlight.

“Shit,” he says apologetically, hauling himself to his feet. “That was for Sam’s freakishly small ears, not yours.”

“It’s alright,” she waves him off. “I’ve heard worse from better. Besides, it’s not like I haven’t considered it.”

Sam is nowhere to be found even though they were supposed to be searching this room together, so Dean officially calls break and sinks down onto the ugly, floral patterned couch. It’s sunken in the middle, just like the porch, like this entire place is being sucked into the ether from the inside out.   

“So, no luck then?” Maria sits on the opposite end of the couch, looking thoroughly unsurprised.

“This is the shit that doesn’t make it into the movies,” Dean says. “It’s like on CSI—they’ve got montages for that.”

Maria chews on that for a moment, and it’s with a resigned grimace that she says, “Even if you guys manage to get rid of her, she’s not going anywhere. Not really.”

Dean stares at the carpet. He thinks about Cas and he thinks about Jack and he thinks about every nameless guy he’s ever sold a piece of himself to.

“Yeah,” he says. “I guess you’re right.”

***

“I’m losing my mind here,” Sam says. The sun is setting and they still have nothing. Not even the ghost of a lead. Maria gave them all a pity beer twenty minutes ago, and the three of them are standing out on the porch. Cas is standing too close, but Dean’s tired and so used to it at this point that it hardly registers. “No corpse to burn, no belongings, not even a fingernail clipping.” He laughs in disbelief. “I don’t know what else to do.”

“We still don’t know exactly how Kendra died,” Cas says. “I’m starting to think Maria’s holding back for a reason other than grief.” He raises his beer to his mouth and the deep golds of incoming twilight catch in the brown glass as he takes a sip. 

“Oh, please,” Dean scoffs. “You think she had something to do with it?”

“I didn’t say that. I’m just saying, we still don’t know.”

Dean looks to Sam. “What did the obituary say again?”

“Not much, actually, now that I think about it,” Sam says, frowning slightly. “At the time I just figured it was your standard mad libs obit, but…” He gestures vaguely to Cas. “He might be onto something.”

Dean crosses his arms. “Well, which one of you wants to go accuse the grieving mother of filicide?”

Sam gives him a reproachful look. “We’re just doing our job, Dean. You know that.”

Dean takes a begrudging swig of beer.

“We’re not saying she’s guilty,” Cas tacks on when Dean doesn’t offer anything.

“I know I know,” Dean says. He does, in fact, know exactly what this is. It’s a weak echo of Cas standing on the other side of that ring of fire, of Dean wanting to believe so badly what he was saying was true. It’s hunter’s instinct, pure and simple. Dean doesn’t usually fight against it so readily.

The sound of the screen door opening has him looking up, and Maria is watching them all with dark eyes as she steps out onto the porch. “I don’t normally eavesdrop on my guests,” she says neutrally. “Only when they’re weird ghost hunters, I promise.”

Sam is immediately cowed. “Maria, we didn’t--”

Maria, holding a beer bottle of her own, waves him off. “It’s fair enough,” she says. “Wildly invasive and incredibly rude, maybe, but you are trying to help.”

Sam shuffles his weight from foot to foot. “I’m sorry,” he says awkwardly, and Maria dismisses him again.

She takes a long slug from the bottle and a deep breath. “From a legal standpoint, I’m not responsible for Kendra’s death.” Her arms hang limply at her sides, like she doesn’t know what to do with them. “But I told you guys, we fought a lot. I wasn’t the greatest mother, and she was a handful. God, the things we used to scream at each other…” Maria trails off, shaking her head. “The night she died we were really having it out. It wasn’t even about anything, really. I think it started because she wanted to stay out an hour later than her curfew. She was trying to leave and I followed her down the hall. At the top of the stairs I grabbed her arm and I just.” Maria covers her face with her hands. “Oh, God, I just lost it. I was screaming at her, telling her I loved her between insults, and she had this look on her face, I don’t know if I could ever describe it. If she had made it out the door that night I don’t think she would’ve ever come back.” She swallows hard. “She tried to yank her arm out of my grip and stumbled, and… that was that. She fell at just the wrong angle. Her neck broke. She died the second her head hit that stair, the doctor told me later. Said it like I should be thankful.” She pulls her cigarettes out of her pocket and lights one up. “I told him to go fuck himself.”

 “So.” She smiles blackly, blowing smoke towards the treeline. Ash is falling off the end of her cigarette without her having to tap it off. “There you have it.”

Dean almost jumps out of his skin when Cas touches the small of his back. They’re standing close enough that no one would be able to see anyway, but it still catches him off guard. He glances at Cas, but Cas is looking straight ahead at Maria. 

“Thank you for telling us,” Cas says.

Maria puffs on her cigarette. “I fucking hope it helps, at least.”

Sam’s brow is furrowed. “You know what?” he says. “I think it actually might.”

***

They regroup for the night back at the motel, Maria having shooed them away once again when it got too late. When Sam hesitated, she reminded them she’s been dealing with this for the past six weeks without them because they couldn’t do their job right the first damn time. Sam didn’t protest much after that.

“So ghosts are usually attached to objects,” Sam says, pacing in the small amount of floor space allotted to such an activity in a fifty-five dollar per night establishment. Cas is sitting at the table in the kitchenette working on a cold slice of pizza and Dean’s laid out on his bed, shoes and plaid off. He’s exhausted and his knees hurt from bending over all day.

“And?” Dean says.

Sam shoots him a look. “But not all,” he stresses. “Some are attached to places, but some are also attached to people.”

Cas spends a second fighting with some stray cheese before saying, “So Maria is our cursed object, essentially.”

“Dean and I once worked a case where a ghost was haunting her sister because she had given her a kidney before she died,” Sam says. “So maybe it’s kinda like that.”

“How did you resolve that one?” Cas asks.

“Uh… it kind of resolved itself,” Sam hedges.

“She died,” Dean says flatly.

“It doesn’t have to go that way this time,” Sam argues. “I mean, if it’s literal unfinished business Kendra has with Maria, maybe we just have to… help things along.”

“Kendra’s been haunting her for months,” Dean says. “How has she not finished her business by now?”

“We both know spirits aren’t the most reasonable people, Dean,” Sam says. “Sometimes they just need a nudge.”

“It would be prudent to know what, exactly, she wants,” Cas says. “Judging by Maria’s story today I’m assuming it’s vengeance related.”

“Daughter dies by accident and haunts mom for the rest of her life?” Dean says. “Pretty fucked up.”

“At this point I doubt Kendra even knows what she’s doing,” Sam says. “Once a spirit’s stuck in that cycle, it’s stuck.”

“So our job is to unstick it, then,” Dean says. “Awesome.”

***

In the morning, they grab breakfast at an old ma and pa diner before heading out to Maria’s. Sam immediately excuses himself after taking a sip of coffee, and Dean’s crack about him having a tiny bladder has just rolled off his tongue to an unappreciative audience before Cas fixes him with a determined stare and says, “I’m in love with you.”

Dean almost wishes he had been drinking his coffee so he could have something to dramatically spit out, but instead he has to make due simply gaping at Cas. Sam is barely out of earshot. “I know I’ve told you this before,” Cas says, dropping down into a more casual tone. “But I figured the sentiment might be lent a bit more legitimacy if I was sober when I said it.”

Jesus, Cas,” Dean mutters. He glances around, but the diner is pretty quiet at this hour. Something cracks open inside him and he tries not to drown in it. “You can’t just say shit like that.”

“I can, actually,” Cas says. “If you recall, I just did.”

Dean’s cheeks are burning when he snaps back, “Okay, smartass, why would you say that.”

Cas looks at him like he’s the dumbest schmuck in the world. “I just wanted you to know is all,” he says, taking a sip of his coffee.

“Wanted you to know what?” Sam asks, sliding back into his seat beside Dean.

“That he has dreams about cutting all your hair off,” Dean says, the insult automatically coming even though his ears are ringing.

“We were just talking about the case,” Cas says.

Dean’s not paying attention when the waitress takes their orders. He’s not paying attention when she sets a plate of eggs and bacon in front of him. He overtips hugely, not paying attention to the money he leaves behind on the table.

Dean only realizes as they’re walking back to the Impala that Sam’s not with them. When he spots him looking around, Cas says, “Our waitress took a liking to him and I think he’s trying to let her down gently.”

They reach the Impala and Dean walks around to the driver’s door while Cas waits patiently on the other side for Dean to let him in. Dean weighs his keys in his palm for a moment, then sighs and tucks them away again in his pocket. He leans both arms on the Impala’s roof and looks at Cas. It’s cold but bright out today, and he’s squinting.

“I told you we couldn’t do this anymore,” Dean says.

“We’re not doing anything.”

“Don’t play dumb, Cas. I’m talking about what you said in there.”

“I didn’t think that was new information,” Cas says. “I’m sorry if it makes you uncomfortable.”

“Damn right it makes me uncomfortable,” Dean snaps, hating how he can feel his cheeks blooming pink even in the cold. Cas only stares at him. He wonders how long Cas has been looking at him like that, like he’s been waiting for him to get a clue. He lets out a long breath, the anger dissipating as quickly as it appeared.

“I don’t know if I can do it,” he says quietly. He taps his finger on the smooth metal, trying to summon up the courage to spit it out. “With-- God-- fuck, I know this is stupid but I don’t know if I can, with a guy--” He cuts himself off because he’s terrified of where that sentence was going, because even if he somehow found a way to the end of it he knows he’d only hate himself more. I’m not them, Cas had said way back when. Like he knew. “I’ve done shit. Shit that no one was ever supposed to know about.”

Sam walks out of the diner, and Dean knows he’s running out of time, but the words are already falling away from him, his momentary nerve along with them. “Cas, I can’t,” he says, and it comes out more like a plea. “I just-- I can’t.”

Cas looks like he’s about to say something in return, but Dean cuts him off as soon as Sam is within earshot, making a lewd comment and wiggling his eyebrows.

“Maud’s got a thing for ya, huh, Sammy? Hope you got her number.”

Sam flips him the bird and slides into the passenger seat, and Dean doesn’t shut up the entire drive to Maria’s house.

***

“So we’re going to… draw her out?” Maria asks. Dean’s got a bag of salt in hand, circling her in the middle of the living room. The furniture has been pushed aside, and Dean, Sam, and Cas are each holding an iron crowbar.

“That’s the plan,” Dean says, closing the circle and tying the bag off.

“And then, I… what?”

“Uh.” Dean tosses the bag off to the side and dusts off his hands. “Finish your business?”

“Like a dog?”

“The ball is in Kendra’s court right now,” Sam intervenes, stepping forward.

“Ball,” Dean repeats, chuckling. Sam shoots him a glare.

“We’re hoping she’s going to tell us how to set her free,” Sam continues. “Which is where you come in. She has no reason to talk to us, but you’re her mom.”

“And also the person she’s haunting,” Maria adds.

“Two birds, one stone,” Dean says.

Maria drums his fingers on her thigh. “And how, exactly, are we going to draw her out?”

Dean holds up a finger, grabs a chair from the dining room, and plunks it down inside the circle. He pulls it out for her like they’re at a fancy restaurant. “We’re going to wait.”

***

1996

Just over a year ago, closer to a year and a half, now, Robin was the first girl he’d ever kissed. Who’d kissed him, more like.

The first time a guy kissed him had been a few months later. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world—he’d already spent enough time in bars to watch how guys loomed over women, how they grabbed at their waists without asking and got red in the face when a woman would reject a drink sent their way. It wasn’t like that, not really.

He actually doesn’t remember much, now that he thinks about it. There was a case, then there was a bar and a beer, then a lot of fuzziness around the edges. At some point they had moved from the bar to the bathroom. His legs felt like jelly, he remembers that. Someone with stubble was kissing him but his head was swimming and he’d had trouble kissing back. He’d left stubble burn on Dean’s neck, and the only thing that kept him from going lower was a fight breaking out in the hallway and a chunky dude in leather getting thrown through the bathroom door. The momentum carried him into the guy who was all over Dean, and Dean somehow found the presence of mind to duck out of the way as the guy’s face smashed into the tiled wall where his head had just been. There was blood, and shouting, and in the chaos Dean had slipped out the back door, stumbling through the alley behind the bar and shivering. He has no recollection of making it back to their motel, all he knows is that he did and, miracle of miracles, managed to avoid waking both Sam and John. In the morning John had seen the marks on his neck and clapped him on the shoulder with a private, proud smile, and Dean hadn’t been able to do anything but muster up a sheepish grin.

A couple months after that, he sucked his first dick. This is another one of those hazy memories that he probably couldn’t solidify in his mind, even if he wanted to. The guy had offered, Dean was drunk and strapped for cash, and the bathroom was empty. Dean was young and inexperienced and didn’t do much more than slobber over all it, but the guy was drunk enough not to care. Dean learned the hard way to pull off before the johns came. Once he was alone and thirty bucks richer, he bent over the toilet and stuck a finger down his throat until he puked up the burger he had eaten earlier. A couple days later, he woke up with a rash around his mouth. When John asked, he said he probably got bitten by something during the night. It was gone by the end of the week, and he counted himself lucky. After that, he insisted on condoms unless he was really tight for cash and they offered more to do it without one.

He wondered if he looked older. If he ever went back and grabbed a seat in Robin’s dad’s diner, if she’d remember him. Or even recognize him. Seventeen can’t be that different from sixteen.

The hunt John sends him on turns out to be a pretty standard one: a spirit haunting a small toy store. In the late nineteenth century the building had been home to the town jail. As the local archives told it, a known child-killer had been caught roaming through town and was awaiting transfer to a city jail when, one morning, he was found dead of “unknown causes” in his cell. Judging by the fact that he had killed two children in town before being caught, Dean doubted the causes were as unknown as they were purposely undocumented. The jailers kept his hat as a trophy and burned the body, leaving Dean an obvious target. He snuck into the store past midnight, found the hat, of all places, perched on a mounted deer head in the back office. After getting thrown through a shelf of GI Joes and landing in a basket of Tickle Me Elmo’s, Dean managed to scoop the hat from where it had fallen onto the floor, and with a click of his lighter, sent the ghost packing. Minus a couple bruises and a split lip, he’s left relatively unscathed.    

He sleeps it off in the backseat of a Corolla parked under a bridge, freezing his ass off and a belt buckle digging into his side. In the morning, he digs some change out from under the front seat and perches at the booth in a nearby diner with the best view of the parking lot. He calls John at eight, who says he’ll be there by noon. When Dean can’t stare outside anymore, he stirs too much sugar into his coffee.

John pulls into the parking lot at half-past four.

Dean does his best not to sprint out of the diner. A waitress who had been concerned by noon and flipping through the phonebook for child services by two watches him go. He holds himself together as John shakes his hand and Sam emerges from the Impala, smiling hugely at him. Dean ruffles his hair until Sam pulls away with a laugh.

“Dude,” Sam says, “Where have you been?” A little quieter, a little less sure. “Dad wouldn’t tell me, he just said you’d explain.” Dean meets John’s eye, and he knows it’s a test.

“Uh,” he says. He clears his throat. “Dad let me follow up on a lead on my own. Your big brother’s moving on up in the world, Sammy.”

“No way,” Sam says.

“Yes way, squirt.”

“Hey, I said don’t call me that. I’m gonna be taller than you one day, Dean. You just wait.”

Dean ruffles his hair again, just to annoy him. “Sure ya are, squirt. Now get in the car.”

Sam mumbles something under his breath but obeys, shutting the door behind him. John nods curtly at Dean. “Proud of you, son,” he says.

Despite himself, Dean’s chest fills with pride. “Thank you, sir.”

“Alright,” John beckons him forward. “We’ve got work to do. Let’s move out.”

On their way out of town they drive past a bar, just opening up for the day. Dean watches out the window as a few older guys shuffle inside, single-file.

***

Present Day

Dean keeps looking at Cas. He holds the crowbar easy in his hand, grip only tightening in response to whatever subtle changes in the environment he picks up on. There’s nothing different about him today than there was yesterday, and yet--

Dean loves him. Jesus Christ, Dean loves him. He didn’t think it was possible and he told Cas exactly that. Has been telling himself that for years. He fucking loves Cas and he doesn’t know what to do with it. It’s been sitting in his chest tangled up with the permanent knot of grief that resides there, and there are times he can’t tell the difference between the two. They’ve grown over each other, swallowed each other up. Sometimes Dean wishes they had cancelled each other out, opposing forces and all, but fat chance. They had grown into each other and grown out the other side of each other and grown roots in each other. Cas resides in him now and while there’s so much he doesn’t know about himself, if he knows one thing it’s that his soil is too fertile. Cas planted that seed and he watered it and it grew and grew and grew and grew. He can pretend his branches don’t reach for Cas, but he’s been growing towards him since the start.

On his worst days he wonders if that’s how John loved Mary, to the point of decimating everything around him. On days where he’s gone so long without sleeping he starts seeing purple splotches at the corner of his vision, he’s wondered why he doesn’t succumb to it. Doesn’t drift into Cas’ orbit, or lap, or bed, and stay there forever.

On normal days, he doesn’t think about it unless Cas gets too close, and Cas is always too close these days.

Kendra is taking her sweet time arriving, and Sam kicks the two of them outside for a break. “I’ll call you if she shows,” he says. For lack of anything better to do, they end up loitering on Maria’s porch again. Dean leans on the railing, surveying the forest.

“There’s an assload of trees out there,” he says. “I dunno how it works for you ex-angels, but sometimes, man. You just wanna disappear.”

“Do you?” Cas sounds like he isn’t sure if Dean’s being facetious or not, and Dean can’t really blame him. Running away’s not really his style, except for when it is.

His face heats when he realizes “disappearing” actually means “being alone with Cas”, and he’s just failed to mention it.

“Daydreams, I guess,” Dean hedges. “Nothing serious.” He doesn’t know how to backtrack from that, how to say please don’t leave me alone. His throat is tight. He says shit he doesn’t mean and Cas is only going to know he doesn’t mean it if he tells him. But then he’s going to ask why Dean said it in the first place, and he doesn’t know. He doesn’t fucking know. Force of habit. Defense mechanism. Bravado. Sheer idiocy.

Cas laces their fingers together.  “I’d go with you,” he says. He hesitates, most likely thinking of this morning. “If you wanted.”

Tears prick unexpectedly at the corners of Dean’s eyes and he turns his gaze away, back to the treeline, blinking rapidly. It’s not fair for Cas to keep giving him chances after he keeps fucking up, and yet he does.

“Okay.” He nods, swallows. “Um, yeah. Okay.”

“Okay,” Cas says. He smiles gently and squeezes Dean’s hand.

They’re quiet for a few minutes. It’s an overcast day, the sky cloudy and grey. The trees that haven’t changed with the seasons are such a deep green they’re almost black. Most of the others have lost all their leaves, save for some half-dead brown ones clinging to a few branches with their last breath.

“Guys used to pay to fuck me,” Dean says, apropos of nothing. He keeps his gaze firmly on the treeline across the road and pretends like he’s talking about the weather. “Sometimes I liked it and that. Uh. Scared me.” He can feel Cas’ gaze on him, and the vulnerability is pushing at his bones, but he tries to work past it. Tries to be alone with Cas. “It fucked me up,” he says. “I’m no shrink but, uh. Yeah, it fucked me up. Pretty sure you already know about the fucked up parts. Maybe the other parts too.”

Cas readjusts his grip on Dean’s hand. He doesn’t answer right away, and Dean expects the anxiety to pick at him like seagulls on a pier, but most of him stays silent. He never thought too much about what it would feel like to finally say it out loud, but he expected it to be more than this. Like he should’ve rented a skywriter or something.  

“I knew vaguely what had happened, but never details,” Cas finally says. “I didn’t go looking and it was never… deemed relevant to the mission.”

Dean laughs bitterly. “Course it wasn’t.”

“It’s relevant to me,” Cas says. “As it so obviously is to you.”

Dean’s throat works. “Sam doesn’t know. He can never know.”

“Okay.”

Dean wants to curl around Cas and rest his forehead on his shoulder, but he doesn’t. He just keeps staring at the trees.

“Am I the first man you’ve been with since then?” Cas asks. Dean can hear the uncertainty in his voice, the advantage of dropping into the midst of humanity this late in the game. He doesn’t understand where the shame comes from, and he never will. From an intellectual standpoint he knows Cas gets it. He understands the words and the order they’ve been put in, but even if Dean told him every single thing he did or allowed others to do to him, he still wouldn’t get it. Not fully. And maybe there’s even a kind of freedom in that.

“Yeah.”

Cas chews on that for a moment. “What are you thinking?” he asks.

“Uh…” Dean trails off. “I don’t know. I’m scared, I guess.”

“I don’t want you to feel that way.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“What can I do?”

“I dunno.”

Cas brushes a hand across Dean’s brow. He lightly runs his thumb along Dean’s bottom lip. 

“Does this help?” His hand comes to rest on Dean’s cheek and Dean reaches up to cling to it. He nods into Cas’ touch, eyes closed. He lets out a long breath.

“I wish it wasn’t this hard,” he murmurs. He can’t bring himself to open his eyes, afraid he’s going to lose his nerve if he does. “It’s not like it comes out all time. Most of the time I’m…” he casts around for a word. Cas’ thumb strokes his cheekbone. “Functional. But this, with you, it’s-- fuck. I don’t know. Picking at it, I guess.”

“Dean, if it’s too much-”

“No, listen,” he interrupts. “I wouldn’t-- this wouldn’t have ever happened if I didn’t… think it was worth it. I’m just bad at showing it. Real bad.” He carefully cracks open an eyelid, and of course Cas is staring at him. Like he’s the only thing in the goddamn universe. “I wasn’t lying when I said I didn’t think I could do this.” He gestures between the two of them. “Me saying all this shit, it’s… it doesn’t change anything. It all still happened. It all still fucked me up.”

Cas shakes his head, almost imperceptibly. “We have time--” he begins, but is cut off by the sound of something crashing into the wall inside.

It takes Dean a moment to flip the hunter switch, but he shares a nod with Cas, and they’re both back to the living room in seconds. Wind is whipping through the house, the curtains swaying and the salt lines eroding. When Sam sees them, he shrugs. “Guess I’ll get my break later,” he calls, hoisting his crowbar a bit higher.

Maria is standing up, her hair blowing around her face and complexion pale. The wind is congregating all in one spot in front of the salt line like a slipstream, slowly forming an almost-solid figure.

It’s not until this moment Dean realizes that other than a grainy photo in a photocopied obituary, he doesn’t know what Kendra looked like. Maria doesn’t keep her photo up anymore. It turns out he never would’ve needed one, because once Kendra materializes fully, almost completely solid save for a few indistinct edges, it’s obvious she looks exactly like her mother; long dark hair, light brown skin, thick eyebrows. The resemblance is so uncanny Dean experiences a weird swoop in his stomach, like he’s looking at someone looking at themselves in a funhouse mirror. 

Kendra stands in front of the salt line, eyes only for her mother. Dean, Sam, and Cas all standby, prepared to intervene if necessary. Maria comes all the way to the edge of the circle, and Sam puts a hand out, pointing at the line to remind her. Maria nods, taking a small, reluctant step backwards.

“Hi, Kendra,” she says quietly, her voice catching. “Hey, baby.”

“Mom,” Kendra says, surprisingly human. Her voice wavers as well. “Mom, I’m sorry. I don’t know how to stop it.”

Maria’s hands are trembling as she reaches up, across the salt line. When her palms land solidly on Kendra’s cheeks, she blinks in surprise and twin tears escape.

“It’s all my fault.” She tucks Kendra’s hair behind her ear. “I’m never going to be able to forgive myself for it.” She leans her forehead against Kendra’s, gently cupping the back of her head.

“I’ve been trying to leave,” Kendra says. “I’ve been trying to give you some peace but sometimes I just get so… angry.” Her voice hardens when she says it, and she glitches for a moment, like the signal momentarily went bad. Dean catches Sam’s eye, but they both hold their positions.

Maria sheds more tears, but does nothing to stop them. “We’re trying to help you, Kendra,” she says. “We want to help you find peace. Move on.” Her shoulders shake.

Kendra brings her hands up to her cheeks to hold both her mothers’. “I can’t,” she says. “I can’t tell you how I know, but I just… can’t.” Silence falls between them for a moment, and in an almost-petulant voice Kendra mutters, “I also can’t believe you burned all my stuff. Flopper was my favorite stuffed dog, you know.”

Maria lets out a watery laugh. “You hated all that shit. Said it made you feel like a kid.”

“Okay, you got me.”

“Don’t test me, missy,” Maria says, smiling faintly now. “I was the one who had to beg you to keep all that stuff cause you might miss it.” Her chin wobbles. “Or someday you might want to give it to your own daughter.”

“Not anymore,” Kendra says wryly, and Maria’s expression crumples.  She flickers again. “I can’t stay visible much longer,” she says. “It comes and goes.”

“Okay. Okay.” Maria takes a deep breath. “If you gotta stay, you gotta stay. I’ll be here for you, alright? Anything you need. Even a new stuffed dog.”

“I’m gonna get angry sometimes,” Kendra whispers. “I’m gonna throw stuff and knock things over. I can’t control it.”

“That’s okay, baby.”

“I’ll try to be nice most of the time, I promise. Maybe we can even watch a movie together.”

Maria sniffs. “I would love that.”

“I’ve tried to kill you, Mom.”

“You’re my daughter, Kendra.” Maria breaks the salt line with her toe, reaching forward to clutch at her and hug her fiercely. She manages to get her arms around her, but Kendra’s hair floats freely through her fingers. “It’s too little too late, but I’ll try.”

Kendra disappears, and Maria stares at where she was just standing. Dean swallows past a lump in his throat.

***

Sam and Cas are moving the furniture back into place and cleaning up. Dean’s packing up the Impala. Maria’s smoking a cigarette. He still feels unsettled, the notion of unfinished business lingering under his skin even if he can’t do anything about it.

“It’s weird to think nothing’s ever going to change,” Maria says. “I’m never gonna get over it, and she’s never gonna be able to leave. Neither of us will ever be able to move on. What am I supposed to do with that?”  

Dean shoves their duffel of weapons into the trunk and slams it shut. “Your best?”

“Thanks.”

“Sorry.” Dean shrugs. “I’m not the guy to ask when it comes to exorcising demons.” After a beat he adds, “Metaphorically, anyway.”

Maria watches him for a minute like she can’t tell if he’s joking or not. She lets out a resigned laugh. “I suppose I don’t want to know.” She offers Dean a cigarette and he waves her off, leaning against the Impala’s trunk. “In my line of work you meet a lot of people whose lives are ruined by this kind of stuff,” he says.

“Comforting.”

“I’m just saying. Yours doesn’t have to be.”

“I’m open to suggestions.”

Dean spreads his arms. “I got nothing. I’m a lot better at giving advice than I am at taking it, and I’m already bad at giving it.”

Maria points her cigarette at him. “You’re one shitty ghost hunter,” she says. “Can’t tell me how to live with a ghost you can’t even bust. I want a refund.”

Dean lets out an amused snort. “It’s not an exact science. Judgy.”

Maria’s wry smile fades as she looks out towards the dark forest. “I don’t know if I can do it,” she says. “I could always just kill myself. It’d bring Kendra some peace and quiet, at least. Two birds, one stone.”

“You could,” Dean allows.

“I won’t, though.”

“It’s comforting to know you’ll die eventually,” Dean says. “Not to be Mount Doom and Gloom or anything. But in the meantime, there’s other things. Rumor has it some of those things are even pretty nice.”

“Like being haunted by ghosts?”

Dean taps the side of his nose with his index finger. “Like being haunted by ghosts.” He stares at the smoke coiling away from the end of Maria’s cigarette. “Ah, fuck it. Gimme one of those. ”

Maria digs her pack out of her back pocket and flicks it open. “I’m a bad influence. These things’ll kill you.” By the time Dean has it between his teeth, Maria has the lighter waiting.

“So will cell phones and microwaves,” Dean mumbles around his cigarette as he leans forward to light it. The lighter disappears back into Maria’s pocket. “Don’t tell Sam. He’s never even seen me run a red light, God bless him. Sheltered kid.”

Maria snorts, and they smoke in silence. Dean hasn’t missed this particular taste. His vices appear to fall mostly under the liquid category. 

“I had a daughter once,” Dean offers.

“I’m sorry,” Maria says.

“She died.”

“Then I’m really sorry.”

Dean shrugs and taps ash off the end of his cigarette. “She wasn’t mine in the same way Kendra was yours. In fact, if I told you how she was mine, you’d probably stick the lit end of your cigarette in my eye for even presuming to know what you’re going through.”

“I sense a ‘but’ coming.”

But,” Dean says, “it’s baggage, is all I mean. We all got it. Yours is just a bit more… literal.” The only John who ever left a permanent, physical mark on him was his father. After all the rough clients, the black eyes, the broken noses and fingers, it was still only John, shooting a thirteen year old Dean in the chest with rocksalt to demonstrate the difference between ammo types, that left a small scar just below his collarbone where a stray bit of hot metal had broken off the shell.

Maria raises her eyebrows expectantly. “And?”

“And what?”

“I thought you were going somewhere with that.”

Dean exhales smoke through his nostrils and drops his half-finished cigarette onto the driveway. As he’s stepping on it, he says, “As far as I see it, you got two options: Either keep going, or don’t. You ain’t the dead one here, Maria.”

“C’est la vie,” she says flatly. Dean laughs.

***

“There must have been more we could’ve done,” Sam says as they drive away, Maria waving from the porch. “Leaving this unfinished feels… bad.”

Dean turns a corner and Maria disappears from sight. She has their number. If, and most likely when, things take a turn for the worse, they’ll be back.

“It’s finished,” Dean says.

***

Back at the motel, they’re packing up three separate cars. Cas has been hovering uncertainly around him for almost twenty minutes now, and Dean finally shuts the Impala’s door and squares up. “Got something on your mind, Cas?”

“Are you coming home?” Cas steps closer, not close enough to make Dean uncomfortable but close enough that Sam won’t be able to hear them.

If he’s being honest, it hadn’t occurred to him not to go home after this. He’s been thinking about his own bed with increasing regularity, and every time he’s had terrible diner coffee he’s promised his stomach something much nicer was waiting for it back in Lebanon. Sam is there, and Cas is there, and living on the road when you have a home to come back to is somehow more exhausting than it was when they were living strictly out of the Impala.

It makes sense Cas wouldn’t know any of this, however, because Dean hasn’t said any of it. He’s actually said a lot more than he ever planned to during this case, and looking back, it’s hard to regret it. Maybe saying things more often is something he should look into.

 “Yeah,” he says. “I’m right behind you.”

***

They’ve been back for a few days, taking it easy. It’s late, and the TV is casting the room in a hazy blue glow. Dean tries not to feel bad about ending up with his head in Cas’ lap. At any rate, Cas certainly doesn’t seem to mind.

He’s been turning it over in his head since they left Iowa (well, a lot longer than that, really), the idea of him and Cas. What they are, what they could be. He’s still scared. He’s not sure if he’ll ever stop being scared.

Cas is more interesting than what’s on TV, and Dean’s been pressing the soft fabric of his sweater between his fingers for the past little while. Cas hasn’t said a thing about it, but his hand is resting on Dean’s hip and hasn’t moved.

All he wants is to be close to Cas. He’s not sure how to ask for it, but maybe, while they’re still at the beginning of this thing, he doesn’t have to quite yet.

He shifts, and Cas obviously thinks he’s sitting up because he takes his hand off Dean’s hip. Instead, Dean wrestles his other arm out from where it was awkwardly pinned beneath him, and wraps his arms around Cas’ middle. He buries his face into Cas’ comfy sweater and clings to him from this awkward angle, and even if he had the stones to ask, he doesn’t even know what he’d ask for. He breathes real slow, and neither of them say anything. Dean nuzzles his cheek into Cas’ sweater and Cas’ fingers start brushing through his hair, hesitantly at first, then when Dean doesn’t protest, more sure. He rests his other palm on Dean’s back, rubbing small, smoothing circles.

Dean doesn’t know how long he stays curled around Cas, but he recognizes that central, aching point in his chest. The kind of intimacy that he’s only ever shied away from out of fear, and yet here he is, participating in it anyway. He’s not sure he’s ever met someone who so thoroughly overshadows the fear like Cas, which is really saying something because this thing between them scares him more than anything ever has.

And maybe that’s the point.

***

Cas is fucking him in his own bed, the only light in the room the warm glow cast by the lamp on the nightstand. It’s still hard, sometimes, for Dean to look Cas in the eye when they’re having sex. Occasionally, Cas will gently coax Dean into looking at him, a finger on his jaw bringing him back. It’s just one of those things, Dean assumes, that’ll take time. Technically, he still hasn’t rescinded his claim that they shouldn’t be doing this, that Dean’s not sure he can hold it together. It seems to matter less and less with every kiss, however. Like Cas is dismantling The Great Wall of China one brick at a time. He’s never going to finish, but a brick is a brick.

Cas kisses him through it. “I love you,” he says more than once, until Dean’s eyes tear up again. He clings to Cas, and Cas continues to murmur it into his skin. Dean sighs when he comes, and when Cas comes inside him, he says it then, too.

Dean’s shaky and exhausted, but his ensuing laugh is genuine. Giddy, even. He peels himself off Cas, only so he can move up high enough to kiss him. Cas catches Dean’s face between his palms, smiling gently.

“There you are,” he says quietly. Almost like he’s proud of Dean.

Dean’s lived with himself for far too long to know it’s going to be this easy all the time. He’s never going to be able to rebuild himself from scratch like he’s done with the Impala ten times over. He’s never going to be fixed. But maybe for once in his life, he can take his own advice, and do his best.

“Here I am,” Dean says. He smiles.