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Everything was red. For awhile after the white faded it was all he could see.

He’d always thought people were exaggerating when they said things like that, getting all poetic when they described the sunset or something, but there it was – the world was goddamned red. And not candy apple red or hot rod red. The light of the moon was blood red, like the splatter on the wall when you cut a major artery. Like a pulse.

Was this what Pamela saw after she looked at Cas? he wondered. Was this the price for beholding an angel?

Something crumbled under his boot. Dean stumbled, crashed hard onto the ground, and bit his lip. The impact jarred a grunt out of him with the last of the air in his lungs. He could just barely see the shape of a man hovering nearby. The red light made everything seem far away, though that could have just been his eyes.

He rubbed a hand over his chin. What came off on his fingers was so dark it was almost black. Like the leviathan, he thought, thoughts as sluggish as the blood dripping down his face. Like monsters. Dean worried at his lip a little, the torn skin fraying apart beneath his fingers.

The man-shape pulled Dean’s hand away. The touch was warm and gentle, and Dean held onto it tightly.

His voice was slurred, rough with exhaustion and dehydration. It was hard to string a whole sentence together. “What d’you do, Cas?”

“Gave them a taste of their own medicine. Can you get up? We have to hurry; they won’t take your loss easily.”

Dean tried to move his legs but they were shaking too badly to hold his weight for longer than a few seconds. He swayed on his knees, arms curled tightly around his chest to hold his thumping heart inside. Something was wrong with him.

Cas’ hand was an anchor in a rocking sea, the only thing keeping him from slipping under the waves. He gripped it tightly.

“Oh, Dean.”

And then the red was swallowed by the black of unconsciousness and Dean lost the plot for awhile.

+++


Dean felt better when he woke up, for a given definition of ‘better’. His muscles ached like he’d just run a marathon and he kind of wanted to vomit, but he didn’t feel like he was dying anymore so that was an improvement.

There was a flicker of moving light on the other side of his eyelids, so he tried opening them experimentally. The world was still red but it wasn’t nearly as distracting as before. More like an alley lit with neon signs advertising all the latest in debauchery (his favorite). He could ignore it.

The light turned out to be a small fire burning quietly just a foot or so from where he lay curled on the ground. He watched it consume the twigs and sticks until it occurred to him who must’ve made their little camp in the first place.

He raised his head, carefully, and called out into the redness beyond the flames. “Cas?”

Like the devil: speak his name and he appeared. Cas came around the nearest tree with his arms full of more fuel for the fire. He dropped the branches on the ground and put a hand on Dean’s forehead. For some reason he wasn’t wearing his coat. “How are you feeling?”

Confused. Angry for no reason he could remember. “Better, I guess. How’d you make a fire, Cas? I’m all out of lighter fluid.”

“I rubbed two sticks together. It wasn’t hard; the Neanderthals had flawless technique before they began interbreeding with your species and were fazed out of existence. You left the path.” The last part was harsh, accusatory. Disappointed.

“Didn’t see much point in sticking to it anymore.” Dean groaned, pressing a couple fingers hard into his eyes. He rubbed a hand over his face for good measure, expecting stubble but finding only dirt and flaky blood. Ugh. Worst hangover ever. “What the hell happened back there, man? Why do I feel like shit?”

“I used more energy than I anticipated keeping the pack at bay.”

“Then why aren’t you sore, right now?”

“This is a sickness of the soul, not the body. It should heal in time, though there is nothing I can do to aid the process. Their hold over you was very strong. You were drained almost dry and my interference didn’t help matters.”

Dean didn’t think having this conversation lying on his back in the grass was a good idea. He compromised for his tired body by leaning against his elbows. And there was one mystery solved – Cas’ coat was missing because it was draped over Dean’s legs. Cas must not’ve known about Dean’s new coldblooded adaptation and tried to keep him warm.

Dean arranged it more comfortably around his hips, tucking in the edges around his feet. No need to let a good blanket go to waste. Plus, it smelled a little like Cas and he’d die before he admitted it but he’d missed the scent of rain and ozone and grilled beef, faint as it was on him now.

Cas was looking down at the fire, ashamed. “I took too much. I’m sorry.”

Dean must’ve missed part of the conversation while he was snuggling with Cas’ coat. “Too much of what?”

Cas looked at him, lips curling downward at the edges. “Your soul.”

His… “Say what now?”

“Your soul.” Cas frowned, watching Dean fidget. “You remember that souls maintain transferable energy? That if a being is powerful enough then it can absorb their strength into itself? It’s how I defeated Raphael after I opened the gate to Purgatory.” Dean nodded, getting with the program as his brain slowly woke up. “Usually a person’s soul is finite. Angel’s are connected to Heaven via their grace when on earth and that strengthens us. We weren’t meant to cross into purgatory, so my energy is limited. But having a physical body keeps your soul separate from the laws of this plane and that means you can rechargeable your strength rather than combust like everyone else. It replenishes itself as long as it’s not diminished to depletion.” Cas shrugged. “This is all theory, of course. The monsters you were living with must have learned the trick of absorbing other creatures’ souls and adding to the energy of their own. It’s the only explanation for the condition I found you in.”

Dean remembered the echoing feeling of light in his veins and hurling it away in a blast of power. Of flashbulbs between his teeth. He guessed it probably wasn’t that hard to figure something like that out if he could do it.

Wait. “Ferdie said you’d eat me up. Cas… was that… were you draining me, too?”

He nodded and ducked his head, shame settling on the curved bow of his shoulders. “I’m not proud of it. We just… spent so much time together I didn’t even know I was doing it until after we burned the Mother.”

Jesus. Dean was the energizer bunny of the afterlife. Can’t stop me now, I just keep going and going and going… “I feel like I need one of those drums to bang.”

Resolve filled Cas’ eyes and straightened his back. “I know I had no right to siphon your strength but I had to get you away from them. It was the last time, Dean, I swear. I will never pull from you again.”

Dean had heard promises like that before - from his brother about the demon blood, from himself about the booze and pills. He didn’t think it was that serious, though; it wasn’t like Cas was addicted to aura-of-Dean or anything. (At least he hoped not.) But this sponging thing could certainly turn dangerous if left unchecked. Now that Cas knew about it he could probably trust him to keep his metaphorical hands to himself.

If he could trust Cas at all. His absence during the last long leg of Dean’s trek through monster hell stuck in his craw like an irritated bug. None of it would have happened if Cas hadn’t disappeared. Not the Wild Things, not the insane wandering. Not the creeping distance he felt around his soul even now.

He couldn’t let it go without being said any longer. “You left me, Cas. You left me alone in purgatory.”

Cas blinked, eyebrows crinkling in the middle. He was the closest to tears Dean had ever seen him. “I’m sorry. I had to stay away until I knew I was strong enough not to hurt you. I thought it was for the best.”

“You always do.” There were other words piling up in his throat, words like I needed you here and I was so scared, but the only things that wanted to be said were hurtful and mean. So he chewed everything back and let the silence settle into his bones. When he thought it was safe to open his mouth he was still surprised at what managed to bully its way out. “If you left to keep me safe then why did you come back?”

“You were in trouble.” Cas threw a stick into the fire they didn’t need, his determination to look Dean in the eye hiding somewhere far away from their camp. “I wanted to clear the path of obstructions so you could continue on in peace. I never thought you’d leave it and get lost. Or that I’d… run into complications.”

“Complications?”

“Leviathan.”

Just the thought of the Chompers was enough to piss Dean off all over again. “I was waiting for those fuckers to make an appearance. You take ‘em out?”

“As many as I could.”

Cas had never been very good at lying to Dean. There was a story there, and likely a good one, but he was willing to let it go for the moment. There were more important things to talk about.

“How did you find me, anyway? The Wild Things dragged me all over the place.”

“You shine very brightly in this realm, Dean. I never looked away.” No need to lie about that; Cas met Dean’s eye casually, as if he hadn’t just admitted to actually being the angel on his shoulder.

Dean watched him back. He figured Cas was more like an imaginary friend than a guardian angel; Dean’s mistakes were his own to deal with but Cas had been there anyway. Even if he hadn’t known it at the time.

A spark of something warm fluttered briefly around the bronzed stone of Dean’s soul. He tamped it down, shifting uncomfortably under the torn and bloody coat. He sat up and handed it back to Cas, rubbing a hand over his scalp and shoving the hair around. Damn, but he was filthy. Cas didn’t look much better; that was a beard he’d seen. “You look like shit, man. Aren’t you maintaining your vessel anymore? Jimmy’s gonna be pissed you ruined his coat.”

"Jimmy.” Cas sighed the name, stroking the lapel of the trench with his thumb. “I cannot be boundless when I am bound, Dean. I had to abandon my vessel to better navigate this plane.”

Dean was tired of playing catch-up in this conversation. “Excuse me?”

“I hid my vessel within the earth and went wandering. It was less resistant to the passage of time without my presence." Cas rubbed at his beard, self-consciously. “Purgatory appears determined to leave its mark on me any way it can and I don’t have the energy to spare to keep myself clean. It’s not like it matters, anyway.”

"So, wait a minute, you just dropped Jimmy off in some cave somewhere and hoped for the best? Jesus Christ, Cas. How was that safer than staying with me?"

“Jimmy’s gone, Dean, and has been for awhile. When I returned from heaven I silenced him until his spirit merged with my consciousness permanently. I needed a firmer grip on my vessel than I’d had before.” He snapped the last twig in half and fed it to the flames. “I meant what I told him after I left Claire; he would have spent thousands of years as my vessel, chased and cursed along with me. He didn’t want that, for himself or his family. So I did what I thought was right.”

Cas didn’t look like he thought that anymore. He looked miserable.

An angel grieving for the life of its host. He figured it was just another one of the ways Cas was different than his brothers. Like being chained to a comet, Jimmy’d said. Dean thought it might’ve been more like a battery whose acid leaked onto the remote and corroded the circuitry.

Michael had wanted to do that to Dean. Lucifer had done it to Sam. Raphael had burned right through his meatsuit until there was nothing left. Gabriel had been wearing his for so long that people had started growing taller. Maybe Cas had chosen the lesser of two evils… but it still didn’t seem right.

Dean thought about poor Jimmy Novak, packaged and put away, absorbed into the greater form of Castiel without so much as a thank you. Like skin growing over a splinter. Poor bastard. He should have read the fine print before saying yes. Then again, that hadn’t exactly helped Sam much when he became a vessel.

Dean gathered his wobbly legs beneath him and stood, looking beyond the edges of the firelight for the first time. They were in a glen like the one next to the cemetery where they’d uncovered Crowley’s bones. It was a tranquil sort of place, for all that the red light made even the trees look murderous. And nestled in the exact center of the little dip of land was a familiar, well-trod path.

He slumped. Not this shit again. “Cas, why is it so important that we keep following this fucking road? ‘Cause I’m getting really tired of being a sitting duck when I’m on it.”

Cas joined him, shoulder brushing Dean’s when he invaded his personal space yet again. The fire burned at their backs, stretching their dancing shadows out in front of them. “The road keeps you safe and leads us home. It’s not far now; if you feel up to it we should start moving.”

“And how do you know how far it is? Or where it’s going?”

“All roads are connected, Dean. We merely have to follow the path.”

“Enough of the existential crap, Cas. Give me a straight answer, I’m begging you. How do you know?”

“Because this one leads to heaven.”

It would have been a perfect spit-take if he’d been drinking something. As it was he choked on his saliva. Cas patted him helpfully on the back. “Heaven? The heaven?” Cas’ expression was bland, unimpressed by Dean’s inability to breathe and talk at the same time. That look clearly said duh. “Have you known where this thing led all this time? Were you tricking me into following you?”

Cas frowned and shook his head, offended. “I may have suspected after awhile, but I didn’t know for sure until I left you. When I abandoned my vessel I could feel the passage of grace and redemption through the conduit of the path. I wouldn’t deliberately mislead you.” The words not again were clearly missing from the end of that sentence.

Dean scratched the back of his neck. He eyed the road like a horde of angels would come barreling down it any second. “Are you sure this is something we wanna do, man? ‘Cause I gotta tell you, I did not enjoy my last visit to your hometown.”

“Probably because you were dead at the time.”

Dean thought about it for a full minute and it still didn’t make sense. “Okay, Haley Joel, you wanna run that by me again?”

Cas rolled his eyes, a disturbingly human gesture he used far too often. “When you and Sam were killed by those idiotic hunters your souls separated from your bodies and ascended to heaven. You experienced it as the proper plane for the state of your souls at the time. Going there in your physical body will be very different.”

Dean considered what a world meant for non-corporeal souls and wavelengths of celestial intent would be like and felt a shiver curl along the back of his neck. He remembered Ash abusing the programming cheat codes of the universe and couldn’t imagine how he got away with that. What was heaven like when you took the veil away? Hell, what was Cas like? “But you don’t know I’ll be okay. My eyeballs could fry in their sockets like mozzarella cheese.”

Cas grimaced at the mental image. “Have faith, Dean. Your body is the true vessel of the grandest of archangels. I think you’ll be fine.”

Okay, that was sarcasm. And… oddly reassuring.

“Once we get to heaven we can contact someone with the strength to take you home like Joshua expelled you last time. Surely there’s someone left who’d be willing to help. I’ll barter myself if I have to.”

Hold the phone. “What do you mean, barter yourself?”

Cas sighed. “I committed mass murder in the sacred fires of heaven, Dean. I decimated an already dwindling population of angels.” He looked at Dean and shrugged. “Revenge is not a purely human desire.”

He walked down the small slope toward the path, leaving the fire burning down to cinders behind him. Dean stumbled after him, lost for words.

+++


Their first steps back on the road to heaven were uneventful, the rumor having apparently traveled along the purgatory grapevine not to mess with the dudes in the seasonally inappropriate coats. Still, Dean knew better than to assume their safe passage and kept himself alert. It was hard to focus on the trees around them when he felt so shaky still, even after such a long rest, but soon he was rewarded with a rustle in the distance. He stopped dead in his tracks; Cas paused a few steps behind him.

“Dean, there’s a–“

He held up a fist – his dad’s old gesture for shut up and stop moving – and listened to the forest. There were the ever-present wind in the branches, the absence of skittering wildlife… and a patter in the dead leaves caking the ground. A single footstep, quickly smothered. They were being hunted.

Dean motioned for Cas to stay still and crept into the red wilderness, placing his feet carefully against the leaf litter, paw soft. It was one of Ferdie’s lessons he actually took to heart. He tucked himself behind the trunk of a wide willow tree and waited. The drooping branches swayed ever so gently, a curtain of brown in the scarlet moonlight.

He didn’t have to wait very long. Not five minutes after he took up his position two man-shaped monsters came into view. Dean could see them through the leaves: older styled clothes, spread out among the trees, weapons in hand. While the one in front looked human enough his companion bounced on the balls of his feet, sucking on his pointed teeth. A twitchy little vampire, eager to chow down on something’s jugular.

He let them pass him by, instinct telling him to wait and watch. Movement nearby – a third vampire, flanking the others and flitting from tree to tree so he wouldn’t be seen. A hunter hunting the hunters.

Oh, this was gonna be fun.

The sound of a scuffle in the distance drew the attention of the third vampire and Dean followed at a safe pace as he moved forward. The original two had found Cas – or maybe he’d found them? When Dean arrived Cas had already downed the twitchy vamp and was taking on the other one, his angel blade clanging dully with the vampire’s long knife.

Stalker Vamp slammed into the two from the side and knocked the other vamp to the ground. They hissed at each other like all good movie monsters did, then Stalker Vamp was swinging his arm down and lopping off the other’s head with the multi-bladed axe he carried.

Cas stood poised and ready while Stalker Vamp regained his breath. The angel blade reflected the eerie light in patterns on the ground. It was hard to look away from – so Dean pounced while the vampire was distracted, pinning his shoulders against the nearest tree before he had a chance to take a swing at Cas and his shiny sword. He slammed his arm against the wood hard to knock the axe out of his hand.

Stalker Vamp managed to rasp out a laugh despite having Dean’s forearm lodged in his neck. “Where’d you come from, hoss?” His accent was raspy and straight out of the bayou. He grunted and wiggled around a little, trying to ease Dean’s grip. Dean just pushed harder. Stalker Vamp laughed again and let his head fall back against the tree. “Peace, brother, peace. You’re just the man I’m looking for.”

“I bet you say that to all the boys.” He looked over to where Cas was frowning at them. “You okay?”

Cas nodded, busy kicking the heads away from the bodies and off of the path. Dean turned back to Stalker Vamp. He’d been a bruiser in life, tall with a burly chest, and he wouldn’t stop smiling. “I know a way out of here, friend. A one way ticket straight back upstairs. Set me free and I’ll tell you.”

Dean smiled back, baring all his teeth in the vamp’s face. “Who says I want out?”

The machete sliced clean through the meat of the vampire’s neck but got caught on his backbone. Dean had to yank it out and go again before the head rolled off and into the underbrush. The body had barely toppled to the ground before Dean was on it, slicing through the white shirt and into the flesh beneath it. He had to hurry or the soul would regenerate and he’d have no chance –

Damn. The machete was nearly useless at this. It was practically worn down to the nub, more of a big filet knife at this point than something capable of cutting through a ribcage. He still had his bowie knife but that wasn’t much better. Stalker Vamp’s axe looked promising but it’d been built for blunt force trauma with pointy edges.

Hadn’t the other vamp been carrying something? He glanced around – there. A bit of volcanic black rock chipped to a wicked edge on one side and tied with leather straps to… a leg bone? Oh, nice. He pulled up his best Mick Dundee impression. “Now that’s a knife.”

The purgatory blade slipped through Stalker Vamp’s ribs like Sammy through a salad, cracking and devastating as it went. This would work perfectly.

“Dean?”

He glanced over his shoulder. Cas was staring at him, wide eyed and frowning. He looked pale and upset. Maybe the fight had taken more out of him than Dean had thought?

“Sorry, Cas. You want in on this?”

“What? No. No.” Cas shook his head, blinking.

Whatever. Dean shrugged and went back to what he was doing. Wasn’t like Cas to be spooked by a little ol’ vampire attack. Dean would have to keep a closer eye on him than usual.

He pushed a lung out of the way and caught the glimmer of soul between his hands. It fluttered, firefly bright and desperate against his fingers. Dean held it to his mouth and sucked it down. He worked it around in his mouth until the soul popped between his teeth, the heat of it sliding down his throat like the best whiskey ever.

Dean imagined this was how Highlander must’ve felt, only without the lightning effects: a surge of adrenaline, a warm tingle passing through his body and lingering in his toes. The world got a little brighter, edges a little more crisp. It was like being stoned… and having gristle stuck between his metaphorical teeth. Something wasn’t settling right with this particular soul. It must’ve been relatively new, just a century or so underground, but it wasn’t going down easy.

Great, now he had heartburn. He should really learn to chew his food.

There was a noise behind him, a gagging moan, and Dean turned to find Cas hovering at his shoulder. Cas’ hand hovered in front of his mouth as if he were going to be sick. “You shouldn’t be able to do that. Where did you…”

“Little something I picked up from Ferdie, though I didn’t know that’s what I was doing at the time.” After all, it took an angel to fill in the details. Dean was just… recharging his batteries, that’s all.

He burped, embarrassingly, and ran his tongue over his teeth. It tasted a little like really old gumbo. “Ugh, pardon me.”

Dean understood the look on Cas’ face now. It was shellshock. Devastation. It was how someone looked when their world was crumbling in front of their eyes. Sam had worn it the night Lucifer was set free and when his wall went kaput. Hell, he’d seen it on his own face in the mirror often enough to recognize it by now.

“I’m so sorry I left you alone, Dean. I can never repair the damage I – I’m so sorry.”

Dean’s smoldering heart stuttered and stopped in his chest. His body shut down around him, a hollow shell carved out of regret and distance. He banished the brimming sensations looking at Cas caused and refused to let them out of the abyss again. He made himself into a hard knot in the center of the turmoil, untouchable by it.

He didn’t feel broken, though Cas obviously thought otherwise. Dean’s face smoothed into dead blankness. The light reflecting around him faded into the same murderous red it’d been since he left the Wild Things.

Cas clenched his jaw and stiffened his posture – that was his determined to fix it face. In Dean’s experience that particular expression never led to anything good.

“We need to get you out of purgatory as soon as possible. Come on.” Cas grabbed on his arm and walked away from the empty corpse, leaving Dean no choice but to follow. He held onto him until the three vampire bodies faded from sight and the path was the only thing around them for miles.

+++


There was a tune stuck in Dean’s head, a song without words. It made him want to whistle as he walked, like some damn Disney dwarf.

The blood on his hands grew tacky as it dried. It was a distant kind of itch, creeping at the back of his conscious until it was all he could think about. After a hunt Ferdie and the Wild Things had always groomed each other, sometimes including Dean, sometimes not. He wasn’t about to lick himself clean – not in front of Cas, anyway – but he desperately needed a bath. He was pretty sure he was covered head to toe in vampire blood like something out of a slasher movie. (He realized this would have been a problem had he been in the real world or more than passingly acquainted with his body. Could a person be turned into a vampire in vampire hell?)

He scrubbed his hands over his head and then shook it out. Powdery blood fell around him like a cloud of Kool-Aid. Dean snickered at the thought of a giant pitcher jumping out of a tree and breaking shit up. “Oh, yeah!

Cas gave him the side-eye. Dean was going to have to get used to walking around with someone else again. He ducked his head and hoped the awkwardness would pass quickly.

Cas cleared his throat. “So. That vampire you killed…”

Dean jumped on the subject change, grateful Cas wasn’t going to mention his momentary flub. “Yeah, what was with that guy, anyway? I know a way out of here, friend. Whatever. Like we were gonna buy that.”

“You told him you didn’t want to leave.”

Had he said that? He was pretty sure it was just macho talk, the kind of one-liners he usually thought of after the fighting was over but wished he’d said. Still there might’ve been a kernel of truth there. “It’s not like I want to be here. It’s purgatory, I don’t think anybody wants to be here.” He shrugged, uncomfortable. “I dunno. Maybe we really are dead, you ever think about that? Maybe Dick blew us up and we deserve to be here, after all.”

Cas rolled his eyes so hard his whole head tilted with the motion. He sounded frustrated, as if they’d had this discussion more than once already. “You are not a monster, Dean. And you aren’t dead. I’d have known it if you’d died.”

“Not if you were dying at the same time.”

He stopped and grabbed Dean’s shoulder, forcing him to make eye contact. “I would know because I’ve invested more in you than any other creature in the history of the universe! I grew your body from nothing but dust and the remnants of your fingernails. I held your bleeding soul in my hands and breathed it back to life again. And after that I fought with you, back to back against the worst this world or any other could fathom. I would know you if I were struck blind and lost in a sea of humanity. I know you.

The echoes of Cas’ shouting bounced back to them through the silence. Somewhere a bird (or something like a bird) took wing. Dean envied its freedom for a second.

“And this is not you, Dean. This place is changing you… and it’s destroying me.”

Dean rubbed his dirty hands over the back of his neck, grinding the blood into his skin. “That sounds like something out of a storybook, Cas.”

“Maybe so. Does that make it any less true?”

Dean mulled it over, watching the big round moon hover above them, nebulas rising and dying the whole sky over. He nodded to himself. When he finally spoke it was hushed and hesitant. Why did all his confessions happen at the roadside? “You’re right. You’re right, I admit it. I don’t – I don’t feel like myself. I don’t feel real. I barely feel anything.” All those years of wishing he was numb… It was true what they said: be careful what you wish for.

Cas was just as quiet now that the tension between them had broken. Neither of them seemed capable of looking at the other anymore. “I felt something like that when I first entered my vessel. A disconnection. Like you’re drifting from who you think you are. It will get better, Dean, as soon as we return you to your rightful place. I’m sure of it. We just… have to keep going.”

And so they did.

+++


Cas and Dean traveled along the path until the sun rose again, pushing the blood red moon back behind the tree line. It started as a pale orange glow on the horizon that it suddenly burst bright and clean across the sky. It was the first true dawn in Dean’s remembrance, all the others in his life before the Roman Candle meaningless and ashen in comparison. The woods around them went quiet for an eerie moment before a new chorus of creatures took up the helm. It seemed as good a time as any to stop for a moment of rest.

And Dean found that he needed it. The daylight seared at his tender eyes like he’d gone nocturnal during the long night. He hunkered into the high collar of his jacket and yearned for a bit of shade. The last hint of gumbo was gone from his breath, too. He was weary and worn but found himself actually hoping one of the day-monsters would attack so he could–

Christ. So he could feed.

He squinted over to where Cas sat on the ground, his dirty coat huddled around his knees even though Dean knew he couldn’t possibly be cold. Dean remembered when the flimsy thing washed ashore after he’d released the souls back into purgatory and the leviathans corroded through the meat of Cas’ vessel. How he’d kept the trench hidden in the trunk those long months before he found him again.

Christ fuck. Perspective was a bitch.

Dean’s body soaked up the sun but he couldn’t feel any of its heat. He thought desperately about the warmth of the souls he’d taken, the illusion of a large furry body pressed against his – a nightmare creature’s heartbeat nestled close under his ear. And he thought about Cas, forever walking ahead of him on the path, trapped in a meatsuit just the same as him. Jimmy Novak’s heart pounding down eternity with Cas’ grace burning inside its veins. The only other physical thing in this whole godforsaken place.

He shifted closer to Cas. Their thighs brushed and Dean wondered exactly how warm it was under the thin coat. Cas had honest to god body heat, it had to be warmer than that fake sun. Did Cas miss the heat like he did? Or was it different for him, vessel-bound as he was and had been for years?

When was the last time either of them were touched with kindness? Dean barely remembered what that felt like. He wasn’t sure if Cas ever knew.

It was a matter of seconds to pry Cas’ hand from his knee and hold it lightly in his own. Their palms lined up, easy as the wind through the leaves, and Dean threaded their fingers together. He saw Cas twitch out of the corner of his eye. Tension bloomed from Cas’ shoulder to where their skin pressed together but Dean ignored it in favor of studying the hand in his. Somehow he’d expected their calluses would match; knife and sword work was similar, wasn’t it? Then he remembered Jimmy Novak had been a salesman and had no reason to gain the hard edges of a soldier. He wondered if he looked deep enough into Cas’ eyes he’d be able to see the roughness worn into his grace instead.

“Dean?”

It wasn’t working. He still couldn’t feel anything. He knew he was holding Cas’ hand, was aware of its weight and dimension but that was it. The chasm inside was too wide, too great for the sensations to get through. He couldn’t go on like this.

He closed his eyes and focused on the bronze shell of Dean he’d hardened and buried inside himself. He picked at it, carefully, imagining paper-thin cracks peppering the surface. Not enough to relieve the pressure. Not enough to bring the whole construct crashing down. But enough so a little light spilled through, caressing and curling around his skin from the inside out, encouraging long dead nerves into wakefulness.

There. A sudden blossom of heat against his palm and then the texture of it overwhelmed him. God, he had forgotten how another person’s skin felt against his, the soft friction of it. He rubbed his thumb over Cas’ knuckle, back and forth, feeling the skin slide over the delicate bird-bones of Jimmy’s hand. He sighed and closed his eyes, letting the motion carry his thoughts away with it.

His trailing thumb was interrupted on its path by a heavy pressure; Cas thumb trapping his own in a powerful grip. He became aware that Cas was shaking, too, their touch the only thing keeping him from bolting straight out of his skin.

A pressure valve burst in Dean’s brain, a fire hydrant left too long under the sun released onto a dirty sidewalk. He leaned over, tucking his body into Cas’, hiding his face against Cas’ stomach and holding his hip with the arm not already clutching him tight. He shifted his legs to the side so his entire being was curled around his friend’s, left hand crushed between them when he refused to let go.

There was a gasp above him – a sharp intake of breath into a body that didn’t (technically) even need to breathe.

Dean squeezed his eyes shut, burrowing in as close as he could. He pressed his hot cheek against Cas’ belly, the belt buckle digging into his chest until it was hard to breathe. Then, only then did the words come grinding out of his throat, pushed into the soft cotton of Cas’ dress shirt. “I’m sorry I didn’t believe in you, Cas. I’m sorry I made you feel like you couldn’t come to me for help and I’m sorry for the ring of fire and not keeping Sam from stabbing you in the back. I’m sorry for everything, I’m sorry I’m not strong enough to be who you think I am anymore. I’m so damn sorry.”

Cas collapsed against him, the tension flooding out of his body as if he finally understood how hugs were meant to work. He held his other arm around Dean’s shoulders and tucked his face into the vulnerable space on Dean’s neck behind the collar of his jacket, breath stirring the hair there. The trench coat lifted and stretched when Cas moved, cocooning Dean in a warm darkness that smelled of ozone and cologne, man-sweat and static electricity. Like a Laundromat with all the driers going at once. It smelled like home and Castiel and made his eyes burn.

He took a deep breath of that smell. It got caught in his throat on the sob he was trying to rein in. “Don’t you ever leave me again, Cas. Don’t you dare.”

Cas pressed his lips to Dean’s neck and rested his cheek against Dean’s dirty hair. “Never again. I swear on everything I hold sacred I will never forsake you again.”

And then Dean was crying, huge gasping sobs like he’d never allowed himself before. They wrenched out of him like they were being exorcised from his body, leaving him shaking and empty. Cas just held him tighter, rocking them slowly back and forth, hand stroking along Dean’s spine in rhythm with the movement of his thumb over Dean’s, still crushed between their bodies.

They stayed there undisturbed, Dean howling his misery into the bright dawn, until Cas’ shirt was soaked through and Dean had no more strength to weep. It wasn’t until after they rose to their feet and Dean attempted to marshal the remnants of his dignity that he realized there were tears on Cas’ face, too. Cas pulled the angel card and pretended like he was too aloof to produce such petty things as emotions, but Dean knew they were there all the same. He’d seen him touch the moisture on his cheek, surprised and frowning. He wiped his sleeve over his eyes hastily when he caught Dean staring.

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