Spoilers: Through 7x10
Summary: Dean is having some conversations with Castiel in his head.
Author's note: This is a bit unpolished, but I wanted to post it while it was still marginally seasonal. Enjoy :)
I. They don't feel much like celebrating any holidays when they finally, beaten down and defeated, decide it's time to head home. Sam keeps saying "It's a relief," but it's not, none of it is a relief. Sam's trying to convince himself that an adoptive father in a vegetative state -- who probably won't remember his own name or theirs if he wakes up, and that's a big "if" -- is any better than a dead adoptive father, but Dean's given up trying to see an up side in the situation at all. So Bobby's not dead, technically. So what? How is that any respite at all? They're still just as alone as they were before. Alone and screwed. Everyone Dean loves is taken from him. That's the truth.
If it weren't for the apocalypse, he'd probably leave Sam at this point out of some misguided desire to keep him safe. But they've already learned that they're safer together than apart.
Maybe this is how things were supposed to be from the start. When they started out, that's how it was. The two of them. No home base, no father around to guide them, just him and Sam and the open road and a hell of a lot of bad guys to kill. No ties. No pain. No loss.
The mistake was in getting tied down in the first place. In learning to care about people like Bobby, people he would only end up getting killed in the end.
But wouldn't it be nice if Bobby woke up. And maybe, even if he woke up with no memory of Sam and Dean, from there on out he could have a life of his own. It's a sickening thought, and it makes Dean think of them, but maybe that's how it is supposed to be.
Dean is on his way out of the hospital room, and he turns back briefly, just to say a last silent goodbye. His eyes are flooded with familiar light, and they widen around the form of a long-dead friend.
Castiel's hand presses flat against Bobby's forehead, and Dean knows then that it's not medicine or fate that's giving Bobby a second chance to live. It's an angel who has always tried, at the very least, to clean up his own mess.
"Is he gonna live?" Dean says. Crowded, confused first words, not the ones he'd imagined he'd say to Cas if fate was twisted enough to allow them to meet again.
Castiel nods. "I'll make sure of it," he says. His brows turn up toward the center, and his eyes are mournful, mouth pursed tight around the words. "He will be happy from now on, Dean. I can guarantee that much."
"So what, you wipe his memory and he's gonna be just fine?"
"There was a time when you were convinced that was the best option."
Dean shakes his head. There are tears in his eyes. "When are you going to learn that you just break things when you try to fix them?"
"Is it me you're saying that to?" Castiel returns evenly. Dean's heart squeezes tight in his ribs, and he looks away.
"Just... make sure he's happy. Give him a good old age, lots of beer and old movies, maybe a girlfriend." He tried retirement himself and it didn't work, but maybe for Bobby....
Castiel's right beside him all of a sudden. "I thought you didn't want me to fix things."
It's hard for Dean to breathe. "Well. I've already lost him, so..." He realizes how that sounds and stops short.
"Dean." Castiel's face is severe. "Is that the basis on which you decide?"
"Look, I don't want to hear any lectures from you about me being selfish." He's giving himself those lectures already.
"That's not what I mean." Castiel's hand lands solid upon his shoulder and Dean's uncomfortable. This is his fantasy, his imagined conversation, yet he has no idea what Castiel's about to say. It doesn't seem fair. Castiel goes on. "Don't you think Bobby would want someone next to him when he wakes up? Even someone he doesn't remember?"
"No." Dean backs away. "Not me. If the choice is me or nobody, nobody's better."
"Dean. You coming?" Sam's voice is weary and it cuts through the hallway.
A shudder, and Dean turns away once and for all. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm coming."
II. The safehouse is rustic and homey and perfect for a Christmas celebration, but neither of them feel much like celebrating anything. It's a depressing couple of days, the two of them rifling through Bobby's contacts, letting hunters know who to call in a pinch and holding down the home office as the network of hunters continues to fight all the things that go bump in the night. It's remarkable to discover just how much Bobby did from his South Dakota home base, just how many people depended on his information and tireless research, just how central to the hunting community he was.
Without Bobby, there might not have been a hunting community. The network is loose as it is, but hunters are lone wolves by nature, and to get them together and depending on a central hub, reaching out to allies through the help of one trusted source is an accomplishment. Sam in particular is very impressed. "You know, if it weren't for us, Bobby would have had something like a normal life," he says one evening a few days after they come home. "I mean, he was basically a call center for hunters. When you think about it that way, he probably could have had a real relationship, maybe a wife, couple of kids, and still done this job."
"If we hadn't brought the monsters right to his door, you mean," Dean says, scowling. "Thanks, Sam. I'd forgotten to feel like crap for a few seconds."
"That's not what I mean and you know it." Sam frowns at him. "I was actually thinking it kind of gives us hope, you know? That one of these days we could have had something like a normal life. Imagine going out and hunting things, then coming home and having someone waiting for you. Hell, having a home to come back to. That's more than we ever had."
Dean closes his eyes. He has visions of Lisa and Ben in his head now and he wants them to go away. He wants Sam to go away.
"Did you want me to go away, too?" Castiel says. He's a face in the window now, the cold darts of frost across the window painting his likeness. When he speaks, they move as though tossed by the wind. "I was too much to lose, wasn't I, Dean? You had to drive me away because you knew it would hurt to lose me. And that's why you called me 'child.' So you wouldn't think of me as a man."
"You're not a man," Dean says. "You never were."
"I was. And I was your friend, too. Your family. You said so yourself."
"And you were the one who said you had no family. Don't give me this crap about me pushing you away. You pushed us away when we were begging you to come back to us."
"You begged because you were afraid of me."
"I had good reason, Cas!" Dean gets up, goes to the window and watches the frost patterns move. "You went way the hell off the reservation. Don't you think I had a right to be scared?"
The Jack Frost-Castiel pattern lowers its eyes, and blue-crystal eyelashes flutter. "And so you shut me out. And you left me out here to freeze."
Dean's weakened. His heart is beating in a slow, painful throb, like a wound that's being squeezed tight. "What do you want me to do now?"
A crystalline handprint rises to touch the window. "Let me in."
"I can't. You'll freeze me to death."
"Is it so much better," Castiel says slowly, "to be warm and alive, but alone?"
Dean draws back. Ice king Castiel or no, there's frigid pain ripping through his veins.
He crosses to the door. Puts a hand on the knob. The brass bites cold at his hand. He squeezes the latch.
In reality he's still at the window, and the ice patterns forming there look nothing like an old friend. He tuns away, draws the blind, insulating their hiding place from the cold night.
III. It's Sam's throwaway idea to decorate the place for Christmas, but Dean goes along with it more readily than Sam could have expected. "Place is too plain," he says, grumbling, a pre-emptive rebuttal to Sam calling him out on sentimentalism. If pressed, he'll probably go on about it smelling like dirty sweatsocks from Sam's runs (yeah, he's still doing that running thing) and needing a bit of pine and holly just to keep it livable. But nobody does, and when Sheriff Mills comes by with a poinsettia plant for the living room Dean hoists it onto the coffee table without fuss.
"Well, aren't you going soft in your old age," the sheriff teases.
"I'm getting wild in my old age," Dean says, his eyebrows rising. "I want the place to look like a fricking rainforest. Welcome to the jungle, baby."
Sheriff Mills rolls her eyes, but she smiles, too.
"So did anything ever happen with you and Bobby?" he teases her after three beers that night. "Get that scratchy-ass beard up in your face?"
"You're completely inappropriate, you know that?"
Not completely. If it were completely he'd be staring at her rack in that leather jacket of hers. "Yeah, I know."
She shrugs and reaches for a fourth beer. "I thought something might, but I don't know. He's such a hardass." A quick flick of her finger silences his smart reply. "Don't say it."
"He liked you," Dean says. Hurts to use past tense, but really, if Bobby ever comes around, he won't remember them, so it might as well be past tense for the "old" Bobby.
"I know he did." She shakes her head. "Now, I'm no hunter, but it occurs to me that you hunters give up a hell of a lot to do the work you do. And I admire that, I do, but..." She gives a soft chuckle. "I mean, are you all so screwed up that you can't let anyone in?"
"As a rule, yeah," Dean answers without hesitation, and Sheriff Mills lets out a raucous, south-of-sober sort of laugh.
"Stupid is what you are."
"So stupid we don't want people we care about to get hurt, yeah, real stupid."
"Stupid that you won't let yourself care about anyone, because you care so much about everyone. That life's for Mother Teresa, but not me, and not you either. Come on, Dean. You really want to be sitting here drinking by the fire with me?"
"Sure. What's wrong with you?"
She gives him a look, and south of sober or not, Dean gets it. He closes his eyes, meaning nothing less brief than a blink.
But once his eyes are closed he's by the fire with Castiel, who's showing him how to properly roast chestnuts, and Dean's eyes are wide open because for all his various skill sets he doesn't know how to make them pop like that, he's never done it. With each pop Castiel's eyes shimmer in delight, the dark core of the nut and the glimmer of the fire both reflected in his eyes, and Dean feels a deep sense of contentment settle under his skin.
Dean leans forward on his knees, rocks toward the fire. "Where'd you learn to do that?"
"The 1870s," Castiel says without missing a beat. Dean laughs and settles back onto his haunches again. "You're always so surprised."
"I can't help it. You're so fricking human sometimes, I forget you've been around the better part of forever."
"Being around isn't the same as living," Castiel says, and fishes a fistful of blisteringly hot nuts from the fireplace. Dean winces, though Castiel's hand comes out clean and unburned. "By my own measures, I suppose I have only been this alive for a short time."
"So which is it?" Dean blows on the nuts and gingerly takes one. It's still hot enough that he has to toss it from hand to hand. "You old enough to be my great-great-something or young enough to be my kid?"
Castiel's eyes rest on him, even and patient. "That question doesn't have a ready answer."
"Was rhetorical anyway." Dean sprawls out, untucking his feet from under him and letting his toes angle up toward the fire's blaze. He pops one nut in his mouth and chews thoughtfully. When he swallows, a column of warmth travels down through his throat into his stomach and spreads through his core. "Good."
No response. He casts his eyes over at Castiel and finds a look of patient curiosity on his face. "What?"
"We should have had this," Castiel says. His eyes have gone opaque. "You should have let me sit here with you in real life. I would have liked it."
It feels vaguely like an accusation, but the heat from the nut and the fire is keeping Dean too complacent to complain. "Yeah," he says. "Would have been nice."
IV. He wakes up at ten the next morning. Sheriff Mills has gone and so have the beer bottles, and Sam is hauling a pine in the door singlehandedly. "Godzilla," Dean comments through the haze of his hangover.
"Lightweight," Sam rejoins, and Dean shakes his head. He can't argue that. Four beers? That's pathetic. He must have been exhausted, and the alcohol put him out like a light. Doesn't even count as passing out when you're dead on your feet to start with.
Dean grumbles to his feet. "What is this, a Christmas tree? You for real?"
"Why not? We're in the middle of a forest of 'em. I don't think the birds will miss this one."
"We're fighting evil bastards from the dimension that God forgot and you want a Christmas tree?"
Sam shrugs and gives that stupid, boyish grin of his that makes Dean wonder if he ever passed fourth grade mentally. "Can't hurt to put in a good word with the man upstairs. Whoever he is today."
Dean grimaces. Sam's grin doesn't falter. "Come on, man. You never think it? Death said so. Cas was just some sort of mutated angel. He was never God. There's still a real God out there."
"And he's a dick," Dean says.
"I'm not saying we should fall on our knees, just... not to close any doors. Besides, we're here, we're alive. Why not have Christmas? What was it? Boston Market and passing out on the couch?" Despite himself, Dean snorts. Sam places a too-sweaty hand on his upper arm, a comforting pat. "We've got each other, we're still here. That kind of kicks ass."
Does it? Dean thinks. Out loud, he says, "Sure. You're right."
They put together some craptastic hunter-quality decorations - empty shotgun shells, rope, rock salt sprinkled like tinsel or fresh snow over the floor around it. It looks sad, a thousand miles from decent Christmas decor, but Dean's weirdly satisfied to stand back and size it up. Sam's even found a scrap of jagged sheet metal that looks almost like a star, and pinned it up atop the tree.
"I thought an angel was supposed to top the tree," Castiel says. His coat is thrown over the back of one of the chairs in the other room, and the black sleeves of his suit are folded over each other as he surveys the decorations.
"You're a little heavy," Dean says.
"I'd love to see you try." Castiel's words are measured, and he stares at Dean through heated eyes. It almost feels like a challenge, but then his mouth twitches.
"Did you just make a joke at me?"
"I've done so several times. You're the one who persists in thinking I'm unable to recognize humor." He looks just a bit put out.
"Right, sorry." Dean can't help smiling himself. "Anyway. A star or an angel, it doesn't matter. What do you think?"
"It's not bad." As though he's the world's reigning expert in Christmas trees. "What happens now?"
"What happens... nothing. It just sits there. We'd have presents if we had any money, but..." Dean shrugs, feeling like a jerk for not having a more satisfactory answer.
"So you're not waiting for a mysterious man in a red suit to deliver you a treasure."
Dean looks over at him, eyebrow quirking in annoyance. "Are you making fun?"
"Only a little." Castiel looks as though he's having trouble controlling his expression. It's at once completely alien to him and completely natural, the natural extension of what he could have been if Dean had let him in, taken care of him and invited him to be part of the family instead of pushing him away.
"Don't look like that," Castiel says softly. "It doesn't matter, does it? I'm here now."
"But you're not," Dean says. "All this is in my mind. "
"And if it were real?" Castiel fixes his eyes on the top of the tree. "Would you act differently?"
Dean would. That's that part that really drives him crazy. If this were really happening, he'd never be able to sit back and relax and let Castiel be. It would all be about limits and boundaries and pushing and pulling.
But in his mind, Castiel doesn't rebel, or try to talk down to him. Castiel is how Dean imagines him. And that makes it so much easier.
"So which do you like better?" Castiel says. "The real me or this me?"
He steps closer. Close enough that if there were mistletoe above them...
"Which one do you want back?" he asks.
V. The Boston Market food is good, heavy and filling, and Dean gets hard eggnog and they drink it and laugh. Well, Sam laughs. Dean manages a few weak giggles and stares out at the snowfall blankly. He feels like curling up and sleeping forever. He doesn't have the motivation to do anything at all, much less celebrate. Why the hell should he He's lost everyone but Sam. And there was a time when he would have thrown away the world for Sam, and he supposed he still would. But really, is that the lesson that the world wants to teach him - that he can have Sam, or the world, but not both?
It's not that he regrets the choices he's made. It just sucks that this is the way things always have to turn out.
"Dean?" Sam prods him with his foot and laughing at the limp way Dean responds, a half-grumble and then settling back onto the couch. "What's with you, dude?"
"You are," Dean says. "Nothing else."
He forces a laugh. "You and me against the world. Sammy. Way it's always been."
"That's not the way it's always been. Maybe that's the way you want it, but I had Jess."
"Had. Exactly. Past tense. We don't get to have other people. Just us. How screwed up is that?"
Sam squints. "Wait. I'm confused. You're the one who always said--"
"I know what I said." Dean frowns as hard as he can, so hard his forehead hurts. It's satisfying. Pain always is, when it's the kind that rips at you and then is gone. Not like the dull ache of something you can't get to go away. "Just seems to me normal people go through life and, you know. They meet new friends. We just meet new monsters."
"C'mon, Dean. You're not serious."
"Dead serious. Ghosts, demons, angels, leviathans, frickin' fairies, man..."
"Ellen. Jo. Ash. Pamela."
"Exactly. Where are they?"
Sam falls silent.
"Every last one of them. Who the hell is left, Sam?"
"Stop. Stop it."
Warm arms circle his shoulders; there's a face burrowing into his neck and weight pressed against his. He felt this body once in his life, when he was carrying it from the basement of a church in a cursed town. There'd been fire, and his heart had been burning with fear and regret, and he hadn't registered its heat. But here, now, Castiel's arms drape around him and it's like tumbling headlong into the hearthfire.
"Don't do this to him. Not tonight, not on Christmas. He wants it to mean something positive, Dean. Let him."
"You're one to talk. You're exhibit number one in the why our lives are lonely as hell." Dean would shake him off, truly he would, but Castiel's warm and he's only now become aware of how frigid his fingers are. Too many cups of iced eggnog, not close enough to the fire. "Do you have any idea how freakin' much I wish you could be here in this room right now with us? How badly I wish we could just go back and fix it? And don't tell me again that it's not broken, because this is not right. the way things are now, they're not right."
Castiel's grip loosens, but he remains, a soft heaviness like a cloud pregnant with rain, hovering around Dean's shoulders. "No. They're not. I too wish I could go back and fix things. I would have liked to tell you more, sooner."
"Yeah, but you're the you in my head," Dean reminds him. His voice is acid, burning at the edges. "You already made your point, right? The real you doesn't feel that way."
"What if he did?" Castiel's fingertips trace along Dean's collarbone, a touch that's as unsettling as it is calming in its intimacy. "What would you say?"
"What do you mean, what would I say? I can't. He's dead. You're dead." Now the acid turns back on him, and Dean's throat convulses with it. He's afraid he might be sick.
"And if I weren't?"
"What the hell is up with the hypotheticals, anyway?" Dean shifts in his seat, trying to keep the nausea from welling up any farther.
"Dean." The backs of Castiel's fingers brush against his jaw. "Tell me."
Dean seeks the words, but they don't come. He reaches up, presses his fingers to Castiel's, guide them down. His face is cold without the weight of Castiel's fingers, and he leans inward, trying to make up the warmth. A brush of foreheads, a shuddering intake of breath, and their eyes catch - a moment when what comes next is so clear that there's nothing left to do but let it happen.
Castiel's mouth is light under his, bare and accepting, the flesh of his lips bending in under the press of Dean's kiss. Their lips purse together, let go, a smack and a tingle of contact that was and is not more. Dean blushes. Full and red, like a girl. His cheeks feel so hot that he worries he's got a fever.
Castiel takes a breath. "Dean," he says, his voice as scratchy and dry as the chap of his lips before he runs his tongue along them to wet them again.
Dean folds him up, guiding Castiel inward and toward him. Castiel collapses into the press of Dean's shoulders, his lips opening to a wide wet mouth under Dean's. Dean's never been hungrier. He sips at Castiel's lips, licks over their dry spots with his own tongue. His core is charged and running like a motor, turning over and over with bursts of friction that make him tremble.
All this, and it's only happening in his own mind. But if it were real--
The kiss is gone. Dean's not sure when it ended, but now Castiel is looking at him with an even gaze. "Really?" he says, his voice lit with almost-hope. "Would you have the courage to do that if I were really here?"
Dean stares into his eyes. His heart is pounding, but his head is clear. "Try me."
and I. There's a knock at the door.
"Who in the hell could that be?" Sam's squinting, making his way to the door, and Dean stops him with one hand. If he looks singularly focused, it's only because he's trying like hell not to let his heart beat out of his chest, because if this is real then that means it all ways, means none of those conversations were actually with him. He's too scared to check to see if he's still imagining this, because if it is he doesn't want to break the spell.
Sam's squint is fixed on Dean now, and Dean couldn't care less. His hand closes around the latch and squeezes.
Snow frames Castiel's face like television static, and Castiel's lips are blueish, his skin pale. In the sudden light, his pupils shrink, and the ice turquoise of his irises swallow them up and reflect Dean's own stunned expression. White crystals of snowflakes dot his dark jacket, his hair.
"Is this for real?" Dean says. His throat hurts in the wake of the words.
"Is that you?" Sam's words overlap his, and he goes on to say "Cas? Or... is..." and look around nervously. He puts a hand on Dean's arm, tries to draw him back from the door. "This could be a trap."
Dean shakes his head. His eyes never leave Castiel's. "It's him. He told me."
A silence. The wind howls. Sam stares at him, dumbfounded.
"Come in," Dean says.
Castiel steps over the threshold. The door swings shut and locks the storm out. He starts to speak, but a cough wracks his frame and he chokes on the cold air in his lungs. Dean reaches forward and lays a hand on his shoulder. Solid, the way Castiel's hand was solid on his shoulder in the hospital room, in the first of their maybe-imagined conversations. "I'm all right," Castiel says. "I'm... I'm happy to see you again." His eyes dart toward Sam. "Both of you."
"But how?" Sam's so full to the brim with questions that Dean can feel them, but they're questions that can wait.
"Sam," Dean says. "Not now."
Sam falls back, befuddled, into silence.
"So it was really you?" Dean steps forward. "This whole time? All of it?"
"Define 'all of it.'" He's smiling. A strange smile for Castiel, neither drunk with power nor awkwardly confused. It feels genuine.
"I kept thinking it was just in my head," Dean says. He raises one hand, makes a halfhearted gesture, and then starts to put it down; his side doesn't feel like the right place for it, though, and he ends up wrapping his palm around Castiel's elbow, clutching loosely at the soaked sleeve of his jacket. "I mean, was it always you, or...?"
"I don't know what's gone on in your head while I wasn't there. Some of it could have been your imagination." Castiel's still smiling, and Dean finds the corners of his own mouth starting to twitch. Cas is being such a smart-ass right now.
He shakes his head. "You son of a bitch. Why'd you stay gone so long?"
Castiel's brows furrow. "I wasn't sure you'd want me back."
Dean curses and draws him in close with a single, rough movement. Castiel gives a choked cry against Dean's shoulder, then closes his eyes, and his arms find their way around Dean's waist. Dean's own eyes are squeezed shut, and he's breathing in the scent of winter air, of wet clothes and fair skin. A moment later, Sam's arms are around the both of them, and Dean laughs because this part he definitely didn't anticipate, so it has to be real.
In the corner of the room, the hunters' Christmas tree, adorned with shells and salt, shivers, as though it's just now feeling the cold that came in through the front door minutes ago. The bullets hanging on the rope jingle faintly. They're poor bells, and it's a poor tree, but Castiel walks to it a minute later and stares up at it reverently. "I wanted to be here for this," he says, so low Dean and Sam have to lean in to hear. "I wanted to see this tree with my own eyes."
"It's not much," Sam says.
Castiel shakes his head. "It's perfect."
His fingers find Dean's. They stare up at the sheet-metal star atop the tree. Outside, the storm softens to a gentle snowfall.
The year draws to a close in a tiny cabin in the woods, and the new year opens with the threat of near-certain death, with the loss of a longtime friend and with the knowledge of so much that can't be undone. But for the first time in Dean doesn't know how long, there's also the chance that things might get better, in time.