Title: swimming in smoke
Rating: pg 13
Genre and/or Pairing: Dean/Castiel
Spoilers: everything up through 7.23
Warnings: none
Word Count: 2700+
Disclaimer: I don't own Supernatural or its characters and seek no profit by messing around with them.
A/N: thanks for any and all support. and thanks to my friend Sophia for all her work as a beta and as a cheerleader.

There are so many things—endless and infinite and fleeting things—that Dean has taken from him; things he'll never regain. It's fine, Castiel thinks, because he would have given them away willingly anyway.

He can't say if he's better for it, but he's probably more better than not. He still has questions, still has doubts, still wonders if faith is something worth having or if it's just a fever dream, something to tell small children to lessen their fright. Perhaps that's fitting; Dean still looks at him, even now, sometimes as if he's a five-year-old throwing a tantrum over a spilled ice cream cone. It hurts more than he'll admit, but omitting admissions is something else he's learned from Dean.

The concrete beneath him is cracked and he watches as water trickles into the gaps. It's hardly raining, but the air is thick with the smell of dust and humidity. If he were human, he thinks maybe it would be stifling. Nearly as stifling as the weight of hundreds of things he's still not ready to feel pressing down on his ribcage.

There's a travel mug of hot tea in his hands. He needs it even less than he dislikes it, but he finds the heat of the mug comforting in his hands, the way it clashes with the coolness of the raindrops steadily increasing. A car passes by and he blinks against the headlights.

He's not surprised when Dean walks up behind him; Castiel can tell by his footsteps that it's him, even were he unable to sense the man's soul. He clenches the mug tighter, pulling it against his chest. There's too much and not enough to say, and Castiel is tired. He feels hollowed out, surrounded by wet wads of cotton; everything is blurry around the edges, uncomfortable but unavoidable. He doesn't say anything when Dean stands next to him, just licks a stray raindrop off his bottom lip.

Dean watches Castiel from his periphery, and Castiel wonders if Dean came out just to watch the rain with him. It's preferable to any conversations in their near future, he's certain.

Castiel's pants are wet and itchy and the wind is picking up. He stands still, unmovable. A mountain among men, but—no, mountains are solid and timeless; certain in their strength and in their erosion. Castiel has been worn down, but without promise to be rebuilt. He lacks the fundamental sturdiness of a mountain. He is but a fallen angel, withered and wilted, the turn of summer into fall. Things would have been easier if he'd let Uriel drag Dean from Hell like he'd been ordered to. Easier, but essentially meaningless.

Living among humans for years now, Castiel has come to respect them with something close to reverence. They annoy and irritate and confuse him, certainly—and sometimes they downright repulse him—but then they turn around and surprise him in all the best ways. So he doesn't find too much bitterness in being kept on his toes, so to speak, so often. Unconsciously, he tilts his head toward Dean.

It's Dean who speaks first. "What're you doing out here?" he asks, and if Castiel expects a roughness, a brittle edge in his voice, it doesn't come. He sounds curious, vaguely so, but curious nonetheless.

Castiel isn't sure what to do with that. So he says, "It's raining."

Dean slants his eyes toward him, his fingers wrapping around the bottle of Jim Beam Castiel hadn't noticed he'd carried outside. "I see your powers of observation are still intact."

Castiel doesn't have the energy for sarcasm, nor for gut-wrenching conversations that will leave him shaky and battered inside. The former is easy enough to avoid, though he suspects the latter will be harder to get out of. "I didn't think I would miss the rain," he (more or less) explains.

All he gets from Dean is a non-committal grunt. That's fine, too. Or maybe it's not, but over-analyzing it all seems pointless. He doesn't make plans anymore; the last time he did, he nearly destroyed the entire world. He mostly sticks with the Winchesters—helps them, asks about and aids in executing their plans. But he's retired as a leader and even if he were allowed in Heaven still, he doesn't think he could face his brethren.

It turns out the saying the road to Hell is paved with good intentions didn't come from out of nowhere.

All of Dean's bravado and humor seem to deflate, and Castiel can't help but feel a little bit grateful. "You seem tired," Dean says, and Castiel doesn't point out how tired he sounds himself.

"I am." Leaning against the fence behind him, heedless of the water soaking into his coat, he finally turns to look at Dean. He doesn't feel any of the initial naivety that came with extending his view of the world after curing the damage from Sam's mental wall breaking—a breakage he caused, and intentionally—he won't let himself forget.

Castiel is sure if Dean tried, he could snap him in half with one hand.

Dean doesn't try.

All Dean does is say, "I know." He takes the mug from Castiel's hands, takes a sip, grimacing in distaste.

There's a lull in conversation and Castiel thinks, almost absently, that it's getting darker; soon, it will be time to sleep. He does miss when he didn't need to sleep, but he can't—there's no way he can really regret his decisions, or the things he's given up, regardless of how he lost them. Any of the alternatives would have been considerably worse, and Castiel will spend the rest of his endless life redeeming himself.

"I know the last few years have been hard for you," Dean says finally. It's an understatement, and Castiel wants to correct him. He wants to say It's been overwhelming and terrifying and drowning and—but he doesn't say anything, just nods slightly. Dean takes this as encouragement to keep talking.

"You couldn't have saved her." Dean sighs and Castiel can feel the man's eyes on him. Dean is right, he knows, but it doesn't change anything. "And," Dean continues, "I know saying that and knowing that doesn't make anything better."

That draws Castiel's attention and he notices that somewhere along the way Dean had returned his mug of tea and Castiel had dropped it; he doesn't pick it up. His eyes stay focused on Dean's, wondering and calculating. It sounds like for all the pieces of himself that Dean has stolen from Castiel, he might be offering something now. And Castiel would be a fool not to take it, whatever it is.

Castiel has long grown out of being a fool.

Dean has moved closer to him, but his eyes are screwed tight and Castiel wonders what he's thinking. "I guess what I'm trying to say," Dean is telling him, voice quiet under the pattering of the rain, "is that it's okay—to feel shitty, I mean. To know you did everything you could and still feel like crap that it wasn't good enough." Castiel hears the unspoken Lord knows I've been theretacked on at the end. And of all the things Dean has ever said to him, Castiel thinks this might be the most important.

Because—in some way or another—it puts him and Dean on the same page. And maybe that page is crumpled and smeared with coffee stains, but it's theirs and it's real, which is all he can ask for. "Dean," he says, because he can't think of anything better to say.

But maybe it's the right thing to say—deceptively simple—because Dean's lips twitch into an almost-smile. Not the fake one, or the one he uses to charm and distract people. But a small one, genuine and fond and filled with all the things they both refuse to acknowledge. Castiel feels his mouth responding similarly, and that's real too. Another thing he'll willingly give away.

Dean's hand rests on the fence, his arm nearly pressed to Castiel's own. "I should thank you," Dean says. And before Castiel can ask for what, Dean adds, "But honestly, I don't know how to."

Castiel stares at him, and it almost feels like it used to—before Purgatory, before getting out of Purgatory and everything it had cost.

"I hear you every night," Dean admits quietly, and Castiel starts. Not because he's surprised at that fact specifically; he's certain his distress is noticeable. No, he's surprised Dean would admit it. Generally, it's not something they talk about.

Angels don't sleep, and angels don't have nightmares. But Castiel is hardly a typical angel. And so every time he sleeps—and he has to; he'd attempted sleep deprivation and nearly killed himself along with Sam and Dean—he's plagued with nightmares. It would be normal enough, probably, if he were any other person. But he's not, and the price for getting out of Purgatory—with Dean—was this. All the people that couldn't be saved, all the innocents killed. The worst part is that it's not even just people he'd failed, but all the people every hunter since the first had killed or gotten killed or—just all of them. And Castiel feels the guilt even when the hunters hadn't.

Of course, plenty of them are people Castiel himself had harmed, and there are certainly enough of them. It's awful and always leaves him waking with the taste of acrid smoke in his throat, but he can hardly complain, can hardly say he doesn't deserve it. He does—and probably more—but even if he didn't, he knows he would have done what needed to be done and paid the price anyway, just to make sure Dean got out. He guesses Dean knows that, though this is the first time, even over four years later, that Dean has mentioned it.

His nights aren't restful, but they're inevitable. It works almost like magic, though it's much stronger and much harder to define, to pin down, than that. He doesn't fall asleep automatically at certain times; this isn't a fairytale, after all (which is a good thing, he supposes, otherwise it would be the worst and most horrifying fairytale in existence). But he's always exhausted and always feels the urge to sleep, though he lacks the express need for all other human inclinations. He sometimes indulges in them anyway. He's come to very much appreciate the novel idea of dipping Oreos into a glass of milk.

"You don't have to," Castiel says at last, realizing that Dean has been waiting for him to speak, to provide some sort of instruction. It's a rare sort of moment and Castiel savors it avidly, tucking it into the back of his mind for when his nights get too hard to bear.

Tonight will most likely be the worst in the long time, he thinks. He has these immense, almost consuming, powers and he still hadn't been able to help the little girl. He's not even tired enough to sleep yet, but he can still hear her crying for her mother, the way he'd felt her tiny heart stop. He sucks in a breath at the images invading his mind, tries to will them away for the moment. He'll dwell later, he knows, and right now he wants to know what Dean is going to say. It's not the conversation he'd imagined, and Castiel thanks whoever might be listening for that. Because maybe things—well, maybe they'll start to be okay again. And even though there are so many things he'll never get back again, maybe he can fill whatever's missing with something new.

It's strange to hope again—strange and enticing. He's so used to feeling cold and tired and—and like everything is plastered over with resentment. But there's something about Dean; he always manages to be the best and worst of everything Castiel's become attached to on Earth. And for all the times he thinks Dean might rip the heart right out of Jimmy Novak's chest, no one has stitched him back together the way Dean has either, whether he's done it intentionally or not. He can't help but laugh to himself, something that's soft and malleable, transcending the concrete and the rain and the relentless ache in his chest.

Dean looks at him, perplexed and maybe even a bit intrigued. The traces of bitterness and guilt are still visible and buried deep in the lines of his face, but they look softer now, Castiel notices. Maybe it's the lack of proper lighting, or maybe it's everything starting to fall into place—or trying to, at least. Castiel doesn't know, but that doesn't matter either. He says, "I was thinking earlier that humans are irritating and confusing. You most of all." Before Dean can say anything though, Castiel places a tentative hand on his shoulder. "They're also incredibly moving and have this immense capacity to surprise and touch me. You most of all in that too," he murmurs. He hasn't moved his hand and Dean hasn't indicated that he should, so he presses his fingers in just a little bit harder.

Dean's as wet as he is, and his jacket is cold and wet against the palm of Castiel's hand. The cold doesn't mean anything to him though, and even if it did, he can feel the heat of Dean's skin through the damp layers of fabric; it's more than enough incentive to keep his hand where it is. "You're right that knowing I did my best doesn't make me feel any better." Dean is still watching him, his hand cupping Castiel's elbow. He doesn't know if Dean made the shift toward him consciously or not, but it feels welcoming and safe—things he hasn't felt in years—so he doesn't bring it up. "I'm glad you said it, though," he says.

There is always another hunt—even when there isn't a more all-encompassing war—and Castiel knows Dean will never leave the hunting lifestyle because of it. Just as he knows he'll never leave Dean.

He's thinking about how he'll stay as long as Dean will have him when Dean kisses him. A part of him has always known it would come to this, has always wanted it. But he's still shocked by the press of a hot mouth against his in the cold rain. It's somewhere between rough and gentle, but he can't give anything more precise because there's Dean's tongue and Dean's teeth and finally, Castiel remembers to close his eyes.

He moves his hand from Dean's shoulder to the back of his neck, and everything Dean has taken from him shifts and sighs the same way Castiel does as he presses closer to Dean. He knows things will never really be good, but they'll be better. And maybe that's enough.

They pull apart and Dean's cheek is warm against his own, even as he shivers in the rain. Castiel is about to suggest they go inside, even if he's not ready to sleep yet; the prospect of the guilt awaiting him forces his stomach to clench even though he wills it not to. He's not ready to relinquish this new surge of near-optimism or the way Dean tastes in his mouth yet.

But even as he opens his mouth, Dean touches a careful finger to lips. His voice is a near whisper when he says, "What I'm really saying, Cas, is that you're welcome to sleep in my bed tonight. Every night, actually." The last part is barely loud enough for even Castiel to hear, but he smiles anyway.

Motel beds are lumpy and uncomfortable and Dean's presence won't change that. But maybe when he wakes up, he won't feel so strung out, like he's being burned to ashes from the inside out. "I'll take you up on your offer," he replies, and Dean pulls him close again.

It's still raining and the idea of sleeping still makes him feel as close to nauseated as he can get, but Dean will kiss him good night and his bed will be warm when he wakes up in a cold sweat, his throat hoarse from yelling.

He lets Dean lead him inside, both of them wet and breathless and shivering.

Yes, he thinks again, things will be better. And it will be enough.

In time, it might even be everything.

A/N II: any feedback or constructive criticism is welcomed and appreciated. thanks for reading!