Now you know how much my love for you
burns deep in me
when I forget about our emptiness,
and deal with shadows as with solid things.

― Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio

The first time Dean kissed Castiel it was an accident.

They had been in Purgatory well over four months and had just emerged from yet another battle in a series of endless battles. Their opponents (this time) were a horde of... demented munchkins, for lack of a better description. Fierce little bastards, whatever they were called. All sharp teeth and sharper knives. Dean went down under the onslaught, still fighting even as the sheer weight of their numbers inevitably overpowered him. And, then, the creatures were abruptly gone. Vanished as if they had never been. In their place stood Castiel, breathing heavily and covered from head to toe in blood. An equally blood-stained sword was clenched in a white-knuckled hand as he stared at the fallen human, his blue eyes wide and wild.

"I thought... I thought I was too late," he murmured, swaying slightly.

Ignoring his own injuries, Dean scrambled to his feet and began a swift pat down of the angel, seeking the source of the blood.

Castiel's hands clamped on his wrists, stilling the motion. "I am uninjured, Dean," he said.

Dean sagged with relief. He leaned forward, his sole intent being to rest his forehead against his friend's while they both caught their breath. A moment of solace in a comfortless world. But, somehow, Castiel's head lifted up as Dean's dipped down. Rather than their foreheads connecting, their lips met instead.

It was hard to say which of them was more surprised.

The 'kiss' lasted all of five seconds.

Dean reared back so hard he stumbled over a tree root and landed squarely on his ass. He sat in a puddle of foul goo, a strange mix of munchkin gore and primordial slime, his mouth opening and closing in a fine impersonation of a fish out of water, his hands making helpless, flailing gestures.

Castiel, in contrast, remained a frozen statue: unblinking, unbreathing, silent, unreadable.

A sudden chorus of howls, close and rapidly drawing closer, freed them from the awkward moment. Tentatively, Castiel extended a helping hand. Dean took it. And then they were off, running through the never ending forest, searching for shelter, leaving questions and explanations, apologies and embarrassment for another day.

Supposing they lived to see another day...

The second time Dean kissed Castiel, he was officially just this side of delirious.

It was several weeks later and not a word had been spoken about the incident as Dean preferred to label it in his mind. Not that he spent a lot of time thinking about it! It was an accident. Accidents happen all the time, even without the benefits of alcohol. Right? Right.

Night was falling: a darkening of the always dreary sky, all colour save a sickly yellow-green slowly leaching away. A sour-tasting rain was pissing down and they were both soaked to the skin. Castiel seemed as indifferent to the rain as he was to blistering heat, or biting insects, or the thousand other irritants that constantly plagued his human companion. But Dean was shivering from the cold. His nose was running and his eyes were overly bright. It was imperative that they find refuge... and quickly.

Miraculously, Castiel discovered a cave and dredged up enough mojo to transport them both there.

It was actually more of an overhang than it was a cave, but it offered a dry and solid wall against which to press their backs. The trail up to their aerial retreat was steep and narrow and littered with loose shale; a drop off was uncomfortably close to the entrance and would have proven to be a dizzying sight for Dean, had he been able to see the few feet past the edge in the murky light. Sure in the knowledge that nothing could creep up on them here, the hunter and the angel hunkered down, shoulders bumping as they settled into the repose they both so desperately needed.

Dean sneezed in rapid succession: twice, and then again three times. He was past the point of exhibiting manly pride when Castiel shrugged out of his trench coat and carefully draped it around Dean's shoulders. Instead, he snuggled into the scant warmth it offered, the heavenly scent of its angelic owner wafting above the unsavoury odours Purgatory had deposited upon the stained and tattered fabric.

A few hours later, Dean's teeth chattering progressed to bone-deep quakes that shook Castiel out of the light meditative doze he had fallen into. Dean was slumped against him, heat radiating from his body in palpable waves and sweat glistening on his flushed skin.

"Thirsty," Dean mumbled, and shuddered again, curling in on himself as he bonelessly slid to the ground.

There was no source of water in the cave; no container in which to catch the rain still pelting down. But there was a sizeable puddle a few yards below the cave, a tantalizing supply trapped in a narrow basin on a treacherous slope. It was out of the question, risking Dean venturing there... but it was easily within an angel's reach.

Castiel transported himself to the ledge and filled his mouth with brackish-tasting water. In the blink of an eye he returned to Dean's side and assisted him back up to a sitting position. And then, without any warning, Castiel's mouth settled over the human's. As Dean opened his mouth, in protest, in surprise, the water began its smooth transfer.

"More?" Dean croaked, when the last drop had been swallowed. "Please? S'good."

"Of course, Dean," Castiel said, and disappeared.

It took half a dozen trips to quench Dean's thirst. The last time, just before their lips fully parted, Castiel felt a touch quite different from a strictly utilitarian one: a tentative, questioning glide of Dean's lips against his own; a brief flick of a tongue, as if Dean was attempting to taste the angel rather than the water.

"S'good," Dean repeated sleepily.

But when Castiel drew back to see if the human had truly done as he suspected, Dean's eyes were closed, his breath swiftly falling into the soft, gentle rhythm of deep slumber.

The third time Dean kissed Castiel it was goodbye.

It had been a year since they'd been sucked into Purgatory. Both men were gaunt and haggard, their filthy clothing hanging in rags. Eyes that were now more used to peering into dark shadows, squinted against a narrow beam of brilliant light spilling from a distant doorway.

"Benny..." Dean smiled. "He's finally found a way through."

Castiel's answering smile didn't quite reach his eyes.

"What?" Dean said. "It's over, Cas. We're going home."

"You are going home, Dean," the angel gently corrected. "I can't go with you. Benny found the way, but it is my Grace that is holding the portal open."

"No..." Dean whispered. "No. I won't go without you. I won't. I can't. We'll find another way."

"There is no other way." Castiel sighed. "Dean... this place is killing you. It can't kill me. I'm not saying that I will enjoy an extended sojourn here, but I can endure it. A year. A decade. Forever. It's all the same to me. I just need to know you're safe. I need – Mmph!"

Dean stole the rest of that sentence and all the breath from Castiel's lungs as he lunged forward and sealed their lips together. The kiss tasted of tears, of fear and longing. It tasted of hope and promises. It spoke of all the things Dean couldn't bring himself to say.

"Sorry, boys, but as the saying goes, it's now or never." Benny's voice sounded in the hunter's ear. Too close. Too invasive. He had no right to witness Dean's heart breaking.

Dean fought a sudden urge to relieve the smirking vampire of his head. After all, his usefulness was over. From the look on Benny's face, he read this message loud and clear. He prudently backed away, directing his gaze towards the light, granting Castiel and Dean a semblance of privacy.

Castiel reached up and carefully removed Dean's fingers from their death grip on his face, holding them tenderly between his clasped hands instead. "Dean," he said helplessly. "Dean, I– "

"I'll find a way to get you out of here, Cas," Dean promised. "I swear it. I'll bust you out of here if it's the last thing that I do."

"I'll be waiting," Castiel replied, straightening his shoulders and giving Dean a determined nudge towards the light. "Go. Go now."

Dean reluctantly obeyed, turning once to cast a questioning look at his angel.

Castiel's face was devoid of all emotion, but the hand he lifted to wonderingly touch his lips was trembling violently.

Dean almost ran back to him then, but the pull of the light was stronger than the force of his will. It surrounded him, consumed him. Dean screamed in outrage as he fell though the open door...

The fourth time Dean kissed Castiel it was in a dream.

He was seated on a very familiar dock, overlooking a peaceful lake. Only, this time, instead of being bathed in autumn's golden hues, both sky and water were a clear and endless blue. As blue as a certain angel's eyes...

His fishing rod dipped into the sparkling water as he leaned back in his chair, basking in the sunlight. The air was hot and heavy, the scent of flowers sweet and cloying, the soporific buzz of busy bees lulling him further into a pleasant languor.

Dean closed his eyes, intending to rest them just for a moment. They burned not only from the sun's glare, but also from all the reading he'd been doing. Days and nights spent studying damned near indecipherable ancient tomes. Endless hours spent glued to a computer screen. At this rate, he'd need glasses before his thirty-fifth birthday. Which, come to think of it, wasn't all that far away...

Oh, fuck! Has it really been that long since I escaped Purgatory?

"Cas..." he breathed.

"Dean..." came the instant, gravel-toned response.

Dean opened his eyes, a welcoming smile curving his lips. Castiel's lips curved in reply.

"How ya doing, buddy?" Dean asked, his eyes caressing the trench coat clad figure, drinking in the crooked tie, the pristine shirt, the holy tax accountant ensemble making his heart beat a little faster in his breast.

"Not so well," Castiel replied, his dream self as brutally honest as ever. "It would seem the inhabitants of Purgatory are banding against me, an alliance that grows stronger every day. I'm hunted, pursued without respite. It is... wearing me down. Is that the correct phrase?"

Dean read unutterable weariness in Castiel's face, in the slump of his shoulders. He blinked, and suddenly the angel was clad as he had been when they'd parted – except both scrubs and trench coat were now even more encrusted with blood and grime. Clearly, maintaining a tidy illusion had required too much energy. "Yeah, Cas," he managed to croak. "You got it right."

The angel's haunted glance perused his surroundings and a small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. "I believe I must be dreaming," he said. "It is unwise to allow myself this indulgence, but it is nice to spend time with you. I miss you, Dean."

"I miss you too, Cas. I'm getting closer to an answer every day. Don't give up on me."

"I place all my faith in you. I always have, Dean. I always will." Castiel's eyes began to track something Dean couldn't see. "I have to go," he whispered.

Dean leapt to his feet, invading Castiel's personal space to such an extent that surprised blue eyes instantly returned their focus to him. There was an awkward bump and slide of noses, the lightest brush of Dean's lips across the angel's, warm puffs of air silently shaping each other's name...

Dean closed his eyes, willing Castiel to stay, to be real and solid and safe. But when he brought his arms up to embrace him, there was no one there.

"Hold on, Cas," he murmured. "I'm coming to get you."

Dean was a stubborn son of a bitch. He was also a man of his word. Three weeks later, he found the key and unlocked the way to Purgatory. Metaphorically speaking, he yanked Castiel free and slammed the door behind him. The venomous howls of the lost and tormented souls they left behind slowly faded as Dean scuffed his way through laboriously drawn sigils, deliberately negating their power. He didn't stop until he stood scant inches from his angel, lost then, as always, to a staring contest that narrowed the world down to just the two of them: Dean and Cas... Cas and Dean...

The fifth time Dean kissed Castiel, the angel kissed him back. Hard.

Dean growled his approval and pressed in closer, eagerly deepening the kiss. Castiel moaned, startling them both, and a juddering breath – half laugh, half sob – escaped Dean's lips as he drew back just far enough to meet the angel's wide-eyed stare. When a hesitant hand rose to gently caress the hunter's cheek, as if testing his reality, Dean closed his eyes and leaned into the touch.

Sam quietly slipped from the room.

They didn't hear him leave.

The sixth time Dean kissed Castiel, they wound their arms around each other and held on tight. This time, when Castiel moaned, Dean swallowed the sound and answered it with a soft moan of his own.

They stopped counting kisses after that. They had much better things to do.