It was only by chance that Castiel had even heard Dean that night. He couldn't sleep: a not uncommon condition of his humanity. Castiel practices consistent night time rituals. In theory, he is aware of the ways that circadian rhythms work, that repetition and routine, certain enzymes certain practices, can be used to aid and induce sleep; indeed there are almost infinite variations that he could try, but his sleep continues to be elusive and troubled—still he perseveres.

He puts on pajamas, which he increasingly finds comfortable as his wounds have sealed and settled. He has his own sleep pants in cotton and flannel, which are soft against his legs, comforting in some strange way. It no longer feels intolerable and abrasive to wear a shirt—he several which are designated (by corporations, designers, and presumably the individuals who organize clothing racks at Target) as clothing appropriate for sleeping in, but he prefers to wear an old t-shirt that once belonged to Dean. It had been given to him, he supposes, 'to borrow' when he had first fallen to earth and had nothing of his own. There is something about that gesture that makes this article of clothing infinitely precious to Castiel. It is a very peculiar thing that something so simple—a few pieces of fabric, stitched together, a bit of dye, some small amount of money—should provoke such an odd feeling of warmth within his chest. This shirt has lived with Dean, has covered his back on warm summer days, has travelled across the country in a battered duffle bag, has been spattered with blood and sweat, has sheltered Dean man against the elements, and has changed as Dean has grown—a thread fraying at the hem, a hole in the right shoulder seam. It's soft and it's grey and it is clearly worn, but Dean gave it to Castiel,, who wears it now on his own shoulders—he knows that it is ridiculous and foolish, but it is as if were Dean's arms around him, even when Dean's cannot be, when Castiel cannot bear human touch, when Castiel is fearful of the world. This small token brings him comfort—which, even in small measure, is precious in his new life. The shirt no longer smells of Dean, though it had the first day he'd worn it, but of Castiel—which is a strange thing, to have a body, to have a scent.

Castiel was afraid that Dean would want it back, the thought made him strangely shaky, uncertain, but Dean had seen him wearing it one night. He'd noticed in the wake of a nightmare, Castiel had sweat clean through it, and Dean had taken it to throw into the hamper. He'd squinted at the article in his hands, and peered closely at Castiel's face, and Castiel had felt oddly, as if caught doing something illicit and he clenched his fist tight. He'd not expected to see it again, but, when Dean had next done the laundry, he'd returned the t-shirt to Castiel's room, with a shrug, 'You should keep it; you wear it better than me anyway," he'd winked, and Castiel had felt his face warm, more in response to Dean's smirk and this small gift than anything else.

Castiel makes himself a cup of hot tea in the evenings (chamomile or peppermint), and reads a book of his choosing (most recently, L'Étranger by Albert Camus). He retreats to the quiet of the porch, or, increasingly, the solitude of his bedroom. He has come to know a strange, almost primal satisfaction in having a place that is explicitly, undeniably his, where he can retreat, where he can be safe—he's never really felt that need before. As an angel he'd experienced at times a vague longing, a sense of restlessness (even more so once he'd begun to spend time on earth, time with the Winchesters), but he had never this abiding desire for a home, a place to settle and return to, something that, despite his better knowledge—he who has seen cities razed to the ground, empires crumble and fall, the earth itself move and transform almost beyond recognition—feels permanent. It was not until he had this space, this place to call his own, that he fully understood the human need to build a home, to settle, to carve out a niche in a great, wide, ever changing, unpredictable universe. A place into which you could draw that which was most important to you—those who were most important to you—close, careful, near, as safe as you could make them—comforted in their nearness. There is something to be said for having, within that space, a tiny place that is just his, his very own. Castiel does not own much—he has acquired some clothing, is slowly collecting a variety of tattered books, second and third hand, tattered, but clearly much loved, some furniture—but property is a novelty to him, startling and strange; as is the luxury of a room that he can go to when all things become overwhelming, when he craves quiet and solitude—He cannot fly away to a mountain top, to a distant galaxy, to the dull, pleasant weight of the deep sea, but he can come here to nest, as it were, to roost, to rest, and somehow that is, in its own way, much more satisfying.

Castiel meditates before he sleeps; when his eyes can no longer focus on the words on the page, his vision blurry with tiredness, (the first time that this had happened, Castiel had almost panicked, had worried that something was terribly wrong, that his vessel, no, his body was failing; Sam, and Castiel is infinitely grateful for this, had only laughed a little bit, explaining that fatigue could have physiological symptoms, that sore eyes and blurry vision were normal, were in fact, his body's way of telling him to, in Sam's words, "give it a rest, get some shut eye," it was a signal much like the noises his stomach makes when he goes too long without eating, or the way that his knee gives a dull throb when he sits too long in a certain position). Meditation is easiest in this time when he is between sleep and waking; he settles himself upon the floor, legs folded, spine straight, hands resting lightly upon his knees and he centers himself. It is not the same as it was when he was a celestial being, when he could push himself outward and pull himself inward infinitely, when he could merge and blend with the energy around him; when he could reach out to his sisters and brother and feel instantaneously connected to the divine; he can no longer cultivate his grace, close and tight to himself. It's…different, wholly different, but there is something familiar about it nonetheless…sitting and listening, first to his surroundings; the cricket song and the floorboard creaks, to the rustle and thump down the hallway that is Sam organizing the library, or the soft footsteps just beyond the door that could belong to no one but Dean. Castiel sits and listens until the world dwindles, sharpens to his heartbeat and his breath, the blood rushing through his veins, the air coming into and out of his lungs, steady as the tide. His focus moves inward, to the way it feels to be, to exist, in this form, in this body, which belongs to no one but himself. He hears the steady drum of his pulse and realizes that the heart that beats in his chest is the rhythm of his life's blood and…that is in its own way miraculous.

Castiel eventually resurfaces, feeling more at peace. He will occasionally experience a twinge in his neck or a stiffness in his knee, but his mind, his soul, he supposes, feels quitter, calmer. Though, he will admit that, the first few times he attempted to meditate as a human being, he very nearly had a panic attack, frightened by his heartbeat, trapped and tethered and fearful of his mortal coil, unable to get enough air. Dean had helped him through when he'd begun to hyperventilate and shake. He's not sure, still, who had been more frightened in that moment. Dean had been convinced that Castiel had either been shot or was having a heart attack, Castiel was unable to express what was happening beyond the fact that he felt like his skin was on fire and he very nearly broke Dean's nose when he tried to reach out to steady him. It was Sam who recognized that he was having a panic attack, that he needed to regulate his breathing—if Castiel had been capable of speech in that moment, he would have expressed the fact that this had all been started by his attempt to regulate his breathing. The most he could muster at the time was a glare, and a desperate and despondent use of the brown paper bag that Sam had offered. All in all, it had not been a good night. He has gotten better at breathing past his fear, at settling into his bones instead of feeling as if he's trapped inside of them, fighting tooth and nail against the cage of his ribs, scrapping, clawing to get out, to escape and fly off into the night. His perseverance has borne fruit: he's better able to finish his meditation, feeling tranquil and collected, relatively at peace…it never lasts particularly long, but he supposes that it's a start.

Castiel brushes his teeth, which he finds oddly soothing and methodical. He enjoys the "minty freshness" that settles on his tongue. He finds mouthwash unpleasant, but trusts the recommendation of the American Dental Association, and, though floss at first made his gums bleed, he's grown to tolerate the sensation. He does not think that he would particularly enjoy the experience of having drills inserted into his mouth in order to repair enamel damage; he's willing to make small sacrifices to delay, if not completely avoid, that fate.

It's once his nighttime rituals are completed that the trouble begins. Castiel lies in bed and there is no story to occupy him, there is no silence of mind and body, it is just Castiel, alone. His mind wanders—it wanders far and wide, to places he would rather it not go—before being abruptly pulled back to his world of flesh, to the stinging agony of his spine, to the dull ache of his wings—wings that are no longer there, but sometimes tingle and singe, like jolts of electricity in his shoulder blades, like fire and blood in the ether. He knows that they are not there, that they are irrevocably gone, that they were torn from his being, he is graceless and human and he vividly remembers that agony. He knows…but, at night, alone he feels their absence and their presence both, in almost every cell of his body. His skin is too tight against his bones; the sheets on his bed, so soft and smooth, itch and irritate, abrasive; he pushes them off, but then his flesh feels like an exposed wound, open to the sting of the air. It does not matter how he twists or turns, every position is an agony, and there is no relief to be found, every movement or shift makes it worse.

When first Castiel had fallen, he thought that it could not get worse. Truly that was foolish, tempting the fates. He had been cast out of heaven, and he had never known such pain as that, but there had also been comfort. Dean had dressed his wounds; every night, and it had hurt, oh, how it had hurt, but there was softness in that gesture, there was sympathy, there was kindness—there was a type of connectedness in that act of care and comfort that Castiel had never known or experienced in all his millennia, in any of his forms, and though he had felt trapped, and pained, though his newly form fleshed was raw and broken, though it was sheer agony to be touched, there was something of Dean's soul in the hands he lay upon Castiel's wounds; there was something new, and something familiar, and it had spread from Dean's fingertips, deep into Castiel's flesh, into his being. It had been the only thing, in this wretched mortal prison, that had felt good, right.

Castiel's wounds no longer require such care. They do not need to be dressed, nor do they necessitate careful ministrations They are not wounds now, so much as they are scars, and it is more important that they are exposed to the air; that Castiel stretches the muscles and makes sure that the skin, which will inevitably want to tighten, remains supple in so far as possible. He applies creams and salves to his back himself, sometimes Sam will aid him in the mornings when Dean has already left for work, but it is…different when Sam helps him…his touch is impartial, kind, and gentle, but it does not settle and unsettle Castiel the way that Dean's hands do.

The warmth of Dean's palms against Castiel's newly made skin may have been the only thing that enabled him to sleep in the early days of his humanity. Indeed, it is only when Dean is close by that Castiel is able to find peace in his rest, comforted by his presence, his proximity, his solidarity, his warmth of body and spirit…but that is not something that Castiel is willing to ask of Dean, nor is it a sacrifice that Dean should be forced to make for Castiel's benefit. His wounds are healing, and Dean should no longer feel that he is required to care for Castiel that way. It is not his responsibility to do so.

Nevertheless, Castiel is restless at night. He knows what awaits him when he closes his eyes, if he can eventually become comfortable enough in his own skin to close them…that foresight, the anticipation of fresh horrors and psychological trauma do not exactly precipitate a pleasant transition into somnolence. Sometimes, Castiel will remain in his bed and persevere; he will eventually fall asleep, from exhaustion if nothing else (the body, as he has learned, clearly has its limits), and as for what dreams may come, well there is the rub, as they say…Castiel will awaken, undoubtedly, from some fresh new horror, shaken, sweaty, perhaps alone, though his unbidden cries rouse Dean and Sam from their slumbers as often as not. He sleeps better after Dean has sat with him awhile, and he feels both shame and guilt for the attachment and need he that roils so strongly within him, the weakness he exhibits; he who was once an Angel of the Lord, reduced to a shaking, sweating, weeping, pitiful creature, desperate for human touch for human company. He tries not to dwell on how far he has fallen. He tries not think how far there is yet to fall when Dean wipes away the sweat and the sorrow from his brow, when Castiel clings almost covetously to the gentle hand of friendship laid upon him. It does not do to dwell upon his urgings towards Dean, to imagine what cannot be. So Castiel tries to sleep and he tries to carry on, and he tries to accept with dignity that which he has and that which is beyond him.

On this particular night, Castiel is too uncomfortable to sleep, to stay in his bed. Sam believes that he has the angelic equivalent of phantom limb syndrome. Castiel remains dubious, unsure if the transition from a celestial being made of light and divinity—a being that would, in his present form, be unknowable to his own senses—to something corporeal is quite the same as removing a limb. Regardless, it sometimes brings him peace to walk around the house, to move, and, if all else fails, to sit outside on the porch or in the grass—still verdant and green, lush with summer's fecundity—the burden of his missing…aspects…is alleviated here. He feels less confined, as if, were he still possessed of his grace, were he able to manifest his wings, he would be able to do so free and encumbered in such an open space. That sense of freedom, the lack of restriction allows him to calm, to settle, it soothes the ache in his shoulders and the burn of his skin marginally.

Castiel sits there, in the center of the lawn, eyes closed and drowsy, in the darkness for a while; he breathes deeply the scent of earth and dampened greenery, rain perhaps; with the sound of cicadas all around, until he thinks that he might be able to sleep. He pulls himself up to his feet and walks quietly back into the house.

The lights are off and the house is nearly silent. Sam and Dean have long since gone to sleep. Castiel treads carefully in the darkness, mindful not to trip or bump into anything that could make noise, he skips the creaky third step as he pads his way up the stairs.

Dean's room is directly across from Castiel's own, and he sleeps, always, with the door partially open. Though Dean offers myriad rationales for this habit, Castiel knows that is so that Dean can watch over both he and Sam in the night. Dean loves having his own room and his own home, yet he feels uncomfortable being so isolated from those who might need him. Castiel smiles slightly, pausing on his way to his bed, at the kindness and protectiveness that Dean gives so freely, that he tries to cover up, and, that nevertheless bleeds through his every gesture and word. There's a warmth in Castiel's chest again, and that is when he hears Dean's low moan.

It sounds as if he's in pain, and Castiel hesitates for only a moment, until Dean calls his name, before he bursts into the room.

Castiel is not sure what he expected; he had instinctively fallen into a fighting stance upon crossing the threshold, wary and ready to combat any number of evils whether they be supernatural or human. His relief at finding no palpable threat is for a moment, overwhelming; but it is quickly replaced by a new type of concern. Dean is clearly in the throes of a nightmare, struggling against imaginary restraints; he's sweating, his sheets are a tangled mess on the floor, and his face is contorted into an expression of pain and horror. This time, Castiel does not hesitate: he's across the room and at Dean's side as quickly as his legs will carry him there.

He tries to rouse him, to no immediate avail, and, when Castiel reaches out to touch Dean, his immediate response, born of years as a hunter, is to pull a concealed knife on his assailant, real or imaginary.

Castiel blocks the weapon with relative ease, he's known Dean for long enough to know that he would not be able to sleep without a weapon within easy reach—would feel too exposed, and unsafe, anxious without a gun or a knife at the ready—so he's subconsciously, at least, prepared for something of this sort. Castiel may no longer possess angelic strength, or 'mojo', but he maintains the reflexes and skills of millennia as a warrior of heaven, and, though Dean is strong, Castiel is quick and well-practiced. Dean bears down, and Castiel deflects him, all the while trying to wake Dean, who calls Castiel's name with such desperation that Castiel understands, perhaps for the first time, what it means to feel your heart break—there is a strange, sharp twisting sensation in his sternum, with an accompanying hollowness in his abdomen, and he wants Dean to come back, so that he can see that Castiel is here, that there is nothing wrong, that he is okay.

When Dean does open his eyes, he looks stricken, horrified, and Castiel isn't sure what to do—he's never…how can he help, how can he heal when all he has are his two hands and this meager form at his disposal—but he doesn't let go of Dean, not when the knife clatters to the floor, not when his face crumples in upon itself; a collapsing star—he will not let Dean drown in this pain.

"Are you okay?" Dean's voice is scraped raw, and Castiel feels again that sharp sting in his chest, radiating out across his shoulders, "Did I hurt you?"

Castiel's jaw clenches because this foolish, foolish man is clearly the one in pain and yet, of course, he would be worried about others…more than that he is so clearly terrified, the type of near paralyzing fear in his eyes that Castiel has not seen in a long while. Dean is afraid of what he's done, afraid that he's hurt someone.

Castiel tries to reassure him with words, "You've done nothing wrong," but Dean flinches, as if he knows some undeniable truth, a deep and abiding sign, and he falls forward, broken, lost.

Castiel remembers Dean's soul, when first he beheld it, beautiful, but injured, beaten, hurt and confused. Suddenly he knows what to do, he releases his grip on Dean's arms, just barely, just long enough for Dean to recoil still further, before Castiel takes a breath and wraps his arms around Dean, drawing him close, pulling him tight to his chest the way he had, so very long ago, cradled Dean's soul in the heart of his grace, sheltering, healing, protecting. Dean struggles against him, just as his soul once did. Well does Castiel remember that flight, Dean's soul simultaneously reaching towards Castiel, holding on for dear life, at the same time, flashing with fear, with self-loathing, with sensations of impurity, corruption, punishment, struggling to get away.

"You don't think you deserve to be saved," he had said once to Dean, long ago, having witnessed the brightness of his soul, the beauty of his being, his very essence, incredulous that such a man could not see his own worth…Now in this room, sheltered by shadows, the warmth and solidity of this man, this foolish, precious, wonderful, beautiful, man, cradled against his chest, Castiel wishes that Dean knew, that Dean could see that of anyone, of anything, he is the most worthy of saving, the most worthy of forgiveness, redemption, love. Castiel holds tighter to Dean, willing that sensation, that surety, to pass from his chest into Dean's.

Almost of their own volition, Castiel's hands move against Dean's skin, soothing circles, and abstract patterns, protective sigils, and poetry, endearments he would not dare to utter aloud. He hums against Dean's hair, an old song in Enochian, anther in Italian, Latin.

"Hush," he tells him, gently, his own voice almost unrecognizable, gruff and spent, "hush, dear one, I am here."

You are safe, beloved one, you are safe.

Dean whimpers, a broken, wounded sound, but he draws himself closer into Castiel's embrace, and it's all Castiel can do to protect him, but perhaps it's enough.

Dean's back expands and contracts, expands and contracts beneath Castiel's palm. His thin t-shirt is damp with sweat, the flesh beneath radiates heat, and his muscles convulse and jump around each inhale, each choked sob. His breathing is static, staggering, erratic. Sharp gasps escape him, damp puffs of air into Castiel's neck, even as Dean struggles to remain silent, to contain his suffering.

His body is taut, pulled tight, protectively around itself, a childish gesture from a man who grew up too fast. Castiel can do little more than hold him, wrap himself protectively, soothingly, around the tightly wound coil of Dean's sorrow and fear. He feels the loss of his wings anew in this moment; for the first time since their loss, he yearns, not to fly away, nor to stretch them out and ease their ache, he wishes that he had wings so that he could envelop Dean still further into his embrace, wrap them both into a protective cocoon of warmth and safety and light and energy, and stay there safe, protected, eased, until the darkness passes. He knows that this is impossible, but the instinct is so intense, so strong, that he must force himself to swallow around its potency and focus instead on the means of comfort at his disposal.

Castiel knows that this moment of anguish, of vulnerability, is fleeting at best, that, in few minutes at most, Dean will pull himself together, inward, and away. Castiel knows, and that knowledge conjures within him a deep and abiding sorrow. He does not want Dean to pull away, to remove himself. He does not want Dean to put in place the mask of composure and joviality; the façade of vivaciousness and levity and poise, the stoic front that hides this agony—this agony that comes from all he has done to help others, to save those in need, to protect those he loves. Dean cares so fully, so deeply for the fallen and the injured; does he not deserve the same courtesy? Does he not deserve more? Castiel wants Dean here, with him, where he can help him, protect him, be with him, care for him the way he ought to. The strangest sensation claws its way up his throat, through his arms, across his sternum, a righteousness that he has not felt since he fell, a sense and clarity of purpose that he has lacked for years suddenly crystalizes within him—he cannot amend the hurts of the past but he can, in this moment, be here, and, in so far as possible, protect Dean from their repercussions. He can make Dean feel as precious as Dean has made him feel.

Dean's breathing lengthens, evens; his exhales still staggered, but his muscles loosening just slightly, just enough. Castiel's fingers trace idly at the crest of Dean's shoulder.

Beloved one, he writes, as he would never say aloud. Still he swallows hard, frightened by his boldness, given pause by his infraction.

Be not afraid, he traces against the sweat damped skin of Dean's neck, and Dean shivers almost imperceptibly beneath his ministrations.

Castiel allows his free hand to dance across the terrain of Dean's back, so different from the scarred and pitted hideousness that is his own landscape of flesh—Castiel knows that his back will never pass as beautiful to human or angel; his arms, too, are more the stuff of nightmares than skin and bone; his wounds are a cruel grotesque mockery of the creature of light that he once was, part of his punishment, his exile, his crime, and he has learned to feel both pride and shame because of his scars—but Dean's back is warm and solid, and Castiel knows every muscle and bone, every freckle and scar, every cell and atom (even if he can no longer perceive these last). Castiel writes poems into Dean's spine, and stories into his shoulder. He etches protective sigils against his ribs where once he carved them into bone. He lacks that power now, but his human hands hold their own strength, their own grace, if they can bring Dean even a measure of comfort, a simple sensation of peace in this chaotic universe.

There was a time, not so very long ago, when Castiel could have eased Dean's pain with a simple touch—a gentle tendril of his grace, to brush against Dean's soul, to ease his sleeping mind; to turn those dreams of pain and suffering into something placid, pleasant—the memory of two small boys chasing each other along a shoreline; the feel of engine grease, sweat, and satisfaction at a job well done; the warm light of a summer sun and the promise of the open road, freedom, and Dean's own version of flight.

There was a time not so very long before that, when Castiel would have let Dean suffer through the nightmares. His face heats uncomfortably at the memory. It was important for his mission that Dean remember hell, that Dean fear it. What did it matter to him, a celestial being, a warrior of god, if one human could not rest peacefully through the night? If his dreams were hellfire and brimstone and tortures of the worst kind imaginable? What did it matter to him? Foolish. Selfish. Castiel is ashamed. He knows what Dean dreams about—he knows the map of his nightmares, their shape and texture and solidity, and he would do anything to spare him, if only that power was still available to him. How could he have been so callous? He rests his cheek gently against the crown of Dean's head, his hair is matted from sleep, dampened with sweat; it tickles against Castiel's cheek.

He wishes that he still possessed the power to intervene. He knows the agony of human dreams, the capacity for longing, for the macabre, for the torment born of your own wishes and weakness and memory and fear. He has seen Dean's dreams, he has experienced his own nightmares, and he wishes, oh, how he wishes that he retained even a speck of his grace as well as the capacity for empathy that has been granted to him along with his human soul. He sighs against Dean's hair, and contents himself with offering the human kindness and the human contact at his disposal, ever mindful of the way in which Dean's calloused palms and comforting words have served as a healing balm to his troubled soul in the dead of night, soothing his spirit, his body, and his mind, in ways that Castiel would never have believed possible, had never imagined or experienced in any facet of his life, in any realm of the universe. He hopes that he is doing it right; he hopes that he can give Dean what he has given to Castiel; safety, serenity, peace, warmth.

Dean takes a deep breath; another one. His exhales shudder, and Castiel knows that this moment of closeness is nearing its end, and he tightens his hold on Dean shoulders and tries to, without word or action or angelic grace, communicate the depth of his affection for this man, this person who is so much more than he thinks; who is everything, who is beautiful and courageous and kind; who has been Castiel's charge, his puzzle, his hero, his friend, his caretaker, his family. He tries to convey this feeling of warmth through his hand on Dean's shoulder, through the press of his cheek against Dean's head, through the grip of his palm on his back.

I pulled you from Hell once because I was told to, because it was a mission from god, he wants to say, but I would battle the hordes of hell again, even as I am now, for you. You are worth that; you are worth all that I was and all that I am, you are worth everything.

Dean pulls back. Castiel's arms are empty, his chest suddenly cold.

Dean's face is dark and haunted, shadowed, strangely embarrassed; did he think that Castiel would judge him for this outpouring? Castiel tilts his head, considering the man before him. Dean clears his throat and shifts backwards on the bed, towards its edge, turning to his side so that he is in profile, and Castiel is left to regard him from a distance, which, though small, feels agonizingly far. Castiel flexes his fingers and balls them into fists, once, twice, three times; 'holding his tongue' as they say, as he waits for Dean to speak, for Dean to shift away, to tense and put up all of his carefully constructed barriers and walls, however fragile they may be in this moment.

Dean rubs a hand across his face, and Castiel misses his warmth, feels as if Dean is moved far from him, light-years away, though it's only a distance of inches. He yearns to pull Dean back into his arms once more, but he cannot. He straightens his spine.

Dean clears his throat, won't look at Castiel, won't meet his eyes. It hurts.

"Are you okay?" Dean asks again, and Castiel is not sure whether he finds this need for reassurance endearing or grating.

"I'm fine," he replies, carefully, directly.

"Are you sure?" Dean persists, his tone sharp, like he is interrogating a witness, like he senses a lie. Castiel realizes then that Dean is still afraid, still haunted, not fully returned to this world; the nightmares tendrils insidious and cloying upon his psyche.

Castiel exhales slowly and fixes his stare firmly upon Dean's profile, willing him to face him, knowing that Dean can feel the weight of his stare, waiting for him to succumb to it.

"Are you?" he asks simply. He is aware that this question is anything but.

Dean recoils and, there it is, turns to look at Castiel, startled, fearful, as if Castiel still had the power to visit Dean's dreams, and Dean is deeply, desperately frightened of what he may have seen.

"I'm fine, Cas," he replies.

Castiel feels his own eyebrows reach his hairline; perturbed by the lie.

"Do you really wish to insult my intelligence that way?"

A muscle in Dean's jaw jumps, and he glares at Castiel, but Castiel refuses to be cowed by that look, refuses to avert his eyes; and, after a second, it is Dean, who slumps forward slightly, exhausted, rubbing his hand again at his face.

"It was just a bad dream," he mutters, trying to be flippant, Castiel supposes, but missing the mark by a wide margin; Dean sounds exhausted, weary. Castiel would do almost anything to remove that tiredness, that suffering from Dean's voice, "Makin' a big deal out of nothin'."

Castiel blinks slowly, "A wise friend once told me that dreams aren't real, but they can certainly feel that way," he regards Dean's face, a study in shadows, swathed in darkness, soft greys and muted blacks across a field of battered exhaustion, "Whatever it was that you saw, Dean, it wasn't truth."

Dean laughs, but it's a sad, broken thing, hollow and void, "Might as well have been."

"It might help you to talk about it," he offers, waiting, patient.

Dean stares at him then, a furrow between his brows, consternation on his features; something wary around the creases of his eyes, "Does it help you?"

Castiel is unsure if the remark is meant to be cutting, or, if beneath the sharp tone, Dean is genuinely curious. Dean lashes out sometimes, like a wounded creature when he is afraid, when he is hurt, as like to hurt himself as those trying to care for him…more likely to hurt himself.

Castiel inhales deeply, and answers honestly, "Sometimes."

He remembers his dreams of hell; of death, of destruction and devastation, of pain and suffering, torture, immobility, his wings burning; his dreams of wanting, longing, joy torn away.

"Sometimes not," he continues evenly, "but the offer remains…should you wish to discuss it with me."

Dean says nothing; his jaw works silently, and his shoulders are tense. Castiel wants to touch them, to knead at the muscles until they are soft and pliant, to pull Dean back into the circle of his arms when he fits, where it is warm, and Castiel can shelter him with the feeble mortal powers at his disposal. Instead, he waits, his fingers flex wide, taut, before he clenches them into a fist again; tendons, ligament, bone, flesh; tense and release, tense and release…remain still, remain vigilant, here and now with Dean; here and now.

"What were you dreaming about, Dean?" he asks, quietly, humbly. He asked this question of Dean before; once, when he knew the answer; when he was goading and enigmatic, when he had knowingly allowed Dean to suffer his nightmares for the higher purpose of keeping the Righteous Man in check. That is not why he asks the question now; it is not with the arrogance of an angel; it is not with an ulterior motive; it is not because he wishes to raise Dean's hackles, to put him at the mercy of Castiel's supposed omniscience. All these years later, all the nights and days, the trials and tribulations, the universes and evolutions and strife and joy between that moment and this, Castiel asks because Castiel loves Dean from the very core of his being—and of all the things that have changed, this one thing has remained steady as the tide, the only solid thing in Castiel's existence; that which has grown stronger, clearer since he fell—and Castiel would gladly throw himself into the fiery inferno of Hell itself would it spare Dean further pain. Castiel asks because he can no more wipe away Dean's nightmares than he can fly; he cannot heal Dean's wounds of body or mind any more than he can heal his own; but he can, in this moment, stay with Dean, be with him, in whatever capacity he is allowed, whatever capacity he is tolerated, and he can ask Dean what he dreamt of, because it is the only thing that he has to offer in the way of healing this ache. So Castiel asks, and Castiel waits.

And Dean, against all odds, does not remain silent; he does not scoff and tell Castiel to 'fuck off' or 'just go back to bed.' He turns to look at Castiel, with wide eyes, gleaming in the darkness, something bright in their depths. It reminds Castiel of the way that Dean's soul shines like the summer sun. Dean stares at him, brows slightly raised, and Castiel knows that Dean remembers the last time that Castiel asked after his dreams as clearly as he does. Castiel is unsure what he feels as Dean takes him in, as if he's never seen him before; there is a strange churning in his stomach and he cannot distinguish between shame or fear or even hope, but he does not look away, he keeps his face as impassive as he can and he stares back.

Dean licks his lips, Castiel clenches his fingers deep into his palm; he can feel his nails bite into the skin; it hurts, but it distracts him from the jumpy feeling in his stomach, the anticipation and the fear.

Dean clears his throat, and Castiel breathes again (unaware that he had been holding it); "I, ah…," he shakes his head, "I'm not gonna bore you with all the grisly details, but it was Hell, Cas…was dreamin' of hell."

Castiel inclines his head, remorseful, "I had feared as much," he confesses, "I am sorry; that cannot have been pleasant."

Dean laughs, short and humorless, and he rubs a hand against the back of his neck, still clearly shaken, "Yeah, well, never is."

Dean looks away, fiddles with the ring on his finger, and Castiel watches him closely, absorbing the details: the exhaustion under Dean's eyes, the stubble across his face, the ashen pallor to his skin, the way he is both exhausted and rippling with anxiety, restless energy he cannot dispel.

Castiel bites his own lip, glances down at his own hands; they rest upon his folded knees: human, fragile, scarred, broken, raw; they are not as strong as he would like, but nor are they useless; he watches the muscles shift beneath the skin as he flexes his fingers once more.

"I dream of it, too," he murmurs; he can feel Dean's gaze coming to rest upon his bowed head; its weight is a heavy thing upon his wingless shoulders, "Hell," he clarifies

It is silent for a moment, as if Dean needs time to gather his thoughts in the wake of such a revelation. Castiel keeps his head bent, as if in prayer, watching the way his hands move under his direction: flex and release; flex and release.

"You do?" Dean asks, his voice rough, surprised, perhaps even sad.

Castiel looks up at him through his eyelashes, faces Dean's startled eyes with the full weight of his intention, "Often."

"Shit, that's—Jesus, Cas," Dean rubs a hand across his face, "I'm sorry."

"It's not your doing."

Dean shakes his head, and looks away, as if Castiel is wrong, as if Castiel knows nothing, as if Dean is guilty. Castiel cannot stand that look upon his face; cannot stand Dean—who gives so much and asks so little, who is smart and loyal, strong and caring, whose soul is brighter and more beautiful than any Castiel has ever seen—he cannot stand Dean looking so sorrowful, so remorseful, so he reaches out his human hand, and he lays it gently upon Dean's forearm, and when Dean stares at Castiel as if he's lost his mind, as if he's undeserving of contact or touch or sympathy, Castiel does not move away. Castiel meets Dean's eyes and he squeezes his fingers gently, reassuringly, repeating with touch, rather than words, "I am here, beloved one, do not be afraid."

"I hurt you, Cas," Dean almost whispers into the darkness; he turns away, to hide his face, "I…I was in hell and I…you were one of the souls on the rack," he swallows, his voice is bitter, each word choked, "I tore you apart, just like all the others, more, even, cause you were quiet, and I…fuck, I wanted to hear you scream," he pauses, exhales raggedly, and bites his lip, Castiel maintains his hold on Dean's arm, "I didn't know it was you until the end, I swear, I didn't, I…tried to put you back together, but I…and Alastair…he said you were my masterpiece, cut your wings off…I couldn't stop him…I couldn't…"

The knife in Castiel's chest, twists, tight and painful, jaggedly at the words. Hel moves closer and lays a hand gently upon Dean's shoulder, "It was a dream, Dean," he reassures him, "it wasn't real."

Dean recoils sharply, glaring at Castiel with wide, wild eyes, damp with tears, livid with agony, "Fuck's it matter, Cas? How can you even fucking look at me? You know how many souls I did that to? How many I—," he inhales sharply through his nose, "You think I wouldn't have done the same to you if I'd had the chance? Think I wouldn't have trussed you up like a fucking deer, and gutted you like a fucking prize?" he spits, venomously.

Dean wants Castiel to recoil from him; he wants to be shunned, punished, exiled. Dean wants Castiel to hold him contempt; he's trying to provoke him, and Castiel feels himself straighten at the challenge. He is angry.

"I can look at you, Dean Winchester," Castiel says, shoulders square, eyes bright, voice even, "Because you are not what hell made you. I do not see a demon when I look at you, Dean. I see a man, who sacrificed his soul to damnation out of love for his brother; I see a man who rebelled against heaven for the good of humanity; I see someone who has suffered deeply, but who loves more fully and against more odds than any human I have encountered; I see…I see a man who took in a fallen angel—who has committed his own fair share of sins, against god and man, against you…who took in that fallen angel and cared for him, helpless and hopeless though he may be, because you are a good person, Dean."

Dean winces against each sentence, as if they were blows, as if Castiel were raining down upon him with heaven's might and righteousness; as if it were more painful for Dean to see the beauty of his soul than its darkness.

"Dean," Castiel commands, softly, "look at me."

Dean hesitates, resolutely looks away.

"Look at me, Dean" Castiel repeats and Dean does, face closed and unreadable.

"What happened in hell, what you did, what you became," he keeps his eyes locked with Dean's, focused, close, "will likely haunt you for the rest of your life..." unbidden the hand that had rested upon Dean's forearm travels, to brush gently against Dean's temple, as if he would brush those memories and their associated pain away, "If I could spare you that…" he shakes his head, he cannot dwell; Dean's skin is warm beneath his fingertips, blessedly alive and that is what matters, "but it does not define you, Dean…you have to learn to forgive yourself."

"I almost stabbed you in my sleep tonight, Cas."

"And I almost stabbed you in the stomach a month ago."

"That's not the same."

"I hardly think it's different."

"You were out of it."

"So were you," Castiel scowls, "you're willing to forgive me for the same infraction, but not yourself."

"It's different," Dean insists, stubbornly, and Castiel is quite certain that Dean's obduracy is both his most frustrating and endearing quality, and the simultaneous feeling of wanting to both kiss him yet throttle him is unfortunately becoming a standard, enveloping conflict of Castiel's life. He rolls his eyes, which he finds useful in bleeding off the tension brought on by such internal struggle.

"It's not," Castiel insists.

"I could have hurt you."

"I may be human, but you're greatly overestimating your abilities if you think that you could mortally wound me while half asleep."

That somehow shakes Dean out of his obstinacy, and he blinks, startled.

"You didn't hurt me, Dean," Castiel says, quietly, honestly, "I'm right here," fingers warm against Dean's cheek, hand firm against his shoulder, as if ready to pull Dean, once more, from perdition, "this is real."

Dean grasps Castiel's wrist, and for a moment, Castiel thinks that Dean will push him away, that Castiel overstepped his bounds, that he did something wrong, something to upset and worsen the situation, but Dean's hand is gentle against Castiel's skin, as if making sure that he is, in fact, real and not a phantasm designed to torture or be tortured. Castiel waits, stays still, and then somehow, suddenly, Dean responds, like a drowning man, desperate, holding on to Castiel's wrist as if it's the only tether he has to life, to humanity, to himself.

"I'm sorry, Cas," Dean whispers, rough and desperate in the darkness, pain in every syllable.

"You didn't do anything, Dean," Castiel reminds him, softly.

"I'm just…I'm sorry," he half gasps, half sobs.

Castiel realizes, as Dean slumps forward, shaking slightly, penitent, pained, that Dean is not apologizing for what he did to Castiel in his dreams, or what he might have done in his moments before waking. He's apologizing for the sins he committed in hell, for the brutality that he exacted while in the Pit, while on Earth. Castiel is no longer an angel; he is not a priest, he is not sanctified with the role of a confessor; he has no power to absolve. Perhaps that is not what Dean needs. He does not need the angel Castiel to forgive him with the might of heaven at his back, he needs human Castiel, who knows pain and suffering, who has made wrong choices and feels their reverberations through time. He needs human Castiel, who saw him in hell and yet, somehow, still sees something in Dean worth saving; he needs human Castiel to listen to his sorrow, to hear it and acknowledge it, and, in that moment, Castiel feels more power and more responsibility in his humanity than he ever had in his divinity.

"I know," he replies, and Dean folds against his chest, a warm weight against his shoulder, Castiel's arms wrapping once more around his back, holding him safe, holding him close, unable to suppress the sensation that Dean seems to fit almost perfectly against his beating heart.

"I know, Dean," he repeats.

It's a few moment before Dean is calm again, his breathing even, and Castiel's shirt is damp with tears, snot, and sweat. He notices, but he doesn't particularly care. Dean wipes at his face, exhausted, but somehow lighter than when Castiel found him.

Castiel isn't sure what to do; he's never done this before, never comforted in this form, as a creature of flesh and blood. He doesn't know what he ought to do, though, usually, were the situation reversed, this is the point at which Sam and Dean would offer to leave, to allow Castiel moments to recover from his fear and embarrassment, to fall into a fitful exhausted sleep, to suffer the rest of the night.

It's the first time, since coming upon Dean's sleeping form, that Castiel has not known what to do, has doubted himself and his instincts; because his instincts…his instincts rally for him to wrap his body around Dean's and never let him go, to pull Dean as close to himself as possible until their flesh becomes one; to use teeth and tongue and mouth and hands and every tool at his disposal until Dean is unburdened, at peace, happy; but those instincts, they cannot be trusted, they cannot be allowed; they are overwhelming and new and potent; they are impossible…so Castiel hesitates, unsure.

"Would you, ah, like me to leave you to sleep now?"

Dean looks at Castiel in such a way then, that Castiel can see the boy he once was within the man he grew to be; there is something young and wistful in his eyes, something tempered with the type sorrow and longing only adulthood can bring.

"I could also, ah, stay if you'd like," Castiel's mouth is dry; the words tumble out of him unbidden.

The pain in Dean's eyes softens, though he glances away briefly, and rubs at the back of his neck, "You don't mind?"

Castiel's jaw clenches, "I don't."

Dean reaches out a hand, and takes Castiel's, tugging him closer. Castiel feels a constriction, a warmth in his abdomen, a uptick in his heartbeat at the touch of Dean's skin against his own, at Dean reaching for him, wanting him.

Dean settles against Castiel's chest, and Castiel rests his hand against Dean's shoulder, holding him protectively, gently. He is overwhelmed by the strength of his feelings: love, fear, awe, sorrow, inadequacy, pride, happiness, they mix and weave and jumble inside of him, and he pulls Dean closer.

"I'm sorry," Dean mumbles against Castiel's collarbone, and the sensation of his breath against Castiel's skin sends a shiver running down his spine; it is not unpleasant, but it is also not the time; Castiel breathes through the sensation, around it.

"I know," Castiel whispers.

He can feel Dean's smile, tired though it may be, in his voice, "You almost Han Solo-ed me there, Cas."

Castiel frowns at the ceiling, "I don't know what that means."

Dean's low rumble of laughter is the most beautiful sound Castiel has ever heard, he's almost certain.

"I'll tell you tomorrow," Dean mumbles.

"I look forward to it," Castiel whispers, feeling warm and sleepy, pillowed by Dean, weighted by him, grounded and safe, secure in Dean's proximity, in his life; reassured by each inhale and exhale that Dean is here with him, safe and well (as well as can be expected). Castiel feels oddly content; their inhales and exhales begin to elongate together; their hearts begin to beat in time, and Castiel smiles, holds more firmly to Dean, tucks him against his chest.

"Good night, Dean."

"'Night, Cas."

Castiel traces the sigils for love and protection against Dean's side; Dean squirms closer, hand warm and possessive against Castiel's ribs.

Home, Castiel thinks before he falls asleep.

Woah, so first of all thank you to everyone who has read, commented, and encouraged this story. You all mean the world to me, and I cannot tell you how much I appreciate your support and continued patience. This chapter is later than expected for a few reasons one being real life, two being Castiel taking his sweet time telling me what was up, and three being that Season 9 is makes me dramatically question my characters' OOCness (I think the writers are giving me a complex, along with the rest of the fandom I'm sure). Anyway, thank you for your patience, you should be pleased to know that the next chapter is already a third of the way done, so it shouldn't be too long. I would love to hear what you think of this latest installment!

all my love till next time

PS I will get back to any comments from the last chapter ASAP.