Cas still looks beaten and bloody by the time they get back to the bunker, so after Dean gets him situated on the floor leaning against the wall, he runs for a wet rag while Sam stumbles off to his bedroom. Returning, the sight of Castiel's defeated expression as he sits limp against the concrete almost makes Dean stumble himself. Recovering, he kneels in front of the angel and begins to mop gently at the blood that's now dried on his forehead.
Stoically, Cas stares forward until Dean says, "Can I ask you something?"
"Of course." Dean eases up on the washcloth, trying to be careful near the bruises that rim Cas's eyes.
"Why haven't you just healed yourself yet?"
At that, Cas meets Dean's gaze, for once looking as old as he actually is- centuries, eons, lifetimes crammed inside this torn trench coat. "I'm cut off from Heaven," he explains. "This way, Naomi can't find me. Again."
Biting his lip, Dean nods, wiping at Cas's left temple. "So you fell?" The question is a hell of a lot heavier than the pressure Dean's putting on the rag, but neither of them acknowledge that.
"It's only temporary," Cas says, barely hearing Dean's mutter of "What isn't?" Unless Dean's imagining it, he relaxes as Dean cleans his wounds with all the care he would take cleaning dirt and dust from the Impala. "Sam's worse," Cas notes after a moment.
"Yeah," Dean acknowledges as breath grates through his teeth, like he wants to think Sam could be getting better. "Yeah, but I'm handling it." As if to prove his point, the microwave that's been heating up Sam's soup dings. Dean doesn't move.
"You take care of everyone." The shadows beside the bridge of his nose make his eyes look like tunnels. "You always do. Who takes care of you, Dean?"
"I don't need taking care of." Dean laughs once, harsh. "I'm fine." Internally, he winces- it's the kind of bullshit he's been bullying Sam for saying over the past couple of months.
"I would," Cas says like he hasn't heard anything. As Dean runs the rag over the blood on his cheek, his lips, it's like he's uncovering Cas the way an art restorer recovers a painting, peeling off layers of grime and age. He remembers looking up into that face and finding a stranger with hitched brows and empty eyes. Now, he just sees Cas. "I would take care of you."
Dean can hear what he's not saying. If circumstances were different. If I could stay here. If none of this had ever happened. Dabbing off the last traces of blood, leaving only pinkish skin and scrapes that will heal over soon enough, Dean switches the washcloth to his other hand but doesn't take his right hand away. Running a thumb over the bruises on the left side of his face, the tufted bits of hair jutting in front of his ear, and finally coming to hold his hand against Cas's cheek, Dean drops all the fatigue and irritation for a second and just breathes. "I know." The warmth radiating from Cas's face under his palm reminds him of the heat he'd feel brushing against him on cold nights in Purgatory.
"There's something I've been wanting to tell you," Cas says, the sentence sounding like a ladder unfurling, step by step as he lets himself say it. "Since that night in the crypt, it's just- I didn't want to find you. I thought it would be too dangerous."
"Yeah?" Dean says, half of his mind wondering if Cas is going to reveal some Achilles' heel of the angels screwing with his head, or maybe if this is Castiel's way of saying goodbye. "What's that?"
Cas's eyes aren't empty now; they're cities, brimming with stories and streets and loss and life. "I need you."
It takes Dean a second to really hear it, and then he smiles, smiles like he hasn't since stepping out of the woods to see that muddy angel kneeling beside a riverbed. "You better," he says with a rustle of laughter, and Cas grins the way he does when it takes him a little bit longer than everyone else to get a joke. "'Cause I'm not done taking care of you."
Cas hears what he's not saying. Not ever.