His hands were coarse from years of blisters, although it was admittedly his own fault for being such a stubborn bastard. Whenever Sammy came to visit with his wife, and sometimes his grandchildren, he tried to convince him to get some gloves, but he didn't fancy looking like some sort of emo-grunge character. Sammy always chortled at that, told him that was and never will be a real thing, but he always refused. The pain served as a reminder that there were thousands of people dying all year because he was too infirm to help them. That was him, Dean Winchester, self-loathing at seventy five. Of course, time doesn't change everything, does it?
There were things, however, that the passing years had altered about the man. After his body had finally failed, and pressurized him to withdraw from hunting by making his limbs fail whenever he was trying to slice and dice some evil son of a bitch, Dean Winchester had been forced into a wheelchair. His old freckles were so embedded into his cheeks that they were hidden by his multitude of deep-set wrinkles, and his hands were thin and veiny, and old. No ring resided on any of his fingers. His once rich umber hair had slowly faded until it became a metallic silver, and his lips were no longer soft and sweet and enticing.
Aside from physical differences, he supposed his temperament had changed. Dean felt like a shadow of his former self. He didn't speak so often anymore, although he had grown accustomed to being alone most of the time anyway. He supposed he was calmer, less irritable. All the same, when Sammy had left nearly forty years ago, he died. Dean Winchester was living a half life; no, a wasted life. Maybe a small part of his soul could have been salvaged had his angel come back. After the angels were expelled from Heaven, he never saw him again. He tried to find him, dammit did he try, but all his efforts had been for nothing. Most of him hoped Cas had found a nice girl and lived a long happy life.
The other, small, derelict part of him hoped he was as miserable as Dean had become.
But the old man plastered on a watery smile when he saw his nieces and nephews, and their children too. He wore a charade of a grin when they "surprised" him for his birthday every year, and he wore this mask when Sammy asked him how he was doing. They had been apart for so long, that Dean often doubted his brother even knew when he was lying anymore. He missed him so much. It was like a dull ache in his heart, further abetted by the loss of the angel. Even after all this time, everyone who had left him still hurt him.
So that's why he had come here, he supposed. Rheumatism and arthritis combined meant that, as his doctor had described it, he was now living on "borrowed time" – had been for a few months now. He had scoffed at that; Dean had been living on borrowed time his entire goddamn life. Still, he hadn't told Sammy, and had instead spent the last few weeks dredging up old contacts (Charlie had been most help), and trying to find something very important.
September 23rd 2011 had been a strange day so far as he remembered it, but one image had particularly struck him. He remembered watching on telly, trying to locate the stupid angel turned sinner turned God, and there had been a church, and a stain glass window. He had no pictures of Castiel, only half faded memories curling in the corners of his mind, every day washing themselves clean onto a blank canvas.
If he was going to die, then he wanted to see Castiel's face – just one last time.
He couldn't be sure the window was still there, but a few floundering phone calls to the former priest at least confirmed that it was the right church. Craning his neck to look at the whitewashed building from his chair, Dean quietly read the words "Lady of Serenity Church" and breathed in the fresh air heavily. It inflamed the insides of his nose. He had travelled hundreds of miles to get here, by bus, train, and a helicopter – the Impala was still parked outside his house, but the only movement it had felt in the last decade was the slow, impish crawl of rust as it danced across the paintwork and devoured the trims.
He put his wizened hands on the wheels of his chair and slowly pushed himself forwards, struggling slightly on the stair, but heaving himself up. His decaying and fragile form disgusted him sometimes. Other time, he was just too tired to care.
As soon as Dean entered the church, he saw it.
If it wasn't a possibility, and indeed likely to happen, Dean would've joked about how he felt his heart stopping. Instead he could feel a strange pattern of beats underneath his frail ribcage, like his heart was confused. But that wasn't so surprising – his heart and Castiel had never really sorted themselves out properly.
Wheeling himself closer, Dean approached the window.
The stain glass image itself was, for lack of a better word, quite glorious. The surge of energy Dean felt as he rediscovered Castiel's face was incredible; the overwhelming joy he felt at finally being able to recognize his companion from all that time ago threatened to quake his bones. Instead, tears fell from his weary eyes, his loss of control over his elated feelings obvious. Castiel; all those memories, all those words and actions, he could see them again. Feel them again.
Never could he remember feeling this alive.
His smile was so wide across his cheeks that his muscles ached, and the spectrum of colour that was splashing across his skin, reflecting in his eyes, sought to blind him. He could not look away though. This was Castiel, in all his magnificence, and all of his power, and this was his angel.
"Excuse me," came a young, inquisitive voice. Dean tore his sight away from the vision of Castiel, and spotted the youngster playing a priest across the pews. The young man smiled at his elder, and asked, "Are you seeking the Lord's forgiveness?"
Dean let out a large laugh that sounded more like a diabolical coughing fit. In a weary and quiet voice, his eyes wandered the image of Cas, so youthful, and replied, "After the life I've had to live, he should be seeking mine." To his surprise, the priest chuckled in response. He crossed the aisle and approached Dean cautiously, appearing as to not want to disturb him too much. The priest sat down on the end of the pew, next to where Dean had halted his wheelchair.
He took on a tone of complex understanding. "That stain glass window has been there for forty five years today. It's his sapphire anniversary today."
Just like the dude's eyes.
And the incredible joy was replaced by a sickening sadness. Dean had always shied away from recounting the last time he saw Castiel, but this was a heartbreaking reminder. Forty three years. For him, it was half a life time – for Castiel, if he ever regained angel-status, it was the blink of a beautiful sapphire eye.
"The story of how it came to be is an amazing one," the priest continued calmly, not wanting to disturb the quiet of the church, the holiness that seemed to infect every corner and crevice, "Some say that a stranger who was God himself made it with a flick of his hand." He looked at Dean, and was shocked to see recognition in the man's expression, and a small hint of a smile on his thin lips. "I don't know what to believe, but all I think is that we were blessed that day.
"Another special thing about it is we can't get rid of it. Every five years or so, the parish council tries to replace it – after all, we cannot physically identify the man as a biblical representation of, well, anyone. But every time we try, we can't get it out. It's bullet-proof." The priest observed the old man's eyes, and how sad they seemed. He added on, "It's like someone wanted it to be here, as a reminder of times gone by."
The priest watched as a tear slipped from the old man's eyes. He watched as a weak and crippled hand slowly reached out and pressed itself against the glass, resting on the image's shoes. Another tear fell, sliding in and out of the cracks in his face, falling off the angular jut of his chin. There was a longing, a story, and a memory here. Seemingly without the old man's attention, the priest placed a hand to his shoulder, squeezed it and walked away. He had seen enough in his life to recognize grieving, and when a person wanted to be alone.
The moment the young man had left the vicinity, Dean broke into shattered tears. He placed his hand across his eyes and nose to hide the noise, but it cracked through anyway, and vicious tears streaked down his withered cheeks. He was just a pathetic old man, with no one to call his own. The ache seemed to swallow him up; he missed his old life. He missed being with Sammy, and being with Cas, and with Bobby. He missed not being alone every day of his life. He missed the people he cared about. He missed the angel he had once loved, and really never stopped loving.
That's probably what hurts the most about seeing this picture. Not only embarrassed by his tears, by his foolish expression of his innermost depression, Dean felt a resurgence of pain and anger from years ago. He had spent almost a decade praying for the angel to return to him. He had searched America in its entirety, even headed up to parts of Canada, but was rewarded with nothing. The guy was either a human, and had abandoned him, or was an angel, and had deserted him.
He retracted his hand, quaking and shaking, from the picture. He stared down at his knees, and then roughly yanked the chair around. He didn't look back. He didn't want to commit the picture to memory any more. All it did was hurt, and he had enough of that in his life at the moment. He moved rapidly to the door, and could taste the fresh air again, but his wheels jammed just as he approached the exit. He smacked the side of the chair, probably bruising the side of his hand, but to no avail. He was just about to call for that priest before another person intercepted his silent plea for help.
Jesus fucking Christ.
It was dementia. His hearing was gone. He was hallucinating from the medication he occasionally remembered to take. He had actually died, and was in Purgatory. The priest was some demonic son of a bitch trying to torture him. Someone had a goddamn recording. His mind chose a hundred thousand different reasons for what he had just heard. He clenched his hands around the arms of his wheelchair, gripping the handles so tightly that his hands went red from the sudden transfer of blood. No, no, no. He had dreamed this a thousand times, it wasn't real.
Dean felt a hand on the small of his neck, resting politely on his shoulder. It was comforting, and he wanted to move into it, and caress it, but something stopped him. This couldn't be happening, so why should he raise his hopes?
"Look, whoever you are this isn't funny, just leave me alone," he huffed, resigned to not even looking at the impostor. Dean tried to move forwards again but his wheels were still jammed. The hand remained on his scapula, persistent and heavier now. Breathing out deeply, Dean slowly turned his head to the side, and hissed out loudly when he was rewarded with sight of the fake angel.
He hadn't aged a day. His skin heavily contrasts with Dean's own reflection; his cheeks are smooth and pale, and timeless. His eyes are like the ocean – awash with a sense of freedom and beautiful blue splendour. His hair is still rumpled and ruffled all ways west, retaining the russet blends. The goddamn trench coat hangs from his body.
"No," Dean breathes out, not wanting him to hear his weak and aged voice.
"Dean, it's okay. It's me." And suddenly, it's not okay.
"No! Don't you dare touch me. I prayed to you every day, every night for the past forty three years. I didn't know if you were alive after you fell, I didn't know where you were and I thought you were dead. You left me alone for so long," Dean burst out rabidly, choking on the vehemence in his words, spilling out his deepest and darkest confession, "I thought you were dead."
The person behind him doesn't say anything. Instead, he removes his hand from Dean, and with a click of his fingers unlocks the wheels on his chair. Before Dean can escape however, he takes the handles and pushes the man slowly towards the stain glass image. He puts the lock on the wheels, and then stands in front of Dean, so he has no choice but to look at him.
"Dean, I'm sorry," Castiel professes ashamedly, hanging his head as he always used to. "I'm so, so sorry for the pain I caused you. I never wanted to abandon you, but I could find no way back into your life."
The old man before him was different physically, maybe mentally as well, but he was still Dean Winchester. And although he was seventy five, he was still acting as a sulking nine year old by crossing his arms and avoiding Cas' stare. Castiel sighs and bends down, placing a hand atop Dean's. He half expects the man to slap him away, but he visibly relaxes under the touch.
"We went through much together, you and I." And then there's something there, some flicker of recognition, a chilling sense of déjà vu that sends jitters down Dean's half-functioning spine. Dean slowly raises his head from its resting position, and captures Castiel's eyes with his own. He sees the magnificence he had once been encumbered by, and a reflection of his own mortal agony. Cas may be an angel, and he may live forever, but maybe he just didn't want to.
He couldn't believe this was happening. Years of waiting and wanting and longing had prepared him for when they may meet again, but all he could feel now was a disgusting flinch of rage. He had no fight left in him though, no words that he could spit and spew at the man before him. Dean Winchester was a broken reflection, a hateful shadow, a shattered remnant of a masterpiece. He's still shedding tears, but now he feels even more humiliated.
Castiel can obviously see this. "There is no shame in weeping, my old friend," he says gingerly, squeezing the hand resting upon Dean's, "Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. You did not, and do not have a hard heart Dean."
"We stopped the Apocalypse together. We defeated Crowley, we got out of Purgatory alive, and we destroyed the oldest race in existence together. And then it was just over," Dean whispered out, shaking his head in disbelief. He was overcome. "I loved you," he gasped out, his eyes gleaming and gazing with dismay. His lips faltered and fell into a downward curve, and he had to hiss out short breaths to stop his torment. His head was beginning to hurt, and his senses were dulling. The room around him seemed to spin.
Castiel gave him a look that could not truly be described. Dean could call it real omniscience, or real guilt. He could not see that no matter how hard he tried, Castiel could not aptly display his true feelings of love towards Dean Winchester. They were too great for this vessel – no human expressions or words could capture the essence of an angel's love. And he was no mere angel; he was an angel who had tasted what it was like to be God. The force of his love was stronger than the gravitational pull that had formed this tiny universe into existence.
But Dean could not see it. Dean, who he had ultimately betrayed, who had grown old, and grown in scepticism and cynicism, and did not believe that he truly cared for him. These years had past in the beat of Castiel's heart, but for Dean, they had trudged by, every second stretching into a minute. When they had last spoken, Castiel had thought Dean no longer wanted him around – after he fell, he couldn't hear his prayers. But after the Revolution, it was all he knew. He was ashamed that he had neglected this man for so long.
"Dean, take my hands," Castiel urged quietly, removing them from their position on Dean's and holding them out towards him. Dean raised his nearly invisible eyebrows and managed a half scowl.
"Why should I do anything you tell me? You can't even hope to know me anymore," he grumbled out, but Castiel again produced his hands, refusing to waver in the face of his disappointed friend.
The next words he spoke were choked out, an almost plead with the man to just listen and act. "Please, Dean. Just for a moment, take my hands." Dean reached out his hands hesitantly, and then withdrew them. He tapped his fingers along the sides of his chair, his head pounding, his vision blurring. Doing what Cas said implied trust, and after all these years, Dean no longer trusted himself, let alone the angel before him.
But he was dying. Maybe it was time to let go.
He gripped Cas' hands as firmly as possible, and waited for him to act. Instead, Cas closed his eyes and waited patiently. Dean was under whelmed by the sensation of warmth he received, but nothing else. After a few moments, however, that all changed entirely.
Where Castiel was clutching onto his hands, like he never wanted to let go, his wrinkles were retracting, being replaced by young, soft skin. The transformation spread up his arms; he could feel it wrapping around his torso, clambering madly up his neck and washing over his face. His heart suddenly felt lighter, his spine was stronger, and he sat up in the chair straight for the first time. He felt sensation in his legs.
Cas' grip on his hands released, and Dean suddenly clapped them onto his face, trying to feel his way around a familiar shape. His skin felt rejuvenated, young. His hair was shorter but there was more of it – thicker, and browner and more styled. Cas looked down and smiled with sheer radiance at him, and beckoned him forwards. Pushing down on the handles of his wheelchair, Dean Winchester placed his feet firmly on the ground, and stood up unassisted for the first time in fourteen years. He found a reflection in the stain glass, and suddenly his whole life felt surreal, and he was thirty six years old again, before true bitterness encompassed his being.
"Cas," he spoke, and to his delight, he found his accent again. He found strong words, not strangulated whispers. "Cas, what did you do?"
The smile died ever so slightly, and became pitying. "It's only temporary. Not even I can reverse time as such, but I thought that you might like to feel like this once more." That was not his only reason though. For the past forty five years, all Castiel had received from Dean were angry and harsh words of hatred; when he looked at him, there was malice and revulsion, and it struck him hard. He needed, at the end of this time, to see Dean Winchester as he once knew him, as the man he had first loved.
Dean took a step towards the angel, and his buoyant lips formed an outrageously, disarmingingly handsome smile. "Thank you," he said faintly, inching in closer towards the angel. He let out a strong, muscular arm and let the fingertips upon his hand graze across Castiel's cheek. He felt the heat of the angel beneath his palm, and brought their bodies flush together. Up close, he could see the reflection of his own eyes within Castiel's. They were an enticing hazel green, moss upon a ramshackle house, flecked with shards of gleaming gold.
Cas' hands wandered across Dean's waist, his fingers dancing up and down his sides. "Thank you so much," Dean breathed into Cas' lips, and then moved his face forwards imperceptibly, and let his own mouth fall lazily in sync with Castiel's.
His lips moved maddeningly slowly, languishing in the sensation. "I know you," Castiel murmured as Dean's lips graced across his own, the young man's hands slipping across his jawbone, relearning his face in the most practical way. Cas brought his own hands from Dean's waist and wrapped one around the back of his neck, brushing his fingers against Dean's bistre tresses. The kiss deepened to something salacious, but did not quicken. They took the time to lazily trace each other's bodies, to finally understand. Hints of regret were hiding in the background, that they did not dare to do this years and years ago. But there was no way to fix that, only to move forwards.
When Dean finally became restless, he slowly detached his lips, and let his forehead rest soothingly upon Castiel's. Every time he breathed, Cas could feel the air reverberating upon his mouth, and he felt sharp tingles of anticipation in his body. Dean clapped his two hands to Castiel's' cheeks, and said, "I'm so happy that you came to me." And he was not only talking about today – he was happy Castiel had been his salvation in Hell, that the angel had constantly cleared up after him and Sammy, and that God – wherever he may be – was kind enough to let one of his children destroy themselves for the sake of one human being.
"We will see one another again," Castiel whispered, as Dean Winchester began to stumble back into his wheelchair, his hands ageing and his legs giving way. Cas assisted him as far as possible, but Dean was breathless and felt limp. As the strands of his hair whitened to the original silver, Dean lay back in the chair, his back straining and tired. His headache returned, and his arthritic hands clutched weakly onto Castiel's. He felt weak, and woozy and he was finding it hard to breathe. He coughed repeatedly, his throat closing up.
Castiel could feel the life draining from him. He pressed a sincere kiss to just above Dean's left eye, and together they looked at his magnificent colourful portrait, and waited in silence.
"Hey Cas," Dean sighed out, so quietly a human would never have heard it. Cas nodded anxiously, blinking back tears that seemed too human to be true. "Cas, tell Sammy I love him."
Dean Winchester let a smile grace his lips, just like he was thirty six again, and then he breathed out for the final time. His eyes were glassy, pale and illuminating, but he was shrouded in the beauty of the colour spectrum. His chest fell back and did not move any longer. The powerless hold he had on Castiel finally emptied, and his hand fell from the side of his wheelchair.
Castiel stood up, and ran his hand through Dean's hair. He would return to Heaven, and find Dean Winchester and they would be young together again for all of eternity. This was never the end, just the beginning of a new life. But it still hurt to see him like this, so far away, so inconceivably lost. He just had to speak to Sam first. He would tell him that he promised to look after Dean.
Cas reached down and smoothly closed Dean's eyelids over his unfixable stare. He concentrated on the stain glass window image. He kissed Dean's cheek, and whispered, in a hoarse and hollow tone, "Do not fear Dean Winchester.
"Angels are watching over you."