Dean took Sam’s words to heart. He didn’t try to get him back and didn’t try to hunt alone again. He stopped in to visit Lisa and Ben, but instead of it leading to something between them, it just showed how alone he was inside. Dean couldn’t handle the extra reminder being around them day-in, day-out would bring. Instead, he got an apartment the next town over and a job as a mechanic. They hung out a couple times a month, usually dinner and a dvd or teaching Ben about engines.

Everything felt empty and nothing Dean did changed that. He went to church a few times on the barest hope of finding some peace, but wasn’t even a little surprised when he stayed empty. He got up, went to work, ate dinner, watched tv, and went to bed every day. The monotony was oddly soothing; probably because his entire life had been spent on the road and never knowing what would come after him.

Thoughts of Sam intruded when he least expected it. More times than he could count, Dean saw some douchebag at the garage or in the grocery or in traffic cutting him off and thought about telling Sam when he got home only to remember he couldn’t. Drinking helped, but he knew that pickling his liver wasn’t going to solve anything. The guys at the garage thought he was a surly bastard and left him alone, so no friends to be found there. A few times, Dean found himself cleaning one of the guns he no longer used and wondering why he didn’t just end it. Only knowing what waited on the other end of a suicide stayed his hand.

Dean.”

Dean nearly shot himself by accident at Castiel’s soft call of his name. He dropped the gun onto the table and glared over at the angel. “Next time, try not to sneak up on someone cleaning a gun, huh?”

Castiel looked abashed, eyebrows wrinkling together apologetically. “I am sorry. I did not mean to startle you.”

He hadn’t seen Castiel since that day, months ago now, and took a good look at the angel. He looked… haggard. Like someone had been riding him non-stop, chipping away at the foundation of him with a very large ice pick. “What’s wrong?”

Castiel frown outright. “Nothing. I… wanted to see how you were.”

Dean’s eyebrows lifted and he said skeptically, “Sure. After months of no contact, not even the whisper of your wings, you just drop by to say hi. Cut the bullshit, Cas. What’s wrong?”

I…” words seemed to fail Castiel, who just stared at Dean.

Dean sighed and scrubbed fingers through his hair. “Sit.”

When Castiel didn’t move, Dean took him by the shoulders and moved him, pushing him gently onto the sofa and then sitting next to him, slouching back onto the cushions. They sat there for several minutes and Dean eventually closed his eyes, glad for the company of someone who knew what he'd been through, someone who demanded nothing from him. Interacting with people had gotten steadily worse over the last month as Christmas approached and people kept telling him to ‘Cheer up! It’s the holidays!’ until he wanted to bash their faces in.

Crowley wants to help me regain control of Heaven.”

Goosebumps broke out all over Dean at the calm pronouncement. Fear slithered through him seconds later. Fear that Castiel had already said yes and was working with the new King of Hell. He took several deep breaths and forced himself not to fly off the handle. He didn’t have a lot of family left and couldn’t afford to lose Cas to freakin’ Crowley, of all people. “That’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater, don’t you think, Cas?”

Cas sounded puzzled when he asked, “Why would you throw out a baby?”

Dean’s lips twitched, almost making a grin but failing pretty epically. He opened his eyes and found Cas staring intently at him; no surprise there. “Why would you get hitched to the King of Hell?”

I’m losing, Dean. I’m losing Heaven and my friends are dying; friends who followed me because I said I knew the right thing to do. Crowley knows how to get power so I don’t fail,” Castiel said bluntly.

Crowley knew how to manipulate, no doubt about that. He hadn’t been the best crossroads demon for no reason, after all, couching his recruitment in the best possible light. Of course he would appeal to Castiel’s compassion and need to save his friends. It was probably the only thing that would get Cas to even consider teaming up with the demon.

Dean stared back at Castiel and said, “Crowley can suck my dick if he says he’s doing it out of the goodness of his heart.”

Cas actually did smile faintly at that. “He did not. He wants a share of the power. Really, I think he will simply try to take the power from me before I can properly utilize it.”

So why risk it?”

If I lose, Heaven falls.”

Dean sighed and turned sideways to face Castiel. He covered Cas’ hand with his and pointed out gently, “Heaven’s already fallen, Cas. You guys are in the middle of a civil war and angels are killing each other. That’s not Heaven anymore, it’s a battlefield.”

Cas jerked his hand away and stood, stalking a short distance away and then whirling around. “So I should abandon them all?”

Dean shrugged. “My brother’s dead, Cas. I’m alone in this world. You’re probably asking the wrong person for advice.”

I’m still asking.”

Dean stood as well and closed the distance between them. He stood right in Cas’ space and stared into those too-blue eyes as he said, “Then fuck ‘em. Seriously, Cas. You’ve given enough. I’m not the only one who’s been killed in this room. Or tortured. Or banished, for that matter. Alone. Who cares if the other angels want a dictatorship? Maybe they work better that way. Maybe… maybe free will isn’t for everyone, Cas, did you think about that? That maybe God left a hierarchy for you guys for a reason? All I know is that you’re so much more than all of them, so good. You deserve better than to be forced into some skanky power play with Crowley. Don’t whore yourself out for them, Cas; it is not worth it.”

Castiel’s head cocked a little to the side as he considered Dean. “Do you love me, Dean?”

Dean blinked a couple of times in surprise and then huffed out a faint laugh. “You have the worst timing of anyone on this whole planet, Cas. Seriously.”

You avoided the question.”

Because you don’t want to know the answer to it, not really.”

I do. Tell me. Do you love me?”

Dean pursed his lips and then said slowly, “That’s not the right question, Cas.”

Castiel inched closer, not releasing his gaze. “What’s the right question?”

Dean leaned in and said, breathing against Cas’ mouth, “How do I love you?” before gently touching their lips together in a chaste kiss.

Castiel pulled back after only a couple of seconds and continued to stare at him… and then he vanished between one blink and the next.

Dean’s mouth twisted bitterly and he said to no one, “Yeah, that figures,” and went to grab the unopened bottle of Jack in the cabinet.

* * * *

Dean woke up the next morning with his head feeling at least two times smaller than normal and throbbing in protest against the shrunken skull. His mouth tasted like something had died in it, and he had the experience to back that up. Thankfully, the shades were down, keeping the room dim, and he crawled to the bathroom without throwing up. He took several minutes to whimper pathetically under a lukewarm shower spray, brushing his teeth there so he didn't have to stand up any longer than necessary, before drying off and stumbling back to bed.

He’d just gotten comfortable and closed his eyes when the doorbell rang. He groaned and pulled the pillow over his head, but it rang at steady intervals, unceasing. He gave another pathetic whimper before giving in and getting out of bed to see who the fuck could be trying to see him on Christmas morning. He got halfway to the door before remembering he was naked. Dean considered giving whoever it was an eyeful to punish them for interrupting his hangover before groaning and turning around to grab some clean boxers to pull on.

Finding Castiel on the other side of the door was confusing and irritating. He squinted at the angel for a few seconds, taking in his extra-rumpled appearance and the bloody scrapes on his face. Cas didn’t say anything, though, so Dean left the door open and walked back towards the bedroom to get more sleep until the hangover faded to livable levels. He heard the door close and the snick of the deadbolt.

A few seconds after he crawled back under the blankets, Dean heard the rustle of clothes being shed and then the shower come on. Frowning, he peered out from the blankets and, sure enough, steam started trickling out of the bathroom where Castiel seemed to be taking a shower. Dean mentally threw his hands up and closed his eyes again. It certainly wasn’t the weirdest thing the angel had ever done.

The shower turned off as Dean slid slowly into dozing, sinking into the pillow and mattress. Sometime later, the bed dipped and warm, strong arms gathered him in close. Dean mumbled a protest, but was too far gone for several minutes to register that something felt strange… Realization struck and Dean flailed, smacking Castiel in the face with an elbow as he flung off the blankets and shouted, “Holy shit you have a heartbeat!”

He immediately moaned in pain, clutching at his head, and dropped back down against a pillow.

Castiel had let out his own pained noises, holding his face where the elbow had connected. “I always had a heartbeat, Dean.”

He sounded pissy, not that Dean really blamed him after getting clipped in the face. That shit hurt. Dean took a deep breath and squinted over at him. He looked… way too human with the scabbed over scrapes on his cheek, the bruised eye just above it, and his damp hair sticking up every which way.

Dean hesitantly reached out and placed his hand over Castiel’s heart. “Cas, what did you do?”

I fell,” Castiel replied simply. “I… do not wish to be alone anymore. And as much as I want to lead my brethren to freedom, you were right. Crowley is not the answer. If they truly want to be free, they will do so on their own. I cannot fight and win this battle on my own. I no longer wish to do so.”

Dean’s free hand shook a little as he reached out to twine it with Castiel’s, knotting their fingers together and bringing it up to place against his own heart. “Jesus. Cas. You didn’t have to fall to do that!”

Castiel tightened his grip on Dean’s hand and said, “I did. I… I did not think that you could love me, before, but you did. Why did you never say?”

Dean sighed and looked away. “When would I have? You were dead set on how things had to be, Cas. I didn’t really figure into your plans because I’m not an angel. I couldn’t help you in your fight up there.”

So you would have lived alone for the rest of your life?”

Yeah, probably. Well, I’m not saying I couldn’t have, I don’t know, found someone to be with eventually, I guess. Would’ve taken a long time, though.”

Castiel drew him close again and carefully pulled him down so they were stretched out together on the bed. Dean let out a long sigh and curled up around the other man, an arm over his chest and his head resting on Castiel’s shoulder. The hangover hadn't disappeared, but it had been temporarily blown apart by the shock of what Cas had done and the fact that he was there, with Dean.

Ask me how I love you.”

Dean smiled faintly at Castiel’s soft question and pressed his lips to the warm, skin nearest him. It was about all he could manage with the tempo picking back up in his aching head. “How do you love me?”

Castiel kissed the top of his head and murmured, “Agape, eros, philia, storge. I love you in all ways, Dean, and wish to pledge myself to you for the rest of our lives.”

Dean’s smile graduated into a real one and he complained a little, “You couldn’t have told me that before I drank a bottle of Jack?”

Castiel chuckled a little and said, “I was somewhat preoccupied at the time.”

Dean hitched his leg over Cas’ and, if his head had been in any kind of shape for it, would have followed up with a hell of a lot more than just that. Since that kind of serious movement was out of the question, he just savored being held and holding in return. Just in case he hadn’t been clear the night before, he said, “I love you, too, Castiel, and I’m gonna stick with you the rest of our lives. You’re never getting rid of me.”

No one ever claimed Dean knew how to respect boundaries after all.

Castiel squeezed him tight and said, “Good.”

Dean closed his eyes, relieved and working on happy. At least he wasn’t going to be obsessed alone anymore. Cas would be with him every step of the way.

A few quiet moments later… “Can we have pie for Christmas dinner?”

Dean grinned broadly and kissed Cas without even bothering to open his eyes. “Damn skippy we’re having pie for Christmas dinner. Just, let me sleep off the hangover first.”

Castiel kissed the top of his head and Dean fell asleep smiling a few minutes later.