He's careful with it. He tries not to let it see the light of day.
He's numb a lot, since the cure. And everything is easier to keep under his surface. It helps with Sam. To just bask in his success and be his victory. To just sit by his side and pretend he doesn't quite feel his fingers around the handle of the hammer.
Dean can let Sam drive. Can let Sam order lunch and beers and check the mess of track marks on his neck and arm, sure that they're healing properly.
He can put down his phone every time he picks it up. He can slip it back into his pocket like he doesn't know why he was checking the empty screen in the first place.
He can keep it from the light. Act like it's not there.
Dean feels confused a lot. And that shines through.
Sam has to lead him around by the elbow lately and will come up behind him while he hovers over the open trunk to ask, "You gonna load that thing and come into the police station with me or just stare at it all day?"
Sam doesn't have to know that he's deciding whether or not he feels like turning the handgun on him. Or himself. Or a load of innocent bystanders.
It floats so low in his awareness right now that he doesn't have to alert Sam to that particular thin thread of thought. The Mark of Cain. Dormant. But still alive.
Still fresh on the victory and starting another hunt. No reason to bother Sam yet.
They'll get around to it.
He swallows, dry. Holsters his gun and checks the line of his jacket over it.
Dusts a hand over his right sleeve.
They'll get around to it.
He shuts the trunk and catches up.
Dean's not much for the talking and investigating and calling around right now. So Sam lets him stare out the motel window while he organizes the research.
All while still one-handed. He's a trooper.
Dean's phone sits in front of him on the table between four coffee rings, father-son-holy-ghosting it. It reflects the window, the curtains, the sky outside, screen perfect and black. The motion of the mug as he lifts and sips from it. He sits there for an hour but it could be a week for all he knows.
Something about the phone.
Something about a notepad.
He's silently confused for another twenty minutes before he turns to drag his bag over and pull out a stack. Book, book, notepad, book.
And in the notepad sits Mom.
Her picture, Sam and him, Sam and him, Sam and him, Dad and Mom.
Sad claws above the cloud-cover in his mind. Sad and sorry and he can observe them from a pleasant distance. These are things he used to feel so deeply that he couldn't watch himself feel them. Couldn't even see his hands in his lap flipping through the pictures for long before he had to set them aside.
The way he's distant from everything now lets him watch sadness steep from behind a buffer.
Where is his single picture of Sam? He ought to have at least one without his own face marring the scene.
He puts his fingers at the top of one photo, at the center. He could rip right down and pull himself off. Separate himself from Sam.
He lets the photo be.
It's still a very incomplete collection.
Recalling this brings him back to his phone.
He makes the connection that's been eluding him for a few days, now: incomplete collection.
He has a camera on his phone.
Sam is on the horn with the Feds reciting badge numbers. He's facing away, sitting on the bed and making a paper airplane with a mug shot. It falls flat when he tosses it with the gimp hand. His broad back jerks in laughter at himself.
If he could get Sam in profile, he'd take the picture right now and Sam would look at him like they need to talk about something and Dean would lose the thread mid-conversation like he's been doing. And things would remain comfortable.
He can wait for Sam to turn. He sips coffee and stares at the clouds through the reflection on the phone.
Some time later, a new text is open. A fresh box floating in reflected clouds.
He's pulled up a contact for it. Cas.
What was he going to say?
He watches Sam toss a pen in the air and catch it five times.
Then he types: Can I have a picture of you?
His mind asks, is that weird? And his finger hits 'send.'
He can find a picture of Bobby. There was one jammed in a book they rescued from some stash of his. Sam once found Jo's old MySpace still floating around out there on the Internet, undisturbed since about 2005. Not so sure about Ellen.
He never got a picture of Benny. He vaguely recalls some photo of Rufus with a sniper rifle poised on his hip, loading it, but he can't remember if that was at Bobby's house or... where? It's most likely not still around.
The Campbells never had photos taken, that's for sure. No evidence they ever existed. Not for generations until Mary. And after? No one else would make that mistake.
He thinks Sam might--
The screen blinks.
Why do you need one? Castiel asks.
Now, there are a million reasons he could give. He is a well-seasoned liar. He could require Cas's picture in case he is captured and needs to be tracked down. He could be using photos to gauge Cas's deterioration. He could be trying to find out what Cas's undisclosed destination is based on his surroundings.
I need a picture of you, however, results in precisely what he didn't know he wanted: an image of Cas's too-close face, confused by the phone and exasperated by the request.
He stares at it for a while, thumbing the screen multiple times to keep it from going dark.
A new text interrupts his survey of it. Did I get that right?
Dean taps through the options and sets it as his lock screen.
Thanks. Good enough.
He gets a snap of Sam from across the table at dinner, the chrome of the classic diner reflecting red neon over one half of him and blue on the other side.
That's background material until he gets a better one after he finally takes the sling off.
Sam doesn't ask about the pictures until the third one. "Okay," he starts. "What's with that all of a sudden?"
Dean cocks his head and takes his time delivering the answer, pausing, stuttering.
"I get. I donno. I stop sometimes and forget. Uh."
Sympathy suddenly overtakes Sam's features. "That's okay. It's alright." He hasn't worried aloud yet that the demon treatment might have broken Dean a little bit. But clearly he thinks his brain is a bit fried. From there he makes his own assumptions and Dean doesn't have to say a word more.
He notes the repeated appearance of the pad of paper that Dean keeps the photos stashed in and buys him a three pack of pens and a new, blank notebook, "So you can keep track of everything," he says. Nodding to emphasize exactly how cool he is with Dean needing this minimal assistance. He Sharpies their room number on their key cards so Dean doesn't have to memorize a different one every two days. When they unload the car on arrival, he makes sure to tell Dean, "I'm putting your bag over here by the closet door, okay? All your stuff's on that side of the room."
Things that always went undeclared before are spelled out so Dean has an easier time keeping track of them.
He can't complain about it. It does help.
When he truly gets confused, when he really does surface from his own thoughts in the middle of a room, unable to recall how he got there, the threads pull taught and they twang in the center of him.
From under the confusion surfaces anger. The anger, he knows, is tied to the deep rage slumbering away under the Mark.
So it helps. It does. Sam doesn't do it in a way that makes him feel slow. There's still that impatience in him, the part that proves he'd never be good with kids. He might click his fingers until Dean snaps out of it, shakes himself, and puts one foot in front of the other. But, otherwise, he is accommodating.
He even comes around to posing for the photos. Points to the menu or the road sign where they've stopped so Dean can get his bearings and remember where they've been travelling. It's all a little Momento, but at least he starts smiling for them.
Which is more than he can say for Cas.
Cas has a wicked case of sameface. Every pic is a double of the previous picture's expression. The main difference is always in the background or the bags under Cas's eyes.
Do something Dean requests the sixth time he asks for a photo.
I still don't know what this is for.
Do something embarrassing.
What color are your eyes, again? clearly comes off as a bit petulant.
Dean lets a little laugh bubble to the surface at that. Then turns his phone around and smiles vaguely into a selfie.
Cas sends two pictures in quick succession. One is in the dark of the interior of the car, one eyebrow up, teeth in a grimacing smile.
Then, daylight. Turned toward the car window. A little line of worry between his brows. But lips closed and in a proper smile.
He selects set as lock screen.
Dean slips up and stabs the everloving fuck out of the guy they assumed was an evil witch doctor. He keeps stabbing until he's lost grip on the knife and is hyperventilating waves into a deep pool of blood under his knees.
Everything hurts and the clouds, the fog, whatever was cushioning the insides of his head since Sam and Cas fixed him, is gone.
He's shaking. He watches his blood-spattered hands tremor from up close. He doesn't hear Sam kick the knife across the room. He does feel him crowd against his back and pull his hands into his chest. Feels his brother fold over the small curl he's made of his body and somewhere in the long minutes the solid, cautious hold becomes a slight rocking.
Sam draws him away from the carnage and into the bathroom. They can't even leave the building with him looking as horrific as he does. There's no hiding it. No choice but to stay and wash off evidence while still at the scene of the crime.
When Sam has cleaned his hands and eased him out of his jacket, he empties the pockets for him before he piles what needs to be burned. Only one streak of red on the room key card and a dent in the phone case.
He brings the phone to life and stares. He thumbs through the pictures. All of them. Sam and Cas. Over and over.
He thinks about the fire Sam is going to start and he steadily fills with panic. Dread.
What if he lost the pictures of Mom?
What if someone set fire to his life and he lost the pictures?
What if he lost the pictures?
Sam almost wedges between his knees crawling up and trying to shake Dean into the present. "Don't-- don't go, don't go. Are you here? Are you here with me? Say something, dammnit, Dean," he inhales in example. "Deep breath?" Lets it out. "Deep breath, come on Dean, with me now--"
Dean takes a deep breath. Releases it.
They take another deep breath together. Another.
Somewhere in the deep breath he finds the comfort of the fog again. It's buffeted on all sides by everything that makes him tired. This whole scene. This whole day. The blood soaked into the knees of his jeans. The intangibility of faces. Mom's and Dad's and Cas's fucking face.
Sam herds him out to the car and practically tucks him in with a couple spare jackets while he goes to set the office building alight.
He unearths his hand from under the coats and types out a message to Cas.
He intends to add some sort of emphasis. Or anything else. More than the one word. But his hands send the word away from him.
Cas does not respond.
The fog of complacence accepts him. Lets him sleep on the drive out of state. Or he thinks he sleeps. Really it is a blank stare at passing streetlamps in the dark.
No less restful. All he can ask for.
When he opens his eyes in Ohio.
Or, when he sees the world next. In Ohio.
Sam is coming back from the front office of a new motel.
Dean's jeans are crusted with the blood now. He feels like his joints might crack like dried clay if he crawls out of the passenger seat and into the light.
Someone trails Sam back to the car.
Castiel and Hannah.
He flips the jackets off himself and squeaks his door open.
Sam gets the handle, pulls it open and reaches to steady him.
A "yeah" scrapes out of his throat and he blinks back at the angels. Both sporting tattered clothes and a road-weary air.
"We're gonna--" Sam is motioning toward the motel room doors but Dean elbows away from him and toward Cas.
Cas steps forward like he's ready to catch him if he decides to faceplant against the parking lot pavement. He must look like shit, 'cause even Hannah's got a hand outstretched.
"Dean," he hears Cas's concern and Sam automatically tamping it down, explaining that none of the blood is his.
Dean kind of floats there. Almost-there. Almost to stand in front of Cas, but his feet don't quite get him there.
All at once, Castiel's expression eases and he steps forward, into Dean's space. Directly into it.
"Yeah, not so much," Dean breathes.
Cas ducks in and wraps an arm around Dean's back, hauls Dean's arm over his own shoulders. "Alright, my friend," he says, quiet, like the depth of the fog. "We'll walk you, alright?"
They walk slow around the car and Sam gets in front of them to go key into the motel room he got them. He holds the door and Cas walks them in sideways so they don't detach.
Cas sets him down on a kitchenette chair and palms the back of his neck. He accepts the key card from Sam and addresses his sister. "Hannah, I think you and Sam should get breakfast."
Dean feels his shoulder twitch and he has to look away. Hannah's expression is disturbed, affronted.
Her disapproval is careful in that kind face. But it still licks like flames against something inside of him. Her justified disapproval. The way she clearly thinks it's the Wrong Move to leave Cas here with him.
Cas's hand is solid where it stays and he tunes them out to feel it. They talk over him and he decides not to care.
The door shuts.
His bag has been shuffled next to his feet.
Cas lets go and crouches to it, digging past ammo boxes to shirts and underwear. He sets aside a selection and, before he can zip up, Dean's hand darts out to stop him closing the duffle.
He reaches for the notebook and Cas lifts it, puts it into his hand.
He still has blood under his nails so he will try not to touch them. But he has to see them. Opens the pad to the pages where the photos are hidden.
Sam and him on top. Sam and him at the table with beer.
Heat builds. He thinks it's Cas trying to get his attention through the fog, but it's not. He looks up and Cas is perfectly still, crouched in front of him.
Heat still builds. And he doesn't realize it's the hot surge of tears in his sinuses until his vision blurs and spills them over.
Cas is kind enough to move his fingers and pull the photos out of the way before one drops- fat splat onto a lined sheet in the notebook.
"I'm gonna lose them," he says, and it sounds choked, though, for the life of him, he doesn't know whose hand could be on his throat right now.
Cas shakes his head, gentle as he spreads the photos out on the carpet between Dean's boots. "You’re not," he says.
"I gotta take pictures."
Cas looks up and knows him. Knows that, now.
He's quiet, then begins to ask, "Do you want--?"
Dean sniffs hard at his clogged nose and moves to pull the phone out of his pocket. "Take pictures of them for me."
"I'm sure Sam can scan them in," he tries to soothe.
"But when? After someone comes in the night to burn the house down?"
Cas studies him for a moment, attempting to understand this. But he agrees. He takes Dean's phone and snaps close-up pictures of the pictures.
"Okay," Dean breathes. "Okay." He shoves a little at Cas's shoulder until he sits back on his heels. "Now you. You never smile right. Come on."
He readies the phone to take a picture and still Cas sits back and just stares at him. A blank look covering something that could be worry. Maybe panic.
"Gotta smile, Cas."
Cas looks at the ground. At the photos spread out. He sniffs, too. Strained and heated like it feels in Dean's head. But he sits back and he smiles.
Smiles crooked and handsome with his mouth, at least. His eyes are just not-yet-crying.
He's okay to shower on his own and Cas stands from his perch on the bed when Dean opens the bathroom door, hair still wet, but in clean clothes.
Steam rolls out around him like it feels inside. Like it feels when he tries to get to what he's waiting for. What Cas is waiting for. Where Sam is. What town they're in. How many days it's been since he last saw home.
Sometimes he gets to the ends of those thoughts, follows them like a thread of string leading to a clue and the end is shorted out like stripped wires, all sparking and snapped. And he's just standing in some blank hallway.
"May I see something?" Cas approaches, hands up, asking to touch.
"Yeah. What's up?"
Cas pulls his towel from his right hand and presses it into the left. Then he pulls the arm out straight and pushes up the sleeve.
The Mark sits deep. Not freshly burning, angry red. Not shiny new scar tissue. It's like an old wound. Familiar and embedded.
When Dean stares at it, he knows it's quiet and dormant. It isn't disturbed. Nothing here is a threat. It reaches out to nothing and there's no anger to reach back.
Cas doesn't make him angry. Cas makes him want to remember.
His fingers itch for his phone. To swipe through the photos and make sure the newest one is still in there. And the duplicates. The imaginary back-ups of the originals in his notepad. The digital copies poorly-framed by Cas's unsteady fingers on the phone buttons.
"Sam said he thinks you're having a hard time remembering things. Do you know what room we're in right now?"
He decides it's okay that he doesn't know, so he shares that; shakes his head.
"But you know who I am," he seeks to confirm.
"'Course, Cas. I know who Sam is. I've met Hannah. She doesn't like me much."
"She doesn't know you well yet."
"I'm a real fucking charmer, I'm sure she'll be goddamn enchanted. I'm sure she'll run back and tell all Heaven how cool I am. Except for the part where I'm a homicidal maniac. And I don't know how."
"Awesome," Cas corrects, with a strange combination of eyebrows. "How awesome you are."
Dean blinks. "Awesome."
Cas is silent for a long moment before he explains. "You would call yourself 'awesome,' not 'cool.'"
That feels very much like a hollow wall collapses in his chest and the fog rolls in. Barrels through.
"It's okay. Dean? It's okay."
His arm still sits in Cas's upturned palms.
"Oh, god. Oh, god. I'm gonna forget you. I'm gonna lose you."
"No," Cas steps in closer, shaking his head, "Dean you won't-"
"That's what's happening, isn't it? I can't feel my way out of it. I fall out of it sometimes and I end up on the ground with somebody's throat ripped out under my hands. I'm gonna lose you. I'm gonna lose everyone. Until you're all gone and I'm gone and there's just the damn Mark running my body around like a tank, locked and loaded."
Cas is so intent on getting him to shut up at this point his hand is reaching for his face. He's pulling Dean in by the arm and pressing a palm over his lips to get him to shut the fuck up but it's all there. It's all out now. That's what's going on.
"It was one thing when I was me and I was a demon with the Mark but you pulled the demon out and I'm falling out after it and all that's gonna be left is the Mark. Cas, I'm getting drowned. It's gonna get rid of me. It's gonna dissolve me like I'm not even here anymore."
And he can see and feel, from afar, see and feel himself panic. See the hands on his skin but not acquiesce to them.
He can feel something. And if it's anything, he thinks it must be his heart falling apart.
He tries to duck out of Cas's hold and Cas lets him the first few times, backing him up into the warmth still rolling out of the damp bathroom--
Until Cas doesn't. Until he slaps hands over Dean's wrists and hauls him, almost tosses him down on the nearest bed and pulls him to a sit and clamps down on him, halting his scramble to get away.
He doesn't say a damned word. He's one, big wide-eyed stare up at Dean from where he holds him against the bed.
"I'm gone," Dean concludes, voice flat. "I'm being erased. When it wakes up. No more of me."
"Shut up. Stop it," Cas demands.
"You couldn't just kill me?" Dean beings to lament.
Cas jerks his wrists. "Stop. Listen to me. You're not going anywhere."
"I'm gone. It's just a matter of time, I-"
"You're not going anywhere. I'm going. I'm dying. I'm going away."
"THEN LEAVE," Dean instantly barks in his face, in a voice no longer his own at all.
They both stop and listen to the silence in its wake.
"Oh holy fuck," Dean almost whispers.
"Do you hear that?" Cas says.
"Yeah, I fucking heard that. I heard what was under it and in it and it wasn't me."
"No. Do you hear your own voice, right now? This isn't what you sound like, Dean. You're right. You are leaving. You're dissipating."
This gives him a measure of calm. He can access it and settle with it through the stifling cloud inside himself. Certainty. Massive and awful. To know it's all ending.
"And me?" Cas continues. "Borrowed grace. More of it. And I'm dying. I'm disappearing, too. Each time I take the grace of another angel it has drowned me out more than any time I've died before. Each is a punishment. Each pushes me farther away from where I want to be."
Dean blinks. "That shouldn't happen to you."
"And this shouldn't happen to you," Cas returns. He sits back on his heels again. He is between Dean's knees and he lets go of his wrists to steady himself there.
"Dean Winchester," Cas licks his lips. "Do you wanna do something incredibly stupid with me?"
"I think it might be my last chance." He nods. "So I gotta say, yeah."
Cas breathes deep and stands. He stands and moves forward. Moves forward and crowds against Dean.
"This could kill us both. Sam will be very angry."
"You're pushing it if you're trying to get me to care about that right now. I'm a little more concerned with getting fucking erased."
"Okay. Okay. Alright."
He motions for Dean to scoot back. He climbs onto the bed and straddles him.
Dean is curious where he knows he should be something else. He puts his hands on Cas's thighs.
"Say yes to me," Cas demands as he takes the arm with the Mark of Cain in hand again.
"To why? I mean, what?"
"Say yes to me. The yes."
"The meatsuit yes?"
"Cas," he says, looking up at him, "I wanna look at the pictures again."
"No more pictures. Do you want pictures or do you want to keep the real thing? Say yes. I swear I'll leave if it's done. I promise to leave when it's over."
"What if I'm-- if I'm dead you'll wear me and let Sam know-"
"If you're dead, then I will surely die."
"Say yes, Dean," a hand on the Mark, the other rising to his neck.
Suddenly Dean remembers what this feels like. It's intimate. And it doesn't belong like this. It's never happened before. He's confused.
He's confused. All the damn time.
"Cas. Okay." Anything's better than this encroaching blankness. "Yeah. Yes."
Cas gives him a long moment to turn back. He only turns his palm up and matches Castiel's grip on his arm.
The glow starts in that hand. In a blink, it's coming from everywhere.
Cas closes his eyes when the blue starts to shine. So Dean does, too.
Cas's mouth touches down on him and heat--
Flashes through, burning out the fog like fucking backdraft.
He feels like he's made of bone again, flesh and blood and bone and all at once, the searing wraps him up in silence and he doesn't hear anything with his own ears again.
Doesn't feel anything with his body. Cas takes that away from him. He knows it's Cas doing it because he said 'yes.'
He knows it's Cas doing it because he's there, now. Here, now. That's him blocking out the sound and fury.
From silence to knowledge. A simple awareness that Cas is in him right now. Sharing a space built for two. Comfortably unfurling in a vast fortress built for Michael.
It's maybe the fucking strangest thing he's ever felt.
It's maybe stranger for how wide he's made to be aware that the space is. How Castiel doesn't take up the proper amount of room and is thus able to stay back from him.
But he's still blinding him. Still cutting his senses off.
He would be angry except for the immediate answering impression that Cas is doing it, admitting to doing it, to spare him pain.
And he must look. He must focus in on Cas and not lose sight of him here while Cas works. Because it is painful for them both and the only way Cas knows he's still here is if Dean knows he is. All else is unreality.
It's all, at once, unreality for him, too.
As his body once again collides with time and space and he is aware of where he is and who he is and how he is and the mouth pressed to his own, the body bracketing his, the light receding--
the violent pain, the washed-clean, well-exerted, post-surgery pain of his arm falling limp and lighting up with pain simply from hitting the motel sheets.
Cas is panting for breath. He pulls back and steadies himself by going for Dean's shoulders when Dean's already slipping away, himself. He falls back and Cas fumbles on top of him, catches himself on an elbow.
"Fuck," Dean announces, and reaches down to cradle his arm up to his chest.
Cas takes only a moment to get his breath back before he's prying at Dean's hands gently to look. To find the spectacular absence of the Mark of Cain. The splayed, grace-burn of the flesh where it was once embedded.
"Guh," Dean adds.
Cas drops his head to Dean's left shoulder.
"Can I live down here, please?" he pushes against Cas a little. "Can I get some space? Need some goddamn air to breathe."
In answer Cas only rises enough to drag both hands up to Dean's jaw, angle him and dive down, open-mouthed biting, rolling kiss that coaxes Dean to immediately open and between their tongues the taste of ozone.
Hannah and Sam are actually both very, very pissed off when they return.
Sam digs in bags for aloe gel and bandages up Dean's arm.
Hannah stares into her brother like he just pulled the worst prank of her life on her.
"Human," she shakes her head at last. "Entirely human."
She watches Sam for a moment and meets Dean's eyes in the next.
He might roll his kiss-bitten bottom lip under the top for a moment, guiltily, until she turns away.
"Does it make sense that I'm relieved and I want to kill you?" she asks Cas.
"That's entirely natural, yes."
"That's super natural," Sam agrees, yanking tight the bandage until Dean gives up the shit-eating grin to yelp.