The first thing he sees, really sees, is Cas’s face, and God, it is a welcome sight. The angel is looking at Dean with shining, worried, hopeful eyes, and his hand on Dean’s shoulder is an anchor.
“Cas,” Dean gasps, blinking in the sunlight. His heart is pounding, his head is pounding, and for one shining moment, the world is right side up.
Cas embraces him. “I missed you, my brother,” he says, half-laughing, half-crying. The relief pours off of him in palpable waves.
And then it’s over. The memories come flooding in with incredible force, blinding and deafening and accosting Dean’s brain, filling it up like dam releasing into a reservoir. Dean is already on his knees, but he doubles over, hands grasping at his head as if that will stop the onslaught.
Body after body – blood – pain – laughing – screaming – booze – death – torture – sex – death – death – death –
He remembers everything about being a demon. He remembers every life he took, every throat he sliced, every face he beat bloody, every soul he stole, every life he snatched. He can feel their blood slick and warm on his hands, and he can hear his own voice echoing, delighting – even the good memories that are mixed in mean nothing because they’re coated and slick and ugly with the knowledge that he wasn’t him when they happened. The demon memories are sharp and the color is off and wrong, and they tumble and crash and sear.
Distantly he hears Cas shouting his name, trying to be heard over Dean’s pained bellows. Dean presses the heel of his hands harder into his eyes, sparking stars, trying to blot out the images of horror and destruction and he can’t. He’s choking on his deeds, on his thoughts, on fear and suffering and –
The memories finally stop multiplying, and they settle in his brain like pools of acid and fiery black oil. He sits up with a wrenching breath that comes shredding up from his soul. He blindly lashes out, grasping Cas’s collar.
“Cas,” he croaks, shaking hard all over. Murderer, murderer, murderer…
“You were a demon,” Cas tries to explain, tries to assure him, haltingly.
Damn it, I know!
“Whatever you remember – ”
Dean gasps again, blinking the moisture from his eyes. “Cas, where’s Sam?” he demands, eyes darting around the – where the hell are they? A field? – and he knows the answer to his question, he remembers the answer, and he can feel himself about to shatter. He would give anything and more to not know.
“Where’s Sammy?” he cries out desperately, begging Cas to deny what Dean remembers. Don’t let it be true – please God, Cas, say anything but…
Cas hesitates and he’s a thousand years older as he replies, “He’s dead.”
“Come on, Sammy,” Dean taunts. “I thought you fought better than this!”
Sam shakes his head, blood from his nose spattering down his chest. “I won’t fight you.”
“That’s not going to stop me,” says Dean and advances. He enjoys the cracking sound his knuckles make as they collide with Sam’s sad little face. He likes the give of soft flesh. He bares his teeth and laughs, watches the pathetic kid try to defend himself, his movements weaker than before. Guess he’s just about out of juice – finally.
“Please…” Sam mumbles through swollen lips. Tears pour from the corners of his eyes.
Dean snatches him up by the collar, laughs at the way the kid’s broken arm hangs uselessly at his side.
“What?” he sneers, right up in Sam’s face. The kid’s eyes flutter and Dean gives him a shake. “What, Sammy? Say it. Go on, one more time, I wanna hear it.” He mockingly leans his ear close to Sam’s battered features.
“You’re… my… brother…” Sam whispers. Aw, so obliging. “Love… y…” He isn’t able to get the rest out before he goes limp.
Dean drops him and likes the way he crumples like puppet without strings. He strides across Sam’s bedroom and retrieves the axe from blood-slicked floor, whistling, Don’t Stop Me Now. Swings the weapon deftly back and forth between his hands, and Sam doesn’t stir. Kid fought pretty good for a while there, Dean’ll give ‘im that.
He brings the blade down.
The roar sears up from the depths of Dean’s soul and burns past his lips. Not even when he spent years being tortured in the Pit had he ever felt this sort of pain. His throat is raw when he finally stops screaming and he’s forgotten Cas is there.
The angel’s face is tear-streaked and he looks so terribly, terribly helpless, at a loss as to where they go from here.
Dean can’t stop shaking.
Cas places his hand on Dean’s head and ushers the man’s fractured mind to sleep. He watches the anguish drain away from his friend’s exhausted features and wishes with everything he has that he could fix this. That he could heal Dean’s mind, take away his recollections of his time as a demon. As much as he can remedy physical wounds, there is nothing Castiel can do for the emotional ones.
The angel keeps watch over his friend for several hours, and when Dean wakes, he immediately crumbles all over again with the knowledge of what he has done. His shoulders jolt up and down as he is wracked by sobs.
“Kill me, Cas,” he pleads, his voice ripped apart at every seam. “Please, I can’t – I can’t live with this.”
Cas can’t swallow past the emotion damming up the words in his throat. The anguish in Dean’s eyes is unbearable. He manages to shake his head and Dean begs him all the more desperately.
“I just got you back,” Cas replies, thin and soft. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, he thinks. But then, a voice reminds him, what exactly were you expecting?
The answer to that, of course, is that he was hoping Dean would have no memory of his time as demon. And Cas would be able to provide a different explanation for Sam’s death, so his friend would never have to suffer like this. He realizes now how foolish that hope was.
“Cas, you have to kill me!” Dean shouts, jumping up from the bed. He snatches up his gun, already loaded and throws it Cas’ lap. “I murdered him – I – kill me, Cas!”
Cas stares in horror at the weapon and won’t pick it up. He tries to stand, tries to reason with Dean or say something, but what can he possibly say?
Dean angrily picks up the gun and shoves it in Cas’ hand. “Damn it, kill me! Do it!” He forces Cas’ hand around the grip, presses the barrel to his forehead.
“Dean, stop – “
“Pull the fucking trigger!”
Cas lets his arm drop and for a moment, Dean is incredulous and furious and Cas thinks his friend is going to punch him out. And then Dean’s shoulders cave in and he slumps to the floor and covers his face with hands.
The angel is more helpless now than before as he kneels beside his best friend, and rests his hand on Dean’s quivering back.
Dean can’t eat and he can’t sleep and he can’t do anything except picture Sam’s blood and the look in Sam’s eyes and he remembers the way he laughed – fucking laughed – as he beat Sam to a bloody pulp.
“I won’t fight you,” Sam says, his voice hoarse and wretched.
He stands at the sink and keeps scrubbing, harder and harder and harder, because Sam’s blood is there and he can’t get it off – he can’t get it off. He can’t see it, but God, he can feel it. His hands are bright pink, the skin scratched all to hell, and now they’re trembling so bad he can’t turn off the water or hold the soap and he sees Sam again, feels the crack of his brother’s bones –
He drops to retch into the garbage can, though his stomach is as hollow as the rest of him feels.
Murderer. He could blame the mark of Cain, he could blame Crowley, he could blame Death and Abaddon and every step that ever led him to that moment, but the fact still remains that it is his hands. He is the one who choked the life out of dozens of innocents, who slaughtered random bystanders, who killed for fun and on a whim and because he was bored and he is the one who chased his terrified brother through the bunker.
“I won’t fight you.”
Dean is coated with death and destruction – he’s soaked in it, it’s seeping out of every pore. He can’t function, he can’t fucking breathe, and he can’t understand how someone so dead is still standing here amongst the living.
Cas repairs Dean’s bloody knuckles and doesn’t mention the shattered bathroom mirror. He heals the cut on Dean’s face and doesn’t comment on the way Dean’s bedroom is completely trashed. He repeatedly, wordlessly, sends Dean into calculated oblivion when Dean can’t physically stay awake for any more hours in a row. He forces Dean to swallow a mouthful of food every once in a while.
After a couple months of this, Cas realizes two things. The first, is that while Dean almost daily pleads for the angel to end him, Dean doesn’t take his own life. Cas doesn’t doubt he’s tried – he’s seen the gun on the pillow when he’s come in to check that Dean is still sleeping in an angel-induced coma – but there is a thread of pure Winchester in him that even now refuses to fully give in. That instinct to survive is too deeply ingrained for Dean to pull his own trigger and Cas knows that’s why he asks – he needs someone else to do what he cannot.
The second thing Cas realizes, is that he and his best friend are at an impasse: Dean refuses to live, and Cas refuses to let him die.
He can feel that this is the end in his bones, long before it happens. The sensation is like a hard slab of stone in his chest, certain and unmoving, though he works vainly to ignore it. Cas watches Dean, who is calmer and more acutely aware of anything than he’s been in months.
Though it is Cas who brings home news that a way has been discovered to permanently banish all the demons and monsters of the Earth to a realm where they would cease to exist, it is Dean who becomes eerily focused and begins working tirelessly with the angels to make it happen. Cas is wary of the change. Dean still speaks as little as possible (and when he does, it’s gravel and glass), eats even less, and he still tries to hide the way his hands tremble far too often.
For a time, Cas loses track of Dean in the battle. He finds him when the ritual is nearly done, and Dean has visibly fought hard – he’s bloody and bruised, one hand holding his stomach where his shirt is purple and red and soaked through.
“It’s nearly over,” Cas assures his friend breathlessly, and hurries to the nearest stone pillar where sets of leather straps are waiting. He coils one strap round and round his left arm and hugs the pillar with his right.
Dean does the same, and he’s barely standing, but he’s there all the same. His eyes are still haunted and unbearably hollow, but he’s there.
Then the angels complete the ritual, and the void opens, a giant, pitch black maw that begins sucking every wretched being and creature in from all corners of the world. The force is intense and Cas holds tight to the leather strap that anchor him to one of the pillars in the church.
Through the swirl of howling monsters, Cas looks to Dean, clinging to his strap, barely conscious. The angel feels panic spike in his chest and he’s about to call out, reach out, when suddenly Dean’s fingers slip and he goes tumbling toward the void.
The world, the chaos, the screams and fire and cutting wind and howling demons, all slow for terrible, heart-stopping moment. Cas cries out and lets go of the pillar, unfurls the coil of leather on his left arm. His hand closes around Dean’s wrist just in time and the angel ignores the shock of pain in his shoulder as the leather pulls taut.
“Dean!” he shouts above the din. The pair sway in the air, and sweat immediately breaks on Cas’ forehead from the effort of fighting against the black hole’s draw. His grace has been sapped, he can’t… he can’t do this… he can’t hold on, he can’t let go…
Dean meets his friend’s eyes and Cas chokes, because he can see everything there –
I'm the one who gripped you tight and raised you from Perdition...
Please, I can’t… I need some help…
I'm hunted, I rebelled, and I did it, all of it, for you…
You are like a brother to me…
“Let me go,” Dean mouths. His hair is matted with blood, and one of the demon knives is still embedded in his other shoulder. “Cas… It’s okay… let me go.”
Cas hears the whole conversation in his mind without either of them saying another word. But you’ll die.
I’m dead already.
Dean, I can’t let you do this.
It’s already done. Just let go.
I can heal you.
Not from this. Cas, buddy, you gotta let me go…
Cas’ vision blurs with hot tears and a thousand words tear and claw at his chest. His shoulders scream with effort. He can’t, he can’t, he can’t…
“I can’t…. live… like this…” Dean says and Cas can barely hear him but the words slice him just the same.
He understands how Dean feels, he does – Cas laid waste to a thousand angels, he knows damn well what it’s like to murder his brother – and God, he misses Sam too, but Cas can’t let him die, no matter what’s happened. What happened to that thread of Winchester survival and stubbornness? His best friend could always be counted on to keep fighting and Cas can’t reconcile that with the broken man literally slipping through his fingers.
And then Dean cracks the smallest, saddest smile Cas has ever laid eyes on in all his hundreds of years. He watches blood from Dean’s head wound trail into matted hair, he sees Dean’s injuries for what they are, and his eyes dart up to the gaping, endless abyss beyond.
I’m dead already.
“It’s okay,” Dean mouths again and he’s sliding in Cas’ grasp. “It’s over. It’s okay.”
The tears squeezing from Cas’ eyes are pulled into the void.
“Goodbye, my brother,” Cas whispers. It takes every ounce of his strength to force his fingers to release their grip. The moment Dean slips from his grasp, Cas’s heart stumbles.
And then he sees the pure relief on Dean’s face. He shuts his eyes. Cas watches his friend fall into oblivion. He feels like he is fracturing and splintering, and yet there is a sliver of relief there for him, too.
Dean is finally, truly, free.