It's while he's toweling off after a shower that he notices there's a problem.
He's just scrubbed his back dry and has given his hair a cursory once-over. He tosses his towel over the shower door – Sam's already laid claim to the actual towel rail, as he always does if given the chance to get into the bathroom first.
Dean turns back to the sink and swipes a hand over the foggy mirror. He leaves a faint pink smear behind on the glass and grimaces at the sting in his palm. When he turns his hand palm-up, one of the thin cuts from this afternoon is bleeding. It's not bad – and it's his own damned fault to boot. What the hell kind of ghost sets booby traps, for Christ's sake? A pastry-cutter, no less – does he even know what a pastry-cutter is? Sam was the one who identified the thing after the weighted door swung shut on Dean's hand.
'Fuck pastry anyway,' he mutters, licking his thumb and swiping it over the cut.
It's while he's staring at his hand trying to figure out if he’s stopped bleeding that he realizes. There's a small scar on his wrist, just below his thumb. From – what was it now? Oh, yes. That vamp who tries to cuff him and make a snack out of Sammy. Pity the undead moron hadn't realized they were sex-toy cuffs, not meant to hold anyone seriously let alone a determined hunter. Dean had slipped them with nothing worse than a bad cut.
He hadn't realized the cut had scarred. It isn't much – a thin white line barely visible even with his driving tan. But once he's seen it, he can't stop looking. There should be others – there should be lots of others.
'Cas!' He can't stop staring at his hand.
'Dean.' There's a slight current of air and the smaller man is there. He looks around and blinks, then looks at Dean with that slight quirk of the eyebrows that passes for asking a question.
Dean thrusts his hand in his face. 'What the hell is this!’
Castiel blinks again. He looks steadily at Dean's palm for a minute, then raises his eyes to Dean's face. 'It appears to be a minor cut. Do you require---'
'No, I do not fucking well require! I just – what the hell is this!' Dean waves at his whole body and only now, belatedly, realizes that he is still naked.
Stark naked, yelling at an angel, in a motel bathroom. Fuckin' awesome. His life is just made of amazing. He grabs his wet towel and wraps it awkwardly around his hips one-handed, continuing to wave his injured hand in Castiel’s face.
'I do not understand the question, Dean.'
Castiel's calm only works Dean up more. 'What the fuck, man! What the fuck have you been doing to me!'
Castiel's eyebrows knit for a minute, then he shakes his head. 'I have done nothing to you.'
'You must've! Or – or someone's put the whammy on me!'
'I do not understand, Dean. You know there is no such thing as the whammy--'
'My scars, man!' Dean spins back to the mirror as if the marks on his skin will magically have reappeared where they should be. His tattoo is there, over his heart where it should be. But there should be a half-moon scar next to it where a witch had tried to flay the skin off his chest. And what about the jagged rip on his left elbow from that ruguru? Or the--
Castiel is trying to say something but his quiet voice is lost in the roar of panic in Dean's head. Forcing himself to get a grip, biting the inside of his lip so hard he draws blood, in fact, he turns back to the angel, glaring at him. 'What did you say?'
Castiel looks – sheepish? He isn’t meeting Dean’s eyes and that’s rare. 'I did not think you would want them.’ He pauses for a moment, then goes on more slowly: ‘You had – new marks, Dean. From the pit. I thought – it would be better – if you were clean.'
'Clean? I--' Dean braces himself against the sink with one hand, steadying himself against an unwanted rush of memory that leaves him giddy and a bit nauseated. He squeezes his eyes shut and the taste of blood in his mouth is suddenly cloying and he wants to vomit – and he wants his mouth to fill with the coppery sweetness until it's all he can taste. 'Fuck you, Cas--' He turns and spits into the sink, clings onto the edge of the damp porcelain with one hand. He doesn't dare look up into the mirror, doesn't dare meet his own eyes.
'Dean--' Cas' hand is light on his shoulder, very gentle, hardly a touch at all really, but Dean jerks away as though the angel had offered to hit him. Castiel pulls his hand back immediately. '--I am sorry but I do not understand. You – you miss your scars?'
'Hell, yes, I do! I earned those scars, man! They were – they were – ' Dean turns back to the mirror, twisting so he can just about see his own lower back. That long, curving dark brown mark from his right ribs to nearly his hip on the opposite side – the slash a wendigo had left him with – was gone, too. 'They were me, Cas...' He remembers his dad bandaging his back as he lay on his face in the backseat of the Impala, biting the back of his own hand to keep from crying. At twelve, his dad might have let a tear or two slip by; but at eighteen? Never.
He leans forward and peers at his eyes. The small jagged scar from the crash – the one Azazel engineered – that was gone, too.
'They were me,' he whispers, touching the skin by his eye, shocked to realize that he nearly feels like crying now.
'They were not you, Dean.' Castiel's voice is quiet, firm. 'You are not the sum total of the physical damage you have sustained over the years.'
Dean whirls back on him. 'No, I'm the sum total of fucking surviving it, you feathery idiot!' How can Cas not understand something so basic?
'And you have survived.' Castiel lets the insult roll off him, not seeming to attach any more weight to those words than to anything else Dean has said.
'But how do I know that? I mean – I – look – ' Dean twists, slaps a hand over his right shoulder blade. 'There used to be a burn right there--' He grabs Castiel's hand and presses it to the spot. The angel flinches for a minute, his fingers shrinking from Dean's skin but, when Dean doesn't let go, Castiel relaxes and lets his hand soften onto Dean's back. '--from a ghost who liked to play with fire. Burned a hole in my favorite shirt, too.' For a second, Dean thinks he feels Castiel's hand tighten, tense, as if what Dean has said bothers him somehow. Then he realizes something else: Castiel is the first person to touch him, skin to skin, since the pit.
In that moment of realisation, Castiel's hand lifts away and is gone. And Dean can't believe it, doesn't even really believe he's feeling – disappointed?
'But you remember the story, Dean.' Cas’ voice is still calm, even.
'But I – what the hell am I? Who...’ Dean breaks off, looking at himself forlornly in the mirror. The scars on his skin used to tell him who he was – where he had been – what he had done – who he had been with. Like the physical equivalent of the “Hey, d'you remember--” stories other families had. They had photo albums; the Winchesters had their skin.
'Oh, Dean.' Castiel shakes his head. 'As if your scars define you in some way.'
'Man, they were my stories – they were me.' Dean grabs Castiel's shoulder as if to shake understanding into him. Without the scars, without the physical traceries of his life, how does he know who he is?
Castiel shakes his head, leans forward, and kisses Dean once and on the forehead.
Then, without further comment, he is gone.
‘I – just – what the hell! What the fuck was that! Cas! Cas, you sonuvabitch, get back here!'