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A Thousand Lights in Space

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--Day 140--

"What are you doing out here again?" Amanda asks, wiping her face as she and Mark take a break from attempted homicide (her) and nearly dying (him), also known as how crazy people have fun before sunup. She flickers a wary glance to the sun hovering just above the horizon. "You know you aren't a morning person, right? Cas promised everyone he'd break it to you."

Dean lets his glare over the top of his thermal cup of desperately needed coffee be his response to that bullshit. He's great at mornings.

"Anyway," she continues, "I thought you were gonna watching the thing that Cas and Alison--"

"Change of plans," he interrupts, taking a drink of coffee so he can pretend he doesn't see her smile fade. "So this is what you do every morning?"

"Pretty much," Mark answers, leaning against the fence and grinning up at him, smugly secure in the fact his ass wasn't stuck in a bed for weeks and his right arm works just fine. Or maybe Dean's projecting, who knows? "Why? You wanna go a round?"

It's a stupid question, he gets that, but his specialty is stupid questions, both in the asking and the answering, and he's got a record to protect.

"Sure." Hopping off the fence, he sets down his thermal cup, and Mark's horror is almost but not quite worth the beating he's gonna get, or worse, the one he won't because he's still recovering and they gotta be careful with him. Tugging off his coat, he drapes it over the top rail of the fence and looks between two dubious faces challengingly. "Well?"

"I really don't want Cas to kill me," Mark starts, which was of all the wrong things to say probably the worst.

"He won't care." Dean strips off his sweater--and by will alone controls the shivering from the not-subzero-but-close temperature this morning--and tosses it at the fence. Amanda's eyes widen, but before she can say anything, he frowns. "What was that?"

"What was what?" she asks in confusion. "Hey, target practice, that would be--"

"Maybe I want to get dirty," he counters.

"I'll throw some dirt at you," Amanda snaps back. "Dean, just--"

"Sucker punch work for you?" He's got enough sense left that he aims the punch for Mark when he dramatically misses. Mark jerks back, looking vaguely surprised and a little amused that Dean even tried, or maybe he's projecting again. Humiliation's started already, so why stop now? "Well?"

Amanda tilts her head, studying him with an unreadable expression. "On the training field, there's only one god and that's me. There are rules, and you break them, everything stops."

"What?" Mark yelps.

"I'll put you on the ground if you say one more word," she adds over her shoulder before she hops up on the top rail of the fence and hooks her feet under a lower one. "Both of you disarm. Now."

Dean tries and fails to remember if the trainees usually do that; Amanda and Mark sure as hell didn't this morning. Seeing Mark's already in progress, he goes with it, removing all his weapons one by one and setting them by the fence to Amanda's right before returning to his spot a few feet away and facing Mark.

"Round one, five minutes, initial drill," Amanda says, then looks at Dean with a faint smirk. "You remember it, right? Since you apparently designed it?"

He watched the trainees; that counts. "Got it. Anything else?"

"I call the time, you both stop. Any questions?"

Dean shakes his head; this is a shitty idea. "Nope."

"Warm him up," Amanda tells Mark. "Five minutes, listen for my calls, and time starts--now."


Dean woke up a few minutes after dawn to an empty bed; Cas's side was already cold. He wasn't surprised; actually, he wasn't much of anything, the numbness from the night before following him into the early morning gloom.

Drills are drills; formal as a dance, the feint and counter, thrust and parry (or maybe that's swords), speed is variable, starting at half before moving to three-quarters, the last minute at full. Not a lot of contact, but that's the point; this is where the moves are learned and reflexes begin to be trained until they move into body memory. Only a complete fuckup couldn't get through it with breath to spare.

"Time," Amanda says, and Mark backs off while Dean gulps desperately needed air, just managing not to bend over and gasp just how fucking out of shape he is.

He hasn't been on the training field: too sick, still recovering, doesn't know what he's doing, can't let anyone else know that, the list goes on and on and on. Whatever happened at the daycare (what happened at the daycare?), it seemed to be situation-only: adrenaline, desperation, dying kids, pick one or pick them all. It's not here now, anyway; Mark doesn't even look flushed while Dean's pretty sure he's sweated out a day's worth of water already.

As much as anything, this proves he's not just out of shape; he's never been in shape, not like this, not in his entire life. Which may prove Sam right about the goddamn early morning runs: anywhere they stayed overnight got a pre-dawn jog, distance measured against how long it would take Dean to wake up, and Dean didn't do that until he had to.

Because he's not a morning person. As everyone knows but him.

"Ready," Dean says when he's relatively sure he's got enough breath to sound--well, not as shitty as he feels. Mark looks at Amanda, shifting restlessly, and Goddammit. "Well?"

"Round two, seven minutes," Amanda says easily, resting her elbows on her knees. "Second drill, which--"

"I know," Dean grates out. Second verse, a more elaborate version of the first: two minutes at half, two at three-quarters, three at full, though the instructor can switch it up to test how quickly the students react. This one is after you know the moves and are developing the reflexes; the amount of contact depends on how much you've absorbed, and in his case, it's gonna be a lot of contact (not so much for Mark). In other words, this is gonna hurt. Good.

"Good," Amanda says. "Mark, you're getting sloppy in the transitions, those should be automatic by now; Dean…" She cocks her head, mouth twitching. "He's got the reach on you; use it."

Use it: good to know (what the hell does that mean? How?). "Right."

"Seven minutes, listen for my calls," Amanda says, looking between them. "Time starts--now."


He found coffee in the coffeemaker, still warm, cups and plates discarded hastily in the sink; he washed them mindlessly (he could be a good guest, he knew how). The detritus of breakfast was already put away, but someone left a separate plate on the stove (pancakes and chorizo, fresh tortillas and home-canned fruit: much better than the shit they got from the military), and he ate his solitary breakfast standing up at the counter, finishing everything even though hunger wasn't even a memory, every bite forced past a throat that wanted to close and settling in his stomach like lead.

Cas said: When will I be, Dean?

When will he be done with this life he doesn't want, with the Dean Winchesters that make him keep living it, the sense of duty that won't let him stop no matter how much he wants to. When, he asks, like anyone born doesn't sometimes wonder the exact same fucking thing. You think you're special, Cas? You're not.

--what is that?

"Time," he hears Amanda say over the sound of his own gasps for breath, cold air burning his lungs. "Walk it off, five minutes."

Dean's bent over this time, feeling the ache of overused muscles pretty much everywhere, even places he didn't think muscles existed. He manages to straighten, turning to walk circles as he surreptitiously searches the misty field, wondering when the trainees are supposed to show up and hoping to God it's not anytime soon. Semi-private humiliation is one thing, but he can live without half of goddamn Ichabod seeing him about to fall over and die from goddamn drills.

Two loose circles and the burn in his lungs diminishes and thought returns, enough at least to take inventory on what he's got to work with for round three, which sure, he hasn't ever actually seen, but that's not actually going to stop him from faking it. Mark pulled every punch, which is as much a sign of his skill as anything else, and Dean's failing not to resent the necessity, like he really needs a black eye and a few cracked ribs. Reaching up, he rubs his aching chest, remembering two cardiac arrests and the damage that doesn't exist. Miracle is so clichéd (as Vera observed) but he'd love to know another word that applies. Curse, how does that sound? This is living, Cas; it's accepting what you got and learning to live with it.

Stretching his arms--and ignoring the sharp stab of pain shooting up his forearm to his elbow--he circles back to see Amanda watching him thoughtfully and braces himself to hear her call it a day. Trainees coming, not much daylight, wash her hair, feed the cat, he looks like he's gonna collapse--

"Fifteen minutes."

Mark stares at her. "You're kidding, right?"

"Let's take this up a notch," she continues. "The rules are, there are no rules--"

"This isn't Grease," Mark protests.

"And I'm not banging the fuck out of leather-pants-Sandy over the hood of the nearest car," Amanda retorts. "And your nose isn't bleeding. One of these three things could happen in the next five minutes, though: ask me which."

Mark shuts his mouth.

"God says, round three, fifteen minutes." Amanda's eyes narrow until Mark grudgingly nods. "Anything goes. I won't call until time's up, someone gives, or you're about to die, and no promises on the last. Ready?"

He really, really, really should say 'No' or even (and more accurately), 'Fuck, no', but the words are still floating in his head as he faces Mark, who may not be better than Amanda but is plenty and to spare better than him.

"Mark," Amanda says, getting his attention. "Keep pulling your punches like that when he provokes you and I'll put you back in training. Dean--get better at provoking him, would you? I'm getting a little bored watching the kids play, you know?"

It's not even a good insult, but then again, he's not a very good fighter. Despite that, he straightens, tamping down the growing anger--it won't help, that much, he knows--and concentrates on his opponent. Mark's stronger, faster, younger, has the height and reach, and outweighs him by more than he ever wants to know for sure. He was trained by Cas, works out with Amanda for fun, and spent almost three years fighting in the infected zone at the end of the world. Dean'd say he was outclassed as hell, but first, he'd have to qualify for an actual class.

Kids: no. Playing: yeah, he is--he's playing at being their leader and playing at being a hunter and playing that he knows what he's doing and playing at being Dean fucking Winchester, because the only thing they share is a goddamn name, and that name's the only reason Cas stuck around even this long. How he forgot that he doesn't know, but it's about time he started to remember.

Dean jerks around. "Did you hear that?"

"What?" Tucking her hands in her coat pockets, she raises an eyebrow. "That I'm bored?"

Annoyed, he strips off his flannel shirt and wipes his face before dropping it on top of his discarded sweater. The thermal is already soaked with sweat and so is his t-shirt; he's got to wonder about a winter that's boasting an eighties and rising dawn temperature, but it's the Apocalypse, and just like this fight, there are no rules. Shoving up the too-long sleeves--doomed to slide right back down and distract him at the worst possible moment, he knows it already--he turns to face a very unhappy looking Mark.

"Ready."

"Time starts--" Amanda pauses for a pregnant moment, "--now."


Mark's totally pulling his punches; that's why Dean's left cheekbone isn't broken, but it's gonna be one hell of a bruise.

Things he has to do today (post getting his ass beat down): find out how the experiment went (because his presence wasn't wanted), if it worked (or may work, fuck if he knows) find out what happens next. If Cas wants to stay, how long, should Dean pack for him when he goes back today (pack for a few days, it's not a commitment; it's totally a fucking commitment, pack it all). Go back to the empty cabin, do some first aid (he can take care of himself just fine), see if they have any food (probably not), order the mess to reinstate fucking salt, see what Joe's doing, look in on the new mess (the hole), hang some goddamn Christmas lights or send James to get some if they don't have any yet (this is James; they have Christmas lights by now), think about a present for Cas (because he's coming back, or maybe Dean can send it to Ichabod if Cas is still needed here; send it here, this is where he'll be), and maybe, just maybe, take a crowbar to his own laptop so he won't do it to Cas's (unless he wants that packed, too, because he may need time, because he's not coming back).

"Shit!" Dean hears over the ringing in his ears, and he blinks up uncertainly at a churning grey mass that he eventually works out is supposed to be the sky--are those snow clouds? Fuck if he knows--and to see that, he's probably doing something a lot like lying down. There's probably a reason for that.

Sitting up, he blinks at the sight of Mark, who looks horrified by the existence of violence or maybe just that his putative leader can't even manage to dodge a pulled punch. There's a definite ache at the base of his spine that warns him he's got maybe no more of those before it takes off, and he'll need a hot water bottle or maybe someone else entirely to drive. Leah might be available, if Cas isn't coming back, because even if the experiment worked, he's not coming back.

He's not coming back.

Stripping off the thermal, he wipes the sweat from his eyes and tosses it toward the fence. The back of his head is throbbing and his right shoulder checks in to inform him it's not dislocated but kind of wants to be. Standing up, the world twists nauseatingly, stomach heaving in sympathy, but a couple of hard swallows helps with that, though it's longer until he can see Mark in singular.

"Well?" he demands when Mark doesn't move, hideously aware of what they can see. Stripped down to too-big jeans and a sweat-soaked t-shirt, there's no way to hide the sickly pallor or rail-thin body, a guy who survived a fever that should have killed him but came back wrong. What a joke: the guy who came back from Kansas City was wrong already, the ugly, knotted scar tissue winding up his arm visible proof the way the bandage above his wrist hides it from sight. They're both looking right at him and don't see a goddamn thing. That's life.

Cas said: When will I be, Dean?

Even if Cas comes back to Chitaqua, he won't be coming back for him. He's not the right one.

"Ready," he says.

Cas, Castiel, soldier of Chitaqua and angel of the Lord, you told me we could win, that it was worth fighting for, that I was good enough to do it; it was a lie. You want out, fine, don't let the door hit your ass, and by the way fuck you for making me believe a single word you said.

Amen.


He was wrong. About a lot of things, come to think (everything, now that you mention it), but also his back.

He gets two more shitty landings--one on a right knee that will never forgive him, one flat on his ass--before the shock of pain arrowing up his spine to his neck keeps him still, laid out on the ground under the clearest blue sky he's ever seen, dotted with roving clouds like sheep that need some serious shearing. It takes him two tries to even care enough to decide if he wants to sit up, because lying here brings a lot of shit into surprising focus, or maybe that's just the concussion talking. What he's doing is stupid, by the way, he gets that, but aching muscles and shaking limbs aren't doing shit to make him stop thinking, and lying here isn't getting him any closer to his goddamn goal.

Sitting up, the world dances briefly, Mark going in and out of focus like motel cable only inches from the leading edge of white foam as the tide pulls back and leaving a wet line in the sand.

"Dean--"

"'M fine," he grunts, pushing a hand into the cold ground and dragging himself upright, the training field tilting sideways before it rights itself with an almost physical jolt. Shaking his head, wet hair clinging to his forehead, he focuses on Mark again, clenching his right hand to hide (from who, no idea) how badly it's shaking, index finger throbbing in time with the beat of his heart.

Mark tries, gotta give him credit, but his opponent isn't helping him at all, and that's why Dean's throwing up breakfast and the two meals prior after a punch to the gut that he walked right into when failing to dodge. Spitting out the taste of bile, he faces Mark again, who doesn't hide how badly he wants to be anywhere but here, and doesn't look at Amanda, who's probably wondering how the hell this guy can possibly claim to be a hunter, much less anyone's leader. He's sweated out anger and frustration and grief and endless disappointment--in himself, in his life, in how he managed to fuck up again and still can't even tell how--between every panted breath, but it doesn't help, never does.

That's life, welcome to it: misery, suffering, privation, disappointment, rocks fall and everyone dies, and you keep on keeping on until you're dead, too (and maybe not even then), happy now? That's all there is, now you know: any questions? What makes it worth it; you fucking tell me, I've been wondering about that myself. What gets you up every goddamn the morning to keep living it? It sure as fuck can't be worth this. Nothing is worth this.

This time, Mark doesn't bother hesitating or asking if he's okay, possibly because they've entered the 'putting everyone out of their misery' portion of the day. Dean keeps his feet through a duck and dodge despite his body's best effort to give up and fall, but he's not fast enough to miss the second of the one-two punch that's followed with a kick to the meat of his thigh that sends him to his knees.

Gasping, Dean digs his fingers into the hard-packed dirt, warm sand dusting over the backs of his hands, barely avoiding going face-first into the ground and getting a bloody nose to add to his collection. Spitting out a mouthful of blood, his stomach too empty for anything but dry-heaving and humiliation, he listens to the litany on repeat in his head; he was sick, he's still recovering, he's out of shape, out of practice, never even been in practice, too weak, too slow, not the right Dean Winchester, and he can't do this and he can't fucking believe he ever thought he could.

Stand up.

He tries to breathe, lungs packed solid with air like cemetery dirt. I can't.

"…what the fuck, Amanda?"

Stand up.

Shut the fuck up. You never told me one fucking thing that's true.

Stand up.

"…can't keep this up…."

I can't.

All you have to do is remember--

"…and fucking call it!" Mark shouts. "He's can't do it!"

--how to stand up.

Pushing against the ground, Dean staggers to his feet, and it may hurt like hell, but he'll take it, he'll take all of it, because fuck if he'll ever get on his knees again.

"Ready," he says hoarsely, blinking to clear his vision and focusing on Mark; he's not done yet.

Mark looks at Amanda desperately, opening his mouth to explain how Dean can't keep up, is too slow, too weak, too out of shape, the wrong one, can't get it right and never has. Pick one pick them all, they're all true. That doesn't mean he's ever gonna stop trying.

The slow-motion turn of his head is barely completed when Dean takes two steps and punches him hard enough to feel the impact up to his shoulder. Almost shocked, he jerks clumsily out of the way of Mark's flailing arm and stumbles, almost falling, but his feet nail shaking legs to the earth, and he doesn't eat dirt, not this time. That's life, too.

Eyes burning from the salt-heavy air, he looks up to see Amanda's slow, satisfied smile. "There we go."

Dean slowly straightens and shakes out his right hand, knuckles raw and threaded with fresh blood that's echoed on Mark's split lip.

"Welcome back, Dean," Amanda adds. Mark wipes his mouth, watching him with newfound wariness that has nothing to do with how badly Dean's gonna lose. "Seven minutes left. You want it, take it."

Mark hesitates, waiting for what feels like years, plenty of time to think, and Dean uses it. His mind runs everything he's learned about Mark so far as a fighter. He doesn't have a lot of weaknesses and he compensates for them all--that's Cas in him, the guy who learned the hard way about how to work with what you've got and pounded that into every student he ever taught--but there's a reason that Amanda's the instructor and he just assists. Weight, height, reach, strength, speed, training, and he fucking belongs: Mark's almost got it all, no lie, Dean's envious as fuck, but it's still only almost.

Mark telegraphs his next move like a shout, and Dean doesn't move this time, watching for the hitch, the reluctance to commit to beating the shit out of his leader and the certainty that it would be easy to do just that. At the last minute, Dean ducks to the side, kicking the back of his calf mid-lunge and watching in interest as Mark's own momentum takes him down. He's too tired--and honestly, too fucking slow--to even try to pin him now, instead dodging back a few steps as Mark rolls himself to his feet, startled expression just barely hidden as he faces Dean again.

Sure, Dean can't win this, but he hasn't lost until he's dead.

"Got your attention now?" Dean asks, grinning at him. "Let's go."


He's listened a lot the last couple of days, but every time he tried to talk, it was like he never said a word. It probably didn't help that they haven't been having the same conversation even once--that much, Dean figured out--but not early enough, and there's a reason for that. The Croat bite, what they found in the church, what they learned from Alison and Teresa, two separate arguments with Cas: it was almost a relief to have something to deal with, anything at all, because otherwise, he'd have to start thinking of what happened six days ago in Ichabod and what it meant.

Ichabod was attacked by a small army of Croats and the problem isn't that they won, but why. They didn't win because Chitaqua was here, thought that helped; they won because they already knew how to deal with it. They had practice doing it, two years worth in a world where this wasn't a shitty apocalypse novel, in an area of the country written off where it's not just a potential danger, but a fact of life.

He knew that--he lives in fucking Chitaqua, he's seen Wichita and Kansas City and Topeka, he's read the reports, heard the history in events and numbers, understood the scope--but Ichabod was the first time that he had to live it. It's all he can do to pretend that nothing's changed when something has, distract himself with anything and everything he can find when the alternative is wondering not what he can do, but if he actually wants to.

It's not about whether they can win or lose; first, they have to get to the point where the question isn't academic, and that's where Dean's mind grinds to a halt. This won't be about finding the right book, the right weapon, being at the right place at the right time, a single fight that will decide the fate of the world. He's not being asked to give his life, but to make this his life, and that doesn't include the option of dying before he's done if he can help it.

It's weird; for days, he's been terrified to even think it, and fuck, was that a waste of time and stress. No one says no, not if they're worthy of the question. Of course he'll do it.

Wiping the sweat from his eyes, Dean almost stumbles as the ground shifts beneath his feet, sand dusting across his boots, and that's not helping him keep his balance here. Half the field is draped in a warm, salt-thick mist, and he's pretty sure he can hear the--

Crap.

Jerking out of Mark's (honestly, kind of terrible) lunge, he twists around desperately to miss the kick and stumbles half a dozen steps, raw pain shooting up his hamstring to nestle deep and throbbing in his left thigh.

He's starting to get what Amanda meant when she warned Mark about pulling his punches; it wasn't about punching at all. Mark could have ended this the first minute if he wanted this to be over fast--if the goal was for Dean to finish the round alive and pride (mostly) intact, he could have let Dean wear himself out while playing a defensive game; that he chose offense assuming that he could mitigate the risk with half-hearted follow-through says a lot, including the reason Mark's always gonna be almost. He's pissed he has to do this at all, and while he knows how to follow orders to the letter, the spirit is spite, and making sure Dean knows with every pulled punch just how outclassed he is and why he should just give up.

Dean doesn't blame him for his feelings, but what he does with them is a whole other fucking story. If he can't control them in a goddamn sparring match with his own leader still recovering from a near-fatal fever, he can't ever be entirely trusted to do it with a student his job is to teach.

Even when there aren't rules, there's a pattern to any fight created by the participants themselves. Up until now, Dean let Mark decide what that was, but that like a lot of things, that's gonna change; he just needs a little more time to figure out how to do it. Until then, he concentrates on defense, buying himself breathing room by retreating when he can to increase the space between them that Mark has to cross to get to him, counting on the fact that Mark isn't even pretending he needs to worry about defending himself.

Dean kind of gets why. He can't quite make a fist anymore with his right; even trying makes it shake so badly he can't even close his hand, and nothing--and he does mean nothing--doesn't hurt like hell. Stretching it out, he checks his throbbing finger and blinks; stretched across the tip is a thin, mostly-healed line following the curve of the skin. Running his right thumb over it, though, he can't feel the scab at all, just rough, callused flesh and a burst of heat like he touched a lit match; so that's what's going on.

Blinking the sand from his eyes, he ignores the waves lipping along the vague impression of a shore just short of his boots. A quick inventory of his injuries is aborted before it starts; nothing more depressing than realizing you shouldn't even be standing, much less fighting. Today's to-do list: drive back to Chitaqua (fuck it, he doesn't need a babysitter), steal some painkillers, sleep for a day, and if anyone wants their shit, feel free to come by and watch him set it all on fire in the front yard; he'll barbecue dinner over the flames.

Cas of Chitaqua, you fucking dick, hope you backed up recently, because 'thing I covered in salt and set on fire in the front yard' is gonna be right on top, covered in salt and on fire. Amen.

Loud enough to shake the world, he can feel it reverberating in his bones like a husky bark of startled laughter, and despite himself, he finds himself grinning; that's life, too, and it's not too bad when you get used to it. Now give me a minute, I gotta think.

Blocking Mark's next punch, Dean surreptitiously glances around and nods to himself, finger throbbing almost frantically; time to wrap this up. Straightening, he ignores the audible pop from his back; that's not good, but he'll care about it maybe never.

"Hey," he starts. "I gotta--"

"Two minutes," Amanda interrupts, crossing her legs and killing Mark's dawning hope before it starts, but the flash of resentment lasts longer. Sure, he wants this over, but Mark is still pissed. "Or you give?"

Dean just barely misses Mark's sloppy punch, ducking under his arm and adding a kick to his knee to teach him to respect people having conversations and ignoring his grunt as he hits the ground ass-first as well as his surprise. For fuck's sake, he's got shit to do. "Amanda, he's--"

"One fifty or someone gives," she says cheerfully as Mark pivots around with a badly-hidden wince. Black eye, split lip, abraded knuckles, bruises everywhere, and probably something sprained: maybe they can share a room in the infirmary later. "You done?"

He shuts his mouth before he can tell her what god can do with round three, licking the blood from his lips. "No."

Dean catalogues what he's got to work with: Mark, heels only inches from the incoming tide while Dean's back is to the fence; Amanda to his left and to his right…yeah. He can work with this. Weight, height, reach, strength, speed, training, and he fucking belongs: Mark's almost got it all, but only almost, and that's not enough, not today.

"Come and get me," Dean tells him with a smile, and feints right, leaving his left open--the only hand that still works, how'd Mark forget that?--and turns on the ball of his foot at the last minute to face Mark, catching Mark's fist but not slowing down its momentum, and pivoting sideways, Dean lets weight and reach do the work for him. Unable to slow down, Mark stumbles hard and lands in an awkward heap with a gasp a foot away from the fence: perfect.

A single step and Dean kicks his knife from the pile of weapons and towards Mark, scooping it up with his left and straddling Mark's body just as he heaves himself onto his back, still out of breath and nose starting to look a little swollen. Pulling Mark's boot knife (he forgot that, too: big mistake), Dean lands on abdomen with his full weight, missing dangerous broken rib territory and knocking the air right back out of him. Mark sucks in a shocked breath, prepping to throw him, but Dean's got a knife at his throat and one at his belly and he's not going anywhere.

The rules are, there are no rules, and forgetting that was Mark's biggest mistake. From the corner of his eye, he sees Amanda's off the fence, but right now, his attention's on Mark.

"Give," he says, balancing on the balls of his feet, knees in play on the off-chance Mark's got a surprise left (he doesn't). Any way Mark moves, an artery's gonna suffer, or if he's unlucky, both (Dean's thinking both; there's not a lot of options for movement here that are either/or).

Mark goes still, his uninjured eye widening in shock.

"Well?"

Swallowing, Mark nods, mouth opening for a rusty "Yeah," and Dean grins down at him; now that that's out of the way, he's got shit to do. Getting to his feet, he offers Mark back his boot knife hilt-first before turning to see the wave just breaking along the sandy shore; north or south, which way to go? He'll figure it out when he gets there.

Sliding his knife across the tip of his throbbing finger over the ghost of the cut made that day when Cas showed him the cabin's wards, Dean watches the water splash across the sand. "Freely given, just like last time. Yes."

The well of blood isn't anything to write home about, but the beach ripples across the training field, sunlight dancing over glittering sand and an endlessly blue ocean. You could live a life there in a single day. And he did.

"Dean--" Amanda starts, but Dean shakes his head as the next wave stops only inches from his boots. "Dean, what are you doing?"

"He's calling me," he answers impatiently, following the white-foam edge south as the sound of breakers pounding the shore grows steadily louder and the dirt gives way for golden-white sand, sun-hot and shifting beneath his bare feet and between his toes. "What do you think I'm doing? I'm answering."

"Dean--!" vanishes beneath the crash of waves, and Dean emerges into a warm summer day on the Atlantic seaboard. He takes in the view for a moment before crouching to roll up his jeans.

Now he's just got to find him.


That's actually the easy part.

The water teases the shoreline, waves rushing eagerly forward before shying back just short of his bare feet and following him the length of the pristine beach, summer heat offset by the sticky, salt-thick breeze. Tipping his head back, Dean takes in the perfect sky above him for a moment, rich blue like something out of a movie or a painting, clouds chasing each other toward the distant horizon beneath the indulgent gaze of the sun, yellow-gold and blinding. It's beautiful, as perfect a moment in time as any in his life.

Dusk is when Dad came for them, but he and Sam were here at dawn; the hours between were long enough to live a life they'd never imagined, as different from a lifetime of rest stops and motels as a motel pool was from the ocean.

He never believed in normal, but he does in living the life you got the best you can; it's not easy, but it doesn't have to be this fucking hard. A spanking in the stuffy, run-down room and a musty, sagging mattress to sleep on that night didn't change a thing; it was worth the sunbaked hours with Sam, playing hide and seek among the rocks and keep-away from each incoming wave, swimming beneath the surface and watching the wavering sky with salt-burned eyes, laughing until their stomachs ached before collapsing in golden-white sand, exhausted and wet and as happy as they'd ever been.

…and right, building a sandcastle, can't forget that; an example of under-ten's excellent grasp of the value of defense and their lack of understanding of the principles of sandcastle engineering, but damned if they didn't try.

He circles the high outer walls of golden-brown sand with two Sam-created gates decorated with seashells clinging for dear life surrounding a wide, open space big enough for two young boys to climb inside and work on a mostly-finished castle at its center, half-crumbling turrets fighting physics and a shitty sand-to-water ratio to stay upright and succeed against all the laws of God and man. Stepping inside--it's smaller when you're six plus feet, that's so weird--he watches the water sliding almost shyly around the circle of defensive wall before returning to the ocean and leaving a deepening gully of water behind.

"Moat," he realizes, grinning. "Good idea." He wishes Sam was here and they could start work on a drawbridge for it. He's here, though, and driftwood would work; he wonders if there's any around.

When he glances up, he sees a slim figure wandering down the coastline, skirts twisting around her legs, and even from here, he can tell she's annoyed as hell and isn't taking it anymore. Because of course she's not; she's never been anything else.

"What the hell," he shouts over the pound of the surf, unable to stop the grin, "are you doing here?"

The figure stops short. "What do you think?" she yells back, waving as she jogs toward him, the water shying at each narrow foot pounding its shape into the wet sand. Stepping carefully over the walls, he watches in bemusement as the waves withdraw more with each step toward the waterline until it hovers warily just beyond their feet.

"He's doing it to me, too," she snorts, pushing back loose hair from a flushed face before looking around them in wonder. Spying the sandcastle, she bursts into laughter. "Much better than me and Neer's at Valente, give you that one."

He shrugs, though yeah, it's a goddamn amazing sandcastle. "So how's it going?"

She gives him a mischievous look before abruptly darting toward the water. Obviously a surprise: the water rears back in something not unlike a reverse wave, opening up a wide, wet sand circle around her just before her toes make contact. Spinning around to face him, she throws out both arms in hilarious despair, and he's still choking on sandy laughter as he joins her.

"Like that," she says, shaking her head. "The infinite ocean doesn't want to play, and you wouldn't believe how long it took him to sit still long enough to ground and center or whatever she calls it."

"About the same amount of time it took you?" he answers mockingly, looping an arm through hers as they start back to the natural boundary of the tide.

"Ha, I learned my lesson," she retorts, tilting her chin up.

"Sleeping on the couch?"

"Sex," she admits as he adjusts his stride to hers. "For my fiancée is both beautiful and very smart."

He tries to calculate how much time they've spent on this experiment; it would help if maybe they could actually start. "How long has it been?"

"Half a second, maybe: there's no time here, though." She licks her lips, looking up at him uncertainly. "He thinks he'll kill me," she says in a rush, sounding defeated. "The experiment worked; there's enough time, more than enough. So we drew the circle, got the kids--and he won't do it."

Letting go of her arm, he looks at the ocean spread out, blue-green waves capped in snow-white breakers like foam, water lapping warily at the sand just short of their feet. "He's afraid."

"That much," she says dryly, "I figured out on my own."

Dropping into a crouch, he swallows. What they are, what they do: it's a loner's game, but the thing is, he never really believed it. Dad wasn't the one that made him, that decided the course of the life he'd live; Sam did that, by example when he could, by brute force shouting when he needed to, by walking away and being willing to come back every goddamn time when all else failed. He taught Dean that lesson over and over again, as much in his leaving as in his return, and if it took a while for Dean to learn it (and a couple of repetitions, fine), he did learn. He can teach Cas that, too; if it takes a few times to get it to sink in, fine; if it takes a thousand times to get it, he's got the time; if it takes forever, he'll do it, no sweat; Cas is worth it. You're worth it. It doesn't have to be this hard.

"It can be distracting," Dean murmurs. An infinite mind filled to the brim with all things that are, were, and will be, but now is always gonna be a surprise, and that's as terrifying as it is freeing. That's life: full of surprises right and left, and some suck balls, but some don't. "Just need to focus, right?"

Reaching out carefully, he touches the tiny swirl of water.

He was up all night watching Dean's troubled, restless sleep, fighting exhaustion for a contentment in his simple presence that easily overshadowed what would happen come morning. He forgot that, or didn't want to imagine its lack; he never would have done it otherwise. It wasn't worth it after all--

Dean closes his eyes; he doesn't need to know this.

--he would have failed eventually, he knows that, but he could have continued to try; the space between now and then was vast, seconds or forever, and he could have had Dean for all of it.

Dean opens his eyes and thinks: You gotta be fucking with me. A fight isn't a goddamn tragedy for the ages, how many times do we need to go over this?

"Dean?" drifts from behind him, but he raises a hand, looking up at the breadth of the ocean stretching out forever before them. In the distance, it meets the sky in a darkening line, the impression of something massive held in severe check: a swirl of gale force winds and power, destruction and brutal violence, the merciless purity of justice, chaos incarnate unleashed on earth.

It's bullshit: the only leash Cas needs is himself. That's life.

"Just need a minute to slow down and breathe, right?" he says softly, straightening as he watches the distant mass darken, flickers of brightness like lightening in shifting winds. "Figure out you can do this, no sweat. You just need your one thing."

Dean steps into warm water up to his ankles. "That's me."


He's not sure how long he walks, but knee-high is as far as he can get. The horizon gets darker but never any closer, and when he turns around, the shore's vanished into an endless stretch of infinite blue.

Don't be afraid, angels would say to the humans they met; it makes sense. The unknown is fucking terrifying, and generally, meetings like that don't end well. Get past the fear of immediate annihilation, though, and things even out. Eventually, anyway.

Though honestly, Dean's not sure that applies when the fear in question is of yourself; it's not like he's earned any gold stars there. So that's gonna take some time, but later; they got shit to do now.

"Don't be afraid," Dean says, as pointlessly as an angel on earth ever did, and with about the same result; have you lost your mind? comes through loud and clear, thanks.

Dean rubs his first finger over the line of newly opened scar; given freely, it has a power that unwilling can't hope to match. He can actually see Cas sitting on the arm of the couch in the cabin that day, looking at him incredulously; Do you usually give the bodily fluid with the greatest potential for mystical abuse to anyone who asks for it?

"No, I don't," Dean retorts, glaring at the darkening horizon. "Just you. If you don't believe in yourself, believe me, and I can believe enough for us both. You with me?"

He doesn't expect an answer, but Alison nearly colliding with him is probably just that. "Whoa," she says, grabbing his shoulder and looking around incredulously. "So he's really literal."

"You have no idea." Steadying her, he watches the darkness start to grow, swallowing up the sky and water before them in great gulps. "Now that's what I'm talking about. Come on, it's gonna be fine. You can do this."

When he glances at Alison, he sees the wide grin on her face that he can feel on his own as the wind picks up, swirling sand and salt and righteous frustration because there may not be an infinite number of ways Dean can frustrate him, he has yet to identify the actual number. Always something new: that's life, Cas, and welcome to it.

"You ready?" Dean breathes, water climbing up to his hips and not stopping there as the waves grow, a surfer's dream in blue-green masses flickering with light so bright it could illuminate the whole goddamn world. Who could be afraid of that? He wouldn't even know where to start.

"Oh yeah." She chokes out a laugh through a mouthful of water as she drops her sodden skirts, giving the forever storm a speculative look. "Well?"

This would be that cliff Amanda was talking about, but there's nothing to be done but jump. That's what cliffs are for. "Race you?"

Two laughing, waterlogged steps, and Dean falls like a pebble into the limitless depths of an infinite ocean.


You with me, Cas? Good. Now get this shit done.

There, Alison breathes, and he sees it, too: each a suppurating sore, livid, putrid reds and yellows, dead white where it waits eagerly to claim the life of everyone who carries it, the design multiplies across each mind, each redundant memory hungry; that's its purpose, and it knows nothing else.

Cas saw the problem immediately, and as horrific as it was, more terrifying by far was the possibility that while its creator might be dead, Hell could preserve such a mind that could not just conceive of this, but bring it into existence. Once thought, it cannot be unthought; once done, it will be done again, and the most that can be hoped for is a delay, the grace of time for it to be learned and countered. Or the world ends before it becomes a problem, of course.

That's his Fallen angel: that optimism.

There were fifteen living children before him, a goddess intent on killing them, and a former angel who didn't need Grace to be dangerous but did need power to make sure they were safe.

Five minute rule: it works. He's had time since then, though, lived a mortal life that included meeting a witch who understood the flexibility of rules as well as he did and how never to break them even when that's exactly what you intend to do. We can't erase it, can't hide it, can barely see it, but it was made, and that means it can be unmade. They simply needed to be creative in the how.

In the courtyard, Teresa's bleeding hand has already crossed the outer edge, cutting through each precisely chalked line from perimeter to inner circle, and Cas echoes it across every fixed memory at once, each stroke cutting the bindings as cleanly as a cauterized wound. It's seconds, hours, forever; the church walls and floor rising up around them as the original flares to shrieking, bleeding life before it collapses into light, two and a half years of existence burned away in a breath.

All I needed, Alison breathes in satisfaction, and Dean sometimes seriously wonders about her.

Unmade, its power stripped and broken, it can be erased, and Cas does that next, precise as a stiletto, painstakingly erasing it from each individual engram without damage to the brain. Watching, Dean gets why Cas said only an angel could do something like this. Like resurrecting a human body from bone and dust, it wasn't just about knowing what you were doing; it was in that moment knowing nothing else at all. Everything in Cas is dedicated to every detail down to the atom of their brains, but even without Grace, he couldn't make a mistake if he tried.

He also gets why Cas was worried; even seeing this much is giving him something not unlike a headache, and Alison's starting to waver. Cas can't--literally--break his concentration and Teresa's just reached the inner circle: reaching over, Dean catches Alison's cold hand, unsubstantial as air and light but warming and solidifying in his grip and sending her his strength. As much as she needs; he's got it and to spare.

She can't entirely understand what Cas is doing at first--too much information, on a guess--but slowly, that begins to change, and after a moment, Dean realizes what Cas is doing; he's teaching her how he does it, how an angel erases a memory without hurting the subject, adapting the knowledge to a human psychic's power and feeding her as much of the massive amount of information on the human brain needed for this that she can handle.

And that, as it turns out, is a lot; there aren't any limits on the human mind except the ones they make for themselves.

They both watch Cas slowly rebuild over the absence--that blank space thing, he's gonna guess--so they'll never sense what was taken; in a sense, it was never there at all.

Unexpectedly, Cas changes track, searching the minds of the children and pulling up the memories of the courtyard the day Ichabod was attacked. Castiel examines the sequence from the children's first horrific memories--Dee saw a Croat rip out Bianca's throat with its teeth; Sissy splashed with blood as her teacher died protecting her; Alara seeing the demon staring out of the eyes of Grant; Darwin screaming as he was dragged outside--the shock, terror, pain, and horror saturating every moment until the circle was completed and the fixed memory took over their minds.

Slowly, gently, he blurs them, dulls the details into incomprehensibility before easing them away from the soul-deep fear, making it more distant and carefully weakening each pathway to the memories so nothing will haunt their young lives, steal their sleep and invade their dreams. Too many nights he's watched Dean twist and turn in their grip: as an angel, he didn't understand what it did to Dean to experience those nightmares even if he rarely remembered them upon waking, the scars it left in his mind; as a human, he could only watch, soothe him when he could, awaken him when all else failed; this time, he can do it as it should be done, give them the peace he'd do anything to give Dean, for even a single night's rest.

"Jesus, Cas," Dean breathes, hoping to God he doesn't sound like--whatever he sounds like right now. Alison squeezes his hand--so he does, great--as she files away everything Cas does.

In some ways, it's even harder than simply erasing memories, requiring care and precision and assuring that every redundant copy matches the changes to the first. Dissonance is to be avoided if possible, minimized if not; the memory informs all human perception, and the mind must be able to trust itself. A single missed redundant engram--a single mistake--could cause a chain reaction across the brain if it interprets the inconsistency as damage, and the potential for actual damage when it tries to repair it.

She won't be able to use--or even understand--most of what she's learning yet; too much information is being written as quickly as possible into her memory, and accessing it will be almost impossible without context. Learning what to do with the knowledge is for later, when Cas will teach her the first simple lessons of not just reading the human mind but understanding it in all its layers, when the triggers Cas installed will call up what she needs to know as she progresses in skill. She might not remember much of what she saw here, but she'll definitely have a headache when it's over; Cas suggests she find a dark room and take the highest safe dose of vicodin possible.

"Thanks," she mutters, but she's smiling when she says it.

One more thing: abruptly, Dean's aware of Amanda and Kamal. It wasn't planned for today so they weren't prepared or their consent asked for in advance, but the danger is too great even now to delay if possible. He can sense their surprise, but there's no sense of withdrawal or fear, and Cas is probably the only person in the world who's surprised at their unquestioning "yes".

This time, it's different; there's nothing to unmake, just erase, but the memory sequence has to be left intact in its entirety. Isolating the design alone from the sequence and then each redundant copy, Cas blurs the details of the design itself past recall, making it impossible for them to remember it--or anyone else to see it--as more than a vaguely circular thing. Teresa's mind is safe in the earth's protection, and therefore Alison's as well, but neither have any desire to keep it if they don't have to, so he does the same to theirs as well, verifying through Teresa's eyes the exact location of the design in the courtyard he'll need to erase himself before allowing Teresa to purify it and with her permission sets a very strong impulse in her not to look at it when she leaves the courtyard.

Alison will be unconscious, so there's no reason to do the same to her.

"If I hit my head when I fall…." she warns, and laughter ripples through them all, Dean's included.

It's a mistake. Cas isn't concentrating on anything now, and infinity just remembered he has company (if he even knew, that part's kind of up in the air) and for how long.

Abruptly, Dean's got all of infinity staring right at him, and that is a fucking lot. The swirl of water becomes a maelstrom before it stills like they've just hit the eye of the storm, and the fear is unmistakable."Dean."

Infinity, Dean thinks uncomfortably, soaking wet, up to his knees in water, and peering up at a hurricane the size of a galaxy, may also be kind of pissed.

It happens fast: the impression of something vast (and it must be said, stupidly pissed, he's fine!) rises up around them, and he feels Alison's hand start to slip from his. He tries to hold on, but his right still isn't working right (wait, what?) and he has only a moment of panic before he realizes what's going on.

"It's over!" Alison shouts from somewhere, maliciously cheerful. "Sucks to be you real soon now."

"Fuck you." Squeezing her hand one last time as she starts to slip away, he remembers something. "So by the way, when are you gonna tell me, anyway?"

The last thing he remembers is her laughter: I don't even know yet. When I do, I'll tell you. Promise.


The closest comparison Dean can come up with to this feeling is being kind of the opposite of stoned, except for the part where he kind of is: euphoria and kind of really wanting to stare into space and wanting to laugh like a lot except that staring into space thing kind of takes all his attention. Awareness of things like motion and velocity come later, and even later than that, the sudden stop that almost throws him to the floorboard of what he's almost certain may be the jeep.

A little late as revelations go: he's being dragged out the door by someone in a shitty mood that may need a little relaxing through chemistry, stat. Also, there's shouting, but it's not at him (he thinks) so whatever.

He's got to get a new word for shit like this, he thinks a little blearily, sitting up and realizing by the proliferation of walls that he's in a room and, hey, bed: context, back at Alison's, awesome. Christ, though, his head: reaching up, he's distracted by a warm trickle against his upper lip, and swiping it away, looks blankly at the smear of fresh blood. Suspicious, he fumbles for an ear and almost sighs at the liquid warmth: Cas is never gonna let him live this down. Whatever this is; he's almost got it.

Speaking of. "What are you--lie down!"

"I'm fine," Dean starts--or thinks he does--but he's (gently) supine before he can work out whether there were actual words or just really adamant thoughts. Licking his lips, he tries to decide if it's worth the inevitable fight if he tries to sit up or to just go with it; the mattress is unbelievable, the pillow is comfy, and he's still not quite feeling the ass-kicking Mark gave him on the training field. "Bad idea," he mutters into the pillow, trying not to remember exactly how much pain he should be in after that; not like he won't be feeling it soon enough. "Such a bad idea--"

"Now you think….hemorrhaging, brain damage, you lecture me about it all the time, so why would you…how did you even…." Cas's voice shatters as he hip checks Dean to sit down, callused hands framing his face, the better to reduce the distance his glare has to cross to get to Dean, on a guess. Like distance affects that shit: he can feel one of those miles away and in his sleep, thanks. "What happened?"

"I don't know," he mumbles defensively, trying to put the memories in some kind of order, though on a guess, he's going to regret getting the full picture the minute he has it. "He kept pulling his punches. It pissed me off."

"What are you--" The cut-off is as ominous as a tornado siren before warm fingers slide to the developing bruise on his cheek, too light to make him wince but reminding him that when he feels that, Jesus, it's gonna hurt. "Where did you get this?"

"Mark's fist."

Cas thumb brushes against the corner of his mouth, which makes him immediately aware it kind of hurts, too. "And this?"

"…the ground," Dean decides after a moment of thought. "Or--"

"Mark's fist, I sense a theme."

Vaguely, he remembers Mark chanting, "Cas is gonna kill us" the entire drive back to town, like if he said it enough, it might not come true, and Amanda's sincere promise that she'd kill him herself if he didn't shut up.

"At least she'd make it fast," Cas says darkly. Dean thought Mark was overreacting, but slitting his eyes open, he reconsiders the entire 'fighting Mark on the training field' thing as a reason for imminent homicide; Christ, his bruises have bruises. Cas picks up his right hand, looking at the bloodied knuckles with an unreadable expression before his eyes dart to his left, like he's not sure what he's looking at but maybe someone should die for it. "You were fighting on the training field--"

"Sparring," he corrects Cas, because sure, he's pissed at Mark, sure, but he doesn't really want him dead. At least, he assumes a time will come that he won't. He's optimistic like that.

The blue eyes meet his for a moment before, in a completely unwelcome turn of events, Cas says, "Sit up."

Uh, no. The lying down thing is really working for him, thanks.

"Don't argue with me, just--never mind." Dean's still marshaling his arguments when Cas eases him upright himself, and his clothes inexplicably vanish, reappearing on the floor in a filthy heap that suggests either a.) magic or b.) Cas (or both?). "I locked the door," he says cryptically, and Dean winces at the fingers searching his back inch by inch, slowing on each tender still-forming bruise, before sliding up his neck. "Three rounds--what was she thinking?"

On a guess, she was probably thinking how the hell he could be anyone's leader.

"Shut up," Cas breathes as he eases him back down to the bed and continues his intensive investigation of Dean's chest and ribs, dirt-caked jeans, socks, and boots mysteriously vanishing in the process.

Watching Cas, Dean fights down a sigh. He'll be honest; that's not the expression that he ever wanted to see on Cas's face upon beholding his (mostly) naked self. It's not a surprise, no--he looks like shit from the fever, and further injuries don't improve the overall depressing picture---but still.

"Don't be ridiculous, you're without flaw," Cas mutters, blue eyes meeting his and unfocusing briefly before they abruptly narrow. "Give me a moment," he adds, standing up before Dean can do more than think he should stop him. "I need to kill some people. It won't take long, and I'll bring painkillers back with me."

"And water," Dean grunts in resignation--he's pretty sure they'll be okay--and with another grunt, curls up onto his side to wait.

He doesn't bother moving even when the door opens and shuts again, letting Cas ease him upright against a magically-appearing mound of pillows to take blessed, blessed vicodin and a full glass of water. Handing Cas the empty glass, he leans back, wondering depressingly just how much damage he did to himself today.

"Just bruising for the most part," Cas assures him, materializing a first aid kit from somewhere to place on the bedside table beside a bowl of water and stack of clean cloths. "Relax while I attend to this."

He has no problem with that, watching through half-closed eyes as Cas carefully wets one of the clothes and cleans the dirt and drying blood from face, hands, and arms before carefully following it with alcohol on the actual injuries--stings, but whatever--and a topical. Clean bandages follow, changing the one on his Croat-bite before tending to the abrasion on his wrist he didn't notice earlier, the heels and knuckles of both hands and pausing to frown at his cut finger in confusion before putting a bandaid on it and moving on.

In retrospect, he's glad that Amanda didn't listen when he insisted he could drive back to Chitaqua now and take care of this when he got home, just give him a minute. While loading him into the back of the jeep because he was still really shaky on the walking thing. And consciousness, for that matter.

"You were going to…don't answer that," Cas says with a sigh as he adds a last bandaid to a cut on his forehead he didn't even know was there. "Lean forward and I'll remove the pillows so you can lie down."

He likes that plan, especially when he's supine again and Cas draws the blankets over him against the chill of the room. Even better, Cas doesn't wander off to kill anyone, reaching out to brush Dean's hair from his forehead, fingertips firm against his scalp. It feels so good that Dean's eyes almost fall closed, and after a brief hesitation, Cas continues, stroking slow and gentle and utterly perfect. More times than he can count Dean would fall asleep to that after the fever, comforted as much by the action as who was doing it.

"Sometimes, when you were feverish, I would--doing this would help you sleep," Cas says suddenly. "I assumed by your lack of protest that you didn't mind."

You don't say; Cas picking up the obvious, news at one.

Cas's mouth twitches. "And apparently when you're injured as well. Mark's lying down in Amanda's room; the adrenaline released due to his very justified fear of summary death can truly perform miracles, but all good things must end, and Amanda is seeing to him."

Christ, he hopes Mark's in as much pain as he is.

"More," Cas murmurs in satisfaction, working his fingers gently through the strands, patiently working out the tangles. "Amanda is also telling him all about his new regime starting tomorrow every time he complains about how much everything hurts."

Slitting open his eyes is definitely worth the effort; Cas is grinning at him, blue eyes warm, and it feels like forever since he saw that. Licking dry lips, he smiles back uncertainly, feeling the pull of something scabbing at the corner of his mouth. "What?"

"I suppose I should have considered reminding them what happened to Vera when she forgot to disarm before coming into your presence when you were ill," Cas admits, tilting his head and looking really fucking amused by something. "But some lessons must be learned by doing, and he won't make that mistake again."

Dean looks his inability to understand that, and also how much Cas shouldn't ever stop what he's doing; it's like magic. Or the vicodin is kicking in, but he prefers the Cas-answer.

"You won," Cas adds. "Mark's overconfidence was probably a factor; he should have identified you as a threat far more quickly. But I suspect you were very motivated when you realized he didn't respect you as an opponent and felt he needed a lesson."

Yeah, what? "I…." Hazily, he struggles to remember what happened before the entire dragging him to the jeep thing. "Huh."

Cas's fingers trail down Dean's check briefly before pausing. "Do you remember what happened after you received Mark's very enthusiastic submission?"

He doesn't even remember that, but he's going to if it kills him.

"Amanda said…." He hesitates long enough that Dean starts to worry that he fell asleep and Cas left, but when he opens his eyes again, Cas is reassuringly still sitting there, though the edge of the bed, he's learned, is not the ideal when it comes to keeping Cas in place. "You told her you had something to do before promptly passing out, she wasn't clear."

Dean raises his eyebrows in eloquent 'that's not what Amanda said at all', but the way Cas looks away isn't what he was going for.

"You were answering me. I called you." Dean starts to ask what Cas is talking about when he adds in a different voice, "That's how it happened."

All at once, Dean's not tired at all; nothing good ever came of Cas sounding like that. Time to focus.

"I won't happen again," Cas continues dully, pulling away. "I'll fix this when we return to Chitaqua."

Fix what? Anytime now.

"I'll break the wards," Cas says tonelessly, but he's paying attention enough to notice Dean isn't keeping up. "Once broken, I'll show you how to revoke your consent to my claim on you that was given de facto when you gave me your blood to use in them."

"The wards." Think: the cabin wards, contamination, his blood, got it. "But--"

"I'll build them again without using your blood," Cas explains, like that's the important part (which yeah, it's important, but it's like, third right now). "That should be enough to--assure this doesn't happen again."

What the hell happened? "Cas--"

"In the courtyard, we were able to remove the design from the children's memories," Cas says in that same toneless voice. "And it seems--at some point--I pulled you into what we were doing. That you survived at all, much less with your mind intact…."

"Hey!" He's fine--other than having the shit beaten out of him, of course (but Mark feels much worse; he got his ass handed to him by the guy who could barely make it through the second drill). "I'm okay. What's the problem?"

"It shouldn't," Cas says flatly, "have happened at all."

He's about a second from shouting what the hell are you talking about when he thinks--just maybe…. "A beach."

"Gay Head Cliffs," Cas confirms, but he doesn't need it; all his best memories of childhood were the ones he made with Sam, and that was one of the best of them all. Sam had never even had a home with a yard or a park to play in, much less an endless day to do nothing else, and Dean could barely remember the last time he played at all.

Dad left two nights before, and by then, Dean knew how it worked; if he wasn't home at dawn, odds were he wasn't coming home today. (Nine years old was plenty young enough to still pretend he believed his only parent was immortal) and they had time and were gonna use it.

He packed up two sandwiches--bread and mayo, they were out of anything that goes between those things--and headed out, hitching rides down State Road from Aquinnah to the Gay Head Lighthouse and walked from there. He told himself then that he did it for Sam--an hour or two, just to get away from the smothering heat of those four walls and a tiny room with a broken AC--and it was, but it was for himself, too.

(Nine years old was plenty young enough to pretend he didn't know better, too.)

There's nothing he doesn't remember about that day--the heat of the sun, Sam's laughter, the endless hours he let himself forget to pretend he wasn't a kid--but he's never forgotten the moment they made the final rise and he saw the Atlantic Ocean for the first time in his life.

"When I took your blood for the wards that day, you didn't know what you were doing, and that I didn't either isn't an excuse. It may not be formally binding for me to do that any longer--" Cas's expression undergoes a revolution there, a goddamn novel in progress, "--and when it was, the standard of disclosure wasn't what anyone sane would call high--but it doesn't matter." He closes his eyes for a second. "You didn't know what would happen, and that's reason enough for this to be broken."

Okay, now he's got it. "It didn't hurt me, though. So why--"

"If I could that to you, what else could I make you do?"

"You wouldn't hurt me," Dean says, wondering why he has to actually say that; water is wet, sky is--well, grey right now, maybe snow's coming?--and Cas would never hurt him.

"You don't know--"

"Yeah," he interrupts. "I do."

Cas looks away. "You don't understand how dangerous it is, to give someone that kind of power over you, even with the best of intentions."

Dean takes a deep breath, searching frantically for a workable argument here.

"There isn't one," Cas replies, meeting his eyes, and Dean realizes he didn't say anything. And that may not be the first time that happened. "It's not. It started when we were done in the courtyard and you woke up on the training field."

Pie, he thinks very, very deliberately. He could really use some pie right now, like the one he had at that diner in Norfolk. It was--

"Cherry," Cas says immediately, then a startled expression crosses his face. "One scoop of vanilla ice cream, whipped cream on top: the flavor combination is sublime."

Holy shit. "You can read the flavor of the pie?"

"Of course, the memory is very vivid--" Cas cuts himself off, but Dean knows that look; he's felt it on his own face when he walks into a diner and sees the glass display case of pie on the counter.

He wonders how long this will last--

"I don't know, which illustrates the problem."

--because he's got a lot of food-related memories and Cas's food aversion could use some work.

"You're joking." He's not. "Dean, do you understand how serious this is? Whether or not I like food is immaterial!"

It's really not, but they'll come back to that; he needs to focus. When he can fucking think, Jesus. There's something he's missing, something really obvious. It's like the last two fights they had but worse, because this time, now, he can fix it. When he works out what the fuck the problem is, of course.

"I apologize," Cas says in a different voice. "You need to rest. This can wait."

Jesus, he wishes that were true.

"And I am tired as well," he adds, darting an uncertain glance at Dean as if he just admitted something dangerous and secret and not the pretty goddamn obvious.

Actually, that works for him: not like he's got any better ideas that don't end in an argument he's not gonna win right now. "Lie down," he says invitingly, patting the middle of the bed. Always a good way to get Cas to stay in place; tempt him to the comfort of the middle of the bed. It's not like he misses being bedridden and feverish, but he misses those times when he had Cas to himself, if only for a few hours, no camp to worry about, no goddamn Croats in the recent past, no fucking laptop. And…Cas can read his mind right now.

"You're right; I should rest if we wish to return to Chitaqua this afternoon," Cas says abruptly, and Dean gratefully pretends the few seconds didn't happen, though no arguing with the results.

Shucking off his boots and coat, Cas climbs over him, and it's hard to fight the smile, because it's been a long time since Cas did that. Rolling over, Dean notes Cas--for once--doesn't station himself on the opposite side of the bed, curling up comfortably beneath the blankets less than a foot away and looking genuinely startled to realize how close they are but noticeably not enough to move.

Also, Cas is actually tired: the skin beneath his eyes looks bruised. "You okay?" Cas didn't sleep at all last night--creepy angel habits, he thinks fondly--and drama first thing in the morning with magic and kids can't have helped. Though…if Dean' right, that's genuine sleepiness.

"It is," Cas says softly, despite his best efforts sinking into the mattress like he's finally getting how goddamn amazing it is. "It's very pleasant."

Yeah, it is. Dean thinks of lazy mornings in bed, the times the sun was well into the sky before he dragged his ass from bed, pleasant lethargy combined with doing something he shouldn't. Comfortable, he thinks, building the body memory in his head for Cas of the weight of the covers and the give of the mattress, the cool of the room compared to the warmth of the bed.

Cas's eyes fall half-closed, sinking into it like he's feeling it all himself, breath released in a tremulous sigh. "Oh."

Licking his lips, he thinks of other times; mid-day naps just because he could, falling into bed at dawn after a hunt, exhausted, but the good kind, of work well-done; the sheer relief after days on the run and finding somewhere safe to crash for the night.

Instinctively, he avoids the memories of his year with Lisa, his weeks with Cassie, the mornings he woke up in someone else's bed. He's hazy on the reason, but it feels wrong, like offering secondhand what should only be given new or not at all.

The memories themselves aren't what he needs, anyway, just the feelings; how he felt waking beside the solid presence of another body, the slow, steady sound of their breathing beside him, the drowsy sense of being somewhere he didn't have to leave, not yet.

In Chitaqua, waking up to the familiar walls of his room, the lumpy-springy mess of the mattress, the faint sounds of Cas in the kitchen on his second cup of coffee and contemplating breakfast options as the sun broke the horizon. The drowsy sense of being somewhere he was supposed to be, that he would never have to leave because it was his own, before he rolled over to go back to sleep blanketed in a contentment as warm as the pile of covers he slept beneath.

Watching Cas sink into the bed like his bones forgot they were bones, he thinks about how much getting answers has to do with knowing when not to ask a question.

"You sleep better these days." More, too, and yeah, he's noticed. Cas may not be on board with food yet--though chicken-noodle soup really might be the cure for anything if Cas's reaction to it is any indication--but sleeping regularly, that he seems to get.

Cas nods sleepily, eyes a bares slit of hazy blue beneath the sweep of dark lashes. "Very. Much more pleasant than passing out."

Dean focuses very deliberately on half-awake mornings when he was just too comfortable to move but not quite tired enough to go back to sleep. The best kind of mornings; not quite time to get up yet and nothing to do, thoughts drifting without direction or purpose, the background noise of the shower and Cas cooking and sometimes voices from patrol or early visitors.

"I bet," he murmurs, shoving aside the vague aches and pains to shift closer, sharing the sense of comfort in another person's presence--in Cas's presence. That first eternal week after he woke up from the worst of the fever, when consciousness was brief, too often slid into barely-remembered nightmares and abrupt blankness, the sense of time being missed, and worst of all, the loss of self beneath the weight of it. There are a lot of Hells to be had on earth, and the Pit's tortures couldn't hope to touch the horrors that the human mind can create for itself.

Cas would be there, solid in a world as substantial as cobwebs and shadows, and Dean may have forgotten his own goddamn name, but he never didn't know, the way he knew nothing else, that he wasn't alone. It was like Cas didn't ever sleep or something, how he--

"You always knew when I was waking up," Dean says, making himself focus; if he's not careful, he's gonna put himself to sleep and not just Cas….

Oh. "So I've been doing that for a while."

Cas nods sleepily, barely a shift against the pillow, oblivious to the revolution in progress behind Dean's deliberately soothing thoughts of rest and relaxation. "I suppose it was to be expected. You know what it's supposed to do, and it took advantage of your greater knowledge, of course."

Dean is just able to interpret that: Cas's body worked out the sleep thing by doing it when Dean did and learned from that. How anyone could have expected that is--well, this is Cas. "I didn't know I was doing that."

Cas does something like a shrug, barely disturbing the blankets. "I didn't either."

That happens with things that are new; like life, they're just full of surprises, and sometimes, they're pretty fucking awesome.

"It is," Cas agrees huskily, voice softening enough that Dean would have missed his next words if they weren't so close. "I'll miss it."

The sour edge is unmistakable, and so is the shiver, a bone-deep cold that has nothing to do with the number of blankets on the bed or the temperature of the room.

"Guess winter's finally decided to show up," he murmurs, eliminating the few inches left between them before he can stop and think about what he's doing and why. "Just a sec."

Cas nods drowsy agreement, learning for the first time how two bodies fit together like this with every guiding touch. Some things you don't give secondhand, and it's as much for himself as Cas that he's glad this he didn't show, that this moment belongs to him alone.

Never in his life has he been so aware of another human body, every sharp angle and surprising curve, slivers of warm skin appearing beneath his fingers that make him pause. He isn't sure he even breathes until he hears Cas's contented sigh, nestled warm and safe in the protective arc of his body. Doing weird shit in the courtyard must have been exhausting; kids are safe, Amanda and Kamal, too, no need to worry anymore, time to rest. Good job, by the way. You did it.

He can feel the belated reaction now, the adrenaline spike wearing off and hindsight kicking in like the bitch it always is. Rubbing soothing circles into Cas's back and cursing the layers of shirts, he murmurs wordless reassurance, wishing he could remember more. Next time, he's gonna be there, and he doesn't mean just in fucking possibly literal spirit. Save him a few bruises that way, too; think of that?

Cas tips his head back to look at him in sleepy reproof. "That wasn't my fault."

Dean shows him all the ways that it's his fault, and reliving Mark learning a very valuable lesson is almost as good as doing it. Maybe better, but that could be the audience, whose expression lightens in satisfaction as Dean shows him again, lingering happily on the parts where Dean kicked so much fucking ass even though he could barely keep on his feet.

"Your transitions could use some work," Cas murmurs, making Dean scowl at him half-heartedly as a wave of approval washes through him; Cas, he thinks, and looks like he can handle a little Cas after all. "Far more than I thought possible, you and Alison. I should have known better than to doubt you."

Dean hesitates: telling himself it's not jealousy is a lie, but it's not just that. Show me something. Anything.

Cas doesn't answer for a long moment, and Dean waits for the refusal, but then Cas moves abruptly, easing up until he's looking into Dean's eyes. "You're certain?"

He nods, mouth dry, and Cas cups his face, fingers shaping to the curve of his cheek. For a moment, nothing happens, then he's falling into endless blue that resolves with a snap into--a house. Bobby's house.

Specifically, the porch of Bobby's house, and Dean watches, fascinated, as Bobby glares over a mouthful of nails at Cas, standing stiffly a feet away at his angelic best with a blank expression Dean's come to realize is Cas utterly baffled by humans and their ways.

He's also, Dean notes gleefully, holding a hammer.

Bobby makes an exasperated sound and loses several nails that fall to the porch and begin their inevitable roll to the steps. Cas flickers a glance at them, freezing them in place and they obediently roll back up the porch and hop one by one into the rusted can by the wheel of Bobby's chair.

Carefully taking out the others, Bobby sighs. "Didn't I just tell you about doing that?"

When in doubt, stall. "What?"

"The nails, idiot," Bobby spits out, eyes narrowing.

"You would have just told me to get them for you," Cas answers. "I anticipated my orders, yes--"

"You know damn well I would have gotten them myself--"

"Which there is no reason for you to do, since I'm here," Cas says reasonably. "To fetch nails, as it were. Perhaps you forgot?"

"I don't need a babysitter!" Bobby snaps, and for a moment, the blank expression trembles as Cas looks down just enough to hide him rolling his eyes. "Now give me that hammer."

"You said the best way to learn was by doing," Cas states, crouching to manually pick up a nail from the can and approaching what Dean sees is a loose porch rail. Not anything big, and Bobby could handle it in his chair, no sweat. "Therefore, me doing this would enable my ability to learn it, and should be encouraged."

Bobby's still glaring at him as Cas gets to work, but the minute his back is turned, Bobby's expression softens. "You know they're expecting you back, Cas."

"They're still arguing over the second version of the model," Cas answers, precisely hammering the nail into the wood in a single controlled hit and getting another nail, moves to the next spot. "We've been away from the house too long. Anticipating future issues and repairing them now will assure small problems don't become greater ones. I anticipate it will take us no more than a week to assure the house is in acceptable condition."

Bobby's mouth twitches. "A week, smartass?"

"Two tiles on the roof need to be replaced, the second floor bathroom has a small but very persistent leak, two boards on the back porch are showing signs of early rot and need to be replaced, and the lift for your chair to the second floor is substandard," Cas recites, moving to the third nail. "I did some research and spoke to a contractor, who gave me a bid on building a new version and he was very certain he could complete the installation of a new model in three days. He'll be here the day after tomorrow to evaluate the current location to assure it's adequate."

"Cas--"

"If he performs his duties to my--and your--satisfaction, I'll take him to Alpha to install it in the two buildings that are currently in progress, including one with direct access to the conference rooms on the second floor from your suite on the first floor," Cas continues, finishing the fourth and fifth nail before turning around to look at Bobby curiously. "Though I can understand why you didn't insist before; those meetings are boring and no one seems to realize shouting does not increase anyone's desire to reach consensus. Are humans always like this?"

Bobby blinks helplessly; it's like, where do you even start there? "You can't take him to Alpha."

"What we're doing is not illegal," Cas answers, sitting back on his heels. "But he'll only remember it as the headquarters of a non-profit that focuses on rural issues--whatever those are--when he's done, which will be confirmed by the non-disclosure agreements he'll sign here if you find his work adequate. Daphne agreed to draw up the paperwork for me, and as she just separated from Merrill Lynch to begin her own firm, she's very eager to help us establish our organization as a legally recognized 501(c)(3) for tax purposes." Bobby's mouth drops open. "The retainer I offered was very convincing."

"Alpaca farming in Greece?" Bobby asks incredulously.

Cas shrugs. "Wealthy people often create charitable organizations as well. It's a thing they do. Elijah needs professionals if he's going to establish Alpha adequately, and having a contractor on call who will happily ask no questions for a sizeable fee will help speed up construction. He agreed with my assessment."

Bobby makes a face, and Dean can almost see him deciding to focus on the issue at hand. "The lift here is fine."

"It might break," Cas counters, looking up at Bobby disingenuously. "It's slow and the materials used for construction substandard. At the time, it was all we could afford. Now we can afford the best, and we'll acquire it. As well as finish work to improve general accessibility, but your instruction is adequate for me to do that myself."

"I ain't a charity case!" Bobby explodes, face red, but Cas just tilts his head. "I don't need your money!"

"Room and board for two and a half years that I've lived here between jobs," Cas answers. "I researched the average rent in this state, and adding in one third of every utility bill, the amount--"

"I don't believe this," Bobby mutters, glaring at Cas. "Boy, you think I'm taking your money…."

"Why not?"

Bobby's eyes narrow. "You know you and Dean are always welcome here, no strings attached."

"Family," Cas agrees easily. "In which I understand the concept of 'debt' does not exist. All members contribute to the welfare of all without expectation of recompense, I remember. I just thought you might have forgotten."

"That I--" Bobby cuts himself off, scowling at Cas. "Think you're smart, don't you?"

"I was well-taught," Cas answers, and Dean sees the faint smile before he stands up. "I took pictures of the roof and the areas where the tiles are loose or have been damaged and they're on my laptop. I also recorded the entire roof so you could view them in context. While I understand the principles of repairing buildings, I could use your assistance in the practical aspects so I don't do it badly. I thought I could make dinner while you examine the damage and decide how we should approach it."

Bobby snorts, checking Cas's repairs to the rails and nodding approval before turning his wheelchair to the door. "If you think we can repair that roof in under a week, you got another think coming."

"Then we'll take all the time necessary to do it well," Cas agrees, and even from here, Dean can see him fighting the urge to reach for the handles of the chair and push Bobby inside himself. "I'd like to try to prepare the beef stew you make during winter, if you'll give me the recipe."

"Recipe's up here," Bobby says, tapping his head as he gets inside the door. "Go ahead and take the meat out of the freezer and I'll show you how to thaw it. It's all in the simmering, boy."

Cas nods as he follows Bobby inside. "I look forward to learning about it."

Dean blinks, startled to find himself lying on a bed again, but the impression of happiness lingers; two weeks from Alpha doing repairs on Bobby's house, enjoying the companionship of a man who didn't see an angel or a weapon, someone to be feared and avoided or worshipped (Jesus Christ, he doesn't even want to know) but someone who treated him with the exasperated affection of a friend.

He knew Cas missed Bobby, but not like this: the low, habitual ache of absence, a bruise that still hurts when touched, but the good kind, because it comes with the memories, good ones, some of the best in his not-quite-human life before Chitaqua.

"Come here," he whispers, threading his fingers in the mess of dark hair and tucking Cas's head under his chin, feeling the hitched breath, the faint sigh of bittersweet pleasure. "Get some sleep."


It's an hour and a half past dusk when they get back to Chitaqua (Dean got just enough time for a quick talk with Amanda and for Manuel to confirm Alison and Teresa threatened to kill them if anyone woke them up again before morning), and Dean watches Cas dissolve the wards with prejudice (rubbing alcohol and salt on the doorframe: interesting, and looks like they'll need to repaint that soon) before he obediently goes through the revocation process, which isn't unlike standing there looking attentive while doing absolutely nothing.

(Wait, he got to say something in Enochian once; that was pretty much the high point.)

It's about as exciting as ritual magic usually is, which means not at all, but Dean's still contemplating how someone in the room woke him up from one of the top ten naps in his entire life unable to read anyone's mind and, in what he's really sure is an unrelated event, has been in a shitty goddamn mood since. Not the yelling kind either, no; he's got the brooding, sulking, despairing, not-talking version, which just proves Cas isn't allowed to sit around alone contemplating his feelings anymore. That ends shitty for everyone (hear that, Sam? This was caused by feelings).

(Cas's relationship with his feelings is a whole subject in itself; it's like half the time he's surprised he has them at all and the rest bewilderment on what they mean or what to do with them or why they won't just go away and leave him alone. Because that works.)

On the other hand, Dean woke up (after, let's say it again, one of the best naps of his life) feeling well-rested, less in pain (until he moved; was that a mistake), and experiencing what may or may not have been a revelation, or at least an idea.

Finally, Cas says, hoarse, "It's done."

Dean drags his attention back to the room, frowning uncertainly; so that was anticlimactic. Not every day are you gonna get the wards lighting up the camp, he gets that, but maybe the cabin shaking or the lights going off, something….

Tugging off his coat, Cas winces as it slides down his right arm, getting Dean's undivided attention. "You okay?"

"It's nothing--"

"Then you won't mind if I check. Sit down." Cas hesitates, then crosses to the couch, and yeah, he's definitely holding his arm wrong. Crouching, Dean unbuttons the worn flannel, catching the second wince as he eases it off Cas's right shoulder and revealing dried blood on the thermal beneath. Hissing a breath, he rolls up the sleeve and studies the neat cut above the elbow before looking up at Cas. "You wanna tell me what happened?"

"Teresa used my blood to unmake the design in the courtyard," Cas says tonelessly. "Spilling her own blood might inadvertently get the attention of the earth--I really wasn't up to the amount of time it would take to explain what we were doing."

Dean looks up from deciding how to get the thermal shirt off. "That bad?"

"The earth understands earth, but she's correct about how interested it is in human things," he rouses himself enough to explain. "Especially if Teresa's involved. I don't think it'd object, but it is curious, and explaining could take weeks…." He trails off, glancing at his shoulder without interest. "It's just a bruise. I moved too quickly, but Alison's lack of concussion should explain the reason."

"Let me check it," Dean says firmly, reaching for the thermal and working it up carefully, freeing Cas's left arm and head before easing it down his right arm and hissing. The cut's shallow--already scabbed over, he probably forgot all about it--but the shoulder's already purpling and still in progress. Taking in the shape--and looking closer, the faintest remnants of white dust--it looks like he may have come down on the box of chalk from the daycare they used to draw the circle. And possibly broke it, though his clothes protected him from the splinters.

"Stay here," he says warningly, but Cas's slump tells him it wasn't needed. Going to the kitchen, he finds what was once just a first aid kit and now qualifies as a very small but extremely well-stocked portable hospital in a series of boxes that now have an entire shelf in the pantry as well as the bathroom, for those emergencies where one room away is just too far.

Apparently, he spoke too soon: the cabin doesn't shake, the lights don't go off, but Dean fumbles the first aid kit, bracing a hand on the floor at the sudden disorientation, a nauseating sense of wrongness that seems to go on forever before it abruptly stops.

Gasping a breath, Dean blinks rapidly, looking around; the kitchen, yeah, he's still crouching, but something's missing, and it takes a few long moments to realize what and where exactly it is. Licking his lips, he shuts his eyes, following the sense of something he hadn't even realized was there until it was gone, a gaping sense of absence like an open wound, raw and unhealed, scraping across his nerves like broken glass. It may heal, but he gets the feeling that the sense of absence, of something lost, is something he'll never lose.

Tightening his grip on the kit, he stands up, testing his balance carefully, and then grabs a bag of ice from the fridge--Cas is always prepared--and returns to the living room, not surprised at all at what he finds. Perched rigidly on the edge of the couch, Cas may have looked bad before, but that's nothing to now; it's like everything Dean's feeling now but a couple of orders of magnitude stronger. Rejection, even the metaphysical kind, hurts, and it probably doubles down when on some level you didn't want to do it at all.

Sitting on the arm of the couch, Dean sets the open kit on the coffee table in easy reach before forcing himself to focus on Cas's arm. The cut isn't bad, but deep enough for Teresa to be sure she'd get enough blood, and it deepens near the elbow enough to barely miss stitches territory. Cleaning it by habit, Dean closes the deepest section with butterfly bandages before wrapping the entirety with clean gauze and taping it in place. Cas doesn't react, but right at this moment, Dean doubts Cas would notice if someone started carving him up with a blunt instrument. His attention is turned inward, and from the utter blankness, whatever he's feeling in there is worse than anything that could happen out here.

Lips tight, Dean forces himself to finish taping the gauze in place, eyes flickering up to the bruising and focusing on the healed gunshot on his upper arm with a scowl. The skin's split around the edges of the angry ridge of still-forming scar tissue (probably from impact with the box) because Cas pulled out those stitches twice without thinking and it shows in how it healed and the spots that are still weak. Cleaning it--it's not bad, but Christ, you'd think Cas learned how to treat healing wounds by now--he tapes a fresh bandage in place and sits back, evaluating it for any potential for mobility problems, because this is something he always thinks about now.

Despite Cas's best efforts to fuck up the healing process (that's not happening again), he doubts it'll be a real problem. The layers of scar tissue are still pliable despite appearances, and after the second time he pulled the stiches he made an effort to be more careful; given time, if it's not reopened, it'll be nothing but a slightly thicker stripe in a duller shade of white.

It's not even close to the worst scar Cas has--the last two and a half years haven't been kind, even for a hunter--but until now, Dean's only seen them in brief glances before making himself look away, and this time, he doesn't. The whole is more than just a sum of its parts; Cas's body is also telling two very different stories, and one of them even Cas might not really know.

Setting the bag of ice against the bruise--Cas's continued lack of reaction is telling--he studies the bare expanse of Cas's back, taking in what he's seeing and fitting it together in the context of a world where hunters are soldiers, where what they hunt now isn't only in the shadows, where the war against Lucifer is only one of the things they're fighting. Some are easy to identify, the source obvious; some he doesn't but he can guess; some he wants one day to be able to ask Cas about.

The anti-possession sigil is placed high on one shoulderblade, aggressively black ink in solid lines and precise in the details: totally Bobby, probably gave Cas a fifth of whiskey and a command to drink it all since he'd be working straight on solid bone. Low on his back, dipping into the edge of his jeans if he wore a goddamn pair that fit, hovers a complicated knot of whorls and loops, not an edge to be found, twisting into itself like a ouroboros met a Mobius strip on a blind date and bred like it was going outta style. Easy to get lost inside each endless coil: he averts his eyes before he loses time doing just that and makes a mental note to ask Cas about it one day.

Following the knobby ridge of his spine as it emerges from the sagging waist of his jeans, his gaze lingers on the puckered bullet scar an inch to the right before making himself move on, shifting to a white on white line winding pencil-thin just above it. Frowning, he runs his thumb over it and bites his tongue at the feel of thicker scarring hidden beneath. Four raised parallel lines low on his ribs just right of the spine, each a quarter inch wide and half an inch apart: claws on a guess, just a brush, or by the size Cas wouldn't have a ribcage left even if they missed his heart. The fading remains of a puncture on his right side, loosely oval and healed almost to nothing: not deadly unless a broken rib sliced up a lung before he got treatment. A longer gash high on his right shoulderblade that trails off on the back of his upper arm, jagged-edged and messy, and just below it a wide swathe of skin beneath his left shoulder just above the blade, not quite old enough to lose the shine of a burn, but the shape of a short dagger will last forever, tip pointed at his spine; off the top of his head, he can think of ten rituals that start like that before getting to the good parts if it wasn't just done for fun.

He thinks he gets now why Cas hates mirrors, and it's not just missing his wings; from the Host down to Dean fucking Winchester, he's always been a weapon, born to the first and thoroughly well-trained to the second. All he would see reflected was all the ways he's failed; every goddamn scar is just proof: not of survival, but how without Grace, he wasn't quite good enough.

Suddenly conscious of what he's doing (sitting here staring at a half-naked Cas without even the excuse of medical shit to cover it), Dean slides off the arm of the couch to repack the kit, taking it back to the kitchen and buying himself a few more minutes to think about what it is he wants to do and why. Sure, he didn't know the consequences of giving blood, but it's not like Cas did either. He gets the potential danger, but come the fuck on, 'weird thing that he can't remember happening' (and random mindreading, fine) is very low on his list of shitty consequences when historically, he's consented--in his right mind, even--to things that sent him to hell, killed him, almost made him a meatsuit for an archangel, and occasionally has him jerking off to the memories of wearing women's underwear.

You don't realize how dangerous it is, to give someone that kind of power over you.

Scowling, he realizes he's rubbing his bandaged finger again and makes himself stop, taking a deep breath before crossing the living room and kicking the coffee table back enough so he can drop on it like a box of rocks. "Cas. Look at me."

After a long moment, Cas looks up, blue eyes dull.

"We need to do the wards again."

Cas nods tiredly. "I will, as soon as--"

"'Both of us," Dean interrupts. "Just like last time." And waits.

Cas goes still, color draining from his face, and yeah, that's what he thought. Power doesn't corrupt, Cas told him; it's weakness unacknowledged, actions unregulated, the choice you make between being an angel and a shark.

"This isn't about what happened today," Dean says more quietly. "It's about you."

Cas licks dry lips and doesn't deny a goddamn thing.


Thing is, Melville was talking in metaphor and never met an actual angel in his life or he'd know how many definitions there are for 'choice' when it comes to a being with cosmic powers and unquestioning obedience to their Father's will.

Answer: more than there are stars in the sky. A lot of sins can be covered under the blanket of obedience to orders, and the first is how little it mattered what they did provided they got the job done. Or at least, to some of them.

"Humans do this," Cas whispers. "Manifest before you in our glory, tell you there is great work for you, and you'll say yes without a second thought once the mindless terror has passed. It's baffling."

Dean scowls. "I didn't."

"No, you didn't bother to wait for an explanation before giving your blood to me," Cas answers sharply. "Intentions are meaningless; what make you so certain that I won't act as the Host would when given power over you if I thought it was to your benefit?"

He wants to tell Cas this:

You chew the fuck out of your pencils. I remember what happened to that pen and no, I don't believe that was accidental use of angelic strength, your teeth marks were all over it, and by the way, ink was still on your lip. I should have said something but I didn't.

No one, Cas, no one would burn untested sigils into their true form to get an archangel's Grace because the wards need power and your only question was why not. But if they did, they sure as hell wouldn't consider its entertainment value as a major feature and the best part.

You like coffee and hate Microsoft and laundry day; you get your subordinates high to make them feel better because you go with what you know when you don't know what to do; you hate food but you're becoming inexplicably good at cooking it; you like making maps and have the calluses and a goddamn tackle box of art supplies to prove it. You installed lights in the camp and started building a new mess because Home Improvement Weeks One and Two got you thinking and why not? I don't know what you're going to do next, and I'm pretty sure you don't either, but I'm looking forward to finding out.

"It's got nothing to do with being an angel," Dean tells him, thinking of Bobby at his house with Cas, how Cas didn't try to push Bobby's chair, how he asked for instruction so he could help Bobby without implication that Bobby couldn't do it for himself. He could have used his Grace to make the house perfect, but instead he spent two happy weeks on home repair and negotiating with a contractor because what Bobby wanted, how he felt, was more important than what Cas wanted for him. "Grace, whatever, that has nothing to do with it: the difference is, you're you."

Cas stares at him, a glimpse of infinity in drowning blue. "Dean--"

"When I told you that I trusted you, I meant it. But it's all or nothing; to lose it, you gotta break it first. I'm not doing it for you."

"That doesn't even make sense," Cas grits out, looking annoyed enough that Dean figures maybe, just maybe, something got through. "I don't want--"

"--to hurt me? Then don't," Dean interrupts.

"And if I do anyway?"

"Stop doing it," he answers. "And fix it. And apologize, of course."

Reaching down, he pulls the knife from Cas's boot, flipping the blade into his hand. "You were right about fixing this; I didn't know what I was doing, and you didn't know it would do anything at all. Now, I know and so do you, so this time, we'll do this right, full consent from the get-go, all the bells and whistles. Whatever the hell those are."

"Dean--" Cas licks his lips again, and it's only now Dean can see he's shaking. "I still don't know…."

"Yeah, you do," he says. "I get it now, what Alison was talking about; you're a box. In there's all that was, that is, that will be, but you put in one more thing: one impossible thing. Me."

Cas's eyes widen, and yeah, he figured Cas didn't think his shitty plan all the way through. He can work with this.

"What actually happened in Kansas City during that confrontation with Lucifer. Who you brought back to Chitaqua that night. The reason the Apocalypse isn't over yet." He swallows, mouth dry; this has gotta work. "All my secrets--the biggest secret in the world, Cas--and it's in your head, where no one, not demons or psychics or fucking Lucifer, can go. Need another reason? I got it for you. You said it yourself; the properties of the original are carried to the rest by contamination. It's not just psychics that can't read me. That day in Kansas City, he didn't even know I was there, even though you did. He couldn't get into your head, and that means he can't get into mine."

"There's no way--" Cas pauses. "There's no way to know if your blood is needed for that."

"For the wards to work in the cabin, maybe not," Dean concedes, holding Cas's eyes. "But it's not the wards that protect me when I leave Chitaqua; it's you. You said yourself this wasn't supposed to happen; you were right, it wasn't supposed to, but it wasn't your fault." Tugging off the bandage, Dean holds up his finger, the clean line of the cut utterly unmistakable for what it is now that he knows what he's looking at. "That was me. Amanda took my knife when she got to me, and she said there was still blood on the blade."

Cas's eyes fix on the cut for a long moment. "That--"

"Same place you cut when you added it into the wards," Dean agrees. "I knew what I was doing, Cas."

Licking his lips, Cas looks at him helplessly.

"Wherever I go, whether you're with me or not, you're protecting me," Dean continues, fighting down urgency; this has got to get through. "Whatever you think the risks are, I'm willing to take them, because there's no fucking reason not to trust you with this when I trust you with everything else." He searches Cas's face before adding, "Dude, who knows? If it comes down to it, in a choice between you and Lucifer as Evil Overlord, I'd definitely pick you. At least the afterparty would be less torture, more drugs and orgies." It kind of boggles the mind what kind of sex life Cas would have as a god: zero refraction time, millions of people. Party might last generations.

"Not funny," Cas mutters, eyes narrowing like he knows exactly what Dean's thinking, but there's a faint quirk to his mouth, because it's true. It's an effort not to just shake him for not getting it, the part that he can't explain because every mirror Cas looks into only shows him what's flawed. "What you're asking--do you understand what it means?"

"Yeah, I do," he answers. "Now show me how to get this done."

He doesn't think he breathes until Cas finally nods, his hand steady as he takes the knife from Dean before the long fingers close around his wrist, tugging him unresistingly to his feet. At the doorway, he drops Dean's wrist, blue eyes meeting his, and this time, there's nothing casual about what he's doing. Ritual, ceremony, they're important, not just meaningless gestures as a prelude to the words; there are a lot of kinds of power, and it's in everything you do, whether you're trying to get it or use it or both.

Holding his gaze, Cas breathes rough-edged words into the heavy, waiting silence, each slicking through the air the same way the edge of the blade slices through his own forearm. Turning away, Cas crouches on the ride side of the door, blood-stained fingers filling each and every symbol carved into the dense wood as he murmurs their names. By the time Cas finishes the last one on the left side of the doorway, the entire frame is covered, the most recent glistening briefly before fading to a thick, tacky matte that vanishes before his eyes. He tries to calculate how much blood Cas has lost--and how much he's losing now--and then loses his train of thought as Cas stands back up.

Without prompting, he extends his arm, and Cas takes his wrist in that impossible grip, thumb sliding over his pulse before pressing in; it takes a minute to realize that's his heart he's hearing, a steady, monotonous thump. He could be taking a goddam nap for all his body knows right now, instead of willingly participating in the sketchiest ritual blood magic he's ever even heard of with someone who made it up from first principles. It's not that he doesn't get the danger in this; it's not only him trusting Cas, but Cas trusting him. They've already proved, completely by accident, that Dean can influence him, and neither of them even knew he was doing it.

"The Host laid siege to Hell for forty years to claim your soul; that was our only goal," Cas says, blue eyes incandescent. "I was the first to find you, and by right of combat claimed your soul. With that claim the siege was over, and Hell lost the war, but the Host wasn't who won. The terms were set before it began, and in claiming your soul, the victory was mine as was your soul, as the spoils of war. Do you understand?"

Numbly, Dean nods; all he can really think was that this went a lot differently before. Cas's grip tightens, just enough for him to remember verbal confirmation is pretty much mandatory. "Yeah. Yes, I understand."

"Dean Winchester, do you dispute my claim?" Cas asks, and Dean's distantly aware of the drip of Cas's blood from the knife hovering just above his skin, streaking it in vivid crimson.

Dean licks his lips. The difference, he thinks, may be that between not knowing what you're doing and doing it anyway, and knowing not just what you're doing, but why you're doing it. Everything counts, even how long it takes him to say the right words, but the most important part is meaning it; that part, there's no question at all. "No."

"Dean Winchester," and oh, there's more, Jesus Christ, "I claimed your soul by right of combat and as spoils of war, and that makes it mine to do with as I choose. Do you accept my claim to you and my right to do that?"

"Yes."

Dean doesn't actually get more than an impression of Cas drawing his thumb across the blood speckling Dean's unbroken skin in a line before the knife cuts down the center of it, welling up in vivid crimson. This time, Cas is the one who takes his blood, and this time, each goddamn symbol one by one is filled. He finds himself staring as Cas gets the last one, a slow-motion brush of his fingers before everything goes really, really weird, and he hears Cas whisper, just for him, "Given freely, this is a gift, and with it, I will never do you harm."

Later--he really doesn't want to know how long--he finds himself sitting against the wall, kind of vaguely staring into the utterly mundane kitchen and noting that he forgot to close the pantry door. Sitting because it's kind of what's holding him up; left to his own devices, he's guessing he'd be like Cas, looking up at the ceiling with a startled expression, like he's still working out what it's called and what it's supposed to do. Looking down at his arm, Dean observes the lack of bleeding and really isn't all that surprised by the skin already half-closed under the drying blood. He's just guessing here, but he thinks that's gonna be a new and completely different kind of scar to add to his collection. A glance at Cas's arm confirms a perfect match, so he thinks he can safely take anyone bleeding out off the table.

"Hmm." Cas begins to grin, blue eyes closing briefly as he arches against the floor in a slow, languorous stretch that for some reason requires all Dean's attention until Cas finally goes boneless against the rug. It takes a few long moments to figure out where, and more importantly, when, he's seen that look on Cas's face before. It's been a while, but the memory's burned into his mind from the days Cas wasn't working on expertise in celibacy or perfecting his shower technique.

Turning his head, Cas gives him a drowsy smile, and Dean's mind catches up almost enough to remember he could, actually, look away; what he's not clear on is why.

"That was good for me." He's watched actual porn less pornographic than Cas rolling on his side, loose and relaxed and fucking post-coital. "How about you?"