Dean never planned to retire like this.
He expected to retire under happy circumstances. He expected to be done with the chaos of hunting, and to retire as a reward for himself. He expected to get a job in an auto shop somewhere, buy a small house out in the middle of nowhere, and spend the rest of his life as a normal, average citizen.
He didn’t expect to retire out of convenience because his hunting life needed to be put on hold. He didn’t expect to crash at Jody’s place at night and spend the days working two jobs to pay off hospital bills. He didn’t expect to spend so many hours at said hospital, going there during breaks or sleeping there instead of at Jody’s.
Dean’s fought horrors people couldn’t even dream up, but he never expected something as terrible as this.
It all starts after he, Sam, and Cas wrap up a pretty easy case. They’re sleeping in some shady motel, Sam in his own bed, Dean and Cas sharing one. At around four in the morning, Dean’s woken up by the sound of someone retching in the bathroom. He sits up with a jolt, realizing the bed is empty next to him, and that’s when he realizes it’s Cas.
He dashes into the bathroom, freezing once he sees Cas leaning over the toilet, vomiting harshly. Dean sinks to the ground beside him, setting a gentle hand on Cas’s back and rubbing back and forth, back and forth, telling him, It’s alright, Cas, it’s alright. Just get it all up. You’re okay, shh, it’s okay.
When Cas is finished, he turns and buries his face in Dean’s chest. His shoulders shake and Dean knows that he’s crying. After a few minutes, he takes a deep breath and lifts up his head. Dean can see the fear in his bloodshot eyes. Cas sighs, and his body slumps forward a little; he’s exhausted. Dean reaches out and grips his shoulder, keeping him steady. His other hand moves up, and he rests the back of it against Cas’s cheek. Cas is burning up.
Sam wakes up when Dean is helping Cas back to bed. He looks up at Dean, confused. As soon as Cas is curled up under the covers, his eyes closed and his breathing soft, Dean collapses down on the other side of the bed, facing Sam.
“What’s going on?” Sam asks, and Dean explains.
They decide to let Cas sleep and check up on him in the morning.
In the morning, it’s ten times worse. Cas is completely out of it, and his fever’s alarmingly high. Sam pulls Dean to the side and insists that Cas needs to see a doctor. Dean agrees and helps Cas to the car – which is nearly impossible because Cas can’t even stand.
Sam drives, and Dean holds Cas in the backseat, trying to stay calm.
Once they arrive at the hospital, Sam goes up to the receptionist, and Dean pulls Cas over to the waiting room seats. Cas rests his head on Dean’s shoulder, fighting to stay awake. He’s started to come to just a little bit, but not enough to reassure Dean.
Within minutes, a doctor comes for Cas, and that’s when Dean starts to get a hint of just how serious this is – if it’s so urgent that doctor comes first instead of nurse.
Cas is whisked away, and Dean is pushed back. He fights to go with, but someone tells him, “Only family can go with, sir. I’m sorry.”
“That’s bullshit – I am his family! We’re the only family he has!”
“Blood family, sir. As far as we know, you’re a friend.”
And Cas is gone, just like that.
Doctors try to explain to Dean what’s going on, but he can’t make sense of the words – whether it’s because he really doesn’t understand them, or he doesn’t want to believe them, he’s not sure. Either way, he’s not comprehending.
Sam pulls him away, drags him back to the car. He’s pushed into the passenger’s seat and Sam takes the wheel. It’s a silent drive two towns over, and then they’re knocking on Jody’s door, asking desperately for a place to stay because Cas is sick, really sick, and there’s a lot they need to figure out.
Jody says, “Yes, of course,” and invites them in.
It’s only one in the afternoon, but Dean grabs a beer, because right now, there’s no way he’s going to deal with anything sober. Sam sits down opposite Jody at the kitchen table, and Dean leans against the sink, fingers glued to the bottle as he stares out the window. Sam explains to Jody exactly what’s going on, and Dean scoffs, shaking his head. This whole thing is insane. Seven weeks ago, Cas was an angel, and now he’s lying on his death bed? It still doesn’t seem logical to Dean.
He takes another swig and wishes he could get drunk faster.
With Charlie’s help, Sam manages to create a pretty spotless health insurance record for Cas. That should make things easier to pay for, but the next day, Sam and Dean are out looking for jobs. Sam manages to get hired at the library in one go, and Dean’s got interviews for a job at an auto shop, a gas station, and a bar.
They head back to Jody’s to grab something to eat before heading over to the hospital. The receptionist tells them Cas is staying in room 758, and they thank her. Dean swallows hard as they walk through the maze of white walls and rooms. The last time they were in any kind of hospital, Cas was just as broken. And the hospital before that, they lost Bobby. They don’t have a very good track record with hospitals, and Dean doesn’t see why this should be the exception.
The room is quiet when they walk in. Cas is sitting up in bed, the TV on in front of him, but it doesn’t look like he’s watching it. He’s hooked up to countless machines, wires all over the place. He’s pale and his eyes look so much darker than normal. He looks so utterly human that it makes Dean’s heart ache – and not in a good way.
“Hey, Cas,” he say, forcing a grin.
Cas smiles in return. “Dean,” he greets.
Almost involuntarily, Dean moves up to his bedside. “How – how are you feeling?”
Cas lets out a sigh. “I’ve felt better,” he replies. “But I’ve also felt worse.”
Dean just smiles sadly, admiring how Cas is being so Cas. “You won’t feel like this forever,” Dean promises. “Sam and I are working hard to make sure of that. We’ll help you get through this, Cas.”
That night, Dean cries.
He cries somewhere in between the severity of when Sam died and during those dark nights after he got out of Hell. He sits on the floor next to his bed, buries his face in his hand, and he cries. Soon enough they turn to sobs, and he’s left gasping for air. He wraps his arms around himself, fisting the fabric of his shirt in his hands.
Dean’s fought demons and angels, but now it’s something ridiculously human that’s tearing him apart. A stupid malfunction of cells has Dean on his knees, crying and begging for mercy.
In the morning, Sam finds Dean asleep on the floor, but he doesn’t wake Dean. Instead, Sam covers him with a blanket and walks back out, planning to go make a big breakfast to cheer him up.
Dean starts work at the shop just a few days later. The feel of the car underneath his fingers and the smell of gasoline and oil in the air help distract him from everything. His brain doesn’t wander, his emotions aren’t at the forefront of his mind. He’s able to focus on the job and put his mind in his work.
And cars, unlike Cas, are something he’s able to fix.
It gives him some satisfaction.
It’s ten o’clock that night when Dean arrives at the hospital. It’s way past visiting hours, but a nurse lets Dean in anyway, telling him that Cas has been restless and lonely; it’ll be good for him to have some company – screw the rules.
“Hello, Dean,” Cas says, voice thick with sleep.
Dean smiles and pulls up a chair, sitting down on it backwards. “I just finished my first day of work at the shop,” he says. “Remember me telling you about the interview I got?”
Cas nods. “You were very excited.”
“Yeah, I like it,” Dean says, looking away from Cas for a second. “Finally living that apple pie life again, right?”
It’s quiet for a moment and Dean feels Cas’s eyes on him.
“I’m sorry, Dean,” he says quietly.
Dean’s head snaps back. “Cas, don’t apologize,” he says, shaking his head and closing his eyes. “It’s not your fault you’re sick.” He pauses, taking a deep breath. “The only thing I need from you is – just promise – promise you’ll keep fighting. I can’t lose you. Not like this.”
Cas nods, and carefully, he reaches out and takes Dean’s hand in his own. His grip is frighteningly slack, so Dean tightens his hold just a little, hoping Cas can read it as, I’ll be strong for the both of us.
“Dean?” Cas asks.
“Will you stay with me tonight?”
Dean swallows hard, tears prickling the back of his eyes. He’s seen Cas break down before. He’s seen what’s hidden behind that soldier mentality. He’s seen just how vulnerable Cas can be – all of his doubts, his guilt, his regrets. But he’s never seen Cas this terrified before, this needy. It makes his heart break, but Cas needs him, so he stays strong and he tells Cas that yes, he’ll stay – he’ll do anything Cas needs until he’s on his feet again.
The next few weeks are stressful and hectic. Dean also gets the job as a bartender, so he spends his days at the shop and his evenings at the bar. His nights alternate between Jody’s guestroom and the chair in Cas’s hospital room.
He takes every off every Sunday to spend the whole day with Cas, catching up on things and trying to distract him from the disease ravaging his body.
The first Sunday, Cas’s test results come back, and their worst fears are confirmed. Cas spends the day in a stupor, trying to wrap his head around everything. Becoming human has already been confusing enough, and now he has to deal with this? Dean on the other hand, he goes home and gets drunk. He smashes a bottle outside in the driveway and passes out on the floor again.
The second Sunday, Cas sleeps. He’s already grown so much worse in the short span he’s been in the hospital, and Dean knows he needs his rest before he starts treatment, so he sits at Cas’s bedside and holds his hand, glancing over every half hour or so to watch him sleep for a minute.
The third Sunday, Cas is feeling a little better. He starts treatment tomorrow, so as treat, Dean takes him out to the courtyard. They sit on a bench and watch the clouds go by. Birds flitter around them and Dean feeds them a few pieces of bread from his sandwich. Cas laughs slightly as he watches Dean, and the sound makes Dean’s heart flutter. He smiles as he looks over at Cas – whose eyes look so much brighter. His heart stops for a second this time, and before he realizes what’s happening, he’s leaning forward, reaching up to cup Cas’s face as he gently presses his lips to Cas’s. Cas’s eyes flutter shut, and he reaches up to grab Dean’s wrist.
After a minute, Dean pulls away slowly. Resting his forehead against Cas’s head, he breathes, “You better not die on me.”
Cas smiles, biting his lip. “I won’t. I promise, Dean.”
Dean kisses him again.
Cas looks like complete shit the day he starts treatment. He throws up a total of seven times while Dean and Sam are visiting. The nurse has to come in after the seventh time and to put something in his IV. He goes limp, his eyes fluttering shut and then open again. He fights to stay conscious, but after fifteen minutes, he can’t do it any longer, and he begins to snore softly.
After forty-five minutes of silence, Dean says, “You know it’s funny – when Cas became human, we were so worried about helping him fit in. It’s almost stupid now to think that’s the biggest thing we so concerned about.”
Sam takes a hearty swig in reply.
Cas’s hair starts falling out in clumps. He’s alarmed at first. He asks Dean in a trembling voice what’s happening to him, but Dean assures that it’s normal. He kisses Cas on the forehead and runs his fingers through Cas’s thinning hair, collecting all the strands that fall out.
“It’ll grow back,” Dean promises. “When this is all over, it’ll grow back.”
The next day, they shave Cas’s head, and Cas holds tightly to Dean’s hand.
Jody finds Dean asleep in the kitchen one night. He wakes up with jolt when she shakes his shoulder, and wipes the drool from his chin.
“Fall asleep cooking?” she asks, walking over to the stove where noodles are boiling. She pulls out a colander and pours the noodles into it.
“I’m sorry, Jody,” Dean says with a yawn, stretching out his arms. “Shit, I could’ve burned the house down.”
“You need a break, Dean,” Jody says. “All you do is work or visit the hospital. You need some time to yourself.”
“I can’t,” Dean says, rubbing his eyes. “Cas’s treatment is expensive, and I – “ He breaks off, letting the sentence I love him hang in the air.
“It’s not healthy,” Jody argues. “You’ll work yourself into the ground. And besides, if you get sick, you won’t get to visit Cas.”
Dean sighs, straightening up. He folds his hands together, breathing deep. “I don’t know how much longer I can do this, Jody. God, I – I thought retiring would solve everything. No demons, no angels, none of that shit, but there’s still things like this, and I – “ He shuts his mouth and bites his lip.
Jody places a plate of pasta in front of him, her other hand resting on his back. She rubs across his shoulder blades for a few seconds. “It’ll be okay, Dean,” she says quietly. “Cas is strong, we both know that.”
Dean nods, reaching out for his fork.
Jody backs away, heading to the fridge and returning with a soda. “You need to cut back on the alcohol,” she says. “And I’m calling you in for the next week, okay? Your need your rest too, Dean.”
Dean swallows his bite of food and says quietly, “Thank you, Jody.”
“Anytime, kid. Anytime.”
While Dean’s on Jody’s forced vacation, he has a hard time figuring out what to do with himself. Cas’s sleeping schedule has reduced to him only being awake for a few hours in the late evening, so Dean’s mornings are free. Dean himself is the opposite with sleep; he can’t sleep more than a few hours every night, but he lazes around during the day just to keep Jody off his back.
After the third day off, he can’t stand sitting around anymore, so in the morning, he showers, gets dressed, and decides to just walk around the neighborhood for awhile. He sees kids running through sprinklers, men mowing their lawns, women gardening, and vice versa. They’re all living their perfect apple pie lives, and Dean wonders what kind of horrors they’ve seen.
Lucky him, he’s seen both ends of the spectrum.
Life doesn’t feel normal, not really. Even though Dean’s living in an ordinary town with an ordinary job and suffering from ordinary problems, life feels pretty much the shame – like nothing can ever go right, like something awful always has to be gripping him.
There’s a garage sale eight houses down, and Dean finds himself walking over to it. Eyes graze over the tables full of clothes and boxes full of old children’s toys. He walks up the driveway and into the actual garage. There’s a long table in the middle of it filled with junk – there’s antique jewelry and old souvenirs. Dean’s drawn to on old camera at the end of the table. He picks it up and turns it over in his hand. It’s a Polaroid camera, and Dean thinks briefly of the picture in his wallet – the one of him, Sam, Bobby, Cas, Ellen, and Jo. He smiles a little at the memory, though his eyes are filling with tears.
Dean carries the camera up to the owner’s checkout table, knowing that Cas will like it. Since giving up his grace, he’s gained a huge attraction to all things human, especially things ten years or older. This camera definitely falls into that category. The old woman at the table eyes the camera with a smile.
“That used to be my daughter’s,” she says fondly.
“It’s going to a good home,” Dean promises as he hands her a five.
Once Dean gets back to Jody’s, he heads for the bathroom. He looks at his reflection for a long moment, forcing a smile and pushing back tears. When he’s ready, he pulls out a razor, plugs it in, and shaves off all his hair.
Cas’s latest tests show good signs, but he’s still far from the end of the road of recovery.
Dean’s smiling when he walks into Cas’s room, having just spoken with the nurse. He’s got the camera in his hand, but Cas’s eyes are immediately drawn to his head.
“Dean,” he says slowly, quietly.
“I told you, you aren’t alone,” Dean replies, and he leans down to kiss Castiel softly, lingering a little longer once he pulls away. He straightens up, clearing his throat. “I have something for you.” And he hands Cas the camera.
Cas takes it, mesmerized. “Thank you, Dean,” he says quietly. He stares at for a moment, completely in awe.
“Come on,” Dean says, and he takes it carefully from Cas’s hands. He leans down, putting his head next to Cas’s and turning the camera on them. “Smile, baldy.”
The camera clicks, and a few minutes later, there’s a Polaroid picture of Cas and half of Dean’s face. They laugh, and try again, getting it right this time. Dean watches Cas as he stares at the photo, grinning wide.
It makes Dean’s heart skip a beat.
A few days later, Dean, Sam, and Cas hang roughly thirty Polariods around Cas’s hospital room.
There’s the first picture of Dean and Cas smiling, one of them laughing, one of them kissing. There’s pictures of Sam and Cas eating lunch, and one that Cas took of Sam and Dean arguing, and another of Dean throwing a fry at Sam’s face.
As Cas slaps up the last picture he took, Dean pulls the old, crinkled Polaroid of their family from his pocket.
“Cas,” he says quietly, and he hands it to him.
Cas takes it, confused it first. He stares at it a second, a sad smile on his lips. He walks away from the wall and back to his bed, tacking it up to the side of one of the monitors hanging above his head. Dean sits down beside him, and Cas leans against him, resting his head on Dean’s shoulder. Dean leans down awkwardly, kissing his forehead. They stare at the pictures for a minute more before crawling into Cas’s bed together, sleeping sound for the first time in months.
Cas still has a long way to go, but as they drift off, Dean prays that God will come through for his favorite child one more time.