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To Mend The Cracks With Gold

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Dean

 

There’s just so much blood.

And Dean’s seen a fair share of blood in his life‒ in fact, more than the average person ‒ but it had never been‒

He can hear Sam retch behind him, and even the gagging sound makes the bile rise up in his throat, not in sympathy or disgust, but in vile, wretched fury .

There’s so much blood.

Dean closes his eyes, tries to will himself to breathe, every attempt just constricting his lungs further. It feels like there’s a white-hot poker being pushed inside his head, right behind his eyes. He’s angry, God, he’s so angry , and it’s all because—

Dean forces himself to reopen his eyes, to stare at the obscene mess of blood in the bathtub, the complete wreck that’s been made of her body. He lets the anger rise, crest, intensify, pulse harder. He’s going to need it.

But there’s also something else struggling to be heard, something the Mark is trying to scream into submission, and that something is what stings at Dean’s eyes, making them prickle and burn; he thinks he’d cry, if he didn’t feel so completely dried up inside.

“Oh God—” he can hear Sam moan behind him, still sounding like he’s going to either vomit or pass out. “God, Charlie—”

“Shut up,” Dean says, low and sharp, cutting him off. “This is all your fault. Do you hear me? Every last bit of this, it’s all your fucking fault.”

The pained silence that follows that is almost a noise in itself, but Dean doesn’t turn around to look. He’s having a hard time taking his eyes off the murder scene, and with rising horror, he can feel the searing pain behind his eyes slowly being overtaken by a delighted pulsing in his arm.

Blood. Death. Blood. Death.

The Mark is getting excited , and it’s all Dean can do not to throw up then and there: in horror at what’s happened, in horror at himself. Abruptly, he turns on his heel and stalks out of the room, because if he has to stare at Charlie’s lifeless eyes for one more second he’ll either scream or faint or vomit or—

or kill Sam , a cold, honest little voice at the back of his mind supplies, and Dean shudders violently.

“Dean,” says Sam weakly, “where are you going?”

Dean stops in his tracks, but doesn’t turn around to look at his brother. He can’t. He’s afraid of what might happen.

“I’m gonna find whoever did this,” he replies, his voice a low growl. “And I’m gonna rip apart everything and everyone they’ve ever loved.”

“But—”

“But fucking what, Sam? ‘But we have to bury Charlie first’? Fuck you, Sam. Fuck you.”

“Dean—” Sam starts, and Dean hasn’t heard his voice sound so broken since they were children. It’s devastating. And it only stokes the ugly wrath inside him higher.

No !” he yells, turning around to face him. “Don’t you ‘Dean’ me, Sam, because for all your saying that I’m off the rails, this is on you ! What, you want me to stay and— and fucking burn the body of about the only friend I had left? She was our responsibility, Sam. She was family . And you— you and Cas— you went and you fucking got her murdered . There ain’t no ‘sorry’ big enough for that!”

Sam’s eyes are wide and he’s honest to God shaking , leaning on the door frame like he’ll collapse if he doesn’t hold on to something. “You think I wanted this? You think I ever—”

I DON’T CARE! ” Dean roars, heart deafeningly loud in his ears, and the Mark threatening to burn clean through his skin. “I’ve buried too many friends. I’ve lost too much. I can’t do this. I won’t.”

And I’m frightened of what will happen if I stay, he doesn’t add.

It feels like every bone inside him is hurting with the loss of Charlie, and still the Mark won’t stop throbbing, hungry, hungry, hungry. It’s so wrong, so deeply wrong, what is happening to him; the way the Mark won’t even let him mourn his friend without a part of him getting worked into a blood frenzy because of all the violence and death and needwantneedtokill and it’s— it’s obscene. He’s obscene, a taint to be removed from the room. He was barely worth Charlie’s affection when he was himself, and he certainly doesn’t deserve to be in her presence now — not after letting her down so completely — not with the curse on his arm delighting in the bloodshed before his eyes.

If Dean could destroy himself here and now, he would.

Instead, he’ll do the next best thing: he’ll take this unholy, sickening bloodlust away from the remnants of his broken family, and go seek out the monsters who did this. Dean may wish he was dead, but soon enough, the Stynes will be praying for the same thing.

Turning around, he makes for the door, fists clenched so tightly at his side that he’s pretty sure he’s drawing blood. Good , he thinks, I deserve it.

“Dean, please,” Sam calls out. It’s painfully obvious he’s doing his best to hold back a sob; there’s an edge of hysteria to his voice. Dean’s heart constricts once — once only — in sympathy, before the Mark overtakes it with a tidal wave of contempt and violent anger. “Don’t do this. If you go on a killing spree— if you take on this… this vendetta, you don’t know what’ll—”

“What’ll happen to me?” Dean’s voice is all cold, biting sarcasm, sounding almost alien to his own ears. “You mean like, I could turn into a monster? Someone who gets their friends killed? I’m sorry, I thought you had that covered for the time being.”

It’s cruel. It’s hurtful. Dean wants it to be, the Mark pulsing with dark satisfaction when no reply comes from Sam. He reaches the door and grabs the handle, hanging on it as if the coolness of the metal could somehow ground him, soothe him.

“Don’t come looking for me, Sam,” he throws over his shoulder. “You won’t like the consequences.”

Dean steps into the rain, leaving behind his brother, the body of his best friend, and the last shreds of his tattered humanity.


 

Sam

 

Sam spends the entire ride back to the abandoned factory on autopilot, trying not to think about Charlie’s body in the backseat.

Nausea has been cresting and falling inside him ever since they stepped into that motel bathroom to find her lying in the bathtub, covered in blood. He’s not entirely sure he’s going to make it to the factory without stopping to hurl by the side of the freeway— but he’s gonna try his damn best.

This is on him, he knows that much. He’s the one that asked Charlie to trust him— to help him, to help save Dean. And now Charlie’s gone, and Dean’s taken off, and they’re no closer to cracking the codex, and, and

There’s a low scream rising inside Sam’s mind, like the whistle of a train coming closer and closer at terminal speed. He’s running on the tracks, and he doesn’t know what will happen when the train finally catches up to him.

Cas , he tells himself over and over, robotically. You gotta get her to Cas .

He doesn’t know why he’s so sure it’s essential. Sure, Cas has brought people back before — Dean had told Sam how it had been with Bobby, back during the Apocalypse; how Cas had touched two fingers to his head and Bobby’s neck had unsnapped, the bones unshattered, his heart unstopped.

But then again, it’s been years since the Apocalypse, and Cas’s power has fallen and risen and fallen again. If Sam’s completely honest, most of the time Cas looks more human than not. It’s a good thing, for the most part: it makes Cas warmer, softer around the edges. But as far as giving life back goes, Sam doesn’t know if Cas’s current powers will cut it. Doesn’t know if anything will.

There’s always Rowena , he tells himself. She’ll know a spell. And there are crossroads demons— we’ve done it before— I’m gonna fix it , Sam thinks desperately, his brain a whirlwind of guilt and despair and dizziness.

I’m going to fix this.


In the end, he makes it, but only by a small margin. He gets out of the car and before he can even think about looking at the backseat — at the motionless shape of his friend wrapped in bloody blankets — he’s throwing up on the asphalt, his stomach churning with bile.

This wasn’t supposed to happen , he tells himself, misery wringing his guts violently; it was never supposed to happen.

He doesn’t know how long it is before he pulls himself together, only that there is a wetness on his cheeks. He absently wipes at it, blinks a few times to clear his vision. Then, he gets Charlie’s body out of the car.

Walking into the factory, he finds Rowena chained at the table, perusing the codex distractedly, and Castiel pacing agitatedly back and forth.

Cas turns eagerly when he hears Sam enter, but as soon as he sees the shape in Sam’s arms, his face drains of all color.

“Who’s that?” he asks flatly, eyes schooled on Sam’s face.

“Charlie,” Sam hears himself reply, and all he can think is that no, it’s not Charlie, because Charlie had been alive and vibrant and optimistic, Charlie was generous and smart, but this— this is just a body. And Sam is to blame.

He lays the body on the table gently, as if it was still their Charlie after all, only asleep, curled up on the couch after a Star Trek marathon maybe.

“What happened?” Cas whispers. Sam can hear the vibration of rage in his voice, as well as grief. He should tell him, but he can’t say anything, he just can’t.

Behind them, Rowena clucks her tongue disapprovingly. “Poor Red. Trusting a Winchester, that’s what happened. Never ends well, I gather.”

“Shut up. ” Sam wishes he had the strength — or the evidence — to refute her words, but he has neither. He turns to Cas, his eyes filling and spilling over. He doesn’t bother trying to control it: he knows he couldn’t. “Can you fix her?” he asks instead, his voice shaking as badly as his hands.

Castiel looks at him for a long moment, compassion making its way through the sadness. “Was it an angel kill?”

Sam shakes his head. “Human. There were— knives, I think. Just… there was a lot of—” He swallows, has to shut his eyes for a moment.

Cas licks his lips and nods, slowly. “Then it should be… I should be able to help.”

He makes his way to the table and gently, but efficiently, unwraps the sheets from around Charlie. Sam recoils at the sight of her face, whiter than the sheets, and stiller than he’s ever seen it.

Cas lays one hand on her forehead and the other at her midsection, closing his eyes. Before long, a faint glow starts emanating from them.

Sam hasn’t prayed since he was 26, since the Apocalypse happened and robbed him of his faith that anyone was listening to them; but he prays now, quietly and fervently, for this to work.

He’s shaken out of his reverie by Cas groaning softly. There’s sweat on his forehead, but his hands are glowing brighter than before, and for just a moment, Sam thinks he sees a hint of color return to Charlie’s face… and then Cas suddenly staggers backwards, gasping, shaking a little from exertion.

His back hits the wall just as Sam’s heart hits the bottom of his stomach— of course it didn’t work, of course it wouldn’t work, you taint everything you touch—

— and then Charlie sits up sharply, gulping in air like she’s drowning, looking around wildly like a terrified animal, shaking and frantic and alive .

For a moment they’re all silent, awestruck; even Rowena has a shaken look on her face.

Suddenly, as if remembering something, Charlie curls in on herself protectively, trembling fingers going to lift her shirt and expose her pale stomach. She’s looking for the wounds, Sam realizes numbly, watching her trace the expanse unblemished skin in disbelief. “I’m okay,” she whispers, though it echoes in the quiet room. “I’m okay?”, she repeats then, louder, looking up at them wonderingly.

As if from underwater, Sam hears himself call out her name — or maybe it’s just a strangled sound — and the following moment he’s gathering her in his arms, hugging her carefully but tightly, relief making his knees weak and shaky.

“You’re alive. You’re alive , oh God, Charlie, I’m so sorry— I’m so sorry I got you into this mess.”

“Hey,” Charlie replies, patting his back a bit awkwardly, “it’s-- it's okay. We're cool. I wanted to save Dean just as much as you did.” She pulls back and stares at him earnestly, probably to make sure he takes her words to heart. “All of this was my decision too. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Anyway, I’m alive now, aren’t I? For which I believe I have to thank…”

She turns towards Cas, who’s still looking pale and fatigued but is standing straight now, and directs a tired, fond smile at Charlie.

She motions him to come in for hug, which he does, albeit a bit stiffly, still getting used — Sam assumes — to the humanness of it all. Charlie hugs Cas for a few moments, eyes closed, then murmurs a thank you into his ear, low but vibrant with feeling.

And that’s when something unexpected happens. After releasing Cas, and gingerly sliding off the table, Charlie looks at both of them warily, with a strange, serious look to her face.

“We gotta talk,” she says.

For a moment, her words don’t even compute, absurdly mundane in the face of having just brought Charlie back from the dead.

It’s been a very long, very difficult night, and Sam feels as if he’s on the edge of breaking down. A moment later, Cas’s hand is on his shoulder, an unobtrusive but comforting presence.

“Go on, Charlie,” Cas says.

“Um, okay. Right, so— where are you guys standing on the whole ‘reopening Heaven’ issue?”

Cas frowns. “Hannah is taking care of matters in Heaven now. She has for a while.”

Charlie nods. “Yeah, but— Metatron’s spell. Has it actually ever been reversed?”

Sam rubs his forehead with one hand. “Not that I know of. Cas?”

“I would have assumed the doors had been reopened, but I can’t say for sure. Why, what do you know?”

“Oh, I know a lot,” Charlie breathes out; then she bites her lip, looking as if she’s preparing to drop a bombshell. “I saw Kevin.”

“The Prophet?,” Castiel asks at the same time that Sam exclaims “ Kevin?”.

Charlie nods, solemn. “Yeah. Kind of a bummer we never got to meet topside, but that’s a grievance for another day.” She pauses. “Guys, seriously . Things are… messed up on the other side of the Veil.”

Sam cringes. “How messed up are we talking?”

“Well, first of all, there’s a zillion souls stuck there, unable to gain passage to Heaven. I would know. I felt it as well. It was like my consciousness knew it had to be somewhere else, but I couldn’t move my feet. Like in a bad dream, you know?”

Sam nods. “Go on.”

“Most of them just sit around and are, you know, pretty depressed. But some of them can’t take it, the… immobility, the not knowing. Being stuck halfway. So they just… go insane.” She shudders minutely. “You should’ve heard the wailing over there. Not pretty. Not pretty at all. Some of those spirits are in serious pain… and some are taking it to the next level.”

 “Becoming vengeful spirits, you mean?” Castiel asks, frowning.

Charlie nods. “Yeah. They just get angrier, and more desperate, and angrier, until eventually they gather so much strength that they’re able to burst through the Veil; but they can’t get to Heaven, so they just barrel back down to Earth. I wouldn’t be surprised if there had been a freak spike in hauntings lately.”

“Great,” Sam nods, rubbing his temples. “Just great.”

Charlie bites her lip again. “There’s worse.”

Castiel frowns. “Worse than an enormous number of souls in immense pain going insane and turning violent?”

“Well…” Charlie starts, shoulders drooping a little. “It’s the reapers. See, Heaven might be closed for business, but Hell sure isn’t. According to Kevin, a bunch of rogue reapers are under contract with Hell to get more souls down there; raise the quotas.”

Castiel draws himself up to his full height, jaw going tense. “You mean—”

Charlie nods. “It’s blitzkrieg, man. They come through the Veil and grab the weakest of the souls, and there’s no one who can fight back. Some of the souls — the ones who have been there the longest — are so desperate or so crazed that they go willingly.”

“The demons are going to pay for this.” Castiel’s expression is one of profound disgust and anger. Sam, on the other hand, has a pinched look on his face, one of self-deprecation.

“None of this would have happened if I’d just closed the doors of Hell like I was supposed to. If I’d done my job— if I hadn’t listened to Dean…”

“Hey now.” Charlie reaches forward, gives his arm a sympathetic squeeze. “Stop that. I’m not gonna let you blame yourself for not committing suicide, that’s crazy.”

“Charlie’s right,” Castiel says gently. “You and Dean chose each other. Chose family. That’s not a despicable action at all. It has saved the world before.”

“Yeah,” Sam exhales, bitter. “And how well has that worked out for us? Because from where I’m standing, no Hell sounds like a pretty good thing to die for. And there would have been no Abaddon, and Dean wouldn’t have the Mark of Cain. Still wanna tell me how moving it was that Dean convinced me not to punch my ticket?”

Castiel and Charlie are silent at that, looking awkwardly at each other, at Sam, without making eye contact.

“Look,” Charlie says finally. “I don’t know if you guys did the right thing or not. All I know is— you’re my family and I love you and I’m glad you’re still kicking, okay?”

That seems to calm Sam down a little bit, smooth the lines on his forehead marginally. “Thanks, Charlie.” She steps closer and hugs him one-armed, going up on her tiptoes to do so. Castiel smiles a little at the display.

“Charlie is right, Sam, but on more than this account. We need to do something about restoring order to the Veil.”

“I know,” Sam nods. “Charlie— what did Kevin say? Did he have any advice to offer, something he might remember from the tablets?”

“He had a lot of thoughts,” Charlie says, hesitatingly, “but no definite answers. I can try and write down what I remember before it gets away from me.”

“Excellent,” Castiel states, “but first we have something crucial to do.”

“What’s that?” Charlie asks, but Sam’s eyes have already lit up with understanding.

“We’ve gotta let Dean know you’re not dead.”

“I’ll say,” Charlie chuckles, but it dies abruptly on her lips. “Wait— did he take it badly? I mean I’d hope he did, but like, what levels of overreaction are we talking here?”

“Murder levels,” Sam mutters. “He went after the Stynes, and if we don’t hurry—”

“We’re hurrying.” Cas grabs his car keys from the nearby table.

“Wait,” Sam calls out. “Don’t you need—”

“You stay here with Charlie and Rowena. We still need to cure Dean of the Mark, and Charlie’s decryption of the codex is our best chance,” he says urgently, one hand already on the door handle. “I’m gonna go find Dean.”

“Be careful,” Sam says quietly. He doesn’t need to specify he means that as much for Cas’s sake as for Dean’s.

“I will,” Cas assures him. “I’ll bring him home.”

In the solemn silence that follows that declaration, Sam’s phone chimes.

“Oh, yeah,” Charlie says, brightly. “Did I mention I cracked the codex?”


 

Castiel

 

It takes Castiel a while to find Dean. He follows Dean’s trail to Louisiana, but he gets there too late. By the time he gets to the Styne mansion, all he finds is a dozen of dead bodies littering the grounds, each one killed in a different way, all of them efficient.

An acid feeling of dread churns inside his stomach. He feels no grief over the Stynes’ fate — even aside from murdering Charlie, he can tell the world is a much better place without them in it — but this doesn’t bode well for Dean’s state. This isn’t like him, has never been like him, this cold-blooded taking of human lives.

Castiel checks the GPS, but it only tells him what he already knows: Dean is heading home.

As soon as Castiel steps through the door of the bunker he hears the shot ring out, echoing across the empty halls, and a cold feeling settles along his spine.

He tears through the place following the sound of the gunshot. A quick glance is enough to assess the state of disarray of the place, things piled together haphazardly, books and objects thrown carelessly to the floor, the Winchesters’ few possessions scattered about the rooms. The piles were obviously meant to be burnt, and the idea of an intruder breaking in to destroy his friends’ only home fills Castiel with protective fury. He steels himself for a fight, on the admittedly unlikely chance Dean hasn’t managed to take out the attackers on his own.

All his protectiveness melts into dismay and sorrow when he comes across the scene in the war room: Dean covered in blood, his hand clenched around a still-smoking gun, three bodies lying on the floor around him as if in a tragic play. The one lying at Dean’s feet can’t be more than 17 years old, and Castiel feels icy disappointment fill him.

Dean. What have you done?”

Dean turns around slowly, the front of his shirt messy with gore, and stares at him blankly, emptily.

Castiel kneels by the body, laying his palm on it, closing his eyes in an attempt to re-ignite the latent spark of life in the boy, but the surge of power he’d beckoned never comes to his hand.

He’s too weak. Whatever power he has now, bringing Charlie back from the dead had used it up, his batteries almost completely drained. He feels fear and anger stab through him, suddenly awash with the knowledge that whatever Metatron had done to his grace for the spell, it had cracked it for good. He will never be the same Castiel again; there will be no power of the seraphim at his command.

It doesn’t matter, he tells himself, though it does matter. If a choice had to be made, he would have chosen Charlie in a heartbeat— not only because she was his friend, but because she was dear to the Winchesters; the Stynes boy, he’s the collateral damage to his family’s darkness. But it still leaves him feeling sour and aching inside, the waste of an innocent life for no greater purpose. And most of all, he feels cold and dizzy with the certainty that this is a point of no return for Dean. Dean would never have condoned this before taking the Mark on. All that was pure and good and brave in him would have violently railed against the killing of a child; much less being the one to execute it.

If Castiel can’t bring him back from the brink now, the Dean they know might well slip out of their reach forever. Castiel can’t allow that. He will never allow that.

He looks up at Dean, at the blood on his face and hands, at his empty eyes. It has been worse than this, he tells himself fiercely. Much worse. Twice, he has seen Dean’s soul blackened and twisted by hellfire; twice he has brought him back from the pit.

To borrow from Dean’s own vocabulary, Castiel will be damned if he lets it happen again.


 

Dean

 

“You killed him.”

Cas’s voice is an unwelcome reminder breaking through the red haze of bloodlust; a fog siren sounding with the finality and mournfulness of church bells. He stares on coolly, refusing to let it get to him, but it’s hard when he can see the dismay in Cas’s blue eyes from all the way over here.

“I took down a monster. Because that’s what I do. And I’ll continue to do that, until…”

He shrugs, but the movement is calculated, not casual at all. He tries to ignore the blood pounding in his ears, the Mark seething with rage at the mere sight of Cas.

It’s the first Dean has seen him in weeks, and certainly since the whole ugly mess with Charlie went down. Dean feels angry, betrayed, but it’s more than that too— Cas has his grace back, and the Mark recognizes that, recoils from even being in the same room with a power that pure.

“Until you become the monster,” Cas finishes for him, standing to face him.

It stings— probably more than it should, considering Dean is all too aware of what he’s turning into. He pushes it down, tries to seem unaffected, to keep his blank, empty mask from cracking and slipping. He schools his voice into a flat drawl.

“You can leave now, Cas.”

But it’s not that easy, because nothing ever is. Instead of storming off in a huff, like he always did when he had wings, Cas plants his feet down, staring at him steadily.

“No. I can’t. Because I’m your friend.”

That rankles Dean, considering his newfound knowledge of just how assiduously Sam and Cas had worked behind his back— and what it had led to. Charlie’s lifeless body flashes in front of his eyes again.

“Really. Let me ask you something. You screw over all your friends?” He steps closer to Cas, his voice rising without him meaning for it to, all illusion of composure gone. “I guess I should have known. It’s not like you’ve never done it before.”

He infuses the words with venom, with all the reminders of four years ago, of Cas trapped in a circle of holy oil, working with Crowley and lying to Dean’s face about it. He can see it hits home from in the flash of hurt and shame in Cas’s eyes. He covers it up with anger, meeting Dean halfway, his steps purposeful.

“Sam and I were trying to cure you. We still are.”

Dean snorts derisively. “Like hell.”

“We can read the book now,” Cas adds, eagerly, and he opens his mouth as if to say something else, but Dean cuts him off, his voice a savage snarl.

“Oh, so what? So you might find a spell that might take this crap off my arm? Well, even if you do, what’s it gonna cost? ‘Cause magic like that does not come free. No, it comes with a price that you pay in blood.” He of all people knows this to be true. He’s never managed to achieve anything good that he didn’t have to pay for a hundredfold. That’s how life works. That’s how his life works. He shakes his head. “So thanks, but I’m good.”

He turns his back on Cas, only to find him blocking his path again the next moment, his eyes burning with resolve.

“No, you’re not. Maybe you could fight the Mark for years. Maybe centuries, like Cain did. But you cannot fight it forever. And when you finally turn — and you will turn — Sam, everyone you know, everyone you love… they could be long dead. Everyone except me. I’m the one who will have to watch you murder the world.”

It sounds like a threat or a warning; it sounds like a prophecy. But even as Dean’s bones go cold with it, he feels a bitter laugh bubble up inside his throat.

“Please. Like you’d ever stick around that long. I know you, Cas. I know exactly how reliable you are. All you’re good for is fucking off to parts unknown.”

It’s petty, and meant to hurt, and Dean hates himself just that little bit more for relishing the wounded expression that colors Cas’s face.

Let him hurt , he tells himself. It’s not like he’s never hurt you before .

“You’re free not to believe it, Dean,” Cas says, his voice only barely labored. “But if there’s even a small chance we can save you, I won’t let you walk out of this room.”

“Oh,” Dean breathes, low and dangerous, “You think you have a choice.” He makes to walk around him, but Cas sidesteps him again, stops him with a hand on his shoulder.

“I think the Mark is changing you.”

“You’re wrong,” Dean says, and means it. Because the Mark is only the cherry on top of the horror show that has been his life; the Mark is merely an enabler. All his life, Dean’s been poison to those around him. All his life, he has done nothing but hurt people and taint things. The Mark isn’t changing him. It’s exposing him for what he truly is. Surely Cas has to know that, because Cas has seen it firsthand, the ugliness and the evil inside Dean’s soul, the darkness nestled there as he tortured souls on Alastair’s table.

“Am I? Cause the Dean Winchester I know, would never have murdered that kid.”

In that moment, Dean hates him more than ever. It’s exhausting, this trust Cas claims to have in him; it’s impossible to live up to. Dean is used to being a disappointment to his father; a disappointment to Sam. Somehow, being a disappointment to Cas seems intolerable. A dark agitation rises inside him, nestling behind his eyes, and it makes him try to shove past Cas again, to get out of the bunker and as far away as possible, before he destroys whatever is left of them.

He’s stopped again by Cas’s hand on his shoulder, and he sees red, the room becoming blurred and unfocused as a film of anger and frustration clouds his eyes.

Dean. I don’t want to have to hurt you.”

Except for when you did. Except for when you lied. Except for when you left. Except for when you beat me half to death in a godforsaken crypt. Except for when you look at me like I mean something, and never stick around to prove it.

The pounding of Dean’s heart is a war drum inside his ears.

“I don’t think that’s gonna be a problem,” Dean growls, and then he swings.

His fist hits Cas’s jaw with a resounding crack , and the Mark instantly delights in it, working itself into a frenzy, pulsing away at his veins, moremoremore.

His next hit lands square in the middle of Cas’s face, with a wet crunching noise that makes Dean’s stomach lurch sickly. Cas looks at him from under his eyelashes, bent in half with pain, blood trickling down his nose, a black bruise beginning to form below his eye, and an electric jolt goes through Dean.

This isn’t right , he thinks, confusion warring with the violent excitement the Mark is stoking inside his gut. He’s an angel. He has his grace back now. I shouldn’t be able to hurt him . He blinks once, to clear his head.

You hurt Gadreel , an insidious voice whispers inside his head. Fucked him up real bad. Angels can’t stop you now, none of them can.

Unbidden, his brain supplies him with old images, blurred at the edges but all-too-vivid in the middle, the picture sharp with the memory of pain. A dark alley, years ago; Cas all righteous fury and retribution, kicking him in the chest so hard he flew into a fence, his ribs shattering painfully on the way there. And later, kneeling down on a dusty cold floor, hands raised in supplication, not for Cas to stop hurting him but for Cas to get better, barely able to see for the blood trickling into his eyes.

It all feeds into the dark energy pooling into his forearm, and he takes another swing, this time making Cas topple to the floor.

“Fight back,” he yells, his stomach clenching and unclenching dizzily.

“Dean,” Cas says, and his voice is so calm , so goddamn calm and unafraid, that it makes Dean all the angrier.

“Fight back , you goddamn bastard!!”

But Cas doesn’t, and Dean almost kicks him where he’s lying— except something stops him, a stab of pain and regret sharp enough to contrast even the Mark. He shakes himself, grabbing a fistful of Cas’s trenchcoat and forcibly dragging him off the floor and towards the desk.

“This is for lying to me,” he hisses, slamming Cas bodily against it. “This is for going behind my back again. ” He slams Cas against the desk again, his head bouncing off it sickly in the recoil, because Cas is keeping his body completely limp, like a fucking rag doll, not fighting back, not even trying to resist. The Mark thrills in it, even as a wave of nausea threatens to take over Dean.

“And this is for Charlie,” he growls, slamming Cas’s face into the desk again. That’s when Cas makes his very first attempt at resistance, and it’s not to hit Dean or shove him off; Cas merely struggles to turn his head, enough to look Dean in the eye.

His face is a mask of blood, but all Dean can read on it is deep, genuine pity.

“Charlie’s alive,” Cas chokes out, and the way he says it makes Dean’s resolve sway uncertainly— it’s not an attempt to soothe Dean or get him to stop beating on him; Cas’s voice is full of compassion, as he if he were sorry for keeping it from him this long, as if all he wanted was to bring Dean whatever peace of mind he can offer.

Dean’s heart stutters and trips; the Mark’s desire for violence and his own horror at seeing Cas like this battle for dominance, ultimately succumbing to a muted confusion. He doesn’t dare to believe it, because Charlie being alive would be a good thing, and good things can never happen to those around him. He is far too poisonous for that.

“You’re lying,” he says weakly. “I saw her dead.”

Cas puts a hand on Dean’s wrist — only now does Dean notice his fists are still balled tightly into Cas’s trenchcoat — but makes no move to shove it off; he just lets his hand rest there, soothing, comforting, and everything Dean does not deserve.

“Sam brought her to me, after. There was—” he coughs, a rivulet of blood trickling down the side of his mouth, “there was much to restore, but I was able to heal her wounds. She’s at the factory now, Dean, she’s still working on the Book. She decoded it. She wants to help you, Dean. We all do.”

The wave of relief, gratitude and shame that washes over Dean makes his knees go weak and unsteady. Clumsily, as if he were moving through tar, he lets go of Cas’s coat, stumbles back, swallowing hard.

“You saved her.”

“You were right to be angry. Sam and I are to blame for her getting hurt. But I tried to make amends for my mistakes.” Cas sits up, swaying lightly as he goes, squinting to see through his now-swollen left eye.

Suddenly, there’s a catch in Dean’s throat.

“Why didn’t you fight back?” he chokes out, all too aware of the blood caked over his knuckles.

“You know why,” Cas replies. His voice is so gentle, it’s all Dean can do not to break down then and there. The Mark is still clamoring, but muted, and he forces it down, struggles to think clearly.

“Don’t,” he warns, not sure what exactly he’s forbidding Cas to do, just that he can’t handle it, whatever it is, this thing swelling between them, always present, never acknowledged.

He especially can’t handle it now, with Cas’s blood on his hands.

That doesn’t stop Castiel from getting up off the desk, and slowly but determinedly picking his way over to Dean amidst the debris.

“Stay back,” Dean tries again, but now his voice is shaking, and Castiel beelines for him, as fearless and swift as divine justice; as divine mercy, maybe, if Dean thought he deserved that.

A flash of recollection bowls him over — not exactly a memory, but something embedded in a place deeper than his mind — of Cas doing the same thing so very long ago, in a dark, dank place reeking of sulfur and fear. Dean had been afraid then, too; had warned Castiel not to approach then, too. But Cas had burned white through the layers of soot and filth, closer and closer, until he could grip Dean’s shoulder and raise him from the pit.

Dean’s shoulder burns now, as well, tingling with the phantom itch of a fiery handprint. His skin yearns for Cas’s touch, but he knows he’s less worthy of it now than he ever was. There’s no salvation in store for him this time. You only get so many second chances, and Dean’s had many more than he ever deserved.

None of that seems to matter to Cas, though.

“Dean”, he says, quiet voice carrying over the debris and destruction between them. “I forgive you.”

Dean shakes his head, nauseous. It’s not that easy. It shouldn’t be that easy.

He steps back and trips onto a pile of books, forcing him to lean into the side of the other desk to stay upright. Disoriented, he looks for an escape route, any way out, but he finds none, and suddenly Cas is in front of him, wiping the blood from his face on his trenchcoat sleeve. There’s nothing but pity and forgiveness in his eyes, and Dean can’t bear it, has to look away, his own eyes feeling hot and itchy with the weight of his guilt.

When he looks back up, Cas’s face is slowly healing under his gaze, the bruises disappearing under the dry blood, the broken skin stitching itself back together.

“It’s okay. Dean, it’s all right.”

Dean shakes his head, frantic, because nothing is all right , nothing will ever be right again, not when he knows how Castiel looks with his bones broken, not when Dean is the one who smashed them in.

But Cas keeps repeating the words — it’s all fine, Dean, it’s okay — and finally, with a jolt of surprise, Dean realizes Cas is trying to soothe him because Dean is crying, hot, bitter tears streaking their way through the dried red stains on his face.

He folds to the floor, crumpling on himself like a dead leaf, and Cas follows him down, kneeling beside him; he has one hand on Dean’s shoulder, where the phantom of his handprint stings like a fresh burn.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Dean whispers over and over, aware he sounds like a broken record, but unable to say anything else. He says it until his voice has run ragged, until all that comes out of him are low, wounded sounds, and his forehead is resting on Castiel’s shoulder, a supplicant begging for absolution.

Cas lays his free hand on the back of Dean’s hand, the touch hesitant, more tender than it has any reason to be.

“Please let us help you, Dean. Please.

Dean takes in the scent of Cas, clinging to his trenchcoat like the smell of thunder after a storm. It’s ozone and lightning and damp, mown grass. It grounds him, and he breathes in deeply once, twice.

“No one can help me,” he replies, his voice still raw. He can’t bring himself to use Castiel’s name. He feels like it doesn’t belong in his mouth; not after what he has done.

“At least let us try,” Cas pleads. “You can’t do this alone. You shouldn’t have to.”

“Alone is the only way,” Dean says, wearily. He wishes he could fall asleep and wake up to discover this has all been a nightmare. He wishes he could die here, in Cas’s arms; disappear into oblivion and never return.

That’s when it strikes him: a pinprick of light at the end of the tunnel, the only door he has left untried.

“The only way you can help me right now,” he says, disentangling himself from Cas, his every fiber mourning the loss of closeness, “is by letting me go.”

“Go where?” Cas is instantly on his feet, alert and wary.

Dean forces himself to fold his lips into a tiny smile. “There’s someone I have to see. Maybe they can help. I have to try. I have to try whatever I can,” he explains, spreading his hands. It’s a tired gesture; it’s almost a surrender.

“Will you come and see us afterwards?”, Cas asks, studying him carefully. “At the factory?”

“Yes,” Dean lies. He has no idea if he’ll be able to go anywhere after what he’s about to do. His next words, however, are brimming with sincerity.

“Cas… thanks for Charlie. I know it’s not enough. I know I don’t deserve anything from you. But she did. She deserves the world. Just… thank you.”

Cas nods, serious. “We’ll be waiting for you, Dean.”

He doesn’t know what to say to that; he can feel his face doing something complicated he has no control over. He nods once, finally, and turns away, leaves the bunker without looking back.

Cas will take care of the bodies — or he won’t, it’s all the same to Dean. He has something else to take care of, if it’s the last thing he does.

He both hopes and fears that it will be.


 

The abandoned Mexican restaurant is scattered with ingredients all over. Some of them are cooking supplies, some are supplies for a spell. It’s a weird combination, but Dean doesn’t question these things much anymore.

He works quietly and quickly, the motions practiced and coming with ease. It’s nice, he thinks, to be making something; to be creating instead of destroying. He scrubs his hands absently, bothered by the phantom itch of the blood he washed away.

The Stynes are dead, yes, but Dean’s not that sure he made it out alive, either. Not all of him. Not the parts that matter.

He tries to put the thought at rest and focus only on the work. He likes cooking; he’s good at it. He’s always been good at using his hands, even though it was never really acknowledged.

He eyes the beer on the counter, but decides to leave it be. He’s not thirsty, and, weirdly, he’s calm enough that he doesn’t even need alcohol. Pretty soon, he won’t need it ever again.


 

Despite the fact that he has talked to Death before, Dean will never get used to the way it chills every bone in his body. Death’s physical form is neither big nor imposing, but he still fills the room with something huge and yawning and hungry.

Dean tries not to let it get to him, tries to put conviction in his voice, to make his words matter. This is his last shot.

“I know you know what this is. I know you know what it can do.”

He’s pointing at the Mark of Cain on his arm, Death’s gaze taking it in calmly, his face unimpressed.

“I’ve tried to fight it. I’ve tried to beat it on my own, and I— I can’t.”

Cas’s bruised, bloodied face flashes in front of his eyes, making the room spin sickly around him.

“I got no moves left. Except you.”

And in that moment, Dean means it, means it more than possibly anything else he’s ever said. He’s done. He’s ready to go, ready to die. That fact brings with it such a staggering wave of calm, that it comes as a cold burst of shock when Death calmly looks at him and says I won’t kill you, Dean.

Dean’s reeling so hard from it, he finds himself struggling to keep up with Death as he says that no, he won’t get rid of the Mark, either. It’s hard to believe what he’s hearing: that the Mark is necessary, that it’s a lock and key to something more terrible than even Hell.

“I could remove the Mark— but only if you will share it with another. To ensure the lock remains unbroken, and the Darkness remains banned.”

“I’m not doing that,” Dean hears himself reply, voice quiet and sure. “Not to anyone.”

And just like that, it’s over. His last chance had dissipated before his eyes like so much smoke, and he feels himself choking on it.

“No,” Death says calmly, giving him an appraising look. “I didn’t think so. Goodbye, Dean. I won’t be seeing you anytime soon, I expect.”


 

For the longest time after Death leaves, Dean sits alone in the abandoned restaurant, immobile and defeated.

Death had been his last hope — an irony made even more cruel by the fact that his own death is an impossibility. He feels desperation rising up his throat even as he feels the weight of lead sinking into his stomach. He’s doomed to linger on, the Mark a sick plague on his arm, a stain infecting everything around him, until—

Until what? , a cold voice in his head whispers. Until he is finally fed up enough to off himself with the First Blade and condemn the world to eternal darkness? Until he passes the Mark on to some other poor, unsuspecting schmuck?

Until he murders the whole world?

Those words still ring in his ears in Castiel’s voice, and scorching shame overtakes him once again at the thought of their last meeting. How could he have done that? To Cas , of all people?

That’s perhaps one of the hardest things about this dark, ugly mess: seeing how much he’s hurting Cas and Sam. He can all but see his brother’s face in his mind’s eye, perpetually worried, looking older than his years. He swallows past the acrid taste of anxiety and guilt in his throat.

I’m so sorry. I’m sorry, Sammy.

Suddenly, Sam’s worried face shifts into a memory, one forever burned in Dean’s mind: Sam, sick and feverish, his eyes burning with delirium and purpose as he stands in a dimly-lit hotel hallway. He can hear Sam’s voice perfectly, as if he was standing in front of him right now.

“These trials… they’re purifying me.”

Just like that, it all falls into place. The solution to Dean’s problem — to all their problems. It’s the only way; it’s the way it should have been from the start. He can see now, as more and more details of the plan take shape in his mind, that he’s been a goddamn fool all along; but that all stops right now.

He’s gonna finish what he’d started, and go out with a bang doing it, too.

Slowly, he pulls his cellphone out of his jacket, staring at it for a long moment. The hardest part, he thinks, will be this: convincing Sam and Cas to get on board with his plan. Then again, they don’t have a choice. Dean will make sure they see that.

With a deep breath, he dials Sam’s number, his heart going a mile an hour.

“Yes?” Sam replies immediately. From the sound of him, he’s not in much better shape than Dean. Dean is acutely aware of the things he’d said to Sam on their last meeting, but that doesn’t matter now, can’t matter; he doesn’t have the luxury of letting it.

“Sammy,” he says, a little hoarse, “I’m gonna need a ride.”


 

It doesn’t take Sam long to arrive. As Dean suspected, he had already found the motel room, and the car keys Dean had left for him. No matter where they stand, Sam is a damn good hunter, and that’s something Dean can count on.

The Impala pulls up to the abandoned restaurant with a low rumble, headlights switching off as Sam climbs out of the car, relieved and wary at the same time. Although Dean can’t see it, he can tell from Sam’s posture that his gun is tucked away into the waistband of his pants, ready in case of need.

A damn good hunter, Dean thinks again, a small jab of pride going through him. He doesn’t think other people rejoice in their siblings’ readiness to shoot someone, but it doesn’t matter. They’re not like other people. Sometimes Dean thinks – Bobby’s voice ringing in his head – that they’re not people at all.

“Hiya, Sammy,” he says, lifting a hand, the lightness of it completely out of place.

“Hey,” Sam replies, a bit more of the wariness melting off his face. He’s studying him, Dean thinks. Trying to figure out if Dean’s just done something stupid, or something awful. He would be right on both accounts.

Suddenly, urgency tenses Sam, and he closes the distance between them with two quick steps.

“Dean,” he blurts out, stumbling over himself a bit, “Charlie—“

“I know.” Dean cuts him off, nodding. “Cas told me.”

“Oh,” Sam nods as well, the tension crumbling slowly from his shoulders. “Okay. Good.”

No, Dean thinks, his mind full of Cas’s voice and Cas’s eyes and Cas’s blood. Not good at all.

Out loud, he says: “Listen, Sammy, the things I told you—“

“It’s alright,” Sam hurries to say. “I know that wasn’t you. We’re good.”

It’s hasty and not quite sincere, and for a strange, piercing moment, Dean misses the old Sam, the curious teenager – and later, before the apocalypse – who was always trying to get Dean to open up about his damn feelings.

It had been maddeningly frustrating. Now, Dean finds it hurts a little to look at this Sam – so tired, so grown-up, so haunted and silent. Me, Dean thinks. He’s become more like me. And it’s my fault for even dragging him into this in the first place.

“No, we’re not good, and yes, it was me. But I was wrong,” he says dryly, before this honesty spell can wear off. “You were trying to help. You and Cas both.”

It’s impossible to stop himself from wincing at his own words. Every mention of Cas brings back a tsunami of guilt and misery. And now, there’s Sam, too, looking at him with that puppy dog face that really shouldn’t even work anymore on a man pushing 40.

“But since you were fucking terrible at it, I guess it’s good I came up with a solution myself,” he adds, trying for levity. It isn’t a joke though, not really.

“A solution?” Sam asks, ignoring the insult and perking up. “Really?”

Dean nods. “Really. Talk while we drive though. I could use some food.”

Sam eyes the shack critically, taking in the tex-mex décor. “I thought you ate here. What were you doing?”

“Oh, you know,” Dean says, slipping into the driver’s seat of the Impala. “Same old. Prepared nachos, summoned Death. You coming?”

“Summoned—what the hell, Dean? Are you—“ Sam is glaring at him, but the rest of his indignant squawk is lost when Dean rolls up the window.

This isn’t going to be an easy conversation at all.


 

Several miles, four burgers and one difficult conversation later, Sam says, “Pull over,” so Dean does.

They remain in perfect stillness by the side of the road. Sam’s head is in his hands, his fingers digging into his eyes in that way that suggests he’s tired or angry or both. Dean stares at his hands where they lie in his lap, motionless. He’s glad for the reprieve. His hands have been doing a lot of things they shouldn’t have, lately.

“You can’t do this,” Sam says finally, quietly.

“I can, and I have to. How’s about that.”

“No,” Sam insists, stubbornly, like when he was four and trying to prove Santa could logically exist. “You don’t.”

Just like back then, Dean purses his lips and nods, gives a small shrug. “Fine. Give me an alternative. Any alternative. One that doesn’t involve unleashing primordial darkness and evil upon the world. Or me turning into a demon, or me killing everyone we love.”

Sam swallows. They’re silent for a while more.

“If you do this,” Sam says, “there’s no coming back for you.”

Dean knows. And Sam knows Dean knows, really; he’s just trying to find a loophole where none exist.

“I can’t let you, Dean. I can’t, okay?” Sam bursts out when Dean doesn’t reply. “Maybe you can pull this off, but I can’t let you do this, I can’t let you just sacrifice yourself. I won’t.”

Dean waits a beat, clears his throat, and tries to mold his voice into something mild, to cut all accusation out of it and replace it with reason. “That isn’t what you said before.”

Sam opens his mouth to protest, but Dean cuts him off, “You said that if you had to choose between saving me and saving the world, like I did in that church, you would have made a different call. The right call.”

Sam shakes his head, his eyes wild with shame and regret, but Dean isn’t going to let this happen, isn’t going to let them go around in circles yet again.

“I’m saying you were right, Sammy. Even though it hurt to hear it— you were right. It can’t be you and me against the world, if there’s no world left to save, after all.”

The words hit him as he says them, as if perhaps he needed to hear them just as much as Sam. He looks over to the passenger’s spot, and Sam is pale, sickly-looking, unable to look up. His hands shake minutely.

“Look, Sammy,” Dean says, putting a careful hand on Sam’s shoulder. “You were going to sacrifice yourself in that church, for the greater good; and I should have let you. It was the right thing. Would have spared us all a lot of grief. It sucks, but it’s true. Now, if I could go back… I don’t know. I don’t know if I would choose differently, Sam. Because God help me, but it’s true— I don’t have that in me. But you’re stronger than I am. No, you are—“ he lifts his other hand to stop Sam’s protest, “—so I need you to be strong now. I need you to let me do this. For all of our goods. Can you do that?”

Dean can feel the heartbreak radiate off of Sam in waves and it breaks his heart in turn, because God, he knows. He knows what it feels like, to watch your brother — your only family, your person — sacrifice themselves for the Good Fight. He’s lived it. He’s lived it for one year, every day after watching Sam jump into the Pit, and it had hurt like hell all of the time. But he had still done it, because it had to be done.

He doesn’t think he could bear to do it again— no, he knows he couldn’t— but that doesn’t change the essence of it, how necessary it is. He knows Sam understands this, too.

Finally, Sam looks up, slowly, as if blinking himself out of a daze. His eyes are red-rimmed and lost in his pale face, but the line of his mouth is firm. He nods.

“First of all,” he says, and they both pretend not to hear the way his voice breaks, “we need to tell Cas the spell is off.”