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Thorn in Your Side

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Thorn in Your Side
*

Sneaking out of the room is so easy Dean has to smile when he's free of the door. A pang of guilt hits him when he looks back at Sam, and he quashes it immediately after. The air is cold, November cold, a bitter wind that cuts through the layers of his jacket and shirt, straight to his spotless, angelically-bleached skin.

It's dark outside.

Past the neon of the motel sign that spills red light onto the wet concrete, the only life he spots is a bar at a corner. The yellow light in the windows an illusion of warmth and he's pulled toward it. He sits at a booth and watches and drinks. The smoke clings to his skin and to his throat. He inhales it deeply and doesn't cough it off. Other smells too, the fumes of the cheap whiskey stronger.

A game of pool is being played in a smaller room, the smoke hanging there like the fog-rain outside.

"You wanna play?" says one of players and Dean smiles brightly. Says, "Fuck yes," and thinks of the five hundred bucks Sam left on another green table. He shakes his head to clear it. Tipped by a demon to save an angel. His life really is a fucking joke.

After two hours, he's truly, fucking shit-faced. Drunk with beer and whiskey he hasn't paid for. The front pocket of his jeans is bulging with rolled up bills. Two hundred, he thinks, but can't be sure. The dude Dean's been playing puts his hand on Dean's back when he's chalking his cue and it isn't friendly, it's a heavy, unfamiliar touch. He shrugs it off violently. "Fuck off," he says.

The fight when it starts doesn't surprise Dean. He throws the first punch because he's owed a fight and then he laughs so freaking loud he wonders why the punk in front of him doesn't realize how crazy he is.

Each punch Dean takes deadens his already numb face and before the barman breaks the fight up – a beating, by now – his entire body is desensitized: stomach, legs, arms. His back, too, cold against the floor. He's so numb he doesn't even mind when the dude puts his hand in his pocket and helps himself to some bills.

"For the damage to my bar, you crazy fuck," he says before pushing Dean outside and into the dark.

Dean laughs, face pressed against the closed door.

He's still laughing when he walks back to the motel. Sam's eyes are bleary and huge when he turns on the light.

"God," Sam says, blinking, and stumbles from the bed. But Dean raises his hand. "Shut up," he says, laugh drying on his lips. "Don't say His name," he says, angry, too angry.

"I've got money," he tells Sam, voice false and cheerful. He lets the bills fall on the table under the window: they're all crumpled and smeared with blood.

Sam fixes him with narrowed eyes. The only means of escape is the bathroom.

-*-

Now that it's out in the open, Dean can't stop picking at it. It's like a loose tooth, or the fresh scabs on his lips bleeding each time he stretches his mouth.

"Where to?" asks Sam and Dean shrugs, says, "Find me a hunt."

He hates the pleading tone in his voice and hates the small nod of Sam's head, the way he's keeping his body still, the tenseness in his shoulders.

"Don't pity me," Dean says and the words taste like salt on his tongue.

"I'm not," says Sam.

-*-

Sam finds him three hunts. A necromancer in Kentucky with his middle-class house in downtown Glasgow and his nine-to-five job. A pack of honest-to-God transhumans in Madrid, Iowa. Angry ghosts in Belgrade, Nebraska. Child-ghosts, triplets, interred in a mausoleum. On its façade are praying angels made of stone stained dark with stripes of rainwater, like old tears.

Dean lets one of the children throw him against a wall. The pain flares bright and then it deadens his entire back. He gasps for air before he crumples onto the floor. They're on him, now, their faces identical – strangely calm – one of them even smiles a sunny, bright smile of days spent playing in the grass.

And it comes to Dean suddenly, light going on, that he doesn't know where he's sending them, but the chance is too great that that they'll end up down there and his hand goes slack around his shotgun.

Sam, at his left, burns the bodies and sends them to Hell.

Afterward, he shouts in Dean's face, "What the fuck, Dean?"

Afterward, he pushes Dean inside the car and holes him up in a rundown motel with vista of the bare Nebraska fields.

"I hate Nebraska," Dean reminds Sam.

"Get your head straight," Sam answers. "I-- you need to get your head straight."

Sam's expression is unreadable but for the weariness pooling around his eyes like oily, dark water. He mutters something that sounds like an apology and then he's out of the room before Dean can find his voice.

Dean's left standing between the beds, his duffle bag heavy on his shoulder, convinced that he's pushed Sam so far away into guilt he won't find his way back ever again. The bag falls on the floor with a muted thump. Dean lies on the bed and stares at the ceiling.

-*-

Okay, Dean thinks, much later. He can do this. For Sam who's still somewhere outside, freezing his ass off in the damp Nebraska weather.

The silence serves Dean well for now even though the smell coming from the moldy bathroom is making his gut twist. His back aches now that he's cold. He kicks the heating unit when it refuses to work and thinks it's a crappy motel room, even crappier than the ones they're used to.

He would complain to Sam if he were around, ground himself in the predictability of Sam's answers, of Sam's presence, the only immutable thing Dean knows how to pursue.

Sitting on the bed, he puts his head between his knees and thinks, Okay, he can do this. Can get his head back on straight.

He takes a pen and a fresh notebook from the laptop bag, puts them on the scarred table and stares until everything is fuzzy and out of focus.

Coffee. He needs coffee and he goes outside, realizes he's barefoot when his feet sink in the mud. He stands there and his feet are freezing and his socks are wet. He should move, forward or backward, it doesn't matter, but he should move.

-*-

Fourteen pages. He's written everything he remembers. Thousands of words, all in a sitting. No hesitation, page after page, straight from his brain onto the paper.

He tries reading it aloud after, only the walls to listen. By the second page Dean can't remember if that spilled blood was his or someone else's. By the third page, he suspects that he's gotten the details mixed up. By the last page, Dean knows that what he's written is a confession.

It's nearly dark and Sam's not back yet. Dean flees from the room before he runs out of luck, leaves behind tiny pieces of paper on the floor like litter after a party.

-*-

Castiel arrives while Dean's vomiting on the side of the road. "Where's Sam?" Castiel asks.

"Back at the motel," Dean lies. He wipes his mouth with the cuff of his shirt a moment before his stomach spasms once more and he throws up again. It's not even alcohol, just stinging bile.

"Why are you doing this to yourself?" Castiel asks. He bends at his waist until he's at Dean's head level, his head tilted sideways like a freaking bird. He smells like one, too. Wet feathers and ozone under the human sweat.

"Tell me," Dean says, straightening, Castiel with him, a mirror to Dean's movements. "Tell me, and for once I want the truth, you son of a bitch." He pokes Castiel in the chest with his forefinger and remembers Castiel's made of flesh, too.

"Tell me," he says, "how long did my father last?"

Castiel breathes out a white puff of warm air on his face. "Does it matter, Dean?"

Dean steps away, back hitting the side of the car, hands splayed against the glass so he doesn't fall.

"It matters the world," he says and the rage is gone, just like that. All that remains is the smell of his vomit mingling with the damp earth. Castiel and his cold skin.

"It shouldn't," Castiel says, his fervor evident despite the even tone.

"They… Alastair said he didn't break. After I got down… after I started--" God, he can't say it again. He'd been covered in blood and Alastair's voice had been a tender whisper in his ear. I lied, before. Your father never got down off that rack, Dean. No matter what we did to him, he never came down.

"Why didn't you come before?" He needs to know. A freaking month, was all he needed. Thirty days for ten years.

Castiel puts his hand on Dean's shoulder and Dean fights the instinct to throw it off, ends up leaning into it instead. "It wasn't my decision," Castiel says. "But for what it's worth to you, I have wondered the same thing."

Dean huffs a long sigh. "You are a fucking useless angel," he tells him.

Castiel nods. "It doesn't matter what I think, Dean," he says. "The Lord has forgiven you. You should forgive yourself."

Dean pushes him away. "And what do you know? God," he snorts. "You can't even be sure He exists."

-*-

He can't get rid of it. Now that it's out in the open, now that Sam knows and the world's heard his admission, Dean can't push it away anymore.

He turns up the volume in the car and ignores Sam's angry stares. He floors the accelerator and rolls down his window, hopes that the music and the noise of the wind will drown the screams.

Sleep never comes fast, not even with alcohol to dull his thoughts. Dean stares at the geometrical figures on the wallpaper, all those black lines intersecting in squares and triangles. His head hurts. His eyes ache, his jaw, locked tight with the effort of not letting everything spill out.

Some of those souls – they'd begged him to stop.

I can't, Dean had said. Then he'd carved their bodies and flayed their skin with renewed strength.

You've done good, Alastair had said, patting his matted head. He'd spread blood on his face from eyebrow to chin. You're a good boy, he'd said. My favorite.

John's voice superimposes sometimes. Laying down orders like pieces of a puzzle, the important tiles missing, always missing, and he never gets to see the full picture. John's voice is strong, a razor-edge in his words. The words cut. Do, he says. Run, shoot; fast, boy. Faster. Go, son, go. Take your brother. Go, Dean, go. Good, boy. You're a good boy.

I can't, he'd said when they'd asked him to stop, please. Stop.

It was a lie. He could have stopped any time he wanted.

-*-

Near Versailles, Missouri, they're out of money and squatting in a hunting cabin abandoned so long ago the doors and windows are all caved in.

Dean leaves Sam in the main room fighting with damp logs in the fireplace. He brings cold water in a plastic bottle from the well. The bathroom's tiny, has a stained mirror and a sink. They're gonna have to give themselves bird-baths for the time being. Dean takes off his shirt and undershirt, both dirty and stinking beyond re-use.

He stops when he catches himself in the water-stained mirror. The oil lamp makes his reflection tremulous. He follows the lines of muscles on his arms and chest, follows them down to the white skin at his navel, soft and yielding under his fingertips. He should be ugly and twisted, not this parody of a whole body.

There must be a joke in there and for the life of him, he can't get the punch-line.

He punches the mirror instead, feels the skin tearing on his knuckles with each hit and the blood splatters on the dirty tiles, splatters on his face and in the sink.

Cold air at his back and he knows Sam's inside the room.

"Dean?" Sam's voice breaks, shatters, and Dean hopes he won't talk at all, hopes Sam will get it this time and leave him alone. Just this time.

"God, Dean. What are you doing?"

"Fucker of an angel took all my scars," Dean says, twists his mouth in disgust. But at least now he can see his true self. His face, distorted and ugly, broken inside the cracks. He sees his true self, under that seemingly perfect skin. The horrible face of the demon he could have been.

"I feel so dirty," Dean says, and it's kinda funny – unexpected – how he's the one who keeps talking, how he can't quite stop himself. "There should be a sign, you know?" He points at his face. "A reminder of what I did. So I won't forget."

Sam stays silent for a long time.

"It doesn't change anything," Sam says eventually. His voice's a bit far, closer to the door. "It doesn't matter. You know it's there."

Dean scrubs his hair, his face. Presses the heels of his hands on his eyes: there are black dots like holes and brilliant stars behind his eyelids.

"I know," says Sam. "I look at myself and all I see is… me."

"Jesus, Sam. It's not--" The same? Sam has no fault, not for his demon blood, not the same way it's Dean's fault.

"It is," Sam says. And his voice is so close, now, right in Dean's ears. Sam's arms are a band of unyielding iron around Dean.

He tenses, he'd missed Sam's movement, and the contact is a surprise he didn't see coming. "Get off me," Dean says. "Sam, I swear to God--" But Dean doesn't know how to go on, what kind of threat to make Sam go when he doesn't want Sam gone.

"I was wrong," says Sam, voice low and monotone. Dean closes his eyes. Caught between the sink and Sam's body he can't move. "You were wrong, too. Can't you see?" Sam stops, like he's just realized something. He breathes in and his arms shift against Dean's. "Open your eyes," he asks and Dean can't physically stop his body from obeying.

Dean lets his head hang low, stares at his cut-up hands. They don't even hurt.

"When I said you wouldn't understand," Sam says. "I was wrong. I won't cut you off, anymore, Dean. Just, don't cut me off, please."

Heat is seeping onto Dean's skin through Sam's body, from his shirt to his bare back. Sam's arms circle Dean's biceps because Sam's so damn tall these days.

"Let me go," he tries again. Let me go, he thinks but the instinct to let go is stronger. To keep the warmth for himself, even unworthy and undeserving as he is. He should be granted a break for once.

"Stop, Dean," Sam says, softer this time.

Above Dean's head, in the mirror, Sam's eyes are wet. Through the mirror Dean sees himself and his brother behind him, and his entire weight has sagged against Sam.

Sam's already holding him. Holding him up.

Just this time, Dean tells himself.

--