Dean doesn't actually remember becoming a demon, but he does remember waking up to pain.
He wasn't a stranger to pain. It comes with the life they live, gunshots, and stab wounds and claws tearing so deep into your flesh that you dread the moment the adrenaline fades. When all of that pain comes welling to the surface.
Dean spent thirty years on the rack, he knows pain, he knows about your soul being flayed open, put back together only to be torn apart in some horrifyingly new way.
This was a different kind of pain, though. This is inexpressible, his soul slipping piece by piece into corruption.
This wasn't something he could drink or fuck away, though he had tried. God, he had tried. He slept with anyone he could, girls, guys, it didn't matter. The shame that had settled in Dean’s chest when looked at men didn't exist anymore.
There’s no room for shame when you're already a monster. When you look at someone and you think of ten ways to tear them apart in the same breathe that you think of ten ways to fuck them into the matress.
The transition into a demon isn’t a smooth one either. It happens in leaps and bounds, indescribable pain like being burned alive slowly. Like slipping down the side of a mountain, clinging to every handhold you can as if it’ll stop you. Like sitting in a hospital as your heart stutters and stops and starts again in your chest, your father nowhere to be found, ignoring your calls. Like the burn in your lungs when you're trapped in a coffin six feet down. It's being consumed in the worst way possible.
Dean paces a cage that doesn't exist. He drags the king of hell across the country, chasing some sort of relief from the burning in his chest, in his shoulder, centered in a faded handprint that he has no business caring about anymore.
The pain grounds him in a way, keeps him from going insane. It distracts him from the temptation of violence. It keeps Dean from rising to the bait, calms him when the taste of blood in the water calls to him like a siren. The pain is Dean’s last handhold as he slips and slides deeper into the darkness threatening to eat him whole.
The pain gets him caught.
Crowley doesn't appreciate being dragged around the country. He cares about Dean. A crooked smile curls over Dean’s face when he thinks about it, the King of Hell cares about him. But, that care only goes so far when Dean doesn’t listen, when he would rather drink and fuck his way across the country. Crowley doesn't like playing second fiddle, especially to something Dean doesn't even understand.
(Dean does understand, he knows exactly what he's chasing. He knows what that handprint means, but he’ll never admit it, not even to himself. He knows why it burns, something so pure was never meant to touch the rotted, hallowed out thing that his soul is becoming.)
Sam tucks him away in the back of the Impala like a child and laughter falls like poison from Dean’s mouth. He wants to say look, we’ve all got a little bit of demon in us don’t we. He wants to poke and prod at Sam until he snaps. Until some of that tightly wound anger escapes him. But he doesn’t.
Crowley trades him for the blade.
Dean can feel the rage rise like bile in his throat. It's animalistic, inhuman; it takes another chunk of his soul with it. It sends Dean skidding farther down the mountain, tumbling farther and farther away from the human he used to be.
It sends another flare of pain through his shoulder, as if it was warning him.
Being cured is pure pain just as much as it is relief.
The blood stings in Dean’s veins. It burns a path through his body and he can't tell if it's actually curing him or killing him. With every dose, the pain in his shoulder fades as the blood flows like acid through him. He’s sure that death would be preferable to this. He wants to beg and plead for it to end, but all that leaves his mouth are screams that shake the walls of his cell.
Regret and shame crawl to the forefront of his mind and with it, a sense of panic that has him struggling against his bounds. It’s a tug that starts at his shoulder and travels all the way through his chest and he wants to scream. Dean will do anything to make it stop.
He thinks, maybe, if he gives into the violence, into the anger that battles with the pain in his chest, it’ll go away.
So he escapes.
Dean prowls the bunker like the predator, the monster, he is. He hunts down his brother like an animal, because he will do anything to make it stop, to get the ants out from under his skin.
Dean doesn’t want to hurt Sam. Even like this, halfway to damnation, pushing the boulder up the hill just to have it roll back down, Dean doesn't know if he’d truly be able to hurt Sam.
It’s ingrained in his mind, written into his DNA, that he has to protect Sam, even at the cost of his own life.
Even from himself.
Dean taunts Sam, leads him like a rat in a maze.
“Sammy.” The word on his tongue tastes wrong. It’s a betrayal. Only Dean is allowed to call Sam that and whatever he is, it’s not Dean anymore, not really.
There’s no answer as it is, Sam stays silent as they spiral closer and closer through the looping halls of the bunker.
Finally they meet, and when Sam presses the blade close to his throat, Dean leans into it. He pushes closer until he can feel it bite into the soft skin of his neck. It’s something, anything, besides the ache in his shoulder, and the ants crawling under his skin, and the panic in his gut.
“Do it.” Dean Winchester doesn’t beg, but this is close enough. It holds the same weight. Begging, praying, it’s all the same and right now Dean prays. He prays to the only person he has ever known to answer, that Sam will do it. “It’s all you.”
Sam looks at him, and the pain in his eyes nearly stops Dean. Regret sits like a stone weight in his chest. Sam has lost everyone, he already takes the guilt of so many deaths onto himself, even when he had no control over it.
Dean knows Sam still feels guilty over their mom’s death, over Jess’s, Madison’s, Amy’s, Kevin’s. The hundreds of people they’ve failed to save, the thousands they’ve put in danger just by existing. Sam blames himself for everything and Dean is doing nothing but giving him more blame. Another sin to weigh down his soul.
It doesn’t surprise him when the blade lowers. Sam and him were always soft on each other. They could never see each other for the monster they were.
Sam can’t be a monster because he’ll always be that tiny kid, curled into a playpen, tucked into the corner of a motel room. And, Dean can’t be a monster because Sam will always idolize him. The grander than life big brother who protects him from the monsters under his bed.
The two of them can be wrong, they can do bad things, but they’ll never be monsters in each other's eyes. Just misguided, lost, doing the wrong thing for the right reason.
It’s still disappointing, though. An easy out taken away.
Dean is a rope worn thin. The feeling in his gut threatens to overwhelm him, the ache in his shoulder, in his chest, tries to keep him sane. Both sides are pulling at him and he’s one big tug away from snapping completely, and who knows where the pieces will lie when it’s all over.
The hair on the back of his neck stands on end as static fills the hallway. One last throb of pain lances through him as he’s pulled into Cas’s arms. It’s a prayer answered, because if Sam won’t do it Cas will.
But he doesn’t. Cas just presses him closer, a solid line of heat along his entire body. His arms are strong, Dean has seen them lift thousands of pounds, he’s seen them cradle a broken bird with a tenderness even Dean couldn't match.
It’s a devastating mixture of the two that surrounds Dean. They’re looped around him, a hand on his chest and another wrapped around his waist, pulling him closer with a hidden strength that makes Dean’s bones creak. He can see Cas out of the corner of his eye. Truly see him.
Rings spinning along intertwining, melding, cracking apart. Wings ever moving, arching away from Cas, curling into Dean, shimmering like oil on asphalt in the light of his grace. Dean is struck with the sudden urge to touch. He wants to run his finger through feathers, feel the rings shift and move under his palm, know the familiar touch of Cas’s grace when he can see it as well.
Being this close to Cas is pain and it’s beauty and it’s want curling in his gut. Especially as Cas pulls impossibly closer until Dean can feel the dig of his buttons into his back. It’s like flying too close to the sun, but still needing to press closer, knowing that you’ll fall and soaring anyway.
It’s relief as the pain in his shoulder, the ants under his skin finally begin to fade, a lost piece of grace so close to home.
However, when the grace finally flows through him, he can feel nothing but pain.
It’s wrong. It’s not the right grace. There’s no cooling presence, no warmth or familiarity. It’s the startlingly cold grace of a stranger, and it rebels against the tie that’s been keeping Dean sane. It sets his teeth on edge.
The tug in his chest rises into a full scream as Cas lights up from the inside, a sliver of that beauty shining through his eyes.
The grace is stolen, but it’s still beautiful.
And none of it matters anyway as Cas slides his hand up farther, lines it up with the handprint, and all the fight goes out of Dean at once. All the warring feelings disappear, just for a moment, and Dean can breath.
Cas whispers “it’s over” into his ear, and Dean can do nothing more than lean farther into his hand.
Dean has felt… different since they came back from hell.
It wasn’t somewhere he wanted to go again. The air down there was thick, heavy with the smell of blood and burning flesh. He can still hear the distant screams, the pain of thousands, millions, billions of souls lingering in the air until you can almost taste it.
The closer they crawled to the cage, the colder it got, their breath puffing out clouds into the air around them. The boom of Lucifer's voice was ear piercing, the light of Cas’s grace so bright that at times Dean couldn’t see past him.
It raises goosebumps along the back of his neck to even think about it.
Dean has felt watched since they’ve returned, the air around him strangely charged.
Something’s lost, broken, missing, he just doesn’t know, but it gets under his skin, sets him on edge in a way he doesn’t like to think about for long. He feels hollow. Dean hasn’t been able to settle since they returned.
There’s so many things it could be, the ever shifting nature of their lives creating hundreds of reasons to put him on edge. There’s always something new, a new monster, a new villain, a new ally, and sometimes Dean finds it almost stifling.
Dean doesn’t know if it’s Amara.
She sits behind his eyelids like a ghost, haunting him. He can’t think, can’t breathe without feeling her absence like an ache. And the worst part is: he doesn't want to feel like this.
Dean doesn’t care about Amara, she’s nothing more than a stranger, and a dangerous one at that. She was a baby, someone who Dean had naturally found the need to protect.
She calmed when he held her in his arms, small enough that his hand spanned the entire length of her back. She cried when he left, she appeared again as a toddler who cooed at him, as a teenager, who bartered the king of hell for his life. Dean was strangely protective over her, and her of him and it made no sense.
A connection, she claimed, and Dean just laughed.
But still, she has the power to drag him around like a dog on a leash, digging her claws deeper and deeper until she’s all he can think about.
Dean is desperate for it to stop. He doesn't love Amara.
(Dean knows who he loves, even if he’ll never admit it. Admitting it would put them in danger. Admitting it would put himself on the line. Angels can’t feel love, not the way that humans do, not the way that Dean feels for him. Dean would rather live the rest of his life alone than put him at risk again.)
Or maybe this feeling stems from the way Cas is acting. Distant, unapproachable, in a way he’s never been before.
Being close to him makes Dean’s skin crawl as a desperate sense of wrongness settles in his bones.
Cas has never been this distant, even before the fall when he was nothing more than a soldier. Cas was always close at hand, lingering within arms reach. It was Dean's job to push and pull him in and out of his personal space. Now, he stands across the room from Dean, stays out of range like there’s a boundary he can’t cross. There’s no brush of hands as they walk, no lingering looks.
Cas looks away as if he has something to hide, but Dean can feel the prickle of his gaze on the back of his neck when he’s turned away. Even that is wrong, it doesn’t carry the same weight as it should.
He’s rarely with them anymore as it stands, always off doing something.
Dean tries to put it out of his mind. At first by trying to go out and have a good time, but that ended with a fit of nausea when she pulled away long enough to start kissing down his neck.
So, he focuses on the hunt at hand instead.
Dean kisses Melissa as a last resort, a quick brush of lips that has his gut rolling. It’s wrong in a way that Dean can’t describe. His hand curls around her waist, and it’s too soft, not soft enough. Her hair is too long, too straight, too light. The two images war in his mind, what he wants and what his soul is telling him to want overlapping until he can’t bear it.
A kissing curse, a witchy std, a Qareen. You’re deepest desire, what a joke.
“Well, the silver lining about being cursed? I’ll finally get some face time with Daisy Duke.” The joke falls flat, Sam just raising an eyebrow at him. It’s more worried than it had any right to be.
They split up anyway, because that’s what they do. They put themselves at risk to save others. Dean wandering the basement curiously. He pulls and prods at the various bottles and tubs, and freezes when he hears the crinkle of plastic.
It’s not a surprise when Amara appears from behind it, just like it’s not hard to fight her.
Dean has been fighting her since he met her, a figure in the middle of a tornado of darkness. He’s been fighting against the pull of her, fighting against the ache in his chest.
He doesn’t love her and he doesn’t desire her, not willingly. Dean doesn't want her touching him, he doesn’t want to kiss her. Avoiding her is natural, it’s easy. He’s not drawn in, there’s no want threating to consume him, just a nauseating mixture of hate and something that thinks it’s love, but isn’t.
He dodges her hand and swipes a knife close enough that a line of red wells up along her arm.
“I can feel the love you feel, only it’s cloaked in shame.” She calls out and it falls between them like a gauntlet.
Dean knows love, and he knows who’s he’s in love with and Amara isn’t him.
And then she shifts.
Blue eyes and black hair that sticks up in wild tufts, like he couldn’t be bothered to fix it. Hands that have healed Dean, that have hurt him and then cradled his face so tenderly.
Cas stands before him and he can’t fight, he won’t fight.
Dean can’t raise a hand against Cas, even when he knows it’s not Cas.
“You’re nothing but a cheap imitation.” Dean throws back, as he lunges around the table, away from the thing that looks like Cas. It’s true. This is nothing but a mirror image of Cas, almost right, but not perfect.
It still looks more like Cas than Cas does right now. It leans closer and closer, pushing into Dean’s space like Cas should, and, even if the eyes still aren’t right, Dean can’t find it in himself to fight back.
He can still see his nose crunching under Dean’s fist, the burn of the mark on his forearm as anger thrummed through his veins like a drug. Dean can imagine his hand curling against Cas’s throat, the burn of stubble under his palm, the crack of his cheekbone. The warmth of his blood on Dean’s knuckles, lingering until he could finally bring himself to wash it off.
Dean watched the blade come down in slow motion, could barely control it’s path as Cas pleaded with him. His hand was a brand on Dean's wrist, his own personal prayer and yet Dean could still only narrowly tamp down the fury in his bones.
So no, Dean can’t hurt Cas. He holds the knife between them but they both know he will never use it.
Instead, he watches Cas draw closer. Dean watches as he sets a hand on his shoulder, right over a faded handprint that had been aching for days, and only closes his eyes when he feels nothing. There’s no rush of warmth, nothing that makes him sigh in relief like it should. It’s just empty.
It’s wrong in every way and when Dean opens his eyes the qareen’s are just as empty. They’re the right shade of blue but they’re not right and Dean turns away, let’s the wrongness settle like a lead weight in his gut. He leans nearer, until Dean can feel the brush of his lips against his cheek, until he can just see the rise of his fist in his peripheral.
It never hits, there’s no pain. Just a flash of light.
The qareen lights up from the inside out, it shines from his chest, his eyes, his mouth as he screams in pain. He folds in on himself, dissolving into his core, like a star collapsing.
It’s too close to what it would actually look like. Dean looks at the floor and half expects to see wings charred into the ground, to see his body still lying there.
Cas had died for them four times now, and only one of them had left a body. A human body that slumped over in the chair, who’s face he had cradled so gently, as if it would somehow save him, as if he could heal him with the anguish that swirled in his gut.
There had never been a flash of light, never been the supernova of a dying angel, but Dean could see it now. He could imagine the pierce of a blade, the high pitch screech of grace burning away. He could picture his wings in his mind.
Dean hasn’t been able to see Cas’s wings in over a year, since they had cured him. But sometimes he felt like he could. Like there was an after image seared into the back of his eyelids.
Dean sucks in a ragged breath and looks down just to make sure that there was no ash, just the absence where the qareen once stood. The qareen not Cas.
Dean lines his fingers up along the handprint, worms his way under his sleeve until it’s just skin on skin. He hopes it’ll help, that it’ll make him forget the emptiness when that thing had touched him.
Sam comes stumbling down the stairs and Dean yanks his hand away as if it burned him, turning instead to face his brother and the millions of questions he didn’t want to answer.
Dean. They tell him his name is Dean.
He didn’t know that before they told him. Or maybe he did and he just can’t remember it.
It’s not scary, the fact that he doesn't remember his own name, because by the time he thinks on it long enough to feel the fear settle in his gut, it fades from his mind as if it never existed in the first place. He can’t quite remember what he is and isn’t supposed to know.
He can’t remember much to be honest, the thoughts flow from his mind like water down a stream, always moving but never exactly the same. Words are spoken to him and lost as soon as he stops thinking about them. Names, places, deeds all disappearing as soon as the next word leaves their mouths.
However, even though he knows nothing, he knows him. He does remember blue eyes. Not the name attached to them, or the exact shade, but he knows that they’re blue. He knows that they’re important.
He doesn't remember his own name, his hair color, his eye color, he can’t pick himself out of a lineup. But he can picture dark hair and tan skin, a long coat covering a dark suit. It’s not him, but whoever they are they’re important to him.
The image slips out of his mind as soon as he pictures it, but it leaves a desperate sense of longing in its place.
He latches onto that longing as if it’ll save him, like it’ll make the thoughts stay put for just a moment so he can actually think. They’re an anchor keeping him from just floating away, lost in the images crossing the tv screen.
When did he get on the bed? When did the tv get turned on? What show was this? The questions enter his mind and leave just as fast.
“Where is the man with the blue eyes?” He asks, turning away from the tv. He’s already forgotten what was playing. His voice is unfamiliar in his own ears. It almost startled him, octaves deeper than he expected. He looks at his own hands and sees freckles. Did he have freckles on his face?
The man in front of him gives him a strange look, his eyebrow arched. Classic Sammy bitch face, his mind supplies, but the thought leaves his mind before he can voice it. It slips through his fingers and he feels frustrated for a beat.
Why was he frustrated?
“Cas? Are you talking about Cas?” The man in front of him asks. He looks almost excited, hands pushing his hair back. Who let his hair get that long anyway? His eyes were red rimmed. He wondered why he was upset.
Cas. His mind latches onto that for some reason, the weight of it settles in his mind and it sounds right. The answer to a question that he’s already forgotten.
Cas…. Blue eyes and dark hair, a hand on his shoulder, filling him with an indescribable warmth, a deep baritone that he wanted to press closer to. He can’t remember who Cas is (he can’t even remember who he is, or the man who’s spoken to him, or the woman perched on a chair, her hair spilling like blood over her shoulder) but he’s important.
The thought of him leaves an ache in his shoulder and a lump at the back of his throat. He doesn't need to remember him to know that he was important. Even now, his name has already faded from his mind, but the feeling stays trapped in his chest.
He misses him.
He’s surrounded by strangers. He is a stranger.
The tall one pushes him into the bathroom, away from the woman who he doesn't seem to trust, who looks at him with curious eyes. He sets him on the toilet as he sits on the edge of the bathtub.
His name is Dean. The tall one is Sam, his brother apparently. The woman is Rowena, Sam spits out her name like a curse.
Dean wonders what she did to deserve Sam’s ire. He draws a blank. He already can’t quite remember what shade her hair is, what accent she has.
Sam explains his life story. The ins and outs of their terrifying life. He shows Dean pictures of their family. Mary Winchester with blonde hair and pale skin, more like a doll than a fighter.
It’s the man who pops in and out of Dean’s mind, hovers on the edges of his memory even when everything else leaves.
Sam hands him the phone filled with faces he already can’t remember. But Cas sits at the forefront. His eyes are blue. They’re so blue the sky framing his face seems washed out in comparison. Dean wants to run his fingers through dark hair.
The image is missing something. A spill of color along black feathers, iridescent rings, blinding grace shining out from hundreds of eyes. He’s not human, an Angel Sam had said.
Who was Dean that he deserved an angel watching out for him?
Sam leaves him alone in the bathroom, shuts the door softly behind him and immediately picks up a hushed conversation with Rowena.
It leaves Dean with nothing to do but think, nothing to do but grasp at the memories he can already feel fading.
Dean stands in front of the mirror. Green eyes and tan skin, hair that used to be blonde, probably still is in some lights. Freckles dotted across his nose.
It’s a stranger. Dean has never seen that man in his life.
“My name is Dean Winchester.” Already, he can’t remember why he was given that name. He can’t remember what his hometown is. “Sam is my brother.” He’s tall, taller than Dean. They have each other through thick and thin. They’ve beaten apocalypses together. Dean can’t remember who’s older, by how much. “Mary Winchester is my mom.” Blonde hair and pale skin. A whip crack attitude. He can’t remember how old she is, why she isn’t here with them right now.
“And Cast—Cas is my best friend.” Dean stutters over the words. They’re not right. Sit completely wrong on his tongue.
Castiel. Sam had said his name was Castiel, but they call him Cas. Cas was important to Dean. He can tell just by the lingering feeling saying his name sends through Dean’s bones. The shiver down his spine when he thinks of soft hands that he can’t even properly remember.
Friend. Friend was the wrong term, even best friend didn’t sit right. The feeling in Dean’s chest was heavier than that. He needed a more important word than just friend. But he can’t remember what the feeling is called.
He looks back in the mirror. His eyes were green. He has freckles.
“My name is Dean Win—” Already his last name has slipped through his grasp. He looks curiously at himself in the mirror. There was something else he was supposed to remember. He can hear voices behind the door, rising into a crescendo. What was the room he was in?
There’s no panic on the face of the man in the mirror. His green eyes just look confused, something like concern hidden deep.
“My name is—” He starts again, and he can’t remember what he was supposed to say. It worries him for a moment before he can’t remember what he was worried about, why he was in the room to begin with. There’s someone looking at him in the mirror, tears falling from his eyes and he looks horrified.
He turns and leans against the counter and runs his hand along his arm until he can feel the ridges of a scar.
“Cas.” It’s a word. A name he thinks. Something important, something that he’s forgotten. It’s significant in that it’s absence creates a hole in his mind where it should be.
Just saying it brings to light feelings that should be connected to memories, but there is nothing. Nothing but the searing heat of a place that brings goosebumps to his skin. The warmth of being lifted from there, being enclosed in wings that shimmered and shifted when he touched them. Nothing but pain and anguish and happiness and a feeling he can’t name mixed together until it’s nearly indistinguishable.
I always come when you call, rings in his head in a voice he can’t remember and he wants to. He wants to remember him, he wants to see him, he wants to hear his voice, to feel the warmth of his hands, he is sure they'd be warm. He misses something he can’t even remember, and it sends a spiral of terror down his spine.
He wonders why he isn’t here now, helping him. Maybe if he was able to call his name, he’d appear suddenly. But his name is gone, like everything else.
He thinks, maybe, if he was here in front of him, things would make sense. As if the presence of one man would put him back together. Because he can feel it now, pieces of himself slipping away, bigger gaps where he should know things but he draws a blank.
He slides a hand fully under his shirt, until his fingers line up against a scar he can’t see but he knows is there. He doesn’t even know how he knows it, but he does. It sends an ache down to his very bones. There’s a feeling in his chest, like he’s being ripped apart and put back together. He hopes that the ache will somehow bring him clarity.
He doesn’t know his own name, can’t tell if he ever had one, but he remembers blue eyes, and iridescent wings and a feeling he can’t name either. But it settles in his chest and flows through the scar on his shoulder and he feels himself settle.
Dean can't light the pyre when it comes down to it. He was able to build it; he was able to wrap Cas’s body up for the last time, able to place him so gently on the pile next to Kelly, but actually lighting it? It’s too final, it would mean admitting that Cas is actually….
He watches Sam light it instead. He listens to him say thank you, say goodbye, teaching Jack how to mourn, how to be human. Dean watches him pour the gasoline, the silver lighter turning gold in the light of the flames, and he can't look away.
Dean lost him again.
They always seem to lose. This is what the fourth, the fifth, time they've lost Cas? Though it was never this final. There was never a flash of light, never an imprint of wings on the ground. Dean can still see the blinding light when he closes his eyes, an afterimage burned onto the back of his eyelids. Just another thing to haunt him.
Never has Dean prayed to whoever would listen to bring him back. Never had he fallen to his knees and begged god to bring Cas back only to be greeted with silence. Never had it seemed this hopeless.
A part of Dean, something he can't name, aches and wants to go home. Dean didn't have a home for so long, but he feels like he had finally managed to make one. In Cas, in Sam, in Charlie, in Mary, in this family he has built and one by one he has to watch them burn like every other home he’s had before.
Dean watched his home burn down when he was four years old and it hasn't seemed to stop since.
When it’s all said and done, they're sitting around a shitty motel coffee table and it’s as if nothing has changed. But it has.
Dean’s entire world has changed in one moment. Cas isn’t here. Mary isn't here. Crowley isn’t here. Half of their little family taken out at once, some of them not even leaving a body, no proof that they were even here at all. And all of it for the boy who sits next to him.
A child who doesn't look like a child, who looks enough like Cas that it aches. His blue eyes peer around curiously and he is so innocent, not even a day old.
Jack curls a hand around a beer bottle and winces at the taste, digs into shitty Chinese food like it’s the best thing he’s ever tasted, because it is. Everything is new to him.
Dean wants to hate him, he does hate him in some way. He can feel it, hidden under the sorrow and guilt and mistrust. It’s misguided anger of course, Dean knows that, he knows. The kid doesn't deserve his anger.
He was Lucifer’s kid, he had somehow convinced Kelly and Cas that he should live before he was even born. They couldn’t trust him, not right away, not in their line of work.
But a part of Dean recognizes Jack.
The boy presses into Dean’s side when they sit on the couch and Dean can just as easily see Sam in his place. Oh so small and tucking perfectly into Dean, it didn’t matter how old he got. Six months, a year, twelve, even now if he ever wanted to he could probably still fit just right.
Dean could just as easily see Sam in Jack’s place, he has seen Sam in Jack’s place. The boy with demon blood, Lucifer’s pawn, the world coming after him because of something he can’t control.
But still the mistrust lingers, because this isn’t his baby brother. He didn’t have 22 years to watch him grow into the man he was before he was faced with the idea of him being inhuman. Dean doesn’t have the concrete trust in Jack, built over decades like he did with Sam.
Dean was put in charge of a kid he had never met before, who could already care and think for himself. Who could take an angel blade to the chest and survive. This wasn’t a baby, even if he was born yesterday.
Jack had thoughts and opinions already and that is what scares Dean.
But it’s not just that.
Dean recognizes Jack, and Jack recognizes him, a part of him that even he doesn’t quite understand. The same part of him that feels empty when Cas is gone, that only settles when he’s in arms length. The part of him that wanted to climb right on that pyre and burn as well.
Sam has long since gone to bed and still, Jack presses close to Dean’s side, as close as Dean will let him.
He looks up at Dean curiously, tilts his head to the side in a way that sends a wave of grief through Dean.
“You feel familiar.” His voice is light, but carries the same monotone timbre. Dean feels almost thankful, he half expected it to be the same deep tone. It would be one more thing to taunt him. “Oh!” Jack reaches out slowly until his hand hovers above the handprint.
Dean instinctively jerks away, turning until the handprint is pressed into the couch. Jack gives him another curious look, but let’s his hand fall back to his knee.
“You have a piece of Castiel’s grace!” Dean’s mind grinds to a halt, the words echoing in his mind dangerously. A piece of his grace. A piece of his grace. The very thing that made Cas an angel, the closest thing he has to a soul. Something unquestionably Cas’s.
Dean had known what the handprint was: a claim on his soul. A mark left over from hell, a toll paid so that he could live again. He never knew if it was left intentionally or not, though a part of him wished it was. A mark to tell the world that he was Cas’s, that Cas was his. It was a fun game of pretend that Dean would play, brushing his hands against it when he was lost or scared. As if it could bring him the comfort he needed, as if Cas could feel it too.
Jack sounds almost excited, like he hadn’t just sent Dean’s mind in a spiral. He doesn’t say anything else though, just sits back into that stiff, uncomfortable looking position and watches the tv.
Dean wants to scream. He wants to kick him out, to send him on his way. The kid had no right to come into their lives and just destroy everything, tell him things he didn’t need to know.
But Cas loved him. Cas was willing to give his life for him. So, a part of Dean cares about Jack too, even if he wants to hate him.
Dean will protect him, he’ll keep the angels and demons away from him, he’ll make sure that they make it back to the bunker, where they can tuck him away. Because losing Jack would be the final straw. The final failure in a long list. It would mean that Dean let Cas down again.
Dean aches for revenge, against Lucifer, against Kelly, against Jack, but he could never get it. Lucifer is gone, took his mother with him, Kelly is dead and Jack….
Dean couldn't hurt Jack even if he wanted to at this point. It would feel too much like a betrayal. Cas is gone, he won't care, he won't show up suddenly to judge Dean and all the ways he’s fucked this up already and still Dean can’t go against his final wish.
So he lets Jack lean on him as he finally grows tired. Dean feels him slump over, soft hair skimming against Dean’s collar, his cheek brushing against his shoulder and it’s not right. It's a flush of grace that is too warm, too bright, too strong. It’s not evil, if anything it is calm, reassuring, like standing just a moment too long in the sun, but it's not right .
But Dean will never feel right again. Right is dead and gone, right is ash and bone on a beach twelve hours away, right is wherever angels go when they die. Right has gone somewhere Dean can’t follow and he can feel its absence in his chest, in his soul.
Dean will never feel that cool rush of grace, the healing touch of something so purely Cas that he couldn't breathe through the overwhelming sense of love and home.
So Dean lets Jack stay curled up on his shoulder, because even though it isn't right, it’s better than nothing. Better than the cold of knowing that the only thing left of Cas is apparently the handprint on his arm and a piece of grace wedged in close to his soul. It's better than the ache that has made a home in his shoulder since Sam lit the pyre.
Eventually, Jack’s weight grows heavy enough on Dean’s shoulder that he knows he’s asleep. He scoops him up like the child he is, an arm supporting his neck and another under his knees.
Jack isn't small, but when he presses his face closer to Dean’s chest and snuffles gently, Dean can almost pretend that he’s as young as he’s supposed to be. Dean can imagine the baby he would be, all blue eyes and chubby cheeks. He thinks maybe it would be easier to accept him then, when he looked the part of the innocent child.
Dean lays Jack down in the open bed, pulls the blankets up so that he’ll be warm and barely manages to make it back to the couch before he collapses, head in his hands.
Dean doesn't sleep that night.
He knows that if he closes his eyes all he’ll see is a portal closing with Cas still inside, a flash of white bright enough to blind him, a fire burning down everything he loves.
A pair of wings searing themselves into their final resting place.
Instead, Dean slots his hand against the handprint of a dead man and he feels the ache. He lets the emptiness wash over him and mourns.
Dean is trapped.
He had known this going in, the moment he had said yes to Michael, that this was his eventual fate. He made a deal, but he never expected the archangel to actually stick with it.
Angels didn’t care about deals, only consent.
So, he’s stuck in his own mind. He wanders his memories, though childhood games and laughter, through mistakes and regret, though memories of family and love. Each time one ends he finds himself in a new one, a never ending movie, his best hits.
Dean drifts in the depths of his mind and finds that he hates it there.
The memories aren’t enough, they’re nothing compared to the solid presence of Sam and Cas and Jack and the rest of his family. The memories are nothing more than a consolation prize, meant to tide Dean over until Michael’s plan is said and done.
Or until he actually dies.
Sometimes, Dean thinks he’s already dead. Roaming a never ending cycle of memories, but then the blackness never fails to engulf him. He’s set adrift at times, nothing to hold him down, just darkness as far as the eye can see. Voices echo, bouncing off of nothing, spiraling back to Dean, before he’s launched back into a memory, a nightmare, whatever pleases Michael at the time.
He doesn’t know how long he’s been stuck in his own mind, jumping from memory to memory, drowning in darkness, tearing himself apart looking for a way out.
Screaming does nothing. Anger and resentment do nothing to tempt Michael inward, just leaves faint traces of laughter throughout Dean’s mind. Michael finds enjoyment in Dean’s silly little human emotions and it never fails to drive him insane.
For long periods in time, Dean floats untethered in the black abyss of his mind, Michael giving up his attempt to subdue him with memories.
Dean doesn’t beg. Dean will never beg. This monster that has stolen his face doesn't deserve to make Dean beg, doesn’t deserve to hear the pleas fall from Dean’s lips.
Dean only prays to one person.
Sometimes, Dean doesn't fight either. He just gives into the ebb and flow of his memories.
He spends time with the people he’s lost. Laughs with Charlie, settles in to watch a game with Bobby, sits back and clinks his drink with Crowley.
Michael knows what he’s doing. He knows what memories to pick, the exact right way to line them up that has Dean sinking into memories so sweet that he doesn’t want to leave.
He knows the pull memories have. Mary, as strong as she was, had almost been lost to them before.
Sometimes, everything you’ve ever wanted can be contained in one memory, one moment in time, and Dean finds he can’t pull himself away.
He finds himself at Cas’s side, watching an old western, their thighs pressed together from hip to knee. There’s laughter floating in from some other part of the bunker but Dean’s world has narrowed down to the warmth pressed into his side.
It’s easier to just pretend that this is real. That Dean can have this, that everything is okay and his family is safe in the bunker. That he isn’t locked inside his mind, that his body isn’t killing hundreds of people, piloted by the most dangerous being on the planet
But then Dean thinks about Cas. The real Cas, not the one close at his side, looking up at him curiously.
He had looked at Dean with so much fear; he had to leave the room when it came down to it. The disappointment, the betrayal, that laced his tone, soured his expression.
He rebelled for this? He fell for this?
He died for this?
All of it to prevent this very thing from happening. To keep Dean from giving in to Michael, to keep Michael from destroying the world and it's happening anyway. Nine years later, and Chuck’s plan has finally come to fruition. An inevitable demise for the righteous man.
Dean said yes to save his family. To save Jack and Sam and Cas, to make sure they were safe. And if he has to live the rest of his life trapped away? He was willing to pay the price.
But in those memories, Cas will inevitably turn to Dean, a curious look on his face and it all comes rushing back.
Dean fights his way to the surface. Bit by bit, he drags his way through the inky blackness of his mind.
He comes to looking in a mirror.
It’s like looking at a stranger. Michael wears a dark tuxedo, a bow tie tucked neatly under his chin. He’s dressed to the nines, his hair slicked back perfectly. It’s not Dean, he looks far too comfortable in his skin for it to be Dean.
“You're back.” Dean can see his lips move, hear his own voice, but he has made no movement himself.
The tone takes him by surprise. Just how many times has he made it out? How many times had he clawed his way to the surface only to be pushed back down?
The man wearing his skin smiles at him in the mirror, all teeth, more like a shark than a human. “I know how you keep escaping.” He gives Dean an interested look before glancing down at Dean’s shoulder, at the handprint hidden under layers of fabric. “He calls to you, doesn't he? Just like you call to him.”
“Let. Me. Out.”
“Because of this mark” Michael spits out the word, ignoring him and glancing back at the mirror, locking eyes with Dean who grits his teeth. He can feel the smugness flowing through Michael. He’s confident in his position, in his ability to control Dean if he needs to.
“It was never meant to be. He was never meant to put a claim on you.” His voice turns soft, cajoling. “You weren’t his to claim.”
Dean can see it, a window opening into Michael’s mind, a blast of grace that singes Dean’s soul. It reminds Dean of the first touch of Jack’s grace, with none of the childish clumsiness. Any harm Jack had done in his first days on earth, it was done out of naivety, a child figuring out just how much pressure he can put before something breaks. Michael knows what his grace is capable of, how much it stings to be in contact with it, the harm he causes is purposeful.
He shows Dean exactly what he means by his words. Images racing by of the “plan” put in place by god. Cas was never meant to mark him. It wasn’t a price to pay to get him out of hell, it was nothing more than a moment of weakness. It was Cas’s first glimpse of freedom, the first order disobeyed.
Every other universe, every other world, Cas listened, he deposited Dean back into his body and left. He followed his orders, never strayed from the plan. But not this Cas, not Dean’s Cas. He had chosen to leave a permanent mark, left a little bit of his grace with Dean and it changed the course of history.
“This was never written, it’s nothing more than an abomination.” Rage pours into Dean’s mind, and he can't tell if it’s his or Michael’s. The two mix and meld in his head creating a confusing rush of emotion that makes him nearly nauseous. “It is a stain on your soul.” As if anything of Cas could be dirty, as if any part of him could be evil.
Cas’s mark is the purest part of Dean. It’s love and faith and everything he thought he could never be, never have. It was a tether between him and one of the only truly good things in his life.
“I should take it away.” The words settle in the air around him, sending a bolt of fear down his spine. He had always known it was important, it was something of Cas’s left on him, but through the years it had become one of the only things that was purely his. Something he didn't have to share with anyone else.
When he was unsure or upset he would run his hands along it, as if Cas could feel it, as if it would somehow make him appear. It would ease the ache in his chest, calm him when he was angry. When he was halfway to damnation, the mark beating a tattoo in his head, it kept him human. It let him know that Cas wasn't Cas anymore, that Lucifer had stolen his face.
Even Amara could sense it. When it had come down to it, it wasn't Amara’s name he called, it was Cas, it'll always be Cas. It was his anchor when he was lost without his memories. His last connection to Cas when he was dead and gone in the empty. It was so strong that Jack could feel it, that Jack knew he could trust them.
It was everything.
It was all of Dean’s feeling for Cas, bottled up into one ache that starts at his shoulder and reverberates down into his chest, echoes throughout his entire body, consumes him.
Dean watches as Michael lifts his hand, reaching out slowly until his fingertip brushes along the fabric of his sleeve. Until the dread in Dean’s gut grows to a crescendo, until the thought of the handprint being gone overwhelms him and he lets out a gasp of air that is far closer to a sob than he would ever admit.
“What was that?” Michael raises one eyebrow, placing the rest of his hand along the mark. A wave of nausea hits Dean and he lets out a wounded sound.
“Please,” Dean gasps out, nearly clawing at the bounds of his own mind to just get him to stop. To get his hand off him, to gain an ounce of control so he can physically drag it away. “Don't touch it and I’ll stop fighting.”
Laughter falls from Michael’s lips and he lets go of Dean’s arm with a lingering brush of his fingertips that sends an unbearable feeling skittering down his spine.
His own mind screams at him, a voice sounding far too much like his father mocking him for his weakness. Giving in so easily, letting something like sentiment guide his decisions.
“Good, now hold on and enjoy the ride.”
Dean let’s his eyes fall shut, he wants to touch the handprint himself, to get rid of the feeling of Michael touching it. But, the darkness just closes around him once more.
The empty is eerily similar to the depths of his own mind.
All inky blackness, so dark you can’t tell where the floor ends and the sky starts. So dark that it all turns into one uniform smear. It’s so close to the gaps in his memory, drowning in the absence of everything until Michael took pity on him and pushed him into a new memory.
Dean’s footsteps don't echo when he walks, the only thing he can hear is the muted thud of his boots on a ground he can’t see. It sets his teeth on edge, something just unusual enough for him to notice but so subtle that he almost didn't. It’s so quiet that his ears ring in the absence of sound, years of too loud music and gunfire taking its toll on him.
There’s no one else here, no whispers in the distance, just black shadows as far as the eye can see.
But Dean can feel someone. A dangerous tug on his shoulder, a pull at his very soul. The same thing that had pulled Dean out of hell now calls to him, just like it always has. It's a siren call to move nearer, to press closer and closer and closer. It's a piece of Dean that’s not Dean, but might as well be for how long it's been with him. It’s a sliver of grace that has made a home in his soul after eleven years, but still yearns to be close to its origin.
Or maybe Dean is just trying to find an excuse as to why he wants to be so close to Cas, why he always wants to push in closer, the never ending need to just be near him. If it was the handprint then it wasn't his fault, he couldn’t stop it, it wasn't something he would have to get over. He wouldn't have to move on. Blaming it on the handprint was easier than admitting that he wanted something he couldn't have, something that Cas couldn't give him.
Except it apparently was something he could have.
Cas had looked him in the eye, placed his hand over the handprint, covered as it was by layers of fabric and told him that he loved him. He loved him, and he thought he couldn't have him. It was a horrifying mirror of everything Dean had felt, two people who think they can't have what they want with each other because they never learned how to communicate properly.
Dean never told Cas to stay until it was too late. He didn't understand what Cas had meant until he was leaving a bloody handprint over a faded scar and sacrificing himself so that Dean could live.
But Dean didn't want to live without him, gladly would have let Chuck have his way if it didn't mean taking Jack and Sam down with him. He would have let Chuck have his way if his way didn't mean living forever without Cas, because even God knows what his true weakness is, what he couldn't live without.
Dean was willing to fight god to get Cas back, something like the empty isn't going to stop him either.
So, he wanders the darkness looking for him. Dean follows the tug in his shoulder and lets it guide him home.
Dean finds him curled up, looking more like a lost child than a warrior of God. He doesn't react to Dean’s presence. Cas lays there, his arms curled over his head, protecting himself from something unseen and it makes Dean’s chest hurt. He looks resigned, eyes squeezed shut, knees pulled tight to his chest, tucked completely under his trenchcoat.
Dean absently wonders how long it has been for him. Nothing exists in the empty, but time still passes in a strange way. Years could pass here in less than a second of earth time, milliseconds can equal days. It's unequal, happening in leaps and bounds before slowing to a crawl, like it forgets it’s supposed to exist at all.
“Cas.” Dean’s voice is soft, fades out into nothing in the void, and still Cas tucks in tighter to himself, presses his cheek into his knees, face turned down into a floor that doesn't exist.
He’s scared, lost, expecting something from Dean, or something that looks like Dean.
“Leave me alone.” Cas’s voice is beautiful. It falls onto Dean’s ears like a blessing, a reprieve from the horrible ringing in his ears. “You're not real.” Fear and anger mix in Dean’s gut and he wants to throttle something.
Cas had told him bits and pieces of his time in the empty. It was a horrible mocking thing. It liked peace and quiet and would do anything to keep it that way. It didn't like Cas personally because he had made it ‘loud’.
It took the form of others to taunt him.
It painted a disturbing picture, one Dean didn't want to think about.
Something that looked like Dean, that sounded like him, mocking Cas. Leading him on, letting him think he had escaped, that Dean had finally come for him. Taunting him with his love, convincing him that this time, this time was the time it was real, that he was free to go.
How many times had Cas been tricked for him to have given up so wholey. How long has he been stuck here, constantly reliving his rescue only for it to be fake, for Dean to collapse in a pile of black ooze. For ‘Dean’ to openly mock him for his sentiment.
Dean feels almost nauseous with it. He collapses next to Cas on his knees, gently turns him until he’s lying on his back, staring up at the neverending void above them. He’s never seen Cas look so dead, so tuned out from the world.
“Please, Cas.” Cas does nothing more than turn his face away, his eyes squeezing shut once more as if it’ll somehow make Dean go away. “Cas look at me.” And he does, blue eyes opening blearily, locking with green, but Dean can tell he still doesn't believe him. He still looks resigned to his fate, searching Dean’s face like it's the last time he’ll ever see him, but making no effort to get up.
Cas reaches a hand up, letting his fingers brush Dean’s cheekbone, barely skimming the surface until Dean leans into it fully, resting his cheek in Cas’s hand. He turns his face until his lips brush a still bloody palm. He wants to lean in and kiss him properly, but there'll be time for that later when they're home safe and sound in the bunker.
“Cas…” Dean’s lips brush against the rough palm of his hand and Cas sighs, his eyes falling shut.
“I can’t tell if you’re getting better at this or worse.” Dean lets out a sharp huff of air through his nose, almost sick with the realization that he was right. The confirmation was almost worse. Already they're used against each other, a weapon to make the other obey. Love is nothing but another weakness to exploit the voice in his head sounds like Chuck, it sounds like John, it sounds too much like the man Dean used to want to be.
“I’m me.” Dean’s voice is like gravel, tears springing unbidden into his eyes. “How can I prove it's me?” Cas doesn't say anything, just continues to search Dean’s face. Dean can taste his blood on his tongue.
He remembers the bloody handprint, he hasn't managed to wash it away. It sits on a chair in his room, pushed out of his sight, but still he finds his eyes drawn to the place it is hidden without his permission.
The weeks it took them to get a spell strong enough to guide him here it had sat on that chair mocking Dean for his loss. Sam had seen it once, had given Dean a sad understanding look before leaving him to his grief. Day after day he would fall asleep with his hand pressed to the scar on his shoulder, hoping it’ll bring him some comfort, that wherever Cas was it would comfort him as well. A connection even in death, to the person he loved.
Dean pulls Cas’s hand away from his mouth, guides it down to his shoulder, thankful that he had nothing more than a t-shirt on. It's a last effort, a plea, a prayer that he can't voice out loud, too scared that his voice will crack with emotion.
Cas’s hand finally lines up perfectly, fingers slotting with the raised scars, palm so warm against the ball of his shoulder.
Dean is overwhelmed by a feeling he can't describe. Like walking into a cool room when it's sweltering outside, like the warmth of a person pressed into your side when it's cold, the comfort of a hand in yours when you're scared. It's finally coming home after a long road trip, sinking into your bed after a long day.
It's perfect, better than Dean could ever imagine.
Cas’s eyes widen with understanding, flickering widely between his own hand and Dean’s face.
“Dean?” Cas’s voice does crack, and he finally pushes himself up, into Dean’s space. “Dean.” He repeats, sure of himself this time and promptly falls forward into Dean’s chest, buries his face into his neck, still not moving his hand from its place on Dean’s shoulder.
“Yeah, Cas it's me.” Cas lets out something eerily close to a sob, and Dean never wants to see him cry again. Once was enough, once made him feel like his heart was being torn out of his chest and he didn't know if he could survive it again.
Dean presses a kiss to Cas’s hair, his forehead, anywhere he can reach, just to assure himself that he was there, that this was real.
Weeks of Cas being gone and Dean had already begun to forget the small little details. The taste of static and ozone when he was near, the rough texture of his coat, how feather soft his hair was and just how much Dean wanted to run his hands through it.
Dean pulls the both of them to their feet and finally let’s Cas’s hand fall away from his shoulder, if only so he can intertwine their hands together between them.
In the distance he can hear the faint rumble of something big, something bigger than he could ever imagine, but he just smiles at Cas and flashes a ruin carved into his free hand.
“Ready to blow this joint.” He waits until Cas smiles and nods tears still shining in his eyes, until the rumble of something in the distance turns into a roar before activating it and watching the darkness around them disappear in a flash of light.