Dean opened his eyes.
The air conditioner was chugging away below the window, cold thick air cresting in swathes over his face, his arms, his outflung legs. The green light of the smoke detector above his head blinked, slowly, in rhythm.
It was all gone.
No—it wasn't gone so much as it was fallen back from behind his eyes. There was still the gentle scratching of Sam's fingers in the back of his skull if he listened hard enough to the scraping sound against his bones.
He was cold, suddenly—chilled—and abruptly he felt something shift in the room and instinct snapped into place. He froze.
His head was too sluggish to be of any real use, and he had no gun underneath the pillow he was lying on, so he did the only thing that made sense; he reached up for the switch on the flat lamp above the bed.
He had a sick feeling he knew who it was, anyway.
The light came on. It hardly reached past the edge of the bed. It didn't matter.
He could see him.
This time Dean didn't speak—didn't panic, didn't start. He sat very still, facing straight ahead, and Sam just within his line of sight, just like every other time.
This time, Dean just looked.
He was ravaged. Destroyed. Broken in more places than one. He could see bone. He could see hair matted with blood and wide eyes set back deep in his skull, watching him. Cheekbones hollow. Mouth sewn up. Standing. Wavering.
It wasn't him. When he turned his head there would be no one there. But whether he was cursed, or sick in the head, whether he was being tricked or simply wanting too hard—at least—
He wanted to tell him—even if it was only a hallucination—he wanted to tell him everything he'd been too stupid to say when he'd had the chance, if for no other satisfaction than to be able to say it to his suffering face—
He closed his eyes instead.
The scratching fingers in the back of his head, slowly, slowly, pulled away; and the heaviness in him fell to the bottom of his skull, and he felt the apparition leave like a last breath.
He was alone again.
There was a knock on the door at six AM, just as the sun was making itself known, greyly.
Dean sat up. He stayed there on the edge of the bed, shoulders bowed, unable to move, until the knock came again, a little louder.
He didn't bother with the peephole.
Castiel was standing on the stoop, looking as harried as it was possible for Cas to look. His jaw was tight when he saw Dean's numb, sleep-hazed face. He looked hard at him for a moment, blue eyes darting over him, like a robot collecting data.
“May I come in?” he said. It sounded more like a statement than a request.
Dean turned away from the door. He didn't close it, but he didn't open it, either.
He heard the angel come inside and shut the door.
“What are you doing here?” Dean said. He didn't feel the point in turning to look at him. His voice came out a croak, harsh and hoarse. He'd probably torn up his throat well and good with all the pointless vomiting the night before.
“Lisa called,” Cas said.
That, at least, made a little bit of surprise stir in Dean's chest. He turned his head.
“Prayed, rather.” Cas tilted his head, as if the better to see Dean completely. “She's an intelligent woman.”
“She's very worried about you,” Cas said. “She says you never made it home from work. Frankly, I'm beginning to worry, too.” The angel looked around the room, clinically; Dean had a feeling he didn't miss the sick on the edge of the bathtub from this angle. “What are you doing in a place like this?”
“Having the time of my life,” Dean sighed, “naturally.” His head swam, and his stomach was beginning to take unkindly to his being upright again. He sank into the armchair beside the bed, curling forward, holding his head above his knees.
“You've been sick,” Cas said. “What's wrong?”
“Search me, man, I don't know. I don't know anymore.”
“You're a long way from the Braedens' house.”
“So I gathered.”
“Why are you here?”
“Jesus, Cas, did you come down here because Lisa called or to play Twenty Questions?” Dean snapped, raising his head only long enough to shoot Cas a weary glare before he had to drop it again.
Cas was quiet for a long time, still standing there in his fucking coat, looking at him.
“I'm riding it out,” Dean rasped eventually, “okay?”
He could almost feel Cas frowning. “Riding out,” the angel repeated. “The memories.”
Dean could only manage a groan in response. He had a feeling if he opened his mouth the only thing that would come out was bile. At least his head wasn't screaming so much anymore.
“I didn't realise they were bad enough to need to be ridden out,” Cas said.
Dean nodded. His hands were shaking. He could feel them, against his temples.
“Dean,” Cas said, very softly, “this has to stop.”
“I don't know how to make it stop,” Dean said, feeling his eyes getting hot and wet and his whole body going weak again. “I don't know how.”
“I think you do,” Castiel said.
“No. I don't.”
Dean lashed out, sideways, hand meeting the first thing that could be flung to the floor—the telephone—it crashed onto the carpet and broke, plastic pieces jumping away, the wire ripped out of the wall.
“How is it fair?” he shouted, surging to his feet even though his chest seized and his stomach dropped, “How was it fair of him to make me promise that? What gave him the right to ask me to do this? None of this, none of it is fair, Cas, and I didn't—I never got to say—”
He pushed a hand back through his hair, trying so hard not to burst apart, feeling angry awful tears begin to squeeze out of his eyes and down his face, and Cas just stood there like a goddamn fool in his stupid fucking coat, watching him, head lifted in surprise and eyes big with sadness—and something deep down in Dean hurtled upwards and exploded from his mouth the way nothing important ever had when it had ever counted before and he was saying it, finally, he was saying it—
“What kind of a death was that, huh? What kind of an ending was that? He didn't even get to have a life first! All he had—all he got was a bunch of moments, just bad things, and he never got to see who he was, he never got to love himself the way I loved him—all he had was a collection of bad things and then dying, and I'm here—he wanted to go to school, and he—he wanted to be a kid, and eat popsicles, and draw pictures, and he wanted to have a dog, and a mom, and a house to grow up in, and he never got any of it, do you see that? Do you see what he got? He got busted up and thrown around and he got pushed and pulled and used by you and me and everybody else and then he died, Cas, he died, and that can't be fair—he should have lived forever, he should have been so happy, and I never told him, I never told him how much he meant—”
He was aware, vaguely, that Cas was moving towards him. It was hard to see past the blur of everything.
“I taught him how to tie his shoes,” he sobbed, screaming it, desperately, trying to make him understand, trying to make him see, “I did that, it was me—”
He was on the edge of the bed, sunken, collapsed. The smell of Jimmy Novak's coat against his face. Arms were holding him, and they weren't the arms he wanted, but he needed them enough to curl his fingers up against them and cling. With all the strength he had left in him, he held on.
There was water on the nightstand when he woke again, and someone had taken off his boots and pulled the coverlet over him.
He didn't want to sit up, but he did, levering himself up on his arms. Thank God there was no rush of sickness to his stomach again.
He took a drink of water, and then set it down, and slowly drew a hand across his eyes. His face was tight where his tears had dried. It must have been afternoon by the paleness of the curtains.
Cas was sitting in a chair across the room, very quietly. He didn't blink when Dean finally looked his way.
Dean swallowed, his throat dry, and let his eyes wander a minute, too exhausted to think. His head was cloudy, but at least it was quiet.
“You put me to bed?” he said. Then he coughed; he didn't seem to have much voice left.
“You looked like you needed rest,” said Castiel.
He got up out of his chair, and came over, hesitantly, to the bed, and he sat down on the edge opposite Dean, and Dean looked at him—fierce, quiet little Cas. He was tempted to ask why the hell the angel cared so much, but he didn't. It was nice enough, now, to know simply that he did.
Cas peered down at the floor, as if gathering his thoughts, and then he said, quietly, “You did this to yourself.”
Dean swallowed. Looked away.
Cas continued, without a modicum of accusation in his voice, “You are making yourself relive these things on purpose. Aren't you?”
Dean didn't say anything.
Cas shifted on the edge of the bed, and Dean kept staring at the space between his knees, unable to raise his eyes.
Hearing him say it out loud made it so clear.
“I'm afraid of forgetting,” Dean said, soft and shameful.
Cas said nothing.
“I'm afraid—if I don't remember—then who else is going to? He'll just—be gone—” Dean said, and then he breathed, and it felt as if he hadn't breathed in decades, the way it came out of him, like a punch to the gut. “And I can't—Cas, I can't let that happen.”
They sat there, for a while.
When Dean glanced up at him, in that quiet, Cas' face was calm. Understanding, more like. And that was another kind of relief. They looked at one another, in the way they'd always been able to.
“I think,” Cas said, slowly, “that you are confusing forgetting with letting go.”
Dean let his head drop back down between his shoulders.
Cas let out a breath, closed his eyes for a moment.
“I think—that when he asked you to come here, to come to Lisa and keep going—he didn't just want you to be happy, Dean.” Cas smoothed out the bedspread underneath him, weighing each word as if it were made of iron. “He wanted you to live. He wanted you—he wanted you to get ahold of the things he never could. Because—well. In my opinion, because he knew it was the best way for you to love him when he was gone.”
Dean paused, and lifted his head a fraction, enough to slide his eyes back to him.
Cas pressed his lips together, shrugged, slightly.
“He thought that it was time you started loving him by loving yourself.”
Then he turned his head away, and smiled, sadly and privately, in that way of his.
“But then—I don't know. I'm sure I don't know anything about it,” he said, letting his hands lie loosely in his lap. He went quiet, then, contemplative, looking down at them.
Dean blinked, swallowed hard.
It solved nothing. But it was there—an idea; maybe a kind of light.
He reached across the mattress, far enough to grip Cas' wrist gently in his hand, and Cas looked at him, and for a moment they were brothers, too—and the space between them was the hole in the universe that both of them ached for, and they were the same.
“You do know,” Dean said, feeling the weird, pulseless warmth beneath his hand. “You know better than anyone.”
Castiel left him as the sun was going down. Before he vanished from the doorway of the room he looked out at the parking lot and said that the war in Heaven would be over soon.
“What are you gonna do then?” Dean asked.
Cas shrugged. It was still strange to see him do that, to see an angel shrug. He squinted at Dean in the dying light. “I don't know,” he said. “But I would like to see you before I decide.”
He hugged Dean, then, which was another strange thing. Dean hugged him back, and then he was gone, and Dean stood in the doorway, looking at the wet parking lot and the grey sky above it.
There was nothing scratching in his head anymore; nothing casting shadow on that newborn feeble light. Nothing looming like a shadow in the corner of the room, waiting to remind him of the empty spaces in his heart. Just a pale sort of calm, back there—a thin whisper, like a fog. It was gentle; it felt kind. It might have been Sam's voice. His wide grin set against the sun. It might have been his laughter.
Dean liked to think that it was.
He stepped inside and closed the door.
Lisa's voicemail picked up when he called—he supposed he deserved that. He closed his eyes while her cheerful voice told him to leave it at the tone and when the tone came he hesitated for an instant.
“Hey,” he said, and cleared his throat. “Hey, Lis—it's me.”
He paused again, trying to think of what to say. Outside the night was folding in over the Indian Head Motel, and the lights from the street were soaking into the puddles on the pavement. Someone across the lot was walking away, towards the road, just a dusky shape in the dark.
“I'm sorry,” he said, hoping the machine wouldn't cut him off. “I'm sorry I took off—and I'm sorry—” He closed his eyes, pulled himself together. “But I love you, Lisa—and I'm coming home soon—”
The first stars were coming out over Winamac.
He swallowed hard again, feeling that laughter in his head, soft and far away, but it wasn't going anywhere; Sam was there.
Sam was there.
“I think I'm gonna be okay.”