Genre: casefic, hurt/comfort, S9 post-Gadreel fic
Characters: Dean (POV), Sam, Castiel
Warnings: graphic imagery, imagery associated with self-harm/suicide, issues of consent
Word Count: ~4000
Summary: Just New Mexico things. S9 post-Gadreel H/C casefic written for just_ruth for spn_summergen 2018!
Dean doesn’t know he’s dying until Sam wakes him up to tell him so.
Sam's telling involves whiplash and the uncomfortable heat of rug burn as Dean's shirt rides up and Sam threatens to drag his jeans off in the least arousing way possible. The tendons in Dean's shoulders yawn and stretch and then scream, as half-asleep as he is until suddenly he's cold, and wet, and there is no more air to breathe.
Dean comes up gasping. It's freezing. He's annoyed, until he remembers he'd done the same to Sam only a few months prior. Sam was attempting to complete the Trials and Dean was doing… whatever it was he was doing. Letting him. Like a dumbass.
But it's tit for tat, Dean figures. Ice bath for an ice bath.
It's not until Sam asks, "What the fuck did you do?" that it occurs to Dean there's anything more to this than payback.
Then the water goes pink and then everything feels hot, and then dark, and then fuzzy.
It's kinda funny, really. The way he figures it, either you die peacefully in your sleep or you die bloody. But apparently if you're real lucky, you can almost do both.
He fades back under the water.
There's never really been a protocol for when and when not to involve Cas in something. Ever since Ezekiel-who-is-apparently-Gadreel and Cas losing his grace like spilt milk and the--
Dean turns away from the memory of his brother, restrained, long angelic needles protruding from places they shouldn't be.
Ever since all that and now the Mark, Dean's tendency has been less Cas. But apparently Cas and Sam are buddies now, because when Dean wakes, they are speaking in murmurs across the room. Apparently a fever set to parboil Hell warrants divine intervention.
Dean watches them in the gray light of afternoon thunderstorms in the desert. They haven't noticed he's awake.
Cas closes his hands over Sam’s shoulders, making him calm and quiet. Sure, Dean can tell Sam's still not a happy camper, but it's a feat nonetheless. Dean’s never seen Cas touch anyone like that. In Dean’s experience Cas is usually not gentle. But maybe a stint as human will do that to a guy: Can has learned not to injure.
Dean’s not sure his own stint as human ever taught him that.
"Nothing," Dean says, when Sam asks him again what he's done. Sam goddamn knows what Dean's done. And neither of them are ever going to forget.
"Wait," Dean says, because that's not what this is about. "You think I'm dying on purpose?"
One time in the first grade, Sam's art teacher had assigned self-portraits--a picture meant to show the world who you really were. In his self-portrait, Sam had given himself approximately 37 heads, and Dean had been sent to the principal's office for shouting "oh FUCK" when he saw it.
This is me when I'm happy, Sam had explained later. And this is me when I'm sad. This is when I'm angry. This is when I'm scared.
Sam's older now, so Dean figures his face drops through a full 74 different emotions in response to Dean's question. It never settles on one. So yeah, there's a part of Sam that thinks there's a part of Dean that is trying to die on purpose.
Sam doesn't trust him at all right now. That realization makes Dean want to die on purpose.
"That's stupid. There are way easier ways than whatever the fuck this is," Dean says, though that probably doesn't help any.
Sam's gaze wanders to Dean's arm.
"It's not the Mark," says Cas. Cas has fallen back so hard into his angel schtick that he hadn't been moving or breathing and Dean had almost forgotten him. From the way Sam jumps, Sam had too.
"The Mark is what's keeping him alive," Cas admits, and Sam's expression is easier to read this time. He'd clearly assumed Cas was what was keeping Dean alive right now. (Rundown: Ice bath, because fever. Dean pissing himself, because surprise ice bath. Pinkifying of ice bath, because pissing blood. It had been a whole production. Dean's not gonna dwell on it.)
If Cas isn't careful, Sam's not going to trust anyone anymore.
"How're you feeling?" Sam asks, distrustful.
"Like shit," Dean answers, honest.
"The Mark is not doing a particularly good job of keeping Dean alive," says Cas, like Cas.
"Sam told me whom that's from, by the way," says Cas, and does not elaborate.
Dean shrugs. "Yeah, well. I guess all gift horses have a silver filling somewhere."
Cas can't heal him, but Cas can X-ray vision the shit out of him, and this is what Cas has determined: No, the Mark is not what's killing him. That honor goes to the guest Dean has within him. The hilarious irony of that doesn’t make Sam any less pissed.
“Several million guests,” Cas specifies. “They’re called bacteria.”
“They’re not bacteria,” says Sam. “If they were bacteria I’d dump him at a fucking ER.”
Cas seems mildly scandalized by Sam’s phrasing, as though he’s some kid whose parents are about to second-guess that whole 'til death do us part thing.
Dean’s unfazed. He probably deserves it. He’s still never going to apologize.
“This isn’t convenient for me, either,” Dean points out. His tongue, fever-drugged, turns the words into vague gestures.
“It’s not about convenience,” Sam replies, barreling past Cas’s confusion. Cas hadn’t understood Dean's sign language.
Was it convenient? Storing Gadreel in me? Sam doesn’t ask. Instead, he asks, "So what do we do with that? Is there a-- an antibiotic? A serum? What?"
And you know, Dean's got a decent-sized list of the things that scare him, but if there were a short way to describe the way Sam's acting right now, he'd jot it down at the very top. You shouldn't be able to seem that angry while also working that hard to save someone. Dean's seen Sam shoot a monster in the head with more warmth than he's giving off now.
Dean hates it.
"I can handle this on my own," Dean says. He's genuinely not trying to be macho; it's just that-- Well. Fuck, Sam.
"Don't give me that macho crap," snaps Sam. Then he seems to remember the weight of Cas's hands on his shoulders. "Sorry. I just-- I wish this weren't happening right now."
Sam corrects himself. "I wish this weren't happening at all."
It would be easier, wouldn't it. If Dean were dying but he hadn't just pulled his worst bullshit in a long and storied career of bullshit. If he hadn't fucked Sam up and gotten Kevin killed and he hadn't--all of it. Selling his soul back in the day was at least martyrdom. Which, sure, is annoying, but Sam's really not one to talk on that count.
Gadreel was different. Gadreel was violation.
Dean knows there's no taking that back.
But Dean also knows the way he'd felt when Sam had opened his eyes. In that hospital in bumfuck, wherever. In their shitty world Sam was supposed to have dearly departed. That Sam was supposed to have saved. Dean felt like his relief would break him. Relief can’t be put away like pain can.
So that's all this is. Whatever happens between him and Sam now, this is Dean's relief, breaking him.
This is magical ebola, breaking him.
"Magical endocarditis," Dean corrects, in between shuddering, heaving breaths, mostly because that's what Cas had called it, and slightly because this is nothing like ebola. It just happens to involve a lot of blood. "Have you never-- seen Discovery Channel? I mean, c'mon--"
Dean's blood is pushing itself through his skin, choosing to sweat through every pore rather than do the charitable thing and just split him open. Like, a lot of blood.
It is agony.
"It's not either," Sam hisses, though he's lost the edge of his indifferent fury from earlier. He's not a doctor, and he's not a soldier. He is swimming in his brother's blood. Sam moves to itch his nose and then thinks better of it. He wipes his hands on his jeans.
Only hours ago, when they could pretend this was only magical flu, and not magic ebola or magic whatever, Dean had been reading a paperback. There was a doctor in the book--a surgeon--and according to the narrator (a recently bereft young hot widow with a load of cash and a mansion with no one to share it with, ready to sweep the surgeon out of the doldrums of his meager $300,000-a-year lifestyle) he always smelled clean and masculine and good.
"Name me a dude that ever smells good," Dean had said to the air. He'd have said it to Sam directly but he wasn't sure he should press his luck. "I mean, if you just spent eight hours in someone's intestines, moving crap around and sewing them back up, would you smell good?"
"What the hell are you reading?" Sam had replied, like old times but not like old times. There was a tone missing. It was like the difference between vinyl and a shitty phone MP3.
Dean had flipped the book back onto the bedside table from whence it came. “Not the Gideon bible," he'd said.
And now he's purging blood. And Sam is--
"Dean, I don't know what to do. I don't--"
Sam is Sam.
If there were a gaping wound, he'd throw pressure on it. He'd fail to keep the hellhounds at bay. He'd fail to stop the bleeding. He'd miss the light fall from Dean's eyes and he'd only see them glassy and lifeless. He'd find Ruby. He'd do whatever it took. But it wouldn't take--because the sum of all of that is just a longer story, without a better ending. The sum of that is how now they end up here.
The desert's coyotes are noisy outside, and Cas, and Sam, and Dean are quiet within.
When Dean comes to, Sam is gone and Cas has a 2-liter in hand.
"Get thirsty?" Dean rasps, then coughs. Everything is surprisingly dry. But then, this is New Mexico.
"Drink this," says Cas, aiming the 2-liter at his mouth like a nuclear warhead at the same time Dean recognizes its contents as blood.
"Whoa whoa whoa, hold up," Dean would've said, if he weren't too tired. Hold up. This is New Mexico, but it's not Trinity. Jornada del Muerto. MAD. Jesus, Cas.
"Where's Sam?" he asks instead, because he's never too tired for that. And because this is a dream. Has to be. Real-life Cas doesn't feed people blood and real-life world doesn't get that topsy turvy with its attempts at symbolism. Even for them.
"He's 'working the case,'" Cas informs him, in a tone that intimates he wishes Sam weren't. "Drink this."
"No!" Dean objects.
Cas sighs. "It's your own blood, Dean," he says.
Dean's pretty sure that doesn't change anything.
Then Cas is drowning him, and Dean doesn't have a choice. He swallows. He swallows, and he swallows. He thinks of Sam, and Lucifer.
He thinks of Gadreel.
It turns out Cas isn't completely off his rocker, as Dean feels his stomach bulge with blood and this week's ulcer recoil and his gag reflex ready for its cagematch. But after some Enochian and a soft touch, Dean feels the nausea of death change over to the nausea of angel mojo. The blood goes back where it belongs.
"That was--" Dean starts.
"Unnerving," Cas agrees, or assumes he's agreeing. He cradles his hand and glances at the Mark, as though it's a snake that's just bit him. "I wasn't sure if that was going to work."
"Where's Sam?" Dean asks again.
Cas lets his hands fall to his sides. Perhaps the snake wasn't venomous after all. "I don't think Sam's as angry as you think," he says.
Dean snorts. He tries to sit up. It's possible, if only just. He's always felt angelic healing should feel better than it does; if drugs will knock the pain out without fixing the problem, angels are generally the other way around.
Angels can fix the problem, but the ache will stay.
"I know my brother," he says. And Sam is angry.
"He loves you."
Dean sighs. He knows that, too. But if Cas doesn't know that you can do both--love someone, and be implacably and unforgivably bone-breakingly world-endingly angry at them--then he didn't spend long enough being human. Sam can do both. And it's not reassuring, it's not a silver lining. It's not a sign of hope. All it means is it's that much less likely Dean can ever fix this.
This is not about Sam loving him. This is about what Dean has done.
"So what does 'working the case' mean? What does he think he's looking for?" Dean asks.
Cas doesn't respond.
Outside, the coyotes yip.
When the conversation Dean's pretty sure he needs right now fails to materialize, he adds, "Do you think they're fucking or fighting?"
Cas furrows his brow. "Who?"
Dean rolls his eyes. "Don't gimme that innocent virgin dance. I know you and April Kelly got it on. The coyotes, Cas. Are they fucking or fighting?"
Cas's brow does not unfurrow.
"There are no coyotes," he says.
"It's hellhounds," Sam announces, before he gags on the thick blood-scent of their motel room.
"It's hellhounds," Dean says at the same time. "How the hell is this hellhounds?"
It doesn't make sense. Hellhounds are straightforward. And this--
"--isn't," says Sam. "He's not dead. Or he is now. The guy I found in town. But ten years ago he made a deal and he knew he was supposed to be taken by a black dog. Instead he started sweating blood and now all of Las Cruces is under quarantine. He uh, didn't make it."
Sam looks Dean in the eye before quickly looking away, his way of noting that he's glad Dean did. Always good to have an angel handy. And a Mark of Cain.
"Super," Dean says. "What now?"
"Hope we don't work anything that requires us to be the CDC, because they're definitely on to me," says Sam. It's almost a joke. It comes out so fluidly, so easily. It's like old times but not.
"So what's wrong with the hound?" Dean asks. He keeps all of that ache at the back of this throat.
She is massive. By all accounts, she's one bad bitch. Or she was.
She is graying, tongue lolling between massive, rotted teeth. Belly sagging from her many litters, tits raw. Somewhere in the distance there's those coyote sounds again. Hellhound puppies, apparently.
She is sick, and she is dying.
The sequelae of this are Hell's precaution. If someone is lucky enough to kill their hellhound, something’s still there to throw them down the stairway. You're marked--you die when your hellhound does.
"So the the hounds we've killed," Dean says. "They didn't actually die."
Dean thinks of Ellie, whom they'd saved but maybe not really. He and Sam are both wearing the glasses again now. That hound had been dead enough to jumpstart the Trials, but maybe it wasn't really dead enough. Maybe Ellie wasn't saved enough.
Cas nods. "I'm unfamiliar with the mechanics of Hell at that fine a degree. I assume that's correct."
"What's our play, then? We can't just-- How do we get Dean out of this? How do we un-mark him?"
There's no unmarking.
So instead, Dean fixes the hound with a stare.
"Five years, huh?" Dean says to her. "So that's thirty-five years in dog years."
And who knows how fucking long that is in Hell years. 600. 666, maybe. Were there Hell-dog years?
If Cas hadn't booty called Dean back topside, this hellhound would be dying now and none would be the wiser. Joe Las Cruces would die of some wild blood disease, and then this hound would die invisible in the desert, with vultures circling seemingly nothing. You know, New Mexico things.
"How do we un-mark him?" Sam repeats, significantly less interested in New Mexico things than Dean-not-dying things.
"Save her," Cas suggests. "Feed her. Once she's sated with Dean, she might release him."
"Well, that sounds counterproductive," says Sam.
"I imagine she's already had a significant taste. She's already taken him once. It's likely she only needs a reminder."
Dean's attention flicks between the two of them. The ease with which they fall into talking about him like he's not there makes him think they've been doing that a lot lately.
"How big a reminder are we talking, here?" Dean asks. "Like, finger? Arm?"
"Hellhounds don't feed on flesh," Cas admonishes. "That would be ridiculous."
Then it's Dean's chance to share a glance with Sam, full of language. For not feeding on it, hellhounds have always seemed plenty interested in flesh.
Cas continues, "They feed on regret. Rending flesh tends to inspire a lot of that. Still more when they drag a soul through the h--"
"Stop," says Dean.
And for once in his life, Cas stops.
Dean collects himself.
Then he grumbles, "I just topped off," to which Sam arches an inquisitive eyebrow.
Dean already has his knife out.
He crouches by her snout, her sour breath steaming at him from behind fatty jowls and brown teeth. She doesn't move.
"You feed on regret, huh?" he says.
There's absolutely no guarantee this is going to work.
In one smooth motion, as though the act is only another word in his sentence, Dean slices vertically down his arm, makes a deep and jagged incision from the tail of the Mark to his wrist. The blood comes quickly. So quickly it's already splashing, pooling, before Sam stutters, "No, wait--"
The regret comes slower, though not for lack thereof. Dean's got regrets aplenty. They are older and thicker than blood.
He wonders what they taste like--if they taste like some kind of juicy horror story to this hound, as all of the last five years washes from him into her. As his regrets dazzle her teeth red.
At the back of his mind, he hates that now Sam knows. Sam's smart enough to put two and two together, and now Sam knows. Hellhounds feed on regret. Ergo, Dean regretted making his deal. Dean regrets Hell.
He hadn't ever wanted Sam to know that.
But regret is for the dogs--literally. And Dean knows that regret or not he'd to it again. He'd do all of it again. All of it, all of it.
If there's no forgiving Gadreel, what Dean had done with him, Dean can only imagine what kind of forgiveness antimatter exists for the fact that Dean knows he'd do it all again. You can't forgive the unrepentant.
She's getting stronger. She flicks her tail and gnashes her teeth and the flurry of motion nearly sends Dean reeling so he's guessing he's fed her a whole lot of blood to go with his regret. But her breathing's still labored; he can feel her struggling to get to her feet but she can't.
He has to keep going.
The idea that he's got his body in the mouth of an aging--but increasingly energetic, and Dean gasps as she nips at him--hellhound is not a greatest hit. But there's no way out but all the way.
Dean keeps going.
He feels two strong, cold hands steady him.
It occurs to Dean they never decided what they'd do once they'd saved her. It had felt obvious at the time that they'd kill her. She's a hellhound, and that's what they do. Or they'd banish her, Dean revises--whatever they do that isn't actually killing, isn't actually saving.
But maybe, even with all the regret in Dean's body, she won't be 100%. Maybe they really will kill her this time. Maybe Dean won't be unmarked. Maybe he'll die, too. Maybe the Mark flips its shit about all this and they wrinkle the universe. Again.
Maybe they should let her go.
Dean's not planning on it. But maybe Sam will. Maybe Sam can't let her go, if it means letting Dean go.
This time Dean misses the motion, but suddenly she's towering above him. Her gray seems silver, energy pulsing through to the ends and making her fur writhe like tendrils. Her teeth, rotting, still gleam sharp. Her tongue still drips with his blood and the rest of his blood soaks uselessly into the goddamn redrock. Cas isn't holding his shoulders anymore.
Dean looks into her eyes and mostly he's thinking about how hard it is to breathe, to focus, how much his arm hurts, but part of him thinks, You're not going to hurt me, are you.
You're not going to kill me.
There's a deafening crack. Another, another, another. After the first, she's already falling. Sam's a good shot. By the time the full weight of her hits the ground, Dean's down too. But he is breathing, and she is not.
He's ashamed to ask. But Cas has stuck around for almost four straight days now, which is unheard of, and Dean's not gonna miss his window. So one morning, on a Thursday, while Sam is out for a run and Cas is making yet another sad attempt at recapturing the human joy of PB&J, Dean corners him by the continental breakfast cereal.
He dumps some frosted flakes onto Cas's open sandwich. "For crunch," he says. "Smooth peanut butter is for losers."
"I did not want that," says Cas, staring at his tarnished sandwich.
"We never get what we want," says Dean, and Cas waits for the rest.
Dean wishes Cas would at least try the sandwich while Dean talked at him, but of course Cas doesn't, because what is laser-focus if you're not gonna utilize it to its fullest extent at all possible times?
"It doesn't feel any different," Dean confides. He'd given that hound half his body weight in regret--so much that Sam and Cas had had to carry him home, and he still almost hadn't made it--but he doesn't feel any different.
He does still feel like he's missing a liter of blood, because apparently Cas's miracleworking acts slower when you can't recycle the spilled stuff in a Mr. Pib bottle, but his regrets are no lighter. He's not sure if he's hoping they would be. Probably not.
Maybe he just wanted them to leave for a while, before coming home. Just a little while.
It feels stupid to admit that.
Cas seems to understand. "The Judeo-Christian mythos is not the habit of granting evil that kind of power. Bacchus on the other hand, or the Japanese baku--"
But Dean stops listening. Cas is talking to talk, because he knows Dean likes that.
Here's what Cas doesn't talk about:
Sam shot the hellhound. Had to have known it might kill Dean, too, but he did it anyway. He shot her. And then he shot her again. And again. She was never going free.
It's hard for Dean to know how he feels about that. On a practical level, it doesn't mean anything. Of course Sam shot her. Were he not busy bleeding out, Dean would have, too. He'd already told himself as much.
But on another level, Sam shot her. Again and again. And she could well have taken Dean down with her.
Sam shot her.
Dean doesn't really remember what happened after the hellhound fell, but he remembers Sam. Sam's hand on his pulse, calluses scratchy against his neck. Sam's cheek against his lips, hoping for breath. Sam's hand on his chest, to find a heartbeat. But not really. It's a hug. And when Sam doesn't let go, Dean is sure of it. Sam not letting him go. Cas is a damn angel; he could have carried Dean alone and probably the hellhound carcass too. But it's Sam who helps Dean home.
Not that this changes anything, or was itself a change. Fury doesn't stop love, only makes it more complicated. There is no undoing; there is no un-regret.
Or maybe there is. Dean's not dying anymore, so there's that. He brushes the Mark with his fingers, just above his new flesh, regret-filled and Cas-healed.
When Sam returns from his run, he's fisting two purple napkins filled with what are by now very squished sausage egg biscuits. "The motel down the road has a way better continental breakfast," he says, by way of explanation.
He puts one in front of Dean, then sits across from Dean to demolish the other. Sam didn't have to stay. Didn't have to choose to be so close.
When Dean looks at Sam, he knows what he's done. He'll never look at his brother again and not see that. Dean feels relief and regret.
But only one of those can break him.
"Those damn coyotes," complains a maid as she sweeps rogue corn flakes off the breakfast counter. "No rest for the wicked, I suppose."
Dean looks up.