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i am laid low in the dust

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He lets Sam take the wheel.

The sun has set by the time they finish with Isabella's ghost; it's still pretty early for them, not much after eight. The Impala's tank is almost full, so Sam heads straight for the highway. US 20 skirts around the Massachusetts Turnpike, but it's a two-laner between Worcester and the Connecticut line, and it ribbons through some fairly boring country, a scattering of New England houses peeking out from behind the trees. Dean slumps in the passenger seat, watches the shadows skitter off onto the soft shoulder. The Mark is throbbing like a headache on his arm, dull but irritating. He clenches his hand into fists so he doesn't scratch at it, rub it raw.

"You know," Sam says, his voice sober after the joke he just tried to crack, "you were in that confessional a long time."

Dean shifts a little, bites the inside of his cheek. He hadn't meant to say all that stuff. He'd gone in there with a bunch of bullshit, just something to keep the padre's attention, but the longer he'd talked, the more he'd -- he doesn't know. It had been easier somehow, telling it to a stranger, to someone who'd just been a voice behind a lattice and screen.

"Look, man, I'm just saying, I'm your brother, Dean. If you ever need to talk about anything with anybody, you got someone right here next to you."

"Okay."

"I heard what Sister Mathias was saying," Sam continues, glancing over, "about -- you know, hiding pain by taking on a mission."

Dean clears his throat and looks down at his hands, at the tight, white press of his knuckles.

"And I know that's what you're doing, a little bit, and it's okay, it's fine. I mean, I've done it before too, but -- I don't buy for one second that the Mark is a terminal diagnosis, so don't go making peace with that." Sam glances over again, his mouth a grim line in the poor light. "There has to be a way. There will be a way, and we will find it, so believe that."

"Okay, Sammy."

"You want to try that again, like you mean it?"

A sigh dies in Dean's throat; Sam's relentless, scrabbling, gallows-reprieve hopefulness has become one of the hardest parts of this Cain shitshow. Sam wants him to be okay, and he wants to be okay too -- for Sam, if not for himself -- but he doesn't think he has much more to give.

"Okay."

 

+

 

They hit Pennsylvania around midnight, which is about the time they usually turn in, but Dean just grunts when Sam mentions grabbing a room. Dean is exhausted enough to sleep for a week, but he's too keyed up to actually do it; if he doesn't end up staring at the ceiling until sunrise, he'll slip into a nightmare full of blood and bruises and bone. If he had the choice, he'd take the insomnia. The nightmares have started to taste like fantasies the last few months; he always wakes up half-hard and angry and ready to push a knife to someone's throat. Any knife -- having the First Blade in his hand would only be icing on the cake.

His fingers are staring to cramp. He can't stop thinking about the things he said in that booth, how close he came to letting it all out, stuff he has kept buried for years. Stuff he wants desperately, stuff he -- he doesn't know.

Sam makes it another two hours, finally pulling over when he's yawning more than he's talking and letting Baby drive herself more than is safe. Milton is a flyspeck and practically in Amish country, but they find a no-tell on the edge of town, crouched behind an entrance to I-180. The parking lot is empty, which means the manager should only be a little shitty about them rolling in after two in the morning.

Dean waits outside while Sam checks them in, leaning his ass against the Impala's nose as he flexes the feeling back into his hands. The sky is a dull weight above his head, threatening the same rainstorm that has been chasing them since they first pulled into Worcester, and the parking lot is humming with night-life -- the tired buzz of the vending machines, the sputter of the dying vacancy sign, the rumble and groan of the big rigs up on the interstate. It's the kind of white noise that's been the soundtrack to Dean's life since he was four years-old, but it's clawing under his skin tonight, leaves him feeling restless and out of place, maybe because he's tired, maybe because something inside him isn't entirely human.

Vengeful spirits are nothing but raw emotion and rage-fueled strength; Dean has seen them tear doors off their hinges and rip headstones from the ground and toss grown men across the room like they’re swatting flies. He shouldn't have been able to hold Sister Mathias off that long. He shouldn't have been able to hold her off at all. When she first pulled that knife Dean had braced himself to be skewered clean through, but he had grabbed her arm out of instinct, and as she'd pushed closer to him, something cold and dark inside him had growled and shifted and pushed back.

 

+

 

The room they get is standard issue: two beds, a dingy kitchenette, a sagging couch that's been patched more than once, a toilet that constantly runs.

Dean falls asleep still wearing his clothes, his face hidden in the pillow, his hands twisted in the musty, yellow bedspread.

 

+

 

Dean wakes to Sam shaking his shoulder and hissing, "Dude," too close to his ear. He rears up, snarling, his fist cocked and ready to swing; Sam stumbles back a step and barks out, "Dude," again, his voice rough and his eyes wide.

"Sorry," Dean mutters, his heart twisting in on itself, like it's hammering against a scar. He rubs his hand over his face, takes a couple of deep breaths. "Was I --"

"Yeah. I wouldn't have -- you know --" Sam waves at the bed "-- but you were getting pretty loud."

Dean doesn't quite remember the dream, but he's been around this block enough that he can fill in most of the blanks. The Mark is seething on his arm, gnawing into him like it has fangs, and his dick is a slow ache between his legs. He can almost taste blood in the back of his mouth, can almost feel it sticky and warm on his chin. He rubs his hand over his face again, looks at it afterward half-expecting it to be red and wet.

He runs cold water in the shower, hoping it will ease the fever crawling across his skin; it makes his teeth chatter and leeches the color from his fingers and toes, but the Mark keeps beating on his arm like a drum. His dick continues to throb. The water is stinging his shoulders by the time he gives in and touches himself, and he shivers his way through it, ends up hunched against the shower wall, his free hand braced against the chipped, yellow tiles, his head bowed so he can watch his dick slip through his wet, soapy fist.

He does it too hard, too fast, just wants it over with. He tries not to think about Cas, because Cas deserves better, deserves everything.

 

+

 

They hit up the Fuel & Go on the way out of town; Dean puts another thirty bucks in the Impala, and he grabs a coffee and a couple microwaveable sausage biscuits while Sam digs through the stack of newspapers at the register. He eats his breakfast outside, leaning against the Impala as she takes the gas, sheltering from the morning drizzle under the pump island's corrugated awning. The sausage biscuits probably wouldn't have been great anyway, but Dean is cottonmouthed, his throat sandy and raw from a night spent screaming himself hoarse. It hurts to swallow, and every bite tastes like ash.

"Anything?" he asks, when Sam finally comes out.

Sam shakes his head. "No bumps in the night around here." He has a paper tucked under his arm; when he sees Dean frowning at it, he shrugs. "Crossword. How's the coffee?"

"It's hot."

"Great." Sam shrugs again and climbs into the car.

 

+

 

Cas calls right at dinnertime. Dean and Sam are outside a Biggerson's in Decatur; the sun is watery and nearly white as it sinks behind the restaurant's bright red roof.

"Look who it is," Dean says, his voice pathetically sharp and bruised. Cas disappeared pretty quickly after the whole Cain-Crowley-First Blade showdown, has only called once since then, texted maybe three or four times.

"Hello, Dean."

"Yeah, hello." Dean shifts in the driver's seat, leans back until the leather creaks. "Where the hell have you been?"

"I've been busy."

"Busy? You -- are you still looking for runaway wingnuts?"

"No. I'm trying to locate my grace."

Guilt slams into Dean like a baseball bat to the gut; he feels sick, has to grip the steering wheel against a sudden stab of vertigo. He hadn't forgotten. He just hasn't been thinking about it, because -- because. His own plate has been awfully full recently, and the thought of Cas dying is more than he can take, is enough to choke him up, wring him out, spin him into the first panic attacks he's had in years, maybe since he sold his soul, after he truly realized there was no way out.

"Dude, I -- if you need anything -- I mean, I don't know how we can help, but if we can --"

"There isn't," Cas says, his voice a slow, weary rumble. "There might -- are you at the bunker?"

"No. We're in Indiana. We just wrapped up a case." Pausing, he plots the distances in his head, tries to do the math. "We'll be there tomorrow morning." That's pushing it; Lebanon is a good fourteen hours away and they've already done about seven, but they can manage it, if Dean muscles through another six or seven while Sam naps.

"Don't rush. I'm still in northern Iowa, and it -- it's not urgent."

"Yeah, okay. We're -- we'll see you soon."

Sam frowns. "Is Cas all right?"

"No," Dean says, his chest squeezing tight, his heart beating in his throat.

 

+

 

Cas is waiting for them when they arrive at the bunker, the Continental further down the frontage road than Charlie usually parks, close enough to the retaining wall that ivy is brushing the windshield and hood. It's late afternoon; Sam had insisted they stop for a room in Springfield, hadn't seen the point of trucking on through when Cas was still a day out. The seven-hour layover didn't put a dent in Dean's exhaustion; he spent it tossing and turning, grinding his teeth as the Mark burned and writhed on his arm.

Sam slaps Cas on the shoulder, cracking a joke under his breath as he heads for the door; Dean doesn't hear it, but whatever it is, Cas smiles. Dean just stares at him for a few seconds -- at his crooked tie, at the wrinkled line of his collar, at the strong, familiar curve of his shoulders. In a perfect world, Dean could wrap his arms around those shoulders, pull Cas close, kiss Cas' mouth, the corner of his jaw.

In a perfect world, Dean would be a mechanic and Cas would maybe teach school, and they'd have a house somewhere, and Sam would come over for dinner twice a week and complain that Dean won't let him bring his dog.

In an imperfect world, they would hunt together, and live in the bunker together, and things would be shitty sometimes, because hunting is always shitty sometimes, but they would sleep in the same bed and eat breakfast at the same table, and they would watch TV with Sam when they didn't have to shank shifters or hack the heads off vamps.

Here, Cas is a dying angel and Dean is cursed, feels only four-fifths human.

"It's good to see you," he says.

Cas smiles again. He touches Dean's arm, briefly, his fingers almost brushing over the Mark.

 

+

 

Dean makes a show of turning in at a reasonable hour, but Sam and Cas must not believe it, because Cas comes for him about forty minutes later. He knocks, but he doesn't bother waiting for Dean to invite him in. He looks a little rumpled, weirdly soft for a creature that is anything but; his tie is off, and his coat is hanging on a chair in the library, and his shirt is unbuttoned at the neck.

"I'm all right," Dean says automatically.

"I wasn't asking."

"But that's why you're here. Sam --"

"Sam might've mentioned that you're not sleeping well."

"Traitor," Dean mumbles, but there's no heat behind it. He can't be angry, not when Sam has had to listen to him scream through his nightmares.

"He also said you're drinking too much."

That does make Dean angry, a quick stab of it that jolts through him like a current, burns in his gut just hot enough to rouse the Mark. "Look, I've --"

"Dean, when was the last time you slept?" Cas asks, concern twisting the curve of his mouth. "Really slept?"

"I -- I don't know." Dean's shoulders slump; his anger is already fading, but the Mark is restless now, guttering like a candle. "I can't, not always, and when I do I --" He shrugs, can't quite look Cas in the eye.

Cas rolls up his sleeves, then sits on the bed, on the side that's always cold and empty against Dean's back. "Come on," he says, patting Dean's pillow. "Lie down."

"Cas, I --"

"Please."

The fight leaves Dean in a rush. He's exhausted, and he's already dressed for it, flannel pants and an old t-shirt. It seems silly at first, just lying there, being curled up on his side while Cas sits behind him, silent, but then Cas switches off the bedside lamp, and he gently -- so fucking gently -- runs his hand through Dean's hair.

"Cas --"

"Shh."

Cas' voice is soft, and Dean is tired in a way he can't describe, and the feather-weight of Cas' hand feels so good. He's being so careful with Dean, more careful than Dean deserves. Dean takes a deep breath, and another, then rolls over, hides his face in the solid warmth of Cas' thigh. Cas stills for a moment, just long enough that Dean worries that he's ruined it somehow, but then Cas touches him again, his fingers ghosting across Dean's ear, brushing over the back of Dean's neck.

 

+

 

The Mark hums in contentment, pulsing on his arm like a second heartbeat. He catches his next sacrifice in the throat, pushes the First Blade into the soft place just below the chin. He watches the body fall, stares without blinking at the hot, blue-white flare of light. It can't hurt him now, but it meant something once, something he can't place.

"Dean," a voice says behind him, desperately, almost begging. It's familiar, familiar, but the First Blade is singing in his hand, and blood is running down his wrist.

He wants more, feels it in his gut, a furious burn that --

"Dean!"

Dean screams himself awake, cold sweat tacky on his skin; he sucks in a ragged breath, grits his teeth through a wave of nausea so violent he almost pukes. Cas slid down the bed at some point during the night; he's lying right beside Dean, is still holding Dean close, his hand at the back of Dean's neck, his thumb a warm point behind Dean's ear.

"It's all right. You're all right," Cas says, his voice a soft burr against Dean's temple. "It was a nightmare. You --"

"Fuck, fuck, I did it. I killed you." He fumbles for Cas in the dark, his fingers catching Cas' jaw, sliding across his throat to the place where the First Blade had met flesh. He can still see it: the grace waning behind Cas' eyes, the sooty smudge of his wings splayed across the bloody floor. "I killed you, I fucking --"

"No, you didn't. I'm right here."

"I did -- I could, I might, I --" Dean wants to pull Cas closer, to have Cas as close as he can get, but he pushes Cas away, shies back from the hand still petting through his hair. "Cas, you gotta do it. Do it now. You gotta --"

"No."

"Cas, you said -- you said you would."

Cas works his free arm under Dean's back, rolls until he's almost lying on top of Dean, and -- Jesus Christ, Dean is so hard, there's no way Cas doesn't feel it.

"You asked me to kill you if you went... darkside. I agreed --"

"Yeah, you did."

"I agreed," Cas says again, his mouth moving against Dean's jaw, "on one condition: that I decide when you are too far gone to be saved."

"But I am. Damn it, Cas, I --"

"No," Cas growls, and kisses him. It's terrible at first -- Dean is shaking too hard, and Cas misses Dean's mouth in the dark, catches the space between his chin and his lower lip -- but Dean leans into it, and Cas tilts his head a little, and then it's perfect, just warm breath and the curious press of Cas' tongue. Cas cradles Dean's jaw in his hand, and Dean twists his fingers into the collar of Cas' shirt, lets his knuckles bump the hollow of Cas' throat, brush the smooth, unbroken skin.

Cas makes a rough, needy noise, shifts until Dean is completely underneath him. The Mark doesn't like that, and it flares up, angry and anxious as it burns on his arm, but Dean loves it, feels warm for the first time in weeks. He hooks his leg around Cas' thigh and rubs himself against Cas' hip until he comes; he pulls Cas closer when Cas starts to shudder, pushing his hand into Cas' hair, tugging until Cas tips up his head, is gasping into Dean's mouth.

 

+

 

When Dean wakes up, Cas is sitting beside him on the bed, dressed in his coat and tie.

"You're leaving."

Cas reaches for him, his fingers brushing Dean's jaw, Dean's cheek. "I have to. Now that this grace has started to turn, I have a limited amount of time."

"Is there anything we can do?" Dean asks, sitting up. He can't imagine how -- this angel bullshit is above their paygrade, always has been -- but if Cas needs a hand, they'll figure something out. "Can we --"

"No. That's not why I -- I came here because I wanted to see you. I wanted to see your soul one last time, in case I--"

"Don't talk like that," Dean snaps. He fists his hand in the front of Cas' coat, tugs until Cas looks him in the eye. "There's gotta be a way. We'll find it. We always do."

Cas kisses him again, doesn't pull away for a long, long time.

 

+

 

"How'd you sleep?" Sam asks, his mouth only twitching a little.

"Like a drunk baby," Dean says, smiling. "What've we got?"