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There is a darkness that is burning him from the inside out; he feels pieces of himself burning away until there is nothing left rattling inside him but a small hard hammering human heart.  

--

Dean’s is the first face he sees.  He is lying on the cold concrete floor and Dean is bending over him.  Dean is not quite touching him.  His hand is hovering over Castiel’s shoulder.

"He’s not healing," Dean is saying. "Bobby, why isn’t he healing?"

"Dean," he says, and when Dean doesn’t look up he says it again, louder.  "Dean," he says, then again until Dean finally raises his head. "I’m sorry."

Dean is looking at him with a strange expression on his face, one Castiel has never seen before.  But Dean doesn’t aim the look at him directly. Instead he focuses on the side of Castiel’s face, as though his vision has doubled and he is looking at another image of Castiel standing right beside him. as if there is another man standing somewhere off to the side of him.  Dean doesn’t look at him like he is dead. Dean looks straight through him like he is already a ghost.

“You’re alive,” Dean says.  He keeps looking through Castiel.  As though he's not even here.  As though he shouldn't be.

--

There is blood on the cuff of his sleeve.  He can feel it dripping down his wrist. Dean is taking him down the laboratory's halls, moving him along through the silent corridors, his hand close by Castiel’s elbow.  He stops, and Castiel doesn’t understand why until Dean leads him into a bathroom and sets him in front of the cracked and dirt-streaked mirror.

He hovers there by Castiel’s shoulder, but only for a moment; he waves his hand uselessly, then covers his eyes and sighs.  

“Just,” he says, and clears his throat.  Castiel is caught by Dean's movements, reflected in the mirror.  Dean is rubbing his hand across his face, and Castiel is tracking the movement of his fingers across his jaw line, fascinated.   “Just clean yourself up,” Dean says finally.  He leaves.  The door swings behind him.

Castiel leans against the sink where Dean placed him and lets his body sag.  Somewhere close by, water is leaking.  He looks around to find the source.  Water is dripping down the corners of the walls, water is turning the floor by his feet into a shallow pool. He listens to the uneven rhythm of water splashing against the tiled floor.   He stares at the warehouse walls, cracked and peeling.  He traces the cracks running up the walls, follows them up to the ceiling and then across.   His reflection in the mirror catches his eye.  He looks at himself.  There is blood on the collar of his coat and shirt.  There is blood on the cuffs of his sleeves.  

He pulls out the tail of his shirt and wets a corner of the hem and scrubs at the stains on the cuffs of his sleeves for a little while, but it’s impossible.  The bloodstains have already begun to set in the fabric.  He dabs more water on his sleeves, but it’s no use. He lets the edge of his shirt fall back down and goes back to leaning against the wall until Dean returns.

He looks at Castiel, and then he is seizing Castiel by the shoulder and wheeling him back around towards the sink.  “Did you even look at yourself, Cas?” he is asking.  ”Don’t you see-?”

“I did,” Castiel is protesting. He touches his coat with the pads of his fingers, touches his fingertips to his collar.  “It’s not coming out.  My clothes," he says.  He is trying to explain to Dean, who is not understanding.  "My clothes are ruined."

Dean snatches out a wad of paper towels and wets them and begins to press them to Castiel’s face.  Castiel jerks away.  "Stand still," Dean says.  He isn't looking at Castiel.  Just at the red stains on his face.  Castiel can see him, reflected in the mirror.  He is unprepared for this.  He isn’t sure what to do. He feels himself swaying backwards, as though his body is trying to take him away from the damp pressure of Dean’s hands scrubbing furiously at Castiel’s face.  

“What are you—?” he starts to ask, but Dean won’t look at him. Just below his eyes, only at his mouth.

“Your fucking face, Cas,” Dean is saying.  “Your face.” He scrubs at Castiel’s face and Castiel watches him do so in the mirror. He is looking at his own face for the first time, and it surprises him.  He raises a hand to touch his cheek where Dean is scrubbing.  His skin is still blistered, blotchy and red.  The blood is coming off, but his face is still covered in red. Sharp pain flares up everywhere Dean's hands touch him.  It is agony.

“Dean,” he says quietly.  He reaches up to take hold of Dean’s wrist, Dean knocks his hand away and keeps scrubbing.  He is wiping away the blood on Castiel’s chin, on the side on his neck, on his lips, on his forehead. “Dean, stop.  Dean—”  He knocks Dean’s hand away from his face.

“It’s not working,” Castiel says. “What you’re doing.”  

He’s unprepared for Dean’s hands to come creeping slowly back up to his face, for Dean’s fingers to press lightly against the sores by his mouth, on the flesh just underneath his jaw.  Castiel watches his hands move in the mirror, touching each blister, one by one. He is seeing his face for what feels like the first time. He is staring at it in horror.  Is this really me? he is wondering.  Can this really be what I look like? What Dean must think of him right now.  What he must see.

Dean is whispering, Dean is saying, so angry and quiet, “What have you done to yourself, Cas? What have you done?”  He is smoothing his fingers down Castiel’s cheek. Castiel can feel those calloused fingers catching on every bump and bed of raised scar tissue and fragments of half-shredded skin.  

He leans over and throws up all over Dean’s shoes.

He is kneeling with his hands pressing hard on the cracked tile floors with his hands.  He feels Dean’s hand land lightly on the back of his neck.  He starts to look up, starts to open his mouth.

"No," Dean says. "Don't. Don't say anything. I can't even look at you right now, so just. Don't."

Castiel breathes hard.  

"Cas,” he says. “Be quiet,” he says. “Just shut up and listen to me. For once in your life, just listen to me. Don’t you dare say a word.  You died today,” he says.  “You died. And you deserved to.”

“Get up,” Dean says finally, and removes his hand.  Castiel watches Dean's reflection wipe his hands on the back of his jeans.  “We’ve got to get out of here.”

As Dean lifts him off the floor, time seems to waver, and he feels himself tear in half, into two separate beings.  When he raises his head and looks beside himself, he sees himself flickering.  Another man steps out of the shadows and falls into place by his side, the man he’d used to see when he looked in the mirror, standing silently next to the pieces that make up the man he is now.  

He has been marked. He has been cast from God’s grace.

He meets Dean’s eyes in the mirror.  Dean has never looked at him like he hated him before. That must be what’s different.

Dean looks away.

Dean doesn't look at him again.

--

Dean goes to find Sam.  When they return, Castiel sees blood, more blood:, blood on Dean's hands, lightly gripping Sam's shoulder; blood trickling sluggishly from the bandage on Sam's hands.  Castiel can't stop looking at the blood on Sam's hand. My fault, he keeps thinking. I did this.

Castiel look at his hands during the car ride.  There are blisters on the backs of his hands, blisters on his wrists and his palms and on the insides of his fingers.  He rubs his thumb absently over the lesions on his palm, fascinated by the way the skin splits and peels away the more he touches it.  

He is caught by the wavery image of his face reflected in the window. This is my punishment, he thinks, and he sits alone in the backseat and even though he glances in the rear view mirror from time to time, Dean never catches his eye.  He wonders distantly if Dean will stop on the side of the road and open the door and say, Get out. If Dean will pull into a gas station and fill the tank and leave him there, standing in the parking lot,  Dean saying, This is your stop.   He feels nothing but a great emptiness.  Dean is going to ask him to leave.  And he should.

He hears Sam and Dean talking quietly in the front seat.  Dean glances at the rearview mirror, but looks away before Castiel can catch his eye.  He hears Dean ask quietly, "What's he doing?"  He hears what must be Sam twisting around in his seat.  Castiel closes his eyes.   

"He's asleep," Sam says quietly.  He keeps his eyes closed until Sam is murmuring, “We’re here,” until Dean is parking the car next to Bobby's truck by the back porch.  

Sam climbs out of the car.  He comes around and opens the backseat door and watches as Castiel steps outside.  Sam looks at him with unwavering kindness.  Castiel can't look at him.  

Castiel stands by Dean’s side when he unlatches the trunk and takes out his bags, Sam’s and Bobby’s, but he doesn’t let Castiel pick any of the bags up or help carry them inside.  Dean loops the straps around his shoulders and carries the entire load, and Castiel is left to walk behind him.  

He hovers uncertainly on the porch.  Is he supposed to come in, too, or--? He doesn’t know.  He thinks it depends on Dean.  He can’t bring himself to go to Dean and ask.  In the end he winds up sitting on the porch steps, avoiding the question entirely.  

After a while he hears Dean asking Bobby, “Where’d he go?”, hears Bobby respond, “Think he’s still outside.”

Dean opens the door.  “Get inside,” he says, and Cas follows him.

He stands in the corner of the kitchen and watches Dean sit Sam down at the kitchen table and add more stitches to the wound on Sam's hand. He is so careful, the way he holds Sam's shaking palm with one hand and slowly moves the needle with his other hand.  He is so careful, Castiel thinks.  He is so careful with the things he loves.  He treats them like glass.  He stands in the corner and stares at the cracks on the ceiling of Bobby’s house.  Cracks like open wounds, he finds himself thinking. Cracks like stitches.  

Dean doesn't look at him.  Dean moves around him as though Castiel is not there. He wonders uneasily if he should move, if he should get out of Dean's way. But he makes himself stay there, crouched in the shadows of the kitchen.  He makes himself watch every stitch, until Sam's hand is whole again. Until Dean shakes whiskey over the wound, until Dean wraps a long line of bandage around Sam's hand. When he is done, he looks up.  He doesn't quite look at Castiel. But his head is turned in his direction.  "Okay," Dean is saying.  At him? Castiel isn't sure.  "Your turn."

Dean takes his wrist and Castiel follows him until he is standing in front of the door to bathroom.  Then he is standing in front of the mirror and finally seeing himself.  There are lesions on his forehead, over his left brow and on his right temple. There is a blister on his eyebrow.  There are blisters on his face, on the tender skin under his eye, on his cheeks, sores running down his neck.  One of his cheeks is splitting apart, the skin shredded like raw meat.  

Dean is standing outside the door, asking,  “You okay in there?”  Castiel does not say anything. He is caught by what must be his reflection.  His face, looking back at him in the mirror.  A monster, he is thinking.  This must be what a monster looks like.   He is a monster and now he looks like one.  But then Dean is opening the door and barging in without another word.  He sees Castiel touching the blister covering his cheek and he looks away.  

"Jesus Christ,” he says, very quiet. He looks everywhere but Castiel's face.  Then, more quietly, “Does it hurt?” he asks as he reaches out to touch one of the marks on Castiel’s arm.  

Castiel weighs the sensation of dull aching pain against his own actions and their consequences.  “No,” he says.  

Dean takes his hand away like it has been burned, and leaves the bathroom. Castiel is left standing there.  He doesn’t know what to do. But then Dean reappears. He knocks this time, before he comes in.  He has cloth and bandages and medical tape and plastic bottles of antiseptic with him, and a small pile of clean clothes.  Castiel stares hard at the clothes.  A clean white shirt.  Clean gray sweatpants.  Clean white socks and underwear.    

Dean clears his throat. “I guess,” he says. “I guess you need to clean them up. Or they might get infected, and not heal.”

“They aren’t going to heal,” he says.  

“They’re burns, Cas,” Dean is saying.  “They’ll heal.  Hold this, hold it on your face.”  He puts a damp cloth in Castiel’s hands. Dean doesn’t look at him. But he looks at the blisters on Castiel's face, with his hand on Castiel's chin, moving his head right and then left.  Blisters, like he had been burned from the inside out.  Dean dabs his fingers in the burn ointment and traces it over the blisters on his face.  He works the ointment into the marks on Castiel's forehead, then rubs a thick layer of ointment over Castiel's cheek. It's the worst of his injuries, that burn.  It covers his entire cheek.  When his face is covered, Dean silently hands him the ointment, and Castiel applies it to the blisters on his arms and chest and legs.  Then Dean takes the ointment back.

"Turn around," Dean says.

He cuts off Cas’s tie with his knife and unbuttons his shirt.  When Dean takes off his shirt, the fabric sticks to the burns on his back and chest, and when he takes off his bloodstained clothes he finds that the blisters are everywhere. On his arms. On his chest, his groin, the inside of his thighs, his calves and on the tops of his feet.  When he twists his arms behind him, he can feel blisters on his back, on his side.  Dean is looking at his naked arms and legs and body.  “Don’t touch them, Cas,” Dean keeps saying. “don’t touch them.”  Dean cleans them, every blister.  He covers the worst ones with cotton pads and gauze.

Dean opens a bottle of pain relievers and shakes it until several pills fall into his hand.  He takes the cloth out of Castiel’s hands and exchanges it for the pills.   “Take these,” Dean says.

He looks at the pills with resignation.  "Dean-" he starts.

"Take them," Dean says. An order.  He doesn't watch as Castiel puts the pills on his tongue and swallows them dry.  

Dean turns and puts his hand on the bathroom door.  He opens his mouth to say something, then closes it.  "You're never going to do that again," he says.  "You hear me, Castiel? You are never going to do that again."

Castiel closes his eyes and waits.

But all Dean says is, “You weren’t breathing. I know. I checked. You weren’t breathing. You were dead.”  His voice has cracks in it, Castiel hears. Cracks running up and down and across his voice, spreading like cracks on the surface of ice.  I should be dead, he thinks. I shouldn't be alive. I shouldn't be here.

"You should have died," Dean is saying. His voice sounds incredulous.  Later in the night Dean’s voice is all Castiel can hear.  "You should be dead. But you're alive."

--

Bobby sets a table for four.  Dean puts food on the plate in front of Castiel. Sam has a quiet nod prepared for him, aimed his way across the table.   I deserve this, Castiel thinks. I deserve to be hated, he tells himself.  I deserve this, he thinks, over and over, every time Dean reaches over him to grab the salt without saying a word, every time Sam gets up to head into the kitchen and passes Bobby a plate over Castiel’s head, I deserve this.  After everything I did.

They sit in silence.  Dean chases a piece of spaghetti across his plate without eating it.  He wont look up.  He won't look at any of them.

"Can I be excused?" he asks finally.

"No," Dean says without looking up.

"I'm not hungry."

Dean puts his fork down and raises his head.  "I don't care," Dean says dangerously.  "You haven’t even eaten anything yet."

"I don't want it," he says. 

"No, God damn it," Dean says, and slams his fist on the table.  

His hand comes away bloody and splintered and Castiel is reaching for him without thinking, but Dean pulls back.  He won’t let Castiel touch his hand.  

“Don't touch me,” Dean says.   

He cautiously puts a hand on Dean’s shoulder. Dean jerks away so fast he doesn't even have time to flinch.  “Leave me alone,” he says.

Castiel feels bile coming up his throat.  “Dean, I-”

Dean is cradling his fist to his chest.  He stands up, knocking the table's legs as he moves, rattling the plates and glasses.  “I can’t deal with you right now,” Dean says.  “I just can’t.  I can’t even look at you. Jesus Christ-”

"Is something wrong?" Bobby asks, finally.

Dean swipes his hand across his jaw.  “Nothing,” Dean mutters.  “Nothing, okay? Nothing’s wrong,” Dean says, and he says it like the truth, so that’s what it becomes.

--

He asks Bobby to take him around the perimeters of the salvage yard.  Dean looks up like a dog hearing a strange voice at the door.  "Where do you think you're going?" he asks.

"You need protection," Castiel says.  "For as long as I'm here.  The angels will hunt me.  I can put up sigils."

Dean turns his head and looks at Bobby.

"Up to you, boy," Bobby says, and holds his stare.  

"I could leave," Castiel says.  Neither Dean or Bobby will look at him.

Bobby takes him out into the yard.  He brings a knife with him.  Dean follows them outside, stands on the porch staring into evening shadows.

Bobby says, “You don’t have to do this.”

He says, with as much dignity as he can muster, “I do.”  He tries to prepare himself for the way his skin will rip apart with each new cut, but he can’t help himself: he cries out. he is instantly ashamed.  He closes his eyes and waits it out. They should be protected from the consequences of his sins.  

Dean doesn't come running.  Dean doesn’t say, You’re hurting yourself, stop, stop. Dean keeps back and just says, “I’ll be here, if you need me."

He takes up the knife and slides the edge down his skin. Stands in the cool night air, sweat pooling on his forehead and running down the sides of his face, and squeezes his hand until the blood trickles out.  He stares down and watches the blood run, dips his fingers into the hot sticky residue and smears it across the dirt-streaked surface of every window on Bobby's house.  He works a sigil for every pane, and with each new cut, he names a sin: this line across his palm is for Sam. For each new ribbon on his forearm he gives the name of those he has murdered.  

Dean follows him back inside and bandages his hands.  Dean wraps his hands and tells Castiel to come back when he needs them changed. Castiel watches Dean's hands wrapping layers of gauze around his palms.  He thinks he'd rather die than ask Dean for this again.

--

He has been supposing, without really thinking about it, that Dean will want him to be kept in the panic room.  But Castiel sits on the couch and Sam sinks down on an armchair and Dean and Bobby make trip after trip up and down the stairs, bringing up dusty blankets and quilts that smell like mothballs and faded perfume, pillows, air mattresses.   Dean hands him a bundle of the blankets and a pillow.  

"You stay right here," Dean says.  "I'll take the floor.  Sam gets the air mattress."

Castiel says, “I shouldn't be here.  Put me in the panic room."

Dean is smiling grimly.  "Oh no, you don't.  I want you right here, where I can see every move you make.  You and Sam both," he says.  

Castiel opens his eyes at some point during the night.  The moon shines through the curtains, and he can see, clearly, Dean asleep in a pile of blankets on the floor, tucked between the couch and the air mattress, one arm propped up against the couch and lightly touching the edge of Castiel’s blanket; the other hand stretched towards Sam.

--

There are blisters underneath his fingernails. That must be why his nails have gone soft and brittle.  They turn blue first, then black, then his nails fall off, one by one, first the nails on his ring fingers, then his thumb, then the rest.  His face is still blistered, the skin broken and raw.   His skin swells.  The burns around his fingers cause his hands to turn puffy and sore.

More and more pieces of him are cracking away every day.  Sometimes he wonders if he could pull off his skin and find a new face underneath.

He keeps reaching up to touch his face without even thinking about it, touching the sores by his mouth, picking at the lesions under his eyes.  

“Stop messing with it,” Dean snaps. “You’re just making it worse.”  

But he can't seem to leave it alone.  He picks at the scabs, scratches absently at the half-healed scabs on his arms and hands, picks at the sores by his mouth and eyes.  Dean catches him at it once and snatches at his hand.  Castiel stares down, at his wrist encircled by Dean’s work-rough hands, at Dean’s calloused fingers pressing down on his pulse point.

“Stop it,” Dean says, almost angrily. “Just stop it. It’ll never get better if you keep fucking with it.”

Castiel just shrugs.  It’s already worse. It’s not going to get better.  “Fine,” he mutters.  He subtly leans away from Dean’s grip until Dean lets go.  He releases Cas’s wrist, looking bewildered.   

“Okay,” Dean says, like he’s talking to himself. “Okay.”  He stops talking. Dean is staring at him. Not quite meeting his eyes. Just staring at somewhere slightly off the center of his face.  “What?” Castiel asks.

Dean rubs his hand across his face.  “Nothing,” Dean says.  "Not a thing."

There is a mirror hanging on the wall on the staircase landing.  Castiel stops in front of the mirror whenever he walks by it. If no one is going to look at him, he will look at himself.

The hair on his face starts growing, and it hurts, feeling the hairs rubbing against the blistered skin on his face, but he can't shave. It hurts to wipe his face, to rub burn ointment on his cheek.  

He watches the blisters turn into scar tissue.  His face is pockmarked. He is disfigured. He is grotesque, something out of a nightmare.  Dean looks at him, and Castiel does not know what he sees.  But he can imagine.  He can feel himself cracking all over, angry red lines growing on his arms and legs and chest.  Sometimes he wonders if his skin will just melt off, leaving this fragile bag of bones and blood to seep into the earth.

I am going to look this way forever, he thinks.  This is not his face, but it is the one he will wear, and everyone who gazes upon will know what he has done.

Dean catches him staring at his reflection one day.  Normally he would brush past Castiel in the hall. But today he stops.  "You okay?"

"I don't look the same anymore."

Dean suddenly looks at him, and Castiel wishes he wouldn’t.  He wishes he were dead. Not just away from here. Just to be nothing. A void, a colossal emptiness.  No one would ever have to look at him again.  No one should have to see this.

“No,” Dean says.  “You don’t.  Not to me.”

He has never been sure of where he stands in Dean’s estimation. He has wondered before if Dean thinks of him more as a monster, or as something not so unlike a man; something that, while not human, is not so different from Dean himself.  He thinks sometimes that Dean hadn't always looked at him the way he would look at a monster.  He thinks sometimes Dean has looked at him like there might be something more in Castiel than Castiel can find in himself.

Castiel remembers all Dean’s looks.  He keeps them in his memories, turning them over one by one.  That was the one that spoke of affection.  That was the one that meant go away.  He remembers one of Dean's looks particularly.  Dean had looked at him once, and Castiel could have sworn it was with pride.  As though he was pleased to be seen by his side.

Or perhaps Dean has always seen him like this. Maybe that’s why he could never bring himself to care.  This is his punishment, then.  To live out the rest of his life with someone who hates him.

That night Castiel sits awake and unblinking even though his face feels wet, wondering dully, Why couldn’t you love me? What is so wrong with me that you just couldn’t bring yourself to care, even a little bit?  

When he comes back to himself, he has to face the truth. Of course Dean wouldn’t. Of course Dean couldn’t.  If Dean felt nothing for him before all the horrible things he had done, then he has no chance now. He has erased whatever affection Dean might have once felt for him, wiped it out like removing a blemish from sight.

--

Castiel haunts the house like an unwanted ghost.  He thinks sometimes that he will fade away completely, he will leave behind the odor of burning flesh, he will only be a flash of smoke caught in the corner of the eye.  He is unwatched, for the most part; he is left to do his haunting in peace.

Sam will sit on the steps and scratch at his hand, picking at the stitches.  Sam will look over Castiel’s shoulder and he will freeze in place, with only his eyes moving.  Sam is a ghost himself, in another way; he is the only one who looks at Castiel as though there is something left inside him.

“Sometimes,” Sam will say to him. “Sometimes I don’t know what’s real. Sometimes I’m scared that I’m not really here.”

Castiel is smelling smoke, he is smelling burnt oil.  He thinks he knows what Sam means.  “Sometimes I think that too,” he says.

They talk about him sometimes, when they think he’s not around.  Like he really is a ghost.  Like something haunting the premises, a spectre that ought to be hunted down and thrust into the light of day, something that needs salting and burning.

He overhears them talking, Dean to Bobby.

Dean is saying, “Damnit, Bobby, we have to do something, take him somewhere.  A doctor.”

“Dean,” Bobby is saying.  “Sometimes you do everything you can, but some wounds just ain’t ever gonna heal all the way. And you just gotta let that be okay, or it’ll eat you up forever. He’s never going to be what you remember.”

“Yeah,” Dean says finally. “Yeah, okay. I know. I just-”  Dean scrubs a hand over his face.  “What if he looks like that forever?”

--

Dean will never look him in the eyes, but whenever Castiel goes to him with a bleeding cut on his hand, he’ll take Castiel’s arm in his hands and rest it in his lap. He’ll wipe the blood away with alcohol pads and rub antibiotic ointment across the wound and wrap it up in a bandage or cover it with a bandage.  Dean will leave him alone for weeks at a time and then pull Castiel to the side one morning and rip off the gauze covering the blisters on Castiel's face.  He will go over the blisters, each one, cleaning away the pus and covering the blisters with clean gauze.

He is hurting, he aches all the way down to his bones.  He goes to Dean even though there’s nothing bleeding and he isn’t sure why. He isn’t sure Dean will even look at him. But Dean puts down his tools and places his forefingers on Castiel’s pulse and asks him what hurts.

“There’s nothing wrong with you,” Dean says. Castiel feels something shut down inside him at that.

“I need a bandage,” he says. “Mine came off.”

“Okay,” Dean says. He wipes his hands slowly on rag, working the motor oil and dust off his fingers.  “Okay.” He leaves the car in pieces on the shop floor and his tools scattered around on the shop floor and takes Castiel to the kitchen. He puts a bandage on every spot that Castiel points too.

“This too?” he asks.  

“Yes,” Castiel says to every piece of skin Dean touches.  “That hurts.  There.  There.  There."

He sits next to Dean at the table and it feels like it always has, being near Dean. Almost as though nothing had ever happened. Almost as if things were exactly the same. Castiel closes his eyes and loves this moment with everything in him. When he opens his eyes, Dean is looking at him. It feels like being jolted back to reality after dreaming.  

He has been smiling.  The movement tugs at the sores around the corners of his mouth.  He stops, because Dean is staring.  Not quite meeting his eyes. Just staring at somewhere slightly off the center of his face.  Dean has never looked at him like this before.   Castiel would have known.

“What?” Castiel asks.

“I say something funny?”

“No.”

“I must have. You were smiling.”

Castiel shifts in his seat. He shrugs uncomfortably.   “I’m sorry.”

“No, i just meant--” Dean sighs.  “I just meant,” he is saying quietly, “I only meant that it’s nice. You smiling.”

Castiel closes his eyes against the pain.  I deserve this, Castiel thinks. It hurts and I deserve it.  Every day, like Prometheus waking up with eagles' claws tearing his eyes out of his face.  This is his punishment.

That night he wakes up and Dean is standing over him in the darkness. Dean is bending over him. Castiel can feel his breath on his cheek. And Dean is climbing on the couch beside him, putting his arms around his chest, resting his head by Castiel’s.  

Castiel doesn’t say anything.  But Dean keeps talking, murmuring words in his ear. He says, You were dead, Cas. You were dead and I was so sorry.

 --

Sometimes he tries to talk, but whatever he says seems to make Dean seethe inside. Sometimes he walks into a room and Dean will look up and see him and leave.  Just like that.  Like Dean can't even stand to be in the same room with him.  This isn’t what i wanted, he thinks despairingly.  Not this.  I can’t live like this.  

He can't heal Sam.  He can't fix his mistakes.  If he has to live, he can't live like this.

He waits for it. He knows it’s coming and all he can thinking about is what he’ll do when it finally happens.  Money, he thinks, food, clothes, shelter. He’ll need all these things, if he intends to live.  If he intends to survive on his own.  He feels oddly untouched by panic at these thoughts.  Some distant part of him has already accepted that he will have to figure out a plan when Dean asks him to leave. But what he is concerned about right now is Dean asking him to go. He waits for it.  When he hears footsteps fall outside his door, he is convinced it will be Dean, Dean standing in the door frame. Saying it’s time for him to go.

He has been given a degree of mercy, being allowed to stay here.  And he has taken enough.  If he stays, it will be for a lifetime of Dean’s sideways glances, the ones that say You’re not the same. you’re not who you used to be. You’re not who I thought you were.

I’ll just go, he thinks wildly.  Let me just leave. Before he has to ask me to.  Before I take too much.  Let me leave.

He does not have money. He does not have a wallet or i.d. or a duffel bag.  In the end he plans to simply slip out the door in the middle of the night with the clothes on his back and a bottle of water from Bobby’s fridge and start walking.  He assumes it will be less awkward for everyone this way. No goodbye, no half hearted protests for him to stay and recover a while longer. He knows in his heart that he has healed all he will ever heal.  When he touches the sores on his face, they are taut and ridged to the touch. When he tries to smile at himself in the mirror, his scars tug unpleasantly.

I’ll beg, he thinks. After all, that is what lepers have done for centuries. Scavenging for scraps of food.  

He opens his eyes in the darkness of the library that night.  Sam is asleep.  Dean is not there. Castiel hears the sound of the tap running in the upstairs bathroom.  He steps over Sam's mattress and walks through to the kitchen.  He opens the refrigerator and takes a bottle of water, he sits on the floor and laces up his only pair of shoes, Dean's old work boots.  He opens the door slowly and closes it as quietly as he can.  

Dean is sitting on the porch.   He lifts his head but doesn't turn around.  "I hate you," he says.  Castiel stands where he is by the door and doesn't move.

"I know," he says.

"You're just going to leave," Dean says.  "You weren't even going to say goodbye.  Just like always.  I don’t know why I try to stop you."  He laughs.  It's an ugly sound.  Casiel flinches from it.  "Man," Dean says, "you must really fucking hate me.  I don't even blame you, I guess.  I got you back, even after what I did, and I treated you like shit."

"I don't hate you," Castiel says slowly.  

“I thought you loved me," Dean says.

Castiel feels a rush of anger, and it surprises him.  It runs up his arms and down his legs, he can feel it everywhere in his body.  His fingers curling against his palm, his tightened shoulders.  Dean has taken something Castiel didn’t even know could be taken.  

“That wasn’t your truth to know.”

“Well, here’s mine.  I loved you, and i thought you loved me back, and it wasn’t true. It was never true.”  Dean starts laughing, or maybe he's crying.  It’s a weak noise.  It’s smaller than Castiel would have supposed, the sound of Dean breaking.  

“You don’t love me.  You hate me.”

“I never meant that.”

“You do, though. Even before what I did, you didn’t care. Even when I was good.  You didn’t even care about me then.  You wouldn’t have cared if I died,” Castiel says tonelessly.  “In fact, I believe you would have preferred it.”

Dean is sitting there on the porch steps, so still. He is gripping the railing with one hand, so tight that Castiel can almost see it splinter.  “Is that what you think? Really, Cas?  I’d care, all right,” Dean is saying, so quietly that Castiel almost can’t hear it, “How could you? How could you think that about me?”  

“I don’t know.”

“I don’t know how,” Dean says.

“Know what?”

“How to show you,” he says.  “How to make you see.  I don’t know how to help you. I don’t know how to tell you, I don't know what to say.”

He looks at Dean and sees that he is hard and unrelenting and Castiel cannot find it in himself to even wish otherwise.  But then Dean’s head dips forward, and Castiel sees it then, the crack in Dean’s face, splintering around the corners of his eyes and mouth.  Castiel can’t stop looking at those cracks.  Castiel can hear every unsteady breath he takes, every one. 

“Don’t look at me,” Dean says.

“Why not?”

Dean lets loose a noise that sounds like sobbing.  Or laughing.  “Because I’m crying.”

“Why can’t I see you cry?”

“Jesus, Cas.  Just don't.  Don't look.”

“You never look at me,” Castiel says. “You never look at me, even when I want you to.  You can't even stand to look at me.  Stop pretending nothing’s wrong."  

There isn’t a sound, except Dean’s harsh breathing.  “Why didn’t you come to me?” Dean asks finally.  “Why didn’t you say anything? Why didn’t you tell me you felt like that?”

At last, they get to his own terrible truth, awesome in its bleakness.  “You wouldn't have cared.”

“When you died-”  Dean says, and stops.  He puts his face into his hands and breathes through his fingers.  His voice keeps catching.  “When you were dead, I was so sorry.  You were dead and I was so sorry. I think I never would have stopped being sorry that you were dead. I think I always would have wanted you back.”

“Why would you?”

“Because I care, okay? I didn’t mean it.  I didn’t want you dead,” Dean is saying. “I swear to God. I never wanted you to be dead. I never did.  I didn’t mean it, when I said that to you.”  He drops his hands and Castiel can see it then, how his eyes are soft and wet, and Castiel goes to him, he can't even stop himself.  He sits down on the step next to Dean and puts his hand on Dean's shoulder.  

“Don’t cry,” Castiel says helplessly. “Please don’t."

“I was going to let you die thinking I hated you. I wanted you to die thinking that. That you deserved it. That I’d never forgive you.  How could you ever forgive me for that? For wanting you to suffer?"

"I should suffer," Castiel says.  "God knows.  That's why I'm here."

“He could have taken you. He could have left you dead. But He brought you back to me,” Dean is saying, “so there, you can’t say that, it’s not true.”

“God doesn’t care. God hates me. And worse, so do you.  You wanted me to die, and I should have.”

"No," Dean says.  "No."

“I can never be the same. I can’t be what I was. Not after what I’ve done.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Dean says. “You’re still my best friend.”  

He closes his eyes.  When he opens them again, Dean is looking at him: Not hard, not angry.  Dean has never looked at him like this before.  Dean has never looked at him as though he is something Dean doesn’t want to lose.  Dean looks right in his eyes and Castiel can’t stand it, he wants to look away but Dean won’t let him.  Dean draws up his ruined face and presses their foreheads together.  Dean bends his head and presses his mouth against the scars on Castiel’s cheek.  Castiel can barely feel it through the layers of dead skin and scar tissue, but Dean kisses him anyway. Dean is kissing him right where his lip is scarred from the blister that covered it, Dean is kissing the scars on the edge of his mouth, Dean is kissing the cracking skin on Castiel’s forehead as though those marks aren't even there.  Like they don’t matter.   Like Dean can see straight through those cracks and into whatever Castiel has that might pass for a soul.  “I’ll always like you,” he is saying into the hair by Castiel’s temple.  “I’ll always like you, no matter what.”

Castiel tries to turn his head, but Dean stays close.  "I'm a monster."

"No, you're not."

"I'm a bad person," Castiel warns him, "I'll never be a good person again."

"You’re not bad. That’s just how you feel.  It’s not what you are."

"How do you know?"

"No one can hate you more than you hate yourself," Dean says. "Believe me. I know." Castiel remembers the soul he once found in hell.  He supposes that Dean really does know, that he knows all about that feeling.  "I know you.  I’m not afraid of your darkness. I can take it, whatever it is."

“You can’t say that,” Castiel tells him, “you don’t know what I might do next, I’ll be worse and you won’t care enough to stop me--”

Dean is looking at him, looking at Castiel with the scars on his face and the cracks in his skin, the raw places underneath.  Dean is touching the marks on Castiel's face with his fingers.  “I will,” Dean says. “I promise you.  I will.”