The buzzing of the generator light is deafening.
“Dad?” Sam croaks out.
Dean can’t get his mouth to move. He thinks if he tried to get a single word out, it would turn into a cry. The way his father displaces the air in Dean’s home, in Dean’s safe space, in the domestic sphere Dean has created with his family. He feels ghostly, floating outside of himself and watching.
“What the hell is going on here?” John demands.
“W-well,” Sam stutters, sounding shocked, “I don’t know. Dean got hit with a witch’s curse on our hunt last night, but-” He looks over at Dean’s pale face and his mouth snaps shut. Smart kid. Sam’s always been the smart one, and it looks like his brain is racing a mile a minute to get to the conclusion that Dean just realized.
The confusing jumble of the witch’s words from the night before starting to slot into understanding. Words like fear. Words like old wounds. Words like remember.
Oh god, does Dean remember.
It must not have revealed itself until Dean and Sam had returned to the bunker, because the bunker was a necessity for the reality of his fear. The idea of losing what feeble happiness he had hoarded under his body like gold.
“You got yourself hit with something, son? Sammy, maybe, but you oughta know better. Thought you said you could handle yourself.”
Dean can’t speak, can’t move, his heart is racing in his chest that doesn’t feel like his chest while the ghost of him walks to his bedroom and locks the door.
Just like that, Castiel strolls out of the hallway into the entry room below the balcony. It’s news to Dean that Cas was even in the Bunker. He had denied joining the brothers on their hunt in favor of helping with a particularly tricky subsection of heaven, but now he walks into the middle of the scene as if he had just been in the bathroom washing his hands.
All eyes go to Cas, but he’s staring down John. Castiel has never been the most threatening-looking person alive, but the energy of his grace seeps out like a fog. There is an unshakable feeling that Cas’s unassuming nature is hiding something darker, like it would only take a second for some horror to come crawling out of him.
It’s bizarre, the way that the silence spreads out between the four of them then. The quiet of the air is thick and pungent, stifling the lungs of oxygen. Cas is the one finally brave enough to break it.
“Mr. Winchester,” he addresses John and steps forward. He stands between the two parties like a wall, the brothers on one side and their father on the other. Dean’s stomach rolls.
There’s something wrong, he can tell. Something off about the way Cas said the words. Cas’s usual gentle cadence is stilted now, just friendly enough to sound polite, but with something biting underneath. A rattlesnake in the brush. It’s only Dean’s familiarity with Cas’s voice that makes the change recognizable. His back tenses.
John doesn’t seem to notice, just juts his chin at Cas, “Who the hell are you?”
“I am Castiel. I am an Angel of God.” It’s blunt. There’s no pride in it, no compensation. His very presence is a fact and a threat at one time.
“No such thing,” John says undeterred.
“It’s true,” Sam pipes up meekly beside Dean. Meek is not a word Dean has ever used to describe Sam, especially not now when he’s grown and built like a truck. But it’s like seeing John has taken all of the confidence out of him, and he cowers. It makes Dean see red in a way he hasn’t in a very long time. “He’s an angel. They’re real.”
“Alright, then. Prove it,” John taunts with his tongue pushed into the pouch of his bottom lip cockily. As if he’s the one running the show. Maybe he is.
Dean thought he’d escaped this. He thought he’d finally gotten away from those horrible looks, those mean words, the terrible things his dad made him do because he was calling the shots. Back when disobedience looked like a suspiciously broken nose or starvation. There’s a panic rising in his chest, and he has to manually slow his breathing to hide it.
“There is nothing to prove, Mr. Winchester.” Cas is drawn, stoic. He remains an unmovable barrier.
“Dean,” John barks, and Dean thinks he might be sick. “Tell your buddy here he better get a move on with a halo before I make any rash decisions.”
But he’s not even looking at Dean. John is staring down Castiel as he says it, a manic glint in his eye. The sort of look that says You don’t even want to know the fucked up shit I’ve done. It’s damn convincing, too. Dean knows the fucked up shit John has done, has bared witness to it, and it ain’t pretty. But the thought of John threatening Cas is even worse, makes Dean’s hand twitch at his belt for his gun. There is no question in his mind of whether he would really kill John for Cas or not.
Before Dean can respond, Castiel steps in once again. His voice is clipped.
“Mr. Winchester, it seems as though there’s been a misunderstanding. Let’s start from the beginning-”
“My name is John. Enough with the faggy Mr. Winchester shit. I ain’t a defendant and I ain’t a patient.”
The whole room freezes. Sam flinches minutely before his hands tighten into fists, but he says nothing. Dean can feel the vein in his temple pushing the surface. He clenches his jaw until he can hear his teeth grind, and that was it. The seething red is building in him, comes surging up into his throat, and he opens his mouth-
“John.” Castiel’s voice rings out as he repeats the man’s name back to him, cutting Dean off before he can speak, almost as if Cas was speaking for him. But there was no way that Castiel was taking the words out of Dean’s mouth because Dean would never have sounded like that.
It’s sickening, really, the way that Cas states John’s name. If the danger in his tone was lurking below the surface before, it is lit like a neon sign at midnight now. It’s cold and metallic like a bullet. It makes Dean’s blood curdle. It makes Dean very glad that he is not John Winchester.
He watches as Castiel extends his hand as an invitation to shake. “John,” he says again. “Now that we’re formally acquainted.”
John scoffs, raises his eyebrows, and stares down at Cas’s hand. “Funny.”
“Shake my hand like a real man, John. Cowardice is unbecoming of you.”
All of the tension in the room has turned to gunpowder, and Castiel just dropped a match into it.
“You motherfucker,” John growls, going in to grab Cas’s outstretched hand and yank him to the ground. Dean freezes in terror as he looks on, feels Sam move beside him as he makes as though to lunge into the fray.
But there is no fray to lunge into, just the familiar crack of a bone breaking.
John grunts in pain, Castiel’s hand wrapped around his now limp wrist. He struggles to escape, pulls his good arm back to throw a punch that never lands because Cas catches his fist. Another crack.
“I think you’re right.” Cas’s voice is a void. “You are no Winchester.”
Dean can only look on in horror, in gratitude, in disgusting glee, in every emotion that intersects at that moment. He’s not sure what to do, if he should tell Cas to back off. Dean knows Cas would listen to him. The whole show is rubbing a little too close to Dean’s time in Hell, watching and participating in bloodlust like a sport. He needs to help his dad. He doesn’t want to.
“Cas,” Sam says, breaking Dean’s internal struggle and making the decision for him, “Cas, you gotta let go of him.”
It only takes the second of Castiel releasing John for the man to pull back, his arms crossed across his chest like a mummy to protect his broken wrists. He’s got a slanted smile on his face.
“So, you boys got yourselves a guard dog. You should teach him some manners.”
Castiel moves at his words, stepping closer, but he stops when it’s Dean that calls out his name this time.
But he can offer nothing else, now that all three sets of eyes are on him, and the weight of his dead father’s gaze feels like a cement block tied to his ankle when he tries to go swimming.
Sam rescues him. “Cas, Dean got hit with a curse last night when we were cleaning up that witch's nest. We need to figure out what’s going on.”
“Pathetic,” John rolls his eyes.
Castiel snaps his fingers and John lets out a yell, though nothing about him physically seems to change.
“It would do you well to remain quiet, John, unless you would like me to break the toes on your other foot, too.”
And then Sam and Cas are huddled around him, blocking John from his view and creating a shield. Dean’s eyes glance between each of their faces, but he doesn’t know what to say. They look worried.
“Sam,” Castiel eventually says, as though he understands that talking to Dean may not yield any results, “what do you remember about the witch’s curse?”
“Ahhh, fuck, I think it was something about old fears and remembering things. Something-something-” And then it must click because his face lights up. “Old wounds!” he finishes excitedly but in a hushed tone. “That was definitely it. Something about old wounds that hadn’t been healed.”
And then that same dawning realization hits the two of them at once, and they look back to Dean again. Sam’s hand finds its way to Dean's shoulder, and Dean has to take a deep breath in to remind himself that it’s just Sam. He looks at his brother and sees the sympathy, the hurt, the anger for Dean in his eyes.
“Dean,” Sam says softly, protectively. It’s odd, being on the opposite side of an interaction like this. “I think that you have to heal your old wounds with dad to break the curse.”
“I can’t.” The words are out of his mouth before he thinks them.
Cas and Sam both look at each other, then back at Dean.
“You can, Dean. It’s- this is- I don’t know everything that happened with you and Dad, okay? I’m not gonna pretend to know. But you gotta work through this, man, curse or not. I wish you- I wish I would’ve known. I could’ve helped.”
Dean shoots him a glare out of principle. He knows Sam means well, but this, this is a lot deeper than Dean just not getting along with their dad the way that Sam never did.
“I don’t need help, I need the fucker to stay dead.”
“Sam is right, Dean,” Cas pipes up, but his eyes are gentle, any hint of his vicious tone moments before completely forgotten.
Dean looks away and clenches his jaw.
“I know, Dean.” Cas’s voice is determined enough to make Dean look back at him. “When I rebuilt you, I saw many things. I know what he has done, to both you and Sam. This needs to be handled. You deserve to move past the way that man made you feel. Because he is dead, Dean. The thing with us now is just a mimicry of the pain your father caused you. John Winchester is dead.”
“I’m still right here you know,” John calls tauntingly, all but forgotten in the background.
Castiel’s features twist so rapidly it’s almost untrackable, and then he’s snapping his fingers again, causing John to curse.
“Oops.” The look on Cas’s face is anything but apologetic.
But Dean is frozen. He feels like tissue paper being shredded apart under the tap of a kitchen sink, and he can’t do this, can’t do this, can’t do this. He can’t look into those cold eyes and pretend that things are fine. Dean knows he’s good at pretending, even better when the thing he’s avoiding is already six feet under, but he can barely own up to his shit in the bathroom mirror, let alone in front of Cas and Sam. In front of his father.
Sam’s voice brings his drifting ghost back into his body.
“Dean.” The steadying hand still on his shoulder squeezes. “The longer it takes to work through this, the longer he’s gonna be here.” Sam’s voice is grim and sympathetic, the way it always is when he has to deliver bad news. “But Cas and I aren’t leaving. You don’t have to do this alone.”
“Yes, I do,” Dean snaps.
“Why?” Sam seems agitated now, his brows furrowed and a frown on his face. “You know what? Scratch that, I’m not letting you.”
“Neither am I,” Cas butts in after seeing the way Dean scowls.
“This isn’t any of your fucking business, anyway.”
“Dean,” Cas practically growls, “I am not letting you do this alone because you don’t have to. I’m staying with you. As is Sam.”
When it’s clear that neither man is going to budge, Dean pushes Sam’s hand off of his shoulder. “Let’s get this over with, then.”
Cas and Sam both separate to let him through, to the other side of hell that’s waiting for him, but a hand on his other shoulder, his left shoulder, stops him.
“What, Cas?” He knows his voice is flat, dead in his throat, but that’s how it has to be. There is no room left in him for emotion with the task ahead of him. It’s better to go in already broken.
Suddenly, Cas’s mouth is right next to his ear, his breath on the side of Dean’s face. “This is not really your father, Dean. John Winchester is indeed dead. However, this mimicry of him will not touch you. That is a promise.” Cas’s voice has soured again into something dark, and it doesn’t take a genius to understand what he means.
Dean looks ahead to where Sam is forcing not-John to his knees. He glances up at Dean and Cas, and whatever he sees on Dean’s face makes him nod to himself, his features turning cold as he pulls his gun from his waistband and holds it unyieldingly against the back of John’s head.
It settles something deep in Dean’s chest that he wouldn’t admit. The weight of Cas’s body and Cas’s words steadying him, watching as Sam takes action. Maybe they were right.
“Okay,” Dean says, and he means it in more than one way.
They walk up to where John kneels together, where Cas takes a step back to give Dean space. Dean doesn’t know whether he appreciates the gesture or wants the angel to prop him up so that his legs don’t crumble underneath him.
“What the hell is going on?” John demands. “Dean, tell Sam to put his gun down.”
His heart is beating so hard. It bumps against his esophagus, it’s in his ears. His hands are shaking.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing, boy?” John asks the way he used to right before he’d strike Dean across the face, and Dean is swallowing down bile. But Sammy isn’t in danger of John’s overflowing wrath anymore, and Dean doesn’t have to let his own body be used as a punching bag to protect him. No, Sam is currently a hulking presence above their father with a Glock in his hand, and he’s giving Dean an encouraging nod.
“Apparently, I’m healing some old wounds.”
For some reason, John must think it’s funny because his cold laugh bounces off of the concrete walls.
“I hate you,” Dean blurts, and then realizes it’s the truth. The laughter cuts off abruptly, and it fuels the red feeling in Dean’s chest. “Yeah, you know what, I hate you.” Maybe this wouldn’t be as hard as he thought.
“Hate me?” John grins. “I raised you, I’m the reason you’re even half the man you are today. You should be thanking me for all I did for you. Bailing you out when you inevitably fucked up, always saving you and Sam because you couldn’t look after yourself. You barely graduated high school, Dean. You’re practically illiterate! You think you would’ve survived two weeks without me?”
Dean’s face burns in embarrassment, at the truth of John’s words, and the fact that Sam and Cas are there to hear them. The gust in his sails shrinks into the size of a cannonball blowing his ship apart.
“Dean,” comes Sam’s voice. It’s quiet, and Dean knows what this is, knows that Sam is going to try to make him feel better, which makes his skin itch even worse. And this is why he couldn’t do this. Not with Sam and certainly not with Cas. “You might want to hurry up,” is what Sam actually says, “because if you don’t, I might end up shooting him before you’re done and I’m not sure if that would make things worse or better.”
His eyes snap up to catch Sam’s, and the overly sympathetic look that Dean was expecting isn’t there. Sam’s features are swathed in solidarity, rage barely concealed behind the thin line of his lips.
Sam’s words seem to stoke the fire, though, and John is yelling, struggling to stand with his arms still tucked against his chest. Dean can’t stop himself from taking a stumbling step back, his brain screaming at him to run, to save himself. But the soft sound of snapping of fingers behind him settles John Winchester back onto his knees and throws the Bunker into silence once again.
Dean looks over his shoulder with wide-eyes to find Cas with an expression bordering murderous. “He won’t be talking anymore,” Cas says simply. “You may continue, Dean.”
But now it’s like all of the words have left Dean’s brain, left him with that gnawing feeling that maybe Dad is right, Dean is useless. He was never smart like Sam, he was never responsible the way his dad wanted him to be. And now, he knows what the open wound is. He knows that even by today’s standards that he’d be a failure in his father’s eyes, if John was still alive to see it.
An apocalypse is nothing, saving the world is nothing, because he didn’t save Sam that first time around, and everything after that… What happened to Sam was his fault, and he knew John would never let him live it down. And then the years kept coming, and he was never there for Sam the way he should've been, remembers all the bitter things he’s said and all the way that he’s hurt Sam. He tried to kill him. He thinks he may be trembling.
“I-” he tries, but that’s all that comes out.
“You know what I think,” Sam says conversationally. He looks down at John. “I think you’re a literal sack of shit. I think that Dean was the only person there for me while you were out living your jerk off fantasy of avenging your wife while you left your two kids to starve. I think that Dean raised me into more of a man than you ever could have. I think that Dean raised himself into more of a man than you ever could have. I think that the only reason I had the opportunities I did was because of Dean. I also think that Dean has better critical reading skills than you do.”
Sam looks up at him, his eyes warm, his face tense. They flicker to a spot over Dean’s shoulder. “Anything you want to add, Cas?”
“Yes. You are correct in your observation, Sam. Dean is extremely intelligent. If he had the right opportunities, he could have attended Stanford with you if he so chose.”
That actually garners a humorless laugh out of Dean, at the same time that Sam says, “Yeah, that adds up.”
Dean freezes. He looks down at his father, then back up at Sam. “What adds up?”
Sam rolls his eyes. “Dean, you’re, like, the smartest idiot that I know. You literally turned your Walkman into an EVP reader.” At Dean’s blank look, Sam’s face pinches. “You don’t actually believe what he just said to you, right? You’re not stupid just because you didn’t go to college, and you’re definitely not illiterate.”
Of course not, Dean means to say, roll his eyes, bluff, but he hesitates. And Sam knows him too well because that’s all it takes for him to curse under his breath. Sam breathes through his nose, out through his mouth, and then again.
“How was I supposed to know?” Dean snaps, on edge and defensive. “That’s all I ever fucking heard once you moved out. Not like anyone really told me differently.”
“Dean, that’s not-” Sam’s mouth twitches downwards, “Not why I-” He grunts, looks back down at not-John. “God, putting a bullet in your head wouldn’t even be enough for me, ‘cause you’re not even him. When this is over, I’m gonna take a drive and piss on your grave. Cas?”
“I have no certain appreciation for suffering, but I can assure you that hearing John’s screams while I broke each individual bone in his body would be an act of meditation for me,” Cas replies plainly.
Dean stands between them, dumbfounded. He looks over his shoulder at Cas, back at Sam, and then down at John, who looks decidedly annoyed with the turn of events. He can feel Sam watching him.
“Alright, Dean, we got the opening act out of the way. The crowd’s warmed up, so, whenever you’re ready.” Sam then adds, softer, “Whatever you need to say.”
But Dean never knows what to say, even when it’s obvious, even when it should be easy. The saying is the admitting, and Sam and Cas are standing expectantly. He doesn’t know what to say. John’s face is slanted up at him, smirking. Dean makes himself look. Every instinct in his body is telling him to turn away, and John’s eyes are like two lumps of coal, like the eerily still, artificial gaze of a snowman.
Dean punches him. There’s a crunch when his knuckles hit nose, and then blood is spewing onto the ground. And there’s no off switch now, no going back, as he pummels the unliving hell out of John Winchester. Hook after hook, and Dean knows how to throw a fucking punch, knows just how to make contact to break bone, and there’s satisfaction spreading through Dean’s chest. And it’s so easy from the angle, gravity on his side as he swings down.
He wonders how long he’s been at it. No one has stopped him, and the abrasions on his knuckles miraculously heal themselves after every blow. There’s sweat beading at his hairline. The bones in John’s face probably look like the crumbs at the bottom of a potato chip bag.
“You,” Dean grinds the word out between his teeth, “You made my life hell. I was four years old the first time I saw you put a bullet in someone’s head. Four-” Crack. “Years-” Crack. “Old. Twelve the first time I shot someone. I should’ve been playing with Nerf guns. I should’ve been nervous about my first crush. I should’a been reading chapter books and learning about football.” He feels the beginning of a sob pulling in his chest. “I could’ve been a kid. I could’ve gone to college.”
If not-John had been a real person, Dean is almost positive he’d be dead by now. His eyes are swallowed by the swollen skin around them, a sickly purple color, with veins burst right and left across his cheeks. There’s not an inch of his skin that hasn’t been touched by blood.
“And it’s your fault,” Dean snarls, catching the collar of John’s shirt to hold him in place. “Not mine. None of this- is my fault.” It’s a realization that seems to catch him by his throat and choke him, whatever words he was going to say next now stuck.
Finally, he pulls back, not sure what else to do, not sure what’s left to say. He’s panting, jaw clenched and making the breath whistle between his teeth on its way in, when he looks over to where Sam was and is met with empty space.
Dean turns around, and Sam is standing beside Cas, the gun he was holding seemingly safely tucked back into his waistband. They’re both staring down where their hands are clasped in front of them like the Secret Service, and the sight makes Dean frown in confusion before it clicks. That they’re trying to give him privacy without leaving him by himself.
And, despite everything, Dean feels lucky. Lucky to still have Sam by his side and to call him on his shit. Lucky to call Cas a friend, the devoted way that he’s always there right when Dean needs him. Lucky that he has his family. Lucky that John Winchester is not a part of it anymore.
Dean looks back down at the disgusting mess of a man in front of him. He leans in, knows exactly what to say for the first time in his life. His viciously quiet voice carries through the room.
“I have a family, now, you see. I have a home, and it’s sweet as hell. I finally got myself all of the things that you never gave me. You’re a sorry fucking excuse of a person and an even sorrier excuse of a dad. The only thing that you ever did right was letting me raise Sam because I’m damn proud of who he grew up to be. And I have him, and I have Cas, and I have Charlie and Jody and Donna and Claire. And guess what? You’re rotting six feet under.” He gathers saliva in his cheeks and spits it onto not-John’s disfigured, unrecognizable face. “You can’t touch me, old man.”
It’s all rather anticlimactic when, just like that, the body puffs out of existence, leaving behind nothing but wisps of smoke that settle to the ground in the artificial lighting. The three men stand in silence, Dean’s heavy breathing the only movement in the room.
Sam looks at Dean and frowns, his eyes suspiciously wet. Dean opens his mouth to say something, crack a joke, deflate the tension, but Sam’s weight slams into him and knocks the air out of his lungs. And Sam is holding him close, strong arms wrapped around Dean’s back, and Dean knows there’s nothing to say. This is all they need, anyway.
There’s a tentative hand that settles on Dean’s shoulder between the tentacles of Sam’s arms, and Dean smiles, rolls his eyes to hide the way he’s secretly pleased.
“C’mon, Terminator, get in here.”
That’s how Dean finds himself sandwiched between two grown men in what is simultaneously the best and most awkward hug of his life.
When they all pull back, Dean clears his throat and shifts on his feet. “Uhhh…”
“Keys?” Sam asks helpfully.
“Keys?” Dean emphasizes. “Keys for what?”
“The Impala. I’ve got a grave that needs a golden shower,” Sam says, and Dean doesn’t know how the kid manages to look so damn serious when he’s on the verge of laughter.
This time when Dean opens his mouth, Cas is the one to cut him off.
“I’ve never done it before, but I could see if I can make this vessel defecate.” Cas is smirking, and then Sam is nearly on the floor in hysterics.
“Defe-what?” Dean asks, looking between the two.
It’s Sam who answers, cackling around his words. “Shit, Dean. Cas is gonna make himself shit on Dad’s grave.” And then he’s off again, gagging around his own breathing.
“Try to shit,” Cas corrects.
“Wait, you’d really do that for me?”
Cas raises an eyebrow, “You mean defecate on your dead father’s grave?”
Dean frowns. “Well, when you put it like that.”
“There is no other way to put it, Dean, that’s what I’d be doing.” Dean just shrugs, and Cas’s face softens from mischievous to something more honest. “I was joking about the defecation, but in seriousness, there aren’t many things I wouldn’t do for you or your brother.”
“Yeah, I know, Cas.” Dean reaches out to grab Cas’s elbow, “And, uh, thanks. Ya know. For everything.”
And Cas does know, because he replies, “You’re welcome, Dean,” and smiles, and then they’re just smiling at each other like two idiots.
“Hey,” Sam interrupts, looking between the two of them and shaking his head, huffing a laugh out his nose at whatever he sees. “Make sure you grab a water bottle for the trip. Don’t wanna pull up with an empty bladder.”