Hell changes everyone, and it had changed Dean Winchester. Standing in Bobby Singer's kitchen, his back against the counter, he downed a series of heavy-handed whiskeys then grabbed a beer from the fridge. When he strolled into the living room Bobby jabbed a stubby finger at the map on his desk, hitting Brandon, South Dakota. Twenty minutes away, tops.
"You boys could be looking at as many as three demons."
Sam checked his watch. "And you need the artifact by midnight to complete the ritual?"
Dean drank. Lately, every mission had a time crunch, and it was demons on every channel. He moved a stack of books from a chair to the floor and sat, flinging his boots onto a worn footstool with a satisfying whump.
"Yep." Bobby motioned to the eleven magical herbs and spices cluttering his desk. "I'll git everything set, but if you aint' back by midnight I might as well be making potpourri here."
"It's a tight timeline," Sam said. He looked anxiously at his brother. "Maybe we should bring Castiel in on this."
"No!" Dean slammed his beer on the chair arm, bringing foam up the neck of the bottle. "No heavenly hall monitor. We do this on our own."
Bobby and Sam gave him bitchface in stereo, but he didn't care. Cas was too distracting. Just last week, while routing a nest of vamps, Dean had caught himself admiring how Cas looked with blood on his face. The dark spray from a beheaded bloodsucker had spattered his pale skin and Dean had wanted to—well, he'd just say that the urges he'd felt in that moment weren't anything he'd done outside of Hell. And Hell was where those cravings belonged, not in some dingy vamp nest, or stealing glimpses in the Impala's rearview mirror as they fled the scene, and not in the shitty hotel room where he'd quickly drank himself into unconsciousness. Dean told himself that thoughts like this were a hangover from his time in Hell and he needed to ride it out. But he longed to grab Cas by the neck, smash him against a wall, tear off that stupid suit and—Dean felt the Impala drift into the wrong lane and redirected his focus. Right. Driving. On a job.
As they hurdled along I-90 Dean wondered if some part of him had never left Hell. Maybe forty years in The Pit with Alistair had rewired his brain. Memories of that smooth demonic voice came when he least expected it. But Alistair was dead, so maybe the voice was his own and he was too chickenshit to admit it.
What he could admit was that he was being a lousy friend to Cas. The guy had sacrificed everything for them—hell, he'd freakin' died—and the least he deserved was a sympathetic ear when it came to his God issues. He was going through some kind of angel adolescence and Dean knew better than most how it felt to have an absent father. But the last time they'd tried to have buddy-bonding time it had turned into a staring contest and Dean had slapped a friendly hand on his shoulder and leaned forward just a little, and Cas had tilted his head. The moves were First Kiss 101, and with Sam out of the motel for at least four hours it begged to be more than just a kiss. And then Dean pictured everything that might entail, and the thoughts hit him like a sledgehammer to the groin. He'd bolted for the bathroom and stayed there until he emerged to an empty room.
It wasn't that Cas was a dude. At least, he didn't think that was it. One of the perks of being a hunter, of knowing that any night might be his last, was the freedom to live in the moment. Theoretically, anyhow. It wasn't like he'd put that to the test. If he didn't count The Pit—and why the hell should he?—then he'd never even kissed a guy. But there was a first time for everything.
Things got weirder when Dean considered that he hadn't been attracted to Jimmy Novak. It wasn't homophobia or whatever, like Sam would say. Dean was fine with people being gay. He just wasn't. And if called upon he could produce a string of sexually satisfied women to testify to that. Sure, Jimmy was easy on the eyes, but when Dean looked at him all he saw was Cas' absence. Logically, he knew he was looking at the same body, but Cas looked more…he didn't wanna say anything as mushy as beautiful, but whatever word he was looking for, it was in the same ballpark.
With any other work-affecting situation Dean would have broken down and finally asked for Sam's advice. His eyes flickered right to where his brother was folded into the passenger seat. But Sam was wearing his 'disappointed in you' face, all pinched lips and wrinkled forehead. Dean saw enough of that look already, he didn't need a lecture on how wrong it was to want to defile an angel of the Lord.
The fact that Cas was an angel wasn't the deterrent it should be either. He'd slept with Anna fast enough. Of course it helped that her vessel was a hot chick. If Cas had a female vessel he'd probably have made a move ages ago. But he didn't. He'd shown up wearing a religious salesman who was probably as straight as the road from Bismarck to Fargo. Dean chewed absently at the dry skin on his bottom lip. Would he even be having this issue if Cas' vessel looked like Zachariah? That was a tough one. The fact that his answer was a strangled 'Maybe?' didn't help.
Of course the thing that really brought his bacon cheeseburgers up for an encore was what he imagined doing with Cas, and the fact that it bore more resemblance to being with Alistair than it did to being with Anna. Maybe that was because Alistair had given torture a slimy sheen of romance. His first time on the rack Alistair had held him close and sang, "Heaven…I'm in Heaven…and my heart beats so that I can hardly speak…." It was creepy, obscene, and effective. He supposed that should have told him something about demon humor.
Since his almost-kiss with Cas Dean had tried to keep his time with the angel purely PG, but whether they were eating in a diner or watching a movie on a motel television, his mind kept slipping into 'R for Extreme Violence' territory. Dean told himself that this weird mix of aggressive sexual feelings were just his body's messed up way of saying 'thanks for saving me from Hell,' but he was pretty sure it went further than that. He'd had forgotten what it was like to have a pure thought when it came to Cas.
He drowned his thoughts in scotch, but that came at a price, and tonight the price was slow reflexes. And those got hunters dead. The warehouse in Brandon was dark and smelled like rust and blood. The black-eyed bastard he was fighting was strong and fast, and it knocked the Kurdish knife from his hand with a clatter and gripped him by the throat. The demon had the advantage of height and weight and it lifted Dean until his boots barely grazed the floor. If it had been intent on killing him outright it would have succeeded. But like so many of its kind, it craved attention.
"Dean Winchester, eh?" It squeezed his neck, breaking the blood vessels in his skin, then leaned in like a lover, and Dean could smell its rancid breath. "They were right about you downstairs. So pretty." The demon licked him from jaw to hairline, and Dean flinched, but couldn't turn his head away. "Your meatsuit would look great on me."
Dean gave a pained smile and used the last of the air in his lungs. "You couldn't pull it off like I can." His vision began to blur. He didn't have time for this. They needed to gank these sons of bitches and get the whatzit to Bobby before the clock ran out. He fumbled for the flask of holy water in his pocket, but his fingers felt like sausages. His vision got dark and he knew he was losing. Losing meant he could stop fighting. Stop everything. It was tempting.
Sam exorcised the demon he was fighting and turned to his brother, seeing the knife on the floor. In one smooth motion he grabbed it and stabbed the remaining demon in the back. Dean could see the annoyance on his brother's face, and almost hear him think, 'Do I have to do everything?' And below that, a deeper question, 'What is wrong with you?' It was one Dean had been asking himself.
Sam retrieved the artifact for Bobby—Dean couldn't even remember what it was—and headed back to the Impala. Wordlessly, his brother slipped into the driver's seat and Dean handed over the keys without argument. As they drove, Foghat's 'Slow Ride' blared from the stereo. 'Take it easy,' the song said.
"Are you okay?" Sam was using his big-boy voice. In moments like this Dean could hear the lawyer his brother could have been.
"Stop asking me that. And don't miss the turn for the Interstate." Sam shot him a glare and hit the signal.
Dean crossed his arms and turned toward the window as if trying to sleep. He was sick of being asked if he was okay, and he was sick of knowing that the answer was always 'No.'
"I'd love to stop asking. But tonight, well…." Sam shrugged. He didn't need to say it. Dean knew he'd been useless out there.
"Give it a rest, Sammy. I had a bad night." The window mirrored Dean's face back to him with each light they drove through. Even his reflection looked disappointed in him.
"If you say so." Sam pulled onto the Interstate. "But this isn't the first bad night you've had lately."
Dean knew it. Just last week he'd flung what should have been holy water into a demon's face only to splash the son of a bitch with whisky. He wasn't even sure how it had happened. Maybe he'd forgotten to stock up before the job. Maybe he'd thought he needed the booze more than the weapon. And on every one of his screw-ups, Sam was there, picking up the slack. This wasn't how it was supposed to work. A big brother was supposed to protect you, not be a weight you had to carry. Chalk up another failure for Dean Winchester.
He shifted so he could see Sam, jaw clenching and hands tight on the steering wheel. He would do better next time. He had to. The worry lines in Sam's forehead were getting deep.
Dean tried to lighten the mood. "Is every demon we meet friggin' gay?"
"No," Sam said, the tension still in his voice. "I don't know. Is that even applicable to demons?"
"Well that last one called me pretty." Dean wiped a hand down his face, still feeling the lick on his skin.
Sam smirked, his dimples flashing out. "Well, there's no accounting for taste."
Dean Winchester was in pain. Castiel could see it in the way his shoulders tensed, his brow tightened and his lips pulled down at the sides. Sometimes Dean looked at him as if he were about to ask a question but didn't want to speak until he had read the answer in the angel's face. But each time Dean's features would harden and he would look away. Castiel wished he knew the answer so he could give it. The hunter's pain was getting worse. And like any wounded animal, Dean had begun to hide, calling upon him with less frequency, and rejecting his help when it was offered.
"What the hell's wrong with you, man?" Dean had asked. "Can't you take a damn break and like it?" Castiel assumed the questions had been rhetorical.
Having a forced break was worrisome, but not inopportune, as Castiel was having problems of his own. He suspected his vessel was deteriorating. Sometimes, in the Impala or the hotel, his stomach and chest felt constricted. He had assumed the feeling was the result of the large order of spiral-cut fried potato Dean had insisted he eat, and had taken an over-the-counter medication for acid reflux to no avail.
Once, during one of his silent communication sessions with Dean, his blood had begun rushing through his veins, and his breathing became shallow and fast. Something important seemed about to happen, and he was certain that Dean was finally going to ask his question. And then Dean had become ill, sequestering himself in the bathroom despite protesting that he was "just fine." Castiel had taken the opportunity to visit a walk-in clinic where a harried doctor who was cheating on his wife and his taxes had attached sensors to his chest and assured him he wasn't having a cardiac episode. Since then he'd had bouts of vasocongestion in his reproductive organs, and this evening there was a discomfort in his testes. He hoped that Dean would be able to explain the phenomena. He'd been living as a human male his entire life.
Castiel waited in the cheapest motel in Kansas City, while Sam Winchester slept sprawled on the next bed over. It was 3:00 a.m. when Dean returned, intoxicated, and smelling of perfume and bodily secretions. Castiel turned his nose away.
"Damn it, Cas. You scared the crap outta me." His voice was a slurred whisper. He flipped a switch to turn on a bedside lamp and squinted against the brightness. "Why are you sitting in the dark? That's just creepy, man."
Dean made such arbitrary judgments. He'd had no problem sitting in the dark at the Motor Inn in Fort Scott, Kansas, when he'd insisted the two of them watch The Empire Strikes Back. That had been the third time Castiel had noticed the problem with his breathing and heart rate, and the first incident of vasocongestion. Dean had fled the room that time, too. The timing was unfortunate. Castiel's vessel issues and Dean's odd behavior had distracted him from the film's intriguing theology.
With the lamp on, the bruise on Dean's neck was clearly a handprint. The injury bothered him more than the hunter's battle scars usually did. His eyes followed it as Dean pulled off his jacket and dumped it onto a chair, the demon's handprint like another person in the room.
"You were gone a long time," Castiel said
"Got lucky." Dean grinned, but Castiel felt none of the joy that usually accompanied seeing this expression. "Remember the redhead from that all-night diner?" Dean's hands pantomimed large mammary glands.
Castiel nodded. "Her name was Nadine." That clenching in his stomach again. Unpleasant. Outside he could hear a dog bark, and a couple arguing.
"Was it?" Dean winced. "I think I called her Nancy. More'n a few times."
"Will you be seeing this Nadine again?" Castiel's heart was quickening, like he was about to go into battle. He wondered if he should seek a second opinion on his condition, perhaps from a doctor with a stronger personal commitment to honesty.
Dean shook his head. "Nah. We said our goodbyes and I Freebirded out of there. Besides, Sam and I are headed to Omaha tomorrow for that case with the guy and the… uh, skin thing." He removed his boots, steadying himself with a hand on the wall. Castiel watched his clumsy movements, estimating how much alcohol it would have taken to make Dean that intoxicated. Whatever Dean hoped this sizeable alcohol intake would accomplish, it wasn't healing his emotional injuries. Dean's soul was usually so bright and powerful and Castiel hated to see it cringe and curl in on itself like this.
"Your sexual conquests have been frequent lately." Castiel gritted his teeth, sifting through the confusing mix of emotions flooding him. Anger? Suspicion? Fear? Emotions originated in the human limbic system. Maybe his vessel was having a brain issue. He should see a neurologist.
The hunter's eyes narrowed. "You callin' me a slut, Cas?"
"I…" Castiel glanced at the pilling bedspread he was sitting on and then back again. Somehow they were having an argument again.
Dean approached him, his gait unsteady. "Don't sugarcoat it. Tell me how you really feel." In the light from the bedside lamp Castiel could see the tiny freckles on Dean's nose and cheekbones. And that handprint, clearer than ever. And now, up close, locking eyes, Castiel could sense his pain, raw and hot.
Dean waved an unsteady hand. "Don't try to change the subject. I'm fine."
"You are most certainly not fine." Castiel rose from the bed and reached toward Dean. "I could identify the source of the problem if you'd like."
Dean slapped his hand away, hard, and bared his teeth in a mammalian sign of aggression. "Keep your mind-raping mitts to yourself."
Castiel dropped his arm, perturbed. "You're misrepresenting the process. It is purely diagnostic." He felt a twist in his own chest and wondered if Dean's pain were contagious.
"Whatever you call it, keep it away. In fact, keep yourself away for a while." Dean brushed past him and collapsed onto the bed. "Stupid shiny blue…." The remainder of Dean's words were lost as he buried his face into the thin pillows.
Castiel left, reflecting on the fact that Dean Winchester was a stubborn man.