The Flip Side of the Coin
Well I looked my demons in the eyes,
Laid bare my chest, said do your best, destroy me.
You see, I've been to hell and back so many times,
I must admit you kind of bore me.
– Ray Lamontagne, Empty
Every time he wakes up, lately, there’s the angel.
Every time, actually, since that first waking, a few feet under in a pine box. He hadn’t known until later that it was Castiel yelling at him at the gas station or later in the motel room, but there the damn thing was whenever he came back from what little sleep he was able to get.
He remembered his mother saying angels watch over you, the last thing she ever said to him, and he wondered how she’d take it to know it turned out to be so damn literal. Wondered what his father would have done, at the very notion.
He also wondered if there was a way to get rid of them. He didn’t want things to turn into the last couple of seasons of the A-Team where the team had to do what that douchebag General said just because he’d gotten them out of having to serve prison terms. It had been lame. Some angel was not going to order him around. He’d been doing just fine kicking evil’s ass his whole life without some self-proclaimed angel of the Lord putting in its two cents. Shekels. Whatever.
Probably not even a real angel anyway.
Where were you, fucker, when my mom was burning on the ceiling, when Azazel had the run of the place?
And it didn’t want much with ordering Sam around, did it. Hadn’t even met Sam.
He struggled to refer to Castiel as a he, at least out of deference to the host he was dragging around, the holy tax accountant, but it would take some time. Prayed for or not, Dean really doubted that the guy was going to survive this prolonged possession any better than he would have from the average demon. He wondered if the guy was sequestered somewhere in there, freaking out and trying to take his body back, and being ignored. He’d never been possessed and he sure as hell hadn’t been about to ask Sam what it had been like.
He tried not to think about how he and Bobby had put a few holes in the guy. And he’d stabbed him with Ruby’s knife. If the guy hadn’t been a goner before then...
Worse than anything was the watching. The damn thing was always there when he woke up, staring at him. Standing in Bobby’s kitchen, sitting on the end of whatever bed Dean had fallen on, sitting in the passenger seat of the Impala. He wanted to make some joke about Watchers but he was pretty sure it was still a little early to be jerking the chain that hard. Bastard had said something about putting him back.
It was unsettling to be asked what he’d been dreaming about in a carefully modulated voice like it was...he was...trying to contain that voice. Trying to channel it through flesh and bone without tearing them apart. All too contained and a little weirdly distant, just barely holding onto the earthly plane, a thousand yards of blue stare.
The thing following him around was so ancient that the very idea weighed Dean down.
He wakes, and except for the one time at Bobby’s when they crashed in the living room together because separating wasn’t possible yet, Sam is usually gone. His brother was missing on a regular basis without a note or word, but his angel is perched somewhere close by, staring and making cryptic comments.
One waiting for him to sleep, the other waiting for him to wake.
He thought about black wings, about angel hierarchy, about the kind of power it would take to grab someone out of hell, much less be unable to show its true form to mortals without blowing their eyes out. The demons in the diner had been afraid. And not just of the possibility of an angel loose in the world.
The handprint-shaped scars on his shoulders would not fade. He was marked. They had picked up the soul-scent of the window-breaker and hadn’t dared touch him. Sam, heir of House Azazel, and Dean, housepet to one of the Lord’s Own.
He never remembered falling asleep, when he finally did it. He never meant to fall asleep. Asleep, there were tatters of barely-caught hints of memory, the sound of shrieks bordering the unending consciousness of damnation. Consciousness full of terror and the utter absence of hope, all sense of time lost while he burned.
He ran until his knees gave somewhere. Over books, over fries in a diner, onto a bed he never felt. He was so tired that he wasn’t sure how he was still forming sentences, but he went on because sleep didn’t have anything to do with rest; it only left him with a gnawing sense of dread that coiled tight in his chest and waited for the next blow.
So far, the angel was fuckin’ useless aside from yanking him out of hell. He wasn’t ungrateful, but the damn thing had its own agenda. He had nothing but its word that it was off battling to keep the other seals closed, because he hadn’t seen it do more than shatter glass and rattle roofs. Oh, and blind psychics. Nice.
Angels were just the flip side of the same coin. They weren’t any prettier than what they fought. It took fire to fight fire. Dean knew that, after a lifetime of doing it.
When he fell asleep again watching TV, he was aware only of reds and blacks and a sense of pain and terror, thinking he was still awake, struggling to get loose again and only getting there when the black descended again as...feathers.
He snapped awake to the sight of the stained motel ceiling and the sound of John Stewart skewering every politician that ever lived. His jacket partially covered him, not as if thrown but as if someone had made a gesture and tried not to wake him.
He glanced around. No Sam. The kid was still keeping some sort of schedule he’d developed over a span of four months alone. He sighed and blinked at his watch, catching motion out of the corner of his eye and startling.
Castiel sat on the opposite bed, head titled slightly, blue eyes concerned.
“Now what,” Dean said, making an aggravated statement out of it.
“Someone should be waking you from it,” Castiel said.
Dean stared at the shell for a long moment and tried to see past it, tried to get another glimpse of whatever it was that was really staring back. He scaled his tone back by several degrees. “From what?”
“Hell is still within, Dean,” Castiel said. “You’re still shedding it, every waking day. Removing you from there did not mean you’re free of it entirely.”
Dean didn’t bother to sit up, but went back to staring at the ceiling. “You’re a real ray of sunshine, Daffy,” he said.
He still hadn’t used the angel’s name. It didn’t feel right on the tongue. He didn’t use Azazel’s, either. He didn’t want those names, Fallen or not.
Bobby believed they were dealing with the type of angel that lore said came along when true war was at hand. Not just one of the minor messengers, not the standard fluffy-white harpists or foot soldiers, but an Old Testament bastard, possibly a Throne. An angel of justice. Nothing to screw with. Something that, for whatever reason, had believed that Dean was the type of being that could hear its true voice and possibly see its true form.
Before he could think better of it, Dean said, “When you said your brothers had died, trying to keep a seal closed. Was that just how you talk, or were they really your brothers?”
Castiel kept staring at him. It was unnerving, but Dean didn’t look away. There was something else there, some sort of regret that was bigger than the human frame was able to adequately convey.
“Sorry,” Dean said. “Is it too much to hope it takes one hell of a demon to get that far with one of you?”
“Even stars die,” Castiel said.
Dean suppressed an eyeroll. He should have known better than to keep trying for straight answers. “I’m not awake, am I.”
“It will be a while before your soul truly adjusts.”
More nonanswers. Dean struggled with that for a moment, then wondered whether the times that Castiel was supposedly ‘talking’ to him were the only times he was really getting any sleep. Or avoiding nightmares.
“If you’d picked a female tax accountant, I’d be hitting on you now,” Dean said.
That got a quirked eyebrow. Good. It wasn’t true, but it was still nice to keep the thing off guard, a little. So he tried not to flinch when Castiel suddenly came off the other bed and was crouching next to his, right in his space. There was no admonishment, though, just a cool hand suddenly cupping his face with a thumb pressed carefully over his lips. He didn’t jerk away. His pride didn’t allow it.
“Rest,” Castiel said.
There was the quickest flash of humor in those eyes. Dean knew it.
He felt pulled, like he was losing his grip on whatever form of consciousness he was experiencing. “Sure. But what’s with all the having to talk to me in my sleep?”
“It’s the only time anyone can approach you,” the angel said, leaning in until lips touched Dean’s forehead.
Dean opened his eyes to midnight and lamplight and Sam sitting on the opposite bed, staring at him. He tried to hang onto the dream that might not have been any such thing, tried to remember what Castiel had said.
Sam looked disheveled and worried. Looked sleepless. Dean didn’t ask him where he’d been, what he’d been doing. Sam was harder than Dean remembered, the kind of impenetrable bastard Dean had been striving to become his whole life, the kind of hunter Dean had always thought they should be, just to survive. It took the reality to show him that it wasn’t what he’d ever wanted Sam to be.
“I’m still trying to wrap my head around you being back,” Sam said. “I kept trying to find a way to get you out.”
Dean rubbed a hand over his face and squinted at the light. “We’ve been over this, man. It’s not--”
“I don’t act like you’re back, yet,” Sam said. “I had to get used to the idea of you gone for good just to keep going.”
Dean nodded. “Takes awhile to adjust.”
It will be awhile before your soul truly adjusts.
Sam pulled Dean’s jacket off him and climbed onto his bed, ignoring Dean’s barely-voiced protests and confusion. Sam settled in at his back, arms wrapping tight, chin tucked into shoulder. Rough stubble and soft hair, impossibly warm and impossible to shake off. It was like they were kids again and there were nightmares, or the heat had been turned off.
“Go back to sleep,” Sam said. “Okay? It’s just us.”
Dean knew there was something there that he should pay attention to, right up there with asking Sam what the hell he’d really been doing for four months by not talking to Bobby. It was one more thing to add to the mounting number of questions and concerns he was tallying, because Sam had changed. Sam no longer felt like someone he needed to protect.
He may as well have been gone four years or longer, because Sam had somehow surpassed him in age.
Sam was holding on like Dean might struggle or be torn away.
Dean kept still and thought about how they were somehow in even bigger trouble than they’d been before.
After awhile, he slept, better than he had since his first day back in his body. No disjointed glimpses of places left behind, no shadow-wings pulled like shades in front of his vision, no angels whispering riddles.
World without end, amen.