In the dark salt mine Chalmers heard the scuff and thump of boots against rock and came to full alert. Footsteps were coming closer, regular and purposeful. He retreated into the mine, scratching at his face and hands, drawing blood. The salt was burning like crazy now, blistering his skin, but none of that mattered. Dean Winchester was coming to him.
Sure, the boss would be disappointed when the magical weapon he'd invented failed to turn up. But lots of mystical crap was lost to the sands of time. Maybe they'd send someone to search the woods, but more likely they'd just move on.
Chalmers touched the knife at his belt and then drew his hand away. No. He'd start with his hands and take it nice and slow. He'd earned it.
Dean sniffed. The mine smelled different. Rotten. Maybe that meant the booze was ready. He walked along the passage to the small side room and hung his flashlight on a hook in the wall, bathing the room in a weak glow.
He'd dig a niche into the wall or floor in the far corner, push the box inside, and then seal it up. But first things first. He set the box and his tools on the floor and crouched over the still, feeling guilty. The alcohol that had dripped from the copper coil smelled awful, but it was as ready as it was going to get. He contemplated dumping the stinking booze and returning to the cabin, to that squeaking bed, and to Cas. One quick drink, bury the box, and then he'd go. They could eat breakfast and spend the day together. Maybe play some cards. Maybe kiss. Maybe more.
Suddenly hands were around his neck. There was an alarming precision in the way the fingers squeezed his carotids. He'd used this move enough himself to know it could knock someone out in seconds. He twisted in the firm grasp, flailing his legs. He felt the still go flying as his boot connected with it and he smelled the alcohol vapor filling the room. Another desperate kick sent the distilled alcohol pooling over the floor and soaking into the cold ashes. Fuck. So much for that last drink.
Dean struggled harder, glaring up into the black eyes of a demon dressed like a Park Ranger. It leaned into him, blocking his access to the Kurdish knife. He needed a new weapon and he needed it fast. Dean groped along the floor and his fingers closed around the chisel. He swung hard and fast, embedding it into the demon's collarbone. The movement exhausted him, but it gave him the time he needed to grab his knife and push himself to a standing position, gasping and waiting.
The demon pulled the chisel from his meatsuit and advanced, looking like he'd like to carve Dean into something ugly. Dean put a hand to the wall for support, gripping the knife in his moist hand. His muscles felt like limp spaghetti. He considered praying to Cas, but held back. He mustn't see the still. It'd break his heart.
He waited until the demon was within range and lashed out, too slow. It dodged, grabbed him by the jacket and threw him against the wall. Dean felt something snap in his arm, and the knife flew from his hand. The impact shattered the flashlight and the room plunged into darkness. Dean fought an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu as the demon grabbed him by the neck. Whether it was a warehouse in South Dakota or a mine in Michigan, maybe he was destined to end it all with a demon's hands around his throat. Unlike the last time this happened, he found himself with regrets. He'd been so afraid of doing the wrong thing with Cas that he'd done nothing, and if he died now he'd never have the chance. He remembered the cabin and the look on Cas' face when they'd danced, and the way he smiled when he promised extra bacon. Dean wrenched harder in the demon's grasp. He wasn't ready to die. Not yet, damn it.
As colors burst in his vision his good hand fumbled along the floor, desperate for the knife. His fingers found the dry wood of the box and for a moment he was tempted to fling it and keep searching. Then the idea came to him. Gripping it tightly, he smashed the box against the floor and felt it splinter in his hand. His fingers fumbled for the Purple Heart pin and for a terrifying moment he knew he would never find it in time. Then it was in his hand and he held it fast against the demon's head.
Dean was prepared for the assault on his senses when he touched the pin, but the demon fell back screaming and clutching at his head. It was exactly what Dean needed. The alcohol vapor and lack of oxygen was getting to him. He stumbled from the dark room, fumbling for his zippo, then lit it and flung it behind him. He plunged toward the light outside, ricocheting off the tunnel, his lungs and muscles burning from the exertion, hoping he could get out before the alcohol vapor reached the flame. He pushed himself forward, diving for cover as he cleared the entry.
Inside the mine there was a roar and a burst of blue light that quickly extinguished itself. Dean went back inside, squinting into the dark for any sign of movement. He didn't have to go far before he found the demon. The first piece of him, anyway. It took him three minutes to find his knife and it took another twenty to find and bury his father's Purple Heart pin. Then, favoring his arm, he limped back to the cabin. It was time to stop being afraid.
Castiel was happier than he had been in a very long time. He counted the experiment with exposure therapy as a success. And afterwards, when Dean fell asleep, Castiel had laid next to him monitoring his breathing and soothing him when he seemed distressed. It had been a rewarding six hours. But if he was going to help Dean work through his traumatic memories he needed to have no illusions about what was happening between them. Dean had kissed him, danced with him, and they had shared a bed, but that didn't mean that Dean returned his feelings. Judging from the hunter's mating pattern, sexual interactions were a purely carnal transaction to him. Despite this knowledge Castiel found it difficult not to smile while making breakfast.
He heard the soft crunching of Dean's boots on the path outside, and was reflecting on the change in gait when the door opened.
"I was about to come looking for you," Castiel said. "Breakfast is—" He stopped speaking when he noticed the grimace on Dean's face and the way he was cradling his arm. "What happened?" He dropped the spatula on the counter, and hurried to assist.
"Got jumped by a demon at the salt mine." Dean raised the hand on his good arm. "Relax. He's dead."
"I'm glad." Cas ran his fingers over Dean's arm, healing the break. "Breakfast is ready. Extra bacon like you asked."
"Smells great." Dean looked down at where Cas' hand lingered on his arm. "Can it keep for a bit?"
"It can keep." Cas remembered the previous evening and felt heat scurry across his skin.
"Then let it." He cupped Cas' jaw in his hand and leaned in. "I need my medicine." Dean kissed him, and it was slow and relaxed, as if nothing was more important than the smooth slide of their lips and tongues. Castiel fought to keep his mind focused, to remind himself that this wasn't about how Dean was making him feel. But it was a struggle. Dean was skilled and the deliberation and care he took reminded him of a diner in Cedar Rapids where he had watched Dean savor a slice of freshly-baked apple pie. Dean's hands slid to his waist and then up his back, grabbing fistfuls of his shirt and pulling him closer. And then suddenly Dean was dragging him into the bedroom.
Castiel moaned—as much as was possible with Dean's tongue in his mouth. It was getting increasingly difficult to think clearly. His vessel's brain, he noted, made up only 2% of his body weight, yet it used 15-20% of his body's blood supply. Each minute it required 29 fluid ounces of blood to maintain its oxygen supply. Given the direction his blood was flowing now he wondered if he should be concerned about cell damage, and then he found that he suddenly didn't care. That itself was likely evidence of cell damage.
Dean pulled back.
"What's wrong?" Cas asked, personally affronted by whatever might be causing this break in the kissing.
"I…I don't wanna hurt you. I mean," he looked at the floor, "you saw what's in my head. It's all tangled up in there. I'm worried I'll….I'm just worried."
Castiel smirked. "I have a superhuman pain threshold and angelic healing ability. Unless your plan involves holy oil and a wood chipper I think we're safe."
Dean smiled sheepishly. "Point taken. Still. Go slow, okay?"
"I've drafted a schedule." Seeing the confusion on Dean's face Cas continued. "I ordered your memories of Hell by degree of emotional distress. I propose we work on reducing the emotions associated with the least traumatic first and work our way up."
"If you like."
"I like. But there is no way I am getting through this without a little help."
Castiel looked away. "If you're referring to alcohol, Dean, that's not a good idea."
"Not what I had in mind." Dean stretched a hand out to the radio and turned a knob until he heard the familiar rumble of AC/DC's Jailbreak coming over the Detroit station. Hell hadn't been big on classic rock. It would help remind him where he really was. "Okay," Dean said. "We should work out a safeword. In case I need to stop. And I call big spoon."
Castiel hummed deeply as Dean buried his face into his neck and began to lick and bite.
"I like the idea of a word for stopping," he said, hissing in a breath, "but I don't understand your remark about cutlery."
Dean's voice was slightly muffled but Castiel's hearing was extraordinary. "How 'bout if I say 'salt' we tap the breaks, and if I say 'burn' we stop fast and hard?"
Castiel nodded, the word 'fast' and 'hard' taking on new meaning as Dean's hips bucked against him. "Dean," he said, the admonishment in his voice somewhat undercut by his breathlessness, "I'm supposed to be walking you safely through a recreation of a traumatic memory."
"We did that yesterday." Dean mumbled into Castiel's collarbone. "Turn around's fair play."
"It's hardly turnaround. I haven't got traum—oh!" The rest of his thought was lost as Dean's hands left his hips and moved south past the wastbsnd of his pants.
Dean pulled back. "I'm good to take this up a notch. Or ten. Waddaya say?"
"Yes." Castiel looked at him with glassy eyes, his lips swollen. "Ten notches, please."
Dean leapt onto the bed and pulled off his jeans. "Well? Am I gonna have to start without you?"
"No." Castiel stared at him for a moment as Dean pulled off his shirt "You're definitely not."
It was dark outside now, Dean noticed. He felt boneless and exhausted, and the radio was playing the languid chords of the Stones' song, Laugh I Nearly Died.
"This was a great idea." Dean pulled Cas to his chest and ran his fingers through the angel's hair, spiking it in odd directions.
Cas smiled slowly, and his face glowing with accomplishment. "This was my idea."
"Well, it was a good one. We should'a done this years ago, the first time you showed up in that barn."
Cas smiled. "It would have been a warmer welcome than a knife in the chest. But I doubt I'd have appreciated it as much as I do now. And it might have alarmed Bobby."
"Yeah it would." He leaned in and planted a soft kiss on the tip of Cas' nose. "So we're gonna do this again?" It was a question, but he made it sound like a decision.
Eight days after they'd gone to Michigan Dean and Castiel materialized in Bobby Singer's salvage yard. Sam, who had been waiting on the porch, approached cautiously. Just because Dean had dried out didn't mean he was going to be pleased about it. Dean didn't take deception very well. Sam estimated there was a 50% chance that Dean would try to slug him.
"Dean." He reached out to take Dean's duffel and Dean let him. That was a good sign. Make that a 40% chance of slugging. "Good to have you back. How're you feeling?"
"Like twenty pounds of awesome in a five pound bag. And hungry as hell." Dean pushed past him toward the house, Castiel trailing behind.
Sam smiled tentatively. His brother had looked happy, which was a little weird considering what he'd just been through. Sam had almost gotten used to the idea of Dean's scowl being permanent. This Dean looked years younger.
"Castiel?" Sam put a hand on the angel's shoulder, halting him on the porch. If Dean was so happy maybe things hadn't gone according to plan.
"Yes," Castiel said, seeing Sam's questioning look. "Dean is probably hungry."
"That's not what I'm asking." Technically, he was asking about Dean's withdrawal symptoms, but what he'd seen of Dean's memories ran a close second.
Castiel looked as if he were recalling something pleasant. "Dean has a lot of work still to do but I consider the trip a success."
Sam let out a heavy breath and relief flooded through him.
"Sammy!" Dean yelled from inside. "Get your ass in here and tell me why I see low fat cold cuts where regular cold cuts oughta' be!"
Sam couldn't wipe the grin off his face as he followed them inside. He had his brother back.
"The whole house will hear us if we do it again," Cas warned, his voice a heavy whisper. "You are very loud."
"Screw it." Dean slapped the plaster. "These walls are pretty thick. They don't build 'em like this anymore." He grabbed a fistful of Cas' disheveled hair and pulled him within kissing range.
Castiel's head swam. Being on the receiving end of Dean's attention was exhilarating. The physical sensations were more intense than he'd anticipated, and he'd struggled to stay focused on Dean's emotional and mental status. On several occasions he'd been subdued by his vessel's reaction to Dean's attentions. He understood now his father's wisdom in making sexual union so pleasurable. It definitely encouraged repetition. And the intimacy had been unexpected. He'd never felt this level of helpless need he had when Dean moved inside of him, mumbling words of love and reverence. When he'd lost control Dean had held him and whispered his name like a mantra.
The next morning Dean padded into the kitchen, put bread into the toaster and started heating a pan on the stove. He'd just noticed there was a pot of coffee made when his brother stepped in from the porch and refilled his mug.
"Late night." Sam's tone held an edge of judgment and his face was twitching in the effort to hold back undiluted bitchface.
Dean broke an egg into the hot pan then reached in to scoop out a piece of shell. "Just keeping up my neuron pathways." He dropped in strips of bacon and jumped back from the spitting fat.
"Well, could you do it quieter?" Sam's voice had a raspy edge. "Some of us would like to sleep between midnight and three a.m."
Dean grinned. "Is this weirding you out? Me and Cas? It is, isn't it?"
"No. I get it." Sam smiled, with a hint of exhaustion. "You and Cas, you're like Tony Stark and Steve Rogers."
"Tony Stark," Dean's forehead wrinkled. The name was familiar. It would come to him. It did, just as his toast popped up. "Ironman?"
"Yeah. And Rogers is Captain America."
"Okay." Dean nodded thoughtfully as he buttered the toast. "But I'm Ironman in this scenario, right?"
Dean smiled, picturing himself as Robert Downey Junior. "I can live with that." He grabbed the pan by the handle and slid the eggs and bacon onto a plate.
Sam reached out and snatched a strip of bacon, tossed it quickly into his mouth and chewed.
"Well live with it at a lower volume, Jerk, or you're getting a ball gag for Christmas." He moved toward the doorway. "If anyone needs me I'll be upstairs, taking a nap. Wake me for lunch. We're getting takeout and you're buying."
"Come on! That's not fair," Dean called to his brother's retreating back. "I'm traumatized, Sammy." He muttered "Bitch" under his breath but his lips were curled into a smile as he settled himself at the kitchen table with his breakfast. Today was going to be a good day.