Dean remembers a lot of things about Hell. They pop up in his dreams and linger at the edges of his mind during the day. Sammy looks at him sometimes and sees a weak man, and maybe he's right to, but Dean's utter exhaustion comes from the memories that have drilled themselves into his skull, not any sort of physical weakness. Sometimes he looks at branches on trees while they are driving down road in the Impala and instead sees reaching arms streaked with blood. On the good days, the mangled limbs are his. Dean is no stranger to suffering. He knows how to cope with the idea of his own pain. It's when the hands belong to the other souls who were in hell with him that he nearly loses his grip on the wheel. Dean can remember rending the fingers from those hands. He can remember the cool cut of the knife, the sound of splitting bone, and a chorus of screams crashes in his ears.
What's worse, he remembers the sound of his own laughter.
He worries that Sam romanticizes what he did, or maybe just refuses to really think about it. He knows at this point that Dean tortured in Hell. It was inevitable that he would find out because Sammy was a nosy, well-meaning, worrier. But Sam sees Dean's choice as the act of a desperate man tortured to insanity. Dean can't tell him otherwise, because in many ways this view is right. Dean was wracked with pain, his brain was practically exploding from it, and after thirty years in as a shivering mess on the cutting board, he did break. But he did it for more than that. He did it for control. He did it because he vaguely remembered (so many years ago) being on the other edge of that knife. He could still remember strength and power and he wanted to taste it again. He doesn't pretend otherwise, but he also hasn't mustered up the courage to tell Sam because he is ashamed and could they just let it die already?
These are some of the things that make him shudder in his sleep: Cutting the child out of a pregnant woman who died 10 years after making a deal that would save her husband's life, peeling off each layer of skin from a lawyer who defended rapists in court, shoving a pike through the stomach of a murderer and roasting her over a spit. He brutalized thousands of souls, and he was good at what he did.
Alastair used to shudder in delight at some of the things Dean had thought up. "My prize student," he would say, his smile holding back a sharp edge of amusement that Dean can now understand. His smile said 'This is the righteous man, this is the savior, and I broke him without even trying.' He watched his creation in turn create, and it thrilled him. A possessive smile.
Dean distinctly remembers the smile that twisted onto his own face about four years after he broke. There was no joy in it; there was never joy in Hell. But there was delight. He was a person prone to addictions. Alcohol, women, emotional suppression. Torturing was just another addiction in a long run of them. He gripped his knife tightly and fostered the giddy pleasure that blossomed in his chest when his project wailed under him.
"Why Dean," Alastair gloated, his voice smarmy and content. "If I didn't know better, I'd say you have a taste for the work."
"It's a good thing you know better," Dean would say early on. The first years he would spit at Alastair's feet. He would throw the knife in his hand in Alastair's direction and curse when the demon plucked it out of the air before it connected.
Those were the early years. In the later years, his new expression, a smug smile, would blossom onto his face. He was proud of his ability and he wanted to turn Alastair's self-accomplishment into jealous fury. "Someone down here has to be good at it. With the way it had run, you'd think it wasn't Hell."
It took years for his superior attitude to wedge itself under Alastair's skin, but when it did the demon gripped him hard at the throat and colorfully reminded Dean why he had the chance to explore his new skills in the first place. He said the word 'skills' like a prayer and Dean was still Dean enough to note the irony. He was not Dean enough for much else, though. Alastair reminded him of who exactly broke (tamed) him. Dean relaxed his goading slightly after that, but the smile stayed.
The important thing to understand is this: It doesn't matter one whit that the people Dean had writhing under his knife (and welding iron, and electrical outlets, and bloodstained fingernails, and salt, and oil) were sinners. It does not matter to Dean, and it sure as hell shouldn't matter to anyone else.
The screams of sinners don't sound any different than those of saints.
Having Hell in his mind is like a constant itch, but one that arouses nausea instead of a fierce hatred for mosquitoes. Dean can see that Sam wants him to talk about it so desperately it makes his ridiculously long hair quiver under the weight of his thoughts. Sam always did think too much, and his intent, furrowed eyebrows are a force to be reckoned with.
"Dean," Sam tries, "this isn't just something that you can brush under the rug. This is hell." His eyes are entreating and brown and Dean thinks for a long moment about just how much he loves his brother. He briefly considers saying that, partly in the hopes that it will derail the conversation and partly because it is so fucking true, but he doesn't abide chick flick moments and he'll be damned (again) if he starts now.
He remembers trying to prepare tomato soup for Sam when he was nine and Sam was five. His dad had been gone for two days longer than he had planned, and they were near the end of their food supplies. Dean, distracted and tired and angry, had burnt the soup because instead of keeping an eye on it he had the TV blaring. He remembers, shamefully, looking at the soup's rubbery surface in consideration. There was only enough leftover lasagna left from dinner a couple nights ago to feed one of them. Dean thought about the taste of the cheese, the meat, and how warm the noodles had been. He could give Sam the soup and Sam wouldn't have any idea that he could have been spared. Dean could eat the lasagna. But that wasn't how he had been raised, and a begrudging Dean had shoveled the leftovers onto Sammy's plate before choking down the soup.
Dean knew that Sam was old enough to shoulder more of life's burden. Hell, he was old enough, able enough, to handle some of Dean's problems. Even the Sam of then would have insisted on sharing the lasagna if he had known. But Dean had lost so much of who he was in Hell, there was no way he was giving up his role as a protector. What little of it he had left.
"What are you talking about Sam?" Dean says instead of saying 'I tore out some dude's eyes and made him swallow them.' "Hell was a huge party. Sometimes when we were feeling really wild we skipped in meadows and made daisy chains. Actually," he says in a pondering voice, "it was right up your alley. You know, because you're a giant girl."
Sam's expression is disapproving and pained and says 'Dean' as loudly as if Sam had actually said it. But he doesn't push and instead rolls his eyes, and Dean is pathetic enough to be relieved that he can still control this aspect of his life.
The thing is that there are a bunch of holes in Castiel's explanation of events, which really wasn't so much as an explanation as a vague sentence which explained absolutely nothing. It has little to do with the fact that it took him a while to really believe Cas was an angel despite the display of his wings, and then even longer before Dean realized he was anything more than a dick with superpowers. For one, Dean remembers everything about Hell. Every wail, every laugh, every caress of the knife. But somehow he doesn't remember Castiel; the being that somehow gripped him tightly enough to drag him out. You'd think he'd remember something like that, given the colossal hand mark on his arm. Clearly, something had gone down, so it would make sense for his drag via the angel-express to resonate in his mind.
But no, he doesn't remember Castiel, doesn't remember being saved, doesn't even remember accepting saving. There is also the fact that Cas somehow managed to heal every crevice of his body. The bloody gashes on his torso had fled without a trace, his old hunting scars were wiped clean (something that kind of bugged him-the scars had been good for picking up women, and they had been his) and he was almost definitely re-virginized. How come, with all that extra healing going on, Castiel couldn't manage to wipe the memories of his little adventures in Hell out of his head?
Part of Dean wonders if it was because he hadn't wanted to. If he had wanted Dean to learn a lesson from what a monster he had been. The thought makes him so sick he nearly doesn't ask.
But he was never very good at impulse control.
"Cas?" he says against his will on one of the nights when Castiel actually wakes him from a nightmare rather than simply banishing it. "How come you didn't take away my memories of hell?" Sam lets out of soft breath from the other bed, still deep in sleep.
Castiel freezes, his expression changing slightly and this alone makes Dean take notice because Castiel is anything but expressive on good days. If he has to guess, Castiel seems uncomfortable with the questioning. His normally intense stare focuses on the wall instead of directly into Dean's eyes. "It is not of import."
Dean glares. "Um, yeah. It kind of is." It's not that he thinks he should be allowed to forget the memories, because he deserves them and more, but he should at least get some idea of the 'why' behind it all. "What, are you punishing me or something?"
Castiel swings his head around. "Dean, if it had been within my power to let you forget, I would have done so. What you suffered in Hell is nothing you should be reliving." Castiel's eyes are earnest and as intense as ever. He clutches the sleeves of his trench coat desperately, and it is such a humanlike gesture that Dean's mind momentarily stutters. Anna had said that angels didn't feel, not as humans did, but knowing Castiel was beginning to disprove that.
That didn't mean he wasn't acting like a giant dick right now.
Dean grunts in protest. "How is it that I remember all of it, but not you coming in there guns blazing, or sword flaming, or whatever?"
Castiel says, "Go to sleep, Dean," and presses two fingers against his forehead sending him into a peaceful rest, which is so not a fucking answer to his question.
It wasn't as though Dean hadn't been glad before that his father had escaped Hell. But now that he had been there, he was even more relieved, because he knows that had his father been brought to him when he was torturing, he would have gutted the man without hesitation.
And there would have been no coming back from that.
Dean's doubts and worries about the logistics of his rescue from Hell are washed away with the whole apocalypse thing, or not so much washed away as overpowered, which he thinks he can't be blamed for because, you know, the apocalypse. And then Sam is dead and Cas is gone and Dean is left scrounging for whatever kind of life he can build with Lisa.
It's not that things aren't good with Lisa. They aren't the apple-pie life Sammy had been hoping he would get, but Dean had never really expected that. He just isn't cut out for it. He still tenses at small sounds, never the large ones, because if something was big enough to make a bang it was probably something he could see. It was the small ones that made him jump. Tiny scratches, soft bumps, the kinds of noises that came from living in a house. Dean hasn't lived in a house since he was four, so he figures he is entitled to a grace period of getting over the whole weirdness factor.
He has a devil's trap under the welcome mat and salt on the windowpanes. Still, all things considered, he and Lisa are remarkably happy together.
However, he still dreams of Hell, only this time it's not him in Hell, it's Sam in Hell and Dean is tearing off his skin and lashing at him with a whip and Sam is screaming and flashing between himself and a younger Sam holding out a Christmas present only to have his limb torn from him by Dean. And Dean's eyes are black as night. And sometimes it's not Sam he's torturing, but Cas. Either way Dean wakes up panting heavily.
And that's how it starts.
It begins as a niggling in the back of his mind. The problem is that Dean has too much time to think. He knows what Sam had intended in his vision of a normal life for him, but Dean privately thinks he never would have agreed to it, Lisa be damned, if he had known how easily his mind would wander when not occupied by threats to his life.
So it is when he is raking leaves, or fixing the shed, or making inane conversation with his neighbor that the thoughts creep up like spiders on the edge of his mind. Thoughts about how something paramount is missing from his time in Hell. He had speculated on this before, of course, but never had the thought bugged him so much. Dean had learned to go with his gut, and his gut had finally decided to deal with the fact that something was fishy.
Although it is against his nature to do so, Dean begins to dredge up the memories. He doesn't go through them with a fine-toothed comb; there's no point in tempting the nightmares each night to be even worse than the one's he's already having, but he thinks with each stroke of his rake.
The time he carved off a woman's ears, nose, and lips- leaving only the eyes. The time Alastair sliced into his gut, pulled out his liver, and ate it in front of him. A man's ribcage collapsing in on itself. Tearing out a mother's bones and using them to slice through her fingers. All of those shitty memories and not one of the raising from perdition.
The fact of the matter is that Castiel had lied, or if not that, then he had definitely avoided the truth. And Dean is sick and tired of people lying to him. What's worse is that he can't even be properly mad at Castiel because Castiel isn't here; he's off being the new sheriff of heaven. But his absence doesn't stop his cagey non-answers from running through Dean's head on replay.
Cas had lied and Dean is missing memories as surely as he is missing all of his old scars and he is pretty sure Cas had something to do with that too.
When Cas comes back he is a different Cas, but that is probably fair because he comes back to a different Dean, and Sammy is all over the fucking place. Dean is tired. He is tired and angry and sad and so, so desperate to have Sam back for real. He even misses Sam's freaking bitch face at this point. What's more; angels are trying to start the apocalypse again, apparently, they're working for Crowley and Cas probably took some of Dean's memories of Hell and Dean doesn't want them back, but they were his.
Dean doesn't even have anyone to avoid talking to because Sam doesn't care. (And Lisa hadn't known enough to ask).
The only thing that stops Dean from directly confronting him at first is that he is more than preoccupied with getting Sam back, and after that there's the whole Eve thing to consider. That doesn't stop his growing mistrust of Cas from flavoring their interactions. It also doesn't help that Cas is acting strangely. Dean gets that there's a war going on, sort of, but Cas feels different in a way that Dean can't place and it only makes him more mistrustful. At the same time however it's Cas. Cas who 'hadn't understood the reference' and had gone on a bender due to daddy issues. Cas who had freaking raised him from perdition. And even though there was something weird about that whole thing, Dean isn't in Hell anymore, so he is considering it a win.
Since Dean's life is his life it all finally explodes in the worst possible way. Turns out Castiel was lying to them, and worse still he had been lying even though Dean had squelched down it all and tried to defend the bastard.
"I'm not an angel anymore," Castiel says, looking at them with a faraway expression. Dean's heart clenches because that isn't Cas anymore, hell, it isn't even Castiel anymore and Sam's expression is one part surprise, one part horror, and one part incredible pain.
Castiel begins to tell them to submit, but Dean isn't listening to him anymore, because something about his last statement was wrong. It should have been "You aren't an angel anymore," and it should have been Dean who said it. It should have been accompanied with an enochian symbol being cut into an ethereal chest and the screams of an unnamable creature. The sentence should have been followed by Dean listing his own sins into the being's ear, sin upon sin, and mocking him for coming all this way for nothing. Should have been accompanied by descriptions of the angel's brothers' deaths, each horrible story told with a branding iron to strip the angel's identity away. Dean remembers wanting to hurt deeper than a knife could, wanting to maim this supposed herald of goodness into nothing more than an abomination.
And suddenly Dean knows what he did in those missing memories of Hell.
"I tortured you," he chokes out. Not-Castiel looks at him blankly, eyes still worlds away. Dean wonders what he is thinking about. Them still? Or is he already planning out the punishment he's going to dole out to Raphael's followers. "In Hell, I tortured you." Sam pants beside him, Bobby's steadying hand on his arm, but through the pain manages to gape at Dean.
"I had not thought you would remember," the creature replies. He rolls his shoulders and continues to smile beatifically.
"Why didn't you tell me? Why'd you take away the memories?" Dean grinds out. He knows he is playing with fire here, but he doesn't know what else to do. He tortured Castiel in Hell. For all that he knows it's true, wishes it wasn't, he can't quite get the thought to stick. His mind recoils from it.
The creature wrinkles his eyebrows at him in a parody of the real confusion Castiel had once been able to feel. "I had attempted to erase all of your memories of Hell, but found upon returning that after healing your body and managing to erase those few I was too weak to continue," he adds nonchalantly, "no doubt due to a combination of fighting my way down and being tortured. And then, after a while, I think I must have entertained the ridiculous notion that you would have cared that you had tortured me. So I didn't give them back to spare you."
"Then why are they back now?" Sam gasped because Dean couldn't make his mouth move.
"I don't really care," he says. The smile has not left his face. "I will give you all some time to consider my offer, as a show of good will." He vanishes.
Dean slumps to the ground. Sam wavers on his feet but Bobby grabs ahold of his shoulder to steady him. "What now?" Bobby asks, his voice weary and gruff.
"I honestly have no freaking clue," Dean responds. His eyes are still full of the image of plucked wings, the feathers torn out in handfuls. He knows he will not sleep tonight.
And Cas is gone.