A.N.: Set about 3/4 of the way through season 6.
With These Bloodstained Hands
When John Winchester taught his sons to hunt, he drilled into them the importance of always having the right weapon. That could mean shotguns or handguns, rounds of silver, rock salt, or consecrated iron. It could mean evergreen stakes, a knife dipped in lambs blood, or a simple lighter. But in this case, Dean thought as he watched the creature prowling back and forth in front of them, the right weapon was probably a bazooka.
The creature was big, about the size of an ox. It had the head of a boar and the body of a lion with dark scaly skin that glimmered slightly under the beams of their flashlights. At its back end, a long serpentine tail covered in long, barbed spines whipped back and forth. The creature watched them with cat-like yellow eyes, drool trailing down between its fangs as if it were contemplating them for its next meal.
A bazooka, at the very least, would've been needed to take down this monster, but as it happened, Dean had something better, which was good since he didn't really know how he'd get his hands on an actual bazooka.
"Cas," Dean said trying not to think of how weird it was that getting help from an angel of the lord was easier than tracking down a decently sized gun.
The angel came to stand beside him, his short, silver sword held high. "I'm ready."
Dean glanced at his brother who stood on his other side. "What's this thing called again?"
"Unhcegila," said Sam as he kept a close eye on the beast.
"Unceegulla," repeated Dean mangling the word slightly. A creature of Lakota legend in an abandoned coal mine in North Dakota might not be the weirdest thing he'd ever had to deal with, but it just might be one of the biggest.
He raised an eyebrow at Sam who nodded in return; then started moving away both flashlight and shotgun trained on the creature. Holding up his own gun, Dean put the Unhcegila in his sights as well. The shotguns wouldn't do much more than piss the thing off, but they only needed to distract it while Castiel took care of the rest.
On an unspoken signal, the brothers both opened fire. The beast roared as the shots hit, its tail whipping by even more furiously than before, but otherwise, it seemed unfazed. That was all they needed though. While it kept its focus on Sam and Dean, Castiel suddenly appeared behind it and stabbed downward aiming for the crown of its head. The creature was fast though and must have had excellent hearing, because its head swung around, jaws snapping in the angel's direction. If Castiel hadn't pulled away, he could have easily lost an arm. The Unhcegila swiped at him with a claw bearing paw and Cas dodged once more. He slashed at its flank managing to draw blood, but he couldn't get close enough to his intended target.
"Hey, Uglyla!" Dean shouted trying to draw its focus once more. He took a couple steps closer hoping it would allow the shotgun to cause more damage, or at least, make himself a more tempting treat for the Unhcegila. He watched carefully for any sign of attack. Unfortunately, he was so focused on the teeth and claws, he completely forgot about the tail.
Dean's head jerked up at his brother's cry, but he didn't see the tail until there was nothing he could do to dodge it. One minute he was bracing himself as the spiked tail flew towards him, the next Castiel was standing directly in front of him. Before he could even think about reminding Cas about his personal space issues, the tail hit the angel knocking him into Dean and slamming them both against the wall of the mine.
Dean groaned and shook his head feeling both impact of wall and angel vessel. In the background, he could hear more shotgun fire and Sam yelling as he drew the beast's attention away from them. "Move your fat feathery ass," he grumbled to Castiel who was now practically sitting on top of him.
Castiel stood up in a single fluid motion seeming unfazed as if he was just getting up from a refreshing nap.
Dean got up more slowly nursing his bruised back. Grabbing the shotgun and flashlight he'd dropped during the fall, he looked over at Cas and noticed red spots spreading outward on his white shirt where several of the tail's sharp spines had been left behind. "You ok?" he asked though he'd seen the angel shake off far worse.
"I'm fine," said Castiel not even glancing at his wounds, his attention on the beast Sam was still busy facing down.
"Ever the indestructible angel," Dean muttered.
Just then, Sam got off a lucky shot hitting the Unhcegila in the left eye. As the beast let out a howl rearing its head back, Castiel was already there driving his sword right through the Unhcegila's skull. The beast gave a confused mewling cry, staggered a bit, and then fell. Dean could feel the earth shake as the thing hit the ground.
Castiel bent down and retrieved his sword wiping the blood off on the dead beast's side.
Dean took a deep breath. "Well, that was relatively easy."
Sam snorted. "As compared to what?"
"Hey. We killed the thing in under ten minutes."
"After two weeks' worth of research and several hours searching through these mines," Sam pointed out.
Waving the comment away dismissively, Dean continued. "The local townsfolk will be pleased that they'll be no more strange deaths or mysterious disappearances, we've suffered no major injuries, and we've got free instant transportation back to Bobby's where if we're lucky the man will cook us some of his famous dead pig and wounded vegetable stew. I'm calling this one a win."
Despite the exasperated look on Sam's face, Dean could see a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth and knew he wasn't the only one feeling the aftereffects of a job well done. It was nice to do a straight forward hunt for once; no demons, no angels except for the obvious exception, no grey areas, no more deaths than those that occurred before they got there, and a brother who wasn't a soulless robot. Dean was having a good day.
"Come on then, Scotty," he said turning to Castiel. "Time to beam us back to Bobby's." And yes, he was using a pop culture reference he knew the angel wouldn't get just to confuse him.
Castiel's eyes flickered up to the ceiling, and there was a slight tightening of his jaw. It was minute, but Dean got the gist of it.
"I get it," he said. "You're busy and you're tired of being our personal transportation service. But you're the one who insisted you'd only help out if you flew us here, the car trip up from South Dakota being too much of a trial. So you'd better take us back too."
"Your vehicle is slow, confining, and uncomfortable."
Sam raised his eyebrows. "Did he just diss the Impala?"
"No insulting the car," said Dean emphatically.
"Fine," Castiel said with a tiered sigh. "Let's go." Reaching forward, he touched two fingers to both their foreheads.
Dean had just enough time to brace himself before he was enveloped by the dizzying disorientation of angel transport. It was lucky he did because when the dark world of the coal mine became the dingy world of Bobby's kitchen, he found himself several inches off the floor. He fell stumbling forward catching himself before he ended up flat on his face. Glancing to his right, he saw Sam bracing himself against a chair, wearing a startled expression.
"Any more landings like that, Cas, and we're going to have to take away your pilot's licence," Dean said and realized the angel was nowhere to be seen.
"Damn bird-brained dickhead." He huffed. Heaven's little grumpy angel must have taken off, probably dumping them like that on purpose. Dean turned around aiming for the fridge and the beer contained within. That's when he found out the reason he hadn't seen the angel was because Castiel was now inexplicably behind them. He was leaning against the kitchen counter and rubbing a hand across his forehead.
"You alright?" Sam asked taking a step forward.
"I'm… dizzy," Cas said hesitantly as if having difficulty finding the right word to express how he was feeling.
Dean noticed the wounds on Castiel's chest and stomach were still there, blood now covering a good proportion of his torn shirt. "Well of course, you're dizzy, you dolt. Why didn't you heal yourself before you flew us out of there?"
Castiel glanced down as if he hadn't realized the wounds were still there. His eyes narrowed in concentration.
Dean and Sam stood by expecting the blood to magically vanish and the shirt to become whole once more. They waited for a couple minutes, but the only thing that happened was drops of blood started to drip from Castiel's shirt onto the floor.
"It's not working," Cas said finally looking up, a touch of fear in his eyes.
Both brothers started talking at once as they converged on the angel.
"What the hell?"
"Did the Unhcegila do something to your powers?"
"You were fine before."
"Maybe you should sit down."
Bobby entered the kitchen amid the panicked clamour just as Dean and Sam were helping Castiel take a seat on one of the kitchen chairs.
"What's all the hubbub?"
"Cas is hurt," said Dean, the surprise still audible in his voice. The whole thing had him off balance as it always did when anything affected the near indestructible being. After all, how were you supposed to fix an angel? Did human medicine even work on him? Dean usually counted on Castiel to take care of himself and saved most of his worry for his trouble-attracting, younger brother.
"I don't understand why this is happening," the angel said looking up, his innocent confusion belying the seriousness of the situation. "This wound should not affect me like this."
Sam ran a hand through his hair. "Your healing abilities must have short-circuited or something."
Coming closer, Bobby bent forward to get a better look at Castiel's injuries. "What are those things?" he asked indicating the dark spikes that still protruded from the angel's chest and gut.
"Spines from the Unhcegila's tail," said Dean trying not to think of how they had been meant for him.
Sudden realization flashed on Bobby's face; then it turned into anger. "Balls!"
"What?" the brothers questioned in unison. Castiel just frowned.
The older hunter tugged crossly at the brim of his cap. "I came across this description about the spines when we were doing our research," he said. "It described them as shredders of grace and poisoners of creation's glory. I just thought the author was being overly metaphorical and flowery."
Sam raised his eyebrows. "So, you think he meant grace like angel's grace?"
Bobby shrugged. "Who knew the Lakota had run into angels."
"We have visited all of earth's peoples," said Castiel as if that was obvious knowledge. It was easy to forget just how much the angel knew especially considering how ignorant he could be about so many basic human things. Sometimes it was easier not to think about things like that, things like just how old he was, the sort of things that made him not human.
"Just how poisonous are we talking about?" Dean demanded bringing them back to the matter at hand. "Rattlesnake poisonous? Poison ivy poisonous?" The phrase 'shredders of grace and poisoners of creation's glory' kept repeating itself sourly in his head and a feeling of dread was rising within him.
"I'm pretty sure they meant the more deadly variety," Bobby replied in a sombre tone. He turned to Cas. "I don't suppose you've heard of an antidote?"
Castiel shook his head. "I had never encountered one of these creatures before today." His voice had begun to sound strained and his face was pinched with pain.
Bobby turned to the Winchesters. "We need to get those spines out of him now."
"Fine," said Dean. "Grab me some tweezers." He knelt down beside Cas tempted to just start ripping the ugly things out with his bare hands.
"Dean," Sam said in a soft tone which Dean hated because he knew it was going to be followed by something he really didn't want to hear. "Those spines were barbed. It's going to take more than tweezers.'
Dean closed his eyes. He should have known that, should have remembered the tiny spikes covering each spine. They were the reason the spines had stuck so easily in Castiel in the first place, and now they were the reason the spines simply couldn't be pulled out. Each of those spikes would catch on a bit of the angel's borrowed flesh and hold on. All they'd accomplish if they tried pulling them would be to cause Cas more pain. There was only one way they could get them out.
Gritting his teeth together, Dean shot an angry look at the heavens wanting to curse out everything and everyone that would never give them the slightest break.
"I don't suppose we could call another angel to help out here?" he asked without much hope.
"Are there any we actually trust?" Sam pointed out.
They all knew the answer was no, even Castiel looked dubious at the prospect.
"Then it's going to have to be the hard way," declared Bobby. "Sam get the table ready."
Sam and Bobby immediately set to work. Shoving the piles of books, papers, and dirty dishes off the kitchen table, Sam dragged it towards the centre of the room and began pulling it apart so he could add the extra leaves that would extend its length. Bobby headed for the chest where he kept the medical supplies and began yanking out various items.
It took Dean a few moments longer to get into action. Everything had happened so fast. It was just minutes ago that Castiel was standing strong and tall as always being his usual cantankerous self. Now, he looked pale and feverish, his whole body bent over his bloody torso.
Snapping himself out of his daze, Dean reached up and began untying Cas' tie.
Castiel narrowed his eyes at him. "What are you doing?"
"It seems you're going to need a little bit of surgery." Dean flung the tie aside and began to remove Cas' left arm from the sleeve of his trenchcoat, but Castiel pulled away from him apparently disliking what he was hearing.
"You want to cut me open?" Castiel said gazing at him warily.
'Want' really wasn't the right word. "We don't exactly have much of a choice."
"You don't know that." Castiel attempted to straighten up as if to prove he was still the almighty angel of the lord he'd always been. "It's possible my grace might eventually purge the poison on its own."
"Cas…" Dean sighed. He really didn't need Cas' stubborn attitude at that moment. "You look like crap and you're getting worse. Do you really want to take that chance?"
Castiel still looked at him uncertainly and Dean couldn't blame him for being nervous. The angel was used to any damage to his human vessel healing almost instantly. Damage to his grace seemed to just involve him spending some time as Mr. Comatose. Dean didn't know about damage to angel's true selves. There could be angel surgeons for all he knew, but he doubted it. Castiel was barely used to being touched, not to mention being helpless or being coddled, and now, three of his friends wanted to act as unqualified surgeons and start digging around inside of him with a couple of pen knives. So yeah, he had every right to be scared shitless.
"Do you trust me?" Dean asked.
Castiel didn't respond right away, and for a second, Dean thought he was going to say no. Their friendship had always been a bit odd, then what friendship between a human and an angel wouldn't be, and they had been through some rocky times.
Lifting his head, Castiel levelled Dean with one of those intense stares he gave that always made Dean feel he was reading the fine print on the bottom of his soul. "I trust you," he said.
Usually, Dean's pride would insist he meet that gaze, but this time he found himself looking away, unsure if he truly deserved the angel's faith. "Let's get you out of this coat."
With Cas' help, Dean managed to get both the trenchcoat and the black suit jacket off him, but when it came to the shirt, he realized it wouldn't come off so easily.
"Pass me some scissors," he called out to Bobby.
Bobby tossed a pair of scissors to Sam who tossed them to Dean.
"Don't worry," he told Cas as he began cutting the shirt off. "I'll buy you a new shirt once this is over." He knew Cas probably didn't need Dean to buy him one. He could probably make one out of thin air, but Dean would buy the angel a whole closetful of shirts if they could just get through this.
There were more spines stuck in Cas than he'd realized, at least a dozen, some buried so deep he could only see a quarter inch of black needle. He tried his best to be careful as he cut close to the spines and peeled off bits of shirt soaked red with blood, but he still felt Cas tense up several times and could hear his breath catch. It reminded him that there was something they really needed to address before they started this.
"Do we have anything to knock him out?" he asked Bobby turning to glance at the others.
Sam had draped a white sheet across the lengthened kitchen table and Bobby was busy laying out various things beside it including a bucket, a large pile of towels, and what looked like the contents of a dissection kit.
Bobby's eyebrows raised beneath the brim of his cap. "Do you actually know of anything that would affect an angel's constitution?"
"Elephant tranquilizers?" Dean suggested doubtfully. He'd seen Cas down a whole whisky bottle without any effect and it had apparently taken the entire contents of a liquor store just to get him drunk; even then, he still hadn't passed out.
"Unfortunately, I haven't had call to hunt any elephants recently," was Bobby's reply. It was understandable. It's not like they'd needed tranquilizers before. They never bothered to sedate any of the things they hunted. They just killed them.
Dean clenched his hands into fists. "Painkillers then?"
Bobby went over to a black bag, rummaged through it, and pulled out a tiny bottle and a syringe. "I don't have much of this left," he said as he came over and knelt down by Cas' chair. He filled the syringe from the bottle with a confidence that showed this was nowhere near his first time.
"Now then, Cas," he said as he took a hold of the angel's arm. "Hopefully, this'll make you feel a bit better." He injected the drug into a vein, Castiel watching curiously throughout.
"What is that stuff?" Sam asked.
Dean and Sam exchanged glances but didn't comment. They both knew Bobby had his resources.
All three watched Castiel who continued to stare at the spot on his arm where Bobby had injected the drugs.
"Is it working?" Dean asked after a moment.
"I'm not sure." Castiel swayed slightly where he sat. "I feel…"
Dean put a hand on his shoulder to steady him really hoping that was the drugs starting to work. "You feel what? Numb? Tipsy? Trippy? Giggly? Do you at least feel less pain?"
Castiel shook his head.
"Give him some more," Dean demanded.
"I gave him all I had," Bobby said. "And that was five times the normal safe dose."
"Well, is there anything else?" said Dean, his voice growing louder and more desperate.
"Dean, we don't have time to experiment here."
"Can we at least wait awhile longer to see if the morphine kicks in?"
"I don't think…"
Bobby was interrupted when Castiel suddenly leaned forward and vomited a long stream of blood onto the floor.
"Cas!" Dean did his best to support the angel as he continued to retch, his body wracked with spasms.
Castiel's eyes were squeezed shut, his face creased with pain.
Sam's eyes were wide. "Please tell me that wasn't the morphine kicking in."
"I doubt it," said Bobby shaking his head. "More likely it's the poison. We need to do this now."
There was nothing Dean could do but agree. They waited until the horrible retching stopped, and then, mindful of Cas' injuries and the blood on the floor, Dean and Sam helped the unsteady angel over to the prepared table and got him to lie down. Castiel trembled as he laid there, his skin shining with the feverish gleam of sweat, blood still leaking from the wounds on his bare torso. He looked so much smaller without the suit jacket and trenchcoat.
"Hold on," Dean told him patting him on the shoulder in what he hoped was a reassuring manner.
The angel nodded. His jaw was clenched tightly shut, but Dean couldn't tell if it was due to current pain or anticipation of what was to come.
Bobby had set up a tray with various make-shift surgical instruments. It looked like he had added anything he could get his hands on that might be remotely useful. There was a large pair of tweezers, a couple of pen knives, some kitchen knives, a high school dissection kit, some knitting needles, and even a fork. Dean would have found the whole thing absurd if he wasn't too busy being freaked out by what he was about to do.
A cold feeling fell over him spreading outward from his heart. As Dean stared at the homemade instrument tray, an image flashed though his mind of another tray. This one contained a variety of rusty and well used blades all stained by a century's worth of blood. The knives were of various lengths with dull, sharp, and serrated edges. They all had their uses, and Dean knew every one.
Realizing his brother had been trying to get his attention, Dean blinked away the unwanted memory and looked up.
Sam was gazing worriedly at him from the other side of the table. "You okay?"
"I'm fine," Dean insisted grabbing one of the pen knives to prove the point. "Let's do this."
Sam didn't look very convinced, but he changed the subject. "Do you think we need to sterilize?" he asked uncertainly.
"He's an angel. I don't think something as small as an infection is going to take him out," Bobby said. "I do think gloves are in order though just in case this stuff is poisonous to more than just angels."
They all donned the rubber gloves he handed them, and then Dean picked up the knife once more, but as he lowered the blade towards Cas, he hesitated. His palms were sweaty and he had to fight to hold the knife steady against a tremor making its way down his arm. He could do this, he told himself. He had pulled bullets out of both his brother and his father. This shouldn't be that different. Of course, they'd been either passed out or fairly drunk at the time, and that had been before…
"Would you like me to do it?" Sam asked.
"No," he shot back sharply. "I'll do it." In some way, he thought with a dark bitterness, he was the most qualified. After all, who out of the three of them had the most experience taking apart the human body.
He lowered the knife once more trying not to think too much about what he was doing. If he thought about it, he knew he would freeze again. He went for one of the spines that wasn't too deeply embedded. Blood weld up as the knife pierced the skin and he felt Cas tense, but he made no sound. Dean tried to work as quickly as he could, carefully widening the hole made by the spine so he could pull it out without it catching on anything. He cut down through the layers of tissue until he reached the barbs and then cut around them. More blood leaked out, but Sam wiped it away with a towel.
Finally, Dean was ready to remove the spine. Grabbing the tweezers, he took a hold of the spine using one hand and placed the other on Cas' stomach; then he yanked the spine out as quickly as he could.
Castiel's body jerked and he gave a sharp intake of breath.
Dean gazed at the bloody spine now held within the tweezers. "One down," he said and dropped it into the bucket Bobby had set up. He realized he was breathing fairly heavily and already covered in sweat.
"How you doing, Cas?" he asked hoping the angel was better off than him.
"I…." The angel swallowed. "I'll be fine." He remained staring steadfastly at the ceiling as if trying to maintain his stoic front, but both hands were clenched tightly at his sides.
Knowing he needed to move fast, Dean got back to work. The longer the poisoned spines remained in Cas the worse it would be for him, and Dean didn't want Cas to suffer any more than he had to. They could only hope removing the spines would be enough to stop whatever the poison was doing to him.
The next few spines came out without too much trouble, Sam and Bobby helping where they could. Dean grew more skilled and confident as he worked, able to remove the spines more quickly and easily. Each spine made a satisfying clunk as he dropped it into the bucket.
Castiel remained still and silent throughout, only the occasional breath and flinch giving away the fact he was still alive. Bobby, who stood by his head, would occasionally rub a hand across his forehead and offer some words of encouragement, but Cas didn't respond.
Then Dean came to a spine that was buried deeper than the others. It was on the right side of Cas' chest between the bottom two ribs. He had been avoiding the deeper ones, but he had no choice anymore. He switched knives going for a kitchen knife with a long, thin blade. It took longer than it had for the others to widen the hole and Dean could feel the trembling of Cas' body increase. Dean was sure he'd gone deep enough, but when he tried to yank it out, the spine caught on something and refused to budge.
Cas cried out and his body spasmed. Both Bobby and Sam fought to hold him down as he instinctively tried to curl up around his wounds.
"Shit," Dean breathed. His face went pale as all blood drained from it.
"What happened?" asked Sam once they had Cas settled once more.
The angel looked even worse than he had before. Dean might have been pale, but it was nothing compared the gray tone Cas' skin had taken on. His breaths came out as ragged gasps and his eyes were glassy and filled with pain.
"I… I…" Dean stammered unable to take his eyes off the angel.
"Dean," Sam yelled reaching over and grabbing a hold of his arm.
Dean looked up and met his brother's gaze.
"Cas needs you."
Swallowing, Dean nodded. "Right. Right." He turned back to the spine that had caused all the trouble. "I think it must have caught on a rib," he said as he bent down to get a closer look.
Taking a look himself, Bobby gave a thoughtful grunt. "You're gonna have to cut an even bigger hole, and then turn the spine around before you yank it out."
"Bigger?" Dean repeated incredulously. "Bobby, I'm not sure bigger is such a good idea. I mean what if I end up hitting something vital?" He had been cutting through mostly skin and muscle, but below that he knew there were organs and arteries, plenty of stuff Cas really didn't need a knife messing around in.
"Angel, remember," Bobby replied attempting to be reassuring. "Any damage you do, he can heal… hopefully."
The last word was whispered under his breath, but Dean still heard it and he really wished he hadn't.
He turned back to the angel. "I'm sorry, Cas. Let us know if you need a break," he said though he knew they really couldn't offer him much of one.
Castiel didn't reply.
"Cas?" said Dean, worry steadily increasing in his voice.
"He looks pretty out of it," said Sam.
Dean placed a hand on the angel's shoulder and shook it as gently as he could. "Hey, Cas. You still with me?"
It took much longer than it should have but Cas' eyes eventually focused on Dean's face and he gave a small nod.
"Hang in there."
Taking a deep breath, Dean picked up the knife again and carefully widened and deepened the hole he'd created before. More blood pooled from the wound. Sam did his best to wipe it away, but Dean's gloved hands still ended up stained red. When Dean was done, he took a hold of the spine with the tweezers again and twisted it around. He saw Cas flinch and then tense up once more, but he didn't cry out. Gently, Dean pulled out the spine. It came out clean.
Dean dropped the spine into the bucket feeling as if he'd just run a marathon.
The next one wasn't a problem and came out easily, but the following one didn't. It was buried so deep only a tiny black shoot was visible. Dean was forced to stick the knife in deep. Halfway through, Castiel suddenly moved. One of his hands reached forward and tried to swipe at Dean's efforts as if he was attempting to push him off. Dean had to jump back in order to avoid leaving a long slash along the angel's abdomen.
"Whoa," said Sam as he and Bobby gently pushed Cas back down on the table.
"Stop…" said Castiel his voice weak and broken. "Please, Stop."
Keeping back, Dean stared at Cas with wide eyes. "Cas, what is it? What's wrong?"
"Hurts…" Castiel's face was crumpled inward with pain showing much more emotion than Dean was used to seeing on him.
"I know," said Dean letting out a shaky breath. "I know. But we have to do this. You'll feel better when this is all over. I promise."
There was no answer. Dean wasn't even sure Cas had heard him. He seemed to have fallen back into some sort of cloudy stupor. With no choice but to continue, Dean bent forward with the knife once more, but before he could even begin cutting, Cas' body jerked forward.
Both Sam and Bobby grabbed a hold of the angel. He struggled against them twisting and turning, arms flailing, legs kicking out as he tried to get away.
"Stop. Let me go!"
Castiel thankfully was not at full angel strength or he would have easily thrown the men off. As it was, they still had to fight to keep a grip on him, desperately trying to prevent him from doing himself more harm.
"Cas, calm down," Dean cried. "We're trying to help you."
Cas' struggles slowly began to grow weaker, but Dean had the feeling it was more to do with the angel's waning energy than anything Dean had said.
"Come on, Cas. You said you trusted me, remember? Well, I need you to trust me now."
For a moment, Castiel stilled as he gazed at Dean, and Dean thought he'd gotten through, but then the angel shook his head violently. "Let me go," he pleaded writhing once more against the grips that held him.
His weak struggles proving futile, Castiel finally became still, and he stared at Dean, his wide eyes full of fear. "Why are you doing this to me?"
A cold weight settled in Dean's gut.
"The poison's making him delirious," said Bobby who was keeping two hands clamped down on the angel's shoulders in order to keep him still. "Don't listen to anything he says."
"Bobby's right," said Sam trying to reassure Dean. He had his weight pressed against Cas' legs even though the angel wasn't fighting anymore. "He probably doesn't even know who you are let alone what you're trying to do."
"Great. So to him, I'm just some random guy who decided to stick a knife in his gut multiple times," Dean said wiping at the sweat on his forehead with a shaky hand.
Shifting his grip on the blood stained knife, he leaned back down. He was almost finished freeing the spine. The blade slid easily through the pale skin. Another trail of blood trickled down Cas' side to join the pool on the table.
Suddenly as Dean gazed down, Cas was no longer lying on a sheet-covered table, but a rusty, metal rack. They were surrounded by dark stone walls lit by an orange flickering light. Screams echoed through the air, and Dean could feel cold breath on the back of his neck.
"Not bad," said Alaistair's voice, "but you can make him scream even more if you slide the blade a fraction to the left."
Dean stumbled backwards dropping the bloody knife. It clattered loudly against the floor. He could hear people calling out to him, but he couldn't make out what they were saying. The sweat had gone cold against his skin. His heart pounded. His lungs struggled for air. His mind was completely frozen on the sound of that voice.
But his legs at least seemed to know what to do as they clumsily sent his body careening towards the kitchen sink. He gripped the counter like a drowning man as he convulsively tossed up the contents of his stomach into the sink until there was nothing left but bitter bile. A strong hand gripped his shoulder keeping him steady, but he didn't dare turn around.
Once his stomach had stopped spasming, he turned on the tap and splashed cold water on his face with trembling hands.
"I can't," he said, his rough voice cracking. "I'm sorry. I just… I can't."
He felt the hand on his shoulder squeeze tighter. "It's okay, Dean," said Sam.
Dean turned meeting his brother's eyes. The understanding and compassion in them almost made his knees buckle, but he held it together.
"Hey, I've dug out a few bullets in my time. I think I can manage. Besides, he's my friend too." Sam was trying to sound confidant but Dean could see the nervousness in his smile.
"I'm sure," reassured Sam. "You did good. You got most of them out. I'll just take care of the last few."
Dean looked back at Cas who continued to lie there on the table as still as death. Bobby had pulled up a chair and sat by the blood covered angel talking quietly to him. Dean could feel Sam's worried gaze directed his way and it pissed him off. Cas was the one they were supposed to be worried about. He was the one who was dying while they just stood there.
"Okay," he said, nodding and wishing he sounded more confident. "Okay. Let's do this."
Bobby got up as they approached the table. "He's still pretty out of it, but he seems to have calmed down some. Why don't you talk to him a bit, Dean. That should help keep him grounded."
Agreeing, Dean took Bobby's spot pulling up the chair as close to Castiel as he could. "Hey, Cas," he said softly.
The angel blinked at him. His eyes were still glassy, his face still creased with pain.
"It'll all be over soon. You just have to hold on a little while longer."
Dean reached over and took Cas' hand and clasped it tightly. He felt stupid, but he didn't know what else to do. Looking up, he saw Sam begin to work. The sight made the acid in his stomach churn and he looked away. He could feel Castiel tense and he held his hand tighter.
"Did I tell you about the movie I saw last week?" Dean blurted out, and then in a voice that continuously threatened to break, proceeded to tell Cas the entire plot complete with a large dose of bonus commentary. He knew the angel could probably care less about the movie, but he wanted to keep him distracted, keep him focused on anything other than what was being done to him.
For awhile, it seemed to work, though Castiel may very well have not understood a single word Dean said. At least, his eyes remained focused on him the entire time he spoke.
Then suddenly Cas' eyes squeezed shut and he let out another cry, his body jerking upward.
Dean wrapped an around Cas' chest trying to keep him still. "Hey, it's okay, Cas. It's okay," he whispered desperately into his ear. "I've got you."
When Cas was calm once more, Dean shot a look at his brother. "What the hell did you do?"
There was a guilty look on Sam's face. He held a spine with the tweezers. It was still dripping blood.
"Easy, Dean," said Bobby. "That was a particularly tricky one. It just caught a bit on the way out."
Dean let out a long breath. "Sorry, Sam. I just…"
"It's okay, Dean," said Sam. "I get it." He dropped the spine into the bucket and then picked up the knife once more. "Two more to go."
"You hear that, Cas?" asked Dean turning back to the angel. "Only two more. We're almost done."
Castiel didn't reply. He didn't even look at Dean. He just stared sightlessly at the ceiling, his lips moving as he muttered words Dean couldn't quite make out. When Dean leaned closer, he realized he couldn't understand what Cas was saying because he wasn't speaking English. He was whispering in Enochian. Dean really hoped it was a prayer he was saying and not a spell.
As Dean watched, a tear trailed down the side of Cas' face.
Swallowing, Dean felt tears welling up in his eyes too. "Just hold on, Cas. Please. I just need you to hold on."
Dean continued to keep an arm across Cas' chest and a grip on his hand, but Castiel didn't move anymore. Either he was so far gone he was beyond pain or he was simply too weak.
The last minutes seemed to stretch out forever as Dean held Cas, but finally, the last spine came free and Sam announced with a shaky breath, "That's it."
"Cas?" Dean asked hopefully, but the angel remained silent. For a moment, Dean thought he had stopped breathing, but when he held a hand above his mouth, he could feel the faint release of air. Cas' eyes were narrowed to slits but they were still open.
Standing over him, Dean gently shook his shoulder. "Come on, Cas. It's over. You can wake up now."
He glanced at the massacred mess that was Cas' torso hoping to catch some glimpse of the angel's miraculous healing powers returning, but it stayed the same, blood leaking out of the ragged holes Dean and Sam had dug.
"Shouldn't he start getting better now?" he demanded turning to the others.
Bobby shrugged. "We have no idea how this sort of thing works with angels, and we know even less about what this poison does to them. There's no telling how long he might take to heal."
Dean ran his fingers through his short hair wishing he could dig his nails down all the way through his skull. "Isn't there anything else we can do?"
"Well…" said Bobby. "It would probably be a good idea to flush out the wounds. Try to get any of the remaining poison out."
"Flush the poison out?"
"Salt and holy water," Bobby replied after a brief hesitation. "It's the best cure-all for demonic poisons I know of."
"You want to pour salt into his wounds?" Dean fought back the insane urge to laugh as he raised his eyes to the ceiling. He should have known the universe wasn't done kicking their asses yet. It was the story of their lives and Castiel was very much a part of that know. "Hasn't he been through enough already?"
"Dean." Sam wore the same heartbroken look Dean knew must be on his face, but as usual the younger brother insisted on being the voice of reason. "If it might help…"
"I know, damn it. I know." Dean gazed at Castiel who continued to lay in a catatonic state so pale and motionless he might as well have been dead. Dean stared at him for a long moment rubbing a weary hand across his face; then, he reluctantly nodded.
Bobby got the holy water ready. He didn't need to make any. There were always a few gallons at the ready around his place along with several large bags of salt. The brothers watched as he filled a bucket and poured in the white crystals mixing them as if he were preparing soup.
"Ready?" he asked once he was done.
Dean placed himself at Cas' head, Sam at Cas' feet. Even though Castiel seemed to have retreated into his mind far beyond what was being done to his body, they held the angel down just in case.
"I'm sorry, Cas," Dean whispered.
Lifting the bucket high, Bobby dumped the entire contents on to Cas' torso. Waterfalls of pinkish water poured over the sides of the table.
The reaction from Castiel was immediate. He screamed, his body arcing upward. It was never ending. The sound growing louder and higher until the glass began to break and the room began to shake. Lightbulbs sparked and exploded. At the same time, a force seemed to burst outward from the angel pushing away the three men until they slammed against the walls of the room.
The scream seemed to last forever; then it suddenly stopped.
The following silence was immense in their ringing ears. One by one, they unsteadily rose to their feet. The room, which was never neat to begin with, was in chaos; books, papers, and shards of glass everywhere, all dimly lit by a single surviving lightbulb. It was as if a bomb had gone off, the point of origin the prone angel in the middle of the room.
"Cas!" Dean rushed forward.
Castiel's eyes were closed, his head tilted slightly to the side. Dean found himself looking for the blackened image of wings on the floor, but thankfully there was none. What he did find, when he pressed two fingers to Cas's neck, was a pulse.
"Thank, God," Dean breathed.
"What the hell was that?" demanded Sam still looking a bit unsteady from his flight through the air.
"That I believe," replied Bobby, "is what happens when you try to play surgeon to an angel."
"Some sort of automatic reflex?"
Bobby shrugged. "Who knows. I'm beginning think we should start writing a book on the care and feeding of angels. It's not like anyone else knows any of this stuff."
"Guys?" Dean spoke up, his voice cracking slightly as he interrupted them. While the others had been talking, he'd been watching Cas, and he was really hoping that what he was seeing wasn't just a hopeful figment of his imagination. "Tell me I'm not the only one seeing this."
All three pairs of eyes looked down at the angel. It was small and slow at first, just a lightening of the flaming red skin around the wounds on Cas' chest, but then it sped up. The ragged holes began to close until they had completely vanished leaving only smooth skin behind though it was still a few shades too pale.
"Cas?" Dean asked hopefully, but the angel remained unresponsive.
"Let him sleep," said Bobby patting Dean on the shoulder. "He could use it."
Dean wanted to grab Cas by both shoulders, shake him as hard as he could, and scream in his ears until he woke up, but instead he just nodded.
They dried Castiel off, cleaning up the remaining blood, and then wrapped him in multiple blankets and settled him down on the couch.
There was a lot of clean up to do, bloody towels that needed washing, broken glass that needed sweeping. Bobby and Sam set about getting it done. Dean would have helped. He really would have, but all his adrenaline had abandoned him in a sudden rush leaving him shaky legged and weak. He collapsed into a chair near Cas contenting himself on the fact that he could at least keep an eye on the angel.
Dean watched Cas, his fuzzy mind barely acknowledging the passing of time.
At some point, Bobby appeared in front of him, and handed him a mug of tea and a sandwich. Dean opened his mouth to protest, really wanting something much stronger, but Bobby just sent him a glare reminding Dean just how many evil bastards the old hunter had stared down in his lifetime, and said, "You can have yourself a drink after you've finished those."
Realizing he must really look like shit if Bobby was serving him food, Dean obeyed. The tea was hot and sweet. He barely tasted the sandwich.
Time blurred again. It grew dark outside. Bobby vanished upstairs. Sam appeared with a couple blankets and bedrolls, and set them up beside the couch before lying down on one.
"You should try to get some sleep," the younger brother said in a halfhearted attempt to break Dean's vigil.
"I'm fine here." Truthfully, Dean was exhausted. He felt completely drained and his butt was sore from sitting in the damn chair for so long, but the memories of hell were still too close and he didn't want to think of what nightmares sleep would bring.
Sam was quiet for several minutes before he spoke again. "Listen, you did all you could…"
"All I could?" Dean snorted humorlessly. "I cracked. Cas needed me and I ended up falling apart, upchucking my damn cookies into the sink."
"Damn it, Dean," Sam exclaimed the sudden anger in his tone making Dean jump. "You're not superman. You can't expect to be able to handle everything like nothing ever affects you. You're allowed to be human once and a while. Let the rest of us help out." There was a pleading look in his eyes. "That's what we're here for."
"I know," said Dean. "I know, Sammy. It's just… the look on Cas' face when I..." He knew it had just been delirium brought on by the poison, but it was hard to remember that when your friend looked at you with such fear. The memory of it left him feeling sick. There was another image he'd be revisiting in his nightmares time and time again.
"Hey, you said it yourself. He's tough. He'll get through this. We all will."
Sam was quiet after that and it wasn't long before Dean could hear his soft snoring.
The night continued to pass and the image of Cas' unconscious form blurred in front of Dean's eyes. He blinked several times before finally letting his lids fall closed. It was only when he opened them several hours later and saw the sun had begun to lighten the sky outside that he realized he'd fallen asleep.
Rubbing his eyes, he wondered what had woken him. Sam was still soundly snoring on the floor. He turned to Cas.
The angel was lying on the couch the same as he had before only now his eyes were wide open.
"Hey," Dean exclaimed sitting up quickly in the chair, his voice hoarse with sleep and emotion.
"Dean," Castiel said, his eyebrows knitted together into a frown.
"How are you feeling?"
Cas took a moment to speak as if he were carefully assessing his condition and trying to put it into words. "Sore," he finally said.
Dean was stuck between wanting to hug and wanting to strangle the laconic angel. "Well, I'm not surprised. Your insides got pretty chewed up. Do you..." He paused licking his dry lips as he wondered if he really wanted to ask this question. "Do you remember what happened?"
Castiel frowned again. "My memories are fragmented. I recall our battle and returning here. I recall my injuries and how you were attempting to help, but then the memories become foggy. I remember pain," he added after a moment's silence.
Dean looked down at his hands. "I'm sorry, Cas."
The angel gazed up at him with innocent confusion. "Why?"
"I hurt you."
'Tortured' would've been a more accurate word. Cas might not remember, but Dean certainly would never forget. After three years, he had hoped he'd put his time in hell behind him. Now he knew it would always be there beneath the surface.
"You saved my life," replied Castiel simply.
"Yeah well, you saved mine first," Dean said dismissively. "I couldn't even..." He swallowed unable to continue.
The sun's rays were starting to stream through the library's large windows as the sun rose above the horizon. A creaking sound came from upstairs making Dean wonder if Bobby was up. On the floor beside the couch, Sam turned over in his sleep.
"There is one thing I do remember," Castiel said eventually ending the long silence. "I remember someone gripping my hand and a voice telling me to hold on."
Gazing down at his friend, Dean saw that even after everything faith and conviction still shone in Cas' eyes, the same faith he thought he'd lost a long time ago. Ever so slightly, he felt the weight on his soul begin to lighten.
"I don't think I will ever forget that," said the angel.