Dean fell. The air sliced by his face like thousands of tiny scalpels; even the air in Hell could cut, something Dean had managed to make himself forget. There was no end to the chasm, no landmarks, nothing he could use to slow himself down. Nothing but the endless darkness all around him; Dean let himself scream once but the sound turned tiny and pathetic as it disappeared into the void. The sheer despair hammered into Hell's very walls made screaming pointless. Nothing was out there listening – at least if you were lucky. If something out there in the dark did hear you scream and got curious enough to investigate it was much more likely to be something determined to hear you make that funny sound again than anything resembling help.
Dean had forgotten that, too.
He kept falling until his hearing numbed and his eyes dried out and burned in the wind shear. Dean began to wonder if this had been the trap the whole time, if Hell had dangled Castiel in front of him and he'd just jumped. And now Hell had him. Maybe this was how it would be the second time around. No hooks, no knives, just falling in the dark for all eternity until he went nuts from it.
Dean closed his eyes and remembered feeling Castiel slowly slide through his fingers. The terror in his eyes right there at the end, in that instant after Dean lost his grip; he could still feel that look deep in his bones, as barbed and poisonous as any hook. Dean held onto that look. He squeezed both eyes shut and put himself back in that moment when he froze by that door as the Pit reached up and dragged Cas back out of sight, back to when Cas had reached for him and Dean had been too slow to catch him. He buried himself in that handful of seconds until he felt bile burn his throat, then he opened his eyes to see rocky ground racing up toward him.
As he braced for impact Dean allowed himself his old smile, the one he'd always been careful to never let Sam see. Apparently he hadn't forgotten everything. Nothing happened in the Pit without a little pain first.
Dean tucked into a roll as he hit the ground, doing what he could to keep every bone from shattering. Not that he actually had bones, as such, being dead and a soul and all, but that never mattered in Hell. Here skin split and blistered and bones splintered just as easily as if his heart had been beating. Dean supposed that was what gave the place its homey feel.
Hell's physics were its own, though; Dean didn't know how far he'd fallen but despite knowing he should have reached terminal velocity a long fucking time ago the impact wasn't much worse than that one time he'd had to jump out a third story window – not fun, sure, but a lot better than falling from what had felt like orbit.
Still hurt like a bitch, though. Dean lay on the ground, trying to catch his breath; his shoulder throbbed, probably dislocated, and Dean thought about how much it figured that his trick shoulder had followed him into the afterlife. When he thought he could move without throwing up Dean pushed himself to his knees, trying to shake the fuzziness out of his head. If there was any good part about Hell it healed you up quick. Anything to keep you awake and aware until the last possible second.
He'd never been in this part of Hell before. His last tour had been an express train right to the Pit and he'd expected the jump to be the same but this was somewhere else entirely, all red, jagged rock and sheer walls. He knew that while Hell didn't really have nine circles it was still much bigger than most of the condemned ever got to see. Dean himself had never left the Pit, Alastair had never allowed it. And even if he had been allowed to get the lay of the land, Dean doubted it would help him much now; there was good reason why demons who managed to get topside fought tooth and nail to avoid getting sent back.
Dean felt a tremor go through him. The air warped just the slightest bit, like seeing heat shimmer over hot pavement. He blinked and the landscape changed, the wall next to him suddenly so close that if he twitched his hand he could rap his knuckles against it. Dean remembered Alastair laughing as he told a story about a demon he'd known who a shift had caught by surprise, trapping her half in and half out of the rock face. Demons weren't smoke in Hell and Dean could still feel Alastair's knife slicing through his jugular as he described how long it had taken the demon to stop screaming.
Alastair had taught Dean a lot of things. Dean cleared a spot on the ground and drew a rough circle in the dust. He crouched down, sketching a series of intricate designs within the circle, using the sharp edge of a nearby rock to make the hard lines. It had amused Alastair to make Dean summon whatever demon he'd needed to deal with that day, that extra little insulting kick of having a human boss demons. If Dean was honest with himself seeing those demons spitting mad about it every time was one of the few things about the Pit he'd actually liked.
Dean stepped back from the circle, trying to find a way around doing this. Finally he realized there was nothing for it; he didn't have time to waste stumbling around Hell hoping he'd eventually find the Pit. Cas didn't have that time. And as it stood even if he did luck onto the Pit he didn't have anything to fight with.
Dean stepped back to the circle and slashed the sharp edge of the rock against his palm, letting the drops of blood fall into the center. He felt the release of energy that always marked a summoning spell and backed away, letting the ritual do its thing. He'd learned the first time he'd tried this that it actually took longer to summon a demon in Hell than to try the same ritual topside. In Hell they knew to fight until the last second. Down here someone knowing your name could only mean bad things.
He turned around as he felt the ritual winding down, taking a deep, deep breath. One more heartbeat and he felt something snap into place in the circle behind him. Dean realized that a cowardly part of him had been hoping the ritual would fail.
The voice was a mix between angry and incredulous, an arching English accent putting some music in the words. He'd always had kind of a thing for that accent. Dean let out a long, long breath before turning around, plastering on his best grin. "Hey, Bela. Been a while."
She crouched down in the circle and launched herself at Dean, manicured nails going right for his eyes and fuck, Dean had also forgotten how strong demons were. Like once the soul cracked open all the pain just built on itself and knitted together. But strength wasn't all that mattered and Dean knew how to fight; he sidestepped, letting her momentum overshoot him and then squared himself for another pass. She caught herself, still stumbling enough that she almost went down to her knees, but her eyes were black and her lips curled up into a predatory grin as she looked at him over one shoulder. She flipped her hair out of her face as she spun around and came back at him; this time she managed to scratch her nails down his neck as he backed away.
He felt the sting and the blood welling up but couldn't dwell on it; he put his back to the cliff face and waited, forcing his expression to stay passive. There was good reason their father had always told him and Sam that if they were ever outmatched in a fight to do everything they could to get their opponent good and mad.
It was the best way to get them to screw up. Bela took a swing at him and Dean caught the arm in a hammerlock behind her back, shoving her face first into the cliff. "Knock it off."
She actually growled at him. Before he could say anything else she dropped herself down, throwing Dean off-balance, but when she tried get away he snatched her back by her hair and hauled her back up, throwing her back against the wall with one arm pressed over her windpipe. "I said knock it off! I'm not here to hurt you."
"Because we've always been such good friends," she spit back, trying to squirm out of his grip again.
He was taller and had leverage but he knew he couldn't hold her for very long. When he almost lost her again Dean knew he didn't have much choice: he took a breath and said one word, one in a language that he'd never seen in any of Bobby's books and one that it would take a lot more than knives for someone to get him to admit he knew. Bela's whole body went limp, Dean's arm the only thing holding her up, her eyes wide as saucers. Even words could hurt in Hell. Alastair had taught him that his first day.
Dean felt guilt trying to split his skin open because it was nowhere near the first time he'd made Bela Talbot look at him like that. "You are always such a liar," she said, eyes welling with tears she tried to blink back. She was an easy crier and hated it, they'd both learned that.
"I didn't want to do that."
"Oh, you never want to, do you," she threw back. Bela'd always recovered quick even when it wasn't good for her, like someone smiling through broken teeth. "Were you feeling like reliving old times, then?" Her lips pulled back into a sarcastic smile. "How's it going to be? Whips and chains? Or are we saving that for later?" Dean didn't let himself respond and he could see the bravado falter for a second before the mask slipped back into place. "Are we jumping right to the knife? No warm up?" He still didn't respond and he could see a little bit of panic setting in. This wasn't how he'd been in the Pit, he'd been easy to provoke. There'd been no reason not to be, he'd always had the upper hand. She dipped her voice to be low and sultry, almost a parody of seduction. "I'll call you 'daddy' if you want. It's true in a way. You made me what I am."
Dean forced himself to count backwards from ten. "I'm gonna let you go now. Promise you won't run or, I don't know, try to claw my eyes out. I just wanna talk."
"I'm promising you nothing."
He could tell from her expression she'd felt the shift coming before he did, true panic there now. "You wanna rethink that?"
"Let me go!" She tried to fight him but the power word hadn't worn off and just trying to move made her hiss.
"Swear." She looked at him a split second before nodding. "Good. What direction?"
Dean threw himself backward, dragging her with him. In the time it took him to blink he saw that the cliff face had advanced a few feet; another second's delay and she would have been entombed in the rock along with he was guessing a good portion of his arm. Dean gave himself permission to just lie there for a few seconds. "You knew how that was gonna go?" Bela nodded and Dean closed his eyes; judging shifts was a skill, something some demons had while others just sucked at. Dean himself had never gotten the knack of it, whether because he'd never made the jump to full demon he didn't know, but he guessed he shouldn't be surprised that Bela would be good at knowing the lay of the land.
In a way, he knew he'd been counting on it. He picked himself up but she stayed down on her knees, and he could tell neither of them was all that thrilled at having to look at each other. "Why was it me?" she finally said, still looking at the ground instead of at him.
That was the last thing he'd expected her to say. "Huh?"
"Everyone one here knows the story. Thirty years you held out, Alastair asking his questions and you kept saying no like daddy's good little soldier and then..." She shook her head, pulling her knees up to her chest. Dean thought she might be dressed in the same clothes as the last time he'd seen her alive. "Then Alastair wheeled me in front of you," she said, breaking into his thoughts. "Why me? What was it about me that made it so easy to say yes?"
For months after coming back and then again after the mess with Alastair Dean had dreamed about that moment every single night. "Remember the first time you cut into that mewling bitch?" "Because I finally had a way to make you shut the fuck up," he said, feeling an echo of that rage that had let him first grab that knife. Anger was good. Of all the emotions you were allowed to feel in Hell, anger was the only one Dean thought he could handle right now. Especially since she flinched back from that like he'd slapped her. "I never liked you. Never made much of a secret about it, either. The entire time we knew each other, you never did one single thing to help anyone but yourself, and to this day you're still the only person I've ever met who learned about what really goes on in the world and used it to make some quick cash. So yeah, you didn't exactly make it a hard choice for me." Dean didn't say the other reason, the secret lurking one that had been the real reason he woke up screaming those nights: when Alastair had put Bela's rack in front of him she'd looked relieved. At the time Dean had been around Alastair and his disease long enough for him to interpret that as her not thinking he had it in him. It wasn't until his heart had started beating again that it had hit him she'd thought he'd help her. After all, one of the last things he'd said to her during that phone call was that he would have helped if she'd asked.
"You certainly know how to make a girl feel special." She got back to her feet and dusted herself off, that mask of complete disinterest back squarely on her face. "I'm leaving now. Do try to stop me if you think you'll get so lucky again."
Dean leaned against the cliff face, his face turned so he couldn't see anything but red rock. "I'm sorry."
He heard the scuff of her fancy shoes on the rocky ground stop. It took a few seconds for him to gather enough composure to keep going. "I know that probably doesn't mean anything, but I am. You and I don't like each other and we'll probably never be friends, but that doesn't...that doesn't make what I did any less fucked up. When you're in the life you don't do this just to save people you like. My dad was down here a hundred years without forgetting that, but I couldn't hack it. So I'm gonna say it one more time, and this isn't something I do that often: I'm sorry. I got no excuses. And I'm telling you the truth here, I'm not here to do anything to you. I summoned you because I need your help, but if you walk I'll leave you alone. That's a vow, and you know how that carries here."
When he didn't hear her leave Dean slumped down to sit with his back against the rock, resolved to take anything she dished out. When nothing happened he opened his eyes to see her looking down at him, her brows knitted together in confusion. He wondered if it was the first honest expression he'd ever seen on her face. "Why did you say that to me?"
"Cause it's true." The memory of sitting under that starry sky with Cas hit him like an oncoming train. Do you think you could ever forgive me? Dean wondered how long ago that had been now. "I got this friend. He wanted...needed. He needed my forgiveness for something and did something really, really stupid to ask me for it. I've never given it much thought before, I always figured if you fucked up all you could either make up for it or don't, but that made me think maybe there's something to all that. Thought maybe I'd try to find out what that felt like."
She was still looking at him like he'd grown a couple of extra heads. "And do you expect me to 'forgive' you?"
Dean shrugged. "If I were you I wouldn't."
Bela leaned against her own cliff face, her arms crossed over her chest as she studied him. "So, it's true then. You're here for the angel." Dean felt his head snap up but she just rolled her eyes at him. "Oh please, don't even pretend to be surprised. You know how news travels down here and an angel in the Pit isn't the sort of thing that stays a secret. A couple of the imps even have a betting pool going about what you'd do." She let out an exaggerated little huff. "No wonder I could never get anywhere flirting with you. If I'd known I would have outsourced." Dean kept himself from rising to her bait until she finally slouched against the rock, the very picture of disappointment. "And you expect me to help you do this ridiculous thing."
Dean shrugged again. "It would be a help if you would."
She gave him a long, even look, a predator's look, and Dean could see the demon in her even though she'd turned her eyes back from black. "Why me?"
"Cause you're the biggest bitch I've ever met but you're also the best there is at finding things that shouldn't be found."
She tilted her head at that, taking it for the compliment it was, but she wasn't going to let him wiggle off her hook so easily. "I don't work for free."
Yeah, he'd expected that. "What do you want?"
"I want out. If you've come down here to get him then you must have an escape route. Take me with you and you have a deal."
"No. No way. The world's swimming in enough demons, I'm not unleashing one more."
"If there really are so many then who'll notice one more?" She stomped over to him and hauled him up by his shirt, desperation bright in her eyes. "You're not going to get anything done down here without getting your soul dirty and I could ask much worse sins of you. You owe me." She shook him hard enough for his teeth to clack together. "I help you find your pet angel, you take me with you when you leave. That's the only offer I'm going to make you."
Dean made a show of narrowing his eyes. "I get you topside and I hear about you making trouble, I'm hunting you. You'll be back here so fast your accent will be French."
"You'll have to find me first."
"Then yeah. Deal. Cas in exchange for one get out of Hell free card."
"Then let's go find your Beatrice." She let him go and he let his knees buckle under him, taking a few seconds to catch his breath. "And now that's all out of the way you should know that I haven't the faintest idea of where they're hiding him."
Dean grinned. "If we're both baring our souls here, I have no idea how to get out." He watched her expression fall as that sank in. "I know there's a door, but the only way I know how to get there is to climb," he said, pointing up the impossibly tall cliff face. "So you might want to change out of those heels."
Bela leaned against the cliff with one hand over her face. "I hate you so much."
Dean knew exactly how that felt. "Try to hold off eviscerating me until we're clear, okay?" He shook his head. "Just get me to the Pit and keep me from becoming one with the land here," he said, gesturing around, "and we'll be square."
Bela nodded, that same rueful look on her face as when she'd been forced to ask for help with the ghost ship. "I can do that. This way," she said, starting off toward her left.
Dean grabbed her arm. "Not yet. I need to make a stop."
Dean took a deep breath. "Before we go to the Pit I need you to find me a different angel."
Castiel didn't know how long he'd been back bound in this place. Time had little meaning here, he'd learned the truth of that within moments of opening his eyes to find himself chained and bound. Time here was nothing more than how long it took a wound to close only to be reopened with another knife slash. But while it didn't matter how long he'd been back here, Castiel still found himself wondering, and then he wondered how long it would be until that ceased to be a concern.
He'd ceased caring about other things already, after all; he didn't know the identity of the demon who'd been working him over until he'd finally been allowed to pass out. He had cared about that early on, adding names to a mental tally he'd pretended to himself it was vital he keep. Now names didn't matter; he was never leaving the Pit and he'd made his peace with that.
And besides, something as petty as a demon's knife couldn't hurt him anymore. As he drifted back to full consciousness he could feel the hooks through his wrists binding him to the rack but the pain was still vague and insubstantial; when it started to grow sharper Castiel squeezed his eyes shut and held onto the memory of Dean grabbing for him in the darkness. Of hearing Yes. Yes, Cas, I forgive you.
Just the memory of those words was enough to send warmth through his tattered Grace. It didn't matter what happened to him now. The demons could cut him out of existence, for all he cared. The joy of that moment sat in Castiel's chest like a hard knot of armor no petty demon could ever get through.
"You need to wake, Castiel."
The voice was familiar in a vague sort of way. That in itself was novel enough for Castiel to open his eyes, although what he saw elicited nothing more than a scoffing laugh. "The Pit's going to have to do try harder than this."
"So you do recognize me, brother?"
Castiel let out a long sigh, something that hurt very much. "Yes, Elemiah, I recognize you. Or whatever you actually are." Elemiah had been part of the Siege, they'd been members of the same garrison for Castiel's entire existence. After the Siege the next time Castiel had seen his brother was when he'd set off on his ill-advised search for God and Elemiah had tried to murder him on the banks of the Euphrates river. To Castiel's eyes he looked much as he had then, the same slim, dark-skinned vessel, same lilting accent.
"I'm curious, what do you take me for right now?"
Castiel shook his head. "A hallucination. A farce I'll discover the purpose for shortly. It doesn't matter."
"I'm not a hallucination. Why would you leap to that conclusion?"
Castiel thought he would actually prefer torture to conversation this tedious. "Because why would you be here?"
Elemiah's expression fell. "It's as you told Winchester, brother. Where did you think angels who conspire with the forces of Hell go when they die?"
Castiel almost rejected that as nonsensical out of hand - in all of history he knew very well he had been the only one foolish enough to actually strike a deal with a demon – but he stopped himself at the last moment. There was more locked away in Hell than demons, after all. "You were part of the conspiracy with Uriel."
Elemiah nodded. "Sadly, yes. It's not a choice that fills me with much pride."
All of that seemed like a lifetime ago. "How many of you were there?" He'd wondered that, when he went back to Heaven after the treachery was uncovered. He'd looked around at his brothers and sisters in his Garrison, his siblings he'd always trusted without question, and wondered how many of them had gladly accepted the deal he'd turned down.
"I don't know. I never asked."
That made a certain amount of sense. Asking questions had never exactly been encouraged. "Why? Why did you say yes?"
"Because I was afraid. It's astonishing, the power of fear. You make choices you would never have thought yourself capable of under its sway. It's why I attacked you on that river bed, brother."
Castiel realized he was losing his grip on this conversation. "I don't understand. Most of Heaven was trying to kill me then."
Elemiah's lips parted in a sour little smile. "When Uriel was struck down the rest of us scattered, fearful of being found out ourselves. I knew some of the others who were involved, just not all, and they knew me. When you fell into disgrace I thought 'Ah, there's my chance.' I convinced myself if I could be the one to slay you, that would drown out any other offenses."
Castiel leaned his head against the back of the rack; the metal was scalding and he could only bear it for a few seconds. "Is that why you're tormenting me now? Because I won that fight?"
Elemiah's thin eyebrows drew together. "Is that what you believe? You had every right to kill me. I have no interest in tormenting you. I'm here to help you. This is penance."
Castiel realized how close he'd come to getting lost in this delusion. "No. No, if this was true you wouldn't be at liberty. You'd be bound like me."
"Not quite like you." Elemiah drew closer, his steps silent. "Lucifer appreciates our intentions. We're...as close as we can be to honored guests in a place that has no honor. Confined and restricted but not strapped to racks and left to rot. Top flight accommodations compared to most of our brother's guests."
"Then why would you be free?"
Elemiah smiled at that. "We all have our talents, Castiel. You're the angel of Thursday, that's why when it was found that Dean Winchester would be resurrected on that day you seemed to be the one favored to do it. I'm tied to waterways and nothing can hold back the water. Not stone, not wood, not the sheer might of man. Not forever." He put one hand on Castiel's shoulder. "You're on a journey, brother, and I'm here to see you through it. You and Winchester are very lucky to be where you are or I wouldn't be able to help you at all."
Castiel shook his head. He'd forgotten that, just as he'd forgotten that even back home when Elemiah talked he often made little sense. "You can't help me."
Something about Elemiah's vessel made his smile look disarming. "I've been helping you. Or did you think the news that Dean Winchester would need a guide to the door of life and death came to you by chance?"
That pulled Castiel up short. He didn't remember how he'd learned that – in fact he did remember the demon assigned to him being surprised that he'd known. "I didn't see you."
Elemiah shook his head. "You were too far gone to recognize me then. I had to whisper it to you. I knew it before anyone."
It took a few moments for Castiel to regain control of his emotions. "I would never have seen him again if you hadn't."
He couldn't remember the last time one of his brothers had performed an act of such overwhelming kindness for him. "Thank you."
Elemiah squeezed his shoulder, gently enough that it only hurt the slightest bit. "I had to set you on the last leg of your journey. And I knew you would need the strength for what was coming."
Castiel scoffed at that, shaking his head. "There's nothing they can do to me. It's only pain now, half the torture before was because I knew I could never make up for what I'd done. That doesn't matter anymore." What were often just words for humans was physical force for angels; when Castiel just touched the memory of Dean's forgiveness the effect was intoxicating, like when he'd drunk the liquor store but with a euphoria that could be matched by nothing else.
"You're so prideful it would make Lucifer blush." The tone snapped Castiel out of the reverie and Elemiah put both hands on Castiel's shoulders. "Castiel, why would you dare the Pit to try harder?"
The surrounding area shifted around them, the chains and walls of the Pit warping like a ruined watercolor. Castiel shut his eyes against the sudden, lurching vertigo; when he opened them again he found blue sky above him. He looked around as much as he could while still strapped to the rack and realized he was in some kind of man-made hollow, like a drained pool or lake.
The realization hit him much too late. Or like a reservoir.
Water flowed in, reaching up over his ankles, then over his knees and he could feel them now, all squirming inside him like thousands of poisonous snakes. The water reached his chest and the cold bite of it made him gasp; at the same time he could feel the mass of Leviathan smothering his Grace, squeezing him out of his own vessel, drowning him from the inside as efficiently as the water would soon finish off the rest of him. It reached his chin and Castiel tipped his head up; he tried to fight the restraints but the hooks pinning him in place held – and even if they hadn't, he knew the Leviathan would just hold him down anyway. He could hear them whispering to him now the way they had then, laughing at how small he was. How weak.
The rise of the water seemed to have slowed; he could feel it crawling up over his face by fractions of an inch. He tried to remind himself this didn't matter, this was just one of the Pit's illusions but he couldn't quell the panic. The first two times he'd died had been smitings, quick, painless. Angelic. This was something completely unnatural, his essence tied to his vessel in a primal way he had never been intended to endure. Castiel realized he feared the dying more than the death and wondered if that was cowardice.
Castiel took a deep breath and held it as the water passed over his head; the Leviathan hadn't allowed that when they'd marched him into the water. He wasn't sure if he would have known to try it if they had. He closed his eyes and tried to remind himself again none of this mattered.
It took longer this time for the pressure in his chest to build. For a while the memory of Dean's forgiveness was enough to sustain him, but then came the little, reflexive jerks as his vessel fought him. When he opened his eyes he could still see the sky above him, a bright spot far in the distance. He tried to focus on that but the deprivation quickly dimmed his vision. It was impossible to think of anything except how much he needed just one breath of air.
Finally his control slipped and Castiel couldn't stop himself from heaving in one reflexive gasp. The icy water flowed into his lungs like a torrent; he tried to cough but of course that did nothing but inhale more water in. His oxygen starved body started to convulse and Castiel could do nothing to stop it; he felt his awareness beginning to slip and that was when the panic really grabbed hold. Help me. It was a thought and a prayer and a plea all in one. When he'd prayed that the first time the Leviathan had laughed at him.
And yet he still couldn't stop himself. Please. Please, help me.
He opened his eyes to see Elemiah standing in front of him and hope squeezed his chest tight. Help me. You said you wanted to help me.
Elemiah shook his head. "You don't understand, Castiel," he said, as clearly as if they'd been standing in open air. "I am helping you."
Castiel made one more agonizing gasp for air before it all went dark.