Castiel jostled back and forth in the rear of the van as the vehicle rumbled over an unpaved road. There were no windows, but he could tell by tuning into the cosmos that they were somewhere in rural Missouri, an hour from where he'd met with a pair of hunters in the hopes of recruiting some extra eyes and ears in the search for Kelly Kline and Lucifer's unborn child.
He hadn't expected them to come with sigiled handcuffs and to jump him.
So far his demands for an explanation had been met with stony silence, and one time a kick to the face. He kept quiet after that, biding his time for either a chance to escape, or for revelation about what was going on.
The van finally slowed to a stop and the hunter sitting in the back of the van with Castiel opened the rear doors. He then grabbed Castiel by the arm and began hauling him out. With his arms handcuffed behind his back, he almost lost his balance exiting the cargo bed.
They were in the middle of farmland, with nothing but crops stretching out for miles in every direction. Some barns and houses could be seen in the distance, like tiny Lego pieces. The only thing in the immediate vicinity was a large warehouse. Its exterior looked to be reinforced with concrete. A set of stairs on the side led up to a door on an upper level.
Castiel was dragged toward them. He almost tripped on the steps, and thought about trying to break free, but one of the hunters had his angel blade and was pressing it into the small of Castiel's back. So he gritted his teeth and kept moving forward.
At the stop of the stairs, the other hunter banged on the door. It opened a moment later and the man on the other side gave them an almost irritated look.
"What do you want, Travis?"
"Tell Lars I've got a good one for him," the man gripping Castiel's arm said.
The man inside looked unimpressed, but opened the door wider to permit them entrance. They passed into what looked like a lobby, but were immediately directed to the left and through a door into an office. A man with bushy red hair sat behind an oak desk, counting stacks of hundred-dollar bills.
"Travis is here," the guard announced.
The man behind the desk—Lars, Castiel presumed—barely even glanced up. "What is it this time?"
"I've got an angel for you."
Castiel's eyes narrowed.
"The last 'angel' you brought me turned out to be a nymph," Lars said blandly.
"Yeah, well this one's really an angel," Travis insisted.
Lars finally looked up and rose from his chair. "Is that so? Looks more like a tax accountant."
"I can prove it."
Travis moved the angel blade to Castiel's arm and delivered a swift slice. Castiel flinched at the searing burn as blue grace welled up from the cut.
Lars's brows rose. "Well, then. I guess you aren't as incompetent as you look." But then his gaze narrowed and he lashed a hand out to grab Castiel's chin, forcing his head to the side so he could examine the abrasion that was still on his cheek from one of the hunter's boot prints. Lars sighed. "What have I told you about damaging the merchandise?"
Castiel bristled. He wasn't anyone's merchandise.
"Angels heal," Travis countered. "I want ten thousand for him."
Castiel's eyes widened. "Hold on," he interjected. "I think there's been a misunderstanding. We're on the same side of good here. I called you to ask for help regarding Lucifer's unborn child."
Lars arched an amazed brow. "Lucifer has a kid?" His face cracked into a grin. "Travis, you bring me that and there will be an extra bonus in it for you."
Castiel gaped at him incredulously. "You're hunters," he sputtered, even as he realized how ridiculous such an outburst was.
"Your point?" Lars replied.
Castiel didn't know what to say to that. He still didn't know exactly what they wanted with him.
"Five thousand," Lars countered.
"Don't insult me," Travis rejoined. "Nine thousand."
Castiel couldn't believe this was happening. He cast his gaze around, gauging his chances of escaping. If he could get his hands in front…
"Seven thousand, and that's my final offer," Lars said, then curled his lip up in a minatory grin. "Or I take him off your hands after you suffer an…accident."
Travis's eyes were furious, but he swallowed hard as though nervous as well. "Fine. Seven thousand."
"Pleasure doing business with you," Lars said as he went to his desk and opened a drawer. He pulled out a curved metal band and turned back toward Castiel.
Castiel's eyes widened as he realized what it was, and he tried to jerk away. "No—"
The hunters seized his arms and held him still as Lars snapped the collar around his neck. He felt the power of sigils suddenly flaring to life with the circuit closed, and his grace was instantly lashed down even tighter in conjunction with the sigiled handcuffs, so much that it almost stole his breath away.
"Spencer, take him downstairs and get him ready," Lars instructed, and turned away to start counting out some money.
The man near the door came forward and grabbed Castiel by the arm. Instead of taking him back the way he came, he moved toward a door in the far corner of the office that had a key pad. After punching in a code, the door opened, revealing a stairwell descending down. Spencer pushed Castiel to go first.
"Ready for what?" he asked.
"Why are you doing this?"
"Shut up." Spencer gave him a harsh shove and he almost went sprawling at the bottom of the steps.
They must have come down to the first level of the warehouse, which was solid concrete. Instead of a wide hangar space, though, there was a corridor. As they turned down a ninety-degree aisle, Castiel pulled up short at the sight of a row of cell doors made of iron bars. Spencer gave him another shove.
Castiel flitted his gaze back and forth as they passed the cells built into slabs of concrete. Most of them were full. Castiel caught glimpses of vampires and werewolves, and other creatures with inhuman eyes peering out from the shadows in the corners.
"What is this place?" Castiel asked.
Again, Spencer ignored him.
They came to a cell at the very end that was empty and Spencer paused to open it. He then pushed Castiel inside.
"I'll be right back," the man said as he slammed the door and locked it.
Castiel took in his new accommodations with growing trepidation. He tried to tease some of his grace free from the magical bonds trapping it, but it was no use.
A few moments later, Spencer returned with two more men. He unlocked the cell door and entered, then came around with a handcuff key and undid the sigiled cuffs. Castiel had hoped some of his grace would be accessible now, but he still couldn't feel it under the collar's restraining power. The cut on his arm stung mercilessly from the inability to heal.
Spencer took a pile of garments from one of the men and passed it to Castiel. "Change into these."
Castiel stared down at the clothes dubiously. There was a white tunic, a skirt of leather lappets, and a leather breastplate. A pair of sandals and vambraces sat on top.
"You're joking," Castiel blurted.
"I'm not. Put them on."
Castiel flung the clothes on the floor and drew his shoulders back. "No."
Spencer shrugged, and nodded to one of the men, who pulled out a small remote from his pocket. He pushed a button, and bolts of lightning suddenly shot through Castiel from the collar. He doubled over from the shock of it, every nerve ending firing with searing pain. And then it stopped.
"Put the clothes on," Spencer repeated calmly.
Castiel's chest was heaving, but he managed to lift his head in defiance. "No," he gritted out.
The man pushed the button again, and Castiel threw his head back with a scream. The agony was all-encompassing as electricity shot through every muscle, causing it to seize.
"No," Castiel managed to gasp before his lungs spasmed as well.
The lightning continued, until he finally passed out.
Castiel woke to a dull throb pulsing throughout every inch of his body that he could feel, which was everywhere. Even his internal organs ached, and that seemed quite a feat.
He blinked groggily, and realized he could feel coarse concrete directly against his arms and legs. He straightened sharply, which only sent a spike of pain through his head, but he ignored it in order to take stock of himself. He gaped in disbelief as he found himself dressed in that Roman garb. His suit and trench coat were nowhere to be seen.
His jaw clenched in mortification, and he quickly struggled to get to his feet. He was alone in his cell, but there was a subtle rumble echoing from somewhere. He couldn't tell what it was, though.
Castiel glanced down at his dress again in disgust. What was the point of forcing him to wear this ridiculous costume?
The din continued to reverberate through the stone corridors, and Castiel pressed himself against the bars to try to hear better. Footsteps interrupted him, though, and he stepped back as two men came to stop in front of his cell.
"Showtime," one of them said, unlocking the door.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Castiel demanded. Given the way he was dressed, however, he suspected the 'show' part involved him.
He didn't receive an answer, just the other man holding up the remote in warning. Castiel clenched his fists and tentatively stepped out of the cell. He was then escorted down the hallway. The noise grew louder, and sounded like a boisterous crowd. Castiel's stomach began to churn unpleasantly.
He was brought to a door of iron bars that led to what looked like a large open space. Lars was waiting there. The man's eyes gleamed as he looked Castiel up and down.
"Well, you clean up nicely."
It took everything within Castiel's power not to lunge at the man right there, but he was distinctly aware of the handler with the remote to his collar.
"What am I doing here?" he asked yet again.
Lars grinned. "You're our new contender," he replied.
Castiel frowned. "Contender?"
"Everyone's really excited to see an angel for the first time. Paid double the admission price for it."
Castiel could only stare in stupefaction. He was to be…some kind of attraction?
Lars cocked his head toward the handlers, who opened the door and shoved Castiel through.
He stumbled into a bare, circular courtyard. No, not a courtyard. An arena. The floor and walls were cement like everything else, but there was no ceiling, just barbed wire stretching up and inward to form a partial dome above his head. Bright lights blazed down on him, nearly blinding him if he looked directly upward. But he heard the cheers and excited whoops, and squinted up toward where he could make out silhouettes pressed together in a balcony overlooking the pit.
Something clattered at Castiel's feet, and he blinked down in confusion at the sword he found there. The iron door slammed closed, sealing him in.
For a long moment, Castiel just stared at the weapon. What did they expect him to do?
But then he heard a grating sound on the opposite end of the arena, and looked over to see a figure dressed in the same style of a Roman soldier saunter in. He had a sword in hand and was swishing it back and forth in anticipatory eagerness. But he also bore a collar like Castiel's.
Castiel's stomach cramped as he glanced down at the sword again. Were they to do battle? Castiel wasn't going to kill someone just for these people's morbid pleasure.
A crackle sounded above before a voice echoed out over a speaker. "And now the fight you've all been waiting for. Of cosmic proportions, witness a battle to the death between Heaven and Hell."
Castiel whipped his attention back to his intended opponent, and watched the figure's eyes flick black.
"In the left corner," the announcer continued, "our undefeated champion, Hellraiser! And in the right, our new challenger, The Angel!"
Cheers went up through the crowd with near-deafening intensity.
The demon stalked toward him, and Castiel snatched up the sword out of instinct.
"Are you a prisoner here too?" he asked.
The demon sneered. "You think I pander to these hunters for fun?"
He started to circle Castiel, who sidestepped to keep the same distance between them.
"How long?" Castiel pressed.
"Long enough to know to play the game." He lunged, and Castiel quickly parried, the blades screeching at the brief contact.
Castiel danced back a few steps. "I don't want to fight you."
"Fine by me."
The demon struck again, and Castiel spun away.
"Listen to me! We don't have to allow ourselves to be used this way. If we refuse to fight—"
The demon barked out a laugh. "Naive little angel. We don't have a choice."
Castiel straightened himself to his full height and tossed his sword away. "We always have a choice."
There were some gasps from the balcony, overrun by "boo"s.
The demon shrugged. "Suit yourself."
He surged forward, swinging his blade. Castiel ducked and tried to retreat, but the demon wheeled around and plunged his sword into Castiel's stomach. The shock of it punched the oxygen from his lungs, and Castiel stared down at the blade piercing his abdomen as fire erupted in his gut and out his back.
The demon leaned in. "Word of advice: trying to die in the ring won't end your suffering. They don't give us weapons that can kill the likes of you and me. You'll be back out here tomorrow night. And the next." He yanked the blade out with a squelch and Castiel fell back to hit the ground. "Welcome to Hell."
The demon turned and strode away, leaving Castiel shaking as blood pumped from the wound in his stomach. With his grace locked down, he couldn't heal himself.
The spectators grumbled to themselves as the lower door opened and the handlers came in to grab Castiel and drag him out of the arena.
Castiel was bodily dragged into a room just outside of the pit, his abdomen screaming with every tug and yank on his arms. Blood loss was already starting to make him dizzy. The mundane sword may not have possessed the power to kill him, but he would not be bouncing back from this wound without his grace.
One of the handlers moved to grab his feet, and he was suddenly lifted up and dropped heavily onto a large wooden table. His vision momentarily whited out as agony jolted through him from the rough handling.
"Boss wants him good as new by morning."
Castiel tried to bite back a pained grunt as he lolled his head back and forth, blinking in an effort to see where he was. It looked like a medieval apothecary's chamber, with shelves of herbs and vials of viscous substances. A small cot sat in the far corner next to a bucket and a basin.
Movement caught his eye, and he jerked toward it, losing his vision for a brief second again. When it cleared, he saw a woman walking toward him. She had brown hair that was messy and frizzed, and wore a handmaiden's dress that was smeared with dirt and ash. She also had a collar around her neck, though this one was different, and looked as ancient as her little hovel. It was large and made of iron, and had seven spikes affixed in the center. A leash ran from the collar up to a hook in the ceiling.
Castiel's eyes widened as he recognized it. That was a witchcatcher.
The woman came to stand over him, barely giving him a second look as she focused on the gaping sword wound in his stomach. Pursing her mouth in concentration, she held her hands over it and started to recite an incantation. Castiel felt magic prickle on the air, and let out a surprised gasp when cold tendrils plunged into his abdomen. He could feel every thread of the witch's power worming down and starting to stitch his tattered flesh and organs back together.
But it was only a few minutes before she stopped and drew back. Castiel was more alert, and he lifted his head to gaze down at the still very large injury.
"I have to do it in stages," the witch explained.
Castiel tried to push himself up onto his elbows, but fell back with a pained grunt.
"Don't make me restrain you," she warned. "If you tear your wound further and I don't have it fully healed by morning, I'll be the one taking the blame."
Castiel stilled, and turned his attention to study her more carefully. She was obviously a prisoner here as well, and with the witchcatcher, she would be forced to obey every command given by her captors.
"What's your name?" he asked.
She cast him a wary look. "Sybil."
She turned away and started puttering around her work table. At first Castiel thought it strange she'd be allowed to have ingredients for potions she could use against her captors, but then realized she'd probably been commanded to never attempt to harm them.
"How long have you been here?"
"I don't know. What's the date?"
"February 18th, 2017."
Her expression fell. "A month." She lowered her voice as though to herself, "I thought it was longer."
Castiel's heart gave a pang for her. He didn't know what kind of witch she was, whether she'd caused her own kind of mayhem and destruction that would have one day drawn the Winchesters' attention, but she certainly didn't deserve this. None of the supernatural beings here did.
"They force you to heal the injured?" he asked.
Sybil nodded. "The important ones, anyway, the ones that can't be easily replaced. Some are just cannon fodder for the intermission rounds between the prize fights, mostly vampires and werewolves."
Castiel clenched his jaw. He suspected he and the demon were supposed to be that 'prize fight.'
His wound sent a spurt of fire through him, and he let out a strangled gasp.
Sybil hurried back over. "Here, I'll do some more."
She held her hands over his stomach again, and once again Castiel felt her magic burrow in. Though it was to heal, the presence was an invasion, and he could feel his grace bucking and writhing where it was locked down into a tiny ball in the center of his sternum.
A few moments later, some of the pain faded. Castiel took a moment to calm his breathing again.
"Why…in stages?" he asked, just out of curiosity.
"They blocked a great portion of my magic," Sybil replied. "I don't have enough to do it in one go. Sorry."
He shook his head against the coarse wood. "It's not your fault. Have you tried to escape?"
She gave him a look, then pointedly flicked her gaze to the leash attached to the ceiling. "That was one of the first things I was commanded never to do."
"Someone could take that off. One of your…patients."
Sybil shook her head and turned around, lifting her hair up off her neck. There was a padlock on the witchcatcher, one that needed a key. Which meant Castiel couldn't just simply remove it, either.
"What about anyone else?" Castiel pressed. "Has anyone else attempted it?" And succeeded?
Sybil's mouth thinned into a grim line. "Attempted? Sure. There have been some stupid attempts. They didn't end well." She sighed. "Look, you seem like a nice guy—angel. Don't incur their wrath. You won't like it."
Castiel leveled a staunch look at her. "I'm not going to submit to being their slave for entertainment."
Her shoulders sagged, and she didn't say anything else. She healed him a few more times as the night wore on, and when the handlers returned first thing in the morning, Castiel's wound was fully mended, as was the cut on his arm from Travis and the bruise on his cheek.
He had gotten off the table and was on his feet when the handlers entered the chamber. Castiel immediately threw his shoulder into one, knocking him flat on his ass. He then spun and punched the second, sending him slamming into the wall. But then he heard a whisper of Latin, and suddenly his feet were glued to the floor.
He shot Sybil a betrayed look.
She just gazed back at him sadly as the handlers staggered to their feet and one pulled out a set of sigiled handcuffs. The steel bracelets were snapped around his wrists, and only then did the witch's spell release him.
Castiel was manhandled from the room and taken back to his cell.
Castiel didn't see anyone for the rest of that morning and afternoon, but as the day receded into evening, he started to hear the disturbance of a crowd gathering. Another audience for these gladiator games.
He watched some monsters be escorted past his cell and toward the arena and thought about what Sybil had said about intermission rounds. He heard the echo of snarls and a pained yelp, and clenched his fists in growing anger. They were all essentially animals being thrown into cage fights.
When the handlers came to retrieve him, Castiel stood his ground and refused to move. They seemed unperturbed, and one of them simply pulled out that awful remote and pushed a button.
Castiel tried to stay on his feet as lightning coursed through him, but he was eventually brought to his knees. Then he was too busy gasping for breath and trying to see past the stars in his vision to resist being heaved up and dragged from his cell.
He was hauled through the corridor and to the iron door. Another handler was holding a sword, and he was brought to halt in front of the man, who regarded him coolly. Whatever he saw in Castiel's eyes made him snort, and he opened the door and tossed the sword into the arena first. Then Castiel was shoved in and the door slammed shut behind him.
On the opposite end, the demon from the night before entered, and once again the announcer touted the epic battle between Heaven and Hell. He also made a comment about betting being closed.
The demon simpered at Castiel. "Going to stand there while I run you through this time? Or do you want to give me at least a little of a challenge?"
"We don't have to do this," Castiel replied, but his muscles were taut with apprehension and he took a step closer to the sword on the ground.
The demon sighed. "Bored now."
He charged, and Castiel dove for his blade, rolling up into a crouch in time to block the swing coming down at his head. Metal clanged with a discordant screech and surprised sounds rippled through the crowd.
The demon wrenched his blade away and swiped again. Castiel flipped backward into a somersault, avoiding the blow and putting enough distance between them so he had time to regain his feet.
The demon twirled his sword as he stalked around the edge of the arena.
Castiel's chest tightened. "Please."
"And here I thought angels were supposed to be big bad warriors," the demon scoffed.
He ran toward Castiel, who stood his ground and brought his blade up to parry. Steel screeched with each successive strike, until finally their blades clashed and slid down to lock at the hilts.
"Why are you letting these humans degrade you like this?" Castiel demanded, face inches from the demon's. "Why are you letting them reduce you to nothing more than an attack dog?"
The demon snarled and bore down harder. Castiel's arms quivered under the force.
"Better the attack dog than the whelp who never learns," the demon spat.
He suddenly pushed himself away from Castiel and thrust out a kick so hard that it sent Castiel crashing to the ground. He tried to get his sword up in time, but the demon drove the point of his through Castiel's forearm, severing the tendons. Castiel cried out and tried to roll away, but there was nowhere to go, and the demon flipped his blade around before plunging it into Castiel's chest.
He felt his heart explode and everything went black. Blood flooded his lungs and rib cage and bubbled up his esophagus. He was drowning, choking. Just like from the Lance of Michael. He heard cheers and jeers from above, but they were muffled, and when hands reached underneath his armpits and legs, he couldn't manage the breath to cry out in response.
He must have finally lost consciousness, because the next thing he knew, he could feel Sybil's magic probing the chambers of his heart as it tried to fuse the organ back together.
Castiel pried his eyelids open and blinked at her fuzzy outline standing over him. He opened his mouth, only to cough and have the taste of copper splatter his lips.
"Don't speak," she said sharply.
There was a flare of magic, and Castiel passed out again.
When he woke for the second time—or maybe it was the fourth; he was having trouble piecing together blurred fragments—he could breathe again and there was no longer any blood clogging his throat.
"Sybil?" he called, voice hoarse.
There was a creak of furniture, and a moment later, she came into view. There were dark circles under her eyes and her complexion was paler than it had been yesterday. She even had to put her palms on the table to brace herself.
"Don't move yet. I barely just finished putting you back together, but you'll live."
Castiel was beginning to understand the curse of that.
She sighed and her expression shifted into one of sympathy. "How do you feel?"
"Like I was stabbed."
"Yeah. You don't seem to be a very good fighter."
Castiel almost snorted in response, but caught himself before he could jar his rib cage and cause additional agony. "I once laid siege to Hell," he croaked. "Twice, actually. I survived Purgatory for over a year and led armies into battle."
Sybil arched a brow. "Then you really should be doing better in the ring."
"I am not going to go along with these games," he rejoined. "We are not chattel to be used for sport."
She just gazed at him somberly. "Here, we are."
Castiel looked away. He didn't understand how everyone could just accept this.
"I'm sorry for casting that spell on you before," Sybil said contritely. "I've been commanded not to let anyone try to escape."
Castiel closed his eyes with a sigh, and then looked back at her. "I understand. You don't have a choice."
"Neither do you. I wish you'd see that before you're too torn apart for even me to fix you."
Castiel had the fleeting wonder of just how far that would have to be. He pushed himself upright, grimacing as everything in his body ached. Sybil placed a hand on his shoulder to steady him when he swayed. Witch healing may have been sufficient, but it wasn't the same as his own grace doing the job.
He shifted to look her in the eye. "And I wish you would just want to try to escape. If we work together, we can overcome these hunters."
Sybil looked away, jaw tightening.
"Look," Castiel hurried on. "You said you patch up all the wounded fighters, correct?"
She nodded guardedly.
"Can you talk with them? Try to convince them that if they refuse to fight, these hunters will stop making a profit off us."
"And then there's no reason to keep us alive," she hissed.
"But we can fight back," Castiel insisted. "We're not helpless."
She shook her head, and Castiel could tell she was afraid.
"Just talk to them," he pleaded. "The handlers give you privacy, so you won't be overheard. We can plan a revolt right under their noses. Sybil." Castiel took her hands in his. "I know you're scared. And I'm not promising there isn't danger in this. But isn't trying better than letting ourselves be ripped apart day after day until these hunters find new contenders and we're killed anyway?"
She nipped at her bottom lip, but then her shoulders sagged in defeat. "Alright, Castiel. I'll…bring it up when I can."
He nodded. That was all he could ask.
When the handlers came to take him back to his cell, he didn't fight. He went quietly, but only so that he would have the alertness to scrutinize the hallways, attempting to make a mental map of the building.
Because he was going to try to escape this place. Somehow.
Castiel and the demon circled each other in the ring.
"You have a name?" Castiel asked.
"Horace. I don't care about yours."
"It's Castiel," he told him anyway.
Horace lunged and Castiel pivoted away.
"What's your objection to fighting back against these oppressors?"
The demon rolled his eyes and let out an exasperated noise. "Do you ever quit?"
"No." Castiel feinted right and then struck left, scoring a shallow graze across Horace's arm.
The demon arched a surprised brow at him. "Alright. You talk a big game about taking a stand against the man. But as soon as they light up that fancy collar, you go down just like the rest of us."
Castiel's mouth pressed into a thin line. That was a good point.
Horace swung and Castiel blocked before breaking away again.
"Then we find a way to get them off or disable them."
The demon scoffed and struck out again. They exchanged several parries, but Castiel was still only trying to bide his time in order to convince Horace to help him, so he was taken off guard when the demon abruptly surged forward and slammed into Castiel's chest, flipping him up and over. He landed on his back, the breath punching from his lungs.
Horace brought his sword down to Castiel's throat, but instead of making the final cut, he simply stared at him for a long moment. Then he backed up and walked toward his gate.
The crowed started to boo, but Horace didn't turn around. Castiel pushed himself up onto his elbows, then slowly got to his feet. It seemed the demon was content to call the fight over, though no fatal blow had been delivered.
Disgruntlement continued to ripple through the audience, and a few moments later, the doors opened and the handlers came in, remote in hand. Castiel lowered his sword and let it fall to the floor. The handlers looked angry, and they roughly took him by the arms and led him back to his cell. Guess he wouldn't be seeing Sybil tonight. She probably needed a rest from healing him anyway.
He was thrust into his cell and the door locked behind him, and Castiel went to the rear wall. He turned his back against it and slid down to the floor. Several minutes later, there was the sound of clomping footsteps, and then Lars walked in front of his cell.
"I have to say, that was a first," the man said, eyes flashing with barely contained fury. "A demon sparing an angel. How'd you manage that?"
Castiel just glowered at him. "You won't keep getting away with this."
"You think anyone cares what happens to a bunch of monsters?" Lars sneered. "You murder innocent people. Even the angels do, don't pretend otherwise."
Castiel's jaw ticked. No, he couldn't deny that. But it didn't justify what these hunters were doing. And there were people who would care. Sam and Dean would care very much if they knew Castiel was here.
…But therein lied the despair to his hope—the Winchesters had no way of knowing where Castiel was or that anything had happened to him. He was supposed to be off searching for Kelly, and it was often days or longer between checking in. Who knew how long it would take for them to start to wonder, to start looking.
No, Castiel would have to rescue himself, like he always did.
When he didn't say anything else, Lars jabbed a finger at him through the cell bars. "Play your part, angel," he said in a dark tone full of menace. "Or you won't like what happens next."
With that, he turned and left, and Castiel closed his eyes against an upwelling of disheartenment.
Castiel started losing track of the days. Every one was the same—the mornings and afternoons he was left alone to languish in that cell, and at night he was sent into the arena to face Horace. Over and over again.
Every night, Castiel would ask Horace if the demon would stand and fight with him, and every night Horace would respond not until they had an actual advantage.
Castiel spent a little more energy defending himself against the demon's attacks, and the fights started drawing out longer and longer. At first, it was to the crowd's pleasure, but then they started clamoring for more violence and bloodshed.
And when Castiel wouldn't oblige, he inevitably kept losing.
But Horace didn't go for the debilitating blows like he'd done in the beginning. He'd wound, of course, or go for the kill but pull back at the last second, making it clear he was the victor.
Castiel's injuries weren't serious, and so he wasn't brought to Sybil very often. He was left to heal slowly in his cell, and he began to mark the passage of time by how long it took those cuts and slashes to heal, which was a while without access to his grace. His vessel was gradually becoming riddled with scars.
Sometimes he could hear monsters put into the cells near his, and Castiel would try calling out to them, try to convince them that if they refused to fight and worked together, they could bring this operation down and escape.
He wasn't surprised when he didn't get much of a response from them. He was starting to think he should intentionally get severely wounded in the next fight so he could see Sybil again, see if she was making progress speaking with the other prisoners.
But he didn't have a solid plan yet, and he needed one if he was truly going to convince anyone that they had a fighting chance.
Castiel had been so compliant lately that his handlers had slowly begun to relax around him. Not completely. They were still hunters who looked upon anything supernatural as a vile piece of vermin, but neither were they watching him like a hawk. They'd even stopped carrying the collar's remote in their palms when they escorted him to and from the arena, but kept it in their pockets.
Castiel kept his gait steady, careful not to telegraph anything before he made his move. He would probably only get one chance at this, because if he failed and tried the clumsy distraction again, the hunters might grow suspicious.
He waited until they were walking down one of the isolated corridors, and then he tripped and went crashing into one of the handlers, driving them both to the floor. He deftly slipped his hand into the man's pocket and palmed the remote, then continued to roll over him and into the wall. With his back to them, he quickly stuffed the remote inside his breastplate where it would be secure. He then started to turn back over.
The other handler was already whipping out his remote, and Castiel braced himself for pain, but the shock never came. The two hunters exchanged a look as Castiel made sure to stay on the ground.
He ducked his gaze and murmured, "Sorry."
The hunter he'd knocked down grumbled under his breath. "Get up," he snapped.
Castiel pushed himself to his feet, and they resumed the trek to his cell.
He waited until the games were over and the barracks had fallen quiet for the night before pulling the remote out and examining it. There were three buttons, but Castiel had seen the remote used often enough on him to know that the left one was the initial jolt, and the middle was an amplified one. The button on the right had never been used, to his knowledge.
Taking a deep breath, he tentatively held the remote up toward the collar on his neck and pushed the third button. There was a beep, and something inside Castiel snapped, releasing his grace. The oxygen left his lungs in a whoosh at the shock of suddenly feeling his grace again. It burbled up and sluggishly healed some of the fresh wounds from the most recent fights.
Castiel sagged against the wall, clenching the remote in his hand. Now he could convince Horace to act, and together maybe they could break out of this hellhole.
Throughout the entire next day, Castiel was itching to bust down his cell door and make his escape now. But he wasn't sure how far he'd get on his own, and while he felt no loyalty to wait for the demon, they'd have a better chance together than apart.
So Castiel waited until that night when he was fetched for the arena. The remote was hidden inside his breastplate, and he went quietly yet again to the door of the pit. The handlers now handed him his sword at the gate instead of tossing it in for him to pick up. Soon he would finally turn it on them.
Horace sauntered out like he always did. Castiel raised his sword and let the demon come. Horace quirked a curious brow at him, but attacked first. Castiel swung his blade up to block with a resounding peal, strengthened by his awakened grace.
Horace blinked in bewilderment, but seemed to shake it off. "What, no plea tonight?" he said.
Castiel's lips curved upward. "No. Just an invitation." He reached into his breastplate and removed the remote, holding it up for Horace to see. "I'm leaving. Are you coming with me?"
The demon's eyes flared with life, and his face cracked into a manic grin. "Hell yes."
Castiel angled the remote at Horace's collar and punched the button to disable it. Then he dropped the remote and ripped the steel band from around his own neck. Finally.
Gasps and shouts went up through the crowd, and the gates in the pit grated open as handlers started pouring in. Castiel and Horace raised their swords and charged.
Castiel had never relished in the killing of humans before, but in that moment, he took a dark pleasure in cutting down the men who'd shackled him, tortured him, and put him on display. It was almost comical the way a few stood there, frantically jamming their thumbs on their remotes, even though both Castiel and Horace had managed to remove their collars. The demon tore through them with even more glee.
They broke through the door into the corridor as several hunters fled down the hallway.
"We should free some of the monsters to fight with us," Castiel said.
"Yeah," Horace drawled. "You do that. As for me, I'm outta here."
Castiel shot him a dismayed look, and the demon winked.
"Thanks for the fun."
Then he threw his head back and smoked out of his meatsuit.
"Horace!" Castiel yelled, but the demon was gone.
He spun with a growl and patted down one of the dead handlers until he found the keys to the cells. Castiel then sprinted toward them and stopped at the first, which contained a werewolf. He tossed the keys inside.
"You'll only get one shot at this," he snapped. "Make it count."
Castiel left the werewolf to free itself, and hopefully the other monsters, while he hurried back toward Sybil's chamber and kicked in the door.
She jolted in surprise, eyes wide and fearful.
He swept forward and swung his sword, severing the leash from the hook in the ceiling. Castiel caught it, and though he was loathe to lead her out by it, they didn't have time to try to break the padlock on the witchcatcher collar.
They stepped into the hallway, and the sounds of fighting echoed down from the passage ahead. Then there were the telltale screams of collars being activated.
Castiel gritted his teeth, and guided Sybil the opposite direction. But he'd never been able to fully map the place, as he was only ever taken between his cell and the arena, and they soon found themselves weaving right back around to where they'd started.
Sybil grabbed his arm. "Castiel."
He whipped his head toward where Spencer and another hunter were filing in, armed with weapons Castiel had never seen before. They didn't look like regular guns, and he instinctively put himself in front of Sybil.
Raising his sword, he strode toward them, summoning his grace up so that the hall lit with a flare of blue as celestial intent poured out through Castiel's eyes. He stretched out a hand, intending to unleash a surge of power, but the hunters didn't even balk.
Spencer merely squeezed the trigger on the weapon he was holding, and a fizzling blue mesh of squiggles shot out toward Castiel. It snapped open into an electrified net, and lashed around him. Castiel clenched his jaw and tried to keep his feet, but then the other hunter pointed another weapon at him, and this time screeching pain split through his skull.
Castiel cried out and finally fell, his sword useless in his spasming hand. Not that it mattered, because it felt like his head was going to implode, and with another explosion behind his eyes, everything mercifully ceased to exist.
Castiel moaned as he was dragged back into wakefulness. With the way everything hurt, he'd rather stay unconscious. He wondered where Sybil's healing magic was, and then he remembered. He jolted upright, only for his head to swim and he thunked back down against the concrete beneath him.
Where was Sybil? Had she escaped?
Probably not, since she was still wearing the witchcatcher. Dammit, Castiel had failed her, failed them both.
He bit back a groan as he rolled onto his side, preparing to sit up. It took much more effort than he was happy with. His arms were shaking like jelly, and now that he focused, he couldn't actually feel his legs.
Terror coursed through him, and he looked down to inspect himself. He was physically intact, not even a rip in the Roman soldier garb. What had the hunters hit him with? Nothing he'd ever experienced before, but probably related to the shock collar.
With a start, Castiel shot a hand up to the metal band he could feel around his neck. He clenched his fists. He'd come so close. And now without Horace's help, Castiel didn't expect a second escape attempt to go any better.
He ran his fingers across the collar, frowning as he realized it was slightly different than the first one he'd worn. It was thicker and broader in size, encasing most of his neck. It was actually rather heavy, too, given his severely weakened state and his grace being locked down again.
Castiel used his hands to scoot back against the wall so he could prop himself up, his legs dragging limply along with him. He could only hope there hadn't been any permanent damage, though he didn't think Lars had any use for a crippled contender.
Speaking of the man, he suddenly walked up to the cell door.
"You're awake. Good."
He unlocked the door, and he and Spencer came inside. Their demeanor was cold and calculating, which sent a trickle of unease through Castiel. He was essentially helpless like this. Not that he'd ever had much of a sporting chance against them when they used the remote to subjugate him.
Lars stared down at him for a long moment. "You cost me several good men, and my prize fighter."
"Sorry for your loss," Castiel muttered.
He hadn't mentioned losing a witch, so maybe Sybil was okay.
A muscle in Lars's jaw ticked. "You've had quite the mouth on you since day one. Talking instead of fighting. Spreading ideas about rebellion."
Castiel glowered up at him.
A steely calm settled over the man. "So we're going to have to change that."
He pulled out a remote, one that was different from the others, presumably to go with the upgraded collar. Castiel automatically tensed, even as he wondered in the back of his mind whether he'd feel that kind of pain in the places of his body that currently didn't have any sensation anyway. Seemed almost a waste of effort.
He was about to say so, when Lars pressed a button. The collar made a grinding noise, and Castiel jolted as several small spikes suddenly skewered his neck from inside the collar. He pitched forward onto his hands as blood spurted from his mouth to splatter across the cement. His throat was on fire, and at another surge of blood he coughed up, he nearly passed out from the agony.
Lars's shoes stepped into his blurring field of vision, and the man squatted down. Castiel couldn't even lift his head to look up at him.
"That's better," Lars crooned. He lashed a hand out to fist in Castiel's hair, and yanked his head up.
Castiel gasped and choked as blood poured down his throat, but despite his desperate heaves, no sound escaped him. He could feel the spikes staying lodged in his flesh and sinew, his sliced vocal cords unable to weave themselves back together.
Lars smirked. "Now, without my demon, you're gonna be the next sought after contender for all the fights." He leaned in and hissed, "So you'd better shape up, or I will do much, much worse."
He thrust Castiel away and stood, and Castiel heard their retreating footsteps and the sound of the door locking.
Castiel curled up in unrelenting cascades of agony. He coughed up another glob of blood, this time with traces of charred hemoglobin.
He didn't know how long he lay there, shuddering on the cold concrete, but gradually the searing burn began to abate. Castiel blinked at the mess he'd spit up, and then anxiously turned his senses toward the wound. The flesh around the entrance points of the spikes had been cauterized, explaining the taste of char in his mouth. He could feel the metal protruding into his throat, and it made him afraid to move for fear of tearing the wounds afresh.
Castiel sagged on the floor and closed his eyes in abject defeat. So now the last piece of agency he'd had was stripped away. He had no freedom, no grace, no voice.
"Come on, Cas," Dean growled into his phone. "I've left you a dozen messages. Call me back."
He hung up and scowled at the wall. Damn Cas for pulling this crap again, going for days or weeks on end without checking in, not having the common decency to let the Winchesters know he was still alive.
And that was the core of the matter, the fear underlying Dean's anger—he was worried. After almost losing Cas in the ordeal with Ramiel, Dean's protective instincts had been triggered. So sue him.
Sam gave him a sympathetic look as he came back into the library. "Still no answer?"
"No." Dean tossed his phone on the table.
"Did you try tracking his GPS?"
"Of course I tried tracking his GPS," Dean snapped. "His phone is off. It's been off for weeks, going straight to voice mail every single time."
Sam's lips thinned. "Well, it's Cas. He's always fine."
"No, he's not always fine, Sam. In fact, practically every time he's gone off by himself he's ended up captured, tortured, or cursed." Dean shook his head. "It was too soon after Ramiel to let him go out looking for Kelly."
"Dean, he was completely healed from that. And we need to find Kelly; of course Cas had to go back out there."
"We could have gone with him."
"You know Cas would have said splitting up would help us cover more leads." Sam leaned forward over the table. "Look, let's just work on finding him, okay?"
Dean threw his arms up. "How? We can't track his phone."
"I'll call Jody and ask her to put an APB out on his truck, at least to all the states surrounding Kansas. And I'll search county reports to see if there were any vehicle violations with his license plate."
Dean let out a breath of tension. "Yeah, alright." It was a plan, at least.
But he hated the arduous and tedious work of poring through databases, trying to find that one tiny piece of information they needed.
They spent the next few days doing that grunt work, with nothing to show for it.
Until Jody called.
Sam quickly answered and put his phone on speaker. "Hey, Jody. You've got Dean here, too."
"Hey, boys," she replied. "Listen, a hit finally came back on that APB, all the way in Missouri."
Dean straightened. "Where?"
She gave them the name of the road and mile marker. "Deputy I talked to said it was pretty out of the way. The only reason he even spotted it was the school bus broke down on that road and he drove out to lend a hand. He asked if he should have it towed back to town, but I told him to leave it, that the FBI wants to see everything exactly how it was left."
Dean hastily typed the address into his laptop to pull it up on Google maps. "Thanks, Jody. Any reports of strange deaths or omens in the area in the past month?"
"Nope. Sorry. Wish I could come out and give you boys a hand, but it's way outside my jurisdiction."
"That's okay," Sam said. "You've helped a lot. Really."
The line clicked as the call disconnected.
Dean committed the location on the map to memory and snatched up his keys. "Let's go."
He made the drive in only a few hours, booking it down back highways at faster speeds than he usually went. He hadn't called to let the local deputies know they were on their way, as he was wound too tight to deal with fake smiles and fabricated stories.
When they reached the mile marker, Dean pulled the Impala off onto the shoulder and turned off the engine. He frowned as he climbed out, not seeing signs of Cas's truck. Had the deputies towed it anyway?
"Dean," Sam called, and he turned toward where his brother was peering through some tall shrubbery. Cas's truck was the same color as the dead reeds not yet revived from winter, and so wasn't very easy to spot. No wonder it hadn't been reported sooner.
Dean and Sam approached it from both sides. Even though the deputy had already been out here and obviously hadn't found anything suspicious, they were still going to be cautious. Dean peeked into the cargo bed of the truck, which was empty. So was the cab. A thick layer of dust coated the entire vehicle and there were cobwebs on the tires, as though it had been sitting here for as long as Cas had been gone.
Dean went around the front to inspect the grill. "No signs of an accident," he commented.
"Or a break-in." Sam turned and squinted at the surrounding fields, mouth pressing into a grim line. "We should look around. Cas was obviously out here for a reason."
Dean's chest tightened at the unspoken reason behind Sam's suggestion—what if there was a body discarded somewhere in the grass?
He swallowed thickly, and started off. Sam moved in a parallel line three feet away, eyes searching the ground. They moved up and down in a grid pattern through the entire field, but after a couple of hours of searching, they hadn't found any signs of blood or bodies, either Cas's or something else's. Dean was both relieved and frustrated. How had Cas just disappeared off the face of the earth?
Sam ran a hand through his hair. "Now what?"
Dean shook his head. "We go back to town and ask around. Maybe Kelly was here and Cas tracked her down."
"To an abandoned field in the middle of nowhere? Where he then left his truck behind?"
"Maybe he ran out of gas," Dean rejoined.
Sam frowned, and canted his head. "We can check."
Yeah, they could. Dean headed back to the Impala and grabbed the slim jim he kept in the trunk. It'd been a while since they'd had to steal a car, so he was a little rusty using it, but he eventually got the door to the truck open. Hot-wiring was easier, especially on older car models, and it didn't take long for Dean to get the engine rumbling. The dash gauges started up…and the tank was half full.
Sam's mouth was pressed into a thin line where he stood in the open door, but he didn't say anything. Dean cut the power and let the engine die, then flipped the door lock before shutting it. He thought about what to do with the truck. Cas liked it, and he wouldn't want it left out here to rust. But towing it to impound would make it nearly impossible to get back. They'd have to hot-wire it again and drive it back to Lebanon, but not until the Winchesters did a little more digging around the area.
Dean carried the slim jim back to the Impala. "Let's go see if anyone saw Cas or Kelly in town."
Sam wordlessly followed.
It was getting late in the day, but they managed to check in at a gas station and diner, yet no one there recognized Cas's or Kelly's picture. Dean found a motel, and he and Sam spent an entire week digging into everything they could think of, talking to everyone just about twice, scouring the countryside surrounding Cas's abandoned truck. There was nothing.
Dean hated to give up, but eventually even he had to recognize they needed to pack it in. Cas wasn't here. He'd been gone from the area long before they'd ever arrived, and any leads were as dry as the dust coating his truck.
On their way out of town, Dean drove back to the field and hot-wired Cas's vehicle so Sam could drive it back to Lebanon. Cas would want it when he came back. Hell, maybe this was just one of the angel's typical disappearing acts, and he'd show up at the bunker, maybe a little bloody and beaten like he'd done in the past, but he'd shrug it off and say he was fine, and he would be.
Because Cas was always fine.
It was three nights before Castiel was sent back into the arena. He didn't know whether the games had been cancelled while Lars recovered his losses, or if Castiel had been given time to heal from the torturous collar. The metal spikes were a constant foreign intrusion in his flesh, but his vessel had adapted around them so that he could move and breathe without difficulty, much like people whose bodies had encased bullets or shrapnel in scar tissue when the pieces couldn't be removed.
Castiel didn't have the energy to struggle when the handlers came for him. They were tense, thumbs over the remotes in their hands as they escorted him through the passageway to the pit. They were back to tossing his sword in before him. Which was fine. Castiel had no intention of picking it up anyway. Despite what Lars had threatened, Castiel refused to give the man the satisfaction of having broken him.
He walked calmly into the ring as the announcer hailed him as the new up-and-coming champion. He idly wondered who he'd be expected to duel, if Lars had captured himself another demon.
But it was two vampires who were released into the arena, their razor teeth bared and eyes dilated from starvation.
Castiel stood there as they stalked around him. He may not have had his voice, but his stance was clear—he would not fight.
Of course, that only meant that when the vampires attacked, they tried to tear him to pieces. Fangs sank into his arms, shoulders, and thighs, ripping and shredding. His mouth opened in a silent scream, and even the audience seemed to have their voices stolen in those moments. The only sounds were the gnashing of teeth.
The handlers eventually burst in and activated the vampires' collars to pry them off. Castiel lay on the ground, trembling as blood pumped out of multiple fissures. His throat, ironically, had been protected by the broad collar that already had its teeth sunk into him.
Hands grabbed his wrists and started dragging him out of the arena. Instead of being brought to Sybil, however, he was carted straight back to his cell and dumped inside. His wounds continued to bleed sluggishly, making him light-headed. But despite being cut off from his grace, they weren't going to kill him, and after several agonizingly long hours, the bleeding slowed. Castiel could barely move, and he wondered whether he'd be spared another few days from the ring.
The handlers came for him the next night and hauled him up, half carrying him back to the pit. He was pushed inside, and he stumbled, squinting under the harsh glare of the spotlights. His sword clattered to the ground at his feet.
A werewolf entered the ring.
Castiel closed his eyes and let the attack come.
He barely remembered the handlers pulling the wolf off him, or the journey back to his cell. His entire body was awash with agony, blunting his mind and senses. He thought he saw Sybil.
The witch knelt down next to him and held a hand over his eviscerated stomach.
"Your stubbornness is only going to get you dead," she hissed in his ear. "Is that what you want?"
Castiel felt only a brief flare of her magic as it stitched his internal organs back together, and then she was gone and he was left in a feverish daze until his body finally started to overcome its latest trauma.
He lay on his side in the dreary cell and thought of home, of Sam and Dean. Maybe they would find him. How long had he been gone? Surely they'd be wondering where he was since he hadn't called. They'd look for him…
He closed his eyes as a tear slipped free to track down his cheek to the cold hard floor. Even if they were looking for him, they'd have no idea where to start.
But, he reminded himself, they'd accomplished the impossible many times before. Castiel merely needed to have faith. If it was Sam or Dean here, they wouldn't give up. But how did Castiel hold on without giving in?
He didn't know.
However, when the next night came and Castiel was thrust into the arena once more, this time he bent down and picked up the sword. The weight lay heavy in his hand, and his wounds pulled with every movement. But he clenched his jaw and stayed standing.
A rugaru came into the arena, snarling and gnashing its teeth. Castiel tightened his grip on the weapon and swung when the monster attacked. Gasps went through the spectators, followed by a growing din of excitement.
Castiel did his best to tune it out. He wasn't doing this to please them. He was doing this for survival. For his family.
Though he'd decided to finally defend himself, his body was weak and his movements jerky, and he sustained a few more wounds before he finally decapitated the rugaru with a lucky swing. The announcer over the speaker declared him the winner.
The gates opened to allow him to exit, yet Castiel just stood in the middle of the ring, swaying slightly as numbness started to seep through him. Eventually the handlers came in to retrieve him and escort him out.
Lars was waiting out in the corridor. "Nice job, angel," he said. "And as a reward, I'll let Sybil heal those new injuries you got tonight. Just those, of course."
The man's expression was smug with triumph but still bristling underneath with a grudge over Castiel's recent actions.
Castiel, of course, couldn't respond. He was pushed into Sybil's chamber and forced to sit on her table. The handler instructed her on exactly which wounds to heal and not anything further. He also stayed instead of leaving Castiel in her care, so she didn't dare speak to him. She just healed the injuries she was told to and then Castiel was taken back to his cell.
A fresh set of Roman clothes were waiting for him. He stared at them for far too long, debating whether to change. But his current outfit was in tatters and stained with blood and grime, and he decided it was more degrading to leave parts of his body exposed like that. And so he put on the clean garments.
The next night was a repeat, and so was the night after that. Castiel fought and killed the monsters sent into the ring to fight him. Well, he tried to kill them, but some were retrieved in time and taken to Sybil, who was forced to heal them.
Castiel wasn't brought to her anymore. The wounds he bore gradually healed on their own, and he didn't receive any new ones in battle. The only damage he took was after the round had been won.
The gates would open and Castiel would turn to face the handlers. He'd refuse to relinquish his sword, and they would use the remote to send volts of electricity through the collar into his body. He'd inevitably drop the weapon and be taken back to his cell, but he did it every single night. Everything else was a cyclical blur of isolation, bloodshed, and boisterous shouts from the audience, but in those few moments after a fight, Castiel could stand with the threat of cutting down the hunters who'd forced him into this life.
It was the last act of defiance he had, the last piece of staunch resistance to cling to in order to remember who he was, and he refused to let go of it as hard as he refused to let go of that sword.
The collar would light up and lightning would fork through his core, stealing his breath and bringing him to his knees. He never walked out of the arena on his own power.
But at least in the dark of night, he could curl up in the corner of his dim prison and remind himself that he had not been fully broken.
Sam and Dean schlepped down the bunker stairs into the war room, having just arrived back from taking care of some ghouls.
"I'm sick of this," Dean was grousing. "I'm sick of being sent on cases when Cas is still missing."
Sam bit back a sigh. "I know."
Dean snorted derisively. "You know? Then why do you keep taking these jobs?"
"Look, I want to find Cas as much as you do," Sam said hotly. "That's the only reason I agreed to work with the British Men of Letters in the first place, in exchange for their help trying to find him."
"Well, they haven't found him yet, have they?"
"There's been no leads."
"How do we know?" Dean rejoined, voice rising an octave. "We haven't been out there looking for any, because we've been going out on hunts instead!" He swung an arm out so fast and abruptly, knocking the lamp off the table and sending it shattering to the floor. "Dammit!"
Sam's stomach lurched, and he just stood there, waiting out his brother's storm.
Dean's shoulders sagged, and he ran a hand down his face. When he looked back up, his expression and voice were wrecked. "It's been months, Sam."
"I know," he said quietly, equally devastated.
He didn't want to give up, but the more time that stretched on with no word on their friend…the harder it was for Sam to hold onto hope that they'd even find him. They'd tried everyone else—Crowley, even Rowena—and no one had any idea what had happened to the angel. If it wasn't for the fact that Cas's truck hadn't been anywhere near the portal to Heaven, Sam might have thought he'd gone upstairs. But without telling them first?
No. No, something had happened to Cas. And Sam was growing more and more frightened that the angel was dead.
His phone started vibrating in his pocket.
Dean's eyes hardened. "If that's Frodo sending us on another case, I swear to god…"
Sam frowned at the screen. "It's Mom."
She was still working closely with the Brits—closer than Sam and Dean were. But she wasn't the one who sent them cases; Mick did that. Dean still wasn't happy about her betrayal, and half the time wouldn't take her calls.
Sam answered. "Hey, Mom."
"Sam." Her voice was taut. "We think we found a lead on Cas."
Sam's spine jerked ramrod straight. "Where?"
"Brighton County, Missouri."
Sam hurried around the table to his laptop and hastily typed it in. His eyes widened. "That's sixty miles from where we found Cas's truck."
Had he been that close the entire time?
Dean was shooting him an urgent look demanding answers, and Sam gave himself a sharp shake.
"We're on our way." He hung up and turned to his brother. "Mom thinks she found something."
That was all Dean needed to spin on his heel and head for the door.
When they pulled up at the farmhouse Mary had told them to meet her at, Sam's jaw ticked at the sight of Ketch standing with her. Dean's expression was equally murderous as he got out of the Impala.
"Hey, guys," Mary greeted somberly, tentatively moving in to give Sam a hug. He returned the embrace, but Dean held himself standoffishly, and she didn't try to do the same with him.
"You found something," he said gruffly.
Mary exchanged a look with Ketch. "Um, yeah. We became aware of some hunters running an underground fight ring, and they're using monsters as contenders."
Sam furrowed his brow. "What?"
Mary hesitated, glancing at Dean. "They apparently have an angel fighter too."
Sam's heart skipped a beat. Was that where Cas… No, it couldn't be. Cas wouldn't… Sam couldn't even wrap his head around it.
"Where?" Dean demanded.
"A mile up the road," Ketch spoke up. "They'll be opening for business in…" He lifted his wrist to look at his watch. "One hour."
"Then let's get there before that," Dean growled.
"I've already surveyed the area, and it's heavily secure. We won't be able to just break into it, not to mention we don't even have confirmation it is your angel in there."
"Who else could it be?" Dean snapped.
"Okay, look," Mary interjected sternly. "Ketch is right; we can't go barging in there without knowing what we're dealing with. We need a plan. So we attend tonight's match, get a lay of the land, and go from there, okay? Okay?"
Dean's jaw was tense and he was practically radiating fury and frustration, so Sam nodded for the both of them.
It may have irked Sam to wait even five minutes, but they had a lead, after all this time. They could hold on for a couple more hours.
Rescue is finally coming!
Merry Christmas Eve! Or Merry Christmas to those in time zones far ahead of me. ^_^
Dean cringed at the mass of bodies pressing around him as people filed into the balcony stands to take their seats for the fights. It wasn't the crowd that bothered him; it was the reason they were all so damn bubbly. It was the fact that they were fellow hunters, and that so many of them were taking part in this barbarism.
Hunters killed monsters to save lives, not for…this.
Sam looked just as sickened as he swept his gaze around the balcony. The pit below was well secured with barbed wire and smooth cement walls, and so far none of them had spotted a stairwell or anything leading down. Dean didn't want to admit Ketch had been right about doing some reconnaissance first.
An excited murmur through the crowd drew Dean's attention back to the ring, and his breath caught in his throat. For a split second, he thought it was some other dark-haired guy down there dressed in a ridiculous gladiator costume. Because Cas never went anywhere in anything but his suit and trench coat.
But it was him. He walked into the center of the arena in leather strapped sandals, carrying a sword. There was a thick metal collar around his neck, and Dean felt a wave of wrath the likes of which he hadn't experienced since he bore the Mark of Cain.
"Oh god," Sam choked.
Cas didn't look up at the crowd once, but even from this angle, Dean could see that his eyes were deadened. The angel waited as another gate opened and a djinn entered the ring, also bearing a sword.
There was no bell or ringer. One minute there was stillness, and then it was like two cobras striking. Cas swung his sword and the djinn ducked, spinning around to swipe at Cas's back. Cas pivoted and brought up his blade to block. Whoops went up from the audience. Dean clenched his fists.
He wanted to put a stop to this, now. But there was nothing he could do except watch, and imagine all the ways he was going to kill these bastards for what they'd done.
The fight was swift and deadly. Cas thrust his sword through the djinn's chest and yanked it out in one quick movement. The body toppled backward onto the ground.
A speaker crackled to life and praised their "reigning champion," while people began to get up and mill about. Dean's eyes were still fixed on Cas, though, who was standing in the middle of the ring. He watched a couple of men enter, watched Cas face them with taut shoulders and rigid posture, sword still in hand. And then one of the hunters pointed something at him, too small for Dean to make out. The collar on Cas's neck lit up, and his body went into seizures.
Dean instinctively started forward, but Ketch's arm against his chest stopped him.
"Not yet," the man said under his breath.
Dean's blood was roaring in his ears as Cas's limp body was dragged out of the arena. He shoved away from Ketch. "We're getting him out of here, now."
"I haven't spotted a way down into the lower level," Ketch replied blandly.
"There has to be a way," Mary put in.
Ketch pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Might I suggest another approach?"
Dean narrowed his eyes on the man. "Like what?"
Dean shuffled his feet across the floor, head bowed and covered with a hoodie to conceal his face. He couldn't see anything aside from his cuffed hands and shoes as he was lightly pushed through a doorway into a room. Then he saw a fancy rug instead of concrete, and Sam's boots as he was brought to stand next to him.
"Spencer tells me you have some angels to sell," a voice spoke up.
"We thought you might like to have more than one," Mary responded. "Angel vs. angel could make for an interesting fight."
"Indeed it would. But how do I know you're not trying to sell me a couple of lemons? Angels are hard to come by. And these two are very…docile."
"We have the means of capturing and subduing them," Ketch said.
There was a pause. "Are you one of those British Men of Letters?" the guy asked.
Dean tensed, but then there was a light chuckle.
"Your tech is something else. I have to say, we wouldn't have been able to start this establishment without some of the stuff your people gave us."
Dean almost whipped his head up and threw the hood off. What?
"I see," Ketch hummed.
"Can you get more angels?" the man went on. "They're harder to kill than the usual monsters we can get a hold of. And a variety of contenders would be very beneficial. The one we have currently isn't a very good sport."
Dean's shoulders shook with rage, and it took everything within his power not to snap.
"If you can supply more, we can make a very lucrative arrangement."
"It is definitely worth discussing," Ketch replied. "But let's talk price first. What's your offer?"
"Five thousand each. But if we come to an agreement over something more long-term, I'd be willing to throw in bonuses."
There was a beat of silence as Ketch seemed to consider it. "How much did you pay for the angel you have?"
Another beat of silence.
Ketch tsked. "I'm betting you paid substantially more for that one."
"Fine," the man bit out. "Seven thousand per head."
"Deal," Ketch replied, sounding smug.
Dean was clenching his jaw so hard he thought a tooth might crack. Beside him, he could see Sam's cuffed hands white-knuckled as he dug his fingernails into his palms.
"Spencer, take these two downstairs, make them presentable."
Dean forced himself not to react as a hand grabbed his arm and started ushering him forward. There was a door with a keypad lock in the corner, and when this Spencer guy opened it, Dean saw a set of stairs. Yeah, they wouldn't have found it on their own.
He took the steps carefully, counting the seconds until he could finally act.
As furious as he was to find out the Brits had given these hunters everything they needed to capture and enslave supernatural beings, it had also inadvertently helped their cover, because Spencer here seemed to think that the two angels he was escorting were completely and wholly subdued.
He led them past cells containing monsters to an empty one and stopped to unlock the door. Dean finally slipped the cuffs, which hadn't been snapped closed in the first place, and threw his hood back as he lunged forward and pinned Spencer against the bars. The man gurgled in surprise as Sam also shed his disguise and drew his gun.
"Where's the angel?" Dean demanded.
Spencer sputtered. "What- I don't—"
Dean pressed his forearm up under the guy's jaw. "Do you know who we are?"
"I'm Dean, and that's my brother Sam."
Spencer's eyes blew wide. "Winchester," he breathed.
Dean smiled darkly. "Yeah. And you took the wrong angel."
Sam stepped forward and shoved the barrel of his gun into Spencer's face. "Now take us to him."
Spencer nodded shakily and pointed down the corridor, so Dean yanked him away from the bars and kept a hand fisted in the back of his jacket as he led them through the passage. When he stopped in front of another cell, Dean's heart dropped into his stomach.
The interior was dim, but he could see Cas huddled in the corner, knees drawn up to his chest.
"Key," Sam barked.
Spencer hurriedly fished it out of his pocket and unlocked the door.
Dean passed Spencer to Sam and burst inside. "Cas!" He rushed forward and dropped down in front of the angel.
Cas lolled his head up slowly, eyes vacant, like he was looking right through Dean.
Dean's chest constricted, and he reached out to clasp the sides of Cas's head. "Hey, it's me. We're getting you out of here."
Cas blinked at him, eyes slowly widening like he was finally processing that Dean was real.
"Are you okay?" Dean asked, which was a stupid question because of course Cas didn't look okay. And Cas wasn't responding, which was a worry, but they needed to get moving.
"Okay, come on." Dean moved his hands down to grip Cas by the arms and help haul him up, then started guiding him toward the door.
Outside, Sam had Spencer face against the wall and legs spread as he patted down the man's pockets. He came up with what looked like a small remote, and Cas immediately flinched next to Dean.
Dean squeezed his arm and turned to Spencer. "Take the collar off."
Spencer glanced over his shoulder. "I can't."
"This is the remote for it, isn't it?" Sam said, thrusting the heinous device in the guy's face.
"Y-yes! But just to activate the voltage. That collar's…different. I didn't do it. Lars did. Lars has the remote to take it off."
"Lars the guy upstairs?" Dean asked.
Dean exchanged a look with Sam, who stepped back.
Spencer threw them uncertain glances as he slowly turned around to face them, back still pressed against the wall. "You'll let me go? I didn't do it, I swear."
Dean looked at Cas, whose expression was like steel and seethed with more hatred and vitriol than Dean had ever seen in his friend.
He pulled out his own gun. "Yeah, I think you did."
Dean pulled the trigger.
Thanks to more of Ketch's foresight—ugh—he'd let the Winchesters borrow some silencers, and so the shot didn't echo through the concrete halls, and the only sound was a small snip and then Spencer thudding against the wall before he slid to the ground.
Dean turned to Cas, who was staring at the body. "Come on, let's get out of here."
They started back toward the stairs, but suddenly Cas pulled up short.
Dean tensed. "What's wrong?"
Cas still didn't say anything, and instead pivoted to go back the other direction. Dean sputtered, and took off after him, Sam on his heels. Cas went back to Spencer's body and rifled through his pockets until he produced a key, smaller than the one for the cells. Then he was up and moving further into the building.
"Cas!" Dean hissed, hurrying to keep up.
Cas strode through the passageways like he knew where he was going, but the lack of a heads-up or any indication of what he was doing grated Dean's nerves when they really needed to be focusing on escape before they were caught.
Cas came to a closed door and burst inside. Dean and Sam stopped on the threshold, taking in the hovel-like interior. Dean's eyes went to a woman in a handmaiden's dress—and the very familiar witchcatcher around her neck. Before he could say anything, however, Cas had swept around behind her and was reaching out to fit the small key to a padlock on the collar. Once that clicked open, Cas grabbed the witchcatcher and yanked it off.
The witch's eyes flared green and she sucked in a sharp breath. Dean instinctively tensed, and Sam shifted nervously beside him.
The woman turned to Cas and lifted a hand to his cheek. "Thank you."
Dean cleared his throat. "Who's your friend, Cas?"
The angel looked over, but still didn't say anything. Dean's gut clenched with a bad feeling.
"He can't speak," the witch said.
"What?" Sam blurted.
Cas averted his gaze, and the witch's eyes turned sad.
"Lars had him fitted with a special collar. There are spikes embedded in his throat that have severed his vocal cords and keep them from healing."
Dean's eyes blew wide. What? His stomach sloshed at the sheer savagery these hunters had committed. They were no better than the monsters they hunted.
Sam had blanched, expression stricken with the same measure of horror Dean felt. "Can you get it off?"
She ghosted fingers over the metal, and Cas flinched. "No. You need the remote Lars has for that."
Dean furled his hand into a fist. "We'll get it."
Sam's throat bobbed as he threw a look between Cas and the woman. "How long has he had it?"
Something akin to rage filled her eyes, and Dean found himself feeling a strange camaraderie with her. "Too long."
Cas took her arm and nudged her toward the door.
Yeah, they needed to get out of here.
But as soon as they stepped back out into the hall, a hunter rounded the corner. His eyes widened at the sight of them, and then he was fumbling for what looked like a remote.
The witch pushed forward. "Abi!"
The remote flew out of his hand before he could activate it, and Sam followed up by shooting him square in the chest. They were close to the arena, though, and the echo of cheers helped cover part of the gunshot.
"Let's move," Dean said urgently.
They headed back the way they'd come, finally. But just as they were passing the cells again, the witch came to an abrupt halt, and Cas stopped to throw her a questioning look. Her gaze flitted back down the corridor, and then she turned back and lifted her chin.
"I'm going to finish what you started, Castiel."
Dean cast an anxious look over his shoulder. They did not have time for this.
Cas's brow pinched, and she took a step back. Raising her arms, she let out a shout of Latin, and green magic exploded in all the locks of the cells, blowing the doors wide open. Monsters of all variety started filing out.
Dean stiffened and whipped his gun up automatically. "Whoa, hey."
A vampire near him curled its lips back, but then flicked its gaze to Cas. After a moment, it ducked its head and turned the other direction. Dean blinked in bewilderment.
"Hear me," the witch called, her tone and gaze now murderous. "The hunters have taken enough from us. Now it's time we turn the tables. They want blood spilled? Let it be their own. Tonight, the hunters become the hunted."
Dean and Sam shifted uncomfortably as she pointed the monsters back down the corridor toward the arena. None of them so much as even looked with hostility toward the brothers.
The witch started to follow, but then paused to look back, and her eyes were once again soft as she met Cas's gaze. Then she looked at the Winchesters. "Take care of him."
And with that, she turned and strode after the monsters.
"Think they have a chance?" Sam asked in a low voice.
Dean's response was equally low. "Yeah."
Cas turned toward them, eyes crinkled with pain and regret and so much more that Dean was having trouble remembering how to breathe. Standing there in that cropped tunic and sleeveless breastplate, Dean finally got a good look at all the scars adorning his friend's body. Scars an angel never should have to bear. But he was probably cut off from his grace, just as he'd been cut off from his voice.
Sam's tone darkened. "Good."
Wordlessly, they both reached for Cas and resumed their retreat toward the stairs to freedom.
Dean led the way up the stairs and burst back into the office, surprising the boss of this whole operation, who was apparently chatting it up with Ketch and Mary over some wine. They all leaped to their feet, but it was Lars's eyes that bulged when Cas and Sam followed Dean out of the stairwell.
"What the hell…" He whipped a gun out from the back of his waistband, but Mary stepped in and grabbed his wrist, giving it a good crank and wrenching the weapon from his grip. She shoved her foot into his back and pushed him to the floor, now aiming the gun at him.
Dean stormed over. "Where's the remote to take the collar off?"
Lars just seethed up at him.
Dean punched him in the face. "Where?"
"I found it," Ketch spoke up, and Dean whirled to find him by the desk, a drawer open, and a small control box in hand.
"Are you sure?" Mary asked.
"Yes, because you bastards made this thing," Dean snarled. He wanted to punch Ketch in the face next. "It severs the vocal cords of the person wearing it?" he spat.
Mary's eyes widened in disbelief and horror as she flicked a look at Cas, standing in the middle of the room and practically curling in on himself as he side-eyed the remote in Ketch's hand.
Ketch blinked. "Well, yes. It was meant to subdue a possessed subject and prevent them from casting any spells while a way to save the host was explored. It wasn't meant to be used like this."
"And that makes it okay?" Dean shouted. "The host would still be crippled for life!"
"The device does need some modifications."
Dean almost threw a punch at him.
"Enough," Sam interjected harshly. "Just get it off."
Ketch pointed the remote toward Cas, and Dean saw the angel cringe and squeeze his eyes shut, like he was expecting another result. Which, he probably was.
But when Ketch pushed the button and the collar beeped and made a whirring noise, Cas's face screwed up and his mouth stretched into a silent scream. The collar snapped open and fell off, revealing several slits in his neck that immediately started weeping blood.
Sam rushed in to grab Cas's arm, his other hand hurriedly fishing out his handkerchief, which he then pressed to the puncture wounds.
"Cas?" Dean called worriedly. With the collar off, his grace should have been free to heal him, right?
But Cas was still doubled over and choking without making a single sound. The witch had said he'd been wearing it for a long time. What if it had somehow caused permanent damage?
"I thought we had a deal?" Lars spat at Ketch from where he was still laid out on the floor.
Dean had almost forgotten about him, but now a chilled calm filled his veins. Lars was going to pay for what he'd done.
Ketch angled an impassive look down at the man. "Your use of our tech to keep monsters for sport is distasteful. And here we'd had such hopes for working with American hunters. But you've proven yourselves to be far too uncivilized."
Dean's vision went red around the edges. Ketch had a lot of gall calling them uncivilized. If he hadn't been such a help finding Cas, Dean would shoot him on principle.
He was about to shoot Lars, but screams started up outside the office door. Mary and Ketch looked around uncertainly.
"Time to go," Dean said.
Sam slipped an arm around Cas's waist to help support him while still applying pressure to his neck. Dean marched toward Lars and hauled him to his feet. The screams were growing louder, and the man whipped his head around anxiously.
"What's going on?"
Mary cracked the door. "Dean," she said urgently.
"I know," was all he said, pushing Lars ahead of him.
They exited into the lobby to find people scrambling in every direction as monsters climbed up and over the arena walls. The barbed wire fence had been torn down, and there was green magic squiggling around the edges.
A pair of partially shifted werewolves spotted them and snarled. Squaring his jaw, Dean stepped forward.
"Don't want you to miss this one," he said, and tossed Lars toward them.
"No, no!" the man screamed as one of the werewolves instantly pounced.
The other glanced over Dean's shoulder, and he knew the beast was looking at Cas. Then the werewolf joined his friend in ripping Lars to pieces.
Dean pivoted and ushered everyone out the door before any monsters caught up in bloodlust forgot they were on the same side. Mostly.
They clamored down the stairs and toward the cars. Dean quickly unlocked the Impala so Sam could get Cas inside.
"You go ahead," Ketch said.
Dean whirled back around. "Excuse me?"
"These monsters are going to escape any minute. We need to call in a team and track them down, finish the job."
Dean blinked at him incredulously. "That's your priority here?"
Ketch regarded him coolly. "Yes. As I know what yours is." He flicked a pointed look past Dean to the backseat of the Impala. And then he turned and jogged toward his car, calling over his shoulder, "Mary!"
She gave Dean a regretful look. "I'll call when we're done. Just…take care of Cas right now."
She paused and looked back.
Dean took a step toward her and lowered his voice. "If you find a brunette witch…I don't care what Ketch says, you let her go."
Mary quirked a confused brow at him, but after a moment slowly nodded. "Okay."
She turned away, and Dean watched to make sure she got to Ketch's car before the monsters started breaking out of the warehouse. Then he scrambled behind the wheel of the Impala, Sam already in the backseat with Cas, and started up the engine to get them the hell out of there.
Dean drove for a while, intent on putting some distance between them and the massacre. He didn't feel a lick of guilt over it, though. Those people may have been human, but they'd been more monstrous than the ones they'd kept locked up and collared like animals.
His hands clenched around the steering wheel, and he glanced in the rearview mirror. Cas was staring at his lap as Sam carefully dabbed at the cuts on his neck. They still weren't visibly healing.
Half an hour into the drive home, Dean pulled over at a rest stop. It was late at night, and anyone out here was probably sleeping in their vehicles, so no one should be gawking at Cas in that stupid outfit. Dean got out of the car and went around to the trunk where he dug out a pair of jeans, boxers, and a t-shirt. He wondered what had happened to the suit and trench coat, and briefly regretted not being able to retrieve it, too. He'd just have to take Cas shopping for a new one.
In the meantime, Dean brought his spare clothes around to the side and opened the backdoor.
"Thought you'd like to get out of that," he said, offering them to Cas.
Cas just stared at them like he couldn't remember what normal clothing was, and it made Dean's stomach hurt.
Sam shifted slightly on Cas's other side. "Do you, uh, want some help?" he asked nervously.
Cas recoiled sharply at that, and then quickly shook his head. He climbed out of the car and took the clothes, then headed for the restrooms.
Sam slid out and watched him go, expression fraught with worry.
Dean braced his hands on the roof of the car and bowed his head. "I think I'm gonna be sick."
"Me too," Sam murmured.
There didn't seem to be anything else to say in the face of such atrocity, and so they waited silently for Cas to come back. He was taking a really long time, though, and Dean was starting to get antsy. He was just about to go check on him when he finally spotted Cas heading toward them, dressed in the change of clothes.
Dean frowned at the angel's plastered wet hair and bare feet. He'd decided to shower? The water had to be freezing.
But Dean could understand wanting to get the filth of that place off. He went back to the trunk and got out a pair of socks and spare set of boots for Cas to put on.
Once again, Cas looked at them dubiously, but recovered quicker this time and took them from Dean's proffered hand. He sat down in the backseat to put them on.
Dean decided to go check the restroom. He wasn't surprised when he found the Roman outfit discarded on the floor outside the shower stall; Cas seemed a little too spaced out to think about cleaning up the evidence. Not that Dean expected any of those hunters to survive and come after them.
But the heinous costume deserved to be burned. Unfortunately, though the rest stop was currently quiet, lighting a fire in a trash can could definitely draw attention. Dean had to content himself with gathering it up and stuffing every last piece of it in the dumpster behind the restroom.
When he came back, Cas was wearing one of Sam's jackets and Sam was draping a blanket around his shoulders. And Cas finally looked up to meet their eyes.
"Th-thank you," he rasped, voice no stronger than a threadbare whisper and sounding full of broken glass, and Dean's heart fractured from both anguish and relief.
He reached out to clasp Cas's shoulder with a reassuring squeeze. He still didn't have words. All he could do was tuck Cas into the backseat and take him home.
Sam felt a stitch of tension loosen from his chest when Dean drove into the bunker's garage and the door closed behind them. They were home, behind protected doors. More importantly, Cas was home and safe, and the people who had taken him would never lay a hand on him again.
The three of them headed downstairs, Sam and Dean both watching Cas like a hawk, as though afraid he could shatter at any moment.
Cas veered toward a chair at the map table and sank into it. Sam deposited his duffel on the floor and went over to examine the cuts from that barbaric collar. He'd done his best to staunch the bleeding and clean them in the car, but it'd been too dark to really get a good look.
Sam's mouth turned down as he noted they still looked pretty raw. "Cas, how's your healing? Did…" He hesitated. "Did those people do something to your grace?"
Cas opened his mouth to answer, but then his face scrunched up and he reeled back in the chair with a pained grimace.
"Okay, easy, easy," Sam gushed. "You don't have to talk. Here, I'll be right back."
He went into the adjoining study room and grabbed his laptop from the table. He brought it back and opened it up, and clicked on the word processor program. Then he put the computer in front of Cas.
The angel stared at it for a moment like he had Dean's clothes, before leaning forward and setting his hands to the keyboard. Sam moved around so he could see what Cas was typing.
"My grace was locked down during my entire captivity. It's weakened. I don't know how long it will take to heal."
"Okay," Sam said, mind already working to compensate. "Then we'll treat the wounds the human way." He walked back to his bag to get out the first aid kit.
He heard more clacking of the keyboard, and when he straightened back up, Cas had angled the laptop toward Dean, whose expression had tightened.
"Four months," he said thickly.
Sam came back around and saw the words, "How long?" on the screen.
"Unless, uh, how long since after we last saw you did they…?" Dean trailed off.
Cas closed his eyes in abject devastation, and then typed out, "About a week."
Sam wanted to throw up. Pretty much four whole months Cas had been in that place, had been subjected to torture and degradation, forced into slavery and fights for the entertainment of a bunch of sick hunters. If Sam had any doubts about unleashing those monsters on them, they were wiped away now.
He focused on the task of cleaning and bandaging Cas's neck. Cas fell into a still and silent mode while he worked, which worried Sam. It was like he was going in and out of shock. Though, after everything he'd been through…
Sam gently applied some antiseptic to the slices and carefully covered them with a medicated patch. Then he got out the gauze roll to wrap it securely.
But when he brought the strip up to Cas's neck, the angel's eyes suddenly blew wide, and Cas thrust his hands into Sam's chest so hard that he went flying backward to hit the floor and slid a few feet across it.
Cas scrambled out of his chair, knocking it over and tripping until he'd backed up against the consoles.
"Cas!" Dean shouted. "Whoa, easy."
Sam lay stunned for a moment as he caught his breath.
"Cas, you're okay," Dean said levelly, trying to come around the table and approach him. "It's just me and Sam."
Cas's chest was heaving, but he jerked slightly and his eyes cleared, and then his expression crumpled. "S- s'rry," he croaked. "I'm sorry." He squeezed his eyes shut, either in distress or pain. Or both.
Sam pushed himself up. "It's okay, it's okay," he repeated. "I'm sorry. That was my fault. I should have realized…" He swallowed hard, and set the gauze on the table. "We'll leave the cuts uncovered, okay?"
The gauze patch had fallen off in the abrupt frenzy.
Sam carefully moved closer, as did Dean, both of them wary of spooking Cas again. The angel was shaking as they gingerly helped him off the floor. Sam righted the chair and they eased him back into it. Cas curled in on himself.
Sam exchanged a distraught look with Dean and a helplessness as to what to do. The evidence of the brutality Cas had suffered was right in front of them, but Sam couldn't help but wonder what other horrors had been seared into the angel's psyche.
Happy New Year!
It took ten minutes for Cas to stop shaking, which maybe wasn't that long, but he looked even more haggard and wrecked afterward, those macabre teeth marks standing out red against the pale pallor of his skin.
Dean lightly touched his shoulder. "Okay, buddy, why don't you lie down in your room? Get some rest."
It took a delayed moment, but Cas nodded mutely and started to push himself out of the chair. Dean thought about giving him a helping hand, but held back. It wasn't like Cas couldn't walk.
Still, Dean and Sam trailed close behind him as they headed toward the dormitory wing.
But as they came to the corridor, Cas pulled up short.
"What is it?" Dean asked.
Cas started shaking his head and broke away from them, stumbling toward the library and muttering garbled words too hoarsely for Dean to make out.
"Cas, hey, what's wrong?" Dean asked, hurrying after him.
Cas just kept shaking his head as he caught himself against the wall. "S'ry," he croaked through damaged vocal cords. "S'rry."
"Whoa, hey." Dean took his arm and guided him over to an upholstered chair. "You have nothing to be sorry for."
Cas pulled his knees up on the cushion and squeezed his eyes shut. Dean gazed down at him helplessly, having no idea what was wrong or how to fix it. And so he backed away, giving Cas some breathing room, and retreated back to the steps where Sam was, his brother's expression also slack with powerlessness.
Dean ran a hand down his jaw. "What do we do?"
Sam didn't respond right away, and when he did, his voice cracked. "I don't know. Help him."
"Help him how?" Dean practically growled, but managed to keep his volume low. He didn't know how to help his best friend who one minute was a zombie and the next was like a frightened, wounded animal. Dean hated seeing Cas look so…lost.
A muscle in Sam's cheek ticked, and without saying anything else, he turned and headed back to the war room. Dean saw him sit down at the table and pull his laptop over. Research mode was his brother's go-to for problems they had no idea how to solve. Thing was, Dean already knew everything he needed to about PTSD. He'd gotten a complete crash course when he'd been dealing with it himself; he'd just found the tips and tricks woefully insufficient compared to a bottle of Jack.
He wasn't gonna offer Cas alcohol, though. It wasn't like drinking himself into oblivion had actually helped any; Dean had just told himself it did.
He stood there for several long minutes, just watching, until Cas's eyes drifted shut. Guy was probably exhausted and should have been in bed, but apparently something had derailed him from making the short trek.
Dean's gaze shifted to the hallway. The hallway with stone walls. Dammit.
He rubbed his face, feeling his own fatigue pulling at him. A glance at his phone told him it was already morning, and he hadn't slept in over a day, but he wasn't going to now. Not while Cas was still in such precarious condition.
Dean slipped off to the kitchen to make some coffee. He left the pot on for Sam, who would likely want some soon, and took his mug back to the library. When he got there, he drew to an abrupt stop at the sight of Cas on his feet and whipping his gaze around the walls as he rubbed at his sleeves in agitation.
"Cas?" Dean called warily.
Cas jerked his attention toward him, eyes wide and fearful. He mouthed something Dean couldn't understand.
"Sorry, uh, I'll get you something to write with." Dean set his coffee down on a bookshelf, but stopped at Cas's crackling voice.
"You're- here?" he choked out.
Dean turned back, heart constricting with guilt. "Yes, I'm here. Sam's here, just in the other room." He took a careful step forward. "You're home. You're safe." Another step, closing the distance. "It's over."
Cas's throat bobbed, which made him wince in pain. Dean reached out a hand toward his arm, and Cas looked away, shame evident on his face. But he didn't rebuff the touch.
Dean let out a tense breath. "Look, you need proper rest and a real bed."
He pursed his mouth as he considered the length of hallway to Cas's room—and then how small the dorm was.
"How about the infirmary?" he said. "It's right around the corner and it's a decent size."
Cas's eyes narrowed with a flicker of indignation, but then a wash of self-loathing as he nodded stiffly, not meeting Dean's eye.
"Okay," Dean said. "Let's try that."
Keeping his hand on Cas's arm, he started to prompt the angel to follow. Cas went rigid as they set foot into the corridor, but it was only a couple of feet in to the door of the infirmary, and Dean ushered him inside quickly.
He switched on the lights, revealing a short set of stairs leading down to a depression in the foundation. There were a few patient beds along one wall and curtain rods between them, and medical supplies and cabinets on the other side. It wasn't homey at all, but then, neither was Cas's room, which didn't have anything personal in it.
Cas descended the steps and went to sit on the closest bed, fitted with plain sheets and a thin blanket. He took several moments to just rove his gaze around every single inch of the space, like he was counting the cracks in the walls. His hand would occasionally drift up to touch his neck, almost subconsciously.
Dean didn't say anything, just let Cas get adjusted to the room.
Then the angel finally lay back on the bed, curling up on his side and now staring at Dean with unwavering intensity. It was so much like the old Cas that Dean was both comforted by the familiarity yet also discomfited.
He cleared his throat awkwardly. "You good?"
Something flashed in Cas's eyes then: a little bit of fear, and also an unspoken plea that Dean wasn't sure Cas would have voiced even if he could speak.
Dean wordlessly pulled a chair over and set it near the steps, within Cas's sight but not too close to the bed to make him feel crowded. Dean sat down and propped his legs up on the railing. "Get some sleep, then."
Cas continued to watch him guardedly, like he might disappear at any moment. But then he gradually started to relax.
As Cas finally closed his eyes, Dean texted Sam to bring him his coffee.
Castiel couldn't mark the passage of days without the nightly fights. There were no windows in the bunker, no clocks in the infirmary. He had no idea if it was the same day the Winchesters had brought him home, or five days later. Five weeks? His orientation to the cosmos had been discombobulated.
He couldn't wrap his head around it. Time had become meaningless in the endless repetition of his existence at the arena, and it was no different here.
He lay on the bed in the infirmary, waiting for his grace to reawaken. It was still a coiled knot deep down inside him, like it'd become so accustomed to being locked away that it'd atrophied from disuse and neglect. And no matter how hard Castiel tried, he couldn't coax it into life. The most it was doing was the faintest trickle of minute healing into his mutilated throat.
He kept reaching up to touch his neck, make sure the collar wasn't there. Sometimes he could still feel it, the press of cold steel, the initial fizzle as the remote was pushed. Castiel flinched in anticipation of a shock, but none came.
He ghosted his fingers across his throat.
"It's gone, Cas," Dean spoke up quietly, and Castiel startled to realize he'd forgotten the Winchester was there.
Dean and Sam had been taking turns staying in the infirmary with him, but sometimes his mind went…elsewhere, and he didn't register anything else. A habit he'd developed while in his cell.
He appreciated their gesture, though it also made him feel embarrassed. He remembered panicking when he'd opened his eyes and he was alone in the library. He shouldn't need to be coddled.
But he didn't tell them to leave.
His voice was still too damaged.
The next time he was aware, it was Sam in the room, and the younger Winchester was setting a mug of some steaming liquid on the nightstand.
"Hey," Sam said with a soft smile. "I made some tea with honey and hyssop, and a few other things to help your throat. Think you could try it?"
Castiel pushed himself up into a sitting position, frowning at the stiffness in his joints and the numbness in his extremities. Had he been shocked to the point of passing out again?
He touched his neck. No collar.
Sam's eyes crinkled with concern, but he didn't say anything as he picked up the mug and handed it over. Castiel gingerly took a sip. Swallowing hurt, but there was something soothing about the action, a ghost of normalcy from his life before the arena.
Sam watched him for a moment, and Castiel rolled his shoulder self-consciously. The younger Winchester took a seat on the foot of the bed.
"Mom called. I thought you'd like to know that the witch you freed escaped the British Men of Letters' roundup. They hunted down all the other monsters that were prisoners, but Mom made sure your friend got away."
Castiel felt the corner of his mouth tug upward a fraction in relief. He'd probably never see Sybil again, and in their regular lives, they would never likely be friends. But in that…place, her kindness had meant everything to him. He hoped she had a home to go back to and people who'd missed her.
Castiel blinked, and Sam was gone. The cup was still in his hands, empty. A jolt went through him at being alone, but then he saw a glimpse of flannel out in the hall, and heard Sam and Dean talking in lowered voices just outside.
He forced himself to relax.
Snippets of their conversation filtered down, and Castiel heard one of them mention Kelly. He stiffened with realization, and immediately chastised himself as he remembered what he was supposed to be doing instead of…this.
He set the cup on the nightstand and swept his legs over the edge of the mattress, resolving to get back out there and do what was needed of him. To snap out of this pathetic state.
But as he rose to his feet, the light from the lamp caught him in the face, and suddenly he was back in the arena with the blinding spotlights bearing down on him and the echo of jeering in his head.
Castiel sucked in a ragged gasp, and started clawing at his throat, desperate to get the collar off before Lars could put the spikes back in.
Hands grabbed his wrists and wrenched them away. No! They pinned his arms down and Castiel tried to buck them off.
"Cas! Cas, stop!"
"It's not there. Look at me, it's not there!"
Castiel snapped back to himself, chest heaving and throat on fire. He blinked rapidly up at Sam and Dean looming over him, their expressions terrified. The three of them were on the floor…
Castiel went limp, and the Winchesters immediately loosened their grips on his arms, though didn't release him completely.
"Cas?" Dean asked cautiously.
His eyelids continued to flutter as a wave of dizziness washed over him. His neck was stinging, and when he looked at his hands, there was blood under his fingernails.
Dean captured his hands between his own and squeezed. "Listen to me, it's not there. I swear I will never let anyone put it on you ever again. I will track down every last one and burn them."
Castiel shuddered, but gritted his teeth and started to push himself up. Sam and Dean slipped their hands under his shoulders to help.
"I'm sorry," Castiel whispered brokenly.
Dean's hands clasped the sides of his face. "You have nothing to be sorry for."
He shook his head. "I tried…so hard…" he grated out against the pain. "Tried…so hard…not to let them…break me."
A choked sound escaped his burning throat as a spiky lump pressed upon his ruined vocal cords. He'd failed. He'd thought he'd been strong, defiant. But really the entire time they had just been whittling him away down to a shell of his former self. In the end, they'd won after all.
Dean swept him into a crushing hug, squeezing tight enough that Castiel's breath hiccoughed in his chest.
"You did not break, Cas," he said fervently. "You survived. You're here and you survived."
"And you're gonna get through this," Sam added, putting a hand on his back.
Castiel's throat closing up prevented him from pointing out all the ways they were wrong.
The three of them stayed huddled on the floor like that for a long while. Or, what felt like it. Again, Castiel couldn't tell what was seconds, minutes, or hours anymore. Surely Dean would have let go if it'd been too long.
And so Castiel let himself sag in the man's arms, suddenly craving the fiercely protective and warm contact that was such a stark contrast to the rough manhandling he'd gotten used to receiving. He feebly reached out, one hand fisting in Dean's shirt, the other in Sam's, and clung to them. They were here. He was here.
Dean moved one hand up to cup the back of Castiel's head. "It's okay," he breathed. "It's gonna be okay."
Castiel closed his eyes and wondered what it would be like to believe that.
Once Cas had seemed to calm down, Sam and Dean helped him off the floor and back onto the bed, then set to work cleaning the scratches on his neck and putting some salve on them. They weren't deep, but some of the slits from the collar had torn further. Sam and Dean both examined them carefully and exchanged silent communication over Cas's head, but in the end they'd mutually decided the wounds didn't need stitches. Sam could only imagine how badly that would go.
When they were finished and Cas had lain back down, they went back out into the hall, careful to stay just outside the door so they could keep a tense eye on the infirmary.
Sam crossed his arms and lowered his voice to a whisper. "He's getting worse."
"What do you want from him?" Dean hissed back. "He was tortured for months, and he's only been back a week. We can't expect him to just get over it, to jump back in the game like after the attack dog curse, because look how well that turned out."
Sam bit back a huff of frustration and shoved the unspoken recrimination aside, which he knew had been directed at both of them.
"The bunker isn't helping," he said.
Dean reeled back with an affronted look. "This is his home."
"He can't even go down the hallway to his room."
"Then what do you suggest we do?" Dean snapped.
"We take him somewhere else. Somewhere not underground and surrounded by concrete, which is where he's spent the past four months."
Dean blinked like hadn't been expecting that.
Sam dropped his arms. "I was thinking about calling Jody and asking if we could use her cabin for a while. It'd be quiet and private, but out in the open, with windows and actual sunlight."
Dean's mouth pursed in consideration, and he looked back into the infirmary where Cas lay huddled on the bed, eyes glazed over as they had often done over the past several days since the Winchesters had gotten him back.
He sighed. "Yeah, okay. You're right."
Sam nodded. "I'll pack the bags and supplies if you wanna sit with him."
Dean headed back into the infirmary, and Sam turned to make his way toward the library, pulling out his phone and scrolling to Jody's contact.
"Hey, Sam," she answered on the second ring.
He let out a soft snort. "Yeah. It's, uh, been a really difficult few months."
"Anything I can do?"
"Actually, yeah. I wanted to ask if we could stay at your cabin for a while."
"Did something happen to the bunker?" she asked in concern.
"No, nothing like that. Um, Cas isn't doing well," he explained. "I don't think being underground is doing him any favors."
Jody made a noise of understanding. "Yeah, I could see how it wouldn't. Well, you boys are welcome to use the cabin for as long as you need. When do you think you'll head up?"
"Today." His chest constricted. "The sooner the better."
"I'll drive the key out there and leave it under the planter for you. Need anything else?"
"No, Jody. And thank you," Sam said sincerely.
"Whatever you need, Sam," she replied, equally genuine. "Just let me know."
"Thanks," he repeated, and disconnected the call.
With the arrangements made, he went to pack their bags. He didn't have a timetable for their stay, and so packed for a lengthy one, including extra clothes for Cas. At some point they should get him his own, but that would come later. Sam also made sure to pack some warm things. With Cas's weakened grace, Sam didn't know if he'd get cold out in the woods, but best to prepare for everything.
When he was done, he carried the three stuffed duffel bags out to the war room and set them on the map table, ready to load into the car. He then hit the kitchen to pack what food they had in the fridge and cupboards. If they needed to make a trip into town for more down the road, they could easily do that.
Sam dropped the cooler with the food off in the war room as well, and then headed back to the infirmary. He found Cas sitting on the edge of the bed, looking mulish, and Dean standing with his arms crossed and a scowl on his face.
"Guys?" Sam said cautiously as he came down the steps.
"Cas doesn't want to go," Dean said crossly.
"You need to be out…looking for Kelly," Cas rasped, voice sounding like sandpaper. He grimaced. "For…the neph-ilim. Not…babysitting me," he finished gritting out.
"Mom and the British Men of Letters are looking for Kelly," Sam replied. "You need time to heal, and we're not gonna just abandon you."
"I c- ca-" He swallowed, eyes squeezing shut.
Dean scowled. "Would you stop hurting yourself?" He stormed over to the nurse's station and loudly opened and closed one of the drawers before coming back with a pad and pen.
Cas shot him a mutinous glare, but took the writing utensils and started scribbling out a message. He thrust the pad back at them, and Sam had to squint to decipher the hasty lines and whorls.
"I can't be a distraction, not when these other things are more important. You two need to be out there fighting."
Sam felt a flicker of anger at that, and dropped the pad on the bed. "We are fighting, for you," he reiterated from that night in the barn that seemed a lifetime ago now. "Because you're family, which means you're more important than those other things right now. Mom and Ketch have it covered. If they find anything, they'll call us, and we'll go from there. But until then," Sam softened his voice to an appeal, "let us help you."
Cas picked up the pad and wrote out something else.
"You shouldn't have to."
Sam held back a sigh. "Cas, what you went through…no one expects you to just be okay after that. Certainly not me and Dean. Would you expect us to be?"
"I'm an angel," his crackling voice whispered brokenly, but with a quiver like he wasn't sure of that anymore.
"Yeah, you are. And you're strong and you'll get through this. But me and Dean aren't gonna let you do it alone."
Cas's shoulders sagged, and it was clear the fight had gone out of him. Sam put an affirming hand on his shoulder.
With resignation, the Winchesters once again led Cas out of what had slowly just been becoming another prison.
It was early evening when Dean pulled the Impala up outside Jody's cabin. The sun was already below the treetops, leaving a deepening blue in the sky and brushstrokes of orange and coral in the west. He turned off the engine, heart twisting with resignation.
He hated that the bunker was hurting Cas, that their home was hurting him. As if those bastards hadn't taken enough, they'd had to destroy any semblance of security Cas might have found in the one place he should feel safe. Dean wanted to go back and kill them all over again.
He opened his door and climbed out, Sam and Cas following suit. Dean and Sam grabbed their bags from the trunk while Cas just stood there, almost frozen as he stared at the trees. Dean's gut clenched with worry that this wasn't going to work.
"Cas, you okay?" Sam asked gently.
Cas shifted to look at him, and nodded. "The…smells."
It smelled like pine and cedar and damp earth to Dean, typical earthy scents.
"Is it okay?" Sam asked.
Cas nodded again and whispered, "It's…different."
Yeah, it would be. Dean hoped that was a good thing.
He shuffled toward the door and lifted the small planter. The key was where Jody said she'd left it. He fitted it in the lock and let themselves in.
The interior was clean and furnished nicer than most motels the Winchesters stayed in. There was a couch and a recliner in the cozy living room, and a kitchen just beyond it with what looked like all the modern amenities. To the right was a door that led into a bedroom with a king-size bed and dresser.
"This is nice," Dean commented, setting their bags down.
He spotted a note on the otherwise bare kitchen table and picked it up.
"There's Chinese in the fridge. Relax. You all deserve it."
Dean went over and opened the refrigerator. "God bless you, Jody," he said, and pulled out the plastic bags with to-go cartons inside. They'd brought their own food supplies, but it was late, and this way they could have a reheated meal instead of having to cook something.
Sam finished bringing the rest of their stuff in and started unpacking while Dean popped the take-out in the microwave.
"Alright, you wanna rock, paper, scissors for the bed?" Sam asked.
Dean snorted. "There's no way you'll fit on the pull-out couch. I'll take that. You and Cas take the bed."
Cas had been standing in the middle of the room idly, but turned toward them at that. He frowned, and pulled out the notepad and pen they'd given him to keep in his jacket pocket so he wouldn't strain his voice.
"I don't need to sleep. Sam can have the bed."
"There's room for both of us," Sam replied.
Cas's brows pinched, and he set the pen to the paper again.
Sam placed his hand over Cas's to stop him. "Cas, you may not be 'sleeping,' but you have been…zoning out a lot," he tried to say tactfully. "And that's okay. It's okay for you to rest."
Cas continued to give Sam a constipated look, and Dean felt the urge to shake some sense into the stubborn angel. He bit it back, though; he knew he needed to be more sensitive than that. It was just frustrating. Cas admitted he wasn't doing well, but didn't deem himself worth the attention and effort to help him.
Dean suppressed a sigh. This wasn't new. In fact, he was glad they'd decided to come all the way out here, because who knew what suicidal play Cas would make if he had managed to get back out there looking for Lucifer Jr.
Dean didn't want to tell Cas…but he and Sam had already done the research and math and determined when the nephilim would have been due to be born. So Kelly was probably already dead. But the world hadn't ended with the kid's birth, so there was that, and Dean felt more calm about letting the Brits handle the search. Cas was his priority right now, whether the angel liked it or not.
The microwave beeped with the first round of cartons, and Dean went over to take them out and set them on the table.
"You hungry, Cas?"
Cas flicked a brief glance at the white containers, and shook his head. He craned his neck toward the door, rolled his shoulder, and fidgeted. He wrote something out on the notepad.
"I think I'd like to sit outside for a bit."
"Yeah, sure," Sam replied. "Fresh air is good. Why don't you leave the door open so we can get some circulation in here too?"
If Cas suspected Sam had an ulterior motive behind that request, he didn't give them a dirty look over it, just turned and headed outside, leaving the door open and sinking down on the top step of the porch.
Dean served himself a plate of food and sat down facing the door. Not that he thought Cas would take off, but just in case he…wandered.
Dean and Sam ate their dinner in contemplative silence. They washed the dishes and put the leftovers away in similar fashion, then started getting ready to hit the sack. Dean pulled the fold-out bed from the couch and draped a couple of blankets over it. Sam went into the bathroom to brush his teeth.
Finally, when there was nothing left to do, Dean went out and stopped next to Cas, whose head was tilted back against the railing as he gazed up at the sky.
"You ready to come inside, buddy?"
Cas blinked languidly. "I'd forgotten the stars," he said in a frayed wisp.
Dean's heart clenched, and he eased himself down next to him on the step. "I never even bothered to look at them while you were missing," he said quietly, and then after a moment added, "I'm sorry we didn't find you sooner."
Cas turned to look at him, eyes glistening in the soft reflection of light from the cabin.
"We looked," Dean went on, desperate to alleviate some of the guilt compressing his chest. "You have to believe that we searched everywhere we could. We just…" His voice cracked under the weight of their failure.
Cas nodded in understanding. He reached into his jacket and pulled out the pad of paper and pen.
"You did find me. Thank you."
Dean let out a long exhale at the absolution. It wasn't enough, but it was a start.
As Cas's gaze lolled back up toward the stars, Dean prayed Sam's plan really would work.
Some hope for Cas. :)
When Castiel woke to sunshine pouring through the sheer curtains, it was such a shock that he simply lay in bed, staring at the golden hue and listening to the sound of birds chirping outside, the rapping of a woodpecker, and the rustle of some small creature skittering in the bushes outside the window. He could almost believe he was dreaming, it was so surreal.
He heard Sam and Dean moving about in the living room and kitchen and smelled the aroma of cooking bacon and eggs as it wafted through the open door. He decided to finally get up, setting socked feet on the hardwood floor, and ventured out.
The Winchesters were sitting at the table with plates of breakfast and cups of coffee.
"Mornin' sunshine," Dean greeted. "You wanna try eating something?"
Castiel thought about how he hadn't indulged in food in…a very long time. But when he reached up to touch his throat, he couldn't help but wince. It still felt too raw inside to tolerate greasy bacon and eggs. He felt his expression fall in disappointment as he shook his head.
"I brought the stuff to make that tea," Sam spoke up. "If you want some of that."
Castiel hesitated, but then nodded. He didn't actually remember drinking it the first time, but he'd obviously finished the portion he'd been given, so perhaps it had helped, or at least been tolerable.
Sam got up to make it and Castiel took a seat at the table. The only sounds were the clinking of Dean's fork on his plate and the gurgle of hot water from the Keurig machine. Castiel couldn't decide if the silence was uncomfortable or not, and he felt no inclination to break it. He'd spent the past few months used to being mute.
Sam put a cup of steaming tea in front of him and sat back down to finish his own breakfast. Castiel busied himself with sipping the hot liquid. Again, the first few swallows stung, but then the properties of the tea began to take effect and it became easier.
Finally, Sam pushed his plate aside and folded his arms across the table. "So I've been doing a lot of research on recovering from trauma. And one of the most important things is working on living in the present, not getting stuck in the past and reliving it." He hesitated, looking at Castiel. "Were, uh, were your wrists ever bound?"
Castiel quirked a confused look at him, unsure how those two statements correlated. "Not really," he rasped and coughed as the action tugged at still sensitive vocal cords. He quickly took another draft of tea. "Why?"
"Well, one grounding technique is tactile anchoring," Sam replied. "Having something to touch and focus your senses on. If your mind is engaged with describing how an object feels, looks, and maybe even smells, it can't get lost going back to that place."
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a braided hemp bracelet, with two silver beads on the sides of a metal clasp. He gave Castiel a tentative look.
"Think you could wear this?"
Castiel just gazed at it dubiously, still not quite following. Sam was looking at him with such apprehensive hopefulness, however, that he found himself lifting his arm to rest on the table. Sam kept watching him carefully as he put the bracelet on. It wasn't heavy like chains were, or sharp like the sigiled handcuffs, so Castiel didn't think he'd have a problem with it.
"What does it feel like?" Sam prompted.
Castiel stared at it. "Soft, I suppose," he croaked.
He reached over to finger it with his other hand, considering how to answer. His throat was starting to burn, reminding him of the spikes being cauterized…
As though he could tell, Dean slid the pen and pad over to Castiel. Switching back and forth between the objects was tedious, but it did spare his voice.
"Soft on the underside. Coarse on top. Grooves between woven strands. The beads are smooth and cool to the touch, but quickly warm against skin."
Sam nodded in approval. "Were any other thoughts able to intrude while you were focused on those sensations?"
Castiel furrowed his brow. No, actually…he'd forgotten about the spikes. He quickly gave himself a sharp shake before his mind could go back there and gave Sam a negative head jerk.
Sam looked pleased. "That's the idea. Whenever you find yourself starting to go back to that place, just focus on the physical sensations of that bracelet. That will keep you grounded in the here and now."
While he had to admit that little demonstration had seemed to work, Castiel still wasn't sure about this.
Dean cleared his throat softly. "When you start doubting the collar is gone, you can look at that bracelet and know it is."
Castiel ducked his gaze, shame welling up at his recent behavior. Why couldn't he just move on? He was supposed to be better than this. Why couldn't he be better?
Shoulders drooping in resignation, Castiel nodded. The Winchesters were trying; the least he could do was try too.
Cas's defeated slouch didn't feel like much of a step forward, despite Sam's best intentions, but Dean knew it would take time.
He started gathering up the dishes to take them into the kitchen. "Want to help me clean up?" he asked Cas.
Before Cas had gotten up, Dean and Sam had talked about a game plan for this excursion. In addition to the tactile whatever, Sam had mentioned that doing normal things would also help, and that they needed to coax Cas into being active and not languishing in bed all day like he'd been doing at the bunker. Dean had thought giving him time and space to deal had been the best thing to do; it's what he would have wanted. But that obviously hadn't been working, so he was willing to try it Sam's way.
Cas looked surprised by the request, but slowly stood up and followed Dean to the sink.
"I'll wash, you dry."
Dean handed him a dish towel and turned the faucet on. They worked in silence, Dean scrubbing and rinsing the dishes and Cas drying them with almost painstaking meticulousness. It was awkward for Dean, though it wasn't like they were ever very chatty anyway. But since it still hurt Cas to speak, Dean wasn't going to prompt him into trying to hold a conversation.
When they were done and everything put away, Cas retrieved his notepad and wrote something out.
"Should we search for potential leads on Kelly?"
"No," Dean replied. Keeping Cas active most definitely did not include that. "We delegated that job, remember?"
Cas's expression pinched, and he looked around the cabin, seeming lost. He'd always had a mission to throw himself into so he wouldn't have to face some of the horrific things he'd been through. Dean was quite familiar with that approach. But again, he had to finally start acknowledging that it may not be the healthiest one.
"How about a movie?" he suggested.
Cas turned a blank look back at him, but then his brow slowly furrowed. "A movie?" he repeated in a whisper.
"Yeah. Jody has a TV."
Dean walked over to the entertainment center and opened the cabinet to reveal a 72-inch television.
"And Sam brought his laptop and WiFi hotspot, so we can get Netflix."
Cas continued to look at him like he was speaking a foreign language.
Dean rolled his eyes and gestured to the couch. "Just take a seat. Sam can make you some more of that tea. It's helping, yeah?"
After a prolonged beat, Cas nodded and started making his way toward the couch.
Sam, who'd heard everything, brought his laptop over and handed it to Dean to hook up to the TV. "No movies with fight scenes," he whispered.
Dean shot him a bewildered look. "What?"
"We don't know if that might trigger anything."
"But that just leaves chick flicks. And Disney," Dean said in affront.
"No Disney. The parents always die."
"You don't think you might be taking things a little overboard here?" Dean asked.
Sam gave him a stern look. "We're still feeling things out right now. So just pick a chick flick."
"I don't even know any," Dean grumbled as he connected the laptop.
Sam rolled his eyes. "Fine. Miss Congeniality." He typed it into the Netflix search and queued it up.
Dean read the description. "Hang on, FBI—doesn't that mean there's some fight scenes in this?" he hissed pointedly.
"Not really. They're more comedic than anything."
Dean raised his brows. "Have you seen this before?"
Sam shrugged, completely unabashed. "There's a women's swimsuit competition."
Dean paused. "Really?" Huh, maybe he could give it a shot.
He turned around, expecting Cas to make some snarky comment about being treated like a child, but ended up stopping short at the sight of the angel on the couch, expression unfocused again. He probably hadn't even heard a thing they'd said.
Sam exchanged a grim look with him, and then went into the kitchen to make more tea.
Dean walked over and carefully sat on the couch next to Cas. He never startled violently out of these episodes. They didn't seem to be flashbacks or panic attacks that they could tell, certainly not like the other ones that'd happened. He just seemed to…shut down. Like a computer with low battery going into sleep mode. And when he came back to himself, it was like he had to reboot.
They didn't know whether it was some kind of lingering shock, or if it was connected with his weakened grace. They'd resolved not to ask him yet, but to just wait and see if things improved with rest and recuperation.
Dean lightly nudged Cas's knee with his own. Cas blinked and turned to look at him in question.
"Sam wanted to watch a chick flick," Dean explained casually, like nothing had happened. He paused with a frown. "Metatron didn't download Miss Congeniality into your head, did he?"
Cas flicked his gaze to the television screen and shook his head.
"Good. Because I don't want you spoiling this for me." He leaned back on the couch and propped his feet up on the coffee table.
Sam came in with a fresh cup of tea for Cas, and then hit play on the laptop before taking his own seat on the floor on Cas's other side.
Dean had to admit, the movie had some humor. It wasn't his treasured horror movies, but even he knew mutilation was off the table around Cas for a while.
He glanced at the angel often during the movie, and a few times found him rubbing the hemp bracelet.
"Who's your favorite state, Cas?" he asked, folding his arms across his chest.
Cas blinked and turned his head. "What's my favorite state?" he repeated, voice still hoarse, but not sounding as crackly as before. That tea must have been legit.
"No, who," Dean corrected and pointed to the TV where part of the pageant competition was playing out. "I like New York."
"She's a lesbian," Sam commented.
"Hey, spoilers." Dean shot his brother an indignant glare. "And maybe she's bi. I could still have a chance."
"So come on, Cas," Dean said, turning his attention back to their friend. "Who do you like?"
Cas watched the screen for a long time, and Dean started to think his attempt at engaging him hadn't been successful, that Cas had slipped away again during his brief bickering with Sam. But then Cas made a small noise in his throat.
"I gather from the film that…" He swallowed. "We're supposed to favor Rhode Island."
Dean quirked his brow. Okay, that wasn't quite what he'd been expecting.
Sam was practically beaming though, and after a second, Dean settled back as a smile broke across his face as well. Because Cas was following the story. He was with them.
And all they had to do was figure out how to keep him there.
Over the next couple of weeks, Sam tried to think of things they could do to keep Cas engaged, to gradually get him out of the cycle of falling into his mind. It didn't always work, and there were times he often slipped away, right under their noses. Sometimes they could prompt him back; other times they just had to wait until he suddenly 'woke up' from wherever he'd gone off to. At least he wasn't having severe flashbacks or panic attacks like he'd had at the bunker.
He liked spending time outside, watching sunrise and sunset, looking at the stars. Sam had figured being in the open and far away from concrete walls would help, and was glad to see it was doing the trick.
"What if he can't ever go back to the bunker?" Dean asked solemnly one morning while Cas was out on the porch.
"He will," Sam replied with wholehearted conviction.
They just needed to give him time, as much as he needed.
Sam found jobs for them to do around the cabin, such as cleaning out the gutters and raking the leaves, repairing some things so Jody wouldn't have to. He had Cas help. Things were smoother when Cas could keep his hands busy.
Sam taught him some plumbing and Dean taught him some auto mechanics, since of course Dean still had to work on the Impala to keep her in tip-top condition.
Between odd jobs, they would play board games and watch movies. Sam and Cas went on long walks every day.
Things weren't perfect. But they were slowly getting better. Cas's throat was healing bit by bit, and he could talk for longer stretches of time before his voice wore thin and he needed to rest it.
His grace, however, was another matter. It seemed to be recovering even more slowly than his vessel. The way Cas described it, it was almost like his grace was resisting coming back to life. Cas couldn't fathom why, aside from maybe the collar had inflicted permanent damage.
Sam suspected something else, though. He'd been doing a lot of reading on the connection between mind and body. Or in this case, mind and grace.
So on one of their morning hikes, Sam decided to broach a topic he knew had to be addressed eventually, and hoped it would lead to the breakthrough Cas needed.
"Cas," he started. "Do you want to talk about what happened? At the arena."
Cas drew to a stop, taken aback, and looked away. "No." His normal gravel was twice as thick with an almost reedy whistle sometimes.
"Talking about it can help," Sam pushed gently.
Cas angled a wry look at him, and raised his arm to show the bracelet. "I thought this was to help me forget it ever happened," he said a tad pointedly.
Sam paid no heed to Cas's borderline tetchiness, and shook his head. "Not forget. To stop reliving it. And when you're ready to talk about it without reliving it, that will help too."
He waited, but Cas didn't seem at all forthcoming. Sam wasn't going to give up just yet, though. This was too important.
"When Dean was in Hell, he was forced to do terrible things. Whatever you would tell him, you need to tell yourself."
Cas's mouth pressed into a tight line, and he dropped his eyes to the ground. "I've endured torture before," he whispered. "I've endured being possessed by Lucifer, arguably the worst thing imaginable." He shook his head. "I don't understand why this was different. It shouldn't be any different."
Sam's heart constricted. "Because it wasn't just torture," he replied. "It was humiliation and degradation. They dehumanized you. And before you say you're not human, you're a sentient being, and they tried to make you nothing more than property. Lucifer was cruel and he relished in the torment he dished out, but there was…" Sam struggled to find the words. "Lucifer never let you forget who you were, what you'd lost, or could lose. He liked mind games and that required an active participant. What those hunters did was the exact opposite. They tried to take away everything of who you were and make you nothing more than an animal."
Cas closed his eyes, expression pinching in distress. "And they succeeded."
Sam opened his mouth to counter that, but Cas kept going.
"I did refuse to fight, at first. My opponent 'killed' me—" He used the air quotes. "—multiple times. Sybil healed me. She healed all the fighters so they could fight again the next night. And the next. They never stopped."
Sam's stomach clenched, but he held his tongue and let Cas continue.
"I started to defend myself, mostly to bide time while I tried to find a way to escape, and to convince the other prisoners to fight with me. I got my hands on a remote and disabled the collars on myself and my regular opponent, a demon." Cas shook his head with a derisive huff. "You can probably guess how well that team-up went."
Sam's heart sank with the knowledge of what came next. "They caught you."
Cas nodded and closed his eyes again. His hand started to drift toward his neck, but then aborted and went for the bracelet instead. He took in an audible breath. "That's when they…brought out the special collar. Lars said I talked too much."
Sam clenched his fists. The crack in Cas's voice was still a stark reminder of exactly what that collar had done. Sam wanted to kill the man all over again.
Though Cas's expression was fraught with remembered anguish, he seemed to be on a roll and couldn't stop.
"I stopped fighting altogether after that. Got torn to pieces a few times and Sybil wasn't allowed to heal me. Until one time. I must have been close to real death, because she was brought in and fixed the worst of it." Cas looked up to meet Sam's gaze. "And then I remembered that dying would mean I'd never see you and Dean again. That I wouldn't be able to help you when you needed me. And so I decided to do what I had to, to survive. I picked up the sword the next night and never lost another fight." His eyes welled with tears. "But I lost everything else, and they won."
Sam's own eyes were brimming with hot moisture as well. "Listen to me, you didn't lose anything. You put it in a box and hid it away because that's what you had to do in order to survive. And what we're doing right now, spending this time out here at the cabin, is unlocking that box so you can be whole again. Because you can, Cas. I know you can."
Cas's expression wavered with sorrow. "You've always had remarkable faith, Sam," he whispered.
"A remarkable angel once had faith in me."
Cas huffed out a broken laugh. Sam reached out to take his arm, and then pulled him into a gentle embrace. Cas was trembling slightly, and it still felt like he could shatter at any moment. But he was strong. One of the strongest people Sam knew. Maybe he'd fractured, but he hadn't broken.
And he would get through this. He'd taken a big step today, and Sam hoped it would open the floodgates to the final stage of healing Cas needed.
Castiel sat on the porch, watching the rising sun cast golden shards through the trees. The rays were warm on his face, and he closed his eyes to soak it all in—the kiss of sunlight on his brow, the whisper of wind behind his ear, the thrum of the earth beneath his feet. He could feel the chorus of the cosmos again.
As each day went by, Castiel felt more and more like himself. His grace, which he'd worried would never revive, had finally started to uncurl. After opening up to Sam about what he'd been through, it was like a last invisible restraint around his grace had snapped. The horrors were still there, in his mind, but he could look at them with more objectivity and distance, and somehow that had seemed to make his grace feel…safe, to return.
Sam had been wiser than Castiel gave him credit for.
Castiel had gained his voice back, in more ways than one. It no longer hurt to speak, though he couldn't carry much volume yet.
His vessel was still covered in scars.
It could take a very long time for his grace to recover enough to wipe them all clean, but Castiel found he wasn't that bothered by it. He'd born marks of survival before, and that's what they were.
He fingered the hemp bracelet Sam had given him—another reminder of what he'd overcome.
Castiel basked in the morning tranquility for a few minutes longer before he rose and went back inside. Sam and Dean had just gotten up and were puttering around the kitchen sleepily while waiting for the coffee machine to spit out its magic brew.
Castiel went to the fridge and got out ingredients to make breakfast. He wasn't a very skilled cook, but he could make scrambled eggs decently enough. He tossed in some bell peppers, ham, and cheese, and when it was done, dished it out onto three plates.
"Thanks, man," Dean grunted groggily, coffee mug in hand as he slid into a chair at the table.
Castiel waited until the meal was underway before saying, "I'm ready to go back to the bunker."
Sam and Dean both froze with forks halfway to their mouths, and exchanged glances with each other.
"You sure?" Dean asked.
"There's no rush," Sam put in.
Castiel nodded. "I'm sure. I've been able to remember what day it is for the past week," he admitted. "And as peaceful and…helpful, as this place has been, the bunker is home."
Dean perked up at that, looking pleased.
Sam offered an encouraging smile. "Yeah, sure. We can pack up and head back today. But if we need to, I'm sure Jody wouldn't mind us coming back."
"Maybe sometimes," Castiel said, and returned the smile with a small one of his own. "We all deserve a vacation every now and then."
And so, after breakfast they packed up and headed back to Lebanon. Castiel was fine with his decision, right up until they parked outside the bunker's concrete exterior, and then his anxiety started to creep back in at the sight of the huge door that would slam shut behind them once they went inside.
He took a deep breath, rubbed the bracelet, and got out.
Sam and Dean had already grabbed some of their bags and were heading for the door, but started shooting worried looks back at him. Castiel drew his shoulders back and strode forward.
Dean unlocked the door and pushed it open with a grating screech. But it was a different tone and texture from the gates of the arena. Castiel stepped inside. It was exactly as they'd left it.
He descended the stairs with measured steps. The air was slightly musty and tinted with the scent of old paper. Warm light suffused from the lamps and fixtures that turned on with their arrival.
Castiel walked right by the tables and shelves and toward the back hallway. The stone corridor stretched deeper into the underground bunker, but the linoleum floor wasn't covered in grime and smeared drag marks. The bottom portion of the wall was made of brick, meticulously placed and polished with care.
Castiel stopped on the threshold, and reached up a hand to press against the concrete wall. It was cool to the touch, but not harsh and biting. There was a familiar hum through the wall from the pipes and vents. The bunker had life in its veins, not death.
"Cas?" Dean called worriedly.
"I'm alright," he replied softly, and meant it.
He was home where he belonged. Where he was loved and cared for. Where Sam and Dean had held onto him for dear life and carried him when he couldn't carry himself. But it didn't make him weak.
Because despite all the challenges Castiel had had to contend with…he had come out the other side.
The end. :)