Snow-White and Rose-Red
Like anywhere in the world where one thing is prevalent, the denizens of Hell had many names for that of which they had plenty.
Hawaiians, for instance, had hundreds of names for some dozens of fish, and Inuits had endless names for their endless stretches of snow. And while Hell had a good deal of many things - pain, agony, and the cries of the damned being just some of them - there was truly a limitless supply of one thing, and one thing only: blood.
A far more complex compound than snow or ice, the demons of the Pit had words to describe every aspect of the mixture. They had talutah, which meant ‘blood-red'; akeldama, which meant ‘field of blood’; and they even had names for the blood of various organs, such as muhjah, meaning ‘heart’s blood’ or ‘soul’s blood’.
Castiel, however, would always remember Hell by two words: Rose-Red.
When Castiel first reached his goal in Hell (one lone room hidden deep within its heart) he had no special words to describe that for which he saw. There was only red.
So much red.
It was a single room defined by it; a single room drenched in it.
The walls were decorated in varying shades of it, from bright red droplets sprayed in haphazard, violent patterns, to large faded patches, old and crusted. Other parts were smeared deep crimson, glistening and wet against the stone. The floor was covered in spills of red fluid and shreds of skin, the mixture soft and tacky beneath the tread of his shoes.
Littered amongst the faded stains and red wetness, were other less identifiable things - tangles of stringy ligaments perhaps, or maybe the soft and masticated pulp of some inner organ. It didn’t really matter what any of it was, because in this cursed land there was only one word to describe every body and all its parts: meat.
There was meat hanging from the ceiling on polished hooks, still ripe with the fresh stink of fear. Swinging from one of the hooks was meat the size of a small child. Another bore a quivering mass of meat the same size and bulk as an obese adult. There was skinless meat and boneless meat and bloodless meat; others still were just hairless pelts stretched taut and pinned up like decorative tapestries.
Amidst the red-stained walls and floor and hooks and meat, sat a jarring aberration: a single bed.
The headboard was comprised of hundreds of bones in all shapes and sizes; some so large they could easily be a giant's, while others were barely bigger than an infant's tibia. Each one was placed meticulously in a complex, interlocking arrangement, creating a beautiful and intricate design. A quilt stitched in a patchwork of what appeared to be human skin dyed in bright, primary colors, was folded neatly neatly across the mattress.
Despite its macabre construction, the bed was nonetheless in direct contrast to the grisly surroundings; its presence gave the room a feeling of intimacy that was strangely disturbing: this was where the monster came to lay its head to rest.
As he moved deeper into the chamber, Castiel noticed other things that also seemed distinctly out of place. Placed carefully on a set of shelves by the bed, was a ripped and bloodstained stuffed bunny that had undoubtedly once been a child’s toy. Next to it was a comb with broken teeth, carved from a piece of ivory. On the other shelves he found an old picture, a wooden chess piece, a pocket watch, a sleek black toy car, and even a perfectly round glass marble. Every item was neatly arranged and displayed.
Castiel committed it all to memory; he even catalogued the unique smell of the room. (Here, in this chamber, the stench of sulfur didn't burn his nose. Hell wasn't entirely comprised of fiery pits and the cries of the damned, after all.)
No, this room was unique; there was an enduring and faintly rusty odor in the air, almost like the warm, lingering scent of one's palms after handling new pennies. That scent was undercut by the pungent, earthy musk of wet decay and rotting meat, and the two odors collided, mixing into a sharp perfume which settled heavily onto his skin.
Given the choice, Castiel thought he much preferred the bold and overpowering stench of brimstone and old eggs that permeated most of Hell. He'd become accustomed to the smell during his long and arduous descent into the Pit, and its absence was now unsettling.
There was something insidious about the aroma which now surrounded him. It was quietly pervasive, as if the longer he remained there steeped in the scent of agony and torture, the more sullied and stained his Grace would become.
Castiel had the sudden, almost overwhelming urge to run from the chamber, the sensation of his faded Grace making him want to flee the room and all it represented. But he would not. He could not; not now.
He had journeyed far too long and had descended far too deep, to stop now. He and his brethren had battled forty hard years to reach this very spot; this room, with its red walls and hooks and bed, included. He would not dishonor the memory of his fallen kin by turning tail and retreating. He would not fail his mission.
It was his duty to raise Dean Winchester from Perdition, and he was the only angel who could do so.
He was the only one left.
Long and hard the angels had battled, pushing deeper and deeper into the depths of Hell, even as they pulled further and further away from Heaven's light. Castiel had fought ceaselessly, and even as he'd watched the demons tear apart the last of his companions, had fought harder still. The sacrifices of his brothers and sisters had allowed him, by some small miracle, to slip beneath the notice of the main demon horde and pierce the innermost depths of Hell.
There, he folded his Grace tight within himself and bowed his head, shaping himself into something able to walk unnoticed amongst the damned. Alone, with no reprieve and no support, he searched tirelessly for the soul of the Righteous Man: Dean Winchester. Always Castiel carried with him the unfathomable weight of his mission, now his sole responsibility, pressed urgent and impossible into his every empty space.
And now, after so many decades of fighting and searching, he had finally reached his goal in Hell: this room, the inner sanctum of the damned.
This was Dean Winchester’s domain.
“It’s not often I get willing visitors to my little slice of Hell,” purred a voice suddenly from behind him. “But it’d be rude of me not to give you a proper welcome.” There was a hint of derision in the tone, but Castiel thought he could detect the slightest edge of self-depreciation too, like a knife with its point turned inwards.
A sense of ceremony and deeply abiding gravitas came over him as Castiel slowly turned and came face-to-face with the very person for whom he'd been sent into Perdition to raise: Dean Winchester.
Castiel had been expecting a lot of things, but the man who stood before him with eyes as glossy and black as a raven’s wing, wasn’t it. He had, of course, known that Hell could warp a soul until it was unrecognizable as anything even remotely human, the darkness which resided in the heart of every man coaxed out by the inquisitors of the Pit until their soul became a sad, shrivelled thing devoid of any light. He had expected Dean Winchester to look more like one of the grotesque demons he had slain, a thin reflection of himself; a caricature of what he once used to be.
What he did not expect, was to find Dean looking markedly unscathed by Hell. His person was free of any obvious injury and his skin looked as soft and unblemished as a newborn babe's. He looked vibrant, healthy even, and, despite the blood and grime which he wore layered like a coat, he was beautiful. And beneath it all, Dean's soul, though dulled by stress and tarnished by the residue of Hell as it was, still shone remarkably bright and pure beneath the blackness and build up. To this, its host seemed painfully ignorant.
All at once, Castiel saw why his Father had ordered Heaven to rescue this man. He could see why Dean Winchester was the one they needed; he could see why he had been chosen for such important work.
After a long pause in which he took all off this in, Castiel finally spoke. "I have come to pull you out of this hole, Dean Winchester," he said in voice which filled every corner of the bloodstained room. “You are not meant for this fate.”
Dean only chuckled humorlessly in response. He shifted closer to Castiel, leering as he drew well within the confines of personal space. Though the set of his shoulders telegraphed an offhanded, almost defiant carelessness, Dean's expression was one of deep assurance - that of a predator in their home environment.
"What makes ya say that, pretty bird?" Dean replied, a sneer in the syllables. "You're a stranger around here, I can tell." Dean took a long, lingering perusal of Castiel as he stepped around him in a tight circle, the shameless sweep of his gaze a physical sensation; it brushed over Castiel like the faint touch of callus-roughened fingers ghosting up his sides.
Dean shifted back slightly as he regarded the impressive arch of Castiel's wings. Castiel only regarded Dean with quiet contemplation, withholding his reply when Dean suddenly reached up towards one of the jutting wingbones, fingers outstretched, expression inscrutable. Castiel stiffened and went still, though he didn't deter him or move away. Anticipation and tension wound through his body and Dean seemed to catch himself, abruptly curling his fingers against his palm in an abortive gesture and stopping just short of actual contact. He brought his black gaze back level to Castiel's, his expression gobsmacked but derisive.
"Feathers aside," he said, voice gruffer than before, "you don't wear the stink of the Pit as well as the other souls who find their way to me." Dean paused, his voice dipping into an almost conspiratorial whisper. "You are the one who isn't meant to be here."
Then, with a bold audacity Castiel hadn't expected, Dean crowded forward and smelled him, pressing his nose into the soft dip at the base of Castiel's throat. Dean inhaled deeply, tracing a long line up the column of his neck to the underside of his jaw.
Castiel didn't shy away from the touch, though he was unaccustomed to such intimate contact. The brief touch of Dean's skin against his own burned like trail of white, cold heat tracing a path through his Grace.
It was then that Castiel realized that the taint on Dean's soul ran far deeper than he had originally thought; it was complex in a way he didn't yet know how to uunderstand. But he had to believe in him. He had to believe in his Father's will. He had to have faith.
"Indeed," Castiel finally replied, remaining relaxed but still as Dean took one last inhalation before stepping away. "I am a stranger here in this realm, so far removed from my home," he continued, after a moment. He looked straight into Dean's onyx eyes. "You too are a stranger here. You were never meant for this place. " He paused, placing a hand on Dean's chest, hoping to convey his conviction. "I know you can feel it."
Dean jerked away from his touch as if it had seared him. He breathed a long, angry hiss into the hot air, a sneer turning his lip. "You don't know a goddamned thing, angel," he spat nastily. "You came here for nothin', because I damn well ain't worth saving."
Dean's lips curled back, teeth bared in an animalistic snarl as he lunged without warning. He slammed bodily into Castiel, tumbling them both to the ground in a confusion of limbs, feathers, and the muted thud of fists connecting violently with flesh.
Castiel was borne to the ground by Dean's weight and ferocity, the stone floor punching the breath from his lungs as his back collided with the unyielding surface. His wings became sullied and tacky as he struggled with Dean, blood and fluids on ground staining the pristine whiteness of his feathers deep red. Castiel might have easily overpowered Dean, but not only was he exhausted from the forty straight years of the non-stop battle he'd endured just to reach him, he was also unwilling to hurt the future saviour of earth, despite any injury to himself. Castiel couldn't have raised him from Perdition, anyway; he had no power and no right to save a soul who did not want to be saved .
Everything went dark when Dean dealt him a vicious blow to the temple, loose stone in hand.
The world came back into focus slowly, sounds forming into recognizable words and colors into recognizable shapes. Castiel rose from the blackness of his mind to the surface of waking like he was rising from the depths of the deepest ocean.
At first everything was dark and grey with little variance. Then, there were many shades of blue and faded purples, and, after that, bright spots of mottled reds and browns. Slowly, very slowly, the world began to swim back into sharp definition.
Castiel shifted as he came awake groggily, at first only distantly aware that his movements were met with resistance. He was, however, immediately aware of the pain which jolted through him, bright and sudden. He winced, his body jerking only an inch or two when the bite of thick leather straps looped beneath his armpits and across his chest, abruptly stopped him. Castiel glanced down at the oiled leather girdling his bare chest. It was a simple harness with no adornments that he could discern, and it effectively kept him aloft and upright, like a marionette strung up and strapped against the wall. His wings had been forcibly outstretched and pinned delicately to the rack on either side of him, exactly like an insect on display behind a glass case.
Unthinkingly, Castiel tried moving his arms and legs to test the strength of his restraints and nearly lost conciousness once more. Acute, driving pain exploded through him at even the smallest movement, tearing apart both thought and breath. The pain screamed violently through his eextremities and when his vision had fully stabilized, Castiel saw that something akin to steel railway spikes had been driven through the joints of his ankles and wrists.
His blood leaked down his wrists and washed over his palms, rich crimson in color and strange as it trickled through the channel of his lifeline and filled the pressed patterns of his fingertips. It trailed down his toes in deep red rivulets, stark against the unnatural glow of his skin. It collected in the crook of his arms and pooled in the delicate fold of skin behind his knees, and it made him itch terribly. To struggle would be to worsen the injuries and though Castiel would heal from this, for the while the pain was unbearable.
Eventually, Castiel became aware of a faint buzzing in his ears. He closed his eyes and concentrated on it; haltingly, the buzzing noise manifested into understandable speech. A prayer slipped from his lips and a voice which pulled on the tattered edges of his thoughts, answered him.
'Necessità 'l ci 'nduce, e non diletto.' - 'Necessity brings him here, not pleasure.'
Castiel closed his eyes and inhaled a shuddering breath. His shoulders flexed and his wings twitched in response, eliciting exquisite pain from the motion. He forced the air through his teeth slowly, willed his muscles to still, and willed calmness to settle into his soul.
"I understand," he whispered quietly, no more than a pretense of sound as the words dropped from his lips, weighted with significance.
Castiel knew then what he had always known: there would be no reward for the what he would suffer at Dean's hands, but he knew that he must suffer. He must sacrifice his blood, homage to his slain kin who had sacrificed their existence for this man. He had to understand who he was saving. He must know Dean Winchester. He must believe that his soul was worth saving, and he must believe it with the same devotion he gave his brethren. He must believe it until the very essence of his Grace was imprinted with the strength of his belief; until Dean was imprinted into every fiber that was Castiel.
And he would learn through blood sacrifice, a trial as primordial as the earth his Father created. He would accept whatever came to him.
He had faith.
Dean liked to torture Castiel daily, enjoying the way his screams would echo off of the blood-slicked walls. He claimed it was like listening to a Heavenly choral and all he needed were a few harps and trumpets to round out the chorus. Most of the time, Dean was brutal and without mercy, rhyme, or reason. He was sadistic for the plain thrill of it and Castiel accepted that, even when he had screamed himself hoarse from the pain, or worse yet, when Dean had ripped out his throat, tired of his cries.
Other times Dean did odd things to him (for him), childish things, such as slit his wrists and paint him a picture with the blood. He would hold it up to him, black eyes shining as he showed off his work with a little, pleased smirk. Something deep within the depths of that inky dark gaze, however, unconsciously sought approval.
It puzzled Castiel, until he began to praise Dean for his work as one might praise a child seeking the favor of their parent.
At first, Dean reacted badly to the praise and stated his displeasure with extra punishments. These punishments were always quick, always brutal, and bluntly painful, encompassing everything from Byzantine patterns carved into his flesh (cuts over cuts), to merely bludgeoning him with a heavy object (often a crowbar) until all of his bones were crushed into dust. Castiel likened these punishments to the tempertantrums of a mad child - violent outbursts fueled by an astonishing depth of anger that he knew wasn't truly for him.
Still, it wasn't too long before Dean began to accept the compliments and when he did, he stopped abusing Castiel for his praise. He instead began seeking Castiel's approval in other, often cruel and painful ways, and each time, as Dean would look up at him with defiance and uncertainty slipping through his dark gaze, Castiel would always manage to find a smile for him. Sometimes it was quite ghastly with split lips and blood frothed in the spaces between his teeth, but he always found a smile or spare breath to murmur a kind word to Dean.
"That's creative, Dean," he would say, with a sincere upturn of his lips. Or, if Dean had drained his blood instead of removing all of the smaller bones from his body (which were then used to make the grisly equivalent of macaroni necklaces; the little bones in the hands and feet seemed to be created especially for this) he might even nod his head in appreciation.
Sometimes Dean put away his tools and would instead sit and read to him. Castiel quickly recognized that these were very special times to Dean, deeply personal to him in a way that Castiel didn't yet understand. Before Dean began reading to him, he would pick a vein in Castiel's arm and puncture it with a thin, hollowed out tube - essentially, the needle from a syringe. Castiel could only watch as his blood was drained in steady, controlled spurts, progressively growing weaker as he slowly bled out by seconds and heartbeats.
Oddly, the only stories that Dean read to him were fairytales, and, though he occasionally read others, most of the time he'd just read Castiel his favorite one.
Dean's favorite was a fairytale called 'Snow White and Rose Red', written by two brothers named Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. It made Castiel wonder if Dean liked the story because two brothers had authored it. He wondered if it reminded Dean of his own brother, Sam. Often, Castiel was too weak from blood loss to really pursue such thoughts and simply focused on Dean's voice, the cadence and smooth timbre keeping him tenuously tied to consciousness.
Dean particularly liked the passage where the dwarf was killed by the black bear. Initially, Castiel thought it was because the bear killed the cruel little creature violently and without any remorse. Later, he suspected that Dean liked the passage because it reminded him of hunting.
Many times Dean would just skip ahead to that one passage and read it to him over and over, until Castiel finally fainted from blood loss.
'Then in the dread of his heart he cried, “Dear Mr. Bear, spare me, I will give you all my treasures; look, the beautiful jewels lying there! Grant me my life; what do you want with such a slender little fellow as I? you would not feel me between your teeth. Come, take these two wicked girls, they are tender morsels for you, fat as young quails; for mercy’s sake eat them!” The bear took no heed of his words, but gave the wicked creature a single blow with his paw, and he did not move again.'
When he had healed and woken again, Dean would still be reading to him.
Dean read that fairytale to him so often, that Castiel eventually learned it by heart. When he still had strength and the where-withal to do so, he would recite the story or the passage along with Dean. Mockingly at first, Dean began to call him Snow White because of his pearly feathers. It eventually became something of a pet name, Castiel supposed, and there was the barest shadow of affection in Dean's tone whenever he used it. In turn, Castiel called Dean, 'Rose Red'.
The nickname often made Dean chuckle darky. When it did, he would pick out the dullest knife from his arsenal and painstakingly start whittling out the angel's heart. As he set cheerily to work, Dean would chant a variation of tye main rhyme from the fairytale, heedless of Castiel's agonized screams in the background:
"Snowy-White and Rosey- Red,
Will you beat your lover dead?
Snowy-White and Rosey-Red,
Let us paint the walls in instead!
Snowy-White and Rosey-Red,
Watch the blood drip from his head.
Snowy-White and Rosey-Red,
He's dead, it's done, the beast is fed."
Sometimes the nickname didn't make Dean laugh at all. When that happened Dean would pause and simply stare at Castiel for a long time, and things deeply suppressed would flicker in the depths of his unnaturally dark eyes. He would approach the angel and lay his head against Castiel's bloody carapace. Then he would whisper the rhyme in a raspy, strained tone; a lover murmuring sweet nothings against the lobe of their beloved's ear.
"Snowy-White and Rosey-Red,
Will you beat your lover dead?"
Dean would breathe a sigh against Castiel's warm skin like a lost child, his lips full and oddly tender when he brushed them lightly against Cas' slick, reddened flesh. Castiel would offer the same words he always did.
"You’re worthier than you know, Dean Winchester. Let us be rid of this place."
"Lies," Dean would answer each time, and look up at him, his chin resting against the smooth plane of Castiel's belly. He always followed with the same question: "Why?"
"Because your blood is pure and your heart is true. This is not your fate," Castiel would say.
"Why else?" Dean would press, with a small, enigmatic grin.
“Because you deserve to be loved, Dean. Let me bring you from this place. Let me show you,” he would reply.
And Dean, every time, would reach up and rip Castiel's tongue straight from his mouth.
Eventually, Dean began to talk to Castiel without any prompting, though he usually did so when he was working over some writhing, screaming meat hanging from one of the hooks. Amidst the cries, sobs, and inane babbling of his victim, Dean revealed a great many things. He seemed to, in those moments, speak more honestly than he might otherwise admit.
Castiel only listened, though he silently prayed for the poor souls twisting and thrashing under the broken man's ministrations.
When Dean began talking he spoke of everything from the mother he barely remembered to his father, whose relationship with him had been rocky and strained when he had died. He shared tales of his youth and of his indiscretions. He regaled him with stories of his hunts and the scars those hunts left with him. (Castiel found that Dean wore the scars on his body proudly, as if they were badges he had earned.) He told him, with a false sort of pride that Castiel easily saw past, of the first girl he ever went down on and of his (many) conquests thereafter. Dean relayed the many things for which he felt remorse and guilt (so much guilt); things that he said he'd never admitted to anybody else.
Castiel only listened, and he found that humans could store an astounding amount of guilt within them.
After awhile he came to realize that Dean was confessing to him, purging himself of every secret he had kept and every emotion he had refused to acknowledge. Though he never said so outright, Castiel thought that this was a good thing for Dean. The more he learned about this lost soul, the closer to him he felt.
His faith in Dean grew daily and grew stronger, until one day he was surprised to realize that he'd formed a distinct bond with him; it was a significant connection, reaching far deeper than he'd ever intended. In some ways, Castiel wasn't surprised at all; he'd poured so much of himself into Dean, given him every ounce of faith that he possessed, that he never realized how much of his trust Dean was pouring into him, in return.
It was a profound revelation for Castiel, and it was the first time that he realized he would not come out of this as untouched as he had previously thought. Dean had already left his mark upon him, more permanent and far more intimite than any of the superficial scars he left with him on a daily basis. Castiel could feel Dean's essence wind through his Grace like a gentle, warm breeze. It was beautiful, and Castiel cherished it, even if he didn't yet know it.
If Castiel asked a question when Dean began talking, he was typically punished. Usually he'd have his eyes gouged out or his intestines strung up while he was still awake and screaming. Dean was particularly gifted when it came to inflicting pain, and Castiel found that he didn’t like to repeat the same method of torture too often. He was also very consistent about the level of hurt he liked to inflict upon him for his verbal follies. Castiel could always count on that.
Still, there were times when Dean answered his questions without the sharp agony of a knife in his belly, and those were the ones that Castiel chose to remember. Though those times started out as very few and far between, slowly Dean began to answer him more and more, and each time he did, he inflected less and less pain upon him. He wasn't quite sure when, but soon enough Castiel found he could almost carry on a full conversation with Dean without the threat of violence.
At length, Dean finally spoke of his brother, and Castiel paid special attention.
Dean's love for his younger sibling was fierce and for the first time, Castiel caught a glimpse of the warrior within Dean - proud, strong, and fearless. He saw him as the protector he truly was and not this twisted aspect of himself that he had become. Dean talked a lot about Sam - his Sammy, as he would say - and there was always a hint of possessiveness in the shadows of his words that made Castiel believe that he was lost without his baby brother.
"Sammy is mine," ranted Dean, one time when he descended into a particularly vehement tirade. "Has been, ever since I held him in my arms and raced from our house burnin' with Hellfire." He made a wide, sweeping gesture, then casually carved a wide strip of flesh from his newest victim hanging on one of the largest hooks.
At this point the meat was unrecognizable as either male or female, but instead was merely a quivering mass of blood-slicked flesh that whimpered occasionally. (They called that one 'serkan' he thought, which meant blood head or some such but he couldn't be sure.) Dean continued speaking after stepping back and giving his work a once-over with a critical eye, as any good artist will do.
"I know every cord of muscle, every tendon, every stitch of my brother down to the stink of his breath in the morning. I used to wake up and just know he was there, by the way a room smelled when he was in it." He paused, wiping his blood-lubed hands on his pants. "I would've done anything for him; I would've died for him a thousand times over."
"You did, Dean. Your penance has been paid and I'm sure Samuel knows this," Castiel offered.
Dean didn't appreciate the comment and turned his full attention upon Castiel. He left the meat he had been torturing, dripping and bleeding on the hook like a forgotten and unwanted plaything.
When he was done with the angel, when Castiel's ribs were split and bent back, the skin of his back peeled aside and stretched taut over the bones, only then did Dean agree with him. Only when his breastbone had been broken and the ribcage pried apart to display his faintly beating heart, did Dean admit that he thought Sam would have found a way to rescue him by now.
He later informed Castiel that this particular torture was an ancient Norse method called the "Blood Eagle" and that he was very special indeed to receive it. Then he left Castiel like that for several days, his eyes sewn shut to stew in darkness and his own agony.
Occasionally the angel would hear snatches of Dean's voice, chanting to himself as he wandered through the chamber.
"Snowy-White and Rosey-Red, will you beat your lover dead?"
“I traded my soul for his life,” Dean announced one day out of the blue, elbow deep in the middle of reorganizing Castiel’s entrails. Castiel was barely hanging onto consciousness, though he managed somehow to keep up with the thread of conversation.
The proclamation was not news to Castiel, though there was something in Dean's tone that made this declaration different. This was important. This was a turning point, or so he hoped.
“I know, Dean,” Castiel gasped in response, concentrating with difficulty on the way his tongue formed each word, instead of on the exquisite pain radiating from his belly. “Such devotion is deserving of a second chance. Let me give that to you.” He inhaled sharply when Dean delved deeper with his fingers, probing through his viscera like he was searching for something he wasn't sure he would find. Castiel coughed wetly. His teeth were deep red behind blood and spit-slicked, redder lips. The blackness began to crowd the edges of his vision.
“Sammy said I was stupid and selfish,” muttered Dean, pausing in his work. He stepped back, holding onto something that surely belonged inside of Castiel, and stared at the angel intently. “You don’t think that, do you?” he asked, and for the first time a note of true sincerity was clear in his voice.
“Never, Dean,” Castiel whispered faintly, his head lolling to one side as his strength seemed to rush out of him. “I will always believe in you. I will always come for you, should you ask.”
“You mean you’ll come if the big guy up there asks,” said Dean in retort, dismissing the answer with a roll of his eyes. Castiel mustered his fading energy and shook his head.
“I will come for you because it is your voice who calls," he rasped, his voice faint and distant but infused with the strength of his utter conviction; of his utter faith. Castiel drew in a deep, shuddering breath that sounded wet and terrible. He continued. "I’ve seen more of you than you think, Dean, and you are the most beautiful, worthy soul I’ve encountered.” He gave a feeble smile to his charge, the barest lift of the corner of his mouth. He tried to reassure Dean with a rheumy gaze, even as he felt his strength fading away. “I believe...in...you're...my…Rosey Red.”
Castiel couldn’t be sure but he thought he heard a sharp gasp before he was pulled under the blanket of unconsciousness, once again.
As soon as he opened his eyes Castiel knew he had been taken off the rack. He was lying on his back upon something which scarcely made an attempt at being soft or comfortable. His wings were folded neatly on either side of him and his head was propped up against an object that was squishy and foul-smelling.
He recognized it as the bed from his position in the room, and struggled up to a full sitting position, unwilling to look behind him and see what he had been leaning against. The stench alone, was enough to guess at what it was. Dean was perched on the foot of the bed, cross-legged, with his elbows resting on his knees. He toyed absently with the tattered, stuffed bunny that Castiel had seen in what seemed like a lifetime ago, when he had first entered Dean’s chambers. Dean didn’t look at Castiel when he spoke, but his words were clear, open, and honest, with no trace of contempt.
“This belonged to my very first victim,” Dean said quietly, tracing the edge of a torn ear with his thumb, his brow forming a troubled crease. “Alastair wanted to make sure of my commitment to Hell. He wanted to make sure I was ready to be off the rack.” Dean glanced up, caught Castiel’s gaze and held it. “He brought me a child, a boy who couldn’t have been any older than ten.” Dean drew in a deep, shaky breath, as if the admission unlocked something he had hidden away within himself. “I asked him what the kid could’ve done, but Alastair just told me that you don’t question in Hell. Meat is meat, nothin' more.”
Dean buried his face in the grimy bunny and Castiel could see a trail of wetness glisten on his cheeks.
“The things,” he stopped, gathering himself and steadying his voice before continuing, “the things I did to that kid, Cas…I - I can’t be worth savin’ after that.”
Castiel blinked at his shortened name, but leaned forward anyway. He closed both of his hands over Dean’s where they were clenched around the stuffed animal and simply held them. At length, Dean's grip relaxed slightly and he allowed Castiel to intertwine their fingers. Though he was hardly human, from the way Dean stiffened and nearly jerked away, the angel thought that this might well be the first compassionate touch that Dean had experienced in a great number of years - not counting the forty in Hell.
“You acknowledge your sins and you have honored the memory of this child by keeping safe what was dear to him. Forgive yourself, Dean Winchester; you must realize that you were never truly like those who sought to turn you permanently from the righteous path.”
Dean's hands still trembled within his own but he held them steadily, in a firm, sure grip.
"Are the other objects on those shelves from your victims as well?" Castiel asked gently.
Dean nodded and twisted to look over at the shelf in question, though he left his hands in Castiel's as if afraid he would lose something vital, should he break the connection.
"All of those are mementos from souls I've tortured," he supplied after a moment. "There would be certain people on my rack who were so attached to their old lives that it just made me goddamned angry. They reminded me of what I had lost; I saw what it was they clung to, and then ripped it away from them." Dean's eyes grew distant as he remembered. "There was a woman who had this photo of her two boys in her pocket and I wanted it. It reminded me of Sammy and myself when we were little. She wouldn't let go of the fuckin' thing, so I sliced her hand off at the wrist and took it from her." Dean shifted his attention back to Castiel, his dark gaze haunted by memory. "I used to look at that photo for hours and wonder what Sammy was doin', if he missed me, if he was even tryin' to get me back."
Dean shook his head. "Everything I collected - the toy car, the marble, the pocket watch, etc. - they all reminded me things I couldn't have. And I was so goddamned jealous of those poor bastards. They were able to find comfort in these things when I had none, and I just...I just fucking took it all away. I didn't even care, I got off on hurting them like that. Hurting them physically was easy, but hurting them deeper than that was..." he trailed off.
"Hurting them emotionally soothed your own pain," offered Castiel, squeezing Dean's fingers. The man nodded silently. "Even if they will never forgive you for taking the things that brought them comfort, you must forgive yourself. It is time to let go of your guilt."
Dean expelled a huge, trembling sigh and released the toy bunny, letting it slide from his grasp like a final farewell.
A long, heavy spell of silence descended upon them. Castiel studied him when Dean dropped his chin to stare at their entwined hands, memorizing the dark fringe of his lashes, long enough to cast the barest shadows on the delicate skin beneath his eyes. He studied the bit of nose he could glimpse from where he sat; he noted the high, angular sweep of Dean's cheeks and the curve of his bottom lip. When Dean suddenly looked up and caught Castiel's unabashed scrutiny, Castiel knew what was going to happen.
Dean leaned forward suddenly, lurching like someone who had forgotten all notions of restraint. Castiel let Dean fist a hand in his shirt, let him curve a hand around the back of Castiel's neck and pull him forward to his mouth. Castiel knew that it was misguided attempt to forge a deeper connection, and felt, somehow, that this was the only way Dean knew how to express such things; it was as if he'd long, long ago given up hope for anything better and could no longer articulate what he frantically sought. Castiel knew that it would be Dean's own undoing.
The kiss was desperate and sad, and Castiel could feel every suppressed emotion flood from Dean through the connection of their lips. Tears flowed down Dean’s cheeks in wet paths, making the kiss salty and slick. Castiel swallowed Dean’s sobs gravely, sliding his palms along Dean's jaw to press the tips of his fingers into the soft hair behind Dean's ears, anchoring him with ten points of pressure as Dean poured every ounce of himself into their kiss. And when Castiel kissed back it was a benediction; he offered his solace and devotion as he gathered the broken pieces of Dean's soul to him. He cherished what he was given, revered what he was offered, and then held it - every last piece of Dean's bruised, tattered soul - within himself for safe keeping.
“Let us go from here, Dean,” whispered Castiel at length, lips brushing against the hunter's temple before he pressed a kiss to it. “Too long have you been alone. Let me return you to a world that needs you.”
Dean rose with him when he stood up, but recoiled, drawing back from him when Castiel unfurled his wings. Though the white of his feathers was dirtied and dulled by blood and grime, Castiel's wings still shone with magnificence; a faint, faded reflection of Heaven's light. Castiel offered his hand to Dean and was only met with a look of clear apprehension.
"I...I don't know if I can do this Cas," said Dean, a look of child-like terror crossing his features. "I can't go back and face Sammy. He'll know...and...he'll damn me for it." Dean said the last in a bare whisper, the fear of his brother's rejection staining every syllable. Castiel thought he understood: Sam was Dean's only family, his truest and last tie to the world. If Sam were to reject him, Dean thought he would have nothing.
Castiel drew himself up to his full height and his presence seemed to fill the corners of the room. A soft, golden glow began to emanate from his skin and gradually grew in brilliance. He stepped nearer and this time, Dean did not shrink back from him. "You will never know if you don't go back, Dean." Castiel brushed the pad of his thumb across the sweep of Dean's cheek, as if he might smooth away the man's fear with that simple gesture. "I have seen that humans are capable of unparalleled depths of love and forgiveness. That is why your grace outshines ours in spades."
Dean still looked uncertain, like a lost child who was unsure of the way home. "I dunno if I can do this," he repeated, though turned his face slightly and pressed forward into Castiel's touch. "I'm weak. I broke after thirty years on the rack and became what I swore I never would - a fuckin' monster." Dean sighed against Castiel's palm, his breath wretched with despair. When he spoke again, his voice was small. "I can't do it alone."
Castiel grazed his thumb lightly over the arch of Dean's eyebrow, before dropping his hand and offering it to Dean to take, palm up and fingers splayed. "Then don't," he said, simply. "I am with you. And like in your story, Snow White always led Rose Red by the hand. Take mine and know that I will always come when you call, Dean Winchester." When Dean shifted his gaze away as if disbelieving him, Castiel tucked the fingers of his free hand beneath Dean's chin and directed his attention back to him. He looked Dean in the eye, and when he spoke it was in a voice serious and ancient, resonating with the depth of his faith and of his loyalty. "You have never been as alone as you've thought."
Dean hissed a breath through his teeth as if suddenly overwhelmed, and, tentatively, placed his hand in Castiel's. Castiel curled his hand over Dean's, tightly weaving their fingers together as Dean stepped closer, and letting his other hand slip from beneath Dean's chin. He trailed the tips of his fingers over the curve of Dean's neck, splaying them briefly as he pushed against Dean's chest, pressing in directly over his heart like he was memorizing the feel of it as it vibrated beneath the brand of his palm. After a moment, Castiel grasped the upper portion of Dean's right arm in an unyielding, iron grip.
"Will I remember this - you and me?" Dean asked suddenly, his voice cracking over the words.
"Do you wish to?" Castiel questioned.
Dean shook his head slowly. He didn't think that he could handle knowing what he did to the angel who saved him, in addition to the forty years worth of memories that were now ingrained into his skin, his bones, his blood.
"No." He said the word decisively, with conviction.
"Then you won't," promised Castiel. And then he pulled his charge tight against him until he could feel the beat of Dean's heart against his chest. It was the thrum of Dean's heart through his Grace, the rhythm that was in turns so fragile, so strong, and so human, that Castiel used as a tether to pull them both from the Pit. He spread his wings wide as the world around them erupted into glaring, white light.
Sometimes when Dean slept, he had a dream. It was more terrifying than his ones of Hell.
In his dream Dean walked through a cold stone room, skipping really, and the walls throbbed and pulsed with the thump of his heart. In one hand he held a stuffed bunny rabbit with a torn ear and a missing eye. In the other, he held a miniature Castiel who struggled to free himself from the cage of Dean's fingers, tightly fisted around his small body.
When he reached the very middle of the room, Dean dropped to a sitting position, tucking his legs under him with the stuffed rabbit draped across his lap. And then, almost like a small child playing with their doll, Dean cradled Castiel his his hands as he, with careful, precise deliberation, began to delicately pluck each of the feathers from Castiel's wings until they were stripped, bloody, and bare. He laughed with loud, cruel laughter as Castiel's tiny, agonized screams bounced off of walls and echoed into the distance, never quite fading entirely.
The whole time Dean chanted in a childish, sing song voice:
"Snowy-White and Rosey-Red, will you beat your lover dead?"