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Kintsukuroi

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At first, there’s sound. A solitary wavelength lilting through the blackness. It sparks an ember of light and awareness in the void, stokes the warmth until sparks spit up into the dull emptiness. Existence is simply this: it was dark and now it isn’t. It was quiet and then he hears the sound.

Oh, that’s right. He’s a him. He has awareness, singularity. A self slowly blooming out of the pitch.

The fire is burning through him now, crisping the barriers of the world brittle and bright. It’s only when his arm starts tingling that he realizes the darkness encasing him is a body, a husk, a hollow, and it was his. His to make breathe, or hurt, or even move if he liked. He owns it, and it feels good.

He feels good. He can feel.

“– never lied, Dean. That's important. It’s –“

He understands the sound is actually a voice now, someone else’s singularity somewhere outside his warming body, using language and words that he knew. One of those words was a name. His name. He has a name, and it’s a good one. It’s his own.

His name was Dean. And it was good.

The voice keeps talking, mostly meaningless blah blah blahs until Dean starts to really listen. It takes a moment for the thoughts to filter through; sentences becoming concepts becoming commands and Dean thinks fuck that uh uh no thank you.

The connection between his brain and his body might be a little off, but Dean knows one thing for sure: he’s not going to follow anyone else’s plans ever again. No more manipulation or double talk. He was on his own.

“– what you're feeling right now is not death, it's life. A new kind of life –“

A part of that scorching, heavy thing he lives in is sharp and resting at the end of his arm. It’s Bone and Blade and will get him what he wants if he lets it carry him. If he lets himself carry it.

“Open your eyes Dean, see what I see, feel what I feel. Let's go take a howl at that moon.”

Dean opens his eyes to a gray-tinged world with darkness creeping along the corners of the ceiling; not because he was told to, but because he could.

Something above him leans in close, closer, and Dean lets the sharpness rush up like it wants, lets it sink into whatever softness it finds. The creature above him gasps, gurgles, and drops of red warmth spatter down Dean’s arm and across his chest.

It’s an ugly son of a bitch, he can see that now. Horns, a smiling mouth, broken bones and rotting skin. And underneath all that there’s nothing but miles of red red smoke. He squints, looking further down, pushing the smoke out of the way. The demon squats there, shaking and alone in the hollow parts of its nature. This part of it is tiny compared to the rest; a child playing dress-up in his daddy’s clothes. A king whose swollen head is still too small for his crown left abandoned to shout at an empty room. Dean recognizes him.

Crowley. Motherfucker.

Dean snarls, twists the sharpness up through the soft meat of Crowley’s belly and shoves until he falls over, colliding with the desk and knocking records all over the place.

Those were alphabetized, Dean thinks, and for a second wants to stab Crowley all over again. Instead he falls off the bed and stumbles his way across the carpet with stiff and uncomfortable limbs. He picks up the albums as he goes, tucking them carefully under his arm. There’s blood on a couple – motherfucker – and Dean has to actually tug ‘Nat Cole Sings’ out from under Crowley’s heavy ass. He kicks him hard in the thigh and his boot makes a satisfying thud.

Crowley makes a less than satisfying groan. He coughs and a dribble of blood slides down his chin. Dean can feel him calling out across dimensions for his minions to come a-running with reinforcements but there’s no bloody bowl here and it looks like no one’s listening.

He smirks and steps over Crowley’s sprawled legs to set the record player to rights. The needle still looks usable but the case has a new smudge on the side where it hit the wall. He kicks Crowley again before arranging the records and player how they were on the tabletop.

These are Dean’s things, in Dean’s room, and maybe he’d been neglecting them a little over the last few weeks but they’re still his. It feels good to know he owns something permanent, that there’s something tangible of his own he can touch. He glances down to where Crowley’s gingerly pressing a hand to the hole in his gut and thinks: What would it feel like to own more?

There’s an opportunity here. Dean could have everything, if he wanted it. If he could conquer it. He hefts the weight of the sharpness, flicks the demon king’s blood off the ragged edge. He’s already taken on worse than Hell and made it through the other side. How much harder could taking it be?

Crowley gasps and coughs and struggles at Dean’s feet until he’s propped up against the dresser. “Fucking Winchesters,” he gurgles. “Caught me monologuing like… some amateur.”

Dean hunkers down until he can see the little wisps of smoke leaking out of Crowley’s skin. It’s beautiful, in an ugly sort of way, and Dean finds himself mesmerized despite himself. He caresses a hazy curl with the tip of his finger and feels nothing but an aching emptiness.

It makes Crowley flinch and curse, though. There’s the gleam of tears behind the smoke but Dean doesn’t give a shit how the asshole’s feeling. He pokes the smoke again and this time Crowley actually yells. He’s panting and white as a sheet by the time Dean pulls his hand back and looks up at him blindly.

“It wasn’t… supposed to end like this. I wasn’t supposed…”

Dean drives the sharpness hard into the smoke, sinking it deep into the flesh underneath. Crowley’s body spasms and dies, taking the demon inside along with it.

Dean remembers dying. He’s glad Crowley was in pain the last few minutes of existence.

There’s a crackle like miniaturized lightning around where the sharpness is buried in Crowley’s eye socket. Dean can’t actually see it but it tingles unpleasantly up his arm until it pools in the crook of his elbow. Lava-hot heat darts from there to his shoulder, then up to his neck and around the curve of his skull. It circles round for a long moment – a pet getting comfortable in its bed – before sinking in to stay, a tingling rotation of spikes and stalactites. He touches his head with his left hand but doesn’t feel anything except stiff and crinkly hair.

He yanks the sharpness clear and stands. Already his feet feel sturdier underneath him, the tingling pain settling into the back of his awareness as other senses kick in, sounds and noises, prayers and curses, things he didn’t know he knew. There’s expectation now, somewhere he needs to be.

Dean ignores it all for now, though. There’s someone coming down the hall.

He slinks over to the door, sharpness held high and waiting for the opportune moment. The footsteps come closer – closer still – and…

Dean stops. So does the man walking toward him, gasping and reaching behind him for a weapon he doesn’t find. He’s tall, taller than Dean, and the curve of his nose is familiar. But the important thing, the thing that lowers the sharpness and punches the breath right out of Dean’s lungs, is what he looks like inside.

It’s his soul, it has to be, like some bloody bruised artwork crafted and cared for by too many hands. He’s been torn and melded back together so often it’s hard to find the original pieces among the patchwork but when Dean looks deeper it’s there, determined and familiar and strong. His heart fucking shines with it. And it shouldn’t be possible – Dean knows it shouldn’t - but there’s hope in him still.

Dean smiles and opens his arms, what might have once been joy bubbling up in his chest. Sam, he thinks, a mental sigh. Sammy.

Sam stumbles back, Latin sliding off his tongue on the exhale. The exorcism’s like a kick in the gut, like someone punched him right in the face. The pain doesn’t do anything but remind him that Sam doesn’t want to be his brother anymore.

Dean whips a cord of thought around Sam’s throat and pushes until he can’t speak, until he can barely breathe. Then he sends him flying down the hall and pins him there, holding his weight so easily it’s barely any effort at all.

Sam struggles against him anyway. His jaw works tirelessly, nothing but garbled noise escaping until Dean moves closer and even then the words are shoved out between clenched teeth. “Get… out–”

Dean snarls and clenches his fist, the power holding Sam squeezing slowly tighter and tighter. The desire to keep going until there’s nothing repairable left this time is terrible, a clawing beast bashing at his brain. He tilts his wrist and Sam goes sliding onto the ceiling, sudden heat and flames licking across his torso. It’s so easy to hurt him, so good.

Sam screams through his teeth and Dean drops him, smothering the flames before they catch on his clothes. He curls into himself protectively, huddling against the wall and hiding his face against his shoulder. Dean can hear him, anyway; Sam had always been an ugly crier.

He hunkers down close enough to tilt Sam’s chin back with the sharpness. It catches against the skin of his jaw, itching to sink its way further in. Sam flinches when he meets Dean’s eyes; he knows they must be as black as the space behind his ribs, but neither one of them looks away.

This is not the worst I could do to you, little brother, Dean thinks, watching the tears drip down Sam’s chin. I know what’s living under the guilt and fear that keeps you awake at night. I know things you’re so afraid of you’ve buried them under clowns and abandonment. Things you don’t even know scare you.

He shifts his weight forward onto the balls of his feet when a line of blood joins the moisture on Sam’s neck. Dean smiles, softly, and tilts the sharpness so it catches the flow – a single drop balanced on a jagged tooth. Though honestly, there’s so much blood already on the curved blade it’s hard to tell old from new.

He makes sure Sam sees it and that he understands what it means.

Remember this, Sammy. Remember before you come chasing after me. Dean punches him in the soft dip just above his ear, the skin over his own knuckles splitting, and Sam flops over lost to the world.

Dean shakes his head and sighs, arranging Sam’s neck so that he won’t be completely numb when he wakes up. Then he thinks better of it and just lays him flat on the floor. Sam’s only human, after all, and just as broken as everything else.

Dean used to think he was more important than… well, everything, really. He would’ve let the world burn to keep him safe. And did, literally, a couple times. But there was no fixing this, no fixing them, no matter how much he gave and gave and gave. Their relationship was over now, had been for months, and Dean’s so tired of playing family where he isn’t wanted.

A thought slowly rises to the surface of his mind, like a bubble in tar. You could make him want you. You could make everyone want you. You could have all the family in the world.

It makes him blink, stutters his thoughts until the buzz in his ears is fading, fading, gone. Dean realizes he has the strange and unique opportunity of finally laying the bones of the Winchesters to rest. To tear the pages out of that gospel and settle things once and for all.

He closes his eyes and focuses on the tingle in his scalp until it turns into a call, a clarion, a scream. A chorus. And then Dean follows it down to Hell.

+ + +

There are no secrets in Hell. That’s part of its charm, really, the modus operandi that keeps the fires burning and the racks rotating. Hell is where your secrets are as plain as the blood on your face and literally come back to bite you in the ass. Secrets and sin are the chains that hold you down.

Hell is a place created from secrets but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have some of its own. There are certain nooks and crannies between and around, hidden holes in the blood and ash that only a select few are aware exist. One of the things that made Crowley so powerful for so long was that he made it his priority to find out where all the bodies were buried.

Dean’s not sure if it’s the burning on his head or something passed on through the brand on his arm but he knows the secrets, too, can see them like cracks under the surface of the world. Knows where to put the pressure to make things break.

For instance: the entrance to the Cage is easy to find once he puts his mind to it. He makes his way down into the depths - boots melting prints into the ground like radioactive breadcrumbs – until he reaches the entrance. He contemplates the gates for a moment, feet catching flame while he dallies. Under the smell of burning rubber the air stinks of good intentions and resentment, an emotional stench he’s more than familiar with. The walls are far more permeable than they should be; too many shady types coming and going lately. Despite all that, it’s still strong enough to hold a being of such awesome might and power as the Lightbringer. At least for now.

There’s the space between the bars, though, and Dean slips right on through.

(And no, they’re not really bars, not metal or rock of any kind. Just power, pure power holding the monsters at bay. Power and void.)

He pauses just on the other side of detention, waiting. It’s quiet there in the silence of repressed expectations. And cold, of course, cold as the blue in the middle of a flame. He knocks on the not-bars with a scraped knuckle and whistles the chorus of ‘Sympathy for The Devil’ just to be a little shit.

Something huge rises up from behind the barrier, an angry mass of molten light and intent colliding with the edges of its prison. It flashes, sparks, hisses curses at Dean in a language he has no business understanding.

Dean smirks and flips Satan the bird. Pleased to meet you, hope you guessed my name.

There’s a silhouette in the middle of the devil’s tantrum, pitch black against the brilliance and growing more distinct as it comes closer. It’s a sword, a weapon in the shape of a young man whose features are hazy in Dean’s memory. The face behind it, however, he’d recognize anywhere.

“Well, well, well. If it isn’t Dean Winchester. I can honestly say I never expected to see you again,” Michael says, stopping just on the other side of the not-bars. He may be smirking with Adam’s mouth but Dean can read the truth behind the words easily. His eyes – the real ones, all of them – crinkle at the edges. He’s confused; a first, Dean would wager.

Lucifer moans and curls into himself, a black hole staring at Dean. Or at the circlet of fire he’s wearing, it’s impossible to guess which. But Dean can tell he’s thinking, reevaluating, and fast. He’ll have to keep an eye on him during this little conversation.

Michael doesn’t catch on to the turn of events as quickly as Lucifer has. He’s exuding cool indifference again, the pieces of his form that won’t fit into Adam stretch languidly to the sides, feigning comfort in a place where there’s none to be found.

“We’ve had quite a few visitors lately. That little seraph of yours plucking your baby brother out, for one. Oh! Sorry, my mistake.” He snaps Adam’s fingers and shakes his head, clicking his tongues. “Sam’s not your baby, baby brother. He’s still here. We’re both. Still. Here.”

The wheels in Michael’s chest spin faster, gears and rivets churning out more and more light. His shadow looks pissed. “There was a plan, Dean. A plan with a capital P. All of creation adding up to one endgame and you and your precious little family had to go fuck it up. And now my family and I are stuck here.” He smiles villainously. “With Adam. Do you know what I did to him? To the brother you let go?”

Dean raises an eyebrow, underwhelmed.

“I consumed him. I swallowed him down until there was nothing left except the echo of a scream.” The glint in Michael’s eyes is vengeance and wrath and murder, oh, sins upon sins upon sins. Dean smirks and counts them all. How heavy would your soul be to carry now, Angel of the Lord? “Adam could have been safe in the Kingdom of Heaven forever but no, you had to resist. You said no. You let this happen.” He snarls, lightning shooting from his back and raising the hair on Dean’s arms. “It’s all your fault!”

Dean watches Adam’s body twist against Michael’s fraying light for a long stretch of time. Then he lays his hands on the not-bars of the Cage, feeling the weight of them, the subtle curves. He breathes in the pain bouncing off the walls and pushes it back through the grooves of his fingers into the power simmering there.

The bars – metaphysical as they are – begin to tremble.

“What…” Michael backs up a step, frowning for the first time in memory. “What are you doing?”

Dean breathes carefully and the bars grow thicker under his palm. He presses seal upon seal upon seal into place, a glistening chainmail of hate and horcrux, each one more difficult and impossible to break than the last. The resurrection of a t-rex covered in hieroglyphs. The battery from a 1960 Chevelle burned under the solstice moon in Walla Walla, Washington. Death’s teeth freely given.

Michael crashes his vessel against the bars until the crack of bone is audible even over the sound of his screaming. Then he’s sealed away and Dean doesn’t give less than ten fucks about him anymore.

A face presses itself against the ever-shrinking space, only a flicker of remorse and shadow able to escape. Dean hears him in the corners of his brain, angelic voice flickering in the light glimmering off the walls and the space behind Dean’s eyes. Please, Lucifer says, don’t close it all the way. I can raise the Mark from you if you want, but don’t leave me here again. His form ripples; what would have been a gasped breath if he’d actually needed to take one. Please. No one can help you but me, Dean.

Dean presses right back against the ever shrinking space, drags the sharpness across the bars until sparks fly. He hurls his thoughts across the distance with a snarl. Looks like you picked the wrong brother to wear to the prom, asshole. Hindsight’s a bitch, ain’t it?

He shoves the gap closed with a force that trembles up the chamber walls and echoes through all the levels of Hell above him. Lucifer wails, once, then all is silent.

And so the Righteous Man that began it ends it. Once and for all.

+ + +

There are demons waiting for him when he climbs out of the Cage and into Hell proper.

It’s a small group of upper to middle echelon demons all in meatsuits and come to ogle their new king. He’s not exactly surprised to see them but it is a jolting reminder of what the minor pain around his skull actually means. They shuffle back and forth until the wave of nervous excitement they exude is hard for Dean to ignore.

He’s seen demons before, of course, even seen them without their human disguise, but this is different somehow. There’s no bullshit anymore, no veneer of civility or grandeur. It’s just the simple ugly truth: human souls every one, overwhelmed with pain and hatred and sadness until they turned on themselves. Until combustion was the only relief left to them.

(flash of wings burned into the ground, charcoal and grey, everything turning to dust in the end)

Dean remembers being in the grip of that desperation himself. But it’s not going to get him this time. He watches them gather and doesn’t feel anything other than a vague sense of obligation and pity. He’s better than them, stronger. It’s not his ego or pride talking; it’s just another fact. The pain of their burning is over, finite; his fire seems to have no end, a smoldering coal that won’t ever go out. The demons curl around him, drawn to his cursed inferno like moths beating themselves against a light bulb.

Dean’s always burned hot. It’s what made him such enticing bait.

With the blinders off demons are basically suffering from metaphysical heartburn. They’re also naturally inclined towards evil and very, very selfish. Once souls catch fire and turn smoke it doesn’t matter why they went to Hell in the first place aside from earning them habits they may or may not choose to inflict on the other sad fucks that burn right next to them. Or the people they fuck over if they’re clever and lucky enough to make it back topside.

Demons and their kind are easy to understand. Hell’s easy, too, something Crowley never seemed to appreciate. He always had to bring politics and schemes into everything. The way Dean sees it you fuck up, you die, you pay for it. Once you’ve hurt enough you turn into what hurts you and the cycle continues. Sometimes the truly evil shits jump straight from corpse to smoke but that was what, one in a million souls?

The thing is, Hell can run itself. The system’s already in place and has been for thousands of years. It doesn’t need a King. What it needs – and Dean realizes this as he watches the wispy forms of his subjects cower in their stolen husks of rotting meat – what Hell needs is an Enforcer.

Dean can do that. He’s probably the perfect candidate for the job, in fact. He closes his eyes and spreads his awareness over the infinite levels of Hell, from the Pit to the Cage and all the pain in-between, and does his best to put everything as it should be.

He gets rid of the stupid Standing-In-Line-Forever thing first. Sure, it kept the competition from going full smoke for a little longer than the old methods did, but Dean was totally not worried about an uprising from freshly minted demons – unlike Crowley, who must’ve always been looking over his shoulder for a coup (when he should have been looking right in front of him, ha). If the souls got too frustrated queuing they’d just find a way to step out of line and switch over that way. The arrangement was practically encouraging them to think outside the box, and what smart leader wants that?

He cleans up the blood and entrails from the parts of Hell Abaddon sunk her claws into while he’s at it, a vicious thrill tingling from the sharpness up his arm at the muscle memory of her final moments. She never understood what Hell was all about, either. To her it was just a prize to be won. Like Elsa in Last Crusade.

Neither of them understood what Hell really was. Or what it could be.

When he opens his eyes the demons are staring at him, their forms already adjusting to the changes he’s made in the landscape. Dean’s not sure what they see exactly – a Knight who’s knocked over the board and Kinged himself instead? Maybe the remnants of the hunter that sent so many of their kind back to the pit? A Winchester finally taking the throne as was foretold all those years ago? He’s all those things and more. The demons look at him and he can tell they know, the instinctual weariness of creatures around a larger predator sinking into their bones. And one by one they drop to their knees in the smoldering coals.

Dean watches them, waiting. Sure enough they’re soon sneaking glances at him from behind their lashes, shifting on their smoking knees. One of them clears his throat, quietly, and flinches when Dean zeroes his attention in on him. He’s a young demon, probably turned at some point during Hell’s civil war and never had the chance to smoke out without taking orders first. Dean motions with the sharpness for him to rise to his feet so he can get a better look at him. Bravery in a demon is rare and dangerous; he’ll need to keep an eye on this one.

“Sire?” Dean squints at the title and the meat suit pales around the demon inside. “Uh. Sir. What… what do you want us to do?”

Dean shrugs. This is Hell, you’re a demon. Do whatever the fuck you want, man.

The demon blinks at him, still shaking a little and obviously confused. One of the other demons - a woman in her former life, pitted through to her core with the murder of children (Dean can see it, he can see the story in her) – tugs on the younger demon and shifts to standing. She’s not nearly as reverent as Dean would like. “What he means is, the war is over now. We all felt you shut the Cage, so Lucifer isn’t a factor anymore. Reports are even coming in that most of the angels are off-world again. There’s no one left to fight. So… what do we do?”

Dean looks at the others, hopeful expressions all, and is reminded of ducklings following their mamma, of creatures exposed to free will for the first time. He feels a smirk tilt up the corner of his mouth, can’t help the little frisson of excitement that curls up his spine.

He tilts his head in invitation and turns to follow the trail his boots made during his descent. Looks like it was time to take things back to the start.

Time to raise a little hell.

+ + +

He leads the small group back upstairs but takes a detour away from the path he’d carved on the way down. It’s easier for the demons creeping behind him to follow that way. Of course, calling the human side upstairs and Hell downstairs is just a metaphor; it’s not like there’s a clearly defined line between the two, people who dug deep enough wouldn’t show up on Hell’s doorstep or anything. Traveling between the two worlds is all about passages and weak points in space. This time Dean just finds a crack big enough and follows it to its natural end.

Turns out, breaking out of Hell’s the easiest thing he’s done all day.

They find a little place off the beaten path near the exit. It’s a bar, the kind without a sign on the front or women who come around more than once. The stink of corruption burns in his nostrils the second Dean lays eyes on the place. Everyone inside’s a sinner doing nothing more constructive than adding to the weight of the chains that’ll hold them heavy once they’re down below.

The demons are twitching behind him, excited, hounds ready to bolt after a fox. Dean smiles at them and points the sharpness at the bar, turning them loose. They whoop and run ahead and within minutes the faint twangs of the jukebox are drowned out by screams. Dean lets the breeze play across his skin for a moment longer before joining them inside.

It’s chaos, of course. Hardly a table overturned or a throat uncut. Some of the bar-goers are still trying to put up a fight but the demons are obviously playing with them, giving them hope to make their defeat even sweeter. Dean finds himself smiling as he watches them, his… people? Subjects? Really, are they his people or is he theirs? Does it matter? They’re so happy finally, after being in pain for so long. The sharpness aches for him to wade in and finish the bastards quickly but he forces himself to wait. To let them have this. There’s time for him to indulge later.

One of the demons sidles over to where he’s made himself comfortable leaning against the wall. Her meatsuit is gorgeous; her lipstick isn’t even smeared, though there’s blood spatter all over her chin. She doesn’t say anything, just looks at him and smiles, but there’s a hungry gleam in her eyes that Dean recognizes from a lifetime of shady girls in shadier bars.

What the hell, he thinks, and follows her into the men’s room.

+ + +

Sex as a demon is… disappointing. He’d expected it to be all brimstone and hisses, teeth and nails scratching and it is – some of it, anyway. The rest is just bad.

It’s not that there are a dozen demons on the other side of the door. Dean couldn’t care less who hears them going at it, so long as they wait to burn the place down until after he’s left the bathroom. And it isn’t that the chick’s true face is cancerous and rotten – lust, vanity, greed, that’s what that is; he can read it on her easy as anything. Dean honestly doesn’t give a fuck about any of that; it’s not like he has to kiss her to enjoy himself. And she certainly enjoys herself if how loudly she moans when the sharpness cuts through the lacy straps of her shirt is any indication. She scratches her nails along his forearm over and over again until they bite into his shoulder and hold on.

It’s just sex. Good sex, physically, full of the empty pleasure he used to find so comforting. They both come loud and messy, so Dean’s not sure why he’s left unsettled. It’s like her touch echoes.

He catches his reflection in the mirror as he’s doing up his shirt and barely recognizes himself. His skin is ashy gray, hair matted and dull in the single crappy overhead light. The bruises have settled to smudges of corpse purple and the cuts all over his face make him look like a zombie. He can’t actually see anything where the burning hovers over his head, where he feels the horns and sharp things prick invisibly against his scalp in their eternal rotation. It’s just hair.

Everything’s shades of gray, even the scratches and marks from the last fight he’d lost. Except his eyes. Those are black, of course.

Fucking Metatron. For an exciting moment Dean thinks about storming Heaven, showing the little weasel what happens when you fuck with the wrong demon. Show him how a real king behaves. Hell was meant to keep in an archangel, after all; the general structure had to be pretty similar to Metatron’s home turf. It wouldn’t be too difficult to stab his way in and burn it to the fucking ground. Raze a little heaven after he’s raised a little hell.

Something makes him pause, though, watching the coal wetness of his eyes blink back at him in the water-stained mirror. For a split-second he thinks he sees blue eyes instead, shivery and uncertain but with steel hiding underneath. Which is ridiculous, of course; Dean’s eyes had been green back when his soul was still looking out through them. Why would he think about someone else’s eyes?

Still. He tells himself to wait. To wait and see.

Dean doesn’t like waiting. He breaks the mirror into a thousand billion pieces – bloody Mary, bloody Mary, bloody bad luck – and keeps hitting until the frame crunches into the wall. Then he takes a deep breath and heals his face, one cut at a time.

The demon – girl – demon, fuck – inches closer from where she’s pressed herself against the wall. At first he thinks she’s making a run for the door but his rage has had a different effect on her than he’d anticipated. She presses her body close, stroking his smooth cheek with her manicured nails.

“Pretty king,” she whispers, leaning in to nip at his ear. “I am so glad you’re here. You know, I used to tend to Crowley sometimes, when things got too tense for him. He was a little shit. But I’m sure I wouldn’t mind helping you. If you need me.” Her nails sink in and scratch little red furrows in their wake.

Dean shoves her away and storms out of the bathroom. He’s carried enough marks already, on his skin or otherwise. He sure as shit doesn’t want hers.

He sets the jukebox to random and wades into the destruction of the bar, slicing – carving – and feels a little bit better.

+ + +

One of the assholes at the bar has a girl tied up in the cab of his truck. The door’s locked from the outside and her eyes are bloodshot and dilated. She’s dirty and the tears have dried on her face by the time Dean finds her.

It’s her feelings more than anything that pull at him; her misery a tickle in the back of his throat, a trail floating on the breeze like lavender shoved in a corpse’s pocket to hide the smell. He’d just known she was there. And, looking at her now, he knows what she wanted. Knows he can give it to her.

The demons not actively chewing their way through the survivors trail behind him into the parking lot. They huddle close as he pulls the door off its hinges, peeking from behind his shoulder. Dean tries his best to ignore the anticipation he can feel rippling through the smoke at his heels.

She can’t be more than sixteen, seventeen tops, caught hitchhiking and never had a chance. It’d be easier, he thinks, to just put her out of her misery. It’d make them both feel better.

One of the demons ducks past him to lean in close to the girl, who cringes away from her red eyes. The demon smiles widely, falsely, and holds her blouse together at the place where Dean’d cut it off her earlier. She reaches out a hand like someone waiting for a strange dog to test their scent. “It’s all right, little girl, don’t be scared. Amy, your name’s Amy, isn’t it?” Her voice is softer than a demon’s has any right to be. “We’re the cavalry, hon. It’s all right.”

Amy – because that is the girl’s name, of course it is – blinks at them, slowly uncurling from her protective huddle against the passenger door. There’s not a scratch on her metaphorically, her soul shining past the dirt and the tears.

The demon’s smile turns sharper, her eyes a little more fierce. “Do you want out of here, Amy? I can make that happen, if you want it enough. All you have to do is say yes.”

Something sparks in Dean, territorial and angry – bitter - and he pushes the demon back roughly, hand on her chin and sharpness buried so far in her gut that it comes out the other side. She moans as red light crackles up her body (not too different a sound than the ones she was making earlier) and crumbles, dead and ashen on the wind. The only thing left is her meatsuit’s jawbone in his hand, shiny gray-brown in the neon light. Dean holds the curved vee of it, studies it, and throws it over his shoulder into the dirt.

The other demons shrink back, gasping, clutching one another in their fear. Dean angles his body in front of the girl’s so he blocks her completely from their view, glaring, death leaking out of his body and his eyes. He holds them still when they try to run, pressing his will on them as he did upon Hell itself. He shakes his head slowly and meets each one of their terrified stares.

No deals, he thinks. Crossroads are crossroads but no innocents, not anymore. Or you’ll have me to deal with.

One by one they nod. Message received, loud and clear. He releases them from their vessels and they flash away, smoking through the ground and sky to spread the word, Dean’s first and only order. The girl cries out when their broken and empty meatsuits fall to the ground.

Soon Dean is left alone with the shell of a building burning down to embers behind him. He sighs, silently, but the girl flinches anyway. She’s returned to her protective knot of suffering and he has to shake his head to disconnect himself from her thoughts. She’s afraid of him and rightly so but all he can think about when he looks at her is salvation. Save me, save me, save me please. It leaves a bad taste in his mouth; mint, and something sour.

There are a couple cars on the other side of the parking lot that somehow managed to avoid anything worse than debris on their windshields. Dean picks one with the windows down and tickles the engine to life, the tires making an awful squealing sound as he peels away into the otherwise silent night. He fiddles with the radio until the Eagles come blaring out of the speakers and then drives away as fast as he can.

The girl he leaves behind. She can crawl her own way out of Hell.

+ + +

The car is a piece of shit and Dean hates it more than he’s ever hated any inanimate object in his life. There’s about an inch of cigarette ash over the interior and the engine sounds like it hasn’t been tuned in years. He feels dirty just touching the steering wheel. It starts sputtering when he gets it over eighty and stops completely when he pushes past ninety.

He doesn’t bother pulling over to the side but just lets the rustyass corpse coast to a wobbly end in the middle of the road. He kicks it, smashes the windows, tears off the hood, mashes the bumper… and then catches his breath before realizing he’s stranded himself in the middle of nowhere. Smart move, Winchester. Good job.

He could always apparate or whatever the fuck it is demons do. He’s King of Hell, it’s not like it’d be hard to figure out how. But Dean isn’t exactly looking forward to the rush of blood through his ears or the feeling of his insides shifting from one plane to another. Flying’s always made him queasy. And it’s not like he has a specific destination in mind other than east northeast anyway, so he’s not in a hurry or anything.

But the fucking car pisses him off. So when he feels the tug behind his belly button he just snarls and ignores it, aiming toward the lights of a town just over a ridge where he can steal another POS car and hopefully take his frustration out on whatever jackass happens to get in his way.

It’s less of a tug and more of a pull by the time he’s crossing into town limits so he’s forced to slow down and take stock. The ground trembles strangely below his feet; he’s not sure what state he’s in but judging by all the corn it’s probably not anywhere near a fault line. Then the pull is verging on a drag and he might as well let it take him where it wants him to go before it shakes the fucking highway apart.

One twisty-turn through space later and he’s discovering that apparently being a badass demon doesn’t do shit for motion sickness and that he’s really glad that he doesn’t have to eat or poop anymore. Once he gets his bearings and his butthole stops clenching he realizes he’s back in the bunker’s dungeon smack dab in the middle of a devil’s trap.

Man, he thinks, the wards are shot to hell in this place. He could practically see the holes and cracks where all manner of creeping nasties could squeeze in. All the supernatural to-and-fro must’ve put a lot of strain on the original protections the Men of Letters put down. Sam should really –

His next thought comes barreling right over top of the other one, indignant fury slowly stiffening his spine. Did… did Sam just summon me? Me?

How dare he? Like he was some dog heeding a whistle or some common crossroads whore. He’d have answered the call with fire and blood if he’d known. He’d have torn the bunker down from its goddamn foundations –

“Oh, god.”

He spins, sharpness raised and ready, but it’s only Sam, of course it’s Sam, shaking on the other side of the trap. He looks like shit, like the last good sleep he had was days ago. His cheek is swollen and tender-looking, hair an inch or so shorter and singed at the edges. There’s a small cut on the underside of his jaw. But worst of all his patchwork soul shivers a bruised purple, miserable and gloomy, Eeyore missing his tail. He’s been crying, Dean can tell. His chin quivers like he might start crying again.

Apparently Little Black Raincloud didn’t get the do not disturb portion of their previous conversation.

Sam’s throat bobs and he sucks in a breath. “Dean. It really is you.”

He rolls his eyes. What’d you expect, asshole, you’re the one who called me.

“I was hoping… I don’t know what I was hoping.” Sam runs a hand through his hair, throat bobbing again. “Okay. So. It’s gonna be okay, Dean. We’ll figure something out.”

He keeps talking about spells and deals and other nonsense, but Dean tunes out his monotone whining and paces the confines of his prison instead. It’s nothing surprising: double pentagram painted on the floor, manacles waiting nearby, Crowley’s nastyass cologne lingering in the air, all pretty standard stuff if you’re trying to hold a regular demon.

But Dean is King and the rules need not apply. Hail to the King, baby.

He closes his eyes and lets his mind wander.

“Dean? Can… can you hear me?” Sam’s distant voice wavers a little, anxious and wobbly. There’s a hint of fear there Dean’s happy to see, but as far Sam knows the demon’s trapped and helpless and he’s too busy looking for a loophole to listen to his better judgment. “Did Metatron do something when he hurt you, is that why you’re not answering me?“

He lets himself drift a little further away. Dean sees the shapes and symbols protecting the bunker looping together, meaningless apart but iron-clad combined. Further still he sees the lines themselves, sees the meticulous way they were painted in thick graceful strokes. Sees the hair left behind from the brush all those years ago. Sends it flaking away on a breeze.

Dean watches Sam frown, his bangs shifting around his face from the gust of air in a room with no windows to let one in. The stream of his voice stops.

Without opening his eyes Dean scuffs the toe of his boot on the concrete, once, twice, sinking his awareness down down down. With the hair gone there’s space on the edge of the trap now, miniscule room to wiggle around in. And Dean’s always been fond of loopholes, too.

He stamps his foot down hard and sends a fissure shooting up through the floor, cracking the devil’s trap straight down the middle and knocking Sam on his ass. The crack furrows up to the ceiling, tiles and concrete coming loose in heaping chunks.

The last piece falls and Dean cheerfully jumps over the crack and out of the trap, waving dust out of the air as he goes.

Sam’s managed to avoid most of the debris; Dean finds his giant frame coughing and tucked into the doorframe. He nudges him with his boot and Sam flinches, coughing some more before he looks up. His eyes are huge and his mouth gapes open like a fish. Dean snorts and snaps it shut with the butt of the sharpness.

Not your average bear now, am I Sammy?

Sam’s been hit in the head enough times for the guy to have permanent brain damage but Dean doesn’t know any other way to keep him down. He taps him, lightly, on the temple a few times and steps over his crumpled legs to head out of the dungeon.

He’s halfway through the bunker when he stops, snaps his fingers, and jogs back to where he left Sam. He shifts him around until he can get to his pockets and fishes around uncomfortably for a second until he’s rewarded with the brush of body-warm metal against his fingertips. He smiles.

The Impala’s parked just outside, doors left unlocked and blood dried in splotches on the backseat. Had Sam not driven her since before Dean left? Shameful. Rule number three, Sammy: never transport dead things in the car without putting a tarp down first.

It’s still better than nothing, regardless of the new penny smell. East for sure this time. And then he lets the radio do the thinking for him, turned up so loud the windows rattle as he speeds down the road.

+ + +

Dean drives and drives and drives, tires eating up the asphalt and shredding rubber as he goes. Hell echoes in his skull, moving on as it’s always done, an occasional twinge at the back of his awareness but nothing he needs to actually tend to. It’s a peaceful couple of days, made all the better with the occasional high speed pursuit or pissed off patrolman. It has to end sometime, though, because his baby tears through gas like Sam tears through complimentary salad bars.

He pulls into one of those roadside gas station-restaurant combos on a whim, the golden arches outside lighting a warm nostalgia in his gut. It’s easy to scare everyone out of the place and unlock one of the pumps without paying for it; one swing of the sharpness through a window and a little scowling and boom the place is all his. Honestly, people are sheep sometimes.

There’s a to-go bag sitting on the counter and even though the smell of grease and meat does absolutely nothing for him he shrugs and takes it, more out of habit than anything else. He eats out of habit, too, manfully chewing his way through a quarter pounder sans cheese but absolutely dripping with ketchup. (Seriously, what kinds of people order a burger without cheese? Savages?)

The food sits heavy in his stomach and actually makes him a little nauseous. He’s just… He’s too full to be hungry. It tastes weird, too, like ashy atoms or something. Ugh.

The fries are a little better, the salt crinkling on his lips like potatoey pop-rocks. He chews on a handful but soon finds himself gagging at the memory of fingers sneaking food off his plate. It leaves a bitter aftertaste at the back of his throat and he winds up just throwing the rest of the large order out the window.

He listens to the murmur of distant sirens and watches birds swoop in and snatch greedily at the fries. The sparrows and starlings seem so delicate hopping on the Impala’s hood, nothing but tiny feet and tiny bones. It’d be easy, he thinks, to destroy them, like breaking toothpicks between his teeth. And not just the little ones begging for scraps but all of them, everywhere. It’d be easy to tilt the world off base, to wreck their migration patterns and food chains. One thing would lead to another and soon whole microcosms of existence would crumble and fall, all for want of a french fry. Because something insignificant – the birds, the bees – wasn’t there anymore.

Dean’s phone rings, vibrating in his pocket and scaring the shit out of him. He wipes his hands on his jeans and peels out of the parking lot just as the cops arrive, scattering the flock of unhappy birds as he goes. He unlocks the screen with a greasy thumb and shoves it under his chin without really thinking about it.

There’s a long stretched out moment of silence. Dean’s just about to hang up when a gruff voice barks, “Who is this?”

He frowns and rolls his eyes, but then has to swerve around a corner to avoid a minivan. The tires protest but the engine growls satisfyingly when he opens her back up to full speed. The breathing coming out of the speaker’s a little clearer now but Dean still has to strain to hear anything past the air blowing in the open window.

“I know that sound,” the caller says. It’s whispered between two breathy gasps. “Dean?”

A spark of something throbs behind his eyes and Dean drops the phone into his lap, clenching his jaw tightly. He angles the sharpness so he can steer with his wrist and pushes the end call button so hard the screen cracks.

Dean’s panting and he doesn’t know why. His chest hurts but in a way he never expected, nothing at all like broken ribs or burning skin. The hamburger and salty fries churn in his stomach. It’s disgusting, like remorse or… regret. Absolutely disgusting.

The phone rings again and Dean chucks it out the window, the plastic and metal shattering into a thousand pieces. The sedan behind him honks and runs a few over, crushing them into road dust and out of his memory forever.

Dean breathes easier once it’s gone. He leaves the radio off this time because the sharpness humming through his bones is more than enough to fill the silence.

+ + +

He supposes the whole no talking thing is an issue he’ll have to address at one point or another, though it feels slippery in his mind when he tries to think about it. He’s pretty sure he could talk; he’d healed all the damage from Metatron so there wasn’t anything physically wrong with him anymore.

But when he parts his lips there’s just nothing, nothing but air. It’s like his tongue’s swollen to fill his mouth, pushing against the back of his teeth. His jaw doesn’t want to do anything but clench tighter. The signals keep getting lost somewhere between his brain and his throat, rerouting and shutting off. There’s a blockage in the hollow of his neck, full of – something. Something.

It feels familiar, but like it’s something from far away. Something that makes him feel small.

Dean doesn’t try very hard to talk after he ditches the phone. It’s not like there’s anyone who’d answer him, anyway.

+ + +

He’s just blown passed the Welcome to Missouri sign when the prickly spines on his scalp dig in deeper. There was something nearby, something like the taste of sulfur and fireworks on the wind. He hisses and swings the impala off the nearest exit, driving until the small sting says he’s arrived.

It’s a gas station, one of the older ones where there’s a guy sitting in a little box off to the side that controls everything. It’s a BP, which Dean finds hilarious on principle alone. (Here’s Dean, the King of Hell, riding his black horse and feeding the beast that’s killing the planet. Fuck all those ducks and baby turtles.)

He parks and strolls around the lot a little, distracted by the tickle of familiarity he can’t quite place when a bored voice crackles over the intercom. “You gotta pay me ‘fore you get your gas, dumbass.”

The dude in the booth is blatantly smoking a joint and reading a titty magazine when Dean sidles up to it. He flips the slot open for the cash and doesn’t bother looking up until Dean doesn’t make any move to pay. The gas tank could use a touchup, but Dean’s busy cataloguing every iota of dirt on the guy, sin upon sin upon sin, years of general douchebaggery oozing out of his pores and pooling like armpit stains on a t-shirt. The fucker shortchanges customers all the time, steals from the till, disrespects his elders, and lies constantly. He killed a stray dog once when he was thirteen. Had a hit-and-run in his old Buick before it was repoed; the man had lived but Fucker – whose real name is George but likes it when people call him Micah – ran him over because he was black and George wanted to see if he could get away with it.

Newsflash, Fucker George: the answer is no.

“You deaf or stupid? I said you gotta-“ George’s slurred speech trails off when Dean gives the dividing glass a few slow taps with the sharpness. The joint falls right out of his mouth. “The – the fuck is wrong with your eyes?”

Dean punches through the glass, sending candy and soda and all the other random shit inside flying. He grabs Fucker George and pulls him in close, the sharpness snug against the side of his face. George gets a good, long look at the burning terror reflected in Dean’s black black eyes before he starts begging and blubbering. Dean hasn’t even made the first cut yet and already there’s snot running down his chin. Dean drops him before any of it reaches his hands. George cringes away into a ball of terror and phlegm.

Dean’s tempted to just kill the useless fucker (the sharpness wants it, demands it, is so thirsty) but in the end doesn’t bother chasing him under the counter. As fun as it might be Fucker George isn’t worth the effort it’d take to clean the inevitable blood spray off of Dean’s jacket.

So instead he reaches carefully through the shards of glass and presses random buttons on the register until a pump dings and the drawer slides open. Dean helps himself to the cash and turns to leave, snagging a pair of cheap-o glasses that fell out of George’s pocket as he goes. He takes a squirt of sanitizer from little stand next to the pump; it’s crusty and almost dried out but there’s enough of it to rub over the earpieces. Then he fills up the tank to the brim and flicks them on, cool as Horatio Caine.

+ + +

He pays a little more attention to what’s going on beyond his dash after that. His destination is still pressing in on his mind – wherever he’s going is definitely east – but he takes the time to detour and follow that firework feeling when it rises up.

It proves remarkably accurate. Take a left through some crappy farmland? Boom, dog fighting ring in an old barn. Turn right off the highway instead of going straight? Bam, asshole in Walmart that beats on his wife. Crack the window to let in a breeze and wind up the next state over? Behold, the King motherfucking Kong of drug caches.

As he watches the pit bulls tear each other apart or the dirty-haired couple buy groceries, he thinks: Oh. These sons of bitches are going to be mine someday. And someday soon if that crackhead’s blood pressure is anything to go by.

He wears the shades to hide his eyes, even at night, but they see him anyway. He can always tell when they find him in the crowd, too; their eyes dilate and the heart rate picks up speed, their hands start to tremble. Sometimes they cry. It’s a good feeling, watching how his people react in the flesh before they’re due to cook down below. How they react to him. It makes him swell with pride when his mere presence makes the gamblers put down their money and leave, or the asshole hold his lady’s hand in the checkout. Or when the dealers set fire to their stash. It doesn’t matter how much he scares them, though; they’re still just as doomed.

And it’s not just people that Dean senses, either. The supernatural has a different flavor, though – the nest of vampires he stumbles across in some backwoods county is like waking up with a bloody nose clogging his sinuses. He sniffs all the way back to Route 90.

Demons are much easier to locate, of course. He can feel them prowling around if he concentrates hard enough. He can even feel the despair of the schmucks they’re torturing. Can feel them breaking his rule. So he rips them from their vessels and sends them burning back down to Hell until each and every one gets the idea: keep that shit downstairs where it belongs or else.

He can tell a lot of the younger ones are surprised to find themselves back on the rack after they’ve already turned smoke. It’s a dying art form torturing demons; there are only a few left who bothered with that particular skill set these days. Dean remembers most of them from when Alistair cleaned him up and showed him off years ago. Their chambers always reminded him of ponds filled with stagnant water; those demons didn’t care about regime changes or wars, just about how deep they could go and how putrid they could maintain the surface.

Dean wins them over at a distance without any subterfuge or agenda, which is exactly how both parties preferred it. And a little bribery never hurt, either, of course. Dropping the fuck-up demons into their laps neatly killed two birds with one stone. They're singing his praises after a few days of fresh meat deliveries, quite literally in some cases. And once the others realize Dean fully intends to enforce their limitations on earth the freedom of Hell becomes more and more appealing. The chorus of shrieks and cries begin to harmonize and to their king it sounds like gratitude and acceptance.

It feels good to have allies again.

+ + +

Eventually, east takes him to a large house at the end of a long drive. It’s only after he passes the beehives that he knows where he’s been heading all along.

The night’s quiet so far away from the city and Dean would almost think the house was abandoned if not for the presence he feels inside. He parks the impala and makes his way closer, feet predator soft on the loose gravel. The door is unlocked and opens on silent hinges.

“Dean Winchester.”

Cain is huge, terrible, covered in blood and sharp edges, worn down and hungry hollow hungry. But he’s also just a man who’s bitter and tired and seen it all. The overlapping concepts give Dean a headache.

He blinks a few times and Cain melts into the body Dean’s more familiar with, bearded and dead-eyed. He’s sitting comfortably in the same ugly yellow armchair, tea tray on the table with two steaming mugs. Dean would bet good money there’s fresh honey in one of the little covered dishes, too.

Cain smiles without showing any teeth, the very picture of casual violence slowly uncoiling. “I knew you’d come.”

Which is more than Dean knew himself. He’s more surprised that Cain stayed in the same place after Crowley found him than anything else. He frowns and flicks his eyes around the room.

“What were they going to do? Send more demons for me to turn to dust? I’m not worried about them. They got what they wanted.” Cain shrugs, obviously not having any trouble keeping up with the wordless conversation, and Dean finds himself entranced by the small movement. Every breath of this creature is economical, no energy spared. It’s lazy. Deadly. Sure.

Dean wonders what Cain sees when he looks at him.

He eyes Dean now, gaze raking up his body and stuttering at the light and airy sharpness of Dean’s right hand. “And what about you, Dean? Did you get what you wanted?” His eyes trail up to Dean’s and they stare at each other a long moment. Cain sighs and puts his feet up on the table. He gestures for Dean to sit on the couch but doesn’t seem surprised when he remains standing instead.

“I’ve kept my ear to the ground all these years, you know. Kept tabs on what was happening below. Heard you’ve been making changes.” He picks up a mug and sips; the delicate china looks surprisingly right in his rough hand, thumb putting just enough pressure on the handle to hold it steady and no more.

“And now the righteous leads the damned. But against what? There’s no war to make ready for, no force to strike from the earth. What are you going to do now, Dean? What will you do with the kingdom now it’s yours?”

When Dean doesn’t say anything Cain just tilts his head and purses his lips, humming softly to himself. “Interesting that the Blade took your voice but left your heart.”

Dean frowns and adjusts his stance a little. His tea’s getting colder sitting there untouched.

Cain smiles, smaller than before, and a hint of pleasure sparks behind his eyes. “I know you have a heart, Dean, don’t try to deny it. It’s in there somewhere, still. Otherwise you’d have left me to rot here forever. Or at least put off the visit for a couple of years.” He shrugs again, the opposite shoulder this time, and sets the mug back in its saucer. “Demons are bound by their word. It’s what makes our deals so powerful. Also why we lie so much.”

Dean growls at the thought. He’s so tired of deals, of bargains, of this-for-that. Of being bound by something beyond his control. Still. They’d shook on it back when this whole thing started, and that meant something. It meant enough that Dean would drive across state lines to fulfill his part of it.

He shrugs, rubbing the duller edge of the sharpness along his hip; not because he was itchy or anything, just to remind himself it was there.

Cain’s eyes zero in on the tiny movement, his expression distant and flat. “Guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Too much heart was what got us both into this mess in the first place.” He stands, shoulders square, chin held high and hands hanging loose. His jaw clenches behind his beard. “The Mark’s a funny thing, Dean,” he says. “It only takes what you’re willing to give.”

Dean doesn’t want to hear this anymore. He shifts his weight forward, white noise pounding in his ears, the sharpness calling for murder in his veins.

Cain’s mouth curves into a grimace or a smile, the barest hint of white teeth. “I hope immortality treats you better than it did me.”

They meet in the middle of the room, sharpness and fists colliding, and the world glows red red red.

There’s nothing left of the house by the time it’s over.

+ + +

The first thing Dean’s aware of is a tickle on the back of his hand. Blinking heavy lids brings enough focus to see tiny legs crawling through the sticky blood on his wrist, tap tap tapping a trail along the curve of soft hair there. He sighs and lets his head thunk back against the beehive; the bugs inside buzz angrily against his ear for a minute before going about their business.

Dean is so very tired. He’s fairly certain some of the blood covering his body is his and that it’s still slowly leaking from somewhere but he just doesn’t have it in him to care anymore. Instead he lets himself breathe and sit quietly, watching the bees rumble and meander their flying circuits around him. It would be too cold for them soon; without their master to protect them, they would all die.

Or did bees hibernate? He’s not really sure.

A smaller bee lands on the sharpness and Dean feels the minute pressure all the way up his arm. It hurts for a second but then it’s just numb like the rest of him. The bee buzzes loudly, distressed, then falls into the grass where it jerks and convulses.

He understands what the Mark means now, what the sharpness’ purpose was. Cain had taken them on when he agreed to the devil’s terms, when he made the First Deal. The Mark was a sign of servitude and compliance. Crowley had been betting on that.

But Dean didn’t believe in fate or destiny. He didn’t follow anyone’s orders. He’d let the Mark do what it had to do and welcomed the sharpness into his being, but then he’d made them his.

Another bee drops into the grass beside him, legs struggling feebly until it twitches to stillness. One more falls from the sky and then another, little bodies bouncing and stiff when they land, a rain of dead insects. Behind him the hive is silent.

Dean doesn’t see them fall, trapped in his own circling thoughts. But he does feel the ground shake under him and the insistent tug behind his bellybutton. And this time he lets the summons pull him away without protest.

+ + +

He arrives in a cloud of dead bees with a devil’s trap under his feet. It’s modified from the usual - different sigils, more oval than round, his name and the Mark skirting the margins - but he doesn’t think it can hold him for long. Nothing can, really. He just needs to keep his captors talking long enough to pick it apart.

He glances up from his boots to take in a little more of his surroundings. Sam’s there, of course, toes skirting the outer ring of the trap. His jaw’s clenching; Dean can only assume it’s painful considering the bruises and cuts only now starting to fade. And next to him is –

Something else. A broken thing stands before him and it is so... Beautiful.

Look at the cracks of you, Dean thinks, admiring the dazzling glow that sizzles through flesh barely strong enough to hold it back. The being obviously doesn’t have long until it comes apart at the seams. Dean’s itching to help it along, can feel his stomach clench and toes curl with the need to tear this bitch apart with his bare hands, sharpness be damned. It’s shiny and lovely and Dean wants to fucking eat it. Wants to feel the grace burn and pop against his lips and over his tongue. He wants to claim it, make it his own. His mouth is honest to god watering and his dick is hard in his pants. Christ, Cas.

Oh. Cas. Castiel. How could he have forgotten about Castiel?

The crackling grace wraps around and through Cas’s vessel like lightning wears a cloud; it’s so close to his own body it may as well be the same thing. He uses it now to push and tug the meat until it’s – he’s - frowning at Dean. The angel shines, glorious and awesome and broken and bleeding, all at once. Cas wears the contradiction much better than Cain had.

Dean licks his lips in anticipation of sinking into that and Cas’s eyes follow the movement. His throat bobs in a swallow and shivers travel their way up Dean’s spine.

Cas is… Well. It’s not new knowledge Dean’s gaining but the wheels turning certainly feel like revelation.

There’s a bang and the sizzle of burning meat and Dean has just enough time to see Cas flinch before the pain hits him, shredding through his shoulder and lodging just under his clavicle. The bullet rubs against bone and it burns like a motherfucker. It feels like it weighs a hundred pounds, holding him still and dull on the spot. His sense of the room whittles down to the confines of his body, slowly burning up from the inside out.

Devil’s trap bullets. Those were his idea, his, and they had the balls to shoot him with one? Motherfuckers. Dean snarls and shows his teeth, clutching at his shoulder, feeling blood ooze sluggishly between his fingers.

Sam lowers the gun while the barrel’s still smoking. “It’s just a flesh wound; pretty sure you’ll get over it.”

Dean flicks the blood gathered on his hand toward him, the dark splotches missing his shoes by only a couple inches.

Sam looks down at the mess and sighs. “Very mature, Dean.”

Dean flicks him off. Sam just sighs again and tucks the gun away into the waistband of his jeans. “We don’t want to hurt you,” he says. “We just want to talk.”

Dean rolls his eyes. Yeah, good luck with that. He pushes against the wound to check for damage; the bullet’s lodged too far to take it out without them noticing and putting a stop to it so he’s going to have to just deal with it for now. Fucking innovations in hunter culture. Why’d Dean have to try so fucking hard to be smart?

“We heard about Nebraska, Dean.” Sam shifts his weight, frowning. “Marvin’s Bar? You and a bunch of demons burned it to the ground. Amy Carson called it in.”

And now the Caring and Sharing portion of the evening’s entertainment begins. It’s gonna be a short one since Dean honestly has no idea what the fuck Sam’s talking about.

“The girl,” Cas says from behind Sam’s shoulder. “The one you let live.”

Dean has to close his eyes and let Cas’s voice just wash over him. It’s like a ricochet, bouncing off the walls of the world and straight into Dean’s chest. He can feel the bass beat of it pounding even through the sharpness’ hum and the numbing pain of the trap. Layers and layers, warping and weaving through Jimmy Novak’s throat until what comes out is rougher than it has any right to be. All that destructive possibility just bottled up… Even splitting at the seams Cas is no less than fucking stunning. How had Dean ever let him walk out of a room without tearing him apart?

Sam coughs, glancing between them and shifting his weight. Poor awkward thing looks like he’s trying to get the conversation back on track. Was Dean being distracting again? Bad demon. Naughty. “She said a gang of ‘black-eyed monsters in people suits’ saved her from an asshole who picked her up hitching on the highway. Said one in particular kept the others from hurting her and then sent them away. The bar’s gone now though, so there’s no evidence left to collaborate her story. Eighteen people died, Dean.”

Oh. The bar. The one where he’d picked up that piece of shit Ford. The girl must’ve lived long enough to find a news crew. Good for her.

“There’s other reports of a black-eyed man scaring people out of a McDonald’s and breaking pretty much every traffic law known to man across four states. Then there’s omens popping up all over the place; birds falling out of the sky, lakes drying up overnight.” Sam squints and tilts his head, clearly gearing up for the punch line. “But demonic hotspots are going dark; it’s like the bastards all up and left at once. Which is one hell of a coincidence, isn’t it?”

Dean’s not sure what Sam’s driving at; it’s not like he’s some sainted demonic spirit wrongly sent to hell or something. He’s done evil shit, too, more than what was on Sam’s little list even. Like pump gas and drive off without paying. Or knock out that convenience store clerk and drink every single bottle of beer in the 7-11’s cold case. He’d run over a turtle on the highway just yesterday, had even swerved out of his lane to make sure he got it. Dean had felt really uncomfortable afterward, though. Seeing the little shell crushed bloody and flat in his rearview had made his throat spasm and his stomach heave like he was going to throw up. So maybe that’s not the best example.

His eyes flicker between Sam and Cas before getting caught on the frayed edges of the universe dancing along Cas’s collarbone. The angel’s practically hemorrhaging grace and Dean’s mouth waters a little, lips longing to lock around that leaking essence and suck it down, maybe grind his teeth a little deeper until the crack tears open and the grace poured out instead.

Hey. We’re not done here.” Sam snaps his fingers in Dean’s direction like he’s some errant pet. He doesn’t seem to appreciate how Dean’s looking at Cas though Cas himself doesn’t seem bothered one way or the other. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

Dean makes a show of thinking it over then spits at Sam’s feet. He can play Concerned Citizen all he wants; Dean knows an interrogation when he sees one.

“Damn it, Dean!” Sam throws his hands up, shoulders tense under the layers of flannel. “Give us a reason to trust you here. Just – just say something.”

Dean scuffs his boot along the inside of a line. It’s perfectly drawn this time, no holes or gaps for him to slip through. Fool me twice, he thinks.

What was the point of owning up to any of it, anyway? Even if he could say anything – hell, even if he wanted to – it wasn’t like Sam would actually hear what he was saying. All he’d care about would be Dean’s black black eyes and his dark dark Mark and that would be it. He wouldn’t stop to consider the burning circle on his head or the sharpness of his arm. He and Cas wouldn’t stop trying, wouldn’t listen when Dean said he didn’t want to be saved. No one ever listened.

He looks away, palming the seeping wound in his shoulder. It’s healing but much, much slower than it should. Sam steps closer, perhaps sensing the weak thoughts skittering across Dean’s brain. “Please, Dean. Please just—“

This time the blood’s gory and scores a direct hit to Sam’s pleading mouth. He hacks, coughing, spitting on the floor, wiping at his face with his shirt. Dean leans as far into the edge of the trap as he can, smirking, and clicks his tongue. Uh uh uh.

Sam spits one more time and stares at the blood on his sleeve. He makes a sound, guttural and wrecked, and comes up swinging. Dean takes a solid left right to the face. It knocks him to his knees, palms scraping as he catches himself on the concrete.

“Easy, Sam, easy! Remember what we’re here for!” Cas – who’s been suspiciously quiet up ‘til now – pulls Sam away from the trap and holds him over by the door. Sam struggles, tries to break free and almost makes it.

It’s a little hard for Dean to take in all the details. Pain’s coursing through his face like lightning - sharp, bright, and just as brief. It itches in that way that’s always felt like family and suddenly he’s laughing at the sheer absurdity of it all. The spasms roll through him like thunder after a strike, huge aching guffaws that make his body curl into itself and try to hide.

Dean doesn’t make a sound except for the wheezing of air through his broken nose.

He cuts it off as quickly as he can, letting the last breath leave him hollow and aching. He locks eyes with Sam across the room, still held tight in Cas’s bruising grip. His mouth is hanging open, eyes watery and huge.

Dean rises slowly to his feet, the Cheshire grin widening the split in his lip and sending a trickle of blood down his chin. He makes the cartilage in his nose snap back together, the crackle of it loud in the echoing silence. It’s not something a demon should be able to do with a trap on the inside and outside. Abaddon couldn’t. Neither could Crowley.

Sam knows it, too, the knowledge that Dean’s something a little bit different settling heavy on his shoulders. He rubs his lips and stumbles away to retch in the corner.

Cas is left staring at his empty hands, so very tired. “Dean, please. Let us help you. We can fix this.”

Dean never expected anything less. He holds his arms out, all Christ-style and ironic, smirking through the pain it causes in his shoulder. Ain’t nothing broken here, Cas.

“Give me the Blade, Dean.”

He doesn’t even realize he’s moved until he hits the back of the trap. Fuck you.

Cas steps forward, hand outstretched. “Dean. It’s time. Give me the Blade.”

I’ll give it to the back of your skull, you prick. Fuck off. He holds the sharpness a little higher behind his back, angling his shoulders so Cas can’t see. He’s not hiding or anything, it’s just… okay, so he might be hiding a little. But. Cas can’t have it. The sharpness doesn’t go anywhere without him. And quit saying my name, I’m right here.

“Dean.”

He snarls, breaths fast and liquid, the sharpness burning along his arm. Fine. You wanna play? We’ll play.

Dean reaches the barbs of his mind past Cas to snare Sam in the soft meat between each rib. It sends Dean crashing down to his knees – the bullet twisting and grinding against his bones – but his distress is drowned out by Sam’s, who’s clutching his chest and groaning.

Cas looks away from Dean just in time to support Sam’s slow descent to the floor. He glances back long enough to make Dean feel even more like shit. “Dean, stop it! Stop!”

Not a chance. He pulls harder.

The pain fades away until Dean’s mind is dark and silent. He can feel every vein in Sam’s body, every spasm and twitch, all the little cells trundling along unaware their host is slowly breaking apart because Dean commanded it. He could do anything to Sam, anything he wanted. He could make him bleed and break and burn until there was nothing left but smoke and a bad taste in Dean’s mouth. He could end him.

He pulls again and the ribs he’s holding break down the center in perfectly straight lines. Sam screams. The walls shake. The sharpness burns hot. Dean’s on fucking fire.

Cas shouts. Earth moves.

Pain. Darkness.

+ + +

Something is very wrong.

Something is missing, some vital piece he’ll bleed to death without. It’s gone, hacked off and taken, what the motherfucking fuck fuck fuck

Pink fingers, blunt and empty and grasping.

Noise builds inside his head, a whirlwind, a terror. Red flickers on the edge of his vision and his body curls over his burning arm. Over the broken jagged part-that-was-missing.

Make it stop. Please, someone, make it stop.

Warmth on his forehead and Dean’s in darkness again. The wrongness follows him there.

+ + +

When he opens his eyes it’s to exhaustion and heavy iron chains. They weigh him down, looped around his chest and digging into the bloody mess of his shoulders. Both shoulders. He can feel the slugs in each one, a throbbing deep ache. Cas must’ve grabbed Sam’s gun while they were on the floor. Son of a bitch shot me. Angelic bastard.

Dean’s feet are cold and wet, which is really weird. At first he thinks he’s seeing things, but nope; once he blinks the spots out of his eyes he can confirm that the chair he’s tied to – a heavy wooden thing – is sitting in the middle of a kiddy pool. There’s cartoon animals playing at the beach drawn along the sides. The sting when he wiggles his bare toes means it’s probably filled with holy water and the thick smell in the air suggests a heavy portion of salt thrown into the mix. It doesn’t hurt, so much as it adds insult to injury.

There’s even a metal collar tight around his neck. Dean would lay money on it belonging to Crowley in a former life. He sincerely hopes they washed it before deciding to recycle.

It’s the most ridiculous situation Dean’s ever regained consciousness in, and he’s had some crazy morning-afters. But all of that pales to the absence building in his head. There’s fucking air on his fucking palm. He calls the sharpness to him but all he can feel is a lingering quiver somewhere in the distance. No movement. No connection.

Just Dean. Ankle-deep in a goddamn kiddy pool.

Son of a bitch.

It’s a struggle to push past the lethargy turning his muscles to lead but his head’s slowly clearing. There’s a weird smell in the air under the beachy-salt flavor, like sugary decay and static electricity. He can’t see anything except the edges of a sigil drawn on the bottom of the pool so he tilts his head back as far as he can to get a better look at his surroundings.

He’s not in the bunker anymore (finally, fucking morons doing summonings in their own house) but that just means he doesn’t have any clue where he actually is. There are flowers everywhere, mostly dead and wilted heaps on the floor. Roses have sprouted up the walls, though, crawling straight up the sides like some sort of weird ass trellis. The red bulbs bob heavy on thorny stems, soft and tempting from a distance but likely sharp as fuck once you get close. Dean can appreciate that approach to life, even in the middle of every fucking thing else going wrong right now.

“He’s awake.”

Sam and Cas come around from behind him and Dean’s back on high alert, his brain connecting the dots without his permission. The flowers, the time frame. The King of Hell riding high and Dean out of options. Fuck. All that’s missing is Sam in a douchey white suit.

Fuck. He hates it when Lucifer’s right.

For all that the devil wore him around like, well, like a douchey white suit Sam wasn’t around for Zachariah’s little show. So he interprets Dean’s epic stinkface as something a little more pedestrian. “I know it’s kind of… weird in here, with the flowers. But this place is miles away from anywhere with only one road and an easily defensible position. Cas thought you’d be more likely to behave on neutral ground.” He shrugs. “The man likes gardens.”

“It’s a conservatory attached to the abbey, abandoned years ago. Gardens are better tended than this.” And there’s that gorgeous voice rubbing friction burns up and down Dean’s spine. There’s no way for Cas to understand what went down in that other 2014 but his squinty expression suggests he suspects Dean of hiding something.

He closes his eyes, concentrates, and waits for the sharpness to come. But they’ve hidden it somewhere deep and away; it’s only a tingle in his veins, a mirage in his mind. He pants with the effort, rattling the chains as much as he can, clenching his empty hand and yearning for sharper tools. His feet splash in the water and Sam steps back to avoid a drenching. Dean does it again and again, pissed off and childish.

Sam and Cas leave him there to stew in his own juices for awhile (almost literally, hah, bastards) and circle behind where they’ve bound him to the chair. They whisper, though the acoustics in this place are good enough that Dean can hear them even over his tantrum.

“Take this.”

“No, dude, I can’t-“

“Take it. I need you to be prepared in case something happens. Dean isn’t… like other demons. And since I’m not human the ritual may have unforeseen results, if it works at all.”

“It’s going to work, Cas. We can’t go into this thinking otherwise.” There’s silence for a second, then Sam sighs. “I still say I should do it.”

“And I still say no. Do we need to have this conversation again? We don’t know if the trials were forfeit, Sam. I won’t let you risk your life-”

“Cas-“

“And you are still weak from your injuries. I will not have you damage yourself further.”

“You’re hurt, too! It was just a couple broken ribs, man, I would’ve been fine. You didn’t have to heal me.”

“Yes, I did. It was more complicated than that and you know it.”

“All right, fine. But now you’re weak, too, don’t deny it.” Dean’s quiet now, listening carefully. He can hear the sound of fingers push through hair; Sam’s rubbing the back of his neck. He always did that when he was trying to organize his thoughts. “You should rest before you start. You haven’t looked this bad since-”

“We don’t have time for rest. This has to be done now and I’m the only one who can do it.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right. It’s just… I wish there was another way. Or that we knew how it was going to end.”

“Me, too. But this might be the only chance we’ve got. Take the sword. And use it if you have to.” There’s silence, a sigh, then the ghost sound of metal against skin. Cas gave Sam his angel blade. He’ll be defenseless. Dean can’t help but imagine the possibilities.

He almost misses Cas continue. This part’s quieter, like he knows Dean’s listening and doesn’t want him to hear. “I need you to be ready nearby. Just in case.”

“I’ll be on watch. All you have to do is call.”

Dean settles as comfortably as he can in his seat, chains clanking around him, wishing for popcorn. He knows what’s happening now. They’re going to try the demon-curing ritual. Because that worked so well last time. Damned if he’s gonna make it any easier on them.

Cas closes the door heavily behind Sam, the echo almost drowning out his sigh. There’s a soft thud – Cas bumping his head against the jamb, maybe – and he sighs deeply. There’s silence for a moment, then another thud and a whisper Dean feels more than hears. “We three can be enough.”

Cas walks into Dean’s line of sight, dress shoes tapping on the old tiles, and now that Dean’s paying attention he can see the toll healing Sam must’ve taken on him. The barrier between angel and vessel’s much harder to see, the place where Cas used to squat and hover gone all milky and full of static. He’s clearly exhausted, shoulders slumping, bags under his eyes and high spots of color on his cheeks.

Dean remembers this part. He has to admit he’s curious; what is an angel’s biggest sin? Disobedience, of course. Murder. Betrayal. The list’s impressive and that’s only what he can make out skimming the surface. He digs the hooks of his thoughts a little deeper. Gluttony. Covetousness. Lust. Idolatry. Placing another before God. And does that really surprise you, Dean Winchester?

Dean blinks as a shiver rolls its way through him. He gives Cas a dirty look.

Cas squints at him, a pleased cat with feathers in its fur, and sidles over to the rose wall. Dean half expects Cas to kneel before the flowers like they’re some kind of hippy alter but he just keeps walking until he’s passed out of Dean’s sight behind one of the larger clumps of plants.

His voice carries strangely through the foliage. “I looked for you in Heaven after Metatron was defeated. Perhaps foolishly. But the alternative was unacceptable.”

Holy fuck, but Cas’s voice is something special. Dean can hear the layers of it, all of them weaving through his vessel’s vocal chords until it’s diluted into something palatable to the ear. It’s the potential that Dean finds so thrilling, the destruction a mere word could unleash. It’s mighty.

It’s also distracting. Cas is back before Dean can even speculate on what he was doing back there. He’s ditched the coat and rolled his shirtsleeves up passed his elbows. As ominous as that is it’s still Cas and any amount of new skin showing just does things to Dean. The little hairs on the back of his neck tickle against the collar as they try their damnedest to rise.

“It was hard to believe at first; you’d been saved so many times before. When I couldn’t find you I searched through the hazy abyss outside the gates. All those souls, trapped and waiting for us to undo what Metatron wrought. But you weren’t there. And I think I knew then.” Cas flicks his eyes up to the tingling blaze spiraling around Dean’s head.

Dean smirks, a little half-heartedly. What must he look like to a collapsing star these days?

Cas grimaces and looks down at his feet. “I wasn’t strong enough to save you this time. Sam said he prayed for help but I couldn’t even hear him. I can’t hear anyone anymore. I can’t… I don’t feel like me. And the me I’ve become has changed so many times I barely recognize him anymore.” He’s quiet for a long moment, eyes closed and body still.

“I called your phone because I wanted to hear your voicemail.“ His shoulders sag, the open collar of his shirt parting so Dean can watch him swallow. “I just wanted to hear your voice. I never thought you’d actually answer. I hoped for the recording of your voice and instead I heard you breathing.”

He rubs at his eye like a child, knuckles curled against the lashes. The skin there comes away wet but Cas doesn’t acknowledge it. He takes a deep breath, finally meeting Dean’s eye. “I’m dying, Dean. You know that, don’t you? You can see it?”

Dean hesitates for the barest thread of a second. Then he inclines his head, slowly, until the metal collar pushes against his chin and makes him stop.

Cas nods, a determined edge flattening out his trembling mouth. “Then you know I’m going to see this through to the end, no matter what. It starts with confession, which is about sin, yes, but it’s also about regret. I regret a lot of things. I regret trusting Metatron and letting Naomi sink her claws into me so deeply. I regret Leviathan and the necessity of raising the souls from purgatory. I regret the distance working with Crowley drove between us. I regret the distance.” He sniffs, spine straightening and shoulders going square. This is the Cas Dean remembers, the one he doesn’t let himself think about. “I don’t regret the things I’ve done for you. And I don’t regret this.”

The needle is an old painful-looking thing and Dean snarls when Cas pulls it out of his pocket. He thrashes uselessly in his bonds and misses Cas filling the syringe. But he does register Cas’s hand darting forward and the metal in it glinting in the crappy light. But then his neck stings and whiteness fills his vision and it’s hard to focus on anything else for awhile.

Cas’s blood sizzles in his veins like bacon on a griddle and Dean wants to scream - he wants to so badly - but he can’t, can’t make a sound. Has to stay quiet as a church mouse, as a baby, as a boy with ash filling his lungs. He clenches his teeth and bears as much of it as he can. But it hurts, that silver blinding heat under his skin and digging into his muscles. His bones feel sunburned. His left forearm’s throbbing –

(like a heartbeat a heartbeat remember your heartbeat)

– and Dean’s left panting for air he doesn’t actually need. When the wave of anguish finally ebbs he raises his head to find Cas breathing heavy, too, his hands clenched and eyes glowing dangerously. The fissures over his heart are a little wider than they were a few minutes ago.

And Dean knows he was wrong before; the line between body and being stopped existing a long time ago. There’s grace in Castiel’s blood and now it’s in Dean’s, too. The pain he feels isn’t from humanity, or his past, or anything like that. It’s from Cas. It is Cas.

He sighs and slumps in the chair. It’s going to be a long night.

+ + +

Time passes slowly. Glacially slow, in fact. Objectively he knows that the needles are shoved into him every hour on the hour but Dean still loses track of the fucking eternity he’s been tied to the chair.

Cas goes outside and closes the door behind him. Dean knows he should use the opportunity to escape but can’t seem to muster up the energy. Instead he goes lax and lazy in his seat and lets his mind wander until it’s as empty as the room around him.

The bullets find their way out of his shoulders eventually, the slugs landing with a muted plop in the lukewarm pool of salt and holiness.

Cas comes back. And then Dean’s panting off the effects of yet another dose. The grace in every bloody drop is starfire and pain. It’s light in the darkness after Dean’s gone nocturnal. It leaves a flavor like mint on the back of his tongue.

Dean knows they expect him to whimper and cry and beg for forgiveness. Fuck that. He doesn’t have anything to feel sorry for.

+ + +

The fourth needle knocks something loose inside him, sending it rattling around like teeth pulled from a skull or… or like… change in a dryer, warm and clanking. If he could touch it, it might burn him from the inside out. He can taste hot pennies with every breath dragged between his teeth. Pennies and pollen. Or something.

He clenches his jaw and lets his chin sag against the collar. Just for a minute or two. Just long enough to rest.

+ + +

The next shot comes out of nowhere, piercing right into the hidden soft spot where his jaw meets his ear. The needle scrapes bone, or he thinks it does, and it pulls something shattered and night-blind out of him.

There’s a sound in his body, curses coiling through his crackling ribs. The something unravels and chokes down his gullet past the hollow of his throat to sit heavy in his stomach. His mouth opens –

(gotta talk, son, you’ve gotta talk again. Sammy needs to hear his big brother, how’s he gonna learn if you won’t teach him? Let me hear you, Dean)

– and a scream pours out, high-pitched and cracking in the middle. It bounces off the walls and doubles, triples, until the sound of breaking glass joins in. It hollows him out until all that’s left is a blistering crater.

Cas is curled on the floor with his hands over his ears; the pose sends something bitter stuttering in Dean’s chest, though he hardly has time to notice. The door bangs off the wall behind them and Cas is up again quick as a flash and rushing out of Dean’s line of sight. There’s yelling, something about glass everywhere and you shouldn’t see him like this but Dean’s panting and coughing too loudly to really hear what’s going on.

He tilts his head as far as he can until he sees a brother-shaped blur out of the corner of his eye. “Sam? S’at you?”

It’s harsh and deserted but Dean recognizes his own voice when he hears it. He didn’t mean to say anything, didn’t even mean to try, but there it is anyway.

There’s stillness behind him and the gasp of indrawn breath in stereo. Then quick footsteps and a tall body moving closer. “Dean?”

Dean flinches then frowns, not knowing why he did that. He doesn’t want Sam to touch him, though. The aching thing inside him makes him want to hurt Sam for bringing it back to life, wants to chase him away and never see him again.

“Sam.” The blurry shape is joined by another and they don’t come any closer. “Wait.”

Dean closes his eyes and coughs again, wetly. He may as well try this talking thing some more. “Go ahead and let him in, Cas. The more the merrier.” This time the words slide out of him oily, honest, and barbed. It feels better. “He can even try to exorcise me if he thinks he’s strong enough. I’d be in good company. Lilith. Alistair.” He pulls his mouth into a grin that shows too many teeth to be anything but predatory. “You feelin’ thirsty, boy king?”

There’s the scuff of feet on concrete, the crunch of glass under boots, and the taste of violence looms in the air. Then Cas says, “Sam, no,” and the door slams shut behind them.

Dean pushes his tongue against the back of his teeth. It’s fun teasing Sam, again. He knows him, knows exactly what old hurts to rake over the coals, what memories Sam’s probably replaying at this very moment, what demons he’s wrestling with. Only this time all the demons wear his brother’s face.

He could almost feel him tearing himself up about it the next room over. Sam’s come so far since those dark days, heaped so many other things on top of the old guilt that he’d almost forgotten the sting of it. And now he was daring to wonder if he could stop all this. If the exorcism would work if he tried. If it would make it his fault if he didn’t.

The thought of Sam’s bloody mouth makes Dean’s stomach rumble unpleasantly.

By the time Cas comes back Dean’s vision has cleared enough for him to see how pissed off he is. Cas points over Dean’s shoulder at the locked door and part of his shirt comes untucked from his pants. “That was uncalled for.”

Dean shrugs. “I’m a demon, dumbass. It’s what I do.”

Cas’s nostrils flare angrily. “What, torment the people who love you?”

“Yes. I’m good at it, too.” Dean leans forward, bitingly angry and wanting nothing more than to be free of those fucking chains. He wants to hurt something, wants to tear it apart, and Cas is the only thing in range. “Not like I haven’t had practice. Just look what I did to you, for fuck’s sake.”

Dean hadn’t actually meant to say that last part. But it’s like he can’t stop talking now that he’s started. “Why are you doing this anyway? You actually want to die? ‘Cause I can make that happen a lot faster than this. And then it’d be fucking over, already.”

Cas shakes his head, his jaw twitching with how hard he’s grinding his teeth. “I’m not stopping until every chance of saving you is gone. There is always hope.”

“Hope, my ass. There ain’t nothing here worth saving and you know it.” Dean smirks and Cas’s shoulders sink a fraction lower. It’s a subtle tell but Dean’s been bluffing for a long time and can see the signs a mile away. He just has to keep going, dig in a little deeper and Cas is gonna fold. “I’ve done more for Hell in the last week than Crowley or anyone’s done in centuries. The place is running like fucking clockwork. And the demons? Happier than pigs in shit. It’s ‘cause they like me, Cas. They like me so much they’re throwing themselves at my feet. And other body parts.”

And there it is, there’s the flinch he was looking for. “You ever had sex with a demon, Cas? I’d guess not, good little angel like you. But you’ve thought about it, haven’t you? Thought about bending Meg over and shoving your hands through all that dark hair. You said her true face was beautiful.”

Cas takes a step back, eyes falling to the ground.

“What about me, Cas? What do you want to do to me?”

“Stop it, Dean. Just stop it.”

Dean keeps talking, smooth as a snake in a garden. “You gonna make me, Cas? Gonna put your hands round my throat and make me shut up? I thought you wanted to hear my voice. Wanted me to say your name. Castiel.”

Cas stabs the needle into his own arm – too soon, much too soon – and plunges it into Dean’s neck. It cuts out the snarl building there. He chokes back another scream and groans instead, loud and echoing. But then everything flares white and a wave of pain burns through him. He grips the arms of the chair so tightly the shackles cut into the soft skin of his wrists. His arm’s on fucking fire.

Literally, apparently. He hears Cas cursing and batting at his forearm but Dean’s not paying much attention, narrowed instead to the blood vessels in his body, expanding, dying, shifting forever down the highway of his veins.

The words spiraling around the fire in his skull are echoed in his ears but the whimpering fool saying them doesn’t sound like him at all. “Fuck, fuck. Stop. Please, please stop. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Didn’t mean it, didn’t, don’t – don’t want to, please. Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t-”

“Don’t what, Dean? What don’t you want?”

(Don’t want to feel anymore. Don’t want to stop. Stop. Don’t.)

“Don’t…” Light and pain and desperation crest and crash him headfirst into exhaustion. When he opens his eyes the blue of Cas’s gaze is just a comforting muted gray like everything else. There’s nothing majestic about him at all. “Don’t ask stupid questions, Cas.”

Cas’s hands fall from where they were gripping Dean’s shoulders. He sighs and disappears behind the roses again only to reemerge a few minutes later with an ancient gardener’s broom. The glass tinkles discordantly as he sweeps it into a pile.

+ + +

Over the next hour the blush Dean brought to Cas’s cheeks fades into two high spots of color, stark in the darkness against his parchment pale skin. He stumbles over nothing and can barely keep his eyes open. There’s more cracks than Cas now.

Dean’s feet are starting to blister in the water. He holds them up for as long as he can but he’s too tired to support their weight for longer than a few minutes at a time. They thunk back down until there’s more water on the floor than in the pool.

They’re both getting closer now, though to what end Dean doesn’t know.

+ + +

There’s a breeze coming through the wall of broken glass. Dean can see the sky through the skeletal panes, pale stars dotting the distance like pinpricks. The city (whichever one it might be) is stretched out below them; hundreds of people milling about their little lives with no more significance than those stars.

“It’s not going to work, you know. The ritual.”

Cas straightens from where he’d slumped against the wall and started tearing apart a leaf. Tiny bits of green fall from his shaking hands. “What?”

Dean doesn’t stop counting the little lights. He’s not sure if they’re souls or streetlamps but it’s cathartic. Soothing. “This isn’t going to work. I’m the King of Hell and you’re shoving more power into me every hour. How long do you think it’s going to be until I’m strong enough to break out of here and bleed you dry?”

Cas swallows, throat clicking, and doesn’t point out the obvious; Dean’s not strong enough to do anything right now. He feels like a wrung-out towel, like one of those far away stars. There’s something’s brimming in him, too, close to supernova but not quite there yet. He doesn’t like it.

Cas sighs. “The Mark was originally created by Lucifer as a sign Cain was willing to trade himself for his brother and become indentured to his service. In the end it’s just a symbol. An angelic one twisted in on itself and imbued with power but a symbol all the same. It can be overcome with the right force behind it.”

Dean snorts and rolls his heavy head along the back of the collar. “You don’t get it, do you? There’s nothing to fix. ” He needs to stop talking, to shut himself up, but his traitorous mouth just keeps moving. “You know what it’s like, to be empty for so long? Empty vessel, empty scabbard, empty heart. I’m full now. I’m brimming with power and plan and myself. This is me, Castiel. This is as good as I get.”

“I don’t believe you.” Cas shudders and Dean’s mesmerized as a piece of him crumbles away, dissipating before it reaches the ground. It’s a shame, all that light and might going to waste.

And still, still he’s breathtaking, even reduced to a million little pieces like he is now. Dean remembers being aware of Castiel more than everyone else, remembers thinking about how he carried himself, how he moved. He’d been occasionally dazzled by him in an embarrassing junior high kind of way. But he’d never felt this need for him. Never had the desire to hold this husk of angel together until he fell through Dean’s fingers like sand.

But really, even under all that ache and desire it's the same thoughts he’d had a dozen times or more. He just wants Cas near him. Was that so impossible for the universe to provide? He should be on Dean’s side, not turning himself into a black hole in some foolish attempt at resurrecting him. They should be together. It’s what they both wanted, Dean could admit that now.

He clears his throat and tries to muster up some kind of smile. Casual and confident; that was the key when it came to convincing Cas anything. “You know, there’s another way out of all this. A happy ending for everyone.”

“I’m not killing you, Dean.”

“What? No.” He shifts his feet around, wincing. Where had Cas come up with - no. Just… no. “I was thinking something a little different than that. A scenario where we both come out breathing. As novel as that is these days.”

Cas sighs, sparks escaping on his breath. “And what is that?”

Dean tilts his head until he meets Cas’s eyes, trying not to look too eager. “There’s an opening for a Knight of Hell now that Cain’s gone. Think about it, Cas. All the power you could want, none of that bureaucratic bullshit. You could do whatever you wanted. You’d be safe and we’d be together forever.”

“Dean… Think about what you’re asking me here. What you’re asking me to do.”

“I know what I’m asking, Cas. It’s such a little thing; it doesn’t even hurt after it’s done. I need you with me, man, come on. I don’t want to be alone anymore. I don’t want to lose–“ The words coming out of his mouth are nothing like what he meant to say, nothing like the charm he was aiming for. Instead he’s damn near crying, his chin quivering and everything. He closes his eyes against the shame of it.

“What about the demons? The armies of Hell aren’t enough to keep you company?” Cas sounds tired, dragged down and bone weary. He looks it, too, when Dean finally dares look at him again. It forces the truth out of him; Cas should never look that tired.

“They’re not family, Cas. They’re not you. I don’t love them.”

The words literally burn on their way out, heating up his esophagus even as a tear – a goddamn motherfucking tear – falls down his cheek. Bile hovers at the back of his throat and Dean has to grind his teeth to keep it there. Christ, it’s fucking horrible. “You better dose me up again, Cas. Any more of this sappy shit and I’m gonna melt right through the chains.”

“Dean, I can’t –”

“I said do it. Do it!” There’s even more tears, now, his cheeks are fucking soaked with them. It’s all breaking down, everything’s breaking and he can’t, he can’t. “Do it now!

Dean can actually see the grace siphoning away this time, can see the light leave Cas’s body and flow into the vessel of the needle. He barely feels the sting of it in his neck before Cas slams his hand against Dean’s mouth, slick with blood – just blood now, only blood.

The grace shines through all the grottos and hollow places inside, flash-bangs the simmer into a conflagration. It chases the smoke down down down until it’s bound bleeding at the center of him. It’s a forest fire, a controlled burn, and it’s white white white.

Illumination. There can be no shadows without light.

“Dean. Your eyes.”

There’s flowers in front of him, brown then red then brown again, flaring through life and death and all the nothing in between. It’s better to focus his energy on them instead of the angel before him or the brother behind. He can feel them both, one heartbeat steady, the other unsure. He could stop them, start them, make them bleed, make them change.

He looks at the roses and pours his pain into them instead of his family. Red and brown and red and brown.

He realizes, slowly, that he’s actually seeing red and brown instead of gray. Color seeps back into the world, oversaturated and painful but color all the same. Edges soften, the lines of things not quite so thick and brutal. He gasps in a breath and watches the roses bloom and wither, then stops the cycle on the upswing. The blooms bob in the breeze from the window. Pollen and sweetness fills the air.

The backlash of power tingles through him and lights up all his nerve endings. There’s a weight against him, heavy and dull, pushing him down into the chair. It takes him a moment to figure it’s Cas pressing their foreheads together, Cas who’s tears are falling on both their cheeks.

And all right, some of the wetness there probably belongs to him, too. He’s sobbing, gasping, and grabbing at whatever part of Cas he can get. One fist winds up wrapped in his shirt; the other patting Cas’s hip over and over.

He’s crying and the only thing he can think to say is an apology and it’s so stupid but he can’t help it. “I killed the bees, Cas. I’m sorry. I don’t think I meant to. I’m sorry.”

Cas sighs and rests his hands against Dean’s cheeks, the dead weight of them rasping against the stubble. “It’s all right, Dean. It’ll be all right.”

But it’s not all right. Nothing’s ever going to be all right again because Cas gave up his grace and Dean… “Dean’s dead, isn’t he? The real Dean, I mean. The one you’re doing this for. I’m someone else. Someone worse.”

“Oh, Dean. It’s still you. It’s always been you.” Cas shifts backward – slowly, so terribly slowly – until Dean can see his face. It’s dark, dark and empty as the void. He’s split open. It’s like looking at freshly tilled earth. “Even after all this time you still don’t think you deserve to be saved.”

He’s the most beautiful thing Dean’s ever seen.

Cas settles his head on Dean’s shoulder, too exhausted for anything else, and Dean lets him. He actually tugs him closer, pushing his face into Cas’s neck until little splotches of color litter the blackness behind his eyes. It’s familiar and he welcomes it but soon the colors blanch and brighten until it’s nothing but white. The grace burns there for a second until it sinks in and Dean can’t tell the difference between where he stops and it begins anymore.

His arm is just an arm, with fingers and scraped knuckles clutching desperately at the man in his lap. The sharpness calls from where it’s buried two states over. Dean tells it to be still and it hums itself into silence. For awhile it’s just the sound of Cas’s uneven breathing and Sam’s desperate hovering on the other side of the door.

He doesn’t understand. They should be dead. They should both be…

“What’s gonna happen to us now, Cas? I’m… You’re…”

“I don’t know, Dean. I don’t know.”

The demons will come for him soon. Dean knows they will. He can feel them, distantly, like a prickle on his scalp, black smoke on the horizon calling to its king. Earthquakes and lightning. Trouble on the way. For now, though, it’s quiet.

It’s quiet. The warm skin he’s pressed against is far too still.

“Cas?” Dean tilts his head as far back as he can. He moves his shoulder a little and Cas’s head shifts limply with the motion. His eyes are closed.

Panic rises in the back of Dean’s throat, sour and bitter over the mint that’s lingered there. “Cas? You gotta wake up, man, you gotta – don’t leave me here, Cas, please.”

He shakes his shoulder again. The jostling sends Cas sliding. He’s only saved from falling completely by Dean’s clenching hands. “Cas!

There’s pounding behind him, a yell, and Dean remembers he can ask for help now, that they’re not alone in this hateful place. “Sam! Sam, I need you! It’s Cas, Sammy, please!”

Another bang, louder, and Sam’s there, the ancient doorjamb shattering into pieces under his weight. His jaw clenches when he takes in the strange tableau they must’ve made with Cas slumped so very still in Dean’s arms. He pulls him away roughly (Dean’s empty hands grasping, grasping) and carries him bridal style to the other side of the room and as far away from Dean as he can. Like it was Dean’s fault this happened.

It is Dean’s fault.

“I’m sorry, Sammy. I’m sorry I hurt you, sorry I did this. You gotta help him, Sam, please.”

Sam lays Cas flat and listens for his breathing, hand flat on his chest. Then he starts CPR.

God, it’s awful watching that happen. Awful hearing the cracks in Cas’s ribs when Sam pushes too hard. Awful not hearing the gasp of breath returning to his lungs. Not being able to do a damn thing about it.

“Sam, you gotta let me out. Let me out, Sam. You gotta.” Dean’s babbling, begging, but Sam doesn’t even look up at him. Dean’s hurt him too deeply, too many times.

One breath in, two. Back to pumping Cas’s chest.

“I can help him, Sam, I know it. Please.”

Sam breathes for Cas one more time, grunting, arms shaking as he counts out five pumps. He breathes again, and again, and still nothing.

“Sam. Please.”

Sam yells out something incomprehensible – a shapeless frantic cry – and leaps up after the final pump against Cas’s chest. There’s keys in his hand and they’re tearing at the chains holding Dean down, one manacle, two, and Dean gasps when he’s finally free of all that weight. He rips the collar off himself, barely aware of the pain of it breaking against his neck. The kiddy pool goes skidding across the concrete, overturned and forgotten.

Cas is so very still when Dean reaches him. He almost doesn’t want to touch him, doesn’t want to chance waking him from this terrible silence. His hands hover, trembling, over Cas’s chest and the lines of his face. Dean can’t see him clearly anymore, can’t make out anything but broken pieces laying everywhere. It’s all blurry and sad and Dean can’t see.

But he has to. He will.

He forces his hands to settle against the cooling skin. Tells himself it’s not too late, that there’s still a chance. All he has to do is concentrate hard enough.

He makes himself sink deep into the negative space of Cas’s being and really look.

There is a part of him that knows this body, knows this flesh like it’s the back of his own hand. Knows all the places in it a soul could hide – or whatever the strange amalgamation of self is that makes up a person whether they have a soul or not. Cas's lived without his grace before so there must be something –

There. A guttering spark, so small Dean almost misses it. It’s not conscious, nowhere near strong enough for awareness, but the fact that it’s still there is enough. He coaxes it out as gently as he can (careful, careful now) and lets it rest against his own thorny self for a moment in relief. The piece knows him, melts at his touch, warm and welcome and a little disturbed Dean would make himself vulnerable in such an intimate way.

It’s Cas and it’s love. As simple as that.

From there it’s easy. He nestles Cas close and breathes, lets the stolen warmth of life and hope leak back into Cas’s spirit until it’s full enough to start producing its own. It’s harder to make himself let go, to make Cas let go, but he picks apart the delicate strands from where they’ve woven themselves inside him anyway. He places them back inside the warming vessel, sealing and searing it behind him as he retreats back into his own.

A last lingering caress and then he’s alone again, knees cramping from the cold floor and wet jeans sticking to him uncomfortably. Sam’s somewhere behind him cursing quietly; or maybe praying, it’s hard to tell which. Dean doesn’t care, either, because there’s movement under him. The chest pressed against his own expanding and falling, the heart inside beating beating beating.

“Dean?” Their lips brush with the whisper and now Dean can breathe again himself, relief knocking an exhale right out of him. Cas catches him on the shoulder to steady his tilting fall, grip slotting into place like it was meant to be there. Dean thumps their foreheads together until they’re pressed impossibly closer.

A feeling bubbles up through the exhaustion, terrible, burning, and completely beyond his control. It carries a sound to his throat so much like choking at first that Sam grabs Dean’s other arm in worry. But Cas – who’s always known him so well, even when he didn’t want him to – just lets Dean’s weight settle against him with a sigh. The curve of Cas’s smile, rough with the scrape of stubble against Dean’s cheek, is the last straw. The feeling comes pouring out of him, loud and dreadful, dredging up from the depths of his ashen heart.

Dean doesn’t know what to do with himself. He just curls over Cas and lets it come, the laughter having it’s way with him until he’s an exhausted empty lump on the ground that still can’t keep from smiling like a moron. Cas shakes under him, his honest-to-god giggles setting Sam off into his own snorting jag. The laughter fills the room and their thoughts, relief leaving them all a little stoned and silly. Dean breathes quietly and lets their happiness wash over him. Oxygen fills his lungs and spreads through his body, sighing out carbon dioxide for the roses.

Eventually he gathers up enough energy to sit up and help Cas do it, too. He rubs a thumb over where one of the cracks in Cas’s shoulder used to be; there’s a golden trail there now, warm against Dean’s skin. He’d sealed the devastation left by Cas’s shattered grace with honey and amber and little flakes of feeling. It tingles under the pressure Dean puts on it.

And Cas is still so beautiful it hurts to look at him. Dean just squints and stares through the shine; it’s worth the damage to watch him be alive. Cas can’t seem to stop looking at Dean, either. He’s squinting, too, but then Cas always did that.

Even Sam’s not immune to the moment, his smile easy and tears streaming unnoticed down his face. He cups Dean’s cheek in his hand so that his long fingers rest just behind his jaw. He slaps him, lightly, and lets out a breath.

“Dean,” he says, seemingly just to enjoy the word. Then he shakes his head. “How?

Dean’s… not entirely sure. All he knows is that he can and so he does. The thought of life without Sam trusting him, without Cas being there, is impossible. Especially an immortal life, if Cain was to be believed. He needed Cas with him. So… he fixed him. He saw where Cas was broken and made it go away.

Dean used to be good at fixing things. At improving them, too, taking the chance his random ideas would coalesce into something useful. He was almost as good at repairing things as he was at destroying them in the first place.

But the thing about destruction, about the heady desire to smash something to pieces, was that seeing how things could be broken meant seeing how they could be put back together again. How they could be made less vulnerable to attack in the first place.

He wonders in a brief moment of madness if he could do that on a larger scale.

He thinks he might like to try.