Hell tastes like heat and smoke and ash. Like the burning tip of a match. Dean realizes he's topside again by the sudden change in the air, by the fact that he can breathe again. He gulps it in, grateful, gasping himself back to reality.
He's in an empty field somewhere, flint hills jagging along the horizon and unspent rainclouds gathering above his head, pressing in close. He just stands there for a second, numb, his arms and legs deadweight and a dull pain banging in his head like a drum. Then he remembers. It floods into him all at once, dragging him down. He sags to the ground, hunching in on himself, his knees squelching in the muddy grass.
There had been a bright, searing light. Not the blue-white flash of an angel's grace, but something that had throbbed and seethed around him, something yellowed around the edges, rancid just beneath the shining surface. Rotten. Slick like an oil spill. It had sheared straight through his bones and rattled behind his teeth. His blood had roared in his ears, churning pressure, and then --
"Cas," he whispers. It sticks in the back of his throat, thick with sulfur. "Cas."
Thunder rolls in the distance, taunting the hills. Dean sinks his fingers into the mud, clenching up one sticky-wet handful, then another and another and another, digging like hell is just under his knees, like hell is just another grave, six feet deep and ready to salt and burn. His whole body is shaking. His heart is beating in his throat.
"Hey, it's okay," Sam says, squeezing Dean's shoulder. He tugs a little, like he wants Dean to sit up. Like he wants Dean stop wringing his hands in the mud.
Dean shrugs him off with a rough noise. "No, it's --"
"Dean," Sam says. There's a tremor in his voice; he sounds as thin and jerky and wrung out as Dean feels. "We -- we'll get him back."
Dean shudders out a breath. He closes his eyes for a second, but all he sees in the inside of the cage. He sees Cas picking himself up off the floor, a bruise purpling his jaw and blood smeared at the corner of his mouth. He feels Lucifer's hand around his throat. Lucifer's thumb biting into his windpipe. Lucifer's laughter fanning across his face as his vision started to spark white and gray.
"We'll get him back," Sam says again. He's standing now, and he gives Dean's shoulder another squeeze, but Dean can't make himself move. He has grass between his fingers and mud under his nails. His wet knees ache. Guilt claws at everything inside his chest, knife-sharp and feral.
He feels Lucifer's hand around his throat again. He feels himself choke out a noise, feels himself suck in a breath that whistles through his teeth. He feels himself drumming his heels against the walls of the cage. Twisting in the air like a hanged man. Clawing desperately at Lucifer's wrist. His angel blade is on the floor, a silver glint dancing in the corner of his eye. Lucifer looks like a corpse, but his skin burns white-hot under Dean's hands.
Everything is quiet. Cas says something in Enochian, the words rattling around the cage like a round of buckshot. Dean's swimming vision starts to narrow and fade; all he can see is Cas' face. His mouth is still bleeding. His eyes are wide, almost demon-black in the poor light. He speaks in Enochian again, grinding each word to dust between his teeth.
Lucifer barks out a laugh. He eases his hold on Dean's throat, and then light starts welling at the center of his chest, flaring yellowish and sun-bright and --
"Fuck," Dean snarls. He's digging in the mud again. He thinks he might puke. After purgatory, Dean had missed Cas like a phantom limb, but this -- this is something else. This is marrow-deep and relentless. He feels hollow. Like his gut has been ripped open, ragged and painful and raw. "Cas is -- he let -- Lucifer --"
"I know," Sam says quietly.
"You were gone by then." That had been the deal; Dean and Cas would come into the cage and talk things out if Lucifer let Sam go. "You didn't see it. You didn't see him --"
"Yeah, I did. I was gone, but I still saw it. All of it. It was --" Sam taps the side of his head "-- you know."
"Like one of your God visions?"
Sam looks away. "Yeah, like one of my God visions."
There's a fight there if Dean wants it, but he lets it skitter away. He closes his eyes again, and he sees Cas minutely nodding his head. Letting his angel blade fall to the side. Letting Dean live.
"He gave himself up."
"Jesus Christ," Dean says, because Sam doesn't know. He doesn't know about the slow ache Dean has carried behind his ribs for years. That Cas' voice digs at something under Dean's skin. How Dean feels like half a person when Cas isn't around. How he wishes the other side of his bed wasn't empty. "He -- fuck."
"Cas," Dean starts, grief stabbing between his chest and his gut. He's never admitted it to anyone. He's barely admitted it to himself. Now it's probably too late. "I -- I, um -- I --"
"Dean, I know," Sam says. The sky has finally opened up, breaking just above their heads. Sam's hair is limp and stringy from the rain, sticking to his forehead. "You two are just --" he trails off with a gesture and a sigh, then grabs Dean's arm and hauls him to his feet. "We'll get him back."
Thunder rolls overhead, closer now that the clouds have scuddered away from the hills. The streaks of mud on Dean's hands have started to dry, gritty over his knuckles and itchy as patches tighten and flake off. He brushes the wet grass off his palms. Anger is building in his gut, furious and hot. The next time he sees Crowley, he's stabbing the limey bastard right in the throat. And Rowena - fuck. He's going to kill Rowena with his bare hands.
"Yeah," Dean says. He makes himself breathe. "Yeah, we'll get him back."