Dean had been on the rack for thirty-two years when Alastair first heard it. He’d gotten off the rack for the first time almost two years prior, and had put himself right back on when they’d brought him the soul of a young girl. So it goes. Dean took apart the souls they provided him, and if he refused, he was strung up in their place.
The first strains of the Angelic Chorus begin to filter through the rings of Hell while Dean is on the rack, being skinned bit by bit.
The knife sliding over his ribs stills, and Alastair cocks his head. “Do you hear it?” he asks.
Dean shakes his head, the skin of his face rubbing raw under the leather strap covering it.
A quick swipe finishes peeling Dean’s ribs raw. “Listen closer.”
Try as he might, all Dean hears is the ringing in his ears.
“It’s the angels,” says Alastair, voice almost reverent, “They’re here for you.”
Despite himself, a flicker of hope blooms in Dean’s chest. Alastair may have broken him, but humans never lose their capacity for hope. The greatest entertainment available to Alastair in hell is watching that hope die.
“Oh princess ,” says Alastair, in a voice that sounds like pity, “I don’t mean they’re here to save you.” He puts a hand on Dean’s shoulder, a gesture to bring comfort if there was any skin to receive it, “They’re here to take you from me,” he drags the hand down, and Dean chokes on his cry, “They’re going to hurt you worse than I ever could. I’m almost jealous.”
He looks down at his bloodied hand and sighs, “Well that ruined the mood,” before burying his knife in Dean’s skull.
He wakes up healed, the rack in front of him.
Alastair only mentions it when he has Dean on the rack.
“Do you hear it?” he laughs, “They’re getting closer.”
Dean’s thirty-sixth year in hell has begun, and the choir of angels is at last audible.
“I can hear them.” For once, Dean’s mouth is uncovered. His voice is no longer his own, marred by the gravel of a lifelong chainsmoker, or a man who’s spent the last thirty-six years screaming.
“They’re here for you,” says Alastair, like always.
“You’re lying.” Dean responds, though he no longer believes it.
“You broke the first seal, Dean. Started the apocalypse.”
“That’s not true.” The protest falls short even to his own ears.
The knife in Dean’s chest twists, and the world begins to fade around him.
“They’re going to burn your soul away molecule by molecule.”
He wakes up healed, the rack in front of him.
Dean spends almost two years off the rack, learning to relish the feeling of blood on his hands. His soul corrupts in his chest, slowly, slowly. He knows that it turns even when he’s on the rack, but he can feel the light flickering when he tortures the other souls. The angels have arrived in the ring above him, and what was once heavenly music has devolved into nothing more than inhuman screaming. Off the rack, Dean feels almost ready for them. Unbound, he can cut and run, hide himself among the masses of souls awaiting torment.
Alastair trails around him, commenting ever-so-often on his technique, throwing out ways to draw out the torment.
Torture under Alastair works like this: A soul is given a physical body mimicking their body on earth, and that body is torn apart piece by piece until it dies. The body is then restored, and passed from one of Alastair’s prodigies to another. Except in very rare cases, Alastair does none of the dirty work himself. John Winchester had been such a case, he informed Dean once. The screws in his hands and feet made it hard to care.
Dean has become used to this routine, to his work occasionally being disturbed by the presence of Alastair at his back. He will watch for a bit, and move to his next mentee. This time is different.
“Do you hear them?” There’s a smile in his voice, and Dean clutches his pliers tighter.
“I hear them.”
“They’re here for you.”
Dean grits his teeth, “Let them come.”
Alastair’s only response is to laugh.
The next soul on Dean’s rack is a young woman, probably in her twenties. She has messy brown hair cropped at her shoulders, and she’s terrified, but she doesn’t beg for mercy. Dean drops his weapon.
Dean is about to give out when The Angel arrives. Alastair left him hours ago, knowing that today was the day the vanguard would break through their infernal defenses. But, even as he prepared to flee, he refused to cut Dean’s torment short. Dozens of cuts litter his body, intended to bleed just slow enough to string him along for days, but enough to make him too weak to fight back. It’s beautiful, in the clinical way that Dean has come to view his own torture. He knows exactly why Alastair has laid him out like this, the patterns of the veins he had nicked or severed to get the blood to flow just so. In his fear, however, Alastair had become sloppy, and in a few places the knife had gone too deep. If he tries, Dean can cut his time on the rack short.
Dean is beginning to fade into blissful unconsciousness when the screams of The Angel shatter the walls enclosing him.
The Angel is fire and death enclosed in a series of spinning rings, and Dean’s very being recoils from it. Its presence burns at those parts of his soul that have become less than, and his ears bleed at its shrieking song. His heart pounds at the sight, but he’s fighting to keep his eyes open, refusing to be so vulnerable in front of such a creature. The Angel reaches for him, and he thrashes against his bindings, but to no avail. A hand reaches through the tattered visage of his body, and his soul sears at its touch. The holy fire composing The Angel’s body surrounds him, tongues of it licking at his wounds, and he can do nothing to fight it. He is cauterized from the inside out, as the corruption of his soul and the blood on his skin burns away, leaving him clean. His eyes drift shut, against the pain or the light he isn’t sure. They don’t reopen.
When Dean wakes up, he’s in a cage. Maybe ‘cell’ would be a more accurate choice, but The Angel guarding the door makes him feel no bigger than a yorkie in a kennel. The walls are barren, and there’s nothing on the floor but him, and a small pile of clothes that had been tucked under his head as a makeshift pillow. He realizes he’s naked, and moves to pull them on. The Angel averts its eyes, and says nothing.
Nudity hadn’t bothered Dean for years, is the thing. When you’re tied to a rack, with nitric acid bubbling in your wounds, being bare is the least of your concerns. Nakedness had barely registered to him for years now, but here he was, pulling on a pair of loose fitting pants and feeling as exposed as the day he was born. He’s human again.
He settles back on the floor slowly, feeling every cut pull tight and then relax. He’s human again. The Angel must have burned away all those parts of him that were becoming demonic when it touched him like that. Which means that Alastair was right, and it can destroy his soul. The Angel’s hands on his soul had been an agony that he’d never felt on the rack, and he no longer has his armor of inhumanity to survive it. Dean tucks himself into the far corner of the cell, and watches The Angel from behind his knees. Its rings hum through the air, and a thousand eyes stare back.
The Angel only tries to enter his cell once. Dean watches as one of The Angel’s many hands grasps the door and gently pulls it open. All three pairs of wings are tucked behind it, but it is still unaccountably massive against the small door of the cell. Dean curls himself tighter, hides his face in his knees. He knows The Angel is going to hurt him, and he should be prepared to fight back, but he knows he’ll lose. His eyes squeeze shut, and he waits. He waits until he hears the door click shut behind it, until it’s just them enclosed in the cell together. He waits through its silence, and through the shuffle of its wings. He waits. When he opens his eyes, The Angel is guarding the door, looking for all the world like it had never moved.
It’s the silence that finally begins to eat at Dean. He’s always been a chatterbox, and when he couldn’t talk Alastair was glad to fill the dead air for him. But The Angel is silent, save for the hum of its rings spinning, and the gentle shik shik of them sliding past each other. It’s been days or weeks since it tried to enter the cell, but he feels as though the silence has stretched for far longer.
Dean knows it’s all an act, and The Angel could rend the cell brick from brick if it wanted to, but he feels some measure of comfort to know that it doesn’t want to.
More than once he feels compelled to speak up, to try and initiate a conversation of some sort, but he has no idea what to say. Instead, he finds entertainment in the ever-shifting landscape of The Angel’s body. It has three heads. On its left is a raven, and on its right is a bull. Its final face, nestled between the two, is human, or so Dean thinks. The Angel refuses to turn that face towards him.
What Dean calls The Angel’s body is not really a body at all. It’s more a construct, composed of the same heatless flame that licked Dean’s wounds clean. It engulfs and is surrounded by a series of three ever-spinning rings, which somehow manage to avoid interfering with The Angel’s three pairs of wings. If Dean had ever bothered to research angels, he would recognize it as a seraph purely from these facts. A creature of fire, with a fondness for groups of three. But he didn’t, so he doesn’t.
What Dean calls The Angel’s wings aren’t wings in the traditional sense, but there is no other label he can use for them. They’re the light from a prism flashing on a windowpane, the refraction of sunlight on the surface of a CD. They’re an oil slick on asphalt, soap bubbles being pulled by the wind. They are beautiful and ever-changing, and Dean often has trouble taking his eyes off of them. The Angel has caught him at it, but if he’s going to be killed either way, Dean would rather die having looked his fill.
At a certain point, Dean becomes used to the presence of The Angel. Its flame is bloody red and orange and white, and it burns behind his eyelids, but it’s warm. It’s safe. Dean is closed in a cell in one of the lower rings of hell, but the presence of a hearth gives it something resembling homeliness. And how fucked up is he that that makes sense. More than once in his childhood he was subjected to impromptu ‘camping trips’ with his father, and while they felt the farthest thing from home during the day, at night they’d make a fire and he could sit, resting under his father’s arm, and know he was protected.
But a fire’s protection only stretches so far. There are beasts in the dark of a forest, and angels in the dark of the hallways of hell. Dean has finally ventured to the middle of his cell when another angel approaches. It’s a different sort of angel from his guardian, with a body made of countless wings instead of fire. It has four heads, kept at perfect ninety degree angles from each other. None face Dean as it approaches, a fact he’s grateful for when he sees its body turn. As it turns and bows to The Angel, all four of its heads stay gyroscopically stable, maintaining their constant vigilance over the north, south, east, and west. The wings that make up its body, however, are coated with dozens of eyes, all of which lock onto Dean as it approaches.
This new angel seems to defer to The Angel, which Dean finds strange. It bows to it before turning towards Dean, and from what little he can decipher of the bodiless body language of these creatures, The Angel offers no such respect in turn. In fact, The Angel remains perfectly still, a set of eyes trained on this new angel, a set on Dean, and a third set closed.
A moment stretches on, with the new angel watching Dean, Dean watching the new angel, and The Angel watching them both. New angel’s eyes dart over to The Angel and back. In an instant, a dozen of its wings fold back to reveal dozens of hands that reach through the bars of the prison and towards Dean. He flinches back, but one manages to get a fistful of his hair and pull. He’s dragged towards the bars to be scrutinized, both by the eyes coating its hands and those on its wings.
The attention lasts for only a moment before The Angel snaps its wings open, shoving this new angel’s hands away from Dean and physically separating them. It’s the first time Dean’s heard The Angel scream since he’s been in this cell.
In all his years of hearing the angels’ language, it’s never become anything but incomprehensible to Dean. The frequency they communicate in is painful to listen to, and he can barely make out individual words among the many voices that compose an angel’s voice. But while he has no clue what The Angel is saying, he imagines it translates somewhere in the vicinity of “Fuck off”. It doesn’t close its wings until the other angel is gone, and they’re once again alone. Dean has retreated back to his corner of the cell, hands over his ears, and he can’t meet The Angel’s eyes.
After a long moment of silence, Dean hears in his head, clear as a bell: I am sorry.
The voice is mechanical, stemming from nowhere but his own head. Dean startles, and his hands fly away from his ears. He looks over at The Angel, in time to see several of its mouths open at once. In time, it settles on one and closes all the others.
“I am sorry,” it says again, and its voice is nothing like the one in his head. It has the same quality of distortion as all the other angels, like it’s spoken through a halfway-broken intercom, but instead of a series of overlapping voices, The Angel’s voice sounds like it’s being spoken on the wings of thousands of angry hornets.
“Can you understand me?” it asks.
Dean glares at it, “Stay out of my head.”
The Angel’s rings begin to spin slower, and it tucks its still-flared wings behind itself. It looks almost humbled by what he’s said, which is almost more unsettling than hearing its voice in his head.
“I am sorry that my reprimand of Uriel hurt you. No other angels should bother you now.”
Dean wants to leave it at that, but his curiosity gets the better of him. “Uriel?”
The Angel blinks a hundred eyes at once, “The cherub that approached you earlier.”
“You have names?”
The angel opens its mouth, but the buzzing interference becomes too loud to make out its words. It’s looking at him strangely as it schools its voice and responds, “Yes. Our Father named us on the day of our creation. I am Castiel.”
So, his guardian angel is named Castiel. “Nice to meet you, I guess.”
The angel ruffles its wings, and its bull head tips towards Dean. “It is nice to make your acquaintance, Dean Winchester.”
Dean starts talking more, after that. Castiel never fails to respond to him, which makes him think that maybe the silence was starting to grate at him as much as Dean. He’s become a ‘him’ in Dean’s head now too, which fits about as well as ‘it’ did, but it seems more polite. Not like Dean ever needs to refer to him in third person anyways.
He starts with small things, questions like “What are you?” (A seraph) and “Why are you guarding me?” (To keep you safe, Dean). He tries not to provoke Castiel, but his calm is endless.
Eventually he asks, “Why are you keeping me here?”
“You need to be rebuilt before you can return to earth.”
Thoughts of torture flash through Dean’s mind, of bodies brought back from death on the rack wrong as a new form of torment. He tries to avoid projecting his fear, but Castiel seems to read it anyway.
“I do not mean in the way you are thinking.” He pauses, and Dean’s heart keeps jackrabbiting in his chest, “This body you wear now is nothing more than a vessel. Your true body remains on earth, ripped apart and decaying. It needs to be rebuilt before you can be restored to life.”
And if that doesn’t just piss Dean off. “So I’m supposed to be back on earth right now, and you’ve been delaying? I don’t know if Sam has even lived this long without me, and you’ve just been keeping this from me?”
Castiel bristles, “I cannot just create a new body. I need your consent, or it will not bind properly with your soul. And your brother is fine.”
“Sister. Sammy’s my sister, asshole.”
Castiel’s heads tilt to the side, and then back, “I apologize. Your sister is alive. Less than four months have passed on earth.”
Something in Dean’s chest sings, and something else breaks. “Is she alright?”
Castiel’s bull head snorts, “The last report I received, she was working with another hunter, a man named Jake Talley.”
Dean relaxes. Jake’s a soldier. He couldn’t save Sam’s life the first time, but he’ll be a good guardian while Dean’s not there.
“I believe she would be much better off with you there as well. You’re a good influence.”
He smiles, “Shit, Cas, that ain’t true.”
“I admit, I have not been the one to observe you and your sister’s lives on earth. I am unable to monitor her now. However, the reports I have received over the years paint a very clear picture. She is better with you there.”
Dean ducks his head.
Cas reaches for him, gestures for Dean to meet his eyes. “This is not a decision made lightly. The body you had on earth was wonderfully made, and the bodies you were given here in hell were not.”
The words sound sincere, but they taste sour. “Gee, thanks.” Dean tucks back into himself, “You gonna tell me I mangled it next? That my body was a temple? I’ve heard it all before, just so you know.”
The human head facing away from him jerks, “You misunderstand me.”
“Really? Because I’ve heard enough from religious nutjobs with real strong opinions about me and my sister, and I don’t care who you work for, I don’t want to hear it.”
“I was referring to the shaping of your body at your own hands, Dean.”
“Angels cannot create. We can simply observe, as the world shapes itself. To take the form you were given and mould it to the correct image of yourself… is noble. Holy.”
“Maybe that is the wrong word to use, for you. But your work is admirable, however I choose to describe it. I understand how hard it’s been for you, to have that autonomy stripped away.” He folds his wings behind himself, “I will respect your decision, even if that decision is simply that you need more time.”
It takes a minute for Dean to respond, and when he does it’s quiet. “Yeah, it’s. I think - I think I need more time.”
Castiel nods. “I understand.” He turns away, and the cell falls silent.
“What are you hiding back there?” Dean’s not sure what prompts him to ask, but the angel - Castiel - has seemed friendlier in the passing weeks. He’s accepted Dean’s questions without complaint, and the human head he keeps turned away from Dean has begun to gnaw at him.
Castiel doesn’t respond immediately, but he doesn’t always, so Dean tries again. “Cas?”
The raven turns to look at him, staring with one eye. “What is it?”
“What’s your third head look like?”
“It’s a human face. I thought you would have figured that out by now.” The raven’s pupil constricts and dilates, never moving from Dean’s face.
“Yeah, obviously, but what’s it look like? I wanna put a face to the name.”
“The faces you are acquainted with are just as much my own as the one I hide from you. The time isn’t right for you to see it.”
So it’s some God’s plan bullshit, which Castiel still follows to the letter, which pisses Dean off to no end. “Why not? It’s not like I’ll ever see you again after this.”
The bull head huffs, “Don’t be so sure of that, Dean.”
“What, I’m so special that you all will break your two thousand year streak of never showing up on earth? Of not helping us?” This has become a point of contention for Dean, although he’s not sure Castiel has noticed.
Both heads blink, “You are that special, Dean. I don’t know how you don’t understand this by now. The forces of Heaven aren’t mobilized for every soul sent to Hell in a crossroads deal. You and your sister are to be incredibly important in the year to come.”
“But you won’t let me see your face.”
“You will see it in time.” And what the hell is that supposed to mean? Same cryptic bullshit he says to get out of answering every third one of Dean’s questions.
“When will I see it? You’re really going to come to earth and show me your face then? What’s so important that you can’t show me here?”
Cas bows his heads, “You won’t like the answer.”
Dean rolls his eyes, “Half of your answers are bullshit, anyway. At least give me the full truth.”
“I wear the face of my vessel on my third head. It has recently changed to the face of James Novak, whose body I will be inhabiting when I leave this place and begin my duty on Earth, by your side.”
“Hold on-” Cas sighs, “You’re going to be possessing some poor sonofabitch if you get topside?”
“There’s no need to be so upset. It’s different from demonic possession.”
“And how the hell is that? A meat suit’s a meat suit, Cas, whether you’re a demon or God’s special princess!” Dean gestures at Cas to emphasize his last point. “You’re really gonna sit there and tell me that taking control of some poor sap’s body is okay when you do it?”
Dean throws up his hands.
“You don’t understand. Angels are required to have consent to possess someone. Consent that can be revoked at any time.”
“And you think that consent is given willingly? You appear to some idiot in your full heavenly splendor, you really think he’s gonna be able to say yes to you possessing him with complete understanding of what he’s getting into?”
“He does not have to understand. In the case of my vessel, especially. He prays for a reprieve from his life, asks constantly for a sign that God cares for him. He begs specifically for angelic intervention. I can provide him comfort, in being my vessel.”
“You really believe that?”
Cas nods only his bull head. The raven has looked away. “I do. James Novak is a troubled man. He is disillusioned with his church, is on rocky footing with his wife, and is terrified of letting his daughter see him struggle. He has begun to lose faith in God, so he prays instead to his guardian angel. Those prayers have been rerouted to me ever since I was informed that I would be taking him as my next vessel.”
Dean’s throat twists, “Your next vessel? How many have you had?”
“I have only had one, before him. His great great grandmother. She was a strong woman, and her bloodline has carried my grace ever since I inhabited her.”
The raven looks back at Dean, head thrown back in an unspoken challenge. He doesn’t rise to the challenge.
They sit in silence for a few minutes, Dean’s stomach twisting at the thought of the man Castiel will be possessing if he allows for his body to be rebuilt. As much as he wants to get back to Sam, to Bobby, he doesn’t want to put some schmuck through the ringer to get there.
“It would not be your fault, if I did possess him.”
“I’m getting real sick of the mind-reader schtick Cas.”
His wings flicker, “You’re exceedingly easy to read. I have no need to invade your privacy to know what you’re thinking.”
Dean crosses his arms in front of his chest, and schools his face into what he hopes is a neutral, “Really? What am I thinking now, Brainiac?”
“You’re angry at me. You’re defensive of my vessel, even though you have never met him and likely never will. You think that I’m just as bad as your tormentors here. You’re thinking of the time your sister got possessed and you didn’t put the signs together in time. Now that I’ve said that, you’re thinking about how she prays every day. How if an angel wanted her, she’d say yes to them in a heartbeat.”
“You expect me to believe you weren’t dipping into my head for that?”
“Angels do not read minds, Dean. It was written on your face, in your body language. It is programmed into me to read your body as well as I speak the language of my angelic siblings.”
Legs pulled back to his chest, Dean says, “You’re a heartless bastard, you know that?”
The bull looks down at him through its lashes, “Angels have no need for feelings. I have a duty to Heaven, and I intend to see it through, whether or not you approve. James Novak will be kept safe in my possession, and his family will be cared for. It is more than you can say of the people you save.”
“Just say you give a damn about the guy, and I’ll drop it.”
“Angels are not supposed to feel.”
“I look like I give a rat’s ass about ‘supposed to’?”
“You look like you care very much about what I am going to say next. I do not feel, Dean. I will care for my vessel as is my duty but I don’t have the capacity to ‘give a damn’ about him.”
Even Castiel cannot read the heartbreak on Dean’s face at his words. He lies back against the wall of his cell, and looks at the ceiling. “You really don’t feel, Cas?”
I do. “I do not.”
“Guess that’s that, then.”
They’re uneasy for a while, after that. Dean starts telling stories about Sam, and Cas listens in silence. He only prompts Dean once, but the way he smiles at it makes Cas’ fire crackle and snap between his rings. Their companionship gradually becomes less strained.