Dean had absolutely no recollection of the week after Sam's death. He knew it had been more or less a week from the number of times a pair of goons had entered his cell to force him to eat and drink.
There were no more interrogations; or if there were any, Dean was so lost inside his head that any questions asked would have been pointless.
Not that the question was hard to guess. Where is the sword?
It was the rain that brought Dean back. He found himself staring at the small window, watching something hit the stone and bounce back up, the sound of waterfalls all around him. It took him some time to realize that he was staring at water and that it was pouring buckets outside.
The sudden understanding that Sam was gone forever lit a fire inside Dean that threatened to consume him whole if not allowed an exit.
There wasn't much inside the cell that he could use to vent his anger and frustration. Dean kicked the solid door until his toes were bloody and sore, punched the walls of solid stone as if they were made of jello, stopping only when his legs could no longer hold him up.
Dean folded down like a wooden puppet, all strings cut at once, gravity registering with all its might in one go.
He found himself laying down, not really understanding how he had come to be in that position. The floor stones were cold and wet, a welcome balm to Dean's throbbing limbs.
Sam's look of surprise as they cut off his hand flashed in Dean's mind. He closed his eyes hard, stars popping inside like popcorns, but still the images would not stop coming.
The tears came next, a diluvium of stockpiled grief that had waited as long as it could to get out, but would not be stopped now.
Eyes sore and nose so stuffed it felt twice its size, Dean rolled to his side, knees drawn up and curling into a ball. His gaze fell on the broken doll, lying discarded and forgotten by the corner.
Dean dragged himself over, mustering up just enough energy to push against the floor and slide. The wet floor made for a slippery surface.
His hands closed around the doll and he pulled the paper out. His hands were clumsy and stiff as Dean tried to unfold the yellowish paper and continued to read.
"I was fourteen, and thought myself already a man. I had grown tired of having to take care of my own mother, as well as my little sister. Couldn't leave both of them behind though. Maybe I should've.
If I had left my little sister back home, or even taken her to some orphanage or a police station, she might've still be… safe.
It was my fault she ended up in this place. I know that. It seemed only fair that I would spend the rest of my life here. And even though I've accepted my punishment, it still doesn't change what happened.
We were living in the streets, barely getting by on stolen food and wallets. With time, we developed a routine to pick people's pockets that would put Oliver Twist to shame.
We even had stage names. I was the Hawk and she was the Cat.
When they caught us, at first, I thought they were with the police. In a way, that wouldn't've been so bad.
It was only when they brought us to this place instead of a police station that I realized my mistake.
They took pictures of Cat the first day we got here. Just her. They said I was too old."
They had killed Sam in hopes of breaking him, Dean knew that. He could almost laugh at how badly their plan had backfired.
Instead of crushing his spirit, Sam's death had given Dean purpose; his secrets would go with him to his grave and, if possible, the ones who'd killed Sam would join Dean in the afterlife. He was actually looking forward to it.
Dean had fallen into a routine of sorts. He woke, lay in his cell waiting for his captors and accepted whatever torture they had instored for him that day without saying a word.
Usually, it was the same process of dunking him in water upside down. Sometimes, it was the beatings or a high-pressure water hose. It didn't matter much to him. the end result was always pain.
Dean was never aware of when they gave up for the day; he would just wake up in his cell, a bowl of washed out food by his side. That was the time of the day when he would pull the paper from inside the doll and read a little bit more. And then he would fall asleep, wake up and start it all over again.
"My little sister was scared, asking me when would we go home. I don't know which if us was more afraid. Whatever the reason they had taken those pictures, I knew that something bad was going to happen.
A week later, they took Cat away for a short time. I was out of my mind with fear, spent the entire time screaming at the closed door. I was sure they would never bring her back. They did, though."
Dean woke up back on his cell. His clothes were still wet from the day's 'festivities' and his mouth tasted of seaweed and shit from all the times he hadn't been able to keep his lips closed. It was a ritual that was becoming old.
"Fuck!" he let out to no one in particular, the single word doing little to dissipate his frustration. He decided to provide it with some friends. "Fuck the fuckery fuckers and the motherfucking cockroaches that fuck them into life!"
He would've gone on, had it not been for the violent cough that racked his chest.
"You shouldn't swear," a small voice ventured over his coughing fit.
Dean jerked, body on high alert as he flung himself against the wall for defense before realizing that the voice was coming from inside the cell. Or that it sounded way too young to belong to any of his captors.
His eyes were puffy and throbbing from the salt in the water, vision too blurry to be of any use. From the lack of light coming through the slit on the wall, Dean would guess that it was nighttime, but he could just make out a small shape, huddled against the opposite wall.
He had a cellmate.
"Who are you? What are you doing here?" Dean questioned, covertly moving to get a better look at his new companion. Maybe it was a dwarf.
"I'm Matt," came the answer, even as the small figured shrunk on itself, trying to become even smaller. "Are you one of the bad men?"
The trembling way in which 'bad men' was spoken gave Dean a really, really bad feeling about the age of his cellmate.
Struggling to his feet, Dean narrowed the distance between the two of them, getting his first real look at the new addition. He had been wrong about the dwarf part.
Matt, as it turned out, was probably not even seven.
"Motherfuckers!" Dean let out in anger, running a trembling hand through his hair. He wasn't sure what pissed him off the worst: the fact that these people had no qualms about putting a little kid in a place like that or their pretty obvious intent to use the kid to get Dean to do what they wanted.
"It won't work, you know that, right?"
Though he couldn't see the face of his questioner, Dean knew the man in the shadow was confused by his statement from the long pause that followed.
"Want to be a little more specific, Dean?"
Dean snorted. As if they didn't know. It was such an obvious tactic that it was almost offensive of his captors to assume that Dean would not see right through it. "The kid, in my cell," he pointed out with a snarl. "I told you I don't have the sword anymore. Hurting that boy won't change that."
The man laughed, sounding genuinely amused by Dean's claim. "Such a knight in shinny armor," he said, sharing a laugh with the guards. "Don't worry about the boy, Dean. He's much too valuable for me to be use as a mere leverage against you."
Dean shuddered at the implications he could hear in the other man's voice. Blood was already rushing to his head, from the position he once again found himself in, and the loud beating of his heart masked every other word that reached Dean's ears. Still, enough had gone through for him to guess the what the man was saying. Each guess, however, was more stomach churning than the next. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Keep it from your mind, it does not concern you," the man said dryly. "Now… where is the sword, Dean?"
"She told me about a big room with lots of screens, each with an unfocused face. She called it the room of the ghosts, because that was how they looked.
There was only her in the room, Cat and the ghosts, she told me through tears. They didn't speak at her, but long numbers would occasionally show up in this or that ghost's screen. The ones with no numbers became dark, going off one by one until, in the end, the screen with the longest number was the only one lit.
'I'm your new daddy' a scary voice had told Cat then. And then she was returned to me, trembling in fear."
"Are my parents here yet? Have they come to get me?"
Like the man holding them prisoner, Matt only had one question for Dean every time he returned to their cell. For some reason, the kid seemed to be under the impression that his parents had misplaced him and were currently searching for his whereabouts. Any time now, they would be coming for him and apologize for their mistake with a large bowl of ice cream.
Each day, Dean was forced to crush that hope by saying that no, he hadn't seen them around.
Today was no different. Matt started crying.
"Look, kid, I know your mom and dad are doing all they can to get you back," Dean hurried to say, crouching down in front of the little boy. "You just need to give them a little more time, okay?"
Big brown eyes, framed by wet long lashes, looked up to meet Dean's gaze. His heart clenched at the amount of pain in that look.
"Ho—how do u—you know that?" Matt asked between sobs. "You haven't seen them."
Sam used to do that. Look at him with those sad eyes and ask him where their dad was, why wasn't he home yet, how did Dean knew he wasn't dead. Dean had never managed to quite master the art of lying through his teeth when he heart was just as heavy and concerned as Sam's.
So he had learned to divert attention instead. "I didn't see them, but I know they're thinking about you, Matt," Dean started, looking around desperately for a way to reassure the little boy's feelings. The dark and naked cell offered little help in return.
Dean's eyes landed on the doll, carefully stashed away in the niche on the wall, waiting for the next chance he had of reading. Dean picked it up, carefully taking out the piece of paper and stashing it in his pocket.
"They gave me something for you," Dean voiced, grabbing the doll and presenting it to the kid. The thing's dress was soggy and ratty and its rag arms flopped pathetically by its sides.
"Dolls are for girls," Matt pointed out as soon as he had dried his eyes enough to see what Dean was offering. "I'm not a girl."
"I can see that," Dean admitted with a smile. He could also see that, despite Matt's declaration, his eyes were round with longing to touch something that his mom and dad had brought for him. "But boys play with dolls too," Dean added with an all-knowing look. "My little brother Sam use to... all the time. And he was the bravest of men."
It was hard to talk about Sam without his voice breaking or his heart cease to beat inside his chest. The very word brought back to his eyes images of Sam's last breath, of the way his brother had looked at him, not really understanding what was happening or why he had to suffer such a pointless death. "Have I told you about Sam?" Dean pushed through, feeling disconnected from his own voice.
The words tumbling free from his lips were hard at first, large stones that threatened to choke him as they passed. And then they started flowing, like a broken dam. It hurt as hell to talk about his dead brother, but it also made Dean feel like Sam was right there beside him.
"Sam was your little brother?" Matt asked, as he took the doll with care, nesting himself against the warmth of Dean's body, waiting to hear the rest.
Dean nodded. "There was this one time, when we were both a little older than you, that we stole a whole box of fireworks and lit the sky on fire," Dean started, the smell of moss and human dejects replaced by the smell of the forest at night, clean and fresh and alive. The colors of the fireworks Dean was painting with his words were as bright as the day it had happened. "The day after that, me, Sam and our dad, we hunted our first werewolf."
At the mention of the werewolf, Matt looked up, eyes round with wonder. "Werewolves aren't real."
"Just because you've never seen one, doesn't mean they don't exist," Dean assured him with a wink and a smile.
"There really are werewolves? What about vampires?" Matt asked, coming closer and closer until he was practically on Dean's lap. "Are they real too? Are they really mean and scary?"
"They are real, the few that remain," Dean said with a nod. "But not all of the them are mean. Same as werewolves. In fact, Sam fell in love with one..."
"We tried to escape the very next day, as the guard came in to bring us our food. Just like our act in the streets, the Cat pretended she was sick while I stayed hidden, a loose piece of stone in my hands to be used as a weapon.
The guard was so big...
I had to jump in the air to have a chance at hitting him in the head and leave him unconscious or dead. I didn't really care which at that point. I made too much noise jumping.
I only remember watching him turn and thinking 'too soon'.
He must've hit me, because almost a day had passed when I woke up next. I woke to my sister's screams."
Matt wasn't in their cell when Dean came to next. The absence of the boy sent Dean's heart hammering inside his chest, fearful for the unknown.
He still had no clue why the kid was there, but it was becoming more and more clear that the kid's presence there had little to do with Dean's uncooperative spirit.
And, despite his best resolutions, Dean had grown attached to the kid. How could he not, when Dean and Matt only had each other to keep themselves grounded, to keep each other attached to reality?
Dean heard the footsteps outside before the hinges on the door moved. He jumped to his feet, ready to press the guards for answers or die trying. He had failed to help that stranger, failed to save Sam; Dean had one more chance with Matt.
The guards never made it past the doorframe, carelessly shoving the little kid inside with one hard push.
Matt landed on his knees in the middle of the room, blinking owlishly at Dean, seeming uncertain of where he was. There were tracks of old tears racing down his dirty cheeks.
"Hey, buddy," Dean started, kneeling in front of the kid so that their eyes met. "You okay? Where were you?"
Matt's little arms closed around Dean's neck as a sob broke down and fresh tears took advantage of old tracks. "They took me to the bad men with no faces," the little boy stuttered in between whimpers. "It was scary. I don't want to go there ever again."
"What did you do to that kid?" the words were out of Dean's mouth before he could stop to ponder the wisdom of coming out and press his captor for answers. "Are you such an evil bastard that you get off on scaring little boys?"
Held between two goons, there wasn't much that Dean could do except shooting his mouth off and hope the other man took the bait and answered.
Matt had sobbed all night, incoherent in his answers about where he had been and what had happened. All he would talk was about the faceless men on TV and how that had scared him.
The situation was too similar to the journal he was reading. Dean was aware of that fact. So similar in fact, that Dean had to wonder if his captor hadn't planted the letter in the first place.
The only thing that made Dean think the letter was real was the fact that his captor gained absolutely nothing with such a ruse. Other than fucking with Dean's head.
He had made no threats on the kid; had not offered Dean the chance to free the boy in exchange for the sword's location; hadn't even mentioned the boy at all, save to answer Dean's questions.
For all Dean knew, the kid's presence in his cell was simply a matter of space shortage.
After what had happened the previous day, Dean wanted nothing more but to read the rest of the story and find out what had happened to the two children who had also been held captive there. Even though he was aware that the events told in that piece of paper had long passed and whatever had happened to those children was a thing of the past, Dean needed to know that they were okay, that something good had happened to them.
It had been impossible to leave Matt's side all night. The boy was out of his mind with fear and the feeling of helplessness and anger had just seethed into such a rage that all Dean could think of was getting some answers.
"Your mind can only bear to see me as a monster, Dean," the man said, amused even as he watched Dean's feet being secured and his body pulled upside down. "I told you before, I am a business man, not a monster," he explained patiently. "First you thought I wanted to use him against you, now you complain because I leave him by your side? Make up your mind, Dean."
Dean's blood ran cold. "What sort of business?"
It was impossible to see the man's face, but Dean could feel his cold smile in his bones.
"You know what sort of business, Dean... you've encountered it before, haven't you? Club D'lights?"
Dean felt dizzy, and even though he was hanging upside down like a bat, he knew it had nothing to do with his position. Even after all these years, that name still left a bad taste in his mouth.
It had been one of his first hunting jobs on his own, one that his father would have never allowed if he even dreamed what Dean was set on hunting: a succubus.
But Dean had been twenty-four, hungry to prove himself as a hunter and step out of his father's shadow. He had been so sure that he could succeed where countless others had failed that he didn't even considered any other option. As it was, a succubus was no beast to hunt alone.
The thing had based its operations in a relatively small town, managing to stay well under the radar of most hunters because its victims had absolutely no connection with one other and were, in most cases, outsiders. No one had ever made the connection.
Dean had only caught trace of that succubus because he had literally stumbled across it feeding on some poor fellow in a back alley of a nameless bar. The image was hard to be mistaken for any other sort of back alley sexual encounter, because other than the fact that her mouth was wrapped around the guy's cock, the blue energy surrounding them both was a dead give away.
Dean had shouted, trying to divert its attention while he dug around his pocket for the flask that Pastor Jim had offered him. The woman-like demon had hissed at him, angry that he had interrupted her meal and lunged for him instead.
She stopped midway, screeching in agony and bursting in flames, as the holy water hit her flesh.
Holy water, while it stung as fire, was not enough to kill a succubus. Only after it had run away, screaming into the night, had Dean noticed the wooden cross and rosary on the floor.
The succubus's victim, as it was, had been a fellow hunter. Ritchie.
Ritchie had been the one to tell Dean all about Club D'lights, a place where the most devious, most illegal fantasies became true. A place where the scum of the Earth went to satisfy their most vile sexual cravings. Torture and murder poorly masked as BDSM.
And, of course, the nastier the sexual depravation, the tastier the meal for the succubus running the place.
The following day, Dean had sneaked into Club D'Lights, posing as a PR for an important big shot that wanted to visit the place. It had just been a matter of going to the FBI's most wanted and pick a name.
All doors had opened for him. They asked what sort of D'light Dean would like to try and he had asked for their most exotic flavor, thinking that that would lead him straight to the succubus.
They took him to their most requested and exquisite operative instead. Cathy.
When he laid eyes on her, Dean told himself that she must just be a very small person. It had to be that. There could be no other option.
With the elaborate hair and the heavy makeup, at first glance, the lie could almost be believable. But it was still a lie.
Cathy was only eight and she already had a list of high paying customers. The empty look in her too old, blue eyes, was one that forever would haunt him. He was too late to save her, Dean knew that.
It took Dean a while to convince Cat that he wasn't really a customer. That in fact, just using the word in her presence, with all its implications, was enough to make him lose his lunch. He even showed her a fake FBI badge, in hopes to convince her.
The pure relief and gratitude that beamed from that child when she finally believed Dean's assurances that he wasn't there to hurt her had been heart breaking.
She had told him everything.
There were more like her in there. She saw them at meal times. She also had told Dean where to find the succubus. The 'beautiful lady' as she called it, was in the basement.
It was a fast kill, too fast to put a dent on the anger that Dean was feeling at the time. A couple of words in Latin, some holy water and a mirror to trap the succubus reflection.
As Dean had sent that mirror crashing to the ground, shattering the sex-demon into a million pieces, he knew his job wasn't done.
That succubus had not been the only –or even the worst- monster in there. After he had dispatched it, Dean had worked his way up through the rest of the scum.
That was the only time in his life that Dean broke their father's rule of not killing humans. As he had figured though, there were no humans there other than the kids he had freed. The rest, Dean had burned to the ground.
Dean never forgot the faces of those kids, each and every one of them. He never forgot Cathy and her old eyes.
Dean never told Ritchie about what he found in that club. Although slightly older than him, Dean could tell that Ritchie had a gentle soul that wasn't really cut out for the ugliness of the hunting business.
After leaving that town, smoke still high in the sky from the burning charcoal that used to be Club D'lights, Dean kept waiting for the other shoe to fall. Either the police, knocking on his door with charges of mass murder, or the owner of the place, looking for revenge. No one ever came.
"They were taking her away and, unlike before, I knew she would not be returned to me this time. Weak and dizzy, I ran to her, not thinking that the guards were too big for me to fight, not thinking that I no longer had my makeshift weapon.
Her little hands were extended, reaching out to me. Her doll, the only one she had, dangled wildly from her fingers. In my sister's eyes, I could see the hope that I could save her.
I tried, but I failed.
Blindly fighting my way to her, my fingers closed around fabric and I imagined I had succeeded. As long as I was grabbing on to my little sister, they would not be able to take her away. I pulled as hard as a I could, with all of my strength until the fabric gave away and I was thrown back.
The door closed on my sister's sobs and I was left here. In my hands, I had the body of her doll, head ripped off. She had been holding it so tight...
It was strange, but at the time, it bothered me more that I had broken her doll than the fact that my sister had been sold like a bag of chips and had been taken to her owner. That thought was too ugly and painful for me to even consider, I suppose.
One year later, I can still barely voice it.
But someone needs to know. Someone needs to stop them.
I wished that that someone was could've been me, but I see now that my part in this story is only to warn others of what happens here. And to remember her.
Cat was my sister and she was only seven when she was taken away. Remember her. Remember Catherine-"
Dean let the piece of paper fall like it had burned him. His eyes were stinging and he couldn't seem to catch his breath.
Catherine. Cathy. Cat.
It couldn't possibly be the same little girl, and yet...
Dean picked the paper up frantically, going back to the beginning of the letter, searching for some sort of clue that this was not the same child, that the Cathy in that piece of paper hadn't become the Cathy with dead blue eyes that had helped Dean kill a succubus.
"... or you're just as trapped in here as we were. My little sister and me."
Cathy's older brother had died in that place, never knowing what had become of his sweet little sister, never dreaming of the horrors she had been forced to endure.
Dean was envious of him.
It was impossible to look at Matt and not see Cathy and the other kids reflected in his face.
Dean could no longer lie to himself. In between their captor's comments and the letter he had found, Dean knew now exactly what was in store for Matt. He was pretty sure that the room full of ghosts that Cat had seen and the faceless men that had scared Matt so much were the same place. Some sort of room where 'buyers' could anonymously look at the 'merchandize' and offer their price.
Club D'lights must've been only one of the many places that the bastards supplied with kids.
And Matt would end up in one of them.
Dean wanted to punch a hole through the wall. Maybe one big enough to get them out.
He needed to take that kid out of there before it was too late.
Escape, however, had been on his mind since day one and still Dean hadn't found a way out.
"You're frowning," Matt called Dean out, small face trying to mimic the contortions that the older man's forehead was doing. "Do your eyes hurt? My mom always frowned like that when her eyes hurt."
"I'm thinking," Dean confessed, his mind cooking up the most deranged plans that had no inkling of working.
Dean had tried to escape by himself and failed at every turn. He had even tried calling Cass for help, but the angel was, for some reason, silent.
With his brother dead and Bobby's whereabouts unknown, there was little hope that someone outside was working on a rescue. It was up to him.
"Now you just look like you're pooping," Matt informed Dean.
For all the shitty ideas that his brain was coming up with, Dean supposed Matt was right.
The pool of water seemed like their best bet as an exit point. With his head being dunked in there repeatedly, Dean had been given ample opportunities to spot the large grate at the bottom, large enough to allow a grown man through. His guess was that the pool was natural and it drained directly to whichever span of salt water that fed it.
The maze was Dean's biggest problem. Every day the guards took him through a different route to the chamber with the pool, but after all the time he had spend there, Dean had been able to pick up the three alternatives that they kept using.
All he needed to deal with was the gas. Still, a plan was already forming in Dean's mind.
When the noisy troll walked by, doing his door bolts checks, Dean was waiting. Matt was sleeping on Dean's usual spot, a ratty blanket filled with straw adding volume and length to his tiny body. It was an obvious deception, but Dean only needed the guards to be fooled for a second.
Footsteps sounded in the corridor and Dean's senses went into high alert. If there were more than one or two guards, if Matt moved too soon, if Dean's body was weaker than he'd figured… the whole plan would be over before it even started.
On his signal, Matt started to scream for help as loudly as he could. For a couple of minutes, Dean was sure that the guard was going to ignore the little boy's cries and just keep on walking.
Dean breathed a sigh of relief when he heard the jingle of keys and the door unlocking.
Two guards came in, one still holding the key and the other a gun. With guards' eyes on the body on the floor, Dean charged the guard one holding a weapon first.
Like the guards from before, the ones Dean had defeated in the corridor, these too had some training, but little practice.
The guard raised his gun to take aim, but forgot that the cell was too small to safely maneuver a fire weapon without catching himself or his partner in the line of fire. As soon as he raised his arm to shoot, he was within Dean's reach, who easily pulled his arm straight and aimed a vicious punch at the elbow, dislocating the member and catching the gun as it fell from numb fingers.
With one guard howling in pain on the floor, Dean turned his attention to the second one. "Don't move!" Dean yelled, halting the man's gesture of reaching for his own gun. "Hands down, real slow."
The guard's gulp echoed on the cell as he surrendered and waited for his fate.
Dean wanted to shoot both men. His finger was taut against the trigger, begging him to press just a little bit harder. Any 'human' working in such a sort of business didn't deserve his mercy.
Matt was looking right at him, eyes big and round, looking like a frightened rabbit that would bolt at the slightest noise. He was Dean's priority. He needed to get that kid out no matter what.
The guard fell down with a whimper as the gun crashed heavily with his skull, the other making a pathetic attempt at escape as Dean moved in his direction to apply the same recipe. Didn't do him much good.
Working on a hunch, Dean searched the guards' uniforms. He found what he was looking for in the first pocket. A gas mask. "Here," he said, handing one to Matt. "Put this over your nose and mouth."
The mask was so big for the little boy that Matt had to hold it in place with both hands, but it would do its job when the gas started to hit them.
Placing the second mask over his own face, Dean peeked into the corridor. Empty. "Come on, lets get out of here."
The corridors were deserted as they moved quickly through them. Dean was moving on muscle memory alone, letting his feet take him through the one of the routes he had walked countless times before.
When they arrived at the pool room, Dean was surprised at how close it actually was.
The door was bolted shut by an iron clasp. Praying that it was well tended enough to not make a racket as he pulled, Dean gave it a yank. The bold slid effortlessly under his hands. "Get in there, quickly," he whispered.
Matt hurried to comply, body pressed against the wall, tiny hands holding the mask so tightly against his face that his fingertips were white.
"We can take these off now," Dean took his mask off, making sure there was a smile underneath. The kid was already scared enough without Dean adding his unease to the matter. Which was why he hated what he had to do next. "You okay?"
Matt nodded emphatically, even as his eyes darted all over the room.
"I have to go check something out," Dean explained, telling himself that this was the only way. "And I need you to stay here, as quiet as mouse, okay?"
Another nod, head saying yes even as the kid's eyes told Dean that being left alone was the last thing that he wanted.
Dean needed to check the grate's mobility, and, if he could move it, see how far underwater they would have to swim to get outside. He couldn't risk taking the little boy in there blind.
Not knowing how long they had before the rest of the guards noticed their absence, Dean took a deep breath and dove.
The grate was rusty and heavy, salt water corroding the iron making it easier for Dean to break the clasps. A couple of good yanks and Dean could feel it break free.
Dean came up for air one more time, looked over to make sure that the door was still closed and Matt was okay, and went under a second time.
After squeezing himself through the grate opening, Dean counted the seconds. He had no idea how long Matt could hold his breath, but if the swim was over one minute, it would not be pretty.
Thirty seconds in and Dean was still traveling through the drain, feeling the pull of water rushing him forward. The idea that the trip could be too long for either of them to make it flickered crossed Dean's mind and was quickly discarded. They had to make it outside.
Forty-five seconds in and the dark tunnel started to grow lighter and lighter until Dean could see the surface above.
With a gasp, he immerged on a cave. The high ceiling was covered in shiny, white stalactites, like salt sculptured figures, guarding the exit. Fortunately for him, they were the only guards around.
The entrance to the cave was merely a few feet away, bright sunlight flooding the place in white. They had a way out!
Giddy with the prospect of telling the news to Matt, Dean made his return trip in even less time. All in all, he had left the kid alone for a little over two minutes.
When Dean's head popped back up in the poolroom, the place was no longer dark. And Matt was no longer alone.
"A smarter man would've kept on going, Dean."
Matt was softly crying, struggling against the guard holding him. Dean wanted to cry with him. They had been so close. If only they had a chance to try agai—
"Take him back to the cell. Mr. X will be here shortly to get him," the man in the shadow told the guard, paying no attention to the devastating effect his words were having on Dean.
"Dean," the man said, clasping his hands. "Dean, Dean... how shall we put this foolish idea of escape out of your mind?"
The world was moving at a pace so slow that it seemed to almost still. Through the fog that had settled over his mind, Dean was aware of what was happening to his body, like a spectator watching a boring show whose finale was already spoiled in advance.
They had started by breaking his right arm. Much like Dean had done with the guard in his cell, they grabbed the limb straight and kicked his elbow from the outside in. Dean felt the bone snap inside his brain, intense pain closing his throat around the guttural scream that was trying to get out.
The grate was still open; freedom was just an arm's reach away. Dean could still swim his way out with just one working arm. Once the pain numbed down, once hatred and desire to survive surpassed the agony, he knew he could do it.
But with only one working arm, there was no way he could take Matt with him and still swim fast enough to get them outside before he ran out of breath.
It was all over.
Matt's innocence was inside a sand clock and Dean could almost see the last grains ebbing away. After that, there would be nothing more left but broken glass.
"It doesn't have to be Matt, you know?"
His captor's words snapped Dean from his world of pain and despair. Clutching his broken arm to his chest, he looked up at the talking silhouette. The man had one hand on the door, as if he'd stopped just short of leaving.
"I'm a man of business, Dean," he reminded. "I care more about numbers than faces."
"What are you saying?" Dean rasped.
"That I can easily replace Matt with some other kid before his buyer arrives," he said matter of factly. "That given the right incentive, I might even let Matt go."
Bile rolled inside Dean's stomach. The man actually believed he was making an irresistible offer, replacing Matt with some other poor kid who would suffer horrors in his stead.
Matt would be free, yes. But for how long? How long until the next human lunatic or demon decided that mankind was overdue for extermination?
"You know what the good thing about being who I am is?" Dean asked flatly, looking straight at where he guessed his captor's eyes were. "It's knowing that there's actually a Hell," he hissed, "and that when you get there, one day, there will be thousands of demons waiting in line to fuck you in ways you cannot imagine, for eternity."
The man at the door stopped. For the first time since their interactions, Dean could feel anger seeping from the man's coolness. He'd finally struck a cord.
An idea had already begun to slowly creep inside Dean's mind, like hot lava eating up ground and destroying everything in its path. He couldn't take Matt from that place and he had just destroyed any chance of returning the young boy to his parents. There was still something that Dean could do to save Matt though.
Matt's eyes lit up when he saw Dean return to their cell, like he was some kind of savior that was going to make everything better.
One look at that hopeful face and Dean could no longer stop the tears from falling. He kept telling himself that this was the only way out, the only way he could spare Matt from a life of horrors. This was the only way to stop Matt from becoming another Cathy.
Dean was hardly convincing enough to fool himself.
"Have I told you about that one time Sam and me went to Heaven?" Dean started, his voice heavy with emotion.
Life had been unfair and ruthless with Matt. Dean could only hope that Heaven would treat him better. Who knew, maybe Dean's lie about Disneyworld actually became Matt's reality up there.
Dean hugged Matt one last time, telling himself that he had no right to seek comfort like that, but unable to stop himself.
When his hands closed around Matt's little throat, Dean was sure he wouldn't be strong enough to do it.
Cathy's room had been filled with stuffed animals. Dean remembered that clearly. He remembered how strongly the presence of teddy bears had clashed with the sex toys hanging from the walls.
The snap of bone under his fingers almost surprised Dean, even as he felt Matt go limp in his arms.
The little boy was free. He was going to keep his innocence.
And shadow man would have to find a way to explain to his Mr. X why his investment was dead.
The thought brought a smile to Dean's lips. The laughter that escaped after, had little to do with joy.
"You cost me a great deal of money, Dean."
Shadow man was pissed. Dean could tell just from the guarded way he spoke each word. Good. His day was about to get much worse.
"The least you can do to make it up to me, Dean, is telling me where the bloody sword is," the man went on. "I mean, why keep the pretense of honor and all that crap when you've just murdered a little kid?"
Dean bit his lips to stop himself from rising to the bait. After all, it wasn't like the man was making anything up. He had killed a child, for the first time in his life.
"Nothing to say?"
Dean kept his silence.
"You know, there are other ways to extract this information from your brain. I've been keeping things low tech up until now, but my patience isn't infinite."
Sam was gone, Bobby probably too and Dean's hands were soiled in the worst of ways. There was only one way to keep the sword's location safe and now, more than ever, Dean was willing to go there.
"Where is the sword, Dean?"
When he felt the shift in gravity as the rope loosened, Dean closed his eyes and smiled. As his head hit the water, he did the opposite of what the human body is programmed to do. Dean opened his mouth and took a deep breath of salt water.
From above, he could see the distorted forms of his captor and his guards. They were counting the seconds, trusting that, like before, Dean was holding his breath.
The edges of the world starting dimming and Dean urged them to fade faster. This was his way out. If all went well, he would be having dinner with Sam at the Roadhouse soon.
There was no reaper this time around. No bright light at the end of tunnel. Just... nothingness.
There was a soft, cushioned seat beneath him. Sun light heating his face.
"You can open your eyes now, Dean," a voice said, ice clinking inside a glass decorating the background. "You're not dead."
Disappointment was not a sentiment that most would experience at hearing those words and yet, it was all that Dean could feel. He had failed.
"No, you haven't," the same voice added. "In fact, you passed the test with flying colors."
Dean opened his eyes.
He was on a balcony, overlooking a vast stretch of wetland. Thin veins of water covered the surface, shiny diamond strings under the sun. The balcony itself was made of large, dark grey blocks of stone, rising behind him in a high tower. A castle.
He was in a frigging castle! And in front of him...
The man was a stranger and yet, familiar to Dean. He was the man in the shadows, demanding the sword's location endlessly; he was the stranger on his knees, begging silently to be spared; he was Sam, just before he died; he was Dean as he made the hardest decision of his life; he was Matt, looking so hopeful at Dean; he was a man dressed in black that Dean had met before, on a train filled with souls. "Michael."
"Hello, Dean," Michael greeted him. "It has been a while."
Dean jump to his feet, walking to the edge of the balcony. Several feet below, a courtyard with old cannons and trebuchets was on display. The massive wooden doors where closed. "What do you mean I 'passed the test'?"
His arm, pulsing in pain before, was as good as new now, Dean noticed. He ran a hand over his chin, feeling nothing but a faint stubble instead of a beard.
Michael sighed. "You will not find this amusing," he started. "But it was necessary to ensure that the sword was in good hands."
"Damn right I don't find this amusing!" Dean let out, hands turning to fists as he fought the urge to smash the archangel's face into pulp. "How do get off on playing with people's lives like that? Sam? Matt? Me?"
"None of it was real, Dean," the archangel assured him. "Matt, your brother, Bobby, even the man you did not know, they're all alright."
"Given the circumstances, I feel less than inclined to trust your lying bastard words," Dean spat, turning his back on the archangel.
None of it had been real. And yet, it had felt more than real to Dean. The loss of his brother, the murder of Matt and all for what? "Why? Why go through all this trouble now? Why fuck with me after giving your blessing to use the sword?"
"Because it is in times of peace that soldiers grow weak." The hand on his shoulder was unwelcome, and yet the warmth and serenity that seeped through the touch were like a soothing balm after a nasty sunburn. "You know as well as I do the importance of keeping the sword safe."
"Well, I don't want the fucking thing," Dean said, turning around in anger. "You wanted it so much, you take it."
"The sword is yours, Dean," Michael said calmly, hands extended in Dean's direction. In his palm, the familiar piece of charcoal that hid the long sword. "You've proven that you're worthy to be its protector."
"By allowing my brother to die? Or by killing a little kid?" Dean asked bitterly. His fingers hitched to touch the sword, but he stopped himself.
"By proving that you are ready to give up everything that you are, every principle that you value, every person that you love, to keep it safe."
Dean's shoulders sagged. Deep down, he knew that the archangel was right; it was his methods, however, that made Dean want to do nothing more than spit in his smug face.
"Don't be a child Dean," Michael chided him. "Hate me all you want, but take what it's yours."
"Was everything an illusion?"
The archangel's expression softened. He knew exactly what Dean was really asking.
"Thomas killed himself shortly after writing that letter," Michael explained. "He was under our protection when you freed his sister from that hellish place. I recreated the letter from his memories."
"And Cathy?" Dean asked, his voice all but a faint whisper. Part of him was terrified to hear the answer.
It was strange to see the archangel smile so openly. "Cathy joined the FBI. Her crime unit specializes in missing people. Last year alone, they uncovered two child-slavery organizations and put an end to their crimes."
"She's still hoping to find the nice 'special agent' who saved her," Michael added with a smirk that was too similar to Dean's.
The simple words 'saved her' were like ambrosia to his ears. He would never admit to Michael how much he had needed to hear that.
Dean grabbed the sword from the archangel's hands, the burned metal instantly becoming bright and long in his hands. He'd forgotten how beautiful and light it was. "We'll need to discuss your testing methods in the near future, you know that?"
"Hide it better next time, will you?" the archangel said, even as his body started to become pure light. "And call Sam. He worries."
"Prick," Dean let out between his teeth, pulling his cell phone from his jeans' pocket. The gesture was so familiar that he didn't even pause to question how long that cell had been there. "Hey!" he called out before the archangel disappeared altogether. "Where the hell are we anyway?"
Through the light, Michael smiled again. "One of my castles. In France." And then he was gone.
"One of your cas—" Dean mumbled, dialing Sam's number. "What the hell am I supposed to do with that?" he yelled at the empty air.
"Dean? Dean is that you?"
Sam's voice called Dean back to reality. It was good to hear his brother alive and breathing again.
"Where the hell have you been, you idiot? We've been waiting for that coffee and donuts for hours now!"
Dean's eyebrows curled in confusion. He had spent more than three months trapped inside the walls of that castle and Sam and Bobby were still waiting on the breakfast?
"Fucking angels," Dean whispered, shaking his head.
"What was that?"
"Coffee's probably a little cold by now, Sam," Dean replied with a tired sigh.
The change in Sam's tone was so drastic and fast that it would leave anyone else dizzy. "Dean... are you okay? Did something happen? Where are you?"
"Yeah... about that," Dean said, stopping his brother from asking any more questions. He could hear the whole story once Dean was home. "Is Cass around? I need a lift."
"Lift?" Sam's voice was beginning to sound downright alarmed. "Did you crash the Impala? Is that it?"
"I'm okay, Sam," Dean reassured him. "And the car better be right where I left her," he mumbled, more to an absent Michael than to his brother.
"Where are you?"
"Michael's castle... in France, according to him."
The silence on the other side spoke volumes about the implications Sam was already gathering from Dean's words. "I'll call Cass," he said simply. "Stay put."
Dean went back to the comfy chairs and picked the glass of whiskey that Michael had left behind. He had about two minutes to think of a good way to tell his family what the hell had just happened.