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The Toybox

people for the conservation of limited amounts of indignation


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fic: all the king's men (supernatural, dean/castiel)
children of dune - leto 1
seperis
I don't say this is my offering of guilt to DtA readers, because hey, I love this story, but--it is a little, which is of benefit to all. When I'm frustrated with the bullshit that is my mental health, I remember I've never had this much fun with my fic, and that helps.

Merry Insert Your Winter Holiday Here: I hope you're having a great time celebrating or loafing. Especially the loafing: that's what holidays are for.

Title: All the King's Men
Author: Seperis
Fandom: Supernatural
Codes: Dean/Castiel, OC, AU
Summary: This is Hell, and that's how they survive.
Notes: In my defense, I wanted to do another outsider pov. This is not what I expected, but well, it happened. Set after In the Hall of the Mountain King and that scene in Book IV, Chapter 10.
Warnings: well, it's set in Hell? Torture, violence, bloodplay, etc. About half is consensual, if that helps.
Checked over by Kel_hath_no_fury because she's awesome. I think I fixed everything.
AO3: All the King's Men



The door opens at a touch, and from the back, she can see the hesitation before the others go inside. Stupid: if he didn't want them to enter, the door wouldn't open; if they weren't allowed here, they would never be able to enter. Alistair doesn't play games like that, doesn't need to; stupidity generally does all the work for him.

She hears someone's breath catch, everyone freezing, and without thinking, she drifts closer to the group and stops short at the sight of the bed. Through thin, gauzy curtains, she sees Castiel stretched out on blood-stained sheets, Alistair hovering over him. Lazily, Castiel slides a leg over Alistair's shoulder and arches, and the soft, hungry sounds are lost beneath a low, reverberating moan she can feel down to what passes as her feet these days.

So maybe she was wrong about that.

Sitting back on his heels, Alistair shoves the curtains back, licking blood-smeared lips and grinning at them. She hears one of the others make a retching sound and glances over to see the rack just opposite the bed. She can't tell who was on it, but it's easy to guess; Alistair apparently was taking further atonement from Castiel's past sins, and Castiel likes to watch.

Alistair follows their gaze and his grin widens. "Gonna need more," he says pleasantly. "You volunteering?"

It's addressed to them all, and she has to admit a reluctant respect when their leader steps forward.

"Master," she says. "They're here."

"Yeah, I know." He turns his attention back to Castiel, hooking his fingers behind Castiel's knees and pulling him down the bed. Sliding his hands down the length of his thighs from knee to hip, Castiel arches with a moan as bloody sigils come alight across his skin. "I'm the Pit, sweetheart; I know everything that happens here."

Maybe she's the only one that hears the implied warning; despite their power, Alistair's lieutenants have surprising blind spots.

Castiel lazily pushes himself upright, and with the curtains pushed back, not much of the long, lithe body is hidden. Even with the implied invitation of drawn curtains, she knows she should look away (Alistair brooks no rivals, even those only imagined), but she can't quite.

In the Pit, they never see Castiel as anything but flawless, ineffable, beautiful, terrifying, inhuman: an angel remade in the Master's own image who uses the rack like Hell's never dreamed. Even here, Alistair is an artist; she traces the elegant lines of the sigils carved over Castiel's shoulders and down his back with her eyes, the fingertip bruises dotting his hips and thighs, the bloody outline of teeth and scrape of fingernails and rope burns around his wrists, none of it yet unmade. Tipping his head up, Castiel smiles slowly, focused on Alistair like they aren't even here, and for him, maybe they're not. Right now, she's not sure they exist for Alistair at all beyond a momentary inconvenience. And Alistair doesn't like inconvenience.

"Tell me you got a better reason than that to interrupt," Alistair continues, watching Castiel with a little smile. "Kind of busy at the moment."

"They're looking for you."

"No other reason for angels to be in the Pit." In theory, she knows they go wherever they want; in fact, they rarely leave their compounds, near-impenetrable structures built at almost the beginning of time.

(Near-impenetrable: it surprised her to discover even angels have lapses.)

As far as she knows, before Alistair's Ascension, they hadn't toured the Pit itself in millennia. She's not sure if it's simply distaste at the presence of so much (former) humanity or offense to their so-delicate angelic sensibilities. Since then, however, it's a regular feature, and it's not like she can't guess the reason, and only half of it is Alistair himself.

Sitting back on his heels, Alistair pulls Castiel into his lap and tugs him down for a hungry kiss while reaching for his knife and making a cut across his shoulder. Castiel leans down at the first well of blood, and Alistair's eyes close, breath catching audibly in the quiet room.

"There we go," he croons, mouthing a kiss just behind Castiel's ear. "Just like that."

"They'll expect you--" the leader starts.

"They want me on my knees, they can summon me and make it happen themselves," he interrupts, tipping his head back. "That it?"

No one answers, and she swallows; this is why she came. Taking a deep breath, she pushes her way to the front. "Master, they're looking for Castiel as well."

Alistair stiffens, hand freezing in Castiel's hair, and the full power of green eyes slam into her. She sucks in a breath, rocked, but keeps her feet; it's not much, but it's more than she would have thought she could do. For a moment, she gets an impression of--surprise? Satisfaction?--but it's gone in a breath. "Where are they now?"

Almost as if in answer, Castiel stiffens, visibly shuddering, and Alistair tightens his arm possessively, looking at the rack across the room. It exists everywhere, of course, but until now, she didn't realize that meant wherever they were could be seen; it's never showed her anywhere but where she was with it. Barely breathing, she watches the angels survey the Pit and then the rack, their revulsion obvious, before they turn their attention to those on display: Castiel's latest works. Faintly, she hears Alistair murmuring to Castiel, words indistinguishable but tone soothing as he watches as well.

"Master," someone behind her says, a mistake; you don't interrupt Alistair if you don't have to. From the corner of her eye, she notes none of them are looking at the rack, don't even seem to notice, as if--as if they can't see what she can. "If they can't find him--"

"They can't unless they actually see him," Alistair interrupts. "They can't tell the difference between us anymore, not in the Pit." Stroking Castiel's hair back, he murmurs something and Castiel nods dreamily as Alistair guides him back to the cut, licking along the wound hungrily to catch all the escaped blood, and Alistair sucks in a sharp breath. "They asking for him by name?"

"What, Whore of the Pit?" a voice mutters and something inside her snaps.

Before she can think, she manifests her knife, turns, and buries it in their gut. Grabbing a handful of hair, she jerks them close enough to breathe their last breath. "You don't call him that."

As their mouth falls opens, she spits in their face then twists the blade until it grates on bone and jerks downward in a long arc, gutting them before finishing a castration that finally makes them scream. Jerking her blade back out, she watches them fall, their agony washing through her in sensuous waves. All this time, the grinding misery of helping to break souls was only that; this, though, this is pleasure. She wants to do it again, now.

"I've been waiting forever for that," she breathes. She's gonna spend millennia on a chain for touching one of Alistair's lieutenants, but she doesn't care; it was worth it. Raising the blade to her lips, she licks it clean, enjoying their shock and rage while she can as she takes their power; it's not much, but it's more than she's gotten from anyone since she got off the rack. "Anyone else?"

They're thinking about it; she hopes they try. A hundred, a thousand millennia chained up, she'll take it and more laughing if it means this time, she doesn't have to hide, to wait, to pray, to hope; this time, they come for her, she can fight back; this time, she can protect herself; this time, she'll take them all with her.

"You--" their leader says, her knife drawn and advancing. "You're nothing. You're gonna be less than that when I’m done--"

"Fuck yourself," she breathes, feeling the taken power course over her like heat; it burns, but she likes it, wants more of that, too. "You want me? Come and get me."

"Stand the fuck down."

She drops to her knees with the others, forehead scraping against the stone floor, and abruptly, the body vanishes; the screaming takes a little longer. As the silence stretches, she warily looks up and sees a pile of dust in Alistair's upraised palm. He closes his hand around it; when he opens it again, it's empty. "Figure they need a tour of the Pit," he says, like he's talking to himself. "Few thousand years, I'll check in, see what they learned."

She licks her lips and waits for her turn.

"Lucky Cas wasn't paying attention or they'd have to deal with disembodied laughter the whole time," he remarks to his silent audience, tipping his head back with a sigh before focusing on her again. "Might add that later. Everyone up, I'm getting a crick in my neck. Well?"

It takes her a moment to work out she's not dust in the Pit, but she doesn't forget he asked her a question. "Not yet, Master," she says, climbing clumsily to her feet. "They--uh, they called him the 'Consort of the Master of the Pit'."

"You're fucking with me." Nosing the dark hair above Castiel's ear, he breathes something and Castiel pulls back, eyebrows raised. "Consort of the Master of the Pit, what do you think?"

Licking one last time, Castiel seals the cut with a brush of his lips before straightening. "No one ever accused my Brothers of excessive imagination." The cold eyes flicker over their audience and then settle on her, and she finds herself bending again by reflex. Castiel is the one who broke her, but she doesn't expect him to remember her; he broke thousands of souls on the rack during his apprenticeship and more since, and she was only one of many.

The room abruptly shudders around them, warping. She grabs for the doorway, hearing the others groaning, rolling onto the floor (ceiling), and tries to work out what's going on.

"What--" someone whimpers.

"Shut up," Alistair snaps. "Cas?"

"They're partially occupying the same discrete area of space we're in," he answers distractedly. "It's--odd. It will pass."

"I'll take your word for it." Slowly, nauseatingly, the shifting slows to a stop. "And they're gone. What the fuck--" She glances up and sees Castiel frowning, blue eyes distant. "Cas? What?"

"I'm not sure." The blue eyes focus on them, pausing on her for a shaking moment before focusing behind her. "They concealed something outside the Pit; find out what and return within the hour."

"Yes, Master," they breathe, and she fondly hopes they choke on having to say it. As they leave, she notices their leader is staring at the blue stones lining the walls It takes her a moment too long to work out why; those aren't stones.

"Are those..." The leader's voice cuts off, and Alistair looks his interest. "Its eyes?"

"Decorating idea," he says, looking at Castiel. "Forgot to ask. You like it?"

"I love it," Castiel breathes against his lips. "You spoil me."

"So it has to watch," she murmurs, appreciating the thought, then freezes as Alistair focuses on her, wondering what the hell is wrong with her. "Forgive me, Master--"

"I'll think about it," he says, which means 'no'. "I almost forgot: did I order you to come here today?"

"No, Master."

"That," Alistair says, raising a hand and looking bored, "was not worth what you're about to--"

"It was worth it," she blurts out. "I'd do it again, Master."

Alistair lowers his hand. "Get out," he says to the others, focusing on her. "Let's talk, sweetheart."

She freezes in place, feeling the satisfaction radiating from the others as they leave and hears the doors close with the same finality the last restraint was attached when she was placed on the rack. She can feel his eyes on her, pushing inside her head, and fights not to flinch.

"Huh," he says, sliding off the bed, jeans and a t-shirt materializing as he paces to the rack, looking over the (multiple) remains; it was a three chain kind of evening. "You were one of the last holdouts from that group. I had to send Cas, and gotta tell you, who had you wasn't that bad." His lips curve in faint approval. "Pissed her off so much, it was great. She was so sure she could do it."

She nods shortly; that would be Alistair's favorite lieutenant, and yeah, she's still pissed about that, in case anyone was wondering.

"Wrong tool for the job, as it turns out, almost fucked up everything," he adds, waving a hand, and the remains vanish back to their chains to be forgotten (for a while). "My bad, you just never know."

She remembers when Castiel took over just like she remembers every second of those years, but those last five are branded into her like nothing else. They used to (know each other?), but since she rose, everything before the rack is a gaping hole she feels every second of every goddamn day. There are something like memories, flicking into and out of her mind in painful bursts (sunlight, a woman's bright laughter, warmth, rest) but they vanish before she can grasp them. They hurt, but they hurt even more to lose, even if she can't quite remember what it is she lost, even a name.

As she waits for Alistair's judgement, she finds herself looking at those blue ornaments. It's gotta burn a little when the first angel ever broken on the rack of Hell realizes their current place in the universe. The angels hate Castiel; it's a degradation, what he does with Alistair, and she's not even sure if they find the sex more offensive than the fact Castiel sits with Alistair on the throne of the Pit.

Unlike Castiel, the angel Alistair broke fell apart, nothing left to even know how to fight. She stares at those blue jewels, unable to stop herself from smiling. Alistair's work is always fascinating in its sheer brutal refinement (there's a reason he scares Hell itself), but as it turns out they still aren't afraid enough. She glances around, marking the locations, carefully set at regular intervals around the room, not just the bed. This wasn't the Master of the Pit exercising his expertise in designing the perfect eternal torture; that was just an accident (he can do something like this by accident). Alistair spent a ridiculous amount of time, effort, and minions to reshape an angel of Hell on the rack into a toy to entertain Castiel when he's bored.

"Before we get down to business," Alistair says pleasantly, sitting on the bed, and it takes everything in her not to look at the rack (soon enough when she's on it again for Alistair's next round of foreplay), "want to tell me why you're here without a direct order?"

She swallows; he wouldn't believe the truth. She barely believes it herself. "Only way to move up is your favor, Master," she answers, which has the benefit of being true. "I'm meat for half the Pit and get all the shit jobs, and I’m tired of it. I saw an opportunity and I took it."

"It's Hell," Alistair says as Castiel lazily stretches out, resting his head in Alistair's lap like an exotic, pampered pet. "It's not actually supposed to be awesome." Castiel makes a dissenting sound, and Alistair looks down fondly, stroking through the dark hair. "Awesome for anyone but us," he corrects himself. "I'd almost buy that--I mean, I'd pretend I didn't because then I'd miss your screaming, but I would--but it'd be a lot easier and less stupid to get in with my lieutenants and considering how they feel about you, that's saying something. Though after today…."

Yeah, she kind of figured, thanks.

"For future reference, you missed two nerve centers that would have made your extempore disembowelment and castration even more excruciating," Castiel tells her. "I taught you better than that."

"I didn't think--" She cuts herself off, wondering at the hot feeling in her face, like somehow, she can still flush. She can bleed--fuck, can she bleed, that never stops--and be dismembered and vivisected and hung in pieces, but somehow, it never occurred to her she can still fucking flush. "I'm out of practice, Master. The rack doesn't offer much challenge." Overseeing the rack is grueling, miserable work, and more than once, she's envied her victims. Their pain is always a surprise to them in endless variety (they certainly carry on like she's a master sadist beyond compare, which shows how limited their experiences really are); her pain is constant, mundane, and never, ever changes, not once since she rose and Castiel left her as meat for the Pit.

"That," Castiel answers, "is not an excuse."

"Can she answer my question now?" Alistair asks, and Castiel rolls his eyes and nods. "Thanks."

"Warning you about a danger to Castiel might elicit favorable treatment, Master," she says quickly. "It was worth the risk."

"I didn't think they could hate you more," Alistair muses. "I was wrong there. You get how very fucked you are when you leave the Tower, right?" He smiles at her, chilling her to the bone. "Not saying what they'll do to you is worse than what I can, but come on; at least I'd eventually get bored. Until now, they left you intact enough to do your job."

"They have a very flexible version of 'intact enough', Master." After today, assuming Alistair lets her go (a big if) she can say goodbye to ever being intact enough to do anything again. She knew the risk, prepared for it, but--yeah.

"Yeah, if right now is any example," he adds, looking her over critically, and she knows what state she's in, thanks. "You really do get all the shit jobs, don't you? You don't get anything and they cost you in the bargain."

Some part of her wants to observe he's a goddamn master of the obvious as well as the Pit, but she's not that stupid (usually). "Yes, Master."

"Did you tell them about the angels asking about Castiel?"

"No," she answers. "They already have your favor, so why should I give them this?"

Alistair's fingers skim down Castiel's cheek. "Lie to me one more time, and my curiosity is gonna lose to boredom. Just cleaned the rack, too."

"I wasn't sure they'd believe me or tell you or think it was important enough," she says in a rush, giving up. "I couldn't risk--Master, they weren't here for you at all, that was just an excuse. They were here for Castiel."

The room seems to drop a hundred degrees--or maybe rise, she's not sure--before Alistair says, "You think."

"I know, Master," she answers. "I wouldn't take this risk for a guess."

"How do you know?"

"I--I was--" She licks dry, cracked lips, tasting char. "I watched them."

"Today?"

"Every time they come to the Pit. I followed them from the moment they passed the borders until I came here." Alistair stills. "They never notice us, Master, but this time, they did. They were--looking at us. Not at everyone, just--"

"Cas's work."

"No--I mean, maybe that, too, but they..." She swallows again. "Everyone Cas broke on the rack." Belatedly, she hears what she just called Castiel: Cas.

"Son of a bitch--" Alistair's eyes grow distant, and she sees Castiel has the same expression. "Got it. Cas?"

"So that's what they were doing," Castiel says in interest. "I'm calling those idiots back; in this case, their incompetence isn't the reason for their failure."

"Good thing we didn't send someone you broke," Alistair answers, and Castiel tips his head back to frown. Alistair's eyes flicker to her and he smiles. "You just might want to brace yourself; it's gonna be rough. But fun."

She drops to her knees, waiting for whatever happens next; she always knew this was how it would go.

What happens next is a stillness, then a sense of something on the very edge of her awareness, like seeing something from the corner of her eye. Burying her head in her arms, she's just in time for the vertigo turns everything into nothing. She can't see or hear or even think, a hot burn like bathing in acid and a cold rage so profound it dissolves everything it touches; then she can, and she must have opened her eyes, because she's staring down into forever and can't stop screaming.

She's not sure how long it lasts (forever) but then it's over, and shaking, she checks to see how much of her is still left and estimate how much it's going to take out of her to put herself together again. There's a reason she's prey for half the fucking Pit; she's not strong enough to be anything else and can't--won't--buy it with the only thing she has to trade. She gave her submission to Castiel when she rose from the rack and to Alistair before the entire Pit, and they're the only ones she ever will. There might not be much of her left--whatever she was, if she was anything at all (nothing)--but that much, she won't give up.

Warily, she pushes herself up and back onto her heels, startled that she's still (relatively) unscathed, or at least, as much as she was before. Looking at the bed, she sees Alistair and Castiel watching her in amusement and just stops herself from asking what just happened.

Alistair grins at her. "I'll tell you anyway. They left something outside the Pit, and now I know why. They were trying to use those Cas broke to find him. Contamination: you really can't get away from it."

"They were using us? How?"

Alistair raises his eyebrows. "You can tell who Cas broke?"

"Yes, Master," she answers in surprise, wondering at Alistair's look of satisfaction. "We all can."

"Like calls to like," he says cryptically. "Cas's Brothers marked all of you when they were here. Outside the Pit, they got someone very stupid to act as trigger--and I'm gonna have some fun with them--and burn you all out at once."

She stills. "Burn us out?"

"They can't find Cas." She glances down to see Castiel lying very still beneath Alistair's hands, and after a second, she sees Alistair's knuckles are white. "In the Pit, they can't tell the difference between us. But he loses all of you at once like that...."

"I wouldn't have--" Castiel says softly.

"Dude, you wouldn't be able to help yourself," he says roughly. "Not if you wanted to remake them before--fuck. And you'd be right out in the middle of the Pit and once they saw you...."

"What?" she whispers.

"I'm rather curious about that as well," Castiel says, tugging the hand Alistair has clamped around his hip and pulling it to his lips. "Not enough to test it, of course, but we'll know more when you're done with Trigger. I want to watch."

"I want to watch," she says without thinking. The stillness eases, and Alistair looks at her curiously. "Master, I--the information I brought you stopped this."

"This is the favor you want?" Alistair asks blankly. "Wait, I thought you wanted a better job or...." He sits back and grins. "That was the lie I couldn't find; good job, you hid that one really well."

"Master, I--"

"We'll come back to that," he says. "You just want to watch?"

No: she wants to hurt them. It's been years, but she remembers those first lessons before Castiel left, and she remembers everything Castiel did to her. If she can't reproduce it all yet, she'll take all the time she needs to learn on them. She can almost hear their screaming; they'll forget how to even beg before she's done.

"There we go," Alistair murmurs. "Hold that thought. Cas, I burned that shit Trigger did out of all of them: check 'em for me. I miss anything?"

"No," Castiel answers, the distant look back. "I sent them into the inner Pit to recover. If your lieutenants come near them before I release them, they'll make very admirable compost after a sufficient amount of time being digested by Fido and Spot."

Alistair bursts into laughter, falling back on the bed, startling her almost as much as Castiel's words.

"The final act will be planting a garden," Castiel adds dreamily, and Alistair wheezes. "Turnips and cabbage, perhaps."

Sitting up, Alistair tugs Castiel into a kiss, and she forces herself to stare at the floor. "How many acts?"

"Ten," Castiel says in a different voice--oh, please don't let them forget she's here until it's too late. "Digestion alone will take two: Fido and Spot will each like starring in their own act."

"You're fucking amazing," Alistair says, laughter in his voice. "I love it. You can have Trigger when I'm done for the rough draft, how's that sound?"

"I serve your pleasure alone, Master," Castiel says in a low voice, and she doesn't need to look up to know Alistair just forgot she (and pretty much anything not Castiel) exists. Then, "You can look up now."

It takes her a moment to realize he's talking to her. Warily, she straightens.

"In any case, the immediate threat is eliminated," Castiel continues. "It will be relatively simple to assure they can't try that again."

"Honestly, I'm surprised they even thought of it," Alistair says. "When is the last time they had an idea--any idea--that didn't start with 'declare war' followed by 'stabbing anything in sight'?"

"I doubt they did and I'd be very interested in finding out who gave them the idea," Castiel answers, cold blue eyes gazing into Alistair's. "Trigger is doubtless not the only one my Brothers suborned. It seems the Pit requires a reminder of the penalty of denying your will; I'll begin the purge at dawn."

Despite herself, she stills; maybe she should hope Alistair decides to punish her himself after all.

"Awesome," Alistair murmurs, leaning in for a quick kiss. "Any luck, it'll be a while before your Brothers' next visit. Especially occupying the same space shit: how the hell they missed that…."

"They didn't," Castiel answers, leaning against Alistair's shoulder. "They were focused on finding me, however, so they simply didn't care. I must applaud such breathtaking lack of common sense; it would be a bother for them to realize that among the many things they missed here is the Tower."

That rocks her enough to blurt out, "How can they miss it? It's in the middle of the Pit!" Suddenly, she's the focus of two sets of amused eyes. "Master."

"They can't see it," Alistair answers, fingertips skimming down Castiel's bare back. All the earlier marks are gone now; even the blood is undone, perfection restored.

"Because they're angels?" She catches herself. "Master, forgive me--"

"It's fine. And yeah, but that's not the only reason." Alistair grins at her. "No one can see it unless me or Cas let them."

That startles her more than the fact angels couldn't see it. "But I…" she trails off under the focus of two sets of eyes.

"How long?"

"Always." Since she came off the rack, it stood in the distance, watchful; no matter where she is or where she goes, she can always feel it (waiting). "After I rose--" (After Castiel left her alone.) "--it was just...there."

"Huh." Alistair glances at Castiel. "What else? Come on, not a trick question; if I wanted to discipline you, I got all I need for that. Or for fun, so just say it."

"I don't know, Master," she whispers. "Sometimes--I thought it was--it felt like I was supposed to come here."

"Interesting." She wonders sickly what the penalty for that is. "Sometimes?"

"More every day."

"Sounds about right," he says unexpectedly. "When Cas had you, did he tell you that you were his first after his apprenticeship?"

She opens her mouth, but the answer won't clear her mouth, tangled up with the blackened remains of her tongue.

"I'll take that as a 'no'. Something else you didn't know," Alistair says to her. "Sometimes, souls don't break. Actually, it's more 'can't'."

She nods, trying to follow, but she can't stop thinking about that; she was Castiel's first. It doesn't matter--it shouldn't matter--but it does.

"Alistair--the other one--thought it was funny," Alistair continues. "Before I broke, he showed them to me. Had no idea what I was looking at; they screamed and cried, whatever, right? He left me there for three weeks, didn't tell me what they were; when he got back, I begged to leave."

That gets her attention. "Why?"

"That's all they did," he says. "No matter what anyone did to them. Even if no one was doing anything at all. Three weeks of that shit really changes your perspective."

"They...why?"

"Fucker wouldn't tell me," Alistair answers. "You fight, you forget why you need to, then you get up; that's how it works. The rack can't fail, and I mean that literally; that's how it was designed from the first. Still with me?"

She nods, then shakes her head. "But--"

"The rack can't fail," he repeats. "That doesn't mean it always succeeds; that's a totally different thing. No one knew that, though, until they started putting humans on it."

"Who--"

"Angels," Castiel says, eyes half-open, but something his voice freezes her in place. "It was purpose-created to discipline angels. You must understand; angels have no concept of 'choice'. When we were placed upon it, we did not fight and we did not leave, not until it was done and all it was ordered to take from us was gone. Sometimes, that was everything."

She swallows, trying to imagine that. Everything. "It works differently on us."

"That's one way to put it," Alistair says, and Castiel gives her a sleepy smile. "A human soul can hold out forever, don't get me wrong; it's possible. Benefits of free will: we can say 'no', and the rack can't take a fucking thing. So we fight until we forget what we're fighting for, and when we give it what it wants, we can get up; that's how it works. Except sometimes--that happens. They're still there because they haven't given the rack what it wants; the problem is, there's nothing for it to take."

Her breath catches. "Nothing there."

"Pretty much," Alistair answers. "Alistair, he had no fucking clue what was going on, no surprise, but we figured it out eventually. Some people don't just forget why they're fighting, sweetheart; they forget everything, including themselves. Talk about creating your own Hell…."

She tries to imagine that, but sheer horror freezes her mind; she thinks she might be grateful.

"Putting someone together after that…." He shakes his head. "Like a needle in a haystack, except you don't know how many needles you're looking for and the haystacks are also needles." Cas makes a vague affirmative sound. "But way more boring."

"You brought someone back from that, Master?"

"One," Alistair answers, meeting her eyes. "That's how we found what was going on. Had to do some serious reconstruction, and by the way, you're welcome."

"Me." That sense of nothingness before Castiel. She'd thought she imagined it. "I was…." She can't make herself say it.

"You're fine now ," Alistair assures her, looking down at Castiel fondly. "I only put you together, though; that was the easy part. Cas was the one who figured it out and who had to make sure you'd stay that way."

"It's possible we could have easily reversed it before it became--complicated--but when she realized what happened to you, she neglected to inform us there was a problem."

"Yeah, and she paid for that," Alistair says soothingly, then he smiles at her. "Probably thought you were fucking with her. It was something you did. You two gave the Pit the best show we've had in millennia, sweetheart. Pissed her off so much; should have guessed something went wrong when she shut down the audience, but I figured she was tired of being humiliated."

Castiel tips his head back to smile up at Alistair. "It was the best part of my day."

She nods blankly.

"Thing is, she was the wrong tool," Alistair says. "Cas formally requested permission to take over before the entire goddamn pit--there was supplication, a speech, all the bells and whistles, it was unreal. Made me sit through sixteen fucking days of that shit and as is turns out, he had enough material to keep me stuck there for a couple of centuries."

"A formal supplication is a contract," Castiel recites, and to her shock, Alistair closes his eyes, looking pained. "A Master doesn't ever have to accept a request for supplication, but if they do, they are required to listen until the time limit negotiated before the formal supplication begins is reached; in the absence of a negotiated time limit, of course, the limit is subject to the supplication's discretion. I didn't realize you were unaware of that before we began or I would have explained." He pauses, smiling faintly. "I did apologize with sufficient prostration, I think."

"Yeah, that part was awesome, definitely worth it," Alistair concedes, then shakes himself. "Fine, I said no when you asked, that's on me. I knew better than to expect to exercise my actual literal right to your obedience wouldn't bite me in the ass, my bad." He turns his attention back to her. "That's not why I said yes, though; he was right. He was the right tool, and he was my apprentice; if anyone could do it, it was him."

"How could I fail?" Castiel murmurs, trailing his fingers down Alistair's face. "You made me."

Alistair smiles, catching Castiel's hand and brushing a kiss against the palm before looking at her again. "You hated each other, your first," he says, laughing at her expression. "Trust me, you did. Usually, that would be perfect, make it easy--and believe it or not, it was supposed to be easy. Instead, hit the one in a million; you hated her more than anything and I mean anything. Nothing she could do was going to get you to give up; just knowing she wanted it meant you wouldn't do it. And twenty-one years of that, she hit something in you and you noped the fuck out. She thought it was spite at first," he adds. "And I guess, yeah, it kind of was."

She nods numbly; thirty years of--nothing. She really was nothing.

"It took Cas two years to get you back and five to finish," Alistair continues. "We had to be sure that what you had to leave on the rack would be all you lost; you'd keep the rest."

"I don't understand."

"When you break, in the end, it's because you want to--and you didn't know how to want anything. Someone had to make you want it, and Cas could do that. If you wouldn't break for yourself, you'd do it for him."

"A different tool." A faint not-memory drifting through her mind like ash, crumbling at a touch, but that's enough. She looks at Castiel. "We--we were friends. Before--here."

"Yes," he answers. "We were."

She tries to think, but a strange emptiness seems to crowd out words.

"The thing is," Alistair says, "we always hate the person that breaks us. When Cas said he wanted to do it, I didn't want to let him, but--anyway. Figured we'd worry about that later, except today--I knew you were lying, but it didn't occur to me you would lie to yourself. Why did you come here today? Don't try the favor shit: we both know you don't give a good shit about getting my favor. So why?"

This time, she doesn't stop and think. "I had to be sure you knew they were looking for him," she whispers. "So you could protect him. I didn't tell them because I couldn't be sure unless I did it myself. I had to be sure, Master."

Alistair regards her thoughtfully, then motions. "Come here."

Of their own accord, her legs unfold beneath her, pushing her up and her feet carry her to that huge, terrible bed. She wants to beg for mercy, but there's no mercy in Hell; there's just pain and anger and loss and fear and she's saturated with them all. He raises a hand, and she shuts her eyes, waiting for the pain.

Instead, a feather light touch traces down her face, over charred skin and broken bone, pressing against burnt, tender muscles and raw nerves. It doesn't hurt, and that scares her as much as anything else.

"Any reason you're not fixing yourself up a little more?" Alistair asks, pausing at the remains of her lips. In Hell, you can take any shape you want, but you have to have power to do it. Fifty years, and she still can't manage to do any better than the shape she left the rack wearing, the last of Castiel's work worn as her skin; keeping this much takes everything's she's got and she usually doesn't even get to this before she's out. She's never minded as much as she should have, and now she knows why; they were friends. "They don't give you anything, do you?"

She shakes her head, the ragged, charred remains of her hair scraping against her cheek. "No. I only keep enough for--for this much."

"It's always like this," he says in a different voice. "At first, anyway. That's how it works here for everyone. The strongest use the weakest. You're the only one who can decide if it's also always, and that takes time."

Warily, she opens her eyes. "Master?"

"What you gave up, you can't get back," he says. "So you gotta make yourself again. Half the time, they never do. Meat for the Pit: that's all they are and will ever be. That's what you want?"

She shudders; she's seen them, and if there was ever motivation not to give up, they were it. Barely there, barely anything at all: Hell is a paradise entire compared to being that. She may not be anything or anyone now, but she was, and somehow, she will be again.

Alistair laughs. "Yeah, that's what I thought. So gotta know; why are you meat now?"

"I don't have power, Master" she answers. "They won't give me any--"

"You take power, just like they do, and you have the other half the Pit to get it from." She stills, and Alistair cocks his head. "Now that's interesting. Not meat: a lure."

"Master--"

"Cas, help me out; I haven't been watching her like you have."

Startled, she looks between them.

"I thought you wanted to be surprised," he answers lazily, mouth quirking. "Six months after she rose, she realized your lieutenants hated her specifically and it gave her an idea."

She feels the skim of blue eyes like a touch.

"Show me," Alistair says, and the green eyes unfocus. Then he starts to smile before he bursts into laughter. "Fuck me, talk about history repeating: not bad. A lure. When you worked out how much they hated you, you used yourself as a distraction for others. Take their punishment yourself; fuck knows they were willing to oblige you. What do you get out of it, though? I get the loyalty--trust me, sweetheart, that part is not a surprise--but what did you have them do? Not power--not that they had any--"

"They were her informants," Castiel answers, and she shivers as Alistair's thumb slides down her ruined cheek. "She knows when angels enter the Pit, where I am--apparently almost as well as you do--and exactly when your lieutenants report, not to mention anything that might be of potential interest. She probably knows as much about what happens in the Pit--at least outside the tower--as we do, if not more. In return, she makes sure that if your lieutenants want a toy, it's her."

"And you still think its worth it." Alistair shakes his head, eyes distant. "Sweetheart, they're doing shit to you I have to be in a really bad mood to do, for fun, and you go to them willing? I get why you made the deal, but you get we're in Hell, right? You could have made terms that weren't unconditional surrender."

"Those weren't their terms, Master," she answers. "They were mine."

"Why?"

"To make a point," Castiel says softly, and she swallows hard. "It took time, but they did eventually understand, didn't they?"

Alistair tips his head, waiting.

"I was broken by Castiel on the rack of Hell," she answers, forcing herself to meet his eyes. "Why should I need to make terms, Master? There's nothing they can do to me that compares to him."

Alistair searches her face, then starts to smile. "Yeah," he says, almost to himself, and abruptly, she can feel him in her mind, her existence here reviewed in a breath. "Okay, lets get this shit done. Kneel."

She drops immediately; she always knew this was going to happen. She has just enough time to feel a single moment of overwhelming terror before Alistair's hand closes over her throat, choking off air (how why does she need it here?). "Time to level the fuck up."

Suddenly, agony courses through her; all those years on the rack and everything since, that was like a fucking picnic; she can't even scream.

"So, last to break, first to arrive," Alistair says. "Thirty years you fucked off, but you came back and you were the first there, too. If there were rules here, you'd have broken them all, so why not this one, too? Listen to me, sweetheart: this is a test, and you will not fail."

She tries to remain passive, obedient, he's her Master and he has the right and she has none at all, but she can't help grabbing for his wrist.

"You think you know pain, but it's been it's been almost a century of lessons and you still don't get it. Gotta give you credit; that takes effort and you went above and beyond not to learn. Twenty-one years with my best lieutenant didn't even scratch you; five with Cas did, but pain didn't break you; you did it for him," Alistair says. "Fifty years of my lieutenants taking you apart aren't even touching you; sweetheart, I bet you could hold out forever if left to yourself. I'm not them, though, and I'm tired of waiting. This is the lesson you should have learned on the rack and over the last fifty years; since you didn't, you're gonna learn it now.

"Everything you ever felt before, those were practice; this is the real thing."

Like that, it changes, and he's right; it's like she dreamed a vague dream of a toothache and woke to being burned alive and crushed for eternity.

"Pain's pain, always; you fight it until you give up, you live inside it and learn the first and only lesson; how to accept it," she hears Alistair say. "You broke on the rack, but you're still fighting like the moment I first strapped you down. That was then and this is now, but nothing's changed. Here's my question: why?"

For a second, she pauses; why? Why what?

"Hell is pain, that's all it is; a human soul can't handle it, that's why we're sent here to suffer and rot," Alistair says. "They put us on the rack and take us apart, and we can stop it, sure, but what we leave on the rack is ourselves and we lose it forever. That's the deal, right? Sounds shitty, but here's the thing; it's a lie. We don't lose a fucking thing; we choose to leave it there. What we take with us is only what we need. They say there's no mercy in Hell; that's a lie, too, here's the truth. The rack is mercy; it's what shows us exactly what we need to keep. I broke an angel of Hell on the rack and they're still on it; they can't get up even now, they can't take it. A human, though; we can take anything.

"Some don't get that," she hears over the roar in her ears. "Sit around, mourning something they can't even remember. That's a choice, and they made the wrong one. They're no one, they're nothing, they're fodder, they're food." She scrabbles at his hands, seeing her own begin to char, bare finger bones blackening as they turn into ash. "It's just pain; you can't fight it and why would you want to? Use it."

She shakes her head as agony courses through her.

"This is Hell and Hell is pain and what we take with us when we leave the rack is this; we like it."

She stills; for a second, there's--"

"We love it," Alistair says "We want it. We give it, we get it, it's all the same thing, but you don't know that because you're still stuck fighting it. Today, you almost got it; how it felt to bury your knife in his gut and make him scream; you liked it. You should love it."

The memory of the sensuous, hungry pleasure of it flashes through her; accept it.

"Almost there," Alistair whispers. "What you left on the rack you can't get back; you don't want it. Everything you need here you brought with you, but you can't use it until you learn the first lesson; you don't fight your pain, you accept it."

Accept it; she stops struggling, trying to pull away, everything she'd done on the rack until fighting was all she knew, mindless, reflexive, endless. She's still fighting a war she already lost, and she wonders now why.

She stops fighting.

Forever, there's nothing but her own agony, nothing--no, there's not nothing. A bolt rips her apart, she can feel that, it's hers, and giving that up means there's nothing, she's nothing, no. Desperately, she clings to it, grasping for more, as much as she can get; she's not nothing. She imagines Alistair's lieutenants on the rack beneath her hand, how she'd teach them new ways to scream; she breathes their screams and tastes their blood and fear and loves it. She wants it.

Dimly, like a dream: she remembers those last days (hours, years) on the rack beneath Castiel and the pleasure rippling through every agonized scream.

"There we go."

She comes to herself on the floor, gasping, shaking so hard she barely avoids knocking her head into the stone.

"Beautiful," she hears and looks up to see Castiel watching her. "I knew you could do it."

Shoving herself back on her knees, she starts to take stock--no idea how she'll fix this--when it occurs to her something's different. She blinks slowly at the sight of her own thighs, whole and complete beneath ragged jeans and tears open the rents to see smooth, dark skin, untouched. Her hands--long, perfect fingers, nails perfect ovals, up to slim arms, all flawless. Desperately, she feels over her chest through her worn t-shirt, the full, soft curve of her breasts, up to the smooth column of her throat, then--wary--over her face.

Her face.

"Much better," Alistair says approvingly. "How you feeling?"

Not just fixed: remade. And more than that; it takes her far too long to realize what she feels isn't new, just unfamiliar; she's not tired. She'd forgotten there was anything but exhaustion. She forgot how that felt.

"Good, Master," she answers blankly as long twists of locked hair falls around her face. Reaching up automatically, she starts to roll the twists together at the back of her head and pauses, staring at them filling her hands. She used to do that (before). "I don't remember what I looked like."

"Don't worry, we did." Alistair extends his hand. She takes it without hesitation, and once on her feet, he turns her to face a mirror. She stares at the reflection in bewilderment: rich, dark skin, wide brown eyes, full lips parted in surprise, hair in long, hip-length twists; that's her. That's her. "Cas?"

"Perfect." She shivers, warmth trickling over her skin at the low, gravelly appreciation rolling through the single word and desperately tries not to think about it. In the mirror, she sees Castiel sitting up, watching her, and there's no way she can not think it.

Alistair laughs.

"I never hated you," she says, meeting Castiel's surprised eyes in the mirror, then looks away. "Not until--not until you left."

Alistair snorts, dropping on the bed by Castiel.

"I get it, that's how it works," she says to the mirror, and she does. "I just...you were gone."

"That's how it works," Alistair agrees. "What we leave on the rack we can't get back. It can't survive here, and with it, neither can we."

She shuts her mouth.

"That's a lot of empty space, though," he adds. "We're starting from scratch, and sometimes, it's easier just to miss what you lost than get to work filling it up. Sure, I could have let Cas keep you, but that? That's all you'd ever be: a pet, less than nothing at all. So yeah, that's how it works; no other way to make us start filling that fucking space, and even then, half never even fucking try." He laughs suddenly. "This is Hell and it's not like its easy, but you--given a choice, you picked the hardest way every time and that's before you even rose."

She nods.

"And you were just getting started, weren't you?" Alistair continues. "Half the Pit's fodder; half the rest probably should be, but you--you used it. You spent fifty years training my lieutenants into giving you exactly what you wanted for the privilege of making you scream and beg and crawl anytime they wanted; they took the deal and only then found out you never said you would even pretend to care." He sits back, grinning. "You know why I picked them?"

"They're loyal, Master," she says, because they are. "And they're the most dangerous demons in the Pit."

"They're rabid dogs," Alistair says. "The only difference between them and Spot and Fido is the number of legs."

"I like Spot and Fido," Castiel says lazily. "They're very, very good dogs."

"And that," Alistair agrees, grinning at Castiel before looking at her. "They're useful, but they have limits. They made those all themselves, do you believe it? You, though…."

She turns around. "Master?"

"You haven't met a limit yet," he says thoughtfully. "I'm not sure you even know what they are." He leans back an arm. "You start your formal apprenticeship tomorrow at dawn."

She tries not to stiffen; she doesn't need to wonder how Alistair's lieutenants will react to her among them, much less whoever gets her. "Yes, Master."

"Don't look so worried," Alistair says, looking amused by something. "Cas has been planning this since I put you on the rack."

It takes her way too long to understand. "To Castiel, Master?" Castiel is the general of Alistair's army, the instructor of every demon in the Pit, but that's not the same thing; an apprentice is personal. Alistair himself took only one, Castiel himself, and Castiel none at all. If she'd ever thought about it, she would have assumed even if Castiel wished to, Alistair would never, ever allow it.

Alistair drops back on the mattress, laughing, and Castiel shakes his head before the cold blue eyes bore into her. "Alistair gave you to me before you ever saw the rack. When your breaking was mishandled, it was for me that Alistair put you together anew. To avoid the possibility of repetition, he permitted me to break you myself, and you rose unflawed. And then I was ordered to let you go. I was not pleased and questioned his motives." His gaze flickers to Alistair, still lying on the bed and grinning. "He was, of course, right."

"I never get tired of hearing you say that," Alistair says, sitting up. "Gets better every time, actually."

"You rose unflawed," Castiel continues. "Now, you're perfect, and like my Master, it would be beneath me to accept anything less."

She nods, though she's not sure she understands. She also doesn't care. "Yes, Master."

"Good girl," Alistair says as Castiel rests his chin on Alistair's shoulder, both looking at her as if-- "You can go."

If you want. She doesn't even glance at the door. "Or, Master?"

"You can stay." Her eyes flicker to the rack. "Probably. What else--only one way to find out. Alea iacta est."

The flush turns into a warm, sensuous heat as she imagines what he'll do to her--what they'll do to her. "I'll stay, Master."

They both smile at her. "Come here," Alistair says. One step, two, and his hand closes molten-hot over her wrist, jerking her into his lap before sliding around her waist, fingers trailing like drops of quicksilver; she wonders if she'll see his fingerprints later in her back, marked out in pure silver. She hopes so.

"Almost forgot," Alistair says, a knife appearing between his fingers before the tip comes to rest at the hollow of her throat; she has to fight not to lean into the prick of pain. It's not enough, not now; she wants to feel it buried inside her, slice her wide open, take her apart over and over again. "All that and more, but not quite yet," he chides her. "One more thing. You tell her, Cas."

Cas tips her head up, thumb sliding slowly along her jaw. "It is our will that you are returned that which is yours, now and forever," he says, meeting her eyes. "Vera."

Vera freezes, something cracking open in her mind as her skin parts beneath the blade sliding down her body; that's her name. "C-Cas?"

"It's been a very long time, Vera," Cas murmurs against her lips. "I've missed you."

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