Fandom/Genre: SPN/Drama, Romance
Pairing (s): Dean/Castiel, possible Sam/Jody
Word Count: ~28,000
Warnings: Language, some sexual innuendo, violence, blood & guts & some very scary/gory monsters
Summary: Finding their way through purgatory means Dean and Castiel must face monsters and an endless landscape of darkness, but it also means they must navigate the wilds of their own troubled souls. Meanwhile, Sam seeks out an ally in his quest to bring his brother home and finds he has his own unpleasant truths to face.
Author’s notes: Thank you to akadougal for excellent beta work and being a cheerleader throughout! Thanks to the DCBB mods for putting together such a wonderful project. And really, extra super-special thanks to my artist, scarletscarlet, who in addition to the art has helped with monster design, plot tweaks, and supplementary beta duties, and has really been a true partner in making this story happen. I am so grateful.
There aren't enough "Son of a bitch!"es for this situation.
OK, so it's light. And the monsters are, if Cas wasn't shitting him, sleeping. That doesn't make Dean any less lost or any less alone, thanks to his fucked-up, conflict-avoidant former bee-eff-eff, who seems to have bailed at the first sign of a temper he ought to know by now Dean has a habit of unleashing. Dean sinks into the grasslike stuff, fairly sure it's leaving dark smears all over the ass of his jeans, not caring. "Come on, Cas," he moans, head in his hands. "Don't do this to me, man. I told you, I'd rather have you here. You gonna make me beg every time for you to come back?"
He peeks through his fingers. Nothing.
Well, fine, then. "Please come back, dude."
And there's Cas. Blinking into the space in front of him, apparently damn determined to make him beg.
"I've been thinking about adopting some cats," he says.
Son of a bitch.
"Where the hell were you?" Dean says, rising from the grass, brushing his hand over his backside to get rid of any blades that might come loose.
Castiel looks at him. "I wasn't," he says.
"I wasn't anywhere." Castiel looks no more than mildly interested at this development. He steps forward, brow furrowing in thought. "I was simply removed from the equation. It seems I'm only here when you need me to be. Which is more evidence toward my theory."
"Theory?" Cas has wandered to the crest of the hill, and his eyes are lost. Dean grabs his shoulder, forces him around. It's a familiar movement, and history echoes behind the gesture. "Cas, what's your theory?"
"I wonder if the cats and the monkeys would get along. I could train the monkeys to rescue the cats if they were stuck up a tree..." His eyes flicker upward to the treetop, then narrow.
And Dean's hand is empty. Cas is gone. Dean curses and stomps hard, grinding a tuft of slimy grass into the ground.
Sam awakens to the smell of bacon and the sound of clanking metal. For a moment he thinks he's back at college and Jess has gotten up early to make him breakfast. It's an illusion he'd love to linger in, but he can't afford to, any more than he can afford to linger in bed.
Getting to his feet, he pads through the unfamiliar bedroom where Jody's put him up. There used to be wallpaper on these walls. The ghostly afterimages of trucks and trains still repeat every few feet where they used to sit. She's stripped it off. By herself, if Sam knows her. Jody's the type to pour her mourning into elbow grease.
He's a little surprised he knows that much about her. Then again, she's been around a lot more than he's really noticed so far. She was there when the Leviathans first made themselves known; she was there when Bobby discovered a way to hurt them. She helped Sam get Dean back when he was lost in time. Come to think of it, Jody Mills has been there for Sam and Dean, and he doesn't think he's given her enough credit for that.
He fully intends to, when he gets downstairs. But she cuts him off at the pass.
"Eat," she demands, waving a spatula at him menacingly. Sam tries to speak, but she's crossed the kitchen and grabbed a notepad off the opposite counter by the time he's taken his first breath to speak. "So I was going over this, and I think that given the Leviathan problem we've got a couple of options. Making sure loose rogue elements don't organize is really a job for someone who's good at surveillance, and I know Bobby had a network of people who could do that, so maybe we can call one of them up. So that's one problem we could probably take off your radar, and stop gawking at me and eat, Sam, I need your ears right now, not your mouth."
Sam scrambles for his fork. He's not sure whether to laugh or protest.
Jody turns and walks to the refrigerator, talking all the while. "As for where Crowley took this prophet kid, that one's tougher. You guys are able to summon him, right? So you could probably try that again. Maybe I could be there. I'm pretty good at interrogating suspects. They're not usually centuries-old demons, but everyone's got their baggage. Are you going to stare at that bacon or eat it?"
She has managed to pour herself a glass of orange juice and is actually waiting for Sam to bite down on his bacon-laden fork before she puts it to her lips. It's out of concern for her parched throat that Sam finally complies, and she sips, satisfied. Sam can't help feeling like he's being played pretty damn skillfully. He shakes his head reproachfully at her as he eats, but now he knows better than to try to interrupt.
"Which leaves finding your brother and his angel friend. Now there's two possibilities I can think of. One, they're dead, blown up or vaporized or melted by that Leviathan goo. Which I think is unlikely, not the least because it's Dean we're talking about, but also because you said the goo isn't toxic, right?" Sam shakes his head again, not dreaming of interrupting. "The other idea is, they've gone somewhere. Traveled to a different place. The question is, where, and how?"
Jody pauses, long enough that Sam knows he's now allowed to talk.
"You're talking about magic, right?" he says. "It would have to be some sort of spell. Like the banishing sigils that used to blow Cas halfway across the universe."
She stares at him a minute, incredulous, before dismissing the obvious joke. "It's the only thing I can think of. That happens, right? Blood and guts can cast spells."
Sam scratches his head. "I guess. We'll have to do some research."
"I figured." Jody finishes her cup of juice and hauls the carton back into the fridge, closing the door firmly. "In the meantime, let's figure out who we can get to keep an eye on the Leviathans, keep them from starting up again."
The bacon and eggs settle with delicious warmth and weight into Sam's stomach, and he relaxes, leaning back in his chair. "One person comes to mind," he says.
Castiel is back a moment later, arms folded in front of his chest, face screwed up in consternation. Dean jumps and then half-laughs. "You're gonna give me a friggin' coronary one of these days, dude. So what's it like being erased? Refreshing? You come back a new man?"
"That time I wasn't erased," Castiel says. "I was surveying the territory."
"And there is nothing." Castiel sighs. "A thousand miles of forest in every direction. And beasts, asleep, nearly everywhere. I hadn't expected such lack of variety."
"Yeah?" Dean's eyes narrow. He wouldn't have thought to send Cas out to survey the territory. It's weird that Cas chose to go, that he even thought to go in his current mental state. "What did you expect?"
"I--" Castiel's jaw snaps shut, and Dean sees the dangerous hurt in his eyes that usually prefaces a foray into the land of the non-sequitur.
He nips it in the bud. "Never mind. So you have no idea what we should do next?"
"I don't see the use in staying here," Castiel says. He touches the bark of the tree, traces a finger along the cracks that run down the trunk and stares at it curiously, as though he's examining a map. "It's possible that there are items in the forest that can be used for a spell. And we may be safer there."
"Safer?" Dean has to laugh. "How exactly does that work out?"
"The creatures sleep in the forest," Castiel says. "They must need shelter, or when the light came, they would have fallen asleep here in the clearing. And if they can find a safe haven in the forest..."
"...so can we," Dean finishes. "Fair enough. So you figure we should start moving now, see how the monsters hide and, when the sun goes down--"
"I don't think it's a sun--"
"Whatever. When it gets dark, we hide ourselves the same way. It's a good plan, Cas." Dean forces a smile, claps Cas on the back. Might as well give the guy credit when he does act sane, maybe he'll do more of it. "Let's get moving."
Dean's honestly surprised at how healthy he feels, how fit for traveling, as they start into the forest. Maybe the repairs made to his body went further than just closing up the tears on his skin. The ground moves quickly beneath his feet, and the trees don't trip or sting him as he moves through them. They lose sight of the clearing behind them after five or ten minutes of walking, wandering deeper into a forest so still that Dean can gauge Cas's closeness by the rasping sound of his breaths. Not even wind moves the leaves.
A half-hour passes before they encounter their first monster, or, rather, Cas does. He hisses a soft sound behind Dean, who looks back at a mound of leaves draping over a hill. Castiel puts a finger over his lips and draws back the curtain of foliage. It's not a hill but a cave, and curled inside it is a creature that's all folded legs, with a long face and a coiled spine. Its breaths rise and fall evenly, and the sharp razor blades of its talons shine with the scant reflected light. Cas lets the leaves drop over it again.
"This is how they all rest," Castiel whispers. "The leaves hide the signs of them from the other creatures."
"So we just need to find a cave," Dean says.
"And work some leaves in front of it to hide us. If we keep quiet, we should be safe from the predators."
"This isn't purgatory," Dean moans, "it's the Hunger Games."
"I'm not familiar with that one," Castiel says. "Are you talking about the one with the hippopotami?"
Dean doesn't bother to answer.
"No. No, there is nobody by that name here. I'm sorry, sir, you have the wrong number. Goodbye."
"Wait. Stop, don't hang up, Charlie."
"How many times do I have to say it? My name is Molly. Molly Walker. I don't know this Charlie person."
"Stop it. I know it's you. And don't hang up on me."
"Why are you doing this to me, Sam? You promised!"
"I know, I know, and I feel terrible. But we need you."
"Two weeks ago you didn't know me. Also, two weeks ago I had a job, and an apartment that didn't smell like recently deceased cat lady, and..."
"Sam, I just got settled, I met this girl and she's so cute, she looks like Katee Sackhoff, and we're so happy, and I don't want to fight, you promised me you wouldn't make me fight!"
"Charlie, listen. I don't want you to fight anything."
"Well, I do, but not like... listen. Is there anything you can't hack?"
That gets her pride going. "Not so far."
"Good. Because I want you to hack... everything."
They travel for another half-hour before the scenery begins to change. The trees become sparser, and Dean thinks he can see a clearing ahead, past a thicket of underbrush that lies dense and unbroken for what looks like a hundred yards. "That looks like fun," he says, pulling out his knife again, ready to hack and slash his way through.
Castiel reaches forward and halts Dean's movement, then closes his hand over a wayward branch. It crumbles beneath his touch, and the rest of the bush withers entirely, leaving them another ten feet of clearance. “Damn," Dean mutters, and lets Castiel step ahead to cut away.
He continues until they've made their way to the last layer of underbrush. Dean's about to grin and congratulate him on the feat of landscaping, but when Castiel steps through to the clearing, his face falls. Dean follows his gaze. The area is rocky, barren, with its only feature a small hill, barely the height of a man. One side of the hill slopes up gradually, but the other is a sheer wall of rock. A single tree sits at its peak.
Dean's seen it before.
"Well, crap," he says. "We've been going in circles."
"Dean," Castiel says, but Dean's already retracing his steps.
They head back through the underbrush to the deeper part of the forest, Dean grumbling the whole way. He's no forest ranger, but Dean can't figure out how he managed to turn himself around after all that. Maybe purgatory's really small, and he's just managed to go around the world in eighty minutes. But that makes no sense, either. Not based on what Cas said about the endless forest.
Speaking of Cas, he may be trying to say something to Dean, but Dean can't afford to break his concentration and end up in another endless loop.
He starts cutting markers into trees to keep track of where he's been, just in case. Castiel follows quietly -- so completely so that Dean has to look back a few times to make sure he's still there and hasn't vanished. It's a relief, each time, to know Cas is still beside him. It breaks the tension, if just momentarily, and keeps Dean sane as he continues to cut through the forest.
Another clearing seems to be resolving on the horizon ahead. Dean checks the trees around him. No markers. Finally, new territory. He shoots a grin back at Castiel. "Looks like we're finally getting somewhere."
Castiel doesn't answer. His face is drawn tight in anxiety.
"Ain't you a ray of sunshine." Dean faces front again, picks up his pace. It isn't long before he's pushed his way through the trees and is close enough to get a glimpse of the clearing. It's about the same size as the first, similarly rocky, with--
--with the same damn hill.
With the same damn tree on top.
"What the hell?" Dean wipes the sweat from his forehead and punches a tree trunk. "Screw this. Screw Purgatory. What the hell is the point of walking all damn day?"
Silence answers him. Dean turns sharply and scowls at Cas, who's standing expressionless a few feet back.
Each second of quiet irks Dean further. He snaps. "Well, c'mon, Chatty Cathy. What's going on with this?"
"I don't know for sure," Castiel says. His eyes dart to his feet, then to faraway trees, looking at everything but Dean's face. "I only have a theory."
The evasiveness irks Dean to no end. "Spit it out, then."
Castiel mumbles it, still looking away. “I think it's because of you."
Anger is the first response, but it takes a back seat to quickly sinking dread. “What does that mean?" Dean hears himself ask. But he knows. He doesn't get the details of how it happened, but it's so clear that he must have screwed things up. His head must be in a bad place. Or maybe he's just such a crappy leader that he shouldn't be trying to lead anyone anywhere. He drives a fist against a tree, and, oh, God, that was probably stupid, too, he'll get them killed if he makes more noise...
“Dean," Castiel says.
“Not now." His fault. Of course it was his fault. What in this whole mess hasn't been his fault? Since the moment he couldn't get Cas to give up the Leviathans. Since the moment he tried to leave the life. No, screw that, since the moment he brought Sam back, it was always his stupid attempts to be a leader, be the big man, the whole time not seeing the bigger picture--
“What?" Dean snaps out of his world of self-flagellation long enough to glare at Cas.
Cas isn't glaring back. Cas is looking past him.
It has two heads and no eyes, and its shoulders hunch with muscles that bulge under the skin as though threatening to burst through. Unlike the others, it's not torn up – this is the end of the day, not the end of the night, and it has been healing much like Dean did from his own injuries. All this Dean gets in a glance, and then he's running, dragging Cas with him into the clearing and across the wide stretch of black grass as the thing lumbers blindly after them, limbs flailing and swinging all around.
It pauses to listen for them, then swings its arms (and oh, God, there are more than two, those humps all along its back are shoulders, too, not just crude malformations) in a wide net. The arms extend to twice their length halfway through their sweep, and Castiel pulls Dean down to duck one clawed hand only to get caught himself on the next turn. Dean stifles a cry – better not to give the thing any clue that there are two of them – and watches helplessly as Castiel is swung like a rag doll in a loose circle.
Castiel tucks himself into a ball and rips free, and he manages the presence of mind to disappear and reappear at Dean's side, looking the worse for wear, pale, his coat ripped, fresh blood joining the old stains that dot the tattered garment. He glances at Dean, and the two of them come to a silent accord.
They creep backward, and Dean finds a rock underfoot. He picks it up and hurls it with all his might at the cliff face at the base of the hill. It connects with a noisy clatter, and the blind creature changes course, swinging its helicopter-rotor arms toward the hill. They catch on the stone. Bone breaks. The creature howls, and the surrounding forest stirs in response.
“Oh, God," Dean mutters. “It'll wake the whole world."
Castiel tugs on his arm. Together, they beat a hasty retreat into the trees.
They creep carefully into the depths of the woods, keeping their eyes peeled for attacks. Red eyes are starting to appear in the black tangles of bramble here and there, but the creature that attacked them is still reeling in the clearing. Just before Dean loses sight of it, he thinks he sees another monster attack it, and the sounds of tearing flesh and hungry howls are enough cover to shield Dean and Cas's escape.
A crevice between two overgrown trees catches Dean's eye. "Here," he mutters, nodding toward the gaping space between one trunk and the gnarled hollow of one root. It's just large enough for two men to hide, and Castiel nods in response. Dean tucks in first to the hole, then beckons to Castiel to join him.
He's pulled himself tight, hands wrapped around his knees, and when Castiel first bends to join him his heart skips dangerously at the sudden proximity. In this hole, there will barely be room for them to sit still. No room for stretching, certainly no personal space. Castiel will probably be perfectly at home. Dean steels himself to withstand the worst.
But when Cas's body is tucked next to his, Dean relaxes into the warmth of it; it's OK, really, just being here close to a friend. Dean will probably be able to sleep here, if the animal growls and violence of the night stay safely outside their refuge. Not that he can afford to sleep. They should probably trade off night watch duty.
"So," Dean says, leaning back until his head knocks against the tree root. "Because of me, huh?"
"Not in the way you're thinking." Castiel glances at him, then looks at the soil beneath them. Their feet have angled toward each other, despite Dean's best efforts to remain disentangled. It's just not happening, not in these close quarters. "Are you sure you wouldn't like to hear more about the monkeys instead? They tell such interesting stories."
Dean's ire rises. "No, Cas, I don't want to hear about the monkeys."
"Really?" Castiel tilts his head, and his face and those goddamn innocent wide blue eyes are way too close. Dean has to fight to keep from grimacing.
"Not right now," he relents. "I really want to know your theory, Cas. Then we can talk about monkeys, all right?"
"All right." Castiel sighs. "Dean, I think this place is shaped from your soul. Everything we encounter has to do with your state of mind. And I think we are stuck retreading the same ground because you have not found a way to change."
Dean would be angry, would protest, but he can't. Not after that. Not when he's nearly out of breath, terrified the slightest flare of emotion will set the monsters after them again. "Go on."
"What do the religious texts say about purgatory?" Castiel says. "It is the place where you are cleansed of your sins so you can enter heaven. By definition, you would need to change your soul to advance."
"So what, all of this is in my head?" Dean grabs his arm. It jerks Castiel in, tangles them harder together in the small space. Dean has to gulp hard to ignore the sudden heat. He's never stopped being surprised that Castiel's human-warm. He should either be white-hot or cold as a bar of steel.
"Not in your head. Shaped by your soul."
The words don't sink in. "Are you even the real Cas?" Castiel nods. "That doesn't make any sense. If you're the real Cas, shouldn't your soul-- or Grace, or whatever-- shouldn't that be shaping things too?"
"It is." Castiel looks away, and the darkness on his face scares Dean away from asking further.
Dean lets go and wills his body to relax. "Then how come we're in the same place?" he asks. "Or are you seeing different things than I am, and I just think we're here together?"
No answer. Castiel bites his lip.
The roots that form the latticework cage they're curled into shoot a bolt of cold across Dean's skin. He shivers. The light's almost gone now, and in the dimness he thinks he sees Castiel flicker. Shit. Dean doesn't think he can deal with Cas disappearing again. Not now that the sounds of crunching leaves and snapping branches tell him that the monsters of Purgatory are awakening and starting to hunt.
"All right. I'm gonna say this once, and if you quote me on it later, you're a dead man." Dean takes a deep breath, raises his hand in emphasis. "I need you. Right here, the whole time, 24-7, or however they count days in this place. You need to stay right here, and no more disappearing, because I need you. Got it?"
Castiel turns quickly. His face is so close, and his mouth is trembling. Dean can't tell whether he's trying to form words or on the edge of tears.
Either option scares the crap out of Dean. He tries to lean back, turn away, but his muscles won't listen to him. "Cas, don't--"
A howl sounds far too close. They both shiver with the sound of it -- at once mournful and savage, and thoroughly bone-chilling.
"Leaves," Castiel says. "We need the leaves."
"Right." Necessity has always spurred action easier than emotion, and Dean finds the strength to pull himself out of the hole, tiptoe up to one of the giant trees, and drag out his knife. The branch snaps easily after a few seconds of sawing, and the leaves drape in a thick black curtain off smaller limbs that pour from the branch as thick as pine needles. He steadies it atop the root so the leaves create a single, liquid, glossy sheet of darkness, then pushes it aside so he can duck behind it.
The pitchlike substance that makes up the leaves comes off on his fingers as he goes, and he frowns it them as he settles in next to Castiel. "God, I hate that stuff," he mutters.
"You should," Castiel says. "It's loathing itself."
Dean cocks his head. "I can never tell when you're being serious."
"I'm always serious, Dean," Castiel says airily. "It's the world that's absurd sometimes."
"Yeah, well.." Dean half-laughs. "I hear you there."
Footsteps rock their hiding place and make the curtain of leaves jump. Dean tenses. Castiel places a hand on his shoulder. "Rest," he says. "I'll wake you if there's danger."
Dean shakes his head. "Fair's fair. You told me your theory. Now I want to hear a story about the monkeys."
The day is waning and Sam's eyes have gone far past bleary. He rubs them and reaches for his coffee cup only to inhale air; he's drained it again, without noticing, and a cursory heft of the pot tells him they've run out again.
"I'll get more," Jody says, reaching over to get it. Sam gasps a little as she gets up; they've gotten very comfortable on their ends of the couch, balancing each other's weight, and the cushions rebound with the sudden loss of equilibrium. She's yawning as she walks into the kitchen, and Sam has to fight not to echo her yawn. The hours have dragged, and Sam had thought when he first reached for the coffee that he'd see moonlight outside the window. The sun's rays, red-orange as twilight falls, pierce his eyes, making him blink. It's really only sunset?
He rolls his head forward on his neck, then from side to side, and his joints pop with a series of crickles. Jess used to hate that sound, and even seven years later, he still looks around apprehensively, afraid he's just made someone in the vicinity cringe. Jody, on the other hand, has cracked her knuckles several times over the course of the day. Not that they're a direct comparison, but something about researching all day long with Jody has brought back memories of college libraries, of silent days and cheerfully refilled pots of coffee as the hours ticked away.
Something in him shudders in revulsion at even coming that close. Jess will never be compared to everybody, and the almost-life they had can never be recaptured. He's kept that as a sacred truth for too many years. Groaning, wanting to smack himself in the head for daring to go there, he flips a page into a list of blood spells involving a lunar eclipse.
He jumps up. "Holy crap!"
"Ow!" the answering yelp sounds from the kitchen, and Sam crosses to the doorway in alarm. Jody was replacing the coffeepot on the burner and has jumped at his exclamation, burning herself. She runs to the sink and turns on the cold water, looking over her shoulder the whole way. "What? Did you figure it out?"
Sam nods. "It was right there the whole time. "There's a spell. It has to be done during a lunar eclipse, and you need the blood of--"
"Of a Leviathan?" Jody winces as the water cools her burn.
"Not necessarily. Just someone who's from there." Sam crosses the room. "Jody, they're in purgatory."
"Purgatory?" She arches an eyebrow. "That exists?"
"It's where the Leviathans came from. The blood of the natives opens the door."
Jody turns off the water and flicks some droplets at Sam. "So it's a spell?" He nods. "Doesn't that mean someone has to have cast it, then? But who?"
They stare at each other for a few mute seconds, then say it in unison.