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.
The flame hits the pan and sparks. The smell of incense fills the air, and Sam stifles a cough. It's not exactly lavender, the potent and rare stuff they need to burn in order to capture a demon's attention, and every time it makes him feel a little sicker. Maybe that's just because summoning demons always smacks of something he'll regret later.
"Kinda surprised," Jody said to him earlier. "I mean, king of Hell, powers beyond mortal man, et cetera, et cetera, and you can just burn some stinky stuff up and he'll come mewling?"
"It's a weird world," Sam says. "Last year Dean and I figured out a way to summon angels. Although I really don't think it's a summoning with them. More like a knock on the door. For whatever reason, they just always showed up."
"Maybe that's why they always show," Jody said. "To keep you from realizing that they don't have to."
The thought chills Sam as he stands and waits, expecting the air to fill with portly demon and the stench of sulfur any minute now. That's the other part of demon summoning that makes him sick -- after they're gone, someone's got to clean up the mess they make. Sulfur deposits get in the grout between the kitchen tiles and trail along the floorboards... it's pretty gross. Having the Borax around in case of Leviathan attack has actually made things easier lately.
Still no Crowley. Jody glances at Sam. His stomach drops. Having her look at him with doubt in her eyes is making him feel even worse than usual. No good reason why.
A crash, coming on top of the words. Then several more eminently British curses.
The sound's coming from upstairs, a floor above the devil's trap they've scrawled on the ceiling. Sam and Jody race upstairs and open the bathroom door to discover Crowley wrestling with a shower curtain.
"Slimy bastard--" he mutters, one arm sticking out and yanking until the whole thing comes off. Crowley's signature dark suit is soaking wet. "Bugger it---" He shakes himself like a wet dog, then catches Sam's eye and sneers. "Bollocks."
Jody snorts a laugh. Crowley's gaze shifts to her. "Oh, that's just great. You've brought spectators."
"Sorry," Jody says. "I guess I expected more."
"It's your bloody fault for summoning me right beneath a loo!" Crowley rages. Jody rolls her eyes. Sam cracks a smile for the first time since the ritual began. "And why am I not surprised to see you again, Winchester? Stunned it took you this long, in fact. I was even able to relax, have a little tea and torture break with our mutual friend Kevin."
This snaps the smile off Sam's face. "What do you want with him, Crowley?"
Crowley grabs a towel off the rack and dabs at his face delicately. "That's for me to know and for you hopefully to not find out until it's far too late." Sam glowers. "Come off it, Baby Huey. It's not as if you'd be able to pry that information out of me, not unless I decide to provide it. Besides, you're not interested in our prophet friend. Not nearly as interested in getting Grumpy and Dopey back."
"You opened the door, didn't you? You sent them to Purgatory."
"Indeed." Crowley points a finger. "And you, good sir, should be thanking me."
"Sam, Sam." Crowley sits on the rim of the tub and crosses his legs, leaning forward as though imparting a confidence. "'You've already run the gauntlet. You've picked up the pieces of your soul and found what... how should we say it? Holistic wellness. Unfortunately, neither of them have. They're broken, both of them, and I don't care to deal with broken people."
Sam's eyes have narrowed. Crowley's words are chiming a low bell of truth that makes him very uncomfortable. "And?"
"And, considering the likelihood that I will, eventually, have to deal with them again, I've sent them on an all-expenses-paid vacation to the best holistic rehab spot I know. Trust me, when you get them back, you are going to thank me."
"So we can get them back."
Crowley snorts. "Of course. You know the spell. A lunar eclipse, a bit of virgin blood, a bit of Purgatory native blood, and voila. The door opens. Whether they make it through is another question. Assuming, of course, that they're still alive."
"The next lunar eclipse won't be for months," Sam says.
"Then I suppose you'll be cooling your heels for a while."
"There has to be another way."
Crowley shrugs. "Good luck finding it."
"Wait a second," Jody says, and both Sam and Crowley turn and stare at her.
She goes on, undaunted. "Virgin blood? Where-- how?"
Sam makes a face. Crowley chuckles. "There are, my dear Sheriff, some questions that are really better left unanswered."
And he blinks out of existence.
Sam thunders back down the stairs, hollering the whole time about how the Devil's Trap was set and he shouldn't have been able to escape-- and then he sees it, and his face falls.
Jody is a few steps behind. She frowns up at the ceiling, where a splotch is growing moment by moment, its dark stain wiping out the red paint. "That's just great. He's gone and I'm gonna have water damage."
Sam sighs. "I'll go close the pipe."
Worst thing about Purgatory so far? No alcohol.
They're moving again, another long night done and the light above them dim but constant when they look up through the treetops. Dean doesn't remember how many days it's been, but it could equally well have been two or seven. Enough that they know their job, from moment to moment, is to go as deep into the forest as they can and look for something, anything, that signals the terrain is changing. At night, they curl up together in any number of makeshift shelters, hidden from the night's horrors by a curtain of leaves, and then creep forward again when the light starts to shine through. Castiel keeps saying the landscape will change when Dean's ready for it to change, so Dean's doing his level best to be patient and not expect anything. It's a paradoxical problem -- how the hell can he not expect change when the whole point of not expecting it is to bring change?
He tries to explain this to Castiel, who says readily and embarrassingly, "That's very much like love."
"What?" Dean nearly trips over an outcropping they know for sure hides a monster's tail. Steadying himself, double-checking that they haven't just woken a literal sleeping giant, he frowns at Castiel. "What the hell do you know about love?"
"Not much," Castiel admits. "But I do know that it's been often said that love finds you when you are least expecting it. Which leads many people, I think, to attempt not to expect it, while in their heart of hearts always looking around for it."
"That's bull. If that's the case I should’ve been madly in love a thousand times over, because I ain't never looked for it."
"Not looking for it is only part of the equation," Castiel says. "The other half is loving yourself."
"Now that I'm good at," Dean says with a wink.
The joke is lost on Castiel. "I have doubts, though," he says, matter-of-factly, and pauses to pull a fallen tree from their path. "I've read that you cannot be loved by another if you do not love yourself, but I think it's very possible to love someone who doesn't love himself. Tragic, but possible."
He's paused, staring down at his own feet. The tree is only half-cleared.
Dean coughs. "Cas."
"Yes." Castiel jolts back into motion again. "Apologies."
Yeah. Dean could really use a drink right about now. Maybe if he doesn't expect it, Purgatory will manifest a river of beer for him. And now that he's thought of it, he's probably screwed himself out of ever getting it. Damn paradoxes.
They're into their fourth day of research and dead ends when Sam stops in mid-keystroke and slaps himself on the forehead abruptly. "Oh, God. How stupid could I be?"
Jody glances over. "Breakthrough?"
"You could say that. I checked to see when the next eclipse was, but I didn't check to see the last one."
"Well, no, because it was last week." Jody wrinkled her nose. "Wasn't it?"
"Yeah," Sam said. "But there wasn't supposed to be."
Jody rose from her seat and came to stand behind Sam and gaze at his laptop screen. "Oh, yeah," she murmured, "I remember hearing about that. Scientists saying it had to be an oddity in the cloud formation or something. I didn't think it meant anything." She pauses. "What does it mean?"
"It means it wasn't a natural eclipse," Sam says. "Somebody made it happen."
"Crowley? Can he do that?"
"I didn't think so," Sam says, leaning back. "But now that I think about it -- why not? The guy could remake hell, pull people in and out-- of course."
"So what?" She leans on his chair, hand wedged in near his shoulder. A little close for comfort, and he's bristling only partly from her words. "That doesn't get us any closer to getting an eclipse of our very own. Unless you think Crowley will be glad to pull another one up, just to help us out."
"You have a point." Sam turns in his seat to raise an eyebrow at her. "But he's reasonable, for a demon. Maybe he'll bargain. We just need a bargaining chip."
"And what could we possibly do that would make Crowley want to help us?"
"We could just ask."
She looks down at him. Her fingers drum against his shoulder.
Sam shrugs. "No, it didn't seem like a good idea to me, either."
Her hand stills, and she runs it over his shoulder briefly, a comforting gesture. "We'll think of something, Sam. At least we've got more of an idea what to do now than we did before. Right?"
He doesn't have an answer -- he just sits, pondering. The answer ought to be there, somewhere in the wealth of experience and knowledge he's carried through life and death and life again. There has to be something Crowley wants. But Sam just remembers Crowley's triumphant expression when Dean disappeared, and that sickening realization that once again, the demons had him right where they wanted him. Just like when he tried and failed so many times to sell his soul to bring Dean back from the dead. He can never stop being their pawn.
"Don't," she entreats. "Wherever it is you're going right now, don't go there. I'm right here, Sam. Stay with me."
Her grip is warm. Sam dares to think of a possibility he hasn't thought of before. He rises; she comes with him, hands still on his arms and sliding closer to his shoulders.
"I'm right here," she says again. Her head tilts upward. Her mouth is close, and her eyes shine with expectation. It’s tempting. Tempting to forget, to lower his head and close his eyes. He could drown himself in her warmth, just for a while, and in the end there would be no regrets, no consequences. And Jody wants the same thing. He can tell by the way her hands tighten on his shoulders. There’s no reason he shouldn’t.
He shakes his head and steps away. "No."
"I'm not asking for anything," she says. "Not a relationship, no strings."
"I know." He gazes at her mournfully. "It's just..."
"This is a bad time."
"Because of Bobby?"
"No, it's me... Women I'm with... they don't last too long."
"Maybe you haven't met the right woman yet. Admit it, Sam, I'm tougher than most." She tries to smile. "We make a pretty good team at this. Maybe, if worse comes to worst, I could... I mean, we could..." She shakes her head. "I don't know what I'm talking about. Never mind."
"Worse comes to..." Sam echoes her, then chokes on the meaning of the words. He coughs hard. "Don't. Dean's coming back. We're getting him back."
"Of course we are." Her shoulders stiffen, and she turns her back on him, paces the length of the room and folds her arms over her chest. "And I guess when we do, I'll just go back to being the sheriff. And you'll get in your car and leave me behind. Unless you need me for a case, of course."
"What do you want me to do?" Sam gets to his feet and crosses the room to meet her. She doesn't turn, so his hand falls to her arm to try to prompt her forward. She shakes it away. "Jody, what do you want me to say?"
"Nothing," she snaps. "Nothing. I know that's the way it is, I can't ask you to change. I just..."
She shakes her head. "I just don't know where that leaves me."
"Where should it leave you?"
"In a different place than when I started." Now Jody turns, and there's more anger in her face than he was expecting. He takes a step back. "I don't think you boys know just what you do to people when you show up at their door, save them from monsters and then jet away all self-satisfied and ready to move on to the next case. After a while, don't you forget their names? All the people they've saved. But they never forget you. The world's a different place after the Winchesters have been in it, but you seem to think people can meet you two and just stay the same. That's not how it works. You change people."
"Jody." The accusation in her face burns him. He searches for words in answer, but he has none.
"And I still don't get why you're special. You never have to change. You just keep going on, the two of you against the world, never growing up, never learning."
"That's not fair, and you know it."
Jody nods. "I do. But it's still true. You know, you've taken everything from me, you and Bobby and Dean and the things you've led my way. The things you made me see. That's changed me, and it's made me care about your world. About you. It's made me think, maybe it's time I took up a gun and I tried to help."
"You want to be a hunter?" He frowns. "Jody, it's no life."
"It's good enough for you."
"I wouldn't wish this job on anyone," Sam says. "It's long hours, it's literally no pay, and it's lonely."
"It wouldn't be if I were hunting with you."
Sam starts. Jody's cheeks have filled with color, and there's no mistaking the sudden downward dart of her eyes. The possibility he'd seen earlier is now a stark fact.
"Jody," he starts, but she shakes her head.
"Is it so wrong of me to want?" she asks. "I want to get Dean back as much as you do, Sam, but once he's back, I'm going to be that speck getting smaller in your rear view mirror. Who wants to be that?"
He doesn't have an answer. For her, for Crowley, or for Dean. He steps back a few paces, shaking his head back and forth, as though he could jar something loose in the process. But nothing comes, and he stumbles out of the room, then out the door into the night.
"So what's up with the board game fetish?" Dean asks after a half-day's worth of fruitless tromping. He's not sure what brings it up, but it's definitely a question he's been waiting to ask.
"What do you mean?" God, it drives him crazy when Castiel does that dewy-eyed innocent thing. Cas might not understand just how things work sometimes, but he ain't innocent. Never will be.
"Twister. Sorry. Uno. You keep bringing up dumb-ass board games. What's going on with it?"
"What's wrong with board games?" Now Cas looks vaguely hurt. That's just great. The one thing Dean needs, to feel guilty for even bringing it up.
"Is it?" Like he's challenging the assumption. Dean bristles.
"Hell, yeah, it is. Stuff's for kids, Cas. The real world doesn't start at the start and work on rolled dice."
"Doesn't it?" And now Cas is definitely challenging him. Dean stops in his tracks, looks over his shoulder at Castiel and scowls.
"So, what? You get some sort of cosmic revelation out of moving pieces on a board? Or are you still playing God under that pacifist shell you've been sporting lately? Still getting off on pushing us around?"
The reaction is instantaneous. Castiel's eyes hollow out, and he steps back a few paces, as though he's been struck.
"Sorry," Dean says, waving a hand, trying to brush it off. "I just want to understand you, man. So you like board games. Nothing wrong with that. Wondering why, that's all."
Castiel recovers slowly, the shocked look fading from his face in increments. Dean watches him carefully, not daring to say anything or move until he's sure Cas is back to normal. When the coast is clear, he tromps ahead a few paces, pauses, waits for Cas to catch up. "Well?" he says, trying to sound nonchalant. "What is it about the games? You gonna tell me?"
"I don't think you'd understand," Castiel replies, his voice even and smooth.
Castiel's eyes settle on his. "Very well." For a moment the gaze bores into Dean, and it reminds him of a million other times they stared each other down, wars of wills and vain struggles to understand each other. Dean would like to think that right now, Cas is incomprehensible because he's gone out of his mind, but truth is, he's never been any more transparent than he is now. Dean has never quite known what to make of him.
"Imagine," Castiel says quietly, "that you have been playing a game for a long time. Weeks. Years. Every day, you count on it. No matter what else happens, you'll come back to that board and you'll make your move. That's how you know that you still exist. Because you are needed to make that daily move, so you will always come back to it. It's your promise to the world."
"Cas," Dean starts, but he doesn't have any words to follow it. Castiel's face is gaunt and his eyes are strangely hollow. Maybe it's a trick of the dying light.
"And then, one day, you think you see victory in sight. You've discovered a strategy, a plan that will give you the upper hand. But you're torn. On the one hand, you've been looking for this victory for years. But once you've won... once the game is over... what will be left? What will you do? You could start a new game, perhaps, but it wouldn't be the same. It's this game, this endless battle, that's keeping you going. So you decide, though you could end it all in a few more moves, to ignore your chance. You'd rather keep playing, day in and day out, so long as this game never ends."
Something akin to panic is rising up in Dean's throat. "I don't get it," he says, and his voice cracks.
"So you return home to make your move," Castiel says. "And you find the board upended. The pieces on the floor, the dice scattered. Your opponent has seen what you could have done, and he couldn't handle it. So frustrated with the prospect of defeat, so angry at himself for playing so poorly, that he destroys the game you were living for. Even though you had no intention of making the move. What do you do, Dean? How do you live after that?"
Dean hears himself swallow. Other than that, he can't make a sound. His heart is banging in a silent, constant hammer against his ribs.
Castiel grins widely and gives a short, barking laugh. Dean jumps.
"It's just a game!" he says. "Even if your opponent is a spoilsport, it's still just a game. Don't look so worried!"
He looks up at the sky, notes the waning light, and wanders away to search for a suitable hiding place for the night. Dean watches him go, trying hard to laugh. But nothing about what Castiel just said sounded anything like a joke.
The Impala is still half-wrecked, glass broken and doors dented, but she drives, and Sam might not be Dean but he still feels free and at home behind her wheel. Driving with Dean somewhere else, in a different world, still tastes bitter to him, though. It reminds him too much of when Dean was in hell and Sam himself was consumed with pain and revenge. The town around him seems bitter and distant and aloof, and he revs the engine too quickly, makes her growl as she peels down the street and makes a wide turn around a corner. Dean can make her handle like a cat. Sam's not quite as good. But that turn was sloppy, wide. Obvious. Sam should know better.
He should know better, after all this time. So why the hell is he so damn angry now?
Everything Jody said is true. Sam and Dean do think they're special little snowflakes. They do more for each other than is fair or natural. And they leave the rest of the world touched and jet away here in this magical car of theirs like it's a spaceship, off to another planet to change someone else's life. This isn't Star Trek. The people they meet aren't extras. They don't put away their backstories and costumes after a single episode and never live another day.
But Sam knows that. He respects that. Doesn't he?
His anger flares at her briefly. She's the one who demanded something of him. She wanted him. She broke that compact they'd had, the friends-and-allies barriers they'd built. That should have been sacred ground, and she tried to get too close. He has to push her away now. It's the only way to keep working, because he still needs her help.
(Does he? Could he go on without her from now on, see about Crowley and the spell and the gate to Purgatory all by himself? He could. But he doesn't want to, and that scares him a lot, too.)
Concentrate on the job. Concentrate on Crowley. They need to get him to cooperate. But what can they possibly give Crowley that he doesn't already have? He's got Meg. He's got Kevin. God knows why, but--
"What's it?" says a drunkard who's wandering by.
Sam smiles. "Kevin."
Dean is sawing at a branch to bring down a curtain of black leaves for camouflage. Castiel has found a pile of rocks and rotting fallen trees that create a cave, this one more spacious than the last. There will be room in there to lie down, to give each other space. Which, given the awkward state of things, is probably for the best. Castiel hasn't spoken in several minutes, and though Dean's tried to summon words, he can't quite bring himself to break the silence.
He's been mulling the story over in his mind, trying to understand what sort of parable Castiel was trying to narrate. Is it a story about him? About the apocalypse? Something about it reminds him of the angels, of their dumb-ass plan to cause the end of the world and how Castiel decided, after a little persuasion, that it wasn't worth the body count. But then there were parts of it where Dean felt like he was being accused of something. Was he the cranky opponent who had upended Cas's board? But that didn't make sense either. It's not like he had stopped Cas from doing anything. Tried, sure. But he hadn't been able to stop him. In the end, it was Cas who had to stop himself, and not quite in time.
Maybe it was just an aimless story. Maybe Cas is even more bonkers than Dean first thought.
He brings the leaves over, and Castiel takes them without a word, drapes them over the entrance to the makeshift cave. It's not enough; Dean will have to cut another branch. Sighing, he treks a few paces over to the nearest tree. His arms ache, and he's craving food -- he's not hungry, exactly, but it's been so long since he's had anything in his mouth, and it's dry and bitter-tasting. He dreams of water.
It's not fair. There's no solution to the puzzle that's Purgatory. They've survived for days, or maybe it's weeks, without hunger, huddling in the night from endless horrors, but the scenery hasn't changed. Nothing's changed. What's the point of just surviving? Dean's not quite wishing for death yet, but he's starting to want to stay out nights, just to get his adrenaline peaking again, to feel like there's some challenge and some danger beyond the endless grind. He caught himself staring at the rising and falling breaths of a sleeping creature earlier in the day, wondering what would happen if he stabbed it in its sleep. Not that his knife would do more than slice the skin, but would it awaken? Would it attack? And if Dean survived the attack, would he finally see something change?
But then again, more than likely he wouldn't survive. And that sends a sick thrill through him too.
Talk about upending the board.
"Maybe I kind of get it," he says as the second branch comes down, sticky-black and heavy, in his hands. "About the board games. I mean, you make a move in a game and you get somewhere, right? You draw a card and something good happens or something bad happens. You deal with it." He glances at Castiel's face; mild interest there, some approval. It's more heartening than he expected it to be. "But the world, the real world, you just keep going. I mean, there's karma or whatever, but that's just in the mind, right? People want there to be karma, so they see it where it isn't. Trying to make a game out of real life."
Castiel smiles, barely, the sort of half-smile that Dean remembers from before the days when he learned to grin and laugh like a maniac. That, too, is heartening.
"Makes you wonder how much we make up just to keep going," he says. "I mean, love? Family? Friends? It's all random, right? It's chance. You live, so you live. There's no winning or losing. Just... going on."
He's proud of himself for coming to this conclusion, depressing though it is, and now he's the one grinning like a maniac -- a grin that shakes right off when Castiel seizes him by both arms, scowling. "Don't," he warns.
Dean tries to wrest out of his grasp. The way Castiel's eyes have focused on him hurts, like a laser is melting his skin. "Don't what?"
"Don't take it too far. Don't think that. My Father had a plan, has a plan for all of us. It's not chance, it's not random."
Castiel's grip is crushing him. His arms will bruise. "How can you, of all people, say that? Your destiny was ordained from the beginning of time, Dean. You and your brother, you were chosen for a reason."
"And we took that reason and tossed it out the window, didn't we?" Now Dean's defensive, feeling a little maniacal himself. "You were there, Cas, you were a part of it. Without the end of the world, what's the point of us?"
"Dean." Desperation in his voice.
"Seriously. What's the point? We lose people we love--" His voice cracks. "So what's the point of loving them? Bobby just-- and you--"
"I'm not," Castiel starts, but the fuse has already run out, and Dean's no longer in control of it.
"Why'd it have to be you who got brought back?" he says. "Why couldn't it be Bobby? Bobby's... Bobby was easy. He was like my father. I don't even know what you are. You piss me off and you make no sense and half the time I don't even like you, and you're always coming back. Why? How the hell is that fair? Why weren't you the one who stayed dead?"
There it is, the bridge crossed, and he pulls back, both excited and terrified to see Castiel's reaction. The glimpse he gets of Castiel's face -- sorrowful, pale, a low flame sparking in his eyes -- brings his anger crashing down into fear, and he feels as though he's sinking through quicksand, terrified he's landed a blow that cannot be soothed. It's like he's seeing a boulder fall toward him, counting in slow-motion seconds the moment until he feels its impact.
What he feels instead is a drop of water.
And then another. And then a dozen of them on the crown of his head. He looks up, and they continue, splashing onto his face and running down across his chin and ears to his neck.
"It's raining?" he says.
Castiel looks upward too, squints into the sudden downpour. "It would appear so."
Everything they've been talking about is lost in the surprise. Dean brushes water over his face, tries to shake himself dry, but it's coming down faster now, hard as a summer thunderstorm.
"How can it rain in Purgatory?" Dean says. He sticks out his tongue, expecting it to be bitter, corrosive. But it just feels and tastes like water. "How can there be weather in purgatory? It's just... monsters and trees, there's no atmosphere or..."
Castiel shakes his head. Dean finds himself watching an errant drop of rain hanging precariously at the tip of his nose. "Earth, and Heaven, and Hell, and Purgatory... they are all what we make of them," he says, and somehow it makes sense.
Dean looks up, watches the rain fall from that invisible vanishing point. The drops land fat and cold on his face, and he shivers, drawing his arms tight around himself. He's always liked the rain, liked thunder. Sunshine seemed a fake facade -- the atmosphere's real purpose was to roil, to sow chaos and flood the world with anger and sorrow. But Cas has said this is a reflection of his soul.... and for the first time, perhaps, he entertains the thought that instead of his soul darkening because of the reality of the world, maybe the world darkens because that's what his soul chooses to see.
The notion just makes him sadder, and a coldness is creeping through his body now, like he's being embraced by the grip of death. Castiel's turned his back, and Dean misses the sight of his face. It's a weird nostalgia, and though they're standing just feet apart, Dean thinks he sees a gulf widening between them, pulling Castiel further and further away.
He tries to raise his hand, but his arm goes limp. He looks down.
That's when he realizes the grip is real.
His ankles are wrapped in something awful and glistening. A tendril, or tentacle of some kind. And as he watches, more slither out behind it. They wrap around his legs, tangle upward like climbing ivy, faster than he can pull away. He cries out, and his voice chokes. Castiel turns a moment before the tentacles yank hard and Dean is pulled off his feet.
His jaw rattles as it slams into the ground, lower teeth driving up into his skull. Pain shoots through him, piercing in his skull and raw in his gut. A creeping numbness is starting to overtake his legs, and he can't kick, can't fight his way free. He claws the ground, shouting, reaching out as he's dragged back and away from Castiel, who shouts and struggles across the grass toward him. But then he's gone, scenery disappearing faster than Cas can make it up, and Dean's so deep in the brush that he can barely see a foot in front of his face. God knows how close or far Cas is now. Dean paws the ground, takes fistfuls of dirt. His arms are starting to numb, too. There's something cold and horrible making its way through his veins. All this, and the rain continues, battering down on his head and back and face, when he turns it up toward the sky -- and he aches everywhere he's not numb or stinging. No part of him feels untouched.
He can still kind of feel his hands, and he slams them down into the dirt, forcing his body to wrench around in a miserable twist. Gotta face this thing, see what's got him. It's got tentacles, or pincers, or something that's at once keeping him held and leeching slow poison into his system, and until he knows what he's got no idea how to get free. With a final push and twist, he finally rolls onto his back.
"Oh, you ugly son of a bitch," he mutters through tingling lips.
Its eyes are beady, its skin a mess of orange-brown rotting scales. But the true horror is its mouth, its gaping, awful mouth that breathes foul exhalations onto him every other moment. Brimming over its lower lip is a teeming mass of tongues, long and squirming, and they're what's holding him down -- wrapped around his legs, poisoned saliva oozing into his skin and spreading numbness through his limbs.
"I don't French kiss on the first date," he mumbles, but the words are barely distinct. His vision's getting blurry. He tries to ease backward, but the tongues tighten around his ankles, pulling him an inch closer for every moment he tries to escape. The more he tries, the closer he gets, and the paralysis makes every try more fruitless.
A sense of inevitability settles over him, and he leans back, relaxing into the numbness that suffuses his whole body. Why not just close his eyes? Why not just accept that he'll be torn into that awful mouth, swallowed up in darkness and torn apart? He can't move. There's no use in fighting it. He might as well try to stop the rain from falling.
The sound comes to his ears as though from far away, and his leg flying free is a surprise to him -- he sees it flying above his head like it's someone else's, doesn't realize he's been continuously trying to kick it up even after he thought he had given up. The next sound is sharper, cleaner, and now his legs are free, the numbness fading from them fast enough that he's able, after a groaning moment, to scramble backward and sit up.
Castiel's got Dean's knife, and it lashes out again and again to cut more slithering tongues as he faces down the creature, stance ready and solid. Dizzied, Dean leans against a tree stump and watches the battle, helpless. The tongues keep sliding out, and Dean wants to shout and warn him, but Castiel's faster, more precise than he's been for a long time, and he doesn't miss a one. When the final tongue is severed, the strips of flesh and muscle piling up around his feet in a swarm, the monster howls from its injured mouth and starts to retreat, and Castiel looks over his shoulder at Dean.
There's no insanity in his face. He's pure warrior. As the rain beats down over his head, matting his hair down, the last vestiges of his mask seem to drain away. Dean gets the feeling that Castiel's all there, for the first time in far too long. It makes his heart leap.
Dean tries to get up, but his knees buckle almost immediately. Castiel runs toward him, stowing the knife as he moves, and catches Dean in his arms. "We have to go," he says. "There will be others."
"Yeah," Dean mumbles. His mouth feels heavy and dull, and he figures this is how people must feel when they've spent three hours in a dentist's chair. "Problem is... can't walk." The consonants buzz through his lips funnily.
Castiel's arm goes around him, fingers cinching on his shoulder, and Dean finds himself dragged up. It brings back a memory, another time Castiel had to carry him to safety. But that time his injuries had come at Castiel's own hand and Dean had remained so resistant that Castiel had to put him to sleep in order to haul him home. This time Dean finds himself leaning in, head bobbing onto Castiel's shoulder. Maybe he's just too weak not to trust him. But seeing him like that, flame in his eyes, brings back another memory -- one when those eyes blazed into his and Castiel drew his own blood, put his faith completely in Dean -- and this feels the same. Castiel's undoubtedly on his side now.
He lets Castiel carry him back to the hiding place they'd discovered, lets himself be deposited like a doll inside before Castiel stands again to draw the leaves over the enclosure. Feeling is returning quicker than it would in the human world -- his body heals quickly here, like it did in hell -- but he still feels weak, dizzied. He leans against the wall of the hiding place, groaning, and waits for Castiel to climb in beside him.
"So," Dean says. "Rain."
He sits for another half-minute and gazes at it. The light's dimming. Soon they'll be in near-complete darkness.
"We're waiting and waiting for the scenery to change, and when it does, it's rain." He sighs and hangs his head. "Why's everything always gotta change for the worse?"
He can feel Castiel's gaze on him, but he sees no reason to meet it. There's nothing new there, either, just more pain.
"Nobody to blame but myself, I guess," he goes on, fingers digging into the soft ground. "Place is based on my soul, after all"
"You think it was your fault?"
There's real surprise in Castiel's voice, and Dean does turn this time, angles his face toward Castiel's. "You don't?"
"I--" Castiel licks his lips nervously. "I thought it was mine."
"Yours?" Dean's head swims. "How--"
And then it's clear. Dean sees it, all at once, like the curtain of black leaves has been swept away and he's found daylight after an endless Purgatory night. He's been looking at Cas all wrong, he's been talking about Cas as a thing, as a tool, and he's not -- he's a person, every bit as much a person as Dean is, and a moment ago Dean told him he wished he were still dead.
"Cas." Dean touches Castiel's arm and stares at him. "I'm sorry for what I said. I'm happy you're alive. Really."
Forced to face him, Castiel swallows and tries to avert his gaze. It's impossible; something in him won't allow it, and he ends up staring helplessly into Dean's eyes. "I'm not glad," he says. "I deserve... I deserve to die for what I've done. I want to die for what I've done, and I can't. I have to keep living--" He swallows. "No, I don't deserve to die. Living is my punishment. I don't deserve the mercy of being dead."
They're horrific words, but Dean can't feel horror. "I've felt the same way," he says.
"You understand, then," Castiel says, and Dean can feel his eyes, wary and bright. "Why I'm afraid to discuss it. Why I can't-- why I'd rather--"
"Follow the bees, yeah, I know." Dean looks up, meets Castiel's eyes. The sheer amount of pain there makes him want to flinch. "But Cas, that's the point. You have to do shit like that, or you'll never get past it. You want to keep living just running away from it all?"
"You may be right." Castiel shifts awkwardly in his crouch, his hands folding and unfolding in his lap. "But I have no home left, Dean. My garrison is dead. My friends--"
He pauses. Dean peers at him. "Go on."
"I've driven my friends away." Castiel's voice lowers to a whisper. "I've done unforgivable things. I can't think about them, I can't..."
Dean's silent. He feels as though he's watching a coil of wire unwind. As he watches, Castiel doubles over, and hides his head in his hands.
"I can't make it stop hurting," he says. "The whole world means nothing, it's all nonsense. That's the point. Monkey feces and cat penises and... it's ridiculous, but I can't stop hurting over what I've done to you and Sam. How does that make any sense?"
Dean inches closer and slings his arm around Castiel's shoulder. Castiel stills, stiffening in Dean's grasp.
"It doesn't," Dean says.
"Because people don't make any sense," Dean says. "None of it does. Why we love, who we love, it's all-- it's all just a mess."
Castiel starts to speak, then stops. His jaw locks, and he stares at the place where his shoulder tucks into Dean's arm like he could dissolve the contact, or seal them there forever. Dean's not sure which he wants.
"What?" Dean prods. God, he wishes he understood Cas a little better. Moments like this he thinks he really ought to know just what's going through his mind, and he's drawing a blank.
Thankfully, Castiel breaks his silence. "You misunderstand," he says softly. "The rest of the world makes no sense. But how I feel about you has always been abundantly clear."
Dean opens his mouth to speak without a single clue what he'll say. The breath is traveling up and through his mouth when a shock of warmth stops him -- Castiel's hand on his jaw, fingertips brushing his cheek. To stop him? Dean wavers, knowing only that Castiel's staring at him with intensity. It brings him to silence, and he waits, uneasy, for whatever Castiel is about to say.
Castiel kisses him instead.