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The thing that made purgatory feel so wrong – and Dean had given this some thought – was that it wasn’t a real forest. Obviously, with the whole “monster heaven” thing and all, but purgatory put on airs to make itself feel real. Dean had spent a lot of time in the woods over the years and he knew what to expect. Purgatory… just wasn’t it. There were no bug choirs or twittering birds, no tiny animals flittering about their lives in the canopy. He hadn’t given much thought to how much space those little things took up in the world until they weren’t there. An entire concert of movement and sound was absent. It was like when some big predator crept through the underbrush and everything hushed, trembling in fear.

Every moment was like that, all the time. Anxious. Expectant. Terrified.

It never stopped. And why would it? The entire dimension held only hunters, devouring each other for eternity. Just the monsters and the moon.

Well. The monsters, the moon, and the angel. And Dean Winchester, who was growing more and more frustrated with the angel every step they took together.

Cas had been humming for hours. Of all the fucking songs for Cas to have learned it had to be that one, didn’t it? Fucking CCR. Dean was throwing that cassette out the window when he got back to the Impala, no fucking around this time. If he got back.

Cas paused for a second, the quiet rush of the wind in the trees echoing bereft around them, before taking a breath and starting again. Tenth verse, same as the first.

Cas! Would you shut the fuck up, please? Don’t you know the first rule of hunting? You’re making so much noise they’re gonna know we’re coming a mile away.”

“We’re not hunting anything, Dean. We’re walking. And I don’t sense any creatures nearby.”

They hiked onward in silence for awhile, Cas manfully keeping the tune to himself. Dean knew he was still humming it in his head; he bobbed his neck every couple seconds in rhythm. Better run through the jungle and don’t look back to see.

“Damn it, now that song’s stuck in my head. And I’m bored. We haven’t killed anything for a good hour or two. The hell are we supposed to do in purgatory?”

“We could always… talk.” Cas said the word talk like other people would herpes or anal leakage.

Talking had never gone over well between them before. Sarcasm always snuck in there, or god forbid actual emotions were brought up. And then there was the cultural divide when Cas was too literal or Dean made a reference Cas didn’t understand. (Dean didn’t realize how often he relied on pop culture in conversations until he talked to someone who just didn’t get it.) And now they were trapped in purgatory with nothing new to add to a discussion.

“I honestly can’t think of anything to say. What do you want to talk about?”

“As you’ve pointed out before, Dean, my social skills leave something to be desired.”

Cas stepped carefully around a bush that made a grab at his coat. Dean kicked it on the way past and it squealed, pulling its vines away from the road’s edge. “Well, what are you thinking about?”

Cas took a deep breath then let it out in a kind of weary sigh. “I’m thinking about the time I heard that song on the radio in the Impala and you sang along to the first few bars before going pale and turning it off. I’m thinking about how the noise made by the chemical reactions in bioluminescent jellyfish echoes the chorus notes, and how it would irritate you if you knew. I’m remembering how my brother Balthazar’s edges used to glow like the mnemiopsis leidyi, but only in the spring, and how in the winter he crackled instead. I’m thinking that I haven’t felt any other angels on this plane so my fallen brothers must not be here, and if they’re not here then they can’t be anywhere and there must be nothing for angels after death except to stop and be nothing. And that I’ve already died twice – maybe three times – and it’s not fair that I’m still here and they’re not. And I’m thinking about how I have all these feelings in the first place and how a proper angel wouldn’t let them affect him this way. I should want to repent and be forgiven but I’m just sad and guilty and crazy instead.” He paused, took a shaky breath in, and looked down at his feet. “And now I’m thinking I’ve said too much and that I’ve got a rock in my shoe.”

He sat down, heavily, his coat billowing around him in the dirt. He pulled his gangly legs in and tugged off his left shoe then sat there, staring at it. His shoulders heaved once, twice, and then settled into the grave curve Dean had come to recognize as purely Cas.

His bare foot looked vulnerable and pale in the half-light of the moon.

Dean felt strangely tall standing there by himself. He took a deep breath of the not-right forest air and looked around, keenly aware that Cas’ back was slumping further inward the longer he sat, body curling around the hospital-issue slipper.

Dean rubbed his hands on his jeans, looked around a final time, and flopped down into the dirt next to Cas, crossing his legs. The top of their arms brushed, their jackets making a soft shushing sound. "Remind me to ask for the abridged version next time you tell me what you’re thinking."

“I’m a creature of cosmic intent, Dean. My brain operates on a different frequency than yours. It’s my nature to multitask.”

Dean nodded, letting the joke fall flat. They sat there quietly for awhile. Something moved in the bushes next to them but they both ignored it.

Cas turned his shoe in his hands, fingers tracing the stiff stitches holding the fabric together. The sole was irredeemably soiled. “My brothers burned in a blaze of glory when I killed them, their bodies cleaving to the ground forever. Why did this have to happen, Dean? I never wanted to kill them, just stop them from destroying the world. At first they forced my hand by refusing to back down and that was all right, that’s war, I’d made my peace with that a long time ago. But then it got too much and I needed more strength and the leviathans were always talking… Why would God allow this to happen and leave me untouched at the end of it all?”

Dean looked at him - an angel with a rock in his slipper and tears in his eyes sitting in the dust of a nonphysical plane - and sighed.

“When Sam died-“ He laughed, though there wasn’t any humor in it. “When Sam dies, it’s always my fault. He dies because I can’t get to him in time, or because I’m not smart enough to think of a better way around him hurting himself, or because some fuckwit tore through him to get to me. I gotta carry that around. That’s my load to carry.” He shook his head, gestured carelessly with a wrist. “For awhile that and all the other shit I got mixed up in was too much, too heavy. Too big. But now… Now, man, I don’t know. I don’t believe everything happens for a reason because it turns out most of the reasons were your dick brothers fucking around with stuff to protect their vessel’s bloodlines.”

Cas was finally looking at something other than his footwear, leaning back a little way to better watch Dean’s face. Dean took a breath and kept going. “I think God lets these things happen because he’s not in charge any more than you were when you were high on leviathan goo. He may’ve set this shit in motion but now he’s sitting back with a cold one waiting to see how it’ll turn out, just like we are. Otherwise what’s the point of free will? Why bother with any of it if you already know how it’s going to end?”

Cas squinted at the trees in the distance and the maybe-something-rustling-in-the-bushes. At the rough spots on his toes rubbed raw and pink by walking in the crappy shoes. At where his knee touched Dean’s, briefly. “Because it’s beautiful. And because it does work in mysterious ways, no matter what you say.”

Dean smiled and swallowed past the lump in his throat. He bumped their shoulders together – like hitting a brick wall wrapped in thick cotton. “See? You just proved my point.”

The bushes growled at them. Dean rolled his eyes then leaned up on a hip, took out his gun, and shot straight between the branches, the bright flash of gunpowder leaving spots on his eyes. The report was deafening and echoed strangely – the woods were truly silent for the first time since they’d arrived.

“Good riddance,” he muttered, putting the gun back in its holster.

Cas snorted a laugh. (It was an undignified sound and all the more appealing for its rarity.) “Now every creature in purgatory’s going to know we’re here.”

“We’re having a moment here, Cas. I’m not gonna let some bullshit Monster of the Week interrupt that. So I pulled a Raiders.”

Cas shook his head, exasperated but still smirking, and shoved his slipper back into place.

Dean rubbed his hands together, watching the calluses catch. “Seriously, though. Guilt sucks, man. I know it’s new for you but take it from someone who knows: if you wanna push past it you’ve gotta live with it. You’ve gotta drag it behind you until it either becomes part of you or pieces start falling off. It’s natural to feel like shit for awhile, you’re only –“ He sucked in a breath, literally swallowing the words before they could get past his lips. Cas was not human. It was hard to remember that sometimes. “If you want to repent or make up for it then go ahead. It makes you feel better and helps the people around you, too. It’s not gonna be the same and sometimes it’s worse, but sometimes it’s better. So don’t let your mistakes drag you down any further than they’ve already kicked you, ‘cause then they’ve won.”

Cas shook his head again, slower, the smile denting in one side and turning melancholy. “You’re a hypocrite, Dean Winchester. You know that, don’t you?”

“Yep.” Dean gathered his legs underneath him, only half-surprised they hadn’t fallen asleep from sitting for so long. He wiped the dirt off his pants and held out a hand for Cas. “You gotta keep walking, Cas. Isn’t that what you’re always telling me?”

Cas sat for another minute, legs akimbo, then grabbed Dean’s hand and let himself be pulled onto his feet.

+++


Dean found the world below purgatory by accident.

He’d read everything Bobby had in his library about purgatory during the Lovecraft case and everything else after Cas had started his scheming. Dean had even struggled through Dante, though he already knew from personal experience the writer hadn’t gone anywhere near accurate during his tour in The Inferno . Needless to say, he took Purgatorio with a grain of salt.

Before the alphas Dean thought purgatory was where the poor unbaptised babies went when they died, a repository for all the unclaimed souls that didn’t quite fit into one realm or the other. And maybe they were there somewhere, hanging out beyond the tree line of this eternal forest full of twilight and shadows. But Dean felt like the only living thing for miles, and from the way the monsters followed he and Castiel’s scent he didn’t think he was wrong.

It had never occurred to him to look below his feet for answers. Though maybe it should have, considering the plants in purgatory must’ve had the most fucked up root system imaginable.

They’d been walking for a long ass time, flitting between trees and jumping at every distant noise. The road led them to a huge stump, cut off ten feet up with scorch marks scarring the bark – it looked like lightning but Dean had yet to see a single cloud hovering in the sky, let alone the makings of a proper storm. The roots spread on either side of the path, still clinging firmly to the ground despite the lack of any new growth on the plant.

Cas stood looking at the base of the dead tree, then shrugged and picked his way around the edge of it. The roots were as big around as his thigh.

Dean was a little more cautious of anything he couldn’t see the end of; the Web Incident had really left an impression and Dean liked to say he learned from his mistakes. He picked his way along the roots carefully, kicking aside the piles of leaves before setting his foot down.

He’d almost made to the other side when the dirt crumbled under his boot unexpectedly, right at the junction of root and tree. He fell, as fast as he had down the rocky mountain, only saving himself from dropping all the way through by grabbing hold of the root above him.

“Dean!” Cas rushed toward him, kicking up the moist and decaying leaves as he went. Dean’s entire weight hung from his arms and his legs kicked out into open space. The hole was at least deep enough for him to stand in. Maybe deeper. Don’t look down, he told himself. Don’t look down. Don’t look down. Don’t look down.

Dean looked down. And had to close his eyes at the disorienting twirl of color and sound creeping toward his swinging feet.

There was a whole world glimpsed in that one quick glance, topsy-turvy and checkerboard swirled. He thought he saw water, and what looked like people or animals floating in it, though it was too far away to be sure.

The damp bark was coming apart under his fingers. He hauled himself up with a desperate lunge, glancing down again when he caught movement out of the corner of his eye. A flying creature – some kind of fat eyeless bird with teeth like a lamprey gleaming in the folds of its bulgy beak – paused in its ungainly flight over the water and turned his way. It screeched and the hairs on Dean’s neck stood up so hard they practically jumped from his body.

Cas skid into the pulp on the other side of the root from Dean’s desperate grip and threw himself headfirst down the hole, circling Dean’s waist with his arms and pulling back with all his strength. Dean’s legs kicked away just as crazy mister dodo snapped its beak through the hole after them, snapping and thrusting its teeth into the dirt around him.

Cas gave another mighty yank and shoved his hand into the hole, pushing the bird thing back. Dean turned in time to see a blaze of white light pour from Cas’ hand - it was the brightest thing he’d seen in ages and in the shadowy black Dean found himself momentarily blinded.

Cas (at least he hoped it was Cas) grabbed his arm and took off, stumbling through the night away from the tree and the secret it hid under its roots. A grating, chuffing sound – like a lunatic’s laughter scratching over metal boards – chased the brilliant afterimage imbedded in his retinas as they fled through the wilderness.

They ran, Dean blind as a bat and feeling for the slope of the path under his feet, trusting Cas to lead the way. Eventually they fell to a stop, panting, curled against the grit of stone and hopefully hidden from anything else following down the road. For once Dean felt drained, tired from the sprint, coughing and gasping for breath. He clung to the rock, waiting for his vision to return to normal.

He blinked hard a few times, the fuzzy blob in front of him clearing into Cas’ frowning face. He was staring at his hands, clenching them into fists over and over again. “Thanks for the save back there, man. Couldn’t have picked a better time to get your mojo working again.”

“I shouldn’t have been able to do that."

“Do what?” Dean shifted so that less of his weight leaned against the rock, tilting his shoulders until he could see the forest around them. The rock was just one of many littering this patch of purgatory, most of the trees falling behind and to the sides of where they rested.

“My grace is restricted on this plane. It will regenerate eventually but it’s hard to access anything and keep a foothold in my vessel. Unless I want to abandon it to the jackals it’s dangerous for me to expand beyond myself.” Cas looked up, eyes large in the gloom. “It’s why I couldn’t use my wings properly. Why we had to walk.”

So that’s why Cas had been hanging around with Dean instead of bamfing all over. He honestly hadn’t given it much thought beyond a tiny spark of gratitude to Cas for keeping him company. “What do you mean dangerous? Is your head gonna explode like that guy’s in Trancers?”

“Every time we use our grace we run the risk of burning up, consuming our energy and leaving behind scorched earth and the remnants of our consciousness. We learn our limits very quickly. Though some of us have a habit of testing them more often than is healthy.”

Dean remembered a tired voice on the phone, calling bedridden from a hospital and complaining about being itchy. What would happen to him if he overextended himself here?

“Cas, are you all right?”

“I’m fine. That’s what worries me.” He shook his head, lowering his gaze back down to his hands. His fingers curled to rest against his dirty palms. “Using that much grace should have emptied me, or at least tired me to the point of exhaustion. But I feel fine. I don’t understand why.”

The thought of Cas draining himself like that, giving up such a pivotal part for himself because of Dean again curled something sour in his stomach. “You shouldn’t do that, Cas. We get into the thick of it I want you to promise me you won’t hurt yourself to save me. Even if it turns out okay in the end, you sacrificing your grace is not an acceptable option.”

Cas sat on the rock next to Dean, tucking his coat primly around his legs. “I thought you said nobody cared if I was broken?”

Dean looked away, unable to bear the hurt he knew would be in Cas’ eyes. He rubbed at the dirt imbedded into his palm instead. “I think we’ve proven by now I’m full of shit. You deserve to be saved, Cas.”

Cas sighed, deeply. “So do you, Dean. Even if you are needlessly cruel and irritating beyond all belief.”

“Thanks, man.”

“You’re also a dick.”

“Okay now, watch the language. When’d you upgrade to dicks from assbutt, anyway?”

Cas chuckled – another first for purgatory – and Dean couldn’t help but smile, too. He felt lighter inside, just a little. Enough that he could walk again, anyway. He rose to his feet and wiped the dirt off the seat his pants. “How about a compromise then? You agree not to do anything stupid on my behalf and I agree not to be such a dick? Sound fair?”

Cas snorted and joined Dean, leading the way around the rocks. “It does sound fair. But I think you’ll have a hard time pulling it off.”

+++


The next time red eyes appeared between the trees as they traveled down the road, Dean didn’t hide his eyes. He stared right back, the creature’s fiery gaze leaving afterimages on his retinas when he blinked. Let them look, he thought. Let them think what they will, if they thought at all. Let the monsters see he wasn’t afraid of them anymore.

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