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“Castiel, who art in purgatory - I hope - hallowed be thy trenchcoat.

“Cas? Can you hear me? You know what, never mind, this was a stupid idea.

Car 54, where are you? I’m just gonna pray you the most annoying theme songs I can think of with your name in the title until you answer me. Ugh, never mind, that’ll just get them stuck in my head.

“Seriously, dude, I don’t remember the proper words and forms and shit, but I could really use a friendly face about now.

“Look, whatever I did to piss you off, I’m sorry. You gotta answer me, man. Are you even still listening?

Come when you call, my ass. Fucking hypocrite.”

+++


Dean used to like those Choose Your Own Adventure books in school. They were fun and almost always held his attention, unlike most of the books Sam used to read as a kid. He liked how if you died you could backtrack a little and figure out the right choice instead. And how they were never written in order, the whole book some mish mash of scenarios that only made sense after you dug a little deeper. He liked that it was never the same story twice and that they were made cheaply available pretty much everywhere.

So here’s a scenario: You’re in purgatory, having long since been separated from your friend-who-happened-to-be an-angel. There’s a light in the distance on the other side of the forest. Do you go towards it or away from it? Towards it, turn to page 8. Away from it, page 24.

Dean almost always went towards it in the book. If you ran away from trouble you just stayed safe at home and didn’t need to read the rest of the story.

He surveyed the trembling silence of the wilds around him. The path continued on before and behind him, endless. He hadn’t seen another (un)living soul for miles, and he’d had to decapitate the last one.

Fuck it, he thought, and took off through the woods.

+++


He expected to find some will-o’-the-wisp playing games, or a giant bioluminescent lightning bug, but in the end the light was simply a fire, placed with careful hands and burning through the darkness.

The lone figure swaying in front of the fire was far more dangerous.

It was in the shape of a woman, willowy curves and longs legs moving to some unheard melody, a slow mournful grind. The harsh light picked out the hints of feathers on her arms and talons on her bare feet. The grey skin and ugly face was hidden in the fall of her hair, so that she looked like some strange hippie chick out to worship the moon instead of a creature capable of turning man’s desire into homicide.

A log shifted in the coals and sent embers blowing into the sky. The crackle of the fire was far too quiet, even from a distance. It was a horrible silence, a void of sound. Like the siren was drawing a breath and the world was waiting for the exhale of venomous song.

From his hiding place in the trees Dean could see through the thin veil of her dress, the firelight shadowing the place where her legs met her hips and the curve of her inner thigh. His mouth flooded with saliva completely without his approval at the suggestion of what might be hidden just out of view.

Dean knew to get any closer would be to court death. He still wanted to.

God, he’d missed women. Missed sex. His desires had been curbed for so long – even before his extended walking vacation – that he’d almost forgotten what it felt like to hold someone. To be held. To touch and kiss and fuck and love.

It would be easy to alert her to his presence, to make a noise or break a stick. To walk right into her embrace. It was tempting, so tempting, to allow himself that respite. The nothingness being under her spell could bring. And there was an interesting thought: what did he want most in the world now?

The siren could no more lift him from this place than she could lift herself. And he was pretty sure angels were beyond her ability to synthesize.

And Dean remembered if it looked like people, it was dangerous.

He rubbed his hand over his bottom lip and turned back the way he came. It was hard to leave her behind but Dean had a lot of experience in denying himself what he wanted, so in the end he let his feet lead him away.

+++


Once he left the path, it was impossible to find it again.

He retraced his steps from the siren’s meadow twice, walking far longer than he had to get there, and still nothing. He looked for any landmarks that might point the way, panic growing steadily in the space between his ribs where his soul lived. Everything looked the same; he should have left marks on the trees, tied a shoelace around a rock, left a trail of fucking bread crumbs, anything! How could he be so stupid? What was he going to do now?

There were red eyes in the darkness, shadows looming huge in the trees.

He stopped spinning and stared, forcing himself to take a deep breath. His lips pulled back from his teeth in a snarl as he forced air into his starving lungs. The machete, stained and starting to dull, was a welcome weight in his hand.

They watched him, silently, while a cool numbness smothered the dread of being lost and alone far away from home. After awhile, the red eyes blinked and faded back into the forest whence they came, leaving without a trace. Dean was under no illusion that he’d frightened them away; any creatures willing to follow prey through all of purgatory weren’t going to give up that easily. But he would bide his time, just as he suspected they bided theirs. That was a confrontation for another day.

He turned a final time to check his periphery, tried to get a vague sense of north, and headed into the heart of the woods.

+++


Cas had called the leviathan the piranha that would eat the whole aquarium. What he hadn’t mentioned – maybe what he didn’t even know – was that the fishbowl of purgatory was filled with other predators, too, some just as bad or worse. There were lionfish and sharks and those creepy fucks with no skin on the bottom of the ocean. But there were also seahorses and cuttlefish and jellies, things so beautiful and strange Dean could barely comprehend their entirety.

He encountered many monsters during his time alone in purgatory. The afterlife was a kaleidoscope of weirdness with every color of the rainbow manifesting something terrible. Most tried to eat him, though few got close enough to try. Many more than that fell under his blade. And still some were simply there to marvel at, uninterested and uncaring, simple beasts that traveled through the wilderness the same as he did.

He hid in the bushes when another grothy monster passed overhead, picking squirmy things out of the treetops with its long narrow beak.

He watched a pack of black dogs take on a chupacabra and win, then bring the pieces of their prize home to their pups.

He listened to a crocotta call his name through the forest. He hadn’t recognized the voice it’d used it had shivered oddly across his spine. He’d been hoping for something more familiar to break the silence.

He fought off a rugaru that had no legs, pulling itself through the underbrush towards him while he rested next to a small pond. The bite marks along its stumpy knees suggested it’d turned on itself to slake its terrible hunger. He watched the nameless creature that lived in that pond devour the screaming rugaru whole.

He killed when he had to, ran when he didn’t. He lost fights and won them, bled and healed himself as best he could. There wasn’t any sign of the sun or any relief from the ravenous dark.

And through it all, he prayed.

+++


“Cas, please. I need help.

“Please, please Castiel. Answer me. Don’t leave me alone here.

“Please, Cas.

Please.”

+++


Once, when he’d been walking for longer than he could remember, it started to snow. The sky had taken on that strange grey glow that meant bad weather was coming but the fat flakes drifting down were still a surprise. Soon there was a thick blanket of it on the ground, sticking in clumps to his boots.

The further into the woods he went the heavier the snow fell. Dean paused at a break in the tree line to watch the world disappear under all that white. There was probably a hideous yeti with one arm looking for Jedis to eat somewhere out in the blizzard, but he didn't care. The air had that hushed crispness only a recent snowfall could provide and the only sounds were his boots braking through the thin crust of ice. He sat still on the ground, nestled in like a sled dog, courting the silence. His breath plumed around him but he wasn’t cold, not even a little.

Dean hated being cold. He hated the feeling of his toes going numb in his shoes, how sloppy his fingers got when it was only a few degrees above freezing. Too many crappy hotel rooms where the only choice was Arctic or Sierra, he supposed. It was why he started wearing so many layers, though it’d kinda turned into his thing after awhile; he felt naked with only a single shirt, even in the summer.

It was nice to be out in the weather and not worry about getting frostbite or feeling the cold damp soak into his socks. Purgatory was clean and pure, if only for this tiny stretch of time. It made him wish there were someone there to share it with, which made him think about Cas and purity at the same time and that was not a direction he actually wanted his thoughts to go. So he made himself consider why he wasn’t turning into a Dean-shaped icicle frozen to the grass instead.

His body felt numb, but not in a pins-and-needles way or an I-fell-asleep-on-my-arm way, or even an I’m-having-a-heart-attack way (thanks to that rawhead Dean knew exactly what that felt like). It was distant, odd, like his whole body was shot full of Novocain. He closed his eyes and imagined himself suspended inside his vessel: a tight little ball of Deanness curled in his center, fetal, glowing, golden. Or maybe bronze - he felt more like a bronze than a gold.

If his vessel didn’t require food or sleep and he could make it heal and ignore the touch of seasons, then what else could it do?

Dean opened his eyes and found that his breath obscured his view of the winter vista spread out before him, so he tried to get rid of it. He slowed everything down, his heart pumping slower, taking longer between each shallow breath, forcing his chest to barely expand. His soul was a little glowing snitch inside him, feathery wings extending out to his extremities, keeping everything running at the bare minimum necessary. Eventually he exhaled… and just didn’t inhale again afterward.

The world went very still. The snow stopped melting when it settled on his skin.

He’d never been possessed; never been anything but himself. He’d had a little bit of monster in him, but even when his blood was burning to taste someone else’s he’d just been Dean, magnetized and magnified. It was strange to consider that he possessed himself, that he’d become an interloper in his own body.

It was remarkably peaceful not to feel anything anymore.

What would it mean to stay that way forever and let himself be swallowed by the snowdrifts? He'd become like those giant ice sculptures in Antarctica, carved and hollowed into strange shapes by the wind. Frozen forever until he fell into the ocean and was worn away, so much moisture blown to the four corners of the earth. He kind of felt that way already.

A solid few inches of snow had fallen since he started not-breathing. He shook like a dog before rising to his feet, one steady foot in front of the other, sending tiny avalanches of snow cascading from his shoulders and the crown of his head. It slipped down his collar and Dean flicked it away irritably.

He’d been shattered before and didn’t like it. Spending eternity that way would have made for a very long time in an impossible situation. He took some of the icy quiet with him when he moved, tucking it into the hollow space where he used to feel his heart beating.

+++


Dean walked through the snow and down the side of a hill around a valley where djinn wove blue-tinged dreams into the air above them. It was nice from a distance, purgatorio borealis, but confusing to navigate through. None of their poison settled into his veins – being numb came with benefits, it seemed.

+++


Just past another nest of vampires and beyond a group of ghouls he came across a gang of monsters hurting a smaller one. It wasn’t the first time and he shouldn’t have cared; purgatory was a bitch of a place and you were either predator or prey. Except there were three beasts-as-men against one beast-as-woman, and she was crying. Two of them were holding her face-down and the third was biting the back of her throat and shoving down her pants.

Dean hated to see a woman cry.

He was on them before they even noticed he was there. After the almost-men were in bloody bits on the ground he watched the not-woman rise and adjust her clothing. He’d meant to cut off her head before she could turn on him – a swift death was the best mercy he could give her – but something about the way she huddled into her red sweatshirt, two sizes too big at least, made him pause.

She turned to thank him and her eyes widened when she got a good look at her savior, the whites of them showing around the brown. She looked at him the same way she’d looked at the monsters holding her down and Dean saw she was just a teenager, damn near a child when she’d changed into whatever cursed her to an eternity of this. She shook her head jerkily and raised her hands palm outward, backing away until she was far enough to turn and run.

Dean may not have been a fan of fairy tales but little Sammy had read them all the time, the words simple and easy for him to grasp. He’d make them up after he exhausted the ones in his books, entertaining Dean and John for miles from the backseat. His dad often starred as the woodsman, or the hunter, bravely saving the little lost princess in the nick of time. Dean was the handsome prince who’d marry her. (After he turned eight he’d kept the stories to himself. Dean wondered if he still made them up sometimes during those long drives cross-country.)

There were no innocent creatures in purgatory and even the monsters wore red hoods. Dean told himself it was better to be the wolf and not the hunter. He stalked through the forest for a long time after that moment of mercy, betrayal and senseless guilt burning deep in his gut like fiery coals.

+++


After that the forest turned… well, not evil exactly. Just creepy. The trees grew taller and thinner, the needles sharp and thick. They blocked out the moonlight completely in their density and Dean had to shift his vision to see even a few feet in front of him. In the end, he’d rather he didn’t.

The forest floor was littered with bones, suspiciously human in shape, the damp air feeding into the illusion of decay pooling around his feet. He tried to avoid them but every step crushed something small and fragile or kicked a skull to rest against another. Even more disturbing were the creatures floating through the trees, looking down at the ground, feeling among the bones with fingerless hands. They had no definition, no color, more mist than man, but Dean knew this was as close to ghosts as purgatory got.

It started to rain, at first just a few drops plinking off the spreading leaves then huge pouring buckets of the stuff, a torrent. Dean was less than pleased with the change in the weather. First snow, then rain? After he’d had nothing but indeterminable humidity from the moment he arrived?

Dean was soaked through in seconds. He flipped up the collar of his jacket, settled the ball of self more firmly inside to ward off the wetness, and kept going. The soil soaked up every ounce of moisture, leaving muddy puddles in his wake. The bones – sporadic now and more like complete skeletons than driftwood – were slick under his boots.

The flicker of a lantern in the distance was impossible to miss and Dean debated for only a second or two before following it. He’d learned his lesson from the siren; following strange lights in the forest was never a good idea. Still, it was a trail to follow and he’d hunt whatever was at the other end if he had to.

The glow misted through the forest on a breeze, though the rain had brought no wind with it. It arched and curled through the darkness as though rubbing its back against the trees. Like a cat… or a fox.

A woman stood patiently in the middle of a small clearing, her pointed face bright in the gloom. She was soaked, too, not even trying to stay dry, the coat she was wearing stained old-blood dark from the water. In fact she looked exactly the same as she had the last time he saw her… with the exception of the tail curled around her leg. It was bedraggled from the weather, the same as her hair, but Dean suspected it would be quite beautiful and bushy when dry.

Amy Pond sighed and the orange glow licked past her lips to trail across the clearing and twine around his knees. She raised her head and looked him square in the eye the same way she had the day he’d stabbed her in the heart.

“It really is you.”

Dean squared up with her, angling his body to offer her the smallest target he could. Her claws weren’t out yet, but Dean knew better than to assume cornered prey wasn’t still dangerous. “In the flesh, unfortunately. You drew me here, Amy Pond. Now what do you want?”

Her eyes flashed the same pale yellow as the moon above them. “I want you to suffer! You made my son an orphan!”

Dean was beginning to think he’d be forever cursed with angry mothers. He narrowed the distance between them with a few slow steps. She backed up, her nostrils flaring, eyes wide. She was afraid of him, despite the anger. Probably a good decision on her part, he thought.

“Your son,” she flinched when he paused for effect, testing her temper, “swore to kill me himself after he watched me kill you. I told him he was welcome to try but it looks like he’ll have to wait in line.”

“I don’t believe that.” For a moment Dean thought the hope of a mother for her child’s innocence would stand firm, even in this place, but then Amy grimaced and bared her teeth. “Jacob was young and sick. He doesn’t know how to kill anyone yet, let alone a hunter.”

Dean made a show of pulling out his machete. What little light there was reflected off the metal blade and he angled it so it flashed across her night-blind eyes. Any advantage in a fight – and surely there was one coming. The machete wouldn’t kill a kitsune but nothing died permanently here, anyway. “I’m sure he’ll learn. It’s in his nature, after all.”

Amy backed up, head lowered but keeping him in her sights. Her tail twitched and swayed behind her. “No. There’s no one left to teach him. He’s going to starve and this hell is far too big for me to find him in it. He’ll be lost forever.” She swiped at her eyes, sorrow warring with hatred on her face. “I was going to try killing you for that.”

He ran his thumb over the worn handle of the machete. “You wouldn’t get very far.”

“I know. I’ve never really had the killer instinct.” Dean paused in his advance when she stopped moving, surprised despite himself. If she didn’t intend to fight him, then what was all this about?

He didn’t like the smile tilting up the side of her mouth. It was an ugly thing, bitter through the tears. “Then I remembered there were even nastier things than you in these woods. Before we were reduced to scavenging off of scraps my kind used to be the servants of gods. I think I’d rather watch one of them have their way with you instead.”

Dean turned just as the monster jumped out from behind the copse of trees Amy had lured him to. It was heavy, taking him down underneath it easily. They landed in a splash of muddy rainwater that promptly made itself at home in Dean’s mouth. The creature’s back claws dug deep into his belly before its momentum pushed it straight over onto its back. If Dean hadn’t tilted his torso at just the right moment the move would’ve separated his guts from his garter for sure.

The monster rolled over a thin sapling and skidded in the mud, claws digging in as it tried to right itself. Dean’d never seen anything like it outside of pictures on a website when they’d hunted that shojo. He thought it might’ve been a nue, an ill-omen from days of old. (Pity he didn’t read Japanese or he might know how to actually take it down.) Its thick body rode low to the ground, the monkey-like face sneering at him with fangs as long as his palm. And, strangest of all, the thing had a snake for a tail. It loomed over the creature’s shoulder and hissed at Dean.

Snakes, he thought. Why’d it have to be snakes?

They paced around each other, the monster and Dean, filling up the little clearing with their battle. It trilled a strange and eerie whistle then rushed forward, swiping at Dean’s legs with its talons. He jerked backward, slicing with his machete to keep a second attack from the snake head at bay.

His feet slipped out from under him, the torrent of rain pushing the dirt away in rivers under Dean’s boots. He went down on one knee and only then noticed the mud underneath him was turning a disheartening red color. Just because he couldn’t feel the blood loss yet didn’t mean it wasn’t there.

At least the rain was an equalizer. The thing lost its footing, too, falling hard onto its barrel chest. Dean ran towards it, blade at the ready –

And far too late to be effective. The monster dissolved into black mist, circling around the clearing. He watched it turn for a second, planning its course. It wasn’t altogether unlike a demon gone to smoke, plowing around anything in its way and making a beeline for Dean’s head.

He waited for it to fly closer then leapt onto the broken sapling, using the extra height to push the machete straight into the mist and let it cut through the oncoming storm. With a warbling groan the creature fell to the ground out of the cloud, stunned and gaping. The snake head waved about halfheartedly, its mouth open wide and biting air. Dean had cut the nue through the meat of its shoulder and into its chest.

He watched it writhe, clutching his own stomach to staunch the blood flow. The creature’s wound was already healing, the matted fur growing back before his eyes. He had to stop it fast and there was only one way he could think to do it – a good, old fashioned smiting.

Dean channeled all his anger and guilt and pain into that little bronze ball in his chest until it was the burning heart of him, spreading out through the confines of his body. He glowed with it, star-bright in the darkness. Then he tightened his grip on the machete and plunged it to the hilt into the chimera’s chest with a single mighty thrust. Blood sprayed everywhere. The light in his veins pulsed down the blade and into the monster’s chest.

It howled, many voices crying out at once, and then was still. Something flickered against its ribs from inside its skin and then faded away. Across the forest, strange animals bayed and red eyes flared to life between the trees.

Dean stood over the corpse, feeling dizzy and depleted and wanting nothing more than to simply stop for a minute. Movement across the clearing drew his attention; expecting his normal stalkers he was surprised to find the eyes watching him were yellow instead of red. It took him a moment to recall why Amy Pond was cowering in the bushes and even longer than that to actually remember her name.

He yanked the machete out of the nue’s body, staring her in the eye while he did it. He took a step in her direction.

She screamed, hiding her face in her tail and holding out her hands to ward him off.

Dean thought about red hoods and redder blood and how purgatory was the place monsters went when they died. He wiped the mix of nue blood and rainwater off his face with the back of his hand and tucked the machete away, not bothering to clean it. He leaned over Amy without touching her, silencing her cries with just the weight and nearness of his body.

“Nobody’s nastier than me,” he said, and left her sobbing on the ground next to his kill.

+++


Later, curled protectively under a half-rotten log and holding together the gash on his stomach so his guts wouldn’t fall out, Dean was the one crying. He hoped for pain, yearned for the sickening nausea that meant he was still alive. For his body to tell him that what his eyes and his hands experienced was the same thing.

And still he felt nothing. Not a twinge. Not a flash of discomfort. No remorse for what he’d done.

He kicked at the puddles around his refuge, slammed his fist into the log, anything to turn his thoughts from orphans and children without mothers. He bashed his head against the ground and let the screams come, followed as always by the tears.

And he prayed and prayed and prayed again, chanting a name into to the rocks.

Please, Cas.

Please.

+++


He stayed hidden under the log until the rain finished having its way with purgatory, washing away the blood he’d lost and the remnants of the beast on his boots. When he finally moved his hands the wound on his stomach was gone, the ragged edges of his shirt the only proof it’d ever actually happened. His head felt heavy and the rest of him felt too light.

He crawled out from his hole, wiped his hands on his pants, and walked on.

+++


And walked.

And walked.

And fought the monsters he found in the forest.

And walked.

And fought.

And walked.

And walked.

+++


Dean walked and fought and fought and walked, until even the dead mean things left him alone. The machete wore down to a thin shank of metal kept wicked on rocks and werewolf hearts. His night vision grew sharp enough to pick out the smallest glimmer of eyeshine in the moonlight and he wandered, cutting down anything unlucky enough to find itself in his path.

When his mind wearied of walking he stopped, watching the trees move in a wind he couldn’t feel. He often closed his eyes and swayed to the rhythm of the world. Nothing attacked him while he was resting, even after he let his guard down. He would almost welcome an attack; it was different than the beginning, when the monsters stalked he and Cas. They gave him a wide berth most of the time.

His body - that hated vessel of old - had been named the Michael Sword by all those douchebag angels. He figured this made it an instrument, a tool, a weapon, something sharp-edged and deadly. Daddy’s little hammer. He used to hate being called that. But here, he realized, his body also had the capacity for greatness when wielded properly, like Michael had been hoping to do. Dean had already been wielding and yielding it for years.

So Dean made of himself a weapon, fashioned on the bones of a hundred thousand purgatory beasts beneath his blade. And after awhile he forgot to miss sleep or food or the touch of someone else on his skin. The feel of leather under his body, of being rocked to sleep by the soothing metallic lullaby of machinery.

There was only the hunt. Only the journey. He didn’t remember why he was moving, just that he was.

And that was when the red eyed beasts finally melted out of the shadows and stepped into the light.

NEXT

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