The figure of a short man, who wasn't actually a man, was nailed to the face of a sheer mountain above a dark world. It was the tallest mountain, the bleakest, made of red granite and black slate, but it had no name because there were none around who cared enough to name it; and the figure stuck to its wall, who had been around for the naming of most things, was tired and in pain and couldn’t be bothered. Besides, he understood the power of names, and while the right name might have crushed the stone and broken him free, the wrong one would have sealed him inside the mountain and made all future escape impossible. And it wasn’t as if he could flip a coin.
Vultures and ravens and hawks circled above, and below. They looked hungry. They always looked hungry. But before they ate his flesh they would wait, ragged flapping shadows in the night, for the sun to rise again.
In an old house with an old decaying porch in the backwoods of Toronto a telephone was ringing. The phone, like the house, was old, black and heavy as a hammer, with a rotary for dialing. And a man, who wasn’t quite as old as all these things on the surface but whose brown eyes were practically ancient, groaned in distress and rolled from his sofa to the floor with a painful thump. The bottles on the coffee table clattered over and rolled away with a horrible clanking. And the noise was almost as bad as the horrible ringing of the horrible old phone.
Chuck stumbled to his feet and across the living room to the study. In the corner of the room, on the edge of a teetering oak table, the phone sat atop a messy pile of papers. He’d been using it as a paperweight because window by the desk didn’t close properly and Toronto was windy.
Like the infernal complaints of the devil himself the phone rang. Like the angriest and the most vengeful bell. Chuck cursed his luck and cursed the Lord and finally cursed the booze before he shuffled over and answered the call.
“This had better be God with some apologies,” he croaked into the receiver. The connection was bad (which was no wonder, Chuck thought as he fingered the frayed end of the broken wire) and it crackled and fuzzed. But the voice that came through from the other side was clear.
“I am Gabriel. I have news for you, prophet.”
“Well fuck you, Gabriel. You’re dead and I’m pretending to be.” Chuck hung up the phone and rubbed his eyes. The phone rang. Chuck picked up the phone.
“I AM A MESSENGER OF THE LORD AND YOU WILL PAY ATTENTION, CHUCKLEHEAD.”
Chuck sighed and pulled over his computer chair.
“Whatever God wants he can find someone else,” said Chuck. “I’m retired.”
“This message isn’t from God it’s from me. I have word of two messiahs,” said Gabriel.
“Whoever they are they’re none of my business,” Chuck grumbled. He was thirsty. He picked up the body of the phone and tucked it under his arm so he could walk to the kitchen.
“Actually, they are because they’re your messiahs. And even if they weren’t I’m making it your business, butthead. My word is divine providence.”
Chuck held the phone awkwardly between his shoulder and his ear, using his one free hand to fill a glass with water. He drank it down and filled it again; drank it.
“Where are you calling from?” he asked, lugging the phone back to the study.
“Purgatory,” said Gabriel.
Chuck put the heavy cradle of the phone on the table and accidentally crushed his fingertips underneath it. He hissed and yanked his hand away, jamming his fingers between his thighs and cringing as he sat down. “This is about Sam and Dean?”
“Dean and Cas,” Gabriel answered.
“Cas isn’t a messiah,” said Chuck.
“He’s working up to it.”
Chuck’s customary late afternoon headache was coming on.
“Those stories are over. They saved the world, they’re heroes, good on them.”
“Their gospels are over, but their stories aren’t and they need—”
“But maybe it’s best that they were,” Chuck interrupted, irritated. He ached everywhere and he just wanted the conversation to be over so he could start drinking again. It had been two years since he’d dreamt of the Winchesters, but the news had come to him through other means. And if Gabriel thought that Chuck hadn’t felt the echoes of Heaven’s civil war he was mistaken. Chuck was lucky he could sleep at all after those screams.
“What?” asked Gabriel.
“Over,” Chuck clarified. “Maybe it’s time they stopped getting yanked back from oblivion or whatever. Let them have a few eternities of sleep.”
“They are here,” Gabriel said softly. “In Purgatory.”
“So what? It could be Hell. I know them better than anyone, they were my characters, and they’re tired.”
“You know what?” Grabriel snapped. “Zip it, prophet. I have news, and it’s meant for you. So shut your yap and listen, I don’t have forever.”
Chuck opened his mouth to tell Gabriel where he could shove his news and found that he couldn’t actually remember how to speak. His tongue was buzzing and numb and his teeth felt like they’d been struck by lightning. Chuck swallowed and nodded (on the telephone, he nodded). Gabriel took a strangely labored breath and began to orate.
“Purgatory ain’t the place you think it is, kid. Different idiots have been describing it for thousands of years, and they always get it wrong. The Italian guy especially, and I knew Dante, briefly, in the intimate sense if you know what I mean. And he was one hell of a poet but the guy just didn’t listen. When he started that second book I tried to tell him, ‘Dude, you’re just writing Hell all over again. People don’t go to purgatory. They go to Heaven or Hell. Purgatory is a different box entirely.’ He broke it off, I went back to Norway.
Anyway, the point is, whatever you’ve read about Purgatorio, whatever stories your Sunday school teacher used to tell you over Hawaiian Punch and cookies is total crap. You humans don’t know anything about Purgatory. And I know you don’t know, because my people don’t know.
We were told bedtime stories about this place. And it’s not some middle dimension between damnation and paradise; that’s earth you idiotic species. Purgatory is worse than Hell. Hell is just a place filled with bad people and run on bad ideas. Purgatory is a bad place. It’s a festering boil. The ground here is evil. The weather has malice.
Purgatory is no black and barren pit of bones and dismembered beasts. It’s a world of its own. There are trees and mountains, there are flowers and insects that buzz in the dark. What’s more, God didn’t make it. He scooped a hole in existence to bury the Leviathan and around them Purgatory grew. It’s like a nasty wild garden in a mirror over here. The rivers flow north. The sun rises in the west and sets in the east. The tides pull away from the shores at night and all the sea life is left gasping and stranded on the sand. And it’s populated, amigo. By monsters, by nightmares, by the aborted fetuses of Cain’s first wives.
It’s crooked and cankerous and it thrives it deformity. But it’s as real as anywhere.
Blood is blood in Purgatory. It’s not like Hell, where blood is water, or Heaven, where blood is light. A man bleeds over here. He catches infection and he starves and he drowns and he dies, and when he dies he doesn’t get up again in the morning.
And whence does his soul fly?
It stays with the corpse. It languishes in the sodden wounds, trapped as the body rots. Eventually, of course, the flesh decomposes and the bones are ground to dust and the shape of the man is lost. But the soul still stays. It becomes a parasite. Wild thorns or meadow grass grow out of the ground and that is where the soul is. It forgets humanity, if it ever knew it, and is poisoned by the rain. And it listens and relearns language and whispers ghastly things.
There’s no redemption for such a creature. It has been mutated at its most fundamental levels and nothing, not a demon or an angel or the devil himself, can remake the man from the mewling bile that’s left of his soul after that.
Dean and Cas have no idea how many levels of screwed they are.
They need saving. They’re not gonna last.
Right now Dean is crouched behind a putrid rose bush waiting for his angel to come back. He’s aching, scraped to hell, terrified to move. He hasn’t slept in days and his eyes are heavy. His brow is fevered.
Around him there are snarling beasts, snuffling the heavy air as they following the scent of his torn flesh. They are closing in. They will find him, and they will rip out Dean’s guts and eat them.
Castiel is off looking for the crack. He believes that a wound was left in the fabric of Purgatory when the Leviathan slipped out. He thinks if he can find it, they can breach it, and crawl back into existence like two primordial fish.
But Cas was built to be a soldier, not a guardian, and all this giving a crap is starting to take its toll. He can’t keep flapping them around forever. He’s cut off and his grace is running out.
The sun is setting in the east where they are, red burnished clouds burning down to cold ash sky. Dean is shivering and sweating. He’s watching the sunset and wondering if tonight’s the night that Cas doesn’t come back for him? He thinks this every evening. But he doesn’t pray about it. They’ve been running so long that it’s almost all the same to him. In death there would be oblivion, at least. That’s what he thinks he knows. That’s what you called it too.
Morons, the pair of you.
There’s howling in the circle of dusk and Dean is at its center. On the other side of the roses, a scuffling, sneaking, and the sharp sounds of barbed tongues clacking behind big teeth. Dean can hear the hiss of diseased lungs and the creaking of backwards joints.
Cas does come. He’s just in time. He scoops up Dean’s battered body and bears him away to some other place as night sweeps up. Dean leans on him, arm around Cas’ neck, and tries not to fall down. When they land, he sees in the last flash of setting light that they are on the edge of a shore. Black tides that roar over white sand, spitting at their feet and pulling gray-shelled mollusks further and further out to sea.
But all this is just mortality and eternity. The same old lines we’ve been feeding to the prophets for centuries. It gets boring, saying these same things over and over, and eventually I think you stopped really hearing it.
Listen closer, Chuckaroo.
Dean shifts his weight and they collapse to their knees in the sand together. Dean crashes down like a stone and Cas descends like a feather. And even here that old whack Galileo was right, because they hit the ground at the same time.
They can’t risk speech. The damn rocks have ears in this place and all of Purgatory is listening for their voices. So instead, Dean begins at Cas’ throat and carefully maps the rest of his body with his hands, looking for holes and broken bones. Making sure his angel is still in once piece. Cas kneels still and patient. And in the utter darkness of the black moon he brushes the dirt and the grim from Dean’s face with his thumbs.
This is the communication they are left with.
Cas feels the sore limbs and bruises that thrum through Dean’s nerves. He tries to heal them, he patches the breaks and sooths the broken blood vessels, but some of them go too deep. Some have set in and are permanent.
My brother’s heart is cracking because his human is falling apart.
Behind Dean there are pinpoints of light on the horizon. Tiny white dots that speckle and float in the water. Stars in the ocean, too dim to be reflected by the sky.
Are you listening?
Cas leans forward, because his grace his useless and his voice is useless, and he tries to kiss it better. He actually takes Dean’s mouth against his own and tries to will the pain gone. Dean won’t pull away, or back off, not here. He holds on to Cas’ jacket and slips his hand to the back of Cas’ head and with his lips tries to let Cas know that it’s okay. He’s used to the pain. And he also saying, in the smaller and more hesitant movements of his tongue: Don’t lose me.
In another world this weird thing they do might be called a kiss. But in Purgatory it’s a sentence. A paragraph. An entire book of meaning that passes from the lungs of my baby brother to a man.
I’ll find you, is what Cas is saying.
In Hell. In Heaven. On Earth. In life or death, I mean you wrote the books you know what he’s saying. I’m here. He’s looking, digging deep into the silence until he finds Dean Winchester, buried somewhere under all that hopelessness and fear that purgatory has caked on. Cas will keep looking until he finds him, so that he can pull Dean back from the bottom, gasping, naked and new…
Do you get it yet?
Imagine them, face to face and heart to heart. Each has betrayed the other twice over at least, they’ve lied and cheated and stabbed each other in the backs. Two little Judas’ sitting on their feet in the sand. And they just keep coming back together.
Cas and Dean are real forgiveness. The kind of forgiveness that hasn’t existed on earth since Christ. They’ve both been murders, and liars, the prideful worst of humanity. They have done real evil and they are still righteous. They are still good. They have forgiven themselves and been forgiven by each other and they live for the love of the human race. However broken, or pessimistic, or disillusioned they are, they live because they know there is more work to do.
They don’t need the world. They don’t need redemption and you’re right, they don’t want it. But the world needs them, more than it knows. More than it could ever understand.
They have saved mankind over and over. And they’re still saving it.
Get them out.”
“Gabriel,” Chuck squeezed in at last and Gabriel’s litany dropped short. Out the window the sun was setting and casting long shadows into the study. For some reason, Chuck felt like he was watching a sunrise.
“I mean it, Chuck.” Gabriel rasped. His voice was fading. Chuck heard the cries of carrion birds from the other end.
“Why don’t you save them?” Chuck asked. But he could guess.
“There are circumstances that prevent me,” gasped Gabriel. “The message is for you.”
“I got the message,” Chuck said. Then there was the flapping of many wings and ugly, wet tearing sounds in the phone.
“Do I save you too?” Chuck asked. But there was no answer. The window was dark. The day was over. He put the old phone back in its old cradle and stuffed his pile of papers back underneath. And then he dug through the mess of discarded books and magazines on the floor until he found the cordless phone.
Chuck put his aching head against the cool wood of his writing table and dialed the phone without looking at it. He lifted it to his ear without picking up his head. And then he waited while the ringing and his migraine cut his brain to ribbons.
“Sam,” he said. “It’s Chuck. I have news.”