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Tales of Brave Ulysses

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"Monsters don’t die early; they hang on long. Awfully long. Their vanity’s infinite, almost as infinite as their disgust with themselves." — Tennessee Williams, Sweet Bird of Youth

+++

Angels were taught that God loved all his creations and reserved a special place in his heart for his favorites, but the reality was this: God just hated throwing anything away. He was a hoarder. Or - if you pardon the metaphor - a writer who saved all his drafts, just in case. Matter cannot be created or destroyed, only changed over time.

Like all great works the creation and growth of earth took a lot of trial and error. The first sentient life was messy and unfinished, with notes to expand here and there, all of it in need of a good red pen. Purgatory was the place God put them when he was ready to move on to stage two – essentially the recycle bin of the universe, an oubliette, a place to put something before you throw it away. The entire sphere was just waiting for someone to click EMPTY for a purge.

Parts of purgatory were good, little pockets here and there that were scrubbed up clean and sent to the editor. But most of it was dark; God had been in a very bad mood at the beginning of time. Solitude and boredom will do that, even to the Creator of All Things. He made up stories to pass the time, his voice echoing through the grand cathedrals of Nothing that existed before there was Something to fill it. He thought up myths of creatures made of light and darkness, beings to share his yearning desire for someone else. An answering call through eternity.

He should have known better. A world created out of loneliness expanded upon itself infinitely, producing countless attempts to achieve connection. Cellular divide, evolution, the reproduction of species, photosynthesis. All variations on a theme and all damnably impossible to achieve.

In the end he couldn’t bear to part with his first misshapen attempts at creating a friend. So: purgatory.

His ultimate creatures (the final draft version sketched into shape all those eons ago) were less than perfect. Humans were dirty and cruel and destructive. They endangered everything he’d made for them. Some didn’t even think he existed or caused violence in his name. His finger hovered over the DELETE key more often than he cared to think about… but something always stopped the final push toward apocalypse. Something always reminded him of why he started the ball rolling in the first place.

He’d put too much of himself into the humans. They grew lonely in the vastness and put pieces of themselves into the world, sending out stories in the hopes of receiving something in the telling; someone to read it, someone to sit around a fire and listen. All of life was told in stories, even if men didn’t realize they were in a constant state of narration.

The simple tales were the best ones. They were far easier to get your point across with. For example: Once upon a time, a hunter and an angel found themselves abandoned in the forest. It was dark and they were surrounded by monsters.

No. Back up. Nothing began with “once upon a time” these days. Too much time’s passed for that to work. It was all about instant gratification and in medias res. That’s how life was after all: epic moments sprinkled with character development with a little bit of comedy or romance for flavor.

It was almost always better to join the story already in progress.

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Dean kept fear like an old man keeps a handkerchief in his pocket, well used and dependable. He was a hunter, born and bred, a predator of predators. Every hunter knew fear, relied on it, let it keep their instincts sharp. Eventually hunters conquered their fears or let themselves be consumed by them.

Dean had been afraid so many times in his life, but nothing quite like this. He looked around at the long dark of purgatory and knew there were things moving around him, things he couldn’t see. Things hiding in the shadows he had no training for.

It was like Hell all over again. Alone. Afraid. Listening to the monsters creep in closer with every breath.

The hair on the back of his neck trembled, a vulnerable spot just under his collar that made his shoulders itch to hunch up and protect it. He glanced frantically around him, trying not to move too quickly for fear of drawing something’s attention. All he could see were red lights, pairs of them, dozens of burning eyes staring back, shifting in the dark.

“Cas?” At first all he dared was whisper, then his voice came louder. The fear drove out everything Bobby’d taught him about being quiet in the woods. “Cas?”

Movement down the way – brown fabric in the middle of all the black, falling down. Cas, stumbling to one knee in a place worn smooth and clear between the trees. (Some kind of path, maybe a game trail, and there was his angel, there.)

Dean started forward at a jog but his boots slipped on the mulchy ground and he fell, hard, onto his belly. The breath was knocked away from him.

He took a second to regroup, thinking stupid stupid stupid. By the time he focused enough to push himself onto his knees he could hear something moving toward him, scratching through the undergrowth. Ahead and to his left the bushes parted and – something – furry with teeth and claws crept out, eyes flashing silver in the moonlight. Dean didn’t recognize it from the vast bestiary he lugged around in his head. He could see the fangs, though, drooling with anticipation, and knew it was only a matter of time.

His pockets were heavy with weaponry but he wasn’t sure what to use or even what he’d have time for. The gun? No, the machete. There was very little in this world or any other that wouldn’t be put down for at least a little while with a good blade through its throat. The creature’s muscles were bunching under the fur, gauging the distance, readying for attack.

Dean’s hand had just closed on the machete handle when what he’d thought was the shadow of a tree dislodged itself from the forest and pounced on the monster in front of him, knocking them both into the far darkness on the other side of the game trail. They thrashed in the bushes, the larger shadow pushing against the other; all Dean could make out was a blur of red eyes and dark scales tearing at the smaller beast. Then an anguished cry, a burst of white light – like a camera flash going off, making Dean’s eyes water – and a chortling howl, like eerie laughter. The red eyes around him were moving in, snarling, growling; shadows the size of trees blocked the light from his view and –

– ignored Dean completely.

He stood on shaky legs, machete clutched in his scraped hand, and slowly inched his way around the apparent bloodbath happening on the other side of the bushes. Dean could just barely see Cas hunkered on the ground a few feet away. He stumbled there, careful of his footing, and tugged on the sleeve of Cas’ coat.

The angel stubbornly refused to budge. He stayed hunched in on himself, breathing deeply. Dean could see his shoulders trembling in the dim light. Behind them something screamed, triumphantly.

He grabbed Cas’ arm, yanking him to his feet and hauling ass down the track. “Dude, we gotta go. Now.”

“No!” Cas dug in his heels, nearly making Dean fall down again. He pin-wheeled a second, arms flailing, and Cas pulled him back in close for balance. Dean wound up with his head cradled between Cas’ chin and neck, their breath echoing heavy and damp in the darkness.

“Listen carefully, Dean,” Cas whispered, his gravel voice tickling the soft skin behind Dean’s ear. A shiver crawled down his spine to where his arms were tucked in against his sides by Cas’ body. “We do not run. Never run, no matter what. It only attracts their attention. When I say we walk slowly forward, keeping calm. Whatever you do, don’t run and don’t look back.”

He unfolded from Dean – slowly, ever so slowly – and allowed him to hold his own weight again. The bushes shifted behind them and Dean flinched, fighting every instinct he’d ever had to keep his feet planted. Leisurely, like two old friends strolling through the woods, Dean and Cas left the monsters behind them and soon the shrieks and slurps and other obscene noises disappeared into the strangeness of the trees.

Dean found himself grateful for Cas’ iron grip on his sleeve, no matter how undignified and childish it made him feel. He’d never been so scared of the dark in his entire life.

+++

The calm decree Cas placed over them lasted until they crested a small hill and passed out of sight of the little clearing. Then their feet finally caught up to the pounding of their hearts and they took off, sprinting through the darkness. The moon was full, or close to it, and Dean’s eyes had adjusted as well as they were going to but he still couldn’t see more than three feet in front of his face. He probably would have run straight into a tree if it wasn’t for the beacon of Cas’ coat in front of him, leading the way into the unknown.

Eventually after what seemed like hours of running they stumbled to a stop, Dean heaving for breath. Even Cas was panting.

“Cas. What—” Dean fought his body’s desire to curl in on itself, planting his hands on his hips so his lungs could do their job. He pushed the words out between gasping breaths. “What were those things?”

Cas straightened from his slouch, looking behind them. His face was a grimace in the pale light. “Monsters of the abyss. Beyond that I have no idea.”

“Son of a bitch!” He slapped a branch out of his way and then stopped, listening to his voice echo off the trees around them. Not the brightest move there, dumbass.

But Cas shook his head. “I don’t sense them nearby anymore. We should be safe enough to rest here for awhile, if you need it.”

Thing was, though, he really didn’t. Now that his breath was coming easier he felt like he could probably keep going if he had to; his muscles were a little fatigued but not really sore like they usually were after a long run, and his trick knee was fine. Dean sat down anyway, butt nestled on a bit of mossy earth and back leaning against a tree. He jerked forward again quickly. “Hey, this thing’s not gonna go Evil Dead on me if I sit here or anything, is it?”

“I don’t think the trees are dangerous here.” Cas squinted at an oddly twisted sycamore growing just a few to the left of where Dean had plopped down. “Except maybe that one.”

Dean couldn’t help it. He groaned and fell hard onto his butt, knees all akimbo.

“Dean? Are you all right? Do you feel ill?”

“I just... Fucking purgatory, man. Talk about going from the frying pan and into the fire.”

Okay, he thought. No need to panic. Do that weird yoga thing Lisa taught you. Dean breathed deeply in through his nose and out through his mouth a couple times, holding the inhale for a three count. He had to do it twice before he felt he could reasonably carry on the conversation. “So how fucked are we here? Is there really no way out?”

Cas stared through the trees into the darkness, his body stiff like a hunting dog on point. “I don’t honestly know. My knowledge of purgatory is limited at best. Mostly it involves how to break in, not the opposite.” It was hard to make out his expression in the dark but Dean assumed it was ‘angrily guilty’. He swallowed. “The only methods I know of creatures escaping involve elements from the earthly plane, like when the Mother’s followers freed her.”

“And Sam ain’t sacrificing virgins into a volcano to get us out.” Or at least he better not be. Which meant they were on their own. Trapped in purgatory. Fuck.

All right. No use crying about it. If he and Cas were gonna survive being stuck in this hellhole until they figured a way out then Dean needed to know exactly how fucked they were. Time to prioritize. Injuries first, then inventory. The scratches on his palms from falling were negligible, barely worth noticing. They didn’t even hurt anymore, if they had at all. Cas seemed fine…ish so he turned out his pockets onto the mossy roots around him.

There was his lighter, a small bag of salt, a canteen of holy water (full), a canteen of whiskey (half full), extra ammo, and an extra crunchy hex bag. He also had his machete, a pistol, his backup bowie knife, and a squirt gun full of Borax though Cas had carried the majority of their supply and seemed to have lost it between Dick’s roman candle act and now. The machete was good; his best defense as long as he took care of it – not everything died by steel but a sharp edge worked to delay the inevitable every time. Everything else he had was finite. (And slightly damp. Purgatory was one humid place.) If he was getting all Castaway about it he had his watch, wallet, cell phone, coat, boots, shoelaces, two shirts, a pair of jeans, and his underwear. All of which could be shredded or torn apart if they needed to be.

It wasn’t much of an arsenal but he’d been in worse situations. Granted, he’d been in Hell, too, literally, so his standards were pretty high for a survivalist. He glanced up to where Cas was feeling around, hands raised to hip level, fingers splayed like he was divining water.

Add to the inventory: one angel in a trench coat with questionable sanity. Fuck.

“Cas. How you holding up over there? Your mojo wasn’t working so well back in the clearing.”

Cas ignored him, staring intently at the ground.

“Cas.” He looked up, finally. Dean schooled his expression into something along the lines of ‘what the hell are you doing’ only politer. He hoped.

Cas frowned and looked back down. “There is a path here. I felt it snag against me when I first sought escape.”

Dean chewed on that one awhile, gnashing the anger between his teeth like gristle on a steak. (Surely Cas hadn’t planned on leaving Dean there to rot by himself, no matter what it might have looked like. Or what he’d just said.) It took him a minute to actually register what Cas was talking about. “Wait, there’s a what?”

“A path. Someone’s built a road.”

He stuffed the pitiful arsenal back into his pockets and joined Cas on the game trail. The night was still harsh around them, the full moon shining through the canopy enough to make out general shapes and the occasional surprisingly crisp detail. It was like every other Midwestern forest Dean’d ever hunted in except… more. More menacing, more… woodsy, he supposed. And running right through it, as far as he could see in the gloom, a small place in the underbrush where the grass had been pushed flat by passing bodies.

He didn’t want to think about what type of bodies could have made the trail, so of course it was the first thing out of his mouth. “Who would build a road through purgatory?”

“Someone who had somewhere to go.” Cas licked his lips and straightened his shoulders, practically quivering with anticipation. “I think we should follow it.”

“Uh yeah, I don’t think so. I mean, how do you know we won’t wind up on some monster’s doorstep?”

Cas huffed, the roll of his eyes visible thanks to a patch of light. “It is a road, Dean. In purgatory, as you said. What is the purpose of a road but to take it? All journeys end with a homecoming of one kind or another.”

A homecoming. Dean looked back the way they’d come and saw only trees and shrubbery, like the woods where he and Sam used to hunt with Bobby, lit by the gossamer moon.

He looked in the direction Cas was staring; forest that way, too.

Dean rubbed his roughened hands over his face, pressing the palms into his eyes. (Didn’t even hurt at all, what the hell?) He secured the machete a little more comfortably in its sheath and took a deep breath. Looked like he was putting his faith in the hands of a man who liked to talk to bees for fun. “Whatever. Let’s follow the brown dirt road. After you, Scarecrow.”

Cas frowned again. “I understand that reference, you know. They were playing the movie on television while I was in the hospital. Despite my recent forays into madness my brain is still firmly in place, thank you.”

“Of course it is,” Dean sighed. Why couldn’t Cas get the cool references for once, instead of the lame ones?

+++

They walked steadily into the darkness, led by some strange compass in Cas’ head keeping tabs on the path under their feet. Dean wasn’t sure how far they traveled, or how long they marched; the moon never moved from the heights above them, set at an eternal midnight. It felt like a long time but he knew that everything seemed like forever in the dark silence.

Then, in the distance, came the whump of great wings overhead.

“Get down!” Cas grabbed at Dean’s jacket and pulled him to the ground, shoving his face into a plant. They crawled under a thick group of bushes, Dean coughing up leaves the entire time.

The sound grew louder, more immediate, and Cas clamped his hand over Dean’s nose in time to muffle the last sneeze. A massive shadow flew above them, the passage of its wings shaking the shrubs and branches around them. It completely blocked out the moon’s light and Dean could barely make out the trunk of it through the trees, the edges blurring into the darkness. It looked like some kind of Lovecraftian horror; the angles and movement of its flight just wrong to watch.

They edged out from under the bush - thorns scratching at Dean’s hair and tugging at Cas’ coat - and watched it fly away, a slowly shrinking silhouette in the sky. Dean’s shoulders hunched right up by his ears and he couldn’t seem to close his mouth. “That’s the freakiest thing I’ve ever seen. And I once walked in on Bobby in the shower, so the threshold’s pretty high.”

“It is… disturbing, I admit. I think it’s a groth-golka.”

“Gesundheit. Is that enochian for lizard-bird-tumor? ‘Cause that’s what it looked like from here.”

“They were described to me as God’s first dinosaur.”

“Awesome. I’m not asking for definitions again. Are there gonna be more of those things around?”

“Probably. They’re one of the earliest examples of the supernatural on earth so there’s likely more than one lingering here. Groth-golkas aren’t contemporary with your species so as long as you don’t antagonize them they shouldn’t think you’re food.”

“Huh. Well, that’s encouraging I guess.”

They watched the last of the creature pass by overhead – claws the size of the Impala, damn – then began to pick their way down the path again, a little more weary. Dean considered the idea that he was in shock; after all this walking he should at least be getting thirsty, if not hungry and tired. It was best if he drank something, even if the only supplies he had were the two flasks in his pocket. He fiddled with the tiny container of holy water – a valuable commodity but one that could be replaced if necessary. Still, the thought of more grothy monsters made him take a swig of the whiskey instead. The small sip sat heavy and burning in his gut. It hovered at a low smolder far longer than usual and then faded into nothing.

He might as well have drunk from the holy water for all the good it did to settle his nerves.

Cas leaned in close and Dean nearly jumped out of his skin when their shoulders brushed together. Cas didn’t seem to notice, just whispered like he was imparting the secrets of the universe or something. “It’s not really a groth-golka, you know. They all died out several hundred millennia ago. That was just a representation of the energy it gathered during its time on earth. It wasn’t actually here at all.” He smiled that dorky little half-smile, the corner of his mouth denting inward. “This forest isn’t here. We’re not here. I’m sure this world is quite satisfactory for those without a physical shape of their own any more, but what you’re perceiving as reality is just your body’s way of translating signals it’s receiving from a plane of existence it was never meant to perceive. It’s the same on earth, only your physical body is designed to accept that type of stimulation. Ghosts and shades are just the remnants of a human’s energy that didn’t change planes properly when their body became inaccessible at death.”

“So purgatory is filled with monster ghosts?” There was a rustling in the bushes to their left and Dean raised his machete. “And where do angels fit into all that?”

Cas squinted into the dark at the moving thing then continued on, blithely ignoring whatever small creature was grumbling at their passing. “As a being not meant for either world I perceive both the reality and the facade thanks to my grace’s containment in Jimmy Novak’s body. It sometimes makes my perspective a little… complicated.” He twirled a finger around his head in the universal signal for a little loco in the cabeza. “It’s no wonder I had trouble finding my way when we first arrived; it takes time to adjust to all the new stimuli of a different level of existence. And I still wasn’t one hundred percent when Dick exploded.”

Dean grimaced and sucked in a breath through his teeth. The dick jokes were finally getting to be a little too much. Or maybe it was just hearing Cas say one that made it wrong instead of hilarious.

Cas caught his expression and frowned. “Oh, the unintentional penis reference made it awkward again. What have you been calling Dick’s implosion?”

The Roman Candle. ” Dean smiled, proud of himself for that one. Cas just nodded and Dean’s ego deflated a little bit. He cleared his throat and changed the subject. “What was the deal with him, anyway? I mean, wasn’t it a little weird that the only thing that could kill him was a very specific type of bone from an animal that didn’t exist the last time leviathans were on earth? That’s like having the toenail of a virgin stegosaurus be the only thing that could take down Al-Qaeda. Seems like a stupid failsafe, doesn’t it?”

Cas tilted his head, blinking. Behind them whatever was stirring in the bushes settled and Dean tried his best to forget about it for the sake of his blood pressure. “Why are you only bringing up your doubts after the war with them is already over?”

“I’m not so sure it is over. And it’s not like it would have made a difference. Magic tablet tells you to do something, you do it.” He shrugged. “I just assumed Roman was being a dick about it and exaggerating how old he really was.”

“No, the leviathan were around long before man.” Cas contemplated it for a moment, then shrugged. “God works—“

“If you finish that with in mysterious ways I’m gonna shove my foot up your feathery ass. You don’t believe that any more than I do.”

Cas sighed, his face getting all pissy. “I’ve never understood your reluctance toward faith.” They walked quietly for a moment, listening to the sounds of their shoes on the soft ground. Then Cas began to talk quietly. “There was a great uprising many years ago. Before the Christ child was born, a man came very close to raising the monsters trapped here. Some of the creatures locked in this dimension were released, much like when the devil’s gate was opened in your time. The monsters took human hosts and archangels were called in to intervene. The tablet you found was likely a relic from the battles then.”

He looked into the distance, eyes sweeping for potential danger. “I know this secondhand, of course. My garrison wasn’t stationed on earth until a few thousand years prior to your conception.” And there was an uneasy reminder that Dean’s companion was significantly less (or more) than human himself. “Many people died, though the leviathan weren’t as creative then. I can only assume they used their banishment to formulate a plan of attack.”

“Son of a bitch. Fucking monsters.” Dean rubbed a hand over his face, pulling at the stubble. “What are we facing here, man? I mean, how hopeless is this?”

Cas navigated his way around a large rock that covered half the trail. “We found a path, in a place where logic demands one should not exist. I’d say there’s room left for a little hope still.”

When Dean was a little slow following he turned around. “We have to keep going, Dean. Come on.” And, like a very bewildered and drunken moth, Dean followed the brighter blur of the trench coat into the night.

+++

They hadn’t gone very far from where the grothy monster flew by when there was a rumbling under their feet. They stopped in their tracks, feeling the ground slowly tremble. Dean glanced behind them but couldn’t see anything except a little bit of water rising up through the mud of his boot print. It rippled in the moonlight, then stilled. He could see the vague shape of his face reflected on the surface, eyes huge and ghastly in the white of his expression, until it rippled again.

“Uh, Cas. Have you ever seen Jurassic Park?”

“No.”

“Well, that’s an impact tremor you’re feeling now, that’s what that is. Means there’s something big coming. Or lots of something big.” He gulped, thinking how convenient a jeep would be right now. And a pretty paleobotonist to drive it far the fuck away. “I’m fairly alarmed here. What should we do, man? Should we hide again?”

Cas turned completely around, looking back the way they’d come. Dean stared at the puddle, willing it to not be what he thought it was. “Cas? What’s our move?”

Cas started walking backward, still facing whatever nightmare was coming up behind them. "We run."

Dean frowned. Damn it. The monster totally was what he thought it was. "You said earlier that'd only get their attention. I mean, what if their vision’s based on movement?"

"We already have their attention. Run!

They took off, Dean just a few steps behind Cas, sprinting like their lives depended on it. Moments later a whole herd of something big came hurtling through the bushes toward them. Dean was too busy panting for breath and digging for all the speed he had to take in a lot of details – just the curve of a flank here, slender limbs there, and of course the shiny teeth nipping at their heels. They looked more like velocibears than T-rexes, but Dean was sure they were more than capable of tearing him apart and posing dramatically afterward.

Just when Dean’s legs grew watery and he was sure he couldn’t force them to move any faster, Cas’ coat disappeared in the darkness ahead of him – for a split second Dean thought he’d left him again, that motherfucker – but then the ground vanished from under Dean’s feet and he was falling too, tumbling ass over tip down what felt like a goddamn mountain. In the jumble and tumble Dean heard the velocibears growling fade into the distance.

He eventually rolled to a stop in a ditch or ravine or something, rocks falling around and on top of him and jabbing Dean everywhere. His shoulders snagged against a boulder that probably kept him from hurling all the way to Middle Earth down the hill. It was a good boulder, round and solid and not going anywhere even with two hundred-ish pounds of Winchester leaning against it.

The dust started to settle and Dean coughed as much of it out of his struggling lungs as he could. He let his head fall back against his friend the boulder and had to blink a few times to make sure his eyes weren’t playing tricks on him.

With the trees finally left behind them he could see the sky clearly for the first time since they arrived in purgatory. There were so many stars, distant little spots of color gleaming in the dark, dark night. There were thousands of them, familiar and strange, countless constellations he couldn’t name. Nebulas twirling and breaking apart as he watched. It was like the big bang was happening right there above him.

Of course, it was also possible he’d hit his head in the fall and that was a concussion talking. Still, pretty stars.

Someone groaned next to his elbow and a few more rocks shifted down on top of them. That was Cas still alive then. Good for him. A head full of dusty dark hair – tangled beyond any hope of repair, even more so than usual – briefly obscured his view of Orion’s Belt.

“Dean? You okay?”

“I’m fine. Just. Gonna sit here a second. Get my wind back.” He propped himself carefully on one elbow, feeling the back of his head with a terribly dirty hand. No blood. And he wasn’t seeing double now that gravity had reasserted itself. There wasn’t any pain anywhere, either, which meant he probably didn’t have a concussion. So… shock? Yeah, he was gonna chock the disorientation up to the shock of being chased by velocibears through a secondary dimension and then falling down Mount Everest. That was shocking, right? Right.

Cas groaned again as he stumbled to his feet. Dean could hear his joints protesting all the way over by his boulder; Cas stretched his back and the crackles were ridiculously loud. He untangled the length of his coat and looked up the cliff face. "I doubt they'll follow us down here. And if they do they'll probably take a less direct route, so we have some time."

"Great. The monsters are smarter than us. Hooray." Dean hoisted an arm around Friendly Boulder and lifted himself to sitting, then gathered his legs underneath him - only to fall back on his ass again when his right leg crumbled under his weight. In the unobstructed moonlight it was easy to see why: a bone was sticking out through the skin above his knee, right at the same place it’d broken last year. He poked the edges of the wound and a small amount of blood oozed sluggishly from the hole. It looked fake, like something out of a really bad horror movie except it was his goddamn leg.

Dean touched where the bone had snapped in half, then wiggled the shard itself, morbidly fascinated. He could feel the two ends grating together, likely slicing up his leg muscles as they went. He was pretty sure it was supposed to hurt worse than it did. Or at all. “Uh, Cas? Little help here?"

Cas clapped his hands together, though the dirt was pretty much ingrained at this point. He turned and stuttered to a stop when he got a good look at Dean’s leg. Or what was sticking out of it. He glanced up at Dean and the two shared a look of mutual what the fuck? Dean took it as a bad sign when the eternal soldier of heaven was surprised about an injury.

Cas placed two fingers against Dean’s forehead – warm against the drying sweat, the skin rougher than Dean would have thought. He braced himself for the rush of healing that strummed through his body following that kind of touch –

Nothing.

Cas sat with his fingers on Dean, staring unfocused at the damage to his thigh. When nothing happened after a minute a little tremble of fear made its way up through the bleary numbness of Dean’s brain. “Uh. Cas?”

Cas grunted, settling himself more firmly in the rocks with his palm flat over the bone. “Close your eyes.”

Dean did in a hurry, waiting for a bright burst of angel-light that never came. He shifted; there was a rock poking his left buttcheek and Cas’ hand on his thigh was getting really awkward. He opened one eye, cautiously.

Cas was still sitting there, frowning momentously.

Perfect. Seemed like Doctor Angel had left the building. “Let me guess. Magic finger broken? You out of quarters?”

Cas’ eyebrows were in danger of permanently fusing into a frown if he kept it up much longer. “I was afraid of this. We’ll just have to do it the traditional way.”

"The what way?“

Cas shoved the heel of his hand hard against the bone fragment, then held both hands tight around it. Dean yelled in surprise more than for any other reason, though he could clearly feel the bones grinding together and the splinters cutting into the meat of his leg. There still wasn’t any pain.

Dean was getting ridiculously close to freaking out. “The hell, Cas? Why couldn’t I feel that? I’m not paralyzed am I? I can still wiggle my toes, right? They’re wiggling?”

“Yes, you’re a very good wiggler. Apply as much pressure as you can.” He grabbed Dean’s hand in his own and held it tightly to the gash. Then, using the strength that always managed to surprise Dean, picked him up and carried him the last few feet to the bottom of the incline. Dean would protest being carried like a wilting bride over the threshold but those rocks had been getting all kinds of irritating and at least this way he could see something other than the stars. (There was a long scratch on the side of Cas’ cheek trailing down from his hairline to the side of his lip. Dean hoped Jimmy didn’t mind a little cosmetic damage on the exterior.)

Cas propped him up against a large errant boulder – far too roughly for a guy with a broken leg, though Dean couldn’t exactly feel it. He sighed again. “When you stabbed Roman we were pulled into the field of his destruction – it jettisoned us to purgatory with him. But since we hadn’t been separated from our physical bodies first it brought those, too. We’re physical in a realm that isn’t, strictly speaking. I assume your soul is incapable of interpreting the input from your body and has become confused.”

“Well, you know what happens when you assume.”

Cas paused where he’d been looking around the detritus at the bottom of the hill. “You make an educated guess based on previous events.”

Dean rolled his eyes and peeked at his leg. There wasn’t any new blood other than what came out during the initial injury but he could still see straight through to parts he shouldn’t be able to. He thumped his head back against the rock. “Uh huh. And what previous events helped you come up with this hypothesis?”

“My own.” Cas picked up a stick, bent it, and tossed it down again. “This is similar to when an angel takes a vessel. Your soul is suspended much as my grace is.”

Dean blinked. That was new. After a whole year of avoiding becoming Michael’s vessel and he became his own? Look up irony in the dictionary…

Cas came back with a few sturdier looking twigs, piling them next to Dean on the ground. Dean recognized the makings of a splint, though he had no idea how Cas knew how to make one. And he’d just gotten out of a cast a few months ago. Cas bent down to peel a few stubborn leaves away… and Dean got a good look at his cheek. The scratch on his face was gone. His palms were smooth and unmarked as they brushed along the wood.

“Hey. Hey, you just healed yourself. How come your finger works for you but not for me?”

“What? Oh.” Cas shook his head and started measuring the sticks to Dean’s leg. “When my vessel’s damaged my grace remains intact inside it, so the body resets itself to when I first entered it. Very little of myself is devoted to maintenance so I don’t really notice it anymore.”

“So you’re in suspended animation?”

“It’s more like a feedback loop; once all the wires are connected properly it sustains itself. To heal you I have to push that loop outside of my vessel, grab the damage that shouldn’t be there, and return.” Cas looked around for something to bind the twigs together, feeling through his coat pockets for the first time Dean could remember seeing. He tossed some lint and a cough drop over his shoulder and dug through his pants pockets. Was he looking for something to bind the splint together? “Help me take this off.”

He tugged at the trench’s belt, planning to use it in the splint. It hurt Dean somewhere deep down to see such disregard for the coat, though he couldn’t think why. It hurt much worse than his leg did, anyway. He grabbed Cas’ wrist before he could pull it all the way free. “Cas, wait. If I’ve been reduced to a fucking vessel then I might as well get something out of it. Teach me to do the healing thing your grace does.”

“What?” Cas looked confused again, surprised and frowning. (That expression was becoming all too familiar lately.)

“If my body’s wrapped around my soul like a Twinkie around its creamy filling then shouldn’t I be able to bring it back to normal? You said it was the same thing as your grace, right?”

“Dean… It’s not really something that can be taught. Bartering your soul’s energies is a delicate matter. Angels learn to manipulate our grace over time. It’s not natural for a human to do that.”

“Oh, come on. When have we ever been cared about what’s natural? I can’t just sit around like this. Help me fix it.”

Cas let his head fall back to his shoulders, Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallowed. (Dean wandered if the sky was brilliant for him, too.) He ran his hands along Dean’s leg, fingers skirting the edges of the sticks. “It will likely heal on its own, given time.”

“Dude, we don’t have time. Any second now something’s gonna jump out of those rocks and try to eat us and you know it. I’ve gotta be in top form or I’m nothing but meat to these things.” Those weeks laid up in the cabin had sucked; the phrase ‘dead weight’ held a lot more gravitas now.

Cas looked back down and Dean stared him in the eye, trying to convince him as he had so many other times. Eventually Cas reluctantly nodded. “You must do exactly as I say. This is not something to be undertaken lightly, and I don’t know if it will work the same for you as it does for me.”

He removed the half-made splint and scooted closer, holding Dean’s gaze. When he spoke it was soothing, damn near hypnotic, his rough voice like an a.m. radio jockey over the Impala’s speakers. “You are not your body, Dean. You are in it, but not of it. You are separate and completely in control. It is just a body. You are the strength inside your body. Concentrate on that strength, on the power simmering inside. Can you feel it, Dean?”

Dean could, barely, a flicker of candlelight in the gloom of his heart.

“Harness the strength of your being until it is compact and tightly wound. Hold it firmly. Now picture in your mind your body. It is hollow and void but yours all the same. Feel all the pieces of it around you. There is a wrongness to it, but you can bring it back to wholeness. Do you know what is wrong, Dean?”

Yes. Bones broken and ground, muscles sprained, skin torn, blood lost. How to fix it, Cas?

“Focus on the wrongness and the memory of how it should be. Concentrate. You are the power living inside your bones and you push it through them, releasing it through the body. You are stronger than your body. Make the wrongness go away, Dean. Make it never have existed. Push it back to whole.”

A tingle and a push and something gave way inside himself. He lingered in the sensation under his skin, blood vessels rushing by. He could hear them, own them, use them, but he couldn’t feel what it meant to have them anymore. They were distant and dull compared to everything else.

“When you’ve achieved rightness allow your body and strength to blend back together. Let it fold into itself as it was in the beginning. Feel your energy bleed into the farthest part of yourself. Become one with your vessel again.”

He didn’t want to. Please, Cas, don’t make him.

“Now look through your eyes and tell me what you see.”

No. Let him stay lost for a little longer.

Dean. Look through your eyes. Tell me what you see.”

He blinked, eyelids heavy and sandy over the dryness of his corneas. He must’ve kept them open longer than he should have. Cas was hovering over him, face inches from his own. Dean jerked back as far as he could, banging his head into the rock behind him. “Personal space, man, come on.”

Cas’ shoulders slumped and he smiled, inexplicably, that dorky grin full of gums and awkward happiness. He sat back on his heels a comfortable distance away. “How do you feel?”

Different. But better. Like his entire body was wearing ear muffs and he was listening to it through layers of cotton. There was still a bloody hole in his jeans but when he poked his finger into it there wasn’t anything but solid skin underneath. The bone and muscle of his thigh were smooth and continuous; tightening and moving as it should. He could even wiggle his toes.

“Jesus, Cas. That was…” It had been strange as hell, and unexpectedly… exciting. Kinda sexy. The reminder of Cas’ gravelly voice sinking into him had his heart pounding. (If he concentrated hard enough he could feel every palpitation of muscle inside it, every pulse in his veins.)

“That was how angels are taught to heal themselves, Dean. To my knowledge no human’s ever tried it before.”

And maybe his heart was pounding for some other reason because it was getting hard to breathe, lungs stuttering in his ribcage. The light grew fainter until it was just a dim halo around the shape of Cas’ head.

He put a warm hand – rougher than it should have been – on Dean’s forehead. “Rest, Dean. I’ll keep watch.”

Dean decided that was probably a good idea; when he started to think of Cas as sexy it was time to check out for awhile.

+++

The moon was still high in the sky when he opened his eyes again, though he’d surely slept for more than a few hours. Christ, was there no end to this night?

Cas waited patiently for Dean to rise grumbling to consciousness then helped him to his feet. His leg was still a little wobbly but held his weight all the same. After a couple steps it was like the fall down the hill had never happened.

Now that he was upright he could see the surrounding woods didn’t look any more promising than the one at the top of the hill. Tall, thin trees with peeling bark and bushy tops were doing their best to block out the little light seeping through. Random bushes and scrub pushed up through the dead leaves. A breeze, miraculous, carried the teasing hint of water. It was the first time he’d smelled anything other than his own stale breath in longer than he liked to imagine.

And through the center of it, skirting around a suspiciously bare patch of soil and stretching off into the shadowy distance, was the clear division in flora that marked the edge of the trail he and Cas had been following. It curled around the rocks and back along the landslide.

Son of a bitch, Dean thought. They’d just taken the world’s worst shortcut.

Cas made the decision to follow it again by taking off without consulting Dean, aiming away from the rock face and along the path through the trees. Dean thought they may have been heading north, but it was hard to tell with the sky in static. (The stars were still brilliant overhead, almost as bright as the moon.) It felt like north, anyway, if a direction could have a feel.

The breeze grew stronger as they moved. Despite how grateful Dean was for even a tiny respite from the monotony of forest, when they came to the break in the tree line and found the hidden lake he couldn’t help but worry. It stretched for what seemed like miles all around, an inland sea shrouded in mist and strange lights blinking in the distance. The surface wasn’t still, though Dean somehow thought it should be. What it should be was stagnant, a mirror surface of green and brown and full of soft dead things. What it should be was a swamp.

But what it looked like was beautiful, a sparkling swell of sweetness in the middle of hell. It looked like summers swimming with Sammy in cutoff trunks, like tire swings, like pulling over on the highway and fishing off a pier. It looked like the sort of place you’d roll your pants up and go wading if you dared disturb the universe. It looked like the first cool drink after a hard day.

And because it looked that way, Dean knew not to trust it.

He grabbed hold of Castiel’s sleeve and didn’t let go until the lake was out of sight. Just in case.

+++

They walked for less than half an hour before the first couple vampires jumped them and Dean could have wept for the relief of fighting something familiar. Heads removed from bodies easily under his machete, just like always. Cas was a blaze of flashing silver in his periphery – his angel sword was more suited to stabbing than slicing, but its sheer holiness seemed to work in his favor and incapacitate the vmps long enough for Dean to sweep in for the kill.

Before the blood had even cooled on their blades another group of vampires attacked, the leader getting closer to Dean’s jugular than he appreciated. He and Cas left the area quickly, only to be set upon by a werewolf not too long after. And a random wendigo after that.

It went that way – walk, fight, regroup, repeat – for what was surely hours.

Then the attacks stopped just as suddenly as they’d began, the monsters disappearing into the shadows of the trees. The hairs on the back of Dean’s neck rose at their absence and he adjusted his grip on the machete. What could make the scary things afraid?

He’d just stepped cautiously under the spreading branches of a huge oak tree when he felt a tickle on his face, a something’s touching me and I can’t see it what if it’s a bug eugh itch across his cheek. He jerked back, startled, waving his arm frantically in front of him. (Yes, startled, Dean Winchester didn’t get freaked out by phantom tingling even if the sensation made his skin crawl as though little fingers were creeping up his back.) His arm got stuck fast just above his head and bent at the elbow; no matter how hard he tugged he couldn’t get it to come free. He couldn’t see anything, just the glimmer of moonlight off of something silky caught in the branches – and then he couldn’t move his head either. He flailed again, lashing out his other arm, hoping the machete would catch whatever it was that had him…

And then his entire body was caught, suspended, feet kicking in midair like Pinocchio waiting for someone to cut his strings. (The last time he’d felt like that there’d been hooks in his skin and he’d been all alone. At least the thrashing and cursing coming from behind him meant Cas was there, too.) The sticky fingers were crawling all over his skin and Dean was this close to a goddamn panic attack. It felt like they’d walked right into a giant -

A giant spider’s web. Oh, hell no.

“Cas! Cas, stop moving!”

“What?”

“I said stop! You’ll only make it worse!” Dean swiveled his eyes, trying to take in as much of the tree around him as he could without actually moving his head. Up close he could see the moonlight had hidden the swaths of silk in the thick leaves of the oak. The whole tree was covered in it, a thick curvy mass that swallowed the massive branches. As he watched a strand came loose and tickled the soft skin at the tip of his nose. Ridiculously, he fought the urge to sneeze.

The webbing around his elbow pulled tight, stretching his arm further behind his head. The hell was Cas doing back there? “Would you quit fidgeting! I said you’re gonna make it worse.”

Cas huffed and gave up the ghost of resistance – or at least Dean assumed he did, given that the whole web bounced a little with additional weight. “My wrist is stuck. My sword is useless! I can’t believe I let this happen.”

“Yeah well, neither can I. The fuck didn’t you see this coming, man? I thought you had crazy night vision or something.”

Cas honest to god growled at him. “Why would I have crazy night vision? Angel’s are beings of celestial intent and made out of wavelengths of light. The dark doesn’t exist around me.”

Point to Cas for that one, he supposed. “You mean to tell me you’ve been leading me around without seeing where you’re going this whole time?”

“I’ve been following the road Dean, what more do you want?”

Dean sighed and hung in the web, trying to think through their options. He could still feel the machete firm in his grip but his arm was so hopelessly engulfed that there was zero chance of movement there. His left leg was still mostly free but after a few experimental kicks all he got was winded. He supposed there was some kind of irony at work: an angel of the lord and one of the best hunters that’s ever been end up getting stuck in a spider web in monster hell.

“So what do we do, Cas? Sit here and wait for Shelob to show up? ‘Cause I am so not down with that.”

Cas wiggled a little, the strands of web hanging around Dean trembling. (Weren’t spiders supposed to sense when their web gets messed up or something?) His voice was quietly optimistic, though he hadn’t gotten much better at being reassuring. “Maybe this is an old weave and the creature’s unaware of our presence.”

Something thumped in the distance, quietly, repetitively. All the blood rushed out of Dean’s head straight to his thumping heart. “I wouldn’t be so sure of that. We’ve gotta get out of here now.”

Cas started moving urgently again, the web bouncing once more. For his part Dean just hung there, listening to the noise draw closer. Whatever was causing it was heavy, lumbering; a thump thump draaag. Thump thump draaag. The breeze came back, gently lifting the loose strands. Dean sneezed, a little bit of saliva and mucus getting caught in the web. Gross.

The air smelled different, like the unidentifiable water smell but stronger. It reminded him of the ocean – fish and salt, sea spray, and birds calling home. It grew stronger and the creature came lumbering into Dean’s view (thump thump draaag) all slick rubbery skin and large luminous eyes. And very much not a spider. Its front limbs were pulling its body behind it; Dean thought it’d be better suited for the lake they’d passed and not the dry mulch of forest floor.

“Dean? What’s going on? I can’t see anything.”

It stayed low to the ground, lurching under the dangling strands of the web and passed Dean’s feet to sniff at Cas, snort rudely, and circle back around to Dean. It smelled his dangling boot, wide nostrils flaring, and blinked its doe eyes up into the trees. It mewled a little, plaintively, and curled in on itself, head tucking under the wide back legs. After a moment the muscles in its back twitched, swelled, and peeled away. Dean thought of the mess skinwalkers left behind and gagged a little.

But this creature’s skin shed like a coat, dropping to the ground in one long piece. A young naked woman rose out of the loose folds, her new pale body gleaming in the darkness. Her soulful eyes danced with mischief and her hair was long and brown, intricately braided like something out of an old gold-leafed illustration.

She moved her arms and legs, getting used to the weight and fluidity of them, then looked up at Dean again. Her pink lips smiled and she laughed a little, the sound rising out of her like bubbles from the deep. She darted forward, quick as a snake, and pressed her mouth to his.

Dean flinched but sank into the kiss after a second anyway, enjoying the soft lips and very very wet tongue. He supposed he’d normally find the girl attractive if she were a little older and he hadn’t watched her change from a weird seal-beast. He didn’t even mind the faint taste of the sea on her mouth, all salt water and dead fish. Dimly he felt the web pull around him; Cas was pitching a fit, swinging around and yelling in Enochian.

Dean kissed the girl until he felt a sharp sting in his lower jaw and the trickle of something warm on his chin. She pulled back, smiling, the tips of pointy canines denting the skin of her lower lip. Dean tensed when she swooped in again, licked the blood of his face, and inched her hand into his jacket. It skimmed along his side up over the tender skin of his armpit, back up along the muscle of his shoulder and along his arm. Her delicate fingers snuck right through the web and around the handle of the machete; it slid easily out of his grip into hers.

The girl smiled again, a shark-toothed grin, and cut Dean free with a single swipe from his own machete. He dropped to the ground like a rock, limbs tingling as the blood flow returned in a rush. He flipped over onto his back (wiping webbing off his face and snorting it out of his nose) and suddenly the girl was looming over him, knees digging into his hips to keep him still. Her eyes were dark and huge, too large for her delicate face.

His protests died before he could even make them.

She put a finger to her mouth and pursed her lips, shushing him without making a sound. Her long fingers threaded through the hair at his temples then turned his head until he was facing the tree trunk on the right. If Dean concentrated hard enough he could make out the rough path he and Cas had been following. The girl’s grip loosened to a caress, light on the stubble on his throat.

Her smile was smaller, sadder, and she nodded at his questioning look. She shoved the machete up to the hilt into the ground next to his head and walked away without a backward glance, her bare feet whispering on the mossy forest floor. Dean stayed where she’d put him and let her go, listening to the sound of her moving through the woods. Within minutes her light footsteps turned heavy and plodding, the thump thump draaag echoing through the trees.

He wondered exactly what type of monster just saved his life. And why.

Cas was cursing at him now, strong and bitter, foul enough to make a Marine wince. Looked like his vocabulary had improved since the days of assbutt and awkward porn. Dean could see him, trussed up in the web like a spitting mad angelic burrito.

Dean took a moment to appreciate the thought and then cut him down.

+++

Dean and Cas walked onward, traveling the path and crossing the length of purgatory. Most of the time the trail took them steadily uphill, the incline subtle enough not to strain their legs. Dean’s eyes refused to adjust any further to the darkness and the woods continued without an end in sight. The sun never rose and the moon never fell, its weak light shifting through the branches overhead and creating patterns on the road ahead of them.

They walked and walked and walked some more, dealing with any monsters they found (or that found them). During the long strange night Dean never felt the urge to eat or sleep or take a piss and the flasks of holy water and whiskey stayed nearly untouched. He was learning to ignore the odd mental urge for something that didn’t translate to his body.

Sometimes he wondered if this was what life on earth had been like for Cas, separate and still in the middle of all that movement.

Dean’s body may not have needed to rest but his mind did. Or should he call it his soul, instead of his mind? What was he now but a collection of thoughts and memories haunting an empty collection of neurons and tissue? Was that a soul?

Regardless, when the need to stop overpowered the need to move Dean and Cas would find an alcove or hollow near the path and settle down for awhile. Dean didn’t get tired exactly; he just felt so damn weary. The rest almost always did him good even if he couldn’t actually sleep.

They stopped not too long after the Web Incident under a sad and wilted tree heavy with brown leaves. Dean was (understandably) leery of any purgatory plants after their near-miss and checked the branches thoroughly before settling down. Neither one suggested a fire; they attracted enough attention on their own. He took his boots off, stretching his toes and cleaning the tread free of caked-on mud.

Dean had just braced himself for another long haul when the short hairs on the back of his neck tickled against his collar.

“Cas.”

“I see them, Dean.”

He slowly raised his eyes from his boot to where Cas sat opposite him in the tiny hollow. There were red eyes peering at him through the trees, hovering in the shadows above Cas’ shoulder. They were large, eerie, and Dean remembered how quickly the bodies attached to them could move.

Cas was staring over Dean’s shoulder. His eyes flickered back and forth, counting their enemies. Another pair of lights blinked into existence behind him.

They were surrounded.

The monsters stood their ground, silent, watching. Waiting for some signal to attack, Dean was sure. He reached for the machete he’d laid in the grass at his side. “Do we fight?”

“No.” Cas was so still staring back at the beasts; he barely seemed to be breathing. “They outnumber us and we don’t know how powerful they are. Or even what they are. We should play by their rules until we understand what their motivations are.”

“I’m thinking their motives are to eat us, Cas. I don’t like being hunted.” Dean stared down the glowing eyes, willing them to pounce and reveal themselves; anything to get rid of the tension stealing his breath. He remembered a television show he’d seen once where animals saw eye contact as a challenge for dominance.

Well, he wasn’t looking away. And neither was Cas.

A few minutes passed, the only sounds the whisper of the dying leaves above them and his own harsh breathing. Then a shift in the darkness; the eyes behind Cas moved to the right, leaving a clear space between them in the direction of the path. Dean tilted his body to follow them, turning his back to the road…

Cas leaned across the few feet of space between them and took hold of Dean’s sleeve, tugging gently. Dean blinked, glanced around to find that the eyes had faded into the underbrush and they had a clear shot to escape the way they’d been going.

Dean didn’t put the machete down again for a long time after that.