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A Thin Thread

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Chapter 1

 

The afterlife was boring. He hadn’t given much thought to it while he was still alive, but angels don’t really have to worry about that – they either exist forever as servants of God or fallen in Hell, or they don’t exist at all; full stop, no sequel. The same went for gods to an extent – as long as there’s faith, they keep coming back. They’re not always the same, but they’re not dead, so there’s that. When the faith dries up, well… Even gods have to adapt to survive, some more gracefully and successfully than others.

Gabriel had done nothing but adapt for centuries. He was so good at it, he never settled on one thing for long. But he never really let go of the angel part of himself and he never felt the need to find alternate sources of power – he never had to stoop as low as some of the gods he’d met the past hundred or so years, no better than vampires, or shifters, or any number of monsters the human hunters felt entitled to kill. By the time gods died, there was little left of them to linger.

Imagine Gabriel’s surprise when he woke up in Purgatory after his brother stabbed him. Purgatory was dull. The souls of petty monsters squabbled for supremacy in a land that offered no reward. Anything more imposing tended to be there on a temporal basis and they stayed out of any conflicts; Gabriel, though not very optimistic about his chances of getting out of there, tried to follow their example. There was the occasional vampire, or werewolf who took his passivity for weakness, but they soon learned their lesson. (When it came to some particularly single-minded monsters, Gabriel wished there were something more permanent he could do to them – they just sprung up in some other part of Purgatory. It was frustrating.)

So far in his stay here, there had been two points when things got interesting: the first he couldn’t appreciate until it was over, the second was too brief to figure out. And then he woke up one morning to the third and this time he was going to hold on to it.

On morning, Gabriel discovered he was no longer the only angel in Purgatory. One of his brothers had done something stupid enough to land himself there and he was going to find him and poke fun for it until he got it out of his system and then, maybe, work out a way to get out of there.

The brother turned out to be Castiel, of all angels! Though it probably made more sense than anyone else.

Alas, he hadn’t done anything as banal as go pagan. Nope. The little featherbrain had been responsible for the previous time things got interesting there – the brief exodus of souls, accompanied by the awakening and escape of the Leviathans and followed by the longest period of time Gabriel had tried and actually managed to stay out of everyone’s way (being crammed into his little bro did not make the souls of Purgatory feel any better about the vastness of space they had to share and had sent a few particularly thick-headed ex-undead into a frenzy for conquest).

Castiel was a mess. He was also a target. Also, the Leviathans were back. Way to make things interesting!

 

***

 

Gabriel probably owed Kali flowers… and chocolates… and whatever complex and interesting sexual favors one can perform for a goddess who had the foresight to save his ass from non-existence. She was a goddess among goddesses and, if and when he managed to crawl his way back onto the mortal plane, she was going to make him pay through his nose – and he’d probably do it, although he much preferred it if she asked for another body part.

But it sure took him a while to figure out what this meant.

He missed it at first, in those long hours he wasted lying there, staring dumbly at the trees looming over him in the dark. Lucifer had stabbed him with his own blade in a tricked out motel in the middle of nowhere. There shouldn’t be any trees. There shouldn’t be anything. At most, he should have been a twinkle of thought in the mind of some kid dreaming of Ragnarok and listening to Metal (rule of cool was made for Gabriel and he was going to die and be reborn by it).

There were trees, and there was darkness, and there were red eyes in that darkness, and there was a feeling of guilt that made no sense in the context, so he pushed it back. He was supposed to feel stupid, not guilty, thank you.

He spent his first weeks fighting aimlessly and trying to work out the intense swirl of emotions that kept overwhelming him at the most inopportune moments and were most definitely not his. He had no reason to feel guilty, or inadequate, or fiercely protective.

Eventually, he realized two things: there was no use fighting in Purgatory – it was more productive to ignore challenges and focus on trying to learn more about his surroundings, some souls were just lonely and actually willing to talk once they were sure you weren’t going to inconvenience them by trying to kill them (fighting was always a valid option when boredom became too much, though); and the second was that the source of his disconcerting feelings was Sam Winchester. The second realization didn’t help him much. What was he supposed to do, being bound to a giant moose of a man all the way in another plane of reality?

As Purgatory wore him down, it was nice to feel something other than his own frustration and the fear and despair some of the denizens were positively reeking of. And he had his own happy memories of the kid… Accompanied by plenty of bad ones he’d contributed to himself, but wasn’t dragging those out here.

In his moments of quiet, he tried reaching out to Sam, but to no avail – either the kid had become very skilled at shielding his mind, or the bond that Kali had set in place wasn’t strong enough.

Gabriel felt when Lucifer had taken over Sam’s body. The angelic side of his brother filtered through their link loud and clear, almost painful. He was confident that he could learn to block it, but for some reason, he held on until the moment Sam dove into the Pit. After that, he jumped at any opportunity to fight, hoping to dull the feeling of Sam’s torment with physical pain and the rush of the fight. Sometimes it worked.

Sometimes, he found himself being pulled into the Pit with him. If he closed his eyes, he could see it on the insides of his eyelids. His brothers were fighting and using Sam as their battlefield. The other kid, a Winchester the guys upstairs pulled out of their asses at the last minute, was largely ignored – not safe; he needed to be somewhere else for that.

Time in Hell flowed so much faster than anywhere else. It was a neat trick, if you didn’t have to live it out. There was nothing Gabriel could do, but watch and even that he couldn’t do all the time.

And then, one day, it stopped. There was a rush of confusion and then nothing. Sam wasn’t gone – his soul had survived more than a century in the Pit, he wasn’t going to just wink out of existence – but he was out of Gabriel’s reach.

He kept reaching out, but to no avail. He didn’t like the implications. Who the hell pulled Sam out of Hell and why did it take so long, to begin with? These two had a habit of springing back to life before you even had a chance to get used to them being gone. Physically, there shouldn’t have been anything left of Sam to bring back. He filled his time for a while planning what he’d do to that idiot brother of Sam’s for pulling off something that stupid and desperate. The rest of it was spent dispatching minor annoyances – it was the most fun he could have in there.

When the wall protecting Sam’s mind broke, the first thing Gabriel felt was relief followed immediately by the urge to find Cas and kick his feathery little ass for what he was about to do.

He didn’t want to think of the time spent crammed with all those souls inside of Castiel. There wasn’t enough innuendo in all of creation that could make that experience any bearable.

 

***

 

“Why did you save me?” Castiel asked, still looking a bit out of it.

Gabriel was holding him up by the lapels of his tattered trench coat, shielding him from sight. Of course, he wasn’t talking about the hulking mass of tentacles oozing its way past their precarious hiding place and Gabriel gave a nonchalant shrug in reply.

Castiel wasn’t going to leave it. He would ask again and again and Gabriel still wouldn't have a good answer for him, because the obvious one, that he was protecting his brother, was the last thing the kid would ever believe. Probably.

Gabriel was being studied with careful consideration and he definitely didn’t like the worried frown with which Castiel was delivering this scrutiny.

“You could have left me to fend for myself after you ran into me. It was what I desired – to face the Leviathans on my own, without putting anyone else in danger,” he insisted. The same refrain that had been driving Gabriel up the walls for the past few days.

“Look, not trying to belittle your martyrdom – I’m sure you went out in a wonderful stupidly heroic fashion and all, but there isn’t anywhere else to go if you die here. You’ll just reappear somewhere else and go through the motions again, and again, and again until you’ll wish for the torments of Hell for a bit of variety. Stop trying to get yourself killed!” Gabriel explained, knowing it would get ignored again.

He didn’t ask about Dean. He knew the hunter was in Purgatory with them - he got as much out of Castiel, but why and how were still things he needed to figure out.

“My presence was putting him in danger,” was as the only explanation Castiel kept giving him

 

***

 

They were lying on top of a cliff, watching the grey sky swirl – it did that, when there were no clouds, since there was nothing dictating that it shouldn’t. Gabriel was engaged in a stealthy ‘find Dean and save his ass’ mission which depended entirely on Castiel’s help, but for the most part, he was back to being bored in the afterlife. He didn’t mind keeping a low profile, but now he had to keep Castiel out of trouble.

“Did the ritual to get Dick involve any sort of transformation?” he pried.

“Not that I know of.”

“Did Dean get bit by anything during that final showdown?” Gabriel insisted.

Castiel turned his head to better glower at his brother. “No.”

“So… he’s still human…And he didn’t die, as far as you know.”

“Your point?”

“A non-dead mortal in Purgatory.”

Castiel’s jaw clenched, but he didn’t say anything.

“A live hunter in a place full of dead monsters who can’t be killed any more than they’ve already been killed,” Gabriel spelled it out for him.

Castiel sighed. “I did not leave him without protection.”

“How long do you think that will last?” Gabriel snapped, sitting up. “He’s not one to lie low and stay out of the way.”

Castiel followed his example and sat up as well. It was easier to glare that way. “Like we are doing?”

“You’re still a danger to yourself, bro,” Gabriel told him, a bit too much of his actual worry filtering through. “And he’s probably being a danger to himself, so you two make an adorably fucked up pair,” he added, trying to hide any hint of caring under layers of obnoxiousness.

“Why are you so concerned with his fate?”

“Because he’s the only being in all of Purgatory with a chance in hell of getting out of here,” he explained. Not like he didn’t spend a year teaching one Winchester to live without the other, or built his own reality to try and convince them to play their parts and get things over already, or die helping them stop and Apocalypse before. No, his interest in Dean’s fate had to be entirely selfish and pragmatic.

 

***

 

Sam had been a beacon of pain and confusion in the wake of his wall crumbling. Gabriel had been too busy being yanked out of Purgatory along with all the other souls and trying to stay out of the way of the newly awoken Leviathans, to realize what that meant. Before he could adjust to the new conditions, he was already being thrown back in, but now he knew there was a way out. He was inventive, he was going to find a way – it had happened twice already and he was pretty sure he was cleverer than the Leviathan and that creature Lovecraft had pulled out, he was going to make his own way.

There had to be another way out. There were stories going round among the older monsters – they claimed to have heard them from the denizens, but Gabriel had yet to meet any of the actual locals and treated the idea of anything actually evolving here as a myth – about a gateway designed to push out any human souls. It was little more than a bedtime story, designed to give hope to the hopeless, since there was no way a human soul could get into Purgatory.

Gabriel supposed there had to be other ways to get here than dying. The various realms and dimensions were a bit more interconnected than you were supposed to think. Walking out of Purgatory just like that...

He got distracted from that train of thought by the feeling of Sam doing something stupid and self-destructive. It had been so long since he had felt the stupid human this strongly. He needed a while to work out how to reach him again – there were fewer defenses in place, but a lot more damage he could do by being careless.

He kept watch as Sam was being increasingly destructive to himself – sleepless nights, skipping meals, drinking too much coffee. Not that, from what he could make out, Dean was doing any better. At least the Sam hadn't turned to the bottle, but he was going to last long like that.

Sam had been awake for three days and Gabriel refused to keep track of his caffeine intake anymore when the archangel thought, for a brief second, that Sam had seen him. Sam's eyes had focused on him and there was a brief flash of confusion in his eye and Gabriel had pulled back. He hadn't panicked. That wasn't something he would do if Sam actually could reach back to him. But he had recognized that look. Sam kept looking like that and playing it off as nothing. Gabriel had assumed it was nothing, but now... He wondered what else Sam was seeing and didn't talk about.

He learned over the next few days that Sam was seeing Lucifer. It had gotten to the point where the kid was physically running from the devil in his head and desperate enough to accept help from a drug dealer. If he could hear Gabriel telling him not to do it, it didn't matter – he went ahead with it.

 

***

 

Sam could hear him. Sam knew he was there. With him. In his head. It didn't matter. Sam's head was a crowded place and Gabriel was competing for his attention with Lucifer and it didn't take long for the devil to catch on as well.

Gabriel wished he could reassure Sam that Lucifer was only a figment of his imagination, but what was he if not the same? What could one figment do when the other even acknowledged their presence? Nothing crushes your sense of self like talking to the echo of an archangel inside the head of a mortal when you're pretty sure you're in the same boat... maybe.

So he tried twisting the situation into something familiar, something all three knew – a prank war in the middle of a ghost hunt. Gabriel found that if he tugged at their connection just so, he could affect Lucifer. The downside was Lucifer could get him back.

Sam didn't acknowledge his presence with more than the occasional tired smile. He occasionally snapped at Lucifer. The ghost nearly got him.

And there were other things he wasn't going to touch for now. He'd done enough damage at the time for Sam to be grateful to be rid of him.

 

***

 

Finding Dean was a lot harder than Gabriel had anticipated. First of all, Castiel had shielded him. He’d done a very good job of it, too. No wonder Castiel was as week as he was – he had used most of his weakened Grace to shield Dean from any who would search for him through supernatural means. Except that Castiel had done too good a job, and shielded Dean from himself (and Gabriel, too). They had to look for him the old fashioned way, preferably without getting caught in the wrong fight.

Gabriel had decided to test Castiel’s protection as soon as he stopped laughing at his brother's dedication to protecting the hunter from everything including himself. It was kind of romantic, in a dark, twisted and obsessive sort of way – which was the old fashioned way, if you asked Gabriel. He’d send out Castiel to look for Dean every few hours, taking advantage of his grace and greater mobility. It turned nothing up.

Mostly, they just kept walking through the forest, hoping to find something. There was a lot of forest.

“Dungeon-forest!” Gabriel blurted at one point and chuckled to himself. He was expecting the usual look of confusion about anything Pop Culture from Castiel, but it earned him a knowing chuckle in return – Cas had gotten a taste for cartoons in the hospital.

He stopped making Castiel go off to find Dean when he realized that even if the shielding didn’t actually hide him from Castiel, Castiel was probably not even trying.

So far, they managed to dodge three Leviathan attacks though a combination of Castiel’s weakened Grace and Gabriel’s sense of self-preservation. Gabriel was usually the first to spot any danger. He’d pull Castiel out of sight with him and then Castiel would fly them a short distance out of the way. The Leviathan were amorphous and disoriented for the most part, but a few had held on to their human form and their ambitions of conquest.

Every time they had to flee, the exertion wore Castiel down and it was bad enough that it showed in the lines around his eyes and in the slump of his shoulders; and Gabriel wished he could fight them and get it over with when they’re spotted, or at least provide better cover and not have to run. It meant they needed to camp at the worse moments, for Castiel to recover. It meant Gabriel got to worry – something he has been doing a lot lately.

Gabriel could feel the tension, the constant blame and the ache of loneliness radiating off Castiel through their feeble bond. He wasn’t sure his grace was strong enough to attempt anything stronger, but he felt like his brother needed that, needed the reassurance that he wasn’t alone on a spiritual level, not just physical. It would help Gabriel catch a glimpse of what was going on inside that incredibly thick head of his, too. Maybe Gabriel needed some reassurance of Castiel’s presence on more than a physical level, as well.

Of course, he couldn’t tell him that. This was Gabriel, right? He’d already shown more concern for a fellow angel in… weeks? In weeks, than he had in millennia. It was also something very clingy to do and the last thing Gabriel wanted to be was clingy (holding on to the thread connecting him to a certain hunter until the very last possible minute not withstanding). So he framed it as something more self-serving. He wanted to see how much of his angel mojo he could use and he wanted Castiel to be his guinea pig.

Castiel was more likely to help with stuff relating to their survival if Gabriel put the focus on himself. Unfortunately, that wasn’t some new development, that was just Castiel’s default wiring. It was an angelic thing. Gabriel had always been bad at it.

At first, they only allowed themselves brief brushes of consciousness, only slightly deeper than the surface connection they had maintained since their reunion. It wasn’t what either of them needed yet, but they couldn’t afford to delve deeper with Leviathans to dodge. Still, there was something in there that was achingly familiar and not in the least angelic.

That night, Gabriel asked him what happened with Sam.

Castiel hadn’t told him much about the hospital or what had been going on with Sam before that. He just said that taking down the wall had left him exposed to scars from the Pit. Gabriel knew about the Pit, he didn’t need a recap of that.

“He was seeing things that were not there,” Castiel began. His brother nodded. Boy, did he know!

“I had been too dead to do anything about it sooner,” he explained, “and once I could, there wasn’t much for me to do. I took his scars onto myself and healed what I could. There is still much that is not human about Sam, but it should not be a danger to him.”

Gabriel was sure at least part of that non-human side of Sam was the thread linking them. The kid had been through so much supernatural shit, he wondered how much of the human was still left – even after being to Hell and back, buried under the surface of his shiny new human frame, Gabriel had felt the hints of things older and more powerful, his little shred of grace nestled among them.

Castiel explained how he dealt with the illusion of Lucifer after that – for it must have been an illusion, because his experience was based on the knowledge Sam had with the Devil, not on the millennia old being that he had known and expected. Put simply, he ignored Lucifer until he faded into the background – his little brother of the infinite patience, ha! “If there were a connection there to begin with,” he continued grimly, “all I did was block it. I doubt I could have closed it for good.”

This was what Gabriel was looking for. He could feel that the thread was still there, but it was increasingly obvious to him that it now went through Castiel – like a tangled string that had snagged on a branch, but still lead to its source. He could untangle it and maybe follow it out, maybe.

“Can I ask you something?” he asked later, when he was soothing a tense part of Castiel’s consciousness. There was a lot of guilt there, but there was nothing he could do about it until they found Dean – most of the things that were eating away at his brother seemed tied to the hunter.

Castiel didn't say anything, but he relaxed his hold on his thoughts a little, to let Gabriel know he was open to listen.

“How much of Sam's soul did you see back in the hospital?” He felt Castiel tense and caught a flash of memory – Sam was frayed, pieces billowing loose or held together by scar tissue and Castiel saw it the same moment as Gabriel. It was so thin and weak, barely a thread, threatening to snap at any moment from the pressure the archangel had placed on it in that moment of panic when there was nothing he could do for him from Purgatory.

Castiel swallowed uncomfortably, but didn't say anything. He had his own share of regrets and guilt to deal with, he wasn't going to stir up Gabriel's. He looked at the ground, hesitant for a moment before saying, “Is there any way I can help?”

Gabriel took in a deep breath. He hadn't doubted his brother for one second. Honestly, he hadn't. Of course he was going to offer help after seeing how broken Sam had almost ended and that it was partly because of his misguided attempt to help him. Neah, even Gabriel didn't believe that. It was more like they shared the blame for that last one and Castiel didn't really have room to judge, but that was a thought that Gabriel didn't want to entertain.

He let his breath out in a long sigh. Here goes everything. “I need to reach Sam. I need to get to him and he might be able to help us get out of here, especially if we have his brother.” He wasn't exactly sure how Sam could help from the outside, but the kid was good for research at least and there weren't a hell of a lot of sources in here for them to find out anything more than they already knew. He needed to make sure Sam was alright. He needed to see for himself that the damage wasn't permanent. He wanted to cling to the giant moose with all his might and forget about how he'd gotten himself in here for a little while, before the hunter gave him a proper chewing out (which even Gabriel had to admit he deserved). He...

“You need to use me to get to him,” Castiel concluded his own train of thought.

“I wouldn't put it exactly like that...” Gabriel protested, though that was exactly how he would put it if the situation were less serious. “And I need you to find Dean.” He didn't want to sound pleading, but that's how his voice sounded to his own ears. “You can. I know you can. Even if you keep him hidden from the Leviathan, there's plenty of other nasties here waiting to get their hands on him and I'm definitely not the only one who knows how much Purgatory hates the presence of a living mortal. They're either going to use him to get out, or worse and I don't even want to think about what happens to a human soul if they die in here.”

Castiel nodded. “I'll try.”

***

 

Gabriel had started taking naps whenever they stopped anywhere for long enough, clinging to Castiel's grace like a child to his favorite toy. The tangled mess that was his connection to Sam was slowly getting less tangled the more time he spent poking at it and pulling it from between the cracks and holes in Castiel's own self. There was something else there, too – another connection, a little stronger, but exposed and under even more strain than his. Gabriel was willing to bet what little grace he had left on who was at the other end of that thread, just as he was willing to bet that the two of them had placed it there without any outside intervention.

He didn't bring it up.

He was adapting based on the changes Castiel had absorbed from Sam when he'd 'fixed' him. On the way, he was soothing as much of Castiel's own damage as he could.

It wasn't really a surprise that Sam's thread tangled with Dean's. There were some places where they knotted, figuratively, and he was worried they'd break if he tried untangling them. He left them alone, but even so, for the first time since being cut off, Gabriel felt like there was room to breathe. He could reach out and know there was someone on the other end.

It took a while longer to get the connection right. He didn't want to blow it. He'd messed up once. He was taking it slow, setting the stage first – something neutral and familiar, though he wasn't sure how happy Sam would be about dreaming of crappy dinners and tasteless motel rooms – and nudging at his subconscious until it let him in.

The first time he'd made it through, Castiel shook him awake with a worried expression on his face. Gabriel's face was damp and he didn't even care he had been crying – Sam, despite his entire history with sharing headspace with other entities, had let Gabriel in!

 

***

 

It didn't surprise Gabriel that, when they finally found Dean, he was in the middle of a fight with a bunch of vampires. He was caked in blood and looking dangerous and feral. What did surprise him was that he was fighting side by side with a vampire and it looked like they’ve been doing that for a while.

There wasn't room for hellos at first, there was too much blood being spilled and vampires attacking blindly. Gabriel wondered if they were confident in the fact that there was no way they could get deader than they already were, or if they thought they have nothing else to lose. He wasn't sure how safe he and Castiel would be if they slipped up and allowed any of the monsters the upper hand, but they would still probably be better off than Dean. Probably, but not by much.

As for the hunter's new vampire friend, Gabriel was sure he'd bounce back from whatever Castiel did to him if he concluded he was a threat. Or if he allowed himself to act on rash impulses. Or...

With a sigh, Gabriel stepped between the three to prevent Castiel from doing something stupid.

“What's up with you, man?” Dean demanded. “I looked for you through this whole damn place and all you come up with is some sorry excuse about trying to protect me by abandoning me?”

Castiel was making a very poor effort at defending himself. Actually, he wasn't really making any effort at all, beyond the whole 'I was doing it to keep you safe' thing, that never actually worked on Dean Winchester.

“Easy there, Winchester,” Gabriel warned.

The look on Dean's face showed something finally clicked. “Didn't you die?”

“I'm here, aren't I?” Gabriel retorted. It wasn't as funny as he expected it would be.

The spirits did calm down, some.

It turned out that the vampire had a plan. Gabriel would have been really surprised if no one else had spotted the opportunity Dean's presence provided for escape. The vampire wasn't stupid and, what's more, he'd even won Dean's protection, if not his loyalty, which meant they probably couldn't leave him behind if they got out.

The vampire had a surprising amount of sense (you know, for a dead-undead bloodsucker) and Gabriel found himself taking his side repeatedly in the following days. The two brought a reasonably sound plan to the table – they had a better idea of where to look for the elusive portal, since their interrogation methods seemed more suitable to this place – but something didn't sit well with Gabriel. While Dean could probably pass unscathed and he seemed to have worked out what to do with his vampire buddy, Gabriel was beginning to doubt it would work for him. Cas? Sure. The guy had come back from being exploded. He hadn't technically died this time, so it pretty much made sense that this was going to work for him. Gabriel felt like he'd lost most of his luck before he stood up to Lucifer. (Serves him right for toying with the heart of more than one deity of fortune).

They needed a backup plan and Gabriel knew he'd have to tell Dean about his connection with Sam, especially since he was going to realize something was going on when Gabriel

Dean didn't take the improved version of his brother's stay in the hospital very well.