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Into the Mystic

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***

"Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm. For love is as strong as death, its jealousy as enduring as the grave.
Love flashes like fire, the brightest kind of flame."
—Song of Solomon 8:6


Prologue

The sword froze an inch above Dean's head, so close Dean felt the cold radiate off the metal. For a second, his vision filled with the blur of gold and swirling white robes, then the angel stilled.

"You didn't flinch," he said.

"What?" Dean croaked. He couldn't breathe, the muscles in his body pulled tight enough he thought they'd snap at any second. Forget about flinching. He was surprised he hadn't wet his pants.

Wings settling elegantly against his back, the angel lowered his sword. "You didn't flinch," he repeated, pronouncing the words patiently.

Dean swallowed. "Is that good?"

"It's a start." With that, the angel withdrew his arm and sheathed his sword in a scabbard he'd slung over his back. His blazing aura dimmed to a less spectacular patina, so Dean could see his face. Dean let out a furtive breath, resisting the urge to run a hand over his eyes.

With his hawk nose and sweeping brows, the gatekeeper could have passed for an ordinary guy had it not been for his copper-and-gold eyes. Eyes which, for the moment, watched Dean as if he waited for a cue. Problem was, Dean had no idea what a situation like this required in terms of protocol.

At length, the angel sighed. He folded his hands and when he opened them again, a wooden cup nestled in his palms.

"Here."

When Dean hesitated, the angel held the cup up to his face. "It's customary to offer the traveler a drink of water between the desert and the fire."

"The fire?" Dean asked. His stomach twisted nervously but he took the cup and lifted it to his mouth. Better to play along.

Dean swallowed the lukewarm water and thought of his mother's kitchen, the cold film on the glass she'd set out for him. The ghost of her hand seemed to brush his cheek, and Dean's heart contracted with a longing he'd never truly lose.

"The purifying fire souls must pass through if they don't have a clean conscience," the gatekeeper explained. He cocked his head. "How's your conscience today?"

"Uhm." Dean cleared his throat and stalled for time by taking another drink. "Average?"

The gatekeeper's mouth twitched. "You're alive aren't you?" he asked. When Dean didn't answer, he added, "Lover, brother, or father?"

He said it casually but Dean nearly dropped the cup. "What?" he choked.

The angel shrugged. "It's usually the only reason why the living come here. To see a beloved deceased one more time or to tell them something they failed to say when the person was still around."

Dean tightened his fist around the cup, not sure how to respond.

Waiting for his reply, the angel raised his brows. "So?"

Dean bit his lip. Telling the gatekeeper to mind his own beeswax probably wasn't a good strategy. "I'm looking for a friend," he said, settling for the bottom line and hoping he would not have to explain further.

The angel made a 'hmm' sound as if he turned Dean's answer over in his head. Something flickered over his face, a mask of light and color, giving him for a second the appearance of a beast of prey, a lion, maybe. Finally, he nodded. "Very well. Follow me."

Dean took one last look at the desert behind his back, the flat earth glowing carmine red under the setting sun. He saw no trace of the house where his mother had waited for him in the mountain valley. Tucking the image of Mary safely away in his memory, Dean joined the angel by the gate.

"If you're alive, you're not due for the fires yet," the gatekeeper said. "I assume you'll want to return to your body after you talked to your friend?"

Dean weighed his next words carefully, but something told him it wouldn't be a good idea to lie to this guy. "I'm not here to talk to him," he said. "I'm going to bring him back with me."

To this, the gatekeeper said nothing. His eyes narrowed though, the gold irises flaring so sharply Dean almost did flinch. Before he could help it, his gaze slipped to the pommel of the sword that showed above the gatekeeper's shoulder.

"That is rare," the gatekeeper commented. His voice was so neutral Dean couldn't tell at all if he disapproved or if he was only surprised. In the end, though, he pulled two keys from his robes, one gold and one silver, and Dean's stomach flipped with anticipation.

"There are rules you have to follow," the gatekeeper said as he fit the first key into the lock. Dean watched the angel's hands on the key, struggling to concentrate over the boom of his own heart. What if the keys didn't turn and the gate remained locked, what then? The angel's first question echoed in his head.

Are you deserving?

He'd call himself a great many things. 'Deserving' wasn't one of them.

"You must exit by the door you've entered through," the angel told him. "This is crucial. You must draw the key sigil in your blood." At this, the angel drew a glowing symbol in the air which disappeared so fast Dean struggled to memorize it.

"You must speak the words that request passage," the angel continued and recited a short summons in Enochian. This, too, he said fast and only once. Dean repeated the spell two times in his head and hoped it would stick.

Standing by the angel's shoulder, Dean could see through the bars of the iron gate and the view on the other side made him shiver. The gateway stood on a precipice, and the world clean ended beyond the threshold; the ground broke off and there was nothing but sky from here on out.

It was like standing at the open door of a flying plane. Not like Dean had ever done that.

"Remember," the angel said and inserted the keys into two identical locks in the gate. "Use the same door for going in and going out. The Balance depends on it."

Dean wanted to ask what he meant by that but got distracted by the angel's long fingers closing around the first key. The key turned and an audible click sounded from the lock. "Have you understood these rules?" the angel asked.

Pulse hammering against the side of his throat, Dean stared at the sheer drop behind the gate's threshold. What was he supposed to do? Grow wings? But not only did he nod and say 'yes', he also drew closer.

The gatekeeper turned the silver key, and the lock clacked a second time before the gate swung open. Wind blew through the gateway and swept over Dean's face, carrying the scent of mountains, of snow and a wide sky.

There was something so familiar in that scent it made Dean's heart beat a little slower. He recalled, briefly, what Marco had said to him in the desert.

We all know that you can reach him.

With a faint rustle of wings and robes, the angel stepped aside and held the gate open for him. Again, his expression flickered, his face shifting from human to animal and back again. "You may enter."

Breathing deeply, Dean stepped up and set the tip of his boot on the threshold.

"You realize that no one who tried this has ever succeeded, not even in the old days?" the gatekeeper asked.

"There's a first time for everything," Dean muttered and handed back the now empty cup. "Thanks for the water."

Dean shut his eyes when he passed through the gate, part of him still expecting to arrive in a fiery pit. For a second, he had the weird impression of stepping out into thin air, then his foot set down on soft grass and the evening song of birds swelled around him.

 

 



I


The Garden

On the summit of Mt. Purgatory, the sky stretched like a powder-blue sheet over a wide lawn that hadn't been mowed in a while. There were no flowerbeds, no hedges, no landmarks except for an alley of sycamore trees and a pale path disappearing into their shadow.

So. God had modeled Purgatory after a country issue of Fine Gardening. Good to know.

Dean stood ankle-deep in grass and dark red poppies, a soft breeze tugging at his clothes. The air smelled fresh, and the only sounds came from the rustling of trees and the drumming of a woodpecker. Dean looked around, half-expecting to spot a dainty damsel or two plucking flowers, but no dice. He sucked his lower lip in between his teeth and turned around, gaze passing over the empty meadow.

Dean took in his surroundings for a long moment before he stretched, easing the tension from his shoulders. He noticed that he no longer carried the aches and pains he'd gained in his time in the desert, and he'd also lost the knife Marco had given him. It seemed like passing through the gate meant an automatic reset. But, now what?

With a pang, Dean realized he had no idea where he should look for Cas. He'd been so focused on gaining access to Purgatory, he hadn't even thought to research how the whole soul-to-grace communication was supposed to work on this plane. He'd assumed the way to Cas would be obvious, that it would stretch out ahead of him like the yellow brick road.

Looking back, Dean couldn't believe his massive stupidity. What had he expected? A neon arrow pointing in the right direction?

The connection between you burns so bright, Missouri had said. Her observation still made Dean – not uncomfortable, exactly, but it did weird him out a little. He couldn't get used to the idea that he and Cas were joined somehow, and god, even that word made him humph and fidget.

I've never seen the likes of it before.

He just didn't think he was made to be part of something like that.

Right now he had to get a grip though. After all, he didn't need to define the connection he just had to use it. Somehow.

Maybe he needed to initiate contact.

"Profound bond, go," Dean muttered and felt the heat rise in his cheeks. He touched the handprint on his shoulder, a gesture that still felt awkward, and tried to send out his thoughts like he had on the train in Kansas.

Cas.

Shutting up the inner voice that called him a moron for even attempting this, Dean breathed out, closed his eyes, and tried again.

Cas. Can you hear me?

No answer.

With a sinking heart, Dean lowered his hand – but who was he kidding, the lack of response didn't surprise him. Perhaps Missouri had been wrong, and the link he and Cas had shared lasted only long enough for Dean to throw his best friend into Purgatory.

It would figure.

Dean scrubbed a hand over his face and slammed a lid on the disappointment that crept up into its accustomed places. No despairing now; he had to believe he could still fix this. He couldn't worry about the leagues of uncharted Purgatory ahead of him, couldn't acknowledge the possibility that Cas might not answer because he was gone, the scraps that had been left of his grace torn apart in the downrush of exorcised souls.

Dean thought of Cas's empty body stretched out on a scorched field and then banished that memory, too. He set out for the sycamore trees because, hell, he had to start somewhere.

Despite Dean's good intentions, though, the impossibility of his task settled like lead in his stomach, and the closer he came to the trees the worse he felt. A sense of unease niggled at the back of his brain, reminding Dean of mornings when he'd left Lisa's house and couldn't remember if he turned off the stove. When the clench of his gut wound tight enough to hurt, he stopped and rubbed a hand over the hard muscles, confused. He'd come within spitting distance of the first tree but instead of moving on to the path, Dean frowned and looked back over his shoulder.

As soon as he turned around, the knot in his stomach eased and the breeze purled around him like a current.

"That way, huh?" Dean said. He took an experimental step and a surge of rightness welled in his chest. Another step and a spark of warmth settled deep in his shoulder, right under Cas's seal.

Dean's hand flew up to that spot, fingertips blindly tracing the scar under his sleeve.

"Okay," Dean huffed, and he almost laughed, because, damn, who needed a neon sign. This was way better and for a second there, Dean didn't even freak out. He just felt relieved.


***

On top of Mt. Purgatory awaits the Garden, beautiful Eden, a place before sin and doubt.

And maybe it is that, a miracle land with fried chicken flying round your head and grapes growing into your mouth but the gateway to the Garden?

Not as grand as it was cracked up to be.

Picture a parking lot in front of a post-apocalyptic Seaworld, a wide swath of sheer rock and a gray wall hiding the no doubt Elysian landscape behind. Add to that the actual entrance, a row of turnstiles hemmed in by empty ticket booths.

Not grand at all but jeeze, that place hauled in the masses.

The crowds at the edge of the Garden never dispersed. Day in and day out, hundreds of people pressed up against the wall, cluttered the square in front of the entrance, in the hope that today they'd be among the lucky few to slip through the gates, to walk onto the fabled grass which had to be oh-so-much-greener on the other side.

Never mind that the entrance had been closed for a decade or two.

People said there'd been angels once, fierce and glorious Regulators manning the booths, but they'd packed up and left long ago. Better things to do – and who could blame them?

Still. Once people – pardon – souls, reached the top of the mountain, they stayed, watching this last hurdle before Paradise with glassy eyes and vacant faces. Like their brains, or what passed for brains in here, couldn't grasp that after everything they went through, all that holy purifyin', clambering up the mountain terraces with stones of penitence on their backs, they'd wash up in a dead-end. No redemption, no lawn-chairs for the wicked.

Pathetic? Definitely. But compared to the critters that slithered around at the foot of the mountain, these waiting masses were almost easy on the eye. Like cows, maybe.

They were so transfixed on the glimpses of the Garden beyond the turnstiles, they didn't even react when something finally moved on the far side of the entrance.

No, not something. Someone. A single person, striding up to the checkpoint.

That person hesitated in the face of the crowd but they didn't stir, not even when he climbed over one of the turnstiles. Not an angel, so maybe that's why they didn't bother.

Just a soul, wearing a scuffed t-shirt and washed-out jeans, his John Wayne don't-fuck-with-me frown recognizable even from the distance…but it couldn't be.

Could it?

People didn't stop him, not even to tell him he was going in the wrong direction, but they didn't make room for him either. Dean Winchester pushed his way through the throngs of stumped pilgrims, squeezing past rigid shoulders and uncaring bodies. He headed for the back of the gathering, the place where a road plunged down the mountainside.

The gaps Dean opened closed again behind him, souls moving up and waiting elbow against elbow, not sparing Dean an extra glance.

All except one.

One watcher, who'd only come here for a bit of distraction really, separated from the crowd. He followed Dean to the road, making sure to leave enough distance so he wouldn't be spotted.

 


II


The Sea

The road down the mountain was packed, human souls milling up the slope in droves. When he first exited the Garden, Dean had been daunted by the wall of gray faces, expecting some kind of trouble or resistance. Instead, they ignored him.

Dean knew he should be grateful, never look a gift horse in the mouth, but their passivity made his heart turn over in his chest. With their dragging steps and silent procession, these people reminded him of refugees, hollow-eyed and emaciated. They all had ashes in their hair and on their skin, dry white flakes crusting their cheeks and clinging to their lashes. The ash was in the wind too, tumbling over the crowd like snow.

He'd come a good way down the mountain when the train of pilgrims finally thinned out, leaving only a few stragglers lurching after the bulk. Dean felt bad for it, but once he left the crowds behind he could breathe easier.

The road wound down the mountain in looping serpentines, a ragged rock-face on one side and a sheer drop on the other. Dean kept a weather eye on the road's edge but he couldn't help admiring the view. It was like easing his baby along the Pacific Coast highway. The top half of the mountain looked out at a craggy mainland, hills of stone and pale earth rolling away from the sea.

Mt. Purgatory seemed to be the furthest peak of a peninsula, its slopes plunging into the ocean. Following bend after bend in the road, Dean looked down at the coastline, the vast blue sea and flocks of sea-gulls, winking in and out of sight like mirages.

The lower Dean descended, the better he could smell the sea, breathing in the salt-and-brine tang that mixed with a trace of smoke in the air. The latter Dean tried to ignore, but the acrid stench of burnt hair and skin was all too familiar.

Dean had read Dante, brushing up on the classics when Crowley had revealed his game plan. Bobby owned two illustrated editions of The Divine Comedy, and Dean remembered engravings of the different terraces on Mt. Purgatory, seven levels for the seven deadly sins, each equipped with its own theme park of punishment. The envious had their eyes sewn shut; the lustful were trapped in a wall of flame, etcetera etcetera. Dante sold these trials as purification, but Dean called them torture, and he'd received and dished out enough of the latter to know it didn't cleanse people. It broke them.

If Dante's circles of holy suffering existed, however, they had to be located on the far side of the mountain. Or perhaps they hid on the inside, tucked away in caves and riddling the mountain like tree-rot.

Good thing Dean's newly developed gut-feeling led him away from the smell of burning flesh instead of closer. By the time the air cleared, Dean even dared to believe that Cas hadn't fallen into the purifying fires, that he'd ended up somewhere less hostile.

As Dean headed to the foot of the mountain, the handprint on his shoulder radiated a low, steady warmth. Despite the emptiness that surrounded him and the eerie silence that cloaked the mountain, Dean had to clench his teeth to keep from smiling. For the first time in his life he'd received a palpable sign that he was on the right track, and the confirmation made his heart beat a little faster, hope flickering in his chest like a storm lantern.

Before long, the road narrowed into a footpath and thorny bushes dotted the slope. Dean cast one last look up the mountain but the shadows of the heights hid the garden from view.


***

By the time Dean left the mountain, a fine white mist crept in from the sea. The light dimmed, maybe because of the fog, maybe because the days faded in Purgatory too, Dean didn't know. Temperatures dropped, and Dean covered Cas's seal with his palm, protecting the guide-warmth by instinct.

When the footpath trailed off into rough terrain, Dean used the ebb and flow of heat in his shoulder as a compass, navigating the ridge that connected the mountain to the mainland and climbing down over slabs of rock. Looking down, he spotted a crescent bay, the waterline already obscured by a blanket of mist.

Seemed like he'd be finding himself at sea level soon.

Lowering his body down a fringe of rock, Dean was feeling for a foothold with his toes when he heard the sound of shifting gravel above his head and a handful of smaller stones trickled down the slope.

Dean whipped around, gaze flying up, but no one showed on the ridge. He was still the only traveler. He waited another second, then continued his descent.


***

One Christmas Eve when Dean was eight, he'd watched The Last Unicorn, that weird cartoon movie with its somber colors and scary creatures. He remembered sitting on the couch, Sammy tucked close to his side and clutching at Dean's sweater. The red bull had scared them something fierce, although Dean had done his best to hide it. To this day he recalled the scene with the demon bull, lumbering over a gray beach like a thing risen from the dead and herding the unicorns into the waves.

Standing on the shore of Purgatory, Dean felt the same awe and sneaking terror he'd experienced while watching that movie. With the dark salt meadows to his left and the desolate coast stretching into infinity ahead of him, he couldn't shake the impression that he'd come to the fringe of existence.

By the time he reached the sea, the fog had thickened and wavered in dense slabs above the water. The sky had gone from pale blue to white, and it seemed to hang lower, blending with the mist. Dean heard the waves roll out on the ocean but saw no further than the tide line and the sea foam lapping on the hard-packed sand.

Checking back over his shoulder, Dean discovered that the fog had swallowed the mountain, erasing the way back as though it had never existed. Not a good thought.

Shivering, Dean set out along the shore and tried not to feel small as the landscape dissolved in white shade around him. Childhood fears skittered over his skin, and he imagined creatures watching from the murk, waiting to steer him into the surf.

Searching the fog for landmarks, Dean focused so hard on the way ahead that it took him a while to realize the warmth in his shoulder was growing weaker. By the time he noticed, the spark he'd carried had all but faded. Heart jumping to his throat, Dean stopped and clutched at his sleeve.

"Hey, hey," he blurted, as if the seal could hear him. "No, don't you dare."

To his dismay, though, the warmth dimmed further and for a second it was like Cas slipping through his hands all over again. Throat squeezing tight with panic, Dean grabbed his own shoulder, pressing the ghost of the exorcism he'd written on his palm against Cas's handprint.

"Cas, come on," Dean pleaded, willing the link to keep on working. One more second of holding his breath, then the heat rekindled and bled through Dean's sleeve into his fingertips.

Dean let out a sigh. "That's it," he muttered, and maybe Cas did hear him, who knew. "That's it, man. You hold on tight there."

Slowly, Dean moved his hand to the hollow of his neck and rolled his shoulder, loosening the muscles that had clamped tight with fear.

Maybe the connection only worked if he held up his end. Vowing to concentrate better, Dean kneaded his fingers into his neck, lowered his head, and noticed that the tide had climbed far enough up the shore to wash over his boots. Startled, he took a step back.

Was it his imagination or did the sea rush after him, trying to reclaim his feet?

He fell back another inch and frowned at the curling water. He heard the surge retreat from the beach and the shell-shards rustle in its wake. The ocean heaved behind the veil of fog but there was also something else, wasn't there? A slapping, slurping sound, as though something heavy rose from the water and flopped down again. Maybe Dean's eyes were playing tricks on him but a section of the fog seemed to grow darker, like a bruise.

A bruise that moved.

Hand frozen on his neck, Dean squinted into the fog and searched for the source of the noise even though a big part of him had no desire to see what was out there, thank you very much.

He was still tensing for a threat from the sea when a blow to the back of his head knocked him out cold.

 


III


The Salt Meadows

Dean woke to the sound of the sea, the distant swell of waves, and the much closer, rhythmic noise of metal grinding over stone. He opened his eyes, pried his salt-crusted lashes apart, and blinked at the grass in front of his nose.

He lay on his side, cheek pressed against a damp cushion of grass and heather. For a second he couldn't make sense of his surroundings, then he remembered the explosion of pain in his head. He stiffened, tried to get up, and noticed that his hands were tied at the wrists.

Caught, Dean thought, and a chill ran down his spine. But by who…?

"Good morning, sunshine," someone said behind his back, and Dean's stomach didn't only turn to water, it collapsed. That voice. No, it couldn't be. No one had that much bad luck.

No one except him, obviously.

Clenching his bound hands, Dean turned around.

Gordon Walker sat on a low wall, his arms crossed on his knees and a knife in his hand. He still wore the denim shirt Dean had last seen him in, sleeves rolled up to his elbows. In fact, Gordon looked exactly like Dean remembered, with the minor difference of his head being reattached to his neck.

"You've got to be kidding me," Dean muttered and dropped on his back.

Gordon laughed, a deep, delighted sound that rolled up from his belly. He noticed Dean frowning and grinned wider, revealing the rows of sharp teeth in his mouth.

"I'll be damned," he drawled. "Dean Winchester in the – well. Not 'in the flesh', but you catch my drift, huh?" Still smiling, Gordon leaned back on the wall. "Whatever could have brought you here?"

Dean clamped his mouth shut, trying to measure the depth of trouble he was in. Gordon had been a crazy son of a bitch in life and something told Dean death hadn't mellowed his spirit. Not for the first time Dean wished he'd followed Ellen's advice and walked the other way when they first met Gordon.

Or maybe Dean just should have shot him.

Dean tried to rotate his wrists but Gordon had tied him up good, two sets of leather-straps digging into his skin. Squinting down his front, Dean saw his clothes were caked with sand, and he felt the pull of dried salt on his face. He must've dropped into the shallows when Gordon knocked him out. Awesome.

Rubbing at his gritty face, Dean was aware of Gordon watching him but refused to meet his eye.

"Didn't expect to see me here?" Gordon asked.

"Didn't expect to see you anywhere," Dean shot back, and Gordon chuckled again.

"What can I say? Your little brother chopped off my gourd, and I woke up here. Welcome to Freak Nirvana."

"No less than you deserved," Dean muttered and sat up. Nausea welled in his stomach, and the back of his head gave a dull throb.

"Yeah, I agree with you there," Gordon allowed. "Seems like there is a higher justice. Who would've thought."

Dean gave a derisive snort and took his first good look around.

Gordon had lugged him into the ruin of a house, a square of crumbled walls overlooking the beach. Seagrass choked the remaining stones and smothered a window-frame that had dropped to the ground. Only the house's door had weathered the decay: wood cracked and peeling, the door still hung to its frame by one hinge.

From Dean's angle, it looked like an entry to the sky.

Down on the beach, the fog rocked gently with the surf, and the motion made Dean seasick. It was either that, or Gordon's blow had left Dean's astral body with a concussion.

Could've been worse, Dean thought, and fought the nervous flutter in his stomach. Gordon could've ripped his throat out and then where would he be? He hawked up salty spit when the grinding sound started up again.

Turning his head, Dean saw Gordon had gone back to sharpening his knife. He ran the blade slowly across a whetting stone, giving Dean a generous view of the knife's sickle-curve. A good weapon for flaying skin, that. Dean tensed, pulled his legs closer and prepared to rush up to his feet.

"Relax," Gordon said, his eyes never leaving the blade. "If I wanted to eat you, you'd be bled dry already."

He tested the knife's edge with his thumb, pricked his skin, and licked up a drop of his own blood.

"You can do that down here, did you know that?" Gordon went on. "Drink people until they drop; they only get up again. One of the crooks of dealing with dead folk, you know? You can't kill them, you can only make them suffer. Speaking of which," he paused, smiling. "How's the head?"

"Super," Dean muttered and changed his position so he could face Gordon. As he shifted around, he checked the ground for shards from the broken window frame. Spotting a few pieces of glass, Dean waited for Gordon to look away before he scooped up a shard and hid it in his fist. He leaned against the rubble of an ex-wall and felt the glass dig into his skin, hoping the edge was still sharp enough to cut his ties. He also considered ramming the shard into Gordon's throat, giving him a taste of the pain Gordon seemed so eager to pass around.

Just come a bit closer, Dean thought. "So," he said and held up his bound hands. "Does this get your kink on? I didn't know you were that sweet on me, man."

He'd hoped his taunt would tempt Gordon to use his knife after all but Gordon didn't take the bait. He just pocketed his whetstone and tilted his head, raking his gaze over Dean's face until Dean felt more uncomfortable than he'd thought possible.

"What?" Dean demanded, and he shifted the shard in his palm.

"I'm just curious about why you're here," Gordon mused. "Seeing as you're not dead."

"Who says I'm not?" Dean challenged, but he didn't like the glint in Gordon's eyes. How much did he know? And who told him?

"I do." Gordon shrugged. "The deceased, their souls have a smell. It's hard to give a name to, but I guess it's like—"

"Rot?" Dean suggested.

"More like resignation," Gordon said, and he pointed at Dean with his sickle-knife. "You, on the other hand, reek of mission." He lowered the blade and sucked at his teeth, a pensive and entirely creepy gesture. "Something tells me you came here for something. Or someone?"

Dean opened his mouth for a smart-ass reply, because the last thing he wanted was Gordon finding out about Cas. The retort died on his tongue though, because the second he thought about Cas he was struck by the absence of warmth in his shoulder.

Gordon kept on talking but his voice faded to a warble in Dean's ears. How had he not noticed right away? He'd been awake for minutes, and he hadn't even thought to check...No, stop. Focus.

Forcing out a shaky breath, he brought his bound hands as close to his shoulder as possible.

Cas?

Chest rising and falling, Dean waited for the warmth to rekindle, acutely aware now of his wet sleeve and the chilled skin underneath. He waited even when it became clear nothing would happen and the cold from his shoulder spread through the rest of his body.

He'd lost the link. He'd allowed Gordon to get the drop on him, to lay him out flat, and now the one thread that had connected him to Cas had snapped.

Dean swallowed, and his heart kicked in his chest. He needed to find Cas's trace again, go back to the beach where he'd last felt it. Goddamn, he might still recover the trail. It couldn't be too late, he just needed to hurry.

Overcome by the urge to get moving, he wanted to jump to his feet, but suddenly Gordon was right in front of him, his face close up against Dean's. Startled, Dean jerked away, but Gordon hooked his sickle-knife around his neck and enfolded Dean's hands in one fist.

"Tsk, tsk," Gordon tutted and squeezed Dean's palms together. Dean gasped as the hidden shard cut into his flesh.

"It's Sam isn't it?" Gordon murmured. "He turned into a monster just like I said." He removed the sickle from around Dean's neck only to put the curved blade under Dean's chin. "Did you at least have the guts to kill him then?"

"Screw you," Dean gritted out, and the knife scraped against his skin.

"I didn't think so," Gordon said. "Someone did the right thing though. Otherwise you wouldn't be here." Leaning in, he tightened his grip on Dean's hands, and Dean clenched his teeth to keep from crying out. Blood dripped from his trapped hands and dropped onto his jeans.

Damn, he couldn't think through the white-hot pain cracking his skin. Sam? Gordon thought he was looking for Sam?

"You're here for him," Gordon stated. "You're here to get your freak of a brother. How many people did he kill when he turned Dark Side? And now you want to spring him on the world again?" A frown pulling at his face, Gordon narrowed his red eyes at Dean. "What kind of sicko are you anyway?"

"Look who's talking," Dean managed and Gordon switched on his Hannibal Lecter smile.

"Good point," he admitted and punched out Dean's lights again.


***

When Dean came to the second time, his left eye and jaw ached along with his head. He licked his lips, the tip of his tongue running over a split in his mouth.

How did all of this turn into a mess so quickly?

Gordon was still there, fixing a rope around Dean's wrists on top of the leather cuffs. Dean shrunk back by instinct but Gordon yanked his hands close and pulled the knot of the rope tight. Dean winced when his shredded palms rubbed against each other. He must've dropped the shard at some point.

"What I don't get," Gordon said, continuing their conversation as if they'd never stopped, "is why you came into Purgatory through the Garden."

"I like daisies," Dean deadpanned by default, forcing up the words through the haze of pain that clogged his brain.

Gordon ignored him. "People don't enter through the Garden," he went on. "They leave through it. Definitely the wrong place to look for a new arrival." Checking his knots again, Gordon stood and held the long end of the rope like a leash.

"What the hell are you talking about?" Dean asked. He managed to breathe through the ache of his cut hands and swollen face, but the emptiness that had replaced his awareness of Cas turned his stomach, made him feel even more queasy than before. When he moved to get to his feet, his head spun, and he sunk back against the broken wall.

Escape Gordon, find Cas without a lead...he had no idea how he would manage any of it.

Cas, I'm sorry, Dean thought. You should have someone better to come after you.

How could he ever have thought he'd be enough?

Why he even tried to get up, Dean didn't know, but he set his teeth against the vertigo and raised himself on his elbow. Curling his hands on the rubble, he recalled something Cas had said to him a lifetime ago.

I need your help because you're the only one who will help me.

Dean made a sound halfway between a grunt and a sob and pushed up on his knees.

To his surprise, Gordon grabbed his arm and helped him to his feet. "If you want to find someone in Purgatory, you go to the hole in the ground," he said and clasped Dean's shoulder.

Dean froze, perplexed. "What?"

"The hole in the ground," Gordon repeated. "Everybody enters there, monsters, human sinners, scientologists. Heck, they even have a registry office assigning each newcomer a place to go when—"

Dean didn't wait for him to finish. He knocked off Gordon's hand and jammed his elbow into the man's collarbone, hard enough to crack bone. Gordon reacted lightning fast though, evaded Dean's second punch and yanked him close by the rope. Before Dean could counter, Gordon had his hand around Dean's throat and his thumb digging into the soft hollow beneath Dean's jaw.

"Let me go you son of a b—" Dean began, but Gordon cut him off.

"What did I say about insulting my momma?" he said, pulling back his upper lip as his teeth grew another inch. Once again, Dean tensed for the killer strike, but Gordon didn't bite and what the hell did he want anyway?

Dean strained against Gordon's grip and almost jumped out of his skin when Gordon framed his face in both hands.

"I'm going to do you a favor," Gordon said, close enough Dean saw the red veins webbing his retinas. "I'm going to help you find your brother. And when we do, we'll see how Sammy likes wearing a wire collar."


***

Using the rope for a harness, Gordon dragged Dean across the salt meadows, up into the hills, past shallow lakes and piled rocks. Driven by his blind vendetta, Gordon kept droning on about justice, about Sam reaping what he'd sowed. Dean thought about Sam jumping into Hell to save the world and itched to bash Gordon's head in with a stone. Instead, he clung to the knowledge that Sam was alive and safe with grim satisfaction.

It soon became clear Gordon had no idea what had happened after he'd died. He didn't even know about Sam's demon blood; he just assumed Sam had turned into a monster and some good Samaritan had seen fit to dispatch him. Just the way Gordon had predicted, by the way, and yeah, he wasn't above the old 'I told you so'.

Dean didn't burst Gordon's bubble. He let him look forward to a payoff with Sam. It gave Dean room to keep an eye out for the person he really wanted to find.

They even have a registry office assigning each newcomer a place.

If that was true, then there was a place where Dean could ask for directions, and Gordon was leading him to it.

The anticipation he'd carried down the mountain had flickered out when the warmth had died from his shoulder. Dean didn't fool himself – his situation was about as hopeless as it could get, and if it had been only his life at stake he might have provoked Gordon until he ripped Dean's manifested soul apart, speeding up the ending Gordon no doubt had in mind. This was about the life of a friend, though, and yes: if he didn't help Cas, no one else would.

No kamikaze stunts. He had to be smart about this.

The fear that not just the connection but Cas himself had stopped existing was never far from his mind, but Dean slammed an iron gate on his doubts and kept moving. His head had cleared throughout the walk, and the pain of his injuries had dulled to a manageable throb. All the while he rubbed his wrists in circles, using his own blood as lubrication to soften the leather straps.

He wouldn't give up. He'd cut off Gordon's head a second time, he'd hamstring every critter between him and the Purgatorian Yellow Pages, but he would find Cas.

If he had to scour every inch of Purgatory, he would find Cas.

 


IV


Hole in the Ground

Whoever named the entry to Purgatory 'hole in the ground' had a special sense of humor.

Standing at the edge of a birch grove, Dean looked down at a crater that could've housed the state of New York. The circular walls identified the valley as an extinct volcano but if this place had ever seen action, it had been a long time ago. Forests grew down the slopes and meadows covered the clearings.

Way down on the valley floor, Dean spotted a cluster of square buildings made from the same stone as the volcano. A single column of white smoke rose up from the settlement.

"What is this?" Dean asked, confounded by the pastoral scenery. When Gordon had told him about an entrance to Purgatory, Dean had expected – he didn't know. Mordor, maybe.

"Homestead of the furies, shades, and larvae," Gordon answered and, seeing Dean's expression, added: "Monster Town."

"You're joking."

Gordon shrugged. "The view isn't much but the real estate is dream cheap."

Dean pulled a face and winced when a new stab of pain flashed up from his jaw. "Hate to tell you, Gordo. You're not funnier because you're dead."

Gordon chuckled. "Yeah, I guess not. Keep walking."

They picked their way down the nearest slope, Dean stumbling every so often because he couldn't use his arms for balance. "So how come you're sticking it out in the boonies?" Dean asked, partly because he was curious, mainly because he wanted to get as much information out of Gordon as possible. "Why don't you pilgrim up to the Garden and apply for redemption?"

"Redemption is for human souls," Gordon said without turning. "I'm not human."

"But you were once."

"Doesn't matter. My soul soured the second I turned." At this he stopped and turned, waiting for Dean to scramble over a hump of frozen lava. "Once you got monster in your blood there's no turning back. You knew that the first time we met."

Yeah, Dean thought. That was before my brother became Lucifer's vessel and my best friend turned himself into a god.

Dean himself had been un-fanged by Samuel's magic potion. He wondered what Gordon would have to say about that.

Dean slipped off the hardened lava rock, missed a step and tumbled forward. Gordon caught him by the shoulder, stopped his fall, and fixed him with a stare that made Dean's skin crawl.

"No shades of gray, remember?" Gordon asked.

"Yeah," Dean rasped. "It's time you widened your horizon, asshole."

Gordon's expression didn't change, and the hardness of his face was as uncanny as his fangs, if not more so. "No," he said. "It really isn't."


***

Gordon hauled Dean into town and navigated the dusty alleys with the air of a local. Dean followed without protest, even though he was burning for a chance to shake off Gordon by now. He had to remind himself to be patient; they hadn't reached the registry yet. Once Gordon found out Sam never crossed the threshold to Purgatory, his confusion might be the kind of distraction Dean needed.

It soon became clear that Monster Town deserved Gordon's nickname. The settlement was larger than it had looked from above, flat one-story houses crouching in the shadow of tall shrubs and blending with the natural rocks that protruded from the ground like teeth. People moved in and out of the dwellings, occupied with surprisingly mundane tasks, carrying firewood or mending roofs.

A lot of them could have passed as human, the features that marked them as different being discreet enough to fool the casual observer. Dean registered their pointed teeth, though, the slitted eyes and flesh-colored scales. One guy licked his lips with a forked tongue, another walked with his knees bending backward.

Following the tug of Gordon's leash, Dean felt uncomfortably exposed. He tried to think of a past situation where he'd come up against similar odds and failed.

Maybe walking into the lion's den with his hands tied in front of him hadn't been such a hot idea after all.

Steering them toward a square that seemed to be the town's center, Gordon pulled Dean closer.

"I know you're jonseing to take another swing at me," Gordon told Dean in a casual tone. "But take my advice, Dean, and don't. Down here you're the pizza delivery and most of the townsfolk won't share my restraint."

Dean caught the hungry stares from the monster souls they were passing and had no trouble believing it. More than ever he wished they would reach their destination already. Gordon might land a couple more punches when Dean made his move but Dean wouldn't mind a fight, regardless of his chances. Accepting Gordon's upper hand for so long chafed at him like sandpaper.

Patience, Dean repeated. Wait for the right moment.

"You know I'll beat the crap out of you," Dean murmured, and Gordon nodded, eyes scanning the souls that moved about the square or stood together in groups.

"I know you'll try."

You keep on knowing that, Dean thought grimly and pressed his wrists out against the leather straps. His ties allowed him a lot more room to move than they had when they first set out.

Dean followed Gordon into the open space, trying to take in as much of his surroundings as possible. Monsters of all shapes and sizes gathered on the square, sitting around tables, some playing cards, others passing bottles back and forth.

Once again, not what Dean had expected – but then again, how else would they spend the time? At least Eve's brood didn't make a sport of torture, like the demons did in Hell. The thought had barely formed in Dean's head when he swallowed it back down.

A row of tall stakes had been driven into the center of the town square, their wood blackened by pitch. As Dean came closer, he saw a man kneeling in front of one of the stakes, his hands tied to a metal ring by a length of leather. The scene reminded Dean uncomfortably of a book he'd read about the Roman Inquisition, especially one chapter that mentioned the inquisitors scourging people in public and displaying them in marketplaces just like this.

It made Dean wonder. If the town's people treated one of their own like this, how would they deal with an intruder?

Coming closer still, Dean also noticed markings on the ground: sigils had been burned into the sand and enclosed the prisoner in an even circle. Not unlike a devil's trap, Dean thought, and sized up the kneeling figure with new interest. The poor schmuck looked like a hard grip would snap him in half; his limbs too long and slender and the knobs of his spine showing on his bare back.

Dean frowned. Even from a distance the guy's skin looked wrong, its texture rough and knitted like canvas. What kind of monster—

He was walking past the far side of the stake when the man lifted his head and looked at Dean with eyes blue as the sky in summer.

No, Dean thought. Please, no.

He remembered his stupid hope that Cas had ended up somewhere not-awful, and felt bile push up into his throat.

The thought flashed through his mind that at his core all Cas had wanted was to save as many people as possible. Just like Sam and Dean. What had Cas, what had any of them done to deserve punishment like this?

Dean must have slowed down because Gordon stopped and looked back over his shoulder. Following Dean's wide-eyed stare, he said, "I see you discovered our angel."

Dean opened his mouth but no sound came out. Gordon snorted at his lack of words.

"Yeah, I know, hard to believe." He pulled Dean to the next stake down the row and looped the end of the rope through the metal ring attached to it. "From what I hear, he breached Purgatory and enslaved a handful of the nastier denizens."

"What happened?" Dean asked, his voice hoarse and cracked. Cas had returned to staring at the ground, giving no sign that he was listening to Gordon and Dean talk.

Cas.

Dean formed Cas's name in his head but got no reaction. If he'd stretched out his arms he could have reached Cas, but the shock of finding his friend like this sat so deep that Dean didn't even think of moving.

Why didn't the seal in his shoulder respond to Cas's proximity? He was right there, wasn't he?

Answering Dean's earlier question, Gordon shrugged. "They escaped," he said. "Dragged him here so now they get to pay him back. I heard they use a spell to force him to manifest without a – what did they call it? A container."

A vessel, Dean corrected, unable to take his eyes off of Cas's bowed body. No, not his body, his confinement, pulled over his grace like the hood falconers used on birds. They force him to manifest. Gordon's words echoed in Dean's head and the anger on Cas's behalf came sudden and fierce, crushing the breath from his lungs.

"Hurts him like hell apparently," Gordon added. He finished tying Dean to the stake and patted him on the shoulder. "You wait here," he said. "I got to talk to some people."

"What?" Dean blurted and only then caught up to the fact that Gordon had fettered him like a horse. "Gordon! Hey!"

"If someone wants to eat you, say no," Gordon called and joined a cluster of gray-clad folk at a nearby table.


***

The next few hours were the longest Dean ever stood through. Since the night he'd carried Sam out of their burning home, protecting people had always come naturally to him. To stand within arms' reach of a friend in pain and not be able to help, however? It ate him up from the inside, and it sure as hell tempted him to do something reckless.

His gaze kept slipping to Gordon, who remained deep in conversation with four sallow-faced, bald men, their heads turning Dean's way every now and then.

Dean wanted so badly to speak to Cas and make him look up again, but he was afraid Gordon would notice. If Gordon found out Dean and Cas knew each other, they'd be screwed.

Not that their current position was, by any definition of the word, rosy.

There were five stakes on the square, Cas had been tied to the first, Dean to the third. They were close enough that Dean could make out the symbols Cas's jailers had burned into the leather around his hands. More angel-binding magic, Dean didn't doubt, just like the circle of sigils on the ground. They'd neutralized Cas good and proper.

It must've been the only way to subjugate his grace.

Dean had wondered briefly if Cas's current shape was an approximation of his true form, but going from the bits of information Cas had volunteered over the years, Dean doubted it. Neither did Cas look like Jimmy anymore.

The proportions were all wrong, Cas's torso strangely elongated, his hips too narrow. What Dean had seen of his face was blank and eyebrow-less. Worst of all, the one look they'd shared had held no recognition on Cas's part.

Dean had a hunch now why their link went cold. If his former inmates tortured Cas with spells, maybe he had retreated to the farthest corner of his consciousness. Dean had experienced the relief of detachment first hand, in Hell. He also knew it was an escape that didn't last.

Sure enough he had to watch Cas shudder, cyclical shivers wracking his manufactured form.

Jaw clenched, Dean strained against his own fetters until his fingers turned white. Numbing his hands would get him nowhere but he couldn't help it.

Grappling for a way to calm the fuck down, Dean invoked the quiet of the desert and thought of long cloud shadows on red sand. For a second, the taste of ice-cold water was back in his mouth and reminded him of his mother's steady voice, the way she'd said she believed in him. It allowed him to breathe out, relax his hands, and start again.

Dean ran his fingertips over Gordon's knots as best as he could, looking for flaws, and all the while he kept talking to Cas in his head, reaching out in the one way open to them.

Cas, he tried. I know you can hear me, part of you always can. Was it his imagination or did Cas take a deeper breath?

Hang in there, man, Dean continued. I'll get you out of here I swear.

Dean kept half an eye on Gordon and the pate-squad and ceased fiddling with his ties when Gordon returned. He expected Gordon to lug him away and was racking up excuses that could prevent it because Dean did not want to leave Cas. To his surprise, though, Gordon made no move to untie him.

"Having a good time?" Gordon asked in that flat, humorless way of his.

"Not as good as you," Dean countered and nodded at the people Gordon had left behind.

"Them?" Gordon asked and shoved his hands into his pockets. "Vermin. They're useful though. One of them's going to take me to the registry."

"Take you?" Dean echoed although his heart jumped with relief.

Mouth curling into a slow smile, Gordon reached out and squeezed Dean's shoulder. Jesus, when had that bastard become all hands?

"Do you think I'm stupid?" Gordon asked.

"You want an honest answer?" Dean gritted out. To his horror, Gordon leaned into him and hooked his arm around Dean's neck, the two of them slotted together like drinking buddies. Dean smelled the metallic tang of old blood oozing out of Gordon's skin and saw the dark crescents under his fingernails.

"You're not a lamb following its shepherd to slaughter, Dean," Gordon said, his voice calm and factual. "The only reason you haven't fought me harder is because you're waiting for the directions to Sam's whereabouts."

Dean said nothing, and Gordon patted him on the back of the head. "Did you really think I would tell you?"

"You're going to leave me here?" Dean asked and tried not to shudder with gratitude when Gordon stepped away from him.

"No," Gordon answered and turned to leave. "I'm going to find out where your brother has holed up and I'll take you there. I'll make you look at his true face until you understand what he is."

Until I agree you were right, Dean thought and clamped down on an impatient reply. He knew he should concentrate on Gordon and cater to his delusion, but his gaze drifted back to Cas.

When Gordon left, would he finally get a chance to speak with him?

"I'll also strip the skin off your back," Gordon continued, and Dean whipped his head around to stare at him.

Gordon shrugged and used his thumbnail to pick something out of his teeth. "What?" he asked. "Like you expected something else." He dropped another gaze at Cas and nodded at Dean.

"Try not to piss off the angel," he said. "I hear he Hulks out when he's pissed."

You have no idea, Dean thought and stood very still as Gordon wandered off.


***

When night came around, the sky turned a deep, muddy gray and twilight fell over the town. The shapes and colors of the square leaked away into a uniform gloom, and the monster-assembly left for the shelter of their houses. No lights came on in the windows, so Dean assumed they sat around in the dark. Or maybe they all had bat sonar and night vision, who knew.

After the last of the townspeople had left, Dean waited for as long as he could endure before he started whispering.

"Cas. Hey, Cas."

Dean squinted through the shadows, searching for the outline of Cas's huddled form, but if he'd hoped Cas had faked his oblivion, that he would acknowledge Dean as soon as they were unobserved, he was disappointed. Cas didn't react to his voice, and he remained so still he could have been another block of frozen lava.

"Yeah, you've never been much of a talker, huh," Dean murmured and tried not to let the ache in his heart drain the last of his courage.

All through the night Dean kept working on his restraints. He circled his wrists, strained the leather and, when the shadows grew darkest, bent forward to chew on the straps, doggedly corroding the tight loops with his teeth.


***

By morning, Dean's wrists were raw and sore but the ties had slackened considerably. They still wouldn't allow his hands to slip free, partly because of the rope that Gordon had fixed on top of them, partly because the leather of Purgatory was goddamn sturdy.

For the last half-hour or so, Dean had been preparing for a trick his Dad had taught him: how to dislocate your thumbs and ditch restraints in three easy steps. It was, in Dean's current case, easier to accomplish than John's other move of last resort, which involved breaking the bones in your hand and pulling free before the swelling set in.

It probably said something about Dean's childhood that his Dad let him in on these maneuvers when Dean was only eleven.

Problem was, Dean couldn't get a good grip on the joints in his left hand. Gordon had strapped his wrists too close to one another, and he was still manipulating the ties when the sky brightened and people began to file into the square. Many of them carried plates and covered pans, preparing what Dean assumed to be a communal breakfast.

Tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, Dean swallowed and checked on Cas. Hands closed around the leather rope that tethered him to the pole, Cas knelt like he was sunk deep in meditation. He hadn't moved at all during the night. In the rising dawn, however, Dean saw that Cas's skin looked...more large-meshed than before. On his elbow and cheekbone Dean even discovered black streaks, like tears in the fabric. If this was a good or a bad sign he didn't know.

As the square grew noisier with the clatter of dishes and people talking, the fine hairs rose on the back of Dean's neck. He knew he was running out of time, Gordon might fetch him any minute. But even if he broke free now, how would he untie Cas before the townspeople stopped them?

He was still racking his brain for a solution when Cas tensed and his hobbled hands closed into fists. Frowning, Dean looked up, searching for the disturbance that had cut through Cas's stasis.

From the north side of the square, four figures approached the stakes. Unlike some of the other Purgatorians Dean had seen, their otherness was pronounced enough that no one would mistake them for human.

The one in the lead, a tall, broad-shouldered guy with a long face, walked fast despite his limp. He had a high forehead, made even more pronounced by his receding hairline, and a square flat nose, much like a horse's in fact. More striking than that, though, was his barrel chest and the sharp, concave hollow of his belly underneath. The way his eyes fixed on Cas and Cas alone set all the alarm bells ringing in Dean's head.

Pulse hammering faster, Dean tried again to get a grip on his left thumb but to his dismay, his fingers had turned stiff and clumsy after his night-long struggle with the ties. It didn't help that the square went quiet, the people settling down as if they'd come to watch some spectacle. A few of them even drew closer to the center of the square and squatted down within spitting distance of Cas's binding circle.

As Dean watched, a mottled bird with a woman's head flapped into the square and landed on top of Cas's stake.

"Had a good sleep?" someone said by Dean's shoulder, and Dean started, completely surprised. He'd been so absorbed by the change of atmosphere on the square he hadn't even noticed Gordon's arrival. To Dean's growing dread, Gordon had his knife in hand and looked like he was about to cut Dean off the stake.

He'd take Dean away which, hell no, he couldn't do, not now.

"Ah, fuck, no," Dean blurted, and his eyes switched back to the creatures that closed in on Cas before he could stop himself.

Gordon raised a brow. "Curious?" he asked and nodded at the small procession.

The guy with the horse face had reached the binding circle, and his followers fanned out behind him. Dean watched with his breath bunched up at the base of his throat.

"What are they doing?" he asked, although he had a good idea. Sure enough, Horse Face planted his feet apart and began murmuring.

"Enforcing the spell," Gordon confirmed. "I've seen it before. Not exactly family TV." As they watched, Horse's companions fell in like a troupe of background singers, and a shiver ran through Cas's body.

"You know," Gordon said, "my sister used to draw angels. Came home from Sunday school one day and doodled them on every piece of paper. She had real talent, too."

When Gordon stepped closer to the stake and lifted his knife, Dean tensed, ready to pounce on him the second he let Dean off the metal ring. But Gordon seemed distracted, his passive face tilted in Cas's direction. "Didn't think they'd look like this," Gordon mused. "Angels."

Yeah, no, they don't, usually they wear trenchcoats, Dean thought, overstrung on the edge of desperate, willing Gordon to get going already. Horse Face raised the volume, the harsh syllables of whatever language he was using cutting the air like claws. Cutting Cas too, by the looks of it.

Bowed under the string of incantations, Cas cringed, and a flicker of pale blue light showed through the tears in his skin. For a brief second, Dean's heart jumped with recognition and hope, then Horse's words rolled over Cas and a gasp dropped from Cas's lips. The air seemed to thicken around him, another shudder shook his slender frame, and suddenly Cas's wings materialized like leaves unfolding from thin air.

At this point, Dean wasn't breathing at all.

Gordon gave a low whistle. "That's new."

Dean had only seen the shadow of Cas's wings before but even those had been magnificent, pinions curving out over Cas's shoulders and wing-span flashing on barn roofs.

The things Horse had manifested on Cas's back came nowhere near that. They were a travesty, broken, tattered things that looked like they were made of paper and string. Trembling, they moved with Cas's breath, rising and falling with his shoulders.

Dean had taken a step in Cas's direction before he knew what he was doing, and Gordon took a hold of his elbow. "Nuh-uh, I wouldn't," Gordon said and pointed at the top of Cas's stake, where the small harpy was spreading her wings and taking off, making for the safety of a nearby roof. "See? If they mess up, there'll be a blast radius. Better keep your distance." When Dean didn't react, Gordon narrowed his eyes.

"Dean?"

Dean felt Gordon's fingers dig into his arm but he didn't respond, his attention drawn to the spell-workers. Horse finished his incantation and one of the creatures, a gangly woman with arms that reached to her ankles, dropped into a crouch and spider-walked closer to the circle. All of them seemed to gravitate toward Cas, slinking along the angel-trap like cats around a fishbowl.

"Dean," Gordon repeated. "Tell me something. Have you lied to me?"

He pulled at Dean and asked something else, but Dean had stopped listening. Cas's wings trailed on the ground and, fake or not, Dean felt the strong urge to gather them up, to brush the dust from the feathers and fold them carefully against Cas's back. He could imagine it so well, his hands running over curved bone, telling Cas without words that everything would be all right.

Movement slowed around them, and the sounds of the square drained away until Dean heard nothing but the blood rushing in his ears.

On the far side of the angel trap, Horse took a saw from one of his companions and stepped into the circle, careful not to smudge the sigils. Cas ducked his head and tucked his wings against his body, making himself even smaller.

"Why have you come all this way, Dean," Gordon said, his voice drifting through Dean's haze just as his hand closed on the hollow of Dean's shoulder. "When they tell me Sam isn't here?"

At this point, only three steps separated Horse from Cas. The spell-worker reached out, lifted Cas's left wing and Dean, knowing what would happen next, drew in a deep breath and made it happen: he bore down on the base of his thumb, dislodged the joint and yanked his hands out of the ties, first one, then the other.

Gordon flinched but Dean was faster, socked him on the jaw and crashed his elbow into Gordon's face. When Gordon fell, Dean snatched his knife and bolted across the square before Gordon hit the ground. The spider-limbed woman rushed at him but Dean ducked the sweep of her arm, reached the angel trap and kicked the sigils into a blur. A screech tore through the air, the source of it hurtling closer as Dean grabbed the metal ring and slashed through Cas's ties.

Gordon's blade severed the symbols that had been etched into the leather and Dean heard a crack like a light bulb popping. He whipped around and saw the harpy wheeling around in mid-air, aborting her attack. Horse also stared at Dean, his eyes wide with surprise and his hand frozen on Cas's wing.

The she-spider set a hesitant foot into the broken circle and Dean clenched his hand around Gordon's knife, his heart jackhammering in his chest.

Come on, Cas.

The change in Cas rolled in like the tide: light dawned under his paper skin, flooded the cracks along his veins and brightened beneath his lashes. For one long breath, everything froze and sound remained suspended, then Dean's shoulder flared with heat, as white fire exploded from every pore of Cas's imposed body.

Dean dropped with a gasp and pressed his face into the dirt, folding his arms over his head as Cas's grace lit up Purgatory like a supernova.

 


V


The Door

Once the storm had passed over his head and roared out beyond the outskirts of town, Dean squinted up from the shelter of his arms. Dust billowed over the square and settled slowly, feeble rays of light catching in the swirls. Empty chairs and tables emerged from the collapsing dust clouds, and the square lay eerily quiet. Cas had disappeared, the ties that had bound him lying in a limp coil on the ground.

Dean drew a breath and pushed up on his feet, sweeping his gaze over the smoking heaps of felled monsters. Breaking free, Cas's grace had razed through them like a bushfire, burning the clothes off their backs and leaving nothing but charred flesh. Those who lay with their faces turned up had their eyes scorched from their sockets.

None of the Purgatorians had remained standing.

Dean coughed and licked his lips, tasting sand. He grimaced, reset his thumb, and picked up Gordon's knife. His head felt like it had been filled with cotton and blood still rushed in his ears like the sea. Dean cared little about it, though, because the warmth was back in his shoulder and he followed it out of the square.


***

Leaving the town behind, Dean climbed over a low wall and dropped onto a strip of tall grass and nettles. Birch trees circled the meadow, their trailing branches swaying in a mild wind. Up ahead, the wall of the volcano rose like a frozen wave.

Dean turned around. The steady warmth of his handprint scar indicated Cas was close, but try as he might, Dean saw neither hair nor hide of him. Maybe he couldn't, now that Cas had no vessel. Walking along the wall, Dean gave up on looking for his friend and settled for his other senses.

Cas had been invisible around him before but this time Dean could feel his presence in the air and in the sound of the meadow. The grass rustled with ghostly footsteps, and the flutter of wings mixed into the whisper of the birch trees. Even those noises seemed hesitant and wary, though, and Dean began to suspect that Cas hung back on purpose, uncertain perhaps whether he should approach.

"Cas?" Dean asked and the warmth in his shoulder dimmed, a sign of Cas withdrawing further.

Dean frowned, not sure what to make of Cas's retreat. He'd assumed Cas would be happy to leave. Why would he avoid Dean?

The implication that Cas was hiding from him stung more than Dean wanted to admit, but he went after his friend all the same. Holding his throbbing left hand against his chest, Dean followed the sound of Cas's footsteps to the birch wood.


***

Cas waited at the edge of the trees, and for the first time Dean looked at the angel outside a vessel. Cas was still mostly translucent but his human-shaped grace had thickened like bottle-glass and blurred the trees behind it. No more trace of the fire and lightning Dean had unleashed on the square; in this state Cas seemed almost fragile.

Dean drew closer only to stop when Cas flinched. Running his eyes over the vague outline of Cas's wings, Dean bit his lip, fascinated in spite of himself.

Perhaps Horse's spell hadn't quite washed off because Cas's grace attracted matter: birch leaves clung to parts of him like scabs and defined his shape, outlining the bow of his arm and the curve of one cheek.

Cas shivered like a wet cat and shook off most of the leaves before he backed away into the shadow of the trees.

He acted like a spooked animal, Dean thought, and who could blame him. Whatever offense Cas's defensiveness might have given him crumbled into nothing. Of course Cas wouldn't trust anyone to come near him right now. With ever more leaves settling on his shoulders and sticking there, Cas looked tired and stranded, a soldier who'd forgotten the way out of the trenches.

Cas's weariness struck a chord and flooded Dean with compassion, reminding him that their experiences had been very much alike. Both had shed blood on the frontlines, both had lost their bearings in the middle of war and had come back not knowing how to look into the mirror anymore. But no matter what else Cas had done, he'd fought to the last. Now he needed someone to help him off the battlefield.

A deep calm settled over Dean as he realized that in this case he could actually help – not with a grand gesture, but with patience. Cas needed a friend, someone who waited until he was ready to climb out of the ditch. Dean's mind might balk at the concept of profound bonds but this he understood, this he could deal with.

Slowly, Dean rolled his sleeve up over his shoulder. Closing his eyes, he put his hand over the handprint scar, no sleeve in the way this time, and waited.

Dean didn't reach out, not with words and not with thoughts, but after a little while he felt another hand cover his. The touch was careful, almost insubstantial until suddenly solid fingers brushed over Dean's knuckles. The pad of Cas's thumb felt rough and warm, as if Cas had invoked the body he'd claimed and made his, the one that remembered Dean.

When Dean opened his eyes Cas stood no more than an arm's-length away from him, daylight falling through his barely-there shape. He did seem a bit more defined, his body, for lack of a better word, flickering like air over hot concrete.

Throat squeezing tight enough he couldn't have spoken if he wanted to, Dean brushed a yellow leaf from Cas's cheek. The curve of Cas's face was smooth against his fingertips, like a river stone or the inside of a shell. Maybe Cas's current appearance should've alienated Dean, but to him Cas was still Cas, the same person who'd once swiped a cheeseburger off Dean's plate and watched over him after Alastair sent him to the hospital. If anything, Dean thought Cas in his air-and-light guise looked beautiful, slight and resilient, graceful in every sense of the word.

Dean's gaze dropped to Cas's chest and before he knew what he was doing, his hand reached for the spot where he'd burned a seal into Cas's flesh-and-bone body. He rested his fingertips against the see-through skin and shivered, suddenly shocked by his own breach of private space. Before Dean could backpedal, however, Cas brought up both hands and closed them over Dean's.

Dean.

To hear Cas's voice, even in his head, filled Dean with so much relief his chest suddenly seemed too full. Cas's face had features now, a narrow nose, a mouth, and eyes that were filled with a soft, blue light. Cas blinked slowly, and Dean couldn't help but smile.

"Hey buddy," he said, his voice too thick but who would notice, here? "You ready to go home?"


***

If Dean hadn't knocked him out, Gordon would have been toasted extra crispy like the rest of the town's population. As it was, he'd been unconscious for the light show and only pieced together what happened after he woke up.

For reasons that escaped Gordon's understanding, Dean had bunted him out of the way and released the angel. Without the sigils to tamper his power, the angel must've unleashed the wrath of Heaven – or Hell, depending which sphere he'd crawled out of. Gordon pictured something like the firestorm that burst out of the Ark in Raiders, a movie he had watched on the big screen when it first hit theaters.

Question was, how did Dean survive the blast? And why did he follow the angel afterwards?

Driven by curiosity, Gordon followed the trail of Dean's scent to the meadow east of town.

He crept closer, surprised to find Dean and the angel standing face to face at the edge of the forest.

From the shadow of the old town wall, Gordon watched the Winchester kid put out a hand and touch the angel's chest. Gordon didn't know what Dean saw when he looked at the angel, but to Gordon's eyes he looked like a close encounter of the fourth kind, arms too long and slender, wings quivering convulsively, and whatever essence that passed for his blood pumping through his veins in pale blue streaks.

Why the hell did Dean even want to go near this thing?

When they first met, Gordon had mistrusted Dean like he'd mistrusted almost anyone. Later he decided Dean was seriously misguided, and later still he despised Dean for his failure to neutralize Sam. Gordon had killed his sister because it had been necessary, because it had been right. He'd built his life on that decision. Dean should have done the same, put aside his personal feelings and rid the world of a killer-to-be.

Instead, Dean chose to protect his brother.

Gordon frowned. He'd been certain that Dean had come here for Sam because who else would inspire that kind of loyalty in him? But Sam wasn't in Purgatory, never had been if the oracle at the hole could be believed. Was it possible Dean had been looking for the angel all along? Why?

Watching the angel fold his wings around Dean, Gordon resisted the urge to fall on the unsuspecting pair and break Dean's fingers until he told Gordon what was going on. He didn't dare go up against the angel though, not yet. Better just to keep an eye on them and learn what he could before Purgatory's version of the wild hunt swarmed in and ripped them apart.

Gordon's ears were still sharper than those of a human and he'd picked up the sounds from the town center a while ago. Listening to the hisses and grunts that no doubt originated in the market square, Gordon imagined the monster inhabitants of Purgatory's outer rim rising from the ground, stretching charred limbs and licking the ashes of their own skin from their teeth.

Like Gordon had told Dean, nothing died in the in-between.

Out on the meadow, the angel lifted his head like a deer. He must've caught wind of the rising monsters too, because soon the two of them hurried off, Dean's defined human soul jogging along next to the phantom shape of the angel.

Gordon waited another breath and took off after them. As he passed into the shadow of the birch wood, he heard the stamp of many footsteps, pounding through the town and speeding up for the chase.


***

Thanks to a sense of direction Dean had inherited from his father, he found the slope he and Gordon had used to enter the hole in the ground. The way up was just as tricky as the way down but Dean pushed on, climbing quickly out of the volcano with Cas at his side.

They had a head start but when the wind turned, Dean smelled their pursuers. With the stench of burnt flesh heavy in his nose, he led Cas through the birch forest on top of the crater and out onto the highlands. He tried not to let the mile-wide view of crags and dales daunt him but fact was he couldn't even see the sea yet, much less the peak of Mt. Purgatory.

Nothing for it though, Dean thought. Striking out into the open, he chose their direction with the help of landmarks he'd memorized on his way in.

Cas kept up as well as he could but he kept flickering from invisibility to defined shape like a flame in slow-motion. His imprisonment, his fall into Purgatory, and the latest discharge of his remaining power must've weakened him. At one point he even sank to his knees, and Dean had to sling Cas's arm around his own shoulders to help him back to his feet. Cas leaned on him, adjusted his wings for balance, and nodded.

Keep going.

When the ocean finally came into view, they both sped up their pace, drawing on resources Dean didn't know they had left. Which, of course, came back to bite them in the ass.

They'd reached the edge of the foothills, coming to the stretch where the high plain descended to the stretch of marshland that preceded the sea. They still had a long way ahead of them but the sight of land's end and the long, quicksilver line of water made Dean overeager.

Half climbing, half skidding down a rockslide, Dean gained too much momentum, lost control over his footing, and tripped. He would've gone down face first or broken his neck but Cas was with him in a heartbeat and grabbed him around the chest. He spread his wings and turned Dean's fall into an odd mix between a glide and a jump, the two of them remaining airborne for a few seconds before they hit the ground at the bottom of the slope.

Dean crashed to his knees and Cas was flung away from him, landing heavily on his back.

For a long moment, neither of them moved, Dean's heavy breathing set off against the scratch of Cas's wings on the gravel.

"Son of a bitch," Dean muttered, and flopped back against a tall rock. His hand hurt, his lungs burned, and now that his legs had stopped moving he didn't know if he could even get up again. Cas didn't look any fitter, his head canted tiredly against the arc of his left wing. Damn, but they were quite the pair, Dean with his skinned knees and Cas with his feathers sticking out at odd angles.

Noticing Dean's expression, Cas lifted his head.

What? he asked and the familiar blend of annoyance and confusion made Dean chuckle.

"Nothing," he said. His amusement dried up fast, though, when Cas suddenly tensed and peered up the slope, no doubt listening for the lynch mob at their heels. The image of scorched monsters running in packs came unbidden to Dean's mind. He wondered if Spider and the others would ever heal or if the burns Cas's grace had inflicted upon them would remain for all time.

Wouldn't that piss them off.

"Can you hear them?" Dean asked.

Yes, Cas answered. They've gained on us.

"Awesome," Dean muttered. He peered out over the marshes and his heart sank. He tried to catch a glimpse of Mt. Purgatory but the mountain remained hidden behind the cliffs that lined the shore. With a sinking heart Dean realized that he and Cas would never make it to the Garden before the spill of monster town caught up with them. The rate they were going, Dean doubted if they would even reach the base of the mountain.

The gatekeeper's passing words came back to him, the way he insisted that Dean had to use same door for going in and going out. You must exit by the door you've entered through, he'd said.

Would if I could, Dean thought. Setting his teeth against the legion of smaller and bigger pains firing through his body, Dean stood up and crouched down again at Cas's side. "Can you get up?" he asked gently.

Cas didn't respond but his hands curled into fists, and he pushed himself up of the ground and back on his feet. Dean followed, sensing how much even this simple motion sequence took from Cas. Without a word he slid his shoulder under Cas's arm once more and steadied him around the waist.

"Come on," Dean said. "I have an idea."


***

Dean had no idea how they did it but after an eternity of stumbling over bumpy ground and sinking ankle-deep into bog holes, he and Cas finally reached the ruined house where Dean had woken up after Gordon's assault.

Once they'd reached the questionable shelter of the crumbled walls, Dean helped Cas to sit down and lean against the wizened stones that remained of the house's foundations. Straightening up, Dean turned around and scanned the salt meadows for their pursuers. There was no sign of them yet but then again, Dean couldn't see very far. The daylight had faded to a gloom and fog rose from the marshes as if it had waited for Dean's return.

If Dean's plan didn't work the only option left would be to carry Cas along the shore and pick his way to the mountain through a wall of thickening mist. In that case their chances of outrunning the monster herd would drop below zero.

Casting another look at Cas, Dean drew a deep breath and walked over to the house's remaining door. He pulled Gordon's knife from his belt and called up the key-sigil the gatekeeper had trusted him with.

Dean didn't know if what he planned to do was even possible but here he was, going against express orders in the hope that a door was a door was a door. If he could open a passageway on top of Mt. Purgatory, maybe he could also force a passage down here.

Drawing the blade of Gordon's knife across his palm, Dean remembered Sula's advice to stick to the rules. He should've known then that he wouldn't be able to follow her instructions. When had he ever?

I'm sorry Sula, Dean thought and hoped that even if he wasn't able to follow through on the original plan, he'd at least be able to improvise another solution.

Stepping back, he licked his lips and recited the request for passage, just like the gatekeeper had taught him.

He might have chanted the chorus of Yellow Submarine for all the good it did. The blood sigils ran at the edges, the door hung crooked from its hinge, and absolutely nothing happened.

Dean clenched his jaw and repeated the summons, forcing his voice to remain steady as he spoke the Enochian words. This time, a faint glimmer flared around the sigils. Dean's heart soared, only to plunge down to ground level when the shine faded away without effect. When Dean tried a third time, nothing happened at all. Weighed down by a wave of disappointment, he closed his eyes and dragged a hand over his face.

To have come this far...

Dean let out a shaky breath and flinched when someone touched his elbow. Surprised, he turned around and found Cas standing right behind him. Cas's face was turned to the marshes and when Dean followed his gaze, he spotted lights bobbing up and down in the fog. For a long moment, Dean could only watch as the lights drew closer.

"I'm sorry," he said at length, "I messed this all up."

Don't say that, Cas told him. He met Dean's gaze and held it, his hand still resting lightly on Dean's elbow. You came for me, Cas said and his astonishment transmitted clearly to Dean's mind. I didn't expect anyone to come for me.

Hearing that, Dean thought his heart would crack down the middle. "How could you think that, huh?" he demanded and swallowed around the lump in his throat. "You're—"

Dean faltered, all of a sudden stuck for words because what was Cas to him? Friend? Family? He could have used any of these designations, but he couldn't push them past his lips. Somehow calling Cas 'brother' wasn't honest, wasn't enough anymore.

Frustrated by his failure to say what needed to be said, Dean shook his head and turned Cas's words over in his mind instead. Somehow it figured that Cas, like Dean, didn't think he deserved to be saved. But there the parallel ended because even in the thick of Hell's torture Dean had known there was at least one person left on earth who cared for him. The thought of Sam searching for a way to help him had given Dean hope until he caved under the years of pain. Now Cas admitted he hadn't even had that?

With a pang Dean remembered the day he'd sent Cas into Purgatory. He'd burned an exorcism into Cas's chest, and he'd hated every second of it but he'd never had the time to explain.

What had Cas thought? That Dean had been grateful to be rid of him?

Without thinking Dean grabbed Cas's arm and opened his mouth to tell Cas everything, how he hadn't wanted to sleep as long as Cas was lost, how he couldn't live with the thought of giving him up, but the words froze on his tongue. Perplexed, Dean stared at his hand around Cas's biceps. Was he going crazy or did his hand glow?

"What the hell?" Dean murmured and let go of Cas. The light stuck to his skin though, limning his fingers and traveling down to his wrist. Shit but he was turning into Robert fucking Pattinson and didn't that just take the cake.

Before Dean could say anything out loud, though, Cas reached up and touched his fingertips to Dean's. Light spread at once from Dean's hand to Cas and vice versa, Cas's grace sliding over the back of Dean's fingers. Dean stood stock still, shaken by the exchange between grace and what he could only assume was the true form of his own soul. Dean opened his mouth, his breath catching in his throat.

A vague memory hovered just outside his grasp, dragging up an image of shining arms closing around him and lifting him to safety. I know this, Dean thought and searched out Cas's eyes.

The intensity of Cas's gaze left no doubt that he knew what was happening, that he remembered.

Had he always?

Look, Cas said and tipped his chin at the door. Turning, Dean discovered that the key-sigils had brightened with the same shine that enveloped his and Cas's hand.

Try again, Cas prompted, and Dean spoke the Enochian summons for the fourth time, his hand resting against Cas's.

At first, the sigils glowed brighter and more light flared between the cracks of the door. Finally, there was a loud crack, the light snuffed out, and the door started to dissolve, one wooden splinter after the other drifting back into a pitch-black darkness.

"Hallelujah," Dean murmured. He might've grinned, too, but Cas suddenly dropped his hand and the sense of peace that had been moving into Dean fell away. Struck with fresh worry, Dean took in Cas's slumped shoulders and the sway of his legs. Whatever mojo Cas had just transferred to Dean, he'd been in no condition to part with it.

"Cas," Dean pleaded and grabbed both Cas's shoulders. "Hang on, man. Just a bit longer, yes?"

The words had barely left Dean's mouth when the cry of a harpy shrilled through the silence of the marsh. Dean didn't even need to check to know that their time was up.

Looking at the door, Dean realized he'd cheered too soon. So far, only a few holes had opened in the door; the disintegration continued but it happened too slowly. Steadying Cas with one hand, Dean pushed at the door with his foot but he might as well have shoved at a brick wall. By then, even he could hear the feet and hooves crashing through the heather.

"Come on, come on," Dean cursed and turned back to Cas. "Think we can break through this?"

Cas didn't answer but Dean snatched up a half-formed thought, revealing that Cas doubted he'd be strong enough to make it to the other side even if the portal opened.

Which, no. No. Not an option.

"Screw that," Dean grunted, grabbed Cas, and threw himself at the door. At the last second, Dean turned and pulled Cas close, hands clutching at Cas's back and the fullness of his wings. Cas flared in his arms but Dean's own skin burst into light too and this time, grace and soul blended seamlessly along every line of contact. Wrapping as much of himself around his friend as he could, Dean crashed through the door back first and fell into the wormhole.


***

Gordon had been around for a while, both in the world of the living and the world of the dead, but he'd never seen anything like this. Hidden among the large stones that separated the shore from the marshes like a borderline, Gordon watched Dean and his angel go up in a ball of white light before they crashed into an old door – and didn't come out on the other side.

Unsure of what exactly he'd just witnessed, Gordon stared up at the ruined boathouse. From his position, Gordon saw the old chute of sanded stone which had once been used to lower boats into the sea. He also saw the doorframe on top that now gaped empty.

What had they done? Gordon wondered. Used some kind of spell?

Water sucked at the stones behind him; the tide was rolling in and with it, a dense blanket of fog. Gordon climbed onto one of the rocks to keep his feet from getting wet.

It had to have been spell, he decided. Something that turned an ordinary door into a gateway to somewhere else, and wasn't that interesting. A man might wonder if he could pass through that selfsame door, presuming it had been left open. Gordon smiled.

The sea fog was coiling around him, water rising visible now between the rocks making this place less than ideal for hiding but that was fine. Gordon needed to be quick anyway if he wanted to reach the door before the hunt arrived.

Assume, he thought, just assume that door led back to Earth as he knew it. Oh, he didn't doubt he'd be killed again if he returned; it was the fate of every dark creature eventually, but the idea of a shore leave appealed to him. Bite a few living people, catch a new movie – the options were promising.

Gordon balanced over the rocks, amused by the idea of escape. The smile was still on his face when the fog coiled around his legs, yanked him off his feet, and pulled him back into obscurity.

 


VI


Harbor

Sam sat in Missouri's rocking chair, watching over his brother. If he didn't know better, Sam would have believed Dean was only sleeping, curled up on his side with his arms folded loosely over his chest. The thing was, Dean hadn't shifted out of that position for the last twelve hours.

The tea Missouri had made for Sam had gone cold, and his back hurt with a tension he couldn't shake. Not as long as Dean was gone, anyway.

Unfortunately, Sam's body still demanded he stick to its normal routines.

Rubbing a hand over his gritty eyes, Sam got up and went to the bathroom. He'd just finished and stepped out into the hallway when he heard a crash and a heavy thump from Missouri's guest room.

His blood running ice-cold from one second to the next, Sam dashed back to the bedroom and found the tea mug crashed and Dean on the floor.

"Dean!" Sam rushed into the room and only skidded to a halt because Dean jerked up a hand.

"No," Dean rasped. "Wait."

Twenty-odd years of trust in his brother made Sam freeze, but his heart still thundered up a storm in his chest. He heard Bobby pound up the stairs, and in the next second the old hunter all but barreled into Sam's back.

"What the hell?" Bobby grunted and stared at Dean. The blanket was still tangled around Dean's legs as he pushed up on hands and knees.

"It's okay," he said. "It's just Cas. He's disoriented."

For a terrible second Sam was certain Dean had come back from Purgatory with his brain in scrambles. "Cas?" he echoed. "Where?!"

He took another step despite Dean's warning, and Dean looked up, his eyes a bright electric blue.

"Goddammit boy," Bobby cursed. "What have you done?" He started forward but Sam grabbed him and held him back out of instinct. "Dean?" Sam asked,

Dean's eyes dropped shut, and he bowed over his knees, back rising and falling with deep breaths. Someone shoved at Sam's shoulder but he was too transfixed to react. Did Dean bring back Cas's grace inside of himself?

"Will you move!" Missouri shouted and squeezed between Sam and Bobby. Startled, Sam made room for her, and the psychic dropped to her knees in front of Dean.

Dean drew another long breath and met her eyes.

"Oh, honey," Missouri said and took his face in both hands.

"It's okay," Dean repeated. "We're fine."

At this, Missouri smiled and Sam's confusion was complete. "I know," Missouri said before she turned to glare at Sam and Bobby.

"Well, don't just stand there you two," she snapped. "Help him up!"


***

Sam and Bobby took one of Dean's arms each and together helped him over into the next room. Missouri had gone ahead of them and already perched on the edge of Cas's bed, her hand on his forehead like she was taking his temperature.

Cas still lay white as a sheet and motionless, his arm hooked to the IV bag.

"I'm sick of seeing him like this," Dean murmured. "I can tell you that."

"Dean what's going on?" Sam asked, his chest clenching with worry. If Dean really carried Cas's grace inside him how was he even vertical? Sam knew first hand what it meant to timeshare a body with an angel's grace, and from all he knew Dean shouldn't be able to speak, much less walk.

But to Sam's endless bafflement, Dean even left him and Bobby behind and managed the last few steps to Cas's bed on his own. He sat down on Cas's left side opposite Missouri and waited until she'd folded the blanket down to Cas's waist.

"You know what to do?" Missouri asked, and Dean nodded, smiled even.

"Yeah."

As Sam watched, Missouri lifted up Cas's t-shirt. Dean sat quietly for a moment, his eyes closed, his lips once moving soundlessly, then he reached out and placed his hand over the scar he'd left on Cas's chest.

Sam wasn't even aware he'd stopped breathing until he sucked in a shocked gasp, noticing the change on Cas's face, the small frown that formed on his brow.

Cas didn't cry out, he didn't flinch or react in any drastic way. He simply opened his eyes as if he'd just taken a nap. Dean's shoulders sagged a little, and with Dean's face turned away that was all the reaction Sam witnessed from his brother. He did notice, though, that Dean didn't remove his hand from Cas's chest and after a moment, Cas reached up and placed both his hands over Dean's fingers.

"Welcome home, sweetness," Missouri said and, incredibly, patted Cas's cheek. Rooted to his spot by the foot of the bed, Sam waited for either Cas or Dean to speak up but oddly enough, neither of them did.

"I'll be damned," Bobby muttered with a low, shaky whistle, but Sam couldn't even nod to that. He couldn't shake the feeling that his brain had shut off somewhere during the last five minutes and was only now rebooting. Slowly it dawned on him that not only had Dean returned safe and sound, he'd managed what he'd set out to do: he found Cas and brought him back.

Sam made a sound, and he didn't know if it was a laugh or a groan of sheer relief, before flopping down on a nearby chair.

"You okay there, son?" Bobby asked, and there was a broad grin on his face now.

"Yeah," Sam said and, god, it was true, it was finally true. "I'm okay."

 


Epilogue

On the shore of Purgatory, Gordon Walker stood in the shallows, the water curling round his shoes as the tide retreated. He swayed a little with the wind, his arms swinging limply by his side. As the dawn rose behind the thinning fog, Gordon tipped his head up and opened his eyes. His lips were moving but his words were barely audible over the rushing of the waves.

"He rises," he whispered. "He rises."

Sea foam speckled his face but Gordon didn't wipe it away. "He rises," he chanted, repeating the call over and over. "He rises. The dreamer has stopped sleeping."


***



[For the complete comic, please visit the artist's post here]

 


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