The Supreme Court (burningvigor) wrote,
The Supreme Court
burningvigor

dcbb fic: here the deadened strain revive // part one

Focus. It was time to focus.

That Castiel knew, more than he'd known anything in a very long time. There was no longer any time to think about the bees or the butterflies, the honey or the pollen. Purgatory contained none of those things. It only had blood, and death, and creatures beyond what he or Dean could have imagined.

No, that wasn't quite right. Some of these things had existed within Castiel, and not all that long ago. They'd clawed at his soul and he'd felt their taint. In a way, all of this was sickeningly familiar.

They were surrounded. It was why he left Dean without another word (there was no time) and went to fight.

Before this, he had truly thought that he would never pick up his blade again. He'd told himself as much, over and over again, like a nursery rhyme, like a lullaby. There will be no more blood spilled by Castiel, he'd insisted through the cracks in his mind. This soldier, this angel, has fought too many battles. He got proud, and he aimed to be the strongest, and it broke him.

But as Dean had made so clear, no one cared that he was broken. He reappeared in front of one of the monsters, landing him face-to-face with one of their souls for the first time. Prior to this, he'd only felt them churning inside him, brimming with power. But due to that, he understood just how strong these things could be.

On Earth, they so often hid, masquerading as humans the same way that angels did. But here they stretched out, fully formed, hideous and massive and dripping with blood and their poisoned saliva. The one he was facing off with now looked only vaguely like a canine, but it towered over his human body, each leg the width of a tree trunk, covered in a spattering of fur and some sort of armor.

Castiel raced forward and slashed at the monster's throat with his blade. He watched as flashes of light exploded from the wounds that he opened up, illuminating the dark landscape around him, but he didn't have the luxury to examine it in any detail. The only thing he could focus on was the red of the monster's eyes as it pulled forward, exhaling putrid breath into his face.

The smell, which reminded him of corpses eaten by maggots, of vomit, of rotted garbage, caused Castiel to step back. A flash of movement distracted him, but the cry of, “Take this, bitch!” signaled who had joined them.

“Dean!”

Dean raced forward and shoved a pointed tree branch into the beast's side. It bellowed out and swiped at him with an armored paw. Dean careened backward against a tree.

Castiel moved without thinking and shoved the tip of his blade up through the canine's throat into its mouth. It screeched, and staggered back, huffing in pain and dribbling black blood.

Castiel's body shuddered as he lowered his blade. He sent only a passing glance at the injured monster, which had backed off after that devastating blow, before he rushed over to Dean. He was conscious, leaning against the tree and clutching his side.

“Why the hell did you run off like that?” Dean's face teetered between emotions—the thrill of adrenaline mixed with a primal fear that came off of him in waves, not that Castiel could fault him for it. Dean hunted these things for a living, but landing in the middle of a graveyard for every evil thing that had prowled the Earth would have been enough to render most humans catatonic.

He grabbed Dean's arm and pulled him away from the creature, as he guessed it wouldn't be long before it shook off that wound and came for them again. “As far as I can tell, that's the strongest creature in the area. Wounding it should scare away the others, at least for a time. Are you hurt?”

“Just a scratch,” Dean said as he shook his head and wrested himself from Castiel's grip while they ran from the creature—though where to, Castiel didn't know. For now, all he saw were more trees, rising above them in twisted patterns that made him think of the limbs of a skeleton, put back together the wrong way.

Once enough distance was put between them and the monster, Castiel slowed into a brisk walk, and Dean, suffering from that injury, appeared glad to follow suit.

Castiel eyed the blood seeping through Dean's shirt. “You should have let me handle it.”

“Yeah, I should have done a lot of things,” Dean said bitingly.

Castiel ignored it. “We need to find a safe place.”

“Wait—what do you mean, safe?” Dean stopped walking and placed one hand to his side. “I don't think there is such a thing as a safe place here.”

“Then we'll have to carve one out,” Castiel countered as he pressed forward.

Dean let out a noise of frustration behind him, but Castiel knew that he wouldn't want to be left alone again. Not here. He did his best to drown out the thoughts that came creeping in, about how he'd left Dean alone plenty of times in the past.

Yet, as expected, he heard Dean's boots crunch through the dead leaves as he followed after him.

Castiel took the lead without hesitation, but it wasn't as if he had anything under control—far from it. But this was what Dean required at the moment—a steady hand, a voice of reason, so he didn't think of the other dark realm he'd been trapped in. From what Castiel had seen so far, Purgatory wasn't much like Hell, but it bordered close enough that he had reason for concern. And if he was going to have to force himself to hold strong—inadequately, like a shattered glass put back together with glue—then he would do it for Dean.

Fear had no place here, if they wished to survive.

---


Carving out a safe place was far more difficult than Castiel was prepared for. Unlike Hell, which he'd stormed into on his own power and with a specific goal, Purgatory felt like a cage, a sprawling wasteland that he knew not the extent of.

As they traveled through the mazelike forest, Castiel quietly tested out his power and his senses to work out what he was capable of. Dean had sharp instincts, but he could only hear or see so far. Castiel, meanwhile, could gather a vague idea of the area around them, but there were so many souls out there, filled with anger and desperation and an unending hunger, that it was difficult to sort through it all. His clouded mind was not as sharp as it had once been, and he found himself faltering where before he would have spoken with certainty.

Dean knew better than to speak up (and likely wasn't interested in talking while wounded, Castiel imagined) as they stumbled their way out of the forest and onto an open field. The sky, full of swirling dark clouds, made Castiel feel exposed, which soon proved to not be simply the product of paranoia when a pack of screeching figures descended on them.

“What the hell are those?” Dean snapped as he stared upward, face pulled in disgust.

Spindly, humanoid creatures with mottled wings and taloned feet, Castiel recognized them from days of old. The Greeks hadn't made them up. “Harpies.”

Dean clamped his hand against his side once more, and for the second time in the space of a few hours, they broke out into a run. The sounds of the harpies' cries echoed behind them in a cacophony. When one of the beast's talons came dangerously close to snagging Dean in the shoulder, Castiel grabbed him—and despite the fact that his wings felt strangely weighed down, flew forward. A shot in the dark, toward whatever his dulled senses could perceive as “safe.”

They crashed rather than landed. Despite his best efforts, Castiel lost hold of Dean, who collapsed to the ground with a yell.

“My apologies,” Castiel said as he focused on determining where they were, which looked to a mountain path.

Dean ignored the hand he offered and pushed himself to his feet. “Fuck, I forgot how much that sucked.”

Castiel, oddly used to not being thanked for saving Dean's life by now, said nothing. The possibility of finding a cave where they could rest spurred both of them forward, but as they found the welcoming mouth of one, they also heard a worrying squelching sound.

Dean groaned louder than was strictly necessary considering their situation. “Are you serious?”

“I'm not sure what you were expecting,” Castiel said as he crept forward. Waiting for them was a being more gelatinous than solid, its mouth some kind of constantly warping cavity that it likely used to suck in its prey. This one Castiel had no name for.

“Well,” Dean muttered, “seventy-two non-virgins would've been nice.”

Through some teamwork and with the help of the path's uneven terrain, they tricked the monster into trapping itself in a crevice, and staggered their way into the cave with the hope that it would be unable to free itself. When Castiel finally had the chance to properly look at Dean, he saw that his front was covered in the creature's sludge and the side of his shirt was stained red.

“So, purgatory. Definitely a vacation spot. Gotta look into real estate here,” Dean said as he fell to the ground and leaned up against the cave wall. He made futile attempts to wipe the slime off of his shirt, but it only stuck to his hands. Castiel wondered if there were even bodies of water in this barren land where Dean could clean himself off.

“I already did,” Castiel blurted out.

He still didn't have complete control over his thoughts or his words, and almost immediately after he spoke he hunched his shoulders down and looked away. Human language was limited in so many ways, and yet there were other times when it tricked him, when the words came out wrong and he gave things away.

Dean was quiet for a long time, but instead of looking over, Castiel stared at the blood on his sword, which was still gripped tight in one hand. Already, he'd become a soldier again. He didn't know if that was right or wrong.

Dean let out a breath. “Okay, two things,” he said. “First of all, you need to get your head back on straight. Yeah, you screwed up a lot along the way, I'm sure as hell not denying that. And fixing Sam, that undid a lot of it, but maybe this is your chance to fix the rest.”

Except that nothing was fixed, not on Earth, not in Purgatory, not within his own mind. He needed to be right, to be Cas, for them to make it through this. Thus far, he hadn't done a very good job with that in any realm.

“Second thing would be figuring out how to get out of here. Do you even have a clue?”

Of course he did. He'd spent upwards of a year pouring through books on Purgatory with a demon over his shoulder. He felt all of that knowledge, swimming in this human head that was somehow his, but he realized he didn't want to go anywhere near it. “I opened the door to Purgatory once before,” he said, distantly. It felt like eons had passed since then, like he'd lived a hundred lives in the interim.

“I know. Kind of hard to forget.” While Dean's words were harsh, his tone wasn't. He sounded tired, and who wouldn't be, after their attack on Dick Roman's headquarters and now this? Even Castiel felt worn down, but that had already been the case ever since he'd woken up in that mental hospital.

It was hard to forget, and the sigils that he'd drawn in blood flashed through his mind like a blinding headache. He didn't want to repeat any of it.

The cave rang with silence.

“Any bright ideas?” Dean cut through it. He had to know that he was prodding at a wound.

“I wouldn't call ideas bright. If anything, they're sharp—”

Cas.”

He wanted to apologize, but even showing Dean “SORRY” in large, colorful letters hadn't gotten the message across. While he realized that things had improved slightly between them now, that Dean was slowly forgiving him, being trapped in the very place that had started this all wasn't helping matters. Neither was his mental state.

“I'm not sure,” Castiel admitted. “To open it from this side, it's possible we need to reverse the spell. That would mean...” He paused and sucked in a breath. He swore he could feel the weight of that jar of blood in his hand. “It would be... the blood of someone corrupted and the blood of a being from Earth.”

“Corrupted?” Dean echoed as he added pressure to the wound on his side. “What marks someone as corrupted?”

“I don't know, Dean,” Castiel snapped.

Dean gave him a guarded look and then nodded. “So we have to make it up as we go along. Well, that ain't nothing new. At least we've got the 'being from Earth' part covered.”

Despite feigning ignorance, Castiel eyed the veins at his wrist, etched out blue against his skin. If anything could stand as a sign of corruption, an angel that had absorbed a large portion of Purgatory's population had to qualify. For once, the string of bad decisions he'd made might come in handy for them.

He banished that thought and glanced back to Dean. “Even if we assume that I'm right, it's not that simple,” he said, shaking his head. “The ritual likely needs to be performed in a specific place and at a specific time.”

Dean sighed and slouched down further against the wall. It didn't look the slightest bit comfortable, but beds and hot meals were a thing of the past now. While Dean was trying to hold strong so far and hadn't uttered a single complaint about his wound, Castiel didn't know how long he would be able to survive like this.

“Okay, one thing at a time,” Dean said. “Where?”

“We'll want to find the place where the barrier between Purgatory and Earth is weakest. That's likely where the door opened when I—”

He cut off. When that wall had cracked open and revealed all those souls to him, he'd felt a sliver of what was on the other side, even if he hadn't seen anything specific. He could probably track down that location from in here as well, but it was best not to explain his full thought process to Dean.

“Once we leave this cave, I'll attempt to feel for it and we can start heading in that direction.”

“Works for me,” Dean said with a nod. “How about timing?”

“On the other side, it was on the night of the lunar eclipse,” Castiel stated, trying to force his voice to remain neutral. He was already on shaky ground, having to refer back to that night in such detail.

“So if your reverse theory is right, that would be the solar eclipse?”

“That's my guess.”

Dean winced and dragged a hand down his face. “It's not like we have Google here. How do we figure out when that is?”

Castiel paused and thought it over for a moment. Human technology wasn't the only way to find things out, after all. “Some of the creatures here are going to be familiar to us. If we find a sentient one, we can try to determine if there's any way to predict Earth's solar cycles from here.”

Dean straightened up, looking genuinely irritated. “Cas, I don't know if you've noticed, but it's not like we can just flag someone down to answer a few questions. Everything here wants to eat us.”

“Tear us limb from limb and feast on our entrails would be a more apt way of putting it.”

“...Thanks for that. But that's another thing,” Dean continued, leaning forward. He'd clearly given up on tending to his wound at this point. “Say they do feast on us or whatever—what happens then?”

“Everything here is already dead,” Castiel said, closing his eyes and recalling how often his own being had been ripped apart. Always put back together, and never quite as well as the previous time. How much longer before there was nothing left?

“Right, but we aren't.”

“No. But if we are killed here, we'll be trapped. Our souls will be pinned here, first to be torn apart by its creatures, then to become just as monstrous. We'll be forced through agony until we've transformed to the point that we belong here.” It was much like Hell in that way. So much for aiming to distract Dean from those thoughts.

Dean stared, mouth slightly ajar until he snapped it shut and tightened his jaw. “Right. No heroic sacrifices for either of us, then.”

Depending on how the ritual played out, provided they got to the right spot at the right time, a sacrifice might be exactly what was needed. But Castiel remained silent on that point.

Not that it lasted long. Dean pressed on. “So, you said something about running into familiar monsters. Do you mean—”

“The ones you've killed in your time as a hunter, yes.” Castiel was shocked that some of them hadn't caught their scent and come looking already.

Dean paused and stared down at the cave's floor, the weathered rock that had probably been here for the equivalent of millennia. How did time pass in Purgatory? If they ever did make it back to Earth, would there be anyone to greet them? There was too much he didn't know, and it left Castiel even more out of his element than he was already.

“Yeah, my guess is they aren't going to be all that eager to help us out,” Dean's said, his face pinched with an expression Castiel couldn't identify. For once, he realized it had nothing to do with him.

“That depends. Some of the monsters you dispatched, they asked for death. They felt guilt.” Castiel felt that sudden weight on his shoulders, pressing down his wings. After holding all of those creatures inside of him, was he any better than that now? No, he was certain that he'd qualify as corrupted for their ritual. “Like that vampire.”

“Lenore? The one you killed?” Dean gave him one of those looks, like Castiel wasn't understanding something that should have been very obvious.

But even though he'd been so many things—a fallen angel, a leviathan's vessel, a man named Emmanuel, a mental patient—he still didn't know exactly how being human worked. “Something in that vein, yes,” he said quietly.

“All right, all right,” Dean relented. “But what if they don't know anything?”

Dean made a good point. Assuming that a monster that had been caught in this wasteland for the past however-many years knew anything about Earth's solar cycles was a stretch even by their standards. “We think of something else,” Castiel responded. Yet despite grasping, his mind wasn't coming up with anything else at the moment.

It was all too tentative for his comfort, but there wasn't much that could be done about it. The fact that they had survived this long was shocking enough on its own, but surviving seemed to be the one thing he and Dean could do without question, even if it meant being brought back from death.

Dean drew a hand through his hair. “Guess we'll just have to figure something out.”

“You should rest for now.” Castiel's gaze settled on Dean's side, which looked to still be bleeding slightly, and he suddenly shrugged out of his trenchcoat. “Here,” he said as he extended the coat toward Dean. “Apply pressure.”

“What are you, a nurse? And it's fine—it's not as deep as it looks.”

Castiel frowned. “Why won't you let me help you?”

Dean looked taken aback by that, eyeing him for a moment before he shook his head. “It's not that. Just... look, I kept that thing so I could return it someday. Don't be so ready to get it bloody all over again.” He pulled a face and glanced away.

Castiel supposed Dean had a point. Slowly, he pulled it back on, realizing that it was still warm from Jimmy Novak's body heat. “I would heal you if I could, but I'm—”

Dean waved him off and then turned himself to the side so that he was pressed up against the rock wall. He closed his eyes. “Gonna try and sleep for a couple hours. Wake me up if one of those bastards comes knocking.”

Castiel nodded. While there was so much that he could no longer do, so many skills that he'd lost or given up for some greater sacrifice, watching Dean sleep was something he could still easily manage.

As he watched over Dean, he stared down at his hands, imagined the blood flowing beneath the skin, and wondered how much of it would need to be spilled to get Dean out of here in one piece.

However much was needed, he would give it up gladly.

---


Both Castiel and Dean were well aware that they had a deadline, and the fact that they had no idea what it was only made it harder to stay in one place for any long amount of time. But Dean needed to rest and to let his wound heal up at least slightly before they moved on, and so they settled into the cave for a few days. Or what felt like a few days, at the least. Sunrise and sunsets didn't exist here. There wasn't even a moon. Just dark, foreboding clouds that weren't there for looks alone—at one point, it poured for hours—and the howling of the wind as it cut through the cave and their bones.

Castiel set a few ground rules early on, most importantly that neither of them could venture out on their own, not even to forage for something. But seeing as Dean required sleep and he didn't, Castiel was willing to break his own rule if necessary.

Finding Dean a gun would be impossible, so they went for the next best thing. Dean focused on the branch that he'd grabbed from the forest and, with the help of Castiel's sword, carved it into a proper stake for himself. While a piece of sharpened wood wasn't likely to do much good against most of the creatures here, it all depended on the hands that weapon was placed in.

As time passed, Castiel tried to keep track of it, usually during the times when Dean slept. He counted each millisecond, second, minute, hour, but it didn't go as planned. Focus was a tenuous thing with him these days, and instead of counting, his mind flitted away somewhere else. He'd think of Meg watching him from the doorway of his hospital bedroom, of the face of a relieved patient who Emmanuel had healed, of Crowley's baffled expression when his attempts to exact revenge hadn't gone as planned.

And then Castiel would snap up, and recall what he'd been doing, and start counting again. There might not be a point to it, but it made him feel like he was sharpening his mind, working out an atrophied muscle.

Hiding out would get them nowhere, however, and so when Dean woke up after his fourth time resting, they decided it was time to move on. Before they slipped out of the relative safety of the cave, however, Dean stopped him.

“Hold on a second. How long do you think we've been here?”

Dean couldn't have known that Castiel had been trying to work on keeping track of time since they'd arrived. “I'm not certain,” he said after a pause. “You've slept four times thus far.”

“Yeah, but I run on less sleep than the average person. What I don't get is why I'm not hungry.”

It was so obvious that Castiel didn't understand why he hadn't noticed. Not that he could fly off and find fresh ingredients to make Dean a sandwich here. In fact, as far as he could tell from the little of Purgatory that he'd seen, there was nothing edible here period. All the monsters seemed to eat were each other.

“Hunger must not exist here,” he said plainly. That had to be strange for Dean, but in the end it worked to their advantage. Keeping Dean fed would have been one more obstacle to keep track of.

“Huh. I'd say that was a first, but...” Dean gave him a knowing look.

Castiel nodded, because he also remembered when the Horseman had rid Dean of his appetite. “Famine.”

That time, it had been about Dean's supposed emptiness, about how hollow he was underneath all that bravado and indulgence. Castiel hadn't said anything about it then, because he hadn't had the words and there hadn't been time. Not with the Apocalypse on the horizon.

He couldn't think of anything to say about it now, either (he knew every Earth language, and yet words still failed him), and so he moved past Dean and out of the cave.

On their way up the mountain path, Dean almost tripped over a rock and they heard something shift in response. Not willing to risk the assumption that it was just the wind, they broke into a run, which was much harder to manage when it was uphill. Not long after, Castiel rounded a corner too quickly and almost walked right into a wounded wendigo, left to bleed out by whatever had mauled it. It taught them how little room for error there was.

By Castiel's count, it felt like a day had passed before they reached the top of the mountain path and neared a flat stretch of land. His own body felt sore from the exertion, which was new to him, but he didn't bother telling Dean. He didn't need to worry him.

“Fucking finally,” Dean wheezed as he stumbled after him.

But as Castiel gained a view of what waited for them over that crest of land, he stopped dead in his tracks and reached behind him to hold Dean back, as if he could protect him from the sight.

“Dude, what gives?” But it didn't take long for Dean to pick up on Castiel's slight edge of panic. He forced himself forward.

For what seemed like eons to Castiel, the two of them stood side by side and stared. A literal ocean of blood stretched out before them, further than a human's eye could see, though Castiel could vaguely sense that it had an eventual end. The blood churned like water in some places, but Castiel noticed other areas where it looked coagulated. It bubbled, like there was something living inside it.

A human body had about five liters of blood in it, his mind provided—knowledge of the world he had picked up somewhere along the way, filtering in. And how many gallons of it was there here?

“This is what Bobby meant when he told me and Sam about Purgatory,” Dean said, finally breaking the silence. “Blood and bone. I thought...”

Castiel glanced over. He hadn't missed the way that Dean's voice wavered when he said Bobby's name. He remembered he'd sat on those wooden steps and watched as Sam and Dean burned the flask and put the man to rest, although Dean didn't know about that. Despite that, Castiel felt a strange urge to reach out for Dean, to place his hand on something that was alive. He stopped himself. “You thought what?”

“Well, I don't know. A lot of times, you hear stuff like that, you decide it's figurative. Not...” Dean waved out across the disturbing scene ahead of them. “Not like this.”

“We'll need to walk around,” Castiel said, feeling his body slump in response. They couldn't dwell. If they never paused for long enough to think too hard on the things they saw, they wouldn't ever have to. “I can't perceive far enough ahead to transport us.”

“It's better if we walk, anyway. We aren't gonna find anything to play twenty questions with if we keep jumping ahead. And I don't want to end up landing in a pile of monster guts or something.”

Aside from his attempt at humor, Dean was right. While it would be suicide to do anything but avoid the mindless beasts that wanted only to tear into them, both of them held some slight hope that there were other, more sentient things out there—and that at least one would know something.

They found the edge of the pool and started to move around it in silence. However, after a few minutes Castiel felt a presence, uncomfortably close, and both he and Dean stopped dead, on instinctive alert.

The blood, which Castiel had noted bubbling and popping like polluted swamp water since they'd started their trek, began doing so in a much more concentrated way. And then, something started to breach the surface.

Dean yanked him away and ducked behind an outcropping of rock. They watched in both horror and anticipation, and Castiel could tell that Dean was making efforts to take breaths as infrequently and silently as possible as the monster emerged.

Castiel first saw matted hair, draped over eyes that had sunk back in the creature's head. The empty sockets were filled with blood, which poured down a face that made a valiant attempt to look human and fell short somewhere. It took a moment to realize, but its skin was scaled, and its torso eventually developed into a massive tail. It slid forward, closer to them, and then Castiel could see that from its mouth jutted two fangs, likely filled with venom. Both of its hands came equipped with five razor-sharp claws. Naturally, it was covered in blood, as if it had gone to bathe in it, or perhaps had been born from it (was that how monsters came to be here?) and was now drying itself out on the reddened sand.

“What the—”

“Lamia,” Castiel said quietly. By now, he already knew what Dean was going to ask. For being a hunter, there was a lot that Dean still didn't know. Then again, he also wasn't accustomed to the creatures he fought looking quite this grotesque.

When it became clear that the lamia had no plans to move from this spot, Castiel pressed his hand against Dean's lower back, urging him to start moving away from the monster. Dean nodded and started to stand, but his boot scraped through the gravel underfoot, making a racket so loud that Castiel wanted to wince.

The lamia snapped its head in the direction of the noise, blood thrown from it like a dog shaking off water.

“Shit,” Dean hissed.

Castiel stood.

There was no choice then but to fight, and so they sprang out from opposite sides of the rock in unison, Castiel holding his blade, Dean his stake, as they attacked it as a team. The two of them had fought side-by-side countless times, but while working with Crowley, Castiel had made efforts to distance himself. It had been too long since it had felt this natural. Why did it take being trapped in Purgatory to return to this point?

Castiel lunged forward and swiped his blade across the lamia's chest, causing it to screech and swing its tail around frantically. It caught him on the side of his left leg, the force strong enough to send him crashing to the ground.

It left him open to further attacks, but he rolled out of the way right before the monster managed to rake its claws down his chest. As Castiel pulled himself to his feet, a strange static started in his head.

He ignored it—his mind wasn't worth trusting lately—and slid his way to the lamia's side. Dean was suddenly shoulder to shoulder with him, and when the lamia jerked its head forward, Castiel ducked and Dean buried his stake in its neck.

The static hadn't left, and hidden behind it Castiel could almost swear he heard a voice. He took a step back and watched as the lamia writhed and bled from Dean's stake, though somehow it was still vertical, still aiming to draw blood itself.

Castiel concentrated on the voice. He could barely make it out, like it was a bad radio signal, broken up by interference: “Cas? … hear me?”

It was only a split second that he paused, but that gave the lamia enough time to move toward him again, claws extended. Castiel pulled up his blade instinctively and the claws clashed against it, curling around it in attempt to bend it apart.

Dean came in from the side with his stake again and stabbed it in the same place, granting Castiel an opening to free his blade and press forward with it. Together, the pushed the lamia back until it had no choice but to retreat toward the large body of blood.

The lamia screeched and slid under the surface as it swam away, blood splashing around the movements of its powerful tail.

They stood there and caught their breath, watching until they couldn't track the creature's movement under the surface any longer.

“Look, I get not being completely sanitary, but that is so beyond a health violation,” Dean commented as he let his arms fall to his side.

As if in response to that statement, a small wave of blood crashed up against the shore, soaking their shoes and the bottom of their pants.

“Oh, goddammit!” Dean snarled as he grabbed for Castiel's arm and led him away from the shoreline. “I swear I'm gonna have AIDS by the time we get out of this place.”

Castiel was still distracted—he couldn't quite shake what he'd just heard, even though the voice had faded away. Three words, but he knew who'd spoken them, now that he had a moment to think about it. Having allowed himself to be dragged for a few seconds, he came to his senses and worked himself out of Dean's grip. It wasn't hard; even here, Dean was a man and he was an angel. “Dean,” he said firmly.

“I mean, a friggin' blood ocean? Whose messed up idea was that?”

“Dean.”

“How the hell does something like that even happen?”

Dean.”

Dean rounded on him. “What?”

“It's Sam,” Castiel said. “He... attempted to pray to me.”

Dean stared back, suddenly speechless. Castiel wasn't always correct with his analysis of facial expressions, but he could still see past that sometimes, to the soul beneath. From what he could tell, Dean was feeling a mix of guilt and relief.

Granted, guilt always lurked under Dean's skin, hiding in the cracks of his soul, between blood and tendons and the walls of his heart.

Castiel tried to regain control of his thoughts. He shook his head and forced his mouth to make words. “My guess is that he's currently attempting to find a way to get us out.”

“Of course he is,” Dean said with an exasperated roll of his eyes. “How's he think that's gonna turn out?”

“He must feel quite lost.” Castiel knew the feeling. He remembered how it'd felt when he'd had no one to turn to, or had at least felt that he didn't. Being left to make choices on his own clearly hadn't led anywhere good. He stared down at the bottom few inches of his pants even while they walked, the white hospital uniform now soaked in red. It seemed that no matter what he did to avoid conflict, he was always going to be dragged in, feet first.

“Yeah,” Dean admitted with a sigh, his brow furrowing in that protective way. It was an expression he only took on while thinking of Sam. “Still, we know what happened when you opened the door. What if more of these things get out?”

Having moved far enough away from where they'd last seen the lamia, Castiel stopped and eased himself down onto a rock. His gaze moved down to his hands. He remembered when he'd sat this way on a park bench, when he'd turned to his Father for help, but he had no expectations of Him now. He, Dean, and Sam were the only people he could truly rely on, and he could barely trust himself these days.

“If we don't want to spend the rest of eternity here, the door will need to open one way or another,” he said. “I do think it would be best if we do it from this side. I should be able to keep most of the creatures here at bay.” Or, if necessary, he would stay here with them. The corrupted left with the corrupted. It made sense.

The leviathans presented a larger concern, but thus far he hadn't seen any here. Castiel hadn't forgotten Dick Roman, but if the creature that had stolen that man's name had been banished here with them, it hadn't come looking for revenge.

Perhaps it had learned its lesson. Or perhaps it was biding its time.

Before Dean could respond, Castiel pressed on. “However, if we can find a way to communicate with Sam, he'll be a great help to us. He could tell us when the next solar eclipse would be.”

At first, Dean looked like he might protest. Castiel could guess why. On top of Dean being protective, the truth was that Sam had already done enough, but Castiel knew that Sam would make efforts to free them whether they asked or not. It would make more sense to give him a specific task, one that in the long run was less dangerous than whatever he might try on his own.

The look faded from Dean's face and he nodded. “Yeah, you're right. Sammy's gonna get involved no matter what we do, so we might as well make use of it. You think you can get through to him?”

“I might have a way,” Castiel responded with a nod. “But we'll need to find a place to rest first.”

Dean shifted his weight and kicked his feet against the ground a few times, trying to get some of the blood off his pants—a completely futile action.“Okay, and after we do that? Let's find some actual water so I can wash off and feel like a human being again.”

Castiel couldn't argue with that, especially since any attempts he'd made to clean either of them had been ineffective. He didn't know if they would actually be able to locate any clean water, but certain monsters lived in bodies of water—hopefully that ocean of blood wasn't all this place had to offer.

“If Sam tries to contact me again, I'll of course let you know,” he said after a pause.

Dean nodded and stepped forward, extending his hand to him to help him up. “Yeah, you better. Knowing him, he'll try another ten times at least.” His mouth quirked then, as if he was enjoying some sort of personal joke.

It was the closest that Dean had gotten to a smile since they'd arrived here. Castiel wasn't surprised that Sam was the cause of it. After a brief pause, he grabbed for Dean's hand and let him pull him up to his feet. For a split second, their faces were mere inches away, but then he remembered—personal space—and pulled back.

They kept walking.

---


They didn't find any bodies of water, but after trudging through mulch and sand, all saturated with blood, so strong Castiel could smell it, they found the other side of the pool, or lake, or whatever word would fit best. Words likely didn't exist to describe Purgatory, as most of its denizens didn't speak. Dean took to calling it the “real Red Sea,” which caused Castiel to roll his eyes. Leave Dean to take a religious landmark and sully it.

Castiel remarked that there was no comparison. When Dean said that he wouldn't know and stared off, Castiel made a silent promise to himself that he would show the Red Sea to him if they ever left this place. Even if Dean disliked Castiel's method of travel, it didn't seem right that the man had seen more of Purgatory than his own realm.

They struggled up a small hill—on the other side of it, what looked to be an expansive field sprawled out before them. Beyond it, far enough that he had to squint to make it out against the dark backdrop, stood a mountain.

“Dean, do you see that?” he asked, lifting a hand to point it out.

Dean stared out for a few seconds and then nodded. “Yeah. That looks a lot taller than the one we climbed up before.”

That was due to the fact that Castiel had flown them part of the way, but Dean's point still stood. However, this mountain called out to him in a much more obvious way. “At the top of that mountain... I can sense that the barrier between Purgatory and Earth is very weak there.”

Dean snapped his gaze to him. “It is? So that's—”

Castiel nodded.

“Right. So we have to scale a mountain before we get to go home. Color me surprised,” Dean said. With a frustrated sigh, he trudged down toward the field.

Castiel followed, though he couldn't shake the thought that they wouldn't be leaving this place unless they climbed that mountain and got to the top before the next solar eclipse. The sooner he could communicate with Sam, the better.

As they approached the field, Castiel spotted strange indentations in the ground, dark spots and misplaced earth. The earth had been burrowed open, almost as if some large creature had mowed its way through it, offering passage. What reason could there be for such a thing? Castiel had the distinct feeling he didn't want to know. “It's a series of tunnels,” he said once he realized.

“What do you think even lives in there?” Dean asked uncertainly.

“Nothing lives in this place, Dean,” Castiel responded as he moved forward.

“You know what I mean,” Dean grumbled, unable to keep the exhaustion out of his voice. “And wait, hold on—do we really want to go in there?”

No. That was the short answer. Castiel turned to Dean, wiping what he thought was a mix of dirt and blood from his forehead. “We could try to go another way, but our options are limited.”

Steep cliff walls flanked them, and just the thought of trying to climb left him exhausted. Though he'd felt oddly tired since they'd left the cave. In his opinion, the tunnels were the easier option.

Dean shrugged. “I'm just sayin', Cas, one of the first rules you learn on the road is you don't enter dark, enclosed spaces unless a safe word's involved.”

And the first rule you learned as an angel was never to get too close to humans, Castiel's mind provided, but he bit it down.

“If you really would rather scale those walls, then—”

He was interrupted by the shrieking of a pack of winged creatures overhead. More harpies, or maybe something worse, but the clouds were hiding them for now. That likely wouldn't last long. He and Dean exchanged a look, and in a quiet agreement tossed aside the other options and raced for the tunnels. They found an entrance and let it envelope them without the chance to consider what dangers might lie ahead.

Once the cries of the creatures outside faded, they started to wind their way through the dark passages. Castiel kept his eye on Dean all the while. He was a mess, one arm held protectively against his wounded side while he clutched his blood-encrusted stake with the other. Castiel realized that he couldn't look much better, but he'd at least avoided serious injury thus far.

Dean palmed at his jeans pocket as if searching for something. “I can't see a damn thing,” he whispered.

Castiel closed his eyes for a moment, pulling at senses from beyond his human form. It gave him a greater idea of what surrounded them, but also told him more than he wished to know. The soil was inundated with both blood and bone, the result of constant fighting over the same piece of land. It made him further aware of how that so-called Red Sea had come to be.

“Follow me closely,” he said as he pushed past Dean and picked up the pace, ignoring the fatigue that continued to plague him. He stopped suddenly when they reached a dead end, and Dean walked right into his back, almost sending both of them to the ground.

“Okay, look,” Dean snapped as he regained his balance, “I know you have these spider senses that let you know where to go, but some of us here are human.”

Castiel frowned and tilted his head. “I'm not an arachnid.”

“Cas, the point is... can't you make some kind of light somehow? I mean, halos and all that.”

Dean was expecting things of him again. That, at least, was familiar. The solution to their problem came to Castiel quickly, and he manifested his blade. Before Dean could wonder why it was in his hand, Castiel inflicted a small cut near his left wrist. From it emitted a faint glow, but it was enough to illuminate the area around them.

“Cas, what the hell?!” Dean glared at him.

“This is the easiest way,” Castiel responded, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

Mutilating yourself is the easiest way?” Dean didn't look impressed. In fact, his brow was furrowed as if he was in some sort of distress.

“I thought I told you before,” Castiel said plainly, shrugging his shoulders. “Always willing to bleed—”

“Shut up, Cas,” Dean snarled. “It's different when you're low on mojo.” It seemed that Dean had noticed that the few bruises that Castiel had acquired while climbing and running and fighting hadn't faded yet. Dean eyed the wound, though he couldn't look at it directly, his eyes too weak to bear glimpsing even a small part of an angel's true essence.

“It's done now,” Castiel pointed out. “Let's not waste it.”

While Dean didn't seem any happier about it, he'd gotten his light source, and so they kept moving. Castiel kept his forearm raised up at chest level to light the way, and Dean walked close near his elbow so that he could see where he was going.

Sometimes they heard howls of hunger or pain in the distance, or felt the dirt walls shuddering around them, signaling the displacement of earth. When that happened Castiel tried to move them in an opposite direction. Each step forward took them further down, though, and it reached a point where even Castiel couldn't tell how far underground they were. Every sound was muffled by the large amount of soil above their heads.

One dead end led them into a decently sized clearing, and instead of turning around to go back the way they came, Castiel felt his body sway as he leaned against a wall.

“Please tell me we're making camp,” Dean said. Castiel looked over his shoulder and saw the dark circles under his eyes.

Castiel had hoped they would find their way out of these tunnels before they rested again, but that clearly wouldn't be possible. At least this would give him a chance to try and contact Sam. He let himself sink to the floor and closed down the scope of his senses so that his mind wouldn't linger on the fact that he was sitting on the remnants of gore.

The moment that he settled down, Dean kneeled next to him and stared at his wrist. The glow had slowly faded while they'd been traveling, which made it easier for Dean to look at now. “We should wrap that up.”

Castiel closed his eyes and shook his head. In some ways, he would never understand this human. “I'm not prone to infection, and it's no longer bleeding. We also have nothing in the way of bandages.”

Even with his eyes closed, he could feel Dean's rhetorical feathers ruffling. Castiel heard him suck in a breath, like he was ready to argue back, but instead he remained quiet.

For a moment, the distance between them felt like a chasm.

When Castiel opened his eyes, he saw Dean leaned up against the opposite wall. “We can try to contact Sam now,” he told him.

Dean snapped to attention. “Right. How do we do this?”

“The usual methods won't work,” Castiel said, hoping to brace Dean. “We'll need to use something stronger.”

“Some details would be nice, Cas.”

Always so demanding. Castiel tried not to chafe against it. “Communicating by voice isn't possible, so we'll do it with the written word.”

Dean laughed hollowly. “Do you have a pen on you?”

“In blood,” Castiel finally announced.

Dean looked back, nonplussed. “Well, naturally.”

It wasn't ideal. They'd already lost blood while on the run (or Dean had, at least), but there was no other way that Castiel could think of. “I'll also need something that has a trace of Sam's essence on it. Do you have anything suitable?”

Dean briefly looked like he was on the spot, but he dug around in his jacket pockets until he found his wallet. He started to page through it. “Knowing us, I probably have... yeah, here we go.” He pulled out a card and then scooted forward on his knees to hand it over.

Castiel grabbed hold of an identification card with Sam's picture on it, along with a pseudonym. He could sense Sam's spiritual signature on it. “This should work.”

He set the card in front of him and then turned his attention to the cut on his wrist. He started to dig his nails in around the wound.

“Cas!” Dean yelled, his tone hinting on reprimanding as he pulled close again. He almost looked squeamish, which struck Castiel as ridiculous considering where they were.

“This is how it has to be,” Castiel said, his voice taking an edge to it as he lost his patience. Why did Dean keep hovering over him? Did he still not trust him? And if so, could Castiel even hold that against him?

“Just—use the damn knife,” Dean shot back. “It's cleaner.”

Castiel could do that, and so he made a cut. The resulting light got Dean to put distance between them again, and Castiel decided it might be better that way. “I'll keep the message short.”

Once enough blood had seeped out of the wound, Castiel mopped it up with his fingers and dragged them through the dirt next to the identification card, making letters.

“What are you writing?” Dean asked. He craned his neck up, as if he could read it from where he was sitting.

“Solar eclipse,” Castiel responded. “That should be clear enough, correct?”

Dean paused for a moment as he thought it over. “May want to add a question mark at the end. But yeah, my nerdy brother should be able to go from there.”

Castiel nodded and kept working, nicking his wrist and widening the wound when he needed more blood. “There,” he said once he'd finished, leaning back to admire his work. “It's done.” He stretched his hand over the soil and closed his eyes, concentrating on Sam's soul. The message then came alight for a few seconds before dissipating.

“There goes nothing,” Dean muttered.

“Now we just need to hope that Sam can figure out how to respond.”

Dean glanced over and frowned. “How does he respond?”

“The same way I did.”

“Wait, so you mean—with his blood?”

While Castiel hadn't necessarily thought about it explicitly, he hadn't told Dean that part until now for a reason. The conflicted look Dean wore now convinced him that had been the right decision.

“I don't like it,” Dean said with a shake of his head.

“If there was another way, don't you think I would have said something?” No matter what he did, it wasn't good enough. Castiel fought between frustration at that and the belief that it was only what he deserved after everything he'd done.

Dean eyed him for a few seconds before he slumped back against the wall. “Yeah, I know,” he said. “I know. It's like everything in Purgatory is at least twice as annoying.”

Castiel nodded. “Even Hell has a closer connection with Earth. Sam's prayers would have made it to me in full clarity there.”

Without warning, an awkward silence descended over them. When Dean shifted in place, Castiel recognized his mistake. Since their arrival, he'd hoped to keep Dean's thoughts off of Hell, but now the word had been spoken and he couldn't take it back.

“Maybe, yeah,” Dean said. Castiel noticed that he was wringing his fingers together, like a nervous twitch, but when Dean looked up again he had a smirk on his face. “Hey, now I've been to Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. What do I win?”

Castiel stared at him for a few seconds, blinking tiredly. His eyelids felt heavy, but his hope was that Dean wouldn't notice. “Do not pass go,” he said quietly. “Do not collect two hundred dollars.” He thought of the monopoly board in the hospital that he'd set up with all of the pieces and money, but had never actually played.

Dean looked at him like he was completely insane, and Castiel realized that wasn't entirely undeserved.

He cleared his throat and continued. “Unfortunately, I don't think we'll be awarded anything.”

“What a ripoff,” Dean groused.

Castiel shrugged, because he couldn't say anything that would be a reassurance, and he'd learned that in those cases it was better to stay quiet.

After a few moments passed, Dean let out a breath. “Look, we made it out of Hell. That means we can take this place, too.”

That didn't reassure Castiel much. Hell was familiar. He knew of its rules, residents, and restrictions. While finding Dean and pulling him out had been difficult—and doing the same with Sam even more so—he had managed it. Purgatory was completely new to him, and he didn't enjoy learning as he went.

“I kind of thought they'd be similar,” Dean continued when Castiel offered no response, “but they're not, really.”

Castiel's back straightened. Dean speaking about Hell was something that simply didn't happen. While he had a decent idea of what Dean had gone through while imprisoned there, he had never dared to ask for more details, and Dean had never offered them.

Now that he had, Castiel knew that he had to be a comforting force, an anchor. He had to be a proper guardian. Or, if he wasn't strong enough for that anymore, he had to at least say something or it was possible that Dean would never open this door again. Castiel couldn't falter now, couldn't blurt out something nonsensical. He tried to think of Heaven to ground himself, of years spent there and of everything that made him Castiel.

But what was that, exactly? Once, it had been duty, and loyalty to a single God, but everything had changed. Some things had been added, others had crumbled and fallen apart. He didn't know which parts had been pasted onto him and which ones belonged.

For that reason, he attempted to keep it simple. “Purgatory seems to... sprawl more.”

“I guess so,” Dean said, but his discomfort stood out even to Castiel. He seemed to be incapable of eye contact at the moment. “I mean, here we've just been roaming around. Sure, stuff's wanted to kill us, but back in Hell? There was no way I would've been left alone. Not unless I was restrained somehow.” His face was pinched, imprinted with bad memories.

“You sold your soul,” Castiel stated. “And you're a Winchester. Michael's vessel, the first seal. They had to keep a close eye on you.”

Dean bit his lower lip and forced out a sigh, as if each title Castiel had given him just added more weight onto his shoulders. “Right. The righteous man, who broke in Hell.” But then the pained look on his face faded, and he smiled slightly. “Gotta say, though, I think I may prefer this place.”

“Why?” The question came out before Castiel thought over whether it was wise or not to ask.

“Well, for one thing, I'm not alone this time.” Dean finally looked over and shrugged.

The uncertainty Castiel had felt earlier dissipated briefly. There Dean sat, covered in blood and grease, but there was a sheen to his eyes that meant one thing to Castiel: hope.

Castiel didn't understand how Dean could still have faith in him, but that forgiveness he'd spotted before all this seemed to have been genuine after all. He stared down at the wound on his wrist, at his stained, borrowed clothing, and saw nothing of worth. “I'll do whatever's necessary to get you home.”

“To get us home,” Dean insisted, trying to meet Castiel's gaze. For once, Castiel resisted.

“Home,” he echoed. “I don't think I have one anymore.”

Dean frowned and stared down at his lap for a moment, oddly contemplative. They weren't in a position to be having a conversation like this when something could come after them at any second, but somehow it had happened anyway. Maybe that meant it was overdue.

“I get that, man. I do. But home's what you make of it. I had to learn that the hard way.”

Castiel thought about that cabin they'd stayed in, about the wrinkles he'd seen on his hands after he'd washed the dishes. He thought of Dean's car, which smelled of oil and bad food and thrummed with music, and wondered if he could truly be a part of any of that.

It seemed both far away and impossible, and yet he realized that if they did make it back to Earth, he had no idea where else he would go.

“In any case,” Castiel said after a long pause. Dean's head snapped up, and Castiel realized he'd been dozing off. It must have been another one of those moments when his mind had cast itself away and he'd lost track of the time passing. “You'll see Earth again. And Sam.”

“Yeah, Cas,” Dean said as scrubbed a hand over his eyes. “I know.”

Castiel didn't respond, but instead watched as Dean's eyes fluttered closed, as his breathing evened out and he shifted against the tunnel wall behind him. Castiel could have sat there for hours, but his own exhaustion was insistent and something about the rhythmic way that Dean's chest moved up and down was utterly calming.

As much as Castiel tried to remind himself that they were in danger, that he needed to be Dean's guardian angel—as he'd appointed himself, even when he'd been rubbing shoulders with Crowley—and keep an eye out, his vessel had other ideas. For a moment he thought of Daphne, of how she had pressed her body against Emmanuel's. He remembered how the feel of her breathing had lulled him to sleep.

Dean inhaled, and then Castiel exhaled in turn. Somehow, the warm embrace of sleep overtook him even in this dead space, this blood-soaked land. As the glow from his wound died out, he drifted away into unconsciousness.


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