Now you know how much my love for you
burns deep in me
when I forget about our emptiness,
and deal with shadows as with solid things.
-- Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio
"I'm the only one that can save them," Rowena says, her throat fluttering beneath Dean's hand. He can feel her heart beating, hear it under the blood rushing in his ears. "What's it going to be... hero?"
Dean leans into her a little, smiles with his teeth at the way she tenses, at the soft, frightened breath she takes. It would be so easy to push the knife in, to let it glide through the thin skin below her chin.
"Fix them," he says instead. He backs off a step, but he slides the knife down past her collarbone, digs the point into the red sigil curling above the neck of her dress. The Mark is screaming on his arm. "Now."
He hits the john again after Crowley leaves, stares at the mirror until he doesn't recognize his own face, watches his eyes flicker between green and black until Donnie bangs on the door, asks if he fell in.
The smell of sulfur stings his nose, burns the back of his throat.
The idea comes to him halfway through a twenty-sixer of Devil's Cut.
He should've thought of it sooner.
The next morning, Sam heads up to Hastings for a salt-and-butane Wal-Mart run. Dean waits until the Impala clears the frontage road, then walks two miles north and west, following the county highway until it meets a gravel track that connects two farms. It's a cold, colorless day, the air sharp enough to cut through Dean's clothes; the sky is empty and the sunlight is watery, too thin to push between the clouds.
He puts the cat bones and graveyard dirt in a plastic sack he finds in the brush, and he draws the devil's trap wide, stretching the circle until it touches all four of the crossroad's corners. It doesn't take long: there's a rustle over Dean's shoulder and a slow whiff of sulfur, and then someone says, "Oh, fuck me," in a thick, smoky voice.
Dean turns. The demon's meatsuit is a tall, dark-skinned guy with a strong jaw and perfect teeth -- the kind of teeth that just ask to be kicked in, smashed with a fist.
"Dean Winchester," the sonofabitch says, his eyes flashing red. "Will this be business or my displeasure?"
"Take a guess."
"Well, business is probably out. The rumor is you don't have much of a soul left."
Dean backhands him, gritting his teeth as the Mark writhes under his sleeve like a snake. "I got a question for you."
"What makes you think I'll answer it?"
"You will," Dean says, easing his angel blade from his pocket. "I wasn't planning on giving you a choice."
The demon chokes out a noise, spitting blood as he sucks in a breath. "I don't know."
"Exorcizamus te," Dean says, just to make the bastard shake. "Omnis immundus spiritus, omnis --"
"Stop -- stop it!"
"Then give me a name."
"I don't know."
Dean punches him in the jaw; the angel blade in his fist gives him more than enough force to shatter the bone. "Omnis satanica potestas, omnis --"
"You wouldn't," the demon hisses, the words jumbling around his swollen tongue. He sucks in another breath and smoke puffs from his nose and mouth. "If you send me off, you'll have to start all over."
"So?" Dean drags the angel blade down the curve of the demon's ribs. "I've got nowhere else to be." He leans in a little, lets the blade bite deeper. "Give me a name."
"I told you, I don't --"
Dean grabs the demon around the throat, nudges his chin to make room for the angel blade. "Last chance."
"All right, all right, I -- I've seen one or two, but it's not like I talked to them." The demon sags in Dean's grip, his shoulders jerking, hunching down. "They're fucking transportation. All they do is schlep souls, and they only deliver downstairs if the are hellhounds too busy."
Dean smacks the angel blade against the demon's broken jaw; the Mark rages at the pathetic, wounded noise he makes. "Name."
She's a tiny thing, short and thin and blonde; she regards him with a cold, furious stare when he asks, then snaps, "No," in a voice like breaking glass.
The summoning symbols are still glowing on the dusty walls. Dean wonders if she's crammed into a vessel like April had been, or if she's like Tessa, just a phantom, smoke and mirrors and intent. "I know you know a way."
"Of course I do. We all do. That doesn't mean I'm going to take a living soul there. Especially --" she sneers "-- yours."
"Look, this is a one-way trip," Dean says. He slides his hand toward his hip in case he needs his angel blade fast. "Once I'm through that door, you'll never see me again."
She makes a soft, incredulous noise. "What about your brother? What about Castiel?"
"I -- I." Clearing his throat, Dean looks away, toward the far corner of the barn, where the demon's corpse is heaped on a moldy pile of hay, smoke still rising from the hole in his chest. He doesn't want to think about Cas. "They don't know I'm doing this. Nobody does."
"Castiel never should've pulled you out of hell," she spits.
Dean doesn't argue; he's told himself the same thing at least a thousand times.
He comes out through a narrow space between two rocks.
He takes a deep breath, tastes damp earth and wood-rot. The Mark is silent on his arm, cold, nothing but an ugly scar.
A pair of werewolves find him almost immediately.
Dean is prepared this time, isn't scrambling in the dirt for rocks and sticks to defend himself. He has his old purgatory shiv, his angel blade, a vamp machete, and two other small knives. The werewolves are scrappy fighters, but Dean slices through them pretty quickly, chopping off their heads and pushing the angel blade into their hearts.
When the dust clears, all he feels is a dull ache in his shoulders and the sweat pricking at the back of his neck.
He hadn't lied when he told Sam purgatory felt pure.
There are no questions here, no gray areas. All he has to do is survive.
A twig snaps behind him; as Dean is turning around, a familiar voice says, "Well, I can't say I expected to see your sorry hide again."
"Benny." Dean lowers his shiv, shifting his weight from foot to foot; his instinct is to hug his friend, but he doesn't know if they still are. He'd chopped off Benny's head in a dirty alleyway, and Sam had come back from purgatory alone. Sam had sworn up and down it had been Benny's decision to stay; Dean wants to believe that, but he's never been sure.
"I heard some talk about a human running around here again, but I didn't think you'd be dumb enough to get sent here a second time."
"You know how it is. Us hunters, always jumping from one disaster to another."
Benny smiles; he looks different than Dean remembers, older, a little worn around the edges. He nods toward the sky, which is just starting to blister along the horizon. "Come on. Your private door is right where you left it."
"No," Dean says, shaking his head. "I -- I'm not going back this time."
"Let me get this straight," Benny says quietly. They're sitting at the top of a low rise, their backs to a sheer rock face about twenty feet tall. Anything coming for them would have to approach from below; they'd see a threat a long way off. "You booked a reaper flight to monster heaven on purpose?"
"And you're planning to stay?"
Benny laughs under his breath. "You know, I was kidding back there when I called you dumb. I'm not so sure now."
"This is --" Dean almost says, this is where I belong, but it doesn't feel right; Benny had tried so hard not to be a monster, is only here now because Dean needed a favor. "This thing," he says instead, rubbing the Mark through his sleeve, "it had me kill-crazy. I hurt some people. I nearly killed the people I care about. And then -- I just, I couldn't stay up there. It wasn't safe."
"What about that angel of yours?" Benny asks, stretching his legs. "Did he --"
"He's not my angel." Heat crawls across the back of Dean's neck, crowds up underneath his jaw. He and Cas never have, mostly because Dean had been too afraid, and now they never will. "I didn't -- he doesn't know I'm here."
Benny whistles through his teeth. "That's cold, friend. And I'm saying that as someone who let you cut off my girlfriend's head."
"Is she here? Angela?"
"Andrea." Benny pauses for a moment, the mulch beneath him hissing and crackling as he leans back against the rocks. "She's here. I ran into her pretty soon after I got your brother straightened out."
Benny pulls up his shirt, flashing a jagged scar that forks up his side like a lightning bolt. "Let's just say it didn't work out."
It's best to keep moving in purgatory, so they spend most of their time walking, skirting the edges of the deep forest, where it's colder and darker because the tree canopy blots out the grayish light in the sky. They stick to the high ground as best they can, places where the trees are thinner, more evenly spaced, and they fight whatever crosses their path. It's mostly earth-monsters -- vamps, shifters, werewolves, ghouls -- but they also stumble into some stuff Dean hasn't seen since his last stint down here, hunchbacked dogs that drool and breathe fire, man-shaped things with goat horns and hooves for feet, trollish creatures that don't die easy, have to be stabbed at the base of the skull.
It's bloody and exhausting and terrible, but Dean never loses his head, always feels like himself.
They get ambushed by a pair of leviathan, but Benny decapitates one right away, and Dean manages a good swing at the other after ducking to avoid a bite to the shoulder. The bodies collapse in a heap, their arms tangled as their hands scrabble through the humus; Dean grabs the heads and hurls them into the trees, and then he and Benny run in the other direction.
They come out of the forest beside the river; when Dean sees it he freezes, nearly stumbles over his feet.
It's like looking at a memory, Cas crouched beside the rocks and washing his hands, except this Cas is cleaner, is wearing his new coat. Dean is half-convinced he's hallucinating -- it wouldn't be the first time, at least where Cas is concerned -- but then Benny elbows his side and mutters, "I thought you said you didn't invite him to this party."
"I -- I didn't." Dean rubs his hand over his face, glances back at the trees. "I don't know how he --"
"Hello, Dean," Cas says, his voice sharper than a gunshot.
"Dean Winchester," Cas shouts, every line in his body an accusation. "You are unbelievable. You disappear without a word, leave your brother --"
"That was the point," Dean says, forcing his voice low. If they keep making this much noise, every monster for a mile is going to come running.
"What was the point? To exile yourself to this --" Cas gestures wildly at the trees "-- this land of abominations?"
"Hey, now," Benny starts, but Cas just waves him off.
"You don't belong here, Dean."
"Yeah, I do."
Cas is silent for a moment, deadly silent, bristling with so much anger his hands are clenched at his sides; just as he finally opens his mouth, something rustles in the trees, and then a handful of werewolves snarl their way out into the open. Dean grabs Cas' arm, pulling until he's standing at Dean's side, against Benny's back.
"This isn't finished," Cas warns, white-blue light sparking behind his eyes.
"It's unlike you," Cas says, a werewolf corpse smoking at his feet. His hands are streaked with blood and dirt. "Giving up when things are difficult -- you've never been a quitter."
"This is different," Dean snaps, because difficult doesn't even begin to cover it. "I nearly killed Charlie. I nearly killed Sam. I --" He almost says, I've dreamed about killing you, because he has, about Cas' wings scorching the ground and Cas' grace flaring from his chest, but it's too much -- even now, in a place where honesty is a little easier. "I told you, I belong here."
"No, you don't."
"Yeah, Cas, I do."
"You said the same thing in hell," Cas says, stepping over the werewolf's body. "I didn't listen to you then, either."
"How -- how did you figure it out?" Dean asks, swinging his shiv at the brush as they slip through the trees. "How did you know I came here?"
Cas points at Dean's shiv. "That. It had such a prominent place on your wall, so I assumed you removing it had meaning."
"The empty whiskey bottle was another clue. Coming here is not a decision anyone would make sober."
Two more leviathans find them, streaking in like demon smoke, then crashing to the ground and curling up into things with sharp teeth and long, forked tongues. Cas' grace is useless against them, so Dean pushes his machete into Cas' hands; he positions himself so that Cas is flanked between him and Benny, fights with his heart beating in his throat.
"I haven't seen one of those chompers since your brother scooted out of here," Benny says afterward, scraping the black goo from his blade with a handful of dead leaves. "Now we've fought four. If you're hoping to live here in whatever this place calls peace, that angel of yours will have to get gone."
"I know," Dean says quietly. The leviathans had gone down noisily, so noisily that a ghoul had come sniffing around; Cas has it by the throat a few feet away, his face stone-blank as smoke and light pour from the creature's mouth. "I know. I'll take him to the portal, and he --"
"No." Cas lets the ghoul's corpse drop, then walks over to Dean, wiping his hands on his coat. "I'm not leaving here without you."
"I already told you, I'm --"
"Listen to me, Dean," Cas says, his voice cracking through the trees like a whip. "I'm not leaving here without you."
"Damn it, Cas, I --"
Cas kisses him, pushing his tongue into Dean's mouth as he shoves Dean back against a tree.
Cas kisses like a fight, all teeth and digging, grasping fingers, anger snapping around him like a live wire. He gets his hand around Dean's throat, just like he had with the ghoul, uses the grip to tip Dean's head the way he wants, presses his thumb at the corner of Dean's mouth when he finally pulls away.
"You're the strongest human I've ever seen, and your soul --" Cas leans back a little more, his eyes soft as he glances at Dean's chest "-- you can fight Cain's curse, but you have to let me help you. You have to let Sam --"
"What if I hurt you?" Dean asks, unable to breathe. He feels like he's being strangled from the inside, has a sour knot burning in his throat. "What if I, what if I --"
Cas kisses him again, with less anger but more fervor; the naked desperation behind it scares Dean a little, but he loves it too, and he tugs Cas closer before he realizes what he's doing, his hands fisted in the front of Cas' coat. He can't see Benny, but he can hear him moving around a couple feet away; he's probably pissing himself laughing.
"If you truly believe you belong here, then I'm staying with you," Cas says, his mouth moving against Dean's jaw. "I will hate every minute of it, but I'll have you, and that will be enough."
Dean had had nightmares after his last stint in purgatory; all of them had been about Cas being trapped there alone, Cas being bitten by vamps, ripped apart by werewolves, eaten by leviathan.
Cas deserves better, even if Dean doesn't.
"You don't have to come with us," he tells Benny. "Not unless you want to hitch another ride."
Benny hums under his breath. "That wouldn't be polite. Where I was raised, you always see your guests to the door."
He hugs Benny on the rock shelf just below the portal, asks, "Are you sure?" in a tight, shaking voice.
"It's a tempting offer, friend, but it's better if I don't," Benny says. "I meant it when I told your brother I was never any good up there."
Reaching the portal is a fight, and falling through it hurts like hell, feels like being burned from the inside, being frozen from top to bottom. Dean lands on his hands and knees, gasping for air, digging his fingers in the cold, wet dirt. The Mark stirs on his arm, asleep but aware, and then Cas helps him up, pulls him close.
They follow the trail until it becomes a road, follow that until a chick in a rattletrap pickup pulls up alongside them and offers them a lift in the back. She drops them off in the center of the nearest town; they cross the street toward a cheap motel, and outside the manager's office Cas digs his phone out of his pocket. It looks more than a little mangled, but it works, maybe just because Cas wants it too.
"Hello, Sam," he says. "Yes, I found him. We're in Maine. Yes, that Maine." He pauses for a second, covering his other ear as a train whistle blares in the distance. "I don't have my car -- no, the reaper portal I used was in Cincinnati. We could steal one, but I -- yes, all right. Three days."
Dean suddenly feels tired, exhaustion rolling over him like a wave.
The room is small and drowning in New England kitsch, but it's warm and it has a shower.
Dean stands under the spray for close to an hour, watching as purgatory's blood and grime swirls into the drain between his feet.
Dean comes out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around his hips; before he can find his clothes, Cas catches him by the waist, turning him and pushing him down on the bed. The mattress creaks under their sudden weight, and the bedspread is scratchy, sticks roughly to Dean's wet skin.
They kiss for a long time, slower and easier than they had in purgatory, the motel weirdly silent after the constant shift of monsters in the trees, and it leaves Dean breathless, the warm press of Cas' mouth, the slick glide of his tongue. They stop once when Cas leans up to pull off his shirt, and again when he fumbles with the zipper of his slacks; he slides on top of Dean after that, pinning Dean back against the pillows, his eyes dark and his dick rubbing along the crease of Dean's hip.
Dean slips a hand between them, skimming his fingers down Cas' side before running them up the length of Cas' dick, and the noise Cas makes is filthy, beautiful. He shifts them onto their sides, mouthing kisses down Dean's jaw as he tangles their legs together, his thigh nudging in close, right where Dean can grind against it. Dean rolls his hips, gasping, and he strokes Cas steady and slow, running his thumb over the head of Cas' dick because it makes Cas' mouth fall open, his eyes fluttering closed as he moans against Dean's cheek.
He slides his hand down to cover Dean's, tangles their fingers together. He murmurs Dean's name like a prayer. The lights flicker a little when he comes.
He accidentally bumps the Mark as he's catching his breath, and Dean hisses, almost jerking away; it doesn't hurt, but he's afraid of it, of what could happen if it starts waking up.
Cas pushes Dean onto his back, presses his come-sticky hand over the Mark, hard.
"You're mine," Cas says, his voice a dangerous rumble. "Cain's curse can't have you. I won't allow it."
The world tilts to one side. Dean comes clawing at the sheets.
"What if I hurt someone," Dean asks later, his fingers drifting through Cas' hair.
"You don't know that. You --"
"I know exactly how strong you are." Cas leans up on his elbow, presses his hand to the center of Dean's chest. "I've seen your soul. I know what's it's capable of."