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Over the Hills and Far Away

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***

Dean dreams of the sea: the lulling pull of the tide, the roar of waves breaking on some distant shore, and the feeling of going under, under. He wakes up gasping for air, his skin damp and cool, his entire body submerged in a mountain of quilts and blankets. For a moment he can't remember where he is.

Weak sunlight seeps in through floral-patterned curtains, which sway in the breeze slipping through the open window. Dean squints against the early morning light, against the all-too-familiar throbbing in his head. A moment passes before he's able to open his eyes long enough to adjust them to his surroundings.

Dean remembers then, eyes sweeping across the bedroom, taking in the homey decor of one of Missouri Mosely's guest rooms. The walls are a light cream color, the wardrobe and dresser carved out of rich, dark mahogany. He recognizes the smooth, sweeping curlicue patterns carved into the ceiling's crown molding for what they are: warding symbols, protective runes. Dean sees his duffle sitting by the open closet door, and his jacket hanging from the desk chair. He remembers: he's safe here. Missouri took them in.

It takes Dean a while to move, his body heavy and sluggish, instinctively fighting against the encroaching morning. For a while he breathes in deep, sinking further into the mattress. There's too much he doesn't want to think about, and truth be told getting out of bed would mean thinking, facing the day and all the things he's not been able to deal with.

Noise from downstairs eventually intrudes upon his hard-won peace: the sounds of pots clanging together and old pipes jangling with the force of the water pressure. Dean yawns, too warm under the blankets to do much else. Last night was the first full night of rest he's gotten in several weeks, and he thinks it has something to do with whatever Missouri snuck into his chili for dinner. She and Sam seemed to be up to something, with all their whispering and the long, concerned looks thrown Dean's way before telling him, You need to get some rest.

Dean blinks again, light spilling through his lashes. He hears singing, a rich voice winding from the kitchen, and he smiles, humming along. I see my light come shining from the west unto the east… He pushes himself up then, wincing as his bare feet hit the cool, wood floor. He sits there on the edge of the bed for a long moment, shivering in his boxers and worn AC/DC t-shirt, listening to Missouri's singing, and trying to get up the courage to go downstairs and face a new day.

To his left is an attached bathroom, door cracked wide enough to let the dim beam of a nightlight spill across the old floorboard. Dean takes in a deep breath and heads to it, feet slapping loudly against the tile as he enters. The bathroom is tiny, but it has everything he needs. He relieves himself, washes his hands, and brushes his teeth. He foregoes a shower and turns on the faucet instead, letting the water steam up the room, get it nice and hot.

He looks at himself in the mirror, not recognizing his own gaunt cheeks, washed-out skin, and hollowed-out eyes. The thousand-yard stare of a soldier too weary to go on. God, he can't stop fucking up. Dean groans at the thought, thinking of the mess he's made of his own life, of Sam's, and now of Castiel's. He's let down everyone that's ever mattered to him, and he just can't stop fucking up. He swallows down the need to scream, swallows down the bile rising in his throat. He splashes water over his face and takes in several deep, calming breaths.

Get it together, Winchester.

Dean can't think about this right now. Not about the mistakes, the failures. He needs to concentrate on what he can do to make things right. Find a way to save Cas, to bring him home. Find a way to help Sam get better. Fix his goddamned family.

You can't save them. The thought haunts him, and Dean shakes with it.

"Fuck that," he whispers, hitting his fist against the sink. The throbbing pain settles him for a moment, clears his head. Sometimes pain is the only thing that makes him feel steady. His upper arm aches then, burning with the phantom shape of Castiel's hand. The skin is red and puffy in a way it hasn't been in four years. Cas.

A deep breath, followed by another. Dean dries his face on one of Missouri's soft, taupe face towels. They smell lemony fresh, reminding Dean of the detergent Lisa used to wash their clothes. Thoughts of Lisa force a pain behind Dean's eyes. Dean is the one who taught Ben how to do the laundry, how to sort and how to fold, all the hard-learned inventive ways to wash out grass stains, food stains, and bloodstains. Lisa had been impressed; thing is, Dean's been doing laundry since he was old enough to reach the machine door. Memories of teaching Sammy how to fold overlap memories of teaching Ben.

Dean blinks; he needs to focus. Sam and Bobby are probably out on a supply run. He can still hear Missouri moving around in the kitchen. Dean himself needs to get back to his work; he's been knee-deep in research this past week, Missouri's study covered in stacks of books borrowed from libraries and hunters' collections across the country. Books detailing the ins and outs of Purgatory.

Dean looks at himself in the mirror one more time. The stranger he sees there looks haunted, broken. No good for anyone. Nobody's savior. He folds up the towel and sets it on the sink. Back in the bedroom, he quickly slips on a henley, his worn jeans, and boots, and then heads downstairs.


***

Kansas in the fall is crisp and dry, cobalt skies caressing a goldenrod earth. Dean can see the expanse of the sky outside of the hallway window, snowy-white clouds painted over blue. The house is nestled in Elma Creek, a small rural town about sixty miles outside of Lawrence. It's Missouri's family home, and she has been living in the small farmhouse for almost five years now, having moved out of Lawrence proper not too long after Sam and Dean came to her for help with the poltergeist haunting their old house.

Last week, after the entire thing went down with exorcising the monster souls back to Purgatory, Sam had suggested they call Missouri, one of the only hunting contacts they still had in Kansas. Dean had been hesitant, not wanting to drag anyone else into their mess. But Bobby had thought it a good idea to reach out to Missouri since they were in the area, and as it turns out, Missouri had been expecting their call. Friggin' psychics. Knowing they were stranded, she'd arranged for friends to pick them up at their location in central Kansas and to bring them to her home in Elma Creek.

That was a week ago, and Dean is still getting used to their temporary home base. Right now the house is full of the smells of breakfast, and Dean lets his nose lead him toward the scents: buttermilk biscuits and sausage patties, scrambled eggs and hash browns. As Dean winds his way down the stairs his fingers trace along the walls, eyes lingering on the array of old photographs, shots of Missouri's family set in sepia-toned stills from the 60s and 70s: children gathered around the farm equipment, couples seated on the swing on the wrap-around porch, and Missouri as a child, hair twisted in a crown of dark braids, as she sits beneath the tall cottonwood tree outside.

This house has a history, a different sort of history than Bobby's house, but one that's equally impressive. While Bobby's place smells of old dust and old books, Missouri's home smells like honeysuckle and wild sage.

Dean pauses just outside the downstairs guest room, not able to make his legs move any farther. He wants to push the door open, to go inside, but he can't. He moves toward the kitchen instead, feeling heavy as his boots shuffle along the floor, their muted scrape on the wood incongruously loud in the silence.

"You better not be scratching up my floor."

Dean quirks his lips in a smile, glancing toward the sound of Missouri's voice. She's in the doorway of the kitchen, hand holding a spatula as if ready to wield it at any moment. Preferably upside Dean's head.

Dean grins, wide and cheeky, eyes falling to his boots on the floor. "Wouldn't dream of it."

Missouri humphs. "Come on then and eat. I was wondering when you'd get out of that bed," she says, her eyes full of mirth as she turns to head back into the kitchen.

Breakfast is as good as it's been every morning for the past few days, now that he's given into Missouri's pointed hints that he's no good to anyone if he's half-starved. Today there's scrambled eggs that Dean wolfs down without pause, biscuits coated in homemade peach preserves and honey, fresh-squeezed orange juice that tastes too perfect to be real. Missouri seems to be obsessed with feeding Dean, making off-handed comments about how he's losing weight, not eating enough, turning into a skeleton. And now that he's succumbed, Dean is taking it all in stride, enjoying not having to eat lukewarm take-out from cardboard containers for once.

They eat in silence, mostly, Dean too busy trying to memorize every taste present on his plate to do much talking. Missouri asks after his sleep, watching Dean with knowing eyes as she sips from her coffee cup. Dean makes a few noncommittal comments, liking the fact that Missouri doesn't pry further, doesn't try to get him to talk. Bobby and Sam have been on his case for days, and Dean just needs to time to think. To get his head together. Goddammit, Cas.

Missouri looks the same, the last few years clearly much kinder to her than they've been to the Winchesters. There's a straightforward calmness about her that Dean has always appreciated, and seeing her now after all these years brings back the old memories in a flood: the year-long search for Dad, seeing Mom for the first time since the fire, and driving miles and miles of long, dark roads where the only thing Dean had been concerned about was reuniting his family. He'd been a different person then: before the Apocalypse, before his forty years in Hell, before becoming Michael's sword, Heaven's Righteous Man.

Dean shakes his head. Another lifetime ago, maybe. He looks up, noticing Missouri watching him closely, a troubled expression on her face, like she'd read Dean's thoughts. Of course she probably had. Dean looks away, eyes drawn to the kitchen window, the slice of blue Kansas sky.

"Sam and Bobby been gone long?" he asks, voice rough.

Missouri hums, like she'd been expecting Dean to direct the conversation there. "About an hour. I think they were headed to Lawrence Memorial to get supplies for your…friend."

Dean clears his throat, wiping his hands on a napkin before spreading his palms on the table. His hands are too warm, and the cool, smooth surface of the wood table is a relief. His fingers curl into the veins in the wood, tracing the dark lines for a moment before he looks up and meets Missouri's eyes.

"I don't…" Dean starts, pausing. Tries again. "We didn't—" He stops, shifts in his chair, feeling directionless.

Missouri shakes her head. "Just sit with him for a while, Dean. It'll help you," she offers, hand coming up to cover his own on the table.

They've told her everything, filled her in on the past five years of Winchester insanity. Missouri had known a lot already – whether her information had been gathered through psychic visions or the hunter grapevine, Dean has no idea. Either way, she hadn't been surprised by much, not even the parts about renegade angels like the one now lying comatose in her guest room. She'd taken it all in stride, looked at Dean and Sam like they were the saddest lost boys in all of creation, and then started to cook dinner for them.

Dean sighs, pushes his chair back from the table as he readies himself to stand. "Thanks for the breakfast. And, you know…thanks for everything."

"You're welcome," Missouri says evenly, regarding him for a long moment before adding, "You take care of everyone, Dean. Just don't forget to take care of yourself, too."

Dean shrugs, standing up and heading to the counter to pour himself another cup of Missouri's coffee, which is dark and strong enough to leave even Dean satisfied. He takes a sip and turns around to watch Missouri rise from the table. Her hair is graying at the temples and soft crinkles curl around her eyes, the only evidence of the passing years.

"How do I do that exactly?" Dean asks, fingers wrapping around his warm coffee mug. "Take care of myself?"

Missouri smiles. "You can start by eating another one of my biscuits."

So Dean does.


***

The room is in shadows; thick, dark curtains keep out the noonday light. In the center of the bedroom sits a big four-poster bed, its towering headboard and posts made of solid, dark oak. In the middle of the bed, Castiel's body is half-covered in soft white linens and a deep blue comforter folded neatly across his belly. He's terminally still.

When Dean's eyes have adjusted to the dim light, he takes in the medical equipment set up in the corner of the room. Bobby called in a few (hundred) favors, and they've had a couple of hunter-networked nurse practitioners come by to handle the medical stuff. So now there's a set of IV bags connected to a pole beside Castiel's bed. The drip, along with a feeding tube, is hooked up to Castiel's vacant body. And it is Castiel's body, Dean reminds himself. Cas was resurrected in an empty vessel both times he was brought back to life, Jimmy's soul having been freed. And Dean clings to the thought that Castiel's body is still alive now, even if it's in a comatose, almost vegetative state. Without Castiel's grace, all signs of consciousness seem to have left the building.

Dean sits on the plush chair beside the bed. Castiel – Dean can't help but think of him as Castiel, even sans grace – seems almost too human like this, body pale and motionless. His skin is milk-white, and his dark hair curls limply over his forehead. There's a hint of dark stubble on his jaw, and his lips are dry and pink. He's wearing the thin undershirt and flannel pajama bottoms Dean had donated to him. The neckline of the shirt hangs low, and Dean can easily make out the dark bruising that mottles Castiel's chest.

Dean curls his hand into a fist, feeling some of the exorcism's residual power prickle at his fingertips. Whatever else the powerful spell did to Cas, it had also marked him. Engraved along the tight muscle of Castiel's left pectoral is a burn in the shape of Dean's hand. Dean swallows, the memory of not being able to hold onto Castiel still tasting too sharp and bitter in his mouth.

Dean rests his hand on the top of the comforter in front of him, inches from Castiel's thigh. He watches as Castiel's chest moves slowly up and down; any other time Dean would think the man in the bed was simply sleeping. Wake up, Cas.

"He looks peaceful."

Dean starts, fingers twisting in the comforter as he turns toward the voice.

Missouri is standing by the dresser closest to the window, towels and a bowl in her hand. "Didn't mean to disturb your time with your friend."

Dean feels a flush spread across his neck and face. He shrugs, says, "I was just checking up on him."

Missouri nods, coming further into the room and placing the bowl and stack of towels on the nightstand. "I made an aloe salve for his burn."

Dean nods, turning back to look at the reddish bruising he can see peeking through Castiel's t-shirt. "It was a mistake. The ritual was so powerful…I didn't mean to hurt him."

Missouri hums, setting out the supplies she needs. "Sometimes the things we do to save the ones we love can hurt them too."

Story of my life, Dean thinks, shoulders hunching. For a moment he remembers the past year, and the memory of it all is too much. The betrayal, the loss, the lies, the broken trust. He closes his eyes, and he remembers a familiar hand on his shoulder, the soft rustle of feathers, and deep, ancient eyes.

Dean wonders if Missouri can read the guilt on his face, if she knows just how much he's failed to do the only thing he's ever been tasked with in his life: saving people.

"I was married once," Missouri says into the heavy silence as she pulls Castiel's shirt away from his chest to begin applying the salve to the burn.

It's random enough that Dean tents his brows in surprise. "I didn't know that," he says, feeling like he's missed something vital.

"Joe. Such a good man," she explains, smiling wistfully. "We were doomed from the start, but I didn't care. I loved him too much to care. We were so young."

"What happened?" Dean asks, wanting to know more about Missouri's life, her history, how she came to be the person that would help his dad. I went to Missouri and I learned the truth, John's journal had said.

"The moment I met Joe I knew he wouldn't live past the age of 25," Missouri says, voice gone quiet, haunted. She smoothes the ointment onto Castiel's pale skin, and Dean watches, hypnotized almost, as the cloth traces the lines of the fresh handprint.

"We were impossible, but I loved him anyway," Missouri says around a sad smile. "Do you understand, Dean?"

Dean frowns because he's not sure if he does. "Did you…did you try to save him?"

"Course I did," Missouri sighs, eyes gone soft with the memory. "But he was so damn stubborn. I begged, I cried, I yelled. I told him not to go to work that day. Told him I felt something bad was going to happen. I didn't know what would happen, I just felt it, you see. Joe knew about me, about my mother, about our…gifts. But he didn't listen to me. He thought he knew what was best. Thought he could face anything alone."

Dean fists his hand, looking away from Castiel's body on the bed and toward the far wall.

"Sometimes people do things you don't want them to do," Missouri says sagely. "We can't hold ourselves responsible for the things they do. You understand, Dean?"

"Yes, ma'am," he says softly. "I think I do."

Missouri falls silent for a moment, leans over to slide her hand across Castiel's forehead. "This body has been through so much," she murmurs.

"He's been at war," Dean says, watching as Missouri then pulls Castiel's shirt farther back to reveal more of the burn.

"This mark," Missouri says thoughtfully, pausing as she applies more aloe to the reddened skin. "There's so much power here."

"It was an old ritual, old magic," Dean says, feeling uneasy at the memory of the power sliding through his body.

"No, I'm not talking about the power of the spell," Missouri says with a slight frown. "I'm talking about the power connecting the two of you. The link that spell traveled through. It's that power that radiates from his skin. It's hot to my psychic touch."

As Dean watches, curiosity flashes across Missouri's face, and he wonders why touching Castiel is pulling at her psychic vibe so much.

"What sort of power?" he asks, wanting to understand. His hand shakes slightly as he raises it to settle on his own brand.

"Something old," Missouri says quietly, carefully layering the salve over Cas's scarred chest. Then she continues speaking, this time quoting something Dean doesn't recognize. "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."

"You a poet now, Missouri?" Dean smirks, something tight winding in his chest as the words of the verse tumble through his head. Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm.

"Song of Solomon," Missouri explains, wiping her hands on a clean towel. "Read your Bible, Dean. Comes in handy now and again."

"Yeah, yeah," Dean huffs with a quiet smile. He watches as Missouri finishes treating Castiel's injury, easing his shirt back over his chest.

"I know you probably don't approve of any of this," Dean says after a beat. "But I can't just give up. If there's a chance I can still save him…"

Missouri raises an eyebrow, eyes still fixed on Castiel's unconscious body. "Then you'll save him."

"Is that what you see?" Dean asks suddenly, turning around to face her. "Can you see his future? My own?"

Missouri sighs, shaking her head as she looks away. A moment passes before she walks across the room, hands coming up to rest on the dresser. "I can't see that, Dean. I wish I could. The things I see are foggy at best when it comes to you boys. Always have been. Your future's too uncertain."

"He's not dead, Missouri," Dean says, voice low. "That means I can get him back."

"You sound so much like your daddy," she says softly, her voice thick with regret. "The way he loved your Mama. You couldn't talk no sense into him."

Dean flinches, pulling back from the bed. "It's not like that…"

"Dean Winchester, you can't lie to me," Missouri chides, voice gone schoolteacher-sharp. "I know what's between you and that angel even if you both got your heads buried so far in the sand you've reached China."

Dean quiets, feeling chastised. His throat is dry as he whispers, "I'm just doing what I've got to do."

"I know you are, baby," she says, words laced with motherly concern. "It's what you Winchesters always do. But just be careful you don't end up bringing a world of trouble your way in the process."

Dean understands the warning, knows too well that actions have consequences. "Why are you even helping us?" he asks after another moment, genuinely curious. "People who help us end up dead."

"Now you listen to me, boy," Missouri says, hands folding across her chest. "I've spent damn near three decades worrying about you Winchesters. I'm gonna see this through to the end. Got that?" She walks across the room and stands beside Castiel's bed again.

"Got it," Dean says, watching as Missouri places a hand over Castiel's chest.

"He's out there somewhere waiting for you, Dean," she says, capturing Dean's gaze. "The connection between you two burns so bright. I've never seen the likes of it before."

Dean coughs and rubs a hand along the back of his neck, suddenly uneasy in the soft shadows of the room, stuck between this woman who sees too much of him and the body of an angel who gave up too much for him. "I found him before. I can find him again," he manages to say. The words seem to hold their own weight in the room, moving like a solid force.

"I'll leave you with him," Missouri says after a time, turning away from the bed. She stops beside Dean and places a hand on his shoulder, a comforting gesture that reminds him of the grandmother he always wished he'd had.

"I'm gonna start lunch. Sam and Bobby will be back soon," she says, and Dean nods his head, watching as she leaves the room.

Dean turns back to look at Castiel's waiting body. His quiet, sleeping form.

"Hold on Cas," he whispers. "I'm coming."


***

Lawrence Memorial Hospital is about one hundred yards in front of him, its monolithic bulk lit up and impressive.

This is where it all began for them, Sam thinks.

It's where he was born, his brother too. Here on this plot of land, twenty-eight years ago, his dad must have parked the Impala and then walked his mom over to the big doors at the front. He imagines it, imagines John Winchester, nervous and excited, his big hand spread out on the small of Mary's back as he guided her across the parking lot. Maybe they barely made it, he muses, because second babies travel fast. Maybe they might have stopped right there, where his gaze is fixed, so his mom could breathe through a contraction, and maybe his dad had an eye on his wristwatch, keeping time. And maybe she smiled as the pain passed, and then they started walking again. Maybe they were hopeful then, and maybe they were so damn excited about getting to meet him, their son Sam Winchester, for the first time, excited about taking him home, a babe in arms, to meet his big brother.

They didn't know then that their sons would be the death of them.

This isn't really where it all began for them. It's where it ended for them, because his first breath and his brother's, four years earlier, started the countdown to their last, set the clock ticking for his brother's torture and his own…whatever it was.

The memory of the Cage makes him shiver, and he can feel his heart start racing, his muscles start to tighten. He's almost certain he can feel his system flood with cortisol. He's done enough online research into PTSD, while his brother shuts himself off from the world to grieve, to know that this is intense psychologic distress at exposure to internal or external cues that represent or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event. And he knows that intense psychologic distress is a milestone on the road to depression, with a sharp detour along the way into alcoholism, his brother's coping mechanism, because Dean's exposure to internal and external clues, and traumatic events, means his brother's psychologic distress is off the charts and has been for the last three years at least. Probably since the age of four if Sam's being honest about the origins of Dean's own PTSD.

Breathe, he tells himself. Eyes closed. Breathe. Deep, cleansing breath, hold it for a count of six. Exhale, and repeat twice. Air flowing in, air flowing out. I'm inhaling peace and tranquility and breathing out the bad stuff. Steady, focused. No drifting. All I need is a few minutes, a quiet place, and a willing mind.

And it works, and he shakes himself out of it, stays in the moment, in this moment. And now he's good, and he blows out a final, long puff of sheer relief, opens his eyes, and squints across the parking lot. It's still early, the sun only just peeking over the horizon, and this far side of the building is cast in dark shadow. He can just about see Bobby, shoulders hunched as he hovers in the dimly-lit doorway, deep in conversation with one of his contacts, a youngish-looking nurse in scrubs. It doesn't take long, a few minutes at the most, and then Bobby is striding purposefully back towards the truck with a large box cradled in his arms. Sam eases out of the cabin, reaches for the back door.

"Got another one to come," Bobby grunts at him, as he maneuvers his burden carefully onto the back seat. "Best buckle that up," he adds. "Stuff's sterile, we don't want to risk the box tipping over on the drive back."

Bobby spins, heading back for the doorway as Sam pulls the seatbelt out and around the box, and less than a minute later they're loading up the second container. Sam secures it in place like he did with the first, then folds himself back into the shotgun seat as Bobby pulls his jacket on over the pale blue scrubs he's wearing, before heaving himself into the cab. He slams the door with more aggression than he needs to, cranks the engine, and revs the truck viciously.

Bobby's mood hasn't improved any, Sam concludes wryly, as they tool out onto the dark, still-deserted highway. "Look, Bobby," he broaches carefully. "I know you think this is a bad idea, but Dean—"

"You're damn right I think it's a bad idea," Bobby spits out at him. He's bristling in the seat, his fingers clenching and loosening on the steering wheel. "Dean isn't eating, he isn't sleeping. This is looking way too much like Cold Oak to me, and you know how that turned out." He slams a belligerent hand abruptly down on the center of the wheel, and the horn only serves to amplify his frustration. "And if I'd known she was going to mollycoddle him, I'd have turned around and headed back to my place. Goddamn psychics."

Sam clears his throat. "Missouri wanted to help," he says diplomatically. "And we could use her help. She's been getting Dean to eat and sleep these last few days. She's taking good care of Cas. This was a detour we all needed."

Bobby huffs. "Taking care of Cas. You say it like there's something there to care for. Dean said it himself, there's nothing there. Cas is gone." He shrugs at the look Sam throws his way. "If he's gone, if he's empty, well. I don't see what more we can do for him."

Sam stamps down on his own irritation and keeps his tone neutral. "An empty angelic vessel. He could be significant for all we know." He pauses a beat, shudders at the thought of some black-eyed demon wearing the angel, as if the new God wasn't bad enough. "And Dean thinks he can save him," he goes on. "Get him back inside his body."

Bobby's snort is dramatic. "By taking a quick trip down under?"

"Cas isn't in Hell," Sam points out. "He's in Purgatory."

Bobby throws him a withering look, and his response is acidic. "That makes me feel so much better." He motions his head backwards, towards the boxes. "And even without this damn-fool mission your brother is set on, how much longer do you think we can keep doing this? We're sneaking into the hospital incinerator room and smuggling out black-market outdated medical supplies to keep a brain-dead shell alive in someone's guest bedroom, when he should be in a fuckin' hospital, be with his family."

It takes a few seconds for Sam to figure out he doesn't actually know where Bobby is going with this line of argument. "His family?" he echoes stupidly.

"He had a wife, didn't he?" Bobby clarifies. "And a kid? I faked their new IDs myself. She said they were heading out to California to be near her brother. Wouldn't be too hard to track them down."

Amelia and Claire Novak. Sam hadn't even thought of them as a possibility, and he shakes his head now that he is processing it in his mind. "Bobby, Jimmy Novak's long gone," he explains. "Chunky soup, remember? Whatever brought Cas back brought Cas back twice now, without Jimmy attached. The vessel is empty. Jimmy's in Heaven. We can't just dump a soulless and graceless body that looks like him on the Novaks' doorstep. It wouldn't help anyone."

After a tense moment, Bobby sighs, his voice softening. "I know," he concedes. "I know. But this…" He shoots Sam a quick look. "We can't keep his body alive indefinitely. I'm just a field medic, and I was only in-country for three months before they shipped us all out of 'Nam and back stateside. But I know enough that we can't keep him hanging on for much longer before he starts shutting down. And that nurse who checked him over yesterday said as much." He shakes his head ruefully. "At least he'd get proper care if we did look Novak's wife up. As it is, he's fading right in front of us, and if…"

Bobby's sentence trails off unfinished, but Sam knows what went unsaid, what was on the tip of his tongue. What will Dean do if the vessel – if Cas – dies?

They drive in an uncomfortable silence most of the way back, and Sam uses it to try to think of the best way to find some middle ground between Bobby's worry and Dean's determination. "Dean has to do this," he says quietly when they finally arrive in Elma Creek. "You've seen him, Bobby. He needs to do this. No matter how it turns out, he has to get to the end of this knowing he tried absolutely everything." He feels his chest tighten. "Because I don't think he'll recover from this if he doesn't know that." He slants his eyes across, and Bobby's face is drawn and worried. "This thing with him and Cas, it's…" Sam stops, fumbles for the right words. He knows his brother loves Castiel, but he doesn't really know what that means, knows it's something Dean might not even really comprehend himself. "I don't really know what it is," he continues. "It's complicated. But it's there. And so he needs to do this."

They're turning onto the track that leads to the farmhouse now, and a few long moments pass in renewed silence as the tires crunch across the gravel. Bobby pulls the truck up, cuts the engine. "That's all well and good, Sam," he says finally, "but let's assume your brother does actually find a way into Purgatory. Are you seriously going to let him go there?" He takes off his cap, scratches anxiously at his head. "What if he can't get back out? We could lose both of them."

Sam doesn't want to acknowledge that as a possibility, in fact he damn well refuses to do so. He bites his lip. "What if we don't?" he parries. "Maybe Dean's right. Maybe he really can do this."

Bobby is focusing ahead and left, to where dim light seeps out through a crack in the curtains of one of the side windows of the house. It's the window to the study where Dean has been keeping his lonely vigil, tired eyes poring over ancient texts, and Bobby shakes his head. "When did your brother last sleep in a bed?" he diverts absently.

Sam smiles, not feeling guilty in the least. "Last night actually. I had Missouri lace his chili with a couple of sleeping pills and then hauled him upstairs myself. He needed it. He hadn't slept in days."

"For Christ's sake," Bobby sighs, rubbing at his temple. "Now we're drugging him just to get him to sleep?"

Sam rolls his shoulders in a half-shrug. "We do what we have to do."

"And supposing Dean could bring Cas back, what then?" Bobby backtracks suddenly. "All that crap Cas pulled…it'll mess with him, even if it was the souls pulling the strings." He gives Sam a searching, skeptical look. "You know how guilty your brother feels about what he did in Hell, even though it wasn't his fault. And how guilty you feel about the shit you put us through, even though you were soulless."

It hits a nerve dead center, because none of his brother's reassurances have assuaged that guilt. "At least he'd be with people who know what it's like to have fucked up," Sam says softly.

Bobby rolls his eyes, manages a weak smile. "You'll be the three fuckin' stooges." His face falls serious again. "What about you in all this?" he asks, and he throws up a hand at Sam's furrowed brow. "Assuming Dean finds a way to get Cas back, how are you going to deal with him? After what he did to you?"

There's a second where Sam is back at the dock, surrounded by the pall of sorrow and regret Castiel had exuded through eyes stark with horror and exhaustion, while his only thought was to send them back to safety without him. He swallows. "He screwed up big time," he offers. "But I wouldn't be here without him. None of us would. And he's paid for his crap, Bobby. He's still paying. In pain and suffering you can't even begin to imagine."

Bobby considers that and blows out a weary sigh. "Yeah." He reaches for the door handle. "Come on, we better get these fluids stowed in the fridge."


***

A storm breaks out across the Kansas plains on Thursday morning, lightning dancing in the sky, thick, dark clouds moving fast and far, and the boom of thunder shaking the old farmhouse. Dean spends the day in Missouri's study, watching as flashes of lightning illuminate the dust in the dark corners of the room. Thunderstorms always send him back to his childhood, to the stormy nights when Sam sneaked into bed with him, too scared to sleep alone. Sam always hated bad weather, convinced they'd be swept up in some storm like Dorothy and Toto, lost forever in some faraway land. Dean would hold him and tell him that everything would be all right, and back then a nine-year-old Sam believed him. Dean wishes it were as easy to take care of Sam now, to calm his nerves, to convince him that everything would be okay. But the storms they're facing these days aren't ones Dean knows how to deal with, and he can't bullshit his way through them.

By noon the storm has settled into a heavy fall rain shower, and Dean finds himself researching to the sound of raindrops hitting the window and roof in a steady, thump-thump rhythm. He can hear Bobby and Sam shuffling around the house, their loud whispers slipping through the old wooden doors on occasion. He knows Bobby's concerned about him, Sammy too. Dean just needs time to find something. He just needs more time.

The lights went out about an hour ago, so he's reading by candlelight, and the flickering flames are playing hell with his concentration. He looks down at the book settled against his knee, the passage he'd highlighted reading, Purgatory, the land of the in-between. Restless souls, not ready yet for the kingdom of God and forever temped by the fires of Hell.

Dean sets the book aside, nursing a drink as he pages through a smaller book of rituals, his fingers running over the maze of complicated spell work that only a week earlier had allowed them to reach Castiel inside of the creature that called himself their new God.

There has to be a safe way for Dean to enter and exit Purgatory, he's sure of it. He's been working his way through Bobby's contacts around the country, having books and documents shipped to Missouri's house. But there's just not much out there on Purgatory. It's not like many people have been there and back to tell the tale.

Dean glances at Lovecraft's journals one more time. They'd found the journals in Eleanor Visyak's collections, as well as most of the Purgatory information Dean's been thumbing through. Visyak's own papers have been insightful, her insider knowledge of Purgatory going far beyond religious doctrines and Dante's writings. He sighs, leaning his head against the desk. The pages of the book waver and blur before him like a mirage, the words seeming to smear together into a big mass of indecipherable ink. He's probably a little drunk, knows he hasn't paid as much attention as he should to how many times he's topped up his shot glass.

"Dean."

Dean raises his head and turns around, sees Sam standing behind him in the study's doorway.

Dean sits up quickly, and a book falls to the floor, making a loud thud in the dark room. "What?" he asks. "Something going on? You okay?"

Sam snorts, stepping further into the room. "I'm fine Dean. Was worried about you, actually."

Dean frowns, rubbing a hand across his face, needing to sort through the cobwebs that clutter his mind with sticky threads that catch every idea and seal it tight before he can progress it towards the answer. "Kinda tired, but I'm alright."

Sam nods, settling down on the sofa in the corner and picking up one of the leather-bound tomes. "What exactly are you hoping to find Dean?"

"A safe way for a human soul to enter and exit Purgatory undetected," Dean mutters. "Since I'm not Michael." He slouches down in the chair he's been sitting in for hours. His body is sore, legs cramped up and back stiff. The rain outside is a steady distraction from the heavy silence of the room.

"And if you can't find it?" Sam asks.

Dean watches as his brother's large hands reach to sift through the spread of diagrams and maps of Purgatory on the table in front of him. Light from the candles flickers over Sam's face, turning his brother into a mix of light and dark.

Dean closes his eyes, pressing his fingers against his heavy lids. He's so damn tired. "I spent six months looking for a way to walk into Hell to bring you back, Sammy. Six months, every day, every night. I didn't sleep, couldn't eat. I spent my nights dreaming of Hell just because I knew you were there."

Dean opens his eyes, turns to face his brother. Sam is looking at him with wide, wounded eyes, shoulders hunching as he leans closer. "God, Dean," he breathes out.

"Lisa talked sense into me," Dean says with a soft smile. "I never stopped looking though. I cleaned myself up for Lisa and Ben; I got a job, tried to help around the house. I wanted to be good for them. But I never stopped looking for a way to save you, Sam. I couldn't."

"I get it, Dean," Sam says, his voice choked up. He shivers when a flash of lightning slices through the room, but he doesn't say anything else.

Dean sips from his bourbon and watches Sam over the rim of his glass. "How have you been, Sammy?"

"Better," Sam says, and he sounds like he almost means it.

Along with helping Dean with research, Sam's been reading books on trauma and healing, reading memoirs from prisoners of war and survivors of gross atrocities about how they were able to get on with their lives, to find some new sense of 'normal'. Dean doesn't think finding normal is something the Winchesters can ever do, but if it's helping Sam get through this, he can't argue against it. Whatever it takes for Sam to heal.

All this talk of entering Purgatory has had Dean thinking about his time in Hell. The smell of Alastair's rancid breath on his face, his cold hands spreading across Dean's waist, the press of cruel fingers into Dean's chest, clawing at him, digging into him, and pulling his vocal cords out every time he so much as screamed. Dean shivers, remembering the feeling of being tied down on the table to be sliced and diced and ripped apart, the feeling of being hung from hooks for days on end, bled out and gutted like a pig. His fear had been so oppressive it had its own stench, and even now the sense memory makes something inside him go cold and dead, makes it hard to breathe. He thinks now of the parade of tortured souls that suffered at his own hand, those bleeding, rotting disfigured parodies of humanity he left on the rack. Open sores and wounds that festered and bled, the way his blade sliced through fingers and tongues and tendons. It was the worst experience of his entire shitty existence. But he'd have lived a thousand more years in the Pit if it meant saving his brother from one day in the Cage.

But he'd failed Sam. Just like he'll fail Cas.

Sam's watching him, he knows, but Dean can't turn to meet his brother's eyes. Instead he watches as the candlelight plays across his hand. His hands are usually bruised and calloused, scratched and nicked from the hunt. But in this light his left hand seems almost unreal, too smooth, too flawless to be a soldier's hand. Even after several days, he still sees the residue of the spell on his palm, the soft press of faded ink in the crease between index finger and thumb. He'd held Castiel's grace in this hand, and Dean wonders if the inhuman smoothness of his skin is the result of having touched something so holy. Of having touched the real Castiel.

Having touched and lost him in the span of seconds.

"So what do we know?" Sam cuts through Dean's thoughts.

"What?" Dean says, suddenly on guard. He pulls himself further up in his chair and runs a hand through his hair.

Sam goes on. "Well, we know that human souls needing to redeem themselves before entering Heaven exist on one plane of Purgatory, moving along the mountain, cycling in and out through the cleansing fires. We know the monster souls inhabit the outer realms of Purgatory, trapped there because there's no place for them in Hell or Heaven. And we think Cas is trapped with the monster souls, right?"

Dean wipes his hand over his eyes, across his face. He nods, and when he opens his eyes again, Sam is looking at him closely. "Purgatory is too big," Dean tells him, voice thick with exhaustion and drink.

"But you have something that will lead you right to Cas," Sam says, and his voice is gentle, reassuring almost.

"What?" Dean asks, blinking.

"You." Sam grins, cheeky. "You're gonna Vulcan mind-meld yourself right to him."

Dean laughs, feeling his chest tighten, his neck prickle at the very idea. "You been talking to Missouri again?"

Sam shrugs, not denying it. "She says you and Cas have some cosmic psychic link going on. She can see it in your aura."

"I hate you so much right now," Dean growls, tempted to throw one of these very-precious, very-ancient books his brother's way.

"Seriously though, Dean," Sam continues with a smile. "Even Death said your freaky link could help you find Cas anywhere."

"Well Death isn't answering our calls anymore," Dean says on a rough exhale.

"That's because he got what he wanted. We stopped Cas," Sam says. "This is the part where we're on our own again."

Dean nods, agreeing. He watches the flame on the wick of the candle in front of him bend with the breeze. Shadows dance along the walls, moving up and down like waves. He thinks of his dream of the ocean.

Sam stands and stretches, paces the room. Dean refills his glass and contemplates the long night ahead, the impossibility of this foolish task.

"What if I can't?" Dean huffs, swallowing. His throat burns. "I don't…"

"I know," Sam says, pausing in his pacing, trapped in the flickering hue of candlelight. "I know, Dean."

Dean shakes his head, looking down at his hands and watching how they tremble. He tells himself it's exhaustion but he knows it's fear, fear that he can't do this. "Fuck, Sammy. Why can't it be easy for once?" He shakes his head again, wanting to drive away his thoughts, his shame, his failure.

Sam comes closer and squeezes his shoulder. Dean turns away and drains the remaining liquor from his glass, savoring the burn. They've both mourned so many people, lost themselves in grief for days and days and never talked about it. The nights Sam spent crying after Jessica's death – they'd never talked about it. Dean had thought that kind of grief couldn't affect him anymore, that he'd lost so much already, he was numb to it. Nothing else could break him like losing Dad and Sam had. He wouldn't let anything break him that way again.

But by the way Sam's looking at him now, like Dean's somehow on the edge, Dean knows he's cracking, that it shows on his face how wrong he'd been to think there was nothing left for him to lose. Dean clenches his jaw, pushes down everything he can't let himself feel right now.

Sam's seated beside him at the desk now, hair falling over his forehead as he meets Dean's gaze with a long, concerned look. "Bobby's worried about you, man."

Dean leans forward, hands resting on the desk beside his empty glass. "Yeah, I sensed as much."

Sam's voice is level as he adds, "I'm worried too."

His brother seems to wait for Dean to react to that, but Dean doesn't say anything at first. He runs his finger along the edge of the desk, turning to watch the drops of rainwater slide down the windowpane. The rain's finally letting up. "You shouldn't be worrying about me," Dean says after a time. "You need to be taking care of yourself."

"Dean, you just lost someone really important to you," Sam says, low like a whisper. "After I lost Jess…"

"Don't, Sam." Dean glares at him, not ready to go there. "It's not the same."

"Why?" Sam responds, voice gone weary. "Because you say it's not? Or because you're afraid it is? Why won't you admit it's the same? This thing between you and Cas…"

"Stop it, Sammy," Dean says, his throat tightening so fast it's making it hard to speak. He can't meet his brother's eyes. "Please."

"Dean, do you seriously think I don't remember?" Sam asks, his words quiet and sober. "That guy Kevin in San Diego. That 'good' friend of yours, Marco, in Fort Worth."

Dean jerks his head up, heart beating a fast rhythm against his chest. "Sam."

"There were girls, Dean," Sam says, voice almost hesitant. "Plenty of them. But I know there were a few guys too. I've always known."

"Shut up, Sam," Dean hisses. He stands up, frustration and fatigue riding his bones, making it hard to move his legs. He stalks away from the desk, circling the path between the bookshelves in the back of the room, rolling his shoulders as he tries to ease the tension building in his body. "You don't know what the fuck you're talking about," he continues after a beat, not recognizing the tremor in his own voice. He fists his hands to stop the shaking there too.

"Maybe," Sam says, words deadly quiet. "Maybe I just misunderstood."

"You did," Dean says shortly, and he can barely hear himself over the whitewater rush of the ocean in his ears, the thrumming of the waves in his veins. He pushes his face into his hand, fingers pressing against his eyelids.

"Okay, I did," Sam exhales, exhaustion and reluctance both evident in his voice.

Silence falls across the room. Dean looks up to see his brother bowing his head over the stack of documents and notes covering the desk, looking for all the world as if the conversation is over.

Dean stops his pacing, socked feet skidding softly over the wood floor. He stretches then, popping his neck and straightening his back, trying to ease taut muscles. Slowly, ever so slowly, the heavy weight on his chest begins to slide away. He can breathe again.

Nothing about their lives has ever been easy, has ever been honest. Dean knows this too well. It's their curse; it's their blood. Dean stops to watch a flame flicker and curl. He'd been sixteen when he met Marco. He can't believe Sam remembers him.

Dean's skin feels suddenly too thin. He walks to the table and cups his hand around the candle flame, says, "Hey Sammy."

"Yeah, Dean?"

"What do you think about Missouri's biscuits?" Dean asks, easily changing the subject. His lips curl with a teasing smile. "She's been stuffing me with them every morning."

"Fucking fantastic," Sam says, his stomach answering with a resounding growl as he follows Dean's lead. He huffs a laugh. "She enjoys feeding you, man."

"That's cuz she knows I appreciate the good things in life," Dean says with a cocky smile, walking back to the desk and propping his ass on the edge. He looks at the papers there, at the notes in his own handwriting that litter the margins of his hunter's journal.

There are papers scattered across the table and books stacked high to be read. But for now he thinks he'll just go eat some dinner with his little brother.

"Ready to head downstairs?" Sam asks, looking hopeful.

"Yeah, Sam, I think I am," Dean says. He runs his hand over the soft leather of the volume of Sumerian spells on his desk.

"We'll find a way Dean," Sam says quietly. "It's what we do."

Dean meets his brother's eyes. "Yeah, it is."


***

The storms keep rolling in throughout the week, and Dean suspects maybe the heavens are still in an upheaval without Castiel there to lay down some law and order. Dean stands on the porch, pressed against the railing, sheltered from the wind. The fall cold cuts through him, whips of chilly air sliding under his collar and down his neck. He hugs his jacket tighter around his body and stuffs his hands in his pocket.

The sound of the wind cutting across the fields of tall grass is lulling, and he finds himself lost in memory for a time, thinking of summers spent at Blue Earth, running wild in grassy fields behind the rectory. Those were some of the only times he felt like a kid – the surety of having a roof over his head and a warm dinner to look forward to every night. The few times life was more than silver bullets and holy water and salt, a gun and a blade.

Dean hasn't slept. He's been waging a silent war all morning with Bobby, both of them at rope's end when it comes to what to do next. What to do, what to do. Dean breathes deep, his shoulders rolling, and he lets the worry slide away. They've got a lead. Finally.

He turns at the sound of a rumbling engine, watching as the beat-up Ford pickup winds its way up the narrow gravel track leading to the farmhouse. He looks up at the sky – the clouds hang low over the hilltops, and he's glad Sam made it back before the rain. Now the sky arches up in an endless roll of gray and violet, like an old bruise still trying to heal. The air itself is charged, like it's waiting for something to happen.

Sam gets out of the truck, and Dean stubs his boot against the edge of the porch as he watches his brother approach. Sam stops on the top of the porch steps, a wide smile on his face.

"If you don't tell me, I'm gonna kick your ass to Toledo," Dean says, voice so low it comes out as a hiss.

Sam's smile grows even wider before he pulls a scrap of paper out of his jacket pocket. Dean snatches it and sees a name and an address. If they drive all night they can make it by the morning, he calculates silently.

"According to our sources she knows a lot about moving between the…realities," Sam says, shrugging his big shoulders. "And she's agreed to tell us about Purgatory."

Dean's grip around the paper tightens, and he nods his head. "Good, good. She some kind of witch or what?"

"Priestess," Sam says, lips curling into a smile. "Not really sure what religion though. Professor Donahue assured me she was it if we wanted to know all the ways into and out of Purgatory."

"Then we hit the road," Dean announces, feeling anxious to get started. He clears his throat and turns to face the house. "You gonna break the news to Bobby? I can get the gear ready and meet you back here in ten."

Sam nods, the wind blowing his hair across his forehead as he walks toward the door. "You sure about this?" he asks, hands gripping the knob of the screen door.

"As sure as I'll ever be," Dean says and follows Sam into the house.

Ten minutes later Dean's bounding down the stairs, picking up on the low rush of voices in the living room.

"Everything good?" he calls out, and both Sam and Bobby turn to face him at the same time. Sam's looking guilty, Bobby pissed off.

Inwardly Dean sighs; outwardly he's all businesslike. "Bobby, it's the best lead we've gotten all week," he says without preamble, dropping his duffle on the floor by his feet.

Bobby huffs, shaking his head. "So you're just gonna trust some Sumerian shaman living in the middle of Arkansas?"

"Maybe," Dean says with a tight shrug, wishing Bobby didn't have such a problem with this.

"I think you've all lost your damn fool minds, but there ain't nothing I can do about it," Bobby says, words tinged with frustration and anger, and with real concern, too.

"This is our best option at the moment, Bobby," Sam cuts in, flashing Dean a supportive look. "You said it yourself – we can't keep this up. Castiel's body won't last much longer. We should at least see what this woman has to say."

"We gotta do this, Bobby," Dean says, voice gruff but determined, and he's already heading for the door, Sam falling behind him.

Bobby nods, a pained look on his face as he steps aside to let them pass. Once outside Dean hurries to the pickup, body hunched against the wind and the steady drizzle.

The overcast sky has erupted, and the wind beats against the old truck as they pull out of the driveway. Dean lets Sam drive the first leg of the trip, wanting to read up on the info Sam got on the priestess and her background. They make good time, crossing into Oklahoma by nightfall, music turned up loud enough to drown out the sound of the rain. Dean rests his head against the windowpane, watching the dark spread of the highway, wondering if tomorrow everything will change.


***

Somewhere in the Ozarks, in the dark, swirl of lush, thick forest colored by the ochre and crimson shades of fall, the road curves downward into a valley that leads to the river. The trees are tall enough to block out the sky, sunlight slanting in golden rays down through the leaves. Dean rests his hands on the steering wheel of the truck and yawns wide as he follows the winding road further down. The truck's beams seem to cut through the twilight darkness made heavier by the shadows of oaks and pine. Some time later the smoky-black earth splits into a dirt road that leads them directly to the address they were given.

There they find the small cottage hidden in an overgrown tangle of trees, its raised foundation pilings sinking deep into the muddy earth. Dean pulls the truck over into the weed-thick clearing that acts as the front yard, and he and Sam take a moment to take in their new surroundings. Seems like a place a recluse would live, Dean thinks to himself. The house is aged by weather and time, wood rotting in the water-logged air.

Dean's the first to step out of the truck, boots slipping on the carpet of moss. He shivers at the warm breeze making its way through the heavy humidity. Dean approaches the front of the house, Sam a solid presence at his back.

They don't have to knock. The door opens as soon as they step onto the rickety porch, their heavy boots slapping loudly against the old wood. The woman appears in the doorway, and she's everything and nothing Dean was expecting.

Short, maybe about five feet tall at most, so that Dean and Sam tower above her in the doorway. She's got sea-green eyes and smooth, honey-brown skin, thick black dreadlocks that hang low down her back. There are strands of gray hair at her temples, but she doesn't look much older than Dean himself, her skin clear of lines and wrinkles.. She's wearing a simple white sundress that flows from a slim body, and Dean finds himself oddly mesmerized by the dark tattoo climbing up her neck and wrapping around her collarbone, full of symbols he recognizes as protective runes. A single blue stone hangs from one earlobe.

They watch each other for long endless moments, the woman's eyes taking in the two Winchesters like she's reading their story in their posture, in the set of their shoulders, and in the fall of their breath.

"I've been expecting you boys," she says after a time, and her voice is sandpaper rough, like tires over gravel.

She leads them inside her home, and Dean can hear Sam breathing heavy as he shadows Dean's every move. The house smells like the river. It's cool, with outside sunlight filtering in through a number of wide-open windows that also let in a warm breeze. The furniture is old and faded, using patterns and colors Dean suspects were popular in the seventies. The woman leads them to the back of the house to what Dean assumes is an old dining room. In the center of the room is a large wooden table covered in an array of colorful candles, flames flickering with the breeze.

"Please have a seat," the woman says. "I'll be just a moment."

Dean takes a chair at the table and Sam follows suit. They both watch the woman move out of the room and enter the kitchen attached at the rear. Her feet are bare, and they move without sound over the wood floor.

"So?" Sam whispers in Dean's ear.

Dean arches a brow Sam's way and shrugs. "Seems legit."

Sam snorts and kicks Dean's shin under the table, but before Dean can retaliate, the woman is back, hands wrapped around a thick, leather-bound book.

The woman looks at them for another lingering moment, gaze sharp and assessing. "I am Sula."

"I'm Sam, and this is my brother Dean," Sam says immediately, knocking Dean on the shoulder as he introduces them. "Professor Donahue from Oberlin sent us."

"Thanks for agreeing to meet us," Dean adds, smiling his most affable smile, the one that says chicks dig me.

"Sam and Dean Winchester," Sula says, eyes going bright as she looks at them. "How could I not meet you?"

Sam turns to look at Dean, and Dean smirks at him, crossing his arms across his chest as he turns back to look at Sula. "I take it you've heard of us?"

Sula smiles, not unkindly. "Anyone with an ounce of connection to the spirit world has heard of you, Dean Winchester."

"Oh," Dean supplies lamely, shrugging uncomfortably. The room suddenly feels too warm.

Sula hums as she sets down her book and goes about adding more candles to the table and lighting them. Dean can hear the wind beating against the side of the old house, the sound of it whistling through the trees. He licks his lips, mouth suddenly gone dry. "We're hoping you can help us," he says when nothing more is forthcoming from Sula.

Sula turns to face him, hands running through her long dreads. She tilts her head up and says, "You shine so bright I could see you coming from miles away."

Dean blinks, his mouth opening and then closing. "What?"

Sula smiles, something old and powerful moving behind her light eyes then. Dean feels the skin of his arms prickle, gooseflesh rising on his forearm, and for a moment he thinks he can feel the woman's power caress him like a warm breeze. "What are you?" he whispers without thinking.

"I've gone by many names," Sula says, words soft and mysterious. "In many different stories and traditions." She takes her seat at the head of the table, hands caressing the leather of the book in front of her. For the first time Dean notices the amulets and charms tangled in her thick hair, the silver and copper glinting in the amber light.

She looks at him, and her eyes are very old and very wise. They remind him of Castiel's eyes. "You're an angel," Dean says, and again his words exit his mouth before he can stop them.

Sula laughs at that, her gritty voice carrying across the room. "I've been many things. Never an angel, though. I'm something older." She pauses then, eyes moving to glance around the room. Dean tracks her gaze, taking in the jars of herbs and oils lining the shelves, the strange etchings carved into the faded walls.

"They pray to me still," she says quietly, as if talking to herself. "And I walk the land and help those I can."

Sam makes a sound beside Dean, and Dean startles, having forgotten his brother was there. He turns to look at him, and Sam's eyes are wide and curious. Dean opens his mouth to speak, but thinks better of it. He turns to look at Sula, and she's gazing at the far wall, eyes gone cloudy.

"Um," Dean says after a moment passes. "I guess you know why we're here then."

She turns to him, tilting her head so that her long hair falls over her shoulder. "Once upon a time there was a little boy who wished for the moon."

Dean frowns. "I don't know what that means."

Sula's smile is slow and curling. "Oh, yes you do," she says, and her words are barely more than a whisper. "Keep wishing for the impossible, Dean. Maybe one day you'll get it."

Dean feels something tighten in his chest, and he shakes his head. "I don't understand."

Sula sits back in her chair, eyes going to the book in front of her. "The ritual I will give you will allow you to pass into the borderland you call Purgatory. If you enter Purgatory without permission and try to ascend the mountain, you will be turned away. This ritual will assure your passage. But before you are allowed entrance, you will face trials that will test your strength. Your soul must be able to avoid the cleansing fires of Purgatory, Dean. To do that your soul must be cleansed before you enter."

Dean feels his heart thud against his ribcage. He doesn't know who this Sula is, and he doesn't even know if he should trust her. But he does trust his intuition, and there's something about this woman he recognizes, soul-deep. Her eyes meet his, and he can feel that ancient power there, curling behind the surface.

"I," Dean pauses, frowning. "I can use this ritual to enter and exit, taking my friend with me?"

Sula watches him, her eyes running up and down his face like she's trying to memorize him. "You can do whatever you want with it. I offer it as a gift."

"Why would you give this to me?" Dean asks, disbelieving.

Sula sighs, running her nails along the hide of the old leather-bound book. "Because I am old and you, my child, shine so very brightly."

Dean inhales sharply, tired of riddles from powerful beings, but he forces patience even if he doesn't really feel it. "Please just tell me what I have to do."

"You will do as you must," Sula says quietly. "You will walk the shores of Purgatory, watch the dawn greet the sea. You will see lost souls repent, but you will not be one of them. You will face the trials of Ante-Purgatory or be condemned to the fires. You can be hurt, trapped, or lost, so follow the rules given you and listen to those who guide you."

She stands, her movements smooth and graceful. Then she pulls a scrap of paper from the book she'd been holding. "This is what you came for," she tells him, holding the paper out to him.

Dean meets her eyes, and they stare at each other for a long moment.

"Dean," Sam whispers, nudging him with his elbow.

Dean shakes himself free from Sula's gaze, turns his eyes to the paper, and accepts it.

Sula rests her hands on Dean's face, and Dean shivers at the feel of her cool fingers against his cheekbones. "Beware little boy, for your journey is just beginning," she whispers.

"Okay," Dean says, swallowing against the sudden dryness in his throat. "I will."

Sula sighs and pulls her hands back. Dean can feel her power rescind with her touch, the old soul behind her eyes shift back into hiding.

She slides away, and Dean turns to glance at Sam, who's staring at Sula like she just told them the meaning of life. And maybe she just did in a way, he thinks. Cas's life.

"Go now," she says, turning to relight the candles on her table that have gone out.

Sam and Dean both stand at the same time, almost knocking over their chairs in the rush. Dean's holding on tight to the offered ritual when he says, "Thank you for you help."

Sula looks at him, her smile a haunting and lovely thing. "Go find your moon, Dean Winchester."

Dean steps back, nodding his head, not really sure what to say to that. He and Sam make for the door, Sam's movements sluggish, like he's deep in thought himself. Sula simply follows slowly behind them.

"Yemayá," Sam says suddenly, stopping at the front door and looking back at the woman. "That's the meaning of the symbol carved above your kitchen doorway. Mother of the ocean."

"Smart boy," Sula says softly. "Maybe you'll both survive this after all."

Dean frowns at the both of them, but before he can comment about Sam's eternal geekdom, his brother is pulling him out through the door, and they're both stumbling their way down the porch and to the old pickup.


***

They're about twenty miles outside of Oklahoma City when Sam pulls them over for gas and a restroom break. He's filling up the truck as he watches Dean head toward the station. His brother's back is straighter than it's been in a while, his steps more sure.

It's good to see. These past few weeks Dean's been moving as if he's in a trance, not fully there, and Sam hasn't exactly known how to help him, especially considering Sam isn't fully there most days himself.

"Hey, Sammy!" Dean yells from across the parking lot, voice carrying on the crisp evening air. "Dude, they got cherry Slushies here. Want one?"

Sam snorts and shakes his head. "How about no!"

"You don't know what you're missing," Dean grumbles loudly as he heads into the station.

Sam's smiling as he finishes pumping the gas. The evening sky is lit up in flames, striae of red and gold that go on forever. They'll be at Missouri's in a few hours, and that means they'll be one step closer to this crazy mission impossible Dean's set himself upon.

Sam's leaning against the side of the truck when Dean returns, Slushie in one hand and a bag of junk food in the other. Sam smirks, throwing one more look at the evening sky, letting the colors wash over his skin. The longer he's out of the Cage, the more Sam's drawn to these little moments – when he can just experience everything again: the wind on his face, the sharp smell of the wet earth, the color of the sunset.

It makes sense now to Sam why his brother used to make odd, random stops in the months following his return from Hell. Some days Dean would just pull the Impala over in the middle of nowhere, get out, and simply start walking. Or he'd throw his head back, gaze at the sky, and breathe in deep. He was probably rejoicing in what it felt like to be alive, to be free. Not for the first time Sam regrets not being there for Dean when he got back from the Pit, having been too consumed with what he was doing with Ruby and finding Lilith to see what Dean must have been going through on his own.

Sam's startled out of his thoughts when Dean presses the wet, icy-cold plastic of his Slushie cup against Sam's cheek.

"You jerk," Sam growls, and Dean just cackles, jumping back in the truck and turning the radio to something that sadly resembles 80s hair metal. But Sam doesn't object because Dean's eyes are smiling, and that's huge because these past few days they've been red-rimmed and shell-shocked.

They're on the move soon after, Dean settled down in the passenger-seat, jacket crumpled under his head like a pillow. The miles pass beneath them, and Sam keeps his eyes on the road. He's read the ritual a few times since leaving Sula's place. It's old and powerful stuff, Sam can tell, but it won't be too hard to get the ingredients they need – the herbs, spices, and oils.

But there's no way to know what the ultimate effect of the ritual will be. And it's killing Sam to think of Dean risking himself like this, not knowing the end result. But Dean has a martyr complex the size of Texas, and Sam knows there's no talking him out of this. Not when Dean's missing a limb that goes by the name of Castiel.

Sam wants to be sure he's doing the best thing for Dean, for Cas, for all of them. Bobby thinks they're crazy, and Sam's not so sure he's wrong. Sam glances at Dean out of the corner of his eye. He's sleeping, which is a start. Sam himself hasn't had a panic attack or seizure in a number of days, a combination of medicine and meditative breathing practices helping him to regain control, enough that Dean trusts him behind the wheel of a vehicle. Maybe not the Impala, but still it's something.

Dean makes a sharp noise in his sleep, a distressed, anguished whine that has Sam slowing down and thinking about pulling over.

"Hey, hey, Dean," Sam says trying to wake him, and Dean grunts, coming into consciousness slowly.

"What?" Dean mutters, voice guttural-sounding.

"You were dreaming," Sam says, eyes back on the road.

"Oh," Dean says, and his voice is hoarse and cracked, like he's been yelling.

They're quiet for a while, and Sam thinks Dean's gone back to sleep until he hears his brother reading through the ritual, his words soft and hesitant as he recites the spell.

"You know I'd go with you in a heartbeat," Sam says because he needs to say it, has been needing to say it for a while now.

Dean sighs, scrubbing his hair with the palm of his hand. "I know, Sammy." Sam hears the desperation in his voice, the regret. He doesn't know how to respond to it.

"But you can't go with me," Dean adds into the silence. "It's too dangerous with your wall down. You need to heal."

"I know," Sam says, because he does. He can't be the partner Dean needs unless he's whole, healthy. "You just be careful, Dean," he says, voice thick with all the other words he wants to say. "You just get in, get Cas, and get out."

"I will, Sammy," Dean says, and Sam believes him.


***

Bobby won't meet his gaze, and Dean can't blame him. Missouri is keeping busy, moving in and out of the kitchen as she stirs the pot of stew on the stove. Sam is standing by the window, looking at the darkness outside.

The dining room is quiet, eerily so. Dean sits at the head of the table, sipping his coffee and watching the hand of the antique clock, the seconds passing by with each loud tick-tock.

Dean's hand tightens around his mug as Bobby sits down on his left, chair dragging over the wood floor. Dean straightens in his chair and looks up at him. "Be okay with this," he says, his voice low.

"I can't this time, Dean," Bobby says, and that's enough to send Dean's heart stuttering.

Dean sips from his mug again and turns his eyes to the far wall. "So that's it then?"

"No, that's not it, boy," Bobby says gruffly, pulling his cap off his head and running a hand through his hair. "I don't agree with this fool plan of yours, but I'm not gonna abandon you."

Dean nods. "Thank you."

Bobby looks at him, exhaling loudly. "Let's get this dog and pony show on the road."


***

Dean steps into the bath water, shivering despite its heat. The heavy steam and the spicy scent of the oils swirling around make him drowsy. He settles down in the tub, letting the water cover his naked chest. He scoops the liquid up in his hand and wets his hair, lets it drip down his forehead. The fragrant bath slowly heats his cool body.

Dean breathes deep, and the scents of lavender and coriander fill his nose. The bathroom is dim, moonlight slipping in through the high window and playing off the candlelight. This is the part of the ritual Dean doesn't mind. He must cleanse his physical self with blessed water and ritual prayer, the physical preparation for the spiritual journey.

This time there's nothing for him to memorize. He's the one whose soul is being sent to Purgatory. Sam will read the spell, Missouri will burn the herbs and recite the invocation. Dean's soul will make the journey alone, leaving his body behind.

Dean's hands tremble as he scrubs his skin raw, fingers dragging over old scars. He dunks his head under the water, stays under until he can't hold his breath anymore, and then inhales a deep breath as he surfaces.

Through the bathroom door, Sam says, "You ready?"

"Yeah," Dean says, even though he doesn't think anyone can ever be ready for something like this. He steps out of the bathtub, feet slapping against the cool tile, his wet skin gone pink with the heat and the scrubbing. "I'm ready."


***

Sam almost forgets the words.

It's funny really. So often he's teased Dean, told him that he could memorize anything, anytime, anywhere. But tonight…tonight the words stick in his mouth like glue.

Dean is on the bed. He's lying down like he's simply going to sleep. Head on the pillow, covers pulled up to his hips. He's wearing just a pair of boxers, his bare chest anointed in holy oils and scrawled with painted sigils. Candles are lit at strategic points around the room, and sigils are etched on the wooden floorboards in chalk.

Otherwise the house is quiet, too silent really, dark except for the light of the red and black candles. Sam's standing beside the bed, motionless, while Bobby and Missouri look on like mourners come to pay their final respects.

I can't do this, Sam thinks. Don't ask me to do this, Dean.

But Dean is asking, and Sam won't let him down. Not this time.

Above the bed is something that resembles a hexagram, an intricate arrangement of lines that intersect and converge into a design that took him hours to draw. Sam rubs his fingers along the metallic pentacle in his hand and places it within the triangle of invocation surrounding the bed. Everything is set, and the bittersweet scent of burning incense fills the room, makes him feel woozy.

Dean smacks his dry lips and says, "Fuck I could go for a burger right about now."

"Dean," Sam admonishes, feeling too frayed and high-strung to joke. "Close your eyes. Be quiet. I'm about to start."

"Yeah, yeah," Dean whispers, but he follows Sam's orders.

Sam's hands shake. He tries not to think about the possibility of losing Dean, about Dean's soul being trapped in Purgatory, much like Castiel's grace. They've got enough medical supplies in case something goes wrong. But this is all so fucked up, Sam thinks.

Sam looks at Bobby and Missouri one more time before turning to look at Dean. His brother's eyes are closed, and he's breathing rhythmically. Sam takes a deep breath, says, "Dean."

"I'm okay, Sam," Dean whispers into the quiet of the room. "I'll be seeing you soon." Dean opens his eyes, and their gazes meet briefly. He turns to nod his head at Bobby and Missouri before closing his eyes again and settling comfortably in the bed. "I'm ready," he says softly.

It's a blur after that. Missouri burns the herbs in an old silver mixing bowl and begins chanting. Sam starts reciting the main part of the incantation, the ancient words tumbling from his lips with an ease that surprises him.

He doesn't know how long they go on repeating the spell, but the room grows warmer, heavier, the power of the ritual rolling off his skin and making his hair stand on end. Just as Sam feels his body giving out, the pressure against his chest building too fast, the candles in the room flare tall and bright, and Dean's body convulses on the bed, jerking upward and then collapsing back on the mattress.

Sam keeps chanting, easing closer to the bed. His brother is still breathing, but Sam knows without a doubt that Dean is gone.


***

Lee's Beach, South Carolina, 1993

Dad hasn't contacted them in six days. Dean counts the days in his head over and over as he rolls up his sleeping bag, glancing back at where Sam's still curled up in his own bag. He'll let Sam sleep in this morning. It's Saturday anyway, and Sammy's been running a mild fever these last two days that's got Dean worried it could turn into something more. Dean thinks about getting more sleep himself, but he knows he should probably use the extra morning hours to try to scrounge up some work.

Dean sticks his head out of the tent, the briny smell of the beach hitting his nose. It's early, but there's a place down by the docks that sells fresh salmon, tuna, and oysters, and Dean hopes he might be able to exchange some work for a couple of pounds of fish, enough to keep him and Sam fed through the weekend.

Dad hasn't contacted them in six days. Dean sucks in a breath and pulls his backpack out, checking their pager again. All their supplies are stuffed in the tent since they've been camping on the beach for the past three days. It's not been so bad. It's July, so the South Carolina nights are warm, and fortunately on this private little cove no one bothers them. They don't have to worry about cops, tourists, or any junkies and homeless folks looking for a place to crash.

Sam hates it, craves the four-walled security of a motel room. But this is a tourist town, and two kids staying by themselves in a motel was raising too many alarm bells, so Dean had to move them to this piece of hidden beach. Sam stirs fitfully in his sleeping bag, and Dean turns to cover him with his own blanket. Dean will have to go to the Salvation Army today, see if he can get a couple of extra shirts and socks, since they're running low and he hasn't come across a laundromat within walking distance.

Dean stretches out, body bruised and aching from hauling fish guts earlier during the week. He doesn't look it at all, but occasionally he gets away with claiming he's eighteen and some of the local fishermen will throw work his way. He digs through his backpack, tossing aside comic books and candy wrappers before pulling out the sock he keeps their cash in; they've got maybe fifteen dollars left. Shit.

Dean turns to look at Sam. He doesn't want to brave shoplifting any cold medicine, not with Dad gone for so long. If Dean were to get caught, Sam would have no one looking after him. So he'll have to buy the medicine, and he could probably spend the rest of the cash on burgers for Sam to eat for lunch and dinner. Dean can go without for a while; no biggie.

That night it's still just him and Sammy camping on the beach. The sand sifts between their bare feet as they walk the shoreline. The high tide pulls nearer, reaching out toward them, and the salt spray wets the cuffs of Dean's jeans. The ocean at night looks like black slate, and the moon sits in the sky like a comforting friend.

Sam's arm brushes Dean's as he settles down next to Dean on the beach. They've been bathing in the sea, so they both smell like a mix of sweaty boy and ocean. The salt drying on their skin is itchy, and Dean suspects he'll never get the sand out of his every crevice.

"Dean."

"What's up Sammy?" Dean asks, wiggling his toes in the sand and turning to stare at his brother.

Sam brushes his damp hair back from his face, frowning. "What if he doesn't come back?" Sam's voice is low, more breath than anything else.

Dean's chest feels like it's collapsing in on itself. "He will," he answers stubbornly. Why won't Sam leave it be?

Sam snorts, pulling his legs up to his chest and leaning his forehead against his knees. Dean can just hear the cogs turning in his baby brother's head.

"When Dad comes back, we could stay here," Sam says after a time. "Like in Robinson Crusoe or The Swiss Family Robinson. We can build a house and live here on the beach. Wouldn't that be cool?"

Dean laughs, shoulder bumping Sam. He really needs to hide his brother's library books. The coastline stretches out and away before him, and it does feel like they're stranded on their own desert island, left to their own devices. "That could be cool," he admits, smiling a little.

The waves are so loud as they crash on the beach, it takes Dean a minute to realize Sam's started crying, making snuffling sounds as he hides his blotchy face in his arms.

"Come here, Sammy," Dean says, and he takes his brother in his arms, rocking him like he did when he was littler. He knows Sam's worn-out and hungry and dirty, missing Dad and scared. If Dean's honest with himself, he can admit he is too.

"I'm not gonna leave you," Dean says because he knows Sam needs to hear it, and Sam stops shivering in his arms at the vocalized promise. It's Dean's job to make sure Sam's okay, to keep him fed and clothed, and Dean takes his job seriously.

"Promise you'll always come back if you do?" Sam's voice wavers.

"I will," Dean says, squeezing Sam's shoulders tight. Dean keeps his promises, and he knows he'll always come back for Sam. Dean turns his head and watches the ocean, the blue-black tide closing in on them.

Dad hasn't contacted them in six days.


***

When Dean opens his eyes, the first thing he notices is the hard ground underneath his body. He blinks, half-expecting to find he’s lying on a cool, sandy Carolina beach, but knowing that dream was just a memory, something pulled from the recesses of his childhood. What he finds instead is hard, rocky earth; he's shaded from the sun by a large outcropping, his body pressed up against the base. He sits up and breathes in dry, dusty air, his eyes squinting against the bright daylight.

Sam, he thinks instinctively, turning his head around and trying to gauge his surroundings. Feeling disoriented, he looks down at his body. He's in a plain dark t-shirt and worn jeans, but there's nothing else belonging to him in his immediate vicinity. He doesn't have his gear, none of his guns or knives. His body is stiff, but he's not injured. His mouth is dry though, and his skin has the rough texture he knows comes from prolonged exposure to the elements.

It's quiet, and Dean suspects there's no one nearby. Not even the air is moving. He groans as he climbs to his feet, legs wobbly as he moves past the rocky outcropping to get a better lay of the land.

Land being the operative word. Open space for miles all around, flat sandy earth meeting the horizon. It's a Martian landscape of red earth and golden canyons, land scorched into lush, thick undulations of mahogany and burnt sienna.

Dean remembers then, the sound of his brother's chants filling his head, and he swallows against the dryness in his throat. He walks along the outcropping, turning to see if he can make out anything along the distant skyline other than rows of red-rocked mesas, buttes, and limestone hills.

Dean takes a deep breath, the desert heat filling his lungs. He spends a moment reflecting on the vast, empty, arid vista that rolls out ahead of him, trying to gather his thoughts. He thinks about Sam and Bobby waiting for him across the planes of existence. Thoughts of them convince him to get moving. He needs to find the entrance to Purgatory; he needs to find Cas. He needs to get them home.

Dean begins to walk, his boots hitting against the red, cracked earth in a steady rhythm that seems to echo across the empty land. The sun is high in a soft blue sky, and it beats down against his back in a heavy stream of constant heat. The land is formless, endless, stretching out all around him, bowl-shaped, its monotony broken up only by thick patches of dried-out scrub grass and sagebrush. The wind is a constant thing though, blowing dust into Dean's eyes, into his hair, howling like a lonely, dying thing in the distance.

Dean's driven through deserts all his life, followed long highways through nowhere lands where he's met the blackest nights he's ever known. One summer he remembers memorizing the songs on every one of Dad's cassette tapes because they couldn't get a decent station this far outside of civilization. He remembers taking roads that were more dust than anything else and sitting with Dad and Sammy under strips of burnt-orange sky.

Heat sizzles around him now, making the air itself tremble. The horizon is soon filled with majestic red sandstone buttes towering over a flat desert valley. In the distance, barren, rugged mountains shimmer against the skyline. This desert could be anywhere: Utah, New Mexico, Nevada; it could be the Mojave or the Sonoran. But Dean knows it's somewhere in the in-between, some reality that exists only for those who have the means to enter it. He wonders if it ever rains here, if there's ever a reprieve from the dry heat and the hot orb of sun. He swallows against the aching thirst winding through his body, clawing at the back of his throat. He licks at his dry, chapped lips, wonders how long he can last without water. Wonders how long he'll have to be here.

Dean walks and walks. His feet start to feel raw, sweating inside his boots. The sun is burning his naked arms, the thin skin at the back of his neck. The heat makes his t-shirt and jeans stick to his body. Sweat clings under his arms, slides down the vee between his shoulderblades. He's grainy with dust by the time he takes a break along a small rocky hilltop, settling down beside dry, brittle bushes. He looks up, eyes the burnt horizon melting into the hillside. He listens; there's only the sound of the wind. All around him, the world is dust, dry and cracked. Truth is, he's never felt more alone.


There are things Dean thinks about in the silence of the flatlands. The cool slide of Lisa's hands over his shoulders after a long day spent working at the construction site. A summer's night spent showing Ben how to grill a steak, the sound of the boy's excited voice recounting how he scored the winning goal in his championship soccer match. Farther back still, Sam reciting words over and over again as he practices for his 8th grade spelling bee, with Dean quizzing him at every opportunity. Spell macrophagous, genius boy! Dean had laughed. The slimmer memories persist: Mom singing Hey Jude to put him to sleep, the feel of her warm hand covering his cheek; Dad reaching out to grab his hand when a four-year-old Dean couldn't keep up with him at the hardware store. Winchesters never leave a man behind, Dad had said.

And Cas, always so ineffable and maddening, with words that still linger in Dean's mind: We've been through much together, you and I. And I just wanted to say, I'm sorry it ended like this.

Time passes between the walking and the memories, one hour flowing into the next into the next. Dean tracks the movement of the sun across the sky, trying to read the passage of hours. He drifts mostly, throughout the day, following some path through the desert that he can't quite discern but can only feel intuitively. His thoughts flow in and out with the wind, scattering like the dust devils wheeling across the barren ground.

Evening comes slowly, the sun sinking into the bleeding horizon. The mountains seem to drift back as he walks, and distant dust storms create a luscious haze across the setting sun. The shadows stretch and mutate, and in the darkening land the tall, red sandstone pillars and arches look like monsters; the deep ravines resemble gap-toothed mouths. The heat drops off with the setting sun, leaving a chill in the air that has Dean shivering, missing his leather jacket.

He finds a place to camp, a hollow nestled among hulking rock ruins. There is no real shelter though; there is only the spatter of stars and a crescent moon to break up the darkness, to slice through the black velvet blanket that throws itself across the sky. He thinks about starting a fire, but he's too tired to look for kindling. He curls up on himself instead and tries not to think of the only other time he felt this alone, so cut off from everything and everyone he knew and loved – in the sharper moments of his time in Hell. Loneliness sliced as much as the blade, cut deeper than Alastair's knife. There's only the silence of the desert now, and Dean closes his eyes to it. Sleeps.


***

Dean wakes up shaking and shivering, but feeling a warmth at his back. When he rolls around, he finds a campfire burning, glowing orange in the early darkness of the land. Smoke curls in lazy signals toward the sky.

"Who's there?" Dean calls out, instantly on alert. He reaches out for a weapon he knows he doesn't have, body coiling in prep for battle. He hears a scuffling noise in the surrounding scrub brush, and he jerks toward the sound, his own heavy breathing rumbling through the quiet night.

Dean hears the press of footsteps on the cracked ground, and he squints his eyes past the glow of the fire. There just beyond the boundary of flame is a coyote, its grayish-brown fur lit up by firelight. The animal shuffles there for a moment, paws patting at the dirt, before coming closer, all the while watching Dean.

Dean stares at the coyote, and the coyote stares back at him, eyes like flames reflecting the fire. Dean isn't afraid. He feels no threat from the animal, even if its arrival is unexpected. Dean sits up, feeling tired and sore, his jeans dragging through the red dirt. The coyote doesn't flinch or run away as Dean draws even closer.

"So what, are you like my animal spirit guide or something?" Dean huffs when they've stared at each for another long moment. "Gonna tell me who built this fire?"

The coyote simply tilts its head. Dean sighs, running his hand over his face. The stars are fading, and the smoke is curling in the desert wind. Night's leaving them behind.

Dean, he hears his own name blowing in the wind, and when he twists around, trying to find its source, he loses track of the coyote. There's a noise then in the darkness, a cry that sounds primal and ancient.

Dean twists around, face turning back to the fire. There where the coyote once stood is a slim figure, a young man perhaps, his lean frame silhouetted against the changing horizon.

"Who are you?" Dean asks, blood rushing in his veins.

The man moves forward, and the light of the fire seems to cling to his golden skin, the smoke curling up and around him like ivy. In that instance Dean recognizes the man – the boy really – who walks toward him from the fire.

"Marco?" Dean swallows, his throat raw and dry.

The boy smiles, and Dean watches the flicker of flames dance across the familiar face.

"Dean," the boy replies with a warm smile.

"You're dead," Dean says, a slight shake to his words. Because he saw his friend die; he saw the boy's throat get torn out by a hydra.

"One could say the same thing about you," Marco says thoughtfully. "Lost as you are here in this world of dreams."

"I'm not dead," Dean whispers, voice thick. "I'm just…passing through."

The fire jumps and sparks, the wood crackling. The boy sits down on the ground beside the fire, directly across from Dean. They watch each other for long moments, and in that time Dean studies him. He looks just as Dean remembers: no more than sixteen, short black hair and dark skin, high cheekbones and grey-brown eyes.

The boy's mouth curves into a small, quiet smile as he catches Dean watching him. "It's been a long time."

"You could say that." Dean takes in a deep breath, not understanding what's happening at all, but needing to push forward. "Tell me, what is this place?"

"Some call it Edin," Marco says as if that really answers Dean's question.

Dean sighs, hands rubbing at his temples. "Where is that exactly?"

"Wherever it's needed to be," Marco replies with a shrug. "Our world is made of many worlds, of many borderlands, of many dreamlands." He turns to look at Dean straight-on as he adds, "And many dreamers."

Dean frowns, feeling at his wit's end. "All I know is that I have to reach my friend."

"I know," Marco nods, dark eyes watching him closely. "Purgatory lies just beyond the mountains."

Dean looks past the broad expanse of the desert to the mountains rising high in the distance. They seem to circle this world with enclosing arms. "That’s really far away," he says, not meaning to voice his concern.

"Not as far as it seems," Marco says, and he's wearing that soft smile Dean remembers so well. The smoke curls and twists around the boy, and Dean watches the firelight play against his face, the way the shadows frame the sharp shape of his jaw, his high cheekbones, and the gentle curve of his mouth.

"Why…how are you even here?" Dean whispers, throat aching.

"You call us to you in this place. The spirits of those you loved and lost can guide you here. If you need us, we will come," Marco says quietly. "We all know that you can reach him, Dean. That you can save him."

I didn't save you, Dean wants to say, but instead he sucks in a breath. Beside him the fire is a soft glow of embers, sparks jumping toward the limitless sky.

There are things Dean knows. Lore and legend, spell and ritual, guns and knives. The taste of every flavor of Ben & Jerry's ice cream provided at the corner store on Broad Street in Tampa Bay. The time it takes to drive from Reno to San Francisco going 90 miles an hour at four in the morning after fighting with his drunken Dad. Small things, like the way Cas smelled like mountain air and thunderstorms, how his skin was always warm to the touch. How Marco laughed when he was happy, curled in Dean's arms.

Dean knows hunger, and Dean knows loss. He knows what it is to carry his brother from the fire and to let him jump down into it. How to wear sorrow like a gaping wound in his chest.

"What do I do?" Dean asks because this is the only thing he needs to know now.

"Take this," Marco says, and Dean looks up to see a knife in the boy's hand, the bronze of the blade gleaming in the firelight. It's old, with colorful gemstones set in the hilt and an inscription running along the curved blade.

"Uh, thanks," Dean says, taking the weapon. It's as warm as the heat from the fire.

"And be careful, Dean," Marco says, his tone deep with knowing. "You call on ancient sources that should be left to rest; you wield power without understanding your limits."

Dean nods because he knows he's risked a lot, broken too many rules to count. "I will."

"Travel toward the western valley. There is a way there through the mountains," Marco says. "Travel fast, without delay."

Marco stands, and Dean does the same, approaching him across the fire. "Wait…so, you're leaving?"

Marco smiles softly, sadly. He reaches up and touches Dean's cheek, his eyes warm with longing. "I was your first, Dean. But he will be your last."

Dean swallows thickly, so many words stuck in his throat. Marco turns away, and before Dean can even reach out, the boy's gone. And there at the foot of the fire is the coyote, shaggy fur and tilted head, watching Dean with familiar dark eyes before trotting away into the darkness of the desert beyond.


***

By mid-day he's made his way toward the western edge of the valley. The mountains crowd closer around him, jutting upward, their peaks carving into the blue sky. Dean stumbles as he goes, tired and thirsty and sore. His boots catch in the cracks in the sun-baked earth, cracks he follows like old, familiar scars. Along the jagged crags, he trips time and time again. His body wants to give out, to stay down with each stumble, but he keeps climbing until all he can see is the steep, rocky mountainside.

As the day passes, there's a tugging in his chest and a feeling of rightness he can't shake loose. He knows this is the way forward – the way to Cas – and he follows it with growing anticipation. By evening, he has to stop to rest, hunkering down in the foothills of the mountains in preparation for another night. He takes in a deep breath and closes his eyes. The air is dry, so dry that his throat is swelling with the need for water.

I'm so close, Cas, Dean thinks silently, watching the sharp flare of the sun sinking over the dusty flats. The world settles around him, its stillness not even disturbed by the wind.

Night comes slowly, the stars piercing through the blackness. There's still nothing out here as far as he can see, just the land and the bowled sky. Shelterless again, he curls his body in the dark and tries to sleep, but all the while he's missing the assuring presence of Sam snoring in the bed at his side or Bobby puttering around in the living room. Or Cas just being there, unexpected and surprising. The fear of failing them again races through his mind, leaving him hot and restless, bone-tired and soul-weary.

Dean's awakened in the early hours of the morning by a howl so inhuman it leaves his blood cold. Fear rises like bile in his throat, and he shivers, climbing to his feet and reaching for the knife Marco gave him, that he'd held close to his body during the night.

The world is covered in dark shadows, but Dean uses the moonlight to glean what he can of the rough mountain terrain. Somewhere close by, another howl shudders through the darkness and sends Dean whirling around, hand tight around the hilt of his knife. Fuck.

Breathing hard, he scales down the rocky slope before pressing himself up along the side of a hollow grooved deep into a rock wall. He feels too exposed, too visible in the light of the moon, but there's no place for him to duck behind, to take cover.

Dean freezes, catching a movement to his right, a darker shadow moving fast against the already dark landscape. Too big to be any sort of desert animal he's ever heard of. He sucks in a deep breath and whips around at the sound of rocks falling somewhere behind him. There's another movement up ahead, a set of shadows dancing in the night. He moves cautiously against the rock wall, boots crunching too loudly in the quiet of the clearing.

A shift behind him, and Dean's twisting his body around in time to see something huge and inhuman snapping wide jaws in front of his face. He slashes out with his knife but meets no resistance, missing the thing as it pulls away, sinking back into the shadows.

Shit, shit, shit, Dean curses silently because whatever this thing is, it's fast and it's big—

—and it's right behind him. Dean curses and spins around, his fists coming up to hit against something meaty and massive. The thing pushes back in retaliation, and Dean finds himself rolling under the solid weight of hard flesh, his own body crushed between this beast and the rock wall. Dean fists the handle of his knife, managing to jerk his hand forward with enough momentum to stick the blade into the beast's side.

It howls that wretched, inhuman sound, wrenching its body back but not before pushing out with its arms so that Dean is thrown to the ground, rocks cutting into his back with the hard impact. The pain immobilizes him for a moment, knocks the breath out of his lungs, and he can taste blood in his mouth from where he bit down on his tongue.

Dean shudders, ignoring the aches working their way up his spine as he moves his head slowly, trying to locate the beast in the darkness around him. He reaches out with his hand, panicking as his fingers close around nothing but dirt, rocks, and twigs. He fans his arms out further, needing to figure out where his knife fell. He locates it just as he sees the beast approaching through the shadows. Dean throws himself upright as fast as he can, boots hitting the hard ground as he crouches for the fight.

The thing shifts closer, massive and monstrous in the moonlight. Dean can make out more details of the creature now. It's shaped like a man, but bulky and deformed. Its body is covered in what looks like a mix of thick black fur and reptile scales. Its mouth is like that of a canine's, with a wide, gaping jaw and yellow teeth sharpened to fine points. When it growls, it drips saliva and what's probably blood onto its already matted fur. Its eyes are pure white, a ghostly light in the darkness of its face. And its smell… Dean has to hold his breath in order not to retch up the bile in his stomach. It's the smell of death, old blood and decay, an acrid stench that threatens to choke him.

Dean shifts to the side as the beast makes its move. Dean thrusts his knife forward again and again, swinging in wide arcs, hand curling tight around the hilt. The thing doesn't back down, rushing Dean in a offensive tackle that sends him falling backwards again, his knife clattering to the ground. Dean yells and kicks out, bucking hard against the crushing weight of the beast's heavy body, pushing out with arms and legs to throw it off.

When the beast is finished crushing Dean with its weight alone, the blows come, hitting against Dean's shoulders and chest, trying to stifle Dean's own frantic movements. Jabs of pain ripple throughout Dean's body, but it's not until the beast opens its jaw that Dean panics, yanking away as sharp teeth make for his neck and shoulders. Dean puts everything into the next move, throwing himself forward and wrapping his arms and legs around the beast's scaly middle. His hands curl around coarse fur as the thing bucks and roars, trying to shake Dean off.

When Dean refuses to let go, the beast pulls back and then, with a howl so loud it resounds in the hollow, it slams its massive body against the side of the rock wall. Dean feels the crushing blow in every single part of his own body, his head bouncing so hard against the rocks that he sees white explosions and stars. He falls from the beast with a wet gasp, blood spilling from his mouth and pain lancing through his body as he sinks to the ground.

"Sonofabitch," Dean spits out, his breath gone from his lungs.

He's shocked into momentary stillness, the pain spiking in sharp jolts along his back, his chest, and his legs. Dean tries to inhale a breath, but his lungs rebel, and he feels like he's choking on air. Closing his eyes, he knows it's now or never. He'll have to try to tackle the thing again, find its weak spot. Just as he makes to sit up, he slides his hand across the ground and feels the coolness of a blade under his fingers. His knife. Fuck yes.

Dean slides the hilt into his palm and starts to get up just as the beast jumps forward, landing on his body. Dean gasps, fighting with what strength he has left to heave his body upward, trying to knock the beast off of him. But the creature is solid, unmovable. Its meaty hands circle Dean's head, and it growls in Dean's face, its breath sour and smelling of dead things.

Dean clenches his fist, reveling in the welcoming warmth of the knife hilt in his palm. His hand curling around it tight, Dean twists his arm the best he can in the slim space between their bodies. Just as the beast lunges, its jaws gaping wide and coming for his throat, Dean thrusts upward, feeling the full force of the knife cut into the beast's belly. The thing jerks back, snarling as it forces itself to its feet. Dean scrambles to his own feet and thrusts up with the knife again, this time hitting the beast in its fur-lined chest. He stabs again and again until the thing slumps against the wall, twitching and gurgling blood, before finally falling to the ground with a loud thud.

The creature looks up at him, white eyes gone completely opaque, huge mouth gaping open. Dean pulls the knife from the creature's chest, swaying on his feet as he does so. He's only two steps away before his legs fold underneath him. He falls to the ground, his back scraping against the rough rock wall. His lungs burn with every breath, but he holds his knife like it's a lifeline.

Dean coughs, wiping blood from his cracked lips. He ignores the fatigue and nausea winding through his body and stares at the dead beast at his feet. There's something happening now though, and he blinks, trying to clear the blurry image before his eyes. But the change continues: the creature begins transforming, dark fur and scales disappearing and leaving human flesh behind.

The body seems to glow in the cool light of the early morning as it shifts and remolds itself. Dean squints as he watches the beast's face cave in, muzzle sinking and teeth receding, only to be left with the smooth lines of a human jawline. The entire change takes maybe a minute at most, and in that time the beast has shifted from a thing of nightmare to a something more familiar, the body of a human male.

Dean's speechless for a long moment, taking in the long lines of the body – human hands, and human legs, and human chest, and human feet. His heart jumps and twists in his ribcage as he looks on and on, eyes eventually locking on the face of the man now laying dead in the hollow.

He does a double take then, not understanding or believing what he's seeing. The man he's staring at is the splitting image of the face he sees in the mirror every single morning.

For fuck's sake, Dean thinks, because his life just can't get any weirder. I killed myself.

Overwhelmed, he leans back against the rock wall, closes his eyes, and promptly passes out.


***

Bells, Michigan, 2010

The sorority house is falling down all around him, large chunks of wall breaking apart in pieces of sheetrock and clumpy drywall. Dean presses himself up against the bedroom door, ears tuned to the sound of footsteps pounding up the stairs and down the hall toward him. Dean has to spin to catch the newest arrivals, bringing his gun up and emptying his last clip of silver bullets into the chest of the four bruxsas coming his way. Their bodies drop fast, but when Dean looks up he sees the leader still coming, her once-lovely face twisted by anger and the need for blood and vengeance.

Dean turns and throws himself into the bedroom, just avoiding a falling bookshelf that comes crashing to the floor in a tumble of textbooks. The entire house is still shaking, a result of the curse breaking, but Dean can't pay it any attention. The bruxsa is eyeing him with bloody murder in its gaze, and Dean just barely ducks a sharp kick before sending his own blow to the monster's gut.

With a scream, the bruxsa drives a powerful fist into Dean's chest in retaliation, slamming him back against the closet door. He rolls with the punches, knocking his elbow into the bruxsa's face; with a satisfied smile, he feels the crunch of bone under skin. When the monster pulls back, Dean's left panting on the floor, swollen eyes cracking open to see that the room has filled with three more party-goers.

"Party's over ladies," Dean wheezes, and then they're on him, screaming like banshees as they claw and fist at his clothes, trying to peel back his skin with their razor-sharp talons to eat at his flesh. He feels blows hammer into his temple and jaw, but he fights them off. He's just throwing one body off of him when he feels something heavy slam against the back of his head. Dean stops, stunned, mouth flooding with blood. The world goes in and out around him, his vision filled with black splotches as he collapses to the floor.

Dean can hear Castiel shouting his name as he pounds up the stairs. Dean doesn't have the voice to answer, his breath searing out of his throat with every exhale. He thinks the sorority house has stopped shaking at the very least. That's something.

Castiel is shouting something else now, words thick and accented in a language Dean doesn't understand. Dean closes his eyes and feels heat brush against his skin, smells the all-too-familiar scent of burning flesh. There are loud screams, and then the screams turn to begging whimpers. And then there's just silence. Dean suspects whatever monsters were left alive in the house are now just bones and ashes.

"Dean!" Cas skids to a stop at his side, dropping down to his knees as he runs his hand over Dean's chest, checking for injuries.

Cas hovers over him for a long moment, and Dean blinks up at him, smiling dopily because he watched Cas take on a room full of vampiric sorority girls earlier without cracking a single joke at all. "Heya, Cas," he says, voice rough.

"That was foolish. Using yourself as a diversion like that," Cas chides, hand sliding over Dean's collarbone, fingers warm as they run along Dean's skin checking for missing chunks of flesh.

"I had a plan," Dean offers weakly.

Cas turns skeptical eyes on him, shaking his head as he says, "A bad plan." He stands up quickly, clothes disheveled as he takes in the mess of the bedroom. "We should leave before the authorities arrive."

"And find a house full of dead coeds." Dean sighs, thinking of how the bruxas had managed to turn an entire sorority house into bloodsucking flesh-eating killing machines. "So much for your first college party, Cas."

Cas looks at him like he wants to finish the job the bruxsas started. "Do you need my assistance in getting up off the floor?" he asks instead.

"Yeah, I think so," Dean says, hating how just moving his lips to talk sends the cuts and bruises on his face smarting, blood dribbling from his busted lip. His tongue feels too thick, swollen in his tender mouth.

Castiel kneels down again, reaching to pull Dean up. Dean goes along with it, in too much pain to protest the manhandling. He shivers though as long fingers skate across his waist, and Castiel's hands gently settle Dean back against his chest. Dean can feel Castiel's breath puff warmly in the space between his shoulderblades as the angel picks Dean up and drags him to his feet.

"Always saving my ass, man," Dean breathes out, trying his best to move without actually moving.

Castiel's arms tighten around him. "Your ass would need less saving if you took fewer risks," he mutters tersely. He draws Dean to his side and pins him with a steady gaze before adding: "You really should learn to be more careful, Dean."

"I know, Cas," Dean mumbles. His throat burns, and he swallows against the coppery taste of blood in his mouth.

"Come on, I've got you," Castiel says, breath soft on Dean's ear as he edges them through the bedroom door.

By the time they're out of the house, Dean's leaning so heavily against Castiel, the angel's carrying most of his body weight. Dean wants to be embarrassed. He's not used to leaning on people like this, having to depend on anyone other than Sam and Bobby. But Cas has been such a steady presence in his life this past year and a half, and Dean finds himself lowering his guard around him more times than not. Cas pulls him closer, and Dean feels himself flushing as he leans in a little more, needing the support of the angel's body, his steady strength. He turns his head slightly, chin pressing against Castiel's neck as they move toward the Impala, arms curled around each other for support.

They wind up at a small motel off of Highway 80 that has one vacancy and a broken ice machine. Dean can hear the sound of a TV blaring from the neighboring room, some action movie with too many explosions and not enough Vin Diesel.

Dean glances in the bathroom mirror, dabbing at the dried blood around his split lip. He's dizzy, covered in scrapes and cuts, and his left eye is swelling into what promises to be a killer black eye. His hands shake as they graze the brand along his arm, rolling past it to disinfect the cuts up and down his forearm. He's also got a few bruised ribs and a minor concussion; nothing to write home about.

"I will stay with you until Sam arrives in the morning," Cas says, turning from his perch by the window as Dean exits the bathroom. Dean watches, mouth gaping as Cas takes off his trenchcoat and suit jacket and folds them over the chair in the corner. Dean sees the amulet hanging from his friend’s neck, tucked under his dress shirt.

"Uh, really?" Dean asks, not able to hide the surprise in his voice. "Don't you have to run off to the Holy Land or something?"

"Your head injury," Cas says, looking at Dean with a patient expression. "Someone should stay with you."

"Oh, yeah," Dean says with a slow nod, walking further into the room and kicking off his boots and socks. The motel carpet is a sickly brown, a perfect compliment to the sunflower-patterned wallpaper and moldy, out-of-date furniture.

Dean collapses on the queen bed in the center of the room, not bothering to remove any clothes. His entire body feels like it's been fed into a meat grinder.

He glances up when he feels the bed dip, and he smiles as he sees Cas attempt to sit back on the lumpy mattress. "I could use some rest as well," the angel says when Dean throws him a questioning look.

"Well, let's get you comfortable then," Dean says with a smirk, sitting up so that he can untuck both pillows from under the comforter. He offers Cas one and takes the other. He then lays on his back on his own side of the bed, eyes on the ceiling. He can tell Cas is following his lead, kicking off his dress shoes and leaning back in the bed.

Dean tries not to think about how weird it is for Cas to being doing something so human, to be settling down beside him on a motel bed in the middle of freaking Delaware. Neon light from the neighboring bar spills through the window, shaping the shadows in weird patterns across the motel wall.

"Dean," Cas says his name on a low whisper.

Dean turns his body more fully to face Cas. They're both lying on their sides now, Cas on the left side of the bed and Dean on the right. Again, it should feel weird, but it's strangely comforting.

"What's up?" Dean asks, happy to make conversion in the unsteady darkness of the motel room.

Cas's eyes go shadowed. "My brothers tracked me to Budapest earlier this week. It was a difficult battle."

"But you kicked their asses, right?" Dean asks, fluffing the pillow under his head again as he continues to watch Cas across the short distance between them.

"Barely," Castiel says, head slumping further into his hard pillow as he looks directly at Dean. His voice is low, deeper than usual, but quiet and intense as he says, "They grow more powerful as I grow weaker."

"Cas," Dean says because he doesn't really know what else to say other than goddamn, but our lives really suck.

"You should rest, Dean," Castiel replies quietly.

"Yeah, well, yeah," Dean says, because he can't argue with that. His entire body is aching for sleep. "But you should be more careful too, man. You get on my case, but all I see is you taking risks every day."

Cas stares at him closely, with the expression that Dean's come to think of as the angel's I'm looking deep inside your soul and uncovering your every secret look. Dean shivers at the thought, but doesn't turn away. Cas is always looking at Dean like he wants to find out how Dean ticks. After two years, Dean's come to expect it; he finds it comforting almost, knowing that Cas is still trying to figure him out, that he cares enough to keep trying. It's their ritual, something familiar in their otherwise fucked-up lives. It's a game of let's see if we can figure each other out today. Dean still doesn't know half of what makes Cas tick, but it doesn't stop him from trying to find out, from pushing his buttons every chance he can. Dean wants to know.

"Let us," Castiel begins after a long moment, "agree that neither of us is invincible and that it would be prudent for us to take greater care of ourselves."

"Let us do that then," Dean says on a tired laugh. "And in the meantime, we can watch each other's backs."

At that Cas brings up a hand, hesitant at first before he reaches out with the briefest brush of his fingertips against the ruined collar of Dean's t-shirt.

"Like today," Castiel says. "I should have had your back sooner. And I'm sorry I can't heal you."

"Dude," Dean snorts. "You vaporized an entire room of bruxsas. You kicked ass today."

"Perhaps," Castiel says.

"Where will you go when you leave here?" Dean asks, changing the subject. He's genuinely curious. He shifts in the bed, a movement that closes some of the distance between him and Castiel.

"I haven't decided yet." Castiel's voice is soft. "Phnom Penh maybe."

"Do you really think you can find him?" Dean asks, his words breaking around a loud yawn.

"Sleep now, Dean," Castiel says quietly, carefully avoiding answering Dean's question.

"You're not the boss of me," Dean laughs, but then rolls his eyes. Castiel is looking at him with one of his otherworldly and endless gazes, and Dean knows he's not winning this fight.

"Okay, okay," Dean sighs, groaning as he turns his sore body around to face the far wall, putting his back toward Cas. "Goodnight, Cas."

"Goodnight, Dean," Cas says softly.

Dean shuts his eyes, but in the quiet stillness of the room the pain sets in. His ribs are throbbing despite the pills he's popped. His face feels so swollen it makes it hard to get comfortable with his cheek touching the pillow. His fists ache from punching hard enough to break bone, and his concussed head feels like it's ready to secede from the entirety of his body.

"Cas," Dean whispers, and he doesn't mean to say the angel's name, but he can feel Cas behind him, and for a moment Dean forgets that he's not someone who asks for help.

Suddenly there's warmth settling at his back, and Dean knows that Cas has drawn himself even closer to him in the bed. Dean stiffens when he feels Castiel's hand touching his shoulder, hesitant fingers sliding across the sleeves covering his upper arm, settling over his mark.

Dean thinks to shake Cas off, to tell him that he's fine. But instead Dean forces himself to relax, letting out a heavy breath because fuck that arm has always been too sensitive there, and Castiel touching it sends a warmth zinging throughout his body. But as Cas's hand molds itself to his shoulder, Dean feels a sense of steadiness he hasn't felt in a long time. He tries to slow his breathing, letting the warmth of Castiel's touch ease the pain.

"Dean," Castiel says, words low in the quiet of the room. "No matter how lost you find yourself, no matter how hopeless things may seem, just know that there is no darkness you cannot face. You are stronger than you know."

Dean swallows, a heat burning low in his gut, his heartbeat in his throat. "What if we can't win this, Cas?"

Cas's breath is warm against the back of his neck as he says, "What if we can?"

Dean exhales roughly, letting his eyes slide close again. He can feel Castiel's hand pressing through the cotton of his t-shirt, shaped over the brand on his arm.


Castiel's words follow him into sleep. What if we can?


***

"Cas," Dean whispers, the angel's name on his lips as he shakes himself out of sleep. He opens his eyes and sits up in bed, hands flailing out on either side of him, tangling in a mess of blankets and sheets. He expects to find Cas lying beside him, but after a moment he frowns, confused. That was…that was a memory, a slice of his life from three years ago.

Dean groans in frustration, remembering the beating he took at the hands of a beast wearing his face. He lets his eyes adjust to the dim light of the room he's currently in. Wait. The room? Dean is in a bedroom, in a house, tangled in fresh-smelling sheets. He pulls his legs out from under a blanket and sits at the edge of the bed. With the movement, several aches make themselves known in his body: a sharp pain in the curve of his lower back and a soreness to his legs. His skin feels like it's been through an oven, dried out and burnt raw from the sun.

He looks around the room and sees that it's morning. There's an open window through which he can hear the chirping of birds, the sound of a gurgling stream close by.

Water, he thinks, and pulls himself out of bed just as a woman strolls into the bedroom, humming something sweet and familiar. Her long, soft blond hair obscures her face for a moment, but when she turns to Dean, he stills.

"You're awake," she says, smiling wide.

Dean's heart stutters; his breath catches. "Mom?"

"Hey there, Dean," Mary Winchester says, and then she reaches out and pulls Dean into a hug. Dean melts into the embrace, face pressing into his mother's hair. She smells like apple cider and nutmeg, and Dean thinks she must be baking pie.

When Dean pulls back, Mary covers his cheeks with her hands and looks at him for a long moment. "You've come such a long way," she whispers, and Dean can only nod, recognizing from his own face the smooth slope of her cheekbones and the soft curl of her mouth. Her eyes are bright when she tips forward and kisses Dean's forehead.

"You must be thirsty too," she says then, pulling him by the arms and leading him out of the bedroom and into the kitchen.

"Yeah," Dean agrees, voice more that a little shaky.

She sits Dean down at a table, and Dean's still wide-eyed and open-mouthed when she slides a tall glass full of ice water across the table to him.

"Drink up, Dean," she says. "You'll need your strength for what's to come."

Dean doesn't argue because he's so damn thirsty. He gulps down the water, and it's so cold, and so refreshing, and it may in fact be the best friggin' water he's ever tasted. He sets down the empty glass and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, burps, and licks his cracked lips.

"Mom," he says after a beat, because he likes the sound of it in his mouth. "Are you real?"

"You needed me, so I'm here," she says simply, putting another full glass of water in front of him.

"I don't even remember how I got here," Dean says between gulps. The water sliding down his throat feels like a slice of heaven.

"Time passes differently here," Mary says, sitting beside him at the table. "The deserts of Ante-Purgatory are more dream than anything else. You're in the valley now, the bottom of the mountain; the lower slopes. Souls pass through here before entering through the gate to Purgatory."

Dean takes a moment to let that all sink in. He swallows thickly and asks, "I'm close then?"

Mary smiles, nodding. "Look outside."

Dean stumbles to his feet and heads to the kitchen window. The light through the window is bright and soft, filtering in through the layer of dust on the pane. It must be just after sunrise, the sky soft with reds and oranges.

A huge field of grass surrounds the house, and he can see the tall blades swaying with the wind. About a mile out, he sees what can only be called a massive wall. Tall, white, and glistening, the sun is hitting it and turning it into burnished gold.

The sight of the high wall sends something tugging at Dean's guts, and he knows Cas is somewhere beyond it. Something's pulling him forward, and it takes everything inside him to set the feeling aside for now and to turn back to his mother. Mary's looking at him with a soft smile on her face, and Dean feels his heart lock up.

"How about a piece of pie before you go?" she offers, rising from the table.

"Yeah, I'd love that," Dean says, and he settles back in his seat. He closes his eyes, trying to prepare himself to let her go. He can hear his mom moving around the kitchen, and moments later he can smell the undeniable aroma of her homemade pie.

He opens his eyes and lets them travel over her face, trying to memorize every detail. "I wish I could stay," he says, feeling the weight of these last few weeks like a crushing blow to his chest. "I wish…"

"I know, Dean," she says, and her smile is like fragile glass.

"Nothing's been the same since we lost you," Dean says, voice hitching. "Mom, sometimes it takes everything in me to keep going, to keep getting out of bed. Some days…" I want to give up.

Mary captures his hand and looks at him directly in the eye. "Don't you ever give up, Dean. You are my strong, beautiful son. And you and your brother are the heroes the world's been waiting for."

Catching a breath, Dean turns his head and looks away; he can't bear to hear the words. "So, what do I do now?" he asks after a beat.

"Follow the dirt road that begins outside the front door," Mary says, finger pointing in the right direction. "It'll lead you where you need to go." Through the window, the sun is steadily rising higher in the sky, setting everything in a golden blaze. The outside world waits for him.

Dean frowns, glancing up at his mom. "What about you?"

Mary shakes her head, smiling but sad. "I've already done my part."

Moments later, she's leading him through the house to the front door. At the door, she places a hand on his shoulder, and Dean turns to look at her. "Mom," he says because he knows this is it. Mary’s eyes are the exact shade of green as his own.

She captures his hand and squeezes it tight. "He was the only angel that ever mattered, Dean," she says. "The only one who's ever known how to watch over you."

"Yeah," Dean says softly. He hesitates for only a moment before turning away from her, releasing her hand. With his eyes closed, he steps through the door.


***

The wall is as hard and white as bone. Dug deep into the earth, it curves in a bow across the valley. Dean runs his hands over the coarse stone, looking for a gap or crack to see through to the other side. He knows somewhere there will be a gate, but the tugging in his chest is making him dizzy on his feet, and the wall seems to go on forever. Cas.

He keeps moving, following the dirt path and breathing in the crisp, clean air. Unlike the desert, the mountain valley is green and rich with plant life. Here the wind pushes huge clouds across the sky, and the hills rise and fall in lifts and dips, the earth and sky melting together.

Minutes, maybe hours later, he sees it: a gap in the wall that has him quickening his steps, boots crunching along the dusty ground. At first he thinks it's simply a fissure, some crack in the otherwise flawless stone, but as he gets closer he notices an archway curving up from the opening, its stone peak smooth and glistening in the sunlight.

The gateway to Purgatory.

The gate itself runs down from the arch, and it's made of rows of grayish-black iron, a lustrous metallic shining with every touch of light. The steps leading upward from the dirt path to the gate are tri-colored. The first is white marble, polished to a mirror shine. The next is a rough-hued black granite, the stone cracked along the edges. The top step is a dark red gemstone, reminiscent of blood.

Dean's gaze doesn't remain long on the gate itself. Out of the corner of his eye he can see movement, a sudden sharp flare of light. He closes his eyes and turns away, momentarily blinded. When he looks back he sees the gatekeeper, a tall figure, white-winged and white-robed, his skin pulsing with golden light.

In his research, Dean had read that an angel stood guard over the gate to Purgatory, and seeing him now, wings arching gloriously toward the sky, drives home everything that's at stake. Dean has his own angel to find. Dean knows the angelic gatekeeper weighs judgment on who is allowed to enter. He supposedly carries two keys in his robe, one made of silver and one made of gold, both of which are needed to open the gate. The silver key will go in first, and then the gold, and if the final key doesn't turn in the lock, the person knows that they have been denied entrance. The keys, according to Christian lore, represent a human soul set on a path toward redemption and salvation.

Dean approaches, pausing a few feet from the towering figure. The gatekeeper is seated now on a tall granite stone, his white robe flowing out all around him. His eyes are pure light, and the very pores of his skin pulse with energy. Dean clears his throat and lets his voice carry as he says, "I've come seeking entrance into Purgatory."

The gatekeeper stands, massive wings arching upward and covering the sky, and he draws a long sword, which the sunlight bounces off of, setting it aflame.

"Dean Winchester, only the deserving pass through my gate," the gatekeeper says, voice booming loudly in the clearing. "Are you deserving?"

The gatekeeper brings the sword down, and then all Dean sees is white light and the shimmer of fire.


***