The watcher stretched his wings out through the veins of the land.
These creatures belonged to him, the angel and the human, and he would guard them.
He was almost the vasteststrongest dweller in thisplace. He was great, and they would nestle under his protection. He reached out through the illusory landscapes of Purgatory: valleys and the soaring spires and deep forests, hills and caverns of sand and blood, clouds of glass, oceans, or towering antlers of stone. It made no difference to him, the fickle and changing space. It was born of the imaginations of this limited soul or that one, creatures so weak that they could think only of the presence or absence of mass, of earth and air. Creatures who must have a place to set their foot, and a canvas to fill the eye.
The rabble, the littleyelpsnarls, they came still, from time to time. Hungry. They dared to brush up against his flanks, against the farthest reach of his fingertips and the ripples of his warmth, and he rumbled and flicked them off. They approached (the fools), drawn to the brightsoul of one of his charges and the gracepowermemories of the other; and he broke them down with a thought and sent them far away. Some of the others took warning. Some didn’t, and he did it again, because these creatures, the angel and the human, they were his to keep.
Sometimes he gathered a tiny solid form (body and head, arms and legs and trailing wings to arch out into the energy that was the rest of him) and leapt in to scatter them, tear them bloody with improvised hands and teeth, whipped them back with long bright ribbons of light and fire. Somehow, that was more satisfying. When he turned back to his human and his angel after doing that, there was always something in their faces that made him ache, in a way that he didn’t understand.
Sometimes they tried to touch him. Sometimes, he let them.
“So, go on then. What happened to you?”
The angel flinched and drew the edges of himself in, shimmering into a tight shape. His sounds were even and low.
“Many things have happened to me, Dean. The vast majority are beyond your comprehension.”
“Don’t play cute, chuckles.” The sounds tumbled out of the human’s mouth like the harsh clatter of stones. Stones that had been walled up, if the wall had just broken to tumble them out into the open. “I mean here in Purgatory. Back when we first got landed here, right up until yesterday. Why’d you pull the vanishing act? Something nasty come for you? Didn’t you hear me praying, man?”
Something vicious as panic whipped across the angel’s essence, making him shudder under the watcher’s flanks. Not panic, though: it was too familiar, too internal, and it ran like hot water down worn and furrowed cracks in the angel’s mind. Scored deep with its old well-known burn, and the watcher knew what it felt like, knew it to the depths of him, and he shrank away as if it were he who had been burned.
Shame. That was a word for it. Shame, and weariness.
The angel shivered as the watcher withdrew, but made no attempt to press back into his touch.
“Dean, I never left you.”
The human made no noise for a short time, but their eyes were directed towards each other as if there was meaning in that.
“Cas,” the human said at last, rough, and then more quietly, “Buddy. I don’t know where you thought you were in that messed-up noggin of yours, but I can tell you one thing for damn sure. There was no one here with me. No one.”
The angel’s consciousness shied away, as it sometimes did, skittered sideways to hide in one of the long dark cracks that lay across the centre of his mind.
“I miss watching the stars. It is – illogical, of course, but watching them made me feel small. Don’t you miss the days when you didn’t matter, Dean?”
The human let the air fall out of his lungs and turned his body away from the angel’s, pressing his fist against his mouth and chin.
There was something in those syllables that made the watcher shudder in his turn, to burrow back in against the angel’s familiar light. He felt the jolt of surprise that flew through them both, then the weight of the angel’s attention on him; and then hot frustration.
“Do you wish forgetfulness on me, Dean?”
The human’s shoulders went stiff, but not with anger. When he turned around to look at the angel, his voice was a growl, full of his own heat and his own challenge.
“You trying to forget, Cas?”
The angel’s attention skidded away again, deeper into hiding. “Did you know that there is a high rate of male homosexuality among many species of penguin?” he asked, and wandered over to a nearby pool of milk to draw strange ripples in its surface.
The human glanced at the watcher, then looked away, down towards his own feet. The watcher could feel the ache in his soul, heavy as Atlas’ weight. Familiar. Failure. Something always-carried, always-to-be-carried.
The watcher tried to reach out to touch it, but he didn’t know how.
The angel was weaker than the watcher, cracked and stained with darkness, but there was something familiar there, some kinship. He was easier to read than the human: he existed on many levels and in many colours, just like the watcher.
The human, though, the human should have been as limited as the forgettingrabble of lost souls that inhabited these lands – eye and foot and hand and skin – but... that wasn’t right.
Human. Tinyfraillimited. Vaststrangestubborn.
The watcher understood just enough to realise that the human was somehow beyond his comprehension. It was puzzling, and it stirred thoughts in him that he hadn’t known he could think.
North or south or east or west, up or down, none of these things had any meaning. There was no distance and no time here, except the beat of the human’s heart and the ticking of thought.
There should also be the slow trickle of memories lost to Purgatory’s whispering, and the large savage gaps torn away when any of the other creatures attacked - hungry for a fleeting moment of warmth and life, even if it belonged to someone else - but the watcher could stop that kind of time for them at least. He was a wall that could not be crossed, and he had no memories and no self in him to lose.
No forward or backward or advance or retreat; and yet the human was restless, and chose to move. He insisted on walking.
The angel asked him what he was searching for. The human said “a way out,” and the angel explained to him why walking meant nothing, and still the human walked, or climbed, or swam. Refused to be still.
They moved together.
A dragon rose against them out of the depths of the marshes, roused up by their footsteps into fire and greed. The watcher stretched out against it and felt his strength purr: wrapped around it in ice and music as it writhed, and pinned it to the ground. It hissed, and rolled golden eyes at where the angel and the human stood side by side – delicious morsels, flesh and strength and memory that hadn’t yet given way – and it opened its jaws.
The watcher took physical form, a rough delighted medley of humanoid and reptilian that blazed hotter than his adversary, and slammed a fist through its forehead.
Its essence scattered with a wail, to reform itself in some other part of Purgatory’s nothingness.
“Proper dragons, huh? Sammy’s gonna piss himself over missing out on that.”
A hand clapped against the back of the watcher’s shoulder, and the human was there, strangely unhurt by the watcher’s heat.
“Way to go, Flubber. Knew there’s a reason we keep you around. Apart from all that sparkling conversation.”
Thiscreature made a noise in his throat and turned to shove his head in against the human’s hand. There was a joy in the human’s face that the watcher understood, a joy in savagery and the fight. It flashed in his eyes and the white of his teeth, and the watcher bared his dragon fangs and shook his wings out bright and blood-golden in answer.
The human’s eyes, that could fix themselves for so long on the face of the angel’s physical form, slid away from the watcher’s face, and the skin-wrinkles at the corners of them vanished. He made a noise that wasn’t a word, clapped the watcher on the shoulder again without looking, and moved past him to poke at the marks left in the mud by the dragon’s talons.
Loneliness curled through the air, a different kind of savageness that had no joy to it, but the watcher wasn’t sure whose it was.
The angel moved his physical body – his vessel, and where did the knowledge of that word come from? – and came to stand by the watcher’s form. The rest of him settled closer too, under the watcher’s protective arch, so that the energy sparked gently from flank to encircling flank.
The watcher brushed at him, trying to understand.
The angel’s fingers pressed in against his cheek, and his eyes were bright with something deeper and sadder than grace. Something he wanted, something the watcher didn’t know how to give.
“Gabriel. Your name is Gabriel.”
What did “name” mean?
Every now and then, the human would stop walking and insist on “making camp,” which seemed to mean sitting down and being quiet. It achieved no more than the walking did; but then, there was nothing to achieve, and the human seemed pleased with the divisions he made in the hours that didn’t pass.
There did come one camp, though, when the human sat down, then lay down, and said like it was a challenge and absolutely normal all at once, “I’m going to catch some shut-eye. Don’t you two go anywhere.”
After that, whenever he wasn’t walking, the human passed most of the time lying on the ground unconscious. The angel sat by him and was silent.
It wasn’t necessary: the watcher knew that the flesh could take no damage here from hunger or weariness, and the human was vulnerable when his eyes were closed. The human knew that too: he hadn’t indulged in sleep at first. This was no necessity of the flesh. This was him wrenching Purgatory’s time into his own image, making days out of nothing.
And he divided day from night.
Where did that thought come from?
That was strange, and led the watcher into stranger thoughts that he didn’t have words for, so he left it.
But there was one thing that was much simpler about this sleeping. It was a challenge, not only to Purgatory, but to the watcher and the angel.
Don’t you two go anywhere.
A bright snarl in the face of the dark. A warning, from a creature too frail and tiny to survive, that the watcher had better not vanish while he was asleep. A challenge, not trust. The watcher understood challenge.
It made him crouch closer, keep a sharper watch over the rise and fall of ribs and the fragile heat of the human’s body, and the angel’s. He did not understand why they wanted him, but they needed his strength, and that much was simple.
And the angel watched him, with a sadness and a shame that the watcher felt to his depths. There was no challenge there, only resignation.
The fifth time the human slept, the watcher made himself a physical body near the sleeping thing and reached out to touch. He tried to limit his vision to the human spectrum, the mere reflection and obstruction of light from a single angle: saw his mimic-hand resting on the human’s head, on his neck, his ribs.
It didn’t look right.
He had given himself hands because they looked interesting, and because the human had them. The angel used them too, in his vessel, and the vessel was (strangely) the form most cherished in the angel’s own idea of his identity.
Hands seemed important. Hiscreatures used them to speak to each other. When words and voices were flippant, or sharpgruff, the angel would reach out to tightgrip the human’s shoulder, or the human would tap a finger against the angel’s cheek as if it didn’t matter, or one would clap the other on the back to be sure he was alive and let his hand linger there for a moment, just below the nape of the neck. When their endless walking took them over rough ground, it was an excuse to reach out and fasten onto the other’s wrist, or forearm, or shoulder, even if balance was barely compromised and the angel had no need to right himself with physical movements. And when the human shattered his knee in tumbling hard down a slope of diamond that had been a rough wooded hill a moment before, the angel reached out to heal him, though the injury was not more substantial nor more lasting than the rock, and would have vanished soon enough.
But the watcher’s hands were nothing like the human’s. He could see that now, like this. The human’s hands were covered in patterns, every inch a different texture. They scarred, and calloused. They had colour and weight. Fingernails, and bones, and crinkled skin at the back of the joints to take the wear and stretch of daily use. The watcher’s hands had none of those things. They were only concentrated energy, fluid and faultless, a little golden, a little luminous. The ideal and shape of a hand, smooth and unmarked by time.
He rested one on the human’s hair and looked at it with human eyes, and saw only the soft bright curves of created flesh. No story in it. Behind it, where it let the light pass through, the rough uneven texture of the human’s hair. As if the human was more real than the watcher was.
Had he had memories, once?
The watcher knew that Purgatory made a slow feast of the memories of all who entered it, glutted itself fat on past lives. It had never occurred to him (or had it?) that he might have had memories of his own. To wonder about them.
His hand looked empty against the human’s head.
He created nerve endings and linked them up to his real senses, so that he could feel the pricklesoftness of hair. That was a little better. The hair shifted under his touch, and it was – very strange. It broke things loose in his mind, and brought them together.
Moving something. Causing a difference in the world, not by willing it but by touching it. Touching, and feeling the change, the shift.
He did it again – curved his hand around the fragile, grubby skull and dragged it through warm hair, feeling it flatten under one side of his palm and spring up again as it emerged on the other. So many tiny processes thriving in there, just beneath his touch. The growth of hair, the pulse of blood, the slough of skin, the rush of a mind that had not yet been stilled by Purgatory’s frozen fingers.
A third stroke. And with it, a sudden shock of sensation that was not here and now. The scent of – of something he couldn’t put a name to, some human cooking process (only what did cooking mean?), and a soft surface under him, and the cool chill of air after a long night.
He’d done this before. Not to this human, perhaps, but to somebody: somebody who had nestled in against his thigh (he’d had legs?) and smiled, and trusted him enough not to wake up.
Memories. He had memories, somewhere.
The human was looking up at him.
His eyes were open, and there was a contraction of muscles in his forehead that the creature thought might mean anger. But the tone of the human’s emotions was puzzled and sleepy, and there was no tension in his body.
“Dude. What’s with the touchy-feely?”
Eyes. The human’s eyes. Staring at him, gleaming with challengedelight, pushing and pushing, and -
“I’ll take your voices away.”
“We’ll write it down.”
“I’ll cut off your hands.”
“Well then, people are gonna be asking, ‘Why are you guys running around with no hands?’”
A word floated into his mind. Dean. It had something to do with the human. Dean, and brother. They were important words for what this human meant.
A hand clapped against the vague bend in his body that was something like a knee. “Hey. Purgatory to Gabriel. Kinda freaking me out with the staring there, man.”
The watcher blinked, and dispensed with eyes altogether in favour of blank flesh. Seeing things the human way was distracting. Too little and too much, all at once.
The deanbrotherhuman make one of those words that were really only noises, a startled expletive.
“Okay, no, that’s even creepier. Just go – sit in a tree or something, okay? Or a giant bird’s nest, or whatever Purgatory’s given us today.”
His voice was casual and annoyed, but there was worry thrumming in this mind.
The creature made a noise that might sound soothing, and squeezed the human’s shoulder, as he had seen the angel do – but carefully, so that he wouldn’t break.
The angel was watching them.
Purgatory was all sand just now: vast, interminable orange dunes, peaks as high as mountains and as long as rivers, with the hungryrabble hiding in its folds and subtle dips.
It wasn’t really sand, of course. Each grain was the tiny petrified skull of a mouse, millions of them displaced under each footfall of the angel or the human, sliding away down the long loose slope.
Not that it mattered. The watcher only bothered to notice because of the difficulty hiscreatures were having walking in it: slippery dragging steps, sinking up to their calves in sand that tried to suck them away down the slope with it. The watcher floated above and around them and considered the long double line of footprints, weaving off into the distance along the peak.
It looked (impossibly) like progress.
The human slipped, once. The whole slope slid away with him as he struggled uselessly for purchase, for something solid that he could depend on. Something that wouldn’t vanish as soon as he touched it.
The angel caught at his wrist and held him fast, but the human seemed to take a minute to realise that he wasn’t falling anymore.
“Cas,” he grunted after a moment, and spat sand out of his mouth. “That you, man?”
“Of course, Dean.”
The human hauled himself up against the angel’s steady weight, gingerish, like he thought he might fall again any moment.
“Dude. You’re doing the half-invisible thing again. I can hardly even feel you.”
“I am not invisible, Dean.”
The watcher watched the human’s free hand where it was braced on his knee. It tightened, digging dents into the denim and white spots into the flesh below. Then it let go, and reached out to rest almost gently on the forearm that the human could barely see.
“I’m telling you, buddy, it’s like you’re not really there.”
The angel disentangled his hand from the human’s, and hid it in the pocket of his coat.
“Your perception of Purgatory is influenced by your expectations,” he said, and the irritability behind it was feeble. It felt like a faint protest against the inevitable.
The human didn’t let him retreat – reached out after him, wrapped both hands around his shoulders, and glared like he could make the angel real by strength of will alone.
“You saying that I don’t expect you to be here, Cas?”
“I have never known what you expect of me.”
The angel turned away, breaking the human’s hold without effort, and resumed the weary trudge along the peak of the dune.
The human muttered something obscene, and scrubbed a hand over his face. Then he shot a look up at where the watcher’s corporeal form was hovering over his head – translucent, today, something like a bird – shook his head, and followed the angel.
“Cas. Cas, that... light bubble thing. Before that creepy-ass girl, before Gabriel turned up. That was you, wasn’t it?”
The angel barely turned his head, but his eyes flicked sideways to the human and away again. And there was communication in that too, invisible touches that meant something important.
The sound that the human made was hard, but with something tugging at it that the watcher didn’t understand, something raw and painful in his soul.
“Dude. Why didn’t you ever say anything? Months, man, and I thought there was no one -”
“I did. I was talking to you all the time.”
“I was yelling for you, Cas. Praying. You didn’t twig that I couldn’t actually hear you?”
“Dean, I was... unfocussed. I was spending all my strength to keep your body and mind intact. Forgive me if I didn’t hear every word.”
And the angel’s voice was curt and snappish, but the rest of him, the form that the human couldn’t see...
There was no real shape to it, there never was, but if there had been it would have had... tendrils, or branches, or something, reaching out, all over him. Parts of him, so many of them, that were meant to hook into and hold onto a myriad of brothers and sisters, a host of family and of love. Hands, maybe. Only they were empty, isolated, untied. Flailing loose everywhere, every one. Burnt, slashed off, mangled, some by his own actions and some by others’.
This was a creature who was not meant to be alone. He needed touch, and he groped towards Dean and shied away from him all at once, and with every angry word that Dean spoke – no, with every harsh flash of thought that rippled across him in response to Dean’s words – he shrank and drew in on himself, and festered.
The watcher could make a wall between them and Purgatory, to keep the hurt out. He was useless against the hurt that came from within.
The human had stopped abruptly, heels jamming hard into the loose sand-that-wasn’t-sand. “Spending all your – hold on. Cas.” And something in his voice made the angel stop, but the human wasn’t looking at him. The human was looking up at the watcher, sharp and fearful, like he saw something that wasn’t there - just for a moment, before he fixed his eyes on the angel again.
“Cas,” he said again, and his voice rasped, but he shoved forward into the angel’s space. “Just how long could you have kept that up?”
The angel’s eyes went narrow. “You deserve better than to lose yourself in these waters, Dean.”
“And what about you, huh?” the human snapped back. “You don’t deserve anything? You think you just get to fall apart again? Like him up there?”
The angel opened his mouth and closed it again, and the bright shards of his attention slipped away from his fumbling grasp like melting ice. “Did you know that the eye of the flatfish migrates through its body at adolescence when it transforms itself from an upright swimmer to a bottom feeder?” he said, low and fast. “The muscles in the tail and spine –”
“Cas.” The human reached out to touch, the desperately casual brush of knuckle against jaw. The watcher felt the shock of it like electricity, yearning and uncomfortable and demanding attention. The angel’s eyes slid closed, and the human grasped one shoulder, gave him a little shake. “Please. Look at me, huh? You don’t get to run off on me. Not wanting to lose you again, y’hear?”
The angel let himself be coaxed, swayed into the touch as if, even now, he could not imagine disobeying this man.
“Dean. The things I’ve done...”
Touch. The watcher could do touch. And speech...?
He gave himself solid hands, skin and callouses and warmth, and pressed in close to lay one against the angel’s cheek.
The angel’s voice vanished, swallowed down the gulp of his throat, and his eyes were very wide and bright when he turned his attention on the watcher.
“Castiel,” the watcher tried, because they seemed to think voices were important too, and because it seemed like a big word. The skin under his hand was soft, full of life in a way that it shouldn’t really be; and he lifted his other hand to brush across the angel’s hair, down his back, over the wings that the human couldn’t see.
For some reason, this angel was his to take care of.
“Sonofabitch,” the deanhuman said, which wasn’t really a word, but maybe it was communication anyway. “Did he just.”
The angel ached, and he was lonely, and it made parts of the watcher ache too, so he pressed in against the angel’s body to wrap it in heat and said, “Brother.”
Yes. That was part of it.
The angel made a strange noise. It sounded very human.
There was a trembling in the flesh under the watcher’s hands, and a painful quiver in the brightstronglight that was the rest of the angel, and the watcher wasn’t sure if that was right or not until the angel turned his body a little and carefully placed his arms around the watcher’s back.
The human shifted his feet in the sand without going anywhere.
“... If you guys wanna have a moment, I can...”
“Shut up, Dean,” the angel growled, vibrating against the watcher’s neck, and he reached out to squeeze the human’s shoulder tight.