In the land beyond knowledge, there is a forest of forgetfulness.
Into this forest there came a lion who had changed his roar for a hyena’s cackle, a leopard who had lost his spots, and a warrior bear without his shadow.
They lost their way, in that forest; or perhaps they were already lost, and that was how they came to be there. But to pass through the forest, it was necessary for them to find their way again.
The lion fought the other wild things in the forest, to protect his friends and to win their trust; but he never dared to look them in the eye to see whether that trust was won. And he could not speak to them, for he had lost both his voices: the cackle, and the roar.
The bear pressed blindly on in search of the path so that he might emerge into the hot hard sun of the world; but without his shadow he missed his footing often, and stumbled, because he was so used to having it stretch out tall and familiar by his side. And he never quite saw his companions, because he had his eyes fixed instead on the moment when they would not be there.
The leopard sought only to bury himself and sleep beneath the dark trunks; and he dared not drink of the cool water that they found along the way, for fear of being confronted with his own reflection.
And when the dust of the forest clung to their paws -
“Why d’you think we haven’t seen any Leviathans yet?”
Dreams scattering: the sense of something important receding, slipping through his fingers. Chased away by wakefulness.
There was a slow sound, rasping against his ears. Scrape, stop. Scrape, stop. Steady drag of stone against metal.
“Purgatory is vast, and we have been... quiet. Had been.”
“Made some ripples now, have we?”
A wave of distracted assent, like a nod. And the world was a mess. Gabriel’s mind was a mess, as if someone had stuck a giant ladle in there and tossed it like a stew, so that no thoughts were where they belonged.
But there was someone in there, some familiar touch, sliding gently about, rifling through it. Tidying.
“Story of my life.” The scrape again. Stone on metal, yes: sharpening. Crude re-edging of blade with a rock. “Well, guess we gotta hope Rip Van Winkle here gets his head together before any big fish turn up to snap at the bait.”
“Do you ever wonder why male primates have nipples, Dean?”
Cautious affection, hidden under sarcasm: “You’re asking the only guy in the room who didn’t get the evolution play-by-play.”
It was Castiel’s touch in his mind.
... Hell. Set in order by a seraph.
Not that Castiel was looking, exactly, but - Wotan’s balls. It had been a dozen centuries since anyone had been so deep in him, and that hadn’t exactly been voluntary.
So why was he pressing in against Castiel’s touch, like some damned cat who was lonely for the casual drag of a hand down the arch of his back?
Winchesters and their cheerleader angels and their feel-good doomed Scooby-gang-against-the-world crap. Cocky, dangerous, oh-look-what-does-this-big-red-button-do infants -
“... mammary gland is a complex and delicate mechanism, and yet...”
He’d locked himself away.
He had decided to cut his losses. That escaping Purgatory was impossible, as things were, and it was either beat Purgatory at its own game by burying everything it wanted so deep it could never touch him, or let it devour him. Unless someone came along who -
“... all that investment to construct a copy in the half of the species who will never use it. A perfect copy. Given the right hormonal stimulus, some men can even lactate.”
And of course it would be a Winchester. And the little angel that couldn’t but did anyway.
Not that Castiel had ever been little.
No wonder Castiel’s replies to Dean felt distracted. He was sorting out Gabriel’s plane crash of a mind. Categorising the worst of it, like putting all the furniture in the right rooms and positioning it neatly against the walls. It must have been far worse before: now, at least, there was enough order in there for thinking, for consciousness. What Gabriel had taken for mess was just, to chase an analogy into the ground, all the crap that was meant to go in the drawers of the dressers and the shelves of the cupboards, heaped on the floor in the appropriate rooms, so that Gabriel could pack all the nameless detritus of his years away by himself. Castiel had given him the structure for it.
How long had the kid been at it?
“You really don’t get why it’s weird to go all Steve Irwin over male lactation while you’re petting your big brother’s chest, do you?”
Huh. Yes. Hand, resting there, a careful weight over his heart.
“Is this another gender roles thing?”
“No, Cas, it’s another freaky and wrong thing. Guy nipples aren’t meant to do that. Guy nipples are only there to give a chick something else to put her mouth on in bed, okay?”
Gabriel leaned in against Castiel’s mental touch, just enough to be obvious, to be an acknowledgement. A wash of startlement, clean and cool, followed by relief and pleasure. Only, under that - a strange mix. Desperate hope, loneliness. Hunger, anger, carefully bitten-off reprimands. And chagrin, and shame, and why? What had Castiel done that he should flinch away from Gabriel, of all angels? Gabriel wasn’t exactly going to be winning any boy scout medals from the man upstairs.
“... God, I miss sex. I miss food. Think Gabriel could snap me up a fake burger once he fixes his shit?”
Castiel’s answer was slow in coming, just a bit, as he disentangled himself strand by strand from Gabriel’s mind. “If he did, it wouldn’t be particularly satisfying.”
“Hey, I’m down with self-delusion, so long as it gets me the taste of hot nameless meat in my mouth.” Dean paused, then: “That came out wrong.”
“You don’t want meat in your mouth?” Castiel asked, with the puzzled tone that Gabriel knew, that Gabriel remembered, the one that felt like trip-and-scurry-to-catch-up when something Dean had said made the pavement catch at Castiel’s feet.
“Cas, buddy, don’t change.” And why was Dean’s voice making Gabriel think of a bear’s lost rumble?
The trouble was. The trouble was.
Castiel’s touch, earnest and tired and lonely and still somehow so naïve under the weight of disillusionment. Dean’s mind, bright and obnoxious and mistrusting and passionate and so incomprehensibly strong, with all the vast unreadable depths of the human soul. They disarmed him completely, transmuted wrath or resentment or leave-me-the-hell-alone into just... a flash of grouchiness.
Gabriel had not signed up for this. He was pretty sure.
“Well, good morning, Sleeping Beauty!” crooned, Dean in a disgustingly good mood.
Crap. He wasn’t ready to be awake. Awake meant thinking, and his thoughts were a mess.
He settled for a growl that meant nothing: “Enough with the fucking nicknames, Winchester.”
Words. Words, heavy and rough in his mouth. Words, shaped into sentence and sense.
Dean’s self-satisfaction practically glowed beside him. “Hey, Cas, were there any fairytale princesses who forgot who they were until right at the end of the story?”
“I couldn’t say, Dean,” and there it was, that deadpan innocent irony that was so very Castiel that it made Gabriel’s heart forget to pump for a minute: “The Grimm brothers were not required reading in heavenly ‘prep class’,” and seriously, air quotes?
Only Gabriel had never heard actually heard Castiel use that tone before. Not before Purgatory. But it had always been Castiel, hadn’t it? Something of it had always been there, and it felt like him. Like some part of him that had never realised it could emerge. Not until long after Gabriel had deserted.
“Well, the little mermaid had her tongue cut out, so she was mute the whole time. Can I call you Ariel?”
Gabriel opened his eyes a crack, just enough to squint and scowl, because, hey, who’d said the sack of meat could talk to him like that? “Mouthpiece of the lord, you arrogant dick.”
Sight wasn’t good for him, especially not the sight of Dean’s face: there was too much there, eddies in his head, confusion, too many different moments at once hidden in the possibilities of the curve of that mouth; and Gabriel had to squeeze his eyes shut again before the swirl of memories would settle into their proper place.
Also, apparently Dean couldn’t listen - well, colour Gabriel as shocked as a circuit board.
“How’re you feeling, champ?”
This wasn’t the way Gabriel did things. Being vulnerable with other people around.
“Like a few billion years of memories took a battering ram to my head, broke through the gates, had a wild party involving paintball, then exploded.”
Words. Words, which had been so elusive for... for far too long.
“Peachy,” Gabriel purred, and smirked blindly. “Delicious. Thanks for asking, honeybunch.”
“Well, he’s got his sarcasm back.”
Lithe, sinuous, delicious words, curling rough around his tongue and making a break for it. Words that let him be him, not a mess of instinct and power hanging around an angel and a human like he was some kind of sheepdog. Slurring together as they tumbled out into the air. “Up and at ‘em. Good morning, Vietnam! Like a long-life battery. Everready. Bacchanalia-ready. Fancy a shag? No, wait, that’s British. What am I speaking? Fuck. A fuck. Saint Francis in a chicken coop! Stay classy, twenty-first-century America.”
“Yeah, because you’re Mr Class.”
“Hey, Winchester. There’s a kind of spider that looks exactly like a ladybird. Guess what it eats? Looking like your victims is the best camouflage, ask any serial killer.”
Castiel’s face... that was even harder to look at. So many different faces, so many millennia of experiences and memories, snagging on things inside Gabriel’s head that hadn’t settled into place yet. Sharp tug of nausea, deeply and illogically physical, hooking into Gabriel’s stomach and twisting and -
He looked away, blinking against the mess of colour and light until he remembered how to process it into shapes. Red, deep and rich - the sky, arching low overhead. Pale gold and drifting bannerets of white - rushes, crowding in around them, with no leaves but with delicate tufts of silk trailing at the top of each stalk. And white, and scarlet, spiralling slow in the air all around them - weightless scraps of nothing, like shredded tissue paper, that drew almost close enough to touch and curved around their hands and bodies before catching an eddy to be tossed far away into the depths of the sky.
Only there were no breezes, no wind to tease them.
The air felt heavy. Watching. Like the cruel, patient curve at the edge of a smile.
Castiel’s touch inside Gabriel’s mind stilled, sharpened, and drew back.
Thud, dull and soft, as Dean let the stone in his hand fall to the ground.
Something was near. Otherminds. Vicious, hungry. The rabble. The smallminds, the little yelpsnarls, withteeth withoutself.
Gabriel felt the beast inside himself stretch, and yawn, and purr. This was something, something small, something that the wordless instinct inside him recognised and disdained. Something very simple. Something to do.
“What is it?”
His voice came out dark and deep, a rumble halfway between real speech and the imitation of it that he’d been using before.
Castiel’s hand lifted from his chest, and gestured to the right, past Dean. “You were so - out of it - that your protection faded.”
Gabriel levered himself up into a sitting position, limbs obeying him smooth and easy, and looked. Broken rushes, scuff marks in the mud. Signs of struggle. No corpses, but then, there wouldn’t be. Corpses were too satisfying and final for Purgatory.
Hell. Gabriel had almost let them down.
“Cas, can you tell what it is this time?” Dean was standing now, one foot planted square and strong in the mud by Gabriel’s knee. Worn denim wrapped his calf and wrinkled around under his knee like it was part of him now, a second skin of his own choosing.
“Vampire. Three of them.”
Yes. Vampire. That was what that meant, that particular tingle of energy in the air. That was the word for it, and that was the little database of everything there was to know about vampires. Right there when he reached for it, as responsive as a sword to Gabriel’s touch.
“Hell yeah.” There was a dark flash in Dean’s grin that Gabriel understood. The sharpened edge of his machete caught the dull crimson light as Dean hefted it, but when his hand reached down towards Gabriel there was no red staining his skin. “No offence, dude, but sitting around all day being protected ain’t really my cup of Irish coffee. You ready for some hand-to-hand? Now that, you know, you’ve got some?”
The hand was warm and rough under his, and the fingers tightened on him with a very human kind of vigour when he hauled himself up. And Dean was grinning at him, like he knew him. Like Gabriel had given him permission to get close.
“Hey,” he smirked, and let the ancient bloodlust simmer in his eyes. “I’ll have you know my fake hands were fine.”
Dean wasn’t looking: he was scanning the reeds. Confident in turning his back on Gabriel. “You good?”
Gabriel closed his eyes for a minute, shut off the assault of all his senses, for a breath’s worth of concentration - reached inside himself to that once-known place and twisted.
The familiar weight of cool metal and grace settled into his hand.
Ahead, through the heavy thickets of silk, were the vampires: shadows of themselves now, dissipating week by week. Monsters only, and burning bright as beacons to Gabriel’s senses, to be hunted down at his leisure. His lips curled back from his teeth, pleasure vicious and visceral. He was the terror here. He was the one to be feared.
“Awesome,” Dean breathed, and now he was looking at Gabriel, at the sword in his hand, and fastening his grip on his own weapon in response. And the same delight curled his mouth, too.
“Coming?”, Gabriel tossed at Castiel, at the rueful slant of his mouth and the enigmatic creases around his eyes.
“He doesn’t like to fight anymore,” Dean put in, casual enough to be quelling. “Not unless he has to. Just you and me this time, sport.”
The rushes parted like a whisper under their hands. The predators became prey.
Three vampires, little scraps of awareness like the ragged ghosts of banners on a battlefield. Gabriel stalked them, loped in an invisible arc around their clumsy path with all the laziness of a wolf pretending not to be on the hunt. Dean, he was vaguely aware, was moving with him, or against him, or something like that - some sort of pincer motion relative to Gabriel’s teasing loops of a path, even when he couldn’t see Gabriel, but that didn’t matter so long as he wasn’t near the creatures.
Gabriel slid between the rushes, through the little shuff-shuff sound of the not-really-wind brushing head against silk head. Wind, and woods, and prey, and blood rich and deep at the end of it. He was an old hand at this. And he could feel them, still stumbling mindlessly on towards where he and Dean had been, where Castiel was still. Slowing a bit now, milling, as the magnet-tug of their hunger suddenly found three compasses instead of one solid mass.
Gabriel snapped his fingers, and his wings.
The rush of real wind from semi-real feathers flattened the rushes, one wide ragged swathe in front of him, with the vampires in the middle. Four of them. Four beings halfway to unbeing. Sharp and clear to his human eyes, but mangled blurs to every other sense.
Gabriel swaggered out of the rushes.
“The first thing we do,” he suggested brightly, because he’d been quite fond of old Will Shakespeare back in the day, “let’s kill all the bloodsuckers!”
Three of them snarled and lunged at him. Gabriel snarled right back and led the dance, invulnerable and laughing, and tried not to see the gaping emptiness in their eyes, and in what lay behind their eyes.
That was the trouble with hunger-crazed amnesiac Purgatory beasts. No appreciation for culture.
(Dean was right there, in counterpoint, like some kind of shadow, like he always knew exactly where Gabriel was going to feint and where a vampire was going to stumble and got there first, which - did weird things to Gabriel’s head, so he ignored it.)
(Something was tugging at his mind, slow and hungry and merciless, but he ignored that too.)
Vampire one, who had been female and red-headed once, ducked under his arm and went for his throat. He almost let it, caught it around the neck, grinned in its face and tossed it away. Vampire two and three, charging at Dean behind Gabriel, and a flick of the wings knocked them tumbling like apples tossed down a hill. Number four, fangs flashing white and meaningless by Gabriel’s ear - elbow in its gut, hand around its ankle, and the thing was dangling upside down from Gabriel’s hand while he asked it personal questions about its rage issues, until he had to fling it at number one and start all over again.
(If he used his hands and his feet and his wings and his sword - if he fought with all the savagery of his body - he saw less of them. They couldn’t look at him with the empty eyes from which all memory and self had been devoured.)
Thud, wet squelch. Blood on Dean’s machete, and there were only three vampires. Just as Gabriel had been turning around to grin at that one, and it was limp on the ground in two pieces.
“Dude.” Dean’s eyebrow was cocked, a flash of sarcasm without bite to it. “Your mother never tell you not to play with your food?”
Hell. Just one moment of confusion, like a missed step in the dance. The strangeness of having someone else right there, someone fighting with him, taking out the creature that he’d been about to knock down; and Dean just did it like it was nothing, working together.
Anger flared, and Gabriel bared his teeth and laughed at Dean instead.
“Only one mother around here, boy, and she’s not the kind to make you an apple pie.”
Dean took a flailing fist to the collarbone, staggered back a step and turned it into a sweep of the machete that slashed low across the vampire’s stomach to block its rush. “That’s what we’ve got you for,” he shot back, easy like there’d been nothing vicious in Gabriel’s voice at all. Grinning.
There was that strange giddiness again. Like déjà vu, but that was a trick of a human mind, not an angel’s. Like something he’d felt before but didn’t know he’d felt: looking at Dean’s grin and knowing he felt the same. The tug in Gabriel’s belly that made him want to grin back. Like it was a habit he didn’t remember building.
Clawed fingers lashed for Gabriel’s arm and throat and he let them, because hey, why not let the mouse think it had scored a hit before the cat bared his teeth. And he was already reaching out to swat it away when -
It scored a hit.
Pain, flaring through his neck and savaging his arm. Skin and muscle parting under nails like claws. Teeth sinking into his shoulder, and under the rush of blood the rush of memory.
It was in his mind. It was feeding, stealing him, stealing bits of him, sickening and familiar from those first few moments after he’d died, before he’d learned how to fight back, and -
Predators became prey.
No. Hells no.
Sudden rough shock - warmth, solidity, reality, Dean’s hand closing around his arm. And even before the swing of the machete, that was it: something to hold on to, something real to set against the trickle in the dam that the creature had opened.
Thud, wet squelch. And Dean was right there. Chest steady against Gabriel’s back, hand strong around his uninjured arm. And the vampires - the one Dean had been fighting was sprawled in two pieces on the ground, and the last one was crumpling with Castiel’s sword in its throat.
Backup. Gabriel had... backup.
Also, he was injured, and what the hell? A vampire? A vampire had actually slashed his skin open? And got at his memories?
... Holy thumbscrews. He still wasn’t thinking clearly. He should have recognised it at once, that feeling of something lurking nearby, watching. Waiting for him.
It wasn’t some creature. It was Purgatory. Purgatory had its beady little eyes on him again.
The bodies shimmered and vanished. Purgatory moved around them, mocking and sweet, into a world of grey mists and elegant arches. Ten golden branches lay on the ground, twisted like long bodies frozen halfway through death writhings.
“So, never underestimate the food.” Dean was saying, hitch and rumble of his voice warm against the curve of Gabriel’s back. “Sometimes it’s a sneaky son of a bitch. Had a burger turn evil on me last year.”
Shit. They were running to one hell of a deadline.
Gabriel glared at the rents in his skin, and healed them with a thought. Which was easy enough; but the sliver of memory that had been his, tiny as it was by comparison with everything else he held in his head, that had been devoured. That was gone.
Gabriel was not okay with that.
Castiel wiped his sword on his coat, looked up, and caught Gabriel with his eyes. There was something there, something sad and inevitable; but there was stubbornness too.
Castiel must have fought here in Purgatory, Castiel who didn’t like to fight. Must have been hurt. Must have felt himself ebbing away. It had never occurred to Gabriel before - to the thing-Gabriel - hadn’t been immediate enough for him to notice. But there was no getting around it now.
How much of Castiel was gone?
And what could make an angel decide he didn’t want to fight anymore?
Castiel looked away.
Something in that gaze that made Gabriel want to reach out to him, like he archangel he had been thousands of years ago, like an older brother who could do something to fix it. Because, if that was true, and that weariness in the depths of Castiel’s eyes was true... how much of himself did Castiel want to lose?
He didn’t reach out. Castiel probably wouldn’t want his touch anyway.
Gabriel looked down at the ground instead. The golden branches were now ten golden bones.
He flipped Purgatory off.
Words were strange. Sure, Gabriel could make sentences if he felt like it - he could even quip with the best of them, he remembered how to do that, easy as smiting a bicycle - but that was the point. It was easy talk. It was thoughtless, reflex. Light skipping on the surface of the water.
There were still centuries and nations out of place in his mind, layers and upset layers of self that made nonsense of any conversation beyond the superficial. He knew how to retort, but there were hundreds of subjects on which he did not remember his own opinion until they were already halfway through a conversation.
And even without that, even once that began to settle, even if he had been entirely the person he had been when he had walked back into the hotel called Elysian Fields, the last time he had drawn his sword... who had that person been anyway?
Not like he’d had long to find out.
How many centuries had it been since Gabriel had forged an alliance that wasn’t meant to be abandoned or cashed in at the first sign of turbulence? By all parties?
How did you speak to someone who wasn’t waiting to screw you over? who wasn’t just a perplexed, protesting pawn in your little game of justice?
What words and jibes and smirks did you use when you weren’t the one holding all the cards?
And what was this hot, possessive twist in his gut every time he looked at Castiel or Dean?
Thirteen vast black birds flew overhead, slow and ponderous, wings bearing them heavily towards the distant light over the mountains. In the saddle between the tallest mountains rose a spire, pale and elegant.
The birds had no eyes, and could not see the light, or the edifice. And their beaks were wired shut.
“Enough with the fucking fairy tales already,” Dean muttered.
The Gabriel that Dean had spoken to before - the Gabriel he sometimes still turned to, with a grin so open he seemed to be speaking to someone he could trust never to make an opinion of their own - that Gabriel was - gone. Scattered to the wind. Or locked away. Or battened down.
Gabriel wasn’t sure. He did his best not to think about it.
Besides, there were monsters to hunt now.
He licked cautiously at the dry dust on his lips. “Purgatory, buttercup. It works in signs, and in symbols. Like the golden apple in a fairy tale.”
“Yeah, well, in my book symbols actually stand for something useful.”
“Your book doesn’t have many fairy tales, does it, champ?” Gabriel snapped.
Dean just rolled his eyes. Not a flinch, body or mind. Not a hint of offence.
Also, Dean’s voice was annoying. Also the way his eyes crinkled up at the corners like he was all relaxed in the company of an angel who could erase him with a thought and of Gabriel, who could do far worse and make him feel every millisecond of it. Also the way the casual brushes of his hand and body felt warm in ways that had nothing to do with flesh and blood, and the way he’d just snap out instructions when something attacked them like he just expected to be obeyed, and the way he brushed sweat out of his eyes and... just basically the fact that he existed.
Also the fact that apparently he made Gabriel irrational. And fucking crotchety.
And the fact that Gabriel wasn’t leaving. Wasn’t even an option. All doomed together.
Somehow, strangely, they were his, and he was theirs.
He was pretty damn sure he’d never consented to that.
Walking was harder now: weary muscles that complained and stiffened with rest, sweat collecting under his arms and gathering damp on his back and at the backs of his knees. All of which Gabriel could have dismissed with the tiniest flick of grace, but... that would have been a luxury.
They were subject to Purgatory now, and to Purgatory’s landscape, and it did its best to wear them down.
Before - before the cairn, Gabriel (the creature that he had been) had prided himself on his strength. He had protected Dean and Castiel, he’d thought, by the sheer and vast force of his will. As if there was no reason at all why he shouldn’t be more powerful than all of Purgatory’s inexhaustible tide, and the creatures caught up in it.
Purgatory had twigged that they were here now. Purgatory wanted them.
Now they were swimming against that tide. Gabriel had been protecting them not with a shield but with a veil. Lacking memory himself, he had been insubstantial to Purgatory’s sight, and he had cloaked them in his own lack of substance.
Gabriel could have gone semi-corporeal and turned himself into a protective barrier again, but the thinner he spread himself the quicker Purgatory would dissolve him. Now he had to use all his strength, all the time, to hold back the tug of the current that nibbled away at all three minds. Casting a shield around them to keep creatures away was a pointless waste of energy when he and Dean could just fight them off instead, use muscles instead of minds.
These memories were his. He had made them, and paid for them, and he would keep them and fight for them until he had no other choice.
Glaring at a blister, tipping a stone out of his boot, scrubbing pointlessly at the grimy feeling of sweat on the back of his neck - and why the hell had Dean kissed him? Why had they dragged him back, and why had he sought them out in the first place and clung to them when nothingness had been so much easier?
(He was mostly sure he didn’t really think that. But he’d never really appreciated the hell that was blisters before.)
Gabriel worked alone. He did everything alone. That was how he worked best. Gabriel didn’t do family.
Which didn’t mean it wasn’t his business when his little brother’s mind looked like a windshield after a head-on, okay?
Purgatory decided to grace them with a set that looked suspiciously like the Mines of Moria. Pacing the corridors around the little chamber where Castiel and Dean were napping, Gabriel was almost tempted to drop a stone down one of those crumbling shafts to see if he could rustle up any orc drums. Could be a party.
Plus, he made a kickass Balrog. There had been this one time with a couple of douchebag nerds who kept taking their LARPing too far, just for the power trip... good times.
Although there was a bit of Hogwarts about it as well - Gabriel darkly suspected some of the corridors of shifting around when he wasn’t looking, trying to coax him into taking the wrong turn and getting separated from the guys, so he was taking care not to get too far away.
Speaking of Tolkien. Gabriel was pretty damn sure that he remembered Dean retelling pretty much the whole of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, from memory. In impressive detail. With side notes from the Silmarillion.
He filed that away in his extensive Blackmail And/Or Endless Mockery folder.
Also, look at him, remembering things and comparing them to other things and having opinions about all those things and cross-referencing and being generally memory-awesome. Purgatory can’t keep no good - okay, morally dubious - angel down!
He sent a pebble skipping down a rockfall into a chasm anyway, in the spirit of solidarity with inquisitive Tooks.
When he ambled back into the chamber, humming “They’re taking the hobbits to Isengard!” to himself, Dean was fast asleep against a half-crumbled column.
Castiel’s coat was folded carefully between Dean’s head and the corner of the rock, because Castiel was a softie. Also Castiel was watching him sleep with an expression that managed to mix impassivity with fervour, because Castiel was an adorably besotted creeper.
(Dean and Castiel were easier with each other now - more relaxed, more inclined to lean in towards each other without looking or fall into step with each other in that creepy way Winchesters did - but it didn’t erase the deep well of sadness and guilt inside Castiel, or plaster over the missing piece of Dean’s soul.)
To be fair to Castiel and his creeper tendencies, a sleeping Dean was kind of... enthralling. Like having their very own soothing water feature. All relaxed muscles and half-open mouth and tongue gleaming promisingly wet just behind the shadow of his lip, and peacefully flickering vague dream-thoughts with occasional ripples of disturbance that flitted across his face and mind and vanished back into the current. And this vast fierce warmth, which always hovered just under the surface in his waking mind and wrapped itself around Sam (or Castiel) when he was there, but which, in sleep, just sort of... blobbed around. Relaxed.
Sort of like an egg yolk in water. Yes. Dean the egg yolk. That would do.
Also it was pathetic and cute all at once the way his fingers stayed curled around the handle of his machete even in sleep. And Dean’s shirt was rucked up at the back where he’d slumped down against the column, so that the stone was sort of scraping against his skin when he breathed, which couldn’t be comfy, so Gabriel edged him carefully aside and tugged it back into place and patted it down and drew a corner of Castiel’s coat down as an extra layer, just to be sure.
Castiel gave him a funny look.
Gabriel fluttered his eyelashes and flopped down beside him.
“Hey there, chatty Cathy.”
Castiel blinked, and the blue of his eyes under his lashes was as distant as the sky, as he had to travel back a very long way to reply.
“My name is not Cathy. And I am not very chatty.”
“No kidding. Dean’s been doing most of the talking, and he never really struck me as a chatterbox kinda guy.”
That earned him a look like a disgruntled cat. “Gabriel. You can trust Dean.”
“... Well, hello there left field.”
“Once he cares about you, he will not abandon you.” Castiel’s eyelashes flickered down, shadowing the stern blue for a moment. “Not even when you want him to.”
Something uneasy stirred in Gabriel’s stomach - and not only at the weird implication that Dean cared, which - no, really, Gabriel knew exactly how few people that boy held close.
“Okay then,” he allowed, and reached out to ruffle up Castiel’s hair to turn the cat into a fluffy kitten. “Where’s this coming from? And who said I don’t trust him?”
Castiel’s mouth went thin under his rumpled glower. “You look at him when he laughs as if he stole it from you and you want it back. Sometimes you want to hurt him,” he added, and he said it like a promise of war.
Gabriel made a rude sound, smiled his best winning trust-me-I’m-not-the-trickster smile, and deflected like a pro. “That’s because he’s a dick, and I’m a dick. Dean gets that, he’s a Winchester. Violence and insults are nine tenths of their dictionary, little bro.”
Damn. Hard audience. Somewhere along the way, the kid had gone and got himself one hell of a not-buying-what-you’re-selling face.
That hurt. It was mostly true. Probably. Not Gabriel’s fault if he didn’t really know his own mind that well right now, right?
“When did you want him to give up on you, huh?” he said, just serious enough to cut Castiel off as he went to open his mouth to argue again. He reached out with one hand, tapping a couple of knuckles gently against Castiel’s temple. “I’ve seen the mess you keep in here, just can’t see why it’s like that.”
Castiel’s eyes shuttered and fell, and the protective certainty that had prickled in his mind a moment before crumpled into raw guilt.
“You could ask Dean.”
As if Dean was the one who got to write Castiel’s story for him.
“Yeah, no.” Gabriel cocked an eyebrow in his direction, and tried to ignore the vivid sense-memory of hands twisting ceaselessly through hands. “The way you two look at each other, all that mess, all that investment and wire-crossing? Anything he said would tell me more about him than you, sweetcheeks.”
Dean stirred beside them, a faint grumble under his breath like he could feel Castiel’s discomfort; shifted, and resettled. Gabriel suppressed the urge to reach out and run fingers through his hair, to slide them over the back of Dean’s hand where it lay sprawled across his belt, because that was just a hangover from Weird Cuddly Amnesiac Gabriel. Who was honestly a bit of a creeper too.
Castiel reached out instead, and curled his fingers in the loose fabric of Dean’s shirt, where it was bunched up a bit at the top of his chest. Dean didn’t stir; but the agitation of Castiel’s mind eased, just a bit. There was a tight reluctance to him, the kind that came from wanting desperately not to get close enough to a particular thought to be burned by it; but there was a protectiveness mingled in there too. As if he didn’t want to wake Dean; or as if, whatever Castiel had to say, he didn’t want Gabriel to have to hear it.
Well, sometimes a direct order didn’t hurt.
He reached out; traced his nails lightly along the delicate, powerful bones in Castiel’s hands; drew the pad of his thumb around the knob of his wrist once, twice, watching the puzzled crease grow between Castiel’s eyes; slid his fingertips down and around to hover where he could feel the thrum of blood in the arteries deep under the surface; stroked there nice and gentle, feeling the muscles relax bit by bit under his touch.
Then he wrapped his hand around Castiel’s wrist and pressed in, firm. Took control.
Castiel’s eyes flashed up from Gabriel’s fingers to his face and Gabriel cocked an eyebrow and held his gaze; noted the hot flash of indignation, and the warm wave of relief that swallowed it, as Castiel slipped into that space in his head, and let Gabriel take his weight.
Good. This was tricky ground, and he really didn’t want to be relying on fuzzy-Gabriel’s dodgy half-informed judgement here to guess whether Castiel was okay with this. Especially given he had a pretty clear idea of just when and why an archangel had last taken hold of the kid’s reins, and it wouldn’t have been pretty, and - why the hell would he let Gabriel do this, of all people?
“The things I did, Gabriel...”
Castiel’s breath stuttered and hesitated.
Gabriel sifted his mind gently through the fringes of Castiel like fingers through hair - encouragement, approval, trying to hide the cool clench of dread in his stomach (the sudden viciously vivid memory of Michael’s face, after he’d cast Lucifer down).
Because. Before. When he hadn’t had his memories, when he’d only been looking at what was right in front of him, he’d only seen the damage and tried to heal it. It had never occurred to him to enquire more closely, to ask himself had Castiel had done to make him flinch away from his own reflection.
“Castiel,” he growled, and felt it rumble through the stone beneath their thighs, heard pebbles and rocks lose their places in the walls and skitter down to bounce on the floor and in the passages outside. “Tell me.”
Castiel’s hand pressed in wide and flat over the span of Dean’s chest, following the steady rise and fall of his breath. Gabriel let his fingers slip loose from Castiel’s wrist and spread them out to cover his hand there. Castiel wasn’t resisting: he was working his way towards words, and that wasn’t the time to push.
At last, a hitching rasp: “Dean is afraid that I will slip away from him, in here,” which wasn’t the answer, but it was a start. And it was where Castiel had chosen to start, which was... disturbing. And when he spoke again, there was a dark, tired resignation lurking behind the words - “He is right to fear it.”
As if Castiel thought he deserved to lose himself.
And, fuck. Something moving out there. Feet, pattering, scuttling, and whatever it was it felt big, but he couldn’t just drop Castiel. Not like this.
Gabriel always had had crappy timing.
He wrapped his hand around Castiel’s, pulling it away from Dean’s chest, and (as Castiel blinked muzzily like someone trying to work out how to get out of the tangle of sheets he didn’t remember making) Gabriel jammed the fingers of his spare hand into Dean’s ribs. “Winchester. Up. Drums, drums in the deep.”
Funny thing about Dean. Most days he took ages to swim up out of sleep, grumbling and snuffling. But give him a whiff of danger - or a note of alarm in your voice - and he’d be on his feet between one breath and the next.
“Shit,” was his comment, then, “Cas? What’s up?”
“Buy us a minute,” Gabriel rapped out, and whadda y’know, Dean could take orders as well as give them.
Castiel’s cheek was too cool under Gabriel’s hand, and his eyes were dreamy and trusting when they fastened on Gabriel’s. Too damned trusting.
“Come on, hot stuff,” Gabriel murmured, and leaned forward on impulse to press a kiss against the stubble-scratchy corner of his mouth. “Need you to stand up for a bit, yeah?”
Castiel blinked again, scowled a little, and Gabriel held very still in body and mind as the smaller power sluggishly disentangled itself from him, as Castiel clambered laboriously back out of sub-space and the skin warmed back to body temperature under Gabriel’s touch.
“That’s my boy,” he whispered at last, when Castiel closed his eyes and drew in a breath for the first time in minutes; and was immediately hit with embarrassment. Because, seriously? As if this angel of all angels - of all people - needed the approval of some deadbeat who hadn’t taken on a responsibility for centuries that he hadn’t tossed over the nearest stile as soon as he’d got bored with it.
Only, right now, Castiel did. So Gabriel couldn’t.
Castiel looked over towards the solid shadow of Dean, pressed up against one lintel of the doorway, watching the corridor. The sound had dissolved from distinct footsteps into a skittering and a deep, continuous rumble, and the sense of a presence had become wider and less distinct. Spreading itself out. Manifesting itself not as a body, but as a force. Great. Gabriel really wasn’t eager to drop his vessel to meet it except as a last resort.
Castiel took in another deep breath and let it out, steady. Gabriel squeezed his hand roughly and let go.
“Hold that thought,” he murmured, and winked.
Castiel’s eyes went narrow, considering. Then he hooked his hand around the back of Gabriel’s neck, dragged him in, and kissed him hot and deep and savage.
Gabriel flailed, reasonably.
It only lasted a moment - one quick, delicious moment of where the hell did the kid learn this - which Gabriel was totally smooth enough to have returned except what if this was just some weird cross-wired approval thing or Castiel had a submission kink he’d triggered and surely he didn’t actually know what sex was beyond the theory and, hey, he’d just been driving the kid’s bus, taking advantage wasn’t cool, and was he actually doing that with his virginal little tongue, and - huh.
“Thank you,” Castiel said, and his voice rasped even deeper than its usual gravel, which, not fair, Gabriel hadn’t got laid in months even before Purgatory and he’d only just got his body back, and - Purgatory. Monster. Right.
Castiel had already turned his back and was striding over to Dean, who gave him a quick once-over to check he wasn’t going to faint or whatever. Gabriel rubbed the back of his hand over his mouth (seriously, smooth as a teenager) and slipped into place behind them.
There was nothing visible in the corridor - just shadows, curling and shifting on the walls.
“Not a dead monster,” he muttered. “Purgatory native.”
Dean shot him a look. “We talking Doctor Visyak, or Leviathan?”
“Hostile,” Castiel said gruffly, like he didn’t see why anyone else would want to know more than that, “and strong.”
“No shit, Sherlock. What does that mean, though, Purgatory native? ‘Cos I’m not seeing anything I can stab out there.”
“Something that doesn’t need memories or individuality,” Gabriel gritted out, carefully threading a tiny string of consciousness through Dean’s blood stream so that he could shield his whole body in an instant if he needed it. “Or a single form, unless it wants one. Something that can live here, not just fade.”
The stone shifted underfoot, like it was considering experimenting with its position on the solid-liquid spectrum.
Castiel frowned at it.
It grinned at him - gaped wide, into a dark chasm between Dean’s feet. With teeth.
Dean yelled, flung himself sideways and came up with a roll on Castiel’s side of the gap. The floor split wall to wall, yawning indolently wide, and the corridors beyond Castiel divided and opened up into a bewildering series of doors and tunnels and staircases and twists.
Out of the gap in the floor whipped a viciously cold wind with something nasty in it, hard enough to make Dean and even Castiel stagger and tug Dean sideways towards one of the narrower corridors. It dragged dangerously at their minds, hungry and poisonous, sliced right into the lungs and clung there.
Gabriel found himself backed up against the far wall, with a gulf at his feet and a tunnel open behind him in an invitation that he wasn’t stupid enough to take.
“It seems that this thing can manipulate Purgatory’s fabric,” Castiel observed calmly.
“No kidding,” Dean choked out, gasping for breath against the wind. “Little help?”
“Try not to breathe the wind in,” Gabriel suggested, obligingly, and stopped breathing himself. He prodded at what he could feel of the thing and its impulses, but it was so foreign and formless that there wasn’t anything to analyse.
Dean found time to flip him off, in the middle of grabbing for Castiel’s proffered wrist.
It was trying to split them up. Obviously. But why?
“Huh,” Dean was staying, and peering quizzically at Castiel’s wrist in his hand. And he was standing upright, easily now, and not choking.
Something rumbled ominously under them. The floor between Castiel and Dean rippled, and a thin screen of rock started growing upwards rapidly, threatening to raise a wall between them.
Gabriel spread his wings, launched himself across the gap, and drove himself at high speed into the screen. It shattered with a snarl, and he grabbed for Dean’s spare hand. The shock of it was even stronger than last time, when the vampire had latched onto him: the foreign influence chased out, just himself in his head, bright and clear, and the strong solid presence of a friend as a bulwark.
He grabbed Castiel’s hand too, to be sure.
“So,” he suggested brilliantly, “we stick together.”
“And move,” Castiel pointed out.
They picked a corridor at random and ran, awkwardly, Gabriel’s hand closed around the spot where Dean’s was locked on Castiel’s wrist. The corridors were dark with a darkness that even Gabriel couldn’t see through, and Dean was trusting entirely in Castiel’s other senses to keep from running smack into a wall. Every stumble - and there were plenty, as the floor lurched and sank and twisted underfoot - meant at least half a fall, often a moment of lost contact and the wind slamming hard into the back and face of whoever was suddenly briefly alone, a choked-out curse and groping in the dark to find warm skin again.
And the corridors split and merged and twisted them around, and tried to send one of them running down a ramp and the others up a staircase, and ran them into dead ends and spirals, and wore them out with long, weary ascents, until every muscle was aching and lungs were scraped tired and raw and they realised that, actually, it had been whole minutes since anything had shifted, hundreds of footfalls since the floor had given out under them, endless corridors since the walls had closed in on them, and Gabriel swore loud and explosive and collapsed dramatically on the floor.
Grass. It was grass. And there was a glimmer of grey light in the sky. And, as the light grew, hundreds of birds in arched cages of bone hanging all about them.
Fuck Purgatory. Seriously.
Dean groaned and lowered himself gingerly down beside Gabriel, hand twined with Castiel’s like he’d conveniently forgotten it was there. Castiel sat with Dean’s hand cradled between his on one knee, like he hadn’t forgotten at all and thought it was an incredibly precious charge, and Dean shot Castiel this tiny, exhausted little eye-roll like they didn’t need any words, and Castiel’s eyes did the tiny smile they kept only for Dean, and... yeah.
So much for getting at whatever Castiel was keeping locked down in there. Moment, well and truly passed.