Gabriel woke up with Castiel’s hair in his mouth, and warm slow breath gathering damply on his neck.
Huh. Possibly Gabriel hadn’t completely screwed him up, then.
He waited for the surge of smug exhilaration that should have followed that thought. It didn’t come.
Possibly because of the headache. And the heavy sluggishness in his limbs.
Maybe angels could get the flu in Purgatory.
Castiel sighed into his throat, and Gabriel’s fingers tightened on the back of his neck.
“You two alive in there?”
Dean was seated nearby, with his machete across his knees and his voice brusque with worry. His mind was in warrior mode: the steady low buzz of banked adrenalin, ready for the call: senses alert, and all the tender or vulnerable or inquisitive parts shut down, locked carefully out of the way. Like he was ready to take care of everything.
Gabriel felt the brief, embarrassing impulse to curl up at his feet and let him do it, too. Only apparently he’d been doing that long enough.
“Peachy,” he grunted. It didn’t come out quavery, or anything like that, which was a small victory.
It was never going to go down as one of the best days of Gabriel’s long and colourful existence.
His legs felt weak, but they walked anyway. He felt drained, and shaky, and drifted in and out of horrific scenarios in his head, charcoal and blood and silver and oil fires, and Castiel laughing, insane and desolate, because Gabriel hadn’t been able to stop it.
And sure, he knew it was a combination of crashing after the high of doing that yesterday, and shock at what he’d had to look at in there, and all that crap. He knew it was all in his head, and he wasn’t an idiot. It was still fucking impossible to shake off, and it kept him quiet and glowering all day.
Although hurling all over Dean was an increasingly cheerful prospect. Dean was fretting too, over who the hell knew what, and the combination of terse orders and solicitousness had been grating on Gabriel’s nerves from the get-go. All of which made Castiel, who’d woken up exhausted and pliable and almost smiling through his yawns, irritable and short-tempered with both of them.
They stumbled across a feast, all spread out on bare flat rocks: sumptuous and decadent, heaped fruits like jewels and rich strange pastries and deep wines and cream that was yellow and thick as butter, the sorts of things you’d expect to see tumbling out of a cornucopia. Or maybe laid out across that table at the beginning of the end of the world, in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
Even Castiel licked his bottom lip and looked mildly lustful. But Dean full-on groaned at the sight, and Gabriel could feel the frustration pouring off him - not hunger exactly, but the soul-deep yearning for the physical. Sex, pie, anything. Reality.
Gabriel couldn’t feel anything off about it, no matter how he poked about - no pomegranates of Persephone and Eve here, no Snow White apples or gingerbread-house allure or even simple poison. So he gave Dean the go-ahead.
But every time Dean lifted a cup to his mouth, something unseen and unreal drank it, so by the time it reached his lips it was dry. And every time he grabbed for meat or fruit, invisible mouths devoured it to the bone or core before he could sink his teeth in.
It was long after that, hours of struggling through mud that clung and stank and fighting off things that had long forgotten themselves, that Dean lost his temper.
They were surrounded by horses, horses of marble, herds or hosts of them stretching off into the distance: no movement to be seen anywhere. And it must have been something Gabriel had said, or something Castiel had said, or something Dean had thought himself, or just the whole stupid mess; but the curt, half-grunted conversation suddenly exploded into snarls and frayed patience, until Dean, yelling at them over something that was way off topic and had nothing to do with what any of them had said, stopped abruptly and slammed his fist hard into the shoulder of the nearest statue.
He stood there for a minute, shoulders heaving, clenching his fist against the stone; and they were all quiet, relief or exhaustion.
“We’re screwed, aren’t we?” Dean said at last, very measured. “You two can’t fight it off forever. Even without draining yourselves on stunts like that yesterday. We’re on borrowed time here, and we still haven’t got a freaking clue how to -”
He broke off. Gabriel looked away.
It was Castiel who reached out to grip Dean’s shoulder.
“Dean,” he said, and his voice was quiet and full of conviction. “We will find a way out.”
Dean looked down at the hand, at the press of fingers into leather and cloth. “Right,” he muttered, half snarky and half shaky. “Because you’re just the poster boy of faith.”
“Yes. I am.”
And it was that simple: Dean looking up, holding Castiel’s gaze, caught in it. Drawn straight out of his rage and frustration into - something else. Something wondering that looked almost like faith, but something that Gabriel couldn’t see or follow. Because there was still, after everything, some form of communication he couldn’t touch: some strange way that Castiel could reach Dean, comfort him, with just a few words. Not because of what they were, nothing to do with human and angel and words and hands and eyes. Just because of who they were, to each other.
Castiel could do that for Dean in a way that Gabriel would never be able to do.
Not that he wanted to. Or needed to.
He flinched grumpily away from that thought, because he was just in a funk today and he didn’t need wallowing on top of that. It was just the way they’d latched onto each other, soul to heart. All those lines of connection that he’d perceived vaguely between them before he’d got his memories back, woven together more firmly now than ever. And -
Lines of connection. Of communication, existing only between particular persons. Communication between particularly close souls. And if he squinted close on just the right wavelength...
“Actually,” Gabriel piped up sweetly, “we do have a line out of here. Or you do.”
He revelled in it for a moment. Showmanship was fun. Puzzled enquiry from Castiel, wary not-sure-if-you’re-shitting-me from Dean.
“You wanna elaborate?” Dean grouched.
Gabriel stuck his hands in his pockets and waggled his eyebrows unhelpfully. “You’re following it. Have been all along. It’s you. Well, you and Sam. Your souls are all tangled up together like a couple of balls of yarn after the kitten-storm’s been through. Take the balls and try to pull them apart and you’ve still got a mess of strands stretching out between them. You’ve got a big soul-cable stretching out through the wavelengths back to your brother, and that’s what you’ve been tramping along all this way.”
Castiel’s brow furrowed into his little “huh” expression. Dean looked back and forth between them, like he was waiting for the punchline, which was probably fair because Gabriel was giving him his most untrustworthy grin and he’d been using it all day every time he wanted to be particularly annoying.
“I thought we’d established walking didn’t actually move us because this place doesn’t have - well, places,” Dean said after a moment.
Gabriel patted his ass, like a proud teacher about to get arrested for inappropriate behaviour. “True! But only in the literal sense. We got back to where I’d stashed my memories, didn’t we?”
“... Okay,” Dean allowed carefully, completely ignoring the grope because he was a spoilsport when he was on a mission. “So we just, what,” turning to Castiel - “keep walking?”
Because of course he’d turn to Castiel.
Castiel’s eyes sought out Gabriel, questioning. Gabriel shrugged, and gave him a bit of a nod together with an impression of the feel of the thing. “If he’s right... then, yes. Or rather - we have to make the journey ourselves, and feet are as good a symbol of it as any.”
The thrum of hope and renewed energy was beginning to buzz just under the surface of Dean’s skin, leaving his voice gruff when he tried to tamp it down and play things cool.
“Man, screw symbols. You can’t see this soul-cable thing, huh, Cas?”
“He is an archangel,” Castiel pointed out. “It would a good deal more effort and delicacy for me to examine your soul.”
“But hey,” Gabriel purred, stung by the hint of doubt. “If you wanna just keep floundering on with nothing to go on just because the archangel’s a dick, be my guest. I’ll just be sitting over here waiting for the grues to eat our faces.”
Dean rolled his eyes, and the low-burning temper inside him flared up again. “Look, simmer down, okay? I just don’t get why nobody’s mentioned this before, if you say I’ve been walking some freaking dreamroad or what-the-hell-ever all along.”
“Because it never occurred to me to look for it,” Gabriel snapped. “You try having fifty million different pairs of eyes all the time, boy, see how many channels you pay attention to at once.”
Castiel snapped his fingers in the air between their faces. “You two need to stow your crap,” he growled, which earned him that hilarious double take that Dean always did when Castiel swore. Gabriel was so proud of him.
It was half an hour of silent, sullen trudging later that Dean piped up, “So me and Sammy - we’re all tied together with heavenly twine?”
“Heaven has nothing to do with it,” Castiel corrected. “You alone are responsible for the evolution of your soul.”
Another few minutes, feet dragging in the dust, then: “Can it be broken?”
“Balls of twine, cowboy,” Gabriel drawled, and managed to do it sarcastically because he was a master of sarcasm and could rock a sarcastic drawl if he wanted to. “You’d have to spend hours untangling them from each other and wind each pile of yarn into a completely new ball.”
He had a moment to enjoy Dean’s puzzled face, before Castiel spoiled it by translating drily.
“That would be a no.”
“Okay,” Dean said, a little softer, a bit relieved. “Okay, good.”
Gabriel thought of Michael, and of Raphael, and of loneliness. Of faded connections, and the strength of the bonds that Dean still had. “Doesn’t mean you can’t screw each other over,” he said, short and tired. “But you’ll never stop needing each other.”
He felt more than heard the not-really-amused huff of Dean’s breath. “Sounds about right.”
So all in all, Gabriel had had just about enough of Dean’s crap.
Which only meant he’d had just about enough of his own crap. Self-awareness was a bitch. And it didn’t help quell the flare of resentment every time he looked at Dean’s stupid (gorgeous) face.
He ordered them both to go sleep it off when eventually they stumbled to a halt. Purgatory was screwing with them again, all mounds and ripples of ground like fabric, so soft that you sank and struggled even before you had to try to climb the rucked-up mountains and valleys of its folds. And there were mists, heavy and subtle, that wafted in and out and clouded all the senses until you could almost believe you were alone.
Though Dean and Castiel seemed to be over that particular neurosis. Not a flicker of doubt in either of them when they reached out to touch each other’s arm, to make sure they were still in range.
Anyway, all that aside, when Purgatory gives you bedclothes instead of firm ground, take a nap. And Dean had ended up standing watch most of last night, and Castiel needed rest because he was still processing the changes in his mental landscape, so Gabriel got to be in charge of sitting around sulking.
... not sulking. Thinking great important archangel thoughts. Like how many dead goldfish he could stash in remote crevices inside the Impala’s frame before Dean exploded. And whether Castiel would wear extravagant rock-star bling if Gabriel handed it to him and told him it was a gift. And (the blood-and-tar stench of Leviathan seared vividly across Castiel’s memory) how his Pepsi Max shares were doing. And the bewildering resilience of Castiel’s mind and his even more bewildering capacity for forgiveness. And the warm crinkles at the edges of Dean’s eyes whenever he was startled into laughing, the way he’d look down at his hands and chuckle to himself all loose and easy and sometimes faintly embarrassed, maybe rubbing a hand over the back of his neck, and the devilish little curve at the side of his mouth, and - candy, damn it, candy. Skittles and Chupa-Chups and those funny little chocolate bars with mint bubbles inside.
And the strange, lived-in warmth inside the Impala, even on the coldest day, because that car was so deeply a home that she damn near had a life of her own.
Fuck. Fuck self-awareness with a bright pink stick.
... Especially the way it was distracting him from other things around him. Like, say, the fact that Dean was definitely not asleep over there, just out of sight in a misty fold of ground.
Soft, muffled sighs. Stifled grunts, caught between frustration and gratification. Faint damp slide of skin on skin. And, hell, here came a fresh wave of embarrassment over the last time Gabriel had heard those sounds, when he’d crept over all bright-eyed and helpful and fucking clueless and Dean had had to tell him to -
He was on his feet before he noticed it, boots silent on coarse linen, prowling in the direction of the sound.
Predator. And what he found laid out on the ground before him would have re-whetted the appetite of the most sated tiger.
Dean, jeans shoved down just far enough and legs kicked wide. On his back, open to be seen and touched and owned. Shoulder blades and heels digging dents into the ground, eyes fluttering closed, cheeks high with colour and lips flushed and full. Panting around his mouthful - biting down on his own left hand, savage reddened crescents over the knuckle of the first finger, to keep his voice down. Shirt riding up over the clenching muscles of his belly, a smattering of freckles and a smattering of scars. And below that, ah, there...
Gabriel licked his lips, and swallowed down the thick, eager saliva.
Slow drift of fingers up and down, loosely wrapped. A tease. Gleam of wetness between them. Smattering of wiry hair fainter on the outskirts, darker further in, drawing the eyes in to the gleam of pallor and pink and red in the very centre. Flexing thigh muscles, rocking tantalisingly up and down. Writhe of hips against the ground, a maddening slow rhythm, buttocks shifting and clenching against the faint scrape of the linen. Dark glimpses, here and there, of the shadowed places between his legs, hidden behind folds of denim and boxers and the tense curl of his fingers. And oh, the possibilities there, of opening that up and shoving everything out of the way: laying it all open to the light, to Gabriel’s eyes, exposing him soft and vulnerable and wanting to Gabriel’s savage mouth, to the selfish teasing of his hands. To his cock, and to his possession.
Gabriel had been many things in his time, and he’d never been the nice guy.
And there in the coil of Dean’s fingers, the hot beat of blood. The yearning, demanding heart of it all. Flushed and hopeful, the delicious head sliding again and again through the slide of his palm, the flick of his thumb, and popping up in their wake purpled and gleaming and a little more voracious every time.
Gabriel crept closer, mesmerised, soft-footed and hungry.
All this useless dangerous mess of emotions. All this “mine” and “yours” and belonging-yet-not, and shying away from the love that he was trying not to notice Castiel offering him. Sex - sex had been enough for him for years, centuries, simple and gloriously fleshy, and he couldn’t have that with Castiel because there was no way that would be simple but here - ah, here, stretched out before him - simple gratification personified.
He could make Dean take it, and Dean would like it. And he could take Dean apart, and see those steady, assessing eyes - the ones that looked at Gabriel and found him lacking - flutter and cloud over with confusion and lust, lose their clarity in orgasm.
He could take back control. Take himself back, and own it.
The cloth sank under his heels - tugged and shifted under Dean’s body.
Dean opened his eyes, to the sight of Gabriel standing over him, one boot on either side of Dean’s hips, hands in pockets.
Gabriel bared his teeth.
“Believe me, kid. I know exactly what I’m doing.”
No shouting, no freak-out. Silence.
Dean’s mouth curved behind his hand, but otherwise he was still: returning Gabriel’s stare, pitch for pitch. A challenge taken, and tossed back at him.
Then Dean lifted both hands, and tucked them behind his head. His lips spread into a wet swollen smirk, his legs spread into something else even more tempting, and his hips lifted as he arched his back and re-settled, with a “fine, go on then” quirk of his eyebrow.
Hell if this kid didn’t know how to use his body.
Gabriel slid his tongue out to lave slow over his lips: watched Dean watch that, then raked his eyes once more over every tiny detail of the body below him, and felt Dean watch that.
Dean’s chest was rising and falling fast, and his dick was even harder now his hand was out of the way: painfully exposed and swollen, drawing the balls up tight below it. Like it was trying to make the best display possible, just for Gabriel.
Gabriel could feel Dean’s eyes locked on his face, hot and bright and - changing him. Seeing something Gabriel never saw.
He let his mouth curl: hooked one foot behind Dean’s left knee and lifted it up, out. Forced his legs wider, so the strained denim cut white lines into his outer thighs.
Dean’s breath stuttered, and deepened, and one hand came down to clamp tight on the muscles of Gabriel’s calf.
It was the hand that smelt of him. And it wasn’t saying “stop”.
Gabriel raised his own hand, slowly, deliberately: enjoying the flush across Dean’s belly, the way his eyes snagged on Gabriel’s fingers and froze there as they slid into position.
He grinned. Then he snapped.
Tiniest expenditure of power, all in a good cause - getting Dean’s boxers, boots, socks, and jeans all piled up just out of reach instead of cluttering his body with obstructions. But just enough to give a moment of weakness to Purgatory’s constant press, and he felt the sudden vicious rush of it, pressing in on him, breaking him open, threatening to delve inside him and own him as he would never let anyone -
He drove it out, savage and snarling.
Dean’s face was right below him, and Dean’s hand was clamped around the back of his neck, and Dean’s eyes were part challenge, part wary concern. Coarse fabric dug into his hands and knees: fingers clawing into the ground with his wrists against Dean’s shoulders, and his toes curled tightly in his boots, digging into linen and the skin of Dean’s calves.
But he still had Dean’s hips clamped between his knees. Even if Purgatory had driven him to the ground in that one rush of distraction, Gabriel was still in control. He could do that, and he could have this.
He dipped his head, trailed his teeth along Dean’s jaw. Then a hand: wandering his body, like a lord exploring his domain.
Or, that was the intention: but Gabriel found himself watching Dean’s face. The rediscovery of the sensation of skin slipping over skin, that was mesmerising. The way Dean’s face moved. The startled, joyful rush of blood inside his body: the connection between mind and body and soul all laid out there in front of Gabriel, under him.
Nothing like with Castiel. This, this was sex.
“Big tough guy,” Dean breathed, and grinned. Too warm, too soft around the edges. His own hand on Dean, on his shoulder and the side of his neck, looked suddenly tender where it lay: curled into the hair at the back of the human’s neck, rough and gentle in a way he’d never intended it. And Gabriel couldn’t do that right now, not here, not with Dean. He was too open, too raw, and Dean could get right inside him and rip him apart if he tried.
Gabriel bared his teeth, grabbed Dean’s hair and yanked it back into the ground. But the gasp that hissed in between Dean’s teeth, the jerk of breath and the trust of muscles that didn’t resist in the slightest (and the hot pulse of blood southward, in the body pinned below him) were not the impulses of a defeated man. They didn’t say “you win, you can stop now”.
He pressed his mouth in against Dean’s neck, bared his teeth, and kissed him there. Got his hands all over him, and kissed his neck again, and nuzzled him, teeth sharp and hard against jugular and collarbone and the sensitive space beneath the ear.
And yet Dean trusted him. And it was strange.
He pulled back for a moment. Just long enough to see Dean’s mouth there, again - delicious and delectable and open and soft - but not for him.
It was too powerful. It had already changed Gabriel - changed him forever. Not once, but twice: once with its words, and once with its touch.
Gabriel snarled, pressed his mouth against Dean’s collarbone, and shoved his hand down between them to close tight over where Dean was aching, straining into his touch. And it seemed like only a few strokes (harsh and firm on the way down, too loose and easy on the way up to make Dean growl and scrabble at his shoulders) before Gabriel made him lose it, shake up against him and shout into Gabriel’s hair and shudder and groan, pulsing hot and wet over their stomachs and over Gabriel’s hand.
Victory, success, and all that jazz; but it was all somehow secondary to the way Dean’s soul purred beneath him, the utter satisfaction and the ease with which he relaxed under the cage of Gabriel’s body. The heat and pleasure in the breath that panted against his ear, and the lazy, familiar way Dean’s hand landed on Gabriel’s shoulder, ran down loose and happy to his elbow, then sprawled out over the ground.
That hadn’t been on the cards.
Gabriel brought his hand to his mouth, licking Dean’s flavour at a leisurely pace from his palm and the wrinkles of his fingers while Dean re-learned how to breathe beneath him. This was normal: this was the simple rich explosion of sex-taste over his tongue and palette, and this he understood.
They were quiet for a while, as Dean panted his way through relaxation. Then Gabriel felt the lazy shove of a hand against his hip, the nudge of curved lips against his temple - the murmur of “okay, come on then, big man,” lazy and kind of fond, and - hell, who had ever said he could use that intimate, easy tone with Gabriel?
Gabriel pulled back and glared, dangerous and confused; and Dean rolled his eyes, and reached down between them.
Then Gabriel got it: a growl, a hasty shift backwards out of range to sit on Dean’s knees instead, flashing hot and gold so that Dean’s eyes went wide and he hissed “Jesus,” and his dick twitched a bit against Gabriel’s palm.
Which had apparently flattened itself there again, covering him. Protective, or possessive?
Dean pulled a half-pissy, half-puzzled expression, and peered up into Gabriel’s face. And Gabriel had to resist the urge to look away, to shield his eyes from the sheer unsettling brightness of him.
Because, even without catching his eyes, he just couldn’t escape that strange sense that Dean was looking at him and seeing someone else. Someone who deserved that warmth, and that trust. Not just the Gabriel from before he’d got his memories back, that big cuddly puppy of a thing. Someone from before even that: someone Gabriel didn’t remember ever being at all.
But he’d pretended to be that person once, hadn’t he? once, when he’d been stung by Dean looking at him a very different way.
That person was a dick. He’d got Gabriel killed.
Dean sighed, between Gabriel’s knees.
“It’s called reciprocation, douchenozzle.”
And there was no bitterness to the teasing. No edge, as there should have been.
Dean’s hand slid around to rest over Gabriel’s hip: half on his back, warm and solid and strange.
No edge of accusation or of sarcasm or of rejection, sure: but if Gabriel looked very closely, delved as deep as he could, Dean wasn’t quite so easy anymore. There was something wary behind his touch that hadn’t been there five minutes ago. Like he was waiting for Gabriel to disappear again.
... A challenge. And letting them down wasn’t an option.
He narrowed his eyes, and fastened them on Dean’s face.
Dean’s mouth tugged into half a smirk.
“Jeez, don’t strain a muscle.”
And Gabriel, much to his own astonishment, let Dean roll them over and loom over him and hook a knee over his leg and get his hand in there, spark off everything he’d been battening down.
Because he could keep himself together. He was almost sure. Dean wanted this. Gabriel was just doing him a favour.
He squeezed his eyes shut, and turned his head away, and gasped great ragged breaths that lost themselves in Dean’s shoulder, and refused the little touch from Dean’s free hand that urged him to raise his eyes and look Dean in the face. Maybe even meet his mouth.
So maybe this wasn’t exactly casual sex.
After a bit, Dean sighed.
“Let me, yeah?”
Gabriel groaned relieved assent without knowing what the question was, and Dean’s hot mouth abandoned his cheek and jaw and throat to tease its way down his chest.
And that - when Dean reached his destination and made things simple - that was a hell of a lot easier. And Gabriel could arch up into him, and swear, and shake apart, and let things go. Let Dean take care of him, let himself enjoy it for his own sake and not for anyone else. And if his cheeks were wet by the time Dean was done, there was nobody to see it. Not this time.
Things had been simpler when he’d been... well, a blob.
Simple him had been a fucking pushover, actually.
It was quite a few minutes later, both of them lying on their backs, side by side, hands clasped on respective chests, that Gabriel’s lazy contented mind slid back to another memory. Something from right after he’d woken up after the cairn, before Dean and Castiel had known he was listening.
“So,” he drawled, and flicked his tongue out to slide the salt from his lips. “How’s the hot nameless meat taste?”
He felt rather than saw Dean turn his head, to stare at him across the gap.
“Wow,” Dean marvelled. “You really went there.”
Gabriel lost himself in snickering (relief, release, realisation). After half a minute, Dean joined him.
They were his and he was theirs.
Cheeky sons of bitches.
Gabriel thought he might be able to learn to live with it, eventually.
It wasn’t long after that that the brown hawk appeared.
There was nothing really remarkable about it, not in itself. Purgatory had provided animals and insects in its scenery before, things with no independent thought or existence that vanished when the landscape changed. Like them, this hawk wasn’t a real creature. Not independent. In fact, it almost felt like it wasn’t there at all. And all it did was float overhead, a little way in front, silent and beckoning.
There were only two things that really made it remarkable. One was that it was always there, no matter how Purgatory shifted. The other was that Dean couldn’t keep his eyes off it.
“I don’t know, man,” was all he could say, when they asked. “It doesn’t feel like a fairy tale thing. It just feels like - like it’s mine, y’know?”
They followed the hawk. And the further they walked the more real it became, the more it registered in Gabriel’s senses as possessing real weight and mass. Dean couldn’t say what it felt like, to him, only that he knew he had to reach it. Gabriel tried flying up there, once, but though it didn’t even seem to notice him he couldn’t get any closer to it than he’d been on the ground. It was always out of reach.
“Looks like it’s just for you,” he decided.
Castiel, peering quizzically up into the sky, commented “It feels like Sam,” as if there was nothing momentous about that.
“Sam’s not,” Dean began, sharp and loud, but Castiel’s quiet voice overrode him.
“Not in Purgatory. No. But you are reaching out to him with all your mind and soul. Why should he not be doing the same in return?”
Well, if anyone had the balls and the sheer bull-headedness to work out how to pull off something like that, it’d be Sam Winchester. Gabriel had reason to know it.
Dean walked for fifty-seven hours straight, barely watching where he put his feet, eyes on the bird. When a pair of centaurs attacked them Dean shoved past, efficient slash and thrust of his blade just to get them out of his way as quickly as possible so that he could get on and find his brother.
“I gotta climb something,” he decided at one point. But there was nothing to climb, to get closer to the hawk; and when Dean consented to let Castiel fly him up there, still they couldn’t quite approach it; and the hawk still seemed to be drifting ahead, getting warmer and stronger as it went. Getting closer to something.
And so, eventually, they crested a rise and saw a vast plain stretching out before them, desolate and scarred like the surface of the moon. This, somehow, was more real and more embedded than any other landscape Purgatory had given them yet. Gabriel could feel the weight and presence of it under his feet. Not quite the real world, but not so ephemeral as the rest of Purgatory.
And in the very centre of the plain, a tower, like a dark charcoal smudge against the pale land. It raked the mists of the sky, tall and narrow, and it crouched on the land like a beast, with its feet buried in a black cloud-hazy tangle that heaped up around its base.
The hawk cried out when they saw it, one piercing whistle of triumph. Gabriel privately agreed. If there could be a way out, it would be there, where the fabric between realities was weakest. He could already feel the tug of it, like the marble on a stretched rubber sheet, drawing them forward.
So he insisted they take a break.
It took some arguing before they gave in, because Dean was all for charging ahead half-cocked and exhausted. And it was true that technically none of their bodies needed sleep; but there was more to rest than the body, and all three of them were frayed at the edges.
Castiel sat against a rock, hands folded neatly in his lap, and Gabriel sprawled all over the rock yawning hugely, and Dean laid himself out on the ground with his legs crossed at the ankle and hands tucked behind his head and watched the hawk floating overhead, against the mottled magenta sky.
Gabriel nudged himself up carefully against the cool intricacies of Castiel’s mind, and watched the unguarded play of thoughts across Dean’s face.
Calm before the storm?
Whatever it was, it felt... easy. Almost peaceful.
It was Dean who broke the silence, just as Castiel was dozing off.
“If we get back to Sam,” he murmured, scratchy with sleepiness, and turned his head to catch Gabriel’s eye. “If we get out. You gonna stick around?”
“Me?” Gabriel gaped at him then laughed, a quick huff of a thing. “Kid, I’m the last person you want around.”
Dean shrugged, just the edge of a smirk hovering at the corners of his eyes. “Well, you don’t get to ride shotgun, but there’s room in the back seat.”
Gabriel was actually struck wordless for a minute, flailing for thoughts in the face of Dean’s lazy stare. Against his mind and hip, Castiel stirred, and Gabriel found himself pinned with a quizzical blue gaze as well, like Castiel didn’t see what the fuss was about. Only there was that sneaky hint of amusement in the set of his mouth, just waiting on Gabriel’s answer, and -
Like they both thought he was a bit slow, but worth indulging. Like there was fondness there.
And also, like they’d just decided it was okay to forget that whole thing where he and Dean were meant to be antagonists, that Gabriel was a coward, that he didn’t do family and sleepy evenings together and fighting side by side and meaningful sex and “sticking around”.
He sat up, glared, and jabbed a finger at Dean.
“You got me killed,” he pointed out, clear and calm. “No. No, you didn’t. I got me killed. I walked in there and tried to kill my brother and got a sword in the gut because you reminded me what was worth living for. Dick,” he added, because it was true, and also because Dean was snickering at him.
“So get out and live,” Dean shot back, all smugness and warmth, and Gabriel narrowed his eyes at him and was sorely tempted to bite that stupid grin off his luscious know-it-all mouth.
“I’m going to sleep now,” Castiel declared pointedly, and shut his eyes again.
“You’re no help at all,” Gabriel grumbled at him.
Dean snorted, tipped an obnoxious wink in Gabriel’s direction, and settled back down.
Gabriel surprised himself by getting a proper rest.
“I knew this story was Sleeping fucking Beauty,” Dean muttered.
It wasn’t a cloud, the dark mass around the base of the tower. It was a forest. Specifically, a forest of thorns.
Briars, or thorn trees, or possibly just these great writhing vines frozen in the weirdest contortions. Some narrow as a finger, others wide around as Dean was, twisted into arches and bridges and buttresses and great clawed hands and minarets over their heads and tangled into grotesque and obscene thickets all around. And the thorns: great fang-like things long as Gabriel’s hand, and vicious little hooks that snagged and broke off in the denim of your jeans then worried against your skin like broken glass. And all frozen: not a movement anywhere, but every now and then a faint, distant rustle or rattle, like the wind among the thorns, or something small scurrying around under the eaves.
And the worrying thing was, once you started paying attention, there was no finding where one plant ended and the next began. Nothing seemed to be rooted in the ground, and the branches twisted and divided and went on for far too long. The whole forest could have been one great tangled entity, breathing slow and rasping in its sleep.
Castiel was twitchy.
Which made sense - it felt like they were walking through a thing, not a place, and it felt very powerful and nothing like anything else Gabriel had come across in Purgatory before. But the tower was very different, they knew that, so maybe that was all he was picking up on. It was something else, and it meant something else, and every now and then they caught glimpses of tawny brown far above: the hawk, balancing on the air, drifting around and around the tower, waiting.
And nothing had attacked them. So far.
Something snagged on his sleeve.
It was a thin branch, forked like a snake’s tongue and black and dull as tar. The thorns on it were hooked like a rose’s, black at the base and bone-white at the tips; and when Gabriel shook his arm impatiently they took a few beats too long to lose their grip.
Ahead of him, Dean shot a sneaky look sideways at Castiel’s face. Then he reached out to tuck a couple of fingers into a belt loop of that hilarious overcoat.
The tense line of Castiel’s shoulders eased a bit into alert-not-alarmed, and it was only a few steps before they were walking so close together they were practically knocking shoulders. Which was really impractical when you had to clamber under low-swooping branches and over others that wound along the ground like oversized snakes. But hey, who needs practicality when you have the epic non-sexual romance of the ages going on.
When Gabriel looked back over his shoulder, the path had closed up behind them. It had only ever been a few gaps in weird angles between branches, but now there were dark fingers of wood that curved in to almost cover the spaces, as if they had always been there.
Still no movement.
Possibly because he was watching.
He turned his eyes smartly back to front, because if that was how it was going to be, if they were going to be playing Weeping Angels, keeping eyes on his guys was definitely the way to go.
“Might wanna pick up the pace,” he called out, low, and hopped over a couple of branches to catch up. One of them clipped his toe as he cleared it, even though he knew he’d left more than enough room to get by.
“What, my ass not fine enough from this angle?” Dean asked, and slapped it helpfully, for a better visual.
“Your ass is as rosy as the sun and as delectable as a fresh Parisian croissant,” Gabriel informed him generously, tucking one hand into the back pocket of Dean’s jeans and laying the other in the curve of Castiel’s spine, “but unless it likes getting horse-whipped with thorns we don’t want to be in here much longer, petal.”
“Why is it,” Castiel wondered aloud, “that the two of you insist on communicating necessary information in the most vulgar way possible.”
Dean knocked his shoulder against Castiel’s. “Bitch, you love it.”
Then he tripped.
Castiel’s hand was tight around his upper arm in a moment, and Gabriel’s ass-groping was at least good enough to keep him from going sprawling, so he didn’t actually break his ankle. Which he would have if he’d gone down, because -
“Okay, I know that wasn’t there a moment ago.”
- a broad tendril was curled almost all the way around his foot, so that there was no way it could have tugged loose on the way down. And there was a definite quiver to it, as if it was almost moving, gearing up for another go.
Dean kicked free, just as Castiel went icy-stiff with recognition.
“Leviathan,” he growled, and - fuck. Might have known they’d come across that mess sooner or later. And of course it was scattered around the entrance, right where it had landed: on its own timescale, its defeat had only just landed it back here. It was still weak, still sluggish and quivering - still dangerous.
No wonder it felt like Purgatory but not. It was older. Leviathan was what Purgatory had been created for.
And what Gabriel had been meant to fight, once upon a time.
“Where?” Dean snapped, and looked around him like he was expecting something to come at him through the trees with that determined clench to his jaw that said he’d take it on or die trying to get back to his Sammy, and, no.
Screw conserving his own memories. This was make or break.
Even as a formless blob he’d made this decision once already. He hadn’t known what was at stake, what he was risking, and he hadn’t needed to: he’d known it was momentous and hadn’t cared. Now he knew, and he was making it again. The beast he’d been had got some things right.
These were his people, and he would protect them.
He unleashed his strength and spread his wings, bright as fire in the gloom.
“Move,” he commanded.
Dean took one look at him, gave him a nod, and ran. Castiel narrowed his eyes for a moment like he was going to argue, but time was slipping away from them, and with the sickening weight of guilt disposed of his self-sacrificing instinct apparently wasn’t enough to overcome his common sense.
They moved together, like they’d learned to, near enough to grab a wrist or a belt if they needed to, just far enough not to trip, trusting each other’s senses to gauge a leap over a log or to know when to duck. Moving together in that smooth, easy way that Gabriel had noticed in Dean against the vampires, had had been bewildered by, not so long ago.
But here it came, drumming in on all his senses: the slow heavy stir of Leviathan around them, dragging itself into awareness and malice. So much older and vaster than he was - Smaug stirring under an avalanche of gold - and maybe he could take it on, like one long-ordained human with his special arrow finding the sole weak spot, but he wasn’t in a hurry to see Erebor burn in the process, and making it out the little side door was their best bet right now.
And behind Leviathan, under it, over it, around it, between it, creeping in finger by prising (prizing, pricing, compromising) finger - Purgatory. Licking its lips as it peered in at him, and sliding between the cracks.
Castiel ducked under a branch and pivoted neatly on one foot, leaping sideways through the next gap, and Gabriel had to grab Dean’s wrist to curb his momentum towards the wall of brambles that had sprung up ahead of them. The tower was close now, looming: he could feel it, if not see it, but the gaps were getting narrower and less navigable, and he would use his wings to buffet the way open if he had to but this was Leviathan, and these thorns would lacerate them.
A branch curled sluggishly forward to bar their way and Gabriel reached out to slash it in half. It hissed, and withered, and Gabriel ignored the bright ribbon of pain and colour across the back of his hand and wrist, because the way was clear, and Dean was sinking his fingers into the craggy black wall rising sheer in front of them.
“Climb,” Dean yelled at them, eyes fixed on the pale winged shape floating overhead.
Charcoal, the tower was: it crumbled under Dean’s fingers, and sent up puffs of dull black dust, and clung to his hands. But Dean was climbing anyway, digging in with hands and fingers and nails and feet, defying gravity and treacherous handholds to work his way up.
Gabriel turned. Now the Leviathans were awake: now the forest was stirring, spiked tendrils sliding forward to flick at his ankles and shins. He drew his sword.
“Gabriel,” Castiel snapped out, all disapproval, “if either of us is to keep them off it should be -”
Gabriel grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and flung him at the base of the tower.
So he was a dick. Sue him.
“You’re coming, Cas, you hear me?” he heard Dean yell. “You remember what I told you? No letting go.”
The forest surged forward.
Ents, Gabriel thought wildly, and hacked at an arm-thick branch before it could slide past him. Two more arched up, thicker and armed with wicked glass spines, and came crashing down towards him.
Isengard. Or Birnam Wood.
He spun, faster than they could ever be, ducked one and hit the other a crippling blow with one wing, knocking it back, snarling and laughing at the tear of flesh and feather and grace searing all the way from wrist to farthest pinions.
And hadn’t Macbeth been the only Shakespeare play that Tolkien had enjoyed? Gabriel seemed to remember having a conversation with the old boy about that, after topping up his glass with mead. With the Ents marching on Isengard as Birnam Wood marching (foretold but unforeseen) on Dunsinane, and Éowyn as... as... that guy whose sons would inherit... damn Purgatory, nibbling at the edges, rusting him away, he should know better than to bring forward any memory he wanted to keep right now.
Castiel and Dean were high overhead by now, but the briars were curling towards the tower like slow-motion waves against a rock, higher and higher with each crash before they slid back down, and Gabriel was losing himself under them.
(And hearing Tolkien recite Beowulf in Old English while drunk was high on the list of Gabriel’s hottest non-sexual experiences.)
He shoved forward a few memories of boring hours spent lying around in the grass waiting for something to happen instead, and felt them erode out of existence.
Dancing, parrying, darting forward and -
Where was the tower? It had been solid at his back, and now things were coiling around him, and rending him.
Tolkien’s friend, good old Clive Staples Lewis - and who named their kid that? - Narnia, and the end of all things. The Last Battle.
When you are using every muscle to the full - ducking under a spear-point here, leaping over it there, lunging forward, drawing back, wheeling round - you haven’t much time to feel either frightened or sad. Tirian knew he could do nothing for the others now; they were all doomed together. He vaguely saw the Boar go down on one side of him, and Jewel fighting furiously on the other. Out of the corner of one eye he saw, but only just saw, a big Calormene pulling Jill away somewhere by her hair. But he hardly thought about any of these things. His only thought now was to sell his life as dearly as he could. The worst of it was that he couldn’t keep to the position in which he had started, under the white rock. A man who is fighting a dozen enemies at once must take his chances wherever he can; must dart in wherever he sees an enemy’s breast or neck unguarded. In a very few strokes this may get you quite a distance from the spot where you began. Tirian soon found that he was getting further and further to the right, nearer to the stable. He had a vague idea in his mind that there was some good reason for keeping away from it. But he couldn’t now remember what the reason was.
Where was the tower? And how did that story end? And what was Gabriel protecting?
Something tight and barbed curled firm around his knee, and another around his arm. They were covering the light of the sky above him, and his legs and arms were slashed open, and his wings were worse.
And Castiel and Dean were safe by now, surely.
Only, self-sacrifice was a Winchester gig. Not Gabriel’s.
Tolkien, and Macbeth.
Well, he was no man of woman born (though he hadn’t been ripped untimely from his mother’s womb) and he could definitely get on the I am no man bandwagon (though he wasn’t a woman or a hobbit), so screw prophecies. Screw all this set-in-stone crap, that set aside the awesomeness that was human choice, and human individuality, and all that shit that nobody had ever predicted, and Gabriel was pretty sure that included his Father too.
Whether it was Dunsinane or Isengard he was defending, he could keep Leviathan from the tower, and not lose himself.
He drew on the depths of himself, greater than the angel parts because they were what he had learned, what he had made of himself, what he had chosen. Just like Castiel had: and it was the closest either of them would ever get to the wonder and power of a human soul. It was experience, and it was love, and it was the decision to take a fucking stand.
He blazed bright, and flung it in the face of Purgatory and Leviathan alike.
They shrieked, and he burned through them, saying fuck it to the restraints of the body, until they were shrivelling back around him and he was rising on damaged wings above them and lurching upwards towards the tower, and the cloud of dust that was Dean and Castiel.
“Don’t you dare,” he heard, fierce and loud, and, “you can lean on me, man. I’m not gonna let you go.”
He plunged into it. The dust was choking, blocking not only human sight but every sense, every perception.
And yet, when he found them, Dean’s hand was clamped firm and solid around Castiel’s wrist, and Castiel’s around Dean’s, like even through all that they still trusted each other, now, to be there. Not to vanish, or die, or turn the back.
“Gabriel,” Castiel spat out, and then there were hands on him too, fingers digging into skin and muscle and the long throbbing rents left by the teeth of the great devourers. And Dean was smirking, Gabriel could feel it against his cheek, and he was saying “told you he’d come and join us, told you he’d be here for this” and “okay, it’s right out here, I can feel him, you gotta trust me.”
And then Dean jumped. Leapt straight outwards from the tower, arched out into the air like fucking Buzz Lightyear thinking he could reach that window. Reaching towards that hawk, that fragile symbol of a connection across the worlds back to his brother.
Castiel leapt after him, without hesitation. And Gabriel followed.
Like falling through a tree: loose and uncontrollable, whipping through dimensions that you couldn’t control, with leaves and branches slashing at you too fast and fragile to grab for purchase, darkness yawning around you waiting to swallow, and knowing that at the end of it you’d come crashing down to...
... the incredibly vivid sensation of a thin mattress under his back, and the smell of cheap laundering and suspiciously stained sheets and summer by a highway in Arkansas, and a voice that Gabriel knew saying “Dean,” urgent, and then, “Dean, oh my God, Cas,” and “how did that even work, I had to substitute bear’s piss” and, half-hysterical, “the hell, dude, you found Gabriel down there too? you do not all fit on my bed”, and Dean’s exhausted, exhilarated, playing-it-cool rumble of “Please tell me you have pie.”
Gabriel groped for the rumpled cotton of Castiel’s scrubs and hauled, until he had a stunned little brother draped across him, grumbling faintly.
It felt good. He thought he might stay like this for a while.
E quindi uscimmo a rimirar le stelle.
And so we emerged, to behold the stars once more.
(Final line of Dante’s Inferno.)