Authors' Note – Here we are again with another multi-chapter. We should really stop doing this, right?
Anywho, after learning that *SPOILER ALERT* much of the impending season 8 will be dealing with Dean's jaunt to Purgatory, WelshWitch and I got to thinking about just who our favourite Winchester may encounter there...
The trees themselves seemed to be alive with movement, and carried upon the air of the eerie darkened sky were the snarls of scores of unknown supernatural beings.
Dean Winchester spun a slow circle on the spot, his heart hammering against his ribcage, and his brain descending into the chaos that was the full throes of his own fight or flight mechanism. He swallowed down the bile that rose in the back of his throat, and resisted the urge to hurl obscenities at the damn feathered son-of-a-bitch that had abandoned him seconds ago. Dean needed to focus, but without the presence of any obvious weapons, and with hundreds of glowing red eyes affixed upon him from the shadows, he was finding this task near impossible.
"Cas..." he hissed, deploring how very afraid he sounded even to his own ears. He tried again, this time hoping for a sharper edge to his voice as he whispered, "Castiel... this isn't funny..."
Taking a cautious step backwards, Dean scanned the leafless trees for a potential escape route. The twisted and blackened trucks stretched upwards towards the sky, which was devoid of any kind of celestial body, leaving Dean only able to guess as to whether it was currently night or day in this place.
A low, guttural growling reverberated from the trees and undergrowth around him, and Dean swallowed as he recognised the snorts and whimpers that met his ears. Hellhounds.
"Always with the freakin' hellhounds," he muttered, hoping his bravado would mask the fear rapidly overcoming him. These were the creatures that had once come to claim him, just as they had taken the life of someone he had loved.
Holding up his hand, Dean scanned the trees, and a vicious series of snarls caused his stomach to lunge.
"Good doggie..." he muttered, wincing as another of the hellhounds suddenly leapt into the clearing, teeth bared and hackles raised. The creature, in all it's hideous glory, was visible to the naked eye in the forests of Purgatory, and Dean recoiled a little as the distended snout snapped at his shin.
The gun that had been jammed down the back waist band of his jeans was mercifully still present, and he reached for it blindly, ducking the assault of the beast as it flew at him.
Soon several other hounds had joined their alpha, and Dean wasted little time in firing shot after shot into the midst of the pack. A smattering of bullets met their targets, tearing through black unearthly flesh, and the creatures howled as they dropped onto the ground, oil-like liquid pooling beneath them.
Dean cried out as talons suddenly tore into his back, deep enough to extract a slow ooze of blood. He stumbled over a wounded and twitching hellhound, and let out a strangled cry of his own as his injured back connected with the ground.
"Son of a bitch!" he wheezed, jumping to his feet as the beasts stalked toward him, their teeth glinting.
The sound of bracken cracking alerted him to the presence of something or someone else within the clearing and, as he squinted through the darkness, billowing orange tendrils of flame caused him to retreat to the centre of the clearing in surprise.
A mere moment later and the large, burning tree branch landed only inches from his feet, scattering the hellhounds, which cowered and whimpered as they turned to face the intruder.
Several hooded figures stepped into the field of Dean's vision, and he frowned as he watched them whipping the lengthy stakes they held about their bodies in an effort to fend off the hounds. The arms and hands that emerged from the sides of the cloaks appeared human, the skin pale white and soft, but Dean could not see the faces of the figures to either confirm or deny his suspicion.
A salivating hound dove at the closest figure and received a boot to the muzzle for it's trouble. The overgrown canine slid across the forest floor and it's anger was ignited further. It's eyes flashed deep crimson and it wasted no time in planting four meaty paws on the ground, before throwing it's entire weight once more at the cloaked figure. This time, the second hood intervened, and the hound found itself impaled on the stake in the blink of an eye. It let out a howl and the figure released the other end of the weapon, allowing the hellhound to stagger backwards, shaking itself in an effort to dispel the length of branch jutting out of it's torso. However, although apparently fatally wounded, the creature did not fall, and Dean watched aghast as it's wound began to heal around the stake. It was then that he noted the hounds he had emptied rounds into beginning to clamber to their feet, shaking off the gunshot wounds as though they were paper cuts.
"We need to move!" one of the figures hollered, something about the voice raised in panic pricking at Dean's memory. He had little time to dwell on it, as the closest figure to him extended an evidently human arm to him. Dean's hand closed around one that was infinitely smaller, and with skin that was both warm and smooth to the touch of his calloused fingers. He was hauled to his feet and he wasted no time in pressing his own back up against that of his rescuer as they skirted around two of the recovered hounds.
His mystery rescuer stooped low for a second, efficiently igniting a trail of strange white powder on the ground that hissed and crackled into life before jumping up into a barrier of flames at least three feet high.
"Go!" the figure yelled, shoving Dean roughly in the direction their companion had already begun to head off toward.
Their feet pounded the forest floor, and the three humans raced across a path of tree stumps and knotted roots, which the strangers mapped with ease whilst Dean precariously leaped over each one in turn.
A small cliff face jutted out at the edge of the forest, and Dean panted laboriously, clenching his teeth at the pain that scorched his back and shoulder.
From the darkness, a small, wooden structure came into view, and Dean's eyes widened as he took in the sight of a cabin, the windows nothing but slits located at intervals across the length of the makeshift building. Blazing pyres were located around the perimeter, with various charms and spells carved into the surrounding rocks and ground.
"What the hell..." he began, shaking his head in disbelief as he followed the hooded stranger in front of him toward the steps of the cabin. Yet all at once, they drew to a halt and, as he sucked in a deep breath, Dean felt the point of a blade press menacingly into the centre of his back.
"What are you?" the figure before him demanded in a tone that made Dean's mind reel with terrible possibilities. And as his brain tried to make sense of the familiarity of the voice, the figure slowly pushed the hood back from their face.
Noticing the white marks on the ground beneath his feet, Dean realised he was standing square in the centre of a devil's trap.
"I said, what the hell are you?" they demanded again.
Dean's gaze rose to the face of his saviour, and he felt his legs practically buckle beneath him as he found his eyes meeting those of an old friend.
"Ellen?" he rasped, the air rushing from his lungs as the Harvelle matriarch cast her stony glare upon him.
"Cut the bullshit, now... what are you? A shifter? Ghoul?" she accused, suddenly reaching into her pocket and producing a flask before proceeding in splashing a small amount of liquid onto Dean's face.
"Ellen..." he repeated, speaking the name almost reverently. For just a moment, he was back in a hardware store in Missouri, surrounding by the stench of blood and a ring of propane canisters. He shuddered, shoving the invoked images aside, and struggling to think with clarity above the screams that echoed in his head.
"I'll only ask you once more," she growled, flinging a fistful of salt grains into Dean's face and frowning when they failed to yield an effect, "then my friend here will shish-kebab you."
"It's me..." Dean stammered, holding his hands up in a well-practiced gesture of surrender, "oh God it's good to see you."
"Boy, don't think I'm playing here," she stated dangerously, her lip curling and her eyes steely with ruthless determination. She looked exactly as Dean remembered; beautiful and deadly, and carrying herself with an air of assuredness that was enviable.
"It's really me," Dean protested, his voice adopting a whiney quality as he added, "throw any test you got at me. Iron, silver... hell, exorcise me for all I care."
"Oh, it'll come," she promised, watching as Dean pointedly stepped over the boundary of the sigil drawn upon the floor and moved towards her.
Ignoring the startled and murderous expression on Ellen's face, Dean smiled as he felt the knife dig ever so slightly deeper into his flesh.
'Please be her', he mentally chanted, allowing a bubble of hope to surface within him.
Licking his lips, Dean found his hands trembling in anticipation, and he dreaded the possibility that this was all imagined. But her name slipped from his lips before he had a chance to reign in his emotions properly.
It was a name he had never allowed himself to speak aloud after Carthage, and following their brief and heartbreaking reunion at the hands of Osiris, it was a name that physically pained him to hear.
Ellen frowned, watching the face of the young man intently as tears surfaced in his green eyes and he tried to steal a glance behind him. The hope that radiated from him caused Ellen to falter, because human emotions mimicked by a demon or shape-shifter never did sit quite right.
Dean heard a heavy hearted sigh from behind him, and suddenly Ellen spoke to her accomplice.
"It's alright," she assured, keeping her own clearly homemade knife clutched in her hand as the figure stepped out from behind Dean and moved to stand beside Ellen.
Dean watched transfixed as the hood dropped from around her face, revealing a cascade of honey blonde curls that instantly made his heart ache.
The young woman's gaze lifted to meet green eyes, and Dean stared dumbly.
"My God..." he shook his head, greedily drinking in the sight of her and trying hard not to smile like an idiot as his heart shuddered in his chest.
"God?" Ellen scoffed, "not been around these parts for a long time."
A dark eyebrow raised as she watched the pair stare silently at each other.
"If you're really him..." Jo finally spoke, her tone level and giving little about her inner turmoil away.
"Jo, honey..." Ellen interjected, her features a mask of maternal concern as she rested her free hand on Jo's shoulder. Brown eyes fluttered closed for just a second, and Jo stole a steadying breath.
"It's okay, Mom," she whispered, turning briefly to her mother to offer the assurance. A tiny smile passed between the women, before Jo spoke to Dean again, "If you're really him, then tell me..."
"Anything," Dean breathed aloud before he could stop himself. Jo shot him an unreadable look, but continued nonetheless.
"When Osiris brought me back, I came to you..." she paused in order to correct herself mindfully, "to Dean."
Dean closed his eyes, a hundred memories of that night assailing him with powerful force, almost knocking him off his feet. The pale pallor of her skin had been the thing he found most heartbreaking, as it had erased the rosy glow from the apples of her cheeks that she had possessed in life. He still recalled her touch before she had vanished for good; the feel of ice cold fingertips caressing his skin, and how he had leaned into it rather than shy away, knowing that it would be the last opportunity for him to feel as much.
"I said you were a kid," Dean breathed quietly, "I said, hunters are never kids. But I didn't want to do it alone."
Ellen's eyes widened as Jo stepped away from her side, and she watched in disbelief as her daughter stood in front of the man who may or may not in fact be Dean Winchester.
"Jo, are you crazy?" Ellen demanded, noting the dangerously close proximity of the pair.
"It's okay, Mom," Jo said slowly, drawing herself up before Dean who seemed mesmerized by the woman in front of him. "It's him... it's really Dean."
"Now Jo, we don't know..." Ellen began, gasping as Jo suddenly reached up toward his face and her hand fluttered against his cheek.
Dean closed his eyes, and the moment played out between them exactly as it had all those months before. Yet this time, Jo's touch was warm, her fingers soft and gentle against his skin. He pressed further into her touch, opening his eyes to gauge her reaction as he very carefully lifted his own hand to cover hers. Before Ellen could utter another word of protest, Dean had pulled her willing daughter into his arms.
"Now just a minute!" Ellen yelled incredulously.
But Dean and Jo ignored her, content to stand in a lingering embrace that neither seemed to want to be the first to pull away from.
Dean was in awe at the feel of her in his arms, and the reassuring warmth of her skin next to his. She smelled just as he remembered, and as her small fingers wound into the fabric of his jacket and she hugged him closer to her body, Dean pressed a kiss to her forehead.
"I missed you," he stated, realising how lame his admission would sound. Yet words failed him, and he could do nothing but hold onto the woman in his arms as if he would sink without her.
"I missed you too," he tossed out with a grin, glancing down at Ellen, yet still keeping his arms locked firmly around the younger Harvelle.
"Yeah, well you keep your damn hands to yourself!" Ellen warned, tipping her knife in the air to illustrate her seriousness.
Dean smirked, returning his eyes to Jo's face, and he shook his head in wonder as he took in the blush on her cheeks and the brilliance that radiated from her eyes.
"What the hell are you doing here, Jo?" he demanded, suddenly wincing as the force of their embrace caused his back to throb in protest.
"You're hurt?" she pressed, forgetting his question as she withdrew her arms from around him and stared down in alarm at the crimson stain on her hand.
"It's not serious," Dean assured her, the groan he released as she tentatively traced the jagged scratch marks doing little to convince her of as much. Jo frowned and slipped beneath Dean's shoulder, beginning to lead him towards the closed doorway of the cabin.
"Jo, you can't just..." Ellen attempted to protest, her eyes wide as she watched her daughter mount the steps with Dean in tow, and rap purposefully on the door.
"You guys aren't the only ones?" Dean inquired, his features clouding as he contemplated just what other surprises would lay behind the door. For one terrible moment, his mind wandered to his parents, neither of whom he and Sam had been able to track down during their brief visit to heaven a few years ago. The thought had often gnawed at Dean, but it was one to be filed away for another time, when he could perhaps do something about it.
"It's us," Jo called out, shifting her weight from one foot to the other as she struggled under Dean's weight. He forced himself to straighten up a little, letting out another hiss of pain as the action tugged at his wounds and forced the skin further apart. A wave of nausea overcame him, but Dean shook his head in order to dispel it.
"Password," a gruff voice barked in reply, and although Dean strained to hear the word that Jo uttered as she leaned closer towards the door, he simply could not discern it. After a pause, there was a satisfied grunt from within the cabin, and the sound of some sort of makeshift lock sliding out of place.
"Keep your mouth shut and speak when spoken to," Ellen warned quietly but urgently as she passed by Dean and stepped into the cabin ahead of them, "folks round these parts are a little jumpier than you're used to."
Dean nodded, gritting his teeth as the step up to the cabin door sent a sharp, burning pain tearing at his back.
"He's okay, we know him," he heard Jo state, but before he could make out the three figures standing around the dimly lit cabin, Jo had ushered him behind a curtain and he found the back of his legs hitting what felt like a wooden bed frame.
"There are more of you here?" he asked, watching as she simply shrugged and began pouring water from an earthenware jug into a bowl.
Candle light flickered against the wall and, gazing upon her face as relief and hope and a thousand other emotions washed over him, Dean wondered if he had ever seen anything as beautiful as the sight before him.
"A few," Jo nodded, busying herself with tearing up what looked like a cotton sheet and dipping it into the water, "okay, take off your shirt."
Dean watched her closely, still in awe of being around her again, yet each time he caught her gaze, Jo glanced away or pretended not to have noticed the tension that existed between them.
Dutifully shrugging off his jacket, Dean closed his eyes and attempted to remove his shirt. However, each time he strived to push it from his shoulder, he felt another trickle of blood ebb from the wound.
"Here, let me..." Jo offered, gently pulling the offending item from his shoulders and dragging the sleeves down his arms.
She dropped the shirt onto the bed beside him, and raised a mildly amused eyebrow as he struggled to shed his undershirt. She was certain that there had been few occasions in his lifetime when Dean Winchester had taken so long to shed his clothing on the command of a woman.
"Haven't got all night here, Dean-o," she stated, before somewhat awkwardly reaching for the hem of his t-shirt and helping him pull it up over his head.
"Turn around," she directed, her voice now little more than a whisper as he simply stared up at her, his green eyes wide and filled with unchecked affection. Her breath caught in her throat, and Jo felt an overpowering heat suddenly rising upon her cheeks.
"Jo..." Dean breathed, catching her hand in his. Their palms kissed, and Dean rubbed his thumb over the back of her hand. A thousand unspoken words and missed opportunities filled his head, yet he continued to struggle to voice the one confession his heart was all but begging him to make.
Jo appeared similarly transfixed, her eyes wide and her lips parted absently.
"Jo?" Ellen called out from behind the makeshift screen, her tone indicating her unease , "we're right outside if you need us, sweetie."
"I'm fine, Mom," Jo assured, turning her gaze only briefly from Dean's to direct her reply in Ellen's direction.
Jo smiled, rolling her eyes as her mother's dulcet tones served to ruin the moment that had been building between them. But as she attempted to slip her hand from Dean's, he climbed to his feet, his hand still clutching hers, and his breath ghosting warm and steady across her cheek.
"Please be real," he whispered, and his expression suddenly clouded over with utter despair as he considered the possibility that this might all be a dream.
Slowly, hesitantly, but with an obvious eagerness, Dean leaned forwards and pressed his lips to Jo's mouth. She uttered a strangled gasp, barely reacting as Dean wound his fingers into her hair and gently forced her head backwards so he could deepen the kiss. After several seconds, Jo responded, her lips moving in perfect, hungry synchronicity with his.
They drew apart panting quietly, and whilst Jo immediately peered down at the dirt floor, Dean kept his gaze trained keenly upon her.
"I'm sorry," he said softly, a lump rising in his throat, "I didn't want the only time I kissed you to be..."
"It's okay," Jo interjected, cutting Dean off before he could finish. There was a strange and vacant look about her now, and she busied herself with preparing a strip of cloth with which to clean his wounds. She added in a quiet voice, "You should turn around. You don't want those to get infected."
"Hardly matters since I'm here," Dean answered, although he obediently turned his back to Jo, allowing her access to the wounds that still burned as though to remind him of their presence.
Dean listened as Jo dipped the cloth in the bowl and he heard her wring out the excess water. He jumped as she made contact with the wound, and she placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder and made soft soothing sounds whilst she tended to the claw marks.
"I'm sorry," she apologised, focusing on being as gentle as she possibly could be. Yet when Dean suddenly found her free hand and attempted to entangle their fingers, Jo's resulting jolt of surprise extracted another pained wince from her patient.
Jo licked her lips, still feeling the residual hum of Dean's mouth on hers.
"Can I ask you something?" she began uncertainly, watching as she dipped the cloth into the bowl again, and a cloud of red billowed across the water.
He nodded, and Jo ploughed on without needing further encouragement.
"Why did... why did you kiss me? In Carthage. I mean... why?" her chin dropped down almost to her chest, and she did all she could to avoid his gaze.
Dean remained silent, watching the flames on the cluster of candles flicker and hiss as a result of an unseen draft. He sighed in contemplation, allowing his courage to build before he spoke.
"Because that was it... that was the end for us. And... I... I needed you to know that I..." he paused, cursing his lack of eloquence.
"We don't have to talk about it now," she said dismissively and with a forced smile as she tore the remaining piece of sheet into two larger strips. Dean shook his head, watching her roll them into bandages.
"That was our problem, Jo... always the wrong place, wrong time," he lamented, sitting up straighter as she leant in closer and began to wrap the bandage snugly around his chest and back. Her face was dangerously close to his and he could not help but stare, watching a fan of dark blonde lashes flutter against her cheek.
"You're not gonna disappear on me again, are you?" he checked desperately, trying to lighten his tone with the addition of an ill-timed smile. Jo deflected the question with a smile of her own and shook her head as she continued to bandage his wounds.
"Nope, it's me... hellhound scars and all," she answered with an uncharacteristic self-conscious air. Deciding to deflect her self-effacing comment, she explained, "Best we can figure... the dogs shielded us from the blast and we were dragged down here with them. We're as real as you are, I guess."
Dean frowned, appearing to process this new information. "So, I've not checked out? I'm alive?"
Jo laughed softly, tying a small knot in the makeshift bandage before raising an eyebrow in amusement.
"Yeah, you're alive," she confirmed, allowing herself to sweep her eyes over his face for reassurance, "guess you've had the whole package tour, huh? Heaven, Hell... now this place."
Dean grinned, shrugging as he watched her swallow hard, and he let his eyes wander down her throat and across the pale skin exposed by the neck of her shirt. Her clothes were the same she had worn the day she had died, although some effort had obviously been made to scrub them clean, and did his utmost to keep his gaze from wandering to where he knew he would find a gaping hole.
"This place isn't looking so bad right now," he confessed, momentarily forgetting the pain in his back at the sound of her laughter.
"It gets worse," she replied, the smallest smile alive on her face, although the look in her eyes was telling. Dean knew from what he had heard of Purgatory already that an extended stay there would be no picnic. Jo, Ellen and the rest of the human souls trapped with them could only have spent every waking moment living in fear of the creatures that had now turned the tables on them, making the hunters their prey.
"I'm sorry," Dean breathed quietly, carefully manoeuvring his arms back inside his shirt, deciding that he could make do without the t-shirt for convenience sake. "If we'd have known you were here, I wouldn't have rested until we fixed it."
"It's not your fault, Dean," Jo answered, shaking her head and beginning to clear away her makeshift medical supplies. "I don't blame you."
"You should," Dean argued, his irritation peaking at Jo's stubborn refusal to lay blame for her predicament at his door. "If it wasn't for me, you guys wouldn't..."
"Enough Dean," Jo said patiently, although her mouth was twisted by displeasure into a frown, "if you feel like holding another pity party, the forest's that way... but don't expect me to join you."
A voice from the doorway interjected suddenly, and Dean whipped his head around to face Ellen Harvelle as she spoke, her tone reflecting nothing but hostility.
"He's right, Jo," she stated, her glare challenging either of the younger hunters to argue, "I watched you nearly bleed out in that hardware store and it was all for the never-ending, self-obsessed Winchester mission. Well... I've had just about my fill of losing the places and people I love because of them."
Jo picked up the bowl and bustled past her mother, choosing to ignore the words of open provocation.
"I'm gonna get some air," Jo stated, placing the bowl onto the table in the outer room before she shrugged on her cloak. Ellen opened her mouth to speak but Jo held up her hand in warning, shifting from one foot to the other in discomfort as she felt the eyes of the three others in the room focused upon the mother/daughter pair.
"It's my turn to keep watch," Jo snapped, picking up a sharp ended spear and hefting it in her arms. On closer inspection, Dean realised that the weapons had been fashioned from old tree branches, and he found himself impressed with the ingenuity.
Dean exhaled and avoided Ellen's gaze as he attempted to follow Jo out onto the porch. But a hand landed squarely in the centre of his chest, blocking his escape and moving him forcibly back behind the curtain.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Ellen snarled, her eyes narrowed as she glared accusingly at Dean.
He remained momentarily silent, his eyes falling to the scuffed toes of his boots and lingering there. Those final few moments between he and Jo had plagued him for the past three years, and out of all the regrets he harboured she was undoubtedly his greatest.
Dean had mourned her loss and so much more; because it had not been until their forced parting that he had realised the true extent of his feelings.
Dean understood Ellen's anger all too well, because although his heart had soared at the sight of Jo before him, along with it had come the realisation that he had ultimately been the one to doom them to the terrible existence they were living out.
"I know 'I'm sorry' is never gonna cut it," he said hoarsely, "but you gotta believe me, Ellen, I..."
"I ain't gotta believe jack shit, boy!" Ellen fumed, "your father got Bill killed, and because of you and your damn brother, we're stuck here with every pissed off supernatural creature we've ever hunted, except now, they're after us. The Winchesters are poison, and I don't want my daughter caught up in that again."
"Ellen..." Dean began, taking a step towards the woman and extending his hand to clasp her arm. She recoiled from his touch violently, a sneer affixed to her lips.
"Over three years we've been here, Dean," she hissed, tears springing to her eyes, "Jo was barely alive when we were dumped in that forest."
"I can't imagine," Dean said quietly, meeting Ellen's furious gaze. She shook her head wildly, a manic laugh bubbling up past her lips.
"No, you can't," she retorted, her grip tightening on the stake she held in her hand. "I thought my baby girl was dead, and it was because of you."
For a few moments, Dean debated maintaining silence, but when he finally resolved to speak and opened his mouth to do so, Ellen cut him off with a snarl.
"I swear to you, Dean," she growled, her expression echoing the sentiment behind her final words, "if you don't stay away from my daughter, so help me God, I will kill you myself."