Climbing down the side of a castle tower with only knotted sheets to serve as a rope is probably a Bad Idea, but there's no other way for Dean to get past the small army of servants that seem determined to shadow every single breath he takes. So out the window it is, thigh-high riding boots tucked awkwardly through his belt because the leather soles are murderously slick. He probably looks like a complete idiot, in his--doublet and hose? that can't be right--but it's not like Sam's around to mock him for it.
Which is of course the problem.
Miraculously, the sheets hold, though he has to drop the last nine or so feet on his own and nearly breaks an ankle when he lands. It takes at least five minutes of shoving and swearing to get the boots back on properly, but at last he's ready to go and the stables look conveniently deserted.
Another five minutes after that and he's wishing someone--anyone--would show up because he seriously hadn't thought this through. Horses are big. In theory, he's always known this, but it's a bit different when presented in person with an animal tall enough to easily slobber bits of hay into his hair. If it was feeling friendly, which this one isn't. Instead it's sort of huffing loudly and eyeballing him like he's a rabid dog or something. At least it has a halter-bridle thing on, so he grabs the reins and tries leading it over to a stack of crates so he can climb on.
The horse takes this as its cue to start backing away from him.
"Oh come on," Dean declaims to the somewhat cobwebbed stable ceiling. "First you dump me in Disney Princessland, and now I can't even get a ride?"
The ceiling doesn't answer, but when he starts looking around for anything useful, there's an apple next to his elbow. "Uh, thanks," he says, trying not to feel spooked, and holds it out as an offering to the horse. "C'mon, this is the part where we bond and you become my animal sidekick."
In addition to being larger than anticipated, horses are also bumpy when they run. This uncomfortable fact has Dean contemplating jumping off, but he's pretty sure it would just end with him probably trampled, so instead he hangs on like grim death, trying to convince various bits of his anatomy that it's all just a figment of someone else's imagination. Which is true, but not much help, especially coupled with the way the horse is weaving its way through a forest's-worth of trees with trunks as wide as the Impala is long.
The good news is that they're going very fast, and if the sun is following its usual course, they're even headed in more or less the right direction. Well, assuming that Dean's correctly interpreting the rumours he'd overheard, but a giant with long hair who's locked in a tower does kind of sound like Sam, and it's not like he has anything else to go on.
He's gotten almost used to the whistle of passing branches almost taking his head off, so he doesn't realize something's going on until the second arrow flies right past his nose--and then there's a rope coming for him right at face-level, and all he can do is cling to the horse's neck and hope he doesn't get his own broken.
"Stand and deliver!" Someone shouts over on his right, and even as he turns to look he can see something coming at him from his left, but it's too late.
Getting hit feels like falling sideways, and then he actually is falling, for a breath-stopping moment, and then the earth hits him from the opposite direction. He can hear his head bounce, which seems like a bad sign, and then everything goes very dim and far away for a little while.
So apparently you can get concussions even inside cursed fairytale books, or at least a very convincing facsimile. The first thing Dean's aware of is the fact that the top of his head has been removed--given how much it hurts, surely his brains must be coming out. It takes him a little while after that to realize that the rest of him is in fact still there and he hasn't been turned into an enormous, disembodied sentient headache.
Huh. Apparently concussions make him sound like Sam when he thinks--probably because Sam's the one who gets them all the time. Kind of amazing that the guy can still walk and talk and tie his shoelaces and everything.
After that, things start happening again--he blinks his eyes open, immediately squinting because even though he's propped up against a shady tree, the world is far too bright. He tries to lift a hand to investigate just how large a hole has been knocked in his head, but there's rope tied around his wrists--and his ankles too, when he checks to make sure they're still there.
"Easy there, Chief," a familiar voice says, and he carefully turns his head to see Benny just a couple trees over, brushing down Dean's stolen horse. *Benny.*
And Dean knows his friend is still tucked away in Purgatory, knows it's just another figment of his memory, no more real than the spectre conjured up by that freaky box left behind by Cuthbert Sinclair, but it feels oh so very real.
Probably because never in even the wildest depths of Dean's imagination could he have dreamed up the image of Benny in tights.
"What happened?" he asks; the inside of his skull reverberates unpleasantly. He makes a second, successful attempt at evaluating the damage from when he'd been knocked out, and is relieved to find that his nerve-endings are lying and his brains are still safely inside, where they're supposed to be.
"Well now, Robert's been getting a bit inventive with his traps--rigged up a log on a rope, sort of like a battering ram. None of the rest of us thought it would work."
The rest of--? It takes a bit of squinting and more careful rotation of his head, but after a minute or two he's able to locate the band of merry men whooping it up a little ways further into the forest--just far enough that Dean's ears have been tuning them out. One of them seems to be working on some rope-log contraption, which looks pretty familiar. "Great, so I got Ewoked. Sam's never going to let me live *that* down."
"Sam?" Benny echoes, and he stops brushing the horse, cocks his head a little like he's listening for someone sneaking up on them. "He a buddy of yours?"
And Dean probably ought to attempt subterfuge, make these guys think that there's someone looking for him, but his head hurts too much, and it's Benny, so he opts for honesty. "My brother--someone locked him in a tower. I snuck off to go break him out." Somehow. He really ought to have grabbed at least a crowbar on his way out of the castle.
"Huh." Benny eyes him thoughtfully. "Well, Chief, guess that sort of explains why your pockets were completely empty, despite the crown."
"Crown?" Oh, right--that explains why it feels like someone knocked a hole in him--he'd had a ring of shiny metal attempting just that when he hit the ground. He prods his head again, just in case. Still intact.
Benny's looking increasingly amused. "They're all trying to figure out how to split it five ways--me, I just took the horse as my share." He pets said horse on the nose and then settles down next to his own tree. "Sounds like you have quite a story to tell--wouldn't mind hearing it. Not a lot of ways to pass the time around here."
"Guess I might as well," Dean sighs. No point in fronting, given that he already looks like a complete idiot--and anyway, it's Benny. Benny's good at not judging.
No matter what Sam claims to the contrary, Dean was not moping around the bunker. Cas and Crowley were on the trail of Lucifer, Dean had gotten to kill Hitler, they'd sort of made up with Mom, and it was always great to visit with Jody, despite the close call or two. So he definitely wasn't moping--just ... sort of at loose ends, especially after the third week in a row without so much as a sniff of a hunt. He'd taken apart and reassembled the bunker's washing machine when it started auditioning for the role of Chris Slade, but that only took him a couple of days, and there's only so many times you can wash and wax even a beauty like his Baby without giving her some air in between.
So when Sam finally came up with a report of multiple people claiming abduction and Disney Princess-flavored hallucinogens, of course Dean jumped on it, even though evidence of actual supernatural activity was pretty thin. Not even Sam reciting statistics about prior mundane abduction cases in the area made much of an impression. Dean wanted a witch to throwdown with, and he got one.
It wasn't much of a throwdown, though--she had enough mojo to get her jollies off by treating her neighbors like Barbie and Ken dolls, but since Sam and Dean had the forethought to stick a couple of hex bags in their pockets, she was reduced to running at them with a steak knife, and that was the end of that.
No, the problem came after, when they were picking through her belongings to make sure there weren't any unpleasant surprises for whoever finally found the body. There wasn't much, though: some decent spell ingredients, a very fancy but poorly-sharpened ceremonial knife, and a pile of fairy tale books from the local library. Sam, being an upstanding boy scout, said they ought to be returned, picked them up, and disappeared before Dean had the chance to so much as say 'boo'.
And Dean, because he's a dumb idiot when it comes to Sam getting messed with, grabbed after the books when they dropped--and found himself in a painful heap at the bottom of a flight of stone stairs, having apparently stepped on the hem of his princely royal cape, surrounded by overly-helpful servants who insisted his name was actually Reginald.
"That's quite a story, chief," Benny says at the end of it. They're both eating slightly-underripe apples, which Benny had produced from somewhere when Dean wasn't looking. Maybe this is a world in which the only food available is magically-appearing apples.
The horse keeps trying to steal Dean's. It's very good at looming.
"Yeah, I know," Dean signs, and gives into the inevitable--the horse's lips are surprisingly soft as it plucks the apple out of his hand. "And you don't believe a word of it."
"Well now, I didn't say that." Benny stands up, dusts himself off. He also looks a bit loomy from where Dean's sitting. "I've heard stranger stories that've turned out to be true." That sounds halfway promising--maybe Dean's going to get a sidekick on this gig after all. "This brother of yours--you think he's west of here?"
"West of where we were when I got clobbered by your buddy, yeah." Dean has to crane his neck a bit to see Benny's face properly--something's going on there, but he's a hard man to read sometimes. Well, vampire. Bandit? Whatever he is at the moment.
"Let me think on it," Benny says, and "Don't try anything stupid while I'm gone," and Dean's about to ask where he's going, but then one of the other bandits shows up--still picking dinner out of his teeth, so at least they're probably not vampires--and Benny heads off to take his place by the fire.
"Hey there, big guy," Dean says, but the replacement guard just sort of grunts at him before settling down a couple trees further, just out of easy talking range. "Great," Dean sighs, and drops his head back against the tree that's propping him up. The horse takes this as a cue to come over and stick its head in his lap, like it thinks he's hiding more apples. "Just great."
As annoying as it is to be so pointedly ignored, it's also convenient--Dean has plenty of experience in escaping various forms of bondage, but it usually takes a fair bit of wriggling. In this case, though, he has a secret weapon.
Well, probably. If he can get it out.
He'd been holding the stupid ceremonial knife when he'd touched the cursed books, and he'd still been holding it when he got zapped to wherever the heck he currently is, and because his stupid outfit didn't come with anything useful, like a sheath, Dean had stuck the knife in his boot once he'd survived climbing down the tower wall. Whichever bandit had searched him hadn't been very thorough, as the hilt of the knife makes a pretty obvious bulge partway up his calf.
In his regular boots, getting it out wouldn't be a problem. These knee-high monstrosities, though, seem to be a variation on the Chinese finger trap, and each inch takes a small and painful eternity; however dull it had been out in the real world, in this one the knife has a definite edge, and it's leaving a thin line of fire up Dean's leg as he coaxes it along by feel, eyes fixed on his guard. It's starting to get dark, and the man seems to be slowly listing away from Dean.
When the hilt finally slides loose, Dean allows himself a very quiet *hah* of triumph before he clamps the knife between his knees to start sawing at the rope around his wrists. The horse noses him in the shoulder briefly, but Dean's guard has slumped over entirely by this point and doesn't so much as twitch.
Dean manages to slice his wrists on the blade a couple of times, but the rope gives more easily than he'd expected, and after another minute his ankles are free as well. He's cautiously--and awkwardly, since it feels like all his joints have seized up--hauled himself to his feet, still watching the sleeping guard like a hawk, when Benny says from behind him, "Well now, looks like you don't need my help after all."
Since Sam's not here to contradict him, Dean's going to say he wasn't spooked at all and merely looked over at Benny with great nonchalance. No startled jump reflex that almost had him fall over, no stiffled yelp, no collapsing back against the tree for support. "Don't *do* that," Dean says, and then bites his lip when he realizes his wrists are bleeding all over the place right in front of Benny. They'd had a couple of bad moments in Purgatory because of that sort of thing.
But this version of Benny just shakes his head and pulls out a lumpy roll of bandages from the pack slung over his shoulder. "Or maybe you do need help."
"Not like I could get back up on the horse by myself," Dean admits, awkwardly wrapping his left wrist, wishing for a couple of butterfly clips when the end keeps refusing to stay tucked in. The right wrist is even worse until finally Benny takes the bandage back and does it for him--and then silently redoes the other as well, which is good because it had felt like it was going to fall off at the first excuse it got.
Behind Dean, his theoretical guard has started snoring, and Benny gives a disappointed sigh. "Let's just get out of here, chief, though we'll have to just lead the horse for now. Too much chance of noise if we mount him here."
After what feels like a small eternity but is probably more like fifteen minutes, they reach a clearing with a fallen tree on one edge, which they both use to get up onto the horse--who clearly isn't thrilled with this new development, from amount of sighing it does during the process, but eventually they're all settled and off again.
Benny has the reins, which is fine with Dean, but he feels a bit awkward sitting in back like the girls always do in westerns. "So, what's your story?" he asks after the silence stretches on awhile. "Already told you mine."
Benny shrugs. "Ain't much of one--my brothers and I lived on a farm, started poaching after a string of bad harvests. Eventually we decided it was easier to just keep do that. After a while we started nabbing anyone who rode by, as well--might as well take what we needed, since no one had ever offered us help when we were on the brink of starving."
"Why help me, then?" It's definitely easier riding with Benny than it had been by himself; less jolting from the horse, though his head is threatening to split open. He squeezes his eyes shut, hoping that'll help a little.
"Been thinking about leaving for a while," Benny admits. "Find some quiet little town, maybe use what I've saved to start a bakery."
"So I'm your excuse to finally skedaddle," Dean says, and finally gives in to the urge to rest his forehead against Benny's shoulder, even if it makes him feel even more like a girl. Maybe a bit of pressure will help, and it's not like any of this is real anyway. He just won't tell Sam and it'll be like it never happened, so none of this counts as anything.
"You could put it like that if you wanted," Benny says, mild.
All Dean really wants is for his head to stop hurting, but at least Benny's shoulder is nice and solid and doesn't come with a "what are you doing, you weirdo" reaction like that time when Dean got *really* drunk and thought Sam's shoulder looked like it might help his face stay where it was supposed to be. (Last time Dean plays cocktail chicken with anyone, even hot bartenders willing to comp him.)
They ride in relative silence for a while, the only noises coming from some crickets and the horse's occasional clip-clop over a patch of rock; Benny never was one for unnecessary small talk. It's the most peaceful Dean's felt in a while, aside from the lack of Sam. But the occasional squint at the lowering sun is enough for assurance that they're indeed headed roughly west, so hopefully they'll be able to remedy that soon enough.
Dean's dozing uncomfortably against Benny's back when they finally halt for the night, shadows deep enough to get lost in and the fireflies just starting to flicker around them. "As good a place as any," Benny says, and it's like old times again, aside from the horse and silly costumes--well, and no need to worry about a Leviathan showing up to chomp on them.
Benny has actual supplies for the night--apples, and bear meat ("Don't tell me we need to sleep in the trees," Dean moans; he did it in Purgatory from time to time, but it was almost worse than just staying awake. "That's what the horse is for," Benny says, and Dean's to tired to work out if that's a joke or not, so he just goes with it), and a pair of bedrolls. All Dean has to contribute is his ceremonial knife, but it's better for cutting up the meat than the slab of metal Benny's hauling around, so at least he can do something useful while Benny gets a fire going.
They don't talk much--Benny's not one to pry, and Dean knows this is all just make-believe anyway--but it's companionable, and Dean's headache is finally beginning to ease up a bit. All in all, not a bad way to spend the evening, even when Benny gives Dean the choice between looking after the horse and collecting firewood. Seems kind of pointless to brush the thing, since they're all covered in horse hair and sweat at this point, but Sam says the same thing about Dean's obsession with keeping the Impala washed and waxed, so what the hey. At least the horse has mellowed up since their introduction, and mostly just stands there patiently. Dean's toes get stepped on only twice, so he really can't complain.
And then Benny's back with the wood and the fire's carefully set up for the night, and Dean's finally allowed to curl up in his bedroll and go to sleep.
There's a rock digging into his ribs and a strand of grass keeps tickling the back of his neck but he's too tired to care.
"G'night, chief," Benny says, off in the distance somewhere, and then it's lights out.
"I'd get moving if I were you," someone says in Dean's ear.
"Nrg," he says in reply and tries to burrow further into his pillow, except there is no pillow because he's in the middle of a pretend forest with simulacrum of his dead best friend. Undead. Whatever.
"And why's that, Ma'am?" Benny sounds amused, so Dean opens his eyes just to see what's going on. And it really must be Disney Princessland, because what's going on is a talking fox sitting next to Benny's knee, tail tucked primly around her feet.
"Your brothers are tracking you, and they're not at all pleased with you stealing away their chance at a royal ransom."
"Hm," Benny says, and peels himself out of his bedroll. "I suppose they wouldn't be. Thank you kindly for the warning." He tosses her a bit of leftover meat from their dinner before he starts packing away his things, which the fox snaps out of the air faster than Dean can blink. "You awake, chief?" he asks, so Dean gets up as well, shaking out the bedroll before handing it over. The fire gets kicked out and scattered, the remaining firewood gets shoved underneath a nearby bramble bush, and then there's another awkward round of clambering onto the horse, though it goes a bit easier than the evening before--Dean's head still hurts a bit, but it's stopped feeling like it might come off if he moves the wrong way.
The fox hangs around through all of this, never quite underfoot, though she spooks the horse once, just as Benny's about to lead it over to a rock of convenient height. "Not to seem ungrateful," Dean says, now that his brain is mostly functional again, "but why are you helping us?"
"A girl's got to have her secrets," the fox says, not quite coy. "Your companion's brothers aren't the only ones who can hold a grudge, let's just leave it at that."
"Care to ride with us?" Benny asks, courteous, even though he has to lean halfway off the horse to see her properly eye-to-eye. "We're still headed west, if that suits your needs." The horse whuffles at this, shifting its weight dubiously, so perhaps it's just as well that the fox yawns and stretches and says, "No, though you're a sweet lad for offering. I have business to the south of here, though I'll linger long enough to confuse your trail for those behind you."
"Thanks," Dean says, more because she sounds familiar than because he's taking any of this very seriously. At this point he's ready to just find Sam, call it quits, and go home to his own comfy bed. Nice though it is to have a more helpful version of Benny than the last time, it's still not actually his friend, and the novelty of this whole little adventure is well worn off.
"Thank me the next time you see me," the fox says, tucking her tail around her feet again. When Dean glances over his shoulder as they ride away, she's still sitting in the center of the clearing, motionless as a statue.
It gets weirder from there, much to Dean's dismay. A pair of sparrows shows up to deliver cherries and a warning that Dean's--Reginald's? whatever--servants have sent forth a search party to find him, on the assumption that he's been kidnapped. When they stop at noon to let the horse rest, squirrels bring them chestnuts and news that the ferry ahead of them is out and they'll have to detour down the river several miles to the nearest bridge. They ford at the ferry anyway, on the theory that it'll help obscure their trail, and when they emerge a tiny toad has hitched a ride on Dean's dampened knee. It doesn't say anything, just peeps occasionally, and when Dean goes to flick it off, its skin is so soft that he winds up just petting it gently with one finger.
It hops away when they dismount for the night, escaping just before a couple of herons show up with fish for their dinner--and the advice to head north when they hit the swamp because there's a dragon sulking about in the southern bit.
"Do you know how much further to the tower with the giant trapped inside?" Dean asks. His boots are still soaked from fording the river, he hasn't eaten real food in what seems like forever, and the horse's spine had gradually turned razor-sharp over the course of the day. It's a good thing this is all just make-believe, or he'd be worried about permanent damage to certain important parts of his anatomy.
The herons confer, making noises at each other like a choking cat with its head stuck in a pipe, before the one on right croaks, "We don't know about a giant, but there's a tower with a princess to the south, where the dragon is."
"Great," Dean says, and waits until the herons leave before he turns to Benny. "I know you didn't sign on for dragons and it's probably not my brother, but I have to go check anyway. The witch that made the spell that zapped us here had a weird sense of humor–she'd probably think it was hilarious to turn Sam into a pretty princess."
"I'll think on it," is all Benny says, and they settle down into what's becoming their evening routine--Benny tending fire and food, Dean brushing down the horse and checking its feet and complaining quietly about how this whole thing is complete bullshit. But the fish-on-a-stick turns out pretty tasty, and he's able to find a mostly rock-free place to curl up in his bed roll, and the rabbit that decides to tuck itself into the crook of his neck is soft and warm and almost makes up for the lack of a memory foam mattress.
Breakfast is leftover fish and yet another apple of mysterious origins, which he shares with a pair of fieldmice who have curled themselves into his doublet collar. The rabbit's settled itself comfortably between his feet, a welcome warmth in the early morning chill.
"It's a mite unsettling, I must admit," Benny says, watching Dean feed the mice bits of apple peel. "Never met anyone who had such a way with animals before." Behind him, the horse blows a great cloud of frosted breath, nosing at his shoulder until he produces an apple for it as well.
"You're telling me," Dean says, licking the last of the apple-stickiness from his fingers. "It's nothing like this at home." Well, aside from that time he was able to talk to dogs, but just thinking about how to explain that is enough to restart his headache so he doesn't. "Maybe we'll get lucky and it'll work on the dragon, too."
...The dragon turns out to be an adolescent alligator.
"I feel gypped," Dean says, though the mice in his collar curl a little more tightly against his jaw and the rabbit has huddled its way up nearly into his armpit. He pets it reflexively, trying to soothe away its shivering.
As alligators go, it's not very impressive, but the horse is doing a sort of stompy thing with its front feet anyway, snorting like it's an angry bull. Which is probably sensible, given how stupid teenagers can be--gotta make it clear up front that nobody's going to be eating anybody else right now.
"You know anything about a tower with a princess in it?" Dean asks, not really expecting an answer, but he might as well try.
The alligator goes off on a long tangent about snakes and catfish and being hungry before it becomes clear it doesn't have the vaguest idea what a tower is.
"It's like a really big tree made out of stone with a person stuck inside." Dean can feel the amusement emanating from Benny and if it were Sam, he'd elbow him in the ribs. But it's not Sam, so instead he just glares at the back of the Benny's head as he has to spend the next five minutes explaining the same thing over and over in more excruciatingly simple terms. To an *alligator*. At this point a dragon would be preferable, since in the stories those are usually at somewhat intelligent--this guy's like a frat boy with brain damage.
Eventually one of those little tooth-cleaning birds shows up and takes pity on them and they get pointed west again, meaning the whole detour was a complete waste of time.
"Gotta admit, chief, this whole thing is starting to feel like a wild goose chase," Benny says later when they stop to give the horse--and themselves--a break. Lunch is yet more apples, and Dean is quickly coming to loathe them.
"Yeah, I know," Dean sighs, and preemptively gives the rest of his meal to the horse.
They wander around the forest some more, though the shadows here are deeper and no friendly animal guides appear when needed--the mice chatter meaninglessly to each other below Dean's ear, and the rabbit falls asleep in the crook of his arm, and all around them is quiet aside from the breaking of twigs and rustle of leaves caused by the horse. Dean finds himself yawning repeatedly in an unconscious attempt to pop his ears--not that it makes any difference. Eventually the darkness settles too heavily and Benny and Dean unhappily concur that they need to stop for the night or risk riding straight into a tree.
"What if it *is* a wild goose chase?" Dean asks the horse as he brushes it back to smooth glossiness, hands getting coated in hair and gritty dried sweat along the way. He's become mostly resigned to the smell of horse and his own stink after so many days without even a change of clothes, though he might actually be willing to kill for a shower at this point. "How would I even know? No prophecies or oracles or handy books of instructions--not so much as a fortune cookie." He leans his forehead against the horse's shoulder and the horse leans back a little, just enough to be comforting. "No sign of Sam, not really." And all the rest of it would be easy enough to shrug off if he had Sam--Benny's better than nothing, but he's still just a figment of Dean's own brain.
The horse lets out a long, shuddery sigh and bumps him with its nose. It's probably just looking for another apple. "Don't have any more," he tells it, and starts brushing again. "Sorry."
When Benny returns, he's dragging the gutted carcass of a deer, which means the rest of the evening is spent cutting and roasting the meat. Dean doesn't ask about whether or not Bambi begged for its life and Benny doesn't volunteer; which animals can and can't talk in this place seems to be pretty arbitrary, and by now Dean's sick enough of living off apples that he mostly doesn't care.
The venison is pretty good, all the things considered, and Dean's spirits lift a little. No Sam, no idea of where Sam is, but this version of Benny is just as willing to discussion the comparative merits of pies as the original had been, and the rabbit in Dean's lap is warm and soft and cuddly, and for once the horse isn't trying to steal his dinner.
That night he curls around the rabbit like a child with a teddy bear, and he'd worry a little about accidentally crushing it but he falls asleep before the thought has a chance to cross his mind.
Two scenes left after this, I think. Possibly three.