The demon moved like he expected half of Hell to be watching for him. Like wind through the shadows, darting all over the map, pausing and watching so many times that Castiel wondered if there was more than mere paranoia at work, and Crowley actually knew he was following. But no. As far as Crowley knew, Castiel had been in Heaven for weeks now, trying to fix the mess left by the almost-apocalypse and the loss of Heaven's general.
And if it hadn't been for a hesitant, disbelieving and rather drunken prayer from Bobby, he probably would have been. But Robert Singer did not pray, not for Castiel, not unbidden, and when it reached him he had immediately assumed the worst and flow to Earth on the spot. Much to the hunter's embarrassment, when Castiel had appeared, sword in hand and fully battle-ready, in time to see him drop his fourth bottle of beer all over the floor.
It was Crowley, Bobby had explained, very reluctantly and with much embarrassment. He was ... He wasn't worried, get that through your head first, but the demon had been acting ... strange. When Crowley had arrived to give him back his soul, he'd been ... nervous. Jumpy. He'd kept bouncing a little while Bobby was working up the nerve for another kiss, looking over his shoulder like someone was following him, or he'd left something important on the boil. No time even to taunt him about the kiss, or tease him about using tongue again, or trying to weasel out of the deal, or ... or anything that Bobby expected from the demon. And ... look, he wasn't worried, and it wasn't like he actually liked the Hellspawn bastard, or anything, but ... did Castiel maybe know of anyone who might be hunting somewhat-honourable, apocalypse-averting demons? He was just curious, you understand ...
Castiel had not. Hell had been sealed when Lucifer and Michael had been thrown back. And while there were demons still left on the surface, from what he had seen of the Crossroad's Demon, all those demons would be was a minor annoyance, nothing to be actually afraid of. It could not be a demon. But ...
There were angels still unaccounted for. Members of the old Earth Garrison, of Zachariah's old cadre. Even one archangel. No-one had seen Raphael in a while. And in the eyes of those angels ... well, anyone who'd helped stop the End of Days was worth targeting, and a demon was an old enemy anyway. It was entirely possible ...
Not that he liked Crowley either, of course. Not that he felt very motivated to protect him. But Castiel couldn't help but think, much as Bobby had, perhaps, that they maybe owed the demon something. That he may have owed the demon something. When he couldn't be there for Dean and Sam, Crowley had stepped in. Selfishly, and at cost to them, of course, but ...
He had promised to look into it. To check up on the demon, see if he was being threatened. Simply as a matter of paying debts, nothing more. And while Bobby grunted his thanks and pretended not to be relieved ... Castiel had gone hunting demons.
Crowley in full-on paranoia mode was almost impossible to find, he discovered. Very quickly. If he hadn't had a good deal of experience hiding from Heaven's eyes himself by this point, and if a number of the Principalities had not inexplicably offered their support watching from above, he might never had picked up the demon's trail. As it was, it had taken him six days, and a lot of flying, to get close enough to watch the demon skulk away from a meeting with a number of fae, flitting towards some unknown destination.
He looked well enough, Castiel thought, following at a cautious distance. The same as ever, really. Smug, calculating, put-together. But looking closer, he could see what Bobby meant. There was an air of nervous watchfulness about the demon. As if he were waiting for something bad to fall on him from the Heavens. As if he were waiting for repercussions.
He was so intent on following the demon, so intent on seeing without being seen, and keeping up with the quite frankly ridiculous number of false trails and shake-offs the demon was throwing out, that he never saw the archangel coming. He never saw the flurry of wings and energy come up on his right, never saw the flare of Grace until it hit him and bowled him aside, completely off Crowley's path. He never saw it coming.
That didn't stop him for long. If Castiel had learned anything from his time as a human, it was how to come back from a hit, how to roll with it and come up sword in hand, ready to fight. He hit the ground, somewhere in a field in southern France, and rolled instantly to his feet, ready to face ...
"Gabriel?" he asked, incredulous. That had not been ... he had expected Raphael, not ... "Are you not dead?"
The apparently resurrected archangel climbed to his feet, shaking grass and dirt out of his hair with a grumble, shaking his wings out of their tangle. He'd obviously landed badly, or worse than Castiel, anyway, and wasn't at all happy about it. But when he looked up at the wary angel, there was a grin on his face, and a sharp shine to his eyes.
"Limited edition, post-apocalyptic get-out-of-death free card," he explained obliquely, waving one hand dismissively. "Dad's in a good mood lately, apparently. Don't sweat it, little bro."
Castiel frowned, shifting warily on his feet, torn between discovering if this were really his brother brought back from the dead, and continuing the hunt. Crowley had been hard enough to find the first time. But ... He had wished for a chance to speak to this brother again ever since Dean told him how the archangel had fallen, and even simply seeing him again caused a worrying leap in his chest. He frowned, reaching up absently to rub at it. Since he had fallen so very close to human, for so long, he had picked up some strange habits from his vessel.
Gabriel watched him, pouty lips quirked into a little smile. "Looking good, little bro," he commented quietly, smiling gently. "For someone who died twice, I mean, not to mention fell as far as it was possible to fall without hitting Hell." Another little quirk. "Being in charge agreeing with you, is it?"
Castiel blinked at him. "You ... know of what ...?" He paused, frowned. "I did not hear of you re-entering Heaven."
Gabriel grinned at him. "Because I didn't, kid. Just in case someone tried to draft me, or something. No offense, but I'm planning to wait until I see which way the wind is blowing before I set foot in the old homestead again ..."
Castiel shook his head, frustration and confusion rising in tandem. Talking with Gabriel -and it had to be Gabriel, no other angel was quite so frustrating- was almost as bad as talking with Dean. "What does the wind have to do with you coming to Heaven?" he growled, and glared when Gabriel snickered at him. The archangel tried to affect an innocent expression, but the effort fell a little ... short.
"Don't worry about it, kiddo. Just accept that I'll be down here another while yet, okay? And I'd appreciate it if you didn't get any ideas about sending people after me, by the way. I just got my life and freedom back, I'm not really all that interested in losing them again so soon, if you don't mind ..."
Castiel cut in quickly, frowning. "I would not try to force you," he said, voice heavy with affront as he straightened out of his slight crouch, lowering his sword though not quite putting it away. "I am not Zachariah, Gabriel." Nearly a snarl at the end, there, but he'd been doing his best for Heaven for weeks now, and he didn't take at all well to that kind of accusation!
Gabriel watched him carefully, something shadowy in his eyes, his mobile face folding in consideration. He wore his old vessel, resurrected of a piece, the old mannerisms as strong as ever. Castiel wondered briefly how many mannerisms of his own he had picked up in his time on earth. Neither of them looked quite angelic anymore, in so many ways.
"You're not, are you," the archangel mused at last. "You never can tell, you know, until you see someone in action. Never know how the power's going to affect them ... Even Zach used to be fairly alright, you know. Bit ambitious, a little sleazy, but not the full-blown asshole he became later ..."
Castiel raised his eyebrows, frankly disbelieving, but allowed the point. "I do not intend to fall into that trap," he said gravely, quietly, watching the archangel for a reaction. "I do not intent to become what he was." A wry tilt of the head, and an almost sad flash of smile. "I know where that leads, Gabriel. Very well indeed."
The wayward archangel watched him for another second, studying him carefully, before his entire face transformed, lit up. A bright bubble of joy, and a rich well of amusement. At Castiel, or himself, or some joke he hadn't seen yet, Castiel didn't know. But Gabriel grinned at him, slumping in relief and amusement, and he felt the taut edge of tension fade from his shoulders, relaxing enough in the face of that smile to put away his blade. Gabriel shot him a look like a proud parent for that, and Castiel found himself inexplicably flushing.
"Glad to hear it, kiddo," the archangel said warmly, showing teeth as he bounced over to put his arm around Castiel's shoulder, charitably ignoring Castiel's startled jump. "I figured you were better than that, but you can't be too careful these days, you know how it is ..."
"Yes," Castiel said, holding tightly to control of his smile, and reached up to delicately pick Gabriel's arm off his shoulder. "I do. Gabriel ... I'm sorry, I want to speak with you, particularly after ... recent events, but ... I need to find Crowley." He backed away a step from the most exuberant of his brothers, and looked up to explain. And stopped, as he saw the darkness that flickered suddenly through Gabriel's expression. "Gabriel ...?"
"No," the archangel said, suddenly cold, dangerous. "No, kiddo, you don't. You really don't. Leave the demon alone, Cas. Trust me."
Castiel blinked, frowned, remembering suddenly how he had come to be speaking to Gabriel in the first place, the rush of wings and Grace out of nowhere, flinging him away ... "You stopped me," he said slowly, watching the hard glitter in the archangel's eyes. "You were keeping me away from him. Why?"
Gabriel shook his head, expression grim. "Never you mind. Just trust me, and leave well enough alone. That poor bastard's been through enough, kid. He doesn't need Heaven's new head-honcho dropping in, scaring the crap out of him. Leave him alone."
Castiel felt his face crease into a frown, confused, curious, even a little angry. He didn't like being forbidden something, being herded away without explanation. He'd had enough of that from Zachariah and a long string of superiors who demanded obedience without thought. He'd had enough, after an almost-apocalypse for the folly of those above him. He had absolutely no interest in starting all over again.
"Why?" he asked softly, harshly, prowling forward a step and lowering his head to meet the archangel's eyes aggressively. "Why, Gabriel? What is he hiding, that you don't want me to see?"
"Nothing that concerns you," came the equally soft, equally deadly answer. Gabriel didn't back away, a flash of something dangerous in his eyes that had Castiel wondering briefly if it had been what Sam had seen in the Trickster to make him fear him so. "Don't push me on this one, Castiel. I've got old debts to pay, and you would regret it."
There was an edge to his voice, the hard weight of promise and a kind of bitter, protective anger, and Castiel stepped back with a frown, looking at the archangel in confusion and slow consideration, tilting his head as he pondered. He could see that pushing Gabriel on this really wouldn't be wise. Besides. There might be a better way ...
"Bobby called me," he offered suddenly, the cautious offer of an explanation to calm the archangel down. "He was ... concerned, when Crowley came to him. He thought the demon seemed ... very nervous for someone whose enemies were mostly in Hell. He asked me to follow him, to see ... if he was alright."
Gabriel's eyebrows made an impressive attempt to crawl up into his hairline. "Bobby asked you to look out for Crowley? As in Robert Singer, the most distrusting hunter in the business, with absolutely no use for demons except as target practice? That Bobby?"
Castiel bit his lip, and shrugged carefully. "I believe he felt he owed the demon. For ... all that was done, towards the end. He was ... very grateful for the return of his legs."
Gabriel blinked a little, the tension leeching out of his slight frame as he digested that. "Robert Singer really asked you to look out for Crowley?" he asked again, still not quite believing it. "And you agreed?"
Castiel shrugged, smiling faintly. "Perhaps I felt there was something owed too," he offered softly, smiling at the sceptical look the archangel shot him. "I mean him no harm, Gabriel. And he did look ... jumpy, when I found him. Almost afraid. As if he were waiting for someone to hit him ..." It was more a prompt than an admission, a softly pointed question. Gabriel flinched a little, looking away uneasily.
"Yeah, well," he said quietly, scuffing his heels in something that looked almost like shame. "He has reason, kid. Sudden changes in management upstairs have this tendancy to go badly for him, and after what it cost him last time ..."
"What it cost him last time?" Castiel jumped on the thought, frowning. "What last time?"
Gabriel bit his lip, looking around nervously before seeming to give in to something internally, and looked back at Castiel. "You remember about twenty years back, there was a bit of a hiccup with a supposed Anti-Christ? Little thing, got hushed up real quick?" Castiel nodded, warily, and Gabriel quirked a lip. "Yeah, well. It wasn't dealt with as quietly as you might remember. Little bastard played around with reality a bit, made it hard to remember clearly, though you probably could if you tried. And ... well. A few important people went on a bit of a sabbatical after that, and some pushy little bastards started getting more and more responsibility ..."
"Zachariah?" Castiel said suddenly, catching on. "You mean Zachariah."
Gabriel smiled thinly, absolutely without humour. "I mean Zachariah," he confirmed cheerlessly. "And the new order ... let's say the new order didn't look kindly on some of the people who'd been involved in that little mess. People they thought had been ... 'seduced by darkness', I think the phrase might have been, though I didn't find out about this until the demon showed up during a night out with Kali and proceeded to threaten me in no uncertain terms unless I helped him."
He looked almost nostalgic for a second, almost impressed, but Castiel was too busy trying to follow the ramifications of his story. "They thought Crowley had ... seduced someone? Or that he might? I don't understand, Gabriel. Why would Zachariah hunt a demon?"
The archangel didn't answer for a long, long second, weighing Castiel up again, measuring him far more intensely than Castiel was used to seeing on that carefree face. It seemed this, whatever this was, was something Gabriel took entirely seriously, and something he had no intention of letting Castiel anywhere near unless he knew for sure that Castiel would not hurt ... who? Crowley? Why?
"Okay," Gabriel said, abruptly, reaching out to catch hold of Castiel's arm and tug him suddenly in the direction Castiel thought he might have been heading before the archangel had knocked him down. The direction Crowley had taken. "Okay, kiddo. You want to understand this? You get to understand this. And don't say I didn't warn you ..."
He lifted them up into the air, not even waiting for Castiel to spread his own wings, simply picking him up as vast wings beat steadily. Castiel stiffled a yelp, growling in annoyance at the archangel, but for once Gabriel wasn't laughing at him, wasn't taunting him. The archangel was still entirely serious, even grim, and for some reason that sent a little chill down Castiel's spine. It was one thing for Gabriel to be serious. It was another for him to ignore an opportunity to taunt someone.
Castiel was beginning to seriously worry about what was going on here. But Gabriel gave him no chance for doubts, for trying to argue, flying them with all the dizzying speed of the Messenger to his destination. Before Castiel had even managed to open his mouth, they were already landing on a little hill, overlooking a small cottage in a valley, rain drizzling gently around them, and the archangel had turned around long enough to press a hand to Castiel's mouth and silently warn him to be quiet. And then he turned back, and pointed down to where a dark figure crouched in the garden of the cottage, tinkering with what looked like seriously heavy-duty enochian warding. Crowley.
The demon looked like he'd only just landed himself, which made Castiel wonder how many other detours and misleading trails Crowley had felt the need to make before finally coming here. The sheer level of paranoia in that creature ... And then he saw it. Movement, in the doorway of the cottage, and the demon stood upright in a rush, turning without pause and smilng at the figure that emerged ...
A human, blond and plump, and limping heavily. His face was broad and cheerful as he reached out to the demon, beaming happily, but it was also crisscrossed with scars. Deep, vicious scars, from something other than fighting. Castiel had only seen their like once before, when his superiors had decided that his sympathies were slipping too close to the humans, and he needed a little 're-education' ... thankfully, Jimmy had been spared that, though not Raphael's later assault, so there had been no physical marks to scar his vessel. He had never heard of an angel doing that to a human ...
"Look closer," Gabriel whispered softly, voice curiously flat. "It's hard to see, I know. They did a damn good job about it, and without the wings to give him away ..."
Castiel shot him a confused look, and narrowed his eyes as he looked back to the human currently embracing a flustered demon, cheerfully ignoring Crowley's flapping around. It took him a minute, to realise what he was seeing, to recognise what it was, and it was only when he caught a flash of something more than warmth in the human's smile that it clicked ...
Not a human. That flash had been Grace. Faint, so very faint, not faded but restrained, and behind, tattered shadows on his back ... Not a human. Father above, not a human. The man in Crowley's arms was an angel. An angel so badly torn, so badly scarred, that his Grace was barely flickering inside him, weak but persistent.
Crowley was protecting an angel.
"His name is Aziraphale," Gabriel said quietly, still in that flat monotone that scared Castiel more than anger would have. It sounded so wrong, from this angel. "He was ... He used to be a Principality. The agent assigned to Earth, back when Heaven still gave a shit about humanity. Crowley was his opposite number, before he siddled into the role of Crossroad's King to cover his tracks with Hell. When Adam was born, thirty odd years ago, they were put in charge of seeing that events on Earth set up the Apocalypse good and proper. And they ... disagreed. In fact, they did their best to make sure the Apocalypse never happened. Succeeded, too. I'm not sure how, because I was very busy being quiet and out of sight in the Himalayas at the time, but they did manage it. And then Metatron took his little holiday after it was all over, and Zachariah got into power ..."
"And Zachariah wanted an Apocalypse," Castiel continued softly, already wincing. He knew where this was going ...
"And Zachariah wanted an apocalypse," Gabriel agreed, smiling humourlessly. "And he needed a scapegoat, someone to get people all riled up again, and there was this angel, consorting with a demon, supporting humans, rejecting the End of Days ... And worse. Aziraphale and Crowley ... well. Look."
He waved a hand down at the cottage, where the ... where Aziraphale was busy shooing a wet Crowley into the house, fussing at the demon's coat and leaning in to kiss him when he growled and tried to escape. The demon softened instantly, wriggling out of his coat and wrapping one arm around Aziraphale's waist, avoiding the remnants of the angel's wings with the ease of long practice, growling a little into the kiss but no longer struggling. Aziraphale beamed at him, and bumped hips companionably as they headed into the house proper, out of sight.
It was obvious what Aziraphale and Crowley were. It was equally obvious just was the likes of Zachariah would have made of it.
"What did he do?" Castiel asked softly, though he knew. He knew all too well. Gabriel bared his teeth in what could only loosely be called a grin.
"You know what he did. And Aziraphale was a special issue. He had a body, not a vessel. A body all his own, for Zach to try and tear him out of. You've seen Hell, haven't you? Not too far off, old Zach. Had more in common with my homicidal older brother than he'd like to admit ..."
He trailed off with a snarl, and a flash of not-so-ancient pain, silent for a second until a deep breath restored enough of his calm to keep going. There was something very dark in the archangel's eyes as he looked down at the cottage, something reminiscent of the older days, when Gabriel had been a weapon of Heaven and a righteous judge of men. Something vast and very, very cold.
"Crowley came to me, when he realised they'd taken his angel. Burst in on me, ignoring the Goddess of Destruction in his way, ignoring the fact that he was trying to bully an archangel ... ignoring everything except he needed a ticket to Heaven, and he needed it right now." There was a flash of almost-amusement, then, a glimmer of something not too far from pride. Castiel stared. "I wasn't going to do it, of course. I wasn't going to break cover and hop back to Heaven for a chat with some very annoyed brothers ... until he told me what had happened. Until he showed me what they'd left for him to find ..."
Castiel didn't want to know. He didn't want to know. But he had faced up to harder truths than this, in the past two years, and something in the tightness of Gabriel's features told him the archangel needed to tell this story more than even he himself suspected. A renegade archangel, looking after a runaway demon and his battered angel ... and there had been nobody in Gabriel's exile he could explain this to, who would understand the true horror of it.
"His wings," Castiel whispered quietly, watching Gabriel flinch. "They left his wings, didn't they?"
"Crowley thought they'd killed him, when he first found them," Gabriel nodded. "There was so much ... blood, Grace ... they'd torn them out, not cut. Spread out all over the floor of their home. He nearly went mad then and there. And then ... then he just got mad, instead. Got mad, got himself an archangel, and set out to get his angel right damn back ..." A hard, utterly humourless smile. "And we did. Oh, we did. He'd been hiding his Grace for a long time, hiding his wings, but that didn't mean the old Serpent didn't know how to use them still, and I ... Well. I hear it took Zach a few years to rebuild, after we tore through. After we tore the place down around his torturers' ears ..."
Castiel stared at the small figure beside him, stared at the archangel. This wasn't Gabriel. Not the Gabriel he knew, not the Gabriel who'd cringed and joked and gone out of his way to avoid a fight. It might, perhaps, have been the Gabriel Sam and Dean had known, the Gabriel who had apparently killed Dean over a hundred times, who had tormented Sam. It was perhaps the Gabriel the Host had once known, so long ago, when their Father had still been in residence and angels were fully active on Earth.
If it was the Gabriel Zach had known, then no wonder there had been very little effort made to find the wayward archangel.
"Why am I here, Gabriel?" he asked, very quietly, watching the archangel watch the cottage, watching the flickers of pain and anger and protective fury move across the mobile face. He'd asked for it, maybe, but that didn't explain why Gabriel had actually shown it to him. That didn't explain why Gabriel was trusting him with this, with the scarred angel and his nervous demon, who had apparently trusted Gabriel to help them and not been disappointed.
Gabriel turned his head slowly, mastering his expression until he could put up a reasonably convincing smile once again. Castiel just frowned at him.
"So you'll know why you can't go near them," the archangel said quietly. "So you'll know why Heaven can't get anywhere near them. I know you don't want to hurt them, kid. I know you're not Zach, and you're trying to change things so shits like him won't get ahold of Heaven any time soon. I know that. But ... They've been through enough, kiddo. Crowley wouldn't even have helped out this time around, except I suspect Aziraphale bullied him into it." A faint, rueful smile. "Stubborn angel can't stand not being able to help, and Crowley can never resist him when he really wants something. But that can't follow him home. Not again. He can't cope with it again. They've been shafted once by a change in the winds upstairs. They might not survive a second time, and I'm not storming Heaven again, alright?"
A queasy smile, hands reaching out in flamboyant supplication, and that was more recognisably Gabriel, but there was still a darkness in his eyes, something cold and careful behind his grin. Castiel tilted his head, taking his turn to study his opponent and measure his seriousness.
"No," he said, carefully, flinching a little at the flash of hardness in warm hazel eyes, and continuing hurriedly. "Gabriel ... Crowley is waiting for something to happen. He's nervous enough for even Robert to notice. It would be ... Would it not be better to tell him, once, that Heaven will not come for him, rather than leave him to wonder?"
Gabriel hesitated, worry and confusion and even something that looked like hope flickering past, almost too fast for Castiel to catch, and then he frowned up at Castiel, Grace bristling defensively.
"Just you?" he asked quietly, fiercely. "And you won't ... Aziraphale can't run, Cas, not without his wings. If you go for him ..."
"I won't!" Castiel said quickly, a little shocked. "Gabriel ... I have never struck someone without cause, and I know very well what it is to fight Heaven for what I believe. To be hunted because of that. Why would I harm him?"
Gabriel flapped a hand, one fist clenching in sudden frustration. Mostly at himself, Castiel thought. "I know, I know!" he hushed, scowling. "I just ... Look. It's different, with those two. I've know 'em for centuries, they didn't deserve ... I don't get up in arms for a lot of people, Castiel. Myself included, and I've already died for doing it at the wrong time, but ... I will for them. Okay? It's that important. So don't ... just don't do anything, alright? I don't care if Dad and half of Heaven are on your side these days. You don't touch them, got it?"
Castiel nodded, a smile bubbling up through his chest all of a sudden, a rich burst of humour over the sober agreement, just to see the archangel so protective and flustered, panicked and unwillingly caring. He had not thought Gabriel capable, had not thought the flightly, sometimes cowardly archangel had it in him.
He thought perhaps there was more to Crowley than he had ever thought, and to this Aziraphale too, to have managed to bring it out.
"I will not harm them," he promised gravely. "I will not allow them to be harmed. My word, Gabriel. I will protect them as best I can. I promise."
Gabriel squinted at him suspiciously for a second, looking nearly as paranoid as Crowley, before nodding very, very slowly. "Okay then," he said, quietly, before that never-far-away grin flashed back onto his features. "Guess we'd better get down there, then, before the tea gets cold and 'Zira starts giving out ..."
Castiel blinked, confused all over again, but the archangel didn't wait for him to catch on, and all Castiel could do was follow him down the hill, and towards the quiet smile of the scarred angel in the door, and the panicky demon at his back.
It was going to be a very strange day, he thought. And for once, it was not the fault of a Winchester.