It's been more than a week since their last case, and Sam has found news reports on a string of suspicious deaths just a few hours drive away that they're considering. They haven't hit the road yet because the details of the deaths don't seem to fit directly to any of the patterns of creatures they know, so the Winchesters are in heavy research mode. They still have another seven days before the ten day cycle of victims repeat, so the case isn't quite urgent yet, but the two of them are spending the afternoon in the library trying to pin it down.
Sam and Dean have already been at it for a few hours, and the table between them is strewn with stacks of discarded books and their long-empty coffee mugs from earlier in the morning which has now become mid-afternoon. Without warning, their absorption in the task is broken by a booming knock on the bunker's door that echoes loudly through the space of the bunker all the way down to where they're sitting.
They both startle a little and exchange a puzzled glance. It only takes that moment of eye contact for the awareness to pass between them that they no longer know anyone who should be knocking on their door. Cas or Crowley would just barge right in. Mary or Jody would call first. Lucifer, loose in the world again, seems incredibly unlikely to drop by at all considering the tone of their last encounter and certainly wouldn't knock.
Wary and curious, they both push away from the table, drawing and checking their respective guns in near tandem before heading to the door together without a word being exchanged. After they've reached the top of the stairs, another glance and then a nod between them before Dean cautiously opens the door. Neither of them is prepared for who it is standing on the other side.
“Sam. Dean. Been a while.”
Together they take in the figure before them in silent astonishment. Worn plaid and jeans, a graying beard, all topped off with a familiar trucker cap. After the first long moment passes, they simultaneously exclaim, “Bobby?”
Bobby just gives them a look, like they should know better than to ask. If he's himself, it's a dumb question. If he's a monster only pretending to be himself – it's still a dumb question.
An aching feeling of nostalgia for seeing that look again after so long nearly chokes the words down, but Dean somehow manages to force them out. “Aren't you supposed to be enjoying your retirement in heaven?” His voice is a mix of suspicion and hope.
It would hardly be the first time one of them returned from the dead, but rarely in their lives does that happen without some kind of ugly price coming due. Even if Amara bringing Mary back had technically come with no such strings attached, their mother's issues readjusting and accepting Dean and Sam as they are now has been a strain on all of them. The idea of Amara resurrecting every one of the people they've cared about that has died until she finally hits on one that works out passes through Dean's mind, sparking some bemusement and a little worry.
Bobby snorts and shakes his head a little, looking between them, still drinking in the sight of them looking weary and older since he last saw them, but somehow alive despite everything. “I was. Even managed to not get too bored, settled myself in for a spell and got all resigned to bein' out of the game for good. At least 'til Sam and Cas came calling and asked for my help springin' that scribe to help you, Dean. Didn't feel quite so content after that, and it didn't help when the angels decided they wanted to make sure I couldn't cause more trouble.”
Sam's expression changes to a mix of worry and guilt, and after Dean shoots a glance at him, they both lower, but don't entirely put up their weapons. Sure, it's not concrete proof, but Bobby knowing about what Sam apparently did is a pretty big indicator he's the real deal.
Sam can't bring himself to ask about what Bobby's implied Sam's request cost him, so Dean is the one that speaks up again. “So, what, the angels put you on time out?”
“Pretty much.” Bobby, if it truly is Bobby, doesn't really seem to be inclined to be any more forthcoming than that on the subject.
Sam figures that can be a discussion for a later time, because right now he has a more pressing question. “So you just busted out of heaven, just like that?” It shouldn't be that easy. Bobby looks solid, but it's not like he had a body to come back to, after all. There has to be more to the story than that if this is really Bobby.
“Well, you idjits never did seem to be getting around to it. Now you gonna run the tests and invite me in already, or what?”
It's a little concerning he still doesn't seem to want to answer the question, but there could be other reasons for that. Sam and Dean exchange another glance. Then the two of them take a cautious step back from the open doorway, leaving him room to enter. Dean warns, hoping it's unnecessary, “The bunker's wards will keep you out if you ain't what you seem, old man. C'mon in.”
Bobby steps over the threshold, and both Winchesters not-so-subtly relax before going in for the kind of big back-from-the-dead bear hugs that happen all too often in their lives. If none of their eyes seem quite as dry as they were a few moments before, it's probably just a trick of the light and not worth mentioning.
They all take a step back and Sam closes the door while Bobby suddenly peers intently at Dean. “First things first, don't leave me in suspense here, boy. Are you okay? Last I heard you'd managed to get yourself branded with the damn biblical Mark of Cain and weren't doing too good.”
Dean smiles, just a little bit of a wry twist to his lips. “I'm fine, the Mark's long gone. You know us, Bobby, that was about three disasters ago now.”
It's clear from the way his features compress in concern he wants to ask more about what happened or what the current disaster might be. Instead, however, his features clear and he only shakes his head and says, “Yeah, yeah. I missed you two idjits, even with all the trouble you're always up to your fool necks in.”
They give him a tour of the bunker, both excited to point out the variety of books and relics collected in the Men of Letters archives, as well as the parts of the protections that are visible to the naked eye. Sam waxes eloquent about how he's been reorganizing and filing under a new system of his own since the Men of Letters originally were far more interested in cataloging things as academic interests rather than for actual use. Dean proudly shows off his room and the kitchen, and he brags just as excitedly about their demon-proof dungeon.
Through all their chatter and enthusiasm, Bobby feels like a sappy old fool. Seeing the way Sam practically glows when talking about using all these resources and reorganizing them to better help save people? He'd worried the kid, with his desire for a normal life and to build his own path, would never be able to get out of hunting and thus never be remotely content. Seeing Dean showing off his own space and the fussy way he acts when Sam teases him about his kitchen, he'd always known the boy needed a home to come back to as much as he'd thrown himself into the hunt. Bobby ain't never known a truly happy hunter, but he thinks that Sam and Dean just might have managed to put themselves as close as it's possible to get.
They finish the tour, and Sam escorts Bobby to the library where he gives him the details of the case they've been looking into while Dean grills up some burgers in the kitchen. Bobby has a few ideas that Sam makes note of, and eventually Dean joins them with the food and beers enough for all of them. They swap stories as they eat, though Bobby mostly listens, deflecting questions back towards the Winchesters, saying there wasn't much to say about heaven. Most of what's been going on he's already heard from Sam in quick summary form up to the point when Dean was struggling with the Mark of Cain. Both Sam and Dean feel some lingering uncertainty as to how something this good can be happening to them without a price to pay, but the contentment of the afternoon has quieted it to a dull nagging uncertainty in the back of their minds.
As their conversational game of catch up is starting to wind down, ending with the Winchesters reluctantly admitting that Lucifer is topside again thanks to their own folly. When they're finished, Bobby says, “One thing being gone so long taught me is there are some things that need to be said when you have the chance. I just want you boys to know how proud of you I am.”
Sam and Dean both look at him in confusion and a little disbelief. Sam says what they're both thinking. “Uh, Bobby, we just told you that Lucifer is walking the Earth again thanks to us and your reaction is to say that you're proud?”
“Yeah, man, that's kinda messed up,” Dean chimes in.
Bobby rolls his eyes and smacks Dean upside the back of the head, since he's the one within arms-reach. “That ain't what I mean and you know it. You boys are happier and better in sync than I saw plenty of times when I was alive, and most of the time I was dead. You'll deal with Lucifer again, same as everything else.”
“Well, okay. I still think you're kinda nuts, but that's sweet, Bobby,” Dean mocks. “Anyway, when are you finally gonna tell us the story of how you busted out of heaven? It's gotta be a tale worth telling.”
Bobby's face scrunches up in an unpleasant expression, and finally, reluctantly, he says, “Well, I didn't exactly do it all by my lonesome.”
The two brothers have the same thought at the same time in the face of his continuing reluctance to talk - maybe there is a catch here after all. Dean asks, his tone cautious, “Bobby, you didn't make some kinda deal with one of those winged dicks, did you?”
He rolls his eyes. “Don't go getting your underoos all bunched up, it ain't nothing like that. I just wasn't the only one that got shuffled off to heaven's top secret lock down and didn't feel like stickin' around forever.”
Both of them rack their memories for anyone that they know of that Bobby would be this reluctant to talk about. Or any idea of what circumstances he wouldn't want to disclose. A glance between them confirms neither has any idea.
“Bobby, please, don't leave us in suspense,” Sam says, brow furrowed in worry.
“Seriously, just tell us. We'll deal. Can't be worse than any of the crap we just told you. Right?”
Meanwhile, several states away, Castiel is not quite seriously contemplating falling on his own angel blade. The fact that Crowley seems to actually be enjoying the two of them being stuck working together only makes the irritation Castiel himself feels that much worse. Which, now that he thinks about it, is probably also amusing to Crowley, unfortunately.
He'd tried to talk Dean into doing something about it the last time the two of them met up with the Winchesters, but the hunter had been completely lacking in sympathy. First, he'd just chuckled and said, “Better you than me, buddy.” Of course, when Dean had caught his muttered reply that might have mentioned smiting the demon, he'd gotten a far too long lecture about why they were better off with Crowley as a known quantity in charge of Hell that made Castiel dearly miss his ability to fly away in the middle of unwelcome conversations.
When he finally gets the interruption to Crowley's one-sided conversation about whatever the demon has been on about that he's been not quite praying for, Castiel isn't sure whether to be grateful or worried. A voice he knows all too well and doesn't remotely expect speaks up from behind where he's been sitting at a bar, waiting with Crowley for a potential source who supposedly has a new lead on Lucifer.
“Hanging out with the Winchesters sure has been a bad influence on you, little bro. Playing buddy cops with a demon? Tsk tsk.”
Turning around, Castiel finds a familiar figure who thows out his arms in an elaborate ta-da gesture as soon as he has Castiel's attention fully focused on him.
“Gabriel?” Cas squints, trying to figure out if this can really be the missing archangel. He's especially skeptical after what happened last time with Metatron's elaborate trick, but he has no torn coat to expose a potential fiction this time.
“Gabriel?” Crowley echoes, speculatively, looking their visitor up and down. Castiel isn't quite sure what to make of his tone, and the demon's face is carefully bland. “That's not what you were going by last time we met.”
“Crowley,” Gabriel acknowledges. There's familiarity there, and some amusement, Castiel thinks. “Yeah, well, I was undercover for a millennium or two. How's hell?”
“Hellish. Speaking of which, perhaps I should go check on a few things. Excuse me, gentlemen.”
Again, Castiel isn't sure what to make of the demon's abrupt departure. It's made in a matter of nearly undue haste, but Crowley's tone is more nonchalant than he thinks the demon could manage if he was actually afraid of the archangel. It's a puzzle, but one he's happy to set aside in tentative relief to actually have a break from the hell-spawn's presence. Of course, he still has to deal with the being that precipitated it.
Gabriel plops down with exaggerated movements onto the stool on Castiel's other side, snapping his fingers to summon an elaborate multi-colored cocktail with a small umbrella leaning against the rim. “Soooo, Cas. Word on angel radio is your pet humans set Amara loose and Dad came back. But seeing as we're all still here and nobody's heard from the big man since the sun came back online, you wanna fill me in? Do a little separating of rumor and fact?”
The questions only further increase Castiel's suspicions about what's going on, as the words have sparked a memory that only makes him more suspicious of Gabriel's authenticity. “How can you be here? Our Father said you were gone and it would take too much energy to bring you back in time to help battle the Darkness.”
“Cas, Cas, Cas,” Gabriel chides, throwing an arm exaggeratedly around the other angel's shoulders. “The thing you gotta know about daddy-dearest is that He's always got His own agenda and He's never above lying about it. Take it from big bro, the only thing trying to figure Him out ever got me was a massive headache and a couple hangovers, and you do not even want to know how much alcohol that took.”
Castiel shrugs the arm off, and Gabriel allows it to drop, turning his attention back towards the bar. As Gabriel slurps down his drink and orders another, Castiel gives him a short recap of recent events, in the most vague specifics he can manage that won't be giving away anything he couldn't find out elsewhere. The caution is necessary just in case this isn't Gabriel, even though it feels like him in every respect. But then, so had Metatron's fiction. It ends with the punchline, “and now Lucifer walks the earth again.”
“Yeah, so I heard,” Gabriel sighs, giving a fairly convincing impression of someone who had hoped to have a rumor denied. He complains, his voice plaintive, “Whose dumb idea was that?”
Cas knows it's probably a rhetorical question, but he can't help an involuntary wince. He pointedly refocuses his attention onto the beer Crowley had bought him to try and blend in. Unfortunately, the obvious avoidance grabs Gabriel's attention like a beacon of guilt.
Castiel makes a noncommittal noise, and Gabriel heaves a huge sigh. “Why'd you do a boneheaded thing like that?”
Castiel cringes. “I needed to do something useful, something that would make a difference. I helped Sam set Amara loose on the world, it was my responsibility to find something that could stop her. Lucifer said he could.”
Gabriel shakes his head. “Cas, c'mon. Lucifer said so and you just bought it?”
“I admit that was unwise. I was only trying to do the right thing, why does it always seem to go so wrong?”
Gabriel sighs again, clearly put upon. “We're gonna have to have this talk, aren't we. Fine. Okay, I hate to crib anything from Metadouche – hey, speaking of which, what happened to the little troll? I've got a score to settle with him.”
“He sacrificed himself so we could rescue Lucifer from Amara.”
Gabriel is visibly taken aback and blinks in shock. “Woah, no kidding? Didn't see that one coming, like, ever.”
He pauses for a moment, but then seems to manage to collect his thoughts once again. “Anywho, there was one thing he had me say in that little script he had me perform for you that wasn't wrong. Dad didn't really put us angels together with free will in mind, just obedience. Now me, archangel," he points to himself ostentatiously with his thumbs, "I've got a lot more leeway and power, and I still ended up wandering the earth dispensing my own kind of justice.”
“Gabriel, I do not believe God would have found your activities as a trickster -”
Gabriel waves him down. “Not what I mean or really important, kiddo. My point is, to some extent, we'll always be creatures of patterns and certainty. It's way easier for us to be certain we're right once we've set ourselves on a specific path, and we don't change easy. Just because we're angels and wayyy smarter and more informed than humans doesn't mean we don't make mistakes. Of course, you definitely shouldn't be cribbing from the Winchester's playbook for apocalyptically-bad decisions -”
Castiel finds himself irritated. “Sam and Dean are good men who have done far more for this world than our brothers and sisters -”
“Woah, sparky, simmer down. I'm not bashing your boyfriends. Well okay, I kind of am, but the thing you're still not getting here is that when those two chuckleheads throw themselves off a cliff, they're doing it together and you've been there backing them up. They'd be completely lost without you, but you're still allowed to make mistakes and it's not wrong to ask for help fixing them. You seem plenty willing to help them fix theirs.”
“My mistakes are my own. Sam and Dean did not even know until afterwards that I had freed Lucifer. I chose to look after them as their guardian, they are not responsible for -” Castiel starts to argue, but finds himself cut off by Gabriel talking over him again. The archangel keeps doing that and Castiel is battling with the frustration of it, and the whole direction of this conversation. He knows he was wrong yet again, what's the point of talking about it?
“Hey, chill out, bro. Far be it for me to say what you did wasn't impressively dumb, but let me ask you this: did you even try to work through it with their help before jumping on the Lucifer train trying to fix it all by yourself, Cas? It's a cold and confusing world out there, nobody should be going it alone. Not even us angels, and if you're so stuck on those two, why don't you trust them enough to help you?”
Cas doesn't know what to reply to that. It's not about trust, he does trust Sam and Dean. He just doesn't want to be a burden, to make things harder for them. They've done enough, he's an angel, he should be able to fix things without it always going wrong, but Gabriel just doesn't seem to get it.
Almost as if he can hear Castiel's thoughts, Gabriel shakes his head again. “Whatever. It's not gonna be a problem for you anymore, 'cuz I'm back in town and you just try to run off on your own with me around, bucko. Now lets go drop in on the Winchesters and deal with this Lucifer crap. I've heard he's much weaker thanks to good ol' Auntie Amara and I've got a score to settle with him, too. I'm sure my jailbreak buddy Bobby has had enough time to foretell my awesome return to your human besties by now.”
Castiel blinks in surprise at this new bit of information, and before he can even ask, he's arrested by the mischievous look on Gabriel's face. “We should definitely make a memorable entrance. Hmmm,” Gabriel pauses in thought before an even more unsettling smile comes across his features. “I've got just the thing.”
Gabriel waggles his eyebrows at Castiel's suspicious frown and snaps his fingers.