Sam manages to get them packed and ready to go within the space of an hour. It's a frankly impressive feat, and one Dean would applaud…if it were displayed by anyone other than his little brother. As it is, he manages to refrain from making fun of Sam's anal-retentive organizational skills by sheer force of will, and it's not long before they've crammed everything into the trunk of the Impala (alongside the Spear, which takes up less space than Dean had ever thought it would) and are ready to be on their way.
"So, what should we expect?" Sam makes the mistake of asking. Dean knows that he should want to know what to expect – knowing will help keep them alive for longer, after all – but he finds that he doesn't want to think about the chaos that they're approaching (willingly) any more than he has to.
He's almost worried that he's going to lose heart.
Castiel reaches out from the back seat, gently touching Dean's shoulder – it's way too sappy and uncomfortable, and it shouldn't make Dean feel better, because he isn't really the sort of person who's into PDAs…but he can feel Castiel, now. And Cas doesn't feel things like insincerity or pity – he's just…there. Quiet, unassuming, and willing to act as a safety net if Dean somehow screws up again. Even though Castiel's powers are waning, he's willing to do that.
Dean doesn't turn his attention away from the road, but he's still pretty sure Cas can feel how grateful he is.
"Four majorly powerful artifacts," Gabriel says. "Four Champions to use them. Here's how it's gonna go down: I blow the Horn, and boom, it's the End of Days. Lucifer, Michael, and every demon and angel within a thousand miles is going to come running. That's where the Nehushtan comes in handy."
"It evicts Lucifer," Dean recalls. "Seems stupid, to me. Wouldn't it be easier to just stab the son of a bitch and be done with it?"
"Life's never that easy," Sam says quietly. Gabriel rolls his shoulders in something that might be agreement.
"It has to do with how the Sword works," he explains. "It's not like an archangel's sword. That isn't steel and iron Castiel is carrying around in his pocket – it isn't even Grace. It's the primordial stuff that God used to make Heaven in the first place. Humans can't touch it….It'd be like trying to grab on to a hot poker. One that burns you from the inside-out. The only reason you managed to bring it back with you is because of Castiel."
"Because I've got some of Cas' Grace in me," Dean guesses.
"Bingo. Stabbing Lucifer while he's in a vessel will ruin the body, but he'll have plenty of time to get the hell out of Dodge before it ever even gets close to his Grace."
"We will have only succeeded in delaying the apocalypse," Castiel murmurs. "At this point, a delay would be…inadvisable."
"Death," Sam says. Dean has no idea what Death being in town would actually do - people dropping dead like flies, with no apparent rhyme or reason? Or something more visceral, like a sudden flood, or fire? Either way sounds like bad news to him. Secretly, he's sort of glad that Sam pushed them to get moving so fast…They can rest when this whole mess is finally over.
"So, Nehushtan," Gabriel continues. "Pulls Lucifer out of his vessel. Michael, too, if he's even found one that will hold him for any length of time. Which means that you two are going to need to wear blindfolds. Maybe even earplugs. I'll have to see if there isn't something I can do about at least letting you hear."
"Wait," Sam says. "Wait, what? You just said there's going to be a load of demons and angels there! And Lucifer! How are we supposed to fight if we can't see?"
"You will not be fighting Lucifer," Castiel says quietly. "I will."
Dean turns to look at him – the road is long and empty, and he can afford to take his eyes off the road for a few seconds…and Gabriel (as much as it sort of pains him to say it) has got their backs. He won't let them drive off the side of the road, not when they're so close to the end.
"Hold the phone," Dean says. "What did you just say?"
"But…" Sam trails off, and then swallows. "I thought it was supposed to be me."
"Bullshit," Dean snaps. "Michael's the one who's supposed to fight! I'm the Michael Sword, aren't I? I'm not gonna be anybody's angel condom, but that still seems pretty cut and dry to me."
"It is not an issue that is worth arguing over," Castiel says mildly.
"The hell it isn't! I'm not letting you go out there to get yourself killed, Cas!"
"Everybody chill," Gabriel thunders - literally. There's a brief boom of sound in the distance, and the wind outside picks up, and then just as quickly dies back down again. Sam stares at Gabriel, mouth slightly open. Dean doesn't even want to think about what's going through his head right now.
"Sam," Gabriel says, softer, now. "It's never been your job to fight Lucifer – you were supposed to give in to him. Considering you've avoided that so far, I'd say you've done enough."
"No buts. Dean. After all the shit you've been put through, I'd think that the last thing you'd want to do would be to go toe to toe with Lucifer himself."
"It's not my idea of a fun time," Dean murmurs. "But it isn't Castiel's…I mean, Cas never did anything."
"And you did?" Sam asks, raising his eyebrows.
"I broke the first Seal," Dean protests, turning his eyes back to the road.
"And I broke the last one."
"Chill," Gabriel says again, and they both fall silent. Castiel watches them from the back seat, motionless and inscrutable. "Heaven's been manipulating your family for generations. It was Heaven that set Lucifer free, and now it's got to be Heaven that gets rid of him. Castiel's the only one who can use the Sword. He's Heaven's new secret weapon. Not Zachariah's, not Michael's, Heaven's."
"There has to be some other way," Dean argues. "I…there just has to be. Cas, I hate to say it, but you're losing your mojo. You're not gonna last five minutes against Lucifer."
Castiel rolls his shoulders, and Dean abruptly realizes that what he just said could be taken as…kind of an insult. He winces, even when the threads of Castiel's Grace prod gingerly at whatever passes for his soul or his psyche or whatever, these days. Cas doesn't seem angry, but Dean wouldn't blame him if he were.
"I choose this, Dean," Castiel murmurs. "What does or does not happen to me is inconsequential. I shall wield the Sword, and I shall strike down Lucifer as Heaven intended."
Gabriel closes his eyes – there's a quietly despairing twist to his mouth, to the way his shoulders are hunched. Dean notices that Sam's eyes are closed, too, and he realizes that, for Castiel, this is like overthrowing an insane, once beloved despot. It's necessary, even though it's heartbreaking to see how far Lucifer has fallen
But for Gabriel, it's watching a brother die.
Dean's hands clench around the steering wheel – he can't feel Gabriel, but he doesn't have to, because Castiel can. There's an echo of mourning that pushes up against him, something vast and bitter and almost incomprehensibly sad. He instinctively recoils from it – it's too big, too alien, there's no way he can understand that level of anger and sadness. He can only imagine how Sam is managing to handle it.
"It should be me," Dean says, finally. "You've lost enough, Cas."
"Not nearly so much as you have lost."
"What's the Spear for?" Sam asks, and Dean glances briefly at him…as do Gabriel and Castiel. "I mean…Everything seems to have this role to play, except for the Spear. What's Dean supposed to do?"
"He protects you," Gabriel says. No hesitation. And…okay, that's something that Dean can get behind, but…still. He should be the one facing off against Lucifer. He started this whole thing, he should end it.
"But you said it can exorcise demons."
"It can," Gabriel says easily. "But in case you haven't noticed, it's got a limited range, and it isn't a weapon. It's not something you can defend yourself with. If a demon gets close enough that you can exorcise it? That's fair game. But there's gonna be a thousand or more demons there, all of them trying to get to either you or Castiel."
"Castiel I can understand, but why me?"
"To remove the Nehushtan," Castiel murmurs. And then, louder, "So long as it remains in the possession of Heaven's chosen, Lucifer is vulnerable. This is not his chosen battlefield - if the Nehushtan is destroyed, he will flee. He will find a new vessel, and he will wait until circumstances are more favorable."
"So, Sam's demon bait," Dean says, "and it'll be my job to keep him safe. Awesome. Just like when we were kids, huh, Sammy?"
"You've always kept me safe," Sam says quietly. "I trust you."
And, you know, what is Dean supposed to say to something like that? All he can do is nudge the car a little further past sixty, and hope that everything turns out for the best.
Detroit is still a day or two away, which is probably why they're caught off guard in the first place – none of them expect anything to be heading towards them.
They stop for the night in a small town on the border between Wyoming and Nebraska, small enough that Sam doesn't even notice a 'Welcome To' sign. Dean bitches the entire way about how the Spear and Sword are messing with Gabriel's ability to teleport them places; it has to do with how difficult it had been to find the Spear in the first place, and how the Sword isn't fully on Earth at all – the Spear won't travel with them, and the Sword will…fly home? Or something? Sam can't explain it in words, but he understands it, viscerally. The same way that Gabriel understands it. He has the idea that Dean understands it, too, but that he's complaining just so that he has something to say, so that the car isn't filled with uncomfortable silences, and the knowledge of what they have to do.
They're driving across the country in order to wage war against a few thousand demons and one majorly pissed-off Fallen angel. It sounds like the plot to a fantasy novel, but, somehow, it's real life.
The bed and breakfast is small and quiet enough that they won't be bothered, and Sam and Gabriel go to get a room while Dean…Sam has no idea what Dean's doing. Probably making out with Castiel while he still has the chance. But Sam…he isn't feeling it. Gabriel's surprisingly understanding – all he does is gently nudge Sam's hip with his own as they approach the front desk. The woman behind it sneezes into her cupped palms, and then smiles as she hands them their key.
"Don't get too many visitors," she says conversationally. Sam can't find it in himself to even smile at her, let alone make small talk – he heads back to the parking lot to check on Dean and Castiel while Gabriel hovers near the front desk, enthusiastically describing how far they've driven to the woman. Their bond is a wall of concern and anxiety – Sam isn't quite sure how to deal with that. He doesn't want to do this, but, at the same time, he wants to get it over with. He's so tired of Lucifer, of demons; he's tired of the fighting and he's tired of knowing that he can't really be trusted, not fully, until Lucifer is dead.
I trust you, he hears – well, hears is the wrong word, because he doesn't hear it with his ears. It's more like the words float to the surface of his brain, and then disappear again. Like hearing yourself think, except you know it isn't coming from you.
"Yeah," Sam says aloud, because he isn't sure if Gabriel will hear him if he just thinks it. Unless Gabriel is actively reading his mind, which is…a distinct possibility. "You're the only one who does."
He makes his way back to the Impala, where he finds that Dean has already started unpacking their duffels from the trunk. At some point, Dean's given Castiel a shotgun to hold – he carries it as if he isn't quite sure why he agreed to hold it in the first place. Sam gently takes it from Castiel's unresisting hands, and receives a small nod of gratitude in return.
"Sure it's a good idea? Just letting Cas hold this out in the open?" Dean shuts the trunk, hefting their duffels over his shoulders. He gives Sam a look that on anyone else might be considered 'pissy,' but somehow Dean just manages to look vaguely mulish.
"We are literally the only people staying here," he says, gesturing briefly around the parking lot. Sam notes that the Impala is the only car in the lot, but that doesn't mean they're the only ones there. He's not about to point that out to Dean, though. They're all on-edge enough as it is, and arguing amongst themselves isn't going to make things any better.
"All right," Sam says, and reaches out to take one of the duffels, fitting the strap over his shoulder. He checks his pocket for their room key, and the three of them walk back to the bed and breakfast. Gabriel is still talking to the older woman behind the counter – she's got a small box of tissues sitting handily at her elbow. Castiel eyes it, and her, with no small amount of suspicion as they pass. Gabriel joins them after a moment, falling into step beside Sam with an ease that it usually takes married couples years to achieve.
I guess we sort of are a married couple, Sam thinks vaguely.
"Something's wrong," Gabriel says. His voice is hushed, as if he's afraid of being overheard. Dean frowns in confusion, but Castiel only nods.
"Everything seems quiet to me," Dean tries.
"And we're the only ones here," Sam adds.
"Exactly," Gabriel says. "We're the only ones here. This place is small, sure, but it's on a major highway that goes straight through town. Where are the tourists? Where are the adulterous couples? The college kids looking for privacy? Have you even seen a single car drive by?"
Sam tries to remember – he had been paying attention to Dean, and to the lingering feeling of Gabriel, not the road…but he thinks he can't recall anyone driving past them. He can't recall the sound of tires or the rumble of an engine. There's nothing here, aside from them.
"Okay," Dean says slowly. "That's…weird, but maybe it just isn't tourist season. And it's getting late…this is a small town, everyone's probably in bed by now."
"No town is so small that everyone goes to sleep by ten in the evening," Gabriel says dryly. They all pause in the hallway in front of their room while Sam gropes through his pocket in order to produce the key. "Something's wrong. I can't put my finger on it yet, but just give me a little…" He stops, tilting his head to the side like a particularly alert bird. Sam fits the key into the ancient lock and turns it. "Do you three smell that?"
"I do," Castiel says immediately.
"It's probably mothballs," Dean mutters. "This building is ancient, I'll bet there's mothballs and mousetraps everywhere."
Sam turns the handle, and pushes open the door.
There's a dead body lying on one of their beds.
Correction: there is what used to be a dead body lying on one of their beds. Sam's pretty sure that it can't reasonably be called a body when ninety percent of it has turned into soup. He covers his nose and mouth with his palm and Dean does the same, both of them staring at the green and black mess that used to be a human being, which is now oozing slowly across the coverlets and dripping down onto the floor.
"Oh my god," Dean says, and then makes a sound as if he's worried he might hork all over his own shoes.
"That is not a mousetrap," Castiel points out gravely.
"Thanks, genius, I'm pretty sure we could have figured that one out by ourselves." Castiel gently touches Dean's shoulder and, after a moment, he straightens up, no longer looking like he's about to hurl.
"This is probably the most disgusting thing I've ever seen," Sam says faintly. "And I'm including the couple who ate each other. What happened here?"
Gabriel, blatantly defying all good and common sense, steps through the doorway and picks his way over to the bed, stepping around what looks like puddles of congealed body parts along the way. He leans over the body, squinting – Sam doesn't get the impression of disgust, or even anger or fear. Just intense curiosity.
"Five different kinds of fungus," Gabriel says. "And a pervasive case of necrotizing fasciitis. I'll give you three guesses, Sam, and two of them don't count."
"Pestilence," Sam says immediately, and Dean makes a noise that sounds an awful lot like an angry water buffalo.
"We have to go up against something that does this?" he asks, incredulously. "Why the fuck is this dude here in the first place?"
"Perhaps he was sent to slow us down," Castiel suggests. "If Lucifer knows that we have the final relic, he will do all he can to prevent us from reaching Detroit in time."
"This is bullshit," Dean snarls. "Lucifer doesn't have the balls to try and stop us himself? And here I thought he was supposed to be powerful."
"He is powerful," Castiel says. "But the relics pose a very real threat to him. He is being prudent, not cowardly."
"I'm surprised you're defending him," Gabriel chimes in. He's conjured up a stick for himself, and is prodding at the blackened mass of tissue on the bed like a kid who's found a beached jellyfish. "Usually you're pretty gung-ho for taking him down, whatever the cost."
"He was my brother, too."
"Is," Gabriel corrects. "No matter what mistakes he's made. He is our brother."
Castiel inclines his head in agreement, and Sam finally feels comfortable with uncovering his nose and mouth. The smell of the body is a combination of rancid meat and the weird, wet and earthy scent of fungus. He can't bring himself to move any closer, but, then again, he doesn't really need to. Gabriel straightens up, vanishing his stick.
"Guess we should find someplace else to stay," Sam mutters. He was sort of looking forward to some sleep…maybe a chance to just be close to Gabriel. But it seems like his wish isn't getting granted today.
"It would be wiser to find and eliminate the threat of Pestilence while we know he is in the area," Castiel suggests.
Gabriel skirts around the bed, then crowds against Sam in the doorway. Sam is pathetically glad that scents don't cling to angels the way they do to humans – Gabriel still smells like dark chocolate and mint. "For once, I agree entirely. Sorry, boys. I know you're tired, but sleeping now will just guarantee you wake up with the Plague and half your bits falling off from syphilis."
Sam winces reflexively, resisting the urge to cover his groin with his hands. Gabriel's expression softens, and he nudges Sam's hip with his own. "Aw, babe, don't worry. I like Sam Jr. right where he is."
"Gonna be sick," Dean mutters, and then shoves his way past Sam and Gabriel, stumbling out into the hallway where Sam can see him leaning against the wall, scrubbing at his face with his palms. Castiel gives them a searching look, and then goes to join Dean.
After a moment, Sam hears Dean sigh, and he leans sideways, sagging against Castiel's shoulder.
"Castiel isn't planning on coming out of this alive, is he," Sam says quietly. He doesn't want Dean to hear. "This is like a…a suicide mission."
"None of us should be planning on coming out alive," Gabriel murmurs. "Hoping, yes. Planning? No."
Sam takes a deep breath. He'd been considering it, the possibility – the very strong possibility – that this will be their last stand. Their swan song. But he had always assumed that Gabriel and Castiel would make it out somehow…they're angels, after all. Powerful. Beautiful.
And apparently just as dispensable.
"All right," Sam says. "Let's hunt down a Horseman."
At this point, they no longer even have a choice.
Pestilence has holed himself up in the local hospital.
Which is probably the most obvious choice ever made by a bad guy, in Dean's opinion. But it only cements the idea in their heads that Pestilence isn't just passing through – he's here for them, specifically. To slow them down. To make things goddamn difficult.
"So, how are we going to do this?" Dean asks. "Can we just…I don't know, set part of the hospital on fire?"
"There are probably people still in there," Sam points out disapprovingly. Dean shrugs.
It was just a suggestion."
"Pestilence is lying in wait," Castiel murmurs. "There is little point in subterfuge at this juncture. It is my suggestion that we enter through the front door."
"You would suggest that," Gabriel complains. "How about I go in first, see what's what, and then handle everything myself?"
"Because you're not as strong as you used to be," Sam says quietly. "If we're going in, we're going in together."
"Sounds like a plan to me," Dean says. "If he already knows we're here, the front door's as good a way to get in as any." He checks to see that his gun is loaded – it is – and then pushes open the driver's side door, leaving Sam, Castiel and Gabriel to decide amongst themselves what to do. But they've got about thirty seconds to do it, because Dean's tired of waiting. He pauses on his way to the front door, standing by the trunk of the Impala, considering. He's been practicing for a reason.
Making a decision, Dean pops the trunk and grabs the Spear. It never hurts to have more weaponry on your person.
"This is crazy," Sam complains, sliding out of the passenger's seat and reaching around Dean for one of the sawed-offs. "I mean seriously, crazy. Even for us. That body…Dean, what if that happens to us?"
"It's not going to happen to us," Dean says firmly. He hefts the Spear in one hand, tensing and then relaxing as he feels Castiel appear at his shoulder.
"Gonna have to put a bell on you or something," he says, and feels, more than sees, Castiel's smile.
"Keep close to us," Gabriel says. The way he says it, though, doesn't leave any room for argument. Like, at all. "If you boys catch Ebola or malaria within the first five minutes you'll be down for the count, but me and Castiel are made of sterner stuff."
"Sterner stuff," Sam repeats incredulously. And then, "Wait…Ebola?"
"Gross," Dean says. He makes sure the safety is off on his pistol, and then, gun in one hand and Spear in the other, he makes his way across the parking lot to the front doors of the hospital, Sam barely a step behind him, and Castiel and Gabriel flanking them like soldiers. To be honest, he supposes they are soldiers – they're warriors of God. And now Gabriel and Cas are protecting them. Trippy.
They have to pry open the automatic doors – the electricity is still on, but the doors don't budge when Dean steps in front of them. Luckily, the Spear is good for more than just skewering demons. A little bit of leverage and the doors pop right open…and Dean immediately wishes they hadn't. The smell that wafts out of the building is unbelievably rank, like someone left a plate of raw meat outside in the middle of June, and then just let it sit for a week. It's a smell that calls to mind blowflies and open sores and leftover Chinese food kept out of the fridge for too long. And the worst part is, it's pervasive. It doesn't lessen or become more bearable the longer they stand there breathing it in.
It's fucking awful, and so familiar it almost hurts. Dean can't even think of any words to describe how awful it is – he's pretty sure he'll be smelling the fermenting vegetation and rancid meat stink of it for the rest of his life. Like it'll creep up on him when he least expects it, following him around like a malignant ghost.
"Oh fuck," Sam says, and then leans off to the side, retching as he struggles to control his unruly stomach. To tell the truth, Dean feels an awful lot like puking, too.
"What is that?" Sam manages to spit out, in between dry heaves.
"Well, this is a community hospital," Gabriel says thoughtfully. "It's smaller, holds maybe two hundred, two hundred and fifty people. So that, gentlemen, is the smell of two hundred and fifty people, give or take, all dying simultaneously of just about every disease known to mankind."
"Shit," Sam says.
"And you said we couldn't just set the place on fire," Dean complains, and then, Castiel trailing behind him, he takes a step into the hospital, resisting the urge to cover his mouth and nose with his palm. He feels Castiel's hand touch his shoulder – he isn't sure if it's to reassure him or to work some of that mojo Gabriel was talking about earlier, but he's grateful for it either way.
"Four floors," Sam says. He steps up beside Dean, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
"Shouldn't have had that crunchwrap supreme, huh," Dean says, and Sam racks his shotgun, scowling.
"Bite me," he grumbles, and Dean grins at him. He's pretty sure his smile looks more than a little flimsy, considering their surroundings, but Sam seems to take heart from it all the same. "How much you want to bet Pestilence is on the fourth floor?"
Gabriel takes a step forward into the empty waiting room, tilting his head. Castiel doesn't hesitate to follow him, and the two angels stand side by side, almost preternaturally still – like they're listening for something.
"The top floor," Castiel agrees, after a moment. "He is waiting for us there."
"Elevators are broken," Gabriel adds. "Hope you don't mind taking the stairs."
"We're gonna need artificial knees and hips if we ever reach middle age," Sam complains.
Dean snorts – he definitely doesn't expect to reach thirty-five, let alone forty or fifty. But whatever, let Sam bitch about things that probably won't happen...no, no, that's a bad idea. It will happen, for Sam. He'll celebrate his fiftieth birthday surrounded by...Dean has no idea. Gabriel and like, four dogs that he's rescued, maybe a kid they've decided to adopt. Yeah. That sounds…perfect enough, as far as their lives are concerned.
"Stop bitching," Dean says, and heads for the hallway, where he can see a sign poking out from around the corner. He figures an arrow and a picture of a staircase is a pretty good indication of where the stairwell is.
Sam, unfortunately, is right – they're more than up to the task of taking four flights of stairs, but Dean can feel the way his knees start to protest as they reach the third floor. That they're carrying at leas a dozen pounds of metal and rock salt doesn't help. Castiel offers to carry the Spear at one point, but Dean brushes off his concern with an unhappy grunt. He'll let other people carry his shit for him when he's either dead or missing both arms. And probably not even then. He's willing to bet that he can find someone to rig up some sweet prosthetics, in case of that particular catastrophe.
The smell gets worse the higher they climb, and by the time they reach the top floor Dean realizes why the smell pings against his memories like shards of shrapnel – this is what Hell smelled like. Sickness and despair and blood. He stops in his tracks, causing Sam to bump into his back with a soft curse.
"Dean? You okay?"
"Yeah," Dean croaks. "Just…just gimme a minute."
"We don't have a minute," Gabriel speaks up. "We need to smoke Pestilence now, and if you're too much of a…"
Gabriel doesn't get to finish – there's a bright crack, loud enough that it causes Dean to jump in surprise, and when he glances back Sam looks like someone's just dropped a live scorpion down his shirt, and Gabriel is gingerly rubbing his jaw.
Castiel looks completely unruffled, but his right hand is balled into a tense fist. As he watches Castiel slowly relaxes and, looking right at Dean, says, "Dean requires a minute to compose himself. Please allow him this."
"You hit me," Gabriel says, though there isn't any shock in his voice. If anything, he sounds…intrigued?
"You are being a brat," Castiel says matter-of-factly.
"Guys," Dean interrupts, before Gabriel has the chance to open his big mouth and start an argument. "I'm okay. Let's keep going. We're almost there."
"You sure?" Sam looks worried, now, instead of gobsmacked. Dean gives him another wan smile, and then pushes open the door to the stairwell…
He steps out into a slaughterhouse.
Taking the stairs meant they hadn't seen the state of the rest of the hospital, but the fourth floor is literally swamped with bodies. Vomit, mucus, and other fluids that Dean doesn't even want to think about cover the hallway, and the bodies themselves are starting to decompose – Dean has no idea how long Pestilence has been holed up here, but he's willing to bet at least a few days, maybe even a week. Most of the bodies are of older people, in their seventies or eighties…at least, the fresher, more recognizable bodies are. Some of them don't even look human any more, and it becomes almost impossible to guess at an age when the person's face is beginning to slough off.
"Dean," Sam says. "I don't feel so good."
It isn't just the smell, either, because Dean feels it too, and knows, almost instinctively, that it's similar to whatever Sam is experiencing. He doesn't just feel like he's going to throw up…he feels feverish, and his skin itches something awful. He takes another, staggering step forward and rolls up his sleeve, almost absently.
His forearm is covered with red spots.
"Measles!" Gabriel exclaims. "Haven't seen those in a while!" Sam coughs, a wet, hacking noise, and then leans over, spitting out a wad of neon-yellow mucus. Castiel puts his hand on Dean's shoulder, gently propelling him forward.
"Thought you said we wouldn't get sick," Dean says thickly.
"Be glad you aren't hemorrhaging," Gabriel says dryly. "You could be oozing pus and blood from every orifice you have. Instead, me and Castiel are taking it for you."
As if on cue, Castiel follows Sam's example, and spits a thick gob of what looks like blood off to the side. They step around the bodies, Sam's coughing and Dean's rash growing worse by the minute, until Gabriel motions for them to stop in front of a door at the very end of the hallway. Dean is only narrowly resisting the urge to use the Spear as a backscratcher - he has the idea it would probably end quite badly.
"In here," Gabriel says. There are soft voices, floating through the door – Dean can't make out what they're saying, but, then again, he doesn't need to, because after a moment the door opens on its own, to reveal a young woman wearing bloodied nurse's scrubs and a nametag that's so covered in gore the name has been completely obscured.
"Winchesters," the woman says; she blinks, and her eyes cloud over with blackness. "We've been expecting you."
Dean sees Sam move out of the corner of his eye, and steps instinctively out of the way – just in time. The shotgun blast hits the demon full on in the chest, and she flies backwards with a sound like nails on a chalkboard. Dean glances to the side – Sam's hands are shaking so badly that he can't pump the shotgun, and there's blood trickling from the corner of his mouth.
And then Sam makes a fist, the Nehushtan glinting despite the dim light, and the demon glares hatefully at them as black smoke begins to pour from the woman's mouth.
"Impressive," a soft voice says. "A bit more cavalry than I was expecting, but that hardly matters."
Dean flicks the safety on and then tucks his pistol into his belt, wiping at his mouth with the back of his hand. His hands comes away bloody – his entire right arm is covered with that bright red rash, and he can practically feel it creeping up his back, over his shoulders as he takes a step into the room, Spear at the ready.
Pestilence is dressed in a doctor's white coat, and he's leaning over the bed of a woman, her grey hair thinning, her breath rattling in her lungs. She's covered in open, weeping sores and, after a moment, Pestilence lets her hand drop down onto her chest. She takes another wheezing breath, and then another, and then…stops.
"Spanish flu," Pestilence says fondly. "Good times. Always nice to see the classics becoming popular again."
"You son of a bitch," Dean snarls, and Sam makes a soft noise of surprise as he doubles over, and then begins coughing, hard enough that his whole body shakes. Gabriel immediately loops an arm around his shoulders, keeping him from collapsing entirely.
Pestilence smiles. "Sam! Dean! You boys don't look well. Might be the measles. Or the meningitis. Or the…syphilis. And we've also got, let's see…a pair of Falling angels with…" Pestilence squints, and his smile grows wider. "A combination of tetanus, Ebola, and rabies! The fact that you're managing to hold yourselves together is impressive in and of itself."
"Bite me," Gabriel snaps, and then makes a short, sharp gesture that causes Pestilence to laugh. When he laughs, Sam's cough seems to get worse, and Dean winces as the itching intensifies – it's spread to his legs and groin, now. Castiel touches his hand, the hand holding the Spear, and then gently starts to pry Dean's fingers loose while Pestilence's attention is focused elsewhere.
Stop, Dean thinks, but all he gets back is the vague feeling that it will be all right, even as Castiel slowly repositions himself, inching around the edge of the room towards Pestilence's back.
"You've got just about all you can handle," Pestilence tuts. "Just trying to keep your pets safe. I commend you for it, but it isn't going to do any good in the long run. It's impossible for you to win this. Lucifer knows about your…" Pestilence wrinkles his nose. "Your little side-project. He's quite prepared to face you on the battlefield…and he will ruin you. He will leave you as decimated husks of your former selves."
Pestilence turns his calm gaze to Sam, still bent over, still gasping for air. "And once he's turned your brother and your pet angels into bloody smears on the ground, you will say 'yes' to him, Sam Winchester. I guarantee it."
"Think again, asshole," Sam spits out, just as Castiel grabs hold of Pestilence and pins him against the wall, teeth bared in a grimace and…
And Jesus, Cas is sweating blood. Dean struggles to take a step forward, but the itching is threatening to drive him crazy – he can't stop himself from shoving a hand up his shirt, scratching desperately at the rash he can feel spreading across his stomach. His fingernails come away bloody, and he finds that he doesn't care, because the itching just won't stop.
"You're dead men walking," Pestilence spits; he struggles, nearly throwing Castiel off. Gabriel is quick to slam the Horseman back against the wall, while Dean is left to catch Sam before he falls over, and he still itches so bad, so bad. "Lucifer will burn this planet clean, and he will start with you."
Gabriel grabs Pestilence's hand, forcing him to extend his fingers – like the Nehushtan, the Horseman's ring seems to glint despite the darkness outside, and the lack of light in the room.
"We're looking forward to it," Gabriel says, and Castiel brings the Spearhead down with a low, angry snarl. There's a meaty thunk, like sinking a knife into a chuck roast, and Pestilence makes the most awful, unearthly sound that Dean has ever heard. It is literally the sound of sickness, of a hundred thousand people dying of cancer and AIDS, a high and wailing note of despair, and fear, and almost unimaginable anger.
The severed finger drops to the floor, the ring clinking against the tile, and Pestilence glares hatefully at them. His eyes are red-rimmed. "Even if you get there in time," he hisses. "You'll lose. You will always lose."
And then he vanishes, leaving behind his ring, and air that seems, suddenly, a thousand times cleaner. Easier to breath. Dean heaves in a deep, gasping breath as the itching abruptly stops - he pulls his hand out from under his shirt and stares, disconcerted, at his bloodied nails. His stomach hurts. Sam hesitantly straightens up again, clutching his stomach with one hand, taking quick, almost panicked breaths. His lungs sound clear.
"I think I'm gonna need some bandages," Dean says faintly. Gabriel stoops down to pick up Pestilence's finger, deftly pulling the ring free and then tucking it into his pocket. Castiel looks worried, in that way that he has where he isn't actually emoting, but Dean can feel it all the same.
"We should go," Cas says softly. "I will tend to your injuries in the car. Sam will drive."
"Like hell Sam's driving," Dean complains, and Sam dutifully punches him in the shoulder as he passes. It doesn't hurt – the rash is completely gone. He glances at Gabriel. "And you're not bringing that finger with you."
"Aw," Gabriel says. "It would make such a nice souvenir, though! You know, for the three or four days we have left."
Dean snorts, pushing past Gabriel to stand shoulder to shoulder with Cas. The Spearhead isn't even bloody – Dean wonders if that's because of the Spear, or because of Pestilence. Castiel stands quietly for a moment, and then hands the Spear back to Dean.
"Are you okay?" Dean asks. There's a fine film of blood smeared across Castiel's face. "I mean…no permanent damage?"
"I require rest," Castiel says, pursing his mouth. "I will be able to achieve this as we drive." He glances sideways, frowning. "Your shirt is bloody."
Dean looks down. Castiel is right – the front of his shirt is dotted with blood. His stomach burns. "Huh," he says. "Bandages in the car. Right."
"C'mon, lovebirds," Gabriel calls out – he and Sam are already starting down the stairs. "We've got five days until the world ends! Let's get moving!"
"Cas," Dean says softly. "Look, if this ends how I think it'll end…You should know…" His throat closes up. Dean knows he isn't sick anymore, but still it feels as though he can't breathe.
Castiel just looks at him, smiling faintly.
"I know," he says simply, and then draws Dean towards the staircase, and out of the hospital.
They have five days to get to Detroit before Death. Death, Gabriel tells them, doesn't generally follow a reliable schedule, but Lucifer does, and Lucifer is the one who's holding the leash.
They make it in three.
The first day (well, night, really), Sam ends up driving, Gabriel sitting in the front beside him making inappropriate comments about what's going on in the back seat (Castiel, trying in vain to get Dean to hold still while he bandages his bloodied stomach). The Spear is once again in the trunk of the Impala, the Nehushtan is wrapped around Sam's wrist…Gabriel's got his horn clipped to his belt, and Castiel still has the Sword stuffed into his trench coat pocket like a stray wad of tissue paper. They're as prepared as they're ever going to be.
When Sam isn't driving, he's sleeping, which is about eighty percent of the time anyways. Dean doesn't like anyone else driving his baby, even though Sam knows that he's got to be hurting. He'd only allowed Gabriel to heal so much – he keeps saying that they have to save their energy. That, if Cas is going to be the one to end this, then Gabriel had damn well better keep him safe. Sam doesn't have the heart to bring up the fact that, at this point, they've all got about the same chance of survival. Pestilence was right…Gabriel and Castiel might not be Fallen, but they're definitely plummeting downwards, and at a rate that causes Sam no small amount of alarm.
He tries to bring it up, once.
"What happens after?" he asks Gabriel. Castiel is sitting in the front seat while Sam dozes in the back. Dean's hand occasionally strays to his stomach – Cas has to be up there to keep Dean from itching at his bandages.
"Yeah," Sam murmurs drowsily. "After everything. After we beat Lucifer. Do you and Cas go back to Heaven? Do angel things?"
Gabriel doesn't answer for the longest time. Sam lets his eyes drift shut, but doesn't give in to the temptation of sleep just yet. He wants to hear what Gabriel has to say. Knows that Dean wants to hear, too – even though his eyes are closed, he can still tell, by the sudden silence of the radio, that Dean is listening.
"It depends on what happens," Gabriel says finally. Sam shakes his head, then drowsily brushes his hair away from his mouth and nose.
"No," he murmurs. "We're going to win. We'll win, and then…and then you'll stay? You have to stay."
"There is no guarantee that we'll survive, Sam," Castiel says quietly. "If the last thing that we shall do with our lives is to destroy Lucifer, then we shall be content."
"Speak for yourself," Gabriel mutters. And then, "You know how it is, kiddo. I can't make any promises. Even if we do win, and we don't end up kicking the bucket in the process…There's no way to tell what'll happen."
Gabriel leans sideways, hand sliding over Sam's thigh, pressing a soft kiss to the corner of his mouth. With his eyes closed, everything seems amplified. Sam imagines he can even feel the warmth of Gabriel's fading Grace, but that's probably just in his head.
"You'll always have this part of me," Gabriel whispers, too low, Sam thinks, for even Castiel to hear. "No matter where I go, if I die or if I live, there'll always be this little piece of me, with you. And it might hurt, but I promise it'll never go away."
And then he leans back, making a soft, disgruntled sound.
"Now, enough of this sap-fest," he proclaims, kicking his feet against the back of Dean's seat. Dean grunts, and glares at Gabriel in the rearview mirror. "We should be listening to some classics, getting pumped for the final battle! Not moping around in silence."
Sam turns, pressing his cheek to the smooth, cool leather seat. He hears Dean make a noise that might be annoyance, or might be only slightly-annoyed approval, and then the click of the tape deck as he takes out the Best of Black Sabbath cassette he'd been playing before. Another click, and the speakers belt out the opening to Def Leppard's 'Rock of Ages.' Sam presses his cheek harder against the seat, consciously forcing himself to slip into that mental zone where Dean's loud music doesn't keep him from sleeping.
He feels Gabriel shift beside him, and then a warm weight drapes over him – Gabriel's jacket.
Sam falls asleep to the sound of Joe Elliot asking him what he wants.
I want it to be over, Sam thinks, just before he drifts off. I want it to be done.
They drive. They drive until the sun goes down and the world is shrouded in darkness, and then they drive a little more, because they don't have any time to waste. They take turns sleeping in the back – Sam thinks that Dean has gotten to the point where he's running off of adrenaline and nothing else. They pause at gas stations and quick-marts, stocking up on energy bars and caffeine drinks, listening to the attendants talk about how the storm of the century is blowing down from the north, heading straight for Chicago and Detroit and leaving a trail of debris and torn up houses in its wake. It's already claimed eighteen lives in Wisconsin alone, and the two cities are woefully unprepared for the momentum the storm is picking up.
They don't stop for the night. At one point, they're both so tired that Gabriel offers to take the wheel, and Dean lets him. Sam and his brother sleep curled in the back seat like they're kids again, and Sam is stupidly glad to see that Dean's nightmares are…less violent, even if they haven't gone away entirely.
Castiel still isn't allowed to drive the car, but Dean does let him help Sam when it comes time to change Dean's bandages.
And on the third day, they reach Detroit.
Sam's never been to Detroit before – he's utterly certain that they've at least passed through Michigan, but somehow they almost always manage to avoid the larger cities (stranger things happen in small towns, he supposes). So his mental image of the place is generic big city, with some hellfire and brimstone thrown in for good measure, considering that it's where everything is going to end. He's surprised by what they find: it's a huge place, of course…
…But it's silent.
Completely and totally silent. If there are any people left at all, Sam doesn't see them. He assumes the worst, and can tell by Dean's expression that he's doing the same.
"Evacuation," Gabriel says, immediately upon their driving past the city limits. "And a damn good one, too. The storm warnings only started about four days ago."
"But how long has Lucifer been here," Dean says; Gabriel's mouth presses into a thin line, and he doesn't say anything else.
They drive to the center of the city, following no directions in particular, but each of them feels it in their gut that Lucifer would be drawn to the absolute middle of everything. "Centers have power," Castiel explains. "Just like edges have power. It is both an end and a beginning."
"I have no fucking clue what that means," Dean mutters. Sam laughs, but he isn't sure if there's any humor in it. His cell phone still gets reception, even here, in the heart of this empty city – he opens up a text, unsure of what to say. Finally, he presses his thumbs down, and types:
Bobby, you've always been like a dad to us. If this works, we'll let Karen know you love her. If it doesn't…tell everyone we tried.
He hits send.
"There are people," Dean says quietly. Both Gabriel and Castiel glance out the windows, peering upwards. Sam doesn't look. He isn't sure he wants to.
"Demons," Gabriel says. "A lot of them."
"The first of many," Castiel corrects. Dean carefully drives around an SUV that's been abandoned in the middle of the road, and then maneuvers the Impala into a small, dead-end alley. He shifts into park, letting out a breath that Sam knows is eighty percent bravado and twenty percent worry.
"Lucifer's up ahead," he says, and none of them bother to question him. Sam can feel it, vibrating somewhere in his bones. Yes, Lucifer is up ahead – and he's waiting for them. Sam touches the Nehushtan, curled small and warm around his wrist. He sees Castiel reaching into the pocket of his trench coat out of the corner of his eye.
"Right," Dean says, and then takes a deep breath. He gets out of the car, and the rest of them follow suit. Sam can see what Dean was talking about, now – he hasn't noticed anyone wandering around, hasn't seen any traffic or police officers or anything, but, looking up, he can see the dim silhouettes of people, pressed up against the windows of the buildings around them. Some are apartments, some are office buildings, but they're all filled with demons.
"I just had a thought," Dean says, popping the trunk of the Impala and reaching in to retrieve the Spear and a sawed-off for Sam. "What if this is the Rapture? You know, all the 'faithful' getting zapped off to Heaven. It would explain why there's no one here."
"It is possible there was…Heavenly intervention," Castiel says tentatively. "It is also possible that many of the humans in this city have been…"
"Don't go there," Sam hears Gabriel murmur. "That's the last thing they need to think about."
But it's not like he and Dean haven't already considered it. At this point, the only thing keeping them from despairing is the total lack of bodies. Even if Lucifer was given a whole week of alone time with Detroit, Sam's pretty sure that there'd be…something to show for it. Blood smeared on walls or buildings on fire, that sort of thing.
Sam twists the Nehushtan around his wrist as Dean hefts the Spear in one hand, and Castiel draws the Sword out of his coat pocket. You could mistake it for a Swiss Army knife, if you weren't looking closely…and then Castiel closes his eyes, just for a second, and the Sword flashes. Sam squints – it's like turning a spotlight on and then off again, really quickly. Sam gives it a moment, and then glances over again. The Sword's returned to its old length, but whereas Dean had brought back something that looked like an ordinary short sword, in Castiel's hands it's a claymore, huge and intimidating, the blade etched with Enochian symbols that make Sam's eyeballs swim in his skull if he looks too closely at them. And Cas holds it with an ease and familiarity that implies he's done this before. This isn't the first time he's gone into battle.
Sam watches Castiel give the Sword a once-over, neatly falling into a stance that he's never even seen before, and feels marginally better about their chances. Castiel knows what he's doing. He might not be at full strength, but he knows.
"That is so hot," Dean says faintly. Sam reaches out and roughly jabs him in the side. "Ow. Hey, just because your angel doesn't have an awesome sword…"
"Don't need a sword," Gabriel says brightly. He cracks his knuckles, and then smiles at Sam. It's about the furthest thing from a 'nice' smile that Sam has ever seen, sharp and alien and almost painfully excited. "I was just planning on ripping things apart with my bare hands, if that's all right with you."
"Uh," Sam says dumbly. Gabriel leans close, nudges him with his hip. The Horn, clipped to his belt, is oddly warm against Sam's side.
"No worries, kiddo," Gabriel murmurs. "I can take care of myself."
"Okay," Dean says, handing the sawed-off to Sam. He checks – the shells aren't packed with rock salt. They aren't aiming to exorcise, this time. "We're as prepared as we're gonna get. It's go time."
"'It's go time?'" Sam repeats dubiously, and Dean punches him in the shoulder as he laughs; short, coughing giggles that are just as indicative of fear as they are of humor.
Sam can't help the feeling that this might be his last chance to smile for a long, long time.
It's freezing outside, even though it's late Spring – it's got to be at least as low as fifty-five degrees out, maybe less. Dean finds one of Sam's old shirts (long forgotten after it was packed away in the trunk of the Impala) and tears it into long strips that they tie around their foreheads, ready to be pulled down at a moment's notice. Gabriel does something to their ears, something that involves a lot of muttering in Enochian, or maybe Hebrew, and leaves him looking exhausted afterwards, but no less ready to fight.
"This is really weird," Dean says, half because it is and half because hearing his own voice is like listening to music underwater, sort of muffled and wavering.
"It'll keep your eardrums from rupturing, at the very least," Gabriel says wearily. His voice sounds like what would happen if you dumped a load of glass down a garbage disposal, but…Dean can hear it without clutching his head in pain, so he guesses that's the entire point. Being able to hear without being totally incapacitated.
They leave the Impala behind (Dean's reasoning is that it's less likely to get damaged if it's further away from the battlefield, though he has no idea where the fight will spread to), weaving in between cars that have been left in the middle of the road, keeping an eye out for demons…but they're alone.
"It's like a ghost city," Sam murmurs, his blindfold pulled up in such a way that it makes his hair look even stupider than before.
Dean squints – up ahead he can vaguely see the outline of a person standing on the roof of a building, silhouetted against the Detroit skyline. The person has their hands tucked loosely in their pockets, and as they get closer Dean is able to pick out details.
"Look who it is," he says, and nudges Sam with his shoulder. All four of them glance up.
Lucifer looks down on them, and smiles.
He's in worse shape than the last time they saw him – his face (his vessel's face, Dean reminds himself) is covered with what looks like burns or open sores, bright red, ugly, painful-looking. Does Lucifer even feel pain?
Dean hopes so, because they're going to tear him a goddamn new one.
"Hey, guys," Lucifer calls down to them. His voice is like shards of frozen metal. Hearing it is physically painful, and somehow beautiful at the same time. If he were anyone else, his expression could be mistaken for fondness. As it is, it only sends a shiver down Dean's spine. "So nice of you to drop in. Sorry if it's a bit chilly. Most people think I burn hot, but it's actually quite the opposite."
"I'll alert the media," Dean says. He doesn't worry about his voice carrying – Lucifer will hear him either way. He feels Sam tense beside him, and reaches out, almost blindly, to find his brother's hand. He doesn't exactly hold it, but Sam gives him a grateful look nonetheless.
"Help me understand something, guys," Lucifer continues. "I mean, stomping through my front door is...a tad suicidal, don't you think?"
"We are prepared for that eventuality," Castiel rasps. He holds the Sword at his side, his grip loose, easy. "We are also prepared to kill you."
"Is that so," Lucifer laughs. "I see you're already armed and ready. Well, then I welcome the challenge." Lucifer tilts his head, so eerily reminiscent of Castiel that Dean has to close his eyes, just for a moment, in order to reorient himself. Something went wrong with Lucifer…and now Cas has to fix it.
"But before you make your final stand," Lucifer says, "what say we even the playing field? I've got a few friends who've just been dying to sink their teeth into you."
Dean doesn't need an explanation, doesn't need Lucifer to explain his stupid joke - he knows that smell, of singed fur and brimstone and fire. And he knows that sound…the click of sharp claws against the ground, the low, almost subsonic growling. The hot breath. The pain. The blackness.
He can hear them.
"Puppies," Gabriel exclaims, and there's such malicious intent in his voice that Dean feels…better. Only marginally, but it's enough to make him open his eyes again. He can't see the hellhounds, but he knows they're there, flanking Lucifer. Like some part of him has trained itself to recognize that particular threat, just in case.
"Looks like you've been missed, Dean," Lucifer croons. The hellhounds snarl in unison, and Dean flinches. He can feel Cas next to him, a solid line of comforting heat. "Things just haven't been the same since you were taken away from us."
"Don't," Sam snarls. "Don't talk to him. Don't even look at him."
"Oh Sam," Lucifer sighs. "This doesn't need to happen. I know you. Say 'yes', Sam. Say 'yes' and I will rebuild this planet. Make it better. Imagine no crime or suffering or hatred. This planet exactly as God intended it. A paradise."
"Your paradise," Sam throws back. "No humans, no demons, and no angels. Nothing. That's a wasteland, not a paradise, and I will not say 'yes' to you."
Lucifer frowns, brow furrowed in confusion, and Dean realizes something frightening - Lucifer doesn't understand why Sam is refusing. Lucifer honestly thinks that what he's doing will somehow…Dean doesn't know. Get him back on God's good side, maybe? But he seriously thinks he's doing the right thing. All the chaos, all the blood and destruction…the fucking Horsemen…is Lucifer trying to be the good guy.
"This has to stop," he says. His throat is dry, his voice cracks – there's no time to stop, to rest, to get water or food or anything. This is it. He turns to Gabriel, and then resolutely pulls his blindfold down. The fabric is thin enough that he can see vague, gauzy shapes, but nothing else. He wonders if it will be enough. He guesses they'll find out pretty quickly. There's a flutter of movement, off to the side – Sam pulling down his own blindfold.
Dean can't see his face anymore, but Lucifer's voice is sad as he says, "So be it. If it must once again be reduced to brother against brother, then…blow Gabriel, blow."
And that's exactly what Gabriel does.
The Horn sounds like nothing Dean's ever heard before. If you could take the concept of rainstorms, and the feel of glass splintering, and the exhilaration of speed, and then condense it all down into a sound, barely audible to human ears but profound all the same, that is what Gabriel's Horn is like. It's the sound that heralded the beginning of the universe, and now it peals throughout the city like a siren, huge and strange and beautiful. Dean has to cover his ears (can only half manage it, unless he wants to drop the Spear) to keep from going insane, he thinks, and then there's a noise like the steady thud of a bass speaker, somewhere below that unearthly wail. Like something pulsing towards the surface of the Earth. Beside him, he can make out Sam, holding his wrist up in awe. The Nehushtan glows with a brilliant and unassuming copper light, responding to the resonance of the Horn.
"Cas," Dean says – the world is made up of muted, dark blobs. Shapes, but no color. There's a flash of light, and then another, and another. It hurts Dean's skin, but he can stand to glance at it, if only for a short time. The light in front of him is interspersed with dark figures, 'humanoid' in only the most vague sense of the term. He can see the hellhounds.
The flashes of light on either side of him are both clear. He feels something touch his arm – it isn't shaped like a hand.
"I am here, Dean," Castiel says. There are demons everywhere, he can hear them. Howling. Snarling. Horrible, inhuman sounds that belong in Hell, not here. He feels Sam raise his shotgun, beside him. "Gabriel will remain with you. I must reach Lucifer."
And then Gabriel – the light that is Gabriel – ripples. Distressed. "Michael," he says, except it isn't really speaking. Cas and Gabriel aren't using words, not the way humans do. Dean turns his head. More light. More darkness. It's impossible to make out anything but blurry shapes.
And then there's this awful squalling noise, somehow worse than Lucifer, and it's impossible to find anything even beginning to resemble human speech in it, but somehow Dean knows what it is. What it's saying.
"It was never meant to be you, Castiel," Michael says.
"Yes. It was," Castiel responds, and then he – his light – moves away with a last gentle touch to Dean's shoulder. A brush of Grace.
"Dean," Sam speaks up. "Demons. Lots of them."
"I said there would be," Gabriel says. There's a snarl, a whiff of brimstone, far too close for comfort – Dean raises the Spear and waits for the shadows that had been swarming in Lucifer's light to get closer, to clump together. The Spear is practically vibrating in his hands. He stabs out, grinning when he discovers that the demons might just be clouds of blackness, but the Spear treats them as flesh and bone. There's a satisfying thuck as the point tears through part of that billowing cloud, followed by a screech of anger and pain.
And then there isn't time to think about the Lucifer, about Michael, anything. Just the fight. It's a mechanical motion, thrust and stab and pull back. Anything that's not made of light is fair game, and the first time that Dean hears Gabriel tearing into one of the hellhounds (short, sharp yips of anguish, Gabriel laughing, the spatter of blood against Dean's legs and boots) he smiles, even though he can't do it himself. Beside him, Sam loads and reloads his shotgun, pumping the swarm of demons full of rock salt, and then, when he runs out of shells, he switches to the Nehushtan, sparks of light flaring through the dark patches that Dean doesn't manage to ward off with the Spear.
"How's Cas doing?" he shouts, and sees, through the blindfold, Gabriel turn towards him, casually tossing aside something vaguely head-shaped.
"Michael's being an ass!" he calls back, and then gleefully tears into the cloud of demons, great slashing motions, like his entire being is sharp and deadly. Weaponized. And Dean can hear it…them. Lucifer, and Michael and Castiel. A sound that isn't quite like the clang of metal, but more like the idea of it. The three of them, fighting. "He isn't letting Castiel through!"
Dean slashes through the swarm of demons, and then, not thinking, uses shaft of the Spear to jab at the blackness behind him. He's pleasantly surprised when it connects with a meaty thud, but less than pleased when the demon retaliates, raking claws or teeth or something over Dean's arm, and then solidly slamming against his chest. He stumbles, biting back a sound of pain, and sees…
"Cas!" he shouts, and Gabriel snaps his head (does he even have a head?) around, making a noise that's indescribable and loud and pissed the hell off. Dean gropes for Sam's arm, yanks him away from the demon that's trying to grab on to his shoulder, and says, "I have to help him."
"Dean, you can't."
"Yeah, well." He tries to smile – he's pretty sure he fails, but Sam can't see it anyways, so it doesn't matter. "Since when has that stopped me?"
He can imagine Sam's face – pursed lips, furrowed brow, bitchface number five, that says 'as much as it pains me to admit it, you might be right.' Demons and hellhounds swarm around them, and Gabriel thins the ranks, but he can't do it fast enough. There must be millions of demons, and there's only three of them.
Sam touches Dean's shoulder, and brushes his fingertips across the tense line of Dean's jaw.
"Okay," he says, and then calls out, "Gabriel! Cover me!"
"Bit busy here!"
But there's a flurry of movement, almost like wings, and then Gabriel's too close, his light is too close. Dean shields his eyes with one and, and then, using the Spear to ward off the demons, he pushes away from Sam and dives into the swirling blackness.
It's like walking through a sandstorm, but the sand is made of tiny shards of glass. He's bleeding from a dozen different small cuts and at least one large gash on his arm, and it feels like an eternity passes before he breaks through the swarm, and Castiel is just lying there, light dim. There's a solid something resting next to him. The Sword, Dean realizes.
"Cas," he says, breathless, fucking terrified. "C'mon, Cas, you're okay. You have to be."
"Dean," Cas murmurs. "I…the Sword. Where…?" He struggles to…sit up, to stand? To move at all, and Dean tries to push him back down, because there's light everywhere, dim and not where it should be, little rivulets streaming along the ground. Do angels bleed? Dean has the uncomfortable feeling that they can. That he's seeing it.
"Dean Winchester," he hears Michael say – he doesn't need to turn around to be able to feel the bastard hovering behind him. "It's time to stop playing. I can destroy Lucifer, without the use of relics. Toys. All I need is your consent."
"Not a chance in hell," Dean growls. He tilts his head up – Lucifer is a bright smudge of mottled light against the battlefield, no longer hovering atop a building but walking amongst the demons, scorching the earth he moves over. Indiscriminate power.
Something clicks in Dean's head.
"But if you want him put down as much as I do, then you can help."
Castiel tries to stop him, makes a choked noise that's like bird's wings breaking, but Dean hushes him, says, "It's gonna be okay, Cas. I promise." He lets the Spear fall to the ground next to Castiel – he doesn't need it, but Cas might.
He grabs the Sword.
It burns. Not like fire, but like ice – it seeps down into his skin almost immediately lodging there between his muscle and his bone, like having liquid nitrogen pumped into his veins. He grits his teeth and hefts the Sword, ignoring Castiel's weak protest, Michael's slow and ponderous sound of shock. Holding it is agony, but it's an agony that he can bear, at least for a little while. He doesn't know how long it will take for the cold to start creeping up his arms, but he's going to do as much as he possibly can before that happens.
"So either help or get out of my way, asshole," Dean says, low, thick. He might be crying – he isn't sure if it's from the pain, or…
Michael looks at him…and then steps out of the way.
"I'll be right back, Cas," he promises. "Right back." But he's lying, and they both know it.
Dean grips the Sword, shuddering at the cold that stings his fingers, makes it nearly impossible to let go, and then steps past Michael and makes his way toward Lucifer. The swarms of demons recoil from the light the Sword gives off – Dean doesn't blame them, he wants to flinch away, too – until there's a neat half-circle of space surrounding them. There's a sharp noise of pain from behind him, and Dean turns away from the light, from Lucifer, just for a second. He can't risk pulling up his blindfold, but that sounded like Sam, and…
Something slams into his back. Hard. He doesn't lose his grip on the Sword, but he does fall to his knees, the wind knocked from his lungs. Fuck, it was like getting hit by a semi, and he's surrounded by that weird light, like mold spots on a peach.
Lucifer grips him by the scruff of the neck, and his touch burns almost as badly as the Sword does. He can't let go. It hurts to move his fingers, and he can't let go, and he can't move.
"This is how you choose to let it end," Lucifer murmurs. He's too close – Dean feels something in his head splinter, and warmth trickles down the side of his neck. Is he bleeding? "Because you refused to accept destiny, you will die in the dirt, my brothers will Fall, and without you and his bondmate Sam will have none to turn to but me. How does it feel, Dean? Knowing that you've lost everything? That there is no one to help you. That you are alone."
Dean can't see. Lucifer is too close, he's terrified that if he dares to open his eyes his brain will be charbroiled in his head, and he won't even get to try to kill Lucifer. He'll die without having made any difference at all.
But he can still hear.
"Not completely alone."
Lucifer makes a noise, punched-out and angry as a rabid animal. The light is intermingled, but Dean can tell where one ends and the other begins – mottled brightness bleeding into something cold and pure. Michael. The two angels grapple with each other while Dean struggles to his feet, bleeding from about ten different places, and not to mention the pain of the Sword inching up his palms, over his wrists. He wonders if, when he finally lets go of it, his skin will slough off, like he's been burned.
"Winchester!" Michael shouts, a blast of sound like a trumpet or a bell. "If this is as God intended, then strike now! Finish it!"
His head feels like it's full of cotton, but Dean takes a staggering step forward, and then another. He squints until he can barely see at all, lifting the Sword, holding it the way he'd seen Castiel hold it, earlier. He has no idea if he's doing it right, but he doesn't care, because Lucifer's immobile, and all Dean needs is a few seconds.
"This isn't right!" Lucifer's shouting, over and over. "This isn't how it's supposed to be! Michael, listen to me!"
"We make our own destiny," Dean says quietly.
He thrusts the Sword forward, into the heart of that sorry light, and feels the lick of fire against his hands, warming them. It's oddly out of place.
Lucifer and Michael scream. Dean can't see, can't see anything but he can feel the heat against his face and against his hands, and his ears hurt so, so bad, whatever Gabriel did must have been wearing off and all he wants to do is lie down, to sleep, just for a while…
He raises his hands, holding them to his bleeding ears as the fire washes over him.
The Sword drops to the ground.
"…and now let's turn it over to Jeff with the weather. Jeff?"
"Thanks, Katherine. Well, good news for the Midwest and surrounding areas! If you're in the Chicago or Detroit areas, then close up your cellars and climb out of your bathtubs, because the bizarre storm that rampaged through Wisconsin earlier this week fizzled out just as it reached the border of Illinois. The storm's severity and erratic behavior had experts puzzled as well as worried, but now it looks like we can sleep a little easier tonight. The weather for today is sunny with a chance of small showers later on tonight, and that'll continue on through the week, with highs reaching seventy-seven and lows dropping down into the fifties. Back to you, Katherine."
"Speaking of Detroit, Jeff, I've just been handed a report that says that Detroit suffered a massive power outage on Thursday, effectively preventing it from communicating with the outside world. Officials are going back and forth between blaming it on the storm and on some kind of technical failure, but it doesn't seem like anyone really knows what happened. Here's a clip. They look pretty out of it, don't they, Mike?"
"They sure do, Katherine. Almost like they've been asleep and someone just woke them up."
"Eerie! Next, we'll be taking a look at how swimming in lakes this summer might not be such a good idea after all. Don't miss it! This is KFYRT-TV, your news leader, and we'll be back in a moment."
Bobby turns the television off, cell phone cradled loosely in his lap. He hasn't closed it since he got the text message from Sam.
If this works, we'll let Karen know you love her. If it doesn't…tell everyone we tried.
Chicago and Detroit are still standing…even if Detroit seems a little bit worse for the wear. Bobby recognizes the look of someone who's been mind-whammied when he sees it, and the confused young police officer who'd talked about Detroit's single day of silence had been more than a little out of it.
But he isn't sure if that means they've won, or lost. He tosses the remote onto the couch, then heaves himself up and struggles into his wheelchair, hating the way it makes him feel like he's older than he is. His cell phone tumbles to the floor, and he grunts annoyance at it, wondering if it's even worth picking up. There's more than a handful of people who want to see the Winchesters dead…he doesn't want to spread the news just yet. Doesn't want people celebrating in the streets. He wheels himself a little closer, and bends down to pick up the phone.
It jingles at him, lighting up. Bobby drags it up, holds it in both hands as he looks at the little screen.
1 new text message
His hands are shaking as he flips open the phone and presses 'view.'
Bobby we did it headed home w/Dean have bandages and pain killers please
He wonders if it's odd of him, that the first thing he notices is that Sam has typed 'home,' even though he's obviously referring to Bobby's house. The last person to call his house a 'home' had been Karen.
Bandages and pain killers. Considering that it's Sam who's texting, and the angels can take care of themselves, that implies…
It implies that Dean's been hurt.
"Idjits," Bobby mutters, unable to keep the worry out of his voice. But the house is empty – there's no one around to hear him but the dogs in the yard.
Bobby starts pulling out all the bandages he can find, and arranging them on the table for when Sam and Dean arrive.
Dean opens his eyes to pure blackness, and for a moment he panics. What if his blindfold slipped? Between the pain of hearing Lucifer's voice and the pain of gripping the Sword, it had been difficult to tell which parts of him were injured and which were still intact…but now he's lying on something soft, and everything is quiet, and he's terrified because what if he's blind, or deaf? What if he's both? Pamela did all right for herself, but Dean is a hunter, not a psychic – he'll be useless if he doesn't have all of his faculties in working order.
"Look who's awake," he hears. Sam's voice. Sam's sitting (or standing) next to him, and at least that proves that he isn't deaf. But Dean still can't see. He reaches up to touch his eyes, making a soft noise of alarm when he can't feel, either. Just…sort of scratchy. Cottony.
"Don't try to take off the bandages," he hears Sam say. There's a squeaking sound, right next to him – that has to be wheels. Dean breathes in. Herbs. Books. Alcohol and gunpowder. Bobby's house.
"Sam," he croaks. "Did we do it?"
"Damn near got yourselves killed…but yeah, you did it." Bobby's voice. Dean can imagine his disapproving expression, can hear the exasperation in his voice. But he also hears…relief? Worry? How long has he been out?
"You saved the world, Dean," Sam says, something like awe in his voice. Dean reaches for his face again – he wants to see, but his fingers feel thick and clumsy and…and how much of him is bandaged, anyways?
"Could use some water," he manages, and takes great delight in listening to Sam scramble to get him some. After a minute he feels the cool press of a glass against his lips, and he swallows reflexively as Sam tilts it. He's never tasted anything so sweet. He raises his hand when he's drunk enough, and the glass moves away. Dean licks his lips.
"Am I blind?"
"Temporarily," Sam says quietly. "When you stabbed Lucifer, he sort of…exploded. Like setting a gas tank on fire. Michael…burned up. So did the blindfold. We had to pull you from the wreckage." Sam pauses. It's an incredibly awkward silence. "You were, uh. Naked."
"We," Dean repeats. "…Cas? Is Cas okay?" He's aware that he sounds desperate. He can feel Castiel, but distantly, and he isn't sure if that's because Cas is out there, safe and whole, or because…because Dean will always have some part of him lodged in his soul. Like a splinter. A wonderful, glorious, awful splinter.
"Cas is okay," Sam affirms, and Dean ducks his head, feeling weird and achy and sort of like he wants to cry, but can't. "Him and Gabriel both. They brought us here. I guess beating Lucifer was what got God's attention, because Castiel said something about…being promoted? And Heaven being in disarray, and needing to be repaired. And then they left."
"Left," Dean says. "To just…go and fix things? All by themselves?"
"I guess. I wish I could tell you if they're coming back, but…" Sam trails off, some huge and unfathomable pain in his voice. Dean can feel that same pain clawing at his chest. If. There's no guarantee that they'll come back. Heaven's a big place, and Cas and Gabriel have Joshua on their side (at least, Dean thinks so), but there's also…angels like Raphael. Like Zachariah.
Cas might be up there, fixing things, for the rest of Dean's natural life.
He hears Sam take a deep breath. "Hey. Hey. Let me see your hands."
"What about my hands?" Other than the fact that he's wearing gloves for some…oh.
His hands. The Sword. Not gloves, then. More bandages. Dean holds them out while Sam talks, about how Bobby's spread the word of their success, how hunters everywhere are…not exactly celebrating the Winchester name, but they're at least willing to admit that Dean and Sam have cleaned up their own mess. About how the storm that was heading for Chicago suddenly dissipated, like mist. About how Dean will get his sight back (Gabriel promised, apparently), and everything will go back to normal.
Sam whistles as he unwraps the last layer of bandages from around Dean's right hand – the sudden rush of cooler air is nice. "Huh," he says. "Uh, okay. Try and bend your fingers."
Try. Dean grits his teeth and tries to move his hand, tries to curl his fingers. It's almost unbearably painful, but he manages to touch his fingertips to his palm for a few seconds before needing to relax again. He takes a deep, shuddering breath.
"What's wrong with my hands," he hisses. He can feel Sam re-wrapping his palm, covering his fingers.
"When you held the Sword," Sam explains quietly, "it…burned you. But not like fire. Bobby says he's never seen anything like it before."
"Do I have any bitchin' scars?" Dean asks, and Sam laughs.
"Around your eyes, you do. But your hands are just…stiff. Like your bones were flash frozen or something. Don't worry, it's only been a few days. If you can still move your fingers, there's probably a chance you'll…regain full use of your hands."
"Awesome," Dean says dryly. "I know when someone's feeding me a line of bullshit. My hands are useless, aren't they?"
Sam touches him on the shoulder. Dean can hear Bobby still, silently watching them.
"We'll wait and see," Sam says. Dean turns his head into the pillow, and doesn't respond.
They wait. Bobby makes sure that the house is stocked with enough food for all three of them, and he and Sam take turns making sure that Dean remembers to eat…and drink…and sleep, on occasion. Everything is just a long blur of darkness and vague sound; Dean finds it hard to keep track of time, and either his stomach is broken and isn't telling him when he's hungry, or (the more likely option) he's just too fucking miserable to eat.
It feels like there should be a Cas-shaped hole in him, but there isn't, and that's somehow ten times worse. Because Dean isn't sure if Cas even wants to come back. He needed Dean to get the Sword, needed him to wield the Spear, but beyond that, what does Dean have to offer to an angel? And especially now, with his sight so slow to come back and his hands possibly crippled for life.
Days go by. And then weeks. The world outside returns to normal – Sam brings an old radio into the spare bedroom and Dean hears news shows talk about the storm, in passing, but everyone seems to have assumed that it, and Detroit's mysterious day of radio silence, were both freak occurrences. No one seems to realize that the survival of the entire planet hinged on four people who were utterly prepared to die.
He gains back some mobility in his hands, enough that he can pick up a few things. He can hold a cup, but his hands still shake too badly for him to drink by himself. It's a start, though, being able to curl his fingers for longer than a few seconds, and Sam makes him celebrate by bringing him a sandwich and then refusing to cut it into pieces and feed it to him.
Dean eats a sandwich, using his own two hands, for the first time in four weeks. It's one of the most goddamn beautiful moments he's ever experienced.
He tries, at one point, to talk to Sam about Gabriel.
"He's more likely to come back," he offers. He still can't take the bandages off his face, but his hands are free for the first time in weeks, and he reaches out to touch Sam's shoulder. There's a change in temperature, whenever he touches Sam, or Bobby – like his hands are constantly cold, now, and touching an actual, living person is like dunking his hands in hot water.
"I mean," he continues. "He left in the first place, right? He'll come back. He'll realize life with you's more exciting than anything Heaven has to offer, and he'll…fuck, I dunno. Bring you roses and sing to you in a boat or something."
"You must be smoking something," Sam laughs. Dean can't tell if he's helped or not, but he squeezes Sam's shoulder all the same. It hurts, but he doesn't let it show.
Another week goes by. Two. Dean re-teaches himself how to hold a glass without spilling the contents. It's a work in progress – for the time being, he uses a straw when he's having a bad day. His hands remain cold. Sam remains melancholy. Bobby calls them both 'idjits' and then puts Sam to work in the yard, fixing one of the trucks. He isn't as good a mechanic as Dean, but he can hold his own.
Dean sits by the window in the spare room, and wishes he could see the sun.
He wakes up, on the first day of the fifth week, to the feeling of someone untying the bandages from around his head, slowly peeling them back, tugging them out from under where his head rests on the pillow. Dean sits up, batting at the hands.
"Sam," he grunts. "Could've just told me I could take the bandages off. Been wanting to rip these things to shreds for weeks."
There's a thin, soft noise, a low "Shhh," and then the hands return, methodically unwinding the bandages, until there's…light.
Dean reaches up, catches the hands with his own, and then together, fingers tripping, he peels back the last layer of blood-spotted gauze, and blinks a few times, trying to adjust. At first there's nothing but patches of brightness, smears of shadow. Light and dark gradually resolve into shapes: the foot of the bed, and the bright square off to the side is the window…the nightstand, the door, his own hand. The shape of a face, close to his own. And then color, bleeding through – browns and greens and the dark red of his own blood and…
Blue. Impossibly blue eyes, blinking serenely at him.
Dean gapes like a beached fish.
"Told you he'd like it," he hears, and that's definitely Gabriel's smug voice. A little bit tired, but there, and it's Cas perched on the edge of Dean's bed, rumpled trench coat, mussed brown hair and all.
"Cas," Dean says faintly. "You came back."
He sees, out of the corner of his eye, a rush of blurry motion – Gabriel standing in the doorway, and a long arm reaching out and hooking around his waist, pulling him back. Dean can hear Sam laughing. Can see Gabriel smiling.
Castiel is smiling, too.
"You're smiling," Dean says. "You never smile."
"I have learned it from the best," Castiel says seriously, and then leans forward, and just…breathes, across Dean's lips. Hovers there like he's worried Dean will break.
"Is it awful?" Dean asks, almost afraid of the answer. "My face, I mean. Sam said there were scars…"
"They are a mark of your victory," Castiel murmurs. "And they are inconsequential compared to the brightness of your soul."
"Wow, you really know how to make a guy feel classy."
And Castiel laughs, actually laughs, and closes the distance between them. His lips are chapped and his stubble scrapes against Dean's face, against what Dean's pretty sure are still-healing burns.
He tastes like light and silence. And love. So much love.
"I thought you weren't going to come back," Dean sighs into his mouth, and Castiel rocks back a little.
"I will always come back to you, Dean," he says solemnly. "Always."
Gabriel helps Bobby make dinner.
It's quite honestly the most weirdly domestic thing Sam has ever seen, and he's even including his relationship with Jess in that equation. Gabriel pads around barefoot while Bobby gets out bacon, and bread, and pasta…anything they can think of, really. Because Dean hasn't been eating enough for weeks, and Sam has the idea that, when he comes downstairs, he'll be ready to eat his weight in just about anything.
Sam opens the fridge, trying to help, and then frowns.
"Out of butter," he says, and Bobby grunts, and then turns his chair around and wheels himself to the kitchen entryway.
"Out in the big fridge," he explains. "Get that bacon started, I'll be back in a minute."
"Bobby, I could go and…"
"I said get that bacon started."
Sam ducks his head, laughing softly as Bobby heads outside. Bobby's too self-sufficient to ever accept help…not for something stupid like fetching butter from the garage, anyways. Gabriel gives him a sideways glance, almost searching.
"What?" Sam asks. He doesn't even care, really – he's just thrilled to have Gabriel back.
The only person who's ever come back for me has been Dean, he thinks idly. And now Gabriel.
Gabriel smiles at him. Sam knows (in that odd way, where he isn't even sure how) that Gabriel heard him.
"Nothing," Gabriel says, and then starts heating up a frying pan, getting the bacon ready. "It's just that you don't give yourself enough credit. Without you, the world would have ended."
"But it was Dean who killed Lucifer," Sam protests.
"Just because the gear is small doesn't change the fact that it's needed to make the clock run," Gabriel says sagely. He drops a few strips of bacon into the frying pan; Sam watches them sizzle and begin to curl at the edges. He takes a step forward, touching first Gabriel's shoulder, and then his hip, and then wrapping his arms around Gabriel's waist.
"Why'd you come back," Sam murmurs against Gabriel's neck. The archangel tilts his head back, humming softly. "You said there was work to be done. That someone needed to fix Heaven. So why'd you and Castiel come back?"
"It's not enough that we are back?"
Sam wordlessly shakes his head, and Gabriel snorts.
"Well," he says. "Let's just say that there are better people for the job."
Sam frowns, thinking. "Joshua?" he tries, because he can't imagine Zachariah rebuilding Heaven and doing a good job of it. And after everything that bastard has done…God, Sam hopes no one's put him in charge.
Gabriel laughs. "Joshua and a few others," he says. "But Zachariah has been given a…a time-out, sort of. So don't worry about him."
Sam makes a relieved noise, leaning back as Gabriel moves the frying pan away from the burner.
"Don't worry," Gabriel says again. And, surprisingly…Sam isn't worried. There's nowhere left to go but up. "Everything will turn out fine."
Sam pushes on Gabriel's hip, spinning him around.
"I trust you," he says, and then he kisses him, and it's good, the whole room smells like bacon and sunlight and Gabriel, who laughs against Sam's mouth, and doesn't say anything else.
Hadraniel stands at the edge of the Garden, looking down upon the Earth – a tiny, bulging oblate spheroid, covered with scudding white clouds and azure oceans, and the mounds of green and brown continents, and islands, where humans have made their homes.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?"
He turns to regard Death, squinting against the bright light of Joshua in the distance, tending the rest of the Garden. Death is dressed in his customary suit, thin, spider-like hands clasped neatly behind his back. He does not venture any closer – Hadraniel's wings are too many, and too great, and he cannot approach without being knocked aside like a ball of tissue paper. Death may be the greatest force known to humans and gods alike, but he is not so invulnerable as he pretends to be.
"Very beautiful," Hadraniel agrees. "I remember the first time I beheld it…Our Father had just created the oceans, and the skies. There was no life to occupy those vast spaces…nothing but clear blue, as far as one could see."
"It's changed," Death says softly.
"For the better. I have never questioned God's plan."
"No, you haven't, have you," Death muses. He sounds…introspective. "Was it worth it? As I understand it, even you had no idea what was going on."
"It was not my place to know," Hadraniel says smoothly. "Joshua passed on the instructions of the Lord, and I obeyed them."
"It doesn't bother you that God has made you into the villain of this story?"
Hadraniel tilts his head, but does not turn his attention away from the Earth below. "I don't know. Does it bother you?"
"Occasionally," Death murmurs. "Though the feeling is easily dismissed."
"Then that is how I feel, also."
"You angels," Death chastises. "Always co-opting the emotions of others. You have no concept of self."
"There are some who would disagree with you." Hadraniel does not need to mention names – Death is as aware of Gabriel and Castiel as he is. God has given them little choice in the matter. Knowledge of what the two angels have done has been burned into the fiber of every being occupying the Heavenly plane, something close to the celestial equivalent of a memorial.
Everyone knows that, if Gabriel and Castiel choose to return, to live in Heaven in this lifetime, they will be substantially different.
"You never questioned it, then?" Death pushes. "You never once doubted His orders? Even when He told you to harm the humans who were going to save the world?"
"I trusted in His divine plan, and my trust has been rewarded. When I was told to present myself as an enemy to the Winchesters, I obeyed. When I was told to clear the city of Detroit, that it might be a suitable battlefield, I obeyed, also. I appreciate your concern, but my Lord is also my Father. His love for me is unconditional, as is mine for Him."
"You're one of the few who still thinks like that," Death murmurs. "Like God still has some personal investment in you."
"I think the Winchesters are proof enough that God takes an interest in everything," Hadraniel counters. "From the smallest insect to the greatest primordial void."
They both look past the confines of the Garden, watching the bustle of humanity, ever growing, constantly reinventing itself…always teetering on the edge of peril, and, somehow, always managing to pull itself back.
"You have far too much faith," Death says, and Hadraniel smiles.
"And you have more than you are willing to admit to."
They stand, side by side – a warrior of God and Death himself – and watch the slow progression of humanity together.
It is fascinating, by turns horrific and beautiful, and, as always, endlessly resilient.