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One Thing At A Time

Chapter Text

Dean returned with the first aid kit.
Sam picked through it, taking out what he’d need, trying to ignore every set of eyes in the room drilling holes into his head.
Focus on this, Sam. Focus on him.
He needs help. He needs you.

They’d all arrived at the same time.
All of them after Lucifer.
The Winchesters fled the ensuing chaos with one more angel than they’d expected.

Sam didn’t trust his fingers to do this. They were shaking too much.
But at the same time, he didn’t trust anyone else’s.
So he had to be the one.
He swallowed, looked directly into the butterscotch eyes in front of him, and started.

The drive back to the bunker was tense, and not just because they were escaping a situation far more dangerous than they’d imagined.
Dean drove and didn’t breathe a word about blood getting on the seats.
Cas sat shotgun.
Sam just watched their extra passenger.

He worked as gently as he could.
Each pull of the tweezers and clip of the scissors had him reflexively looking back into the eyes of his patient.
This was the closest he’d ever been to them. Still, he’d be able to recognize them anywhere.
Caramel hazel. Multidimensional. Deep. Too deep to hold just a single emotion.
Presently? They held a maelstrom.
Sam focused on his hands again.

He’d pressed himself against the door, as far from anyone else as possible.
He didn’t speak. He couldn’t.
He just stared out the window. Looking up.
Sam looked up too.
Nothing but blue sky and clouds.

It was a painstaking process. A fragile one. A tug too quick or a cut too close would cause even more damage to the already broken, swollen skin.
It was a risk Sam didn't want to take. So he moved slowly.
“Just a couple more…”

Sam had no idea what Cas was doing, but it seemed to be working.
Dean just stood to the side, looking concerned but uncomfortable.
Sam could recognize the effects of trauma. He knew them well.
Wherever they’d been keeping him, the bunker must have been too similar.

He wasn’t sure who he was trying to reassure, but it seemed to have the desired effect on everyone.
Dean stopped pacing.
Cas murmured something in Enochian.
The room lost some of its stifling tension.
Cut.
Pull.
Cut.
Pull.

If the garage hadn’t been bad enough, the hallways into the map room were worse.
Still, Cas kept up his silent but effective encouragement.
The panic melted into agitation.
The agitation subsided into tense shoulders, shallow breathing, nervous eyes.

“Dean, alcohol. Gabriel…? I’ll be as gentle as I can, okay?
The archangel didn’t even shut his eyes as Sam touched the alcohol-soaked cotton to his bleeding mouth.
Didn’t even flinch.
Maybe the sting didn’t cross his pain threshold.
Maybe he was just numb to it by now.
Sam honestly didn’t want to know.

Everyone looked up.
“Back so… ….oh. Oh my God…”
Jody was already at the bottom of the stairs the moment the words left her mouth.
Everyone else followed.

Gradually, Sam washed away what blood he could from the scrapes and cuts on Gabriel’s face and neck.
He was overly cautious on the deeper gashes, some of which were still actively bleeding.
He didn’t know what to do about those.
Stitches were out of the question.

“Guys, you have to give him space. Please.”
Sam was fighting to keep his voice down.
No loud noises.
No shouting.
Cas was barely keeping him calm.
He didn’t need the commotion.

Dean started quietly listing off tasks for everyone.
Jody, clean clothes.
Patience, towels.
Alex, painkillers and water.
Claire, a thick blanket.

Why were they crowding him like this?
Couldn’t they see the pain? The fear?
Nothing they were doing was making that better.
Sam knew they just wanted to help, but it was too much.

Sam stood slowly, setting aside his first aid supplies.
Gabriel looked exhausted.
In fact, he looked almost...human.
Sam glanced at Cas, but approaching footsteps kept his question unsaid.
It would be better asked in private anyway.

He didn’t know any of them personally, maybe not even at all.
Who knew how long he’d been held captive.
The problem was that they knew him. Or at least knew of him.
Someone put the pieces together and his name rippled in hushed murmurs around the group.

Alex came back with a glass of grainy water.
“I crushed them up. Easier to swallow. ...you sure these’ll work? I mean…” Her eyes flicked toward Gabriel as she handed the glass to Sam. “He’s an angel, right?”
Sam just nodded.

Gabriel’s reputation preceded him.
Sam and Dean had told the others.
They knew everything.
What he’d done to them.
What he’d done for them.

“You think you can drink this? It might help.”
Sam was once again crouched at eye level with Gabriel.
“If you don’t want to, that’s okay.”
Gabriel’s eyes gradually focused, not on the water in Sam’s hand, but on Sam himself.

“We have to get those stitches out.” He kept his voice as soft as possible. “Dean, first aid kit.”
His brother obeyed wordlessly.
Sam looked down.
Down at the archangel they’d just rescued.
The archangel he’d thought was dead.

After a long minute of eye contact, Sam got a response in the form of a barely-perceptible nod.
Gabriel accepted the glass with shaking, bloodied hands.
Sam tried not to wince as the archangel managed to drink the medicine-laced water.
Swallowing looked painful.

If it weren’t for those stitches, Sam wouldn’t have known where to start.
Everything about him was wrong.
Gabriel had, with few exceptions, always been…
Confident.
Put-together.
Self-assured.
Now…?

Sam wasn’t sure if it was the painkillers or just the sheer amount of physical effort Gabriel had given over the past few hours, but the archangel was practically comatose as they escorted him down the hall toward the bedrooms.
He wasn’t sure he’d be able to even change into the clothes Jody had brought them.
But that didn’t really matter.
Rest was more important.
They could get him cleaned up later.

Now he was...broken.
Blood three shades of red.
Hair once honey-brown now dark with sweat and neglect.
Pale skin marred with a timelapse of bruises.

Cas hovered close by, pensive and even quieter than usual.
“Something wrong?”
Sam eased Gabriel onto the bed. Yeah, they’d worry about clean clothes later.
The answer was terse. "Everything. I thought that was obvious."

But his eyes.
They were dazed and glassy, of course; he was in pain.
Underneath that, though, they were...alive.
Somewhere in that stare, Sam recognized a familiar intensity.

“He means specifically.”
Dean’s voice came out as a sigh, as if just being on the periphery of the day’s events had worn him out too.
Cas didn’t answer that time.
He took a long look at Gabriel, clenched his jaw, and left the room.
Dean followed, shaking his head.

It had always been there.
From the moment they’d met, under the guises of janitor and electrician, to the last time they’d parted, as a martyr and his motivation.
Sam identified it the instant he saw it.
Defiance.

Something wasn’t right, and Cas knew it.
Sam pulled the blankets up around Gabriel’s shoulders, trying to shake off the worry.
One thing at a time.
“Get some rest, Gabriel. We’re all here if you need anything.”

It was the same spark he knew his own eyes had held the night he left for Stanford.
The moment he’d dragged Michael and Lucifer into the Cage.
The day he tried to inject humanity back into his brother.
The many times he’d defended Jack from the world’s prejudice.

The last thing Sam expected was a verbal reply.
“Sam…?”
That was hardly the voice he remembered. It wasn’t much of a voice at all.
“...thank you.”

And Gabriel still had it.
Maybe he wasn’t broken.
Broken implied an inability to be properly fixed.
No, Gabriel wasn’t broken.
Damaged, yes.
But still fighting.

“It’s the least I can do,” Sam admitted. “...you deserve more than I can give.”
Gabriel exhaled sharply. It might have been a laugh.
“‘S...a good start...kiddo.”
Something heavy and warm materialized somewhere under Sam’s sternum.
Pity?
Hope?
It wasn’t until he’d made sure Gabriel was asleep and had crossed the threshold that he realized what that feeling was.
Affection.

Sam let out the breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding.
Castiel laid a gentle hand on Gabriel’s shoulder.
Dean returned with the first aid kit.

Chapter Text

Sam couldn’t sleep, and not for lack of trying. It should have been easy, given the day he’d had. In typical circumstances, he’d be out as soon as his head hit the pillow. But...these weren’t typical circumstances. He rolled over. Stared at the ceiling. The bunker, which always seemed too quiet, was exactly the opposite tonight. Sam swore he could hear every whirr and chink of the machines that kept the place functioning and he wished they would just stop for once.

He sighed and rolled again. The clock on his nightstand said 4:09 in dim green light. Too early to be awake, but too late to invest any more energy into trying to sleep. He slipped out of bed and opened the door into the hallway. His eyes glossed over the other bedrooms’ doors, resting on the one at the far end opposite of his own.

He knew why he couldn’t sleep. It was a stupid reason. It wasn’t as if he’d be able to hear anything from the other end of the hallway. And even if he could, there was no reason Gabriel would wake up tonight. He’d needed sleep desperately, it was obvious from the moment they first saw him. And last night, he’d fallen unconscious so quickly it might have been comical if it weren’t so damn sad.

Breathing another soft sigh, he turned away from Gabriel’s door and started walking toward the library. If he’d learned anything since moving into the bunker, leafing through archaic lorebooks did one of two things—kept him awake or knocked him out. At the moment, he didn’t really care either way. The tiles were cold under his bare feet as he padded through the kitchen and the map room, and down the few steps into the library. Tonight, though, instead of choosing a random book off a random shelf, he needed something specific. He trailed his finger across the dusty spines as he read each title.

He and Dean had tried their best to organize the books according to subject, but there were so many intersectionalities and overlaps that eventually they just gave a half-assed last attempt solely for the sake of being done with it, and resigned themselves to the fact that they’d need to do some digging whenever deep research was required. Luckily, Sam remembered where he’d grouped the majority of the books on angels. Most of them were highly-technical, leather-bound, monstrosities obviously written by someone with a very intimate knowledge of theoretical physics. Sam couldn’t understand, let alone look at some of the equations without getting a migraine, so he left them alone in favor of the handful he could understand. Of course, it didn’t help that angels were, by their nature, nearly incomprehensible. The Men of Letters may have been the best in the world at what they did, but they were still only human, and humans attempting to catalogue and explain creatures like angels resulted in some messy writing.

His hand fell on a medium-thick book bound in some kind of red suede and he gently slipped it out of its place on the shelf. Even when their research didn’t involve angels, Sam found himself coming back to this specific book during late, restless nights. Though it was one of the easier books to read, it was still complex just due to subject matter. One day, Sam had cracked it open and simply started at the beginning. He read it every chance he had, and was still only about a quarter of the way through. But again, he reminded himself, he was on a mission. And he knew he’d be able to find what he was looking for in this book.

The deep, solemn voice that addressed him from nearby almost made him jump straight out of his skin. “Hello, Sam.” A slight pause. “I’m sorry if I startled you.”

“Cas, yeah, hi.” The dark-haired angel sat at the table directly behind him, head tilted just a few degrees to the side. Sam set the book down slowly and pulled out the closest chair. “You doing some reading too?” He nodded at the absolutely massive book sitting on the table in front of Castiel.

“Oh, this. Um...yes.” He flipped a few pages almost aimlessly before looking up again. “What are you hoping to find in yours?”

Sam looked down at his own book. ‘Grace: An Anthology of Research’ was all it said on the cover. “You know...I was actually hoping I could talk to you about it.” Cas shifted slightly in his seat and Sam took that as his cue to continue. Might as well get to the point. “I know something’s wrong with Gabriel. Something...big.” He watched Cas’ expression carefully, and when it shifted, he didn’t like what he saw. Cas looked angry. No, he looked furious. But it was a quiet kind of fury. The kind that the Winchesters had learned to fear more than any other.

“I didn’t want to say anything in front of him,” Cas began. Sam could hear the contained rage simmering just under the surface of each word. “Dean, he...I already talked to him about it.” With that admission, some of the tension drained out of Cas’ shoulders and his face softened as he continued. “He promised me we would find a way to...fix it. He suggested staying awake to research with me, but I told him to get some rest. Most…” he heaved a sigh and half-heartedly flipped a page. “Most of the material on this subject is...difficult at best. I didn’t want Dean to feel like he couldn’t help, so I decided to find some of the easier—”

“Cas?” The angel’s rambling stopped. “What’s wrong with Gabriel.” He’d meant it as a question, but it didn’t come out sounding like one.

Castiel stared at him, face inscrutable for just a moment before it dissolved into a mess of defeat. “You know they tortured him, Sam.”

He had a wastebasket full of bloody cotton balls and bits of stitching to prove that. He nodded and tapped the cover of his book. “His Grace’s gotta be almost burned out, right? The only time I’ve ever seen angels sleep is when…” When they’re not really angels anymore.

Cas’ voice was strange when he spoke again; stuck somewhere between resigned and threatening. “What you can see is not the worst of it.” He looked down, thumbing the corner of the page between his fingers.

For the first time, Sam really focused on the book’s contents. Every word on the page was Enochian. He could pick out certain letters, but not much beyond that—not any actual words. The illustration on the bottom half of the page, though...that didn’t require translation. It was a diagram of a wing. A wing Sam assumed belonged to an angel, given the language the book was written in.

“What they did to him down there…” The tonal balance of Cas’ voice was shifting. Less hollow, more heated. “The minute I saw him I knew.” He looked up, catching Sam in a gaze that was almost too intense to hold and Sam saw nothing but hatred in Cas’ eyes as he spat the next few words. “They broke his wings.”

Sam’s stomach flipped. He’d had bones broken before, but he was positive that paled in comparison to a broken wing. The way angels talked about them… Their wings were their pride. It had been bad enough after the fall—all those lost angels with no way to fly and no idea how to live on Earth. To think that the demons had intentionally broken… He swallowed and somehow managed to croak, “...they can be fixed, right?”

At that, Cas sighed and traced his fingers over a paragraph. “Hypothetically.”

“What, you mean it’s never been tried?”

“It’s never needed to be tried,” Cas snapped. “As far as I’m aware, this is the only instance of it ever happening. How Asmodeus even managed to do it is...I don’t know how he could have been capable.” He set his jaw and turned the page. “But by my Father’s Grace, he will pay.”

Silence settled between them, heavy with the promise of Castiel’s threat. Sam knew now. Knew why Gabriel seemed so numb to the pain. After having to endure torture like that...nothing else even came close. And he was clearly far stronger than Sam had given him credit for. Thoughts flashed across his mind no matter how hard he tried to fight them—torn stitches clinging to torn lips, ripped apart by an involuntary scream. Blood sprayed across dirty stone; pain compounding on pain; cries so raw and primordial that they echoed in every corner of existence.

How long had they left him like that? How long had he suffered through the agony of ruined wings? ...how were they supposed to fix him?

Blinking the images out of his eyes, Sam opened the cover of his book. One thing at a time.

***************************************

Dean joined them three hours later with a mug of coffee and a face that said he hadn’t slept very well either. “Find anything yet?”

They both shook their heads.

Dean sighed and sank into the chair next to Castiel. “Hell of a thing, ain’t it,” he muttered. “Findin’ out he’s alive and all screwed to shit.” He sipped at his coffee, staring blankly into the table. “You know every baddie in the country’s gonna be trippin’ over themselves to find him and snap him up again once this gets out.”

If it does.” Cas didn’t even look up from his book. “And in any case, they’ll have to go through us first.”

For a minute, everything was silent except for the occasional flip of a page or scribble on a notepad. Eventually, Dean reached across the table for another pen and motioned at Cas. “Right. Lemme see what you got.”

“It’s all in Enochian, you can’t—”

“Then gimme your notes.”

“Dean—”

“Do you want me to help out or not, Cas?”

“...yes. Here.”

Thank you.”

Sam glanced up as Dean skimmed over Cas’ messily-scrawled notes. His brother’s face was a perfect mask the entire time. “Seems like you don't need my help, anyway,” he drawled, setting the paper down. “Didn't understand half of it, but the part I could sounded crazy. You think it’ll work?”

“It’s the best option I presently have,” Cas admitted. “I was hoping to find something better.”

“Let me see.” Sam reached for the paper when Dean slid it across the tabletop to him. Cas hadn't even written in complete sentences and eighty percent of it was angelic jargon anyway. Luckily, that’s what Sam had been reading lately. But as he worked through each sentence, he found himself wishing he didn’t know quite so much. Grace-bleed...mortality...inability to restore… Sam’s breath caught in his throat as he moved to the next paragraph. Donor Grace required for strength to manifest wings. Burnout likely. I will recover. Unsure about Gabriel. He forced himself to swallow and keep reading. Severance of wings - halt Grace-bleed. Physical healing adequate?

Slowly, Sam’s eyes rose from the paper again, meeting the two pairs staring back at him. They both looked worried. “Does this mean what I think it does?”

“Most likely, yes,” Cas replied. “It’s all I can think of, Sam. The longer his wings stay tethered to what’s left of his Grace—”

“—the faster it bleeds out, yeah.”

Cas sighed. “I’m surprised it isn’t completely drained already. His wings are…” A strange pallor passed over his face and the next words he spoke were pained. “They’re shattered. Asmodeus and his demons spared no cruelty.”

Again, Sam felt his stomach twist, but this time, it was laced with resolve. “If this is the only option we have, we need to try it.”

Dean leaned forward with a sigh. “Okay, one of you scholars wanna clue me in on what’s happenin’?”

“Gabriel’s hemorrhaging Grace,” Sam stated flatly. “Cas wants to give him enough of a jump start that he’s able to pull his wings into a physical manifestation in hopes that it cuts off the ‘bleeding’.”

“...right.”

Cas slowly shut his book and began to elaborate. “Our wings don’t exist in a physical state. They are pure energy that resides in a parallel dimension. When we fly, the energy of our wings interacts with the energy of space-time to take us to a precise location...”

Sam tuned him out. It was nothing he didn’t already know. The bigger problem was getting Gabriel on board with their plan. It wasn’t a great idea, Cas was right. His own Grace was recovering from their recent spats with Lucifer, and what he’d done to Donatello, and Sam was unsure he would even have the kickstart that Gabriel needed for this to work. And if he didn’t…

“...like a...circuit?”

“Yes. When a wing is broken, the flow of Grace is interrupted and it becomes an open system, allowing Grace energy to escape into the…”

Gabriel would be Graceless and mortal either way. The only difference would be whether or not he had wings. On the one hand, they would be tangible, physical, and in constant pain until they healed, assuming they would. On the other...well, neither he nor Cas had been able to find anything regarding that subject. Drawing from all his other knowledge, Sam guessed that the wings would just...dissolve with the rest of Gabriel’s Grace. Fizzle out into the ambient energy, leaving Gabriel as a former angel trapped in his vessel’s body until the day he died. Actually died.

“...so you think pulling his wings into a physical state will...allow him to heal? Recharge his Grace?”

“That is the idea, yes.”

“And he’s only gonna have enough juice to pull ‘em in, right? Even with your help? Once they’re here, they’re here? Until his own Grace builds up enough to put ‘em back.”

Cas nodded.

Dean picked up his coffee cup and stared into it for a minute. Then he pushed back his chair with a declaration of, “Better than half the plans I come up with,” and disappeared in the direction of the kitchen.

“So…” Sam and Cas turned quickly. Claire was leaned against a pillar near the stairs, arms crossed and eyebrows raised. “You just gonna keep him locked up in here? Sounds like a great plan, considering how freaked he was when you brought him in.”

“Claire…”

The blonde held up her hands and rolled her eyes when Cas stepped closer. “I won’t tell anyone what I heard until you guys decide it’s time to get the ball rolling, but I’m serious. He’s gonna go crazy in here, but he can’t exactly go out on the streets looking like one of the X-Men. ...it’s a reference, Cas. Don’t hurt yourself.” She sighed. “Dean would get it.”

Dean reappeared as if summoned, sipping at his reheated coffee. “Get what?”

“Doesn’t matter. Moment’s gone now, anyway.”

He shrugged. “So obviously you know, right? About our clipped bird in there?” He raised his mug in the general direction of the bedrooms.

Claire nodded. “Heard most of it, yeah.”

“Then...should we tell everyone else or keep it quiet until we have Short Stack convinced and along for the ride?”

Cas frowned. “If he does agree. It will be extremely painful—”

“He’ll agree,” Sam cut in. “He’s still fighting, Cas.” The angel’s eyes narrowed and he cocked his head. Sam pressed on, remembering the spark he’d seen in Gabriel’s eyes. “He’s not ready to give up yet. Trust me.”

After another minute of scrutiny, Cas nodded.

“Great.” Dean leaned against the table behind him. “Question still stands. Should we tell the others before we do it?”

“If you don’t, you know everyone’s gonna be asking questions. Especially when he finally leaves his room and bam! wings.” Claire shrugged. “I’d tell ‘em.”

“Tell who what now?” Donna shuffled in from the hallway, stifling a yawn. “And what about wings? Sorry if I’m interrupting somethin’. Don’t mean t’ be nosy, y’know. Just smelled coffee.”

Claire raised an accusatory eyebrow. “Told ya.”

Sam sighed. “Guys, we might as well. Claire has a point. The last thing he needs right now are a bunch of questions. Better to give everyone a heads-up and lay down some ground rules. Donna?”

“Hm?”

“Would you mind waking everyone up and telling them to meet us in here?”

“You betcha!” She beamed at them. “Can I get some coffee first?”

Sam smiled back. “Yeah, of course. And don’t bother with Gabriel, okay? He really needs some sleep.”

“Sure thing!” She only got a few steps away before she stopped and turned back, quizzical. “...wait. So he really is Gabriel, then? Huh. Y’know, whenever I meet an angel, they’re never what I expect.” She continued toward the kitchen, talking mostly to herself now. “Don’t act like angels, don’t look like angels…”

Dean snorted softly once she’d disappeared out of earshot. “If everything goes according to plan, he’ll look like an angel in about two hours.”

Chapter Text

Sam hesitated with his fingers barely an inch from the doorknob. Gabriel would still be asleep. He'd convinced Cas to give him a few hours before springing the plan on the unsuspecting archangel. He could wake Gabriel up, hopefully get him washed off and at least feeling a little better before...well, before they'd force him into feeling like shit again. His fingertips touched down against the cool metal. He hoped Gabriel would understand. The Gabriel they'd left in that God-forsaken hotel banquet hall would go through with it. Might have needed some stern persuasion, but he would’ve done it. Sam knew Gabriel’s captivity and torture had changed him—nobody went through something like that and came out unscathed—but he didn't know how the archangel had changed.

He drew in a long breath and turned the doorknob, pushing with just the barest effort. Light from the hall fell in a perfect rectangle over the bed. Gabriel was lying in the same position Sam had left him in the night before—except now he was curled up and looked even smaller, especially under the blankets. He took a step into the room. “Gabriel?” No response. Sam reached back and knocked lightly on the doorframe. “...Gabriel?” He saw the slightest shift in the blankets. “Hey, it's Sam… You awake?”

The lump on the bed moved again, rolling in Sam’s direction. “...am now…”

A small smile crossed Sam’s lips as he apologized. “Sorry.” The blanket near Gabriel’s neck crumpled inward in what Sam assumed to be a shrug. “How are you feeling?” Gabriel blinked at him, expression weary, which gave Sam his answer. He deflated a little, smile faltering. “You at least wanna get cleaned off? Into some new clothes? It’ll make you feel better…” Physically, anyway.

Another shrug.

Resisting a sigh, Sam crossed the distance between the door and the bed in a few long strides, holding out his hand. “Please, Gabriel. You can go right back to sleep after you're done, okay?” Not entirely the truth, but also not entirely a lie. Besides, Sam doubted Gabriel was in the right state of mind—or Grace—to be reading him that closely.

Gabriel blinked again, the same languid motion from earlier. Then he reached for Sam’s hand.

Sam was careful of his grip. Strong enough to be supportive, not so tight that it bordered on aggression. He pulled Gabriel upright, slowly, and didn’t miss the fleeting expression of pain that flashed across the angel’s face. It would be futile to ask if he was okay—the answer would either be forced confirmation or accusatory denial. So Sam stayed quiet, letting Gabriel cling to his hand for as long as he needed to. It turned out to be longer than he anticipated.

The short walk to the shower room was a quiet one; Gabriel stayed directly beside Sam, and Sam adjusted his pace accordingly. Truth be told, he hadn’t really thought this far ahead. Getting Gabriel out of bed had been step one, and Sam was assuming the archangel would be capable of cleaning himself. If he wasn’t...well, they’d just have to figure something out. They stepped into the brightly-lit room and Sam set the clean clothes from the night before down on a nearby countertop, watching while Gabriel drifted toward one of the shower stalls. He looked out of place—the dirty, ill-fitting clothes against the shiny white tiles, blood and bruises uncomfortably harsh under the fluorescent lights. He looked...lost.

“So…” Sam cleared his throat and started walking toward the shower Gabriel was currently facing. “Hot or cold?”

Gabriel shrugged again as Sam passed, but answered anyway. “Cold.”

Sam acquiesced, turning on the water, adjusting the temperature as needed until it was somewhere in the middle of the ‘cold’ range. “Alright. See how that feels. I’m gonna find some soap…” He didn’t have to go far, just to the shower he’d used a couple nights prior, but by the time he turned around, Gabriel was already stripping out of his clothes. The pants had been first—they were splayed across the floor a few feet away, and the moment the shirt came off, Sam knew how he was going to handle this. Angry red slashes criss-crossed Gabriel’s back, from shoulders to hips, and there was no way he’d be able to reach them by himself. “Here.” He handed over the soap. “Get what you can. I’ll be back in a minute to help.”

“I don’t—”

“This isn’t a debate, Gabriel.” And he was back in the hallway before the archangel had time to put up any further protest.

Castiel was waiting for him around the corner. “Have you asked yet?”

“I told you, Cas, he needs some time.”

“We don’t have time,” Cas growled through his teeth. “If he doesn’t have any Grace left by—”

“An hour and a half. That’s all. Maybe less.” Sam ducked back into his room and made a beeline for the bottom drawer of his dresser. “I need to get him cleaned off and into some new clothes and then…” There they were. His swim shorts. Fairly old, but hardly used, kept on the very slim chance that he’d have recreational time near any remotely-clean body of water. So far, that hadn’t happened since college. But they’d work for this. Taking a shower with Gabriel was one thing. Taking a shower with Gabriel while they were both naked...that was another, and Sam didn’t know if he wanted to cross that line yet. Or ever.

“...then, I’ll ask him.” He gave Cas’ shoulder a reassuring squeeze as he brushed past, back out into the hall. He knew Cas was worried. They all were, in varying degrees, but Cas especially. Sam understood why, understood that Gabriel’s state of health was alarming to a fellow angel, and knew that Cas tended to lapse back into a state of military efficiency when he was desperate for answers. But Gabriel was also tired and hurt and scared and traumatized, no matter how hard he tried to hide it, and Sam couldn’t just treat him like a problem that needed to be solved. Throwing him immediately from one dangerous situation into another would be detrimental to all of them, in the long run. Gabriel needed time to recover as best he could before they dealt with the issue of broken wings. An issue that none of them really knew how to fix, anyway.

“You don’t have to do this,” Gabriel muttered as Sam returned carrying a couple towels and a washcloth.

“You’re right,” Sam admitted, tossing the towels onto the bench beside the shower and retreating into the adjacent stall to change into his swim shorts. “But I'd be an asshole if I didn't.” He folded his clothes and set them down beside the towels, hesitating only a few seconds before stepping into the shower behind Gabriel. From here, just inches away, Sam could see the full extent of the injuries on the archangel’s back. They weren’t clean cuts—the edges were rough and ragged and they varied in length and depth—but they were all red and raw and framed with bruises.

Sam took a breath to steady himself. One thing at a time. Hair first. Wash his hair. His back could wait for a few minutes. He reached for the small bottle of hotel shampoo on the ledge against the wall and poured some out into his hand. Years ago, he and Dean had started keeping whatever amenities they were provided during their motel stays, and since then, they’d built up a fairly impressive stash of shampoos, conditioners, soaps and lotions. Perfect for traveling. Or bathing wounded archangels. He spread the gel between his palms and went to work.

Just the running water alone had done wonders for Gabriel’s appearance. All the blood and dirt and sweat and whatever else that had been accumulating on his skin was washing away, and the layer of grime in his hair was already giving way to a familiar hue of golden-brown. Sam’s fingers worked in smooth, practiced motions, gently massaging, and he began to notice some of the stiffness leaving Gabriel’s shoulders. Slowly at first, but after a minute or two, the archangel was so relaxed he was actually being swayed a little by the motion of Sam’s hands. For a second, Sam worried he’d end up falling over.

He didn’t though, and remained on his feet through the entire process of washing and rinsing, but Sam knew that if the angel were a cat, he’d be purring like a lawnmower. The image brought a smile to Sam’s face and he actually felt a little guilty as he withdrew his fingers from the copper hair in front of him. Anything that provided Gabriel even the smallest amount of comfort felt like a win in Sam’s book, especially since things were about to get significantly less comfortable. His eyes dropped once more to the bloodied gashes that covered Gabriel’s back. He sighed quietly. “...hey.”

Gabriel roused himself with a soft ‘hm?’ and blinked at Sam over his shoulder.

A stronger pang of guilt tightened in Sam’s chest. He looked so content, so relaxed. “I need to wash out these cuts, okay?” Gabriel’s eyes flicked to the side, losing some of their faraway haze. Sam forced himself to keep going. Before he could change his mind. “I’ll be as gentle as I can, I promise.” Gabriel didn’t say anything, just turned away again. A lump rose in Sam’s throat as he picked up the washcloth from the bench outside. I’m sorry.

It became immediately obvious that it didn’t matter how gentle Sam was. Gabriel sucked a harsh breath in through his teeth the second the wet cloth made contact with his skin. Sam apologized and consoled the whole time, keeping his voice soft and his hands softer, but it only did so much good. Gabriel was even more tense than he’d been to begin with; his fists were clenched, knuckles white. Sam couldn’t see his face, but if he was being honest with himself, he didn’t really want to. Not if the only thing on it was pain.

“Just a couple more,” Sam soothed, wringing out the washcloth. The cold water helped to keep the blood from staining, thankfully, but it was just as disturbing, if not more, to see bright swaths of crimson swirling down the drain. The Winchesters had become accustomed to blood a long time ago, but there was something about this situation that brought a twinge of the old squeamishness back. Sam swallowed and dragged his eyes away from the blood around their feet.

There were only two cuts left to clean and Sam had specifically left them for last. They were just below Gabriel’s shoulder blades, and while the lacerations themselves weren’t any different from the others, it was the bruising around them that had caught Sam’s attention. The bruises were nearly symmetrical even though the cuts weren’t, and they strayed further from the typical pattern he’d noticed with the other injuries. Instead of staying in a semi-uniform ring around the open wounds, they extended upward, nearly covering the entire surface of each shoulder blade, but stopping before they could meet on either side of the archangel’s spine. They were also far darker than any of the others. They seemed to go deeper, have more layers.

Sam touched the washcloth to Gabriel’s back again, being even more careful, if that were possible. He barely used any pressure, just enough to sponge away the blood, and he found himself hesitating as he moved up toward the larger bruises. He wasn’t entirely sure how or why they’d formed like that, but given their placement—

“...you know.”

Gabriel’s voice startled Sam out of his thoughts and he fought to keep his hand steady so he wouldn't jab the angel in the back. “About…” he cleared his throat, feeling caught. “...your wings. ...yeah. Cas told us.”

Gabriel sighed, sending the steam in front of him swirling. He didn’t sound angry, just...tired. “Spent the whole night trying to find a way to fix them, didn’t he? Dragged you two into it.”

Sam pursed his lips and lowered the washcloth to his side. “He didn’t have to drag us, Gabriel. We want to help.”

“Mm.”

“And we know how.”

Chapter Text

“You sure about this, Cas?”

“Of course.” The silver blade in Cas’ hand glinted under the library lights. “I do have to warn you, there could be complications. ...for both of us.”

Sam combed his fingers through his hair, glancing across the room to where Gabriel sat, perched on the edge of a table, looking down, swinging his legs. “Yeah, I know.”

“I’ll give as much of my Grace as I can,” Cas assured, resting a hand on Sam’s arm.

“Just be careful. Please.”

Cas managed a thin smile. “I will.”

Sam exhaled slowly, trying to calm his nerves. He needed to have a clear head for this, in case things didn’t go as smoothly as they were all hoping. So far, though, so good. Gabriel hadn’t needed too much convincing, but Sam suspected it was because he didn’t have the energy to argue. Cas was more than willing to offer up whatever he could. Jody and Alex had left a few hours earlier to get medical supplies. Donna, Patience, and Claire were scouring the bunker for every pillow, blanket, towel, and set of sheets they could find. According to Cas, Gabriel’s physical wings would be very, very big, and probably just as broken as they were in their metaphysical state. So they planned accordingly.

“Really think this’ll work?”

Sam sighed and took the mug Dean held out to him. “Hope so.” He took a sip. “If it doesn’t…”

Dean just nodded and hummed into his own coffee.

Rustling from the hallway pulled everyone’s attention to the odd procession entering the library. Claire was the first, followed closely by Patience. Both of them were laden with what appeared to be every piece of cloth in the bunker, holding far more than they could carry, and pillows were falling out of their arms as they walked. Sam put his mug down and jogged over to help.

“How much do you want on the floor and how much for the tables?” Claire panted, dumping an entire stack of towels onto Sam.

“Uhh...towels and a few bigger sheets for the tables, blankets and pillows on the floor.... Here, Patience, let me take some of those—oh, Claire, leave about...three pillows on the table? Four, maybe?”

“Right. Hey, Gabriel, you wanna build your nest before you pass out in it?”

Sam shook his head with a sigh and took some of the blankets from Patience. “Thanks for helping, by the way. I know things get...intense around here.”

“I’m doing what I can. Too late to go back to how things used to be, anyway.” A half-smile tugged at the corner of her lips as she shrugged and went to help Claire.

“Kid’s already thinkin’ like a hunter.” Sam turned to see Donna emerging from the hallway, carrying her own haul. “And between you and me?” She stopped beside him, watching the two girls with warm affection in her eyes. “I think she’s gonna be just fine.”

Sam nodded his agreement. “She’s in good hands.”

“Speakin’ of good hands…” Donna held out her arms. “Why don’tcha gimme that stuff and get started pushin’ some tables together. Alex ‘n Jody’ll be back any second now and we gotta get this show on the road!”

“You sure?”

“Psh, yeah... Hand ‘em on over.”

At her insistence, Sam added what he’d taken from Claire and Patience to the top of Donna’s pile, helping to steady it once before she brushed him off with a reassurance of, “Got it allll under control…” He shook his head, laughing quietly, and motioned to Dean, who raised his coffee mug in acknowledgement.

“Pushin’ ‘em together, right?”

“That’s the plan. Doesn’t matter where as long as there’s enough floor space for all that.” He nodded toward the mountain of pillows and blankets. “And if we’re dealing with the wingspan Cas claims we will be, we should have one going this way…”

They were moving the final tables into place when Jody and Alex returned. The sight of the red and white plastic box in Alex’s hand instantly rekindled the anxiety Sam had been trying so hard to control and he found his eyes shifting to Gabriel. The archangel was leaned against a pillar—having been displaced from his table when the rearranging began—toying with the hem of his borrowed shirt and staring vacantly into middle distance. Cas still stood beside him, offering quiet reassurances.

Realization and worry formed a heavy knot in Sam’s gut. They were doing this. They were actually doing this. On top of everything else going on in their lives, they were sheltering a weakened, wounded archangel. An archangel who was being sought after as a bargaining chip, a tool. Something that could be used as the means to an end. Anger threaded itself into the tangle of emotions writhing in the pit of Sam’s stomach. There was no easy answer to this. In order for Gabriel to heal, he had to stay here, but the location of the bunker wasn't a secret—if you knew it existed, you knew how to find it. Anyone who heard rumors of the Winchesters harboring an archangel… Gabriel wouldn't be safe here, not if someone really wanted to find him.

But it was also out of the question to abandon this plan. Worry and anger morphed into something closer to determination as Alex set the first aid kit down on a chair. They were going to do this. They had to do this.

“Okay.” All eyes focused on Sam. He straightened, wiping his palms on his jeans. “Is everyone ready?”

Murmured affirmations rose from around the room and as they were spoken, the attention shifted. Away from Sam. To Gabriel. For a minute, it seemed as though the archangel didn’t realize he was being watched. But then he raised his head. Blinked. The glaze over his eyes cleared. And silently, he gave a single, sharp, definitive nod.

It was as if a switch had flipped. Alex opened the first aid kit and pulled on a pair of blue gloves, then handed another pair to Jody. Claire and Patience began spreading sheets over the tabletops. Donna followed with pillows, placing them along the table where Gabriel would be lying. Cas led his injured brother into the hall, but not before catching Sam’s eye and smiling. One last confirmation that everything was going to be fine. Sam prayed he was right.

They didn’t have to wait long for the moment of truth. Mere minutes after the angels left the room, a blinding flash of blue-white light surged from the open passageway, accompanied by a wave of rolling thunder that sounded like it was directly over their heads. After it rumbled away into silence, they were left with an uncomfortable stillness. Not only in the room, but in the entire bunker. Like everything had just...stopped.

It didn’t last. The footsteps came first. Slow. Uneven. The cries of pain that followed were surreal. Sam had never heard anything that pitiful coming out of Gabriel before. Cas’ voice was low, incomprehensible, but coming closer. And then there they were. Sam felt like he’d been kicked in the chest. Cas looked tired, drained, but Gabriel… He had one arm slung over Cas’ shoulders and was leaning heavily into the taller angel’s side, obviously unable to support his own weight. But something was missing. Panic gripped at Sam’s lungs until Cas stepped down onto the library stairs. Gabriel followed, but it was more of a stumble than a step and the second he pitched off-balance, Sam saw them.

He knew what Gabriel was trying to do. Flared wings would help steady his equilibrium. But they didn’t flare. They flapped weakly, unevenly, hitching up at odd angles before falling with a soft whumpf against the floor. Cas clutched his brother’s shoulders, keeping him upright, but it was clear he didn’t have much strength left either. Dean and Jody acted almost simultaneously, flanking the pair of angels, supporting them down the last few stairs.

Gabriel’s hands slipped from Cas’ shoulders and hit the edge of the table and for a long minute, he just stood there, bracing himself with shaking arms. Sam’s heart clenched. He’d seen Gabriel in pain before. Seen him stabbed multiple times—hell, he’d been the one to do it, once. But this wasn't the sharp, fleeting pain of a stab. This went deeper than his vessel.

“We’ll help you up there. Ready?” Jody pressed her hand against the back of Gabriel’s arm. “On three, okay? One...two…”

Amazingly, they got him on the table, lying face-down over the pillows, wings half-folded and draped loosely over the edge. He didn’t move much after that. Neither did anyone else. They all just stared. His wings were huge. Even raised on the table, about half of their full length was still on the floor. They were also absolutely mangled—just a mess of bloodied feathers. They looked like roadkill.

Cas was the first to react, collapsing into a nearby chair, cradling his face in his hands.

Patience turned away, the back of her hand pressed to her mouth. Donna wrapped an arm around her shoulders.

“...Jody, I…” Alex shook her head, letting her arms drop to her sides. “I don't think I can…do this…”

“Sure you can. Just take it slow, remember the plan—”

“No...we...need to be in a hospital. Look at him! This is...so much worse than I thought. He's… We need x-rays and pins and anesthesia and an ECG—and I'm not even a doctor. I can put in IVs and draw blood but I’ve never had to do surgery and the only thing I know about setting bones is—”

“Alex?” Jody’s voice was calm. “Listen to me, sweetheart. I know this isn't an ideal situation. But it's what we have right now. You planned for this, right?”

“...right.”

“You got the supplies we need?”

Alex nodded.

“Okay. You know the most important thing being a cop and a hunter has taught me? Things get bad. Things get really, really bad. Everyone here knows that. But you have got to keep it together. It's gonna be tough, but right now, you are the doctor. And all of us?” Jody swept an arm out to encompass everyone in the room. “We're your nurses. We will do whatever you tell us to do, ‘cause you're the boss. You don't have to do it all yourself. Okay? Good.” Her eyes turned down to the table. “We may not be able to give him professional ER treatment, but something is better than nothing.” She looked up again. “So, Doctor Jones—”

A smirk played at the corners of Alex’s lips.

“—tell us how to fix this angel.”

Everyone’s attention was centered on the dark-haired girl as she took a deep breath, then let it out in a determined huff. “Claire? Here.” She tossed her sister a pair of gloves and pointed over her shoulder. “There's a bunch of sterile saline in that duffel bag. Open up one of the cases. Sam...go around and stay by his head. Tell me if anything about his condition changes.”

Sam didn't need to be told twice. Gabriel had been on a downhill slide ever since he'd woken up, and now that he'd spent whatever shreds of Grace he'd been clinging to, rock bottom was just a few minutes away. Sam pulled up a chair and leaned forward, elbows on his knees, watching. The archangel was still conscious, but barely. His eyes were half open, glassy. It seemed as though he needed all his remaining energy just to keep breathing. In, out, in, out. Shallow. Quick.

“We’ve gotta get this blood cleaned off.”

“Which wing do you want to start with?”

“Uh...this one—Claire, do you have the—thanks.” Sam heard plastic crinkling and moved his attention from Gabriel to the other side of the table. “We need...hey, Patience? Can you get me a bowl? Doesn't matter what size. Well, no. Big enough to put a washcloth in. Thanks. So…” she sighed. “I guess we just sort of...lift it from underneath…? Try to keep it level…”

On the count of three, Alex and Jody both bent and gathered up an armful of wing, lifting it slowly to the height of the table. Despite the size, they managed to fit most of it, leaving only the tips of the outermost primaries hanging over the edge. “We’ll get the other one up here too, then open them—thanks. Um, Claire. Pour that—” she pointed at the bottle of saline “—into the bowl and then soak a washcloth in it and—”

“I got it,” Claire assured. “You just...do your thing.” Sam saw her smile at the other girl, but her lips were tight.

He sighed and rubbed his hands down his face. The anticipation and nervousness and fear in the room felt like a physical weight, a pressure on his entire body. He looked up, catching Dean’s eye. His brother had seated himself beside Cas, one hand on the angel’s closest shoulder. They weren't talking, and Cas still had his head in his hands. Dean’s eyes flicked from Sam, to Gabriel, back to Sam, then down.

“How’s he doin’?”

Concern was etched into every line on Donna’s face and Sam forced a smile. “If he’s lucky, he’ll be asleep in a few minutes.” There was no doubt that Gabriel was a fighter when he had to be, but Sam honestly wondered how the archangel was still conscious. Now that his wings were on the table, at eye level, Sam could see the broken bones all along the leading edge. It was a wonder they were even attached—they were nothing but a patchwork of torn skin, shattered bones, and frayed feathers.

Donna pulled a chair up next to them, immediately taking one of Gabriel’s hands in her own. He didn't react, but she leaned forward anyway, whispering her encouragement. “Don’tcha worry, we’ll fix ya up good as new.”

Sam smiled again. This time it was genuine.

Across the table, Alex was muttering to herself. “...both up here...need to open them…” she trailed off, biting her lip. “Hey, Cas?” She looked toward the angel and motioned to the wing in front of her. “Any suggestions? I don't want to hurt him, but we have to spread these out as far as possible.”

Cas roused himself, raising his head and blinking at Alex with bleary eyes. He looked awful, but he drew in a breath and pulled himself to his feet all the same. Dean’s hand slid from Cas’ shoulder to his wrist, and Cas gave it a gentle pat before stepping over to the table. “If you open it from the wrist joint—” he pointed “—you'll get most of the length without disturbing the bigger breaks…”

Alex nodded and pulled, gently, where Cas was indicating. Sure enough, the wing unfurled as she moved the joint. The long primaries shifted outward, splaying all the way to the end of the line of tables. “That's a start...is there any way we can get it fully open?”

The dark-haired angel frowned, thumbing aside a few feathers at the base of Gabriel’s wing. “Yes...but be very careful. This isn't a clean break. If you move it, you risk—”

“Snapping off fragments, yeah.” She leaned in over Gabriel’s back, inspecting the exposed bone. “I think if I push it this way…”

The second she started to move the wing, Gabriel gagged and convulsed, showing more signs of life than he had in the past twenty minutes. Everyone froze. Sam had his suspicions, and they were confirmed as he shifted the pillow under Gabriel’s head. “...he threw up.”

Alex sighed. Peeled off her gloves. Kneaded her temples. “Okay...so don't move it, then…” She shut her eyes and breathed in deeply. On the exhale, her eyes opened again, focused on Sam. “I guess I've gotta start with this first.” She snapped on a fresh pair of gloves. “I'll clean it, set it, stitch it, splint it, and wrap it. You and Donna just watch him. If he keeps vomiting, he's gonna need an IV. Patience, can you go fill the kitchen sink with cold water? Claire, take the dirty washcloths and just throw them in the sink to soak. We’ll clean the rest of his wings later, but I need your help right now. Hand me stuff from the kit when I ask for it.”

Claire gave a lazy salute and gathered up the bloody washcloths before disappearing around the corner, following Patience.

“Okay. ...okay. Jody, hold this here. Cas, can you show me…”

Sam brushed his hair back with a heavy sigh. Aside from the sudden sickness, Gabriel was worryingly unresponsive. Donna had let go of his hand in favor of flipping the soiled pillow upside-down, but the moment that was done, she went back to her previous duty—pulling the chair closer, rubbing her thumb over the back of the archangel’s limp hand. “He’s cold,” she murmured, running the fingers of her free hand through Gabriel’s hair. “Sweating, too...” The second the words were out of her mouth, the motion of her thumb slowed and she glanced at Sam with widening eyes. “...those are...”

Sam nodded, grim. Shock symptoms. A thin layer of perspiration had formed on Gabriel’s exposed skin—skin that was significantly paler than it had been at the start of the operation. “Hey, Alex…? I think he needs that IV.”

“It's the blood loss.” She didn't look up from the wing. “There's a case of fluids next to the duffel over here. Grab one of the bags on the left, they're specifically for shock treatment. Do you know how to set up the tubes?”

He was rounding the table before she even finished her question. “If you walk me through it.”

“‘Kay. I want to get this closed up and splinted—”

Jody waved Alex’s hands away from the wing. “Let me worry about the stitches. We’ve got it set, right? You give him the IV.”

“You sure?”

“Absolutely. I can handle a needle and thread. Go help Sam.”

After a second of hesitation, Alex nodded and changed her gloves. “The tubes should be—yeah, right there.” She crouched next to the younger Winchester, taking the bag of saline and the tubes he held out to her. “Just attach them like this...you get the stand set up—it's in this bag—and I'll do the syringe…”

Sam picked up the canvas bag next to the saline case and started to follow her back to the other side of the table. He didn't make it far. Coming from the opposite direction, he hadn't noticed them, but from here… The few feathers that Claire had been able to clean were gleaming. And they were the richest, most saturated gold Sam had ever seen.

The sound of Alex clearing her throat snapped him back into the moment. He looked over to see her watching him with an eyebrow raised.

“Yeah, sorry. Just…” he waved vaguely at the wing and kept walking.

Alex’s lips curved into a smirk as he joined her. “I know. They're real pretty.”

Sam chuckled and opened the bag. “Caught me off guard.”

“Then you're gonna flip your shit when they're all cleaned,” Claire drawled, stepping up to the table and pulling on a clean pair of gloves. “And healed. Here, Jody. Sutures.”

Cas made a vaguely affirmative noise. “Gabriel’s wings are magnificent.” He drifted down the line of tables, pausing by the golden primaries, reaching out, then stopping himself. “It's heartbreaking to see them like this.”

“We’ll get ‘em fixed, Cas.” Out of the corner of his eye, Sam saw his brother stand up and place a hand against Castiel’s back. “He’ll be his usual pain-in-the-ass self in no time.”

Cas smiled, but the expression didn't reach his eyes. The whirlpool of anxiety and doubt in Sam’s gut started churning again. He focused on Alex as she taped the IV needle to Gabriel’s right hand.

***************************

“And that...should…do it.” With a final strip of medical tape, Alex secured the wrapping around Gabriel’s left wing.

Sam leaned back in his chair and stretched, grimacing when several joints popped. The library looked like a field hospital on the front lines. The sheets laid over the tabletops were smeared with blood. Empty spools of gauze, tape, and suturing thread littered the floor. There was a pile of red washcloths next to Gabriel’s right hip. The trash was filled with so many discarded gloves and needles that the bin itself could probably be considered hazardous waste.

But they were done. It had taken nearly all day, but they were finished.

Gabriel, while not even close to healthy, was at least stable. His color and warmth had returned, gradually, thanks to the IV. His breathing had steadied, slowed. His wings were cleaned, bandaged, and wrapped. Every broken bone had been carefully, painstakingly splinted. Skin had been sewn back together. Sam remembered taking stitches out just barely twenty-four hours earlier. Different circumstances, but it still felt ironic.

“Cas?” Alex threw away her last pair of gloves. “The feathers. What’s…” She swept back some loose hair that had escaped her ponytail. “What's the usual practice with cut feathers? Keep them? Toss them? ...they will grow back, right?”

“Yes, they...they should.” His eyes drifted to the lump of golden feathers on the center table. “Ultimately, it will be up to Gabriel to decide what to do with them.”

“So hold onto them. Claire? You still have gloves on? Can you—thanks.” Alex sighed as she watched Claire sweep the feathers into an empty packaging box.

Jody pulled her into a hug. “You did great.”

Alex smiled and sagged into the embrace. “Thanks.”

“I mean it. Look at him. You did that.”

“Yeah, I guess I did.” Her smile grew wider, shining through some of the exhaustion in her eyes. “Couldn't’ve done it without all my nurses, though.”

Claire rolled her eyes, but grinned. “Help me clean this up, nerd. You’re giving us diabetes.”

Alex pulled away from Jody, catching the gloves thrown in her direction. “This nerd just saved a freakin’ archangel, okay?” She bent down and started picking up the empty spools. “A little respect, maybe?”

Sam couldn't help smiling at the exchange. They really had done an amazing job, all things considered. Even the gashes across Gabriel’s back had gotten special attention—they were cleaned, stitched, and bandaged just like his wings. He still looked rough, but nowhere near as bad as when they'd brought him into the bunker yesterday.

“We should get him moved,” Dean suggested, patting Cas on the back as he passed.

Sam stood, ignoring his protesting muscles. “And help with the cleanup.”

Jody tsked at them. “We’ve got it covered, boys. You just get him comfortable in that pillow nest.”

“Nope.” Dean leaned over Gabriel’s unconscious body. “Refusal is not an option.” He hoisted the archangel over his shoulder. “Sammy? Watch his wings, will ya?”

Sam complied, trailing his brother across the room, rolling the IV stand beside him. There wasn't much to ‘watch’ when it came to the wings—Alex had secured them into their proper folded position by binding them against Gabriel’s body. He was basically just a burrito of feathers and gauze by this point, and his wings weren't going anywhere. “Lay him down on his front—let me help.”

“I got it, Sam. Dude weighs like...ninety-five pounds, tops.”

“Sure.” Sam doubted it. “Even with the wings?”

“They’re real light, actually.”

“They are,” Alex quipped from across the room. “But don't touch them.”

“Don't worry…” Dean eased Gabriel into the bed of pillows on the floor. “Until he wakes up, we're leavin’ him alone.”

“You know that’ll probably be a couple days…” Alex threw another handful of spools into the trashcan and joined the Winchesters at the edge of the pillow pile. “Maybe even a week. He’s really worn out.”

“So...we let him sleep. Not that hard. Library’s quiet. He’s got a bunch of pillows. Big-ass nest for a big-ass bird. Just gotta change out the fluids…” Dean nodded toward the IV assemblage and shrugged.

“Uh huh. And...you know what that IV means, right?”

They were met with a glare that was equal parts flat and confused. “So he doesn't get dehydrated…?”

Alex snickered. “Yeah… And…?”

They both watched Dean, waiting for the realization to hit. When it didn’t, Alex sighed and leaned toward Sam. “I’ll go get some towels.”

Dean furrowed his brow as she walked away. “Am I missing something?”

Sam cleared his throat to hide a laugh. “He’s...human now. Basically. And I could be wrong...but I think Gabriel’s vessel has a bladder?”

“Oh…” There was the realization. “Oh.”

“And if he’s asleep for a week…” Sam raised his eyebrows.

“Yeah, yeah, I get it…” Dean made a noise somewhere between a sigh and a groan. “For the record? I ain’t messin’ with that.” He waved a finger and shook his head as if to doubly emphasize his stance on the matter.

“...I figured.”

“Lucky for you…” Alex returned with a stack of towels. “I’ll be the one doing it. Sam, can you lift up his hips—thanks.” Once the towels were appropriately positioned, the three of them stepped back to admire their handiwork.

Dean broke the brief silence. “How long you think it'll take? Until he's healed.”

“Honestly, I don't know.” Alex looked back over her shoulder to where Cas was assisting with cleanup. “But I bet the other angel in the room would.”

The elder Winchester nodded, following her gaze. After a moment, he excused himself and rejoined the others.

“So…” Alex sighed, tightening her ponytail. “For these first couple days, we should take turns checking in on him. We can do shifts. Every two hours?” She glanced up at Sam, but answered her own question a few seconds later, nodding to herself, satisfied. “Yeah. That’ll work. Just to make sure he hasn’t rolled over or puked or stopped breathing. The basics. We can have a meeting after we clean up. Set up a schedule…” She trailed off and stuck her hands in her pockets. “Thanks, Sam. For the help.”

Sam huffed out a laugh. “I should be thanking you. You're the one who did all this,” he motioned to the angel resting at their feet.

“I wasn't just gonna let him bleed out.” Her lips quirked. “Jody’s right. He's way better off now. Even with my unprofessional ass taking care of him.”

“You're the most qualified person in the room,” Sam argued. “You did great.”

Her smile grew warmer and she looked down at her shoes. “Thanks. Really.”

“Don't mention it.”

A minute of comfortable quiet passed, then Alex stirred and tilted a thumb over her shoulder. “I should get back to cleaning, but—”

Sam shook his head, cutting her off. “Let us do it, seriously. Take a break. Go get something to eat.” He placed a hand on each of her shoulders and steered her in the direction of the kitchen. “We’ll finish up and meet you in there to talk about the checkup schedule.”

She grinned over her shoulder as she walked away, and Sam couldn't help mirroring the expression. They'd just jumped a major hurdle. Gabriel was stable. Graceless, still injured, but stable. Sleeping. Recovering. Sam let his eyes fall back to the archangel nestled in the pillows. He looked… ‘Good’ wasn't the right word. He looked cared for.

They still had to worry about Asmodeus. And Lucifer. And opening the rift to the other world. And…so many other things. But for now? For now, they'd focus on Gabriel. One thing at a time.

Chapter Text

He wasn't sure if he wanted to make another sandwich or put his head down on the table and pass out. A quick glance to his left said that Dean was stuck with the same dilemma. Though, judging by the way his brother’s fingers were tracing the edge of his plate, he seemed to be leaning toward the former. The legs of Dean’s barstool scraped across the floor as he pushed out of it and shuffled to the fridge. The movement rippled through the rest of the table’s occupants, drawing out yawns and sighs and groans.

Claire was the first to speak. “I’m gonna go out on a limb and say we just got pulled into a shitstorm.”

Sam couldn’t find the energy to open his mouth. “Mm.”

“Thought so.” Her forehead connected with the table, sending out a hollow thunk. “Wake me up when the demons attack…”

“Won’t Gabriel be harder to find now that’s he’s outta angel juice?”

“Everyone knows you two were the ones who rescued him,” Cas grumbled, shifting in his seat as Dean rejoined the group. “Grace or no Grace, it’s only a matter of time before somebody breaks down your front door.” The angel crossed his arms and frowned. “Especially since Asmodeus was able to corrupt the Prophet—”

“Yeah, okay.” Dean shook his head and shoveled another forkful of leftovers into his mouth. “We screwed up. Forget I asked.”

“I…” Cas’ shoulders slumped. “I didn’t mean to imply that you made the wrong decision. You didn’t. It’s what I would have done. I just…” He pinched the bridge of his nose and shut his eyes. “You need to be aware of the repercussions—”

“We’re aware, Cas. We’ve been doin’ this long enough to know that you can’t just snatch an archangel out from under a demon’s nose and expect everything to be hunky-dory. This ain’t our first rodeo. We’ll stay under the radar, keep researching the spell for getting the rift open—speakin’ of which—” Dean jabbed his fork in the direction of the library. “—once he’s got his batteries recharged, we can use—”

“No.” The syllable forced its way out of Sam’s throat before he could swallow it.

“You got a better idea?”

“Three of the four archangels are still alive, Dean.”

“Hm, you’re right. So many options.” He counted off on his fingers with the fork. “Lucifer wants us dead. Michael wants us dead and he’s stuck in the Cage. Gabriel is right here and apparently willing to work with us…” He put the fork down on his plate. It clattered a little too loudly. “But, yeah. It makes complete sense to not use Gabriel’s Grace.” He spread his hands. Raised his eyebrows. “What the hell, Sam?”

“Remember how it felt when the angels were trying to bully you into saying yes to Michael? You felt like a tool and I know you hated it—”

“Do you want Mom and Jack back or not?!”

“Yes! Of course I do! But healing Gabriel and then turning around and using him—”

“He’s an archangel, Sam! Back when we first got mixed up in all this bullshit, remember what Cas told us? The archangels are weapons. You know what weapons are for? Being used. I think it’s about damn time we remind Gabriel what he is so he can actually do something—”

“He did do something!”

“He kept Lucifer off your ass for, what, a couple days, a week? Whole lotta good that did!”

“He gave us the key to the Cage! He helped us stop the Apocalypse, Dean! He helped us save the world!”

A stifling silence blanketed the room. Sam could feel every set of eyes on him like dozens of prying hands, but he didn’t look away from his brother’s face. The clenched jaw. The flared nostrils. The impassive wall of stubborn authority that Sam had been dealing with since he was old enough to recognize it.

When Dean finally spoke, his voice was quiet. “So maybe he’ll do it again. Doesn’t make sense to hunt down Lucifer or Michael if Gabriel’s willing.”

Sam opened his mouth, but Dean continued speaking before he could retort. “We don’t have to use all his Grace, right Cas?”

The dark-haired angel’s lips had formed a tight, thin line during the argument and his eyes were steely. “I don’t know. But you’re overlooking the larger issue. Gabriel has no Grace.”

“Well...yeah, but won’t it...regenerate?”

“No.”

“Then...how the hell is Lucifer—”

“Lucifer isn’t completely Graceless,” Cas sighed. “He never was. Came very, very close, but never actually lost it. That was my mistake.” He pushed away from the table and began pacing a few feet away. “As long as an angel has access to some of their own Grace, they can recover it. The recovery rate is directly proportional to the amount of Grace still present. Lucifer is...he’s not doing well.”

“Oh, really? Cause it seemed like he was doing just fine last time we saw him,” Dean snarked. “Maybe not one hundred percent, but good enough.”

“He has help.” Castiel’s voice was acidic.

“That redheaded bitch?”

Cas nodded. “Anael. He’s using hers. He has to be. I couldn’t identify it at the time, but there was something...strange...about Lucifer’s Grace. Now I know why.”

“You could do the same thing for Gabriel, then, right?”

“No, I…” He abruptly stopped his pacing and turned to Dean. “You of all people should know what borrowed Grace does to an angel. Lending Gabriel my Grace wouldn’t help him at all. He would burn through it so quickly…” He trailed off and started walking again, slower this time. “The only reason Lucifer isn’t suffering through Anael’s Grace is because he’s using it to recharge the Grace he still has. Eventually, it will reach a point where he doesn’t need to use hers anymore.”

“Where’s Gabriel’s Grace, then?” They all looked at Jody. She shrugged. “I may not know as much about angels as you boys do—”

“And me,” Claire interjected, flinging her arm in the air. Her head didn’t leave the table.

“...and Claire… But I’ve been keeping track. He had some of his own Grace when you found him, right?”

Cas drifted back toward the table, nodding. “Yes. Hardly any, but yes.”

“And you gave him some of yours for the…” She waved into the air with one hand. “The wing thing. But that used it all up. Didn’t it?”

Cas didn’t answer. He was looking down, fingering the edge of his tie. The sour feeling in the pit of Sam’s stomach returned. Had they given Gabriel a death sentence by trying to save him?

“I have my suspicions,” Cas began softly. “And if they’re correct…” He stopped himself and resumed his pacing with a disgruntled huff. “Things could get...dire.”

Dean scoffed. “That’s comforting. Thanks, buddy.”

“I’m not always here to be the morale officer, Dean,” Cas snapped back, causing the elder Winchester to raise his hands defensively. “How would you feel if it was Sam who needed hours upon hours of surgery and still had no guarantee of survival?” The heat behind Cas’ eyes kept Dean from saying anything else.

Sam was only peripherally paying attention to the squabble. His thoughts were frenzied, tripping over themselves, running in circles. Every question raised a dozen more. If Gabriel had faked his death in that hotel, it would have taken a significant amount of Grace, or so Sam assumed. But he obviously had some left because he’d used it for his wings that morning. Had it recharged at all in between? Asmodeus had been able to capture him. Even for a Prince of Hell, that would have been almost impossible, if Gabriel had been at full strength. So he hadn’t been. But then how had Asmodeus found him? Sam rubbed at his temples. Years ago, when they were fighting against Metatron, Cas had mentioned a vision or an alternate reality or something that the Scribe had shown him. He’d seen Gabriel. They wrote it off as a fabrication, but what if there was more to it? Something they weren’t seeing…?

“Cas.” Sam’s voice cut through the tension radiating off the angel. “Metatron’s vision. Tell us everything.”

Castiel’s eyes narrowed and he set his jaw. “I have.”

Sam pursed his lips, shaking his head. “Someone has to be holding Gabriel’s Grace, right? What if...what if he used most of it—”

“Faking his death, then Metatron found him and held him captive and used his Grace to power the Horn which weakened him again and then when Metatron died, Asmodeus somehow got his hands on Gabriel and continued to use his Grace as a power source, allowing him to do things that not even the strongest of the Princes of Hell should be able to do? Yes, Sam. The thought crossed my mind.” By the end of his tirade, Cas was braced over the table with both hands, his face only a few inches from Sam’s own.

Sam sat back, annoyance bubbling in his chest. “Then why didn’t you say something?”

“I was going to, but Dean wanted good news.” The angel’s blue eyes flicked sideways.

“I wanted progress, good or bad,” Dean defended. “Don’t blame me for your pissy attitude.”

“Boys…” Donna reached over and patted the table next to Cas. “We’re all tired and nervous and I can’t blame ya for gettin’ frustrated. But this won’t help Gabriel.” Slowly, Cas slid back into his seat, icy expression melting ever-so-slightly. Donna’s lips tilted into a smile. “Let’s start thinkin’ like cops. One thing at a time. What do we know?”

“Asmodeus probably has Gabriel’s Grace,” Sam sighed, raking both hands through his hair. Just when things were supposed to be getting easier…

“And he’s been using it like ‘roids,” Dean added. “Shapeshifting and all that shit. You think he keeps it on him or…?”

Cas shook his head, frowning. “I’ve never sensed the presence of any Grace around Asmodeus. If he does have it, he’s keeping it hidden somewhere, most likely in Hell.”

“You know…” Dean sat forward with a grunt. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but...Ketch?” Sam’s disapproval must have shown, because Dean made a face and waved dismissively. “Yeah, yeah, he’s a terrible person. But if he is willing to play both sides, then...he could get us the information we need.”

“And alert Asmodeus and lead us straight into a trap,” Sam rebuked. Every instinct in his body was screaming for them to run the other direction.

Dean turned on him, but there was less vitriol in his eyes this time. “Again, you got better options?”

“I don’t like it, but Dean is right.” Cas steepled his fingers on the tabletop. “Ketch may be the best chance we have. He has access to Hell and, for now, is on our side against Lucifer.”

Sam couldn’t ignore that itch in the back of his brain. “Against Lucifer doesn’t mean with us. Asmodeus is also against Lucifer, remember? I don’t know what endgame Ketch has in mind, but we shouldn’t be running to him for help. We’ll end up in his debt and…” He forced a mirthless laugh. “I don’t think any of us want to be in that position.” Dean opened his mouth, but Sam held up his hand. “I don’t have other ideas, before you ask. I just don’t think Ketch should be our first choice.”

“Sam.” Cas’ rough voice was quiet, but edged with the sort of tone that discouraged debate. “I’m just as reluctant to work with that man as you are, but the longer we wait, the slimmer our chances of retrieving Gabriel’s Grace. If Asmodeus does have it...he will undoubtedly keep using it. And once it’s gone…”

The unspoken implication hung heavy in the space above the table. Sam felt his throat tighten as he weighed his options. They could either work with a violent sociopath who would have no qualms about stabbing them in the back or...or they could doom Gabriel to a life of mortality and isolation. His wings would become a burden, a reminder of his lost Grace. Even if he could borrow enough of Cas’ Grace to push them back into their metaphysical state, he would never be able to use them again…

No. Sam would never forgive himself for that. As much as he hated it...they had to work with Ketch. Swallowing back the apprehension, he fished his phone out of his pocket, searching through his contacts for the number the Englishman had given them after trying—and failing—to capture Lucifer. It rang once. Twice. He put it on speaker.

Halfway through the third ring, the call connected and they heard the familiar clipped voice on the other end. “This had better be important.”

Skipping the pleasantries, then. Sam could play that game. “Are you alone?”

“I was until my phone rang,” Ketch drawled, voice dripping with irritation.

“It was your idea to team up,” Dean groused. “Don’t give us a number if you don’t want us callin’.”

“Oh, you’re both there. Delightful.” He sighed static through the line. “I suppose I’ll humor you and ask what you want.”

“We need intel.”

“Go on…”

“The last time you were in Hell, did you—”

“We need Gabriel’s Grace,” Cas announced, cutting Sam off. “We need to know where Asmodeus is keeping it. If he’s keeping it.”

There was silence from the other end for a few seconds until Ketch hummed, sounding a little too intrigued for Sam’s comfort. “Mm… Gabriel’s Grace, you say? I feel as though that wouldn’t be easy to miss…” They could hear him chuckle quietly and Sam could almost taste the smugness. “I haven’t seen it. But, before you set out to wring my neck… I will look for it. I’m meeting Asmodeus tomorrow, actually. Something about the Winchesters running off with his pet archangel? Messy business. If I happen to see anything…glowy and radiating celestial energy, I’ll let you know at my earliest convenience. Good evening, boys. Don’t let that archangel off his leash. I hear they can be dangerous.”

The line went dead with a short beep.

Cheerio, asshole,” Dean simpered in a stilted, mocking accent. “God almighty, I hate that guy. Ugh.”

Claire agreed, voice muffled by the table. “I don’t even know who he is and I hate him.”

“You don’t want to know him, trust us.” Sam slipped his phone back into his pocket and rested his elbows on the table. He still wasn’t comfortable working with Ketch. In any capacity, let alone one where the other man was reporting directly to one of their current enemies. Double agents were always bad news, no matter which side you were on. All they could do now was stay vigilant and pray that things went smoothly. Gabriel’s survival couldn’t handle complications.

Chapter Text

Thankfully, the next week passed without much incident. Caretaking shifts ran according to schedule—frequent at first, but slowly dwindling as the days went by and Gabriel’s condition stayed the same. Soon, it was just Sam, Cas, and Alex checking in every few hours. Saline bags were swapped out when needed, dirtied clothes and towels were replaced.

Cas’ Grace was recovering slowly and the unanimous decision was to let Gabriel heal on his own, leaving Cas strong enough to fight, if necessary. They couldn't do much more than wait. So they did. They filled the time with research—about angels, about demons, about parallel realities, about the rifts between them. They fortified the warding in and around the bunker. They waited for news from Ketch. He never called. The suspicion scratching at the back of Sam’s skull grew more insistent. He tried to ignore it. Tried to keep it quiet by burying himself in books. Ketch is the only option, he told himself. If he turns on us, we can take him out.

Most nights, he would barely sleep, maybe just a few hours here or there. Staying in the bunker for days at a time didn't wear him out like a hunt would’ve. Usually, he sat in the library next to Gabriel, reading and listening to the archangel breathe. It wasn't particularly distracting, but sometimes Sam would find himself watching the slow rise and fall of Gabriel’s back, the way each breath lifted his bandaged wings, little flashes of gold showing through where the feathers were visible under the gauze. He’d catch himself staring and Gabriel’s voice would drift through his thoughts, warm and confident and teasing. Like what you see, kiddo? He’d smile and shake his head and turn back to his book.

Tonight, it was more of the same. Insomnia pulled him into the library and he picked out a handful of books that would take him through the few hours left until dawn. Gabriel lay in the same position, on his front, wings bundled tightly against his body, one arm tucked under his chest, the other sprawled outward.

Sam plumped up the spare pillow he’d salvaged from the operation table, situating it under his chest as he laid down, facing Gabriel. He pulled the largest book out from the stack, sliding the others aside. This particular volume was a struggle to read, but in their current circumstances, it was necessary. Besides, Sam was a sucker for crinkly pages. The book’s spine gave a satisfying crunch as he cracked it open to the page he'd marked. Understanding the Linkage Between Multidimensional Energy Presence and Physical Manifestation, the chapter heading read.

“Let’s figure out how that bastard broke your wings…” Sam muttered, leafing ahead a few pages. Very long section. Multiple subheadings. A significant shortage of illustrations or diagrams. Great. Sighing, he flipped back to the start of the chapter. He’d already slogged through three others in order to understand this one—how much worse could it be? “...I guess I owe you this, don’t I?”

Gabriel, expectedly, didn't respond.

Sam had read aloud to the unconscious archangel once, a few nights ago, and Cas had wandered in. That led to a few clarifications of the subject matter...but not many. After chasing one particularly abstract concept around in his head for half an hour, Sam shifted their topic of conversation to Gabriel’s recovery. “Without his Grace…?” Cas had frowned, his big blue eyes breaking from Sam’s, looking down. “I...don't know.” He didn't know how long it would take for the bones to heal. He didn’t know how complete the healing needed to be to stop the Grace-bleed. He didn’t know if Gabriel would be able to get them back into their original state of… Sam’s eyes skimmed over the chapter title again. Multidimensional energy. He didn’t know if Gabriel would even be able to fly again. Turned out, Cas was just as lost—and just as scared—as the rest of them.

Breathing another sigh, Sam settled himself into the pillow, preparing for one more mostly-sleepless night, and focused on the book in front of him. Steadily, he worked through the pages, relying on information in the previous chapters, plus something he remembered from an old, battered chemistry textbook. Light can behave as both a particle and a wavelength, sometimes simultaneously. The paragraph had gone on to explain photons and frequencies, some of which Sam could still recall, but that particular sentence had stuck with him throughout the years. It had seemed absurd then, and it was even stranger now that he could apply it to something. “Anyone who says science and religion are mutually exclusive has never actually met one of you guys…”

Movement in his peripheral vision instantly drew his attention to Gabriel. Sure enough, as he watched, the archangel’s closest hand—the one outstretched—twitched. His fingers curled briefly, then immediately relaxed. Sam scrambled to his knees. He didn't know if Gabriel had been moving when they weren't watching, but this was the first time he'd seen it. A moment later, the same thing—his hand grasping loosely at the air. Sam sat back on his heels, resisting the urge to touch Gabriel’s shoulder and wake him up. For the next minute, the hand movements continued, always the same, until the archangel drew a sharp breath and pulled his arm inward, toward his chest. Then...nothing.

Slowly, Sam sank back down into the pillow, his eyes lingering on Gabriel for a few more seconds before returning to the pages in front of him. The momentum, however, was lost. He couldn’t focus on the jargon-laden paragraphs for more than a minute at a time, and unfortunately, he wasn't retaining what he could read. He shut the book. Sighed. Rubbed his eyes. When he opened them again, he found Gabriel’s staring directly back at him. He suddenly became very aware of his own heartbeat. “Hey...how do you feel?”

Gabriel swallowed and shook his head against the pillow. “...hurts…” he rasped. “Everywhere…”

“You want some painkillers?”

“Mmn…” The whimper that escaped the archangel’s throat was enough of an answer.

Sam clambered to his feet. “I’ll be right back.” He hurried out of the library, through the silent hallways, toward the infirmary. Once there, he fumbled through a few drawers before grabbing a bottle of ibuprofen. On the way back, he took a detour through the kitchen to fill a glass of water.

Gabriel was struggling to sit up when he returned, the combination of pillows and unsteady arms making the task difficult.

“Hey, whoa. Take it easy. Let me help.” The water and the pill bottle were quickly abandoned near his books as he dropped to his knees beside Gabriel. “You’re gonna hurt yourself… There you go. I got you, just hold on.” Gabriel’s hands were cold against the back of Sam’s neck, and the angel did feel…light as Sam lifted him into a sitting position. Not ninety-five pounds light, but definitely not healthy, either. “How are your wings? Are they okay if you're sitting like this?”

Gabriel nodded. “Just the feathers…” One of his hands twitched, like he wanted to move it but only had enough strength to keep clinging to Sam. “...they're fine.”

“Then I'm gonna get that medicine for you, okay? Okay.” Sam pulled away, feeling the chill of Gabriel’s hands slip from his neck to his shoulders and then disappear completely when the archangel let go. “Do you want them crushed up like Alex did for you last week?” He glanced back over his shoulder when he didn't hear a response.

Gabriel’s eyes were clouded with fatigue and confusion and worry as he whispered, “...last week…?”

“Yeah, you’ve...been asleep for six days.”

He didn't say anything else, but his eyes roved over the room, lingering on the tables that were still pushed together several yards away.

Sam rattled the bottle of pills as he stood. “I’ll be right back. Just...stay there.” A stupid request, in retrospect. Gabriel couldn’t even sit up without help; he certainly wasn’t going to wander off. Sam chewed his lip as he ground the pills between a couple of spoons. There was a lot riding on Gabriel’s recovery and Dean’s quip about him being a “clipped bird” hit a little too close for comfort. He couldn’t escape, but he was putting the bunker, and all its inhabitants, in danger simply by being there. They just had to hope Asmodeus and Lucifer had more important things to worry about. He doubted it. Stirring the powdered medication into the water, he pushed the thoughts to the back of his mind to worry about later. Right now, his priority needed to be Gabriel.

He scaled the steps into the library with one stride, but slowed his pace as he approached the mound of pillows. Gabriel was twisted around, looking over his shoulder as best he could. One hand hovered over the bandaging at the bend of his closest wing. Sam cleared his throat gently, but Gabriel didn’t turn around.

“Alex…” It wasn’t a question or a statement—something in between.

“Yeah.” Sam put the glass down on a low bookshelf. “You were in bad shape. But that’s not...news to you. Did she do okay? With the…” he gestured vaguely, not that Gabriel was looking.

But the archangel nodded, gingerly touching his fingertips to the gauze. “I don’t…” He dropped his hand, turning back to Sam, eyebrows drawn together in some sort of intermediate expression that Sam couldn’t identify. “I remember...the table. You watched…” He trailed off, eyes going distant.

Sam chewed the inside of his cheek. “Mmhm. You passed out pretty quick.”

Gabriel just hummed, then tilted his chin in the direction of the medicated water on the bookshelf.

“Right. Here. Oh—wait.”

Gabriel hesitated with the glass against his lips.

“Meds on an empty stomach.” Sam offered an apologetic shrug when Gabriel sighed and held the glass out for him to take back. “Hey, if you’d rather throw it up in ten minutes, I won’t stop you.” He replaced it on the bookshelf. “I’ll make something easy. We probably have some soup mix in the kitchen that I can’t screw up too badly.” Gabriel’s mouth twitched into a fleeting, lopsided smirk. Something in Sam’s chest did a backflip. He decided to press his luck. “You wanna come with or make me serve you breakfast in bed?”

The smile returned—and didn’t fade as fast. “...might have to carry me.”

Sam crouched beside the archangel with a grin of his own. “Bridal or fireman?”

Instead of answering, Gabriel just grimaced when Sam supported him to his feet. Sam tried not to let his worry show, but he still felt the smile fade from his lips. Gabriel’s Grace had been supporting him more than they’d realized, and without it, everything that had been masked was now becoming painfully apparent. “Hang on,” Sam murmured, reaching for the IV stand. “Gotta take this too. You okay?”

Gabriel nodded, but Sam could tell he was gritting his teeth. Their height difference didn’t make the arrangement easy, but Sam could handle being hunched a little if it meant Gabriel could keep his arms anchored around Sam’s neck. They made it two steps before Gabriel’s legs gave out. Sam reacted on instinct, catching the archangel under his arm, realizing a second too late that there were wings in the way. Gabriel jerked away with a hiss the instant Sam’s arm pressed against the splinted bones and Sam had a fraction of a second to change his tactic or they’d both be on the ground. He didn’t think, he just moved. He ended up squatted, at eye level with Gabriel’s chest, his hands grasped firmly around the angel’s waist. Gabriel’s arms hadn’t moved from his neck. “...sorry. I didn’t—”

Above him, Gabriel shook his head, exhaling a ragged sigh.

Sam rose slowly, hunched even further now so he could keep one hand on Gabriel’s hip and the other on the IV stand. The remainder of the trek to the kitchen was arduous, but Sam didn’t dare move any faster than Gabriel could handle. It wasn’t worth it, not against the risk of further injury. By the time he’d eased Gabriel onto one of the kitchen barstools, the archangel’s breaths were shallow, his skin was pallid, and not even his clenched, white-knuckled fists could keep his hands from shaking.

“I promise I’ll get you those painkillers as soon as you eat something.” He stepped away from the table, letting his hand linger on Gabriel’s shoulder before he crossed the kitchen to rummage through the cupboards. “Looks like your options are…” He pulled out two cans, holding them up over his shoulder. “Chicken or tomato. The classics, right? Any preference?”

Gabriel just shook his head and shut his eyes.

Sam tried to keep his voice light as he made the decision himself. “Tomato might be too salty. I think you’re pretty hydrated by now, but we shouldn’t take chances. Besides, you could use some protein.” He put the can of chicken soup next to the stovetop and the tomato back in the cupboard. “You know—” There was a minor clatter as he dug around for a saucepan. “—if Dean were awake, he could make you some real chicken soup. From scratch. Whole chicken, fresh veggies, cute little star-shaped noodles…” He popped the tab on the can and poured it into the pan on the stove. “You’d never guess it from the way he eats greasy leftovers, but he’s a really good cook—if you give him time and ingredients and an actual kitchen.” Once the extra water was added, Sam checked the heat on the burner and turned back to Gabriel.

His eyes were open again, but he was just staring at the table. Sam suppressed a sigh, opting instead to fill another glass of water and set it in front of the silent archangel. “Try to drink this, okay? Slowly.” He felt a tiny flicker of encouragement when Gabriel’s fingers curled around the glass. “I know we’re really forcing the fluids, but it’s easy to get dehydrated, especially since you’re—” Sam shut his mouth. It wouldn’t do any good to say it. They both already knew.

For a while, neither of them spoke, and Sam was grateful for the ambient noise—the gurgle of boiling water, the thin metallic scraping of the ladle against the pan as he stirred, a hollow clink when Gabriel put the now-empty glass back on the table. It was comforting, almost domestic. Almost enough to lull him into a sense of normalcy, however false or fleeting it might be.

“...why are you doing this?”

Startled, Sam turned. Gabriel was looking down, picking at the tape that secured the IV needle into the back of his hand. “Doing what?” Deep down, Sam knew. But he asked anyway.

Drawing a shaky breath, the archangel raised his eyes to meet Sam’s. “Helping me.”

“Because…” His voice faltered. He turned around to stir the soup again, throat tight. “We need…” He exhaled sharply and started again. “We have to complete a spell to rescue...our mom. And Jack—”

“The nephilim.”

“You know?” Sam turned off the stove and cast a puzzled glance over his shoulder.

Gabriel gave a vaguely-affirmative ‘mm’ and resumed fiddling with the IV.

“Well...yeah. Jack and Mom are kinda...trapped. In an alternate universe.” He ladled some of the soup into a bowl and set it down on the table with a spoon before taking a seat across from Gabriel. “We have three of the four ingredients we need to open a rift, we just need...we need archangel Grace.”

The admission had the effect Sam feared it would. Gabriel’s grip tightened on the spoon as he tensed, wings twitching. The listless vacancy in his eyes was replaced with a horribly familiar mixture of suspicion, fear, and...anger. “Why didn’t you take it before…” He waved harshly over his shoulder, but any potential aggression was negated by a cringe of pain.

“Because that’s not why we saved you. Or—” Sam huffed. “That’s not why I saved you. Dean? Yeah, probably. Easy access to an archangel. But that’s…” He shook his head. “Look, we know Asmodeus has what’s left of your Grace and we’re going to get it back, I promise.

“How.”

“We’re working on that. We asked Ketch to keep—”

“You trust him?”

“Not exactly. But….he’s our best option.” Sam carved at a scratch on the tabletop with his fingernail. “Only option, really,” he amended after a moment.

Gabriel went silent after that, just slowly lifting spoonful after spoonful of soup to his still-healing lips. Sam didn’t feel right staying at the table, so got up to retrieve the first glass of water from the library. He swirled it slowly as he walked, stirring up the dusty particles of medicine from where they’d settled on the bottom. He packed up what was left in the pan on the stove. Went back to the library for a book. Returned to the kitchen. Washed Gabriel’s bowl, and then the two glasses, once they were all empty.

Gabriel allowed Sam to help him down off the barstool and back into the library, but it wasn’t until he was lying down in the pillows again that he spoke. “Why did you save me?”

Sam looked up from his book, meeting the angel’s eyes. “...I couldn’t leave you,” he eventually murmured. “Not like that.”

Gabriel hummed his agreement, keeping his gaze on Sam’s face.

Those toffee-colored irises were still every bit as expressive and piercing as they’d been the first time Sam saw them—even without the added sharpness of Grace-light behind them—and it was hard for him to maintain eye contact without feeling like he was being dissected. Luckily, Gabriel broke it first, settling deeper into the pillows with a barely-audible sigh. Sam cracked a smile. “Painkillers working?”

“Mmhm.”

“Let me know if you need anything else, okay? I’ll be right here.”

“Mm.”

Even with his attention on his book, Sam could tell when Gabriel fell asleep about five minutes later. The rhythm of his breathing became slow and familiar and, as usual, Sam’s focus gradually shifted from the words on the page in front of him to the rise and fall of wings and the muted gleam of wrapped feathers. All things considered, Gabriel was doing much better than any of them had expected, which Sam was grateful for. But he also knew, from personal experience, that everyone had a tipping point. Gabriel’s would be triggered eventually, and Sam prayed to anyone who would listen that when it was, it wouldn’t kick him too far back down the road of recovery. Even this—being Graceless, unconscious, and covered in bandages—was better than they’d found him. Dirty. Battered. Cagey. Panicked. Sam just hoped progress would continue.

****************************************

Bare footsteps on the marble floor pulled Sam’s concentration away from his book nearly an hour later and he looked up to see Alex approaching with a tired smile. He mirrored the expression in greeting, then angled a thumb toward Gabriel.

“Sleeping?” Alex whispered, lowering herself cross-legged onto the floor beside them.

Sam nodded. “Woke up about two hours ago. I got him to eat some soup—” Alex’s eyes brightened at the mention of food “—then gave him a double dose of ibuprofen. He’s weak, but doing okay.”

“That’s awesome. And he kept all of it down?”

“So far.”

“Good. That’s really good. Sounds like you got a lot of fluids in him, so he won’t need that anymore…” She gestured up at the IV stand holding a nearly-empty bag of saline. “What kind of soup did you give him?”

“Chicken. Figured he needed the protein.”

She nodded, shielding a yawn with the back of her hand. “Perfect.”

A moment passed in silence while both of them just watched Gabriel breathe, then Alex sat up on her knees. “Was he messing with the needle?”

Sam shook his head. “Picked at the tape, though.”

“Yeah, I can tell. ...I'm just gonna take it out,” she sighed a second later, scooting around the pillows toward Gabriel’s right hand. “But you get to be in charge of making sure he stays hydrated.”

Sam couldn't fight the snicker that passed his lips. “Had enough wet towels for a while?”

Alex rolled her eyes but didn't answer. She removed the tape as slowly as possible, but that didn't keep Gabriel from waking. He took a deep breath as his eyes fluttered open and he stared at Sam for a second, blinking, before shifting to look at Alex.

The dark-haired girl smiled, peeling off the last strip of tape. “Hey. How was your week of beauty sleep?”

“Apparently not long enough,” Gabriel groused, settling back into his pillow.

Alex slid the needle out of his hand. “But you're doing okay, right? I mean…” She tossed the needle and tape into a nearby trash can. “Relatively?”

The archangel just shrugged. Sam and Alex exchanged a glance over his back. The ever-present feeling of unease that had been living in Sam’s stomach—that he’d been constantly pushing back—resurfaced.

“Are the painkillers that Sam gave you still working?”

“Mmhm.”

“You mind if I look at your wings? They need some clean dressings.”

Gabriel flapped his hand over his shoulder in the nearly-universal symbol of ‘go for it.’

“Great.” Alex stood, wheeling the IV stand toward Sam. “Can you take this apart and put it back into that canvas bag by the tables?”

“Yeah, absolutely.”

“Cool, thanks. I'm gonna run to the infirmary, grab my stuff, maybe get Cas—for quality assurance.” Her lips turned up in a smirk when Sam chuckled. “Just throw away the saline, but drain the tubes as much as possible and wrap them up. I'll be back.”

Sam dipped his head in acknowledgement as she left and started dismantling the metal stand. While he worked, the churning in his gut grew stronger. He didn't force it down, though, and memories of premonitions flashed across his mind. He was sure this feeling wasn't in any way psychic, just the result of stress, but that didn't mean he trusted his instincts any less. The stress, and by extension the worry, wouldn't subside until he dealt with it.

Mom. Jack. Michael. Asmodeus. Ketch. Lucifer. Gabriel. Each was a separate issue, but at the same time, a convoluted web of motivations and complications kept them from being truly separated. He wanted to be able to deal with one thing at a time, but he couldn’t. That was the frustrating part. The overwhelming part. He couldn't deal with the pieces without being forced to look at the whole puzzle.

He was zipping up the bag when Alex returned with Castiel in tow, and he joined them as they crossed the library, back to Gabriel’s temporary bed.

Alex knelt on the blankets with a fresh roll of gauze, a handful of sterile pads, and some scissors in her gloved hands. “Okay, Gabriel. Just hold still and tell me if anything hurts.” There was an affirmative mumble from the pillow, so she gingerly started removing layers of bandaging, unwrapping what she could to save for later, and cutting through what she couldn’t.

Gradually, slowly, each wing was exposed, and in the soft glow of the library lamps, they looked molten. Every time the archangel took a breath, the brilliant gold feathers would twitch and shift, catching the light and reflecting it back onto their faces. Sam couldn’t stop staring.

“Okay...splints are holding up...got a little bit of swelling here…” Alex leaned in and prodded gently at a section of stitching, giving a hasty apology when Gabriel flinched. “It’s nothing an ice press and some ibuprofen can’t fix, but keep an eye on it.” She opened one of the sterile pads and set it over the wound, then continued her inspection—down the edge of each wing, then back up, comparing one to the other. “I really need x-rays,” she eventually muttered. “They should be healing, but I don’t want to take any risks.” Sighing, she untangled a long stretch of gauze. “For now, I’ll rewrap them, and we’ll leave them alone for a few more days. But Gabriel? Since you’re up and moving around now, there are things you have to pay attention to, okay? ...Sam, is he even awake?”

“...’m ‘wake…” Gabriel murmured, shuffling a little.

“Good, so listen…”

Sam watched with a soft half-smile as Alex meticulously rewrapped Gabriel’s wings and lectured him about what he could and couldn’t do. Gabriel just replied with a string of noncommittal noises and kept his face buried in his pillow.

“One...last thing…” She tied off a loose end of gauze. “I know you’re probably super comfy right now, but I’ve gotta wrap these against your body. Cas, can you help me with the placement again?”

Sam laid a gentle hand on Gabriel’s shoulder. “Hey, sit up for a second?” Gabriel groaned, but offered Sam his hand and allowed himself to be pulled gently up and against Sam’s chest. “Just so she can finish wrapping,” Sam assured. He could feel Gabriel’s heartbeat against his chest and his breath against his neck—both quicker than normal, but strong. Even through his shirt, the archangel’s skin felt warm—almost feverish—and he was still clutching Sam’s hand with sweaty palms and clenched fingers.

Sam.” His head snapped up. “Take this.” Alex pushed the wad of gauze at him. “Pass it underneath him.”

He cleared his throat and extricated himself from Gabriel’s grip, taking the gauze and making sure not to let his knuckles graze over any of the scabbed wounds on the angel’s chest as he unwound the roll of cloth. Dozens of times they repeated the process, making minor adjustments as needed, according to Cas’ guidance. They wrapped until they ran out of gauze. They’d probably overwrapped, but it was better to err on the side of safety.

“Done,” Alex declared, gathering up the used bandages. “The sutures will just break and fall out as he heals, so we won’t have to do any removal on those…” She stood and took off her gloves, throwing them into the trash along with the old wrappings. “Cas, what am I missing?”

“...the feathers,” Castiel mused after a moment of thought.

Sam paused, looking up from his current task settling Gabriel back into the pillows. “The feathers we had to cut?”

Under his hands, Gabriel tensed, suddenly alert, and craned his neck in an attempt to see over his shoulder. “You cut… Where?” He tried to push himself up onto his elbows, but Sam stopped him.

“Just some small ones—around the breaks. Cas said they’d grow back… We kept them, if you want to see—”

Gabriel shook his head and Sam glanced up at Cas, perplexed.

“I told them you would decide what to do with the feathers,” the seraph clarified. “They had to cut them to access some of your injuries.”

Gabriel shook his head again, though less adamantly than the first time. “Don’t need them,” he mumbled.

“Are you sure? We cleaned them off and—”

“I’m sure.”

Sam looked at the other two. Alex shrugged, her eyes wide and eyebrows high. Cas just looked worried, his expression a perfect representation of the feeling in Sam’s gut.

“...do you mind if I keep them?”

Another head shake, even more feeble than the second. “No.”

And that was that. Castiel excused himself from the library with a narrow frown and even narrower eyes. Alex pushed something into Sam’s hands with a sympathetic smile and turned to follow Cas. When her footsteps faded, Sam was left with a box of small golden feathers, the sound of Gabriel’s breathing, and his own heartbeat pounding in his ears.

Chapter Text

“No. No, no, no, no. Dean, stop. Seriously, man—look. I'm stuck on the door. If you step two feet to the left, we can get it through.”

“These doors are too small,” Dean griped, shuffling in the direction Sam had indicated.

“No—ngh. Your couch—nnf—is too big.” With a final grunt, Sam gave his end of the sofa a strong push toward the center of the room.

Applause that was too loud for the space and too enthusiastic for the situation erupted from nearby. “I love seeing the famous Winchester teamwork in action!”

Dean rolled his eyes, but Sam couldn't help huffing a breathless chuckle as he wiped the edge of his shirt across his forehead. Gabriel sat near the back of the room, at one of two high-top tables—new additions from earlier in the week—watching the brothers with a sort of lazy curiosity.

“If you were in better shape…” Dean swiped his beer off the pool table—also new—and downed half of it before tilting it toward the archangel. “We’d be making you move the damn thing.”

“Ah, but I'm not the one who bought it,” Gabriel countered, cocking an eyebrow. “You buy it, you move it. That’s the rule.”

“That’s a shit rule,” Dean grumbled, finishing off the rest of his beer.

Gabriel just grinned, sliding down off his perch. “It’s a nice pick, though. Really brings the room together.”

“Easy on the sarcasm...”

Gabriel scoffed indignantly, pressing a hand to his chest. “I can’t compliment your taste in interior design?”

Sam ducked toward the minifridge to hide his smile, grabbing a beer of his own while Dean grumbled. It was heartening to see Gabriel verbally sparring again. His condition was improving exponentially every day; he was still sleeping for extended periods, but his appetite rivalled Dean’s and he was spending his hours awake in the brothers’ company—usually on the fringe of the action, but still present.

When Sam turned around again, Dean was backing away from the couch, wiping his hands on his jeans. “I want it here.” He motioned out in front of him, looking comically similar to a spotter on a runway. “At an angle. And the chairs...can go next to it...and we need another low table here. What about some footrests? Or—what’s the fancy word for ‘em?”

Sam thumbed the cap off his beer bottle. Pop. Hiss. “Ottoman?” He took a swig.

“Yeah, that’s it. Don’t y’think? The recliners have the popouts, but we need somethin’ for the couch.”

“Sure. How about you focus on one thing at a time though. Table first?”

Dean waved dismissively, muttering to himself.

Sam sighed and sipped at his beer. Anyone who spent more than a few hours around Dean Winchester knew that patience wasn’t one of his strong suits. Sam, obviously, had known Dean since birth. He could tell when his brother was going out of his mind and the last week and a half…? It may as well have been torture, and Sam wasn't inclined to say that lightly. They’d read every relevant book cover-to-cover, cleaned their guns, sharpened their knives, fortified the bunker’s warding, even attempted to call Ketch back a couple days earlier. They didn’t bother leaving a voicemail.

Miraculously, Dean was being productive with his restless anxiety and poured all his energy into furnishing the Dean Cave. First it was the pool table. “So the foosball feels less lonely,” he’d joked. Then, the two high-tops—complete with matching stools—placed near the bar. Third, a new flatscreen TV. Dean wouldn't admit it, but Sam knew he'd spent an hour taking various pieces off just to make sure there weren't any unwanted…extras. There hadn't been, so they installed it where they’d put the previous one. Now...the couch. And some ottomans and a coffee table in the future, apparently.

“...Gabriel?” Alex’s voice drifted down the hall. “It's time for your therapy!”

“He’s in here with us!” Dean called back.

The young nurse appeared around the corner a minute later, a clipboard in her hand and a pen stuck behind her ear. “Hey guys. Looks nice, Dean.”

“Thanks. Tell that to him.” He jerked his thumb in Gabriel’s direction.

“It wasn't sarcasm!”

“Sure, sure...get outta here and go do your wing workout. Sammy, you mind giving me a hand with this? Screw what Gabriel says about all that buying and moving shit.”

Sam smiled into his beer, shaking his head. “I'm gonna help Alex out, but I'll send Cas your way.”

Dean opened his mouth, presumably to argue, but ended up shrugging and waving the three of them out of the room.

As they filed down the hall toward the library, Sam focused on the way Gabriel’s long, golden feathers swished against his ankles. Two days ago, Alex unwrapped the outer joint, still leaving the larger bones splinted and bound against his torso. The arrangement looked funnier than Sam would ever say out loud, but it was clear that Gabriel felt...better because of it. His steps were lighter. Smiles brighter. It gave Sam some much-needed hope.

Alex pulled the pen from behind her ear as they crossed the war room. “Any problems since we started?”

Gabriel shook his head. “Soreness, but I’m told that’s normal...”

Sam brushed past both of them, headed for Cas. He was seated near the back of the library, once again reading that massive Enochian tome. “Cas? Hey, you got a minute? Dean needs your help with something.”

Cas pushed back his chair, standing with a sigh. “In his...cave?”

“Yeah, he, uh...he needs help decorating.” Sam tried not to laugh at the way Cas’ head slowly tilted to the side.

“I’m not sure I can be of assistance, but I’ll try,” the angel mused, his eyes narrowing. “Weren’t you helping him?”

“I was, I wanted to…” he motioned back toward Alex and Gabriel, leaving the rest of his sentence unsaid.

Cas studied him for a few seconds longer, eventually nodding. “If you need anything, you know where to find me.”

Sam returned to the cleared space near the front of the library as Cas disappeared down the hall. Alex was flipping through the pages on her clipboard. “...your range of motion was...twenty-six degrees, but let’s shoot for...thirty this time?”

“Forty-five.”

“You’ll strain yourself.”

“Thirty-five.”

“...maybe.” She set her notes down on a bookshelf. “Get to thirty and we’ll talk.”

Gabriel squared his shoulders with a quiet huff. The tips of his wings twitched, then started to unfold, slowly, just one feather at a time. He was keeping his expression neutral, but Sam could see the signs of strain; the way his jaw moved as he chewed the inside of his cheek, the faint trembling in his wings, the distant look in his eyes as he focused on some arbitrary point in the air.

“Good...good...can you go any wider? No? Okay, hold…” Alex rushed in with a hinged instrument and opened it against the bend of the wing. “And...release.”

Gabriel immediately relaxed.

“Twenty-eight!” Alex beamed as she read out the measurement, garnering a warm half-smile from Gabriel. “That’s good!” She added the number to her notes. “Rest for a minute and do it again.”

Sam pulled up a chair as they repeated the exercise. He wasn’t sure if Gabriel liked having him there, but so far had heard no complaints, so he kept sitting in on the sessions. The instant his ass hit the chair, the bunker went dark. A half-second of pitch-black silence passed. Then several things happened at once. The alarm lights kicked on, bathing the library in pulses of red. The sigils on the walls strobed with an eerie fluorescence. Sam stood. His chair tipped backward and hit the floor, sending a crack ringing off the bookshelves.

Dean yelled from down the hall. “Sammy?!” Ten seconds later, he came skidding around the corner, gun drawn, eyes frantic.

Cas was hot on his heels, angel blade in hand.

Various shouts echoed through the bunker. Sam could pick out Claire and Donna, mostly. They came barreling down the left hallway, armed with a baseball bat and a knife, respectively. Patience wasn’t far behind, appearing just seconds before Jody sprinted out of the other hallway with a pistol.

And then his phone rang. Ketch. He fumbled for the green icon and jammed the phone against his ear. “Yeah, now’s not a great time—”

“It's me, you towering imbecile,” the voice on the other end snapped. “If I'd known you’d bolstered your defenses I'd have just used my key. Tell your brother to put away his gun and disable the alarms. I'm coming in.” He hung up.

Without bothering to put his phone down, Sam kneaded his temples and forced a thin, irritated smile, directing it at his brother. “So that was Ketch. He's outside. He’s coming in.”

Dean rolled his eyes and trudged back down the stairs into the war room, slipping his gun back into his waistband. “Yeah, I'll be sure to tell him thanks for scaring the piss outta us…” After a minute of fiddling with the control panels, the alarms fell silent. The lights changed from red to white. The wards vanished, once again invisible against the walls.

“So we finally get to meet the infamous Ketch, huh?” Alex crossed her arms and leaned against the wall opposite Sam.

He shoved his phone back into his pocket. “Yeah. Just let us handle the talking, okay? He’s...not really someone you wanna mess with.”

Almost on cue, a heavy clang reverberated through the two rooms, followed by footsteps on the balcony overhead. “Consider that some field testing for your security,” Ketch snipped as he descended the stairs, hefting a duffel bag over one shoulder. “You boys are really beefing things up, aren't you? Though, I suppose...my goodness, the entire extended family is here.” His eyes swept over the group, before settling, razor-sharp, on Gabriel. “Including the guest of honor.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Sam saw the archangel tense and draw his wings as close as possible toward his body.

Ketch, of course, noticed. An expression akin to confusion crossed his normally-stoic features, but it was gone as quickly as it had appeared. “What an...odd little predicament,” he murmured, shouldering his bag onto the map table. “Actual wings? I…” He took a few steps forward.

Sam stopped him, sidestepping in front of Alex and Gabriel. “Why are you here?”

Ketch sighed. It was equal parts beleaguered and condescending—the kind of sigh someone makes when having to explain something to a child for the fifth time. Sam grit his teeth. “Well, for starters, I'm working with you. Secondly, I have information. You wanted that, right?”

Sam answered with a wordless nod.

“I think I've located the Grace. Unfortunately...I also have reason to believe Asmodeus is getting suspicious.”

“Then why the hell’d you come knockin’ on our door?” Dean demanded.

“Because I decided to confirm his suspicions—oh, don't look so alarmed. I doubt your cholesterol-clogged heart can take it.” Dean glared daggers. Ketch ignored it. “I told him I was working with you two—all for his benefit, of course—”

“Yeah, okay. I’m about done with all this bullshit. Who are you actually working for?”

“I’m afraid you're not grasping the definition of freelance, Dean. I suppose I'll be working for whoever’s left standing at the end of this God-forsaken circus act… And knowing my luck, it'll be you,” he muttered after a pause.

“The Grace,” Sam pressed. “What’d you find?”

"There's…” Ketch sighed and turned away from Sam, retreating back into the war room. “...a safe, of sorts. Heavily secured, well-guarded. I couldn't get too close without drawing more suspicion, but I don't know what else it could be. It's almost laughable, really. Not even the archangel blade is that protected.”

“Wait, wait, wait.” Sam glanced at his brother. Dean shrugged. “Archangel blade?”

“Yes. Kills anything. Even archangels. In the hands of another archangel, of course…” Again, Ketch’s eyes slid past Sam, to Gabriel. “Speaking of which, I'm sure you’ve gathered that Asmodeus is...not pleased...that you managed to snatch away his best game piece, as it were.”

Dean sat down heavily on the library stairs. “No shit. All that extra security? Sure ain't for you.”

Silence settled, taut and fragile, over the room. Sam’s heart was beating so fast he swore everyone else could hear it. Disjointed, emotionally-loaded words shot through his head. Archangel. Kill. Grace. Asmodeus. Blade. Game. Hands. Gabriel. The pieces were falling into place. Sam had been wracking his brain for weeks, trying to determine why Asmodeus had brought Gabriel to the confrontation with Lucifer. Words from years ago resurfaced in his memories, unbidden. Watching them turn on each other? Tear at each other's throats? Asmodeus was doing exactly that. Gabriel was a weapon in his own right, but with the archangel blade… Suddenly, everything shifted into sickeningly-clear focus.

“I think I deserve some information of my own,” Ketch finally said, uncharacteristically quiet.

Dean snorted. “Don't push your luck.”

“I'm not going to go to Asmodeus with it, if that's what you're worried about. It's...for the sake of my own curiosity.” He jerked his chin toward Sam. “His wings? Judging from the bandages, I'd wager they're injured?”

Sam nodded sharply, keeping his mouth shut and hoping everyone else would follow his lead. Ketch would have to accept the bare minimum. They couldn’t risk a single word of Gabriel’s condition getting back to Asmodeus.

“How?”

“How do you think?”

Ketch breathed another, slightly more sympathetic, sigh. “I understand the evasion, really, I do. But we’re upholding a mutually beneficial partnership here, are we not? I bring you the information about the Grace, you simply tell me what’s going on.”

Sam looked over his shoulder, meeting Gabriel’s eyes. There was something anxious and flighty in their amber depths, and that alone was enough for Sam to make up his mind, but then Gabriel shook his head, just barely. Sam turned back to Ketch. “No. Not about this.”

“You know I could find out on my own. Just because I no longer associate with the British Men of Letters doesn’t mean I can’t use their techniques. Given a little time, a little research…”

“Or?” Claire stepped forward, gripping the baseball bat just tightly enough to imply a threat. “You could be a decent human being and deal with the fact that Gabriel said no.”

Ketch shifted toward Claire, a thin, dangerous smile on his lips. “While I admire your…gusto, you should really leave this sort of thing to the adults.”

Jody and Cas instantly leapt to Claire’s defense.

“You'd be lucky to have half the compassion of—”

“Anything you can say to us, you can say to—”

“—my daughter.”

A slow grin spread across Claire’s mouth as the final words hung in the air. Combined with the baseball bat in her hands, it looked predatory.

Ketch just clenched his jaw and gathered up his bag from the table. “Right, then. You boys enjoy your relatively-useless information and I’ll decide whether or not I want to follow up on it.” He ascended the stairs, stopping in front of the door. “And if I were you, which I thank God I’m not...I’d start rethinking the terms of this little arrangement. If you want my continued help—”

“Asmodeus broke them.”

Sam whipped around to look at Gabriel. The archangel stood rigid, fists clenched, wingtips flared as far as he could muster.

Ketch opened his mouth, then shut it again. “...broke them,” he parroted slowly. “I…knew it was possible, but not without…” He fell silent, eyes narrowed, and after a minute of silence, nodded. “Thank you, Gabriel.”

Gabriel just glowered at the door as it shut behind him.

**********************************

Sam glanced at the clock. 3:16. He sighed and threw aside the blanket, letting his feet hit the floor. Ketch’s visit had opened a new door to the old insomnia, laid out a different set of problems. His mind had been running wild all afternoon, all evening. Even after Dean returned to his new furniture. Even after Jody, Claire, and Castiel had ceased their quiet conversation around the map table. After Donna and Patience had made their way to the shooting range. After Alex had tentatively asked if Gabriel wanted to continue the therapy. After Gabriel, visibly trembling, had shaken his head ‘no.’ After everyone had turned in for the night.

Asmodeus wanted to kill Lucifer. Using Gabriel. Sam didn’t know how much power he had to stop that from happening, but he’d be damned if he didn’t try. He couldn’t let Gabriel go through something like that. Once again, he found his feet leading him through the war room, up the few stairs to the library. Past the tables, still pushed together at the front, to the dozens of pillows nestled into the back corner between two short bookshelves. He wasn’t expecting Gabriel to be awake, but—

...he also wasn’t expecting him to be gone. Panic seized Sam’s lungs. Gabriel wasn’t there. He spun on his heels, scanning the room. Nothing. No one. Heart racing, he turned back to the makeshift bed. There was no sign Gabriel had even been there, aside from the rumples in the blankets and the skewed pillows. He knew the archangel was flighty, and Sam couldn’t even blame him for that, but to disappear now? With broken wings? With no Grace?

A glint of gold in his peripheral vision stopped him just as he was about to leave. There, caught in a fold of the blankets, was a feather. Sam reached down, taking the delicate thing between his fingers and giving it a few slow twirls. It wasn’t a flight feather, it was soft and wispy and mostly white. Just the tip was golden, but it was the same vibrant gold as the rest of the archangel’s feathers, so bright and reflective that Sam almost had trouble focusing on it directly. Keeping it firmly in his hand, Sam took several deliberate steps away from the pillow bed, keeping his eyes trained on the ground. There. Another one, lodged between a couple books on a low shelf.

He collected them as he walked, surprised by how many he was finding. Did angels molt? Were they falling out because Gabriel was unhealthy? ...was he pulling them out? Sam desperately hoped for anything other than that. The trail led him into the garage. But it didn’t stop there. There were a couple ways to get to the roof of the bunker. The narrow ladder bolted to the back wall of the garage was one of them. Sam’s stomach sank. He didn’t want to automatically assume the worst, but...he’d been to some dark places, mentally, and knew what torture could do. Ketch’s unrelenting curiosity about Gabriel’s wings had obviously set the archangel off; he’d stayed very quiet for the rest of the day, and hadn’t eaten much… Swallowing his apprehension, Sam picked up the last few feathers around the base of the ladder, then started climbing.

He pushed open the trapdoor at the top as slowly as possible, but it still released a groan of protest. As quickly as he could manage with only one free hand, Sam clambered up onto the roof of the bunker. To his relief, he spotted Gabriel lying on his stomach near the center, facing away from where Sam was standing. He made sure his footsteps were audible as he approached. “...Gabriel?”

The archangel shifted slightly, lifting his head. “Hey, Sam.”

“Hey.” He settled himself down crossed-legged. “Can’t sleep either?”

Gabriel wordlessly shook his head.

“...mind if I stay?” Sam only received a shrug and Gabriel went back to pillowing his chin against his crossed arms. Sam leaned back on his hands, craning his neck to look at the sky. Millions of stars glittered against the darkness, unhindered by light pollution. “Nice out here,” he murmured.

“Mmhm.”

Sam looked back down as a light breeze swept across the flat rooftop, ruffling the blond curls against the nape of Gabriel’s neck.

Eventually, the angel spoke. “How’d you find me?”

“You, uh...left a trail.” Gabriel turned to him, quizzical, and Sam opened his fist, revealing the handful of downy feathers. “Easier to follow than breadcrumbs,” Sam joked.

Gabriel just huffed and shut his eyes. “You can keep those too, if you want.”

“Yeah, I...thanks.”

“Mmn.”

Several minutes passed quietly, broken by nothing except the sounds of the wind and crickets and the occasional owl. Sam didn’t mind it. The nighttime noises provided a reprieve from his anxious thoughts and it was refreshing, being able to just watch the moonlight shimmering off of Gabriel’s wings and not have to think about anything.

Finally, Gabriel stirred. The feathers along the outer edges of his wings fluffed and resettled. “Been inside too long,” he murmured. “Needed some air.”

Sam nodded slowly. “Yeah, I think we could all use some after the day we’ve had. ...by the way...how are you feeling? I could tell Ketch kind of…”

“Pissed me off?” Gabriel propped himself up on one elbow, facing Sam. “Yeah, a little. He had no right to…pry like that.”

“I know, and I tried—”

“I’m not blaming you, Sam. I’m just...venting, I guess.” The archangel sighed, his gaze dropping as he rolled back onto his stomach. “I didn’t want to tell him, but he threatened to stop helping you and…right now, you guys are the only shot I have at ever getting my Grace back, so…”

Sam chewed the tip of his tongue. “He still should’ve accepted no for an answer.” His reassurance was met with silence and he tried to swallow his disappointment. It wasn’t personal. Recovery was hard, he knew that from experience, and Gabriel was dealing with it physically on top of mentally. He’d talk when he felt like talking and Sam would be there to listen.

He studied the feathers in his palm again, searching for a change of subject. “Do angels molt?”

Gabriel snorted softly. “No.”

“But Cas said they’d grow back.”

“They will, once my Grace is restored. Not that it’ll matter, because they’ll be back to wavelengths and stardust by then. Here’s the thing.” He lifted his head just enough to look at Sam. “Our wings weren’t really made for a physical form. The ability is just there as a failsafe.”

“Pretty intricate for a backup plan,” Sam chuckled.

The corner of Gabriel’s mouth twitched upward. “You know how it goes. In the beginning, Dad didn’t cut corners.” His wings ruffled again, this time accompanied by a shiver.

“Cold?”

“Mm.”

“I should’ve brought a blanket.” Sam ran his fingertips over the rough surface of the rooftop. “Would’ve made this more comfortable.”

Gabriel shrugged, then pushed himself to his feet with a faint cringe. “‘S okay. I wasn't planning on staying out here all night, anyway.” He stretched, wincing at the series of pops that sounded from his back and shoulders. “Just wanted some wind in my wings.”

The smile he gave Sam as he turned was warm, but thin. Tired. And for some reason, Sam appreciated that. Appreciated that Gabriel didn't feel like he had to put up a façade. He was exhausted, he was scared, he was worn down to the bone, both literally and metaphorically, and he’d allowed Sam to see that, even from the beginning. It was a strange honor.

Gabriel was waiting for him by the trapdoor. “Let me hold the feathers.” He extended his arm. “Easier to close this door with two hands.”

“It’s fine—”

“I can climb down a ladder with one hand, Sam.” He cocked an eyebrow. “I’ll give them back…”

Sam deposited the feathers into Gabriel’s open palm, and Gabriel gently closed his hand around them, his fingertips brushing Sam’s as he pulled back. He smiled again, but this time it reached his eyes. Sam gave him a head start down the ladder before following, shutting the trapdoor over them. The walk back to the library was quiet and comfortable, the silence filled by the soft rustle of Gabriel’s wings.

When they reached the pillow bed, he turned back to Sam. “Here. Premium archangel feathers, as promised.”

Sam took the wispy feathers back, a half smile on his face. “And you’re sure you’re okay with this?”

“What would I do with them? It’s not like I can stick them back in. In fact…” He reached over his shoulder, running his fingers through his exposed feathers. “There was a loose one...ah—here.” After a quick tug, one of the secondary flight feathers came out in his hand. He presented it to Sam. “That one’s prettier than the others you’ve got right now.”

Sam accepted the feather almost reverently, twirling it, watching the way the light shimmered over it. “Thanks… I guess I just figured by the way you acted when I said—”

Gabriel scoffed. “Oh, that? I was half-asleep and drugged. I really don't mind if you keep them. Just…y’know.” He settled down into the blankets. “Don't treat ‘em like dirt, obviously…”

“Wouldn't dream of it.”

Gabriel’s lips curved into another smile, the brightest so far, making his eyes shine and crinkle at the corners. The fatigue was still there, visible in the golden irises, but he seemed far less anxious than he had just hours earlier. It was a step back in the right direction. “Good night, Sam.”

“Good night, Gabriel.” He turned out all but one of the library lamps as he left, finally feeling sleep begin to tug at him. By the time he returned to his room, he was yawning and the edges of his vision had started to go fuzzy. He groped around under his bed for a minute with his free hand, then pulled out a dark wooden box covered in intricate engravings. Most of the wards he knew, some he didn't, but according to the archive records, they were all wildly powerful. He figured it made better storage than an empty gauze box.

It clicked open when the unlocking incantation passed Sam’s lips and he added his new feathers to the first batch. It was already quite the collection—the soft white down, the short, stubby coverts cut during the surgery, the single glimmering flight feather, six inches long. He stifled another yawn as he resealed the box and slipped it back under his bed. He didn't know how, or if, he wanted to use the feathers, but until he decided, he’d treat them like...well, gold.

The only thing on his mind as he drifted off to sleep was the very clear determination to get Gabriel’s Grace back. With or without Ketch.

Chapter Text

It was windy outside the bunker. Rocks skittered across the driveway, leafy twigs kept snapping off of the surrounding trees. Dark clouds hovered at the western horizon but hadn’t managed to bully the sun out of the sky yet.

“You should leave before the storm,” Cas cautioned as another gust of wind caught his coat. “It’s supposed to arrive in two hours and you should be able to find shelter in Nebraska—”

Dean stopped him mid-sentence with an elbow to the ribs. “They’ll be fine.”

“But we appreciate the concern,” Jody said with a smile. She pulled Sam into a fierce hug. “If you need anything, you call us. Got it?”

“Yeah, of course.”

She gave him one last hard squeeze before leaning back and shaking a finger at Alex. “You keep these boys in line. And give us updates on Gabriel, okay?”

Alex smirked as Jody moved in for a hug. “You’ll be the first to know. Try to keep Claire out of trouble.”

“I heard that…” Claire rolled her eyes, but couldn’t fight a small smile as Castiel enveloped her in a sincere, if slightly awkward, embrace. “Take care of yourself, Cas.” She patted his shoulder when he pulled away. “And those crazy Winchesters, too, yeah?”

“Who’re you callin’ crazy, kid?”

Claire yelped as Dean crushed her and Cas into another hug.

Sam chuckled to himself, his eyes wandering to the edge of the group. Gabriel stood a few feet back from anyone else, watching the interactions with a small, absent smile. Golden eyes shifted their focus as Sam came up quietly beside him. “Doing okay?”

Gabriel responded with a vaguely-affirmative nod-shrug combination.

Sam didn’t see any need to fill the silence, so he slipped his hands in his pockets and watched as the last of the goodbyes were exchanged.

“I’ll call if I…” Patience waved her hand next to her head as Donna released her from a hug. “...you know. See anything. And I’ll text you the homework, Alex.”

Claire climbed into Jody’s car, muttering something about ‘couple of nerds’ and seemed genuinely surprised when Patience flicked her shoulder.

“We’ll update you along the way,” Jody assured, starting the engine. “We should get in around dinner time, if the rain doesn’t slow us down too much.”

“Drive safe!” Donna called after them as they pulled away.

The last thing they saw before the car disappeared around a bend in the road was Jody’s hand sticking out the window, giving them a thumbs up.

After the sound of the engine had faded, Donna planted her hands on her hips and turned to the rest of them. “I don’t know ‘bout the rest of ya, but I’m starving and I saw ground beef in the fridge so I want burgers.”

“Sure.” Dean shrugged and started walking back into the garage. “You guys gotta help me make ‘em, though. And that means everyone. Even you, Golden Boy.”

Gabriel snorted. “I call dibs on not cutting the onions.”

“Someone’s gonna have to do onions.”

“Yeah, someone that’s not me. I volunteer Sam.”

“Joke’s on you,” Sam laughed. “I usually do onions anyway.”

“I’ll do lettuce,” Alex piped up.

“Tomatoes are mine,” Donna added. “Gabriel, you get the easy stuff like the pickles and—”

“I wanted the tomatoes though,” Gabriel pouted. “Then I can flick the seeds at Dean while he grills.”

Donna’s face lit up in a mischievous grin. “Ooh! Take all the tomatoes you want.”

“If you throw tomato seeds at me, you gotta do laundry for a month.” Dean didn’t even have to turn around for Sam to know the exact expression on his face.

“Worth it.”

Dean grumbled, but not with any amount of real irritation. Sam knew his brother would never admit it, but he was glad to see Gabriel recovering. They all were. In the midst of the uncertainty regarding Ketch and Asmodeus and the Grace, Gabriel’s healing was the one positive constant that everyone was clinging to. They still didn’t have all the answers they wanted, but hope was in short supply and they’d take what they could get.

******************************

"Quiet without the others," Dean mumbled around a mouthful of his burger.

Various hums of agreement rose from the rest of them.

Gabriel fished a slice of pickle out of the jar. "Momentum fatigue,” he said cryptically before popping the pickle into his mouth. “Now that we’ve stopped doing things, we're tired.”

Dean snorted and picked another tomato seed off his sleeve. “You haven't done anything.”

“And he shouldn't,” Alex retorted, emphasizing her point with a glare in Dean's direction. “He’s still got a few weeks of recovery left and you will too if you screw that up.”

Sam cracked a half-smile at that, but his mind was elsewhere. He couldn’t speak for the others, but he was tired of thinking. In any other circumstance, that would be his focus—research, planning, bouncing ideas off of Dean—but they’d already done that. For over a month. Without any way to put their plans into action, it was starting to wear at him. Thinking wasn’t helpful anymore, he was overthinking. Theories took turns for the worse, getting darker, bleaker. What if Asmodeus kills Ketch before he gets the Grace? What if Gabriel’s never able to recover? What if we open the rift only to find out that Mom and Jack are dead? What if Michael comes through first? What if

“Hello?” Dean’s stool scraped harshly against the floor as he pushed away from the table, phone in hand. “...yeah, this is...how did you get—” There was a long pause. “Okay, one thing at a time—does this ‘friend’ have a name and what kind of problem are we talkin’?” He shrugged and disappeared into the hallway, though his conversation wasn’t any less audible. “Garth? You’re...wow, really? I just haven’t seen him since…is that what he said? Yeah, yeah...long time. And he told you to call us? About the...right. Yeah, well, it always sounds crazy until you—uh huh. Yeah. You wouldn’t happen to have any evidence of—mmhm. Every night?”

He returned to the kitchen, miming writing. Alex whipped out her phone. “Sorry, Beardstown? As in...beards—okay. Beardstown, Illinois. On the corner of Humboldt and 9th Street? Next to the corner house. Got it. No, no, we...we’ll be there. Until then, line your doors and windows with salt...do you have a fireplace? No, okay, uh...any pure iron tools, like a—yes, it’s necessary. Trust me. Salt and iron. Yes. Okay. As soon as we can. Uh huh. Yeah, bye.” He lowered his phone, eyes narrow. “So...that was a case. I think. I’m gonna double-check with Garth—didn’t we tell him to stay off the radar?”

“And you really thought he’d listen?”

“It was for his own safety!” Dean countered, dialing in another number. “Hey, Alex? Text me that note when you—Garth? No, it’s Dean—whoa, buddy…” Dean jerked the phone away from his ear to escape the excited chattering on the other end.

Sam raised an eyebrow. “Guess he’s okay.”

Dean rolled his eyes and tapped the speaker button. “I thought we told you and Bess to lay low, man.”

“Yeah, yeah, we are. We’re cool, everything’s good—how’re you guys doin’?”

Sam couldn’t help laughing a little in spite of the situation. “Garth, telling people we help with ghosts is not laying low.”

“Sam!” The outburst nearly made Dean drop the phone. “What’s happenin’, dude?! Man, I bet your hair is so long now—”

“Garth, hey, hey, focus.” Dean placed the phone on the table. “Someone just called us saying you gave her our names.”

“She has a, uh, ghost problem, from the sound of it,” Sam clarified.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, right, Emmy. Look, she’s a close friend, guys, I don’t go around givin’ your names out to everyone. And I only told her to call you after she called me. But seriously, did everything blow over with the, uh, the British Men of Letters—nah, babe, it’s just the Winchesters—sorry, guys, that was Bess, she just got back from a hunt—ooh, yeah, that looks good—”

“...yeah, so, since everything checks out, we’ll go gank this ghost and—”

“Aww, I wanted to talk to you!”

“We...kinda have a lot going on right now,” Sam explained, his eyes darting to Gabriel. The angel’s gaze was focused on Dean’s phone, not actively interested, but not blank either.

Dean picked up the slack. “I’ll call you back once we’re on the road, okay?”

“Yeah, cool, sounds good—Bess, lemme help with that—”

“Bye, Garth…”

“Talk to you guys later! No, I know you can—”

Dean hung up.

“Friend of yours?” Alex raised an eyebrow, briefly looking up from her phone.

“He...kinda took over when Bobby…” Sam shrugged. “A little goofy, but a good guy.”

“Yeah, and then he married a werewolf and turned into one…” Dean waved dismissively and reached for his burger. “Long story.”

Castiel shifted on his seat, looking grumpier than usual. “We can’t take a case right now, Dean.”

“Nuh uh. We’re takin’ the case, Cas. If I don’t get outta here…” He didn’t finish the sentence, but everyone knew what went unsaid.

The seraph huffed and rubbed at his temples. “We can’t leave Gabriel alone. It’s too much of a risk, even with the new warding.”

Sam half-expected a quip about not needing a babysitter, but the archangel just bobbed his head vacantly. The words were out of his mouth before he’d fully processed that he was saying them. “I’ll stay.”

“Sam, Cas can stay—”

“No, take Cas with you. The rest of us can hold down the fort.” He flashed what he hoped looked like a confident smile, but Dean didn’t seem convinced. “It’s just a normal haunting, right? Quick salt-and-burn?”

“Might turn out to be somethin’ else when we get there,” Dean argued.

“I could go,” Donna cut in. “If I can handle vampires, I can handle ghosts.”

Dean stared at the table, working his jaw, no doubt weighing the pros and cons. After a minute, he shrugged. “Yeah, okay. Cas, you cool with that?”

“Of course. But if we are leaving today, we—”

“Should get going now if we wanna outrun the storm, yeah. Where the hell is Beardstown, anyway?”

“Directly north of St. Louis,” Donna supplied, flipping her phone around so they could all see the map. “‘Bout...eight hours from here.”

“Right, so, assuming a regular haunting, shouldn’t take more than a couple days, but pack for another, just in case.” He locked eyes with Sam. “You guys sure you’ll be okay here?”

“Safer than we would be on the road,” Sam assured. Or at least that was the hope.

******************************

The storm arrived as expected, about an hour after Dean, Donna, and Cas left for Illinois. Jody’s call came in first. They’d stopped in Grand Island Nebraska (and would have gotten further, Claire interjected, if Jody wasn’t such a stickler for the speed limit) to get gas and a late lunch and didn’t want to risk getting back on the road before the rain. A smaller section of the system had split off to the north and developed a hail core, but was moving through quickly, so Jody found a sheltered place to park and wait it out. Sam was glad they were safe, even if they’d arrive back in Sioux Falls later than they’d planned.

With nothing else to do, Sam busied himself in the archives, and that was where Gabriel found him.

“Need help?”

Sam looked up from the box in his lap. Gabriel stood in the doorway, his wings filling the frame. “Bored?”

“Why else would I be offering to look through dusty crates of crap with you?”

“Because you’re curious and want someone to talk to.” He scribbled a few lines into the notebook on his lap, listening to Gabriel’s approaching footsteps on the floor. “Besides, it’s not all crap. There’s some mildly useful stuff in here.”

“Such as?”

Sam shrugged. “Mostly just trinkets. Warded amulets and stuff.”

Metal clinked as Gabriel sifted through the box, pulling out something dark on a chain. “Huh.”

Sam gave a cursory glance upward. “What is it?”

“Gryphon claw. With...oh, that's interesting. Look at these runes, c’mere. This is somethin’ they’ll never teach at Stanford.”

Sam set the box and the notebook aside and unfolded himself from the floor, ignoring the protest his muscles gave as he straightened and stretched. “Enlighten me.”

Gabriel held up the claw, pointing at a line of runes so small Sam almost needed a magnifying glass to see them. “That language belongs to one of the smallest, most reclusive communities of people on the planet.”

“What does it say?”

“Bold of you to assume I can read it.”

“I just figured—”

“I'm kidding, Sam. Of course I can read it. ...it's a warrior’s blessing, strength, speed, et cetera. Makes you wonder how they got their hands on this though. They live nowhere close to any natural gryphon habitats and rarely trade with anyone else.” He turned it over in his hands. “Makes you really wonder how the Men of Letters got it.”

Sam huffed out an attempted laugh. “Sometimes I think I'm better off not knowing.”

Gabriel dropped the claw through his fingers, letting it swing on the end of its chain. “You gonna go through everything in this bunker?”

“That’s the plan. Eventually. We’ve barely even documented a quarter of it.” Sam wandered to another shelf, running his fingertips through the layer of dust on the edge. “Every time we swear we’re gonna make some progress, something else comes up. Doesn’t help that we keep finding new archive rooms, either. Sometimes I think this place has moving walls.”

“Spooky.” Gabriel tossed the claw back into the box. “I just wanna know why you haven’t found a catalogue already.”

“Oh, no, there is,” Sam corrected, settling back into his space on the floor. “Takes up a whole shelf in the library. The issue is the way they archived. One, their notes don’t help at all.” He fished the gryphon claw charm back out of the box. “Two, they have everything grouped by region, not by purpose. Which makes sense for a bunch of scholars, but not for hunters. We need to know what things do, not where they’re from.”

“Ah. So you’re going back through…everything...when it’s already been written down...in an attempt to make things more efficient. Nope, can’t find any flaw in that logic.”

Sam shot a half-hearted glare at the archangel. “Their catalogues don’t match up with the way things are stored, either. So yeah, it is more efficient, especially when we don’t know what’s still here and what isn’t. Once we’ve made our notes, we’ll compare to their notes and see what matches.” He scribbled down what Gabriel had told him about the claw. “We found some angel feathers a couple months ago,” he said after a minute. “Pretty good condition.”

Gabriel just made a noise.

Sam fiddled with the amulet in his hand. “You sure you’re doing okay?” Gabriel didn’t respond, but Sam could feel those sharp eyes on him without looking up.

“Better than I’ve been,” was all he said.

Given the circumstances, that was all Sam needed to hear.

******************************

Dean called two hours later to say that they’d gassed up, gotten fries and milkshakes at McDonalds, Cas was driving, and they were still on schedule.

Gabriel found him again, this time in the kitchen.

“You know you can make all the salads you want, but it’ll do nothing to balance out what Dean eats.”

Sam chuckled and shook his head. “I stopped trying to eat healthy enough for both of us a few years ago. You want a protein shake?”

Gabriel made a face. “Do they taste good?”

Sam shrugged. “Good enough. I can put extra chocolate powder in yours. Or...peanut butter? Or both?” He crossed over to one of the cupboards and pulled out a huge jar of peanut butter. “It’ll be like a healthy Reese’s cup.”

“Hm.”

“Tell you what.” He took the top off the blender. “I’ll make one and you can try it and if you don’t want it, I’ll take the rest.”

“If you insist.”

“I do.” He measured out each of the ingredients, adding and blending in intervals. “I was gonna work out for a while. Don’t know if you wanna hang around or find something more interesting to do than watch me sweat.”

Gabriel raised an eyebrow. “I dunno, Sam. Feel like that might be a privilege. You know how many people would actually pay to see you sweat?”

“Too many,” Sam muttered, shaking his head. “Would you?”

Gabriel responded with a flippant grin. “Don’t need to, do I?”

Sam couldn’t stop the heat spreading through his chest, so he masked it with an eye roll. “Here.” He poured some of the thick mixture in the blender into a shot glass. “Try this.”

Gabriel took it, smirking. “Protein shots?”

“I can think of worse things.”

“As can I. Cheers.” He raised the glass in Sam’s direction before tipping it back.

******************************

The minute Sam stepped out of his post-workout shower, Gabriel had all but dragged him into the Dean Cave, babbling about some new show he wanted to watch. Sam humored him, but four hours later, they were halfway through season one and both fully invested. So invested, in fact, that Sam missed Jody’s final call around seven.

It was now almost nine. Gabriel was asleep on the couch, face down in a pillow. The weather played on the news, turned down to a barely-audible volume. According to the radar, the rain had moved past Kansas City and was slowly making its way toward St. Louis and, by extension, Beardstown. Sam tapped the voicemail icon in his notifications bar.

“Hey, Sam. Just calling to say we got home safe. Ate dinner on the road, left the luggage in the living room, and fell asleep. Hope you all are doing okay. It was great seeing you, even if things didn’t go like we’d planned. But when do they ever, right?” Sam swore he could hear her smiling. “Call us back when you get the chance and don’t stay awake all night worrying. Love ya, kid.” Beep.

He’d just pulled the phone away from his ear when it rang. He scrambled to answer it before Gabriel woke up and hissed his brother’s name into the receiver. “Dean?”

“Hey, Sammy. ...why’re you whispering?”

“Gabriel’s asleep—” He caught himself before the words “on the couch” could spill out of his mouth. Dean probably wouldn’t have cared too much, but...better to be safe than risk a long-distance lecture.

“Aww, is he on your shoulder?”

“No, but I am sitting next to him.”

“Okay, I’ll talk quiet. So, we’re at the motel across town, but we did a drive-by of, uh…”

Cas’ voice filtered in, low and distant.

“Right, Emmy. Thanks, Cas. We went by Emmy’s place. She’s got a huge-ass cemetary practically in her backyard and a church across the street, so I’m honestly surprised she hasn’t had this problem before.”

“Well, it’s not like hauntings are random. At least not usually. She’s gotta have some sort of connection to the ghost, right?”

“That’s the theory, but we’ll figure it out tomorrow. Right now, we’re staying in ‘cause that storm is knockin’ on our door. Just wanted to check in. You guys okay? I mean, obviously Gabriel’s off in angel dreamland, but what about you and Alex?”

“Yeah, we’re good. Alex is doing some reading for class, I just spent the last four hours binging a new show with Gabe.” He shrugged, then laughed a little. “Jody wanted to know if we were okay too. You know the bunker isn’t gonna go up in flames, right?”

“I know. But with everything that’s happening…”

“I get it.”

“So Jody got in safe?”

“Yeah, she called at seven, but I missed it.”

A few seconds of silence stretched between them until Dean sighed. “Okay, well, I guess I’ll start doin’ some research before the storm knocks out the power. You get that pain-in-the-ass archangel off my couch and into his bed.”

“Wha—I never said—”

“That’s the only place he coulda fallen asleep in there, Sammy. I better not find feathers between the cushions when I get back.”

“You allergic?”

“Shut up, bitch.”

“Jerk.”

“I’ll call you back with more details tomorrow.”

“Good luck.”

Cas murmuring in the background was the last thing Sam heard before Dean hung up. To his right, Gabriel shifted and one of his arms flopped over the edge of the couch. Sam really didn’t have the heart to move him, but he also didn’t want him falling off and crushing his wings during the night. He turned off the TV and left his chair. “Gabe.” Nothing. “...Gabriel.” He put one hand on the angel’s shoulder. “Wake up.”

“...no.”

Sam sighed. “Come on. You can’t sleep here. Just let me get you back to the library.”

“...carry me…”

“I’m not gonna carry you, you can walk.”

“Mmmnnn.”

Resigning himself with a roll of his eyes, Sam crouched down, throwing Gabriel’s closest arm over his shoulders. He ignored Gabriel’s indignant and sleepy protests as he stood, and the archangel reluctantly staggered to his feet.

“Dean and Jody called. They’re both safe.”

“...’s good.” They walked a few hallways in silence. Gabriel’s legs gradually became steadier. “Had a good day, Sam.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Should do it again.”

“We’ve got all day tomorrow,” Sam promised, easing Gabriel down into the pillows before he could fall.

“Night…” Gabriel patted Sam’s ankle. “See y’ in th’ mrrn…”

Sam stifled a snort and shook his head, stepping out of the circle of pillows. “See you in the morning, too.” He turned off all but one lamp as he left the library.

******************************

His phone rang again not even ten minutes after he’d climbed into bed. The five-letter name on the caller ID had him grinding his teeth, but he answered all the same. “Ketch.”

“Winchester. I tried your brother, but he didn’t pick up.”

Sam’s mind immediately offered up an excuse. Helpful or not, Ketch didn’t need to know that half of the bunker’s usual occupants were currently two states away. “Yeah, he’s in the shower. You need something?”

“Nothing you could offer. I do have a plan, though, for retrieving your precious Grace.”

“Yeah?”

“I can’t give you all the details—too much unnecessary risk on my end. But I also don’t want you to worry yourself into a stupor over it, either. You’d be no good to anyone. All I can say is that I should have it by...next week, at the latest. If you don’t hear from me within five days, assume I’ve hit…complications. Mm, speaking of which, how is your patient? Doing better, I should hope?”

The concern in Ketch’s voice, however slight, caught Sam off-guard and he was giving the English hunter the truth before he could stop himself. “A little. Progress is slow, but we’re making it.”

“Good. I’d hate for all this tiresome work to end up being pointless.”

Ah, there it was. The detached practicality. Sam almost felt relieved.

“In any case,” Ketch continued, “be careful, all of you. Keep that extra warding up and running. This whole mess is getting more dangerous by the minute.”

The line went dead before Sam could say thank you. Not that he wanted to, but common courtesy went a long way, regardless of who you were talking to. Sighing, Sam silenced his phone, turned it over on his nightstand, and tried to sleep.