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The Ancient Cinders of a Heart

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~ooooOOOoooo~

 

“I don’t like it.” Gabriel’s voice was deceptively calm, as was his posture. Both Winchesters could feel the throb of his disapproval and upset like a struck nerve along their bonds.

“I promised Jimmy we’d check on Amelia and Claire,” Dean explained again, loading a freshly-stocked cooler into the backseat. “And Lisa’s place is on the way. We got time just now and I ain’t backing out. Not after…” Dean’s voice dropped off, pain lancing through him again. It hurt to even think about what Castiel had done to himself in an effort to reach the Beautiful Room, to try and rescue a mate he believed would forsake him.

“You still shouldn’t be traveling without us.” Gabriel looked at Sam, hoping that at least one of the humans in his flock might see sense. “Can’t you reason with him?”

“I agree with him,” Sam replied, showing no outward sign as he internally braced himself. Sure enough, Gabriel’s disappointment washed over him like the muddy waters of a river overflowing its banks. Refusing to show how it affected him, Sam finished his check of the weapons cases. “It’s not like we haven’t traveled without you before, and you’re a mental shout away if we need you.”

“That’s not the point, Sam,” Gabriel retorted acidly. “We’re not exactly working with an excess of time here. Abbi or Mal can check on these humans for you; that’s part of the job I assigned them, and I can have them add this Lisa chick to the list if it’s all that important.”

Dean swung his gaze to Gabriel, clearly surprised. “You assigned them to keep an eye on Jimmy’s family?”

For a moment, Gabriel paused, and then decided to make a clean breast of it. “The day I mated Sam, I had them assign a cherubic guard to Castiel’s vessel’s family. I can do the same for this woman you’re so concerned about just as easily. We don’t have time for distractions, Dean. We need to focus on the bigger picture.”

Sam nearly winced openly as he watched Dean’s eyes flare angrily. “I made a promise, Gabriel. Now, I appreciate that you’ve got them under guard, but I need to see for myself that they’re all right. Maybe if you hadn’t been wearing that poor schmo you’re in now since the damn Middle Ages, you’d understand why. And Lisa and Ben might not make it into the ‘big picture’, but that doesn’t mean they ain’t important.”

“You know that’s not what I meant,” Gabriel warned, genuine anger fraying into his voice. “You have a mate that’s still weak and needs you with him. Every minute that we get closer to a showdown between my big brothers means more portents of the Apocalypse: earthquakes, storms, fires, floods, plagues, demonic attacks, all manner of shadow beasts going mad. And all of that means there are people dying everywhere, Dean. People just like Amelia and Claire and Lisa and her kid. And now that you know you can check on Amelia and Claire with a shout to Abbi or Mal, then we both know that digging in your heels to go see them is just an excuse. You really gonna tell me that you’re willing to spend the lives of the people that will die because of that couple days’ delay just to go check in on your extra-bendy ex-weekender?”

The back door of the Impala slammed, a telling sign of how close Dean was to losing his temper. “I gotta check the room,” was all he said.

Sam waited until Dean was back in the motel before speaking. “He needs to do this,” he offered quietly. “He needs to see them. He just lost the chance to be sure that they’d be all right no matter what; it’s got him nervous.”

“There are no guarantees in this life, Sam,” the archangel replied, his voice tight and unhappy. “Even if Dean had said yes, if it comes down to a fight, Michael could lose.”

“I know.” Sam finished loading the trunk, then tipped his head at his mate curiously. “Your vessel… who was he?”

“No one,” Gabriel replied, almost too quickly. Sam threw a bitchface so fierce that Gabriel actually flinched. “He never was, Sam. If I’d actually picked someone in my vessels’ bloodline, Heaven could’ve tracked me down in less than nothing flat. This devastatingly sexy meatsuit you’re so helplessly attracted to is little more than a golem.”

Sam blinked. “What do you mean, a golem?”

“I mean it’s a tailor-made body that never had a soul,” Gabriel replied. His even tone betrayed nothing; a sure sign that Sam was asking questions that the archangel would prefer not to answer. “No consciousness or sentience if I’m not home. If I had to bail for any reason, it’d be the best sex doll your kinky little heart could desire.”

Inspiration had Sam’s face relaxing, his lips pulling into a vaguely lascivious smirk that hollowed out the space under his cheekbones and brought his dimples out in force. “If you’re interested, I might be convinced to put on a show for you.”

Calling Gabriel’s bluff worked. Instead of staying aloof or upset, those glorious amber eyes widened in shock, and then Gabriel threw back his head with a peal of golden laughter. “Oh, Father… how did I manage to miss how kinky you are when we first met?”

“Too busy fucking with mine and my brother’s heads,” Sam replied with a shrug.

The hunter closed the distance between them as he said it, and Gabriel willingly let Sam fold him in, burrowing his ear against Sam’s chest and letting Sam’s heartbeat drum reassuringly against his cheek. “Wasted time,” he murmured. “Should have told you both then… warned you what was coming.”

“Leave the might-have-beens to the kids writing fanfiction about those crazy books,” Sam chided gently. “We’ve got too much to do to get mired in that.”

“Exactly why this trip isn’t a good idea,” Gabriel countered instantly.

Sam released his angel just as fast with an irritated growl, flinging his hands in the air. “What do you want me to say, Gabriel? Dean needs this; he feels like he owes Jimmy and he made him a promise.”

“That doesn’t mean he needs to make the pit stop at the ex-whatever-she-is!” Gabriel shouted. “Castiel is still weak-”

“And Ben might be Dean’s son!”

The angel fell silent. Sam felt his temper ebb. “Lisa said she had a blood test done when Ben was a baby, but I don’t buy it and Dean only pretends to. She didn’t have any of Dean’s blood for them to compare with Ben’s. And that’s not even counting the possibility of Heavenly intervention to obfuscate the truth. That’s enough reasonable doubt for a jury and more than enough for us. Dean needs to know that Ben’s okay. We’re doing this. Cas needs to rest and you need to protect him, so you two are holing up until we get back. End of discussion.”

For a long moment, Gabriel stared up at his hunter, his amber eyes molten as they bored into Sam’s agate-hard hazel. Finally, he found his voice, impressing himself that he remembered how to keep it flat and even. “I think we’ve just had our first real fight, gorgeous. Guess the honeymoon’s over.”

“Looks like it.” Sam tried to uncurl his fists, to make himself reach out to his mate and end the tension between them. They’d disagreed plenty of times since their mating, but never without resolving it before they parted. But this time, Sam wasn’t going to back down. He knew Gabriel wouldn’t, either.

Dean came back out of the motel to find the mates staring each other down, Sam’s jaw set and the muscle in his left cheek ticking. “We ready?” he asked, ignoring the obdurate gaze of the archangel his brother adored.

“Yeah,” Sam confirmed shortly. “We’re ready.”

“Don’t do this.” It wasn’t quite a command, was sharper than a request. “Let my cherubim handle it. Nothing good is going to come of this trip, Sam.”

“We’ll see you in a couple days, Gabriel,” Sam replied evenly.

The archangel stiffened even as his mate turned his back on him, watching with disbelieving amber eyes as both Winchesters slid into their normal seats in the Impala. Doors closed, the engine Dean so scrupulously maintained roared to life, and Gabriel could only watch as his beautiful, unpredictable, impossibly stubborn mate drove away without him.

Sam had once again managed to surprise him.

* * *

Castiel watched as Gabriel fidgeted, unable to sit still in a haven created to cater perfectly to the elder seraph’s comfort. “I believe your restiveness is causing my vessel nausea.”

Looking up sharply, Gabriel tried to assess the state of his younger brother’s health. “You’re still weak enough to feel that?”

“Yes.” Castiel settled back against the wall of pillows. Gabriel couldn’t help thinking he was oddly adorable: with his rumpled trench coat gathered about him and looking rather cross about the whole business. “It’s frustrating.”

Sighing softly, Gabriel crossed the bedroom from where he’d been trying to read in the low recliner and clambered into the nest beside Castiel. Ever uncertain of his welcome, he almost perched at the edge near Castiel’s ankles, an expression of concern written across his sharp features. “I shouldn’t have let them go,” he admitted, the words a half-apology. “You need Dean here. I can’t understand either of them.”

“He senses the connection,” Castiel informed him solemnly. “Both he and Sam do. They have not asked, and I have offered nothing, but it is enough that they suspect. Dean’s wish to go is… understandable, and I would not wish for him to go there alone.”

“You’re still letting him carry your sword, and yet you don’t trust him?” Gabriel’s tone was shocked and dangerous and just vaguely sorrowful.

“It is not a question of that.” Castiel’s eyes bored into Gabriel’s, serious as ever. “You trust Sam with no reservation, do you not?”

“Of course I do!”

“Would you wish for him to go alone, however briefly, to visit with the mother of his child?”

There was a momentary flicker behind Gabriel’s eyes, a hint of his visceral reaction to the image Castiel had conjured. “There were still better ways for them to do this.”

“Perhaps, but you know as well as I that the Winchesters are as stubborn as any angel.” Castiel smiled faintly. “It is part of their charm.”

The rare moment of humor in his often-dour younger brother brought a smile to Gabriel’s face. “Mating’s done wonders for you, little brother,” Gabriel observed wryly. “I approve.”

“You have changed much from your tie to Sam as well.” Castiel’s eyes were deep and full, an expression hovering at the edges of his face that Gabriel was shocked to recognize.

Faith.

“Don’t do that,” he blurted. Without meaning to, Gabriel shot up from the bed and backed away from the younger angel.

“You accept it from Abariel and Gamaliel,” Castiel argued, shifting to rise from the bed on unsteady human feet.

“Bull!” Gabriel’s voice went up a decibel, his grace surging in his fingertips. “Abbi and Mal know better. They know I’ll disappear again in a heartbeat if I have to and they know how to fend for themselves. I’m not Michael or Uriel or Anael, Cas. I don’t need faith and I don’t want it.”

“It is mine to give to whom I will,” Castiel replied stubbornly. “And I choose to give it to my flock. That includes you now, whether either of us like it or not.”

Gabriel recoiled as though slapped.

Castiel’s eyes widened as the echo of the words trembled in the room, his own temerity shocking him. “Gabriel-”

“Don’t.” Gabriel’s eyes shuttered, his entire being closing up and walling away. “It’s not like I didn’t know… or don’t deserve it. Just took longer than I thought for you to admit it.”

Internally, Castiel battled: his need to soothe the hurt he’d dealt and his unresolved anger with the archangel that had been set aside for the greater good and his instinctive obeisance to a higher seraph clashing in a three-fronted war within his grace. “You hurt them,” he finally ground out.

“I did,” Gabriel admitted. “More than you know.”

“You hurt me.”

“I couldn’t risk you tattling on me.” Gabriel was still, not quite regretful. “I knew what they’d do if they knew.” He chuckled softly. “Or I thought I did. Those two have a knack for surprising people.”

Castiel’s gaze was steady. “You abandoned Heaven long before any of this started in earnest. You must have seen the signs in these last few human years, especially when Dean and Sam first crossed your path. And yet you did nothing.”

Gabriel’s chin lifted, his expression a mask. He made no verbal reply for a long moment, the flickering in his golden eyes the only hint that Castiel’s words had even moved him. Time stretched out between them: two creatures who transcended it. Finally, Gabriel broke the silence, the weight of Castiel’s stare nothing to the guilt he’d carried for far too many years. “I know.”

“I don’t know how to…” Castiel sighed deeply then, a long exhale of frustration. “You do not make forgiveness easy, Gabriel, no matter how much you have changed. No matter how good for Sam you have been or how dedicated you are to stopping Michael and Lucifer. Especially when you would deny me the faith needed to sustain an act of such compassion.” He wobbled then, his worn-out grace wavering.

“Sit down, Castiel.” It came out an order, and Gabriel wavered a moment himself before going to the younger angel, taking him by the upper arms and physically pushing him back down onto the bed.

Castiel’s hands snaked out and caught Gabriel’s waist just above the hips. The elder archangel glanced down, his expression wary and vulnerable behind a mask not dissimilar to the one Dean always wore. It came to Castiel suddenly that his elder brother and his mate really weren’t all that different; not when it came to their hearts.

The apple of Gabriel’s throat bobbed. “Cas…”

“I am not happy that we have had so little time,” Castiel finally said, the words coming to him as they might if it were Dean before him, and no less true for one than they would be for the other. “There is too much unresolved, and no time to address it. In the absence of that, I must have faith, Gabriel. To not have faith would be to always doubt you, mistrust your commitment to Sam and to the cause of stopping the destruction that both Michael and Lucifer would rain down in the ultimate expression of their despair. We don’t have time for anything else.”

Gabriel was staring down at him, just gazing into the too-blue eyes of his vessel with the amber fire of the archangel’s. For too long, it seemed that they stared into each other, until they were seeing beyond the limits of the mortal flesh and only the grace, shining and roiling beneath the surface. Turmoil and second-guesses, love and loss and caution and fear, resentment and insecurity and the unspeakable gaping wound that was their Father’s absence, His Power forever fueling their graces but His Love no longer a soothing balm to heal the injuries to them.

And then the moment broke and they fell back into themselves, Gabriel reaching up to tuck an errant wisp of hair away from Castiel’s temple. “No, we don’t. And even I need it, I suppose. We all get a little insane without it.” He chuckled. “Crazy enough that two angels who barely know each other and certainly have no reason to trust each other would bond with a pair of brothers who are erotically codependant?”

“They have never acted on those impulses,” Castiel reproved mildly.

“And they may never,” Gabriel agreed. “Not beyond things like what happened that one night in that motel. But it’ll always be there, Cas. Even their bonds to us aren’t strong enough to weaken what’s between them.”

Another sigh, and Castiel felt fatigue settle over him. He was tired of fighting for every moment of wakefulness without Dean by his side, tired of battling in every aspect of his existence. Before Gabriel could stop him, Castiel tipped his head forward until his face was pressed into the elder seraph’s stomach, and he could smell the lilies and mint surrounding the archangel. And just beneath, imperceptible to their human mates, the scent of rich loam and dark power.

Gabriel uneasily pressed Castiel back until the Power was once again curled up on the bed, his dark tousled hair resting on a pillow and his trench coat gathered around him like a security blanket. “You should be resting.”

“Someday, Gabriel,” Castiel murmured quietly. “Someday, I will find a way to induce you to tell me your secrets. I will find a way to trust you, and you me.”

“You can believe that, if it gives you comfort, little brother.” Gabriel was about to sit, to try and find some rest himself and maybe a way to help Castiel heal without Dean being there…

And then they were both acutely aware of the brothers’ uneasiness, a spike of adrenaline and instinct and fear their mates would never admit to piercing across the angels’ senses.

Castiel found it first; it had never been used on Dean before. “Blood was taken. Someone intends to use blood magic tonight, and the Winchesters are their targets.”

“I know.” Gabriel was glad for the confirmation; Sam’s soul was latticed with marks from previous blood magicks, making it hard to discern. But it wasn’t hard for Gabriel to ascertain what was surrounding his mates, making it nearly impossible to retrieve them remotely. “Oh, no… oh, Father damn their hides.”

“Gabriel?”

“No, this is my fault. I was warned this might be in the offing, and I should have known better… should have known Her better.” Gabriel raked a hand through his hair and snarled to himself. “Fuck.”

“Gabriel.” This time not a question, but a demand for information wrapped into a few growled syllables. Castiel was once again sitting up, his expression slanted with determination.

“It’s Kali,” Gabriel expounded. “She’s gathered a strike force; from the feel of it, Isis is there with Her. They want the boys for something; probably bait.” His face was grim as he turned to Castiel. “I have to go after them.”

“We both will.” Castiel started to rise.

Gabriel put him back down. “No, Castiel. These gods are likely to kill any angel they find. I have an ‘in’, and I can get the boys out without pinging their radar… assuming our recalcitrant mates will cooperate.”

“And if they don’t?”

Something even darker crossed the archangel’s face just then, something that had Castiel instantly regretting their argument. Something that made the younger angel doubt that his flock would return to him unharmed. “I’ll cross that rotting rope bridge when I get to it. You stay here. I may need to throw them and leave another way, and I need you ready to catch them if I do.”

“We should relocate to a motel near them then.” Castiel didn’t like the idea of staying behind even a little, but Gabriel had too many good points to argue with. “The closest we can find.”

Gabriel nodded, and with a thought, they found the place they needed. “Wait for us.”

“I will.” Castiel watched his brother go, wishing that he could pray for his flock’s safe return.

It wrenched something in his grace to remember that such prayers were likely to go unheeded.