It wasn’t even an idea really, it was too crazy and not at all thought out; it was just an action, a little compulsive twitch. Dean didn’t even know where it came from.
Well, maybe he did.
But be that as it may, it happened on a Friday night. Unfortunately, by that time he was drunk off his ass and just about ready to take the chick he’d been talking to into the back of the Impala to show her how it’s done. Everything was so fucked and he was so numb that he’d gone back to old patterns even though he knew he didn’t want them, knew it wouldn’t make things any better. He just needed something to do, and so while Sam acquired larger and deeper shadows beneath his eyes staying up at the computer, researching, he went out.
Amidst chatter and the raucous sounds of pool and old glassware clunking against tables, the ring sat heavy in his jacket pocket, all classic heavy gold and a bright stamp of sigils like a crest upon its flat surface. Dean closed his fingers around it mid-sentence, a meaningless habit he’d formed since acquiring it, and he rolled it around in his hand.
“What’ve you got there?” The girl said. Katherine, she’d said her name was. She was dark skinned, with long soft hair and sinuous curves that Dean could see himself doing a whole lot with.
“Hm? Nothin’,” he said easily, taking his hand away.
Playfully, she reached in instead. Before Dean could stop her, she had the ring delicately between her fingers.
“This is pretty,” she said, studying it. “Why aren’t you wearing it?”
“Shouldn’t,” Dean replied, but he at least had the drunken wherewithal to take it back immediately. “It isn’t mine.”
“You didn’t steal it, did you?” Her eyes glinted. He smiled at her.
“And what if I did?”
She prodded at it in his grip, so that it slipped over onto the tip of his forefinger. “Well, that would be very naughty,” she said, with a raised eyebrow. She looked down at his hand. “But then again, it does look rather good on you.”
“A lotta things do,” Dean grinned, a little too widely.
She returned the expression slyly, her whole body switching gears from demure to overt. “I’ll bet.”
Dean felt his expression go from easy to stiff. He hoped she didn’t notice. Taking his hand out of her grip, he stuck it back in his pocket, and leaned back slightly. He steered the conversation elsewhere, back to small talk, nothing personal, toning down the flirting just enough to start to give opposing signals. It wasn’t like he hadn’t done it before, or had it done to him. He just...wasn't feeling it anymore. It was becoming a regular occurrence.
Fuck Famine and his psychotherapy bullshit.
So after a few more minutes, the girl didn’t seem all that surprised when he knocked his last beer back and stepped away from the bar.
“I’m afraid I’ve gotta take an early night,” he murmured, excuse coming easily. “Just remembered I got some work to do.”
She pouted halfheartedly, but let him go without comment. It was early yet, bar-wise, and Dean was not the only fish in the sea. He exited to the parking lot with his hand still feeling the contours of the ring around the tip of his finger.
By the time he got back to the motel, Sam was asleep, sprawled out with a book near his face, all limbs akimbo over the bedspread. Dean sat heavily across from him, the weight of alcohol in his gut resonating against the weight of guilt and fear and emptiness, like his whole body was an echo chamber just amplifying nothingness upon nothingness.
It was quiet in the room, except for Sam's breathing. But wasn’t peace. It was just another night of waiting. And he hadn't even brought anything back to take his mind off of it. Figures.
Dean was so tired. But as soon as his eyes closed, Michael would be there.
It had been getting more frequent. Cas shielded it most of the time, drew sigils across his brow, but sometimes Dean didn't let him, couldn't bear to sense the light fade in him just that bit more. Ever since they got back from the seventies, he'd been feeling Cas's decline, like a spreading bruise working its way outward, sensitizing skin, weakening it.
So sometimes Dean passed out without assistance. And then Michael was there, still wearing John Winchester's young and guileless face, turning it into something sharp and inexorable. Dean just turned away from him, couldn't bear to look him in the face anymore, and since it was his dream, dammit, no one else could see how he closed his eyes, played blind and deaf as the archangel spoke to him, invaded his space, coaxed and prodded. He'd save his anger for when he showed up in person again, if he ever managed to. In sleep, he couldn't bring himself to fight. So he'd just ignore it, and wake up exhausted.
The ring flipped over and slid around as he pushed his palm lazily against the sheets. He'd forgotten it was still there. He gazed at it, this strange relic of the Horseman, halfway down his left forefinger, caught on his second knuckle.
You can't fight city hall, Michael had said.
How did one wage a war against Heaven and Hell?
Dean spun the ring once, twice. Pushed it down past the second knuckle until it hit the sensitive webbing between his fingers. It tingled slightly. But like the girl said—it did look rather good.
He couldn’t remember why he never wore it in the first place.
He snorted to himself, wiped his newly adorned hand across his eyes and lay back against the pillows that smelled of age and dust motes. He closed his eyes, letting the suggestion of the idea fade into nothing.
It was all so ridiculously hopeless anyway.
Sam woke up feeling odd, all of his nerves jangling like something had been watching him sleep. He pushed himself off his belly, wiping crusts of drool from the corner of his mouth, and looked over at Dean, who had managed somehow to twist the sheets into some sort of Gordian knot around his legs and feet.
He was still asleep, wearing his clothes from last night. He should look about as innocent as he always did in his sleep, which was alarmingly so.
He didn’t. He looked…dark.
Sam pulled Ruby’s knife out from beneath his pillow and looked at the clock. It was barely five in the morning. All of the salt lines were in place, and there was no smell of sulfur. Dean just looked dark. Like even though he was exposed to the same light as everything else in the room, something had changed in the contours of his body to make deeper and more numerous shadows. Sam's grip on the knife tightened.
Dean made a grumbling noise and rolled over slightly. "'Mwhat, Sammy? 'S early."
"Where'd you go last night?"
Dean squinted at the dawn light and grimaced. "Bar. Ugh, Christ, didn't think I drank that much, but I feel like ass. Why?"
"Anything happen there?" Sam sat forward. He glanced at the tattoo on Dean's chest, but it looked the same as usual, no damage done, no breaks in the blackened lines.
Dean didn’t even think about it. The memory came forward as if put there last. "Nearly picked up this chick with a truly impressive set of knockers. Didn't, though." He finally managed to extricate himself from his sheets and sat up to peer at Sam in confusion. "What's this about?"
"You look different. Are you sure nothing happened?"
"Dude, I'm hungover and I didn't even get laid. At best, I'm probably just looking seriously disappointed." Dean wiped a hand over his face, and hauled himself out of bed. "I'm calling first shower, and you can't stop me."
Sam watched as he closed the bathroom door behind him. His grip stayed tight around his knife.
Dean eyed Sam warily over breakfast. The younger Winchester had been unwinding incrementally since they first woke up, but he still had that cautious, weirded-out expression twisting his face like he's hiding something. But this time Dean was pretty sure he wasn’t hiding anything--at least, not this time. After Sam had left the panic room that last time Dean had made it clear that he was going to make an effort towards trusting him so long as Sam didn't talk about it beyond just being generally honest about what was going on. It had been working out pretty well so far, and though occasionally Sam would get that constipated look, a few hours later he'd come clean about what was bothering him and as long as it wasn't about feelings, Dean tried to do his best and listen. So it wasn't that.
Besides, this wasn't quite the look of secret-hiding. This was the look of body-snatching, ghoul-sighting, shapeshifter-y suspicion. Which was just...odd.
"Dude, what's up with you this morning?" Dean said finally, as he sucked down his third cup of coffee. He felt sluggish with his hangover, and his shoulders felt sore for some reason, like he wrenched them.
Sam made conflicted noises for a few minutes over his scrambled eggs, until he gave up and said, "You look weird, Dean. You look different. And not hungover, or something, just...kinda off."
"You're gonna have to be more specific, Sammy."
"I don't know, all right? I just woke up this morning, something felt wrong, and when I looked over at you I had the sudden urge to fling holy water in your face."
"Glad you didn't, or we would have had to have some strong words."
"I'm serious, Dean."
"I'm not laughing, Sammy. Look, you can splash all the holy water you want on me when we get back, I'll even cut myself up on some silver if you like. But I guarantee you nothing happened last night."
"Well, you look weird. And it's weirding me out."
"I think you've reached your quota for use of the word 'weird'."
Absently, Dean rubbed his thumb along the base of his finger, like he was adjusting something. Sam followed the movement, but there was nothing there.
They were in upstate New York a week later, biding their time while Bobby looked for more Apocalyptic signs by investigating a possible Sumerian curse when Dean started to feel it. They were both in the library because between all the newspaper articles on possible deaths and on the museum where there was a whole wing dedicated to the Fertile Crescent, they're sort of swamped in data. Dean flipped through a couple of old archive books and then flexed his hand once, shooting it an odd look before continuing.
And then he did it again, a few minutes later.
Sam looked up on the third time with raised eyebrows. "What are you doing?"
Dean frowned. "I dunno, man. My hand feels kinda...off."
Two bookshelves behind them, a furious whispered argument erupted between a librarian and some kid from the local high school. Dean and Sam listened to it escalate and then die down. Dean snorted in amusement, and jerked his thumb at them. Sam smirked.
They forgot about his hand.
It was definitely a Sumerian curse.
Two days, and they're breaking into the museum through a basement window to burn a warrior's shield that apparently housed the souls of all the soldiers it protected. Said soldiers apparently took offense to not being buried with their corpses back in Mesopotamia. So now, yeah, cremation of whatever's left was definitely in order.
Dean brushed bits of broken glass off his shoulders and straightened. "Which way to these bastards?"
"Off to the left, down the hall," Sam said as he dropped in through the window. It really was a good thing they were upstate. Any closer to the city, and they'd be dealing with all sorts of ridiculous security. As it was, though, the museum was pretty small and outdated. They made their way down the hall.
The shield was nestled among some spears and urns behind glass casing. But that's the least of their worries.
As soon as they entered the hall, the warriors appeared. Ghostly sure, but more than capable of doing damage, if the mangled townspeople now residing in the county morgue were anything to show for it. Dean pumped his shotgun as Sam made a run for the shield.
"Better do this quick, Sam, or the cavalry is going to arrive and they won't be happy with us!" he shouted, putting a round of rock salt into the warrior advancing on his left.
"Doing the best I can, all right?" Sam yelled back, grabbing the fire extinguisher to break the display glass.
Dean let off another round, catching a second ghost in the chest, but then there's a third, a fourth, an eighth, and oh Christ this was not good.
Dean made a dive for their bag and the tin of rock salt, unscrewing the cap and backing into a corner. "Sam!"
"It's not burning, I'm gonna have to try another ritual!" Sam shouted, and then Dean didn't have time to call a warning before another ghost was throwing his brother across the room.
"Forget it, I'll do it!" he yelled, pulling the stuff he needed out of the bag once the salt line's down, pulling out an iron chain that he swung in a wide arc to mow the closest soldiers down. Snatching charcoal from the side pocket, he started drawing, left hand fidgeting while he laid down the sigils, listening to the crack of Sam's shotgun over his head.
Left hand fidgeting, as he laid down the palm leaves and stained them with blood.
Left hand fidgeting, as the shots ceased.
He looked up to plan his mad dash to the shield that needed to be on fire as much as the pile of sacrificial detritus at the center of the chalk circle. And froze.
Sam was looking at him in unabashed confusion, looking at him and then at the ghosts who had ceased advancing on Sam and instead were turning on each other.
"Huh," Dean said, still rubbing at the base of his forefinger with his thumb. They watched for a few seconds in silence while the apparitions of ancient men tore each other apart, limb from limb, over and over. It was almost more haunting that it’s as bloodless as it was, just gray splatter that evaporated before everything was put back together again in an endless regeneration.
Sam saw Dean freeze up, his expression something a lot like recognition. Sam was pointedly not going to think about what his brother's recognizing.
"Dean, the ritual," he said, voice unsteady.
Dean tore his gaze away, and nodded. Went to the shield and plucked it out of the broken display case. He threw it on the circle and set the whole thing ablaze.
Still snarling and locked together in a hideous tableau, the warriors went up in a shower of sparks.
The silence was too unsettling to break it. Sam did anyway.
"We've gotta go, Dean," he said. "We're lucky the cops aren't here already."
Dean nodded, a bit vacantly, and they got the hell out.
"So," Sam said, when they got back to the motel, and thankfully no cops were on their tail. "What the hell was that?"
Dean shrugged. "No idea. Maybe there were too many manifesting at once? Got their wires crossed or something?"
"It's never happened like that before."
"Obviously. I'm just saying I dunno, Sam."
Sam sat heavily on the bed across from Dean. "You still look weird."
Dean rolled his eyes. "Seriously? You're still on that?"
"You tell me, Dean. You start looking weird and dark and all of a sudden the first supernatural baddies we come across start wailing on each other rather than us? There could be some sort of correlation--"
"Yeah, or you could be making shit up," Dean cut him off. "I'm fine, Sam. I've been fine all this time. I don't see what the issue is. Take the win for what it is."
Sam twisted his face up in disapproval, but didn't take it any further. There wouldn't be a point, anyway.
Four days later, Dean started to itch. He itched very specifically in two narrow bands along the edges of his shoulder blades, and he itched like a motherfucker. He started out just absently scratching at it, but after a day or so he's clawing at it every second he can, trying to restrain himself when Sam's around, but it's like as soon as he left the room he's practically ripping holes in his t-shirts to get at skin, and then rub that raw too.
Sam noticed. "Dude. Did you fall in poison ivy, or something?"
"No," Dean snapped, "I just...Christ. It's fucking uncomfortable."
"Lemme see," Sam said, looking concerned.
With a sigh, Dean pulled his t-shirt up over his head. He heard Sam suck in a breath.
"Holy fucking shit," Sam breathed. "Call Cas right now."
"What?" Dean said, "What is it?"
Sam rolled his eyes as Dean tried in vain to crane his neck around to catch a glimpse of his shoulder blades. "Look in the mirror, and then call Cas, for Christ's sake." His voice came out low and strained.
Dean, for once, listened to his little brother. He went into the bathroom and turned to look.
And then resisted the urge to gag.
His shoulder blades were mottled black beneath the surface, like the creepiest varicose veins gone ballistic beneath his skin. It looked rotten, angry where he's scratched, red and noxious. Dean felt the same revulsion he had when he'd gotten tonsillitis and hadn't known until he'd opened his mouth in the mirror and found those awful white spots at the back of his throat. He turned around almost immediately because he couldn't stand looking at it. He pulled out his cell and called Castiel.
"Hey, Cas? You got a minute?"
"I have more than a minute available at the moment. Where are you?"
Dean rattled off the address and halfway through Castiel was four inches from his face and looking very, very concerned.
"Dean, what have you done?"
Dean immediately went on the defensive, because that's what he did. "What makes you think I've done anything? I just have this shit on my back and it itches and I don't know why--"
"Turn around," Castiel ordered, and Dean sighs and faces away from him. A moment later, Cas's hand came down gently on his right shoulder blade, and he wanted immediately to shift to make that light touch a savage scratch.
But Castiel just flattened his palm against Dean's back, and says, "Dean. I don't know what this is."
"Great. That's real helpful."
"You are changing. And I do not know what will be the end result."
"Even better. Can you make it stop?" Dean growled.
Castiel looked at him over his shoulder, implacable as ever. "Not without knowing what is causing the change."
They both exited the bathroom, and Sam looked at them expectantly. "Did you--?"
"No," Dean snapped. "We don't know what it is."
"Dean is undergoing a transformation," Castiel said.
Sam tensed up. "Into what?"
"Weren't you listening? We don't know," Dean said. His hands came together in that strange rubbing motion.
"You keep doing that," Sam said, jerking his chin in the direction of Dean's hands.
Dean frowned, and looks down. "'S nothing. I'm a bit tense right now. You know, about the giant black marks on my--"
"Wait, Dean," Castiel said, coming around to face him. "Let me see."
Wordlessly, Dean put out his hands and Castiel took them in his own. The angel flinched when his grip closed around Dean's left hand. "You're wearing something," he said. "Here."
He grasped Dean's forefinger, and squeezed. As Castiel let go, revealing the gold signet beneath his withdrawing thumb, Dean froze.
Dean was watching Castiel. There had been a lot of yelling after he’d remembered just how exactly he’d managed to do something more spectacularly reckless than usual. Castiel hadn’t been a participant in the yelling; that had mostly been Dean and Sam. Castiel, instead, had watched like he had actually turned into Spock, while Dean had turned into a alien specimen of great interest. And now Dean was watching straight back, because Sam had finally subsided with a lot of frustrated noises, and because Castiel was looking...diffident. "What're you thinking, dude?" he asked, after a few seconds.
“The night you decided to do this,” Castiel said slowly. “Did you talk to anyone in particular?”
“No. I think I'd…wait.” Dean thought about it. What he’d told Sam the morning after, about the busty chick. That hadn’t been right. He couldn’t even remember her name, or what he said to get her into bed. There was a whole lotta something there that he wasn’t remembering, a blank that stood out for its sheer lack of information.
He picked at it. It didn’t budge.
“I think…I think I’ve been wiped,” he said, after a second.
“’Wiped?” Castiel cocked his head, but Sam got it.
“You sure it wasn’t the booze?” he asked.
“Nah,” Dean replied, now more certain, “Different kind of blankness. This isn’t lost hours, this is just empty ones. A long gap of nothing, but no feeling of time loss.”
“That’s hard to pull off,” Sam said darkly. “You think she was working some mojo?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised. I mean, I may not be so bright, but I don’t randomly put major magical objects on myself just for funsies."
That took some of the wind out of Sam's sails. "Yeah. Yeah, you’re probably right," he said eventually. "Okay, so we have some higher echelon bad guy who told Dean to put on the ring, but now that it’s on, do you think he’d know how to get it off?” he asked, turning to Castiel.
“Unlikely. There are very few beings in the universe who are familiar with the true nature of the Horsemen, and though this may have been a powerful influence peddler, it is doubtful he is one of them. But perhaps he would know what change would take place. After all, he would need a reason for impelling Dean.”
“Then what d’you suggest, Cas?” Dean said.
"I am thinking that I should perhaps call on someone who has greater expertise than I," Castiel said hesitantly. "But you may not approve of him."
"Dude, have I ever approved of your former pals?" he snorted. "Hit me. Who're you gonna call? And don't say ghostbusters."
Castiel raised an uncomprehending eyebrow, but then said, "Gabriel. I would call Gabriel."
Dean's face went utterly blank. Sam said, "Um. Why?"
"Because he is more powerful than I, and may be able to trace the influence further than I. And because he has undergone somewhat of a transformation himself, though perhaps not so drastically."
Sam frowned. "The earlier writings say the Horsemen were stars. Is that actually...?"
"That is accurate, yes, though they were not the incandescent forms that you are familiar with. But they were not spoken of a great deal in Heaven, so even I cannot give a detailed account of them. Gabriel can."
"I doubt he'll want to, though."
"Don't be so sure. He wants this war to be over." Castiel looked over at Dean significantly. "And we may have just changed the terms by which that will happen."
“Great.” Dean rolled his eyes. “We’re gonna powwow with a guy who killed me not once, but like eleventy-billion times.”
Sam looked even more upset than he was, but he didn’t say anything.
Into the silence, Dean let out a breath that’s a mix of irritation and trepidation. “Right,” he said finally. “What do we have to do to summon ourselves an archangel?”
The ritual was pretty simple, as rituals go. Mostly because it wasn’t a ritual for archangels—it was one for Tricksters.
“But, he’s not a real Trickster,” Dean argued. “Wouldn’t that make a difference?”
“Like I said before,” Castiel said, “Gabriel has undergone transformation, of a sort. He’s between worlds, existing as both archangel and pagan god, and so long as we summon one of those two parts, he will come.”
So they laid out herbs and candles, and Sam went to the local butcher’s for a measure of calf’s blood that they poured into an old tin can along with lavender and chamomile. By the time they’re finished, it smelled like the basement of an old funeral parlor, flowers and wet copper and a sweet-sharp tang of chemical. Castiel lit the last candle, said a brief prayer, and then they waited.
Several minutes passed. And then like he always had been, Gabriel’s there.
“Winchesters,” he said, his face uncharacteristically blank. “Castiel. Long time, no see.”
“Reason for that,” Dean quipped. Castiel glared at him.
“Now is not the time,” he said. He looked at Gabriel. “I’m afraid we’re in need of your assistance.”
Gabriel…hadn’t taken his eyes off of Dean. “I can see that,” he agreed lightly, but his tone didn’t match up with his stillness. “But what makes you so sure I’d be willing to give it?”
There’s a beat of silence, and then Dean went out on a limb. “Do you think Michael will want a vessel that’s infected with War juice?”
Gabriel twitched but waited, his eyes narrowed. Dean made a frustrated noise and spelled it out.
“Look, you wanted us to play ball. Well now, even if we wanted to, we can’t. So help us find an alternative, or the world goes to Lucifer. No trick in the world is gonna fix that, and if you run away from this now then you’re an even bigger dick than the rest of your brothers.”
They were caught in Gabriel’s silence for what seemed an age. And then the archangel seemed to shudder slightly, like he was adjusting to a new skin.
“Well, Dean. Do you want the long version, or the short version?”
“Short,” Dean said.
“Long,” Sam said at the same time. They glared at each other.
Gabriel clicked his tongue at them both. “Always so difficult. Here it goes, kiddies: the four Horsemen are not just people with fancy rings. They aren’t even demons with fancy rings. They’re another species entirely, a force unto themselves, and Lucifer is kidding himself if he thinks that they are at his beck and call." He finally moved, and it’s to drag his focus back to Dean, as if it’s the last thing he wanted to do. "They are separate. They are discreet. They are neutral. And you, Dean Winchester, are not built like them."
“What’s happening to me, then?” Dean asked. “Or do you want to keep building the tension in this room a little longer?”
Gabriel didn’t even smile. And Sam was now officially more terrified than angry. There was a pause, and Sam couldn't bring himself to ask the question,Will he turn into something we'll have to kill? Because that shit? He was not ready for it, and never would be.
Then Gabriel said, “I don’t know, Dean. This was never meant to happen. That’s what happens when you go off book. But you won’t be entirely human for very much longer.”
Dean worked his jaw, and then said, “Okay. Okay, Cas—cut it off.”
“Too late for that now, I’m afraid,” Gabriel said.
“What do you mean?” Dean rounded on him.
“I mean, kiddo, that even if you decide to lop off a digit, the damage has been done. That ring’s got its claws in you, and it ain’t letting go.”
“Why would it matter when we cut it off the actual Horsemen, then?” Sam asked, not willing to think about the more horrifying implications of this conversation.
“Because they’re Horsemen?” Gabriel said, rolling his eyes. “They’re built to withstand these kind of things. For them, the rings are just channeling devices, keys to their own innate power. But put a ring on a mortal body, and the thing’s not just unlocking or channeling, it’s building bridges and setting up shop because it doesn’t have enough to initially work with.”
“Okay, you’re making them sound alive, and that is really freaking me out,” Dean said flatly.
Gabriel tilted his head back and forth as if to say po-tay-to, po-tah-to. “They aren’t, per se. But they are objects of astronomical power, and with astronomical power comes at least a certain amount of autonomy. And now, one of them’s invested in you. Congrats.”
Sam was watching Dean as Gabriel talked, trying to parse his expression. He knew all of Dean’s faces, by now—the different shades of stillness that marked anger, boredom, despair, sorrow. This was different, like a stranger had tugged the muscles around his brother’s eyes and mouth in foreign directions and then froze them in place.
Dean swallowed without that expression going away, and said, “Will I still have control?”
Gabriel shrugged. “This isn’t Lord of the Rings—it’s a tool, not an influence.”
“But it’s power.”
“It’s more power than you can withstand. So it’s building you into something that can withstand it, yes.”
All of the unsettling kinks and pulls in Dean’s expression began to settle into something Sam recognized: resignation.
“We need to go to Bobby’s,” he said heavily. “I should be in the panic room. At least until this finishes.”
Gabriel quirked a grim smile, and snapped his fingers.
Bobby was, to put it mildly, beyond words.
He fumed as Sam explained what happened, he smacked Dean in the head at least twice, and as soon as the latter was safely locked away in the panic room, there was a lot of shouting.
“What did that goddamned brother of yours think he was doing?” he exclaimed, not for the first time. “What good has ever possibly come from wearing magical objects—“
“He was conned into it, somehow, or forced,” Sam said tiredly. “It could have happened to anyone. It has. So don’t expect me to get up on my high horse about it.”
That wasn’t entirely true. A part of Sam was furious, and angry that he was furious, but he really couldn’t let that out right now. He didn’t deserve to. Because he had started the Apocalypse, and Dean had just put on a ring.
A ring that was making him into…something.
Gabriel reappeared, shoulders still stiff, as if he was prepared at a moment’s notice to scram.
“He’s stable,” he said, “More than could be expected, considering.”
“Do we know what he’s actually changing into?” Bobby said acidly.
Gabriel smiled thinly. “A war machine, most likely. Rather useful, really, in lieu of Michael.”
“Any idea who could have done something like that?” Sam asked.
Gabriel shook his head. “There are a lot of pagans, demi-gods, others. Any one of them could have. None of them want the end of the world—they might be feeding on scraps, what with the current dominion of Judeo-Christianity and Islam, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t happy with their set up. Paradise would be just as distasteful to them as Lucifer.”
Sam growls in frustration. Gabriel rolls his eyes.
“Look, even if you did find whoever managed to finagle some further stupidity out of your brother, nothing you did to them would make a difference. Like it or not, Dean’s gonna be joining the unholy abomination club in a week or less, and there’s nothing I or anyone else can do about it.”
“There has to be something—“
“Sam,” Gabriel cut him off. “Always the same thing with you. There’s fuck-all you can do. Consider yourself lucky he’s not going to hell again.”
Dean lay on his stomach, limbs splayed out, listening to the creak of the fan above his head. His back still itched painfully, the soreness of earlier weeks now spanning from his shoulders to the small of his back. Like his spine was out of alignment, and his muscles were trying desperately to push it back into place. Castiel stood next to the bed, watching him with the same unsettling calm as always. Dean sort of felt like a butterfly pinned to a corkboard.
“A week,” he repeated. “A week of this shit.”
Castiel shrugged. “Give or take a few days. And it won’t all be the same. There are more serious changes ahead.”
“Yeah, starting to get that.” A zing of irritation shot down his left shoulder, and he resisted the urge to roll over and writhe on the rough bedding like a dog on a rug.
“The skin will break soon,” Castiel observed. “I’m curious to see what emerges.”
“Can you not act like I’m a science experiment?” Dean snarled. “It’s really not helping.”
Cas shifted, but looked unrepentant. “I’m sorry, Dean. I did not mean to offend.”
Dean sighed and shifted. “You didn’t. I just…it’s like I’m backsliding.”
“You are not turning into a demon,” Castiel said sharply. “If you were, Gabriel would have killed you the moment he set eyes on you. As would I have.”
Dean snorted humorlessly. “Good to know.”
They were silent for a long moment, in which Dean shifted uneasily, feeling the stretch of something that he somehow suspected hadn’t been there a week ago. God, this shit was fucked up.
“Gabriel has agreed to stay for the duration of your transformation.”
“Yeah?” Dean cracked one eye open; he hadn’t realized that he’d closed them. “And after that, he’s fucking off again?”
“I think that he doesn’t know. He is conflicted.”
“Join the club,” Dean muttered. He looked over at Castiel’s unrelenting stillness, and said, “This can’t be God’s plan, can it?”
Castiel looked darkly at the far wall. “Demon or not, I doubt he would choose a fate like this for one of his Chosen sons.”
“I don’t think we’ve ever established that I was actually chosen.”
Castiel turned back to glare at him. “Is my mark not enough?”
Dean swallowed, and said nothing. Castiel said, “You were known as the righteous man, and now you are becoming something altogether different. Our hope, however, is that you will remain righteous, if nothing else.”
“Yeah,” Dean assented quietly. “If nothing else.”
Castiel crouched down and gripped his arm suddenly, as if he’d been compelled to by the word of his absent Father. “You will be fine, Dean,” he said. His voice was low with belief. “You’ll be fine.”
Dean flexed the muscles in his back, and nodded wearily.
The next few days were tense, mostly because it didn’t seem like anything was happening. Dean left the panic room for meals, and apart from closing and opening his hand reflexively to stop himself from rubbing at the ring and shifting his shoulders in discomfort, seemed perfectly fine. Sam paced and read compulsively about War, from its conception to its contemporary appearances, and Gabriel kept popping in and out like a nervous hawk. The only highlight (or lowlight, depending on how you looked at it) was when he appeared suddenly at the breakfast table with a Twix halfway out of his mouth and clamped a hand over the brand on Dean’s shoulder.
“Jesus, what the hell?” Dean exclaimed, jerking away, nearly spilling syrup over himself in the process.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Gabriel said, somewhat unintelligibly through Twix. “You should be dead by now.”
“Well that’s reassuring,” Dean snapped while Sam extricated the syrup from him and began compulsively pouring it over his own pancakes. They were all way too jittery in this household even without Gabriel appearing unannounced.
“But you’re not, because of this.” Gabriel squeezed the brand.
“Could you not do that? It’s making me extremely uncomfortable.”
“Explain yourself, Gabriel,” Castiel said, looking between the archangel and Dean’s shoulder with a dislike Dean sort of wondered about.
Gabriel snapped his fingers and suddenly there was an extra chair, as well as an extra serving of pancakes.
“There’s been something that’s bothering me. Just that, you put a Horseman’s ring on any other human being, and while it might try and make said human into a Horseman or something like it, it’d probably fail. It’d probably fail big time.”
“Like, ‘dead’ big time?” Bobby said dryly.
Gabriel jabbed a fork at him. “Precisely. So I keep asking myself, why’s Dean-o here still kicking? And then it occurs to me—it’s my little bro’s mark of post-Hell TLC. Put more than the usual elbow grease into this one, didn’t you, little bro?”
“What do you mean?” Sam asked, swallowing pancake in an effort to also swallow his general discomfort.
“It’s suffused with my Grace,” Castiel said. Dean dropped his fork.
“Dude. I’ve got Grace? From you?”
Castiel nodded, looking somewhat uncomfortable.
Dean said, “Jeez. Thanks, man.”
“It was an honor, Dean.”
“Christ,” Gabriel rolled his eyes. “This is why I don’t stick around with you people. Chick flick moments are out of control.”
Dean spluttered. Gabriel disappeared. Castiel resumed picking at a piece of melon.
Sam looked around like the world had turned upside down last night and he hadn’t been given advance notice. “So,” he said hesitantly. “I guess someone knows a lot about you, Dean.”
“Yeah,” Dean agreed sourly, shoving pancakes into his mouth. “More than I’d like.”
And then on the fifth day, things started to suck.
Dean could tell something was wrong the moment he woke up. Castiel was once again standing right beside the bed, but he wasn’t quite as still as usual.
“Christ on a crutch,” Dean groaned. “What’s happening?”
“Your skin is about to rupture,” Castiel said. “I was debating whether or not to help it along.”
“Help it? Jesus Christ, Cas!”
“I’ll bring the others down to gain their opinion. Take your shirt off.”
Then Castiel was gone and Dean muttered a curse before pushing himself up from the mattress. And yeah, whole new muscles back there, whole new bones he could feel, grinding and pressing out and it felt like that compound fracture that had nearly punctured his arm when he’d gotten thrown out a window by a poltergeist that one time. Gritting his teeth and almost crying out, he pulled off his t-shirt and craned his neck around for just a moment, and oh shit, the skin was completely black beginning just over his shoulders, putrescent and sweaty. He flopped back down onto the mattress.
Gabriel appeared, along with Castiel, while Dean could hear Sam thundering down the stairs.
Gabriel made a hissing, sympathetic noise.
Sam said, “Oh my god,” as he skidded to a halt.
“What’s the verdict, guys?” Dean said through his teeth.
“If we don’t make the incisions ourselves, the ruptures to his skin may be…messy,” Castiel said.
“Ugh,” Sam grimaced. “God.”
“Yeah,” Gabriel agreed, after a second. “Do it. At least it’ll be controlled then.”
“God dammit,” Dean said, and wrapped his arms around the frame of the cot, closing fists around the grating on its underside.
“Sam, may I use your knife?” Castiel said, extending a hand. Dean managed to look up long enough to see Sam make an awful face before pulling the knife out of his pocket. Then he started unbuckling his belt.
“I have a feeling you’re gonna need this,” he said to Dean, handing it over.
Dean looked up at him. “This is gonna suck, isn’t it?” he said.
“Yeah, man. It’s gonna suck.”
Dean folded the heavy leather belt in two, and bit down hard. He felt more than saw Castiel sit beside him on the bed. “Are you ready?” Castiel asked.
Dean just growled. And wielding the knife like a scalpel, Castiel pressed down, and made two deep incisions along his shoulder blades.
Dean could feel the wet heat of blood welling and pouring out across his ribs before the pain hit. And then it did, and he nearly lost the belt. Instead he bit down harder, and a keening, strangled noise ripped from his throat.
“Holy—“ Sam said.
“Stand the fuck back,” Gabriel growled.
“What—“ Castiel started, stumbling backwards, and Dean didn’t remember ever seeing him stumble before.
He didn’t get a chance to think about it though. It was like the final seal had been taken off of a pressure valve.
“Jesus fucking Christ!” he shouted.
His whole back exploded.
All of the shifting, grinding tendons and sinews snapped outward, like a dislocated joint popping sickeningly back into place, except instead of one dislocation he had about twenty, and Dean was surprised he hadn’t already started weeping like a little girl because god.
He gripped the cot, pounded one fist against it like it would distract him, but nothing could possibly tear his attention away from the impossible stretch and snap of something surging out, like his back was vomiting out his vertebrae, piece by jagged piece. He coughed, and tasted copper at the back of his throat.
Wet-sharp slapping sounds like oilcloth against sloshing water accompanied the pops and sandpaper crunches of ligaments slotting against bone, making him nauseous because he knew it wasn’t water sloshing, it was fucking blood, his blood, and when he opened his eyes for a brief second he immediately regretted it because now there was blood fucking everywhere, soaking the mattress, spilling out around him and slopping onto the floor.
Under the sounds of his body turning itself inside out, he heard Sam stumble out of the room to be sick. He wished he could join him. Instead, he just uttered another hoarse cry into the pillow that was rapidly becoming home to noxious splatters of plasma and mucous.
He vaguely registered an impact that he felt on his shoulder but not, and then the crash of something hitting the wall with a metallic clang. Then there was a final, sickening wrench Dean swore he could feel from his spine to his fingertips, like the trunk of a tree being snapped in half, and then…then there was nothing.
Sam made a retching noise outside the door. Dean coughed wetly.
“That,” Gabriel said slowly, all of the humor knocked out of him, “That’s something I’ve never seen before.”
“Indeed,” Castiel said. He sounded uncharacteristically shocked.
In the groaning silence, Dean could pull a suspicion from his pain-battered brain. He felt sickly warm from head to toe, and knew he must look like a murder victim. A mutated, science fiction murder victim.
“Lemme guess,” he choked, and took a heaving phlegmy breath before finishing, “I’ve got a new set of limbs now.”
“In a manner of speaking,” Castiel said slowly.
Dean heard Sam step unsteadily back in through the door and then stop abruptly.
“Dude,” he said. His voice was blank with shock. “You’ve got fucking wings.”
Dean spent a long minute staring up at Sam and Castiel, lips curled in nausea at the smell emanating from the bed he laid on and the raw, tender places at his back. Not to mention the…appendages.
He could see them now, in the dim sunlight filtering in from the ceiling. They were hard to miss, actually. Huge and dark, though that was about all that he could tell because they were so blood-soaked and raw that they could have belonged to a bird or a bat or a fucking pterodactyl and he wouldn’t have been able to guess. They looked like what happened when oil spills caught seagulls. They were horrific.
They were also fucking massive. One had overturned the metal worktable and pinned it to the opposite wall. The other was bent uncomfortably at the feet of the two angels. After a long moment, Gabriel knelt down.
“You’re going to have to fold these,” he said. “And then we should get you outside.”
“Why?” Dean rasped.
“Because we need to wash the blood off, and if you don’t fold them in now you’ll probably hit something in the yard when we land, and with your good fortune you’ll probably break something. Also, I doubt Bobby’d appreciate us flooding his basement.”
“I don’t know how to fold them.”
“Yeah. About that. Castiel, help me out here.”
“Excuse me for this, Dean,” Castiel said, also crouching down. “This will feel strange.”
Carefully, he grasped one articulation of the thickest arc at his feet.
Dean twitched. It was unsettling to say the least. He could tell that the…the wing was connected to him—it felt the same as someone grabbing his arm, except for how it completely didn’t. His brain wasn’t grasping it quite well enough, wasn’t reconciling the fact that he had two new goddamn extremities to contend with. He comprehended pressure, a shift, but it was like trying to send signals to a part of him that had fallen asleep.
Ironically, it was newness of them that managed to wake his brain to them as well. As Castiel began to push the wing towards Dean, the largest joint scraped the floor.
“Augh,” Dean gasped. “Stop. Ow, stop right now! Motherfucker.”
Castiel stopped. He looked up at Dean’s face. “What is it?”
“It’s still raw,” Gabriel surmised. “We’re gonna need to lift it off the floor before moving it. Unless, of course, Dean-o can figure it out himself.”
Dean shot him a glare. “Gimme a minute, okay?”
Reluctantly, Castiel let go.
The screaming pain receptors in the wing had done their job. Dean was now excruciatingly aware of every inch of it, the tenderness of the muscles and the untried strain of tendons. He looked down at it, this new part of him that was both viscerally there and completely alien. He frowned. Concentrated on the black and red bulge of muscle that looked like it could contract both upward and inward. Tentatively, he flexed.
The muscles shouted further protest, but they obeyed. Trembling, the whole thing lifted, stuttering and starting, dripping more thick gobs of blood onto the floor, and then pulled in towards Dean. It wasn’t as heavy as it looked, but all the gross shit that had accompanied its explosive birth from Dean’s back weighed it down, and so when it was close enough to reach, Dean gingerly wiped some of the viscosity from it.
It felt like he was wiping living leather. Living leather attached to him.
The opposite wing went a little easier, now that Dean knew what to concentrate on. After a few minutes, both were tucked close to his back as he lay on the bed, slowly staining his jeans and the mattress in seeping stripes down to his ankles. Castiel moved so that he was standing closer to Dean’s head.
“Can you stand?” he asked.
“Let’s find out.” Bracing his arms beneath him, Dean slowly pushed himself onto his hands and knees, and then tried to rock back onto just his knees. Without comment, Castiel gripped his forearms and with preternatural strength lifted him the rest of the way off the cot and onto his feet.
Dean stumbled. His center of gravity was all fucked up. One of his wings shot out of its own volition to make an abortive attempt to balance him, and made a slick impact with something.
“Son of a bitch!” Gabriel spluttered.
Dean looked over, and despite excruciating pain, mental fatigue, blood loss, and general exhaustion, burst out laughing. Even Sam, in his panicky wide-eyed way, joined him.
The side of Gabriel’s face was covered in muck and blood. He looked like he’d been smacked in the face with a particularly badly crafted and burnt cherry pie. He looked murderous.
“Oh dude,” Dean gasped, wiping slightly hysterical tears from his eyes. “Sorry about that.”
“As if you’re actually sorry,” Gabriel muttered sourly. “Let’s get these damned things outside and into the sun.”
He snapped his fingers.
The rest of the day was…well, not as disgusting as the first hour of it, but still not pleasant. Dean at least appreciated that he didn’t have to do any of the work—while Gabriel presumably zapped the panic room back into cleanliness, he threw himself down on top of a crapped out Ford and watched as Castiel summoned two huge cast iron tubs of water.
“Dip the wings in, as far as they will fit,” he instructed, like this was all perfectly normal. “That should soak most of the blood off. Your back needs tending to.”
“You my nurse for the day, Cas?” Dean smirked, but he sounded worn and strung out even to his own ears.
“I will do what I can,” Castiel replied.
Dean risked a glance over his shoulder, grimaced and said, “That’s gonna need a lot of bandages.”
Castiel made a noncommittal noise, and said, “I imagine you’ll heal quickly. The ring would hardly abide weakness in its host for long.”
“Please don’t refer to me as a host,” Dean winced. “That’s just got Invasion of the Body Snatchers all over it, and I really don’t need that.”
“Apologies.” Castiel made long strokes with a damp cloth over his back, lightening his touch as he approached the wounds from which the wings emerged, dripping water over them to wash the blood away.
“Why wings?” Dean grumbled. “Why couldn’t it be cool shit, like Wolverine claws, or something? Why am I not made of adamantium?”
“There is no such thing as adamantium. And while wolverine claws would perhaps be useful in hand-to-hand combat, wings, when employed in supernatural contexts, often have far more interesting connotations.” Castiel ran the now blood-soaked cloth over the portion of the wing not submerged in the tub, spraying pink water onto the lawn.
“Oh yeah? Like what?” Dean asked.
“Metaphysical flight. Greater invulnerability. You must understand, Dean, that only the most powerful creatures in Creation manifest wings through unnatural means.”
Dean managed a weak grin. “So what you’re saying is…I’m Batman.”
Castiel frowned, and rung out the cloth before applying it to Dean’s shoulder. “I don’t know who that is.”
Gabriel didn’t stay after the panic room was clear. Sam didn’t even see him leave—after an hour or so he went to check and it was as if the archangel had never been there. As if Dean hadn’t vomited wings out of his back like they were the chest-bursters from Alien. He shook his head, looking at the now spotless room. When he emerged from the basement, Bobby shot him a questioning look.
“He’s gone. As usual,” he said, irritated.
“Are we trusting him?” Bobby grunted, not looking particularly surprised.
“Fuck no,” Sam snorted. “He killed Dean. Over and over.”
“He’s also an archangel.”
“He’s a Trickster.”
Bobby shrugged. “All right.”
Sam cast a look outside. The scene in the yard was just way too surreal for his brain to really deal with. Dean was sitting stiffly, black wing forms arcing out and then disappearing into tubs of water on either side of him. His chest was white with gauze that Castiel continued to roll tightly around his middle and then in crisscrosses over his back. Half the gauze was already beginning to look saturated with blood.
“How has he not bled out?” Sam wondered aloud.
“Beats me,” Bobby said. “But your brother’s lived through worse, to be honest.”
“Worse?” Sam said sharply. “Bobby, someone’s turned him into a monster.”
“A potentially useful monster,” Bobby pointed out.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought I was, before I started the Apocalypse,” he snapped.
Bobby glared at him. “Is that what’s got your panties in a twist? Because I’ll go on record and say that that was a bad time, but you were never a monster, Sam. Never, you hear me?”
“Sure,” he said, more quietly and clearly not believing it. “And I’m sure Dean’ll probably deal with it better than I did.”
“Hey,” Bobby said, “Don’t you forget that this is a whole different kettle of fish. Dean doesn’t have an addiction, and he’s not going darkside. He’s going—“
“Horseman side,” Sam finished grimly. “Is there a difference?”
“Gabriel seems to think there is. Isn’t that what he told you? They’re neutral. Operate on a different level. They’re only darkside because Lucifer’s got hold of them.”
Sam nodded. He didn’t look convinced. Bobby sighed.
“What’s bothering you, kid? Is it just the monster thing, hittin’ too close to home?”
“I just…we should be finding out who did this,” Sam said, throwing up his hands. “Who the fuck had the motivation to go neutral, but instead of coming to us, decides to force this…this thing on Dean?”
“With your shoot first ask questions later policy? I‘d say most creepy crawlies might be so inclined,” Bobby said dryly. “Hell, they probably think they’re doing you a favor. Or this is some kind of super-twisted revenge.”
“Shouldn’t we find out, and not just deal with the fallout?” Sam demanded.
“Would it make a difference?” Bobby shot back.
Sam looked like he was about to say something, and then thought better of it. “No,” he said eventually. “There’s no going back, right? Not after all the time the ring’s had.”
“’Fraid so,” Bobby agreed. “So let it go for once, boy.”
Sam could…well, no. He knew he couldn’t do that. But he could try, at least for a while. He’d been taught, after all, about what vengeance tended to reap. That was deterrent enough for at least a few weeks. And Dean looked…well, he looked quiet out on the junk heap. There was still gore dripping from his extremities down into the grass, but he didn’t look like a monster. He looked like a dude with a serious Icarus infection.
“Yeah,” Sam said slowly. “Yeah, okay.”
It wasn’t long after that that Dean started picking up other weirdnesses. They weren’t as explosive as the wings, but they were there, and at times were all the more unsettling for being subtle. After a couple of days, Dean had learned two things:
One: His wings were of the decidedly feathery kind, though the feathers themselves were hardly the fluffy angel type. They were smoothly tough like well-worn calluses, absorbing the sunlight rather than reflecting it, shifting against each other with the sounds of whispering sandpaper, and Dean was pretty sure he was going to be freaking himself out most nights trying to sleep with that as background noise.
Additionally, just to make things interesting, horrific spikes of bone jutted out between the layers of feathers, through where the alula was supposed to be, and with more tucked in with some of the primaries for good measure. Castiel had found that out entirely by accident, and not in a good way. After spending most of the first day helping Dean sponge blood and plasma off the wings and then waiting for them to dry out in the sun, he’d been finishing up the bandaging of Dean’s chest when Dean had begun to stretch, and one wing had inadvertently drawn back out of the tub behind him.
Castiel made a sudden intake of breath and his hands stilled abruptly.
“Dean,” he said, very carefully.
“Cas,” Dean acknowledged. He knew that tone, and so he ordered every muscle, new and old, to freeze.
“You are about to impale me in the throat,” Castiel said.
Delicately, Dean looked over his shoulder. And indeed, where his right wing had pulled out of the water, the large sodden fan shape was up near Cas’s face, and the feathers were clumped with damp and coagulation enough to reveal several very large and black claw-like accessories among them, one of which was about three inches from Cas’s jugular.
“Oh,” Dean said blankly. He concentrated, and managed to direct the wing back to a safer position. “Sorry, dude.”
“You didn’t know,” Castiel said calmly. And that was that. At least for the time being. Dean tried to look on the bright side—he had asked for Wolverine shanks, after all.
Two: Dean could smell violence. Worse—it smelled really, really good. The first whiff of it he got was from Gabriel, who appeared after two days of absence as night fell with the express purpose, it seemed, to eat pie and mouth off. But when he zapped into the yard, Dean was outside, wings too big to fit comfortably indoors all the time. As soon as the archangel appeared, Dean stood up. Without thinking, he jumped off the roof of the car, wings slowing his descent, and he got right up into Gabriel’s space.
“What were you just doing?” Dean said intently.
Gabriel, to his credit, just looked steadily back at Dean, though a new and visceral part of Dean could smell just a hint of trepidation on him in addition to…whatever it was that was sending all sorts of signals to his brain. “I was doing some business,” he said.
Dean took another breath. “Trickster business?” he asked.
Gabriel smirked. “What’s it matter to you, Dean-o?”
“Tell me,” he demanded.
The archangel sighed, like Dean was wasting his valuable time. “I may have caused a bit of a scuffle between a stock broker and her less-than-faithful husband.”
“Scuffle is putting it mildly,” Dean said instinctively. “She’s ready to kill him right now. Because of you.”
Gabriel’s eyes narrowed. “You’re sure of that?”
Dean nodded. Gabriel studied him for a long moment, seemingly content to bear their proximity while Dean breathed in the strange scent of aggression that somehow reminded him of cinnamon and black pepper and hydrochloric acid. “You can read it,” the archangel said eventually. “You can read the potential for damage.”
“Seems so,” Dean said, still preoccupied with the new parts of his brain that seemed to come unlocked with the scent clinging to Gabriel’s hands.
“Creepy,” Gabriel said lightly. “Let’s go inside, shall we? I’m starving.”
“You don’t need to eat,” Dean accused, even as he fell into step with him.
“That’s what makes it even better,” Gabriel smirked. “It’s all about indulgence, kid. Get with the program. I thought we were the two hedonists in this little game?”
“Well, obviously, seeing as the only other three at the moment are a giant geek, a nerdy virgin angel, and Bobby, respectively,” Dean snorted, “But that is so not my point.”
“Precisely. So you’ve got no point at all. Get in the house, and I’ll conjure some cherry pie.”
Dean halted for a second, and then tucked his wings close to him to fit in the door. “I might slightly like you. Just on a preliminary basis.”
Gabriel grinned. “Come on, freakazoid. I’ll even give you some shirts that go around your new flappy bits. I’m tired of seeing you walk around looking like some cheap cover of a fantasy romance novel.”
“Dude, ‘flappy bits’? For someone who has wings himself, that’s just wrong.”
There were other things, as well. Even when his back scarred over, it remained black and diseased-looking, which was just really uncool. Gabriel at least kept his word on the whole ‘shirts with convenient holes’ thing, so Dean didn’t have to look at it all the time. Also, the ring started changing color. Three days, and it had turned from gold to a sort of tarnished silver.
“That’s probably good, right?” Dean said. “I’m changing it; it’s not changing me.”
Castiel raised an eyebrow. “Which makes me wonder just how powerful you are becoming, Dean.”
“Absolute power corrupts absolutely, man,” Sam points out.
Dean rolls his eyes. “I got this. Really.”
“We don’t know what you’ve got, boy,” Bobby cut in, rolling into the room. “Unfortunately for you though, you’re not gonna to have time to find out before we’re taking you out for a test drive.”
“I really don’t like the sound of that,” Sam said.
Dean really didn’t disagree. Castiel tensed but didn’t react, like he wasn’t surprised. “You got something to say about that, Cas?” he said sharply.
Delicately, Castiel said, “I’m curious as to Bobby’s take on it, actually.”
“My take?” Bobby snapped. “My take is that Dean’s going Horseman has put him back on the map, angelic rib carvings or no. Because someone’s left you a massive calling card called Texas.”
He flung down a newspaper on the table. Dean and Sam both looked down at the headline, and winced.
6,000 Drop Dead in Austin, Outbreak of Meningitis Blamed
And then a map of the outbreak’s epicenters, gaudy hasty red marks over a Google map of the city, points that looked random except—
Except that Dean knew those points of articulation, knew them because he’d carved them, connecting the dots from memory after months and years of having them carved lovingly into every inch of him, bone flesh and agonizing sinew. He knew them because he could feel the echoes of them under his skin.
“That doesn’t make sense,” he said, eventually, through a closed throat. “He’s dead.”
“I believe it’s traditional that the apprentice take his master’s name when he dies in Hell,” Castiel said quietly. “Or am I mistaken?”
Dean clenched his jaw, and didn’t answer. He could feel Sam looking at him. For the first time, his wings felt heavy.
“Sorry, maybe I’m a little slow here,” Sam said quietly. “Is that--?”
“It’s the sigil of Alistair, Sammy,” Dean said, and god he sounded tired all of a sudden, and Sam really wanted to know what memories this was dredging up—wanted to, and didn’t. “Someone’s apparently hoping I’ll be taking up the mantle.”
The shadows seemed to deepen beneath his eyes, and Sam realized he hadn’t been keeping track of Dean’s state of mind lately, spending all of his time in research while Dean stayed out in the sun, letting the wings settle with him.
“That seems like a high body count for something that unlikely to happen,” Sam commented. Dean gave him a twitch of lips that could have been a smile in better times.
“Well, I’m smelling a trap, likely or unlikely,” he said. “Who wants to walk into it with me?”
There were a number of things that had to happen before they dropped everything for Austin.
“Dude, I need you to teach me how to do the thing.”
Castiel blinked. Dean made vague noises and gestures. “You know. What you were saying before. The metaphysical thing with the wings.”
“Flight?” Castiel asked finally.
Dean looked vaguely constipated, but he nodded.
“Very well.” And Dean was sort of glad that Castiel was so confident, if no one else was going to be. Jesus, it was one thing to flap some wings to get your feet off the ground, and quite another to flap them and end up on a different corner of the world. And dammit, Dean hated flying. He felt himself tense as Castiel stood and came over to him.
“The first thing you need is to feel the geography of the earth,” Castiel said.
Dean sighed. “Dude, I haven’t left the country. All I know are highways and small towns.”
Castiel looked vaguely disappointed, but then just nodded. “Imagine one of those, then. Or perhaps we should start small. The end of Bobby’s driveway. Focus on it.”
“Is flying some sort of zen thing? Because I’m really not—“
“Dean.” And there he was again, all up in Dean’s personal space, but this time his hand was flat on Dean’s chest, and Dean stuttered to a halt. Castiel just watched, vaguely impatient.
“Imagine it, and pull it to you.”
“With your wings. Reach back and bend it to you.”
“Dean.” Castiel found his gaze and locked into it, and Dean found himself swallowing his words. Jesus, why did they have to do this?
Castiel waited a moment, and his hand was warm on Dean’s chest. Then he said, “Concentrate.”
Outside, Sam emptied a beer while propping a lore book against his chest, and only jumped slightly when Gabriel appeared on the roof of the Impala, draped over it like a tomcat surveying his territory.
“So,” Gabriel said, “We gonna talk about the elephant in the room?”
“There are a lot of those,” Sam muttered, reaching for another beer.
“Famine’s ring,” the archangel said without preamble. “You’ve got it.”
“I do. And I’m not fucking touching it.”
“Why not? You’ve got enough demon blood in you to probably withstand the transformation that comes with it.”
“Yeah, and I can just see all of the ways that could go south fast,” Sam snapped, finally looking up at Gabriel’s expectant face.
“It could be—“
Gabriel smiled crookedly. “Just checking.”
Sam breathed slowly for a moment, and then said, “Maybe I should put it in Bobby’s safe. Just keep it far away from us.”
“Very responsible of you.”
“Why do I feel like you’re mocking me?”
“You’re just so irresistibly mockable. Though as it happens, I’m not this time around.” Gabriel slanted his eyes over to Sam. “You should put it away. Preferably someplace where no one, neutral or otherwise, might get their hands on it.”
Sam nodded. “I will then.”
Gabriel smiled thinly, and then fell silent. Then he cocked his head. “Huh. That was fast.”
Gabriel lifted a limp hand to gesture at the long stretch of driveway leading to Bobby’s mailbox. Dean and Castiel were there, Dean’s wings extended like a swan’s landing on water. “Did he just--?” Sam started.
“Didn’t have time to walk over there, did he?” Gabriel said.
Sam watched the angel and his brother speak, Dean’s eyes caught on the middle distance in concentration, Castiel speaking carefully, words unintelligible from the distance, but clearly instructive, and formed close to Dean’s ear. They did have a habit, Sam thought, of ignoring personal space.
“Sickening, am I right?” Gabriel smirked.
“Stop that,” Sam said automatically. It was amazing what a week of dealing with an archangel could do for his reflexive responses.
Suddenly, Dean disappeared from sight, Castiel following within seconds. Then Sam felt a whoosh of displaced air and Dean was next to him, settling against the Impala. His wings bumped slightly against Sam’s shoulder and brushed the metallic surface of the car door.
“Slick,” Sam said.
Dean cracked a roguish smile as Castiel materialized next to him, fitting himself in the curve of Dean’s other wing.
“What can I say?” Dean said. “I’m awesome even when I’m a freak of nature.”
“You have yet to leave the state, let alone the country,” Castiel said sternly.
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll get to it in a second. You want a beer, Cas?”
“Take the beer, Castiel,” Gabriel cut in lazily. “Dean is trying to be hospitable.”
In awkward acquiescence, Castiel took the beer from Dean’s outstretched hand, and Dean said, “Thanks, man.”
“Anytime.” Gabriel closed his eyes, melting catlike into the car roof. Sam watched him for an incredulous second, and then said, “So you’ll be able to take us where we need to go?”
“With our angelic and unholy powers combined,” Dean said dryly, “I think we can work it out. Even if I can’t take anyone sidecar, at least I’m not gonna have digestion issues this time around.”
“Okay. Well, I think I know a bit more of what we can expect over there.” Sam put down his empty and flipped a couple pages back. “So, when we went up against War, he told me the last place he’d been to before hitting Colorado was Darfur. Well, he wasn’t being totally accurate. All of the Horsemen have to be summoned in the same place, except for Death, who had to be raised.”
“The point, Sammy?” Dean raised an eyebrow.
“Well, the weird thing is that War and Famine showed up when Lucifer rose. But that’s not how it’s supposed to go. Technically, Christ is supposed to summon them. It’s the first of the seven seals of the Apocalypse.”
“This is elementary grade Christian mythology,” Gabriel said, “And not accurate, to boot. There’s one seal for each Horseman. So far, only two have been opened. Death is raised, but that wasn’t done by a seal, which is why he’s in Lucifer’s pocket, not ours. I gotta say, I’m sorta glad to be siding with you people, if only because Heaven must be completely fucktarded at the moment. This is a seriously dysfunctional Apocalypse.”
Sam made a bitchface, and said, “Well, my point stands. The thing of it is that both Famine and War touched down in Austin first. We didn’t notice it because they left so soon after, but according to these portents they must have passed through.”
“So you think someone’s calling us to the site of the seals?” Dean asked.
“Yeah, I’d say so.”
“Awesome.” Dean drew his wings tight around him. They looked like giant ashen scythes against his white t-shirt. He looked at Castiel. “Who do you think this is? Any ideas?”
“It could be any number of things. There are many higher echelon demons with the capacity to do this, and who would have an interest in bringing you to heel for Lucifer. Lucifer himself may want to put a claim on you. With the knowledge that Sam would come with you, it would be the equivalent of, I think you’d say, killing two birds with one stone.”
“Cheery,” Sam said.
“So what you’re saying is, we’re not just walking into a trap, we’re walking into a mega-trap?” Dean clarified.
“Forget what I said about being happy I sided with you people,” Gabriel said, and rolled over to sun himself.
It took another few days for Dean to master flight, and in that time, the skin along his ribcage and the undersides of his arms turned black. Sam could see it creeping up the tendons in his neck, like a spill of ink bleeding into parchment.
“Dean,” he said at one point. “When do you think you’ll be ready to go to Texas?”
Dean looked uncomfortable. “A few days?”
Sam raised his eyebrows abruptly. “Seriously? We’re waiting that long?”
“Sam, I know I can go about five miles on these things.” Dean gestured with one wing in a sort of shrugging, twitching motion that snapped a wickedly curved spine forward. “Other than that, I don’t know how to use them. I still bump into things and knock over chairs. You don’t want me in a fight.”
“6,000 people are dead, Dean. And what if you change more, and need more time to adjust to that? It’s going to keep adding up—“
“I don’t like it any more than you do, Sam. But no matter what, the bottom line is that I don’t feel like getting us both killed,” Dean snapped. “Those people are dead. And you aren’t yet. We aren’t yet.”
“You can bamf out of the line of fire. And I can take care of myself.”
Dean looked away, lips thinning into a white line. Finally, he said, “Someone who knew Alistair well enough to know his sigil is going to be there.”
And abruptly Sam felt like an idiot. Also, a bastard. He sighed. “Right. Sorry. You think he’ll…”
“Use my newly acquired special-kid status against me? Somehow I wouldn’t be surprised,” Dean snorted, still refusing to look at him. “Just…gimme a few days, okay? I meant what I said. I don’t want to get anyone killed because I don’t know how to deal with what I am.”
“Sure. Of course.” Sam backed away, and felt thoroughly shitty. Then he paused. “And any changes—”
“I’ll deal with them, Sam. It’s fine.”
“I don’t want you to have to deal with them,” Sam said quietly.
“Not so fun being the normal one, huh?”
Dean regretted it as soon as he said it; Sam’s shoulders came up like he’d been hit.
“Yeah. I guess,” he muttered, and left quickly.
After that, Dean became suspiciously quiet. And Sam…Sam still was not feeling well.
“This is better understood as ‘usurp’, rather than ‘conquer’.”
“They’re basically the same, and that doesn’t change the meaning of the full—“
“There is a distinct difference, Sam, there is an implication of replacement,” Castiel said impatiently. “Translation of Enochian is difficult enough without resorting to lazy definitions.”
“Then why don’t you do it?” Sam replied through gritted teeth.
Castiel stared at him for a long moment, eyes narrowed. Then he slid a second scroll exactingly into place in front of Sam on the table. “Your Latin is stronger, is it not? It should be; it is a human tongue.”
Sam picked it up with stilted, sharp movements, and pointedly ignored when Castiel pulled the Enochian volume towards himself, away from him. He also ignored how a rush of adrenaline shot sickeningly into his stomach, like someone had hooked him up to an IV drip in the night. He had to concentrate on not crushing the corners of the scroll.
Gabriel appeared in a nearly silent displacement of atoms. He cocked his head, but after a second, merely said, “Any news?”
“Perhaps there would be if you stayed to be of assistance,” Castiel growled.
Sam shot him a look, but didn’t disagree.
Gabriel looked between them. “Right. I’m getting a bad vibe from you two. Where’s Dean?”
“In the yard,” Sam said shortly. He didn’t elaborate.
“’Kay,” Gabriel smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Toodles.”
He snapped out of existence.
Dean was out in the yard, but not at the clearing where he usually worked. Instead, he was in amongst the forest of particularly abandoned scraps, balanced on a crooked axle next to a pile of ripped tires. The wings are fanned out around him, matte black feathers shifting in minute adjustments of balance, spines spreading and threading forward and back, weaving in and out of view.
Gabriel didn’t materialize for a moment, preferring to watch. There was a gun in Dean’s hand. A six-shooter. And on second glance, there were a veritable menagerie of beer cans, glass bottles, and engine parts distributed on various larger shelves of scrap.
Dean was focused in a way that he never was except when hunting. He flicked his gaze at his surroundings, assessing. And then in a blur of movement, he started.
Two bullets, two bottles.
Roll onto tire pile, wings tucked.
Flick of right wing, whiskey bottle shattered under impact with primary claw. One bullet, a miss.
Haphazard leap onto a truck chassis, sweep of left wing, four beer cans slashed open.
Three shots, all hits.
Dean launched himself off the pickup to land lightly back on the axle. It groaned slightly under his weight, but didn’t break as he lightened his impact with two circular wing beats. He reloaded, lips pursed.
Gabriel started a slow clap into the silence. Dean looked up sharply as he snapped the chamber back into the revolver. He didn’t relax when he spotted Gabriel materializing out of nowhere, perched on a half-destroyed and rusted out van.
“What do you want?” he said.
“Do the others know what you’re doing with your spare time?” Gabriel asked, curious.
Dean shrugged. “They know I’m dealing with my new situation.”
“They don’t know that you’re turning yourself into a killing machine.”
Dean barely reacted. “Don’t see that they could expect anything else. There’s still an Apocalypse going on, in case you hadn’t noticed. Gotta make myself useful, any way that I can.”
“Including accepting what you’ve become?”
Dean paused. Then said, “Got a problem with that?”
Gabriel just opened his hands in a neutral gesture. “You just surprise me, Dean-o. I was sort of expecting you to put up more of a fight.”
Dean shoved the revolver into the back of his pants as he started forward, wings flaring into high arcs that made him seem larger. He towered over Gabriel, but Gabriel didn’t react.
“Listen, buddy,” He hissed, “If there’s something you’re not telling us about putting me back to normal, then you’d better start sharing and caring now.”
“There’s nothing. And get out of my face,” Gabriel snarled. “Monster or not, I can still take you, and don’t you ever think otherwise.” He paused, and then said, “Even if I did know something, would you go back?”
“Obviously,” Dean replied, but there was a hesitation that Gabriel pounced on.
“But maybe not yet? Maybe you’d wait, make yourself powerful enough to save the world? Even if it meant becoming something you’d be hunting otherwise?”
“Why are you asking me this?” Dean demanded.
The corner of Gabriel’s mouth twitched upward grimly. “I want to know how far you’re going to go to end this.”
“As far as I have to.”
Gabriel’s eyes flashed. Then he blinked slowly. “Remember that,” he said eventually. “Remember that you said that, Dean.”
Then he slid off the top of the van to land silently on the ground. He began to walk away through the piles of wreckage, and then threw back over his shoulder, “And by the way, you need to ground some of your more violent urges. They’re starting to spread.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Dean shouted after him.
Gabriel turned around fully to walk backward, as his eyebrows raised along with a Cheshire grin. “I mean, put your goddamn hand on the ground for a while. The one with the ring on it. Because otherwise, you’re gonna drive Sam and Castiel to blows in the next couple of minutes, and though my little bro may be getting weaker by the day, he can still pack a punch.”
And then, just before he winked out of sight, he yelled, “Oh, and Dean, you better get over this fear of heights you have, buddy! Metaphysical flight may be useful, but nothing compares to the real thing!”
Dean glared at the empty space between the scrap heaps for a long moment, and then slowly crouched down to place his hand on the earth. He felt the ring immediately grow cool around his finger. It was oddly unsettling.
After a few moments, feeling thoroughly confused and irritated, he stood and concentrated.
Sam jumped when Dean appeared in the living room. “Dude, I am never getting used to that,” he said.
Castiel looked up, and then back down at his book.
Dean looked at the two of them on the couch. He frowned. “Were you guys…fighting?” he asked.
Sam looked confused, and then started to shake his head, when he stopped. He shot a look at Castiel. “We might’ve…had some differences of opinion,” he said slowly.
“You were being petulant,” Castiel said calmly.
Sam recoiled. “What the fuck, man?”
“Woah, woah, stop right there,” Dean held out a hand. “Both of you. Just…hold on.” He set it on the floor, and felt the ring cool again.
The tension seemed slowly to drain from Sam’s shoulders, and Castiel’s frown went from disapproval into confusion. He looked at Dean. “Dean?” he questioned.
“Feeling better?” Dean asked warily.
Sam shifted, like he was working out a crick in his neck. “Yeah, I guess. What was that?”
“Apparently I make everyone want to pick fights,” Dean said. “Special, huh?”
“And touching the floor…?”
“He is grounding the aura of the ring,” Castiel said. “It’s power gets absorbed, rather than disseminated. Did Gabriel tell you to do that, Dean?”
“Yeah. He stopped by just now.”
“It was good advice. I would not have thought to apply Mayan principles of influence to your case.” He looked crestfallen for not having thought of it first. Dean, feeling awkward in his off-kilter crouch, lowered himself to the floor, tucking his wings up and around him like a tent. Sam snorted.
“You look like some new nightmarish version of a crèche. Just cradle an anti-Christ child in your arms, and you’ll be set.”
“Shut up, bitch. Besides, Jesse’s too old for that shit.”
“Did Gabriel give you any other helpful information?” Castiel asked.
Dean snorted. “’Course not. Can’t be too helpful, can he? Just asked me a bunch of leading questions about whether or not I was committed to my new monster-iness. I told him to go fuck himself.”
Castiel narrowed his eyes, but didn’t say anything else.
That night, at dinner, Dean had to lean down and put his hand on the ground every fifteen minutes or so just to keep everyone civil. But they managed not to kill each other, so he counted it as a win.
“There aren’t any more portents in Austin,” Bobby reported, “But the media isn’t exactly doing a great job keeping the panic down. So you may have to keep an even lower profile than usual.”
“So long as whoever we’re meeting does the same,” Dean muttered.
From then on, things just got more aggressive.
If you didn’t claim coffee first thing, you were no longer entitled. Bobby locked up all the guns in the house so that he wasn’t tempted to forcibly evict everyone. Dean tried to stay out in the yard, working on junkers when he wasn’t getting a handle on his wings, but increasing proximity became less and less effective as time went on.
“Why aren’t we in Texas already?” Sam demanded, stomping down the stairs into the panic room as the dawn was just breaking on the fourth day.
Dean was already sitting up, but he rubbed sleep out of his eyes and frowned. “Because I didn’t know how to fight properly with these big-ass wings? Because we still don’t know who we’re gonna meet there? Because, in the words of Admiral Ackbar, it’s a goddamn trap? There are a lot of reasons, Sammy.”
“People are dead, Dean. More could die if we don’t hurry the fuck up.”
“Both Cas and Gabe think that’s really unlikely. And also, what the fuck? You were not this bent out of shape about it when we last had this discussion.”
“That was yesterday. We’re wasting time!”
“Sam. Sam, stop.”
Sam hadn’t even realized he was advancing on Dean, hands closed into fists. He froze.
“I think. Hang on.” Dean leaned down to lay his hand flat on the ground again, and then Sam suddenly felt a lot more peaceable. He flexed his hands opened. He raised an eyebrow.
“I don’t mean to, honestly,” Dean said, scratching the back of his neck and craning to look back up at Sam. “I think I’m doing it in my sleep.”
“You can make me angry in your sleep,” Sam echoed blankly.
“Not so much make as…you know what, forget it.” Dean looked away. Sam tightened his lips.
“I’m already angry, so there’s not much work to do. I get it. Just…try and restrain yourself, Dean.”
“Hey, I could ask you to do the same,” Dean snapped, and then Sam had to leave before he punched something.
Dean was glad of Sam’s quick exit, even if it was hardly a friendly one. Almost because it wasn’t, but he was not thinking about how the potential for violence felt like the pleasant burn of scotch in the back of his throat. He ran a hand through his hair, the ring catching on short strands.
Eventually, even the angels got in on the action, though luckily only with each other. Gabriel showed up, and Castiel had glared at him from the kitchen table before growling, “Gabriel. I’d like to have a word.”
Gabriel looked at him, nodded curtly, and they both disappeared. Dean looked at Sam.
“What the hell?”
Sam shook his head. “Dunno. Though to be honest, Cas has been growling about something for the past few days. Something about what Gabriel said to you last time he visited.”
“But he didn’t say anything,” Dean protested.
Sam held up his hands placatingly. “I never said you did. But you remember how Cas looked when you told us that.”
“Yeah, but—oh Christ.”
Sam followed his brother’s gaze out the window. “How long since you last neutralized the ring?” he asked.
“Too long,” Dean grumbled. “Be right back.”
The two angels were in the yard, blades drawn, when Dean got outside.
“What the fuck, you guys,” he said loudly, as platinum shined brightly in the dawn sun. “Are you seriously twelve?”
“Set down your intent, and we’ll talk,” Gabriel said, breathing heavily, as Castiel sank his blade into the earth.
Dean could do little but kneel and set his hand down on the ground, ring going dull as it hit the earth. He pointedly ignored the hollowness that pricked at him as the tension of aggression subsided. “Be at fuckin’ peace. Jesus Christ,” he said. “What were you guys even arguing about?”
Castiel gave Gabriel a significant look, but Gabriel just said dismissively, “A personal matter. In other circumstances it would not have been an issue, but in these conditions--”
“I’m just making it worse, yeah I know,” Dean finished. “Awesome. Sorry.”
“Do not be sorry for something you cannot help,” Castiel said.
“There has to be a way to neutralize my…whatever the hell this is, without putting my hand in the ground permanently.”
“I’m open to suggestions,” Gabriel said, still sounding edgy. “I’m going to Switzerland for chocolate. Call me if you die in Texas.”
He blinked out of sight. Castiel took a long breath. Tentatively, Dean stood back up.
“Perhaps I should go as well,” Castiel said, before he could ask what the hell the argument was actually about. “The fewer of us there are in contact, the less chance of conflict.”
“Yeah, but also fewer people to mediate conflict,” Sam said. Dean and Castiel both turned to look at him. He leaned against the porch railing, looking tired. “Dean, can we just go? I know you’re not ready, but—“
“—Better that I urge you guys to kill some bad guys rather than each other,” Dean finished. He pursed his lips. “Yeah.”
“Okay. Is Gabriel coming?”
“He’s apparently leaving us to our own devices until we’re in mortal danger.”
“In other words, he’ll meet us there.”
Dean looked at the Impala with something akin to sorrow. Sam smothered a laugh.
“This isn’t funny,” Dean snapped.
“It really sort of is,” Sam replied.
“We’ll make it work.”
“You could just zap it over there with us.”
“I might hurt her,” Dean said petulantly.
“So try smaller things first. It will probably still be quicker than driving.”
“Dean. Man up.”
“Shut up, bitch. I can totally take you with my awesome wings.” Dean shifted, and finally said, “We can leave her. Bobby’ll keep her safe. Pack whatever you need.”
“Jerk.” Sam obeyed without much complaint, which made Dean wonder if his subconscious influence was waning somewhat. He’d neutralized the ring not long ago, but he hoped it was waning anyway; he’d been a loner and a drifter a significant portion of his life, but to be physically shunned was altogether different and foreign, and not at all comforting.
The morning was dewy and uncomfortable, what with Bobby’s constant flickering glances towards Dean’s new appendages, and the sternness of Castiel’s expression. Dean had tried to ask, more than once, what he had been arguing with Gabriel about, but to no avail.
“There is something he isn’t…” Castiel had stopped himself, even with Dean gripping his arm, pulling it to him in uncharacteristic urgency. “When I know, so will you.”
“I’m gonna fucking hold you to that,” Dean told him. “You know that, right?”
“I do, Dean,” Castiel had said gravely, which hadn’t helped Dean’s concerns at all. “I will tell you when I can.”
So Dean had to leave it. So they loaded their arms, instead of the car, and Castiel extended his influence to Sam only, while Dean concentrated on what he knew of Austin, and reached backwards, the sinews of his wings bending in strange and not entirely physical ways. The process would never not be freaky for him.
A flap and a strange, ethereal shift later, they were there, and the light of the sun was peaking over the asphalt. Dean blinked, slowly.
“This is not good,” Sam said from behind him. His voice was hushed.
The city should have been awake by then. Should have been buzzing with commuters and morning runners and children going to school. Sam was right to be quiet. Because everything else was.
Instinctively, Dean tucked his wings close around him. They were on a bridge, and by all rights should have gotten mown down by a passing truck if it weren’t for the creepy silence and stillness that pervaded. Dean could see the panorama of Austin against the dawn. He breathed in.
“No sulfur,” he said. But there was something else. A low buzz, like a dying streetlamp but more organic than electric. A deep, earthly hum.
It had a direction too. Castiel’s head was cocked towards it.
“You hear that?” Dean said, already knowing the answer.
But Sam shook his head. “What?” he said.
“One of the Horsemen is here,” Castiel said.
“The news said meningitis. Could it be Pestilence?”
“I can’t tell. We’ll need to follow the sound.”
“It’s from over there.” Dean pointed. Across the bridge was a vaguely pyramidal corporate building, along with an array of others dissolving into the cityscape. Dean was looking at one that looked about a mile off, reflective glass panels going up about twenty stories. It looked totally ordinary, barely tall enough to be considered a skyscraper.
“Shall we?” Castiel said.
“Yeah,” Dean agreed.
Castiel reached for Sam again, and then they’re at the foot of the building.
“Remember when I said you looked dark, Dean?” Sam said, staggering slightly with the impact of landing and then looking up. “So does this.”
“Yeah, I get what you mean,” Dean replied. And it was true. The city was bright with dawn light, but the building itself looked sullen with shadows, dull at the edges and less reflective than it should have been. The hum was louder here too, like standing next to a generator, or a pipe organ.
Castiel said quietly, “Dean. Look there.”
Dean turned to where Castiel was studying the window of a Starbucks across the street. He sucked in a breath. “That would explain the quiet,” he said.
In the window, a line of customers stood frozen along the counter, while the barista seemed halfway through wiping her brow and turning back to the espresso machine. A woman in a suit sat in the window with a cup halfway to her lips. The tips of her fingers were tinged blue. So were the barista’s lips, and the veins in a college kid’s temples. They weren’t moving. Nothing was.
“Are they dead?” Dean asked, voice rasping slightly.
Castiel shook his head. “In stasis, though not for much longer. Someone has stopped time for this city. For a population this large, it would take an extraordinary amount of power.”
“We haven’t seen power like that,” Sam said shakily. “Not from War, or Famine. Not even Lucifer.”
Castiel nodded. “There is only one truly eternal Horseman,” he said grimly. “Death is here.”
Dean looked back at the building they’d aimed for. “He’s in here,” he said. He could feel his own face go blank. “We’ve got nothing…we’re not—“
“If he wanted us dead, we would be dead,” Castiel said. “And so would everyone else in this place. He’s holding them all for a reason. I suggest we parlay.”
“Right,” Dean said, wings snapping closed. “Right.”
He started towards the revolving door. Sam grabbed his arm. “What, we’re gonna just walk in there?” he hissed.
“The guy has the power to freeze us in time. He probably knows we’re here already. What else do you want to do?” Dean replied.
Sam shook his head, but let go. In a neat line, they headed into the building, Dean in the lead.
There were several frozen figures in the lobby, one sitting amid the array of starkly modern leather chairs, another mid-stride with a cell phone clamped to his ear. Then there was the girl at the counter, who…wasn’t frozen at all. She was still, but Dean could see her chest move with slow, calm breath. He went up to her.
She looked up as he approached. “Good morning. You have an appointment?” she said sweetly. She had blond hair and a neat figure, wrapped in an expensive skirted suit and silk blouse. She looked the consummate professional, and utterly un-demonic. There wasn’t even the smell of violence about her. Just a cold sort of emptiness that made Dean wonder whether she was even real.
“I imagine so,” he said.
She looked at her computer screen. “Of course. Dean Winchester. It’s been requested that your friends stay in the lobby while you go up.”
“No fucking way,” Sam growled.
The girl gave him a patient, apologetic look. “I’m afraid you don’t have a choice, Mr. Winchester. But rest assured, no harm will come to you or your brother while he’s in his meeting. And as you know well, Castiel, the stars always keep their word.”
“I know this of stars,” Castiel said lowly, “But not necessarily of fallen ones.”
The girl tutted. “All stars, Castiel. Fallen or no. And keep a civil tongue in your head, if you please. Now, Dean. If you’ll come with me?”
Dean glanced back at Sam and Castiel, the former looking enraged, the latter resigned. He shrugged. “See you guys in a bit,” he said.
“Dean,” Sam started.
“Let him go,” Castiel said quietly.
Sometimes Dean felt uncomfortable about Castiel’s trust in him at a sort of visceral, pre-programmed level, but this time he was pretty thankful for it. He nodded sharply at the girl, and followed her as she clicked away on sky-high stilettos towards the elevator. It slid open almost instantly, and carefully Dean followed her inside. He had to tuck his wings close to fit.
“That must get rather inconvenient at times,” the girl noted.
“It’s been interesting,” Dean agreed cautiously.
The light at the top of the door flashed for floor eight, twelve, thirteen. There it dinged open.
“Great,” Dean muttered.
The girl looked at him amicably, and led the way out. On this floor were cubicles, mostly occupied by frozen employees, all of them looking serene and business as usual, except for how it wasn’t business as usual at all. Dean scanned over them and suppressed a gag reflex.
The girl opened a set of heavy mahogany double-doors at the end of the hall and gestured for him to go inside. “He’ll be with you in a moment,” she said.
“Thanks, I think.”
She closed the doors behind him, leaving him to stare at the vacant office. It looked like any number of corporate douchebag offices—dark wood furniture, leather chairs, the odd rubber plant stashed in the corner for liveliness. Silver hardware in ergonomic shapes on the cabinets. Dean thought back to being Dean Smith, and shuddered slightly.
Then suddenly the hum seemed to grow. Dean had almost managed to tune its pervasiveness out, but now it swelled, like feedback from the world’s loudest electric guitar, reaching a fever pitch. Dean instinctively bent his head, shoulders and wings coming up to shield and muffle, half expecting the windows and electronics to short out like they did when Cas spoke, but everything just trembled instead, holding together with some otherworldly force of will as the sound rose and rose…
…and then cut out, the rug pulled out from under it.
The silence was more deafening than the sound, enough for Dean to wince.
The double doors opened again, and the girl stepped through, again. What Dean noticed immediately, though, was that she wasn’t the same girl, not really. Her eyes glowed silver, and she held herself like she was taller than she was; broader, too. Her smile was the same though.
“Dean. Have a seat, if you please. We have much to talk about.”
Dean ran a hand along studded leather without taking his eyes off her, following her to her seat behind the polished and over-lacquered desk. It was just too surreal and too dangerous to do anything else. “You’re Death?”
“That is what I have been called of late, yes,” she said peaceably. “And I meant what I said, Dean. No harm will come to you while you’re here.”
“What about all these people you’ve frozen?” Dean said, swallowing. “They gonna get off scot-free after days without oxygen in their bloodstream?”
“Very specific, that,” she said, “I see you’re taking after my brother like a duck to water. Anyone ever tell you they remind you of Wormwood?”
“Not in recent memory, no,” Dean replied.
“Pity. Because I do see him in you. You’re wearing something that isn’t yours, but you’re wearing it well, I’ll give you that.”
“What do you want?” Dean growled. “And why did you use Alistair’s calling card?”
Death crossed her legs primly, smoothing her skirt over her thighs in a perfunctory but still feminine manner. “Consider that a test. I was rather curious to see whether you’d respond to one of your other given names.”
“That name was never given to me. Not by him or anyone else.”
“You inherited it, same difference,” she said dismissively. “The point is that you recognized the name as a call for you, which I find quite interesting.”
“And six thousand people had to die for you to be interested?”
“Dean.” She spread her hands, and the buzz seemed to return and expand between before dissipating. “I am Death. And Death is the language I speak.”
Dean felt his wings give an involuntary shudder. He tried to sound steady despite it. “You couldn’t have sent a letter?”
She smiled, lips razor-like.
“What do you want?” he asked again.
“I want the rings back. For when my brothers are ready to reclaim them.”
“No fucking way. I’m in the business of stopping Armageddon, not starting it up again, thanks.”
“You misunderstand me. You have disabled my brothers, of course, but you’ve also severed their bindings to Lucifer. They will be thankful for that. Thankful enough that at my word, they will refuse to influence Earth any more with the promise of their powers back again. Give me the rings, and I will see the Horsemen restored, but with their attentions elsewhere.”
“There’s still Pestilence,” Dean said.
“Sever his ring from him and his situation will be the same.”
“And your authority over them is, what, absolute? So far as I remember, you’re still under Lucy’s thumb.”
“A thoroughly vexing predicament, I agree,” Death replied, for the first time looking vaguely irritated despite her strange and essential calm. “But one which can easily be amended.”
She laid her hand delicately on the desktop. A ring, heavy silver with a curl of crest flat on its top, adorned her middle finger. Then she reached into a drawer, and extracted a hammer and chisel. Those she laid beside her hand. She looked at Dean, as unfathomable as ever.
“Shall I go first, or you?”
Dean stared at her. “I’m gonna need a few more conditions attached to this agreement,” he said finally.
“Name them,” she said coolly.
“You let all of these people go,” he started.
“They’re at the mercy of Lucifer’s orders. Their lives entirely depend on my freedom,” she pointed out.
“So I free you, and they live,” he amended.
“And all of your brothers, the Horsemen, leave Earth the hell alone.”
“Well, only as much as Lucifer is concerned,” Death corrected. “You have human wars, you see, human disease and famine and death. We’ll have to be there for that.”
“Nothing Apocalyptic, then,” Dean said through gritted teeth. “Nothing out of the ordinary.”
“And you tell us how to find Pestilence and how to disable him.”
“That’s the only way I can buy his freedom, isn’t it?” Death said with an air of impatience. “That will always be part of the bargain. No need for any special clause.”
“Okay,” Dean said slowly. “Then my final condition is that you tell us how to either destroy Lucifer or lock him back up in hell where he belongs. You do that, and you can have my finger and my wings, if you want them.”
“I think the wings suit you, personally,” Death commented lightly. “And no doubt, you’ll be keeping those, with or without the ring. It’s taken quite a liking to you, it seems. I don’t suppose you’ve ever considered Alistair’s offer? To become something properly powerful, like him?”
Dean closed his eyes briefly. “I’ve tried it. It didn’t suit me, in the end.”
“Pity. You could have done great things, I believe. But nonetheless, your conditions are suitable. Give me your ring, and sever mine, and I shall give you the road to Pestilence and the way to Lucifer’s undoing. And the people of this city will resume their lives. Are you satisfied with this deal?”
Dean thought, in a panic, in a way that made his brain scream at him you’re missing something, you’re missing something important, but he couldn’t think of it, so he said, “Yeah, that’ll do.”
“Then I have one condition of my own. You let Sam wear Famine’s ring for twenty-four hours. No less. And then I’ll collect it.”
Dean jerked away violently, and she let him, like it didn’t even matter. “No fucking way,” he whispered.
“It will make him strong enough to repel Lucifer,” Death said reasonably. “Neither you nor he will be a viable vessel anymore. Don’t tell me that’s not what you want.”
“You’ll make him a monster,” Dean snarled.
“He already was one, unlike you,” Death said, not budging an inch.
“That’s not true. He’s not—“ Dean stopped himself, and drew a hard breath. “One of us has to be human for this. One of us, or this shit isn’t going to go down the way it should.”
“And tell me, Dean, what way is that?” Her voice was sincerely curious. “There are a limited number of ways for these things to happen. One: you play your roles, Michael and Lucifer have their slapfest, and the world burns. That can’t happen anymore, seeing as you’ve taken up my brother’s gauntlet and negated your chance of being a vessel.”
Dean made an inarticulate noise, deep in his throat. “Option two?”
“Two: You and Sam become disciples of the Horsemen, and throw Lucifer back into the Pit. The forces of Heaven will come down upon you, but they will not be able to destroy you. There will be a paradigm shift among the gods, but Man will be safe. Well, as safe as they can be.”
“You’re going to have to be a bit more specific about that last part,” Dean said.
Death shrugged, impatience growing. “The supremacy of Heaven, at least in the West, has been fairly absolute for the past few centuries. If their Apocalypse doesn’t go as planned, it’s a serious sign of weakness. And the weakness of one pantheon will be sensed by every other. Like it or not, Dean, you are opening up a power grab.”
He stared at her. “You’re telling me that since I can’t be Michael’s angel condom, I’ve basically started a war among gods?”
She weighed it for a moment, and then nodded. “Inelegant, but fairly precise, yes.”
“And let me guess, that shit’s gonna come down on us.”
“The collateral of the gods does very often tend to be their followers,” Death agreed. She gave an apologetic twitch of lips. “More work for me.”
“What’s option three?” Dean demanded.
She looked at him levelly. “There is no option three.”
He stood up abruptly. “I won’t accept that,” he hissed. “I’m not letting that happen.”
“If I can’t convince you, someone else will,” Death said, sitting back in her leather office chair. “But I should add that if I can’t convince you, the entire population of this city will die in vain.”
“That’s under Lucifer’s orders,” Dean protested.
“And still my choice to use as a bargaining chip,” Death answered, as if Dean was a slow child.
“No. I’m willing to deal with you, but Sam is not on the table. I’ll chisel off that finger for you—gladly, I might add—and I’ll give you the other rings, but this giant cosmic powerplay that’s gonna fuck us up just as much as the dickbags in Heaven is not on. And neither is turning Sam into Famine.”
“You would choose your brother over an entire population?” Death asked curiously. “757,688 people, Dean. That’s the population of Austin. They will choke to death as soon as I start the clock.”
Dean closed his eyes. “Is there anything else. Anything other than Sam.”
Death drummed her hands lightly on the table.
“You truly intend to create a third option?” she asked finally.
“You of all things should know that that’s basically the story of my life,” Dean said, cursing his voice for how it wavered.
Dean blinked. “Fine?” he echoed.
“Yes, fine,” Death said, shifting from calm to listless. “It figures that you would be as stubborn as the angel at your back. A wasted favor, as I thought.”
“What’s the new condition then?” Dean asked, utterly bewildered. The whole conversation had just reeled into another dimension that he just wasn’t comprehending.
“Just that you pass on a message,” Death said. “Tell Gabriel that Azrael did as he requested, and is wondering what he thinks he’s doing.”
Dean gave her a strange look. “O…kay,” he said. “I can do that.”
“Good.” And all the irritation wiped away. Death offered her hand to shake.
Dean accepted it, his own hand trembling, and nothing even remotely portentous happened.
“Now,” Death said, picking up the hammer and chisel and offering them to Dean, “Shall we?”
“Something’s wrong. I can feel it,” Sam said, pacing, shuddering every time he caught the frozen businessman still mid-conversation out of the corner of his eye.
Castiel watched him impassively.
“We should go up there,” Sam added, not for the first time.
“Death will likely kill us for doing so,” Castiel said. “He was very definite in his terms.”
“We shouldn’t have let him—“
“There was no ‘let’ involved, Sam,” Castiel said firmly. “We were given parameters, and we had no choice but to obey them.”
Suddenly the elevator dinged.
Dean exited whole, looking shell-shocked but calm. His hands were covered in blood, and one was wrapped in what looked like the remnants of a scrap of silk.
“Oh my god, are you okay, Dean?” Sam blurted out.
“I’m fine,” Dean said absently, looking vaguely pained but not much else. “She said it’ll probably grow back, considering. Um. We can go now.”
Sam goggled at him. “That’s it? Did you talk to Death? What did he say?”
“She,” Dean corrected. “It was the girl at the desk. Or, you know, he hung out inside her for the meeting. Sam, where’d you put Famine’s ring?”
“Bobby’s safe,” Sam answered, still shaking his head like that will make things make sense. “But what does that matter, what did Death say to you, Dean?”
“She said get out of here before everyone comes back to life and wonders how the hell we got here and why there’s a dude with wings in the lobby,” Dean said irritably. “You coming or not?”
“Dean,” Castiel said warningly.
“In a second, Cas,” Dean said, and he took a breath. “Let’s just get out of here.”
Bobby’s waiting for them when they land. He takes one look at Dean’s hand and says, “If that’s what I think it is, you’re gonna need a damn sight more than some battlefield first aid on it.”
“Yeah, stitches probably,” Dean agreed, looking at his mutilated hand in distaste.
“I’ll do them, you’re crap at it,” Sam said. “But you gotta tell us what the hell happened over there.”
“Yeah, yeah. Come on.”
They trooped inside, where Bobby ordered Dean not to bleed on anything except the kitchen table, and Castiel carefully shed his coat and hung it up inside the door, as he’d gotten into the habit of lately. Dean was torn between being glad to see the ugly thing off once in a while, and hating what it meant for Castiel. The angel looked slight without it, the cheap black suit loose around his shoulders, slightly too short at the wrists.
In familiar tandem, Dean plonked himself down into one of the chairs while Sam slung into the one across from him with the assembly of needle, thread, antiseptic and gauze. He swatted Dean’s good hand away and took to winding the silk away from the injured one in tacky strands after tying a tourniquet around. Dean grimaced, but didn’t say anything. Instead he reached for the bottle of prescription-strength aspirin Sam had set down on the table along with the medical supplies, popped the top one-handed, and knocked back several of the tablets. Bobby offered him a beer to wash it down, which Sam eyed with disapproval.
“So who the hell was calling you from across state lines?” Bobby said impatiently.
“Death,” Castiel said. “He was interested in a meeting.”
“And he couldn’t have used a damn telephone?”
“She said death was her language,” Dean said, watching as Sam wrinkled his nose in concentration and dabbed at the stump with disinfectant. Dean hissed before continuing, “Plus, she was following Lucifer’s orders. This was probably the only way she could contact me without arousing his suspicions.”
“So she just kills 6,000 people,” Sam said, as if he still can’t believe it. Dean leveled a look at him.
“She’s Death,” he said again. He didn’t really know why he was taking her side at the moment. She’d just cut off his finger, for Chrissakes.
But what she’d given in return. Well.
“What else did she wish to speak to you about, Dean?” Castiel asked.
Sam threaded the needle. Dean looked at it grimly, and then turned back to Cas.
“She wanted to cut a deal. For her freedom.”
He told them what she’d said. Most of it, at least.
“So, did she actually give you a game plan?” Sam asked, when Dean wound down. He’d finished with stitching the stump of Dean’s finger long before, and now he was a picture of disbelief, and Dean couldn’t blame him—this kind of shit didn’t happen to them. It just didn’t.
And it hadn’t. But Dean wasn’t about to say that just yet. He plucked at the gauze around his hand absently.
“Yeah,” he said. “For Pestilence and Lucifer. The whole package.”
“What’s the catch?”
Dean considered telling them what the first proposed one had been. But he said, “That we hand the rings over, with the promise that they won’t be used for the Apocalypse anymore. And that I have to pass on a message.”
Sam scrunched his nose in confusion, but Castiel sat forward, his gaze narrowing into icy sharpness. “A message to whom?” he asked.
Dean met his eyes. “For Gabriel.”
They all looked up. Gabriel leaned against the kitchen cabinets, Cadbury’s bar dangling loosely from his fingers. His entire frame was conspicuously loose, to the point where Dean started to wonder how much of it was affected. He said roughly, “Yeah. Death had something to say to you.”
The shift was almost imperceptible—a slight tightening around the archangel’s eyes, and a twitch of fingers around the candy bar. “Oh yeah?” he said lightly. “What was that?”
“She said that Azrael did as you asked, and he’s wondering what the hell you think you’re doing.”
Gabriel snorted softly. “Dean, Death is Azrael. But whatever. I suppose that’s about what I expected.”
“You asked Death for a favor?” Sam asked, sitting forward in disbelief, eyes narrowing. “Are you nuts?”
“Azrael and I used to be pals,” Gabriel shrugged. “Seemed silly not to, now that apparently I’m back on the playing field because of you idiots.”
“What the hell kind of favor do you ask from Death?”
Gabriel looked at the group of them, gaze flicking back and forth between their faces, his lips pursed. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “It didn’t work, anyway.”
“Seriously?” Sam said. “That’s all you’re going to tell us?”
“Yup,” Gabriel said, with disconcerting simplicity. He turned back to Dean, as if there was nothing more to say. “So Dean-o, you were saying something about saving the world?”
Dean stared at him for a moment, and then said, “Yeah. We need to find something called John’s Sword.”
Castiel exhaled harshly. “That’s the way we can end this? With the tools of its beginning?”
“They’re not tools of beginning or ending,” Gabriel said quietly. “Just tools. Okay. What else?”
“There are seven churches,” Dean said readily. “We need to find which ones, and set up the gate between them.”
“Those will be across the globe,” Castiel said, and Dean could tell the angel was already drawing from that fathomless memory, estimating angles and taking measurements. “And at the center—“
“—the crypt,” Gabriel finished. He nodded. “It’s a good solution. It’s an old one. Azrael always did remember the classics best.”
“You think it is adaptable enough to be the cage we need?” Castiel asked.
“I think if Azrael came up with it, then we can swing it,” Gabriel answered. “Though there will be a number of difficulties, I’m guessing.”
“Like the legions of Heaven and Hell coming after us?” Sam asked dryly. Then he stopped when he saw the expression on Dean’s face. “What?”
“From what I got from Azrael, or whatever he calls himself,” Dean said, “Hell will be the only ones after us. But that’s mostly because Heaven won’t want to touch this with a ten-foot pole.”
Sam looked at Gabriel for confirmation. Gabriel waggled his head back and forth. “You could say that,” he said eventually. “It’s not hugely surprising. Considering what the Lamb has turned into.”
Sam stared at him for a moment, brain clearly working overtime. “The Lamb,” he repeated. “The Lamb of God?”
“Well, sort of,” Gabriel said. “The Lamb was destined to break the Seals.”
Dean spluttered. “Sam’s a lamb? What the fuck?”
“You and Sam are each one half of the Lamb. And you, Dean, are the righteous man,” Castiel said, turning to him. “But there are no regulations for what happens when the righteous blend with the powers of the Neutral, namely the Horsemen.”
“If you thought you were off book before, just wait for what we’re gonna do next,” Gabriel nodded.
Dean knew. Or at least, he did somewhat. “The army of 200 million,” he said.
“The army of the Horsemen,” Castiel clarified. “And with Azrael agreeing to give up his and the other Horsemens’ influence, his captaincy will fall to you.”
“Dean’s gonna lead an army?” Sam said blankly.
“He’d better,” Gabriel said. “It’s either that, or it kills a third of the Earth’s population.”
“No pressure,” Dean muttered.
“Lemme get this straight,” Bobby cut in with impatience. “We set up this massive global gate with the seven churches, and then Dean leads an army of millions to, what, drive Lucifer back into the Pit?”
“That’s the gist,” Gabriel said. “Like I said, it’s old school. Not something Heaven really wants to touch since Azrael’s refusing, under the terms of his deal with Dean, to take charge. They won’t be happy, and they might try and protest, but it’s likely they’ll just hope to hell that Dean fucks up and brings the Apocalypse anyway.”
Sam looked at Dean. “You seriously thought this was a good plan?”
“I never said, that,” Dean snapped. “I said that I asked Azrael for a plan, and this was what she—he—whatever, gave me.”
“It is one of the few options which involve enough power under our command to actually even the score against Heaven and Hell,” Castiel reasoned.
“Yeah, dependent on Dean’s ability to control an army whose horses have the heads of lions and the tails of snakes and breathe fire and brimstone,” Bobby said. He looked at the perplexed Winchesters and rolled his eyes. “Read Revelations, for Chrissakes.”
“John wrote Revelations on some serious old time hallucinogens,” Gabriel said. “Nobody knows what the Horseman army looks like, because they’ve never been used. Not on this planet, not on any other. They could look like anything.”
“That doesn’t make me feel any better,” Dean said.
“Ditto,” Sam said firmly.
Dean viciously tamped down any reaction the fact that Sam had just about as much faith in him as he had in himself. “We also still have to get Pestilence,” he said. “But we’ve got a lead on that. A clinic outside of Portland is reporting an outbreak of three different strains of flu at once. Death said that’d be the best place to start.”
“So, project for tomorrow?” Sam said.
Dean nodded. “Seems so.”
The group broke for the evening, though the air seemed to be a bit less charged with War’s ring now off the premises. Of course, now it was charged with an entirely different sort of tension, of the sort that Dean could never abide in the best of times—a general scrutiny as to whether he was up to the task that had just been set in front of him.
Jesus, all he needed was for John Winchester to show up with a judgmental frown on his face and it’d be just like the entirety of his early adolescence.
To take his mind off of it, he decided to go after the one thing that was still bothering him.
“Gabriel. A word?”
Gabriel cast him a look akin to ‘what could you possibly have to say to me?’, and said, “Why?”
“I want to know something. And neither of us want it overheard.”
Gabriel blinked at him, and then said, “Fine.”
They walked out into the scrap yard. Dean decided to cut straight to the point. “The favor you asked from Death. Azrael.”
“None of your business,” Gabriel chirped unconcernedly.
Dean grabbed his collar and swung him around. “It was about Sam, wasn’t it? You asked him to make Sam put on Famine’s ring as part of the deal.”
“What’d make you say that?” Gabriel asked, but Dean was getting good at reading him.
“I know you. And if Death really wanted to make that a part of our deal, he wouldn’t have given up on it so easily. But he just let it slide when I said no. It was too easy. ‘Cause he didn’t want that—you did.”
Gabriel snorted, but looked away. “I should have known his definition of ‘I’ll try’ was going to be half-assed,” he muttered. “Semantics in Enochian are bad enough, but English—“
“Listen up, you fuck,” Dean hissed, cutting him off. “What the hell is your game? Why did you want Sam to become a monster too?”
The archangel glared at him, unbowed. “Insurance, dickwad,” he snarled. “To keep your ass in line. You think I really believe you’re capable of leading the Horsemen’s armies alone? Hell no. You need someone to keep you in control, someone like you who you trust. And that someone’s gotta be just as strong as you. So yeah, of course I’m gonna want your brother to be all juiced up on Horseman. Because the way I see it, he’s the only buffer we’re gonna get if you get all War-ish and decide the end of the world’s peachy ‘cause it makes you feel good.”
Dean let him go, abruptly.
Gabriel continued blithely, “But you know, if that happens I guess it’s all right with me, too. I was waiting for paradise anyway. Except, oh wait, Michael won’t have a vessel for the time when things get hairy. So we’ll all end up in Hell on Earth. So forgive me for being a little invested in this new plan.”
Dean swallowed. “Why didn’t you just say that? Why not tell us the plan from the beginning, if you knew so much about it?”
“I didn’t,” Gabriel said, suddenly looking tired. He pushed a hand through his hair. “I didn’t know what plan Azrael would come up with. I just knew that you were becoming War whether we wanted that or not, and that Death wanted to deal when I saw what kind of calling card he left you. And do you really think you’d let Sam put on a Horseman’s ring just to keep you under control? Your martyr complex runs way too deep, kiddo. So I had to see if I could build some leverage. Not that it matters, anyway, seeing as not only are you a martyr, but you’re willing to martyr several hundred thousand other people in the process. Which, by the way, nice morals. Classy.”
“Shut up. Just shut up. That’s not what I.” Dean turned away. “Christ.”
“Yeah. I’m glad we had this chat,” Gabriel said. When Dean looked over his shoulder, he was gone.
Dean was still outside when Castiel found him. The angel held a beer out to him, and he managed an amused half-smile while taking it. “We’ll train you yet,” he said, popping the cap with his ring and taking a long pull.
Castiel said eventually, “You appear to be taking your changed destiny well.”
“I think we’re past destiny at this point, Cas,” Dean replied. He tried not to think about what Death had said to him, as she’d neatly bandaged his hand with the torn sleeve of her blouse. Gabriel had brought that little chat spinning back to punch him in the face, though, so now it just echoed over and over like a broken record in his head.
“You’re missing out, you know,” she’d said, slim fingers knotting the silk into a tourniquet with ease. “If you’d let me kill this city, you would have felt it. And it would have felt like coming home.”
“Sorry if I’m not too comfortable with that idea,” Dean had replied, voice still rough with pain. It had taken more than one blow to get the finger off. He’d felt worse in Hell, but that didn’t really make it any better. The nerve endings were still fresh and screaming.
“You’ll have to, eventually,” she said, stepping away and placing her ring along with Dean’s in her desk drawer, bloody and wrapped in a silk handkerchief. “It’s a part of you now, whether you like it or not. Even if you hack off those wings, you’ll still be able to fly. And you’ll still feel the call of a duty that isn’t yours.”
Yeah, Dean was just about done with duty, and destiny, and all that other shit. Give him some pointers, and face him in the right direction, but goddamn.
He took another long pull from his beer, draining half of it, before he let himself speak.
“Everybody we see, everybody who knows anything, talks about me like I’m either about to turn and kill everyone, or that I’m just wasted potential now,” he said, slowly, like he was still trying to process even though it was clear that he had already or he wouldn’t be talking at all. “They keep saying I should just…give in. That I’ve become something bigger. But if I’m certain of anything, Cas, it’s that—that any bigger, and I’ll be one of the monsters we hunt. I will become one, demon or not, Horseman or not. I just. Don’t ever let me get there.”
Castiel regarded him, as solid as granite. He said, “When I found you in hell, you were half demon, half man.”
Dean closed his eyes. He didn’t want to think about that time. Couldn’t, in many ways.
Castiel continued, “When I reached for you, I knew it would burn. It would be more painful than you had ever known, even at Alistair’s hands. But you saw me, and still held on. You held on as I carried you out, and as your blackened soul seared from the ascent. Dean,” and then he reached abortively for Dean, and then seemed to think better of it before dropping his hand. Dean didn’t have time to wish he hadn’t. “Dean, even in the depths of Hell, even on the precipice of becoming the evil Alistair intended you to be, you saw my light, and accepted it. If there are beings out there who believe that you will become a dark force, then they do not know you. That is a promise.”
It took all of Dean’s self-control not to flinch. Instead he breathed noisily through his nose, exhaling heavily, before he said, “Thanks, Cas. You’re probably the only one who thinks that.”
“I will probably be the only one to suggest this as well,” Castiel said, finding Dean’s gaze as Dean reopens his eyes and locking into it. “You should test your strength. Without the ring’s influence, your development into a Horseman should be stymied. You’ll get no ‘bigger’, as you say. You should see how far you can get with the exposure you’ve been given. You’ll need all the help you can get to control the army, if we are to raise them.”
“You’re saying I should embrace what I’ve gotten. Take it and use it.”
“You’ll use it to save lives,” Castiel said simply. “Why should you refrain?”
“Because I might decide I like war better,” Dean murmured.
“You won’t,” Castiel said, with such painful certainty.
Sam folded himself into the couch, large moldering volume of Revelations in his lap. He read the lines over.
9:16 And the number of the army of the horsemen were two hundred thousand thousand: and I heard the number of them.
And thus I saw the horses in the vision, and them that sat on them, having breastplates of fire, and of jacinth, and brimstone: and the heads of the horses were as the heads of lions; and out of their mouths issued fire and smoke and brimstone.
Frankly, he was more disturbed by the previous army that apparently involved locusts the size of horses. Gross.
He flicked back up the page, and his eyes narrowed.
9:6 And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them.
“This sounds suspiciously like we’re still playing by the book,” he said aloud.
Bobby grunted. “Depends on what book you’re reading out of, I suppose. Haven’t got a copy of whatever proper Bible the featherbrains have upstairs.”
“Yeah,” Sam said, unconvinced. He stared down at the book for several more minutes, and then snapped it shut. “I’m gonna…I’ll be back soon,” he said uncertainly, rising from the couch.
“Where’re you off to?” Bobby asked.
“Not sure yet, but I’m wondering if I can find some more information on the Horsemen,” Sam said, grabbing his jacket. “I shouldn’t be long.”
Bobby gave him an appraising look, and then nodded. “If you think you can.”
“Tell Dean I’m taking the Impala, but I’ll be back by tomorrow so we can start in on Pestilence.”
“Sure. Be careful. Don’t do anything stupid.”
Sam grimaced. “I won’t.”
He headed out the door to where the Impala was parked. He still had a few hours of daylight, and not long to go. He really, really hoped he wasn’t making a mistake.
He pulled out his phone and punched in a number that he hadn’t ever dared actually putting in his contact list. One that he found slipped into his pocket after Death had risen and everything seemed just that much more shitty. He still had the scrap of paper, now worn through but still legible in what no doubt was fountain pen ink.
He hit ‘send’ and waited. The answering machine picked up almost immediately.
“Hi, it’s Sam,” he said after the tone. “I think you’re gonna want to help us with something. So, um. Meet me where you said we should if anything happened. Because it has. You’ve probably noticed. Okay.
“See you later, Crowley.”
Dean had taken to almost lucid dreaming, the smear-edged anxious sort of dreams of the exhausted insomniac that shouldn’t be getting dreams at all, not memorable ones anyway. They were all lurid colors and rough edges, livid with childhood memories distorted by hellscapes. So this silent parking lot, with its rain soaked asphalt and blown out street lights? This was different.
Dean turned even while he didn’t feel himself doing so. He startled.
Michael was right there, close to him, wearing John Winchester’s young body, but his eyes were ringed with gold. He searched Dean’s face with an unfathomable expression, one Dean had never seen before. There was so much silence.
Dean had forgotten what dreams with Michael were like. It had been a while, ever since he’d put the ring on his finger. Damn it, he should have noticed that sooner, though with everything else happening it would have been nigh impossible. But yeah, it had been a while. And now things were different.
Dean realized suddenly that his wings were still there, still following him into his dream state, and had his self-concept actually slipped that much? He felt like Sam would have a lot of concerned and sympathetic expressions for that.
Michael was still looking at him.
Dean cleared his throat awkwardly. “So,” he said cautiously. “I’m thinking you might have a problem with these.”
He shifted the wings slightly, enough to draw attention to them. Michael’s gaze flicked up to them, darkened, and then came back down.
“I think my problem is probably minor when compared to yours,” he said finally.
Dean exhaled. He’d half expected just more stretching silence, or maybe righteous anger. Not this strange contemplation by a presence that seemed to fill in the air, all the cracks around him, pressing him.
“Even if I said yes now,” Dean said, after a beat. “You couldn’t. Right?”
“Did you do it?” Michael asked, still sounding raw in the deadly quiet. “Was this your plan?”
“Dude. No,” Dean said, as vehemently as he could. “Something got to me. I dunno what. Believe me, while I still have no desire to be your meat suit, this was definitely not on my list of alternatives.”
Michael closed his eyes for a brief moment. When he reopened them, the gold seemed dimmer, tarnished.
He said, with a voice that sounded eviscerated, pulled from him forcibly, “I don’t. I don’t know what to do.”
Dean…had nothing to say to that. He thought numbly, so this is what an angel looks like when he loses his faith.
“Divine plan is in ruin,” Michael said, turning away. “It has been from the beginning of this. I should have seen the signs of it; nothing has been as it was written. Have your war for free will, Dean Winchester. You’ll hear no more from me.”
He took three steps into the dark and Dean said, “Wait.”
Michael stopped, shoulders hunched, angelic presence receding into him like he was shrinking.
“Your Father’s creation is about to go to shit,” Dean said. “And you’re gonna walk away?”
“What choice do I have?” Michael looked at him. “My vessel has been turned into an abomination. Either my Father is dead or has stopped caring about his creation and its future. In either case, my purpose has ended.”
“Well thanks, Nietzsche,” Dean snapped. “That’s real cheery. But don’t you think if God’s dead, that he’d want you to look after his stuff?”
Michael sneered. “He left it in the hands of my brother and your tainted self.”
“Your brother hasn’t got it yet. And he doesn’t have to have it ever. And I may be tainted, but I’m still partly human, and more than partly on humanity’s side. You could help us.”
Dean didn’t really know why he was bothering. The guy had brought mental agony on him for weeks before this, ever since Cas took him and Sam back to the seventies. But Michael was a broken soldier now—it was clear through the cracks in his expression and the way his steps had faltered, no longer marching to the beat of discipline.
Dean could relate. Hell, more than being one, he seemed to amass the type around him like some sort of collect-them-all set.
He said, very carefully, “You don’t…just because you don’t have orders, doesn’t mean you don’t have a purpose.”
Michael stared at him, as if he wasn’t sure whether Dean was real or not. Then he said, “Good night, Dean.”
And Dean woke like he’d been drowning, the dream lingering over him like a cloak of cobwebs.
It was better that he not get anyone’s hopes up yet. Especially not his own. That had been one of the most fragile conversations he’d ever had, and to even think about it again felt like a violation of trust.
But he found himself for the first time hoping that Michael would come back.
God, the irony was killing him.
It was still only just dawn, with the sun reaching with tendrils of light over a dim black and green horizon. Dean wondered why Michael had come back to talk to him, after leaving him during transformation. It could have been a power interference thing, or maybe just the fact that he was changing who he was…he didn’t know, and those were stupid guesses, but it was just unsettling, though that wasn’t anything new.
With the knowledge that sleep wasn’t coming back to him any time soon, he got up and stretched his wings, weirdly thankful that he was sleeping in the panic room now because at least when he stretched he wouldn’t knock over everything in a twenty foot radius. He’d been feeling less clumsy with them ever since Cas had taught him how the things worked, at least on the metaphysical level. They seemed more natural, and wasn’t that just all kinds of weird and disturbing. But when he stretched they moved independently from his arms, and they didn’t flail, they just arced back and then around, rotating inwards to pull at the long lines of muscle. And they were so new that they didn’t even pop and click like the rest of Dean’s joints, which made him feel oddly young again. And man, anything that made him feel like he hadn’t spent forty years in Hell got extra points from him, even when it also prickled with alien-ness at his back.
Tucking them back close to him again, he went upstairs to make coffee. Castiel was already at the kitchen table, a series of atlases spread out. “Dude, you’re gonna want to move those to the living room once everyone else is up,” Dean said. “Kitchen table’s no place for work.”
Castiel nodded, absorbing this new information without comment. Dean came around to look over his shoulder. “What are you marking off?” he asked.
“Potential churches that could be used to build the gate,” Castiel answered. “Unfortunately, there are many that meet the basic criteria.”
“And what criteria is that?”
In a strangely human gesture, Castiel ticked them off on his fingers. “Blessings by one of the archangels. Sigils of holy protection in the architecture, which are common in every church built before the 17th century. Genuine relics are helpful, but not required. And finally, geographical advantage.”
“Okay. So how many does that leave us?”
Castiel gestured widely at the atlases. “Everything I have marked. I’m now calculating which groupings of seven would create the most ideally shaped gate.”
“Okay,” Dean said, because this was Cas and Sam’s area of expertise, and not his in the least. “You want some coffee?”
The angel waved him away with an impatient hand. Dean snorted softly to himself, and went about brewing himself a cup. As the machine began to percolate, he leaned against the counter and let his wings brush the floor. “So, Michael’s back,” he said.
Castiel stiffened and turned. “What did he say to you?” he asked.
“He…not much. He, um. He kind of reminded me of you, actually. When you started doubting.”
“Michael is doubting?” Castiel tilted his head, eyes narrowing. “That seems unlikely. He is, and ever has been, the dutiful son.”
“Yeah, a dutiful son that just got smacked in the face with a ruined vessel and an even more ruined Apocalypse.” Dean gestured at himself. “I mean, I know my dad messed me up and did some pretty dubious shit to me, but even he was willing to go to Hell for me in the end.”
“And so Michael has contacted you again. What do you think he wants this time?”
“Dunno. But I told him that if he wants to talk, he can. It’s messed up, man. I can’t believe I’m offering myself up like some sort of psychotherapist. He’s still a dick, so far as I can see.”
Castiel looked conflicted for a long moment, his atlases forgotten. Then he said, “I think it’s a good thing, what you did. It would be easy for us to not forgive him, or any of the others, for not questioning their faith sooner. That you are willing to…it seems right to me. It assures me further that I have picked the correct side in this conflict.”
Dean never knew what to say to shit like that, so he chose to ignore it. “Well, just don’t tell the others about it for now, all right? I don’t want to worry them, and we’ve got enough over our heads already without even more angels coming out of the woodwork.”
“You have my word,” Castiel said gravely. Then he glanced briefly back at his maps. “You will search out Pestilence today?”
“Yeah. You coming with?”
“I should. My resilience to disease is still stronger than yours, despite my current condition. I believe that would be of help.”
“Definitely, dude. We’ll always want you around.”
Dean was not thinking about the connotations of that. It’d just slipped out; it didn’t mean anything. Castiel smiled very slightly anyway.
“Thank you, Dean.”
Dean drank his coffee down, the brew strong and scalding in a way that would make Sam cringe and whine and put milk and sugar in by the tablespoon like the girl he was. Dean sighed. It felt like a good day. Or at least, a different one.
As the sun rose, Bobby rolled into the room, grunted at Dean as an order to get him coffee, and set about clattering around with pots and pans. Dean poured more coffee into a mug from the drying rack and handed it over.
“Sam up yet?” he asked.
“He went out last night,” Bobby said, after taking a fortifying sip. “Said he’d be back soon.”
“Where?” Dean asked sharply.
“Didn’t say. There he is, though.” Bobby nodded at the screen door, through which the Impala was visible, pulling up in front of the house in a crunch of gravel.
Sam unfolded himself from the driver’s side, and then the passenger door opened.
“Oh hell no,” Dean growled. So much for that good day.
“What precisely does Samuel think he is doing?” Castiel said quietly, evenly, and that just sounded goddamn dangerous.
Outside, Sam made a ‘stay’ gesture at Crowley with one hand, and then walked up towards to porch. Dean banged out through the screen door to meet him.
“What the ever living fuck, Sam?” he hissed, wings rising and flaring automatically, arching even taller than Sam. Sam stepped back, hands raised.
“I can explain.”
“You had better.”
“He gave me his number after the Colt,” Sam said, pulling the slip of paper out of his pocket.
“Not the first time a demon’s hit on you, Sam,” Dean snapped.
Sam glared. “Not funny. He said if we were gonna keep changing the rules of the game, he can help. He wants out of Hell, and the only way that’s gonna happen is if we keep fucking up the status quo. So for all intents and purposes—“
“The enemy of my enemy and shit? Are you gonna buy that a second time, Sammy?”
“Look, you don’t have to believe me,” Sam said, looking like he he’d been slapped. “I haven’t told him anything except the bare bones of our situation, so you can talk to him, test him, do whatever you like. Hell, take Cas with you, scare the crap out of him, I don’t give a shit. I just think we need the odds as much in our favor as possible if we’re making you a general or whatever.”
He took a breath. “I needed to do something for you, man. This whole thing is exploding in our faces and—“
“And so you got me a demon,” Dean cut him off. He took a deep breath and let it out hard through his nose. “A-plus for effort, Sammy, but a serious F-minus for execution. Jesus, you could have at least told me before making that kind of call.”
“And then you wouldn’t have let me make it at all,” Sam said flatly. He looked incredibly tired all of a sudden, and pinched the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger as his shoulders slumped. “Just…talk to him. I’ve been out all night and need some coffee.”
“What were doing in all that time?” Dean said, just a touch bitterly. “Take you all that time to drive to this guy or did you two spend some quality time, too?”
“Ew, Dean. Do not even go there.” Sam slammed into the house and sat heavily at the kitchen table. He didn’t dare look at Bobby. He didn’t need to, though.
“What the fuck did you expect, boy?” Bobby said. “Get back up off your ass and get me another cup while you’re getting your own.”
Sam sighed, and did as he was told. Castiel gave him a measured look, and then went out to Dean.
From the porch, Dean watched Crowley brush particles of dust off his immaculate suit and generally look unconcerned with life, the universe, and everything. “This stinks, Cas,” he said, without turning.
“I agree; your brother’s approach to finding help is proving particularly….”
“Consistent?” Dean suggested. “Idiotically consistent?”
“Are you going to come over and chat with me, or do I have to start charging the salt lines?” Crowley called, sounding infuriatingly smug.
Dean growled, and before Castiel could move, he’d disappeared and reappeared right in front of Crowley’s face.
“You’ve got a fuck of a lot of nerve coming here,” Dean said, poking Crowley in the chest. “After what happened with the Colt—“
“Hey, I thought that would work,” Crowley protested.
“You got my friends killed for it,” Dean cut him off, and then he was pinning the demon to the Impala with one sharp spine from the shoulder of his wing. The tip rested on the knot of Crowley’s tie.
Crowley raised his eyebrows, a flicker of fear crossing his expression before smoothing out. He looked up at Dean’s wings and frowned in vague consternation. “You’ve quite an affinity for those,” he said. Slowly, he raised one hand and tapped gingerly at the claw at his throat. “Are you certain you’ve never had wings before? Oh yes, of course you did.”
Dean’s eyes narrowed. “What?”
“In hell,” Crowley said, rather blithely, considering. “You get off the rack, you start ripping into some souls yourself, you start earning your wings. Shattered, broken down things, unfortunately, but still wings, you know. It’s the way things work. Or haven’t these new ones felt a bit familiar?”
Very slowly, Dean withdrew. Castiel said lowly, “Dean, is this wise…?”
“This is the same deal, right?” Dean said bluntly, not taking his focus off Crowley. “You’re out for yourself, and we just happen to be the best way of increasing your chance of survival at the moment.”
“Got it in one,” Crowley said, with a bright smile. “I’ll stab you in the back first chance I get, but for now, I think you boys are on the right track. Especially if you’ve got an archangel on your side.”
“Sam tell you about that?”
“Nah, I figured that bit out for myself. Been wondering what the wayward Messenger has been up to, lately. Now, are you gonna let me into your happy family for a time, or should I pack up and go?”
“Dean,” Castiel growled.
“Yeah?” Dean said, upraised spine still poised with a direct trajectory into Crowley’s skull. Crowley seemed well aware of it. “What do you think, Cas?”
“I think he killed Ellen and Jo,” Castiel answered, voice rough and stony.
Dean curled his lip, and didn’t disagree. Crowley looked between them.
“Look,” he said. “You want to know about the Horsemen’s army, right? Because apparently you’re taking the reins on that, correct, Winchester? I can help with that. I have Hell’s perspective on that. I can also tell you at least three of the locations you’ll need to find the churches in.”
“What do you know of the seven churches?” Castiel asked, hawk-like.
“I know that Lucifer’s going to start trying to find them and desecrate them as soon as he figures out his Horsemen aren’t doing their jobs anymore,” Crowley answered. “And I know that he’ll probably find that out as soon as you go after Pestilence. And when was that going to happen? Oh yes. Today. So today he’s finding out, and he’s going to start laying waste, probably starting in Marrakech.”
“Marrakech,” Castiel murmured. “Yes. All right.”
Dean watched as the angel shifted focus almost seamlessly, once again letting his battle-readiness show through in that way that was always startling and just a little terrifying. “Guess you’ve got his vote,” he said dryly. “Come on in, then. I’ll tell Bobby to ease off the holy water.”
“We’re going to have to split up if we want to both get Pestilence and prevent Lucifer from desecrating the churches.”
“I’ll call Gabriel,” Sam said.
“You have his cell?” Crowley raised an eyebrow.
“We’re moving up in the world,” Dean said. “What do you know about the Horsemen’s army?”
“Other than being 200 million strong? I’ve never seen them. But then again, no one but Death has.” Crowley helped himself to a cup of coffee, and was about to take a sip when Sam cleared his throat. He stopped and looked at Bobby. “You make your coffee with holy water?” he demanded. “Seriously?”
“I don’t have a Brita filter on the sink because I care about minerals, idjit,” Bobby grunted. Crowley eyed the filter on the faucet with distaste.
“Charcoal filters…and rosaries. Lovely. What was I saying?”
“The army,” Dean said impatiently.
“Right. Only Death knows for sure. But I’ll tell you one thing: Even Lucifer can’t control them. He tried, when all of this started. That was the reason he raised Death in the first place—to get him to channel all that power to him. But Death just outright told him no—no angel, fallen or otherwise, could control it. It’s not in the army’s nature to follow anything except Horsemen. Or, apparently, human/Horsemen hybrids.” He eyed Dean significantly. “It’s a good look for you, by the way. Very fire and brimstone, without the fire. Hell-lite, if there is such a thing. Maybe even Hell-chic. I’ve heard there’s a market for that.”
Sam sank down in his seat, feeling his face burn with transferred embarrassment. Dean glared at him and then turned back to Crowley. “No commentary, thanks,” he said eventually. “What, other than my apparent Horseman-like qualities, is going to give me control over these things?”
“Will,” Crowley said simply. “Your desire to do battle, or whatever else you intend to make the army do. If the Apocalypse was still going as planned, Death would be marking all of those who would be swept away—two-thirds of the earth, for those of you keeping track—and with will alone, proclaiming those marked thusly destined to die. And then the army would sweep all of them away. As it is now, though, you’ve got to define what you want, and bring them to heel with that idea. And no, it won’t be as easy as it sounds.”
Dean grunted. “Didn’t sound so easy to begin with.”
“Yes,” Crowley agreed, with some appreciation. “They’ll want to know why they aren’t instructed to kill. Because that’s what they were made for. You’re essentially telling a tank not to crush the grass as it goes over to blast some other target into oblivion.”
“And the target is its best friend,” Dean murmured. “Got it.”
“I don’t envy you,” Crowley said, for the first time looking entirely serious. “But if you can do it, I’ll owe you a favor. And as a rule, I don’t owe anyone favors.”
“Kiddos! How’s it hangin’?” Gabriel said from the doorway.
Sam snapped his phone shut. “We have to multitask,” he said, “So we need your help.”
Gabriel looked abruptly less enthused, and a lot more wrathful. Sam followed his gaze, and winced as he saw where it landed. “Entailing what, precisely?” he said, voice going low with an underlying hum of electric energy. “And what is he doing here?”
Sam’s eyes darted to the windowpanes that began to tremble slightly.
“Gabriel,” Crowley said, with a cautious nod. His eyes were flashing between normal and black. “Been a while.”
“Still hanging around crossroads?” Gabriel asked.
Crowley shrugged, but he looked small. “It’s what I do.”
The archangel looked at Dean. “I hope you’re not trusting him.”
“Not a chance,” Dean said shortly.
“He says he knows three of the Seven Churches,” Castiel said.
Gabriel looked at him in surprise. “Truly? How?”
“I hear things,” Crowley said.
Sam could almost imagine Gabriel’s wings rising in threat. “I hope you hear well, then,” the archangel said, and he did in that instant look his part, an angel of justice. He seemed to fill the room.
“I wouldn’t lie,” Crowley said, shrinking back slightly. “Not when it could kill me.”
Gabriel cocked his head for a moment, eyes still narrow and harsh. But then he eased, and the thrum in the air seemed to fade, so cautiously Dean cleared his throat.
“Pick one,” he said, “Preventing Lucifer from church bashing, or going after Pestilence.”
“Pestilence,” Gabriel said immediately, tearing his attention away from Crowley. Crowley looked more than slightly relieved.
“What, no tearful reunion with your brother?” Dean snarked.
“You want my help, don’t push me,” the archangel snapped. “I choose Pestilence. Who’s coming with me?”
“I am,” Crowley said, though very reluctantly. At Gabriel’s glare, he added, “Working with you lot, I want to be as far from Lucifer as possible. Not exactly in his good books, see?”
“Right, Sam, you’re going to need to go with them to keep them in line,” Dean said, not liking it. “That leaves Cas and I on church duty.”
Sam wasn’t thrilled, but he nodded anyway.
“I’m not liking this asymmetry,” Gabriel said musingly. “Bobby, you should go with Castiel and Dean.”
Bobby glared at him. “Are you blind?” he growled. “’Cause I got this slight problem—“
“Do you?” Gabriel said mildly.
Dean and Sam both froze. Bobby just blinked slowly. Then he shifted in his wheelchair. Kicked away the footrests.
“Holy shit,” Sam breathed.
Bobby stood. A bit waveringly, but he stood. He looked at Gabriel, jaw working silently. Then he said, “Thanks. You couldn’t have done that sooner?”
Gabriel rolled his eyes. “Humans and your unreasonable demands,” he complained. “Can we go now?”
Dean looked at Sam, staring at him hard. Sam placed a hand pointedly on the handle of Ruby’s knife, tucked into his belt. Dean nodded slowly.
“With any luck, Pestilence will cooperate, now that a deal has been made,” Castiel said. “Nevertheless, exercise caution.”
“Yeah,” Sam said. “You guys, too.”
“Portland, wasn’t it?” Gabriel said lightly. “See you later, alligators.”
Unceremoniously, he jabbed two fingers into Sam’s forehead, and they both disappeared. Crowley grimaced, and followed in a huff of air.
“This doesn’t seem smart,” Dean remarked.
“When does anything you boys do seem smart?” Bobby said.
“We should go,” Castiel said. “Marrakech is large, it may take several tries to locate the precise church that must be protected.”
“Yeah,” Dean said. “Yeah, okay. Who do you wanna ride with, Bobby, me or Cas?”
“Don’t be stupid,” Bobby grunted. “I’m riding with the one who’s had more than a week of driving lessons.”
Dean swore he saw Castiel’s mouth curve into a smirk as he reached out with requisite fingers. Snorting softly himself, he stretched his wings back andpulled.
Sam was really, really glad they didn’t have to drive to Portland. Because even though this was like getting his fingernails ripped out, eighteen hours in a confined space would have been like getting his face ripped off instead. So he’d take what he could get.
“I can’t believe you! What did those plants ever do to you?”
“Disobeyed,” Crowley said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “But see, now they don’t. They’re the most beautiful rubber plants in the world.”
“You’re a very particular kind of bastard,” Gabriel replied. “I think I’d actually like you more if you were a little more straightforwardly demonic.”
“If I was more straightforwardly demonic, I wouldn’t be helping you.”
“And then I wouldn’t have to restrain myself from drawing my sword on you.”
“Gosh, I had no idea I had such an effect on you. Enough to relapse from your pagan days! Are you going to go about with a trumpet again? I miss those times.”
“I will throw you back to Hell and leave you for Lucifer. Better yet, I’ll trap you in a pocket of Heaven where no one will find you, and the light of righteousness will rip you apart like Prometheus upon the rocks--”
“…And that’s enough,” Sam said, and resolutely stepped between them on the sidewalk. “Can we please go get Pestilence now?”
“Sammy Winchester, large and in charge,” Gabriel noted with a smirk.
“Don’t start,” Sam warned.
“Are you going to take that?” Crowley inquired of Gabriel.
“And as for you, I’m going to put holy water in a water pistol and start spraying you with it,” Sam said, as Gabriel puffed up like an indignant bird. “Let’s go.”
The clinic was a few blocks down, and there was a line out the door. Sam looked at wan faces and muffled coughs and said, “Why aren’t these people in the hospital?”
“Dude, you don’t go to the hospital,” one of the people in line spoke up. He was a thin man, early thirties by Sam’s estimation, wearing plaid like it was still the 90s and grunge was king. The guy next to him murmured congested agreement.
“Why not?” Gabriel asked, but his voice was already sharper, like he was honing in.
“Nobody comes out of there,” the guy’s friend said. “It’s more a hospice than a hospital. Better deal than assisted suicide, I hear.”
“And no one’s…doing anything about that?” Sam asked slowly.
Plaid Shirt Guy raised an eyebrow. “I don’t know where you’ve been living man, but around here the government’s been getting really good at not doing shit lately. Like, more than usual.”
Sam had noticed. But then again, he’d also had more pressing things to worry about than the slow breakdown of law and order that followed Lucifer’s rise. Things like his brother growing wings. Not for the first time, he wished intensely that Dean hadn’t taken so long adjusting to his transformation, because in the time that they’d spent arguing and negotiating and cleaning blood off the panic room walls the Apocalypse clearly hadn’t waited for them. And then Sam promptly felt guilty about wishing. He said, “Right. What direction is the hospital, then?”
“Come on,” Gabriel said. “I already know.”
They stepped into the alley alongside the clinic and a snap of fingers later, they were in front of the hospital. Just like the high rise in Austin, it seemed to gather the shadows to itself. Sam couldn’t blame anyone for wanting to go to the clinic instead, even without the unspoken ‘no exit’ policy.
“Oh yeah,” Crowley said, breathing out. “He’s here.”
Gabriel nodded. Silently, they headed inside.
It wasn’t crowded. The staff milled around, looking mostly normal, but there was a pervasive air of worry that manifested even more strongly than the usual medical sterility of chemical smells and sweat. The patients themselves were mostly quiet, but also mostly grim.
“Where should we start?” Sam said.
“Upstairs,” Gabriel said. “In quarantine.” He looked at Sam assessingly, and then snapped his fingers. Abruptly, Sam was wearing scrubs and an ID badge. Gabriel, of course, had the lab coat and stethoscope. He raised his eyebrows at Crowley, hand opening again.
“Don’t you dare,” Crowley growled. “This is my best suit.”
“I’d bring it back,” Gabriel complained.
“Elevator,” Sam said through gritted teeth. This was reminding him way too much of TV Land. TV Land, and general suckage. He could almost feel his balls twinge in some sort of awful muscle memory.
Gabriel finished the second snap, but only to pin an ID on Crowley’s lapel, which the demon endured with small affronted noises. They stepped into the elevator along with two nurses and an empty stretcher.
On the third floor, the nurses exited, and on the fourth, they did. Crowley sniffed the air, and then jerked his head to the left. As they walked, Sam coughed suddenly.
Gabriel shot him a look. Sam coughed again, and this time it felt phlegmy, his chest tight with fluid. “Crap,” he said, and it came out a rasp. Throat going, too. That was fast.
“Guess we’re close,” Crowley said, and kept walking. Gabriel followed close behind, his hand finding Sam’s elbow and pulling him stumblingly forward.
Crowley stopped in front of a locked ward, and peered inside. He looked back over at Sam, who now looked pale and uncomfortably damp. “After you,” he said.
Sam gave him a bitchface actually strengthened by the green tinge the skin around his eyes had developed, and the vague aura of a man on the verge of vomiting. Without saying anything, however, he walked forward and heavily put his hand on the door handle.
Gabriel made a slight flicking motion with his wrist, and the handle gave way.
Sam was barely through the door when it slammed shut behind him. He leaned back against it heavily, his mind fuzzed with fever. So much for backup,he thought hazily.
The ward was full—patients in every bed. All of them looked on the verge of death, pale and unmoving, breathing shallowly but with rasping desperation loud enough to make the whole room resonate with the hushed, horrifying sounds of slow disintegration. The halogen lights overhead flickered slightly.
“Mr. Winchester, I presume?”
“That’s me,” Sam said, but it came out through the thin scratchy whisper of laryngitis.
Pestilence looked normal enough. Just a man in a suit, like War had been. Though where War had been sharpness and hard lines and sneers, Pestilence was smeary at the edges, like he’d walked out of a particularly abstract watercolor painting. His eyes were dewy and faintly red, lips damp with saliva. His suit was yellow tweed that frayed at the cuffs and wasn’t buttoned right. He looked like a professor during exam week.
He tapped one limp hand against the foot of a sleeping man in the bed next to him. Abruptly, the man let out a rattling gasp, and several seconds later the sharp scent of bloody urine reached Sam, who immediately tamped down on the urge to retch. He said, “You know why I’m here.”
“Mm, yes. Your brother, wheeling and dealing with mine. It’s quaint. It’s different. Color me somewhat impressed.”
“It’ll free you from Lucifer,” Sam said. Unsteadily, he drew his knife from his pocket.
Pestilence eyed it with distaste. His lip curled before he smiled.
“It’s very fortunate that I value my freedom as much as I do,” he said. And then he went over to a cart, and pulled it to him. With slow careless movements, he cleared its surface and then, very deliberately, placed his hand on it.
The ring on his finger was dull and slightly mottled with grime. He was still a good fifteen feet from the door on which Sam leaned.
Pestilence said, “If you can get close enough to me to do it, the ring is yours.”
Sam groaned slightly; even in the brief time the exchange had taken, he’d felt his fever raise enough to make his vision swim. His skin felt slick and shivery, wanting to contract in on itself but his stomach wouldn’t let it, wouldn’t tolerate it without turning itself inside out.
He put his knife back in his pocket. He had a feeling he’d need both hands by the end of this. Fifteen feet never looked so vast. He pressed his hands flat against the surface of the door, reveling in its coolness for a brief second, and then pushed himself upright.
Almost immediately he staggered. His joints weren’t really working right anymore, they creaked in unexpected places and felt leaden and inflamed.
“Osteoarthritis,” Pestilence said helpfully. “It follows the swine flu. If you hurry up, you may manage to avoid the syphilis.”
Sam grunted. So that’s why his arms felt like they were detaching from him. He took several unsteady steps forward, and then had to stop as his vision warped out into a haze of bright colors followed by blotchy darkness. He blinked hard. A terrible part of his brain wondered with no small measure of hysteria whether he was going to start bleeding from his ears soon, because God, cranial bleeding wasn’t far behind if he’d only gone five feet and there were ten more to go.
He steadied himself on the bed frame next to him and pushed himself forward. Got three feet further before his legs gave up altogether and he nearly cracked his jaw open on the floor.
Pestilence tutted with faint impatience, though not without an additional air of fascination.
Sam coughed up blood, and spat it out on the floor before inching several more feet closer.
“Lung cancer,” Pestilence tallied, like he was trying to fill a bingo sheet. “You shouldn’t have tried that one cigarette in college. Carcinogens stick around. At least, around me, they tend to. You had best hurry before the plague catches up to the party.”
“Glad this a party for someone,” Sam said, and with what felt like an arm made of jelly, grasped the wheel of the cart, and pulled.
Pestilence obligingly followed it, and as a result, Sam was violently sick on the bottom shelf.
When it felt like his stomach was done pulling itself into new and interesting shapes, he got a firm grip on the cart with both hands and pulled himself up. When Pestilence came back into view over the edge of the top shelf, there was two of him.
“Shit,” Sam muttered.
“Double vision? Just the fever still doing its work,” Pestilence said, looking at his watch. “I’d aim for the hand on the left, that usually works.”
Sam hoisted himself up on his elbows, and prayed the cart would hold his weight, because there was no telling now long his knees could keep him upright. He wanted to be fast, he wanted this to be over so badly with the childish desperation that made him want Dean to give him soup and tell him to man up because everything hurt now, it tasted sour in his mouth and ached. He fumbled the knife back out of his pocket with one hand and with the other made a grab at Pestilence’s hand.
The Horseman hissed as Sam grasped it, his clammy fingers stilling when he felt the ring. He looked blearily up at Pestilence as he put the knife-edge at the base of his finger. “Okay?” he said, and coughed wetly.
Pestilence nodded, a strange expression of clinical interest and amused respect on his slouchy, professorial face.
With the last of his strength, Sam pulled the knife across and down, clumsily severing flesh, sinew and bone. He felt the finger and ring come away in his hand as he fell back onto the floor, slipping in his own blood, before consciousness abandoned him.
“You’re going to have to follow me,” Castiel said. “If we are to end up in the same part of Marrakech.”
“If I’m even gonna get to Marrakech,” Dean corrected, “Given I’ve never gone before.”
“That’s the least of our worries,” Bobby interrupted. “Boy, you’ve got wings. Extremely visible, extremely scary-looking wings. And did I mention, visible?”
“I believe I can create an illusion that will prevent people from seeing them,” Castiel said, “But any supernatural creature we come across will be able to penetrate it.”
Dean frowned. “How much of your mojo is that gonna take up, Cas?”
Castiel’s mouth twisted slightly before he said, “Not an inconsiderable amount, but it is doable.”
“Dude, no. This isn’t life or death; we’ll deal with it some other way.”
“It’ll be life or death if someone decides to take a crack at you,” Bobby grunted.
Dean glared at him. “No. I’ll cope, I’ll stay out of sight until you call me or something. It’s stupid to waste your grace on something like this.”
“If it keeps you out of harm’s way—“
“I can take care of myself, Cas,” Dean cut him off. “Especially with spiky wing things. Now, what do I have to do to follow you?”
Castiel explained. Apparently despite traveling in impossible ways through time and space, angels and other supernatural flying things did leave a trail, of a kind. Dean listened intently, and then nodded. “Okay. We go there, I’ll find a place to hang that’s close by. You guys are gonna need to check out the churches, but as soon as you find the right one, you call me, and we’ll do whatever’s necessary to protect it. By the way, Cas, how’s Lucifer gonna go about desecrating these places?”
“Killing a holy man inside it is the most straightforward way,” Castiel said briefly. “But there are wards we can put up to prevent such things.”
“Right. We’ll have to break in to put those up.”
“Actually,” Castiel said consideringly, “We may not have to.”
Marrakech was huge and bustling and beautiful. Dean sort of just wanted to tour around, but obviously that was out of the question. Directly after landing, Cas had grabbed him and brought him to one of the churches, which actually wasn’t a church at all.
“A former Koranic boarding school,” Castiel said briefly, checking the door to the small room they now stood in for possible prying eyes. “There is only one major Christian church in Marrakech, but there are multiple mosques and other holy ground that can serve as a potential building point for the gate. This is one of them.”
“That…certainly widens the search,” Dean said, blinking. “Are we in a dorm room?”
“Which is why we should be grateful for Crowley’s cooperation. If we can secure the three locations that he knows, then I can build the coordinates of the others off of them. Stay here until I call you.”
And then he was gone.
Dean looked around at the empty bedroom, which was empty and clean and appropriately Spartan, for a religious dorm room. He sighed, and belatedly realized that when he did so, his wings drooped slightly. Well this was great.
Bobby was looking thoroughly bored by the time Castiel popped back into existence beside him at the main entrance to the building. “Got him squirreled away?” he said, as Castiel straightened the cuffs of his trench coat.
“He should go unnoticed where he is, yes.”
“And you’ve got a plan for when we actually need him.”
Castiel quirked that very subtle smile that Bobby was very slowly learning to spot. “I do.”
The boarding school, Ben Youssef Medersa, was not the locale they were looking for. Neither was the Church of the Saints-Martyrs, or the mosque, Moulay El Yazid. Bobby wasn’t entirely sure how Castiel could tell, but each time the angel popped them into an alcove from which they could emerge unseen, he led the way into the building, stopped in its main entrance, and then made the call and walked out. Bobby was beginning to feel redundant when finally they arrived at the Saadians tombs and as Castiel walked under the humble entrance arches he froze momentarily before pulling out his phone.
Bobby had time to hear him say into the phone, “I’m coming to retrieve you, we’ve found it,” before he’s alone in the hallway. He grumbled and wandered further inside, dodging tourists to get to where the hall opened into…Christ.
The tombs were both vast and intricate, scalloped arches so familiar as architecture and yet so intrinsically different in aesthetic from any building Bobby’d ever been in that it took him a moment to take it all in. Tile work stretched across the walls and floor in that bleached out dusty pastel unique to warm countries, and aside from the people it was just peaceful. Bobby found himself hoping to ward the place not because violence couldn’t happen here if they wanted to stop the apocalypse, but because it just shouldn’t.
Dean and Castiel appeared behind a pillar in a huff of air, and Bobby wanted to hiss at them to ask what the hell they think they’re doing, there are stillpeople around, who wouldn’t take kindly to a mysterious stranger with massive angelic wings appearing out of nowhere.
Massive angelic…oh shit.
Bobby did a quick scan of the surrounds. Yes, not a lot of tourists—it was noon, lunchtime, and while the site was popular, it was still a necropolis, and people had better things to do during lunch than look at tombs.
Bobby looked back over to the column. Dean was wearing jeans and a white t-shirt. He was also urging Castiel to take his trench coat off, so that the angel ended up cutting a slim, monastic profile in his black suit. Bobby shook his head. The angel was insane.
Castiel stepped out from behind the column as the most of the lingering tourists left and security began milling around, picking up discarded pamphlets and other detritus.
One of the guards looked up and frowned when he spotted him. Castiel looked gravely back with that strange innate authority, and said something in smooth, pitch-perfect Arabic that sounded both firm and kind.
And on cue, like the con man that he was, Dean fucking Winchester appeared in the largest archway, wings outstretched. He said, with a surprisingly competent accent (as far as Bobby could tell which, well, shit), “As salaam alaikum.”
The three tourists left over shrieked and sped to the exit. The two guards staggered back, and one reached for his radio but Castiel was in his space and placing a hand on it before he could get it out of his belt, and it made a sad fizzling noise like a wet cell phone. From there, the guards went the way of the tourists, scrambling as fast as they could.
Castiel said something else from behind them, and then there was a series of urgent shuffles followed by the doors closing at the entrance.
“The hell did you say to them?” Bobby asked, sort of knowing but needing to hear it anyway.
Castiel said, with no small amount of satisfaction, “I told them that an angel of the lord had descended and wished to pray for the dead. Also that they should lock the doors on their way out and not return until tomorrow.”
“There’s gotta be some rules about this idjit pretending to be an angel,” Bobby grumbled. “That’s like police impersonation.”
“To be fair, I do feel kinda blasphemous,” Dean said from the doorway, but Bobby could tell that he was enjoying himself, possibly more than he should. His wings were still framed in the arch like he was part of some sort of ridiculous portrait, and they flicked and flared like he was itching to use them to do something huge and impressive.
“I don’t think anyone could have predicted a need for such a rule,” Castiel said. He went and retrieved his coat from behind the pillar, and placed it neatly on a wooden bench. “We should begin,” he added, “There is still much to do, and we must hope that Lucifer does not find this place before we are done.”
“Sam. Samuel. Up and at ‘em.”
Sam became aware that he could breathe. Breathe deeply, and without hacking up chunks of lung.
He cracked his eyes open, and found Gabriel’s face hovering above his own. A blur of Crowley was further back. “What happened?” he asked.
“Pestilence fucked off after he was done testing you,” Crowley said. “He let us in to retrieve you. Well done on not dying. At least, not entirely.”
Gabriel nodded, “It would have been pretty inconvenient if you’d all the way died. Feeling all right now?”
“I think so,” Shakily, Sam sat up, weirdly surprised by Gabriel’s hand at his back, easing him upright. “You healed me?”
“You had about eighteen separate viruses in your system,” Gabriel said. “Along with a number of degenerative conditions, two sorts of cancer, and the first stages of syphilis. Would have been rude of me not to lend a hand.”
“Thanks,” Sam said. He was overwhelmingly tired. Everything still ached, though now it was with the strange return of health, tissue rebuilding itself and being surprised at its own usefulness. It was a thoroughly confusing sensation.
Gabriel helped him to his feet. “Still got the ring?” he said lightly.
Sam reacquainted himself with his left hand, which did in fact still clutch at a severed finger, and a sickly looking gold band. He discarded the finger with a grimace, the digit bouncing once on the floor before rolling away across the tiles and under the cart (a cart filled with his sick, ugh). Then he held up the ring and pocketed it. “Let’s get out of here,” he said.
Crowley nodded, and Gabriel snapped his fingers.
Dean knew they were protecting the place, but the whole process felt uncomfortably close to desecration anyway. “Man, people are gonna be pissed when they see this tomorrow,” he said.
“They won’t see it,” Castiel said. “The sigils will work their way into the stone and then it will be as if they were never there.”
“Well, good. I’d hate to start an international incident.”
Castiel frowned at the epithet and then chose to ignore it. Bobby finished up the north wall and started in on the east. The lines of blood grew in arcs and complex calligraphy, and Dean never felt less comfortable.
None of the blood was his. It wasn’t allowed.
“We don’t know what changes have occurred in your bloodstream due to War’s ring,” Castiel had said. “It could affect the stability of the wards.”
“You’re both going to bleed dry before we find the next church,” Dean protested.
Bobby leveled a glare at him. “Then we’ll just get Gabriel and Sam to come along for the next one. Now shut up and get painting.”
It was more than weird swiping blood from the opened artery of an angel. Dean tried to be as sparing as he could, but Castiel tended to make impatient noises and go for another vein if he took too long, so he tried to be clinical about it. Castiel just kept working in quick efficient movements, forgetting entirely about his sliced up arm so long as he had enough blood on his fingers to work. Dean couldn’t take it.
“What is it, Dean?”
“Just…okay, if you don’t want to waste blood and drip it all over the place, you need to elevate your arm while your working.” And Dean found himself gripping Castiel’s wrist to position it so his arm wasn’t limp, it was bent up and compressed just enough for the steady drip to slow.
Castiel observed this in silence, and then said, “I see. Thank you, Dean. Though you do realize that it is impossible for me to run out of blood with my Grace still intact.”
Dean swallowed, and very carefully let go of the angel’s wrist. “Yeah, I know. I just…yeah. Can’t have you dripping all over the tiles. That’s just disrespectful.”
Cas smiled very slightly. “Of course.”
And then Dean sensed it, smelled it before it happened, but he didn’t want to, this is what he wanted least.
The room went cold.
“Dean Winchester. My, my. There’s something about you that’s different than last we met. What is it? New haircut?”
Across the room, Bobby dropped his knife with a clatter. Dean felt his whole body lock up, and with a shudder he could hide in his shoulders but not in his wings, he turned.
Lucifer was leaning against one of the columns, his stance supple, unguarded. One hand was in his pocket, and the other rested firmly on the shoulder of an elderly man who despite his coffee-colored skin looked as pale and fragile as the white in his beard and turban. He wasn’t looking at anyone, just up at the ceiling, his lips moving constantly, hushed Arabic tumbling from them in an unceasing desperate murmur. Dean could guess what he was saying. Prayer looked the same pretty much anywhere.
“An Imam? How dare you,” Castiel growled. His hand didn’t leave the wall, though, didn’t stop writing.
“I don’t see why you’re surprised,” Lucifer said. Even in his crumbling vessel his stillness is languid and full of sharp edges. “And may I offer my condolences, Castiel? Your fall has been slow and painful, I see.”
Dean’s mind, now that it had recovered from the screeching halt of panic, was working wildly. Lucifer overwhelmed his senses—the rage in him was like nothing Dean had ever sensed, abyssal in intensity and a mix of chemical smells and old rocks and the clean sheerness of ice. It rolled off of him in tangles that Dean had to fight to ignore. He took a breath through his mouth to block it out, and the air tasted like the smoke from firestorms.
Cas needed to finish the wall—it was the last one, and after that they could leave and never look back. But no way Lucifer would let that happen, he was more than capable of tearing the man he held in two before then.
“Looks like you’re not getting your showdown with your brother,” Dean said, hoping his voice didn’t waver too much. It sounded thin to him, but with the taste and smell of wrath clamoring in his lungs he couldn’t be sure. “Sorry about that.”
“Michael will find his way to me,” Lucifer shrugged. “He is…if not creative, at least persistent.”
Dean weighed that, and then shook his head. “Didn’t seem like that when I talked to him last.”
A flicker of…something passed across Lucifer’s blistering features. It was gone in less than a second, but Dean saw it, and smelled it lingering like a citrus tang, and he seized on it. “I believe his exact words were, ‘Have your war for free will, you’ll hear no more from me’,” he added. “He looked depressed. Things haven’t been going his way, y’see.”
Lucifer’s eyes narrowed. A bit of that stillness became façade. Not a lot, but enough. “You lie. That is not my brother.”
Dean shrugged in genuine regret. It was easy to lie when you weren’t. “He’s been through a lot. You’ve been away from home too long—haven’t seen how bad things have gotten lately. Zachariah’s been running the show, most times I’ve been aware.”
Lucifer snarled, “Zachariah is middle management. What did Michael think he was doing, sending him to earth?”
“Dunno, man,” Dean said, and okay, Cas was now completely out of sight behind his wingspan. Probably not out of sight out of mind, but he had to try. “But if you want my opinion, I think he’s just been delegating to escape. You do realize how badly this whole Apocalypse’s been going, right?”
“I may have taken some creative liberties,” Lucifer allowed, but he was reining himself back in now, that flare of brutal rage settling back to a simmer more dangerous than any solar flare.
“Yeah, well apparently so have others, considering this,” Dean flapped one wing, “So now it’s a big headache, and Michael’s feeling the pressure. He looked tired man, I’m telling you. You should give him a call some time, just to check in, tell him you’re worried that your smackdown might get canceled. Communication’s healthy, or so I hear.”
Shit, he was babbling now and he knew it, and worse, the devil knew it. Lucifer’s frame was coiling like that of a waiting tiger. “Cas,” Dean whispered.
“I’m almost finished, get the Imam out of here, save him first and I’ll get Bobby out,” Castiel hissed, and that was the only cue Dean needed. He lunged forward.
Lucifer’s hand was raised in a strike; Dean felt the force of it in the air as he wrapped himself around the old man, and in a frantic wingbeat, pulled as far and as hard as he could.
The world melted around him just as searing pain shot up his right side. He ignored it; he had to. He concentrated on the only place he could think of even as the old man cried out and struggled against him.
The world disappeared. And then it was back.
They landed in a heap on the porch. The Imam rolled out of his grasp and pulled himself up against the railing, shaking and speaking frantically. Dean just lay there, breathing hard, working up to the volume he’d need to get everything across before his brain started acknowledging the pain again and he passed out, because he could feel it coming on like a freight train. His breath felt wrong, dissipated and uneven, and he couldn’t feel his right arm at all.
Last breath. “SAM!” he shouted.
Footsteps clattered and pounded, and came closer. “Jesus Christ, Dean! Oh god, what…”
Dean blinked hard and managed to lock onto Sam kneeling over him, hands fluttering distress like he didn’t know what to staunch or brace first. He was babbling now too, muttering about compresses, and he need to shut up right now.
“Okay, okay what, Dean? What is it?”
Dean spoke as fast as he could without tripping over anything. “Old man was gonna be Lucifer’s desecration sacrifice, had to get him out. You know some Arabic, right? Tell him we’ll get him home as soon as we can and sorry.”
“Okay. Okay.” Sam was pulling himself back together, he was processing, Dean could see him processing, and thank god his brother was so sharp.
“Where’s Cas and Bobby?” Sam asked.
The pain was back. Dean was really tired of debilitating agony. “Still there,” he managed through gritted teeth, but his vision was dimming fast. “Cas’s gotta finish the wards.”
“You left them with Lucifer? Shit shit shit! Gabriel! Crowley!”
“It’s the Saadians tombs,” Dean croaked. “That’s where they are.”
And then everything slipped away.
There was darkness for a while. Dean was marginally aware of it, every once in a while. And every once in a while, the darkness would get a smear of red on it, and he could distantly feel his body trying to seize, to fight, anything, locking itself into desperate knots that tore across his nerves, rattling against his skull. And one time, there was a dim sound of shouting, followed by hard enunciation of Enochian.
Something jolted down his right side. It could have been anything from a lightning bolt to a sandstorm to a steel rod shoved up under his ribs. Dean was pretty sure he screamed.
He wasn’t sure if he had lungs anymore, though.
Dean drifted. And then the lights came on.
Same slick asphalt and dim lights. Same scuffed up parking lines and dewy sedans, lined up one by one. Lucifer, Dean supposed, was right about Michael lacking creativity.
He looked around and spotted him sitting on the bed of a pick up truck. There were rain droplets all over where he sat, but he looked dry and implacable. Dean cleared his throat.
“Uh. Hey. How’s it going?”
Michael turned to him, the movement birdlike and exacting. He frowned. “You are badly injured. I had wondered why you would be unconscious at this time of day.”
“Oh. Yeah, well, I had a run-in with your brother,” Dean said.
Michael stiffened, shoulders locking inward, and if Dean knew wings (and he did now, intimately) then he was drawing his own around himself. “I’m surprised you’re alive,” he said eventually, tone flat.
“Got lucky, I guess,” Dean said. “So what’s up with you these days? Still looking for instructions from Dad?”
“My Father hasn’t given instructions since the crucifixion,” Michael said. “What we follow are his laws, set forth at the Beginning.”
“With no chance of amendment? Classy.”
Michael glared at him. “The Word is infallible.”
“If that’s true, then why is it everything you were planning has gone to Hell, literally?” Dean demanded. He shut his eyes for a second, pinched the bridge of his nose. He could feel in the back of his mind that he wasn’t whole, there was something shredded about him that spoke of nothing good when he woke up. He hoped Sam had gotten his shit together enough to get Cas and Bobby to safety.
Michael’s consternation grew deeper. “Are you well?”
“Clearly not,” Dean said. “But never mind.”
Without a sound, Michael lifted himself out of the bed of the truck and approached. “I could perhaps—“ he started.
Dean flinched violently away, and Michael stopped. And then, after a pause, he dropped his hands to his sides and said more quietly, “We weren’t always just warriors.”
Dean looked at him, and tried to see past his father’s face. “What were you, then?”
The archangel said, “Our Father’s first companions.”
That was where all of this started, wasn’t it? Dean thought. It was why Lucifer fell, and Michael let him fall.
“So God’s your companion, not just your Father,” he said slowly. “He cares about you.”
“He is love,” Michael said, which wasn’t really an answer, but was enough of one for Dean to work with.
“So he loves you. He loves mankind. He loves the world. And you love him back?”
“Of course,” Michael answered, as if it was the most obvious question in the world.
“Well, I don’t know shit about relationships, but generally when you love some one you take an interest in what they love,” Dean said. He shrugged. “And you do what’s best for the things they love, even if you’re not sure that’s what they want. ‘Cause at that point it doesn’t matter if you disagree, it matters that you’re doing it because you love them.”
“That…” Michael started, and then frowned. “That seems unhealthy.”
Dean laughed quietly. “So I’ve heard. Doesn’t mean I’m wrong.” He coughed, and winced. Drew his hand away from his mouth, and found blood on his palm. “Well, shit.”
Michael stepped forward again, this time with diffidence. He made John Winchester’s gait light and supple, even as his presence was heavy. “Let me help you. You’re falling apart.”
“Why? It’d be good riddance to the abomination, wouldn’t it?” Dean looked at him.
The archangel shook his head, and didn’t say anything. He reached out one hand, palm flat. Dean let his arms fall to his sides, and waited.
Michael laid his hand lightly over the center of Dean’s chest. A flicker of recognition passed over his features before smoothing out. “What?” Dean asked.
“Lucifer meant to destroy you. Utterly erase you from the world.”
“Friendly,” he commented.
Michael looked at him steadily. “He tried to do the same to me, once.”
Dean swallowed. “I’m sorry.”
He dismissed it with a flick of his head. “Everything was foreseen then. I had known it would happen, as had Lucifer. We meant it enough not to fight our destinies. This time is clearly different.”
“You didn’t have people with free will asking for a say in the proceedings,” Dean said.
Michael looked at him. “Yes,” he said, hesitant, and in a way that sounded like Dean had been speaking to him in a foreign language all this time, and he’d just begun to understand it. “Yes, I suppose that does make things more complicated.”
Dean realized that the hand on his chest had grown warm, and then blisteringly hot, but it was strangely neither painful nor alarming. He watched Michael as he fell silent, and pressed just slightly harder against Dean’s chest, gold magnifying in his eyes and turning molten. The tightness in Dean’s lungs eased, his breath coming easier, and the sharp tingle of distress in his right arm and wing faded slightly. Then Michael drew away.
“That is as much as I can do without leaving Heaven,” he said.
“Thanks,” Dean said, a bit hoarsely.
Michael stayed silent, and studied him for a long moment.
Then he said slowly, carefully, “I don’t know how much help I can be without finding a suitable host.”
Dean felt his heart leap into his throat, and now there was a whole new sort of tightness in his throat and lungs. “What about Dad?” he said, gesturing at the body Michael wore. “He was willing last time.”
Michael shook his head, “If I do that, and am killed in the present time, then I will erase John Winchester from his timeline. Mary would be left alone, and you and Sam would die in the fire with her.”
Dean thought back to their jaunt in the 70s, the words he’d spoken to his mother in desperation and unutterable sadness. He said, somewhat unsteadily, “Well, then this whole Apocalypse would be moot anyway. No more vessels for anyone.”
“You would risk that? After all of the lives you’ve saved?” The archangel’s eyes narrowed.
Dean squeezed his eyes shut. He thought about Austin, and how he couldn't make a call like that again. He said, “No. Not unless I was sure that the rest of the world would be saved.”
Michael nodded. And then he said, “I’ll try to find a way. Good bye, Dean.”
And he was gone.
There was blackness again, long and consuming. Dean began to wonder if he would ever truly wake, or if Michael had left him in a comatose limbo. And then even that faded, and he didn’t think anything.
When he came to, bone-wrenching pain was still the theme of the day.
“Winchesters passing out and nearly dying seems to be the theme of the day,” Gabriel complained over him.
Dean wanted to protest that he’d already established what the theme was but all that he managed was a sort of hissing groan that he immediately regretted because the exhalation of air caused his lungs and therefore his right side to move and that was a terrible, terrible plan.
He heard Sam settle on his other side; he’d recognize that specific shuffle and crouch anywhere. “Hey, Dean. He’s awake?”
“Awake but staying immobile,” Gabriel said, “Which is actually the smart thing to do. I highly doubt he’d enjoy talking at this point.”
Dean silently agreed. Sam probably nodded, because then he was saying, “The man you saved, Dean? His name was Omar, by the way. He was grateful that you got him away, even though you look like the Angel of Death.”
Dean huffed a laugh, and once again, regretted it. Sam said, “We brought him back to Marrakech, to his family, about an hour ago. And yes, Cas and Bobby are all right. Well, mostly.”
At that, Dean had to turn. He managed to twitch his fingers too, and hoped that they conveyed his question.
“Cas was…not in great shape,” Sam said carefully. “He finished the wards and sent Bobby back himself, but by the time Gabriel got there, Lucifer had gone to town on him. Not with any intent to kill, I don’t think, but just to vent.”
“Lucifer is still an angel,” Gabriel said. “He won’t kill his brothers until he’s on the battlefield. But he has no problem maiming them.”
This was not helping Dean stay still. Through the haze of jangling, suffering nerves he wanted very badly to get up and see for himself just how bad it was, and what he could do to fix it.
“Don’t even think about it,” Gabriel said firmly. “He’s taken care of, and that’s all you can ask for, for now.”
Dean managed a very angry twitch of fingers, which Gabriel huffed at. “You keep that up, and I’ll knock you out so you stay down,” he said.
“He should be in the hospital,” Sam said worriedly.
“And I’m sure the doctors will be thrilled to treat a man with wings,” Gabriel retorted. “I’m the best he’s got at the moment, and I’m pretty sure he’s not gonna die. Not after…well.”
Dean made a very soft inquiring noise. He wanted to open his eyes to get a read on Sam’s expression—it was the best way to figure out how bad off he was. But he was pretty sure he didn’t have the wherewithal at this point. He strongly suspected his right eye was completely swollen shut anyway. Which probably could tell him more than enough already.
He wondered whether his wings were broken. That would be…inconvenient.
He tried flexing the left one, with some degree of success. Sam immediately grabbed hold of it, though, and placed it back down firmly on the floor.
“No, dude. Don’t even think about it,” he said. And then, apparently at Gabriel, “What were you going to say? Not after what?”
Gabriel made several shuffling noises. “I wasn’t the only one giving him a hand, let’s say. If I had been, he would have been dust by the time we got back from fetching Cas and Bobby. What I cast before we left was just to keep him stable, but it wasn’t enough for all the time we were gone. We took longer than I thought with Castiel and…yeah.”
Dean could almost see Sam shaking his head. “Then what? Who helped him?”
“I imagine he’ll tell us, when he can.”
Dean spared another breath to make further question noises.
It was a good thing Sam could read him so well. Or at least, as well as anyone could, with a limited amount of information. “He wants to know what precisely is wrong with him,” he said to Gabriel.
“Where to start?” Gabriel said dryly. Dean heard him shift, and then settle. “The devil tried to explode you, Dean-o. It’s a good thing you’re made of tougher stuff these days, or you’d be splatter on the necropolis floor. As it is, he managed to start some serious atomization over your right side, including your wing, from about your hip to your shoulder. I had to build your lung and kidney from scratch. Your heart took a beating too, no pun intended, but that was taken care of by your mysterious benefactor. Oh, and about sixty percent of your skin was basically gone. Think Anatomy 101 textbook diagrams. Except with a lot more blood.”
So that’s what got Sam into panicky babble. Dean was really glad he hadn’t tried to move after landing. He made a weak tff noise through his teeth, and Sam said, “Yeah, dude. It…I’d rather not see anything like that again.”
“We should let you sleep. Don’t even think about moving,” Gabriel said warningly. “I know you Winchesters, and believe me, outside help or not, now is not the time to be your usual stubborn self.”
Dean managed a very slight twitch of his lips for acknowledgment. Sam laid a hand lightly on his good shoulder, and then he listened to their footsteps retreat, and the panic room door close. With nothing else to do, he let himself drift.
“Castiel. How’re you holding up?”
The angel looked up from the book in his lap. He looked almost completely normal, except for how he held his torso just slightly away from the back of his chair. There were fading bruises along the left side of his face, and dried blood in crusts in his ears. One leg was propped up on another chair, unbraced. He said, “There will be no lasting damage.”
Gabriel shoved his hands in his pockets and hunched his shoulders. His expression was inscrutable and tight, hardening his jaw. “You know who helped Dean, don’t you?” he said eventually. “You know who kept him alive.”
“I have my suspicions,” Castiel said, his gaze sliding from Gabriel to the tabletop.
Gabriel was silent for a long moment. Then he said quickly, sharply, as if he couldn’t stop even to take one jagged breath, “He wouldn’t. He would never, not after all of this time. I begged him, on my knees, and he didn’t, but now—“
“Those were very different times,” Castiel said quietly.
Gabriel sucked in his breath. “I’m his brother,” he whispered.
Castiel watched him. “Maybe that was why he couldn’t listen.”
Gabriel made an almost inaudible sound, somewhere high up in his throat, and then he was gone like he’d never been there. Castiel blinked slowly, and turned back to his book.
Sam didn’t want to pace. He generally wasn’t a pacer, or tried not to be. But Bobby’s house felt like one big rambling strung-out wood and cement mausoleum. So he paced.
Gabriel was gone, off to who knows where as usual. Dean slept most of the time, still looking vaguely like a burn victim, though Gabriel assured him he’d be back to normal (well...normal enough) soon enough. Cas mostly sat and read in the living room, still holding himself in that careful, familiar way that Sam knew meant cracked ribs and torn up insides. Bobby talked, though not much—it’d been a while since he’d been out in the field, and this hadn’t been a great return.
Which left Crowley. Crowley, who had left with a bowl of Castiel’s blood (gained all too easily), and who returned looking grim.
He appeared in the kitchen two days after Marrakech with his shirt cuffs rolled up but still stained red, and his jacket thrown European-style over his shoulders. Sam had never seen a demon look tired before. “You were able to secure the other two churches?” he said.
“One of them,” Crowley said, and looked in disgust at his cuffs. “I was too late for the second.”
“What happened?” Sam said sharply. Needing to do something, he grabbed the cup of coffee he’d made a few minutes earlier and sat down at the table.
Crowley shrugged. “I got there, and there was a priest strung up by his entrails over the altar. Lucifer was long gone. So I left.”
Sam swallowed down the bile that rose in his throat, and then looked back down at his coffee. It hardly looked appetizing any longer. “I should have gone with you,” he said, not for the first time.
“You needed to look after our various injured parties,” Crowley said grudgingly. He hadn’t been happy about going alone. “Not to mention getting over your own case of internal bleeding.”
Sam grimaced. He still was gut-wrenchingly sick most nights. Gabriel said it was a side effect of his body adjusting to not being deathly ill anymore.
“I can’t be the only one going out there, though,” Crowley said. “There’s not time. Lucifer’s busy, sure, but not busy enough to not go after every potential church in the world and desecrate it to prevent a gate from ever being opened.”
Sam nodded, still staring at the table. Then he said, “Can you and Cas put together instructions? For how to protect the churches?”
Crowley nodded. “Probably.”
“Do that. Then go the library and scan it into my computer. Please.”
Crowley narrowed his eyes, but obligingly went into the living room to consult with Castiel. Sam abandoned his coffee in the sink and went to find Bobby.
He was out in the yard, apparently walking aimlessly among the cars. At Sam’s questioning look, he said gruffly, “Nice to have legs that work again.”
“Yeah. I get that. Um, how active is your hunter network?”
Bobby snorted. “As it ever has been, I suppose. Particularly given the way things have been going lately. A lot more people looking to join the fold, to be honest.”
“Any of them have connections abroad?”
“Might be some. Old friends of Ash’s, maybe. Why?”
“We can’t get to all the churches in time. We need help.”
Bobby gave him a hard look. “We gonna tell them the truth about Lucifer?”
Sam shrugged. “Not unless you think it’ll help. But I mean, as far as I understand it, the protections Cas knows basically prevent any blood from being shed profanely within the bounds of the church. So it’s something hunters would want to know anyway. Why not just tell them that?”
“Fair enough. I’ll see what I can do.”
“And just…if Lucifer shows up, tell them just to run. We’ll lose the church, but not them.”
Bobby nodded, and Sam made to head inside. Then he stopped. “Did you see that?”
Bobby pulled a gun from his belt automatically, but he shook his head. “What’d it look like?”
Sam twisted up his mouth in a perplexed frown. “Dunno. It was probably nothing. Just…shadows.”
“I’ll go inside with you.”
Eyes scanning the yard, they made their way to the door. Nothing appeared.
Motherfucker, Dean was starving.
Unfortunately, he still wasn’t sure whether his bowels were up for much more than applesauce. Christ, as soon as he could manage it he was going to the nearest diner, wings be damned, and scarfing down at least three double bacon cheeseburgers. His stomach made an unhappy gurgling noise, which he steadfastly tried to ignore.
He was ignoring a lot of things at this point, as it happened. Like how he probably sort of looked like Two-Face, at this point. Though actually, out of all of him his face was mostly all right, which he was sort of relieved about. The rest of him, though…yeah.
Gingerly, he lifted his head and managed to get his right arm into his line of sight.
His skin was growing back gray, mottled like polished marble, and tinged black where it creased and stretched. His veins looked normal beneath the skin, but it was like he’d gotten dipped into a black and white film, and it’d decided to stick. It was unsettling at the very least.
The same was happening to his amputated finger, he was sure. He’d felt the stitches stretch and snap some time in the night, and hadn’t that just been all kinds of horrifying. And now the finger was growing back, but coming back…Horseman-ish. Dean really hoped after this he didn’t get anything else important seriously injured. He was just racking up the freak points.
Michael hadn’t visited him since he’d healed him. He’d had more than enough opportunities—Dean was passed out on the panic room cot more hours of the day than not. But he never showed, and instead Dean had his usual nightmares that left him shaky and sore and unenlightened.
Fucking archangels. Dean kept picking at their conversation, mulling over ways he could have argued better, defended the human races’ right to live with more conviction, and gotten more than just an “I’ll try” promise from Michael. There were a thousand things he could have said better. He’d always been crap at words.
He exhaled into his dingy pillow. He was lying on his side now, wings akimbo over one side of the cot, the injured one tucked close along his side, over his equally injured arm. The fan overhead creaked.
He opened his eyes, and saw black slacks and scuffed loafers. “Cas. How’re you doing?”
“Better than you, it seems.”
Dean huffed. “We’ll see about that.”
The slacks moved, and he made an abortive attempt to make room, but a hand on his knee stilled him. Castiel eased himself onto the foot of the cot, one leg stiffly outstretched in a way that was clearly practiced, and not at all natural.
Dean raised his head, ignoring the shouting of various tendons. “Seriously, Cas. Are you okay?”
Castiel looked at him. “I have endured worse, if you remember.”
“Yeah, but then you had your Dad to make you all better.”
He raised an eyebrow. “That wasn’t the time I was referring to.”
…Oh. Dean winced. “I don’t actually remember that one, then.”
“Mm. It’s probably best that you don’t.”
“I would have gone back for you,” Dean blurted out. “If I’d known what—“
“You were half unmade,” Castiel commented wryly. “I think you’re excused.”
“No, that’s—“ He stopped, and made a frustrated gesture with his good hand. “Cas. I would have gone back.”
Castiel studied him for a moment, and then nodded. “Thank you, Dean.”
Dean felt something ease in his chest. At least with Cas he could rely on getting more than his words understood. And he’d needed to say that, he realized with some measure of discomfort. It was just because Cas had done just it for him so many times—gone back for him when he shouldn’t have. He deserved to know that Dean would do the same. That was all.
“What’d he do to you?” he asked, more quietly.
Castiel looked away. “He reminded me how far I’ve fallen. That’s all.”
Dean nodded, but was startled by the directionless rage that coiled through him. He shut his eyes against it, and fought to push it back down. Castiel shifted next to him.
And then went unnaturally still.
“There is something here.”
That got his attention. He reopened his eyes and struggled to push himself upright, swinging his legs off the cot despite their painful protestations. “What is it?” he asked.
Castiel was standing now, and his sword was in his hands. “Something that can penetrate all of the wards this room has to offer, which limits the possibilities significantly.”
“Angels? Do you think Zachariah—“
“It is not one of my brethren. This is…different.”
“A little more specificity would be appreciated, Cas.” But Dean was already catching something, out of the corner of his eye. Castiel was still casting long sweeping gazes over the room, but Dean turned his head just slightly and stopped.
There was definitely something there. He could see it and not see it all at once, like his eyes weren’t built to see them, but somewhere between them and his brain an image formed anyway. But it wasn’t his imagination, and it wasn’t a hallucination. Something was there.
Something like shadows and rusted gears and teeth.
Something that made his blood sing.
Every joint trembling, Dean pushed himself to his feet.
“We should get to the others—“ Castiel started, but Dean held up one blackened hand.
“Wait,” he said. And he extended his hand forward. Under his breath, barely a whisper, he said, “Come here.”
There was only one of them. This time.
It grew in his mind’s eye, emerging from the infinitesimal borders where light became shadow, pulling itself into being from between dimensions it seemed, spindly in some places and muscular in others, sliding in and out of his comprehension. If he’d been a Horseman, a real one, he would have seen it clearly, but his eyes couldn’t, the neurons firing couldn’t capture the signal in its completeness. It loped into half-existence, tawny and fluid and extrasensory.
A wild and panicky part of him thought of when he’d been small, maybe eight or nine, and Dad had bought him a copy of The Thirteen Clocks, and he’d read it cover to cover and been terrified that the Todal would come for him. Even as a boy who knew monsters were real, but also knew that you could salt and burn them, that formless thing that walked like rabbits screaming and gleeped had struck him in an awful and nameless way.
Now he wondered if Thurber had been trying to describe what was now shuffling its way towards him.
It did smell like long unopened rooms, and there was something rubbery about its stride, as it set an arm—a leg?—towards him. It was tall as him at points, as long in others, it was a man, a horse, a phoenix, and none of those things at all.
Dean thought if he tried seeing with something other than his eyes he could maybe understand hooves and feathers and metal, shifting in plates and ripples. But it probably wasn’t any of those things either.
The thing extended, and snuffled at his hand. He shivered.
“Dean.” Castiel’s voice had taken on a strange tone, one Dean hadn’t heard before. Not fear precisely, because Dean was pretty sure Cas was incapable of feeling that, but…caution.
“Can you see it, Cas?” he asked, hushed.
“I can now,” Castiel said slowly. “And I am somewhat surprised that you have not been summarily reduced to insanity.”
“...You can probably see it better than I can, then. I’m…seeing it in pieces, I think.”
“That is…quite interesting.”
“Go and get the others,” Dean said. “I think…if I show it who my friends are, it won’t hurt us.”
Castiel nodded, and walked with labored steps to the door, skirting it widely as he did so.
Dean kept his hand extended, barely daring to blink, watching the tips of his fingers tremble as sour breath passed warmly over them, as if it was tasting him, testing him. He seemed to satisfy though, at least on some level, because it settled, the sounds surrounding it stilling, scaly panels of what could be armor, or a face, steadying.
“The rest of you are coming soon, I imagine?” Dean said to it.
Another snort that sounded like it issued from a throat made of copper and moss. He took that as assent.
Several sets of footsteps sounded on the stairs. And then Castiel stepped through the door.
“I don’t see anything,” Bobby said.
“You should be glad about that,” Crowley said. His usually smooth tone was unsteady.
“It is likely that you won’t be able to,” Castiel said. “Sam? Can you see?”
“Jesus Christ,” Sam whispered, blinking rapidly. “It’s like…like Lovecraft. Non-Euclidean geometry.”
“These are my comrades,” Dean said carefully, still looking and not looking at the it.
He thought he saw it paw at the ground like a horse, a horned head appearing to bob in acknowledgment before drifting out of his understanding again.
“It wants instructions,” Castiel said. He was at Dean’s side now, watchful of the thing before them, but standing solidly.
“What sort of instructions?” Dean asked, turning his head without breaking his gaze.
“I imagine it will want to report back to its garrison to relay the news of its general,” the angel answered quietly. “If you wish them to stay their hand until we have opened the gate, then you should express that.”
Castiel looked at him, eyes boring into the side of his face. “I think you know.”
“Sometimes,” Sam said haltingly. “Sometimes it helps to visualize. At least, it helped for me, before…yeah.”
Dean flicked a glance at him, and then he nodded. “Okay,” he said. “Okay.”
And then he squared his shoulders, and thought.
The shifting thing listened, or maybe it absorbed. Dean wasn’t saying anything, though his lips moved just slightly, but Sam could see the thing undulate and stretch and ruffle impossible feathers. He thought pointlessly that Revelations could have been right, in its way, because sure, there could have been sulfur breathing and lion heads in there somewhere, but that was sort of like describing the ocean as a single clump of plankton. There was just more, all of it impossible, but still filling up space and dimension in an ever shifting slide of existence and non-existence.
Sam had seen a lot of scary shit in his life, a lot of it in the last couple of years, but nothing was quite as viscerally pants-wetting as watching his brother extend a hand to something his mind couldn’t even properly process. And to have it respond, almost clutch at Dean in something akin to deference.
Sam wondered if Dean would notice how its tendrils of shadow and sound curled in open curiosity, eyes opening and dissipating along its flanks. And how it colored pleased when Dean’s narrowed eyes flashed in concentration.
They all stood in silence, a haunted tableau around it, until Dean took a slow breath, and stepped back.
“Okay,” he said quietly.
And then the thing unraveled, its pieces and places falling out of understanding, back into the edges of Sam’s vision, and then away altogether.
Crowley said, “Next time you plan on doing anything with one of those, don’t call me.”
He stomped upstairs.
Sam and Dean looked at each other, and shrugged. Castiel said, “Gabriel should probably be informed of this development.”
“Oh, believe me,” Gabriel said. “I’m informed.”
Dean raised an eyebrow. Gabriel was standing in the doorway of the panic room, leaned into the doorjamb, arms crossed. He looked…well, unhappy would be an understatement.
“You just get here?” Sam asked.
“Yeah. Right about when Dean started giving out orders on a cosmic scale.” He leveled a glance at Dean. “You didn’t just tell that one soldier to go back home and await further instruction. You told all 200 million of them. Congratulations, kid, you just took up John’s sword. And as a side effect, the whole world knows about it.”
“John’s sword. Wasn’t that something we needed to find?” Sam frowned.
Gabriel nodded. “Uh huh. Reach behind you, Dean-o.”
Dean cocked his head, and then raised one arm back over his shoulder. His eyes widened.
He brought it forward again, and a short, blunt sword came away in his hands, as if drawn from its sheath. “What the hell?” he said.
“And now, we gotta go,” Gabriel said, mock-brightly. “Because I’m pretty sure Zachariah’s gonna be coming down on our heads with Raphael in tow in about two minutes, max. Chop chop!”
“Motherfucker,” Dean said.
Sam agreed, and broke for the stairs.
The light descended like a hurricane.
“I thought you said Heaven wasn’t gonna touch this!” Dean shouted, as he grabbed his duffle and filled it with as many supplies from Bobby’s arsenal he could fit.
“Probably. Probably wasn’t going to touch it,” Gabriel said. His eyes were out of focus, roaming ceaselessly, until he blinked. “Found us a safe house. We should be good if we leave in the next thirty seconds.”
“Right. Go, and I’ll follow you. Cas, take Bobby. Sam, you’re with me.”
“Are you fit to fly?” Sam demanded, hefting his own bag up.
“Yeah, good point. Okay, Crowley, you take him. I’ll get the car, those fuckers aren’t touching my baby.”
“Seriously, Dean, seriously?”
“Shut up and get going!” Dean slammed out the front door as the rest winked away, and ran to the Impala. “All right baby, come along with me,” he said, pressing his hands against the doors.
The light was getting brighter, and thunderous, the ground shaking underfoot. Fuck, his wing hurt like a bitch, but he gritted his teeth and flexed it back anyway, reaching for the path Gabriel was trailing through the ether, and locking in.
He felt the more and more familiar catch and pull, and with his hands firmly affixed to the Impala, he dove as the lightning touched down.
The Impala shrieked protest as she landed, creaking on her axles as Dean let go and stumbled back. His legs promptly gave out, and he came down hard on his ass.
“Graceful,” Gabriel commented. “Though I’m impressed the car’s in one piece. Now get the hell inside.”
“What’s inside?” Dean said dimly. His wings hurt. Scratch that. Everything hurt. He was pretty sure he pulled something, or maybe several somethings.
Gabriel made an impatient noise. “Sam, your brother’s overdone it again! Come over here and haul his ass in the house. I need to cloak his damn car so it doesn’t paint a giant x-marks-the-spot on this place.”
Sam ran from somewhere around Dean’s right. “You’re an idiot,” he said, wrapping an arm under his brother’s arms and wings and hoisting him to his feet.
Dean cursed and stumbled, but managed to mostly support his own weight. “So I’ve been told. Where are we?”
“Montana, near the Canadian border. Apparently it’s an old Blackfoot site. Gabriel’s communing with his inner Coyote to get this place as invisible as possible.”
“Nice,” Dean said. He managed a look around.
They were out on the flats, which seemed awfully exposed, but the fields of tall grass stretched into miles of emptiness before ending just where the Impala sat, dissolving to dirt before rising into a massive outcropping of cliffs and rocky passes. The house itself was flush to a cliff face, its peeling white paint blending into the white and gray of the layered sedimentary stone. Adjusting his grip on Sam’s shoulder, Dean followed him inside, barely managing to tuck his wings into the doorframe in time.
The house was old and had clearly been abandoned for some time, but it was clean enough, and the furniture smelled more like dust than mold. Castiel was already drawing a series of sigils in chalk along the walls while Crowley prowled like an unhappy cat.
Sam pulled out a chair in the kitchen and Dean plonked himself down in it, wings draping onto the floor. Bobby was already sitting across from him, looking severely displeased.
“My house is gone, isn’t it,” he said, tossing back whisky straight from the bottle. Dean wondered whether he actually managed to fit the Jack in with his guns, or whether Gabriel had to conjure some to keep him happy. He managed an exhausted quirk of his lips.
“We get through the Apocalypse alive, and I’ll build you another,” Gabriel said absently as he came back in the house, picking up his own piece of chalk and starting from the other end of the house.
“I’ll hold you to that,” Bobby grumbled.
“Is there a phone in here we can use?” Sam said. “I can’t get a signal on my cell out here.”
Gabriel snapped his fingers. “You have a signal now. Wifi too—I assume you’ll need your computer.”
“Thanks. I hope you’ve got some of those numbers memorized,” Sam said to Bobby as he headed out of the kitchen.
“Boy, who do you think I am?” Bobby demanded. He pulled a battered leather-bound notebook out of his jacket. “I have the whole list of ‘em right here.”
Sam smiled slightly. “You’re awesome.”
Dean threw a questioning look at Castiel, who said, “Phone tree. We need as many people as possible warding all of the potential gateway churches.”
“Gotcha. What can I do?”
Gabriel glared at him. “Sit tight, and get your energy back. You’re going to need all of it, now that your soldiers have started coming out of the woodwork. Or did you forget that you’re now our fearless leader?” He tinted the last phrase with a truly heinous Russian accent. Dean glared disbelievingly.
“Rocky and Bullwinkle? Really?”
“Don’t knock the classics, Natasha.”
In the other room, Bobby began a slow gruff murmur into the phone that would become constant in the coming days. Castiel stood, and offered Dean his hand. “You should sleep. There is a bedroom upstairs that should accommodate your wingspan.”
Feeling kind of like a girl but altogether too sore and exhausted to care, Dean grabbed his hand and hauled himself to his feet, letting go as soon as he was able only to have Castiel sling his arm over his shoulders and bear some of his weight. “Thanks, man,” he said, as they made their way up the stairs.
“You’re welcome. I imagine Michael will want to talk to you.”
“He can get through Gabriel’s wards?”
Castiel made a soft noise through his nose. “He is the most powerful of all of us. More powerful than Gabriel. It will not be a hardship for him, particularly when you have become such a beacon.”
“That’s…not precisely comforting.”
“Isn’t it? You’ve been waiting for him to call again.”
Dean grimaced as Castiel let him down onto the edge of the bed. “Sure. But we still don’t have him on our side.”
Castiel stepped back and regarded him. “You’ll get through to him. You were able to change my mind, weren’t you?”
Dean quirked a smile at him. “Yeah. But you’re way cooler than him.”
Castiel returned a fraction of the expression, and left the room, closing the door softly behind him. Dean eased himself onto his side, letting his wings flop down over the bed and make trails in the dust. He didn’t much feel like sleeping now, given that it wouldn’t be oblivion, it would likely be Michael instead. But it hit him like a freight train anyway.
He thought fuzzily as he drifted off that he really couldn’t afford to be dematerialized again. Recovery time was a bitch and a half.
Sam was speaking haltingly into his cell when Gabriel emerged from the foyer, chalk dust trailing from his hands. “Gimme that,” he demanded.
Sam looked at him and frowned. “Un moment,” he said into the phone, and then handed it over.
Gabriel rolled his eyes and took the cell, and immediately launched into fluid French, gesturing wildly. Several minutes later, he handed it back. “Your accent’s atrocious,” he said.
Sam glared at him. “Thanks. Do you want to do the rest of the international calls?”
“Get Castiel to do it. I’ve still got a few blood sacrifices to make before this place is fully secure.”
It’s Sam’s turn to roll his eyes, but he called to Cas anyway and put a phone in his hand. “Call these numbers. When they ask who you’re calling on behalf of, say Bobby, and if they don’t believe you, get him on the line.”
Gravely, Castiel nodded, and began dialing. Sam ran a hand through his hair, and started up his email. He found the file Crowley sent him from the library, and started pasting it into a mass message.
Castiel’s low voice shifted seamlessly from French to German to Swahili to Czech, becoming a drone in Sam’s mind.
Hours passed, and then the phone calls started.
Bobby pulled out the one atlas he’d managed to salvage in their run out the door. And started marking off churches.
Checkmark for secured, and X for…well.
There were a lot of X’s.
Sam made coffee. Crowley promptly took over when he found out Sam was using a filter, and conjured up a proper espresso pot.
Amid the murmur of conversation and ring tones, Dean slept.
“Dude, don’t you ever move out of this parking lot?”
Michael frowned. “I simply wanted to choose a neutral ground. This is from your memories—Chicago 1995, I believe.”
“Huh.” Dean didn’t remember it, or apparently he did, but not enough to recall the circumstances around it. He shrugged, wings, following the movement in the whispered shuffle of feathers and claws. “So what can I do for you?”
“Do you know what the sword you’ve acquired means?” Michael countered.
“Kinda. I need it to build the gate.”
Michael shook his head. “Death has given you a foreshortened summation of the process and project you’re embarking on. John’s sword is a symbol of command, and an instrument of righteousness.” He met Dean’s eyes, his expression carefully closed off. “It used to be mine.”
“This—“ Dean choked on the words in disbelief; he reached back and drew forward, the sword materializing in his hand, “This is yours? This is your sword?”
“Was,” Michael corrected, looking at it with something akin to nostalgia. “It was mine.”
“I thought I was your sword. That your vessel was—“
“You are one half of the sword,” Michael said gently. “The authority of Heaven made flesh. But authority needs symbols of its command, instruments with which to wield its power. And what you hold in your hand is it.”
“Christ,” Dean said reflexively, and then, “Uh. Sorry.”
Michael merely gazed at him.
Dean said, “Do you…do you want it back?”
Michael laughed. “I couldn’t take it from you even if I tried. Death could, perhaps, but clearly he doesn’t want to. And you’re growing stronger by the day. By the time this campaign comes to a head, no matter who remains in the lead, you or Heaven or Hell, no one will be able to claim it but you.”
“I guess that’s…good?” Dean hazarded.
“That depends entirely on what you do with it,” Michael said, and all humor was gone from his face as if it never had been there. “What will you do with it, Dean?”
Dean blinked. “Save the world,” he tried.
Michael’s lips curved. “Oh. Is that all?”
“Dunno. Got any further suggestions?”
“None that you would approve of.”
Dean was about to say something blasphemous and rude, but he stopped himself. “Why the hell are you people so bent on Paradise, anyway?” he demanded. “Is having an Earth and shit so hard, when you don’t even have to live on it?”
Michael’s eyes looked like shards of smoked glass in the lamplight. They narrowed, and then blinked as he turned slowly, and began to walk along the line of cars. Dean watched him, and waited.
“Earth means very little to me,” Michael said eventually, gaze roaming among the trucks and sedans. “It is my estranged cousin, a beautiful creation not meant for me except to love and admire at a distance. Since we have ceased to be called to its surface, it’s become one of many snow globes on the shelf of the cosmos.”
Then he turned and looked back at Dean. “But ever since the day the war for Heaven ended, the day that I wept at my Father’s feet after casting my brother, the kin that I loved best, into the darkness, I was assured that this trinket of Creation was to be the ground on which I would see Lucifer again. That I would see him, and I would kill him.”
He looked away, far into the distance.
“…And then I would be able to finish grieving.”
Dean closed his eyes for a long moment. “That’s what this is?” he said lowly. “That’s why you’re rooting for Paradise? Just to come to terms with the fact that your brother decided to be an evil son of a bitch?”
“Don’t you dare speak of him again like that,” Michael growled quietly, but it’s dangerous the way Dean had never seen him before. “Horseman or not, I will cut you apart.”
Dean held up his hands. “Isn’t he, though? Why else would you cast him down in the first place?”
“I cast him down because I was commanded too,” the archangel snapped. “But if I kill him I will end his misery and my own. And if Paradise is required for that release, then I will accept that. Would you not do the same for Sam?”
Dean swallowed, and felt like he’d been punched in the solar plexus. “I don’t know,” he said quietly.
Michael stepped forward, movements suddenly unpracticed, like he’d stepped into a new body that didn’t fit him. “You’d send your brother into eternal darkness for this world?” he said, eyes trained on Dean like a sniper.
Dean met his gaze. “I think that he would ask me to.”
“You said yourself that love is when you do what you think is right for someone, even if they don’t agree.”
He winced. He had no answer for that, or at least not one that wouldn’t make him a filthy hypocrite.
Michael studied him for a long moment, and then drew back.
Something low and hard and cold settled in his stomach. He felt like throwing up. Bile in his throat, he said, too desperately for his liking, “Could the sword kill Lucifer?”
The archangel paused. “In my hands, yes. In yours…I don’t know.”
Dean exhaled, and ran a hand down his face. “Look,” he said, “I could try. I mean, I’ve got no problem with that—I’d prefer that to locking him back up, even. I could promise that I’ll try to kill him. But if I can’t…then how could he ever be?”
Michael looked down, a small hard-edged smile playing at his lips. “And thus you see Zachariah’s reasoning for the use of force,” he murmured.
Dean bit back an acidic reply. “Look, you’ve got no choice, now,” he said. “Either he lays waste to your Father’s creation, or we send him back into the Pit. There’s no third option any more. So help us save lives, even if we can’t end his.”
“That is how you would buy my allegiance?” he raised an eyebrow.
“I don’t want to buy anything,” Dean said wearily. “I just want your help to try to save something. Because the alternative is…well, it really fucking sucks.”
Michael took an even longer time to look at Dean this time, reminding Dean of so many moments of Castiel’s head-tilting doubt and confusion, except for how there’d been some kind of understanding in that gesture even at the worst of times, but here Michael was just fathomless and still, utterly closed to Dean.
Feeling helpless and stupid, he started, “Michael—“
“I will expect you to keep that promise,” Michael said, cutting him off.
Dean barely restrained himself from saying, “Huh?”
Instead he blinked hard and said, “I will. I’ll try.”
Michael looked out at the parking lot. It was drizzling now; the water was cold against Dean’s skin even though he knew it was all in his head. He shoved his hands in his pockets.
The archangel said into the rain, “It’s been a very long time since I’ve defended anything.”
Dean glanced at him. “I don’t know much, but from what I know about football, offense is pretty pointless without it.”
The corner of his mouth turned up, but the expression was bitter. “You speak truly, Dean Winchester.” He turned away. “I’ll find you.”
The street lamps went out around him. And then Dean drifted in darkness.
Castiel drew several lines in quick succession across the map, each one as straight as if he’d pulled out a ruler and protractor. “This is the only one even close to done,” he said. “And there are still three desecrated churches in its articulation.”
“So basically we’re screwed,” Sam said flatly.
Castiel tilted his head back and forth. “Possibly.”
“Well, that’s just…wait, did you say ‘possibly’?”
“You wanna elaborate on that?” Bobby growled.
“It will take some doing, and no doubt a great deal of help from Gabriel, but there is the possibility of simply…building the churches we need.”
Bobby and Sam stared at him. Castiel was unperturbed.
“You want to build holy sites?” Sam echoed.
“We would need to take the items of significance necessary from the desecrated grounds and purge them of their taint, and then build the grounds closely enough to the original space to facilitate the gate’s angles,” Castiel said, circling each of the desecrated churches. “We would need to be within .33 degrees of accuracy.”
“Is it possible?” Bobby asked.
“Yes, so long as Lucifer doesn’t know about it. Which he likely wouldn’t. He sees this particular threat as eliminated at the moment.”
The three of them turned to look at Gabriel, who looked down at the map grimly. “Yes?” Castiel said.
“I can’t do three. I don’t have the juice for it.”
“I could help—“ Castiel began.
Gabriel shook his head. “You forget. They must be built and then blessed. To make that solid enough is enormously complex. And I,” he took a breath, “I haven’t done something like that in a while.”
“Shit,” Sam muttered.
There was a series of heavy clunks on the stairs, and then Dean came stumbling into view, rubbing his eyes. “What’d I miss?” he said, limping to a chair.
“How we’re up shit creek without a paddle,” Bobby summarized.
Dean blinked, and stretched his wings, making Crowley grumble and move out of the way. “Um. Why?”
Sam explained. Dean’s eyes narrowed.
“So we need more power?” he said, when Sam was done.
“More divine power,” Gabriel corrected, “So you’re out, kiddo.”
“Yeah, no,” Dean murmured. He looked at Castiel, who raised an eyebrow. It was as good a time as any. After a pause, he said slowly, “Would another archangel help?”
Sam visibly tensed. Crowley and Bobby both looked skeptical but interested. Cas was smiling very slightly. And Gabriel…Gabriel looked shrunken. He looked at Dean with something akin to dread.
Sam said, “What're you talking about, Dean?”
“What else?” Gabriel said harshly, not taking his eyes away from Dean. “It’s Michael. He fixed you after Lucifer, didn’t he?”
Dean met his eyes and nodded.
“Tell me you didn’t say yes to him, Dean,” Sam said, and Dean rolled his eyes.
“Dude. What part of being an unholy abomination don’t you understand? I couldn’t even if I wanted to.”
“What made him agree?” Castiel asked mildly, but his eyes were trained on Gabriel.
“I told him I’d try to kill Lucifer,” Dean answered, shrugging.
Gabriel threw up his hands. “How?” he demanded. “With John’s Sword? That thing is a symbol of authority, it’s not some sort of key to the kingdom—“
“I know,” Dean interrupted. “So he told me. But the guy’s tired, okay? He’s got limited options. I offered to try to do this, with no guarantees that it’d work. So he said he’d come and find us and help. Hopefully he’ll be here soon.”
Gabriel was just shaking his head, his eyes down turned. “I need to go,” he said quietly, but there was a low burn of danger under the words. “Call me if you need me.”
“But—“ Sam started, but the archangel was gone.
“What crawled up his ass and died?” Bobby said, after moment of silence.
“Skeletons in the family closet?” Crowley suggested, looking visibly more comfortable now that Gabriel was gone. “There are an awful lot of them, you must admit.”
Sam looked at Dean. “How long have you been talking to Michael?” he said. His voice was strangely tight.
Dean grimaced. “I already told you about him, Sammy. He’s been chasing me ever since we met him in the seventies.”
“And you only decided to tell us that you’ve been wooing him to our side now?” Sam glared. “That he healed you after Marrakech?”
“Dude, did you just say ‘woo’?”
“I wasn’t sure it would work,” Dean said, deflating. “I was talking to him, sure, and he wasn’t trying to get me to be his meat suit after the ring, but he’sMichael. The ultimate good son, you know? I didn’t think it’d actually work. And I wasn’t going to get anyone’s hopes up.”
Sam sighed, but didn’t comment. Castiel said, “You are certain he will help us now?”
“Not happily,” Dean admitted, “But something tells me that the dude hasn’t been happy in a long while.”
“What is he going to do for a vessel?” Sam asked.
“Dunno. He said he’d try to figure something out. So I guess we’ll just have to wait.”
“If St. Michael himself is going to be joining us, I’m going to need scotch,” Crowley said. “A lot of scotch.”
“Don’t worry,” Dean said brightly. “I won’t let him smite you unless you piss me off.”
Crowley sneered, and left the room.
Unfortunately, it seemed that Michael was having difficulties finding a suitable way of descending to earth, because a day passed, and then two, and he didn’t appear.
And in the intervening period, Gabriel didn’t show his face.
Also, Dean’s flock of fellow abominations started showing up around the property again.
“Aren’t they, like, gonna give our location away?” Dean asked, as he extended a wing up to one that momentarily looked a bit like a giraffe only…spikier.
And more gelatinous. Ugh.
“Doubtful,” Castiel said. “They only appear when they choose to, and so far that has only been in order to pay their respects to you. Though if you wish them to exert more caution, I’m sure they would do so.”
The giraffe was now scalier looking. And had way too many eyes. Something like a tongue lolled, and left a gob of sickly-colored saliva on the tip of one of Dean’s spines. Grimacing, he folded the wing back, flicking it delicately to send the slime to the ground.
“I guess they know what they’re doing. They’re an army, after all. So they’re used to being stealthy, right?”
“No one has seen them in all of their existence,” Castiel deadpanned. “I think we can assume that safely, yes.”
“Okay. I think I’m gonna ask them to do a perimeter. Just in case Zachariah manages to find us or something.”
“Do what you think is best.”
Dean concentrated, and after a moment the giraffe thing made an awful sort of screechy noise that Dean’s Horseman brain translated into obeisance. This whole hybridity thing just never stopped being unsettling.
Giraffe-thing curled its long neck, which became a ribbon that fluttered away into nothingness, leaving only a disembodied cat’s eye that blinked slowly before disappearing too.
“Between that and Gabriel’s mojo, I think we’ve got ourselves a fortress,” Dean said, trying his best to banish the damn eldritch abomination from his brain. Trying to keep an image like that in your head for too long was just asking for a trip to the asylum.
Castiel nodded, and didn’t argue.
Dean looked out over the plains with a contemplative eye. He was feeling stronger now, nearly back to normal, and his wings itched. He said, “How big’s the radius of Gabriel’s wards, anyway?”
Castiel studied the horizon, and said, “Roughly two miles in every direction. Why?”
“Just wondering,” Dean said. “I’ll catch you later.”
He walked back to the house.
There were some old foldout stairs on the second floor ceiling, which he liberated from their panel before hoisting himself up into the attic.
He couldn’t really believe he was going to do this. But it wasn’t like they had anything to lose, and he’d waited long enough. He sat in the dust and the moldering boxes of forgotten belongings and looked up at the crossbeams, and beyond that.
There was a skylight in the attic, the only source of light up there other than a bare light bulb in the corner that had long since blown out. Dean went to it, and found that while the latch was rusted over, the whole thing would winch up and out fairly easily. He forced the latch, rust flakes scattering over his arms and the floor, and then pushed the window open. It gave fully with a groan.
Wings tucked close, he lifted himself up onto the roof.
The sky was clear, and the house, though sheltered, was enough of a landmark to not go unmissed, even from afar. And above.
“Right,” he muttered. “Okay.”
Trying desperately not to think of things like stupidity and suicide, he took two sprinting steps and jumped.
His arms went out with the wings, some evidence of his brain still trying to cope with new sets of signals and body parts. But while his arms just flung out, he could feel the hard strain and flex of flight, wind whipping up around him. The ground was coming up, not fast though, and if he just beat down twice more, three times—
He would have shouted if he’d had air enough in his lungs. Hard flaps brought him back to the roofline, wings sore almost immediately with effort, constrained more than they should be with his t-shirt and the bandages over his side and arm, but still working, cutting through the air evenly, pressing down and slicing upward like knife strokes, and okay, planes were terrifying, but this…he grinned suddenly.
This brought him a savage kind of joy.
The world can’t end. This is too much fun.
He reached the rocky pass. Curved along it, pulling the wings—his wings, these are his—into tight arches, pulling himself sideways to brush rough granite and patches of grass, adjusting the secondaries to pull higher, sooty feathers catching the sunlight and keeping it, burning with the muscles that he urged to work harder, faster.
Montana spread beneath him, all pale fields and gray stone, all insignificant, glowing as the sun set.
He stayed in the air as long as he could.
It wasn’t long—the wings were too new for that, too untrained and still sore from Lucifer’s work over. He felt shivers of strain in the tendons and heat in the muscles, and tried to let the wind do as much work as it could for him. But it was nice to just breathe, deeply.
He felt a mastery he hadn’t experienced since his first time out in the Impala by himself, shifting the gears at just the right moment to make her purr, pushing more and receiving it in a galvanizing new way. For the very first time, the wings didn’t feel like an omen, a portent. They felt like another part of what he fought for.
As he rode a warm gust across grasslands, doing his best to keep within the safe radius, he realized that the spines in his wings were reaching, spreading from the sheaves of feathers, and that something settled in him, something unfamiliar but warm. He wanted to fight.
He wanted war.
As soon as he thought it, he faltered. Dropped a few feet in the air before he regained his bearings and then began a slow drift down, back towards the house, his heart already on the ground.
He wound across a thermal and down past the roof to land heavily next to the house, stumbling over pebbles while he flapped to keep his balance.
Sam was running up before he even managed to catch his breath.
“Holy shit dude, that looked…” he broke off, just looked at Dean like he was seeing him with new eyes.
“Pretty awesome, huh?” Dean said, still slightly gasping, suddenly exhausted in a way he hadn’t been in a while, which was refreshing but at the same time just another layer of exhaustion. His voice sounded hollow even to him.
“Yeah,” Sam breathed. “That was some real superhero shit.”
Dean managed a crooked grin, and said, “I’m telling you. I’m totally Batman.”
Sam rolled his eyes, but was quick to steady him as he tried to straighten and wobbled. Castiel was walking up as they made their way back to the porch.
“That was rather foolish, Dean,” he said, a bit severely. “Without proper knowledge, you could have aggravated your injuries further.”
“It was fine, Cas,” Dean said. “Besides, I’ve never seen you actually take wing. Do you even know how to do the whole normal flight thing?”
“Normal being relative here,” Sam muttered.
“My wings are wings for a reason, Dean,” Castiel replied. “Are you all right?”
“Just tired, man.” And then a thought occurred to him. He asked slowly, “How did you guys feel, while I was up there?”
“How do you mean?”
“I dunno. Just…no anger? No wanting to kill each other?”
“I felt okay,” Sam said, after a long second, clearly thinking back over the past hour. “Not really more angry or anything, but maybe…focused? Does that make sense?”
“Warlike,” Castiel agreed. He looked at Dean. “The ring is no longer here, though. Did something change while you were in the air?”
“Something like that, yeah,” Dean said. “I think…it’s like I agreed with it? With being War?”
“Accepted your form,” Castiel nodded. “That could be a good thing. It may afford you greater control over the army, and over others, if you so choose.”
Dean tried to ignore the trepidation that had only increased since his revelation in the air. “Good, then. I’m starving.”
Sam snorted. “Bobby made chili.”
They ate quietly in the house, the sun setting and leaving the night cold. Sam tried not to notice how Dean’s wings seemed firmer now, more a part of him. He had watched his older brother go into the house, his wings flaring out as he walked before tucking back at the last minute to graze the doorjamb. Dean was getting graceful with them. It was more disturbing than anything else.
Crowley sullenly refused chili, and silently drank single malt like a fish.
As they were doing the dishes in the rusty sink and checking the inventory of the cupboards, a knock sounded on the door. Everyone froze.
Dean shot Sam a look, and he nodded in understanding, dropping a plate into the sink and picking up Ruby’s knife as he goes. Bobby grabbed his shotgun and went over to the stairs to get a good sightline. Castiel and Dean followed Sam to the door, staying just out of sight.
Sam puts one hand on the doorknob and the other at his back, blade in a defensive grip. “Who’s there?” he said loudly into the door.
“I’m looking for Dean Winchester.”
Dean let out a breath. He knew that voice; would know it anywhere now. “Open the door, Sam,” he said.
Sam looked over his shoulder at him, and Dean’s face must have given more than enough for him to work with, because his eyes widened. He pulled open the door.
The girl stood in the doorway of the house, still wearing the trim corporate suit and impossible stilettos. She looked utterly out of place.
And also terrifying.
“Hello, Sam,” she said. “Dean. You’ve accumulated a larger team since last we spoke.”
“Well, you know,” Dean said, his throat dry. “We’re trying to follow through.”
“May I come in?”
Wordlessly, Sam stepped back, and Death walked in. Her shoes made dull, hollow sounds on the old wooden floors.
“We had a deal, Dean,” she said, her voice neutral. “The rings. I have seen Pestilence since Sam's encounter with him in Portland, so I know you’ve acquired the set.”
Sam froze. “Um.”
Death looked at him, and suddenly that dark and sonorous buzz was in the air, still quiet, but thrumming and awful. “Is there a problem?” she asked, voice dropping.
Dean threw a very concerned look at his brother. “Dude? What is it?”
“We had to scram from Bobby’s when the archangels came,” Sam said weakly. “There wasn’t time.”
Dean swore fervently under his breath, feeling his chest go tight. Shit. Shit.
They didn’t have a choice.
You didn’t lie to Death.
Oh god, this was not how he wanted to go out.
He took a breath.
“The angels probably have them,” he said to Death, and god, he could feel himself cringing, recoiling every part of himself, and he could see that everyone else was too, one way or another. He forced the words out. No choice at all. “They were both in Bobby’s safe, ready to go, but we were chased out of the house by Zachariah and Raphael.”
Death surveyed him. The buzz grew louder. But she didn’t move. “That is…inconvenient.”
Dean managed a choked, “…Yeah.”
Death turned her head to the side very slightly, as if listening to a faint sound. She blinked slowly. “They are no longer in the safe, though I see you did have them there for a time,” she said. “You say angels took them?”
“They were the ones storming my house,” Bobby grunted from the living room, but even his voice shook, just slightly. Dean couldn’t blame him. “So I’d assume so.”
The buzz…subsided. Death flicked a glance at him, and then nodded. “Heaven is not my realm,” she said. And then she looked straight at Dean, and what little dread he’d dared to let lift settled back down firmly in his stomach. “It only becomes so under…extenuating circumstances.”
“What sort of circumstances?” Sam said warily.
Death blinked, pretty blonde eyelashes flickering over indifferent silver eyes. She said, “The last time I was allowed there was when Lucifer rebelled. I was there, because he brought War to Heaven.”
Dean stared at her. “Well, shit.”
“You can’t be serious,” Sam said.
“Deadly,” Death said, with faint amusement. “Heaven is a place of apparent eternity, and thus normally I am barred from it. The only reason for Death to ever enter is if there is war. Pestilence and Famine have no sway there. After all, War is the only Horseman that is ever purposefully summoned and chosen as an act.”
“So you want me to go to Heaven with you?” Dean asked. “Something tells me that’s not exactly an easy place to get into.”
“That depends on who you are,” Death replied. “And your reasons for being there.”
“You want to start a war in Heaven,” Sam said faintly. “You’re insane.”
Death snorted, and it was such a dainty noise that it completely took Dean off his guard. “Hardly,” she said. “We need merely to incite a diversion. Preferably from the outside heading inwards so that we may enter on a technicality.”
“You need someone to declare war on Heaven,” Castiel said.
Death’s smile was thin-lipped and shark-like. “Just a little bit.”
Dean looked over at Castiel, who had an odd, calm expression on his face, a very subtle deviation from his usual impassivity, but a significant one. He raised an eyebrow, and the angel looked back at him and mirrored the expression. Then he looked back at Death. “We can arrange that,” Castiel said.
Sam looked at him askance. “We can?”
Castiel nodded. “If Dean can incite rebellion in Michael himself, he can incite it upon the Grigori. They’ll be the first within the gate, and with myself as template, it shouldn’t take long.”
“I’ve never actually done that before, Cas,” Dean objected, but he was already moving, checking the sword at his back and grabbing his hand gun from the kitchen.
“And you’d never transported yourself across the globe until less than a week ago,” Castiel answered. “Your adaptive powers have always been your best advantage.”
“This is insanity,” Sam observed, a little blankly. Bobby grunted resigned agreement.
Dean pointed at them. “Start building the churches. We’ll be back as soon as we can.”
“Michael’s still not here yet, so as far as I’m concerned, Gabe’s got nothing to bitch about except his personal manpain. Call him, or something.”
Sam shook his head, but he pulled out his phone. “Be fucking careful, okay Dean?” he said.
“Sure thing, Sammy,” Dean stood in front of Death, meeting her gray eyes. “Toodles.”
Castiel came to stand beside them both, and said, “Follow me.”
Sam sat down very heavily. “We just declared war on Heaven,” he said faintly.
Crowley shrugged. “’Sbeen done before.”
Sam glared. “And it ended so well for everyone.”
“Just shut up.” Sam finished dialing on his cell, and waited. “Hi. We need you to start building the churches. I don’t know, he’s not here yet. Dean says he will. Look could you just--? Yeah, whatever. Fuck you. Of course I will, whatever I can…yeah, about that, we’ll tell you about it when you get here.”
“So I’m here. Tell me. Where the hell are Dean and Castiel?”
Sam looked up at the newly materialized archangel. He took a breath. “They’ve gone to incite war in Heaven so that Death can get the Horsemen’s rings back from Zachariah and Raphael.”
Gabriel stared at him. “You didn’t think to take that shit with you before we scrammed? What are you, an idiot?”
“So I’ve been telling him for some time,” Bobby grumbled.
“We didn’t have time,” Sam muttered. “And why are you not freaking out about the rest of that sentence?”
“You could have told me!”
“You couldn’t have gotten them out of the safe—that thing was secured to within an inch of its life!”
“Great. Awesome. Hey, how’d Azrael look?”
Sam looked askance at him. “Um. He’s wearing a pretty blonde, I guess?”
“Are you seriously perving on Death?”
“We go back,” Gabriel said dismissively. “Now do you want me building churches or not?”
The first thing Dean was aware of was wet. It seeped into the lacing of his boots and up the cuffs of his jeans. He wrinkled his nose. “Where are we?”
“Just outside the gates,” Castiel said. “As far as I can take us without alerting Heaven.”
Dean looked down. An endless expanse of shallow, warm water flowed just over his ankles, mist curling above it and tinting the sky blue-gray. The water was mirror-flat, stretching into infinity, reflecting the drift of what could be clouds, or just marbled nothingness.
It was vast and complete in a way that made Dean, in his shattered and hybrid state, feel intensely out of place. “I don’t see a gate,” he said.
“That’s because you don’t belong here,” Castiel said, uninflected.
“Thanks,” Dean said bitterly.
Castiel looked at him, and then amended, “Yet.”
Well, that was comforting. Death seemed not to notice how the water was slowly staining her pumps. “The Grigori are just out of your perception, Dean, just beyond the gate. You’re going to have to trust that they’re there.”
“Yeah? And then what? I like how no one’s actually explaining what I have to do here.”
Castiel took him carefully by the shoulder, circumnavigating his wings effortlessly, like he was used to doing such things which, Dean supposed, he was. “Dean,” he said eyes boring into his. “I have killed my brethren in your name.”
Dean couldn’t suppress a wince at that. But Castiel pressed on, “You know that in mind, but you can also smell it on me now. Look for it.”
That was true too. It had been a while since Castiel had last raised his sword in violence to the other angels, but Dean sensed it around him, lingering around his fine-boned hands and around his eyes, eyes that no matter Jimmy’s years remained ancient and cold. Castiel smelled of dark winter nights and gun smoke, with a pepper spice of righteous anger around him. Dean’s Horseman-sense drank it in like an elixir.
“What do I do with it?” Dean said, a bit hoarsely. He still forgot this part of Castiel sometimes, the part that used to make him lock up with the same animal fear the one gets from looking down into an abyss.
“Project it. Let it settle around you. You were doing it unconsciously with the ring, but perhaps echoing that gesture you used with it may help.”
Dean felt kind of foolish, but sobered when he looked down at the hand that used to be mutilated, but was now instead, mutated. The finger Death had lopped off had returned sickly and gray, the nail dark. Dean almost didn’t like touching it, but he did now, rubbing at the base of it with his thumb. It felt normal; normal enough that he could pretend it was his finger, and not some new amalgamation of him, if he looked away. He closed his eyes.
The water rippled around his ankles, like the surface beneath it had shifted. Dean could taste spice on the mist, invading it. He pulled his wings back, sending it eddying outward along the plane of the water, rolling in whorls that no longer seemed peaceful and blank, instead recalling the dank sourness of hot summer graveyards.
Dean swallowed down the visceral, automatic fear that he knew were his own hunter instincts, reacting against himself. Goddammit.
Somewhere indefinably close and yet far-sounding, a rumble of trumpet blasts rolled against his eardrums. He felt Castiel shift closer, muffling the sound. He had a feeling that otherwise, his ears might rupture.
“It’s working,” Death said, exuding a pocket of unrelenting chill next to him that the mist wouldn’t touch. “The gate will open soon. And you will have to run.”
“You will go in alone?” Castiel asked, tilting his head.
Death granted him a small smile. “We’ve met a few times before. I am familiar with the fact that it is not your time yet. Nor Dean’s, despite your…forcing the issue.”
Dean opened his eyes cautiously, and realized that he could see something beyond the mist now, a shadow of bars and stone, and beyond it, fathomless light.
Within that light, the flash of swords.
“Return to Earth,” Death said, and Dean realized that she was crumpling, dissolving as metal bars gave way, and that in her place the low buzz of her was rising above the cacophonous trumpet calls. “I will retrieve what is mine.”
“Wait,” Dean said, stepping forward. A dark, muscular part of him had him grasping at her filmy wrist, wanting to follow, or better, to lead.
Death always followed War. That is the way of things.
She shook off his hand with a smile.
“Come, Dean,” Castiel said, and before Dean could protest, placed a hand on his forehead, and pressed.
They reappeared in the kitchen of the Montana safe house. Dean flapped a bit to regain his balance. “Dude, you didn’t have to do that,” he snapped. “Now I’m gonna be constipated for forever.”
Castiel raised an eyebrow. “Were you going to leave otherwise?”
“What’re you—of course I…shit.”
Castiel made a neutral noise in his throat and stepped back. Dean looked around.
“You’re alive,” Bobby said dryly from the living room. He was sitting on the couch, surrounded by maps as usual. “Congrats.”
“Yeah, well, Death is doing the hard part, I guess,” Dean said, walking over to join him. “It was kind of anticlimactic? Where’s the church building team?”
“Northern Canada. Nunavut territories,” Crowley supplied, coming in to join them with a glass of something that looked sinful and alcoholic poured over ice. “I’d offer to help,” he added, “But we’re fairly certain that that may defeat the purpose.”
“I should join them,” Castiel said. He glanced at one of the maps strewn out in front of Bobby, and then looked back at Dean. “Gabriel will need as much power as he can spare. If he runs low, I shall transport all of us back.”
Dean nodded. “Stay safe.”
He earned a small smile before the angel disappeared into the ether. He looked over at Crowley. “D’you think…” he said, then paused. “D’you think I can still bless holy water?”
Crowley snorted softly. “Doubtful. You’re not from Hell, but you’re certainly not one of God’s creatures any longer.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Bobby said gruffly. “You’re doing God’s work while he’s busy doing fuck all. Doesn’t matter at all.”
Dean managed a small smile, but didn’t say anything. Instead, he went to the fridge and pulled out a beer before heading to the porch.
The grasslands looked endless from the house, almost as infinite as the pools outside of Heaven’s gates. But it felt a hell of a lot more like home.
The invasive cold of tundra greeted Castiel as he touched down and looked out on the small church at the edge of town. His shoes crunched on gravel and icy grass.
Gabriel must have put a shield up, because Sam stood at his back with a shotgun blatantly gripped in his hands, looking warily around as he worked. He spotted Castiel and jerked his head in greeting.
“You’re back from Heaven. That was fast,” he said. “Is Dean okay?”
“Dean is fine, he is back at the house. Death only needed an in,” Castiel said readily. “The rest he could take care of himself.”
“Good. That’s good.”
Castiel looked over Sam’s shoulder, where a small structure stood in the shadow of the church, peaked roof unmistakable despite its diminutive stature. “You should let me hold the shield, Gabriel,” he said to the structure. “You’ll exhaust yourself otherwise.”
A flash of bright light emanated from the structure’s entrance way, and then Gabriel stepped out, looking worn. He eyed Castiel. “Yeah, all right,” he allowed, which was more an admission than he would have liked. His gold-rimmed eyes dimmed for a moment, and then brightened as Castiel took on the load.
The lesser angel gritted his teeth against the strain, feeling it weigh on his waning grace, but holding it steady. Sam watched him.
“How long can you keep that up?” he asked with concern.
“Long enough to finish this, at least,” Castiel said. Then he considered. “I think I’ll sit, though.”
Sam nodded, and chose not to note the oddity that was the three of them—Gabriel working away within the miniature house of worship, him standing guard with a shotgun full of rock salt, and Castiel sitting, sweating quietly, at his feet.
The air was cold and getting colder. Sam breathed it in sharply, and listened to the low muffled voice of the archangel at his back, the low thrum of his true voice grating at the base of his spine, lingering against the wind.
Dean was halfway through his second beer when he froze, the lip of the bottle still at his mouth. He set the beer down silently, flexing his wings to bare the spines. There was a long beat, in which he felt the hair on his neck rise, and his feathers bristle.
The sound of ten thousand wing beats whispered at the floorboards.
Finally, Dean thought.
“Dean Winchester. In the flesh.”
He exhaled, and tasted the sharp tang of Heaven on the air. He turned. And cocked his head.
“You’re…that’s not my dad, is it?”
It was hard to tell. Harder still, through the rough crackle of energy that seemed to hover around Michael, like he was at the center of a lightning storm. He was spilling power out of the edges of what looked still like a young John Winchester, but it wasn’t John, not quite. He was shorter, slimmer, with a squared off jaw and longer hair tied back with black string. His skin seemed ghostly pale, which only emphasized the hard energy of him. Dean refused to take the step back every instinct was yelling at him to take.
But more than that, he looked bizarre. He looked…he was dressed like a historical reenact-er only…dirtier. And, Dean realized with growing alarm, more authentic.
“No,” the archangel said. He raised a hand slightly to study it. “This is your great-great-great-great-uncle, twice removed. I found him living a dissolute life in Eisenach in 1789. He was to die unknown and childless within two months. I requested that he help us for the sake of the brother he abandoned, and the future generations that brother would help to sire. He agreed.”
Dean opened his mouth, and closed it. Then he said, “You found a dead relative of mine to do your dirty work? Why didn’t you do that in the first place?”
Michael flexed slightly, like the body he was wearing chafed. “I was meant to kill Lucifer using you. Just as Lucifer was meant to die using Sam. Without that…nothing is complete.”
“You and your prophecies,” Dean grumbled. Then he pursed his lips. “I’m glad you’re here, anyway. And, you know…thanks.”
Michael didn’t smile. “I haven’t done anything yet,” he said. And then the crackle of electricity rose, and Dean realized that the last time he'd seen an angel overflow like this, it was when he and Cas'd trapped Raphael in holy fire. What he was seeing spilling out around the archangel was slow burning anger.
“I should like to know what you were doing earlier today. It is not often that I return to the present time stream to hear the screams of my brothers in incitement to battle.”
Dean pulled his wings forward defensively. “Sorry. It should die down now that I’m not there. But some of your buddies took something that didn’t belong to them, so we needed to get it back.”
The archangel studied him, and Dean just knew he was picking him apart, stripping bare all the stuff he wasn’t saying, and there was jack shit he could do about it.
“You do realize there will be consequences for that, don’t you?” Michael growled finally. “Angels may die. At least one will, or the gate would never have been opened. Azrael has gotten more than what he said he wanted from you, Dean. I would tread carefully when you see him next. And you will see him again.”
Dean swallowed. “Good to know?”
The electrical signal abated, pulled back into Michael with slow crackles and zings of current. He breathed like he needed to, and said, “You are too ignorant for the power you carry. We are going to have to fix that.”
Dean bristled. “Yeah, well, we’re gonna have to fix what you’re wearing. What are those, stockings? Christ, the 1780s were weird.”
Michael looked down, and then gave Dean a perfunctory once-over. Then he nodded.
“Is this more suitable?”
Dean shook his head slightly to clear it. Now Michael was wearing…exactly what Dean was wearing. Huh. It looked odd with the hair, and made Dean’s however-many-greats uncle look even slighter and more wan. But it worked. “Why can’t Cas do that?” he demanded, after a pause.
“Castiel is not an archangel,” Michael said simply.
“Right. Yeah,” Dean said, stepping back. “I guess…you’d better come in, and see what we’re doing. We’re gonna need your help, probably immediately.”
“I have no doubt,” Michael murmured.
But he followed Dean inside.
Two introductions and one near smiting later, they were on their way.
Crowley was a bastard, but Dean was really glad he wasn’t toast. They left him gulping single malt whiskey like it was water as Dean lead the way to the coordinates with Michael following (and silently fuming) in his stead.
It took them a couple tries to find where Sam, Gabriel and Cas had gotten to, but eventually they landed in the right place, only to have Sam nearly jump out of his skin and Gabriel freeze in his tracks.
The archangel said the name like fire and like a prayer, three syllables—Mi-khy-ael. When Sam looked over at him, his expression was inscrutable.
“Brother,” Michael acknowledged. “It has been some time.”
They stood at the back of an old Protestant church in the heart of Suriname, which was encroached upon by rainforest that buzzed with life. The church itself was roped off with police tape, though the body of the vicar had long been removed by town authorities.
Gabriel was halfway through constructing an altar that glowed with effort and deep-carved Enochian, but he abandoned it now, his hands falling to his sides. Dean tried not to notice how they were shaking.
Sam was gobsmacked, looking between Dean and Michael with wide eyes. Dean met his gaze and shrugged. It wasn’t like they hadn’t been expecting him.
For all intents and purposes, though, he and Sam might have been in a different planet. Gabriel straightened, all humor gone from his face.
“You’ve descended,” he said flatly.
“I see I wasn’t the first,” Michael countered.
“Hmm,” Gabriel acknowledged, and then with something alarmingly like bottled rage, added, “Come to roll in the muck with me?”
“I’ve heard that it’s…somewhat underrated,” Michael said, and for the first time, Dean heard genuine discomfort in his voice. He held the frame of Lucas Wynchestre (that was his name, apparently—Dean had asked) stiffly, his hands closing into fists briefly before reopening them. He said, into Gabriel’s waiting silence, “I thought you were dead.”
Gabriel looked down, and said, “I wanted to be.”
Dean looked away, and knew Sam was doing the same. They weren’t supposed to see this. They’d had this kind of talk before. Dean jerked his head at Sam, who fell into step with him. “Let’s do a perimeter,” he muttered. Then he looked back over his shoulder. “Cas? You wanna come with us?”
He stood carefully, so as not to alarm his brethren. And then, as he brushed past Gabriel, he said quietly, “He listened when it counted. As you did, I recall.”
Gabriel flinched. Michael watched the angel briefly as he walked away, before turning back. Castiel joined Sam and Dean, the latter of whom gave him a small smile. They receded into the jungle with Dean’s dark wings tucked protectively around them.
“Your protections on this place are too heavy for him to bear,” Michael said eventually.
“He was the only one who would,” Gabriel snapped. “It was that or the demon.”
“Yes, I met Crowley earlier today. He is…an aberration.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t vaporize him on the spot.”
“Dean informed me that that would be disadvantageous.”
Gabriel snorted. He didn’t look up as Michael stepped closer.
“Brother,” Michael said carefully, “Why did you leave us?”
“Because I was tired of being the peacekeeper,” Gabriel snarled. “Every one of us, tearing each other down, or asking me to do it for them because I’m the Messenger. It’s like we never got passed the fourth grade, passing notes back and forth, and I had to read them all, I had to bear every word like how I felt the Morningstar fall.”
Michael’s eyes narrowed. “His fall was felt by everyone.”
“Of course it was. And you’d think we’d learn. But no, we just kept going. Kept hurting each other. We’re worse than man. At least there was some regret amongst them when they dropped the atomic bomb. We just call it fate and keep on rolling.”
“You think I have no regrets?” Michael said quietly.
“You don’t know how,” Gabriel said, with a pained smile. “How can you have regrets when everything is destiny?”
Michael sucked in a breath. And then he said, very slowly, “I don’t regret doing my duty as a son. But I regret not always knowing the difference between duty and blind obedience.”
Gabriel pursed his lips. “Winchester really got to you, didn’t he?”
“He offered very convincing arguments.”
He huffed, and then looked over at the church. “I need to finish this.”
He felt a hand fall heavily on his shoulder, and looked back. Lucas Wynchestre should have been too slight and too sickly to hold the gravitas of an archangel but Michael made his dark features solemn and still. “You’re tired, and have been far from the Host,” he said. “I can help you.”
“These damned humans are running me ragged,” Gabriel complained, running a shaky hand through his hair. “Like I’m some kind of miracle worker or something.”
“You used to be. Maybe they just know you better than you think.”
“I hope not.”
Michael pulled away far enough to look him in the eye. “I regret not looking for you when there was word that you were gone.”
“I’m glad you didn’t,” Gabriel muttered. “It would have been a lot harder to hide then.”
But then Michael was pulling him forward, and he fell silent as his elder brother cupped his head between his hands and kissed his brow. “I’m sorry we drove you away.”
Gabriel shrugged, more with his head than his shoulders. “I’m sorry divine plan has run amok. I tried to make it work, but humans, especially these humans, are stubborn bastards.”
“I’ve become aware of that, yes,” Michael said dryly. And then he sobered. “You are keeping secrets from them.”
“I have my reasons.”
“I am here to aid Dean Winchester, not you.”
Michael’s grip on him tightened. “Don’t split my allegiances again. I won’t allow it.”
Gabriel sighed and looked away. “You won’t have to. Hopefully.”
“Are you girls done with your reunion?” Dean demanded, crashing through the trees, Castiel and Sam in tow. “Or are we gonna have to get you a couples therapist?”
“Shut your cakehole, Winchester,” Gabriel retorted over his shoulder. “Or I’ll do it for you, and believe me, duct tape’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to my creativity.”
“You’ve been down here too long,” Michael observed.
“Can we finish this thing now?” Sam asked. “It’s like, a billion degrees here.”
“Certainly,” Michael said, though he eyed Sam with faint mistrust. “Castiel, the wards, please. They’re wearing on you.”
“Yes, General,” Castiel murmured, and his eyes slid out of focus for a moment, before he took a deep breath and seemed to relax slightly. Michael barely blinked as the power transferred.
“’General’?” Dean murmured.
“That is his rank, Dean,” Castiel answered.
“Won’t be for long if he sticks with us,” Sam said.
“Tell me,” Bobby said, shuffling papers and then shoving them off to the side in favor of his beer. “What’s the point of that, if you’re never gonna get drunk?”
Crowley raised an eyebrow. “Oh, I will. Eventually. It just might take a while. And believe me, I’m making the effort.”
“Man up. He only threatened you with holy fire twice.”
“You try manning up when you’re getting threatened with millennia of suffering by someone that far above your pay grade,” Crowley growled.
“Oh Jesus Christ,” Bobby said, pulling in on himself. Crowley allowed himself a far more esoteric string of blasphemies.
Death looked at them both, and said, “You have nothing to fear from me. The rings are in my possession now, and thus the terms of my deal with Dean Winchester are met. However, I have a favor to ask of you, Crowley.”
Crowley’s knuckles were white around the crystal glass in his hand. Bobby wondered if he’s going to shatter it. “What’s in it for me?” the demon asked.
Death raised one finely-tweezed eyebrow. Crowley said, “Fuck,” under his breath. And then, “Right. What?”
“I would like you to keep this safe.” And from the breast pocket of her blazer she withdrew a small charm that Bobby couldn’t quite see, obscured as it was by her hand. Directly after it she pulled out a handkerchief and wrapped whatever it was into a bundle. Crowley watched her, hawklike.
“Are you sure?” he said, finally.
Death smiled. “Absolutely. You’ll protect it?”
“I don’t see why you can’t.”
“I can. But I shouldn’t. Do this for me, Crowley, and you’ll have my favor.”
The demon nodded, and then with a rush of static, Death was gone.
“The hell was that?” Bobby demanded.
Crowley was staring at the bundle in his hands, not unwrapping it, but holding it delicately. “Not sure,” he said slowly. “But I’m not about to argue.”
“I’m guessing Death’s favor is worth a lot?”
Crowley smiled thinly. “It’s a free pass, Robert. I get offed—and she sends me back. Just once, but…valuable, in this sort of circumstance, don’t you think?”
“Christ. You’re practically becoming a Winchester.”
The demon glared at him. “Please don’t insult me.”
Bobby snorted. Then he said, nodding to the bundle, “What is that?”
“I don’t know,” Crowley said.
Bobby narrowed his eyes. It was a bold-faced lie.
They’re in Durham in the north of England when things started to go to shit. Dean had his collar turned up against a faint misting of rain, wings pulled up around him as he stood flush to one of the spires near the cathedral’s west towers. He watched the city, people milling along the roads, some with umbrellas against the rain, most ignoring it.
Gabriel had described the process of building proper holy structures as “building a cathedral like this one with nothing but slabs of stone and a toothpick”. So Dean was guessing it was hard work.
The two archangels were tunneled down beneath the cathedral, the only place where people wouldn’t notice and they’d still be off of desecrated earth. Occasionally a spark of something powerful and ancient crackled outwards from them like the spitting of a Tesla coil around the outside of the cathedral, and Dean really hoped no one noticed it. Castiel was doing his best to shield them, but it was a strain Michael had had to pass back to him after they’d finished in Suriname, and now the lower angel was radiating discomfort as he sat propped up against the wall of the tower. Every once in a while Dean looked back at him and saw how his skin had gone gaunt and pale, and the shadow of his wings would flicker in and out of sight. Their outlines looked crooked and ragged-edged.
Sam was prowling at the back of the cathedral, keeping watch with his cell phone out, ready to make a call.
It had been too easy since Michael arrived.
Dean inhaled, and then stopped breathing altogether.
He opened his cell and pressed speed dial.
“Dean? What is it?”
“Sammy. Anyone on your side of things just standing around, looking up at the church?”
“Anyone walking towards it real quick?”
“No…wait. Yeah, a couple. Looks like they’re trying to get out of the rain. Dean, what is it?”
Dean stared down at the figures down below him, three, then five of them, walking briskly but not hurriedly. They looked ordinary—a university student, a mother, a professor maybe. But Dean knew that smell, remembered it from Castiel, and even Gabriel and Michael.
And he knew that sharp tang above it even better, sticking to his palate.
“Banishing sigil. Do it now Sam, I’m coming for you.”
He heard a fervently muttered, “Shit,” as he snapped the phone shut and whirled around to look at Cas, who’s dropped the shield and was now standing at his back.
“Angels?” he inquired, eyes blazing.
“At least seven. Probably more. Might as well drop the shield now, since they found us.”
“They’re here for Michael.”
“No doubt. Go help them finish. Sam and I’ll hold them off.”
“I can do it, Cas.” Because dammit, he knew he could at this point, knew it the way Crowley skirted him with caution and Michael regarded him. And he was so goddamn tired of being pushed around.
“I know,” Castiel replied. He touched Dean’s shoulder lightly, and said, “Take these. Give one to Sam.”
He withdrew from his coat two of the angelic blades he’d begun collecting. Dean nodded, and took wing.
When he rematerialized, it was to a blaze of light as Sam slammed his palm into the bloody sigil on the cathedral door, three angels sprinting towards him, mere feet away and then gone in the blast. Passersby shrieked.
“There are more around the front, come on!” Dean said urgently, grabbing Sam by the shoulder. “Take this!”
Sam gripped the blade and braced himself as Dean pulled them both forwards.
They materialized on the front steps, and Sam made a strangled noise and ran his blade through an angel that was roughly two inches from his face. It cried out before blazing out of existence.
And then everything was in chaos.
“Give us the betrayer, abomination!” one of the angels snarled, and Dean ran it through with his wing, impaling it enough to pin and then strike with the sword. It died in fire, but he was already turning on another, one wide sweep to sever another in half.
He whirled away from that in time for his wing to block the impact of angelic steel with one claw, and strike a blow in the solar plexus. It still felt like punching an I-beam, but the angel flinched this time, and Dean’s hand didn’t give.
That was more than enough encouragement.
He grabbed her wrist and twisted hard, slamming the joint against the stone entrance with a crunch. The sword clattered to the ground but the angel used her free hand to throw him down the steps before breaking for the door.
Dean scrambled back up the steps, ignoring the twinge in his left wing, and snatched the sword, throwing it in a thin line at the retreating target. It spun and clattered, missing her by inches as she ran with inhuman speed down the center aisle, past the pews and downwards towards the steps at the back by the altar.
“Go get her, I got this!” Sam shouted from behind him; Dean spared a look and saw that yeah, Sam was in control—the last angel he was up against wasn’t expecting a deadly opponent, and Sam wasn’t as strong, but he was fast. Dean nodded and took flight.
The angel beat him to the punch. But it didn’t matter.
Dean’s vision cleared as he landed in the subterranean chapel, lit with candles and scrawled every inch of the way with Enochian. He felt the script in his bones—he’d never gone inside one of the fully protected places before.
The angel was standing in front of Michael and Gabriel.
Michael was ablaze.
“Israfel,” he said. The slight frame that held him seemed to flicker, like he was struggling to keep it from bursting at the seams.
“You have betrayed Heaven, General,” Israfel answered, eyes defiant. “You betray our Father.”
Michael stepped forward, and caught Dean’s eye. He blinked slowly, and said, “Return to your brother. We shall finish here.”
Dean wasn’t about to argue with that. Israfel flashed him a look of hatred, and as he took wing once more, he caught one soft phrase from Michael:
“When did obeisance to Zachariah begin to take precedence over our Father’s will, Israfel?”
And then he was outside the cathedral again.
There were police cars everywhere.
Ignoring several shouts of alarm, he did a quick scan, and spotted Sam about to be loaded into a squad car.
Two jumps later, and they were stumbling across dry grass in front of the Montana safe house instead.
“Nice timing,” Sam said. “But I think we’re not going to be welcome in England any longer.”
“I’ll add it to the list of places we’ve been banned from,” Dean replied, bracing his hands on his thighs, wings dragging on the ground.
Crowley surveyed them from the porch. “Run into trouble?” he remarked.
“Of the angelic dickhead variety, yeah,” Sam said.
The demon nodded. “Death stopped by. She has the rings, so you’re off the hook, Winchester.”
“Oh good,” Dean said.
There was a commotion of wing beats, and then the three angels were beside them. Dean raised an eyebrow.
“Everything go okay?”
Michael looked tired, and just headed into the house without a word. Gabriel sighed.
“Been a while since he’s had to fry one of his own. Brings back some not so great memories.”
“Are you guys all right now?” Sam asked.
Gabriel made an indistinct movement with his head, and changed the subject. “So, word from upstairs is that the Grigori are in the midst of an uprising. That’s what alerted the rest of the Host to Michael’s absence. I expect we’re going to be seeing a lot of falling stars in the near future.”
“They’re going to fall?” Dean asked, incredulous.
“You gave them my feelings of rebellion and doubt, and then urged them towards conflict,” Castiel said gravely. “They may find greater solace in the fall.”
Dean could feel his face tighten. “Why’d you let me do it, then?”
Castiel raised an eyebrow. “Better that my brethren know doubt and fall in revolt against complacence, than die in a battle they enter blindly.”
“The Fall isn’t death, anyway,” Gabriel said, though he looked more uncomfortable with it than Castiel. “It’s human life.”
“Yeah, up until they start getting reception from angel radio,” Dean muttered.
“Come on,” Sam said tiredly. “Let’s go inside. We need to figure out how to open the gate we just made.”
Sam watched from the couch as their expanded group of allies arrayed themselves around the living room. They were hardly comrades—Michael stood off by himself, Gabriel standing close to him but apart. Crowley oddly gravitated towards Bobby, who was sitting on the couch with Sam, while Dean and Castiel stood by the stairs. Dean’s wings were folded tightly, but Castiel was just close enough to brush one with his shoulder, the massive claw of it catching on the cuff of his trenchcoat. Dean didn’t seem to mind.
“So according to the seven holy points we’ve managed to secure, we’re gonna have a slight issue with actually getting to the crypt,” Bobby said. He jabbed a finger at the map on the coffee table. “Because this is where it’s gonna open.”
“Well shit,” Sam said blankly.
“Precisely,” Bobby agreed.
“That won’t be a problem,” Michael said.
They all turned to him. He blinked slowly. “You intend to use Death’s army to drive Lucifer back into the Pit, do you not? They will go wherever they are bidden, regardless of terrain.”
“Yeah, except don’t we have to be there too?” Dean asked, raising an eyebrow.
“I’m fairly certain you can fly, Dean Winchester.”
“Yeah, and Bobby and I can’t,” Sam interjected, annoyed.
“Don’t worry, we’ll keep you busy too,” Gabriel said with a humorless smirk.
Michael stepped forward, his gait narrow and fluid. “The gate is only one half of this story,” he said. “You have also to contend with the demons who serve Lucifer, and the beasts that he conjures in his wake.”
“Cheery,” Dean commented.
Michael glared at him. “Your levity is not helpful. There is still much to be done, especially since we are going against the prophecies, rather than with them.”
“So we’ve got the gate and the monsters,” Bobby summarized. “Who’s gotta be where?”
“That is going to depend, I’m afraid,” the archangel answered, “On Lucifer.”
“His move now?” Sam said.
Michael nodded. “I should like to speak to him.”
“We’ll give him a call and arrange a meeting,” Gabriel snorted.
“I’m aware that the actual act will not be easy,” Michael said coolly, “I was simply stating a wish.”
Dean took a second to appreciate the fact that Michael apparently did have wishes—had had them for a long time. He thought of Cas, whose only wish (until Dean) had been for obedience. “Until then,” he said, “I’m guessing we’ve gotta get ourselves ready for whatever Lucifer’s gonna try?”
“Four of the seven trumpets have been sounded,” Castiel said. “Leaving us with three possibilities on that front.”
“Two,” Michael corrected. He looked gravely at Dean. “The sixth of the seven has been…hijacked, as it were.”
“What, me?” Dean said.
“Death’s army, Dean,” Sam said quietly. “Revelations 9:17.”
“Okay, so only two possibilities. That’s pretty good odds for guessing, am I right?”
“Neither possibility is particularly appealing,” Gabriel replied. “We’ve got a choice between the rising of Abaddon and…” Then he stopped.
“And what?” Sam asked. A copy of the Bible was already open on his lap, and he glanced at it perfunctorily. “There’s an angel that’s supposed to come down and announce, what, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the reign of Christ or something.”
“Yeah,” Gabriel said, scratching the back of his neck.
“Normally,” Michael said sardonically, “That would be Gabriel’s job.”
Silence met this pronouncement. Gabriel belatedly became aware that all eyes were on him. “I’m not gonna do it, obviously,” he said irritably. “Who do you think I am?”
“I think you’re the dude ordained by God to announce the destruction of everything,” Dean said.
“Yeah, well, I sort of gave my two weeks notice for that gig a couple of millennia ago, so relax.”
“So we’ve only got Abaddon to worry about, then?”
“As if that ain’t enough,” Bobby observed.
“Hardly,” Castiel said. “There will be plague upon the earth, and the rise of the two dragons, both of whom will have to be slain before one is given the chance to slay the other.”
“So that it can become an idol,” Sam said, nodding.
“And then, of course, we have the rest of the Host to contend with,” Michael finished. His expression was unreadable. “I suppose we can be glad for the fall of the Grigori, from that perspective.”
Sam, Dean realized, was making a list. And then at Michael’s words, began frowning at it. “What is it, Sammy?” he said eventually.
Sam grimaced as attention shifted to him. “I don’t…give me a second, I need to look something up.”
“Buddy, you don’t need to look anything up,” Gabriel said. “We’ve been alive since the beginning of time. Or almost, rather. We’re a hell of a lot better than Wikipedia.”
Sam made an indistinct gesture with his head that spoke of indecision and angst. Dean raised an eyebrow. “Just ask them, dude,” he said. “Anything you got is worth hearing.”
Sam looked up at him in surprise that melted into a worried sort of courage. Then he looked at Michael. “Our biggest resources at this point,” he said tentatively, “Are basically you guys, and Dean’s army.”
“And Dean,” Gabriel added. “He’s getting more useful by the day.”
“Thanks,” Dean said dryly.
“Other than death and mayhem, what can the army do?” Sam asked.
Michael blinked. “I don’t know.”
“Wow,” Gabriel said, “Did you take what I just told you as a challenge, or something?”
Sam tutted impatiently. “No, just…we have a lot to do, and the army is our largest advantage. We’re gonna need them to multitask.”
“That’s gonna take a hell of a lot of control on Dean’s part,” Gabriel said. “He’s the one who’s gotta keep them all in line.”
Sam looked at his brother, and said carefully, “He can do it.”
Dean sucked in a breath, and when he spoke his voice came out rough. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, Sammy. But what’re you actually thinking?”
“I’m thinking that without bringing in the cavalry, we can probably take on the dragons, and that’s about it.”
Michael grunted reluctant agreement. “We were never meant to fight them. It would be a struggle for so few angels to take them on, even archangels.”
Sam nodded. “Beyond that, Abaddon’s coming, so we’ll need the army for that. We also need the army for the plagues. And on top of that, you want a meeting with Lucifer. The army might be two hundred million strong, but three jobs at once? That’s spreading things pretty thin. But see, last time someone wanted to talk to us, they left us a calling card.”
“Death killed a few thousand people,” Dean said, raising an eyebrow. “Don’t tell me you want to do the same?”
“No, obviously. But there are some things already dying—or, well, not precisely dying—but if we can channel where that happens…”
“A calling card from Heaven,” Gabriel finished. “You want to direct the fallen Grigori to us as we go to take on the dragons.”
“Yeah,” Sam said. “If they fall where we are, Lucifer will want to see what the hell’s going on. Meanwhile, he’ll be distracted from Abaddon, so Dean can go after him with the army.”
“And the plagues?” Bobby said, raising an eyebrow.
Sam grimaced. “We have no idea where they’ll come up, or when. They’re nothing we can plan for, so I vote we concentrate on these things first.”
Michael smiled. “You’re very good,” he said calmly. “I only suggest one minor change to your plan.”
The humans looked at him expectantly. He eyed them. “We open the crypt first.”
Dean coughed. “That’s a gate to Hell, isn’t it? What’re we risking letting out by opening it so early?”
Michael smiled. “Nothing Heaven can’t handle. And I presume we want their attention directed elsewhere, yes? This is the way to do it.”
“That sounds incredibly risky,” Sam commented. “And also a bit more Biblical than I’m comfortable committing to.”
The archangel spread his hands. “You must understand—Zachariah wants the world purged of humanity. Opening the gate could certainly lead to that. But, if Hell is the one to purge Earth, and not Heaven, then it will not take long after that for Hell on Earth to rise up and purge Heaven. Lucifer’s army cannot be underestimated, in that regard, which Zachariah knows well. And if he does not, then Raphael does.
“So you see, it is no more risky than any of the actions you and your brother have taken so far, Samuel,” he finished. “Believe me—it is my duty to measure such things.”
They absorbed it in silence, with even Gabriel looking uncharacteristically grave.
“So,” Dean said eventually, “Who wants to go swimming in the Atlantic with me?”
Dean and the three angels alighted on a steam ship making the slow crossing of the Atlantic—several hundred tons of machinery and metal and storage units drifting at a steady rate across calm waves. Dean looked out at the distant horizon line, where the sun was just beginning to drift down below its belt and send shivers of gold across the water. Other than the thrum of engines and low mutterings of the crew, it was eerily silent.
“We sure about this?” he said.
Castiel stood beside him and blinked. “It is better than any plan I have ever devised,” he said eventually. “Given the circumstances.”
Dean looked at him. “That doesn’t mean it’s a good plan.”
The angel smiled thinly. “Since when have you been a stickler for that?”
The laughter rose to his throat unexpectedly, and emerged as a harsh bark. Dean swallowed after it’s escaped, and said, “You’d tell me, though, if you thought it was a bad plan. If you thought there was something better, safer for everyone, not just us, that we could do.”
“I would,” Castiel said, with his usual gravity that always did manage to calm Dean, just a little. “Of course I would, Dean. But I’ve always considered you a better judge of that than I.”
“Yeah, well, dunno how long that’s gonna last.”
“You always underestimate yourself. It’s very irritating.”
When Dean looked over at him again, Castiel was watching him with a narrow sort of exasperation and fondness. It wasn’t a look he was really used to receiving. “Sorry,” he said, out of lack of anything else to say.
Castiel just shook his head, and whether that was dismissal or acceptance, Dean wasn’t sure. A few seconds later, though, and they heard the engine cut out, and the crew go suddenly silent. Michael and Gabriel emerged from the hold, climbing out of iron steps onto the deck.
“The crew’s been sent on vacation to Hawaii, and the ship’s been rendered stationary,” Gabriel said. “Your turn, bucko.”
“Right,” Dean said. “What’ve I got to do?”
Castiel turned to face him. “Take off your shirt.”
“Why, Cas,” he grinned. “You should’ve asked sooner, without all these people.”
Gabriel snorted. Castiel looked confused. Dean rolled his eyes and unlaced the slits at the back of his shirt before pulling it over and off, shaking his wings off in its wake. He watched Castiel draw out his sword and make a thin incision in his arm. The blood began to well immediately.
“Where’s that going?” he asked.
“On you,” Castiel answered, unaffected. “Among other things. Hold still.”
Swallowing hard, Dean obeyed. His touch diffident, Castiel began to write, long streaks of blood following the lines of Dean’s arms and torso. It felt warm and sickly against his skin, drying quickly in the sea air, growing itchy like tiny pinpricks on his nerves.
“This opens the gate?” Dean said finally.
“It grants you the power to do so,” Michael said. “The Enochian sigils are ordinance. You are being authorized to act under the authority of Heaven.”
“Considering what I am,” he said slowly, “Will that work?”
Gabriel just looked at him. “It was meant to work on the devil himself,” he said. “Moreover, it was meant to work on the Lamb.”
“And I’m one half of the Lamb, right,” Dean remembered. “Should Sam be here, then?”
“Not yet,” Michael said, expression strange and unreadable. “But eventually.”
Castiel’s expression was unreadable and closed. Dean tried not to think about that. To be honest, it was easy, with the strange slickness of blood sliding in unsettling tribal patterns across his skin, drawn hotly by the angel’s deft and clinical touch. He glanced downwards at the work being done, and sucked in a breath. “This is elaborate,” he commented.
Castiel finished a flourish along the indent of Dean’s hipbone. “We do not ordain those outside of the Host with Heaven’s power lightly,” he said. His fingers skated along Dean’s ribcage, and Dean shivered.
Then the angel stepped back.
Dean felt primal, covered in blood not his own, painted as if for battle. He could feel how his wings were stretching and flexing without his permission, imposing like a condor’s, the spines making fierce profiles against the cold metal of the ship’s deck.
“Our turn,” Gabriel said lightly, and pulled his own sword into existence. Michael did the same.
“What do I--?”
“Just stay where you are, Dean,” Castiel said, stepping back to stand flush against the entrance to the main station. “They will draw around you.”
Dean watched them do so, both archangels kneeling on the ground around him, swiping their blood-drenched fingers on rusted metal. They built concentric circles around him, runes unfamiliar, shapes powerful if unknown. Dean could feel lay lines falling across him, centering over him in ways he knew instinctively he wouldn’t have been able to see before War’s ring. They were pulled to him like static cling, following the signals of the runes and his own visceral wrongness. It disturbed and excited him both.
By the time the archangels stepped back, Dean thrummed with the energy of it; it tingled in his hands and made his blood itch in his veins. “Now what?” he managed to ask, as the wounds in Michael and Gabriel’s arms slowly closed.
“I think you probably know,” Michael said.
He hadn’t wanted to admit it. But Dean reached back and felt John’s Sword materialize in his hand, solid and warm and asking to be used. He pulled it forward, and with the hilt pointing down at the space beneath his feet, held it up above his feet.
“As soon as you feel the crypt open, scram,” Gabriel warned. “You’ll just get sucked in otherwise. This ship is about to become a black hole to the underworld.”
“Okay,” Dean said faintly, bracing himself amid the mess of bloody sigils, glancing at Castiel whose expression was one of odd pride and diffidence. “See you guys back in Montana, then.”
They all nodded, and then Dean was alone.
He looked down at the circles of blood he stood at the center of. He recognized vaguely the ancient symbols of the eye, and binding, and evil. He had a feeling that angels weren’t meant to draw these things, that they were dark in some indefinable way. He recognized that they’d drawn them anyway, because the gatekeeper was him.
He thought of the house in Montana, readying it in his mind. He pulled his wings back in preparation for flight.
He brought the sword down upon the ship deck like a killing blow, and felt the world groan.
One wingbeat, and he was back, the sword buried in six inches of Montana dirt, but he knew it worked, as much as he knew his wings could send him up into the night sky. There was a deep-set shudder in the earth that only the attuned would be able to feel, but it was there like a call to arms.
Michael watched him from the porch. “We’ll have to move fast from here,” he said. “Lucifer most certainly will know what we’re up to now.”
Dean nodded, catching his breath. “Sure thing,” he said. “Armies, dragons and devils, oh my. Let’s do it.”
He followed Michael back inside, but he could feel presence at his back, something that was becoming terrifyingly familiar.
“So, Abaddon,” Sam started from the living room. Then he did a double take at Dean. “Jesus. What did you guys do to him?”
“He is God’s ordinance now,” Castiel said, which didn’t really explain much at all.
“He looks like a blood sacrifice.”
“It’s all the rage right now, I hear,” Dean said brightly.
“Anyway,” Bobby said loudly, “How do you want to play this?”
“We do it like Sammy said,” Dean said, sobering and listening to the far off call of a trembling world. “You guys take on the dragons and get the Grigori to fall properly, I go after Abaddon.”
“I’d say ‘you and what army’ but that seems kind of redundant at this point,” Sam muttered, his gaze sliding to one side of Dean.
Dean was aware. The captain was back, soft, stale breath puffing against the back of his neck like a snuffling horse. Only, of course, wrong in every conceivable way.
The opening of the crypt hadn’t gone unnoticed, clearly.
Michael blinked. Dean had forgotten the archangel hadn’t yet seen the soldiers of Death’s army. “They like you,” Michael said, with something like curiosity.
“You noticed that too?” Gabriel said quietly. “I had thought perhaps—“
“No, it’s definitely a unique circumstance.”
“I suppose there’s a certain kinship in being unnatural.”
“Mm, I suppose.”
“You guys want to let us in on the secret?” Dean said, with a raised eyebrow. The captain shifted and brushed against his wing in a shivery ripple of impatience. Dean quelled it with a thought.
Michael looked at him and said, “Your captain is showing an affinity for your leadership that is more than I would have expected, even had Death been its commander. Gabriel was simply positing that your own hybrid state may have made it more susceptible to your authority.”
Sam narrowed his eyes. “Do I want to know the significance of that?”
“Depends,” Gabriel said grimly. “How are you feeling about God’s plan these days?”
“Pretty goddamn bitter, I’d say,” Dean said.
“Then no, you don’t.”
“Come on,” Crowley said, stepping forward. “Your Captain there’s not the only one who’s impatient.”
Sam bitchfaced at the demon, but Dean ignored it. He could feel what was happening now, the rumble of war over the Atlantic. If they had a TV in this shack, he had no doubt what they’d find on the news—storms, hurricanes, the seabed in flux.
At the center of it, a ship with a hole in it that opened into nowhere on Earth at all.
Sam’s phone rang. He jumped before fumbling it out of his pocket and answering. “Yeah?”
Dean watched as his little brother’s jaw clenched and he stood up to walk away from the group, talking quietly. “Yeah. Yeah, okay. No, you get to one of those churches and you stay there, you hear? There’s nothing you can do about that. Just get out of town, all right? Are you listening to me? Good.”
“It’s starting,” Michael said.
Sam hung up and said, “That was Joe Harvey in New Mexico. Demons have overrun a five-town area.”
“Which five towns?” Dean asked.
Sam went over to the atlas, turned to the page of the United States, and marked them off.
“That looks unsettlingly circular,” Bobby said, eyeing the markings.
Gabriel growled. “That looks unsettlingly—“
“—like the Bethlehem Pentagram,” Michael finished. “We’ve upset him.”
“Upset who?” Dean demanded.
“Lucifer,” Castiel answered flatly.
“I was unaware we hadn’t been upsetting him before,” Sam said.
“Technicalities,” Gabriel dismissed. “But what I’m most concerned about is—“
Into the sudden resounding silence, echoes dying away, Gabriel cleared his throat. “I’m going to have to revise where that sentence was going,” he said.
“The wards,” Castiel said.
Dean turned to the ever-shifting figure at his side and said a curt and unintelligible word. The thing disappeared, and reassembled within seconds.
“It’s Abaddon,” Dean said, looking like all of a sudden he wasn’t prepared for any of this. “Lucifer’s sent him straight to us.”
There was a pause, punctuated by another resounding clap of thunderous impact.
Then Gabriel spat, “Coward.”
“He must have tracked you back from the crypt, Dean,” Michael said, and already he was on the move. Sam was grabbing his stuff and throwing it in his duffle; Bobby was doing the same. Castiel had his sword in his hand, and so did Gabriel.
Dean nodded, wings drawing in and tightening into scythes at his back. “I’m going to send half of the army out with you guys,” he said. “I’ll catch up with you once this is done.”
“Wait, what? Dean,” Sam started.
Gabriel cut him off, “With the impact of Abaddon coming down on the wards, I’m not going to be able to hold them once I’m gone. We break out of here, and he’s in. You’re going to have to brace yourself.”
“Got it,” Dean said. “I’ll be fine.”
“Dean, you don’t have to do this,” Sam said sharply. “This is too soon.”
“This is soon enough,” Dean replied. He reaches behind him and then John’s Sword is gleaming in his hand. “This is your plan, remember?”
“Yeah, but I wasn’t expecting—“
“The crypt is open, Sammy. It’s time for us to rock and roll, and you have a hell of a lot more to do than I do. Go with Gabriel and Bobby and sort out the demon populace in New Mexico. Michael—“
“I will attempt to sway the fall of the Grigori,” the archangel agreed. He was gone in a wingbeat.
Sam shook his head, and then looked sidelong at Crowley. “What’re you doing?” he demanded.
“He’s finding the dragons,” Dean answered for him.
Dean shrugged. “Would you rather stay here and fight?”
The house shook, and plaster fell from the ceiling in showers of dry flakes.
“I guess that’s my cue,” Crowley answered snidely, and then he was gone too.
“I’m staying with you, Dean,” Castiel said. “You’re going to need all the help you can get.”
Dean didn’t argue. Sam was looking between all of them like he wasn’t taking it in right. Dean went to him.
“Sammy,” he growled. “You listen to me, okay? We’ll take care of this. You have people to save.”
“It won’t be worth it if you—“
“You finish that sentence, and I’ll kick your ass into next Wednesday. Don’t think I can’t, nowadays.” Dean grinned, teeth terrifyingly white against the mottled black of the skin along his throat. “Come on, dude. Man up. We’ve gotta save the world now.”
“Come on, Sam,” Gabriel said, eyes glowing gold. “I hear the weather in New Mexico is great this time of year.”
The house shuddered, and the shriek of timber made them all flinch.
Sam blinked, and then threw his arms around Dean. “You better come back alive,” he said. Then he looked up at Castiel, who was watching with unnerving calm. The angel nodded assurance at him.
Dean clapped his brother on the back, arms and wings both before letting go.
“Take care of yourself, boy,” Bobby said.
Dean said lightly, “Always do. Make sure Sammy doesn’t do anything stupid.”
Gabriel gave Dean and Castiel a grave nod, and then he was putting his hands over Sam and Bobby’s foreheads, and they were gone.
“Ready?” Dean said to Castiel.
The angel nodded.
“Then let’s head to the roof.” Dean jerked his head at the abomination who had once again materialized at his side. “Captain? With me.”
Sam staggered slightly on the landing, both at the travel and the sudden wave of desert heat. “Oh god,” he said compulsively, righting himself and still reeling at the same time. “Dean—“
“Can take care of himself,” Gabriel said sharply, though even he looked worried.
Sam looked at Bobby, who was slightly green from angel transport, but still solid and sensible. He caught Sam’s eye and said, “Your brother’s surprisingly good at getting himself out of scrapes. Now where’s this demon infestation?”
“Here,” Gabriel said grimly. He was looking out at the horizon lines in all directions, revolving slowly on his heels. “Right here. We’re at the center of a Bethlehem Pentagram.”
“What the hell is that?” Sam said.
“A big old charge up spot. Makes everyone’s mojo go haywire except for the one it’s designed for.”
Sam looked incredulously at the archangel. “And you brought us into the middle of it knowing that?”
Gabriel shrugged. “You wanted to save people. So here we are.”
“And you’re going to be useless,” Sam finished. “We should have taken the Impala.”
Gabriel raised and eyebrow, and then his hand. Sam’s eyes widened.
“Don’t you dare—“
There was a loud creak, and then the Impala landed heavily from about five feet in the air onto the ground several yards down the street. It shuddered on the landing, and nearly hit a stop sign two inches from its back door.
Sam glared. “Dean’s gonna kill you if you’ve hurt his car.”
“Dean’s got more important shit to worry about,” Gabriel replied.
“And he’ll forget all of it if we hurt his baby. He’ll probably panic when he realizes it’s gone.”
“I left a note.”
“Dean is going to kill you,” Sam and Bobby said at once.
Gabriel grinned, just slightly. “Come on, girls,” he said. “Let’s see if she still works. Because that was probably the last trick I’ll be able to pull off for a while.”
Crowley slipped through the crowded marketplace, unmindful of the milling people around him and the shouts of vendors. It was Sicily at its finest, all warm tones and the smell of fresh bread. His dark bespoke suit had no place in it.
Neither did Azrael’s.
“I said I’d take care of it,” he said, touching his breast pocket as he reached her at the end of the road, the cobblestones hard under his feet.
“I know,” she said, and she had to be working some sort of mojo to stay upright in those precarious stilettos when the street was so uneven. “Please continue to do so. But there’s something else you and your allies should know.”
“And what’s that?”
She leaned forward and spoke softly in his ear. Crowley felt his face go tight.
“You’re sure?” he said, when she leaned back.
“Oh yes. Gabriel was hardly expecting me to be watching him all this time.”
“Why did he do it, or why am I telling you?” Azrael said, quirking an eyebrow. She pursed her lips. “I don’t know why he did. But I’m telling you because I have one last thing to ask for in exchange.”
“And what’s that?” Crowley asked warily.
“Before Heaven’s Gate closes for the last time,” she pressed the breast pocket of his jacket, and the demon could feel the press of handkerchief and what was tucked inside it against his chest, “Break it.”
Crowley’s eyes widened. He took a step back. “You’re—“
“My shift is over,” Azrael said steadily. “I want to go home.”
“But then who—“
“There’s always someone,” she shrugged. “That’s why the universe works like it does. How else do you think it did before our god?”
Crowley said, “You’re insane.”
Death smiled. “I’m old.”
And then she was gone. Crowley looked out, realizing that they had ended up at the shore.
The Mediterranean was choppy and dark. Too dark.
“One down,” he muttered, watching the slow curl of the dragon beneath the surface of the water. “Now where’s your partner in crime, love?”
The steps shattered and swayed as Dean threw himself up them to the second floor. Half the roof was already down by the time he reached the landing.
“Dean!” Castiel called from behind him. “The wards are down, he'll be in any moment!”
“Head him off, then!” Dean shouted back. “You take the right, I’ll take left!”
The steps fell apart beneath his feet just as the roof’s main beam gave way. Dean leaped as far as he could, and spread his wings.
In an explosion of shingles and wooden slats, he blew out of the top of the roof just as a whir of shadow and power came down on the house.
One blow, and Abbadon decimated the Montana ranch. Dean flapped hard to keep himself upright, and took a look at what the Devil had sent for them. It wasn’t pretty.
“Cas?” he said tentatively.
Standing amidst the rubble, Castiel looked up. “Yes, Dean?”
“How the hell are we supposed to deal with this?”
“Why do you think we kept half your army, Dean?” Castiel answered dryly.
One hundred million soldiers of unknown and fathomless origin did sound encouraging. They would be more so, however, if Dean could see all of them. Because at the moment, all he could see was Abaddon.
Sam had read him the Biblical interpretations of Abaddon. In Hebrew scripture, he was a ‘place of destruction’. The Coptics called him the Angel of Death.
Dean looked down at the figure who now stood just outside the ring of destruction that had moments before been a house. He didn’t look imposing on his own—just a slightly paunchy middle-aged man in fatigues and flak jacket. His hands were shoved into his pockets as he surveyed the wreckage.
But around him…well. Dean beat his wings against air shadowed by swarms of locusts that screeched and undulated, and formed a giant, formless abyss in the sky punctuated only by a whirlpool of hell-stoked fires. It looked like a diseased nightfall, and smelled like acid rain.
The captain thrummed at his side, wings and grease and roving eyes. Dean said to him, his own wings churning through the plagued air, “I know this isn’t your usual gig, but I’ve got some action for you anyway.”
The captain listened, and Dean smelled the sharp spike of acid on it, undercutting Abaddon’s swirling scent of muddy greed and malice. He cut a grin at the thing that wasn’t a thing and added, “We can take him.”
And then he went to ground. Castiel was already walking slowly towards Abaddon, stepping lightly over the debris.
“Hello, angel,” Abaddon said, watching him, rounded office-manager face expressionless. “You’re far from home, and well above your pay-grade.”
“So I’ve been told on numerous occasions,” Castiel replied.
Dean landed behind him in a puff of ash and dust, wings flaring around him. Abaddon looked over Castiel’s shoulder and raised an eyebrow. “I thought Lucifer destroyed you,” he said mildly.
“He tried,” Dean said. “I got better.”
The locusts swarmed, coiling in blackened spires. At the same time, however, Dean began to see the tell tale shiver and shift of bodies and forms scraping their way into reality, hearing their captain’s call. Come on, he thought, willing them to understand. Follow me.
“Then it will be my pleasure to assist him,” Abaddon said politely, like he was going to correct an error on Dean’s credit bill or something. He adjusted his cuffs, and strode forward.
Dean tightened his grip on John’s Sword. And he launched.
He wasn’t expecting the blast of power that met him. It felt like diving into brick, and a small part of his brain was surprised the sword didn’t shatter in his hands under the impact. Instead he felt himself propelling backwards, bouncing like so much rubber, flapping madly to maintain his altitude, reeling. “Fuck!” he spat, barely managing to not fall to the ground in a pathetic tumble and roll, boots catching on broken wooden siding to propel him back upwards.
Abaddon looked vaguely bored, which he resented.
Castiel looked skeptical. “You have more than brute force at your disposal, Dean,” he said in disapproval. He stepped forward, intent clearly concentrated on less physical things.
“Sorry, not really used to this whole supernatural thing,” Dean said, groaning and pushing himself back into the air. He took a second aloft to suck in a lungful of air, and then he sensed it.
Oh. That’s what Cas meant.
He could feel the seething tremor of war jangling in his rib cage, the tang of it in the air. In the distance, he saw the locusts whirl angrily, and then seem to reel back as flashes of limbs and teeth form in hoards out of the ether.
Dean clenched his jaw, and thought bitterly, Bury those fuckers.
He swung John’s Sword in an experimental arc, and Abaddon watched him with a raised eyebrow.
Castiel said, “Come on, Dean.”
Dean nodded. Okay.
Sam glared at Gabriel, and slammed the door of the Impala shut. Gabriel appeared unfazed.
Luckily for him, the Impala only sputtered slightly before kicking into drive. “Where are we going?” Sam said.
“The nearest church is down the road about two miles. But it’s probably surrounded already. The closest with any sort of chance to get the occupants out is five miles east.”
“The nearest one, then,” Sam said. “If there are people there, we can get them to the safer place.”
“How noble,” Gabriel commented. Bobby growled something under his breath.
It wasn’t a long drive, but it was an eerily quiet one. “Isn’t there supposed to be a demon infestation here?” Bobby said warily, after a couple of minutes.
“Oh, they’re here,” Gabriel said. And then more quietly, “Just wait.”
Sam turned onto a side street, and then slammed his foot down on the brakes. “Holy fuck,” he said.
There wasn’t a church at the end of the road, not a visible one, anyway. The feeble gold crucifix at the top of the spire was the only thing left to see. The rest of the building was smothered with one massive, roiling black cloud.
“How many is that, anyway?” Bobby said quietly.
“One hundred and forty-four,” Gabriel said. “There will be one hundred and forty-four at each point of the pentagram. Seven hundred twenty in total.”
“And if we open the door to that church to try and help anyone inside,” Sam started.
“Instant possession of everyone in there,” the archangel finished. “Yeah.”
“Who was this thing meant to boost, anyway?” Sam asked. “Is Lucifer going to be here?”
“It was made for Abaddon,” Gabriel answered.
Sam swung around to look at him. “Abaddon,” he repeated. “Abaddon, the fucking first-level demon we just abandoned Dean and Cas to.”
Gabriel looked at him. “That’s the one.”
Sam barely managed to restrain himself from punching him. Instead he clamped down on his jaw and said, “Okay. How do we take on more than a hundred unhosted demons?”
The archangel looked out at the angry cloud of demons, and said, “Depends. What’ve you got in the trunk of this behemoth of a car?”
Dean could barely see, everything was too dark and too fast and just too far beyond his comprehension. Abaddon was destruction, Dean could feel it on him, in the weight of the blows he ducked and dodged, and the screech of insects that followed in his wake. He swung his sword wide, blocking and then thrusting upwards, and this angel of death just looked fucking bored, like he wasn’t certain if Dean was even trying or not yet.
Cas was tiring; Dean could tell from out of the corners of his vision. The angel was double-wielding, thin silver blades in each fist, and he was lashing out with the concentrated ferocity that never failed to terrify Dean at the most basic primal levels of his brain, but he was still tiring, it was in his eyes.
Dean brought the sword down hard, but Abaddon blocked it with an upraised arm without even flinching. One twist, and his hand was gripping Dean’s wrist, hard enough that Dean could feel his bones crack. He snarled.
Castiel struck, blade sinking into Abaddon’s wrist like stigmata before wrenching back outwards, leaving a gaping wound in the paunchy man’s arm that bled profusely. It was enough to sever the tendons, and Dean threw himself back as he felt the muscles in the hand that was holding him go slack. It wouldn’t take Abaddon long to put his unwilling host back together, but it was good enough.
He moved to strike.
Abaddon was not going to take it lying down.
The blow skittered off harmlessly; Dean beat his wings upwards twice to gain ground to try again.
Castiel moved in, and was thrown off with a gesture.
Locusts swarmed, and the army faltered.
No, Dean though fiercely, Hold the fuck on.
He went in again in Cas’s wake, sword and wings swirling.
The blade was blocked; his right wing was not.
Abaddon howled and Dean made an unearthly sound that he would not, will not ever admit to, the sound of a bear as it killed. The long first spine of his right wing swung and connected, first in a long slash across Abaddon’s ribs, then driving upward through his throat, parting muscle and bone and sinew.
It wasn’t enough. Abaddon bared his teeth even as his throat welled with blood.
“Go on, you son of a bitch,” Dean growled. He shoved his wing up farther. Abaddon’s host’s brain ruptured.
“So commanding, Dean,” he gurgled. “So sure of the outcome.”
“Fucking die!” Dean shouted, gripping the host’s arms, letting him thrash helplessly as the demon drove him into dust.
Smoke gathered in the apex of Abaddon’s host’s body.
“Just try it,” Abaddon growled, surging up against Dean’s unrelenting grip. There was a cry of anguish behind them, but Dean couldn’t turn himself away. He held the demon down, with limbs and wings, feeling the unrelenting thrum of his army, his, surging around him, killing off this train of pandemonium and hate with every ounce of its own. Fire with fire works sometimes, he thought absurdly.
“I will,” he sneered into Abaddon’s gaping face. “I’ll see you in hell, bucko.”
“No doubt,” Abaddon replied.
Every muscle in his body straining, Dean parted his wings, and shredded him.
Smoke billowed, and turned into fire.
Dean reeled as sparks exploded outward. The locusts were screaming now, crackling and shriveling into coals that rained down on Montana, setting the fields alight. The army thrashed, triumphal, forms sliding in and out of visibility.
Dean felt hot shards of rock and coagulated blood sear his face in bright gashes, and he held up his arms to shield himself, turning and curving his wings, trying for flight and failing. He caught sight of tan trench coat, and with ears ringing he threw himself towards it.
The trench coat stirred, but didn’t rise from the rubble and ash.
“Cas, goddamnit, come on!” Dean reached the rumpled pile and pulled. “Fuck. No.”
Castiel was unconscious. The rest Dean was resolutely not thinking about. He glanced up and took in the landscape, a veritable hell on Earth if he ever saw one. The fields were black in places, on fire in others, staining the rocky outcroppings black. The locusts were faltering, but still whined and beat their wings in the wake of their fallen lord while the army railed at them, cutting back and forth across the sky like thunderclouds in time-lapse photography. The place where the fragments of Abaddon lay was a mess of congealed plasma and dust streaks and beyond that, a great and broken ashen wingspan.
“Used to be one of yours, huh?” Dean muttered, because it was better than having a breakdown here in the middle of this wasteland. He pulled again, and managed to get Castiel’s torso into his grip. Legs next.
He should have been on a stretcher, but Dean didn’t have one. He wasn’t even sure if he had the energy to move them. But he’d have to.
He searched his memory for safe places, far away places.
He thought of tombs and an old holy man.
Praying he had the strength, he stretched back shuddering wings and pulled.
“Castiel stole you a whole jug of this stuff?” Gabriel said with something like surprise in his voice.
“Guess so,” Sam said. “I wasn’t around for it.”
“No, he and Dean were playing house. Right. Well, it might help. Ooh, this too.”
“What’re we doing, exactly?” Bobby inquired.
“We’re taking apart this Bethlehem Pentagram,” Gabriel answered, “And saving New Mexico in the process. Any questions?”
“Yeah. How?” Sam said drily.
Gabriel didn’t answer. He just grabbed a book out of the Impala, flipped a few pages into it, and then shoved it at Bobby. “Follow the instructions on here,” he said. “We should have everything we need for it. Sam, you take the holy oil. You got a lighter?”
Bobby frowned at the book in his hands. “What’s this for?” he asked. “It looks like a devil’s trap, but it’s not.”
“It’s a devil’s trap,” Gabriel said, with deceptive lightness. “With a few lesser-known modifications. Most people don’t dare experiment with it, since, well, you don’t really want to fuck around with these things, but in the right context it can be quite useful.”
He looked back at Sam. “Here’s the thing. The only way those demons are gonna move away from that church is if they have a body to get into. You and Bobby won’t do—you have your anti-possession tats for that. And normally I won’t do, because this body is already occupied. But,” he paused, “I can move.”
“Move? Where?” Sam asked.
Gabriel watched him, wariness in his eyes. “I’m a far better houseguest than Lucifer,” he said quietly. “And that’s a promise.”
“No. No fucking way.”
“Do you want to save those people trapped in this church?” Gabriel argued. “Do you want to save the people in all of these churches? Because this is how to do it.”
“What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?” Sam waved his arms wildly. “The whole point of this fucking game is for me not to say yes. And I don’t fucking trust you!”
“Well, unless you’ve got a better idea, you’re going to have to, sport,” the archangel snapped. “We need to draw the demons away from the church, and for that, we need an available host body. The only one we’ve got to work with is mine.”
“And what’s gonna happen then?” Sam retorted. “What’s gonna happen when we let them take over your body and devil’s trap it?”
Gabriel’s smile was feral. “Then I reclaim it. And burn them all.”
Sam stared at him. “Won’t you burn me out?” he asked finally.
“I could,” Gabriel shrugged. “But I won’t.”
“I don’t trust you,” Sam repeated.
Gabriel said, “I didn’t really expect you to.”
“I expect you,” he interrupted, “To weigh your lack of trust in me against the idea that we can save however many people are in that church.”
Sam sputtered incoherently for a long second, and then exhaled harshly. Finally he said, “I’ve been told I have martyr issues.”
“Uh huh. And I’m exploiting them. Sucker.”
Sam snorted. “This is temporary,” he said, deadly serious. “You’re in, and then you’re out, and we kill these sons of bitches.”
“Yep,” Gabriel said.
“And you don’t take control,” Sam added.
Gabriel shifted. “I may not be able to help it. At least, at first.”
Gabriel shrugged. “What? You’d rather I lie, and say we’d be all puppies and rainbows and equal-opportunity cooperation?”
“I’d rather you not turn me into a meatsuit,” Sam growled.
“Tough luck, hot stuff. Are you gonna say yes or no?”
“The trap’s done,” Bobby said, eying them both. “What now?”
Gabriel looked at Sam, who closed his eyes for a long moment before shifting his shoulders and nodding. “Okay,” he said. “Okay. Jesus, I can’t believe I’m letting you, of all people, do this.”
“I said I was sorry about the whole killing-Dean-thing.”
“No. You really didn’t.”
Gabriel looked mildly surprised. “Oh. Right. Sorry, then. Does that count?”
“Fantastic. Shall we do this?”
Sam tried to reign in his seething. “Who is your host, anyway? Are we gonna have to deal with him?”
“No,” Gabriel said, looking oddly sad for a moment. “He was a soldier, and I sent him home a while ago. No, you’re going to have to time this very carefully.”
He went to stand over by the trap Bobby had drawn onto the asphalt with black spray paint. It was virtually invisible except where the paint glistened. “Good call on invisibility. That might actually make our job easier. Gimme the oil.”
Sam handed it over. Gabriel walked around the trap, drawing a thin line of oil in a circle. When he’d closed it off, he put the jug down and turned. “Here’s how this is going to go. I’m going to jump into you, and the demons are going to make a beeline for my body. Now, there’s room for one demon in there, but the way this trap works, it’s going to pull all of the others along for the ride. When there’s an opening, one of you goes to the church to check out the people inside, see if there are survivors. And I’ll jump back into my body to have it out with these bastards. The second I’m in there, Sam, you light up the holy oil.”
“Why?” Sam asked.
Gabriel gazed steadily at him. “If I don’t survive, you don’t want what’s left of me getting out.”
He stared for a long second. “There are four more of these churches,” he said quietly.
“This one will be enough to break the Pentagram,” Gabriel said. “The rest of the demons will disperse. It’s not ideal, but with some of Dean’s army following us over here, we should be able to take them once they start scattering.”
“Where is his army, anyway?” Bobby said. “Dean said he’d send them along.”
“Some of them are here,” Gabriel answered. “But not many. Dean-o may have overexerted himself with a promise like that. If he’s having trouble with Abaddon, they’ll rally to him first before they go anywhere else.”
“We should have stayed with him,” Sam muttered.
“And left these people to die?” Bobby demanded.
Sam didn’t answer. Gabriel looked between them for a second. “So dramatic, your lives are,” he commented. “Are you ready or not, Sam?”
Sam took a breath, and let it out slowly, cutting a glance towards the black smoke that curled and obscured the church.
“Yeah. Okay. Go for it.”
Gabriel nodded, and didn't give any further warning.
Sam heard him say curtly, “Don’t look, Bobby,” and an answering, “What d’you think I am, an idjit?” and then a growing roar of wingbeats drowned his eardrums, and light first seeped, and then escalated to seem to crash out of the archangel’s form, a tidal wave pouring out of the edges of him, filling his vision.
“This had better work,” he said, or was pretty sure he said. He couldn’t hear anything except light, which didn’t make any sense, but things with angels, let alone archangels, rarely did.
No worries, kiddo, a voice in his head thrummed, sounding not at all like the Gabriel Sam knew. It was bigger, more sonorous; the voice of the Messenger.
We’ve got this covered.
Michael looked up at the heavy steel gray of the Detroit skyline. His body’s fragile frame goosepimpled slightly in the pervading cold, but he ignored it. More important was the scent of sulfur in the air, the near imperceptible taint of rotten eggs and fire that hung amid the more human smells of engine exhaust and cigarette smoke.
Lucifer had been here, for a brief time. No doubt in expectation of Sam’s capitulation. But then Dean’s…alteration had happened, and that last shred of prophecy left to them had seen its last days in the bloodied wings and reckoning of a South Dakota safe room.
You should come back, Michael thought. Just for symmetry’s sake.
Then he looked around at where he was. Belle Isle, right on the border of things, a green space looking out onto urban wasteland. It seemed fitting.
He spun his hand in a small circle, and the Heavens bent to his will.
In his desperation, Dean took some of the rubble with him. It landed and rolled around them in miserable piles while Dean clutched at Castiel’s prone form in a tangle of limbs and wings. A shriek of alarm greeted their arrival, followed by a long string of hysterical Arabic syllables from several people.
Dean pulled his wings up over Castiel, shielding them both from view as much as he could. He looked down at the angel’s torn up face and tried to assess the damage. There was damage from getting thrown into the wreckage of the ranch house, but that shouldn’t have been enough to put the angel down, even in his semi-fallen state. “Cas? Cas, wake up, we’re safe, or at least, kinda safe,” he said.
Castiel’s eyelids twitched, like he was trying to regain consciousness, but it wasn’t working.
“As salaam alaikum.”
Dean looked up, and exhaled abruptly. “As salaam alaikum. My…my friend’s hurt. Can you help me?”
The Imam looked down at them worriedly, his color better than when Dean saw him last, but still ashen with stress and age. Looking down at him with troubled eyes, he said, “Come.”
Jimmy had not been lying when he’d said being a meat suit for an angel had been like being chained to a comet.
Gabriel was incandescent, a thousand watt flare of incomprehensibility and glory and light that burned and filled in ways that Sam was certain just shouldn’t be possible. For a long second he could barely think, let alone comprehend that he could still feel his nerve endings and that there was a voice in his head that wasn’t his own, and that it was yelling.
Move back, move back, Sam! They’re coming!
Sam couldn’t, he didn’t know how to work is own body anymore. Gabriel burned inside him, bursting out of his edges and so very, very wrong in a way that made Sam realize with a sickening jolt meant that he wasn’t Gabriel’s chosen vessel, he wasn’t a perfect fit like he should be. It was hot and uncomfortable and too tight in places he was pretty sure anatomy didn’t account for.
Dammit, Sam! Work with me here!
On unsteady legs that didn’t feel entirely attached to him anymore, Sam was vaguely aware that he stumbled (or Gabriel made him stumble) back from the trap, finally seeing through the haze of light around the outside of his vision Gabriel’s vessel go slack in front of him and start to crumple like a puppet with its strings severed. It was perhaps more disturbing than the shining presence of the archangel under his skin, but Sam pushed that thought aside.
And then the demons were there, circling like vultures around a carcass, surging and then diving forward in one uncontrolled demanding spiral of noxious greed.
Sam was vaguely aware of something inside of him flinch, except the flinch was more the shudder of a ruptured nuclear reactor, and he was pretty sure it wasn’t him, though the sight was gruesome. Gabriel was attached to that vessel, liked it as more than just a tool, and it was showing up on the inside of Sam’s skin.
Sam felt his entire body clench as the demons kept pouring in, an endless stream that alit in Gabriel’s vessel and took control, his eyes going black and an expression of cruel amusement that even Gabriel at his most Trickster-ish would not, could not ever wear.
“Sam Winchester,” it said, voice harsh and snide and low. “What a pleasure. And with an angel riding sidecar? What is the world coming to?”
Sam didn't answer, didn't know if he could. The demons were still pouring in, drawn in by the trap, no longer fitting inside Gabriel’s flesh and blood, just swirling around him in an awful hurricane of black. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Bobby run over to the church and slip inside unnoticed.
He waited for the realization. It didn’t take long.
The demon wearing Gabriel’s face took a step forward, malice pulling at his features, and then stopped abruptly, raising one hand to the invisible border of the trap. The swirl of demons faltered, and then whirred like a swarm of angry bees.
“Deceitful little brat,” the demon hissed, and threw a fist at the trap, recoiling.
Sam and Gabriel looked up at the black smoke still flowing into the trap, and watched how it broke down, became less a steady, unsettling curl and more a scrabbling, chaotic surge against the inevitable.
Just a little longer, Gabriel said, or maybe Sam said it aloud, he couldn’t tell over the roaring of the archangel’s presence in his ears. It was starting to burn, not in the ice-hot way that felt like being filled beyond capacity, but in the way that felt like consumption.
“Gabriel?” some part of him whispered.
The demons filled the trap, a long rising column of wrath outside the church, like a storm caught in a glass bottle.
Wait just a little longer, kiddo, I won’t let you burn.
“I don’t know if I can—“
Numbly he felt his knees hit the ground, and heard Bobby shouting.
Okay. Okay, I’m gone.
And then cool air was rushing into his lungs.
Get your lighter ready, and shut your eyes, for God’s sake.
He fumbled it in his hands, couldn’t quite get the zippo top open, his nerves completely fried. The heat and fire was receding, and he squeezed his eyes shut like he’d just rediscovered he had eyelids to do it with, and the red of bloodvessels beneath his skin burned itself into his retinas as Gabriel exploded back out of him.
Dimly, he heard Bobby shout, “Close your eyes, all of you! Do it unless you want to go blind!”
And then the low rasp of Gabriel, in his so quiet, so human voice, “Now, Sam. Holy fire, stat.”
Sam opened his eyes to meet Gabriel’s, which were flickering between black and gold in his vessel. The archangel’s sword was trembling in his grip at his side. “Good luck,” Sam whispered.
And threw down the lighter.
Dean was getting a little tired of every fight ending with everything in his body aching through and through.
Omar’s house hadn’t been far from the tombs, thank god. Bad enough that Dean’d already made a spectacle of all of them not once, but twice in the same damn city. But he didn’t even care at this point, because dammit, Castiel.
The angel came to once, when Dean was looking up at the very narrow staircase that led to the second story of the apartment building Omar was gesturing at and deciding that he was not going to be able to maneuver them up there without some supernatural finagling. He tensed against Dean’s arms and immediately Dean tightened his grip and looked down. “Cas?”
Castiel’s one unswollen eye opened a fraction. “Dean. Where—“
“Back in Marrakech. Omar’s helping us out. Just relax, be still, and I’ve got you.”
“Is gone. But I’m pretty sure we destroyed half of Montana.”
Castiel grimaced, and his eye closed. Omar looked at Dean worriedly. “You come up,” he said, half a question, half instruction.
Dean nodded. He looked up at what he could see of the apartment from the window, and concentrated.
One shift later, and he was inside. And a woman was screaming. “This really doesn’t bode well for my pulling abilities after this shit is over,” Dean muttered.
Then he looked up just in time to dodge a frying pan to the face.
“La’a!” Omar came rushing into the room, launching into explanations and giving Dean a chastising look. Dean ducked his head and concentrated on lowering Castiel carefully to the floor.
“No, wait please. The bedroom is better.”
She must have been Omar’s daughter. Omar was still talking calmingly to his wife, who was throwing a headscarf hastily around her face while shooting Dean horrified glances. The daughter had covered herself quickly as well, but she was also looking steadily at Dean without fear in her eyes.
“He’ll bleed onto the furniture,” Dean said blankly.
“He helped save my father’s life,” she replied. “I think we can forgive him.” She tilted her head in suggestion towards a hallway. "You need a shirt anyway. It is unseemly, how you are marked."
Dean looked down at his blood-streaked torso, and felt himself flush. Readjusting his grip on Castiel’s body, he followed as meekly as he could.
Malaeka, as she introduced herself, seemed not to have a single irrational bone in her body. She was barely twenty and well-educated, and had picked up English through watching BBC news and reading used paperbacks. “It is useful, here,” she said, “If only to know when tourists are being insulting. And I teach my father some after you saw him last.”
Dean laid Castiel down. “Thanks for, you know, not panicking,” he said awkwardly.
She shrugged. “Father told us all how an angel had saved his life when Satan came for him. We are a religious family; it was not so difficult to believe. You,” she paused, and looked him over, “Well, you don’t look much like how I imagined an angel, but you still look like one, somehow.”
“I’m not really the angel,” Dean said. He waved a hand at Castiel, “He is. I’m just…well, something different.”
Malaeka digested this, and then shrugged again. “You both saved my father’s life,” she said. “That’s enough.”
“Malaeka,” Omar said in the doorway. His arms were folded across his chest, looking less protective than Dean would have been in his position, but cautious nonetheless.
Malaeka nodded very slightly, and afforded Dean one last glance before leaving the room. Omar stepped inside in her stead.
“He says Abaddon,” he said, nodding at Castiel’s prone form. “The fifth trumpet of Allah.”
Silently, Dean nodded.
Omar closed his eyes for a long moment, and then said, “It is ending.”
“No,” Dean said, more forcefully than he meant to. Omar raised an eyebrow. “No ending yet.”
The Imam said nothing, but didn’t disagree either. “Malaeka gets dressings,” he said eventually. “You are welcome here.”
“Thank you,” Dean said again. It was more than he could have asked for.
He looked back down at Castiel, whose coat was in tatters, and who could afford to breathe only shallowly. He was bleeding sluggishly from one arm and across his face, but there was something deeper that was torn up about him, and Dean didn’t know the first thing about how to fix it.
Michael, he thought, I could really use your help about now.
He wasn’t dreaming, though, so there was no answer.
Gabriel was on his knees.
Sam never thought such a simple thing could be so terrifying.
Bobby was ushering a (too small) band of people from the church, trying as best he could to shield them from the scene outside. Sam just watched, mesmerized, as black swam against gold in Gabriel’s eyes.
His chest burned, like he’d chugged a bottle of Tabasco. He knew it probably went further than that, though, it probably scarred him in some out-of-body physical way that he’d wear for the rest of his life. He wondered disjointedly if an archangel was like getting years taken off your life. Or maybe it was more like early-onset arthritis.
Demons spiraled like angry bees caught in a tornado, pummeling Gabriel in a swarm, and pressing desperately at the edges of the trap in turn. The trap held, though, and the ring of holy fire burned.
Come on, Sam thought, willing Gabriel to hear. Come on, finish them.
Gabriel raised his head as if he was Atlas, the world on his shoulders. When he spoke, Sam could barely hear him over the screech of demons.
“Close. Your. Eyes.”
Sam didn’t need to be told twice. Skin crawling, he squeezed his eyes shut.
And at first, he thought he’d done it too late.
The darkness of Gabriel’s silhouette exploded in relief across Sam’s eyelids, and through the red of skin and capillaries spread the unmistakable outline of wings.
Jesus Christ, Sam thought. And then sound blocked out everything else.
There was a clap of what could have been thunder but clearly was the sound of an archangel in motion, followed by a sonic boom resonating, sending holy fire in all directions, never breaking the ring, just expanding like the plume from a flame thrower. Sam blindly felt the heat of it and threw himself backwards, feeling his eyebrows singe. He curled against the grit of concrete, utterly helpless, and listened to the cacophony of Biblical warfare with his arms clapped round his head. Warmth spread wet and sickly from his ear canals and through his fingers.
This is way too soon after the last round of almost dying, Sam thought absurdly, curling up tighter. Because it did feel like almost dying again, felt like it down to his soul.
He hoped Bobby had gotten the townspeople out of the way.
The ground shuddered, like a giant had set its foot down, and Sam’s teeth rattled in his head.
He slowly became aware that the light burning against his eyelids had gone.
And either Sam had been completely deafened, or the thunder had subsided.
He cracked one eye open, blinking against dirt and gravel.
It was in time to watch Gabriel waver on his feet, and then be violently sick on the ground.
Holy fire burned like shimmering sparks in its circle, barely a whisper of flame, but still there.
The air was clear.
Sam looked up at the archangel, who was wiping his mouth in disgust.
Into the resounding silence, he said hoarsely from the fetal position, “Christo.”
Gabriel offered him a very shaky smile. And didn’t flinch.
Malaeka watched from the doorway as Dean sewed neat, small stitches into Castiel’s unresponsive form.
“What happened?” she asked eventually.
Dean paused, and then said over his shoulder, “A demon.”
Malaeka blinked slowly. “A powerful one,” she observed.
Dean gritted his teeth, “Yeah.”
“My father is saying it’s the end of the world.”
“I reserve the right to disagree,” Dean replied shortly.
“You’re trying to stop it.”
“Damn right I am.”
Malaeka stepped forward. “What if it is God’s will?”
Dean laughed, and it was a harsh sound. “It’s not. Believe me, sister, it’s not.”
“How do you know?” she asked, unmoved.
“Because God’s off somewhere where even angels can’t find him.” Dean looked back down at Castiel, and added bitterly, “Believe me; they’ve tried.”
She sat very tentatively on the bed. “Sometimes, I think God is sick of us,” she said quietly. “We do the same things for him every day—pray to him, curse his name, love for him, kill for him. Even when we are respectful of his word, we are boring.”
Dean looked up at her. She smiled very slightly.
“Maybe he offers us hard times, so that we are not complacent, and neither is he.”
He thought about it, and then said, “I can’t say I appreciate it.”
Malaeka smirked. “Clearly, neither does he.”
She had more faith than he ever would, but Dean couldn’t help but like her a bit. That is, until she nodded at Castiel and added, “You care about him.”
He stiffened and felt his wings hunch in. He wasn’t talking about this; not now. “He’s saved my life,” he said.
He didn’t add, He believed in me.
“Mm,” she agreed. Then she watched Dean’s face. “Clearly, he is willing to die for you.”
“And I sure wish he wouldn’t.”
She nodded, and stood. “Come,” she said, “My mother made Tajine.”
They, the whole family and Dean, ate dinner in silence, with Dean feeling possibly the most awkward he ever had in his life. Of all the ways to get cultured, or whatever, he really hadn’t counted on this. His wings felt massive and unreal and unwieldy in a way that they hadn’t in a while. He tried to tuck them out of the way, but Omar’s wife kept looking at them in a mixture of fear and fascination that made him want to cut the damn things off.
He excused himself early in the evening and went back to the guestroom. Omar didn’t comment or stop him, even though there was a couch available in the living room. He just looked silently at Castiel, who was still breathing shallowly on the guest bed, and offered Dean a mat for the floor.
For a long while, Dean dreamed of falling stars.
Crowley looked down at the sea, and the writhing power growing beneath its surface. Then his eyes slid just slightly to the left, and he observed next to his another set of slightly dusty, but heavily polished Italian leather shoes.
“Well, well. Fancy meeting you here,” he said, looking back out at the water.
“Demon,” Zachariah acknowledged.
“I’m not making a deal with you,” Crowley said conversationally.
“Even if I offer you eternal salvation?” Zachariah inquired, wheedling.
“Don’t be silly, that’s the last thing I want. Also, I’m fairly certain you don’t have the juice for that.”
“Mm,” the angel said neutrally, and rocked back on his heels, hands shoved in his trouser pockets. “What do you want, then?”
“A reset button,” Crowley answered promptly. “Preferably one that puts us back a couple centuries at least, but I’m not picky. Just back to when we weren’t all hell-bent on this whole end-of-the-world business. No pun intended.”
Zachariah wrinkled his nose. “With people still here?” he demanded.
“You forget,” Crowley reminded, “That I happen to like topside.”
“Fine, fine. I’ll give you topside. A mansion, even, with your favorite plants, some nice abstract art, and a guarantee that no one bothers you. No angels, no demons, just you in the lap of luxury, rest of your days.”
“And a car,” Crowley said. “I’m rather partial to Bentleys.”
Zachariah rolled his eyes. “Consider it done.”
“Okay,” Crowley, said. “No.”
Zachariah finally turned to look at him, eyes narrowed. “Why?”
Crowley spared him one glance, and nothing more. “Because you’re like me, except on the flip side. And that means that I know you. I know that you’re just out for yourself, and if that means catering to the man upstairs, so be it, but the minute you see a loophole, my arse will be toast.
“Moreover, I may not be an angel, but I’m a man of my word. You’re a slippery fish middleman with wings. And believe me, as much as I like a proper lying son-of-a-bitch, I mostly like being one than keeping company with one.”
He smirked as he listened to the silence of Zachariah vibrating with fury. He added, dripping with nonchalance, “As an addendum, I should also mention that I just don’t like you.”
“Oh? Is that all?” Zachariah growled.
“I think so.”
The sound of wings beating filled the air.
“Oh, and just one more thing: Say hi to Michael for me,” Crowley said into the buffeted air.
There was no answer.
He smiled. “Oh right, he’s playing hard to get.”
He was still for a long moment, and then he went right up to the edge of the cliff on which he stood. Tugging deftly at the tops of his trousers, he crouched down. “You, on the other hand, pet,” he cooed softly. “I have a proposition for you.”
Dean whirled. “Cas? Jesus Christ, it’s good to see you awake.”
“Don’t be too excited,” Castiel said, looking over to the side and grimacing. “Look around you.”
Dean paused, and looked around. They weren’t in the guest bedroom of Omar’s apartment; instead, they were in a state park that Dean remembered being at the edge of Ohio. “Fuck,” he said eventually. “This is a dream, isn’t it?”
Castiel nodded, still not meeting his eyes. “It’s the only avenue of communication available to me at the moment. And I don’t know how long I can maintain the connection, either. It’s taking…effort, in my present state.”
“Shit, Cas,” Dean went forward automatically, looking Castiel over for wounds, even though it was completely pointless here. “What did he do to you? I know it’s not just cuts and scrapes—“
“My grace,” Castiel said, voice low and tense. “He ripped apart my grace.”
Dean stared at him, for the first time taking in the full depth of the brokenness he saw, seeing past Castiel’s quiet stoic solidity with eyes that weren’t all human any more. And something tight, and locked away in him, gently, almost unnoticeably, gave way.
And then he said, almost in a whisper, “Tell me how to fix you.”
Castiel gazed at him. “You can’t—“
“Tell me how to fix you!” Dean snapped. Before he could think, he was in Castiel’s space, cupping the angel’s face in his hands, fingers slipping to the nape of his neck, threading through spikes of disarrayed black hair. He breathed harshly against Castiel’s nearly impassive face. Castiel just watched him, and then looked away.
“Castiel,” Dean said, and he ignored how his voice broke just slightly.
“You have nothing to atone for, Dean Winchester,” Castiel said steadily, his calm unearthly. “You’ve proven yourself worth dying for, and that is more than enough.”
Dean snarled, “You are not dying, you son of a bitch.”
“An angel’s grace is his life. Without it, he dies or falls. Dean,” Castiel reasoned, raising one hand to Dean’s shoulder, inadvertently slipping over the brand he left, “I’m not afraid, and neither should you be.”
Dean looked at him, and then he said, “I’m not afraid. Because you’re not going to die.”
Castiel gave him that too-familiar, longsuffering look of impatience. Dean ignored it.
“I had wished to say goodbye to you, that was all.”
Because Dean was thinking of the healing palm of an archangel, unearthly warmth, and how to remake things that have been half unmade.
Dean was no angel, in more ways than one. But he had power, one way or another, and what was power for, if not its blatant misuse?
Plus, he had something of Cas’s that he really ought to give back.
“Just, hold on, okay?” he said roughly, and slid one hand down from Castiel’s neck to flatten beneath the silk of his tie, splaying fingers against the angel’s chest.
“Hold on just a little longer.”
He could feel it. He knew with deadly certainty that the potential was there.
It was a hum, almost spectral, like how Dean imagined photons would feel, a sheet of them just one particle thick, concentrated in that unmistakable outline on his upper arm.
That was what he needed to give back.
Dean was pretty sure he could feel his hand bruising Castiel’s ribcage.
Castiel just looked at him in consternation. “Dean. What are you doing?”
“Just. Be quiet for a second, Cas. Please?”
He concentrated on heat, and the feeble glow of light that wasn’t light that was fractured beneath Castiel’s skin. He concentrated on its echo beneath his own.
It was more than that, he was certain, however. And it wasn’t coming naturally, not like spreading violence through the cinnamon scent of war on the air. He was trying to do something he wasn’t built for.
He closed his eyes, and tried to reach the core of it, power that hadn’t been assigned purpose yet.
He was dimly aware of Castiel saying his name with increasing concern.
His hand heated, gathering up something dissipated in him, pulling it together into something hard and intent and potent.
He searched for more of that photon hum, found the roughened pieces of it under his hand, beneath Castiel’s skin that wasn’t his, the intensity of a star that’d been shredded up and was trying so desperately to hold itself together even as its edges dimmed out.
He wouldn’t stand by and watch that happen.
Castiel jerked against him, like he’d been shocked.
Light exploded outward.
Dean woke like he’d been drowning, gasping for air, flailing wildly and nearly knocking over a side table with one flapping wing. He scrambled blindly to his feet, slapping one hand heavily onto the edge of the guest bed before realizing where he was and why he couldn’t see.
Omar’s spare room. Night had fallen and the curtains were drawn.
He tucked his wings back in close, praying he hadn’t done any damage, and then fumbled around for the light switch by the door. Found it and flipped it on.
Castiel lay on his back, exactly as Dean had left him that evening.
But his eyes were wide open.
Dean felt something crack in his chest. “Cas?” he said, his whole body shaking. He stumbled back towards the bed.
Castiel just watched him, a confusion of emotions flitting across his features. He opened his mouth to speak, but it wasn’t until Dean eased himself down onto the edge of the bed that he managed to make a sound.
“That,” he rasped, and then swallowed before continued, “Was very foolish.”
Laughter welled up in Dean’s chest, nonsensical, and came out like a cross between a cough and a bark. When he raised a hand to lay it on the angel’s shoulder, it shook.
“You’re talking, and we’re awake,” he said hoarsely. “What’s foolish about that?”
Castiel coughed violently, and Dean automatically steadied him as he tried to sit up. When the convulsions subsided, the angel glared at him and said, “You could have died. That piece of my grace was what allowed your body to accept the changes War’s ring made to you. Without it, you could have torn yourself apart.”
Dean pressed his lips together, and looked down at himself before looking back at Castiel. “Well, I feel fine,” he said. “So…wahey?”
That wasn’t entirely accurate.
Dean felt…changed. Like the cogs and axles inside of him had shifted just slightly and found a new set of grooves to settle into before setting into motion again. Like his programming had been altered irrevocably.
He couldn’t tell whether it was just his Horseman side changing, or all of him. Hell, he didn’t even know if there were sides to him any longer.
Castiel was shaking his head, a minute movement of both disapproval and (though perhaps it was Dean’s imagination), fondness. “You should not have risked it. I would have died peacefully for you.”
“Yeah, and I wouldn’t have been peaceful ever again,” Dean replied.
Castiel looked up at him, almost comically exasperated, given his current state of repose. “You need to begin forgiving yourself for things outside your control.”
“And you need to be there to help me do that.”
Castiel cocked his head, like Dean had surprised him, but Dean just looked at him steadily. He realized belatedly that he was exhausted, too exhausted to not be honest at this point. The sleep he’d had was no sleep at all, and now everything, from Abaddon to the dream was hitting him.
Roughly, he said, “Move over.”
With some difficulty, Castiel did, his movement eased only slightly by the fact that Dean had stripped him of his coat and jacket earlier in order to get at his wounds. Gracelessly, Dean rolled from his perched position on the edge of the bed onto his side beside Castiel, wings flopping around awkwardly before one came to rest off the side and onto the floor, while the other seemed to hover uncertainly before Dean eyed the watchful figure beside him and then deliberately lowered it over the both of them. It was large enough to cover them both, spines retracting slightly to create dimples in the mattress and nothing more.
Dean looked at Castiel’s face, a face that housed something far more than just a human brain and an assemblage of bones and nerves and muscles, and said, “You’re. You’re not allowed to sacrifice yourself for me, okay?”
Castiel looked at him like he’d gone slightly insane. “Dean,” he said. “That’s the very first thing you asked me to do.”
Dean gritted his teeth in frustration, and scooted closer. “That was before I knew you. And that wasn’t for me; that was for everyone.”
Castiel raised a sardonic (and scarred) eyebrow. “They often end up being one and the same.”
Unconsciously, Dean’s wing tightened, pulling Cas towards him. Castiel went; though perhaps only out of lack of motivation and strength to do otherwise. He rolled to face Dean, bandages glowing faint gray in the filtered starlight coming in through the shaded window, the only features discernable his steady blue eyes.
Dean gave in to impulse, and placed his thumb on the hard edge of Castiel’s cheekbone before sweeping upwards, chasing the shadow. “You’re the only one who’s ever believed in me, from start to finish,” he said.
Castiel blinked slowly. “I’ve had doubts,” he said baldly.
Dean nodded. “But you’ve always come back.”
For the first time, Castiel moved of his own volition, and it’s to raise one hand to close over Dean’s. “You’ve given me good reason to,” he allowed.
“Cas,” Dean said, looking steadily at him through the darkness, “You’re not just a soldier of God anymore. You’re not disposable. You’re…you’re my soldier, now. And I don’t want you to die.”
“And I have never wanted to,” Castiel replied, as if that had ever been questionable. His innate fierceness that always scared Dean at some visceral level had always been testament to that.
“But even. Even for me,” Dean said, still tracing that hard line of bone beneath skin, needing to confirm its reality. “You can’t. Because you’d take me with you, okay? That’s just…how it is. So don’t. Okay?”
“Don’t make me spell it out for you any more, Cas, because I’m too goddamn tired for it. Just…don’t do it again. I’m not stopping the Apocalypse without you, and that’s fuckin’ it.”
Castiel watched as Dean’s eyes slipped to half-mast, and then shut. His hand remained tight on the plane of the angel’s face, and Castiel shifted just slightly under it.
Enough to tilt Dean’s head towards him; close enough to press his lips to his brow.
“Are you…okay?” Sam said eventually.
“Sure thing, kiddo. Good as new.”
Sam blinked at the archangel for a second, and then said again, “Are you okay?”
Gabriel finally looked at him, unreadable expression twisting at the corner of his features. “I’ll be fine. Nothing a few days’ recovery won’t fix.” He seemed to adjust his shoulders, like they weren’t quite the same as how he’d left them, and then he looked at Sam. “And how do you feel? Back to business as usual?”
Sam grimaced. “Mostly?” he tried.
“Uh huh,” Gabriel said grimly. “How’s that going for you? And tell me the truth, Sammy.”
They were driving. Bobby had gotten what remained of the town into a safe house, which they’d salted and warded with every symbol and sigil they knew. Sam had taken one look at their shell-shocked faces and had a feeling that even if they managed, by some miracle, to stop everything and shut Lucifer down, the world was going to be a very different place from there on out. This was just too big, and there were too many witnesses.
He swallowed, gripping the wheel tightly, and eventually said, “I think you left something behind.”
He felt Gabriel go still next to him. “How d’you mean?” the archangel said eventually.
“It’s just…there’s this sort of slow burn. Under my skin. You know?”
“No, I really don’t,” Gabriel murmured. Then more loudly, “Does it bother you?”
Sam shrugged. “I can ignore it. But. Do you think it’s going to stay?”
“No idea. It might now. Residual energy usually doesn’t stick around, but you weren’t meant to house me, so while Cas’s vessel probably didn’t feel much when Cas left him, you might.”
Sam thought about that for about a mile.
Then he said, very seriously, “You fucking gave me angel heartburn.”
Gabriel snorted. And then laughed.
Bobby looked between the both of them from the back seat, and muttered, “Idjits.”
A forest was growing on Belle Isle.
It sprung to life out of falling stars like the Rite of Spring, like tectonic plates were driving them upwards, willing the trees into existence.
Nothing so natural was taking place.
Michael stood among erupting oaks and pines that unfurled like the seasons and years were sloughing off of them, mud under torrential rainfall. Great dashes of light lit up the sky like daubs of the brightest, most fluorescent paint. He could hear the awed voices of Detroit citygoers stopping to look up, pointing and filming with camera phones the meteor shower taking place.
Michael counted each and every fallen. Knew their names, as their graces sprung up and shot to new life beneath his feet. He closed his eyes to listen to their confusion, their doubt, and their final acts of flight.
“I had forgotten what it was like. Watching Heaven fall.”
Michael didn’t turn. “Not all of it.”
“No,” Lucifer said. “Never all.”
He came up to stand beside Michael, his own vessel taller and broader, but crumbling at the edges where Michael’s was gaunt and sharp. They looked like brothers, despite themselves.
“I didn’t expect you to be here, what with Dean Winchester being…indisposed,” Lucifer said eventually.
Michael nodded. “And yet, here I am.”
“Having taken some pains to get here. What is this form of yours, seventeenth century?”
“Eighteenth. A genealogical anomaly I took advantage of.”
Lucifer raised an eyebrow. “Still believing in our Father’s plan?”
“If I did, I wouldn’t be here at all. As you said.”
Lucifer hummed. And then, “Then do you not understand my side of things, brother?”
The question arose quietly, and gently. Michael finally turned. “I understand doubt,” he said slowly, “When perhaps I did not before. I understand choice.”
Lucifer stepped towards him, putting a hand out. Before he could reach Michael’s shoulder, however, Michael caught his wrist and pulled it back down. He didn’t let go, though.
“What I will never understand,” he continued, looking into his brother’s face, “Is your determination to destroy all of those who would also choose with you.”
Lucifer seemed to shrink into his vessel, his light receding. Michael felt its absence keenly, but didn’t let his expression change. “You’ve learned nothing, then,” Satan said, pulling his wrist away. “Even after all these millennia.”
“I’ve learned enough,” Michael said steadily.
“A blind fool no longer,” Satan murmured. “But a fool nonetheless.” Then his eyes slid downwards. “You would draw your sword upon me now, Michael?”
“Only to give weight to my word,” Michael replied. The blade was loose in his hand, green with the reflection of bursting leaves and reaching saplings.
Lucifer’s eyes flicked down at the weapon and then back up. “That’s not even yours,” he accused. “Where is the Sword?”
Michael looked at him neutrally. “It belongs to Dean Winchester now.”
Satan unfurled in anger. “That child is the new hand of righteousness?”
“So it seems.”
He started forward, “And that does not inspire you to rage? That our Father who we gave everything to chose to bestow his glory, your honor upon an abomination?”
Michael stopped him with the outstretched blade at his collar. “You said it yourself,” he said. “I doubt Father’s hand is at play.”
“Then what--? I do not understand you,” Lucifer snapped. “I should kill you right now just to relieve you of this misplaced indignity.”
“Funny,” Michael said thinly. “I was rather thinking the same thing.”
“You couldn’t kill me with that toothpick even if you tried.”
Michael lowered the sword. “And you couldn’t kill me with the graces of our fallen brethren all around us. Angels who chose humanity over evil.”
“Paltry protection,” Lucifer sneered, “Springing from a paltry species.”
“You call me blind, and yet you’re the one who continually refuses to see,” Michael shook his head. “Is it so terrible to find greater value in flaws fought against than perfection squandered?”
“You’ve become even more like Father in his absence. I pity you.”
“And I take pity upon you.” Michael moved forward. “Please, Morningstar. This will end badly for you. You may not fear me, but you should fear what is to come.”
Lucifer only withdrew further, brimstone accumulated from the Pit seeping off of him, killing off the grass beneath their feet. “I won’t be your mercy kill, brother,” he growled. “If that’s what you’re asking.”
Michael blinked slowly, and looked unimaginably old. “Wouldn’t you rather be mine, than Dean’s?” he asked.
Lucifer snorted. “The day that boy becomes Horseman enough for me to fear him, will be the day I set down my sword forever.”
Michael nodded in resignation. “Then I will see you upon the water,” said he.
Lucifer’s smile was crooked and unkind. He dipped a comical, rolling bow before disappearing.
“Choice,” Michael murmured, as angels continued to fall. “Always squandered.”
Angels were at war over the crypt.
Crowley could see it from miles away, could see it from space, probably, if he had the inclination. With the dissolution of the Grigori, Seraphim were the ones left to rocket down, swords and wings aflame. They would do their best to seal the cage, but that wasn’t about to happen, not any time soon.
Zachariah had always been a great middle-manager, but he was terrible at battlefield tactics.
Carefully, Crowley inserted two fingers into his breast pocket, and felt the answering warmth of the bundle tucked there. It was nearly uncomfortable, even with so many layers of protective cloth between it and his host’s skin, but Crowley was willing to tolerate a fair amount of discomfort when the payout was large enough.
He was moored off the coast of Portugal, but the chaos felt like it was tossing and reeling right in front of him--he felt it as the lay lines shuddered over the crypt, and as things unnamed struggled to emerge.
Dark forms roiled beneath the water, several miles off-shore. “Shall we go find you some friends?” Crowley called out to them.
Something that could have been a wing or a claw or the torpedo from a submarine breached the waterline. “Right then,” he muttered. He scanned the controls of the yacht, its owner’s limp corpse long before disposed of overboard, and started the engine. He had some time before the others would be joining him, and he intended to enjoy himself.
When the sun rose and began to filter through the window with an unexpected intensity, Dean cracked open his eyes with a groan and then nearly flailed himself off the bed before he remembered why he was wrapped around Cas like some sort of octopus with wings.
...And wasn’t that just an awful mental image to start the day with.
Castiel himself looked as serene as he ever did, which wasn’t much. He regarded Dean with an expression that was half warmth and half irritated concern. “You should sleep more,” he chided, his voice a low rumble that Dean seemed to feel in his bones. “You expended a great deal of energy last night.”
“Oh did I,” Dean drawled automatically. He looked at Cas with concern, however. “How’re you feeling?”
“Like I’m beginning to encroach upon your record of being brought back from the brink of destruction.”
“Hey now. No one’s allowed to beat my record, ‘cept maybe Sammy. And he’s not allowed to work for it. Then again, neither are you.”
Castiel’s face registered vague disapproval, but then his gaze shifted away from Dean and those frown lines deepened. “Can you feel that?” he asked, after a second.
Dean had been doing his best to ignore it--the unearthly buzz that had replaced the roar of locusts as Abaddon burned. There’d been too many other things to worry about, getting out and staying safe and Cas...but Abbadon had left a vacuum, and now he could feel with that strange, Horseman-scale sense that things were clawing to the surface to try and fill the gap. There’d been news reports of mudslides and war and cult suicides for months now, but it was going to get a hell of a lot worse before it got better.
If it got better.
“Yeah,” he said eventually. “I guess we should get on that.”
Frowning, he prodded at his tenuous connection to the army that he’d basically left rudderless in Montana. He received a roll of confusion, anticipation, and damp in return.
Go to my comrades, he sent, still feeling pretty stupid for giving commands in his head, especially ones as formal as that. I’ll follow you there.
There was a moment--a terrifying moment--of resistance. A day without instruction was too long, apparently, and Dean could feel the abstract pull of destruction the collective army was grasping at, and their inability to understand his dismissal of it. He resisted the urge to just push it away. Cas had told him to use what was at his disposal, and if the seething surge of energy bursting to fill the absence of Abaddon was any indication, he was going to need every bit of those resources.
Unconsciously scooting closer to Castiel, he thought of Hell-twisted things crawling from the darkness, and an unnameable army to sweep it all away. It was a violent, ugly thought, too close to ones he’d had in hell past the thirty year mark, but he let it take its course anyway, throwing it out onto the waters like bait.
After a long moment, a blur of acquiescence reached him, already becoming distant again, occupied with the order. Dean exhaled. He realized that his eyes were squeezed shut, but when he reopened them, it was just to see Castiel’s face, grave and knowing, but also without judgment. It unwound a knot of guilt somewhere deep in Dean’s stomach.
“This house isn’t protected,” he said roughly. “We should move.”
Castiel nodded. Then his lips twitched at the corner. “You’re going to have to let go of me.”
“Oh. Right.” Dean pulled his wings back and scrambled out of bed like he’d been burned. Castiel got up far more slowly, giving cursory glances to the bandages wrapped around his arms and torso, and choosing after a moment to leave them be. Dean cleared his throat.
“You good to fly?”
Castiel grimaced slightly. “I’m not sure. I’d rather not risk it, if you don’t mind.”
“No problem. But let’s go thank Omar for his hospitality. He’s been pretty damn tolerant.”
Omar, despite his tolerance, was very clearly glad to see them go. Malaeka took the liberty of shaking their hands, though, and as Dean spread his wings, one hand firmly on Cas’s elbow, she said, “May God respect your resistance.”
Dean could only smile back as the world shifted.
They drove until they hit Arizona, at which point Gabriel pitched forward in the back seat and gasped.
“Shit, are you going to hurl again?” Sam said, slamming on the brakes.
“Nah, just give me a minute.”
The Impala purred in neutral on the side of the road, and over her sound Sam and Bobby awkwardly listened to Gabriel take heaving breaths, bent down over himself. After a good five minutes, he finally sat up, pushing his hair out of his face. His eyes looked molten.
“Pentagram broken for good?” Sam asked dryly.
“Yup. And I’m back in business,” Gabriel said, like he hadn’t just been in what appeared to be crippling agony. He linked his fingers and straightened his arms obnoxiously to crack his knuckles. “Which means--”
“--no moving the Impala by--”
Gabriel snapped his fingers.
“--angel express. Dammit, Gabriel. Where the hell are we?”
“Just outside of Halifax. It’ll give us a nice view of the storm that’s brewing. Oh hey--now that’s something I haven’t seen in a while.”
Sam craned his neck forward to follow Gabriel’s sight line. “What--what is that?”
“Angels at war. Time for the grand finale, chicos. You ready?”
Sam sighed, and pulled out his cell phone. “I guess we don’t have a choice.”
But before he got finished dialling, he found his foot shooting out automatically to slam the brakes, even though they were already at a standstill. “Jesus fucking Christ!”
Dean grinned and waved like he wasn’t some mix of cheesy and terrifying, wings fanned out over the empty highway, Castiel looking both beaten and solid at his side. “What the fuck are you doing in Halifax?” Dean yelled, as Sam fumbled with the car door and finally toppled out of it in his haste. “You find us some more demons to gank? Because we’ve got backup lurking around here now.”
“How’d you find us?” Sam said, but his voice was muffled due to how his face was now buried in Dean’s shoulder, arms wrapped around him in a bear hug that was only partly hampered by the wings.
“Got my army of abominations to track you down. Jesus, Sammy, you’re gonna crack a rib or something.”
Sam stepped back. “We left you...in a bad spot.”
Dean snorted, and rubbed at the back of his neck. “Yeah, I guess you did. So, uh, how’s it going?”
Sam shrugged. “We saved New Mexico. You?”
“Killed Abaddon. Might’ve destroyed Montana, though,” Dean admitted.
“Guess I win.”
“Bitch, you do not.”
“Jerk. I totally do.”
“Can we get a move on?” Gabriel complained from the back seat, half his torso hanging out the window. “Because shit is about to seriously get real.”
Dean blinked. “How’d you get my car?”
The last sapling burst through the earth, a strong maple with shards of Grace shimmering strongly in its core. Michael mourned and blessed it at once, and then turned away from the Isle. The smell of sulfur hung in the air long after he left.
“Why Halifax?” he asked without preamble, as he materialized in a cacophony of wingbeats. Sam jerked slightly; Bobby swore; Dean, Castiel and Gabriel remained mostly unruffled.
“How’d your meeting with little bro go?” Gabriel asked. They stood in a row along a dock that was abandoned, despite the huge amount of ships and sailboats tied up, all perfectly ready for the sea. People had begun avoiding the ocean when the sky refused to lighten and an impossible storm seemed to descend on the entire breadth of the Atlantic.
“It was...as one could expect, unfortunately,” Michael replied. And then, with infinite patience, “Why Halifax?”
Gabriel shrugged. “‘T’sa nice view.”
Sam’s phone buzzed in his pocket. He pulled it out and pressed a few buttons. “Crowley’s in position. What’s the plan?”
Michael huffed out a breath, and looked out at the water.
Dean sniffed, and then stiffened instinctively. He pulled back slightly to look over at the archangel.
Michael was still for a long moment. And then very slowly, very deliberately, he turned and looked at Gabriel. “I don’t know,” he said. “What’s the plan, brother?”
Gabriel snorted, but Dean was looking between him and Michael now, and saw how his shoulders were locked tight, and is wry and open face had hardened into something bitter and old. “What makes you think I’ve got the road map, Mike?” he said lightly.
“Shit,” Sam muttered. “What now?”
Dean braced himself against the guardrail along the pier. Even Bobby was coiled now, waiting for the archangels to explain themselves. The air was burning with unmoored electricity as Michael waited, eyes locked on Gabriel’s and refusing to budge. He said quietly, “You had it for a short while at least, didn’t you?”
Gabriel clenched his jaw, and shook his head--a sharp, violent denial that was hiding too many things.
“Gabriel,” Dean growled. “What the hell?”
“He deserves to know,” Michael said.
Gabriel laughed hollowly. “Figured it out, huh? Funny, I thought I’d gotten good at blocking you out over the centuries.”
“It took some time,” Michael shrugged. “But you’ve used that disguise before, and while you were quite thorough with Dean’s memories, he doesn’t easily forget a pretty face. I told you not to make me pick sides.”
Gabriel let out a breath, and then his gaze slid over to Dean like he was the last person he wanted to be looking at.
Sam put it together. His eyes widened. “He was the chick in the bar?”
“Guilty as charged,” Gabriel said, not taking his eyes off Dean.
“You did this,” Dean growled, and he could feel the talons in his wings extending, but the full implications of that, now, just served to piss him off more. “You fucking did this. You son of a bitch, what the fuck?”
The archangel turned on him. “You refused to play by the rules. And I knew you’d continue to do so, no matter what I did. So I changed the game.”
“By turning me into some—some monster?” Dean started forward, but Gabriel stood his ground, Michael at his side, but apparently not on it either. Lucas Wynchestre’s pale face was impassive as he watched.
“Not just a monster,” Gabriel corrected. “I made you into a weapon. And might I add how well it's turning out so far? And how many times you'd be dead without it?”
“I can’t believe you. All this time you've been helping us, but you made this happen,” Dean hissed through clenched teeth.
“Who, me?” Gabriel said, all raised eyebrows and innocent eyes. “I would never. Some random girl just suggested it to you, and you were dumb enough, or maybe smart enough to listen.”
Then he stepped back, leaning against the pier. He finally looked away from Dean, and instead turned to Castiel. And suddenly he looked ancient and weary and not like a trickster or even an archangel.
“I didn’t want to be a part of this, okay?” he said, deathly quiet. “I didn’t want this battle. But if you weren’t going to go the way it’s all been written, then you needed an alternative. And this was it.”
Castiel said lowly, “You can’t just make a new road and then leave us to walk it, Gabriel.”
“And I haven’t, have I?” he snapped. “You didn’t give me much of a choice, summoning me like you did. Haven’t I bled for you?”
“After you flew in the face of Heaven,” Michael said, but now, now Dean could hear it, practically taste it--the sickly sweet caramel rage of betrayal. It rolled off of Michael like an avalanche from a mountain.
“I wasn’t going to,” Gabriel said, his own rage banked back into deathly quiet, so that Dean could barely hear him over the crash of waves and his own anger. “But you put your faith in these monkeys, didn’t you? This was me, doing the same thing--and taking out some Goddamned insurance along the way.”
Then he looked at the rest of them.
“Everything has its price,” he said, unflinching. “Victory too. And I know that out of everything you monkeys want, that’s what you want most. So that’s what I’ve given you. Deal with it--you’ve been doing fine so far.”
“Gabriel,” Castiel began.
“I’ll check in with Crowley,” Gabriel cut him off, and was gone, leaving the rest of them staring out at violent seas.
Finally, Dean said, “And he moved my fucking car, too.”
Castiel was, surprisingly, the only one who smirked at that.
Dean felt deflated, now that his anger was mostly burned out. There were no such thing as earth-shattering revelations when the actual, physical earth was about to shatter under the weight of End Times. And a part of Dean wasn’t just unsurprised, it was thankful. Like it or not, putting on the ring somewhere along the line got him a crack at Lucifer on his own terms (well, sort of on his own terms). Hell, it let him save Cas.
Also, he had a sinking feeling that Gabriel was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to orchestrators of this whole mess. They may have been off book all this time, but that didn't mean that several someones hadn't been hastily scribbling in the margins as they went along.
Sam rolled his eyes, like he couldn’t believe Dean, and looked at Michael. “You found that all out?”
“I’ll admit to being very curious as to what happened the night Dean were influenced to change himself,” the archangel replied. “So, I took the liberty of freeing some of the memories that had been suppressed. What I found...well, it fit Gabriel. I didn’t put it together until after Abaddon came to us, however. But I thought you ought to know who was responsible, if not for all of this, at least part.”
Dean silently added that Michael had perhaps been waiting a long time to punish his younger brother for running away from home, and that this opportunity had been a bit too good to miss. Family, he thought dryly.
“He knew you’d find out,” Sam said, looking numb. “That’s why he was so angry you were siding with us.”
“No doubt,” Michael said.
“You realize that you have really crappy timing, don’t you?” Bobby broke in. He was still standing off to the side, having chosen not to participate in most of the madness, but now his arms were crossed, and he looked ready to give Michael one of his patented slaps upside the head. “Gabriel’s an ally, one of our very few, I might add, so no matter how much shit he may have put us through in the past, we still need him.”
Sam ground his teeth. “Next time I see that bastard, I’m going to stake him in the chest.”
“That will do little damage,” Castiel noted absently. “It would best be done with an angel’s sword.”
“I can’t believe I let him in me.”
“Whoa,” Dean said, holding up his hands. “Hold the phone. You what?”
Sam winced bodily, and started to explain when suddenly Michael startled, and goddamnit, archangels just didn’t fucking startle.
“We need to get to the crypt,” he said urgently, looking out at the water with something akin to dread. “Now."
Dean rolled his eyes, because he'd just about reached his holy shit quotient for the century. "Fan-fucking-tastic. Did we even settle what the plan was?”
Michael ignored him, didn't even wait for him to follow. In a flurry of wingbeats he was gone.
Sam huffed. "Great."
Dean could almost see the trail Michael left in his wake, and indeed it was heading straight for the crypt, as well as, it seemed, the eye of the angel war-storm.
“What was he talking about--?” Sam started
“That, I imagine,” Bobby said faintly.
‘That’ was right. The storm had turned into a hurricane. “Man, it’s gonna suck flying through that,” Dean said.
“You can count me out of it, that’s for damn sure,” Bobby agreed.
“You have more important places to be anyway, Robert,” Castiel broke in. He looked sternly at Dean. “Lucifer has taken to battle. Michael has gone to meet him, but he will die without his sword to defend him. Seeing as his sword is now yours, I suggest you help him.”
“What’re you gonna do?” Dean asked, drawing John’s Sword from the air.
“I am going to attempt to prevent the Earth from swallowing us all whole, as it is wont to do when Heaven and Hell collide. Robert, I’d like your assistance in this.”
“Oh, great,” Bobby muttered.
“What about me?” Sam asked, clearly trying not to think about what Cas's pronouncement.
“You’re one half of the Lamb,” Castiel answered, glancing at him. “You will have to go with Dean to the crypt. You have an angelic blade at your disposal?” Sam nodded, drew one from his belt and twirled it. “Good. You will have to be ready to use it as soon as you arrive.”
“Hear that, Sammy?” Dean clapped him on the shoulder. “You and me again. Road trip.”
“Into a hurricane,” Sam scrunched his nose.
“Dean,” Castiel said, his voice the very definition of gravity, “You must be swift and careful. Your army will only obey you so long as your goals remain clear and destructive. So destroy Lucifer’s forces, push Heaven’s back, and don’t let their gaze fall upon Man, or they will mark them for destruction as well.”
“No pressure,” Dean said. “Got it. Hey,” he grabbed Castiel’s arm before he had a chance to raise it to Bobby’s head. “You be careful too.”
Castiel wrapped one hand around the back of Dean’s head to pull it down. His lips were dry and chapped against the hollow of his cheek. “I will,” he said, “Now go.”
He disappeared, taking Bobby with him.
When Dean turned back around, Sam was smirking. “What?” he said, too sharply.
“We’re gonna have to talk about what the hell happened after Abaddon sometime,” Sam said, looking too smug for his own good. “Because clearlysomething did.”
“Shut up, bitch. We’ve got a war to fight. And you had Gabriel in you, so don’t even start with me. We are having strong words about that when this is over.”
“Whatever. Don’t splinch me, jerk.”
“This isn’t Harry frigging Potter.” Dean spread his wings. “It’s a hell of a lot more rock’n’roll.”
Lucifer was in the eye of the storm. He was the eye of the storm. And warring angels and demons were the meat of it.
Michael was on the verge of breaking free of his vessel, high as he was in the atmosphere and charged like he’d absorbed a nuclear reactor.
As Dean landed hard on what was left of the cargo ship and looked up, it was like looking into an eclipse. His eyes began to water as soon as he the storm parted enough for him to see, so when Sam tried to follow his gaze he threw a hand out to discourage him.
“Ow! You fucking hit me in the face, Dean!”
“Suck it up. Otherwise I’m pretty sure you’ll fry your eyeballs, Sammy. That shit is not kosher.”
Sam grumbled, but made sure to only look around and not up.
The gale was enormous around them, stealing the breath from their lungs, catching at their clothes and Dean’s wings--he had to arch them into the airflow to avoid spraining or even breaking them. He kept his eyes narrow against the wind even as he looked up.
“Oh Jesus fucking Christ!”
He turned. Sam was mid-swing, Ruby’s knife hard in his hand as it slid through the flesh of a black-eyed demon that looked more like a zombie than anything else. Its skin slid off its bones like a cheap coat even as it burned itself out with a snarling cry.
Dean swore. Castiel had been right. Demons were everywhere, lurching towards them in rotted bodies they must have pulled up piecemeal from the ocean. They were wet and gelatinous, black hollows for eyes.
The ship groaned as it rocked in the storm, and at the center of the deck where the angels had drawn circles and sigils of blood around Dean, there was something like a warp, something like a chasm. Dean had no doubt as to where it led.
“Whatever you do, don’t fucking fall in that hole!”
“Thanks for the advice, Dean!” Sam snapped. “I think I could have figured that out!”
Dean spun, wings parallel to the deck and pulled into deadly arcs that sheared through the wall of demons like a thresher. They came apart like they were made of wet tissue paper, only to pull back together as the demons inside the shells forced them into locomotion. One of them seized Dean’s arm and rasped wetly in his ear, “Come back to hell, Dean Winchester, we’ve been missing you terribly.”
Dean pulled his sword across in a sharp, shivering stroke. The top half of the demon’s head came off, its rotten tongue left to loll obscenely.
“There’s too many of them!” Sam shouted, his own campaign more effective for having the knife at his side. “We’re gonna have to bail!”
“Where to?” Dean yelled back, crouching down to dismember another hoard with the clawed edge of his wing. “I’ve gotta help Mike, but I can’t carry you at the same time!”
They turned, and beyond the storm an unwieldy yacht bobbed like it was on some sort of over-privileged thrill-seeking jaunt on the raucous waves. Around it, vast arcs of black flesh broke the water, circling like dogs waiting for their owner to throw the ball. They weren’t dogs, though. Dean knew that for certain.
“Are those--?” Sam shouted over the gale.
“I’d say so,” Dean replied. “What’s say we blow this popsicle stand?”
“I’m definitely all right with that.”
Dean tore through the mass of demons and seized his arm again.
They landed hard. When Dean steadied himself on the heaving ship deck, he looked up to find Crowley at the helm, and Gabriel crouching on the deck, drawing complicated patterns in blood. The archangel straightened as Sam stumbled and the boat rocked in earnest.
Dean strode over to him without looking back at Sam and punched him in the face.
“Ow! Motherfucker, that actually hurt,” Gabriel complained, wiping blood from the corner of his mouth and looking grudgingly impressed.
“‘Swhy I did it,” Dean said. “Now we’re square. What’re you and Crowley doing?”
“Looking after Tweedledee and Tweedledum, what business is it of yours?” Crowley answered snidely from the wheel.
“You did call us over,” Sam said, checking himself over and finding not much more than a few scrapes and bite-marks. “Are we sure those weren’t actual zombies, Dean? Because for demons they were--”
“Pretty low-powered, yeah,” Dean finished. He grimaced at his wings, which were red with old blood and rotting entrails. “Normally they’re at the bottom circles of hell, not good for much. The crypt’s a free-for-all, though, and I guess they were eager to get out.”
“As are most in the Pit,” Gabriel drawled. He looked at Dean for a second, and then said, more seriously, “I take it the crypt’s overrun?”
“Pretty much,” Dean said. “No available ground at all. I’m sending the army there and into the storm, but I’ve gotta help Michael, too. Can you--?”
“We’ve got more than enough on our hands to appreciate some help,” Crowley said. “Is your Greek at all serviceable, Sam?”
Sam sheathed his knife and sword, and stood a little straighter. “I’m fluent.”
“Then I’m gonna head back in,” Dean said lightly, and he was not thinking about diving into that storm alone, nor the harsh shine of Lucifer at its core, nor Michael bursting from every corner of his too-small, too-weak vessel--not thinking about it at all.
Though he wouldn’t precisely be alone.
Hot anticipatory breath tongued at his back. He whispered, “To me.”
The army swarmed.
Dean spread his wings, gore coming off of them in gelatinous flecks to spatter the deck around him. Sam grimaced and stepped back.
“Don’t wait up.”
“I take it you’ve got a job for us?” Bobby said, barely keeping up with Castiel’s unnaturally long strides. He was pretty sure Castiel was actually shorter than him, so the fact that the angel seemed to be carrying himself at a pace Bobby could only match with some serious effort sort of pissed him off.
“I do,” Castiel replied. “You remember that we have far more to deal with in this battleground than the crypt itself?”
“‘Swhy it’s an Apocalypse, isn’t it?” Bobby grumbled.
“Precisely. Dean and his army will be concentrated over the Atlantic to stop the outpouring from Hell, but there are other, smaller gateways across the globe, places where rifts will open and hellfire shall rain down. We must put a stop to it.”
“Sounds next to impossible.”
Castiel smiled thinly. “Improbable at most. Come with me.”
Before Bobby could even agree, Castiel’s fingers were on his brow, and they were halfway across the world.
Dean reappeared in the eye of the storm, and time seemed to slow, all of the sounds and fury in the gale dropping to subsonic levels and resonating in his blood. He beat his wings down hard, and ascended into impact.
Lucifer had burned through every inch of his vessel. And Dean couldn’t take it.
He threw his hand in front of his face even as he pressed upwards, and felt his flesh scorch. It was like flying into the sun.
“The sword!” he heard Michael shout, in something terrifyingly like fear. He swung it forward like a shield, all instinct, and the feeling of burning faded. He opened his eyes.
He saw through a sheen of silver, like a paper veil draw wet and tight over his eyes. There was something warm and wet in his ears and nose, and when he wiped his hand over them they came away bloody.
He pressed upwards, the storm now awake around him with the struggle of demons and angels. They appeared as tunnels of black and gold, whirling in caustic patterns in one massive, rotating hurricane. And now that Death's nameless had joined the fray, it only swirled more angrily. The overwhelming squall of a thousand nails on a thousand chalkboards marked their arrival, and then its chaos rumbling in concentric circles that Dean had to block out if he was going to be of any use.
He put aside one animal part of his mind and dedicated it to keeping his army on task. Every other last cell in him he puts to work rising higher and higher.
Michael remained in his vessel, but it was only the start of him. A miasma of ice and gold spilled from his edges, so that Lucas Wynchestre’s dark features were nearly overwhelmed with light. He moved like lightning, great swathes of fire fulminating like solar flares, his sword moving in massive arcs that would have been useless against an adversary of his own size.
But Lucifer was effulgent and vast, seething like a supernova, and no strike from any sword could be large enough. Dean tried, though; he had to try.
He lurched to the left, arcing down and letting gravity pull him with sword and wing aligned. They cut through something, butter-soft but shrieking like metal, but then the wind changed and Dean was being tossed like a ragdoll. He fought upwards again, the storm dragging at his heels.
Michael came up along his flank, warping space in his wake, and met Lucifer in an explosion of light and sound that sent them both reeling. The storm lurched and faltered, and then crashed upward in a furious return strike.
“Do you have a plan here?!” Dean shouted at Michael, nearly choking on acrid rainwater that was thick and pungent with salt and sulfur.
Michael seethed with light. “Just help me,” he said, Lucas’ voice overlaid with thunder.
Dean groaned, every muscle crying out for mercy, and clawed for altitude, tooth and nail.
Sam rolled up his sleeves and staggered across the deck of the yacht. “What do you need?” he asked.
Gabriel looked over his shoulder at him, his hands smeared with his own blood. When he snapped his fingers, it was with a slick popping sound.
Sam barely managed to catch the heavy book that fell out of the air in front of him.
“Page 583. Start reading halfway down,” Gabriel said, turning back to the series of sigils on the deck.
Sam awkwardly eased the book open while trying to stay upright as the yacht swayed precariously. The storm was kicking up waves now, black walls of water that had the boat swerving and bucking dangerously. The pages were old and damp with mildew. He pulled them open as carefully as he could manage.
The Greek was smudgy in places, but legible. Sam blinked hard, forcing his brain to work as the rest of him thrummed with dread and adrenaline.
“Come on!” Gabriel shouted impatiently.
Sam started to read. “Αυτό που γεννήθηκε από τη φωτιά και το νερό, ας έλθει και ας υψωθεί στον αέρα--” He stopped. “Gabriel. What is this for?”
“What is anything I do around here for?” Gabriel shot back. “It’s for backup. Keep reading.”
Sam swallowed, and obeyed. The words spun into the air with the roar of the sea behind them.
The dark forms beneath the water twisted and heard.
“You think you can strike me down?” Lucifer asked, unhurried and abyssal, the sound like combustion engines and organ music and the rush of fire through an oxygen tank.
“Not really,” Dean said, swinging wide again and shuddering through the impact, feeling his skin bubble and peel with the fallen angel’s closeness. And then he thought loudly, But I’m a hell of a distraction.
Lucifer whirled, taking a hurricane with him. Michael came down on him in a burst of incomprehensible lightning.
The explosion threw Dean back in the sky, and suddenly he wasn’t flying at all, he was falling.
“Shit! Oh god, fuck!”
The lightning followed him down, one long slash of electricity down the sky. “Give me the sword, Dean!” it said, Michael’s voice in desperation behind it.
Dean hit the water. He relinquished the sword with nerveless fingers as his mouth filled with brackish acid. He didn’t feel when his hand was left empty.
All of a sudden, all he knew was cold.
The shock of impact was enough to stun him; for an agonizing moment he could feel himself sinking like a stone, his limbs like lead weights, his heart frantic and useless in the cage of his chest. And then all he could taste was sulfur and blood, and unresponsive muscles kicked suddenly into a clenching contraction of panic.
He flailed, wings waterlogged, unsure of what was up or down, and fuck his fear of flying, he would give anything, anything to be in the air right now because his lungs were burning and his mouth was filled with the taste of Hell and all he could do was claw blindly for a surface whose distance could have been measured in inches or yards for all he knew.
If he could have used air, he would have sobbed.
Oh please god don’t let me drown.
“Πάρε φτερούγες από τον δημιουργό σου, τον Θεό, ούτως ώστε οι δίκαιοι να γλυτώσουν,” Sam finished, stumbling over the words. He looked up. “Oh my god.”
“Is it done?” Crowley shouted over the din of the storm.
“Oh yeah,” Gabriel said, his face set. He was drenched to the elbows in his own blood now, and the symbols on the deck were savage, arcane things that Sam didn’t recognize but knew the shapes of, what they meant when paired with the Greek he had spouted.
The blood was turning black on the wood, great smears of it creeping like tar.
“Gabriel, what have we done?”
“We’re riffing on a theme, Sammy,” the archangel replied. “Seems like the only edge we ever seem to get is the one any sane creature would abhor. Abominations, every step of the way.”
”What have we done?”
He tilted his head. “Gave our marine friends a friendly shot of unholy Red Bull.”
Sam stared at him.
“You know what they say about Red Bull, Sam.”
The boat lurched.
“It gives you wings.”
Dean couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t. He knew exactly what lay down that road, and in concept it was almost tempting to give up, let go, but not in this ocean, not when the water tasted like fire and death.
But his lungs were already on fire, his mind dulling but somehow not enough for him not to feel the crushing weight of water against his eyes, stabbing in his ears, shredding his nerves even as oxygen deprivation undid him.
Don’t scream. Don’t scream.
Oh god, he was going to scream, he could feel it bubbling and he’d lose all of his air, all of it all at once.
In a last burst of panic, he flung himself towards what he could only pray was the surface.
His hand brushed something smooth and hard. Smooth, hard, and moving fast.
When the contour of it changed, Dean closed his hand over it.
His shoulder nearly dislocated as directionless struggle turned into momentum. But he held on.
“Where are they? Where are they going?” Sam asked.
“I gave them very definite instructions,” Crowley said. “Retrieve their owner, and bring him home.”
The transition from water to air felt like resurrection; the scream Dean had been desperately holding down burst from him and then he was sucking down oxygen in great shuddering gasps.
Gasps that turned into gulps of sheer panic as mere breaking the surface turned into heavy muscular jolts up and up.
It occurred to him very belatedly that the contour he was clinging to by hand and wing was the start of a very large, very fin-like limb.
“Oh hell no,” he rasped, and looked up through eyes blurry with brine.
The dragon--because that’s what it was, born of the sea or not--was throwing itself upwards with the reckless abandon of a dim soldier with a heroic order. And though Dean couldn’t see, he could hear the clicking roar of its twin along side.
They were back in the eye of the storm. And by the heat blasting Dean in the face as they went higher and higher, archangels were not far away. The storm was a new and twisted shape too, dispersed without Dean's army driving it to oblivion--Dean sent a feeble thought to it, but it was hardly enough. And there were more important things now, like the giant he's hitched a ride with.
He closed his eyes, and thought as loudly as he could. Michael. Michael!
There was no response, spoken or otherwise. Dean gritted his teeth, he could feel his skin begin to char again, and it was too close now, not enough time.
Michael if you can hear me, you need to get out of here now. You’re not going to kill him, so we’re putting him back in the box. I’m sorry.
And with that, he relinquished his hold, and prayed his wings would hold him. In the red light that bled through his eyelids he thought he saw the ascension of massive black forms with jaws open wide, in relief against angelic light.
He tumbled away before he burned into nothingness, and begged his battered wings to fly.
“You don’t have enough juice for this,” Bobby said flatly, eyeing the massive array on the alter of massive Russian Orthodox church. “This is the most ridiculous load of occult instructions I’ve ever seen.”
“No offense meant, Robert,” Castiel said, “But while your experience is extensive, you have not seen everything.”
“Clearly not,” he grunted.
“I will not be powering this. No angel can. Demonic energy is at its core, along with a great many other things which I don’t have time to explain. What I need you to do is take this,” and here Castiel handed him a zippo that Bobby suspected he’d filched from Dean, “And set the first line of pews on fire.”
Bobby stared at him. “I’m going to hell for this, ain’t I?”
The angel smiled very thinly. “On the contrary.”
“You’re nuts. And I’m an idjit for listening to you.”
He flicked the zippo open and sparked it, and threw it down on the oil-drenched pews. Fire roared up, setting the frescoes around them aglow. From the pews the fire spread to the first line of sigils, kicking up the stench of old forgotten herbs and melting copper.
“Now what?” Bobby said over the whooshing of the flames.
“Now,” Castiel said, “We ride the kick of energy from Lucifer’s defeat.”
“We don’t even know if that’s gonna happen!”
“If it doesn’t we’ll all be dead anyway,” Castiel shrugged. He cocked an eyebrow at Bobby. “Have a little faith.”
 That which was born from fire and water, let it come forth and take to the air.
 Take wings from your creator, God, and so that the righteous may be spared.
“Dean’s in trouble,” Gabriel said.
“What? How do you know?” Sam said.
“Look.” The archangel pointed. “Dean’s army is losing focus.”
Sam peered out at the storm. What had been a seething vortex of gray indeterminate mass that seemed to whirl and consume itself over and over now seemed to be resolving into contrasts of black clouds and caustic flashes of lightning. It was growing more orderly, too; swirls of it peeled off into corkscrews, enough to get glimpses inside the hurricane.
That was how Sam spotted it.
“What is that?” he pointed. “Is that--?”
“Bollocks,” Crowley said. He wrenched the yacht around and pulled out the throttle.
“That would explain it,” Gabriel said.
“Gabriel, can you--?” Terror was choking Sam off; he clutched at the archangel’s shoulder.
Gabriel complained, “He just punched me in the face ten minutes ago! You can’t expect me to--”
“Gabriel, for god’s sake!”
“Hardly,” he scoffed. But he looked at Sam squarely. “I’ll get him, Sam. Don’t worry.”
Dean was aware of two things: His skin was on fire, and his wings were about an inch away from failing.
He spread them wide, trying to slow his fall, but the muscles were barely drawing taut, the force of the storm consolidating with gravity into an inevitable drag downwards that felt as much like drowning as the water itself.
“Heya, Deano. You look rough.”
He cracked one blistered eye open against the gale. Gabriel smirked, falling right along with him, but with two fingers extended towards his forehead.
“Good timing,” he croaked.
Gabriel pressed his fingers to his peeling skin.
Dean crumpled to his knees as he hit the deck, wings shuddering closed in a protective arch around him.
“Dean! Oh my god, Dean.”
He opened his eyes enough to see that Sam was clambering frantically up from the yacht onto the cargo ship, ignoring Crowley’s protestations. Also, since Gabriel had saw fit to land them on the cargo ship and not the yacht, he was apparently kneeling in rotting ex-demon vessels.
He wasn’t really sure whether to acknowledge how his skin was more raw than not or just vomit first.
“Deano. Get your army back in line, or they’re gonna start taking an interest in some easier targets. Namely, us.”
“Gimme a second,” he groaned.
“Don’t have one. Orders, now, or we die fast. Or faster at least.”
Dean winced, and did as he was told. The answering war cry started incoherent, but gained momentum after a strained moment that made Dean clench his burned hands as they rested on his knees.
“Jesus Christ, Dean, don’t move, you’re just gonna--”
“Shut up, Sam,” Gabriel said sharply. “Let him work.”
“He’s half dead!”
“And the other half’s working.”
“It’s done,” Dean said hoarsely, amid the carcasses. “Now fix me, goddamnit.”
Two fingers prodded at him again, and most of the pain abated, though not all. When he looked down at his hands again, they’d healed over completely in the sickly tint of Horseman skin.
“What the hell happened?” Sam demanded.
“Flew too close to the sun,” Dean smiled thinly. “Guess I should’ve kept a bit of Cas’s mojo on me a little longer.”
“You went into the fight without any Grace?” Gabriel exclaimed. “What the hell happened to it?”
Dean opened his mouth to answer, but Crowley cut through all of them. “Chaps, we need to get to the other side of this very literally godforsaken ship. Now.”
They all looked up.
The sky had gone dark. The storm was crumbling around them.
And there were twin shadows descending from miles above their heads.
“Oh shit,” Dean breathed.
Gabriel lunged for Sam, and Crowley snapped out of sight in a blink. Dean just staggered back, plastering himself to the rails as far from the gaping emptiness as he could get.
“Dean!” Sam shouted from the opposite end of the ship, but it was barely a whisper over the continued confusing roar of the gale.
Dean just watched as the dragons descended, a long arc of black flesh and in one pair of jaws, a supernova.
Or rather, two supernovae.
Michael was clawing his way down the second dragon’s back, streaking past it to grab hold of the first with the sword upheld, but Dean could tell even through his burning eyes that something was wrong. The hand that held the sword was bent and broken, the light pouring from its edges gray and feeble.
The archangel’s words echoed in his head: I couldn’t take it from you even if I tried. By the time this campaign comes to a head, no matter who remains in the lead, you or Heaven or Hell, no one will be able to claim it but you.
Jesus Christ. The archangel was crazier than Dean.
Actually, Dean thought, breaking slowly into a run forward towards the breach in reality that the dragons were mere seconds away from barrelling into, he wasn’t sure which of them was crazier. But it figured that he find out just how appropriate his being Michael’s vessel was now, of all times.
“Dean, what the fuck are you doing?!” Sam shouted. “Get out of the way!”
Dean looked up at the descending figures. “Michael!” he shouted, at the top of his lungs. “Let go!”
I’m almost there, Dean. Let me do this, or he is trapped forever, again.
“You’re going to die if you follow him down!”
There are worse fates.
“Dammit,” Dean muttered.
The throbbing burn of Lucifer’s being was closer now, beginning again to sear, but even as he thrashed the dragon’s jaws remained vice-like around his form, the creature almost grinning with its master in its maw.
And Michael wasn’t moving fast enough.
Dean exhaled slowly, and bent his knees. His wings flared and arched.
His wings cried protest but obeyed, and with his arms outstretched Dean caught Michael’s crippling form in a football tackle, dislodging him from the falling dragon’s back to send them crashing and rolling across the upper deck.
Michael exploded out of his grip, decking him in the process with a blow that almost made his neck snap, and he threw himself across the deck back towards the hole--
And then Gabriel was there.
“Unless you want to live in hell with his corpse for the rest of your life, stop,” he said, gripping Michael’s shoulder. “Please.”
Dean staggered to his feet, groaning and exploring the tender part of his jaw.
Michael stared at Gabriel. “Don’t you understand?” he said. “I need to save him. He’s my brother.”
“He’s our brother,” Gabriel corrected. “And he’s lost.”
Dean stepped past them. “Guys?”
“Oh fuck me,” Gabriel breathed.
The first dragon had reached the crypt. But it wasn’t disappearing into its depths.
Instead, there were cracks of light shivering across its black skin, spidering and spreading like magma emerging from beneath cooling surfaces. The creature's front paws were digging into the edges of the crypt, pulling desperately downwards as its wings flapped and flailed in distress. Its snout was trailing mucus and blood into the abyss beneath it, and its eyes were rolling back in its blunt, malicious face.
“Now will you let me go?” Michael demanded, breaking free of Gabriel’s grip and launching forward.
Before anyone could do anything, he was descending upon the dragon to seize it by the collar and pull.
Lucifer, nearly wearing the skin of the beast, thrashed once, twice, and then in an almighty wrench, all three of them disappeared into the breach.
The second dragon followed, almost gamboling, its jaws open in anticipation.
There was darkness for a long moment in the mouth of the crypt, interrupted only by a moaning howl, and unearthly flashes of light.
Gabriel swore. “We can’t seal the crypt without the sword; if he doesn’t come back--”
“He will,” Crowley said grimly, appearing at their sides. He reached into his breast pocket, and pulled out a wad of silk handkerchief. The others stared at him in puzzlement. He glanced at them. “Search and rescue services,” he said smoothly, and tossed the whole thing, rather violently, into the chasm.
The silk fell away before it all disappeared from sight, and Dean got a flash of diamond brightness before it went. “What the hell was that?” he asked.
Gabriel was staring at Crowley like he’d lost his mind. “Whose was that?” he snarled, thunderous. “What right had you?”
“I was given express permission,” Crowley held up his hands. “I may have bent the conditions a bit, but I was following instructions.”
“Whose was it?” Gabriel demanded. “Who did you send after him who would so willingly take his place in agony?”
“Someone,” Crowley replied, “Who won’t.”
The ship groaned beneath their feet. There was a thunderous report from within the crypt, and then nothing.
“Now what?” Dean said.
“Now we wait,” Gabriel said tightly.
“The longer we wait, the more chance more things can escape and--”
“We. Wait,” Gabriel growled.
The silence was deafening.
The storm had ceased. Or at least, it had moved. Where before it circled them, one massive trapping wall around the ship like a whirlpool, it had moved to one side, and solidified. The dark clouds of demons were one thin column hovering above the sea, beset with the light of angels that held them like a cage.
And around them were the telltale formless signs of Dean’s army, eating away at the demons in slow inexorable snatches, like vultures tearing flesh from the bone.
“Jesus,” Sam said, stepping up to stand next to Dean.
Dean jumped and turned to glare at him. Sam shrugged.
“What? This seemed like a better view, and you all left me on the port side.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Dean said flatly.
“Is this it?” he asked.
“I don’t know about it,” Gabriel said. “But it’s something.” He tilted his head just slightly in Crowley’s direction, not looking at him directly. “Tell me who you sent down there,” he asked again, lowly.
Crowley arched his eyebrows in contemplation, and then shrugged. “I sent Azrael.”
Dean blinked before frowning. “Azrael? As in, Death Azrael?”
“The same,” Crowley said. “She requested it.”
“She’s abandoning her duties,” Gabriel said tightly. "And you're letting her."
“Dude, I’m pretty sure you’ve got no room to complain about that,” Sam pointed out. And then to Crowley, “How the hell were you carrying Death around in your pocket?”
“I wasn’t,” Crowley replied. “I was carrying her grace. She hasn’t been able to hold it inside her since she took up the mantle of Death. Breaking it open is her ticket home.”
And on that note, the whole ship trembled, a guttural miles deep thrum like tectonic plates moving beneath them. Dean flared his wings to steady himself, and stepped right up to the edge of the upper deck to look down into the chasm below.
Where it had been an endless, inexplicable black, its infinite walls now flickered with a slowly growing light.
“Shield yourselves,” Gabriel said. “All of you.”
Dean threw himself at Sam, pulling them both down into a crouch, his wings enveloping them both, shutting his eyes just before catching a glimpse of the entire entrance of the crypt go from blackened emptiness to white, the iron deck of the cargo ship going from gray to red to white to falling away as magma.
He tightened his grip on Sam, and for what seemed the hundredth time that day, prayed his wings would hold.
Castiel tilted his head suddenly amid the crackling of burning wood and oil. “It’s started,” he said.
Bobby stood up. “They did it?”
“Mm,” Castiel said, and then he peered into the jug of the oil to check its contents. “Just enough,” he muttered.
“Just enough for what?” Bobby demanded. “I thought this thing was gonna ride the kick.”
“It will. But it also needs a focus. A gesture of intent, if you will.”
And without hesitation, Castiel lifted the jug above his head, and emptied it over himself.
Bobby moved without thinking; in three strides he was inside the ring of fire and tearing the jug out of the angel’s grip, throwing it with a crash to the side of the altar. “What the hell are you doing, son?” he shouted. “You can’t--”
“I can and I will,” Castiel answered calmly.
“Dean would never forgive you, and he'd never forgive me for letting you,” Bobby growled.
“You’re not letting me. I’m deciding.” Castiel reached into his pocket with his clean hand, and pulled out his phone. “You’re far from home. When this is over, call Dean or Gabriel and they will pick you up.”
Bobby glared at him. “Are they going to be picking up a body too?”
Castiel looked at him, and one corner of his lips twitched. “Hopefully not.”
“Then I ain’t gonna be needing your phone.”
“Keep it anyway.”
And with angelic inexorability, Castiel raised two fingers to Bobby’s head, and the next thing the hunter knew he was outside the church.
He didn’t even bother trying the doors. He just watched as smoke began to pour from the windows.
“Dean’s never gonna forgive me,” he murmured.
Inside, Castiel retrieved the lighter from where Bobby had first dropped it on the pews. His sleeve flared up immediately, which he ignored. Holding the small metallic item in front of him, he cocked his head for a moment, narrowed his eyes, and flicked the wheel.
Sparks flew up, and found fuel.
If Anna’s re-ascension into grace had felt like being caught in a firestorm, being in the radius of Azrael’s was like living on the surface of the sun.
He could barely hear Sam over the roar of fire from the crypt. His brother was shifting in his hold, pulling away.
“You don’t have grace. You don’t have any protection, you’re burning up. Let me--”
“No. You’ll die.”
“I won’t.” Sam’s voice was urgent and earnest in his ear. “Believe me, I don’t want to die. But you will if you don’t let me help.”
Dean felt a fissure open in his wing, smelled burning flesh. It took a great deal of effort to speak rather than cry out. “How?” he said, through gritted teeth. He tilted his head up as far as he dared and opened his eyes.
For a second, Sam’s eyes looked golden. He shrugged in his helpless, believing way.
He touched two fingers to Dean’s head.
The kick wasn’t anything like Bobby expected. He was waiting for a shockwave, or a ring of fire, anything.
Not the shivery, elusive feeling of the world slowing, breaking down invisibly somehow into component parts.
His skin contracted over unsteady nerves. He sat down abruptly on the steps of the church. He tilted his head up to look at the sky. There was nothing, except the slow progress of gunmetal clouds. But his gut knew just as well as his head that something was happening. He wondered if this was what animals felt before earthquakes hit.
He realized suddenly that the constant whooshing growl of oil fire had dipped into a gutteral rumble, something altogether unnatural. Staggering to his feet, he moved off of the steps down to the empty plaza to look back up at the massive domes of the orthodox church.
There was no sign of it being on fire anymore. Because as the rumble increased, moving into subsonic levels that made the earth shake, the only thing aflame it seemed was a slow scrawl of sigils and signs across the sky.
An eternity seemed to pass as Sam kept his hand on Dean’s forehead, eyes narrowed in concentration as the air itself seemed to be consumed by light, until finally, suddenly, it was gone.
It was as if someone had put out the sun.
Dean blinked and exhaled. “Well, now I can’t see a fucking thing,” he said hoarsely.
“Me neither,” Sam agreed, taking his hand back.
Dean flexed his wings carefully. The fissure stung hotly, but the rest of him felt oddly cool, untouched. “Thanks,” he said, eventually. “How’d you do it?”
As his eyes adjusted to the relative darkness, Sam smirked and said cryptically, “Angel heartburn.”
Dean raised an eyebrow, but decided not to comment. He just crawled to his feet, and squinted to have a look around.
Most of the lower deck had melted clean through, the crypt opening now a black gaping maw that took up most of the back end of the ship. At the edge of the ragged opening stood Death--or rather, Azrael--as impeccably dressed as ever.
With her, stood Michael.
On unsteady legs, Dean lowered himself gingerly down the steps from the upper level to join them. Crowley and Gabriel were already there, peering down into the opening.
“Nothing else seems to be making a bid to come out,” Crowley commented.
Azrael looked at him with a fair share of irritation. “Breaking open my grace in there--” she said, and her voice sounded different now, laden with depth and unexpected irritation, “A condition I did not agree to, by the way, Crowley--was like cauterizing a wound. Other than Lucifer and the two dragons, nothing is down there that can break through.”
“And he is still down there,” Dean clarified. “You’re certain?”
“We left him in less than optimal condition,” Michael said quietly. “Though still alive.”
Dean glanced down, and then stepped to stand next to him. “Give me that,” he said, nodding downwards. “It’s killing you.”
Michael looked at the gray, mutilated hand at his side. “For a moment,” he said, turning his wrist slowly, painfully, “I believed--”
“Yeah,” Dean said, easing the sword out of the archangel’s grip, wincing at the charred flesh beneath. The sword was warm and sickly damp to the touch, like fevered skin. “We all start out believing.”
“We need to close the crypt,” Crowley said.
“Yeah,” Sam said. “How does that go, exactly?”
Michael looked between him and Dean. “The blood of the Lamb, of course,” he said. “Yours and Dean’s.”
Dean backed away abruptly. “How much blood are we talking here?” he said warily.
Michael snorted. “You are not to be sacrificed, if that’s what you’re asking.” He looked back down, almost longingly at the chasm. Then he said, “If this had been as God had written, you would have needed only your human blood. That, and the beginning of Paradise. But we don’t have Paradise. Instead, we need a restoration of balance.”
“Get to the point,” Dean said.
Michael nodded. “What began as human, became dark, and then was cleansed by light. Both of you, in your separate ways, are the melding of humanity and Horsemen, Heaven and Hell. Your blood is the answer, and it always has been. But it’s the way of choice, this path that you’ve forged in hybridity against the will of God or anyone else, that will leave this planet whole.”
Sam blinked, then he looked over at Gabriel. “Dean’s human and horseman. I’m human and demon and...you planned that too, didn't you? Giving me angel stuff in New Mexico.”
Gabriel tilted his head. “Well...no. I was sort of expecting Deano here to cover the angelic part of things, but seeing as he lost that somewhere along the way, I can’t say I’m not glad for taking advantage of your hospitality for a while.”
“Jesus,” Dean said fervently.
“The sword, Dean,” Michael instructed. “We need your blood and Sam’s on it.”
Dean glanced at Sam and met his eyes. Sam nodded.
With a slight grimace, Dean set his palm on the edge of the blade and pulled, one short tight stroke. Then he handed it over for Sam to do the same. “Now what?” he asked, when Sam was done.
“Now,” Michael said, “Toss it over the crypt.”
“Like, all the way over?”
“I suppose 'into' would be a better way of putting it.”
“We’re arming Lucifer--”
“Dean. Just trust me.”
Dean sighed, and with a hard shake of his head, tossed the sword in a spinning arc over the abyss.
It didn’t fall inside. Instead, the blade seemed to just stop, spinning slower and slower until it hung like a compass needle over the crypt. When it stilled, there was a moment of nothing.
And like a coral reef coming to life, the ship’s mangled deck groaned and then shifted, becoming liquid at the edges again but not with heat, instead with the strange roundness of mercury, reaching tendrils upwards like plants seeking sunlight, but the sword was the sunlight here, the Winchesters’ blood jewel-like on its edges.
It was over in less than a minute.
One moment there was a hole into nothingness gaping impossibly from the deck, and the next there was only smooth metal, as new as it was coming out of the factory.
The sword was gone.
“That was super anticlimactic,” Dean commented.
“Don’t be so sure,” Azrael murmured.
The circle of fire in the sky closed, the last sigil burning at its edge. Bobby held his breath. The buzz was growing louder and louder. “Come on,” he said, under his breath, “Come on, you crazy sonovabitch.”
Almost on cue, a final plume of fire lit up the sky. The plaza had gathered a crowd by now, all of them looking up at the sky, rapid-fire Russian being exchanged while camera phones clicked and whirred. There was a collective gasp.
The plume resolved into massive, incandescent wings.
Sam looked up suddenly. “Do you feel that?”
Dean frowned. Or at least he tried to, but found it difficult to do so. It felt like...something he hadn’t felt in a long while. It was foreign and quiet and warm.
“Et in terra, pax,” Michael said.
“No way,” Gabriel breathed.
The wings were vast and effervescent. Fire billowed in their soft base folds, and then swirled out in great arcs as primaries. They stretched and unfolded above the burning church, and the air changed.
In Montana, the smouldering remains of an old farmhouse shivered, just slightly.
It began to rain, and putrid ash from the silhouette of broken wings began to seep into the ground.
What remained of Abaddon himself was mostly unrecognizable rot and flesh. From between shattered ribs, however, came the smallest hint of vibrant color.
A single violet, pushing towards the sun.
In Marrakech, Malaeka glanced up from a battered copy of The Big Sleep, and then paused.
The city had gone silent, the clamor of tourists and shopkeepers and bankers utterly gone. In its place, was the faint scent of freesias.
In New Mexico, a small group of survivors stepped out of their safe house.
The world calmed.
And the wings faded from sight, gone in curls of smoke along with the rest of the sigils.
Dean breathed out abruptly, wings sagging. “What was that?”
Even the battle over the water seemed to have ceased, the angels reducing to still points of blinding starlight, made only bearable to look upon by the strange lingering sheen of demonic smoke and the whirring presence of Dean’s army.
Michael looked out on the water. “The calm after the storm. Castiel has called a ceasefire.”
“Cas did this?”
“Yeah,” Gabriel said, “Apparently. Thing is, he shouldn’t have been able to. Only archangels wield that kind of power.”
Dean looked sharply at him. “How do you think he did it, then?”
Gabriel compressed his lips. “Well, either Dad’s staged another intervention, or…”
Sam watched from the side as Dean’s jaw tightened forcibly, no expression on his face, but unable to control how he unconsciously pulled his wings in closer.
“Or what?” Dean growled.
Sam’s phone rang.
Bobby pulled his gaze forcibly away from the fading silhouette in the sky and ignored the urge to just be still, just breathe. Instead, he ordered his legs to move, back towards the church that was still smoldering.
The metal of the door handles was blisteringly hot, so he pulled off his jacket and used it to shield his hands. The doors gave way with a groan, and promptly issued a plume of smoke that billowed out into Bobby’s face, making him cough and recoil. Waving his jacket in front of him to disperse it, he stepped cautiously inside.
The interior was a mess of black and gray, every inch sooty and uncomfortably hot, but it seemed that the actual fire had mostly gone out. The only surfaces that remained clean were, hauntingly, the original sigils Castiel had drawn out.
Stepping over crumbling pews and the remains of the carpeting on the aisle, Bobby approached the altar.
The motionless form of Castiel was half-draped across it, nearly unrecognizable.
A mess of ash was smeared over most of his skin, turning the spikes of his hair gray, and the trench coat was gone, as was his jacket. His legs were crumpled beneath him in a parody of kneeling, his torso and head only supported by the altar; one arm was flung across its surface. The empty jug of holy oil dangled loosely from his opposite hand.
“Shit,” Bobby said, and dug his phone out of his pocket.
Sam nearly jumped out of his skin. He fumbled the phone open with shaking hands. “Cas? Are you—?“
“This ain’t Cas. Is Dean there? Put Dean on the line, I was trying to call him but the line’s dead.”
Wordlessly and with growing dread, Sam handed over the phone. “It’s Bobby.”
Dean tensed, and snatched the phone out of his hands. “Bobby? What the hell happened, where’s Cas?”
He listened for a second. Then he snarled.
“Where the fuck is here? Russia’s a huge fucking country!”
Sam could hear as Bobby shouted back down the line, “Don’t raise your voice to me, boy! Get one of your angel friends to find him, and then get here.”
The line cut out, and Dean swore.
“I can find him,” Michael said, “If there is grace left in him.”
“And is there?” Dean demanded. “Is he okay?”
Michael looked at him with sympathy, and reached forward. “Let’s find out.”
It took several seconds for them to relocate as Michael searched out traces of Castiel’s grace to pinpoint him, several seconds in which Dean felt uncomfortably squeezed through spaces he was fairly certain he had no right, spiritually, biologically or molecularly, to be. When they emerged finally into somewhere recognizably on earth, Dean stumbled on landing.
“Dude, couldn’t you have looked for him before we took off? Seriously, if I get indigestion again from one of you feathery—oh Jesus Christ.”
The square was quiet, most of the crowd having dispersed. There were, however, sirens in the distance, and a few remaining onlookers who seemed torn between concern and bone-deep calm. They barely even gave the sudden appearance of Dean and Michael a second glance.
Dean stared up at the sigil slowly fading in the sky. “Is that--?”
“The signal for peace, yes. They’re inside,” Michael said.
Dean nodded, and they started forward.
Bobby looked up when they stepped in through the doors. “Took you long enough. Dean—“
“No,” Dean muttered, and then he darted forward, automatically disappearing and reappearing at Bobby’s side. “What happened?” he asked. His hands shook as he reached forward.
“Kicked me out of the damn building before he set the whole thing, and himself, on fire,” Bobby grunted. “Your angel’s crazier than a bag of cats. And I wouldn’t touch him, if I were you. Tried to get him up and nearly gave myself second degree burns.”
Feeling like the air had been sucked from the room, Dean wrapped one hand around Castiel’s shoulder, ignoring how his hand made an awful sizzling sound at the contact.
Bobby rolled his eyes, and Dean distantly heard him add, “...Or you can do what you want as usual. Idjit.”
He was pretty sure the Horseman skin that had grown back on him was blocking most of the pain of it anyway. Carefully, he eased Castiel away from the altar, catching him as he slumped back. Where the angel’s jaw lolled against his arm, he could feel the faintest flutter of a pulse. Something tight and awful inside him eased, though only slightly.
“Perhaps we should return to the crypt,” Michael suggested. “So that we can decide what to do next.” He remained near the door, as if unable to venture further inside. There was something tight in his voice that Dean couldn’t pinpoint, and a part of him didn’t want to. There was something wrong, and he didn’t—couldn’t—think about it just now. Not with Cas slumped against him, breathing shallowly.
“What do you mean, ‘next’?” Bobby said. “It’s over, isn’t it? We’ve stopped the Apocalypse, haven’t we?”
“In a singularly unprecedented way, yes,” Michael agreed slowly.
Bobby swore under his breath in exhausted disbelief. Dean just exhaled. It was the first time any of them had said it aloud.
Probably because admitting it felt like the start of a really terrible punch line. Probably because all he felt right now was dread.
Castiel was unmoving in his arms, nearly painful to the touch with heat. “Go ahead, then,” he said. “I’ll follow you and Bobby there.”
Michael gave him a knowing, unhappy look, and then nodded. He stepped forward towards Bobby, and in seconds, the two of them were gone.
Dean looked down at the mess in his arms. “Cas?” he whispered. Instinctively, he put one hand over his chest, flattening his palm over singed shirt cloth, trying to feel for that lock, that connection he’d pushed across in Marrakech.
He couldn’t find it. It wasn’t there.
While Sam paced on the deck, Gabriel turned to Azrael, eyeing her carefully. She noticed.
“Is there something you wish to say to me, Gabriel?” she said. They were standing at the rail of the ship, still looking out on the ocean and the strange, suspended spectacle of the battle in the distance.
“Just thinking,” he said lightly. “That you weren’t particularly surprised to see me join this side. Or, you know, to see me at all.”
“Being Death has certain privileges of perception,” Azrael replied. But then she quirked a smile. “That’s not what you really want to ask me, though.”
Gabriel grinned, but there was little humor behind it. “I didn’t just decide on a whim to be generous to the Winchesters and give them a leg up with War’s ring. I decided to only when I looked forward, and saw a changed future. A future with this,” he cast a hand out. “Thing is, such a vision should only be readily available, readily present, once I’d decided to make Dean put on the ring. Chicken and egg conundrum, that.”
Azrael waited expectantly, the smile still small and curved.
“So I was thinking, how’d I see that before I technically should’ve been able to? How’d that idea, that future, unveil itself? And then I asked myself, who could plant it there, if not the workings of collective angelic sight?” He cocked his head, grin fading. “It would have to be someone very powerful indeed. Someone with…’privileges of perception’, perhaps?”
And Azrael looked away “Well done,” she murmured.
“Why?” Gabriel hissed. “Why did you do it?”
“To be free,” she said calmly. “I am old, Gabriel, I’m older than you, I am older than Michael. I was the first.”
“That’s impossible. Michael is—“
“The first to stay an angel for more than a millisecond,” Azrael corrected. “For that was how long I was merely an angel. Father created me, and bid me become Death. And I obeyed.”
Gabriel looked at her, expression unexpectedly open. “Azrael—“
“Don’t pity me,” she cut him off. “It is kind of you, particularly after what you now know of recent events, but it is unnecessary. As you can see, I’ve made arrangements.”
He nodded slowly. And then his eyes widened. “21:4,” he said suddenly.
For the first time, Azrael smiled fully, eyes sparkling for the first time with something other than distant disinterest. “That’s right,” she said, meeting his eyes and taking in his shock with mirth. “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
“Are you telling me,” Gabriel demanded, “That by preventing the Apocalypse, you prevented your own death?”
Azrael nodded, still smiling. “I shall not be Death, and I shall not die. And we are free from prophecy, all of us.”
Gabriel stared at her. “I think,” he said slowly, “That Lucifer was not the one we should have feared first.”
Azrael shrugged, in her strange, distant way. “I don’t think I’ve ever rebelled against our Father’s will,” she said thoughtfully. “I’ve often suspected that he bid me take up the mantle of Death because he knew that he could trust me. He could trust me to be his failsafe.”
“By destroying his vision of the End?” Gabriel asked incredulously.
“If I thought life, real life over Paradise, was worth it,” Azrael answered. “And I’ve come to think, after taking life away since the universe began, that it is worth giving back.”
“It isn’t that simple, though. You know that.”
“Of course. There is always sacrifice. But that is as much part of life as anything else, don’t you think?”
Gabriel narrowed his eyes. “And don’t you think, much as I hate to admit it, that Dean has sacrificed enough?”
“Don’t you remember what I just said, Gabriel?” Azrael replied, quirking an eyebrow. “The time of prophecy is dead. Nothing is set in stone anymore, not even this. We all have choice now.”
Gabriel shook his head. “You should have been a Trickster instead,” he muttered.
There was a loud thump behind them, followed by Crowley cursing thoroughly. They both turned.
Bobby got to his feet, and glared. “What?” he asked. “I ain’t used to flying angel air, alright?”
Azrael looked at Gabriel
“Where’s Dean and Cas?” Sam demanded.
“They will be following soon,” Michael said. He looked at Gabriel with worry, however. “Castiel has made a sacrifice,” he said, more quietly.
Sam sucked in a breath. “No,” he said. “He can’t have. He isn’t—“
“He’s not dead,” Dean said. His wings were arched protectively over where he was crouched, Castiel’s limp form still unmoving. “But I don’t know what he is anymore. I can’t reach him.“ He looked up at Michael. “Tell me what to do.”
Michael looked at him heavily. “There’s nothing you can do,” he said. “He—“
“He burned his wings,” Gabriel said. “That was what he powered the spell with.”
“Is he fallen, then?” Sam asked, hushed.
Gabriel shook his head. “He still has grace, or Michael wouldn’t have been able to find him. But Dean's right, he’s not an angel anymore.”
“Is he going to be okay?” Dean snarled. “Tell me you know that much, at least.”
“Angels don’t survive without their wings,” Michael said. “They can’t support their grace without them, and so they burn out. I’m sorry.”
“No. No, there has to be another way, he doesn’t die like this, not after it’s over,” he said fiercely, wings tightening, arching around him and Castiel.
“Dean, you’re burning up,” Gabriel said quietly. “You hold onto him any longer, and he’ll barbecue you.”
“I’m not letting him go.”
“Shut up, Sammy. There is another way, and one of you sons of bitches isn’t saying it. Tell me. Now.”
Very quietly, Crowley cleared his throat. Dean swung his head around to look at him. “You got something to say?” he demanded.
“I just wished to point out,” Crowley said, looking at his nails, “That you are a human with wings. Quite unnatural. And Castiel is currently an angel without wings. Also, quite unnatural. Do you see where I’m going with this?”
“Is that even possible?” Sam said. “I mean, Dean has wings because of being a Horseman, not because he’s part angel.”
“Don’t ask me,” Crowley held up his hands. “This has never happened before, so far as I know.”
“It’s possible,” Azrael cut in. “But I cannot allow it.”
Dean growled. “And why fucking not?”
Gabriel sighed. Dean glared at him. “Why?” he repeated, so low his voice shook. Sam swallowed. He didn’t think he’d ever heard his brother sound so dangerous.
Gabriel slid his gaze over to Azrael with surprising bitterness. “You’re the one who did this,” he said. “You tell him.”
Azrael was unaffected. She said, “Because you are my heir. My successor as Death.”
Sam froze. And Dean’s face went carefully, completely blank.
“No,” Dean said, toneless. “No. You can’t ask that of me.”
“There can’t just not be Death, Dean,” Gabriel said, his entire body so still. “Azrael’s left a vacuum, and ever since you took up War’s ring, she named you as her inheritor.”
Dean closed his eyes.
Clanging like bells, that same conversation echoed in Dean’s ears as he sat frozen on the ground, Cas burning against him. That conversation over chisels and bloody hands in a frozen Houston office building.
“If you’d let me kill this city, you would have felt it. And it would have felt like coming home.”
“Let me,” Sam said quietly. “Let me take his place.”
Gabriel rolled his eyes. “Winchesters. Same lines all the time. And you can’t, as it happens. You aren’t a Horseman. Dean is.”
“Yet Azrael wasn’t a Horseman, originally. She was an angel.”
Dean turned sharply. Michael lifted his chin, his eyes steady.
Azrael, unseen, curved her mouth to an odd, softer smile than before.
Gabriel exhaled like he’d been punched. “Brother, no.”
“Why not?” Michael asked calmly. “My last duty has been fulfilled, albeit not in the way that was written. And I...I owe penance.”
“You don’t have to do this,” Gabriel said, and he sounded desperate now, raw in ways Dean had never seen him. He pointed accusingly back at Azrael. "This isn't how it has to be, this is her doing, you can't--"
“It is necessary," Michael cut him off. His gaze flicked to Azrael for just a moment, understanding in his gaze. She nodded. The archangel closed his eyes briefly, and then turned to Dean. "You remember what Azrael said to you? Heaven’s supremacy will be challenged after this, with the end of our prophesied years. As Death, I can defend it.”
“That would be satisfactory,” Azrael said, still and demure. “And if you agree, then we don’t have much time.”
Dean looked up at Michael, almost unseeing. “Thank you,” he said hoarsely.
“Don’t thank me yet,” the archangel replied, his expression strange and inscrutable. “Save Castiel.”
Dean swallowed, and turned back to Azrael. “Tell me how.”
“You can’t do it alone,” Azrael said. “And it will hurt.”
“Tell me how.”
She drew a sword from the sleeve of her tailored jacket. It looked much the same as any angelic blade, all slim smooth lines and stout unadorned handle. It was tarnished, though, and dark with rust. “First, I take them from you,” she said quietly. “And then, you gift them to his form.”
“Oh my god,” Sam said faintly.
Dean just swallowed again, with slightly more difficulty. He eyed the blade. “That thing’d better be sharp. And sanitary,” he added.
She smiled. “It is both.”
She knelt behind him, and then Dean felt the cool of sharp metal against the base of his wing. “Are you sure you want to do this?” the angel said into his ear.
Dean looked down at the crumpled form in his arms. “It’s Cas,” he said simply.
He felt her nod.
She said, “Then I will be quick.”
To say that Sam was undergoing some shock was a bit of an understatement. He sort of felt like maybe he was suffering from emotional whiplash.
Because he was looking down at his brother, his brother who looked nothing like the brother he’d grown up with, his brother now with unnatural eyes and mottled ashy skin and wings, his brother who had ended the Apocalypse. His brother who was about to lose those wings the same way he got them—drenched in blood.
This wasn’t how the Apocalypse should end. Not with more sacrifices.
Azrael was running clinical fingers over Dean’s shoulder blades, searching out the base joint of the wing, finding the ligaments and the angle at which to best approach. Dean was just still, breathing shallowly, Castiel still slowly immolating in his arms.
Slowly, Sam sank to his knees. Dean raised his eyes to look at him. “Hey, Sammy,” he said quietly. “Tough break, huh?”
Sam snorted. “Those damn wings, man. It just seems to always come down to that.”
Dean shook his head, though. “It didn’t come down to anything. Didn’t even come down to us, really. I mean look,” he gestured out at the mess on the sea. “It’s still going. It’s gonna keep going, even when it’s not in our backyard anymore. We’re just filling in the seams, Sam; we’re bridging the gaps.”
“And after?” he asked softly. “What then?”
Azrael leaned slightly over Dean’s shoulder, her blade tight to his wing. “Are you ready?” she asked.
Dean looked at Sam. “There is no after,” he said. “There’s just more.” And then he tilted his head. “Do it.”
“Wait,” Sam said suddenly. And then he unbuckled his belt, folded it over twice, and held it out. “You’ll need this.”
“Deja fuckin’ vu, huh?” Dean said, smirking slightly. He took the belt though, and fit it between his teeth. Then he looked over his shoulder at Azrael and nodded sharply.
The angel acquiesced, and began.
Sam squeezed his eyes shut.
Dean hadn’t realized how high his pain threshold had gotten as a Horseman until it finally got topped. It was a very, very small mercy that Azrael was as good as her word. But god, it hurt.
He bit down hard on Sam’s belt, tasting rotten blood and sea salt and leather, but nothing distracted from the relentless, jagged agony of his flesh and bone being torn asunder. He made a strangled, awful sound in his throat as Azrael sliced through cartilage with a sickening noise like wet sandpaper and the sensation of his whole back splitting open and suddenly he found himself unbalanced, weight detached from his shoulder and there was something faltering inside of him, seeking desperately to mend and reclaim, but he tamped that down and tried, tried so hard to let go.
His back was on fire, hot and sticky-wet and torn open, muscles and nerves screaming and raw over every inch of exposed flesh.
To his front, Castiel still blistered his skin, adding to the stench of blood and salt in his nostrils. Dean clutched tighter to him, heedless.
When Sam dared to open his eyes, at first all he could see was blood. Michael was praying under his breath above his head, but all he can hear was the keening cry of Dean through the belt. Azrael was splattered with arterial spray, her hand clutched around the messy bulk of muscle and feather that was—oh god—coming away from Dean inch by inch.
But even as he could barely tear his eyes away from the horror of the point of severance, the wings themselves were changing. They were breaking up, flaring and flaking apart even as blood poured from Dean’s back, turning to a web-work of lightning and cinders as they parted from him under the knife.
Azrael let go of the left one to concentrate on the right, and it simply vanished into a miasma of tawny smoke and electrical currents before it hit the deck, even as Dean’s back continued to bleed like it was never going to stop, dark rivulets of it running down his ribs and sizzling as they came into contact with Castiel’s burning form.
Dean was heaving, seizing with the effort of staying upright, his eyes wide open and unseeing, and Sam couldn’t take it. He lurched forward.
“Sam,” Azrael said warningly.
“I can’t. No,” Sam said, disjointed, his hands moving of their own accord. “I have to—“
She raised one blood soaked hand and pushed him away, Dean panting and sweating between them. “You may heal him after,” she said, “But not before he’s completed the transfer.”
And then with a sickening wrench the second wing came free, shreds of sinew trailing before melting into sparks.
Dean groaned, a sound of desolation and exhaustion, and Azrael ignored it. “Give them to him, and he will live,” she said, pushing his head down to hunch him further over Castiel. “Do it before they begin to mend.”
Dean’s eyes were glassy, the belt falling from his mouth, but he took one trembling hand and pressed it to Castiel’s chest. The flesh hissed as it made contact. Dean just blinked laboriously, and then closed his eyes altogether.
Sam said hoarsely, “Please, let me—“
“Not yet,” Azrael said, unmoved.
Please, Dean thought, through a haze of agony and endorphins and blood loss. Please..
Something in him shifted again, and for a moment it felt as raw and twisted and unmade as the rest of him, like he’d been flayed open on the rack with a cat-o’-nine-tails. Distantly he was aware of the skin of his arms and hands blistering, and Gabriel’s strangled comment of, “He’d better goddamn fixhimself this time,” before the shift grew, wrenched from him with as much force as Azrael had just applied to his battered limbs, and something like liquid ice settled in tightening bands across his ribs, stealing his breath. He couldn’t concentrate, he was losing control, he’d lost too much blood, and Cas--
He pressed down in a last gasping effort, and felt the bones in his hand shudder.
Over his shoulder, he vaguely heard Crowley splutter, “Bloody fucking Christ.”
There was a flare of dark. That was the only way Sam could describe it. It wasn’t a blackout, it was like the reflective glare of a mirror in the sun, except the mirror was Cas and the sun was…the antithesis of light. For a brief, terrifying moment Sam couldn’t see, hear or feel anything, like he was in freefall somewhere out of the abyss of space. He gasped in a breath, and found no air at all. His chest constricted with panic and lack of oxygen—
And then it was gone like nothing had happened. Except that Dean was swaying, and so Sam lunged to steady him before he crushed Cas or toppled overboard completely. “Can I fix him now?” he snapped, still blinking darkness out of his eyes, and Azrael nodded.
“It’s done,” she said, and Sam ignored the blood as best he could and slammed a hand down on Dean’s back like Dean was choking on something. White fire seared down his arms, but it was gone in less than a second, and then Dean was coughing, groaning, hacking up blood. The ugly gushing wounds where his wings used to be were cauterized closed, still angry and raised in ways that Sam knew would scar into awful spidery lines.
“I could’ve—“ Michael started to say, but Sam just shook his head. It was his turn to put Dean back together, incomplete or not. Even if it used up everything Gabriel had left behind in him, this was his turn to make a sacrifice in the face of the far larger one Dean had just made.
And god, Dean did look incomplete, with blood running down his back and nothing to show for it. The irony didn’t escape Sam that he found himself mourning those massive wings that, over the course of weeks, had come to be a defining feature of Dean as much as his eyes or freckles.
“Cas?” Dean asked weakly, his voice wrecked, eyes bloodshot and bruised.
Beneath him and Sam, the blackened form shifted, and then the clear shine of blue broke through the sheen of ash.
“What have you done to me?” he rasped.
Azrael turned from the tableau, and stood with apparently no consideration for the blood smeared across her perfect tailoring and well-manicured hands. She reached into her pocket, and extracted a ring, old and tarnished.
Michael tore his eyes away from the Winchesters leaning over Castiel and regarded her. After a moment, he held out a hand.
“Wait,” Gabriel said, voice odd and ragged. “Wait for just a moment.”
Azrael tilted her head, and put the ring back in the pocket of her blazer. Gabriel pulled Michael aside.
“Did you know you would have to do this?” he asked quietly, leaning forward to rest his forehead against Michael’s. “Is this…”
“No,” Michael replied, with calm certainty. “But it makes a sort of sense, doesn’t it? I am the second son. I am the heir.”
“Makes you wonder.”
Michael shook his head. “It makes me sure. Things could have gone exactly as they were written. But there are other paths, paths that make sense. And we chose to take one of them.”
“You have an interesting definition of the word ‘choice’,” Gabriel argued.
“So do you,” Michael pointed out, implacable. “But cause and effect is not the same as destiny.”
Gabriel sighed against him. “Are we all just going to continue to be hypocrites?” he asked, after a long second. “Is that what we are?”
“‘The wise contradict themselves’,” Michael quoted wryly. “And even you, Gabriel, have never claimed to be anything but wise.”
Gabriel exhaled, and just leaned closer, Michael grasped at his shoulders and pulled him close. “This isn’t the end, little brother,” he said. “This is just new. But do one thing for me.”
“Stick to the side you’ve chosen. Don’t run this time.”
Gabriel’s eyes glowed. “I won’t.”
Michael’s hand was warm against his cheek, palm smooth as he drew it down, and then stepped away. He took the ring from Azrael and put it on.
Gabriel was there to catch him as his grace sent him tumbling forward to vomit it out.
“What have you done?” Castiel asked again, this time more urgently. “Am I dead?”
“No,” Sam said firmly. “You’re definitely not dead.”
“Why not?” he demanded, like that was a sensible question. He looked up at Dean, whose skin was unnaturally pale, and whose wings…
“No,” he breathed, blue shining through the soot even more visibly as his eyes widened. “Dean, you didn’t.”
“What? ‘Sonly natural,” Dean replied, flat and hollow sounding, and Sam knew with sudden certainty that he was on the verge of passing out. “You’re supposed to have wings, and I’m n…“
Sam caught him as he collapsed.
Castiel did too, surging upwards from Dean’s lap to cradle his head as he lilted and fell. He left ash streaks on Dean’s face as he lowered him to the ground. He looked at Sam over Dean’s crumpled and disfigured shoulders. He seemed lost for words, and Sam had a fleeting thought that that, of all things, was the scariest shit he’d ever seen.
But then the angel seemed to regain his usual control, and said, very lowly, “Your brother is infuriating.”
Sam laughed a short, strangled and panicky sort of snort that, if he wasn’t careful, would turn into tears. “Believe me, Cas—I’ve noticed.”
From the opposite end of the deck, Michael groaned. Gabriel steadied him.
Crowley looked between the two huddled groups on either side of him with no small amount of fascination. “So this is how it starts, eh?” he said, after a moment. “Brave new world.”
“Not so new,” Azrael replied. “Old players, new roles, perhaps.”
“Bit of a cheat, isn’t it?”
Azrael smiled. “Maybe.” She eyed him sidelong. “You have no more obligations to us, you know. You may, if you care to, herd your brethren back into the deep.”
Crowley peered out at the roiling mass, gripped in the web of Horseman chaos. “To be perfectly honest,” he said, after a moment, “I can’t quite bring myself to care what happens to them. They followed Lucifer. I like topside. We’re not, as they say, compatible.” He looked over at Michael, who was struggling to his feet. Clutched between his hands, was something bright and painful. “Death can have them,” Crowley finished. “I’ll take care of what’s below once he’s cleaned house.”
“You are inordinately lazy,” Azrael said, with what could be amusement or irritation. She stepped lightly over to Michael, who was leaning heavily on Gabriel. She looked between them, and then produced from her inside jacket pocket a small glass vial. “Here,” she said. “Hold on to it any longer, and it will begin to burn you.”
Michael looked up at her. The dark shadows under Lucas Wynchestre’s eyes looked deeper now, and harder. His hands shook as he tipped them forward; Gabriel steadied them as the stream of light and fire siphoned into the glass.
When his hands were empty, Michael rocked back on his heels, like it would take nothing more than a light breeze to knock him down. It was Azrael, this time, who steadied him, coming forward to stand at his other side. Her hand closed over his, thumb smoothing over the ring that was slowly turning from silver to burnished gold.
Michael followed her gaze down to it, and said quietly, “What does it mean?” He sounded young, like a boy, and Gabriel ached for him.
“It means that you may be Death,” Azrael said, “But you will never not be Michael. Remember that.”
He nodded slowly.
Then he straightened slightly, and turned to look out at the sea, the battlefield that seethed in uncomfortable silence, every side left rudderless, unsure and still. “The army,” he said after a moment. “They will follow me?”
“They must,” Azrael said, tilting her head back to indicate the huddled forms of the Winchesters and Castiel. “They have no one else anymore.”
Michael blinked slowly. “The angels and the army of Death shall take the demons up to Heaven, where they will burn in holy fire. Gabriel, will you help me?”
Gabriel swallowed. “If that’s what you want.”
“It is. Unless you would rather stay here?” he added, after a moment.
“No.” Gabriel shook his head after a moment. “No, I can follow you. For now,” he added.
Michael seemed to accept it. He stepped forward across the deck, his steps strangely light, like he was only half there. It took Gabriel a moment to fall in beside him, a moment in which the white-gold of Michael’s wings dulled further into silver and black, the electricity sparking from them glowing cold and blue, invisible. Lucas Wynchestre’s skin shone pallid and strange beneath the blues and greens of his clothes. Black would suit him better.
Castiel looked up at the two archangels warily as they approached.
Michael regarded the strange tableau, lips thinned, taking in how Sam was hunched in and exhausted, and Castiel was still black with soot from head to toe, tremors in his shoulders he couldn’t altogether repress. How Dean seemed in his unconscious state jarringly vulnerable, no vast bulk of wings behind him, just the lax slope of his shoulders and his black marble throat laid bare, his clothing soaked through with a sickly dark red that extended into a pool beneath him like a second shadow.
Unconsciously, Castiel’s grip on him tightened.
Michael tilted his head to the side, addressing Gabriel. “Heal him as best you can,” and then more quietly, “I don’t give life anymore.”
Gabriel nodded. He brushed past Michael to kneel next to Sam. “Used up all that mojo I gave you, huh?” he said.
“Didn’t even last a day,” Sam agreed hoarsely. “Least now I don’t have heartburn anymore.”
Gabriel snorted. He looked up at Castiel and said, “You okay, brother?”
“I don’t know,” Castiel shot back. “Am I?”
“I don’t know what you are,” Gabriel said again, though more steadily than before. “But it’s nothing I can do anything about.”
Castiel’s gaze flickered. “It doesn’t matter,” he said.
“Sure it does. But maybe later.” He laid one hand carefully on Dean’s forehead and hissed through his teeth.
“Is he going to be okay?” Sam said, voice tight.
“Your brother went beyond the realms of okay the moment he put on the ring of a Horseman,” Gabriel replied steadily, and Sam bit back a harsh retort when he realized that this was the first time Gabriel had voiced the part he played in this whole mess without being pushed into it.
The archangel flicked his gaze up at Sam after a pause, and said, “He’ll live, and he’ll be Dean, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Sam exhaled. “Yeah. That’s what I’m asking.”
Gabriel turned back to Dean, his palm on his brow pressing down. Dean’s head tipped back slightly, unresponsive. Gabriel’s breath went shallow, his eyes glassy.
The burns across Dean’s forearms and chest resolved themselves, smoothing to the strange dark gray that made his flesh look like summer storms. It looked healthy even, but never human. Only the thin, delicate skin of his face and ears remained its customary freckled shade of pale. He’ll never be able to go out in public in the summer, Sam thought nonsensically. This is who he is now.
Gabriel looked at him knowingly, and took his hand away. He looked exhausted, like the whole Apocalypse had finally caught up with him. Perhaps it had. “I’ll come back to check in, when things are more settled,” he said eventually. And then he turned back to Michael.
Michael looked colder than before, remote and large in a way that seemed oppressive, rather than expansive. It was only when he spoke that something familiar slipped through.
“I would bless you,” he said, “But.” He stopped. Swallowed like a part of him had died.
“Thank you,” Sam murmured.
The archangels turned away, and were gone.
In Castiel’s grip, Dean’s chest expanded with a deep shuddering breath. His eyes snapped open, and they looked green, normal.
“Cas,” he rasped.
Castiel looked down at him. “I told you to stop.”
Dean grinned lopsidedly, one canine showing like a fang. “You know I never listen to you.”
Azrael stepped forward, calm and warm where Michael no longer was. “Let me take you all home.”
Azrael took them home.
They hadn’t actually known what home was going to be, until they found themselves in South Dakota, amongst the ruins of Bobby’s house. Bobby looked at it with a mix of outrage and anger.
“What the hell kind of home do you think this is?” he growled.
“Apologies,” Azrael said, after a moment. “Let me just—”
She waved a hand. The air shimmered.
Sam blinked at the house. It looked…it looked like a house. It looked like Bobby’s house.
Bobby caught on quicker. “When’d you snatch it from?”
“A year ago. But it’s a duplicate; I didn’t take it from there, only made a copy.”
“Damn right you didn’t,” he grumbled. “You archangels messing with the time continuum—”
“I am not an archangel,” Azrael interrupted. She looked at them, motley crew that they were, and seemed faintly luminescent against the cool gray of the afternoon sky. “I was the first angel. But that’s all. I hold no rank among my brethren.”
“What’re you gonna do?” Sam asked.
“What we all have to do, Heaven, Hell and Earth alike,” she replied, like it was obvious and easy. “Learn to move on.”
And like that, she was gone.
“So that’s it, then,” Sam murmured.
Castiel stood, taking Dean with him. Together they looked like a single smear of ash and blood, unreal against the uncanny normalcy of South Dakota sky and an old salvage yard. Dean’s head lolled against Castiel’s shoulder, but his eyes were clear.
“I need a fucking drink,” he said.
Sam, Bobby and Castiel all said at once, “Me too.”
They didn’t actually drink first.
Bobby took one look at Dean and Castiel and said, “Y’all aren’t sitting anywhere but the kitchen floor until you’ve washed.”
“Guess I’m sitting on the floor then,” Dean rasped, “Because I don’t think I can stand, let alone take a shower.”
“It will take an hour or so before your body catches up with the healing Gabriel gave you,” Castiel said. He sounded strangely distant. Dean looked up at him from where he’d lolled his head on the angel’s shoulder.
“How ‘bout Bobby and I take the first showers, then?” Sam said, after a pause. “You should be up for it by the time we’re done.”
Dean waved an indistinct gesture of agreement at him. Bobby said, “You go ahead, son. You’re covered in zombie guts.”
“All too aware of that, thanks,” Sam said, and disappeared upstairs.
Into the sound of the water going on overhead, Bobby sat heavily down at the table.
Dean obligingly let himself be lowered to the floor. Castiel stepped away from him, looked with some interest at his blackened suit and hands, and then…
“Neat trick,” Bobby said eventually.
“Something it would have taken some effort to accomplish, in my previous state,” Castiel murmured. He looked immaculate, like time and the goddamn apocalypse hadn’t touched him. He didn’t sound accomplished, though. Just tired and slightly curious.
“Don’t say I never give you anything,” Dean said, without thinking.
Castiel glared at him, seemed on the verge of saying something, and then turned sharply away, disappearing in an echo of wingbeats as he did so.
Bobby rolled his eyes. “Idjit,” he said.
Dean leaned against the cabinets and slid a little further down onto the linoleum, leaving a smear of grease and viscera in his wake. “Part of my charm.”
It would take five days for Castiel to return to the house.
It also took those five days for Dean to not feel like he’d been run over by a semi anymore. But that wasn’t even really his main focus. The silence was.
Cas left, Sam and Bobby took their showers, and he had finally gotten up the energy to pull himself up the stairs, and then he was standing under the shower head, using up every ounce of hot water left, watching blood and ash and other unmentionable things disappear down the drain, and then the silence just seemed to descend, a shroud of stillness and shock that had him stumbling to his knees.
The tile was too bright, the water too hot, and every muscle he had (and some that he didn’t anymore) was trembling in huge, wracking shudders.
It all came down. They’d been moving, fighting, struggling nonstop, for what felt like years. Dean couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept without nightmares, or woken up without the sound of someone else working, Sam murmuring over textbooks in the dark, Crowley saying something snide and useful, Castiel flashing in and out (on, fuck, wings that were his own, and that sunk in suddenly and terribly too). Even the brief stays in Marrakech had been full of the din of traffic outside, and the quiet murmur of Arabic in the apartments next door.
Now there was the metallic hiss of water, and nothing else.
It took him nearly an hour to leave the bathroom, part of it spent spitting bile into the toilet.
Sam had just looked up at him from the couch, his own hair already drying in absurd curls. Dean could only imagine what he saw. He’d looked at himself in the mirror, human and not, pale and mottled and wrong, and had to look away.
There was something shameful about being a freak without the wings to show for it.
“Feel human again?” Sam asked, with a soft, crooked tilt to his mouth that took away the sting of it. Dean knew what he meant.
“Human is overrated,” he said. “Now gimme the booze before someone gets hurt.”
That was the first day.
The days, weeks and months of dread and change and insanity began to catch up with them in unexpected ways. Sam knew he was a mess; he wandered around the house in a daze, picking up books and putting them down, eating like he'd forgotten how to do so. But what had happened in his mind seemed like an indistinct blur of happenstance and panic, and when he looked at himself in the mirror he looked tired and older, but not all that different, not at all. He could almost put it away, almost stop his hands from shaking sometimes.
He ended up getting drunk the first night with Dean and Bobby, but instead of passing out, holed up and read a bad spy novel, because at least in fiction things were obligated to make sense.
When he woke up the next day, novel crushed under his face, he felt strangely and suddenly alive. And he exhaled, slowly, with relief, because he realized that he was, just maybe, allowed to breathe for himself now.
It wasn't like that for Dean, though, and he knew it.
On that second day, when Sam felt like he could breathe the air without paying a price, he caught a strange, new expression passing over Dean’s face, and it wasn’t until it happened again when Dean’s back was turned away from him that he understood the source of it.
There was an ugly shift beneath his brother’s t-shirt, a roll of sinew and scar tissue that Sam realized with a lump in his throat would have translated to the arch and curve of massive, ashy wings. And then Dean’s face twisted up with shades of surprise and then resignation, and Sam had to leave the room before he broke down or said something idiotic and useless.
Dean didn’t talk about it, and Sam wasn’t prepared to push the issue. Instead they ate scrambled eggs in silence, and scattered to separate parts of the house, like dogs retreating to lick their wounds.
The house felt stable. Like it hadn't been displaced in time. Bobby didn't really want to think about that, so he didn't. Instead, he walked.
It didn't feel strange anymore, having working legs again. He'd used them in action, in fear and in anger, and that had just about adjusted him to the idea of them. He still got a secret kick out of it, though. So he walked around the maze of his property, feeling how it didn't just seem like it hadn't changed, it actually hadn't. This house, his house, had never been decimated by a demon son of a bitch looking for a fight. This house hadn't seen the near end of the world. It was, he realized, the only house about which anyone could say that.
And it was his. Snatched out of time or not, it was his. He sort of liked that.
Oddly content for the first time in years, Bobby walked, and watched Sam and Dean circle each other, and didn’t comment. Quietly, he realized that he was worried about where the hell Castiel was, and then wondered with no small amount of horror when he’d adopted yet another stray.
Whiskey offered no answers, but went down smoothly anyway.
On the third day, Gabriel came down. He looked about as tired as Sam seemed to feel all the time now. “Thought you might want an update,” he said.
Sam blinked at him for a second. Bobby was outside reacquainting himself with his property. Dean was upstairs. He didn’t really want to bother either of them. “What’s the update?” he asked.
“Zachariah and his contingent have been quarantined, and the warring Grigori have been beaten into submission.” Gabriel ticked them off his fingers. “The Eastern and pagan gods are staying their hand since Michael’s become an even scarier fucker than before, and I’ve got my old job back.”
“Congratulations?” Sam said cautiously, after a pause.
Gabriel exhaled, and gave him a look. “I left for a reason,” he said.
“But now that Michael has to go be Death, someone’s got to step up,” Sam finished. Dean had been right. This really just was the beginning.
What a mess.
Almost afraid to ask, he said, “What about Lucifer? We at least won’t have to worry about him anymore, right?”
Gabriel blinked slowly, a strange set to his mouth. “Yes,” he said eventually. “Yeah, my brother chose his cage for good this time.”
There’s a flavor of finality to the way that he says it, bitter and awful, that makes Sam clench his jaw and look away.
After a long second, in which Gabriel’s gaze seemed caught in the middle distance, Sam made a decision. He got up from his chair and crossed the kitchen. He rummaged through the cabinets for a second while Gabriel watched him in bemusement. After a few seconds, he found what he was looking for and tossed it at the archangel.
It was a Twix bar.
Gabriel stared at it for a moment, and then the corners of his eyes crinkled up just slightly.
Thank god, Sam thought, not entirely ironically. Not everyone’s broken irreversibly.
(What Gabriel didn’t say to Sam, was this:
In the time it took for Dean to break down in the shower, and for Sam to make eggs the following morning, months in Heaven had passed. Months in which Michael beat his soldiers into submission, tasked them with justice, and fought them down to his will with every atom that existed in him. And that Gabriel had been there with him, at his side, for every moment of it.
Gabriel didn’t say that after all had been said and done, Michael disappeared, and in the time it took for another day to pass on earth, Gabriel had spent weeks searching for him, only to find him in the abyssal darkness of space, where the nearest star was lightyears away and they were both wrapped up in the frozen night of sky that did not belong to them or their creator.
Michael had gone there to escape. Gabriel had followed him.
He found the archangel (no longer an archangel, not really) spinning slowly like a planet out of orbit, lost.
“Aren’t you needed back home?” Gabriel asked, after a time. It could have been a microsecond or an aeon.
“The reapers do not need my constant supervision,” Michael replied. He continued to revolve, his wings arched and jagged shafts of light that faded and emptied into the void.
Gabriel didn’t say what Michael told him there after a long and painful period of waiting, in the outer reaches of nothingness. Didn’t say that Lucifer’s last words were echoed in the icy cold of dwarf stars and Michael’s own, distant, horrified voice.
He didn’t say that those last words were Tu amo, I love you, please don’t leave me here, in this place of darkness.)
The fourth day was better off not spoken about, in Heaven or on Earth.
The fifth day, Castiel appeared and nearly gave Bobby a heart attack. “Jesus!” he said, nearly dropping his beer. “I’m startin’ to see what Dean keeps saying about giving you a goddamn bell.”
Castiel regarded him with a small smile. “I apologize. Is Dean here?”
“‘Course he is. Didn’t think you’d want to see him, though.”
The smile twisted into something of a grimace. “My feelings about it are…mixed, at best.”
“Understandable. Boy’s given me more gray hairs than hunting ever has.”
After he didn’t answer further, Bobby added, “He’s out in the yard. Alternately, there’s beer in the fridge if you want one.”
Castiel paused, head tilting slightly, and then opted for the refrigerator.
That evening, Dean came in from the outdoors to find Castiel parked at the window in the kitchen, looking out at the setting sun. There was a neat row of empties lined up on the counter beside him.
“Cas,” he said in surprise. “You’re back.”
Cas inclined his head slightly, but didn’t turn around.
Sam came in behind Dean, took one look at the two of them, and then raised his hands in surrender. “I’ll be upstairs. Nice to see you, Cas,” he said, and scrammed, though not before clapping Dean on the back and giving him a significant look, which Dean stalwartly ignored.
“You’re mad at me,” he stated. Might as well get straight to the point, and honestly, Dean had been snappish and worried with him gone.
Castiel sighed, and didn’t look at him. “I’m angry at a lot of things.”
“Join the fucking club, but that’s not what concerns me. Where did you go?”
The angel shifted, and Dean thought he could see the faint impressions of spiked wings ruffling in the air at his back. It somehow made the emptiness he felt behind him a bit more bearable. He waited.
“It doesn’t matter,” Castiel said.
“It matters to me,” Dean said sharply, and then winced. He was usually a little better at keeping that shit to himself.
It made Castiel turn around, though, which he supposed was good. When he didn’t get a verbal answer, however, he sighed, and tried again.
“You’re mad at me,” he repeated, more resignedly. “Look, dude, I did what—”
“I know what you did,” Castiel interrupted. “I hardly need an apology from you for saving my life, Dean.”
Dean looked at Castiel for a second more, and then went over to stand next to him by the window. He still couldn’t get over how it all looked the same, the dust on the glass and the faint smell of old whiskey and leather and wood. He hunched his shoulders as he shoved his hands in his pockets, no reply coming readily to mind.
So he reached over and tugged at the collar of the angel’s trench coat. “It kinda looks like you want to hear one, though,” he said. “And honestly, I can’t give you one because I’m not exactly sorry things turned out the way they did.”
Castiel regarded him, all righteousness and fury and a strange, penetrating darkness that Dean was disconcertingly familiar with. He didn’t say anything, though.
“You’d have done the same thing I did,” Dean pressed. “You already have. Couple of times, in fact. I think I’ve lost score. You can’t be mad at me for that.”
“Of course I can,” Castiel said irritably. “I can forgive you for it as well, however.”
“Well,” Dean said, and realized belatedly that he’d moved into Cas’s space, following his grip on the trench coat. “That’s okay, then.”
“Dean. Nothing about this is okay,” Castiel murmured, looking down at Dean’s hand. “I don’t know what I am, I don’t know what you are.”
Dean stilled. Oh.
After a second, he swallowed. “Cas. You know me.”
Castiel looked at him. “I don’t even know myself anymore. I have known every part of me for millions of years, and now I don’t know any of it.”
Dean took his hand away like he’d been burned. “Oh,” he said. He sounded distant even to himself. When he spoke next he found himself not wholly aware of what he was saying. “You gonna try and find out, then?”
“If I may,” Castiel replied, his voice oddly inflected in a way Dean didn’t know how to read.
“Who am I to stop you?” Dean said. He backed away, might have stumbled. “Hell, I understand. It’s taking me some time to adjust too, you know.”
“Of course. I shouldn’t have come so soon, I should have—” Castiel stopped, and looked out the window again. “I’ll give you some time,” he said, more quietly. “We may both need it.”
The wing beats that accompanied his departure sounded like leather and sandpaper.
Dean leaned heavily against the counter, and didn’t move for some time.
The earth remained fixed on its axis.
Order was restored, left to be maintained by people and creatures that actually belonged there.
Dean had the highly suspicious (though hardly unjustified) thought that this feeling that gripped him, the feeling that now, after everything, now was when the rug had well and truly been pulled out from under him, was God’s final pot shot at him.
Sam found him hours later.
“Dean? Where’s Cas?” he asked.
“Gone to find himself, apparently,” Dean replied. His voice was rough and low and flat. “I’d have lent him the Impala to do the clichéd road-trip thing, but he didn’t seem interested.”
Sam blinked. “He left?” he said, after a second, “But he just came back!”
“So he did,” Dean agreed, not looking up. He didn’t move as he listened to Sam walk forward and then lean back against the counter next to him.
They sat in silence for a long moment. Then Sam said fiercely, “What the fuck is wrong with him?”
Dean raised his eyebrows. “How d’you know it’s his problem? ‘Cause you know me, I’m awesome at putting my foot in my mouth.”
“Yeah, and of all people Cas is one of the few who actually knows how to deal with that,” Sam replied. “What the hell happened? When all the shit was coming down you guys were all…” He gestured widely in a way that made Dean crack a crooked smile and snort.
“‘We were all…’?” he parroted. “Sammy, this college thing really didn’t do much for your vocab.”
Sam glared at him. “Dean. The only person you’ve sacrificed more for is me. And I’m your brother.”
“What do you want me to say?” Dean spread his hands, his expression closed and still. “We talked, he had an identity crisis and left. I can’t blame him. Millions of years being an angel, and now he’s a half-angel, half-horseman thing. I’ve only been me for thirty-some years, and I had a hard time, too.”
“Michael seems to be dealing with the arrangement just fine,” Sam bitched, “I don’t see why Cas has to leave you in the lurch.”
Dean rolled his eyes. “You make it sound like he left me at the altar or something.”
Sam just looked at him expectantly.
Dean looked incredulous. “Dude. We’re not—”
“Yeah, of course ‘you’re not’. Bullshit. I call hardcore bullshit. You and Cas have this ‘thing’—”
“Use air quotes again and I will disown you.”
“—That practically announces itself every time you guys are in the same room. He watches you wherever you go, and when you say ‘jump’ he asks how high. And you…you gave him your wings, Dean.”
Dean flinched, and looked away, mouth twisted and tightly shut.
Sam sighed. “Shit. I shouldn’t even be yelling at you, this clearly isn’t your fault. Cas just needs to get his head out of his ass. I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine.” Dean exhaled, and shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. We saved the world, we’re alive. That’s enough.”
Sam bit the inside of his cheek to keep himself silent. He tasted copper in his mouth.
Dean didn’t let them talk about it after that. They had other things to occupy themselves with anyway, after a while.
The Pax conjuration Castiel had given his wings for hadn’t lasted long, just long enough to let everyone take a breath and maybe a step back from the edge. But evil things generally shake off doubt pretty easily, so there were still things to clean up. Bobby got a call about a mess of rogue demons causing havoc in Vermont, so Sam and Dean went to clear them out.
As it turned out, Dean still had enough War in him to set the fuckers against each other, which made getting them into a devil’s trap to await Sam’s fluent exorcism a fun exercise instead of a dangerous chore.
As smoke angrily climbed up and out of the three broken human bodies to crack apart in shards and sparks, Dean cocked his head and dusted some ash off his shoulder with a smirk.
“I gotta say—this, along with being able to fit inside my baby again? This, I can live with.”
“Horrifying innuendo aside,” Sam said, closing his travel Bible with a snap, “I’m glad to hear it.”
They started the drive back, the Impala humming contentedly, with Black Sabbath screaming through the speakers.
Halfway to South Dakota, Crowley appeared in the back seat, and Dean nearly swerved off the road.
“Fucking shit!” He slammed on the brakes. “What the fuck, Crowley?”
“Calm down, I wouldn’t have let you crash,” Crowley said airily, crossing his legs and lounging against the car door. “Would’ve been terribly uncharitable of me.”
“What do you want?” Sam said, waiting for his heart rate to slow.
“I want,” Crowley said, reaching into his inside coat pocket and drawing out a card, “You to have my number. Permanently. Consider it a thank you for keeping things from going to hell, literally.”
“And when should we call this number, exactly?” Sam said, taking the card. The number was different from the one he had on that old and yellowed scrap of paper, which he was pretty sure had disintegrated in the wash.
“If you need any assistance. And also,” Crowley studied his nails, “If any of the dark forces you come across are doing anything but crossroad deals and influence. Because that…that’s the extent of what I want Hell’s presence to be, here on earth.”
“I’m gonna guess that’s not a very popular idea downstairs,” Dean said, after an incredulous pause.
“You’d be surprised,” Crowley said, smirking. “The apocalypse is no more. No one has any plans anymore; they’re looking for some ideas, some leadership, and with Lucifer gone they’re left with me. And I’m tired of dealing with sycophantic hierarchies and petty wars. My rules are simple: Be an influence peddler, and live on earth, or torture souls, and live in Hell. I think it’s fair, really.”
“That’s not going to stop us going after any demon that crosses our path,” Sam said.
“I didn’t think so. But you should also recall the rules of influence: No outright contact, no tricks, no forcing the issue. If a human succumbs to our wishes, it’s because deep down, he wants to. May I remind you gentlemen that sometimes, people are just evil?”
“No need for that,” Dean muttered.
Sam hesitated, and then took the card from Crowley’s fingers. Before he could say anything, the demon was gone.
“Everything’s starting up again,” Dean said quietly.
Sam didn’t disagree.
So the hunts began again. But Heaven and Hell were quiet, at least on Earth.
Sam got in the habit of leaving chocolate bars on the kitchen table. When they were gone the following day, he found himself inordinately relieved.
Dean was subdued. When they went into town, he wore layers even when the sun was high in the sky.
Bobby got a hold of a couple of new cars that needed to be fixed up. “Good thing too,” he said. “You two are drinking me out of house and home.”
“What we do best,” Dean agreed. But after a few days of banging away at one of the cars until it purred like it was brand new, he roped Sam into going a couple of towns over to hustle pool. They returned with a few hundred dollars to sneak into Bobby’s lockbox. They knew that Bobby knew they did it, but sneaking it in was part of the ritual they’d established even when John Winchester was still alive, so they did it now as well. It was almost sickeningly normal, at least for them. Just one more grounding action for them to cling to.
Sam thought that it was a turning point. But after a brief period of more characteristic garrulousness, Dean quieted again.
Two months passed.
Hell, but more importantly Heaven, and all of its Hosts, remained quiet.
Dean got quieter.
Sam got fed up.
Two months, one week and three days later, four o’clock in the morning, when both Bobby and Dean were asleep, and Sam was the one left awake, he lost his patience in the dark and silence of the dusty house.
“Listen, douchebag,” he muttered, sitting at the kitchen table, one hand holding a beer, the other in a fist. Dean had barely spoken a word that day, working on an old Ford pickup, the aborted stems of wings shifting restlessly beneath his t-shirt, and fuck if it hadn’t just ripped Sam up inside to watch him. “You need to come back here,” he said to the empty kitchen, “I don’t care what he says, and I don’t care what you said, but you need to come back and get over yourself. We’re doing our thing here, as well as we can, but you’re part of this family now, better or worse, and family…family doesn’t leave without a good goddamn reason. And I know how hypocritical that sounds, coming from me, but it’s fucking true.”
He didn’t look up at the sandpaper whisper of wings. “Took you fucking long enough,” he said, eyeing his beer instead.
Cas hovered awkwardly in the kitchen. “I didn’t think I was…so missed,” he said carefully.
Sam finally looked up with a glare. “You left him. He gave you his wings, and you left.”
The angel flinched. “I…I hadn’t thought of it that way.”
“Obviously,” Sam said. He glanced over to the clock, and then finished his beer as he stood up. “Fuck, it’s late. I’m going to bed. You are going to stay here, and talk to him when he gets up. Okay? Just…we’re going to keep hunting, I think. Dean’s got some serious advantages now, what with War still in his system a bit, so I don’t think he wants to do anything else, and now he might even stand a chance of not getting himself killed, too. And I don’t think I can leave the life now either, not unless something really amazing happens. And that’s fine, I think that’s okay. But it would be better if you were there with him. I wouldn’t mind. At least then, if I ever find someone, I’ll know that I won’t be leaving him alone.” He winced at his beer. “Sorry, that was a lot more articulate in my head. I need to sleep. Just…do you—”
“I understand, I think,” Castiel said. The air moved behind him with the sound of calloused skin and leather, a sound that jarringly now reminded Sam of his brother. “Sleep well, Sam.”
Sam nodded, and stumbled up to bed.
Castiel took his seat at the table, his expression inscrutable. His hands were restless on the tabletop, though. He let the sunrise slowly fill the room without moving.
At eight in the morning, Dean stumbled down the stairs. He came to an abrupt stop when he spotted Cas. It only took a few seconds for him to bristle, however. Castiel remained seated and still.
“Well hi, Cas. Long time no fucking see,” Dean said, after long silence.
“Hello, Dean.” He kept his eyes averted.
Dean stared at him for a long moment. “Are you still angry?” he said finally, his voiced pitched low and hard, “Because honestly, everyone’s angry, but some of us have actually put some of that anger to good use, and—”
“Mostly, I am angry that everything happened the way it did,” Castiel interrupted. “It was messy and unplanned and Father wasn’t there, not for one moment of it; I’m certain of that, now.”
“You left,” Dean said flatly, and at that Castiel finally turned, took one look at Dean, and stepped abruptly forward out of his chair, like he hadn’t meant to.
“I would never leave you,” he said. “Not forever.”
Dean looked at him for a long moment, and then looked away.
Castiel tilted his head, consternation in the lines of his brow and mouth. After an interminable time, he said, “I’m angry that things happened as they did. That this is what fate dealt us. But then a certain part of me imagines how else it could have happened, what would have changed and stayed the same had we made different decisions and chosen different allies. And I find myself…troubled, because I can’t find it in myself to prefer those paths, even the ones in which Father comes home and enforces his laws and his love, because at least—”
He stopped abruptly. Dean was caught in the middle distance, but he took a long breath and tore himself away, force himself to focus on the angel. There was a weight to Cas’s words that he could sense but didn’t dare anticipate. “At least what, Cas?” he asked.
He watched the muscles in Castiel’s jaw flex, and wondered when that had happened, that anxiety had begun to translate into Cas’s features in such a visible and human way.
Cas took a breath, and said, “At least here and now, I am assured that you survive, and I don’t have to wait a lifetime to see you again.”
Dean exhaled, and said roughly, “There is that.”
There was no reason it to be, after everything, so difficult still. But here they were. Dean put it down to Castiel’s compete inability to be anything but obtuse, and his own fucking emotional hangups that he wasn’t actually prepared to contemplate.
He and Cas were both men…angel…things of action, one way or another. And they’d been through far too much together to do anything but act.
“You know, someone pretty smart told me that I should start forgiving myself for things I can’t control. Maybe you should take your own advice, Cas.”
“I have never had any illusions about what I can and cannot change,” Castiel growled. “What frustrates me is what it means, when all that has happened is over. We’ve upended the entire course of reality. And proven what? That the only way to survive is to change?”
“Sounds like a pretty good moral to me,” Dean commented.
“Did our Father make us wrong?”
“No,” Dean said sharply. “No. Don’t you dare believe that. You know what I feel like, nowadays? I feel unfinished. Like someone set out to make me and got bored halfway through. But that’s okay, I think I can make that okay now, you know why?”
Castiel looked at him, waiting.
“Because I’ve changed so many times, the pieces of me rearranging themselves so many times by now, that feeling unfinished doesn’t bother me anymore. Because maybe, some day down the line, I’ll change again, and then maybe I’ll feel more complete. What I’ve lost or given up can be filled up, not with those same missing things, but with different things, and maybe that’ll be even better than before. That’s what I’m choosing to take from this clusterfuck. Everything else would be stupid, trite bullshit.” He took a breath, and let it out. Then he tilted his head slightly. “Look at me, Cas.”
The angel raised his head. The shadows under his eyes had never looked deeper.
“We don’t know what we are. We’re some weird-ass goddamn monsters. But we saved the world. So,” Dean paused, “Clearly what we are doesn’t matter. It just matters that who we are is the same. Right?”
“We change our bodies, but not our souls,” Castiel said, after a long moment. “And thus we remain worthy of heaven.”
“‘Swhat I said, isn’t it?”
He smiled, very slightly. “Yes. It is what you said.” He paused, and then said carefully, “I too feel unfinished.”
“Yeah?” Dean said, watchful.
“Yes. I feel…overwhelmed. Like I have put on a coat that is too large for me.”
“The way I see it, you do that every day.”
Castiel quelled him with a look. But then he looked down at his hands, and said, “You told me once that I was your soldier now.”
“I’m not War. You said it yourself, I’m not anything,” Dean replied, somewhat confused. “What do I know about things that could or couldn’t be mine?”
“You are still War, Dean,” Castiel said, with absolute certainty. “A part of you will always be War. And War’s wings…you gifted them to me, Dean. You took that part of the Horseman, and you bequeathed it to me. They saved my life, and now they are mine, but they are too large for me to bear alone. That is what feels unfinished, not because I am incomplete, but because you have made me too much. They are what feel too big, ill-fitted to me. They make me think that I…that you have…you have in some way annexed me. And I…I left because that frightened me.”
Dean exhaled in a harsh, terrified burst. “I didn’t want that for you,” he said, when he managed to draw air into his lungs. “Cas. I never, Jesus Christ, I would never want that for you, don’t want you to—”
“Belong to you?” Castiel finished lightly. “You don’t have a choice, anymore.”
“Jesus, Cas,” Dean burst out, “What do you want me to do? Jesus, no wonder you ran, I would have…Do you want freedom, because I’ll give it to you, any way I can, it’s not right that you—”
“What?” he asked, and he could hear how his voice had dropped low and hoarse, how he was so close to Cas, wanting him and terrified to touch him, like that would seal a Devil’s bargain that could never be undone. “What do you want me to do, Cas?”
“I want you,” Castiel said, taking his hand carefully, weighing it in his own, “To be at peace, Dean Winchester.”
Dean coughed, shaking his head. “You’ve got a hell of a way of showing it, Cas.”
“I have never been best at articulating what I feel,” Cas allowed. “I was afraid of what it meant, before. Having a part of you with me, perhaps even capable of controlling of my actions, should you choose to direct me. But I had forgotten that you are the best person that I have ever known, and that I could trust you with that connection. That is why I want you to be at peace with what we have both, purposefully or accidentally, done. Is that…is that acceptable?”
Dean stared at him for a long moment, a moment in which Castiel’s expression shifted just slightly towards trepidation, just enough that it was visible, and that alone was enough. Dean caught it, and exhaled. He leaned forward to touch his brow to the angel’s. They were a mere breath apart. The air between them was warm.
“Yeah,” he said roughly. “Yeah, I think I can deal with that. Just…c’mere.”
Castiel went. His mouth was cool, tasting slightly of ash, and already slightly of Dean himself.
Chapter 29: Epilogue
When Sam came back down for breakfast, he didn’t say a thing. Just made toast and eggs and poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot Dean had made.
He allowed himself one glance at Cas sitting on the couch, bent forward, and Dean sitting on the floor, leaning against the angel’s legs and steadily inhaling his own mug of coffee, head tilted slightly back to rest against Cas’s.
Bobby didn’t even blink when he came down. Just growled, “So you’re back I see,” and went out to the garage.
Dean figured that was about as much of a blessing as he could get. He exhaled slowly, and leaned back when Castiel’s hand slid against the back of his neck.
It felt good, Sam thought, to have done something right all by himself again. He kept smiling into his mug, and pulled out a candy bar from the cupboard, leaving it on the kitchen table for Gabriel to pick up.
After a second thought, he put out a second one as well. It felt like a two-Twix day.
The morning passed quietly, for such a momentous one. Well, it felt momentous for Dean, at least.
Cas had tasted like ash, and then like Dean, and then, a bit later, like the black coffee Dean poured for them both as the sun came up.
He tasted like he was done with waiting. And Dean was down with that.
He looked out the window, feeling the coffee warm him. It felt like years had passed since he’d first slipped that ring on, years since his skin had gone cold and turned the color of ashes. It felt like years, and it felt like days, and it also felt like he was beginning to forget it, like his mind had come to the conclusion that it couldn’t actually cope with remembering, so it was going to put the war, the goddamn apocalypse, into a neatly sealed box and lock it away forever.
It wasn’t going to last. The heat of the hellscape still licked at his heels sometimes. This whole fiasco would be no different.
The faint echoes of his wings hadn’t faded, not the sandpaper feel of their presence at his back.
If he really took the effort to reflect, he would recognize that these past few months he’d been grieving for a life he would never have, a life that Michael had saved him from. There was irony somewhere in there that he wasn’t prepared to deal with.
Cas came back, though. He came back, and Jesus but that didn’t happen often to Dean.
And looking at Cas—who looked at him now with something he was still almost afraid to call devotion, who wore those wings gracefully no matter what he said—Dean thought he could live with the loss.
He could live.
Dean encountered a Horseman only once more in his lifetime, and it was six months after the Apocalypse-that-wasn’t. He went to sleep exhausted from exorcizing a poltergeist in Texas, collapsing into bed having only barely managed to get his boots off.
“Hello, Dean Winchester.”
“How’s it rolling, hot shot?” he said, his own voice sounding strange and hollow in that same old dreamed parking lot, damp with evening rain.
“It’s fine, Dean,” Michael answered. He had his hands in the pockets of his trousers. He’d reverted to Lucas Wynchestre’s eighteenth century wardrobe it seemed; the black morning coat and cravat made him look, appropriately, like a funeral director from a Dickens novel. He appeared thin and pale and fragile, even as his skin refracted with angelic light. The black of his wings made him, inescapably, an angel of Death. “It is…enough.”
Dean looked at him shrewdly. “That doesn’t really seem like a recipe for happiness to me, dude.”
“I will know happiness when I am in my Father’s light again,” and then, before Dean could object in outrage, “I’m afraid that is how I am programmed, you see.”
“That is fucking unfair,” Dean stated.
Michael snorted quietly. “I agree.”
They sat against the hood of the Impala, which sat placidly beneath the streetlamp, collecting dew. Dean let the seat of his jeans grow cold and damp.
“Can I do anything?” he offered, eventually. Michael had seemed content to sit in silence, like somehow Dean’s dreamscape was some sort of strange escape into solace.
“I think you’ve done quite enough,” Michael said gently, and it was both a comfort and a rebuke, which made Dean sort of hate himself for a brief second.
But then again, he reflected, they’d all made their choices.
“Okay,” he said in reply.
Michael pulled a pocket watch from the inside of Lucas Wynchestre’s pocket. “The night is nearly over for you,” he says. “I will leave you to your day.”
“Wait,” Dean grabbed his wrist. “When it’s my time, you’ll come and get me personally, right?” He shuffled in discomfort. “I mean, I like Tessa and all, and it’d be nice to see her again, but I don’t know if I’ll really accept it unless it’s you.”
Michael brushed his knuckles down the plane of Dean’s cheek. “I wouldn’t trust anyone else with your passing, I assure you. And should anyone try to interfere with you or your brother before your time…let us just say that I will not tolerate it.”
Dean quirked a grin. “You are one scary motherfucker. I knew I liked you for a reason.”
Michael still wore a dead man’s face, but his answering grin was full and toothy nonetheless. “Good bye, Dean. Until then.”
(Dean slept a few more minutes before waking, and by then Michael was back at Gabriel’s side.
Gabriel said, with a crooked smile, “No more prophecies? No more plans?”
Michael answered, “None.” He turned to regard his brother, and said, “You know, this wasn’t the Apocalypse at all. This was the Emancipation of Heaven and Earth. This was the second beginning of free will.”
And Gabriel breathed, “Alleluia.”)
Dean woke those few minutes later, the South Dakota sun a polar opposite to the damp chill of the autumnal parking lot, and he shifted in Castiel’s arms and leaned close. “Hey,” he said quietly, at the angel’s sleeping face, “So. I’m not afraid of death anymore.”
Castiel opened his eyes. “At this point,” he said, somewhat snidely, “I should think death would be the one afraid of you.”
Dean laughed, surprised and amazed, and felt lighter than he had in years.
They lay in bed together and breathed like ordinary men.
The wings of War blanketed them both.