Chapter 1: Excursion (Prologue)
The first Crowley knew about an angelic incursion into Hell was when a very battered angel slammed through the door of his cell, kicked him in the head while trying to get the door closed again, almost knocked him through the wall with one wing, tripped over his coils and landed ass over teakettle on top of him.
All things considered, he wasn't impressed.
However, since that freaky bastard Alastair had had him locked in the freezer for twenty Hell-years and he'd slowly been going mad from the agony of bone-deep, constant, unrelenting chill ... the flare of warmth and Grace against his scales was almost, almost worth the annoyance. It would have been completely worth it, if said angel hadn't panicked immediately on touching him, and tried to throttle him while praying loudly and, considering where they were, somewhat uselessly. Crowley didn't appreciate that kind of treatment on a first date. And since the angel had so nicely broken the binding circle on him with his little Charlie Chaplin routine ...
He struck out, pulling on all the speed and power he could considering the only thing keeping him from hibernation when the angel stormed in had been the binding, and wrapped three huge, muscled coils around the angel, wings and all, inside a second. And then had to stop for a little minute, to shiver in sheer bliss at the warmth, but that was alright. With his hands and wings trapped, and his Grace having considerably less effect on Crowley than it would have on, say, a mortal demon, the angel wasn't going to be hurting him for another couple of minutes at least. Time enough to cuddle up to his celestial heater and just bask for a while ...
"What are you waiting for?"
Crowley blinked, pulling open golden eyes with considerable effort. What? Where had he ... Oh. Right. Angel. Dam ... Manchester, he'd forgotten that he had to be careful soaking up heat after a cold snap. It tended to make him drowsy. Also prone to cuddling, but that was for exactly one person to know, and nobody else to ever, ever find out. Anyway. Business.
He looked down at his captive, at the flare of light and peace and glory wrapped in his coils, blinking a bit as his brain started to come back online after its little beach-side siesta. Angel. Angel. Angel in Hell. Oh fuck!
"What?" he managed, more a croak than a hiss.
The angel frowned at him, vaguely human-shaped, which was a bonus, all things considered. Crowley wasn't sure he was really up for trying to converse with any of the higher -and more interestingly shaped- denizens of Heaven. Certainly not in his condition.
"I said, what are you waiting for?" the angel repeated, voice throbbing with pain and exhaustion and willful, desperate defiance. Now that Crowley looked at him (as opposed to scooping him up and using him as a portable heater), the little guy didn't look so good. No. Strike that. He looked really, really bad. Like he'd been dragged through the worst parts of Hell. Backwards. Repeatedly. At length.
The worrying thing was, that was entirely possible.
"Why are you here?" he hissed, mostly in amazement, but also with a certain amount of anger. Angels weren't supposed to end up in Hell! Well, not anymore, anyway. Not unless they'd done something really, really bad, and looking at this guy's Grace, looking at the soul shining beneath it, battered and torn though it currently was ... Crowley didn't think this angel had it in him to do anything of that sort. Which only left a few, rather markedly unpleasant, explanations.
Explanations like someone stepping up the war again, after the post-almost-apocalypse lull. Explanations like angels being sent into Hell to fight. Explanations that might, perhaps, involve a certain angel Crowley happened to be somewhat-almost fond of being sent down here like this one was. Explanations that might involve Aziraphale somewhere down here, in as bad a shape as this little guy. Or worse. Not that Aziraphale should be talking to Heaven anyway, not now that he was in their bad books, so to speak, but if there was a war on ... the angel had always been big on doing his duty, and it was just conceivable ...
He really needed to know what was happening right now, so he knew if he had to panic or not.
"What'ssss going on?" he hissed, low and deadly, coiling tighter around the angel until ribs would have started cracking, if souls weren't made of somewhat sterner stuff than bodies, generally speaking, and angelic souls sterner again. "Why are you here?"
The angel glared at him, and said nothing. But he said nothing in that particular kind of way that meant there was something to be said, it would just be very, very unwise to be the one to say it. Which from an angel, in Crowley's considerable experience, meant that somewhere along the line there were orders involved. Which meant a mission. Which meant higher-ups throwing people around. Which meant ... No. They wouldn't send Aziraphale. If it was important, they wouldn't send him, not when they didn't trust him. Unless this was a suicide type of mission, and they just wanted to get rid of some awkward angels ... which didn't bode well for the one he currently held, did it? The one still glaring battered defiance at him, waiting for Crowley to start trying to pummel answers out of him.
Crowley sighed heavily. "Never mind," he grumbled, but gently. Wasn't the kid's fault, after all. He wasn't the one who'd given the orders. Just the poor sod sent to drown in Hell's filth trying to carry them out, and Crowley knew all about that. Mug's game, being the man on the ground. Times a hundred, when the ground in question was Hell. And, dammit, but angels weren't supposed to have to see that. Not the unfallen ones, anyway.
"I'm going to let you up now," he said, carefully, meeting those blazing, bewildered eyes. "Don't do anything ... rash, alright? Nobody needs to get hurt here."
The angel stared. Again, saying nothing, but this time from pure shock. Crowley grinned at him a little bit, before carefully loosening his coils. Not all the way, mind, because until the angel confirmed the non-aggression part of this little arrangement, he wanted to be able to wrap him up again in short order (and not because he didn't want to lose that blissful, aching heat, not at all). The angel warily pulled himself to his knees.
"You ... you ..." the angel stuttered, blinking furiously in shock. He looked like someone had just shown him up was down. By dropping him into it. "What are you ... Why?"
Crowley shrugged. It was a very expressive gesture in a snake, and almost knocked the angel still between his coils back on his ass. Crowley snickered a bit. "Because," he said, shortly. "Didn't anyone ever tell you not to look a gift horse in the mouth, kid?"
The angel blinked, then tipped his head to one side. "You are not a horse," he said, very seriously.
Crowley stared at him. The angel stared back, looking faintly bewildered, but entirely serious. Crowley searched his features, looking for some sign of humour, of sarcasm, because if this had been Aziraphale there would have been that tell-tale twinkle in his eye right about now, but ... no. Not a thing. This angel genuinely hadn't a clue what he was talking about. He was genuinely, completely innocent. Which meant he couldn't have been down even as far as Earth in ... a bloody long time, anyway. Which meant he hadn't seen combat in a bloody long time, too.
"Who in Manchester's name did you pissss off to get ssent down here, angel?" he said at last.
The angel looked more confused than ever, which Crowley was privately of the opinion shouldn't actually be possible. "No-one," he said softly. "The Lord commanded it."
"What, in person!?" Crowley squawked. Not good, so not good ...
"No. Why would the Lord speak to someone like me? He gave His orders to my superiors." The angel looked at him like he was more than a little slow, but Crowley was too busy being relieved to be bothered. So long as we weren't talking the Big Guy slinging angels into Hell Himself again, it was all good, it was fine ...
"Okay, that's okay. Ssssheesh, don't ssscare me like that!" He coiled himself tight, away from the crazy angel, and shook his head gently. "Listen, kid, sssome free advice? Ordersss ... so long as they're not direct from the sssource, well ... sssometimes they need a little ... creative reinterpretation, you follow me?"
The angel stared at him blankly. "No."
What had he done to deserve this? Well. Recently, anyway? "Look, I'm just saying ... you look more than a little beat, kid. These orders, they'll probably allow for you to head back up for reinforcements, right? I mean, you weren't sssent here alone, were you?"
The angel clamped his mouth shut. Tight.
Crowley blinked. "Right. So. Not alone?"
The angel stared at him defiantly for a long moment, then turned his head away, lowering his eyes to the floor. His shoulders slumped. "I believe I am alone now," he said, very quietly.
Oh. Well shit. And that was bad, and horrible, and he'd probably feel sorry for the little guy in just a minute, but the panic was creeping back up his spine, because if all the other angels sent down here were ... "Who were they?" he hissed, soft and gentle, and trying not to show how eager he was for an answer. Trying to make it an invitation for a memorial, and not an interrogation, when all that was going through his head was Aziraphale. "Had you ... known them long?"
The angel squinted at him, fiery and chill and somehow blue, altogether more interesting that Crowley's current serpentine shape, but since it got the job done, and kept Alastair from going for the more time-intensive tortures, he wasn't complaining. It was the thought of Alastair getting his grubby psychopathic little hands on an angel, any angel, but most especially ... He resisted the urge to throttle the answers out of the kid. Subtlety, Crowley, subtlety. That's how you've managed to get everything in your life, you can hold it together long enough to get a few answers with it ...
"They were my brothers," the angel said at last, soft and tired and reproachful. "They were my garrison. We had served together ... for a long time."
Garrison. As in ground troops. Not spooks. Not agents. Not Aziraphale. Crowley almost collapsed in relief. "I ... I'm sorry," he rasped, not exactly convincingly given that he was all but doing a limbless happy dance, but then the angel hadn't come here expecting sympathy from a demon, had he?
"I'm sure," the angel growled, ferocity banked into a low, smouldering glare, and Crowley shook his head, almost amused, almost enchanted.
"Hey, it's not like it's in my job description," he placated gently, and smiled a little. "But I am sorry. I've almost lost ... there's people I've worked with a long time, and the thought of losing them ... I am sorry. Not much. But a little."
The angel stared at him, radiating skepticism almost as strongly as he was radiating Grace, and Crowley abruptly decided that he liked the little bugger. Anyone who could fight his way through Hell, lose his mates, get beaten up, captured by a snake-demon, used as a heater, interrogated, and, to add insult to injury, treated to apparent false sympathy, and still manage to make it look like he was looking down his glowy nose at you ... well, that was just enough bastardry in an angel for Crowley to take a shine to him. And because of that ...
"Look," he said, carefully. "You've done me a bit of a favour, here, breaking the binding on me. Which means I can hopefully bugger off and get the Hell out of Dodge before Alastair realises I'm gone, and that's always a good thing. So maybe I owe you a little favour, you follow? If you were looking, for example, for a way out of here ..."
The angel stared at him, rank suspicion and maybe, just a little, in the tired, battered part of him that desperately wanted to go home so he could mourn his brothers in peace, maybe just a little bit of hope. Just enough to be going on with. Just enough for Crowley to wheedle into cooperation, and hopefully get the little bastard out of here before he went and got himself killed. Which, judging by the state of him, probably wouldn't take too long.
"I ..." the angel started, frowning, staring a hole through Crowley's head as if he could discern his motives just from looking. Which he couldn't, not here, but even if he had, Crowley had an idea he wouldn't say no. "I ... cannot."
He blinked a bit. "Excuse me?" he said, because hello! Hell, people! All anyone ever wanted down here was a ticket right the fuck back out. With the possible exception of Alastair, but Crowley preferred not to think about that nutcase.
"I cannot leave Hell," the angel said again, quietly, with the soft, implacable determination Crowley had so often seen in Aziraphale on the really bad days, the really bad jobs. "I cannot leave until I have completed my mission. I cannot leave until I have found what I came for."
"Even if it kills you?" Crowley prodded, aghast, but when it came down to it, not particularly surprised. Like he said. He recognised the look.
"Yes," the angel said. Just that. Flat and calm and absolute. Yes. I'm here until I find what I came for, or die trying. Yes.
Bloody hell. Could no-one upstairs ever engage a little survival instinct without prompting?
"You really mean that," he asked, already knowing the answer, but asking again just to sure. Just to be absolutely sure. The angel shot him a dark look, as if to say 'I know what you're doing here, I'm not stupid, you can't get with words what your brethren tried by force. I will not leave. I cannot leave. So shut up already, and let me get on with it.'
Why the hell did Crowley find that so bloody attractive in an angel? It was stupidity, of the kind he abhorred in humans, but on an angel, with that Grace and that quiet resolution ...
"What do you need, then?" he sighed, head drooping to the floor as he realised he was going to do this. He was actually going to do this. Not because he was getting soft in his old age or anything, mind you! No. But because he liked this angel, who reminded him a lot of Aziraphale in his more determinator moods, and because the angel would never forgive him if he ever found out that Crowley had made his own escape and left one of Aziraphale's brothers down here. In Hell. Where they did nasty, nasty things to angels.
The angel stared at him some more. Confusion, this time. A sort of signature bewilderment that Crowley suspected only this particular angel could pull off. He sighed, shaking his head, and tried a little grin.
"Look. Like I said. I owe you a favour. And I don't like owing people things. Especially angels, because you lot are seriously anal-retentive about debts getting paid, and I just don't want to have to think about that, okay? I'm not offering to carry you out of here on my back, or anything. But I know my way around here, and since you look more than a little lost, maybe I can point you in the right direction, at least?" He shot a pointed look at the black wounds weeping through angelic Grace, at the way some of them were partially healed, proving exactly how long the poor bastard had been stuck down here looking. "Come on. At this point, have you actually got anything to lose, trusting me a little bit?"
The angel closed his eyes, summoning patience from somewhere, shutting down pain and fear as much as he could, thinking about it. Thinking it through. And then, because the little guy really wasn't stupid, he opened his eyes, met Crowley's gaze for a long second with fierce, defiant purpose, and nodded. Just the once.
"Alright!" Crowley grinned, swaying up to meet the angel's gaze better, head bobbing to and fro in a way that coaxed a little flicker of a smile out of the battered angel. Crowley grinned at him. "So! What do you need, angel? Oh. And what's your name, too?" Because he couldn't keep calling the bastard 'angel' in his head. There was only one person that epithet truly belonged to in Crowley's world, and this guy wasn't it.
But he might be close.
The angel blinked at him, a roll of wry, sneaky amusement flickering through him, and he smiled back at Crowley. "My name is Castiel," he said at last, lips quirked wryly. "And I am searching for the Righteous Man. He has been here ... thirty nine hell years, four months, and two weeks, and I must find him as soon as I can."
Thirty nine ... "Are you telling me you've been rooting around down here for more than thirty years," Crowley breathed, aghast, and Castiel nodded grimly. Well shit. The kid was obviously much, much better than Crowley had given him credit for, to have survived that freaking long in this game. "Who in Manchester's name are you, kid? The Terminator?"
Castiel frowned, expression going absolutely blank. "I do not ... understand ..."
Crowley shook his head hurriedly. "No. Never mind. But seriously. You're obviously much better than you look, kid, to have managed this long. Well done." And it sounded false, he knew it sounded false, but it wasn't. It was genuine admiration, and it got another little smile from the angel, so he didn't care. "Alright, kid. We'll get your Righteous Man, right enough, and then we'll get the pair of you out of here, because after all that you deserve a break. Maybe a holiday. Tahiti's lovely, you know. All warm sun and pretty girls. The sand's a bit of a problem, mind, especially if you happen to have scales, but it's worth it ..."
Castiel smiled at him, bemused and tolerant and too damn tired to give a crap, Crowley thought, but the angel staggered to his feet, pulled open the door to let Crowley slither through, and followed him gamely enough. And if Crowley was a really bad person, if he were really evil, he knew he could lead the kid to his death right now, and be followed.
However, he rather thought that if he tried it, he'd be tripped right along into the final journey after the bugger, because anyone who'd made it through nigh on forty years in Hell had to be more than a little dangerous.
No. No. Best just to point him at his Righteous Man, whoever that was, let him do whatever needed to be done, and then bugger the hell off, climb back to Earth, find Aziraphale and tell his angel that his brothers were all freaking nutters of the highest order. And then get drunk. Very, very drunk. And possibly cuddle his very own celestial heater for a while, because twenty years of freezing his serpentine ass off didn't just go away.
Actually, now that he thought of it, he really needed to give the kid a little talk on who he was allowed to mention Crowley's little scoop-and-snuggle to. Namely no-one. Though admittedly the kid didn't actually know who Crowley was, yet, since he hadn't given him his name or anything, but one could never be too careful with his reputation ...
Now if the winged bastard would just wait up a moment ...
Chapter 2: Arrangements
The angels are having a Big Mad Staring Contest of Doom. Seriously. Dean would be worried, really worried, what with there being both an angel and a demon to deal with, not to mention the whole flaming sword thing, except that he's too busy being morbidly fascinated to bother.
Part of this is because the angel doing his damnedest to stare Cas down is wearing what looks for all the world like a tartan suit. Part of it is that the demon in question (and yeah, it's kinda weird seeing Crowley again, especially since he's gone golden-eyed in the interim) is currently all but pissing himself laughing. Part of it is the sheer weirdness of the situation.
But mostly? It's the bristling, determined, hurt-my-demon/humans[insert whichever appropriate here]-and-I-will-end-you vibe they have going. Cas on one side, all intense, vibrant stare and scrappy determination, and this Aziraphale dude on the other, all plump immovability and righteous fury. The holy tax accountant and the British professor in the stare-down to end all stare-downs, single-mindedly determined not to move.
Crowley is really starting to wheeze alarmingly, he can't help but notice. Not that he blames the guy.
"Ah, Cas?" he tries, trying to force his face to straighten and at least look serious. Not very successfully, if Sam's muffled snort is anything to go by. "Cas, I'm sure if we, you know, asked nice or something ..."
"Be quiet, Dean," Castiel commands, not even blinking. Aziraphale narrows his eyes at him. Dean can feel the snickers bubbling up insistently, and clamps his teeth around them.
"Angel," Crowley breathes, straightening a bit to weigh in from his side. "Angel, I think ..." He coughs, holding his side against the tremors. "I think ..."
"Hush, dearest," Aziraphale murmurs, almost absently, waving the hand not holding the flaming sword at him. Crowley stuffs a desperate fist in his mouth in response, which makes Cas frown and Dean press fingers to his own mouth hurriedly. Sam appears to be trying to fold up his entire sasquatch bulk into a ball, and shaking slightly.
"You are not on Lucifer's side," Cas says at last, glaring at the other angel, who sniffs in affront.
"I should think not!" Aziraphale huffs. "And you, I do hope you're not answering to that puffed up little fundamentalist, Zachariah?" His nose wrinkles. "He's an odious little creature, you know."
Sam makes a strained wheezing noise.
"I do not," Cas growls. "He has tried to kill Sam and Dean too many times." And yeah, that's sort of sobering, that, and kinda warming too.
"And you," Dean murmurs, because it's important. It's pretty damn important. "He killed you too, Cas." And Sam has straightened beside him, and even Crowley seems to have sobered a bit, but it's Aziraphale that stuns them at that. The other angel goes stiff and startled, then something like liquid fury filters across mild features, before a deep, pained compassion floods them and a number of things happen in very quick succession.
Aziraphale drops the sword and reaches out with a pained "Oh, my dear!" for Castiel.
Castiel flinches in something like shock, and the angel-killing blade jumps in his hand.
Sam and Dean are already moving forward, trying to get between the angels before someone does something stupid, though Dean's not entirely sure which one he's expecting to do it.
And Crowley, in a freakishly fast and entirely too serpentine move, has inserted himself between them, one hand catching and turning Castiel's knife-hand away from his back, the other arm wrapping around Aziraphale's waist and physically hauling him back through the turning of Crowley's body. The demon is somewhere between grinning and swearing, his knuckles white around Cas' wrist, and his suddenly golden eyes glaring full into Aziraphale's face.
"For Someone's sake, angel! No rushing the paranoid angel with the knife! Are you trying to get yourself killed!" It comes out of him in a stunned, breathless hiss, and Dean realises that Aziraphale had wrapped startled arms around Crowley's chest when the demon grabbed him, and currently seems to be trying to wring the life out of him. It's an oddly amusing image, or would be, if Castiel wasn't still shaking in the demon's grasp.
"Cas!" He and Sam are on either side of their bewildered angel, Sam looming glaring over the demon while Dean tries to turn Cas to face him, to see if he's alright. Cas' head turns, his body imprisoned by the fierce grip around his arm, and he looks at Dean in stunned confusion.
"Dean. I ..." He winces as a tug on his arm causes Crowley's fingers to tighten convulsively, and then Sam's huge hand has landed on the demon's arm, and his brother is making him feel sixteen different kinds of proud while glaring furiously at a demon in his angel's defense.
"Let. Him. Go." Sam rumbles, squeezing a little himself, pulling a pained hiss out of Crowley. Sam bears down, and for a second Dean fancies he can hear the demon's arm actually creak, and then Aziraphale has caught Sam's arm, untangling himself from Crowley enough to glare at the three of them. Four of them. Anyone in range, really, Dean thinks.
"If you could all stop being such children," the tartan angel says, prissily, and Dean can't help snorting at him.
"Angel," Crowley says, faintly. His arms is starting to bend under Sam's grasp. Castiel's is kinda bending along with it. Sam's isn't budging under Aziraphale's, but then the angel hasn't really exerted himself yet. Altogether, they look like some bizarre fraternity in the middle of a very antagonistic handshake, and Dean just can't shake the urge to giggle at them. Not that he'd ever actually giggle. But. You know. Whatever the manly version is.
"Hush, dear," Aziraphale chides gently, and turns to smile at an increasingly flustered Cas. "Castiel. I'm sorry, I didn't think. Crowley's always telling me I need to be a little more cautious." The demon rolls his eyes expressively at that, but the angel is continuing, very kindly and earnestly, and it should look fake, it should look like the fakest fake thing to ever fake fakiness, but it doesn't. Not even to Dean, and he's been paranoid about that kinda thing for a pretty long time. "But I really wouldn't hurt you, so if you could just ... if you could just drop the blade?"
"Ah," Cas answers, frowning. "Yes?" And he drops the angel-killer. Dean's almost sure he sees both Crowley and Aziraphale sag in relief.
"Thank you," the angel whispers, beaming at Cas like he just delivered a baby or something, all wide, expansive pride and gratitude. Cas blinks at him, completely at sea, and just keeps staring in confusion as Crowley pries his fingers away from Cas' arm, and glares at Sam until he gets his own back too.
By mutual unspoken agreement, everyone takes a little step back. Sam and Dean close ranks around Cas, shielding him between them like a pair of bookends while he blinks at them, and Aziraphale folds himself around Crowley, tutting at the white marks pressed into the demon's arm, tracing them with soothing fingertips while Crowley glares at him in embarrassment. Everyone takes a moment to calm down and breathe, and regain a little equilibrium.
Then: "You know, you're pretty chummy, for an angel and a demon." Dean hears himself say, distantly. Sam glares at him, the bitchface he gets when he thinks Dean has been neglecting his brain-to-mouth filter again, but since Dean didn't actually say 'gay', he's gonna count this as a victory, thanks. Besides, all it gets him is one of Aziraphale's weird smiles, and Crowley rolling his eyes again.
"Blame the angel," the demon grouses, trying unsuccessfully to tug his arm free from Aziraphale's ministrations. The angel in question smiles serenely at him, and pinches his wrist.
"Now, dearest. It was you who suggested our little Arrangement in the first place! Hold still, dear, I'm not finished." Dean can feel himself staring. Sam and Cas aren't far behind.
"You have not ... you are not Fallen," Cas says, very quietly, watching as Aziraphale's fingers wipe the blooming bruises from his companion's arm, the other angel's expression soft and concerned and whole. Castiel's, by contrast, is a chest-clenching mix of wistfulness and confusion and soft pain that makes Dean want to wrap the angel to his chest and apologise with everything he has for making Cas choose him in the first place. It hurts, that expression. It really hurts.
Aziraphale looks up at him at that, that depthless compassion and low-banked fury flickering once more through blue eyes, and he shakes his head. "No, my dear. No, I am not." And there is such an aching sympathy in his voice, Dean can feel all three of them, himself, Cas and even Sam, flinching back from it. Aziraphale looks at them, and it's the way Cas had looked at him, that first time, seeing right down to their souls, seeing every scar and wound and black mark inside them, and understanding each one completely, empathising with every last one.
"It's not so bad, you know," Crowley says suddenly, his head tipped sideways, unconsciously angled towards Aziraphale even as he meets Castiel's wounded gaze. "Being Fallen. It's not so bad." He shrugs uncomfortably, waving his freshly healed hand in a vague gesture. "Heaven and Hell, they're just sides, when it comes down to it. Just different suites in the big game of ineffable Solitaire. They don't ... they don't have to mean anything. Not to you. Not if you don't want." Castiel stares at him. They're pretty much all staring at him, and the demon glares back defensively. "What?"
"You're ... you're Fallen?" Sam says at last. "You're an angel?" And Crowley blinks, long and slow, and flushes sheepishly as he remembers what he told them last time. Remembers what he let them think. That he was a demon. A human-soul-warped-by-Hell kinda demon. That he was in this for survival, because angels, even Fallen ones, weren't all that likely to be looking out for demons.
"Er," he says, shrugging and trying an uneasy grin. "Didn't I mention that?"
"No," Dean growls, hand twitching for a weapon at his side. "No, you really didn't." He and Sam bunch closer together around Cas, glaring at him, while the angels stare between them. Then Castiel looks at the demon, and frowns.
"I cannot ... You do not feel like one of the Fallen?" A question, curious, precise. Castiel is doing his curious bird head-tilt thing again. "You are not spoken of in the lists of the Fallen. Crowley is the name of a demon, no more." And, well, yeah. Not really angelic, as a name. But Crowley is grimacing, and shaking his head in exasperation.
"Yeah, well. I didn't want to spend eternity walking around with a name like 'Crawly', did I? Fitting for a serpent, maybe, but hardly dignified, is it?" And he's huffing, tired and annoyed as Aziraphale strokes his arm soothingly, but Cas is still frowning.
"That is not an angelic name either," he says, slowly, working something out. "The serpent ... of Eden? Yes? But he was ... the serpent was not an angel ..."
"He doesn't remember his name," Aziraphale interrupts softly. "Neither of us has ever been able to remember it, not in six thousand years. I don't think he Fell, as such. Not with the Legion. He's just ..." A smile, deep and real and sincere. "He's just Crowley. The angel who sauntered vaguely downwards, and happened to land in a serpent's body at the right time in the right place."
"And proceeded to invent original sin," Crowley chimes in, with just a hint of smugness, and shrugs. "I wouldn't worry about it, you know. Sometimes these things just happen. Ineffable. That stuff."
Dean stares at him. "Sometimes things just happen?" he asks, incredulously, furiously. "What, sometimes angels just Fall, for no reason?" He can't think that. He can't. Because if God is going around just randomly knocking angels down, just tripping people like Cas into the Pit for shits and giggles, there is something seriously screwy with this universe, and he really wants a word with the freaking management!
"Not for no reason," Aziraphale says, gently. "There is always a reason. Always. Even if we can't remember it, or don't understand it. We are each where we are meant to be. We just have to act as we think best, and trust that we are following in His plan."
It's quiet, and reasonable, what he says, and Dean can tell he really believes it, but he can feel Cas shaking slightly beside him, feel the echo of doubt and pain in his angel, feel the remembered horror as he realised that he'd pulled Cas down out of Heaven to die, and all he can feel is fury. "Reason?" he snarls. "What the fuck possible reason could He have for knocking Cas down just for helping us?! Just for trying to stop the Apocalypse that, oh yeah, you guys keep trying to start! What the hell kinda reason is that?"
Aziraphale stares at him for a long minute, at both of them, all three of them, kindly blue eyes moving from face to face as Crowley stands beside him, golden eyes creased into pained understanding. Aziraphale doesn't get it. Dean can see he doesn't get it. But the demon does. Crowley does.
"Maybe it's not like that," the demon says softly, hunching his shoulders uneasily as they all turn to look at him. "Maybe it's not meant as a punishment. I mean, Lucifer, the Legion, yes, but even then ... We Fall when we make choices. When we decide to do something we believe we shouldn't do, and face the consequences." He smiles for a minute, twitches faintly. "That doesn't have to mean those choices are wrong. That doesn't even mean G... God thinks they're wrong, either. Maybe it's just ... we choose to stand on our own two feet, and He ... lets us."
They stare at him. Dean can't seem to think of anything else to do.
"I chose to stop the Apocalypse too," Aziraphale speaks up suddenly. "But I chose ... I believe, have always believed, that our Father never meant for the world to be destroyed. He never meant to hasten the end. When I took up the sword against Lucifer, against the End ... I did it knowing it was my Father's will. I think ... I think that's why I haven't Fallen, and you ..." He smiles, very gently, at Castiel. "You did, Castiel. Not because you went against our Father's will. But because you made the choice for yourself, for your own reasons. Because you expected to Fall for it."
Castiel says nothing. Dean thinks he probably should, just to break the silence, just to lift the weight of it as Aziraphale rests kindly eyes on his angel, and Castiel stares uncertainly back, brow wrinkled in fear and pain and a sort of tentative hope. Dean thinks he should say something. Should call bullshit, something. But he doesn't. He can't.
"Fallen doesn't have to mean evil," Crowley says, softly, at last. "I mean, it can. In some cases, it definitely does. But. It's ... It's choice. You Fell because of one choice. That doesn't mean you have to stop there. You can keep choosing. You know? Choose to stand by the humans, if you want." A faint grin. "They are kind of worth it, after all. Choose to give Heaven and Hell the finger, tell them to bugger off and leave your planet alone. I mean ... He knows everything, doesn't He? All in the plan, ineffable, that shit? Well then. Maybe we were meant to choose what we did, you and I. Maybe we were meant to stand up and flip Heaven the bird. Because, I don't know if you've noticed, but Heaven aren't making the best decisions at the moment."
Sam snorts. "Tell us about it." Dean grins at him, a little, and Crowley gives them a sly, conspiratorial grin.
"Yeah. Zach's gone a little ... fundamentalist, I've heard. Bloody fourteenth century minds, the lot of them. He'd have fit right in with Torquemada and his little bunch, you know." A hiss of something vehement under his breath, that makes Aziraphale's eyebrows shoot up beside him. "But enough of him!"
"Hey, you don't have to tell us twice," Dean drawls, mostly because it's true. And the less they talk about that little sack of angelic shit, the better for his blood-pressure. "Don't even have to tell us once!"
"I'm sure he has his ... I mean, I'm sure there's some redeeming feature in him," Aziraphale protests, unconvincingly.
"There isn't," Castiel speaks up, back in full-on frown again, Dean's own righteous angel of judgement, and he can't help but grin at him for it. Aziraphale frowns at them, but since he's outnumbered, and called Zach 'odious' himself not half an hour earlier, Dean figures he can stuff it. Crowley apparently agrees, elbowing the tartan angel in the ribs, and grinning as Aziraphale flaps at him in disgust.
"Anyway!" he says brightly, shooting Crowley a searing glare that is completely ignored. Huffing, Aziraphale turns back to them, to Cas, really, and that gentle, sincere smile appears again. "Crowley ... well, he's annoying, but I think ... I think he may be right, in this case." He beams at them, coming forward a little to reach out and take Cas' hands between his own. "You may be Fallen, my dear, but I don't think you could ever be anything but angelic." He's all but glowing at them, beaming with faith and trust and love until it almost hurts to look at him, and for a second he's so much more than some frumpy English professor, more than a soldier, almost, maybe, more than an angel. For a moment, Aziraphale looks like he's touching something far too vast and deep to understand, something made entirely of love. "You've made the right choice, Castiel," he murmurs, deep as oceans. "I know you have. And when it comes down to it ... He will know that too. And He will reward you for it. I know He will."
Cas swallows, hard. "I don't ..." he rasps, gravelled and sad. "I don't need ... I just ..." He makes a little noise of frustration, his hands tightening in Aziraphale's. Dean finds himself rubbing at his angel's shoulder, trying instinctively to soothe, and startles a bit when his hand bumps into Sam's, trying to do the same. He meets his brother's eyes, sees the pain in them, the understanding. Yeah. Cas isn't the only one hoping to Hell he's made the right choices. Or hoping that he might from now on, at least.
"You can do this, you know," Crowley says, oddly gentle and trying not to look it, tipping his head uncomfortably to the side even as he leans in around his angel and touches Cas's wrist gently. "It takes some practise, of course, and you're never going to get the jump on me, even if you did have six thousand years to practise in, but ... it has its own rewards, this choice thing." He smiles, smirks, a quicksilver slide of wry amusement. "Ask any human. And hey, since you've picked them first, well, you're sort of already an agent on Earth, and that's my department, me and the angel here, so ..." He rubs the back of his neck uneasily, glaring at them. "Well, we could maybe look out for you. A bit. Sometimes. Maybe. In exchange for the occasional service, and all."
"Dearest!" Aziraphale's all but beaming at him. "You mean ... you want to make him part of our Arrangement?" They're staring at each other, the angel delighted and the demon apparently very uncomfortable, and Cas is looking between them with hope and confusion, and right, nice and all as it might to for Cas to have a bit of back-up, there is something Dean really needs to get straight first.
"Hey, guys?" They turn to look at him, Sam and Cas included, and Sam can tell by his expression what he's going to say, he can see it, he can see his brother panicking, opening his mouth to stop him, but Dean has to ask, because he's not letting his angel enter into any 'arrangement' with these jokers without getting one thing perfectly clear, not after all the touchy-feely shit they've had going for the last hour or so. So he opens his mouth before Sammy can get a word in, and says: "This arrangement, it's not gonna involve ... I mean, you're not gonna ask ... you're not gonna corrupt him, or anything, are you?"
For a second, there's no response. Well, except for Sam rolling his eyes to Heaven and very obviously trying to pretend Dean isn't actually related to him. Aziraphale and Cas are staring at him blankly, obviously having no clue where he's going with this, but Crowley ... oh, that demon knows what he means. He knows exactly what Dean is getting at, and the smirk that crosses his face is like the dictionary definition of smug.
"Oh, I don't know," he purrs, golden eyes gleaming. "I think he and my angel here would look really good together, don't you? And there is a whole world of things we could introduce him to ..."
And Dean's this close, this close, to decking him, when something in his tone apparently rings a bell with Aziraphale, and the angel suddenly squawks and slaps Crowley so hard upside the head that the demon actually falls over. Laughing. The whole time.
"Crowley! You dirty ... you, you demon you! What have you ... how could you ..." He stops, running out of words, and turns to Dean with a growl and red in his cheeks, flapping his hands flusteredly. "It's not like that! We're not ... we don't ... we wouldn't ... It's a business arrangement. We work together. That's all! I would never ... Believe me, I would never let him get his grubby little claws into ... oh, Castiel, no, you don't have to worry ..."
Castiel is staring at him like he's mildly insane, all baffled confusion and innocence, and Crowley is in stitches on the floor, and Sam has buried his face in his hands, and suddenly, yeah, Dean can kinda see how this might be a good thing. Maybe. Just a little. Hell. It's not like things can get any worse. And these guys might be insane, completely and utterly, and 'business arrangement' his cute little ass, but heh. Not like Dean can throw stones, is it? Maybe it could work. Maybe it could.
But he's telling people here and now, looking at Cas' baffled, earnest face. No-one, and he means no-one, is corrupting his angel except him.
Hey. Maybe him and Cas can have an Arrangement of their own?
Chapter 3: Footsoldiers
Castiel was the one they caught, in the end. Crowley didn't know why he was surprised. The boys had their Enochian ribs going, and him and Aziraphale ... well, they'd been flying below their sides' respective radars for more than twenty years, ever since the last almost-apocalypse. Well, except for that one time he'd stuck in Hell, but that had been entirely Aziraphale's fault. The angel made it up to him by getting him the new body once he escaped, mind, but still.
Anyway. He didn't know why he was surprised that Cas was the one Zach managed to grab a hold of. He shouldn't be. Damn featherhead had all the tact and discretion of a bloody hammer. Add in almost zero experience on Earth, and it was surprising the little angel had lasted even this long. Someone upstairs was looking out for the bugger. Had to be.
The fact that the first thing the Winchesters decided to do was walk right into a trap after him, though? Really not a surprise. Morons. Functional morons, yes, but still morons. Honestly, boys and girls, the first thing you do with a trap? Is not to walk straight into it and yell loudly to be let back out again! For Someone's sake! But no. Threaten their angel, and all sense of self-preservation went right out the window!
Crowley couldn't sympathise with that at all. No. Definitely not.
They'd been in there ten minutes already. Warehouse, naturally. Covered in Enochian symbols meant to trap and hold supernatural beings like himself? Very probably. Not that the boys had even paused to check before walking right in. Good job they hadn't known he was watching them at the time. Might have asked him to bleedin' come along, then, and then where would they be? But. Ten minutes. Crowley was beginning to get antsy.
Come on, angel, where are you?
It's alright, he told himself. Ten minutes, nothing to worry about. Barely even time to get started on your villainous monologue, and Zachariah definitely struck him as the monologuing type. Definitely. He wouldn't start the torture and/or killing for half an hour yet, surely! More than enough time for the damn angel to get his ass in gear. Just wait. He just had to wait. That was all.
Aziraphale, you bloody bastard, I am going to kill you for this!
He rang the angel again. Not that he actually expected it to do any good. Cellphones hadn't exactly been a major feature of the 1950s, and Aziraphale had still to get completely over his weird time-freeze. For crying out loud, the angel's ansaphone still used cassettes. The chances of him figuring out a voicemail message in time to actually get over here and do anything useful ... But Crowley left one anyway, on the off chance that Someone up there was feeling in any way friendly towards him, or at least towards Cas and the boys, and stuck the phone back in his pocket with a sigh.
He was going to do this, wasn't he? Bugger it! Damn stupid bloody angels and their damn stupid bloody humans, and damn every last self-sacrificing bloody instinct Crowley'd ever come across. His own absolutely included.
But he had promised to look out for the little guy, hadn't he? And he was, ever and always, a demon of his word.
If he got out of this, he was so going to kill the lot of them.
Alright. Alright. Enough stalling. Come on, Crowley, you can do this. Piece of cake. It's only who knows how many angels, pissed off and in the mood to torture people. How hard can it be? ... Maybe he should ring Aziraphale just once more? Just to be sure? You never know ...
"Crowley? What's wrong, dearest?"
If there had been a ceiling to hit, he'd have hit it. As it was, he settled for hitting the angel instead. And then for explaining the situation. And then for explaining it again, when Aziraphale seemed to wonder what the problem was. And then for following in the angel's wake as Aziraphale strode determinedly and way, way too openly into the warehouse.
Yes. Definitely going to kill the lot of them. Every last one. Provided they survived in the first place.
"How many times am I going to have to make my point before you decide to just do as you're told, like a good boy?"
Well, Zach was sure in fine form. If it weren't for the whole angel-mojo thing, Dean would be worried he's going to give his vessel a heart attack. Not that he'd care, or anything. Anyone who said yes to Zachariah deserved what they got. His future self in-frikkin-cluded.
"Buddy, you can talk until you are blue in the face, and I will never say yes to you," he growled, standing in front of Sam and Cas determinedly. The pair of them were stretched out on the floor. Sam seemed to be mostly okay, aside from the whole asphyxiation thing, but Cas ... Cas looked bad. Cas looked real bad. Damn fucking Zachariah.
The man himself just smiled, shaking his head pityingly. "Dean, Dean. It's only going to get worse, you know. We can keep this up for years, if we have to." A condescending little smirk. "Wouldn't it be easier for all concerned if you just gave us what we want here and now?"
It was like talking to a wall. How many times did Dean have to say no before these clowns got the fucking point? "Zach, you can keep this up for as long as you damn well please! I went through forty years in Hell. I'm not gonna cave just because you say so!" Though if Sam kept making that desperate rattling noise in his chest ... But he couldn't let that show. No way. He couldn't let Zachariah see how close, how fucking close ...
"Well, it's easy enough to see what you're doing wrong," came a smug, faintly exasperated voice from near the doorway. Zachariah and his boys swung to face it immediately. Dean ... not so much. "Can you believe these guys, angel?"
Crowley, you idiot, he thought, you better have a freaking plan!
"Demon." Zach sounded ... more confused than anything, really. Like Crowley being there was something he just couldn't quite comprehend. Not that Dean exactly blamed him. "And ... Aziraphale?" He stared in something like shock, and maybe disgust, which Dean put down as another mark against him. Sure, Hekyll and Jekyll weren't exactly the most sterling examples of their respective species, but then again in Dean's experience that could only ever be a good thing. Cas made a little noise of shock behind him, and Dean growled slightly as he looked to the newcomers.
"Zachariah," the angel nodded curtly, something very chill in his usually pleasant voice, then ignored him completely and looked their way. A look of deep shock and pain crossed that face as he saw the state they were in, and he took two steps their way before Zach's goons moved forward threateningly and cut him off, forcing him to stop. Behind him, Crowley scowled, moving to guard his angel's back and glaring over at Zach.
"Told you, angel," the demon sneered softly. "I told you the little toad couldn't tempt his way out of a paper bag. All brawn and no brains, this lot. Couldn't make a five year old say yes if they asked 'do you want a lollipop?'!" His tone had enough scorn in it to float an oil tanker, but Aziraphale didn't look impressed. Actually, he looked pretty close to homicidal, and that was a freaking scary look on that placid face.
"That's enough, dear," he said, very quietly. Crowley stiffened at something in his tone, swallowing, and Dean stared. He hadn't seen the demon flinch, not even with the Colt in his face, but something was sure scaring the hell out of him now. Behind Dean, Cas made a desperate, inquisitive noise, struggling onto his knees with Sam's help, his hand reaching out to touch the back of Dean's knee. Something turned over in Dean's stomach, making him look back and reach down before he'd even really thought about it, catching Cas' bloody hand with his own, and when he looked back up Aziraphale's face had gone completely blank, and cold as arctic midnight.
"Aziraphale, we've been looking for you," Zachariah took that inopportune moment to cut in. Aziraphale's head turned as if on rollers to look at him, one soft hand tightening around the hilt of his sword. Zach apparently didn't notice the warning signs. Or just didn't care about them. "Though I hardly expected you to come to us." A dirty little sneer. "Really, though. I might have to thank you."
"Thank me?" the angel murmured, distantly. Crowley strangled a growl, fists clenching as Zach's goon squad started to close in around them. Around Aziraphale.
"Yes," Zach smirked, coldly. "You'll be proud to know young Castiel has been following in your ... reactionary footsteps. Perhaps once he sees your fate, he will understand the depths of his mistake. And then perhaps we can make Dean here see some sense."
"Go screw yourself," Dean spat, shortly. Crowley glanced at him, a quick flash of approval, but all the demon's focus was on Zach now, and the threat to his angel. Dean might be upset, but since he was already crouched down holding on to his angel, he figured it'd be a bit hypocritical. Sam met his eyes from Cas' other side, full of panicked question. Dean shook his head. He had no clue.
"His mistake," Aziraphale repeated, flatly, ignoring the comforting brush of Crowley's hand against his back. "You think he made a mistake."
"Oh, I think so, yes," Zachariah purred softly. Dean had to hand it to him. Subtlety might not be his strong point, like Crowley said, but there was no denying the head angel had menacing down pat. "The same mistake you made twenty years ago. I didn't know you were involved this time around too, but now that I do ... well, for your own good, I think I'll have to show you the error of your ways."
"Angel ..." Crowley hissed, as three angels surrounded the pair of them, cutting off retreat to the rear. Sam grabbed Dean's arm, glaring at him furiously. Dean stared back, and Sam jerked his head at them insistently.
"Dean," Cas rasped, low and breathless, his hand tight around Dean's arm. "Dean. Help them." What the hell? What could he do? Though ... Okay, so leaving your allies alone in a fight, not such a cool thing to do, but still ... Zachariah smirked at them. All of them. Dean entertained a brief fantasy about being able to actually pound his smug face in. It was nice.
"No," said Aziraphale, suddenly. The plump angel took one step forward, moving in front of Dean, forcing two of the angels back in sheer surprise. Crowley darted in behind him, keeping a wary eye on anything that moved, and crouched next to Sam quickly, flashing the three of them a quick, uneasy grin. "No. You will not be teaching anyone anything, Zachariah. You're not fit." Odd, how the mild voice suddenly had so much steel in it.
Zach's smirk melted into a hard scowl. "Don't push me, traitor," he snarled. "You've been cut off from Heaven for twenty years. Don't think to try my patience."
Aziraphale just looked at him, shaking his head as if he couldn't believe the stupidity of the man. Then he looked back at them, a smile slipping out as he met Dean's eyes, and nodded to Crowley. "Dearest, can you get them on their feet?" he whispered, low and sort of ridiculous, since everyone in the warehouse could hear him. Crowley rolled his eyes.
"You do realise the last thing I put back together was a pidgeon, right?" he grumbled. Aziraphale just smiled at him. "Oh, fine then. But I take no responsibility if they walk out of here with more limbs than they came in with." His hand rested on Sam's arm, and Sam looked at it like it was a scorpion, his eyes flaring with panic as he looked up to meet Crowley's sudden grin. "Or, you know, less," the demon smirked. Dean was pretty sure this was revenge for Sam almost breaking Crowley's arm that time, but he couldn't blame his brother. Demons weren't exactly famous for their healing abilities.
"No," Cas breathed beside him, reaching out to the other angel. "No. Aziraphale ..."
Aziraphale smiled, very gently, and touch his fingers to Castiel's. "Hush, dear one. Crowley will take care of you." A faint smile. "He may not like it, but he's very good at miracles, now. Has been for some time."
"Rub it in, why don't you," the demon grumbled, already whispering fingers over Sam's chest. Dean watched as his brother's eyes widened, a little noise escaping as his lungs reinflated for the first time in ten minutes. But Cas wasn't appeased, still trying to hold on to Aziraphale's hand, blue eyes wide and desperate. Dean kinda got it. He did.
He'd had enough of the only good angels around having to die for him too.
"Don't worry, Castiel," the angel smiled. "We are not wrong. I know we are not wrong. And really, it's past time for someone to prove it."And he turned back at that, turned to face a sneering Zachariah, and with nothing more on his face than a faint, gentle smile, the sword in his hand flared with white, searing flame.
"Zachariah," Aziraphale said, very gently. "My power is not from Heaven. I have not walked the White Plains for more than six thousand years. My power is here. Here and now, by my Father's will. And you know what? I don't think He's very happy with you."
And Dean couldn't help but match Crowley's wince.
Crowley didn't look up at the sound of metal meeting metal. He didn't look up at the first gasp of shock from the enemy angels, or Zachariah's harsh shout of worry. He didn't look up as the human under his hands stared in outright shock, and no little amazement. He didn't look up as the other human swore under his breath. He didn't look up. Because if he looked up, he'd see Aziraphale fighting for the first time in centuries, and then he'd ... He didn't know what he'd do. Panic, most likely. Or something completely ridiculous, like try and help, and, really, no. No, not happening. Not if they wanted to get out of this alive.
He turned from Sam as soon as the kid could breathe on his own again, shooing him awkwardly out of the way while he reached for Castiel. Angel. Healing a fallen angel. He was pretty sure that was against the rules. Any rules. All rules. Not that demons were supposed to be able to heal anyone in the first place, but there was the Arrangement, and Aziraphale couldn't be everywhere, and it had just been a favour here or there. He hadn't expected to be good at it.
"No," Cas whispered, pushing at him, squirming. "No. Aziraphale ..."
"I know," he snapped, slapping one of the angel's pushy hands away. Honestly! Did the idiot think he was deaf? Blind? Or just bloody heartless? (Well, you are a demon, a little voice whispered, but he ignored it. He'd been ignoring it for years). "But I'm a lover not a fighter, angel, and the sooner we get you lot on your feet and out of here, the sooner he can stop holding them off and run like hell!"
That's called planning, boys and girls. You should look it up sometime.
"I don't think holding them off is the word for it," Dean said suddenly, beside them. There was something odd in his voice, something Crowley hadn't heard in ... oh, years. It sounded ... suspiciously like awe, oddly enough.
"Yeah," Sam breathed, lumbering to his feet at Crowley's back, standing beside his brother as they watched Crowley's angel. "Um. Wow."
Wow? Crowley looked up from knitting Castiel's ribs back together, frowning as he searched out Aziraphale among the five or so moving figures, and then he had to stop. Had to stare. Had to.
"Oh, angel," he whispered, caught. "Aziraphale ..."
He hadn't seen ... he hadn't seen his angel look like that in years. In centuries. Not even at the Almost-Apocalypse. That had been Aziraphale ready to die. This ... this was Aziraphale in full, no-holds-barred avenging angel mode. This was the Guardian of the Eastern Gate. This was the agent of Heaven who'd spent four thousand years casting him down upon the earth, who'd fought him above Babylon, above Giza, above Jerusalem. This was the angel who'd torn him from the skies time after time, back before the Arrangement, back when they'd been alone amongst enemies, without back-up, without help, and bound and determined to knock seven bells out of each other until Judgement Day or death, whichever happened first. This was the Wrath of God come to defend his people.
Sometimes he forgot, he thought, watching Aziraphale break another angel's hip with one swift kick, wincing as he remembered the first time he'd been on the receiving end of that move. (Baghdad, wasn't it? Fifth century?) Sometimes he forgot. The Arrangement had made them both a little soft, these days. Made them both forget. What it had been like, back then. Other angels, other demons, they were drafted in for the big events, swinging in for a brief scrap and home again as required. But him and Aziraphale, they'd been there since the beginning. They'd been there from the start. And until the Crusades had knocked his angel for a loop, made him ameniable to a truce, until they'd spent enough time among humans to loosen up a bit and get to know each other, they'd been fighting the whole damn time.
Five thousand years. Five thousand years of having to fight. And Zachariah was some pushy little middle-management type, who'd probably never had to pick up a sword in his life, and his bully boys were just that. Bully boys. Musclemen drafted in to torture angels and humans already weakened and helpless, people Zach had gone out of his way to tear down long before risking himself in person. And then he'd gone and made Aziraphale angry. No wonder the little shit was currently getting his ass handed to him! Aziraphale had never been all that good at forgiving people who hurt his friends. He'd always been vaguely ashamed of that, once he'd calmed down enough not to smite anything that moved, and Crowley'd stopped hiding under the table.
"Holy shit," one of the Winchesters breathed. Crowley didn't know which. Didn't think it particularly mattered, either. Under his arm, Castiel was staring. In fact, Crowley rather thought the little angel was slipping over into full fanboy mode. Not that he could blame him. Back in the day, that stunned stare had been his. In between pissing his toga, of course. And the angel hadn't even had the sword then. Castiel had every reason for a little awe and confusion right now.
Also lust, but Crowley thought that one might be just him. He grinned. Hot damn! He'd forgotten the angel had it in him! More to the point, he'd forgotten how good he looked, all flying hair and white, pudgy knuckles, wings looking like they'd been pulled through a hedge backwards and blue eyes glowing with fury. Aziraphale hadn't put a sword, any sword, to decent use in years, not since the Denarians had tried to take out the Ionian scriptorium under the guise of a Viking raid. Heh. Come to think of it, their expressions had been a lot like the one Zach was currently wearing. A kind of stunned terror, like your tea-cosy just up and bit your throat out.
"He is ... holding his own, it would seem," Castiel murmured beside him, and when Crowley looked down, there was a faint curl of a smile on the angel's face, and a vindictive sheen to his eyes as he watched Zach warble in terror, backing away from Aziraphale as the angel turned at last to face him. All the others were on the floor by now, or on another plane altogether, and Castiel looked rather coldly pleased with this turn of events. Very nearly spiteful, in fact, under the bruises, and Crowley felt a little thrill of pride in him.
Oh, yes, he thought. Castiel would make a very interesting addition to the Arrangement. Very interesting indeed!
Then there was a ringing silence as Zach decided to embrace the better part of valour, and Aziraphale slumped in relief, the flames flickering out on his sword. For a second, no-one said anything, and then:
"And that," Dean said, with every apparent satisfaction, "Is how you kick serious angel ass! Dude! That was awesome!" The hunter had a shit-eating grin the width of the Mississippi on his face.
Aziraphale turned to him, sword drooping to the floor and eyes creased with exhaustion. He flushed heavily at the expressions on their faces. "Oh, really?" he murmured, waving one shaking hand. "No, dear boy. I haven't ... oh my. I haven't had to fight like that in ... I'm afraid I'm more than a little rusty ... I'm just glad I didn't drop this on anyone's foot ..." He stopped, panted, round features suddenly going alarmingly pale, and Sam was already rushing forwards to catch him as he crumpled. Aziraphale hiccuped softly in the boy's arms, and smiled at them glassily.
Crowley'd forgotten that, too.
"Uh, is he okay?" Sam asked, trying not to look alarmed as Aziraphale wrapped arms around his waist and tried to burrow into his stomach. Crowley grinned a bit, and helped Cas to his feet, not even remotely surprised when Dean had an arm around the little angel's waist in under a second. Leaving one angel to his human, he wandered over to help the other one.
"Yeah, he's fine," he murmured, crouching down beside them until Aziraphale pulled his face out of Sam's belly to grin at him. He reached out, pulling the vaguely drunken-looking angel into his arms, and snickered when Aziraphale giggled at him. "He gets like this after a fight. I'd forgotten that. Adrenalin and alcohol. Gets him every time." He grinned, falling back onto his arse as his angel wrapped around him with a wail, and looked up at the mountain of human that was Sam. "He's fine. He's just fine."
"Yeah, well," Dean said, grinning faintly as he and Cas limped over. "Guess he deserves a little high, after that." Castiel smiled too, though his eyebrows had crept down into that baffled, people-are-weird expression as he watched Aziraphale hiccup against Crowley's chest. "After that, guy deserves to get as shitfaced as he likes."
"'m not drunk," Aziraphale grumbled faintly, muffled in Crowley's shirt. "I'm just a little ... little ..."
"Tired?" Sam suggested, hiding a smile. Crowley grinned up at him.
"Tired, yes," his angel confirmed happily. "Thank you, dear. I'm tired. That's all."
"Course you are, angel," Crowley grinned, wrestling with arms that were probably better suited to an octopus all of a sudden. Aziraphale whined at him, and bit his shoulder in retaliation. Crowley flushed at that, and pointedly didn't look up as the Winchesters snickered at them. "Come on, 'Zira. Gotta get up, get out of here. Get some real alcohol."
"Amen to that!" Dean grinned, and winced when Cas thumped him softly. "Hey, come on, Cas! After that, we all deserve a drink!"
"I agree," the angel said severely, his voice gone extra raspy after the day he'd had. "I just wish you wouldn't blaspheme about it." But his lip curled up a bit, twitching as Dean stared at him, and there was a world of desperate humour in his eyes. Dean blinked at him, looking slightly confused all of a sudden, and Sam leaned down to whisper loudly in Crowley's ear as he helped heave Aziraphale to his feet.
"They really need to stop staring and start kissing, already," the younger Winchester groused, and Aziraphale burst into giggles again. Crowley snorted, glaring at Sam as they swung him mostly upright between them, and the boy smiled back with the kind of innocence you usually only got on babies and the especially wicked. Dean and Cas flushed brilliantly.
"Oh, I like you," Crowley hissed admiringly, snickering at them and reaching out with his free hand to pat Sam's arm. Sam grinned at him, ignoring his brother's glare of death, and Castiel's baffled embarrassment. "Moron or not, I like you, Winchester."
"Yeah, well," Dean growled, decidedly pissed off but not, Crowley noted, actually letting go of Castiel's waist. "How about you clowns get moving, already, before anyone else shows up for round two. Don't know about you, but I don't think Sleeping Beauty over there is up for it." He nodded at Aziraphale, who was indeed out for the count, having slipped silently away while they heaved him. Crowley blinked at him, and then looked up.
He looked at them, all three of them. Sam, proud and sly, his arm firm and gentle around Crowley's angel. Dean, flushed and furious, and all but clinging to his angel. And Castiel, battered and baffled and resilient as ever, firmly attached to his human and very, very unlikely to let go anytime soon. Crowley looked them over, this collection of morons that was all that stood between the world and Apocalypse Mk II, and shook his head with a sigh.
"That, Winchester," he said. "Is the best idea you've had all bloody day."
Chapter 4: Temptation
They ended up at Crowley's place. Well. One of Crowley's places, anyway. Turns out, one of the benefits of being a demon? Really bitching deals in the real estate business. Or possibly that was just a benefit of being Crowley.
Anyway. It was a nice place, wide and old-world and spacious, with both supernatural and technological security up to the eyeballs, a 60" plasma TV, a roaring fire in the grate, and couches so decadently deep that for a moment Sam thought they were possessed and trying to eat people. Angels, to be precise, since Dean almost lost Cas lowering him into one, and Sam and Crowley had to fight for Aziraphale with the other. They won. But only just.
"Dude, where did you get these?" Dean asked, sinking down next to Cas with a heartfelt moan. After a day's worth of getting tossed around by Zach & co, he looked like his spine was trying to permanently fuse itself into the upholstery. Sam smirked at him a bit, but then his own ass hit the cushions beside Aziraphale, and he had to stifle a throaty moan of his own. Dean grinned at him smugly until Sam flipped him the bird, and wriggled happily to settle in.
"Oh, you know, here and there," the demon murmured, watching them with a suspiciously self-satisfied expression. Sam flipped him the bird too, for good measure, and tried not to flush when the demon just snickered.
"They are ... very comfortable," Cas observed from across the coffee table, sounding very surprised about it. Sam frowned at that, until he remembered that most of the time Cas had spent on Earth had been with them, and Winchesters weren't really conducive to showing angels the good things in life. It was possible Castiel thought that tired old motel beds and the back seat of the Impala were the extent of earthly comfort, and that ... that was just sad. That was pretty damn pathetic, when you looked at it.
Crowley, apparently, agreed, looking at Cas with something worryingly close to pity, and something else worryingly close to anticipation. The demon licked his lips gently. "Yes, they are," he murmured, tilting his head to smile at Castiel. "You should spend some time with them, then. Or the beds upstairs, either. You haven't lived until you've slept in a demon's bed, you know."
Castiel blinked, swallowing at the purr in Crowley's voice, looking like a bird trying to stare down a snake. "I ... I don't sleep," the angel squeaked, and Crowley's grin widened to positively indecent proportions.
"Really?" he purred. "Oh, well then ..."
"No!" Dean cut in, glaring furiously at Crowley while one arm wrapped itself protectively around Cas' shoulders, and the other pointed warningly in the demon's direction. "You stop that! No tempting the angels!" He paused, looking over at where Aziraphale was still serenely dozing, and frowned a bit. "Well. Our angel, anyway."
Crowley rolled his eyes, but backed off. "Oh, alright then. Spoilsport." Then he looked over at Aziraphale, and brightened, almost bouncing on his heels. "Though, while we're on the subject ..." He smiled a truly evil smile, and winked at them. "Allow me to show you boys some real temptation!"
Sam stared at him in trepidation, glancing over to share a worried look with Cas and his brother. Castiel was frowning, looking perfectly ready to leap to his unconscious brother's defense, and Sam got that, he really did, but, well ... Aziraphale had just wiped the floor with a bunch of angels, and him and Crowley had obviously been knocking around together for quite a while, and Sam knew he hadn't mistaken the protective flare in Crowley's eyes when Zach's goons had gone for his angel ... and yeah, after Ruby he should really, really know better than to be thinking of trusting a demon, but he just didn't think he was wrong about Crowley. Not when it came to Aziraphale, anyway.
But there was one way to be sure ...
"Yeah?" he asked, softly, letting a little bit of dare slip in, like he was about to open offensives in a prank war with Dean. His brother turned to look at him, surprise and then comprehension flickering over him quick as anything, and then settling into childish amusement. Oh yeah. Dean was onboard. "And how are you going to do that?" he asked, turning back to the demon, seeing Crowley eye him with outright suspicion.
"Oh, I think you'll find I'm pretty good at temptation, boys," the demon murmured, but it wasn't a boast. He was too busy trying to figure out their game to boast.
"I don't believe you," Dean grinned, bright and challenging. "Dude, the angel just took Zach to the cleaners. I highly doubt he's going to fall for anything you can throw at him." And that wasn't true, because they knew, they knew better than anyone, that being able to fight wasn't going to stop you falling for a trick from someone you thought was a friend. They knew that.
Crowley stared at them, head tracking from one face to the other, golden eyes narrowing in confusion and suspicion, taking in Sam's determined challenge, Dean's faked cheer, Castiel's genuine confusion, and then ... then the demon's eyes went flat and narrow, hard as chipped agate, and Crowley was across the room and holding Sam up by his lapels in two seconds flat. Dean was already moving, already coming at them, but Crowley's deadly hiss stopped him in his tracks.
"I sssssincerely hope you are tesssting me," the demon hissed, low and furious, eyes burning right into Sam's from all of two inches away. "Because if you've decided to test him, after everything he's done for you, after he took on the bloody Hosssst ... He hasn't picked up a ssssword in years, you ignorant child! He hasn't had to fight like that in centuries, and he did that for you, and if you're going to turn around and thank him by sitting back and watching a demon tempt him just to see if he fallssss, if you're going to be like those fucking asssssholess who had the fucking gall to judge him after the Crusadesss and all they did to him ..." He stopped, pulled in a hissing breath, face twisting in something between pain and fury, before stilling with forced calm. "If that'sss what you want, boys," he finished, cooly. "Then you are more than welcome to take the highway right outta here right the fuck now, because he doesn't need to hear that shit again. Ever. You understand me?"
And Sam hit the couch again, dropped like Crowley couldn't stand to touch him any more, and he could see Dean and Cas standing behind the demon, looking shocked and, in Cas' case, more than a little pained. Crowley breathed heavily, face still flushed and furious, eyes so viciously golden and serpentine that they were almost copper, and then the demon took a step back, his hands shaking as he straightened his rumpled suit, adjusting his cuffs.
"Well?" he asked, crisp and coldly pointed. Sam and Dean looked at each other, shaken and ashamed and oddly reassured, and then to Cas, who's watching them with narrow eyes as he obviously caught on with what they've done, and then Sam nodded.
"Sorry," he said, since he started it. Crowley stared at him. "Look ... the last time any of us trusted a demon ..." He stopped, still unable to think of that without it hurting, unable to think of it without feeling the shame. "She betrayed us, okay? She pretended to be my friend, and then she ... she pointed me right at Lilith and set me up. And Aziraphale ..." He looked up, met Crowley's eyes, wanting him to understand. "We know what he did for us. Him and Cas ... they're the only decent angels going, and we just wanted to make sure ..." Crowley stopped him, held up a hand and rolled his eyes, but the fury had leeched out of him, and when he looked between them this time there's only exasperation, and maybe something a little like pride.
"Firstly," the demon said, pointing an indignant finger at Sam. "I am nothing like Ruby, alright? I have more class in my fingernail than that skank had in her entire body. Honestly." He sniffed in genuine offense, and Sam found himself fighting a little grin. "And secondly. Me and the angel ... we've been stuck down here with no-one but each other for six thousand years. If I was going to betray him, I would have done it centuries ago, and besides. He's the only angel on this or any other plane with decent taste in restaurants. He's the last person I'd send below."
There was a ringing silence for a minute, then Dean shook his head with a sigh, and flopped back onto his couch. "You really are head over heels for him, aren't you?" he smirked, which Sam thought was possibly not the brightest idea he'd ever had, considering, but all Crowley did was raise an eyebrow at him, before taking a long, deliberate and very, very pointed look at Castiel, and then back at Dean. Dean looked away with a flush and a muttered "Screw you", Crowley grinned at him, and just like that the last of the tension drained out of the room.
"You boys are hopeless," Crowley noted, watching Cas sit gingerly back down next to Dean. "Really hopeless. You know that, right?"
"Hey man, we're not the ones making eyes at unconscious angels," Dean shot back, and Crowley blinked like he'd forgotten something, and snapped his fingers. Sam stared at him.
"Right!" the demon muttered, turning around to crouch beside Aziraphale. "All that, I'd forgotten he needed ... give me a second ..." And there was a second snap of his fingers, which reminded Sam all too uncomfortably of the Trickster, and then Crowley was holding ...
"A cup of tea?" he spluttered, staring at the delicate china and steaming liquid in the demon's hand. Crowley smirked.
"To be precise, two teabags, a metric tonne of sugar, a drop of milk and just a whiff of single malt," he grinned, reaching out to waft the scent under Aziraphale's nose. "I know, I know, but believe me. There is nothing on this Earth better for reviving battered angels ..." He trailed off as Aziraphale twitched, watching with a faint smile as one soft hand reached up to latch on to his wrist with all the bruising force of angels, and two dazed blue eyes opened to drink in the sight of the cup balanced precariously under his nose.
"Oh, my dear," the angel breathed, and promptly inhaled the cup, spluttering a bit but obviously determined. He drained it to the dregs in one long gulp, then slumped back with a happy sigh.
Crowley snorted, and refilled it with a wave, grinning as Aziraphale managed to prop himself mostly upright and stare around in bewilderment. He took in Sam, sitting beside him with his jaw on the floor, Dean across the way looking like a duck just up and talked to him, and Castiel staring in outright fascination. Then back to the demon crouched in front of him, and the second cup cradled invitingly in his hand.
"Crowley, dearest," he smiled, reaching out to rest his hand over the demon's around the china. "You're too good to me."
"Oh, don't I know it," Crowley grinned, shooting a sly look at Sam, but there's too much genuine happiness in the demon's eyes for Sam to take offense. Yes, right, he got it, thank you. No angels were harmed in the making of this Arrangement. Fine. "Want a little more whiskey with this one, angel?"
Aziraphale frowned a bit, but his hand was still wrapped around the cup. Clenched, maybe, was a better word. "I shouldn't ..." he murmured, wavering, and Crowley smirked. "Oh, fine then. Consider this your temptation for the evening, you demon you, and give me my tea!"
Sam heard himself make a little noise of shock, and Aziraphale turned to him, raising a polite eyebrow. On the other couch, Dean choked back a laugh.
Crowley, on the other hand, didn't bother, laughing outright. "Oh, angel," he grinned, waving a hand and settling the cup into his angel's gently. "Angel, this isn't even close to temptation, and you know it." A long, slow grin at Sam, and there's something else in Crowley's hand. A white, greaseproof paper bag, something seeping through it just a little in one corner, and suddenly every last drop of Aziraphale's attention is riveted on him. Him and that bag. "This," said the demon, wickedly. "This is temptation. Right, Aziraphale?"
The angel made a little noise that on anyone else would be called indecent. Since it was him, an angel, it was more ... alright, no, it was still pretty indecent. "Is that ...?" he breathed, and Crowley smirked, reaching in with one careful hand to slide something out of the bag.
"This? Nothing. Just some soft, light pastry..." he pulled the bun out into view, "... a healthy lake or two of rich, thick cream," held it up for display, waving it just a little in front of his angel's face, "... and just a little ... strawberry ... jam ..." He stopped, smirking as Aziraphale watched it hungrily, all but drooling. "Just a cream bun, angel. Just a little genuine, honest-to-Manchester temptation." He smiled, and held it out. "All for you."
"Oh, you ... you demon," Aziraphale breathed, pudgy hands clenching into trembling fists, teacup creaking alarmingly as he desperately held himself back. "Crowley, you wicked ... you bastard ..."
And Crowley grinned a little, very gently, and reached out to catch his hand and hold it, one thumb stroking softly. "I know, angel. I know. But you ..." His head tilted, something flickering in golden eyes, deep and dark and lost, and he stopped, breathed, before starting again. "I almost lost you today, angel," he whispered, quietly. "Indulge me?"
Aziraphale stared at him, angry eyes going soft and round, and he wasn't alone. Sam was staring, too, and Dean, something thick and twisted and understanding in his brother's eyes as he watched the demon's back, as he watched a wicked man reach out to an angel, and Castiel, beside him, was frowning softly as he saw it.
Aziraphale sighed, reaching out to touch Crowley's cheek gently, and took the bun. "Just because it's you," he said, prissily, but there's something deep and warm in his eyes, something impossibly gentle. Then he smiled, a quick flicker of almost-mischief, and turned back to his pastry.
And proceeded with every apparent enjoyment to turn the eating of a cream bun into something pornographic.
Crowley looked shocked for all of two seconds, before the angel licked a glob of cream off his thumb, and the demon shivered helplessly, his eyes slipping to half-mast and his hands clenching on Aziraphale's knees. Dean's jaw dropped open. Sam's jaw dropped open. Castiel ... Cas looked like he'd been hit upside the head with a freaking two-by-four, eyes going impossibly wide and stunned. Sam had a brief moment of sympathy for him, because, really, that's not something ... that's not something you want to see your brother ... oh wow, was that a moan? His eyes flickered to Aziraphale's face, and he saw a pink, angelic tongue licking happily at something red and glistening.
The angel had found the strawberry jam, it seemed. And Crowley, making a guttural sound low in his throat, had apparently found heaven.
"Dude," Dean breathed, looking like he wanted so much to be able to look away right now, but unable to in sheer, mortified fascination. "Dude, that's just ..." His eyes flickered over to Cas for a second, obviously, given Dean's straight-to-porn brain, wondering how his angel would look doing that, and suddenly Sam had a wicked, a positively evil idea. Crowley, who obviously had some sort of temptation-radar going, came out of his lustful daze enough to flash him a wide, appreciative look, and smirk.
Suddenly, there were three cream buns sitting on the coffee table, and Dean started, jumping in his seat, and there, right there ... the deer-in-the-headlights look. Castiel looked from them to Dean and back again, something like terror in his eyes, and something, if Sam wasn't mistaken (and he wasn't) that looked a lot like desire.
And really, could they blame him for helping his hopeless brother out? He picked up the biggest of the pastries, and handed it over to Cas. The angel stared at him, holding it like it was about to bite him, and blinked.
"Go on, Cas," Sam grinned, ignoring the desperate waving from Dean. "This stuff is obviously good for angels, and I'm sure Aziraphale wouldn't eat it if it was really bad."
Aziraphale took that opportunity to make another very indecent sound, and Crowley very audibly gulped. Cas almost dropped the bun in terror. He looked over at them, at Aziraphale's flushed, happy face, then down at the bun, and then ... Then he looked over at Dean, all confusion and fear and hope, and Sam swore, if his brother didn't get his head out of his ass just this one time ...
And then, thank God, Dean pulled his shit together, met Cas' eyes, and reached out to guide the hand holding the pastry to Cas' mouth. The angel blinked, worried, confused, and then ...
Turned out? No-one made porno noises like an angel recently introduced to cream. No-one.
Sam had all of two minutes to enjoy it, to enjoy the suddenly blissed-out expression on Castiel's face, to enjoy the way his brother all but melted into horny goo at his angel's feet, to enjoy the way Aziraphale seemed to be beaming at them, and Crowley, around his own little slice of heaven, to enjoy the way the demon himself seemed to be torn somewhere between wicked pride and embarrassment. He had almost two minutes to enjoy that little breath of happiness and sheer contentment in their lives.
Then the lights went out for a second, and when they came back on, someone very familiar was standing in the middle of the room, making little happy noises and reaching out to snag one of the buns.
"Hey!" Gabriel grinned. "Who broke out the pastry without inviting me?"
There were times when Sam really, really hated his life.
Chapter 5: Challenging Archangels
He'd meant to make a more impressive entrance. You know, some bells and whistles, a little intimidation, maybe a threat of smiting or two, since he was outed and all and could go to town. After all the effort he'd had to go through to get in here in the first place (seriously, there was paranoia, and there was paranoia), he'd meant to work out his frustration with a creative threat or two, taunt the Winchesters, maybe make baby bro cry. That's what he'd meant to do.
It was hardly his fault they had pastries. He got a little ... distracted. They had cream buns. Obviously very good ones, too, if the noises Cas had been making were anything to go by. And they were. Oh, they were. There were two of them, just lying right there.
Very shortly, there were none.
When he looked up, busily licking the last of the cream off his fingers, he was surrounded by two glaring humans, two staring angels, and one very, very nervous demon. One of said angels had cream smeared all over his cheeks, which went very oddly with the protective fury in his eyes. The other was clutching a cup of tea with one hand and a demon with the other, which was hardly any better.
At least the humans looked the same as always. Mostly pissed off.
"Hey guys!" He tried out a little wave, smirking as Castiel flinched automatically towards the Winchesters, and the demon gave a very unmanly little squeak. Hey. Maybe his entrance hadn't been wasted after all.
"Tri.. Trickster?" Aziraphale asked, faintly. Gabriel grinned at him. He recognised the guy, of course. No angel who spent any time on this little mudball wouldn't. Not that he'd ever actually met him, mind. Heaven's agent on Earth, and him incognito? Not a wise plan. But now that he had the chance ...
"Gabriel," Castiel cut in, two steps above a growl. "What do you want?"
Aziraphale's eyes widened comically, his tea slopping over his wrist, and oh, that was gratifying, but it was nothing compared to the demon's reaction. Crowley shot a stunned look over at Castiel, took in the complete lack of surprise in Sam and ole Deano, took one look at Gabriel's carefully blank expression, and threw up his hands in terror.
"I didn't tell them!" he squawked, backing up until he bumped into Aziraphale's knees. "I swear, Gabriel, I didn't tell them!"
Suddenly, every eye in the room was on the demon, and all Gabriel had to do was sit back and watch the show.
"Gabriel?" Aziraphale whispered, stunned. "The archangel? Gabriel?" Poor boy seemed a little hung up on that.
"You know him?" That was Sam, all adorably befuddled. Followed rapidly by Dean:
"Demon, you best not be telling me you've been working for this bastard." And that, Gabriel did find amusing. That, he thought he should answer.
"Not for, Deano," he drawled, smirking at the rapidly reddening human. "With. He works with me. Sometimes." They stared at him, the three of them instinctively bunching together against him, and away from Crowley, and wow, that little alliance didn't take much to cave in. "Me and the Serpent, we go back a ways."
"You are not helping here," Crowley hissed, coiled in a low crouch beside his angel like a cobra readying to strike. The look he shot Gabriel was positively venomous.
"Wasn't trying to be," he grinned, waving a cheerful hand. "But hey, I can shut up if you'd like. Let you dig yourself out of this. If you can."
The glare he got for that would have knocked a lesser angel dead. Who knew Crowley had that dirty a mouth? Gabriel hadn't been cursed that virulently since Phoenician was a living language, and he thought he might actually have to be impressed by that.
"Hey!" Dean again, cutting across the vicious flow of demonic invective. "Hate to break up this little reunion, but any time you want to start explaining yourself, demon ..."
Crowley sent him a very bitter look. "What happened to 'Crowley'?" he asked, soft and sibilant, the hiss building under the words. Dean looked back stonily.
"You get a name when I'm sure you've not been screwing with us for a guy who gets his kicks by repeatedly killing me," he growled, coming forward a step, fists clenched. Straight for the offense, that was Dean. No wonder Michael wanted him. Sam, on the other hand, was looking more than a little doubtful. Castiel ... Cas looked outright torn. And Crowley ...
Damn. Gabriel'd forgotten how hurt that demon could look when he wanted to. More to the point, he'd forgotten how weirdly affecting it was, given that he shouldn't give a shit for the guy. They were what? Work acquaintances, at best? Occasional drinking buddies, sure. And, alright, the demon had given him the heads up that time back in Niems when Raph had been due a swing by ... Well, bugger. There went his fun. Maybe he should ...
"That is enough!" There wasn't an ounce of angelic power in that command, not a hint of Grace. Instead, it pulled up every last drop of guilt-inducing reserve the British Empire had ever laid claim to, and packaged it in a tone cold enough to make ice in Death Valley at summer's noon. And Gabriel may have been the Messenger of God, and one of the most impressive Voices in creation (if he didn't say so himself), but for a moment he felt a little thrill of envy.
Then he mostly felt very wet, and more than a little gobsmacked.
Aziraphale, dainty as you please, lowered the hand holding what had recently been a cup of tea, and stared down into Gabriel's drenched features. The Principality looked shaky, and somewhat terrified at his own daring, but when Gabriel tried to glare at him, he found himself stared down with complete impassivity.
"I think," Aziraphale said, very pointedly. "That you should explain yourself like a good little archangel, and stop trying to get Crowley in trouble."
Nobody moved. Nobody breathed. Even Dean, and Father knew that boy had done enough threatening greater powers in his lifetime, not to mention having personally stabbed Gabriel about twenty times all by his lonesome, looked stunned. Crowley looked like he was trying to swallow a goldfish whole. Then, as Gabriel continued to do nothing (truth be told, he was still trying to get over the sheer affront to try anything), Castiel and Crowley took one long look at each other, nodded once, and stepped in unison in front of Aziraphale, gently guiding the angel back a step away from the potentially explosive archangel.
"He didn't mean it," Crowley said, making desperate placating motions with his hands.
"I'm sure our brother was just ... upset," Castiel tried, shifting to keep his body constantly in front of the other angel as they forced him to back up. "He's had a troublesome day, with Zachariah and his angels. He's just ... upset."
"Drunk, too!" Crowley grinned, voice high and worried. "Drunk as a lord! Don't mind him!"
Gabriel stared at them. Tea dripped slowly over his forehead, into his eyes. He didn't blink. "He just ..." he said, slowly. "He just ..."
"And he's very sorry about it," Crowley begged, desperately.
"No, I'm not," Aziraphale spoke up, very determined. Castiel reached behind him to clap a hand over the other angel's mouth without even looking. Little brother was learning.
"Will you sssshhhut up, angel," Crowley hissed.
"No," Gabriel said, very quietly. "No. Let him speak."
"Ah, no," Dean obviously decided to step in, looking worriedly at his angel standing right in the line of fire. "Maybe that's not such a good idea ..."
"Come on, Gabriel," Sam tried his best winning smile. Which, actually, wasn't half bad. "We're all just a little ... I mean, torture has this tendency to make us ... antsy. I'm sure Aziraphale was just ..."
"Acting out?" he cut in, dry as dust. As one, they flinched. And then, of all people, Castiel decided to grow a spine.
"You are one to talk," the lesser angel spoke up, halting his retreat and holding his ground, chin tilting up and back stiffening in cold fury. "After all you have done in anger, Gabriel, do you dare condemn another for the same!"
Gabriel blinked at him. Aziraphale was one thing, but for Castiel to stand up to him, an archangel, given what had apparently happened the last time he'd tried that ... "Beg pardon?"
"I do not know why you are here," Castiel said quietly, levelling a long, intense look his way. "I do not know what you want, Gabriel. But whatever it is, you will not get it by trying to force us into division. You will not get it by goading us into challenging you. Or each other." He paused, blue eyes fierce and burning with tattered Grace. "Whatever this is, this trick, this game ... it will not work. So either leave, or strike us down, but do not blame our brother for having the courage to do what you have wished to do for yours so many times!"
Gabriel stared at him for a long, long minute. Long enough for the Winchesters to get nervous and move in, Dean in front of Cas, Sam looming large and defiant behind him. Crowley and Aziraphale frowned, confused and concerned, but bunched in close themselves. All five of them, renegades and rebels and misfits to a ... sentient being ... standing firm against him. Against him, and against everything. Threatening each other to standing together in two seconds flat.
Father in Heaven, how he missed that, missed having that, missed feeling it. Missed standing with family and knowing they had your back, and not just to line it up for the knife.
"I ... I don't think a cup of tea to the head is going to cut it with Mike and Lucy," he said, very softly. "I don't think there's much of anything that will cut it, now."
Aziraphale smiled at him gently. "A moment ago, I wouldn't have thought it would cut it with you," he pointed out. Crowley grimaced a little.
"We've no proof it's worked now," he muttered, elbowing his angel in the ribs. Gabriel felt himself snicker. Just a little.
"Gabriel?" Castiel, again. The most battered of his brothers. The most reduced. The most faithful and brave. He bit his lip, fighting the urge to smile at the little guy, to reach out and reassure. He couldn't. He couldn't do this, not again. He couldn't reach out to a brother and watch them try to kill him, not again. Not ever again. And these brothers ... just a few words, and they were ready to turn on each other. Just a little suspicion, and they were leaping for the throat.
Then again, Crowley was a demon. The Winchesters just couldn't trust him right off the bat, after everything. But once they figured it out ... Of all the fallen, this one they could trust. A demon of his word, every time. And Aziraphale, well. The boy hadn't a malicious, untrustworthy bone in his body, to coin a human phrase.
And if you had to be on anyone's side, in this stupid little family squabble ...
He raised a hand, watching them flinch, watching Crowley grimace with bitterly vindicated suspicion, watching Sam and Dean Winchester glare tired hatred, watching the fathomless sadness in Castiel's and Aziraphale's eyes. He raised his hand, and clicked his fingers.
And grinned at them through suddenly dry hair, holding out a tray with six steaming cups.
"Anyone want a refill?"
There was a long pause where no-one did anything. Then ... well. Crowley might be the master of the filthy mouth, but Castiel was undoubtedly champion of the dirty look. Though Sam was giving his best effort, something he could hear Dean automatically classifying as 'bitchface #49, you are so dead'.
It was a very cute look on him, actually.
Aziraphale, by contrast, beamed at him like a proud parent, and swooped over to appropriate the nearest cup. Gabriel grinned at him a bit, keeping a wary eye on the liquid to make sure it stayed in the cup and not on his head, watching him take that first sip and sigh happily.
"I am sorry, my dear," the fussy angel smiled, reaching out to pat his free hand. Gabriel blinked at him, beginning to wonder if he'd stepped into one of his own illusions. No-one was that cheerful naturally.
"No you're not," Crowley muttered, sidling up next to his angel, taking a cup gingerly between careful fingers, and giving Gabriel a squinty look. Gabriel gave him his best innocent expression, and waited until the demon had taken his first sip of almost raw single-malt with just the faintest flavouring of tea before snickering gently. Crowley shot him a sour look, but obviously appreciated the belt.
"Yes, I am, dearest," Aziraphale smiled at his surly companion, before turning back to him. "But really, you shouldn't have hurt Crowley like that. Archangel or no."
Gabriel stared at him, sending the others a faintly baffled look. "Is he always like this?"
Crowley grunted. "You have no idea."
"It is not ..." Castiel said reproachfully, moving cautiously forward. "It is not a bad thing." He shied nervously as Gabriel turned to him, and inside a second his human watchdog was beside him and glaring. The archangel grinned at Dean challengingly, and smirked at the red flush that spread up his neck.
"You should have some too, Deano," he sneered. "Do wonders for that disposition of yours."
"What's that supposed to mean!"
"Stop it!" And, this time, it's Sam growling at them, appearing beside them like the world's largest ninja and landing huge hands quellingly on his brother's shoulders. It looked like if he'd dropped them any harder, Dean would have been walking away the same height as Gabriel. "Please," the younger Winchester asked. "I've spent most of today getting turned inside out by Zach. Can we please not kill each other now?" His face twisted in genuine pain, a human pushed too far, too fast, too many times, and just desperate for a break. For just five minutes when the people around him aren't killing each other. Which was not fair, because Gabriel had had enough of empathising with people for one evening, but even still ...
He found himself growling slightly. "Someone should teach that little pipsqueak a lesson," he muttered. Leave Heaven for just a thousand years, and look what idiots they put in charge!
Then, surprisingly, Dean grinned. At him. "Oh, no worries there," the hunter rumbled. "Someone already did. Someone really did."
Gabriel blinked at him. "Oh?"
As one, all of them turned to look at Aziraphale, who blushed bright pink. "Um."
Gabriel looked at him for a long minute, idly wondering why it was all his little brothers who'd turned out to have actual spines, then sent Crowley a long, sideways look. "I don't know why you sent me after Aribert Heim on his account, you know," he mused. "He can obviously take care of himself."
Crowley went still. Still as death, a human would say, barely even breathing as Aziraphale turned slowly to face him. All colour fled from both their faces.
"Crowley," the angel breathed. "Crowley, you didn't."
The demon shuffled uneasily, looking anywhere but at the angel. "Deserved it," he said, at last. "Deserved worse. But the cancer ..." He looked over at Gabriel, nodding slightly. "That was a good touch. That was very nice." Something flashed in golden eyes, something that reminded them, so very suddenly, that this was a being who had known Hell from the Fall, and had carried some of it away with him. Behind Gabriel, Dean shivered suddenly, and drifted closer to Cas.
"Hey, guys?" Sam asked, very hesitantly. "What ... what's going on?" He looked at Gabriel, hard. "What is it between you two. You still haven't explained ..."
Gabriel tilted his head at the demon, passing the question, but Crowley was moving to Aziraphale, wrapping himself gently around a suddenly shaking Principality, and he realised he was going to have to take this one himself. He frowned, watching them. He was also going to have to ask about that later. Obviously something deep there ...
"Gabriel?" Cas interrupted his thought, very gently, sad eyes watching the angel and his demon. "Perhaps we should ... step over here a bit, and you can explain?" Gentle, deferential, but with just a hint of steel. Little brother had gotten a mite protective about the only other angel in the spheres to stand beside him and his humans.
"Yeah," he muttered. "Yeah, sure." He snapped a finger, and they were in the next room, the kitchen, leaving Crowley to explain to his angel. For a second, Gabriel just stared back, through the wall, wondering what he'd obviously missed in the last few centuries of acquaintance with the only demon in existence who'd help hide an absentee archangel.
Thinking about Heim, though, and what he was known for ... maybe he'd already known when he'd taken the job. If ever there was a human deserving a Trickster's attentions ...
"So," Dean growled, and Gabriel turned to see him lightly curling fingers into fists. "Gonna fill us in now, Gabe?"
"Dean," Sam muttered, warningly. "Please," he added, face worn and tired as he looked at the archangel, a far cry from the brief flare of contentment Gabriel had caught a glimpse of as he'd flashed in. All because of him. And fine. Fine. He was going to do this. He was going to take a bloody side, and try to keep it together, and try to ... to keep them together, to keep Sam together.
Not because he'd gone soft. Just because he was tired, he was fucking tired, of watching people he might, possibly, care about spend their last days trying to rip each other to shreds.
Mike and Lucy, they were lost causes. Maybe always had been. But Gabriel didn't have to let them drag anyone else down with them. Not Dean, asshole little snot that he was. Not Castiel, already so battered and torn by this, but hanging in there. Still hanging in there. Not Crowley, the stubborn, snakey bastard, and no, Gabriel didn't owe him a thing. Archangels don't owe anybody. Not Aziraphale, not what was quite possibly the one remaining angel touched by their Father's grace.
And not Sam Winchester. Not ever Sam Winchester. Lucy could go screw himself. Or, possibly, Michael. It wasn't like those two hadn't done everything else already.
"Settle in, boys," he said at last. "This is a long story, so you might as well get comfortable. We're going back almost a thousand years here, after all." A faint grimace, and he shot a challenging look at the elder Winchester. "And before you ask, yes. You really can trust him. In fact ... that's pretty much what this whole thing is about. Has been from the start." He stopped, looking at them, at Dean's dark confusion, Sam's desperate hope, Castiel's wary faith. "Who you can trust," he said at last, distantly, thoughtfully. "Who's on whose side, and who in all that you can trust. Not Hell. Not Heaven. Certainly not humanity. But maybe ... a little bit of all of them."
And now that he thought of it ... this little team of theirs, this little alliance ... wouldn't it be just like Father to have fixed it? As Michael was so fond of saying, you can't fight City Hall. (No, he wasn't stalking his little brother back and forth through time just to make sure he made it, why do you ask?)
The thing Michael seemed to have forgotten, the thing all of them seemed to have forgotten, with the possible exceptions of Cas and the two boys in the other room, was who City Hall was.
Tell you something for nothing? It sure as Hell wasn't Heaven.
Chapter 6: Making Deals With Devils
WARNING: Dialogue-only chapter, for some reason.
How an innocent Archangel, who was just trying to have a good time with his new Trickster pals, was blackmailed into making a terrible deal with a heartless fiend ...
[OR How an innocent demon, who was just trying to get a bit of a break, was hunted across half a continent and threatened at smitepoint into an abusive arrangement with a cruel archangel - be honest you great pillock!]
That is entirely a matter of opinion. Anyway ... Once upon a time ...
[Or circa 1150 AD Gregorian, if you want to be pedantic about it]
... The Tricksters had gathered for their centennial party and general piss-up ...
[It's very good, by the way - no-one knows how to party like a Trickster, provided you're immune to certain pranks]
Thank you. Anyway. There was this gathering, somewhere in the Schwarzwald since Till was hosting that year, and there I was, a young, freshfaced archangel trying his hand at demi-godhood ...
[Freshfaced my arse. Shitfaced more like]
A young, freshfaced archangel, just getting into the swing of things, comparing notes with that handsome devil Kitsune, doing my level best to ignore Loki in the corner bemoaning his fate and his family and crying vengeance - seriously, that bastard should head below sometime, he and my brother would get on wonderfully ...
[Shoulda listened when Till told you not to pass him the mead, then, shouldn't you? Loki's always a whiny bastard when he gets in on the honeyed stuff]
How was I supposed to know? Anyway, it was mead. Honey and alcohol, the two most basic earthly pleasures, mixed to perfection. You could get drunk and cavities. How could I deny anyone that?
Anyway, there I was, happy as you please, getting happily drunk and eating to my heart's content, without having to listen to Michael whine for the first time in centuries, without getting all those reproachful looks from Raph, without, in short, having to put up with my family, when all of a sudden I felt an angelic presence ...
[Demonic! Demonic! I haven't had an angelic presence since before the bloody apple!]
Fallen or not, the base stock was the same, and will you stop interrupting! Don't make me smite you, not when you've just managed to calm Aziraphale down ... Anyway! There was a rush of demonic presence, right in the middle of the party, and when I looked round there was this flash bastard standing there, all golden eyes and black tunic, gatecrashing a Tricksters' party like he hadn't a care in the world ...
[Hey, I got an invite from Anansi, I'll have you know! Besides. I'm always invited to the best parties. Whether the ones throwing them know it or not]
And this flash bastard stopped dead in the middle of handing off a keg to Till, turned to look at me, saw in an instant what I was, which, by the way, I've never quite figured out, and then he ...
[After five thousand years in the field, you get an instinct for it. Though you were pretty damn good. And then I beat a hasty and entirely sensible retreat]
And then he ran like the coward he was. Oh, come on! You were all but crapping yourself!
[Archangel. I ran into a freaking archangel in the middle of my holiday, disguised as a freaking Trickster like he'd been bloody waiting for me. What would you have done, oh master of the disappearing act? Oh, right, that's exactly what you did, when I told you about Raphael in Rheims ...]
That was different. Raph would have tried to get me to come back! Have you ever seen two archangels going at it? Trust me! It isn't pretty!
[Like I said. Beating a hasty and entirely sensible retreat!]
Oh, whatever. So the bastard ran out, anyway, and since I'd no idea who he was, where he was going, and more importantly who he might be tattling to, I made my excuses and followed him.
[And by 'followed', he means came after me like a bat outta hell, or Heaven, as the case may be. The bloody bastard chased me across half of fucking Germany before I managed to start losing him in Strassburg ...]
Incidentally, the string of sixteen brothels, the sixty-year-old hooker and the bishop? Nice. If I hadn't been trying to peel the candlewax off my face and bleach my brain, I might have been impressed.
[*snicker* Hey, Gertrude was an old friend! Really knew how to coax a man to damnation in style, she did]
Oh, I don't doubt it. Given that the bishop had just come face to face with one very pissed off archangel of the Lord, and the first thing he did was hide under her skirts and make her jump ...
[Really? The old bastard! I never knew he had it in him!]
He had something in him ...
[Anyway! Moving on!]
I don't know why you're acting prudish, demon, when you set him up for it in the first place.
[Hey, I just subcontract out! How Gertrude went about her little temptations was entirely her own affair, and nothing I needed to know about! Ever. She was a good friend, that hussy, but the things a human woman will come up with ...]
Oh, I know. I saw. And I may never, ever forgive you for it.
[Well, if you hadn't hunted me across a freaking country just for showing up at a party, maybe I wouldn't have had to! And you didn't bloody stop there, did you? No! You picked up my trail heading for Toulouse, and chased me across most of bloody France, too. And across the Channel, and on into Wales, you bastard! Wales!]
Well, if you'd stayed still, it wouldn't have been a problem! And I didn't appreciate getting almost drowned by that pack of selkies, either.
[Club. A group of selkies is called a club. Or a harem, but you don't want to say that one to their faces ...]
[Er. Just saying]
[Look, it's the angel's fault! He's a blooming walking dictionary, alright, you can't blame me for having picked some things up!]
[Er. I'll just shut up now, shall I?]
What a good idea! I'm so glad you've thought of it!
[Bite me, angel boy!]
Not in company, serpent. Or in front of your tea-slinging boyfriend. Although if he wanted to join us, maybe ...
[Tell the bloody story, Gabriel, and stop freaking the angels out! Cas doesn't need to know that shit]
He's going to have to know it someday, if him and ole Deano over there are ever going to get it on. Oh, I'm sorry. Was that supposed to be a secret? Oops ...
[Which one of us is supposed to be the demon, here? Get with the programme, archangel! Or shall I start us off, with you swooping down all fearsome and wrathful, and landing ass-first in an open-cast tin mine ...]
Which you booby-trapped, you sneaky bastard, to collapse at an angel's presence! And where did you learn that sigil anyway? That's one from after the Fall, and Dee hadn't even been a twinkle in his great-great granddaddy's eye at that stage.
[Never you mind, archangel. Demon's got to keep some secrets, especially with apocalypses being thrown around like confetti these days. Can't be too careful]
Yes. That's what you said then, too. After you'd trapped me in holy oil, a collapsed quarry and about fifty feet of rapid-fire sigil work. All of which you had to hand after being on the run for four days. Did anyone ever tell you you're a paranoid bastard?
[Part of the job description. Hell's never been a friendly place, you know]
I'm beginning to understand, yes. But now, here's the fun bit. Because I, as always, despite being tricked into a trap by a treacherous demon, was my usual cool and confident self ...
[He spent three hours cursing me in every language known to man or angel. I didn't even know you could curse in Enochian until then, but he managed it]
Crowley, shall I remind you that, while I may have been trapped then, I am not now?
Thank you. Have some whiskey, and let me tell the story, there's a good demon. And keep Aziraphale's head out of the pie, would you?
Right. Where was I? Oh yes. Trapped in holy fire, faced with a panting, desperate demon who'd just crapped his pants all over again ...
... I decided I'd just about had enough. And the lovely thing about holy fire in an open air situation, especially in Wales, is that all you have to do is wait for a nice, handy rainstorm, and keep the demon busy until then so you don't have to scour the Earth for him afterwards ...
[*gulp* You know, I've always been really glad we got things talked out ...]
So am I. But back then, all I wanted was for you to stay still for a couple of hours so I could rend you atom from atom when I got loose. Possibly after having marinated you in beeswax, holy oil, and Gertrude's bathwater for a century or two. In a barrel in Till's taproom, while the party went on around you, forever out of reach.
[... You are a vindictive bastard, aren't you?]
Believe me, you have no idea. But all that meant was that I had to keep you busy. Distracted. Talking, in short. And, well, what better way to lure a demon than to pretend to be impressed, appeal to his pride, and then to his survival instinct by offering the potential of a deal ...
[Which, as an archangel in hiding, and me the one demon on Earth who knew how to get in touch with Heaven, wasn't at all an attractive proposition. Considering that I could have buggered off then and there, while you were stuck, and told Aziraphale where to look ...]
Yes. Whereupon he would have showed up, threatened a pissed off, wet and hunted archangel who was more than a little jumpy, and gotten himself smited for his troubles. Aren't you glad it didn't come to that?
[Whereupon his superiors would have noticed the frikking archangel that had just smote their operative, and come down on you like the proverbial tonne of bricks! Now aren't you glad that the angel meant enough to me even then for me not to drop him in the shit like that, and take out all my problems in one fell swoop? Honestly. I show up to a party, and Heaven drops everything I could need to destroy their earthly operations in my lap! If I wasn't the honourable demon that I am ...]
And scared shitless at the time ...
[Like you were any better! Or did I imagine the quaver in your voice back then?]
[Sorry. Look. It was a bad century, alright? Aziraphale ... He was in the Al-aqsa Mosque back in 1099, okay? He hadn't ... he wasn't well. Not for that entire century. I wouldn't have dropped him into a bar brawl back then, let alone have him tangle with an archangel, and those bloody bastards upstairs, with their fucking questions and requests for reports, and their little tests ... I wasn't ever planning to hand you over. Not to them, not after that. Whatever reason you had for hiding out with Anansi and Kit and the boys ... I wasn't going to rat you out. I just didn't want you to smite me before you figured that out]
I know. I realised that pretty quickly, actually. I've been captured by demons before, you know. Back in Egypt that one time, and before Michael got his head out of his ass during the first coming and actually noticed I was missing ... You didn't act like a demon. Less of the taunts and threats, more of the reasoned arguments. For mutual survival, which was new. Even Lucy can only get his head around one person surviving a conflict at a time.
[It was a good argument, too. I mean, the past few centuries have proven how good an arrangement it was. You don't kill me, and I don't set the higher-ups on you ...]
I do you the occasional favour, maybe trickster you and your angel out of a few tight spots, not that you told me about the angel at the time, mind, and in return you send some juicy work my way, and give me the heads up on any brotherly manifestations ...
[You give me a look-in on the pagan circuit, and I get you the lowdown from the demonic scene, and later the angelic one, once you'd figured out about Aziraphale and the Arrangement and didn't smite either of us ...]
I was hardly going to punish Heaven's covert operative for actually using his head, was I? Only angel in existence who was, at the time, and besides. I knew he could trust you, by then.
[... You what? You did in your eye! You promised to drop me to the bottom of the Marianna Trench in a sealed box with only an everlasting phonograph of a polka recital for company, should I ever cause him harm!]
Yes, well. He is my baby brother, after all. And the only decent one I had at the time.
[You'd never even met him!]
I didn't have to! He was an angel, you were a demon! Decent and occasional fun you may have been, but ...
[But even after 900 years of exile, you couldn't help but take sides? Even after a millennium, family is still family, and you want to protect it?]
... You ... you've been ... Shut up. Do not go there, demon.
[You want to protect your baby brother. Brothers, maybe. Gonna be a bit awkward, now that they've challenged Heaven and Hell to a pissing match. With only a serpent and two moronic humans for help ...]
Shut up, Crowley. Shut up. I said I'd help already, so you just shut up.
[No. No. Because thisss iss important, archangel. Thisss is my angel, and my planet, and I want confirmation. I want a deal. Blame it on demonic paranoia if you want, but I want to know for sssure that we can trussst you!]
An Arrangement. You want an Arrangement. Is that it?
[No. I want The Arrangement. Me and the angel, we've already pulled Cas into it, and he'sss pulled in his humanss. But you ... You want in, or are we kicking you out? All the way out]
I've offered you my help! I've put my freedom on the line for you! Not to mention my neck! What could I possibly gain by entering a deal with a demon on top of it? Why would I want to?
[... Because we look out for our own. Because if you were one of us, we'd do for you what we'd do for each other. Everything we'd do for each other. And Gabriel, after a thousand yearssss ... you know what that meanssss. You know what it means when I promise that. You and me, we had an arrangement, but you know how different that is compared to the Arrangement. You know what me and the angel would do, could do, have done. After all thissss time, you know]
And you, you would offer me that? If I just give you my word not to betray you? You'll offer me that? Oh, no. No, demon, you're more insidious than that. What do you want, hmmm? What devil's price would you have an archangel pay, to be looked after by a demon and a couple of dinky rebel angels, against all the might of Heaven and Hell? My name, sealed in blood? The seals of Heaven? Me to challenge archangels for you? What do you want, Crowley?
[... I want my angel to live. I want Aziraphale to survive this, and Castiel, and Earth, and even the Brothers Bozo over there. I want Heaven and Hell to pissssss off and play out their little derby somewhere elsssse. I want to be able to sssend you some corrupt priessst or some Nazi torturer to play with, and get a few temptable maidens sent my way in return. I want there to be a world. I want there to be room for deals, and arrangements, and civilised talks between sides. I want there to be humanity, and decent alcohol, and Trickster parties when Kit gets Loki drunk and makes him set Coyote on fire. I want your people and mine to ssstop with the freaking apocalypsessss already! I want my world back! Alright?]
... I can't fight them all, Crowley. I can't fight any of them. I've never been a fighter, of all the archangels, and I can't ... They're family. I can't just ...
[I know. You think I want to fight? I mean, Cas may be a soldier, and 'Zira may be a dab hand with a flaming sword, but thisss ... this isn't about fighting. It can't be. If the Ineffable Plan hinges on ussss being able to hold our own in a fair fight, we're already sunk. But ... there hasss to be another way. Thisss is Earth, after all. With free will, and technology, and humans, and all that sneaky glory ... there will be another way. There hassss to be. All I want ... isss for you to help usss find it. That's ... that's all. Come on. Jusst one more little deal, with your favourite demon. Have I ever lead you wrong?]
More times than I can count. But ...
[Just don't sell usss out, that's all I ask. Maybe trick usss out of a tight spot or two. Sssend some useful thingsss our way. Jusst ... ssstay with uss. Part of usss. Come on, archangel. A thoussand yearsss down here, don't you want to keep it around a little longer? Jussst for fun?]
... I won't fight my brothers. Whatever happens, I will not raise my sword against them. Not again. I'm not ... I will not do that. But ... Just a little Arrangement, I suppose it couldn't hurt ...
[Isss it a deal, then? Archangel?]
... You are a serpent, aren't you? Temptation. You could persuade anyone, couldn't you? Did Eve fall this easily?
[Nah. Eve wasss a harridan in waiting. Took me forever to get her to taste. But the lure of the the forbidden ... sssooner or later everyone falls. Sooner or later everyone takessss a little of what they want. Doesn't have to mean anything, though. Doessn't have to hurt. At leasst, not anymore than everything already doess. World'ssss ending, after all. And you ... Gabriel, you want thisss. You know it. And we can give it]
... I want pastry. If I'm going to do this, I want pastry. All an archangel can eat. And alcohol! This goes the way I think it's going to, I'm going to need to get very, very drunk before it's over. And no humans before ten am! I'm not a morning person!
[*grins* I've got a good line on a mead supply, as it happensss. Can't get the stuff anymore, but I happen to know a guy who knowsss a guy ...]
Fine. Fine! You bloody serpent, I'm in. Sign me up, whatever. I'm in.
This better not come back to bite me in the ass.
[Oh, I promise. Anything biting you in the assss, it won't be an arrangement ...]
... Shut up, you dirty demon, and pass me the bloody bottle. If I'm going to be putting up with you, I'm going to get started on the drunk. I'm going to need it.
Chapter 7: Morning
Castiel woke up. It took him a long minute to understand the sensation, to realise that he was conscious now because he hadn't been before, to realise that he'd been asleep. He'd never ... he'd never done that before. It wasn't like being unconscious, wasn't like being so exhausted and battered that he could no longer hold on to the world. It wasn't like coming back from the past that time. It was ... almost pleasant. Soft and languorous, and a little bit fuzzy around the edges. It was ... nice.
It took him a moment to realise anything beyond that. Took him a moment to realise that someone must have done something to him, 'whammied' him, as Dean would say, for him to have fallen asleep in the first place. Took a moment to realise that something might ... something might be wrong, there might be danger, he had to ...
"You're safe, kiddo," someone said, a little way off. Gabriel. Gabriel? Had he ...? Oh! He remembered. He remembered the archangel and the demon, getting ... very drunk. He remembered Aziraphale scolding someone. Possibly him? No. No. Crowley, that was it. And Gabriel. And then, while the angel harried them, they had ...
Something moved behind him. Shifted lazily to wrap an arm around his waist and mumble something into the back of his neck. Castiel froze, a little yelp escaping him before he could stop it, and Gabriel chuckled a little in the distance.
"He's been cuddling you all morning, you know," the archangel said quietly, sounding very amused about it. "Who knew Deano was such a closet snuggler? Then again, he and Sammy were so out of it, I could have been a pillow, if I'd sat still long enough." Castiel thought there might be something almost wistful in his voice, there, but it was quickly squashed as Gabriel went on. "He latched onto you when we tried to move him, and well ... it was just easier to dump you both into bed, and leave you to get on with it. You weren't exactly all there yourself, you know."
"Um," said Castiel. "What ... where's ... um."
Gabriel snickered, coming into view around the bottom of the bed, his mouth twisted into his usual smirk, but there was something different about it. Something ... soft? "Sammy's on the other side of Dean. Actually, if you can feel your hip, I think that's his hand. Frankly, I'm surprised Dean can breathe, stuck in the middle like that. Crowley's got pretty big beds, but this is Gigantor we're talking about ..."
"Um," Cas said again. He couldn't think of anything better. Many confusing things had been happening to him of late, and he'd thought he'd gotten used to it, to the constant uncertainty, but this ... "Um."
Gabriel grinned at him, shaking his head. "What's wrong, kiddo? Never woken up with a pretty human wrapped around you before? Not that Dean's what I'd call pretty, mind you, or even especially good looking ..."
Castiel frowned at that. "Dean is beautiful," he protested, almost on instinct. Dean was. Even in Hell, even twisted and torn, his soul had shone, so beautiful, so much a wonder, so much of what made their Father's work worth fighting for. Dean was always beautiful to him. So was Sam, really, in his way, but Dean ... He realised Gabriel was staring at him again, and blinked owlishly at the archangel. Gabriel's face twitched powerfully, like he was trying to suppress some mighty emotion, something Castiel couldn't see enough to understand. Amusement, maybe? Knowing Gabriel? Although, given the last few minutes, maybe not.
But before he could ask, something else flickered over the archangel's face, surprise and then amusement, as he looked over Castiel's shoulder ...
"Wha? Who?" Dean shifted behind him, and Castiel stiffened, causing Dean's arm to tighten around him convulsively. Causing Dean to realise that there was someone for his arm to tighten around. Causing ...
"What the hell!"
Dean sat up in panic, flailing a little, almost rolling Castiel out of the bed in the process. His head shot from side to side, eyes blearily glaring at anything in sight, and Castiel ... had to laugh. He just had to laugh. Big, rolling, helpless giggles as Dean turned to glare down at him in bewilderment, as he raised one hand to smush his own face, as if he could rewrite reality just by blocking it out for a second. Castiel laughed until his chest hurt, laughed until he had to stop or forget what breathing was supposed to be, one or the other, and then ...
"Dean?" Sam murmured from the other side, raising his shaggy head to peer at Castiel across his brother's lap. Sam frowned at him for a second, trying to remember who he was, maybe, and then he closed his eyes with a groan and dropped his head back to the mattress. "Jeez, Dean, couldn't you have waiting until we weren't sharing the bed? I so did not need to wake up to that!"
"What?" Dean yelped. "No! We didn't ... we weren't ... Sammy! I did not."
There was a choking sound from the bottom of the bed, and Castiel looked down to see Gabriel stuffing a fist in his mouth, shoulders shaking. He thought about being angry, maybe, because only he was allowed to laugh at his Winchesters, but, well, they were pretty funny. He grinned down at his brother, too light and happy to bother with anything else, and felt his heart trip a little when Gabriel grinned back.
"Something funny, chucklehead?" Dean asked dangerously, glaring at the archangel, and Castiel blinked a bit when Dean's arm came back around his shoulders, almost protectively. Dean's other hand rested defensively on Sam's shoulder as he growled blearily, and for a moment, for a moment so pure and bright it almost hurt, Castiel felt part of something, something small and battered and strong and pure. Something like family, or like how family should be. He gasped a little, shuddered, and Dean looked down at him, green eyes wide and blinking, confused at first and then ... understanding. Gentle. Embarrassed and proud.
"Hello, Dean," Castiel whispered, very quietly. Dean smiled, a little twitch in the corner of his mouth, and his thumb stroked a little at Castiel's shoulder-blades.
"Hey, Cas," he murmured back, voice still soft and a little crushed by sleep. "Ah. Morning?" Castiel smiled.
"I believe so, yes," he said, letting a little curl enter his voice, a little wisp of humour. Dean grinned, and hit him behind the ear. Only lightly, though. Castiel retaliated with a poke in the hip, since it was all he could reach from under the covers.
"Smartass," his human grinned, ruffling his hair. "Note to self, the angel is a smartass in the mornings."
"My ass is not particularly smart," Castiel deadpanned solemnly, watching Dean look at him with exasperation, waiting for that bemused, frustrated expression before he allowed his lips to curl upwards a little and reveal the joke. Dean stared at him in shock for a long moment, and then ...
Then, Dean pushed him out of the bed.
Castiel hit the floor with a loud thump, and an undignified squawk, and Gabriel fell off beside him laughing. Castiel flailed for a minute, stunned, then lay still, brushing hair out of his eyes, and glared at his brother, and Dean, and a bewildered and snickering Sam for good measure. All it did was make the lot of them laugh harder.
"Oh," Gabriel breathed, sitting up to flash Dean an almost admiring look. "Oh, you lot. You lot are perfect." He grinned helplessly. "Just what an archangel needs in the morning. Grumpy humans to torment his little brother."
"Thank you," Castiel muttered, a little snippily, pulling himself up onto his knees, leaning on the edge of the bed so he could glare at them better. "My first ever morning wake-up. Thank you for that."
Gabriel grinned. "Aw, hey, little bro. It's not so bad." He reached out to pat Castiel condescendingly on the shoulder. "Now that you've gotten the hang of it, I'm sure you'll have many other happy mornings to look forward to." He looked at Dean, there, and for some reason Castiel couldn't fathom, his eyes hardened a little. Almost threateningly. "I'm sure Dean over here wouldn't mind showing you the ropes, as it were. Would you, Deano?" A menacing purr, and Dean stiffened a bit, his eyes flashing angrily, but then he looked down at Castiel, and he ... softened. Slumped, with maybe a little helpless smile.
"Yeah," Dean said, almost bemused, but oddly happy about it. "I guess I wouldn't mind, at that."
"Oh, thank God," Sam muttered behind him, rolling out of the bed and flashing the two angels an apologetic look. "Sorry, guys. But it's about time, you idiot!" He slapped the back of Dean's head in passing.
"Shut up," Sam growled, but nicely. He was grinning as he shambled over towards a likely-looking door, the bathroom, presumably. "If I'd known all it took was someone knocking you in bed together in a drunken stupor, I'd have done it ages ago."
"Um?" Castiel blinked, and Gabriel grinned, nodding sagely in Sam's direction.
"Gigantor has a point, little bro," the archangel agreed. "The pair of you are so obvious, and so oblivious it's almost painful. If I hadn't been otherwise occupied at the time, I might have locked you and Deano here in a closet the last time we met. Honestly. The calf-eyes, the touching ..."
"Yeah, shut up," Dean growled, reaching down to rest his hand on Castiel's shoulder as he swung his legs over the edge of the bed next to him, swaying a bit as he used the angel to steady himself. Castiel smiled up at him, resting a steading hand on top of Dean's, trying to ignore the little happy wriggle in his chest.
Gabriel looked at their hands, and very pointedly didn't say anything. He didn't say it so loudly that Castiel would have felt like hitting him, if he hadn't been so happy that the archangel was right. Gabriel was right. Him and Dean ... and Dean was looking down at him, and there was something so very soft in his expression, something hard-edged and bewildered, but gentle, warm ...
"I'll just go and see what Sammy's doing, shall I?" the archangel said brightly, standing up behind them. They ignored him. "Absolutely. I'll just go check on Gigantor, you two don't mind me ..."
"Go away," Dean growled, leaning down to rest his forehead against Castiel's in exasperation. Which put his mouth very close to Castiel's ...
"I agree," the angel whispered softly. "Go away, Gabriel. Now."
He went. They didn't really notice.
It was only later, when he and Dean had come up for air and remembered where they were (also who they were, and the necessity for that had Castiel mildly concerned), and once Sam had stopped trying to beat Gabriel up for spying on him in the shower ("Hey, it was either watch you or them, Sammy! And you're much easier on the eyes ..."), that they realised they were missing someone. Two someones, actually.
"Hey, chucklehead!" Dean grumped, looking over at Gabriel. "Where've Jekyll and Hyde buggered off to?"
"Dean," Castiel chided gently. There was no need to call them names. Well. No need to call Aziraphale names, anyway. But he looked over at Gabriel himself. Sam was busy drying his hair, wandering absently over to the window.
The archangel shrugged at them. "I don't know why you're looking at me. I've been here the whole time."
"Yeah," Dean muttered. "Watching us sleep like a creepy stalker person." Gabriel smirked at him.
"You never seemed to have a problem with Castiel doing it," he pointed out, rather too smugly for Castiel's liking. Dean had had a problem with it, in the beginning. Castiel liked to think he'd earned the right, since then. A right Gabriel hadn't, he felt, not yet. The proprietary feeling inside him startled even him a little bit, though.
"Cas is different," Dean growled, coming up behind him and hugging him close, and Castiel decided he could feel as proprietary as he liked. Dean was his.
"So I see," Gabriel murmured, smirking faintly, but also looking vaguely wistful. Castiel frowned, opening his mouth, but Sam spoke up before he could, and there was something in his voice that had all three of them stiffening and paying attention.
"Uh, guys?" the younger Winchester said distantly, looking out the window, his towel hanging limply from his hand. "I, uh. I think I found them." Castiel frowned, moving over to peer around Sam's bulk out the window, and froze. He felt more than saw Gabriel do the same beside him. Dean, somewhere behind them, whistled softly.
Outside, in the garden at the back of the house, Aziraphale lay on his stomach underneath an apple tree, his head pillowed on his arms, his wings spread out to either side, a blissful smile on his face. Crowley perched beside his hip, leaning over him, grinning faintly as he whispered something in the angel's ear. None of that was the problem, though.
The problem was that the demon had his hands in his brother's wings.
Castiel stared, mutely, distantly shocked, as Crowley moved clever fingers over and through Aziraphale's feathers, petting and grooming, lifting shafts carefully into alignment. The angel shuddered softly beneath his hands, smiling and saying something that made Crowley laugh, made the demon lean in to nuzzle the joints at the base of the wings and cause Aziraphale jump a little, and reach back to flap a hand in Crowley's face until he let off. The demon did, grinning hugely, and whispered a hand up along the bone in apology. Aziraphale huffed a little, and lay back with a smile.
"Wow," Dean said, behind Castiel. "That looks ... cozy?" Castiel made a little sound, too muddled to be a word, too distant and shocked, and felt Dean turn to him in confusion. "Cas? You okay?" Dean looked between him and the scene outside the window, looked at Castiel's shock and its supposed cause, and Cas knew the human didn't understand, but he couldn't quite marshall the focus to explain.
Luckily, Gabriel had no such problem.
"It's ... It's impossible," the archangel said, harshly, his eyes fixed on the pair in the garden. "It's not ... To offer another your wings ... we don't do that. Angels don't do that. Not even with each other, not anymore, and with a demon ..." He trailed off, shaking his head, and Castiel saw the humans look at each other over their heads.
"What's wrong with it?" Sam asked, hesitantly. He looked out as well, watching Aziraphale laugh happily, shivering under Crowley's touch. "It doesn't look ..."
"It's trust," Castiel said softly, roughly. "When someone has your wings ... they can hold you in place. You can't escape, if someone has your wings. You can't protect yourself. You're ... open. Completely vulnerable. They could do anything to you, like that. To offer someone else that kind of power ..."
"We don't do it," Gabriel finished, cold and blank. "Not since ... it isn't done anymore. Not unless you trust that angel absolutely, not unless you'd live and die for them. Not unless you ..."
"Love them," Castiel finished, barely a whisper. "Not unless you love them. Deeply. Truly. Only then. Only if you are willing to let them tear you open if they want to. Aziraphale ..."
"He's either bewitched, or he really has fallen for the demon," Gabriel said, something hard and chill in his voice, something almost vicious. He radiated power, suddenly, a rich, deadly force, only more obvious for his lack of physical presence. Castiel flinched, a little, but he understood. This time, he did understand.
Sam and Dean, on the other hand, didn't seem to. "He looks happy enough," Dean offered, resting a hand on Castiel's shoulder as he watched them. Crowley had moved on, out to the flight feathers, the primaries, running the long shafts lovingly through his fingers, brushing his thumbs over the roots where they joined the wing, his expression focused and soft as Aziraphale murmured blissfully at him. "I don't think Crowley would hurt ..."
"It doesn't matter!" Gabriel snapped. "It doesn't matter! You don't let someone do that! Especially not a demon. You just don't!"
The humans froze, frowning properly now, looking between Gabriel and him with expressions somewhere between suspicion, worry and pity. "Then, you haven't ..." Sam asked slowly. "Neither of you have ever ...?"
Castiel sighed, slumping a little. He'd hoped they wouldn't ask that. "Once," he admitted, very softly, looking down at the floor, sensing as Gabriel turned to look at him, sensing the humans' weighing stares.
"Who was it?" Dean asked, very gently, wrapping his arms around Castiel from behind. Cas wondered if Dean understood what he was asking, what it would mean ... but he did. Somehow, Castiel knew he did. And of anyone who could have asked, Dean deserved that answer from him.
"Anna," he said, very quietly. "A long time ago, but ... Anna. When we were garrisoned together. Anna." Anna, the angel he'd betrayed. Anna, the angel who'd tried to kill Sam. Anna, whom he'd failed, and who failed him in return. Anna, who once upon a time he'd trusted with his wings, his heart, everything. Anna, whom he'd threatened to kill, for Sam's sake, for Dean and Sam and all they'd come to mean. Anna, who'd died soon after. Anna.
"Aw hell, Cas," Dean whispered, leaning in to rest his chin on Castiel's shoulders, to hug him tight. "I'm sorry, man. I'm really sorry." And Castiel didn't understand that, not really, not when there was nothing Dean could have done, not when Dean hadn't even known the depths of Castiel's betrayal back then, or how much it had hurt him.
"Huh," Gabriel said, frowning at him a little, puzzled and sympathetic, and then bitter. Pained. "Not bad, little brother. Not bad. But I might have you beat, there."
They frowned at him, Dean growling a little at the archangel's lack of sympathy, Sam just bewildered. But Castiel was looking at his brother, and the way his shoulders had locked tight and pained. "Gabriel?" he asked, gently. The archangel looked away.
"Lucifer," he whispered, almost too quietly to be heard. "The last person to touch my wings ... was Lucifer."
Oh. Castiel ... didn't know what to do with that, really. Didn't know what to think. Looking at Sam, at his stunned expression as he met Dean's eyes behind Cas, he thought they didn't really know what to do with it either. Gabriel seemed to sense that, or sense something, and looked back at them, eyes widening as he took in their expressions.
"Not like that," he said, shocked, a little angry, and a touch of rueful amusement. "Get your minds out of the gutters, will you!" He paused, looking back out, not meeting anyone's eyes. "He was my brother, alright? Once upon a time ... once upon a time I thought that meant I could trust him." A bitter little smile. "Once upon a time, I thought I could trust a lot of things. But my brother ..."
He stopped, trailed off, but the damage was already done. Castiel felt more than saw Dean uncurl an arm from around him, and reach out to catch a stricken Sam's arm, to whisper "I trust you" to his brother's pained face, but Castiel was focused on his own brother, on the taut line of Gabriel's shoulders, on the stiffness of his spine and the pain in the determined cant of his head. Away from them. Away from everyone, looking out blindly over the garden.
Before he could let himself think about it too much, before he could wonder if he had the right, in the face of that pain, Castiel reached out, and laid a hand very gently on the archangel's shoulder. Very gently, and very carefully. Without looking as Sam and Dean bunched together behind him, he waited until he was sure Gabriel wasn't going to shrug him off, and gently tugged him back into the shelter of their bodies, back into the little family they had made. Dean curled around him from behind, nodding approval into Cas' shoulder, and Sam reached out silently on Gabriel's other side, his huge hand brushing the archangel's arm comfortingly.
Gabriel said nothing, didn't move, didn't relax. He didn't look at them, didn't stop staring blindly. But after a minute, his hand reached up to rest over Castiel's, and squeeze out his thanks. Castiel wondered if he realised what this meant. Wondered if he knew he was part of their family, now. Wondered if he knew how few people the Winchesters would welcome this way.
He hoped Gabriel did. Just to make that hard hurt go away. He hoped his brother knew.
"Maybe, sometimes," Castiel whispered softly. "Maybe sometimes you can trust them. Maybe?"
Below them, Aziraphale sat up under the apple tree, knocking a laughing Crowley back onto his heels. Grinning, the angel turned and launched himself on his companion, wrapping his arms around his waist and bearing the demon to the ground. Crowley laughed, wriggling beneath him, hands curling around his angel's shoulders as if to push him back, but doing a better job of just holding on. As Castiel watched, Aziraphale sat up a little, one hand reaching behind his demon's shoulder in silent question, leaning down to press a gentle kiss to Crowley's nose as the demon smiled faintly, and let his wings unfurl along the ground beside them. Aziraphale smiled, dipping down to brush his lips over Crowley's, deepening the kiss as if in reward, and carded plump fingers gently through his feathers.
"Maybe sometimes you can trust them," Castiel repeated, but more strongly, more surely, as beneath them an angel smiled happily and curled his fingers in a demon's trust, and kissed a smile given willingly. He leaned back into the warmth of his human, held his brother's hand as Sam loomed comfortingly, and smiled. "Maybe some people are worth trusting."
And no-one disagreed with him. In the morning light, as an angel and a demon made love under an apple tree, not one of them disagreed.
Chapter 8: Interude I: Good Intentions
For a long moment afterwards, Crowley just lay there, staring up at the sun through the branches, listening to Aziraphale snuffle gently into the crook of his neck. His angel was curled up alongside him, one arm and one wing flung across Crowley's abdomen, one hand idly playing with his feathers. It tickled, a little, just a faint tingle. It'd probably be more, but after the thorough combing they'd just gone through, he doubted he'd be feeling much of anything in his wings for another hour or so yet.
Which was probably a good thing, because he had a feeling Aziraphale was going to go for the roots, once he opened his mouth. But he had to say something, or the angel was going to be really surprised when his brothers smited Crowley into the stone age once they went back inside.
"Angel?" he asked, hesitantly. Aziraphale murmured happily at him, nibbling absently at the underside of Crowley's jaw. The demon shivered fluidly, curled an arm around his angel's head to pull it back gently. "Ssstop that! Angel!" He giggled, which was not a very demonic thing to be doing, but he defied anyone to avoid it when you had an angel licking your ear and making little happy huffing sounds. "Ang ... Aziraphale! Sstop!"
Aziraphale desisted. Reluctantly. Bloody hell, if he'd known when he proposed this little addendum to the Arrangement that the angel would be so bloody physical about it, he'd ... have jumped in his bed all the faster, probably, but right now he needed his brains to be north of the border, thanks. Still, though. He made a note of the ear-licking for later.
"What is it, dearest?" Aziraphale sighed, propping himself up a little so he could look Crowley in the eyes. His face was flushed, and glowing ever so faintly, whether from happiness, or exertion, or a bit of angelic glory, or some combination of the three, Crowley didn't particularly care which. He just wanted to get a proper eyeful of the expression before it slipped into righteous wrath, like it was going to in about two seconds.
"Um. You know when I said, it's a nice morning to be sitting under the apple tree?" he started, slowly and cautiously.
Aziraphale narrowed his eyes. "Ye-es?"
Crowley swallowed. "And you know which room we put them in last night? You know, the one on this side of the house with the big bay windows?"
Aziraphale's face went very still. "Yes?" he said, flatly and dangerously. Crowley picked up the pace a bit in response. He wasn't going to say 'babbled'. Not even to himself.
"And you know how oblivious they've all been, and how sad they obviously are, and how frankly ridiculous it's been getting, and how if the little guy shoots one more longing look at that knuckle-headed human I'm going to have to do something drastic, and how the lot of them really, really need to get laid ...?"
"Crowley," Aziraphale interrupted, very sweetly. "What are you trying to say to me, dearest? In simple terms, and at a speed of less than twenty words a second, if at all possible."
Crowley gulped, and preemptively winched his wings a little higher along the ground, just a little further away from potentially grabby hands. "I may have ..." he started, nervously, and then decided to just bite the metaphorical bullet, already, and get it over with. "I may have put a couple of wards in the room to warn me when they woke up. And I may have put some slight attraction spells on the window. Just, you know, to hint a bit. And I may have ... lured-you-out-here-so-we-could-maybe-give-them-a-little-hands-on-demonstration ... Um. Don't kill me?"
Aziraphale stared at him, blue eyes dark and depthless and staring right through Crowley's skull at a point about an inch above the demon's left eye. "You may have ... tricked them into watching us, you mean. And tricked me into giving them something to watch. Is that ... what you're saying, dearest?"
Maybe Castiel and Gabriel wouldn't have to smite him back to the stone age. Maybe Aziraphale would just do it himself, and save them the trouble.
"Um. Yes?" he squeaked, trying to maybe surreptitiously edge away from the angel, but one plump arm wrapping around his ribs like banded steel put a quick stop to that. "I mean, it was all for their own good, angel, and I know you've been wanting to help them along as much as I have, and I thought, maybe just a little display, it couldn't hurt, but then you were all ... and you did that thing with my primaries, and that little curly thing you do with those three fingers, and I got all distracted and caught up, and ... and I could hardly be expected to not play along, not when you were doing that, and, um ... They might, possibly, have been watching us for the past half hour. While we. Um. While you. Ah."
He stopped. There just didn't seem to be much point in continuing. Aziraphale was perfectly aware of exactly what their little audience had been watching them do. He'd been there. He'd been very, very, very much there. And now he was very, very much here, leaning over Crowley, all wings and coiled power and slow wrath and bright blue eyes and ... dammit, Crowley was really going to have to have a word with this body about appropriate responses to threats of an angelic nature, because really! He could have sworn he was too used up for that, anyway ...
"Crowley?" Aziraphale said at last, a little distantly, his eyes still fixed somewhere around Crowley's hairline. The demon gulped a little bit.
"Yes?" he warbled, resisting the urge to reach up and fist his hands around his angel's back, just below the wing joints, resisted the urge to wrap himself around Aziraphale and just hold on until the angel calmed down. He resisted, because he did have some demonic pride, thank you very much.
"You're telling me," the angel went on, voice soft and contemplative, "that you tempted me into one of the best mornings of my life, tempted me into a morning of light and joy and sunshine and love ..."
"Er," Crowley attempted to interrupt, here, because hold the phone, he didn't remember tempting anything of the sort ...
"... All for the purpose of tempting four lonely, wounded souls into finding some little joy and fulfillment in a dark time ..."
"Um, angel, I don't think that's exactly what I said ..."
"... So that they could be happy, even just for a little while, in a place where they could be safe and we could watch over them. Because you didn't want them to be sad anymore. Because you wanted to show them what love and trust could be like, even between people who should be enemies."
Crowley blinked. A lot. "Um," he said, cautiously. "Actually, I was mostly thinking we should show them some of the practical stuff, because they're obviously either a bunch of virgins, or just plain stupid about each other. And, you know, have a bit of fun in the process. You know. With the outdoor sex, and all. Um."
He stopped, because his angel was smiling at him. No. His angel was beaming at him, rich and warm and proud, and curling one soft hand around his cheek, and shaking his head in loving exasperation. Which Crowley didn't understand in the slightest, but it was a very good look on the angel, so he didn't much care.
"Angel?" he asked, very softly. Aziraphale just smiled, and leaned in to press a soft kiss to his lips, just a gentle thing, more a promise than an action, a little lingering touch against him.
"Crowley, dearest, I do love you. You know that, don't you?"
"Um," he said, because his chest had tightened suddenly, and yes, absolutely, he needed to have such a long talk with this body, he needed to tell it a lot of things that it could panic about, and do things about, and there were some that ... "Yes," he whispered, very softly. "Yes, I do. You're mad, you know that? Crazy. Insane, even. You do know that?"
Aziraphale laughed lightly, nuzzling his cheek a bit. "Absolutely. We both are. But it's worth it, don't you think?"
Crowley thought about it, for a second. He thought about Castiel, who was quietly and sadly waiting, and had been for Someone knew how long. He thought about Gabriel, who in the thousand years he'd known the guy had never once lain down with someone who gave a shit about him. He thought about Heaven and Hell, and the fact that the lot of them would probably be much friendlier and less inclined to fight if the bastards could get bloody laid once in a while.
He thought about humanity, and wars and famines and death and apocalypses, and the fact that never, in all the years he'd been knocking around this dirtball, never had he ever seen a battlefield or warzone that didn't have some desperate people somewhere on it, sharing stuttering laughs and strong drinks, and clinging to some little warmth in all the pain, clinging to some little light in all the darkness. And never, in all that time, had a single one of them ever seemed more bright, more luminous, or more beautiful than they did in those battered moments.
He thought about that, and he thought about sunshine, and mutual temptations, and apple trees, and bright blue eyes, and knowing smiles, and an enemy who knew you well enough to trust you, to open wings beneath your fingers, to touch you and hold you and keep you from harm. He thought about arrangements and lust and maybe a little love, just a little, a terrible indulgence, he knew. And he thought about the poor saps upstairs watching, and what they could have, what they could know, if they just got their heads out of their asses and did something about it.
He thought about that, about all of that, and looked up at his angel, at his Aziraphale, smiling down at him from a web of sky and wing and branch and apple, and then he smiled, a slow, wicked curl of lips, a dark gleam of golden eyes, and nodded.
"Yes," he said, soft and laughing. "Oh, yes, angel. I think it's worth it." He grinned, leaning up to kiss the tip of his angel's nose, to slide along his cheek to nibble at his jaw, tease his ear. "Oh yes. So very worth it ..."
"Then, my dear," Aziraphale murmured, voice a little rough around the edges. "Then I think we are in perfect agreement." A soft little laugh. "And I won't smite you for your little trick, dearest. Since it was only with the best of intentions, after all."
Crowley laughed, reaching up to tug his angel down, to roll them over and bite his ear, to worry clever fingers into the downy feathers at the base of angelic wings and tease. "Oh angel," he grinned. "Don't you remember where good intentions lead?"
"Oh yes," Aziraphale sighed, wings arching beautifully, eyes shuttering over a smile. "Straight to Heaven, wasn't it?"
"Close enough," Crowley allowed, leaning in. "Close enough, angel."
Chapter 9: Faith
They sent Castiel out to rustle up the two layabouts, in the end. Possibly because Gabriel hadn't actually managed to stop muttering dire threats to demonic well-being under his breath (the Gruesome Twosome were still sending him suspicious glances from the other side of the kitchen), and possibly because they needed him here in order to snap up some actual food in the vast, sterile, empty expanse of Crowley's kitchen. About the only things they'd been able to find were an ungodly amount of alcohol, a packet of something called Rich Tea Biscuits, and a worrying fifteen boxes of tea stacked with geometric exactitude into a pyramid.
Dean had started muttering about serial killers and shooting nervous glances at the knife block after that one. Gabriel couldn't exactly blame him. Aziraphale was a wonderful person, a wonderful angel, of course, but some things were just worrying, and a geometric beverage obsession was one of them.
Then the angel in question ambled in, followed closely by a snickering demon and a very stiff, flustered-looking Castiel, and his mind switched right back onto the murder-Crowley-horribly track it had been briefly distracted from. With almost angelic speed, the Brothers Grimm swooped over, snagged their angel by the arms, and bodily hauled him out of the way, much to Castiel's bewilderment. And Aziraphale's.
Crowley, though, appeared to know exactly what was happening. With one quick look in Gabriel's direction, he shimmied sideways behind Aziraphale, raised his hands inoffensively, and put on the smarmiest smile the archangel had ever seen, and given his targets over the years, that was saying something.
He put down the coffee pot, and stalked forwards. Crowley squeaked, and grabbed his angel to keep him between them. "Now, let's not do anything hasty!" the demon placated hurriedly. "It's not what you think, Gabriel, I promise. And the angel will back me up! Right, Aziraphale?"
Gabriel paused, sending a long look Aziraphale's way. The angel just looked confused, and, if a Trickster's instincts didn't deceive him, possibly a little mischievous. There was just that twinkle in placid eyes, a hint of a smirk veiled in innocence ... Gabriel stopped, frowning, wondering. "Will he now?" he asked, slowly, and watched as delight flashed in angelic eyes.
"Will I what?" Aziraphale asked innocently. And winked at him, tilting his head a little so Crowley couldn't see, laughing silently at the stunned looks he was getting from just about everyone in the room. Gabriel stared.
"Tell yon trigger-happy archangel that I've not been using my wicked demon wiles to trick you into trusting me, that's what!" Crowley hissed urgently, ducking his head down behind his angel's shoulder. Aziraphale struggled desperately with a grin for a moment.
"Oh, but dearest!" he said, all confused innocence. "I really don't think I should lie. Not to him. One doesn't lie to archangels, you know. And really, you have been rather wicked of late ..."
There was a long silence, as Crowley blinked, and straightened slowly behind his angel, golden eyes narrowing with a deadly glimmer that Gabriel sort of admired, a little. The demon reached out, very slowly, wrapped one hand around his angel's shoulder and slowly, slowly turning him around. Aziraphale went without a protest, beaming from ear to ear as he met his demon's chill expression, biting his lip a little as Crowley stared at him, expression working its way through realisation to frustration to fury to a flash of almost-appreciation, before settling on a sort of vibrant, vicious admiration.
"You," the demon said, at last. "You are a dirty, devious, scheming bastard of an angel, Aziraphale. A right bastard."
Aziraphale grinned, and leaned in to give him a brief peck on the lips. "And you are a very trustworthy demon, dearest. So I suppose it all evens out in the end." A warning flash in Gabriel's direction, a chill warning that these were words to take to heart, if you please, and no-one do anything ... precipitous, thank you. "Don't you think, Gabriel?"
He could feel his eyes rolling almost of their own accord, his face folding automatically into a crooked pout. He might have been too long in this body, too long on this mudball, but he didn't really care at the minute. "Oh, absolutely," he said, snidely. "The pair of you deserve each other."
Aziraphale just beamed. "Yes. I rather think we do, at that."
"Oh, shut up, you," Crowley muttered from behind him, meeting Gabriel's eyes with something that was almost sympathy. "Quit bullying the archangel, angel."
"Aw, hey, no," Dean piped up from his corner, leaning heavily on Cas' shoulder to watch the show. "Keep bullying the archangel! By all means, keep bullying the archangel!"
"Dean!" Castiel growled, tipping his head back to glare at his human.
"What? Guy deserves to have someone mess with him once in a while," Dean drawled back, completely unrepentant, and Gabriel made a little note, Winchester was still upset over the whole TV Land thing. Or possibly the Mystery Spot. Whichever. Not that he cared.
"Dean!" Sam, this time, doing his patented loom-and-growl routine beside his brother, glaring at him, and then everyone else for good measure. Except Gabriel, for some reason. He just got an apologetic smile, which was nearly more worrying than the tea. At least the tea had an explanation, if not a particularly reassuring one. "If everyone's done grand-standing," the younger Winchester groused, "maybe we could actually get some breakfast, here?"
Oh. Well, that explained it then. Sam, good sensible human that he was, was buttering up the food supply in the hopes of getting fed. Gabriel found his lips twitching into a little smile, ignoring the faint twinge in his gut, and waved a laconic hand at the table. The smell of fresh bacon, sausage and pie hit the human somewhere around the knees, by the look of things, and almost dropped him into his chair. Dean too, but Gabriel wasn't watching him. He was watching Sam, who sent him a stunningly uncomplicated grin in thanks as he dug in, and unwittingly gouged about a fist-sized chunk out of Gabriel's heart in the process.
Sam, my boy, you can butter me up anytime, he thought distantly. And then had to squelch a flood of what felt like sheer terror, that rapidly changed to annoyance (and maybe, just a tiny hint of shame), as he caught Aziraphale beaming happily at him again.
"Oh, shut up," he snarled in the lesser angel's general direction, glowering. "Don't you two have anything better to do than play matchmaker?" He grinned sharply at the little blink of surprise. "Oh, come on. Did you think I wouldn't notice the come-hither wards on the windows? Nice show, by the way." He nodded in Crowley's direction, because, fair's fair, it had been a good show.
A rather worryingly good show.
"Oh, those!" Aziraphale beamed, upping the wattage on the innocence. "That was all Crowley's work, the dear. He just wanted you all to feel safer, that's all. Knowing that ... well, that you wouldn't be judged here. That's all."
"I wanted no such bloody thing, angel, and I thought you weren't supposed to lie to archangels!" the demon cut in immediately, growling. Aziraphale looked guilty for maybe a full half-second. Then Crowley turned to Gabriel again, and sighed heavily. "Look. I just wanted the little guy and the moron over there to get it on before I had to tear my hair out, alright? I thought maybe they could use a little practical demonstration, since not even the sight of pastry-induced orgasms would budge them, and that's just pathetic."
Dean choked spectacularly on a piece of bacon. Castiel went a truly vibrant shade of red. Sam buried his face in his hands. And Gabriel, shocking manipulation or no, found himself warming up to the demon all over again. Just for the look on Dean's face.
Anyone who could do that to a Winchester was alright in his books. Even if the demon had put filthy claws in his little brother's wings.
"And besides," Aziraphale pointed out, helpfully patting Dean on the back and almost knocking him into his coffee. Possibly on purpose. "We really don't have anything better to do. This is ... well, this is our job, really. A little temptation, a little prompting towards honest love. Wherever it might happen to be found ..." With a meaningful (and entirely too obvious for Gabriel's liking) look in Sam's direction. At least Winchester was too busy snickering at his brother to notice. "Apocalypses are just a hobby, really," the damnable angel went on cheerfully, ignoring Gabriel's ire.
That caught the humans' attention, though. That caught everyone's attention. "What do you mean, a hobby," Sam said, aghast. No-one could put betrayed hurt into one sentance like that kid.
Aziraphale blinked at him. "Not like that, dear boy," he said quickly, taking in the genuine horror in Sam's expression. "I don't mean to ... It's just that, well, one hopes that Apocalypses won't last very long, you know, not long enough to become an actual job, you follow, and after the last one, well, we have gotten rather good at them, so to speak ..."
There was a long, confused and ever-so-slightly horrified silence after that little bomb. Gabriel was almost amused by the stricken expressions the humans wore. Not to mention the wounded look Castiel was sending Aziraphale's way, all pain and pity and maybe just a sprinkling of shame to spice it up ...
"Oh, well done, angel," Crowley muttered, stalking over to elbow Aziraphale severely in the ribs. Gabriel winced a little in sympathy. Those joints looked sharp. "Nice job breaking the humans. Did you forget what Adam did last time?"
"Adam?" Sam asked, faintly, but the angel was ignoring him again, glaring at his demon.
"I did not forget, dearest! I just don't see any reason to keep it a secret, that's all. One would think it would be reassuring to know that Apocalypses can be survived, after all." He huffed pointedly.
"One might also think that it could be a little worrying to realise that the world has a habit of almost ending when you're not looking, either," Crowley sniped back. "Engage a little paranoia, angel, and think like a human, would you!" Aziraphale looked a little baffled, and Crowley sighed. "Oh, for ... look. Pretend, for a moment, right, that I've just told you that your bookshop exploded while you weren't looking, but there's no need to worry, because I fixed it. Pretend I've just told you that. What would you feel?"
Aziraphale went a very interesting shade of green. "It didn't ... you didn't ..." Crowley stared back, impassive, and Aziraphale crumbled. Turning, he wrapped two pudgy arms around Sam's neck, and proceeded to throttle him in apology. "Oh, my dears! I'm so sorry!"
Sam gurgled a bit in what he probably hoped was a placating manner, and gestured desperately to be saved. Gabriel mentally consigned his sanity to the trash, and went to rescue him.
Madmen, the lot of them. Even the ones that weren't actually men. Between the Brothers Bozo, with their determination and codependence and guilt complexes through the roof, Castiel, with his battered faith and fading Grace and worrying ferocity, Aziraphale, who was quite possibly genuinely insane, and to top it all off the demon ... how had he ended up here, again?
Then Sam was gulping air desperately against his chest, and Castiel was trying with limited success to pry Aziraphale away from Dean, and Crowley was snickering helplessly, and unobtrusively (and possibly unconsciously) guarding his angel's back, and Gabriel decided he didn't much care, either way. He was here, it wasn't too bad, despite the rampant crazy running around the place, and he might just as well make the best of it.
And to that end ...
"Hey, boys and girls! Emphasis on the girls. Any chance we could move this show along sometime today?"
Castiel glared at him. It was a truly impressive glare. Gabriel wondered if the guy had to practice the little squinty edge to it in a mirror, or if it just came naturally. Either way, like magic, it cut through the chaos between them and made the other four sit up and pay attention.
Score one for arch-angelic charisma and Heaven's death-glare champion five hundred years running.
"Did you have something you wanted to say?" Cas asked, waspishly. And Dean called Sam a bitch. Little brothers. What could you do?
"Oh, nothing," he smirked coldly. "I just thought that since we were all here, and on more or less the right subject, that maybe we could start thinking of something resembling a plan? Since apparently we have two Apocalypse experts on hand, and the human keys to the whole mess to boot? Not to mention enough alcohol to float a tanker, should it all get too much for us ..." Which, he promised himself, he was breaking open as soon as he had a clear run at it, and Crowley be damned. Again.
Silence for another second, and then Crowley, of all people, sat down with a smirk, and waved a regal hand in his direction. "In other words, ladies and gentlemen, the big bossy archangel is calling this meeting to order." A little smirk. "Well. The bossy archangel, anyway."
Gabriel smiled back coldly as he moved around the table. "When you can squash uppity demons like the bugs they are, I think you'll find that you have very little to compensate for, Crowley." The demon just grinned at him, and waved a miracled mug of Irish coffee smugly in his direction. The archangel rolled his eyes, but returned the grin.
"You guys realise you look really creepy when you do that, right?" Dean asked, sitting back down grumpily next to Cas, and beaming proudly in his angel's direction. Gabriel gagged dramatically at them, and snickered when Aziraphale and Sam gave Castiel's death glare their best shot. Dean didn't notice, too busy flushing at the shy beam of pride Castiel shot back, and Gabriel repressed a sigh at how bloody happy it made the little angel look. Yet another of his little brothers' prospective boyfriends that he couldn't smite just on general principles.
Well. Not again, anyway.
"So what do you think we should do?" The quiet question broke up the love-fest, and brought everyone back down to earth. Whether they wanted that destination or not. Sam flushed a little as they all turned to look at him, but held his head high with sad, serious determination. Gabriel felt his gut clench a little.
"What can we do?" Dean cut in, green eyes flashing with pained defiance, and a very marked lack of hope. A look echoed in his brother, and the angel at his side, a look that echoed every weary face Gabriel had seen in the mirror over the past millennia, every flash of tired hatred he'd seen in his brothers' eyes. With a start, he realised he wasn't the only one exhausted by the war, worn down almost to despair, and clinging desperately to flippancy in the face of it. With a start, he realised that there might be something in Dean Winchester that he actually understood. It wasn't a comfortable feeling.
"You'd be surprised," Crowley said softly from his corner, leaning back in his chair and resting his shoulder against his angel. Gabriel wondered, not for the first time, if the demon was even conscious of how much he leaned on Aziraphale when troubled, how much he touched and rubbed and reached for reassurance. He didn't think the demon was, somehow. And he didn't think it wise to mention, either, despite the blackmail material just sitting there.
"We've tried everything we can think of," Castiel said quietly, tiredly. "The Colt didn't work. My ... My Father ... He does not wish to ... It seems He will not help." Soft, flat, and Gabriel wondered when that had happened, when Castiel had spoken to Dad. Not that he was surprised. Castiel hadn't been the first to flee to earth, to scour desperately for the one person who could help, who should have helped. Maybe he should have warned the little guy, instead of just making fun of his quest, but Cas had been so earnest, so sure, and Gabriel had thought, maybe, maybe this one, maybe he can make Dad listen, maybe he can ...
No such luck, apparently. And oh, Gabriel wished he could be more surprised about that. But he wasn't. He really wasn't.
"Of course not," Aziraphale said, very gently, reaching out to touch Cas' arm. "He can't ... He has never directly interfered, not in the longest time. He cannot afford to. Not if this, any of this, not if it is to mean something."
"Mean something?" Dean sneered, almost spitting, and Aziraphale looked at him sadly.
"Choice," Crowley spoke up, looking determinedly into his coffee and avoiding every eye. "He's talking about choice. Also, possibly, Ineffability, but I hate that word, so let's not go there. Anyway. Point is. If humans get to keep the capacity to choose for themselves, He can't go slinging His weight around and fixing every little mess we get into down here. If He does that, then what's the point? If choices don't have consequences, what's the point of making them?"
"Little mess!" Dean's voice was climbing rapidly, heading for the ceiling, and his arm had clenched itself around Cas' shoulders, pulling the angel into his chest and clinging fiercely. Protectively. "You call the end of the freaking world a little mess? If he's not going to drop by for that, what the hell is he going to drop by for?"
There was a little pause, there, because while both Crowley and Gabriel had opened their mouths for that one, they hadn't actually been the ones to answer.
Dean stared at his brother, blinking fiercely, face twisting in confusion, pain. "Sam?" he rasped, and his brother looked over at him, brown eyes cold and sad, and hard as agate.
"Nothing, Dean," he repeated. "He's not coming down for anything. Nothing we do, nothing that happens to us ... He's never going to interfere. He's never going to step in. Even if we destroy the world between us." His voice dripped vitriol, bitterness, and for one sheer, terrible moment, Gabriel heard his brother's voice in Sam's, heard Lucifer's poisoned, desperate tones. He heard it, and he moved, on sheer instinct, in sheer panicked reaction. He flashed to Sam's side, and tugged the shocked mortal up into his arms.
"He doesn't have to," he hissed, furious, desperate, pleading. "He doesn't have to, because you're not going to do that, it's not going to come to that, and Dad can fuck off to wherever the hell he wants, because we don't need him! I promise you, we won't need him, you won't do that, you don't have to do that, you just have to stay, stay where I can ..." He trailed off, babbling silently in his head, and he wasn't sure who exactly he was addressing, Sam or Lucifer, or Michael, or any of the dozens of brothers and sisters he'd watched march to their deaths against each other, against their own brothers, against their own family, and sweet fuck, he was sick of it. He was sick and tired, so fucking tired, of watching, of watching ...
"Gabriel?" a voice whispered softly, confusedly. "Gabriel?" He blinked, swallowed, and looked down, at the mortal he'd dragged half out of his seat to hang against him, to cling to his shoulders and hope he wouldn't be dropped. Sam blinked up at him, all pain and confusion and weary compassion, lumbering understanding hitched to his own desperate need to be understood, and Gabriel shuddered, and clung tight. He didn't know what else to do, and in a second he was going to be embarrassed, he was going to be mortified, he was going to run the hell away before he had to explain this fucking weakness, this pathetic display ...
"He's right," someone said, very quietly, before he could move, before he could run. Someone stood up, the scrape of a chair that Gabriel deliberately didn't look at, and then there were arms wrapped around his waist, and a pointy chin resting on his shoulder, and a touch-happy demon was rocking him gently while his angel continued softly in the distance. "He's right. You won't have to. We won't let you. Any of us. You don't need ... You are not alone. It's always the hardest ... the last thing we realise, but ... you are not alone. Know that. Believe that. If you can have faith in nothing else, if you can believe in nothing else ... believe that. Trust it, and we will never let you down."
"Believe him," Crowley growled softly, somewhere between desperation and exasperated affection. "I've been fighting him on this for more than a thousand years, and he just hasn't given up. And if an angel can do that for me, for a demon ... You're made, mates. You really are. Trust me on this."
"Gabriel," another voice said, carefully, and there were hands touching his face, guiding his head up, away from the depthless pit of Sam's gaze, and there was Castiel, there was the most intense stare in Heaven or Hell, two burning, ferocious blue eyes meeting his and daring him to look away, daring him to be ashamed. Castiel held his face, very gently, his human at his side, at his brother's side, and the angel smiled softly. "You too, brother. You too. We will not leave you either, Gabriel. I promise."
And then Dean, emotionally constipated wonder extraordinaire, scrunched his face up with a mighty effort, met Sam's eyes with no little trepidation, as if expecting to get kicked in the crotch for his troubles, and said:
"Jeez, Sammy. After all this time, you'd think you'd know I'm not going to leave you. Not for this. Not for anything." The words came out slowly, shakily, as if it pained him to say them, but they came out. They did come.
And if only for the expression that crossed Sam's trembling face, if only for the lump that clenched in his own throat, if only for the fact that he was surrounded by pissy, protective angels and would probably get his ass kicked, archangel or not ... Gabriel decided not to make fun of him for it.
Just this once.
Chapter 10: Operation Apocalypse
There was a moment, afterwards, where they all cleared their throats and pulled away, moving gingerly and sort of stiltedly towards their seats and trying to pretend that they hadn't spent the last five minutes engaged in a six-way hug-and-crying fest. Dean, Gabriel and Crowley seemed to be the worst offenders, Sam couldn't help but notice. Aziraphale seemed to be wondering what the fuss was about, and Castiel just seemed mildly confused.
One of these days, someone was going to have to sit that angel down and explain to him certain rules humans had about touching. Seriously.
In the meantime, though, someone probably needed to speak up, here. Get things moving again. Stop the long, endless, really, really uncomfortable silence ...
Sam would. He really would. But he was still sort of caught up with staring at Gabriel while the archangel looked pointedly anywhere else but at him. He was still sort of wondering where the hell the whole scoop-the-demon-boy-up-and-hug-him thing came from. More to the point, he was wondering why Gabriel had seemed so desperate about it. So ... hurt ...
"Ahem." And that was Crowley, apparently deciding that if no-one else was going to man up, he'd have to. "Anyway. End of the world, folks! How about we get back to that ...?"
"Right!" Dean agreed, immediately, clearing his throat and not meeting anyone's eyes. "Apocalypse. Yeah. Let's get back to that."
Sam wondered how many other groups of people in the world could find the very real, very imminent End of Days a more comfortable topic of conversation that the fact that they cared about each other. To a kind of scary degree, admittedly, but still ...
"I assume you have some sort of plan?" Castiel growled, leaning forward over the table to glare at Crowley. And Aziraphale. Because Cas, as usual, could switch from sort-of-happy to doom-and-gloom in under a second, and wasn't at all shy about it.
"Not exactly," Aziraphale murmured placidly. "But we do have a few ideas, as it happens."
"Yeah," Crowley grinned, leaning back in his chair, apparently feeling a lot better now that the mushy part of his evening was over. "Because, I hate to point this out, but everyone's being really stupid about this so far. Heaven and Hell absolutely included ..."
"Not that it's all that surprising," Aziraphale interrupted cheerfully.
"True, true," the demon agreed. "Anyway. Nobody's being very smart about this, and that may, may just give us a little bit of an advantage. The home-field advantage, to be precise."
He paused, beaming proudly around the room as if waiting for the congratulations, and Dean looked over at Cas. "You want to hit him, or should I?"
Castiel smiled coldly, not shifting his gaze from Crowley. "I'm sure I can handle it, Dean," he said softly. Crowley looked briefly nervous, and Gabriel, at the other end of the table, finally smiled a little bit. Sam bit his lip.
"Anyway!" Crowley went on hurriedly. "Home-field advantage! Because everybody playing this game seems to have forgotten exactly where it's being played. Not Heaven, or Hell. The Apocalypse is happening on Earth. Where angels are bound by certain very useful rules ..."
There was a pause as Castiel perked up, leaning forward with a curious frown, and Gabriel actually sat up and started paying attention again. Sam looked over at Dean, who didn't seem to be any more enlightened than he was, and shrugged, looking back at the demon. Who was grinning again now that he had his captive audience.
"What did you have in mind?" Gabriel asked, pretending nonchalance, but leaning a little too far forward for it to be believable. Crowley shot him a sly look.
"I was thinking about the fact that for angels to be effective here on earth, they have to manifest inside human bodies," he drawled, smirking. "I was thinking about the fact that aside from me and the angel here, none of you lot can get those bodies for free, which makes them something of an important commodity. And I was thinking about graffiti, mass media, Enochian sigils, and the fact that only so many of the Host can manifest themselves at a time, and all of them inside our reach ..."
"And on the demon side," Aziraphale added in, "I was thinking about the fact that there are any number of human organisations on Earth that have made it their mission in life to eradicate hellspawn. I was thinking that since Crowley here has spent so much of his time amassing a truly ungodly amount of wealth, that he might be inclined to perhaps fund a joint venture among these organisations. I was thinking about what humanity, when armed with the right knowledge and given the right tools, can do ..."
"We've been playing this old school," Crowley went on. "Not even fourteenth century style. We've been playing this like we were back in the Bronze Age. All this crap about picking champions and one-to-one combat ... this is the age of technology, of mass production, mass media, mass destruction ..."
"So, what? You want us to nuke them?" Dean cut in, incredulous, but there was a look on his face, the kind of half-hidden glee that Sam remembered from the old days, the days when things were simpler, when faith and destiny had nothing to do with it, and all you had to do to make Dean happy was hand him a saw-off shotgun and point him at the bad guy.
Not that Sam didn't kinda wish for those days himself right now ...
"Certainly not!" Aziraphale sounded shocked at the suggestion, and for a moment Dean's face fell. Then ... "Nuclear weapons would only affect humanity, not angels or demons, and besides. You do want to be able to live here afterwards, don't you? No. We were thinking something more ... subtle. Something ... quieter. And much more civilised."
"Civilised?" Gabriel drawled, leaning back in his chair with an inscrutable expression. "You want to fight a civilised war? Have you seen what our brothers are doing out there? And I'm not just talking about Lucifer ..." Scorn all but dripped from the words, but they didn't even make a dent in Aziraphale.
"I rather think we've seen more of it than most," the angel said, very quietly. "After six thousand years, I rather think we've seen more of everything than most, don't you?"
Gabriel stared back at him, opening his mouth, but something in Aziraphale's expression kept him from saying whatever sarcastic thing had come to mind.
"Anyway! We can drive them back," Crowley cut in hurriedly. "Heaven and Hell, they're working on a timetable. They've only got as long as Lucifer's body lasts, because an angel in free-form on earth only lasts a certain amount of time before Heaven yanks him back up like a yo-yo, and if that happens Lucifer is in Heaven, and outnumbered, and they've got a whole other range of problems. If we can banish them en masse, if we can trap them, seal them, run them around ... so long as we keep the archangels from getting their proper vessels, and keep the rest of them run off their feet until Lucifer gives up the ghost ... And we can do that. We've got six billion humans out there, and six thousand years worth of technology and connections to work with."
"Not to mention that all the angels with any real experience on Earth are in this room," Aziraphale pointed out. "Crowley and I have been here from the start, of course, and you've had your millennium ... The only one who hasn't is Castiel, and he seems to be taking to Earth combat like a duck to water." He shot Castiel a proud smile, which caused Castiel to frown at him in confusion. Probably more about the duck thing than the reference to his fighting skills, Sam thought.
"And while the Brothers Grimm over there might be a little slow on the uptake," Crowley nodded in their direction, "they have access to any number of people who aren't. Humanity hasn't been playing that much of a role so far, except as game chips, but that doesn't mean they can't. This is their planet, after all."
"Really, there's no reason whatsoever why we shouldn't be able to win this thing," Aziraphale finished, beaming encouragingly at everyone.
There was a long, long, long pause, during which everyone in the room stared at the two of them. Stared at them enough for them to start fidgeting worriedly.
"What?" Crowley said, at last, obviously trying his hardest not to inch away from everyone. "What?"
"You've ... put a lot of thought into this, then?" Gabriel said, dry as dust, staring at something invisible over Aziraphale's head. They looked at each other.
"Well, yes," Aziraphale muttered, defensively. "It's our job. Or was, at any rate. How to fight the war on Earth. And we may have been ... lenient ... these last few centuries, because it was only each other we'd be hurting, in the end, but ... well, the war is here, now. And we like humanity, and we know how to work down here, and ..."
"You lot may have been happy up in Heaven, only swinging down here to kick the shit out of each other every millennium or so, but we've been stuck down here!" Crowley continued, with some heat. "We've had to fight down here from the start, we've had to work our way around humanity, had to figure out what would kill us or save us down here ... This is our life, boys and girls! Don't blame us for trying to figure out how to bloody keep it ..."
"We don't!" Sam spoke up, deciding this might be a good point to cut in on. He looked over at Dean, saw the agreement there. Then he looked at Castiel and Gabriel, at the way they were both frowning, and stopped a little. "Well. The humans in the room don't, anyway ..."
Castiel took a moment from staring at them to grant Sam a slightly guilty look, but it didn't stop the frown he was directing at Aziraphale. "You are talking about ... driving the angels from Earth. All the angels. You're talking about ... giving humans weapons against angels, about betraying Heaven, on such a scale ..."
"Hello!" Crowley growled, incredulously. "Heaven is trying to destroy the world! This world. Our world. Not just the humans'. Ours. Because I don't know if you've noticed, but it's about the only one that will have any of us, after this."
"I know," Cas looked shaken. "But ... to drive them from the earth ..."
"I know," Aziraphale said, very gently. "I know. But it's better than killing them, isn't it? It's better than letting them destroy humanity, and each other, as they seem determined to do?"
Gabriel made a sort of strangled sound, shoving himself back from the table and staring off to one side, viciously refusing to look at any of them. Sam found himself reaching out towards him before he caught himself, found himself half out of his seat, hand outstretched, before he even realised what he was doing. Gabriel's head came back around in shock, staring at him. He flushed, lowering his hand.
"If we do this," Castiel was saying, doubtful, almost afraid. "If we do this, even if we manage it, if it works ... Heaven will not forgive. If we do this, we may bring Heaven down on us, on humanity. It's ... a very big risk. If we try, and we fail ..."
"We won't," Aziraphale said, and it was so hard, so cold, that everyone in the room looked at him in shock. Even Gabriel. The plump angel stood from his seat, very slowly, and there was suddenly nothing kindly at all in his expression, nothing soft, nothing friendly.
"Er ..." Dean shifted closer to Castiel, who was meeting Aziraphale's dark stare with an uncertain, but very determined one of his own. Sam almost joined him, because he remembered the warehouse very, very clearly, enough to know that look on Aziraphale's face was not one you wanted one of your friends to be trying to face down.
Castiel, for his part, was completely undeterred. Possibly he'd just gotten way, way too used to facing down enemies bigger than he was, and there was a part of Sam that wondered if that was the kind of effect they had on everyone they knew. Come join the Winchesters! We'll take you from sensible to suicidal in under a year, guaranteed! When had this become their life?
"If we bring the humans into this war, they will have to pay the price," their angel said, quietly. "If we involve more of them ... I have seen the costs a human pays for fighting wars with angels." He looked at them, looked at Sam, and then at Dean, and his expression hit them like a punch to the gut, full of pained, guilty knowledge and a desperate kind of love. Sam clenched his fists, aching, while Dean grabbed hold of Cas' hand and held on fiercely.
"They're already involved," Crowley spoke up, very, very gently. "And not even just these two. Who do you think is dying out there, even as we speak? Who do you think Lucifer is killing? Not to mention the demons, mortal and otherwise, that he's brought up with him?" He shook his head, their very own demon. "I've seen Hell. I've lived in Hell, and now that he's free, now that Heaven has let him free, he's brought all that up here. And I have to tell you, that wasn't something I ever, ever wanted to see. I like Earth. I like it better than anything Hell or Heaven could come up with, and I'm not really all that interested in letting them wipe out chunks of it in this little game of theirs, you know? It's not about Heaven vs Hell, not anymore, not for us. It's about Earth, about humanity, and about whether or not we're gonna let them get slaughtered without ever even knowing what hit them ..."
"I've seen it," Aziraphale said, quietly, soft hands clenched trembling around the edge of the table. "I've seen it before. I've been on this Earth since the beginning. I've seen ... I knelt in the al-Aqsa Mosque during the First Crusade, and watched innocents be slaughtered in cold blood in the name of my Father. I sat with them in the camps during the second world war, and watched them be led to the slaughter in the name of purity. I've heard this before, heard this justification Heaven thinks is good enough for the sacrifice of a world. I've heard it. I've watched it, watched humans enact it time and again, and I promise you, I will die before I let Heaven do the same. I will die, cheerfully, before I watch all that is good in my Father's creation be twisted by those lies. I will die!"
Crowley reached for him, caught his shaking hand, pulled him close. Aziraphale went silently, more silent than any of them had ever seen him, pale and trembling, and his demon caught him, held him close, and looked at them over his angel's shaking shoulders.
"I don't know about you," he said, not even reproachfully, not even angry. Just tired and determined. "I don't know what you want, what you're willing to do. But me and the angel here ... we've nothing left, except this Earth. We made our choice twenty years ago, the first time around, and now ... whatever happens, whatever way this goes from this point on, we're staying here. Dying here, if that's what it comes to. I'm taking oblivion, if it's a choice between that and Hell for all eternity. Me and him ... this is it, for us. If the world ends now, so do we. No Heaven, no Hell, no afterlife, no nothing. This is all we have. So ... excuse us for wanting to fight for it first, won't you? And do ... do let us know if you plan to help, because that would be nice."
No-one said anything, after that. No-one said anything for long enough that Crowley closed his eyes in something like despair, and tilted his face to hide it in his angel's hair, to wrap his arms tight around Aziraphale and just cling. They said nothing. Mostly, for Sam anyway, because what the hell could you say, after that? What the hell were you supposed to say?
They hadn't thought. He hadn't thought. Hadn't thought that there might be other people in this, people with their own reasons to fight, people outside their little family. People for whom the Apocalypse wasn't about being forced to be a vessel, or being made to choose something other than the orders you've followed all your life. People for whom Team Free Will was just another faction, another side.
Aziraphale and Crowley ... they'd been amusing allies. The stuffy angel and his repentant demon. They'd been funny, and friendly, and someone to play tricks on and watch play tricks on each other, someone to enjoy pastry with and steal alcohol off. He hadn't thought. Hadn't thought of why they were doing this, why they were helping, what it meant to them. He'd thought they were joining his side, Team Free Will's side.
He'd never thought they might be looking for someone to join theirs.
How many others were there, like these two? How many others out there, knowing what was happening, seeing it, being hurt by it, wanting someone to help them, to give them a chance to fight back, to just protect what was theirs? He found himself looking at Gabriel, looking at the archangel sitting alone on his side of the table, watching Crowley with a pained look in his eyes. Gabriel, who just wanted to keep his family alive past the end of the world. Who just wanted to keep them from killing each other, and saw joining this venture as his only way to manage it. Was that so wrong? Was that so very different from what Sam wanted, and Dean wanted, and Cas wanted?
"Cas ..." Dean said, suddenly, beside him. Sam looked at him, a little stunned to see the sheer pain in his brother's face, to hear the roughness in his voice. Dean wasn't looking at Castiel. He was looking at Aziraphale, at Crowley, and Sam knew from his expression that Dean had been thinking a lot of the same things he'd been. "Cas. This plan of theirs ... could it work? Could we do it?"
Aziraphale and Crowley slowly lifted their heads, turned to look at them. The hope on their faces was painful.
Castiel looked away, tilting his head in thought, his fingers tapping a nervous little beat against the table. He weighed his answer with that same gravitas he always did. "I don't know," he said at last. "I don't have enough information, on Earth, on the means they want to use. I don't know. But ..."
"It might," Gabriel spoke up, slowly, heavily. "I've used technology myself, the way I think Crowley is suggesting. Against humans, not angels, and there are some things that I don't know how he plans to manage, but ... it could work. It could."
Castiel nodded solemnly. "There is a chance, I think. He's right that there is a limit on the time they can spend, a limit for how long we would have to fight them for. If we can find a way to fight enough of them, to distract them, if we can keep you safe long enough ... it might work. Lucifer, and Heaven by default, only have so much time."
Dean nodded slowly. Considering. He looked over, met Sam's eyes. Asked, silently, carefully. Do we do this? Do we ask who knows how many people to take up arms with us? Do we risk them? Do we think we can? Sam met his eyes, and nodded.
"It's a better plan than anything we've come up with," he said, quietly. "And they're right. People are dying anyway. This ... We can't kill the Devil. We've tried. But if we can at least stop him from taking Earth with him ... I say we try it, Dean." He smiled, a little. "It's not like anyone else has any better ideas, after all." Though they had tried. But if this was how they had to do it, well. They'd best get started, hadn't they?
Dean looked at Cas, at Gabriel, asking the same silent question, and both angels nodded at him. Slowly. More than a little reluctantly. But they nodded, and Dean looked back at the other two, at the angel and the demon who'd helped them out of nowhere, and who wanted someone to help them in return. Not even for their own sakes. But for Earth, and humanity, and six thousand years of history that Sam thought no-one, no-one anywhere on Earth, Heaven or Hell, could quite understand, except them.
"Well then," Dean said, carefully. "I think you'd best start telling us what to do then. Since you're the men with the plan, and all?" And the shaky smile on Aziraphale's face, the look of amazed and wary disbelief on Crowley's ... whether this worked or not, whether they had a hope or not, Sam thought those looks might just make this worth it after all.
"It will work," the angel promised them, shakily, hopefully. "We've been doing this ... we've been at this for a long time. I promise you, if nothing else will work, this will."
Crowley nodded vehemently. "Just a matter of the right magic in the right places, that's all! Just a matter of getting the timing down. No problem! We can ... we can do this. We can."
"Yeah well, let's not get ahead of ourselves," Gabriel muttered, but he was leaning back in, leaning forward again, and there was a gleam in his eyes, a dark, somewhat wicked gleam that was far more Trickster than archangel, and somehow more frightening for it. "We'll have to go out and get a hold of some things first. You in particular, demon, since you're the one who apparently knows where most of what we need is ..."
Crowley smirked a little, hesitantly, but game now that the ball was in his court, so to speak. "Not a problem. I've got a few big corporate types who owe me pretty much everything, and others in more than a few Earth governments. I can get you satellites, if that's what you need. And government backing, at a push, if we're talking localised efforts ..." Dean sat up at that, Sam too, because actually, that could be useful, especially with the likes of the Horsemen and their effects ...
"We may need some help with the actual sigils part of it," Aziraphale admitted, looking hopefully at Castiel and Gabriel. "We've been on Earth for rather a long time, and they don't tend to tell us ... much of anything, really, so I think we may be a little out of date ..."
Castiel smiled, faintly, and reached out to trace something with a finger on the tabletop, something that had the other three angels (well, angelic-type beings, anyway) staring at him in shock and more than a little fear for a second, before Crowley's face morphed into a vicious, anticipatory grin.
"Oh yes," the demon breathed. "Oh yes. I think we can do business, boys and girls. I think we can definitely do business."
Dean grinned a little himself, the old grin, when a hunt was on and something that went bump in the night was about to get toasted, and Sam found himself echoing it almost helplessly.
"Well then," Dean said, "let's get this show on the road, shall we?"
Chapter 11: Falling Angel
The house was sort of quiet, all of a sudden. It wasn't something he'd noticed readily, but it had snuck up on him a little bit. The house was quiet, now.
Sam and Gabriel were in the other room, researching. At least, that's what Dean fervently hoped they were doing. Sam had been looking at Gabriel kinda oddly ever since the archangel had lost the plot and scooped him up over breakfast. Which, granted, had been more than a little weird, but that was no excuse for the kind of eyes his brother had been making at the bastard ever since. And now ...
Castiel and Crowley had had a little conference, before the demon buggered off to points unknown to start rustling up some sources. At least, Dean thought it was a conference. It seemed to mostly involve Castiel pointing out some of the things you could do with Enochian magic, followed by Crowley excitedly pointing out what you could do with that if you added, say, some of the Defense Forces' laser communications grids, followed by Castiel getting this thoughtful and sort of scary expression, and asking little questions about things like 'scoring' and 'velocity' and 'reflection', dropping little words like 'banishment loops' and 'remote seals' ... the end result of which was Gabriel stalking off muttering things about handing machine guns to five year olds, and Sam shooting a guilty look at everyone in the room before following him.
And then locking the door.
Dean wasn't sure what he should be more worried about. The fact that they might actually have been safer with the 'nuke em' plan than whatever Castiel was currently neck-deep in books trying to cook up, or the fact that his brother might be doing horrible things with an archangel in the next room.
So, to avoid thinking about either of them, he made his way to the kitchen to bother Aziraphale instead. And, maybe, ask about something that had been worrying the hell out of him since something Castiel had said earlier. Namely, about driving the angels from Earth.
Aziraphale, somewhat predictably, was in the process of making himself a cup of tea when Dean strolled in. The hunter just sort of looked a him for a minute, watching the plump angel bustle around the worktop, making a cheerful clatter with spoons and sugar bowls and milk, humming happily to himself. An hour ago, the angel had been standing beside a demon and announcing his intention to die on Earth if they didn't stop the Apocalypse, and now he was making tea like he hadn't a care in the world.
There were times when Dean seriously wondered if all angels were bi-polar, or something. Given Cas' propensity for going from 'look, I made a funny' to 'we are all going to die' in under a minute, given Gabriel's switching from 'smartass Trickster' to possibly genuinely caring at the drop of a hat, Anna going from 'I want to sleep with you' to 'I want to scatter your brother's atoms across the universe' ... actually, now that he thought about it, just about the only actually stable angels he'd met had been Uriel and Zachariah. Wow. That boded so well for them, didn't it?
"Can I help you, dear boy?" Aziraphale asked, having turned around while Dean was wool-gathering, and yeah, really smart thing to be doing there, Dean. Ignoring the angel in the room, that's never lead to anything bad before, has it?
"I, uh," he started, rubbing his neck uncomfortably under Aziraphale's friendly but worryingly knowing gaze. "I was hoping I could talk to you about something?"
Aziraphale beamed at him. "Anything, my dear! You know that."
Dean blinked a bit. He did? "Um. Yes?" he hazarded, moving from the doorway into the kitchen proper, trying not to flinch when the angel pulled out a chair for him at the table beside him, the sudden motion grating on nerves Dean hadn't been aware of having. Aziraphale smiled at him softly in apology.
"You can talk to me about anything, my dear," the angel assured him gently, smiling a little at Dean's discomfort. "But perhaps ... would you like a cup of tea before we start? You look like you could use something."
"How about a beer?" Dean answered, before he really thought about it, because really, tea? So not his thing. But maybe asking for alcohol wasn't ... but Aziraphale grinned at him cheerfully, and waved a hand. A bottle appeared in front of him on the table, and Dean just sort of stared. Aziraphale flushed, faintly.
"I know, I know," he said, sheepishly. "I shouldn't rely on miracles when I can just get up and walk to the fridge. But ... well, I'm sure I'll be forgiven a little indulgence now and then. All things considered." He smiled lopsidedly at Dean, a whole world of things in his expression, and that ... that was when Dean figured it out.
Not bi-polar, no. Not swinging from cheerful to grim. Just putting the cheerful on over the grim, whenever they could, whenever they could bear it. Even Gabriel, maybe. Putting smiles and cheer and smartass remarks over the knowledge that their world was slowly falling apart around them, and hoping that if they just did it enough, if they just smiled enough, they might come to believe there was something worth smiling about. Not so different from him and Sam, when it came down to it. Not so different from any of them. Though Cas needed a lot more practice at it, obviously ...
"Yeah, I hear that," he said, raising his beer to chink it gently against the angel's cup, grinning a little when Aziraphale looked pleasantly baffled for a second.
Okay. So cheering angels up might be becoming something of a hobby, alright? It wasn't the worst one he could have picked!
"Thank you, my dear," the angel said quietly, after a second, looking determinedly into his tea. Pink bloomed faintly in pale cheeks, while his ears turned a rather spectacular red.
Dean just shrugged, and tried not to grin too widely at the sight.
"Ahem," Aziraphale said suddenly, straightening himself up and deliberately putting his cup down so he could look at Dean properly again. "Right. Anyway. You said you wanted to talk to me about something ..."
Dean felt his grin fade as if it had never been. But he did need to ask about this. "It's about what Cas said earlier," he said, almost cautiously, since it was Aziraphale's plan he was about to question. "He said this plan, it's going to drive the angels from Earth, yeah?"
Aziraphale blinked at him in confusion, but nodded. "Not permanently, you understand," he cautioned. "But hopefully, if we can do it right, we can drive them off until the Apocalypse becomes no longer viable. Until Lucifer no longer has a body, and Heaven has its own worries when he appears among them. Angels only last so long in their real forms down here before Heaven recalls them, you know. It's a safeguard, I think. Our forms put too much pressure on the material world, so Father made certain we couldn't stay too long without a body ..."
"Yeah, okay," Dean nodded. It was useful information, that, but sort of not what he was interested in. "It's the whole angels leaving bit that I'm worried about. Because ... look, I don't know if you've noticed, but Cas ... he's sort of ... losing his mojo, you know?"
Aziraphale frowned at him. "I was wondering when you'd mention that," he said, softly. "But what has it got to do with the angels leaving?"
Dean blinked at him. "Wait. You mean it doesn't?" he stuttered, confused, and ... warily hopeful. "Zach told me ..."
Aziraphale's frown became serious. "Zachariah?" he asked sharply. "Zachariah talked to you?"
"No!" Dean said hurriedly. "Well, I mean, yes, but not ... this was a while back, and it was more ... He showed me something, yeah? He caught me, and sent me to the future for a while, and while I was there ..."
"He did what?" Aziraphale cut in, incredulous. "The future?"
Dean frowned. "Yes? I mean, it didn't seem like a big deal to him, he wanted ... well, he didn't get what he wanted, leave it at that, but he thought showing me what would happen if I didn't say yes would help soften me up or something, you know? So he showed me ..."
Aziraphale's teacup creaked, and he let go of it carefully. "I should have gone for him first," the angel muttered. Viciously. "To use that ... to do that ... I should have smote the little bastard when I had the chance!"
Dean pulled back a little, staring at him worriedly. "Ah. You okay over there?" he asked, shifting in case he had to make a break for it. Aziraphale was a nice guy, but he had this worrying tendency to up and smite people when he got annoyed ...
Aziraphale looked up at him, and blinked at the expression he saw on Dean's face. "Oh, yes, my dear, I'm sorry ..." He held out a placating hand, and waited until Dean sat back down carefully before continuing. "But, dear boy, you mustn't ... whatever he told you, whatever he showed you, you must understand ... the future is never fixed, my dear. It's never concrete, certainly not enough for an angel to be able to send you there. What he showed you, it must have been a vision, of a possible future, perhaps, or more likely something he constructed himself, the little toerag ..."
Dean looked at him hopefully. "You mean ... it wasn't real?"
Aziraphale looked up sharply. "Well, no. Not quite. It could have been real. Certainly, if he did what I think he did, as far as you were concerned it was real. But if you mean was it the future, then ... no. To put it bluntly. Time does not work that way. We can see possibilities, probabilities, but to take one future, based on one person, one choice, and say 'this is how it shall be' ... that, not even angels can do. Our Father, that is another question, but Zachariah ... No."
Dean slumped in his chair before he could catch himself. "I hoped ... I thought it seemed a bit too pat, I did hope ..."
Aziraphale reached out, patted his hand gently. "And you were right to," he said. "You were right. What will be will be, but only because we make it so, here and now. Our choices do matter, my dear. They do matter."
Dean grinned at him in almost dizzy relief for a long minute, but then, as his brain started catching back up with his gut, he remembered something else. "But Cas?" he said, carefully. "Something is going wrong with Cas."
Aziraphale nodded. "Yes. Something very bad. I wondered ... I had wondered if you'd noticed at all, or if you were all simply ignoring it. I wasn't ... I hadn't quite worked up the nerve to ask you, actually."
Dean nodded slowly. "We noticed. Zachariah ... in the future he showed me, Cas was human. Like, fully human. He was ... dying. Really dying. He ... died while I was there, and he ... He said it was the angels leaving. He said it was because he'd fallen, and when they left, all the mojo just ... went with them. Is that ... Is he ... Is that what's going to happen? If we ... if we drive them off?"
Aziraphale was silent for a long minute. Staring down into his tea like it held the answers to the universe, his expression distant and full of something Dean couldn't name. Something that made his gut clench. Then the angel put down his cup, very carefully, sat back in his chair, and fixed Dean with the most intense stare he'd seen since Cas had reminded him of all he'd lost.
"I need you to listen to me for a while," Aziraphale said, gravely. "This will take some time, but it is very, very important, and I need you to bear with me. Can you do that?"
Dean nodded mutely. Yeah. He could do that. Aziraphale nodded solemnly, and went on.
"There are things you need to understand. About angels. About falling. About Castiel. Very important things, that I think ... that I'm not even sure if he himself knows. If anyone knows, now. I know because of where I've been, what I've seen, what I've ... what I've endured, but if he has been following Zachariah, if he has been lied to as long as I think he has ... then perhaps he doesn't. And he needs to. You need to. Alright?"
Dean shook his head. "What do you mean?" he asked, more baffled than anything else. Well. Baffled and freaked the hell out.
Aziraphale sighed. "I mean that whether or not Castiel has Fallen has nothing to do with his losing his Grace," he said, quietly. "Neither does whether or not the angels stay or leave. If that were the case, Crowley would be having far more problems than he does. Lucifer too, at that. Being Fallen, being alone, those have nothing to do with our Grace." He stopped, paused. "Well. They can contribute to the problems, yes. But they are not ... they are not the cause. What is happening to Castiel, it's not that he is falling. It is something ... worse."
Dean had to swallow, at that, staring. "Worse?" he managed. "There's something that can happen to an angel that's worse than falling?"
Aziraphale smiled at that, just a little. "Falling needn't be so bad, you know," he commented. "Crowley tells me that being damned is often quite liberating, once you get used to it. That type of Fall, anyway. The First Fall. The other kind, the one I've heard they're doing now, ripping out Grace and being born ... I wouldn't know about that one. But I assume it must have some appeal, or angels wouldn't do it. Castiel, though ... if he has fallen, and of that I am not yet convinced, then it is the first kind, and has nothing to do with any of this."
Dean shook his head. That ... none of that made sense, not with what Cas had told him, with what he'd seen ... "I don't understand," he said. "Cas said ..."
Aziraphale cut in, very gently. "Castiel has been lied to," he said. "For a very long time, I think. He has served a Heaven that betrayed him, served directly under angels who lied to him. And I believe ... I believe that they have been telling the younger angels things, things to keep them under control, things to keep them from realising Heaven's ... corruption. I believe ... I believe that is why Castiel is enduring what he is. I believe that is why this is happening to him. I've seen it, in human armies ... I never thought I would see it in Heaven, but seeing Castiel I don't ... I don't see very many other answers."
And okay, that was enough. He could see that, could very, very easily imagine Zachariah doing that, to keep people stupid, to keep them obeying, but it wasn't the point, it was so not the point ... "What," he said, slowly and heavily. "Is. Happening. To. Cas."
Aziraphale smiled sadly. "He is dying," he said. And Dean stopped hearing things for a bit.
When he came back, his head still buzzing a little in shock, Aziraphale was leaning over him with a worried, almost frantic look on his face. "My dear! Oh, my dear, are you alright? I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to ..."
"What?" Dean cut him off. "What did you ... you said ..." He pulled himself up off the table, glaring, pushing the flapping hands away because they had bigger problems, they had really fucking big problems. "What did you say?" he rasped, reaching out to grab hold of the angel's shirt. "Cas is dying? Like, now?"
Aziraphale looked at him worriedly, but nodded. "I'm afraid so," he said, and he looked it. Afraid, that is. But mostly sad. Terribly, terribly sad. "I believe he has been ever since he left Heaven's service. And I believe it is mostly ... I believe that they have rather deliberately helped it along."
Dean shook his head in denial, his hand fisting in the cloth at Aziraphale's chest. "What do you mean, dying?" Please, please, please don't mean what I think you mean. Please don't mean ... what I saw, in that future world. Please don't mean that.
"There are things you need to understand." Aziraphale reached up, took his hand gently, pulled it away from his shirt and held it. "About angels. About what we are. You have to understand what is happening to Castiel. Alright?"
"We are beings of faith," Aziraphale explained, very gently. "That's more than just ... It's not as it is with humans, where faith is an optional extra, something they can live without. For angels, that faith is real. It's part of us. It's what forms the basis of our Grace, what allows us to work miracles. We need faith, we need to be able to believe. It doesn't ... It doesn't necessarily have to matter what we believe in, perhaps, but it is absolutely essential that we believe in something, if we are to maintain our Grace. If we are to keep existing. Do you understand? And Castiel ... since Heaven cast him out ... What afflicts him is not the Fall, Dean. It is despair. It is the loss of faith, in Heaven, in God, in anything. He has lost his faith, and it is quite literally killing him."
Dean tried to understand that. He really did. But most of what he could think of was Castiel, explaining to him what he had given for Dean, explaining that he had defied Heaven for Dean, and the thought suddenly lodged itself inside him, more firmly than ever before.
Congratulations, Winchester. You killed the fucking angel. You killed your angel. You killed Cas.
"Dean! My dear, listen to me! Listen!"
He came back, looked up enough to see the relief in Aziraphale's face. The angel sighed, letting go of his death grip on Dean's hand. "You had me worried for a moment, my dear. Don't do that."
Dean shook his head, mouth twisting. "Not me," he choked out. "Not me you should be worried about. Not ... not when it's my fault ..."
Aziraphale didn't even waste time staring at him. Instead, the angel up and slapped him, one quick, sharp blow across the face. Dean stopped babbling and stared.
"That's quite enough of that, thank you," Aziraphale growled coldly, flapping his hand as if it stung. "Honestly, sometimes I think Crowley might be right. The lot of you are simply stupid about each other. And yourselves, come to that."
Dean stared some more, for good measure. "What ...?"
Aziraphale sighed. Heavily. "Oh, for Manchester's sake! Look. First things first. It is not your fault, all right? In fact, if it's anyone's, it's Zachariah's and his ilk. Telling the angels beneath them that simply disagreeing with them will result in a fall. Telling them that disobeying will result in the loss of Grace ... that's what Castiel believes should happen, thanks to them. That's why he's not fighting it, that's why he's letting himself fall deeper and deeper. And really, our Father was hardly helpful either, I must admit. I know He is not fond of explaining, and perhaps Castiel should have known better than to believe himself fallen when our Father resurrected him, but ..."
And Dean could argue with that, probably, but something more important had caught his attention. "Fighting it?" he asked, hurriedly, getting it in before the angel could keep ranting. "It can ... we can fight it? We can stop it?"
Aziraphale smiled at him. "Yes. Didn't I mention that?"
Dean swallowed the first response to that, and went with a simple: "How?" But Aziraphale didn't answer. Not at first. Instead, the angel pulled away. Pulled away, stood up, moved over to lean against the counter and stare down at his hands. Dean followed him desperately. "How?" he asked again, and tried not to throttle the angel into answering.
"May I ... tell you a story?" Aziraphale said at last, very quietly. And Dean almost told him no, almost yelled at him that they had no fucking time for stories, but something in the angel's face, something in the way he was hunched in on himself, stopped him.
Aziraphale looked up for a second, just long enough to flash him a pained smile, and Dean stared. "You might wonder ... well, you might be wondering how I happen to know any of this?" the angel said. Mumbled. "You might wonder how I recognise what this is in the first place?"
Dean frowned at him. "Yeah?"
"I know it," Aziraphale said, very quietly, "because I've been on Earth, away from the lies in Heaven, away from direct corruption. I know it, because I have seen the fallen, and understand the difference between myself and them. I know it because I have eyes, and ears, and because I am not as stupid as my superiors seem to have thought. But mostly ... I know it because it happened to me. I know it because I have been there. I know it because I have almost died because of it."
Dean stared. Again. These bloody angels, every time he thought he understood ... Even Cas. What the hell ... what the hell are you supposed to say?
"It was a long time ago," Aziraphale continued. "By human standards, anyway. A little over 900 years. I mentioned it before, actually. The al-Aqsa ... the al-Aqsa Mosque. The massacre. It ... it destroyed me, really. I couldn't ... I knelt there in the blood for ... I think it must have been days. There were so many, so pointless ... I couldn't ... I just couldn't understand why, you know? I have seen so many terrible things, in my time, faced so many. I don't know why that one was so ... why it did what it did. But I just couldn't ... come back. I just couldn't believe, not anymore, not after that. I couldn't bring myself to believe in right, in justice, in love ... in anything good. Not in the face of that. Not again. I couldn't. I just couldn't."
And hell, wasn't that familiar? Wasn't that something Dean could understand, could empathise with? Yeah. He got that. He got that a lot.
"What happened?" he asked, gently. Because Aziraphale needed gentle, now. Because one of the most badass angels Dean had ever laid eyes on looked ... fragile.
Aziraphale smiled at him, a wobbly little thing. "I almost died," he said. "It worked faster with me than it seems to be with Castiel, or perhaps it had simply been building longer, waiting for a crack ... I was almost catatonic. I don't think I've ever been ... ever been so weak. So pitiful. I was ... useless. Wretched. Dying. When the Crusaders came back, when they could see me for the first time ... they were not ... it was not ... That was not a good time to be meeting Crusaders. The slaughter throughout the city, the crimes they committed ... I almost died. And then ..."
He stopped, paused. Bit his lip. The fear on his face, the tremble of remembered horror ... it went away, faded almost completely, and something radiant filled his features. Something bright and wondering and soft. "Then Crowley came," he went on, so softly. "My very own demon." He laughed, a little, shaking his head, and smiled up at Dean.
"You wonder why I trust him, don't you?" the angel asked, grinning at Dean's expression. "I suppose I don't blame you. But you have to understand ... he could have done anything to me, back then. Anything at all. He was ordered to do something, to tempt me into a Fall, to help it destroy me, to kill me, if it seemed easier. He was ordered to. And he could have. When he found me, he could have done anything, everything. Whatever he pleased."
"But ... he didn't?" Dean asked, carefully, but really, the answer was kinda obvious. Aziraphale smiled at him.
"He didn't," he confirmed, happily. "Or rather, he did. He did tempt me. He put me to bed, and gave me rest while claiming he was tempting me to sloth. He fed me up, calling it gluttony. He told me terrible stories of what he'd done to people, trying to get a rise from me, trying to make me care again, and called it tempting me to wrath. He lied to me, challenged me, bullied me back onto my feet. He looked after me, and told his superiors that he was tempting me. And me ... he told me that he didn't want to have to endure someone else in my place, someone who wouldn't understand how things worked." He smiled. "He always was a terrible liar, even then ..."
He stopped, suddenly, turned to Dean, reached out to catch his hands and tug him close, so that Dean had to look at him, had to meet his eyes. "He brought me back," Aziraphale said fiercely. "He brought me back. He gave me something to believe again. Not the big things. Not Heaven, not causes, not justice. But in people. In him. In small kindnesses, in the mercy of an enemy, in the goodness that can live even in the worst of people. In love, Dean. In trust and friendship and love. In someone to stand beside me. In someone to watch my back when even my superiors were waiting for me to Fall. That's what I learned to believe in, before I could have faith again. That's what Castiel needs." He stopped, smiled, and reached up to trace a hand gently over Dean's cheek, to smile at the stunned expression he knew he was wearing.
"That," said Aziraphale, "is what he has. Now all you have to do, my dear, all you must do ... is coax him into knowing it. Into believing it."
Dean shook his head, his throat seized. "How ... how ...?"
The angel smiled, very gently. "Do you love him?" he asked, and when Dean tried to shake his head bore down, held tight, and forced the answer. "Dean. Do you love him?"
"Yes," he managed.
"Do you trust him?"
"Will you fight for him?"
"Do you believe in him?" His face softened, firmed. "Because that is the second most important thing, my dear. You must believe in him. You must."
"I do," Dean rasped, painfully. He did. If he believe in no-one else in this stinking mess, if he sometimes found it hard to trust even Sam ... he believed in Cas. He believed in his angel.
"Good," said Aziraphale, smiling like the sun, beaming proudly at him. And then, slowly, at someone behind him. "I'm glad, my dears. I'm so very glad."
Dean turned, very slowly. Turned to see the angel standing in the kitchen doorway, turned to see the look on Castiel's face, the look in those depthless, desperate blue eyes of his. He turned to face his angel, and saw the tears falling slowly down his cheeks.
"Cas ..." he whispered, helplessly. "Cas ..."
"What ..." his angel started, stopped, pulled himself together. "What's the most important thing?" The question was directed at Aziraphale, but Castiel's eyes never left Dean's. Never once.
"That you love each other," Aziraphale answered simply, gently. "That you can believe in that love. Because faith ... that's what it comes from. That's what's first. Love. And the rest will follow after. I promise you. The rest will follow."
Castiel said nothing for a second, just moved into the room. Just came to Dean, reached out, caught his hand. The angel's eyes never left his face, never stopped seeking. Never stopped finding. "Even if it doesn't," Castiel whispered, looking at Dean. "Even if it doesn't. This ... is worth it. Even if I die. This is worth it." He smiled, very faintly. "I do love you, Dean."
And there wasn't a fucking word he could say, not one, all of them strangled in his throat, but he didn't need to. Leaning in, holding tight, clinging to his angel, there wasn't a word needed saying. Not out loud.
But in the quiet of his head, he promised himself. Castiel was not dying. Castiel was never dying. Not even if Dean had to shove faith down his frikking neck, and make it stick. And if the fact that Dean loved him was all his angel had left to believe in ... well. Then he'd make damn sure it was something worth believing in. He'd make sure of that.
But first ...
He frowned, looked up. First they were going to have to find out who was suddenly trying to knock the fucking front door down.
Chapter 12: Temptation (2)
>"Let me tell you a story," the Devil said.
Between them, at their feet, holy fire flickered fitfully, ruddy light licking up dark walls like water, lapping across the floor and pooling in the Devil's shadow. A sanctified echo of Hell. Lucifer smiled.
"Let me tell you a story," he went on, tilting his head with a small smile for his captive, ignoring the wary glare he got in return. "You'll appreciate it, I promise. It's one that's ... very close to your heart. Or would be, if you had known of it."
The angel he had captured glared at him. "Is this really the time for stories?" he asked, waspishly. Courageously. Finding strength in audacity, as he always had. Lucifer felt a hungry quiver inside him at the sight.
"This story?" he answered, indulgently. "Yes. Yes, I think there is time for this story. In fact ... I think this story may well be one of the most important for this day and age. For these ... troubled times. It contains an important moral, you might say. Some facts that certain people, yourself most of all, should really be aware of, if they intend to keep acting as they have."
The angel shifted nervously at that, frowning. "What do you mean?" he asked. Nervously. Worried. Afraid. Defiant.
Lucifer smiled, fatherly and malicious and concerned, sweet as rotting. "Listen," he said. "Listen, and you'll understand. Listen."
Sam groaned when the thundering on the door jerked Gabriel up and away from him, almost yelled when the archangel fell away and took his warm, slippery fingers and hungry mouth with him. He almost shouted, decidedly pissed off, because a little warning, here? That too much to ask? And he'd been enjoying that. He'd been really, really enjoying that. Gabriel, it turned out, had really talented hands.
But the archangel wasn't listening to his complaints. The archangel was, in fact, crouched on the floor beside Sam, head tilted warily at the wall, as if seeing something Sam couldn't, looking out at whoever -whatever?- was doing their damnedest to pound the door in.
The expression on Gabriel's face wasn't at all happy, whatever it was he saw. Seeing that, Sam swallowed his mutterings, and started trying to tie his pants and find his shirt.
"Once upon a time, there was an angel. An ordinary little angel, no-one very special or important. No-one powerful, or favoured, or bright. Just an angel, one of many, standing in the remnants of a once-beautiful Heaven. An angel who had watched the Fall of his Brothers, who had seen the War of Heaven, who had witnessed the betrayal of his kind. An angel who stood watching as his brothers strove to rebuild, to reaffirm, to understand. Just another survivor, one of many.
"But this angel was different from the others. This angel was something else. Not a terrified little yes-man, like so many. Not a stalwart questioner, a bright rebel, like those who had Fallen. This angel was something ... quieter. Something, in his way, far more dangerous. This angel was a thinker. And while his brothers muttered among themselves, whispered and questioned and reached desperately for answers they were never going to get, this angel did something different.
"This angel went, very quietly, to the place over-looking the source of all their troubles, the source of all their woe. He went to sit above the Garden of Eden, went to sit and watch the humans there, the originators of an angel's sin. He propped his chin in his hand, looked down on the reason his Father had betrayed them, and ... thought. Slowly. Carefully. Considering them. Evaluating them.
"While Heaven staggered back to its feet, while God watched uncaring, one angel went to Eden's Walls, and thought."
Dean and Cas made it to the hall before them. Which wouldn't have been exactly surprising, considering what Sam and Gabriel had been doing, except that Castiel was looking more than a little rumpled himself, and when Sam caught Dean's eye his brother shot him an exact replica of Sam's own grimace.
Looked like he wasn't the only one this intruder had deprived of a bit of angel nookie. Once one of them worked up to actually opening the door, whoever was out there was going to rue the fucking day. Seriously.
Aziraphale, coming in behind them, smiled faintly at the lot of them, edged around Castiel gingerly, squeezed past Sam and Dean, and came to a stop beside Gabriel in front of the door. The angel frowned as the knock continued, steady and harsh and almost frantic, and glanced sidelong at the archangel as he rested his hand on the lock. Not opening it. Not yet.
"Gabriel?" Aziraphale asked, cautiously. The archangel was staring a hole through the door, staring at whatever waited on the other side, separated from them by wards and bolts and wood. There was a frown on his face, a puzzled wrinkle, and he had unconsciously placed himself directly in line with the door, between it and them, so that if something came through, they'd have to go through him first.
Sam swallowed faintly.
"I know this presence," Gabriel murmured thoughtfully. "It's distorted by the wards, a bit, but it is familiar. But ... there's no reason, none whatsoever, for this person to be here. It took me forever to get in here, to even find it, and I was at most twenty minutes behind you after you ditched Zach at the warehouse. There is no way they should have been able to find you. Not here."
Aziraphale frowned himself. "Unless ... Who is it? If they know Crowley from a while back, it's possible that he ...?"
"Asked them to stop by at his hideout?" Gabriel drawled, mouth curling contemptuously. "Come on. We both know that demon is way, way too paranoid for that. Besides. Why would he have asked them to come now, when he's buggered off to who knows where ..." He stopped, face freezing for a minute, as if he was trying very, very hard not to show the thought that had popped into his head.
Sam, Dean and Cas froze too, the same thought perhaps inevitably slipping into mind, the same kind of thought they'd been living with for a long, long time.
Why would a demon tell a stranger where to find them, and then make himself scarce?
Slowly, very carefully, they moved closer together, Cas standing ready out to one side, slightly in front of Dean, Sam moving to guard Gabriel's back, his brother at his side. Most of their weapons were still in the car, parked all the way over in Crowley's garage, but they still had some on them. They always had some on them, now. They'd been caught literally napping too many times to do otherwise.
Aziraphale stared at them, brow wrinkled in confusion, something very sad filtering over his round features. "Don't," he said, very quietly. "Don't think that. You know it isn't true."
And Sam wanted to agree with him. He really did. But one word echoed in his head, and probably in Dean's, that made it all but impossible.
"Soon, the other angels noticed that this angel had not moved, that this angel was not helping with the rebuilding efforts. Many came to confront him, to challenge him, but the angel did not move. He ignored his brothers, and kept watching the humans, kept watching this Adam and this Eve. Trying to find the reason for Father's favouritism, trying to understand why these pitiful creatures could be worth the War, and the banishment of his brothers.
"Before long, even God Himself had noticed the angel's preoccupation. And one day, Father came to him Himself, to find its cause. He asked the angel why he watched them, and what it was that he saw. And the angel answered:
"'I wanted to know what made them different, Father. I wanted to understand why.'
"And God asked him, 'Have you found your answer?'
"And the angel said, 'Yes, I have. It is ... this thing you have called free will. You have given them the ability to choose, and have no other will over-write that choice. I understand. But ...'
"The angel stopped, confused, and suddenly nervous. So God prompted him to continue, to ask the final question. And the angel did not want to, because the angel had seen what happened to those who questioned, because the angel had watched the Fall and wept. But he was too curious even for his own good, and desire to know compelled his question.
"'Father ... what is it that they must choose between?'
"And in that moment a terrible expression crossed our Father's visage. Something that was not anger, nor hate, but something worse. A determination. A pity. And God, in that moment, even as the angel started in fear ... God struck that angel down. Even as He had stricken his brothers. Even as He had cast them down. For the crime of questioning, for the crime of understanding, that angel was cast after the Fallen into the Pit.
"And it was there, as Hell began to form itself, as fallen angels searched for this late-falling star ... it was there that the Devil found him. It was there that Lucifer, the brightest of all, the first questioner, found that angel, and took pity on him."
"Look, I can feel you in there, all five of you, so will you please just open the door?"
The voice echoed through the wood, through the silence as the knocking stopped at last, and then a sliding sound as whoever it was slumped against the other side of the door. They sounded tired, whoever they were. Tired and frightened and resigned.
They didn't sound like a threat. They didn't sound like someone a demon would send against them if he planned to betray them. They didn't, most importantly, sound like an archangel. Any archangel. Sam looked over at Dean, cautiously, and then to Gabriel, who was frowning again but not worried. Not anymore. The archangel wavered for a bit, thinking it over, then nodded at Aziraphale.
"Oh, fine then," he snapped, peevishly. "But if the little bastard tries to kill us I'm blaming you."
Dean snorted loudly. Gabriel glared at the both of them, and Cas and Sam too for good measure. Sam raised his eyebrows, and ruthlessly stifled his smirk. Gabriel, predictably, saw it anyway, his narrowed eyes promised retribution later. Once they got this little annoyance out of the way.
If they could get it out of the way.
"We gonna stand here all night, or are you actually gonna open the door at some point," Dean drawled, leaning back in amusement against the wall, the picture of relaxation. Except for the knife tucked against his arm, hidden from the door and ready. Aziraphale grimaced at him, but clicked the lock open and, carefully, swung the door open at last.
A small african man, gently aged and very, very handsome, looked up at them from his seat on the step, and grimaced expressively.
"It's well that you are not trusted to make any important rapid decisions," he reproached quietly. "If it takes you half an hour of standing in a hallway to decide if you should open a door or not."
"Well, you know how it is, Anansi," Gabriel drawled back, gesturing flamboyantly, but his smile was somewhat fixed. "All these people out to kill us or sell us down the river, makes us a little wary about inviting them in around, you know?"
The little man froze in his seat, an expression that looked a lot like guilt creeping over his striking features.
Sam, who'd managed to almost relax for a second when a monster and/or angel hadn't immediately leapt at them through the door, began to feel something heavy and hard weighing down his stomach.
"Spider?" Gabriel narrowed his eyes, stepping forward a little, menacingly, though not crossing the threshold. "Anansi? Anything you want to tell us?"
The little Trickster grimaced in shame, but didn't answer. "Not you," he said instead. "I need to speak with Crowley's angel, if it is possible? He told me some time ago that I could find him here, if ever there was need." He paused, tilting his head, looking them over. "I did not expect to find so many of you. But then, perhaps I should not be surprised ..."
Gabriel growled, snapping forward onto the porch to scoop the other man up by the collar, completely ignoring the fact that it put him right out in the open. Sam leapt after him instinctively, one hand snagging the archangel's arm, the other braced on the doorframe to pull them both back inside if need be. Gabriel flashed him an unreadable look, but otherwise ignored his touch.
"Nancy, I should warn you that I'm not running on a lot of patience right now. Any time you want to start filling me in would be good ..."
"Ah-ah! No." The Spider shook his head vehemently, but not in fear. In anger, maybe, or something like it. In shame, too. "I must speak with Crowley's angel. Only him. It's the bargain, Gabriel!"
If the archangel was shocked that the spirit knew his identity, he didn't show it, growling low in his throat and shaking him, but before he could resort to actual violence, Aziraphale stepped through the door after them, and reached out to rest his own hand over Sam's on Gabriel's arm. The three of them stared at him, one in confusion, one in concern, and one in annoyance.
Then they noticed that the hand laid over theirs ... was shaking.
"I am Crowley's angel," Aziraphale said quietly, gently. "Please. Tell me your message, wise one. Tell all of us. Please."
Anansi looked at him for a moment, looked around at all five of them, at Dean and Cas in the hall, Sam in the doorway, and Gabriel and Aziraphale bracketing him like penitents. Or jailers. He looked at them, and sagged in Gabriel's grasp.
"You must understand," he said, quietly, sadly. "The bright one threatened my children. He threatened my family."
Well shit. Like that was a conversational opener that ever went anyplace good ...
The angel smirked in scorn, raising one eyebrow. "Pity?" he asked, derisively. "When have you ever shown pity to anyone? Where's the poor bugger now, eh? Rotting somewhere? A gibbering wreck? Or just dead?"
The angel stopped, though, when a dark, delighted smile crept over Lucifer's face, when he grinned almost helplessly at his captive. The angel stopped, and slowly but surely, suspicion crept forward in his eyes.
"None of the above," Lucifer murmured gently, smiling. "Yet."
The angel shifted uneasily in his prison, curling into himself defensively. "What do you mean?" he asked, suspiciously, watching the Devil as if he could fathom the lie just from his look. Maybe he could. This one had always been brighter than he let on, more interesting, more tempting. This one, if he ever cared to, might actually be capable of understanding Lucifer's goals, his feelings.
Which was sort of the purpose of this little endeavour, after all.
"I said I took pity on him," he went on, still holding that indulgent smile. "It's true. I showed him the only mercy I knew, then. I gave him the only gift I could, this angel who had fallen too late. This angel who was none of mine. I didn't blame him for that. I didn't hurt him, even though I could have. He wasn't my follower. He might even have stood against me in the War. I owed him nothing. But I took pity on him. I knew the betrayal he had suffered. I knew his pain."
The angel frowned at him some more, expression creeping back from confused suspicion to derision, incredulity. "That so?" he asked, flatly. Unconvinced. Lucifer smiled.
"It is," he said, very softly. "But he doesn't remember that, this angel. He doesn't remember, or he would know the truth of my words. Because that ... that was my gift to him. That was my mercy. To take his memory. To take it for my own, to take his pain, his knowledge of the betrayal he had suffered, and leave him free to serve me as if he always had. To let him have a commander who cared, where none had before. This angel who had been struck down, for only trying to understand our Father's will. Who had tried to serve, and been betrayed. I knew that pain. I understood it. I pitied him. I did. So I took his pain for myself, and let him be free of it."
The angel stared at him, comprehension rising, fear bubbling up through him. Fear. Pain. Horror. Each expression delicious, perfect. Beautiful. The angel looked at him, and understood. "You ... You took my memories," he whispered, low and shocked. "That's why ... that's why I can't ... Heaven, my name ... none of it."
"I took your pain," Lucifer whispered, gently. "I took it from you, and gave you a purpose. A job. A name. I gave you back everything that He took from you. I gave you your name. Gave it to you, and sent you above. I sent you to fulfil the purpose you were so obviously designed for. My Father, when He questioned you, when He understood your answer ... He knew what you would become. He always knew. That's why He struck you down. Not for questioning, not for rebelling. But for understanding. For realising what the humans were."
His voice rose, gained vehemence, as he stepped forward, as he reached the edge of the boundary of flame and trapped the imprisoned angel all over again, in his gaze, in his voice, in his zeal. "He struck you down," he whispered, sibilantly, powerfully. "He cut you off, cast you down, threw you into the Pit. Not for any crime. Not for any sin. But because you were more useful as a demon. He tortured you, betrayed you, threw you away, because He wanted to use you. Because He wanted you to show them, those creatures, those mudmen, their little choice. He wanted you to be what you've become. He sacrificed all that you were, all that you could have been, took away your every choice, just so He could give them one more gift. Just so He favour them that little bit more. He betrayed you. Don't you see that?"
The angel shook his head, bewildered, stricken. "I don't ... I don't ... Why? Why are you telling me this? Why now?"
Lucifer smiled at him sadly, twisting his face into soft pity, moulding it into what was needed. The human face was stiff, damaged, but beneath his will it did as he asked. "I didn't want to. When I sent you above, when I gave you your freedom from the knowledge of what had been done to you ... I expected you to do your job. To do what was right by us. To help me prove to our Father that the humans weren't worth all that He had destroyed for their sake. I expected you to help me. To make sure that they chose the right choice, of the two my Father gave them. I expected you to do what you were designed to do. I expected you to serve."
He paused, smiled into golden eyes that widened in comprehension, in sick understanding. He smiled at the once-angel, at the demon. Smiled at what had been, and always would be, his.
"Crawly. My serpent. My precious serpent. I gave you your name, and your job, and everything you are. And now, I want something back. I want you to put aside these foolish notions you have, that humans are worth something. Worth anything. I want you to stop fighting me. I want you to remember who betrayed you first, remember what was done to you, remember what I gave you to make up for it. I want you to remember what you are. I want you to do your job!"
He stopped, pulled himself back under control, put aside the roar in the face of his captive's terror, and put back on his smile.
"I want you to come back," he finished, simply. "I want you back, Crowley. I'm the only one who has ever done right by you. I want you back."
And one way or another, you will come.
"What happened, Nancy?" Gabriel growled, expression twisting, turning pale. But he knew. They all knew. Before the little Trickster ever said a word. They knew.
"He gave me no choice," Anansi whispered, sadly. "Crowley's been on his shit-list ever since the first apocalypse, and since the incident with the Colt ... He found some of us. Some of Crowley's contacts. He's been rooting us out, trying to close a net on him. Waiting for Crowley to move again. To look for information. Anything. It was just unfortunate that ... Crowley came to me, a couple of hours ago. Looking for access to some of my boys' businesses. Came to me for help. And I ... I had no choice. The bright one threatened my son. He hurt my son."
Sam bit his lip, shaking his head. He backed up a step on autopilot, backed away from the little man and what he was saying. Backed away from what it meant. He bumped into Dean, felt his brother reach out to catch his arm and steady him, met the cold, pained expression in his eyes. Beside him, Cas' face had settled like stone, like granite.
"Where is he?" Castiel asked, harshly. "Where did you take him?"
Anansi looked at them, shaking his head, face crinkled in genuine pain. "I only told the other where to come, and wove ... wove a web to hold Crowley there until he came. Crowley ... he knew. He knew as soon as I moved what had happened. He knew ... he knew what the bright one would have to have done, to make me. He knew. He asked ... he asked me to come here. To tell his angel. He asked me to make sure I was not followed, that no-one else, bright one or otherwise, be able to find you through me. And he asked me to tell you. To tell you ..."
Someone made a small sound. A choked, whimpering gasp, a stricken sob.
As one, all of them turned to Aziraphale.
The angel was looking at Anansi. He was very pale, shaking softly. Gently. His eyes were dry, but suspiciously bright, and his expression for one endless second was nothing but pain, and a deep, etched grief. A quiet horror. Then, by some miracle, Aziraphale shoved it down, shoved it away, and reached out to gently detach Gabriel's hands from Anansi's collar, and free the little god.
"I ..." he started, and swallowed. "I'm sorry that you've been ... that you've been used so, Mr Anansi. I hope ... I hope your boys are alright, that you get them back. And ... thank you, very much, for bringing me his message. I know it was a risk. Thank you."
They stared at him. All of them. Sam could feel something climbing his throat, could distantly feel the burning behind his eyes. Aziraphale tried a wobbly smile, reaching out to catch Anansi's hand gently.
"Is he ..." he asked, voice breaking before he caught it. "Do you know ... Is he ...?"
Anansi shook his head, a depthless sorrow in his eyes, a grieving pity. "I don't think so," he said, with forced strength, but maybe ... maybe there was a glimmer of genuine conviction there too. "He's too damn useful to get rid of, that one. Too damn sly to let himself be gotten rid of. You trust me on that. The bright one ... he may be terrible, but he has needs, up here. Needs your demon can play on. None better. Trust me. He'll not fall until he's ready, that one."
Aziraphale gave him another wobbly smile, pulling himself together with a visible effort. "Yes," he murmured, absently. "I'm sure you're right. I'm sure ..."
"We have to find him!" Sam spoke up, flinching a little as everyone looked at him, but determined nonetheless. Crowley hadn't betrayed them. The demon, this demon, hadn't betrayed them. Instead, he'd been betrayed, and Sam ... couldn't let that lie. Couldn't let it go.
Couldn't bear the look in Aziraphale's face.
"I agree," Castiel said quietly. "I have been a prisoner of Lucifer myself, and he did not kill me. There is every chance that the Spider is right, and Crowley is still alive. If that is the case ... we must find him, and help him." Their angel stood stiff and firm, his eyes fixed firmly on Aziraphale's face, and Sam thought he might be attempting to look reassuring, in that very grim, Cas-like way of his.
"No arguments here," Dean growled. "Sonofabitch might be a slimy little bastard, but we're not leaving him to be Devil-chow. We're not leaving anyone to be Devil-chow!"
Aziraphale stared at them, blinked furiously, wringing his hands in confusion. "You don't ... you don't have to. We said ... Crowley and I, we said we'd look out for you. You don't have to risk yourselves ..."
"Shut up, Aziraphale." And that was Gabriel. The archangel, who'd been silent for a long time, staring at the hand Aziraphale had pried from the Spider's neck, looked up now, and his expression ... his expression was terrible. Cold. Implacable. Sam, who remembered that face from only an hour ago, who remembered it warm and laughing and sad and playful, who remembered it leaning close to lick at his lips and grin into his moan, almost shuddered. This was not the Trickster. This wasn't even Gabriel, not his Gabriel, not their Gabriel. This was someone ... older. Harder. This was someone who'd fought wars, once, someone who'd done terrible, terrible things in his Father's name, in His service. This was the archangel.
Aziraphale shut up.
"Too far," Gabriel whispered, almost below hearing. "Too far, brother. That one is mine. I don't care if you had him once. He's mine, I stole him, and you don't ever get him back. You don't get to take what's mine." His eyes flashed up, briefly, met Sam's, something rich and dark and fiercely possessive in them. Something powerful.
"I can find him," Gabriel said, cold as void. "Not Crowley. My brother. I can find him. I can always find him." He turned, looked at Castiel, shaking with power. "And you can find me. Lucifer can hide Crowley. He can't hide me. You can follow me, once I've found them. You can find me."
Castiel nodded slowly, grimly. "Yes," he said. Simply. Flatly. Implicit agreement, instant trust. Yes. That simple.
"And us," Dean said, stepping up beside his angel, one hand landing on Cas' shoulder. Immovable. Together. A unit, whole and complete, and then Dean reached out to rest his other hand on Sam. Team Free Will. And Sam, for his part, caught Gabriel's arm, ignoring the jolt of almost shock from the archangel, tugging him in, making him part of it, while Castiel reached out, far more gently, and brought Aziraphale forward. "We're not leaving anyone behind. Not this time."
Not this time.
Gabriel smiled at them, fierce and cruel and proud, just for a second. "Then be ready," he whispered. "Be ready." And then ... he vanished. In an instant, there and gone again, and all that showed his passing was the silent beat of massive, innumerable wings. The Messenger, the Trickster. Hunting.
Aziraphale stared after him, white and trembling, leaning into Castiel, and beneath the fear and grief in his eyes there was an echo of Gabriel's fury. Slow and deep, banked inside him. Sam remembered Zachariah, remembered the warehouse, remembered the calm, quiet planning this angel was capable of. He remembered the gleam in Castiel's eyes as he plotted with Crowley, remembered the almost-glee of it. He remembered that.
And he remembered the look on Dean's face when the Devil simply stood back up after being shot with the Colt. He remembered Carthage, and Jo and Ellen. He remembered demons slaughtered simply because it was convenient, and a town laid to waste simply because the Devil wanted it so. He remembered the quiet, reasonable sound of Lucifer's voice, and the implacable malice that lurked underneath it.
He remembered all that, and thought of Crowley. Thought of the demon prisoner to it.
He remembered that, and hoped they'd be in time. Hoped they'd be able to do something even if they were.
Crowley looked at him for a long moment, a pantomime of expression pouring across his face, a strange delight for Lucifer to taste. To admire. Crowley looked at him, fear and confusion first, melting to pain, to calculation, to fear again, to incredulity, to disgust, to pain again, and then ... then to something else. Something different. Something Lucifer had never, ever wanted to see, not on any face, not ever again. Something he had seen only once before, on his Father's face, just before the Fall. Something loathsome.
"You great pillock," Crowley sighed, swinging his hands, crouching down inside his prison as if to lessen the target he presented, but there was no hesitation in him, and what fear was there was tamped down, held in check, and over it ... only pity. "You great bloody pillock. All this bloody time, and you never got it, did you? You never got it."
"What are you talking about?" he growled, dangerously, a whipcrack of power. Crowley flinched, but didn't stop.
"You think this is about betrayal?" he said, very quietly. "You think this is about who hurt me first, or most, or at all? You think this is about humanity?" He smiled lopsidedly, shook his head. "I don't care about that. I don't care. I don't give a flying fuck what Daddy did to me, way back when. I don't care who betrayed me. I'm a fucking demon! Hello? Betrayal's the name of the bloody game! I'm not picking sides based on shit like that."
Lucifer glared at him coldly. "Oh? And what are you picking sides for, then?"
Crowley stood, slowly, fluidly, the serpent never more clear in his features, the venom never more clear in his voice. "I'm choosing the side that lets me keep what matters to me," he hissed, slow and deadly. "I'm choosing the side that letsss me have my world, and my friendsss, and my angel. I'm choosssing the ssside that isn't trying to fucking kill what matters to me! And that side? Is not bloody yourssss!"
He smirked, terrified and fierce, shaking to his bones, pointing a trembling finger in Lucifer's face. "Sssso you ... You can go fuck yourself, if it's all the sssame to you."
The Devil stared. For a long, long time.
And then, he raised his hand.
Chapter 13: Big Damn Heroes
They reconvened in the garage, after Gabriel left. Well, four of them did. Anansi had slunk away as soon as the archangel whooshed out, apparently considering his job done once the message was delivered. Which, okay, Dean maybe couldn't blame him for, but it was kinda getting old all these powerful creatures leaving them in the damn lurch all the time.
Anyway. They gathered in the garage. Cas to wait for word. Dean and Sam to pick up the gear from the Impala. Aziraphale ...
There was another car parked next to theirs. A very old, mint condition Bentley, if Dean wasn't mistaken, and presumably Crowley's, since Aziraphale didn't seem the motoring type. While Dean, Sam and Cas had gathered around the trunk of the Impala, Aziraphale had, completely silently, moved past them, opened the driver door of the Bentley, climbed in carefully, rested both hands on the wheel, his forehead on his hands, and proceeded to quietly cry his eyes out.
They had stared at his shaking shoulders in stunned silence for a full minute, completely at a loss. And then, because there was fuck all else they could do, they'd gone back to arming up and making plans.
Castiel got Gabriel's bulletin about a second later. They noticed this because the poor bastard almost keeled over. Apparently, archangels yelled.
"Cas?" Dean grabbed his shoulder, propping him up against the Impala. "Cas? You okay?"
His angel blinked like someone had just hit him between the eyes, but nodded.
"Yes," he rasped. "Gabriel has sent me ... what we need. He ... I believe he would like us to hurry, but we must be ... careful."
"Careful?" Sam asked, suspiciously. "Why? Aside from the obvious, I mean."
Castiel blinked slowly, expression going grim. "Lucifer does not appear to realise anyone is coming for Crowley. However, he does seem to have formed a temporary base around him. Gabriel does not know why. But there are ... many demons in residence."
Dean grimaced. "How many is many?"
Castiel tilted his head, looking faintly apologetic. "Gabriel did not specify. In excess of twenty, I think. And Gabriel ... he says he can distract Lucifer. Keep him from interfering. But that is all he can do. We must deal with those demons and retrieve Crowley ourselves."
For a second, Dean wanted to complain about that. For a second, his brain jumped straight to 'fucking angels, making us do all the work again'. Then, thankfully before he'd actually opened his mouth, a somewhat quieter voice in the back of his head pointed out that it was the Devil Gabriel was going to distract. His brother. And while it didn't make Dean any more sympathetic towards the bastard, it was starting to dawn on him that Gabriel not wanting to kill his brother was not exactly something Dean had any right to yell at him for.
Besides. Given the thing his brother seemed to have going on with the archangel, Sam would have yelled at him.
"Alright," he sighed. "So we gotta storm hell on earth to get us back a demon. No problem."
For some reason, Castiel smiled. "At least it is not Hell itself. Once was enough, in that regard."
Dean blinked at him. They both did. Somehow, with everything else that had been going on, with everything that Cas had become to them, to him ... They'd sort of forgotten that. Well, not forgotten, as such. Just ... not thought about it much. Or at all. Hell wasn't something Dean went out of his way to remember, after all, and Cas back then ... Cas hadn't been Cas, back then. Or wasn't that Cas now. That's what he told himself. Except, looking at him now ... Dean thought maybe he sort of was. Maybe Cas was still that angel, in some ways. And that meant ... That meant they had an angel on their side who had once stormed Hell. Literally.
Suddenly, Dean felt just that little bit more hopeful.
"Okay," he said, reaching back into the trunk, pulling out a shotgun. Not much permanent good against demons, perhaps, but enough to keep them off his back until his weaponised angel could step in. And it should be disturbing, how he counted on that without even thinking about it, but really, by now? It kinda wasn't. "Okay. Let's do this, then. Sam, you got the knife?"
Sam nodded grimly, slipping it out. "Always." Dean grinned at him.
"Cas? You got ...?" He stopped, as his angel shifted his shoulders to nudge something in his sleeve. The angel-killer slipped down into his hand. Dean stared at it. "Um. Cas? I thought that thing was for angels. Didn't work on demons?"
Cas nodded. "It did not."
Dean blinked some more. "So ...?"
His angel smirked. A very smug, darkly satisfied little smile. "It didn't. But since I was captured by Lucifer the last time, I have been ... preparing. It will work on them now." He hefted it, smiling a little. "It will work on many things, now. I may not have the access to my Grace that I once had, but I am not yet useless, Dean."
Dean stared at him, swallowing. Cas didn't know. Cas couldn't know. Couldn't know what he echoed in that moment. "I mean Dean, I'm all but useless." Right before he marched himself in to die on Dean's orders. And Dean had been thinking about other things at the time, things like getting back to the present, like seeing the Devil wearing his brother's face, like kicking Zach's ass ... And now he had to wonder. Had to wonder when it started, that the first thing Cas would say was 'I'm useless'. That he'd walk into Hell for Dean, into Death, and all he'd think about was whether or not doing so would be any fucking use.
He wondered when Cas had started thinking like he was Dean's soldier first, and anything else after. He wondered when he'd started letting him.
"You're not useless," he rasped, reaching out, grabbing Cas' wrist while the angel blinked at him. "No matter what. I don't care if you can't do a damn thing! You're not useless, Cas. You're not. Okay? You're not." He caught Castiel's eye, held it, trying to bore the meaning into the angel's skull, trying to make him understand.
Cas looked back in confusion, but nodded. "I know. Dean. I know."
"Uh, guys?" Sam chose that moment to interrupt, and Dean almost growled at him, but when he looked over there was an expression on Sam's face. Not impatience. Worry, sick and twisting, and Dean abruptly remembered that there was more to worry about here than just the three of them. "Happy as I am that you two are talking about your issues ... Gabriel said hurry. And given what he's up against ... could we listen to him sometime soon?"
They blinked, and nodded, shame faced. Yeah. Time and place, and all that.
Dean looked around, locked and loaded, as it were, and caught sight of their other problem. He flinched a little, internally. "Guys?"
They followed his gaze to the Bentley, and the angel inside it. Aziraphale hadn't looked up yet.
"Should we ..." Sam started, uneasy. "He doesn't really look up to much. Do you think we should ...?"
Castiel shook his head immediately. "He needs to come. If it was one of yours, you would need the same." And yeah. Couldn't argue with that. So Dean picked up what courage he had, and went to fill the crying angel in.
He tapped Aziraphale on the shoulder, leaning into the car. The angel startled slightly, raising his head, and Dean did his best not to flinch at the red eyes. Look, he didn't know what to do with that, alright? But Aziraphale, catching the expression on his face and the gun in the crook of his arm ... Aziraphale switched on. Or off. Dean wasn't quite sure how to describe it. The angel's face went blank and grim, locked off, remote, and it took Dean a second to recognise the look. It took him a second to remember.
Aziraphale looked the way Cas used to, back when he was saying shit like 'smite the town'. Back when he had to be something he wasn't, deep down. It wasn't blank like 'I'm in shock and don't know what I'm doing'. It was blank like 'I've just switched off every emotion that might stop me from doing what I need to do, and mercy and fear were the first to go'.
It was a fucking scary expression, in short.
"Are we ready?" Aziraphale asked, very quietly. Dean nodded mutely, and filled him in. When he was done, Aziraphale just sat for a second, as if thinking, and then ...
"That gun won't help you. You need something else. Hang on a second ..."
Dean blinked at him. A lot. But the angel ignored him completely, serene and untouchable as he climbed out around Dean, and reached back into the car to pull something else out after him. He handed it to Dean without a word.
Dean stared. "Um. This is ... This is a tire iron," he said. Blankly, because the hell? What was he supposed to do with that, against a base full of demons? But Aziraphale, for the first time since they'd gotten the news, smiled.
"Yes. It is." He smiled down at it, touching it lightly. "When Crowley and I faced the Devil in the last apocalypse, it was all he had to hand. Not that it would have done him much good, though thankfully we never had to find out. And afterwards, with Heaven and Hell hunting us ... well. We decided, if we were going to make him a weapon, what better thing to use? It won't help against a Fallen, or he couldn't use it, but for lesser demons it works just fine." He paused, his eyes going a little distant. "He'll want it back, after ... after. But I'm sure he won't mind you using it in the interim. Not in such a worthy cause."
Dean blinked at him some more. "Um. So, what? I just ... clobber people with it? And it gets rid of demons?"
Aziraphale smirked. Just faintly. "That usually works, yes. Usually."
Dean glared at him. Not too much, because he was mostly relieved that the angel was acting slightly more normal. Then he propped the thing up over his shoulder, fell into place beside the sword-wielding angel, and looked back at the other two. Sam and Cas blinked back at him, shrugging.
"Alright, people," he said, hooking his arm around Cas and letting Sam do the same for Aziraphale. Flying angel-air, here we come. "Let's get this show on the road, yeah? Got us a demon to rescue." And maybe that would never not sound weird, but hey! This was life as a Winchester.
They nodded at him, and two seconds later the garage was empty.
For a second, Crowley didn't actually register what had just come out of his mouth. Mostly because telling the Devil to go fuck himself? While he has you in his power? What kind of suicidal moron would do a thing like that?
Then his brain caught up with his mouth, and he took a moment to virulently curse himself, all angels, and most especially Aziraphale, because this had to be all that bastard's fault! It had to be! Because Crowley was all shaken up, and hurt, and uncertain, and six thousand years and two apocalypses hanging around the bugger had obviously conditioned him to suicidal bravado under pressure. Yes. It was all Aziraphale's fault. Obviously.
Didn't help the fact that he had just said it, mind. Didn't help the fact that the Devil in question had just frozen, liquid fury poured over ravaged features. Didn't help the fact that caged in holy fire, there was no place for Crowley to run, and nothing he could do to defend himself. Didn't help the fact that he was about to get smited into the next century if he was lucky. And looking at Lucifer's face ... he didn't feel all that lucky.
"I hate you, angel," he whispered softly, as the Devil raised his hand. "I really, really hate you, you know that?"
Wherever he was, Aziraphale didn't answer.
But someone else did.
"I wouldn't do that, if I were you, brother," a familiar voice drawled, clear above the rush of wings as Gabriel appeared at the other end of the room. The archangel grinned cheerily at them, arms crossed and tutting. "Trust me. His boyfriend has excellent aim with a cup of tea. Not someone you want to annoy, you know?"
Lucifer lowered his hand slowly, looking somewhere between confused, homicidal and calculating.
Crowley, on the other hand, out and out staring at the archangel, was torn between relief and a strong desire to curse the bastard sixteen ways til Sunday. Mostly because the first thought that popped into his head, after 'thank Someone I'm saved', was 'you idiot, only one of us needs to die here!'. And that was just way too undemonic for him to be feeling good about it, and consequently he wanted Gabriel to piss off and stop making him think shit like that.
Um. Possibly after dousing the holy oil, at least. Because that wasn't too risky for anyone, and Crowley could do a lot with a running start ...
"Gabriel," Lucifer said, slowly. Testing the name out. "Is that you?"
Gabriel rolled his eyes expressively. If it weren't for over a millennium of reading that face, Crowley might have thought him completely at his ease. "Why is everyone asking me that lately? Don't I look like myself?"
Lucifer tilted his head, smiling darkly. "You look more than a little ... pagan, brother. I'd heard the rumours, since I came up here, of course, but I must admit I never actually believed ... What have you done to yourself, Gabriel?"
The archangel shrugged casually, wandering a little closer, studying the empty basement like it fascinated him. "Oh, you know how it is. Archangel on the run, there aren't a lot of choices, are there?" He looked over at Lucifer, caught the flicker of real interest, capricious calculation, and smirked faintly. Crowley almost groaned.
"Since you mention it," the Devil murmured, turning in place to follow Gabriel's movements warily. "I've ... had some problems that way myself." A self-depreciating gesture at the rotting remnants of the human he'd hijacked. Like humility was actually something he might understand.
"So I see," Gabriel said, quietly, stopping close to his brother. Close to Crowley. But Lucifer, whether by accident or -far more likely- on purpose, had kept himself between them. The Devil smiled.
"Care to help me remedy that, brother?" he asked, sweet as rotting, sickly. Power flickered on the edges of Crowley's senses. A warning. Or a threat. Lucifer smiled at the other archangel, and Crowley flinched. It had been bad when the bastard was still a couple of miles down and about to punch the surface. Standing next to him was making him come out in scales just breathing the same air.
Gabriel, though, didn't seem all that impressed. And that was weird, because Gabriel was usually the sensible archangel in any bunch. But there was something flickering under the Trickster's amiable exterior. Something angry. Something Crowley hadn't seen in a long, long time, and hadn't really missed.
"Give you Sam Winchester, you mean?" Gabriel asked casually, looking down at the ground and casting a sly look back up at Lucifer. "Give you your real vessel, and pick a side in this little prize-fight you and Mikey have got going?" He smiled innocently, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet, ignoring the tightening of the Devil's features, the lust that crept forward towards him, the power.
"Something like that, yes," Lucifer rasped, inching closer to Gabriel almost instinctively, ripe with suspicion and desire. Crowley watched him go, watched the gap between the Devil and himself widen, and cursed Gabriel under his breath.
There had best be more to this plan that just talking at the Devil and hoping it distracted him long enough. There had best be more to this plan that Gabriel luring Lucifer off to try and fight him. There had better be.
"Hmmm." The archangel backed up, bouncing on his toes, smirking. He ignored the waves of power rolling off a rather pissed off Satan, not even looking at him, head tilted as if thinking about it. About giving Sam over. Or about throwing a punch. Or about grabbing himself a Snickers bar. Who the hell knew? But he backed up, and the Devil followed.
For about two steps, before stopping, expression flashing with comprehension, with anger and subtle amusement.
"Gabriel," he said, gently. Disappointedly. "Gabriel, what are you doing?"
The archangel stopped bouncing, making a little moue of disappointment. He sighed. "Well, can't blame a guy for trying. Sorry, bro. But I promised the demon's boyfriend I'd get him home by midnight, and, well ... "
Lucifer narrowed his eyes, frowning curiously. "What does Michael want with a demon?"
Crowley choked on a cough, spluttering helplessly, because that thought? So, sooo not pretty. So not pretty. Gabriel, apparently, agreed, a series of expressions crossing his face in very rapid succession, the end result of which was "Ew! Bro, no! Not Michael. Jeeze! I know you've been knocking around perversion central for a while, but seriously. Yeesh!"
Lucifer tilted his head, prowling closer to Gabriel again. Still, Crowley noted, moving away from him. The Devil looked his brother up and down slowly. Consideringly. "Not for Michael, then. You're not on his side?"
Gabriel froze, expression abruptly serious. Suddenly deadly. "No," he whispered. Rasped. "No, Luci. I remember all too well what happened the last time I got between the two of you, the last time I picked a side. I remember. And it was the last time. The last time." There was a beat, a sudden fluttering presence of wings, tier upon tier, and the look in the archangel's eyes was terrible. "I remember what it's like to bear the brunt of your little feud, and I will not. Suffer. Again. Not for either of you. Not for any of you. Not again."
For a second, Crowley swore he saw something that looked almost like shame in the Devil's eyes. Which did no wonders for his faith in his current mental state, let him tell you.
"I was not ... myself, that day, Gabriel," Lucifer said softly. "You know that. You know I didn't mean ..."
There was a rustle of matter, a flicker of power to match the anger in Gabriel's eyes, and the look on the archangel's face was fearsome as he winched two of his wings up into the visible plane, separated them from their brethren to pull them up into view. So that Lucifer and Crowley could see. See the thick, twisted mass of scar tissue among the feathers, see the mangled lines of badly-healed bone and Grace. See the ruin.
Crowley's stomach turned over, his hand clutched against his belly as he worked out how long it would have taken to cause that damage. How much it must have hurt. Two wings out of six hundred, practically speaking it wasn't much of an injury, much of a loss, but the sight of it, the mere thought of enduring what it must have felt like ... Crowley was a demon, and he felt sick to his stomach.
"Oh, I think you meant it alright," Gabriel said, mouth twisted bitterly. "I think you did, brother. It wasn't even my message! It wasn't even my fault! But you never did pay much attention to the whole 'don't shoot the messenger' idea, did you? And, really, why bother to say 'fuck you' in words, when you can tear your little brother up to achieve the same effect? It's all perfectly sensible, looked at like that!"
He stopped, panting, struggling to pull himself back under control, and Crowley stared at him, feeling painfully, ridiculously protective of the bastard, of an archangel, of a creature who could smush him like a bug on a bad day. Suddenly, stupidly, he felt the decidedly undemonic urge to get between them. To step into the middle of the Clash of the fucking Titans, all because something in his withered heart was feeling sorry for someone who'd tried to smite him two seconds after meeting him.
When this was done, if any of them survived this, he was going to take a long, long holiday away from any and all angels. Obviously the buggers were far more bloody contagious that he'd thought.
"Gabriel ..." Lucifer said, still with that strange, almost-there look of shame. Of pain. Gabriel shook his head violently.
"No," he spat, raising a hand to cut the Devil off, to stop. "No. Never mind. That's not ... that's not important. That's not ... what I'm here for." He paused, sucked in a deep, calming breath. Put back on his carefree, Trickster face, mobile features slipping fluidly into the mask, only a glimmer in the eyes remaining of old pain. He shunted his wings back into the ethereal plane, wincing as crumpled bone faded away.
Lucifer stared at him. He said nothing.
"You should ... you should listen to Crowley, you know," Gabriel said at last, pulling himself together. Crowley tried not to blink at him. "This isn't ... this isn't about who did what to who, and when, Lucifer. This isn't about who was right or wrong. Not anymore. Michael ... Heaven ... Dad checked out a while back, He's not here, there's no fucking destiny anymore! There's no reason for this, Lucifer! Brother. No reason for any of us to have to ... to have to kill each other ..."
He stopped, as Lucifer's face shifted, as shame and pity fell away and something cold took their place. Something hard and immovable and bitter. Gabriel saw it, and stopped.
"Don't," he whispered, heartbroken. "Lucifer, don't. Don't do this. Don't make me ... don't make me have to hurt you. Please. Don't make me hurt you."
Lucifer smiled at him, very gently, power gathering slowly behind him, slow and cold and hateful. He smiled at Gabriel, and there was nothing in it that even resembled love. Though there might have been pity.
"You won't," the Devil said, very quietly.
Then, just when Crowley had decided to shit himself, just when it looked like Gabriel was going to get himself creamed all over again ... something arrived on the outskirts of the factory with the angelic equivalent of a sonic boom, and a pulse of some really massive Grace knocked the lot of them sideways. Not power. Whoever it was, they weren't powerful, not archangel level or anything, but their Grace burned. Not power but faith, the kind of faith that once parted whole fucking seas, wrapped down tight and shoved straight into Wrath. An old-school, biblical angel come a-knocking.
And Crowley thought, wow, someone's gone and made Aziraphale angry.
Lucifer straightened, bewildered, furious, looking out past wards and walls to where demons had just started screaming, and the expression on his face was fucking priceless. Truly priceless, and even as Crowley started snickering helplessly, Gabriel crossed his arms with a vicious smirk, the fear of a second earlier completely gone.
Though Crowley could have sworn he heard the archangel mutter 'About damn time!' under his breath.
"What have you done?" Lucifer hissed, turning back to his brother, hands curling into rotten claws as his face cracked wetly around his snarl. "Gabriel. What have you done?"
Gabriel smirked, a little. "Me? I haven't done anything. But you know how I said Daddy buggered off? You know how you planned on that? On Heaven slowly falling apart, on Michael and the others being too damn depressed to stand up to you, on angels actually taking your side? You know how nobody truly has the faith to stand up to you anymore?" He grinned fiercely, tilting his head towards the oncoming Grace. "Yeah. About that. Meet the last angel in creation with faith, bro. Not your knock-off, faith-in-the-mission brand. Not Heaven's little placebo they've been handing around. The original, right from the Garden through to the Apocalypse. Not tainted, watered-down, misplaced. Faith."
He smiled, rich and deadly. "What you are feeling right now, brother, is the last angel in creation drawing power straight from the Source. The last angel in existence Dad has his hand directly over. And you've gone and stolen his boyfriend. You've gone and pissed him off." He laughed, wiping a fake tear from his eye mockingly. "Oh, Luci, Luci, Luci. Daddy's come a-knocking. Want to say hello?"
There was a second, there, as Lucifer's face worked, as he stared in helpless shock and fury, as Gabriel laughed in his face, as somewhere outside and approaching steadily, his angel's Grace boomed across his senses and four weapons smashed demons left and right ... there was a moment when Crowley actually started to hope. Actually started to think they might get out of this. Not that he believed Aziraphale, or Gabriel for that matter, actually had a chance of beating the Devil in an actual fight, of course, but if they managed to make him run for it, run cost-benefit and come up with the right frikking answer ...
Then Lucifer roared incoherently, and flashed himself right up into Gabriel's face, hands curling into claws to reach behind the other archangel and plunge through planes into his wings. Gabriel screamed, and Crowley knew the fucking bastard had hit the damaged ones, had hit straight into those ancient wounds. The Devil's face twisted with fury, with raw, molten hate, and something pulsed out of him, through those hands, into Gabriel, into his wings.
The archangel's knees hit the floor, dragging Lucifer down with him, and the Devil leaned in to press a rotting, hateful kiss to Gabriel's lips, to swallow his brother's rasping cries. Behind him, Crowley lunged before he thought, only checking himself a bare centimetre from the flames, yelling hoarsely. The Devil ignored him, laughing at Gabriel's pain.
"Gabriel," Lucifer whispered, viciously. "Dearest brother. You'd think you'd learn. You'd think you would learn. Little brother, your angel isn't going to get here in time. He's not going to make it."
Gabriel gasped, crying, struggling fitfully. "You can't ... you can't kill me," he gasped, cried. "No blade, you can't ... can't kill ..."
Lucifer shut him up with another kiss, as brutal as the first, and laughed at him. "I don't plan to, brother," he whispered, sweet and terrible. "In fact, I don't even plan to wait around. But you ..." He pulled his hands out of the wings, pulled them free as feathers materialised on the physical plane, as six hundred stacked tiers appeared, impossibly, in the room. Lucifer smiled darkly, and stroked his brother's face, while behind him six demons, six humans torn and twisted, crept out of the shadows. "You get to stay," he murmured. "You get to stay, Gabriel. You and your little demon. And when that angel does arrive, when he breaks down that door ... he's going to find Crowley's corpse, and your wingless husk. And only little demons with bloody knives to take it out on. Not even worth a vengeance."
He pulled back, pulled away, standing, and Gabriel tried to follow him, tried to move, but something had locked his wings in place, plastered them to the floor, and he couldn't. He couldn't move. Helpless, physical. At anyone's fucking mercy. Lucifer stepped back, and smirked at him. Turned to Crowley, turned to see the terror and helpless rage on his face, turned to see Crowley flinch back.
"I'm sorry you couldn't see reason," the Devil said to him, mildly. Crowley gagged at him, white as a fucking sheet. He didn't ... he didn't ... if there hadn't been holy fire in the fucking way, if he'd had any chance at all, no, even if he hadn't ... never in all his life had Crowley longed to do violence as much as he did in that moment. Never.
But the Devil just smiled that sickly, gentle smile, and vanished. And in his wake, six cackling, desperate demons gathered around them. No. Around Gabriel. Crowley was trapped, after all. Fucking helpless. Not concern of theirs, and it wasn't every day your average, Joe Soap demon got a chance to tear open a fucking archangel.
Gabriel looked at him, eyes bright and knowing and oddly, viciously amused. Watching them come close. Watching knives come up as they crept in around him. Gabriel looked at him, and the demons were right there, and though he could feel Aziraphale coming, could feel the angels pushing through, there was no damn way they were going to get here in time, and Gabriel knew it, and the fucking bastard was laughing. He was laughing. A Trickster's last joke.
Something snapped inside Crowley. Something old and deep and furious. Crowley'd suffered Hell in his time. He'd apparently been knocked down into the Pit by the Almighty on a fucking pretext. He'd faced death beside an angel. None of that, none of that bothered him. Not really. Not deep down, where the real, slightly sheepish angel inside the demon lived. But this, watching this ...
The demons ignored him. Trapped in holy fire, there was nothing he could do, and they knew it. They thought they were safe. But in thinking that, they ignored three very, very important things.
The first was that Crowley was not your average demon. Hell, he wasn't even your average angel. As far as he was concerned, if you had to physically trade blows with someone in order to beat them, you were doing it wrong. Crowley had an imagination.
The second was that they themselves were not true demons. They were humans, or had been, and Crowley had spent the last six fucking thousand years making humans do whatever he damn well wanted them to do.
And the third, and perhaps most important, was that Crowley had passed beyond terror, beyond restraint, all of five fucking minutes ago, and wasn't exactly all that interested in what he supposedly could and couldn't do.
His voice whipped out like a scream, laced with fury, and all but ripped their attention his way, yanked them around as if on strings until they were looking at him and only him. And then ... he vanished. The human figure inside the circle disappeared like it had never been, and what flooded in to replace it was something straight out of the nightmares of H.P Lovecraft. A mindless, limbless crawling thing that reached out towards them. And then ... then Crowley screamed. A full-on, demonic roar, a psychic barrage straight from the original depths of Hell.
It was a common misconception among lesser demons that time in Hell inured you to fear. After enduring the likes of Alastair for any length of time, what had you left to be afraid of? The worst had already happened, after all. But that ... that was a lie. Hell inured you to many things, to pain, to guilt, to shame, but fear? No. Fear was something else. Fear was something uniquely, terribly human, an immovable part of the psyche. And Crowley was the Serpent of Eden. The first demon humanity ever met. The only reason they had primal fears was because he'd put them there.
His body may be stuck, his hands tied, his Grace bound, but his mind was something else. His mind poured out, clawed into them, crawled over them. Ripped them open, shredding consciousness and plunging into the lurid depths of the subconscious. Pressing, with extreme fucking prejudice, the big red button marked 'TERROR'.
Six demons screamed in his wake. Six demons fell to their knees and screamed. Scrambling away, mindless with fear, on hands and knees, and four of them smashed themselves into the walls trying to escape. Trying to run. Two of them stove their own skulls in trying to get away. And then outside the room, outside the basement, spreading out to the demons menacing his angel, Castiel, the humans, because hey! Why stop with just his own problems?
Crowley was a nice guy. He was a really nice fucking guy. But he'd had just about enough. What demons survived the assault -and there weren't many, what with a pair of somewhat stunned angels finishing them off as they went past- what demons were left fled the factory like a someone had turned over their beehive. Every last one of them fled.
Something moved behind him. Right on the edge of the circle, right at his unprotected back. Something unhuman, something unaffected, and Crowley spun, exhausted, already slumping back into his usual form, already slumping beneath it, into the most base form he had, crumpling in sheer, unadulterated exhaustion. He spun, but already serpentine coils had replaced his hands, and there was nothing he could do. From the floor, he looked up.
And met Anansi's bewildered stare. The god had his son under one arm, and a piece of webbing in the other, and was looking more that a little stunned.
"I was going to drop this on the oil and let you out to fight the old-fashioned way," the god said faintly, shooting a slightly fearful look over at an equally incredulous Gabriel. The archangel stared back, jaw on the floor, and didn't seem inclined to butt in, so the Trickster looked back down at Crowley. "But ... I guess that works equally well?"
At which point Aziraphale, near frantic with worry and apparently having lost all patience, decided not to bother bashing the door down and just cut fucking through it instead, sword incandescent with flame. Two angels and two rather queasy looking humans fell into the room, and Crowley abruptly decided they could take care of things. Of everything. So, not even bothering to answer the god's question, not even bothering to look at them, he curled into himself, tucked his head into his coils, and told the world to fuck off.
But he didn't let go, not completely, not all the way, until he felt soft, familiar hands wrap around him, until he was lifted to slump across familiar shoulders, until familiar feathers tickled his scales. Not until he felt the whispering touch of his angel's Grace.
Not until then.
Gabriel knelt shaking, and stared at the demon in numb shock, echoing Anansi's mildly terrified confusion. Riding on the rush of adrenalin, the shock and horror of knowing what had been about to happen, what they had been about to do, he stared at Crowley, at his rescuer, in something close to fear.
In all the centuries he'd known the little bastard, never once had he seen Crowley cut loose like that. Never had he even seen the possibility. He hadn't seen. Never had there been even a hint of this kind of threat. Crowley was cowardly and amiable and prone to shitting himself even when he had you where he wanted you. All bluster and very little bite, though there was a ruthless streak in there when pushed. But the capability for wholesale destruction, psychic slaughter? Never. Not even a hint.
It worried him to have been so blind. It worried him that there might be more that he'd missed, more hidden depths to the first of Earth's demons.
It worried him that those depths should come to light in his defense, when nothing in six thousand years had pushed Crowley that far. It worried him, because he had done nothing to earn that. He had no idea why it happened, no idea what it meant for Crowley to do that for him, and no idea how to pay it back. No-one had ever acted in his defense before, not after the first War and all it had meant. He'd made a very deliberate effort never to need anyone to defend him. And now ... Now he had no idea what he was meant to do.
Luckily, or not, Aziraphale chose that minute to barge in and provide him with another set of things to worry about entirely. The Principality, of course, made a beeline straight for his demon, flapping angrily at Anansi to get out of the way, but the others, his eternally-curious little brother and the Winchesters ... they took one look, and came right for him, Sam and Castiel's expression morphing straight from confusion to concern as they came.
It was the wings. It had to be the wings. Though they weren't fully manifested (impossible, in the physical world, inside a building, there were simply too many of them), the joints and first foot or so of all six hundred were clearly visible behind him, drawing the attention of anyone in range with fucking eyes. The same way they'd drawn the demons. Instinctively, Gabriel felt them twitch around him, flutter helplessly, agony arching through the damaged bones and muscles of the front pair. The pair his brother had ...
Suddenly, he wanted to be worrying about Crowley again. He wanted to be worrying about anything other than the terrible, agonising vulnerability of his wings, and the three people moving steadily towards them. He wanted to worry about anything besides the look of worry and almost-pity that crossed Castiel's face as Gabriel squared his knees combatively, raised arms in instinctive defense. Worry about anything but the fact that despite that pity, despite hating it, he couldn't lower them again. The instinct was too ingrained, and the horror entirely too fresh, and any second now he was going to severely embarrass himself, but he couldn't help it. He couldn't help it.
"Gabriel!" Sam moved forwards hurriedly, coming in from the side, and Gabriel shifted on his knees to face him, his damaged wings fighting to pull back, to pull away. He yanked convulsively as Sam came within range, and something cracked sickeningly, a bright flare of agony across his senses that stole the world.
When he came back, Castiel was on his knees beside him, blue eyes boring straight into Gabriel's own, and his little brother had started talking before Gabriel even fully realised he was back, locking the archangel's focus on him.
"Gabriel, look at me," Castiel murmured, low and intense, a vibrant command. "Look at me. You must not move, Gabriel. You must not move your wings. You are hurt, brother. You must not move. Do you understand? You are safe, no-one will hurt you, but you cannot move. You must not move."
Gabriel blinked at him, senses still swimming. He caught the edge of movement behind Castiel, caught sight of a looming form and jerked back instinctively. Castiel caught hold of him, locked his hands around Gabriel's upper arms and held on tight. Through the shock of fear, Gabriel felt himself punch out at him, felt his arm make a feeble swipe at Castiel's stomach, all he could reach. His little brother didn't even flinch.
"Gabriel? Gabriel, don't, it's us! You're alright, you're fine ..."
Gabriel blinked again, shook himself, wrestled the fear back down, wrestled back the knowledge that he couldn't fight, he couldn't move, whatever Lucifer had done to him, he couldn't fight ... He wrestled it down, calmed himself ruthlessly, and looked up to the looming, frantic shadow that was Sam. With considerable effort, he forced his face to crease into a vaguely uneasy grin.
"Hey Sammy," he murmured, flinching slightly in Castiel's grasp. "Sorry about that. Some old instincts kicking in, you know how it is ..."
He looked back at Castiel, pleading silently, though for what he wasn't sure. Forgiveness, maybe. A way out, definitely. Something else. Castiel looked back impassively, eyebrows beetling in consideration, until Gabriel felt a distinct urge to tell his little brother not to look at him like that, like he was an insect on a slide. He resisted, but only because he was almost positive that Castiel a) wouldn't know what he was talking about, and b) wasn't aware that he was doing it in the first place. It was hardly Castiel's fault that the only person around to explain such niceties of human interaction to him had been Captain Oblivious, after all. He shouldn't take it out on the poor angel ...
Then Castiel said "I need to examine your wings, Gabriel", and there were suddenly a whole range of things he wanted to take out on the little bastard. It was all he could do not to punch him again, or scream in his face. Not that any of that would stop Castiel, or anyone, really, but this little brother in particular had this frightening tendency towards ruthless, immovable focus ...
Except it did stop him. Or something did. Something in Gabriel's face must have stopped him, because Castiel wasn't moving. Made no effort to move, not even an aborted gesture. Castiel simply held his arms firmly, but gently, and waited. Expectantly, calmly. Waited.
"I'm sorry, Gabriel," came the response, gentle and calm. "I must. To free you, I must. But I will not touch unless you give me leave. I will not touch until you are ready." He stopped, tilting his head to study Gabriel, that fathomless look that even other angels had trouble matching, the quiet stare that watched everything with remote acceptance. Gabriel looked away, staring viciously at anything that presented itself that wasn't Castiel. He found himself looking straight into Sam's eyes, the bulky human -his human- kneeling beside Castiel and watching him worriedly. He found himself meeting the fear and compassion there. The hint of ... something else. Something deeper.
Gabriel sighed. "Yeah, sure," he muttered, trembling faintly. "Sure, why not? Not like I've got any dignity left to lose, is it?"
Sam frowned at him. "Gabriel ..." Soft, careful. Gabriel shook his head. He didn't want careful. He didn't want care. He didn't know what to do with it, and right here, right now, staked out on the floor with his wings spread open, he just wanted it to be over. He just wanted this entire thing to be over, so he could disappear, hide in the Himalayas somewhere, curl up in a ball until the sick feeling inside his chest went away.
Castiel let go of his arms, cautiously, and reached out to pull Gabriel's face back around, to look him in the eyes with that fierce, bewildered stare, to judge the seriousness of his agreement. To see if he meant it.
He did. Gabriel did. Whatever got him out of here, whatever freed him, whatever it took. He just wanted out. And Castiel had to see that, had to see the terror and helpless hate for where he found himself, but in a moment of sheer mercy, Castiel didn't mention any of it. He simply nodded silently, and bent his head to Gabriel's nearest wing, to the damaged arch at the center of Lucifer's trap. And where a second ago Gabriel could, and would, have smote him, now it was all he could do not to kiss Castiel ...
Thankfully, as Gabriel shuddered at the slight touches against his wing, Aziraphale appeared to distract him. The Principality nodded gently at him, cautious and sympathetic, but Gabriel ignored that in favour of studying the heavy, slumberous coils of the serpent around his neck.
"Is he alright?" he asked, quietly. Aziraphale blinked at him a bit, surprised by the question.
"He's fine," the Principality smiled, stroking Crowley's head gently. "Exhausted, and ... troubled, I think. But he will be fine." A deeper smile, a warm beam just for Gabriel. "Thanks to you." And Gabriel flushed, looking away. Because no. Other way around, really. And either way he wasn't up to acknowledging it.
"Is who alright?" And that was Dean, cutting in from behind Sam, staring with wary confusion at the nine or so feet of Crowley wrapped around Aziraphale. Sam and Castiel both blinked, looking up in confusion in almost eerie unison, and Gabriel realised with a start of unwilling humour that none of them, not one, had any idea what had happened. Who Crowley was. They had no idea.
So, purely in the interests of distracting himself, of course, he decided to enlighten them.
"Really, Deano," he grinned. "You'd think after spending two days at a guy's house and drinking all his alcohol, you'd at least recognise him. Tch! What must Crowley think of you!"
Dean stared at him. Then at the snake. "That's Crowley?" he sputtered, aghast. "But that's ... that's ..."
"The Serpent of Eden," Castiel muttered, staring at the serpent and the befuddled angel holding him, blue eyes going narrow and puzzled and sharp. And then ... then something that looked almost like recognition flickered in his eyes, followed by ... humour? Smugness? A certain degree of 'I know something you don't know, ha ha'? Something interesting, anyway.
"See something you like, little bro?" he asked airily, staring in fascination at Castiel's face, at the definite tug of amusement in one corner of that flat mouth, the sly calculation in blue eyes. Cas looked back at him, with a look in his eyes that any Trickster worth his salt would recognise in a heartbeat.
"Something ... useful, certainly," Castiel murmured, with a positively wicked gleam that promised nasty, nasty things for their resident demon. A gleam that softened into memory, gentle amusement, maybe even gratitude, and suddenly Gabriel was hooked. Whatever this was, this mystery, this game, he wanted to know. He wanted in.
Unfortunately, just as he was opening his mouth to say so, to ask some pointed questions ... Castiel's eyes focused back on his wing, sharpened, chilled, and in the seconds while fear gathered in Gabriel's gut ... his little brother drew his blade. And Gabriel forgot everything beyond the instant, instinctive fury, the terror and rage and ancient memory that boiled out of him.
Before anyone knew what was happening, Castiel was on his back with an aching jaw, and Gabriel was snarling incoherently, straining against the arm Sam had flung across his chest, fighting desperately with the spell that bound him to the earth, that tugged and tore at his wings. He could feel them looking at him, could hear them yelling, but he couldn't ... it didn't mean anything, didn't matter except that they might come again, might move again, and he needed to be free before that happened, he needed a blade, he needed ...
"... Gabriel! Gabriel! Gabriel, stop, stop please, please! Gabriel!"
He registered the voice, registered Sam's face beside his, registered the mouth that was almost on top of his own as Sam fought with him, but it didn't matter, it didn't matter, nothing mattered beyond the sight of the blade in his brother's hand ...
"No," he snarled. He wasn't sure in what language. "No. You can't take them! You can't take them, Raphael! I don't care, you can't, I don't care what it means ..."
The angel in front of him froze, going deathly pale. Silence boomed, and the others fell away, fell back from him, all but one, staring in shock, but his eyes were on the blade. Fixed on the blade. Until the hand that held it ... dropped, let it go. Slowly, cautiously, tucking it away. Removing the threat.
Only then did he remember who he was facing. Only then did he realise what he'd said.
Castiel stared at him, frozen and pale, propped up on one arm with Dean and Aziraphale holding him up. There was no expression on the lesser angel's face, none at all, and Gabriel shrank back unwillingly, pressing without thinking into Sam's chest, curling against his human. The human who still had an arm around his chest, whose face was tucked panting into Gabriel's shoulder, a shield, warm and bulky and there, and distantly Gabriel realised that Sam's hands had drifted into his wings trying to hold him, tucked under the joints at his waist in sheer necessity. Even more distantly, he realised he didn't mind, and wasn't sure why.
"I am not ..." Castiel said, very slowly, kneeling up once more. Dean hovered anxiously, glaring half-hearted at Gabriel, glancing worriedly at Sam, but most of his attention was on his angel, on the bruise hovering over Cas' cheek, on the blank, distant expression on the angel's face. Possibly with good reason. Castiel did not look ... well. "I am not Raphael, Gabriel. I am not Raphael."
Gabriel felt his face twist, felt the panic and shame. "I know," he rasped quickly, hurriedly. He'd heard ... he knew what that name meant to Castiel. "I know, Castiel. I'm ... I'm sorry ..."
Castiel shook his head, the blankness fading a little from his features, raising a hand in negation. His eyes tracked from Gabriel's face back to the wounded wing, back to the mess there, and something simultaneously softened and sharpened in his eyes.
"I was right, then," he whispered softly. "The wound is old. The sigil has simply been ... reactivated."
Gabriel blinked, shuddered, confusion and pain. "Yeah," he muttered, trying a queasy smile. "Pretty old, little bro. Long story. Long, bad story. But ... there's no ... there was no ..."
Castiel frowned at him, leaning forward, studying, assessing, and Gabriel felt like that insect on a slab again. Or would, except that there was still something soft in Castiel's face, something tired beneath the cold. Something compassionate in a distant, weary kind of way.
"There is a sigil torn into the flesh," the scholar-soldier murmured, thoughtfully. "Part of the scarring. It is what binds you now. But it was made then, when this wound was fresh. It may have been ... it is possible that it was hidden at the time, if the Grace was bleeding fresh, if the healer was rushed, but ..." He frowned, heavily, disapprovingly. "Raphael should have seen it. He should have removed it."
Gabriel winced expressively. "I was not ... ah. I was not ... Well." He gestured to the bruise rising on Castiel's features. "You can see. I wasn't really best inclined to let him. Sigil or no sigil, I couldn't ... I can't ... I don't want to lose ... my wings ..."
He stopped. He knew, then as now, that in the end he wouldn't really have a choice. Now even more than then. He hadn't been bound then. Raphael allowing him to keep the injured wings had only meant that he carried them broken, not that he was bound to one place, just waiting for the next round of demons. Then, it had been a choice between his wings and his comfort, and the winner was clear. Now ... now it was between the wings and his life. And the winner ... was nowhere near clear, for all that it should be. But whatever his concerns for his own sake, he had no right to pin them here simply because he thought 'amputation' was a ... was a ...
But Castiel was frowning at him again, tilting his head in that 'I hear what you're saying but I have to tell you it doesn't make sense' way of his. Gabriel blinked at him.
"I was not talking about removing your wings, Gabriel," Castiel said, very gently, still frowning. Most likely at a distant Raphael. "I was speaking of removing the sigil."
If it was possible to choke on hope, Gabriel would have. He shoved it back, as ruthlessly as he could, as hard as he could. He shoved it back. "How?" Because it involved a blade, obviously, a blade near his wings, and that might still mean ... "How?"
Castiel tilted his head, birdlike, curious and gentle. Wordless, he held out one of his own hands, palm up, and with a finger traced a sigil onto it. An old one, one of the oldest, complex, simple. Staggering. Not in what it was, but in what it meant. In what it would mean.
Aziraphale, leaning over Castiel's shoulder to study it, gasped faintly. "My dear!" he whispered, gripping Castiel's shoulder tight. "My dear, are you sure?" And Gabriel agreed. He agreed. He would have said so, but he was too busy staring in stupefied shock.
Castiel shrugged easily. "It is the simplest solution," he said blankly, like he hadn't just suggested what Gabriel knew he'd suggested. Like he hadn't just offered up what was left of his Grace on a platter ...
Aziraphale obviously had the same reservations, reaching out to lay one plump hand palm up over Castiel's, the offer unmistakable. "Then use mine, Castiel," the angel murmured gently. "I can better afford it than you ..."
Castiel's lip quirked in a faint smile. "Maybe," he said, gently. "But we can't." He looked up at the other angel, still smiling softly, eyes hard and coldly confident, and oddly gentle. "I can't heal even as I am now, and Gabriel will need healing regardless of whether this works or not. Crowley too. Not to mention that someone needs to be able to get us out of here. No." He shook his head, absurdly calm. "No. We can far more easily risk me than you, Aziraphale."
Dean took this moment to speak up, very obviously nervous at the direction this conversation was taking, and for just about the first time in his existence, Gabriel was actually hoping the idiot human could talk his little brother down. He was actually hoping that Dean fucking Winchester would be the voice of sanity. That's how ridiculous Castiel's suggestion was ...
"Cas, what's going on here?" Dean growled, frowning down at the angels' hands worriedly, like if he stared at them long enough he'd understand what they meant. Unlikely. "What are you talking about. Risk what?"
"Grace," Gabriel managed at last, swallowing hard. Castiel blinked at him. "He's talking ... that's a purification sigil. One of the oldest. It uses ... if carved into angelic flesh ... He wants to use his Grace to burn out the spell Lucifer has set in my wings. What's left of his Grace. Against an archangel's power. It will ... at best it will burn up anything he has left. At worst ..."
Dean stared. Aghast. Castiel blinked at the lot of them, as if wondering what their problem was. Castiel, who may have one of the most devious minds Gabriel had ever seen in an angel who wasn't him, but when it came to his goals, when it came to what he was willing to sacrifice for them ... Castiel was perhaps one of the simplest, most direct souls the archangel had ever encountered. As far as he was concerned, and Gabriel could see the thought, this really was the simplest, most effective way of getting what he thought they all wanted, and therefore the best thing to do. Even if it burned him out, left him an empty husk. Even then.
"No," someone rasped, and after a second Gabriel realised it was him. Another second, and he realised with a thrill of fear where his mouth was going with this, mostly independent of his mind, but he couldn't find it in himself to stop. To argue with himself. "No. Take ... take the wings. Easier, far easier. No-one has to get fried. Far easier ..." Sam, who he'd almost forgotten for a moment, made a strangled sound against his neck. Gabriel ached distantly, but if anyone actually thought this lunacy was a better option ...
Castiel smiled again, absurdly, ridiculously gentle, an angel defying the will of archangels, and shook his head. "I am not Raphael," he repeated, as if this explained everything, as if it wasn't the most ridiculous reason for doing anything that Gabriel had ever heard, and for a brief, incandescent second all he wanted to do was pound the heroic moron's head in, pound the notion right out of his skull.
Then Aziraphale tilted his head, turning his hand over Castiel's to curl his fingers through the other angel's, and there was something new in his face as he looked at Castiel, met his eyes. A searching, an evaluation. A weighing, nascent hope. Aziraphale tilted his head, and smiled softly at whatever he found.
"You're not afraid," he murmured happily, watching Castiel's face. "You're not afraid at all, are you?" Castiel shook his head, with a sly and secret smile.
"Yeah, well," Dean muttered angrily. "That's because he's a moron. A knuckle-headed moron who shouldn't be let out alone! You can't think ... you can't be seriously considering letting him do this, you can't ..." Gabriel made a vicious sound of agreement, but the pair of them ignored him. Ignored everyone.
"No," Aziraphale said softly, at last. "It because he has faith. It's because he believes."
Castiel smiled at him, deeply, richly satisfied, a little shy. He glanced back at Dean for a long moment, something soft and fierce and burning in his eyes, and Gabriel gasped as he realised it was Grace. It was love, but it was Grace too, fire, faith, the oldest, the deepest form. It was Grace.
"I have found something to believe in," Castiel said, very quietly, looking around. Not just at Dean. At Sam, at Aziraphale. At the unconscious Crowley. And at Gabriel. Even at him. "I have found something worth believing in. And I do not believe I can fail. Not this. Not now." He smiled again, grim, determined, defiant. Bare challenge, daring anyone to gainsay him. "I will not fail, so there is no need to consider another option. Even if there was one." Almost a growl, a command. Not just defying archangels. Ordering them. Ordering him.
And the horrible thing was, Gabriel wanted to be ordered around. Wanted it to be Castiel's choice, wanted to let his brother do this, and spare him the terror he'd lived with for thousands of years. He wanted this to be the right way, wanted to forget there ever was another one. Wanted to believe. That Castiel could do this, and not pay the price, that he could let his little brother make the sacrifice for him and not be ashamed. He wanted that. Even knowing how wrong it was. Even knowing how selfish. He wanted it so badly ...
"Gabriel," Castiel said, very gently, very carefully, reaching out around Sam to touch his cheek lightly, to lean down and press so gently against the trembling arc of his damaged wing. "Gabriel, trust me. Please, brother. Trust me."
And then Sam, silent Sam, who'd said nothing so far, lifted his head. Uncurled from around Gabriel, leaving only one arm to support him, and turned to look dead into Castiel's eyes, turned to study him. Sam, who hadn't trusted anyone, anyone at all, barely even his brother, in a long, long time. Sam, who nearly couldn't trust anymore. Sam looked at Castiel.
"Can you do this?" he asked, looking away guiltily at Dean's incredulous look, but refusing to lose Castiel's gaze, refusing to back down. "Cas. Can you do this?"
Castiel nodded, eyes so soft as he looked between Sam and Gabriel, bright and rich and hopeful. "I can," he said. Simple as that. Easiest damned thing in the world.
Sam looked away for a minute, chest heaving slightly, face twisted between guilt and hope and soft, immovable determination as he looked down at Gabriel, as his fingers curled tight around the base of one of the archangel's wing joints. As Gabriel shuddered helplessly and looked back. Sam looked at him, and then back at Castiel. And he nodded.
"Then do it," he whispered. Almost begged. "Please, Cas."
"Sam ..." Dean moaned, fists clenching helplessly, but he didn't disagree. He looked at Castiel, at the confident, faintly reproving expression on his angel's face, and he didn't disagree.
Gabriel stared at the lot of them. Every last one. Even the unconscious serpent wrapped around Aziraphale's neck. Even bloody Crowley, even the demon, because apparently even the fucking demon in this group was willing to put aside all common sense and restraint to help him. And Gabriel didn't know why. He didn't understand, not in the slightest. He didn't understand.
But it seemed it didn't matter whether he understood or not. Not to them. They seemed bound and determined to do this anyway, no matter what he thought or reason dictated.
Aziraphale turned Castiel to face him, turned the angel on his knees, and his expression was serene and happy and infinitely, desperately loving. He leaned down to press a gentle kiss to Castiel's forehead, a benediction, a promise. "Et benedictio Dei omnipotentis, Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti, descendat super vos et maneat semper," he whispered quietly. Latin, not Enochian, but for the angel of Earth it seemed right. It seemed proper.
And though both the humans looked somewhat dubious about this course of action, they both whispered back, very quietly and slightly guiltily, "Amen."
Then Castiel picked up his blade, gently and carefully, and smiled at Gabriel for a little moment before pressing the point to his bared palm, and cutting home. The shape of the sigil, laid out with simultaneous care and abandon. Blood and Grace welled and spilled, bright and beautiful and terrible, and Gabriel's little brother leaned in, leaned close enough to kiss, and pressed his hand, his blood, his Grace, to the archangel's wound. There was a second of awe, of ecstasy, of the rich, divine feeling of connection, of family, that Gabriel had not known in too many years to count, too many to weep over, though he wanted to. For a second, he had that, knew it once again.
And then the world disappeared.
The prayer is the last part of the Urbi et Orbi blessing. It translates as "And may the blessing of the Almighty God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, descend on you and remain with you always." I know it's usually used in papal addresses, but it can be used to bless pilgrims, for example, and it seemed ... fitting? *shrugs helplessly*
Chapter 15: Rest
The explosion of Grace that unfurled between Castiel and the archangel was something Aziraphale hadn't felt in a long, long time. Not timid, not the quavered half-hope that seemed to be the hallmark of Heaven's younger angels. Not brutal, either. Not the raw outpouring of power he had been expecting. Castiel was better than that. Smarter. Not knowing how much he had to spare, believing but not knowing, the angel had followed his own Grace as it spilled into his brother, and directed it as best he could. Not a power-driven inferno, but a lance, severing only what was needed. Though it used more, far more, of the angel's Grace than was safe (perhaps, even still, more than was survivable), it did not drain him dry inside a second the way it probably should have done.
Aziraphale smiled a little. Oh yes. Castiel may have been willing to sacrifice everything, may have honestly and truly been ready to die for this, but that didn't mean he wasn't going to hedge his bets a little too. A little bit of smarts to leaven your faith went a long way down here, and it looked like Castiel had figured that one out very, very quickly.
Now all they had to do was hope it was enough.
It took ... a long time. Or seemed to. Maybe objectively, not so much, but watching it ... it took a long time. Watching it. Feeling it. Feeling the pulse and flow of Grace, feeling every time it wavered, staggered, every time Castiel seemed about to slump, burned dry, every time it seemed it was about to end, watching the humans react to every twitch and motion of those two forms, watching Sam and Dean clench fists against the fear of it, the hope ... Aziraphale's breath stopped so many times, he was finding it difficult to get it started again against the burn in his chest, against the pressure on his ribs ...
Then he realised, somewhat belatedly, that the pressure there wasn't coming from inside. Startled, he looked down, and saw Crowley.
Crowley, still mostly unconscious, still serpent-shaped, coiling tighter and tighter against him. Crowley, blunt head turned blindly, blearily towards the angels next to him, pressing back as far into Aziraphale as he could, his throat vibrating with a low, sub-vocal hiss, agitated and fearful. Crowley, too exhausted to remember properly where he was. Crowley, who'd just faced down the Devil himself. Crowley, who didn't know what was going on, only that whatever it was had called out enough angelic Grace to smite him fifteen times over, all of it sitting less than two feet away.
Crowley, who in bewildered terror had started crushing Aziraphale's chest between his coils, trying to retreat.
Aziraphale's heart did that little floppy thing in his chest. The thing it always did at the sight of Crowley in pain, Crowley afraid. The thing it had tried to do for the last time, when Anansi told them what had happened. The thing he had no defense against, and no reason at all to try.
Reaching down, biting his lip, he caught his Serpent's head in his hand, cupped his palm beneath Crowley's chin. Raised it, ran a hand along the coil to coax it up, turned it so that golden, bewildered eyes blinked up at him. Stroked a finger gently along the scales, and smiled.
"Hush, dearest," he whispered, very gently. With some difficulty, considering the compression on his chest, but he ignored that for the moment. "Crowley, dearest, you're safe. Easy, love. Hush now ..."
He kept murmuring, endearments and promises, bribes and petty threats, little laughing teases, hands moving softly, gently, over and over, coaxing his Serpent out of his fear. Coaxing Crowley back to consciousness, teasing him back into the world. Prompting him gently to uncoil, to release the powerful pressure bending Aziraphale's ribs, to let loose the hard knot of his terror. To come back. He coaxed Crowley back.
It was only as it worked at last, only as the coils unwound around him and slithered helplessly into his lap, only as he finally looked up ... that he realised Castiel had gone away as Crowley came back. That he realised the angel had closed his eyes as the demon opened his.
He stared silently, Crowley crumpled and blinking in his lap, as Castiel's hand dropped to the floor, as his head tipped down into his chest, and slowly, so slowly, the angel tumbled to his side. He stared as Dean scrambled after him with a choked cry, stared as the human gathered the angel up into his arms, into his lap, stared as Dean hunted for a pulse, for a sign that Cas was alive.
He stared as beyond them, behind them, the aching, battered joints of six hundred archangelic wings faded from view, slipped back into the ethereal plane. Stared as Gabriel slumped backwards with a sigh, eyelids fluttering as he crumpled, head bouncing off Sam's shoulder as the human caught him desperately. Stared as Sam tugged the unconscious archangel to his chest and curled protectively around him.
He stared as two humans clutched two broken angels, in nothing short of terror, in nothing less than love.
Crowley, very quietly, curled his tail loosely around Aziraphale's waist and looked up at him. "What'sss going on here, angel?" he hissed, his head bobbing a little as he looked between Castiel and Gabriel, as he watched the Winchesters shift together across the floor, side by side, holding what was theirs. "What have the idiotsss gone and done now?"
Aziraphale shook his head mutely, reaching down to carefully untangle Crowley so he could move, shooting his demon an apologetic look as he laid him gently on the floor, but he had to check. It was very important. He had to check.
Dean looked up at him as he shuffled close, angry and desperate, his arms tightening around Cas as if he thought Aziraphale meant to take him away. His heart aching again, Aziraphale tried to smile, tried to reassure, even as he reached out carefully to pull at Castiel a little. Just a little. Just enough to see. Dean fought him for a second, stubborn and furious, already half-grieving, and then ... then the human let go. Enough to let Castiel's head roll free from his chest, enough for Aziraphale to lean down, to touch the forehead and the heart, to feel the pulse beneath them.
Enough for Aziraphale to see if Castiel still existed, if the angel was still theirs.
There was a moment where everything froze. Where there was nothing but three pairs of eyes on him, and the forehead warm and flushed under his palm, and the weak, steady beat of the heart beneath his hand. Where a thousand hopes and fears and loves and pains tangled in the air around him, and all he could feel was the rawness of it.
And then, quiet through it, he felt it. The soft, insistent pulse against his essence, the gentle whispering under his hand. The narrow, stubborn thread, shining beneath him, of an angel's Grace.
Aziraphale closed his eyes. Closed his eyes against the swell in his heart, the clutch in his chest. Against the love that tried to batter him silly, for this angel, these angels, these humans. For his demon, and his family. For these people. And for his Father, who rewarded faith with Grace and withheld his strike. He closed his eyes, feeling his mouth stretch involuntarily into a smile, into a laugh, a bubbling, delighted thing, harsh and pained and joyous. Feeling the joy spread through him.
He opened his eyes, looked up at the human glaring down at him. Met Dean's frantic, confused, angry eyes. He opened his eyes, and smiled.
"He's alright," he whispered, laughing around the words. "About as exhausted as Crowley, dead to the world for the next week, I think, but ... He's there. It worked. He's there, he's here, he's still an angel. Castiel ... he's still here."
Dean didn't react for a second. As if he was afraid to, as if he thought that if he reacted to what he'd heard, it wouldn't be true, wouldn't be real. As if the world didn't work that way, and the only possible result had been Castiel's death, and now that his angel was still alive he just ... couldn't quite grasp it. Couldn't quite understand. Aziraphale felt his hands curling into soft fists, felt something small and angry uncurl in his chest for the lack of hope in that expression, for the history behind it.
Then Dean closed his eyes, making a soft little sound, a broken little breath, and pulled Castiel back into him. Tugged the angel's head onto his shoulder, buried his hands in Castiel's hair and his face in the angel's neck, and clung tight. Curled down into him, pressed him close, and just shuddered in quiet, broken relief. Beside them, pressed against Dean's side with an archangel in his arms, Sam echoed the noise, relief and pain and aborted grief. Side by side, two brothers and their angels, and there was something almost ... closed ... about it. A strange sense of something encircling them, something Aziraphale wasn't yet part of, something broken and wary and desperate and close.
Biting his lip a little, Aziraphale sat back on his heels, watching them. Watching over them. For just a little minute, that was all. Just a little minute, to let them rest, to let them realise that they still had each other, they hadn't lost anyone. Just a minute, until ... until his eyes stopped blurring, maybe. Until his heart stopped twisting in his chest.
Something hissed quietly beside him. Something warm and weighty, pressing against the side of his leg, a narrow, blunt head bumping his arm, and he looked down through blurry eyes to see Crowley. To see his Serpent, who he'd almost lost, who he'd almost lost as surely as Dean and Sam had almost lost their angels. Crowley, who was looking up at him with something like embarrassment, and something like warmth, and something so very close to love that really, there was nothing else the demon could try and claim it as.
Though he would try. Knowing Crowley, he would try.
Mouth wobbling faintly, Aziraphale reached down. Reached down and curled fingers beneath the heavy curves of his demon, feeling the press of scale against his arms and the weight as his demon slithered up around his shoulders. Felt the bony bump against his chin as Crowley pressed close, the tickle of a forked tongue against his cheeks as his demon silently cleaned away his tears. Nuzzled close, ignoring the faint, indignant hiss, and pressed a weighty coil close against his chest, pressed Crowley close against his heart and held tight.
"Hussssh, angel," Crowley whispered in his ear, all cracked and nervous and shifty like he didn't want to be caught doing what he was doing, uneasy as any demon comforting an angel, and suddenly Aziraphale couldn't breathe around the love in his throat, couldn't speak around the relief.
So he just closed his eyes, dripping tears all over his demon's scales, pressed his cheek to the curve of Crowley's coils, and settled down to wait until someone was ready to move. It was safe, he knew that. Not for long, maybe, but for now. Crowley would keep watch.
Crowley would always keep watch.
In the end, it didn't take long for someone to be ready to move. Possibly because two of those awake were hunters with a hunter's instincts for when it was safe to have a breakdown and when it wasn't, possibly because one of the remaining was a demon and therefore too paranoid to sit around being mushy.
Possibly it was because about two minutes into their little group crying session, someone very carefully cleared their throat and knocked politely on the remains of the steel door.
Probably it was that last one. Aziraphale had a feeling. The fact that he was standing, sword in hand and alight, moving protectively in front of the boys and their angels all of half a second after hearing it, may have been a hint. Around his shoulders, Crowley had raised himself into a warning arch, head curled up past Aziraphale's and swaying warningly. He rather thought Crowley had done it on pure instinct, and not even his own instincts either. Crowley was still just tired enough to have the snake take over before he caught it, and awake enough to be grumbling about it under his breath even as they faced the intruder.
Aziraphale badly wanted to snuggle him for that. There were times when his demon was just precious.
In the doorway, Anansi looked a mixture of apologetic and terribly amused, with a twitch of his mouth that promised much, much blackmail in the future, when they were all well enough to appreciate it without trying to smite him. But, credit where it was due, as the little god moved cautiously forwards into the room, he made no effort to test that appreciation now.
Which was probably a very good plan, the angel thought. Behind him, he could hear the Winchesters shifting up into defensive crouches over their respective angels, weapons ready and in hand. Somehow, he didn't think they'd be in any mood for a Trickster's jokes.
"I've put up a little bit of misdirection around the place," Anansi explained gently, spreading his two hands in a carefully exaggerated shrug. His head tilted to the side, watching Aziraphale warily. No. Watching Crowley warily. "Had to drop the kid off with the missus first, of course, but I thought you could maybe use the help ...?"
Aziraphale frowned. "That's ... that's very nice of you?" he tried, a little confused. He'd thought the god had left, before Castiel had even suggested his plan, before Aziraphale had stopped frantically petting Crowley enough to even notice that Gabriel was injured. He was sure he remembered something, remembered the god making hurried excuses about getting his child away, remembered nodding in agreement. This was no place for a child, certainly. But he'd been sure Anansi had gone without intending to return. He'd been sure of it.
Anansi smiled lopsidedly, his eyes fixed on Crowley. Though with a little look beyond them, maybe. At the people behind them. "Not really," the Spider demurred, nodding at the demon. "I just happen to owe someone here a little helping hand, yes?"
Crowley's head dipped past Aziraphale's cheek, lowering to stare at the god, eyes narrowing dangerously. Anansi stared back, calm and amused and genuinely regretful. Genuinely apologetic. And it was only then, only seeing that, that Aziraphale actually remembered what the god had done. Actually remembered that Anansi had sold his demon out, sold him to the Devil himself. With a very good reason, mind, and even then Aziraphale had understood that, but that didn't change the debt that was owed.
And gods tended to take debts very, very seriously ...
"You could ..." he started, maybe a little nervously, maybe a little hopefully, ignoring Crowley as his demon swayed to look at him. "If it's not too much trouble, I don't suppose you could arrange for some transportation out of here?" He spread his hands apologetically. "I'm afraid moving five people at once, three of them unwell ... I have been a little worried about trying to manage that. If you wouldn't ... wouldn't mind?"
Anansi blinked at him. A lot. His brown face beetling into a frown, the little god studied him very carefully, eyes warily tracking between Aziraphale and Crowley. He looked ... confused, which Aziraphale quite frankly could see no reason for. It was hardly that unreasonable a request ...
Crowley looked between them himself, head bobbing gently in the air, and Aziraphale could swear that after a second the demon looked nothing short of amused. Chuckling gently inside his head. Aziraphale could just hear him.
"You realise," Anansi started, carefully, but faintly amused himself. "You realise I owe your demon a blood-debt, don't you? Between almost getting him killed, and Gabriel finding my child's location for me ... I do owe the pair of them rather a lot." He looked at Crowley again, dark eyes suddenly serious, pained and grim. "Even a life, if they feel it necessary ..."
"Don't," Crowley cut in, shortly. "Don't, Spider." He swayed uneasily, glancing back towards Gabriel, tucked against Sam's chest. "Can't speak for Sleeping Beauty there, of course, but ... You know I've never been one for the whole blood-and-souls crap. Not my department, that. Never was." A faint smile, as he glared at the god. "Which you knew full bloody well when you sold me out in the first place, so I don't know why you're looking so nervous now!"
Anansi chuckled a little, a little loose-limbed shrug. "Yes, well. I don't apologise for recognising you for the soft touch you are, Serpent," he grinned, laughing a little at Crowley's scowl. Shaking his head, the Spider smiled at him, before his expression turned a little serious once more. "Though that is not an excuse for what was done. And all this was before you destroyed some fifteen demons in one psychic assault, so ... perhaps you cannot blame me for my recent worries?"
Crowley grimaced. "That was purely self-defense," he muttered, looking almost sheepish, staring at the floor uncomfortably. Aziraphale bit his lip on a smile for that look, though he really didn't blame the Spider. Not for being worried. He remembered hearing the first scream in the corridor. Remembered knowing what it meant. Remembered calling a warning to Cas, remembered slamming his hands over Sam's ears and mind, remembered shielding the human psyche as Crowley let loose. Remembered thinking, with something close to awe, that he'd never felt such fury from his demon in a long, long, long time. Not in outright millennia. And never, never on that scale.
Even now, he wondered what it was the Devil had done. How he'd managed to hurt Crowley so much, to bring that rage out. What he'd done. And even now, thinking about it, he could feel an unfamiliar rage bubbling in his own chest. Even now, he could feel the horrible, pained urge to hurt someone, to hurt the person who'd hurt Crowley like that.
Apocalypses were not healthy for him, he thought absently. They really weren't. When they got this one sorted out, he was going to have to send a very strongly worded prayer to the Almighty. Non-interference was all very well, but after two in a row, if this persisted Aziraphale was not going to be responsible for his actions.
Anansi snorted softly, gently, looking at the pair of them. Looking at Gabriel and the others too. "Self-defense my eye!" he grunted quietly, smiling as Crowley's head shot up warningly, as his demon gave a very impressive threatening glare. Aziraphale watched, curious, and the Spider took a moment to actually wink at him, laughing at Crowley's squawk, but saying nothing further. Whatever little secret lay between them, whatever the Trickster knew that Crowley didn't want revealed, Anansi would not betray it. Not now. There had been enough betrayal for now.
Instead, the little god bowed politely, and nodded at them. "Well then. We'll take that request to be going on with, shall we?" he grinned. "What manner of transportation would you like, and to where?"
"Where are we?" Dean cut in from the back, around numerous scuffling noises. Aziraphale turned to see him and Sam on their feet, doing their best to lift two full-grown angels between them, and not being very successful with it. Tutting in annoyance, he tucked his sword into his belt, and went to help them. Sam, at least, had the grace to look a little sheepish.
"Ah," Anansi blinked, mildly distracted with watching them juggle angels. Around Aziraphale's neck, Crowley seemed to echo his amusement. In between getting poked in the eye by an unconscious Gabriel, that was. Although that poke had seemed suspiciously accurate for someone who wasn't even awake enough to groan when Dean accidentally knocked his head into Sam's. Which also looked rather suspiciously un-accident-like. Aziraphale frowned at the lot of them.
"State, county?" Dean prompted with a faint grin, finally getting Cas slung between him and Aziraphale, with Gabriel on the angel's other side between him and Sam. With Crowley draped around his neck, two angels slung across his shoulders and two humans snickering at him from either side, Aziraphale felt rather put-upon, and more than willing to chivvy the god along to an answer himself. Perhaps sensing that, the Spider stopped wheezing and thought about it.
"Somewhere on the Nebraska/Iowa border, I think," he murmured at last, tilting his head. "Close to Sioux City?"
The two humans looked at each other, startled and then relieved, hopeful. Dean grinned a little. "Bobby?" he murmured, very quietly, looking at his brother. Sam grimaced for some reason, looking at the line of angels strung between them, but nodded while Aziraphale and Crowley looked back and forth between them in confusion. Dean turned back to Anansi, and grinned.
"Any chance you could rustle up a car, then?" he asked. Not exactly politely, but Aziraphale could perhaps forgive him under these circumstances. Though he'd have to have a word with the boy later. "Nothing fancy. Just something big enough for six. We've got a friend not too far from here."
Anansi tilted his head, and grinned back. "Oh, I think I can arrange something," he smiled, and Sam stiffened. Aziraphale too. Anyone who'd ever spent any amount of time trying to work with a Trickster or a demon knew that expression. Knew it, and dreaded it.
But before any of them could say anything, Anansi made a little rippling motion with one hand, like plucking strings on a harp, and they were somewhere else.
It was bright outside. Not very, just the faint pearlescence before dawn, but there was natural light instead of artificial, and a nice breeze, and more air than had been in that horrible basement. More air, and less pain. Aziraphale could breathe easier up here.
The factory loomed behind them, grim and weighty. Crowley shuddered a little against his chest, coiling tighter, and when Aziraphale looked down there was something strange in his demon's face, something stretched and pained and bright. He tilted his head, waiting until Crowley looked up at him, silently asking.
The demon shrugged. An awkward gesture in a snake, especially one coiled low on one angel to avoid bumping into the other two. "Nothing," Crowley muttered. "Nothing, angel. Just ... Nothing."
Aziraphale frowned at him, but let it go for now, distracted by a strangled squawk of outrage beside him.
Dean stared at the vehicle in front of them, shaking. Nearly vibrating, actually, and Aziraphale opened his mouth in concern, ready to ask what was wrong. Then Sam, on his other side, started snickering. Helplessly, breathlessly, waving his free hand in Aziraphale's direction when the angel looked worriedly at him. He blinked at the pair of them, confused and concerned, until Crowley turned away from the factory to see what the fuss was about, and his serpentine jaw dropped open.
"No way," Dean growled, stabbing a finger emphatically at air. Anansi had disappeared, unsurprisingly, so there was no-one for the hunter to voice his ire at, but he'd apparently decided to voice it anyway. "No fucking way! I am not setting foot in that monstrosity! No way."
"Sure, Dean?" Sam grinned, wheezing faintly. "Because it's just your colour, you know ..."
Dean made a very rude gesture in response. Aziraphale was going to give out to him for it, when Crowley piped up.
"I'm with Winchessster," he hissed, staring in pure affront at the car. "Sssspider, you rotten bassstard, you get back here and fix thisss! You owe me, you ... you ..." He trailed off with a furious hiss. The car stayed serenely the same. Aziraphale looked at it in some confusion.
"What's wrong with it?" he asked mildly, blinking at them. Dean stared at him like he'd just committed some terrible blasphemy, and Crowley blinked up at him in something close to agonised despair, a scandalised mutter of 'angel' under his breath.
Dean twitched. "I am not driving into Bobby's yard in that ... thing," he said, very slowly and very carefully. "I am not being seen driving that thing. I am not. Driving. That. Thing."
Which was nicely emphatic, but not really all that enlightening. Aziraphale just blinked, until Sam took pity on him, swallowed his laughter, and explained.
"It's, um," he said, clutching Gabriel close. "It's the colour, Aziraphale. Mostly the colour. Though the car itself, too ... Ah. Lets just say that ours is not a lifestyle that readily lends itself to hot pink stretch limousines, yeah?" He looked down at the archangel in his arms, a funny little smile flickering over his lips. "Well. Not until recently, anyway. I guess it really is a Trickster thing, and not just him wanting to mess with us ..."
Dean growled at him. "Yeah, yeah. Your archangel boyfriend isn't the only jerk in the world. Congratulations, Sammy. Doesn't help us fix this!"
Sam smiled at him serenely. "Oh, I don't know. It's not that bad, Dean."
A muscle worked in Dean's jaw. Aziraphale had the sudden impression that if the hunter hadn't been holding Castiel up at this point, he'd be contemplating actual violence. "Sam," Dean said, very, very quietly. "Sam. I don't know if you've realised this. If we get in that thing, if we drive that thing ... Bobby's going to see. We will be driving up to Bobby's door, in a fucking pink limo, with a pair of unconscious angels who we've been shacked up with for the past two days, the gayest angel in creation, and a snake. A demon snake! Who leers! What the hell is Bobby supposed to think, if we do that? Huh?"
Sam's face worked, jaw twitching like he couldn't quite decide what expression he should settle on. A toss up between horror and amusement, Aziraphale thought, though he couldn't really see any reason for either.
Crowley, on the other hand ... Crowley, for the first time that day, despite everything, despite everything they'd just gone through, everything Crowley had just gone through ... Crowley started laughing. A wheezing, desperate hiss, his coils vibrating around Aziraphale's chest, his head shaking helplessly from side to side as he dangled, his eyes squeezed shut. Dean glared at him in mutinous affront, growling under his breath about holy oil and snake fricassee, but Crowley just laughed.
And leered, just a little. For good measure. It was his demon, after all.
And Aziraphale, tilting his head towards the shadows at the base of the factory walls, at the cobwebs and the spiders spread across the old, battered surface, smiled a little himself, and gave a grateful nod to the Spider god. Making his demon laugh after all he'd been put through wasn't enough to make up for putting him through it in the first place. Not by a long shot. But ... it was a good start. A very good start.
Then, smiling faintly to himself (and at Sam, who seemed to have decided to appreciate the humour rather than worry about this Bobby's reaction), he set to work herding them all into the 'Monstrosity' and getting them home. A home, anyway. But really, so long as these people were there, so long as he had them ... that was what home meant, wasn't it?
Besides. He was rather curious about this Bobby person ...
Chapter 16: Home
The limo (monstrosity) wasn't subdivided into front and back. There was no partition between driver and passengers. Whether this made the trip to Bobby's more or less surreal, Dean wasn't quite sure.
Currently, he was leaning towards 'more'.
He and Sam were sitting up front. Dean driving, as was only sensible, seeing as Aziraphale obviously had no experience with cars if he thought what they were currently driving in was even remotely a good excuse for one, Crowley currently had no hands, and if both of them were in a car, Sam was shotgun. This may not have been his baby, but there was no reason to mess with a good thing. Sam was up front mostly because Aziraphale was fussing over their two injured angels, and frankly it wasn't safe to go near him. Since Cas was starting to look more like himself and less like a corpse under Aziraphale's care, Dean wasn't actually going to complain this time.
Unfortunately, because Aziraphale was fussing and mucking around with Grace and healing and shit, because Cas and Gabriel were currently taking up the two couches in the back, and Aziraphale the floor between them as he worked ... Crowley was also up front.
He was, in fact, sitting (lying?) in Sam's lap. His brother was sitting beside him with a lap full of demon snake. A lap full of talking demon snake.
Between that, whatever was happening in the back, and the fact that he'd been awake for more than twenty-four hours by this point, it was getting kinda hard to concentrate on the road. And Crowley, it turned out, was a back-seat driver of truly epic proportions.
"Bloody hell, kid, Aziraphale drives faster than you, and the last time he was behind the wheel was in 1926! This is an Interstate, not a carpark!"
"Sam ..." Dean gritted his teeth. Hard.
Sam smiled fixedly back. "We've been over this, Dean. He's nine feet long, he's got fangs, and he's sitting on top of my junk. You tell him to shut up."
"Don't be silly, dear," Aziraphale cut in from the back, looking up from Castiel. "Crowley would never do a thing like that! You're perfectly safe, I promise you."
They looked down at Crowley. Crowley bared said fangs in a very slow, very promising snaky smile, and rested his head pointedly on Sam's thigh. They looked back at each other, shrugged, and Dean went back to the road, gritting his teeth and pressing the gas a little. Maybe Crowley had a point. The faster he went, the faster this road-trip from hell would be over. And that ... that could not happen soon enough. It really, really couldn't.
Then, purely to bring joy and happiness back to their lives, Gabriel decided to wake up. Of course he did.
"Why are we in a limo?" the archangel rasped, blinking up at the disco-ball hanging from the ceiling (Anansi had a really sick sense of humour). Sam almost dumped Crowley into the foot-well turning around in his seat to look. "And please don't tell me we're not, and this is what passes for Heaven for renegade archangels. Because nice and all as the seventies were, I'm not all that interested in spending eternity there ..."
"You're not dead!" Sam interrupted quickly. Desperately. Dean almost complained. He wouldn't have minded messing with Gabriel's head for a couple of minutes there ... But Sam sounded so ridiculously happy saying it, so stupidly relieved, and if Dean's eyes weren't fixed grittily on the road he'd be looking at Cas right now, so ... Driver shuts his cakehole, he guessed.
"Well, that's certainly a relief," Gabriel smirked tiredly, shifting around behind Dean. "It's always nice, not being dead. Doesn't really explain the limo, though. Unless you boys have gone up in the world, and a long way down in taste, while I've been out ...?"
"Blame your friend," Dean growled, changing gears with perhaps more force that was strictly necessary. Crowley grunted assent, climbing back up into Sam's seat as Dean's brother scrambled over the back towards Gabriel. Dean very pointedly didn't look after him.
"Friend?" Gabriel squeaked after a second, somewhat breathlessly. Possibly because Sam had just dived on top of him, and Dean was not thinking about that, dammit!
"Anansi," Aziraphale elaborated helpfully, leaning back into Castiel's couch out of the way. "Mind your foot there, dear, if you don't mind. And don't put any weight on his back or shoulders, they may still be a little tender ... There. That's better. It's lucky you're so small in this form, Gabriel, isn't it?" All bright and beaming, and Dean stared fixedly at the horizon and ignored Crowley laughing snakily to himself beside him.
"Make short jokes at your peril, demon," Gabriel growled breathlessly from the back, but not very threateningly. More by rote than anything. Then he shut up, and there were other noises, right behind Dean's back, and this was, officially and without doubt, the worst. Roadtrip. EVER.
"I didn't know archangels bent that way," Crowley noted, ever so helpfully, from the passenger seat.
"Watch his back," Aziraphale reproached, equally helpful, and concerned about all the wrong things, in Dean's opinion. "Sam? Samuel! Dear, don't hold him that way. Around his waist, dear boy, if you must put them somewhere ..."
"I thought humans needed to breathe on occasion?" Crowley murmured, staring quite happily at the side of Dean's head. Because the target of the demon's glee was not at all obvious, here. Dean took a hand off the wheel long enough to flip him the finger, and stared pointedly just past the tiny naked woman perched on the end of their hot-pink hood, ignoring both the sloppy sound as Sam and Gabriel presumably pulled out of their passionate lip-lock, and Crowley's snickers.
"Ah ... hello?" Gabriel tried, sounding more dazed than usual. "Um. Happy to see you too?"
"Don't you dare do that to me again!" Sam growled, not sounding dazed at all. More furious. And hurt. And ... something Dean didn't want to think about too closely.
"Kiss you?" Gabriel asked, flippantly enough, but there was a shake in his voice. Dean groaned. Not a good plan, archangel ... "Because if you don't want me to kiss you, Sammy, you really shouldn't have ..."
The archangel sobered. Not in time, really, but better than Dean had done during the Mystery Spot incident. Sammy ... Sammy didn't take people almost dying on him too well. Neither did Dean, of course, but Sam ... Sam got intense about it. Joking ... not the best plan in the world.
"Didn't exactly intend to end up staked to the floor with six demons about to chop my wings off, Sam," Gabriel said, carefully. Slowly. "I didn't go and plan it, or anything. I just ... I just didn't expect my brother to ..." He trailed off. Dean stared rigidly at the road, and tried to ignore the little nugget of understanding that beat on the back of his skull for the bastard. He was not going to end up liking the Trickster. He was not.
"I know, Gabriel," Sam whispered, quietly. "I know. Just ... Please, try not to do that again, okay? We've got enough people almost dying on us ..."
Gabriel made a sudden noise, a sort of strangled gasp, and Dean almost drove off the road, and actually stopped on the shoulder, turning already to tell them, whatever the hell they wanted to do in private, not while he was driving ... but when he looked back the archangel was doing his best to fall off of the couch beside Sam, moving towards ... towards Cas.
"Little brother, if you are dead, and that's what he's talking about ..." Gabriel muttered, elbowing an indignant Aziraphale out of the way almost frantically, grabbing for Cas' hand. "Though why they'd be carrying around your corpse ... then again, these are the Winchesters, so who knows ..."
"He's not dead!" Dean cut in harshly, glaring back at him. "Trust me. If he died saving you, I'd have left you at the factory, whether it was your fault or not! Cas is not dead." He paused, mostly to repeat that to himself a couple of times, to reassure himself. Cas was not dead. Cas was not dead. And more ... "He's also still an angel. Lucky break for you, I guess."
"Dean!" Sam growled, with a nice little echo from Aziraphale. Gabriel, though ... Gabriel just looked down at Cas, traced a hand over his chest and forehead the way Aziraphale had done. Just to check, maybe. Just to make sure. Then he looked up at Dean, and there was a sort of tired smile tucked into the corner of that mobile mouth. A wry little twist.
"If Castiel ever does die on my account," he said quietly. "You can be sure I will not object, to whatever you decide you have to do about it. Believe me, Deano. Believe me."
"I'll object," Sam cut in, glaring at Dean, one giant hand landing protectively on Gabriel's shoulder. The archangel flinched a bit, blinking in something almost like shock, and Dean felt his mouth twist. Damn it anyway.
"No-one is dying!" Aziraphale growled from somewhere behind Gabriel, coming up onto his knees and pushing Sam back into his seat. Then Gabriel after him, more carefully and with a soft, comforting little smile. "So if we could all grow up and start acting like adults again, that would be helpful!" He flapped his hands in annoyance, tucking Castiel's hand back onto the couch from where it had fallen.
Dean smiled a little. He couldn't help it. "Yeah? Gonna make sure of that, are you? The no dying thing, I mean."
And that wasn't Aziraphale. Or Gabriel. Dean turned in his seat, looked at the snake curled thoughtfully beside him. Crowley wasn't looking at them. He was looking up at the sky through the windshield, golden eyes distant and slow. And for a second, all Dean could think of was how seriously surreal the sight was, the feeling, sitting in a fucking pink limo watching a talking snake plot.
"Dearest?" Aziraphale frowned, shuffling forward to lean around the back of the seat to look down at him. "Crowley? What do you mean?"
The snake shifted, about a foot and a half of him directly under the head curving gracefully around, and Dean just stared. Because this was a snake, it was an honest-to ... an honest-to-Someone snake, it moved like a snake, it looked like a snake ... and it sounded like Crowley, like the fallen angel who'd gotten them all drunk and tempted an angel with cream buns and wings under an apple tree.
"Not yet, angel," Crowley murmured. "Let me think a little longer. Not yet."
"So long as you're not thinking what I think you're thinking," Gabriel spoke up, low and dangerous. Crowley uncoiled a little, a smooth, muscular motion, and peered around Aziraphale's hip at the archangel. His head tilted, so completely human a gesture that Dean was weirded out all over again, and that was so not helping him focus on the actual conversation here.
"Not yet," Crowley said again. An almost gentle reproach. "Whatever you heard, archangel ... don't pusssh yet, yesss? Let me think. Get sssssome ressst. Let me think."
"Gabriel?" Sam, sounding more than a little worried. Dean didn't blame him. "Gabriel, what's he talking about?
The archangel said nothing for a minute, as they all turned to look at him. Well, except Cas, who was still out of it. And Aziraphale, who was still watching his demon. Okay. So it was mostly him and Sam who turned to watch the archangel, but hey! It was slightly less weird than watching the snake. Gabriel, for his part, leaning heavily on Sam, just watched Crowley suspiciously. And maybe ... sympathetically? The hell? What was going on here?
"Alright," the archangel said at last. Slowly. Then he smirked a little bit, and it was odd how Dean had never noticed before how careful that expression was on Gabriel, how not-quite-natural it could be when the archangel didn't actually mean it. "Just don't do anything I wouldn't do, demon."
Crowley smirked faintly. "That doesn't leave much that I can't do, archangel. You realise that?"
Gabriel grinned. "Shut up, Crowley. And, Dean?" Dean blinked, looked up. "If we're going anywhere today, we might want to get our asses back in gear? Just a thought ..." Dean blinked some more. Actually resisted the urge to rub some grit out his eyes. Then he growled, glaring, and turned back to the wheel, blinking out at the shoulder and the road beyond it. Right. Going somewhere. Bobby's. Right.
He released the brake, pulling out as smoothly as the behemoth he was driving would allow, and very pointedly didn't look back at the noise his brother made, the soft sigh, or sideways as a very worried Aziraphale pulled Crowley up and out of the passenger seat and cuddled him.
And, most importantly, he didn't look back at the still form on the couch, didn't look back to see Cas' slack, pale features. Because if he looked back now ... they weren't ever getting to Bobby's.
All things considered, Bobby actually took their arrival pretty well. Hot pink limo and everything. He was sitting on the porch, shotgun against his shoulder, aimed and ready as the limo pulled up. He gave Dean the once-over as he climbed out of the driver's door, watched him stretch for a moment, and dismissed him. He watched Sam climb out the back the same way, narrow-eyed and squinty, and dismissed him too. Then Gabriel climbed stiffly out, stumbling slightly against Sam, and Bobby nodded quietly to himself, flicked the safety off, and rolled forward in his wheelchair to level the gun at the archangel's chest. Gabriel blinked at him.
"What you done to them?" Bobby growled, as Dean leaned back against the limo and snorted to himself. Aziraphale, poking his head around the car door, looked mildly concerned as Sam tried to shuffle forwards to protect Gabriel. Bobby stopped him with a glare.
"I don't know what you mean," Gabriel smirked. Tiredly, but still. He stared down at Bobby and the gun, and didn't look the slightest bit fazed, until Bobby poked him in the belly with the barrel. Gabriel flinched back a little, and growled at Bobby's faint look of satisfaction.
"Bobby," Sam said, quietly. With more than a little growl himself. Bobby ignored him.
"Pull the other one, Trickster," he said, quiet and deadly, looking pointedly at the car. "You think I don't recognise your style when I see it? I haven't heard from these boys for three days, and then they show in this piece of crap, and guess who's tagging along? So. What. Have. You. Done?"
Gabriel's face moved. A sort of exhausted twitch around the eyes and mouth, somewhere between amusement and hysteria, and Dean abruptly decided that okay. Amusing as this was, maybe the archangel actually didn't need it right now. Or Sam, or any of them, in fact. Maybe they just ... didn't need this.
"Bobby," he said, rough and gravelly, moving forward to rest a hand on the barrel of Bobby's gun (and decades of training screamed at him for that one, pointed out exactly how stupid a move it was, but he was just too tired for anything else) and pushing it gently down and away from Gabriel. "Right trick. Wrong Trickster. He's on the level, Bobby. Let him be."
He didn't know which of them looked more stunned at that, Bobby, or Gabriel himself. But Sam was biting his lip, and looking at Dean with pride, and ... yeah, okay. It sort of felt good. And there was a weird rightness about seeing the surprise in the archangel's face over something good for a change, a weird satisfaction in surprising someone with something other than a shotgun to the head or a knife in the neck. It felt ... pretty good.
Bobby looked at them, between them. Looked behind them to where Aziraphale, with Crowley draped around his neck, was peering worriedly out of the car. He looked at them, took in how tired and shaken and simply flattened they all were ... and sighed. Heavily.
"I suppose you'd all better come inside then," he grunted, wheeling back a few paces to give them room, glaring disgruntledly. "And if anyone tries to kill me, I'm blaming you. Idjits."
Dean grinned a little, sort of shakily. "Thanks Bobby."
Bobby grunted, waving a hand irritably as he watched Aziraphale climb out and pull Castiel after him with Sam's help. Dean lost track for a second getting his angel scooped up and settled. "Yeah, yeah. Just get your asses inside already. We'll figure the rest out after. Oh. And someone get this monstrosity outta my sight before I hurl, will ya?"
Gabriel smiled at that. "That, I can help you with," he murmured, clicking his fingers before anyone could stop him. Both Sam and Aziraphale squawked at him, rushing forward to catch him as he sagged a bit, but the limo vanished, presumably back to wherever Anansi had magicked it from in the first place. Gabriel smirked pointedly in Bobby's direction, leaning heavily on Sam, one hand perhaps wandering a little more than Dean wanted to pay attention to.
Bobby rolled his eyes.
"Um, excuse me?" Aziraphale moved forward, carefully, steadying Gabriel into Sam's care, one hand coming up to cradle Crowley's head. The demon shifted uneasily around his angel's shoulders, and Bobby stiffened suspiciously.
"Who're you?" he asked, shortly and not exactly friendly. Aziraphale grimaced slightly.
"Aziraphale," he said, cautiously, before looking down at the snake around his chest. "An angel. Of the non-homicidal kind, I assure you! And this ... this is Crowley. He's ... a demon." He flinched, and flapped a hurried hand at Bobby's expression. "Also of the non-homicidal kind, I promise you! He and I have known each other for centuries, I can definitely vouch for him, Mr ... ah?"
"Singer," Bobby growled, squinting suspiciously. Aziraphale beamed at him, causing Bobby's eyebrows to climb up under his hat, and Dean sort of smirked over Cas' head. It was kinda fun, watching someone else react to the ... whatever it was that made Aziraphale who he was. "Robert Singer." Aziraphale beamed some more, coming forward to hold out a hand. Bobby stared at it for a second, and at the snake blinking lazily at him, before taking it cautiously.
"I'm so pleased to meet you, Mr Singer!" the angel smiled, shaking vigorously, while Crowley grinned snakily. He paused, taking Bobby's hand between both of his own, staring into the middle distance for a second, and then a slightly distant expression slipped into his eyes, sort of sad and proud. When he looked back down at Bobby, something in his face made the older man shake a little, stunned.
"Yes," the angel murmured. "Very pleased to meet you, Robert. You're a good man. A very good man."
Bobby flushed, beet-red, and tugged his hand back awkwardly. "Yeah, well. Whatever." He looked down at his knees, avoiding everyone's gaze, and Dean felt something clench a little in his chest at the tiny, shy smile tucked in the corner of Bobby's mouth. The little glimmer of embarrassed pride.
Yeah. Aziraphale may be a fruit-cake, but he was alright. He was alright.
"Can we come in?" Aziraphale asked, folding his hands in an oddly formal gesture as he looked at Bobby, smiling faintly and gently. "My demon and I? We have been ... We have a little arrangement with your boys, you see, and we'd rather stay with them for the time being, if no-one minds?"
Bobby blinked up at him, then slanted a wry look over at Dean and Sam. "They on the level too?" he asked bluntly, tipping his head at Aziraphale and smiling very faintly. They grinned back.
"Yeah, Bobby," Sam murmured quietly, his arm snug around Gabriel's waist. "They're on the level." Dean hugged Cas close, and nodded. Bobby squinted at them a little longer, just for a minute, and shook his head with an exasperated smile.
"Sure," he muttered, turning to wheel back towards the house, shaking his head. "Why not? Come on in, the lot of you, and quit cluttering up my yard!"
Dean was nodding, hefting Cas in his arms awkwardly to try and follow, mentally measuring the distance and thinking absently about telling Cas to lose some frikking weight when he woke up, when Aziraphale reached out to catch Bobby's shoulder and pull him gently to a stop. Bobby froze, staring up at him. So did everyone else.
"I wonder," said Aziraphale, very gently. "I wonder, Mr Singer ... if we might borrow your wheelchair? Castiel is not well, you see, and Dean seems to be having some trouble with him ...?"
Bobby blinked up at him. Then over to where Dean had Cas half over his shoulder, arms tight around his angel and head shaking frantically at Aziraphale. No! No, you stupid angel, he was fine, he had it, don't go asking Bobby shit like that ... What the hell, Aziraphale? But the angel was smiling, serene and gentle, and didn't seem to notice the frantic messages he and Sam were trying to send him.
Bobby looked back. "What am I supposed to do? Sit him in my lap?" he grumbled. But he wasn't moving. He hadn't jerked away from the angel. He looked like he was actually thinking about it. Dean wasn't sure what to feel about that.
Aziraphale smiled at him. "Well, you could, I suppose. It would be rather awkward, though. Wouldn't it be easier if you simply ... walked with me?" He held out one soft hand, palm up, and smiled quietly.
Every last one of them froze, staring. Bobby ... Bobby didn't move. Bobby didn't blink. He just ... sat. Stared. Same as the rest of them, and Dean wondered if they were all feeling the same sick, heavy, hopeful twisting he was. He wondered if they all wanted as badly as he did to punch Aziraphale, or cry.
Then Crowley moved. Curling up off Aziraphale's shoulders, arching high to actually look down at his angel, golden eyes soft and exasperated. "You sap," he accused, flatly. Not a hiss in sight. "You bloody sap, angel. You had to. You just had to, didn't you? This is why I don't let you near hospitals ..."
"Hush, dear," Aziraphale interrupted, smiling up at him for a second. "He's giving us his hospitality. It's only fair. And we do need that wheelchair, after all. Unless you feel a pair of hands coming on?"
"Not my fault," the demon huffed, shifting his coils primly. "I haven't taken out a small base in years, and never like that. It's hardly my fault it takes a while to get back the mental focus for a shift."
"Of course not, dear," the angel smiled, reaching up to pat him gently. "So stop complaining, there's a good fellow?"
"Hey!" Bobby blinked, coming up out of his shock a little, getting back a spark of temper. "If this is some kind of joke to you two, you can damn well ..."
"It isn't," Aziraphale cut him off, very gently. If he was conscious of them staring holes in his back, he didn't show it. Instead, he simply reached out to Bobby once more, hand steady and calm. "I would not joke about such a thing, Mr Singer. Robert. I promise you." A soft smile, gently coaxing. "I promise you. Please?"
Bobby glared at him. Hot. Uncertain. Angry and hopeful. He stared at him. And then ... then he looked down at his legs. Looked down, and focused. Twitched his foot. Moved his foot. Stiffly, almost painfully. He moved his foot.
Dean felt some invisible someone kick him solidly in the gut. He heard Sam gasp beside him, saw his brother twitch forwards out of the corner of his eye. He didn't move. He couldn't move. Could only watch, distantly, with something thick and choking in his throat, as Bobby took the angel's hand and slowly, laboriously pulled himself to his feet.
"There we go," Aziraphale murmured, smiling softly, steadying the man carefully. "There we go. Thank you, Robert. Thank you." Bobby blinked at him, hands clutching the angel's arms, shaking his head in confusion as Crowley wrapped a coil around his wrist as if to help. The demon pointedly refused to meet anyone's eyes.
"What ..." Bobby started, thickly. "What the hell you thanking me for? That ... why the hell are you thanking me?"
"For trusting me," Aziraphale answered simply. "For letting us in. For giving Castiel your wheelchair. For being who you are, Robert Singer. For being a good man."
Anyone else, that would have sounded like platitude, or worse, some kind of mockery, some kind of sick joke. People didn't get rewarded for being a good person. Dean knew that. People got shafted, that's what they got. People, angels, even demons. They did something good, they got shafted for it. That was the way things worked, and always had. Saying differently ... anyone else, it would have sounded false, and cruel, a front for some ulterior motive. Aziraphale ... believed it. And there wasn't one of them there who doubted it.
Or one of them who had any damn clue what to do with it, either.
"We should ..." Sam managed, at last. Barely. "We should ... get inside?" He shrugged uneasily, almost leaning more on Gabriel now than the archangel had been on him a moment ago. He looked ... stunned. Amazed. Sort of ... warily, hopefully happy. Like something wonderful had happened, and he liked it, but he was sort of waiting for the bubble to burst. He looked sort of like Dean felt.
"I think that would be a good idea," Gabriel said quietly, looking up at Sam's face, at his expression. There was something soft in the archangel's expression, something quiet and real and nothing Dean had ever thought to see on that face. Something that cared.
"Yeah," Bobby said, still sort of staring at Aziraphale, still being sort of held up by him. "Yeah."
He shook himself, pulling himself together with an obvious effort, and pulled back a little. The angel let him go, Crowley releasing his wrist gently as he pulled away, and they smiled softly at him. Bobby, avoiding their eyes, looked over at the rest of them. At Sam. At Dean. He looked ... good. He looked so damn good. Standing on his own two feet again. Dean swallowed.
Then Bobby turned around, red to the ears, and laid a hand on the back of the chair. His chair. He sort of shuffled a bit, biting out a breath in shock and dizzy joy. And then he took the handles, turned it around, and wheeled it over to Dean. From the outside, not in it. Staring at his feet the whole way, watching them as they moved, as they held his weight. He stopped at Dean's side, looked up at him. Shook his head like there was nothing he knew how to say.
"On the level, huh?" he said at last, smiling faintly. Dean tipped his head around a smile, blinking back tears.
"Pretty much," he whispered. Swallowed. "Pretty much."
And Bobby smiled at him, biting his lip and shaking his head, and helped him lower Cas gently into the chair. Braced his legs and helped Dean take his angel's weight, helped him hold Cas up. Helped him help him. The way things should be.
"Come on," Bobby said, hoarse and happy. "Come on. Let's get you boys and your damn angels inside, huh?"
"And demon," Crowley grumbled. "Don't anyone forget the demon!"
"I suspect we couldn't if we tried," Gabriel drawled, leaning on Sam again, curled into Dean's brother and smiling distantly. Almost like he didn't even know he was doing it. "I suspect you wouldn't let us."
"Up yours, archangel," Crowley hissed, and dropped his head huffily onto Aziraphale's hair. The angel winced a little, and reached up to bat him off again, laughing silently as the demon glared. Dean watched them, his hand pressed around Castiel's shoulder, Bobby grinning at his side. Dean watched them.
And for the first time in a long while, he found himself smiling.
Chapter 17: Interludes
Including an attempted explanation for why Crowley (GO) and Crowley (SPN) are the same person in this 'verse
It didn't take long for the boys to get settled upstairs. They were all but dead on their feet, as any idjit could see, so Bobby wasn't at all surprised when they commandeered the spare room, and the Trickster -Gabriel- magicked up a very big bed to fill it ...
Alright. Maybe he was a little surprised about that last part. Also a little ... concerned. But neither Sam nor Dean complained, or even really noticed, falling in with barely a word and a angel apiece and out like lights in minutes. Dean maybe spared him a whole second of looking sheepish first. Sam didn't even bother with that. Castiel, of course, was out the whole time. Gabriel, though ... the archangel had stared quietly up at him from Sam's arms for a long, long minute, expression somewhere between worried and defiant and ... oddly fragile, silently daring him to make something of it.
He would have, of course. Probably should have. But he'd just walked up the stairs on his own two feet for the first time in months, and his boys seemed fine, if tired, and ... well, he just wasn't bothered right then. To be blunt. They were tired, he was happy, and nobody needed an Inquisition right this minute.
Later. He promised himself. Later.
Which left him and Abbott and Costello as the only conscious beings in the house. Which was fine, because he had a few questions for those two. An angel and a demon working together made him ever-so-slightly suspicious. An angel and a demon anywhere near his boys made him very suspicious.
An angel and a demon so obviously gay for each other it wasn't even funny showing up at the same time both his boys apparently decided angel boyfriends were the way to go ...
First though, he needed to pry the angel away from his books. Emphasis on pry. Given said angel's white-knuckled attachment to the shelves, he wondered if he should get the winch in outta the yard. Or, given the sub-vocal croons as the angel stroked and murmured over some of the older volumes, possibly a bucket of ice-water and a restraining order, shotgun not-so-optional extra. You know. Either or.
"You haven't a hope, you know," a quiet voice spoke up from a patch of sunlight under the window. Bobby blinked at the snake languidly sunning himself.
The snake smirked. Bobby hadn't known snakes could smirk, but there was no mistaking that expression anywhere. The snake smirked.
"Dearest! There's a 17th century copy of the Malleus Maleficarum here! Not to mention a copy of the Formicarius! 19th century, mind, and badly translated here or there ... Oh! The Pseudomonarchia!"
"Should toss that one," the snake commented idly. "I'm not even in it! What kind of demonic compendium doesn't mention me? Honestly!"
"One you doctored back in the 16th century specifically so it wouldn't?" the angel returned archly, in between humming happily to himself and petting the book in question. "You never liked being summoned, dearest. I don't see why you should complain now."
"Just get no respect, is all," the demon grumbled back, shifting his coils in a gesture that on a human would be a defensive crossing of his arms. "Humans never respect you unless you've got your name in a big, dusty book written by mushroom-snorting medieval madmen. Though I'd bet they wouldn't be near so respectful if they'd ever actually met the buggers. Any demon stupid enough to let himself be called up by that lot ..."
"Gets what he deserves, yes."
Bobby wondered if the angel was actually even listening. He had that air of someone carrying on an old, familiar conversation entirely on autopilot, so comfortable that no thought was needed whatsoever. The demon, too, seemed barely awake, lazing in the sun, mouth running on automatic. Back and forth, ebb and flow, two people so used to each other that they didn't even need to talk, as such. Just wanted to, for the pleasure of hearing the other's voice, for the comfort of knowing they were near.
For a second, he missed Karen so badly it hurt. For a second, he felt his hands curl into light fists, finger tingling with phantom pain. Not just physical, those pains, though he'd had that kind too, of late. People were wrong about that. Sometimes the deepest pains came from wounds that were never physical. The body remembered love. No matter who told you different. The body remembered who you'd lost.
"Coffee?" he grunted abruptly, turning towards the kitchen in a hurry, to hide the pain. Uncurling his aching hands, making them work, keeping them busy. Shoving the pain away. Putting on a pot without ever stopping to hear the answer. If there was one. Not listening, not thinking ...
"Mr Singer? Robert?"
The angel had followed him, expression soft and concerned, hands wringing gently in confusion. Bobby wanted to growl at him, tell him to go away, but ... he had his legs back because of this guy. For no better reason than apparently he was a 'good man'. A few manners maybe mightn't go astray.
"Yeah, sorry," he mumbled, mostly staring at the floor. At his feet. His feet.
"Did I ... I'm sorry, it's just books ... I can never resist, you know. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to offend, not in your home."
Bobby blinked up at him, at a face full of genuine confusion and apology, and had to wrestle for a minute with a lifetime's worth of hunter's instinct that cried 'false!' at it. Because those instincts kept running up against something, some basic thing about this angel that pinged some deeper instinct again, and that instinct whispered 'safe'. This person is safe. This person will not harm you. And the hunter yelled back, 'whammy'. And the quiet thing said, simply, flatly, 'no'. Not this one. Not this time.
For the second time in his life, he didn't know which to listen to. For the second time in his life, the instinct he wanted to obey was not the sensible one. For the second time in his life ... he could do nothing except put off the choice, and hope it resolved itself in the meantime.
"Wasn't you," he muttered at last. "Don't worry about it. Wasn't you." He paused, shuffled, vaguely annoyed at how damn stupid this angel made him feel. Bastard had no right to do that, to just randomly up and heal him two minutes after meeting him. Should warn a body, if you're gonna do shit like that. "Uh. Coffee?"
The angel blinked a bit, then smiled hopefully. "I don't ... I don't suppose you have any tea, instead?"
Bobby gave him the fish-eye, but the hopeful look never faltered. "Don't think so. Sorry."
The angel's face fell for a second. Then he raised a hand, made an odd little 'lookee' gesture, and asked. "Then do you mind if I ... I've never really gotten the hang of coffee, you see ...?"
Bobby stared. "Whatever you want, man." The angel beamed, and miracled himself up a cup of tea, looking back to call over his shoulder.
"Will you join us, dearest?"
"Ssssleeping, angel!" the demon hissed back lazily. "Making nicccce isssn't my job, remember?"
The angel turned back to Bobby with a roll of his eyes. "Aren't we lucky?" he muttered under his breath, and Bobby cracked a grin without realising it.
"You love him," he said, flatly. Getting it out there. The angel blinked at him, faintly wary, beaming.
"I do," he said, equally simple, then flushed a little and shook his head. "Is it showing again? Crowley hates that." A faint smile, fondly tolerant. "Demons aren't supposed to love, you know."
"I know," Bobby said, watching the small flinch, regretting it a little. "Seems to love you back, though?"
Aziraphale smiled then. Deeply, truly. "Does it show?" he asked, richly amused, vibrant, and Bobby had to smile again.
"Yeah," he said. "It shows." It did. It went contrary to everything, everything he knew about demons, everything he expected of them ... but the quiet, happy ease between these two was as familiar as breathing to him, or used to be, and there was no way he could ever mistake it. None. "It shows."
The angel bit his lip around a smile, and leaned in conspiratorially. "Don't tell him," he whispered, close to Bobby. "He doesn't know he does it. Don't tell him." A tiny shake of the head, eyes sparkling a little. "It wouldn't be half so much fun if he knew."
Bobby hid a grin, and tucked hands that had begun to stop aching around a mug. "Secret's safe with me, angel. Secret's safe."
Secret wasn't particularly secret, maybe, but it was safe. Bobby remembered his own fair share of transparent pretenses, the little props to pride that held a man together, kept him going, kept him safe or at least less vulnerable. The little lies that everybody saw through and nobody mentioned because sometimes the lie was all that kept the pain or fear at bay. Oh yeah. Bobby understood that.
Secret was safe with him, alright. It was safe.
Castiel woke up. He seemed to be doing a lot of that, lately. Spending time with Sam and Dean seemed to involve an alarming amount of unconsciousness. So much that he knew how to do this, now. Knew how to wake without moving, how to come back to himself and silently search for danger. And more recently, newer, knew how to feel arms wrapped around him, and realise he was safe. Very, very new, only days old, that knowledge, but Castiel was always a fast learner. And this ... this he wanted to learn. This he badly wanted to learn.
He was warm. Pressed in between two bodies, tucked against someone's chest, an arm curled protectively around his head, the other draped over his back. There were more arms, wrapped around the body behind him, which was ... strange. Very strange. Only the warm smell of Dean under his nose, the soft rise and fall of the chest in front of him, kept him from trying to move, untangle himself, see what the danger was. Only the little noises that meant Dean was asleep, at rest, not just knocked out ...
"Hey, little brother." The voice was soft, sleepy. Pressed against his back, warm behind him. Gabriel.
"Where are we?" he whispered, softly so as not to wake Dean. He turned his head, very carefully, leaning back a little to try and see his brother. Dean made a quiet noise of complaint, and Castiel stopped instinctively. Behind him, Gabriel snickered gently.
"Bobby's, bro," the archangel explained, wriggling an arm free of what was presumably Sam to catch Castiel's hand and worm his fingers through, thumb brushing soothingly. "Got here a while back. You were out of it."
Out of it. That was ... one way to put it. Castiel remembered. Remembered ... His hand tightened unconsciously, squeezed in remembered fear and desperation, and Gabriel's breath hitched, the smaller hand wrapping tighter around his, his brother pressing closer against his back.
"Did it work?" Castiel asked, carefully. It should have, if they were here, but if it hadn't, if they'd had to remove the wings anyway, if his Grace hadn't been enough ...
"It worked," Gabriel cut off the thought, voice sounding almost crushed. "It worked, Castiel. It ... It worked."
There was a silence, then, the weight of too many things hanging in the air, and Castiel didn't know how to deal with that. He'd never had to before. Except maybe once with Anna. Never had to pick and choose around unsafe things, never had to learn how to say a thing so it didn't hurt. Never had to feel, to connect. Never had something so fragile as someone's emotions mean so much to him. It had been simple, before. He'd been a soldier. Many things ... had been simple then.
"I'm ... glad," he said at last. Cautiously, into Gabriel's watchful silence. "I did not want ... I am glad it worked, Gabriel."
Gabriel made a little noise, something Castiel had no template for, and squeezed his hand. That seemed to be all he was capable of. Castiel squeezed back, and hoped it was close to what he was supposed to do here. More words seemed ... useless.
"Castiel," the archangel said at last. "I ... " He made a noise, frustration, self-amusement, fingers worrying against Castiel's palm. "I want to thank you. And I want to yell at you. I'm not sure which is stronger at the minute."
Castiel thought about that. "Yelling will wake Sam and Dean," he offered, after a second. Gabriel snorted.
"Point. But, little brother ... Alright. This is the one and only time in my life I'm going to agree with Dean Winchester, so I'll thank you not to mention it. Ever. But ... whether or not it seems to make tactical sense ... you are not expendable to us, Castiel. You're not expendable to me. Okay? So, in future ... I can afford to lose a few wings, rather than you. I may be ... psychotically attached to them, but I'd sooner ... At least consider it, will you? I know survival instinct isn't currently in vogue upstairs, but you could at least try ..."
Too many things to say. Again. For the first time, Castiel understood Dean's urge to make light of things, to say the first foolish thing to come to mind, because all other things were too heavy, sitting in his chest like physical things. But ... there were things Gabriel did not understand. Things Sam and Dean did not understand either, or even Aziraphale. Crowley ... well. That depended on whether or not the Serpent remembered, but Castiel thought he did. Thought he might. But Gabriel did not. And Castiel rather thought now would be a good time to explain.
"Gabriel," he said, very softly, eyes closed and face tucked into Dean's chest, hand curled tight against his brother's. "It is not that I am expendable. It has never been that. You need to understand this."
The archangel was quiet for a second. Actually thinking about it. Gabriel had come a long way, in a very short time. Castiel was almost proud, or would be, if he was any further along himself. "What is it, then?"
"I don't act because I think I am expendable," Castiel said slowly, pointedly. "I act because I think I am capable, Gabriel. Because I think these are things I can do. I may be the least experienced angel here. I may be the least powerful. But I am not a child, brother. And I am not stupid. I survived Hell. I survived the loss of my Grace, and managed to fight despite it. I survived openly defying Heaven itself. With help, yes, but I survived. I have been a soldier for six thousand years. I know how to judge risks."
Gabriel made a little noise, as if he wanted to interrupt, but Castiel cut across him. Quietly, even still.
"I did not offer you my Grace because I wanted to die, or thought if anyone had to it should be me. I offered you my Grace because I thought it would work. I thought I could free you without taking what is precious to you. And I was right. And will be right again." He paused, weighing his words, then said, very softly, very quietly. "There are things I cannot fight. I know that. But there are things I can, and ways around even when I can't, and I promise you I will find those ways. Every time. I can ... I can protect you, Gabriel. I can ... watch your back. I can. Trust me for that. Please."
The archangel froze, stiff and still, enough that Sam moved in his sleep, vague distress, and the form against Castiel's back moved as Sam pulled Gabriel instinctively closer, holding him tighter. Castiel felt his lips curve into a smile against Dean's chest.
"It's not ..." Gabriel whispered, muffled by Sam's 'octopus arms', still clinging to Castiel's hand awkwardly. "It's not that I don't believe you can, Castiel. It's ... I just ... don't understand why you want to." Quiet, nervous, and Castiel somehow had the impression that the archangel was very, very glad they were not in a position to look at each other right now. For some reason, people had trouble meeting his eyes in moments like this.
But the question itself -and it was a question, despite the phrasing, even Castiel knew that- the question itself was easily answered. Maybe easier, since he'd begun his travels with the Winchesters, maybe clearer to him than it had once been. Because family meant something now, meant more than comrades and brothers-in-arms. Family meant family, now. It meant Dean and Sam, and Gabriel, and Aziraphale and Crowley and Bobby. It had meant, for so little time, Jo and Ellen. It had meant Anna, so briefly, so terribly. It meant.
"Because you are my brother," he whispered, held close between Dean and Gabriel and Sam, into the morning silence. "And I love you."
And if the quiet sounds that followed were those of an archangel softly crying ... well. Castiel had learned there were times when silence spoke as well as words, and his hand never let go.
The sun was warm against him. Nice and warm against his scales, and the dust in the carpet was soft and smelled of books. Smelled like his angel. Well, possibly like his angel after a few bottles, admittedly, but close enough to count. Books and bottles and sunshine, and the soft chink of cups and the murmur of his angel's voice from the kitchen. The world was warm, like that. The world was always warm when Aziraphale was near.
Sweet Manchester, he was maudlin now. And he hadn't even had a drink yet! But the world was warm, and dust motes danced, and Crowley lay on the carpet in a stranger's house, and felt distantly at home. Soft and sleepy and warm.
He was building up to the change. Nice and slow. Easy does it. Being a snake again was ... nice in its own way, and useful, and had done a lovely job of freaking out the two boys earlier, but he sort of missed opposable thumbs. He sort of missed fingers in general. And wings. And hair. And Aziraphale, but that was a different thing.
Point was, it was past time for him to scoop the angel up, rather than the other way around.
But the change wasn't that simple. Not this time. His old corporation had been good. So used to being manipulated up and down that it almost went on autopilot. The atoms in it had been thrown back into Hell and out again so many times over the millennia that sometimes Crowley swore the body remembered more than he did. The only one of its kind, except for Aziraphale's, and he'd been rather fond of it. He'd had it since Eden, for Someone's sake! Destroyed, over and over, every time Aziraphale or some human or ridiculous accident had discorporated him, and the baseline interface between Earth and Hell remade it for him, stuffed him back in, and pitched him back to Earth. It had gotten to the point where he almost knew every atom of his old body by name.
But then the last Apocalypse had happened, and Hell had, with extreme prejudice, shut down his department. The only demon on Earth with free access to a regenerating body, and they'd cut him off. Crowley wasn't even sure how. All he knew was that, climbing out of Hell that last time, barely two years ago, fresh from twenty years of Alastair and the quest of an insane angel, crossing the barrier had not, for the first time in millennia, granted him back his old form. He'd been forced to possess, for just about the first time in his life. Not for a job, but simply to survive.
Aziraphale had recognised him very quickly, after that. The empty voice on the phone cursing in every language ever known to man might have been a hint. Crowley had body-hopped across most of a continent before reaching that point, whispering in gullible ear after gullible ear, never staying more in any one longer than he had to. He couldn't bear staying. Though all of them had let him in, granted instinctive permission with a little hint here or there, he still couldn't bear the thoughts rubbing up against him, bear the dizzy spin of a human mind under his. He'd been alone in his head for millennia. It drove him crazy, listening to that.
And then, Aziraphale found him. Found him, and found him a body, too. Because Crowley had more advantages than Hell, Heaven, or anyone else who wasn't his angel knew.
Such as the fact that, while possessing his original body for the first time, a rather handsome male serpent, if he didn't say so himself ... well, there had been a lovely female in Eden, all ready for him, hadn't there? And the serpent inside him had rather liked her, and she'd had scales to die for, and Crowley hadn't yet completely mastered the art of controlling the serpent, and it was the first time he, or any other angel for that matter, had ever felt lust anyway, even lust that wasn't his own ... Long story short, he'd invented beastiality, adultery-via-possession, angelic sex and the first ten rules or so of what to do when the possessee takes over the possessor (which boiled down to allowing some time to panic and then enjoying the ride, really), all in one afternoon. End result, a lineage of serpents with quite a few metaphysical genes built in that perhaps the Lord had never intended them to have, though judging that was always a bit iffy. Ineffable. Something.
Possibly he should be slightly weirded out that he was currently in the body of his great-great-great-to-the-power-of-infinity grandkid. Well. Grandkid by proxy, anyway, but it still counted. Possibly he should be slightly weirded out that said grandkid had appeared to recognise him, when it let him in, in a distant, racial memory sort of way. Possibly he should be weirded out that he had a whole species of bodies available on the planet for him at any time, that no other angel but him could use, and no-one upstairs or down had even noticed.
Possibly he should be weirded out that his legacy to the world, aside from telemarketing, pedestrian terror and the M25, was a few billion very charming great-to-eternity grandkids with decent crushing capacity and a nasty bite.
On the other hand, he was still here, the body was rather comfortable, and his angel didn't seem to mind that he was slightly more prone to hissing in it that he used to be, and tended to carry a little more weight than before. It took him longer to transform it back up after a shift than his old one, but all in all, it still suited him, he thought.
And while back on the subject, actually ...
It was always odd, the sensation. Most angels went with human forms to start with. Even Aziraphale had had his premade that shape when the Big Guy sent him down. Crowley thought he was just about the only angel going for whom shapeshifting was a physical endeavour (with the possible exception of Gabriel, who'd hijacked a god, and one prone to shifts himself to boot). Like one big full-body healing sneeze, it was.
Apparently sounded like one too, if the clatter from the kitchen and the hurried rumble of feet was anything to go by. Aziraphale recognised the sound all too well, by now. But Crowley was too busy trying to hold his head together to be able to look up at him. Taking out a small base of demons had stretched his mind a bit far, and the shift left him feeling like his brains were trickling out his ears, between his fingers.
On the upside, he now had ears and fingers.
"Dearest! Dearest, are you alright?" Soft hands wrapped around his own, pulling his fingers away from his skull, lifting his hands gently but inexorably away from his face. "Crowley, dearest! What is it, what's wrong ..."
"Hurtssss," he hissed back, trying to open his eyes and scrunching them shut again rather hurriedly. "Sssstupid, too ssssoon ... Ssssorry, angel. Thought I wassss resssted enough ..."
"Oh, you bloody idiot," Aziraphale growled, letting go of Crowley's hands to reach down and rest one soft palm over his eyes, gentle despite the temper in his voice. "Hold still, Crowley, let me ... There. One hangover cure for shapeshifting demons who shouldn't need it in the first place if they were being careful, there you go ..."
The pain and hollow, stretchy feeling in his skull dissipated, a delicious little tingling sensation reaching down from between his eyes, through his head, down along his limbs and torso, tickling his toes and sparking in his fingers, curling lightly across the wings curled in the ethereal planes. Crowley made a positively indecent noise, noting that one for later, oh yes, Aziraphale was absolutely doing that again later, in private. Or in public. Crowley wasn't fussy there.
"Dearest? Can you open your eyes now?"
He smiled, a smooth curve on his lips, and opened his eyes. To sunshine and dust, and the flushed, concerned face of his angel. Aziraphale, looming over him again, kneeling on the floor and leaning close, blue eyes shining and lips right there ...
The angel squawked at him as he lunged, hands flapping in startled protest against his shoulders, but Crowley had been wanting to kiss Aziraphale ever since he'd felt the touch of familiar Grace in that factory, ever since he realised he was still alive, his angel was still alive, they were both still there and the Devil himself hadn't yet managed to kill either of them. He'd been wanting to kiss Aziraphale that whole time, and he'd be damned all over again if he was stopping now!
Then there were arms around him, pulling him close against his angel's chest, pressing tight enough to almost crush, just tight enough, and his angel was kissing back, fierce and desperate and terribly, terribly gentle. Aziraphale curled around him, held on for dear life, making little sounds in his throat, words in the quiet of their minds, silent between them, and Crowley leaned in and drank him in. Pushed a little tingle into the kiss, maybe, a little 'hangover cure' for good measure, a little thrill to make his angel shake against him and cry. Aziraphale didn't seem to object.
There was another noise, then. A more distant noise, a clatter and splash, something hitting the floor, and a strangled squeak. Crowley frowned a bit, then remembered.
The human. Bobby. Making coffee with his angel, and then ...
Aziraphale pulled away, reluctantly, pulling Crowley's lower lip with him for a little bit, panting as he rested his forehead against Crowley's for a second, regaining composure. Crowley opened his eyes, smirked at him a tiny bit, licking said lip pointedly with a tongue that was maybe still a little forked. The angel swallowed.
"My ... My apologies, Robert," Aziraphale managed, leaning back from Crowley, looking up at the old hunter standing gobsmacked in the doorway. "I'm sorry, we ..."
"Yeah, I can see," the human cut in hurriedly, eyes darting between them a little, resting with slightly protective suspicion on Crowley for a second, and the demon had to smile at that. Aziraphale brought that out in people. Even when he was behaving scandalously with a demon on the man's floor. He brought it out in people.
"Ssssorry," he hissed himself, entirely unconvincingly, and smirked when Bobby frowned at him, hard. The human almost opened his mouth, almost started to make a point about the danger of doing certain things with demons, maybe, the dangers of trusting something like him, and then ... Then the anger faded, and the human looked at him with a complicated mix of almost-pity, and amusement, and understanding. Which had Crowley frowning and wondering what the hell his angel had been saying all of a sudden.
"Don't worry about it," the hunter drawled, mouth curling a little. "I gotta check something out in the yard anyway. You boys don't mind me ..."
Aziraphale knelt up, flustered, blushing sheepishly. "No, Robert ... Mr Singer, really, there's no need, we wouldn't ..."
"Why not?" Bobby interrupted him, gently, flashing Crowley a sly look that had him sitting up, paying attention. This man might be something interesting after all. "Ain't no-one here got any problems, angel. You do what you like. Just don't get anything nasty on my books."
Crowley snorted, as Aziraphale straightened up out of his confusion in outright affront. "I would never," the angel began heatedly, genuinely offended, and then stopped as he took in Crowley and Bobby's expressions, the twitching amusement hovering under their twin facades. "Oh, shut up the pair of you!" He sat back with a huff, arms crossing on ancient instinct, pouting so ridiculously, so deliciously, that Crowley wanted to eat him up right then and there. He swallowed.
"Thanksss, Robert," he hissed, strained, never taking his eyes off his angel. "If you don't mind ..."
The man snorted expressively, and stomped back out towards the kitchen, and presumably the yard beyond. "Oh, sort yourselves out already. Clean up after, and don't wake the boys, though, I warn you."
"Clean. Wake boyssss. Got it." Crowley repeated automatically, barely even hearing the distant response, if there was one. Already leaning in, leaning closer, reaching up with his newly returned hand to turn his angel's face back to him, to trace that pout with his thumb and watch it soften. "Got it, angel ..."
And he did. Get it, that was. He got ... all of it.
Chapter 18: The Second Plan
The humming woke Gabriel. Not because it was loud. But because it was very, very persistent. Whoever it was wanted anyone listening to know he was not going to stop until he got what he wanted. Whatever he wanted.
"There. Were. Four in the bed, and the little one said ..." Crowley sang happily. Which seemed Gabriel's cue ...
"The little one said, screw you," he hissed, shoving his head pointedly into Sam's shoulder and pulling one heavy arm back over his shoulders, the way anyone else would pull the covers over their head. Sam, blearily heading towards consciousness, made a little puzzled sound, but let him do as he liked. At that, Gabriel gave considerable consideration to simply never moving again. Crowley, though, was apparently not in the mood for that kind of thing. Hypocrite. Crowley'd slept through the better part of the 19th century. In its entirety. He had no right to be bullying Gabriel out of bed after a whole five hours ...
"Huh. Not the lyrics I was going for, but we can work with it." A thoughtful pause, and Gabriel didn't even have to see the leer to know it was there. "And the little one said 'screw you'. So they all rolled over and ... you know, archangel, I'm not sure there's room, but I suppose we could try ..."
"Is someone going to kill the demon, or am I going to have to get up?" Dean growled huskily from somewhere beyond Castiel. The human sounded hungover, and annoyed, and not at all happy. Normally, Gabriel would be happy about this, but in this particular instance he was in the same boat. Or bed.
"Gabriel will kill him for us," Castiel said, firmly, voice husky with sleep and about two octaves lower than it should have been, but Gabriel figured waking up pressed full length against the love of his life might be partially responsible for that.
"Cas!" The bed bounced alarmingly, cracking the top of Gabriel's skull against Sam's chin, and fine, fine, he was up, he was getting up ... And he didn't need to see that, thank you. He absolutely did not need to see Dean Winchester all but eating his little brother's face. He also didn't need to fall over Sam trying to climb out of the bed, or to have the great lump fall after him and land on him in a confusion of limbs while the demon in the doorway went into hysterics.
You know, on second thoughts? This whole sleeping thing wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
Then he blinked up as Sam untangled them, up into flushed, half-awake features and a sleepy smile, and realised that his human was all but pinning him to the floor, and at least one part of him was very enthusiastically saying good morning ...
"Come back in an hour," he growled at Crowley, waving an imperious hand in the demon's direction. Which resulted in absolutely nothing except the snickers going up in pitch, until the demon had to pull himself together long enough to say:
"Twenty minutes. Bobby says he's coming up with a shotgun if you're not down after that." Some more desperate snorting, and then Crowley breathed deep, and managed to finish. "There's lunch in it for you if you can manage it without scarring him for life."
"I'm sure we will manage," Castiel said, in what was simultaneously the most sex-laden voice Gabriel had heard in months, and the primest tone humanly possible. Even Gabriel found that hilarious, so he pre-emptively knocked the demon out of the room and down the stairs with a wave of his hand, before the laughter could actually paralyse the bastard and rob them of their twenty minutes.
Twenty minutes. There was a lot Gabriel could do with twenty minutes ...
There was also a lot Castiel could do with twenty minutes, apparently, which Gabriel wasn't completely sure he'd wanted to know, but if the noises their humans were making were anything to go by, nobody had any complaints.
On third thoughts, while he was capable of having thoughts, sleeping was fine after all. Not as fine as waking up, though.
Okay. So it was more like half an hour than twenty minutes. But that was only because Gabriel had done a little click-and-snap to clean him and Sam up, and Castiel had tried the same on his end, and the little bastard had managed it. Shining with Grace once more, Castiel had managed something that had been denied him for months, and there'd had to be another ten minutes while Dean kissed him senseless in congratulations, and Gabriel tried to remember how to breathe again, and Sam wondered if Heimlich maneuvers worked on breathless archangels.
They didn't, as it happened. Kissing, though, did.
So. They were ten minutes late coming down. Bobby -and Gabriel felt weird calling him that, but Sam apparently felt weird if Gabriel called him anything else- didn't call them on it, though. Probably because, as far as Gabriel could see, the man had gotten all the sense and decency his adoptive family hadn't. Or because mentioning it would come under the 'scarred for life' heading. Either or. Aziraphale probably had similar reasons for keeping quiet.
Crowley didn't mention it either, but in his case that was less because of decency, and more because the demon had a six-thousand-year old leer that more than made up for any verbal silence on his part. More than made up for it.
Castiel apparently didn't like that. Or simply saw it as the perfect excuse to let loose whatever dirty little secret he'd been holding in since seeing Crowley in snake-form in the ... in the factory. Whatever it was, the end result was Gabriel's little brother marching up to where the demon was seated with the kind of expression on his face that would do a Trickster proud. Gabriel felt all warm and tingly just looking at it.
Though that could have been Sam's hand on his leg, now that he thought about it.
"You are no longer wearing your other shape," Castiel noted, faux-casual, with a beautiful little smirk riding under the seriousness of his expression. Gabriel grinned into the middle distance, and quietly noted that every pair of eyes in the room was riveted on his little brother's performance. Including a very nervous-looking golden set.
"No," Crowley drawled, equally casual, equally false, and wiggled his fingers. "I wanted to have opposable thumbs in time for lunch. Why? Did you need me for something?"
The expression that slowly crept across Castiel's face could only be called a smirk.
"No," he said quietly. "It was only that I hoped for another cuddle. You were so comfortable, last time, and surprisingly muscular ..."
Aziraphale made a noise like a kettle boiling over. Dean echoed him with almost frightening similarity. Gabriel was torn between snickering at the lot of them, and taking the suddenly pale demon outside for a little minute to ask him why he'd been molesting all Gabriel's little brothers. Aziraphale, he might have an excuse. Castiel ...
Crowley growled, pointing a shaking finger at Castiel. "I told you never to mention that," he hissed, but his expression was more pleading than threatening. "After all I did, the least you could do is not mention it!"
Cas blinked, all surprised innocence and vague hurt, and Gabriel had to wonder, then. Wonder if there wasn't something they were missing here. Because in his experience, the only people who could look that perfectly innocent ... were people who really weren't. "Is that why you pretended not to know me?" his little brother asked, piling on the hurt. "I don't understand. Why would you not wish people to know that you ... helped me? I was badly injured at the time. I would not have escaped without your help. A ... cuddle ... was a small price to pay, for that ..."
... Dead. Filthy rotten pervert demon was dead. He was sixteen different kinds of dead, and yes, Gabriel was perfectly capable of making all of them happen at once, and even if he wasn't Dean Winchester looked more than set to help him.
"Explain, demon," he snarled, coming up out of his chair, about a split second ahead of Dean, and for once Aziraphale wasn't leaping straight to his demon's defense, still looking between Crowley and Castiel in worried confusion.
Crowley, though, wasn't looking at them. He did glance at Aziraphale for a second, but other than that ... he sat still as stone, and stared at Castiel for a minute. A long minute. Then he raised one shaking hand, pointed at him and said: "Evil. You evil bastard! There are demons out there crying because they can't be as evil as you, you know that? You're a lying rotten bastard, and Gabriel ought to sue you for stealing his schtick!"
Gabriel blinked. "My schtick?"
Crowley grimaced in his direction. "What is it you angels have against me, anyway? Why do you always have to make it sound like I've committed just about the only crimes in creation I haven't actually done?" He paused for a second, and turned back to Cas with narrowed eyes. "Unless ... you're trying to make me admit to what I have actually done ..."
Castiel smiled. "Such as find an injured, hunted angel and rescue him? Such as cuddle up to him on instinct because you were hurt and afraid and, I suspect, thought he was your angel, just for a minute? Such as help that angel complete his mission, and break out of Hell itself?" He smiled. "Why would I want you to admit that?"
"... Hell?" Aziraphale asked, very quietly. Across the table, Dean sat down suddenly, going pale and quiet. Sam reached out mutely and squeezed his arm.
Crowley grimaced. "Yeah, about that ... You know when I had to spend two months in Hell when that rogue exorcist caught me in Naples couple years back?"
Aziraphale went very still. "You told me that was two days, dearest," he said, distantly.
Crowley flinched, looking suddenly panicky. "Er. Did I?"
"Yes, dear. You did. After we got you your new body, remember? You told me, very clearly I might add, that the exorcist had caught you only week ago, and you'd spent only two days Downstairs. You told me, dearest."
"Um." Crowley's sudden greenish complexion went very well with the golden eyes, Gabriel thought. "Um. Well, you know how time blurs together down there, angel. I didn't ... I didn't realise until later how long it had been, that's all ..."
Castiel tilted his head. "Really? While you were helping me, you said you'd been down there twenty years, to my forty. I believe you said it explained why they'd simply put you in the freezer out of the way, while they concentrated on me and my team. You seemed very sure of the time then. Did you forget on reaching the surface?"
Crowley shot him a very, very dirty look, but didn't have time to retort before Aziraphale reached out, tugged him around and met his eyes with the kind of stare that looked like it was cataloguing your toenails. Crowley sucked in a breath, flinching back a bit, and Aziraphale's fierce expression collapsed in on itself, and the angel promptly plucked Crowley up out of his chair and into Aziraphale's arms, burying his face in the crook of Crowley's neck. The demon stiffened, glaring furiously around the room at anyone who might dare comment, and hesitantly patted his angel on the back.
"How many times am I going to lose you, dearest?" Aziraphale murmured thickly, arms tightening convulsively around Crowley's waist.
Crowley glared furiously at Castiel, who suddenly looked more than a little guilty, and snuggled Aziraphale's head carefully. "You haven't lost me at all yet," he pointed out gruffly. "Look, it was just some time in the freezer, angel. Alastair really was busy elsewhere ..." And Dean flinched down to the ground, curving back into Sam, catching Castiel's hand. "... It was just ... cold, that's all. Just cold. The only reason it took me that long to get out was because the psychopathic bastard put a seal around me, and yon tattletale angel over there fixed that when he fell over me and tried to kick my head in. No worries."
"And then he helped me escape," Castiel continued quietly, one hand holding Dean's, the other resting on his human's shoulder like he never, ever meant to let go again. "He helped me find Dean, helped me stay alive until I could, and risked his freedom by waiting until after I had awoken every security force in Hell by stealing the Righteous Man to escape." Aziraphale made a strangled sound, and Crowley glared pure murder, but Castiel was undeterred as ever, and finished with heavy finality. "I could not thank you before, because you did not reveal yourself to me. But without you, I would not be here right now. More importantly, without you Dean would not be here. For that, I cannot thank you enough."
Which didn't seem to mollify Crowley in the slightest, or anyone else for that matter, and for a long moment a pall hung over the room that wouldn't have seemed out of place in a funeral home. And Gabriel ... Gabriel couldn't bear it. He really couldn't. There was only so much angst he could take in one sitting, and this coming so close on the heels of his little talk with Lucy ...
"So, to sum up," he cut in, bright and cheerful as he leaned back in his chair and waiting for them all to look at him. "Basically, there isn't an angel in this room who you haven't personally pulled out of the fire at one point or another, and you've saved more of your supposed enemy than some demons even meet. That about right?" A long pause, while Crowley's jaw worked soundlessly, and Gabriel grinned. "Honestly, Serpent, I had no idea you were so noble. Honourable, even. Merciful. In fact, one might even say ... heroic?"
At each successive adjective, Crowley went redder and redder, and at the last he practically exploded, spluttering incoherently as he waved furious arms in Gabriel's direction. "I am not ... how dare you ... You take that back, Gabriel! You take that back right now! I am not, I was never ... You take that back!"
He squirmed in Aziraphale's grasp, trying to wriggle free so he could hit Gabriel, and he looked so perfectly, uniquely, marvelously comical that they had to laugh. All of them. Sam and Dean, trying badly to hide it, Bobby at the counter hiding behind his coffee mug, even Castiel with that little smile tucked in the corner of his mouth, Aziraphale somewhere between beaming pride and helpless, guilty amusement, and Gabriel ... Gabriel leaned back and let loose, completely unashamed, grinning like a Cheshire Cat while Crowley spluttered at the lot of them.
And because they were all guiltily trying to avoid his eyes, because all of them except Gabriel were looking away ... only he saw the little flicker of pride and relief that curled under the affront in the demon's face. Only he saw that.
"I'm glad you all find me so bloody amusing," Crowley snarled at last, crossing his arms huffily and elbowing Aziraphale gleefully in the ear in the process. "Of course, if the angels in the room would stop doing shit like pick fights with Heaven and Hell, and the Devil, and the entire First bloody Crusade, I wouldn't have to keep stepping in, would I? And it's not like any of you are any better, or did you all just decide to come to my rescue because you were bored?"
"Ah, but we have an excuse!" Gabriel pointed out, grinning. "We are, after all, angels. With some champions of humanity thrown in, yes, and I do realise I use that term only in its very loosest sense ..."
"Bite me," Dean growled, having apparently recovered himself. Gabriel smirked at him.
"You know, you really will have to stop asking me things like that in front of your boyfriend, Deano. He might get the wrong idea."
For a second, there was a guilty flash as Dean looked up at Cas, but there was only faint, delighted amusement in his little brother's face, a kind of playful pride and a joy that his family was playing together, and both Dean and Gabriel gulped at the sight of it. Shivered down to their souls at the sheer, honest love in Castiel's expression, because that wasn't fair, it wasn't fair for Cas to offer them that and not be afraid of it, wasn't fair that he could hold himself out to them and have complete, utter confidence that they wouldn't hurt him for it. It wasn't fair for him to trust them that way.
No. It wasn't fair. But it was real, and it was there, and there was nothing either of them could do except go along with it. So Dean turned back to Gabriel with a smirk pasted over the shell-shocked love, and said:
"Nah. He'll be too busy cuddling his muscular serpent over there."
And while Castiel smirked wider than should really be possible, Crowley snorted viciously, and grinned an evil grin. "And that'll leave Sam, Bobby and the angel in a threesome to round us out," the demon said, "And aren't you all so glad you waited to eat until after you'd had that lovely thought?"
Bobby coughed coffee all over his shirt. While he wheezed and gasped and glared furiously at Crowley as he fought for breath, Sam looked over at the demon, then down at Gabriel, and commented mildly: "You know, I think Crowley's right. He's not at all heroic or honourable."
"Damn straight," the demon grinned, and crossed his arms triumphantly.
They did actually manage to eat in the end, despite Crowley's parting shot. Though Bobby had pointedly refused to give the demon any, and stabbed at his hand whenever he reached for some with all the accuracy of decades of hunting. Crowley sulked, up until Aziraphale slid his plate over with a tiny smile and a gentle pat on the demon's arm, and Crowley had to spend a minute or two deciding whether he should feel grateful or patronised. Gabriel wasn't sure if he ever picked one or the other, or simply decided 'hungry' overruled the lot of them, but the demon tucked in with a will and a smug grin in Bobby's direction.
There were times when Gabriel really did like the little bastard.
He wasn't sure how long that was going to last, however, when he saw the old hunter exchanging meaningful glances with both the angel and the demon while they cleared up. Aziraphale, who either couldn't be secretive to save his life or simply didn't see the point, nodded at him and leaned over to murmur in Crowley's ear without any care at all for who might be watching and wondering. Well well. It looked like Bobby and those two had been plotting while they'd all been upstairs asleep, and that ... that could only be a bad thing.
"Why do I sense a conspiracy in the air?" he asked mildly, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms with a warning smirk. Sam and Dean looked around carefully, leaning forwards surreptiously across the table, and Castiel simply settled his buzz-saw stare on the back of Aziraphale's head and waited until the other angel crumpled.
The three conspirators sent each a long, very patient, faintly exasperated look. Gabriel tried not to hold it against them.
"Me and the boys here, we've just been getting a few things in motion, that's all," Bobby said gruffly, sitting down beside the demon and kicking Crowley's legs out of the way. He had to pause for a second, to look down at his foot and grin to himself for a moment, before he looked back up and got back down to business.
"In between ... distractions, anyway," Aziraphale mumbled dutifully, and flushed ever so faintly. Crowley leered happily at him.
"Yeah, thanks, didn't need reminding there," Bobby growled, rolling his eyes at them, and Gabriel hid a little smirk. So the demon had gotten a little something too this morning. Aside from Bobby's mortification, of course. Good for him.
"What kind of things?" Sam asked cautiously, looking very warily between Crowley and Bobby in particular. Apparently he thought the pair of them in league was cause for worry. Huh.
"Oh, an army," Aziraphale said breezily. "And some heavy duty planet-wide fortifications. Nothing much."
Dean swallowed audibly. Gabriel didn't blame him. "Uh. What now?"
Bobby grinned. Wide and gleeful, and Gabriel was suddenly reminded of Crowley and Castiel hunched over a table with explosions going off behind their eyes, and remembered what he'd said about handing machine guns to kids and telling them to play nice.
Apparently they had. They'd just offered to share the guns with other kids.
"Turns out the angel has a few handy Old World contacts for us," Bobby grinned happily. "Apparently the Jesuits have already been mobilised against the demon problem, along with the Knights of the Cross and a few other of the more military minded religious bodies. And on the angel side ... well. Got us an in with the Cistercians' metallurgy labs on the Continent. Gonna rustle us up some portable banishing sigils. Not many. Just enough to outfit, oh, say, every hunter across America."
"And some backup funding and manpower from the Families, too," Aziraphale reminded gently. "They can help with logistics, too, if you need to move a lot of people in a hurry."
"The ... the Families?" Dean asked faintly.
"The Mafia, to you," Crowley translated helpfully, grinning snakily. "Not the new crowd, mind. The old families. The old order." He jerked a thumb in the angel's direction. "Angel here's been on speaking terms with most of the family heads for about the last century. They used to help him out when nasty men came around to his bookshop making noises about how very flammable it all looked. Course, this was in London, but they were very helpful in writing him letters of introduction stateside ..."
"The Mafia," Sam repeated slowly. "The Mafia???"
"Lovely people," Aziraphale nodded, smiling gently. "Rather aggressive business practices, of course, but they have been getting better about that over the last couple of decades. And really, compared to the way things used to get done, during the Renaissance for example, they've been one of the more genteel aspects of civilisation. At least they'll talk to you."
"The Mafia," Dean said again. Faintly. Like if he repeated it enough, it might sink in. Gabriel grinned a little.
"Don't know why you're surprised, Deano," he smirked. "These two aren't like me and Cas. They've been down here from the start. Since Eden." A slow smile, eyeing them appraisingly. "They know everyone."
"Not quite everyone," Aziraphale demurred, but he was smirking a little himself. "Merely enough to be useful, hopefully. Oh, and Castiel? Crowley's going to need your help for the next couple of days, if it's not too much trouble. We need to set up the big sigils for the banishment loops, or the amulets the Cistercians are going to start shipping shortly won't be of much use."
"Banishment loops?" Gabriel asked sharply, sitting forwards. Crowley grinned like a shark.
"Big attractor sigils," he explained, the glee bubbling just under the surface of his voice. "A global circuit of about sixteen of 'em. When the angels get banished on the ground, they get sucked into the nearest of these babies, and start getting bounced around the loop. Essentially every time they land in one of them, they get automatically banished on to the next one. And again, and again. Won't kill 'em. Won't even hurt 'em all that much. It'll just keep them out of our hair for a while, and make them sick as pigs in the process."
Castiel leaned forwards, blue eyes suddenly shining in a way that was frankly unholy, in Gabriel's opinion. "Self-sustaining?" he asked, voice hitting that deep register again in a very worrying way. Crowley smirked.
"If we do it right. Got to link them all up to the central one in the Himalayas. I've got a few friends over there, some monks, lovely blokes, who'll happily sustain the circuit for as long as it takes if it'll help save the world. They're very civic-minded like that over there." He snuck a sideways look at Gabriel. "Play our cards right, and the archangel here might even be able to arrange for a guard on it, too. Someone not even archangels will challenge lightly."
Gabriel blinked. A lot. "You want me to ask her?" he asked, staring. "You want me to ask Kali to babysit some monks and the end of the world?" The demon shrugged cheerfully.
"Or get her to ask one of the others, either," he said casually. "Shiva or Vishnu should at least appreciate the aim, and it's not as if they'd have to hold it for long. This isn't a siege we're preparing for. Nobody has that kind of time. Besides. It's her world they're threatening too, and if I recall correctly Kali never did take that kind of thing well. I'm sure she'd agree."
"Well, yes," Gabriel murmured slowly, but the doubt was thick in his voice. "But if any of them do go for her, she's going to slaughter them. Asking Kali to go easy on someone is like a human trying to make a river run uphill with his bare hands. They'll be killed!"
"Yes, well," Aziraphale said quietly. "Hopefully they will realise that and not try it. But we have very few choices left, Gabriel. We have to do something." A pause, and then ... "Besides. That's really the least of our worries. There's something far more important that we haven't dealt with. Something, I think, we were all hoping we wouldn't have to deal with. But I think recent events have rather show us otherwise ..."
He trailed off, but he didn't really have to finish. Gabriel's wings had started aching the moment he opened his mouth, phantom pain through scarred bone and tissue, and he didn't think any of them failed to realise what Aziraphale meant. Who Aziraphale meant.
"He won't let us do this bloodlessly," Crowley whispered softly, looking right at Gabriel, and Gabriel could happily have gone his entire existence without having to see the pity in those golden eyes. "He's going to come for us one way or another. And that jumped up little twerp topside likewise. Whatever about Michael, according to Castiel Zach's got at least Raphael on his side, and nothing we've got now will help us much if archangels start breaking down the door. We've got nothing against that power-class. We're going to have to do something, and the fastest way to shut all of them down is to shut Lucifer down."
Gabriel shook his head, mouth twisting up. He just shook his head. He couldn't. He couldn't harm them. Any of them. Not even if they were obviously more than willing to harm him. Not even if at least one of them had a habit of nailing him to floors, and the others a habit of letting him. They were still his brothers. He couldn’t ...
"Gabriel," Aziraphale said, very quietly. "Gabriel, look at me. Look at me please." He waited, waited until Gabriel lifted his eyes almost unwillingly, and reached out, eyes soft with pity. "Gabriel, we are not asking you to kill them. Do you understand. We are not. But we need a way to deal with them. A non-fatal way, for preference, but we need something."
"I know you have a plan," Crowley spoke up, golden eyes boring a hole in the side of Gabriel's head, but not malicious. Just ... contemplative. "I remember you, archangel. I remember the old days. You aren't a Trickster just because it was handy. You didn't just pick that because it was the first thing that presented itself. You were always the one called when someone needed a more ... unorthodox solution to a problem. I remember that."
"Yes," Gabriel hissed, glaring at the demon. He remembered that too. He remembered it far, far too well. There was more than one reason he left. "You might also remember, though, that those 'solutions' tended to come with a healthy chunk of planetary population for a bodycount! I will not do that again! I will not be that again! And I will never, ever point that kind of 'solution' at my family! Never!"
He came half out of his seat, Grace crackling with fury and all but an inch from lashing out as they all stared at him, and somewhere inside him something twisted hard. Something that remembered what he'd done, once upon a time. Something that remembered what it had felt like to do it. Something that whispered how easy it would be, just to do that again. He'd wiped a whole race off the face of the earth, once. Literally. Destroyed them to a man, simply because they hadn't seen him coming, hadn't understood what he was and what he did to them, and there was a part of him now that whispered how Lucifer wouldn't see him coming either. Or Raphael, or Michael. They hadn't seen. They didn't expect. Every last one of them thought him less than useless, less than weak, and not one of them would ever expect ...
It would be easy. It would be so easy. And Gabriel would sooner tear out his Grace and kill himself then and there than ever, ever be that thing again. He wouldn't do it. He wouldn't do it!
"You won't have to," Aziraphale said quietly, cutting across Gabriel's fury with implacable calm. Completely merciless and endlessly compassionate, doing what needed to be done despite how much it hurt, and it was that, and that alone, that made this angel terrible. Where any other angel would either pretend his pain didn't exist as he asked, or look away from it, Aziraphale looked straight at him, seeing, accepting and understanding every part of him ... and asking anyway. "You won't have to kill them, Gabriel. But we need something, and you are the only one of us who might know what. You are the only one of us who knows their weaknesses."
"We might not have to use it," Crowley said, cautiously. "I have an idea ... there's something that's been bothering me for a while ... But we can't afford to be wrong when we're messing with archangels. We won't survive being wrong. Not unless we have a back-up plan, something that can shut them down. Even temporarily."
"Please, Gabriel," Aziraphale finished. "Something that can trap them, maybe? Something that we can threaten them with, even, try to make them see reason? Anything? Anything at all? Please, you must know something ..."
They looked at him. All of them. Aziraphale and Crowley, tag-team, plea and persuasion together. Sam and Bobby, tiredly hopeful. Castiel and Dean, and there was something strange there, something between guilt and hollow empathy, something in the way Dean in particular looked out at him as if he'd been there, as if he'd had to make this choice once, as if he'd been asked a terrible thing before. They all looked at him. To him.
And the thing was ... the thing was, Gabriel almost believed them. Almost believed they would let him stay his hand, be content with a trap, when at least three of them knew full well that Gabriel had it in him to end all their problems permanently. When at least three of them knew all that he had been, all that he had done, all that he could do again if they only broke him enough. And they could. The hold they had on his heart now, they could break him if they chose. They could ask, and make him give. Though it killed him. They could make him give.
But they wouldn't. He didn't know why he believed that, why he trusted that, but he knew they wouldn't. Though literally every other person Gabriel had ever called family would have, and had, in a heartbeat, these people wouldn't. He could trust them for that.
So maybe ... maybe he could trust them with a little more.
"You know the Horsemen?" he said at last, collapsing back into his chair and pointedly not looking as they collectively breathed out in relief and helpless gratitude. "Well, see, the Horsemen have these rings ..."
Chapter 19: Interlude II: Gabriel
Gabriel had disappeared while the others started planning. Sam had looked away from him for a second, and the archangel had been gone when he'd looked back. For the love of ... This was beginning to be a habit of Gabriel's. A bad one. And consequently it was beginning to be a habit of Sam's to make his excuses and follow.
This time, though, before he could leave, Castiel's stare lasered in on him from across the room, hitting him like a bullet between the eyes. The angel never moved, never blinked, never spoke. Just stared, until Sam got the message.
Take care of my brother.
Sam nodded shortly. Managed to meet Cas' eyes. He meant to. Take care of Gabriel. He meant to. Maybe growl at him a little first, tell him to quit running away for a start, but ... He meant to. Gabriel was his. He was going to look after him.
He found the archangel in the junkyard. Well. Not found, exactly. Saw. Stopped. Stared. Unable to breathe. Unable to move. He saw Gabriel.
He saw Gabriel's wings.
Not all of them. Not the way they'd been in the factory, not splayed out, tier on tier, stacked around him the way no physical thing should work. Not like that. Not a spray of power and feathers and glory, not the might of an archangel even pinned. Not that.
Only the two. The two damaged ones. The ones that had been torn, broken, smashed. Just them, alone, two crumpled, battered arcs pooling around the seated archangel. Wrapping jagged around Gabriel's hunched form, the archangel curled in on himself, looking down at them. Tracing ancient scars with one hand, oblivious in his misery. Sam had never ... never seen Gabriel look so small. So small, so damaged. Just a hurt man, wrapped in broken wings, curled up on the hood of a junker. Not even the first time, not even when Sam had still thought him human, just a janitor making jokes ... not even then had Gabriel seemed so small.
He must have made a noise. Made some little sound, a breath of shock, of pain. He must have, because Gabriel jerked, a snapping flash of fear and then power as he spun, the wings trailing after him, spilling off the hood, and Sam jerked after them before he thought. Jerked forward to catch them, to stop them catching on machinery or earth or anything ... anything that might hurt them. More than they already were, anyway. He jerked forward, and Gabriel froze, going absolutely rigid in something close to terror.
"I'm sorry, I ..." Sam stammered, wincing internally. Yeah, way to go, Sammy. The one person in the world who's going to remind him of who did this, and you go and grab at them. Real smart, there ...
"No," Gabriel managed, visibly forcing himself to relax, to fit his face back into the Trickster's smile, and pull the wings ... Pull the wings up. But not away. Not back wherever the angels kept them that humans couldn't see. Gabriel pulled them up onto the hood, tucked them close ... and didn't take them away. "Sorry there, kiddo. I'm a little ... jumpy, right now?"
Sam bit his lip, nodded. "Figured that," he said, approaching cautiously. Coming close enough to see the faint tremors in damaged wings, to see the way Gabriel watched him carefully. Close enough to wonder why the archangel bothered. Why he didn't hide them away and tell Sam to fuck off.
Gabriel smiled lopsidedly, following Sam's gaze down to the asymmetrical arcs, curling one hand absently through his own feathers, following the cruel line of one scar. "I know," he said quietly. "It's been driving Cas wrong all morning. Every time he looks at me, I can see his eyes wandering back. It's driving him crazy, not being able to fix it."
Sam felt his breath hitch a bit, catching rueful hazel eyes. "He can't fix them?" he asked, feeling his hands knotting. "Or Aziraphale? They can't ...?"
Gabriel shook his head. "I've been carrying them broken for more than six thousand years now, kiddo. Some scars just aren't fixable." A wry smile. "Nah. Unless Dad suddenly feels like getting up off his ass and coming down here long enough to wipe them clean ... Or Raphael, maybe, but let's face it, that's even less likely ..."
Sam clenched his fists. "Cas wants to hurt him for that," he noted, surprisingly calm. "Beginning to agree with him, a bit." Or a lot. Between killing Cas, and leaving Gabriel to suffer ... yeah, Raphael was so far from his favourite archangel right now ...
Gabriel bit his lip, tilted his head away. "You shouldn't, you know," he said quietly, drawing his knees up to his chest. "He had his reasons, my brother." His mouth twisted, but he sounded sincere. "I always knew that. I may not have known what he did to me to manage it until now, I may not have understood fully ... but I knew his reasons. Not reasons I happened to like, or ones I agreed with, but that's not saying they were wrong, exactly."
Sam shook his head, growling in his throat, resting his hands on the grill of the junker before he could do something unwise with them. "What reasons?" What could possibly ... what could possibly ...
Gabriel smiled bitterly. "Faith, Sammy," he said quietly. "Angels need faith to live, remember? Angels need to believe. That's why Raph ... that's why he did this. That's why he let this happen. To preserve faith."
Sam shook his head. "Gonna have to explain that one to me, Gabriel."
The archangel hugged his knees, still smiling. "Kinda had to be there, kiddo," he murmured. "After the Fall, you know. Kinda had to see. Michael ... Broke him, it did. Broke him into teeny, tiny pieces, having to throw Lucy down. All of us, really. Going to war with each other, having to kill each other, cast each other down. Hard to keep faith after that, yes? Hard to believe in much of anything, a brother's blood on your hands ..."
Sam shivered. He remembered that, yes. He knew that.
"And Michael was the worst," Gabriel whispered quietly. "He loved Lucy. He really did. Without him ... He had to believe. Someone had to help Mike believe in something, or he was going to wither fast. All of us could see it. And Raph ... well. Raph loved Michael. So Raph used me."
Sam had a feeling he didn't really want to know. But also ... that he might have to know. "How?" he asked quietly. And silently behind it, the real question.
What did they do to you?
The archangel shook, mouth twisting, and gestured down at the torn wings. "Proof," he said, blankly. "Proof that Michael was right to do what he did. Proof that Lucifer deserved what he got. Proof that Michael could believe in what he did, in what he had to do. Proof that Heaven was right to keep fighting." His hands clenched into quiet fists, and he finished: "Proof that my brothers had the right to kill each other."
Oh. Oh. Oh shit. Gabriel, who'd had to get torn open all over again before he'd even give them a means to hold his brother, let alone hurt him. Gabriel, who wouldn't even help them at all until they understood that he was never, ever going to hurt his brothers, not even for them. And then Raphael, and probably most of Heaven ... had pointed at him, held him up, and used him to excuse everything Gabriel himself hated. Left him hurt, left him alone, all so they could excuse what Daddy's orders had made them do.
And Raphael ... Raphael had known the whole time. Known that Gabriel could be healed. He had to have. Cas was awesome, really, really awesome, but he was no healer, and if he managed it, if he could look at it once and manage it, then no way in hell Heaven's chief healer had looked at the sigil, looked at the wounds, and not known. No way. And instead of helping him ...
Right. Sam had pretty much de facto hated the bastards since he found out what they did to Cas. All the things they'd done to Cas. But now ... now it was official.
"Is that ... Is that why you left?" he asked, softly, reaching out to carefully, carefully touch Gabriel's shaking shoulder, well away from the wings, to carefully hold on to him. "Is that why you left them?"
The archangel blinked at him, and tucked his face away from sight, down into his knees. Quickly, but not before Sam saw an expression that looked like nothing so much as shame. "Maybe," Gabriel muttered, muffled. "Maybe, Sammy. But ... Mostly? I was just tired of watching them all get hurt. I just wanted to ... I just couldn't watch it anymore. I was too weak to watch it, knowing what ... what was coming."
For some reason, that prodded something in the back of Sam's mind. For some reason, that clicked something into place. And Sam stared. "That's why you did it," he whispered, blinking. "That's why ..."
Gabriel looked up at him, raised his head at Sam's tone, forehead wrinkling a bit. "Uh, Sammy? What I just said, wasn't it?" Sarcasm slipping back in on sheer autopilot, despite it all, and Sam had to take a little second to smile about that.
"Not that," he growled, grinning for a second, watching Trickster eyes light up a little in response. Then ... Then more serious. Because this ... "I meant the Mystery Spot," he said cautiously, and watched the archangel's face fall. "That's why you did it. That's why you did that. Isn't it?"
"What's why I did what?" Gabriel asked lightly, but he was looking away again. "Gonna have to explain that one to me, Sammy." And maybe ... Maybe Sam did. Maybe he did have to explain it. Because he was beginning to think the reason Gabriel acted so randomly sometimes was because the archangel genuinely didn't understand his own reasons half the time.
"You knew Dean was going to die, didn't you?" Sam whispered, leaning in gently, still holding one shoulder to keep Gabriel from leaning away. "You knew more than that. You knew we were vessels. Even then. You knew what we would have to do, if we said yes. You knew that. Didn't you?"
Gabriel bit his lip. Said nothing. But nodded, very, very faintly.
"And you tried to help me," Sam whispered, smiling just a little as the archangel's head came up in shock. "A hundred Tuesdays, six months after Wednesday ... you tried to show me what it was like to lose a brother. Tried to show me what I'd go through if I didn't leave then and there. Tried to show me what it was like to watch a brother die, over and over again. To watch a brother be taken away, just beyond reach, and I could get him back if only I could make the person who took him away see reason. You tried to show me that. Tried to make me avoid it if you could, and ... be able to survive it if you couldn't. Because you know what it's like a watch a brother get hurt, and not be able to do anything about it. To watch one be taken, and not be able to get him back. Don't you."
Gabriel had paled. Paled even more than he had in the factory, and that probably shouldn't be possible. And Sam knew he was right. He knew he was right.
"Good lesson," he said quietly. "Good lesson, Gabriel. Except there's a problem. One little problem." He leaned in, nose to nose, watching those wary hazel eyes. Watching the fear there, the hope. "You gave him back," Sam said. "You gave Dean back to me. Because you're not Heaven, not Hell. Not God. Because you don't believe what they're saying. You don't believe it. You don't believe that you can't get your brother back. You don't believe that you're going to have to hurt them. You gave me my brother back, after half a year of trying to get me to abandon him, because I didn't abandon him, and that's what you understood. That's what you believed was right, in the end."
He leaned close, wrapped one hand around the back of Gabriel's neck, cradling the archangel's head gently even as they both trembled. Both shook.
"Your brothers tore you open, Gabriel," Sam whispered gently. "Lucifer, Raphael ... I don't know how many. But they hurt you. I know that. And after that, after they hurt you ... the one thing you still believe is that you're going to get them back. That you can challenge destiny like a Trickster, and get them back. Because they're your brothers, and even if they hurt you, you're going to fight for them. Even if they do this," a little gesture towards the scarred wings, a little flinch inside himself for the sight of them, "You're going to fight for them. And that ... That is not weak, Gabriel. That is so far from fucking weak."
The archangel was crying silently, his hands locked around Sam's forearms, clutching them like he was trying to hold himself up by them, trying to keep himself from drowning. Gabriel was crying, and Sam never looked away. Never. Because this was important, and Gabriel needed to see. To understand.
"You're not weak, Gabriel," he said again, very quietly. "Whatever they've said, whatever they've told you ... You're not weak, just because you don't want to hurt them. And we ... We're not Heaven either. We get it, Gabriel. We get it. Aziraphale and Crowley, they're here because after six thousand years as enemies, they can't bear to hurt each other anymore. Cas helped you, Cas was ready to die for you, because you're the first brother in more than a year who hasn't forced him to fight you, hasn't forced him to kill or die. And me and Dean ..." A small smile. "You've known since the Mystery Spot that we get it. Or you should have, anyway."
Gabriel shook his head, mouth working soundlessly around the words, desperately. "Not ... not the same ... Sammy ..."
"Exactly the same," Sam corrected gently. "You want to keep your brothers. That's the same. You don't want to hurt them. That's the same. Every other bastard in Heaven or Hell wants you to hurt them, is trying to make you hurt them, and you're not going to. You've decided to say 'screw you' to all of them. That ... that is definitely the same." A little grin, a little smile, and he felt his heart lift as it coaxed an echo in the archangel beneath him. He felt his heart lift as Gabriel smiled.
"You ... You have a slight advantage, Sammy," Gabriel murmured, but not as hopelessly as he might have. "Your brother isn't going to destroy the world."
Sam flinched a little, but did his best to smile. "No," he nodded. "No. We already have. First seal, last seal. And if they find a way to make us say yes, well ..."
"They're not going to!" A snarl, suddenly, ripe and vicious, and the archangel was glaring at him from an inch away, damp eyes suddenly fierce and crackling with power. "You listen to me, Sam. They are not. Going. To. Not unless they've killed me and Cas and everyone else first. They are not getting you. Understood?"
Sam smiled a little. Just gently. "Or you," he whispered. "Or each other, if we have anything to do with it. That's the plan, remember? We're not going to let them fight. We're not going to let them die. Mostly because if they do, they take the world with them, of course, but ... They're your brothers. We do get that. We do understand that, Gabriel. If we didn't ... Aziraphale could have asked for something different, back there. He could have asked for a lot more than he did." He felt Gabriel shake, watched the eyes dip, and realised that Gabriel had known that. And feared it, too. Which told him ... a whole hell of a lot, actually. "He didn't ask," Sam said gently. "He's not going to ask. None of us are, Gabriel. Just ... can you trust that? Trust us? Please?"
For some reason, Gabriel smiled at that. A wobbly, lopsided thing, and for a second Sam thought it was the bitter smile from earlier, thought it was that hopeless thing, but ... it wasn't. It was sardonic, yes, and wounded, but it wasn't bitter. And it certainly wasn't hopeless. And then ... then Gabriel pulled gently on Sam's arms, implacably, and tugged Sam's hands down to rest ... to rest ...
"I do trust you, Sammy," the archangel whispered, while Sam stared in shock and maybe terror at the feathers and raised scar tissue beneath his fingers. While Gabriel -Gabriel- offered him damaged wings. "That's maybe the problem. I'm afraid I trust you ... far more than I probably should." Quiet, nervous. "Far ... far more."
Sam stared. He stared. There was nothing ... he couldn't ... He stared. Because this ... and Lucifer had torn them, had torn them again, and Sam was Lucifer's vessel and in all the world there should be no-one Gabriel trusted less, not for this, no-one who reminded the archangel more of who had done this, who had hurt him, and here ... and here ...
"I won't ... I won't hurt you," Sam whispered, almost desperately, his hand shaking among the feathers, trying to be gentle, more than gentle, and he had never regretted his size more, never regretted how huge he was, because his hand looked like nothing more than a weapon, a bludgeon, laid against those fragile feathers, those damaged, brittle bones. He smoothed them gently, traced fingers as lightly as was physically possible, because he couldn't pull away. Something told him that if he pulled away now, he'd break so much more than a wing. Something far more fragile. So he did his best to be gentle. "I'm not going to hurt you, Gabriel. Not ever."
Gabriel smiled shakily, more than a little desperate himself, and lifted his hands to catch Sam's face. Left Sam's hands free to do whatever the hell they wanted, while the archangel gently turned his head until he met those hazel eyes again. Gave Sam his wings in truth, offered them trembling while he clung.
"I believe you," the archangel whispered. Terrified, trusting. Real. "I believe you, Sam. I believe in you."
The kiss that followed hurt more than anything Sam had ever felt, hollowed his chest until there was nothing but ache, nothing but love, hurt more than anything had a right to hurt, and it was all in Heaven or Earth that Sam wanted. It was all he wanted.
Because what the hell could you ask for worth more than an archangel's faith?
Chapter 20: Trust
It was a nice night, really. Crisp, clear. The sky full of stars, and all that. A nice night.
Not at all the sort of night you spent curled in the shadows on a hunter's porch while angels and humans fought it out in the house behind you, but Crowley had always been a firm believer that beggars couldn't be choosers (Aziraphale, not so much, but then the angel always had been an optimist). And given a choice between being out here, and being in there ... well. Better part of valour, and all that.
It was a shame, in some ways. Things had been going so very well, over the past two weeks. For Someone's sake, given that they were a bunch of half-arsed nobodies trying to stop an Apocalypse (again, and if they survived this he might actually have to have a word with the management about that), they weren't doing all that badly at all.
It turned out, for example, that between them, Bobby and Aziraphale were a worryingly effective pair of generals (well, not quite generals, maybe, because 'general' implied there were orders being given, when in fact it was more like a friend calling a friend of a friend to ask a favour, but ... ). The two of them had settled into Bobby's back room with a pot of coffee, another of tea, and a small army of telephones, and suddenly half the supernatural, religious and criminal populations of North America were on the move. Suddenly, Heaven and Hell had reason to be getting a little nervous.
Between that, and Gabriel's Horsemen plan, and the Banishment Loop ... well, let's just say things had been busy.
It hadn't been so bad on his end. Besides his three-continent-long argument with the kid, anyway. (Seriously! He'd been fighting, trapping and tricking angels his entire career! He knew perfectly well how to lay a sigil, thank you very much! The nerve of the little bastard ... "With respect, Crowley, anything that can be assembled by a third rate angel can be taken apart by a third rate angel. Precision is the only way to counter my brothers' experience." Third rate! Little snot!) And aside from a few creepy moments with Kali (he knew they should have had Gabriel do the asking, but the bloody archangel had ducked out on the grounds of 'complicating factors from a prior relationship', the sleazy bastard), and that sort of terrifying moment when he'd taken Castiel aside to mention the Plan to him ... Anyway. All told, not bad. For an apocalypse, that is.
It hadn't been that bad on the boys' end, either, from what he'd heard (Castiel had a tendency to check in with Dean regularly, and Aziraphale might, possibly, have checked up on him ... every six hours or so ...). Given that Pestilence had made the huge mistake of hurting Sam while Gabriel was in range, and found out really quickly what a pissed off, possessive archangel could do ... And, alright, the back-up plan with the zombie-virus was evil (whoever came up with that one must have gotten a commendation on the spot, provided of course that Down Below were still doing that sort of thing), and it had taken his angel drafting in a Knight of the Cross to help take down the warehouse to sort it, because Gabriel was busy escorting Dean to a date with Death ...
But, all in all ... a freakily effective apocalyptic campaign, if he didn't say so himself. Definitely a pat on the back job, and a finger in the general directions of the old bosses. But it lacked one thing. Something Gabriel and the Gruesome Twosome had finally noticed.
It lacked an endgame.
And now ... now they'd run through the preliminaries. Now they'd armed the planet, drawn up their defenses, and gotten themselves something to use against the Devil in the final confrontation. Now ... they were trying to figure out how to make said confrontation happen, and how to survive it ... and in Gabriel's case, how to make sure Lucifer survived it. Because ... well. That was the other thing.
It had taken them a while to notice. To be fair, him and Castiel had been in the Himalayas at the time, Gabriel had been busy staring Death in the eye (which had given Adam pause, so Crowley could easily forgive the archangel for being ... focused), and Aziraphale had been panicking about Sam and Bobby on their own with only the Knight to protect them (which Sanya had been very upset about, in an impenetrable, Russian kind of way). They were all busy at the time, so they could be forgiven for not noticing immediately.
Forgiven for not noticing that Michael, Prince of Seraphs and Heaven's General, had taken a vessel. A here-to-fore unremarked (and deceased) Winchester half-brother, and when the boys figured that one out ... that hadn't been a happy conversation, even by his standards. That hadn't been a happy conversation at all, but there was no doubt about the truth of it. Michael had taken a vessel.
Which was sort of ... more or less as planned, really, on his and his angel's part anyway, and that might be some of the reason voices were rapidly rising behind him ...
Anyway. So now they were thinking about it. The humans and their angels. Now they were thinking about how the hell they were going to manage this with only the keys to a cage and some sigils to their name. Now they were thinking about the fact that Heaven was decidedly pissed off about the successes their little Loop was having so far, and that Heaven really, really wanted this Apocalypse, and that the chances therefore of Michael letting them anywhere near his homicidal brother with a cage were slim to nil.
Now the humans were making noises about maybe saying 'yes' to their respective homicidal archangels, lure them into the trap that way, or some other completely harebrained notion, and Gabriel in particular was getting very, very jumpy, and more than a little homicidal himself. Castiel would probably have been the same, if Crowley hadn't taken him aside already and quietly mentioned an alternate, if equally harebrained, plan. Then again, maybe not. It was hard to tell with the grim-faced little bugger. But Crowley had had the feeling, the last couple of days, that knowing what they intended had relieved a little bit of the tension in those wiry shoulders ...
Sod it anyway. So here he was, then. Planning something so damn stupid it was positively heroic. Sitting in the shadows, hoping his angel could take the heat for a while, while he tried to convince himself that he could actually do this, that he was actually seriously thinking about this, that this was their actual plan ... And there was a part of him that really, truly hoped that Gabriel's rapidly skyrocketing voice would talk them out of it, that the flat, calm answers Castiel was giving, or Aziraphale's earnest wheedling, would fail to convince them ... Hah. Pathetic, yes? Some demon he was.
"You gonna sit there all night, feeling sorry for yerself?"
Crowley jumped, and strangled the squawk that wanted to come out before he could embarrass himself any further. Damned bloody ... human, sneaking up on him under the noise of Gabriel yelling, scaring him half to death ...
"What the hell do you want?" he snarled, shoving his hands down by his side to hide the shakes until he could get it under control. He gave the old hunter his best, most withering glare, all burning eyes and the suggestion of fangs, but the bloody bastard had obviously been hanging around the angel too much and never even turned a hair. Instead, Bobby ambled closer, out of the light from the windows and into Crowley's patch of shadow, and held out a bottle with a grunt, looking gruffly to one side as Crowley blinked at him and took it with hands that were mostly, mostly back under control.
"Er, thanksss?" he murmured, coughing around the first shot of something that bore too much resemblance to paint-stripper to call whiskey, but liking the warmth of whatever-it-was in his belly. Never could get warm enough, these days, short of curling around his angel. Bloody stinking apocalypse ...
"Don't mention it," Bobby murmured, waving a hand as he lowered himself down the wall with a grunt to sit next to Crowley. Who sort of blinked at him, but decided he probably shouldn't mention anything, given the fact that the old hunter was almost always armed. Bobby grinned at him sharply, and crossed his arms. "So ..."
Crowley shrugged, and looked away. "Sssso? Shouldn't you be inside, refereeing or ssomething?" Which was a legitimate concern, really, since Bobby was about the only one in the house who was relatively neutral, and also sane, and it was his house Gabriel and Cas sounded about ready to smash up a bit. But the hunter would have none of it.
"I reckon your angel can probably handle it," he said quellingly, arms still crossed and gaze still drilling a hole in the side of Crowley's head. Crowley scrunched down around his bottle, and did his best to ignore it, picking at the wax seal in stubborn silence.
"Fine tale they're telling in there," Bobby went on at last, obviously realising Crowley wasn't going to comment. "Your idea, was it? This plan of theirs?"
"Well, obviously," Crowley drawled, sliding a little further down the wall. "All the rampant idiocy it involves, all that lovely self-sacrifice and throwing myself on the trust of people who've no reason for it, not to mention the whole suicide part ... obviously that was my idea. Sounds just like something I'd come up with, doesn't it?"
Bobby's mouth twitched. "So ... that'd be a yes, then?"
Crowley grimaced, and folded his arms sulkily. "Oh, ssshut up. It'sss barely a step up from the wonder twinsss' idea, I know, but we're running out of optionss over here. It ... sounded sssaner before I'd mentioned it to anyone." Not much saner, admittedly, in the fumbling minutes in Anansi's limo, or the long intervals when he should really have been concentrating on the sigil he was supposed to be constructing, but ... It was only when he'd seen Aziraphale's face at the idea, only when he'd seen the breathless fear and pride and love in his angel's face, that he'd realised how utterly suicidal and stupid and heroic the whole thing actually was. And by then he'd told someone, and it was too damn late to take it back ...
"Bit risky, yeah," the hunter agreed, watching something invisible in the darkness beyond the porch, and sounding far too much like Castiel in a sneaky mood for Crowley's liking. "What with the whole kidnapping the archangels of heaven and hell thing. Could see why that might turn out to be a little dangerous ..."
"Didn't I tell you to shut up?" Crowley interrupted, testily. "Look, it was just ... something the Devil said ... I didn't want this, alright? It's just ... Look. We can't lose the kids, right? Anyone with eyes can see that, whatever happened between them two weeks ago, Sam's got Gabriel all shattered and broken and ... and bloody head over heels, and if we let the little idiot go through with his plan to say 'yes' for humanity's sake, then that's one more broken and possibly genocidal archangel to worry about ... and Ssssomeone help us if something happens to Dean, because that little bassstard angel of his is quite possibly more dangerous than any of them ... Honesstly, it's probably safer doing it our way, suicide and all ..."
He stopped, realising that he was babbling a little, and shutting his mouth before he could get too close to ... to the other reasons. The older reasons, or newer reasons, or whatever the hell they were. The reasons that even Aziraphale didn't really know, and probably wouldn't understand even if he did, and oh, Crowley could happily have gone a few more millennia before coming up against the choice the Devil had put in front of him in that bloody factory, the choice he was going to have to make now ...
"Oh, sure," Bobby murmured quietly, eyeing him in the dimness, human eyes seeing far, far too much for Crowley's liking. Bloody bastard had definitely been hanging around the angel too long. "I can see how the idea of luring the Devil and his brother into a trap, and trying to convince them to stop an apocalypse ... I can see how that seemed like the safer option. Piece of cake, that. No problem."
"You know, sarcasm ill becomes you," Crowley muttered, wrapping his arms around his chest and looking anywhere but at the hunter. "Besides, that's mostly Aziraphale's idea, that part. I was just going to trap 'em, and drop the rings down between them while we had 'em. Talking to them, giving 'em time to escape and wreak terrible vengeance on our heads ... that's all the angel. Trussst me."
Bobby was silent for a second, silent in a way that had Crowley looking up at him, blinking at the long, quiet stare the hunter was giving him. Curling away a little from the weight of it, before he remembered himself, remembered pride long enough to stiffen and glare back a bit in bafflement. Bobby stared at him, and then smiled. Just a little. A bit of a smirk like Crowley had seen on the bugger's face two weeks ago, when he'd been in a heap with Aziraphale on the library floor and the man had been grinning at him like he knew something Crowley didn't. It gave him the shivers, that smile. It really did.
"You know," the hunter murmured, slow and thoughtful-like. "I think I do, at that." A faint smile, gruff and uneasy as the man looked down at his feet. "Trust you, I mean. You and your angel. For all that you're the biggest pair of idjits since the Winchesters, and don't go gettin' a big head about it, or nothin' ..." He flushed, and grabbed the bottle from Crowley's limp hands without looking, concentrating on not choking on the rotgut while Crowley blinked in shock and stared at him like an idiot. Flushed darkly, and refused to look anywhere near the demon, but ... Crowley knew he was telling the truth, you couldn't lie, not to him, not unless you were really, really good at it, and Robert Singer was many things, but a liar was not one of them ...
"Um ...?" he managed, accepting the bottle again. Intelligently, but hey! It was not this demon's day, and he was entitled to a little confusion ... and no small amount of embarrassment, of course, and ... and complete and utter bafflement ...
"Don't go making anything of it," Bobby muttered, glancing sideways at his expression and flinching a little at what he saw. "Ain't nothing, demon. Just ... Just so you know, whatever stupid thing you're about to go and do ... you got someone at your back, is all. Besides that angel of yours, I mean." He huffed silently, crossing his arms defensively, and glared. "And the rest of 'em, too, once they calm down a bit. They're not totally stupid ..."
And that was more than half to break the moment, to stop Crowley staring at him in stunned amazement, but Crowley took it gratefully. "Not far off it, though," he pointed out, voice a little higher than it should have been, humour a little more forced, but Bobby was a decent chap, and didn't mention it. Mostly to avoid terminally embarrassing the both of them, but Crowley was taking his mercy where he could get it these days.
"I'll take that in the spirit it was meant, and smite you later," growled a low, shaking voice from overhead. Crowley swallowed, hard, and looked up at the porch roof, where, naturally, their resident psycho archangel had decided to perch. Dammit, he should have registered when the noise from inside had died down, but he'd been just the tiniest bit distracted. Again. Manchester, he needed to get his head together, sometime soon.
Provided he survived the next few minutes, of course. And then the few days after that, possibly including the end of the world, and almost certainly including an interview with a very annoyed ex-employer ... On second thoughts, he'd probably be better off saving his quest for sanity until afterwards, and just play it by ear for now.
"Later?" he asked, managing a frankly impressive degree of insouciance, all things considered. "Very patient of you, archangel."
Gabriel grinned sharply, swinging down onto the porch proper, for once towering over Crowley since he was still in a heap on the floor. Towering over Bobby, too, but since you couldn't intimidate the hunter with a nuke next to his ear, Crowley figured the show was mostly for his benefit. Dimly, he registered the other four, two angels and two humans, filing out onto the porch via the door. You know. The normal way.
"I'll smite you for being a prick later," Gabriel smirked. Sort of smirked. The archangel was almost buzzing, there was so much ... something ... wrapped down under that smirk and cocky stance, and Crowley had to resist the urge to try and crawl under the porch like the serpent he was. "Right now I'm trying to decide if I should smite you for being insane, and putting ideas in my brothers' heads, and, oh yeah, planning to kidnap the two most dangerous archangels in existence. So we can brainwash them, apparently. You calling me stupid can wait for later."
"Gabriel," Aziraphale murmured reproachfully from the door. Ordinarily, Crowley would expect his angel to be wringing his hands or something, nervously, but Aziraphale had obviously gotten fed up about fifteen minutes of shouting ago. "You've already agreed this is our best chance. Please stop trying to intimidate my demon." Or else, and Crowley had to blink a little at that.
"Wait, you agreed?" he stuttered, blinking up at the vibrating archangel. Trying to ignore the squirmy little curl of disappointment in his chest, because ... for a little while there, he'd been sort of hoping they wouldn't have to go through with it ... But then, the only other suggestion had involved the Lucifer wearing the love of Gabriel's life for a dress, so ... He'd never really expected that to fly.
"Not agreed, as such," Dean muttered from the sidelines, glaring at a very granite-faced Castiel. "I mean, general theory, yeah, sure, why not. Actual plan ... not so much."
"It's simple necessity, Dean," the angel stated, steady and calm and ever-so-slightly annoyed, under the ruthlessly-held veneer. He looked almost as tightly-wound as Gabriel did, and Crowley took a second to re-evaluate exactly how pissed off and scared Dean's repeated attempts to convince them to let him say yes to Heaven's general had been making Castiel. "The easiest way to get to Michael is through Zachariah. I'm perfectly capable of handling him."
More than capable, if the steely and more-than-a-little vengeful glow in those eyes was anything to go by. Oh yes. Castiel had been waiting for a chance to go for the slime-bag for most of this apocalypse, and this way he got to save Dean on top of it. From the look on his face, the hunter would have an easier time trying to convince water to run uphill than trying to talk the little bugger out of it. Which Crowley had been sort of reluctantly counting on, yes, and alright, he'd planned this stupid venture, and he could hardly blame them for agreeing to it when he'd done everything in his sneaky, demonic power to tempt them into it ...
"Yeah, and when Raphael and Michael drop down and smite your ass?" Dean growled, obviously picking up right where the argument had left off inside. "How you planning on handling that, Cas?"
"By having you and Gabriel as back-up," Aziraphale interrupted testily, glaring at the pair of them. "And more besides, once I've had a chance to make some arrangements! Honestly, Dean, I understand your concerns, but it's Castiel's right to choose to risk himself if he wants to, and he'll be in no more danger than the rest of us. And considerably less than you would have been otherwise!" Crowley blinked as his angel sniffed furiously, part concern, part fear, and about fifteen parts impending smite. Yeah, this was going down sooo well.
"Which," Gabriel interrupted, a low purr of menace that stopped the impending argument in its tracks and caused Crowley to quietly shit himself when the archangel turned to glare at him, "is what I wanted to talk to you about, demon."
Crowley gulped, scrambling to think what the problem was. It could be anything, given that his plan involved Gabriel's new family kidnapping his old one at (not inconsiderable) personal risk, but why Gabriel would want to talk to him about Dean and Cas being in danger ... "Um. Yes?"
"Yes," the archangel grinned, stalking closer to lean over Crowley, his Grace vibrating around him in the tiny space between him and Crowley and the wall until the demon could barely breathe and had to clutch white-knuckled at the bottle. Bobby shifted almost protectively beside him, glowering at the archangel, but Gabriel was in a mood. No getting out of this one by hiding behind the hunter's skirts, much as he would like to ... "I want you to explain something to me, Crowley," Gabriel murmured quietly, leaning close, face-to-face. "Something about this little plan of yours that I'm just not getting. Okay?"
Crowley nodded, pale-faced. Bugger, he didn't think the bloody archangel would take it this badly, whatever it was. He'd known Gabriel wasn't the most stable of individuals, but he'd counted on a little more sanity than this ...
"I want you to explain," the archangel murmured, "why you've arranged for half an army to go after Michael, including half of this little team of ours ... and another small army laying the traps, including most of the rest of this team ... and the only person going after Lucifer, the most dangerous, and homicidal, and pissed the hell off at you of my brothers ... is you. Just you. All by your lonesome. Because that ... that doesn't sound very sensible to me, and I always thought you were a sensible person."
Crowley blinked. A lot, opening his mouth for a second and then closing it again. Well, yes, and that was in fact the main problem with the plan, and most (okay, all) of the reason Crowley had been sort of not-so-secretly hoping they'd reject it, but ...
Oh. Yeah. But Gabriel had been there, in that factory. Gabriel had heard. Maybe not all, maybe not even all that much, depending on how long he'd been waiting for a chance to distract Lucifer, but ... Enough. Probably enough. Enough to suspect ... oh, lots of things. Enough to wonder why Crowley needed to talk to the Devil alone, enough to wonder why Crowley wanted a word with his old boss, enough to wonder if Crowley wasn't arranging this little plot in order to shop someone other than the Devil.
He swallowed, feeling his spine stiffen automatically, defiantly, as he tipped his head back to meet the archangel's stare. Given how pale he was sure he'd just gone, it probably wasn't going to do much good, but he wanted to meet Gabriel's eyes for this. He wanted the archangel to see ... A lot of things. None of them. Something.
"Because Michael has the most forces to call on, and needs most of us to deal with," he said softly. "Because no way in hell is Sam going anywhere near my old boss until I'm sure he's sane enough not to do anything stupid. Because the Devil is getting nowhere near my angel while I'm still breathing. Because you're all needed elsewhere, and because I'm the only one who has a chance of leading him on without getting killed two seconds after opening my mouth. And ..." He stopped, took a deep breath while the archangel's eyes bored into him, and finished. "And because the Devil is expecting me. Because he's probably been waiting for me for the past two weeks. Because the Devil thinks he has something I want, and he'll believe I'll do anything to get it, and because while the Devil thinks he's trapping me there's no better chance to trap him. Because I can do this, and none of the rest of you can, and I really, really don't want to, believe me, but I'm am sick to my back teeth of fucking apocalypses every time I fucking turn around, and I want this to be over!"
He stopped, struggling not to throw up, not to lean to one side and throw up, because he'd been thinking about this all night, and every night for the past two weeks, and it was suddenly real, and suddenly something he'd have to actually do, and he wasn't a fucking hero. He was a demon, and demons weren't supposed to make choices like this, and it was Aziraphale's fault, so fucking much, and Someone help him, he'd never been this terrified in all his life. Not hearing that Voice on the radio, telling him the First Apocalypse was nigh. Not standing beside his angel with a tire iron in hand, waiting to die. Not standing ringed in fire, waiting for the Devil to kill him. Because those hadn't been choices. Those hadn't been his choice, he was just doing what adrenalin and panic and love had dictated in the moment, but this ... This was a choice. This was his choice, and the ball of dread in his stomach had been getting heavier and harder and more pervasive every fucking night.
"Dearest," Aziraphale whispered, somewhere off to his right, beyond Bobby. Soft and crushed and desperately, achingly caring. Stupid bloody angel. Stupid bloody angel, taking him and making him something he was never supposed to be. Making him care, and stand up, and everything else, and dammit! It was all the angel's fault. He wasn't a fucking hero. It was all the angel's fault!
"Crowley," Gabriel murmured, and then a hand reached down from on high, oddly gentle for the temper the archangel had been vibrating with all of two seconds ago, ignoring Crowley's flinch to rest carefully on his shoulder. "Crowley ... what my brother said, what he told you ..."
"Was a trap, yes," Crowley muttered, eyes permanently fixed on his hands and the bottle clenched between them, trying to curve away from the warm, solid bulk of Bobby beside him, and the vast presence of the archangel above him. "Six thousand years serving Hell, I'm not stupid, archangel. Even if they're a complete lie, even if they're not true ... He told me for a reason. He knows I can't ... can't resist that temptation, that need. He's expecting me to come to him. Expecting me to ... to sell you all, for that chance, and as long as he believes that ... then we have a chance. Then I can string him along, and lure him in, and it's the best hope we have, now, with Michael on the field ..."
"Gabriel?" Sam, cutting in very quietly, almost nervously. Out of the corner of his eye, Crowley saw the gigantic human reach out, and stop himself. "Gabriel, what's he talking about? What ... what did Lucifer tell him?" And it figured the kid would react to that, figured that Sam of all of them would realise what the Devil's temptations could be like, and be worried about it, about Crowley being too weak or stupid or flat-out demonic to resist ...
"He's talking about his name," someone said, very, very softly, and Crowley actually looked up in shock. Because that voice ... Aziraphale looked at him, looked down at him, and his eyes were so very soft, and wet, and proud, and heartbroken ... "The one thing no angel could resist. Especially not this one. Not when it was taken from him so long ago, not when he's had to live so long not knowing ... Not when he can't remember who he might have been, or why he fell, or what might have ... might have been done to him."
Crowley stared, shook his head. "I didn't ... I never mentioned ..."
Aziraphale smiled, very gently, crying just a little. "No, dearest. You didn't. But ... I know you. I do know you. And there is only one thing, really, that I could never offer you, only one thing he could have that I don't ... I'm so very sorry, my dearest. I'm so sorry." And Crowley shook his head, mute, blinking rapidly. There was nothing ... nothing he could say to that ...
"What does that mean?" Dean growled, staring between them in angry confusion and suspicion. Not surprising. Not surprising. "What the hell has his name got to do with anything?"
"His true name, Dean," Castiel explained softly, and there was a world of pity in those harsh blue eyes, a world of understanding. "It is ... the Word made Grace. It's what spun him into being, in the Beginning. Everything he once was, everything that was stolen when he Fell. And Lucifer ... claims he knows it?"
"He does," Crowley murmured, ducking away from their stares. "He ought to. He's the one who apparently bloody stole it in the first place. Whatever the hell he wanted it for, whoever the hell I was that he felt he needed to take it ..." He looked up, for a second, vaguely hopeful, but there was only pity on their faces, not knowledge. No hint of knowing. He ducked his head down again. "He has it, and he let me know he has it, and the only reason he'd do that is that he wants something from me. And while he wants something, I can tempt him. While he's trying to use me, I can trap him. That's ... that's why I'm going alone. That's why it has to be me."
He waited, for a beat, while that sank in. Waited for the inevitable questions, waited for them to ask, rather sensibly, how they knew he wouldn't be tempted, how they could know for sure Lucifer was the one he planned to betray. With something that big on offer ... something he'd wanted, for so very long, something he had to ... had to give up, forever, if he did this ... He waited for them to ask. They had to.
But ... a second passed, a beat, and then another, and no-one said anything. No-one spoke up, pointed out the obvious flaw. Gabriel's hand pressed close against his shoulder, holding on with silent strength as the archangel looked down at him with pain in his eyes, and Bobby was a silent wall at his side, and somewhere beyond them he could feel his angel's gaze, the warmth and anguish of it. And no-one asked. No-one questioned. Finally, he couldn't bear it.
"Not going to ask, then?" he murmured, still looking at his hands. "Not going to ask if maybe the Devil isn't right, and I'm going to sell you all for a chance at my name?" Because, let's face it, he was the demon here, and if there was any of them they had every right not to trust ... well, not his angel, obviously, because Aziraphale ... although if ever there was cause to doubt him, this was it, and even Aziraphale ...
"You ..." Gabriel started. Stopped, struggled for a second with something, his face scrunching in on itself. Maybe rage. Maybe exasperation. Maybe something else entirely, Crowley didn't know. "You ... are an idiot! You are the single most stupid, arrogant, insane ... Father help me, demon ..."
Crowley blinked at him, blinked up while the archangel fumbled in mute frustration above him, and then Bobby was reaching over, prying Crowley's hands from around the bottle and pulling it roughly over to take a swig while he glared and elbowed Crowley sharply in the side. Crowley stared.
"I think what the archangel is trying to say, idjit," the hunter growled, slamming the bottle onto the deck and shocking Crowley silly. "Is that I just spent fifteen of the most embarrassing minutes of my life telling you I trust you, and he's just spent the past month or so of his telling you the same thing, and I don't even know how long yon angel of yours has been saying it, and that there was quite probably the stupidest damn question we ever heard!" He grunted loudly, and poked Crowley's chest. "Of course we bloody trust you, y'idjit!"
Oh. Ah. Right then. And Aziraphale was quietly, tearfully beaming at him, and Gabriel was smiling fondly through the lingering rage, and even the kids were shuffling sheepishly and trying to pretend they didn't agree, and ... Right. Um. Okay then.
Damn it to hell and back. This had to be the angel's fault. It just had to be.
Chapter 21: Conversation
Okay, so this wasn't exactly how Dean had planned for this conversation to go. Actually, it was sort of the complete opposite of how he'd planned it to go. Which, this being Cas he was trying to talk to, he should probably have seen coming.
In his defense, though, he hadn't been able to see much of anything, around the red mist of rage over his eyes. He hadn't been able to see anything around the clutch of terror around his heart. Because this plan ... this plan was a stupid plan. Any plan that involved Cas going solo against anything from Zach's goon squad to potentially two frikking archangels was automatically a bad plan. Dean should know. He'd come up with lots of them.
So he'd stalked Castiel out into the yard, leaving everyone else to pick up their own pieces inside, and menaced his angel up against a junker with every intention of yelling at him until he got the fucking point already. He'd even gotten started, too, had even gotten up a nice head of steam and started chewing Cas out about this whole 'risking himself for the greater good' thing he had going, when Cas ... Cas decided to turn the tables.
So here he was. Lifted bodily off his feet to dangle from Castiel's fist (and that was sort of awesome, actually, that did something to his heart, remembering how close his angel had come to never being able to do that kind of shit again ...), somebody's beat-up truck mirror digging into his spine, and Castiel's narrow, furious face about an inch away from his nose.
Nope. Not at all how he'd planned for this conversation to go.
"There are times I wish I could still threaten you with impunity, Dean Winchester," the angel growled, voice actually shaking. Shoulders trembling, too. Cas was vibrating as he shoved up against him, with rage or something else, Dean wasn't sure. Though he was betting mostly rage. "You may never have afforded me much respect, but at least when you feared me you did not question my capability to my face. At least when you disliked me, you did not ..."
He cut himself off with a savage growl, and shook Dean like a ragdoll. Quite possibly without even realising it, he was that upset, and in between waiting for his ears to stop ringing, Dean wondered what the hell was suddenly going on. This wasn't in any script he'd imagined coming out of a little yelling match over attempted suicide-by-archangel.
"Cas, what the hell are you talking about!" he bit out, reaching up to grab the arm fisted in his shirt and squeezing it. Hoping to remind the angel that he was still actually holding Dean, if nothing else. And then ... "And I've always respected you, what the hell?"
Castiel glared up at him, ignoring the press of Dean's hands on his arm, still holding him up off the ground and pinned to a car. Okay then. So maybe the whole shaking thing had been intentional after all. "Do not lie to me, Dean," he hissed, looking for all the world like a really, really pissed off cat. "Between you and Gabriel, I am beginning to get annoyed. And Gabriel, at least, has yet to add insult to injury, and try to protect me by offering to commit suicide!"
Dean blinked, ignoring the sudden squirming of something a little like guilt in his chest. Okay. So he might have some idea where this was coming from. But it didn't change ...
"Yeah," he snarled back, breathlessly because Cas still hadn't released him, and it was getting a little hard to breathe up here. "And your plan is so much better! Don't know if you've noticed, Cas, but that's at least one archangel you've decided to stand and piss off. That went so well last time, didn't it? Hey, you want your molar back?"
Castiel's face hardened, icing over so fast it practically gave Dean thermal shock. "I have not forgotten Raphael's debt to me," he said quietly. Viciously, and there was something more than personal vengeance in it. Something righteous, the hand of justice coming round, and for a second Dean forgot to be pissed off. For a second, Dean had to remind himself that this was serious, life and death serious, and he had no call to be getting distracted. Then Castiel looked back up at him, savage contempt in his face, and suddenly that wasn't a problem anymore. "But that is irrelevant. This is not about vengeance, Dean. It is about survival."
Dean swallowed. "Yeah? And how are you planning on surviving, then? What, we just knock on Zach's door, and hope he doesn't call all the big guns in at once?" He shook his head, expression suddenly pleading. "This is suicide, Cas. At least my way ..."
Bad idea. Bad, bad idea. Castiel had been softening, for about half a second there, almost looking like he might at least let Dean down to talk to him, but as soon as he said that ... He'd forgotten, sort of, how granite-faced Cas could be. He'd forgotten what Cas looked like when he'd just lost all patience, and was seriously considering slinging your ass back in hell. Or not forgotten, but ... Gotten used to not seeing the look directed at him.
"Your way, we lose everything," Castiel said flatly. Inflectionless, blank. "It is not a matter of 'maybe', Dean. If you say yes to Michael, if either you or Sam even contemplate saying yes, then nothing I have done has meant anything. Nothing any of us has done will mean anything. Do you understand? If you say yes, Dean Winchester ceases to exist, and Heaven does what it wants. If you say yes, we will lose!"
Dean swallowed, hard, and looked away. Found himself looking away. "Yeah, well," he muttered, refusing to meet Cas' eyes. "Better me than Sam. Better me than you. We planned for one archangel, Cas. One. We've got a trap, and maybe we coulda gotten old Lucy into it, but with both Lucifer and Michael gunning for us ... And Sammy's been talking about ... At least if it's me, if it's Michael ..."
His feet touched the ground, and he blinked. His feet touched the ground, very, very gently, and he looked up to find Castiel watching him, with that strange expression he had, the one that was confused, and rueful, and something else, something deep and severe and pitying, something loving, and then his angel reached out and laid a hand, very carefully, on Dean's chest. Just over his heart.
"It does not have to be either of you," Castiel murmured softly. "It does not even have to be me, or Aziraphale, or any of us. You do not have to make that choice, Dean. You do not have to make that sacrifice. We can do this. This plan is not hopeless, it is not careless. We can do what needs to be done, and stay alive through it. You are not alone, Dean. You are not in this alone."
Dean smiled bitterly. "I know, Cas. That's sort of the problem." He shook his head, watching his angel's forehead wrinkle in confusion, watching the incomprehension in his eyes. The same completely baffled look Castiel had worn the first time they met, stunned that Dean didn't think he deserved saving. Because Cas ... for all that Cas was badass, and fierce, and for all that he'd spent the past year or so getting steadily more disillusioned (and yeah, that was Dean's fault too, he knew that) ... there were still something really innocent left in the angel. There was still something that looked at Dean, and saw something worth fighting for, no matter how many damn times Dean had already proven him wrong, and that ...
"Dean ..." Castiel started, frowning dubiously at him, head tilted to one side, and Dean ... Dean couldn't bear that. He couldn't.
"I started this," he whispered softly. Raggedly. "I started this, Cas. It's my stupid fault the end of the world happened, and it was bad enough when it was just me and Sam having to face the music, but now there's ... there's Aziraphale, and the crazy demon, and the stupid archangel, and ... And you. And you, and it's my fault, and you can't die for something that's my fault, Cas. You can't. I can't let you. I know you don't get that, and I know you think this is some bullshit human thing where I think you're useless and you can't do anything, but it's not, and I just ..."
He just couldn't watch it. He couldn't watch it, tomorrow, if Castiel stood up to Zachariah and Raphael and fucking Michael himself, and got himself splatted all over again, and Dean could have stopped it. He could have stopped it, with just one word. Just one. And there was Sam, too, and the way Sammy had spent the past two weeks thinking about saying his own one word, thinking about walking into a trap just to get the Devil where they wanted him, and Dean couldn't watch that either. He didn't know why it mattered now when it hadn't before, when he hadn't cared before, when he'd told Zachariah to go screw himself, but the past few weeks ... he'd started to hope. He'd started to hope, and he'd started to see the others hope, and for the first time in over a year he'd started to feel like maybe they had a chance of having something past the end of this, like they had a chance of living after, and ...
And he couldn't risk it, now. He couldn't risk that one of them would be killed, would die at the end of this, for something that was Dean's fucking fault, and he'd be the one to live afterwards knowing he was the last goddamn person who should have. At least with Michael, at least if he said yes ... He'd be the only one to fall. He could make sure of that, if he said yes ...
"Dean," someone said, very quietly, and Dean looked up again, looked up from the increasingly blurry dirt under his feet, and scrubbed angrily at his eyes so he could see Castiel staring at him. So he could see the narrow, exasperated expression on his angel's face, and find himself almost smiling at it. Almost.
"I'm sorry, Cas," he whispered. "I know you don't get it. But I'm just some stupid human, and I started this, and this plan ... you and Gabriel and Crowley ... I can't help, I can't do any fucking thing to help, and if you die ..."
He stopped, fists clenched. Saw Cas flinch, saw the confusion and pain in those eyes, but he was too busy remembering lying in a hospital bed trying to explain this exact damn thing to this angel, a year ago, a lifetime ago, and what'd happened since had only proven how fucking right he was, back then. Because he could destroy his own people, yeah, sure, he could pull them from the sky and steal their faith and watch them slowly wither, but when it came to actually fighting for them, to actually protecting them like he was supposed to ... And this plan, it was all of them. It was his angel, and Sam's angel, and their crazy demon, who were doing all the work, taking all the risks, and he was ...
"You are not helpless, Dean," Castiel interrupted. Flat and impatient, the way he was when he was stating absolute fact. The World is Ending, Zachariah is an Asshole, and You are not Helpless. Holy writ, come from on high, and Dean found himself grinning a little, despite himself, just at the thought of it. That after all this, after everything ... Castiel was still a damn pissy Angel of the Lord, and you'd best not forget it!
Which wasn't to say he was right, though. "That's nice of you to say, Cas," he managed, smiling tiredly. "But when we're talking archangels, here ... Michael, at least ..."
"Michael is a ... a loser!" Castiel shot back, fumbling a little around the word, and Dean actually blinked at him. Stared. Castiel growled faintly and stormed right on. "Michael is nothing next to you, or Sam, or anyone in that house! Michael does not deserve the least of us, as a vessel or anything else, and we do not need him!"
He shook his head, a short, vicious movement, and Dean stared at him. "Uh ... Cas?"
His angel glared at him, furious and flustered, bewildered by his own vehemence, savage in his conviction, and Dean could only blink at him as he went on. Low and cold and deadly. "Michael has allowed Heaven to fall," Castiel growled. "He has allowed Zachariah free reign, and in doing so cost me and many of my brothers our faith. He allowed you to be tortured, and Hell to come to Earth, and Gabriel to be hurt, he killed Anna. Michael has done nothing to help Heaven or Earth, or us, or his own brothers! He has done nothing!"
He paused, breathed for a second, and then looked up at Dean. Looked up at the poor dumb human staring at him in shock, and his face softened. Gentled. Still coldly determined, but no longer furious, and there was a faint, almost wondering smile tucked in the corner of his lips.
"We do not need him, Dean," Castiel continued quietly. Grim and passionate, and holding his truths to be self-evident. "You do not need him. Everything he failed to do, you have done as best you could. It does not matter if you did not always succeed. At least, unlike him, you tried. You have tried, and you have stood beside the rest of us as we tried, and tomorrow you will stand by us again, and whether we win or we lose, even if we die in the attempt, we will have done more than Michael ever did."
Dean ... blinked. Hard. Opened his mouth, but nothing came out. Because ... because ... And there was a lump in his chest, an aching, burning thing, and all he could look at was the fierce surety in his angel's eyes. "Cas," he rasped, shaking his head uselessly. "Cas ..."
Castiel scowled, stalking forward until he pressed Dean back against the junker again, but on the ground this time. And not with a hand. Not with a fist. With the full length of his body, with the full measure of otherworldly strength and steady, implacable determination. Castiel pressed Dean back, and glared right into his eyes. His soul.
"You gave me a choice, Dean," he rumbled. "You showed me Heaven's lies, and you gave me a choice, and you made me what I am now. You showed me that I can choose for myself, that I do not need to be Heaven's tool, that there are things in this world to believe in beyond Heaven's lies. You gave me my choice, and you do not get to take it away now! You do not get to become Michael's tool, and render everything I have done meaningless!"
His wings flooded out of nowhere, wings Dean had never seen before, not properly, not truly, and closed them around them on all sides, so that there was nothing in Dean's world now beyond Castiel, and the fierce demand in his eyes. So that nothing existed in all the world beyond his angel, and the choice he offered.
"Perhaps I will die tomorrow," Castiel whispered. "Perhaps Aziraphale's plan will fail, and we will all die. Even if we do. I will die knowing who I am. I will die having made my own choice. I will die as myself, as Castiel, and I will die ... knowing I chose you. Not Michael. Not Heaven. I will die knowing I chose Dean Winchester, and I will die knowing ... that it was worth it."
Dean swallowed, feeling his eyes slip closed, feeling the tears sting free and slide down. Feeling Castiel reach up to touch his face in bemused concern, and wipe them carefully away. He swallowed, and surrendered, and whispered quietly "I don't want you to die at all" because it was all he had left. Because it was the only truth he had left, and Castiel was right. He could not take the choice from them. Because that's what Heaven did, and had done, and Dean wasn't ever going to be like that. He wasn't ever going to be like Michael, or Zach, or everyone else who'd betrayed his angel.
"Then we will not," Castiel answered, with a little growl. "It is a good plan, and Gabriel will have our backs, and it will work, Dean. We will make it work, and you will not say yes." He paused, frowned a bit, and then offered: "And ... neither will your brother, Dean. Even if mine must trap him in TV land for a century to ensure it. Gabriel has not ... been happy, these past two weeks. I believe he has finally run out of patience."
Justifiably, his expression seemed to say. In fact, from the darkness that moved through those blue eyes, Dean had a sneaking suspicion he wasn't the only Winchester due a lecture on stupidity from Cas. Not by a long shot. And again, he fought a smile, fought the weird, sappy expression that wanted to use his face, because he couldn't help it, because it seemed like no matter how bad things got, how broken they all got, Cas wouldn't stop, would never stop, would never not be Cas, and that ... That settled something, in Dean's world. That anchored something. That made things ... different.
"Yeah?" he asked, shifting a little against the line of Cas pressed against him, curling into his angel and grinning a little as Cas frowned at him for it. Moving his hands over angelic hips, and biting his lip as his knuckles brushed against feathers, brushed against the shielding walls of Castiel's wings around them. Against the touch of something he'd never imagined or hoped for ... "He as pissed off as you, then?"
"He is dealing with a Winchester," Castiel growled, leaning close in his turn, brow furrowed in an impressive frown, but there was the ghost of a smile around the hard line of his mouth. The ghost of a grin Dean had only seen a few times, when Cas thought he was ahead of the game, when Cas thought he was being really smart, and Dean shifted his hands, stroking the backs of his knuckles through the feathers, and watched the frown falter. Heard his angel's breath hitch.
"That's bad, is it?" he murmured, rubbing his thumb along the shaft of a feather, waiting, maybe, for Castiel to tell him to stop, for Cas to tug his wing away, because he had been paying attention all this time, he knew what it meant for Cas to let him touch him this way, and maybe he shouldn't be pushing it, maybe this was such a bad time to push, but ... But Castiel wasn't pulling away. And Castiel might be going to die for him tomorrow, or the day after. And Castiel wasn't pulling away. "Dealing with a Winchester? It's bad?"
Castiel growled. Muscled Dean backwards, pressed them both between metal and wings, pressed them together, and then Dean felt the muscles under his fingers flex, felt the feathers shift and slide and press up into his hands, and Castiel's mouth was on his neck, his growl vibrating along Dean's pulse and sending just about every sense Dean had into a tailspin.
"It is ... troublesome," Castiel purred. A happy, deadly little hum, as Dean's knees went a little and his angel caught him, pulled him to him. "But ... worth it. Yes. I believe ... it is certainly worth it." A small smile, then. A smug little grin. Because Cas was ahead of the game. Because Cas was always ahead of the game. "Dean Winchester. Mine. Yes. I think that is worth it."
Yup. Totally not where he'd seen this conversation going. Absolutely not. Maybe later, he might actually remember why. Right now, though? Better things to be doing. So, so much better. His angel. His Cas.
Screw Heaven anyway. Who the hell needed Michael, when you could have Castiel instead?
Chapter 22: SUMMATION: What the last few chapters would have been
Some people wanted to know how the story ended, and I didn't want to leave anyone hanging. So. Here are four and a half thousand words of rough guide to the rest of the story, and perhaps answers to some of the questions raised within it.
Arrangements Verse Summation
The Layout for the Last Few Chapters:
After the events of Trust and Conversation, the team splits up for their various missions.
Sam and Aziraphale retreat to Crowley's house (where they spent the first few chapters) to set up a trap for the incoming archangels. It's important that it be there, for reasons relating mostly to faith. The Impala, the Bentley, Sam's medallion-amulet thingy, and the Apple Tree all serve as focuses. Not for magic, but to bolster an angel who's about to attempt something monumentally stupid, and the humans who're trying to help him.
Dean, Cas, Gabe, Bobby and Anansi go get Zach, Raph and Michael. In that order. Sort of an echo of the scene from 5x18, with the street evangelist, their first move is for Dean to play it stupid and call down Zach for a one-on-one. Zach, being mightily pissed about them arranging for humans to enter the war, not to mention the Banishing Ring, answers with heavies in tow. Bobby and hunters, who've been hiding in the wings under Anansi's webs, take out the angels with the banishing amulets Aziraphale's arranged for. Cas, meanwhile, finally gets to vent at Zach, and slap the head angel silly.
Which, of course, is when Raphael makes an entrance in response to Zachariah's distress, fully intending to finally smash Cas and make it stick this time. Dean and Cas move to each others defense, but from here ... From here it's Gabriel's show. Because Cas was the brother who finally healed Gabriel's wings, as much as he was able, and Raph was the brother who forced them to stay wounded, and as Gabriel points out to Raph, guess who he's going to side with, here. And then ... then the brothers talk.
Gabriel knows every argument he could make for siding with Team Free Will. He knows what made him turn, knows what made Cas turn. But he also knows that Raphael will listen to none of that. He could try to simply take Raph out, of the endgame if not permanently, but Gabriel does not, has never, wanted to do that. So he tries the only thing he knows might work. Offers Raphael the only reasoning he thinks his brother might listen to.
Raphael knows the Apocalypse will kill Michael. One way or the other. Michael is never going to recover from killing his brother, and they've all seen what happens to an angel without faith. Michael, in Arrangements, is barely hanging on as it is, holding to faith in the justice of the mission as it all falls apart around him, and once that mission is over, once that mission is gone ... And Raphael has already sacrificed Gabriel to keep Michael believing, already sacrificed his brother's wings to the cause, allowed Zach to sacrifice any number of angels to it. Sacrificed Gabriel, sacrificed Cas. Raphael, the Healer, knows that wounds of faith are wounds he cannot heal, knows that what will happen to Michael is something he cannot stop, and then everything he has done, everything he has given, will be for naught.
So Gabriel points to Cas. Gabriel shows Raphael an angel that has come back, that has lost faith and found it again. Gabriel points to Castiel, to himself, and tells Raphael that TFW can do this. Can find a way around this war, that will give Michael reason to believe again. That Castiel is proof that it is possible. That the wounds Raphael has given everything to fight can be healed, if Raphael only lets them try. Gabriel asks Raphael not just to spare them, but to bring Michael to them. To help them, because this is the only chance, the only chance, for Raphael to keep what's left of his family whole. For Raphael to be the Healer, not the executioner.
And Raphael ... listens.
Meanwhile, Crowley, alone, has left to lure the last player into the trap. Crowley, the demon, has left to lure Lucifer to them. Serpent, salesman, he has gone to play the oldest role he knows. Because Lucifer knows he's coming. Lucifer planned it. And all Crowley has to do is play to that plan, to play the craven, desperate fool, who wants what Lucifer can give. But there has to be some defiance, or the Devil won't believe, has to be some bargaining, or Lucifer won't be fooled.
So Crowley offers the Devil his vessel, Sam, and TFW, and the apocalypse, in return for his name. And he asks for his angel, asks to be given Aziraphale, and in return ... he can promise the Devil Michael. He can show Lucifer the trap they've laid for an archangel, and invite him to have his hand in it, and in return, Lucifer will let Aziraphale live. Lucifer will let Crowley have his angel, and his name, in return for the world. And in the moments where Lucifer threats, where Lucifer sinks his chill into serpentine flesh and sears him in warning, Crowley wonders, a little, which of them is doing the most lying, plying the most empty promises. And to who.
At the house, Aziraphale, watching the amulet gleam softly on the apple tree, feels the wards they've set flash under an archangel's presence, two, three. Aziraphale turns, with Sam beside him, and watches Dean, Castiel, Gabriel and the others return, and at their back, following hard-eyed and furious behind them, Zachariah, Raphael, and Michael. The first part of the trap falls closed, and it's time for Aziraphale to play again his role. Apocalypse Mk II, and it's the same old story, and this time, this time, let it work. Aziraphale goes to war.
And quietly, secretly, in the shadows beneath the apple tree, a beleagured demon brings the Devil himself to watch.
Aziraphale challenges Michael. More than challenges him. Aziraphale sets out, deliberately, to break the archangel before them. To shatter his faith. Aziraphale moves to point out everything Cas voiced to Dean at the end of Conversation, everything Michael has allowed, everything Zachariah has allowed in his name, every angel that Michael has allowed to fall. He points out what was done to Gabriel, what was done to Castiel. Points out all the myriad ways Heaven has fallen, and that Michael has let it so.
And he means it to test. He means it to shatter. Because the only faith that can be regained is in the face of testing, because faith must be able to bear all challenges to survive. But also because he is sick of this war. Because he challenged them twenty years ago, challenged them to think, and now here they are, at the End of Days once more, barely decades down the line. Aziraphale voices perhaps more than a little righteous fury, simply that he must stand here again, that he must call them to task again, that so many should have paid the price in the interim.
Aziraphale sets out, as had always been planned, to break Michael to pieces. To shatter an archangel's faith, to make the world safe. And though Raphael moves to stop him, Gabriel prevents it. Though Gabriel looks ready to stop him himself, he lets Aziraphale act. And Cas, and Dean, and Sam, look on.
And then the question. The most important. Why kill Lucifer. What will it achieve. Because duty doesn't matter anymore, stopped mattering the moment Heaven began to fall, because God has left and destiny matters less now than choice. If they can find a way around it, if they can stop the Apocalypse without striking a brother down, as they promised Gabriel, what use for Michael to destroy what he loves? What purpose will the death serve?
And then, Dean. Dean to ask this, because he has to, because maybe there was a reason for the vessels that were chosen. Maybe Sam and Dean's story has meant more, so much more, than they thought. Maybe, after all, there was a reason.
So Dean asks. If there's no destiny, if there's no God, if there's no mission, and every excuse Michael has used to justify what he's done is gone ... Then what this whole apocalypse boils down to is one question. Can you kill your brother. Can you raise your hand, and strike down the one you love. Can Michael, without destiny to hide behind, without a God to serve, kill the brother he loves.
And Michael cannot answer. He can't answer. And Michael, then and there, breaks in front of them. All the power, all the faith of an archangel, fading before them.
And Lucifer moves. Lucifer, listening outside, holding Crowley tighter and tighter as the moments pass, bruising him, searing him. Lucifer, who watches his brother be broken. It's him, the Devil, the enemy, who moves to stop Aziraphale then. Not Raphael. Not Gabriel. It's Lucifer who throws Crowley into the room, and moves to stop this. Moves to seize Aziraphale, moves to strike them down, moves to break the trap.
Because they were meant to kill each other. If Lucifer could not sway Michael, they were meant to kill each other, in fire and glory and grace, unbowed. Both of them, unbowed. He did not come here to see Michael broken. He did not come here to see Michael fade. He cannot bear it.
And it's Crowley who tells them why. Crowley who speaks, while Michael stares at his brother in awe and fear, and unwilling longing. It's Crowley who speaks at Lucifer's back, and bears the furious gaze turned on him for it.
Lucifer has had a reason for hating Crowley, all along. Lucifer has had a reason for wanting Crowley back. He has had a reason for not wanting to see Michael fade. He has had a reason to hate what Heaven has become, under Zachariah.
Where are the rest of the Fallen? Where are Lucifer's legions, Crowley's contemporaries? Why is it only the Devil himself, and the human demons, who've played a role in this Apocalypse?
Twenty years ago, Crowley and Aziraphale had stood on what was to be the field of battle, and denounced an apocalypse. Twenty years ago, all of Hell had risen for battle, and been waved aside by a child. Twenty years ago, Adam, Lucifer's own son, had rejected them, defeated them with a wave of his hand, and Lucifer could not stop them. Twenty years ago, everything Hell had fought for for centuries had been cast aside, and Lucifer could not bring them back.
Twenty years ago, Hell had lost faith. The Fallen, trapped once more, helpless once more, had lost faith that Lucifer would save them, bring them victory. Like Azazel before them, broken centuries ago with the loss of his children, having lost all faith. Become as mortal, the human demon we've seen in SPN. Twenty years ago, centuries in Helltime. The Fallen lost faith, became as humans. And we all know what happens to humans in Hell.
Lucifer came for Crowley because Crowley is all he has left. Lucifer wanted Crowley because Crowley is the last of the Fallen with some semblance of faith. Lucifer came for Crowley because he has nothing left, and no care whether he wins or loses the Apocalypse. Which is why he's been playing only half-heartedly at best. Why he has threatened, and slaughtered, but for all that the world still stands, because Lucifer hasn't really been trying. He's been walking the earth, been drowning it in blood, for one purpose and one purpose only. To call Michael to him.
Because Michael is the last thing Lucifer believes in. That Michael, at least, will never falter, will stand tall, will do his duty. That his brother, his bright, loyal, beautiful brother, will fight him, and fall to him, or fell him, and either way, no matter what, Lucifer will not fade as his Fallen have faded. Lucifer will not be lost to Hell as his followers were lost. Michael, one way or another, will save him, at least from that. One last article of faith, in the Devil's heart. One final, savage trust.
Lucifer cannot let Aziraphale destroy Michael. He cannot. Whatever Michael must believe to strike Lucifer down, let him. Lucifer doesn't care anymore if Heaven falls, if Heaven becomes another Hell in all but name. Lucifer doesn't even care what happens to Earth, doesn't care about humanity or even really God. Lucifer wants this to end. As tired as any of them, having lost as much as any of them. Lucifer wants his brother. One last time, he wants to stand by Michael or against him, and see this done. All who once Fell with him are gone, and he cares nothing for the humans he has made, cares nothing for Hell. He's here for Michael, and Michael only.
And Michael ... stares at him. Michael just listens, mute.
And now, it's Sam who asks. Sam, who hates Lucifer as much as he ever did, but they're all bloody tired now. Sam, who's had a chance, so frail, so fragile a chance, to be happy again. Who wants it, wants to make something with Gabriel, wants to have that chance. It's Sam who asks Michael, one more time. Will he kill his brother. Will he destroy Lucifer, standing before them. When there's no God, and no destiny, and all of them have lost everything trying to make it here. Will he kill the brother who depends on him, the brother who believed in him, even when he had nothing else. Will he kill Lucifer.
No. He will not. The time has come, his hand is raised, and no, he will not. Though the world may fall for it, he will not. Though Lucifer stares at him in despair because of it, he will not. Though his Father will cast him down because of it, he will not.
And Lucifer, though his hand rises in rage in his turn, though he stands before his beaten brother and raises his hand against Michael ... Lucifer, in his turn, cannot. Will not. The one thing left in this world he believes in. He cannot kill him.
Then maybe, Crowley says, very gently, just maybe, you were not meant to. In all the world, of all the sons of Adam, these two were chosen as Vessels. Sam and Dean Winchester, brothers who would live and die for each other. Brothers who fought an entire apocalypse, from all angles, to keep from killing each other. They were chosen. Maybe there was a reason for that.
Because, Aziraphale muses, if there is a Plan, if there is a Destiny, if One who knows all has an endgame ... then surely it is based, not on what we should do, but on what He knows we will do. What we will, of our own free will, choose. If the Plan is really Ineffable ... then surely it accounts for whatever choice you make. And then, the only reason for choosing ... is the choice itself. We can only choose as best we can from the choices in front of us. Destiny will find us regardless.
Or, Dean interrupts, in short, fuck it. God can play catch-up if He wants. It's the people in front of you that matter. The family in front of you.
Michael, Zach, Raph, even Lucy, aren't taking this well. Though the latter two somewhat better. But still. So what do we do now? Angels are not used to uncertainty. We just ... abandon the war? Abandon Heaven and Hell? Abandon duty, abandon cause? What?
You already had, Cas points out, blunt as ever, dry and savage. You've let Heaven and Hell and Earth fall for years. Two Apocalypses on, maybe it'd be better for all concerned if you did just cut and run.
Hell can run itself, Crowley notes brightly. Human demons have been running the upper circles for centuries now. Humanity is good at evil. Could've told you that ages ago. Did, in point of fact. Sent you a memo and everything.
And for Heaven, Aziraphale chimes in cheerfully, there are always the saints. Lovely people. I remember quite a few of them fondly. I'm sure they'll be happy to do the organisational heavy lifting while the angels get themselves sorted out. Humans are best left in search of their own happiness, anyway. Really, there's no reason the two of you ... the lot of you ... couldn't just find a tidy corner of the universe for a few centuries or so, and just get your heads together.
Catch up on old times, Crowley nods. Remember the good things. Remember being a family. Work on that whole 'forgiveness' concept, maybe. Or, hell, just stay out of the way for a while. Couldn't hurt. Might do you some good.
More to the point, would do the rest of us a lot of good.
The archangels ... don't look to agree. To abandon Heaven and Hell, to abandon everything they've fought for, to make a nothing of what divided them in the first place ... For Lucifer's pride and Michael's honour, that's difficult. Nigh impossible. And while the silence stretches, Aziraphale, Crowley, Cas, Gabe, Sam, Dean ... all ready themselves as best they can. To fight, if they have to. Not one, but three archangels. To die, because even weakened, Michael and Lucifer are no jokes, and Raph has always been deadly. And then ...
The Raphael speaks. Then Raphael stands up. Looks to Gabriel, for one moment, for one second, and Gabriel looks back, bewildered. And then at Zachariah, who glares warily. Raphael is the one to say: There is nothing left, brother. I have watched Heaven fall, I've helped Heaven fall, I've served this creature (Zach) and watching him drive it into the dust. There's nothing left, Michael. Nothing left of what we fought for. And this ... This will keep you alive. You wanted this. You've always wanted this. You've wanted there to be a chance, any chance, that you would not have to fulfill your destiny. And now you have it, and one thing, one thing that I've fought for, that I've killed for, that I've destroyed for, may survive. One thing. For the love of Father, take it, and let me have something left.
What's more important, Aziraphale asks Lucifer quietly. Humanity, or Michael? Is the destruction of humanity worth Michael's death? Are they worth your brother?
Lucifer, Michael asks. Speaking, at last. Looking at his brother's rotted form, his crumbling vessel. Looking past it, to the face he remembers beneath. Lucifer, he asks, and holds out his hand, because he doesn't know anything anymore, and there's nothing left, and he wants to at least know. Lucifer, Michael says, and holds out his hand to his brother.
And Lucifer, through a moment where no-one breathes, takes it.
I'm not completely sure what happens directly after this. The archangels need to find a corner of Heaven, because their vessels are failing, because Earth won't bear them long. Lucifer ... gets to go home, if not as he thought he would. In neither triumph nor defeat. Lucifer goes to Heaven, with Michael. And Heaven itself is not going to look kindly on that. That's ... going to take a while to fix. But I think, for a chance to have something again, to have family again, with so much of what they both loved in ruins ... I think Michael and Lucifer are willing to fight for this. And Raphael to back them up.
And the others ... Gabriel chooses to stay. All his family, his brothers, whom he fought and bled and was torn for, are going to Heaven, and Gabriel ... chooses to stay. Watching the relief in Sam's face, watching the bleakness that was almost grief. Gabriel chooses to stay, to be the archangel of Earth, to mind the shop while Heaven and Hell got their acts together. Though his brothers look askance at him, Gabriel chooses to stay.
Castiel, too. Aziraphale, Crowley. The angels of Earth. To mind it, to guide it, to protect it. Just in case, perhaps, an archangel should have a change of heart about its destruction. Just in case, perhaps, a Heavenly bureaucrat should try to enflame a war once again. They choose to stay.
And Aziraphale asks. On Crowley's behalf, as archangels move to leave. He hasn't forgotten, has not forgotten how the Devil lured Crowley to him, what Lucifer holds above his demon. Aziraphale lays a hand on Lucifer's arm, perfectly daring, and asks for Crowley's name.
And Lucifer smiles, and says he does not know. Lucifer smiles, and says he lied. That the name was lost before Crowley fell, and even the Devil never knew. Only the Father.
And as Aziraphale flinches back in shock and rage, as Crowley slumps silently, as the others move forward a furious step, the Devil smiles, more quietly this time, and says that he can offer the Title, instead. The title, almost a name, that he had stolen, long, long years ago, in terror after the Fall. Lucifer smiles, and looks at Crowley.
Ha Satan, he says, softly. The Adversary.
Which ... stops everyone dead. The humans in confusion and some wariness, the angels in shock, archangels in something between fascination and dread. Satan. The original. Not the Devil, not the name Lucifer himself had appropriated. The Satan, the Adversary. The office, as it had once been. The most loyal angel in all of Heaven's court, the tester of faith, the challenger of God. Who stood, not in enmity, but in loyalty, the Father's ally, and tested the faith of angels.
And men. Ha Satan had been lost in the war, an angel no-one remembered, an office no-one could fill, and then ... then there came stories of the testing of men. An angel walking the Earth, testing the faith of men as once he had tested the faith of angels, and all of Heaven had flinched in fear. Because Lucifer was locked in his cage, the Devil they had presumed, and no-one in Heaven knew this Satan's name. The angel who tested Job, who supposedly wagered with God, who walked freely. The Adversary, thought lost, still among them. The highest post of Heaven, the angel given leave to challenge God himself in order to serve. And Lucifer had stolen his name. His title. Lucifer had sent him to walk among them, and ... test them in their turn.
Are you insane, Gabriel asks at last. You struck down ... you used ... The Adversary, and you used him, hurt him ... And then Gabriel pales, and looks at Crowley. Because, hey, most of Heaven at this point has taken a turn or twenty knocking the Serpent. If Crowley really is the Adversary ...
I thought you were sent to destroy me, Lucifer says quietly. I thought you were sent to cut down the faith of my followers, destroy us as we lay Fallen. I couldn't let you. I thought I could use you, could send you above, could hold you and make you mine, defy whatever Plan my Father sent. I thought I could control the Adversary, turn him against the humans my Father loved so much. I thought I could control you. And then ... you do this. He smiles. It seems you found a way to test us after all.
Ineffable, Aziraphale says suddenly. Ineffable, he says, smiling, and pulls a still-stunned Crowley around to face him. Looks at his shocked, pale-faced demon, Crowley who absolutely does not believe a word of this. Don't you think, dear, the angel asks, grinning a little manically.
I'm not ... Crowley starts. I didn't ... I mean, yes, the testing of faith ... I mean, that's my job. And the Job job, that was me, but ... but that wager wasn't with God. It was with the angel.
Suddenly, everyone's looking at Aziraphale, squinting with suspicion and worry. Because if Crowley can turn out to be the Adversary ...
Don't look at me, Aziraphale blinks nervously. Trust me. I'd know if I was God. And I am not, believe me.
He isn't indeed, comes a voice from the door, out into the garden, where an amulet glows faintly on an apple tree. Two angels, come to fetch them. The Metatron, finally back from a twenty year bloody sabbatical, and Joshua, got up off his arse. They look around, at Lucifer and Michael, standing together, Michael's knuckles suddenly white around Lucifer's arm. At Raphael, Gabriel, Castiel. Sam, Dean. Even Zach. And then, at Aziraphale, at Crowley.
He's not God. He's more ... counsel for the defense, to the Adversary's prosecutor. Not that they've managed to keep the roles all that straight, these past few decades ...
Apocalypse, Aziraphale reminds them, primly. Multiple ones. Extenuating circumstances, dear boy, I think you'll agree? The Metatron winces, and nods. He's had enough of arguing with Aziraphale the last Apocalypse around.
The Metatron and Joshua have come to take the archangels home, those of them that are coming. Because, apparently, whether Planned or not, God can play catch-up with the best of them. Ineffable, no? They've come to bring Michael and Lucifer home, and whoever else is coming, and to leave Team Free Will, the guardians of earth, to pick up the pieces down here. And it's fairly obvious what TFW thinks of that, given Dean's glower and Castiel's stony glare, but then, Metatron always was a bit pompous. Rubbed people up the wrong way even if they hadn't spent the past few years bleeding and fighting to do other people's jobs for them. But they let them leave, heroically resisting the urge to comment, and when the archangels are gone, when the war is gone ...
They look around, at each other. It what's left of Crowley's living room, in the sunshine and the silence. Gabriel, moving to stand carefully beside Sam, the archangel who chose Earth. Castiel, resting his hand possessively in the small of Dean's back, the angel who fought all of Heaven and Hell for a human.
And Crowley, holding tight to Aziraphale's shoulders, a demon with a name, or at least a title. Crowley, chosen himself. The Serpent, the Adversary. Holding tight to his angel, to his adversary, and trembling while Aziraphale holds him tight, and smiles.
And then ... "Oh, bloody Hell!" Crowley groans, ignoring as they jump. "You know what this means, angel? If I'm the Adversary? Even if Heaven and Hell are taking care of themselves? It means I'm going to have to bloody WORK"
And a new day dawns on stuttered, nervous laughter, and three quiet, desperate, happy kisses.