Humanity

Mar. 21st, 2012 05:46 am
mistalagan: (Default)
[personal profile] mistalagan
Title: Humanity
Author: [livejournal.com profile] mistalagan
Beta: [livejournal.com profile] whit_merule
Rating: R
Characters and/or Pairing: Gabriel, Sam, Dean, Bobby (pre-Sam/Gabriel if you're looking for it)
Spoilers: Through 7x04
Warnings: Allusions to prior rape, associated trauma symptoms, some body horror, some language.
Word Count: 17,200
Summary/Notes: Written for the 2012 Gabriel Big Bang.

Set after 7x04 (the Osiris episode), and sequel to Oubliette (please read warnings), though you should be able to read this without that.

They found Gabriel on a tip from Meg, of all people—beaten and abused, a shadow of what he used to be. It’s not easy taking care of a (temporarily, Sam’s sure—permanently, Gabriel thinks) powerless archangel, especially when dealing with issues of their own. And it would be a bad idea to forget about the Leviathans…

Betaed by the amazing [livejournal.com profile] whit_merule! If for some reason you haven’t come across her story yet, check it out here; it’s long, but definitely worth every word.

Art by [livejournal.com profile] mangacrack, who has put up with my mounds of miscommunication issues and produced the gorgeous work you see right here. Be sure to head over and comment on the art at her journal!



He’s sprawled all along the seat, lightly, as if he’d fly away at any moment. His laughter—almost hysterical in its relief, its enthusiasm—has faded as his tears dry invisible on his sharp, hungry cheeks; now he’s quiet, barely breathing loud enough to hear.

Sam can see the bones standing out in his hands, thin and fragile like Sam’s vague memories of the large-eyed lorises sold as exotic pets (vague memories of Jess, waving pictures in front of him—join Students for Animal Rights!). His arms, encircled at the wrist by cold, narrow metal, disappear into the red patterned shirt that drapes (much too large) over him, a sloppy plaid toga, still open to the third button. They’d forgotten his jacket back in that…place, along with his shoes—though Sam hadn’t seen them when they’d stepped into that little slice of hell to find Gabriel, back to the wall, vulnerable, broken. Eyes bright and a little mad, tongue darting out to taste lips pink and cracked with dehydration, standing hopelessly against a circle of gleeful men.

Ever since they’d first met, Gabriel had been short. Sam’s never before seen him so small.

He had refused to let go of Sam, and so they're both sitting in the back. Gabriel's dozed off against Sam's chest, his dancing hands finally still— he'd been opening and closing them up and down Sam's clothing for a while. Sam has one arm slung around his back, and rubs little circles along it almost automatically as he stares out the window.

He’d kicked up a fuss when Dean indicated they'd take him to a hospital—probably the most life they'd seen out of him yet—and so they're heading up to the cabin in Whitefish. They've been driving straight through the night, stopping from time to time to acquire coffee and sugar. The sun is starting to rise behind them as the dull grey early morning landscape of Minnesota flashes by.

“Want me to drive?” Sam asks, and Dean blinks before adjusting his grip on the wheel.

“Nah. I'm good. Just call Bobby, would you?”

“Yeah.” Sam extracts his phone from his pocket carefully, trying not to jostle Gabriel, who wakes up anyway. He looks up at Sam, frowns a little, then seems to realize where he is and why and settles back down. Sam switches his phone to the other hand, resumes his petting.

“…Bobby? Yeah, it's Sam.”

“Sam? You boys alright?” The and if so, why are you calling me at all hours of the morning?’ is implied rather heavily in his concerned-verging-on-irritated tone.

“Um, yeah, Bobby. We've, uh. It sounds kinda crazy.”

“Where've you been the past five years? Spit it out.”

“We ran into Meg,” Gabriel makes a little questioning noise at that, “and she, uh, told us that Gabriel was alive.”

Bobby huffs a long breath down the line. “The archangel. Didn't Kali say Lucifer’d killed him?”

“Yeah, we thought so. We tracked him down. Turns out he's been in Chicago the whole time.”

“So, what, he's just been—”

“It's, um,” Sam interrupts quickly. “Bobby, it's not like that. He's in really bad shape. There were some pretty awful things going down there. So—we're heading up to the cabin, be there by tonight if Dean doesn't collapse before then—”

“I've driven a lot longer than this before, Sammy, I'll be fine.”

“—and just have, I don't know, an extra place to sleep or something. He refuses to go to a hospital.”

“How bad is it?”

Sam hesitates. “He says he got healed every day. This guy hit him pretty hard with a crowbar, though, and I don't know how long it's been since he ate—”

“Ate yesterday,” Gabriel tells him, staring up at the roof, barely blinking, “I eat—ate every three days.”

“—Since yesterday, then, but he's really skinny and he says they only fed him twice a week.”

“They didn't feed me at all,” Gabriel mutters, “he did. There was food in the little room every three days. But I couldn't save it because it just disappeared. And last Thursday it was only oatmeal. Usually I'd get beans, too. And an apple.”

Sam looks disturbed. “That's, like, less than a thousand calories a—um. Sorry, Bobby. We're gonna get there as soon as possible, okay? And, I don't know, you know people who can at least tell us what to do, right?”

“Yeah, I'll look into it.”

“Um, Bobby? There's these cuffs on his wrists, we can't get them off, he says they're keeping his grace suppressed. Carved all over in Enochian and, I don’t know, other stuff. So if you could look that up, too, that would be great.”

“Yeah. Alright. Send me a picture and I'll see what I can do. Tell that idjit brother of yours to let you have the wheel before he crashes his precious car.”

“Okay.” Sam hangs up. “Gabriel, here, I’m gonna take a picture of the cuffs, okay?” He catches his wrist gently, and Gabriel doesn’t protest, doesn’t even move—lets Sam manhandle him around with neither hindrance nor help. Poor lighting, but the picture’s sent, and when Sam lets go Gabriel settles down into his lap, eyes still on the roof.

Dean frowns back at him. “Dude, how do you know that about the calories? Actually, never mind, I don’t want to know. Shouldn't he be—”

“Dead,” Gabriel says, “yes. Maybe. I've never tried starving myself before. But I couldn't die. I cut my throat once. It didn't work.” He taps his fingers absently along the edge of the seat. “Maybe I can die out here.”

Sam shakes his head. “…I don't know, but we're going to try to keep you alive, alright?”

“Why?” He quits tapping, and gives Sam an odd look.

“I—you don't—you didn't deserve this, Gabriel. And you don't deserve to die like this, either.” He says it with a quizzical look, as if it's self-explanatory.

Gabriel smiles, a weird little smile that twists his face into something old and alien. “Why? Because I helped you? You know, I raped a man seven or eight years ago. He was a girl at the time. Still is, probably. He screamed for twelve minutes before I even touched him, and begged me to stop the whole time even as I made his body like it. Who are you to say I didn't deserve it?”

There’s a sudden hum as Dean’s shoulders tense and the car speeds up. Sam's hand on Gabriel stills, and he looks back out the window. The head and shoulders resting on his legs suddenly seem much heavier than before.

“…I. I don't—I’m not. I guess.”

He can feel Gabriel’s eyes burning a hole up through his chin, but he doesn’t glance back down to meet them.

They stop at a fast-food place for breakfast. Gabriel refuses to go in, so they eat it a few miles out of town on a little turnout. Sam gets Gabriel chicken soup, because he figures it's got to be the best thing on the menu, and anyway it has electrolytes or something. He thinks, not for the first time, that it would be infinitely more helpful to have been pre-med.

Of course, he was trying to get as far away from his childhood as possible, and law had seemed like the one of the least useful things for a hunter to know.

It’s warm, for November, but Gabriel starts shivering just about as soon as he leaves the car. Sam drapes his own jacket around the angel's shoulders. Gabriel seems surprised, but clutches it tightly and huddles into himself as his sock-covered toes curl into the half-dead grass.

Sam and Dean finish their food quickly, and watch Gabriel eat. He scoops up tiny amounts of soup in each spoonful, sniffing it before he brings it to his mouth, and he stares off past the trees to someplace Sam can't see.

They sit there for at least an hour. More. Dean clears his throat, looks down. “Um. Gabriel.”

Gabriel looks at him, tilts his head. It reminds Sam of Cas, almost, and he can see Dean flinch and swallow. “Did he—the man. The guy you, uh. Did he deserve it?”

Gabriel shrugs. “Does it matter?”

“Yes! Yeah, just, I mean—if you don't wanna…”

Gabriel speaks slowly, almost hesitantly, eyes fixed on Dean's. “He would pick up hitchhikers, or other girls just down on their luck, take them back to his place, feed them and make them feel safe. Then he'd tie them to the bed, rape them, and murder them. The youngest one was thirteen.

“One of the people he killed ignored her little brother when she was supposed to take care of him, and he was mauled by the family dog. She claimed she hadn't heard the screams. Later, she'd have gotten mad at her own kid for interrupting her nap and shaken him into a coma. Another one helped her friends drug up a couple of guys once, just a prank, set them up together naked in the student center. One of them was deep in the closet—he killed himself a few days later.

“Most of them, of course, were perfectly normal, decent people. You tell me if he deserved it.” Gabriel scrapes the bottom of the cardboard container with his spoon, then tilts it back and licks it out.

Dean looks sick. “He, uh. Didn't know that, though. About those women.”

“Course not. He wasn't psychic. Just psycho.” He doesn't even bother to laugh at his own joke.

Sam can see Dean thinking, and deciding that whatever Gabriel had done to the guy was pretty much deserved. Sam doesn't know what to think, really, except that even if Gabriel's victim had renounced his ways and reformed Gabriel had probably paid for the act hundreds of times over.

“Do you regret it?” he blurts out.

Gabriel sets down his container—good, because Sam could swear that he'd been looking at it like it was edible—and twirls his spoon around. Or tries to, anyway—he drops it, hands still clumsy. Sam wonders if that's because he's stuck as a human, or whether it's because his body is breaking down more than he's letting on.

“No, Sammy,” Gabriel says, “I don't regret it.”

Sam considers telling Gabriel not to call him Sammy, but the moment has passed, and they're all getting back in the car. Gabriel doesn't lean against him this time—just hunches over on the far side of the car with his cheek pressed to the glass.

*

He’d almost made it.

Sixteen days, five meals, one hundred ninety-one discrete men (three hundred seventy-seven, if you count the total), sixteen mornings of his brother’s cold hands carefully scouring his skin, eighty-five lashes (because some of them like to make him count), thirty-six orgasms (nearly all of them on Thursdays), two silver bracelets (many more handcuffs), one perpetual headache that only fades in and out, never disappears, uncountable hours (probably three-hundred eighty four, maybe more, maybe less) of unyielding fluorescent light. A gradual weakening—strength, reflexes, thought; but he’d almost made it tonight. One hand on the door, already half-naked, already bleeding from his mouth. An arm around his waist.

His brother watches, as always, from one unadorned corner, ruined face expressionless except when it is pitying—when he lifts his head from the pristine grey floor and chokes on his own screams, when his fingers go limp and yielding, when he stops begging altogether.

*

Dean does eventually let Sam drive, and they make it to Whitefish by ten-thirty with Dean snoring in shotgun and Gabriel still silently staring at the edge of the window. Sam reaches over to shake Dean awake, then gets out and opens Gabriel's door. He holds out a hand in a silent offer to help.

Gabriel watches him, then quirks up one side of his mouth. “I think I can get out of a car, Sammy.” He grasps the door handle on one side and the driver's seat on the other, levering himself up and out. It's almost completely dark out, except for the lights coming from the cabin, and he doesn't take three steps before tripping and landing hard on his side. He hisses a breath in and doesn't move.

Sam's by his side in an instant. He kneels down next to him. “Gabriel? You okay? Can you get up?”

“Give me a minute.” He's breathing shallowly, and he grimaces at the ground. A minute passes, and then another. Dean's gone up to the front door and knocked, and the light gets brighter as the door opens and Bobby's silhouette appears.

Sam frowns. The fall hadn't been that bad. “Gabriel, give me your left arm, okay?” Gabriel obliges, and Sam lifts it up around his shoulders. He puts his own right hand on Gabriel's back between his wing bones, and starts pressing against his chest with the other hand. He gets about halfway down on the right side before Gabriel hisses and pulls back.

“Man, you've got a broken rib. Probably multiple. Why didn't you say something?”

Gabriel doesn't reply.

“Alright—look, how long have you had trouble breathing?” Silence. “Gabriel! Say something!”

“It's not trouble. Exactly. Just hurts a little.”

Sam sighs. “You stubborn little—Gabriel, I'm going to pick you up now.” He doesn't leave room for argument, just shifts his right arm to cup Gabriel's back a little more firmly and grasps his thighs with the other. He stands effortlessly, and Gabriel slumps forward against his chest.

Bobby's come down to meet them, and stares openly at Gabriel before turning his gaze up to meet Sam's. “Better bring him in.”

Sam lays him out on the couch while Bobby fetches pills. He brings them over with a quarter-full mug of water, and proffers them with one hand. Gabriel just stares.

“Painkillers. Take 'em.”

Gabriel holds out a hand, places them both on his tongue. He gulps down the water in one greedy swallow. “Thanks.” He forms the word as if it's foreign to him, mouth shaping around it slowly.

“Sure. Hear you don't want a hospital.”

Gabriel shakes his head.

Bobby stares at him for a while, clearly expecting more, then shrugs. “We've all got our hang ups. But you start getting worse and we're taking you in.” Bobby looks up at Sam. “You know where they're broken?”

“Right side,” Sam replies, “bottom three, I think.” Bobby nods.

“We'll keep an eye on those, then. Try not to bang them up. And I talked to a friend of mine, said we should start you on a low-calorie diet at first. Got a list of foods. You can get real sick if you start it up too fast, so if you feel too nauseous, have trouble breathing, anything, you let us know. Got it?”

He nods. The painkillers are starting to make him drowsy, and his head lolls to the side. “Thanks,” he says again, because he knows he should, and then he slips into a state of half-awareness, falling in and out of sleep.

He catches bits and pieces of their conversation as they crowd around the table “—no, we don't know exactly—” “—yeah, try to get them off, see if he knows anything about—” “—reports keep coming in, nothing good—” “—night.” “Night.”

Gabriel pretends to be asleep as Sam comes over and lifts him lightly up. He pads past the fireplace, through the door, and up the narrow staircase, ducking under the low ceiling, and settles Gabriel down on a bed. He just watches for a while, then reaches out a hand to cup Gabriel's face and tugs several warm blankets over him. He turns to leave, then stops suddenly.

“Go away,” he whispers. “Don't touch him.” He takes a hasty step back, arms out as if protecting Gabriel. “You're not real.”

Sam stands there breathing loudly for a few more minutes, then lowers his arms and leaves the room.

*

Just another day, or night, or something—it’s not as if the time matters down here. Just a constant bright light, artificial light, though the kind of light shouldn’t matter. He should just be glad he has any at all.

Except it is only in the small dark room he has any peace, and not even there; even there, there is nothing to sustain him.

Cold food is not enough, cold water is not enough, cold air is nonexistent—there’s only a lukewarm atmosphere, nothing too hot or too cold, something just perfect enough to keep him alive, alive, alive.

He wakes up in the middle of the day or night, he never knows when it is, because every minute is just the same as every other minute except when they’re here, and those minutes all blend together like the chalk on a blackboard, smudging white dust all over the meanings of things.

*

Gabriel wakes up in the middle of the night desperately thirsty. His ribs hurt again, and he blinks back sleep. The room's illuminated by moonlight. He stares up at the ceiling (four rafters, five slats of wood between each…), listening to his breath puff in and out through his open mouth. He feels antsy and grimy, cold even under the layers of blankets.

It feels strange to have clothes on. They hang loosely around him—they're exactly like the ones he'd had on in the motel, and are now several sizes too big. He shifts, trying to coax his jeans into reaching some level of comfort. The denim rubs roughly against his calves, the edge of the waistband digs into the side he'd been lying on, his shirt (still half unbuttoned) leaves his upper chest open to the air. He can't quite bring himself to button it.

On a whim, he eases the blankets off and slips off the bed. The floor is smooth and chilly under his bare feet, and he pulls one blanket off to wrap around himself before shuffling out the door and slowly downstairs. His ribs still hurt, worse and worse now that he's moving. But his head is clear, the perpetual headache fading, a little, and he's awake and alert. Good enough.

The TV's on. The sound's off, but he can hear its high whine even before he steps into the dull drift of light that crosses the doorway.

There's a silhouette hunched up on the couch, and at first Gabriel thinks whoever-it-is is asleep. It turns to face him, though, so that he can't see its face but only the shadows that it casts. “Hey.”

“…Hey,” Gabriel replies, and he's not particularly surprised that it comes out in a stutter and a croak. It's been a long time since he's talked as much as he did today.

The person shifts, and the hollow light from the TV dances across his face, the glint of green eyes and sharp edge of slightly flared nostrils. “You, uh—you need something?” It's clearly Dean at this point. He's not even really sure why he'd wondered.

He shakes his head, shrugs over at the sink. “Just getting water.” Dean nods, then swings halfway off the couch before a sudden itch of resentment grows and sharpens. “I can get it.” 

Dean looks surprised, a bit, and raises his hands in surrender. “Sure.”

He can feel Dean's eyes on him as he shuffles over to the sink; the light barely reaches over, and makes the empty bottles scattered around seem huge. He takes a mug that seems clean, fills it up about halfway with a burst of water from the tap, and cradles it in both hands as he turns back to Dean.

There's a noise from his right, and he jumps. Water sloshes up the edge of the mug and drips onto the fold of skin by his thumb—he twitches it off and grips the handle more tightly. Dean looks over, gestures past the fireplace and Gabriel's field of vision, “Sam's asleep. He gets nightmares.”

Gabriel nods, and looks down into the black water, swishing it back and forth. “You did it.”

“Yeah.”

They're silent for a while, and then Gabriel looks up again. “…Is Michael…?”

“In the Cage, too.”

The mug is growing slippery with sweat, and squeaks a little as he rubs his thumb along it. “Raphael?”

“Dead.”

“Your—Castiel?”

Something flickers in Dean's eyes, and he looks back at the TV. “Dead.” He interrupts before Gabriel can say anything further, “It's a long story.” He takes in a deep breath, and swings his head up to look at the ceiling. “Hell, I don't think I know any angels who are still kicking. Except for you. I'm sorry.”

He's not thirsty anymore, but he drains the mug anyway, in lieu of responding. The edge of it scrapes along his teeth, drags his lip down, and he puts it on the little round table slowly. There's pressure growing along his temples, along the bone beside his nose, behind the roof of his mouth, and he grits his teeth to keep it from spreading into sparks of pain in his eyes. Water collects on his lower eyelid, and he turns to the sink to wipe it away.

“Dude, are you—I mean, Go- shit, I'm sorry. Gabriel?”

He's silent. Dean's footsteps echo across the floor and stop anxiously a couple feet away. “Gabriel—”

“Kali?” he asks, hunched over, watching the ragged, off-white curtains shiver with his breath.

“…I don't know. We haven't seen her, but that doesn't mean anything; she told us she never wanted to see us again, and she'd, I dunno, rip our hearts out if she did.”

Gabriel huffs out a wry murmur of not-quite-laughter. “Sounds like her.” He shakes his head slowly, then turns around again, and gestures at the TV. “What's on?”

Dean pauses for a second, somewhat taken aback. “…Uh. Mostly Spanish soaps. Reruns, I think.”

“Ever play Fuego en la sangre?”

“Uh. Dunno, but there was a guy named Ricardo. Died, though.”

“Mind if I watch?”

Dean shrugs. “I—no. Go ahead.”

The silence isn't exactly companionable, but Dean pretends that he's not staring at Gabriel, and Gabriel pretends he doesn't notice Dean, and when Sam stumbles out of bed the next morning he finds the television still going and both men asleep on the couch.

*

It’s himself and not himself. Everywhere he looks, too, big and small, bloodlines of his he never knew, bloodlines of his murdered for their ancestry. Everyone he could have been—the dark girl with a slender ibis-neck and black-brown eyes, the tall man, heavy-set, always laughing.

The man sitting in the corner of his vision, always in the corner of his vision, eating pancakes. The man always behind him, flickering in and out of existence—or visibility, anyway, because no matter how he turns all he sees is a hateful stare out of the corner of one eye. He tries to ask them their names, but his mouth is scarred over, sewn shut with golden thread.

His brother, not Nick-the-dying-vessel but his brother, real and true, except then his perception snaps back into humanity when he realizes he cannot see an angel’s form, not anymore, and he sobs, long and low.

It’s not a nightmare. The nightmares have the men, taunting, playing, dull edges all blending together. The nightmares have things, cold metal, cold concrete, cold knives, warm fur rubbing against his cringing skin. It’s not a nightmare. He doesn’t know what to call it. Angels don’t dream.

The pieces of him collide here and there, sparking jumps across time and through heavy pockets of darkness. With each contact there is a brief flash of thought, too quick to understand—

—you could not help but lose, for it was wildfire itself you sought to outrace—

—or a glimpse of something too large to see.

*

“Seriously?” Dean stares at the bowl with a grimace. “What the hell is this, anyway?”

Bobby glares at him from across the room. “Potato porridge. It's good for you. Eat up.”

“Dude, I'm not the one on a special diet here!”

Sam gives him his best exasperated face. “Dean, just eat it. It's not that bad. There's banana and nuts and stuff.”

“Yeah, that just makes it weirder. What did you do, throw everything on that list in a bowl and mash it up?”

“Dean.” Sam catches his eyes and glances meaningfully over at Gabriel, who's eating slowly and quietly at the table. “Deal with it.”

He rolls his eyes, but eats, and they're right—it's not that bad, not that he'd ever admit it. If Sam's determined to be a mother hen, he figures it at least means he has something to focus on. Which is more than Dean does.

He finishes up in about five minutes, and goes to drop the bowl by the sink. “So, what's the crisis of the day?”

“Couple of disappearances down in Horseshoe Bend, Idaho, and a guy in Santa Fe doctors swore was DOA who woke up two minutes before the autopsy. Feel like checking them out?” Bobby drops the circled articles on the counter next to him, and Dean shrugs.

“Sure. Be in Idaho by tonight. Any leads?”

“Eh, not really. Small town, so it caused a stir. Could just be mundane.”

“Yeah, well, it’s close.” And he’s grateful for something to do, rather than just sit around the cabin and wait for information that never comes. “I’ll be off in a few. Sammy, you coming?”

Sam shifts in his seat and shakes his head. “Figure you can take care of it. I’m going to get Gabriel clothes and stuff, maybe set him up with a driver’s license or something. And Bobby’s setting up some phone lines, Ricky Collins wants an FBI cover for a couple days.”

“…Oh. Okay, then. All goes well I’ll be back in two. Saturday.”

“Great. Call us.”

“Four,” Gabriel mutters, and Dean squints.

“What?”

Gabriel looks uncomfortable when they all turn to look at him, glancing quickly down to his spoon before squaring his shoulders and looking back up. “Saturday’s four days from now.”

The silence lingers for a few seconds, before Sam gives him an awkward smile. “Uh, two weeks, he meant. And today’s Saturday.”

Gabriel deflates very suddenly. “…How long was I asleep?”

Sam shrugs. “You slept a lot of yesterday. And then we got here and you were pretty much out, so—I dunno, twenty-plus hours total?”

“…Right, but—” he looks out at the curtains, at the light filtering through “—it's not Tuesday? May 15? Twenty-twelve?”

“It's November twenty-twelve. Um. The—what, seventeenth? We found you Thursday night.”

His forehead furrows, and he nods quickly. “So it took you a while.”

“What?”

“To—after—after the massacre. To stop it.”

“After—Elysian, you mean? Stopping the Apocalypse? Couple months, I guess. Are you all right?” Sam's concerned-that-Dean-might-be-whammied look is on in full force. Only this time it's not directed at Dean.

Who really wants to just—sidle away. Only even him at his quietest would seem unbearably loud right now. Gabriel's scrunched his nose up, digging lines into the table with his fingernail, and is breathing very slowly and steadily and calmly.

“A couple months. Like seven or eight.”

“Like two. Gabriel—”

“So since April 4th. Twenty-ten. You're saying it's been nine hundred fifty-nine days.” The speed of his words seems to be increasing even as his breathing slows.

“I have no idea. Um. Two years, plus—uh, yeah, something like that.”

Dean shifts his gaze from Gabriel to Bobby, who doesn't look nearly as confused as the rest of them, and in fact has this pinched mouth that he gets when he doesn't really want to say something but has decided everyone else in the room is too stupid to do so. “How long did you think it was?”

“…Not that long. It's not important. I just—I lost track, that's all.” Gabriel picks up his spoon and carefully scrapes the slowly congealing porridge from the sides of his bowl.

Well, Dean realizes would be utterly tactless to say, thinking the time was shorter than it really was is actually a lot better than the alternative. He's been the victim of hell-fairy-time-screwing enough to know, right?

Instead of making the awkward moment worse, however, he gracelessly escapes it by giving Bobby a quick and insincere grin before fleeing to the bathroom.

*

Once he starts to lose track, he makes the marks permanent.

The scratches on the wall swim in front of his eyes even when he closes them, even when he curls up on the narrow white cot—no blankets, no sheets—and tries to sleep the time away. They’re doing it now, too, but he’s not looking at them, and his eyes aren’t closed; it doesn’t matter, because they’re scratched into his skin now, each one, counting down the endless days until the end of the world.

Except that already happened, didn’t it?

*

“Idaho’s a bust,” Dean’s voice comes tinny through the phone, “I’ve been looking into the Santa Fe thing. Dude was full-on brain dead, had a heart attack—the family insisted on the autopsy, though, ‘cause the guy ran marathons for fun. Anyway, he’s back up, walking and talking like nothing’s wrong. I’ll be down there soon. Everything going okay?”

“Yeah,” Sam replies, absently stirring a pot of off-white, bubbling soup (no cream, fat’s bad, solid foods still difficult…), “Collins is an idiot but we knew that already. Switched up the phone numbers to reach the CDC one instead of FBI, almost got busted. Bobby threw a fit.”

“Heh. Dumbass. Any leads on our favorite blobs of black goo?”

“Nope. Same old. Oh, except apparently someone positively IDed Arianne Zucker. Big teeth and everything.”

“Oh, hell no.” Sam grins through the mouthpiece at Dean’s whine.

“Nah, I’m just screwing with you.”

“Bitch.”

“Yeah, yeah. So we finally found clothes that fit Gabriel, and he’s almost got the hang of shaving. Bathing was awkward the first couple times, but he’s a little more steady on his feet—I swear, he was tripping over everything, Bobby thought it was vitamin deficiency so we’ve got him on a multi—”

“—So he’s alright, then?”

“Well, I don’t think he sleeps through the night. And he spends most of his time on the porch, even though he gets really cold, always has these blankets on him. ‘Cause it’s outside, I think. Doesn’t talk much, it’s—weird, for him, y’know? I mean, he talked more when we first found him. And when he does, half the time he’s got this weird look on his face. Won’t touch Bobby, but for some reason I’m okay. And he gets these things, Bobby says it’s like, uh, like me, where he just freezes up for no reason, except I’ve been looking into it and there’s always a reason—”

“Sam?”

“Huh?”

“I’m glad you’re, uh, bonding, but I really have to—go. Y’know. Turn in early. Okay?”

“Oh, yeah. Sorry. See you.”

“…Bye.”

*

He can’t remember what the stairway cost, but it’s there and he did pay for it somehow, so he climbs. Every step is a little harder, a little higher, and he can’t catch up with the breath he knows he has to have, now. Somewhere at the top of the stairs is heaven. No. Earth.

Somewhere at the top of the stairs is earth, pressing down all around him and leaving him to choke, powdered dust layering bit by bit along him as he climbs until he can no longer move. His hand reaches out, up, frozen in place, and before the powder cakes over his eyes he sees that it, too, is crumbling into dust, the same dust that falls into his ears and nose and mouth and crushes his lungs flat and empty.

He had been so close.

*

It’s raining, so Sam’s finally convinced Gabriel to come in out of the growing cold—he’d even gotten a few sentences out of him during the exchange (“it’s a closed-in porch, the leak’s all the way over there, shivering just means I’m keeping warm”). The angel—the man’s dripping all over the couch now, instead, eyes fixed on a fuzzy nature documentary, something about lions and hyenas.

Sam’s really trying not to stare, even as he pages through the thick stack of photocopies—at least there are English translations written all along the margins, in a ridiculously tiny, neat hand. He wonders whose—Bobby’s writing is nothing like that. Nor is any hunter’s he knows of. He pauses with his finger near a diagram, rereads the notes a few times as excitement builds. “Hey. Gabriel?”

Gabriel turns his head, meets Sam’s eyes, and quirks up one eyebrow in response.

“I think I found something. Um, there’s this ritual, easy ingredients, anyway—borage, acacia—”

“Won’t work.”

“…Okay…”

He glances back to his documentary, briefly, “Look, I appreciate that you’re trying to help, Sam. But there’s only one way to get rid of them, and all the archangels are dead. Or as good as. So—”

“There has to be another way.” The happy feeling in Sam’s chest has rapidly deflated, and Gabriel won’t look at him.

“They’re made of an archangel’s—my—blade. Nothing can break an archangel’s blade.”

“Everything can be broken.”

“No.”

“You said we’d never stop the apocalypse—”

“It’s different!” He gathers his knees up to his chest and wraps the ubiquitous blanket more tightly to him.

“How?”

Sam.” He leans his head back against the couch—the sharp definition of his chin is as clear as ever, hardly a pound gained in the last week and a half—stares up at the ceiling, as if it held answers. “You don’t think I’d have thought this through? You don’t think I’d grab any chance I got? Imagine someone tearing off your arms. Imagine someone cutting into your brain and slicing pieces away. I know what will work and what won’t, and no ritual or spell or fancy sword is gonna cut it. You need another archangel’s blade—”

“We’ve got that.” (This, Gabriel knows. Bobby’d left Raphael’s sword on the counter a week ago, and Gabriel had taken one look and clammed up entirely for two days—all the progress Sam had thought they’d made gone.)

“—and you need another archangel. My br- Lucifer knew what he was doing, okay?”

Lucifer’s sitting across the table from Sam, frowning at him. “I’m sure I would have, if I’d done this. Which—Sam, do you really think I’d do this to my own brother? It amazes me what your mind comes up with, really.”

Sam bites back the retort and ignores him. “Gabriel, we could find a way, if you’d just help a little! I’m flying blind, but—look, there has to be something.”

“Why are you so invested in this?” The muscles in Gabriel’s neck grow tighter. “—Look, I can leave. Now, if you want. Just give me a couple bucks, I’ll catch a bus and be out of your hair.”

Sam scowls, though it’s not as if Gabriel’s looking. And it figures that the first time they’ve had a real conversation in the last ten days, it’s an argument. “I don’t want you to leave.”

“—I mean, you’ve done enough for me already. Really. You can just go back to—researching whatever it was you were researching before I came along, alright? Sounds good. If you don’t want to spare the cash, I’ll hitchhike. Done it before—” he snorts. “Well, sort of. I can do it again.”

“Don’t—Gabriel.”

“I’m not Castiel, Sam. Not some fresh-off-the-boat mick. I don’t need you taking care of me.”

“Obviously you do—”

“The fuck I do!”

“I won’t let you leave!”

Gabriel’s eyes shift over to stare at him, mouth half open, breathing slowed. “What?” he says quietly, whispered, with all the tentative strength of a paper crane.

Sam swallows. “I—I mean. Shit. If you—no. Gabriel, yesterday you tripped on the stairs, landed on your broken ribs, and couldn’t sit up straight for an hour. You’re not going anywhere.”

Gabriel’s silent for a long, angry moment, and when he does speak his voice is hoarse and shaky. “I will go—I will do,” he says, deliberately, “whatever the fuck I want.”

Something roils deep in the pit of Sam’s stomach, and even Lucifer is glaring at him, now. “I didn’t mean it like that, Gabe. I just want—look, is it so hard for you to believe I care what happens to you? Is there always some—some ulterior motive? We’ve lost enough allies, okay?”

“That’s it then. Fine.”

“That’s what?” 

“Your ulterior—points for the SAT word there, Sammy—motive. You miss your pet angel, thought you’d get yourself a replacement. Complete with a pet name. Don’t pretend you care about me.

“I’m not pretending any-” The shrill sound of a phone ringing cuts through his sentence, and he grabs at it, suddenly glad for the excuse. It’s Dean. He picks up.

“Yeah?”

“—Uh, hey. It’s Dean—”

“Yeah.”

“Dude, you okay?”

“I’m fine. What do you want?”

“—just checking in. Dug up some more stuff, thinking it’s a revenant. Apparently he was all quiet—seriously, didn’t say a word—but they let his wife take him home, and now he’s up and disappeared. So I figure he’s after someone, looking around for enemies. Weird thing, though, don’t they usually talk?”

“Yeah. I’ll see if there’s anything else it could be. What’s the timeline?”

“Died two weeks ago of a heart attack, woke up same day, they released him last Friday and he spent three days not doing anything. Or eating anything, apparently, except when they held it in front of his mouth.”

“Huh. Okay, died, woke up, doesn’t talk, ignores his wife, disappeared. I’ll see what—”

“Zombie.”

“—Just a second. What?”

Gabriel’s got a flat look on his face, attention back on his documentary. “It’s a zombie.”

“Uh. Dean, Gabriel says it’s a zombie.”

“Don’t they usually eat people? And rot?”

“I thought so. Gabe? Wouldn’t that be noticeable?”

He snorts. “Wrong kind of zombie.”

“…Care to elaborate?” Sam taps his pen on the table, still halfway to furious.

Gabriel shrugs. “It’s a corpse powered by a half-dead, tethered human soul. Guy gets cursed, gets killed, and then his soul isn’t quite in place but it can’t escape either. The bokor usually has him wake up after burial—”

“Bokor?”

“You do this for a living? Sorcerer.” There’s a trace of the old Gabriel back in the scorn weighing down his tone. “Voodoo tradition. Priest that specializes in black magic, specifically the use of souls. They can’t go around fooling with the pure thing, it’s incredibly powerful, but zombifying’s one of the things they can do. It’s like a slave that never ages or gets sick or dies. I’m told it’s incredibly painful.”

“Oh. Uh, Dean, the voodoo version.”

“In Santa Fe?”

“I guess? Gabe, they show up in Santa Fe?”

“I can hear him talking through the phone, you know. You don’t have to relay the message. And they’re human. Humans can move wherever the hell they want.”

“Apparently yes, they do.”

“So how do I kill it?”

“How does he kill it?”

“You don’t kill it. You can’t, that’s the point. You kill the sorcerer.”

“He says you kill the sorcerer.”

“—Great, how do I kill the sorcerer?”

“Like you’d kill any human. Shoot him. Or, y’know, decapitate. Stab. Punch too hard. Feed fattening foods and wait. Most things, really.”

“Nothing special, Dean, you just kill him.”

“How do I find him?”

“Spin around in a circle three times and chant dirty limericks over a dead chicken.”

“…I think you just have to find him the old fashioned way, Dean. You need help?”

“Wouldn’t want to drag you away from your new boyfriend. It’s cool, I got it.”

“He needs help,” Gabriel calls over.

“You sure, Dean?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“If he’s powerful enough to make one zombie, he’s powerful enough to make two. So he could have a whole legion of immortal quarterbacks at his beck and call. You need at least two people, and get some other houngan—sorry, priest—down there to whammy you up protection charms. Or, actually.” He grabs an old Reader’s Digest from the crowded table in front of him, and scribbles something on it, waves it in the air. “Carry this around and the zombies will avoid you for a while.”

Sam frowns at him, and Gabriel just shrugs and raises his eyebrows. “…Okay, I’m coming down. Be there in a couple days, don’t do anything stupid.”

“You want me to just sit here?”

“Track him down. Don’t attack him.”

“—you’re sure about this? I mean—”

“Yeah. I trust Gabriel, okay?” He says it a little too loudly, maybe.

“—alright, Sam. If you insist. Thursday?”

“Thursday. See you.”

“Bye.”

Sam shuts off the phone, turns to Gabriel. “Why are you suddenly being helpful?”

He shrugs. “Watching you two fumble around like stoned puppies isn’t as fun as it used to be.”

Stoned puppies? Sam wrinkles his nose. “And you’re sure?”

“That it’s a zombie? Pretty sure.”

Sam nods, and fiddles with the edge of a piece of paper. The silence stretches on—Gabriel’s not looking at him, but he’s not watching the TV anymore either, staring instead somewhere between the window and the ugly black armchair. “…So, Gabriel.”

“Yup.” He pops the  ‘p’ sound obnoxiously. It’s almost a relief, perversely enough—he’s actually got enough life in him to be annoying.

“If I leave. Are you going to?”

Gabriel shifts, lies out along the couch, tugging the blanket here and there and staring at what must, to him, be a fascinating ceiling judging by the way his attention always seems to turn to it. “…No. Probably not. Singer’ll keep me here, I’m sure. ‘Sides, it’s comfortable here.”

Sam looks around at the grimy floors, the cobwebs stretching across the rafters, the mismatched, rickety chairs. “Promise?”

A pause. “Sure. Not until you get back.”

“Shake on it?”

Gabriel flicks off the TV, shifts his feet back down to the floor. “You’re pushing it.”

Sam just looks at him. Gabriel sighs.

“You’re way too touchy-feely, kid. Fine.” He levers himself up off the couch, shuffles over with an eye to his footsteps, and holds out one of his raccoon-slender hands. Sam takes it carefully. They shake, and don’t linger.


Part Two
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March 2012

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