“Strange place to meet, Cort,” Tabitha greets as she looks curiously around the bustling hallways, sidestepping to avoid a harried looking nurse as she bolts past her for another room.
Cort shrugs in return, his expression more closed off than she’s ever seen him be with her.
She takes the time to skim over his appearance, plain blue suit, rumpled from wear or stress, and loosened gray tie. The suit gives the impression of a man with stress radiating from him, but it’s the wrinkles at his eyes, the dark glint in them that suddenly give her the sensation of a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Despite the sudden awkward air filling the space between them, Tabitha forges on to ask him, “Okay, so why’d you want to meet at the West Jefferson Medical Center, then? You told me to get down to New Orleans immediately, and when I get to town, you call me to tell me to come to the hospital and won’t say why. What’s up?”
For just a moment, a flash of unfettered fury flits through his eyes, but then, it’s gone so quickly that Tabitha almost swears she imagined it.
Not quite meeting her eyes again, but crossing his arms over his chest and feigning nonchalance, Cort blandly tells her, “It’s where Momma Cecile sent me. Told me there’s something real important here. Something you needed if’n your brothers was to succeed in their cockamamie schemes.” He sighs and shakes his head almost in a self-deprecating manner, still not quite looking at her. “Fool man that I am, I rushed down here. Kept things under wraps. Kept doctors from poking their noses too close or officially submitting any paperwork. Trying to be your white knight, I s’pose.”
Finally meeting her eyes fully, he tells her, “Well, I found what you was looking for, I guess. An’ I kept him hidden till you got here.”
When he jerks his head over his shoulder to indicate to the hospital room he stands outside of, her gaze follows. When she can’t quite see into the room, she cautiously steps around Cort, finding her breath has stopped and her heart is nearly in her throat with the wild hope suddenly surging in her chest.
As she draws even with Cort, her hands fly to her mouth, holding back the choked sob lodged in her throat.
“Guess he is what you was looking for,” Cort darkly comments, drawing her eyes away from the sleeping figure of Castiel in the hospital bed as she looks back up at the man next to her.
Before her eyes, he seems to crumple backwards against the wall to the outside of Castiel’s room, closing his eyes as if to shut out the world. The wrinkles she’d noted around his eyes seem to etch even deeper into his skin.
Wiping away the happy tears she can feel racing down her cheeks, she sadly bemoans, “Cort…” But trails off when she doesn’t know what to say to ease the pain radiating from him.
Not knowing what to say, she begins again, “I’m—”
He quickly cuts her off with a low, harsh, “Don’t.”
Shaking his head, causing it to roll back and forth across the white sterile walls, he tells her, “I knew. I knew when I come down here I was in for a world of hurt. An’ I knew as soon as I saw him what I was gonna find. Knew as soon as he started comin’ to a bit o’er an hour ago and he started whispering your name. I knew.
“But I stubbornly held out that I was wrong. Held out ’till just now when I saw your face. Ain’t no disguising that look. Ain’t no explaining it away. An’ I can’t ignore it no longer.” He finally opens his eyes to look down at her, tears shinning in his gaze. “You never looked that way at me. No matter what I told myself. No matter the lies I believed. The look you used to give me…well…it wasn’t that look.”
Trying to assuage his pain, she reaches out to grip his bicep, hurriedly assuring him, “I did love you, Cort. Maybe not like… But I loved you then. As much as I knew how.”
“Then what changed?” he raggedly queries. “If you did love me back then, what happened?!”
“You walked away.”
Cort suddenly thrashes viscously at the wall behind him, cursing darkly under his breath. “I told you,” he finally grits through his teeth. “I told you that I had to do that. I had to leave an’ give you the fair shake you needed to become the woman you needed to be. Lord knows I didn’t want to walk away. But I did it for you.”
“And the woman I am now thanks you for what you did then. But it’s the girl I was that loved you. The woman I am now…”
She trails off, her eyes trailing across Cort’s body to the unconscious angel in the room behind him without thought.
Cort stiffens when he tracks her gaze, forcing her to heave a weary sigh.
“I never shoulda left,” he mutters under his breath. “I shoulda fought your daddy to stay.”
“He never would have let you,” she carefully reminds him.
He gives her a calculating look. “If I’d asked you to run with me back then, would you have?” he inquires, seeming to remember their conversation at his house several months back.
For a moment, she allows herself to imagine what life might have been like if she’d taken a different path. Just one different choice. And a whole different life.
“I wouldn’t be the woman I am now,” she sorrowfully reminds him, refusing to answer his question or to let her mind go further down that road of possibilities now.
“I’da made sure you weren’t a lesser woman. I’d have made sure you were happy,” he fervently insists.
“You’d have done your best,” she agrees, finally letting the possibilities of it all unfold in her mind’s eye. The vision of what might have been.
Softly, almost wistfully, she describes, “I would have had everything I ever wanted when I was young. A beautiful home in New Orleans with an honest to goodness white picket fence. We’d have gotten married. Who knows, by now, maybe we’d even have a kid on the way.” Her breath hitches a little at voicing a need and desire she thought she’d long since subjugated. All the possibilities of what she might have had are almost staggering.
Soldiering on, she squares her shoulders and continues describing, “You would have let me hunt with you.” Heaving another sigh, she follows with, “At least in the beginning. But eventually you would have tried to wrap me in wool as if I was glass. Kept me out of the most dangerous hunts to protect me. You’d of smothered me. Without even trying to. You don’t think I’d of been a lesser woman. But I would have been. I’d have been diminished just by standing in your shadow. Doesn’t matter that that wouldn’t have been your intention. You’re larger than life, Cort. And I never would have been ready to stand beside you if I’d gone with you back then. You’d have smothered me until I was just a shell… Or until I ran away to escape being crushed. But I wouldn’t have been happy. And neither would you.”
He scoffs angrily. “So you couldn’t have stood beside me if you’d come with me then. But now that you’re more than able to stand beside me…you can’t love me. Kinda sounds like I was damned coming and going.”
With a strangled laugh, she rubs at the mark on her chest as she sympathizes, “I know what you mean.”
“So that’s it,” he darkly surmises, eyes closing and head falling against the sterile white wall again. “I either missed my chance…or never really had one.”
Offering the only comfort she can, Tabitha reaches out to grip his limp hand between them.
He instantly curls his fingers around her smaller hand in a desperate clutch.
In a hushed whisper, he admits, “I still sometimes dream about what it’d be like if you’d come with me. If you’d be my wife right now. If you’d have had my child. We’re happy when I picture it. So damn happy.”
Curling her fingers around his, she admits, “I wonder about it sometimes, too. Even picture it all. But in my mind, that happiness is only fleeting. Still, I do sometimes picture it. But it’s just a fantasy.”
He opens his eyes, looking down at her as he shakes his head. “Maybe we just can’t make it work now. Maybe someday down the road we’ll finally get our real shot together. And make it work.”
Not wanting to inflate false hope, she sadly responds, “Maybe. But I don’t see it happening, Cort. And I don’t want you putting your life on hold waiting for something like that. I want you to be happy.”
His eyes drift briefly over his own shoulder into the room at his back. “What’s that vegetable got that I don’t? The Apocalypse is knocking down the door, Tab. How the hell is that worthless man gonna be any use to you? Why is he the one you come racing down here for?”
“There are no words to accurately describe it,” she struggles to explain. “And I didn’t know what I was going to find when I came down here,” she reminds him.
He releases her hand then, pushing away from the wall as he turns to face her, purpose shinning in his eyes as he tries again. “Just because we can’t work now, doesn’t mean it won’t be right for us again someday.”
Shaking her head, eyes darting to the hospital bed over his shoulder, she responds, “My heart lies elsewhere. I don’t see that changing. The part of me that was that girl once, still loves you, Cort. And she always will. But I want you to be happy. And that’s not going to be with me.”
“Things change,” he insists. “Your heart changed once. It could change again.”
When she sighs in frustration and begins to argue with him, he steps closer, closing the distance and effectively silencing her as one of his hands curls behind her neck, the other yanking her hips into his body.
Without a word, his lips drop to hers, devouring her argument with desperate, greedy kisses. Ones she’s never been able to resist responding to.
When he pulls back, leaving them both panting for breath, he triumphantly tells her, “You can’t tell me a kiss like that doesn’t mean I don’t someday still stand a chance.”
“Cort,” she sighs, but he retreats from her, turning and striding down the crowded hallway before she can speak further. Not that she knows how to explain to him that while he still stirs her on a physical level, his touch no longer strikes the same cord with her heart.
It’s a testament to the frenzied state of the hospital that none of the other patients, visitors, or even staff paused to spare their display any notice. The Apocalypse, Tabitha realizes, has been booming for the healthcare industry. Not necessarily in a positive fashion.
As a nurse goes flying by, Tabitha manages to snag her arm, asking for a moment of her time.
“That patient in there,” she points towards Castiel’s room, “what can you tell me about him?”
The nurse gives her a wary look, a look hardened by years of practice to make up for her diminutive size. “We can’t give information out on patients.” Tabitha doesn’t kowtow to the nurse’s icy look, having received far worse than the little woman could ever dish out. Instead of backing down, she crosses her arms over her chest, causing the little nurse’s chin to jut upward in defiance.
Remembering Cort’s FBI standard, dark blue suit, and his words about keeping Castiel hidden, she digs into the cavernous purse dangling from her shoulder, pulling out a badge that she displays for the short-statured nurse.
“US Deputy Marshal Julie Anne Smith,” she authoritatively explains, holding the Marshal’s badge out for inspection as she quickly comes up with her cover story. She’s just as practiced as the little nurse at giving glacial hardened look. “That Fed was holding this guy till I could get here. He’s a witness for the prosecution in Chicago that took off before he could be subpoenaed to testify. I’m charged with bringing him in safely to do just that.”
The nurse gives her appearance a skeptical look. Tabitha knows what she sees: a ragged looking woman in jeans with holes at the knees, heavily scuffed biker boots, and a wrinkled flannel shirt hanging open over a slightly stained white tank top. But she raises a single eyebrow in a well-practiced challenge, and sees the moment the nurse writes her appearance off as the supposedly ragged and casual appearance most television shows seem to portray the Marshals. Not that it’s far off, she grants to herself. Especially for a Marshal discreetly chasing someone and trying to blend in with the teeming masses.
“Special Agent Louis Armstrong didn’t say anything about the Marshals wanting our patient,” she defensively responds, unconsciously fluffing her brown pixie locks as she speaks of Cort. It’s a reaction she’s seen from many women when they think or speak of Cort. The man had always been too damn appealing for his own good.
“The Bureau was working closely with us once they identified our runner. They’d have no reason to divulge any of that information with you,” she imperiously informs the woman, realizing that while she’s annoyed with the little nurse’s flushed response while mentioning Cort, she’s not even slightly jealous. She finds herself objectively thinking that while the nurse had some moxy in trying to stare her down, she was still far too doe eyed for someone that had been hunting as long as Cort had.
Her superior attitude seems to convince the nurse, who huffs and grabs a chart from the plastic holder just outside of Castiel’s room and begins flipping through it.
Flipping a few more pages, she shrugs and tells Tabitha, “Not sure what use that guy in there’s going to be. He’s been brain-dead since they brought him in.”
Tabitha fights the choked inhale she starts to take at the nurse’s proclamation, asking in a prompting tone that she’s surprised doesn’t waver, “Brought him in?”
“Yeah,” the nurse casually shrugs. “I heard he suddenly appeared on some shrimping boat near Delacroix. Supposedly scared the crap out of the crew. But I’m sure that’s just some bogus story they came up with to cover for them all being drunk on duty or something. I mean, people don’t just appear out of nowhere, right?”
Tabitha nods in feigned agreement. “Right,” she glances in on Castiel again, wondering if it’s her imagination or if he’s moved slightly. Despite what the nurse tells her, she consoles herself with the knowledge that Cort had said that the angel had moaned her name.
“Delacroix?” she curiously repeats, looking back to the nurse.
The young woman glances at the chart again. “Yeah, that’s what it says here. It was pretty devastated after Katrina, but there’s still good shrimping out that way. Not sure what your guy was doing there, other than hiding from you I guess.”
Tabitha gives the woman a hard look, only glancing away when the shorter woman begins to squirm. To herself, she once more repeats, “Delacroix.” Then thinks, You must have some twisted sense of humor, God, as she glances back down the hallway where Cort had disappeared. Because, of all the places in the world Castiel could have ended up, he winds up in her former flame’s backyard, off of a port named after his family. “God has a sick sense of humor,” she sighs quietly.
At the nurse’s questioning hum, Tabitha shakes herself and slips back in the authoritative mode she’s so familiar with.
“All right if I check him out myself?” Tabitha asks, eyes sliding back to the angel, trying to remember how’d he’d been lying when she first looked at him and whether or not he’d moved.
“Sure, knock yourself out,” the nurse agrees, shrugging before hurrying off to get back to whatever she’d been doing before Tabitha interrupted her.
Despite her desire to fling herself into the room and immediately assure herself that Castiel isn’t a dream or figment of her imagination, Tabitha cautiously enters the rooms, carefully approaching the hospital bed.
Just as she reaches the hospital bed, Castiel turns his head to stare her in the eye, startling a gasp out of her as she takes an involuntary step backwards, hand flying to cover her mouth.
For several moments, they simply stare at each other, and though she can feel tears from a multitude of emotions clouding her vision, she sees no emotion in the angel’s face to give her any hints as to what he’s thinking or feeling. She hasn’t, she realizes, seen him this closed off with her in a while now. And wonders about seeing that stony expression on both his and Cort’s faces.
Finally, Castiel breaks their gaze, biting back a moan as he shift on the bed. At the noise, Tabitha hurries forward to help him sit more upright in the bed, pushing buttons until the head of the bed raises to a more comfortable level.
Looking around the room, the angel asks in a voice sounding rough from disuse, “What is this place?”
With only a cursory glance at the drab and impersonal space of the room, she succinctly informs him, “Hospital.”
At his scrunched features, she elaborates, “You apparently appeared on a shrimping boat somewhere off of Delacroix. Sounds like you startled the hell outta the crew. The doctors said you were brain dead, but I guess…” She makes a negating gesture as she trails off.
A sigh escapes the angel in a soft puff as he leans back into his hospital bed, his eyes avoiding Tabitha as she pulls one of the nearby chairs closer to his bed. There are so many things she wants to say…so many things she wants to ask… She can see that he’s in obvious pain though, an emotion she’s never truly seen cross his features—at least not to this extent. And it all leaves her unsettled, struggling for the next step she should take.
As she finally parts her lips to speak—unsure even herself what was going to come out of her mouth—Castiel beats her to the punch, asking in a low, hoarse voice, “Would you have absconded with the human twelve years ago had he asked it of you?”
For a moment, Tabitha freezes in confusion, trying to puzzle out the question.
If I’d asked you to run with me back then, would you have?
Cort’s words suddenly ring in her ear, causing her to inhale a sharp breath as she realizes how long the angel had been awake, and obviously listening in.
When she’s silent, Castiel whispers in an even softer and hoarser voice, “You never answered his question. Would you have gone?”
Unable to lie to the near desperation she hears in his voice, she answers in a soft whisper, “Yes.”
The angel turns his head even further away from her, the side of his face pressing into his pillow.
Refusing to stop now, Tabitha pushes on. “If Cort had asked me to run away with him when I was seventeen, I’d have gone with him. My father never would have let him stay, so I’d have left with him if he’d asked. I loved him with everything my seventeen-year-old heart knew about love. But Cas—” She reaches out to lay a hand on the angel’s arm, ignoring the way he refuses to meet her eye or respond to her touch. “—what I told Cort, that was all true. It would have broken me if I’d gone with him. I would have ended up miserable. Nothing but a shell of the woman I am now. It would have destroyed me. And him, too, if I’d gone with him. Despite generally thinking that destiny is a load of crap, sometimes…every so often…things do happen that change the course of our lives for the better. Like they really were supposed to happen that way.”
“You could have had a normal life with him,” Castiel whispers into his pillow, a stubborn insistence clinging to his voice. “You could have been happy. You don’t know that you wouldn’t have been. Maybe that was meant to have been your destiny.”
With a weary laugh, she replies, “I’ll take free-will over destiny any day of the week. Free will was what led Cort to make the decision to walk away, even when I would have made the wrong decision to go with him. Free-will can sometimes lead us to make the wrong choices, but luckily—even if Cort doesn’t believe that now—it led him to make the right one.”
Voice barely audible, Castiel whispers, “I wish you could have the happiness you deserve.”
Standing from the chair she’d pulled closer, Tabitha turns to prop her hip on the edge of the hospital bed, gripping one of the angel’s hands in hers as she slide her other along his jaw, turning him until he faces her.
Letting him see the truth in her smile, she warmly explains, “Right now, I’m happy beyond belief that you’re alive and still here.”
“You wouldn’t be in the middle of this mess if you’d gone with him,” he stubbornly insists, eyes searching hers for some unfathomable answer.
Still smiling she happily orders, “Shut the hell up you stupid son of a bitch.”
Not allowing him to respond, she bends to brush her lips against his, intending to give him a yearning, but chaste kiss to prove her happiness. To prove that she’s right where she wants to be, despite the mess she finds herself in.
The angel responds instantly to her kiss, one of his hands sliding to the nape of her neck to halt her retreat with a furious desperation. His tongue sweeps past her lips when she gasps in surprise at the fervor of his returned passion, but she eagerly responds to his returned kiss, a feeling like going home settling over her as she lets him pull her closer, her arms settling on either side of him.
As one of her hands slips to brace against his chest, the angel pulls back with a wheeze of pain, his head punching back into the pillow.
Cursing to herself, Tabitha jumps from the bed, carefully extracting herself so as to minimize hurting him further. “Oh god, you’re in pain. I’m so sorry, Cas. I didn’t mean to… Is there anything… What can I get you?”
Even with his eyes tightly shut, the angel’s hand darts out to grab hers, locking around her fingers and halting her retreat from his bedside.
After a few moments of measured breathing, the angel meekly asks her, “I don’t suppose you could find me whatever it is that humans use to dull pain?”
Brushing the unkempt dark locks from his forehead, she chuckles and assures him, “Yeah. I think we’re in the right place to get you some pain meds.”
Several hours later—and a lot of threatening and posturing on her part to keep the doctors from wheeling her angel off for further study—and Tabitha finds herself once more alone with Castiel.
She sits once more on the edge of his bed, but only takes one of his hands in hers again as she sits facing him. It had taken a lot out of her to fight the doctors who were enthralled by his sudden and seemingly miraculous recovery and keep them from taking him for x-rays, MRIs, and every other kind of abbreviation test they could think of. But none of them was quite willing to cross the barking orders of the woman with the badge. Yet. Though she knew if they stayed much longer, they’d try to figure out ways around her. So far, it had been a minor miracle that both she and Cort had been able to get the hospital to keep Castiel labeled as John Doe. Then again, they’d been more interested in his sudden resurrection than they were in his name.
“Where are you brothers?” Castiel asks her when they are once more alone, exhaustion weighting his voice.
Shrugging, Tabitha guesses, “Probably back to Bobby’s place by now. That’s where they said they’d be when I was done with my…errand.”
“Dean didn’t say yes to Michael.”
At the slightly questioning lilt to his statement, she responds, “No. He didn’t. He killed Zachariah. But they got Adam before we could. We couldn’t get him out.”
Nodding once, the angel tells her, “We should return to them.”
“Yeah, we should,” she agrees, then cautiously looks him up and down. “I mean, can’t you like…zap us to Bobby’s?”
He shakes his head, darkly telling her, “No. I’m utterly useless to you now.”
After a heavy pause, he directs her, “Call them.” His eyes close again as he leans back into the pillow on the raised bed. Pain and exhaustion line his face, making him look years older.
She laughs to herself at the thought, realizing that the lines she sees are only the manifestation showing on his vessel, that Castiel himself is actually some kind of hellaciously incalculable number of years older than she is.
Properly sobered by her realization, her laughter dies suddenly, causing her to shake her head as she retrieves her cellphone.
Dialing Dean’s number, she looks up to see the angel watching her with a narrowed gaze, no doubt confused by her sudden laughter…and its even more sudden cessation.
“Great,” Dean growls in her ear. “Just who I wanted to talk to. Did you know about this?”
Startled by the sudden demand, she can only say, “Uh, I just found out.” She glances at the angel, wondering how he’d known.
“You knew Sam wanted to be a Muppet for the Devil and you didn’t think to let me know!” Sounds of the phone shifting in his hand away from her precede his voice yelling at someone else on his end, “Thank you both for the heads up on that one!”
Bobby’s voice answers in the distance, “Hey, this ain’t about me.”
“You can’t do this.” Her brother’s voice then comes louder in her ear as he pulls the phone closer to tell her, “He can’t do this.”
“Oh, that,” she sighs in understanding to the argument she seems to have joined midway.
“What do you mean, ‘Oh, that’?” he demands, “What the hell did you think I was talking about?”
Before she can reply, she hears Sam calmly respond, “That’s the consensus.”
“All right. Awesome. Then end of discussion,” she hears Dean tell Sam. Then he demands from her, “Right?”
“Yeah, right,” she hastily agrees. “That’s exactly what I told him.”
When Castiel gives her a confused look, she shakes her head, not wanting to delve into the matter at the moment.
Voice softer as he pulls the phone away, Tabitha can still make out Dean telling Sam, “This isn’t over—” Before turning back to her and asking, “Now, where the hell are you and when are you getting your ass back up here? World’s kinda ending so I think it’s time to cut your little errand short. Whatever voodoo lady sent you after is gonna have to wait until we figure out how to nab Pestilence.”
Reaching up to impatiently take the phone from her, Castiel irritably speaks into the phone, “Dean?”
Tabitha can hear the shock in his voice as Dean responds. “Cas?” After another moment, he adds, “We all thought you were dead. Where the hell have you been?”
Looking around at the dingy yellow walls again, Castiel answers, “A hospital.”
“Are you okay?”
“You want to elaborate?”
Looking at Tabitha again, he tells her brother, “I just woke up here. The doctors were fairly surprised. They thought I was brain-dead.”
“S-so, a hospital?”
“Tabitha says, that after Van Nuys, I suddenly appeared, bloody and unconscious, on a shrimping boat off Delacroix. She says it upset the sailors,” Castiel continues to matter-of-factly tell her brother.
Obviously trying to stop the angel’s rambling, Dean tells him, “Uh, well, I got to tell you, man—you’re just in time. We figured out a way to pop Satan’s box.”
“How?” Castiel demands, sitting forward and wincing in pain as his eyes narrow in inquisition on Tabitha.
“It’s a long story,” she tells him. “And we haven’t really had time to even go over the highlights.”
“Exactly,” Dean agrees, obviously overhearing her. “Time for that later. We’re going after Pestilence now. So if you and Tab could zap over here…”
Leaning back and staring at the ceiling, that dark tone returns as Castiel informs Dean, “I can’t ‘zap’ anywhere.”
“What do you mean?”
“You could say my batteries are—are drained.”
Incredulously, Dean demands, “What do you mean? You’re out of angel mojo?”
“I’m saying that I am thirsty and my head aches. I have a bug bite that itches no matter how much I scratch it, and I’m saying that I’m just incredibly…”
When Castiel trails off his complaints with a dark chuckle, Dean finishes with, “Human.”
Both sigh in response, and Tabitha’s eyes are drawn to the charm on her bracelet, making her guiltily wonder how much stronger he might still be if he hadn’t siphoned so much of his Grace already into that pendent, trying to make her stronger. She’d only ever considered what his actions had done to her, but looking at him weak and frail in that hospital bed, she was finally confronted with the reality of how much he’d sacrificed in his efforts to give her added strength and protection. However misguided she still thinks his efforts were, they’d been to help her.
“Wow,” Dean succinctly states, startling her from her thoughts. “Sorry.”
Seeing the defeated look on the angel’s face, Tabitha gently pries the phone away, telling her brother, “Look, we’ll get there. We’re just going to have to travel the regular way. Cas is hurt, and it’s gonna take time for us to get the documents together for a plane ride.”
“Plane?” Dean repeats in surprise. “Just steal a car. Don’t need any paperwork then, so it’ll be faster. We need you both to get your asses up here. You especially now…”
She’s glad he trails off and doesn’t finish his thought, though Castiel still winces at Dean’s implication of his supposed uselessness.
“I stole cars and drove straight here, Dean. I’m exhausted, too. I can catch some sleep on a plane. Plus, Cas is in pain. And on some heavy pain meds. It’d be easier traveling for him, too,” she points out. “And I’ve got everything I need to make some doctored IDs for Cas that should pass FAA standards, though I don’t like putting my skills up against theirs.”
“All right, just get it done. And get up here. You need anything? Money?”
“I should have enough cash with me to cover things,” she replies, frowning when Castiel makes a motion for her to return the phone to his grip.
Without preamble, Castiel tells Dean, “You said ‘No’ to Michael. I owe you an apology.”
“Cas…i-it’s okay,” Dean assures the angel.
In his usual matter-of-fact way, Castiel continues, “You are not the burnt and broken shell of a man that I believed you to be.”
In an unimpressed tone, Dean tells him, “Thank you. I appreciate that.”
Still oblivious to his sarcasm, Castiel responds, “You’re welcome.”
Snatching the phone back, Tabitha exasperatedly asks her brother, “Where should we meet you guys at?”
Between the entire bottle of pain meds Castiel had unceremoniously swallowed, and the sleep he’d managed to get on the plane, Castiel looks much stronger when they reach Davenport, Iowa. Despite his seeming recovery, Tabitha can’t help but hover a bit closer to the angel, still worrying about him.
The plane ride had been unsettlingly silent. The angel was wrapped in his own thoughts, leaving Tabitha to ponder her own as she tried to guess what was going through the angel’s mind.
Despite their briefly heated kiss, things had been decidedly more…tepid between them since. Castiel seemed to avoid even casually touching her, leaving her to feel strangely…bereft.
As they approach the strangely quiet nursing home, Castiel stops and grabs her hand.
“Perhaps you should wait out here,” he advises her.
She glances at where he holds her hand in a solid grip, and despite feeling settled by his touch, bristles a bit at his chauvinistic suggestion, her eyes narrowing on him as she reminds him, “You’re only upright now because you just swallowed an entire bottle of Oxy. You’re lucky that doesn’t knock you right back on your ass. So, I’m going.”
As she attempts to brush past him, he catches her arm in an iron hold, halting her beside him. “I’m just trying to protect you.”
When his thumb rubs soothingly against the leather jacket covering her arm, she softens, turning to look into his imploring eyes.
“They’re my brothers,” she firmly reminds him. “So I’m going, too. I can look after myself.”
She almost expects more resistance, but he merely nods once, holding her gaze before turning back towards the brightly lit building across the street.
Now, it’s her turn to catch his arm to stop him, tugging on his elbow as he questioningly turns to face here.
Silently, she reaches into his trench coat, popping up the collars on his shirt and suit jacket.
When his brows furrow in confusion, she reaches into her jacket pocket, pulling out the blue tie he’d given her. She’d kept it with her since Van Nuys. Kept it safe. But despite the small reassurance its continued presence has given her, she knows it belongs back on the angel.
He watches with silent, but curious eyes as she slides the tie into place, properly knotting it and pulling it tight before tugging slack back into it, just as she’s done numerous other times. It never looks quite right unless it’s a bit askew. Her small act of helping him to redress somehow seems comforting to them both, and he reaches up to cup her jaw in his calloused hand.
“You kept it,” he whispers, something close to astonishment mixed in with something almost…reverent.
She nods, realizing her eyes had slide shut as she savors the warmth of his rough fingers against her skin. Opening her eyes again, she tells him, “I couldn’t let go of it. Even when my head told me it was impossible…to give up…I just couldn’t let go of it.”
He pulls her closer, pressing a brief kiss to her forehead before tilting his head and resting the side of his temple against hers as his arms pull her close. She settles in to the cocoon of warmth his body offers. And wonders again to herself if that sensation she feels is what it’s like to have a home. That safety and security.
So brief, so chaste a touch doesn’t stir her lust like Cort’s kiss so many hours before had. But it reaches so much deeper, settling a deep ache in her chest she hadn’t realized was still churning there. Tugging at her heart in a way nothing has in a long time. Perhaps ever.
The angel isn’t good with the feelings or emotions of humans, and she knows she isn’t much better—despite being human herself—but somehow, she knows it’s his form of apology for her grief. And his assurance that he’ll do his best not to let it happen again.
Her arms slide up the angel’s back, anchoring her fingertips on the backside of his shoulders as she presses her own temple harder against his, trying to convey her own apologies. And her assurances that somehow…somehow things will work out.
At last, they mutually pull away, each sliding a hand down to grip between them, turning and walking across the street together.
“I don’t like this,” Tabitha whispers as they enter the eerily silent nursing home. Her free hand slides out the Glock at her back, the weight of it comforting her with its familiarity, even if something tells her it won’t be much use here.
Castiel nods in agreement to her statement, leading her around a corner despite how wary they both are.
Dead bodies are scattered on the tile floors, the putrid smell of sickness and death assaulting their senses. Castiel falters a bit, but shakes himself and carefully continues to lead her between the bodies.
The sights sicken even Tabitha, long used to grisly murders from years of hunting, as well as years of working crime scenes filled with the atrocities humans perpetrate against each other.
It’s the smell, she thinks to herself, pressing her nose into the crook of her elbow, trying to clog her nasal passages. She’s never smelled anything quite like the combination of death, decay, and disease that permeates the air.
“How do we know where to go?” she asks, her voice muffled against the leather of her jacket.
Castiel almost staggers as he leads forward, looking briefly over his shoulder as he grimly tells her, “It’s getting stronger in this direction.”
She doesn’t have to ask what. It’s the smell, and the putrid sight of dead bodies. But mostly it’s the foreboding feeling of impending doom that grows with every step.
As they turn down a particular hallway, they finally hear voices in the deathly silence.
The strongest voice she doesn’t recognize, but she wonders what it says about their lives that she does recognize the anguished moans, groans, and coughs of her brothers.
When she would have darted forward to help them, Castiel holds her back, whispering, “I’m an angel. Let me go first.” She would have objected, but he continues, “I’ll distract the Horseman. You’ll know when to come.”
She nods, releasing his hand as she watches him disappear around the corner.
She’s not far behind him, turning her back to the wall just outside the door he charges through.
The voice she doesn’t recognize, she supposes it belongs to Pestilence, makes a startled demand. “How’d you get here?”
“A car,” Castiel answers, referring to the car she’d boosted at the Des Moines airport. “Don’t worry, I—”
Whatever the angel had intended to say is cut off by muffled noises and a loud thud. Then she hears Castiel join her brother in making pain-filled moans.
“Well, look at that,” she hears Pestilence say, his amusement setting her teeth on edge. “An occupied vessel, but powerless. Oh, that’s fascinating. There’s not a speck of angel in you, is there?”
Unable to wait any longer for whatever sign Castiel had intended to give, she spins into the doorway of the room, her Glock leveled as she fires three rapid shots into the chest of the man crouching over Castiel and her brothers.
The impacts of the bullets spin him around slightly as he springs to his feet, but otherwise, he seems unaffected as he glances down at the holes in his suit jacket. Then, he turns to stare at her in fascination.
Despite wanting to flee his eager fascination with her, she inches forward, turning and angling away from her brothers, taking Pestilence’s focus with her and away from them. She can feel sweat break out over her body, her skin feeling tight and sensitive to the fever she can suddenly feel roll through her.
“Something I can help you with?” she asks when he continues to gleefully smirk in her direction.
“What a wonderful quandary,” he replies. “You’re hardly affected at all, aren’t you? I see where all that angel power went. Your body can resist because you’re loaded up on vitamin angel, leaving him with hardly a speck left.”
She can suddenly see Castiel push to his feet behind the Horseman, and knows what his move will be as soon as she sees him grab for Ruby’s knife on the floor. Pestilence sees the movement behind him as well, and as his attention diverts from her, Tabitha rushes behind him, locking an arm around his neck in a choke-hold that shoves his upper body down to slam against the nearest table.
Castiel is beside her almost instantly, grabbing Pestilence’s hand and splaying his ring finger across the tabletop.
Tabitha twists her face away as the angel slices through the Horseman’s fingers to sever the ring from his hand, but still catches a spurt of blood to the side of her face as she releases Pestilence and he staggers away from her.
“Maybe just a speck,” Castiel assures the Horseman, blood still trickling from his lips.
The possessed nurse in the corner hadn’t garnered much notice from Tabitha before, but when she furiously rushes at Castiel, Tabitha twists to intercept her, the two tumbling to the floor in a tangle of fists.
As the demon punches her again, Tabitha twists her body and forcefully rolls the demon underneath herself, holding her hand out to Castiel who obligingly tosses her the demon knife. In a quick, practiced overhand motion, Tabitha plunges the knife into the demon, rolling off of her and wiping the blood from her face and hands as Sam scrambles to his feet and pulls her up as well.
They all turn to Pestilence as the Horseman informs them, “It doesn’t matter. It’s too late.”
Tabitha glances between the severed finger and ring Dean holds to the Horseman holding his bloodied hand in the air.
With no more warning than that, the Horseman vanishes.
“Well, it’s nice to actually score a home run for once, ain’t it?” Bobby asks them as they gather around his desk.
Dean tosses Pestilence’s ring onto the cluttered desk, not looking as…enthused as Bobby had been trying to project.
“What?” the older hunter warily asks, noticing Dean’s pensive state.
“Last thing Pestilence said,” Sam supplies, “‘It’s too late.'”
“He get specific?” Bobby carefully inquires.
Shaking her head, Tabitha slumps a bit further against the roll-top desk beside Castiel as she answers, “Nope. Just that.”
“We’re just a little freaked out that he might have left a bomb somewhere. So please tell us you have actual good news,” Dean irritably adds.
Bobby pauses before relaying, “Chicago’s about to be wiped off the map. Storm of the millennium. Sets off a daisy chain of natural disasters. Three million people are gonna die.”
“Huh,” Dean thoughtfully grunts.
Castiel had almost appeared to be napping where he’d been sitting partially on table of the roll-top desk, one arm and elbow propping his head up along the top of the desk. But he opens his eyes, doubtfully puzzling, “I don’t understand your definition of good news.”
The men all heave sighs of frustration with the angel as Bobby patronizingly explains, “Well…Death, the Horseman—he’s gonna be there. And if we can stop him before he kick-starts this storm, get his ring back—”
Interrupting him, his voice laden with sarcasm, Dean butts in, “Yeah, you make it sound so easy.”
Annoyed, Bobby tells him, “Hell, I’m just trying to put a spin on it.”
Looking slightly chastised, the boys nod in response, but Tabitha straightens from her slump beside the angel, standing at her full height as she crosses her arms over her chest and narrows in on Bobby.
“What I want to know,” she tells him in a hard voice, “is just how you put this all together, Bobby. ‘Cause you sound pretty damn sure about this impending doom in Chicago. So just how did you find this all out?”
Evasively, the man replies, “I had, you know…help.”
Before Tabitha can pressure him for a straight answer, she jumps a little in surprise at the feel of Castiel’s fingers running coyly up and down her right side, pulling up the hem of her flannel shirt and t-shirt to brush against her skin. As she turns to her left to remind him that her brothers are sitting only a few feet away—albeit with their backs to the two of them—she sees his head once more propped up by his hand and bent elbow, and his other hand dangling loosely on top of his thigh.
Whipping back to her right, her head nearly collides with Crowley’s as he leans in close to her neck. The demon inhales deeply, his eyes closing as though he’s savoring a fine wine before he whispers in her ear, “Enchanting perfume, my dear. Just captivating.”
Tabitha darts a look down at herself, her forehead nearly colliding with the demon as she does so. She hadn’t worn any perfume, but realizes she’s still wearing the same clothes spattered with the blood of both a Horseman and a demon.
Her fury finally spurs her to action, lending her strength and speed to twirl away from the demon, tugging her shirts back down as she spits at that egotistical smirk, “Keep your slimy hooves off of me you, disgusting slime-ball.”
Crowley ignores the sounds of everyone else twisting in surprise to face him, calmly telling Tabitha, “Sticks and stones, luv.”
Then, he walks back into Bobby’s kitchen, helping himself to a generous tumbler-full of whiskey before he turns his attention to Bobby, telling him, “Don’t be so modest.” He looks up with a nefarious grin as he adds, “I barely helped at all.”
Whiskey in hand, Crowley steps into Bobby’s study, causing Tabitha to take an infuriated step backwards, trying to keep him at a distance. Barely one step back, her retreat is halted when her back collides with Castiel’s chest.
She feels the angel’s hand slide against the small of her back, fingers curling into the fabric of her flannel shirt as if to anchor her or himself, but when she swears she sees the demon’s eyes narrow suspiciously on her, she takes a determined step forward away from the angel, not wanting the crossroads demon to get any kind of notions in his head—right or wrong—about her and Castiel.
Somehow, her quick step forward away from the angel seems to make the demon’s eyes narrow fractionally more, and then the hint of smile tugs at one corner of his mouth. There and gone so quickly, she’s not sure if she truly saw it. Somehow, though, she thinks she may have miscalculated in stepping away from the angel so rapidly.
Nevertheless, Crowley doesn’t miss a beat, not even his stride slowing as he steps further into the room. Once he draws even with Tabitha, he lasciviously greets in a smoky smooth voice, “Hello, luv…” he continues past her and adds more mundanely for her brothers’ benefit, “—boys.”
As he leans across the entryway from her, he focuses on Bobby and the boys as he indifferently tells them, “Pleasure, et cetera.”
Then, he smells the whiskey, making a face of disgust before setting it to the side untouched.
Perking up somewhat, he directs Bobby, “Go ahead, tell them. There’s no shame in it.”
Suspicions building, Sam and Dean turn to face Bobby, Sam dubiously asking, “Bobby? Tell us what?”
Bobby’s eyes skip over his three surrogate children almost imperceptibly before he tells them, “World’s gonna end. Seems stupid to get all precious over one little…soul.”
“You sold your soul?” Dean demands, voice deepening with shock and anger.
As Tabitha shakes with silent fury, she feels Castiel sigh behind her, one of his hands reaching forward almost imperceptibly to lay a comforting hand on her forearm.
Crowley is quick to inform them, “Oh, more like pawned it. I fully intend to give it back.”
“Then give it back now, you sonofabitch!” Tabitha growls, stopping only when Castiel’s hand of comfort turns to one of restraint.
“I will,” Crowley calmly answers amidst Dean’s own resounding objections.
“Did you kiss him?” Sam suddenly asks.
It startles a censoring rebuttal from Dean who scolds, “Sam!”
“Just wondering,” Sam tells Dean, after which they both pause to glance curiously at the older hunter.
Even Tabitha’s fury is stalled for a moment as she turns to regard the wheelchair-bound hunter.
Glancing between the three, Bobby vehemently refutes, “No!”
In the following silence, Crowley clears his throat, drawing their attention to the cellphone he holds in the air, showing photographic proof of them…sealing the deal.
Indignantly, Bobby asks, “Why’d you take a picture?”
Unperturbed, Crowley fires back, “Why do you have to use tongue?”
Shivering at the revolting scenario, Tabitha mutters, “That’s disgusting. I’m never getting that image out of my head.”
“Don’t be jealous, luv,” Crowley coos. “Our first kiss will be much hotter.”
Tabitha takes a step backwards when she feels Castiel angrily gather himself behind her. Luckily, their movements are overshadowed by Dean jumping to his feet, approaching the demon as he tells him, “All right, you know what? I’m sick of this. Give him his soul back now.”
“I’m sorry. I can’t.”
“Can’t or won’t?” Dean shouts.
Shouting back, Crowley answers, “I won’t, all right?! It’s insurance.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You kill demons,” Crowley reminds him. Then gesturing with his eyes, he adds, “Gigantor over there has a temper issue about it.” His eyes cut over in a gesture thrown Tabitha’s way. “And if Charlie’s Angel here glares any harder at me, she’s gonna have to buy me dinner.” He throws a dark grin her way as he tells her, “Or be dinner.”
Castiel’s grip tightens even more to hold her back as the demon returns his focus to Dean.
“But you won’t kill me…as long as I have that soul in the deposit box.”
Realizing he’d been double-crossed, Bobby growls, “You son of a bitch.”
“I’ll return it,” Crowley assures them. “After all this is over, and I can walk safely away.” Voice rising to an angry pitch, the demon shouts, “Do we all understand each other?!”
Realizing she can’t do anything about Bobby’s decision, Tabitha growls in exasperation, “Men!” and stomps upstairs.
Tabitha is still pacing in her room when Castiel opens her door, letting himself in without a word.
She spares a brief look at his quiet entrance, but her pacing doesn’t slow as he stands just inside the door watching her.
“What the hell was he thinking?” she demands, tearing into the angel only because Bobby isn’t in front of her and the angel is.
Not giving the angel time to respond, she demands, “Of all the stupid, harebrained ideas in the world. Why the hell would he do that?”
Tabitha suddenly stops in front of the angel, furiously demanding, “Why?!” when the angel doesn’t answer her.
Realizing that she wants an answer to this question, Castiel shrugs and reminds her, “I believe his decision is what humans call a last-ditch effort.”
Annoyed by his answer, she growls, “Oh sure, you know human phrases when you want to point out something I already know and don’t want to hear.”
The angel shrugs unhelpfully in response, so Tabitha returns to her pacing.
“I’ve already lost one father,” she suddenly reminds him, swiping furiously at errant tears, flexing and unflexing her hands at her sides. “I’m getting so sick of losing people. God, sometimes I think what I wouldn’t give for a white-picket-fence, suburban life.”
The angel doesn’t answer, but when she hears him move through her room to stand at the window, she stops her pacing, her eyes trailing to rest on his back as he braces his hand on either side of the window frame and leans towards the glass.
“You should have that,” he almost raggedly tells her. “You should have the safety and security of that life. I wish I had the power to give it to you. I don’t even have the power to hide you. Or to remove you from the coming battle. I have nothing. I’m useless.”
Hearing the last word snarled in such a low and viscous tone draws Tabitha closer, pushing away her own fears and worries for Bobby as she focuses on soothing Castiel. She can’t help the older hunter right now, but she can damn sure make the angel see that he’s far from useless.
“You’re not useless,” she consoles, reaching out with one hand to comfortingly rub the angel’s shoulder.
With a savage snarl, Castiel knocks her hand away, turning and spinning away from her before he stands to face her again.
“I’m useless,” he snaps. “What good am I in the battle to come? What can I do now that my power has dwindled to nothing? I’m not even as much help as another human would be because I don’t know how to be a human.”
Tabitha’s heart beats rapidly as she stands staring in shock at the angel for a few moments, supremely surprised by the virulence of his anger.
After a moment of staring into her eyes, Castiel once again turns away from her, moving down to brace his hands against the window frame of the window further down the wall from where she stands.
For a few moments, Tabitha stands still, forcing her breathing to even out again as she considers his words and self-hatred.
“That’s bullshit, Cas,” she finally tells him.
His head tips in surprise, and he even glances slightly over his shoulder at her before turning back to the window.
Not put off by his lack of response, Tabitha goes on, “You are not useless, Cas. So don’t even think it. You mean… You do more to keep me going than you can possibly understand. You give me hope, that if we can win this thing…that there might actually be something worth living for at the end of all this.”
He doesn’t respond, only the tightening of his shoulders belies his stony façade.
With a deep breath, Tabitha steps forward again, sliding both arms around the angel’s waist as she presses her cheek to one of his shoulder blades.
Though one of his hands settles warmly over hers at his stomach, his voice is stony as he maintains in an anguished whisper, “I’m useless to you.”
Shaking her head without removing it from his back, she assures him, “You’re far from it. That’s just fear talking. What we’re doing now, going up against the Devil and Death himself…it would terrify anyone. You’re no different just because you’re an angel.”
Though she can’t see it, she feels Castiel’s hand pause to finger the angel wing pendant on her bracelet, and she shivers at the inexplicable feeling the suddenly pulses through her.
She nearly misses him whisper, “I am hardly an angel now.”
Suddenly guilt-ridden, she regretfully whispers, “You never should have wasted all of your Grace on me. You should have kept if for yourself. Stayed strong.”
Castiel carefully extracts himself from her grip, turning to face her as he stares down at her with a frown. “Most of my Grace withered at being cut off from Heaven,” he assures her. “I only managed to siphon a fraction of it into your talisman. And if it has kept you strong enough to survive this long, it was not a waste.”
“And you are not useless,” she hurries to assure him, hands clutching his lapels to keep him from retreating.
“I don’t know how to be useful as a human,” he reminds her, shoulders slumping a bit in dejection.
Suddenly laughing at the absurdity of it all, Tabitha assures him, “None of us do. You just do your best when and where you can. And try to make up for the mistakes you make along the way.”
Shaking him by the lapels a bit, she reminds him, “You helped get Pestilence’s ring. That’s three down with only one more to go. You’re far from useless. And when we get that last ring, we can shove the Devil back in his hole. Then it’ll finally be done. No more Horsemen. Nor more Devil. No more Apocalypse.”
“Part of me finds it hard to believe the Apocalypse can ever be stopped,” he admits, eyes fixed on the floor. When his head tips up, he stares at her while continuing, “But when you look into my eyes and tell me it can happen, I almost believe that anything can happen.”
“It will,” she reassures him. “We’ve come too far and lost too much already. We’ve both sacrificed a lot to get to this point. I won’t accept anything less than success at this point. Even if not for me…”
She hadn’t meant to say the last part, she’d been thinking to herself that it was probably too late already for her, but that she’d damn well fight to give her brothers a chance.
Castiel seems to for once know exactly what she means, reaching up to gently brush the hair back from her face as he tells her, “I’m sorry.”
With a watery smile, she assures him, “Lucifer’s mark? Not your fault. That’s on me.”
“But the effects my Grace has had on you…” he reminds her.
Wondering if it’s a sign of the fate she’s accepted, she tells him, “That wasn’t your intention. You were trying to protect me. I already forgave you for that.”
Unbidden, memories of her torture in Heaven flash in her mind, reminding her of what she has in store for her, even if they “win” and shove the Devil back in his cage. She’ll still be out one peaceful afterlife. Only the unending pain and torture from every angel out for her blood to look forward to. That’s if she makes it to Heaven. But she doubts Hell would be any kind of spa vacation for her either.
She almost swears she can hear Azrael whispering in her mind, reminding her that there’s another choice. That if she says “yes” there won’t be any endless torture. No pain. There won’t in fact be…anything.
The fear of what she knows is in store for her makes that offer almost unbearable to ignore.
Then, a flash of the possible future her brothers might have one day, shores up her resolve once more. Just a flash, but in it she’d seen the possibilities of their futures. Where they were happy. Where they’d each fallen in love and married. Where they’d grown old surround by their families and children. Where they’d had everything she’d ever wanted for them.
In that moment, she knows she’d endure anything for them to have that future.
Hands sliding to Castiel’s neck, she begs him, “Promise me. Promise me that when this is all over, that it stays over. That you make sure my brothers are happy. That you make sure they can have the lives they deserve.”
“Tabitha?” he raggedly whispers, question in his eyes and on his lips.
“You don’t think you can be useful, but you are. And you can promise me you’ll do this for me. Please. Promise me,” she begs.
“I promise,” he solemnly vows. “I’ll ensure this for you. No matter what it takes.”
He suddenly yanks her body into his, their hips colliding with painfully delicious force. “I will find a way to right the wrong I’ve done you. I will fix—”
She stops him with a hand covering his lips. “No. I accept what’s happened to me, Cas. Someone’s going to have to pay a price for this to be done. Probably a lot of other humans, too,” she admits. “I can accept that. As long as I know that this will work in the end and that my brothers are safe. They come first. You promised me. They come first.”
Desperation drives her. Some inner knowledge that their time is slipping away like the last sands in an hourglass.
With hurried, frenzied movements, she drags his mouth down to hers, sealing her lips against his, determined to savor every sensation. His lips are rough under hers, and just as she reminds herself that he’s recently been injured, he slides his hands down her thighs, lifting her and carrying her to the bed.
“Why me?” he whispers, his head dipping to her exposed throat, the soft words breathed against the delicate column of her skin.
Her mind struggles to assimilate the words in the midst of the pleasure that had subsided only to rebuild in a crescendo.
“What?” she gulps, tilting her head back more into her pillow, letting him have full access to the tender skin of her neck.
“Why me?” he repeats in a throaty growl, teeth dragging across her skin, vibrating with his low words as he asks, “Why me? When you could have a human that would give you what you deserve. Why me?”
She swallows heavily as her mind begins to have more complex thoughts than now, more, please.
When her eyes open to look at him, she’s momentarily startled by the absolute sincerity and doubt in his gaze. His absolute confusion.
Her hands reach out to cup his face, only slightly shaking from the sensations still pulsing through her body.
“Because you’re you,” she assures him with absoluteness. “I don’t want anyone else. There is no one else. You’re the only one that fights and argues with me, but still stands by my side through it all. You know all of me. The good…and all the bad. And you still want me. I think that astounds me more than it does you. I keep expecting you to realize one day that you’re an angel and I’m such a flawed mess of a human. But you see that flawed mess. And you don’t run. You don’t try to change me. You let me be me. And make me feel like I don’t have to apologize for all my mistakes. And I know there’s many.”
She lets her thumbs sweep back and forth across his cheeks, smiling at the way his eyes drift shut to savor that simple touch.
“Even when I hurt you,” she continues, “even when you hurt me. You don’t make me feel lesser for my faults. You make me feel like there’s nothing I can’t overcome. Nothing I can’t do. No matter how hard and devastating it will be. I’m still happier with you than I could possibly deserve.”
Staring down at her in wonder, he tells her, “I spent many days watching you in the years I was tasked as your guardian. No other human had ever intrigued me as you do. I asked one of my brothers why I was drawn to you, why I felt the need to somehow be near you. And when he watched you…he said…he said you were like a light. Brighter than any other human. More full of…life than any other.”
He lifts one hand to brush a few sweaty strands of hair from her cheek. “I did not understand his words at first. I-I did not understand how one human could be more full of life than any other living human.”
With a contented sigh, he bends down to brush his lips across hers, the touch almost chaste.
“After I revealed myself to your brother…after I first spoke to you that night on Bobby’s porch…I came to understand his words. You spoke to me as if I was any other human. You talked to me. Eventually, you came to laugh even. At me, I think, but when I first heard that sound, I understood my brother’s words. Because you made me feel alive. All the millennia I’d seen, and I’d never once felt as alive as I did then. You made me feel like I could have been an ordinary human. And yet, you made me feel like I was special as well. That I was not just another of my Heavenly brothers and sisters. Like I mattered to you. After all those millennia of simply being, I finally felt alive. Because you were so full of life, you breathed some into me.”
Tears gather in the corner of her eyes, and she slides her hands to the nape of his neck, trying to bring his lips down to hers.
He lifts one hand to gently trace a fingertip around the outside of her mouth, around the corners of her eyes. Reverently, he tells her, “It was your laughter. Your smile. Your kindness. Even your anger. Every emotion is to the fullest. I was entranced by it all. So full of life, enough even to breathe life into an angel. To make me live.”
His head dips into the crook of her neck again, his breath hot and heavy against her sweat-slick skin as he growls with a pleading desperation, “Say my name. Say it.”
“Castiel,” she obligingly moans, arching into him one last time, her pleasure building in a crescendo.
Head thrown back, he shouts in Enochian before he collapses bonelessly against her.
As she holds him against her chest, hands smoothing up and down his slick back, she has the strangest sensation of this being the last time. Whatever is coming, something tells her she may never hold him this way again, so she wraps her arms more tightly around him, pulling him into her body and holding him there like she won’t ever have to let him go.
Tabitha leans against the side of Bobby’s van, her gear bag at her feet as she waits for her brothers.
Castiel stands nearby, pacing aimlessly around Bobby’s garage as he frowns down at the sawed-off shotgun Tabitha had given him earlier.
Bobby pushes his wheelchair closer, pausing to inspect the bag in his lap as he notices the angel’s dismal state.
Obviously irritated, Bobby demands, “What’s your problem?”
Stopping, Castiel asks the man, “This is what they mean by ‘The 11th Hour,’ right?”
“Pretty much,” Bobby agrees, turning back to his bag.
Darkly, the angel comments, “Well, it’s the 11th hour, and I am useless.” Bobby pauses to look up as Castiel gestures to the gun Tabitha had given him. “All I have is this. What am I even supposed to do with it?”
Still annoyed, Bobby responds, “Point it and shoot.”
“What I used to be—” Castiel begins.
Tabitha opens her mouth to tell the angel once more to stuff it, annoyed with his hang up on what was instead of focusing on what is, but Bobby beats her to the punch.
“Are you really gonna bitch—to me?”
Castiel finally glances at Bobby, and holds his tongue.
The older hunter wheels closer with an annoyed command, telling the angel, “Quit pining for the Varsity years…” He tosses the bag in his lap at the angel, finishing with, “…and load the damn truck.”
Holding the bag, Castiel looks over at Tabitha, as if for help. She watches Bobby wheel away before replying, “What? I agree with him. I thought you’d gotten over this earlier. Pull your head out of your ass and stop thinking you’re useless. We can’t change what happened. Only what we’ll do now.”
She picks up her bag and turns to face her approaching brothers.
Dean tosses his own bag into the trunk of the Impala as Sam tosses his into Bobby’s van.
After learning that while Death would be in Chicago at the same time as Pestilence’s time bomb of the Croatoan Virus would be shipped out as vaccines for the Swine Flu, the boys had decided to split up to deal with the threats. Bobby and Sam shutting down the shipment, and Dean going with Crowley to nab Death’s ring.
Though it hadn’t been spoken of, it was silently agreed that Castiel would go with Sam and Bobby, as he wouldn’t have any power to be of use against Death.
No one had yet asked Tabitha where she was going.
“All right, well…” Dean trails off as he hesitantly steps away from the Impala. He pauses to finish telling Sam, “…good luck stopping the whole zombie apocalypse.”
“Yeah,” Sam softly agrees. “Good luck killing Death.”
Almost dubiously, Dean grins and nods, “Yeah.”
Scoffing, Sam reminisces, “Remember when we used to just…hunt wendigos? How simple things were?”
“Not really,” Dean admits.
Sighing, Sam reaches towards his back, pulling out Ruby’s knife and holding it between them, “Well, um…you might need this.”
Before Dean can take the knife, Crowley slides beside where Tabitha stands between her brothers, holding a rusty old scythe out for Dean as he tells Sam, “Keep it. Dean’s covered.”
As Dean hesitantly takes it, Crowley expounds, “Death’s own. Kills, golly, demons, and angels, and reapers, and, rumor has it, the very thing itself.”
“Where in the hell did you get that?” Tabitha asks, torn between scorn and being impressed.
Crowley decides his own take on her tone, sidestepping closer to her as he grins in reply. “Impressive aren’t I? You should see my other toys.” He turns to encompass the other as he adds sardonically, “Hello—King of the Crossroads.”
He looks back at Dean, saying, “So, shall we?” Not slowing, he turns to Bobby, asking, “Bobby, you just gonna sit there?”
Annoyed and confused, Bobby snarks, “No, I’m gonna Riverdance.”
Looking at Tabitha the demon shrugs and replies, “I suppose if you want to impress the ladies.”
“What are you going on about?” Tabitha huffs in annoyance.
The demon sighs theatrically as he scolds, “Bobby, Bobby, Bobby. Really wasted that crossroads deal. Fact—you get more if you phrase it properly. So, I took the liberty of adding a teeny little sub-A clause on your behalf.
“What?” Tabitha whispers in disbelief, hardly daring to believe what she thinks he’s saying.
“What can I say,” Crowley tells her, as if confiding a dirty little secret. “I’m an altruist.”
Turning with a dramatic gesture towards the seated hunter, Crowley continues, “Just gonna sit there?”
As they watch, Bobby tentatively wiggles one foot, and then lifts it from the foot brace in the chair, moving more quickly as he stands with an amazed grin on his face.
“Son of a bitch,” Bobby barely breathes.
Smugly, Crowley almost crows, “Yes, I know. Completely worth your soul. I’m a hell of a guy.”
In a rough whisper, Tabitha gratefully admits, “If you weren’t a skeevy slimeball, I could almost kiss you.”
“Why let that stop you?” Crowley asks as if his query is perfectly reasonable.
“Thanks,” Bobby whispers, his tone soft but heartfelt.
Sighing, Crowley answers in a bored tone, “This is getting maudlin.” He turns next to Tabitha, extending his arm in a sweeping gesture towards the Impala. “What do you say, Charlie? Can we go?”
She does a double take at the strange name, but glances back and forth between her two brothers. She hates when they split up like this, forcing her to choose one or the other.
Heaving a sigh, she shoulders her bag again, stepping towards the car and irritably swatting the demon’s “helping” hands away.
Standing near the car, she looks back to her brothers, both nodding grimly at her choice. Strangely, for once, neither argues with her decision, though she can see the dark frown spreading across the angel’s face.
More for Castiel’s benefit, she announces, “I think I should go with Dean on this. Three on each team this way. Well, two and one leech for us,” she says, jerking her thumb over towards Crowley. “But Azrael’s connected to Death, and something tells me I need to be there.”
Crowley scowls at her, turning towards the car without another word. Dean nods once in goodbye to Sam, and follows suit.
Having more decorum than her traveling companions, she smiles grimly at Sam, Bobby, and Castiel, lightly imparting, “Well, see you all on the flip side.”
In her mind, she sends to the angel, Take care. And look after them for me.
As she climbs into the back seat, she looks out to see Castiel frowning at her, then mouthing, Be careful.
She spends the next several hours with the unsettling realization that Castiel has become so human, he no longer can speak to her in his true voice.
Crowley seems perfectly at ease strolling through the Chicago side streets in thirty-degree weather, but both Tabitha and Dean tug their jackets tighter around themselves as they go. The weather is unseasonably cold for spring. Air swirling with a frigid winter chill, but the sky looking as though it’s preparing to open up and drop a hurricane of rainfall. A startling combination of predicted weather that has the locals all on edge.
Casually, the demon comments, “Hey, let’s stop for pizza.”
“Are you kidding?” Dean demands.
“Just heard it was good. That’s all,” the demon comments.
As they round the corner, Tabitha stops dead, sucking in a surprised inhale at the sight. Crowley throws a glance her way, and then explains to Dean, “Up ahead. Big, ugly building. Ground zero. Horseman’s stable, if you will. He’s in there.”
“What is it, Tab?” Dean asks, looking back and forth between the building and the wide eyes of his sister.
“Reapers,” she succinctly answers him, eyes darting around as she counts them all. “Lots of reapers. Don’t know about Death, but I’m guessing he’s here somewhere. Only other time I’ve seen them like this was in Carthage.”
Dean swallows thickly at the reminder of the trip where they’d lost Ellen and Jo.
Crowley suddenly steps forward, telling them, “I’ll be right back.”
Only his eyes moving, Dean darts a look at Tabitha beside him, cynically commenting, “I still don’t like that you can see those things.”
“You and me both,” she agrees, arms wrapping around herself to fight off the cold, a shiver working up her spine that has nothing to do with the frigid air.
Appearing behind them again, Crowley tells them, “Boy, is my face red.” The Winchesters spin to face the demon as he indifferently adds, “Death’s not in there.”
“You want to cut the cute,” Dean growls, fed up with the demon’s antics.
“Yeah,” Tabitha huffs, tossing a gesture towards the waiting reapers. “‘Cause if he’s not here, what are all of them doing here?”
“I don’t know,” Crowley tells her. “Waiting for scores of people to die, I’d wager.”
Rounding on the demon again, Dean orders, “Just get to the part where you tell us where he is.”
“I’m sorry,” Crowley answers, tone completely without actual apology. “I don’t know.”
When he turns to walk away, the Winchesters dash after him, Dean hurriedly demanding, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Wait a minute.” He grabs the demon by the shoulder to stop him, continuing, “You don’t know?”
Looking a bit flustered now, the demon relents, “Signs pointed. I-I’m just as shocked as you.”
“Bobby sold his soul for this!” Tabitha furiously points out, running after the demon when he takes off again.
Stopping, Crowley commands imperiously, “Relax, luv. All deals are soul back or store credit. We’ll catch Death in the next doomed city.”
“Millions, Crowley,” Dean points out. “Millions of people are about to die any minute.”
“True. So I strongly suggest we get out of here.”
When the demon disappears again, Tabitha and Dean are left to huff in frustration.
“What the hell do we do?” Tabitha helplessly asks her brother.
“I don’t know,” he gruffly admits. Then wordlessly starts back in the direction they’d parked.
When they reach the car, Tabitha starts to climb into the passenger seat, but huffs in exasperation at the sight of the demon already plopped there. Instead, she chooses to sit in the back. Further away from the demon.
“So, what?” Dean asks the demon. “Call in a bomb threat? A thousand bomb threats? I mean, how the hell am I supposed to get three million people out of Chicago in the next ten minutes?”
Slumping into the back seat, Tabitha realistically replies, “We can’t. There’s no way to evacuate a city this size in that amount of time. Add in that kind of threat, and the resulting hysteria would do half the work.”
Hearing Dean jerk around in the front seat, Tabitha opens her eyes and sits up straight, realizing the demon is gone. Again.
Rubbing her eyes, she growls in annoyance, “Okay, his in and out crap is getting more annoying than any of the crap Cas used to pull popping in and out.”
Dean stops moving, seeming to spot something across the street. Sliding across the car, Tabitha sees the demon by a restaurant, mouthing something and pointing inside.
Shaking his head, Dean huffs in frustration, “What? I can’t hear you!”
Reappearing in the car, Crowley calmly replies, “I said I found him.” Pointing again, he goes on, “Death—he’s in there.”
Tabitha strains to look out the window again, but sees nothing that would have indicated the presence of the Horseman. No reapers. No commotion. No…well, dead people.
With measured, deliberate movements, both Winchesters climb out the car. Dean stoops to press the demon, “You coming?” only to find him once more gone.
“Getting sick of that trick,” Tabitha sighs, walking purposefully beside her brother across the street.
Creeping through the back door, Dean leads the way, Tabitha conceding to his lead only because he does have the scythe.
Inside the back kitchen area, they finally see the sights that Tabitha had expected to surround Death. That is, lots of death. All of the wait staff and cooks, dropped dead in the middle of whatever they’d been doing. Even the patrons of the restaurant are slumped silently over their meals, some with food still hanging from their mouths.
One table near the front boasts a patron not face down in his plate. In fact, he sits facing the door, placidly watching the scurrying masses going by in the streets…while enjoying a slice of pizza.
Dean glances back at Tabitha as he approaches, telling her with his eyes to be careful as he holds the scythe at the ready. Tabitha raises her own machete, knowing it likely won’t do any good, but thinking that a gun or knife probably won’t either.
Suddenly, Dean halts, his hand shaking before dropping the scythe to the ground with a resounding thud. It nearly brings a startled gasp from his sister, who hadn’t been expecting the loud noise.
“Thanks for returning that,” a dry voice tells them as Dean shakes his hand with obvious pain.
Heart in her throat, Tabitha stoops to scoop up the scythe, but it disappears before she can reach it.
As they look up at the only person still upright in the restaurant, they spot the scythe lying placidly on the table next to the man’s glass of water.
“Join me, Dean, Tabitha,” the voice invites, as if asking them to Sunday tea.
The siblings share a questioning look. And as if to entice them, the man offers, “The pizza’s delicious.”
Wincing slightly at the worsening weather—thunder and lightning now joining the line-up—the siblings uneasily creep forward, edging carefully around the table of the man who has yet to even look back towards them. After giving the table a wide berth, they stand before the seated man.
“Sit down,” he cordially offers, head down as he focuses on cutting up a slice of Chicago style deep-dish pizza.
With the unease of a mouse sitting down to eat with a lion, Tabitha and Dean lower themselves into the pair of chairs across from the man, Tabitha setting her machete within easy reach on the table.
“Took you long enough to find me,” he tells them. “I’ve been wanting to talk with the pair of you.”
Voice shaking only slightly, Dean replies, “I got to say—mixed feelings about that. S-so is this the part where…” he roughly clears his throat, “…where you kill us?”
The Horseman finally looks up, his face a mixture of stark lines, harsh bones, and an unremarkableness that somehow blends together in a terrifying, unforgettable fashion that somehow screams to Tabitha’s mind that this is indeed the head man, the Papa Reaper.
Death gives them a bland stare before telling Dean, “You have an inflated sense of your importance. To a thing like me, things like the two of you, well…” he pauses to casually slurp water through his straw. “Think how you’d feel if a bacterium sat at your table and started to get snarky.”
Clearing her throat, Tabitha tries to differentially apologize. “W-we, ugh…we’re sorry for…intruding.”
Death pauses to give her a speculative glance before focusing on Dean again and explaining with the boredom of a parent explaining string-theory to a three-year-old, “This is one little planet in one tiny solar system. In a galaxy that’s barely out of its diapers. I’m old. Very old. So I invite you to contemplate how insignificant I find you.”
Following his callous explanation, he lifts a piece of pizza from the platter, politely offering it to Tabitha, saying, “Eat.” And then dishing one likewise for Dean before sitting back and watching the pair stare at the plates before them.
Swallowing once past the lump in her throat, Tabitha pulls her plate closer.
Dean follows suit, picking up his knife and fork, carefully cutting a piece.
As if it were poison, Dean lifts the fork to his mouth and takes the small slice. Rolling her shoulders back as Dean chews, Tabitha picks up her slice, bringing it to her mouth and biting off a much larger piece.
“Good, isn’t it?” Death inquires.
Around her mouthful, Tabitha replies, “Yes, very.” Wincing when Dean kicks the side of her leg.
Unperturbed by his warning, she swallows and replies, “Chicago deep-dish is great, but if you like pizza, you gotta try some of the pizzas in New York. They have hands-down some of the best there is.”
“Tab!” Dean hisses under his breath, aiming a much harder kick at her shin.
“What!?” she hisses back. Under her breath adding for his benefit, “He’s freakin’ Death. If he wanted to kill us, we’d be dead right now. And I don’t much like cowering and sniveling even if he is going to kill us.”
It might have been the flashes of lightning from outside behind them, but Tabitha almost thinks she sees the corner of Death’s mouth twitch. Though he still looks at her as if she’s no more than a bug that he could squish under his heel. Still she gets the sensation that he looks at her with a sort of fondness. Sort of like when one sees a fly helplessly buzzing across the top of water in circles, trying futilely to achieve liftoff.
When Death returns to eating his own slice, Dean finally inquires, “Well, I gotta ask. How old are you?”
Tabitha frowns at her brother, thinking he’d been way ruder than anything she said.
If Death is perturbed by it, it doesn’t show. Head down as he slices his pizza he casually comments, “As old as God.” Then pauses to concede, “Maybe older. Neither of us can remember anymore. Life, death, chicken, egg. Regardless—at the end, I’ll reap him, too.”
Flabbergasted, Dean repeats, “God? You’ll reap God?”
“Oh, yes,” Death replies, finally looking up again. No humor or fondness on his face now. Only sheer absoluteness. “God will die, too, Dean.”
Appetite gone, Tabitha sets her slice down, whispering to her brother, “Get the feeling that we’re like little kids getting a peek behind the curtain of a magic show?”
He nods once, commenting, “Well, this is way above our pay grade.”
“Just a bit,” Death blandly agrees.
Hesitating, Dean seems compelled to ask, “So, then why are we still breathing, sitting here with you? Uh…w-what do you want?”
The first real emotion creeps into Death’s voice as he heatedly returns, “The leash around my neck—off.” Flashes of lightning cast the hollows of the Horseman’s eyes and cheeks alternatively in shadow and bright light, lending to his eerie appearance as he explains to them, “Lucifer has me bound to him. Some unseemly little spell. He has me where he wants, when he wants. That’s why I couldn’t go to either of you. I had to wait for the two of you to catch up. He made me his weapon. Hurricanes, floods, raising the dead. I’m more powerful than you can process, and I’m enslaved to a bratty child having a tantrum.”
“And you think…I–we can unbind you?” Dean incredulously asks.
Irked, Death responds, “There’s your ridiculous bravado again. Of course neither of you can. But you can help me take the bullets out of Lucifer’s gun.” With a soft clatter, he sets his silverware down, displaying the back of his hand, and the ring prominent on his right ring finger. “I understand you want this.”
Glancing at the ring, Dean hesitantly admits, “Yeah.”
“I’m inclined to give it to you,” Death responds.
Shocked, Dean repeats, “To give it to me?”
“That’s what I said.”
“What about…Chicago?” Dean wonders.
Thunder claps loudly outside as Death stares at them. In a reasonable tone, he tells them, “I suppose it can stay. I like the pizza.” He glances serenely at Tabitha telling her, “Though I’ll be certain to try the pizza in New York as well. Thank you for the suggestion.”
Wonder whether or not it was a good idea to send the Horseman to such a huge mega city for food, she nods grimly and responds, “Yeah. Ah-of course.”
Unceremoniously, Death removes his ring, then keeping his hold on it, explains, “There are conditions.
“Such as?” Tabitha asks.
“The two of you have to do whatever it takes to put Lucifer in his cell.”
“Of course,” Dean immediately agrees.
Tabitha nods as well. “We were already planning on that.”
The Horseman stresses however, “Whatever it takes.”
Not understanding his direness, Dean repeats, “That’s the plan.”
Shaking his head minutely, Death argues, “No. No plan. Not yet. Your brother. He’s the one that can stop Lucifer. The only one.”
Drawing in a sharp inhale, and not pausing to consider the intelligence of her refusal, she vehemently, denies, “No. He’s not doing it. I won’t…we won’t let him.”
Death gives her a dark look as Dean slowly asks, “What, you think—”
“I know,” Death responds to Dean, then turns back to Tabitha, sharply telling her, “You’re going to have to make a decision. An entire world? Or your brother? Can’t have both.”
He looks between the pair of siblings, telling them, “So, I need a promise. The two of you are going to let you brother jump right into that fiery pit.”
Ominously, Death offers the ring across the table, asking, “Well, do I have your word?”
After a lengthy moment, Dean agrees, “Okay, yeah. Yes.” Drawing a dark look from his sister that he ignores, and then he holds out his upturned palm for the ring, waiting for Death to release it into his waiting hand.
Death hesitates, balefully warning, “That had better be ‘Yes,’ Dean. You know you can’t cheat Death.”
He releases the ring into Dean’s shaking hand, and as if a flip had been switched, the stormy weather outside ceases.
As Dean stares at the ring, Death offers, “Now, would you like the instruction manual?”
With uneasiness, Dean and Tabitha both lean forward as Death helps them plot their new terrifying plan. Spending the next hour describing each step they need to take.
When Tabitha and Dean move to leave the restaurant, Death calls out to Tabitha, forcing her to pause in following her brother out the front door onto the street.
“Ask your question,” he mundanely directs, cutting up yet another slice of pizza.
Swallowing thickly, and turning to see if Dean’s noticed her absence yet, she seizes her opportunity, asking timidly, “Can she do it? Can she really do everything she says?”
She holds her breath as she awaits his answer, too scared almost to contemplate what it will be. Only wondering to herself, when the sky falls, will she crumble, or will she stand tall?
He doesn’t ask who. But tilts his head slightly to the side as he regards her. “I trained Azrael myself. She works closely with my reapers. And yes, she can end this universe if she so chooses. God gave her that power. Through you.”
The feeling that the world is crumbling swells in her chest with his words. Mouth feeling stuffed with sawdust, and palms suddenly sweating as she wipes them on her thighs, she presses, “She can really do it? Really wipe out it all?”
Though she thought he might be annoyed by repeating the question, he leans forward over the table, pinning her under his stare as he meaningfully stresses to her, “Once in her vessel—you—she can kill anything. Any…single…thing…in this universe.”
From the corner of her eye, she can see Dean striding back down the sidewalk for her. So she pushes aside the nausea she feels to ask one last question.
“What do I do?”
Attention turning back to his plate, Death tells her in a bored tone, “When the time comes…you’ll know.” He glances up to pin her with a last stare. “You have your own decision to make, but don’t forget that you can’t make your brothers’ decisions for them.”
His answers and warnings ring in her mind as Dean reaches inside to pull her out with him. Numbly following him as he hustles her down the street.
You can’t make your brothers’ decisions for them, echoes in her mind.
Squaring her jaw in determination, she thinks to herself, Let the sky fall. We will stand tall.
A/N: Thanks so much for continuing to hang in there. Work with the new job has been going extremely well. Just moving very very fast. After being with them for two months, I’ve already been promoted to assistant manager, so I’m trying to jump into my new position and schedule. It’s just been a lot going on at the moment. But I am still writing this story. Please hang in there with me. And a millions thanks for all the wonderful reviews!