CHAPTER 1: Despair clad in unbroken silence
God was beautiful.
Even as he sat there, his entire world broken in the worst possible way, his mind rappelling between so many disparate thoughts, he realized this. But it was no comfort. Not even a little.
Dark musings clouded everything. The tears flowed freely, and seemed to go unnoticed by this unearthly form that Dean Winchester knew was, for the moment, a living, breathing form for God. It wasn't a vessel. There was no way anything this immaculate, this divine, could be a vessel, not even one inhabited by the Creator himself. Why would God need a vessel? He was... God.
Dean Winchester was done. He was absolutely exhausted, to a level he had not even considered possible in his wildest dreams. After-effects from playing angelic prophylactic for Michael, he supposed. It should have been worse, and he wondered why it wasn't. Maybe that feather-light yet utterly, utterly invasive and incredible touch to his forehead, courtesy of God, had something to do with that. A soft, hysterical little snicker ripped through him. In 32 years of life, now God does something for him. Did the Big Man recognize the irony?
The snicker went as quickly as it came. Dean blinked slowly, vision swimming with a planet-sized ocean of tears interfering again. He didn't care. He didn't. There was no awe, no rapture, no nothing, as his mind kept reminding him that he, above practically all other human beings – and possibly one of the only existing, aware human beings on the Earth – was in the presence of God, and knew it. The awesomeness was lost on him, because Sam wasn't here to see it with him. After everything, Dean was alone. Again.
He looked down. He was seated on the ground, the dirt blasted to rapidly cooling slivers of glass in places. The epicentre of the last, fateful dual. Heaven versus Hell, brother against brother. Final Showdown, check. Apocalypse averted? Check. A beloved dead brother held in a close, resolute embrace, fuelled by absolute emotional decimation. Check. He looked down and blinked, clearing his vision once more. Sam looked peaceful, now that Dean had closed his eyes and smoothed back Sam's ever-wayward hair. Sam always did, when he was out like this. Well, not exactly like this. Dean unceremoniously crushed every possible thought that might take him to the dark place that he could always identify in his head as Cold Oaks, or the feeling of that place, and what it had done in the Winchesters' lives.
Sam looked all too much like he had as a kid growing up, before the nightmares launched him on his ill-fated downward spiral, into the void of despair and destruction that Lucifer had planned. Right after the Stanford era, when Jess had died and Sam had gone from innocent, naive, blindly idealistic bleeding heart – a young man, almost a kid still, that Dean can hardly remember, except fondly and feverishly, in the worst of times – to being a revenge-driven, efficient and unfeelingly ruthless hunter. Through Azazel, then Lilith, then Ruby. Hindsight was the biggest bitch, always was. To let such a plan go through the motions, and still succeed, was a humbling realization for a human being. Even to one that had been earmarked for 'greatness'... as an archangel's vessel.
Quivering fingers reverently pushed a single stray strand of Sam's hair from his forehead. One teardrop graced the smooth forehead – so unlike the blood, dripping from the ceiling so long ago – followed by another, and Dean looked up, sniffing tragically, defiant of showing emotion even now, even before the one being in existence who had possibly seen it all, and more. Old habits die hard, even under the pressure of total oblivion, requested, demanded, if not yet granted. Dean didn't want to see it, suddenly. All of a sudden, the weight was unbearable, to the points where even looking at Sam, at his lifelong reason for existing, and happily, made him want to get up and run into traffic, get run over by an eighteen-wheeler. Good luck with that, this latest 'little' pissing contest probably stalled traffic across the entire Northern Hemisphere, a thought presented. He sighed instead, a juddering gesture that seemed to rip from his chest like wind through a tunnel. Eyes shut, then opened slowly. He needed to take it in, take it all in. Because he knew that God would not settle for simply staring at him. God was waiting for Dean to speak. Dean thought he knew what God would say. And Dean didn't want to hear it. He couldn't. Instead, the final conflict began replaying itself again, insisting he look at everything, forcing him to relive it. For 'old' time's sake.
He had said it. That dreaded, hateful word.
How could he not? There, surrounded by a host of angels, not attacking yet but holding the demonic hordes – they had possessed an entire city for this, and killed those who resisted – at bay, stood Lucifer. Tall, proud, arrogant. Surveying everything around him with clear indifference, a truly haughty little sneer on his face. Sam's face. Even at this distance, standing atop a relatively undamaged skyscraper, looking down at a shorter building's rooftop, Dean could see every detail, etched on his brother's face, Lucifer using Sam's very essence. But not the eyes. No, the eyes were clouded by... a void. Gentle, shimmering hues of green, blue and hazel, warped by the undeniable presence of the dark evil that Lucifer embodied. Not immediately present, no. No horns, no tail, no trident, none of that. In a far-off corner of his mind, Dean knew that evil shouldn't actually be allowed to look so... inviting. Sympathetic. Dean loathed it, even as his mind screamed. Why had Sam said yes? What could possibly have made him do it? Hadn't Dean given everything to make sure it didn't go down? Had Sam been lying to him all this time? After getting zapped to friggin' future by Zachariah, and realizing that Sam was lost without his older brother, watching him with love and understanding rather than mistrust and revulsion, how, after everything, had it still come to this? How had Lucifer been right?
You won't win this time, you smug, arrogant prick, Dean had thought. Everything was lost. The world. The war. Sammy... Dean wondered if, were he to trump the Devil, mostly out of spite, and assuredly out of pure, heart wrenching horror and grief, if Sammy's soul was intact. Was Sam in there still? Was he... remorseful, about his choice? Dean never truly could understand the deepest pits of Sammy's mind, even after practically raising the kid. And there was no time for him to wallow in recriminations and what-ifs. He realized it almost instantly, and the realization was driven home when he heard, even above the din, the flutter of wings behind him. He knew whom he would find, waiting, impatient, annoyed as hell...
"This is it, Dean. No more tricks, no more denials, no more bull!" the florid-faced angel riled, his bald pate moving rapidly under the furrows of angelic fury, barely contained by the vessel. Yup, Zach was pissed, with a capital, uppercase 'P'. Dean didn't give the smarmy bastard the satisfaction of turning around. Zach sighed, irritable. His voice came closer, and Dean wondered how the angel could be so...blasé, when clearly his voice was ready to melt the flesh from Dean's body. "We can end this, here, now, but we need Michael. Give us our general, Dean!" the last sentence was delivered as a command, as though Dean was somehow keeping Michael at bay, or imprisoned somehow. 'You've got him, so give him back!' Dean smiled, a wan, weary, saddened little motion that touched only his mouth and softened his eyes in defeat. Zachariah's petulance would have made him laugh, at any other time, but the truth was... what? That it would always be this way? That the Colt, on which he, Sam and so many others had pinned so much hope on, would never have worked against Lucifer? That the Devil himself, the personified receptacle of that which most all human beings considered the epitome of evil, could actually be brought low by an awesome gun? Thinking on it, Dean realized that killing Lucifer with the Colt was about as plausible as shooting God in the face with a peashooter. It wasn't so much a matter of the Colt actually working, but rather, actually getting close enough to even try. The Colt rested coolly against Dean's lower back, tucked in behind the lining of his jeans. He could take the shot, if he could convince Zach or any other high-powered über-angel to bring him in close. Maybe Sam's body would die, and Lucifer would be forced to abandon his tactics until another suitable vessel could be found. He reached behind his back, his fingers slowly curving around the well-remembered gun.
And Dean would be alone. Again. This time forever. If the Colt could kill anything, supposedly, what were the odds of one human soul actually surviving that ensorcelled shot? Dean knew, suddenly, instantly, why he couldn't do it.
"You won't say 'yes' to Michael, and you won't kill Sam," Lucifer had said to him, more than a year ago, and also three years from now, in that other future. Right about one thing, you pretentious sonuvabitch! Dean snarled in his mind. His hand left the Colt, pulling back as if burned. He knew what was playing out on his face. It was a stone mask, a deadpan expression that somehow conveyed every shred of emotion through the eyes. Slowly he turned around to face Zachariah, taking in the angel's belligerent stance, his scrunched-up, enraged face. Dean laughed, hell, he hooted like a lunatic inside his own skull! Zach was actually expecting resistance, as per usual, even at the bitterest of ends. Time to prove two dicks wrong with one word.
"Yes," Dean uttered, voice as taut as a wire, gravelly enough to actually be painful. He didn't care.
"I beg your pardon?" Zachariah asked, the anger vanishing behind puzzlement.
"You heard me," Dean grated, angry all on his own. For betraying everything he believed about the sanctity of human free will, and accepting a destiny he never wanted. For sacrificing Sammy so that he could save the world before it really was too late, before Lucifer ran riot, before the Croatoan virus was unleashed, before... everything could go wrong, for one last time. Sacrificing Sammy... Even as he prepared to tear Zach a new one for being hard of hearing, tears started leaking from his eyes. Even the thought... he wanted to drop to his knees, scream and retch his denial. But it was too late. It was...over. "You want me to spell it out for you?"
A slow, almost enrapt smile, devoid of malice and hidden agendas, was not what Dean had expected from the angel. Zachariah's smile was radiant, almost... what was that word? Beatific! – thanks Sammy, one last jab of geekiness to friggin' light up the day! Dean was even more shocked when Zach gave a single step forward.
"Thank you," the angel said softly, and vanished right in front of Dean's eyes.
"When Michael gets here, I'm so reaming your puckered ass for everything!" Dean cussed to the relative silence that surrounded him once more. Where was that damn archangel? On the rooftop of the wide flat building, where angels were surrounding Lucifer – not Sam – and demons were milling about below, itching to tear into the heavenly host assembled around their 'Father', silence still reigned. What were they waiting for?
"For you to prove him wrong," a voice echoed suddenly inside Dean's head. Oh crap. "Not quite... crap," the voice said, and chuckled. Chuckled! Dean didn't waste time analyzing the voice, how it sounded or resonated; he knew who it was.
"Just get it over with already!" Dean snapped impatiently to the air. Vegetative state, here I come, he thought. It would probably be too much to imagine that Michael's presence would kill Dean, after the archangel left his body behind. For him to die and know nothing more, to not... feel like he's about to fail the single most important person in his life, and fail everything he'd been taught since he could understand.
"You will not fail," Michael's voice whispered softly once more.
"I already did," Dean retorted, his voice heavy as it broke around the admission. "Please, just... get it over with."
"As you wish," Michael replied. Almost as simple as Dean saying 'yes'. Where was the panache, the flair? How about 'here we go?'
No bright, engulfing light, no massive outpouring of actinic, angelic radiance and destruction, marked Michael's descent. Soft, so soft it went unnoticed by the assembled below. Stealthy.
And just like that, Dean Winchester faded into the background. His hand was lifted to his face, testing the new trappings for the single most powerful warrior of Heaven. Then the hand dropped to Michael's side, and out of nowhere, a lustrous short sword, very similar to Lucifer's, extended into existence. Thus armed, the archangel Michael launched himself from the rooftop of the skyscraper, at the adversary below.