When Dean saw Bela and Ree struggling down the landing platform to his ship, he found a burst of energy he didn’t know he still had in him. He ran to their side, leaving Gabriel to fend off the pack of troopers still dogging them.
“Bela!” he called, relief bleeding into his voice. His heart walloped against his ribs when he saw how bloody she was, though couldn’t discern how much of it was actually hers. “What the hell happened?” He ducked under her arm to take her weight onto him and off of Ree.
Bela groaned and winced. “Ruby happened, darling.”
Dean clenched his jaw against a wave of anger. “Where is she?”
Dead, Ree supplied happily.
Gabriel hurried up behind the battered trio, huffing and puffing and waving his blaster. “Okay, they pulled back for a minute, but if we could maybe hurry this escape up a little, because – ”
Ree was wounded, but not so much that she couldn’t inflict some serious damage. With Dean supporting Bela, Ree whirled at the sound of Gabriel’s voice and caught his throat in one of her large, long-fingered green hands, shoving him and nearly lifting him off the ground.
“Hey, hey! Okay, okay, I know!” Gabriel gagged and wheezed, trying to pry Ree off of his neck.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing here?” Bela sniped. “After what you pulled?”
“Do I… really have to explain… it again?” Gabriel struggled fruitlessly against Ree, who tightened her grip until he started to turn red.
“Shoot him and be done with it,” said Bela, scowling at Gabriel who whimpered and flailed an arm helplessly.
“He did kind of explain,” Dean sighed. “Kind of saved our lives back there. And he got Baby fixed up for us to leave.”
“So we let him live?” said Bela.
Dean shrugged. “Let’s get out of here first. Deal with his lying ass later.”
It was a testament to how beat up and exhausted Bela really was that she didn’t argue. She mumbled for Ree to hurry up, and Dean tried not to feel too surprised or worried at her lack of fight. Frankly, he wasn’t really sure why he was bothering to keep Gabriel alive at this point either, despite his claims of sending help and fully repairing the Impala, neither of which he could currently verify.
Still, if Bela was down for the count, and judging by the hole in Ree’s side she might be as well once they got on board, Dean was going to need all the help he could get flying out of here. He could always knock Gabe out and shove him in a closet later if he needed to.
Gabriel had turned an alarming shade of purple by the time Dean nodded at the green alien.
“Ree,” he said. “Let’s go.”
Ree reluctantly released him and Gabriel tumbled to his knees gasping.
“Dear… God!” he huffed, his voice scratchy. “Enough… with the… goddamn choking!” He coughed and struggled to his feet, trailing after Ree who was quite nonplussed about his discomfort. “I have… a very sensitive windpipe!” At the look Dean gave him, Gabriel added hotly, “It’s sensitive because of all the choking!”
Dean smirked and led Bela up the loading ramp of the Impala. No sooner was he inside, when troopers arrived and opened fire on Gabriel and Ree limping behind him. Gabriel yelped and let off a few shots and Dean hastily slapped at the controls to close up the ramp.
“Ree!” Dean shouted, but the alien bustled past him towards the cockpit.
On it, she clicked over her shoulder.
He didn’t wait to see what Gabriel did with himself. Dean hurried as much as he could to the med bay with Bela in tow, ignoring her weak protests that she was perfectly all right.
“Like hell,” he murmured, laying her down gently on one of the cots.
She winced and moaned. “Oh God,” she hissed. “I’d kill her again.”
Dean tried not to smile because it wasn’t funny, not at all.
“Nothing,” he replied. “I’ll be back as soon as we’re home free. Just relax.”
The Impala’s engines hummed to life around him as he left Bela and hastened to the cockpit. Ree was in the co-pilot’s chair, her hands a blur over the console as she readied the ship for takeoff. Dean could see Stormtroopers gathering on the landing platform, guns firing at the ship’s hull. He pushed past Gabriel, who’d taken up residence in the navigation chair, and sat in the pilot’s seat.
“You’re not staying?” Dean asked him.
“Oh, heeelll no,” said Gabriel, rubbing at his inflamed throat. “I ain’t sticking around here – not with Lord Yellow Eyes running the place and the icky Emperor of All Evil coming in for a landing.”
“What?” Dean spun in his chair, hoping to God he’d heard wrong.
“Chyeah, he called the Emperor when he bagged you! And you thought you were important before, bub.” Gabriel poked at the bruises on his jaw and around his eyes. “Now I know what Ploomarian meat feels like… Ow.”
Dean swallowed and ignored the chills rocketing up and down his spine. Azazel was bad, but the Emperor was about a thousand times worse. Dean had never met him personally – probably be dead right now if he had – but he’d heard plenty of stories, and once, caught a glimpse of the bastard having a holochat with Azazel.
The sooner they got out of here, the better.
Sam fell. He felt weightless as the wind rushed in his ears and he plummeted in the shaft. For a heart stopping moment, he felt his body moving and thought Azazel was using the Force to bring him back up. He was being sucked into an exhaust port however, and could no longer see Azazel above him on the gantry.
Sam tumbled through the slick exhaust pipe, slipping and banging along the cold metal. As he came to a stop and caught his breath, he thought he might actually get out of this. Then the tube opened beneath him, and he caught a glimpse of sky before he was falling again.
Panic seized his chest and he lashed out, trying to grab anything to stop himself from plummeting thousands of miles down to Bespin’s toxic surface. By some miracle, he managed to crash onto a thin weather vane. As he slammed into the rickety metal, shocks of pain went through his body. He clung to the pole, dizzy and glancing up at the way he’d come, but the doors to the tube were out of reach and already groaning shut.
Sam looked down, regretting it instantly. There was nothing below him but clouds.
He scrunched his eyes shut and held tighter to the weather vane. But his right hand was weak and couldn’t grip the metal. His shoulder killed, and the metal was digging into the underside of his knees and his ankles where he’d hooked them in an effort to stay put.
Cas, he thought desperately. I should have listened to you.
The wind whistled around him, tugging at his clothes. Sam shivered. He thought about Jo and how he was never going to see her again. He didn’t regret going to Dagobah as she’d advised, but he was sorry he’d never show her what he had learned.
At least Dean is safe, Sam thought, a pocket of relief blooming in his chest. I can feel it. His thoughts centered around his brother then and the short time they’d been together. Sam wished there had been more time…
Dean, I’m sorry… I’m sorry I wasn’t better…
Sam’s arm began to tremble and ache. He couldn’t stay like this for long – his position was precarious at best – and he was already spent from his battle with Azazel. He pressed his eyelids together tighter, trying to keep the tears at bay, his focus centering on his brother. Sam just wanted something to hold onto before he died.
“Dean,” he murmured.
To say that Lucifer wasn’t happy was probably an understatement.
“The city is nearly empty,” said the Emperor, staring down at his once most trusted underling, his apprentice, Darth Azazel. “Not only was I promised a thriving new enterprise for the Empire, but I specifically recall you promising me that you had Winchester in your possession, once and for all.”
“I know. Of course. I mean yes, my master,” Azazel fumbled and groveled.
“I made a special trip, ‘Zaze. I came all the way out here, just for you.” Lucifer tilted his head. “Now how do you think it makes me look when I show up and you’re completely empty-handed?”
“My lord, there were unforeseen circumstances, I couldn’t have – ”
“You could have,” Lucifer cut in. “You didn’t.”
Azazel colored and dropped his gaze.
It was sad, really. Despite his apprentice’s rage issues, Lucifer had always like him. He made a tutting noise.
“Any last words?” he asked.
Azazel looked up, shock flashing in his yellow eyes. “M-my master?”
Lucifer raised his hand.
“Wait, my master, please!” the other man babbled. “I – Winchester! He has a brother! He was the one who came, who ruined everything, the little shit – ”
Interesting… but ultimately inconsequential. The Emperor narrowed his eyes. “So, not only did you fail on multiple occasions to kill Winchester and bring me the Rebels, but over twenty years ago when you were to end the Winchester line, you didn’t even manage that.”
Azazel whimpered protests but Lucifer had seriously had enough.
“I had really high hopes for you too, ‘Zaze,” Lucifer sighed and made a fist.
The Sith apprentice turned red and gurgled in pain. He clapped his hands to the side of his head and his eyes bulged. He groaned and gasped.
“Strike three, Azazel,” said Lucifer. “You’re out.” Then he gave his wrist a flick.
The ensuing explosion was rather spectacular, if disgusting. Lucifer had made sure to stand well enough back, though some of Azazel’s brain matter still spattered his boots. The Emperor sniffed indifferently as the headless body of his apprentice tumbled to the ground.
Lucifer glanced up at the queasy-looking pair of officers near the doors. “Clean this shit up.”
As the Impala pulled away from Cloud City, a peculiar feeling stole over Dean, like he was forgetting something. He furrowed his brow, trying to remember what it was, but nothing came to mind.
“What?” Dean glanced back at Gabriel, who shrugged.
“Hmm? I didn’t say anything.”
“I thought…” Dean returned his attention to the console and the feeling grew. Something was wrong, something was – he was suddenly certain he was going the wrong way. He tried to shake it off; he was leaving the city and that’s exactly what he needed to be doing.
Then he realized it was Sam’s voice. He had no idea how he could hear it or what the hell was going on, but he had to turn back. The feeling was tugging at his gut, constricting his chest. He had to go back for him, right now.
Dean wrenched on the controls and Ree and Gabriel protested immediately.
“Whoa, what the hell do you think you’re doing!”
Dean, no! Ree waved her hand and squeaked loudly. She hissed and clutched at her wounded stomach.
“I have to get Sam,” Dean told them, his voice hard. “I can’t leave him behind. I won’t.”
“Are you freaking kidding me?” Gabriel shouted. “You’re not going back there! We barely made it out the first time! And did I mention that the goddamn Emperor is probably pulling up to the club right about this second?!”
Dean, we really can’t go back there, Ree clicked so fast he barely understood her. Betrayal boy here is right –
And besides, you have no idea where Sam even is –
“Yes I do,” Dean cut in. He could still hear Sam’s voice in his head, guiding him.
How? Ree demanded.
Dean shook his head. “I’m going to sound completely insane if I tell you, so let’s leave it as I just do.”
Gabriel huffed behind him. “Oh yeah, that’s super reassuring.”
Dean ignored him and pushed the Impala’s freshly repaired engines.
“What about the Imperial fighters that took off after us, genius?”
“We’ll take care of it. Now shut up,” Dean snapped.
Ree shot him a couple of worried looks, but she trusted him enough to follow his lead, and seconds later they were steering the Impala under Cloud City’s belly. In the distance, a figure dangled below the city – barely hanging on.
“Holy crap,” Gabriel breathed.
Dean’s heart hammered in his chest. I’m coming, Sammy, I’m here.
Three fighters incoming, Ree reported with a series of anxious squeaks.
Dean jumped out of his seat. “Take over and get under him,” he barked at Gabriel. “I’m gonna open the top hatch and bring him in. The second we’re clear, get us out of here.”
Ree nodded. Gabriel looked pale under his bruises as he climbed into the vacated pilot chair.
“How the hell do I get myself into these situations?” he muttered under his breath.
Once in the lift for the top hatch, Dean hooked on a safety line. In the event those Imperial bastards got in range before he was able to retrieve Sam, the last thing he wanted was to fall off the Impala. He clicked on the comm link to the cockpit.
“I’m heading out.”
The lift ascended and Dean turned his face up, impatiently waiting for the hatch to open. He was met with whipping wind, tugging at his clothes and ruffling his hair. Above him, hanging upside down on weather vane, was Sam, bloody and battered all to hell. Dean swallowed hard, his gut knotting.
“Sam!” he called. “I’m here!”
Dean stepped out of the Impala and leaned down to yell into the comm, “A little higher – gently!” The ship eased up closer to Sam and the weather vane. Dean positioned himself and held out his arms.
“Sam, it’s Dean – do you hear me? I’m here – I’m right here.”
Sam moaned and Dean breathed a bit easier – he wasn’t dead yet.
“Let go, Sam,” Dean instructed, standing directly below his friend, heart hammering in his chest. “I’ve got you.”
Blearily, Sam seemed to understand, and he released the weather vane. Sam was not small, and though Dean tried to absorb his weight and catch him, he pretty much took the brunt of his friend’s bulk. The pair landed in a heap, Dean underneath trying to shield the partially conscious man from landing too hard.
Dean smacked his head, winced, and coughed. His aching ribs flared, making him gasp, but he kept a grip on Sam, wrapping his arms around Sam’s chest and maneuvering him none-too-gracefully into the lift tube.
“Dean-o, hurry up!” Gabriel’s voice crackled over the comm. “The fighters are almost on top of us!”
Dean grunted and tugged, trying to hurry but be gentle – Sam was beat up and the scorched wound in his shoulder looked severely deep. The moment they were both in the lift, Dean slapped the button for the hatch to close.
“Go!” he hollered into the comm, and felt the engines rumble as Ree poured on the speed.
Dean blinked against the throbbing in his chest and supported Sam as best he could, keeping the kid more or less upright as the lift descended.
“You heard me,” Sam murmured, his body crumpled against Dean’s. “You came for me.”
Dean smiled a little. He didn’t know how, but he had. Maybe it was like back on Hoth, when he could’ve sworn he’d heard his name on the wind. Hell, maybe he was going crazy or had accidentally become psychic. He had no idea, but the important thing was he’d found him.
He helped Sam out of the lift. “Yeah, Sammy,” he said, cupping Sam’s bruised cheek. “I heard you.”
As Castiel moved through the corridors of Cloud City’s main complex, he could feel something was very wrong. The city was in full evacuation mode, with most of the inhabitants from the main core gone. Only a handful of people remained, still in the process of fleeing. The former Jedi’s stomach writhed and he gripped the hilt of his lightsaber tightly, ready to activate it at the first sign of a threat.
He reached out with the Force, searching for a sign of Sam. Had Cas arrived too late? Was Sam already dead? Had he not only failed his best friend but his Padawan as well? Castiel couldn’t be sure – everything was shrouded in darkness and it clung to his every movement. The former Jedi tried to shake off the ugly sensation, with little success.
Worse, he could feel the darkness growing. Something was at the center of this building, sucking up all light like a great, swirling vortex. Dread crawled across Castiel’s skin as he forged onwards. The middle of that vortex was exactly where he needed to be, he could feel it in bones – as much as he wanted to turn and run in the opposite direction.
As he entered the wide open plaza, it all suddenly made sense.
“Castiel,” greeted Emperor Lucifer, his tone pleasant and cool. “Nice of you to show up. I’ve been waiting.”
“I saw this coming, you know. Saw you, big guy, and your trusty lightsaber, rushing in here to save the day.” Lucifer removed his hood and cocked his head to regard Cas like he was some pitiful animal. His once handsome face was marred and pitted with scars. “Did you know you’re hours too late?”
The former Jedi didn’t respond. He wasn’t about to be goaded into a fight with a Sith Master. He waited, patient as ever.
“Your buddies are all gone,” Lucifer mocked, making a pouting face for a moment before smiling coldly. “It’s just you and me, my brother, like it was always meant to be.”
Cas didn’t flinch, but he swallowed against the flare of fear in his gut. He’d faced off against Lucifer, years and years ago, long before he’d been the Emperor. Back then, he’d been a fellow Jedi, someone sworn to protect peace and innocence. Back then, he’d almost been a friend. But he’d fallen from grace, turned to the Dark Side, and risen to power. He, with his new apprentice Darth Azazel, had systematically slaughtered the Jedi.
He’d been a formidable fighter then. Castiel only dared to imagine what he was like now.
“Guess there’s no point in beating around the bush.” Lucifer activated his lightsaber, revealing a brilliant shaft of red light. “Shall we begin?”
Castiel took a slow, deep breath, marshalling his strength. If he could win here today, if he could end this, he could cut the head off the snake. He could effectively destroy the biggest source of power and leadership in the tyrannical Galactic Empire. He buried his doubts – he had no room for them if he was to do this. He flicked the switch on his own lightsaber, an equally brilliant green.
“After you,” Cas growled.
Lucifier smirked, then struck.
He was blindingly fast and Castiel barely got his lightsaber up in time to avoid getting sliced. He spun and parried the Emperor’s blows, reaching deep and far for the Force, breathing and focusing. He could feel it flowing in his veins, guiding his moves and he acted with instinct rather than thought, matching Lucifer blow for blow.
The pair moved about the room, their weapons mere streaks and blurs as they attacked and swung and whirled. Lucifer advanced hard, then abruptly backed off. Castiel gained some ground before Lucifer laid into him again, impossibly fast. The former Jedi realized that the Emperor was testing him, gauging his reactions, and Castiel changed his moves to throw him off balance.
In one swift motion, he twisted away, putting some distance between him and Lucifer. Castiel held up his hand. Lucifer staggered at the jolt through the Force but countered it instantly with a surge of his own. Cas felt the darkness push against him, close around him, and he shoved back, grinding his teeth. His feet began to slide on the floor. He focused and pushed harder.
Lucifer smiled and suddenly let go. Castiel fumbled at the unexpected lack of resistance and the Emperor was on him again. Cas rotated on his heel to avoid the red lightsaber, but it still caught him, leaving a shallow scorched cut across his leg. He hissed and Lucifer chuckled.
“You’re rusty, Castiel,” he taunted. “When was the last time you had a real opponent?”
He swung his lightsaber in a high arc and gave Castiel a mighty heave with the Force. It caught the former Jedi off guard and he went flying, his head cracking against a pillar. He blinked against the flash of white in his vision and brought his weapon up just in time to stop the column of red from cutting into his skull.
“I was always stronger than you,” Lucifer hissed, pressing his lightsaber down with all his might.
Castiel held steady. “You only believed you were,” he retorted through clenched teeth.
“Then show me how strong you are, Castiel,” Lucifer sneered. “Go ahead and try.” He curled his free hand into a fist.
Cas felt his windpipe constrict. He lashed out, rolling away and breaking the hold the Emperor was trying to put on him. Lucifer stayed where he was and the former Jedi questioned the brief respite. In the next moment, the pillars in the room began to tremble and shake. Castiel took a breath.
Lucifer raised his arms above his head and Castiel could sense the darkness ebbing and flowing in the room, curling around the pillars and breaking them apart from the inside. He realized what the Emperor was doing just before the columns exploded, sending chunks of plaster and marble in every direction.
Castiel ducked and used the Force to shield himself. Lucifer charged, his red lightsaber a terrifying blur. Cas fought off his attacks, pouring himself into keeping up with his opponent. He felt the change in the Force a half instant before the chunk of marble came sailing at him from behind. Cas dodged the object only to be bombarded with more.
He met the incoming red blur with his own green. He became liquid fire, slicing and spinning in the rhythm of the fight. He parried Lucifer’s lightning-fast lightsaber moves. He evaded hunks of marble. Then he missed one – it caught him in the side of his head, followed by another to his shoulder. By some miracle, he was able to stave off Lucifer even while blinking the blood and sparks from his eyes.
His arms began to quiver with effort. He was not as strong as he used to be, he was too out of practice, and Lucifer had always been strong… As if he could sense the tendrils of defeat that were snaking around Castiel’s heart, Lucifer seemed to gain a fresh wave of energy. It only took a fraction of an instant –
The blade was scorching as it lanced through his gut. Pain ripped through his every nerve. Castiel gasped, the sound tearing from his soul. He crumbled to his knees, his body quivering in agony. Then there was a flash of light – his weapon was gone, clattering across the debris-strewn floor.
Lucifer’s low laughter cut through the haze as Castiel struggled to breathe.
“I knew I was always better than you,” he said, his voice lazy and cutting.
Cas raised his eyes to meet Lucifer’s malice-filled ones. He suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of triumph and peace wash over him, entirely at odds with his situation. And then he knew why.
Castiel smiled. “You have no idea what you’ve done, do you?”
Lucifer crinkled his brow. “Um, killed another crappy Jedi? Got rid of an age-old pain in my ass? Yeah, I’m pretty sure I know. Save the incoming morality lesson.”
“This is the beginning of the end, Lucifer,” Cas warned softly. He could see it; he could see it all… “Know that.”
“Mmhmm, whatever you say, pal.” The Emperor twirled his lightsaber and flicked the switch to deactivate it. He tucked it neatly in his belt. “And I just want you to know that I am honestly going to enjoy this.”
He raised his hand. Castiel could feel a horrific dark pressure building in his skull but he didn’t close his eyes, didn’t tear them away from Lucifer. If only he knew, he wouldn’t continue. Castiel’s smile widened.
Lucifer clenched his hand into a tight fist.
The pressure was sharp, incredible, and overwhelming. Cas cried out involuntarily. It felt as though his skull was splitting open or it was trying to but couldn’t, and his whole body was shaking, every nerve screaming and every cell vibrating and ripping, his heart pounding, lungs and chest bursting, stomach roiling…
His vision blurred but he stared straight ahead. The beginning of the end. He had never known more peace than this moment…
Lucifer flicked his wrist, and Castiel knew no more.