Sam coughed and tried to wave away the dust that had rose out of the underground chamber, as he and Dean peered inside. From what he could see, the stone stairs traveled down at an angle; giving the impression that there was probably a large room at the bottom, though he couldn't see for sure. The chamber was completely dark, which made it difficult to tell exactly what it contained.
“Ooooh. A secret hatch!” Gabriel grinned, kneeling next to Sam, “This is some straight-up Indiana Jones stuff. Too bad I didn't bring my whip. We could have had some real fun.”
Sam held down a smile, as he flashed a glance toward Gabriel's beaming face. This was one of the reasons he loved Gabe so much; because only the trickster could say something funny during a serious situation, and still make Sam smile. Dean rolled his eyes at Gabe's quip about Indiana Jones, though, before meeting eyes with his little brother.
“I guess we're playing to see who goes in first, huh?” he asked, raising his hands in a 'rock-paper-scissors' formation.
Before Sam could even lift his hands to join his brother's game, Cas blocked their view of each other, by stepping up to the chamber. With the flick of his wrist, the angel unsheathed his blade from his coat sleeve, and paused on the stone stairs to look at Dean.
“I'll go first,” Cas assured, already starting down the steps.
“No, wait, Cas,” Dean gasped, instantly grabbing Cas's collar to bring him to a halt, “You don't know what the hell is down there. It could be a trap, for all we know.”
“Exactly,” Cas agreed, “which is why I should go and investigate before any of you attempt to venture down there.”
“And what about you, huh? What if you get trapped down there?” Dean asked, his voice housing apprehension.
“It's better to let harm befall me, rather than any of you, Dean. Of the four of us, I am the most expendable,” the angel stated.
Dean, Sam, even Gabriel, were all suddenly looking toward Cas with stunned awe. A somber silence rested in the room for a moment, as everyone stared speechlessly at the blue-eyed angel in front of them. How could Cas ever say such a thing? How could he ever entertain the idea that he was expendable? The notion was flat-out ridiculous! Cas was probably the most important piece of their group. In fact, there was a good chance that they would all be dead without Cas. Even Sam knew that...
The younger Winchester watched, as Dean slowly grabbed hold of Cas's coat with both hands. His green eyes were large and full of angered disbelief, searching the angel's face in shock. Sam could see that Cas's words had affected Dean more than anyone else; that even the mere thought of losing Cas made Dean feel outraged.
“Don't you ever say that again, Cas,” Dean warned, his voice threatening to crack, “We've only made it this far because of you, and we won't last a damn minute without you. So, don't you even think about putting yourself on the line like that. You are too important to me. To us,” he quickly corrected, his face growing red, “You're too important to us. It's gonna take all of us to break that stupid altar, anyway, so we're all gonna go together. Alright?”
Sam turned to see that Gabriel's eyes were on him; giving him a mischievous look. And even though no words were exchanged between them, Sam knew the message the archangel was trying to send. Everyone could clearly see that Cas meant more to Dean than he was willing to admit out loud. And Gabe was basically saying, 'See, kid? What'd I tell you? Our brothers totally have the hots for each other.' But Sam, once again, shook his head; disagreeing with Gabriel's sneaky glance. Just because Dean cared about Cas's safety, didn't mean the two of them were actually banging each other...
Cas hesitated for a moment on the stairs, searching Dean's face with emotion, before forcing a nod.
“Very well. Let's hurry,” he said, gesturing for everyone else to follow.
As Sam and Gabe climbed to their feet, Dean was opening up his duffel bag again, to pass out flashlights. Sam, of course, was used to holding a weapon and a flashlight at the same time; scoping out dark places while on the look out for danger. He took the flashlight from Dean and clicked it on; instantly pointing the beam of light down the stairs. Once everyone was armed and ready, Dean slung his bag over his shoulder and started down the stone steps, with Cas almost directly at his side. Sam followed along closely behind them, with Gabriel pressing at his back.
“I don't like this,” Gabe whispered, his tiny voice echoing around them, “It's really dark down here.”
“It's alright, Gabe. We've got flashlights,” Sam reminded quietly, trying to sooth him.
“But this place is creepy,” the archangel continued, his voice a little louder, “And I can hear bugs crawling around. Ugh, I feel like I'm on an episode of Fear Factor. Is Joe Rogan down here? Am I gonna have to eat a cow tongue or something?”
“You're gonna be eating my fist, if you don't shut up,” Dean snapped.
Sam flinched, hearing Dean's sharp voice bounce off the stone walls. He knew that the trickster needed to use humor to cope with his deeper emotions, and that Gabriel was probably a little scared. But, apparently, none of that mattered to Dean. Sam shifted his angel blade and flashlight into one hand, so he could briefly reach back and pat Gabe's hip; trying to comfort him, as they made their way deeper into the chamber.
“Look, Gabe,” Sam whispered, “We're already at the bottom.”
They had finally made it to a large, level floor, that was made completely out of stone. With the scattered beams of light dancing around, Sam could see that there was a giant set of iron doors in front of them. The doors were at least ten feet high and fifteen feet wide, and Sam could tell just by looking at them, that they would be difficult to open. They were made of iron and probably hadn't been moved in centuries. Plus, both door frames were covered in some kind of writing, too; Enochian, from what Sam could make out. The four of them just kind of stood there for a second, taking in the sight of these ominous, iron doors. Sam was sure that the altar was just on the other side of them, waiting to be used or destroyed...
“What the hell is all that?” Dean asked, flicking his flashlight toward the markings.
“Angel wards,” Cas answered, looking toward him, “I won't be able to fly inside, Dean. My grace won't allow me to enter the room until the doors are open, and I cannot touch the the doors. Whoever hid this altar did a very good job of securing it from angels. His efforts were highly skilled.”
“Well, if angels can't get in, that means Raphael can't get in, either,” Sam pointed out, stepping forward to glance between Dean and Cas, “So, why don't we just leave it like it is?”
“I know my brother very well, Sam. He will use any means necessary to gain entry into this room,” Cas replied, shaking his head, “The only way to truly put an end to this, is to destroy the altar. We will have to break the wards ourselves... Even if that means putting the altar at risk of being taken by Raphael.”
“Well, if we get in there fast enough, we won't have to worry about him,” Dean pointed out.
A tiny echo of a crinkle interrupted the conversation, coming from behind Sam. Everyone pointed their flashlights toward the sound; drowning Gabriel in a sea of light. The archangel was in the middle of opening up a Butterfinger, when he paused to look up at everyone defensively.
“What?” he mumbled, taking a bite of the candy bar, “I get hungry when I'm nervous, okay?”
Sam smiled a little, but shook his head. Poor Gabe. He wasn't used to going into creepy places and dealing with hard decisions, was he? Sam was fairly certain that the trickster would rather be running around in a candy store somewhere right now; eating his weight in Butterfingers, and playing with all the toys...
Gabriel nibbled on his candy bar and edged closer to Sam, as Cas suddenly strode passed them. The angel made his way to the left side of the small room, where he propped his flashlight up against the wall and rolled up his coat sleeve. Using Dean's knife, Cas sliced his own wrist open – and began drawing symbols on the wall with his blood.
“What is that for, Cas?” Dean asked, sounding protective.
“Insurance,” the angel answered, “If Raphael appears, I will activate this banishing spell, and he will be sent away. He won't be gone long, but it will give us more time.”
“But, won't that send you away, too?” Sam asked, remembering how every single angel in the area disappeared, whenever the banishing symbol was activated.
“Yes,” Cas sighed, flashing an apologetic glance toward Dean, “but it's our only defense. Now, hurry and open the doors. Time is short.”
Though Dean seemed hesitant to turn his attention away from Cas, he eventually met eyes with Sam. The two brothers nodded at each other, readying themselves, before facing the iron doors. There were a few old locks joining the two sides, but time had eroded them, making them weak and rusty. Dean only had to give them a few taps with the end of his angel blade and they fell apart; clanking to the floor in pieces.
Sam looked back at Gabriel while Dean worked, to make sure he was still okay. Though he seemed a little nervous, Gabe was still crunching on his Butterfinger and moving his flashlight between Cas drawing on the wall and Dean smashing the locks; watching everything with large golden eyes.
“Alright, Sammy,” Dean said, taking hold of a handle on one of the doors, “I'll get this one, you get that one.”
Sam instantly knelt down to prop his own flashlight against the wall, before dashing over to do as his brother said. Deep down, Sam knew that opening these doors was a bad idea. He knew that once they were open, things were going to get serious fast. But he had to trust Cas's judgment on this. If destroying the altar would stop Raphael from opening the cage – if destroying the altar would keep Gabriel alive – then Sam would do it without question. The two Winchesters met eyes again, and Sam could see the same nervousness in his brother's eyes. It seemed like Dean was feeling just as apprehensive about doing this.
“On three,” he said, taking a deep breath, “One... two... three.”
Sam pulled with all his might; feeling his biceps and forearms strain under the pressure. He had been right about the doors being heavy. It felt like he was trying to pull a full sized vehicle uphill, rather than opening a simple door. Dean and Sam were both groaning lowly as they walked the doors open, and the iron was squeaking loudly on the hinges. Sam caught a brief glance of Gabriel covering his ears and making a face of discomfort at the loud sounds, as he heaved the large door to the left.
Once the doors were mostly open, Sam and Dean released the handles to peer into the room beyond. With the dim flashlights pointed toward the ceiling, they could see that the altar was the only thing in the room. It was made of stone, just like Cas said; only it was solid white and chiseled with more Enochian markings. Honestly, Sam was almost convinced that it was made of pure ivory. The thing practically glowed in the dark. Sam felt Gabriel edge closer to peer inside for himself. Everyone just stared at it for a moment; wondering how a small stone altar could cause so much trouble...
“Such useful vessels.”
Chills raced across Sam's skin, at the sound of the deep voice hissing behind him. Oh, he knew exactly who that threatening tone belonged to. It wasn't Cas or Dean or Gabriel. No. It was someone who hadn't come down the stairs with them. Someone who was after the same altar...
Sam's primal instinct kicked in and he instantly spun around; stepping in front of Gabriel and pointing his angel blade forward in one, swift motion. Raphael was now standing in the room with them, wearing a dark suit and devilish eyes. The archangel was clutching Cas from behind and holding an angel blade to his neck; acting out a classic hostage scenario. Even though a weapon was laying against his throat, Cas remained completely calm; keeping his blue eyes focused on Dean, and his bare hands raised in the air.
“I always knew that your good intentions would be your undoing,” Raphael mused, glancing between Dean and Sam, “You've been far more helpful then I would have imagined. But, unfortunately, your avail has come to an end. Especially yours, Gabriel.”
Fire ignited in Sam's stomach, as he took a small step closer to Raphael in front of him. Raphael's grip on Cas tightened at the motion, making everyone flinch as the angel blade came close to cutting Cas's neck. Sam held back for Cas's sake, but set a firm glare on Raphael's eyes. The bastard wasn't going to get away with threatening Gabriel like that. Not while Sam was around... Dean was inching closer to the archangel, too; his wide eyes flashing between Cas and Raphael.
“Let him go,” Dean demanded, his voice lethal.
“I don't take orders from hairless apes!” Raphael snapped, his eyes lighting up with ferocity, “You will obey me, or Castiel will die. Do you understand, Winchester?”
As Raphael was speaking, Sam could see that Cas's hands were slowly lowering. The blue-eyed angel was sharing an intense stare with Dean; one they usually shared, as if they were communicating without words. It wasn't until Sam caught the sight of the blood-written symbols on the wall next to Cas, that he realized what was happening. Cas was carefully lowering his hand toward the angel banishing symbol and giving Dean a warning glance; letting him know that both angels were about to disappear...
Sam watched his brother give Cas a slight nod, before turning his attention to Raphael. Dean's eyes turned slightly playful, and he put on his best 'kiss-my-ass' smirk.
“Sorry. You lost me at hairless apes,” Dean shrugged, lowering his blade a little, “But, do you know what this 'hairless ape' thinks is funny, Raphael?”
The scowling archangel narrowed his eyes more forcefully at Dean, as Cas's hand journeyed closer to the blood on the wall without his awareness. After a moment, Dean answered his own question with a spiteful grin.
“You've got all that cosmic grace. And Cas is still more powerful than you.”
As soon as the last syllable left Dean's mouth, Cas slapped his hand against the wall; causing a bright light to explode in the room. Sam, Gabriel, and Dean all shielded their eyes against the harsh glow; able to hear the angels being blasted away. The light was gone in an instant, leaving the room as silent as when they first entered it. The three of them looked around in the dim room, seeing that both Cas and Raphael were gone.
“We need to move,” Dean gulped, “Cas said it wouldn't last long.”
The older Winchester dove toward his duffel bag on the floor; ripping open the top flap to retrieve supplies from inside. He tossed a sledgehammer to Sam and the jug of holy oil to Gabriel, before getting out a sledgehammer of his own.
“Gabriel, pour that in a circle on the floor in front of the altar,” he ordered, climbing back to his feet, “Sam, come and help me smash that damn thing to pieces.”
Sam was already half way to the altar, before Dean had even told him to do it. Somehow, it felt like every bad emotion Sam had been feeling over the past few days – worrying about Gabriel's safety, being afraid of Raphael, the pain of uncertainty – all of it had been made tangible, in the form of this stone altar. If there was anything Sam could blame, it was this damn block of white stone. And he was more than ready to take his anger out on it.
Though light was scarce, Sam could see and hear Gabriel pouring the holy oil in a circle in front of the altar. The trickster's hand was kind of shaking, but he was doing his best; still chomping nervously on his Butterfinger while he worked. Sam carefully edged passed Gabe's petite form to get to the rectangular rock behind him. He instantly slung the hammer around his back and brought it down hard on the stone; causing a jagged crack to appear. Ah, the sound of crunching rock was like music to Sam's ears...
“Here,” Dean said, tossing a lighter to Gabriel, “Be ready to light that thing. The minute Raphael pops back in here, I wanna see flames. Okay?”
Sam assumed that Gabriel nodded, but he didn't know for sure. Because he was too busy raising his sledgehammer to hit the altar again. The heavy head came smashing down on the block with another loud clack, making a tiny piece of white rock chip from the structure. Sam tried to focus his swings on the same spot in the middle; hoping to break the thing in half. Dean soon joined in with him, too, helping him make a dent in the top.
As his muscles tightened during every swing, the only thing Sam could think about was Gabriel. This damn altar was the only thing standing in the way of their future. Once this rock was broken, Sam and Gabe wouldn't have to worry about the apocalypse ever again. Lucifer would stay in the cage, where he belonged, and Gabe wouldn't have nightmares about him anymore. Once they caught Raphael, Gabriel could finally get his grace back. And then –
Sam was suddenly ripped from where he was standing; tossed through the air like a doll. He smacked against the stone wall on the right side of the room and crumbled to the floor, groaning out loud. It wasn't until the small room lit up with fire, that Sam realized that Raphael was back. The archangel had appeared in the circle of holy oil, and only had time to toss both Winchesters away from the altar, before Gabriel trapped in him the flames. Sam blinked and panted, watching Gabriel dash over to him.
“Sammy, are you okay?!” he asked, kneeling down to help the man up.
“I'm fine, Gabe,” Sam promised, able to see the worry in Gabe's golden eyes.
Everyone looked toward Raphael, who was trapped inside the tiny circle of holy fire. His face was tight with pure rage, and his hands were drawn into fists. But there wasn't a damn thing he could do, now. He was as powerful and helpless as a caged tiger; trapped, and forced to watch his prey escape.
Sam and Dean both quickly returned to the altar with sledgehammers in hand. Their swings were faster this time, and full of feeling. Raphael was still chorusing 'no's in the background, by the time they finally managed to break it in half. The stone nearly crumbled into pieces; breaking down the middle and hitting the floor with another loud clack. Sam stumbled back from his hard work, feeling accomplished and out of breath. It was broken. The stupid altar was beyond repair, and would never play host to spells again.
Sam strolled over to stand with Gabriel afterward, noticing that Cas had reappeared in the room near the door. The blue-eyed angel was glaring at Raphael, and edging in front of Dean. In fact, they were all looking at Raphael, then; watching to see what he would do. The trapped archangel was staring at the shattered remains of the altar with angered pain, as if Sam and Dean had just broken his heart rather than a block of stone.
“What have you done?!” Raphael spat, glancing between the Winchesters, “Heaven will remain in chaos! I will never see my brothers again!”
“I hate to break it to you, Raphie. But, that's probably a good thing,” Gabriel spoke up, shrugging his shoulders.
In the light of the fire, Sam saw something new flash on Raphael's face. The archangel was suddenly staring at Gabriel with a hint of surprise and smugness. His tense posture released, and his glare faded to leave only a subtle smirk. Sam's insides churned at the sight. Why was Raphael looking at Gabriel like that? Ugh, it made Sam feel sick...
“Aren't you forgetting something, Gabriel?” Raphael barked lowly.
Sam tore his eyes away from Raphael in order to glance down at Gabriel, wondering what the hell the guy was talking about. But, as the look of realization slowly come over Gabe's beautiful features, Sam felt he knew the answer. Raphael still had Gabriel's grace. And it didn't look like he was about to give it up anytime soon... Gabriel carefully knelt down to pick up an angel blade from the floor, and raised it toward Raphael. There wasn't a single trace of humor left on Gabe's face. He was absolutely serious, and it gave Sam chills.
“Sam,” Gabe whispered.
“Yeah?” Sam replied, meeting his eyes.
There was a look in Gabriel's eyes that Sam had never seen before. Pain and regret were potent in them, and he was staring at Sam with such remorse...
“I have to open this circle,” Gabe forced out, his voice high.
“Okay. I'll help you. What do you need?” Sam asked, confused by Gabriel's hesitation.
Gabriel slowly shook his golden head, and Sam could see moisture glistening in the corners of his eyes. Sam's heart picked up speed at the sight of Gabe's distress. Why was he getting upset? Why was he looking at Sam like that?
“You... You can't help me, sweetheart,” Gabe whispered sadly, “Not this time.”
Sam's heart ached, seeing the pain in Gabe's eyes. Why couldn't he help Gabriel this time? And – dammit – why was he looking at Sam with those puppy-dog eyes? Why was he tearing up, and getting all emotional? Was he really going to try to get his grace back by himself? Did he really want Sam... to leave? Sam's head was already shaking with disagreement. No. Hell no. He wasn't going to let Gabe do this alone! Gabe was just a man! He was only human!
“N – no,” Sam stuttered, astounded, “No, I'm – I'm not going to leave you, Gabe.”
“Sam,” Dean said, walking up to put his hand on Sam's shoulder, “the second that trap opens, Raphael will try to kill us. And Gabriel has to open it, to get his grace back -”
“I don't care!” Sam shouted, yanking his arm free, “I'm not leaving him alone, Dean!”
“Sam,” Cas chimed in, “it is his decision, whether or not -”
“No!” Sam denied, reaching down to take hold of Gabriel's tiny arm and look him in the eye, “Gabriel, I'm not leaving this room without you, okay?!”
Gabe's honey eyes were large and soft, holding only apology and regret. But he couldn't bring himself to speak. He only shook his head back and forth, making a tear slide down his cheek. Why was he doing this?! Why did he want Sam to go away?! Dean and Cas were both suddenly pulling on Sam's arms, tugging him toward the exit. Panic exploded through Sam's body, as he was being yanked away from Gabriel.
“No! Stop!” Sam screamed, pulling an arm free to reach toward Gabriel, “Gabe! Please! I love you, Gabe! Don't do this! Let me go, Dean! Gabe, please!”
Even though Sam's pleading cries were bouncing off the stone walls, and even though he was trying his best to fight against Dean and Cas's hold, distance was still growing between him and Gabriel. The more Dean and Cas tugged him toward the door, the farther away Gabe became. Raphael was still trapped in the ring of holy fire behind him, and tears were still running down his beautiful face. But Gabe was staring at Sam the whole time; watching in agony, as he was being pulled away.
Sam was still screaming Gabriel's name, by the time they crossed the threshold. As soon as they were in the other room, Cas raised his hand, and the heavy iron doors began to close on their own. Sam's heart was racing with panic and fear; watching the doors separate him from Gabriel. No! Why were they doing this?! Why were they taking Gabriel away from him?! Sam caught one last glimpse of Gabriel's amber eyes, before the doors slammed shut with a loud, deep bang.
The moment Gabriel was no longer visible, hostile anger swept through Sam. He was suddenly full of rage and fear; acting on emotion. Though he tried his best to free himself from Dean and Cas's grasp, they only held on tighter, refusing to let him go.
“Get off me!” Sam growled, “I have to get to him!”
“He's gotta do this on his own, Sam!” Dean yelled back, trying to hold on to his arm.
As Sam fought frantically against his captors, a sudden flash of golden light lit up the iron door frame. The three of them paused their commotion to shield their eyes from the powerful glow, as it lit up most of the room. It was gone in a matter of seconds, leaving the flashlights on the floor as the only source of illumination. Sam, Dean, and Cas, all looked at the closed iron doors, wondering what had caused it. What the hell had just happened in the other room? What was that big blast of golden light? Was Gabriel okay?!
Sam instantly dashed back to the doors to grab the handle and pull. His fear and adrenaline aided his efforts, helping him to tug the heavy door open as quickly as possible. Dean and Cas didn't stop him this time, either. They let Sam yank the heavy door open and run back inside.
“Gabriel?!” Sam called, looking around.
The altar room was completely dark, now, because the ring of holy fire was gone. Sam quickly retrieved a nearby flashlight from the floor and used it to look around the room with a trembling hand. The altar was still broken in the corner, but there was no sign of Gabriel or Raphael. Both archangels had vanished; disappeared, like smoke in the wind. Sam blinked repeatedly and spun around in circles, searching for some sort of sign; something that could tell him what had happened in the few seconds that he was absent.
But the only thing he found, was a crumpled Butterfinger wrapper on the floor.
Hot moisture swelled up in Sam's eyes, as he suddenly fell to his knees. Gabriel was gone. Just like that. And there was no explanation of how or why. Sam didn't know whether he had gotten his grace back or not. Hell, Sam didn't even know if Gabriel was alive or not. All he knew for sure, was that his heart was broken into more pieces than the altar across the room...
Tears were slipping down Sam's cheeks, as he reached down to pick up the tiny yellow wrapper. He faintly heard Cas saying, 'I'll search for them, Dean,' before a rustle of wings left the room. Gentle footsteps were coming up behind Sam, but Sam couldn't bring himself to turn around. He was in too much pain to do anything, except cling Gabriel's Butterfinger wrapper, and let the tears keep flowing. Dean carefully crouched down next to Sam in the altar room, and placed comforting hand on his back.
“It'll be okay, little brother,” Dean said lowly.
Dean's words were earnest, but Sam didn't believe them.
Because, unless Gabriel was alive, nothing would ever be okay again.