Jovi still didn’t come.
After Dean pulled his resurrection act and archangeled Bobby, he found himself extremely tired. He was actually kinda relieved that Sam didn’t bring up the idea of bringing back Mom and Dad, or completing the process with Jess, because he wasn’t any too sure he could bring anyone else back, at least not for a while. They tabled the Jess Matter for consideration at a later point in time and put Jess herself into a closet in a room that they rarely went into.
He had hoped that Jovi might sense the flurry of activity and swing by to investigate, to scold him, even to undo what he had done. He would have a chance to talk to her then and explain that maybe Sam had been…not wrong, because he wasn’t wrong, he was right, but maybe a bit overly harsh, and maybe Dean himself didn’t exactly feel the same. And maybe they could start over again and be friends. But nope.
He could still feel her pulling at him, like a vacuum cleaner. He tried, but he could never really shake her presence, no matter how much he drank or how many skirts he got up into (there was something that felt a little skeevy, morally speaking, to Dean about getting laid in his new and improved form but since Sam never said anything against it, he figured it couldn’t be that bad). But he couldn’t forget about her. He barely knew her for an hour but he couldn’t forget about her. He wondered if it felt the same for her, and if it did, if she was doing the same kinds of things he was doing to distract herself from it. Crawling from a bottle into a stranger’s bed and back into a bottle again. He doubted it, she seemed more classy than that, but he was kind of afraid that she was. He had no claim to her, it wasn’t that, he wasn’t even interested – desperate chicks, ewch, no thanks – but he just didn’t like the idea. For her sake.
So he was pleased to show up to the scene of a peculiar murder in a pretty little place called Cashmere, Washington and find her there. He and Sam were pretending to be US Marshals because they’d been FBI guys the last time. That’s how they did it usually. Alternated.
The murder had taken place in an apple orchard; the main reason why Cashmere, Washington was so pretty was because it was surrounded by fruit orchards, and the peculiar part was that the trees in the murder orchard were just…gone. As if they’d never been there. There were holes in the dirt where the tree roots had been and that’s it. That was all that was left. Somehow between when the farm workers had left work the night before and when they showed up again for work early the next morning, the owner had been killed and all the trees vaporized, or kidnapped, or cattle rustled. Abducted by aliens or something. Hell, maybe they just up and walked away.
It was Crowley he saw first. He’dve recognized the back of that head anywhere. Like a lumpy round red potato only with hair. Crowley was busy talking to the local sheriff. Dean smacked Sam in the stomach with his hand, intending to point out Crowley, but the crowd parted and he saw her, standing to the left of the sheriff and nodding with a very serious expression and he found he couldn’t speak for a second. Her hair was up and she had on eyeglasses. Another thing he never liked. Desperate chicks and eyeglasses. Bleah. Still, he felt a peculiar fluttery feeling in his stomach that he hadn’t had since he was a teenager he didn’t think, and the suction on the vacuum cleaner went all the way up to eleven. “What?” Sam was asking why Dean had smacked him for.
Dean had often wondered in the past if Crowley had magically delicious hearing, and if he hadn’t before, he certainly did now. Right on cue, practically as soon as his name left Dean’s lips, the former demon looked up as if he had heard his name mentioned. A slimy grin broke across his face, and for the millionth time, Dean thought how it truly was a face made to be punched. “Hello, Boys.”
The sheriff’s standing right there, dude! “Oh – you know these guys?”
“Why yes, of course, Officer. They’re colleagues!”
Colleagues. Ok. Crowley already had the setup in place. Good ‘nuff. “We’re US Marshals…”
The sheriff looked confused and glanced back and forth between Dean and Crowley a few times. Crowley closed his eyes for a moment. Dean and Sam exchanged a puzzled look. Sam figured they’d guessed wrong and tried again. “We’re, uh, FBI agents?”
Crowley stifled a laugh through his nose. “Ah, that sense of humor. NO…” Crowley sent Sam and Dean a warning look. “These are our colleagues from the BBC. Michael George…” He gestured at Dean. “And…Ridgely Andrews.” Sam pressed his lips together. “I always forget about you, Ridgely, and then wham, there you are.”
“And are they the ones who witnessed the…abduction?”
“No, I’m afraid not, they’ll pop round when they can to give their statements.”
“Jeez, mister! How many people do you need to make a documentary on apples?”
“We’re the BBC, mate, we spare no expense. Now, may we have a moment, if you’d be so kind? Our whole bloody shooting schedule for the day has been ruined. We’ve got to get it sorted.”
The sheriff nodded and moved away. They closed into a circle. Dean couldn’t help but ask. “A BBC documentary on apples? That’s the best you could come up with?”
Finally she spoke, in a perfect crisp upper crust English accent. “You’d be surprised what people will believe when you say it in a British accent.”
Crowley raised his eyebrows in agreement. “You really would.”
“Why are you here, Crowley?” Sam.
“My name is Oriphiel, and we’re investigating, Moose. What else would we be doing?”
“Investigating a tree abduction? Seems kind of small time for…you.” Sam looked at Jovi out of the corner of his eye with disdain. “Don’t you have more important things to do with your time? Lives to ruin, or something?” Tch, get over it already, Sammy.
Jovi played with her hair as she spoke. Why did women do that? Eff with their hair constantly? She tucked a practically microscopic strand back into her bun. “These weren’t just any apple trees, you see, Sam. They were the fabled golden apples. Of legend. The food of the gods…the lesser gods, that is.”
“Lesser gods? You mean like Kali, Baldur, those lesser gods?”
“Prometheus.” Dean felt a twinge of guilt about Prometheus.
“Yes, precisely, Dean. I’m well aware you’ve dealt with lesser gods before. But not all of them choose to take human sacrifice to survive in a world that no longer worships them. Some of them – the majority, actually – live on golden apples. A lesser god can survive indefinitely eating nothing but golden apples. The golden apples keep them immortal, keep them young. The woman that was murdered has grown them for a very long time.”
“That was a woman?” They had walked by the body on the way in. It had looked more like a cantankerous old man. What was left of it had a lumberjack beard and a flannel shirt. That was pretty much all that was left, actually. Dean had jokingly asked Sam if he knew were Bobby was.
“She was a goddess, Dean. She was actually very beautiful. She had taken a different form for her protection. Remember, some of us are capable of being rather more flexible in the boy-girl department. Just because you aren’t, doesn’t make it a character flaw.”
The British veneer was wearing thin. “Would you stop talking like that?”
“How do you know this isn’t my real voice, Dean?”
Before Dean could think of a response, Crowley interrupted in an attempt to keep everyone on task. “Several lesser gods have been murdered over the past few weeks. But nothing had been taken before now.”
“It’s not uncommon that their petty squabbles turn violent. Generally, not worthy of investigation. But this…this is different.”
“Who would want to steal an orchard full of golden apples?” Sam again.
Crowley’s eyes narrowed, considering. “There are two possibilities, and neither good.”
“One is that someone is trying to open up a way into Tir na nOg…”
“That’s like Irish heaven, Dean.” Jovi was dumbing it down for his sake.
Geez. “I know what Tir na nOg is, Jovi, thank you very much. You can use a silver branch from a tree that grows golden apples to open the door into Tir na nOg.”
“Well done, Dean! Splendid. Really.” Dean sighed. Freaking Hermione, that’s what she reminded him of. She may as well given him 10 points for Gryffindor.
Crowley continued. “And the other is…Lucifer.”
“Lucifer? What? Why? What would Lucifer want golden apples? He’s already immortal?”
Jovi sighed, and she and Crowley exchanged a look. They’d already been over this ground, apparently. “We don’t know, Sam. We’re going to have to consult with an expert on the matter.”
Gabriel was working as a fry cook in a diner. He loved starchy fatty food and cigarette smoke and the smell of coffee brewing and being close to the type of humans that hung out in places like the one he was presently in. He even loved hairnets. He was a good cook, having had an immortal’s lifetime of watching humans preparing and eating food to give him insight into their likes and dislikes. Lots of salt, lots of sugar, lots of butter and even lard, on occasion, when the situation called for it. Wallowing in the orange grease of humanity had always been one of his very fave pastimes. Gabriel was happy to find himself right where he was and just kinda sorta hoped that everyone even just marginally divine forgot about him entirely for at least a century or two.
He felt them arrive. How could he not, two of them? Having both of them suddenly present at the same time rocked Gabriel so hard it made his teeth ache and his marrow tingle and distracted him so bad that he almost burned the fries he had down. It also made him very, very nervous. He was pleased as punch to have his existence restored, and utterly thrilled to find that he hadn’t even missed a decade of the glorious pageant that was creation, and thus he was finding recent developments to be…unsettling, to say the least. He didn’t want his life, if you could call it that, to end all over again so soon after getting it back.
He pulled the golden fries, shook the excess oil off of them, and dumped them into the warming tray. “I’m taking my break, Ramon.” Ramon grunted past the toothpick clutched in his teeth. Ramon was trying to quit smoking for the umpteenth time with a little help from Gabriel who regularly sent small bursts of willpower his direction.
As Gabriel headed outside, any hope that they might have kissed and made up faded away. He found them out back near the dumpster, standing in two camps, squared off, toe to toe. She was a fraction of Dean’s size, and seeing them side by side reminded Gabriel of a Girl Scout going up against a linebacker, a gecko standing beside a dinosaur. And their difference went well beyond the physical. Dean was just bigger, in every conceivable sense of the word. Gabriel declined to use the word greater, but he was definitely more. He visibly hummed with power; beside him, Jovi’s power was the buzz of a gnat, the mew of a kitten.
Why would she have done this?
His entourage was bigger, too. She only had one angel with her, the awful, intolerable Crowley, or Oriphiel as he called himself these days. Why she had chosen him of all the beasts in creation for her right hand, Gabriel couldn’t begin to fathom. Dean-as-God made more sense than the Archangel Crowley. And Dean-as-God made absolutely completely and totally NO sense.
WHY would she have done this?
Dean had two archangels with him, and his ever-loyal Men Of Letters brother besides. How could she possibly hope to stand against them all? With no one, or practically no one beside her? Gabriel felt a wave of terrible guilt that he wasn’t at her side, wasn’t there with her instead of or alongside the Crowley-thing, as Castiel called him, but he knew it would make everything exponentially worse were he to choose the wrong team. He didn’t have enough information to decide, not yet. And he didn’t want to choose anyway. As he walked up, Jovi was already throwing sass. “Well, I see you managed to make yourself a dodo after all.” While Gabriel didn’t quite get the context, she was apparently mocking Dean’s second archangel, who was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the utterly unangelic Bobby freaking Singer. Worst angels ever!
“Oops. I think you forgot your British accent, there, Jovi.”
Oy. Quibbling. The Gods were quibbling. Quibbling over nothing. “I’m working here, guys and gal, so whatever it is you need, if we could get it wrapped up quickly…”
Jovi turned her eyes to him and he felt the exquisite warmth of her gaze. He loved her so much it hurt sometimes. Most times. She had bad news, he could see it in her face. “Gabriel, I’m so sorry, but Ithune. She’s gone.”
He felt a breath rush out of his lungs. That, he hadn’t expected, but even as she said it, he reached out with his heartstrings and found it was true. Ithune, lovely, forgiving Ithune, so much fun to toy with, was dead.
“Gone?” Maybe she had chosen this. Stopped eating the apples and moved on to Valhalla.
“Taken. From us. By someone.”
“Who’s Ithune?” Dean, as ever, clueless. Gabriel tried to ignore the fact that the same warmth that he so loved in Jovi, that he basked in, now emanated from Dean as well. Because, gross.
“An…an old friend.” Gabriel tried to shake it off, but it was a blow. Body shot. Right to the old breadbasket.
“It was the…body. At the orchard. Please be respectful, she was a friend of Gabriel’s.”
“Oh. Sorry, man I didn’t know. So you don’t know anything about it, then, Gabriel?”
“I wasn’t involved, if that’s what you’re saying.” Ithune.
“He wasn’t involved, you idiot.” Jovi, of course, knew he’d never harm Ithune, not intentionally, anyway. “But the apples, Gabriel. The apples are gone. The trees themselves. All gone.”
What? “Oh, no.”
“Who, do you think?”
“I’ve been gone, Jovi. I haven’t the foggiest. Lucifer?”
“You think Lucifer too, then?”
“It’s the obvious place to start. First spot on the probable suspects list.”
“But what would Lucifer have to gain from taking some apple trees?” Sam still thought they were just some apple trees. Gabriel sighed. There are none so stupid as those who believe themselves wise. No, Sam Winchester, you ignorant twit, they were the golden apple trees. The only ones in the entire world. Without them, the lesser gods would weaken and die, or…
Suddenly, with a lurch, Gabriel put it all together. “Do you know how the universe was formed, Sam? Really formed, I mean? Not that Big Bang ghost story that scientists tell around the campfire, the real story? Ever read that in any of your Men of Letters history books?” Of course not. “I’ll fill in the blanks for you. She formed it.” He gestured at Jovi and picked up the distinct vibe she didn’t really love hearing this story. “Out of pieces of herself. She grew pieces of herself and lopped them off to make the universe.”
Dean was intrigued. “Really?” How odd that she hadn’t told him already.
“More or less.” Jovi squirmed a little, as if embarrassed by the revelation.
“It took her billions of years to do that and billions more to make life – again, by growing pieces of herself and cutting them off. Sometimes, over time, a few of those pieces found each other again. They grew back together. Coalesced, more like. And while they weren’t God, not any more, they were OF God. That’s where the lesser gods came from. They’re just little teensy bits of her that stuck together again and still wanted to play God.” Jovi understood then, just as if she’d read Gabriel’s mind. He knew she couldn’t do that, but sometimes it was like she could. She understood what Lucifer was doing, what his endgame was, why he wanted the apples. As it sank in she took a step back and lay her palm across her forehead and closed her eyes and sighed. The others still no comprende-ed, so Gabriel continued, hoping to give the poor kid a chance to pull herself together. “The lesser gods are basically, frozen concentrated God juice. So if a being wanted to gain more of God’s power, they could ingest the juju of those lesser gods and get power that way.”
“If that’s true, then why didn’t anyone else do it before now?” Good question, Dean. Maybe he was getting smarter after all.
“Nobody could. Nobody was strong enough. The lesser gods, some are stronger than others, sure, but none of them were strong enough to truly defeat each other, eternally. Oh sure, they can kill each other, and sometimes they do, but to kill and then absorb the energy of another god…and contain it – that takes strength. Real strength. Not even most of the angels are powerful enough. Demons – maybe a few, but demons can’t take in God-energy, it would destroy them.”
He looked at Crowley, who confirmed it. “Ingesting God’s energy would vaporize a demon from the inside out. As soon as it hit the tongue.”
“And besides, it’s just…pointless. The power you’d get out of it would be barely more than the amount it took you to do. It wouldn’t be worth the risk. Cause every time you tried it, you’d be running the risk that the lesser god would kill you instead of the other way round.”
Crowley inhaled sharply. He was way out ahead of the others on this. “Unless you were a being who couldn’t be killed by a lesser god.”
“Wait. Are you saying that Lucifer is…eating the lesser gods?”
Wow, Dean before Sam. The times, they really were a-gettingverydifferent. “Yep, Deano, I am indeed. And while it takes him a whole lotta mojo to do it, he gets more out of it than he expends. It’s like if you expended 100 calories, but you ate 110, you’d still gain weight over time.”
“Yeah, but, uh. What do the apples have to do with it??” Sam was still hung up on the apples. Geez Louise. Big picture, Sam.
“Golden apples are subsistence foods for demigods. They can survive on them, and stay immortal, but only just barely. They get weak. Powerless.”
“Wouldn’t they get even weaker if you took their food away?”
“No.” Finally Jovi collected herself enough to speak. “No, Sam. They won’t get weaker. That’s not what’s going to happen. They’re just going to get hungry. They won’t stop eating. Their sense of self-preservation is too strong, that’s how they’ve stayed alive all this time. They’ll just go back to eating what they were eating before.”
“Yes. They’ll start eating people, and they’ll get stronger, and then Lucifer will eat them. Instead of expending 100 calories to get 110, he’ll expend 120 calories to get 200. It may take a little more to knock them off, but he’ll get more out of it in return.”
“Like fattening up a hog for the kill.”
“Can’t you just make more apples? Dean, can’t you just make more?”
“I don’t know how, Sammy. Jovi?”
“It took me four thousand years to make the first golden apple tree, Dean, and that was when I had all my power and I wasn’t all like, exhaustionized from making you. Ithune raised the rest for me, just as you would raise any apple, from seedlings and cuttings and grafts. The whole orchard, one tree at a time. They grow very slowly. We worked on the project for thousands of human lifetimes. And she required hundreds of trees to feed the lesser gods. We don’t have that kind of time.”
Gabriel spoke up again. “I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you do realize that Lucifer can eat the apples, too, right?”
“Oh. Gosh.” Jovi gulped. “Oh. Gabriel’s right. He can, can’t he? Lucifer can eat the apples too.”
“And those are easy meals, too, kiddo. Apples don’t generally put up much of a fight. They may not be as filling as a demigod, but it’ll add up. It may take time, but soon enough he’ll reach critical mass.”
“What’s critical mass?” Dean didn’t look like he was sure that he really wanted to know.
“His power will start to snowball. He’ll have gotten so much stronger that it won’t take him hardly anything to burn through the lesser gods. He’ll be able to eat them one right after the other, like they’re Pringles or something.”
“Jovi, do you think he’ll be able to get as strong as we are? Jovi?” She blinked, a million miles away. Dean snapped his fingers at her and whistled. “Jovi! Do you think Lucifer can eat enough lesser gods to get as strong as we are? Are there enough lesser gods left for him to do that?”
Jovi looked up and to Gabriel’s mightily great chagrin, he saw fear in her eyes. She bit her bottom lip and rubbed the back of her thumb across her eyebrow and blinked several times before she replied. “I don’t know.”
There weren’t enough lesser gods. Lucifer had run the numbers again and again and he couldn’t make it come out to be enough. Even if every lesser god left on the planet queued up and jumped into his mouth voluntarily it wasn’t enough. He could take the woman…Jovi, she was calling herself these days…maybe, eventually, if he managed to track down and devour every single god still left – but he didn’t want the woman. He wanted Dean. The King. He wanted to take all that glorious power and add it to his own and then Mommie Dearest would be working for him for a change. And then she’d see what it really meant to worship someone else.
But there weren’t enough gods.
Lucifer left the motel room. It was a cheap tawdry place, somewhere in Middle America. Retro and not in a good way, all cracked vinyl and peeling wallpaper and filthy shag carpeting contaminated with bodily fluids dating back to 1955. Being within it was like immersing himself in the concentrated distillation of a thousand bowling alleys. Oh, the humanity. Repulsive. He suppressed a shudder as he went outside.
Michael was out there training his new body, swimming laps in the hotel pool. Michael swam for hours every day and did calisthenics for hours more. He slept whenever he wasn’t exercising or eating and he ate as much food as his vessel’s stomach could hold. It was working, little by little. He looked less like a boy and more like an angel. But he was still only that. Only an angel. Not an archangel. Useless. No matter how many golden apples he fed the boy – and he planned on feeding him ALL of them, that’s the kind of generous being that Lucifer was, he would give Michael all the apples and keep none for himself – Michael could take him through time maybe once, maybe twice, but Lucifer couldn’t rely upon him. He would get tired. He would wear out. They could even end up stuck somewhere in the past for months or years while Michael recovered.
Lucifer could do it himself, that was the thing. He had the ability. So tempting, to just send himself hurtling through time, traveling back to when the demigods were young and strong and and overflowing with power from being worshiped every day. But it would take too much. He would have to perform chronokinesis, he’d have to fight a god, he’d have to devour its energy without exploding, and then he’d have to do it all over again. And again.
All those things took power. If he had to expend that much power every time, it would take him forever to get strong enough to take on his new stepfather. And while he had forever, patience had never been one of Lucifer’s strong suits.
He would have to take the gamble. “Michael?” The boy stopped swimming and treaded water.
“Yeah, Dad?” Father and son had made the most sense.
“It’s time to come in.”
“Awww…” Getting Michael out of the pool was sometimes a rather tedious challenge.
“I bought you the tablet device that you requested.” Rather obnoxiously, Michael seemed to have retained his vessel’s fascination with electrical screens that beeped and plinked. He had discovered a child staying in the motel had something called Minecraft on something called a tablet and Michael had breathlessly said it was so cool just like exactly like what being God must feel like, for reals and demanded one. Lucifer doubted it to the extreme but decided that rewarding a loyal minion did occasionally pay dividends. “Finish this lap and come in.”
Michael wanted this, that was the thing. Michael wanted his old life back, his old strength back. He wanted to be an archangel again, desperately. He would have stayed in the pool training all day long without rest, turning into a disgusting flesh prune if Lucifer had allowed it. If he had been given the the choice, Michael all but certainly would have said yes, would have volunteered willingly for the procedure. Happily. But Lucifer never asked permission for something he could inflict upon someone against their will. What was the point? “Can I put Minecraft on it?”
“It costs real money.”
“The tablet device cost real money, Michael.”
“Oh yeah. I’ll be right there.” Lucifer smiled and returned to the hotel room to wait.
When Michael came into the room, the light was out. “Dad?”
Before Michael knew what was happening Lucifer was on him. He cranked the boy’s arms up behind his back and pushed him face down into the mattress. He waited for the vessel to run out of air, to give up, stop fighting. It happened eventually. When it did, Lucifer breathed out and from his bowels rose a piece of himself, of his life energy, that precious piece consisting of all the excess power he had so painstakingly built up since his escape by eating demigod after demigod. Every scrap of it, so hard won, he would give now to Michael. Lucifer’s generosity, his benevolence knew no bounds.
The power clawed its way up his esophagus and boiled out of his mouth and he willed it towards Michael’s vessel until it hung by a thin strand; a fat bubble of it dangled just above the back of Michael’s brainstem. Lucifer took the angel blade he had hidden beneath the pillow and sliced it off through the thinnest piece. The bulk of it plunged into Michael with such force that it threw Lucifer against the wall.
He climbed back to his feet and waited. The boy still lay face down on the bed and Lucifer thought for a long moment the experiment had failed, that he had wasted that power and killed the Aidan vessel for nothing. But then all of a sudden Michael gasped and coughed and eventually he managed to push himself back up onto his knees, panting. Lucifer didn’t dare to move, couldn’t speak. After a moment Michael looked back over his shoulder, his eyes wide, his vessel’s chest heaving as he took in as much air as he could. “Thank you. Father.”