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Fata morgana.

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There is an angel in hell.

"Just one?" Bela asks again. "One angel?" The minor demon in her grip- oily and shimmering and naked out of its vessel, puffing ash, stinking like the sulfur fires down at the bottom of the old pit- shakes and writhes and tries to get Bela’s blade off its throat. Bela slices into the insubstantial meat of it and it howls.

"Just one! Just one, just one." It melts a little against her pressure, its flesh slides away and pools like gasoline. They’re a mess here, in their element. They all used to be bright souls and now they’re another fucking mess, of millions of messes. Isn’t that just the ultimate abasement. Thank Christ for a lack of mirrors downstairs. "Just one, and lost, too. Just one."

"Why isn’t it dead?"

He won’t let us,” it says. “He says it’s not ours.”

"Who says?"

He does,” the thing babbles. “He does, he does, him.” It starts to wail in earnest, shrieking on a register that’ll be heard to the borders, so Bela thanks it politely and kills it less politely and wipes the ash and tar from her hands. It’s been ages since she went topside, took a new vessel, got a manicure and catnapped with cucumber slices over her eyes- thirty years or so local time, who’s counting when you’re eternally damned. Bela longs for scented hand lotion, the feel of fine cotton against bare skin. She’d trade every fucking soul in hell for a bar of soap, a warm washcloth. Well, if wishes were horses. Bela tucks the blade back into her belt, and keeps moving.

It’s a changed landscape. The ground is hard and dead, cracked and peeling up like the edges of an asphalt lot. There are broken bottles and rusted cans and little dead things, crunched white grit that might have been chicken bones, shells, ground down like shattered auto glass. There are toys with the wheels and arms and heads snapped off, melted plastic pieces that give off a chemical stink. There’s barely any light and only scrubbed-out hills of trash and rock to hide behind; Bela spent a couple of hours very recently curled up behind a busted washing machine, resting her eyes. She could lose consciousness on the rack sometimes, in between: there was nowhere to go, nothing to do but surrender, fall into oblivion for as many moments as you could. But now there is darkness and space and solitude, and every motion and rattle at the fringes catches her attention, sends her consciousness spiking upwards, makes her heart pound. Not that she has a heart, naturally. But she feels. She is almost certain she’s going in the right direction, if only because everything else in hell is running away, fleeing back in the direction that she came. Fleeing the changes, fleeing this vast empty wasteland of human debris and trash and dust that sprung up almost overnight, that wiped the map of hell clean and left this airless desolation in its wake. Bela knows what this is, what this means.

Regime change.

 

 

 

Bela knows- every fool in hell knows- that the place molds to its master, remakes itself in the image of fear and desire. Power makes it take a shape and hold it. Imagination makes it ugly. There used to be racks and racks and racks of flesh, stitched bones and skinned backs and worse things than that, and then there were lines, there was endless drudgery and dungeons and waiting, endless fucking waiting and torment and then more waiting afterwards, and often the waiting was worse. For a little while there was chaos, a civil war that had them in blood and banners half the time and queues the other, and at least that had the flair of novelty. But now it’s something else, no more battling for dominance in the facade at least, no more shifting window dressings. Hell has settled. Hell is silent. Hell is eerily silent and eerily empty, and for the first time in recent memory Bela is loose, Bela isn’t kissing the ass of some minor functionary for surface time, she isn’t fighting through a wall of angry demon flesh after starting another argument, Bela isn’t being run to ribbons on a field of rotting corpses or slopping hellhounds at the bottom of the pit. Bela is alone and that means Bela is footloose and fancy free. Bela is seizing her window of opportunity. She is not sure quite yet just where that window leads. But the angel is something. The angel means something.

They came before, in force: they came brutally bright and ruthless, carving through bodies and through flame, a score of them and their lidless eyes and overwhelming wings that soared above the mouth of the pit, streaked across it and dove like hawks for prey. She remembers cowering on her rack, terrified, more terrified of them than of the knives, the pain: stunned and flayed and faint before their glory. Their fire was cold, it burned like ice and threatened to engulf the world. She remembers that, and every moment since. Bela knows what they came for, last time. Knows they got it. Everybody knows who they came after, there were practically parades when he arrived. Everybody knows who they took.

But they left something, too.

Only Bela remembers that.

 

 

 

It’s not hard to find the angel. They’re like beacons, even in this unsettled gloom, so much like dusk. Bela can feel it when she’s drawn closer, can feel the stink of fear from the demons all around, and the vibration of something strange and terrible at the center. When she crests the furthest edge of the ridge, far from the mouth of the pit but still fuming and dangerous, she sees him. He flickers like an old film projection. Makes Bela think of things she hasn’t imagined in a dozen years, like in another lifetime: shapes on a white wall, dancing slowly, old black and white movies with bodies swaying in moonlight. He’s a thin column of light shimmering like a candle against the long darkening bruise of the sky. There’s no sky in hell, not really. But for the moment he stands against it, the trailing wisp of his brightness tall as a mountain.

Bela skids down the hill as quietly as she can, hides in the abandoned husk of a car. Watches him. He isn’t like the others she remembers. He’s wearing a man. He looks like a man, a vessel, instead of- instead of what they looked like, the burning roman candles that came last time. As Bela watches him, he changes. Shifts. Sometimes she can see through him, straight to the fire of stars at the middle. And then he turns to scratch something into the dirt and he’s a man, a human man in a long coat, dirty and ragged and tired. Bela doesn’t understand. She touches the blade in her jacket and tries to think. Slowly, the angel turns its head.

"I know you’re there," it says. Bela stands up. It- he- stares at her, and for a dizzying second things slide away and she is staring into-

-a great moth, wings spread like two translucent sheets of daylight, vast and aching, lidless eyes and eyes filled with holy flame, she’s forgotten this, how could she have forgotten, she’s forgotten what the light was like against her face, how it was so like the fire of the sun, like closing her eyes with her back in the grass, like being alive again and joyous and afraid-

"Stop it," Bela says, and puts her hands over both eyes. She balls her hands into fists and tries to rubs the stars away, to see anything but clouds of spinning light. It’s him, it has to be. She didn’t think it would actually be him. “Stop it, stop.”

"I’m sorry," he says, absurdly. Bela opens her eyes and he is a man again, sad-eyed, waiting.

"What’s wrong with you?" she asks. She meant to say something else, but that tumbles out. She can’t help it. For all the might and glory there is something wrong with this one, something tattered. He’s bleeding light at the edges.

"It’s not important," he says. His eyes slide down to her side, the bulge of her blade under her clothes. And then back up to her face, seeking something. "I don’t wish to fight with you. I’m not here to harm you."

"What are you here for?"

"I’m," he begins, and his eyes flicker downward just for an instant. "Looking for someone."

"Please tell me it’s not another Winchester," Bela says, and the angel’s eyes- all of them, terrifyingly, crackling with power- focus down onto her. "Oh, Christ," she says. "It is. Which one?"

"Dean," he says. His mouth is soft around the name. It’s shocking how much the tenderness hurts to hear: there is nothing tender in this place. She thought she’d forgotten what it sounds like, what it feels like, but she hasn’t. It’s unbearable. It makes her want to scream her lungs out, to rip out this angel’s eyes.

"I didn’t picture him as a repeat offender," Bela says, instead.

"If you know him," the angel says, "if you know where he is, I would be willing to bargain."

"He’s not especially popular around here," Bela says. "If I were you, I’d check the pit. There’ll be a line around the block."

"He isn’t there." The angel tilts his head, caught on some new puzzle piece. "All the others ran away," he says. "But not you."

"All the others are idiots."

"And you’re-"

"Paying attention," says Bela. "You’ll need a local guide, I presume. And here I am." She extends her hand, pretending it’s not still mostly caked in dead imp smears. "Bela Talbot."

"Castiel," he says.

I knew it, she thinks. I knew it, I knew. It’s why I came here. Somehow I knew. She feels cold inside. It can’t be a coincidence. There is no such thing. When he takes her hand, gravely, she doesn’t let it tremble.

"Charmed," says Bela.

 

 

 

They have to move quickly: for all that demon’s blabbering about not being able to touch the angel, there’s no such umbrella extended over Bela’s head. She’s not exactly popular, and teaming up with an angel is only going to cement the unofficial bounty for her hide. She can’t believe it was that easy. To walk up to him, stick out a hand, and start walking. There’s something seriously off about this one. She wonders if it’s dying, if they can die. It certainly seems that they can fade.

"How’d it happen?" she asks. Making conversation while they scale the side of a hill of trash, their feet slipping down into glass bottles and hubcaps, hand sliced open on old tin cans and the rusted ends of copper wires. The angel looks at her and then forges ahead, wading through the mess to find a ridge to stand on, solid ground. He holds a hand out to Bela and pulls her upright when she stumbles, until they’re standing side by side. "Who’d he trade for this time? The brother again?"

"No," he says.

He doesn’t say anything else for hours, days; nothing but a quick warning when they’re ambushed, and Bela has to circle around and stick her blade into somebody’s eye, carve her way through somebody’s throat and leave the head rolling on the ground. She watches the angel fight the last one. It only takes a second: for a sick creature he fights like wrath still, precise and vicious. They keep moving. They find a band of lost souls wandering this great ugly parking lot, hands curled around their ribcages and eyes shuttered with terror and hunger, that awful hunger that never was filled. Not demons yet, but not people anymore. Shadows. They’re frightened of Bela but awed by Castiel: when he speaks to them, they kneel on the ground and put their bleeding hands over their eyes, the hollows where their hearts once lived. “Dean Winchester,” he says to them. “Do you know-“

"Don’t say it, don’t say it, he’ll hear you," one of them shrieks. "Don’t say his name!" Castiel looms over it, puts a glowing hand to its forehead, and it topples over, lies motionless in the dirt. The others scatter, screaming.

"Nice gesture," Bela says. "You should have put them all out of their misery."

"I didn’t kill it," Castiel says. "Just," he says, and looks embarrassed. An angel ducking his head like a schoolboy: now Bela really has seen everything. "Gave it a good dream."

"Oh, for fuck’s sake," Bela says.

"What?"

"A good dream," she says. She laughs out loud. "Angels." His eyes narrow.

"I don’t understand."

"It only makes it worse," she says. "A good dream, Christ. Do you know what it’ll be like, waking up? You giant, clueless fuck.” Castiel stares at her blankly and Bela can’t stand it, wishes she could shove the blade straight into his chest and watch him burn, watch the world burn away and everything in it. She turns away and walks faster, her hands clenched into fists. “Keep up!”

Later, they’re taking shelter against the husk of a car, hiding from the great wraith of black smoke that curls across the plain sometimes, the beat with a thousand eyes and a million mouths of crystalline teeth, belching ash and tar. It’s not night and it’s not day, and the clouds churn overhead as if the whole world were boiling. Castiel leans his head back against the passenger-side door and says,

"It wasn’t a trade."

"Hmm?" Bela pretends she’s not eager to hear it.

"It was the mark of Cain."

The mark of Cain?” Bela stares at him, dumbfounded. “Dean Winchester took the bloody mark of Cain?” Castiel doesn’t look at her. “Hang on,” she says. “So all of this-“

"Yes," he says. "He killed Crowley. It’s his."

The endless asphalt and broken road, the empty land and piles of human garbage, the unwanted ends of life, the cracked toys and broken screens and burning cars and gravel. Dean Winchester is the king of hell.

"Oh," says Bela.

That changes certain things.

 

 

 

They’re corned by a pack of demons somewhere on the road to the Gate. Bela and Castiel back to back, blades out, waiting. When the first one lunges Castiel is faster, spinning it around to jam the blade into the back of its skull, ripping it free again to aim for the next one. One of them slashes Bela’s arm open but she gets a good swing in, knocks one into another, cuts the throat of a third. They’re better but they’re outnumbered, and more are coming down the hill now, scenting blood and desperation.

"Off limits," says a demon with white eyes. It’s laughing. "Nothing’s off-limits to me." It grabs Castiel by the throat and Castiel’s wings beat the air around them, radiating cold fire. For a second he’s a thousand stories tall, crashing light in waves around them. For a second, he is the sword and shield of God again, the might of Will. The white-eyed demon’s burned off to nothing, turned into a smear of ash, but the others are only knocked down, singed and hollering in rage. Bela can see he’s weakening, deflating. It was too much of a display with not enough firepower behind it.

"We have to run," she says. "Castiel, we-"

-and then the ground is shaking, the ground is splitting, heaving open with great jets of flame, and there is a great dark shadow, starless as the sky. It climbs across them and wraps itself around the demons and melts them, sliding across their vessels like acid, corroding them before they can scream, turning their shrieks to spitting gurgles, fountains of blood and bile. And the shadow coils into a man-shape, the hulking silhouette of a man with a jawbone in one hand, and the man hacks at the demons until they are flying from his blade in gory chunks. There’s no fight, just a slaughter. It’s over in a minute while Bela watches with a hand over her mouth, her arm still bleeding ribbons down her side. Castiel is watching, too. Bela wonders if they should run, if they could make it away from this thing, if an angel even has a chance against something this-

"Dean," says Castiel. "Dean." The shadow pulls the blade from a demon’s broken mouth; strips of flesh hang from between the teeth of the jawbone. It turns on them and Bela trembles. Castiel takes a step towards it.

"What the fuck,” Bela hisses. “Castiel!”

"Dean," he says. It’s like he hasn’t heard her, like he isn’t afraid, the lunatic.

The edges of that darkness whirl and pool around the shadow, curl in on themselves, pull together and knit themselves solid, weave tendrils of smoke into flesh, into skin and bone and meat, until the shadow is a man with black eyes, a man she remembers only faintly, whose name she has never forgotten but whose face is like a dream, an echo of a life no longer hers.

"Dean," she says, like Castiel. "It’s really you." The black-eyed man looks at her once, as if through a haze of bloodlust still, and then at Castiel. His eyes clear a little.

"I told you to go."

"When I go," Castiel says, "you will come with me."

"Get out," Dean says. Black smoke rises from his skin, pours from his eyes. "I said, get out!” He lunges for Castiel but Castiel doesn’t move, doesn’t even flinch. Dean gathers him up by the front of his ragged coat and shakes him, holds the jawbone to his throat. “Get out, go back, leave me alone!”

"No," says Castiel. He puts his hands over Dean’s and Dean wrenches him off, pushes him backwards until Castiel stumbles over broken machine parts, bits of glass and rock. They stand apart, staring at each other. Dean’s hands are shaking.

"Get the fuck out of hell," Dean snarls. "I won’t protect you forever."

"I will never leave you here," says Castiel. His voice is cracking. "Dean, never.” Dean makes a furious, frustrated sound and breaks apart, breaks into a streaming black cloud and rises above them, swirls and hisses and then streaks across the plain, a long trail of darkness that vanishes against the horizon.

Bela sits down onto a crumbling old tire and holds her arm against her chest, tries to focus on healing herself. She’s still shaking a little. Castiel just stands there, grimacing in the direction Dean went, like a bloodied-up statue. He’s excellent at that, she’s realizing. Bela leans back and stares up at the nothingness above them, shuts her eyes.

"That went well," she says.

 

 

 

"Why are you helping me?"

Castiel asks her from the opposite side of the ditch they’re sitting along. Bela’s made herself a nest of dirty newspapers and spineless books and one broken camping chair, and she’s trying to pick bits of gravel out of her healing arm. She looks up at Castiel, sitting there motionless on top of the door of an old refrigerator. There is still a halo around him, a glow like a night-light. A faint double-image of something magnificent and towering, not yet gone.

"Oh, who knows," she says. "I’ve had all sorts of wild ideas. This isn’t my first road trip."

"I don’t know what I have of value," he says, carefully. "But if there is something that you want, I would be willing to make a deal."

"I wouldn’t," she snaps, too quickly, and then it’s too late, he’s peering at her intently, watching her.

"You don’t make deals?"

"No," she says.

"Ever?"

"No fun playing amateurs," she says, coldly. She pretends she’s very interested in picking small nails out of a scrap of wood. One of them snags her thumb and she tosses it away. "I’m not interested in what they’re selling. Besides, it doesn’t keep you sharp. Bargaining time away for a bank balance, for some little- I’m not interested," she says. "That’s it." His eyes flicker with something, scanning her. "What?"

"Just curious," he says, and falls silent.

"You don’t remember me, do you?" she says, after a while. Castiel doesn’t answer. "I remember you," she says. "You came for him."

"You were there," he says. "In the depths."

"I was there," she says. "They were- I was on the rack. And you came, all of you," -came close, so close that the world was deafened with the vibrations of their wings, so that you couldn’t even hear the screaming, just that beautiful endless ring like a thousand bells like the crash of waves and for a second nothing hurt and nothing stank and nothing burned- “and you killed the demon who’d been- you killed it, and I came down off the rack and watched you carve through the pit. You must have killed a thousand demons that day.” Bela smiles. “It was so beautiful. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.”

"You spoke to me," Castiel says, suddenly. "I remember." His face looks strange. "You asked-"

"I said please.” Bela smiles, bitterly. “I don’t know why I bothered. Nobody ever came before, when it would’ve meant something.” She looks at Castiel. “I was a little girl. My prayers were never answered.”

"I’m sorry," he says. Bela wants to hate him, wants to kill him, cut out his lying tongue, but he doesn’t look like he’s lying. His eyes are ringed with tears. She can’t look at him anymore.

"Too late," Bela says.

Bela rolls onto her side, closes her eyes, pretends like she’s going to take a little catnap. But it’s to keep from seeing his light. She can’t bear what it does to her, after all this time. After everything. It should mean nothing. That trembling glow that still fills her with-

-hope, hope, hope.

 

 

 

The demons can’t stay away from them, drawn by the light, by the temptation, and so Dean can’t or won’t stay away either, and every time he comes he screams at Castiel to leave and Castiel says no and Dean’s rage blows apart the ground and the air and the fresh corpses around them, but never them. He goes away again and Bela is left picking pieces of demon out of her hair.

"He’s going to get tired of this eventually," Bela says. "Do you have a plan B?"

"This was the plan B," Castiel says. "If I can bring him back to earth, I can help him. There are others waiting."

"Why is he down here in the first place?" Bela asks. Her head itches; one last piece of demon skin stuck somewhere. Fucking hell. "Crowley spent all his time taking bubble baths on the Riviera. As I understand it, the perk of kingship is never having to be in situ.”

"He thinks he belongs here," says Castiel.

"Oh," says Bela. It’s terrible, and terribly sad, but also just awful, and she can’t help rolling her eyes. "Of course he does."

They walk through vast valleys and across dry riverbeds, pick their way between blasted, shriveled trees and across lots of broken glass, a desiccated world that’s a cruel parody of the midwest, of the open spaces and scrublands and highway pull-offs, a thousand dumpsters at the edges of a thousand motel parking lots, a world of abandoned humanity decaying into depravity. Bela finds the pieces of toys- the eyeless doll’s heads, the little toy soldiers with their faces melted away- completely fucking unsettling. But it’s better than the looms of skin and bone, she’ll give him that much. It’s desolation and empty grief, sure, but it’s still the most palatable wallpaper hell’s ever had. Bela tells Castiel so, and he raises his eyebrows.

"I’m sure he’d appreciate that," he says, flatly. It actually makes Bela laugh out loud.

He hasn’t said anything about the angel blade she carries. Hasn’t asked where it came from, doesn’t act like he remembers, doesn’t act like he particularly cares. Of course there are other angel blades cycling around hell these days, if you know where to look. Lots of dead angels and things slipping through the cracks. Doesn’t matter. Bela’s had hers since before it was cool. Castiel ought to know that. She thinks he does, that he’s just not saying anything. When they get cornered again and a demon knocks the blade out of Castiel’s hands- and gets himself burned out of his vessel in retaliation- she tosses her own blade to Castiel and he catches it neatly out of the air, buries it to the hilt in the next asshole in line. Afterwards, he offers it back to her, hilt first, blade turns inward towards himself. Just like the first time. The thing she can’t forget. “It’s yours,” he says, strangely solemn as she takes it, slowly, from out of his hand. “It belongs to you.”

She doesn’t mean to like him. Actively tries not to. He’s a fucking angel and she’s, well. But there’s something about him, something infuriating and decent and ridiculous and-

-good.

She remembers good. A little.

 

 

 

 

"I have an idea," she says, finally. They’re camped in the skeletal shell of a tool shed, sitting in the middle of lawnmower parts and vandalized garden gnomes. Fucking surreal. "I can’t promise it’s a good one. But you’d have to trust me." And Castiel looks at her with all his faces, a beam of light sitting cross-legged on a pile of rubber hoses, a captured star in the ruin of hell, and says,

"Okay."

"Just like that?" Bela shakes her head. She still can’t believe he’s real, this enormous gullible hand of God. She can imagine him ordering things off the television, just fourteen easy payments of forty-nine ninety-five. "You’re really not from around here."

"No," Castiel says. "But I see you."

"You-" Bela says, and stumbles on it. "Excuse me?"

"I see you," Castiel says. "What you truly are."

"Don’t," Bela says. She throws the busted handle of a hammer at him, irritated. "Don’t be tiresome."

"You were so beautiful," he says. Bela freezes. Stares at him. "Your soul, that first time. And there is still something left. It’s been hurt and battered but not destroyed. Not entirely. I can still see-" he starts, and stretches his hand out as if to sketch her in the air between them, and Bela slaps it away, viciously.

"Fuck you," she says. "Fuck you, fuck your kind, fuck you!” She claws at him now, goes forward on her knees to scrape at him, while he holds her hands away, gentle but strong, solid. Impassible. “You could have saved me, you could have taken me instead! You could have- you could have done anything, you fucking angel, fuck you!” She yells and struggles with him but it’s pointless, it’s all so pointless. Bela stops and he lets go, and she slides backwards to lie on the floor with the broken rakes and old cans. Castiel doesn’t touch her, doesn’t crowd into her space and ask if she's alright. And she doesn’t cry. She hasn’t cried, not in- not in ages and ages, she doesn’t cry anymore, she can’t cry. Hasn’t got the mechanics for it, or the aptitude, or anything left. She hasn’t got anything left. “You’re right,” she says, at last. “There’s something wrong with me. Not a proper demon, is Bela. Not quite correct. Can’t play like the other demon children, doesn’t like their games.” She looks up and he’s watching her carefully, thoughtfully. “I suppose it takes one to know one.”

"Yes," says Castiel. "I think it does." He holds out a hand and she takes it, slides up. She wipes her face with her fingertips, even though there were no tears. "I’m sorry," he says, again.

"Forget it."

"I can’t forget," he says. "I can’t. I failed you," he says, and now she knows he’s not talking about this, about now. "You asked for my help and I-"

"You gave me help," she says. "Technically."

"I gave you a weapon," he says. "I could have raised you up. I could have saved you. But I was so sure I knew- I was so sure of what was right. I had my mission. And I can’t," he says, and shakes his head, exhales slow and shaky. "But I think I would do it again. I think I would do the same thing. For Dean, I-" he stops. He is looking at his hands, turning them over to stare at the backs, turning them palm-up. "I don’t know how much longer I will be an angel."

"Castiel," Bela says. She slides closer. "Look at me." He does, obediently. "I have hated you for such a long time," she says, and he flinches, but he doesn’t look away. Obviously Dean Winchester is not the only one in hell that thinks he ought to take his medicine. It almost makes Bela laugh. "But not as much as I hated every other sorry creature in this world. The only kindness I had in six hundred years was the blade you gave me."

"Bela-"

"Shut up," she says. "I’m having a moment." The corner of Castiel’s mouth tilts up, barely a smile. "You could have saved me but you didn’t. I saved myself. I cut my way free of the pit and I carved out a space for myself here. It’s ugly and brutal, but it’s mine. What you gave me was an opportunity," she says. She pulls the blade from under her jacket, turns it hilt-first, towards him. "So I’m going to do the same for you."

"You don’t make deals."

"It’s not a deal," Bela says. "It’s a gift."

 

 

 

Bela remembers how to do this, even though she hasn’t bothered with it in ages. There’s no point in drawing attention to yourself when you’re a nonconformist. She tried to play politics when she was younger, tried to climb the ladder as best she could, but she found it harder here than at the surface. Mascara and a good tailor and some pretty words means less when they can see through to the pitted core of you, when they can smell your distaste for the work. But she remembers the ritual just the same. It’s not especially difficult: blood and bone and a few less savory things, and of course, a tribute.

"I summon thee," Bela says, and smears her hand through the bowl, raises it to streak blood across her throat as she speaks. "Dean Winchester, liege of hell," she says, and manages not to laugh hysterically, because if that doesn’t fucking beat all for absurdity. "I pledge myself to you," she says, and draws the signs in the dirt, watches them take fire and scorch themselves into patterns, burn her oath into the ground of hell. "Take my offering and come." Castiel is next to her, kneeling down, hands tied only with string and binding sigils marked across his forehead. His light is dimmed, he’s vulnerable. He trusted her to do this. Bela pulls her blade and puts the tip against his chest, over his heart. "Come, my lord!"

For a second there’s nothing. They hold perfectly still and wait. And then, the whirlwind.

The smoke comes across the plain, the great black searing cloud, and it curls itself into a man, and then it is Dean Winchester striding across towards them, jawbone already raised and eyes black and rage gathering in his hands. He comes closer and Bela presses the blade against Castiel’s jacket. “Ah ah ah,” she says. “Careful, king of hell.”

"Bela," Dean says. In his voice she can hear the locusts, the roll of thunder in the distance. "Let him go."

"No," she says. "He’s your tribute. You’re the lord of hell, you have to take it."

"I won’t tell you again."

"For fuck’s sake," Bela says, and twists around Castiel, puts him between herself and Dean and holds the blade against his throat. "Wake up, Dean! You’re the king of hell! This is what you do. These are the rules. You take your tribute in blood. You build your army. I pledged my loyalty- I’ll cut as many throats as you like, starting with this one. Take it!” Smoke is pouring from Dean’s eyes now, swirling around his arms. His hands are clenching, his whole body shakes. “You want to stay in hell, then take it! Rule it! Hell is yours. Give the word and I’ll kill him. Tell me to kill him, Dean, say it!”

No!" Dean screams, and just as he breaks apart into a cloud of rage Bela swipes her hand across Castiel’s forehead, smears the sigils away, and in less than an instant the angel is rising like a sheet of light against the smoke, crackling in bright flashes of lightning a thousand stories high. Bela’s blown backwards through the trash and dirt, turning head over heels and landing hard in a bunch of busted car parts. She lies stunned and watches them, the cloud and the lightning, bursting against each other, a violent storm like a hurricane, whirling debris and trash and gravel through the air, whipping it into a frenzy, scraping the earth bare. Bela finds a car door and holds it like a shield over her head as metal and glass rain down. She can’t see anything, can’t see either of them through the raging storm, through the roar of fire and smoke and blazing, brutal light. She shuts her eyes as the storm rips past, and then all at once there’s nothing. Little broken gears and rocks clatter down and the air clears and the wind dies and then that’s it. It’s over. Bela lifts her head and sees them, at last: sitting in the middle of a crater where the garbage and gravel was ripped away. Dean is on his knees with his face pressed into Castiel’s dirty coat, and Castiel has his arms around him. They’re just sitting there. Bela lies back into the closest piles of crap for a second and stares up at the vast blank nothingness above them.

"Christ," she says. This is so very far above her pay grade, which for the record is nothing.

Finally she gets up and staggers towards them, picks her way through the debris. Dean is still sitting there with his face buried in Castiel’s jacket, and Castiel is leaning his face close to murmur into his ear, saying something that has Dean murmuring back, sitting up, scrubbing at his face with one hand.

"Yeah," Dean says. "Okay." He looks up at Bela when she comes closer. His eyes are still black and fathomless.

"Hello, sailor," she says. He makes an expression that isn’t a smile, but has the feeling of an attempt.

"Bela," he says. "Long time."

"Oh, you’ve no idea," she says. She puts her hand out to him and he stares at it, then takes it, and lets her help him upright. For the lord of hell, she thinks his knees are a bit wobbly. Castiel stands, too, and puts a hand on Dean’s shoulder to steady him. "I’d love to catch up, but I suspect you have more pressing business." Dean looks at Castiel, and then raises the jawbone still clutched in his hand, turns it slowly around until the handle is extended towards Bela. She blinks, and glances over to Castiel. "For me? Dean, you shouldn’t have-"

"Take it," Dean says, hoarsely. "Hide it. Destroy it." His arm is shaking. "Take it, before I change my mind."

Bela takes the blade and Dean’s arm drops back to his side, twitching. Castiel holds his other arm tighter, squeezes and releases him, and Dean gives him an unreadable look. Well, not unreadable to Bela. But private. She pretends not to see it. Bela weighs the blade in her hand. It’s not elegant, not well-balanced. A blunt, hideous thing. But she can feel the power radiating from it, the fury. Bela sticks it inside her jacket. She can find a nice deep-sea trench somewhere, an unmarked grave, someplace charming and off the beaten path. Bela’s good at hiding things.

"Perfectly serviceable, though I prefer my own," she says. "But thank you." Dean nods, tightly. "Be well."

Castiel holds out a hand to her and she takes it, holds it firmly between both of her own.

"I can come back," he says. "For you. There are ways-"

"If I need you," she interrupts, "I know where to find you. And if you need me, well. Don’t be a stranger." She pats his hand and lets him go. He makes a sad, unsettled face and Bela rolls her eyes. "Go," she says. "I’ll manage, I always have. Go." She thinks he’s going to leave but instead he reaches out and puts a hand against her cheek. Rests it there just for a second. She can see him again, all of him, the spreading wings and sunlight. It’s not a cold light anymore, but a warm one. It feels like summer, like the first touch of dawn. Her eyes feel warm and damp, suddenly. As if she’s just remembered how to cry.

"I will see you again," he says, and then they’re gone.

 

 

 

Bela walks.

The broken bottles and abandoned car parts are starting to fade. It smells like ash still, like the smoke from distant fires. But it always smells that way.

Against the low horizon, there’s the shell of a motel, busted-out windows and torn-up roof, cracked sign hanging by the wires. But there’s a key in Bela’s pocket that wasn’t there just moments ago, and she’s curious. Very, very curious. She finds the one door that’s still mostly whole, and pulls the key from her pocket. A strange, old-fashioned sort of key, gold and shining, newly minted. It fits the lock perfectly, and Bela opens the door.

It’s a white room in marble and glass, pure white, glistening at every surface. Stone floors with just a touch of warmth to them. Bela takes her boots off and walks barefoot across the tile. There’s a glass shower with intricate pebbled walls, and cool, clean water pouring slowly down the side from overhead. And in the middle of the room there’s a white tub, long and smooth like an eggshell, filled almost to overflowing with sweet-smelling hot water. There’s a tray of oils hooked to the side, and fluffy towels on a ledge nearby. Bela peels out of her clothes and leaves them against the side of the tub, slides into the water one foot at a time and then altogether, ducks herself under and splashes water over the side of the tub, lies under the surface and feels herself begin to unwind, to melt into the bliss of sensation. After a long minute- no breathing required- she slides back up and pushes the hair back from her face, leans back against the wall of the tub and shuts her eyes. Apparently, disarming the king of hell is an overlooked technicality with unexpected benefits. Well, not entirely unexpected. But very nice all the same. After all, Bela is a betting sort of girl. And sometimes, once in a very great while, the house loses.

"It’s good to be the queen," she says, even though it feels sort of silly to declare it out loud. Well, she deserves it. It’s time for a fresh start. Things are going to be very different from now on. Bela has all sorts of ideas. But she also has strong priorities: first things first.

Bela wonders if hell has room service.

 

 

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