They broke him, Anna thinks, feeling the sick swoop of dismay. She’d known she hadn’t been in time—that Castiel had been released without the aid she hadn’t managed to summon—but she had hoped, desperately, half-vainly, that he’d thought to trick his way out.
And she’d known, even then, that he wouldn’t have.
Heaven’s purification is sterilization. She listens to him talk about his orders and wishes she hadn’t come, hadn’t had to see her hopes and Dean Winchester’s salvation undone.
“You really shouldn’t have come,” Castiel says, and she hears more than regret in his voice and whirls just in time, pulling her sword from the air as two other angels appear. She gets one across the stomach, deep enough that it would probably have killed a human, shallow enough that he might live. The other stumbles back, away from the bright flare of escaping Grace, and Anna folds space around her and flies before he or Castiel regains the presence of mind to grab her.
Anael’s memories are no more real than Anna Milton’s. Anna likes the human girl’s better—the astonishing vividness of human experience, the shocking press of sensation, how permitted everything is.
Even when Anna Milton did things she knew she shouldn’t, it was never with the freezing, imprisoning isolation Anael felt when she looked at a continent filled with people praying for God’s mercy (Kyrie, eleison, they chanted, wrapping terror in the formality of Latin; Christe, eleison), screaming in the streets for help that never came. They thought it was the end of days, and nobody told them otherwise.
“Shouldn’t we do something?” she asked her commanders, and met with blank stares. And God did nothing.
Anael watched fire and death and despair, and felt doubt sharpen enough that she had no choice but to name it to herself. It settled over her like a shroud, and even Castiel’s earnest scholarship—the pride and delight with which he brought her bits of new information—wasn’t enough to relieve her.
Anna Milton’s clearest memory of shame was her parents somehow finding out she had sex after prom, because they had strong opinions about what nice Christian girls did and didn’t do and they were so disappointed in her. But even while Amy Milton had been awkwardly explaining that just because one…felt things didn’t mean one should confuse them with love, Anna had known that her friends understood, and that books and TV shows were filled with girls who’d made the same choices.
She hadn’t been alone.
Sometimes she wonders why Anael’s millennia of existence seem to take up the same amount of space in her essence as Anna Milton’s twenty-four years. She thinks it has something to do with how real humans are, how desperately, messily, passionately they inhabit their lives.
Anna doesn’t know where to go. Castiel and the Winchesters were her only real allies on Earth; she daren’t go near Heaven, even the edges of it she’d visited these past few months.
Ruby, she thinks, but Ruby is hidden from her. Bobby Singer doesn’t trust anyone, even angels. She turns in circles in a parking lot somewhere in Illinois, frightened and furious, feeling the skin prickle at the nape of her neck and the muscles of her back tighten as if someone’s behind her wherever she turns.
The names of the prophets are written across her being.
She goes to the nearest library, and finds what she’s looking for in the science-fiction section. The prophet Chuck doesn’t have John the Divine’s gift with metaphor, but, on the other hand, Carver Edlund’s Supernatural is a good deal easier to find than the book of Revelation probably was in the first century, especially for a refugee.
Anna takes a bus to Kripke’s Hollow. Chuck is wearing clean jeans and a shirt that looks like it might possibly have been ironed when he answers the door. “You’re a lot prettier than Sam and Dean,” he says, and then looks horrified.
“Thanks,” Anna says. “Um, can I come in?” She’d spent the entire time on the road afraid something was going to stop the bus and drag her out into the road—Heaven to purify her, Hell to strip every bit of useful information it could from her and then either kill or corrupt her. On the whole, she wasn’t sure which of the options was worse. Here on the street the sound of a lawnmower is a monster’s far-off roar.
Chuck holds the door for her like a gentleman.
He offers her tea, or coffee, or water, and Anna finally accepts a beer to make him stop trying to be a good host. She isn’t quite sure why he’s so unsettled by meeting her, but she wishes he would calm down.
“Do you want something to eat?” Chuck asks, and she resists the urge to smite him, because that would bring whichever of the archangels is guarding him down on her. He flinches. “I’m sorry! I just, I saw it happening this way. Okay, um, you can—you can ask me now. I would have skipped all this but it makes me really uncomfortable when things don’t happen the way they’re supposed to. Migraines.”
“Did the Harvelles rebuild the Roadhouse?”
“Yeah.” She waits. “It’s still in Nebraska.”
Anna thinks about Nebraska. She doesn’t remember much about it—Anna Milton has a vague recollection of grain and possibly sheep; Anael remembers great oceans of sun-painted grasses—but she is fairly sure that she needs more than the state to find a bar.
“I can draw you a map.”
“Thanks,” Anna says again, meaning it this time.
He gestures at the living room. “It might take me a few minutes, I’m going to have to compare it to the satellite view on Google Maps. Have a seat?”
As she sits down, it occurs to her to ask, “But didn’t you already have a vision of drawing the map, so don’t you already know how it looks?”
“Don’t,” Chuck says pleadingly. “Don’t ask that kind of question. I didn’t get a good look at it, anyway.”
The chairs in his living room are, Anna suspects, rather uncomfortable for humans. She draws a little further back from sensation—allows herself to feel her body like clothing, like a vessel—and finds nothing at all to complain about.
The beer isn’t bad, actually; it wasn’t even before she lost most of her sense of taste.
When Chuck finishes the map he offers her food again, but she shakes her head. Then he says, “Do you, uh, have money?”
She thinks about it. Anna Milton’s credit was good, and she still has her things. “Yes.”
“Oh good, because I really don’t. Okay. Good luck?”
Her hand’s on the doorknob when she hears him call her back.
“I didn’t write any of this down,” he says. “Zachariah told me I had to keep writing, but the last thing I wrote about you is that you got away from the angels with Cas. Castiel. Um. I—I really appreciate what you’re doing. It’s good to know that someone up there gives a damn. So, uh, thanks.”
Angels don’t cry, and certainly not with gratitude, but Anna has to swallow several times before she can say “Thank you, Chuck.”
She buys the ticket for Grand Island because it will have car rental places—she thinks she remembers how to drive—and her return to the library brought up a story about a hotel there with a room which was, the owner insisted, absolutely not haunted.
Anna is inclined to side with the managers, employees, and guests, given how much evidence there is to suggest that there’s something supernatural about that room.
She can’t go back to work without references and a fake identity, but she knows how to hunt, and hunters know all about people who don’t want to be found, or who have the law after them, or even who’re presumed dead. It’s a desperate plan, but she doesn’t think it’s a bad one.
The hotel won’t let her have the haunted room, so she settles for a room three floors down and across the building, smiling brightly and trying to look innocent. They seem to believe it.
She wills the lock open instead of fiddling around with credit cards, and cold air rushes out into the hall. She hurries inside and shuts the door behind her before anyone notices the draft—or the chill, given that it’s probably cold enough to be more than a little uncomfortable for most people.
It shuts with a thud that would probably frighten her if she were human, a noise louder and deeper than should be possible for modern hotel construction.
“The peace of God be upon you,” Anna says, voice a little uneven. She has never known the peace of God.
The curtains flap wildly, streaming nearly straight out into the room; sunlight flashes beneath them. The minifridge tips over, sending ice cubes bouncing across the carpet. A lamp lifts from the desk and swings itself at Anna’s head; she ducks and it smashes into the wall.
Plaster drifts slowly down towards the carpet.
“All right, I can work with this,” Anna says under the breath she doesn’t have.
The room projects scorn at her. She’s pretty sure the ghost is judging her and finding her wanting, but she didn’t come here to make friends. She came here so she’d have a hunt to talk about when she got into the Roadhouse, an excuse for being in the general area.
“I suppose if I tell you to go into the light—”
This time the lamp catches her hard on the temple. She feels bone crack and the echoes of pain.
“You have an awful sense of humor,” she mutters, lifting a hand to her head and smoothing the injury away. “Right. I know prayers to banish restless spirits in Latin, Enochian, and any living language you care to name. They’re not nice prayers.”
Somewhere in the room, now, there is fear.
She knows what she could do. She could threaten the ghost, or not even bother with threats and go directly to banishing it, but—that’s too clean and sharp and brutal a course. She chose humanity for mercy.
“The newspapers said there was a woman named Linda Michaels who killed herself here,” Anna says, voice gentle. There is blood drying on the side of her face. “Her husband found out she was having an affair and threw her out, and her lover refused to marry her after all, and they told her she’d never see her children again, and she came here and washed a bottle of sleeping pills down with scotch. Is that you?”
The corner of the bedspread turns down, and then the sheet beneath it. Anna’s unease is a shiver, a physical thing, and that frightens her too.
“Why don’t you want to go?” she asks.
The curtain-rod comes down with a bang, and the curtains rip from it and come flying at Anna. She covers her face with her hands and withdraws, feeling Linda’s surprise when the curtains tangle around Anna’s legs and go nowhere. Anna is immobile; the cloth tears around her body.
“Your husband is dead. Your lover has married someone else. Your older son is an architect. He’s married. He’s good at his job. The younger one is a poet and he’s…not as successful.” At the last minute, she realizes telling a ghost who’s already trying to kill her that her son’s poetry rivals William McGonagall’s is probably a poor way to gain that ghost’s cooperation. “Your daughter is finishing medical school. She’s engaged. You are not part of their lives anymore, Linda. You can’t do anything to hurt your husband here. There is nothing keeping you here.”
The human way to do this involves salt, she thinks, and fire. It seems preferable, right now.
The nightstand lifts a foot in the air, then falls. Anna wracks her brain to think of what she might have missed in the article but comes up blank. “Tell me what’s frightening you,” she says.
Through the supernatural cold of the room comes the thought of fire, the phantom scent of sulfur.
“You can’t possibly have sold your soul,” Anna says blankly. “You wouldn’t be here.”
Frustration. Shame. Another faint scattering of imagery—the burn of good alcohol, the bitterness of the crushed pills, the heavy drag of oblivion.
“…Because you killed yourself?” Such a mess caused by this. Anna thinks longingly of reminding various religious leaders that they preach forgiveness for all. “I wouldn’t worry about it, if I were you. One of the cruelest bastards I know is an angel—halo, wings, the lot. I don’t think it matters what you do.”
“Let go,” Anna says, and backs it with a thread of will, borne by a whisper of her true voice. The windows and the mirror vibrate.
The room is empty.
Harvelle’s Roadhouse isn’t what Anna was expecting either. She had thought Chuck would be more mystic, less awkward; she had thought the Roadhouse would have been slapped together carelessly and in haste. She’s learning that most of her instincts about humans seem to be wrong, and hopes that this won’t get her killed.
The outside of the Roadhouse is compact and tidy, something like she’d expected the one that burned down to have looked—a little dusty, already a little worn. Neon blinks above the porch, and there’s the ember-bright glow of a cigarette beneath it.
Inside the wood gleams. The floor is clean under her shoes, not sticky at all, and the air has only the faintest traces of smoke, muted enough that she thinks only she’s aware of it. There are a couple of people at a table playing cards—two men maybe in their thirties, tough-looking, and a delicate-looking blonde about Anna Milton’s age.
“Can I help you?” asks the woman behind the bar.
Anna refocuses. “You’re not Ellen Harvelle, are you?” The bartender has close-cropped brown hair, not quite short enough to hide the curl.
“Ellen’s out this week. I’m her sister-in-law. Maggie Gale.” Maggie doesn’t offer a hand, so Anna doesn’t either—hunter etiquette? bar etiquette? Anna Milton didn’t frequent dusty roadside saloons. The blonde at the card table—Jo Harvelle?—has turned to face them; Anna notes her interest and looks back at Maggie, not sure how to proceed.
“I’d heard about this place,” she says finally. “I wasn’t here before it burned down, but I’m glad you rebuilt it.”
“Ellen did that,” Maggie says. “The insurance came through. She made this place, you know? It was hers. She brought me and my husband in to help run it while she’s away.”
Jo looks at her hand, shakes her head in disgust, and folds. “Leave me out of the next few, okay?” she asks her companions, and heads over to the bar. They watch her go. “Can I help you?” she asks Anna.
“I’m not sure,” Anna admits.
Jo tilts her head towards the door.
Outside it’s started to rain, the red and white light of the sign catching in the drops. Jo clatters down the steps with the ease of long familiarity. Anna has to remind herself to fumble for the handrail, to walk as slowly as if she can’t see where everything is. They end up leaning against a storage shed with a wide overhang.
The smoker has retreated to his car. “I was expecting…ashtrays and things,” Anna admits. It’s irrelevant, but she still doesn’t know how this conversation should start.
“New anti-smoking law,” Jo says. “Mom was pissed when it got passed, because she knew it’d cut into business. Why are you looking for her, anyway?”
“Oh.” Jo sticks out a hand. “Jo Harvelle.”
“Anna M—” Anna freezes for a fraction of a second too long, and finishes “Marlowe” in a desperate spurt of free-association.
Jo gives her a skeptical look. “Okay.”
“My parents were killed by demons,” Anna says.
The rain hisses across the roof.
“I think the police suspect me.” And suddenly that’s possible, even though she’d never considered it, and it shakes her down to the bone. “That, or they think I died. I’ve started—I did some research. I don’t know anything about hunting, not officially, but I’ve found out a little.”
“How long ago was it?” Jo asks quietly.
Anna has to think about it. It’s a very human thing to know. “About six months.”
“I came here from Grand Island”—Jo accepts the change of subject without surprise—“where I managed to lay a spirit to rest.” She recognizes the emotion in her voice as pride, and is surprised by that: Anael, commander of a garrison of angels, proud that she sent one small knot of human fear and despair on to whatever Heaven or Hell awaits it. “I want to keep doing that kind of thing, but I don’t know where to start.”
The last seal breaks before Jo can answer.
Somewhere inside the Roadhouse, a bell clangs so hard it breaks, but Anna has already felt it: a sense of presence so strong it nearly knocks her off her feet, Grace, beauty, power, light, seduction, arrogance. She clings to Anna Milton and Anna Milton has nothing to cling to, no experience that prepares her for this. Lucifer’s cry of triumph and claiming would melt her brain within her skull if she had heard it as clearly as Anael can. She wants to weep in awe and terror—their Father’s fairest child, lost for so long, his rage and hatred undiminished.
Jo’s hand is around her upper arm, holding bruise-tight. Anna makes herself relax, makes her body allow the hold, and hopes Jo hasn’t noticed.
“That bell is part of an alarm system Ash designed,” Jo says. “I have never heard it do anything like that before. I have no idea what happened, but we’re seriously screwed.”
Anna feels water on her cheeks, welling from her eyes. She wonders what the Winchesters failed to do, what role in it all Castiel played. She wonders why Heaven was willing to condone the things she knows about and what worse things she doesn’t.
“Hey.” Jo uncurls her fingers from Anna’s arm, takes her shoulders instead, more gently. “Anna. Don’t freak out, okay?”
“I’m not crying,” Anna insists, even though her voice is thick and strange and she knows that it’s tears and not rain sliding towards her chin. “I don’t cry.”
“Sure,” Jo mutters. “We’re going to go back inside now and see whether the thing left any kind of records at all. And then I’m going to call my mom. And you’re—dammit, this—” She bit off the rest of whatever she was going to say, but Anna could feel the heart of it: worry that this new-minted would-be hunter was going to be an encumbrance.
It’s the end of the world, Anna thinks. It’s nothing you’re prepared for either.