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Living on a Prayer

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The last three nights, Faith has been dreaming about an angel. Not a live one, not like Castiel, but the stained glass one she used to stare at in church when she was little. Long, flowing golden hair, white robes with an emerald cloak, red and purple wings. Fierce and commanding, he held a sword at the ready.

 

 

When Monsignor Strynkowski's sermons got a little too laced with brimstone, Faith used to gaze at the angel. She's not sure now whether she wanted him to rescue her, or just wanted to be him. A little of both, probably.

 

 

The first night, she figures it has to do with everything that's been happening lately. The whole dying thing, and her fevered certainty that she was in hell, which reminded her of Monsignor Strynkowski. Hanging out with an angel. Her unconscious mind's just processing some pretty strange and heavy shit, that's all.

 

 

She has the dream a second night, and this time, when she wakes up in the morning, she considers the possibility that it's just a massive diversion of inappropriate thoughts (more confusions than thoughts) about Castiel. Because now that she thinks of it, she has a pretty good idea that the stained glass angel was the focus of a major crush back in the day, vaguely sexual thoughts without specifics, because she was long over going to church by the time she knew any of the details.

 

 

It's not until the third night that she realizes it's a slayer dream. This time the angel is on his knees, and the robes are drenched in red. A stained glass three-headed demon stands over him, the angel's sword in one clawed hand, his severed wing in the other.

 

 

Frozen in the moment when the angel awaits the death blow, nothing in the stained glass image moves -- except for the blood. It emerges from the glass as rubies, dripping in a stream from the window, skittering along the cold marble floor.

 


 

 

That third night she sits bolt upright in bed, gasping. It's Dean who's instantly awake in the next bed, reaching under his pillow.

 

 

"Stand down, dude," she tells him. "Just a dream."

 

 

"Yeah, sure," he says. He fumbles with the chain pull on the bedside lamp.

 

 

Sammy's still sprawled on the extra bed, dead to the world. It's the big brother who's attuned to the smallest sound of distress.

 

 

"Y'alright?"

 

 

She doesn't bother lying; her hand shakes as she reaches for the water she left on the night stand. "Slayer dream," she says.

 

 

"One of those psychic ones," he says, with just a trace of disapproval in his tone.

 

 

"Yeah. Though they could come with a goddamn key or something. I fuckin' hate puzzles." She throws back the covers and pulls on her jeans and jacket, shoves her bare feet into her boots. "I need a smoke."

 

 

Dawn isn't even a glimmer on the horizon yet. The windows of the other rooms are blank and dark, except for a couple with the flickering blue shadows of a television in an unlit room. The motel sign washes the parking lot in a green and red glow; it's close enough she can hear the buzz and snap of the neon.

 

 

Dean gives her a couple of minutes before he joins her. "This one really got to you."

 

 

He's seen her after the others; nothing escapes him. Faith wonders if he's ever had a full night's sleep.

 

 

"When I was little, my ma used to ship me off with a neighbor on Sunday mornings to go to church. Gave her a little guaranteed quiet time to deal with the aftereffects of Saturday night."

 

 

She lets that hang there a moment, and Dean doesn't ask her what that has to do with anything. He just waits for her to tell it how she wants to tell it.

 

 

"The church had these stained glass windows. There was one I liked to look at when I was bored or upset, a warrior angel. I hadn't thought about it for years."

 

 

"It was in your dream?"

 

 

"For the past three nights. The first two, it was just the way I remembered it. The sun behind it, lighting up those colors like jewels. Tonight, though -- the angel was dying. A demon had his sword, and his wing --" It's just a dream, just a picture in glass, but a knot rises in her throat as if she's talking about the death of Giles, maybe -- someone distant and hard to know, but important. "Kickass prophetic dream, huh? Helpful as fuck."

 

 

"How do they usually go?"

 

 

Grinding her cigarette under her boot heel, she says, "About like that." She shakes another from the pack and fires it up. "So tell me," she says on a stream of smoke. "Angels can die, can't they?"

 

 

"Yeah." Dean's voice sounds sandpapery. "They can. It takes a lot."

 

 

Ah, shit. "You've seen it."

 

 

"No. No. But Castiel -- there was a moment when I thought --"

 

 

The knot in her throat aches with a sudden fierceness. "What the fuck can do that?"

 

 

"Demon."

 

 

"I've seen him fight demons. He shreds 'em."

 

 

"This wasn't just any demon. High-ranking mofo from hell."

 

 

"What happened?"

 

 

"I clocked the sonofabitch."

 

 

"You killed it?"

 

 

"I interrupted it. It got ... sucked into some kind of celestial blowback. It's gone, and I hope to hell it's dead."

 

 

"Do you know how to make that happen again?"

 

 

"No."

 

 

She watches a light come on in a room across the parking lot, vague shadows of movement against the curtains. "I'm out of my depth here. The Powers That Be have sent a churchmouse to fight a dragon."

 

 

"Powers That Be?"

 

 

"Friend of mine used to call 'em that. Whatever moves us around like chess pieces and knocks a few off the board whenever things get rough. How can -- Castiel could be anywhere on earth and a few places that aren't."

 

 

"Maybe there's another way of interpreting this," Dean says. "Maybe it's pointing you toward that church. Could be Lilith's demons will try to open a seal there."

 

 

"How the hell do we know? We can't slip up."

 

 

"We get Sammy on the case. There are signs and portents when something big's coming. He'll find 'em."

 

 

The neon sign snaps and buzzes. She thinks about the sound of rubies dropping on marble.

 

 

"Yeah. Okay." She drops her cigarette and flattens it underfoot, then turns to go back inside.

 


 

 

Sam's feet hang off the end of the roll-away bed, but he's insisted on sleeping on it every night since Faith arrived. It's like having Castiel dump her dead ass on his bed instead of Dean's was some kind of mandate from above instead of accident, and he's not messing with the natural order. She dimly remembers a discussion in hisses while she was still feverish, about Sam sharing Dean's bed, violently dismissed by Dean. "You thrash, dude."

 

 

Dean creeps up on the pale feet poking out from the ugly green blanket, seizing one of Sam's ankles and shouting, "Sammy, watch out!"

 

 

Sam fights his way out of the blankets like two cats in a burlap bag. "Aaaaahhh! What?"

 

 

"Look lively, Sammy. We've got research to do."

 

 

He sits up, chest heaving. "It's not even four a.m."

 

 

"No rest for the wicked. Faith had one of your prophetic dreams. We need to know what the deal is. Signs and portents."

 

 

"Yeah. All right. Just give me a minute to --" The bathroom door closes behind Dean, leaving Sammy to sigh in exasperation. "Great."

 

 

"Me, I'd piss on his car," Faith says. "If I had the handy nozzle attachment."

 

 

The corner of Sammy's mouth quirks up, but he doesn't take her up on the suggestion. He reaches for his laptop, fires it up.

 

 

"So Shaggy, what'd he mean by 'one of your prophetic dreams'?"

 

 

"I used to have them. Not very often."

 

 

"But they stopped?"

 

 

"They were mostly related to people I had a connection with. They're gone now."

 

 

"The dreams?"

 

 

"The people." A muscle pulses in his jaw, and he concentrates on watching the screen flicker from blank blue to ready.

 

 

God, these Winchesters have a lot of secrets.

 

 

"Whoa," he says.

 

 

"What?"

 

 

"I've got news alerts set up for cattle deaths, crazy weather patterns. You get them in bunches, and they're usually omens. Most of the time nothing pings, but now I've got a handful of emails."

 

 

"Where? Got anything in Mass?"

 

 

His fingers dance over the touchpad and keys. "Weather patterns, we've got ... Denton, Texas. Wait. Dickeyville, Wisconsin. Sweet Home, Oregon. Shit. Hand me the pad, will you, Faith?"

 

 

Faith grabs the memo pad and pen from the bedside table, and Sammy starts scrawling notes, going all tightlipped and intent, not even pausing when Dean emerges from the bathroom. She darts into the shower when it's clear he's not availing himself, and by the time she comes out, there's a scatter of notepaper surrounding Sam on the extra bed, and a grim feel in the room.

 

 

"What's the damage?"

 

 

"More omens than you can shake a mojo hand at," Dean says, hunched over a battered atlas. "We're trying to cross-reference the weather events with the animal deaths, find the hottest spots."

 

 

"You were asking about Massachussetts," Sam says. "We've got a tornado touching down in South Boston and thousands of dead birds in the waters around the inner harbor."

 

 

"Sonofabitch," Faith mutters. She's picked that one up from Dean. "That's where I grew up."

 

 

"So the dream about the church --"

 

 

"Sounds likely. When do we roll?"

 

 

"Hang on a sec," Dean says. "There's other pots on the boil, too. Sammy?"

 

 

"Texas, Wisconsin, Idaho all look hot."

 

 

"What, everyone's racing to bust open a seal all at once?" Faith asks.

 

 

"Looks that way," Dean says.

 

 

"Or could they just be stirring stuff up in a lot of places, to throw us off the main event?" she continues.

 

 

Sammy and Dean exchange a look. "Wouldn't put anything past those evil sonsabitches," Dean says.

 

 

Sam shakes his head. "We can't take the chance."

 

 

"So what are we supposed to do? You got four hotspots, there are three of us. And these demons aren't screwing around, we're better off sticking together." No way in hell does she want to go back to Mass by herself.

 

 

"We'll call Bobby."

 

 

"What, and then we scatter?" Dean demands. "C'mon, Sam. I don't like splitting up any better than Faith does. She had the dream. She saw something in her hometown."

 

 

Sam insists, "We can't protect one seal at the risk of letting three others be opened."

 

 

"Like I said, these things don't fuck around," Faith counters. "I know my way around a fight, but when I went in alone I got my fucking heart cut out."

 

 

Sam shoots a look toward Dean. "She does like to lob that into an argument."

 

 

"Well, you gotta admit, there's a certain sense of finality that one brings," Dean answers.

 

 

"Not this time," Sam says flatly. "There's too much at stake. Get Bobby on the phone."

 


 

 

Faith slings her weapons bag into the trunk of her old beater and slams down the lid. "Well then," she says to Dean. Sammy's already in the Impala, itching to set out for the car rental place. "Guess I'll see ya when I see ya."

 

 

"Hey, now. Don't go away mad."

 

 

"'Just go away,' right?"

 

 

"Wrong. Don't go all cowboy. Stay in touch. We all want to come out of this alive."

 

 

"It'll be a miracle if we do. Those things want us to do just what we're doing. Divide and conquer."

 

 

"We don't exactly have a choice."

 

 

"Yeah sure. Listen, I've got an eighteen-hour drive. See you around."

 

 

"Faith--"

 

 

"Time's wasting." Brushing past him, she gets in her car and starts the engine.

 

 

"Check the oil now and then," he shouts through the glass.

 


 

 

Outside Columbus she spots a bumper sticker on a white Saturn: "Don't drive faster than your guardian angel can fly."

 

 

She switches lanes and blows past the Saturn like it's standing still.

 

 

She can't remember how long it's been since she believed in guardian angels -- or any angels at all. Just her flawed Angel, who saved her from herself. No, that's not right. He showed her how to save herself, or at least why she should try.

 

 

So now she's hanging with an actual angel. As in kicking demon ass in a fight at his side. As in shooting the shit with him, asking him the sort of questions that got her thwacked by the nuns, back in the day. The questions make him get all owly, but he answers them. And the truth is, she likes it when he's verging on pissy.

 

 

Hard to believe there's anything that could kill him, but she knows from the haunted sound of Dean's voice that the story he told was true.

 

 

She fumbles in her jacket pocket for her phone, hits the speed dial for B. It kicks into voice mail on the first ring. She cuts off the call without leaving a message. Same for Xander and Dawn. She tries Giles, gets him stammering on the outgoing message, which (since she was present the day he made the previous forty seven attempts) never fails to make her grin. Except today.

 

 

"Giles, what the hell is going on there? I can't get anyone. There's all sorts of crazy shit going on out here. Cyclones, thundersnow, birds migrating the wrong way, dead cattle -- you got any of that? I was hoping for a little help out here, but if you've got the same going on globally, you've got your hands full. Tell your slayers to be careful. This shit isn't funny -- it's not just random demon activity, they're looking to raise the big guy. There's hundreds of seals worldwide they're trying to open, and all they've gotta do is open sixty six. War's already started, and if they get their sixty six seals, we're just gonna be ants on the battleground. Call me, willya, G.?"

 

 

She backtracks and leaves the same message for Buffy and Xander, and by the time she tosses the phone onto the car seat, she feels like she's about to cry.

 


 

 

When she begins driving stupid, Faith pulls off at a truck stop to crawl in the back and catch a few minutes of sleep. She wakes to find some inbred trying to jimmy her door through the crack she'd left in the window. The dumbass is so intent he doesn't even notice she's awake until she jerks the tool out of his hands.

 

 

"Hey! You a demon?"

 

 

"What? No!" the guy blurts.

 

 

"Then fuck off! I'm only killing demons right now." For good measure she kicks the door open into his balls, steps over his sorry, writhing ass to settle back behind the wheel, then peels off for the interstate.

 

 

Another couple hours down the road she finds an oasis with a Starbucks counter and fuels up. She screws with the radio until she finds some music to keep her jitters company, and it winds her up worse than the coffee.

 

 

She swore she'd never go back. There's nothing in South Boston but crappy memories of growing up, and worse memories of being a total fuckup and getting her watcher killed. Kakistos is long dead, but she'd never gotten much satisfaction out of ending him. She'd been so scared, and her part of the fight had been more blind flailing than focused attack.

 

 

She's afraid she'll turn back into that girl, that she'll panic and fail, and if her dreams really are about Castiel, that she'll screw up so badly she gets him killed. She can't even think beyond that, to sixty six seals and Lucifer walking the earth. If she ran off the rails when Kakistos killed Pauline --

 

 

"Stop this," she says out loud. She's twenty eight now, not seventeen. She's survived a coma, prison, a Council hit squad, tripping on Orpheus, a near apocalypse or two, Angel's dusting, getting her heart ripped out of her chest. She might've had some help on that last one, but that's why she's going to come through this.

 

 

Whatever it is her dreams signify, she's not going to let Castiel down.

 


 

 

The city's changed so much Faith gets lost as hell, and when she finally rolls into the old neighborhood, it's about three a.m. She wonders if anything's shaking by the waterfront. She used to put in a lot of patrol time along the docks, by the fish processing plants and the rows of abandoned buildings, prime spots for vampire nests. It was in one of those old plants where she and Pauline cornered Kakistos -- or were allowed to think that they had. The remembered smell of salt air and rotted fish and blood makes her feel like gagging.

 

 

She's not going there. Not for any amount of money.

 

 

She heads for her old street instead. The bar where she used to go hear Kenny's band is still there, looking less rundown than it used to. The snob value of the neon beer signs in the window has gone up, for sure. Next door is a tattoo parlor with a pretentious name.

 

 

"That's new," she says out loud. When she was living here, you had to leave the state to get ink. She and Ronnie had gone up to New Hampshire and gotten each other's names on their arms. She ended up paying for them both, and six months later, she'd gone back to have his name covered with the tribal. That was an early life lesson.

 

 

She passes the corner store where her ma would send Faith for cereal and milk when she wasn't up to making Kraft mac and cheese. The packie where Ma picked up her booze and lottery tickets; the bar where she picked up her guy of the night. Her luck was no better with them than with the lottery tickets. The high school, where Faith had spent as little time as possible.

 

 

She drives past the street she grew up on, lined with triple-decker houses jammed together. Maybe she'll swing by when this is all over. Maybe she won't.

 

 

On the next block is the youth center and the dental clinic and on the corner is the Albanian orthodox church. Catty corner from that, like a Lowe's that springs up across the street from the Home Depot, is the Catholic church where she used to sit and look at that fierce and beautiful angel.

 


 

 

The church is dark and quiet, like everything else on the street. Faith glances up toward the windows, but there's not the slightest flicker of light behind the stained glass. Keeping an eye on the church and rectory, she pulls out her cell and hits Dean on the speed dial. She's more surprised than not when he answers.

 

 

"How's Denton?" she asks.

 

 

"Slow. I've hit a few bars to see if anyone's seen anything strange around town, but if there is, nobody's telling me. It's closing time here, so I'm gonna find a place to stay and start again in the morning."

 

 

"Well, I don't want to stand in the way of your gettin' some, so I'll catch you later."

 

 

"Hey, hey, hey. Tell me what's up with you."

 

 

"Nothin'. I just got into town, and I'm outside the church right now. Nothing's going on. Heard from Sammy?"

 

 

"He's getting some rest too. You should do the same."

 

 

"No dice. I'm keepin' watch. Later, huh?" She doesn't give him another chance to delay her, flipping the phone shut and stashing it back in her pocket. Then she steps out of the car, retrieving her weapons bag from the trunk and a bag of salt.

 

 

They haven't left the church doors unlocked since long before she was a kid, so she can't line the windows and doors with salt from the inside. She doesn't have nearly enough to draw a ring around the entire place. Instead she walks the perimeter, tracing an arc in front of each window, so each line bumps up against the wall so nothing can get past it. She looks up when she reaches the window with the angel. It's too dark to distinguish much beyond patches of different colored glass, but she spent so much time staring at it from the inside, looking for it whenever she was outside on the street, that she knows this is the window. She's grateful to find it intact, determined that it'll stay that way.

 

 

Faith finishes with her circuit of the church by drawing a big semi-circle that encompasses the front steps and entrance, then stations herself on a step halfway up, her weapons bag open and ready.

 

 

"Let's see you evil sonsabitches try to get past me," she mutters.

 

 

She'd kill for a big cup of Dunkin' Donuts coffee, both for the warmth and the caffeine. It doesn't take long sitting on the stone to become thoroughly chilled. At least it keeps her awake -- that and the memories that press in on her when she has no other distraction.

 

 

Faith remembers herself clutching a fistful of dollars and change, sent on a mission to the corner store when most kids weren't even allowed to cross the street without a hand holding theirs. She remembers herself in the back seats of cars with Kenny and Robbie and Steve (good ol' Steve, who taught her Want, take, have with random items in the neighborhood stores and with her own virginity). She remembers being accosted by this young British chick one night as she stood having a smoke outside the bar where Kenny's band was between sets.

 

You have a destiny. It's bigger than this.

 

 

Faith had just laughed, but Pauline had persisted.

 

 

Faith's probably as old now as Pauline was then. She'd give a lot to be able to talk with her again.

 

 

A dark car crawls by, then on around the corner.

 

 

Though she's been resisting, she reaches for her cigarettes and shakes one out of the pack. She flicks her lighter a few times, but gets nothing beyond a spark. Muttering a curse, she tucks the cigarette and lighter away.

 

 

When she looks up again, there's a figure in black standing, motionless, just outside the line of salt.

 


 

 

Faith lets her hand fall to the weapons bag, feeling the energy coil in her muscles, ready for a fight. Maybe itching for one. All she can tell is whoever (whatever) is standing there is shaped like a man, face shadowed by his hat.

 

 

"Can I help you?" he asks. His voice has the familiar tang of Southie, and Faith suddenly realizes how much she's missed that distinctive speech.

 

 

She wonders if a demon keeps the accent of the host it possesses. Or if there's a local demon chapter wherever you go. She hadn't really thought about killing things with the accent she grew up hearing.

 

 

He reads her wariness. "I'm Father Milligan. I'm afraid we don't have a youth shelter, but I can make a few calls and find one with an available bed."

 

 

"That's all right, Father." To her surprise, the Southie tones have returned to her own speech without any conscious thought. "That's not why I'm here."

 

 

"It must be urgent if you've been waiting out in the cold at this hour." He crosses the salt line as if he doesn't even notice it. "Would you like to come inside?"

 

 

"Sure." She hoists the bag onto her shoulder, the muffled clank this makes prompting a startled look from the priest. He's younger than she expected. She meets his scrutiny with wide-eyed innocence.

 

 

After a second's pause, he turns and heads up the steps, and she follows.

 

 

As he's fumbling the key into the church door, she asks, "Are you related to Steve Milligan?" He pauses halfway through turning the key. Way to remind the father of his asshole klepto family member, she chides herself.

 

 

The lock clicks and he pushes the door open, flipping on the foyer lights. "I'm Steve Milligan," he says, and as her eyes adjust to the brightness her jaw drops as she sees it's true.

 

 

His expression changes too as she steps into the light. "Faith Lehane?"

 

 

"Heya, Steve. Fancy meetin' you here."

 

 

He laughs, and the sound gives her this strange, almost dizzying sense of being yanked a dozen years back in the past.

 

 

"You always did that," he says.

 

 

"Did what?"

 

 

"Cover your feelings, especially the ones you don't expect. You can be surprised; I won't be offended."

 

 

The idea that Steve was actually noticing something like that about her all those years ago is almost as startling as his transformation. "Well, the last time I saw you, you had hair down to your --" Funny that she chokes on the word ass, when she's dropped the F-bomb in front of an angel of the Lord. Especially since she's actually seen Steve Milligan's ass. Father Milligan's ass. Maybe that's why such a short word is sticking sideways in her throat.

 

 

"You look half frozen. Why don't I put on some coffee? There's a coffeemaker in my office."

 

 

"You just came in. You were probably wantin' to get some sleep."

 

 

He gestures with a small black case he's pulled from his pocket. "I had a late hospital call. I won't be getting back to sleep."

 

 

"Hope nobody died."

 

 

"It's a little too close to call right now. You heard about the tornado?" He ushers her into his office, setting the case on the desk.

 

 

"Yeah, just the bare facts. Were many people hurt?"

 

 

"Two were killed; one was a parishoner. Ten more were hurt, and four of those were ours, too." He takes the carafe from the coffeemaker and says, "Have a seat, Faith. I'll be right back."

 

 

Instead she wanders back out into the sanctuary, finds her golden-haired angel. His full glory is still obscured by the darkness outside the church. Tell me what to do. How can I help when I don't know how? All she knows is she's willing to match his fierceness.

 


 

 

When she turns back to the office, Steve is setting the emptied carafe back into place and the machine starts its gurgling. He settles in behind his desk, and she takes the chair he'd offered her. "How long have you been back?"

 

 

Faith checks her watch. "Couple of hours. More, if you count the time I was driving around trying to find any kind of damn landmark."

 

 

Steve laughs again. "All of Boston was pretty disoriented when the Central Artery came down. We still are, when we're outside our own neighborhoods. That must have been a shock, if it was your first time back."

 

 

"Yeah."

 

 

"What brings you back? As far as I remember, you don't have any family here anymore."

 

 

"I'm not even sure. I heard about the tornado, and ..." She shrugs.

 

 

"That visceral need to head home when there's some kind of trouble there?"

 

 

"I guess that's it." She wonders what he'd think if she told him the truth. "What's been going on in the old nabe lately? Here at church?"

 

 

"The usual. Christenings, funerals, weddings, bake sales." He grins. "It's a far cry from what passed for excitement when we were kids."

 

 

"How'd you end up here, anyway?"

 

 

He makes a rueful face. She saw that a lot, back when they were a couple. "I got caught stealing some sacramental items from the church."

 

 

"Classy."

 

 

"I picked up a habit. I think it was after you left town."

 

 

"I thought it was the nuns had the habits." She winces. "That was bad. I've fallen in with bad company." She can just hear that same dumbass remark coming from Dean's pretty mouth.

 

 

"Have you?" he says quietly. "I've wondered about you these past few years. There were rumors you died instead of leaving town. They said you ran into trouble with a drug lord, and he's the one who killed your friend, the British girl. Some said he killed you too, and dumped your body in the harbor."

 

 

It's as neat an explanation as she's likely to be handed. "Yeah, well. All the rest of it's true. I took off and ended up in California for a few years."

 

 

Steve rises. "You take anything in your coffee?"

 

 

"Black's fine."

 

 

He pours them each a mug and delivers hers, then takes his seat again. "I had a bad feeling about that girl -- Paula, was it?"

 

 

"Pauline."

 

 

"The kind of trouble you got into after you met her -- I don't think your life would have gone that way if not for her."

 

 

Completely true, yet utterly wrong. Faith can't let this one lie. "No. Pauline was a good person. I don't want to hear one word against her."

 

 

"What about these new people, the bad company you fell in with? Are you on the run again?"

 

 

"Jesus Christ, the bad company thing was a joke! Sorry, Fa-- Steve. I just meant -- I have a friend who woulda made that nun joke. You have no idea where I've been and what I've done the past few years. Maybe I didn't put on a radical new set of clothes, and I probably curse even worse than I used to, but I'm not the crazy, stupid girl you knew, either."

 

 

"I happened to like that girl a lot," Steve says.

 

 

"Yeah, well, you were young and dumb too."

 

 

"Not for that. Well, I'm glad you're not in trouble. What made you come to the church?"

 

 

"Wait, you didn't tell me how you got from stealing chalices to being a priest."

 

 

He sips his coffee. "Monsignor Strynkowski put in a word for me. If I went into rehab and did some community service at the church, he wouldn't press charges."

 

 

"And you went the extra mile."

 

 

"Something like that."

 

 

"How is the Monsignor, anyhow? Is he still making the lovingly detailed word-pictures of hellfire and dalmations?"

 

 

Steve's smile fades. "He's in a nursing home. Alzheimer's."

 

 

"Sorry to hear that." She can't think of a pleasant lie about her great memories of him, so she leaves it at that. She is sorry.

 

 

"He's lucky, in a way. He's happy and cheerful and the staff at the home adore him.

 

 

A crack of thunder booms so loud that the both of them jump in the stark white light that accompanies it. Rain gusts into the windows so hard it almost clicks on the glass.

 

 

"That was close," Steve says. "Really strange weather we're having this winter."

 

 

"Has anything else weird been happening at the church? Anything at all that ... I dunno, creeps you out without you knowing why?"

 

 

His brow furrows at the question. "Sometimes. Sometimes it feels ... cold. That sounds silly, but there's something unsettling about it. And there are parishoners who seem different somehow. People I've known for years. Something about them seems off."

 

 

"Give me names."

 

 

"Why?"

 

 

"It's important."

 

 

"It's not always the same people. One Sunday it's elderly Mrs. Riordan, the next week she seems completely normal and it's Mr. Alessio."

 

 

"That's wicked creepy." Emphasis on wicked.

 

 

"I'm sure it's nothing more than my imagination working overtime."

 

 

There's a tremendous crash from the front of the church, and they both jump again.

 

 

Steve gets to his feet. "I was sure I bolted the door. Must've been a gust."

 

 

Faith rises too, grabbing for her bag. "Let me check things out."

 

 

"Faith, don't be ridiculous."

 

 

"Do what I say!" she snaps. "Stay here." Sword in one hand, squeeze bottle of holy water in the other, she strides out to the sanctuary.

 


 

 

As she steps into the sanctuary, lightning sizzles the air outside, illuminating the stained glass angel in a cold, stark blaze. Thunder crashes in the same heartbeat.

 

 

There are three of them in the doorway from the foyer. One of them used to be Mr. Sweeney from the corner store. Its lips curl into an ugly smile. "Well, look who's back. It's the neighborhood crotch. Did you come back to do the one or two guys you missed the first time around?"

 

 

"Oh, snap," Faith says in a bored tone. She sidesteps her way along the front aisle to the center. "If by 'do' you mean 'kill,' and by 'guys' you mean 'demons,' you win a prize."

 

 

The Sweeney-demon laughs. "So you're a hunter now."

 

 

"No, putz. I'm a slayer. You catchin' the semantic drift?"

 

 

"What is all this?" Steve demands from the office doorway.

 

 

"Go back inside," Faith orders.

 

 

"I dunno," the demon says. "It might be fun to have the priest watch." He flicks a hand toward Steve, sending him crashing back against a wall, pinning him there.

 

 

"Let him go."

 

 

"Pretty pitiful, what God has on his side." The demon sneers. "A junkie and a whore."

 

 

"That just means we checked out your side and saw how pathetic it is. C'mon, asshole, bring it on."

 

 

"Sorry, girlie. We're waiting for the first stringers to join the game."

 

 

"Chip, Jim, Carl, what's gotten into you?" Steve asks, his voice straining with the effort of speaking. "Why have you come here?"

 

 

"Demons, that's what's gotten into them," Faith says. "They're not your friends."

 

 

"Smart little girl, aren't you?"

 

 

"I've been around the block with your kind, is all. You're pretty much all the same. Well. Most aren't as chickenshit as you. Most wanna fight, not yammer."

 

 

A big wind whips against the church building, causing a clatter far up in the rafters.

 

 

Faith wonders if she's going to end up taken out by a tornado instead of a demon fight.

 

 

The doors blow open, and in walks Castiel.

 

 

The Sweeney-demon smiles at his entrance, and the sight of it makes the skin at the back of Faith's neck prickle. She wonders if this one could possibly be, in Dean's words, a high-ranking mofo from hell.

 

 

Castiel rushes the demon, and Faith throws herself at one of the minions. But this fight doesn't go like the last time they fought together. She catches an unexpected blur of motion from the corner of her eye and turns to see that Castiel's gone down to one knee.

 

 

Castiel's hand is pressed just below his shoulder, and blood wells between his fingers.

 


 

 

"Castiel!"

 

 

"I cannot raise my hand against them," he says, gasping. "The mark--"

 

 

The leader moves in on him, bloody knife in hand. There's a tattoo on the back of its hand, some kind of magical symbol.

 

 

"Get down!" she shouts, and Castiel drops to the sanctuary floor. Her sword slices the air and neatly hacks through the demon's forearm.

 

 

The demon falls to its knees beside the knife and its hand, howling. Castiel struggles to his knees and plants his palm on the Sweeney-demon's forehead. Light pours out of the demon's eyes and its screaming mouth, then it falls to the floor. The other two are transfixed by the destruction of their leader until one of them shakes off its shock and lunges for the knife, while the other attacks Faith. She drives it back, and it blindly stumbles over the other minion, sending them both sprawling.

 

 

"Castiel!"

 

 

"I can't. They have it too."

 

 

Her opponent scrabbles on the blood-slicked floor, bringing up a wicked looking machete. Before it can get much into the swing, Faith brings her own blade around and slices through its arm too.

 

 

The third demon has an arm around Castiel's neck, bringing a knife up poised to slash across his throat. There's no way she can cut the minion without wounding or killing Castiel. The demon hauls Castiel to his feet and backs toward the front of the church, pulling Castiel along with him. Faith suddenly gets a fully-formed image of what this seal is about: an angel's blood in the baptismal font. Whether it's one drop or every last ounce she doesn't know, but she is not letting this happen.

 

 

Faith brings up the bottle, slashing out with the holy water as she would a blade. It's a broad, sloppy stroke, but the liquid catches the demon in the face and eyes, and it loosens its grip on Castiel, screaming.

 

 

Castiel drops down and Faith swings her blade, severing the demon's hand at the wrist. Castiel draws himself up and plants his hand on its forehead, consuming that one in light too.

 

 

She looks around for the last one, disarmed -- ha, literally -- but not dead.

 

 

It blindsides her, crashing into her and knocking her into Castiel. With its remaining hand it snatches up the bloody knife, with the other demon's hand still closed around the hilt. It whirls and makes a move for the baptismal font.

 

 

"No no no no no!" Faith yells.

 

 

Steve, who was released from whatever held him when the leader died, rises up from where he'd fallen and tackles the demon. In a heartbeat she's on it too, wrenching the knife from its grasp.

 

 

"You won't stop this, whore," it says. "Not even the angels will stop us."

 

 

"This 'whore' shit is gettin' tired," she says, and runs him through with her blade.

 

 

Castiel has gotten to his feet, though he's unsteady.

 

 

"Stay back," she tells him. "I don't want your blood anywhere near that font." She hoists the dead weight of the demon up, dragging it to Castiel. "Finish him."

 

 

"Next time you're in hell, it won't be a short walk-through," the demon tells Castiel. "We're winning."

 

 

Castiel lays a hand on the demon's head and it screams as light pours out of its eyes and mouth. He staggers as the demon falls in a lifeless heap.

 


 

 

"Castiel."

 

 

Swaying, he looks at his bloody hand and then at her. She can't quite read the look on his face, whether it's confusion or wonder or a weird mix of both.

 

 

"I'm gonna tend to that, but I don't want to chance getting demon blood in it. Sit. Hang on." She turns to Steve, who's staring at the bodies and the blood. "Steve, I'm gonna need a first aid kit and a place to clean up. Fast."

 

 

He rouses himself and says, "This way." As he walks with her, he says, "I'll call 911."

 

 

"No. We've got things to take care of first."

 

 

"There are three dead men in my church."

 

 

"They weren't men."

 

 

"That's crazy. It was Chip Sweeney, Jim d'Amato and Carl Nielsen. You knew Chip Sweeney."

 

 

"And how many times has Chip Sweeney called you a junkie and pinned you to the wall with his brain?" That gives him pause. "They were possessed."

 

 

He shows her to his private bathroom and she mutters a curse when she sees the blood soaking her shirt.

 

 

"I've gotta trash this. You got something?" She takes off the shirt without waiting for an answer and drops it into the trash can by the sink. As she scrubs at her hands, arms and face, Steve busies himself looking through the linen closet. He emerges with a stack of towels, then finds her a first aid kit and a grey athletic tee.

 

 

Faith towels off, then yanks the tee over her head. "Scrub good, I might need your help. I'm gonna go tend to Castiel."

 

 

"Who is he?"

 

 

The corner of her mouth twitches. "Ask him. It's really much more fun hearing him say it."

 

 

She takes the other towels and the first aid kit and hurries out to the sanctuary. Castiel is sitting on the front pew with his hands in his lap, looking for all the world like a distracted businessman on a train, except for the blood. He gazes up at the stained glass window -- her stained glass window, her angel.

 

 

She piles the towels next to him and perches on the edge of the pew. "How bad is it?"

 

 

Castiel just looks at her as if he doesn't know how to answer that question.

 

 

"Can I see?" He nods, so she helps him out of the trench coat and jacket and unknots his tie, then fumbles with the buttons of his shirt. She tries not to think about the fact that she's undressing an angel, but the thought is impossible to suppress. It blinks in big, red neon letters in her head. "Just think of this as a hands-in-the-viscera moment," she tells him.

 

 

He seems unconcerned, paying more attention to her movements as she starts to peel back the cloth that's sticking to the knife wound.

 

 

"This is gonna hurt," she says.

 

 

He doesn't seem concerned about that, either, just curious.

 

 

Steve sets a stool beside her, then places a pan of warm water on the stool, and she nods her thanks.

 

 

She dampens a washcloth and dabs it carefully around the wound. A few tiny flickers of expression betray his discomfort, but mostly he seems to be concentrating on what's going on. "Well, it's more a slash than a stab wound, so it should be easy to clean. Seems like they were going for your throat and caught the collarbone. You should have this stitched. We could get you to the emergency room."

 

 

"There's no time."

 

 

"Yeah, I thought you'd say that." She rummages in the first aid kit for butterfly bandages. "You'll have a helluva scar." She flicks a glance up to his face. "Or will you?"

 

 

"I don't know."

 

 

"You've never been hurt, have you?" she asks.

 

 

"No." He fixes his gaze on her, the blue of a high summer day when you lie in the grass and stare at the sky until you feel half dizzy.

 

 

She feels that way right now. "How'd they manage to cut you? Some kind of mystical blade?"

 

 

Castiel shakes his head. "It affected me because the demons who wielded it wore the mark."

 

 

"That tattoo. Have you ever run into that before?"

 

 

"No."

 

 

"So they developed the A-bomb. That'll change the game entirely. You think it's gone beyond here?"

 

 

"I've been in communication with others," Castiel says. "We're the first to encounter it. We must strike its source and destroy it, swiftly and completely."

 

 

"Right there with you, Castiel." She works hurriedly to close the wound before he gets his smite on. "I've got a good guess where it came from." She glances up at Steve. "That new tattoo place. Primordial Visions. Know anything about it?"

 

 

"They're popular with the death metal kids."

 

 

"Have you seen that design before?" she asks. Last damn thing they need is to have that stamped on every metal kid in Southie, to have a ready army waiting for possession.

 

 

"Not before tonight," Steve says.

 

 

Pretty much as she expected, Castiel's on his feet. "We must move now."

 

 

"Give me two more seconds here." She tears open a gauze pad and places it over the gash. "Hold this."

 

 

"Faith."

 

 

"Two seconds." She finishes taping the bandage and pulls his shirt back into place, then helps him ease on his jacket and coat.

 

 

"Don't tell me you're marching into that tattoo parlor with swords," Steve says.

 

 

"There is a war between heaven and hell," Castiel says. He's using his Portent voice, which he's damn good at. "What happens now may tip the balance."

 

 

"Stay here and wait for us," Faith says. "Do not call anyone, and that means 911. Do not let anyone in."

 

 

"Faith," Castiel says again.

 

 

"Yeah, I'm coming." She grabs one of the towels, wraps the severed hand in it and tucks it under her arm, then snatches her holy water and sword and hurries to catch up to Castiel.

 


 

 

The rain slashes down as Faith pulls up in front of Primordial Visions. Castiel's so locked and loaded for smiting that she half expects to see steam rising from him where the rain strikes. By the time she gets out of the car and catches up to him, he's got the door blown open. The front of the shop is darkened, but there's death metal at top volume coming from a room in the back of the studio, and Castiel storms toward it.

 

 

There's a guy sitting at a drafting table, skinny and smooth as a skink, covered with so many tattoos he'd have to put on fifty pounds to squeeze in another one. Startled, he looks up at Castiel's violent entrance, abandoning his pencil and sketchpad to reach into a shelf at his side as he stands. Before he can put his hands on a weapon, Castiel has him shoved back against a wall, and Faith splashes holy water into his face.

 

 

"What the fuck?!" the guy yells. "Look, man, I'm not the one who inked your daughter. I've never seen her!" Not that he can see anything now, rubbing water out of his eyes and sputtering.

 

 

"Hey, check this out," she says to Castiel. She flips through some pages of the open book he's been sketching from, then flips it shut and pushes it along the table toward Castiel. It's wicked old, the bindings crumbling, with spidery text in a language she can't read. It's a Giles book, for sure.

 

 

"Keep your hands off that, it belongs to a client."

 

 

Castiel exchanges places with her, examining the book while she watches the skink.

 

 

"Same guy this belongs to?" Faith unwraps the towel and thrusts it toward him.

 

 

"Jesus!"

 

 

"Is that your work?" she demands. "How many of these did you do?"

 

 

His chin comes up, defiant. "Why should I tell you that?"

 

 

"So I don't add your nads to my souvenir collection."

 

 

"Three. Two were older guys, the kind that don't normally go for that kind of piece."

 

 

Castiel turns from the drafting table. "You have no idea what you're playing with." To Faith he says, "Take the book and the drawings he's copied. We'll burn them."

 

 

"Fuck that!" The skink muscles Faith aside, going for Castiel with his bare hands.

 

 

Castiel meets him with his own hand upraised.

 

 

"Don't!" Faith cries. She's had enough death for one night. But instead of consuming the skink in a blaze of light, he touches two fingers to the man's forehead and eases him to the ground.

 

 

"He's unharmed," Castiel says to her. "He'll wake in a few hours, but he won't remember we were here."

 

 

Faith lifts him off the floor and dumps him in one of his chairs to sleep it off. As she joins Castiel on the sidewalk outside the studio, she realizes the city's beginning to awaken, though it's still dark.

 

 

"So what's to stop him from tattooing someone else with that design again, working from memory?"

 

 

"I removed the image from his mind, along with other dangerous ones."

 

 

"Damn. There goes his business." She opens the passenger door for him, resisting the powerful urge to apologize again for the crappiness of her car.

 

 

"I did replace them," he says as she settles in behind the wheel. "I borrowed some from an angel who's spent more time walking in this world."

 

 

"Yeah?"

 

 

"One of them has a name," he says. "Thumper."

 

 

When she laughs, it feels like the first time in forever.

 


 

 

When Steve lets them into the church, he has a rosary twined in his fingers, and he looks like a wreck. Faith feels like she's brought something terrible down on him and his church, though she knows it's not true.

 

 

"Looks like we contained it," she says.

 

 

"Contained," Steve echoes.

 

 

"No one got hurt, but you won't be seeing that tattoo again." She looks around the sanctuary, awash in blood and bodies. "Castiel, you -- you can take care of this, right?"

 

 

"Yes. There'll be no sign of what occurred here."

 

 

"And these men?" Steve asks.

 

 

"The ones you knew have been released," Castiel says.

 

 

Faith stoops to place the severed hand, still wrapped, beside the man it belonged to. "He can raise them."

 

 

Castiel turns to regard her. "This is war, Faith. Innocent people die."

 

 

"But you brought me back."

 

 

"I did as I was commanded, as I do now."

 

 

She rises to her feet. "They deserve a second chance more than I did. Mr. Sweeney, he was a good person. It's not his fault he was caught in the middle." It's not right, God's priest being so devastated in his own church, she wants to say. This has to be fixed.

 

 

Castiel glowers. "This is not your decision. Or mine."

 

 

Faith's heart hammers. "I'm just sayin' --" A phrase that earned her a good many smackings when she was a kid, but it comes out unbidden, the way it always did.

 

 

"There's nothing more to say," he snaps. "This is not a matter for negotiation. It is God's will."

 

 

"Then God's a heartless bastard!" she shouts. "Don't tell me you can't see that."

 

 

He holds her gaze for a long moment, and she feels the tension of the fury he's holding back. At last he says, "You will be forgiven for saying such a thing. I would not. We either have complete faith, or we are fallen. There is no middle ground."

 

 

"Who are you?" Steve asks.

 

 

"Castiel," he says. "I am an angel of the Lord."

 

 

He sounds so very tired that Faith feels tears gathering in her eyes. "Tell me how I can help," she says.

 


 

 

"You can take yourself somewhere safe," Castiel says. "I must assume my true form. It's too overwhelming for human eyes."

 

 

"How about your office?" Faith suggests to Steve. "It's about time we had a talk, I think."

 

 

"I think you're right."

 

 

After Faith turns over the ancient text and the skink's sketches to Castiel and they double-check that the doors are bolted, she shuts them in the office.

 

 

"Burnt coffee?" he offers.

 

 

"Right now I can't think of anything better."

 

 

Steve pours them each a fresh cup, then sits heavily in his chair.

 

 

"I'm sorry you got caught up in this," Faith says. "You must feel like I brought all this down on you and your church."

 

 

"The questions you were asking me before all this started. You knew something was wrong."

 

 

She nods. "There were omens. Though I wouldn't have known about those if it wasn't for the dreams."

 

 

"Dreams?"

 

 

"I dreamed of that window, the angel with the sword, three nights running. I have dreams sometimes that are ... that mean something. About things that might happen. I wasn't sure if it was about Castiel, or about this place -- turns out it was both."

 

 

"Those ... demons. What did they want here?"

 

 

"Like Castiel said, there's a war going on. This badass demon and her crew are trying to unleash Lucifer. To do it, they have to break 66 seals. I think that's what this was about. I think they needed to bleed an angel into your baptismal font to break one of the seals."

 

 

"Why here?"

 

 

"Beats the hell out of me. Why anywhere? I've scrapped with demons in Idaho and Wyoming these last few weeks. But this was a specific attack on an angel, the first in a war that would've wiped out who knows how many angels. Why not pick a church dedicated to an archangel?"

 

 

Steve sits silently for a long moment, a hand to his brow. "This is so much to take in. I still have a thousand questions."

 

 

"I'm not goin' anywhere."

 

 

"How did you get involved in all this? How does a girl from Southie become an angel's bodyguard?"

 

 

"That's actually two different questions. Though I'm not his bodyguard. He's a pretty kickass warrior on this plane and the next, from what I can tell. In the absence of mystical tattoos."

 

 

"Okay," he says. "How did you meet him?"

 

 

"You heard. He brought me back from the dead. I got the short end of the demon-fighting stick in Idaho. Castiel put me back together."

 

 

Steve's brow furrows in a way that reminds her of Castiel trying to sort out the ways of humans. "Are you sure? I mean, maybe it seemed --"

 

 

Weird to have a priest trying to hand-wave away a miracle she has no doubts about. Maybe wearing that collar is like working at Disney World -- when you know all the inner workings of that magic it becomes earthbound. "They disembowelled me, dude. Pulled my heart out of my chest. It wasn't a swoon."

 

 

That prompts another long silence, leaving Faith to wonder if it would have been kinder to just let Steve wonder what the hell was going on. "So you were fighting demons before you met Castiel," he finally says.

 

 

"Actually, I was fighting demons before I ever left town. That drug lord? Not a drug lord."

 

 

"That was a demon?"

 

 

"A vampire, which yeah, is a subset of demons."

 

 

"How does a teenaged girl get caught up in demon killing?"

 

 

"Happens more than you think." She gets up, checks the coffee pot and empties it into her mug. Steve hasn't touched his. "I come from a long line of vampire hunting teenaged girls. It's a destiny thing."

 

 

"Your friend. Pauline -- was she one too?"

 

 

"No. She was my ... mentor. Every slayer has kind of a guide. It's a whole other destiny thing."

 

 

"And you lost her at a young age -- you must have been sixteen or seventeen?"

 

 

Faith nods. "I ran off the rails a while. I was lucky enough to know people who thought it was worth their effort to bring me back."

 

 

"They couldn't have brought you back if you were unwilling," Steve says. "I know that much from personal experience."

 

 

Faith's saved from having to come up with a response for that when Steve gets to his feet, staring at something behind her. She turns and sees a brilliant light leaking in the crack at the bottom of his office door. It's been steadily growing in intensity, she realizes, until it's like someone set a flare off in the sanctuary. "Dunno if I'd stare at that too long. Friend of mine knows someone who was blinded looking at Castiel full on."

 

 

He settles back in his seat, looking stunned. "You're so matter of fact about this."

 

 

"I've been dealing with the impossible for a long-ass time, Steve."

 

 

"I admire your faith," he says, which is just about the last thing she expects to hear out of any priest, even one she used to get all pre-seminarian with. "You doubt, and you're unafraid to throw questions in the face of God and his angel, but they sound like the questions of someone who believes."

 

 

"Someday one of them is gonna smite the shit out of me."

 

 

"No. Castiel admires it too, that's plain to see. He realizes it's hard-won faith, not a default."

 

 

Faith makes a dismissive motion with her hand.

 

 

For all its gradual brightening, the light cuts off abruptly, making the office with its incandescent lights seem suddenly dark.

 

 

A moment later the door opens and Castiel is there. "It's done," he says.

 


 

 

Faith flicks a glance at Castiel as she follows Steve out into the sanctuary. He looks unfocused, unwell. "You all right?"

 

 

"It was difficult maintaining my true form. The injury --"

 

 

"I want to take a look at that." After the mojo he managed in raising her, she's surprised he's so affected by his own injury, a scratch by comparison.

 

 

"There's no sign at all that anything happened," Steve says from the center aisle. He sounds unfocused himself, like walking into this sanitized space has reminded him of the blood and death Castiel has made vanish.

 

 

"I gave you my word," Castiel says.

 

 

"What happened to the bodies? Will those men just be missing? Their families--"

 

 

Castiel sways next to her, and Faith manages to catch him before he topples. "Castiel!" She eases him onto the dais in front of the pulpit.

 

 

"My head. It feels --"

 

 

"You're dizzy. Stretch out here, your head needs to be lower than your feet."

 

 

He waves her off, makes no move to follow her directions.

 

 

"Those fu-- demons. They poisoned you."

 

 

"I don't believe so. When we're injured in our human vessels, it makes the transition difficult. Doing so weakened me. I won't be able to assume my true form again until this body heals."

 

 

"I thought you'd never been hurt before."

 

 

"I haven't, but others have. They tell me this is how it is."

 

 

"Sometime you'll have to tell me how you work that angelic instant messaging. I could've used something like that on my way out here." She still wonders where Buffy and Giles and the others are, and why she hasn't heard back. "I'm gonna check your wound."

 

 

As she's fumbling with the first button of his trench coat -- now untorn and unstained -- there's a loud pounding at the front door of the church.

 

 

"Great. Cops," she says. "Though better now than an hour ago."

 

 

"How can you tell?" Steve asks.

 

 

"Maglite thumping on doors -- it's a dead giveaway."

 

 

Steve closes his eyes for a moment, trying to gather himself, erase the signs of shock and grief on his face. He lets out a breath, then heads for the front doors. Faith leaves Castiel and draws near enough to listen to the conversation. It's not hard; the cops are loud, as every cop she's ever encountered has been.

 

 

"Sorry to bother you, Father, but we had a call from a couple of neighbors about a strange light coming from the church. We just wanted to make sure there was no mischief going on."

 

 

Before Steve can speak, Faith calls out, "That was us, officer." She joins Steve in the foyer. "Me and my boss were doing some scouting for film locations," she says. "We had to set up some lights to test the levels."

 

 

Both cops brighten. "They're gonna make a movie around here?" says the younger of the two.

 

 

Faith scowls. "Not as of five minutes ago. Mel pulled out, so the financing's in the toilet."

 

 

"Ah, that's a shame," the older cop says.

 

 

"Yeah, we were hoping to get some of you guys in on crowd control," Faith says. "Always prefer an off-duty cop to some lame square badge."

 

 

"Sure, yeah," says the older one. "If things change, I'm sure things would work out with some of the local guys on the job. You're a hometown girl, aren't you?"

 

 

She lays on the charm. "I've been out in Cali for the last ten years, but the longer I've been back, the more Southie I sound."

 

 

"Say, who's that?" The younger cop has drifted to the door of the sanctuary. He nods toward the front of the church, where Castiel still sits on the dais, legs splayed, running a hand through his hair.

 

 

"That's the director. Wouldn't talk to him, if I was you. I just had my ass handed to me in tiny, bite-sized chunks -- sorry, Father. Like I said, we just heard about Mel."

 

 

"Well, glad to hear there's no problem. Hey, maybe the father would put in a good word with the Big Guy, get Mel to change his mind."

 

 

"Mel thinks he is the Big Guy," Faith says, and they all laugh.

 

 

"Have a good day now, Father. Miss."

 

 

"You too, officers. Thanks for checking things out." Steve closes the door behind them. "Thank you for that, Faith. I would never have been able to think that fast."

 

 

"Least I could do was save you from having to lie."

 

 

"You were brilliant."

 

 

She shrugs. "Always did have a touch of the sociopath in me. You should remember." She heads back into the sanctuary. "Castiel, I want to have another look at that cut."

 

 

A cell phone twitters, and Steve reaches into his pocket. "This is Father Milligan." His footsteps stop dead. "Maureen? Take a breath and tell me again.... I'm so very sorry to hear that. I'll be there right away." His phone closes with a snap. "That was Chip Sweeney's wife."

 

 

Faith looks around at Steve; he's as pale as Castiel.

 

 

"She found him at the kitchen table this morning. Dead of a heart attack."

 


 

 

Steve reaches blindly for the nearest pew end to steady himself.

 

 

"You okay?" Faith asks.

 

 

"Yes. It's just ... I can hardly believe this."

 

 

"You've got a long day ahead," Faith says. She goes to where he stands, beside the same row she used to occupy when she came here as a kid.

 

 

"I think you're right. What about you and Castiel? What's next?"

 

 

"Dunno for sure. I'm his wheels till he's not grounded anymore. We've got some friends on a similar mission. Might be we'll catch up to them."

 

 

"So. By the time the dust settles --"

 

 

"We'll be gone."

 

 

He nods. "I wish we had longer, but it's been good seeing you again."

 

 

"Me too. Except for all this." She sweeps an arm out to indicate the perfectly orderly sanctuary. "I'm sorry, Steve. I feel--"

 

 

"Don't," Steve says. "You didn't cause any of this. You prevented some terrible things from happening. And how many men get to meet an angel?" He offers a half grin. "How many men get to see their ex-girlfriend arguing with an angel?" He opens his arms to her, and she steps into his embrace. "I'm glad I got to see the amazing person you've become." He releases her. "You think you'll ever come back this way?"

 

Hell, no, she means to say, but what comes out is, "You never know."

 

 

"I hope so." He turns toward Castiel. "Castiel, I don't quite know what to say or how to be."

 

 

"Be real, he likes that," Faith says.

 

 

"Obviously." Steve walks toward Castiel and hesitantly offers his hand. There's something so shy and yearning about him, and Faith has a sudden glimpse of the boy she knew all those years ago. "I'm honored to have met you."

 

 

Castiel clasps his hand and shakes it solemnly. "Thank you for your aid."

 

 

"What you did for those men's families ... they'll never know, but it means a lot."

 

 

"They've been received into our Father's presence."

 

 

"Thank you."

 

 

His phone chirps again, and Faith says, "You have to go."

 

 

Steve nods. "If you need anything, or any of your brothers, these doors are open to you." He flips open his phone to receive the next piece of bad news, heading down the aisle to the doors.

 


 

 

When he's gone, Faith grabs a fresh pan of water and the first aid kit, then crouches beside Castiel. "Now, let's have a look."

 

 

"There's no need. You just bandaged it."

 

 

"I slapped some butterflies on it when it needed stitches. And then you proceeded to go all bad cop on the tattoo guy, and then go all angel, and you probably ripped open whatever I managed to patch up."

 

 

Castiel relents after this, allowing her attentions, although grimly. Though she's not as hurried this time, she still only slips his clothing off on the injured side, hoping to spare them both as much awkwardness as possible. Now that she's not so scared, she notices that the form he's chosen for himself is nicely muscled, then her brain skitters away from the thought.

 

 

"Look, I guess I was out of line earlier. Telling you to raise those men."

 

 

She peels the bandage away from the knife wound, and the breath hisses through his teeth.

 

 

"I think I understand," Castiel says. "You have a strong sense of justice."

 

 

She dabs at the slash with a warm, damp cloth. "Sometimes I wish I had your unshakable faith instead."

 

 

Turning his intense gaze on her, Castiel says, "Don't envy me. More and more, I question. I doubt."

 

 

She breaks the gaze, turning her attention to the wound. "Yeah, well, it's the company you've been keepin'." It makes her ache to think she could be corrupting him -- endangering him -- with her constant questioning. Who is she to argue with him over God's business?

 

 

"Don't think that." He's silent for a moment, concentrating on her movements as she realigns the edges of the cut and places new butterfly bandages. "Humans tend to believe we have all the answers. We don't. We are just required to dampen the questions. The more I see of humanity, all the pain and fear, the more miraculous it seems that faith and yearning for meaning is so strong in so many."

 

 

"You're impressed by us?"

 

 

A flicker of a smile appears at the corner of his mouth. "One of my brothers, Uriel, finds this distasteful."

 

 

"I bet." She carefully places another butterfly then looks up at him. "Don't get too attached to us. We'll only break your heart."

 

 

"Perhaps I should give you the same warning. I'm not, as Dean once took care to point out, Michael Landon."

 

 

Faith laughs. "I figured that out on my own. It's all right, I was never that crazy about him."

 

 

Castiel lapses into silence and Faith goes with it, working as carefully as she can considering his growing impatience.

 

 

"Sit still!" she finally snaps. "You got somewhere else to be?"

 

 

"There are other battles."

 

 

"Can you join 'em if you can't go into full angel mode?"

 

 

His silence serves as a grudging answer.

 

 

"Right. And you can't go into angel mode if you don't heal, and you can't heal if you won't chill the fuck out. Sorry." She places the last butterfly bandage and tears open a gauze pad. "This might hold, if you try not to flail around too much."

 

 

"And what do I do in the meantime?"

 

 

"You could try resting. I hear even the Lord God does sometimes. And I haven't had more than a half hour of sleep in two days. Call me a bush leaguer, but I need to crash for a few hours."

 

 

"I wouldn't call you that. If not for you, I wouldn't be alive, and the world would be that much closer to hell on earth."

 

 

Faith busies herself with taping the bandage in place, until he gently captures her wrist.

 

 

"I know what it cost you to return here, Faith."

 

 

An unsettling feeling sweeps over her, that she's an open book to him. She's had it before. She tries for cocky. "That something you picked up while you had your hands in my viscera?"

 

 

Castiel doesn't release her wrist, or her gaze. "That's not all I restored to you. I held your soul in my hands, as well."

 

 

She nods. "Coming here, that's just me trying to return the favor the best I can. C'mon, let me help you get those back on, then we can make a plan." It's a slow process getting him dressed, mostly due to the effort it takes to keep him from rushing through it. "Look, I know you've never had any practice with being hurt, but I have. Take it slow, or you'll end up worse off than before." She heaves an exasperated sigh. "Men."

 

 

"What?"

 

 

"It's a guy thing. When they get hurt. They're all tough guys and big babies at the same time. You've definitely got it down."

 

 

He stops resisting then, and within a few moments he's dressed without popping a bandage. It gives her the opportunity to mull over the fact that she's just called an angel of the Lord a big baby.

 

 

"How's the pain? I've got a little drugstore in the car, if you need something to dull that."

 

 

"Why would I want to dull any part of this? This is human experience. It's a rare gift for my kind."

 

 

She gathers up the litter of her first aid efforts, then stands, her knees cracking. "Enthusiastic dulling of pain is what the human experience is all about. Just hang a minute or two while I clean things up, then I'll buy you a big, greasy breakfast."

 

 

She tidies Steve's private bathroom the best she can, thinking about what Castiel has said. When she's finished she hoists her weapons bag over her shoulder and goes to him.

 

 

"Before we leave Boston," she says, "there's one last place I need to see again."

 


 

 

Faith slings her weapons into the trunk, then makes Castiel wait on the rain-washed sidewalk for a moment while she hastily clears the floor of fast food wrappers and soda bottles. She should swing by a gas station and feed a couple of quarters into the car vac. She really should swing by a dealership and buy a new car.

 

 

"Faith," Castiel says as she emerges with a bag of trash and a scowl. "It doesn't matter."

 

 

"Does to me," she mutters. But once she's marched to the corner and stuffed the bag (which includes her blood-soaked shirt and medical litter from Steve's bathroom) into a wire trash can, she lets it go.

 

 

"Okay. Breakfast. Like I said, I'm gonna treat you to an epic post-slay diner breakfast."

 

 

"I don't need food."

 

 

"Yeah, you've said. But you're healing now. Some extra fuel might do you good, same as getting some sleep." She wonders suddenly if his body can actually handle food. Well, Dean has told her he's seen Castiel shot and stabbed with no effect whatsoever, so a few strips of bacon won't kill him. "Look, there's a place a couple of blocks from here with the most perfect hash browns known to man. While I'm here I've got to make the pilgrimage."

 

 

"I can't deny a pilgrimage," he says, and Faith suspects it's a flicker of his humor. The thing she likes about it is she's never really sure.

 

 

She opens the door for him, then circles round to the driver's side. "They're open 24 hours, and my boyfriend Kenny and I used to eat breakfast there at three a.m. after one of his band's gigs. Half the time we were so --" She finally shuts up, about ten seconds too late. "I dunno. Maybe we should skip that. Get out of town before the traffic gets bad." Which is moronic, since rush hour's no doubt in full swing.

 

 

"Faith, you've just had confirmation that you're not the person you were."

 

 

She pulls out into traffic. "You know that, I know that and Steve knows that. Since I won't be killing any demons over breakfast, no one there who knew me will clue in."

 

 

"You throw yourself into battle without hesitation." Only Castiel could praise her bravery and sound so damn crabby at the same time.

 

 

"Yeah, well, that I know how to do."

 

 

"You believe you're frozen in others' memories because this place has been frozen in yours. Yet you've seen how time has changed your city, your friend."

 

 

"You're gonna shame me into this, aren't you?"

 

 

"I'm not interested in wielding shame as a weapon. Humans do well enough with that one; you don't need me."

 

 

She heaves a sigh. "All right. We'll go. Happy now?"

 

 

"It depends on the hash browns."

 


 

 

When they step inside the diner, Faith's glad to see her favorite corner booth is unoccupied. She starts toward it, then her stride falters halfway across the room. If she wants to fly under the radar of anyone here who'd remember her, parking it in her old booth probably isn't the best way.

 

 

Then again, there's a reason she liked this table. Good view of the street, the door, the whole interior of the diner. If she takes the far bench, her back's to the wall, like she prefers. She shakes off her hesitation and installs herself in her old spot.

 

 

The bleached and labretted waitress who dumps two menus onto the table can't have been more than nine years old last time Faith was here. She relaxes against the worn vinyl bench and flips open her menu. Castiel does the same.

 

 

"Anything pingin' your curiosity?" she asks him.

 

 

"What do you recommend?"

 

 

"With me, it depends on my mood. Post-slay, I tend to eat like a dock worker. Corned beef hash, eggs, sausage, the works. If this was my one breakfast ever? That's different."

 

 

The waitress reappears and says, "You ready?"

 

 

"You still have the fresh-squeezed OJ here? Two of those." The waitress retreats, and Faith adds, "I don't even know how to describe the taste. Bright. Sunny. It's not the same from a carton -- that's more like a lightbulb. One of the fluorescent ones. Other than that, I'd suggest crispy bacon, French toast with banana slices and powdered sugar, topped with real maple syrup. Eggs. I like 'em runny, others think that's disgusting as hell, so I can't guess how you'd like 'em. And the hash browns. Washed down with a gallon or so of coffee."

 

 

"What constitutes perfection in hash browns?" he asks. He's all anthropologist-in-the-deepest-jungle again. She sort of finds it cute, sort of fears that when he goes back to heaven he'll write up a paper on her.

 

 

"Well, for starters, they should be brown, not tan on the outside and pasty white on the inside. You don't just glob a clump of shredded potato on the griddle and let it sit there. You have to spread 'em out, get maximum griddle contact. They sprinkle 'em with onion salt here and enough pepper to give 'em some bite."

 

 

"You put a great deal of thought into the things you enjoy."

 

 

"Doesn't everyone?"

 

 

"I'm not the one to ask. But I suspect not."

 

 

"I guess three years of prison food makes a person develop an appreciation for good things, that's all."

 

 

The waitress comes with their orange juice and pulls out her order pad. "What'll it be?"

 

 

Faith orders the two-by-two-by-two with the elements she described and a side of hash browns, and Castiel orders the same, down to the eggs over easy.

 

 

"Coffee?"

 

 

"When the food comes." When they're alone again, Faith says, "Juice and coffee are both pretty acid. You might want some food before you start in on the coffee."

 

 

Castiel picks up his glass and holds it up in the window, studying it. Outside, the clouds have cleared away, leaving bright sunshine pouring in through the plate glass (something Faith realizes she's rarely seen when sitting at this table), and it looks as if he's trying to see through the liquid.

 

 

"The little pieces are pulp," she tells him. "Bits of smashed orange. I think it tastes a thousand times better when they leave it in."

 

 

He tips the glass to his lips and takes a tentative sip. She watches as he holds the juice in his mouth for a moment, loving the concentration and then revelation flitting across his face.

 

 

"It's just as you described it." The tip of his tongue chases a tiny piece of pulp from his lip, then he picks it off like a fleck of tobacco and looks at it.

 

 

Before she can answer, her cellphone rings and she dives into her pocket for it. "It's Dean," she tells Castiel, then answers. "How's Texas?"

 

 

"Looking like a false alarm. You?"

 

 

"Ten alarm. It's out now."

 

 

"Sounds like you can't really talk."

 

 

"Not so much. It was wicked serious for a while there. Pack of really vicious dogs tried to break out of their pen. If they'd gotten out, a lot of people could have gotten hurt pretty bad. And by people I mean our upstairs neighbors."

 

 

"You all right?"

 

 

"I'm good. Castiel's hurt."

 

 

"Castiel's hurt?" Dean sounds indignant. "How the hell does that happen?"

 

 

"I told you, it was a nasty situation."

 

 

"How bad is he?"

 

 

"He's sittin' right here." Interacting with a glass of OJ like he's on an acid trip, but she decides not to say so. "He'll mend. He'll be grounded for a while, though. Heard from Sam yet?"

 

 

"Yeah. Nothin' shakin' in Wisconsin, either. Bobby hasn't checked in from Idaho yet."

 

 

"Looks like they were trying to scatter us, then."

 

 

"Yeah," Dean admits. "You were right about that." Glory hallelujah, there's a miracle.

 

 

"We can meet up with you somewhere. Be thinking about a spot. I'll check in a little later." No way she's missing out on Castiel discovering bacon.

 

 

"How the hell does Castiel get hurt, anyway?"

 

 

"You sayin' it's my fault?"

 

 

"No. I just--"

 

 

"Damn right it's not." She snaps the phone shut and jams it in her pocket. "Dean's all, 'You broke my angel.'" Come to think of it, this isn't the first time she's heard that.

 


 

 

Breakfast as sensory Disney World takes longer than she'd have believed, but Faith finds the whole experience a hoot and a half. It makes her slow down and notice every flavor and texture as if it's her first meal, too.

 

 

Castiel rocks breakfast completely, managing to convey absolute enjoyment while remaining his usual serious self. As they toss their napkins onto the table, he says, "Thank you."

 

 

"Hey, one of the beauties of being human is getting to do this three times a day." The morning rush is well over, leaving empty tables all around, so she speaks more freely. "Though not so much with the bacon."

 

 

"You've been a generous guide to 'the beauties of being human.' You're well suited to this."

 

 

Faith laughs. "Maybe I should start a business. Faith's Down-under Tours for the Heavenly Host."

 

 

"You give a lot of thought to small things."

 

 

"Well, I had the luxury of a lot of time for thinking. Guess I never learned to shut it back off."

 

 

Castiel studies her the way he had the glass of orange juice. She gets the feeling he's trying to see through her, too.

 

 

"I'll tell you a secret," she says. "When I was little, sitting there in church, the idea of heaven scared me almost as bad as the notion of hell. All that about spending all of eternity singing God's praises -- I could barely sit still through Sunday mass. All I could imagine was listening to Monsignor Strynkowski droning on until the end of time, except there wouldn't be an end of time. But I guess I learned to live with endless stretches of time."

 

 

Castiel ducks his head and raises a hand to his face. It takes a moment before Faith realizes he's smothering soft laughter. Anyone other than Castiel, and she'd be pissed off at being laughed at, but to see him break his solemnity moves her in a way she can't quite name. When he looks up at her, still unable to wipe a smile from his face, she's struck by how boyish he looks.

 

 

"I'm glad prison has helped prepare you for heaven."

 

 

She gives him a look. "I was eight, all right?"

 

 

Castiel draws his solemnity around himself again, like unseen wings. "I promise to be your guide when the time comes."

 

 

"I'm gonna hold you to that." Faith hopes he'll recruit her into the elite warriors. She kind of likes getting her smite on at his side. "There's someplace else I need a little handholding for. Another pilgrimage, the place I really meant when I said there's another place I need to see."

 

 

"You came all this way for me," he says. "It's the least I can do for you."

 

 

Faith nods. "I need to go back to the place where Kakistos killed Pauline."

 


 

 

The bright sunshine on rain-wet streets makes everything look shiny and freshly washed. It's the kind of day she's always welcomed in the midst of a long winter, full of the promise of spring, even if it's still far off. "Feel like walking?" she asks Castiel. She's in no big hurry to wreck this mood. "How's that knife gash?"

 

 

"The pain is tolerable." Which she suspects he'd say even if it was his arm that had been hacked off. "Yes, I'd like to walk. Normally I have little enough time to pay attention to the world when I'm here."

 

 

"So this isn't all one big distraction?"

 

 

"Some of my brethren would find my interest ... problematic. But I'm on the sidelines of the larger fight until I heal. This is my chance to acquaint myself with what we're trying to save. It's not just an abstract ideal."

 

 

Faith shows him the neighborhood as they walk, pointing out places she remembers and those that have changed. As they reach the corner where the church sits, she pauses to look for the window with the angel, which gives her a strong physical sense of memory. "That angel," she says. "I used to look at that window all the time the two or three years I actually went to church. And later, when I was past the whole church thing, I still looked for him. I'd be stumblin' out of some guy's car, or drunk off my ass after one of Kenny's gigs, but I'd always stop and look, even though the window was just a big dark shape. I'd forgotten that." The traffic signal changes and Faith steps out into the crosswalk. "It's never as beautiful when you're standing on the outside," she says softly. She lapses into silence and Castiel leaves it unbroken. After a few minutes, she says, "One of those demons. He said something about the next time you're in hell, that it wouldn't just be a walk-through. What was that about?"

 

 

"I was sent there on a rescue mission."

 

 

"Dean."

 

 

Castiel looks at her sharply. "I can't say."
"Something's eating at him. It's big. I've murdered people, I know what it is to be haunted. I've got nothin' on him."

 

 

"He has other problems," Castiel says grimly.

 

 

"Nothing on the order of bein' in hell, I'd guess."

 

 

"Then you'd guess wrong. His brother is a problem."

 

 

"Sam?"

 

 

"Dean's inability to influence him is a problem. It may become a problem for all humanity."

 

 

"Shaggy?"

 

 

"Sam has powers that are demonic in origin. He has been warned not to use them, yet he persists. He believes that if he uses them for purposes he deems good, they will not corrupt him. He consorts with a demon who encourages this."

 

 

"Consorts?" She aims a sharp look at Castiel, who doesn't elaborate, but the look on his face fills in the definition for her. The notion twists her stomach with disgust. "Why?"

 

 

"Ruby has been in the Winchesters' orbit for some time. Helping them on occasion. After Dean's death, she took advantage of Sam's weakness. Seduced him in body and spirit. He believes that because she has helped him in the past, she is his friend."

 

 

"Maybe she is."

 

 

That earns her a glare that should singe her eyebrows off.

 

 

"Just because a person is evil, it doesn't mean he or she can't love."

 

 

"Ruby is not a person. She's a demon, wrapped in a cloak of humanity."

 

 

"Doesn't mean she doesn't care about him. I'm just sayin'." She stiffens her spine under the heat of his anger. "Look, I had someone swoop me up who aspired to be a fricken demon."

 

 

"I'm aware of this."

 

 

"Well, you should be aware of this, too. I know that he loved me, and it wasn't gross or nasty. I thought maybe it was at first, and I would have gone along because that was what I knew, but he let me know it was fatherly, and I was not gonna change that. It was love and it was real, and the hosts of heaven are not gonna convince me otherwise. It might be true of this Ruby."

 

 

"It doesn't mean she won't destroy Sam."

 

 

"That's where we agree. I did a lot of evil things for Richard Wilkins."

 

 

Castiel relaxes then and seems to lose a good four inches in height. She realizes they've been standing in the middle of the sidewalk, half shouting at one another.

 

 

"You have a real talent for looming, you know that? It must come in handy when you're threatening Sam."

 

 

"I do not threaten."

 

 

"Whatevs. This is why you dumped me on the Winchesters, isn't it? In case Sam goes all dark side and Dean can't do what's needed. You got yourself a reformed assassin."

 

 

Castiel's silence stretches out for a long moment, giving her all the answer she needs. "Could you do this?"

 

 

"I think you know what you're asking me to do. Cross a line that I've crossed before, do something that nearly destroyed me."

 

 

"I am not Richard Wilkins."

 

 

"Or Michael Landon. Yeah, I got that."

 

 

"The future of this world -- of heaven and hell -- may rest on Sam. If he will not stop himself, and Dean can't stop him, will you stand between the world and utter darkness?"

 

 

Faith meets his gaze. "I love this world, even fucked up as it is. And when I get ganked, I'd much rather have you give me the grand tour of heaven than hell. Yeah, Castiel. I will do what needs to be done."

 


 

 

Neither of them has much to say after that. Faith mulls over her promise. She means it, but she wishes someone would want her for some reason besides killing. It's been the same fucking thing since she was sixteen. You're the special one, the one we've been waiting for. Chosen by Fate. Now, go forth and kill shit. Now "shit" has been extended to mean people. To mean Sam. Maybe. She can hope he'll wise up and stop doing whatever he's doing that makes angels want to kill him.

 

 

She stops to light up a smoke, and when she looks up from her cupped hands, she notices what she's been too distracted to take in. "The hell is that?"

 

 

The buildings just stop, leaving an open ground of parking lots, as if there's some kind of isolation zone everyone's agreed to maintain between their neighborhood and her blood-soaked battlefield.

 

 

Except not quite. There's a glass and steel building hunkered on the water's edge, looking like a monument to impossibility. Its wide, flat top hangs over its underslung base on the harbor side. Red and white signs proclaim that it's the ICA. "This wasn't here," Faith says.

 

 

"What was there?" Castiel asks, sounding like he already knows the answer.

 

 

"Fish processing plant. It was shut down by time I was patrolling here. Some kind of health violations scandal. Put a lot of people out of work, including both Steve's parents." She's talking all around it, but she's pushed all this stuff to the back of her mind for so long that there's a lot of boxes she'll have to shove out of the way before she reaches it.

 

 

As they set out across the expanse of asphalt, the wind cuts through her, but it brings the smell of saltwater. She's missed that, she realizes.

 

 

She remembers how it was down here. Seedy, scary after dark. Home to random vampire nests, at least until Kakistos set up shop, then things got a whole lot less random.

 

 

Now --

 

 

There's this gleaming building, a freakin' landscaped path along the water's edge, a fence covered with billboards pimping Fan Pier's shopping, homes and offices -- none of which are actually behind the fence. Financing problems, or a sign of supernatural shit?

 

 

"I'm not sure whether to be glad it's all different, or angry that there's no sign left at all," she says.

 

 

"There's life here," Castiel says. "Isn't that why she gave her own?"

 

 

"These people?" Dog walkers and joggers and people dressed like Castiel. A couple of smokers on the bleacher seats stretching from the building's entrance to the boardwalk below. "They don't know what she did for them. If they remember at all, they just think it was some murder related to drug wars."

 

 

"That's the nature of the war we fight."

 

 

"Well, I'm sick of war and fighting," she snaps. "Let somebody else do it."

 

 

"Others are doing it, Faith. But every one of them is needed where they are. You are needed to fight your battle."

 

 

"Just shut up a second!"

 

 

The stern gives way to anger, and Faith wonders if she's crossed the smiting line.

 

 

"Don't you know anything about people? Sometimes we've gotta blow off steam. Stomp and curse and say we're not gonna do what needs to be done. Then we pull our socks up and do it. It's not the time for a pep talk or a scolding, dude. Your job is to stand back and think, 'Oh man, sucks to be you' and wait for us to get over ourselves. Just give me some fucking space."

 

 

She stalks away and plunks herself down on the bottom row of the bleachers. Castiel takes himself off to a corner of the boardwalk, gazing out over the harbor. Faith wonders if he's working his angelic instant messengering, asking what the fuck he should do with his crazy slayer. Maybe he's just having a tourist moment.

 

 

She finishes her cigarette and lights another. When she's ground that one underfoot, she finds Castiel standing just off to the side. "You're willing to walk into battle on your own account. It's when you think of Pauline going unrecognized for her sacrifice that you grow angry at the injustice."

 

 

"Yeah, I guess that's it." She glances up at him, then out across the water. "Her death was so terrible." She knew this even before her own, that mirrored Pauline's in so many ways. "She was so scared, and the pain. The last words she said were to tell me to run. And that's what I did."

 

 

"You've never forgiven yourself for that."

 

 

"No." She braces for him to tell her that she should, which will be as useless a suggestion from an angel as from the others who've told her the same thing. Instead she feels his fingers brush the top of her head, and panic surges through her. "Don't!" She leaps to her feet and bats his hand away.

 

 

Castiel's breath hisses explosively and he folds in on himself, spinning away from her.

 

 

"Oh shit I'm sorry I'm sorry!" she yelps as he goes down on one knee.

 


 

 

Faith is frozen for a moment as Castiel's body tightens like a fist, protective of the injury. "Castiel --"

 

 

He looks up at her, pain and shock and puzzlement all mingled on his face. "Why did you do that?"

 

 

She flashes back to her dream, the angel on his knees awaiting the death blow, the three-headed demon holding with the angel's sword in one claw, his severed wing in its other. She can't bear knowing she's standing in the same position as the demon, Castiel at her feet. "I'm sorry, I panicked." Crouching beside him, she says, "Let me get you to the emergency room. You need stitches."

 

 

"You fear me?" He seems taken aback.

 

 

"It was a reaction. I thought you were --" She extends her index and ring fingers together, as she's seen him do.

 

 

Dismay creases his brow. As unreadable as he can be, there are moments when his emotions are painfully naked. Maybe it's just that this one is so familiar to Faith -- the unhappy realization of someone who's used to wielding fear as a weapon that he's just inspired it unintentionally. "C'mon, let me help you up." She gets him settled at the bottom of the bleachers. "Let me take a look."

 

 

Castiel intercepts the hand she reaches toward him, folding it in his own. "It doesn't matter. You believed I would interfere with your memories." He shakes his head. "I thought to -- I thought to comfort you."

 

 

"Ouch. I guess you haven't had much practice giving it, and I'm not that good at receiving it."

 

 

He makes no move to release her hand. "I would never alter your memories. You have my promise on this, Faith."

 

 

She nods but says nothing.

 

 

"I don't understand the conflict you feel, but I will not try to change it."

 

 

"I trust you." She gazes out over the water at the city skyline, familiar yet different. "When we started this whole conversation about Dean and Sam, I thought for all of ten seconds that I was here to help Dean deal with his shit. But it turns out I'm wanted to stand by for maybe more killing. It's been the same story since I was sixteen." She turns back toward him. "I just keep hoping I can be destined to do something different. Something good."

 

 

Castiel's expression changes to complete bewilderment. "You have been entrusted with the safeguarding of God's beloved creation. This is something angels aspire to."

 

 

She blinks, unable to absorb this piece of information.

 

 

"You saved countless numbers of my brethren last night. I know what it is to see my comrades fall around me. You prevented a slaughter, because of the kind of warrior you are. I would have been the first to fall. I'm grateful to you, on behalf of myself and my brothers."

 

 

"I hadn't thought about it like that." It's difficult to force the words through the tightness in her throat.

 

 

"Do you see the value in what you do?"

 

 

Faith struggles to come up with something more meaningful to say than "yeah," but before anything comes to mind she hears a voice behind her.

 

 

"Mark."

 

 

The word floods her system with adrenaline, and she slips her hand out of Castiel's, reaching in her jacket pocket for the automatic knife she keeps there. Surging to her feet, she whirls to meet this intruder, flicking the blade open.

 


 

 

The man who's accosted them is dressed a lot like Castiel, a few years older than he appears to be. He takes a step backwards, hands thrown up.

 

 

"Faith," Castiel says behind her.

 

 

"What the fuck do you want?" she snarls at the man.

 

 

"Faith, stand down."

 

 

She drops her arm to her side, but doesn't put the knife away.

 

 

"Mark, what the hell is going on? Who's she?"

 

 

Unsteadily, Castiel gets to his feet behind her. "I am not the person you believe me to be."

 

 

"Yeah, I heard about all that. The religion thing." He shoots a dark look at Faith. "I guess that's run its course."

 

 

"You've mistaken me for someone else," Castiel says.

 

 

"You heard him," Faith says, still standing guard in front of Castiel. "Take a hike."

 

 

The guy ignores her. "Right. We shared an office for five years, Mark. I'm not going to fall for that. What's gotten into you? I know what happened sent you into some kind of tailspin, but it's time to pull out of it."

 

 

"I realize you mean well," Castiel says. "But this matter does not concern you. Faith." He takes her arm as if to lead her away, but she gets the feeling before too long she'll be supporting him. She wishes she hadn't gotten the stupid idea to take a walk.

 

 

"Don't you think it concerns Claire?" the guy challenges. "How about Stephen? His father disappears without a word. Last I heard, they didn't know if you were dead or alive."

 

 

Castiel turns back for a moment. His eyes are full of the same sad tenderness he'd lavished on Faith a while ago. "I can't help you."

 

 

"Let me help you," the guy says. "Let's talk. Without her. We can go back into the cafe and you can tell me what's going on. Everyone's out of their minds with worry about you."

 

 

"You want to help him, fuck off," Faith snaps. "He's not the guy you think."

 

 

"He'll come to his senses sooner or later, honey, and you'll be out in the cold. If he's smart he'll do it before he wrecks his whole life."

 

 

"Thanks for the relationship advice, sugar tits," she shoots back. "C'mon."

 

 

As Castiel turns to walk away with her, the guy says, "Is that blood?"

 

 

Bright red is just starting to seep into the neck of Castiel's white shirt. Shit. Fuckin' great timing.

 

 

The guy actually flicks a glance to the knife in her hand, then back to Castiel.

 

 

"We had some trouble last night," Faith says. "Mugging. That's why I'm a little on edge. Not a great time for the Big Lebowski act." She makes an elaborate show of folding her blade and shoving it back in her pocket. "I hope your friend turns up safe, all right? But it's not him."

 

 

She takes Castiel's arm and leads him away, and the guy finally lets the matter drop.

 

 

"Jesus," she mutters when they've gotten some distance. "Sorry. It's just -- how bizarre was that? How could he be so sure he recognized you?"

 

 

"Because he did," Castiel says.

 


 

 

"What?"

 

 

"He recognized this vessel."

 

 

"Vessel?" Faith feels slow and stupid.

 

 

"My physical form."

 

 

"You mean there's a template or something? Like the Cylons? He's run into one of your brothers?" This time she's being willfully dense, she knows that. Angels don't have wives and kids.

 

 

"No, Faith," Castiel says in a tone that makes it clear he knows she's trying to tapdance around the truth.

 

 

"This isn't just a body," she says. "It's someone's body. You hijacked a human host."

 

 

"It was in no way a hijacking."

 

 

"Commandeered, then. 'Excuse me, sir. Angelic business, I'll need that body.'"

 

 

Castiel scowls. The bloodstain on his shirt has grown larger. "This vessel was offered to me. For the Lord's work."

 

 

"What kind of person offers their body for an angel to possess?"

 

 

"He was a relentless seeker."

 

 

"So you really are this man Mark." A strange thought blows through her unbidden, like a gust of cold wind off the harbor. What if she's been following a religious nut who thinks he's an angel? It seems plausible for the space of about three seconds, until she remembers dying and then waking up, fevered but whole.

 

 

"I really am Castiel," he says. "Do you require proof, as Dean did?"

 

 

"No," Faith admits. "I know who you are."

 

 

"This bothers you."

 

 

"Yeah. I hijacked someone's body some years ago when I was completely out of control. I caused a fair amount of damage. This guy Mark has a wife and a kid."

 

 

"The damage that was done occurred before I accepted his offering."

 

 

"From what that guy said, sounded like he was some kind of religious nut." She flinches as it belatedly occurs to her that's not the most politically correct way to word it when talking to an angel.

 

 

Castiel gives her a sidelong glance. "I think the popularly accepted term is 'obsessed.'"

 

 

"His friend said something happened. Sounded like he blamed that. Do you know what it was?"

 

 

"He survived a massacre. A madman with a gun on a commuter train."

 

 

Faith whistles. Studying Castiel as they walk together, she tries to see him as this Mark. A guy with a wife and kid and a job she'd no doubt think completely boring, thrust into violence so sudden and senseless that he couldn't make any sense of his own survival. She feels a stab of pity for this stranger, who needed to give his life away to find any meaning in it.

 

 

What was he like before the massacre? Was he this blazingly intense, or did he laugh easily? Was he a nice guy or a dick? Everyone's out of their minds with worry about you, his friend said. He had friends, including one who'd face down a girl with a knife to try to talk Mark out of madness. Where is Mark now? Is he riding along with Castiel, aware of his purpose being carried out, or is he cocooned in the warmth and bliss Buffy found in heaven? She's so not ready to ask that question.

 

 

All at once she realizes she's been thinking so hard about the man who once inhabited Castiel's vessel that she's missed the physical distress of its current owner. His footsteps have slowed, and he's beginning to weave, a little like a drunk who's concentrating hard on his efforts to look sober.

 

 

Catching his arm, she says, "Hey," and he turns to face her.

 

 

The red stain has spread, and he looks pale and unfocused.

 

 

"Let's find a place for you to sit, and I'll go get the car. I never should've dragged you out walking."

 

 

"You left the decision to me. I was fine."

 

 

"Before I whacked you and tore open your wound. I feel so much better now." She looks around for anyplace she can stash him while she runs for the car, but the benches are back toward the waterfront.

 

 

A luxury car glides by, too slowly for her comfort.

 

 

"Let's get going," she says. "It's not far." It's a damn sight farther than she'd like. She's half carrying him by the time they make it back to her car. When she gets him settled in the passenger seat, he's clammy and practically boneless. "I'm getting you to a hospital."

 

 

He turns toward her, but doesn't seem to be focusing on her. "Do you believe for a moment that he hasn't called the authorities?"

 

 

That's a tough one. Bleeding guy in business clothes, missing for god knows how long, with aggressive, knife-wielding chick in leather and denim? No, she really doesn't believe that. "You need to be stitched up," she snaps.

 

 

"Then stitch me up," he says.

 

 

"You've got to be shittin' me." She puts the car in gear and eases into traffic.

 

 

But there's no answer, and by the time she glances at him, he's passed out against the door.

 


 

 

Faith tries to sort out her next move as she attempts to find her way through a city stripped of its Central Artery landmark. If someone's going to be looking for them, the last place they'd be expected to go is down to the Cape. It's the off-season down there, so there wouldn't be a swarm of people in someplace like P-town.

 

 

But there's a reason no one would expect that -- it's a shitty plan. They'd be backing themselves into the tightest corner in the whole lower 48. Their chances are better if they head inland, where there are options and a spreading network of roads, and not enough cops to cover them all. Problem is, they can't go far. The knife slash needs attention, the sooner the better.

 

 

The one bright spot is that Mark's friend can't identify her car.

 

 

Her cellphone chirps and she pulls it out, muttering curses. "Yeah."

 

 

"Faith, it's Giles."

 

 

"Not the best time for a chat."

 

 

"I didn't expect that, given your message." Oh. Yeah. This wouldn't be a social call. "Are you in danger?"

 

 

"Not immediately," she says. "What about everyone there -- are they safe? I couldn't reach anyone."

 

 

"Minor injuries at worst. We had a flurry of demonic activity over here."

 

 

"Here too. We'll have to talk about that soon. Something big is trying to raise something bigger, and it's a lot of battles that add up to something apocalyptic."

 

 

"So you said in your message."

 

 

"Did I? Shit, Giles, I'm so tired I don't remember what I said. I haven't slept since I left it. That's important, but right now, I've got something else to deal with."

 

 

"Tell me, Faith. I'll help in any way I can."

 

 

"I've got an injured angel in my car. We're past first aid and onto third aid, but I can't take him to a hospital."

 

 

There's an eruption of stammering, then Giles says, "Angel? But we all thought --"

 

 

"Not Angel. An angel. Harps, haloes, the whole deal, except not. Some demon sliced him open with a knife, and he needs stitches."

 

 

"Is it life threatening?" The sound goes muffled, and she can faintly hear him ordering someone around on his end.

 

 

"Who knows with an angel. I don't think so. It's more a slash, but he's torn open the butterflies I put on, and he's losing blood."

 

 

"Right," Giles says briskly, and suddenly Faith feels better about things. "Do you still have the book Xander gave you?"

 

 

"Book?"

 

 

"Where There Is No Doctor."

 

 

Right, yeah. Xander had presented her with a copy of the handbook he'd sworn by on his African travels, telling her, "If you're going to go charging off on your own, at least take this." She'd rolled her eyes, but she'd taken it.

 

 

"Sure," she tells Giles. "It's in the trunk of my car."

 

 

"Good. The book will tell you what to do, but I can walk you through the first bit." She hears the rustle of pages being turned, and pictures him bent over his desk, peering through his own copy of the book. "Did this happen less than twelve hours ago?"

 

 

"Yeah, but we're cutting it close."

 

 

"If it's going to be done at all, you must do it soon. But not if there's infection or any dirt or foreign matter in the cut which you can't remove."

 

 

"Got it."

 

 

"You'll need some supplies. A needle, nylon or silk thread, a suction bulb to wash out the wound. You'll need to find some way to boil water."

 

 

"I'm gonna need a motel room with a kitchenette, and I don't know where to find one."

 

 

Another muffled mush of sound, then Giles says, "We'll find something online, just tell me where you are."

 

 

"Boston. Beyond that, I don't fucking know." Without warning she finds herself about to cry. "Everything's fucked up, they tore down my landmarks. Hang on, I see a sign to Mass Pike."

 

 

"Mass Pi--"

 

 

"The turnpike. I-90." She relays her exact location once she merges onto the Pike, and Giles feeds the info to whoever's on the computer. In a few moments she has directions to a couple of motels on the outskirts. "Ain't modern life something," she says. "People in London finding me a place to crash in Boston."

 

 

"See that you do get some rest," Giles says gently.

 

 

"I'll do what I can. We may have cops on our ass."

 

 

"Why is that?"

 

 

"Castiel's walking around in human form. A guy he possessed -- he gets pissed when you put it that way, but it's the shorthand. We ran into a friend of the original owner. Didn't go that well." She almost misses her exit and has to veer across a couple lanes of traffic, jostling Castiel to consciousness. "I gotta go, Giles. I can't talk and drive."

 

 

"Stay in touch," he says urgently. "Let us help if you need us."

 

 

"Thanks," she says fervently, and breaks the connection.

 


 

 

Faith flicks a glance at Castiel as she waits at the stoplight at the end of the off-ramp. He looks rough. "How are you holding up?" she asks, mostly out of curiosity about what he'll say. She can't imagine him lying, but she can't picture him admitting that he feels like hell, either.

 

 

"Where is this?"

 

 

"Avoidance," she says. "Good choice. We're headed for a motel so I can get that gash sewn up."

 

 

He doesn't respond, looking like he's about to pass out again.

 

 

"Castiel," she says sharply. "Stay with me. There's a lever under your seat that lowers the back. Find it, and tilt your seat back as far as it will go." She spots the first motel, letting out a relieved sigh to see the lighted Vacancy sign. "I'll go in and get a room. You're sleeping in the car because you've been a busy, busy boy. I won't be long, but if anyone comes up, don't get out, don't turn your face toward the window."

 

 

Faith turns into the parking lot entrance, stopping just beyond to feel around the back seat for the blanket wadded up there from her nap at the truck stop. Tucking it around him, she arranges it so his trench coat and bloody shirt are well covered. On an impulse she ruffles his hair so it looks messy with sleep, and the contact creates a complex mixture of feelings, tender and sexual and extremely confused.

 

 

She pinches the shit out of her own cheeks to bring the color up. "Don't pull off the blanket, either," she orders. "Just stay like this and I'll be back as soon as I can." She pulls the car up to the motel office. "Tell me what you're supposed to do."

 

 

"Nothing," he says, drifting. "Sleeping."

 

 

It'll have to be good enough. She gets out of the car, locking the doors. When she bursts into the motel office, she's flushed and smiling, working the dimples for all she's worth. "Hey there!" she greets the desk clerk, a scowling woman on the far side of middle age. "Do you have a room with a kitchenette? My husband and I are on our honeymoon, and we'd rather stick close to the room, if you know what I mean."

 

 

"Here?"

 

 

"Well, ya know, we're so broke we don't have a spot to kiss in --" she waves her left hand "-- no ring, even -- and any night away from the monster-in-law is a honeymoon, if ya catch my drift. Probably a room down at the end would be good. We can get loud, if you get my meaning."

 

 

"It's hard not to," the woman says, but she's looking grudgingly amused.

 

 

Faith winks. "The actual wedding was two weeks ago, and my cousin had to Photoshop the hickeys off our wedding portrait. You know what I'm sayin'."

 

 

"Ohh, yeah," the clerk says, more amused, less grudging.

 

 

"He's out there conked out in the car, but I'm gonna go rustle up some Red Bull or caffeine pills or somethin'. There a drugstore around here?"

 

 

"Walgreens, just down the road."

 

 

"Awesome. Cash is okay, right? We don't own credit cards, cause we've seen so many of our friends get into deep doo with those. I don't have to tell you."

 

 

"Cash is fine, hon."

 

 

The "hon" makes Faith's dimples come out for real. She hauls out a wad of cash from her pockets. "How long will this buy us?"

 

 

Not that much, from the look on the clerk's face. "We have a cash discount," she says. "How long have you got?"

 

 

"Three nights is all we can manage."

 

 

"That's exactly what it works out to." She pushes two keys across the desk and, after a moment's thought, one of the twenties Faith put on the counter. "You two need some food, too."

 

 

"Oh no, ma'am," Faith says. "You keep that." She pushes the twenty back toward the clerk. "We got Walmart gift cards." That happens to be the one true thing she's said since she set foot in the office. Faith always keeps a stash of gift cards in case she needs to ditch the credit and debit cards and fly under the radar.

 

 

"If you're sure..."

 

 

"Totally."

 

 

"There's one right across from the drugstore." The clerk puts the pair of keys in Faith's hand. "Last room on your left. We'll leave you alone, but if you want anything, just call or stop in, and we'll take care of it."

 

 

"You are such a peach!" Faith exclaims. She fills out the registration with some creative lies and half truths, in the meantime adding more bits of oversharing. When she steps out of the office, the clerk's friendly laughter trailing behind her, she mutters to herself, "Faith Lehane, you are going straight to hell."

 


 

 

If Faith needed any proof of how well the newlywed routine worked, their room at the far end would provide it. When she opens the door, she's greeted by the sight of the one bed that takes up a good half of the room.

 

 

"Christ," she mutters, then adds a Sorry, even though Castiel's still in the car. Well, it won't be the first floor she's slept on, or the last, either.

 

 

Leaving the room door open, she helps Castiel out of the car, keeping the blanket draped around him. His color's slightly better since he's been lying down, which relieves her. Faith parks him on the edge of the bed and returns to the car for her bag, digging the copy of Where There Is No Doctor out of the toolkit in the trunk.

 

 

"You want to be lying down," Faith says when she returns, "but not quite flat. Keep that wound elevated. Get those clothes off first." She hopes she manages to sound as brisk and businesslike as Giles. "I'm gonna put on some water to boil." Rummaging in the cupboards, she pulls out as many pots as will fit on the stovetop. They're cheap, dented aluminum pots, but they'll hold water. She gets them filled and sitting on the burners, then pages through the book to see what else she needs.

 

 

"I've got two jobs for you to do." She turns to find Castiel still sitting on the edge of the king bed, fully dressed. "Three. Number one, don't faint." Going to him, she tugs off the blanket and begins easing off his coat. "Second, if you can put any pressure on that wound, do. We need to slow down the bleeding." Faith sucks in a breath as she sees how much the bloodstain on his shirt has spread. "Third, once the water boils, shut off the burners on all but the biggest pot. I need some water that's been boiled but cooled off, but I'll have to boil some things. I have to run out for supplies, and it'll start boiling when I'm gone. You'll hear it when it's ready. This pot stays on, the others you turn off. Can you hang in and do that?"

 

 

"Yes." Castiel sounds irritated, which she takes as a good sign.

 

 

She gets him situated in bed, propped up slightly, with a folded towel on the knife slash. Taking his hand, she places it on the towel, pressing down with her own. "As much pressure as you can," she says, as his breath hisses inward. "Yeah, I know. But it'll help. I'll be back as quick as I can make it." As she rises her fingertips brush across the skin of his arm, and she thinks again what a well-formed body he's chosen while he's earthbound -- but this time she can't help thinking of the man who took care of it before Castiel stepped in. "Don't let anyone in."

 

 

She's heading across the Walmart parking lot when her phone rings. "Yeah."

 

 

"Where the hell have you been?"

 

 

"Hello to you too, Dean."

 

 

"I mean it. You were supposed to check in."

 

 

"Yeah, well, things have happened. For starters, I got him patched up, and he popped everything open again. I'm getting ready to sew him up this time, just have to get some supplies."

 

 

"You don't already have that in your first aid kit?"

 

 

"Believe it or not, the way I've managed to live my life so far, I've never had to sew anybody up. Anything else you feel like giving me shit about? I'll try hard to give a rip."

 

 

A young woman gives her a dirty look, and Faith realizes she's just said "shit" in front of her precious gaggle of tots.

 

 

"Sorry. Guess I'm on edge," Dean says.

 

 

"Anything going on?"

 

 

"Nah, just getting ready to head up to Bobby's place in South Dakota. Think you can meet us there when you can get away?"

 

 

"Don't see why not. I'll call for directions when I'm ready to head out there." She waves off the greeter who tries to shove a shopping cart on her, picks up a hand basket. (So convenient for goin' to hell, she thinks.) She heads for the first aid aisle, starts tossing boxes of gauze and bandages into the basket, along with plenty of tape and a bottle of peroxide. "These guys, when they play poker, they ain't playin' for matchsticks."

 

 

Dean snorts. "You must've met Uriel."

 

 

"Who's Muriel?"

 

 

He laughs out loud. "Uriel. One of Castiel's ... colleagues. He's a total dick. Was it one of the others, then?"

 

 

"No. Just him. Did you know his name was Mark?"

 

 

"Whose name?"

 

 

Looking around, Faith lowers her voice. "The vessel. The guy whose body Castiel hijacked."

 

 

"Castiel told me the guy was real religious. He prayed for that."

 

 

"So what if he did? Did his wife and kid pray for it? Did his friends?"

 

 

There's a long silence on the other end. "What makes you think he's got a family?"

 

 

"We ran into a friend of his, which didn't go that well. I'm just sayin', Dean. Don't get me wrong, I'd rather help these guys than the other team. But there's a chance we'll pay a price. These boys play hardball."

 

 

"Wait, I thought they were playing poker."

 

 

"Dick." She snaps the phone shut, jams it in her pocket, then goes in search of the sewing aisle.

 


 

 

When Faith pulls the car up outside their room, she finds an offering awaiting her by the door. A vase of flowers, nothing fancy, the kind you can find in a big cooler at the grocery store. A bottle of wine with a silver bow tied around its neck. Abruptly, she finds herself blinking away tears. It's just the lack of sleep, she tells herself.

 

 

She lets herself into the room, which is now warmer and more humid due to the four pots of steaming water. Castiel appears to be sleeping, so she rummages in one of the Walmart bags for the thread, needles, scissors and rubber bulb and drops them all into the one pot of still-boiling water.

 

 

Then she brings in the wine, the flowers and the last of the bags, locking and chaining the door behind her. She sets the vase on the bedside table and pulls out the drawer to arrange the bandages and tape close at hand.

 

 

Castiel's face twitches slightly as he catches the scent of the flowers, and he turns his face toward them, drawing in a breath. He opens his eyes.

 

 

"Hey," she greets him. "You ready for the stitch 'n' bitch?"

 

 

"You brought flowers?"

 

 

"They're a gift from the lady who runs the motel. She thinks we just got married. I'm gonna wash my hands, then I'll take a look at that."

 

 

Once she's scrubbed her hands and forearms, she perches on the bed next to Castiel. "How are you feeling?"

 

 

"How did she come to assume we were married?"

 

 

Faith offers a sheepish smile. "Wasn't so much assuming as believing."

 

 

"You told her that."

 

 

Lifting Castiel's hand from the towel, she peeks beneath at the knife gash. "If we do have cops on our ass, they're looking for a tough girl with a rich guy. If they talk to her, what she remembers is a sweet and horny couple who just got married and barely have a dime for their honeymoon. Bleeding's almost stopped. I'll get this cleaned up, then we get to the fun stuff. I've always wanted to learn to sew."

 

 

He takes this with characteristic solemnity. It's hard to remember that she made him laugh just a few hours ago.

 

 

"Back in a second." She heads for the bathroom, where she tosses the towel into the tub and opens the faucet to rinse out the worst of the blood. She grabs a washcloth and another towel, then takes one of the cooling pans off the stove and sets it next to the vase. "Speaking of the cover story, I got you some clothes. Anyone sees you wearing things that cost more than I paid for my car, we'll have a tough time convincing them we are who we say we are."

 

 

"I can't lie."

 

 

Faith wets the washcloth in the pan on the nightstand and gently wipes at the gash crossing his collarbone. "I figured. I've got enough bullshit for the two of us, just let me take the lead." She tosses the cloth in the plastic-lined wastebasket and pats his skin dry with the towel. Impassive, he gazes up at the ceiling. It drives her nuts that she can't read him at all. "Brace yourself. Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman is in the house."

 

 

She tosses the bloody linens in with the other towel in the tub and fishes her equipment out of the boiling water. After a quick review of the book how to suture the wound and a string of curses as she attempts to thread the needle, she reseats herself. "You ready?"

 

 

He meets her gaze. "Don't be afraid."

 

 

Faith's mouth drops open. "That's supposed to be my line."

 

 

"I already know you can't harm me." He takes her hand in his, and she remembers the heat of his palm against her fevered brow. "Steady," he murmurs, and somehow her jitters subside.

 

 

Faith takes the first stitch at the center of the slash with total concentration. The feel of the needle tugging through his flesh makes her stomach roll. She flicks a glance at his face.

 

 

"You're doing fine, Faith."

 

 

She triple-knots the thread as the book shows, letting out a breath when she's finished. "You know what would make a first-class torture in hell for someone like me? Having to thread a needle half a dozen times in a sitting." She sets about preparing for the second stitch, finally yanking the lampshade off the bedside lamp so she can see the needle's eye a little better. "Pretty dusty," she says. "I'd better go wash my hands again." When she finishes washing up, she takes a few deep breaths, hoping to settle her stomach, then goes back to it.

 

 

"So," she says after she's pushed the needle through again, "how are you liking your excellent adventure now?"

 

 

"I've learned so much more than I could have anticipated. From walking the earth in human form alone, but especially since I've been forced to stay in this skin."

 

 

She looks at his face once she's finished with the second knot, and his eyes seem a brighter blue than they were before.

 

 

"To know what it is to be close to death, to feel the awareness of mortality. I feel I understand so much more about what drives humans."

 

 

"But angels can die. You said so."

 

 

"We know that we can die. You know that you will die. The difference is profound."

 

 

"Well, most of the time we shove that right out of our brains." She threads the needle a third time.

 

 

"Yet avoidance is, at its heart, about that awareness."

 

 

"I guess you're right."

 

 

"So many revelations in such a short space of time. The fragility of these bodies. I brought my own invincibility to this vessel, which wasn't broken until I encountered the demons with the mark. Experiencing weakness and dependence and my impatience with them both --" He pauses, holding his breath as Faith draws the needle through his flesh. "It's been a gift."

 

 

"You are such a Pollyanna."

 

 

"I have been privileged to see the workings of my Father, that's all," he says. "I do not know each and every plan He holds, but I trust in them."

 

 

Faith finishes tying off the thread and snips it near the knot. "You said before that you're beginning to have doubts."

 

 

"I have been praying for more faith."

 

 

"Does that work?"

 

 

His jaw tightens as she takes another stitch. "I trust that I'm in good hands."

 

 

"It's hard to let go and be in someone else's hands. At least until you screw up so bad you're grateful to turn over the wheel."

 

 

Castiel nods. "This is another thing I share with humanity. The frustration at being unable to take more direct action. I understand Dean and Sam better now than I once did."

 

 

"So this --" she gestures at the half-stitched slash, the room -- "this is all part of God's plan?"

 

 

"He chose me to walk among you. Perhaps He chose that I should not just pass undetected, but experience life more as you do."

 

 

Faith can see where that logic, taken to extremes, might lead. She keeps her yap shut, tying off another stitch, trying not to think too much about the warm, smooth skin bared for her needle.

 


 

 

After she finishes stitching him up, she finds herself trembling from the effort of concentration. "You still want to be careful with this. No way in hell do I want to do this again." She reaches for the gauze and tape.

 

 

"I'd like to see," Castiel says.

 

 

"No point suing me for malpractice," she jokes. "I don't have two nickels to rub together."

 

 

He's steady enough to make it to the bathroom without help.

 

 

"I'm warning you," she says, hovering. "It's kind of ugly. You'll have a scar."

 

 

Castiel gazes into the mirror, as enthralled as if he's a starlet getting her first look at her Beverly Hills nose job. He raises a hand toward the stitches.

 

 

"Don't touch. You'll want to keep that clean and dry."

 

 

"All the scars and imperfections of this body were erased when I took it over," he says. "I rewrote its history."

 

 

It kills her how he finds every experience, no matter how painful, worth examining and wondering at. "Now you've got history of your own. C'mon, let me get that bandaged up for you, then we can both catch some sleep." As she tapes the gauze over his freshly-minted scar, she says, "If this gets hot or painful or starts oozing crud, let me know right away. Otherwise, the stitches stay in for ten days." She shakes a couple of pills out of a big plastic bottle. "Take these. Antibiotics." Though she expects an argument, he does as ordered, then retreats back to the bed.

 

 

Faith finishes rinsing out the towels, hanging them over the tub's edge, shoves his bloody clothes into one of the garbage bags she bought, then starts putting away the few groceries she bought at Walmart.

 

 

"You need rest," Castiel says.

 

 

"I'm windin' down. Takes me a while." She rummages in the closet for an extra blanket and pillows, and arranges them on the floor.

 

 

"What are you doing?"

 

 

"Making a bed."

 

 

"There's a bed in front of you."

 

 

"It's your bed."

 

 

"It's an extremely large bed." Castiel's brow furrows. "I wasn't aware that sleeping was one of those bodily functions that create such embarrassment for humans."

 

 

Faith aims a glare at him. "You're determined to make this worse, aren't you?"

 

 

"To make what worse?"

 

 

She huffs an exasperated breath. "It's friggin' awkward sharin' a bed with an angel, that's what."

 

 

"You're going to sleep. I'm going to pray. I don't understand why you should find that awkward."

 

 

"It's a human thing. You wouldn't understand."

 

 

"It's pointless. You've been without sleep for two days now. Why should you lie on the floor when there's a bed that's large enough for several more people?"

 

 

"Fine," Faith blurts. "You win." Tossing her pillow onto the bed, she wraps up in the blanket and curls on her side at the farthest edge of the bed. "Less praying," she orders him. "More resting."

 

 

She sinks rapidly into sleep and stays under for a long time, dreamless. That changes, after a time. She finds herself on a battlefield, the only combatant standing, dead angels in wings and trenchcoats all around her. In front of her is a manhole cover with raised lettering: SEAL #529 NEENAH FOUNDRY COMPANY, NEENAH, WI. It raises up, balanced on the head of a giant snake.

 

 

"Hello, Faith," says the snake.

 


 

 

Faith jackknifes up in bed, gasping.

 

 

There's a stranger sitting at the rickety wooden table by the kitchenette.

 

 

"Who the fuck are you?" she demands, but she realizes it's Castiel a heartbeat before he says so. His silhouette is entirely different in jeans and a tee.

 

 

He sets down the book that he's been holding, unopened, and approaches. "You were dreaming." He perches on the edge of the bed like a parent comforting a kid with nightmares.

 

 

"Yeah. About a seal. A battle. Lots of dead angels. Big fuckin' snake demon. In my dream it was Mayor Wilkins, but he's dead." She notices the price tag dangling from the sleeve of his gray tee, and can't suppress a smile. "Let me snip that off." Scooching across the expanse of the king bed, she retrieves the scissors from the other bedside table. He was right. This is one big damn bed. But when she crawls back closer to him, it seems a helluva lot less so.

 

 

"Was there anything else?"

 

 

"Yeah. The seal, it was a manhole cover. It had a number, and it said Neenah, Wisconsin. Could be one of those stupid details your brain picks up, could be a slayer dream. We should probably err on the side of slayer dream."

 

 

"I agree." Castiel submits to her cutting off the price tag with the same indifference he'd shown to her sewing him up.

 

 

"Stand up and turn around. I'm thinkin' you left the tag on the pants, too." As delicately as possible, she lifts the hem of the tee and finds the stiff paper tag still clipped over his waistband. "Pardon my reach." Faith slips her fingers down inside the waistband to pop the tag off its anchoring threads. Funny how she's slipped his clothes off more than once, but it's this contact that gives her the strongest sexual buzz yet. She checks his jeans leg for one of the long, clear size labels stores put on folded pants, and peels it off. "There." She pushes down the tremendous urge to slide her hand back around to the small of his back. "Guess I'd better call the boys, tell them to saddle up."

 

 

Faith pinballs around Castiel, searching for her cellphone, finally locating it on the bedside table where she'd started out. She hits the speed dial, plops down on the bed, then jumps up again.

 

 

"Yeah," Dean answers.

 

 

"It's Faith. Change of plan. I had a slayer dream. Or I think it's a slayer dream, it could be an anxiety dream, but since it's pretty fricken reasonable to have anxiety about a big battle with lots of dead angels and an open seal, I'm gonna treat it like a slayer dream."

 

 

There's a pause as he sorts out this rapid-fire burst. "Yeah. Makes sense. Any specifics?"

 

 

"Not so much. Except the seal was a manhole cover, and it said it was made in Neenah, Wisconsin."

 

 

"Sonofabitch."

 

 

"What?"

 

 

"I hate Wisconsin. All the weirdest shit goes down there. Shape-shifters. Shtrigas. Fucking killer clowns. Lemme get Sammy on the laptop. Nina like the girl's name?"

 

 

"Nah, two Es. Can't remember if there was an H on the end."

 

 

Dean passes on this info, then relays Sam's response. "Sammy says there's probably millions of these manhole covers around. They used to be all over New York City, he says. They all have Neenah, Wisconsin stamped on them."

 

 

"Would've been asking a lot, to have one of these dreams be literal and easy to follow."

 

 

"Doesn't mean it's not a massive hint," Dean says. "There were omens in Wisconsin. Didn't seem like anything was brewing when Sam went to check it out, but it's worth a second look. Dickeyville's across the state from Neenah, but Sam's running a search on both of 'em, and the whole state."

 

 

"Call when you've got something." Scowling, she snaps the phone shut. "Dammit. I woulda killed for a shower."

 

 

"Why don't you have one?" Castiel suggests. "Give me your phone."

 

 

Faith doesn't hesitate for more than a heartbeat. Handing it over, she says, "I won't be more than a few minutes." As it turns out, it's less than a few seconds. "Shit shit shit!" Emerging from the bathroom, she tells him, "We used all the towels. I'm gonna go get more." She slings the wet ones into a garbage bag, jams her bare feet into her boots and heads for the motel office.

 

 

A chime announces Faith's entrance, and the clerk looks up from her magazine, breaking into a grin. "Well, hey there. How are the honeymooners?"

 

 

"Aw, it couldn't be better. And the flowers and wine, that was the sweetest thing, ma'am."

 

 

"Trudy."

 

 

Faith beams at her. "Thank you so much, Trudy. We haven't even gotten to the wine yet, we just conked out the second we took a break, if you know what I mean."

 

 

Trudy laughs. "I think I do. And you're welcome. You're such a delightful kid, I wanted to do something." She glances at the bundle in Faith's arms. "I know you didn't leave him for a little chat -- what can I do for you?"

 

 

"This is so embarrassing. We need new towels. We got a little ... rowdy last night, and I accidentally elbowed him in the nose, and he bled and bled and bled. I rinsed out the towels, so I think they'll be fine, but they're all wet."

 

 

Rising from her chair, Trudy says, "Is he okay? You think it's broken? I'll get someone to cover and can drive you over to the ER if you need."

 

 

Faith waves off her offer. "Oh no, he's fine. He's got one of those whatchamacallits, a deviant septum. You look at him crosseyed, he gets a nosebleed. It's how we met, actually. I was waitressing and he sprung a gusher right at the table. Oh, listen to me, I'm totally yammering. You've been so sweet. I'm really sorry about the towels."

 

 

"Don't you worry, they'll bleach." Trudy takes the bundle from her and disappears into the back for a moment, returning with a stack of fresh towels. "You bring that boy to the office before you two leave. I want to meet him."

 

 

"I'll do that, Trudy. Thank you so much." Faith backs out the door, arms around the linens, and turns to see a blue-and-white pull up to the curb.

 

 

Heart hammering, she nods at the officers and walks on. Both doors open, and one of the cops says, "That's the girl."

 


 

 

Faith throws the towels toward the cop car and takes off at a dead run across the parking lot. She doesn't get far before a pair of Taser darts hit her in the small of the back and short out every synapse in her body. Tumbling gracelessly to the ground, she skins hands and elbows and chin on the asphalt. Before she can regain any control over her body, her arms are jerked behind her and cuffed.

 

 

"Why'd you run, huh?" says the cop who's cuffing her. He lets her lie there a moment, still twitching and gasping.

 

 

Trudy steams out of the office. "What the hell are you doing to that girl?"

 

 

"Stay back, ma'am," says the other cop. Faith can't see him from where she lies. "Have you seen this man with her?"

 

 

"She's here with her husband," Trudy says. Outrage crackles in her voice. "Those kids are on their honeymoon."

 

 

"Is this him?"

 

 

"I don't know, I haven't met him. But I know she hasn't done anything to deserve this. For god's sake, get her off the ground."

 

 

"Which one is their room?"

 

 

"It's down at the end."

 

 

"Stay right here, ma'am, in case I need the passkey." He walks into Faith's line of vision as the other cop crouches beside her.

 

 

"I'm going to search your pockets. Anything sharp in there? Needles, or a knife?"

 

 

"No," she says, grateful she ran out without her jacket. If the cops search the room and find her weapons bag, though, she's thoroughly fucked.

 

 

"She's bleeding," Trudy says.

 

 

"Yes, ma'am. Which she wouldn't be, if she hadn't run. Why don't you go stand there by the office door and let me do my job?"

 

 

"It's all right, Trudy," Faith says. Last thing she wants is Trudy getting Tased and hog-tied next to her.

 

 

The officer who isn't running his hands through her pockets (nice payback, God, she thinks) pounds on their door with his Maglite. "Police, can you open up?"

 

 

Faith can barely breathe in the moment it takes for Castiel to come to the door. He's on her cellphone, and when he sees the scene in the parking lot, he says into the phone, "I need to go." Closing the phone, he keeps it in his hand. "Is something wrong? Why do you have her under restraint?"

 

 

He asks with such an intent calm that the officer doesn't even react to being questioned.

 

 

"Are you Mark Randal?"

 

 

He inclines his head without directly saying. "There's a problem of some kind?"

 

 

"That's what we're trying to find out. Friend of yours seemed to think so. He thought maybe you weren't with this woman of your own free will."

 

 

Faith holds her breath as she waits for Castiel's answer. He's actually said angels don't exactly operate under free will, and he's incapable of lying. She wonders what a kidnapping charge and her history will buy her in terms of prison time.

 

 

"I'm under no duress," Castiel says.

 

 

"Your friend said the girl pulled a knife on him, and that you looked injured."

 

 

"She perceived him as a threat. He caught us off guard, and we'd had some trouble the night before. That's when I was hurt."

 

 

"And you didn't call the police then?"

 

 

"No." Castiel adds no explanation, and Faith can see the lack of information is beginning to rub the cop the wrong way.

 

 

"Why wouldn't a couple of law-abiding citizens go to the police?"

 

 

"We had other concerns."

 

Shit. Now his calm and his lack of deference are starting to piss off the officer.

 

 

"Now what could possibly concern you more than the kind of trouble that makes your girlfriend pull a knife on some guy?"

 

 

Can Castiel read the sarcasm creeping into the cop's tone? Does he have any idea what thin ice he's on?

 

 

"We thought something like this might happen."

 

Shit shit shit.This is not helping, she thinks at him with such fierceness that she wouldn't be surprised if he turned and responded to her.

 

 

"Really."

 

 

"I thought someone might be searching for me. I left my family some time back."

 

 

Faith hears Trudy's breath hissing through her teeth. Fanfuckingtastic. Now they've lost Trudy. They're well and truly hosed.

 

 

Castiel sits on the hood of Faith's car, gazing at her phone in his hands as if it's some strange artifact. Then he looks up at the officer. "I can't lie."

 


 

 

Castiel's expression is so open and so damn sad and tired that Faith aches for him as much as she fears for him. "The truth is, I'm not the man Claire married. I could move heaven and earth trying to be that man again, but I can't."

 

 

The posture of the cop standing closest to him relaxes a fraction. The other crouches beside Faith and unlocks the handcuffs without a word.

 

 

She pushes herself into a sitting position, but doesn't attempt to stand.

 

 

"I have no desire to hurt my family," he says. "But I don't fit into that life anymore."

 

 

"You look familiar," says the cop who's been questioning him. "Have we run into each other before?"

 

 

"No, officer."

 

 

"You saw him on the news," says the one who just uncuffed Faith. He turns to Castiel. "Am I right? You were on that train in New York. With the nutjob with a 9-millimeter."

 

 

"I was a witness to those killings, yes."

 

 

"That was what, a dozen people?"

 

 

"Fifteen souls," Castiel says.

 

 

Hearing it put that way is like having a cold, damp breeze whisper along her neck. Faith shivers.

 

 

"Yeah, I remember now. You were one of the guys who jumped the shooter, weren't you?" asks the one standing by Castiel.

 

 

"No," Castiel says. "Just a witness." He doesn't elaborate, and this time, instead of being irritated, the cops absorb his silence and stillness, maybe considering the reality of sudden, random violence. After what seems like half an enternity, Castiel speaks again. "After that, it was impossible to be the person I was."

 

 

"Sure," says the cop standing near Faith. "That's understandable."

 

 

"Maybe you need to call the family. Let 'em know you're all right," says the other. "If you just took off --"

 

 

"Claire knew I was leaving. She was packing when I said I would go instead."

 

 

"Still. Disappearing entirely is different from leaving," the cop says.

 

 

Castiel chews this over.

 

 

"At least for your kid, for Christ's sake," the one by Faith says mildly.

 

 

Castiel turns the intensity of his gaze on him, and Faith half expects the guy to stumble out with a Sorry, but of course he doesn't know he's talking to an angel of the Lord.

 

 

"You're right," Castiel says, but he makes no promises.

 

 

"So we're all good here?" asks the one who uncuffed Faith. He extends a hand to her, and she lets herself be helped up. "You need first aid?"

 

 

"I got a kit," she says. "I get cleaned up, I'll be all right."

 

 

"Sorry. Based on the report we had and the fact that you ran --"

 

 

"Yeah, I figured. Stupid of me." She decides to finesse a little honesty. "Instinct kicked in -- I was kind of a delinquent for a couple of years a long time ago."

 

 

Handcuffs-cop laughs. "You're not still wanted for anything, are you?"

 

 

"Ha ha, no. Miss straight arrow for ten years running."

 

 

"Good. Though maybe you should stop waving knives around when you're spooked. We'll call this in, make sure the alert gets cancelled."

 

 

As they head for their patrol car, Faith starts collecting the scattered towels. "Trudy, I'm sorry I lied. You've been great and I feel like shit for taking advantage. We just ran into this guy he knows, and he completely misread everything, and we felt backed into a corner."

 

 

Trudy eyes her, and she's a little closer to the scowling motel owner Faith first encountered than the friendly woman she'd become, but the corners of her mouth twitch as she regards Faith and then Castiel. Her expression softens as she takes in his open yet serious manner.

 

 

"You sheltered us when we needed it," he tells her. "More than that, you showed us true hospitality. I hope our deception doesn't harden your heart."

 

 

Trudy watches the patrol car back out of its parking space and turn for the exit, then reaches toward Faith's armload of towels. "Give me those, and I'll get you some that haven't been on the ground."

 


 

 

A hot shower alerts Faith to other bits of skin she lost when she went sprawling on the pavement. Fierce stings in her knee, elbow, palms and chin make her suck in air and breathe out curses. A few other spots are bruised though not skinned.

 

 

As she limps out of the bathroom in t-shirt and underwear to grab the first aid kit, she finds Castiel sitting at the table, elbows on his knees, head bowed over the book he's holding, unopened, in both hands. He's dressed as he has been up until today, his stockbroker's uniform unstained and untorn, and she's not sure whether he dug his clothes from the garbage bag where she'd put them, or angeled up a completely fresh set.

 

 

"You must save a fortune on dry cleaning."

 

 

Castiel looks up, and he looks so troubled Faith's heart twists. Rising, he sets the book down and reaches for the first aid kit she's holding. "Let me take care of that for you." He pushes out his chair for her and pulls the other one up close.

 

 

"So what is it you're so avidly not reading?" She pulls the maroon-covered book closer and sees it's a Bible. "Oh. Guess you have that memorized."

 

 

"I find the translation gets in the way for me."

 

 

"Translation?" She flips open the Bible and sees the same old-fashioned language she's seen before. "But this -- oh. Yeah, I guess it is. The original's in Latin or something, right?" Reaching into the first aid kit, she hands Castiel a bottle of Bactine. "Spray this on first, let it dry, then bandage."

 

 

He dabs a piece of gauze on her oozing knee, then sprays the Bactine. "Actually, what I meant was translation into human language."

 

 

Without meaning to, Faith finds herself leaning forward, breathing in the smell of the antiseptic. Castiel looks up at the sound of her inward breath and she's suddenly aware of how close they are.

 

 

"Did I hurt you?" he asks.

 

 

"Nah. I like the smell, that's all. It reminds me of my ma. She wasn't that great at a lot of things, but she gave good 'ouchie.'"

 

 

He lays a square of gauze on the abrasion and tells her to hold it there, then tapes the bandage on her knee.

 

 

The awareness of his hands on her leg sends lust fizzing through her blood, and she blurts, "So you speak angel."

 

 

He twitches a smile and says, "Yes, I do." Moving his chair closer, he tells her to bend her arm so he can reach her elbow.

 

 

She can barely breathe with him this close. "So say something for me. Recite a Bible verse or something."

 

 

This smile is a little less fleeting. "The last time I tried that, it made Dean's ears bleed."

 

 

"You talked to Dean?"

 

 

"I tried. It was before I realized my true voice was too overwhelming for him." Tilting his head, he studies her. "You look ... unhappy. Are you jealous?"

 

 

"Damn straight I'm jealous."

 

 

"I told you. Human ears can't withstand our true voices."

 

 

Faith raises her chin. "I'm a slayer. I bet I could."

 

 

Castiel scowls. "Take care that you don't demand so much."

 

 

"Did Mark demand too much? You said he was a relentless seeker."

 

 

He doesn't answer, but the set of his jaw tells her what she wants to know. He's a little less gentle with the dabbing and spraying this time.

 

 

"Just because someone asks for too much doesn't mean God has to dump it on 'em."

 

 

"He would be satisfied with nothing less. The same is true of the medium who insisted on seeing my true form."

 

 

"The one you blinded?"

 

 

"If the sun can be said to blind those who are foolish enough to stare into it, then I suppose you could say I blinded her." He tapes a gauze pad over the elbow scrape.

 

 

"I irritate the shit out of you, don't I?"

 

 

"I couldn't accommodate you if I wished. Not in this body. I would rupture the vocal cords if I tried."

 

 

She's got him thinking about it. She squelches her smile of triumph. "You didn't answer the question."

 

 

"You don't need an answer." He blots gently at her chin, then sprays Bactine on another pad and dabs at the scrape there. "It's not just you. I have other things on my mind as well."

 

 

"Don't bother with a bandage there," she tells him. "I don't want that on my face." His fingers curled below her chin are just about all she can take. "So what's bothering you?"

 

 

"While you were showering, I spoke with Trudy. Her husband disappeared twenty years ago, with no word."

 

 

"Aw, Jesus," she whispers, and forgets to add her usual apology.

 

 

"It was three years before he turned up again. Three years that she held her breath with every phone call."

 

 

Faith meets his gaze, and the intensity of it is almost physical, electrical. "You're going to do it, aren't you?" She breathes in the childhood scent of Bactine, tries to find its comfort. "You're going to call Mark's wife."

 


 

 

"What comfort can I possibly offer her?" Castiel demands, as if the notion of him phoning Mark's wife is her suggestion, not something they both know damn well will happen. "I am a soldier."

 

 

"You're a soldier who's a long way from his home and his family. Work with that."

 

 

He rises to his feet so quickly that the rickety wooden chair makes a sharp cracking noise. "I don't miss her, and when this is over, I'm not going back to her. To pretend otherwise is cruelty, not comfort. I have nothing more for her than my own sense of sorrow."

 

 

"Then give her that. At least she'll know."

 

 

Castiel strides across the room and pushes the curtains back, gazing out at the parking lot and the street beyond. The late afternoon sun washes him in golden light, and she wonders what he must be like in his full glory. "My brother Uriel believes I care too much about humans and their problems. That my sympathy distracts me from the work at hand."

 

 

"He sounds like a real treat."

 

 

"Dean would call him a dick."

 

 

Hearing the word dick from Castiel's lips makes Faith snort.

 

 

"He said we both are," Castiel amends.

 

 

"He's wrong about that," Faith says.

 

 

Castiel turns from the window and regards her. "Dean believes I focus too much on the larger picture. That I care only about the battle, not about its cost. But without that focus, there would be no smaller picture. All would be lost."

 

 

"I know that."

 

 

"But you don't like it."

 

 

Faith shrugs. "I think sometimes bein' on the side of right can be just as cruel as playing for the other team. But I guess that just means life is cruel."

 

 

Castiel shakes his head. "Harsh, perhaps. Not cruel."

 

 

"Your mileage may vary, dude. Look, I'm not bitchin'. I've been doing the slayer gig long enough to know that's the price of making a difference. The civilians may have a tougher time with it."

 

 

He looks out the window again. "Civilians," he murmurs.

 

 

"I know they must seem like ants on the battlefield to you," she says.

 

 

"More than that," he says firmly.

 

 

"Good to hear," she says. "I know you can't help 'em all. But you can help give this one woman closure, to get all Oprah about it. Her husband's moved on. She needs to start doing that too."

 

 

Castiel nods, as if the outcome has ever been in question.

 

 

"I can clear out while you call, go pack the car and talk to Trudy. Or I can stick around."

 

 

"Stay." He sounds almost nervous.

 

 

"Sure," she says. "Just let me get all the way dressed first."

 

 

When she re-emerges from the bathroom, she finds Castiel sitting at the table again, a black leather wallet on the scarred tabletop, and next to it a neat array of ID cards, credit cards, business cards and wallet-sized photos. The entire life of this Mark Randal, boiled down to little scraps of paper. The sight squeezes her heart.

 

 

Faith reaches for her cellphone. "Ready?"

 

 

"I have been a messenger for the Lord. But speaking for this man --"

 

 

"Just do what you did earlier."

 

 

Castiel nods, and Faith dials directory assistance, gives them the name and town listed on Mark Randal's driver's license.

 

 

She punches in the number and hands over her phone. "Just hit the green button, and it'll ring through." She sits in the chair opposite him.

 

 

He waits, then says, "Claire." He meets Faith's gaze. "It's Mark."

 


 

 

Castiel pauses, but Faith doesn't hear the buzz of a voice at the other end of the line. "I called to say I'm sorry for everything I've put you through. I'm safe. It hadn't occurred to me that you'd think otherwise, or I would have called sooner."

 

 

This time there is a response, and from the indistinct sounds coming from the cellphone, Faith suspects Claire is venting some relief wrapped in fury.

 

 

"I wish I could explain fully what happened to me," he finally says. "But I can't. I never meant to hurt you or Stephen."

 

 

He listens again, then responds, "She had nothing to do with my leaving. We met later. We're involved in the same work." Another pause. "It's nothing I can talk about. I do the work of the Lord."

 

 

Faith sits at the table, taking the first aid kit into her hands, replacing and rearranging its contents, watching her own hands with idle interest.

 

 

"I am His," Castiel says. "He created me and spared me from death -- how can I deny Him what He asks of me in return?" Her sharp response crackles in the still air of the room. "No. He did not consult you. I regret the pain I've caused you more than you can know. But it can't be otherwise." After another pause, he says, "Everything is yours. I'll sign whatever you want, but I can't come to you now. I'll be in touch with an address when I know where I'll be, and you can have the papers sent there."

 

 

Castiel falls silent again, though this time there's no sound of a voice from the other end.

 

 

Faith closes the first aid kit and holds it in her hands much as Castiel had held the Bible in his.

 

 

"I do miss my old life," he says at last. "More than I can say. I miss my home and my family, the shape of my days, the inexpressible joy. To feel cut off from these things is to feel as though I'm missing a limb. The life I have now does have its compensations -- it's so foreign to me and more complex than I'd ever imagined, yet beautiful in its strangeness. But even if it offered me nothing to replace what I've lost, I would still do what I am doing. Because the Lord requires it of me, and the work is urgent."

 

 

Another long silence stretches out. "Because you have every right to weep for what you've lost. Is Stephen home? When he gets there, tell him I said to remember how much his father loves him. Tell him he should never doubt that. I must go now. There's work to be done, and it won't wait." Castiel folds the phone closed and hands it to Faith, looking so weary and sad that she reaches out without thinking and touches his face.

 

 

Briefly he closes his eyes, maintaining the contact, drawing comfort for the space of two heartbeats before pulling away.

 

 

"We have work to do."

 


 

 

Faith slams the trunk on her weapons bag and a few cans and boxes of groceries she'd picked up the day before. "That's about it," she tells Castiel. "I'll just get the perishable stuff and take it in to Trudy. I want to say thanks to her before we go anyway."

 

 

When she walks back into the room, she sees Mark's wallet and its contents still spread out on the table, the cards and photos in neat rows. There's a billfold-sized studio portrait of Mark and Claire and Stephen, the sort of painfully posed photo her mother never dragged her to get. Faith picks it up to study the woman whose life she just heard shattering in a one-sided conversation, but it's hard to take her eyes off Cas-- Mark. It's so clear to her that there's someone else living behind the face she's come to know. Bright, cocky, not terribly involved with the woman and child posed with him. She can't imagine this man wearing the look of vulnerability that she'd seen when Castiel spoke to the cops about the change that had come over him. She'd never for a second mistake them for the same man -- twins, maybe.

 

 

The woman and kid make her feel sad. Claire wears the expression of a woman who's fully aware that she doesn't occupy much space in her husband's thoughts, plastered over with a smile because that's what's expected. The boy, though, he leans against his dad who rests a hand on his shoulder. He's just a kid, too young to have noticed the distance between him and his father. He was on a slow path to disappointment in this picture, but Castiel's intervention has created a more violent and sudden rift between them.

 

 

Faith feels sad for all three of them, and Castiel besides.

 

 

"Hey," she calls out to him. She approaches the open door. "You left Mark's wallet."

 

 

"None of it matters," he tells her, and tilts his face up toward the sky and the watery sunlight trying to penetrate the winter haze.

 

 

Faith wonders if he's communing with God, talking to his brother angels, or just trying to catch a little warmth. Recharging the blue of those eyes, maybe. Shrugging, she sweeps up the bits of paper and plastic, sticks them back in the wallet and shoves it in her jacket pocket. Then she grabs up the milk, eggs and butter from the mini-fridge and heads for the motel office.

 

 

"Hey," she says as Trudy looks up from a paperback. She feels suddenly bashful. "I'm sorry about all the trouble. And like I said, about lying."

 

 

"She was a nice kid, that girl." Trudy doesn't look so much hostile or mad as sad.

 

 

Faith offers a rueful half grin. "Yeah. I liked her too. We were scared, he was hurt. I couldn't ask you to lie for us, so I lied to you."

 

 

"I know. That story he told the cops --"

 

 

"That was true. It was before I knew him, but he doesn't lie."

 

 

The corner of Trudy's mouth quirks up. "Maybe you oughta keep him, then."

 

 

"Yeah. They don't make many of those anymore. Anyway." She puts the eggs, milk and butter down on the front desk. "I bought this stuff, but we won't be able to use it. We found out about some family trouble just before the police came." Faith feels a stab of guilt at telling another lie, but there is no Castiel-style tapdance around "apocalypse trouble." Besides, the Winchester boys are a family. It's not a lie, just incomplete truth. "We're gonna have to head out there and see what we can do."

 

 

Trudy frowns. "Are you sure this is something you ought to be getting into?"/

 

 

"We'll be all right. And, well, it's family. Ya gotta go. So I just wanted to tell you to keep what I gave you for the three nights. That cash discount you gave was to that other girl, not me."

 

 

"I'm starting to like this one, too."

 

 

This makes Faith feel ridiculously relieved. "You've been really good to us."

 

 

Trudy goes for her cash drawer. "Take some of this back. It's too much."

 

 

"No. Keep the extra for your trouble with having the cops out here. It can't be that much."

 

 

"You need money."

 

 

"I have cards. Now that we're in the clear with the cops and Mark's wife, we can use 'em without worrying about being traced. I'm not taking that back." Faith starts to back toward the door.

 

 

"You know what he said?" Trudy asks.

 

 

"Oh, it's hard telling with him."

 

 

"He said I shouldn't let this harden my heart toward strangers in need. That those who help strangers sometimes -- what was he said? They entertain angels unaware."

 

 

Faith can't smother a grin, which she covers by saying, "I'm no angel."

 

 

Cocking her head, Trudy eyes Faith. "You're an odd pair."

 

 

She laughs. "That's a fact. We've gotta get going. Thanks for everything, Trudy. You've been an angel."

 

 

Castiel is still leaning against the car, face upturned, when she gets outside. He turns toward her as she approaches and she thinks hell, maybe he was recharging his blue eyes. "Jordan," he says.

 

 

"What?"

 

 

"Something's interfering with our communications. All that comes through clearly is a name. Jordan."

 

 

"Guess we'd better get our research guy on the phone."

 

 

She doesn't like the sound of this. Jordan -- isn't that a river? And isn't the River Jordan one of those poetic ways of talking about death?

 


 

 

Faith gets on the road before she dials Dean. "Hey, it's Faith. Sammy turn anything up?"

 

 

"You been giving Castiel lessons in phone manners? Everytime I talk to one of you, it's, 'Later. Click.' or 'Dick. Click.'"

 

 

"There was a thing. With cops. Like he said, he had to go."

 

 

"Cops?" He's got that You broke my angel tone again.

 

 

"We ran into a friend of Mark's, who decided I'd abducted him or something."

 

 

"Mark? Who the hell is Mark?"

 

 

She can hear the driving thump of the Chevy's stereo over the phone. "Don't you listen to anything if it's not you talking? I told you this. Mark is the vessel." She feels weird saying "the vessel" in front of Castiel for some reason, but when she sneaks a glance at him, he seems unconcerned.

 

 

"Why would he think you kidnapped him?" Dean asks.

 

 

"I dunno, could've been the knife I pulled. It's a long story. So anyway, Castiel bailed on the call to deal with the cops. We got that all cleared up, so we're on our way out to cheesehead country. The question is, where do we want to meet up? Are you finding anything with that apocalyptic whiff?"

 

 

Dean snorts. "There's always some shit going on in Wisconsin. For example three assholes currently on trial for grave robbery."

 

 

"I thought that was on your rap sheet."

 

 

"We do it to lay a ghost. Not to, y'know, lay a ghost."

 

 

Faith nearly drops the phone. "Get the fuck out of here."

 

 

"No lie. They didn't get that far, but that was the plan."

 

 

"I fucking hate people. Is it too late to get into some other line of work?"

 

 

Castiel turns his gaze from the window and studies her.

 

 

"What?" she asks him.

 

 

"Is this you stomping and cursing and blowing off steam?"

 

 

It takes her a second, but she remembers the conversation they had on the waterfront. "Pretty much, yeah."

 

 

Castiel nods and turns his attention back to the passing scenery. "Sucks to be you," he murmurs.

 

 

Faith busts out laughing until the car swerves.

 

 

"What?" Dean asks.

 

 

"Castiel was just letting me know he's waiting for me to get over myself."

 

 

"What?"

 

 

"Forget it. Listen, has any of Sam's research pinged the name Jordan?"

 

 

"Not that I know of." He relays the question to Sammy. "No, why?"

 

 

"It's something Castiel picked up from his brothers, but the name's all he could get. He said there seemed to be some kind of interference."

 

 

"Any idea what caused that?"

 

 

"I don't think so. But there's been a concerted attack against the angels -- a handful of demons found some kind of mystical symbol they got tattooed on their hands, and Castiel couldn't fight them. That's how he got hurt."

 

 

"That was your ten-alarm fire? How'd you put it out?"

 

 

"I hacked their hands off, then Castiel did his thing."

 

 

"You hacked -- damn. That's hardcore."

 

 

"This ain't my first apocalyptic rodeo, Dean. Anyway, we contained the threat -- destroyed the text they found the symbol in, did a little brain mojo on the guy who inked them. But maybe their side has something else going on."

 

 

"Great," Dean says sourly. "Listen, we're gonna have to find a place for Sam to get a signal. We're on the ass-end of nowhere right now, but we'll call when we have something."

 

 

"No problem. I've got a thousand miles or so of I-90 to travel, so it's not like I'll be coolin' my heels in the meantime. Will it make you happy if I let you be the one to end this phone call?"

 

 

"Anyone ever tell you that you're--"

 

 

Faith snaps her phone shut, laughing.

 


 

 

Mass Pike is the usual rush-hour cluster fuck. Faith bullies her way through the traffic, tension knotting her neck and shoulders. She hates this sort of driving worst of all.

 

 

Castiel is so still she forgets he's there a couple of times, then startles as she checks the passenger side mirror and registers his presence.

 

 

Once she's past the densest traffic and suburban sprawl, she glances over at him. "How are you?"

 

 

He turns from the passenger window, but doesn't answer.

 

 

"Too broad a question? How's the knife wound? I should have looked at it before we left the motel."

 

 

"It's no worse."

 

 

She grunts. "I was hoping for 'miraculously healed,' but I'll take it."

 

 

"How long should it take?"

 

 

"I couldn't even tell you what it takes a normal person. I've got slayer healing, so for me it would be half closed by now, I think. That's way faster than normal." Faith would have expected him to be equipped with something even better, but she doesn't let on that this worries her. "We've got a long haul to Wisconsin. Are you comfortable? I know you're used to a little faster way of gettin' where you're going, under a lot less cramped conditions."

 

 

"I'll be fine."

 

 

"You change your mind about that, you let me know. How about the other stuff? Are you getting any reception on the angel frequency?"

 

 

"Static. Random words." He shifts to look at her closer in the faint glow of the dashboard lights. "You're troubled."

 

 

"Worries me that you're cut off from other angels, especially considering the dream I had." She's not going to tell him what she really fears, that he's faltering. He's meant to live in another realm, to blink in and out of this one. Maybe it's the injury, or maybe he's burning out his vessel with his nonstop presence. "Do you think something's scrambling angelic communications on earth? Or that the injury did something?"

 

 

"I can't be certain."

 

 

"I keep thinkin' about what you said to Mark's wife. About missing your old life. You were talking about yourself, weren't you?"

 

 

"I was."

 

 

"You said how it's like losing a limb. And you have, you've lost two, and I hadn't really thought -- I mean, I asked you if you missed your wings, but I was thinking, I dunno, like I'd miss chocolate or real orange juice, not -- not losing an hand or a leg. And when I asked you that, you weren't even stuck in a human body."

 

 

"But it's different. I'll have them back."

 

 

Faith hopes he's right. But that dream -- the field with so many bodies, angels all dressed like Castiel -- it gives her such a strong feeling of doom that it's hard to shake.

 

 

"I have faith in my Father," Castiel says.

 

 

"Easy for you. You've actually seen His face."

 

 

"No. That's a rare privilege. Not even my superior has looked upon the face of the Lord."

 

 

She shoots him a sidelong glance. "Really? I always thought ..."

 

 

"I've never played the harp, either."

 

 

Freaked out as she is, that still prompts a laugh.

 

 

"Don't be afraid for me, Faith. This is a time of trial, and in the fullness of my life, it's just the blink of an eye."

 

 

"Does it feel that way to you now?"

 

 

"No. Human time takes some adjustment."

 

 

"I noticed something when you were on the phone. In so many different ways, you talked about what you couldn't talk about. That you regretted what she was put through more than you could say. That you can't talk about your work. That your old life had inexpressible joy." Faith wonders if that phrase came as a shock to the woman in the picture. The man next to her looked satisfied with himself, but joy seemed to be in a different realm entirely. "I just keep thinking how there's just three people down here who know who and what you are, and our language isn't enough to express anything, and with everyone else -- well, you can't lie, and you can only tell about two percent of the truth. And now you can't even get through to your brother angels to speak in a language that does let you express yourself. It fuckin' breaks my heart, is all." She's grateful for the darkness, which allows her to believe he can't see the tears gathering in her eyes.

 

 

Castiel reaches out, cupping a hand to the back of her head. The gesture doesn't diminish the ache, but enfolds it, warming and soothing her in some indescribable way. "That wasn't all I said. I also told her there were compensations for what I've given up. Beauties that I couldn't have imagined."

 

 

She tries to smile. "Orange juice."

 

 

"And M&Ms and generosity and comfort and even pain. Learning to speak more freely in a new, foreign language. Placing my trust in someone who's not like I am, but strong and dedicated to defending me." Castiel lets his hand fall away, and Faith instantly misses the contact on a deep, cellular level. "Don't be sad for me. As I said before, this time is a gift."

 


 

 

Faith feels her skin flushing hot, as if she were back in the motel room where Castiel resurrected her, burning with fever but whole once more. She wonders if it's his touch that has this effect, or just lust richocheting through her.

 

 

"I've gotta hit a drive-thru soon," she tells him. "I haven't had anything to eat since yesterday morning." What she'd really like to do is get the largest iced drink in the known world, shuck off the top and tip it down the neckline of her shirt. That might begin to cool things off. Maybe. "How about you?"

 

 

"I'm fine."

 

 

She catches sight of a billboard and says, "There's good ol' Taco Hell, five miles ahead. How does that sound?"

 

 

"Not entirely appealing. Why do people eat food from a place that calls itself hell?"

 

 

"It's really Taco Bell. That's just what everyone who goes there calls it."

 

 

"Again --"

 

 

"I know, I know. People eat fast food because it's fast, cheap and easy. And fast. And terrible for you, but addictively good-tasting. In a fast, cheap and terrible sort of way." Slowing the car a fraction, she glides onto the off-ramp. "We can find another place. The fast food joints all clump together."

 

 

"That one's fine. You're the one who's hungry, go wherever you like."

 

 

She pulls into the Taco Bell parking lot and around to the drive-thru menu board. "Anything you want?"

 

 

"Orange juice?"

 

 

"They don't do that at these places. Not the fresh-squeezed. The places with the good stuff usually aren't open this late. We'll get you some in the morning, I promise."

 

 

The speaker squawks with a Welcome to Taco Bell, how can I help you?

 

 

She calls off her order and adds a bottle of water for Castiel. As she pulls around to the window and rummages for some cash in her stash above the visor, Castiel says, "I've never met a human who gives such thought to the problems of angels. Even the very devout."

 

 

Faith shrugs. "I guess -- when I was a kid, I used to spend an awful lot of time staring at that angel on the stained glass window, the one at Steve's church. I thought about him a lot. Made up conversations between us." She keeps her eyes fixed on her fist, clenched around a five dollar bill. "Guess that shows how little attention I paid in church."

 

 

"You dreamed about him."

 

 

"Well, yeah. That's how I knew to head out here. I knew something was wrong."

 

 

"Not recently. Back then, when you were a child."

 

 

The skin prickles at the back of her neck. He's not asking or guessing, but relating something he knows. "I don't remember."

 

 

The drive-thru window clatters open and Faith lowers her own, grateful for the blast of cold air on her skin. She hands over her money and waits for her change and the food. When it's delivered over to her, she passes the water to Castiel, wedges her vat of Mountain Dew into the cupholder and sets the bag on her lap. She peels back the foil on her Crunchwrap and puts the car in gear. "This," she announces to Castiel, "is the perfect road food. It's the size of three tacos, without the hassle of unwrapping three. Perfectly shaped for eating one-handed. And it's got the all-important crunchy corn tortilla, folded inside a flour wrapper so it doesn't explode all over the inside of the car." She takes a bite to demonstrate.

 

 

"You were chosen even then," he says, as if she hasn't launched into a monologue about fake Mexican food.

 

 

"For the slayer gig," she says.

 

 

"No. For this work. This battle. You offered yourself, and you were chosen."

 


 

 

She works her way through her Crunchwrap, and Castiel lapses back into silence. She's not sure if he's sleeping, idly watching the dark shapes loom and fade along the highway, thinking or praying.

 

 

If he can't get through to his brother angels, can he get a line to God? The idea that he could be cut off so completely bothers her. How can he seem so calm, so still, in all that staticky nothing? He trusts in his Father, he's told her. So okay, he's built so he can't do otherwise. But he trusts her too, he said so. The thought of this, especially after coming back to Southie and being reminded of various ways she's fucked things up, it makes a knot rise in her throat.

 

 

As she's fumbling in the Taco Bell bag for a napkin and executing the one-handed finger-wiping, her cell rings, startling her so badly she jerks the car halfway into the next lane. She flips the phone open. "Dean?"

 

 

"It's Sam."

 

 

Her heart thumps. "Everything okay?"

 

 

"Yeah, yeah, it's good."

 

 

"So Dean's traumatized over the fact he didn't get to hang up on me?"

 

 

Sam snorts. "Nah, we just decided this would go faster if we didn't spend half the call with him relaying information."

 

 

"So Shaggy, you found something."

 

 

"More like three somethings."

 

 

Faith gets a sudden surge of nostalgic happiness -- the kind she so rarely gets to experience -- at being in a Giles-style info dump, even if it's done by phone. Even if "three somethings" sounds like a helluva lot more trouble than she bargained for.

 

 

Sam continues, "The problem is, we're gonna have to decide which we should pursue. There are two places called Jordan in Wisconsin -- maybe. One of them doesn't even show up on the official highway map, though it's in the old atlas we have. Both of 'em are no more than dots on the map, and looking at the satellite view, neither looks like what I'd call a town. That said, we've run into plenty of bad stuff that happens in the middle of nowhere."

 

 

"And let me guess. These two wide-spot-in-the-road Jordans are a billion miles apart."

 

 

"Not that bad. About a hundred and thirty miles."

 

 

"Not that great, if time is crucial," Faith says. Of course, if time is crucial, they're hosed. Wisconsin is still a helluva long way off, even at ninety miles per. "You said there were three places."

 

 

"Three Jordans. The other was a person, though he's tied to a place. There's a tourist trap outside Dodgeville called the House on the Rock. Hand built by a guy named Alex Jordan, according to local legend, he built it to piss off Frank Lloyd Wright." Faith can imagine Sam with his laptop and his maps, with the same serious, stoked expression Giles would get over finding things out, even if the things are dark and nasty. "Get this, it shows up in a fantasy novel by Neil Gaiman, American Gods. There's a strong whiff of weirdness there, for sure."

 

 

"How close is it to either of the places named Jordan?"

 

 

"About forty, forty-five miles from one of them. Jordan Center."

 

 

"How about the place that had the portents? Wasn't that Dodgeville?"

 

 

"Dickeyville. Hang on a second." She pictures his long fingers dancing over the keyboard. "It's about the same distance from Dodgeville. About fifty miles from Jordan."

 

 

"So what do you think?"

 

 

"Probably the same thing you're thinking," Sam says. "That what makes the most sense is heading to Dodgeville and checking out Jordan Center and the House on the Rock, maybe taking another look at Dickeyville. The other Jordan is the one that doesn't always appear on the maps."

 

 

"Though I gotta say, that has some kind of eerie whiff to it, too."

 

 

"Yeah. Let me talk this over with Dean. We'll call you."

 

 

"You know where to find me."

 

 

"Aren't you going to cut me off?"

 

 

Faith laughs. "Nah. It'll drive Dean apeshit if I don't."

 

 

He snorts. "All right. Call you back."

 

 

"Catch you later, Shaggy." She likes him. Faith wishes she didn't quite so much. She has to remember this is a guy she might be forced to kill.

 


 

 

Faith slides her phone into her pocket and settles back into silence, chewing her lower lip.

 

 

"Is there trouble?" Castiel asks.

 

 

"No. Just a choice to be made." She feels the tension creep back into her shoulders and neck even though there's not much traffic. "Tell me about Sammy."

 

 

"The prodigal son."

 

 

Faith casts him a glance. "How's that?"

 

 

"He broke away from his family for a time. Chose college over the hunter's life. He would have continued to law school, but events drove him back into the family business."

 

 

"Events?"

 

 

"A demon slaughtered the girl he loved."

 

 

The news lands like a kick to the gut. "Wasn't his and Dean's mother --"

 

 

"Yes. She was killed by the same demon. That's what led their father to become a hunter."

 

 

"And to raise them both that way." Though Faith knows Robin Wood was raised almost the same way and would defend his upbringing to anyone who criticized it, she thinks it's a fucked-up way to grow up. She'd take her own childhood anyday over the one Sammy and Dean had.

 

 

"You don't approve?" Castiel asks.

 

 

"Kids should be kids. Not chasin' after vampires and killing demons. Bad enough asking a teenaged girl to do it."

 

 

Castiel's silence is unreadable, but she reads it anyway as disagreement. He's big on the destiny thing.

 

 

"You said Sam's got powers he got from a demon. How'd he come by those?"

 

 

"He is tainted by demon's blood."

 

 

Faith's neck prickles. "Yeah? So how'd that happen?"

 

 

"When Sam was an infant, the demon Azazel fed him some of his blood."

 

 

"What the fuck, Castiel." She doesn't even try to contain the rage in her voice. "You want me to kill Sam for something that was done to him when he was a baby?"

 

 

"I do not want you to kill him." There's as much cold steel in his voice as there was heat in Faith's. "I asked if you would be willing to do what's necessary to protect heaven and earth -- if it becomes necessary."

 

 

"Like you don't already know what's going to happen."

 

 

"I don't, Faith. I have no knowledge of what the future holds. I must make myself ready, just as you must."

 

 

Faith can do the silent bit too, and she lets him have a little of it.

 

 

Castiel says, "As you said, there is a choice to be made, and it's Sam's decision."

 

 

"What, about using his powers? He said he had prophetic dreams, but he doesn't anymore. And if you've got a problem with that, just remember you and a good number of the heavenly host might be dead now if it wasn't for a prophetic dream."

 

 

The headlights catch a dark glimmer of reflective paint off in the median, and she slows to pass the state patrol car.

 

 

Castiel's voice softens. "I am aware of that. What Sam is doing is different. He can draw a demon out of its host without using any rites of exorcism."

 

 

"And the big boss is pissed because Sam's a do-it-yourselfer? I'd think any way the job gets done, it's all good. Call Orkin or get a can of Raid, it's all the same, except maybe to Orkin."

 

 

Faith can feel the scowl that's building in the passenger seat. Okay, maybe not bright, referring to God as a pest control company, at least to the angel riding shotgun.

 

 

"Sam is using a gift he received from a demon. That another demon has helped him hone."

 

 

She's already pissed him off; why stop now? "So anything he does with his gift is shit. While in the meantime, you're happy enough to use me and mine."

 

 

Castiel turns abruptly, pinning her in his gaze. "What do you mean?"

 

 

"Don't tell me you don't smell the demon on me. That's where slayer powers come from."

 


 

 

"Where did you get this idea?" Castiel demands.

 

 

"The person who told me would have no reason to lie, believe me," Faith says.

 

 

"Tell me what you've heard," he says.

 

 

Faith catches sight of a rest stop sign ahead. "Why don't we pull off and have this conversation? I need to use the can anyway."

 

 

Except for Faith's "Be right back," neither of them speaks until she walks back out of the women's room to find Castiel gazing at the contents of the candy machine. The building is deserted apart from the two of them.

 

 

"Who told you your power originated from the demonic?" Castiel asks.

 

 

"Buffy Summers. She's a slayer too. She had a vision -- well, not really a vision, because she was there -- anyway it showed her how the first slayer was made. That girl was older than Sam, but she had no more choice about what happened to her than he did."

 

 

Castiel spreads his right hand against the glass of the vending machine and looks down at the floor. "When did she have this experience?"

 

 

"A few years ago now. It was in the last days of Sunnydale, but before I made the scene, so I only heard about it second-hand. Some big bad with a press agent, called itself the First Evil, was trying to do the whole hell-on-earth thing. Which I gotta say, is getting pretty cliched by now."

 

 

"What brought on her vision?"

 

 

"Mojo toy she was given by the son of a slayer. Some kind of whirlygig thing that opened a portal so she could see what happened back then."

 

 

Castiel turns his face toward hers. "And what did she see?"

 

 

"These men, elders or something, showed her this girl they'd chained up in a cave. A demon went to her and did something, and that's how she got her powers. They pushed those powers on her so she could fight their battles. Then these guys tried to do the same thing to Buffy, to get her to take more power."

 

 

Castiel slaps his hand against the vending machine glass, spins and stalks toward the doors. He stops while still inside, gazing out into the dark. "These are lies."

 

 

"Oh, c'mon. Why the hell would she make that up?"

 

 

Headlights glare through the doors, and Castiel moves away from them, back toward her. "I didn't say Buffy lied."

 

 

"Then what -- " Faith sucks in a breath. "The vision. It was fake?"

 

 

"It was corrupted, yes."

 

 

"You're saying that first girl wasn't forced into accepting some kind of demonic power."

 

 

Castiel nods. "But if Buffy had agreed to accept the power she was offered, it would have been otherwise. The First Evil believed it had a no-lose situation. If she accepted the offer, it would be a corrupt power and the balance would be tipped. If she refused, there was every chance she would feel her gift was tainted and give in to despair. She resisted, and she prevailed."

 

 

"So if demons weren't the source, it came from some--" One of the door swings open to admit a bleary-looking man who nods curtly and heads for the men's room, but that's not what causes Faith to stop. Castiel's anger belatedly clues her in. "It wasn't demon rape," she says in a whisper. "That girl was bad-touched by an angel."

 

 

Fury sparks from his blue eyes. "So having been lied to about the source, you still accept that part of the story?"

 

 

"Oh, so you're saying she was consulted?" Faith can't help thinking about the time she'd spent in Italy with the others. The narrow streets had made her so claustrophobic she'd darted into churches and museums to look at paintings, and after a while she'd begun to seek out pictures of the Annunciation. The one she'd liked best had the most pissed-off Virgin imaginable, pulling away from the archangel bearing his life-derailing news, staring daggers at him. "Have any of these girls been consulted?"

 

 

Castiel flings his arms up and to the sides, then lets them fall. "Was I consulted, or any of my brothers? We do what we were created to do."

 

 

"Hey," says a voice from behind them. It's the guy emerging from the men's room, suddenly focused and wary. "Is this man bothering you?"

 

 

Faith tones down her body language. "Nah, just pissing me off." The guy frowns in puzzlement, and Faith adds, "It's okay. We're friends. We're just a little tired and owly."

 

 

As proof of the owly, Castiel turns the angel laser glare on the guy. "This is none of your concern."

 

 

"Hey," Faith snaps. "Don't be a schmuck. This guy is doing the right thing, and you know it."

 

 

It takes a second or two to sink in, but Castiel blinks and turns off the looming switch. "She's right. It takes courage to step into the middle of a conflict to protect another. I was wrong. We are both ..." He lets out a breath. "Weary."

 

 

The man regards them for a moment. He has mocha skin, freckles and the same pretty green Cape Verde eyes Kenny had. "You seem like you can take care of yourself," he says to Faith.

 

 

"You have no idea," Castiel says.

 


 

 

Faith watches her would-be rescuer head out of the building to his car, then turns back toward Castiel. "Guess that makes us even." His brow furrows in confusion, and she clarifies. "Mark's friend tried to save you from me, and that guy wanted to save me from you."

 

 

"There was no need to think I was threatening you."

 

 

She rolls her eyes. "Angel, please. You're hella threatening. It's your thing. You work it like Oprah works personal growth. It just doesn't have an effect on me." Maybe a little bit of a lie, but he doesn't call her on it. "So look, while we're stopped, I should take a look at that slash. Sit tight, and I'll grab my first aid kit out of the car."

 

 

When Faith gets back she finds him perched on a bench looking like he took "sit tight" literally. She squelches a smartass remark, instead gesturing for him to rise. "Not out here." Hooking his good arm in hers, she hauls Castiel into the women's room and shucks off his coat and jacket, then tackles the diaper changing platform with a bleach wipe. "Go wash your hands, then you can get out of that shirt."

 

 

Once she's washed her own hands she returns to her makeshift first aid station and does her best to focus on the big rectangle of gauze and not Castiel's bared chest. There's no blood seeping through the bandage, which relieves her. "So how did it feel when you did this?" She imitates his gesture of exasperation, flinging her arms up and out.

 

 

"Uncomfortable."

 

 

"Nothing tore, though?" She doesn't wait for his answer, but starts prying loose the paper tape at the edges of the gauze.

 

 

"I believe it held."

 

 

"Yeah, looks good." Except, of course, for the ugly-ass black stitches. "Next time I'll embroider your name."

 

 

"I'd prefer to avoid a next time, to be truthful."

 

 

"Yeah, well, that's why I'm here."

 

 

He gives her the perplexed face again. "Your reaction surprises me. I'd have thought it would be a relief to know your strength and your calling do not have a demonic origin."

 

 

Faith heaves a sigh. "It's just -- it gets old. So it wasn't a bunch of old guys who made the big decision for me and all those other girls. It was a bunch of angels instead."

 

 

"It was not our decision," he says adamantly.

 

 

"So it was the big guy. That supposed to make it okay that I get no say in my destiny?"

 

 

Castiel doesn't answer, and Faith realizes they might as well be speaking two different languages entirely.

 

 

"Seems like it's healing cleanly," she tells him. "But you might want to have Dean take a look. He and Sam have a lot more experience with sutures than me, and the way normal bodies heal."

 

 

The mention of Sam brings an abrupt halt to the conversation. Faith briskly attends to the cut, rebandages it and leaves Castiel to dress himself as she puts away her supplies and washes up.

 

 

As she turns from the hand dryer, shaking the last drops of water off her fingers, she finds Castiel watching her, looking like he's got something to say.

 

 

"Time's burning," she says. "We'd better get back on the road."

 


 

 

Faith goes around to the trunk as Castiel heads for the passenger door. As she stashes her first aid kit back in her weapons bag, her phone rings. "That took a while," she says as a greeting. "You two been fighting it out?"

 

 

"No," Dean says, in a half-belligerent tone that tells her otherwise.

 

 

"All right, so what's the plan?"

 

 

"We're heading down from Bobby's. It's a haul, but it's a lot shorter than the drive you've got. I'm thinking we could check out Jordan -- that's the one that's three hours from all the others -- and still make it down by Dodgeville by the time you two get there."

 

 

"Yeah, well, what if that turns out to be the place where things are happening?"

 

 

"What, you afraid you'll miss something? You don't hear me bitching that I missed out on the hand-hacking."

 

 

"Kills you, doesn't it?"

 

 

Dean chuckles. "It would've beat a night of ShamWow, Turbo Jam and Pops-A-Dent."

 

 

"I don't even want to know what language you're speaking."

 

 

"If there's something going on there, we'll give you a heads-up. If you're coming in on 90, you're almost within spitting distance at the Portage/Wasau exit. You've got about a thousand miles before you hit there, so we'll be in touch by then."

 

 

"All right. Sounds like a plan." The wind is rising, cold and bone-seeping damp. Feels like snow. "Listen, she says. "You two take it easy."

 

 

"Yeah, back at ya. How's Castiel?"

 

 

"Cut's healing clean. Doesn't seem like he's got any high-speed healing abilities, which is too damn bad." Not only because it would help to have a full-powered angel in any fights that crop up; Faith sure as hell wouldn't mind a break from all the pissiness and theology.

 

 

"How about you? Somethin' wrong?"

 

 

The impulse to lie or cover flits through her mind. What was it Steve said? She always has done this. Faith sighs. "It would take a book. Nothing major, why?"

 

 

"You haven't even hung up on me yet."

 

 

She laughs. "Just another maneuver to throw you off your game. See you in the land of cheese, dude." Sliding the phone back into her pocket, she slams the trunk lid down and startles to find Castiel standing beside the car. "All right, we've got a plan."

 

 

"You and Dean and Sam," he says impassively.

 

 

It strikes Faith that she hasn't even been aware of cutting him out of the process. She resists the urge to throw out a How do you like it? "Sorry. Guess I got in general mode. We slayers do that sometimes. Anyway, we're running with the info you gave us." She lays out the plan. "We should get moving. Feels like a storm's coming."

 

 

Holding her gaze, he stays right where he is. "What was done to Sam was not random happenstance. I want to make that clear. From infancy, Sam was being groomed to lead an army of demons. The demon who set him on that path is dead, but now Sam's found another demon more than willing to feed the part of him that can be seduced to this purpose. Whatever sympathies you may have for him, you must be very clear on the threat he poses if he stays on the path he's traveling."

 

Groomed. The thought makes her shudder. "I'll keep that in mind."

 

 

Stepping toward her, Castiel lays a hand on her shoulder, sending a strong jolt of physical attraction pinballing through her. "Your heart and your protective nature are admirable, Faith. I don't mean for you to shut them down. But you must save them for those who rely on you, however unwittingly. The world hangs in the balance."

 


 

 

The snow starts not long after they get on the road again, the blowing, powdery stuff that doesn't need windshield wipers yet is practically impossible to see through. "Would you mind puttin' a word in about this shitty weather," Faith says. "It's really not helping the fuckin' cause."

 

 

Castiel doesn't respond, which is fine by her. She turns on the radio and instructs him to dial around until she gets a news station. It's a crap time of night for news and weather reports on any station she'd actually want to listen to. For some reason they figure you only care what the hell's going on before you haul your bleary ass to work or school. Maybe they figure at this hour, you're not stupid enough to be out in bad weather on bad roads on bald tires you've been thinking about replacing when you get around to it.

 

 

She settles into a grim silence, steering her crap car through the little bubble of visibility surrounding it as the powder blows across the road in snaky lines.

 

 

At least she doesn't have to worry about driving faster than her guardian angel can fly.

 

 

After a few staticky repetitions of the news she wants (flash: weather shitty, roads shitty) wedged between a lot of boring yap on a call-in show, Faith tells Castiel to shut the radio off again. At least two hours of this tense, muffled silence stretches on before Faith's phone rings, startling the two of them badly, causing Faith to veer toward the shoulder and nearly overcorrect them into a ditch. When she finally regains control over the car, she says, "You're gonna have to get that for me. I need both hands. It's in my jacket pocket." Shit. "My left pocket."

 

 

Castiel leans close to her, reaching across her midsection to fumble with her coat. This is just what this fucking drive through arctic hell needed, a blazing fireball of horniness in the pit of her belly when she's trying to concentrate. He finds it, bobbles the damn thing and it tumbles to the floorboard. He gropes around the floor between her boots, his face mashed against her thigh.

 

 

"Hurry," she tells him. "Before it kicks into voice mail." She can't imagine trying to walk him through the intricacies of something she does by rote.

 

 

At last he grabs the phone, flipping it open before he rights himself and moves back to the passenger side. He puts the phone to his ear and waits without speaking, until he says, "No." He waits again. "I am Castiel."

 

 

Not Dean or Sam, then. "Who is it?"

 

 

"Who is this?" After a pause, he says, "Xander."

 

 

"Tell him I can't talk."

 

 

"She's right next to me, but she's too busy to talk. She needs both hands."

 

 

"For driving!"

 

 

"For driving," he adds, then relays, "He says he just got back from the field and received your message."

 

 

"Ask him if anything got loose, even if they killed it."

 

 

Castiel's relief is as evident as hers when he repeats Xander's recap of the action. Another close call, but no seal broken.

 

 

"Anybody hurt?"

 

 

Again, the answer is no, and she lets out a breath.

 

 

"Tell him we're headed toward another possible battle. I'll try to give him a call when I'm not white-knuckling it."

 

 

Castiel says, "He wants to know if they should saddle up."

 

 

"Not yet. All the airports around here are closed anyway. And we don't even know what the sitch is, or if there is one for sure."

 

 

Hearing Castiel deliver this word for word, including "sitch", in his 1960s cop-show monotone makes her grin and throws a little gas on the fireball of horniness at the same time.

 

 

"We'll let you know." He snaps the phone shut, then leans toward her to reach around and replace the phone where he got it.

 

 

Keeping her hands on the wheel, Faith elbows his hand away. "Why don't you hang onto that, at least till the driving isn't so hairy."

 

 

Castiel slides it into his coat pocket, eying her.

 

 

"What?" The suppression of her desire makes it come out surlier than she means it to.

 

 

"There is a conflict in you. It's more than your feelings about destiny and free will. I've seen it in you almost from the start."

 

 

Faith scowls. "It's nothing."

 

 

The lie doesn't slide past him. "I value your honesty. Your bluntness. You are generous with yourself in that way. Why do you keep this to yourself? If there's some way I can help you resolve what's troubling you --"

 

 

"You want to help me resolve my conflict?" she snaps. "Stop being so damn hot."

 


 

 

Castiel chews this exclamation over. Faith can feel his gaze, but she doesn't have to meet it, keeping her eyes on the snow-swept highway. "This is why you react when we touch, either by intent or by accident?"

 

 

"I'd kinda hoped you hadn't noticed that, but yeah, that's the reason."

 

 

He considers this some more. "I try to regulate the metabolism of this vessel, but I find my control slips when my attention is elsewhere. I'm sorry, I didn't realize it was enough to be troublesome for you."

 

 

Ah, shit. She'd been hoping to avoid a freakin' seminar on this subject. "That's not what I meant."

 

 

"That's what you said."

 

 

Faith sighs. "It's an expression. It means you're doing something to my metabolism."

 

 

"How can that be?"

 

 

"Believe me, it's highly possible. It's the way humans are wired."

 

 

"I don't understand."

 

 

She clenches the steering wheel even harder. "I'm talkin' one of the seven deadlies here. I'm attracted to you. I'm trying not to be, but it's pretty much useless. You have a beautiful face and a fantastic body and I like you and you piss me off sometimes. It's a fatal combination for me."

 

 

"Fatal?"

 

 

God, he's so literal. "For my common sense. It makes me want to jump you. Except, no."

 

 

The silence stretches out between them. Faith doesn't chance a look toward him, because the road is getting worse by the minute.

 

 

"I know. I'm totally going to hell for this. It's a sin if it's a plain old human, but if I'm lustin' after an angel of the Lord....

 

 

"Is it something I'm doing that's causing you distress?"

 

 

"No! Nothing you can stop, anyway. It's just ... it's who you are and how you are. It's sexy."

 

 

"I'm not sure what I should do."

 

 

"Nothin', all right? I'm keeping a lid on it. You asked, and I put it out there, and I'm kinda sorry I did. Just forget it. I'm not going to jump you, because I don't need that kinda trouble with God."

 

 

Castiel thinks on this a while. "Perhaps it's a test."

 

 

"No shit, Sherlock!"

 

 

"Perhaps --"

 

 

"What?"

 

 

"Nothing important."

 

 

Faith scalp prickles. She gets the strong feeling she's just been witness to Castiel's first lie.

 


 

 

They fall back into silence for the next long stretch of miles, but this time there's zero chance of Faith forgetting that Castiel's there. Though the sloppy road takes every scrap of her attention, she's as aware of him as the snow blowing into the windshield.

 

 

After a few hours of this, Faith's shoulders and neck ache and her eyes burn with the strain. The only cars still along the highway are the slide-offs on the shoulder and in the median. Not even the SUV drivers are stupid enough to be out.

 

 

"We're gonna have to stop. We need gas soon, as soon as I find an exit that slants downhill instead of up. I guarantee we aren't gonna make it back up until the plows come through, and they've given up till the snow stops."

 

 

"You're in need of rest. I should have realized this before now."

 

 

"I wouldn't have stopped before now." She spots an off-ramp with a downward slope and gradually veers from her lane-straddling course toward the right. "Buckle your seat belt, there's a good chance I'm gonna lose control." She's glad Castiel's literal reading of every remark makes it impossible for him to see the double meaning in that. She's embarrassed enough for them both.

 

 

After a sickening fishtail-and-slide down the exit and halfway across the road it empties into, she points them toward the motel signs sprouting up above the rooftops. By some miracle the vacancy light is still on at one of them. Faith has to get out and push the car over the small rise into the parking lot. She slips and falls a couple of times, but manages not to get herself run over by her own car, so she calls it a win.

 

 

Her luck only holds out for one room and not the two she requests, but at this point, she'll take it. Leaving the car where she initially parked it, they trudge down the row of doors to the last available room. Faith heaves a sigh of relief at the sight of the two beds. She slings her weapons bag on one of them and announces that she's taking a shower. "Don't worry if I'm in there a while," she tells him. "I've got a lot of kinks to work out."

 

 

Castiel frowns. "Kinks?"

 

 

She knows he's not reacting to the double meaning, but she flushes crimson anyway. "I'm all tight." Fuck! "My neck," she stammers. "the muscles are all knotted. Jesus! Turn on the weather channel or something. I'm gonna be a while."

 

 

Cranking on the water as hot as she can stand, Faith stands under the spray, letting it pound against her aching shoulders, neck and back. What she really needs, she supposes, is a cold shower, but there's only so much self-denial she can stand. She changes into a dry pair of jeans and a long sleeved tee and emerges in a cloud of steam to find Castiel perched on the foot of his bed, elbows planted on his knees, his steepled hands resting against his lips as he watches the TV with the air of a chess master studying his next move.

 

 

"So what are they sayin'?" By the time the words are out of her mouth, she realizes people don't generally moan on the weather channel.

 

 

"Very little, actually."

 

 

Faith gets a look at the screen and lets out a yelp. Snatching up the remote, she hits the power button so hard the TV goes off and then pops back on again before she finally fumbles it off. "Castiel, that's the porn channel! Christ on a Segway!"

 


 

 

Castiel turns and regards her. "I was aware it wasn't the weather."

 

 

"Yeah, all right, I deserved that. But the last thing I expected to see was my guardian angel watching porn. I hope this isn't goin' on my permanent record." She's only half joking.

 

 

"Human sexuality is such a complicated matter."

 

 

"Tell me about it! But this isn't where you go to figure it out." Faith sets the remote on top of the TV, out of his reach. "It's like watching a sitcom to see how families work. That's not what it's like." Though truthfully, there have been many, many times in her life when it's been exactly like that. Except for the guaranteed his-and-hers orgasms.

 

 

"What is it like?"

 

 

She should have known he'd ask. "It's -- it's a million different ways. But porn just reduces it to a soulless, mindless fuck. Like scratching an itch."

 

 

Castiel settles back into the elbows-on-knees position, gazing at his interlaced fingers. Faith wonders why she's never noticed that he has beautiful hands. Immediately she tries to scrub the thought from her brain.

 

 

"When my superior chose to fall," he says, "I felt such a sense of betrayal.and righteous anger. I found it so easy to judge her as weak and sinful." He's silent for a long moment, his face shadowed in the room's dim light. "Now I can see the arrogance and folly of presuming to judge another. I put myself in my Father's place, and for my pride I am shown the same weakness in myself."

 

 

"Because you're curious about us?"

 

 

He turns his face toward her. "The serpent, when he tempted the first humans to fall, used their desire to know that which God ordained to be hidden. I can't tell if what I'm feeling now is the desire to understand or the longing to experience and feel what humans do. To know desire and its fulfillment. Is this why I'm here, trapped in this vessel? To experience human life fully? Or am I being tested?"

 

 

"Castiel, if it's up to me to perch on your shoulder and guide you along the path of righteousness, we are both hosed. Keep your head. You're not here so you can fall."

 

 

"I've embraced other experiences."

 

 

"Which I probably shouldn't have encouraged. Even so, this is different. Not that I've read the Bible, but I don't think it says anywhere that drinking orange juice or getting stabbed is a sin. Fornicating? That's a whole different story."

 

 

"How can I hope to understand humans if something so fundamental is barred to me?"

 

 

Faith settles on the floor at his feet, grabbing one of his hands and holding it tight. "You're lonely. It feels like something else, but you're so alone right now, and if you don't watch out it'll make you do something stupid."

 

 

He stares at her. "This is loneliness?"

 

 

"I'm pretty damn sure," she says gently. "You're completely separated from anyone who understands you, who you understand. It's making you desperate to connect, but you have to be careful. Sex isn't a cure for being lonely." She offers a rueful smile. "I been told that bein' in love isn't a cure for being lonely, a lot of the time."

 

 

Castiel's hand tightens on hers, his grip strong enough that she'd probably find it uncomfortable if she weren't a slayer. The world seems beyond quiet. No sound seeps in from the surrounding rooms or the snow-smothered world outside. It's almost like the silence of that first moment standing at the lip of the Sunnydale crater.

 

 

"You know what I think?" she finally says. "If there's any purpose at all in what you're going through, it's this. Coming face to face with this kind of loneliness. You want to know something about the human condition? This is what it is. For all people, some of the time. For some people, all of the time. It's even more universal than sex, I guarantee it."

 

 

"How do people endure it?"

 

 

She shrugs. "Some don't. That's where the whole 'doing something stupid' comes in. She wraps his hand in both of hers. "If you want to see this time as a gift, here it is. A little harder to take than socks from your grandma, but maybe you have to smile and say it's nice anyway."

 

 

There's another long silence, then Castiel says, "You're wrong about one thing."

 

 

"Yeah? That doesn't surprise me."

 

 

"I'm not completely cut off from anyone who understands me."

 

 

This acknowledgement moves her more than she can say. "Well. I been imprisoned and alone too. Guess I learned a little something."

 


 

 

Faith wakes in the morning to filtered gray light leaking in through a gap in the curtains. Unlike the night before, there are sounds coming in from the outside, but they're muffled, even the scrape of snowplows on the street. Despite the urge to bury herself deeper under the covers, she groans and hauls herself up.

 

 

Though she expected to find him awake and praying or watching her, Castiel is asleep on the next bed, stripped (for him) down to his shirt sleeves, his tie unknotted. His arms are flung outward and Faith wonders if he's dreaming of flight, of being with his brothers, where he can speak in his native tongue.

 

 

If he is, she doesn't want to cut that short. She heads into the bathroom without waking him, taking her time with her morning routine, calling Dean to update him on where they are and when they're heading out.

 

 

When she emerges, Castiel is back in full tan-raincoated armor, watching out the window. Faith hears kids squealing and parents laughing, all softened and absorbed by the snow covering everything.

 

 

"Still coming down?" She'd forgotten to look when she awoke, caught up in her thoughts about Castiel.

 

 

"No, it's stopped."

 

 

It's a relief and a disappointment at the same time. "We should grab some breakfast, I think, then punch it and stay on the road as long as we can. There's a diner just down this access road that looks like the sort of place that might have real OJ."

 

 

After checking Castiel's stitches and changing the bandage, Faith slings her bag over her shoulder and heads out into the white and gray world. Slamming the trunk shut, she turns to find Castiel bending to scoop up a handful of snow, which he sculpts into a perfect snowball. He displays it to her in his cradled hands, solemn as a child.

 

 

"Did those kids show you what to do with that?"

 

 

He shakes his head, and Faith hastily scoops up a handful of snow from the roof of the car and pelts him with it.

 

 

"Snowball fight!"

 

 

Castiel rears back to throw his own missile, and Faith throws up her arm.

 

 

"Careful!" she shouts. "Your stitches!"

 

 

Scowling, he stalks toward her. "You would smite me when I cannot retaliate?"

 

 

She flings another handful at him. "Snowball smite!"

 

 

Castiel rushes her and stuffs his snowball down the back of her collar, causing her to shriek and stumble against him, and they both stagger back against a car, his arm around her waist and his breath hot against her cold, wet neck. For the second time since she's known him, she hears him laugh, but it ends in a gasp.

 

 

Faith turns to look at him. "Did I hurt you?"

 

 

"No." But he looks rattled, blindsided. "I'm fine."

 

 

She studies him. "Something just happened."

 

 

"I understand now why you say 'hot.'"

 

 

He's just made the leap from being interested in desire on an academic level to feeling it. Seeing the realization dawn on his face gives Faith a jolt of the same current.

 

 

Faith touches his face with snow-dampened fingers. It feels aflame. "It's powerful, isn't it?"

 

 

"This answers so many questions, and creates so many more."

 

 

In spite of the speech she made last night, her every cell is flooded with the impulse to take Castiel back to the room. She takes a step back instead, breaking the contact. "I'll go drop the key."

 

 

When she comes back out of the office, Castiel is standing in an empty parking space marked with tire tracks, studying something on the snowy oval of a parking island.

 

 

"Find something?" she asks, but when she reaches him she sees what's caught his attention. "It's a snow angel."

 

 

Castiel looks at her, brows raised.

 

 

"It's a thing kids do, when there's a big snow. You fall back and flap your arms and legs." Faith demonstrates with her arms. "These are the wings --"

 

 

In a heartbeat, Castiel's expression changes from curious to shut down; he spins on his heel and walks off to the car without a word.

 

 

Faith stares after him for a moment. She knows that reaction -- she's seen it plenty of times in women she knew in prison. She'd swear it was a flash of memory rising up to bite him on the ass.

 

 

Angels? Post-traumatic stress?

 

 

From snow angels?

 

 

Faith watches him settle into the passenger seat, then rouses herself and follows.

 


 

 

Whatever Castiel saw in his mind's eye, it's enough to interfere with the taste of fresh OJ and eggs with near-perfect hashbrowns. He's distracted and subdued throughout the meal and once they get on the road.

 

 

The plows have cleared off the worst of the packed snow, which lets her gain some of the ground she lost the night before. She cranks the radio for the music, not the weather report, singing along as she settles into her road trip zone. Her singing is about as far from heavenly choirs as she supposes you can get. Maybe not -- she could probably make Dean's ears bleed too. Either way, Castiel doesn't complain.

 

 

After she loses the fifth radio station signal, she tires of the search for another and switches the stereo off. "Want to talk about it?"

 

 

"Talk about what?"

 

 

"Either big thing that happened back there. Though I was mostly thinking about whatever the snow angel made you flash back to, because we kinda talked the sex issue into the ground and I don't think my opinion changed any just because you jumped on the horny train." It's changed her body's opinion a whole hell of a lot, but she's staying off that topic.

 

 

He seems to have a little trouble untangling that sentence, so she tries again. "The snow angel. To us, that's about as innocent a sight as it gets. But it kicked up some serious shit for you. Sometimes talking about this stuff makes it --"

 

 

Castiel glares at her. "Makes it all better?"

 

 

"Seriously, dude. Have I ever given you the impression I'd say something like that? 'Less toxic,' is what I was gonna say. Which is a far cry from 'all better,' but it's something."

 

 

He makes no response and Faith decides to let it go. It's maybe twenty miles down the road that he speaks again. "Six angels from my garrison have been killed in the last few months." She remembers him saying so, but she doesn't break in and interrupt the flow of his words. Something else she knows about PTSD; you shut the hell up and listen. "Uriel and I came upon the bodies of two of them, here on earth. The image of their wings was burned into the ground where they fell."

 

 

Faith shivers. "Like those shadows on the ground at Hiroshima."

 

 

"Yes. Exactly."

 

Ouch. She sees how gazing on the imprint of a snow angel, however cartoonish in comparison to the real thing, might stir up memories. "I'd thought this happened on the battlefield, but it sounds like it wasn't."

 

 

"That's right. Each was alone, with no time to communicate with the others."

 

 

"Not just killed. Ganked."

 

 

"It should not be possible."

 

 

"You think they were cut off from communications? Maybe there isn't anything jamming the angel frequency for everyone, maybe just the next target." She doesn't like the implications, if that's the case. "Why the fuck aren't the others looking for you?"

 

 

"You might ask why I wasn't looking for my fallen brothers and sisters."

 

 

Faith winces. "That's not what I meant."

 

 

"I've asked that myself. We cannot be everywhere, and there are many battles to fight. But I still feel I failed them."

 

 

"No, Castiel, I didn't mean to make you feel guilty."

 

 

A half-smile flickers at the corner of his mouth. "You didn't make me start, and you won't make me stop."

 

 

"We'll figure out what's going on. We'll find the fuckers who are doing this, and we'll make them stop."

 

 

She just hopes she can back up that promise with action.

 


 

 

When Faith catches sight of the Winchesters' black boat of a car in the motel parking lot, she feels almost like weeping. She knows it's exhaustion, but she's damn glad to have the prospect of some company that isn't Castiel. She hoists herself out of the car and staggers to the motel office and says she's here for the Rockford family reunion. The clerk hands her room keys and gives her the room numbers for Sam and Dean and for Bobby.

 

 

She sees a flick of a curtain as she passes Sam and Dean's room, and the door opens. "Hey," Dean says. He's holding a longneck, and Faith's so tired she doesn't even wish she had one.

 

 

"Hey."

 

 

"How're you doing?"

 

 

"Stoved up and fuckin' tired. Don't tell me we have to have a long powwow about what's goin' on."

 

 

"Not so long. We got nothin' up north of here, and we're still working on finding out what's shaking around here. Want a beer?"

 

 

Faith shakes her head and Dean has to catch her by the elbow to steady her.

 

 

"You're about to crash."

 

 

"Yeah, no kidding."

 

 

Castiel emerges from the car and approaches them. "Dean."

 

 

"Cas, how's the injury?"

 

 

"Slower to heal than I'd prefer, but it is healing."

 

 

"I heal fast," Faith tells Dean, "so I'm not sure what's normal. Maybe you should have a look to be sure it's doing what it should."

 

 

"It's not necessary," Castiel says flatly.

 

 

"Well, come tell me about the demons with the tattoos and all the other stuff that's happened. Faith can collapse for a while, then we can decide what's what."

 

 

"Where is Sam?" Castiel asks.

 

 

Dean exchanges a quick look with Faith. "He and Bobby are making a supply run. C'mon. Let's give her a little time."

 

 

Faith drops her key twice before Dean takes it from her and opens the door.

 

 

"You all right?"

 

 

"It's been a long haul, is all."

 

 

"Sleep. I'll catch up with you later." Part of her hates to miss the debriefing -- she half expects Castiel to ask oh so earnestly about the whole sex issue. It would be almost worth the mortification to see Dean stammer out some kind of brotherly advice.

 

 

Faith doesn't even bother with teeth-brushing and the works. She slings her bag beside the bed and throws herself on top of the bedspread, and she's out the second her head lands on the pillow.

 

 

After two hours, she wakes just as completely, grateful that her rest was unbroken by slayer dreams. She heads for the bathroom to pull herself together and change clothes. There's a note under her door saying the others are across the road at the Country Kitchen, so she pulls on her jacket and boots and heads into the damp, snowy cold. Dean's right where she'd expect him, sitting in the corner booth with his back to the wall. Next to him is a bearded older guy with a baseball cap who looks like a trucker. Sammy's got the crap seat, with his back to the room.

 

 

"You're looking downright perky," Dean says in greeting.

 

 

"You're a liar."

 

 

"But I'm charming."

 

 

"You're a liar." She offers her hand to trucker-guy. "I'm Faith."

 

 

"This is Bobby," Dean says.

 

 

"I've been hearing a lot about you," Faith says.

 

 

"Same here. Sit down, have some coffee." Bobby waves the waitress toward them, gesturing for her to set Faith up with a mug.

 

 

"Where's Castiel?"

 

 

"He found a church near here, and wanted to spend some time," Sam says.

 

 

"I'm not sure I like that," Faith says. "He nearly got himself ganked in a church, and he's not back to full power."

 

 

"He wasn't exactly asking for suggestions," Dean comments.

 

 

"Yeah, well, this vessel shit is hard for him. He's been stuck in it for a while, and he's lost contact with the others. Something's picking off the angels, and I want to be damn sure he's not next. Where'd he go?"

 

 

"I'll come with." Dean scoots out of the booth and swipes a couple of to-go cups from the wait station, dumping their coffee into them. "This is gonna be more stakeout than action, I'm thinking," he says.

 

 

"If you say, 'You shouldn't worry your pretty little head,' I'll kick your ass."

 

 

Dean smirks and heads toward the door, leaving Faith to notice his ass and bow-legged walk and think, Damn.

 

 

As they reach the parking lot, Dean asks, "Castiel gave me the rundown of what he thought was worthwhile news. Did you learn anything he might not cover?"

 

 

"Yeah. When angels get carsick, they puke rainbows. It's more disgusting than you would imagine."

 

 

"Very funny." He looks away from her, so she knows he's grinning.

 

 

They pause at the side of the road to wait for a couple of cars to go by. "Dean, don't take this the wrong way, but I'd like to fuck the shit out of you as soon as humanly possible."

 


 

 

Dean sprays a mouthful of coffee into the air, fine brown droplets mingled with steam. He coughs. "You did that on purpose."

 

 

"I totally did. But I totally meant it."

 

 

"You want --" he stammers wildly and can't quite bring himself to repeat her words. Faith grins at the notion that someone as raunchy as Dean can be thrown so completely off his game by someone raunchier.

 

 

"Totally."

 

 

"All that 24/7 angelic repression is getting to you, huh?"

 

 

"Something like that."

 

 

He stabs a finger toward her. "This is an elaborate joke. Sammy called you. While I was asleep or in the shower or something. He put you up to this."

 

 

"Did you hear the one about the circus midget that married the world's tallest woman? His friends put him up to it." Laughing, she sprints across the road to the motel parking lot.

 

 

Dean runs after her. "What the hell's got into you?"

 

 

"Nothin'. That's the problem." She shoots him a look as she digs out her keys. "Think about it too fuckin' long, and I'll retract the goddamn offer. Sorry."

 

 

"Sorry? About what?"

 

 

"That's a hangover from hanging out with Castiel. I'm tryin' not to take the Lord's name in vain so much." That's not the only hangover she's got from Castiel, but Dean doesn't need to know any more than he already does.

 

 

"But 'fuck' you've got no problem with?"

 

 

"That's right." Faith flashes him a grin. "Y'know, I've never fucked a bow-legged guy."

 

 

"I am not bow-legged!"

 

 

"Please, dude. Some Shriner could drive a clown car between your legs. It's amazingly hot."

 

 

He scowls, but doesn't argue the point. "So this whole 'We gotta watch Castiel' thing was a ploy to get me away from the others?"

 

 

"No. We gotta watch Castiel. But after that, I want to have some smokin' hot sex. If you'll make up your mind. Three -- two --"

 

 

"Hell yes," Dean says before she gets to one. "I'm in."

 


 

 

She unlocks her car, but before she can get inside, Dean says, "Oh I don't think so. I'm not riding in that piece of crap."

 

 

"Fine. We'll take the car that's old enough to vote. Hell, old enough to have grandkids."

 

 

Dean doesn't respond directly to the insult, but she catches him wiping at a smudge on the black paint with his shirt tail just before he opens the door, as if soothing the car's hurt feelings. Maybe she'd better tone it down, or she might blow her chances of getting her needs met.

 

 

Faith pats the dashboard. "Just teasing Dean, babe."

 

 

Dean's still sulky during the short drive to the church, but Faith's thoughts are solely on Castiel by the time the building's in view. She has her door open before the car comes to a complete stop, hurrying out and up the sidewalk to the front door. Her heart does a flip when she steps into the sanctuary and sees no one inside.

 

 

Faith closes her hand around the hilt of her knife as she moves toward the front of the room. She's two-thirds of the way there by the time she spots Castiel in the first pew to the right. He's leaning forward, elbows on his knees, fingers interlaced. His head is bowed.

 

 

"I am perfectly safe, Faith," he says without making any movement at all.

 

 

"I'll be in back." She retreats to station herself at the back of the sanctuary, like an usher waiting to greet the first worshippers at mass.

 

 

Dean walks in as Faith passes the last pew, and she gestures to him to hold where he is. He glances around the room and then back at her, puzzled. Faith points toward the front pew, then steeples her hands as if in prayer.

 

 

"Can't he do that anywhere?" he whispers as she joins him.

 

 

"He's a long way from home. This is as close as he can get."

 

 

Dean eyes her, and she wonders exactly what Castiel has told him. "Angel's pet," he says in tones of schoolyard mockery, and Faith lets out a breath.

 

 

"Hard not to figure out a thing or two. We've been stuck in a car with each other for 24 hours."

 

 

He flicks another glance toward the front of the church, and whispers, "You ran into a guy who knew him. From before."

 

 

"Who knew the vessel, yeah."

 

 

"What'd you find out about him?"

 

 

"Mark? He was married. Had a kid." Funny, to be talking about him as if he's dead, when the body he inhabited is right in the sanctuary with them. "I don't think he saw all that much of them. He had some kind of high-powered job."

 

 

"Cas said he was pretty religious."

 

 

"It's more complicated than that. From what I've picked up, it doesn't seem like he had much time for that. Then something happened that spun him right around, and he had some kind of conversion."

 

 

"Did he tell you what it was?"

 

 

"You remember that guy who shot up a commuter train?"

 

 

"When was this?"

 

 

"Spring, maybe? C'mon, it was all over the news. Where in hell were you?" She realizes as soon as it's out of her mouth that it's the worst thing she could possibly say.

 

 

His expression shutters. "I was busy." Before she can think of a way to backtrack without admitting she knows anything -- because Dean sure as shit hasn't told her -- he spins on his heel and starts toward the door to the vestibule.

 

 

A man in a white shirt and tie heads him off, arms outspread in a gesture that manages to be non-threatening and welcoming, while still effectively herding him. "Can I help you folks?"

 

 

"We're friends of the guy praying up front," Faith says, still keeping her voice low. "We're just waitin'."

 

 

"Sure," the man says, flicking a glance between her and Dean. "I'll be nearby, just let me know if there's anything you need."

 

 

As he heads off, Faith whispers. "Listen, forget what I said. I know how it is when there's an apocalypse brewin'. I'm lucky if I notice who's president." That seems to pacify Dean, so she goes on. "Some guy on a commuter train out of NYC opened fire and shot up the car. Fifteen dead, more hurt. He was there."

 

 

"Damn."

 

 

"Yeah. That's hardcore even for us, ain't it? Mark had his conversion after that. I guess he was so intense about it, everyone thought he was having some kind of breakdown."

 

 

Dean gestures toward the front of the sanctuary. "What, him, intense?"

 

 

Faith stifles a snort. "I know. Picture that. Hell, from the way Castiel acts, I think even God thought this guy was wound a little too tight. He insisted on having a purpose, so he gets to be Castiel's ride."

 

 

"You think he's in there riding along?"

 

 

She shrugs. "I'm strictly don't ask, don't tell on that." It's weird enough just dealing with Castiel.

 

 

Dean looks around the sanctuary, taking in the altar and pulpit, the pews with the hymnbooks neatly stowed in racks. It's a lot plainer than Steve's church, no stained glass, no ornate carvings.

 

 

He asks, "Why is it that some people just live out their lives and some have a capital-D Destiny? Some of those get to be God's hammer and some get to be the nail, and none of 'em gets the slightest choice."

 

 

"Wish I knew, Dean."

 

 

"I'm beginning to wonder if Cas knows anymore. 'Because God said so' must get old, even to him."

 

 

Faith looks toward Castiel. She's afraid Dean may be righter than he knows.

 


 

 

Faith realizes she's got no right to be impatient, considering it was her idea to come here and stand guard, but she wishes Castiel would hurry the hell up before every ounce of horniness is sapped from her body and Dean's.

 

 

The damn philosophical discussion did not help. Capital-D destiny is a stone cold buzzkill for sure, at least for those who have been handed a big helping of it.

 

 

Time to take measures. She reaches both hands around to the small of her back, stretching and massaging and not-so-incidentally thrusting her tits in Dean's direction. She makes a small noise, a soft animal grunt of pleasure or pain that's designed to put him in mind of moans and sighs. Her unzipped jacket restricts the view, but sometimes a quick flash is more of a turn-on than the wide-screen Cinemascope view. If the guy's got a good imagination, it is. If he doesn't, well, she doesn't have a whole lot of use for him, long-term.

 

 

Dean notices. "Long time behind the wheel," he whispers, but behind the words there's interest in more than the state of her back.

 

 

"Yeah. I definitely got some kinks that need workin' out."

 

 

A grin flickers at the corner of his mouth. "Maybe I can help with that."

 

 

Good. He's back in the game. And so is she. "I'm countin' on it."

 

 

A movement catches her attention at the corner of her vision. It's Castiel, who's sat back in the front pew. Only now does it occur to her that his posture for praying isn't all that different from the one he used for watching porn. Focused, intent.

 

 

She wonders what he'd be like bringing those qualities to sex.

 

 

Desire flares like a flash fire, and color rises in her cheeks.

 

 

Castiel gets to his feet and turns toward the back of the sanctuary, and Faith knows instantly from the set of his shoulders that he's had no sign whatsoever that his prayers have gotten through. She feels a pang of sorrow for him, as well as worry.

 

 

What the hell is cutting him off from his brothers -- from heaven itself?

 

 

Joining them, Castiel offers a small smile. "I see I now require two bodyguards."

 

 

Faith flashes on the angel from the window at Steve's church, from her dream. Crippled, one wing hacked away, awaiting the death blow.

 

 

"We're just hangin' out," she assures him, but she knows he knows otherwise.

 

 

"Maybe we should get back to the others," Dean says. "Figure out our next move."

 

 

They're walking through the vestibule when another man approaches, a big black guy in a dark suit. He's not making with the welcoming gestures, and the skin prickles at the back of her neck.

 

 

"Oh great," Dean mutters.

 

 

Castiel is a step behind her, but she hears his outward rush of breath. "My brother."

 


 

 

"I am glad to see you, brother," Castiel says, and the slight amount of relief that leaks into his tone strikes Faith the same way an emotional meltdown would from anyone else. "I have been trying to reach you and the others, but I've failed."

 

 

"We've been searching, but something keeps you obscured from us," says the other angel. "So I've been watching the Winchester brothers." As relieved as she is, the way he says "Winchester brothers" raises her hackles. He shifts his gaze to Faith, and she wonders if this is a hint of what it feels like to undergo the Judgment. He seems to see her every flaw, and she doesn't find a trace of mercy in his face. "I see you've added to your collection," he says to Castiel.

 

 

Faith squares her shoulders. "You must be Muriel. I've heard the bare minimum about you."

 

 

A smirk creeps in as he continues to regard her. "You do like the ones with the smart mouths," he says to Castiel. "Is it for the clever repartee or for the fear that's just below the surface?"

 

 

"He who smelt it, dealt it," Dean says. "You're pretty lippy yourself for talking to your superior."

 

 

Uriel's smirk deepens and Castiel shifts almost imperceptibly at her shoulder, and Faith feels a thread of disquiet at this non-exchange.

 

 

"This is Faith," Castiel says. "She's a warrior of the slayer line. We might very well be dead, and thousands upon thousands of our brothers, if not for her."

 

 

"I heard as much." His tone says clearly that he doesn't have to like it.

 

 

Dean's right. Angel or not, this guy is a massive prick.

 

 

He shifts his attention to Castiel, then back to Faith, his expression sharp and knowing. "Take care, my brother. You're in danger of going native."

 

 

Faith draws herself up. "Impugn my honor if you want," she says, deliberately echoing what Castiel had said to Dean when she first met the Winchesters. "Frankly, I don't give a shit what you say about me. But watch the slander, or you'll piss me off."

 

 

Uriel laughs at this, a sound rich with mockery and disdain.

 

 

"Uriel's a specialist," Dean says. "A smitin' angel. God didn't bother to give him a personality."

 

 

"I need to speak with you, Castiel," Uriel says. "Without the children around. Amusing as they are."

 

 

"I'm not goin' anywhere," Faith says. "Not unless Castiel tells me to."

 

 

"Faith," Castiel says. "I must confer with Uriel. I need to know what's happening, and to tell Uriel more about what we encountered. Go. I'll find you both."

 

 

Faith exchanges a look with Dean, then nods. "See you back at the Rockford reunion."

 

 

As they step out into the slush, Dean says, "I really don't like that guy."

 

 

"Yeah, but he needs his brothers. Maybe Uriel can heal him."

 

 

"I'm not sure that's in his repertoire." The driver's door of the Impala opens with a screech. "Guess that was a mood-killer."

 

 

"Are you high?" She settles onto the car seat beside him. "We've got some guaranteed angel-free time and we've both got a little bit of a mad on. To me that sounds like the makings of some primo sex. All we need to do now is find a spot."

 

 

Dean throws her a sidelong glance and a grin. "Let's get right to it."

 


 

 

Dean speed dials his brother before they get out of the parking lot. "Anything shaking?" After a moment, he says, "Keep at it. Our pal Uriel showed up, so he and Cas are exchanging the latest news. While they're doing that, Faith and I are running down a possibility. Nah, I don't want to say anything unless it pans out. Could be a longshot. Yeah. I'll call." He flips the phone closed and replaces it in his pocket.

 

 

"'Running down a possibility,'" Faith says. "Good one. Where are we gonna do that?"

 

 

"I saw a billboard for a motel here in town." He hangs a right at a stoplight, barely pausing at the red.

 

 

As Dean turns into the parking lot, Faith eyes the big airplane parked in front of the rambling building. There's a church steeple at the far end of the inn, just plunked on the ground. "Where the hell do you boys find these places? Is there some guidebook for Cheesiest Motels in America?"

 

 

"It's a gift." The wisecrack makes her grin, but also reminds her of Castiel. Is he this very minute telling Uriel about the gifts he's received? Pain and the awareness of mortality, dependence and impatience and loneliness? The heat of unexpected sexual attraction? Uriel doesn't seem like the sort who'll be moved by Castiel's appreciation of those things. Faith, on the other hand, is. The thought of their soft collision of bodies, the shock of snow down her collar and the heat flashing through the two of them, sends an answering warmth flooding through her.

 

 

Faith accompanies Dean into the lobby, gazing around her. The place is dark, heavy, with wooden paneling and beams, the carpet busy and ugly. "Wow. The Shining much?" There's a huge honkin' fireplace with a grouping of barbershop chairs facing it.

 

 

"Well, we're not planning to spend any time hanging out in the lobby." He approaches the front desk and says, "Me and my lovely bride here were wondering if you have any rooms available."

 

 

"Sure do," says the girl behind the counter. "Did you want one of the theme rooms, then?"

 

 

"Theme rooms?"

 

 

"The Fanta-Suites. I have a brochure, if you --"

 

 

"Tell you what -- why don't you surprise us? We're, ah, kind of in a hurry." Dean shoves a credit card across the desk before Faith can get a look at whatever improbable name he's using this time.

 

 

The clerk takes the imprint of his card then hands it over with a brass key attached to a big plastic tag with the room number, and points them toward a doorway.

 

 

"Actual keys?" Faith says. "I think this place lives in the same time warp your car stereo does."

 

 

Despite the flicker of irritation that flits across his face, he doesn't comment. "Did she say 'through the tunnel'?"

 

 

"Yeah, but -- holy sh-- there's a tunnel. You weren't shittin' me when you said Wisconsin is full of the weird-ass."

 

 

"You'd never been?"

 

 

She eyes a dummy corpse sprawled on a heap of rock as she passes by. She's not sure if the beer can nestled in its arm is propping by the decorative genius who put this here, or a passing commentary by a guest. "Nah. Just a piss break in a bus station on my way out to California ten years ago. Come to think of it, that was kinda bizarre too."

 

 

They come out into a more conventional, if dark and threadbare, hotel hallway. "We're getting close," Dean says, and Faith has to suppress a snort. "What?"

 

 

"Our vibe," Faith says. "It's a lot more hunters-on-the-trail than lovers-in-a-frenzy." Or Fred and Velma.

 

 

"Maybe I can do something about that." Dean pulls her close and lays an exploratory kiss on her. It's not at all what she expected, teasing and promising instead of demanding, tasting faintly of spearmint. It's a kiss of a guy who knows how to do more than drill her into the mattress.

 

 

It's a kiss that gets her head right back into the game. "Room," she says.

 

 

"It's, uh, two doors down." The key sticks a little, but he finally gets the lock to click over. "Whoa."

 

 

Though she'd been expecting a low ceiling crossed with heavy beams, Faith finds herself looking up at the freaking spaceship in the two story tall room, and the astronaut floating outside it.

 

 

"Fuck. Me," she says.

 


 

 

Dean glances at her. "That was the idea, wasn't it?"

 

 

"Seriously, this is the most cracked-out shit I've ever seen."

 

 

He looks back up at the hovering astronaut. "What d'you think made her peg us for astronaut sex types?"

 

 

"You think pegging is actually legal in Wisconsin?" Faith kicks the door closed and slips her arms around Dean's waist from behind. "I think she thought we were limber enough to get up the damn ladder." She dips one hand below the belt and is rewarded with his sharp inward breath.

 

 

"Waitwaitwait. Pegging?"

 

 

"Sorry, babe. I don't bring my toys on a hunt. We're strictly low tech, apart from the spaceship. So are we gonna stand here yappin' all day, or we gonna get to some quality screwin'?"

 

 

Dean turns toward her, and Faith unzips his leather jacket, relishing the release of body heat and scent of soap. He brushes his fingertips along her jawline, his face so serious and intent. "I'm not sure what to make of you."

 

 

"Fold me the right way, and you can make a crane."

 

 

"What?"

 

 

"Never mind. Trust me, babe. I'm not that complicated."

 

 

"Oh, I think you're all kinds of complicated." He leans in to kiss her then, soft and slow and tender. "You just try not to let anyone see."

 

 

Faith has more than a suspicion that he's describing himself as well. "Maybe. But this is simple, if we just shut up and let it be." She pushes the jacket off his shoulders, watches him shrug it the rest of the way off. Running her hands over the line of his shoulders, she pulls him in for a kiss, putting more fire and urgency into this one.

 

 

She breaks away and sheds her own jacket, then pulls her shirt over her head, dropping it on the floor on top of the jacket. Dean makes a soft noise of appreciation, tracing her collarbones with his fingers, still cold from the outdoors. Then he peels off his shirt and the gray tee below, careful not to tug off the cord hanging around his neck.

 

 

Faith fingers the amulet dangling from it, then turns her attention to the tattoo below his collarbone. "What is this?"

 

 

"Protection against possession."

 

 

"Sam have one too?"

 

 

"Yeah."

 

 

Otherwise his chest is unblemished. "After the shit you gave me for not knowing how to sew up a knife cut, I would've thought you'd be covered in scars."

 

 

"I had some. They're gone. Except one."

 

 

She spots it before he finishes speaking, sucking in a breath at the sight. One perfect handprint in pink scar tissue, on his upper arm. "Holy shit. Where'd you get that?"

 

 

"Castiel. He -- he pulled me out of a bad jam."

 

 

Only a Winchester would call hell "a bad jam," she thinks. His expression shutters, and she realizes she'd better get him on another track, and fast. "Well. Let's see about getting you into a good jam." She lays a kiss on him, promising and demanding all at once. "What d'you say we get on up that ladder, Major Tom?"

 


 

 

The only thing that would be stranger than rolling around on the mattress that completely covers the floor of the spaceship would be rolling around weightless. Though the idea of fucking in Zero G makes her laugh, it appeals to her too.

 

 

Dean lifts his head from his attentions to her left nipple. "What's funny?"

 

 

"I was just thinkin' it's too bad we aren't weightless. That's gotta be something. You think any of them have done it?"

 

 

"Astronauts?"

 

 

"Yeah. Hell, I would. What are they gonna do, fire you?"

 

 

"'I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.'"

 

 

Faith snorts, and Dean joins her laughter. For a moment the years seem to roll off him, and he looks like he's not that complicated a guy. He goes back to teasing her nipples, brushing his fingers along the side of her hip. His amulet tickles her belly and she arches beneath him. He feathers his hands along her skin, curving from the outside of her hip to the inside of her thigh, making her shiver. Dean slides up, planting soft kisses at the base of her jaw, just below her ear, his amulet grazing her shoulder. He flicks his tongue at her earlobe and she makes a low noise in her throat, hooking a leg around him.

 

 

"Whoa whoa whoa," Dean says. "Major Tom needs his helmet before he goes on a space walk." He reaches across her, feeling around on the mattress for the assortment of condoms he'd tossed there.

 

 

"Did you just call your dick 'Major Tom'?"

 

 

"Trust me, it's been called more nauseating things than that."

 

 

"So d'you think it's true, that old line about 'in space, no one can hear you scream'?"

 

 

"Let's make you scream, and we'll find out."

 

 

Turns out that it's not, and it doesn't apply to shrieks, moans, gasps, yelps or wild laughter, either. Dean sprawls on the mattress next to her after the third go-round, one leg still tangled with hers, trailing his fingers through her hair.

 

 

"That was ... kind of epic," he says, still a bit breathless.

 

 

"Pent-up post-resurrection sex," Faith says. "I hear it's always good."

 

 

Dean frowns and traces a finger along the knife scar low on her belly. "This scar. It's from before you died?" She nods, and he says, "How come it's still there? All mine were erased when Cas brought me back."

 

 

"Maybe -- maybe because there's something mystical about it because I got it from another slayer -- it's the only scar I had that didn't eventually fade away. Maybe because I need it to remind me of what can happen if I go bad. Maybe because it's important to me, because it is."

 

 

"You went darkside?"

 

 

"Seriously darkside. Enough to land me in prison."

 

 

"Credit card fraud? Five-finger discount?"

 

 

"That's antshit. I'm talking murder, Dean. Siding with the enemy. A little bit of torture."

 

 

Dean goes very still at the sound of this word, and Faith silently curses herself. The guy was in hell, after all, and probably has 32 flavors of PTSD from whatever torments they put him through.

 

 

"Wow," she says. "That has to be number one on the list of things not to say in bed after a window-fogging session of sex."

 

 

He strokes her scar again, absently, not looking at her face. "What, uh, what made you do it?"

 

 

"My own black heart, babe. With a heaping side of crazy. It was someone I thought had failed me -- I still think he did, but I have a lot more sympathy for that now. I was seventeen then, and full of rage and grief and like I said, crazier than a shithouse rat."

 

 

Dean's gaze is still focused on his hand, which still idly traces her scar. "So -- so it was just the once."

 

 

"Don't worry, you're safe."

 

 

The joke falls flat, and Dean keeps his eyes off her. His hand has stopped moving, but still covers the knife scar. Faith's breathing is so shallow that his hand barely rises and falls. She doesn't know how to make this better.

 

 

"I tortured people," Dean says after a long pause. "In hell. Hundreds of them." A muscle pulses at his jawline. "See, I got the special offer. They let me get off the rack if I agreed to help do their work." He flicks a glance toward her, then away. "How do you come back from that?"

 

 

"You listen to the people who tell you you're worth saving. Someone has already told you that, right?"

 

 

"Yeah," he says, but it's an empty husk of a word, like those bugs that leave their shells clinging to trees after they've shed them.

 

 

"Listen to them. Act like you believe them, even if you don't. After a long time you'll start to, and it will get better."

 

 

His jaw tics again. "I wish I could believe that."

 

 

"Act like you do." She picks up one of the foil squares on the mattress, tears it open. "How about one more for the road?"

 

 

"Look, I don't --"

 

 

"You don't have to do a damn thing. Just let me take care of everything."

 


 

 

Faith knows it's foolish to hope for, but she tries to take Dean back to the place they had been before, where he forgets himself competely. She uncorks a few top shelf sex acts, the good stuff that she holds back for special occasions, but her best attentions only produce some gasps and soft cries of release.

 

 

As Faith untangles herself from him, he murmurs, "Wait, what about you?"

 

 

She strokes his face. "I had mine, and then some. That time was for you."

 

 

They should connect with the others, she knows that. There's still her slayer dream to figure out, the battlefield of dead angels. But Castiel is safe for the moment with Uriel, all fierce and archbadass. And Dean needs whatever it is she can give him, inadequate as it is.

 

 

She gently combs her fingers through his hair, settling into a slow, steady rhythm, and feels him relax by tiny degrees. He seems on the verge of falling asleep when instead he says, "Someone told you that you were worth saving."

 

 

"Yeah. His name was Angel."

 

 

"Funny. It's two angels who've told me that. Though one of 'em just needs something from me."

 

 

"Muriel told you that?" That puts a surprising spin on his fierce ass.

 

 

Dean snorts softly. "Oh, hell no. There was another angel. Anna."

 

 

"Well, mine was no angel. He was a vampire. Had racked up hundreds of murders in his time, but got his soul back. He was doing the bigtime atonement thing, demon-hunting and saving people. I happened to be one of 'em he saved, though it sure as hell wasn't easy, and I nearly killed him a few times before it took."

 

 

Dean's silent for a long moment. "Do you think it's easier to believe, coming from someone who's clawed their way back from the dark and not when you're guest starring in a very special episode of Highway to Heaven?"

 

 

"Never thought about it before." She considers for a moment, then realizes he's asking her to make him believe. "Yeah. Yeah, I do. It's not theoretical with us. It's hard-lived truth. So let me put it out there for you, straight from a multiple murderer and right-hand girl to a demon. You're worth saving. It's never too late, and you're never too far gone if you want to change."

 

 

"Nothing will ever erase the things I've done."

 

 

"No. Angel told me more than once we can never make up for the things we did, but we can never stop trying for redemption. Welcome to the team, babe. We few, we happy few, we band of fuck-ups."

 

 

His soft laughter unclenches something inside her. Maybe, despite what Castiel said, she is here to help Dean and not kill Sam. She doesn't need the grand gesture of saving the world if she can change the game for him. Someone else can save the world for once.

 

 

He shifts beside her. "Think maybe we should get back to the others?"

 

 

"I guess it's time."

 

 

Dean crawls toward the hatch of the spaceship. He sucks in his breath in shock as he sticks his head out, then pulls back in. "Shit!" he whispers fiercely. "You won't believe who's out there."

 

 

Faith laughs at his startled expression. "Buzz Lightyear."

 

 

"Cas."

 


 

 

Dean fumbles around the mattress, lifting up the tangle of sheets to search below.

 

 

"Did he see you?" Faith whispers.

 

 

"You know how Cas is. He was standing with his back to me, but of course he saw me."

 

 

Faith stifles a laugh. Castiel gives her the same feeling sometimes.

 

 

Dean hands Faith her bra and continues ransacking the bedding. "I'll go down as soon as I find my damn shorts, and toss your clothes up."

 

 

She finds her thong in a twist. "Here's mine. I can go."

 

 

"What? No!" Which may be the most gallant gesture ever directed at her in the aftermath of sex.

 

 

"He's already seen me naked," she says.

 

 

Dean freezes mid-search. "He has?"

 

 

"He did put my guts back in."

 

 

"This is different. I'm goin'." He snatches up his boxer-briefs and displays them to her with a little triumphant gesture of fist with wadded cloth. Skinning into them, he backs out the hatch and plants his feet on the ladder.

 

 

"One small step for a man," Faith says.

 

 

"Oh, shut up," he whispers fiercely. He disappears from view down the ladder, and Faith starts wriggling into her underthings.

 

 

"Cas. Dude. Ever think about knockin'?"

 

 

"It was not my intention to intrude, Dean. I am sorry."

 

 

"Heads up, Faith!" Her shirt comes flying through the hatch, then her jeans.

 

 

She pulls them on and barefoots it down the ladder as Dean is buttoning his shirt. "Well," she says. "This is hella -- uh, wicked -- damn --" She gives her head a hard shake. "Extremely awkward. But to gloss right over and look on the bright side, you've got your angel mojo back, if you could pop in like that."

 

 

"No. Uriel brought me here." He looks troubled, and Faith can't quite figure if it's because of what they found here, or the fact that he's still earthbound.

 

 

"Well, isn't that just the sort of special thing Uriel would do," Dean says. "Are you sure his specialty isn't smiting but buzzkill?"

 

 

"I'm gonna clean up real quick," Faith says. "Use the pause button on the snark until I get back. I wouldn't want to miss anything."

 


 

 

When Faith emerges from the bathroom, Dean darts in. Castiel is looking upward, regarding the astronaut with great curiosity.

 

 

"We are having a conversation," Faith says.

 

 

He tears his gaze away from the hovering astronaut. "Of course."

 

 

"Do I wanna know how long you've been here?"

 

 

Castiel's brow creases. "How would I know that?"

 

 

Dean bursts out of the bathroom, wiping his hands down the front of his shirt, droplets of water clinging to spikes of hair on his forehead. His glance lands on the astronaut and he scowls. "We ready to roll?"

 

 

"I want to have a look at Castiel's knife cut, and there's plenty of room to spread out in there. You mind getting your first aid kit and bringing it here?"

 

 

"I'd be thrilled," Dean says fervently. He's out of the door like a shot.

 

 

"Dean seemed quite glad to leave," Castiel notes.

 

 

"He's embarrassed. He'll recover." She guides him into the bathroom and perches him on the tile tub ledge. The tub has enough space for Faith, Castiel, Dean and the astronaut to have a romp.

 

 

"You're remarkably attuned to the mood of those around you," Castiel says.

 

 

"It's a survival skill you pick up when you grow up with a drunk. C'mon, you know the drill. Let's get this stuff off so I can take a look." Though Faith has washed up just minutes ago, she turns to the sink and starts scrubbing her hands and forearms, TV-doctor style. It gives her somewhere else to focus. "Listen, I know I must look like a big fat hypocrite right now. Telling you to hang on and stay pure, then running off first chance I get to jump Dean. I'm sorry you walked in on that." She suspects Uriel's hand in the timing of that, but she doesn't say. "It's just -- I'm insanely attracted to you, and I figured that was the least destructive way to take care of it. I used Dean, and I'm not proud of that, but I knew he could handle it."

 

 

"You're wrong," Castiel says, and the words spear right through her. She makes herself look at him. "What you did -- it had value beyond damage control, and you did more for Dean than taking care not to harm him."

 

 

Faith's mouth drops open.

 

 

"You told him things he desperately needed to hear, that he could only take in from someone who had traveled the same path. You gave him warmth and the touch of another person. He needed those things as much as what you said to him."

 

 

"You're giving me way too much credit." She carefully peels the edges of the gauze from his skin.

 

 

"And you give yourself none. I believe it's just as much a sin as undue pride."

 

 

"I don't worry that much about the petty ones." She draws in a breath.

 

 

"Why do you frown?"

 

 

"I don't like the looks of this cut. It's not healing right."

 


 

 

Gently she probes the red line of the cut, whispering "sorry" as small reactions to the pain flicker across his face. "How has this been feeling?"

 

 

"I have had ... other things on my mind."

 

 

"Castiel, human bodies talk to their owners. Ignore what yours says and you might find yourself in trouble. Pain is a sign that something needs attention."

 

 

She hears the rattle and bump of the key and door latch from outside.

 

 

"I've got the-- whoa, shit." Dean whirls at the sight of Castiel without his shirt. "I'll just set this right by the door."

 

 

"Get in here, you pussy," Faith snaps. "Put it right there and open it up; I've already washed up. I want you to take a look at that, since you've done a lot more suturing than I have."

 

 

Dean crouches beside him, immediately serious and attentive. "Whoa. You were pretty close to making some arterial spin-art. You were lucky."

 

 

"I don't believe in luck," Castiel says. "I believe in the divine plan."

 

 

"Yeah, well, most times lately I'd rather believe in luck. With luck at least I've got a chance," Dean says. He looks up at Faith. "How was this looking, last time you checked it?"

 

 

"Better than this. Did I do something wrong?"

 

 

"Nah. Stitches look good. See, there's no redness where you placed them, it's all along the cut. How about antibiotics?"

 

 

Faith tells Dean what she gave Castiel.

 

 

"Good call. I've got one of the new generation drugs that's pretty powerful. We can switch over to that." Dean rises and washes up.

 

 

"There's something I don't understand," Faith says to Castiel. "You put me back together when I was already dead. Seems to me Muriel could've healed you with his pinkie finger."

 

 

"Uriel is displeased with me."

 

 

"Where the hell does he get off being displeased?" Dean demands. "You're his boss."

 

 

Castiel's gaze slides away from Dean's. "That's no longer strictly true."

 

No longer strictly true. That's the sort of weasel-wording that Faith has never heard Castiel indulge in before. It sounds very human to her. She finds it unsettling. "What does that mean?"

 

 

"It's believed that I am not objective enough to fulfill my duties. That I'm too close to the humans in my care. Uriel in particular has little love for humans."

 

 

"So you've been canned?" Faith blurts. "Since when?"

 

 

"No. But there are no longer angels under my command."

 

 

Dean grunts. "Office politics. You'd think heaven would be the one place you could escape it. It's always the dicks that rise to the top."

 

 

"Dean," Castiel says sharply. "You are dangerously close to blasphemy. Take care you don't cross the line."

 

 

Faith feels relief gust through her that Castiel can still get his fierce on. Though maybe that's because it's not directed at her.

 


 

 

"Ease up, huh?" Faith says to Castiel. "Dean's just pissed at Muriel because he wouldn't cure you."

 

 

"That's exactly what Uriel thinks he's doing," Castiel says.

 

 

"You lost me," Faith says.

 

 

"He believes I must be purged of my fascination with humanity. Ensuring that I am trapped in this form, confronted by humans at every turn -- I believe he thinks this will erase my sympathies."

 

 

It's not a bad plan. The longer Faith is stuck with humanity, the more shaky her sympathies get, too.

 

 

"Why are his panties in such a bunch about humans anyway?" Dean asks. "I mean, what's it to him if you happen to like us? My brother is interested in plenty of shit I don't care about. It's no skin off my ass."

 

 

"Uriel was given the task of expelling Adam and Eve from their home in the Garden, after the Fall. He had already felt usurped in our Father's affections, and then to see them throw away His gifts so recklessly -- it framed his view of humans."

 

 

"When you put it that way, it's almost hard to blame him," Faith says. "But I've always sided with Eve, to tell you the truth. Sure, people could have stayed in paradise and done what's right 'because God said so.' But that's asking them to stay children forever. Seriously, that was really God's plan for humans?"

 

 

Dean pipes up. "You have seen way too many old Star Trek reruns."

 

 

Faith laughs out loud. "Shit, dude, you're right. Captain Kirk was the serpent. And maybe sittin' here expoundin' on my Star Trek-inspired heresies to an Angel of the Lord isn't the smartest idea I ever had. Have you got the antibiotics?"

 

 

"At the motel. We try to keep the meds out of temperature extremes as much as we can."

 

 

"Can you nip over and get 'em? We can finish up here and be ready to roll by time you get back."

 

 

"Sure," says Dean. "I'll be back in ten or fifteen."

 

 

Once he's gone, Castiel says, "This is what you think of me? That I am a child because I give complete obedience without demanding to know my Father's every purpose?"

 

 

"Just talkin' for myself, Castiel, and how I see humans."

 

 

"It's evident that you believe acceptance of His will without question is blind obedience, and somehow less than striving for understanding of things beyond you, however imperfect."

 

 

She's fuckin' stepped in it now. "I'm not applying the same rules to angels and people. So stop putting words in my mouth." She covers the knife slash with gauze. "Hold this, will you?"

 

 

"You believe your kind's progress comes from questioning. What does that say about me and my brethren?"

 

 

"Look, we aren't the same. God made angels, then He turned around and made us. If we weren't supposed to be different somehow, why did He bother?"

 

 

"You seem to think our Father felt He should try again, make some improvements."

 

 

"That's not what I'm sayin'!"

 

 

She places a piece of tape along the bottom of the bandage, and Castiel pushes her hand away. "Thank you. I don't need your help with the rest."

 


 

 

Faith packs up Dean's first aid kit as Castiel buttons his shirt, then heads back out into the room. She casts a glance up at the astronaut, muttering, "You're not the only one who's got his ass up in the air, buddy."

 

 

She can't believe she just got into an argument based on a completely literal interpretation of the Bible. She's never really believed in Eve as more than a metaphor -- not since she was eight, anyhow -- and now she's got a mental image of Muriel in his dark suit glowering at Adam and Eve, eviction papers in hand, giving forth with the badass 'tude. Well, at least they sent the right guy for the job.

 

 

"I'm gonna head on out front and wait," Faith calls in. "I need a smoke." Fumbling around in her pockets, she fishes out a five and leaves it on the dresser for the maid. Usually she leaves a buck or two, but knowing whoever cleans this place has to climb a damn ladder to chase down stray condoms and shit -- she'd personally prefer being back working in the prison kitchen.

 

 

She encounters Dean in the tunnel, a knapsack in his hand. "Don't look now, but someone's got a celestial bug up his ass."

 

 

"Cas? Where is he?"

 

 

"In the room. He'll be ready any time. I'm just heading out for a cigarette."

 

 

"What's up with him?"

 

 

"Apparently a vote for Eve is a big no vote on the angel referendum. He's all pissy now."

 

 

"Don't tell me this is the first you've seen of that."

 

 

"No, but his feelings are all ruffled, and that's the first time I've run into that." Faith gestures back into the tunnel. "Go. I'll wait out by your car."

 

 

The cigarette pack in her pocket is mashed almost flat, along with the two cigarettes inside, and Faith realizes she can't remember when she last had one, or even craved one. Some side effect of hanging out longterm with an angel? Usually when she's ragingly horny she finds herself lighting up twice as often.

 

 

"Sonofabitch!" she mutters, then piles a few nastier phrases on top. She wads the pack into a ball and throws it in a trash can on her way out the door, the desire to light up vanishing, well, in a puff of smoke.

 

 

She plants her ass on the trunk of Dean's car -- funny how she thinks of it as his, not Sam and Dean's -- and scowls at the facade of the inn. "Castiel, you fuck. You did this just to piss me off."

 


 

 

Dean's got a whole carload of surly on the way back to the motel. Faith called shotgun, so Castiel's being all broody in the back seat. His knees are jammed into the back of her seat, but he refuses to speak up and ask her to adjust the seat, so she refuses to move it on her own.

 

 

"You two are just buckets of sunshine, you know that?" Dean says, but he gets only scowls in response.

 

 

Once they catch up to Sam and Bobby, a few buckets of rainbows are added to the mix. The both of them are at the ready with the stink eye even before Castiel walks in. They're surrounded by maps and brochures and other evidence they've been working on things while Faith and Dean have been screwing around.

 

 

"How'd that possibility pan out?" Sam asks pointedly.

 

 

"Didn't," Dean says. "Things looked promising at first, but a wet blanket got thrown over that. So, basically, nothing to report."

 

 

Bobby doesn't look the slightest bit fooled, but before he can say anything, the wet blanket walks into the room, and Bobby's sour expression curdles completely.

 

 

"I see you two have met," Faith says.

 

 

"I was rendered unconscious before the formal introductions," Bobby says.

 

 

"You shot me before the formal introductions," Castiel responds. "Repeatedly."

 

 

"Guess I did forget to apologize for that."

 

 

"Could we knock off the pissing match?" Faith says. "I'm pretty sure Castiel's is golder and prettier than anyone else's, and never ever smells like asparagus. So let's just move the fuck on."

 

 

Sam's mouth twitches as he suppresses a grin. "Right. We've been doing a little digging into the area, and for my money, if anything's going on, it's happening around here."

 

 

"Back at the restaurant we asked the waitress about the House on the Rock," Bobby says. "We got a helluva weird vibe."

 

 

"We got curious and walked around downtown," Sam adds. "We asked in a few stores."

 

 

"There's a downtown?" Faith asks.

 

 

"Don't blink," Bobby says.

 

 

"So what was the vibe?" she asks.

 

 

"A lot of people find it creepy as hell. At least half of the locals we asked hadn't ever been."

 

 

"Here's something else we found," Sam says. "Just up the road a few miles, near Spring Green, there was a massacre in 1914. A workman bolted a family inside their house when they were having dinner. He poured gas under the doors, lit it on fire, then anyone who climbed out the windows, he hacked to death with an ax. He killed seven people before drinking acid and dying two weeks later."

 

 

Faith shudders. "Damn."

 

 

"Have I mentioned that I hate Wisconsin?" Dean says.

 

 

"Yeah, well, get this," Sam says. "The house that was torched? Was the house Frank Lloyd Wright built for his mistress and her two children. They were among the victims -- Wright himself was in Chicago at the time."

 

 

"Wait," Faith says. "This guy was so famous I've even heard of him. How come I never heard that?"

 

 

"It's not that commonly known. Guess he had the right people guarding his legacy. So anyway, Bobby and I are thinking if anything's likely to bring Lilith or her demons to Wisconsin, it's likely to be around here."

 


 

 

"That story about the massacre, that's one they tell around here?" Faith asks.

 

 

"Nope," Bobby says. "They'll talk your arm off about their theories on the House on the Rock, but Sam stumbled on the Taliesin massacre when he was researching local history of the more unpleasant stripe."

 

Local history of the more unpleasant stripe -- he sounds just like Giles, if Giles were a bearded scrap dealer with a South Dakota turn of phrase. Faith imagines sending him to Giles for Watcher training, and has to bite her lips to keep from snorting. "Must've been a different world in 1914 if the guy could keep a massacre from following him around," she says. "These days if Lindsay Lohan queefs, the news gets around the world in five minutes."

 

 

Bobby has a sudden fit of coughing, and even Dean looks a little taken aback.

 

 

Faith allows herself a smirk and continues. "So is there any connection between this place and the Rock House thing? Because Castiel definitely heard the angels batting around the name Jordan, and I remember Sam said that place was built by a guy named Jordan."

 

 

"It's a pretty tenuous connection," Sam says. "The story is, Alex Jordan, Jr. built it to spite Frank Lloyd Wright after Wright insulted his father's abilities as an architect. The trouble with this story is, like everything else about the House on the Rock, the authenticity is a little suspect. There was a lot of conscious legend-spinning. But the house was built on property that's pretty close to Wright family land, and the stories say he was pretty unhappy with it. It sounds like something of a parody of Wright architecture."

 

 

"When was this place built?" she asks. "Was it anywhere close to the time of the massacre?"

 

 

"No," Sam says. "It was begun about thirty years later, and finished in 1959. Which, coincidentally or not, was the year Frank Lloyd Wright died."

 

 

"What's that mean, 'or not'?"

 

 

"Probably nothing," Sam admits. "But occasionally there are structures that have some kind of hoodoo attached to them. Or maybe having that thing built so close to Taliesin, which was originally a school for architects, just sent his blood pressure into the red zone. But Wright was around 90 when he died, so y'know, he probably just died."

 

 

"So which place is most significant?" Faith asks. "The vaguely creepy place the locals don't like, or the place where a massacre happened that no one talks about? Is there anything at the Wright place anymore, or is it just a ruin?"

 

 

"No, it's been rebuilt -- twice, actually," Sam says. "There was another fire in 1925. They run tours there, but the season doesn't open till May."

 

 

"Not that that ever stops us," Dean says.

 

 

"What about Muriel?" Faith asks Castiel. "Did he mention either place?"

 

 

"No," he says, with a little extra grim. Great. Asshole must have spent the entire time they were together giving Castiel shit for slumming with humans.

 

 

"Nice," Faith says. "God forbid he should make it easy to be saving the angels' asses again."

 

 

"He's not interested in being saved by you," Castiel says.

 

 

"Way to cushion the bad news, there, Castiel. Now my feelings are all hurt."

 

 

He makes a little constipated face that Faith reads as Join the club, sister. "The name Jordan was the one clear thing I caught the last time I heard my brothers speak. Why do you waste your time contemplating other options?"

 

 

"We have been at this business for a while," Bobby says.

 

 

"I have been at this business for thousands of years," Castiel snaps.

 

 

"Should I get my ruler, or can you take your dicks off the table for five seconds?" Faith says. Both give her the stink-eye, but Castiel's wins. "That said, I'm with Castiel. It's probably the most legitimate lead we've got."

 

 

"What about your dream?" Dean asks. "Did that give you anything one way or the other? A sense of place?"

 

 

She closes her eyes, thinking back. "Just a battlefield. Could be anywhere. And the seal with the manhole cover that said Neenah. That's nowhere close to here, is it?"

 

 

"It's over 150 miles away," Sam says.

 

 

Dean presses. "Any other details you remember?"

 

 

"A giant snake demon. It was someone I knew, but he's been dead for years. And a lot of dead angels. They were all, uh, dressed like Castiel. My dreams are always fuckin' vague, though. Castiel's got the one hard piece of information."

 

 

Bobby scratches his beard. "Might be something to it. Sam, d'you still have that tab open, the one with the pictures and all the comments?"

 

 

"Yeah." Sam opens his laptop and clicks to the web page Bobby referred to. "Someone posted some photos of the House on the Rock, and a lot of people commented. Much of it's about how beautiful and special it all is, but some of the 'weird and creepy' comments crop up. And here's one: 'There's something wrong with that place. Every moment I was in there I felt there was something that didn't like or approve of me was watching me.' Later in the same thread someone else says --" He scrolls through the screen, scanning the text. "Here it is. This person says they felt a friendly, humorous vibe, and suggests maybe if you go and don't like the place or don't get it that the spirit of Alex -- they're on a first name basis with the guy -- maybe takes offense and creeps you out." He reads: "'That, or perhaps you are not as spiritual as I am.'"

 

 

Faith snickers. "Get out the spiritual ruler. Listen, in my experience, there's a reason places feel wrong. Again, I'm voting with Castiel. Let's check this place out."

 

 

Sam nods. "I'm with you. We need to wait until morning, though."

 

 

"Wait a minute," Faith blurts. "What happened to 'Not that that ever stops us'?"

 

 

"From the pictures I've seen, flashlights aren't going to cut it. The place is a sprawling maze. We need to get in there when the place is open to take a look around. Then if we need to come back after hours, it's a lot safer. I say we get there when they first open and buy ourselves the Ultimate Experience tickets."

 

 

Dean snorts. "'Ultimate experience' -- I sure as hell hope not."

 


 

 

They take themselves back across the road for dinner, where they swap hunting stories, toned down in case anyone overhears. Castiel declines food and drink, even the fresh-squeezed orange juice Faith finds on the menu. She hopes it's just a sign of hostility between him and Bobby, but it worries her. Maybe Muriel really has done a number on Castiel. She wonders if he knows about the OJ and the bacon and the profound interest in sex. If Muriel dislikes humans enough that it bugs him that one helped save the angels, she can imagine how he'd take crazy-ass human behavior like eating and drinking, much less screwing.

 

 

"Much as I'd love to sit here all night bullshittin' with you boys, I'm calling it an early night," she finally says. "I've had too much driving and too little sleep over the past few days."

 

 

Castiel rises from his chair. "I will accompany you." Which are the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth words he's spoken since they sat down.

 

 

Faith pulls out some money, and there's a flurry of protests and hand-waving from the hunters. She argues for a moment, then lets them cover the check. "Sweet dreams, boys. See you back over here at --"

 

 

"Seven-thirty," Bobby says. "Come earlier if you're inclined."

 

 

The temperature has dropped dramatically with nightfall, and Faith hunches deeper in her jacket. "How come the demons don't cause trouble in fucking Florida this time of year? I'm tired of this shit. Wait, I guess if you're in hell most of the year, Wisconsin is a vacation spot."

 

 

Castiel makes no answer, and Faith glances over at him.

 

 

"You've been. When you rescued Dean. What is it like there? Just like Monsignor Strynkowski said?"

 

 

His expression goes from grim to triple-grim with grim chips. "What purpose does it serve to dwell on such details?"

 

 

"The Monsignor thought it served a damn good purpose."

 

 

"It is far worse than his descriptions could paint."

 

 

She'd forgotten for a moment that she was speaking to a soldier, but this refusal to go into details brings it home. The vets she's encountered who've been in the thickest shit are the ones who won't talk about it. "Sorry," she tells him. "Didn't mean to pry."

 

 

They fall silent as they cross the slush-filled road and parking lot, and Faith fumbles the card key with her cold fingers. She picks it off the pavement and tries again, successfully this time. After a few seconds of Alphonse and Gaston without the effusive politeness, she enters, Castiel trailing behind.

 

 

"I'm gonna have a hot shower, then I'm crashing."

 

 

When she comes back out, Castiel's perched on the end of the bed raptly taking in something on the television. There's music and an "oh God," but otherwise it doesn't sound at all like porn. Faith flicks a glance at the screen to see a white-haired TV preacher, arms lifted, eyes closed, intoning a prayer.

 

 

"That has got to go. It's gonna give me dreams."

 

 

Castiel complies, thumbing the remote. Faith climbs into the other bed and burrows under the covers. "G'night."

 

 

She dreams anyway.

 


 

 

She's on the surface of the moon with Castiel. The astronaut hovers above them in his space suit and helmet, but Faith and Castiel are in their regular clothes. She knows somehow that as long as she holds onto his hand, she can breathe in the airless vastness around them, just as he does.

 

 

"You've been here before?" she asks.

 

 

"Many times." Castiel looks around them. "It used to be a lot nicer, before it got so touristy."

 

 

She sees what he means; there's discarded NASA junk all around them. Even golf balls. "People are such slobs."

 

 

"A few of them have something to recommend them," Castiel says, stroking her cheek with his free hand.

 

 

"Castiel --"

 

 

"It's the moon," he says. "What happens on the moon stays on the moon."

 

 

"So ... no open container laws either?"

 

 

He lays a finger across her lips to shush her, then follows the touch with a kiss. All the feelings she's been suppressing for -- what? weeks? years? ever since she was a little girl staring at that angel during Sunday mass? -- come zinging through her. Normally this is the point where she'd become the aggressor, greedily offering and demanding. But Faith holds herself back, opening herself to the kiss but letting Castiel take the lead.

 

 

Something like music seems to fill her body and her head, though she hears nothing but their breath. It's dizzying, but somehow doesn't make her feel weaker. She feels her power unfold, like the day she first came into her slayer strength, only intensified.

 

 

Faith slides her free hand up to his shoulder, her fingers encountering something like a cloak folded over it. But the cloak is made of feather and living muscle, she realizes. She pulls back from the kiss to see his wings, but in that same heartbeat, Castiel gasps and looks down to see a huge red stain spreading across his chest. One of his wings has been torn away, and it lies in the impression of a snow angel, just behind the spot where Castiel falls to his knees.

 

 

The wing is not made of feathers, but purple and crimson stained glass.

 

 

Castiel tightens his grip on her hand, yet at the same time his grasp slips. Faith can see it happening but can't stop it.

 

 

"Brother --" he rasps. His hand slips away from hers, and Faith's lungs are seared by the lack of atmosphere, and her vision begins to fade to black.

 


 

 

Gasping for air, Faith jackknifes up in bed, bathed in a cold sweat.

 

 

"Faith," Castiel says, rising to his feet at the end of his bed.

 

 

"Dream," she huffs.

 

 

He sits beside her on her bed, and the dream feelings flash through her in an instant. "Tell me," he says. The coat and jacket are gone, his tie unknotted, and it's almost as if he's completely undressed.

 

 

"You and I were on the moon. That stupid astronaut was there too, hanging over us."

 

 

Castiel waits, then says, "There's more."

 

 

"Yeah. You were dying at the end. So was I, I think. I fucked up, and I let you get ganked."

 

 

"Why do you assume it was your error that caused my death?"

 

 

"Because it's my job right now to protect you. Because I let myself get distracted."

 

 

Castiel frowns. "By what?" To her stubborn silence, he says, "I just heard you with the hunters, analyzing a dream for possible clues. What is it that you refuse to tell me?"

 

 

"We were kissing, all right? We kissed, because somehow it was okay to do that on the moon, and that was all I was thinking about, and the next thing I knew, one of your wings had been hacked off, and your chest was all bloody and you were dying."

 

 

He regards her for a moment. "Did you see who struck the blow?"

 

 

"I didn't see anything but you and blood and a snow angel on the ground behind you. And that stupid fucking astronaut, just floating here. But I'm pretty sure who it was."

 

 

"Who?"

 

Brother -- What other brother could it be, other than the demon-tainted brother of the man Castiel had waded into hell to save?

 

 

"Sam Winchester."

 


 

 

Castiel's expression turns from grim to that kind of happy grim that comes of being right about the dire shit you've been saying all along. "Your dream has forewarned us. We will avoid this turn of events."

 

 

"Sure, yeah, easy. All we have to do is not go to the moon."

 

 

Castiel glowers at her.

 

 

"What? Look, maybe when you started in this business, people knew what this cryptic crap meant, but nowadays, I don't have the big encyclopedia of non-obvious symbology." She wonders where the hell that word came sailing into her brain from; like most words like that, she assumes she picked it up from Giles. "What the hell does the moon mean?"

 

 

"You just came from having sexual relations in a room that simulated a lunar landscape. Do you really need a book to tell you why you dreamed of the moon?" His look remains uncomfortably direct. "You didn't wish to tell me that part of your dream. That we kissed. Why?"

 

 

"Look, it's on the table that I'm attracted. I think from now on, the less said, the better."

 

 

"Why?"

 

 

Faith blusters an exasperated sigh. "Because I don't want to be responsible for making you fall, all right? Jesus, I feel like I'm teachin' the angels' remedial class here."

 

 

"Faith, there's no being on earth or any other realm who can make me fall, not even Lucifer himself. I'm the only one who can make that choice."

 

 

"What you don't need is someone throwin' that choice in your face all the time."

 

 

Castiel throws his hand up in a very human gesture of irritation. "Your logic is suspect."

 

 

"Yeah?"

 

 

"You complain that our Father expected the first humans to rely solely on His word to understand the difference between right and wrong. To expect this was to keep them as children forever, you said. Yet you attempt to withhold information from me, the aspect of your dream that represents the experience and fulfillment of desire. This when you know it's a dream that conveys information about what is to pass."

 

 

"So I'm a hypocrite. Sue me."

 

 

Castiel shakes his head, gazing off into a shadowed corner of the room. Faith wonders if he feels the current of attraction that she does, even with the snappishness between them. Especially with the snappishness.

 

 

"Why do you like humans so much, while Muriel hates us?"

 

 

"Uriel does not hate."

 

 

"My bad," Faith says with an edge of sarcasm. "Make that 'shows undisguised contempt.'"

 

 

"It's not contempt," Castiel says, so instantly it seems he's hoping to convince himself as well as her.

 

 

"Resentment."

 

 

He takes a quick breath, as if he's about to dispute that too, then says, "Perhaps."

 

 

"Right. Adam and Eve got the goodies from Dad, then tossed 'em in the trash heap because they wanted something shinier. He's had some time to get over it."

 

 

"The human race hasn't exactly ceased the activities he finds bothersome," Castiel points out.

 

 

"Which brings us to the other half of my question. Why do you like us so damn much?"

 

 

"I frequently wonder," he says darkly.

 

 

Faith laughs, and he looks at her in surprise. "Sorry. You just reminded me of someone, with the exasperation and all. Seriously, though. You like us so much you got your ass demoted over it. I don't even like people that much."

 

 

He's silent for a while, his attention seemingly focused back on that corner of the room. "Because so many of your kind refuse to give up and admit defeat, even facing the most overwhelming odds. Because you believe redemption is possible and continue to reach for it."

 

 

"Why don't you believe that redemption is possible for angels?"

 

 

"Because we were made not to require it."

 

 

"But that's bullshit. Because there are angels who fall, who war against each other. Practically since the beginning, if I'm remembering my Sunday mornings right."

 

 

"The rules we operate under are not the same. As you said yourself, we were created as different beings."

 

 

"So maybe God learned something from us. Maybe He changed the rules for you too, and part of your destiny is to figure that out."

 

 

Castiel launches himself to his feet. "This is not theology but wishful thinking. Perhaps you should not have stopped attending church so early."

 

 

That stings, coming from him. She does what she always does. "Oh, snap. Guess I got told."

 

 

He lays a scowl on her.

 

 

"D'you wanna rethink the question? About why you like us?"

 

 

Though it's the last thing she expects, Castiel softens. "You should sleep. You have gone on far too little rest for too long, and tomorrow could prove perilous."

 

 

"Nice thought, but I don't sleep after I have one of these dreams. I'm wired now, and I might as well have had a couple of pots of coffee."

 

 

"I can ensure that you sleep," he says. "If you trust me. I did so when you were recovering from your injury."

 

If you trust me. He's certainly thinking of her reaction to his attempted gesture of comfort back on the Boston waterfront, batting away his hand and tearing open the butterfly bandages closing the knife wound.

 

 

She thinks about the dreams and her need to be on guard -- especially if she has to step up and do what Dean probably can't.

 

 

"I trust you," she says.

 


 

 

Castiel gifts Faith with a deep and dreamless sleep that feels like six weeks' worth when she emerges from it. Even though it's still dark when she wakes and Castiel is in his own profound sleep, she dresses and slips out of the motel to trudge across the street to buy some OJ for Castiel. Seems pretty apparent to her that he's not going to indulge in front of everyone when there's so much hostility crackling in the air, but maybe if he had a chance he'd do so in private.

 

 

There's no one up front when she walks in, so she glances around the mostly empty restaurant. To her surprise, Sam's seated in the corner booth with coffee, laptop and a scowl. She waves off the hostess and says, "I'm with him."

 

 

Faith slides into the seat across from him. "Morning, Sunshine. What's the latest?"

 

 

"There isn't really a latest," he tells her. "This place doesn't have a WiFi signal, so I was just looking at some tabs I had open."

 

 

Faith nods. "Obsessive, pointless factual review. That's always a fun stage."

 

 

For a second, Sam looks like he's about to dispute the pointless, and maybe even the obsessive, but instead he just says, "Yeah."

 

 

She's not sure how to launch into this. Tell me about yourself seems just plain stupid, considering she's spent a fair amount of time with the Winchester boys since Castiel dumped her on them. Just announcing Threaten Castiel and I will fuck you up seems a little too on-the-nose for a conversational opener.

 

 

Sam solves the problem for her. "You knew a giant snake demon?"

 

 

"That was the simplified version. He wasn't a snake when I knew him, but he was in the dream."

 

 

"Oh." Sam looks vaguely disappointed. "A dream snake."

 

 

Faith smirks. "Sounds pretty damn Freudian, doesn't it? No, the guy did actually turn into a snake demon, it's just that I'd ... left town by the time that happened. You ever heard of an Ascension?"

 

 

"Can't say I have."

 

 

"It's when a human turns himself into pure demon -- I'm not sayin' he's possessed, I'm sayin' he transforms into something that doesn't have the slightest shred of humanity. The demons we see, even the most badass and inhuman, aren't pureblood. This ritual, which is complicated and takes a lot of prep, unleashes something that's exactly like one of the old school demons. It's bad news -- usually a town gets wiped off the map, and there might be a handful of survivors if things go well."

 

 

"So this demon who showed up in your dream, it's someone you fought against when he was human?"

 

 

Faith's breath catches in her throat. She was more prepared to tell Dean her story -- it's one thing to offer the story of her fall to someone who's in desperate need of redemption, but to tell someone who's teetering on the brink of some seriously bad shit? Would she be handing Sam a weapon? Or a rope to pull himself safely off the edge?

 

 

She honestly can't say if having Giles tell her about his own darkest impulses when she was on the brink would have made a difference or not. But she doesn't want to wind up with the regrets she knows Giles has.

 

 

"Not exactly," she says, then pauses while the waitress fills her coffee mug and takes her order for pancakes and bacon. "I was his right-hand girl."

 

 

Sam's brows shoot upward. "You were?"

 

 

"There's no excuse for what I did, but there are plenty of things that led up to it. The person who trained me to be a slayer -- I saw her slaughtered in a pretty horrific way. The next one who appeared to train me, she turned out to be evil. She was just playing me so she could get her hands on some mystical artifact. I was desperate for someone to protect me and give a shit about me, and when I found him, he was evil. The big difference between him and the one before was, he really did care about me. He was the only father figure I ever had, and I would've done just about anything for him."

 

 

"'Just about anything?'"

 

 

"I was his personal high school hit squad." Faith takes a sip of her coffee and makes a face. "This needs something."

 

 

Sam pushes the bowl of half-and-half containers toward her. "Creamer? Sugar?"

 

 

"I was thinking coffee." She downs another half mug. "I did a lot of things I can't take back, and if he'd finished the Ascension, I'd have had all those deaths on my hands, too."

 

 

"What stopped him?"

 

 

"The other slayer. Her watcher and her friends. A shitload of explosives."

 

 

Sam raises his own mug, eying her as he drinks. "You weren't out of town."

 

 

"Well, technically. I was in a coma. The other slayer and I had a fight. By 'had a fight,' I don't mean bitchy things were said and there was crying and shit. I'm not even talking about hair pulling. I was trying to end her. I'm not sure if that's what she was going for, but she nearly did."

 

 

"So what happened? You came out of the coma, had some kind of conversion and decided to be one of these slayers?"

 

 

"It's more complicated than that."

 

 

Sam laughs. "Why am I never surprised to hear the words 'more complicated'?"

 

 

The waitress comes back around with Faith's breakfast and coffee refills.

 

 

"So," Sam prompts. "Complicated."

 

 

"Well, first, you don't decide to be a slayer, you're chosen. Don't ask by who, it's some super secret mystical shit. So I'd already been a slayer when I went bad. After the coma, I went worse. Rage, loss, the works. First thing I found out was the mayor was dead."

 

 

"The mayor?"

 

 

"Giant snake demon. He was the major of Sunnydale."

 

 

"Insert demonic snake politician joke here."

 

 

Faith scowls. "Insert your own fuckin' joke, and you know where. He was one of the few people who ever loved me, and I loved him, he was like a dad to me."

 

 

"Sorry. I wasn't thinking."

 

 

"No problem. So anyhow, I hit bottom, I turned it around with a lot of help, blah blah blah. Enough about me. How'd you get into this racket?"

 

 

Sam looks down at his hands cradling his coffee mug. His knuckles are scarred and scuffed. "Rage and loss is as good a way of putting it as any. Dean and I were raised to it. Our mom was killed by something, and our dad hunted it down over the next twenty years. He wanted to keep the family together, and the only way he knew to do that was to drag us along with him."

 

 

"Twenty years?"

 

 

"Give or take."

 

 

"You must've just been a kid. Wow. I thought it sucked to get slammed into this life when I was a teenager."

 

 

"I was six months. Dean was four."

 

 

"Shit. I can't imagine."

 

 

They clam up while the waitress checks on them, but once she's gone, Sam says, "Dean and Dad tried to shield me from what was really going on, and that worked for a few years. But we were traveling around, living in motels, all the time I was growing up."

 

 

It's not often she meets someone with a more fucked-up childhood than hers. She decides not to grace him with this knowledge. "Ever think of getting out?"

 

 

He's silent for a long moment. "I did. For a couple of years. Went to college, planned to go to law school. Things didn't work out."

 

 

Faith can tell by his closed expression that this is the last of this story she's going to get, at least for now. She'd lay big money on there being more rage and loss at that end of the story.

 

 

"And now you're doing what Castiel calls the work of the Lord." She watches him closely for a reaction.

 

 

Not so much as a flicker. She wouldn't want to play poker with the guy. "Yeah," he says. "Something like that."

 

 

Faith decides to ram home her point. Fuck subtlety. "I might've fought on the wrong side when I was younger, but I've got my head right, and there's no way I'm letting an apocalypse slip past me." She pushes back her plate, tosses her napkin on top. "Anyone who tries to bring it on -- or who threatens Castiel -- I'm gonna deal with 'em."

 


 

 

When Faith steps out of the restaurant with a large to-go cup of orange juice, it's snowing again, gusting around crazily in the circle of street light above. "Well, ain't that fuckin' special," she mutters. That was one thing about Sunnydale, snow was a rare treat, not just another shitty element getting in the way of a potential battle.

 

 

The lights are on in the room she shares with Castiel. As she lets herself in, a joke about switching off the porn channel dies on her lips when she spots him. He's half sprawled on the carpet, half leaning sideways against the bed, one arm flung across the hideous bedspread. Castiel's back is to her, head bowed, so she's not sure if she's caught him in mid-collapse, or if he's trying to push himself upward. He looks like someone drunk-dialling God. "Castiel, are you all right?"

 

 

She kneels, facing him, and instantly knows the answer to that. His face is pale, bathed in a cold sweat.

 

 

"Tell me what happened."

 

 

"I attempted to resume my true form. I'm not ready."

 

 

"You have to be healed first, right? What made you try it now?"

 

 

"I am needed. I haven't time for this." If he were human, she'd swear he was grief-stricken, desperate, afraid.

 

 

Faith smooths a hand across his brow, wiping away the moisture. "What happened?"

 

 

"Another angel from my garrison has been murdered. She is the seventh."

 

 

Despite the ache for his grief, she's buffeted by relief that it wasn't him. "Are you tuning in angel radio again?"

 

 

"No. Uriel came to give me the news."

 

 

Uriel. She doesn't like the bastard, but she doesn't blame him for showing up with the news. Faith has always wished she hadn't been an afterthought in reporting Buffy's death. She takes Castiel's hand. "I'm sorry. Was it someone you were close to?"

 

 

"We are all close," he says, though there's no hint of challenge in his voice. "Every one of them has fought by my side."

 

 

If Uriel's his idea of a BFF, Faith wonders what, exactly, close means. It doesn't matter, she decides. Castiel's clearly mourning.

 

 

"So you tried to angel up and get back to that front. Was that Muriel's idea?"

 

 

That makes him bristle. He removes his hand from hers. "It was mine. I have spent far too much time in a form that's alien to me, and weaker."

 

 

Right. She'd like to hear the conversation with Muriel that made it seem like pushing himself too hard was Castiel's own idea.

 

 

"Well, let's take a look at the damage. Can you get up by yourself?"

 

 

He insists on it, though it's an awkward process. She grabs her first aid kit and trails him into the bathroom.

 

 

Castiel flicks a glance at himself in the mirror, then looks quickly away. Faith's about to tell him to perch on the toilet lid, but sees it's the kind with a seat but no lid. Muttering a curse, she shoves aside the collection of cheapass toiletries that came in the room, then upends the wastecan and sets it down. "Step on this and park yourself on the counter."

 

 

He's just unsteady enough that he accepts her hand at his elbow without complaint. He doesn't make a move to open his shirt, so Faith does it for him, keeping her gaze all nurse-like. Just brushing her fingers across the top edge of the bandage makes him flinch and suck in a breath.

 

 

"I don't like this," she mutters.

 

 

"I'm sorry you're forced to play nursemaid yet again. Perhaps Dean --"

 

 

"Castiel. Don't get so damn owly. I'm just sayin' I don't like the looks of this. Hold still." She peels off the bandage as carefully as she can. "Know what else I don't like? The fact that every time you see Muriel, you're worse afterward."

 

 

Despite the pain, he manages a reasonable glower. "What are you saying?"

 

 

"Ahh, nothing. It's just that he shows up and you boys reach for the tape measures, and all common sense flies out the window."

 

 

"I don't undertand this fascination you have with measuring tools."

 

 

Faith knows he meant that perfectly innocently, but his word choice makes her snort. "It's not my fascination. Look, all I'm saying is, you've taken this whole stuck-in-your-vessel thing pretty well, deciding it must be the will of God for you to explore what it means to be human. Then Muriel comes around, and you're all get me out of here now and you hurt yourself trying to get your wings back so you can rejoin the fight. I get that, believe me, but who do you trust more? Muriel or your Father?"

 

 

Castiel goes very still, his thoughts far away as Faith tends to his knife wound. "I had become convinced this was a punishment."

 

 

"Yeah, well, Muriel would look at it that way, wouldn't he? I got news for you, Castiel. Busting out of prison before your time is up? Not considered the height of penitent behavior."

 

 

"I have been arrogant."

 

 

"Maybe. So yeah, when you try to bust out, they generally add some time to your sentence. Best thing to do is put your head down and learn whatever it is you're meant to learn, and not try to escape again." She tapes a new bandage over the slash.

 

 

"You are remarkably wise."

 

 

Faith shakes her head. "I just know a helluva lot about being in prison." She unwraps one of the plastic cups by the sink and fills it with water, then shakes out an antibiotic from the stash Dean gave her. "Here. Take this. If that cut doesn't look any better by tonight, I'm dragging you to a doctor."

 

 

"I have no interest in seeing a physician."

 

 

"Yeah, well, that's where the dragging part comes in. Now. Why don't you go out there and rest while I take a nice, long shower."

 

 

He regards her solemnly. "Are you still kinky?"

 

 

She can't suppress a grin. "As a garden hose."

 


 

 

The snow has piled higher by the time they finish at the diner and saddle up. Bobby takes his own car, and Dean insists Faith and Castiel ride with him and Sam. Well, not so much insists as snatches her keys out of her hand before she can react.

 

 

"You are not driving in this slop on those damn tires," he snaps. "The hell were you thinkin', driving halfway across the country and back on goddamn bald tires in the middle of winter? There's steel showing on that left rear tire."

 

 

"Made it here, didn't I?"

 

 

This does not calm his fury. "You know why you made it? Because you had an angel in your car." He shoves her keys deep into his pocket.

 

 

Faith glances over at Castiel and shrugs, then opens one of the back doors and gets in, feeling strangely happy. Dean's rant reminds her of Xander in protective mode. Not that she's been the focus of that, but she's heard the same tone in his voice, yelling at Dawn.

 

 

Dean catches sight of her in the rear-view. "What the hell is that shit-eating grin about?"

 

 

"Nothin'."

 

 

The grin gets wider as they pass the hotel with the airplane and the church steeple, and Faith digs her knee into the back of the driver's seat. "Space," she says. "The final frontier."

 

 

Dean glowers at her in the mirror, while Sam shoots her a puzzled look. Castiel just watches the landscape slide by his window. After the hotel, that's pretty much the last of the town, with not much beyond rock shops, bait-and-grocery stores and billboards, open fields and dense woods.

 

 

After around five miles of unplowed road, Dean slows as they come to a huge gate on the left. "This is it."

 

 

On either side of the gate is an enormous urn-like thing, stone or metal, with sculpted lizards and dragons crawling its surface. There are semi-circular ledges of some kind up and down the side, each covered with a mound of snow.

 

 

Faith shivers. "That thing is seriously fugly. If it were alive, I'd slay it without a second thought."

 

 

Dean turns in at the gate and up the winding drive. A crazy scrap-metal bird on the side of the roadway seems to peer inside the car, head cocked in curiosity. Suddenly Faith can't shake the feeling of being inside a slayer dream, surreal and sketchy to interpret.

 

 

Just a few tire tracks mark the road ahead, and when they reach the parking lot, they find a bare handful of cars. "Maybe we won't have a lot of tourists to deal with, anyway," Dean says.

 

 

A series of ramps obscures the front of the building like some kind of crazy scaffolding keeping the thing from falling down. From what she can see, it looks like a bunch of rocks piled up. It's not an effect that gives Faith a lot of confidence in its stability.

 

 

Castiel looks grimmer than usual. "There is power here. Under the right conditions, one of the seals could be broken in this place."

 

 

Bobby joins them, and the five of them trudge up the ramp and buy their tickets.

 


 

 

Faith tenses as they reach the first door, unsure of what to expect. She doesn't expect a soundtrack, but she gets one. A big, strange mechanical conglomeration of musical instruments plays by itself, that "Bolero" song from the movie 10.

 

 

Faith busts out laughing as she looks around the room. "Seriously? This is the big tourist attraction around here, and it's Fred Flintstone's freakin' bachelor pad?" One whole wall is a rock fireplace, and the coffee table and end table are made of slabs of rock too. There's a huge, low-slung sofa covered with some kind of beige shag carpeting, matching that on the floors, with pillows covered in brighter shag, and frankly, she'd rather lick the floors of the place where she and Dean got it on than touch anything in here. The walls and ceiling are painted red which, along with the stained glass hanging lamp, cast a lurid glow over everything.

 

 

Sam chuckles. "It's also a pretty good parody of Frank Lloyd Wright's style. The rough stone fireplace, the low built-in seating. Even the red -- Wright used a particular shade, which he literally used as a signature, in a red square."

 

 

In some ways, Sam's the one who sounds like the Giles in the group. Spouting facts because he gets off on knowing shit, because he finds them interesting. The comparison unsettles her even more at the thought that she might have to kill him to save Castiel and the world.

 

 

"This place must have really chapped ol' Frank's ass," Dean says, smirking. "I dunno, though. I kind of like it."

 

 

"Needs more space," Faith says, giving a not-so-subtle emphasis to the final word, and she's rewarded with the sight of Dean's ears reddening as he suddenly glances elsewhere.

 

 

"I agree with you there," Sam says. "I'll be lucky if I don't clock myself in here." Faith realizes he's already slightly stooped to keep from grazing his head on the ceiling. Sam adds, "Come to think of it, that's another thing he shares with Wright."

 

 

"Let's keep movin'," Bobby suggests.

 

 

As they walk, Sam says, "The lore about this place is that Alex Jordan built this place on his own with the rocks he carried up here, but there's evidence that he hired a lot of the work done."

 

 

"So this place was founded on bullshit," Faith says. "Good to know."

 

 

"There's also a lot of fakes in here, alongside the real stuff," Sam adds. "Though they don't really make claims that anything is real, because they don't actually give any information or context on any of the collections."

 

 

None of the other rooms changes her impression of the place as a fuck pad; the kitchen is about the size of a breadbox. "Bolero" comes to a climax and then starts over again.

 

 

Faith glances around for Castiel, who's been silent so far, trailing behind the others. "You okay?" she asks quietly.

 

 

"There's no need for you to inquire after me as if I were an invalid."

 

 

"You are hurt, dude."

 

 

He doesn't dignify this with a response, so Faith shrugs and follows the others.

 

 

"Whoa, check it out," Dean says from the front of their group.

 

 

They've come to a long, thin, glassed-in space called the Infinity Room. It juts out into open space from the hill, narrowing to a point. Faith feels the floor move underfoot as Dean and Bobby walk toward the tip.

 

 

"Oh hell no," Faith says fervently.

 

 

"Actually, the cantilever design is one of the strongest there is," Sam says, following the others.

 

 

"There's a window in the floor," Dean says. "You can see treetops down there."

 

 

"I'll be right here," Faith informs them from the entrance. In fact, she feels better once she turns her back on the whole room, but she's caught by the suddenly avid look on Castiel's face as he moves past her, and she turns to watch him make his way toward the point.

 

 

The sky is still steel gray, but it seems like light gathers around him as he walks, as if drawn there, to the far end. He stops at what looks like a low box set in the floor, which Faith takes for the window, and gazes down.

 

 

She imagines what Castiel must be feeling, having this small reminder of what it must be like to fly. She gets a strong sense of something unfolding within him, preparing to soar, then subsiding once more.

 

 

It seems as if none of them is breathing. Even Bobby seems struck by this moment, his eyes fixed on Castiel.

 

 

After what seems like an eternity, Castiel turns away. He catches Faith's eye and smiles. "It's not so very far down," he says softly. He extends a hand toward her. "Come look."

 

 

Faith walks down the narrowing corridor, her gaze solely on him. She takes Castiel's hand and looks downward.

 


 

 

Faith gazes down at the tops of the skeletal trees below her feet, the blood roaring in her ears, her heart jackhammering. She's not sure if these reactions stem from the dizzying sense of height or the electricity of Castiel's touch. It's nothing like the sexual buzz of the moment when he'd stuffed the snow down her collar. It's more like an elemental force, like nothing she's felt before from him.

 

 

She immediately revises that thought as a deep, cellular memory kicks in. She recalls the being who gathered her broken, lifeless body and shifted its molecules until she was whole again, though she doesn't understand how she could possibly remember this.

 

 

Her head snapping up, Faith looks at Castiel in surprise and finds her expression mirrored in his. She feels things rearranging within her again, and she's not sure if she's dying or being reborn. "You'd think I'd know," she hears herself say out loud.

 

 

Suddenly the current shuts off as if he's tugged his hand from her grasp, although he hasn't. Castiel stumbles backward against the framework holding the glass panes.

 

 

Faith nearly screams, half expecting him to fall through, tumbling into the bare branches below. But he catches himself as Sam is in mid-stride toward him, arm extended to help. Faith doesn't even realize she's staggered herself until Dean has circled her waist with an arm, steadying her.

 

 

"The hell was that?" Bobby says.

 

 

"I'm not sure," Castiel says.

 

 

"It was the real you," Faith says. "I remember. From when I was dead."

 

 

"What?" Bobby blurts.

 

 

Before anyone can enlighten him, or even figure out how a remotely plausible way to do so, a couple of shrieking rugrats come thundering into the narrow space, making the ground shudder beneath her feet.

 

 

Faith's knees wobble. "Get me offa this!"

 

 

Dean shifts his arm around her shoulders, steering her back to secure land. "You okay?"

 

 

"Yeah, yeah. Little disoriented."

 

 

"Whatd'you mean, when you were dead?" Bobby demands.

 

 

Just then the parents of the hellspawn trundle into the area, taking in their group with undisguised curiosity.

 

 

Castiel tears himself away from one last look out the glass walls and joins them. "She fell in battle," he says quietly. "I was sent to raise her, as I did Dean."

 

 

"What about you?" Faith asks. "Do you feel any stronger? Any weaker?"

 

 

"I felt something flow between us, but it was interrupted," he says. "I feel no better or worse now that it's gone."

 

 

"What stopped it?"

 

 

Castiel shakes his head. "I can't say."

 

 

"What caused it in the first place?" Dean asks.

 

 

"I'm not sure," Castiel says again. "Perhaps the power of this place. Perhaps the sensations of being suspended over this valley, the familiarity of it."

 

 

"This isn't helping us find the seal, though," Dean states. "We've got a helluva lot of ground to cover."

 


 

 

The weird just keeps on coming. Different types of weird, in waves.

 

 

After they pass through the house itself, there's a crazy quilt of sheds and buildings linked together that houses the displays and collections. Faith's not sure if it's the place itself or the strange experience she just shared with Castiel, but this series of rooms reminds her of times when she was sick as a kid, with fevers that carried her from one bizarre dream to another.

 

 

There's a section that's meant to recreate an old-time main street, which almost seems normal enough, except the brick street and its storefronts and windows are lit by a string of light bulbs instead of any kind of natural light, giving the scene a pervasive sense of dark. The slight downward slope of the floor makes her feel as though they're being led slowly into the hills, down and away from sunlight.

 

 

After this section, they emerge into a building with a two-story high fiberglass scene of a death struggle between a giant octopus and a whale, with two tiers of railings above and some benches at its base in case you want to sit and contemplate shitty lawn art of the gods. Some kid comes in and feeds a couple of tokens in the music machine there, and it starts playing a version of that old Beatles song about the octopus.

 

 

Faith nudges Dean. "Nothin' says 'titanic struggle to the death' like a zippy little tune."

 

 

He shakes his head and laughs. "Sammy, I think this place just got officially more tacky and weird than that mystery spot down in Broward."

 

 

Sam's grin shuts off like somebody hit a kill switch, his mouth going all narrow and tight like it does. "Yeah," he says, and walks away, heading up one of the ramps that leads around and beyond the whale and octopus. Faith shoots a look at Dean, who watches after him, a muscle pulsing at his jaw. He shakes his head tightly as if he's disgusted with himself, then looks at Faith and says, "Let's go."

 

 

Faith just racks it up as another of those Winchester stories she'll never know in full, if at all.

 

 

The next thing they come to is a pizza joint, which looks to be the closest thing to a food court this place has. Castiel seems very intent on peering through the window at the menu board, while Bobby and Sam are just waiting, separate.

 

 

"Don't tell me you're burning to try pizza while you're human," Faith says.

 

 

"There is nothing remotely peaceful about this place," he says. "It's like receiving a completely unfiltered view into humanity's most random thoughts."

 

 

"It's not just you," Faith says.

 

 

"Let's achieve our purpose as quickly as possible so we can leave this place."

 

 

Doesn't sound like a half-bad plan to her.

 


 

 

Faith can't imagine how anyone could fail to be fucking sick of this place by the fucking Music of YesterfuckingYear, but it's not even that far into the second tour of three included on their ultimate tour tickets. A grimness settles over their little band as they trudge past the music machines that range all the way up to room-sized. Luckily, some don't play and the rest run on tokens. She's damn grateful it's the off-season, and there isn't all that much caterwauling.

 

 

She peers in at a couple of rooms where music is playing; one is a fancy drawing room with instruments on each elegant chair. They seem to play themselves, and the keys and bows of the woodwinds and the stringed instruments move on their own.

 

 

The other room is dark and red, with so much animatronic shit moving around on the wall facing a carpeted bench that she can't even take it all in. It makes her think of what Disney World -- or how she imagines Disney World -- would be like if it opened a theme park in hell. The central figure in all this movement is something that looks like an old movie version of what they used to call a nefarious Oriental villain, back when they were always played by white guys in bad makeup. This one has the whole Chinese robe and skull cap and long mustaches thing going. There are golden figures with fans and all kinds of other shit and the music is fucking loud. Faith finds herself about to make the Disney World joke to Dean, who has trailed in behind her, but she realizes in time that it's probably not the best idea she's had. She touches his elbow and slips out the door, rejoining the others -- or Sam and Bobby, at any rate.

 

 

"Where's Castiel?"

 

 

"He wanted to keep moving," Bobby says.

 

 

"Dammit," Faith mutters. She charges on after him without waiting for the others, through the aviation hall, walking into a wave of uneasiness as she approaches yet more loud, nightmarishly happy music. The next section opens up on a huge carousel, the source of the garish music. It's huge and loud and lit up like Christmas in Vegas, and she supposes she's intended to feel a dozen kinds of childlike wonder but she just finds it creepy as everything else.

 

 

"Whoa," Dean says as he hauls up short beside her. "Check that out."

 

 

She follows his gaze upward and sees a whole flock of department store dummies with wings hanging over the carousel. Some are naked, some are wearing negligees, but even those who are covered have some slippage so at least one conelike breast is hanging out.

 

 

It looks like the sort of shit she'd see in a slayer dream, and it fills her with the same sense of dread.

 

 

"That's just creepy," Dean says. "On the whole, having Uriel give me the pre-smiting ceremonial fuck-you glare is less disturbing than this shit."

 

 

Faith just resumes moving, heading for the next section. She stops dead when she gets beyond the entrance, unable to make anything of what's before her. Unable even to think of a way to describe it, if only to herself.

 

 

It's a huge room, criss-crossed with arching ramps and catwalks weaving through and above outcroppings of ... stuff. A crazy clashing assortment of shit, huge copper boilers, pieces of big pipe organs, massive parts of ships -- she doesn't know what all. How the fuck she's supposed to find Castiel in all this is beyond her. She thinks about yelling out his name, but there doesn't seem much of a point. There's organ music playing so loud she can barely think, which doesn't surprise her in the slightest. Looking around for some clue which way to go to get some kind of vantage point, she catches sight of some movement above.

 

 

A blur of tan.

 

 

She does shout his name, but it's swallowed by the noise and the hugeness of this space.

 

 

Faith heads for one of the ramps that winds up into the higher reaches of the dimly-lit room.

 

 

She catches another flash of tan, far ahead, moving away like a mirage in the desert.

 

 

"Castiel!"

 

 

She sees an answering movement alongside, black, but substantial, as if angels cast solid shadows. She loses sight of them behind another projection of welded-together salvage.

 

 

Tan and black moving shoulder to shoulder.

 

 

Why does she feel more unsettled thinking he's with Uriel than believing he's alone?

 

 

She hurries along the catwalk, reaching for her knife and doing something she supposes might be praying.

 


 

 

She catches glimpses of a dragon's hoard of randomness as she moves up the catwalks. A wall of earthenware jugs, like the moonshine gallons in old cartoons; wooden bellows -- organ parts? -- that open and close as she passes like some malevolent flower blooming and closing up. Copper vats. She spots Castiel at the pinnacle of the catwalks, hands resting on the railing as he gazes down, Muriel at his side, talking.

 

 

Castiel looks just the faintest bit uneasy, and Faith can't quite tell if he's reacting to Muriel's general disapproval of him and his lowered status among his fellow angels, or if there's something about what Uriel's saying that unsettles him.

 

 

She hurries toward them, but holds back just as she draws close enough to hear them speak to one another.

 

 

"Haven't you seen enough?" Muriel is saying.

 

 

"I should not have to remind you that this task was given to me by our Father," Castiel responds. "It is neither your place nor mine to agree with these instructions or dispute them. I am to aid them and keep them safe, because those are my orders."

 

 

"And it doesn't anger you to be at the beck and call of these ... creatures?"

 

 

"They are the beloved creation of our Father, as we are."

 

 

"They're a failed experiment, but our Father stubbornly refuses to put an end to it."

 

 

Castiel whirls to face him. "You presume to say what it is He should do?"

 

 

"I presume to do something about it."

 

 

"This is blasphemy," Castiel says.

 

 

"I'm tired of being an afterthought. Of watching our Father waste His riches on celebrating the prodigal and ignoring His children who've stayed faithful all along. It's time we had our due, Brother."

 

 

Brother. Fuck! Her dream, and Castiel's last word --

 

 

Faith closes the distance between herself and the two angels. "Hi ya, Muriel. Hey, what is it about renegade angels and the 'take 'em to a high place to talk shit' routine? Classic, or cliched? I'm leaning toward cliched, myself."

 

 

Muriel doesn't bother responding. "Really, Castiel? These are the beings you prefer to your own kind, to those who want to take their rightful place in the heavens?" He flicks a hand toward her, and Faith finds herself flipped over the catwalk rail and falling, slamming onto the carpeted catwalk below.

 

 

"Sonofabitch!" she mutters as she rises to her feet. She looks upward and can see Muriel moving above, bending over something at his feet, lashing out with fists and feet.

 

 

"Faith!" Dean shouts as he reaches her. "The hell? I saw you come flying off that railing."

 

 

"It's Muriel. He's pounding the shit out of Castiel. You got a pen? I need one now."

 

 

"A pen?"

 

 

"Now now fucking now!" she growls.

 

 

Dean pats his pockets until he comes up with a cheap ballpoint, which he hands over. "The hell's that gonna do?"

 

 

"Get me killed, most likely." Faith starts drawing on the back of her hand, just next to the web between her thumb and index finger. She sends up another prayer for her memory and her drawing skills to be better than she suspects. She hopes it does more good than a drawing of Thumper.

 

 

"What is it?" Dean asks.

 

 

"Magic symbol we saw in Southie, when Castiel nearly bought it. He couldn't fight against the guys who wore it." She finishes marking her hand and glances overhead. Muriel's got Castiel bent back against the railing, nearly overbalanced, his hands wrapped around Castiel's throat.

 

 

She pushes the pen back at Dean. "Wish me luck. I'm gonna go kick some angel ass."

 


 

 

Faith snatches up her knife from where it fell as she runs for the upper catwalk. Dean thunders up the ramps behind her.

 

 

"Stay back," she warns him. "I'm gonna be pissing him off."

 

 

By the time she makes it to the top level again, Muriel has Castiel more than half over the railing. Castiel's fingers claw at Muriel's, but feebly. Would be ironic as a bastard to see Castiel die this way, after nearly doing the same to Xander.

 

 

"Hey, Muriel," she jeers. "Seriously, is that the best you've got?"

 

 

The surprise on his face is satisfying, though he doesn't show much more than mild irritation at having to deal with her again so quickly. That changes when he raises his hand again and fails to flick her off the catwalk like a bug.

 

 

Castiel draws in a shuddering breath and twists from Muriel's one-handed grip, but there's a moment where he's perilously close to flipping over the railing. Faith bounds forward, grabbing him and yanking him to safety and racing on toward Muriel.

 

 

"Take care!" Castiel shouts. "He has Lucifer's sword!"

 

 

The sword seems to appear from nowhere as she rushes Muriel, whose expression says he's going to relish gutting her and peeling her spine out like deveining a shrimp. His eyes widen as the sword clatters from his useless hand. Faith punches him and feels a dark thrill to see the massive angel stumble. She aims a high kick and the catwalk shakes as he falls at her feet.

 

 

"What have you done?" Muriel gasps.

 

 

"Borrowed a little trick from the other side, that's all," Faith says. She decides not to show him the mark, considering she found a way around it. Let him wonder. "You know about borrowing, don't you, Muriel? You've got Lucifer's sword and you're singing his song about the angels getting the shaft once humans made the scene. That's original. I'm sure Lucifer really appreciates the gesture, a few thousand years after he put his own winged ass on the line. Is it you who's behind the breaking of the seals?"

 

 

"I let Lilith's demons do that work," he says with a lip curl.

 

 

"That'll look good on your resume, too. Bet ol' Lucifer can't wait to have you on the team. That was you killing the other angels, though, wasn't it? You killed this latest one, then brought Castiel the news. Why the hell do you keep toying with him? He trusted you, he'd have been the easiest one to gank."

 

 

"He held out hope that I would join him," Castiel says, his voice hard with contempt.

 

 

Faith glances at him, on his feet mostly due to Dean's support. He stands slightly bent with a hand pressed to his ribs, laboring to breathe. Blood smears his face.

 

 

"You've hung around Castiel a few thousand years and you don't know him any better than that?" she asks.

 

 

Muriel sneers. "While you believe you know him after a few short weeks. Human arrogance never fails to amaze me." He flicks a hand and lightbulbs explode over Castiel and Dean, showering them with sparks and shattered glass. Dean lets go of Castiel as they both throw their arms up to shield their faces.

 

 

Muriel spreads his hand wide and Lucifer's blade slides along the catwalk floor, settling into his palm.

 


 

 

Faith has a spasm of fear that the hand-drawn mark's limited mojo has been exhausted or that Lucifer's sword has power that even the demons' sigil can't overcome. But Muriel's eyes are fixed on Castiel, and she flashes on his intent. As he hurls the sword like fuckin' Zeus with a fuckin' lightning bolt, Faith lunges across its trajectory.

 

 

"Faith, no!" Castiel shouts.

 

 

Even as she is airborne, she expects to be pierced through but the blade veers off its course as if there's a force field surrounding her. It flies over the railing and clatters to the level below.

 

 

Faith hits the catwalk and railing post hard enough to wind her. She twists to see where the sword has fallen and finds herself staring down into something that looks like a giant demon's mouth, with rows upon rows of teeth in ivory, red and blue. It's an organ, she realizes -- or some Frankensteinian parody of one, with a pair of old TV screens in among all the keys. The sword lies cocked on top of a crazily tilted TV.

 

 

Dean leans over the railing, shouting for Sam and Bobby, glass shards glittering in his hair and on his skin. He points down at the organ.

 

 

Before Faith has regained her breath, Muriel has scrambled to his feet, barreling past her and Dean to seize Castiel and cast him over the railing, down into the teeth of the organ's maw.

 

 

An instant later, he flings himself over the railing after Castiel.

 

 

Faith draws in a hitching breath and throws herself after them.

 


 

 

She lands badly, skidding down the slope of the huge keyboard, slamming her ribcage on a TV, knocking the breath from her lungs a second time. The sword is back in Muriel's hand as he stands over Castiel, who's sprawled motionless in the bottom of the banks of organ keys, his body twisted awkwardly, arms outstretched.

 

 

Faith remembers the battlefield of dead angels in trenchcoats from her dream. Still wheezing for breath, she rises up and drives her elbow into Muriel's temple. He staggers but doesn't lose his footing or his grip on the sword.

 

 

He doesn't lose his focus on Castiel, either. "You should have joined me, brother." He raises the sword to deliver a death blow to Castiel, whose gaze is locked on his onetime comrade.

 

 

Faith grabs Muriel by the collar and hauls him around. "You should have disappeared when you had the chance, fucker."

 

 

The symbol on her hand may stop him from raising a hand to her, but he still manages a smirk after she smashes her fist into his nose. She drives him back with a flurry of punches and kicks, but he doesn't drop Lucifer's blade. While he can't hurt her with it, he's a danger to Castiel as long as he can do the Zeus maneuver. She keeps her body between him and Castiel and continues battering him. Though he can't fight her, Muriel reacts as if she's a persistent insect, irritating but swattable once he's not occupied with something more important.

 

 

He's not invincible. Castiel wasn't, so he can't be. It was a blade that did the damage in Castiel's case, so she pulls out her knife.

 

 

Muriel sneers. "That won't kill me."

 

 

Faith plunges her knife into his shoulder. Muriel roars in pain and Lucifer's sword clatters from his hand, skittering down the rows of keys. She follows with a knee to his groin and then to his head, and he goes down.

 

 

She scrabbles down to snatch up the sword, grateful that this monstrosity of an organ is just for show and there's not a hellish soundtrack to their fight. "How 'bout this?" she asks Muriel as she curls her hand around the hilt. "Think maybe this'll do the job?"

 

 

The flash of fear in Muriel's eyes gives her a satisfying answer. Faith climbs to a more stable foothold and jabs the sword downward through his heart. Shock widens his eyes for a moment before they go unfocused, glassy. Just as Faith lets her guard drop, panting as her shoulders slump, Muriel's eyes and mouth snap open and he screams, white light pouring out with the sound.

 

 

The whole Organ Room is filled with it, the cold blaze casting bizarre shadows from the catwalks and weird contraptions above. Then, just as suddenly, the scream and light die away, leaving Faith blinking in the afterburn.

 

 

She whirls, nearly losing her footing. "Castiel."

 


 

 

Castiel's eyes have closed and he seems impossibly still. Faith lets the sword drop from nerveless fingers as she picks her way down the banks of keys, which are beginning to break apart and skitter along with her descent. She crouches beside him, touching two fingers to his neck the way she's seen people do on TV. How do they always know where to find a pulse? All she registers is the clamminess of his skin, when heat is what she associates with his touch.

 

 

"Castiel, can you hear me? Castiel."

 

 

Helplessly she glances upward and sees a hand clutching the edge of the organ. She recognizes the wide silver band on Dean's ring finger and hauls herself up the crumbling slope toward the edge.

 

 

Her heart nearly stops when she sees him, one hand to his brow, blinking in the dim light.

 

 

"Dean."

 

 

He looks up toward the sound of her voice, but his eyes don't register her presence.

 

 

"Oh god," Faith breathes. "You've been blinded." She remembers the psychic Dean told her about, blinded when she insisted on seeing Castiel in his true form.

 

 

"No. No. Just dazzled. What's happened?"

 

 

"It's Castiel. I -- I just don't know. He's hurt and I think it's bad."

 

 

"What about Uriel?"

 

 

"Dead. I killed him."

 

 

He blinks rapidly, and squints up at her as if he really is taking her in. "Give me a hand up."

 

 

She helps him clamber up into the organ, though her ribs protest. "Careful. It's starting to break apart."

 

 

"Whoa," he says, and Faith turns to see what prompted this, and finds Uriel sprawled where he fell, with the shadow of a pair of wings stretched out over the wreckage where he lies.

 

 

"Oh shit," Faith says. "D'you think this was a seal? I killed an angel with Lucifer's sword."

 

 

"If you'd let him live, he would have killed an angel with Lucifer's sword."

 

 

"Yeah, well, I'm more comfortable with him having an apocalypse on his conscience."

 

 

"Nothing you can do to change it," Dean says. "So let's help Cas."

 

 

They pick their way down the crumbling keyboards to where he lies, still motionless. Dean mutters a curse as he kneels beside him and does the two-finger thing exactly as they do on television.

 

 

Faith feels incompetent, she feels responsible. "We've gotta get him to a hospital."

 

 

"No," Castiel rasps. His eyes flutter open and fix on Faith's.

 

 

"Listen, this is no time for playing doctor. You need more help than we can give you."

 

 

He makes an effort to move under his own power, managing to raise himself on an elbow.

 

 

"Careful," Faith says. "This whole thing is crumbling."

 

 

"Take me," he begins, and suddenly goes pale and unfocused. "The Infinity Room. Quickly."

 


 

 

Faith exchanges a look with Dean. "Infinity Room?"

 

 

"The acrophobia room."

 

 

She bites back a curse. "Castiel, you need a hospital, not a view."

 

 

He works a little smite into his tone. "Do as I tell you." It's effective, despite his condition.

 

 

Faith feels a stab of fear that he knows he's dying and wants that poor imitation of flight one last time. She casts another glance at Dean, and kneels by Castiel's side.

 

 

Dean follows her lead, and she sees the same worry written on his face. "Easy," he says. "Let us do the work."

 

 

By the time they help him up and over the lip of the organ, Castiel's breathing is ragged, his face pale and damp. Dean goes to retrieve the sword as Faith looks around, wondering why no one has happened on their group (or her murder vic) -- and where the hell the rest of their group is. Dean wraps his jacket around the sword and tucks the bundle under one arm, then joins Faith in supporting (half-carrying) Castiel along the path back toward the carousel.

 

 

They find Bobby at the entrance to the Organ Room, turning away a family of tourists. "Structure's not sound," he's telling them. "This section's closed until further notice. We're waiting for the authorities." He speaks into a walkie talkie, an impenetrable coded shorthand that sounds legit even to Faith, and is answered by a staticky burst of similarly obscure jargon. Sam. She's heard about Bobby's absolute genius for psychs and fakeouts and now she doesn't doubt it. He goes into a tourist attraction expecting trouble and thinks to bring freakin' walkie talkies for cover.

 

 

Bobby glances around at their approach and waves off the tourists. "Give these folks some room now."

 

 

"Did you see what happened?" asks the father.

 

 

"Did something fall on him?" blurts his kid, a boy around twelve.

 

 

"Close call, that's all," Dean says. "Give him some air, back off."

 

 

"Any damage to the mural?" Bobby asks them.

 

 

"Smashed to bits," Faith says.

 

 

Bobby scowls. "That'll take some cleanup."

 

 

"Right now we're worried about this guy," Dean says.

 

 

"You taking him to the ER?"

 

 

"Infinity Room," Castiel growls.

 

 

Bobby flicks a glance at Dean, who says softly, "We'll stop there, then try to get him to go." He hands Bobby the bundle containing Lucifer's sword. "You might want to hang onto this piece. Looks important."

 

 

They steady Castiel along the paths through the music machines, the ramps surrounding the stupid fucking fiberglass whale, the sloping brick Street of Yesteryear. Though he's weakening, Faith wonders if she should be encouraged that he's on his feet at all. Maybe he's not dying. She tells herself he's not. He can't be, not after this long journey spurred by her series of slayer dreams. Faith wonders why it's now that tears spring to her eyes.

 

 

"Hang on, we're almost there," Dean tells Castiel.

 

 

She catches the sound of the music machine stationed outside the Infinity Room, with its nonstop rendition of the Godfather theme. "Bolero" she got, a cheesy soundtrack for a cheesy makeout den. What the hell connection the Godfather has with this glass-walled needle of a room is beyond her. They draw nearer to the music until finally they're at the opening. Faith stares down at the narrowed end, her stomach doing a slow flip.

 

 

"Yes," Castiel says. "Here."

 


 

 

Faith steels herself. "Tell me exactly where you want to be."

 

 

He looks off down to the end of the needle, washed with ghostly winter light. "You let me ask much of you." He frowns as he turns back to her. "Why do you weep?"

 

 

"I'm so scared for you," she says.

 

 

"My Father watches over me," he says. "I trust him, but I accept His will."

 

 

Angrily she palms tears from her cheeks. "Fine, you trust Him. He sure as hell didn't seem to be watchin' when Uriel killed seven of your friends."

 

 

"Faith," Dean says. "We don't have time for this. Cas, do whatever it is you came here for, then you're coming to the hospital."

 

 

"You want to be down there, don't you?" Faith points toward the end, at the window in the floor that looks down onto the treetops.

 

 

Castiel nods, and she and Dean support his unsteady progress to the plexiglass square in the floor. Dean slowly releases his grip on Castiel, who sways but stays on his feet.

 

 

"Go now," Castiel tells him. "It's not safe for you."

 

 

"For me?" Dean demands. "What about Faith?"

 

 

"She has her part to play. Yours is to prevent anyone from walking in on what occurs next."

 

 

"I don't like this," Dean says.

 

 

Castiel draws himself up. "You don't have to like it," he snaps, and a second later his legs fold beneath him and he sits down hard on the clear panel set in the floor. Though Faith knows better, she expects him to fall through open space and tumble into the barren trees below. She fights vertigo.

 

 

Dean reaches to help him up, and Castiel bats away his hand. "Leave me. I've already told you what I must have from you."

 

 

A muscle pulses in Dean's jaw, but he takes a couple of steps backward.

 

 

"Go," Castiel snarls. "Keep everyone away."

 

 

He stares down at the valley below, and Faith wonders if this time he's thinking of falling and not flying.

 

 

Faith says, "Let me help you up."

 

 

"No," Castiel says. He looks up at her and extends his hand. "Give me your hand."

 

 

She reaches her hand toward him, then snatches it back when she catches sight of the crude mark she'd drawn on it. "I shouldn't have been touching you. The mark --" The strength draining out of him as they made their way here -- it's probably all her fault.

 

 

"I haven't forgotten the mark."

 

 

"I've hurt you because of this fucking thing."

 

 

He shakes his head. "It will tear down the barriers between us."

 

 

"What? There are supposed to be barriers."

 

 

"Give me your hand." Though his tone is fierce, his voice is weakening.

 

 

She can't deny him, though she does thrust the unmarked hand toward him.

 

 

"No. The other one. Please. As Dean said, time is growing short."

 

 

Against her better judgment, she offers the hand she'd inked.

 

 

Castiel takes it and she feels a jolt of something like fire skipping up and down her synapses.

 

 

She falls to her knees.

 


 

 

The fire races through Faith's body but doesn't consume her -- she's not sure how long it lasts, whether it's a heartbeat or a lifetime. When it recedes she feels a connection with Castiel, so strong she can almost see the shining threads stretching between them. She follows it, searching for the being whose presence she'd felt earlier in this place, the one who'd brought her broken body back to life.

 

 

It feels like walking into an empty room, calling his name and getting nothing but the sound of her voice bouncing back to her. Castiel's hand goes slack around hers, and Faith feels a surge of blind fear. Is she killing him with the mark on her hand? Shoving aside the panic, tells herself to trust his instincts. She intensifies her search for him, impulsively shifting her hand in his, pressing her palm against his, lacing their fingers together.

 

 

The first glimmer she finds of Castiel's power is within herself, an echo of the rush of energy that had moved through her when they first stood here. She gathers it and pushes it back to him, willing him to latch onto its strength. Nothing seems to happen for a moment, then she feels it within him, growing stronger and looping back toward her. Faith follows his lead, letting this energy race through her and rocket back toward Castiel. He catches it and sends it back to her, just that slightest bit more concentrated.

 

 

She thinks about the times she watched Steve Milligan play catch with his younger brother, the first tosses easy and relaxed, gaining in speed and intensity until Faith's hand would sting just from listening to the slap of the ball on their gloves. It's almost the same now as they pass the power back and forth between them, setting up a rhythm that picks up as they go, looping the energy through and around and back. Castiel's grasp on her hand tightens, and he reaches for her other hand, lacing fingers with her as she'd done with him. He rises to his feet, drawing her up with him.

 

 

Every cell of her body sings with the surge that moves through her. Light surrounds him again, just as it had when they were here before, but this time it comes from Castiel, not from outside of him. It grows stronger, dazzling, but she keeps her gaze locked on him. The energy roars through her another time and she feels an unfamiliar sensation of movement at her shoulder blades, bunching of muscle and itching of skin. As she watches, Castiel's shining silhouette changes, as wings appear and stretch outward, seeming like they'll fill the whole space of the Infinity Room.

 

 

Distantly she hears Dean shout her name. "Shield your eyes!"

 

 

"You are safe," Castiel says, and she knows she's hearing him speak his true language.

 

 

Faith understands why he suffered to be cut off from his native speech while locked in the body of his vessel. The sound of his voice is beautiful, thrilling. A memory awakens in her, the knowledge that Castiel spoke to her when he retrieved her torn body from that cabin and repaired it. She'd guarded that seal and Castiel admired her for it, but now --

 

 

Tears streak down her cheeks. "I opened the seal. By killing Uriel." Her voice sounds like a crow's squawk to her own ears, discordant and ugly compared to his.

 

 

"True," he says, but his voice is kind. "The seal is open, but you saved a soldier for the Lord. If I had died the seal would still be open and it would be Lucifer's ally who still walked the earth." Castiel releases her hands and touches her face. "I owe you a great deal. I must go now, and you and the others should leave."

 

 

He's gone in an instant, leaving her blinking in the sudden dimness of an ordinary cloudy winter day. She shivers in the sudden cold, and realizes a good half of the glass panes have broken or tumbled out whole. She misses the elemental force that had surged through her, misses Castiel and the sound of his voice. The tinny sound of the Godfather theme, which she hadn't noticed at all through this, now rubs her nerves like sandpaper.

 

 

"Faith!" Dean shouts again.

 

 

She falls to her knees again, barely avoiding a shard of glass.

 

 

The room shudders under her as Dean runs in to her. "Faith! Faith, what happened?" He goes to his knees beside her, seemingly unconcerned about the glass. Turning his face toward him, he lets out of gust of breath as he sees her eyes registering him. "Can you hear okay?"

 

 

"Yeah, I'm good."

 

 

"What the hell happened? Did they come for him?"

 

 

"No. He left on his own."

 

 

"He's okay?" Dean seems stunned. As she nods, he says, "And you're okay?"

 

I dunno, she wants to say. Do I have wings? But it sounds crazy, and she's pretty certain he'd have said something if she did. "I think so. He said we'd better leave, though."

 

 

"Good plan." He flips open his phone, hits speed dial. "Sammy. Get Bobby. We've gotta go."

 


 

 

They head for one of the exits along the route rather than toward the entrance, Faith stumbling along behind Dean in the bad lighting. It seems worse than before, but it's not until she hears glass crunch beneath her feet that she realizes Castiel's voice has shattered many of the lightbulbs as well as window panes.

 

 

The second time she bumps into Dean he realizes the problem and takes her by the arm. "You sure your eyes are okay? Maybe shutting them wasn't enough at such close range."

 

 

"It's just dark. I'm fine. Let's just get the hell out of here."

 

 

"This place is a freaking nightmare to get out of," he mutters, but a moment later they find the exit and shoot out of it.

 

 

Faith pauses and looks up at the sky. There's no sign of Castiel or his brother angels, but a light snow has begun to fall. She and Dean pick their way down to the parking lot and wait at the car for Sam and Bobby.

 

 

"What happened in there?" Dean asks. "I was sure he was in pretty bad shape."

 

 

"He was dying," Faith says. "But when we went back there we picked up the same energy that went through us before. It brought him back, I guess." She hunches her shoulders against the cold. "I didn't, you know. Shut my eyes."

 

 

"What? You had to."

 

 

"I didn't. I saw him."

 

 

"But Pamela, her eyes were burned right out of her head. You must've had 'em closed, but saw the light through your eyelids."

 

 

"I saw his wings," she says, and her voice sounds strange -- dreamy. When has her voice ever sounded dreamy?

 

 

Dean twitches a half-grin. "He did that thing? Pretty crazy, isn't it? The trenchcoat and the black shadow wings."

 

 

Faith shakes her head. "They were made of light. He was made of light. He was dressed like a warrior."

 

 

He stares at her. "How the hell could you have seen him? Humans can't, he told me. Well, a rare few."

 

 

"Guess I'm one. He told me -- well, I guess slayers share a little angel DNA or something." Sounds so neat and clean that way.

 

 

"Whoa. Is that why you two connected like that up there in the Infinity Room?"

 

 

"Don't know. It makes sense."

 

 

He gazes off down the drive leading to the gates with the crazy ugly urns. "He talked to you. Back there when all the glass started breaking. What'd he say, 'So long and thanks for all the fish'?"

 

 

"What?"

 

 

"Never mind."

 

 

Faith can't believe it's taken her this long to figure it out. "You're jealous."

 

 

"Bullshit." But he won't look at her.

 

 

"Bullshit yourself. I know it when I see it; I was jealous of you when I found out he'd tried talking to you. I wanted to hear his voice, even if it made my ears bleed. But he wouldn't. Not until just now."

 

 

He's silent for a moment, then he grudgingly asks, "What was it like?"

 

 

For a second Faith wonders if she should lie and say it wasn't all that big a deal. But that would be an insult to Dean. "It was amazing. Beautiful. Heartbreaking."

 

 

Dean looks back toward her. "Heartbreaking? Why?"

 

 

"Because I can't hear that all the time. Because Castiel spent so much time stuck in his human body when he couldn't have his native language, and I know it was painful."

 

 

"It was just a heartbeat, to someone who's been around as long as he has."

 

 

"Yeah," she says. "I know."

 

 

Eying her closely, he says, "You two got close."

 

 

"The fuck is that supposed to mean?"

 

 

A flicker of intense interest. "Nothing."

 

 

"Hey look, there they are," she says, pointing up toward the House. "We better get ready to haul ass." Grateful for a chance to scramble off the hot seat, she settles herself in the back of the Impala.

 


 

 

Sam sketches in the outlines of what happened in the Organ Room as they follow Bobby's car back to the motel.

 

 

"What the hell did you do with Uriel's body?" Dean asks.

 

 

"We were trying to figure that out -- I mean, does salt work on rebellious angels? -- when Castiel showed up. He told us he'd take care of it. We made sure no one went in, and the whole place filled with light."

 

 

"Then he left no sign," Faith says. "I saw him do that number once before."

 

 

"That's damn useful," Dean comments.

 

 

In the back seat, Faith wonders how that was for Castiel. Little as she liked Uriel, he had been Castiel's friend and comrade. How many thousands of years had they fought side by side? You don't just brush that aside and walk on when it ends badly. She knows that first-hand -- it took Buffy a long time to get past Faith's betrayal, and sometimes she wonders if B. trusts her completely even now. Faith knows it from the other side too, how betrayed she'd felt when ol' Gwen Post played her for an idiot, and how she'd hardened herself in reaction. She wishes she could talk to Castiel about it. Just because he believes he doesn't have human emotions doesn't mean Uriel's betrayal and death won't affect him deeply.

 

 

"He might've made everything all neat and clean," Faith says, "but we're still one step closer to the apocalypse."

 

 

Dean flicks her a glance in the rearview. "You think?"

 

 

"I know. Castiel said. It was me. Killing an angel opened the seal."

 

 

Sam carefully avoids looking straight at her. "Well, hey. It wasn't like --"

 

 

"Don't, all right? Just don't."

 

 

Sam lets it drop and they ride in silence toward the motel. As Dean shuts off the engine, Faith says, "I'll catch up with you guys later on."

 

 

As she unlocks her room door she feels Dean's eyes on her, willing her to meet his gaze, but she mutters a "See you later" and lets herself in. She'd left the "Do Not Disturb" sign dangling from the door handle, so the room is exactly as they'd left it. Her own bed is a ragged bird's nest, while the bedspread on Castiel's is slightly askew, pulled off kilter when he'd sunk to the floor after trying to resume his angel form.

 

 

In her experience a sense of emptiness is standard motel room furnishings, along with the tiny bottle of shampoo and the Gideons Bible. But this time it's more powerful than she's ever felt it. Castiel was in this room, and now he's gone. His essence was in her body, and it's left the building. He's been restored to his glory, and it's nothing but wrong to wish he were still earthbound, but she misses him like he must have missed his wings.

 

 

Faith settles on Castiel's bed and indulges in the old comfort routine she used when she got lonely or scared back in Sunny D. She turns on the TV and flips around the dial until she finds the old movie channel. It's one she's seen, one of Bette Davis' more forgettable movies, but she doesn't care. It's company of a sort, and distraction, with the added comfort of knowing how everything's going to turn out. Faith hugs a pillow to her chest and watches, and the following movie too, and the next thing she knows she's suddenly awake and there's someone tapping at her door. The space where the curtains refuse to meet has faded from watery daylight to absolute dark. Not that it means much, this time of year. It could be late afternoon.

 

 

Blearily, she checks the clock. Around 11:15. "Who is it?"

 

 

"Dean. I brought some beer."

 

 

She shuffles to the door and opens it. "Someone told you the secret password."

 

 

"I saw your light on. Thought you might be hungry, and I had some leftover fried chicken." Dean sets a six-pack and a large white styrofoam clamshell on the small table, and Faith notices the half empty plastic go-cup of orange juice she'd brought Castiel, dried bits of pulp stuck to the inside surface. Dean spots it too. "Pitch this?"

 

 

"No," she says quickly. "Leave it." She opens the clamshell and sees an entire chicken dinner, untouched. "Leftovers, my ass," she says. She grabs a drumstick and tears in, sending a shower of extra-crispy down her shirt.

 

 

Dean grins. "You're welcome." He settles into one of the chairs, and she sinks into the other. "You wanna talk?"

 

 

She wants to eat. "What's to talk about?"

 

 

"Look, Sam and I unleashed some pretty bad shit once when we were trying to stop something worse. It happens. It's the nature of what it is we're fighting. You deal with that and you move on. You can't let it trip you up."

 

 

"Sure," she says. She tears at a biscuit, slips a piece into her mouth.

 

 

"Look, Cas can be a hardass. I'm sure he said some shit, but you can't take it too much to heart. He's ripped me a new one a time or two."

 

 

Faith fingers the cup of OJ, tilting it to watch the liquid flow over the dried bits. "He didn't."

 

 

"No?"

 

 

"He said the seal would have been open if Muriel killed him, and there'd be one less soldier for the Lord, one more for Lucifer."

 

 

"That didn't help?"

 

 

"Not really."

 

 

"You've been through something pretty intense up there in the Infinity Room. You need a little time."

 

 

"The whole fuckin' thing has been intense, from the minute I got my guts ripped out for garland and Castiel put 'em all back in, through the whole weird-ass road trip."

 

 

Dean tilts his beer bottle up for a long drink, eying her. "You in love with him?"

 

 

She pulls the biscuit apart, bit by bit. "Yeah, I think so. So you know I used you back there in the Final Frontier Room. I enjoyed the hell out of it, but it wasn't right."

 

 

"I'm a big boy," Dean says. "Plus I don't have a spotless record myself. And if you need to work off a little tension in the future, just on a friendly basis, I'd be on board with that."

 

 

That teases a grin from her. "Don't tempt me. I might take you up on it."

 

 

"I'm counting on that." He takes another pull from the longneck. "Seriously, when I said to deal and move on, that was kind of an invitation. Hunt with us a while. There are more seals out there, and we've got a better chance keeping them from breaking if we all work together."

 

 

She takes the lid off the orange juice and takes a sip. It's warm, but it still tastes like sunshine. Like wings made of light. Faith downs the rest.

 

 

"Yeah," she says. "I'd like that."