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He couldn't pinpoint when it all began, where it all came from, or even how he was able to do it. All he knew for certain was that he now seemed to have the ability to set things ablaze.

 

That was a lie. He could pinpoint it. The clusterfuck that was now his life began on a chilly Tuesday morning. He had risen to his alarm, and, half awake, drank the last dregs of his orange juice and got dressed, his mind on his coming appointment. Castiel was on his way to the doctor; a drunken fumble with his ex had left him with a burning reminder of why he shouldn't drink around the woman, ever. Everything that morning had been mind-numbingly normal, and he'd had no way to suspect what would happen. After that, he had sleepily stumbled out to his apartment building's parking structure, gotten in his car, and put the key in the ignition.

 

At that point his lower abdomen sharply lurched and his entire vehicle went up in flames.

 

Somehow, and Castiel was still not certain exactly how, he managed to escape before the gas tank exploded, which was probably good. Probably, because even if it seemed from his initial frantic pat down like he hadn't garnered any burns from the impromptu blaze, a full-blown explosion would have been a different story.

 

His mind wasn't on testing at all in that moment. In fact, his general thought process went something like: Oh shit, fire followed swiftly by run away! Only in the aftermath, as he'd sprawled against one of the structure's support pillars huffing, puffing, and generally staring in amazement as his vehicle seemingly self-combusted that he considered the fact that he'd not only been surrounded by fire, but briefly engulfed by it as well. This was prompted by the decidedly cool breeze that tickled his bare, unblemished skin. The fire had managed to burn hotly enough that his car was little more than a memory and yet when he checked underneath the tattered remains of his formerly pristine white button-down, there were no burns. Hell, there wasn't even any redness or swelling, and the low-grade irritation that had been prickling through his stomach and groin for days was now gone.

 

That counters the theory of Meg being the cause of that burning, he'd mused, unless she's managed to pick up a hither-to unknown STD. Castiel was fairly certain this wasn't the case, because if it was, the US Government would by now have had her secreted away to their very own secret base of sexy operations, encouraging her to exercise her love of sex with many various partners to the benefit of her country. He'd been on the brunt of several inappropriate, and duly ignored, text messages from the woman the night before, so he knew this was not the case.

 

It was possible Castiel was still a bit bitter about her cheating on him and then 'apologizing' by getting him rip-roaring drunk and in bed. He should have been suspicious when she's smiled and said, Just one last drink, babe, and I'll leave, but he hadn't been. His lack of suspicion had ended with him waking, completely naked, to her smugly glowing face.

 

Some people just did not place the same emphasis on sex as he did, Castiel told himself. Which is to say, hardly any at all. Meg could have waited for him like she's assured Castiel she would. He would have even forgiven her for going out to seek physical satisfaction in another bed, had she not done what she did after, with the alcohol and he suspected the drugs and...well, it wasn't something he liked to think about, and only partly because he didn't remember it at all.

 

So, yes, it was possible that Castiel was still a bit bitter. Castiel didn't like to think of himself as a bitter person though, and he had other things to ponder by that point besides his ex-girlfriend's dubious morals and duplicity.

 

Like discovering that he could set things on fire with a touch.

 

As superpowers went, it was a fairly destructive one, Castiel had to admit. Not as cool as being able to fly, or super-strength, or hell, even transmuting oneself into various states of water. He wasn't even sure if ‘superpower’ was the proper terminology to use. Even if it was the only descriptor for what he could suddenly do, it embarrassed him to use it. Still, it was a skill no one else he knew of had, one that was beyond the norm.

 

He went back to his apartment after the fire trucks and police had finally released him, shaken, and the doctor's appointment forgotten. Castiel had crawled into bed and willed himself to forget what'd happened. It might have worked if he hadn't woken to smoldering blankets and his apartment's smoke detector blaring.

 

That first week, while he vacillated between fear, denial, and a strange tinge of euphoria, in addition to losing his car in that first dramatic flare of power, he went through three toasters, two sofas (the second being one he'd grabbed from the Salvation Army, so it wasn't like he was attached to it, but combined with the loss of the first—his broken in, beautiful, perfect sofa—still had him tetchy enough that the loss of a second was like salt in a festering wound), and more clothing than he could afford to replace.

 

When he lost yet another toaster, Castiel finally decided to take himself out to an open field with various flammable objects to test himself and, hopefully, gain some control, since going to a physician was completely out of the question. If he wasn't put in a mental facility, then he'd likely be frog-marched to a research lab, and neither of those options appealed to him in the slightest. Around the fifth hour of experimentation, he discovered he didn't even have to be touching the object for it to burn; a thought and a gesture was more than enough.

 

He returned the next day and kept at it, and soon found that not only could he set things on fire, but he could lob fireballs, cause things to internally combust, and was impervious to any degree of heat. A hot air balloon drifting far overhead during the second week of what Castiel firmly resolved not to call training gave him an idea. It took much longer to master than anything else he'd attempted, but by the end of the first month, Castiel had enough control to form wings of flame that were powerful enough to propel him upwards.

 

Apparently, he could fly after all. This pleased Castiel more than he thought it should.

 

It was only as he was staring down the end of his second month with his pyro-powers, that Castiel began to wonder why, exactly, he'd been so intent on focusing his abilities. If his only interest had been in not setting his possessions on fire, well that had been accomplished in the first week. Then one day he was sitting in his apartment, staring at a news report stating that yet another house fire had claimed a young woman.

 

Firefighters, according to the newscaster with a macabre grin, were unable to enter the home to mount a rescue due to the heat of the blaze. She went on to cheerily inform her viewers that it was the third such house fire this year, that there had been fatalities in each, and that all the homes involved belonged to those involved in law enforcement. Overall, good people from good families, making the deaths that much more tragic.

 

“Ms. Wilson's fiancé suggests memorial donations be made to...” the newscaster blathered.

 

I could have saved her, Castiel found himself thinking idly, and then it rolled over him again in a wave of nausea. I could have saved her. The fire wouldn't have hurt him.

 

In that moment he knew why he'd been training himself, even if he hadn't realized it while he was doing it. Possibly, just maybe, he was meant to help people, and on some level he'd known it. Perhaps God Himself had given him his abilities for that very purpose. Castiel was self-aware enough to realize that this sounded dangerously close to absolute crazy—some of the most volatile and irrational things had been done in the name of religion, after all—but he didn't feel crazy for thinking it. In fact, the idea that God had given him his pyrokinesis (as he'd decided to call it, after the girl's powers in the Steven King novel Firestarter) made him feel more sane than he had before hearing the newscast. Before he'd been untethered, without focus, but now...he had a goal. A purpose. He didn't know how just yet, but he would find a way to use what was handed to him to help people.

 

 

 +++

 

“Winchester!”

 

Dean stopped, his foot raised just above the top stair as he debated the pros and cons of pretending that he hadn't heard one of the editors snapping out his name. Pro: he'd be leaving on schedule for once, and maybe, if there wasn't a delay on the train, even make it over to Sammy's on time for dinner. That'd shock the kid, which was, hey, another pro, as far as Dean was concerned. He knew he'd been ignoring his younger brother in favor of work more often than not lately something that should have been nearly impossible. Sam was a photojournalist and worked at the Pontiac Daily Gazette, same as Dean. It wasn't like they had any family other than each other, and hell, he could use a beer and a sympathetic ear. Maybe they could bitch about the editors together, Dean silently smirked.

 

Con: Bobby'd be pissed. But when wasn't he lately?

 

Mind made up, Dean's foot began to lower just when Bobby Singer snarled, “Damn it, Winchester, I can see you mamby-pambying there. Turn your ass around and git in here already.”

 

It was just Dean's luck that Crowley chose that exact moment to slither out of an adjoining office. “Better hurry, darling. Daddy's calling,” he smirked as he pushed past in a wave of expensive cologne—Creed's Aventus, he'd found fit to inform Dean last week— to bounce down the stairs.

 

Shoulders slumping, Dean suddenly remembered a very important Pro that he'd been conveniently forgotten with the promise of beer and bitching: remaining gainfully employed. His position at the Pontiac Daily Gazette was tenuous enough without him angering the one guy besides Sam in his corner.

 

Dean wasn't a bad reporter. His current situation could be traced to the fact that he was, perhaps, too good of a reporter. A few months prior, he'd finally managed to do what no one thought possible. He'd gathered enough concrete evidence against Azazel Masters (drug lord, murderer, and all around bad man) to write one hell of piece on not only the man himself, but the slimy, underhanded, downright evil organization the bastard worked for. Azazel had been arrested within hours of Dean's piece hitting the street, and, the icing on the cake, he'd had his murder book on him when he was brought in. It proved that he was responsible for the deaths of dozens over the years, including Dean's mother when he was a child and his father's last year, when John Winchester had a mysterious heart attack just as it seemed he was closing in on Masters himself. The success of finally locking that asshole away had felt damn good.

 

That wonderful “I’ve done the entire world a great service” glow lasted for all of three days. And then all hell broke loose.

 

Azazel was found dead in his cell. Official line was that he'd had a heart attack (the irony was not lost on Dean) but Dean had friends in the prison system that told him Masters had been murdered. It was disappointing as hell, but if he was honest with himself, not entirely unexpected. Dean had made peace with the possibility that Azazel would die before his case could ever get to trial before he even published his article.

 

The man hadn't been just a boot-licking lackey in the shady, hardly-spoken-of city-wide crime syndicate known as Infernus. Nope, old man Masters had been fucking friends with the dicks in high positions and they'd sought his silence. While it was disappointing that the police wouldn't have the opportunity to squeeze Azazel for information on his superiors, it wasn't unexpected.

 

But then Dean was jumped one night leaving the paper. He was beaten severely enough to end up in the hospital for three days. Only Sam's timely interference had prevented the attack from being fatal. After his release, he’d found his car looking like someone had taken a tire iron to it. That really hurt. Dean's '67 Chevy Impala was more than a just vehicle to him. It was the only physical tie he had to his parents save for some faded photographs and a few tarnished trinkets. Even this Dean could have endured though, if they hadn't gone after Sam next.

 

Sam was, for the most part, physically unharmed. He'd escaped from his assailants with a few bumps and bruises and a long scrape along his jaw. However this had shaken the illusion of safety and stability that Dean had carefully crafted for his brother (“Don't worry, Sammy, they'll never touch us, I'll take care of it”). This was what made Dean feel diametrically helpless and full of rage. He supposed it had been naive to think that with Azazel gone their lives would slide into a pattern of relative ease and safety.

 

With the same meticulous care that he had employed in gathering evidence of Azazel's activities, Dean arranged, through friends, people who owed him favors, and in a few cases bribery, to have multiple safety deposit boxes throughout the country opened under a series of rock star aliases. Once Dean received final confirmation from his contacts that his requests were fulfilled, he called the woman who'd given him the final pieces of the Azazel puzzle, Ava. She was a prostitute whose outwardly bubbly personality hid a mercenary streak a mile wide.

 

“I need you to set up a meeting for me,” he told Ava. She in turn set up a meeting with Bela, a woman whose ideas of venture made Ava's ambitions seem meager.

 

The terms he set before her were simple: tell her bosses that Dean and Sam Winchester and their tiny circle of friends were not to be jumped in any alleys or drug off to random warehouses. In exchange, Dean would suddenly become uncooperative with the police investigation his reporting had opened. At first the woman had laughed and said it'd be much easier to kill him for his silence. With a twitch of lips, Dean had detailed exactly why that would be a bad idea. He spoke of information and sixty-six safety deposit boxes and how all of the leg work he was agreeing to bury would be released to various state agencies and public news services before his body was even cold. With ill grace Bela countered that Dean need to agree to not investigate Infernus ever again. Swallowing the swell of wrongness that condition raised, Dean agreed.

 

Looking back on that, Dean supposed all the things that followed were his own fault. He hadn’t made the terms clear enough, because while the higher-ups in Infernus agreed to not terrorize, kill, or maim the Winchesters, they could, with plausible deniability to boot, the bastards, make Dean miserable.

 

And boy, did they make Dean miserable.

 

He was evicted from his apartment. New owner, the building's super Andy had said with a guilty shuffle, and yeah, Dean understood but didn't have to like that someone had bought the kid off. Coincidentally, the same thing happened to Sam a week later. Each apartment building that listed a vacancy suddenly discovered that they really didn't when either brother tried to sign a lease, so they were making due with sharing adjoining rooms in a motel. Every time Dean drove his car he found a ticket on his windshield until he'd gathered so many that Judge Visyak told him, not unsympathetically, that if he got just one more the Impala would be taken to impound and his license would be revoked. That night he'd called Bela in a rage, demanding to know what the fuck her superiors thought they were doing.

 

“I honestly thought you'd have figured this out. Let me explain what's happening in small words.”

 

Yes, the people up top agreed to not violent measures against the Winchesters, she'd said, and they wouldn't. The fact remained, however, that Dean had access to information they wanted destroyed.

 

“If you want the inconveniences in your life to ease, hand over the keys to the sixty-six boxes.”

 

“I do that,” Dean said, voice shaking. “And I'm dead.”

 

“Well,” Bela drawled after a long pause. “Perhaps you're not completely stupid.”

 

“Seems we're at an impasse then,” Dean said.

 

“Indeed,” Bela agreed. Dean could hear her lick her lips, and then she said quietly, “Despite my best instincts, I find myself liking you, Dean Winchester. A word of warning: my employers are not going to give you many more chances to cooperate. And...” A deep breath, and she continued in a tone of seeming reluctance, “They have begun searching for the boxes. Any they find will be destroyed. When they're all gone, they will kill you.”

 

Dean said, “What's to prevent me from just opening more?”

 

Bela laughed. “Oh, Dean. You're such a dear, dense thing. I think if you tried to walk into just about any bank in the country you'd find them distressingly uncooperative.”

 

“There are other ways I could share information with people,” Dean asserted. “I have the masters of everything and—”

 

“I think you’ll find that all details have been taken care of,” Bela said, and hung up.

 

Paranoid, Dean had rushed to his computer. Wiped. His backup harddrive had suffered a similar fate. Rushing out to the motel parking lot, Dean discovered that all his paper copies were gone from the Impala's trunk. Also missing were the keys to a handful of storage lockers in the city, which had been nestled under the trunk's false bottom in several locked boxes of their own. Those storage lockers had contained yet more boxes and, within them, the sixty-six safety deposit box keys.

 

“Damnit,” Dean hissed. Calling Bobby, he was curtly informed that his home had been broken into that evening, his safe and all contents stolen, which included another backup harddrive and paper copies of Dean's work. The only copies Dean had left were buried deep within the newspaper's computer system under a series of dummy files.

 

“It'll be fine,” he tried to tell himself. “I'll casually go in tomorrow, act like nothing's wrong, pull the info and...” Dean wasn't certain what he'd do after that, but just having a clear goal settled his nerves, convinced him that maybe, just maybe, he and Sam would be okay.

 

The piece de la resistance came the next day when the Pontiac Daily Gazette was not-so-subtly infiltrated.

 

Apparently Infernus thought that outright firing Dean would be disadvantageous, but they had no problem with arranging a power shuffle at his place of employment. Though Bobby had enjoyed sole editoralship for a long time, the corporate douchebags that owned the paper suddenly decided that the Daily Gazette needed a co-editor, someone that they would have to run all story ideas and assignments past.

 

Crowley was the complete opposite of Bobby in every way. Whereas Bobby encouraged a casual workplace where reporters, secretaries, and interns were practically indistinguishable from one another at a quick glance, Crowley insisted on rigidity and order.

 

“Must keep the positions clearly delineated, after all,” he'd smirked during the early-morning staff meeting that day.

 

Translation: bastard instituted a dress code. Gone were the days when Dean could show up in a concert t-shirt and ripped jeans. Small in the scope of things, perhaps, but something that really bothered him nonetheless. Each employee was also issued a color coded, computer-chipped ID badge, each with their own level of clearance.

 

“You'll find that every doorway in this building is now equipped with keypass entry,” Crowley said, hands in trouser pockets, the very picture of calm, as if this was common in every newspaper building in the world, and he was doing them a giant favor by dragging them into the 21st century. A murmur went through the employees, and Crowley just smirked wider and said in a slightly raised voice, “Oh, and one more thing...apparently last evening there was a technical mishap, and our systems were completely wiped clean.” A loud groan went through the room. “Yes, darlings, that means any and everything you've been working on is gone from the Daily Gazette's databases.” He met Dean's eyes across the room as he said, “That's why you should always keep a backup on your person at all times.” He pulled a flash drive out of his pocket and held it up in demonstration.

 

The message was clear. Crowley held everything Dean had every discovered about Infernus in the palm of his hand. His bosses probably already had that information, too, which meant that they would know exactly what to look for in the safety deposit boxes. So even if Infernus' flunkies had to go to every bank in the country, they'd eventually find everything and every safety measure Dean had set up would be gone.

 

He was so fucked.

 

Bobby liked the old fashioned idea of going out an interviewing sources in person, investigating on foot and creating a paper trail. Crowley was convinced that technology was the way of the future, and that syndicated articles pulled from a database were all that was needed for the main articles, with a few 'special local interest' bits spattered throughout that were written by reporters who called or emailed sources for information from their cubicles. On his first day as co-editor, Crowley personally oversaw the laying off of over half the staff.

 

Needless to say, Crowley and Bobby clashed like oil and water.

 

It was Crowley who first suggested that Dean go “back to basics” and “learn how to report properly in the internet age” for a little while, and that it would do him good to “take a breather” from harder hitting investigative journalism.

 

“Don't get me wrong, Dean, I thought the work you did on the Azazel Masters investigation was inspired,” Crowley told him. “And I'm grateful you did because it secured me getting this lovely position of employment. But frankly, you pissed a lot of people off. I was told to not fire you, so I'm not. However I am going to redirect your energies elsewhere.”

 

Dean was handed a badge with a god-awfully unflattering picture on top (from when he'd been Vogue-ing at the last Christmas party, for fuck's sake, and no, he hadn't drunk that much in front of his co-workers since then) and a wide orange stripe on the bottom.

 

“Orange? Orange?” Dean asked, aghast. The only clearance level lower than orange was yellow, and that was given to interns. “You've got to be kidding me.”

 

“I assure you I'm not,” Crowley said. “You're free to complain to Singer if you want.”

 

Dean preferred to think of what Crowley called complaining as expressing his concerns, but either way he did as the new co-editor had suggested and went to Bobby.

 

“Sorry, but I'm going to have to agree with Crowley on this.”

 

Dean threw a shit fit.

 

In the middle of a tirade expounding on the degradation of old-fashioned journalism, the pervasive evil of modern technology and seemingly kick-ass editors who as it turned out like to bend over and take whatever is dished out to them, Bobby snapped out, “What the hell do you expect me to do, Dean? They've got me just as much by the balls as you.”

 

“Yeah, it really looks like you're suffering there, Bobby,” Dean said meanly. “Lighter workload and you get to keep your position and pay grade. Poor you.”

 

“You're walking a real thin line,” the older man growled. “I highly suggest you take what Crowley is offering you right now with a smile and thanks, because guaran-damn-teed if you lose this job you're not going to be able to find another this side of the Rockies, maybe further.” Softening at Dean's no-doubt defeated expression, Bobby added, “Just go along with it for now, son. For now.”

 

Only the gleam in Bobby's eyes as he repeated 'for now' prevented Dean from doing something that, after he cooled down, admitted to himself would have been very, very stupid.

 

Wasn't easy, though.

 

Turns out 'back to basics' meant that Dean had spent the last six months in the basement clacking out mind-numbing police blotter reports and obituaries. He hated working obits, especially when he was able to pull patterns from them that told him something big was brewing in their fair city once more. He'd taken his conclusions to Bobby, quietly, earlier that day only to have the man call him an idiot and chase him out of his office. And now he was calling him back in? His pride made him want to tell Bobby just where he could stick his call back, but he swallowed it. If he got fired from this gig, he'd never be hired at another paper, not with the obvious word about him out on the street. There were days that Dean was surprised he even still had his job, honestly.

 

He made it back into the editor's office with a minimum of grumbling, an expectant expression splashed across his features.

 

“Shut the door behind you,” Bobby said, and Dean struggled to hang onto this anger, but the truth was he had a bit of a soft spot for his gruff boss. Since his dad passed, Bobby had been almost like a father-figure to both him and Sam. Sometimes it was hard to remember that though, like when Bobby'd been a total dick to him earlier.

 

“Sit down,” Bobby ordered as he reached for a desk drawer Dean knew held his whiskey. Sure enough, the older man pulled out two tumblers and a half-empty bottle. He poured a generous amount in each glass, gestured vaguely for Dean to pick one before he took the other and settled back in his own chair.

 

“Dean, I'm going to be really frank with you,” Bobby said. Dean flicked a brow but didn't comment. The day Bobby wasn't frank would be the one Dean decided to take up cross-dressing as a hobby. “You're a smart kid,” Bobby continued, oblivious of Dean's inner monologue. “So I'm sure you've figured some of this out...but Crowley being instated here right after your article published ain't a coincidence.”

 

Taking a sip of the Black Velvet (and Jesus, Bobby couldn't even have Wild Turkey on hand? This shit was horrible) Dean grimaced. “Hell, I figured that as soon as he swaggered through the door.” Theories were all well and good, but only crackpots and amateurs worked from hunches alone. “There a reason we're talking about this now? Any time I've tried to bring it up before you've given me the shove-off.” Something about Bobby's countenance gave him pause, and he said, “Sonofabitch. You have proof?”

 

Smug, Bobby replied, “I may have been able to intercept a memo or two to the effect.” Draining his glass, Bobby thumped it down with a satisfied exhalation and filled it again. “One advantage to all this email that Crowley insists on. Makes it real easy to read things maybe not specifically meant for you.”

 

A finger flicked a small stack of papers in Dean's direction, and he took them with a raised brow. “Intercepting company emails? What's next Bobby, corporate espionage?”

 

“Very funny.” Loosening the tie around his neck, Bobby said, “Paperwork says they've found ten of your safety deposit boxes. Were you ever going to tell me how deep in the shit you'd managed to place yourself, boy?”

 

“Hadn't planned on it,” Dean said with a glibness he didn't feel. Ten boxes wasn't that bad, all considered, but it did mean that there were only 56 left between him and certain death, which really wasn't as comforting as it could have been.

 

“I know Crowley has you spinning your wheels down in the basement.” Instead of exploding into a flurry of you should have told me's like Dean expected, Bobby calmly redirected the conversation. “Also know that you've been keeping an eye on things as best you can without giving rise to suspicion that you're investigating. I know that you agreed to not investigate Infernus, but hell, Dean...” Bobby's fingers flexed in the air, and Dean imagined that he was missing the cigar he'd have been chomping on in a pre-Crowley office environment. “You're going to honor the letter of your agreement with these bastards right up to your death. There's honor, and then there's just stupidity.”

 

“What are you suggesting, Bobby?” Dean asked, hand not holding the tumbler of whiskey tightening on the chair's armrest. “They find out I've gone back on my word, it's not just me that dies, but Sammy, too. I can't risk that.”

 

Bobby looked at him as if he were a particularly slow child. “So just make sure they don't find out. Hell's bells, kid, are you or aren't you the investigative journalist who single-handedly gathered enough dirt on Azazel Masters to get him put away?”

 

“I wouldn't call it single-handed, I did have a lot of dad's notes and—”

 

“Damn it, Dean!” Bobby growled, showing his frustration for the first time. “You know damn well what I mean. Why on earth are you just accepting that this is the way it's gotta be. You're not acting like the Dean I know.”

 

“The Dean you knew was a reckless idiot who put his brother in unnecessary danger over a vendetta that should have died with his father,” Dean spit. As soon as the words were past his lips, Dean reeled, not having realized that even a part of him felt that way until that moment.

 

“That really the way you feel?” Bobby asked, gruff voice softening at the edges.

 

Dean sighed. “Sometimes, I guess. Hadn't really thought about it.”

 

“You rolling over isn't going to make them leave Sam alone in the end. You do know that, right?”

 

Dean stared down at the whiskey in his hand and nodded. “I know, Bobby. I'm just not sure what else to do. It's like...if I pretend it's not happening, then it's not.”

 

“How's that been working for ya?” Bobby smirked, and Dean laughed despite himself.

 

“Miserably,” he admitted.

 

“You ready to do more than wait for the hammer to fall, boy?” Bobby asked, and Dean flicked his eyes up to the editor's.

 

“What are you suggesting, Bobby?” he asked again, in a completely different tone than he had earlier in their meeting.

 

The other man grinned in his beard. “Call Sammy and tell him you're gonna be late to dinner first,” he suggested, nudging the phone in his direction. “We might be here a while.”

 

+++

 

“Fire Man. No, that's terrible. Pyro Boy?” With a twist of lips, the smarmy blonde man across from him threw out yet another suggestion. Castiel barely resisted the urge to groan. “No, Pyro Boy is even worse. And calling you a boy would be the grossest of injustices.”

 

“Have I told you lately how disturbing it is to have one's brother objectify them?”

“Adoption, my dear Cassie, makes it incest in name only,” Balthazar grinned. Castiel buried his head in his arms and let loose the groan he'd manfully suppressed earlier, causing his brother to laugh.

 

“I'm glad you're able to find humor in my suffering, Balthazar.”

 

“How could I not?” A nudge in his side told him Balthazar was jostling him with his elbow, and Castiel reluctantly lifted his head. “You make it so very easy.” When Castiel continued to stare at him balefully, Balthazar said, “Cassie, I don't know why you're so dour—this is brilliant! You, my friend, have a golden ticket to fame and fortune. Or, at the very least, to your own starring show at the circus.”

 

Castiel narrowed his eyes just enough to adequately express to his brother the no small amount of ill-humor he was feeling. They were sitting side-by-side in a cool, dark corner of a cafe a block away from Castiel's apartment, bacon-tomato soup-spinach sandwiches and cinnamon-vanilla coffees between them (Castiel's favorites, in his favorite place). This should have alleviated some of his sour mood but it didn't.

 

“I knew I shouldn't have told you anything. Damn it.” Gusting out the put-upon sigh exhaled by younger siblings everywhere, Castiel added. “I'm not going to join the circus.”

 

“Good,” Balthazar said firmly. “Would be a terrible pity. The food they serve at those things is atrocious.” A moment of silence passed in which Balthazar picked at his sandwich and Castiel sipped his coffee and fleetingly thought that maybe telling Balthazar about his pyrokinesis hadn't been such a terrible idea after all. Then his brother said, “So what station do you want to break the news to first? K-FOX? Or go international straight away, strike up BBC News or CNN?”

 

There were times when Castiel was certain Balthazar spoke in tongues. “Station?”

 

“Television station,” Balthazar said impatiently. Castiel's thoughts on that must have been clear on his face, because his brother hung his head and said, “Oh, you can't possibly be serious. Why on God's green fertile earth would you not want to tell as many people as possible about this? You could have fame, fortune, women throwing themselves at your feet!”

 

“Unwanted and false attention, paparazzi, potential dissection by a curious scientific community,” Castiel countered.

 

That gave Balthazar pause. “Point on the last,” he conceded. Castiel frowned as he pushed on, “But the rest, that wouldn't be so bad, would it? You could finally crawl out of your current cycle of temp jobs and unemployment. With this sort of attention, you could do anything you wanted, Cassie, get any job. You could open your own business!”

 

Castiel had a feeling where the conversation was going and stifled a sigh.

 

“What about—” Balthazar held his hands up in the air as if framing a sign. “Castiel's: The Only Restaurant in the World Where the Chef Makes Your Dinner with His Bare Hands.”

 

Blinking, Castiel said. “That would be a lie. I was under the impression that every chef makes food with their bare hands. It's how it's done.”

 

That wasn't even counting the fact that Castiel couldn't cook to save his life (hence his extreme attachment to his toasters) and Balthazar knew it. He'd suspect his brother was making fun of him if he wasn't aware of the fact that one of Balthazar's most secret, strident desires was to open a restaurant himself. He just wished the man hadn't heard of his abilities and almost immediately thought about how he could turn them to his own benefit.

 

Castiel had a feeling that would be happening for the rest of his life if anyone found out what he could do.

 

“You'd be surprised,” Balthazar rejoined jovially, but relented under Castiel's blank stare. “So the slogan needs work, but you get the picture, brother!” Balthazar was enthusiastic. “You know how many patrons you could get with such a tease? You wouldn't even have to be there every night—just go in when you feel like it, put on a bit of a floor show and you'd be adored! And of course you'd need someone there for the day-to-day drudgery—”

 

“Balthazar, I don't have the talent, mindset, or temperament to run a business. In case you've forgotten, my last job was as a secretary—”

“Administrative assistant,” his brother broke in helpfully. Castiel glared as he started again.

 

“My last job was as a secretary at a struggling ironworks company for a middle-management asshole. A job, I might add, I lost due to what was labeled 'gross mismanagement of company time and resources' and 'unsuitably crass behavior'.” The lack of reference from the same-said employer, and Castiel suspected, active bad-mouthing, although he had no way of proving that, was a large part of the reason why he was having difficulty in finding a new job. Pontiac was where he'd grown up and he loved it, but employment opportunities for someone with his education level and background were few and far between.

 

“You and I both know that the only reason Zachariah Adler fired you was because he is a jealous, feeble minded moron,” Balthazar declared, and as much as he'd like to believe that burst of familial loyalty, Castiel had his doubts. After all, it wasn't as if his job at Sandover Bridge and Iron had been the first he'd lost in such a manner.

 

Castiel set down his sandwich. “Anna was feeling me up in the supply closet, Balthazar. Any employer would have acted as Zachariah had.”

 

It was a months-old argument, but a sight better than talking about his strange pyro-powers. Balthazar had a gleam in his eye that told Castiel he knew exactly what his younger brother was doing with the redirection but decided to humor him anyways.

 

“Any other employer is not your cousin,” Balthazar said pointedly. “Family shouldn't go around firing family. And also, if that were true then why wasn't dear sweet Anna fired as well, hmm?” Setting his empty coffee mug aside, Balthazar tutted. “Why you've remained friends with her after this latest fiasco I have no idea. How many jobs has she managed to help you lose now? Three? Four?”

 

Six, Castiel thought to himself, if you include this one. Usually his best friend felt so guilty about whatever-it-was that transpired to get him fired from their jobs-of-the-moment that she promptly quit as well. They've been working at the same employers since Anna followed him to his first day at work at the Pontiac Public Pool and gotten hired on the spot for the way she'd looked in her swimsuit. Which honestly had put Castiel a bit out, because he'd had to go through two interviews and a swimming test before they'd hired him, but he was glad to have a friend there with him, so he kept his mouth shut.

 

It went in a pattern: Castiel would get a job, Anna would apply to the same place afterwards and invariably get hired. Anna would then engage in some sort of crazed behavior which would result in Castiel getting fired. Their first job at the pool ended when she had been convinced him to let several of her friends in after hours, forgetting that it was the local senior citizen's monthly midnight swim. At the bookstore in college, it had been for 'loaning' her a new copy of a textbook she swore she only needed for a quick reference and had returned full of highlighter marks and red-ink notes, which he likely would have been able to fudge his way around if she hadn't brightly chirped 'Thanks for sneaking me this book, Castiel! Do you want me to put it back in the new section?' in front of their mutual boss. At the radio station where they sold ad space, it had been for accidentally turning his mic to 'on air' when Anna had goaded him into mocking what one of their advertisers wanted for their message...


It wasn't that Anna was mean-spirited or malicious in any of the actions that seemed to result in Castiel's unemployment. Things just seemed to sort of happen when she was around. Perhaps, he mused, she brought of the worst in him, but that was hardly her fault. It was Castiel's own, for allowing her to tug him along in her insane plots in the first place.

 

This time, he'd insisted that Anna stay at Sandover, finally winning the argument between them that maybe, just maybe, they just weren't meant to work together, despite childhood pacts made to the contrary. Feeling a blush crawl up his neck, Castiel replied, “She'd just had her heart stomped on by that reporter. She wasn't thinking clearly.”

 

“So our Miss Milton's response to a brush off from a reporter—one who she didn't even properly know, mind you, but was set up with, and after one bloody date made composite images of their imaginary children like a bunny boiler, fellow dodged a bullet on that one, never calling her again, if you ask me—was to shove you into a supply closet and rip open your shirt?” Balthazar pinched the bridge of his nose. “I thought you both agreed you were better off as friends after your junior prom—you know, the one where she ditched you for the chance to lose her virginity to the quarterback?”

 

“As I said,” Castiel reiterated, blushing fiercely. “she wasn't thinking clearly.” He was saved from whatever Balthazar would have thought was a suitable reply by the smell of smoke and the realization that his shirt had caught fire around the collar. Again.

 

“Cas...you have...erm...” Balthazar gestured to his neck; his eyes were almost perfectly round.

 

“Embarrassment-based outbursts are difficult to control,” Castiel muttered, tapping it out with the palm of his hand while surreptitiously looking around to see if anyone noticed. Luckily, the other patrons seemed more concerned about their coffees than the people around them.

 

Balthazar laughed hysterically, and was still laughing even after he settled their tab and hustled them out of the cafe.

 

“Castiel?”

 

He could feel himself moving in slow-motion horror towards the female voice that called out his name. Balthazar tried to keep Castiel from turning around, but Cas had never been one to take silent cues well, and slipped his brother's tugging arm.

 

“Oh, it is you.”

 

Meg was smiling, wide and freely, the corners of her eyes crinkling in her pleasure. Castiel did not return the smile.

 

“Meg,” he acknowledged.

 

“What's the matter, angel face? You don't look happy to see me.”

 

“That's because I'm not.”

 

“Well,” Balthazar clapped his hands once, temporarily disrupting the tension. “Before this gets any more awkward, I'm going to leave.”

 

“Baltha—” Castiel tried to grab at his brother, but with a jaunty wave he turned on his heel and virtually flew away.

 

“Ooh.” Meg shivered melodramatically. “Abandoned to my nefarious clutches. Whatever shall you do, Cassie?”

 

Dryly, Castiel said. “Leave.” Moving to do just that, he was stopped by Meg's hand on his shoulder.

 

“Actually, I was hoping...both of us here, running into each other this way...maybe we could talk.”

 

“There is nothing you could possibly have to say that would interest me, Meg.”

 

“Look, Clarence—I'm sorry, okay?” Meg wheedled, saying the words he thought she'd never say to him.

 

She'd sound more convincing, he thought, if she was able to eliminate the slight trace of amusement from her words. That, and if she wasn't using the nickname she'd dubbed him with; in Castiel's opinion, she'd lost her right to such familiarity. Something about his body language must have given at least part of his thoughts away, because she frowned, a thin line forming between her brows.

 

“I really am sorry,” she said again, and the sincerity she'd been lacking before was suddenly there. “You wouldn't understand if I tried to explain, and—” Meg cut herself off. “You know what? It doesn't matter.” The new smile, when it came, was brittle around the edges. “Will you at least consider it?” Trying to press the slip of paper she'd been brandishing about since cornering him into his hand, she said, “Call this number? The job market is difficult enough, and with your work history...”

 

“Meg...” he sighed. Pity from a beautiful woman was never flattering, less so when it came from an ex in the middle of a public street. He wondered how many people were staring, and why he cared.

 

Pursing her lips, Meg said, “Castiel,” as if he was being an unreasonable child. “I just know how you are when you're not working. You...withdraw.” Shifting uncomfortably, she added. “Between not working and what happened between us...” Meg side-stepped the entire messy break-up with surprising delicacy. Heaving a sigh large enough to shift the leather jacket across her shoulders, she said. “I know you. How long has it been since you've talked to anyone other than your family or Anna?”

 

“I don't see how that's any of your concern.” The anymore was left off the end of the sentence but still hung heavy in the air between them.

 

Not surprisingly, Meg got angry, which in a lot of ways was a relief to Castiel, because it made her more like the woman he'd known and less like the contrite, apologetic near-stranger who'd been speaking to him for twenty minutes. “Fine, I get it, Castiel. I fucked up! You don't have to keep rubbing it in my face like a puppy that made a mess on the floor. I said I'm sorry and I'm trying to do you a favor, you stupid bastard. Even if you don't want anything to do with me, take the god-damned number and call them, for fuck's sake.” She shoved the paper with the number on it in the front pocket of his trench coat.

 

“Don't you have to have a degree for a position like what you're recommending I apply for?” he asked quietly. Some of the vitriol leached out of Meg's jerky movements, and she stepped away with a less-stormy countenance.

 

“There you go again, Clarence. Never giving yourself enough credit.” The fondness in her voice caused him to flush. Meg cleared her throat. “Crowley has a bit of a soft spot for me, though he'll deny it if you ask him. When you call tell him that you're the guy I was telling him about. And don't,” she warned, “settle for speaking to his secretary or the other editor or anyone who is not Crowley. He's the only one that really matters, okay?”

 

Pride made Castiel want to pull the paper out of his pocket, wad it up, and shove it down Meg's throat, but he knew this was his best chance to get a job before he was reduced to begging his absentee father for more guilt-based money. Between that and accepting a different type of guilt-based favor from an ex-girlfriend, Meg's suggestion seemed like the lesser of the two evils. He hung his head.

 

“I'll call him.”

 

Slim arms wrapped him in a sudden hug, and Castiel found his arms full of woman. He closed his eyes briefly and allowed himself to enjoy the feel of her curls against his cheek and neck before reluctantly releasing her. Despite her abrasive personality, catty commentary on his apartment and clothing, and fiendishly unpicky sexual promiscuity, Castiel had been drawn to Meg for moments just like the one he found himself in. The brief snatches of time when she'd allowed glimpses of what lurked deep, deep down inside. He'd always hoped that he'd be the one she'd allow to truly see her all the time, but now Castiel knew that no one would ever know Meg in that manner. He'd mostly made peace with it.

 

“I'm glad, Castiel,” she whispered as she let him go. Her lips twisted at one corner as she added. “Take care of yourself, okay?”

 

Castiel nodded. Meg turned away, but then paused, her hands finding their way into the back pocket of her jeans the way they always did whenever Meg was feeling shy or trying to be deliberately coy. The problem was, Castiel has always had problems differentiated which was which, so the motion put him on edge.

 

“If you want...I mean, don't feel like you have to or anything, but...if you want, you could give me a call sometime. Let me know how things work out.”

 

“Sure,” Castiel found himself saying, knowing even as the words passed his lips that he had no intention of calling her. Meg's resulting smile was brilliant, though, and made him feel slightly guilty about his decision. But only slightly.

 

“See ya, then,” she said, ducking her head.

 

Castiel did not say good-bye as he watched her turn and walk away.

 

+++

 

Crowley was a bit of a surprise. While he'd heard that the new co-editor of the Pontiac Daily Gazette had a fondness for the finer things in life, he'd not expected the level of extravagant luxury that greeted him when he opened the office door. It reminded him uncomfortably of his father's study, all dark gleaming wood, shiny chrome, and lack of personal mementos.

 

“Ah, you must be Castiel. Please, have a seat.”

 

A well-manicured hand gestured to one of the two low chairs on the opposite side of Crowley. The blinds that had covered every other window Castiel had passed when walking through the Daily Gazette's were open here, and he could see across the breadth of the city to the rolling farmland beyond. While glad he'd listened to the inner voice that had suggested he wear a suit to this interview, Castiel still found himself wanting to fidget under the man's scrutiny. He had the unsettling impression that in the few moments he'd been in the office, his weight and measure had been taken, the things that made him tick considered, and a decision rendered. Chafing as that notion was, Castiel held his tongue on the matter and said politely, “Thank you for seeing me today, Mr. Crowley.”

 

“Just Crowley,” the editor said, sitting down himself. The wide red tie he wore under the otherwise unrelieved black of his suit was so snug that Castiel wondered how he was able to breathe, but Crowley lounged in his chair as if he were in a bathrobe and slippers, so he supposed it must not bother the man.

 

“Crowley, then,” Castiel nodded.

 

“I'm going to cut right to it, Castiel,” Crowley said. “You want it, the job is yours.”

 

Blinking, Castiel couldn't help the question that crept into his voice when he said,“Sir?”

 

Waving a hand, Crowley rolled his eyes and said, “Look, you and I both know the only reason you're in my office is because of Meg Masters. Yes?” Lifting his brows, he gave Castiel a pointed look. “I happen to owe the bloody bitch a favor, and she indicated that hiring you would settle it. So congratulations, you're hired.”

 

“But...I...” Castiel distinctly felt as though he was missing a large piece of the picture, a sensation that he hated.

 

“Don't have any experience or training and a miserable work history? I'm aware,” Crowley said dryly. “A favor is still a favor, though, and she called it in for you. So you can either accept it and be grateful or tell me to bugger off and go on your merry way, but whichever way you choose I've still fulfilled my end of the bargain.”

 

Fighting the taste of bile at the back of his throat, Castiel admitted, “I do need the employment.”

 

“Wonderful.” Lifting his cell phone, Crowley snapped a picture of Castiel's startled face. A few taps of the screen later and a whirring sound emanated from inside his desk. “I took the liberty of having your introductory packet prepared before our meeting.” He set down the phone and picked up a thick manila folder, handing it across with casual boredom. “Your ID badge will be finished in a moment. In the meantime, why don't you go take that out to the sitting room and,” Crowley paused to fish a pen out of the cup on his desk, clicking it open before passing it over, “sign all the tedious paperwork, hmm?”

 

“I...” Courtesy told Castiel he should be thanking the man across from him, but logic told him that it apparently wouldn't have mattered if he'd been convicted of a major felony or was homeless with a terrible addiction problem, he would have been hired either way, and thus courtesy was technically unnecessary.

 

Leaning forward on his elbows, Crowley said, “Masters only got you in the door, darling. You're still going to have to work. I suggest you start by filling out that packet.” When Castiel remained seated, still feeling off-center and confused, Crowley tapped his forefinger on his chin and added, “Just so you know, I dislike having to repeat myself.”

 

Startled, Castiel picked up the folder and accepted the pen. “Of course,” he said. “I'll just take this and—” He gestured to the door and the sitting room where he'd waited to meet Crowley beyond. At the editor's raised brows, which seemed to say quite clearly Why are you talking instead of doing, Castiel stood and shuffled out of the room, feeling as if he was in way, way over his head and not having any clue what to do about it.

 

 +++

 

Dean was almost done with his to-do stack of the day, having breezed through it in a matter of three hours, and was looking forward to getting some actual work done on what he considered his real job. Keith Richards was rumbling through his headphones about drinking to the hard working and lonely people, and Dean could sense his personal laptop, tucked away in a slim-line briefcase under his desk, almost like a physical weight on his mind. One advantage of Crowley's new dress code was that no one said a single word when Dean started bringing the briefcase with him everyday, simply assuming it was another part of assimilating to the new order, the same as his rigidly starched shirts and the suspenders that held up his dress pants. He was just considering setting aside the rest of his assignments (two more obits and a handful of blotter details) until closer to the end of the day in favor of pulling up the latest set of suspicious bank statements he'd been able to get his hands on when the ear buds were ripped out of his head with a harsh yank. The Stone's backing choir and histrionic praising of the salt of the earth wailed out of the newspaper's desktop.

 

He cursed and swiveled his chair around, ready to berate whoever it was that had snuck up on him. The basement hardly ever got casual visitors, unless you counted Sam trudging down to drag Dean out to lunch every day, which Dean didn't. Anything he would have said died in his throat, though, when he saw Bobby glaring at him, the headphones clutched in one meaty fist. A slight, rumpled man stood beside him, looking from the computer, to Dean, to Bobby and back again with some bemusement.

 

“Dean,” Bobby hissed, exasperation clear. Shoving the ear buds back at him, Bobby jerked his head towards the stranger. “This here is your new basement-buddy Castiel Novak. He's gonna be doing exactly what you do, so congratulations. Your work load has been cut in half. He was just hired by Crowley.” The older man raised his eyebrows in a significant manner.

 

“Right,” Dean said, meeting Bobby's eyes and nodding. Working on his side-project during his hours at the Gazette had just become exponentially more difficult. Damn it. Pushing his chair back, he stood and held out a hand. Might as well at least try to be friendly with the guy, even if he was a mole set up to keep an eye on him. He was going to be stuck in the same room with the guy for eight-odd hours a day, after all.

 

“Dean Winchester,” he said, making sure to smile in the way that got him out of jaywalking tickets and earned him free drinks at bars. Meeting the other dude's eyes, he thought, Blue. Like a toddler who was just introduced to the words for colors and felt the need to announce the color of everything, like it wasn't painfully obvious and he was doing his own brain a big favor by loudly chirping the shade of the guy's eyes to the rest of his mind.

 

“Dean Winchester,” the guy repeated, head tilted to one side as he slowly shook Dean's hand. “Are you...are you perhaps the Dean who entertained Anna for an evening several months ago?”

 

“Uh...” Dean stuttered, unsure of how to respond. Thing was, even though he was currently living out of a motel room with his brother and was half-convinced Infernus wouldn't just say to hell with it and take him out, deal or no deal, Dean went out. A lot. It wasn't uncommon for chicks to walk up to him and start talking to him as if they knew him after either recognizing him or his name, but it was a totally new thing to have a guy do it. For all he knew Castiel was this Anna's brother or cousin or hell, boyfriend, and that was exactly what he didn't need. A plant by Crowley who just so happened to be involved with some chick Dean'd picked up months ago somewhere. Hell, sometimes he barely remembered their names a few weeks afterward, let alone...

 

Bobby snorted as if knowing exactly what Dean's predicament was and slapped him on the shoulder. “Have fun,” he said. A large part of Dean wanted to call him back, and he watched the editor go with a sense of near-desperate discomfort. Turning back to his new co-worker, Dean managed to say, “Uh, yeah, Anna, um...”

 

“Oh, of course.” The guy—Castiel, Dean told himself, had to start learning his name—tilted his chin and said, “You probably don't remember her as well as she remembers you. From what Anna told me, you made quite an impression on her, but were more reluctant than she to engage in a follow-up date.”

 

The word date triggered a memory for Dean: bright red hair, fair skin, wide smile, voracious in the backseat of his Impala, but nothing special enough that he'd felt the need for another go. Wincing at the callousness of the words even in the safety of his own head, he said brightly, “Oh, no, I remember Anna. Anna Milton, right?” She was memorable in that she had been an actual date instead of a hook-up, even if the night had ended in the same way as if she had been. They'd been set up by Sam's girlfriend Ruby, who'd insisted that they'd be perfect for each other.

 

“Yes, that's right.” New guy seemed pleased. “She will be happy to hear that you remember her.”

 

“Guh,” Dean intelligently replied. Not that Anna hadn't been fun, but Dean really didn't want to actually date someone, and he knew how women could get if they heard that you remembered them, and—

 

A twinkle in the little dude's eyes gave him away as he said, “Or if you'd rather I could just not mention it?”

 

Releasing a breath he didn't know he'd been holding, Dean pointed a finger at him and said, “Not cool to do that to a guy, Cas. Not cool at all.” The nickname rolled off Dean's tongue with the breaking of the odd tension that had hung in the room since Castiel's arrival and just felt right.

 

The other man seemed to agree, if the softening around his eyes and slight parting of his lips was any indication. Castiel didn't seem like the sort of person to be overly demonstrative with his emotions or feelings, but that suited Dean just fine. After years of dealing with his father, he was able to decipher the undercurrents of a private man's behavior and facial expressions well enough, thought it might take some time to learn all of the minute subtleties of Cas'. He found himself not minding, even though the guy was certainly hired by Crowley for reasons other than the fact they needed more staff (there was so little for Dean to do already it was ridiculous, let alone hiring another person) Dean found himself wanting to like him.

 

Dangerous, that.

 

“So,” Dean cleared his throat, putting on what professional demeanor he possessed as easily as slipping on his leather jacket. “Why don't I show you what you're going to be doing? I'm going to warn you now, I pretty much have everything already completed for today, but I can at least show you the basics.”

 

Dean's behavior must have tipped Cas off, because if Dean had thought he appeared closed-off before it was nothing to how he was after visibly withdrawing under the force of Dean's sudden frostiness. “Of course,” he said stiffly, causing Dean to bite back an apology or a sigh, he wasn't sure which.

 

+++

 

Their working relationship went as such for several weeks: Cas arrived ten minute early and swept everything in order, evenly splitting the blotters and obituaries to be typed up into two piles, one for the each of them. Dean came in anywhere from five to fifteen minutes late with a coffee and a baked good (usually a turnover of some kind, but sometimes a muffin or scone) and suspiciously flipped through both folders, as if thinking Castiel was either keeping the interesting ones from him or trying to stick him with the bulk of the work. After checking things over and nodding his agreement at the distribution of assignments (because as far as Dean could tell there was no pattern to what he got versus what Castiel set aside for himself other than he seemed to be making sure that their workloads were even) they would each sit in front of their company desktops and type until lunch. When Castiel would pull his brown bagged meal out of his desk, Dean would take off to meet Sam somewhere. He'd get back just as Cas was finishing up (and seriously, was he the slowest eater in the history of ever or something?) and they'd each turn back to the computers. Dean wasn't certain what Castiel did after that, because their work was usually completed well before the day was over, but he didn't ask, either. He did his thing, Castiel did his, and that was that. They went home at the end of the day with mutual nods of the head and sometimes a brief, “See you tomorrow,” but that was the extent of it.

 

It wasn't that Dean wasn't curious about his workmate. There were only so many things Dean could focus on at one time, though, and the effort it would take to become buddies with the new guy while still maintaining enough distance that Castiel didn't learn about his side-investigation simply seemed like too much effort. Maybe Dean wouldn't have felt that way if Cas was a bit more approachable. Sure, a lot of the time he just seemed like an unassuming nerdy guy in ill-fitting suits and a Bogart overcoat, but there were moments when he'd catch Castiel looking at him as if he could see through him straight down into the core of himself. Those looks made Dean want to confide in him, made him want to invite Castiel to grab a few beers and maybe a burger and Dean knew, just knew, that if he ever let the other man into his life to that extent, he'd end up telling him everything. And that was simply a risk that Dean could not take. He knew Castiel had been hired by Crowley, and that should be more than enough to make him untrustworthy, despite whatever Dean's instincts wanted him to believe.

 

Just like all things, this too had to change.

 

 +++

 

“Be careful, boy.”

 

The voice was pitched low in an obvious attempt at discretion. Likely Castiel wouldn't have heard them if they'd been speaking in normal tones, but there was something about sibilant whispers that snagged his attention. He didn't want to be caught eavesdropping, but all his work for the day had been finished several hours prior, and Castiel was bored, and a little touch of office intrigue, especially as it seemed to involve his enigmatic co-worker Dean, sounded like the perfect antidote. Castiel expected to hear something about Dean's latest sexual conquest. It was something of legend in the Daily Gazette's offices, apparently, and although Castiel didn't understand the appeal of the concept itself, he did enjoy listening to the ways in which the stories grew and morphed until they barely resembled the original tale. Which, yes, he supposed should be beyond his concern, but once again, Castiel was often bored in the afternoons when he and Dean's work was completed, and he'd found himself more than once connected to the inner office gossip/instant message chain, affectionately called The Host, while waiting for the time until he could go home to come. Castiel wasn't sure if this was a religious or science fiction reference, but he didn't particularly care either way,

 

All this is to say that Castiel had, to his surprise, become an office gossip, confirming or refuting the wild rumors that flew around about his co-worker, and the whispers hinted that he was about to hear some prime information. It wasn't the type of reporting he'd been expecting to be doing when Meg had pushed the paper into his hand several weeks ago, but it seemed to please upper-management who were just as involved in the gossip as everyone else except, it seemed, for Dean himself. What he passed on seemed mostly silly trivia (from: b.rosen to: c.novak: rachel says D came in with hickey behind l.ear y/n?) which anyone else with eyes could see as well as he, so the guilt Castiel felt over talking about Dean was minor.

 

What he heard in response to Bobby's concern was not the idle swagger of a young man with an upcoming one-night stand on the brain, though.

 

“Bobby, when am I not careful? C'mon.”

 

“Right now you're not being careful! What are you thinking, even having your laptop here with you when Novak's in the same room with you, let alone pulling it out and—”

 

Upon hearing his name Castiel fought the urge to become very silent and still, which would have given away his attention. Instead he forced his finger to continue clicking his mouse even if his mind was no longer even peripherally on the placement of minesweeper bombs.

 

“All this is about Cas? Really?” He heard Dean snort before asserting, “Dude's harmless, Bobby.”

 

“Oh, it's Cas now, is it?” Bobby replied dryly. “I'm sorry to tell you, Dean, but your harmless co-worker there has been steadily relaying your every move to the Host, right down to what you've been snacking on at your desk.”

 

For the first time since he'd begun responding to the insistent y/n messages, Castiel felt a flush of shame sweep through him. Bobby made what he was doing sound so dirty, and his disgust on the heels of Dean's casual dude's harmless made Castiel slightly ill.

 

Dean made an unattractive choking sound and Castiel was certain Dean's eyes were on the back of his head. He fought the urge to turn around to confirm.

 

“No offense, son,” Bobby said, tone gentler. “But maybe harmless is just the impression Novak wants you to have of him.”

 

Dean was very quiet, so quiet that Castiel thought that maybe they'd moved their conversation elsewhere. Part of him hoped this was the case, because it was fairly awful to hear yourself talked about in such a way. Another, larger part of him hoped they hadn't, though, because if they had then he wouldn't be able to hear just what it was that they were both so concerned about him overhearing and reporting to the Host, which suddenly felt important in personal terms.

 

When Dean finally said, “You're right. I should know better,” Castiel let out his breath, very slowly. “And I knew the guy was involved with the Host, but I just didn't...hell, I thought it was just a time waster thing, not that he...”

 

“Just—” Bobby interrupted. “Don't be so buddy-buddy with him.”

 

Buddy-buddy? Castiel thought incredulously. Dean and he barely talked outside of work-related subjects. Conversations that didn't start with Are you finished with the Johnson obit or something similar usually revolved around things like I'm getting a soda from the machine, you want one or lovely weather we're having, isn't it? It struck Castiel how very alone Dean must really be if those small interactions were considered friendly by someone who knew Dean as well as Castiel knew Bobby did.

 

“What you're working on is too important, Dean,” Bobby continued, unaware of the turmoil his words were churning up inside of Castiel. “And the consequences if you get caught...”

 

“I know,” Dean snapped back churlishly. Softer, he repeated, “I know. Sorry, Bobby.”

 

The co-editor audibly shifted on his feet before replying, “What's the plan for tonight?”

 

“Me and Sammy'll be down in the warehouse district. Contact said that Lugosi's supposed to be pushing a shipment through, and I'd like to get pictures.”

 

“Dean,” Bobby said warningly.

 

“We'll be careful,” Dean insisted.

 

“You'd better.” Clearing his throat to resume speaking in a normal tone, Bobby said, “Back to work, boy,” and Dean laughed; Castiel could tell how forced the sound was.

 

“You bet, sir.”

 

Castiel pulled up a police blotter he'd already edited three times and attempted to look engrossed. Dean passed behind him without uttering a single word.

 

 +++

 

Castiel fought his rising sense of unease for the rest of the day. When Sam Winchester came down to the basement to retrieve Dean for the evening, Cas was uncertain if he should feel relief or trepidation. This could have been decided for him, he thought, if he'd known exactly what Dean was planning on doing down in the warehouse district that Bobby Singer was so concerned—no, frightened—about.

 

He'd been so at-odds with himself that he'd ignored the majority of IM's that came in, excluding one inquiring as to his state of being from Becky (to: c.novak: u ok?) to which he gave a brief response (to: b. rosen: yes, simply feeling unwell). After that the IM's tapered off, and Castiel found himself grateful that Becky had apparently spread the word that there'd be no gossip coming from the basement that for the rest of the day.

 

The idea of Dean in a dangerous situation, and that he'd been putting himself into dangerous situations that Castiel could have unwittingly been making even more dangerous for him by telling the Host about whatever Dean had casually mentioned he was doing in the evenings made it impossible for Castiel to focus on anything for any length of time.

 

One memory in particular played through his mind of the first Friday after Castiel had started. Dean had told him with an easy grin, “Me and my brother are going to the Distillery District for beers,” and Castiel had half-wondered if Dean were inviting him along, too. But Castiel had just nodded, told Dean to enjoy himself, and turned back to his computer, sending out the message D says going to Distillery tonight without thinking twice about it. The following day Dean had limped in, giving some excuse about slipping in a parking garage, and Castiel had accepted that as the truth.

 

Now he wondered if what he'd passed along had caused Dean's injury, and the very idea shook him to his very core. Was that the reason he'd been placed in the basement all along? To spy on Dean Winchester, to let others know what he was doing? Castiel was not unaware of Dean's reputation before being hired at the Gazette. The story of how he'd managed to get old man Azazel arrested was almost as big of a story as the arrest itself.

 

That, and the fact that he'd been dating the criminal's estranged daughter at the time.

 

With that thought came the revelation of just how naive he'd been when taking the job that Meg had laid out for him on a platter. Meg suggesting him for a job and him walking in on her reference when the newspaper wasn't even soliciting for employment must have seemed like the cheap solution to the problem of keeping Dean in line. Just like the story of Dean's expose and the fallout, tales of how the man had been summarily demoted after Fergus Crowley signed on as co-editor of the paper reached Castiel, this time through Anna's rapturously delivered reports on Dean's bravery in the face of adversity.

 

“What am I going to do?” Castiel asked the air. He wished he were able to simply quit and walk away, but he now had doubts that it would be that simple, and besides, in a lot of ways he liked his job. Well, what he had thought was his job, at least. Typing up bland reports was dull, yes, but Castiel enjoyed speaking to the families of the bereaved and gathering details to make personalized obituaries, feeling that in his own way he was helping them cope with the deaths of their loved ones. He also enjoyed speaking to their contacts at the police station, brief as those conversations or emails usually were, because the officers and secretaries were at least polite, and often included comments in the margins of the blotter notes for his and Dean's amusement. Never anything that they could print, of course, but occasionally something that would make one or the other of them laugh. Even though the only co-worker he had daily direct contact with was Dean, working at the Daily Gazette made Castiel feel like he was a part of something bigger.

 

Plus it gave him something to concentrate on other than his pyrokinesis. He'd only been allowing himself to begin to think he might be able to use his information and contacts from the paper to figure out a way to use his abilities to help people, but now...

 

On yet another hand, having money to, you know, keep his apartment was good, too.

 

Castiel was very, very conflicted.

 

“Cas?” Dean paused behind his desk, and Castiel startled. Swiveling around in his chair, he blinked up at the taller man. “You okay?” Dean asked, and the trace of concern sitting at the corners of his mouth made Castiel want to retch.

 

“Fine,” Castiel managed to say, and Dean nodded.

 

“You sounded upset,” his co-worker continued as a shadow filled their doorway. “You could, you know...if you need to...” Whatever Dean had been going to say was interrupted by Sam Winchester's voice booming across the basement, “Holy shit, is my big brother trying to offer to talk to someone about their feelings?”

 

“Fuck you,” Dean called over his shoulder. Snagging his leather jacket off the back of his chair, which he still stubbornly wore over his suits for reasons unknown to Castiel, Dean clapped him on the shoulder and said, “Night Cas,” as if he hadn't just been doing what Sam accused him of. The younger Winchester snorted in what Castiel thought sounded like a completely unsurprised fashion, and this was corroborated when Sam said, “Typical, Dean, so typical.”

 

Castiel managed a facsimile of a smile and a brief wave before Dean turned his attention back to his brother and said, “Whatever, bitch. Are you ready to go or what?”

 

Listening to the brothers leave while good-naturedly bickering at one another, Castiel slowly stood from his desk and began gathering his own items in preparation for leaving for the evening. Dean typically left ten to fifteen minutes earlier than technically what their shift ended at, but Cas didn't mind this. It usually gave him an opportunity to do exactly what he was doing, pick up his items at his own pace without feeling Dean's curious eyes flit over everything. The irony of Castiel being private over his admittedly not-very-personalized possessions when he'd been IM'ing their entire office about every detail of Dean struck him fully then, and Castiel found himself laughing, knowing that there was absolutely nothing funny about it whatsoever.

 

All items gathered, he stepped out into the hallway and pressed the button for the elevator, reassessing his original after-work plans of driving out of town to one of the abandoned farms beyond and practicing the more complicated or showy aspects of his pyrokinesis. Castiel was simply too tired by the day's mental upheavals to really give him the focus he knew he would need, so he decided to stop by the rental store, pick up a stack of cheesy movies, possibly call Anna and see if she wanted to get drunk with him while they watched them. He felt drinking and movie watching were the only activities which were likely to hold his attention that evening.

 

These plans feel by the wayside too when he saw a small black box on the floor. Picking it up, he saw it was a fairly new, if battered, cell phone. Swiping his thumb across the screen, he was greeted by the smiling faces of Sam and Dean Winchester, arms slung across one another's shoulders. Dean was looking upwards and squinting at the sunlight, but Sam's floppy bangs seemed to shade his eyes from the glare, as he was looking straight at the camera and grinning.

 

The phone he knew must be Sam's. Dean carried around an ancient silver Razr, claiming that as it still worked he really didn't see the need to buy anything else.

 

Castiel's relationship with cell phone technology was tenuous at best. He was able to recognize what they were, but had never felt the need to get one at all, having inclinations much closer to Dean's in regard to the devices than what Sam seemed to. He considered trying to find Dean's number in Sam's contact list and letting him know that he'd found Sam's phone, but the touch screen glowed intimidatingly and Castiel found himself worried about the possibility of irreparably damaging the device. Instead he tucked the phone into his pocket, thinking that Sam would either call the number when he realized he was missing his phone, or Castiel would give it to Dean to pass along to his brother when he next saw him.

 

He didn't stop to consider that being in possession of a co-worker's brother's cell phone shouldn't have prevented him from following through on his bad movies-and-drinking-with-Anna plans for the evening and instead just drove straight home.

 

 +++

 

“You seen Lugosi slithering around?”

 

“Seriously, Dean?” Sam sighed at his brother's impatience. “I'm right beside you. I haven't seen anything you haven't seen.” Both brothers were crouched behind a slap-dash stacked pile of rotting shipping boxes. Sam's camera was held loosely in his hand, the lens attached and flash removed, ready to be used at any moment.

 

“Yeah, but you're the one with the high-powered lens here. Can't you just look around with it and see what you can see?” Sam gave that exactly the answer it deserved—he said nothing, until Dean nudged him with his elbow, hard. Then he relented, saying, “No, I haven't seen Bela.” Unable to help needling Dean, he added, “If you're as sure as you said you were about her supposedly being here, we'll just have to wait it out.”

 

“Why do you say it that way, Sammy?” Dean hissed. “Of course I'm sure. Ava was very clear about—”

 

“Ava?” Sam repeated, forgoing a whisper to say the woman's name aloud in disbelief. “The same Ava you threatened into cooperating with you? The same Ava who—”

 

“She knows the score,” Dean insisted.

 

Sam snorted. “Yeah, I have a really bad feeling about this now.”

 

A spotlight clicked on over the brother's heads, illuminating them. “Which is what makes you the smarter Winchester. Hello Sam, Dean.”

 

A distressingly thin woman with yellow-blonde ringlets and painted-on eyebrows stood before them, hands on hips. She was clad in dominatrix-chic, and the six men flanking her were dressed to match. Sam had only seen her in blurry surveillance photos before, but she's unmistakable. Rumor was, she was the wife of the shadowy head of Infernus, and one of the organization's most vicious enforcers, to boot. Dean beat Sam to the punch by spitting her name between his teeth.

 

“Lilith.”

 

“Guilty,” she grinned.

 

There was no point in them cowering behind the flimsy cover of the boxes with the way the light was hitting them. Sam rose to his feet first, checking the urge to help Dean stand; his brother wouldn't appreciate the gesture, especially in their current situation.

 

“Bela was never supposed to be here, was she?” Sam said, and Lilith clapped in glee.

 

“Ooh, point for the boy. You're right, Sammy. Poor little Abby—that was Bela's real name, by the by, not that it matters now—unfortunately was unable to maintain her previous success rate and her position within the organization was terminated.”

 

Sam and Dean exchanged glances. Flipping his attention back to Lilith, Dean growled. “You had her killed.”

 

With a faux sympathetic grimace, Lilith stage-whispered to Sam, “He's lucky he has his looks, isn't he?” Expression sliding into a smirk, she said, “Well, he was lucky he had his looks, at least.”

 

A dark silhouette stepped up behind Lilith. Claw like fingers curled around one of her shoulders, and a long, narrow face appeared beside just above the hand.

 

Oh, is this him? My, Lilith, you do give me the best toys.” Sam didn't recognize the man but he could clearly tell he was bad news.

 

Dean took a big step back. “We had an agreement.”

 

“We did,” Lilith agreed. “As long as you didn't investigate our business, we left you and your dear sweet brother here alone. But alas...” Lilith grinned, her teeth sharp-edged and gleaming, “here you are. Investigating. Tsk, tsk, Dean. In my mind, that makes our agreement null and void.” Rubbing her cheek against the whiskers of the man hovering next to her, she said, “Wouldn't you agree, Alistair?”

 

“I do,” the man said. “I do agree, indeed.”

 

“You set me up!” Dean shouted, moving forward. Sam put his hand on his brother's chest. Despite Dean's well-earned reputation as a brawler and his own advantage of height over several of Lilith's flunkies, they were still outnumbered four to one.

 

“Don't be tiresome, Dean. I wouldn't have been able to set you up if you hadn't been digging in the first place.” Blinking, long and slow, she added. “While my husband may be content to allow his men to slowly plod along and find the locations of your safety deposit boxes, I find myself growing tired of the chase. I'd like to go on with my life.” She spreads her hands. “Hence this. Boys?”

 

As one, the six thugs accompanying Lilith and Alistair surged forward. Three tackled Dean, driving him to the ground. Sam was just able to dance out of the reach of the three who dove for him.

 

“Sam, run!” Dean shouted. He wasn't going to listen to his brother. Sam was going to go for Dean, to try to help him despite the odds against them, but Alistair reached around and grabbed Dean by his necklace, and the hired muscle that had been after Sam reversed course and assisted him and the three other men already holding Dean down. Lilith stepped forward, .45 gleaming in her hand.

 

“Dean!” Sam cried as his brother thrashed in the henchmen's grip. Lilith lifted the gun and trained it between his eyes.

 

“Oh, so cute,” Lilith cooed. “But there's nothing you can do for big brother now.” She cocked the gun, nose wrinkling with the size of her smile. “He's Alistair's. You, on the other hand...you can obey your brother's dying wish and run.”

 

“Run, Sammy!” Dean screamed. “Run!” Somehow, Dean was able to slip the goon's grasp, and he was off running, just a few steps behind Sam.

 

So Sam ran.

 

Lilith's laughter bounced off the warehouse's high metal ceilings.

 

“After them, boys,” Lilith said, and the clatter of feet behind the Winchesters told them they obeyed.

 

 +++

 

It took a depressingly short amount of time for the Infernus men to find them. Dean was crouched behind yet another rotting crate in an adjoining abandoned warehouse, breathing heavily.

 

“We can't keep doing this. They just have us running circles,” he panted.

 

“So what do you suggest, Dean?” Sam wheezed, with an I'm-open-for-any-suggestions, genius attitude.

 

“We have to split up.”

 

“What?” Sammy predictably yelped. “No fucking way, Dean. You're hurt.”

 

Dean had been hoping Sam hadn't noticed the way he was favoring his right knee, twisted when Lilith's six thugs rode him to the ground like a birthday pony.

 

“Exactly,” Dean pointed out in a hushed tone. “I'm hurt. You're not. I'm slowing you down.”

 

“Dean—”

 

“Don’t argue with me on this, Sam. We have to split up. We both have better odds separated than together, you know that. I'll draw them off, and you go and get help.”

 

“No one is going to be willing to interfere with this,” Sam whispered back, and damn, sometimes Dean wished his baby brother wasn't quite so quick on the uptake.

 

“Bobby'll know what to do,” Dean improvised, silently thinking that the editor wouldn't be able to afford to get involved, either, not when it would risk his wife Ellen and stepdaughter Jo. But he needed Sam to believe it long enough for Dean to get himself caught. Long enough for Sam to get away.

 

Swallowing hard, Sam grasped the back of Dean's neck and tugged him close, pressing their foreheads together the way they did as children, sharing secrets in the back of their father's car. “You get somewhere and you hide, Dean. You're not gonna be able to run far on that knee, so it's your best chance until I get back here.”

 

“Fine,” Dean agreed. “That's a good idea.” Privately, Dean thought he wouldn't have the chance to hide, but he didn't say that.

 

The beam of a flashlight over the heads and the quiet shuffle of soft-soled shoes told Dean that their pursuers were close. “Okay, if we're gonna do this, we gotta do it now,” he whispered. Now before they both got caught. Now before Dean blew the only chance for his little brother to get away. Now before Sam realized just what Dean was really planning.

 

“On the count of three. I'll go for the door, and you hide.” It was a perversion of hide-and-seek, of all the times Sammy had begged him to play the game with him, complaining that Dean was always the seeker, wondering why Sam had to be the one to hide. Maybe Sam believed their roles were finally reversed, Dean thought, and the idea gave him no joy, because even now he had no intention of hiding.

 

Nodding as he counted, Sam whispered, “One....two...”

 

On three, Sam burst from behind the crate, startling the henchmen who'd been practically on top of them and still unaware of their presence. Shoving them aside, he booked it for the door. Dean watched this as he slowly stood up, hands in the air in the universal gesture for 'I Surrender'. Predictably, the goons swarmed around him, the guns that they'd failed to pull out earlier trained on him until he was surrounded by a semi-circle of certain death. Sam chose that moment, right before he was to open the door and escape, to hesitate and look back. Dean cursed as his brother faltered. If he hesitated, one of the dim-bulbs trained on him could turn, point, and—

 

“Goddamnit, run, Sammy!”

 

For a brief flash of a second, their eyes met, and Dean was convinced Sam wasn't going to do it That he was going to do something incredibly brave and incredibly stupid and turn around and try to save him, but thankfully (thank fucking God) Sam read the terror in his eyes for what it really was: fear for Sam, not for himself. With a final, tense nod, filled with words he didn't have the time to say, Sam turned back and ran out the door and into the night.

 

As if on cue, Lilith and Alistair appeared, side by side, out of the murky shadows. Dean thanked God that his supposition was right, that he had been their main target, and when distracted by his surrender they'd allowed Sam to slip away.

 

“Take him,” Lilith said to Alistair, cool and calm with the butt of her gun sticking out of the waistband of her pants and what looked like a fresh coat of lip gloss on her mouth. The entire night had been a fucking game to her, and Dean burned with the desire to destroy her. Not just see her locked in jail or dead, the way he'd wanted with Azazel, but actually destroyed. No matter what happened to Dean, if by some miracle Sam was able to get him help, or (the more likely scenario) he died in this filthy place, his idealistic brother would never see the world in quite the same way again, and to Dean there was no greater crime.

 

“I don't care how long it takes you, Alistair, where you take him or what you do to him, but I want to know where every one of those safety deposit boxes are, and any other secret stashes our naughty boy here might have created,” the woman drawled, unaware or uncaring of the fact that Dean was fervently hoping for her sudden and grisly death. The reality of what she was saying didn't sink in until he turned his attention to her favored goon.

 

Alistair's smile curled on the edges, reminding Dean of nothing so much as the Grinch as he was devising the plan to steal Christmas. The man pulled out a knife and, licking his lips, ran the flat side along his own jaw line, looking at Dean like he was the roast-Who-beast.

 

Not goon, Dean corrected himself, fear for himself overriding his senses for the first time since the terror of a night had begun as he realized exactly what Alistair's role in the Infernus organization was, what his presence there meant. Torturer.

 

“Don't worry, Lily. When I'm done with our boy here you won't ever have to worry about him again.”

 

“Excellent,” Lilith nodded, clearly pleased. “I'll leave you to your work then. Gentlemen,” she nodded towards the men still pining Dean to the ground. “Help Alistair get set up, destroy that camera,” she nodded to Sam's abandoned Nikon, left behind in his flight from the warehouse, “and then you're free to go for the night.”

 

“You don't want us to stand guard?” one of the duller thugs asked. Lilith's nostrils flared as her hand twitched towards her gun. Dean was convinced she was a sneeze away from pulling it, but she closed her eyes tightly and flexed her hand instead and said, “I gave you the rest of night off, Brady. When I give you something you say thank you and do not question it further.”

 

“Yes, ma'am.”

 

“Good.” Looking at the henchmen, she said, “Get him tied up and then leave. Alistair.” Her voice took on a sickeningly sweet tone as she said the man's name.

 

“Yes, Lily?”

 

“Have a good night.”

 

The man's eyes flashed dark. His gaze was no longer on Lilith, but on Dean. Reaching out a hand, he caressed the side of Dean's face. “Oh, I intend to,” he said. “I certainly intend to.”

 

“Truss him,” Alistair said to the men. Two stepped forward—one to tie Dean's hands together, and another with a dark sack that he slipped over Dean's head.

 

A body pressed up against his side, somehow radiating cold rather than warmth. “You and I, we're going to have so much fun together,” Alistair hissed. Dean couldn't stop the full body shudder that shook him.

 

“Boys, let's move this party, shall we?”

 

 +++

 

Sam's phone rang at a quarter to midnight. Castiel had been dozing in his armchair, the phone on the end table beside him. Groggily he reached for it and held it in front of his face. A close-up snapshot of Dean's face flashed onto the screen along with the helpful phrase “Dean calling”. Biting his lip, Castiel found the “push to connect” button and tapped it.

 

“Hello, Dean.”

 

“Cas?” Dean sounded bewildered, and he was breathing heavily.

 

Nonplussed, Castiel replied, “Yes, Dean?” He didn't know why he was confused by Dean's response to his voice. After all, he was aware that he'd found Sam's cell phone, Dean was not. It only made sense that he'd be confused by Castiel answering his brother's phone under the circumstances.

 

“Cas, what the—oh, fuck.”

 

“Dean?” Castiel tried again, growing worried. Dean hadn't just sounded confused in that moment. He'd sounded like he was in pain. “Are you...what's going on?” When the other man didn't respond right away, he said urgently, “Dean?”

 

Harsh laughter vibrated across the line. “God damnit...I don't know why you have Sam's phone or if you're working for these sonovabitches or not, or if you'll even care, but I don't have a lot of time before they stop and I—”

 

“Dean, slow down. You don't know if I work for who?”

 

“Christ, Cas, who do you think?” Dean's voice was shaking. “The Lollipop Guild?” His attempt at humor was clearly forced, the stark fear revealing the safety mechanism for what it was.

 

Castiel thought he knew exactly who Dean meant. Infernus.

 

“Dean, where are you?” Castiel demanded.

 

“Don't know,” Dean breathed. “Back of car, moving me somewhere, I don't...shit, fuck!”

 

There was a plastic clatter, a shout, and then the line went ominously dead.

 

“Dean? Dean!” Castiel shouted into the phone, knowing even as he did that it would do no good. Tossing aside the now-useless-to-him phone, Castiel's hands fisted into his hair as he muttered, “Fuck.” When that didn't seem sufficient to encompass all he was feeling, Castiel tried the word again at a much louder register. “Fuck!” he shouted, kicking the end table. “Shit!” he moaned, as the only result of kicking the end table was a stubbed toe. Thinking frantically, he reached for his land line and dialed a number that he thought he'd never call again.

 

“Clarence!” Meg's voice greeted him in delight. Loud music and chattering laughter competed, making it difficult to hear her over the cacophony in the background. “Calling me on a Friday, closing in on midnight. Might I dare to hope that this is that long-awaited booty call?”

 

“Meg,” Castiel couldn't keep the urgency from his voice. “I need to know the warehouse Lugosi was supposed to move a shipment from, and the location Infernus would take someone they are holding prisoner. And I need to know it now.”

 

A moment of time passed, and Castiel would have thought Meg hung up on him if he couldn't still hear the sounds of revelry in the background. “Wow,” she finally said. “When I got you the job at the Gazette, I should have suspected that you'd take the whole reporting thing seriously.”

 

“Meg,” Castiel growled. “Tell me. Now.”

 

“No.” Meg snapped the word out. “Why the hell should I tell you anything, Castiel? For that matter, what makes you think I would know these things in the first place?”

 

“Do not play coy with me, Megara Ann Masters. It doesn't suit you.”

 

“Ooh, pulling out my full name. You must really want this info bad.” Meg chuckled darkly. “Alright, fine. I know where Lugosi is supposedly working tonight. The answer to your second question depends on a lot of factors, but let's just say I have a pretty good idea on that, too. Give me a good reason why I should tell you.”

 

Swallowing, Castiel replied. “A...a friend,” he stuttered, “ I believe he is in trouble.” There was no way that he could tell her more than that without giving away what he suspected Dean was doing. If that even mattered anymore, as it seemed more than likely he'd been caught and was injured and—

 

“A friend?” Meg said skeptically. “You don't have friends. Try again, Clarence.”

 

“Meg—!” he said again, aware of how close he was coming to outright begging a woman he'd once swore to never talk to again. She laughed.

 

“Oh, Castiel,” she sighed, as if his panic gave her joy. “You're so much fun when you're flustered. Alright, here's how we'll do this. I'll give you a series of hypothetical’s, you answer me in the same, and then tomorrow night we'll go out somewhere nice and we can talk about where we went wrong.” Castiel could hear her lick her lips over the phone line, and he fought back a shiver not caused by arousal. How he'd ever been attracted to this woman was now beyond his knowledge.

 

“Agreed.”

 

“Oh, yay!” Meg said, sounding like she actually meant that. “So, let's say hypothetically your 'friend' that is in trouble—let's call him, say, Dean Winchester?— is the investigative reporter you just happened to be shoved into working with.”

 

“It's possible,” Castiel conceded, wanting to drop the game, but afraid that if he suggested it that Meg would hang up on him and he'd learn nothing. He was acutely aware of each second as they passed, knowing that it was another second that Dean and probably Sam were stuck in an untenable situation.

 

“Thought it might be,” Meg sing-songed. “We'll also say that perhaps this hypothetical Dean got in trouble because he was sticking his nose into Infernus business, again, when he swore to Lugosi and her bosses that he'd be a good boy and do no such thing.”

 

“If that's the case this would be the first I've heard of it spoken in such terms,” Castiel whispered, his mouth dry. Suddenly Bobby's fear earlier that day made perfect sense, the terse way he'd ordered Dean to be careful.

 

“Huh. You sound like you mean that,” Meg said, surprised out of their game. “You really didn't know, Castiel?”

 

“I suspected something, but I didn't know for certain and—”

 

“Okay. Okay,” she cut him off. “Sweetie, no offense, but you're in way over your head. I suggest you hang up the phone and forget you ever knew a guy named Dean Winchester. I'll pretend we never had this conversation, and tomorrow night I'll bring over a bottle of tequila and a bag of limes and we'll act like it's a surprise visit.”

 

“I...can't do that.”

 

There was a crackle and shift on the other end of the line, and the background noise lessened considerably; Meg must have moved to a more private area for the remainder of their call. “Castiel, why did you contact me even if you did suspect that Infernus was mixed up in whatever's happening to Dean? You always acted like you believed me when I said that I wasn't in my father's line of work.” Quieter, she added, “It was one of the things I liked best about you.”

 

“I have recently begun to realize that what I have been told and what is true are not necessarily the same thing.”

 

Meg was silent for a long beat of time. “Why do I feel like I should apologize for that?”

 

“Instead of apologizing, you can tell me where Dean is,” Castiel said, the pretense completely gone. He didn't know why he was so desperate to reach Dean, a man he'd only met a few short weeks ago and with whom he had no real relationship with. It may have been guilt or the possibility of friendship or just the last vestiges of his ever-crumbling morals making themselves heard, but Castiel felt that he, himself, had to go and save Dean, immediately.

 

“If I tell you, you have to promise me you won't do something stupid,” Meg tried to barter, but Castiel clenched his fist around the phone and said, in as calm a tone as he could muster:

 

“I can not promise that, Megara. The location, please, now.”

 

She told him, “There are a few places he might be.” She outlined the ones she thought Dean was mostly likely to be in, and without another word Castiel hung up.

 

Two steps and he was at his apartment window. Thirty seconds and he was stripped to the waist, and two breaths later he was out on the fire escape. Closing his eyes, Castiel gathered his focus, feeling the fire bubble inside him from his belly upward. Concentrating, he directed the flames to the outside his body, and with a final, odd prayer of thanks that his apartment was in a brick-faced building and thus unlikely to burn down from the manifestation of his wings this close to it, took to the air.

 

 +++

 

The glass and plastic from Sammy's broken camera was embedded in Dean's palms, forearms and elbows, (shoved into his skin by Alistair, who was nothing if not creative) but this was the least of his concerns. He drug himself across the dirty warehouse floor on them anyways because his legs were unable to support his weight. Dean didn't know what exactly had caused that, either Alistair's knife or his fists, but the end result was the same, so he supposed it didn't really matter. Gritting his teeth, he focused on inching forward, aware that if he made too much noise he was dead, and if he went too slowly he was dead, too.

 

Chances were pretty good that he was dead, period. But what could Dean say? He was an optimist.

 

He'd seized the moment when Alistair had stepped out of the room (to get more salt to rub into his wounds, he'd said, and boy, Dean was looking forward to that) and used the key that the man had inadvertently left in Dean's reach to free himself from the chains that held him. Dean estimated he had five, ten minutes at the most to find a place to hide. Running wasn't an option. He had no idea where he was, and his injuries were too great for him to go any distance, anyways. Despite the pokes and prods, the slices and touches, Dean'd forced himself to stay awake and aware of his surroundings, just in case this sort of chance presented itself.

 

The spot where he'd been stabbed in his side ached with a fierceness Dean hadn't felt from an injury since Sammy'd wrecked the Impala years earlier. That accident had been nearly fatal for Dean, which unfortunately gave him a fairly good indication of the severity of his current wound.

 

“Deeeeeean,” that horrible voice sang, and Dean tried not to panic. It was close, much too close for comfort. He'd have thought that Alistair had found him if it weren't for the fact that he knew the bastard would be gloating already if he had. An hour in his tender care, Dean estimated, an hour since that bizarre telephone conversation with Novak, and yet it felt as though it had been years.

 

“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” Alistair continued, a metallic sound that Dean identified as the tip of a knife tapping one of the warehouse's ubiquitous metal pipes. “It'll only hurt for a little while if you show your pretty face now. I promise.”

 

Dean considered that if a demon popped in front of him right in that moment, he would gladly trade his soul for the opportunity to escape—or at the very, very least, to have Cas on the phone again, so he could ask him to pass along to Sammy how sorry he was. If Sammy was okay himself. If Cas would even do as he asked. That, Dean knew, would never happen. His Razor was long gone, smashed as soon as they'd discovered him talking on it when they pulled him out of the back of the vehicle they'd transported him, and besides, Dean didn't even know if Castiel was someone he could trust. Putting his faith in him was a flimsy hope at best.

 

“Ah, there you are,” Alistair's cold voice said as one of his clammy hands grasped the back of his neck, the long nails tipping his fingers digging into the skin. Dean sobbed. He couldn't go back with Alistair. He couldn't. He'd break and tell him where every single deposit box was, and he'd already told him the location of too many as it was and if he placed his hands on Dean again then he'd—

 

Intense heat and blinding bright light burst across Dean's senses. Alistair released his grip on his neck, and Dean didn't care if his blasphemous prayer bargaining with his soul had been answered and this was a demon come to collect him or not. Anything had to be better than remaining on that warehouse floor with Alistair's touch and a sharp knife poised above him.

 

“You,” Alistair hissed, and there was surprise and caution in the henchman's voice. Dean tried to lift his chin to see who or what could pull those emotions from such a sociopath, but all he saw were flames topping tattered black trousers littered in smoking holes puddling over a man's bare, oddly graceful feet. He blinked, trying to see more, but between wooziness from blood loss and the relieved euphoria of a possible rescue, Dean was unable to focus.

 

“I do not believe we've ever met,” a man coolly said to Alistair, and holy shit, Dean must be hallucinating, because he knew that voice, and there was no possible way on earth that Castiel Novak of the cheap suits and JCPenny's trench coat had interrupted Alistair's little party on wings of flame. No. Way.

 

Alistair continued talking, unperturbed that Dean's quiet, nerdy workmate was standing in front of him, burning. “Nevertheless I know who you are. I must admit I'm surprised to see you here. It's much too early for your chivalrous tendencies to override your innate fear of involvement. I was counting on at least a week or two alone with Dean here before you tracked us down.”

 

Dean fought the urge to vomit. A week or two with Alistair and if Dean wasn't dead he'd sincerely wish he was.

 

“Unless,” Alistair paused, “you are not exactly what you were advertised to be.” He tsked. “See, this is what happens when you allow others to shop for your ingredients. You end up with an inferior product. And that is just not acceptable, no it is not. I shall be having words with young Megara, make no mistake.”

 

“Step away from Dean,” the man facing Alistair said, and damn, but it still sounded like Cas. Dean had no idea what Alistair was rambling to him about, and from the confusion clouding Castiel's words, he didn't either.

 

That wasn't reassuring.

 

“Make me,” Alistair said, the challenge clear.

 

Dean rolled over onto his back and forced his eyelids open just in time for the flames surrounding Castiel—and it was Cas!—to go out, and for the man to say in a scarily confident tone, “Fine.” A single rotation of his wrist, and a ball of white-hot flame filled the palm of his hand.

 

“Ah. I see you've been practicing,” Alistair said. “How...unexpected.” Dean's blood thrummed at the fear he heard from the man. Alistair charged forward, and Castiel threw the fireball.

 

It hit Alistair square in the chest, knocking him to the ground, his body rolling several feet before coming to rest against a rusted steel barrel. Castiel's eyes were wide, as if he himself couldn't believe what he'd just done, his mouth slightly parted.

 

Dean must have passed out for a moment, because when he opened his eyes again Castiel was picking him up off the warehouse floor and interspersing apologies with soft encouragements and reassurances.

 

“Sorry, Cas. Sorry,” Dean said. It was important that he apologize.

 

“You have nothing to be sorry for, Dean. Nothing,” Castiel stressed.

 

“Thought you were working with them. Thought Bobby was right, but you saved me. Sorry, Cas, I'm sorry.”

 

Castiel hoisted him into his arms. Their noses bumped as Cas leaned close, making sure to meet Dean's eyes. Blue, blue, Dean thought even as he said, “Sorry,” again, like he'd lost the ability to say any other word.

 

“Dean,” Castiel said, and if he wasn't speaking so seriously Dean wasn't sure he would believe him, “I forgive you.”

 

He could feel himself collapse against Cas at those words but could do nothing to stop it. Dean clung to the other man, digging the point of his chin into the musculature of a deceptively sloped shoulder and buried his face against the side of Castiel's neck. Breathing deeply, he caught the faint scent of burnt sweet grass overlaid with the more pungent tang of masculine sweat. Eyes fluttering, he heard a groan and, impossibly, saw movement from the previously still form of Alistair.

 

“Cas,” Dean said urgently, as Alistair twitched and began to sit up. “Cas!”

 

Some of his panic must have leached through, because Castiel clutched Dean closer and spun them around, making a movement that should have been clumsy as graceful as Fred sweeping Ginger across a dance floor. Dean felt Castiel's deep inhalation, and when he said, “Hold on tightly,” he didn't have time to question Cas' intentions. Instead he pushed himself closer. The arm around his back tightened, a hot flush and a whoosh of air and Alistair was on his feet, Dean could tell because he was screaming (“mine, mine, you can't take what's mine!”) and Castiel was pulling back his right hand and lobbing another ball of fire. Right after the throw Castiel clamped down hard on Dean's shoulder, causing white-blistering pain joined the myriad of others. It was one pain too many; he felt his feet leaving the ground and then nothing more.

 

 +++

 

Cinnamon, nutmeg, and the fresh crispness of artificial apple scent and soft hands soothing balm over his aching shoulder were what drug Dean to partial wakefulness.

 

“Dean,” someone said, and when he opened his eyes it was to see Castiel's staring into his own. His mouth began moving again, but Dean was having difficulty concentrating on the words.

 

“Dean,” Cas said again, more urgently, his hands coming up to cup Dean's face. He felt the smear of whatever it was Castiel had been rubbing on his shoulder across his cheek. “Dean, where can I take you that's safe?”

 

“Safe?” Dean heard himself say. “Safe here.”

 

“No, Dean, no, it's not,” Castiel said. Dean just wanted to let his eyes fall shut again and sleep for a million years. With consciousness came the awareness that he hurt all over, and following closely on the heels of that was the memory of how he'd come to be hurt, and he didn't want to remember that, so sleep it was.

 

“Dean!” Just why Castiel kept repeating his name was lost on him. Was Cas worried he didn't know himself?

 

“Yes?” he said, a bit testily even to his own ears.

 

“Do you know of a safe place I can take you? It's not safe here, that man—the one who had you—recognized me somehow, and he's going to think to look for us here.”

 

“Bobby,” Dean breathed. “Bobby'll help. He knows everything, that's going on.”

 

“That's good Dean, good,” Castiel praised him. Dean took this as a cue that he was finally allowed to get back to the important business of sleeping, but Cas shook him.

 

“What?”

 

“I don't know how to get ahold of Bobby. Do you have his phone number, an address, anything?”

 

“Number,” Dean grunted. “In my phone.” He forgot that his trusty Razor was so much junk now.

 

“Phone,” Castiel said. “Of course.” Instead of fumbling through Dean's pockets, though, Castiel lowered Dean's head back onto a pillow and stepped away. There was the familiar chime of a cell being turned on, and curiosity caused Dean to keep his eyes open just a crack (just for a second, he told himself). There, in Cas' grip, was Sammy's iPhone, recognizable due to the douchy decal he'd insisted on slapping on the back of it.

 

“Hey, that's Sammy's!” Dean said, then “Bobby: speed dial 2,” before drifting off.

 

 +++

 

His mouth tasted like ass.

 

That was Dean's first coherent thought upon waking, followed swiftly by Ow, then oh God, motherfucker, pain! These thoughts he kept to himself in favor of prying an eye slowly open. He was in Bobby's most-recognizable guest room, the one that had been Jo's Wild West playroom as a child before being converted to a bedroom by the addition of a bed with a Navajo print comforter.

 

Sam was sitting next to the said bed, head in his hands. At Dean's rustle of movement, he lifted his face.

 

“Oh, God, Dean!” he exclaimed. Dean would have laughed at his brother's flair for the dramatic if he wasn't hurting quite so much.

 

“What the hell happened?” he croaked instead and great, his voice sounded the way his mouth tasted.

 

“I was hoping you'd be able to tell me,” Sam said, jumping to his feet. Dean found a cup of water with a bendy-straw being held under his nose. Never one to object to his brother's fussing when he genuinely felt horrible, Dean leaned forward and took a sip.

 

“Last thing I remember is being in the warehouse, and Alistair...” he stopped at the sudden feeling of panic even saying the man's name manifested, swallowed and then said, “How the hell'd I get out? You come back for me? And how'd we get to Bobby's?”

 

“I wish to hell it'd been me, Dean,” Sam said, shame crumpling his features. “But it wasn't. Someone else pulled you out.”

 

“Someone else?”

 

A familiar, rumpled figure filled the doorway, a steaming bowl held between his hands. Castiel. The sleeves of an unfamiliar light green dress shirt were rolled up to his elbows, revealing narrow wrists and slightly tanned forearms. It was odd seeing Cas in such a way, like seeing a creature you'd normally only encounter at the zoo's dangerous animals exhibits reposed in their natural habitat. Even his blue tie was missing, which Dean had seen Castiel wear even when he switched his usual white shirts for light blue, and the top two buttons of his placket were undone.

 

At seeing Dean, a relieved smile broke across Castiel's face. It was a wide, so wide his gums showed, and his nose wrinkled just the slightest bit with it. Dean found himself thinking that the dude probably didn't have any problems finding dates when he wanted them, and idly wondered what sort of wingman he'd be.

 

The word wingman jarred lose a memory of Castiel, sans any shirt at all, even an unfamiliar green one, broad expanses of fire spanning out on either side, looking like a demon from hell. Or, he reconsidered, as the memory of what he pulled him out of followed closely behind, an avenging angel, come to save his sorry-ass soul.

 

“You're awake,” Castiel was saying, but Dean was less concerned about what Cas was saying and more worried about his obviously faulty and deranged memories.

 

“You...pulled me out,” he managed to say. Castiel handed the steaming bowl over to Sam, who took it and placed it on the nearby side table.

 

Something flickered across Castiel's face, some expression that Dean couldn't read, and then it smoothed out into what Dean thought of as his professional calm.

 

“I'm sorry, Dean.” Licking his lips, he added, “About your shoulder. I should have known, but...I'm still learning...control.”

 

“My...” Dean jerked and looked down at his left shoulder, which was completely covered in thick white bandages. “That was real?”

 

“I...yes,” Castiel said, at the same time Sam asked, “What was real?”

 

Dean didn't answer his brother, instead looking at Cas. He knew without looking in a mirror that his eyes were wide, his mouth gaping open in disbelief.

 

“Dude,” he forced out. “What are you?”

 

A wry twist of his lips and Castiel replied, “Would you believe me if I told you I don't know?”

 

 +++

 

Hours later, and it seemed that Dean was no closer to believing Castiel when he began his explanation.

 

“So what you're basically saying is that you're some sort of superhero.”

 

Sighing, Castiel rubbed his eyes and said, “While my abilities may be super-human, I haven't done anything heroic enough to earn the title superhero.”

 

“Dude,” Dean said, green eyes bright, “You saved my life when lots of folks would have left me there to rot. That's pretty damn heroic to me.”

 

The weight of Dean's gaze on him sent a long, slow throb through Castiel's belly, not unlike what he'd first felt when his powers began to manifest themselves. He was saved from having to consider what that meant by Sam's re-entry into the room, Bobby on his heels.

 

“Cas,” Sam hissed, shoving his cell phone at him, “it's for you.”

 

“I don't understand,” Castiel protested. “Why would someone be calling for me on your number?”

 

“It's Crowley,” Bobby said. “He called me 'bout five, ten minutes ago, asking if I knew a way to get ahold of you 'sides your home phone number. I told him no, but that you'd mentioned something about going out with the boys the night before, maybe try one of them.”

 

“Why would you do that?”

 

It was Dean who answered Castiel. “Because he's maintaining your cover.”

 

“My what?” The conversation had moved past Castiel's comprehension.

 

“Aren't you working for the jackass?” Bobby put in.

 

“Aren't I...only in the way that I am working for you, Bobby,” Castiel said.

 

“So you're not a mole placed to keep an eye on me,” Dean said with no little satisfaction, giving Bobby as triumphant a look as someone with a bruise that covered one entire half of his face could.

 

“Just take the phone and agree to whatever he wants,” Sam demanded, thrusting the phone into Castiel's hand.

 

He did, even tempted as he was to hang up on the editor and pretend that he'd never called.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Castiel,” Crowley purred. “You're a difficult man to track down.”

 

“Crowley,” Castiel growled, unable to keep the edge from his voice. The man was involved in the entire mess, just as much as Meg was, and he was not in the mood for honeyed words.

 

“Word is Winchester did something reckless enough to land himself in the hospital for a few days. If you were with him last night as Bobby claims then I'm certain you know all about that, though.”

 

Looking over at where Dean was reclined on Bobby's guest bed in his guest room, which was certainly in no way, shape or form like a hospital, (even if that was exactly what the man really needed) Castiel fought back a growl.

 

“Is that so?” he replied shortly.

 

“Ooh, someone's cranky. Must have been a rough night indeed.”

 

There was no response Castiel could give that wouldn't be incriminating, so he said nothing. Crowley continued the conversation blithely.

 

“With Winchester out, you're going to have to pick up the slack. Think you're up for it?”

 

“Yes,” Castiel said, remembering Sam's advice to agree with whatever the man said.

 

“Good.” Castiel could well imagine Crowley's self-satisfied expression, the way his chin would tuck in close to his chest as he pulled himself upright when he thought he'd accomplished something important. “I want to see you here in an hour, Castiel.”

 

Speaking slowly, Castiel said, “Today is my day off, Crowley.” Flicking his eyes over to Bobby's, he said, “It was to be Dean's day off today as well.”

 

“Don't care,” Crowley said cheerfully. “Get here, one hour. You've been doing good work, Castiel. I like a man who...has a fire under him. And keeping Winchester's...head above water can't be an easy feat.”

 

It seemed that Crowley knew Dean had been injured, and he was insinuating that he knew of Castiel's abilities, that he'd been the one to help him, but Crowley didn't seem angry about it like Castiel suspected he should be, if he was working for Infernus. If anything, he seemed happy.

 

Castiel was more confused than ever.

 

“Crowley?”

 

“One hour, duckie. You, my office. Oh, and give the boys my best before you come, hmm?” Crowley rang off, leaving Castiel to stare at Sam's cell in consternation.

 

“Well, what did he say?” Bobby demanded.

 

“He wants me to be at the paper in an hour,” Castiel said.

 

“That can't be all he said,” Dean shrewdly said. “Conversation was too long if that was all he wanted.”

 

“He...” Castiel's head was swimming. “His words suggested that he knows what happened last night. Everything,” he added, causing the other men in the room to reflect varying degrees of alarm. “About my abilities, about the fact that Dean was injured, everything.” Swallowing hard, he said, “I can not go there if there is any chance this is a possibility.”

 

“You think?” Bobby snarked.

 

“Why?” Sam asked. When Castiel, Bobby and Dean all glared at him, he said, “If Cas went, he might be able to find out for sure if Crowley was up to something.”

 

“If?” Bobby rumbled. “I think it's a pretty damn clear chance.”

 

“And I am not willing to take the risk. From Alistair's words, he knew of me, which means that somehow, Infernus does. It could be a trap. It is too dangerous.”

 

“But if you go in knowing it is—”

 

“Sammy,” Dean interrupted. “Charlie McGee here is right. Even if it's not about him, they could follow him back here after he leaves the Gazette.” Dean suddenly squirmed. “That is, if you would want to come back, I guess. I mean, I guess there's nothing saying you'd have to, but—”

 

“Dean,” Castiel stopped him gently, stepping forward and allowing his fingers to run down his arm. “I would. Come back. I wouldn't be able to stay away, wondering about your welfare.”

 

Bobby and Sam seemed uncomfortable with Castiel's declaration, but it relaxed Dean. He settled back among the pillows. Darkness pooled under his eyes, and Dean leaned to one side as if his ribs pained him, which Castiel supposed they probably did. Exhaustion pulled his eyes shut again despite Dean fighting to stay awake, and the three others in the room stood quietly for a few long moments, watching him.

 

“We can't stay here,” Sam said finally, speaking Castiel's very thoughts. The younger man looked up quickly as Bobby began to gather air, no doubt for a compelling argument, when Sam said, “I'm sorry, Bobby, but it's just not safe. Not just for us, but for Ellen and Jo, too.”

 

“You're not going to be safe anywhere,” Bobby argued. “Where you gonna go? You boys are deep in the shit. And Dean's injuries...Christ, he's lucky he's done as well as he has so far, but he needs a hospital, or at the very least a doctor, and frankly I don't trust any of 'em nearby.”

 

Castiel found himself at Dean's beside, running his hand through the slightly longer shock of hair that hung lank over Dean's forehead. Bobby and Sam would stand there all day and argue if they could, he thought, and knew that they had much, much less time than that if they were going to change their location. Crowley had wanted to see him at the Gazette in an hour. It was not inconceivable that, if his intentions for requesting Castiel's presence there were nefarious, he'd send people out looking for him, and by extension the Winchesters, because he knew that he was with at least Sam. “I may have an idea,” he said softly.

 

 +++

 

Castiel climbed out of the backseat of the Impala, intent on helping Dean out of the vehicle, but was waved off. “Nah, I'm good Cas, thanks.”

 

Squinting against the sun glinting off the lake shore spread out in front of them, Sam exited the car and said, “So. Erie, Pennsylvania. Have to say, never really imagined myself here.”

 

“It is a nice city,” Castiel said defensively. “It boasts first rate medical facilities, a wondrous national park within city limits, and is within easy driving distance of several high density metropolitan areas.”

 

“Whoa, sorry,” Sam said, holding up his hands. “Didn't mean to offend.”

 

“You didn't,” Castiel assured him. “I guess I simply feel...safe, here. And I do not appreciate it being disparaged.”

 

“I think it looks nice, Cas,” Dean said. His attention hadn't moved from the lake, and the small dock nestled against its shore. “You could do with some chairs out there,” he said, and Castiel smiled.

 

“We'll see about bringing some out, if you'd like to sit outside.”

 

“Hell yeah.” Smiling himself, Dean pried his eyes away from the lapping water and looked to Castiel, and past him, to the house in which they'd be staying.

 

“Whoa.”

 

Castiel, the bastard, just grinned as if he knew exactly what Dean was thinking. “Come,” he said, walking over and taking Dean's arm even though he didn't need the support, thank you very much. “Allow me to show you around.”

 

Anna Milton greeted them at the door, her smile just as wide and hair brighter than Dean remembered.

 

“Hey guys! Come on in.”

 

“Anna's here?” Dean hissed at Castiel. “Why is Anna here?”

 

Feigning confusion, Castiel replied, “Because it is her house?”

 

“You didn't tell us that!”

 

Anna stopped in a breezeway that looked like it led into a large living room. “There a problem, guys?”

 

Castiel told her. “Dean is upset because I failed to inform them that you would be present here.”

 

Sam, for his part, just awkwardly waved. “Hey. Nice to meet you.”

 

Seizing the chance to avoid a complete social meltdown, Anna went to the younger Winchester and held out her hand. “Hi, you must be Sam. I'm Anna. Cas and Dean both have told me a lot about you.”

 

“Really?” Sam's bright smile seemed to light the corners of the room.

 

“Anna?” Dean said again, as if he still couldn't believe it.

 

Sighing, Castiel said to him, quietly, “I'm aware that it may be a bit awkward for you, Dean, but Anna was already here at the lake house, and we needed a place to go on short notice. She wants to help us.”

 

“How much does she know?” Dean asked.

 

Cas twitched, but replied readily, “About you and Sam? The minimum. About myself, what I can do?” Dean nodded in encouragement was Cas hesitated. “She knows everything. Dean,” he said, when the other man sighed noisily. “She is my best friend. I have no secrets from her.”

 

“Anyone else know?” When Castiel paused, obviously wondering why it was important that Dean knew, he said, “It could be dangerous if too many people know, man. For them, as well as us.”

 

Finally, Castiel said, “Just my brother, Balthazar. And before you ask, no, he's not here, and yes, he can be trusted. Just,” he said significantly, “as Anna can.” Softer, Cas said, “Please. They're my family, as Sam is yours. Let them help us.”

 

Their eyes met and held. Dean searched Castiel for any signs of doubt, but all he saw was concern and slightly exasperated determination. He nodded.

 

“Okay, Cas. Okay.”

 

“Hey, Cas, why don't you help Dean into the kitchen. I made cheesy pasta.”

 

Castiel visibly brightened. “Cheesy pasta? With zucchini?”

 

Dean made a face. Anna saw it and she laughed. “Of course with zucchini,” she told Castiel. “But it's easy to pick out if you don't care for it, Dean,” Anna added.

 

Forcing a friendly expression, Dean said, “I'm sure it's great.” Turning to Cas, he said. “Lead the way, handsome.” The endearment slipped out easily, as if Dean had been secretly wanting to say it for a while. Castiel startled, but Anna and Sam exchanged what was to be the first of many significant looks.

 

“Um, of course. This way,” Cas said, the tips of his ears pink. Anna gamely stepped in again with the ease of someone certain that an Incident was brewing and adroitly redirected the men's focus. “And while you guys are eating, I'll call the doctor to come and check you out, Dean.”

 

Dean froze. “Doctor?”

 

 +++

 

“Thank you for coming on such short notice, Doctor Benton.”

 

Anna ushered the man in, making noises about taking his jacket or fetching him a cup of coffee, but he refused her, saying, “Please, don't trouble yourself, my dear. It is no problem at all to come out here for one of my favorite patients.”

 

“Well,” Anna said, and Dean thought it was great fun to watch her sweat it out over one old man. “I didn't exactly call you out here for Castiel, but his friend.” Gesturing to where he was reclined on the sofa, she said, “This is Dean.”

 

Struggling into a sitting position, Dean stuck out his hand for a shake. The doctor's hand was cold and clammy, simply laying in Dean's grip like a dead fish. He pumped the doctor's hand once anyways, cursorily, and tried not to make a face as he released it. Dean was a bit unnerved by the man's eyes. One was a bright blue, like a Siberian husky's, and the other was a deep chocolate brown that listed slightly to the left. Anna and Castiel both seemed to trust him, though, so Dean tried to tamp down his unease and smiled.

 

The smile probably would have conveyed more goodwill if Dean's face hadn't at that point been a mottle of blue-purple bruises. They ached from the strain of maintaining a false expression, and the doctor didn't seem very impressed anyway, so he dropped the facade.

 

“Oh. Well, hello there, Dean. Of course I'm happy to assist any friend of Anna and Castiel,” the doctor said.

 

Anna squeezed the man's shoulder. “Thank you, Doc. I'm going to give you two some privacy, then.”

 

They each watched Anna as she left the room. Dean thought that the good doctor's gaze might have lingered a little longer than was strictly polite on Anna's backside, but Dean couldn't really blame the guy. Anna had the sort of ass you'd have to be dead not to appreciate. He was just able to bottle his smirk when Benton turned back to him.

 

“Well, young man,” Doctor Benton said, flicking that disconcerting gaze from Dean's head to toe, “Anna tells me that you have quite the collection of wounds. She's worried about the possibility of them turning septic. Let's have a look at them, shall we?”

 

Dean was able to strip off his shirt with a minimal of swearing, but his jeans gave him a bit more difficulty. He made a mental note to ask Sam to dig out his sweatpants for him, wondering what had possessed him to change out of them in the first place. After finally getting them off, he looked for a place to drop them and settled for dropping them in a neat-ish pile on the floor beside the doctor's satchel.

 

“Nifty,” Dean said, pointing at the symbol pressed into the leather bag. At first glance it looked like a simple circle, but upon closer examination a design was revealed. “It's one of those snakes that eats its tale, right? Like what was on that show Millennium?”

 

“What? Oh, that,” Doctor Benton said. “Silly thing. Gift from my granddaughter. Have to carry it or she'd get offended, you understand?” He stepped forward and began peeling away Dean's bandages in a perfunctory manner. “She's into that new-age hocus-pocus.”

 

“Hocus-pocus?” Dean asked, sucking in a sharp breath when the doctor jabbed a finger into one of the slices in his side.

 

“Hmm? Oh, yes. You know the sort...likes crystal balls and scented candles and incense, that sort of thing.” Humming again, the doctor made an interested noise and said, “Now, tell me if it hurts when I press here.”

 

 +++

 

“Man was a fucking sadist.”

 

“Dean.”

 

“Don't 'Dean' me, Sam. It was terrible. Do you know how many stitches I have now? I sure as hell don't, because I lost count. Fucking sadist.” Hand shaking, he reached into the refrigerator, determined to reward his supernatural calm while the doctor made him look like Frankenstein's monster with a beer.

 

“You seem to be doing pretty good right now,” Sam pointed out.

 

Dean had to grin at that. “Pain killers, man. Really good painkillers.”

 

He could practically hear Sam's frown. “Thought you said he was a sadist.”

 

Nudging aside a jug of orange juice, wondering if the beer was hiding behind that (and he knew there was some in there, Cas had told him there was) he said, “Yeah, well, he didn't give me the pills until after he was done.”

 

He picked up an open can of soda with the intention of setting it aside on the counter; the beer was so well hidden that Dean was planning on excavating the refrigerator to find it. Dean's trembling hand accidentally dropped it instead. Cola splattered everywhere, splashing the white cabinets and hardwood floor.

 

“Shit!” Dean cursed. “Who the fuck puts an open can of soda in the fridge, anyways?”

 

“That would be me.”

 

Dean swallowed another swear, face burning in embarrassment. It was bad enough that Cas (superpowered, BAMF, kickass-Cas) had seen him bloodied and battered and...in the warehouse, and later at Bobby's house laid up in a Western-themed kiddie bed, but seeing Dean unable to grasp even a half-full can of soda? Unable to grasp a can and unwittingly cursing out Cas right in front of the guy for putting it in the fridge to begin with, no less.

 

The only way out was through, he told himself. He bluffed.“Why the hell would you do that?”

 

Castiel's brow furrowed down into a slight frown. “I didn't want the whole thing.” he said, like it was common for people to just leave half-empty cans of soda sitting around like little bombs on the edge of refrigerator shelves.

 

Dean snatched a hand towel off the stove's door handle and went to stoop to wipe up the sticky liquid. Sam stopped him.

 

“Whoa, Mr. I-don't-even-know-how-many-stitches-I-have. Let me or Cas get that. You sit down.” Sam took the towel out of his hands.

 

“I agree,” Castiel said, stepping close and taking his elbow. “It's just pop, Dean. Perhaps you should sit down. Would you like to go outside?”

 

Humiliation complete, Dean could do little but nod and allow Castiel to slowly direct him to the lake shore.

 

As promised, there were now two chairs set up on the small dock. Dean recognized them from what Castiel had called the conservatory. And just who the fuck had a room that they actually called a conservatory? Dean thought that had been something made up by the creators of Clue. Metal framed and with large cushions, they were entirely unsuited to outdoor use. When Dean sat down he found cause to revise his hastily made opinion. The cushions were just-right comfortable, the backs high enough that he could lean back and at an angle where he didn't feel like he was straining his neck.

 

“What's with the hippie clothes?” he asked Cas, as the other man moved away to take his own seat. If he'd thought the light green button-down of before had been strange, Castiel's current outfit was downright bizarre. Dark green, well-worn cargo pants were topped by a faded and patched collarless shirt, embroidered with tone-on-tone flowers along the placket and down the sleeves. Cognac colored fisherman sandals were strapped to his feet. The superhero, in repose, Dean thought, titling the picture he would take if he had Sam's camera.

 

“Oh. They are leftover from Anna and I's trip here last year.” Castiel smoothed his hand down the front of his shirt self-consciously. “These are not things I typically wear in public.”

 

Dean's mouth watered as his eyes followed the path Castiel's hand trailed. “No, it's not bad,” he somehow managed to say without spitting all over himself. “Just different.”

 

His reactions to Castiel were surprising him, but not alarming. While he considered himself mostly straight, Dean had noticed a guy or two in his time. He'd just never taken action on his attractions. He privately thought any man who claimed they didn't occasionally check out another dude was a liar, mostly because he was one of those guys that claimed that they would never, had never, had a stray thought about another man.

 

What was surprising was that Dean was taking notice of Castiel now. He briefly wondered if it was a gratitude thing, or maybe a result of...but he shied away from thoughts of Alistair and his cold hands, choosing instead to remember the way he'd taken the extra effort to bust out the charming smile when he'd first met Castiel, the way his brain had stuttered over the color of his eyes. Heck, even the way he'd make sure to buy the guy's favorite grape soda when he noticed he didn't have one on his desk.

 

The attraction had always been there, Dean realized. He’d simply never acknowledged it before. And now that he knew what sort of man Castiel was, how he was risking himself on so many different levels for him and Sammy, and that, oh, yeah, the guy had freaking superpowers, he was afraid attraction had been bypassed for a flat-out crush.

 

Oh, God. He had a man-crush on Castiel.

 

“So, uh,” Dean stuttered, silently cursing his fair complexion and freckles, which he was convinced were reflecting his train of thought, “We've never really had a chance to talk.” At Castiel's questioning brow, Dean clarified, “Um. At work. You know, we never really talked.” God, he felt awkward. “So...tell me about yourself.” Dean's palms were sweating, which would have been bad enough, but he'd been so flustered by the Soda Incident in the kitchen that he'd not even thought about washing his hands, so the sweat combined with the stickiness was really unpleasant. He felt like he was on a first date, and he was the only one aware of it.

 

“What would you like to know?” Castiel asked, the picture of calm as he finally settled back into his own chair.

 

“Well...” Dean cast about for a subject that wouldn't make Castiel too uncomfortable or show that he was eager to know everything. “How'd you get a crap job at the Gazette?” Great, Winchester, insult the guy. That's a great move. “No offense,” he hurried to add. “It's just...you seem like you're way too smart for where they stuck you. I was placed there to keep me out of trouble, for as much good it did them. But you...”

 

Castiel bit his lip, hesitating, and Dean wondered if maybe he'd picked a bad subject of conversation, or if his ham-handed introduction of it was to blame. Looking down at his lap, Castiel folded his fingers together. A thumb brushed across the top of the opposite hand's index finger, temporarily derailing the flow of blood to Dean's brain in lieu of places south—until Cas spoke. “I believe I was hired as a favor from my ex-girlfriend.”

 

Dean deflated at the word ex-girlfriend. Damnit, he'd only been aware he might be interested in the guy for maybe twenty minutes and he was already fighting back disappointment at the confirmation that Cas wasn't into dick. Castiel had never given any indication of being in a relationship, and subconsciously Dean had allowed himself to hope. Which was ridiculous. Dean wasn't anyone's boyfriend, let alone this lanky, eternally-rumpled, nerdy guy's...but he was beginning to think he wanted to be.

 

He decided to focus on what Cas was saying instead of his own melodramatic thoughts. “Why'd your ex owe you a favor?”

 

Fidgeting, Cas lowered his gaze even further, so they were almost closed. His lashes hovered just over his cheeks, a dark sweep against the pale skin. “She slept with...several others and the way she apologized was getting me intoxicated and into bed.”

 

Running that through his Cas-speak filter, Dean said, “She got you drunk and fucked you? Dude, a lot of guys would say that sounds like a pretty good apology.”

 

Fastening his irises to Dean's, Castiel said, “I find myself harboring different ideas on...dating, and relationships, I think, than the norm. I've always found the concept of monogamy extremely important, even though...”

 

He trailed off, and Dean found himself pushing back the pain from his stitches to reach forward and nudge Cas' knee. “Even though what?” Mentally, he filed away that nugget of information in the internal file-folder he'd already labeled Cas. He was a commitment sort of guy. Not that this was surprising from what he'd already previously observed, but still.

 

“Even though I didn't find myself much interested in sex.”

 

Wait, what? Dean's brain shouted.

 

“Wait, what?”

 

“I specifically told Meg that I wasn't interested in having sex with her right away, that I didn't know if I would ever wish to, and she stated she was willing to enter into a relationship anyways.” Swallowing, but not removing his eyes from Dean's, Castiel said, “I was what I believe is called a late bloomer. Sex was...well, I suppose I'd never really felt the inclination when the opportunity presented itself, and then the longer I waited...”

 

Cas unthreaded his hands and placed them on his thighs, sliding them down until he was gripping his kneecaps. “By the time I started dating Meg and seriously considering a physical relationship, I had built the act up to be something rather intimidating. She claimed that she was willing to wait until I was ready. It was disappointing to discover that she was not.”

 

“Oh.” What do you say to a guy you're into who essentially tells you he got his shitty job (which he didn't have anymore, at least obliquely, because of you) because his girlfriend date-raped him? “Uh...shit,” he exclaimed, as all the pieces of what Castiel said fell into place. He'd been a virgin, Jesus. And Dean thought he'd had some terrible exes. “Did you, um, at least like it?”

 

Castiel gave him exactly the sort of look that question deserved while Dean wondered why the hell he would ask it in the first place. Then Cas looked away, shoulders hunched. “I don't remember,” he said quietly.

 

A long, strained silence fell between them. Dean wanted to apologize but had the feeling that would only make things worse. Instead, he said, “So, this place. Pretty swanky. Like something out of a magazine. Veranda, maybe.”

 

That earned Dean a small smile. “Anna and I both enjoy it here. We only have the opportunity to visit for a week or two a year during the summer, but it is nice to return to a familiar place each time.”

 

Sensing that Castiel was warm to the subject, Dean said, perhaps a bit too eagerly. “You guys vacation together a lot?”

 

“Yes,” Cas said. “Anna is my best friend. She has been since we were small children.”

 

Dean could easily imagine Anna as a child. Her pouty lower lip and large eyes would be adorable on a child. He had a bit more difficulty picturing Cas. Had his hair always been so unruly, his posture so conflictingly self-possessed and nervous?

 

A frown troubled Castiel as he said, “I believe we were first paired together as playmates because our fathers hoped we'd develop a deeper attachment to one another and, when we were grown, merge the family empires. But by the time we'd entered our majority we both realized that we would never be compatible in such a manner.”

 

Family empires. It was clear from the house, furnishings, and her personal possessions that Anna was wealthy. Castiel talked as though he came from a moneyed family as well, but that didn't jive with what Dean had personally observed. The cheap suits, packed bologna or tuna sandwich lunches, and polyester trench coat didn't exactly scream 'the good life'.

 

“Are you telling me you're rich? If that's the case, why were you at the Gazette?”

 

“My father is rich, Dean. Not me. I work because he and I had a falling out that resulted in my allowance and trust fund being withdrawn. He wanted things that I was unable or unwilling to provide.”

 

“Such as?” Dean asked. With an exaggerated survey of the lake before them and the house behind them, Dean said, “I think I'd give a lot to live like this.”

 

Clearing his throat, Castiel said, “It is difficult to explain to someone who has never met my father...when I told you that I believed Anna and I were paired as playmates in hopes we'd one day marry, I have more than a mild inclination that was what was expected of us. We went to the same playgroup, the same primer, then the same boarding school...when I refused to go directly to University, preferring instead to take a gap year, it was only allowed with the caveat that she be my travel companion. It could have been worse—much worse—had she and I not been amenable to one another. I thought about marrying her, Dean, and making my father happy, I did, but...it would not have ended with that.”

 

“I saw my whole life stretched out before me. A wife I loved more like a sister, a university education for a degree I didn't care for, houses in locations picked for their immediacy to the company business offices, clothes and haircuts and jewelry picked by the family stylist for their appropriateness to each situation, and...it was overwhelming.” Cas took a deep breath. “My brothers had already proven themselves to be disappointments in father's view. My oldest brother Michael had been his perfect son, but after he passed in an accident, the pressure to live up to his specter fell to the rest of us. Jeremiah was too strong willed from the beginning to accept the yoke of Father's expectations. Balthazar he found unsuitable by virtue of not being his biological son.”

 

“So that left you?”

 

“Yes. That left me.”

 

It was the most Dean had ever heard Castiel talk at one time, and he had the notion if he said the wrong thing he'd break the tenuous spell that had fallen over the other man, that he'd clam up and perhaps not be as willing to discuss such obviously painful things. And God help him, Dean didn't want him to stop talking. The man sitting in front of him with hunched shoulders and battered hippie threads looked miles away from both the constrained newspaper employee and the flaming, avenging angel who'd rescued him from Alistair; more real, and Dean was fascinated. Scooting to the edge of his seat, he reached forward and clasped Castiel's elbow, giving it a soft squeeze.

 

Cas gave him the tiniest of smiles of gratitude.

 

“My revelation occurred during my gap year backpacking trip one evening when Anna and I found refuge from a thunderstorm in a youth hostel. I called him and told him that I wouldn't be following his plan when I returned.”

 

“I bet that went over well,” Dean said dryly.

 

“You could say that. I was cast out.”

 

“What, just like that?” Dean asked. “No 'think it over, son' or 'are you sure's?”

 

Castiel shook his head. “Disobedience to my father was—is—unthinkable. If you are a part of the family, his word is absolute.” Pressing his lips into a thin line, Cas said, “It was stupid of me to tell him then. If I'd waited another six months I would have come into my trust, but as it was, I was young and impatient.” Softer, he added, “I was very lucky for Anna's kindness. What assets I had were immediately frozen and I was summarily turned out on my own.”

 

“Jesus,” Dean breathed. He couldn't imagine, for all John Winchester had been an asshole, that he'd ever have done anything like that to his sons.

 

“Afterwards I adopted my middle name in place of my first, and determined that I would make my own way in the world. I could have taken Anna's offers of money or apologized to Father and been taken back into his good graces, but my pride wouldn't allow it.”

 

The ravenously curious reporter in him was gratified to be handed so much information about Castiel at once, but Dean felt he'd hardly done anything to deserve such full disclosure.

 

“Not that I don't appreciate it, Cas, but...why are you telling me this? I haven't—” He stopped what he was going to say in favor of blurting an epiphany. “Shit, you're Jimmy Novak.”

 

The Novak family was prolific, rich, and deeply entrenched in the Pontiac community. Dean was uncertain how he'd never connected the dots before now, as it wasn't exactly a common last name. There was a time when they were both young that Jimmy Novak's --Castiel's-- picture had been pasted across the Gazette for some sort of award, volunteer effort or commendation at least twice, sometimes three times a month.

 

Dean knew he was correct when Castiel wouldn't meet his eyes. Part of Dean wondered if he should call the man Jimmy now, but that didn't feel right. For better or worse, he was Castiel to Dean, and even contemplating trying to call him anything else felt unnatural.

 

“Not anymore. I haven't been that man for a very long time.” A long, tapered finger tapped Castiel's chin almost thoughtfully as he said, “As for why I'm telling you this...I thought it would be clear, but perhaps not. Here it is, then. If I go back to my father, he has the money, resources and influence to protect you.”

 

Time slowed for Dean, the sweet lake-side air he'd been breathing feeling fresh-water taffy thick suddenly. He hadn't missed the way Castiel said 'protect you'.

 

“But you said if you go back to your dad, he's gonna expect you to fall in line. Get the corporate douchebag job, marry a chick, pop out a few heirs, right?”

 

Castiel's nose twitching was the only sign his outward passivity wasn't reflective of his inner workings. “Yes,” he said. “But I would consider it a small price to pay.”

 

“No.” The word tumbled out of Dean, feeling thick and heavy on his tongue. “No way. You're not going to just give up your life for me.”

 

Ironically, Castiel bared his teeth in a stilted grin. “It wouldn't be a complete hardship, Dean. As you said, there are many who would do much worse to live the sort of life I would lead. Also, there is my condition to consider.”

 

“Condition?” Was Castiel ill and he hadn't known?

 

“Pyrokinesis isn't exactly a common condition, I don't think, at least outside of science fiction novels,” Castiel was saying, and the man couldn't possibly be referring to his awesome as fuck fire powers, could he? Apparently he was, because Cas carried on with, “It is however extremely possible that with my father's connections in the medical research community that a treatment could be created for me. Maybe even a cure.”

 

“A cure? You're not fucking sick!”

 

Castiel appeared taken aback by Dean's vehemence for only a tick of time, and then he was returning with, “Aren't I? If what I could do was commonly known, at best I would be seen as unfit for society. I am an aberration.”

 

The way Cas said aberration, as if it were a foregone fact, as if Dean were stupid for not realizing something so blindingly clear, infuriated him into spewing exactly what he was thinking before passing it through his mental filter.

 

“What you are is amazing!”

 

They both froze as if stunned. Dean's eyes were crossing in his effort to look at his own mouth in shock. Castiel's mouth was open and soft, the fair skin of his neck even paler than usual. His throat made an odd click, as if he was unable to get air into his throat. Dean understood the feeling entirely.

 

In for a penny, Dean internally sighed as he scrunched his eyes shut and took a deep breath. Opening both eyes and mouth, he repeated on the exhale, “You're amazing.” The stitches on his left arm suddenly itched with a blazing intensity; absently Dean rubbed at the surrounding skin and said, “Anyone who...” Adam's apple bobbing, Dean clenched his jaw, sniffed and tried again, as the words he'd been going to say suddenly felt false.

 

“Okay, so in a way you're right.” He couldn't look at Castiel as he spoke, but he heard the muffled grunt from the other man. “Making like Johnny Storm isn't exactly something the average joe can do. But you know what? You do a hell of a lot of other stuff the average dude doesn't do that has nothing to do with your pyro issues.”

 

Warming to his subject, Dean said, “How many people would risk their lives for me the way you did with Alistair in that warehouse? Physical danger was the least of it. You knew I was an investigative reporter, even if I haven't been doing much printed reporting lately, and you knew I was being held by the friggin' scariest criminal group out there and you came for me anyways. I could splash you all over the front page of the Gazette, tell the whole world everything about you and what you can do, which I get the feeling you're not keen on. But you told me anyways. Infernus' thugs could have stabbed you, or shot you, in that warehouse, and even though you made it out okay they're looking for you just as much as me 'n Sammy, but you didn't even fucking hesitate, man. Even with all those variables, you still came. So if that makes you an 'aberration' in society's eyes, then fuck 'em. But to me, that makes you amazing.”

 

Dean didn't know where the outpouring came from, but he couldn't regret it when he saw the utterly gobsmacked expression on Castiel's face. Then Cas was standing, looking about himself as if he'd forgotten something, lips moving as he muttered words too inaudible for Dean to hear. He looked ready to bolt, and that wasn't acceptable to Dean.

 

Standing, he pushed into Castiel's personal space, closer than even Cas had allowed himself to drift into Dean's before. Fisting the soft fibers of Cas' ridiculously embroidered hippie shirt, Dean shook him, once, and said right against his lips in a voice that brooked no argument, “Amazing.”

 

Castiel made a broken sound and leaned just the smallest bit forward and that was it, they were kissing. It was soft and dry and really pretty chaste, but caused Dean's breath to hitch, his heart to literally fucking stop in his chest. Jesus, Dean had been pretty sure when people said that they were speaking figuratively or embellishing to make for a more dramatic story, but his heart actually clenched and stopped moving for one long, long second before it released its tension with a twisting throb he felt down into his knees.

 

Castiel's lips moved tentatively against his, not exerting pressure. It was almost as if he was simply mouthing at Dean's lips, but yeah, it was exponentially hotter than any other first kiss Dean ever had. Words that hadn't made themselves known when Dean's only concern was not allowing Cas to leave (such as “ex-girlfriend”) began ping-ponging around in his brain, and Dean felt a small flare of panic. So he pulled back and tried not to succumb to the urge wrench Castiel closer still, to bury his hands in that naturally messy, oh-so-soft hair and utterly debauch his mouth.

 

“A-amazing,” Cas echoed, ocean-blue eyes glassy with what Dean interpreted as not-disgusted surprise. Dean felt a surge of pride that he'd been able to place such a look on Castiel's face. He was flushed and flustered and yeah, god-damned adorable, so Dean leaned forward and kissed him again, quickly. He darted away before Castiel could reciprocate or push him off.

 

“You're not going to go to your father, okay Cas? We'll find another way.”

 

“Okay,” Castiel nodded, and Dean wondered briefly if he'd had said that no matter what Dean said in that moment. “I should...I should go see what Anna's doing.” It's an excuse to leave, an obvious one and Dean outright smirked.

 

“Yeah. You do that.” Licking his lips, he said, “You know where to find me when you're done.”

 

 +++

 

Castiel avoided Dean, and everyone else, for that matter, for the next three days. It wasn't easy. The lake house was only so big, and Dean had seemed concerned when Cas didn't seek him out that first night, then downright worried thereafter, sending Anna and Sam both to ask if he was okay, if there was anything wrong. It seemed Dean hadn't told them why he was concerned, though, because neither one of them mentioned what Castiel had offered or Dean's kiss response.

 

When Cas couldn't stand it a moment longer, when he had turned their conversation over and over in his own mind and not come up with how he should feel about it, when he was sick of hiding, he went to Anna. She was preparing dinner in the kitchen, vegetables strewn across the big island in the center of the room. He spoke what was on his mind quickly, without preamble.

 

“Dean kissed me.”

 

Anna dropped the knife she'd been chopping mushrooms with, which was probably good, because Castiel only remembered after he spoke that Anna was still interested in Dean, and she'd always been the jealous type.

 

“He what?”

 

“He kissed me,” Castiel repeated, because his self-preservation instincts were clearly gone. Sliding onto a stool, Cas flopped his upper body across the marble-topped bar, groaning.

 

“What? Why?”

 

“Two very good questions,” Castiel murmured. “Questions I've asked myself.” Louder, he said, “I have no idea. I was speaking to him of our options, and he just...” He spread his hands wide and gave a clumsy half-shrug.

 

The shock appeared to have worn off for Anna, because she was able to walk calmly over to the sink to wash her hands. They were both silent for the half-minute that took, and when Anna turned back to Castiel, drying her hands on a towel, she said cautiously, “Well, did you like it?”

 

Cas wished he could have been startled by the question, but he supposed in the circumstances it wasn't entirely a strange thing to ask. “I didn't dislike it,” he said carefully. “But it was so unexpected, I—”

 

He stopped when Anna snorted expressively.

 

“What?”

 

“I'm sorry, Castiel, but unexpected? Please. That man has been looking at you like he'd like to eat you alive since you got here. And from what I've seen, it hasn't been exactly unreciprocated.” Castiel must have looked as flummoxed as he felt, because Anna snorted again and said, “Seriously, Cas. You two look have all these, like...epically longing homoerotic glances.”

 

“But I'm not gay.” The response was automatic.

 

“Believe me,” Anna said dryly, “Neither is Dean. But apparently there's something there between you two anyway. Question is, you going to do anything about it? Seems Dean's willing to take a chance Cas. Are you?”

 

“I don't know.”

 

“Castiel.” Anna only used that tone with him when he did something particularly tiresome. “Do you want him or not?”

 

“I don't know!” Cas groaned. “But I think I might.”

 

“Well then what are you doing sitting around talking to me?” Anna motioned towards the door. “Go get 'em, tiger.”

 

Rolling his eyes, Castiel said, “Things are not that simple, Anna.”

 

Arching a brow, Anna leaned across the kitchen island. Snagging up a handful of spinach, she said, “Am I hearing this right? Is a man complicating things where simple, guaranteed sex is involved?”

 

“You're not as funny as you think you are.” Castiel could feel his nostrils flare as he exhaled sharply. “Things between Dean and I are complicated already. I haven't had to do anything to make them that way.”

 

“Cas.” Anna picked her knife up and began shredding the leafy greens. “It's a penis. Believe me, I've dealt with enough of them. I can assure you there's nothing complicated about it. And I seriously doubt it's going to do something yours doesn't.”

 

“Anna,” Cas hissed. “Would you be serious for one moment? I could hurt him!”

 

Without missing a beat, Anna scooped up the chopped spinach and threw it into to sauce pan, quipping, “Go slow and use lots of lube, you'll be fine.”

 

Shoving away from the counter, Castiel was prepared to stomp away and, horror of horrors, call his brother Balthazar for advice, when Anna turned around and saw his dark expression. “Oh,” she said, in a completely different tone. “You're serious. Cas, I'm sorry, I just...sit back down, yeah?”

 

Cas sat, eyes narrowed in such a way as to let Anna know that he was only doing so as a favor to her, not because he forgave her for her impertinence. She sighed.

 

“I shouldn’t have been flip, Cas. Why don't you tell me what's going on?”

 

“That's just it,” Castiel burst out. “I don't know.”

 

Forehead crinkling, Anna said, “What do you mean you don't know?”

 

“I mean...you know that Dean was injured when we arrived. Quite badly.”

 

Anna nodded. “He seems much better now.”

 

Seems being the operative word. But I'm uncertain just how Dean was injured.”

 

Forehead crinkle devolving into a complete frown, Anna said, “Doc Benton said that it was mostly cuts, a few bruises, but...oh.” She stopped as what Castiel wasn't saying became clear. “You don't think—?”

 

“I don't know,” Castiel repeated. “I feel sick even contemplating it, but he was there for hours alone with that man, and...you didn't see him, Anna. The person who had Dean, he...” Swallowing hard, he said, “I would believe him capable of such things, easily.”

 

“You could ask him.”

 

“That is a conversation I'm sure would go well.”

 

“But maybe it's one he needs to have. Even after the one date we had, I could tell Dean isn't the sort of guy to just go around talking about his feelings. But if you ask him...”

 

Castiel should have perhaps known not to take advice from a woman Dean had gone out with once and not called again, but he thought he already knew what the answer to the questions he would ask were, and he allowed himself to believe that maybe Dean really just did need an offer to talk about it, and then he'd begin to truly heal.

 

“Thank you, Anna,” he said.

 

He found Dean shortly after in the living room, stretched full out on the butter yellow sectional Anna had fallen in love with three years ago and Castiel had nearly pulled his back out dragging into the house. Bitchin' Kitchen was playing on the tv in all its color-clashing, badly-accented glory.

 

“Hey, Cas,” Dean said easily, like Castiel hadn't been running every time he even caught a glimpse of tanned skin or short brown hair for the better part of several days. “This show is weird. I can't decide if it's meant to be serious, or like, a parody of a regular cooking show. Chick's hot, though.”

 

“Dean,” Castiel returned. The decision to simply go to Dean and ask him outright about his time in Alistair's care had seemed much easier under the bright pot lights of the kitchen and Anna's confidence. Once Cas was actually faced with the man, he found it more difficult than he'd believed it would be.

 

“Don't worry.” Dean threw a grin Castiel's way. The curve of Dean's top i-tooth against its neighbor seeming sharp and bright in the dimly lit room. “I think you're hotter. C'mere.”

 

Castiel had been on the receiving end of such statements before, but coming from Dean they seemed intoxicatingly new. He went, nestling into the hollow beside Dean's hip. The other man wiggled upwards, just enough so that his head was slightly elevated, and then he tangled his fingers in the curls at the nape of Castiel's neck, pulling him down for a kiss. It was as easy, as if it was just something they did, and not brand-new between them. Castiel sighed as Dean pulled closer, and himself sucking on Dean's lower lip, deepening it into a throbbing kiss. Castiel had wondered why the Kama Sutra, a compendium on sex, had devoted a section to kissing, because while the kisses he'd exchanged with Meg, and even Anna, when they were young and curious, had been good, they hadn't made him feel the way he did right then. They were nothing compared to when Dean touched him. Dean's kisses made Castiel suddenly understand their inclusion. He made an involuntary noise low in his throat and licked at Dean's lips.

 

Chuckling at the back of his throat, Dean opened his mouth and slid his tongue alongside Castiel's, the warm wetness of it a slight, pleasant shock. Castiel found himself pulled atop Dean, his legs arranged so they bracketed the other man's, all without their lips parting. Castiel's hands found Dean's shoulders and, bracing himself, he curled his fingers around the muscle there, hard.

 

This time it was Dean's turn to make an involuntary noise, but his was devoid of passion. Castiel jerked away, snatching his hands away and tumbling off Dean's lap and onto the floor. “I'm so sorry, Dean, I forgot—”

 

“Nah, it's okay.” Dean tried to brush it off, but his reaction to Castiel accidentally squeezing his hand-shaped burn—which must still be quite sensitive, judging by Dean's reactions—reminded him of his original goal in seeking Dean out in the first place.

 

“Dean,” Castiel said. “Tell me what Alistair did to you.”

 

Dean had been struggling into a sitting position, like a turtle on its back with its legs flailing in the air, but when Castiel spoke he stopped and stared instead. “What?” he sputtered.

 

Yes, he could have found a more polite way of asking about what he wanted to know, but Castiel wasn't always a very polite, or, more to the point, a patient person, especially when an unpleasant reaction was a possibility. He preferred to tackle things like someone pulling off a bandage. Painful, but hopefully after the initial sting, over and done with.

 

“I believe you should tell me everything Alistair did to you before we proceed further,” Castiel said.

 

“Dude, what the fuck?” Dean was up and off the sectional. “Just what the fuck are you saying?”

 

“Dean.” Castiel licked his lips, suddenly thinking this was a very, very bad idea. It had been quite a week, and Dean was doing so well, maybe Castiel had been mistaken, maybe what he'd washed off of Dean's skin in that brief span of time when he'd had him in his apartment before taking him to Bobby's had been something else, but he didn't think so.

 

“Don't Dean me,” Dean said, his voice raising in pitch with each word. “Just what the fuck are you saying, Cas? Is this why you've been avoiding me? Because of what—”

 

Castiel reached out a hand in comfort, and Dean flinched away. They both froze immediately after, but the damage was done. Cas took it as further proof, and Dean seemed to know he did.

 

“No, you know what?” Dean snarled. “I'm not doing this.” He was out of the room, his angry footsteps pounding up the stairs seconds later.

 

 +++

 

Dinner that evening was an awkward affair. Dean came downstairs right as it was being served, and sat at his usual spot to Castiel's right with obvious reluctance. They all ate in silence, Sam picking up on the tension in the air, Anna shooting Castiel pathetically apologetic looks. Castiel pushed at the pasta on his plate, a dish that was usually one of his favorites, instead of eating it.

 

He knew as soon as he said those words to Dean that they were wrong, and once again he wondered just what he'd been doing listening to Anna in the first place. Something like Dean's experiences should only be spoken of when the person who'd lived through them was ready to speak, and Castiel pushing him like that, phrasing it almost as an ultimatum, was wrong.

 

“I don't believe I'm very hungry,” he finally said, when the silence became too much. If he'd looked up at Dean when he stood, or when he went over to the kitchen's garbage can to scrape his uneaten food into the garbage, he would have seen the conflicted pinch between Dean's eyebrows and the laden looks exchanged between Anna and Sam. Instead he's kept his gaze resolutely on his bare feet as he shuffled towards the stairs.

 

He thought he heard Dean say his name behind him, but it was only once, and spoken softly, so Castiel decided he'd been hearing what he wanted and nothing more, and continued up the stairs.

 

A knock sounded outside Castiel's room an hour after dinner. He’d retreated there just after to have a telephone conversation with Balthazar, claiming a headache. Castiel peripherally heard the knock, but was too wrapped up in replaying the call with his brother to really register it.

 

Your problem is as it has always been, Cassie—listening to any advice Anna sodding Milton gives you.”

 

Balthazar, she means well.”

 

She's a menace.”

 

She's my friend, Balthazar, the only one who stayed after...”

 

Yes,” his brother said, more gently. “That she did. Forgive me Castiel. Enough about Anna—we'll never see eye to eye there. What are you going to do about your boy? Which is a phrase, might I add, that I never thought I'd say to you.”

 

Despite himself Castiel chuckled, short and bitter. “I honestly can say I have no idea. He's been trying to talk to me, but I've...” he trailed off, unsure how to say that he'd been hiding in his room for the better part of several days.

 

Been avoiding him?” Balthazar sighed. “That's really not going to help your case here, Cas.”

 

Thank you for your sage advice,” Castiel returned dryly. “But I've let it go on so long that...”

 

Castiel,” Balthazar interrupted him. “I'm going to tell you something about yourself. This may be the only time I'm willing to speak so candidly, so listen well. Your problem is that you don't just let things happen. You put things off, delay them, put them off some more, until they're a big huge bloody deal that they didn't have to be. Take your pesky virginity, for instance.”

 

Balthazar!”

 

You had plenty of opportunities, I'm certain, in which to rid yourself of it,” Balthazar continued on. “But you simply never let it happen.”

 

Is there a point to this?”

 

The point, my dear dunce, is the next time your Dean wishes to speak to you or get you alone? Try letting him.” Ever true to his marvelous phone skills, Balthazar hung up right after dropping that statement, leaving Castiel with the option of either calling him back and insisting they continue to talk about the subject, which Cas was loathe to do, or sitting and thinking about what his brother had said, which wasn't a very attractive option either, but the one he found himself doing,

 

Another knock sounded, and then came Dean's voice, soft but clear, breaking Castiel from his reverie.

 

“Can I come in?”

 

Cas hesitated. Dean being there and wishing to talk could only mean one thing. He'd capitulated to Castiel's selfish desire for information. He huddled behind the door, wondering if he should open it. Now that he was getting what he wanted, he was afraid.

 

“Cas?”

 

He could hear Dean lick his lips, even through the wood, and he took a deep breath. Then Castiel reached up and slid the bolt, unlocking the door. Wordlessly he stepped aside to allow Dean to enter. Once he was in the room, Castiel shut the door and, after a pause, slid the latch back home.

 

Only then did he look at Dean. He looked just the same as he had at dinner, same tight, ripped jeans, same battered Henley, same bare feet, but Castiel's view of him altered as he let his feelings for the man solidify, making Cas believe that he'd never seen Dean looking more beautiful.

 

“Cas, if you want to know what happened to me, then I'm willing to tell you. If that's what it takes to be with you, then I'll tell you.” This close, Castiel could see moisture clinging to the base of Dean's lashes, as if he'd either been crying or holding back tears.

 

“No,” Castiel said.

 

“What?” Dean asked, then sucked in his lower lip. “Oh. You don't want....that's okay, I get it. I'll just...let myself out, I guess.” He turned away, and Castiel grasped Dean's forearm, the skin hot under his touch. A slight pressure, and Dean was facing him again, if barely.

 

“You misunderstand,” Castiel said. “I shouldn't have asked it of you in the first place. You don't have to tell me anything you're not ready to, no matter what I may say.” He'd come to understand, in the space of time after his brief conversation with Balthazar and before Dean came to his door that Castiel's request could have implied that, had anything happened, it would make Dean less in Cas' estimation. That was patently untrue, and Castiel wanted to make sure Dean knew it.

 

“No matter what, you are Dean. What happened is only important in how it affected you. I'm sorry if the way I spoke made it seem I thought otherwise.” Cas stood on his toes and kissed him, just underneath the faded yellow of Dean's former black eye. Trailing his lips downward, he skimmed his mouth over Dean's cheek and across his nose. Dean's hitched intake of breath was satisfying, encouraging enough for Castiel to step away and back until the dips of his knees hit the edge of the bed.

 

Crawling on top, Cas pushed the layers of quilts he preferred for sleeping away. He could feel Dean watching him, calculating what his actions meant. Not wanting there to be any doubt, Castiel tapped the mattress, once.

 

“Lay beside me.”

 

Pulling the blankets the rest of the way off to the side, Castiel smoothed his hand down the soft cotton sheets. He should have changed them, perhaps, but he'd not started the day with seduction in mind, and besides, the faded vintage flowers currently stretched across his mattress were his favorite. He could think of no other sheets he'd rather use.

 

“You're not gonna make me talk about it?”

 

There is was, in the shadows under Dean's eyes and the carefully phrased question, the confirmation that there was something to talk about. Castiel simply shook his head.

 

“I won't make you do anything you don't wish to. Well,” he paused. “Unless it's for your own good, like taking a shower when you begin to smell or eating when you forget or taking out the garbage when it piles up.” He didn't even realize he was speaking as if they were going to be in one another's lives for a long time within intimate quarters until it was out in the air, but Dean didn't seem to mind. If anything, he liked it, with the way his Adam's apple bobbed with his hitched breath.

 

“Well, okay then,” he said, voice like tumbling pea-gravel.

 

Dean came to him, stripping his shirt with a movement that belied he was still sore from his injuries. Still, he didn't hesitate as he flicked the top button of his jeans. Two more followed, and Castiel stared at the small patch of skin and dusting of hair framed by that open v and the dark band of Dean's underwear. His eyes were wide, the pupils so large they almost swallowed the thin, bottle-green ring of his irises.

 

Hands skimming, Dean followed through the rest of the way and pushed the denims off his hips, leaving him clad in only his boxer briefs. The solid line of his penis swelled against the black cotton, half-hard under the weight of Cas' gaze. Dean kicked the bunched tangle of his pants from around his ankles before lowering himself to the mattress. It creaked slightly in just the same spot Castiel's mattress did in his apartment, and he had a moment to wonder what about his sleeping habits caused that particular anomaly before Dean pushed calloused fingers under Castiel's shirt, flirting between the softness of his belly and the waistband of his cargos.

 

Castiel could read the question in Dean's eyes, the concern that Cas wasn't really ready for anything like what he was suggesting, but the bedroom door was locked, and Castiel was sick and tired of being alone. Dean was the first person Cas had ever felt really understood him instinctively. He might not know all the particulars of his life the way Anna or Balthazar did, nor he of Dean's, and he might not have been immediately, electrically attracted to Castiel the way Meg admitted she had been, but Dean was the one. Castiel didn't capitalize the phrase in his thoughts, but the sentiment was there.

 

Cupping Dean's cheek, Cas leaned forward and closed his eyes.

 

 +++

 

The lurching awareness that something was wrong woke Dean from a deep sleep. Cas was curled around him, body hunched into a small parenthesis, knees tucked behind Dean's, an arm tight around Dean's waist. Normally Dean would think about the embarrassment of realizing he was the little spoon and that he liked it, but the sound of footsteps pounding up the stairs echoing out in the hall put the kabosh on any such thoughts.

 

“Cas,” Dean hissed, shaking him. Castiel made a pathetic, sleepy sound and tried to roll away, but the unmistakable sound of a heavy body hitting the top landing, hard, had Dean jerking at Cas' shoulder.

 

“Cas, there's someone in the house. Wake up!”

 

That got the desired reaction. Castiel was alert and out of bed, padding naked over to the door. He cocked his head to one side, and when Dean hissed his name again he held back a hand, motioning for silence. Another thud and the smoke alarms in the house began to wail, followed by men's voices shouting, no longer concerned with stealth after the still of the night had been broken. Castiel cursed and checked the bolt he'd thrown on the door earlier, then hurried over to where Dean was slipping out from under the covers.

 

“The window,” Cas mouthed.

 

“I can't leave Sam.”

 

A shout—his brother's voice bellowing—punctuated this statement, and Castiel's face hardened. He must have intuitively known that arguing would be fruitless, because he began herding Dean towards the window instead.

 

“Cas, fuck, no! I have to help Sammy, I—”

 

“Have already been injured enough!” Castiel snapped. “I'm not risking you, Dean.” Using his surprising strength to his advantage, Castiel manhandled Dean until he was practically straddling the open casing.

 

“I'm not going out without Sam!” Dean insisted.

 

“Go, and I will help Sam,” Castiel tried to demand, but Dean had already had enough of feeling like the helpless chick in a pulp novel, and besides, Sammy. There was no possible way he could allow him to come to harm.

 

The doorknob to their room jiggled, and then when the person seeking entry found it to be locked, the entire frame rattled. The door was getting kicked in.

 

“Dean, go now!” Castiel said, and attempted one last time to push him out the window. What he didn't count on was Dean holding tight to him and pulling Cas out along with him.

 

They both rolled out on the porch rooftop and off the side, and Dean had a moment of blind terror in which his mind stuttered, oh, shit, this is going to hurt before Cas pulled him close and twisted them, putting his own back between Dean and the ground. They landed with a solid thud, Castiel completely silent except for a sharp whoosh of air leaving his lungs.

 

“Dean! Cas!” Sam bounded up behind them, pulling Dean off Castiel and, seemingly unconcerned with the man's nudity, quickly checking Cas over for injuries.

“Anna? Where?” Castiel was able to wheeze.

 

“Here,” she said, appearing out of the woods like a specter. “I was in the living room when I heard them. I was able to sneak out the window.”

 

“How many of them are there?” Sam asked.

 

“Don't know,” Anna gasped, and then coughed. A bright bubble of blood burst past her lips. It was then that Dean noticed the way she'd been standing, the way one of her arms was held tight across her stomach.

 

“Is Cas okay?” she asked.

 

“I'm fine, I'm okay,” he assured her. “But you, Anna—” The stark fear, the panic in his voice was so at odds to the hyper-calm Castiel that had just pushed Dean out of a second story window because he thought it was the best option to be had.

 

“I got the keys to Dean's car,” she pressed on. “In my pocket. We gotta hurry, when they see we're not in the house...”

 

As if her words were a signal, a loud roar came from within the cottage. “Check outside!”

 

“Time to go,” Sam decided. Dean watched as he scooped Anna up into his arms and ran with her to the Impala. Luckily for them, it had not been tampered with, and Dean darkly thought that was because none of the home invaders had expected them to never wake to defend themselves, let alone escape. They got to the Impala just as dark figures began to swarm back outside, and Dean fished in Anna's jacket pocket for his keys. Tossing them to Castiel, he opened the back door and so Sam could deposit Anna in the back seat, and then all three men crammed together on the front bench. Cas got the key in the ignition and the car roared to life when the closest figure stopped and began shooting at the back windshield. It shattered, sending glass shards flying as Castiel punched the gas.

 

Dean turned around to look in the back. “Anna?” he gasped. He hadn't heard the woman call out when the glass broke, and when he looked back it was obvious why. Her eyes were wide open and glassy, blankly fixed to the roof of the car. Dean fought back the urge to vomit as the memory of the last time Anna had been in the backseat of his car harshly countered the current reality.

 

“Dean,” Cas was whimpering, hands white-knuckled on the steering wheel. “Anna, is she okay?”

 

Dean quickly reached up and jerked the rearview mirror sharply to the right. “Just drive, Cas,” he whispered. Castiel made this odd hitching-squeal noise, and as they peeled out of suburbia and fishtailed onto I-90, the flash of other car's passing headlights revealed the tears on his cheeks.

 

 +++

 

They're well into Western New York, just on the far side of a town named Westfield when Cas finally pulled off the highway and into the weed-choked, dimly lit parking lot of a disreputable looking motel. Sam wondered what sort of laws they'd broken by crossing state lines with a violently murdered body in the back, and was constituting it as a small miracle that they hadn't been pulled over due to the blown-out back windshield. Cas had been shaking since they crossed the border. Sam had pulled off his sleep shirt draped it over the guy's lap so he wasn't completely bared to the breeze. Dean wasn't dressed in much more, just a pair of boxer briefs. Half-hysterically, he wondered if Cas was expecting one of them to walk into the lobby and book a room, wondered if he had even processed what had happened to Anna yet.

 

“We can't stop here, dude.” Dean spoke softly, his hand cupping Castiel's elbow. The smaller man gave a great wracking shudder. His hands didn't leave the steering wheel.

 

“Anna...”

 

“I know, and I'm sorry.”

 

Sam felt as if he was intruding on a private moment of grief, which he supposed he was. He hadn't known Anna, not in the way that Dean had, and certainly not in the way Castiel had.

 

“We're going to have to take another car.”

 

Both Dean and Castiel turned to look at him, their eyes round, like a pair of mated owls. “We can't...I don't want to leave Anna here like this, but sooner or later those guys are gonna catch up to us. We're still too close.” Unspoken was that anyone they could call would, not unreasonably, look at three nearly naked men and the dead woman in the backseat and form the wrong conclusions. By the time those conclusions were disproved, they'd be dead. Infernus had enough crooked cops that jail wouldn't even be safe for them.

 

Dean swallowed. Sam could tell that he was pushing through his fog of shock and thinking, really thinking, about Sam's point. He half expected an argument about leaving the Impala behind, but Dean surprised him by simply nodding towards the glove box. “You remember how?”

 

“Of course,” Sam said. While he didn't always agree with Dean's idea of morality, Sam wasn't one to refuse to learn something new, and when they were teens was no exception.

 

“A car?” Cas spoke as if he were forcing his voice to be heard underwater. Slow, careful, and a bit louder than necessary. “You know how to hot wire a car?”

 

Sam forced a grin, which felt a million shades of wrong with Anna's bright hair splayed across the back seat, her blood soaking into the cushion. “Advantages to a misspent youth,” he said, fishing what he needed out of the box before stepping out. Being the one to pick and wire the car would give Dean, now that he was a bit more lucid, the opportunity to give what comfort he could to Cas. Hopefully it would be enough to get them moving again, until they found a safe place. Wherever that may be. Sam couldn't think of one now, but he knew it wasn't here.

 

He picked a car and got it started with moderate ease. As he tripped back to the Impala, he could hear Cas speaking, broken and low, and Dean's rumbling reply.

 

“I don't want to just leave her here, Dean. She deserves more.”

 

“As soon as we're clear we'll call someone. She won't...she won't be here long.”

 

Sam waited another sixty seconds, and then rapped on the driver's side window. “Got the car,” he said. “We have to get a move on, before someone notices what we're doing.”

 

Somehow he got them out of the car and by the trunk. Forcing it open, Sam withdrew the knapsack of clothes Dean always kept in the back and handed it over to his brother wordlessly before jerking his chin to the waiting Taurus.

 

An hour later, Dean and Castiel were dressed, an 'anonymous' tip had been left to lead the police to the Impala and Anna'a body, and they were just outside of Buffalo. Dean had been largely silent during the drive, not unusual, but it was Castiel that Sam was mostly worried about. So far he'd been able to keep a check on his pyrokinesis, but only barely. More than once Sam caught a whiff of sulfur only to have it followed by the soft sound of rustling cloth or skin on skin and his brother's voice murmuring a soothing word. Sam worried what would happen when Castiel finally broke down, when Dean's platitudes would stop being enough, and hoped that they weren't in a moving vehicle when it happened.

 

“Castle Storage,” Dean piped in, breaking Sam from his thoughts.

 

He grunted in acknowledgment. While their father's storage locker filled with a miscellany of bric-a-brac he'd been unwilling to part with (accumulated from when John had briefly lived in the area) wasn't ideal, it was almost guaranteed to be private. They kept the locker paid. Sam kept intending to drive up and sort through everything, but the two years since their father's death hadn't been conducive to such an undertaking. They could go there and lock themselves in for what was left of the night, hopefully gather their bearings to decide what they were going to do next. Sam didn't know why he didn't think of it earlier.

 

They made it without further incident to neighborhood the storage center was located in, which Sam thought as only fair, as he believed they'd had enough for the night without getting caught with a stolen vehicle. Ditching the car, they walked on foot until they got to the locker. Luckily Dean's key ring, which he'd had the presence of mind not to leave behind in the Impala, had the unit's key on it, too. They slipped in, Sam latching the door behind them. When he turned around, he was greeted with years worth of accumulated dust, everything looking shabbier than he remembered it to be. Luckily there was a couch buried under a small pile of boxes, and Sam moved forward to unearth it when Dean grabbed at his arm.

 

“Dude, could you maybe pull on a shirt?” he asked. Only then did Sam see the way Castiel's eyes were fixed to his abdomen, the way he was shaking so badly he almost appeared to be seizing. With that look came the psychosomatic itch, and Sam looked down to see the blood caked across his skin. They only had a bottle of water that had been left in the car they'd stolen, nothing nearly enough for Sam to clean himself up.

 

“Shit, yeah, um...you have one that'll maybe fit me?” Sam wasn't too hopeful on this front, but with the way Cas was looking at him, he was willing to wear one a few sizes too small.

 

“Lucky for you I think ahead and happen to have a set of gargantuan sized garanimals in here with your name on them.” Dean's joke fell flat, an obvious attempt to temporarily direct their thoughts away from how royally fucked they were.

 

“The police are going to think we murdered Anna,” Cas said. It was the first full sentence Sam had heard him speak since they'd left Westfield.

 

“Yeah, probably,” Dean agreed. He took over Sam's aborted attempt to clear the sofa, stacking the boxes neatly one atop the other beside a dead ficus.

 

“This is all my fault,” Castiel intoned.

 

Dean slammed the box he'd been transporting to the ground, hard. “In no way has any of this been your fault, Cas. If it's anyone's fault all this has happened, it's mine.”

 

Enormous blue eyes regarded Dean with no little shock. “Yours? How could it be yours? I was the one who suggested going to the lake house.”

 

“Yeah, but why'd you suggest it in the first place? You got caught up in all this because you saved my life when I did something Jackass stupid. This all goes back to that night at the warehouse. If you hadn't come to save me, then you'd still be living your happy normal life and Anna would still be alive.”

 

“My life would hardly—”

 

“Alright,” Sam interrupted. “I'm going to stop this right here.” Dean and Cas both stared at him in that way some long-married couples do when someone is brave or stupid enough to break up one of their arguments, equal parts pissed off at each other and united against the interloper. “You can go back and forth about who is more at fault, but the fact is neither one of you are to blame. Infernus, and Lilith, and Alistair, and before them Azazel, they're the ones that started this. Not us.”

 

“Great, it's their fault. But you know who's going to do something about that, Sam? No one. Because if anyone catches up to us, the best we can hope for is a quick death in jail like Masters got, and you know what? I don't hold out much hope for that, because I was god-damned stupid enough to think I could take them down, but you know what? I can't. All of it—Lilith, Infernus, Alistair—it's too much, too big, and I can't do it.”

 

“What are you suggesting, Dean? That we run and keep running for the rest of our lives, hoping that no one catches up to us?”

 

“That's exactly what I'm suggesting!”

 

“I don't want to run.”

 

Sometime during Sam and Dean's disagreement, Castiel had drifted over to the sofa and sat on the edge of the center cushion. He was hunched over, and his hands were around his knees like a child awaiting punishment, but when he stated his opinion it was clear and perfectly controlled.

 

“What's your alternative, Cas?” Sam asked when it became clear Dean wasn't going to. His brother was looking at his boyfriend (no matter what Dean might say, his actions of the past week spoke pretty clearly about what exactly his relationship with Cas was) with wonder. It was as if he knew what Cas was going to say and was trying to decide if he was thrilled or terrified by it.

 

“Confronting them is crazy,” Dean said carefully.

 

“Maybe...maybe I am ready for crazy,” Castiel replied.

 

“I don't want you risking yourself any further for us, Cas.”

 

“While your concern is touching, at this point it's moot. You have been tortured, Sam threatened, and Anna is dead. Dean, I'm in the thick of this whether you'd like me to be or not. I have special abilities. I suggest it's time that we put them to use.”

 

 +++

 

It took them another week of stealing and then ditching cars, traveling back roads and paranoid backtracking to make it back to Pontiac, and another week after that to gather everything they needed. The results when they began to put Castiel's plan into motion, though, were undeniable.

 

 +++

 

A masked vigilante police are calling Brimstone for the nature of his—and I can't believe I'm saying this, Bill—superhuman abilities—and the tell-tale odor of sulfur he leaves behind is still on the loose tonight. For the past four nights various alleged members of the so-called Infernus organization have been found in different locations throughout the city, bound and waiting for police with evidence of their alleged crimes pinned to their clothing, and last night was no exception. Police say the individuals detained have all told them the same story: that a hooded man with wings of fire apprehended and tied them, where they remained until law enforcement arrived.

 

“I dislike that nickname.”

 

Dean turned his attention away from the tv and the anchor who seemed geekily thrilled to be making her report to see Castiel had returned for the day. He had a long, shallow gash that crossed his clavicle and an equally long rend in his pants. Dean could see the torn skin underneath.

 

“Shit, Cas, you're hurt.”

 

“It's nothing. Not in the face of this.” Castiel dropped a square of folded paper on the scarred table of the abandoned house they were squatting in. “One of the men I encountered tonight was carrying this.”

 

Skeptics are saying this is an elaborate PR campaign from a movie studio for an as-yet unannounced film, but witnesses on the scene insist that Brimstone is very much real, and suggest that the Infernus organization may finally have cause to worry.”

 

“Is that what I think it is?”

 

“Yes.”

 

He came down out of the sky, wings on fire and that man crying, begging him for forgiveness like he was an avenging angel come to deliver us from his evil,” A pudgy blond said from the motel room's tiny television, his face extremely close to the news camera.

 

“I do not remember that man being there. I believe he is making his presence up.”

 

Dean snorted as he unfolded the paper to read the single line inscribed within. “Welcome to the world of being famous,” he said as his eyes scanned the information. “You keep this up, and 'Brimstone' sightings are gonna be more popular than Elvis.”

 

“I really dislike that nickname.”

 

Dean smirked. “Part of the fun of being a superhero is getting your superhero name from the media, babe.” He announced this as if it were common knowledge, passed down on high from generations, and Castiel was silly for being irritated. Dean re-folded the paper and set it back on the table.

 

“Tomorrow night, huh?”

 

“So it would seem.”

 

“You don't seem very excited. This was one of our big goals, getting a crack at Alistair.”

 

“It just seems too...”

 

“Easy?”

 

Castiel tilted his head, then nodded. “Yes. I expected it to take much longer.”

 

Sam stirred from his corner of the room, breaking his attention from whatever was on his laptop long enough to say, “Cas, didn't you say that Alistair seemed to recognize you?”

 

“Yes,” Castiel said slowly. “That fact still makes me uneasy.”

 

“Maybe they're thinking that we're setting a trap,” Dean suggested.

 

“Exactly,” Sam agreed. “They wouldn't be wrong, either.”

 

“We'll just have to be careful when we capture him.” Castiel slumped on the edge of one of the motel's lumpy mattress, shoulders bowed.

 

“Hey, you okay?” Dean asked, treading closer. He placed a hand on the back of Castiel's neck, and Cas rolled his face towards him. The mask that hid Castiel's identity, a bondage fantasy in leather and spandex, provided from a sex shop by a leering Balthazar, was still on. Dean loosened the laces that held it snug and pulled it off, grinning slightly at the sight of Castiel's usually rumpled hair looking downright disastrous after being confined for the better part of the night.

 

“C'mon, handsome, let's get you to bed,” Dean said. Castiel half-heartedly groaned about taking a shower first, but Dean ignored him, pushing him back so he could unlace his tall boots, a lucky find at a surplus store.

 

By the time Dean was peeling Castiel's pants off, the superhero was passed out. The past weeks had been spent with Castiel pushing his pyrokinesis to the limit of his endurance. Every morning Cas returned after a night patrolling for Infernus goons and collapsed into an exhausted puddle for a few hours before he was able to wake, shower and eat something.

 

“Do you really think this'll work?” Sam asked quietly. Dean turned to see his brother had been watching him strip Cas, and for a split moment, he thought Sam was questioning his and Castiel's relationship, until Sam scrunched up his face like he knew what Dean was thinking and hurried to say, “Do you think Alistair will really give us Lilith's location?”

 

“I think it's our best shot right now,” Dean said, grunting as he pulled Castiel's dead weight up so that his feet were no longer dangling off the end of the bed. Flopping next to Cas, he looked across his shoulder to his brother, who was gnawing at his bottom lip the way he always did when he was worried about something.

 

“I hope it works,” Sam said. “I hope all this is worth it.”

 

“It will be, Sam,” Dean said. He refused to believe anything else. “We'll get Alistair to talk, and then we'll take on Lilith, and when she goes the whole pack of cards will crumble with her. You'll see. It has to. Last I check, we only had two dozen safety deposit boxes left. They're finding them fast, Sam. After they get them all, there'll be no reason to make sure that either one of us stays alive. So it'll work.”

 

Sam smiled, but to Dean, who himself was clawing at whatever hope he could grasp, it looked desperate and strained. “Yeah, Dean,” he said through his grimace.

 

“Cas is sure this'll work,” Dean insisted. Sam's smile softened into something more real. Dean braced himself for some girly comment like You really care about him, don't you or He's important to you, isn't he but instead Sam just nodded his head, and the newscaster moved on to talking about the weather. Dean reached for the remote and shut the tv off before laying back down next to Cas and resolutely closing his eyes. They would all need to be well rested for the days to come.

 

 +++

 

“How are you this fine day, my Crucible?”

 

Alistair's question could have passed for a pleasantry if he hadn't been holding Castiel firmly by his throat.

 

Everything that could have gone wrong the evening they confronted Alistair did. The first, and most mundane, was that the vehicle they'd been using, (Balthazar's spare with switched out plates) had refused to start and they'd almost missed their window of opportunity. Castiel had nearly insisted on going alone, (and things might have turned out better if he had, he sourly thought) but Dean and Sam had both been astoundingly stubborn.

 

“You've done too much of this alone as it is. Agreement always was that when you found where any of the big guns were gonna be that we went with you,” Dean had insisted, green eyes fierce. Sam's set jaw had decided it, and in the end they'd stolen another car, just making it to the office building the paper had said Alistair was going to be at as the man in question exited.

 

They'd jumped, bound, and gagged him with little effort. So little effort that it should have been a tip off, truthfully, but Castiel had simply been thinking that perhaps something was going in their favor for once. Dean drove them to the location he'd picked for their interrogation, which Castiel had recognized with a lurch as the building he'd pulled Dean out of those weeks ago. It wasn't just a bad location strategically (because if Infernus used the building regularly then it wasn't inconceivable for them to be discovered there). He also feared for Dean's state of mind, but the thin line of his lips as he put the car into park silenced the objections that wanted to spring forward.

 

Sam helped them to haul Alistair's prone form inside, and they'd laid him on a medical bed in a room Castiel had not seen. There were already leather straps attached, and Castiel did not ask Dean how he knew they wouldn't need to bring their own restraints. Instead, he'd helped him buckle Alistair's ankles, wrists, hips, and chin. Sam stepped out as pre-agreed to double check the building to make sure there weren't any Infernus goons lurking in any shadowy corners, leaving Castiel and Dean with Alistair. As the man strapped to the bed began to stir, Dean asked Castiel to give him a few minutes alone with him.

 

Castiel should have refused. He knew even as he agreed that he should refuse, but he'd hoped that in giving Dean a few minutes with his abuser, with Alistair weakened and helpless as Dean had been, that his companion would begin to really heal. He'd left the room, telling Dean he would give him five minutes, no more. Five minutes seemed like a sufficiently short amount of time that Dean would be able to speak his peace to Alistair, and then when Castiel came back they could commence with their true goal of the day. Even in his own mind Castiel shied away from thinking that they were going to torture him for information, because that made him feel that they really weren't all that different from Alistair and Infernus, hurting someone to get what they want.

 

Five minutes, as it turns out, was not short enough. When Castiel returned, the bed was empty, the restraints shredded like wet tissue paper, and Dean—Dean was crumpled against the far wall, his back leaving a smear of blood as he scrabbled away from Alistair. Alistair, who looked whole and healthy and like he hadn't been knocked upside the head and then restrained to a bed. Alistair, who was actually smiling, as if it had all been a pleasant game that he was tickled to be winning.

 

“Cas!” Dean had gasped, “He's like you, he's—”

 

What Alistair was also became clear when the man in question raised his hand and, with a flick of his wrist, sent a gust of wind hurtling across the room, knocking Castiel off his feet and sending him ass over teacups. Alistair had given Dean an expectant look, the way a man will look at his lover as he's leaving, mingled frustration and desire, and Castiel pushed to his feet with a snarl. He tried to lob a fireball in Alistair's direction, but the other man caught it—just held out his hand and scooped it out of the air—and closed his fingers, extinguishing it.

 

“You didn't think you were unique, did you Castiel? Special?” Alistair tilted his chin upwards. “Far from it.”

 

Dean struggled to his feet behind Alistair, charging him with a wild swing of his arm. Alistair stepped to one side, grabbing Dean's outstretched arm as he passed. With a wrenching yank, he used Dean's own forward momentum to spin him around, slamming him back into the wall he'd just picked himself up off of with enough force that the plaster crumbled with his impact.

 

Castiel stepped forward, a wordless cry pressing past his lips, but Alistair had been anticipating that movement as well, which led to their current positions. Dean, still, unmoving and bloody on the floor, and Castiel with a hand around his neck, tight fingers closing off his air.

 

“I am very cross at you for stealing away my boy away. He was still greening, you know. All that wet work, nearly for naught! Tsk. But I pulled that lion back by the tail.” Alistair patted Castiel's cheek. Suddenly leaning in close, he tightened his grip and hissed, “I am not going to let you take him from me again. Your purpose has already been served.” His tongue brushed the lobe of Castiel's ear as Alistair whispered, “The gold is mine.”

 

Dean on the ground at Castiel's feet was all he could focus on. Blood oozed from fresh wounds, and his arm hung at an awkward angle, the shoulder clearly dislocated. Alistair shook Castiel, hard, forcing his attention back on the torturer. Castiel allowed flames to begin licking up his arms and around his neck, but Alistair just laughed.

 

“You think your party tricks will work on me? Who do you think gave them to you in the first place?” Sniffing, he said, “Poor Megara, so upset about her daddy. So open to...suggestions. When I told her what I needed, she was more than happy to provide. All I had to do was tell her it was the only way to keep you. And of course she believed me.” Dismissively, Alistair continued, “She's just a silly crow. Doesn't know better either way. You and she are well matched tools. Not like me, not like what Azazel was, not like Dean will be.”

 

“And what's that?” Cas gasped out, struggling against Alistair's grip.

 

The torturer grinned, baring tobacco-stained teeth that curve inward like a rodent's. “Ascended. Transformed.”

 

Castiel wanted to ask why Dean, but all he was able to force past his lips was Dean's name. Alistair seemed to understand anyway.

 

“I've been watching Dean-o for a very, very long time. Way back when he was still playing lackey for his pops. You might say I developed a proprietary interest. Besides, there's sort of a symmetry in fulfilling Dean's potential. The one to bring Azazel down, replacing him? And I do enjoy symmetry.”

 

What might have happened next Castiel will never know. What does happen is that Sam returns, finally, and Cas has just enough oxygen left in his lungs to hysterically realize that if Sam is there then that means he and Dean have only been in Alistair's grip for ten, maybe fifteen minutes. It seemed so much longer than that. Then Sam was shouting, and there was, of all things, a fire extinguisher in his hands, and he swung it, hard, at the back of Alistair's head. There's a sickening crack and blood sprays across Sam's face. Alistair's body goes limp and falls to the ground, but still Sam is not done. He brings the extinguisher down hard, again. The wet, meaty sound that followed was sure to play in Cas' nightmares for weeks to come.

 

Sam threw the extinguisher aside. It bounced off the legs of the bed with a metallic clank. Castiel concentrated on breathing, three great mouthfuls, and then he was stumbling to Dean's side, sighing in relief as he saw his pulse, strong and sure, beating at the base of his neck.

 

“Did you get what you needed from him?”

 

Castiel looked up at Sam, at the way he wore Alistair's blood across his face unflinchingly. Sam demanded, “Do you know where Lilith is?”

 

“No,” Cas said, softly. He knelt beside Dean, knees cold on the tiled floor, and worked to pull him upright. Sam crouched to help, and between the both of them they were able to pick Dean up and begin making their way out of the building.

 

Only later, as they're safely tucked away in their motel, the blood washed away from their bodies and Dean in one of the beds does Castiel speak again.


“You killed him.”

 

Sam doesn't respond of a long moment. His knuckles were white around the strap of Dean's knapsack, in which he'd been rummaging for fresh clothing. Tersely, he finally said, “You say that like I should be sorry about it.”

 

“Sam,” Castiel whispered. “A man is dead. I'm not saying Alistair didn't deserve it, because God knows he was a pernicious man, but...you killed someone. You should feel something.”

 

“I do feel something,” Sam immediately replied. “Glad.”

 

Giving up on his search for clothes, Sam tossed the bag aside. “I'm sorry if my reaction isn't meeting with your prescribed ideals, Castiel. But I never intended for Alistair to walk away from that building. I always planned to kill him.” Sniffing as if he were holding back angry tears, he added, “I only regret that we weren't able to find anything out before I had to do it.”

 

“You can't mean that,” Castiel tried to reason. “I may not have known you long, Sam, but that's not you. You're not the type.”

 

Sam looked over at Dean, and Castiel's eyes followed. They both watched him breathe for the span of several heartbeats, and then Sam said, “After what he did to Dean, there was no way I was going to let him live. None.” He stood and walked to the motel's door then, fishing change out of his pocket as he went. “As I said Cas, I'm not sorry.” Licking his lips, Sam said, “I'm going to get a soda. You want one?”

 

Castiel shook his head no, wanting to say a lot more but not knowing how. Sam smiled as if he knew, and slipped out of the room without another word.

 

 +++

 

Dean woke three hours later, confused, head sore and terribly thirsty.

 

“Cas?” he croaked out. The man was at his side in a moment, Dr. Pepper in hand.

“The machine was out of water,” he said quietly. “And the water from the tap here hasn't improved appreciably since this morning.” The water, when it came out of the faucets of their current motel, was pink-tinged and smelled rusty. Dean was perfectly happy with the Dr. Pepper.

 

“Thanks,” he said, reaching for the can. Their fingers brushed as Dean pulled it close, and he couldn't help the small smile that brought to his face, even as the memory of what happened crashed through him. “Where's Sammy?”

 

“Here, Dean,” his brother said, coming up behind Castiel.

 

“What do you remember?” Castiel prompted Dean, not ungently, but there was a slight urgency to his voice that Dean didn't completely understand.

 

“We had Alistair,” Dean began. “And he was on the bed. I asked Cas for a few minutes alone with him.” Sam frowned mightly at Dean, which he expected, but then turned the full force of his disapproval on Castiel.

 

“Hey, man, don't be that way. Not fair to Cas. I can withhold sex now to get what I want.” This had the desired effect of making his brother gag and Castiel blush up to the roots of his hair as well as lightening the heaviness that had settled over the room.

 

“What about after that?” Castiel asked through his embarrassment.

 

Dean sobered. “After that, Alistair's eyes snapped open like he'd been waiting for it. He ripped off the restraints and pressed his palm into my forehead. Then,” Dean shifted uncomfortably, “it got kinda weird.”

 

“Weirder than our usual lately?” Sam asked, brows high.

 

“Kinda. He started chanting. No idea what it was. Kinda sounded like Latin, but yet not. But he started with the chanting, and then I felt this...I don't know, this kinda...in my stomach, it was—”

 

“A tight, burning sensation?” Castiel put in, and Dean nodded.

 

“Exactly! I—wait. How did you know that?”

 

He and his brother both turned to stare at Cas. Shifting, he locked his eyes onto Dean's and said, “Because that's what I felt. Right after that night with Meg. Right before my powers began to manifest themselves.”

 

“You think I—?”

 

“Dean,” Castiel said quietly. “Look at my arm.”

 

Dean followed his gaze downward, to where his hand was curled around Castiel's forearm. The long sleeve was completely soaked to the elbow.

 

“This is how it began for me. Small instances of power bursting through. Well,” Cas grimaced. “the first would have been small had I not been sitting in a highly combustible vehicle at the time.”

 

“I have superpowers,” Dean muttered, still staring at Castiel's sleeve. “I have superpowers!” he said, brighter, and then his expression immediately darkened. “Oh, shit.”

 

“What?” Sam asked, worry crossing his features so fast Dean thought it was a miracle the kid didn't develop a cramp. “You feeling okay, anything hurt?”

 

“No.” In fact, Dean felt great, as if all his injuries had simply washed away. But... “I have superpowers of water. Water!”

 

Castiel and Sam gave him equally blank looks. Dean sighed in impatience.

 

“Fucking water! You know what that makes me? The lame Wonder Twin!”

 

Inexplicably, it was Castiel who started laughing, and it was a long time before he stopped.

 

 +++

 

“Alright, everyone, settle.”

 

“What he means is sit down and shaddup, or this isn't happening.”

 

The crowded press of reporters before the low outdoor stage immediately quieted, and Crowley shot Bobby an irritated look.

 

“Show off,” he muttered.

 

“Just have to know how to speak to 'em,” Bobby said lowly, before leaning into the microphone and addressing the crowd again.

 

“Thanks everyone for showing up today. I know you have a lot of questions, so I'm gonna try to make this brief.”

 

“Singer! Is it true that we were called here today about the recent upheaval in the city, with the unrest within the Infernus organization at the appearance of Brimstone?”

 

“Who is this yahoo?” Bobby asked the crowd at large, and they all laughed. The reporter flushed, ugly and dark. “I was getting to that.”

 

“Does it have anything to do with the recent finding of Alistair McKay's body and his posthumously revealed connections to Infernus?” the reporter pressed on, tenacious.

 

“Alright, that's it. For your impatience, duckie, you get to leave,” Crowley interjected, pushing his suited form close to the mic. The other reporters all shifted at that, but Crowley was insistent. “I meant it when I sent out the release this morning, children. Anyone gets out of line, they leave. So go.” He pointed imperiously at the exit. None of the other reporters spoke up for the man, too concerned with the suddenly plausible possibility that they'd be ejected if they did. Making a complicated face, the man picked his satchel up and slunk out of the assembly like the proverbial dog with its tail between its legs.

 

“Well, with that settled, I trust there won't be any more interruptions?” Crowley asked expectantly.

 

“You done?” Bobby asked, amused. The assembled crowd tittered nervously. “I was kinda in the middle of something here.”

 

“Oh, I do apologize,” Crowley simpered. “Carry on, darling.”

 

Bobby's jaw tightened at the way the crowd giggled at the pet name, but let it go in favor of getting the press conference back under control.

 

“As I guess many of you already suspect, we asked you here today at the request of someone else, someone directly involved in what has been happening in our city recently between the Infernus organization and the masked vigilante you lot dubbed Brimstone.”

 

“Now I know many of you may be wondering why the Gazette didn't handle whatever this is by ourselves. Believe me, that was a question I asked myself,” Crowley said from Bobby's elbow, picking up where the other man left off. “But the gentlemen in question were distressingly adamant. They didn't want just one news source handling their little coming out party. So here we are. I will remind you that there will be no questions accepted today, and no interruptions. Without further suspense, ladies and gents, I give you Brimstone.”

 

There was a collective gasp, and flashbulbs went off as video camera lights went from red to green to begin recording. Brimstone walked on stage first, suited much as he was during his nightly excursions, dark pants, heavy boots, and leather hood. The only difference was the inclusion of a plain, tight, thin, darkly-colored long-sleeved shirt. That wasn't what got the majority of the attention though, even as unexpected as it was. What really got the reporters going was the two men that followed after him, dressed almost identically. The only sign of differentiation between the three of them were the small white insignias embroidered on the left breast of each of their shirts. The tallest man, just to Brimstone's left, had a circle with a single line bisecting it, which if not seen with the man to Brimstone's right's mark and Brimstone's own could have just been shrugged off as a manufacturer's symbol. The other man's mark, though, to Brimstone's right, was more elaborate, a round circle with a small cross attached below it and a half moon atop it. Brimstone himself bore a triangle with a cross attached below.

 

To everyone's surprise, it wasn't Brimstone himself that began to speak, but the mid-height man with the more elaborate circle symbol.

 

“Thank you all for coming today,” he said. “This is going to be brief.”

 

He didn't pull out any index cards, or nervously clear his throat before continuing. Those present had the feeling that he'd put a lot of thought and planning into his words nonetheless.

 

“The three of us are the sort of men who believe that everyone creates their own lives through a series of choices. Most of these are small things, like do I want cream cheese on my bagel today, or should I go left instead of right at the intersection.” He paused. “It's called free will. Everyone has it. Our friends, our loved ones, even perfect strangers. Or they're supposed to have it.” During this pause the man did clear his throat, taking a moment before continuing with, “But sometimes, there are those who set out to take choices away from others. They decide that they are going to take, and leave everyone helpless, make them live their lives by their rules. People like those who run Infernus.”

 

The reporters stirred at this direct mention of the crime organization.

 

“We find that unacceptable. So call us what you will: vigilantes, nut-jobs, whatever. We don't care. What we care about is finding the people who run Infernus and stopping them.” The direct look the as-yet-unnamed vigilante sends into the News 4 camera is the clip that all the nation's news stations start running almost as soon as they pick up the story. “The dirty cops, the crooked judges, all the people you buy off won't help you. I'm speaking directly to the head of Infernus here when I say: we'll find you. And we're gonna stop you.” Breaking his stare-down with the News 4 camera, the man said, “That's all. Thank you.”

 

The three men exited the stage to a flurry of questions and demands, the reporters forgetting their agreement for order in the face of the soon-to-be-called heroes leaving with no other information forthcoming.

 

 +++

 

“They're calling us 'Team Free Will'.” Dean threw the next morning's copy of the Pontiac Daily Gazette on the table, beaming.

 

“You don't need to be so pleased with that. You practically hand fed it to them. As well as your and Sam's names,” Castiel said tartly.

 

As expected, the press did their due diligence and researched the symbols on Sam, Dean, and Castiel's chests, discovering them to be the alchemical symbols for Salt, Mercury, and Sulfur, respectively. Since Castiel was already called Brimstone, and the further they dug into Infernus, Alistair McKay, and his connection with Doc Benton of Erie, PA (at least they knew how they'd been discovered, but it was hardly a comfort, having their betrayal and Anna's death come at the hands of someone she'd trusted) and their shadowy obsession with alchemy and immortality, it seemed appropriate. Sam and Dean had been dubbed after their symbols almost immediately.

 

The trio was camped out in an abandoned house. They were running out of motels they hadn't stayed at. Plus there was the benefit of relative privacy and separate bedrooms, which Dean and Cas had been taking advantage of with relish. Sam was relieved at this development, too.

 

“Bobby has another treat for us,” Dean continued, gleeful. “As expected, within minutes of our little Iron Man moment, tips began flooding into the paper.”

 

Sam stepped into the kitchen just in time to hear this last bit. His face brightened, eagerness clear. “And?”

 

“And the ones that weren't pranks, marriage proposals, or stuff we already knew all had a common thread. A first name for the guy running Infernus, and the city he lives in.”

 

“Where, Dean?” Castiel and Sam said together.

 

“Luke,” he said, and added with relish, “from Detroit.”

 

“It's more than we had before,” Sam said, eyes gleaming.

 

“A lot more,” Cas agreed.

 

“So what do you say, guys?”

 

All three exchanged looks. Dean and Sam were smiling, the relief at having a name and a direction clear. Castiel felt an answering grin of his own tug on his lips.

 

“I say we're going to Detroit.”

 

End