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Angel Duster

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Angel Duster

Got hope for the living
Got prayers for the dead
In the sky got whiskey and rye for the voices in my head

- Run the Jewels, “Angel Duster”

I.

He sat back in his chair and remembered the blender he used to have. It was $400, and this was even before the Vitamix came out. He’d have wet himself over a Vitamix back then. The blender he had, though, it was almost as good. Sounded like a jet taking off. He piled in kale, carrots, celery, ginger, garlic and whatever else was on-trend from the “men’s health” blogs he read obsessively. The truth was, he hated those drinks. They looked and tasted like pond water. He hated the man he was then, too – the kind of man who thought he could stop the slow inevitable march of time with mulch. The kind of man who didn’t understand himself, who didn’t realize until he was nearly thirty why he liked those blogs so much. He did wish he had an extra $400 lying around, though. But when he left himself behind, selling his condo, cashing in his 401(k), and hitting the road, he’d taken not quite a vow of poverty but definitely a more ascetic vow than $400 blenders and thousand thread count sheets.

“Home” for the moment was a month-to-month rental in East L.A., the kind of place that had been – at various times – a record shop, a church, a bail bond place, and a pawnshop. The front part was a rectangular room that could loosely be called an office, a dusty shoebox with bars on the windows and the doors. Thin walls separated it from an apartment of sorts with one tiny bedroom, a kitchen, a living room, and a bathroom. A winding river of dirty brown carpet covered all floors, except in the bathroom and the kitchen. Those had mottled green squares of Linoleum. It wasn’t much, to be sure, but they’d come off a freezing hunt in the mountains of Northern Nevada. Winter was setting in, his second with Sam, and he needed someplace warm to park his bones for a while. L.A. was the best place for this. It was chock full of spirits, beasts, poltergeists, and unsavories from all over the world. Best of all, it also had a bunch of people with money to burn, and he didn’t mind charging them a fee for services rendered. Maybe he’d buy himself a blender in the spring.

Sam came in with two bulging grocery bags. He kissed Dean on the temple, set the bags down by the desk, said, “Dinner will be ready soon. Don’t sit out here all night.”

Sam knew him too well already. Even outside the corporate matrix, Dean was given to working late – or at least sitting at his desk late.

“I won’t. You need help cooking?”

“Nah, you continue worrying obsessively about cases we don’t have.”

“Sometimes I think about leaving you at a gas station.”

Sam said nothing, merely smiled and kissed him once more – this time on the lips – and proceeded back into the apartment. The walls shook as he closed the door.

He was right. It had been quiet. Not worryingly quiet, but not what Dean had come to expect from his trips to Southern California. More than anything, it was just boring, which was as dangerous to a hunter as any creature.

He pulled out his leather journal. A gift from his parents when he graduated college, it had his initials stamped into the cover, two dignified letters, the solid D and the open S. He ran his fingers over these, thought of his parents. Dad had died in a work accident, and Mom plugged along as best she could. She quilted, had a book club, went to church, volunteered at all kinds of places. He hadn’t seen her in a while, something he felt bad about, but it was one of those things. He was on enough shit lists that to visit her would be to endanger her, and that was the last thing he wanted on his head. So, he kept his distance. Anyway, she thought he was crazy when he left Sandover, and she wasn’t afraid to make her thoughts on the matter known.

He opened the journal, juggled the newspaper clippings that came out, the notes he’d scribbled on pieces of motel stationary and the backs of receipts. The covers bulged, swollen with all this information. More than two years of hunts, sleepless nights, grateful civilians, and the rare occasion of meeting other hunters. Years of bad food, uncertainty, injury, and car troubles. Of course, it was also two years with Sam. Two years of the most infuriating, heated fights followed by intense make-up sex. Sunrises over rivers and hair of the dog, a huge hand on his shoulder and a solid chest against his back.

The smell of cooking drifted through the drafty apartment, and Dean closed his journal, put it away in the desk drawer. He locked the doors and windows, checked them again just because, turned off the lights, drew the shades. It still wasn’t completely dark, for there were two plate glass windows on the outer wall and a blinding orange streetlight outside. It cast a fiery glow on the office.

In the kitchen, Sam had his laptop open and music playing. It wasn’t anything Dean was fond of, but he didn’t say anything. The fight over music had long ago been at a standstill, neither party caring enough to pick it up again.

Dean snagged a couple chunks of carrot, shoved them in his mouth. Vegetables tasted better now that he was eating them because he liked them and not because they offset carbs or cleansed his colon or whatever superstitious crap was the line of the day on the “men’s health” blogs. He patted Sam on the butt before leaning against the counter.

Sam started in talking about research he was doing on his own. He’d been looking into simple protection spells, ancient and effective forms of witchcraft. Dean said nothing, but lingering in the back of his mind like nicotine stains was the notion that nothing good could come of witchcraft. It was another thing to cast off, another vestige of his old life that did him no service in this one.

Sam dished him a plate, handed it over, while Dean grabbed silverware and two more beers. There was a tiny table, made of particle board and topped with an eighth of an inch of laminate, two chairs with cracked vinyl seats held together with strips of duct tape. It was a million miles away from his condo, his corporate job, his blue shirts with the white collars, and yet he felt secure for once that he was doing something worthwhile. Saving people, hunting things.

The company alone was better than most nights he’d spent in his condo. Steel, glass and concrete – foolish attempts at making life easy to clean. Nothing could stick to those surfaces, nothing could stain them. He tried so hard to remove the messiness and uncertainty from his life, but it crept in. It crept in when he met Sam, when they fought that first ghost together. He’d tried to repress, to toe the line, and it hadn’t gotten him anywhere. He wasn’t satisfied with that life. He was reading from an outdated script. Now there was no script. He’d be in this place a few months, then he’d go somewhere else. Sam would be there, too, unlike any of the women he brought home before or the guys he furtively hooked up with. Sam was real.

They finished eating, and Dean started on the dishes. He didn’t get far, though, before Sam was behind him, giant hands on his hips, thumbs in the belt loops, pulling him back and kissing his neck. He knew better than to stand with his back to the room. More than demons or monsters, it was always Sam that would creep up behind him, distracting him from whatever he was doing.

“I hate a sink full of dishes, and you know it.” He gripped the edge of the sink, soapy fingers grazing the warm water.

Sam leaned down, whispered, “Come on. Just this once?”

“You say that every time.” He closed his eyes, leaned his head against Sam’s massive, solid chest.

“Come on. We’re settled for a while, we’re between cases – give me one good reason why not.”

Dean couldn’t, other than the fact that dirty dishes bugged him, which wasn’t a good reason, he knew. Sam moved his hands, tugged on Dean’s belt loops, pulled him backward. He had just enough time to dry his hands before getting shuffled into the bedroom. His world turned into a flurry of kissing, discarded clothing, hands everywhere. A flush spread over his chest and back as Sam pulled him close, kissed him hard. Sam kissed with his whole mouth – tongue, jaw, teeth, and lips. He brought a hand up, first rested it on the side of Dean’s face before letting it slide to the back of his head, resting in his short hair, his arm secure around him. Dean let himself fall onto the bed, pulled them both down, Sam on top of him. He put one leg up, sensitive inner thigh against Sam’s side, both men moaning at the stimulation.

Sam approached sex as he approached all things, with an academic fervor and earnest sweetness. It was unlike anything Dean had ever experienced, and even though it was exciting and right every time, it was still comforting. He knew what to expect from Sam, even if he tried something new.

Sam smacked him gently on the side of his ass, which he took to mean that he should move more onto the bed. He did this while Sam reached into the rickety nightstand drawer, pulled out the tube of lube that they kept there. Practiced as they were by this point, it didn’t take much preparation before Dean was ready and Sam was inside him, moving just so, maximizing pleasure for both of them.

Before too long, it became fast, feverish, a wild display of moaning, grunting, skin against skin, sweat, hands, fingers, lips. Finally, Dean couldn’t bear it any longer. He had to come, and he did, with Sam’s hand around his cock. He pulled Sam close, buried his face in the crook of his shoulder, and came with a moaning, wanton whimper. He lay there, panting, and Sam finished quickly enough, just as loud.

He took a moment to catch his breath, wanting nothing more than to go straight to sleep but knowing that he needed to clean up before that happened. Sam lay back, his cock soft now, resting on his thigh, his arm over his eyes as if in a swoon. Dean kissed his shoulder before rolling off the bed, into the tiny bathroom, cleaning himself up. His knees still shook and he was nearly too tired to stand, but he did it anyway. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror – cheeks red, eyes drooping, face relaxed. He had to laugh at himself a little, at how debauched he looked.

Sex before had never been quite like this. He’d had plenty of it, picking up women online or at bars, getting them back to his place, fucking them. It was all rather perfunctory, a glorified bodily function that he dressed up as instinct or need. On rare occasions, he’d sit in his condo, drink too much whiskey, furtively go to those other sites where he could find men. He’d invite them over, and they’d arrive. The fucking then was even worse than with the women, because he had to divorce it from himself, had to pretend like it was just the booze or that he didn’t want it at all and just did it from boredom or to see if he could. There was a hopeless, ridiculous laundry list of reasons in his past of why he did those things.

Sam shambled into the bathroom, making it a tight squeeze. Dean smacked his ass, went back into the bedroom, laid back on the bed.

Everything had changed when he met Sam. From the outset, he didn’t need to pretend. Sam understood him. At first, it was only friendship. They hunted together, traveled together. The tide had turned after a hunt in Boise, Idaho. The AP had picked up a story out of there about two men that had rented a house, and strange occurrences started up. The news, of course, attributed it to unfriendly townspeople not taking kindly to two men renting a house together, but the men were quoted as saying they thought it was otherworldly rather than the all too quotidian sort of harassment. “We’ve faced enough to know the difference,” one remarked.

Sam and Dean had gone there, investigated. Looking into the history of the house, it turned out a man had lived there in the 1950s. He lived alone, but had taken up with a young fellow in town. The young fellow, not as accepting of himself as this other man, had killed him one night as though that could quell the desires within himself that led him there in the first place. When the couple moved in, it wakened the spirit of the man who had never been able to move on from that place, a man who had never gotten the chance to build a life that the other two had. After hearing the story, helping the ghost move on, and seeing the two men embrace once their home was safe again, Dean had promptly gone back to the motel where they’d been staying and cried. Sam gave him space at first, going down to the little dive bar at the end of the block, but Dean couldn’t pull himself quite together. He’d returned a while later, Dean sitting on the floor between their two beds, staring into space. He sat with Dean, arm around his shoulders. Then Dean kissed him. He hadn’t intended it, really, but it happened and neither of them stopped it. Maybe it was a fluke, but it wasn’t the next time or the time after that.

That was over a year ago.

Sam emerged from the bathroom, and Dean scooted over. He laid next to Dean, flat on his back, one arm behind his head.

“That was good.”

Dean laughed, turned out the light, rolled over and put his arm over Sam’s stomach. “It sure was.”
***

II.

He jumped at the sound of the door, immediately trying to play it off as straightening to attention as though he’d been waiting for this prospective client all day. Catching sight of the man nervously standing in his doorway, though, he quickly realized that he never would have or could have anticipated him.

Thoroughly trashed jeans, beaten all to hell and hanging off slim hips, a hoodie that hugged his wiry frame, and hair going every which way but loose. Staring out from haunted, shadowed eye sockets, two eyes like tropical waters from a travel ad. Of all the things Dean had seen in the past few years, the innocence and intensity in this man’s eyes ranked as the most impossible.

“Are you Dean Smith?” the man asked.

Dean rose, ready to strike or shake hands, whatever the situation called for. “Who’s asking?”

The man stepped forward, put his hand out. “I apologize. I’m Castiel.”

Dean shook his hand, but said, “That doesn’t tell me a whole lot.”

“If I have the wrong place, or if I am not welcome, please simply tell me.” His voice, low and strange, bore the same intensity as his eyes.

“All right, I’m Dean Smith,” he admitted. “State your business.”

“I understand that you and your partner investigate things that the police won’t.” He kept his gaze level, stood completely still. Dean sat, gestured for him to sit on the sagging seat on the other side of the desk, which he did, perching on the edge with his back straight. Dean had a nine millimeter in the narrow drawer of the desk, and he calculated he could get to it if the man made any kind of false move.

“That’s one way of putting it.”

“Another would be that you investigate things the police won’t because they involve strange phenomena.”

“With all due respect to your fair city,” Dean said, “most things in L.A. involve strange phenomena, but I catch your drift.”

“Yes, well—” He started, but didn’t finish. The resolve started to drain from his face, his certainty flagging. Dean had seen it so many times before, people looking around whatever shabby storefront, no-tell motel, or abandoned warehouse that they were using as a base of operations. Whether he found them or vice versa, most sane people had a moment of doubt.

“Take your time.”

Castiel raised his eyes to the ceiling as if in prayer before continuing. “My sister Anna died several months ago, and I have reason to believe she was murdered.” He went quiet again, worried at his thumbnail.

Dean knew better than to press. He’d been seasoned in sales, so he knew when to push people and when to leave them be. A minute passed, then two. He rose, finally, startling Castiel even though he moved slowly.

“Look, I’m going to grab us some water while you think about what to tell me, okay?”

Castiel nodded but didn’t look at Dean.

He went back into the kitchen, and Sam was sitting at the table, poring over several books that were roughly the size of doors.

“Need help?”

“Nah,” Dean said, grabbing two water bottles from the fridge. “Potential client out there. Skittish.”

“Holler if you need me.”

Dean squeezed Sam’s shoulder as he passed. “Will do.”

Back in the office, Castiel had moved from his chair to stand by the window. He stared out as though the Llantera across the street would offer him salvation. Dean handed him a bottle of water, which he accepted, opened, and drank from without taking his eyes off whatever he was staring at – which Dean figured had little to do with the Llantera. Dean stood next to him, let his eyes settle into the middle distance in some kind of solidarity, thinking maybe if Castiel could see him as an ally that he would open up.

“I think they murdered Anna,” he said at length, though he addressed the window and not Dean.

“I’m sorry for your loss.” He didn’t point out that this wasn’t exactly a strange phenomenon and plenty of awful things happened all over L.A. and to women in particular. “Who is ‘they’?”

Castiel turned to him, finally, scrutinized him. Dean allowed himself to be examined this way, stood still, met his gaze. Whatever he was looking for – trustworthiness, steadfastness – he must have found it.

“We grew up in a – an offshoot of the Mormon Church. A fundamentalist sect.”

Dean took a deep breath. “Okay.”

“I got kicked out years ago, as did some of my brothers, as do a lot of young guys in these communities. I mean, when you have a few men competing to marry as many women and girls as possible, what could you expect?” He shook his head, took a sip of water. Dean motioned for him to sit back down at the desk, and Castiel nodded, dazed.

“Is it okay if I take notes?”

“Sure.”

Dean took out a notebook (this wasn’t ready for the journal just yet), scribbled down the beginnings of Castiel’s story. “Go on.”

“So, I left a few years back, but Anna stayed. And I knew – I knew she wasn’t made for that place. Neither of us was. I always intended to go back for her, when the time was right. I snuck back not long after I got banished, gave her a cell phone. We’d talk sometimes, briefly, more so that I could make sure she was okay. The plan was that she would call me immediately if she was to be married off to any of those old buzzards.”

“Any in particular have their eye on her?”

Castiel nodded. “Zebulan. He was brutal. He was the one that brought me before the council to be kicked out. He had his eye on Anna since she was twelve, and girls there don’t get much past that before they’re married off.”

Dean put down his pen, rubbed his eyes. “This is shaping up to be a pretty tragic story, but I gotta say – you might be better off with the police on this one. It’s strange, but it ain’t our kind of strange.”

“The police won’t help. No one will touch these sects, because it looks too much like the state interfering with freedom of religion if they do. Anyway, I – well – look, let’s just say, I did what I had to do to survive after I left, and not all of it was legal. So, they look into me at all, they think I’m just some low-life myself. And there’s – there’s another thing.”

“Okay,” Dean said, nodding.

Castiel took a deep breath, leaned back in his chair. “Me and Anna – I don’t think we – I have reason to believe that we were not entirely, um, human.”

Under other circumstances, this would be the point at which Dean would have said Thanks but no thanks and showed this man the door. He’d seen a lot in his time hunting, but there was some stuff that was just plain crazy, and he didn’t truck with crazy. Now it was his turn to scrutinize Castiel, to determine if he was lying or delusional. Castiel did not flinch. He held Dean’s gaze, steady and sure.

“Okay. If you’re not human, then what are you?”

“I believe we are – were – angels that defected from our regiment.”

They’d met a few other hunters in their travels. They had combed through countless books to figure out what they were dealing with at any given time. Never in all this had they heard a word of angels. Demons were part and parcel of hunting, but angels were elusive. Elusive to the point of non-existence. They hadn’t heard or read a single word about them.

“Okay,” Dean said with a nod. “Okay. How do you figure?”

“You don’t believe me.” Castiel’s voice trembled with sadness and fear enough to break Dean’s heart.

“I didn’t say that. I’d have asked the same thing if you claimed to be any other creature.”

“You see why I couldn’t go to the police with this.”

“I see, but I need to know what makes you think you’re an angel. Or were an angel.”

Castiel got up, went back to the window, paced in front of it. “Both of us, we were just different. I mean, there were something like three dozen kids where we grew up—”

“In the whole town?”

“No, in our family. There were a few families in the settlement, with who knows how many wives and kids. And it is not exactly a place where individuality is praised. We – we stood out, always. I never felt right there. I mean, that could – there were a lot of reasons. But, anyway, I never felt like I belonged, and neither did Anna. We always knew things that other people didn’t, things we hadn’t been taught. And sometimes we could hear them, hear the angels. It was like – like scanning through radio stations. A word here, a phrase there, a few seconds at a time. She could control it better, could listen in.”

“How did you manage to go from being angels to being a couple unlucky kids growing up in a cult?” Sam’s voice surprised Dean. He hadn’t heard him come in, and he nearly fell off the chair. Sam sat at the edge of the desk.

“I’m not sure.” He shrugged.

“So, you felt different and you heard voices and you were smarter than the people around you?” Dean asked.

“That’s not what I said!”

“Yes it is.”

“Well, then it’s not what I meant!”

“We haven’t heard word one on angels since we started this. I’m sorry for your loss, I really am, but don’t come in here with this whopper—”

“Dean!” Sam turned around, gave him that look that told him he was in big trouble, the one with the wide eyes and the thin lips. That look was no good, but Dean didn’t care.

“Look, I get that the police are pretty choosy about what murders they investigate. I get that you felt like you couldn’t go to them. If you’d left it at that, sans whopper, I’d have been way more inclined to go with it.”

Castiel merely turned to the window, shoved his hands in his pockets, stared out across the street.

Sam reached over, punched Dean on the shoulder. “This is crass, even for you,” he whispered.

Dean shrugged. Whatever. The guy could have at least come at them with something plausible, like vampires. If he wasn’t going to do them a solid and bring them a reasonable case that made sense, Dean didn’t really see why he was obligated to coddle him.

Without another word or another glance back, Castiel went out the door and into the bright, brisk afternoon. Sam didn’t even bother with a jacket before he rushed after him. Dean didn’t try to hold him back. Sam was a grown man after all, and it wasn’t like they were in the thick of a case.

Dean had been putting off reinforcing the Devil’s Traps in the Impala and cleaning his gun. He puttered around at these things, took a break for a beer and a sandwich. Sam came back after about an hour, shivering from the chill and walking straight back to the apartment. Castiel wasn’t with him, and Dean didn’t comment on that, figuring that Sam had wised up in short order and wasn’t in the mood for Dean to gloat.

“You want some leftover spaghetti?” he called through the open door.

“No thanks. Had a sandwich.”

Sam came out a few minutes later with a microwaved bowl of pasta, trying to integrate some powdery cheese into the mass of sauce and noodles.

“I convinced him to talk to me again. He’s collected some evidence, and I asked him to—”

Dean dropped his gun, slammed the rag he’d been using on top of it. “You what?”

“I asked him to gather the evidence he’s gotten so far. Not just about the murder. The angel thing too.”

Dean got up, locked the front door, drew the shades. He pounded hard on the doorframe, the sound reverberating through the small, shabby room. “You are getting snowed. You realize that, right?”

“Jesus, Dean! After all the shit we’ve seen? Why not angels? We find new surprises every day, nasty shit we never thought could be real, and it is. It’s not like angels are obscure. Plenty of people—”

“People. Not hunters. Nothing conclusive. Stories about people narrowly avoiding car crashes and shit like that. This is some crazy bus kind of talk.”

Sam went over to him, gripped his arm tight. He searched Dean’s face, and when he averted his eyes, he brought his other hand up, two fingers under Dean’s chin. “What are you so afraid of here?”

He couldn’t shake Sam off, settled for stepping back as best he could, which wasn’t very good, as he was trapped by a wall and Sam’s huge body. “I’m not scared. I just know this Judeo-Christian shit is wrong.”

“It’s not just Judeo-Christian. Muslims have angels. Plenty of cultures do.”

“Whatever.” He finally managed to wrest himself out of Sam’s grasp, went back over to the desk. He began piecing his gun back together even though it wasn’t quite as scrubbed and oiled as he’d have liked it.

Barreling through to the apartment, he put the gun back in its case by the bed, sat down heavily. Sam wasn’t far behind, lingering in the doorway.

“Don’t,” Dean said when Sam tried to come closer. It looked like it caused him physical pain, but Sam managed to refrain, hanging back where he stood.

“You were shitty to him.”

“I know. But sometimes that’s the way the cookie crumbles. Some guy comes in with this story about angels and Mormons and a dead girl – no, that’s not our thing, Sam.”

“I’m meeting with him later this week – at his place.”

“Good. I don’t need to be feeding the pigeons over here.”

Sam crossed his arms, narrowed his eyes. “I’ll leave you to pull your head out of your ass.”

He wheeled around, went down the hall. The TV blared moments later, some stupid sitcom with a tinny laugh track that killed Dean’s ears.

“I’ll leave you to pull – you – yeah, back atcha, babe!” He’d started off yelling but quickly realized that he had no comeback, the entreaty tapering off into a whisper.
***

Sam was hitting the libraries, looking up all he could about angels. He’d slept on the couch the night before, only coming into the bedroom for a change of clothes. Even without him there, Dean had stuck to his own side of the bed. Now it was midday, and Dean had been sitting at the desk with his journal out and his cell phone sitting next to it. He’d glanced at it most of the day, spun it around with his index finger, pressed the button on top to illuminate the screen.

Part of him was waiting for a text from Sam. Not an apology. He knew better than that, and anyway, neither of them really deserved an apology. Sam would work this angel case pretty much without him while Dean would continue to cluck out admonitions. They’d resolve whatever it was, move onto the next thing, and that would be that. If Sam texted him, it would be to ask if he wanted pho or something. No, Dean was staring at his phone because he was thinking of calling his sister. Jo was younger than him, still in college, but wiser than he’d ever be. He’d visited her a while back, almost a year ago now, spending a weekend in the sleepy college town she called home. He’d told her as much about his life as he could, even the nature of his relationship with Sam – something he hadn’t been willing to tell their mom. She’d have loved him just the same, but he just couldn’t do it.

He brought her name up on his contacts list, stared at those two little letters, the sum of everything he’d given up with such ease. Finally, he pressed his finger down, almost like a caffeine twitch. The line rang and rang until he was about to hang up, but then there was a click and her voice, both sweet and abrupt at the same time – a trait she inherited from their mom.

“Hey, hi, sorry. My phone was at the bottom of my bag. How are you? Investigating anything cool? Bringing down any Colombian drug lords? Catching cheating husbands?”

She and mom both thought he was a regular P.I. He hoped she never found out the truth. The notion that there were humans and there were animals and nothing outside that reality was central to the bare threads and duct tape that held the world together. It was hard enough reconciling the actions of people without being confronted by the whole realm of dripping, fanged, filthy creatures that feasted on humans.

He laughed her question off. “Oh yeah. Didn’t you see us on Univision surrounded by bricks of coke?”

Jo wasn’t fooled. She was smart, and even to his own ears, Dean’s joke had fallen flat. “No really. Is everything okay? Sam?”

“Sam’s fine,” he hastened to clarify.

“But something else isn’t.” It was neither a question nor an accusation, but something softer that still demanded an answer.

“We have this case. Or Sam does, anyway. I don’t want anything to do with it.”

“Okay . . . gonna need more than that. You realize that, right?”

“I’m getting there, antsy pants. So, this guy came in, and he just had a whopper of a story. Sam believes him. I don’t.”

She whistled a low, mournful note. “Yikes. That’s no good. What’s so unbelievable about it?”

Dean’s mind flailed as he tried to come up with a believable answer. Of course she’d ask questions. That was her way, which he knew, and still he didn’t prepare a story in his mind before calling.

“I can’t get into details,” he began, hedging professional strictures that he didn’t have. “But it just doesn’t pass the sniff test. He says he’s got a pretty incredible background.”

“Princess Anastasia?”

“Something like that,” he said with a laugh.

“Is there anything in his story you do believe?”

Dean picked up his pen, tapped it against the journal, clicked it in and out in rapid succession. “He says that – that someone close to him was killed. He says it has something to do with this mysterious past they both shared.”

“They were both Princess Anastasia?”

“Right, exactly. Snarky little brat.”

“Hey, I learned it from you. Well, regardless, it sounds like this guy really did lose someone. And maybe his past isn’t what he said it is, but it’s still a part of him. True or not, it matters. He deserves to know where he came from.”

The only thing worse than Sam being right was his little sister being right. Whatever Castiel’s story was, he did deserve to know it.
***

III.

With as much aplomb as a toddler doing Japanese calligraphy, Dean sort of apologized to Sam. This amounted to making some burgers and tater tots, texting Sam about it and begging him to come home from the library. This he did, coming home to stand in the kitchen doorway, arms braced against the top of the doorframe, hanging there like a solid curtain or a panic room door. He remained there in silence, watching Dean orchestrate the burgers – flip them over at the right time, turn down the tater tots, put the buns in the oven to toast. Golden L.A. sun filtered in through the small window, and even though Dean knew the particular glow was due to smog and pollution, he still found it beautiful. It washed the kitchen in light and made it look like a real home.

He offered up a plate of food to Sam, who finally entered the kitchen and sat at the table. He looked down at his plate as he grabbed the ketchup, squirted a small pool, dipped a tot in it.

“It’s good,” he said. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” Dean took a bite of burger. A bit of ketchup and mayo ran down his finger and he licked it off. “I was thinking—”

“Uh-oh,” Sam said with a hint of a smile.

“Quiet, you. No, I was thinking – you don’t have to keep going to the library to work this case. I mean, totally feel free if you need to. I’m just saying. At this point, you might be safer doing it here. Less questions or whatever, if they keep seeing you over and over.” He took another bite of burger, a big one, as though it would exonerate him from having to speak further.

“Well that depends,” Sam said. “You gonna be a jackass?”

“I can never promise that,” Dean said, “but I won’t be about this.”

“You have a change of heart?”

Dean shrugged. “It’s just practical to have you work from here if you need to. That’s why we rent it.”

“True enough, I guess.”

Later on, when dinner was just a memory and a few potato nubs, they went into the bedroom. True to form, they made love. It was a conclusion to their ongoing fight about the case, a mutual apology, a pardon. Sam flipped Dean over onto his stomach, one hand on the back of his neck and the other on his hip. It made Dean ache in all the wrong places, but he didn’t move, instead spread his legs out on the bed, offered his ass up to Sam, let his mouth hang open and drool puddle on the pillow. Sam went at him just shy of mercilessly, hands squeezing, cock invading, the relentless rhythm telling Dean exactly what he thought of his behavior of late.

Afterward, sore and shaking, Dean had to brace himself on the wall to keep from slipping in the shower. He let the water wash him clean, wash off all the dust and grit of the day along with the stickiness of sex. His ass and cock were still lit up, too sensitive, and washing himself there felt like punishment. He bore it with gritted teeth, a sigh when it was over.

When he was finished, he stepped into the bedroom naked. Sam was under the covers, and Dean climbed in, nestled close, twitching as Sam’s cock rubbed against him.
***

Sam had set up an intricate mobile investigation, with pages of notes folded up in two huge binders. He had photocopies of books and articles, a map dotted with star stickers. Observing all this as Sam spread it out on the walls, taping it carefully and securely, Dean sipped his coffee and privately admitted to himself that there was more to the whole affair than he’d initially thought.

Sam had a few notes on anecdotes, the much-disparaged civilian accounts of angels swooping down to save them from peril at the last moment. Dean chalked most of that up to the fallibility of human memory and perception, of the way your body can react before your mind, with your eyes and brain struggling to make sense of events. More interesting was the truly unexplained phenomena he had uncovered. Over the past few decades, a precious few stories had cropped up regarding large trees that sprang up overnight. Literally, overnight. Small-town papers reported trees appearing in the middle of fields or parks, even highway shoulders. Where before had been just dirt and flat grass, suddenly oak trees or willow trees would spring up fully formed and looking centuries old.

“Huh,” Dean said, reading one such account that Sam had printed out, yellow highlighter stripes calling out the witnesses who swore there had been a flash of light the night before and a tree the next morning. “What do you think it means?”

Sam sifted through his notes and brought out a page that had been photocopied from a book. Even on a single, flat sheet, Dean saw that the book had been huge. The shadow of its pages lurked on the edge of the page. Sam had highlighted a portion detailing a legend from a reconstructed Medieval manuscript that postulated such events were angel grace hitting the earth. As much as he wanted to, Dean couldn’t ignore that. Tenuous though it was, it was at least recent documented phenomena with an explanation from days long past, indicating this was something that had happened throughout history. It wasn’t compelling by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a start.

“So then the question is: How does the grace go from the angel to the dirt?” Sam asked. “And what happens to the angel?”

“It’s starting to look more and more like our kind of thing,” Dean admitted.

Sam had been perched on the edge of the desk, and he pulled Dean close, trapped him with his knees. “I guess I was pretty persuasive the other night.”

Dean put his arms on Sam’s shoulders, reached out to play with his hair. The strands were soft, thick, a little greasy. Sam was so weird about washing his hair – he had it down to a science, claiming that he needed to shampoo exactly every eight days to maintain balance. It had been seven and a half, and his hair was starting to feel a little grimy. Dean kissed him anyway.

They didn’t hear the door open with a creak and the whoosh of air from outside. A man cleared his throat and they jumped apart, both tensed and ready for a rude comment at the very least.

“No no, don’t let me stop you,” the man said. He was tall and thin, impeccably dressed in a long black coat and charcoal gray slacks, Oxford shoes coal black and burnished to an artful patina. He looked to be about forty, handsome, his face deeply lined. His eyes had a glint of laughter, mischievous, but also shrewdly sharpened to a fine edge. Dean got the impression that this was a man not to be fucked with. What he lacked in brute strength was clearly made up in cunning.

Dean coughed, held out his hand. “Dean Smith, and my – uh – partner Sam Wesson.”

“Partners indeed,” the man said, shaking their hands in turn. “Well, I’m Balthazar, and I came here to talk about Castiel. Is now a good time, or do you need to finish what you were starting?”

“Castiel who?” Dean asked without missing a beat. Regardless of his own opinions, the man had a right to privacy.

Balthazar smiled. “Very good. I am glad to see that I’m not dealing with amateurs here.”

He snapped his fingers and then suddenly they were standing inside a well-appointed cabin in the middle of a dense forest. Far from any rustic pioneer outcropping, this was the sort of place a rich person would build to “get away from it all.” They were in the middle of the living room, cavernous and huge. The walls were paneled in pine and stained to a dark blond not unlike the color of Balthazar’s hair. There was a huge sectional sofa pushed into the corner, under two massive windows with an endless, dizzying view – rows upon rows of green-black evergreens, shrouded in gray mist. A massive chandelier made from a wagon wheel and antlers presided over all this, five lights shining down to glint off of the glass coffee table and the shining wood floor. There was a bearskin rug.

“Much better,” Balthazar said, sitting down the sofa. “Have a seat, won’t you?”

They wouldn’t, of course. As soon as they were oriented, they both crouched into fighting stance, Sam pulling a knife from his boot, Dean without a weapon but ready to fight with his bare hands to the bitter end. Balthazar looked on, amused.

“What the fuck did you just do?”

“We need privacy on a molecular level, my friends—”

“We’re not your friends,” Sam said.

“The enemy of my enemy, friend of my friend and all that. Friendship by proxy.”

“That’s not a thing,” Dean said.

Beside him, Sam twitched in such a way that he knew it was a signal. They charged at Balthazar, but they didn’t get two feet before Balthazar had stood up, raised his arm, and pinned the two of them to the hard pinewood walls without touching them. He kept his arm aloft, two fingers pointed at Dean and Sam.

“I had thought that two men in your line of work would be more open-minded.”

“What are you?” Sam asked, struggling uselessly, his feet scrabbling for purchase on the smooth expanse of wall.

“According to your partner, I don’t exist.”

Balthazar drew himself up, and suddenly his thin frame gave the impression that he was larger than it could truly ever contain. The air crackled with electricity and a shadow fell over the wall behind him. The lights flickered and Dean’s ears rang, like he’d been standing too close to a speaker and someone had abruptly turned it off. From the corner of his eye, Dean saw Sam struggling and gasping.

“Let us down,” Dean said.

He did, and with a sudden flick of his wrist, Dean and Sam slid down the high wall in a freefall. Balthazar jutted his hand out at the last moment, stopped them, set them down gently.

“Gentlemen, I believe we’ve gotten off on the wrong foot. I try my best to understand human customs and so on, but I can only imitate them so far.”

“That wasn’t far at all,” Dean said, smoothing down his shirt, trying to steady himself and conceal the fact that he was shaking from head to foot.

“I haven’t been down here long, comparatively speaking.”

“Okay, so you’re an angel. What do you want with us?”

“I appreciate your professional courtesy and your attempt to disavow knowledge of Castiel, but the fact is that he is in very grave danger. He’s overturning all sorts of rocks, and there are some quite nasty bugs underneath them.”

Sam stepped forward. “So he is an angel.”

Was an angel,” Balthazar corrected. “Listen, this place is heavily warded against angels, demons, government agencies – all manner of nosy Nellies out there. We can speak freely, and I can have you back to your office in time to finish your afternoon delight.”

Dean’s cheeks and ears went red, and he crossed his arms over his chest. “All right, innuendo aside, what do you have to tell us?”

“Please do sit down—”

“No,” Dean said.

Balthazar sighed. “Dean, I completely understand your obstinate brutishness, but I’d really rather move past it. We have bigger issues at hand, here.”

Sam sighed, tugged on Dean’s jacket, and he allowed himself to be led over to the couch, perched on the edge. He had no weapons and he was dealing with an angel. He couldn’t even begin to guess what would stop an angel if he had his mind set on attack.

“So talk,” Sam said.

“You lot don’t beat around the bush, do you? All right, well, when an angel chooses to remove their grace and become human, it’s no simple matter. It’s painful, for one thing. I mean, imagine chewing through an artery and siphoning your blood off one mouthful at a time. And that’s the least of the poor creature’s worries.”

“Back up,” Dean said, holding up a hand. “Grace? As in—”

“What separates us from you, for the most part. It’s what makes an angel, you know, an angel. The source of our power. Didn’t your boy toy tell you any of this?”

“I was getting there.”

“You were about to upload something, but I don’t think it was information. The grace is a part of us, and it also is us. It can be removed, but it’s a nasty business, and an angel doesn’t do it unless they are quite determined. To put it in perspective, even Lucifer still has his grace, after a fashion. Perverted though it is, it’s still grace.”

“So Castiel is evil?”

Balthazar leaned back on the sofa, groaned in frustration. “You humans – you American humans, I should say – really only have two settings. He didn’t fall from grace. He merely removed his grace. He chose humanity, as did Anna.”

“How does this equal grave danger? Or did you just need a way to get our attention?” Sam asked. Dean nodded in approval; he wondered the same thing.

“Because you don’t just defect from the Army of God, you nincompoop. Honestly, I’ve been observing you from afar, and I’d been rather confident up until this point that Castiel was in good hands. Now I’m not so sure,” he said, sitting back as though this settled some debate.

“With all due respect,” Sam said, voice thin through clenched jaw, “we didn’t know angels were real. We thought it was all myth.”

“The research has been there, you just didn’t think the sources had been reputable enough. I’m not saying my kind is infallible – that honor is reserved for the Father who made us and no other being—”

“Yeah, jury’s out on that one,” Dean muttered.

Outside, a sudden cloud rolled in, replete with thunder and forks of bright lightning. The sound shook the cabin, solid though it was. Balthazar drew himself up, his face seeming to darken with ancient shadows. Dean shifted uncomfortably in his seat but didn’t offer an apology. The cloud rolled away; Balthazar’s face returned to normal, if there was such a thing.

“As I was saying. My kind is far from infallible, but we do fight to protect humanity. Some do this without question. Some do not understand our Father’s love for humans. Others still have begun to question the cause entirely. Among those – in very extreme cases – join our brother Lucifer in working toward human destruction. It doesn’t sit well with the others.”

Dean’s brain felt like mashed potatoes as he tried to make sense of the angelic order. A month ago, angels were a bedtime story. Now they were all too real.

“Are you saying there’s a celestial hit squad after him?”

“I couldn’t have put it better myself. If he remembers what he knew as an angel – or worse yet, if he finds his grace – he’ll be a hot commodity for both angels and demons to recover. You do believe in demons, don’t you?”

Dean and Sam remained silent, instead fixing Balthazar with matching icy stares.

“Good. Those, unfortunately, are all too real.”

“So what about you? Why are you telling us this and not him?” Dean asked.

“I’ve got to keep a low profile, and he’s under surveillance.”

Dean shifted in his seat, wiped his clammy hands on his jeans. This was veering off into some strange territory, and he wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to be along for the ride.

“Oh, so we should put our asses on the line.”

“No. But you must convince Castiel that he should not meddle in the affairs of angels any longer.”

“You’re a coward,” Sam said. “Whatever he may have done, at least he had the balls to do it right. You’re hiding in the cracks, neither here nor there, and then acting like you’re doing him a favor. Whatever you did to get us here, undo it. Take us back.”

Balthazar looked down at his hands. “Castiel and Anna were in my garrison. Hearing that she died was nearly as bad as when she defected. I don’t know if I could bear Castiel having the same fate. You’re right – I am a coward. But I’m a coward with convictions.”

He snapped his fingers and they were back in the office. The streetlight outside the window had come on, but the sun hadn’t fully set. It was abrasive, making Dean squint, while simultaneously obscuring anything useful in the room. The furniture was a suggested outline.

Dean’s stomach clenched up and he felt dizzy, held onto Sam even though he seemed to be in as bad of shape.

“Fuck. What are we going to do?”
***

IV.

In the end, it was no contest. Sam called Castiel to the office. He arrived tense and disheveled – moreso than usual – with sickly bags under his eyes, the rest of his face sallow, his jeans hanging precariously on his hips.

Of course his hackles rose as soon as he walked in the office. Dean sat behind the desk, and Sam perched on the corner. They tried to look nonchalant and failed miserably, Sam shifting his crossed arms, Dean fiddling with a pen on the desk.

“What is it?”

Sam gasped out a laugh, gestured toward the remaining chair on the other side of the desk. “We got some information about your case. Kind of. Maybe.”

“You okay, man?” Dean asked, taking in the way Castiel sort of swayed his way into the chair and sank into it.

“I’m all right. It’s just been hectic the past few days. Please, tell me what you’ve found out.”

Sam cleared his throat, began to tell Castiel what Balthazar had told them, all the while taking great care to avoid mentioning the source. If Castiel knew that one of his kind was nearby and had been keeping tabs on him, it was a near guarantee that he would tumble headlong into something foolish.

“Where did you hear this?”

“We can’t reveal our sources. I’m sorry.”

“That’s horse shit,” Castiel said, and for a brief flash of a moment, Dean saw him as he’d seen Balthazar. He saw the age and power that was barely contained in his frame. “You’re not cops. You don’t have any legal obligations.”

“Not legal ones, no,” Dean said, hoping he wasn’t hedging his bets too far.

“So I’m supposed to take you at your word that some benevolent and strangely knowledgeable soul came here to tell you that I’m in danger? Who’s stringing along whom here, Dean?”

“I promise you – we are not making this up,” Sam said.

Castiel slumped forward with his head in his hands. He sighed, the sound exiting his body with a desperate wet rattle. In this unguarded position, Dean saw how pale he looked, how sickly. His hands shook and his chest heaved with each breath, like his body was a machine on the edge of failure.

“Look, how about we order a pizza, drink some beer, and go over what we know?” Dean said. “Clear our heads, hash it out. Then we can make some progress.”

“No, I—”

“Come on, it’ll be good. We’ll get to the bottom of this.”

“Whatever,” Castiel said.

Sam cocked his head, turned to Dean with questions in his eyes. Dean merely shook his head, held up his hand. He nodded in understanding. Dean saw Sam glance at Castiel and register his appearance. He pulled out his phone.

“Pepperoni okay with everyone?”

Dean knew, in the back of his mind, that he had had more awkward and disheartening conversations than the one that ensued while they waited for and subsequently consumed a pizza. He knew that as a young buck making sales calls for bullshit corporations, he had heard all kinds of desperate stories of heartbreak and tragedy. Even when he had “succeeded,” he had sat through enough endless first/last dates, cocktail parties, office happy hours, and mandatory teambuilding exercises to know that the world was as sad as the people who were in it. Nothing, though, could have prepared him for Castiel’s tale.

The human version of his life began with violence. His mother was the sixth wife of a prominent man in the community. He was fifty and Castiel’s mother was seventeen. She died giving birth to Castiel, a strange thing to consider in America in the modern age, but there it was. The more he told of his life there, the more apparent it became that it was hardly of the modern age. Privation and hardship. Chores. At fourteen, he had been pressed into service in his father’s roofing business. Then, at sixteen, he’d fought with an older brother over some dumb thing and he’d been kicked out of the clan entirely. They drove him up to Cedar City and left him there with a backpack of clothes and a hundred bucks. Details got fuzzy, but he managed to keep himself alive. Dean knew better than to ask how. Both he and Sam listened to Castiel’s story, picking at their pizza, nursing their beers, exchanging the occasional pointed glance. For all the killing and vanquishing they’d done, they had soft spots for sad stories.

“Was it an angel that warned you?” he asked once the uncomfortable pall that had settled over the room became unbearable.

Dean wiped his mouth with a scratchy paper napkin. It caught on the burgeoning stubble on his face. It happened more and more where he either forgot to shave or just didn’t have the time – unthinkable just a few short years before.

“Yeah, we spoke to an angel.”

Castiel’s icy eyes gazed far off into a distance beyond the claustrophobic wood-paneled walls of the dingy room. “I don’t remember any of them distinctly. I think that was the point. They were never really individuals. They were just these different limbs on one body or something.”

“Please believe us,” Sam said. “This guy had some serious power behind him, and I don’t even think he was a higher-up.”

“I can’t abandon this. None of it. You understand – I know you do.”

Of course they did. They left security and normalcy behind in pursuit of this insanity.

“Yeah, we know,” Sam said, the words coming from his mouth reluctantly, difficult as it was to admit that their protestations were nearly futile.

The best they could get was a promise from Castiel that he wouldn’t charge off alone. He would wait for Dean and Sam as backup. All in all, that was a pretty good deal. That was more than Dean himself might have been able to promise if he were in Castiel’s shoes. He thought back to when he met Sam, when the other man had told him about those dreams he had about them. There was a whole universe there, a possibility other than his own life. Sam didn’t bring it up too often, but sometimes when he woke, he had a haunted look. Sometimes Dean found Sam’s arm flung over his chest, pulling him in too tight, and when he turned around, Sam would be staring back at him wide-eyed. Dean didn’t allow himself to question it too hard. He knew better than that. But he related to Castiel’s memories of another life.
***

There weren’t a lot of places Dean considered safe anymore. He’d seen too much, been in danger too much, to really take safety seriously. Even before all this, he’d narrowly survived the big economic crash. Maybe he hadn’t, come to think of it. Safety in the real world was a construct at best and an outright illusion at worst. The only refuge he trusted, then, was the realm of his memories. They were already crystallized. He didn’t let himself dwell on things and see them with adult eyes. Instead, he nurtured his childishness, lest darkness creep into the only light spots he felt he had left.

He dreamed of his childhood places often. The biggest one was the patio outside the restaurant his mom used to own. The Roadhouse was outside of town a little ways, the kind of place where travelers and locals felt like they belonged. It was a huge place. He and Jo worked there in the summers once they were old enough. The patio had been the center of their universe. When they were really little, they’d play under the steps or in the small patch of grass. Then when they were teenagers – Dean as the bus boy and Jo as the hostess – they would stand out there and chat, talk about who was having a party or who hooked up with whom.

The patio wasn’t sacred, exactly. It was also where the cooks and the kitchen help would smoke cigarettes. It was where they once found a cat so sick and injured it had to be put down. Bad things happened out there, too, but mostly it was good. That was life, after all. No matter how nice a place was, sometimes cats died and cooks snuck swigs of Old Crow in between flipping burgers for people driving to better places. But whatever it was, in Dean’s mind it was a refuge. So when he was dreaming about the patio and Balthazar appeared, he wasn’t thrilled, though he guessed he shouldn’t have been surprised.

“You,” he said at the sudden flap of wings and the presence next to him. In the realm of dreams, without the limitations of the physical world, Balthazar hummed like a power station.

“Me,” Balthazar confirmed, settling on the top step next to Dean. “I sincerely apologize for meeting like this. There was no other way. I was cocky before, thinking I could use my powers all willy-nilly and not escape notice.”

Oh, he hated the little flame of sympathy that guttered inside his chest. He hated that genuine worry sprang into his mind when he glanced surreptitiously at this strange contact he’d made and found him looking haggard.

“Are you okay, man?”

“I suppose I am,” Balthazar said, staring up at the dream sky. He laughed, though it was sad. “I used to be better at this. But now – I mean, when you realize something, you can’t go back to the version of yourself that didn’t know that thing. Even if you cover up a crack, you know it’s there.”

There was an infinite list of meanings to that cryptic bullshit, none of which Dean felt inclined to divine.

“It’s pretty shitty of you to pop up in my dream like this,” he said.

“I agree, I agree,” Balthazar said. “But there was no other way. This is safest, and even that is tentative. I won’t risk it much longer. I just wanted to tell you that I have recently come into some information that will help Castiel on all his quests.”

“I see. And you want me to relay the message?”

Balthazar ticked his head back and forth. “I don’t know. That would be up to you, I suppose. You’re the one with free will, after all.”

“Oh come on. We were doing so well, and then you had to bust out with the riddles.”

“So unseemly of me,” he said, rising, dusting off his trousers. “Listen, I’ll be on my merry way—”

“Why do you even care what happens to him?”

“That’s a story for another time. A boozier time.”

With that, Balthazar disappeared and Dean woke, shot straight up in bed, startled the hell out of Sam, who shot up next to him. Sam fumbled with the lamp, turned it on, pulled Dean close.

“Are you okay? What the hell was that?”

“I – was having a dream. And Balthazar was there. Like, really there.”

Sam went and got him some water, sat on the edge of the bed like a concerned mom while Dean drank it. When he was composed enough, he managed to tell him what Balthazar had said, riddles and all.

“They totally had a thing,” Sam said.

“That’s your takeaway?” Dean asked, incredulous. “Major angelic shenanigans, and you’re turning this into an episode of Dr. Sexy?”

Sam shrugged. “Whatever. So, are you going to tell him?”

“Probably.” He finished his water and lay back down, staring up at the ceiling. Sam climbed back into the bed with him, pulled him close.

Within minutes, Sam was breathing deep and burrowing against Dean. Easy for him to do – he hadn’t just had the ultimate home invasion. If angels could enter a person’s mind like that, who knew what else they could do. He didn’t blame Sam for not giving it the proper thought. It wasn’t his head.
***

V.

Dean sat on the information a while. He didn’t like doing it. Whatever Castiel’s deal was, he was still a grown man and Dean was loath to condescend to him. More than that, he was also a millennia-old angel. But Dean also knew he couldn’t just call him in every time he learned something new – especially something as threadbare as Balthazar’s message. Anyway, the commitment to rationality went both ways. If Castiel promised not to sally forth recklessly, Dean should have the decency to commit to just as much.

Of course, even if Dean hadn’t intended to court mischief, there was always the chance that mischief would court him.

He was out on a supply run, one minute loading bags of groceries into the car, the next laid out flat on the damp floor of a warehouse. He quickly scrambled to his feet, frantically looking around the room and finding no clues to speak of. It was a warehouse that looked like it had been abandoned a good long while, with thick layers of dust and mold accumulated on most surfaces.

The sudden temperature drop was what scared him the most. It had been brisk at best when he was standing at the car, but now it was cold. In the dim yellow lights, he saw his breath clouding in front of him. The last watery vestiges of light were visible through a grime-caked window and Dean knew that he wouldn’t last long in the middle of the night.

“Where am I? Who the hell are you? Come out here, you goddamn son-of-a-bitch!”

The sound of dress shoes on concrete, the swishing of a cheap suit. He spun around to come face-to-face with a smarmy asshole who looked like his old boss, right down to the ugly suit. A smug not-smile resting on his face, he had the sort of bland corporate bearing Dean had come to hate passionately.

“What are you?”

“I can see the years on the road have totally destroyed your sense of manners.”

“Give me a fucking break. That doesn’t mean shit coming from a guy who just whisked me from my car to this dump.”

A chair slid from some dark corner across the floor, slammed against the back of Dean’s knees. He stumbled and fell onto it. When he tried to get up, he couldn’t. The man walked up to him and smiled, hands behind his back.

“Dean, Dean, Dean. No matter the circumstances, no matter the plane of reality, you’re always a righteous pain in my ass.”

“Let me out of here.”

“I will. I don’t need to kill you. Not right now, anyway. No, I wanted to sit you down for some face time, so we can be sure we’re on the same page.”

Dean tried to move, but it was like a bad dream. His arms and legs had faint pins and needles. Trying to move felt embarrassingly stupid.

“In this universe, Castiel needs to keep his miserable life of petty theft and whoring. It is his punishment for the sins he committed against the Host. You need to back off. If you don’t do it on your own, I’ll do it for you, and I’ll make sure you’re the last man standing after I shred your life. Then I will take great pleasure in extinguishing it.” He smiled again, the empty smile of middle management that didn’t reach his eyes.

Dean knew this type. Angel, human, demon – every species had them. They didn’t see other people (or angels, in this case) as real, as beings with their own lives and paths. They were just foils, allies, or enemies.

It was hard to imagine Castiel committing sins enough to warrant whatever this guy had in store for him. “Yeah, what’d he do? Get wasted at the office Christmas party and Xerox his butt?”

The angel flicked two fingers and it was like Dean had gotten smacked in the ribcage with a bowling ball. “You insolent little prick. He tried to rise above his station and question his orders.”

“So you tossed him down with a cult? For asking some questions?”

Again, excruciating pain. It was terrible to the point of numbness, to the point where it lost all meaning.

“He cut out his grace of his own stupid volition. I merely guided where he would land.”

“Castiel is a smart guy, and he’s dedicated. In my experience, not even a petty middle manager can stop that force of nature. It ain’t up to me to stop him doing anything.” He fixed a cocky smirk on his face. If there was anything this type hated, it was someone who didn’t buckle.

With barely the flick of a finger, the man looked him dead in the eyes and suddenly Dean’s whole world was pain. It was like every nerve had been lit on fire or worse. He tried hard not to scream, but how could he keep silent when it felt like his insides were turning to sludge? A thin trickle of blood fell from his nose, and on top of it all, the faint wetness of it was made nearly unbearable by the fact that he couldn’t wipe it away.

“Promise me, Dean,” the angel said, pinching his fingers together mid-air and causing Dean’s lungs to feel like they were collapsing or drowning. “Promise me you will get him off the scent.”

Well, obviously if it was that important to this asshat, it was a pursuit worth dying over. “No,” Dean said with what felt like his last breath.

“Excuse me?” the angel said, releasing his fingers and their invisible grip on Dean’s lungs.

“No,” he gasped, gulping air.

He found himself lifted up, thrown halfway across the room and unceremoniously dropped onto the concrete like the pile of meat-encased bones that he was. He lay there, unable to move, every sinew and bone burning from the inside out. He coughed a thick wad of blood and mucous onto the dusty concrete.

About a year ago, he and Sam had encountered a nasty vamp nest outside of Las Cruces. Holed up in the mountains, they had been picking off wayward hikers for years. They were good at what they did. They were more like wendigos than vamps at that point. It was one of the more foolhardy hunts that Dean and Sam had stepped in. Early on it became apparent that they were in over their heads. They killed two of the three vamps and badly wounded the remaining one, and he put up a fight like Dean had never seen. But that incident drove home the idea that he would likely one day die doing this, if he did it long enough. Something about the naked realization of it, the way it stood before him like his reflection in the mirror, was comforting. At that moment, all he could imagine was dying with Sam or at the very least, under circumstances Sam would know of. If he saw it, he could be comforted by its finality. He wouldn’t have to wonder. They lived their whole lives together. Sleeping, driving, researching, fighting – all of it within feet of one another. But this. Dean hadn’t ever thought of something like this – whisked away to die alone in a warehouse with his guts liquefied. Sam wouldn’t know. He’d figure out enough and he’d move on, but he wouldn’t really know. The best Dean could hope for was one of those psychic connections, a moment before death when he could project an image to Sam, maybe smile at him one last time.

He was working to gather up this last bit of energy when the floor beneath him shook and his captor spun around. From his vantage point on the floor, Dean saw a blue light and felt the buzz of electricity. Then, a familiar voice. Balthazar.

“Zachariah, why don’t you go pick on someone your own size?”

Dean managed to crawl over to a pile of old pallets, hide behind them. He pulled himself up to sit, watching the whole exchange. Balthazar flicked his eyes in Dean’s direction, looked straight at him, nodded a little.

“Balthazar. If only you’d had the decency to follow your little butt-buddy into the human realm.”

“And give up being able to do this?” He lunged at Zachariah, a triangular blade appearing from beneath his sleeve. He landed a small scratch across Zachariah’s cheek, a neon blue glow appearing where blood should have been. Even that tiny bit left Dean’s eyes feeling like he’d stared into a bare light bulb.

Zachariah raised his hand, pushed Balthazar back enough to knock him to the floor, after which he disappeared. The silence left in Zachariah’s wake pressed in on Dean’s skull.

Balthazar pulled himself up as though nothing had happened, except getting grime all over his suit. He dusted himself off before rushing to Dean, helping him sit up.

“Are you quite all right?”

“Not quite,” Dean grunted.

Balthazar waved his hand over Dean and suddenly he felt warm, energetic, vigorous. He felt better than he had in years, since even before hunting. He felt like he did when he played lacrosse in college. He coughed, one last glob of blood and mucous rising in his throat. He spit it out and it went farther than he could have possibly imagined.

“I should have predicted some shenanigan like this,” Balthazar said, shaking his head. Without another warning, he grabbed Dean and put two fingers on his forehead. The next instant, they were back in the office. The sun had set and the world was in that black and white moment before streetlights came on. Gritty and grainy, for a disoriented moment Dean wondered if the journey hadn’t erased his sense of color. But then a car passed by, its harsh lights coming through the window and he saw a splash of red.

He ran back behind the desk, and there was Sam, slumped in a corner, blood coming from his mouth, ears, and nose. The nine millimeter from the desk drawer had bounced a little way from there, laying innocuously on the carpet. The safety hadn’t even been clicked off yet.

“Sam! No, no, no, no. Sammy!” Dean shook Sam and all he got was a groan so faint he couldn’t discern it from a regular exhalation. “Wake up, Sam. Come on, man!”

Thin firm fingers clamped down on his shoulder. He toppled backward and Balthazar knelt down, eyes scanning over Sam.

“He’s alive, but barely.”

Balthazar laid his hands on Sam, first his chest, then shoulders, then stomach. He closed his eyes and pressed down. Moments later, Sam took a huge breath like he was coming up from deep water. He flailed his arms as his unseeing eyes darted from side to side. Dean pulled him close, kissed him gently.

“I’m here. You’re fine. You’re okay. I’m here.”

“I was – I was at my prom.”

“Must have been a good one to make it to the highlight reel,” Balthazar said, sinking off to the side.

“Castiel – where’s Castiel?” Sam asked.

“Castiel? He was here?”

“He still is. Just before I passed out, and before that – that guy winged away, I saw him. He came in—”

Balthazar was on his feet in a flash, calling Castiel’s name. All the lights turned on even though no one went to the light switches. Then, the door to the hallway creaked and opened a fraction of an inch. Balthazar went to it, tugged it open, and there was Castiel, lying on his stomach, crawling back into the office.

He was in even worse shape than Sam. A cut above his eye had a steady rope of blood coming down. The flesh around that eye was already mottled a midnight blue-purple, swollen and shiny. Blood trickled from his nose, and his hand was mangled, the fingers crooked and broken. Balthazar knelt down before him, put a hand on his head.

Sam and Dean remained seated where they were, both of them looking on in paralyzed fear and pain at what was going on before them. It was too private to be witnessed, but Dean found himself wholly unable to look away.

“Balthazar, he’s hurt bad. If you don’t do something – he won’t make it,” Sam said. “That guy—”

Balthazar laid his hands on Castiel, healed him as he had done Sam and Dean. For a heart-clenching moment, Castiel remained motionless on the floor before coughing and rolling onto his back.

“You,” he said. “I know you.”

“You better, you tit. We served together for a millennium.”

“B-Balthazar?” Castiel asked, lips unsure even as they pronounced the word.

“The one and only.”

“I’m sorry – I don’t remember all that much. It gets muddled. I’ve only just started to—”

Balthazar put his fingers to Castiel’s mouth. “Shh, just – take my word for it right now, okay?”

Sam stood, legs shaking. He retrieved the nine millimeter from where it landed, but he put it in the waistband of his jeans rather than back in the drawer.

“Look, you guys are welcome to stay here. Or – Balthazar – I know you have your safe house or whatever, but if that guy comes back—”

This spurred Balthazar into action. He pulled a knife from his boot – a boot, Dean couldn’t help but notice, that was full-grain leather, likely hand-stitched – and sliced open his palm. He began to smear it all over the walls in foreign squiggles. Sam reached out, tried to stop him, but he shook him off.

“No. This will protect you.”

“From what?” Sam asked, eyebrows raised. Oh, he had his “dealing with crazy people” face on. Dean knew that face. Mostly compassionate, mostly benevolent, but balanced on a knife edge, waiting to tip over into defense moves.

“From Zachariah or any of my brethren.”

In minutes, the place was covered in blood. The metallic tang hung heavy in the air, despite the fact it was cold. Underneath the usual metal and rotting meat smell of spilled blood, there was another layer. It didn’t smell sweet, exactly. It didn’t smell like anything specific. Maybe it just smelled cleaner than anything Dean had ever encountered. He guessed it was grace, this mysterious angel fuel that made the machine go.

Castiel managed to stand, propping himself up on the desk. “Balthazar—”

He put one last flourish on a symbol before rushing over to Castiel. “How much do you remember me?”

“I – I don’t know. I know we worked together. I know we were close—”

Balthazar cut him short with a kiss, the kind that left Dean and Sam looking at the ceiling or the floor – anywhere but the act of intimacy before them. “We were very close, darling. I hope I can help you remember. I didn’t – I didn’t want to go along with your plan, then. I wasn’t ready to question. Now – I don’t know. I don’t know. But I do know that I haven’t been the same since you left.”

“What did I do?”

“You marvelous creature,” Balthazar said. “You beautiful marvelous creature. I’m going to do whatever I can to get you to remember. But for now—”

He turned to Dean and Sam.

“Keep him safe. I’ve warded the place against angels and demons. I’ve cloaked it in every layer I could think of. Don’t any of you leave this building. If I don’t return – no, I’ll return.”

Before anyone could protest, he was gone with the faint sound of ruffling feathers. The air seemed lighter without him, but the silence was nearly unbearable, ringing in Dean’s ears like the aftermath of a shockwave. Stunned, the three of them stood in the office, hardly daring to move for fear of bringing down the very wrath of God.
***

VI.

Balthazar didn’t come back for a full day. None of them got much sleep, though they went through the motions. Sam found some blankets and a spare pillow that wasn’t too musty, set Castiel up on the couch. He shucked his jeans with no embarrassment or sense of propriety, revealing worn boxer briefs and blindingly white legs dotted with dark hair. In an unwanted flash, Dean pictured those legs thrown over his own shoulders, while he – no, never mind. He wouldn’t be entertaining that thought. Not right now. The guy was just trying to find out who killed his sister and what his past was. He didn’t need Dean perving on him, no matter how rumpled and hot he was.

Sam cleared his throat, ticked his head toward the bedroom, all but told Dean that he could tell what he was thinking about their downtrodden houseguest. They went into their room, cleaned up, stripped down to underwear and ratty t-shirts pulled from the ethers of the dresser. Dean didn’t notice until he discarded his other shirt that it was covered in blood. Sam’s was, too. He sat down heavily on the bed, rubbed his eyes.

“You doing okay?”

“I – I don’t know, to be honest. That was scary. I thought – it was a close call.”

“What happened?”

Dean shook his head. He couldn’t tell Sam about it, about getting taken to that warehouse, tortured, nearly killed, then healed. Sam had his own ordeal to work through.

“Let’s just leave it at this: We’ve all had a hell of a day. We can talk about it later. Maybe now we can pretend to get some sleep or something, okay?”

Sam lay back onto the bed, tried to find the least lumpy spot to nestle in. He tugged the back of Dean’s shirt and Dean joined him, pulled him as close as he could without crushing him. His hands roamed over Sam, checking for injuries, even though he knew there were none left.
***

“So, uh, you guys are a couple?” Castiel asked, staring at the TV.

Dean was itching to go get his car, but they’d already had to talk Castiel down from going to look for Balthazar. They had all settled on watching TV until the angel returned, Dean and Castiel on the couch with Sam in the sagging recliner next to it. At this point, Dean thought they might have been watching Univision, but he wasn’t even sure. He couldn’t tell English from Spanish or anything else after the day he had.

“Yeah,” Sam said, shifting in his seat, unsure if this was going to simmer to a fight.

“That’s – I mean, I was raised to believe it’s wrong. But I – I am also a homosexual.”

“Oh. Well, that’s cool,” Sam said, that little chicken foot frown appearing between his eyes.

Zachariah’s words floated back to Dean - petty theft and whoring. He wondered what it meant for Castiel, whether turning tricks was something he enjoyed or hated or what. There was no way to ask it, of course.

“It’s not wrong, no matter what they told you,” Dean said.

Sam remained silent. John and Mary Wesson still didn’t know their son was dating a man. Dean had met them once, breezing through town between hunts. They thought Sam had gotten a freelance tech gig, thought Dean did the same. They slept in separate rooms that weekend. He himself had never told his dad, and didn’t plan on telling his mom. It was – people tended to think about the sex part first and foremost. Things were changing, of course, but for the most part, talking to people of an older generation, their minds went right to the butt sex. Which was definitely a fun part of reality. Dean liked that stuff a lot. But he never wanted to see the look in his mother’s eyes as it registered with her. Never mind that she wouldn’t see it. Never mind that what she would see was maybe a peck on the cheek or clasped hands. She’d see it in her mind, which was worse. He couldn’t stick around long enough to make it normal or explain himself. So it was best if he didn’t.

“Thank you. I know that’s true, but old habits are hard to break,” Castiel said. “It never hurts to hear it again.”

Sam smiled, eyes soulful and melancholy. “Are you seeing anyone?”

Castiel looked down, pursed his lips. “No, I am not.”

The commercial break ended. Whatever stupid show they were watching came back on and they all stared at the TV, even though Dean was pretty sure none of them gave a shit about what was on it.

The rest of the day and much of the evening passed in this fashion, until around eight o’clock. They had added beer by that time, even Castiel, who got a little giggly after one bottle. Then, the lights flickered and suddenly Balthazar was there in a bloody heap. Coughing blood all over, he managed to sit up, wipe his face with his sleeve.

They sat in mute, frozen horror for a moment before all three of them were up and at Balthazar’s side. They hauled him over to the couch, took off his shirt and coat. He had a wide gash in his side, blood and grace oozing out slow and ominous.

“I’ve had worse,” he gasped. “Not by much, I’ll grant you.”

“Shit,” Dean muttered.

Sam went into the bathroom to get their first-aid kit. It was more impressive than your average Band-Aids and Bactine, but it might not hold up to this. He came back, knelt in front of Balthazar.

“Can you heal yourself?”

“Don’t know. Doubt it.”

“Then I’m going to have to sew this up.” He took out a needle, black thread, and a small bottle of alcohol.

Balthazar flailed. “No, for fuck’s sake. Look in my coat.”

Dean rifled through the pockets until he found a small, plain glass vial. He pulled it out and it shimmered with electric blue. He set it on the coffee table, stared down at it. Then, for the first time, he noticed that Castiel had hung back among the shadows. This jarred him back to life and he walked toward it like someone was pulling him on an invisible string.

“Is that—?”

“Yes.”

Castiel picked it up, stared at it. “What happens if I open this vial?”

Sam held a towel over Balthazar’s side to stanch the bleeding, and Balthazar put his hand over the cloth, sat up as best he could. “Your grace will flow back into you and you’ll be an angel again.”

“And I can heal you?”

Balthazar nodded.

Castiel made to open the vial, but Balthazar raised his hand. “No, look. If you do, you’ll be back on the radar. I killed Zachariah, but there are others like him. You don’t remember—” His face seized up, and he clutched his side. “You don’t remember, but you committed several crimes against the Host. Sedition, blasphemy.”

“I don’t care! You hid. I can hide too.”

Hope flickered in Balthazar’s eyes, hope for something even more than having his life saved. Castiel caught it, paused a moment, and then opened the vial.

A noise like the white buzz of electricity, of a power station, issued from the glass. It immediately began to swirl up and grow, expanding far beyond anything that could be contained in the small glass. It swirled all around Castiel, like a cat checking someone out, and then it began to pour into his nose and mouth. He choked, gasped, fell to the floor. The light was gone and he was still. Within moments, he rose to his feet, a new sense of purpose making him stand straighter, his features settle into stone.

“I remember everything,” he said, even his voice taking on a new timbre.

He crossed the room in two purposeful strides, laid his hands on Balthazar. He was healed in an instant, color returning to his face as he sat up. Castiel pulled Balthazar to him, kissed him deeply and with a level of passion that Dean thought might have been considered unseemly for angels. He found an interesting spot on the ceiling.

“I left you. You said there were other ways, and I didn’t believe you. I’m so sorry, Balthazar.”

Balthazar stroked Castiel’s face. “It’s all right. I made do.”

“He killed her, didn’t he?” Castiel asked, suddenly plaintive and child-like.

“He did.”

Castiel sank down on the floor next to the couch, knees drawn up. Balthazar put a hand on his shoulder.

“I was ready to kill a human for something he did.”

“Zardoz, or whoever from your cult?” Dean asked. “Sounds like he might have it coming just the same.”

Castiel flashed him a menacing look. The lights flickered. “That is not my place to judge.”

“He will get what is coming to him, one way or another,” Balthazar said. He pulled Castiel close, held him tight. “Until then, I have quite a lot to catch you up on.”

Dean pulled Sam into the kitchen, cracked two beers, handed one to Sam, sat next to him at the table. He was normally staunchly against that kind of thing, even in the privacy of what passed for home, believing that there was something hopelessly codependent about couples who did that. But everyone involved had nearly died that night, so it seemed appropriate. He held his beer with one hand and Sam’s arm with the other. Sam made no move to disengage.

“My car is still in the Ralph’s parking lot.”

Sam laughed. “We’ll get one of these guys to fly you over there.”

“Damn fucking straight. And they better pay for gas, too.”

They had a good laugh at that, if a desperate one. Dean looked over the table at Sam, whole and vital. They had come so close to dying alone, their respective demises undiscovered and unnoticed. Their families would never know, for if both of them died, there was no one to offer condolences, to seek out parents. Tears misted over Dean’s eyes, and he tried to swipe them away surreptitiously. Of course, he didn’t succeed. Sam reached across the table, took his hand.

After a long while and a silence that could have felt interminable but didn’t, Castiel and Balthazar came into the kitchen.

“I am grateful for your kindness and help,” Castiel said.

“You’re welcome,” Sam said, squeezing Dean’s hand. It was more like a warning, which Dean perfectly understood. He desperately wanted to point out that helping Castiel had nearly gotten them both killed.

“We have a lot of, ah, catching up to do,” Balthazar said.

“Is that what you kids are calling it these days?”

“Innuendo aside,” Castiel said, “Anna and I left a mess in Heaven when we fell. I must work with Balthazar to right my wrongs.”

Sam rose, stuck out his hand. Both men – angels – stared at it, as if they both forgot the human custom. Dean rose, did the same, and they all shook hands in turn. He figured, close calls aside, it was better to have them as allies.

“I fear that when all is said and done, you won’t be shot of us,” Balthazar said.

“Any time,” Sam said.

Dean simply nodded, not trusting himself to keep his tongue civil if he tried to speak.

The other two winged away with a light breeze and the sound of rustling feathers, leaving a shattering silence and stillness in their wake. The air seemed charged with electricity, an itchy buzz that left Dean feeling restless.

“Goddammit, my car,” Dean said.

Sam chuckled, pulled him in for a hug. “We’ll get it in the morning.”

Just then, from outside, there came a sound of metal hitting asphalt. They rushed to the front of the office, flung the door open. Outside on the curb sat Dean’s car.