Dean was standing on the edge of a war. It felt like a solid porch, attached to a regular house in an ordinary neighborhood, but everyone knew the suburbs were the fringes. This was where it started: the slow slide into anonymity. Killers and convicts could disappear into the community and their neighbors would just coo and claim, “He’s such a nice young man!”
Sam would be quick to point out that Dean hadn’t been convicted of anything yet. They were both hoping to keep it that way, and if Sam’s strategy was a lot more mundane than Dean’s would have been, well. There was a reason Sam had his own front door to shelter behind and Dean had to borrow someone else’s.
He could have borrowed Sam’s. He could have crashed on any number of couches, except that Sam insisted a vagrant lifestyle was half of Dean’s problem. In an effort to get him off the criminal watch list, Dean was supposed to stay in one place, draw a steady paycheck, and lay low for once in his life.
The plan wouldn’t have flown with him if Bobby hadn’t shut him out. He still suspected Sam of getting to the man first, because by the time Dean called all he got was, “No one wants to work with the next big bust, Dean. Come back when you sound the slightest bit respectable.”
Bobby’s standards weren’t high, but Dean’s record set the bar pretty low. He’d need at least one good reference for any job that wasn’t jail, and if Sam was it then Sam was it. He knew someone, he said: someone Dean might even get along with if he could manage not to scare the kids.
Dean had exactly no experience with children. He thought the fact that Sam had set him up as a bodyguard for seven rich brats said more about Sam’s sense of humor (and the ultimate fate of his college-educated friends) than it did about Dean’s actual skills. On the other hand, it paid, it included room and board, and Sam said the job was his if he wanted it.
Dean didn’t want it. But Sam wanted him to have it, and Bobby wasn’t reassigning him until he proved he knew how to blend in with the masses, so. It looked like an enforced vacation for him.
He didn’t realize until it all went to hell that walking into this house wouldn’t mean leaving the fight. He was wading straight into the most violent fray of his life. The choice would have been more clear if it was an enemy he knew anything about.
“Can I help you?” The guy at the door didn’t look like he had seven kids. He wasn’t expecting Dean, either. So probably not Sam’s friend. Boyfriend? Boy toy? Moocher?
“Hey,” Dean said, eyeing him. “Here for Castiel. He in?”
The guy smirked at him. “How do you know I’m not him?”
“Are you?” Dean asked. He’d had a lousy week and he didn’t feel like playing games.
All it got him was a sigh and a shake of the head. “You’re no fun, Dean Winchester. I can already tell I’m not going to like you.”
So the guy was expecting him. He wasn’t Castiel, though: Dean knew Sam’s type, and this wasn’t it. “We don’t have to like each other to work together.”
“True,” the guy agreed. “Never worked with anyone I did like, actually. You might as well come in; I’ll tell the man you’re here. Don’t break anything, don’t wander off, and try not to do anything that would get the police called before I get back.”
Dean swung his duffel over his shoulder and stepped inside, pulling the door shut behind him. He made sure the guy was gone before he rolled his eyes. Sam didn’t take any crap, and Dean was pretty sure he wouldn’t have suggested someone who did.
Not that he’d really suggested it, in the end. Bullied, demanded, contrived, yes. Suggested? Not so much.
The house was stupidly huge. Dean tried not to care. The bigger the place, the better the pay, right? He still didn’t know what he was working for, but if it included room and board it probably wasn’t great. He wasn’t going to rack up a lot of hazard pay helping five-year-olds cross the street. The best he could hope for was that whoever was paying him was too rich to care.
The best he could hope for was that Sam would get over his self-righteous “clean slate” approach and help Dean with a better fake identity, but that didn’t look like it was happening this week. Maybe Bobby would work on him from the other side… all it would take was one good case. Some monster ate enough people and they’d be begging him to come back.
Not that he wanted monsters to eat people or anything.
He hadn’t realized he was staring at an oversized canvas full of angels or saints or some other weird religious scenario until the voice interrupted his irritation. Because of course he was in a house like that. He hoped his disgust wasn’t obvious when he turned around.
The man standing at the bottom of the stairs shouldn’t have been able to get that close without getting Dean’s attention. How out of it was he, anyway? Those stairs led up to a wraparound balcony that was completely exposed. There was no way anyone arrived unnoticed short of a trapdoor.
“Hey,” Dean said warily. Sam wasn’t that pissed at him, right? He’d have mentioned if this was one of his creepy human integration projects? “You Castiel?”
“Yes,” the man said. “Your brother assures me that you are well-versed in the supernatural. Is this accurate?”
“Yeah,” Dean said. Well-versed didn’t really cover it. “It’s pretty accurate.”
“You are able to defend multiple persons against a variety of unconventional attacks?”
Sam hadn’t said there was going to be an entrance exam. “I’ve been defending people against unconventional attacks all my life,” Dean said. “It’s my job, and I’m good at it. You want a trophy?”
Castiel tilted his head, and Dean knew. Sam had lied to his face. This was one of his projects; he’d known Dean would refuse, so he’d kept his mouth shut until it was too late.
“That won’t be necessary,” the man – or whatever he was – said. “I’m aware of your reputation. And in light of that, I must clarify: my children are not entirely human. Will that be a problem for you?”
Dean stared at him. Yeah, it was a fucking problem. He was going to kill Sam for getting him into this. Because Castiel was a monster, and Sam had signed Dean up to protect his little monster babies from people like Dean.
“They gonna eat me?” Dean asked at last. Until someone got him out of here, he needed this job.
Castiel frowned. It was the first expression Dean had seen on his face, and it didn’t make him feel any safer. “No,” he said. Like the question was unreasonable or something.
“Then no,” Dean said. Sam was a dead man. “It’s not a problem.”
“Very well.” Castiel had an unblinking stare that added an extra creepy element to his non-expression. “You will sleep upstairs with the children. I prefer that you not bring guests into the house, but you may have two days off each week as long as you notify me in advance. You are not required to take meals with the children, but I will need you to accompany them whenever they leave the house.
“I will also need you to spend a significant amount of time with them while they’re here,” Castiel added. “Mostly in my absence, which is extensive. Any advice you can provide regarding the defense and protection of the house itself is welcome.”
“Yeah, okay,” Dean said, already looking around. A place like this would be hell to fortify, but he’d worked with worse. “What about school? You got clearance to post a guard in the hallways?”
“Yes,” Castiel said.
Dean looked back at him in surprise. “Seriously?”
“Yes,” Castiel repeated. “They attend Historia Waldorf. You will be provided with transportation and a detailed schedule of their activities. Monetary compensation is two thousand dollars per week, to be issued every Thursday evening. Is this an acceptable arrangement?”
Dean did his absolute best not to react. “Two thousand dollars?” he said evenly. “A week?” And then, because his absolute best wasn’t so great sometimes: “Are you kidding?”
“I am not kidding.” Castiel studied him. “Food, clothing, and other necessities will be paid for you, of course. Do you wish to negotiate?”
“No,” Dean said. Quickly. “That’s fine.”
That was fucking ridiculous. What the hell kind of enemies did Castiel have?
“You’ve met my butler already,” Castiel was saying. “Do you have other things you would like him to bring in?”
It slipped out before he could think. “Dude, that was your butler?”
There was that head tilt again. It didn’t seem as frightening this time, which couldn’t be a good sign. Money had never been enough before: no one bought his trust. So what was he doing talking like he had any right to criticize? Not human, he reminded himself. He didn’t know what this guy was, but he wasn’t human. No way was he safe.
“Yes,” Castiel said simply.
“Right,” Dean said. “No,” he added, when Castiel just waited. “I don’t have anything else.”
Castiel’s gaze flicked to his single duffel bag, but he didn’t say anything else about it. “I will show you to your room,” he said. “Is there anything else you require before you meet the children?”
“I’m good,” Dean said, picking up his bag again. “Lead the way.”
He didn’t have a room, it turned out. He had a suite. An actual suite, with no disturbing religious decorations or terrible wallpaper. It was too big, but hey. There was a bed. That right there was more than he asked lately.
“Will this be suitable?” Castiel asked from behind him.
Dean didn’t know what kind of game that was, the faux solicitousness, but for two grand a week he thought he could play pretty much anything. “Yeah,” he said, turning around. “It’s great. Thanks.”
Castiel raised an eyebrow, but all he said was, “I have a housekeeper. She does not clean the children’s rooms, but you are welcome to her services if you like.”
Of course he had a housekeeper. He had a butler, for crying out loud.
“I don’t like anyone else touching my stuff,” Dean told him.
Castiel just nodded. “As you wish,” he said. “The children must be welcome here, of course, but you may restrict them from your bedroom if you choose.”
Seven kids, Dean thought. How the hell did this humorless man have seven kids? And where were they? “Who’s watching them right now?” he wanted to know. They had staff, apparently. Maybe there was a nanny?
“They may be more loosely attended within the security of the house,” Castiel said. “If you’re ready, I will call them to meet you.”
“Sure,” Dean said. “Let’s do it.”
Castiel didn’t take his eyes off of Dean as he said, “Children. Come here.”
Dean felt his spine stiffen. Monsters. “Yeah,” he said aloud, staring at Castiel as adrenaline made his fingers cold. “I’m not gonna be able to do that.”
He saw the first trace of amusement on Castiel’s face. “The intercom is right behind you.”
Dean turned, taking a step back to keep Castiel in his field of view while he scanned the wall. Sure enough. Subtle, innocuous as a light switch but unmistakable now that he was looking for it. “Cute,” he said. “Voice activated?”
“After a fashion,” Castiel said. And who said that, “after a fashion”?
“The children will show you how to use it,” he was saying as the door to the suite swung wider on its hinges. “It does prevent a certain amount of mischief.”
Right. Never abused, of course. But the kids were filing in, and okay, they were older than he’d expected. Some of them. Hadn’t Sam said they were young?
Didn’t Sam think all kids were young?
The first girl in was sixteen if she was a day, all responsible mother figure on the outside and probably girl gone wild underneath. The boy behind her couldn’t be much different, and only younger assuming the oldest had come through the door first. They usually did, Dean knew.
The next two had to be pre-teen at least, but they were followed by a younger boy and two little girls. They would’ve been adorable if they smiled. And if Dean hadn’t known they were inhuman.
As it was they lined up in what he’d guess was age rank order and stared straight ahead. Wearing almost exactly the same thing. The boys had short hair, and all the girls had ponytails. It was probably less creepy when they weren’t all together.
“This is Dean Winchester,” Castiel said, and it occurred to Dean that he’d never actually introduced himself. Castiel hadn’t bothered to ask.
Which he figured was fair. They couldn’t have that many hunter-bodyguards on their doorstep. And who was he to complain about a little rudeness from his inhuman employer? If they’d met in an alley at night, Dean probably would have stabbed him first and asked questions later.
“You may give Dean your names now,” Castiel was saying, and yeah. Not complaining. The rudeness must be a personality trait.
“Maribel,” the oldest girl said.
“Adamel,” the boy next to her said.
The next girl in line said, “Wildfire.” Completely matter-of-fact, and no one batted an eye.
“Maia,” the other pre-teen said.
The little boy said, “Kumara,” but he was the first to hesitate.
The second smallest girl lifted her chin in a very defiant way and declared, “Saph!” Dean wanted to smile, but they all seemed very serious. It was a weird introduction.
The littlest girl didn’t say anything.
Finally Castiel indicated her and offered, “This is Dani. Sometimes she doesn’t speak -” And there was definitely supposed to be something there, but Dean didn’t get it because Castiel paused strangely. In the end all he said was, “I don’t know why.”
“Hi,” Dean said. He lifted a hand in their direction, but he didn’t bother to wave because they were just staring at him. “So all I get is your names?”
Now Castiel was staring at him too. “Do you want something more?”
What were they, barcodes? Or was he not supposed to have personal information? It sounded like he’d be spending all day everyday with them; he was going to end up with personal information.
“Favorite color,” he said. “Favorite food, do you have any pets, I don’t know. Whatever.”
He saw the oldest girl glance at Castiel, who nodded once.
And damned if they didn’t do the whole thing all over again. “Maribel,” the oldest girl repeated. “I don’t have a favorite color. I don’t have a favorite food. We don’t have any pets.”
“Adamel,” the boy beside her echoed. “I don’t have a favorite color. I don’t have a favorite food. We don’t have any pets.”
Dean didn’t roll his eyes when the next girl said obediently, “Wildfire. I don’t have a favorite color--” And he recited along with her, “I don’t have a favorite food. We don’t have any pets.” She didn’t stop, saying every word as he said it, and afterwards she just looked at him curiously like she didn’t know why he was talking.
Okay, so he was the bad guy here. That wasn’t totally unexpected. He hadn’t thought they’d be this obnoxious the first day - he hadn’t even told them they couldn’t do anything yet - but they obviously knew why he was here. He’d be pissed too.
“Maia,” the third girl said quietly. She hesitated long enough that he raised his eyebrows at her, and she added, “I don’t have a favorite color, but... I like to eat cereal?”
The first one to break ranks. Dean hoped the older ones didn’t get mad at her for it later. “That’s cool,” he told her. “I like cereal too. What kind do you eat?”
“Shredded wheat,” she said with depressing certainty.
Dean looked at Castiel. “What, do they not get sugar?” he asked. Meals were going to suck.
Castiel frowned. “Organic Autumn Wheat contains seven grams of sugar per serving,” he said, and who knew that off the top of his head? More importantly, who thought that was enough? What were kids doing eating shredded wheat?
“I eat Cocoa Puffs,” Dean told Maia. “We’ll have to trade sometime; try something new.”
Maia looked at her father before she answered. “Okay,” she said. She didn’t look enthusiastic about it, but it was more than he’d gotten from any of the others.
Then the boy who’d given his name as “Kumara” said, “I’m Maru. I like all colors. I don’t like food.”
Well, he was talking. Even if it didn’t make any sense. “You don’t like any food?” Dean couldn’t figure out what that was supposed to mean. “Not even pie or cookies or something?”
Maru did the thing where he tipped his head to the side, and he was probably eight and it still looked just like Castiel. It gave Dean a terrible feeling that maybe they didn’t even eat, not normal things like human beings but maybe blood or babies or something. He probably should have followed up the “Will they eat me?” question with “Will they eat anyone else?”
“I’ve never had pie,” Maru said, and that didn’t make Dean feel any better.
“Ice cream?” he asked. No one made it eight years without ice cream.
Maru actually looked interested at that, which had to be a first. “I had ice cream at school once,” he said. “I --” And he stopped and looked at his father. “It tasted good,” he finished, staring down at the floor.
Dean looked at Castiel too, but he couldn’t see anything disapproving about his expression. “I’m a big fan of ice cream,” Dean told Maru. “I think I’m gonna like your school.”
Maru looked up without lifting his head, and Dean thought it was the closest any of them had come to smiling yet. Except maybe Castiel, who had definitely wanted to laugh at him about the intercom. This family seriously needed to lighten up.
“I’m Saph,” the second littlest girl reminded him. “That’s not really my name, but it’s what everyone calls me.”
That was more like what he expected from a kid. He didn’t have any, no one he knew had any, and generally speaking he figured kids were better off doing what they were told. But this freaky conformity was a little much for him, and he was glad to hear “Saph” go off-script.
“Oh, yeah?” Dean said, smiling at her. Someone had to be the first. “Why does everyone call you Saph?”
“Because I told them to,” she said importantly. “I like the name Saph.”
“Me too,” Dean agreed. “Good choice, Saph.”
It worked, because she smiled back at him like she was an actual human kid and he’d said something to make her happy. He’d take it. He didn’t even bother asking about colors or foods. He’d gotten that message pretty clearly, and if Saph was going to smile at him then she could say whatever she wanted.
He looked at the last girl. She looked back at him.
Dean waited, mostly to see what would happen, and finally Saph jumped in again. “Dani likes bright light,” she said. “That’s her favorite color. And she likes snacks at school.”
“Is that what you were gonna say?” Dean asked the other girl. He probably shouldn’t encourage any of them to speak for her, but it was nice to hear someone talking.
To his surprise, Dani nodded.
“She means she likes other people’s snacks,” Saph said confidently. “Sometimes we trade. Like you said with the cereal.”
“So you give them your snack and they give you theirs?” Dean asked, watching Dani carefully. She didn’t seem mad about having her story told for her, but she didn’t seem shy about staring back at him, either.
Dani nodded again.
“That sounds pretty fair,” Dean said. “Good way to try new things.”
“I like new things,” Saph agreed. “Like you. You’re interesting.”
“Well, thanks,” Dean said, glancing at Castiel. “I think.”
Castiel caught his eye briefly. He seemed about as sure - which was to say, not at all - but he looked down without a word. Dean followed his gaze and almost took a step back.
Dani was standing right in front of him, staring up with big eyes and an entirely too shrewd expression. Dean hadn’t even seen her move. “Hi,” he said, looking down at her. “Something you want to say?”
“Out loud?” Dean added.
She opened her mouth and asked, “What’s your favorite color?”
He was so surprised he didn’t even think about it. “Black,” he told her.
Dani had the gall to frown up at him. “Black isn’t a color,” she said.
“Neither is bright light,” Dean replied.
Her frown deepened, and he had to feel bad. He had no business taking his frustration out on a little girl. She hadn’t even said “bright light;” Saph had offered that for her. And really, she could complain about black all she wanted to if she was gonna talk.
“But you’re right,” Dean said quickly, even though she wasn’t. Black was totally a color. “I said black ’cause my car’s black, and my car’s my favorite thing in the world. Except for my brother,” he added, which was only partly true right now. “Some days they’re closer than others, though, I gotta tell you.”
Dani hadn’t moved. “I don’t know what that means,” she told him.
Right, yeah. She was like, five or something. “It means I like my car a lot,” he said. “I like my brother a lot too, and usually I like my brother more than I like my car. But not always.”
“Oh,” Dani said. “I don’t know if I like my brothers better than your car. But I think I probably do.”
Okay, not five. Six? Could she be seven? What age did kids get smart?
“I think you probably do too,” Dean told her. “But that’s okay. Most people haven’t met the love of their life by the time they’re your age.”
Dani stared up at him like he was the strangest thing she’d ever seen.
“Is your brother the love of your life?” Saph asked curiously.
“My car is the love of my life,” Dean said. Kids were a lot quicker than he’d given them credit for. Maybe he was lucky the older ones weren’t talking to him yet. He’d need time to acclimate.
“That’s why you like black,” Saph said.
“That’s right,” Dean agreed. Here, at least, he was on solid ground.
“I like bright light,” Dani told him.
Dean knew he shouldn’t, but he couldn’t resist. “That the love of your life?” he teased.
Dani nodded solemnly. “The love of my life,” she repeated.
“We’re approaching supper time,” Castiel said. He didn’t sound disapproving or worried or even particularly interested, but all of the children straightened. Even the ones who hadn’t relaxed.
Castiel didn’t look at them, his tone still mild as he addressed Dean. “Tuesday is pizza night. Do you have a...” He paused long enough to make it obvious. “Favorite kind of pizza?”
“Anything with meat,” Dean said. Then he wondered if that was a bad thing to say, given their totally weird food issues. “I mean - you’re not vegetarian, are you?” He tried not to make it sound like the worst thing in the world.
“We are not,” Castiel said. “We’ll go downstairs and order the pizza, and you may make yourself at home here. Join us whenever you’re ready.”
As long as whenever he was ready wasn’t more than half an hour, Dean thought. Or less: who knew how far away the nearest pizza place was. He should probably figure out where stuff was in relation to this house, if he was going to be driving out of it five days a week. Or more.
Maybe he wasn’t even supposed to drive. Castiel might have a chauffeur. Seriously, who lived like this?
Dean walked the entire suite after they’d filed out - just as freakishly quietly as they’d come in - and decided that he was working for a criminal. Or a baby-eater. Probably both. He didn’t trust that intercom even a little, so he pulled out his phone and typed, YOU HAVE ME WORKING FOR MONSTERS, BITCH.
He wasn’t going to unpack. He’d been living out of a duffel bag most of his life; no reason to change now. Especially when a quick exit might be all that stood between him and becoming monster food.
His phone chimed during his second circuit of the giant room, giant bedroom, and attached giant bathroom. 1 New Message, it said. (Sam)
When Dean opened it, all the text said was: FRIENDLIES, JERK.
Oh, because that was an argument Sam got to make, after the last time. And the time before that. And also the time with the vampires.
Especially the time with the vampires.
Dean gave the intercom a suspicious look before he gave in and typed, WHAT ARE THEY?
He used the bathroom, washed his hands, and stuffed his duffel bag under the bed. He bounced on the bed experimentally and decided it was too soft. He counted the sigils burned into the walls around the windows, grudgingly impressed to find them reinforced by another line of protection etched into the floor.
By the time he decided Sam wasn’t going to answer, he was actually curious about the rest of the house. Whoever had drawn those sigils knew what they were doing. Dean had more than a passing familiarity with the language, and he could barely read them.
Plus he was hungry, so he stuffed his phone back into his duffel and headed downstairs. They probably had rules about phones at dinner or something. Although, pizza night. That sounded pretty casual, right?
If the door to the kitchen hadn’t been open, he never would have found them. They weren’t making any noise. They were one of those families that actually ate pizza off of plates, with silverware and everything, but they had all their place settings lined up on the kitchen counters with napkins and stools and it was a little strange. It was nowhere near as strange as the total silence they were eating in.
“Hey,” Dean said, because someone had to. “You got rules about talking at dinner, or what?”
“No,” Castiel said. He looked at Dean in the doorway, then at the island where they’d arranged their pizza. Three large boxes, covers open and folded back identically, and of course Dean hadn’t heard the doorbell. No wonder the man had a butler; he probably had to send mail from one end of the house to the other.
“Help yourself,” Castiel added. “There is one with meat, one with vegetables, and one with both.”
“Not purists, I see,” Dean remarked, picking up the one empty plate from the near end of a kitchen counter. “Smells good.”
He was hungry enough that anything edible would have smelled good at this point, but the pizza looked surprisingly decent. Not greasy fast-food fair, but maybe he should have expected that. They were eating off of plates, after all. They probably ordered hand-tossed whole grain organic pizza or something.
He looked at the crust warily, but it seemed normal. His first bite tasted normal. Better than normal, if he had to rate it. He almost said so aloud before he remembered the whole talking with your mouth full thing. Maybe that was why they were so quiet: they must have strict rules about something, right? Nobody’s kids were this obedient if they weren’t at least a little scared.
Dean sat down awkwardly at the end of the counter, finishing off half his first piece before he couldn’t stand it anymore. He made sure he swallowed before he said, “Did you get outvoted for plain cheese?”
Saph looked up at him with curious eyes. “I don’t know what that means,” she said.
She was picking the vegetables off of her pizza, slow and meticulous. She only ate from the part she’d already picked clean. And she had just repeated, word for word, what Dani had said when Dean stumped her earlier with the comment about Sam.
“They make pizza without anything on it,” he said, nodding at her plate.
“Cheese pizza,” Dean prompted. “No veggies? Do you like vegetables?”
“Yes,” she said uncertainly. Like she wasn’t sure it was the right answer.
“Well, okay,” he said. He was very aware that everyone else was listening to them. “But if you don’t like them on your pizza, most pizza places will split a pizza for you. In half, or something. So you could get some pizza without anything on it.”
Saph seemed to think about this. Finally, like she’d solved a great mystery, she said, “So I wouldn’t have to take the vegetables off.”
“Right,” Dean agreed.
All of the kids were watching when Saph turned to Castiel and asked politely, “May I have a piece of pizza without anything on it next time?”
Castiel blinked. It was more than just being surprised she asked, Dean thought. He didn’t know why he thought that except maybe he wasn’t the only one getting a hard time from the kids today. Maybe they were pissed at their dad for hiring Dean in the first place. Because Castiel looked like it hadn’t even occurred to him that one of them would think enough about the pizza to have a preference.
“Yes,” he said after a moment. If nothing else, his voice sounded as even as ever. “Of course.”
Dean decided maybe he should keep his mouth shut for the rest of dinner.
He didn’t manage to actually do it, but he didn’t get fired either. He was gonna call that a win.
Cleanup was left for the housekeeper, whom Dean still hadn’t met. Castiel spent the time after dinner drilling him in the kids’ schedules, while the kids themselves went to “do their homework.” Dean didn’t know what that was code for, but he couldn’t believe they spent all evening doing homework. Seriously? Even Dani?
He didn’t see them again until the next morning. Castiel had given him explicit instructions about driving the kids to school, introduced him to the Hummer, and then looked on in bemusement when Dean whistled. (“Dude,” Dean had said. “You have a Hummer.”) He got keys and a credit card for gas, which Dean thought was pretty damn trusting of him. It probably had a hundred dollar limit or something.
There was a text message from Sam on his phone that night. He saw it when he went to set his alarm, rolling onto a too-soft bed and staring at a blinding screen in the darkness. He was at least half-asleep already.
ANGELS, the screen said.
Dean squeezed his eyes shut, clenched the fingers of his free hand in the edge of his pillow, and typed back by feel. HA HA.
He was still holding the phone when the alarm went off the next morning. He figured he was lucky, considering he didn’t even remember setting it. But it was six am and the phone was vibrating in his hand. It was also playing some sort of electronic jingle, starting with the word “Victory!” which Dean had initially hated but had learned to tolerate. He had to, since he had no idea how to change it.
The best part of “Victory!” was that it reminded him where he was. He only heard the alarm when he was in weird (usually life-or-death) situations, because most of the time waking up at six-thirty was fine. Today, though, Castiel was supposed to be gone and Dean had no idea how the kids functioned without him.
Just fine, it turned out.
Dean managed to get through a shower, shave, and change of clothes by six-fifteen, and he didn’t get lost on the way to the kitchen so he was there by twenty past. No matter how self-reliant Castiel thought the kids were, Dean hadn’t expected to see them all sitting at the counter, dressed and quietly eating their own breakfast by the time he walked in.
He stopped and stared for a long moment. Because, okay, they had seemed a little weird yesterday. But they were all dressed exactly the same way today, and every last one of them was eating something that he had a horrible suspicion was shredded wheat. And they were staring back at him like he was the strange one.
“Morning,” he muttered at last. He was too human for this shit. None of them even looked tired.
No one answered.
Dean shook his head, reaching up to rub his eyes and changing his mind at the last moment. “Any coffee?” he asked, scrubbing his hand through his hair instead. “Your dad drink it?”
They just looked at him.
“Okay,” he said. “We’re on the road by seven-fifteen. Make sure you have your stuff together and meet me at the car by seven-ten.”
They’d all stopped eating, but he couldn’t decide whether that was more or less creepy when all they were doing was staring at him. He wouldn’t have been surprised if they ignored him. He was a little weirded out by the full-on silent treatment: not just of him, but of each other. What kind of kids didn’t whisper or whatever?
He started opening cupboards - he was hungry and he didn’t plan on shredded wheat for breakfast - and the first thing he found was a coffee maker. “Hey,” he said, pleased. “Now we’re talking.”
There were filters and coffee and everything, so he got it plugged in and percolating while he resumed his search for food. The cereal made him pause: shredded wheat, yeah, but also Cocoa Puffs. Weird.
He found bread and milk and eggs, ridiculous amounts of pasta, a refrigerator filled with fruits and vegetables. No leftover pizza. He wondered who had eaten that. He hadn’t seen the butler since he arrived and he hadn’t met the housekeeper at all: did they stay here too? He couldn’t picture Castiel coming to the kitchen for a midnight snack.
Looking around the kitchen again, he had to ask, “You guys eat cereal every day, or just when you’re by yourselves?” There was a lot of fresh food here for a family that lived out of boxes and cans.
There was a long pause, and he thought they were still on some kind of conversational strike until one of the pre-teens said carefully, “Who are you asking?”
Dean rolled his eyes. “All of you,” he said, setting the milk down on the counter to keep himself from waving it around in exasperation. “Any of you. I’m asking whoever wants to answer.”
It was Maia, he thought. The same one who had said she liked cereal the day before. “We don’t eat cereal every day,” she said.
“You always get your own breakfast?” Dean asked, putting the eggs down next to the milk and going back for vegetables. He’d have gone straight for sausage, but there wasn’t any meat in the refrigerator at all.
“Most of the time?” Maia said it like she wasn’t sure it was the right answer.
“Huh,” Dean said. He found a frying pan next to the stove and put it on a burner, wishing the coffee was ready. He didn’t want to sit around eating cereal and not talking, but actually making something to eat was a pain in the ass.
“So, no cook,” Dean continued, mostly for something to say. Not because he was disappointed or anything. “Your dad ever cook for you?”
“Sometimes,” Maia said. She still sounded tentative, like she wasn’t sure she was supposed to be talking to him at all.
He figured he better give her a break before she decided talking was scarier than not.
He broke and beat some eggs while he was waiting for the pan to warm up, then cut up a pepper because what the hell. The food was right there. He’d be stupid not to take advantage of it.
There was plenty of coffee by the time he was waiting for the eggs to cook, but finding a mug took some doing. It was like they only had them because people were supposed to have mugs. They were buried too deep in the cupboards for any of the kids to reach, and he’d swear every one of them was dusty.
Like he cared. He blew into one of them and nothing came out to choke him, so he rinsed it in the sink and poured it full of coffee to cool. Then he dumped the pepper into the frying pan, and when he looked down Saph was standing by the counter beside him.
“What are you doing?” she wanted to know.
“Making an omelet,” Dean told her.
She squinted up at him. “What’s an omelet?”
“It’s, uh, eggs,” he said. “And... stuff. Whatever you want, really.”
She didn’t look any less confused, so he added, “It’s like scrambled eggs. Except you don’t break ’em up, you fold ’em over. And you can put other stuff inside. Like peppers.”
“What’s scrambled eggs?” Saph asked.
How old was she? Seven? What seven-year-old didn’t know what scrambled eggs were? Wasn’t that, like, a basic food group or something? Classic baby food, at least?
“Go get your spoon,” Dean said, folding his omelet in half. Plenty of room, if he didn’t mess up flipping it. Which he probably would.
Saph was already gone, and he broke another egg into the bowl and beat it with his fork. When Saph appeared next to him again, she was watching with interest as he poured the egg into the clear half of the pan. Of course it wouldn’t stay where he put it, but whatever. Omelet, scrambled egg, it was all pretty much the same thing.
“A scrambled egg,” Dean said, because the silence in the kitchen was oppressive, “is just an egg you mix up and cook in a pan. Give me a second and you can try it for yourself.”
“Like your omelet,” Saph said. She looked like she was taking it all in, even though she couldn’t possibly see into the pan from that angle.
“Yeah,” Dean agreed. “Except you stir scrambled eggs while you cook them. You don’t stir omelets.”
“But you turn them over,” Saph said, watching him awkwardly try to flip an omelet in a half-full pan. It didn’t work. Some of the scrambled eggs stayed on their own side, though, and it wasn’t like he was feeding her an entire breakfast. There’d be plenty for a taste test.
“Uh-huh,” Dean said. “Get a chair if you want and you can watch.”
Saph didn’t move, and when he looked to see why her expression was... weird. “There aren’t any chairs in the kitchen,” she said.
Right, yeah. “A stool,” Dean said. Same thing. He didn’t dare step away from the stove while she was standing right there. “Maribel, you mind bringing her a stool so she can see?”
He didn’t know what to expect. It wasn’t like he had a reason to think the oldest kid would help him, but he figured she might at least think about it if it was for her younger sister.
Only seconds passed between him asking and Maribel setting a stool down next to him. “Thanks,” Dean said, surprised. “Okay, Saph. If you want to see, you can climb up here. Just don’t touch anything.”
Saph didn’t move. “Anything?” she repeated, and when he looked down at her she had a wide-eyed expression that made him shake his head.
“Don’t touch the stove,” he said. “Or the pan. Okay?”
“But I can touch other things?”
“Yes,” Dean said, moving the eggs around instead of rolling his eyes. “You can touch other things.”
She climbed up on the stool and balanced easily without leaning on the counter. Little kids were monkeys; he knew that but it was different seeing it in action. “Some people like them less cooked,” he said, pointing at the pan. “You can eat ’em like this if you like them runny, but if you want them dryer you have to wait longer.”
Saph carefully considered an explanation he hadn’t figured she’d care about. He was just talking to have something to do, but she said, “How do you know which way you like them?”
Weren’t kids supposed to be opinionated? How come none of them had favorites, or preferences, or stuffed animals they wouldn’t let go of or special barrettes they wouldn’t take out of their hair? He was sure he’d heard stories of how hard it was to get kids to try new things, and here they were, curious about everything.
“You try them,” Dean said. “Here.” He separated out a couple of pieces and scooped them onto his plate, managing not to dump anything on the floor in the process. “Try that, see if you like it.”
He felt something brush against his other leg, and he looked down to see Dani patting his hip. “You want some too?” he asked.
She nodded, but she was spoonless, so he sent her back to get her own.
“What do you think?” he asked Saph.
“It tastes funny,” she said.
“Yeah, I like ’em dryer too. Here, push that over so Dani can try it and we’ll get you some of the more cooked eggs.” He wanted his omelet first, and he was going to run out of room on his plate. “You want to get me another plate?”
Saph hesitated. “That’s not a question, is it.” She looked very serious about it, which was the only reason he didn’t sigh.
“Sure it was,” Dean said, as patiently as he could. It wasn’t a surprise that they were all giving him a hard time, but it was kind of weird that they were all doing it exactly the same way. “I asked you to get me another plate. You don’t have to if you don’t want to, but if I put my omelet on top of your eggs your taste test is gonna be a lot harder.”
“Oh.” Saph sounded uncertain, but she got down and went over to the pantry for a plate.
Maribel’s voice came from right behind him. “You told her to do something,” she said quietly. “But you asked if she wanted to do it. That was confusing.”
Dean glanced over his shoulder. She was still standing by the island, not eating, watching him talk to the youngest kids. Like everyone else, as far as he could tell.
“Look,” he said. “I’m not your dad. I’m not gonna come in here and tell you what to do unless it’s to keep you safe.”
Maribel frowned at him. He didn’t know she was doing it until her silence made him look back at her again, and as soon as he caught her eye her expression smoothed out. “Then how will we know what we’re supposed to do?”
He raised his eyebrows. She didn’t sound like she was being sarcastic, but she must be. “I’m sure however you usually know will be fine.”
This time Adamel spoke up. “Usually our father tells us.”
Dean shook his head, turning back to the stove before the eggs got totally out of control. “Finish your breakfast,” he said. He wasn’t playing stupid games this early in the morning.
Something patted his leg again, and how the hell was Dani that quiet? She was holding a spoon in her hand, and when he looked back at the stove he saw Saph hovering in his peripheral vision. On her stool. With a plate.
They were all that quiet.
“What are you, ninjas?” Dean asked, reaching out to take the plate from her. He put his omelet on it and pushed it back on the counter, adding the rest of the eggs to the first plate. “There you go,” he said, passing it to Saph. “Share ’em with Dani.”
Saph looked at the plate in her hand, then down at the floor. Apparently she could climb up on the stool with a plate, but not climb down. He smiled in spite of himself.
“Here,” he said, taking the plate back and setting it down. Then he turned to Dani and almost scooped her up before he remembered not his kid. “You mind being picked up?” he asked.
She stared at him, wide-eyed.
It was Saph who said, “She doesn’t mind.”
Yeah, Dean didn’t trust that big stare one bit. Kids screamed. Just because he hadn’t heard it yet didn’t mean he had no idea. “Nod if it’s okay for me to pick you up,” Dean told her.
After a brief hesitation, Dani nodded, so Dean scooped her up and set her on the counter next to the eggs. “There you go,” he said. “Share.”
He made sure the burner was off, pushed the pan to the back of the stove, and picked up his own plate. Saph had edged closer, sawing a tiny piece of egg in half before she put it in her mouth. Dani pushed the other piece around with her spoon until it fell on, and she got it to her mouth without it falling off, so.
Saph was looking at him again. “Are omelets your favorite food?” she asked.
The omelet was decent, if he did say so himself. But it certainly wasn’t the best thing he’d ever eaten. “Nah,” he said, careful to swallow first. He’d probably messed up all their table manners by putting Dani on the counter. “But you had eggs, so. Good to get protein at breakfast.”
“Why?” Saph wanted to know.
She didn’t, he noticed, ask what protein was or whether it was found in eggs.
“Because it gives you energy for the rest of the day,” he told her. “That’s what breakfast is for, right?”
“How do you know if you should decide because of what you like or because of what’s good for you?” Saph asked.
“Well, you have to balance them,” Dean said. “I like omelets, and they’re good food, so that’s pretty easy.”
She frowned. “But you said they’re not your favorite.”
“I still like them,” Dean said. “I like bacon more than I like omelets, but I like omelets more than I like cereal.”
He saw Dani eyeing his plate, so he held it out to her. She gave him a startled look.
Saph said, “We don’t have any bacon.”
“Yeah,” Dean agreed, reaching out to take Dani’s spoon from her. He scooped up a piece of his omelet and handed the spoon back. “I noticed that.”
“We could get some,” Saph said, watching Dani put the spoon in her mouth. “Father says we’re supposed to help you get whatever you want.”
Dean offered his plate to Saph. She took some of his omelet right away, and he figured they were making progress. “So we can order groceries? Or do I have to go get the stuff I want?”
“Kelly gets the groceries,” Saph said confidently. “She’s our housekeeper. Father says you can leave a list on the counter and she’ll get whatever’s on it.”
“Kelly, huh?” Castiel hadn’t told him that, and Dean had to wonder when he’d decided to pass instructions through his kids. “Haven’t met her yet.”
“We don’t see her much,” Saph said. “Father says she has lots of other things to do, but she always comes back here because she’s safe here.”
He should have pushed Sam harder about what exactly Castiel did.
“Well, this is a pretty safe house,” Dean told her. He’d gotten the rundown on structural defenses the night before, and he’d been impressed. He wasn’t easily impressed. “I can see why she’d feel that way.”
Dani was staring at him, so he tipped his plate toward her again. She smiled, scooting across the counter and stretching her spoon toward him. Yeah, he thought. Cereal was really their favorite food.
The older kids cleaned out their bowls, though, and if the girls helped him finish the eggs instead no one said anything about the food they left behind. On the counter again. They had a dishwasher, and he wondered why Castiel let them leave their dishes lying around if they weren’t allowed to have the housekeeper clean their rooms.
Dean opened the dishwasher himself and found it spotless. And dry. Like it had never even been used. “You guys use this?” he asked, since at least Wildfire was still in the kitchen. The others had scurried off to get bags or jackets or both: whatever kids needed when they went to school these days, he had no idea.
“No,” Wildfire said. It was the first thing she’d said all morning, but hey, he hadn’t heard anything from Maru either. “Kelly does our dishes.”
“Yeah, but does she use the dishwasher?” Dean asked.
It might as well have been the hardest question in the world. Wildfire looked honestly torn, answering at last, “I’m not usually here when she does the dishes?”
“Right, okay.” If she was giving him a hard time, she obviously felt bad about it. He wondered if it had been the oldest kids who’d told everyone to say as little to him as possible. He put his dishes in the dishwasher, because it was the polite thing to do, and then he turned back to Wildfire.
She was eyeing her own dishes like maybe she should imitate him, but he figured their cleanup habits weren’t any of his business. “Wildfire your real name?” he asked.
She looked surprised. “Yes,” she said.
“I like it,” Dean said. “Very cool.”
Wildfire tilted her head at him in that way they all seemed to have of imitating their dad. “Is it your favorite name?” she asked.
“I’m glad you think the favorite thing is so funny,” he said.
Instead of laughing at him, she frowned. They all frowned a lot, he thought.
“So it’s not your favorite name?” Wildfire said.
“My name is my favorite name,” Dean told her. “You got all your stuff for school?”
“It’s in the car,” she said.
He’d seen a backpack in there last night, but he hadn’t thought much about it. Other than, damn, that was one hell of a minivan substitute. “Okay,” he said. “What about a jacket? It’s cold out this morning, and I hear you have to walk.”
“My jacket’s in the car too,” she said.
Of course it was.
“All right,” he said, grabbing his own jacket from a stool and patting his pockets to check for wallet and keys. “Let’s get this show on the road.”
The rest of the kids were waiting by the car when he opened the door to the garage. Literally waiting by it, even though they’d opened the car doors. What was the point of that? If they wanted to mess with him, wouldn’t it be easier to just be late or something?
He looked at his watch. It read 7:09.
“Okay,” he said, shrugging to himself. “Everybody in. Maribel,” he added, when she went to climb in behind her brother. “Up front. You’re my navigator.”
She left her bag with Adamel, but she pulled open the front passenger door and got in without protest. The other kids slid down the long limo-like bench seats, bags and jackets and all, and Dean thought it must be like going to prom every day. Maybe it got boring after a while. They certainly didn’t act excited.
Maia and Wildfire were the last ones in, and Dean approved. Oldest first, followed by the youngest. Middle kids bring up the rear. He thought he’d have to teach them to circle the littlest ones, but it looked like they did it instinctively. Good for them.
Maribel didn’t say anything when he slid into the driver’s seat. “You gonna tell me if I make a wrong turn?” he asked, reaching up to push the garage door opener.
He started the car before she answered. “If you ask me to,” she said at last.
“I’m asking,” Dean said. The engine hummed as it engaged, and he couldn’t have asked an automatic to be any smoother. “Actually, if you could tell me before I make a wrong turn, that’d be great. You drive?”
She didn’t answer right away, and finally he gave her a quick glance. The garage door was rolling shut behind them - who even had a garage that fit a Hummer? - and the wheel was solid and steady under his hands. It was like driving power.
“I’ve never driven before,” Maribel said at last.
“How old are you?” Dean asked.
She hesitated, and he didn’t mean to sigh but he did. Why was every question he asked them so hard? “Look,” he said. “We don’t have to be friends. But I’m gonna need to be able to ask you basic questions and get answers. If there’s something you don’t want to tell me, just say, ‘I don’t want to tell you that,’ okay?”
This time Maribel didn’t pause. “I understand,” she said. “I’m not trying to frustrate you; I just don’t understand your questions.”
“The last time you had a birthday,” Dean said. “How many candles were on your cake.”
“I don’t know,” Maribel said. “We don’t celebrate birthdays.”
“Really?” That sucked. “Sorry to hear that. Are you old enough to drive or not?”
“Yes,” she said. “I’m old enough to drive.”
“Do you have a license?” Dean wanted to know.
“No,” Maribel said.
“I don’t know,” Maribel said.
“Do you want one?” Dean insisted. Brief answers were annoying, but at least they were better than long pauses. The waiting drove him crazy.
“I don’t know,” Maribel repeated.
Maybe not that much better. “Okay, how is that a hard question?” he demanded. “Just say, ‘I don’t want to tell you that.’ Do we have to practice?”
“I know how to say ‘I don’t want to tell you that,’” Maribel said. She sounded irritated, which was a first and he was going to count it as a win. It was a break in the monotonous indifference, anyway. “I don’t know how to answer your question.”
“Yes or no would be enough,” Dean told her.
None of the kids were talking in the back. It would have worried him more if he hadn’t seen them do exactly the same thing at dinner and breakfast. Either they didn’t talk to each other, or they didn’t talk to each other in front of him, but their silence didn’t seem to be directly related to his conversations with any of them.
“In order to say yes or no,” Maribel said, in what was indisputably a testy tone, “I assume I would have to either want or not want to have a driver’s license. Since I don’t, the appropriate answer seems to be ‘I don’t know.’ I don’t understand why that upsets you.”
“You don’t know whether you want a license or not?” Dean repeated. They didn’t know what they liked for breakfast. They didn’t know what their favorite colors were. What if they were just telling the truth and this was some weird monster thing he hadn’t been briefed on?
“Do you want anything?” Dean asked, because he didn’t know how else to test that theory.
“Yes,” Maribel said. “I want you not to be frustrated with us.”
That was... creepy.
“Why?” he asked.
“Because our father told us to help you,” Maribel replied. “I don’t think that frustrating people and helping them are the same thing. You’re about to miss a turn.”
He wasn’t, but when he flipped on the right turn signal, she nodded.
“So you want to help me because your dad told you to?” Dean asked.
“Yes,” Maribel said.
“Well, you take it a little far,” Dean said bluntly. “What are you guys, anyway? Your dad says you’re not human.”
“I don’t want to tell you that,” Maribel said.
Dean raised his eyebrows. He would have liked to see her expression, but he wasn’t taking his eyes off the road right now. The Hummer had a great view, but he was a little concerned he might roll over someone by accident.
“Why not?” Dean asked. “Doesn’t answering my questions count as helping me?”
“We’re not supposed to say things that might compromise our identity outside of the house,” Maribel said. “And Father doesn’t want to give you any reason to kill us.”
He didn’t even feel his hands clench, but his fingers were white on the wheel and he tried to loosen them in case the baby monsters were looking that closely. “Why do you think I’d kill you?” It was the wrong question, all wrong, and he wished seen this coming somehow.
The question wasn’t, Why do you think I’d kill you. The question was, Why does your dad not care that I might kill you. Because Castiel obviously wasn’t stupid, but he’d left Dean alone with his children and that meant Castiel wasn’t afraid of him. And if he’d told the kids who Dean was, that meant they weren’t afraid of him either.
Dani wasn’t afraid of him. If tiny Dani wasn’t afraid, that meant that tiny Dani could defend herself. Which led him to wonder, among other things, just what exactly Castiel thought Dean was going to protect them from.
“You can’t kill us,” Maribel said. Her certainty was chilling. “Father just doesn’t want us to give you a reason to, because if you try, we won’t be able to have you around anymore.”
Nice, he thought. That was a really nice way of saying no one would ever hear from him again if he lifted a hand against them. “Why do you want me around in the first place?”
Still the wrong question, he thought. If they didn’t know what they wanted, they probably didn’t want him around. They just needed him. For something.
“Are you asking why Father hired you?” Maribel wanted to know.
“Yeah,” he told the windshield. “That’s what I’m asking.”
“To keep people like you from finding out that they can’t kill us,” Maribel said. “If you stop them, they won’t know that we could have.”
That was... actually pretty clever. Dean narrowed his eyes, wondering exactly how much this job was going to decrease his life expectancy. “I suppose I’m expendable,” he said aloud.
“Would you have given your life to protect us before?” Maribel asked.
“Before I knew you couldn’t die?” Dean retorted. “That’s the job, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know,” Maribel said. “Father didn’t tell us the details of your agreement. But if you protect us, we’ll protect you. It’s only fair.”
He couldn’t help but think, if he could trust anything she said, that this one offer was probably more valuable than anything Castiel had told him. “You’re on,” he said, taking his right hand off the steering wheel and holding it out to her.
The girl who didn’t have a favorite color or a driver’s license knew enough to put her hand awkwardly in his and seal the agreement with a handshake.
There was total silence from the back, but when he looked at them in the rearview all he saw was a bunch of too-obedient kids sitting quietly in their seats. He wondered if they were drones. Maybe they were robots. Maybe they didn’t know what they liked to eat or how to use a dishwasher because they didn’t actually need food.
“We can die,” Maribel remarked, as they went around another corner.
For once in his life, Dean’s brain-to-mouth filter kicked in before he said the worst possible thing. So instead of saying, How? he managed to come up with, “You can tell me that but you can’t tell me what you are?”
“Correcting your misunderstanding isn’t likely to make you want to kill us,” Maribel pointed out. “Is it?”
“No,” Dean said quickly.
When she didn’t say anything else, he said, “Wait, so after all that, telling me what you are might make me want to kill you?” More than the rest of it, he added silently?
“Father thinks it might,” Maribel said.
There wasn’t much he could say to that, but he wanted to. He wanted to say they were just kids, and he wasn’t a baby-killer, and if all they were doing was trying to stay under the radar then he got that. But he couldn’t promise them that he was okay with whatever they were. As much as he hated to believe it, they might get along better if he didn’t know.
“I do this to protect people,” he said at last. “Okay? Your dad hired me to protect you, and I guess he knows how far I’m willing to go. But I don’t kill people who haven’t done anything wrong. I kill things that are already killing - to stop them. To stop people from dying. Do you get that?”
“Not really,” Maribel said. “You killing people doesn’t stop the killing. It just adds to it.”
That was an argument he was still having with Sam, and he wasn’t about to get into it with a sixteen-year-old. “Look,” he said. “Have you killed anyone?”
“No,” Maribel said.
“Any of you?” Dean insisted.
“None of my brothers or sisters have killed anyone,” Maribel said.
He narrowed his eyes, because that was pretty specific. “What about your dad?”
“I don’t want to tell you that,” Maribel said.
“Okay, whatever.” It was still better than her not answering. “You haven’t killed anyone, I’m not gonna kill you. Try,” he corrected. “I’m not gonna try to kill you.”
“Okay,” Maribel echoed. “I understand.”
He didn’t ask her to tell him what they were again.
By the time they pulled into the Historia parking lot, he was half-convinced they were hopelessly lost. There was nothing here. But Maribel hadn’t corrected his directions, none of the kids looked surprised, and Castiel had warned him that they would have to walk. Dean had pictured a sidewalk or a long driveway or something, but no. Apparently the kids got dropped off in the middle of the woods and walked some crazy distance through the trees on a dirt path.
Must suck in the winter, Dean thought. Or when it was raining. They seriously made the kids do this when it was pouring? How did that instill peace or promote focus or whatever they were supposed to get out of this?
He slammed the driver’s side door and went around to help the kids unload. They were mostly out already, Adamel handing Dani her mittens though the back before he ducked low to climb out after her. She leaned on the door beside him, pretending to help push it closed, and Dean wondered how “not entirely human” they were. They acted human.
“Okay,” Saph said, skipping up beside him and taking his hand without hesitation. “I’m ready!”
He tried to hide his smile, fumbling the key tag that locked the doors. “Everyone else?” he called, then he remembered the Who are you asking? question. “Maribel?” he added. “Everyone ready?”
“Yes,” she said.
“What should we call you?” Saph asked. He felt another hand clutch his as soon as he dropped the keys back in his pocket, and now he had Saph on one side and Dani on the other.
“Dean is fine,” he said. He hadn’t thought about that, but it was a good question. If the teachers all went by their last names, he was gonna stand out.
He was gonna stand out no matter what. Might as well not feel stupid making them call him “Mr. Winchester.” He wasn’t even sure he’d answer to that in an emergency, and that would defeat the purpose.
“That’s his favorite name,” Wildfire’s voice said from behind him, and he rolled his eyes.
But Saph said, “Really?” like she was serious and that was the most interesting thing she’d heard since breakfast, so he nodded.
“Yup,” he said. “Mom gave it to me and everything.”
“You have a mom?” Saph said. “Is she nice?”
There were two other cars discharging kids as they crossed the parking lot, with more pulling in behind them. He could see colorful coats on the trail ahead of them. All the other kids were separating from their parents or drivers or whatever before they set out for the school.
“Dean?” Saph insisted.
“Yeah,” he said gruffly. “She was nice.”
“Oh.” Saph got it, but she didn’t ask. He thought that was strange for a kid, but what did he know? “You’re lucky you got to know her. I wish I knew more--” And there it was, the pause that was driving him crazy, but she finished with, “Adults.” It almost worked.
“What’s your teacher like?” Dean asked, hoping to distract her. “You guys all have different teachers?”
“Me and Dani and Maru have the same teacher,” Saph said. “Mrs. Knowles. She’s nice, but she says a lot of things I don’t understand.”
Yeah, Dean believed that, no problem. If they couldn’t answer “What’s your favorite color?” he couldn’t imagine how they fit into a classroom with regular kids. He wondered if the younger kids stood out more, or the older ones.
“Maia and Wildfire have Mr. B and Mr. Randolph,” Saph continued. “And Adamel and Maribel have lots of teachers. They go to school in the other building.”
Castiel had said that the kids would split up, and Dean was supposed to stay with the youngest ones. “Right,” he said aloud. “So you guys have phones, right? Maribel?”
“Yes,” Maribel said. “Father gave us your number.”
“I should have yours,” Dean said. “Call me, right now, and I’ll save your numbers.
“All of you,” he added, when he felt Dani tug on his hand. Because of course they all had their own phones. He wasn’t sure what good it would do if someone grabbed them from behind, but apparently they could defend themselves. He assumed that meant they could call him if they needed him to pretend to save them.
He had to wait until his phone stopped ringing to sort out their numbers. Dani pointed to hers when he held the phone down for her to see, and Saph narrated the rest of the list for him. He wondered if Dani talked in school. The younger kids’ school was closer. He figured that was fair. “Meet you at the car after school,” he told Maribel when he peeled off with the younger kids.
She nodded, catching Wildfire’s eye. The two of them smiled at the same time, and Dean wanted to ask. He wanted to ask a lot of things, but it wasn’t any of his business.
Dani led him into their school building, Saph still happily playing with his phone. Dani pointed when Wildfire and Maia started to walk away, and Dean called the same thing after them. “Meet you at the car after school!”
Wildfire waved over her shoulder, which was the first time he’d seen any of the kids do that. He figured it was good enough. They must have their own routine, right?
“Your dad usually meet you in the parking lot?” he asked Saph.
“Yes,” she said without looking up. “Wildfire and Maia wait for us. We usually see Maribel and Adamel on the path, but sometimes they’re too far ahead. They have longer legs,” she added, like he might need that explained to him.
“Good to know,” Dean said. He looked back, but Maru was still right behind them. He didn’t trail, and he didn’t look embarrassed to be left with the girls. Dean decided not to go looking for trouble by asking.
Mrs. Knowles wasn’t immediately obvious when Dani led Dean into their classroom. There weren’t any desks, which, okay. It was a Waldorf school. He didn’t know what that was, but he’d definitely heard the words “self-directed” and “educational play” when Castiel was talking about it, and possibly also “karma” which he’d been careful not to ask about. So they had tables - of different heights - and chairs and cushions, and at least half the kids in the room were on the floor. Dean wasn’t going to be surprised.
Until a well-dressed young woman stood up from one of the low tables and he was forcibly reminded that this was a rich kids’ school. Her blouse alone was probably worth more than he made in a week (okay, a day; Castiel paid a lot) and he didn’t want to think about how much a mugger could get for that necklace. It was his jeans that were out of place, while the kids’ quasi-uniforms suddenly looked a lot less weird.
“Hello,” the woman called, her eyes flicking to every kid who passed her and her hand reaching out to touch anyone who came close enough. But she was smiling at Dean, and she didn’t give his appearance a second glance. “You must be Dean Winchester. I’m Arcadia Knowles.
“Good morning,” she added, not missing a beat as Maru came up beside Saph. “Did Dean drive you to school today?”
“Yes,” Maru said.
“Good morning,” Saph said politely. She slid Dean’s phone back into his pocket without another word.
Dani didn’t speak and Dean thought, yeah. They were just as weird with an audience.
“Hey,” he said, offering her his free hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“And you,” she said warmly, shaking his hand without hesitation. “Castiel speaks very well of you.”
That was news to him, considering he’d just been hired yesterday. “Well, thanks,” he said, hoping he didn’t sound as awkward as he felt. “I’ll do my best to stay out of your way.” He’d love to know what Castiel had promised them to let him station a bodyguard in one of their classrooms.
“Oh, no,” she told him. “Please, be as involved as you like. I’ve spoken with all of the parents, and they’re happy to have someone with your credentials join our classroom.”
Someone with his credentials? What had Castiel told them about him? And when had he done it that she’d had time to talk to all of the parents?
The day only got weirder from there. Dani didn’t let go of his hand for the first hour and a half, and no one made any effort to separate them. Class started with singing - or at least, they all sang; he didn’t get that class had started until later - and then three of the kids told stories about what they had done the night before. None of his kids, which he figured was probably good, although he was a little curious about what they would have said.
They talked a lot about the weather, and it wasn’t until they went outside that Dani let go of his hand. Of course. As soon as it would have made sense for her to stay close, she struck out on her own, wandering away from Saph and Maru to follow Mrs. Knowles. (Mrs, Dean thought? Really? She looked like a college student.)
That was when the other kids started talking to Dean, which he definitely hadn’t expected. He felt bad that they kept asking him questions when their actual teacher was trying to tell them things about the clouds and the air or whatever, but she never tried to draw their attention away from him. She didn’t interrupt any of the kids talking to each other, either, just taught her lesson to whoever was listening and answered questions from anyone who asked.
They went back inside for snack time, which Mrs. Knowles ate with the kids. Dean lingered uncomfortably by the door, and when she offered him some of her “snack” - no kidding - he asked if anyone would mind him taking a look around the building. He expected to be told to wait until recess or something, but no.
“If any of the classrooms have closed doors,” she said, “you’ll want to come back to those later, but you’re welcome anywhere else. If office doors are closed, just knock. Whomever’s inside will be glad to show you around and answer any questions you have.”
That was considerably more freedom than he’d expected, so he thanked her and ducked out before she could remember any of the obvious restrictions. Her classroom door was open, he noticed. Maybe that explained why snack had one more kid than they’d had on their outdoor lesson.
His investigation of the building was comprehensive. Mrs. Knowles hadn’t been kidding: everyone he met seemed to know who he was, and they were all strangely accommodating. Several people offered to give him a tour, but the things he needed to know weren’t likely to be on the list of things staff thought were important.
He checked building layout, wall depth, and fire doors. Emergency exits were good, but reinforced wood and glass was better. There was a lot of wood and glass. He asked anyone near a window whether it opened, since the kids might be able to defend themselves but he wasn’t sure Dani and Saph could break glass in a hurry.
Interestingly, the only locked doors he found had big, colorful signs explaining why they couldn’t be opened. Two were janitors’ closets, one was an electrical room. One led down into the basement, and the sign said, Here’s where we keep our supplies! Sometimes we want projects to be a surprise for you or your parents, so we store things here until we’re ready to use them. If you need something from downstairs, please ask your teacher to accompany you.
He asked the first person he could find. Janey, it turned out. She worked in the library, and she let him down in the basement without question. She even came with him to open the door to the “battery room,” which had painted footprints on the floor and colored handrails around the batteries and vents.
“They’re photovoltaic cells,” she explained. “They store power from the solar panels on the roof. We use them to teach the kids about energy.”
Of course they did. They probably took the kids up on the roof to see the panels firsthand. She seemed reasonable, and she was only dressed twice as nicely as he was instead of three times, so he said, “Yeah, I can see you’re all about the experience here, but I gotta ask. Do you really make the kids walk up here in the rain?”
Janey laughed, and it was a nice laugh, so he thought he must not have blown his cover as a moderately respectable whatever-they-thought-he-was yet. “There’s a bus that runs from the parking lot to the front of the school when the weather’s bad,” she said. “It drops them off in the turnaround on the other side of the building.”
“I gotta tell you, that makes me feel a lot better about this school,” Dean said. He smiled at her, and she beamed back.
“It’s really a wonderful place to be,” she said. “Do you have any children, Dean?”
“Yeah,” he said, because he could be friendly but this had to be a bad place to flirt. It wasn’t like he could just get in his car and drive away if she turned out to have a boyfriend. On the school board. “Right now I’ve got seven.”
Her smile didn’t fade, so either she hadn’t been coming on to him or she was really graceful about being ignored. “The Castiel children are charming,” she agreed, and he did his best not to react. “Castiel” was a family name?
“I’m sorry you have to be here under such difficult circumstances,” she was saying. “But we really are glad to have you.”
Okay, he definitely should have gotten more of the story from Castiel. Apparently he had “credentials,” and “circumstances,” and did Castiel really not care that his children’s bodyguard was walking around a crunchy high-end school in jeans and flannel shirt?
“It’s tough for everyone,” he said, as vaguely as possible. “Everyone here’s been great. And the kids love it, so.”
“Do they?” Janey asked. “That’s good to know. It’s always so hard to tell with them.”
“Yeah,” Dean said, grinning before he could help himself. “I hear you.”
He’d expected the school to have a cafeteria, but it didn’t, and when lunchtime came he didn’t mind as much as he’d thought he would. It was pretty entertaining to watch his kids totally fail to interact with their food in a normal way - and have the rest of the room not notice. Maru left, so Dean didn’t get to watch the only one of them who knew how to trade, but Wildfire joined them and she attracted a small crowd of younger kids.
Not because of her lunch, as far as Dean could tell. Just because they thought she was cool. He didn’t know if it was an age thing - she acted older than the other kids, but all of Castiel’s children were weirdly precocious when they weren’t demonstrating their inability to answer simple questions - or maybe just a “new to the room” thing. The other kid who’d come in at snacktime hadn’t drawn much attention.
After lunch, they had some kind of art time. Dean couldn’t figure out what the point was, but there were crafts everywhere and some of the kids seemed to be drawing pictures of the outdoors. Of weather. He finally got the weather thing after someone asked why their glue didn’t make good ice when they put it on cotton balls.
Arts and crafts seemed to double as nap time for some of the kids, but Mrs. Knowles didn’t try to wake any of them up. Maybe they were supposed to sleep, how did he know. Wildfire stayed and Maru came back, and none of Dean’s kids looked the slightest bit tired.
They went outside again in the middle of the afternoon. Dani was back at his side, but the other kids must have gotten tired of him because Mrs. Knowles had a bigger audience than she had that morning. It was, he finally noticed, most of the kids who had totally ignored her before.
There was more singing, another snack when they went in, and then the class got loud and he got a text from Maribel, of all people, so he didn’t pay much attention to what they were all shouting about. It didn’t seem to involve fear or danger, and that was good enough for him.
Wildfire says you didn’t eat at lunchtime, Maribel’s text read. Do you want me and Adamel to bring you something from the cafeteria?
Dean stared at his phone for a long moment before he realized he hadn’t seen anyone else holding one since the kids had all pulled theirs out to call him this morning. As far as he could tell the school ran on solar power and love. They probably had strict rules about electronic devices.
He looked up, but Mrs. Knowles wasn’t watching, so he headed for the door. Dani followed him. He had half a second to decide which would draw more attention: letting her walk out, or trying to get her to stay. He went with letting her walk out.
“What are you doing?” she asked, when he paused in the hallway just outside the door.
“Your sister sent me a text,” he said, squatting down beside her so she could see the screen if she wanted to. “Do you guys have rules about texting in class?”
Dani seemed to think about that. “I don’t know,” she said at last. “We’re not supposed to have phones at school.”
Well, that answered that question.
“Okay,” he said. “So that’s why I came out here. I didn’t want to set a bad example by breaking the rules in front of the other kids.”
“I think adults are allowed to have phones,” Dani said.
“Well, it’s not a good idea for us to do things we tell you not to do,” Dean pointed out. “Why should you do what we tell you to if we don’t even do it?”
Dani frowned. “Because you told us to,” she said.
Dean wondered if he had ever been that obedient.
No, he typed, careful not to use all caps the way he would have with Sam. Thanks. Will get something to eat back at the house.
“You have a phone,” Dani said as he pushed “send.”
“So do you,” Dean said.
“Father wants us to carry them,” she informed him. “His rules are the most important.”
“Oh yeah?” Dean tried not to worry about what Castiel did to them to make them so unquestioning. “Well, I’m glad I’m not breaking your dad’s rules, at least.”
His phone vibrated again immediately. I understand, was all Maribel’s second text said. He didn’t know whether to be more surprised by her regularly spelled, grammatically correct texts, or by the fact that Wildfire was apparently reporting on him.
He probably shouldn’t, but he replied anyway. There’s a cafeteria?
“We’re not allowed to go,” Dani said. She was still reading over his shoulder, and it suddenly occurred to Dean that he hadn’t seen a single book all day. He wanted to ask her how old she was, but he wasn’t sure it would go any better than it had with Maribel.
“The cafeteria is just for the big kids and the adults,” Dani continued. The other kids in her class said “grownups,” but she said “adults.” All of Castiel’s kids did. “But if we forget our lunch, someone brings us something from there.”
“That’s nice,” Dean said absently. The kids in the room behind him were singing again, and Dani looked over her shoulder like maybe she wanted to go join them. “Hey Dani? How old are you?”
She didn’t hesitate. “I’m five,” Dani said. “I’ve been five for a while. I’m going to go sing now.”
Really? She hadn’t spoken a word inside the classroom all day; he kind of wanted to see her sing. “Okay,” he said, just as his phone vibrated again. “I’ll be right in.”
You should come look at our building tomorrow, Maribel’s message said. At lunchtime. For security reasons.
He squinted at the phone for several seconds, but he couldn’t decide if she was being funny or not. Will do, he sent back.
Either way, he figured. Security, food, maybe both. Win-win.
Dani didn’t actually sing. He went back into the room in time to see Saph and Maru singing, with Dani sitting in between them. She looked as happy as any of them ever looked, as far as he could tell, so maybe that was all she’d meant: she’d be there for the singing.
There wasn’t any bell at the end of the day, but at that point it would have surprised him if there had been. Mrs. Knowles just told them what time it was, and some of the kids went over and got their jackets. Others were picking up projects or even snack leftovers, but Dean noticed that the messy stuff had already been cleaned up and put away. He wondered when she’d gotten them to do that.
Maru got Dani’s jacket for her, but not Saph’s. Saph didn’t seem to mind: she was the last one over to him, but she took his hand the same way she had that morning and announced, “Okay, I’m ready!”
“Did you say thank you to Mrs. Knowles?” he asked, since their teacher was standing right there. She glanced over at him with a smile, but she didn’t say anything.
“No,” Saph said, frowning up at him. “Should we?”
“Well, it would be nice,” Dean told her. “She probably put a lot of work into making sure you had a good day. Everyone likes to be thanked for the stuff they do.”
Saph looked over at their teacher, who waved. “Bye, Saph,” Mrs. Knowles said. “Have a good afternoon!”
“Thank you,” Saph said carefully. Then she looked up at Dean.
“Good job,” he said, squeezing her hand. “Thanks, Mrs. Knowles,” he added, lifting his chin in her direction since both his hands were now occupied.
She smiled back, but Maru said, “Thank you, Mrs. Knowles,” before she could answer.
Then, to everyone’s surprise, Dani said, “Thanks, Mrs. Knowles.”
Dean squeezed her hand too, and Mrs. Knowles waved at them again. “You’re welcome,” she said, still smiling. “See you tomorrow!”
The hallway outside their classroom was filled with kids who weren’t pushing each other, which wasn’t anything like what Dean remembered from school. They were all talking, of course; that was the same. The noise was loud and cheerful and he figured whatever kind of education they were getting, it couldn’t be too weird if they were this happy about it.
Maia and Wildfire met them just outside the building. The kids didn’t immediately stream toward the path, Dean noticed - well, his did, but some of the others were walking around the building and some looked like they were heading up toward the older kids’ school. He was surprised there didn’t seem to be a playground, but then, they hadn’t really had recess.
Not that they needed it, he thought. They’d pretty much done whatever they wanted all day.
They barely made it onto the path to the parking lot before Maribel and Adamel caught up with them. Serious as ever, but Maribel and Wildfire did put their arms around each other as they walked. That was more physical affection than he’d seen from any of them so far.
“You guys have a good day?” Dean asked, since it seemed like the thing to say.
“I don’t know,” Maribel replied. She was the only one who answered, and he wasn’t in the mood anymore, so he let it go.
They walked in silence the rest of the way to the car.
“Do you want me to ride up front again?” Maribel asked, when they got there.
“Not if you don’t want to,” Dean said, and she frowned. He wondered if that messed up her “want”/”don’t want” processing.
“I want to ride up front,” Saph declared.
Dean looked at her in surprise. He wasn’t the only one. “You do?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, suddenly looking less certain. She looked at Maribel, and then back at him. “Is that okay?”
“Yeah, of course,” he said. “That’s great. I’ll get your door.”
And he did, he held the door for her and everything, but the best part was the way she balanced precariously on the edge of her seat, almost at eye-level with him for once, and chirped, “Thank you, Dean.”
“You’re welcome, Saph,” he said with a grin. “Hands in, I’m gonna close your door.”
They didn’t say much on the way home, but that exchange made the whole day worth it.
Dean’s was the only car in the driveway when they pulled into the garage, so he thought it wasn’t totally unfair to be surprised when Castiel greeted them at the door. Or maybe “greeted” was the wrong word. The man stood just inside the house entrance from the garage, raking his eyes over each of the children as they passed, and said nothing until Dean stepped inside and closed the door behind them.
“Rachel’s waiting in the solarium,” Castiel said, staring at Dean. “Please go see her.”
Dean raised his eyebrows, because first off, which one was the solarium? Second... really? He couldn’t even say “hi” to his kids in front of Dean? Maybe there actually was a moratorium on talking in front of the hired help.
Then the kids started to file off, without a word, without even dropping their backpacks or taking their jackets off, and Dean got that Castiel had been talking to them. So why was he looking at Dean?
“How was school today?” Castiel asked.
Dean blinked. He looked after the kids, just to make sure, but no. They definitely weren’t waiting around. “Aren’t you asking the wrong person?”
“Rachel will debrief them,” Castiel said. “As you were the one responsible for their well-being, I’m asking you.”
Okay. That made no sense, but whatever. Also, who was Rachel?
“It was fine,” Dean said. “They all survived.”
“Good,” Castiel said. “I have some concerns. If you would come with me.” It wasn’t a suggestion, but Dean hadn’t really expected it to be. He didn’t know what Castiel was, but his kids were enough to convince Dean that he didn’t want to get on his bad side.
That was how he ended up in the kitchen, of all places, watching Castiel make a sandwich. Which, what? He had no idea what was happening. He just hoped he wasn’t working for the kind of monster that liked an appetizer before it ate you.
“Here,” Castiel said, a minute later. He handed the plate, sandwich and all, over to Dean. “Does this meet with your approval?”
Dean stared at it, then at him. “What?”
Castiel didn’t move, but Dean got the feeling he wanted to sigh. “Does it,” he repeated, “appeal to you. In a culinary sense. Is it something you might want to consume. I don’t know how else to ask the question.”
“And I don’t know why you’re asking it in the first place,” Dean retorted. “Why are you making me a sandwich?”
“Because Maribel tells me you did not eat lunch today,” Castiel said. “It is important to me that you function at your highest efficiency. Please eat.”
Dean narrowed his eyes. “I think I know how to function at my highest efficiency,” he said. “Thanks anyway. When did you talk to Maribel? She text you?”
“After a fashion,” Castiel said. “This does have bacon in it.”
Dean took a step back. Were they telling their dad everything he said? No wonder he wanted them to carry phones.
“Dean,” Castiel said. He sounded impatient, like Dean was the one being unreasonable here.
“Dude,” Dean said. “Stop trying to make me eat the sandwich.”
“Someone is going to try to kill you,” Castiel said. He set the plate down on the counter like they were discussing the weather.
“Story of my life,” Dean said. At this point he was just hoping the next sentence out of Castiel’s mouth wasn’t, And it’s going to be me.
“I have not been entirely forthcoming with you,” Castiel said.
Dean scoffed. He did it without thinking, without respect, and with less instinct for self-preservation than he usually prided himself on. But come on. Castiel was a monster. Dean didn’t need his good opinion, and he wasn’t going to stand here and be afraid of him.
Castiel tilted his head, and for a second all Dean could think about was Maribel saying, You can’t kill us.
Okay, fine. He was afraid. His back was against the wall and he could sense it, even if he didn’t know how or why. But damned if he was going to act like it.
“I told you what I thought was relevant to your role at the time,” Castiel said carefully. Like Dean was the wild card here. Like he might do anything, and Castiel had to be ready. “What I think is relevant has changed since yesterday, and some of the information may appear to contradict what you already know.”
“I don’t know anything,” Dean snapped. “I walked into that school today and no one even asked for ID. They told me I had credentials. What the hell did you say to them?”
Castiel looked surprised. “The school is irrelevant,” he said. “They allowed your presence; therefore, the children may continue to attend.”
“The school is--” Dean stopped. “Wait, is that how you got me in there? You threatened to withdraw all your kids?”
“What does this have to do with anything?” Castiel sounded frustrated. “If you have some concern about the safety of the school, I’m willing to entertain whatever solution you suggest. In the meantime, there is more you should know about our situation.”
“You know what I know about your situation?” Dean said. “I know my brother told me your kids needed a supernatural bodyguard. I thought that meant someone to protect them from the supernatural, but they told me they can’t actually die and something about them makes me believe it. So what exactly am I doing here?”
“You’re a decoy,” Castiel said tersely. “I need you to keep earthly threats from the children so that they do not draw attention by combating them on their own.”
“Because they could,” Dean said. “They’re not actually in any danger from anything I could stop.”
“No,” Castiel said.
“Okay,” Dean said. Perversely, that made him feel better. At least they had their stories straight now. “Fine. I’m listening.”
“There are threats that don’t come from earth,” Castiel said. “They’re after you now.”
“Why?” Dean asked.
Castiel paused. “Why?” he repeated.
Dean raised his eyebrows. “What, is that a weird question? Why are they after me? Be a lot easier to stop them if I know what they want.”
“They... assume you’re not human,” Castiel said. He was staring at Dean like looking straight through him would answer some question he hadn’t asked. “They suspect my children of being - like me. They do not believe I would have recruited anyone incapable of protecting them.”
If he was supposed to keep the kids from getting unwanted attention, Castiel must have thought that keeping them secret would protect them. He also must have thought he could keep them secret, which was strange in and of itself. There were seven of them.
“Why wouldn’t your kids be like you?” Dean asked.
Castiel blinked. “I am not - we don’t - propagate. Biologically. There is no reason for any member of my family to think I have done anything other than... adopt.”
His family? His family was after his kids? That was messed up.
“But they do,” Dean said. “They figured it out. You didn’t think they would; you hired me to keep it from happening, but it was already too late and you just found out today. Stop me if I’m getting it wrong,” he added.
Castiel shook his head once, a startled jerk that looked almost involuntary. “No,” he said. “You’re not wrong.”
“Maribel told me I can’t kill them,” Dean said. “I’m guessing your family can. Yes?”
“Yes,” Castiel echoed.
That seemed like a way bigger problem than having someone after him, at least for Castiel. Sure, Dean liked being alive - a lot - but Castiel barely knew him. What made him let the kids out of his sight, let alone spend time harassing Dean with sandwiches and unnecessary explanations?
“So why are you worried about me?” Dean asked, but the moment he opened his mouth he knew. “You don’t want your family to find out I’m human.” Castiel didn’t want him dead for the same reason he didn’t want the kids to fight: it would draw too much attention.
“It... serves my purpose,” Castiel admitted, “for them to think you are not.”
“And the purpose is?” Dean pressed.
Even without moving, Castiel managed to look awkward. “I am - largely outnumbered, at present. The illusion that I can spare someone to watch the children is... advantageous.”
Dean studied him. Castiel didn’t just look awkward, he looked downright uncomfortable. “I assume there’s a reason you’re telling me this, instead of just sending us all to hide on some remote island somewhere.”
“They’d find you,” Castiel said. The words were chillingly matter-of-fact. “And I will not risk your life without your consent.”
“The job is to risk my life,” Dean told him. He wasn’t stupid; he couldn’t leave now even if he wanted to. If he was marked, he had a better chance with people who knew what was coming for him than he did alone. “I didn’t sign on blind.”
“You agreed to the job as you knew it,” Castiel said. “It’s changed since then.”
Dean shrugged. “Doesn’t sound like it to me. You’re paying me to protect the kids. Staying alive; I throw that in for free. Always have.”
“Dean.” Castiel looked anything but convinced, and why was it so hard to make him accept a little help? Even if Dean got himself killed - which he had no intention of doing - it would slow them down, right?
“I am outnumbered,” Castiel said, staring at him like he could will some kind of fear into Dean. More fear. “You are outmatched. This is a fact, not a challenge, and I will not have you treat it like some kind of game.”
“Then don’t treat me like an idiot,” Dean snapped. “You say I can’t kill you; I figure that’s a polite way of saying you could snuff me by looking at me sideways. And there’s something after me that you’re scared of. I stand zero chance alone and I know it.
“Maribel says you’ll protect me if I protect you,” he added. “Great; I’m all for that. But don’t try to make me believe I have a choice here.”
Castiel didn’t look pleased. “I’ve drawn you into this,” he said, like he was just realizing it. “You had no stake in it, and I introduced you to a situation beyond my ability to control.”
“Yeah, that’s life,” Dean said bluntly. “Don’t get me wrong; I hate the cloak and dagger stuff. But I’m pretty sure whatever’s happening isn’t your fault, and I knew you had secrets when I took this job. I took it anyway. That’s on me.”
Castiel just stared at him. “You are very quick to absolve me of responsibility,” he said at last.
“I don’t pass the buck,” Dean said. “I knew what I was doing when I told you this wasn’t a problem, and I know what I’m doing now.
“You want to make it up to me?” he added. “Try telling me what the hell is going on.”
“You didn’t ask where the threats came from,” Castiel said. Dean frowned. “What?”
“I said, threats that don’t come from earth are after you,” Castiel said. “And you asked why. Not where they’re from.”
“Why is a little more important to me,” Dean said warily, because he hadn’t expected Castiel to actually do it. To tell Dean what he was and why his children were on his family’s to-kill list? That seemed... personal. And relevant, Dean reminded himself. It mattered; he should know if he was going to have any chance of helping. Even as a decoy. Definitely if he wanted it to be more.
“I’ve told you why,” Castiel said. “If I am to explain further, you’ll need to know what I am.”
“If you tell me,” Dean quipped, “will you have to kill me?”
Castiel only looked confused. “No,” he said. “Why would you think that?”
Dean sighed, scrubbing his hand through his hair for like, the twentieth time that day. “Look,” he said. “Maribel said that if you told me what you were, I might want to kill you. My day just turned bad fast, and I don’t really want to deal with having demons for allies. So maybe we both agree to look the other way and move on.”
He didn’t even have to look at the guy to recognize that surprised tone. “You would accept a demon at your side in times such as these?” Or ever, his tone seemed to imply?
“I wouldn’t be thrilled about it,” Dean snapped. “And if you tell me, I’ll spend most of my time trying to forget. So let’s just agree not to do that.”
“I’m not a demon,” Castiel said.
“Right,” Dean said. “That’s what I’m talking about. Thank you.” He didn’t want to think about what “adopting” meant to demons. He didn’t want to think about what not adopting meant to demons.
“Dean,” Castiel said. “I’m telling the truth.”
“You said your threat wasn’t from earth,” Dean reminded him. “You also said the threat was your family. That leaves hell and other planets, and I’ve never met an alien.”
“Not just hell,” Castiel said. “Heaven.”
“Oh, right,” Dean agreed. “How could I forget. Heaven. You saying that’s where you come from? Because I’ve used that pickup line and let me tell you, it doesn’t get the results you’re looking for.”
“I’m an angel of the lord,” Castiel told him. “We do not have children. Mine are either a sign of divine will or an abomination unto the host, depending on which side of the war one is on.”
Dean stared at him.
It crossed Dean’s mind to wonder how long he could stand there, just staring, before Castiel moved. Or said something. If he was the kind of monster that hunted live prey, probably a really long time.
“I’m not the kind of monster that hunts live prey,” Castiel said.
Dean didn’t flinch. “Can you do that at a distance?”
“Read your mind?” Castiel asked, though apparently he didn’t have to. “Yes.”
That explained how Castiel knew what the kids knew. But it didn’t, now that he thought of it, explain why none of them knew how to answer Dean’s questions. “So how come the kids never know what I’m asking them?”
“It’s not as helpful as you might think,” Castiel said. “Most human thoughts aren’t very clear.”
“You’re an angel,” Dean said.
“Yes,” Castiel agreed.
“Your angel brothers and sisters are hunting your kids,” Dean said.
“Yes,” Castiel repeated.
“And you want them to think I’m an angel too so it looks like you have more people on your side,” Dean said. “Can you even do that? Won’t they read my mind?”
“I could stop them,” Castiel said.
Dean snorted. “Well, that’s useful right there. Sign me up.”
“You consent?” Castiel asked.
“Yeah, I consent.” It would be the last time Dean said those words without asking for a lot more details first, because when Castiel walked up to him and pressed two fingers to his forehead it felt like the entire world exploded.
It was too bright to see and he was deaf with noise and he had to be falling. He had to be, because there a sense of pinwheeling motion and the utter certainty that he was going in the wrong direction. The only way it happened without falling was if Sam made him get on a plane.
You’re not flying. The words were in Castiel’s voice, and Dean jerked away instinctively. The only solid thing in the world disappeared until he slammed into something hard. It hurt. It hurt a lot, and the bruising pain flared familiar and real in the midst of chaotic sensation.
Dean opened his eyes, hand pressed against his side, fingers sharp and numb where he leaned heavily against the kitchen counter. “Don’t make me guess what you just did,” he ground out.
The look Castiel was giving him might have been worried. If he killed his own bodyguard, that would kind of mess up his plans for a pseudo-angelic gang, right? On the other hand, if he was a fucking angel couldn’t he just bring whoever he wanted back from the dead?
“Heaven does not look kindly on unauthorized resurrections,” Castiel said.
“Guess whatever you did doesn’t keep you from reading my mind,” Dean muttered. His fingers flexed painfully as he tried to straighten up. “Ow, by the way. Thanks for the warning about vertigo.”
Castiel tilted his head, and just like that, Dean knew. He knew Castiel was puzzled because he had issued no warning about vertigo, so why would Dean say that, and he knew the moment Castiel grasped the sarcasm behind his thanks. He knew - and the knowing wasn’t logical or studied or awesome in any way.
“Holy shit,” Dean blurted out, staring at his very own monster of the week. He didn’t know whether to start with angry or horrified or freaked out of his fucking mind. “I know what you’re thinking.”
“You’re behind the shields that keep my intentions from the rest of the host,” Castiel said. “It’s natural that there should be some exchange.”
“No,” Dean said. “No way, I did not sign on for this--”
“I distinctly recall hearing you say that you did,” Castiel interrupted.
“And you did not just use the word ‘natural’ to explain how I know you have no idea what I’m talking about!” Dean snapped. “What the fuck, man, that makes it really hard to be angry at you!”
Castiel frowned at him. “Yet you seem to be expressing yourself in a way congruent with anger.”
“You’re trying to calm me down,” Dean retorted. “That pisses me off.”
Castiel’s expression smoothed out, and behind the blankness Dean was sure the guy was laughing at him again. “How... contradictory,” he said.
“Yeah, laugh it up,” Dean said irritably. “Irritated” was suddenly the best he could do, and that was freaky all on its own. “Don’t lie: if I’d asked you what your method for keeping your family out of my head was, exactly, would you have told me?”
“Of course,” Castiel said. He sounded genuinely surprised by the question. “You did consent.”
“Because I didn’t know what I was agreeing to!” Dean exclaimed. “I still don’t know! You’re in my head with your stupid fluttery light and your freaky alien curiosity and I don’t know what that is! I can’t live with this!” He could, but he probably wouldn’t last long. It was distracting as hell. Everywhere he looked things moved, acted, reacted; things that shouldn’t be moving at all and the kitchen was filled with false alarms and ghostly impressions. It would get him killed if he tuned it out; it would drive him crazy if he didn’t.
“You will likely get used to it,” Castiel said. “You’re receiving a tiny and extremely muted amount of spillover from my own senses. As it will have no practical application for you, I expect that your human brain will compensate by learning to ignore it.”
“You mean I’ll stop seeing shit that isn’t there?” Dean retorted. “Or just that I’ll stop flinching every time a wall moves?”
“You’re not seeing things that aren’t there,” Castiel said. “Also, I hope that you will refrain from swearing around the children. I’m told that it is not socially acceptable for them to use profanity, and it seems unfair to ask them to refrain when we need not.”
Dean stared at him. “Wait, you don’t care if I swear? Aren’t angels supposed to be all...” He waved a hand. “Holy? Or something?”
He wasn’t sure if that actually made sense, or if Castiel just magically understood because he could fucking hear what Dean was thinking. Either way, he replied, “We are on earth. We will behave as those of earth do.”
Dean snorted. “Yeah, I hate to break it to you, but you’ve got a ways to go there.”
Instead of getting pissed or irritated or whatever - and Dean could tell, suddenly - Castiel just nodded. “Perhaps you will be able to offer some suggestions. In the meantime, the children would like to see you.”
Dean was instantly suspicious. “What? Why?” He’d driven them home not ten minutes ago; weren’t they enjoying bonding time with Castiel’s lady friend?
Castiel frowned, but he seemed more puzzled than upset. “Saph and Dani are concerned that you won’t like them anymore,” he said at last. “Maru wants to know if you’ll teach him to play basketball. Maia and Wildfire want to teach you knife-fighting. And Maribel is asking when she can get her driver’s license.”
Despite himself, Dean felt a grin threaten. Whatever the hell they were, they were still kids. Probably.
“Yeah,” he said aloud. “Fine. We can do that.”
The solarium, apparently, was the second one on the left. It was creepy to think that he would have gotten that wrong when Castiel first sent them off, yet now he knew without having to be told. He tried not to wonder what blanks Castiel was now filling in about him.
What blanks he’d been filling in all along, Dean reminded himself. The guy could read minds. There was probably a reason his “interview” had been so short, and it wasn’t just Sam.
Holy shit. Sam had told him. Sam had texted him the answer, and he hadn’t listened.
Maybe more importantly, Sam believed it. Right? He must, otherwise why would he have sent Dean here in the first place?
Then Dani curled her fingers around his hand, just like a human kid, and Saph was looking apologetic and excited at the same time and Dean stopped thinking about their family. Because family was what you made it; he knew that as well as anyone. And if they couldn’t trust theirs, well... they’d just have to find people to take its place.
“Dean, look,” Saph was saying. “This is Rachel. She’s our family more.”
“Your family more?” Dean repeated, eyeing the very silent woman standing the middle of the solarium. She reminded him strangely of Dani, but he couldn’t forget what Castiel had said about “propagation.” She couldn’t be.
“Family plus?” Saph offered. “Because of what you were thinking, how our family isn’t really family, but she is. Like Father is. I think we should call them something different. The people who aren’t trying to kill us, I mean.”
Well, put like that, it was hard to argue.
“You could just stop calling the people trying to kill you family,” Dean said. He wondered where “angels” shopped, because Castiel dressed nicely enough. He played the part of professional businessman, at least with the couple of suits Dean had seen him in.
Rachel, on the other hand. She made casual clothes look twice as expensive. She could have been a model. Maybe she was; how would he know? They must do something when they weren’t fending off attacks from baby-killers, right?
He must have been staring at her, because it took him several seconds to realize that the older kids were staring at him in horror. Dean glanced at Castiel, who also looked disappointed. What, because infanticide wasn’t worth disowning someone over?
“Okay, sorry,” he said, rolling his eyes. “I didn’t mean to get all crazy with the suggestions.”
“It makes sense,” Wildfire said, drawing everyone’s attention. “Human families exist to perpetuate a genetic line. If someone threatens the survival of the line, expelling them from the group would be logical.”
How old were they, again? “Why do you even go to school?” Dean asked.
Wildfire blinked at him like she had no idea why he was asking. “So we can learn how to interact with humans.”
Dean snorted. “Use smaller words,” he said. “You’re like twelve. Talking about genetics makes you stand out.”
She just stared at him. “I’m the same age as Maribel and Adamel.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Yeah? Why don’t you go to school with them?”
She exchanged glances with the older kids, and he wondered how he knew what she was about to say. Obviously she was there to protect the younger kids. Was he just that smart, or was the freaky lightshow all around them cluing him in?
“We are the most angelic,” Wildfire said at last. “Saph and Dani are the least. It seems prudent - it seems smart,” she corrected herself, tipping her head a little, “to... keep an even balance of power. Where... we can.”
Holy shit, Dean thought, for the second time in as many minutes. He could hear the echo in his head: her voice, and what she was actually saying. Each pause was filled with intent, so that “maintain” came out as “keep” and “possible” came out as “we can.”
She was actively changing her vocabulary to follow his instructions. And he could tell. He didn’t know which part was more disturbing.
“This is the person you chose to defend them?” The voice could only belong to Rachel. She even sounded expensive, and he could practically hear her thinking, Your selection process is seriously flawed, Castiel.
Maybe he could hear her thinking that. Which made him want to think obnoxious things back at her, and he almost did except for two things: Castiel had asked him not to swear in front of the kids, and also, Castiel had supposedly shielded his thoughts. She wasn’t supposed to be able to hear him. So why would he hear her?
“He is righteous,” Castiel replied. “He is willing. He is believable. These were my criteria.”
And then, silently and more loudly than anything else in the room, You may be hearing what I hear. Does it overwhelm you?
He was hearing Castiel speak, and the man hadn’t opened his mouth. This was way beyond anything Sam did. Sam’s weird psychic shit didn’t make Dean hallucinate. It didn’t make Dean hear him when he wasn’t talking, and it definitely didn’t make the world look like a rave.
“Believable?” Rachel repeated. Her voice was way too skeptical, but seriously: that was what she objected to?
I can’t tell whether that’s a yes or a no, Castiel said. Your thoughts could use some discipline.
Dean glared at him. Fuck you, he thought, as clearly as he could.
Castiel gave him a half-smile, so he assumed that was better.
“Yes,” Castiel said. Then the room erupted in oranges and reds and he barely noticed Dani pressing herself up against his leg amidst the swirl of arching light and wing-stirred wind. His fingers clenched as he steeled himself against the dizziness and he felt tiny nails biting into his skin.
Dean released her hand abruptly, alarmed that he might have hurt her, but she didn’t let him go. Saph was on his other side, just like that, and she was totally immovable: a solid anchor when gravity changed direction on him all at once. Someone was shooting, maybe, or the room was on fire, but before he could react it was all gone.
“We have to go,” Castiel said into the sudden silence. And Dean knew that nothing had changed, that the room was exactly the way it had been before... that whatever he had just felt had been Castiel. Nothing more.
But Rachel looked sharp and worried and Castiel wasn’t anywhere close to smiling now. There was an emergency, and they were about to disappear. Dean wanted to close his eyes against knowledge he shouldn’t have, wanted to demand more, wanted to make this stop until he could figure out whether any of them were remotely safe to be around.
“Dean,” Maribel’s voice said. “We should teach you how to use a sword.”
They were gone. Dean couldn’t tell whether the room was weirder with them or without them. Now it was just the kids, and they had wings. But they weren’t talking in his head, either.
“Why do you have wings?” he blurted out.
Maia looked interested. “You can see our wings?” she asked, looking over her shoulder like she’d never noticed them before.
“That’s cool,” Maru added.
Dani tugged at his hand, and he looked down. Her wings were stupidly adorable, like someone had dressed their already too-cute daughter up as a cherub or something. The obnoxious almost-uniforms they all wore were less visible when they were overwhelmed by the lit surfaces of curling wings... and Dani’s curled all the way over her shoulders. Small and rounded and nestled tight to her body, they looked like a blanket she had wrapped around herself and refused to let go of.
Can you hear me if I talk to you for real? her voice whispered in his head.
Dean blinked, then looked around to make sure -
Well, he wasn’t sure what he was making sure of. That he wasn’t being pranked, that there wasn’t another small child with Dani’s voice standing right behind him, talking while she just stared? That Castiel hadn’t come back while he wasn’t looking, since it seemed ridiculous that the man who’d hired him was suddenly telepathic but it seemed even crazier that all of his kids could do it too?
“Why can I hear you talking?” he asked aloud. Which sounded stupid, but they all just looked at each other like it was the first thing he’d said that made sense.
Because Father likes you, Dani said. And we’re part of him.
“So you’re our family more now too,” Saph added. “Like Rachel.”
Dean wasn’t sure how much he liked being associated with their Rachel, but he was damn sure he hadn’t accidentally adopted a bunch of supernatural kids. So whatever their “family more” meant, it probably wasn’t real relative status. Maybe more like “probably not going to kill us” status. Which seemed reasonable, considering.
“Okay,” he said. “Let’s get a few things straight here. Your dad says you’re angels.”
He eyed them, but they just stared back at him. “Move your head up and down for yes or back and forth for no,” he told them.
They all nodded. He could even feel Dani’s head moving against his arm. Saph was holding his other hand now, but she wasn’t leaning on him quite as much now that the room had stopped moving.
Her wings were a pretty blue, and he wondered absently if that was where the name that wasn’t her name came from.
She beamed up at him, and he tried not to frown. “Can you all read my mind?”
Saph nodded enthusiastically, and when he looked up he could see the rest of them doing the same. Maybe not quite as vigorously. The silence: still creepy.
“We can answer aloud, if you want,” Maribel offered.
Dean raised an eyebrow at her. “Well, you didn’t look like you were gonna get there on your own.”
“We didn’t realize you were asking questions at first,” Maribel said. “You didn’t lift your voice the way humans do when they’re--” He heard seeking confirmation in his head, but what she said was, “Looking for an answer.”
“Why can I hear what you don’t say?” he demanded. “Cas said I was hearing you through him, but he’s not here.”
They were staring at him again. Maribel actually opened her mouth, like she wanted to answer but hadn’t quite found the words yet, and what finally came out was, “Cas?”
Right, of course, don’t nickname rich and powerful angels of the lord. “Castiel,” Dean said. “Your dad, he said he’d make it so no one could read my mind, but apparently what he meant was no one I’ve never met can read my mind but everyone else has a free pass.”
Maribel and Adamel looked at each other, and he had no idea what that was about. He felt Dani squeeze his hand. He knew she and Saph would have sad faces before he looked down, and what the fuck. If Castiel had done something to him, why didn’t it stop when he wasn’t around?
“You don’t want to know what we think?” Saph asked. She sounded more subdued than he’d ever heard her.
He had two seconds to decide whether or not to freak the fuck out at all of them and their glowy colored wings - and those two seconds were just enough. Enough for him to take a deep breath, to stop clutching their hands quite so hard, and remind himself that, to them, he was the alien. None of this was their fault.
Enough time to think another fervent Fuck you in Castiel’s general direction.
He thought he felt the faintest hint of amusement, and it might not have been totally his own. It shouldn’t have been his own at all; what was funny about this? But maybe, like the calm and the voices and the children leaning against his side, they were just trying to help.
Stop trying to calm me down, he thought as hard as he could.
“We’re not,” Saph whispered.
“No, not you,” he muttered, but he couldn’t even pat her shoulder because she and Dani wouldn’t let go of his hands. Even though they were obviously upset.
Geez, okay. So he couldn’t be pissed at one of them without being pissed at all of them. He was going to kick Castiel’s ass for not leaving him an instruction manual.
“Not you,” Dean repeated. “I’m not mad at you guys.”
“You’re angry at Father,” Maribel said.
“No,” Dean said. Trying to sound like he wasn’t angry. “I’m just... confused.”
“Distance doesn’t matter,” Maribel offered. Like it was the answer to something he hadn’t asked. “You can hear what he hears no matter where he is. So can we. We’re all behind the same shield.”
Or maybe like a question he had asked. Dean stared at her, his brain finally working for once because if Castiel could make it so his “family” couldn’t tell whether someone was an angel or not of course he would use it on his kids. Why had he had to be told that?
“Father thinks you’re smart,” Maia remarked, out of the blue. Her wings were weirdly ruffled, little wisps of light swirling into tiny half circles at the edges. “So do we. You know a lot of things we don’t.”
It took Dean a moment to realize that she was trying to make him feel better. So, good to know: it had just gotten a lot harder to lie to the kids. He tried not to think of anything he wouldn’t want them to know, because there was a lot of it and who knew how much they could pick up.
“You’re very hard to understand,” Adamel said.
“Okay,” Dean said aloud, because if he didn’t take control of this conversation they might just stand there and analyze every passing thought he had. “Let’s talk about what kind of danger we’re in. Your dad flew out of here pretty fast; I’m guessing that’s bad?”
He didn’t realize until after he’d said it that “flew” might have been literally true; Castiel’s wings had been a hell of a lot scarier than the kids’ cute little individual lightshows. He didn’t realize until after Maribel answered that the question had been too vague.
“It’s good that he left quickly,” she said. “That means he can deal with whatever’s happened immediately.”
“But you don’t know what’s happened,” Dean said.
He knew the moment she got it, because pretty gold and understanding lit up her wings even as she said, “It’s probably bad.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “I figured. What about for us? Is it bad for us?”
Maribel frowned. “I don’t know.”
Dean reminded himself that all she’d done was answer the question he’d asked. “Do you think we’re in more danger now than we were in ten minutes ago?”
“No,” she responded immediately. “The house is safe, and if Father thought we were in trouble he wouldn’t have left.”
“Or he would have sent someone else,” Adamel added. “Rachel stays with him, but Balthazar would come.”
Dean guessed he didn’t really need to know who Balthazar was. He didn’t know whether to be relieved that Castiel had people he trusted with the kids, or worried that there were only two of them. The man needed more friends.
“Who’s Balthazar?” he asked, which wasn’t what he’d meant to say at all.
Maribel tilted her head, wings ruffling in confusion, but she replied without hesitation. “He’s the angel who will come for us if Father is killed.”
That was circular and kind of terrifying, and Dean told himself to let it go. Seriously. None of his business.
“Is he like Rachel?” Dean asked.
Maribel frowned. “No,” she said.
Saph came to his rescue. “He’s much nicer than Rachel,” she said, hanging on his arm and staring up at him with earnest eyes. “He’s funny. He doesn’t like humans, though.”
Well, that would be a problem. “Okay,” Dean said aloud. “Good to know. So you figure we’re safe here - is there anything we can do to help your dad?”
They were all staring at him again. Wordlessly. Because it was a human asking, he wondered, or just because they didn’t like to think about Castiel needing help? Was it possible he didn’t?
No, Dean decided. He must or he wouldn’t be scrambling to hide Dean. Or leaving his children in the company of a human babysitter while he went somewhere that apparently carried the risk of death.
“We can stay here,” Maribel offered at last. “And be safe.”
“Right.” Dean tried not to sigh. Of course they could. “So did someone say something about knife-fighting?”
It turned out that yes, someone had. Maia and Wildfire had brought it up, and Castiel had explicitly rejected the idea. The rest of the kids loved it. Maribel enforced her father’s will to the extent that there were no actual knives involved, but Dean did learn that they all had them.
Every last one of them, even Saph and Dani, apparently carried triple-sided blades on them at all times. They used wooden dowels to demonstrate how they were used, and wow: if they did that with sharp pointy things? They really could defend themselves. All supernatural enhancement aside (and he still didn’t know what exactly their superpowers were), they were fierce with fake knives.
Dean felt bad using his strength against them until he realized that he shouldn’t at all. They snapped a lot of sticks trying to teach him the basics - and he knew knife-fighting, damn it - but apparently one of their powers was mending broken dowels. So it wasn’t much of a loss.
It was Dani who remembered dinner and asked if he was going to make them something. Dean drew a blank, because why? Because he made eggs? He wasn’t exactly a cook, and he distinctly remembered Castiel telling him that he didn’t have to join the kids for meals if he didn’t want to.
Not that he didn’t want to, but having the option had to mean he wasn’t responsible for providing the food, right?
“What do you normally have for dinner?” he asked her.
Dani just looked at him, but Saph chirped, “Cereal! It’s not as good as your eggs. Will you make us eggs?”
Dean raised his eyebrows at her. “You don’t eat cereal for dinner.”
Her face fell. “You don’t? We didn’t know that.”
“Wait, what?” Dean had assumed they were pulling his leg, but her disappointment was real. “You actually eat cereal for dinner?” He tried not to sound as incredulous as he felt. It was a losing battle.
“Yes,” Saph said, back on certain ground again. “We have a lot of it.”
“Okay,” Dean said carefully, because Saph might be okay but Dani looked worried and the rest of the kids were whispering silently to each other whenever he wasn’t talking. It was a little creepy, actually, but he was trying to ignore it. “What else do you eat for dinner?”
“Pizza,” Dani whispered.
“Right.” Dean gave her shoulder an encouraging squeeze, trying not to think about the way his hand went right through her wing. The light played over his fingers, but he couldn’t feel it. Much. “Anything else?”
“Fruit,” Saph said. “And vegetables. And sometimes other people make us stuff, so we eat that. Kelly leaves things for us sometimes.”
The housekeeper fed them. But not every day? Dean stared at them - clearly not malnourished - and could only come to one conclusion. It seemed crazy enough that he had to ask: “Do you guys need to eat?”
“No,” Saph said confidently. “Angels get their energy from heaven.” She was so matter-of-fact that he didn’t bother looking at the other kids for confirmation. He could hear them, anyway: every time he stopped talking, their words drifted around him.
“Do you like eating?” Dean asked. He remembered Maru yesterday, saying he didn’t like food. Maybe he’d meant that literally - and maybe he wasn’t the only one. It seemed crazy to Dean, but so did “getting energy from heaven.” So he might as well ask.
“Yes!” Saph said.
Yes, Dani agreed.
“No,” Maru said. “Except for ice cream.”
Right, Dean remembered that. “So, ice cream for dessert,” he said aloud. “What about the rest of you?”
“I like to eat,” Maia offered, but the way she said it made him think that she liked it the way he liked a good movie: fun every now and then, but not something she’d miss if she didn’t do it for a few weeks.
“Me too,” Wildfire agreed. “But not every day. It’s boring.”
Of course it was, Dean thought, trying not to roll his eyes. If all they ate was cereal. There was actual food in the kitchen; he’d seen it, and they were going to make something.
“I don’t know,” Maribel said at last, when Dean looked at her and Adamel. “I’ve never really thought about it.”
Adamel shook his head in wordless agreement.
Dean glanced at Wildfire, and she stopped spinning her wooden dowel idly over her wrist. Her wing slid back from contact with Maia’s, sparkling light like a waterfall to the floor as they parted. She tilted her head at him like she expected an order.
“Let’s go see what’s in the kitchen,” Dean said. He knew there was bacon, at least, and some of those noodles had to be edible. He might be the only one, but he was starving.
He stopped the second they walked into the kitchen. The counter was clear. “Where’s my sandwich?” he asked aloud. Not because he wanted it - except maybe he regretted not eating it when he’d had the chance - but because he’d forgotten until it wasn’t there that it should have been.
Castiel hadn’t moved it before they left the kitchen. It had been sitting there, right there, and now it wasn’t.
“Kelly takes care of the food we leave out,” Maru said. “Did you leave your sandwich out?”
“Yeah,” Dean said, frowning around the kitchen. “Is Kelly here now?”
The kids looked around too, like they might see her and be able to answer the question for him. At this point he wouldn’t really be surprised if they said yes. Maybe they had an invisible ghost housekeeper.
“No,” Maribel said at last. “She must have cleaned up while we were in the solarium.”
That was the most logical thing anyone had said all afternoon. Which meant, unfortunately, that it sounded weird to him. He tried not to think about that.
Instead, he said, “Look. There are a few things I know how to make, and they’re not gourmet, but they’re better than cereal, okay? You don’t have to eat if you don’t want to, but I’m going to. So who wants food?”
They all wanted food. Dean didn’t know if that meant they all wanted an entire meal or they all wanted to try whatever he was eating, but at this point he didn’t really care. Whatever they didn’t eat he’d put in the refrigerator and hey, he’d have a lunch to take with him tomorrow.
“Noodles,” he said. “We’re cooking noodles, you can try ’em hot and cold, and we’ll put vegetables in them ’cause kids need vegetables. They have vitamins or something. I need someone to get out plates and silverware, someone to boil water, and someone who knows how to use a knife.”
Then he realized what he’d just said. “Someone who can use a knife to chop vegetables,” Dean added. “A cutting knife. Not a fighting knife.”
That narrowed down his options to Maribel and Adamel, as far as he was concerned. And maybe Wildfire, but she volunteered to get the dishes. So he set Adamel to boiling water, Maribel to chopping string beans and zucchini, and tried to keep the rest of the kids busy measuring pasta and mixing tuna when he found a couple of cans in the cupboard.
It was chaos. Dinner was more disorganized than anything he’d seen them do. They were louder, constantly calling for him to tell them what to do next - the little kids started it, but the older kids quickly realized that they got his attention faster if they didn’t just stand there and wait for the next instruction.
He really wished he’d eaten that sandwich.
Maia helped Maribel split the pasta in half: a hot bowl he set on the island as is, and a cold bowl they ran water over and dumped in with the tuna. Adamel added the chopped vegetables to both when Dean wasn’t looking, which was the most initiative any of them had taken maybe ever so Dean didn’t bother telling him they usually went in the casserole. Maru and Dani poured a jar of sauce into a bowl - which Dean really thought would go badly, but in ten minutes he’d already forgotten how strong they were - and Saph helped him get drinks. Just water, but when they added ice she beamed like she’d learned how to follow a recipe.
It was one of the best dinners Dean had ever had. They ate everything. Which was ridiculous, but kind of gratifying, and he guessed it at least meant something that they preferred it over nothing? Not a single one of the kids would say that they liked any of the food better than the rest: most of them just mixed it all together on their plate anyway, hot pasta and cold casserole together, but who expected kids to eat normally? It was probably one of the most human things they did, if it came to that.
“What about ice cream?” Maru asked afterward, while Saph was trying to convince him that they didn’t have to clean up because the still-mysterious Kelly would do it for them.
“Well, we don’t have any,” Dean began, intending to follow it with: so we’ll have to order in, but Maru interrupted before he could finish.
“Yes we do,” he said. “It’s in the freezer.”
Dean had been in the freezer for ice just before dinner, and he was sure he would have noticed something as important as ice cream. “This freezer?” he asked, pointing across the kitchen. Now he knew why they ate at the counter: it would have taken forever to carry everything into another room.
“No,” Maru said. “The freezer in the garage.”
Why was there a freezer in the garage, Dean wondered?
“It’s for our friends,” Saph said. “Father read that human children like to have snacks when they visit other people’s houses.”
He shouldn’t ask. He knew he shouldn’t, and he heard the words come out anyway. “Do you guys have friends over a lot?”
“No,” Saph said. “We don’t have any friends.”
She didn’t sound upset about it, but it made him think about Sam and he was suddenly, irrationally angry at Castiel. Just... angry. In a way he couldn’t do anything about. He was sitting in a quiet, empty kitchen with seven children hanging on his every word and he was the only responsible adult in the room.
All over again.
Saph was staring at him with wide eyes. Dani had pulled back, tiny lit wings pressed so tight to her body that it looked like her clothing was glowing. Maia and Maru were very still. It was Maribel who broke the silence by asking, “Have we done something to upset you?”
She sounded infinitely calm. She shouldn’t have to be their mom, and Dean swallowed a snarl that wouldn’t accomplish anything. He didn’t have any right to be this mad on their behalf; this wasn’t his life. It wasn’t his call.
“No,” he said, trying to sound like he meant it. “No, you guys are great.”
“But you are upset,” Maribel said, and fuck, they weren’t even whispering now. He’d stopped noticing the little tendrils of thought around them until they were gone: now everyone was waiting for him to speak. Only him.
“Not at you,” Dean said. “Sorry, I just--” He couldn’t even lie to them. Damn it.
“You reminded me of something else I’m angry about,” he said, because he had to tell them the truth and this was the best he could do. “It has nothing to do with you, I promise. Let’s go see what’s in the garage, okay?”
So they did, and Dani held his hand again, and he tried not to think about Castiel because Castiel wasn’t his dad and none of these kids were Sam. The ice cream was awesome. They ate it in the Hummer, which was fun and Maru and Saph both giggled so that made his night right there.
When they went back inside, the kitchen was clean. “Seriously,” he said, stopping to stare. “Kelly is here, right? How come I never see her?”
“She’s very fast,” Maia said. “We have to go do our homework now. Do you want to come with us?”
“I don’t think I’d be much help,” Dean said. Not that he thought they were learning higher math at a school where they started the day with singing, but he didn’t think he’d be any good at talking out his feelings or drawing pictures of bunnies, either.
They didn’t seem disappointed, so he added, “I’m just gonna turn the TV on for a little while. You guys can yell if you need me, right?” He might still be a little fuzzy on the intercom system, but after dinner he didn’t doubt their ability to get his attention if they needed it.
Can we watch TV with you? Dani asked.
“After you finish your homework,” Dean told her. “When’s your bedtime, anyway?” They’d eaten dinner late, and it wasn’t exactly high summer out there: the windows were already dark.
She just looked at him.
“Don’t tell me you don’t need to sleep,” he said.
When no one said anything, he realized he’d done it again. “Scratch that,” he said. “Do you need to sleep?”
“No,” Maribel said. “But Father likes for us to seek revelation at night - pray,” she added, and he couldn’t tell if she was saying it because she thought he might not get it or because he’d told Wildfire to use smaller words. “We’re supposed to be in contemplation by the end of the day.”
It took him a second to realize that she probably meant midnight. “And you...” He stopped. “Do you... pray until morning? Breakfast?”
“Yes,” she said. “It’s very enlightening.”
“Uh-huh,” he said. “That’s... okay.” He wondered if anyone ever answered their prayers. Probably, right? If they were angels?
He had a sudden image of angel bureaucracy, and he tried not to smile. “Well, you’ve got a few hours, then. You want company, you know where to find me.”
He didn’t know if any of them tried to find him. He figured out how to turn the TV on, but the fact that it had to scan for stations told him he was the first. Like the snacks in the garage, the TV was just for show.
He fell asleep on the couch, trying not to think about absent fathers and the friends they couldn’t have.