"I must say," he drawled, "this is all very dramatic. I can appreciate that."
He turned to face the newcomer, a shorter man in a long black coat, close-cropped hair, hands in his pockets, suit and tie meticulous.
"Glad to have a suitable audience," Crowley said in a voice like smoke. His eyes narrowed on his summoner's pale, drawn features. He could smell power on this one. He reeked of cold ice. Not human. Not earthly at all. "I don't believe we've met."
"We have not, Demon King. I am Loki."
Crowley raised an imperious eyebrow. "You're not the only one who goes by that name around here, you know."
"Hm. Midgardians and their mixed-up mythos. When I rule over them, I will be sure to correct the error." Loki folded his hands behind his back and strode the length of the dirt road, stopping exactly three feet from the demon.
"When, not if?" Crowley asked.
"When," Loki assured him.
Crowley smiled into the dark. "Sounds like someone is in the market for a deal."
"Very perceptive. You are the current ruler of the Muspellsheimr realm, are you not?" Loki shook his head. "I'm sorry, of Hell? These other names confuse me."
A sympathetic shrug from Crowley. "My army is the largest and my hold, the strongest, so yes. I'm what you'd call the man in charge down below."
Loki hummed in understanding. "Ever since Lucifer's lieutenants proved unequal to the task of raising him, you mean. I hear they were defeated by mere humans. I should thank the mortals; it paves the way for my plan quite nicely."
Crowley smiled at the mention of the Winchesters. "They can be convenient at the strangest times. I certainly wasn't about to stop them when they killed Azazel and freed their righteous daddy's soul. The true believers can moan for Lucifer's return all they like, but they won't have a shot at breaking those seals for awhile yet, not after what happened in the desert. Now." Crowley gestured airily. "Tell me more about this plan of yours."
"Absolutely. But first," Loki turned and sniffed in the direction of the water tower, "we should dispatch the agent who is listening in."
A lone man stepped out from the shadow of the tower, the black line of an eyepatch slashed across his stony face. "Evening, gentlemen," Nick Fury said, cocking his weapon.
"Director," Loki answered. Then, to Crowley, "This piece can't be allowed to remain on the board. Could you possibly...?"
Crowley flexed his hand and made a fist. "Oh, I think I know just where to put him."
"What?" Dean asked, not missing a beat.
"Could you be a little less," Sam sighed, "celebratory?"
"Why? Life is good. As good as it gets for us, anyway. We killed Yellow Eyes, stopped the end of the world, and there's not a scratch on us. That, Sammy, calls for some celebration." Dean twisted the volume knob up a hair, bopping his head to the chorus.
Sam turned the music back down. "Quit it. It's giving me a headache," he muttered.
Dean finally turned to look at Sam's stiff profile, taking in the hard line of his mouth. "What is with you? You've been on edge ever since we closed the Devil's Gate. You still," he licked his dry lips, "having those weird dreams?"
Sam shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "No, no visions."
"Because I had hoped all that demonic 'chosen one' mojo was wearing off."
"It is. It did. Forget about it. I'm just tired, okay?" Sam said.
Dean worried his lip between his teeth for a long moment, watching the road ahead. "Look, I know you had a real close call in South Dakota. But we made it out in one piece, right?" He glanced over at Sam once more. "Right?"
"Yeah." Sam looked out the passenger window.
Dean tried a different tack. "You were lucky, I tell you. Thought for sure that Jake guy had you when you turned your back. I mean, if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes—" Dean replayed that heart-stopping moment in his head, not for the first time: he could still see Sam in the mud, relief painted too soon across his face, and then, quicker than humanly possible, Jake was on his feet with murder in his eyes. And even quicker, he was down again. Sam must have moved like a cat or something, because he'd gotten the upper hand and it was Jake who'd ended up with the knife in his back instead of Sam. "Good thing he wasn't a match for you."
"Good thing," Sam echoed.
Sensing that he wasn't going to get much more from his younger brother, Dean coughed and changed the subject. "Okay, so break it down for me. Tell me about these monster sightings." He reached over and rattled the map in Sam's lap for emphasis.
Sam produced a sheaf of printouts from the backpack stuffed under his feet and began to read aloud. "Four separate eyewitness accounts in the last two weeks outside of Chenoweth, Oregon. Really remote, surrounded by state parks. A couple of campers reported seeing, quote, a giant lumbering through the forest at night. There's also a few complaints from locals. Apparently they woke up one morning to find something had smashed their fence and ate a goat, five chickens, and—" Sam scrunched his nose. "—a decorative kumquat tree."
"Sounds like a troll," Dean muttered.
"Yeah, and listen to this: the woods outside the town? Famous for their networks of caverns and caves." Sam raised an eyebrow.
"God, I hate trolls," Dean said. "Dad hunted one down in New Hampshire once. They smell like piss; you wouldn't remember, you were too little. But what's a troll doing on the west coast?"
"Besides eating goats? No idea."
"Well, the good news is trolls are easy to kill. One dose of sunlight and they're about as dangerous as a seven-foot raisin. Just got to track it to its hidey-hole and flush it out." Dean craned his neck to look at a sign that was coming up ahead. "You hungry? I need food." He flicked on his turn signal as they approached a service station-cum-diner.
"— and for all that he lauded the merits of reaching across the aisle, the President has not been supportive of this legislation, which has received the support of both parties," the senator was saying.
"I vetoed the Registration measures because the fact is they were too far-reaching. Now, the super-majority has overruled that, despite research from independent experts who agree: we cannot lock up People of Power for crimes they may or may not commit with those powers at a future time," the president said.
"What are these mutants and meta-humans trying to hide? And don't tell me it's their so-called privacy," Kelly demanded, pounding the podium in front of him with the flat of his palm to emphasize his words. "All we're asking is for citizens who possess extraordinary power to have it properly documented! And one of the premiere members of their community, Mr. Tony Stark, agrees with our position. We cannot stand idly by while—"
Dean snorted and turned away. "Goddamn election coverage. Can't believe we're still debating this. Bring 'em all in, I say."
"Are you serious?" Sam turned a glare in Dean's direction. It was an old argument, and Dean had nothing but cold, steel certainty in his mind whenever it came up. "This is still America, Dean. We shouldn't be rounding up people just because they're different, not anymore."
"Yeah, but come on. Some of these dudes can level an entire city. You need a permit for a gun; you should get one if you can shoot lasers out of your ass like Iron Man."
"We don't have permits for our guns," Sam reminded him.
"That's different." Dean swept past his brother, not bothering to respond to Sam's eye roll.
While Dean considered the racks of shrink-wrapped beef jerky sticks and off-brand pop tarts, Sam examined a flaking map of the parkland that had been tacked up on the wall next to the cash register. The place was thick with woods and shot through with gorges and waterfalls. Sam pursed his lips; their quarry could be in any number of places.
"Excuse me," Sam turned to the elderly cashier who slouched on a stool behind the counter, "are you familiar with this area?" He swirled his index finger around a radius of twenty miles on the map.
The woman shook her gray head and tipped it toward the cafe side of the store. "You'll be wanting to speak to that one, I imagine," she said. Dean appeared at Sam's side, a packet of peanut M&M's dangling from his hand. They looked over at the only customer sitting huddled at the end of the dingy counter, hunched over a burger that he was eating in small, methodical bites. Early thirties, dark hair, ill-fitting suit and overcoat, strange clothes for the summer heat—he could have been a low-level government employee stopping for lunch on his way to somewhere else. He didn't exactly scream "local."
"Him?" Dean asked, setting his M&M's on the cashier's counter. Sam watched him rake his eyes appraisingly over the guy as well. A familiar frisson passed through Sam, but he ignored it.
"Mm hm." She tapped a few keys on her machine. The till opened with a clang. "Lives up on the mountain. Owns a lot of it, I think. Don't know his name, he's real quiet. But he comes down once in awhile, always wearing that coat of his."
Sam and Dean shared a look, the sort that said Worth a shot? We've got nothing else to go on, then paid the woman and headed over to the lunch counter. The man in the overcoat sensed their approach, his bright blue eyes swinging up to them. He paused mid-chew.
"Sorry to interrupt," Sam began (he always led when they went the nice route), "but if you've got a moment, we'd like to ask you a few questions." The Winchesters flipped their trusty Federal Marshal badges from their back pockets for the man's perusal.
He eyed them and the badges with a squinty, distrustful gaze. "About?" His voice was a stony scrape, like he didn't use it all that much.
"Seen or heard anything unusual up in the mountains lately, Mister...?" Dean asked, stuffing his fake ID back into his pocket.
A long pause from the stranger. His eyes dropped to his plate, where the remains of a hamburger bun sat soaking in drippings and ketchup. "You're here about the pranks?" He neatly avoided providing his name.
Sam's eyebrows lifted. "Is that what you think they are?"
The man tipped his head to the side. His version of a shrug, it looked like. "What else could it be?" he said.
Another glance passed between the brothers, and Dean gave an imperceptible shake of his head. "Let's say these pranksters were camping out near your property. Any idea where they might go for shelter? A cave, maybe?" Dean asked.
The man didn't bother looking up this time. He pulled out a few bills and laid them on the counter beside his plate. "I'm sorry, I couldn't say. I try to stay out of any business but my own." He picked up a paper bag filled with what looked like groceries; Dean tilted his head to peek inside as the man bent over. Sam could see a heel of bread in there along with some leafy celery tops. "Pardon me," the guy said as he squeezed past them and headed for the door.
They watched the man in the long coat walk through the parking lot, then cross the road and march up a small dusty footpath, his suit and tie at odds with the rolling greenland around him.
"Was that weird? That was weird, right?" Dean turned to Sam with a frown.
Sam ran a hand through his hair. "So maybe he doesn't look like your average mountain man. You think he's keeping a big, ugly pet?"
"Nah." Dean sniffed. "Bag full of health food. Trolls eat meat."
"And kumquats, apparently."
"Yeah. That's weird too," Dean said. "This whole thing is weird." A sleepy waitress appeared from the back of the diner, waving a carafe of coffee at them in question. Sam shook his head in apology.
"No weirder than any other job. Let's just hope we can track this thing to its hiding place before sundown," he said as they elbowed their way out of the shop.
Dean squinted in the sun's glare. "Let's hope." Sam followed his gaze and watched the last of the tan overcoat disappear over the ridge.
He whistled. "Big boy."
Sam adjusted the strap of the gear bag he'd slung over his shoulder. "Nightfall's coming soon. We should do this before it gets too dark."
"Yeah." Dean held his hand out, and Sam put a rifle in it. "Be careful. Trolls don't wake easy, but better safe than dead. Plus the stink. Whew."
Sam crept closer to the opening, peering into the thick darkness. Deep, lumbering breaths resonated from the bottom. Almost reminded Dean of the Impala's engine. Sam turned to whisper over his shoulder.
"It's definitely inside. The cave doesn't go very far back. I think we can throw the flares from here, flush it out that way."
"I like it," Dean said, standing and cocking his rifle. "You light him up, I'll gun him down." He drew the rifle against his shoulder and took aim at the mouth of the cave. "Whenever you're ready."
The flares cracked and spat fire in Sam's hands, leaving a red trail of sparks in the air when he lobbed them into the blackness. They hissed like mad until their sound was overpowered by a roar that echoed through the valley.
"Oh crap," Sam muttered, grabbing his own gun.
"I don't remember trolls being that loud," Dean said seconds before a huge monster erupted from the cave, shattering stone in its wake. Its skin was a deep hunter green, its hair was black and shaggy, and it wore a pair of tattered trousers that barely covered its massive thighs. And its eyes—its eyes glowed. "Definitely don't remember trolls being green."
The Winchesters fired. The shots were good, but the bullets seemed to bounce off the creature without leaving a mark. The sunlight clearly was not slowing it down as planned. The thing just screamed at them in an animal voice, flexing its huge arms in the air. Dean's eyes widened.
"Not a troll, not a troll!" Dean grabbed his brother by his jacket sleeve and took off running. The monster followed, bowling over trees like they were toothpicks, splinters spraying over Sam and Dean's heads.
"What the hell is that thing?" Sam yelled over another roar. Dean lurched to the left, pulling Sam with him and narrowly avoiding a Pinto-sized fist that smashed into the ground.
"I don't know! Just move!"
Sam glanced over his shoulder to see the green beast gaining ground, running half-bent like a gorilla. It reached for him, its huge palm swiping aside an oak. Sam stumbled, and Dean stumbled with him, still clutching his arm. They rolled down a shallow embankment, sharp rocks jabbing them in their sides. Dean struggled to to his feet without pause, caked in leaves and dirt and pulling Sam along behind him. A shadow passed overhead and the brothers looked up. The monster loomed over them, its corded arms raised for a blow.
"Dean," Sam whispered. He raised his free hand as Dean's grip tightened on his elbow.
"Hey!" a gravelly voice called from the ridge above. All eyes, including the green giant's, turned toward the higher ground, where the man in the long overcoat stood beckoning to the monster. "Come on! This way, I'm right here!" He waved his arms like a semaphore.
The giant snarled and swung its fist in his direction, clumsy and slow enough that the stranger ducked out of the way, letting a boulder shatter in his place instead.
"Civilians," Dean muttered. Then, shouting and waving his own arms, "Get away! This thing's rabid!"
The nameless man paid him no attention. When the beast drifted back towards the Winchesters, he picked up a stone and flung it, hitting the creature square on the back of its head. It gave a small grunt of surprise and roared again. One thick green arm struck out in Sam's direction, sending him flying into the bramble.
"Sammy!" Dean moved to help his brother, but the hulking monster stepped in his path. Dean's gaze tracked up its massive body. It was heaving like a steam engine, just staring down at him. Dean froze, thinking that any sudden movement would provoke it again.
"Hey, guy," he called over his shoulder to the man in the overcoat. "Now would be a great time for you to get the hell out of Dodge."
"No." He was on Dean's far right, still high on the ridge. "I'm not leaving."
"Your funeral," Dean said. He swallowed. The creature sniffed the air and bent to look Dean in the eye. Its dayglow irises reflected his own face back at him.
"No cage," the creature rumbled. Its voice was like broken thunder, but it was definitely speaking English. Dean licked his lips. What the hell was this thing?
The creature roared, its breath hot and rushing like the wind. Dean took that as his cue to run for it. He turned and took off blindly into the woods, crashing over bushes and under whipping branches. He could hear the monster's heavy foot-thuds behind him, slamming into the ground with enough power to shake the trees. Dimly, Dean heard the man with the rough voice shouting something, but it was impossible to make out the warning.
Too late, he realized it must have been about the cliff.
Dean's boots teetered on the edge, his arms pinwheeling for balance. A hundred feet below, the silver thread of a river crawled over a rocky riverbed. He turned to look behind him, his stomach sinking; the monster was still coming. Dean put his arms up in a last-ditch effort at defense, and he would have shut his eyes except—
Except the man in the overcoat was there too, somehow, running toward Dean from where the ridge dropped off to the right. And he was shrugging out of that coat, tearing off his blue necktie, hollering something Dean couldn't hear over the sound of the trees being bulldozed. Dean blinked. The baggy white shirt was discarded and—was that some kind of leather harness under the guy's clothes?
There were weirder ways to die, but none came to Dean's mind.
Just before Dean was hit head-on, he saw the nameless man touch a clasp in the center of his chest. The black leather straps that criss-crossed his torso fell away and two huge white feathered wings rose from behind his shoulders.
Okay, Dean thought, this was the weirdest way to die. He'd never thought he was the type to have religious visions right before he met his maker, but hey, there was a first time for everything. Even angels. Which, huh, Dean was going to have to admit he was wrong when he saw Sam again. If he ever saw Sam again.
And then the nine-foot not-troll barreled straight into Dean and sent him over the edge. It was like being hit by a semi-truck. Dean heard a bone snap in his forearm on impact, but the sudden flash of pain was deadened by the stomach-dropping sensation of falling over the cliff. He reached out with his good arm, hoping to grab anything that might save him. His fingers closed around warm flesh.
Dean's eyes snapped open (when had he shut them?) and watched a blur of green pass by. The monster plummeted, screaming in anger the whole way. The impact was like a bomb going off in the riverbed below. Dean couldn't make out the creature for all the dust that was thrown into the air.
The air. He was still in the air.
Dean looked up at the angel who was clutching him, one hand wrapped around his good arm, the other clutching the ball of his shoulder. His great white wings flapped wildly, sending gusts of wind into Dean's upturned face, and his face was a mask of determination.
"Hold on," the man said.
"Um," Dean said because, really, this was not how he'd expected the troll hunt to go.
"I don't want to drop you," the angel said through gritted teeth.
Dean grasped him tighter with his good arm, his injured one dangling at his side. "I don't want that either, trust me."
The wings beat the air again, and Dean was borne back to solid ground. They landed in an ungraceful pile, limbs tangled and Dean's broken arm screaming in pain when it was jostled.
"Jesus!" Dean cradled it against his chest, rolling onto his back in the dirt.
"Let me see," the man said, and touched Dean's arm in exactly the wrong way. Before Dean lost consciousness from the pain, his last thought was of Sam and whether he was okay.
He whimpered, clamping down on the noise before it built into a wail in his throat. The blood gushed from the wound near the inside bend of his elbow, spurts that matched his racing heartbeat. Dean reached for a blanket, some sheet, anything he could rip into a bandage. But a gentle hand braced against his sore shoulder, keeping him flat on his back.
"Be still," the strange man said. He was still shirtless. His massive feathered wings rustled behind him. Dean shut his eyes, then opened them again. The wings were still there.
"My brother." Dean's voice came out like a scratched record.
"One thing at a time," he said.
"Who are you?" Dean rasped. "What do you want?" Because he still didn't believe angels could be real, and if they were, he couldn't believe one would save him.
The man didn't answer, just produced a long knife with a black handle. A kitchen knife. Dean's eyes widened for one second before he tried to rise again, but the man was either freakishly strong or Dean was kitten-weak from blood loss, because he was easily stopped by another push at his shoulder.
"Hold on. I can stop the pain." The man slipped the blade over his own palm, leaving a long red trail of glistening blood. Then he reached for Dean's broken arm.
Dean jerked it away, grimacing. "What the hell—?"
"Please believe me." The man raised his intense blue stare and locked eyes with Dean. "My name is Castiel," the angel said.
"Dean," he replied, not knowing why he went with the truth. His mouth was dry and tasted like he'd been sleeping a long time. "Dean Winchester."
"My blood can heal you, Dean," Castiel said. He held out his bloody palm once more. "Let me help."
There were a million reasons not to let this stranger press his bleeding hand to an open wound, hepatitis being a big one. That, and it sounded crazy. But so did giant green monsters hiding in caves, so Dean stayed still and let it happen.
He hissed through his teeth as Castiel touched his arm, because goddamn, that hurt. Then a weird kind of heat coursed through his veins, a tingling that ran up and down his arm like electricity. A bone crunched, but Dean felt no pain. He stared up at the angel, his mouth hanging open, unable to look away from those blue eyes.
"Did heaven send you?" Dean asked. "Did they finally decide to fight? I didn't—I thought you guys weren't real."
Castiel frowned, his forehead creasing in confusion. "Please, I need to concentrate." He closed his eyes, and Dean shut his mouth.
A few moments later, Castiel sighed and lifted his hand. Dean gaped at his arm, flexing it experimentally. The wound was closed, the bone was knitted back into place. Only a drying smear of blood remained.
"That's amazing," Dean said.
Castiel turned away and busied himself with bandaging his own palm with a pad of thick gauze and medical tape. "You are probably thirsty." He stood and moved to what must have been the kitchen, what with the sounds of cabinet doors banging and water running. Dean took stock of his surroundings for the first time, now that he wasn't distracted by pain.
The bedroom was simple, no photographs on the walls, no kitschy items arranged on the dresser or bedside table. There was a stack of folded black and tan cloth laying on a nearby chair, leather from the look of it, some tools that Dean didn't recognize stacked on a low workbench opposite the bed, a dressmaker's form standing headless in the corner. Dean saw the form was criss-crossed with leather straps very similar to those he'd seen Castiel remove in the woods.
"I make them," Castiel said, startling Dean from his thoughts. He stood at the bedside and handed Dean the cool glass of water. "The harnesses. Some custom pieces as well. Bags, belts, clothing. I sell them online." He nodded to another corner of the room, where Dean could see piles of black and brown straps, gleaming with oil.
Dean swallowed. "Pretty kinky."
Castiel lifted a shoulder, not meeting Dean's eyes. "I don't ask my customers what they use them for. It's just a job. I need to eat."
"I didn't know angels needed day jobs. Or food." Dean took a long gulp of water and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Are you all stationed on earth? How come a little thing like, I don't know, the world almost ending didn't warrant a hello?" His gaze skated across Castiel's chest, and Castiel seemed to remember his state of half-nakedness. He fumbled with something on the floor, which turned out to be his own complicated harness. He watched as Castiel folded his wings tightly behind his back, then slipped the harness over his head and latched it to hold them down.
He glanced over at Dean, meeting his curious gaze. "I'm sorry," Castiel said with a resigned sigh. "I'm not an angel. I'm not from heaven." He went to the small closet in the corner and rifled through the hangers before pulling a white collared shirt free.
Dean pressed his lips together, then asked, "Then what are you?"
"I'm." He shrugged into the shirt, his back still to Dean. He tucked the tips of his long white wings into the back of his trousers along with the tail of his shirt. "A genetic minority."
"You're a mutant?"
The line of Castiel's shoulders went rigid. He didn't turn around. "That is one word for it, yes."
Dean slumped back on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. "Huh." He paused. So Sam still hadn't won this argument about angels. He'd be pissed to hear that. As soon as Dean found him. "I probably sounded kind of nuts with that end of the world stuff, didn't I?"
"A little," Castiel said, finally turning. He retrieved his tan overcoat, now stained with mud and grass, from where it was puddled on the floor and slipped it on. Dean saw why he wore so many baggy layers; the bulk of his wings was hidden beneath all those clothes.
"You're a secret mutie," Dean amended.
"And you are not Federal Marshal Bon Scott," Castiel countered. "When you and that other man walked into the store, he called you by your real name." Dean wondered what else Castiel had heard; probably their whole conversation about Registration. Which, okay, awkward. Castiel tipped his head to the side. "It seems we both have some explaining to do. Why don't you go first?"
Dean drew a deep breath. No sense trying to bullshit the guy who had saved his life, he thought. Even if he was a mutant.
"Here's the deal. I'll tell you what I can, but then we have to find my brother. The kid who was with me—that's Sammy."
Castiel nodded, and Dean started on the whole spiel, a story about ghosts and demons and a family that was getting smaller and smaller. Castiel sat at the foot of the bed. And he listened.