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25¢ pocket guardian angels

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Dean walks into the bank one day to cash his paycheck because the garage doesn’t do direct deposit.

There’s a couple people in line and both bank tellers are busy, so he checks his phone, sees no messages, and idly looks around at the gumball machine by the door. It used to have those super-bouncy balls when he came in here with his mom as a kid – he grew up in this town and not much as changed, even the old bead maze and children’s books in the waiting area have been there since before he can remember – but usually when he comes in nowadays, the machine is empty like the bank people just got bored with it some years back and couldn’t be bothered to remove the thing from where it’s bolted to the floor.

It’s not empty today.

There’s a bunch of little plastic bubble things like the kind fifty cent toys come in, only the more Dean looks at them, the more he frowns, because fuck if it doesn’t look like the things are moving a little bit and that can’t be right.

The line shifts forward one space and he moves with it – one more person ahead of him, but his attention is back on the gumball machine now and they are definitely moving and hell, it’s just a place in line, so he leaves the line to go up closer to the machine and check it out.

His jaw drops as he peers through the hard plastic casing and gets his first real look at what’s inside.

“Holy shit!”

The old woman in the line ahead of him turns around and gives him a glare, but she’s called forward to the next open teller and promptly ignores him in favor of her transaction.

Inside the machine, in each little bubble, there’s a tiny, moving, apparently living and breathing person with short, chubby little arms and legs, angel wings, messy dark hair, and big blue eyes. They all look exactly the same, are dressed the same in teeny little trenchcoats and ties, and they’re all alive and moving around and doing different things.

About half of them are looking right back at Dean with wide-eyed interest and curiosity. A few are sleeping, one is rubbing his eyes and looking sad, one is lying on his back, catching and tossing one of his tiny little shoes in the air, and one is sitting in a pool of his own clothes, apparently naked.

“Dude, are these guys alive?” Dean asks, shouting over his shoulder at the nearest of the two tellers, who has just finished her transaction and is now available for the next customer.

“Are what alive?”

“The little guys! These little angels in the machine over here.”

“Oh. I dunno. They were there when I came in.”

“What are they? They can’t possibly have enough air in there. Is this even temperature regulated? They’re gonna be right in the sun when the afternoon hits.”

The teller looks bored. “I don’t know, I’m sure it’s fine or they wouldn’t have put them there.”

“Who wouldn’t?”

“Whoever does the machine. It’s some company we contract out to. It’s not ours. I don’t know anything about it.”

“Well, you can’t just leave them in there.”

“If you’re so worried about it, put in a few quarters and take some of them out.”

Dean frowns and chews his lip. He bends back over the machine again, hands on his knees, and ponders the mysterious little guys. Roughly three-quarters of them are looking at him now, all innocent and trusting and ready to get baked to death by the summer sun.

He raises a hand and, deciding that tapping on the glass seems a little aggressive, tentatively gives them a wave ‘hello’ to see if they respond.

They ALL stop what they’re doing and wave back.

And ok, that decides it. They’re intelligent little angel-thing-guys, and they don’t deserve to be in there. This is worse than leaving a dog trapped in a hot car while you do your shopping.

Dean does a quick count and decides there’s probably forty or so total, and at fifty cents a pop, he’s gonna need twenty dollars worth of quarters. Fortunately, he’s at a bank, so it’s up to the counter he goes.

****

By the time he gets home, he’s spent about an hour longer than he intended to at the bank and had to call into Bobby’s to let them know he was running a few hours late because of an emergency “animal rescue” situation. Bobby was peeved about it, as expected, but they go way back and Dean almost never takes time off for anything, so he just told him to take the time he needs and not to bring in any fleas later, and that was that.

He hadn’t wanted to leave the little guys in their bubbles in case they all suffocated before he could even get them anywhere, but letting them loose in the cabin of his car didn’t seem like a good idea either since he couldn’t tell how prone to wandering they might get, ending up under the pedals or lost under the seats or in the way of his view of the road. Or they might turn out to be biters. That wouldn’t be a good thing to discover on the highway either, small-town country roads or not.

Fortunately, the formerly indifferent bank teller perks up a lot to the idea once Dean shows her the first angel on the counter up close, and gives him a cardboard box to keep them in.

So now he’s sitting in his living room with a cup of coffee, staring at a xerox paper box full of forty-three tiny angel dudes in trenchcoats (the naked one now dressed again, apparently), all staring at him with big, happy, trusting eyes and making noise.

Because, yeah, they started doing that as soon as he opened their bubbles, and they are noisy little fucks.

“Eep! Eep! Eep!”

“So, what do you guys eat, huh?” Dean sighs. “I figure I could start you off with some water. Maybe fruit and bread?”

“Eep! Eep! Eep! Eep!”

“Seriously, who the fuck thinks it’s ok to put a bunch of live… living things into an airtight plastic bubble and leave them in the sun to bake? I gotta find out what company supplied you and ask them about proper care, and then sue their ass for animal cruelty. Or… angel cruelty. Or something. I’ll ask Sam, I’m sure he’s got something they can be sued for.”

Sam works in bankruptcy law, but he’s pretty good at faking specialization in other legal fields on the phone when he wants to be threatening. And he’s definitely gonna be interested in this.

Dean puts a couple slices of apple, a piece of bread, and a bowl of water from the kitchen into the box on the coffee table and then takes his phone out to snap a few shots to mail to Sam with the caption, “Living creatures, found in gumball machine. U recognize?” and then settles down on the couch to wait.

The little guys are poking at the bread like they’ve never seen it before, but the apple and the water start getting licked and lapped at quickly enough, and pretty soon the regular peeping they make increases in excitement and frequency as two of them tumble into the bowl and end up wading around in it, trenchcoats soaking wet and hair dripping into their eyes, smiling and splashing around. More quickly follow and Dean winces. The bottom of the box is not gonna hold up to getting that soggy. He kind of wishes he’d put a coaster or a magazine underneath to protect the coffee table now, but what are you gonna do. He doesn’t want to jostle them more than necessary.

“I’m Dean,” he informs them once the novelty of the watering bowl-come-swimming pool has worn off a little and they’re mostly back to their previous favorite pastime of staring at him in tiny raptures.

“Dean! Dean! Dean! Dean! Dean!” they all start peeping over the top of one another.

He nearly chokes on his coffee.

“Oh, you talk!”

“Talk!”

“Eep.”

“Dean.”

“Ok, you guys definitely should not have been in that machine. I’m gonna do a Google search and see if I can’t find something to start with, find whatever company you came from and make sure they haven’t filled up a hundred more machines all over the state. I hope you don’t have a bunch of dead cousins somewhere by now.”

He’d already asked the bank tellers and their manager before leaving, but no one at the bank was able to tell him what company supplied the ‘toys,’ or even find any record of any current contract for the dispenser. He’d left his name and number and they’d promised to call if answers turned up, but he didn’t bet on getting any further that way. His best bet was probably to describe what he was looking at and see if any similar hits popped up online.

“Tiny… angels… gumball machine… alive,” he mumbles aloud as he enters the search terms and presses enter on his phone.

He gets a lot of links for Toys ”R” Us and other toy and candy places that do refills, but nothing for live angels. He tries again with slightly different search terms.

“Living… creatures… candy… dispenser.” That gets him some Etsy and Martha Stewart pages. Nothing related to what he’s looking at.

He finally tries “tiny living angel” as an image search and gets nothing but log cabins and weird shit like that, so he gives up. Fortunately, by then, Sam has texted him back.

Very realistic.

Dean growls in annoyance and dials Sam’s number.

“Hello?”

“I’m not joking, Sam, they’re honest to god alive. I’m looking at them splash around in a water bowl and eat apple bits right now. Listen.”

He holds the phone out over the box and some two or three dozen little heads follow its progress, cheeping at it.

“Eep! Eep! Eep!”

Dean pulls the phone back to his ear.

“You hear that?”

“Uhh, ok. What the hell, Dean?”

“That’s what I wanna know. What the hell are they, and who thought it was a good idea to stick them in airtight plastic bubbles to be sold in a gumball machine?”

“You found them in a gumball machine?”

“Yeah, like one of those quarter machines you’d get toys out of as a kid. It was at the bank. They didn’t know who filled it.”

“Well, that sounds… that sounds irresponsible… Are you sure they’re alive and not some clever wind-up? I mean, maybe they’re battery operated or something—”

“Get over here, Sam. I will prove it in person.”

“Alright, well, I was already gonna be there this weekend so you can show me on Saturday, I guess.”

“I will. In the meantime, can you try to find out if there’s some company selling living creatures in toy machines somewhere? I wanna know the name of these jackasses.”

“Dude, I’m not Google.”

“No, but you’re better at it than I am.”

“I’ll have a look over lunch. See you later.”

“Yeah. Bye.”

****

 

Dean parallel parks on the curb outside the town police station, a small affair that shares the building with the “town hall” office on one side and the library on the other. The library, of course, contains a grand total of two rooms of books, almost entirely limited to dog-eared Stephen King novels and donated paperback romances with buxom ladies and Fabio on the cover. It’s a very small town.

“Hi, is this where I can report a, uh, a case of animal abuse?”

The lady at the desk looks up and frowns when she sees Dean cradling a single tiny angel dude in one hand. The angel blinks and waves at her. The others are still at home in the box with enough apple and water to keep them going for a while. He figured transporting one sample angel as proof would be easier than the whole mess of them.

She looks at the angel, and then her eyes dart up to meet Dean’s again.

“Is the animal in active danger?”

“Uhhh, some might be.”

“You want the Humane Society. We only respond if there’s immediate distress involved, like if you see someone beating a dog to death on the street. Starvation and more long-term forms of mistreatment go through the Humane Society.”

“Ok. Thanks.”

He starts to go, but stops when she says, “Sir—”

He turns back around. She’s dubiously eyeing the angel in his hand.

“You, uh, you aren’t asking for a dog or horse or something, are you? What is that?”

Dean can’t help but break into a smile, and he sets the little guy on her desk so she can get a better look.

“Damned if I know. That’s part of what I’m here about. I got him out of an airtight container in a dispenser at the bank. I’ve got about forty more at home.”

“It’s alive,” she says in wonder.

“I know. I’m worried there’s gonna be more of ‘em somewhere else in more machines, dying in the heat or starving or something. Bank doesn’t know what to do or where they came from.”

She holds out a finger to the little angel on the desk, and he looks at her with his big blue eyes, then reaches out and touches the tip. She wiggles her finger in response and he steps back before looking up at Dean fretfully.

“Dean!”

“It can talk!”

Dean smiles even wider and holds out his hand for the little guy to climb onto. He does so immediately, and then as soon as Dean brings the hand back to his torso, the angel flaps his wings hard and takes a leap for the breast pocket of his flannel. Dean and the lady at the desk both jump a little at the sudden lunge towards his face, but Dean holds still and lets the little guy continue his epic climb up Dean’s chest to his collar, where he holds on and settles down to sit on his shoulder.

The woman eyes him. “You comfortable with him right at your jugular like that?”

“Nah, it’s fine. We’re buds,” Dean says, and tilts his head a little in the angel’s direction. His stubble brushes against the top of the angel’s head, and he’s treated to a tiny squawk and two little hands pushing him away. He laughs.

“I put him in my shirt pocket here when I got in the car so I’d have my hands free for driving, and he decided he liked the driver’s view perch better, so it’s all good.”

“When did you find him?”

“About nine o’clock this morning.”

Her eyes widen. “Ok, well, I’ll ask around and see if anyone else has heard of these things showing up around town. You try the Humane Society. Maybe they’ll know who’s dumping them.”

“Alright. Thanks.”

****

 

Dean files a report with the Humane Society and goes back home to check on the rest of them and return his ride-along to his buddies.

He lowers the ride-along to the box and the others in there give him a welcoming hug. It looks like about half are missing, though. Dean frowns.

“Weren’t there like forty of you? What the hell—one, two… Twenty-nine. Where are the rest?”

He whirls, looking around the room in dismay. There’s one, now that he’s looking, climbing up the bookcase in the living room like it’s some kind of rock wall, making well-aimed leaps from book to shelf and flapping his tiny black wings like they’ll actually do some good holding up his chubby little body. Another is already at the top, wandering in and out of the potted ivy there.

“How the hell did you – crap, you’re jumpers. I should’ve put a lid on the box.”

Dean steps toward them, then hesitates because if there are another nine or so wandering around underfoot somewhere, he really really doesn’t want to squish them. Just the thought of- ugh – little… guts and… yeah, don’t visualize that. Just step carefully and carry on.

Walking slowly on tiptoe, he makes it over to the bookcase and plucks his little escapees off their perches to stow them squeaking in his breast pocket together while he searches for more. He finds another under the dining room table and lifts him up in one hand. It would probably have helped if he could remember how many of the damn things there were originally.

He carries the three back over to the box and puts them in, lowering himself halfway to sit on the couch and then aborting the motion as the image of burrowing angels between the couch cushions crosses his mind. He settles on his knees on the carpet instead.

“I don’t guess you guys know where the rest of your buds are, do you?” he asks in consternation.

The whole box of angels turns and looks at him in one perfectly choreographed movement. It’s a little creepy. Little hands come up and point in various directions around the house. Excellent.

He sighs.

“Right. Please stay in there. You got enough food and water?”

There are nods in the little crowd – they are seriously understanding him, awesome – and some of them go to sit down with their little knees drawn up in a group in the corner.

“How many of you are missing?”

“Eleven!” They all reply over the top of each other. Dean blinks in surprise. That is a shockingly straight answer from a species he didn’t even know could talk. That is, obviously they were able to repeat his name and stuff, but shit.

“Do you, uh, do you guys need anything else in there while I look for your brothers?”

The angels are all staring at him now, even the ones curled up in the corner who were half asleep, and they all start flexing and vibrating their little wings at the same time. After about a minute of tiny, shivering feathers and steady, blue-eyed stares, the ones in front all solemnly shake their heads in answer.

“…Ok, then,” Dean says, vaguely weirded out.

He gets up and brings them a clean towel from the kitchen anyway – no reason the sleepers in there shouldn’t have something soft to curl up in – and resumes the search for the missing eleven.

 

****

 

By the time Friday morning rolls around, he isn’t even bothering to search anymore.

There’s no keeping them in the box, and no keeping track of how many are where at any given time. They’re all jumpers now, they hardly seem to sleep, and Dean still has to go in to work every day, during which time the most he can do is make sure there are no poisonous cleaning chemicals left lying around and hope for the best.

They talk nonstop, little one- and two-word sentences – “Dean,” “Banana,” “Jump,” and his favorite thus far, “Call Sam,” in response to a rhetorical question about how he’s supposed to figure out how to undo all the setting changes they’ve made on the TV remote if they can’t even tell him how they got the menu to display in German in the first place. They get into everything, explore all his things, learn to work the phone, the laptop, the microwave – that one makes him nervous because he can just imagine one little dude locking himself inside out of curiosity while his buds on the outside nuke him. They’re smart, they’re learning, and they remember what they learn.

They may know a little too much, in fact.

It’s been three days since he rescued them, and while he can’t say for sure because they all look identical, he’s getting the impression that any one thing seen or heard by one of them is pretty much instantly communicated to the rest. It’s just too strange how he can be changing the oil in his car outside, tell the nearest angel he’s going in real quick for his cell phone, walk into his bedroom at the other end of the house and have a completely different angel already there and pointing to where he left it.

He’s experimented with it a few times, asked an angel in the laundry room if they want to help him get the ramen ready for lunch, and then gone into the kitchen to find two ramen packets already on their way to the stove, four pairs of little angel feet barely visible underneath. He tells one angel in the backyard that his favorite color is blue, and then goes inside to ask another angel what they think his favorite color is: the answer is blue. It’s clear they have some kind of frequency they’re communicating on beyond what he can see and hear. He wonders if it involves their wings. They seem to vibrate all at once whenever the angels are gathered in large enough groups.

“It could be like a transceiver or something,” he says to Sam on the phone while he’s on his lunch break at the garage. “Angel radio. It’s like telepathy.”

“I dunno, Dean. That seems a little out there, don’t you think?”

“They’re tiny little creatures, man. A whole new species. I can’t find a damn thing about them online, and no one I’ve talked to has seen or heard of ‘em before. Who knows what’s normal for them?”

“Yeah, but telepathy?”

“I’m telling you, it’s eerie. This morning, I got up, asked the general community I’ve got living there now if any of them wanted any coffee, and every head in the room turned to me and said, in perfect unison, ‘Coffee is bad for you, Dean.’”

“That’s ridiculous. Coffee has plenty of proven health benefits.”

“You’re not getting it. I think I’m dealing with a friggin’ hive mind, man. Damn terrifying. I’m scared to go home.”

“Well, I’ll be there in the morning tomorrow around eleven. Is that good enough? You can show me all their psychic tricks then.”

 

****

 

Sam arrives on time the next day, and Dean calls a group meeting which they all seem to show up to for once for introductions.

“This is my brother Sam. And this is… these are all the little angels.”

“You guys have individual names?” Sam asks the group of tiny people scattered over the kitchen counter, the stovetop, and the windowsill.

They all just blink at him with their big blue eyes.

“Guess not, then.”

“Yeah, but watch this. What do you wanna eat, guys?”

There’s a wave of vibration in the forty or so pairs of wings gathered in the kitchen, a pulse that starts somewhere in the center of the group and then spreads out to the furthest outliers in a visible swell and settle.

“Burgers,” they all say in one harmonic voice. Sam raises his eyebrows, impressed.

“Hive mind. Got it.”

Two of the ones on the counter closest to Dean tug at his sleeve until he flattens his hand into a platform for them and lifts them enough that they can climb to his shoulders. Despite what he said on the phone about finding them creepy, he’s gotten used to having them for company, two or three friendly observers wherever he goes. They stay relatively quiet and behave pretty well when he takes them on grocery runs and the like, and they don’t seem to resent each other or fight for the spot when he says he can only bring along just one. Maybe they all just tune in to psychic frequency eight or whatever to keep up with whoever’s on ride-along.

“Couch is pulled out and set up for you. If you use the bathroom, make sure you shoo everybody out first – you’ll end up with peepers if you don’t announce yourself and give ‘em a minute to get out of there. Learned that the hard way.”

“How many are there?”

“Forty-three. But at any given time, I’d say maybe ten are in the living room, four in the kitchen, four in the dining room. They walk around a lot, switch places, but the general distribution around the house stays pretty steady. Except when it’s nice out. Then everybody moves to the back yard.”

“Oh.”

“Who’s up for a walk?”

A dozen little hands go up in the crowd, and Dean picks a couple from the counter to settle on Sam’s shoulders, and one more for his shirt pocket. Sam looks a little uncomfortable, but bears it well.

“Off we go.”

 

****

 

Sam stays for a few days and uses his amazing research skills to find absolutely nothing to help them find out where the angels came from, and nothing about any other angels showing up anywhere else. But he does determine, finally, that the bank that originally had them hasn’t had a contract with any dispenser refill company at all since 1995. Wherever they came from, the bank hadn’t agreed to any of it.

Eventually the time to say goodbye comes, and Monday morning finds Dean and three of the angels at the departures terminal to wave at Sam as he heads back to California.

When he gets back home and hands his three ride-alongs down to some of their waiting friends on the dining room table, he has to pause and do a double-take.

“Wait a minute. Stand next to each other.”

He scoots one of the newly returned next to one of the others and gets a little “Dean!” of indignation at the manhandling before he goes down on his knees for an eye-level view.

He’s not imagining it. The one on the right is just a smidge bigger.

“Huh. And here I thought you little guys were all identical.”

“Not little,” says the littler one.

“I say this with love, buddy, but you’re pretty dinky.”

He gets a glare from the little squirt and a look of raw affection from his marginally larger brother, which is about par for the course. Despite the occasional twilight-zone hive mind thing, they usually vary pretty wildly on emotion and attention at any given moment. Maybe a quarter of them don’t pay any attention to him at all and only want to read books or lie around and sleep all day. Which, yeah, they can read too – go figure.

But now that he’s found out they’re not all exactly identical after all, he’s starting to wonder if it’s the same ones doing the same thing each day, or even they really switch places with each other as much as he suspects they do. To experiment, he gets a couple of colored markers out of drawer and sees how many angels he can round up between the living room, dining room, and kitchen.

“Ok,” he says when he has a group of about fifteen on the table in front of him. “We’re gonna play a little game. It’s called Help-Dean-Figure-Out-Who’s-Who. Who wants to go first?”

He gets a willing wave from one of the bigger ones (now he’s noticing their size) and makes a little red ‘X’ on the back of the angel’s hand, then swaps out the red pen for a green one and repeats the process on the next angel. Pretty soon, all fifteen angels are marked with a variety of colors and X’s, O’s, and 5-pointed star designs on their hands like little county fair goers.

“There we go. Now you run around like you usually do for the next couple of days, and see if I can start to recognize you without checking the marks. Go on.”

He stands up and lets them run off to do their thing.

The next few days follow a familiar pattern, and he doesn’t make a lot of progress on the angel recognition front. Dean goes to work in the morning, comes home late afternoon, and tries to make guesses as to who’s who while he fixes dinner for the gang and sets up to watch TV. He gets it right maybe 10% of the time, and that’s only because once he’s glimpsed the mark on one of them, he has a pretty good idea of the area they’re hanging out in for the next few hours.

It does help him confirm that they move and swap out from room to room every now and then, though. He starts doing headcounts, and realizes that room numbers tend to swell when he sets up to stay in a room for a while. They like to congregate en masse around the couch when he sits down to watch his medical dramas, and likewise migrate to the kitchen in higher numbers when he’s working on a more complicated snack.

That’s why it takes him so long to notice when some of the smaller angels start disappearing.

“I haven’t seen Green Star around for a while. Did one of you blank ones wash your star off?” Dean asks the group clustered over his knees and lap one night, lying on the couch with his feet on the coffee table.

There’s another angel on his head, actually in his hair, and it keeps coughing and gagging like his hair’s getting in its mouth, which is kinda cute but more worrisome when he thinks about the possibility of angel vomit in his hair. A tentative hand going up to remove him is met with a shrill “No!” and a bat at the offending digits, however, so he lets the little guy gag in peace.

“Seriously, guys, where’s Green Star?”

The whole crowd is giving him their full attention suddenly. The TV might as well be on Mars for all the notice it’s getting. He shifts uncomfortably under the silent stare.

“Ok, I think it’s time for another role call. C’mon. I don’t wanna find out the neighbor’s cat’s been picking you off after ten of you are missing, and I’m the schmuck who didn’t notice. Call your brothers in here. We’re doing a head count.”

A few more angels start to trickle into the den over the next ten minutes or so, but far fewer than he’d expected. He starts to grow more alarmed as the minutes continue to pass and no more angels show up.

He does a headcount, and then does it again to make sure. Shit. Shit shit shit. He’s missing twelve.

“Where are the others?”

No answer.

“I know this isn’t everyone. Where are the others?”

“No others,” pipes one of the littler angels in front. They all look at him with their big trusting eyes.

Seriously, that can’t be right. Increasingly desperate, he does yet another headcount, and asks them to call their buddies again. None of them are moving, and no more are coming in.

He’s missing twelve angels.

He’s down to thirty-one from an original forty-three. What kind of terrible angel owner is he? To not even notice when twelve of them go missing? God, he was joking about the cat, but what if that’s really happened? He’s been letting them follow him outside, to the backyard, to the driveway when he works on the car, anywhere except Bobby’s garage, and he hasn’t been keeping track of them at all around the house. What if he locked some of them outside overnight without realizing it? What if ran one of them over with his car, oh god… He visualizes the little popped body with guts spilling out and nearly gets sick.

“Ok, ok,” he says, getting a grip on his stomach. “Here’s what we’re gonna do, ok, guys? I’m gonna number you off, and we’re doing a check-in before bed each night. No more wandering around on wild adventures on your own. We’re doing regular headcounts, and we’re instituting a buddy system.”

He gets a ballpoint pen from the kitchen and proceeds to number each angel on the back of his trenchcoat, where he figures the ink is least likely to wash off.

Once they’re numbered from one to thirty-one, he pairs them up, odds and evens, and put the extra angel into a group of three.

“That’s your buddy from now on, alright? Stick with your buddy. And we’re doing a group search of the yard tomorrow, first thing once the sun’s up.”

He opens up the towel cabinet in the bathroom where a lot of them like to sleep and makes sure all are settled for the night before getting a flashlight and going outside by himself to search on his own. He doesn’t think he’ll be able to sleep knowing there might be lost or injured angels out here somewhere anyway. He really hopes he doesn’t come across any little bodies.

By 1:00 AM, he’s searched the entire front and back of the house three times, the inside of the car twice, and even gone calling quietly up and down the neighborhood with no luck at all. There’s not a single angel to be found.

 

****

 

Over the next few days, the situation gets worse and worse. He’s doing a nightly headcount now, and each day, the count reveals a loss of about two or three more angels. And it’s not the big ones that are disappearing. The littlest, most vulnerable ones are the ones he can’t find.

He loses sleep every night, calling and searching through the house and garden for lost or injured little guys, or even hopefully a body at this point – at least it might help him determine where they’re disappearing to – but there isn’t a trace of them anywhere.

The buddy system isn’t working worth shit. Angels come back without their partners and with no answers as to where their buddy is. Dean can ask for them by number and none of them know.

What’s worse, Dean’s starting to develop a sick, horrible suspicion about where they’re all ending up, and he really doesn’t want to believe it could be true.

But the inescapable fact of the matter is, with the numbers he’s been better able to keep track of who’s who among the group, and he knows for a fact that for every little angel that disappears, one of the other little angels gets bigger.

He’s heartbroken when he finally calls Sammy.

“They’re eating each other,” he says into the phone as soon as his brother picks up, voice cracking with guilt and grief. “My babies…”

“Ok, one,” Sam says, trying to catch up. “They’re not your babies; they’re weird little mystery creatures you purchased out of a toy machine, and two – what do you mean, they’re eating each other? Are you talking angel cannibalism?”

“I guess,” Dean sighs, dropping his face into his hands. “I mean, the little ones disappear overnight or while I’m at work, and the others just keep getting bigger—”

“Have you seen them do it?”

“No—”

“You found, um, remains?”

“No, I can’t find a damn trace of them.”

“So this alleged cannibalism, this is based entirely on the growth of the survivors.”

“They’re twice the size they were to start with! I swear, Sammy, you wouldn’t believe it if you saw them now. One of them’s up to the height of my work boots.”

“They getting fatter?”

“No, just—taller, like bigger in general. Like they’re looking less cutesy, more like elves, or sprites, or little trenchcoated Ken dolls or something. Still cute, just…”

“More proportioned.”

“Maybe, yeah.”

“Ok, that sounds like actual growth, not just weight gain. You’re still feeding them, right? How do you know they aren’t just growing naturally, and you just also coincidentally lost some of them?”

“I just coincidentally lost twenty-one angels? Over the course of two weeks? And not a single clue about any of them?”

“Twenty-one – shit, that’s a lot, Dean.”

“I know! And they won’t tell me where their brothers are. And fuck, Sam, they talk better all the time. I know they understand what I’m asking. One of them told me to ‘bring an umbrella because the weather forecaster said it’s going to rain’ this morning. He said I’d get mold in the impala if I kept getting in with my clothes all damp. Which is bullshit, obviously, but the fact that he said it at all—”

“Ok, ok, yeah, this doesn’t look good on the cannibal angel front. Uhhh, you sure these guys are safe for you to have running loose around the house like that? I don’t mean for each other, I mean for you. Do they bite?”

“What? Hell, no. Sam—”

“I mean, they’re cute and all, and they seemed really friendly with you, but then they seemed really friendly with each other, too, so – Maybe it’s time to call animal services, have ‘em picked up and let the professionals categorize them or something.”

“No! They aren’t animals.”

“…You just accused them of eating each other.”

“I know, it doesn’t make sense. I’m so confused about this, Sam, honestly…”

“Ok, well, maybe you should set up a video camera and keep them in a pen overnight, see if you can actually confirm whether it’s happening. At least then you’ll know.”

Dean’s quiet for a second.

“Yeah, that’s a good idea. I mean, I really don’t wanna see ‘em do it, if that’s actually what they’re doing, but yeah. Better to know.”

“Let me know how it goes.”

“Ok. Thanks, Sam.”

 

****

 

Dean sets up his laptop on the coffee table with the sleep function turned off and the camera on, pointed at the angels which he’s corralled into a kind of towel nest walled in by the tipped over dining room table, the recliner with a pillow wedged firmly underneath, and an old door that he dug up in the garage.

Their wings aren’t growing with the rest of them, and they’re a little too heavy to jump very high now, each about the size of a housecat, so he’s not much worried about them getting out. He points a warning finger at the lot of them anyway, and shoots then a stern look.

“Now I want you to stay in there all together until morning, ok? Nothing I do seems to be working so far, but I’m gonna figure out how to protect you no matter what.”

They look up at him with those big, loving eyes again and say in solemn unison, “Thank you, Dean.”

He rubs the back of his neck.

“Well, don’t thank me ‘til I figure out what’s eatin’ you. Or if you’re eating you, ‘til I… figure out how to stop that. Jesus.”

He’s asked them already, asked directly on the third day of missing angels, “Are you guys eating each other?” and they’d all smiled at him happily and answered with a clear “No.” So he’s really banking on that being true as he sets up the video recording program now. He really, really doesn’t want to see angel cannibalism if it’s not.

“Ok. I’m going to be on the couch right over here, so if something comes to get you, scream and wake me up.”

They’ve tried him staying awake and watching all night. Nothing came. Then he fell asleep during the day and sometime during his two-hour nap, he lost three more angels. Since then he’s been chugging the coffee to cut down on sleep and taking them in a box with him to work, and it’s slowed the rate a little bit. But staying awake forever is really not a workable solution.

Of course, he’s down to ten angels now, so if he doesn’t figure out something soon, it won’t matter much longer anyway.

He doesn’t think he’ll ever forgive himself for the other thirty-three.

Midnight comes and goes, then one o’clock, then two and three, and despite his week-long sleep deprivation experiment, he doesn’t think he can drift off knowing that the moment he does, another two angels will be ended. He keeps resetting the video so he doesn’t waste the space. Eventually, though, nature overcomes, and he passes out, still dreaming of keeping watch.

 

****

 

It’s Saturday afternoon, and he never set his alarm. The sun is coming through the back windows right in his eyes, and that’s what finally brings him back to the world of the living. The first thing he does is bolt upright on the couch and check the furniture enclosure.

Seven angels.

Seven left of ten.

Each is looking proportionally closer and closer to an adult human, three of them already past knee height.

He buries his face in his hands.

A couple of minutes of regulated breathing, and he gets up to let them loose to go scrounge food for themselves in the kitchen – they can all open cupboards and the refrigerator by now – while he checks the video on the laptop.

Miraculously, nothing went wrong in the recording and he’s able to turn it off and let the laptop process the entire ten hour video. He makes coffee, nukes a frozen burrito, and waits out the progress bar.

When the video is saved in its entirety, he opens it up and with a breath to brace himself, hits play.

Nothing’s happening, of course, since the first part of the video was all taken while he was still falling asleep, but he clicks ahead to a point when there are eight, and then, backing up, nine little messy angel heads in the screen, and starts the video just before then.

What he sees is not cannibalism. He’s not entirely sure it’s better, but at least it’s not that.

Angels 4 and 30 are cuddled up next to each other in the towel nests, heads lolled together as they snooze peacefully. Gradually, while Dean watches over the space of about a minute and a half, their heads drift slowly closer, and closer, and then it seems kind of wrong, like maybe there can’t really be enough space for both of their heads to be where they’re positioned like that, and then their right and left eyebrows and eyes merge, and Dean nearly drops his burrito.

They’re melting into each other. It’s like watching one of those science documentaries where a cell splits, but in reverse. They’re combining, clothes and all, into one larger, otherwise identical angel, and redistributing the additional mass.

Jesus.

Ok.

No, but Jesus.

This just raises about a billion more questions than he had to begin with. The most urgent being ‘Is this what they’re supposed to be doing or have I messed them up somehow,’ and somewhat less urgent but decidedly more compelling, ‘What the fuck is the deal with their clothes?’ Because really, strange angel biology, ok – they’re obviously some kind of rare new species or alien or maybe they were cooked up in a lab somewhere, by evil scientist masterminds who work at a gumball dispenser company or something, but their clothes are part of them, too? What’s that mean when they take them off? ‘Cause he’s seen them do that, on occasion, to dry off or play. What if he’d happened to throw out a hole-y angel sock or something? What would that have done? Are the clothes alive, too? What the fuck are these things?

As soon as he thinks it, he feels guilty. Not things, obviously. People. Tiny angel people, working on the process of being not so tiny.

Which kind of gives him a new angle on this whole thing.

He goes out to the dining room, where six of them are together eating toast at the table, which they can just reach by standing upright on the chairs. The seventh comes in with a carton of orange juice and smiles at Dean.

“Is everything ok, Dean?”

He’s noticed that their voices aren’t so much peeps anymore, but more like you might expect from a teen whose voice had recently broke. That part of them’s been growing up, too.

He sits down in the chair opened for him by angels 14 and 26, who are now sitting on the table instead, swinging their legs.

“What’s gonna happen when you finish getting bigger?” he asks them for the first time. All seven immediately break out into identical, perfectly timed smiles at exactly the same moment. It occurs to him that he’s thinking of them as one unit now, and maybe he should’ve been doing that from the first. One angel in many parts, not forty-three different beings. This is damn weird.

“We’re going to stay with you. You’re wonderful, Dean.”

Number 26 chimes in from the table. “You saved us.”

“Nah, I didn’t…” he trails off, uncomfortable and uncertain. He doesn’t feel like he saved them – him – it? For weeks, he’s been beating himself up, feeling increasingly awful that he was failing them, letting them get killed or eaten or worse. Changing tracks out of the guilt he’s carrying isn’t something that’s easy to do.

“Will there be just one of you, in the end?”

“Yes,” they all say in unison.

“One of me and one of you,” adds number 30.

 

****

 

One fully-finished, adult male angel turns out to be six feet of tanned skin and muscle, chiseled facial features, and just enough scruff to give Dean Harrison Ford fantasies.

The big blue eyes, perpetually messy dark hair, and tiny little original-size wings remain the same.

“What’s the deal with your wings, dude? They’re still bite-sized,” Dean says that first morning when there’s only one angel left in his house. “Are they attached to your back or to your coat?”

It’s weird, but other than the few times the littlest angels got spontaneously naked, Dean’s never seen the guy without his permanent uniform. It’s fair to say he has questions.

“I haven’t checked,” answers the angel. Curiosity piqued, he positions himself with his back to the mirror by the front door and peers over his shoulder, wiggling the little wings.

“Take your coat off,” Dean suggests, and then tries to pretend his face isn’t getting warm as the angel begins to strip, taking off first the coat, then the jacket underneath, and then his white button up without further prompting. I’m like a scientist, Dean thinks to himself furiously. This is scientific curiosity about a new species.

The angel keeps checking his back in the mirror after each layer, flapping the tiny thumb-sized wings experimentally. The fabric he’s removed doesn’t have holes in it, but somehow the wings were able to go through.

“It appears they grow out of my back,” he determines with a solemn nod.

“Cool. Uh, what about your jackets and stuff? They a part of you?”

This is perhaps the weirdest conversation Dean’s ever had.

The angel narrows his eyes at the bundle draped over the nearest armchair, considering them.

“No. Their purpose is done.” He raises his eyes to Dean, who freezes in the beam of those brilliant blues. “Can I borrow some regular clothes, please?”

They get him suited up in a pair of Dean’s looser jeans with the hems rolled up a smidge, and an old tee and flannel. The shirts go over the wings without any special magic pass-through surprises, and it turns out the wings are small enough to be practically invisible when the angel folds them up neatly under his clothes. You might notice a tiny bump between his shoulder blades if he reached forward and strained his clothing, but nothing that would stand out normally.

“You, uh, you got a name, or should I just keep calling you angel 30?”

“Castiel.”

“Castiel. Great. Uh, welcome to… adulthood, I guess.”

“Thank you.”

Cas’ voice, in its final form, is low, gravelly. It does something to Dean’s insides.

“So now you’re all powered up or whatever, you got plans? Somewhere to… something you gotta do? I mean, not human, right? You’re clearly… You seem to know some things, instinctually or whatever. You got another chrysalis form, or migration or something…?” He knows he’s rambling, but he can’t stop. “I mean, it would help if I knew what to expect. If you’re going on a trip or something, we can get you geared up—”

“I told you,” Cas says, putting a hand on Dean’s shoulder, steady gaze cutting right through into Dean’s soul. “I’m staying with you. This is the only place I need to be.”

“Well, ok then,” Dean says, strangely relieved.

 

****

 

Sam wants to see Cas’ final form, so he books another round trip flight from California.

Cas is being his usual tactile self, draping an arm over Dean’s shoulders, using a hand on Dean’s knee to leverage himself up from the couch, wrapping an arm around Dean’s waist as they stand way too close together, and checking Dean’s pockets himself for the keys to the impala when Sam realizes he forgot one of his bags in the car.

As soon as the front door shuts behind the angel on his way out to retrieve the bag, Sam rounds on his older brother.

“What the hell, man?”

“What?” Dean feints, trying not to blush.

“Are you and the angel…?”

“No! What? No, c’mon, Sam… Get your mind out of the gutter. He’s not- that’s just- he’s just used to it, that’s all. Used to riding around on my shoulders and hanging out in my pockets ‘n stuff. You know that. You carried him around, too!”

Sam raises a dubious eyebrow. “And is he still hanging out in your pockets, Dean?”

Dean blushes harder. “No! He’s not—he’s not groping me, dude… jesus!”

“Uh-huh.”

“He’s not human, ok? And he was all small and cutesy hardly a week ago. He’s still learning what’s normal for full-sized people. He’ll back off as he gets used to it.”

 

****

 

Dean’s kept awake wondering if Cas will back off as he gets used to it.

They only have Dean’s bed and the pull-out couch, which Cas has been sleeping on since he outgrew the towel nest, but Sam’s the size of a moose so he ends up with the entire couch to himself, and Cas and Dean retreat to his bedroom to split the bed.

The angel strips off without a second thought as soon as they’re in the room together and crawls into the bed in just Dean’s boxers, out like a light the moment his head hits the pillow.

Dean takes longer just to unfreeze himself by the door and eventually get down to a pair of PJ pants and a T-shirt. He slides into the sheets like a ninja, afraid to make a sound, and then positions himself on his back as far away from Cas as possible, lying rigid and staring up at the ceiling like he’s trying to burn a hole through it.

There’s no point in closing his eyes when it won’t help him ignore the six feet of beautiful already lightly snoring next to him.

It’s fucked up. He’s feeling very confused, and that’s as far as he wants to analyze it. The angels, plural, were his babies, in a weird fucked up way. He felt protective of them, then kinda scared of them and freaked out, then awful about failing them, and now, now— he doesn’t even know. There’s this full-grown, adult man lying here in bed with him, and he’s affectionate and friendly and easygoing and already completely familiar with everything there is to know about Dean’s home and lifestyle, and he’s undeniably smokin’ hot.

But Cas doesn’t know what Dean’s thinking about him when he wraps his arm around Dean’s waist as they sit on the couch watching TV, and to Cas, Dean’s still that one nice guy who pulled him out of a quarter-operated toy dispenser at the local bank.

He’s not human. He can’t possibly understand. And in a way, Dean’s like his guardian. To even think about anything else is just wrong.

But all the same, he can’t help clinging to affection where he can get it.

Cas rolls over in his sleep, murmurs something in that deep, grumbly voice of his about changing channels on the TV, snuggles closer and buries his face into the junction between the bed and Dean’s arm.

This is enough, Dean thinks. As long as he doesn’t go away, if this is what he continues to give me, I can be happy. I can stay happy as long as there’s this.

 

****

 

Months go by, and Dean continues to work at the garage and come to Cas on the evenings and weekends. Cas doesn’t have a social security number, so he can’t get a legal job, but he takes up hobbies to fill the time, and discovers a particular talent for gardening. He transforms Dean’s small front yard into a garden worthy of one of those magazines you find in doctors’ offices. Enough people see it and ask for Cas’ help off the books that pretty soon, he’s running his own small-scale, unofficial landscaping business. As long as they don’t get picked up by the IRS for tax evasion, they’re fine, and no one in town cares about that.

Cas mostly uses singular pronouns to refer to himself these days, but occasionally he forgets and slips back into the royal ‘we,’ and Dean and his friends like to tease him for it.

Dean is happier than he’s ever been.

The only downside is this ever-present sub-layer of guilt because despite what Dean said to Sam that first weekend, Cas hasn’t ever backed off with the excessive touching and Dean still hasn’t explained to him how it gets perceived. In fact, most of the people around town who don’t know Cas’ origins assume he and Dean are together, like together together, based on the way they’re all over each other in public. And Dean feels bad because he’s been encouraging it, hugging Cas back over little things, holding his hand when they go to the Blackberry Festival, and so on.

They go to the Roadhouse once a week, and Ellen gives him a warning eye when she sees them walk in with Dean’s hand at the small of Cas’ back, because she knows more than most about their whole strange situation, and Dean just swallows and lets his hand drop casually as they head for their favorite booth. Her disapproval kinda kills the mood for him, but he needs it, needs the reminder so he doesn’t get carried away. Cas isn’t human. Dean can’t forget that and read his body language the same way.

Ellen must have blabbed about Cas’ background to Jo, because one day, the confident young bartender slips into the other side of the booth from where Dean and Cas are sitting side by side and gives him a vicious little grin.

“You gotta tell me how to find one of these magic candy machines, Winchester,” she whistles, making eyes at Dean’s hand on Cas’ knee. “I wanna raise me a perfect boyfriend, too. Maybe 6’4”, broad shoulders, one that can cook.”

Dean removes his hand and glares at her.

“We’re friends. I didn’t raise him.”

“Sure you did. What the hell else would you call it? You trained yourself a kept man.”

“Kept man?” Cas asks, confused. Dean seethes.

“He’s not a kept man! Fuck off, Jo!”

“So you aren’t sleeping together?”

“We’re not! Not that it’s your freakin’ business.”

“Everyone thinks you are. C’mon, Dean, what do you think it looks like? You’re walking around with your hands all over ‘im, and you purchased the guy for twenty dollars. ‘Kept man’ is the nicest thing I could call it.”

Dean turns a very dark shade of red and gets up from the booth with a conscious effort not to tug on Cas’ sleeve.

“C’mon, Cas, we’re going somewhere else for dinner.”

“Does he own you, Cas? I mean, no offense, but be honest.”

“Dammit, Jo!”

“What does she mean, own? I don’t understand. How can a person own another living being?”

“We’re going, Cas!”

With a dark look at Jo and Ellen, Dean storms out into the darkness of the parking lot, followed closely by Cas, who’s wearing one of Dean’s other jackets because they’ve still never bought him any clothes of his own. Fuck.

Cas comes up behind him and wraps his arm around Dean’s waist. Dean jumps and pushes it away.

“Dean?”

Cas looks hurt. Dean takes two deliberate steps away from him and forces himself to ignore it.

“Just get in the car.”

Cas has the keys because Dean was planning on doing a fair amount of drinking tonight, and like everything else, Cas learned to drive perfectly with about a single day of practice. He can’t get a license, since he has no birth certificate or state-issued ID, but then neither is it legal for him to run an under-the-table business without paying taxes or to fake Dean’s signature when he uses his credit cards. Eventually, Dean reminds himself with a sigh, they should probably work out how to get Cas some kind of legal documentation.

They slide in, Cas in the driver’s seat and Dean in the passenger. He expects Cas to start the car, but instead the angel just looks at him, concerned, and reaches out to rub a consoling hand over Dean’s thigh and knee. Dean jumps like he’s been stung and shoves the arm away.

“Stop, Cas!”

“Why? You’re upset and I don’t understand why.”

“I’m not—it’s—you can’t keep touching me like that, ok? I shoulda told you that before and I didn’t, and I’m sorry.”

“Why not? Because of what Jo said? No one else cares what we do.”

“I care. I care, ok?”

“I thought you liked it.”

“I-I-I… It doesn’t matter. That’s not the point. That’s—That kind of touching is for lovers. That’s why. Not friends.”

Cas frowns, a deep furrow between his serious brows. “Dean. We are lovers.”

“What? What the hell, dude. No, we aren’t!”

“But I love you.”

Dean’s mouth opens and closes noiselessly. He thinks he might die from lack of oxygen if he doesn’t start breathing again. “Like a friend! In a friend way!” he finally squeaks.

“In every way,” Cas says solemnly.

“Dude, no, that’s—you can’t, Cas.”

“Why not?”

“Because you were like a—I was—this—It’s not healthy!”

Cas blinks in surprise, and then starts to get angry. “How is it not healthy for two consenting adults to find happiness in each other?”

“Because you’re like, six months old!”

“I am not human, Dean. This is my adult stage.”

“I know!”

“Do you think of me as a pet?”

“What?”

“Do you think I’m a pet, like Jo said?”

“Dude! No!” Dean says in horror. “You’re a person!”

“If we are two equals, and we live together, and love each other, and touch each other as lovers do, then we are lovers!”

“We’re not—” Dean forces the words out, “—having sex, Cas!”

“Then maybe we should!”

“Well, maybe I don’t want to!”

Cas pulls back, silent. Dean can’t see his face clearly in the darkness, but he feels it all the same like a pall over the whole car. Cas is crushed.

Dean can’t deal with this.

“Go home without me. I’m getting a drink.”

He opens the door and climbs out faster than he can gracefully manage, slamming the door behind him without a glance back.

 

****

 

Three hours later finds Dean stumbling drunkenly along the dirt bike path through Skinner’s Woods Park, some six acres of public land that happens to lie directly between Bugsy’s bar and the neighborhood he and Cas call home. He could’ve gone back into the Roadhouse, but he’s damned if he ever sets foot in that place again, not until Jo apologizes for what she said, never if it turns out that the resulting argument in the car has led to Cas leaving him.

Because he suspects that it will. Or has, already. It’s been long enough for Cas to get home, pack his things – some of Dean’s things, Dean never bought him his own things – crap, Dean is a shitty non-boyfriend.

A shitty non-boyfriend who refuses to even sleep with him despite really, really wanting to.

If Dean were Cas, Dean would’ve left Dean’s ass by now.

Long before now.

Shit.

He’s so messed up.

As he weaves his way along the narrow dirt path, smashing into bushes and prickly bramble patches that he can’t quite make out in the darkness of – what, it’s gotta be 2:00, maybe 3:00 AM by now?—he nearly misses the river until he’s right on top of it.

The dirt path opens into a clearing here, the one place where it’s well lit by electric lights 24/7 despite the fact that the park is presumably closed after dark, because the city doesn’t want anyone falling in.

There’s a wide pedestrian bridge that crosses the river at this point. Dean steps out onto it, watching his shadow keep pace before him, and then stops in the center directly between the two streetlights at either end and looks out over the darkness of the water.

He leans over the waist-high railing, probably farther than he should given that he’s definitely plenty wasted right now, and stares into the rushing black below. It looks like the emptiness of space. Only with more noise. And cold mist.

He should call Cas. Maybe it isn’t too late. Maybe he can still apologize, explain that it isn’t what it sounded like – he just means to protect him, and taking advantage of the guy when he’s, he’s all—inexperienced in the world, and when he trusts Dean—well, no one should really trust Dean that much, that right there is enough evidence that Cas doesn’t really know enough about what he’s doing—

Pulling the cell out of his pocket, Dean fumbles it over the water and lets it slip. He lunges to catch it, forgetting for a second where he is, and the railing isn’t tall enough to stop his momentum carrying him over.

He falls.

Shit.

He hits the water fifteen, maybe twenty feet below the bridge, and just barely avoids a neck injury. Worse, he can’t even tell which way is up. The current sends him tumbling, sinking and spinning off rocks and logs and who knows what else, at a way faster rate than he would’ve expected looking at it from above. When he finally gets his head above water enough for one desperate, wet gasp of air before he’s submerged again, he catches only a glimpse of the streetlights marking the bridge he fell from. It’s already more than a hundred yards away.

He’s tumbled under again, nose and mouth flooding with river water as he hits something hard with his back and the air is knocked out of him.

He claws through the water for something, anything to grab onto, to stop the constant spinning and give him a chance to climb out. It crosses his mind with a weird sort of drunken numbness-to-terror that he’s most likely going to die now.

Then a hand grabs his wrist and he’s being pulled from the water.

In one hard, smooth motion, he’s yanked out and up, up ten feet or more above the rapids, coughing and gasping and flying through the air and then WHAM—he hits a tree and he feels what’s definitely going to turn out to be several long, deep, bleeding scratches across his face and left arm as he bounces off, is jostled out of the grasp on his wrist and falls a good seven feet or so to some prickly brush covering the ground.

The noise of his rescuer tumbling nearby, squawking and crashing wildly through the bushes to get back to him barely registers over his dire need for air, and he breathes hard, rolling over onto his stomach to vomit up the mouthfuls of river water he’d accidently swallowed.

A hand pats his back and rubs circles between his shoulder blades as a silhouette kneels down next to him in the brush, warm and breathing nearly as hard, heart-poundingly familiar.

“Cas?” Dean chokes out once he’s recovered enough for basic speech.

“You’re injured,” says the angel. “I can’t see how bad it is in the dark like this.”

“Not as bad as drowning woulda been,” Dean breathes out, and laughs. “Shit, man, am I glad to see you. How did you find me?”

“I followed you.”

“From the bar?”

“From the Roadhouse. The car is still parked there. I waited outside on a bench while you were in Bugsy’s.”

“Fuck, dude, I was in there for hours.”

“It was a long wait.”

Dean closes his eyes and breathes some more. All he wants to do is curl up into the angel sitting next to him, regardless of how bad he knows he’s screwed up. He settles for bending his head nearer and resting his forehead on the man’s shoulder. Cas wraps his arms around Dean’s back and rubs the back of his head.

“I’m sorry.”

“I know. You were muttering about how sorry you were all through your trek through the woods.”

“Yeah, but this time I’m saying it to you.”

He lifts his head a little and the hold on him gets tighter, like Cas is afraid to let him go.

“How did you…” Dean begins.

“Pull you out?”

“Yeah.”

“I was surprised myself. I saw you go in, and panicked. Then I just flew.”

“You flew? How?”

“With my wings.”

“Cas, your wings are maybe, maybe two centimeters long.”

“They grew.”

This time Dean does pull back and Cas lets him. He squints into the darkness. It’s still hard to make out anything but a vague shape, but shape is enough – Cas has two massive, full sized angel wings half-folded behind him, feathers trailing over both their legs.

Dean reaches out and strokes one. It’s solid, surprisingly thick and warm.

“Holy shit.”

“Yes.”

“You really flew.”

“Not very well. But effectively.”

“No kidding.”

Unable to resist the impulse, Dean hesitates only a second before sinking his fingers deeper into the feathers, both hands. They’re smooth, trapping some heat but cooler than the upper part of the wing, much like running your hands through someone’s long, carefully kept hair, only a hundred times larger and more awesome. He wishes he had better light to see.

He strokes the top of each wing slowly starting from the muscular base of the limbs at Cas’ back, out past the first joints and then the second, leaning forward to reach as he relies on touch to explore these new features. Cas’ arms loop loosely around Dean’s waist, but they’re not quite touching chest to chest. Dean hears the angel breathing next to his ear, hears him shudder when Dean’s fingers dig gentle and deep between the first and second layer of feathers.

“Is that alright?”

“Yes.”

“I’m not hurting you, right? I just wanna see how big they are.”

Cas shakes his head in assurance, and Dean learns the shape of the wings by hand. Cas’ grip around his waist grows slightly tighter with each shudder until without warning, he pulls Dean up onto his lap in a tight embrace, buries his face in Dean’s river-soaked shoulder.

Dean tries to move his arm to reach the wing again but Cas has got him locked up tight. He hesitates.

“You sure you’re alright, Cas?”

The short pause before Cas speaks tells him the answer’s no.

“What’s up, buddy?”

“I don’t wish to pressure you.”

“You’re not pressuring me.”

“I mean in general.”

“I know.”

Another pause.

“I’m aware,” Cas slowly begins, “that humans who are not in a sexual relationship rarely touch as often or in the manner that I touch you. I’ve made physical gestures, both at home and in private, that others would read as a staked claim, and prevented you from pursuing other relationships.”

“Dude, you didn’t know—”

“Dean. I learned human speech in a matter of days. Driving in a matter of hours. I memorized every plant species and genus, as well has how to care for them, over the course of one afternoon in the library with an encyclopedia, and applied that knowledge without failure on my first attempt. I’ve watched approximately 380 hours of television with you on the couch. Do you really think that the nuances of human mating behavior evaded me?”

Dean goes quiet.

“I decided early and without your consent what I wanted from our relationship, and I pushed you into accepting the public imitation of such a relationship under the slim justification that you would’ve stopped me if it bothered you. But I knew. I knew you didn’t stop me only because you thought I didn’t understand, and I let you think that anyway. I wanted—”

The embrace is feeling more like clinging now, but Dean’s not going to complain. Cas sounds like he’s about a minute and a half from falling apart.

“—I thought—I thought if I—we were both already so close, and I knew you cared for me, so I thought you might eventually, if I, if I got you used to the idea—”

Dean caresses the back of the angel’s head and neck, trying to soothe him.

“Cas.”

“—but you didn’t, didn’t want that with me, and I kept, I kept—”

“Cas.”

“But we don’t have to. So.”

“Cas. I want to.”

That gets the angel to lift his head, his shining eyes being the only clear thing Dean can make out in the shadows of the park at night.

Cas must have slightly better night vision, because he’s clearly trying to search Dean’s eyes.

“You said you didn’t want to.”

“I lied. I mean, I didn’t want to, but only because I thought—Cas, I didn’t want to take advantage of you.”

“How is that taking advantage?” Cas whispers.

“Jo said—”

“Jo’s wrong.” He shifts Dean closer on his lap and rests their foreheads together, exhaustion washing over them both as the adrenaline wears off and the cold of Dean’s waterlogged clothes catches up to them.

“Jo’s wrong. You’re not my parent, or my owner, or my, my trainer or whatever she thinks we are.”

“I said that once, though. To Sammy. When you were all those little guys. I said I didn’t wanna be a bad owner.”

“You’re not a bad owner.”

“I don’t wanna own you.”

“We own each other.”

Dean feels a release of tension in his shoulders that’s been there for weeks, tension he didn’t even know he was holding. Cas senses the acquiescence and nuzzles into his neck gleefully. He gives Dean a very over-the-top kiss just above the clavicle and Dean laughs. Cas moves a little further up his neck and sucks there next.

“That’s gross, man. I’m still soaked in river water. Who knows what germs you’re getting in your mouth.”

“I’m not human. I’ve never been sick before. I’m working under the assumption that human ailments can’t affect me.”

“No kidding, you’re not human. I still can’t believe you have wings. Big-ass wings, I mean, not those tiny little shivery ones.”

“They came in handy today.”

“You saved me.”

“You saved me first. We saved each other.”

 

****

 

One day not long after, the two of them are down at Les Schwab Tire Center, getting an alignment for the impala and paying a visit in the meantime to their friend Benny, who’s working the counter there.

Suddenly Cas stops in his tracks and stares across the lobby with the kind of intensity Dean hasn’t seen since last Saturday when they experimented with pudding and bondage. Which, not worth the clean up, by the way. He’s thinking about instituting a no-food-products-involved-in-sex rule in the bedroom. Cleaning sheets is one thing. Carpet and wall splatter is a completely different matter.

“Cas? What’s up, you got the munchies for popcorn? Oh.”

The angel (sans wings today – turns out he can grow or shrink them when he feels like it) is staring at an empty gumball dispenser by the door, a few feet from the free popcorn machine and coffee in the waiting area.

Dean walks over to the machine and gives it a once over.

“Not much different from the one you were in. Bet that jogs some memories.”

“Yes.”

“Too bad we never did find the company that put you there. You ok? You’re looking a little flushed.”

“Dean, I need to breed with you right now.”

Dean feels himself turn the color of the rug at their feet – bright fire-truck red.

“Jesus, Cas,” he hisses in a whisper. “You wanna announce that a little louder? And what’s with the word choice? Points for the wild animalism, but there’s a time and a place.”

“That time and place is now. This can’t wait.”

“Ok, ok! Go wait in the car. I’ll pay what we owe and we can get out here.”

“Hurry,” Cas says in a slightly threatening tone that sends shivers down Dean’s spine. With a look that means business, the angel turns and strides away. Dean gulps, anticipation already warring with curiosity in his gut.

“Ok. Gotta hurry up and breed, I guess.”

 

****

 

Dean wakes up in the wee hours of the morning, still loose and feeling good from the wildly intense bout of love-making they had the night before, and realizes that his bedfellow is missing.

“Cas?”

He pokes around the house, still squinting as he turns the lights on and rubs his face, but he seems to be alone, which is unusual to say the least. He checks his phone, a little anxious, and finds two text messages from Cas.

At Tire Center. Might be a while. Had to lay eggs.

followed by

Leaving you the car in case I’m not home in time to send you off to work. Have a good day <3

Ok. It may be 4:15 in the morning, but Dean’s pretty sure “lay eggs” isn’t any kind of euphemism for tire related business he can think of.

And shit, when your husband’s laying eggs with your sperm somewhere, you really oughtta at least be there to hold his hand. It’s just called being supportive.

****

He shuts the door of the impala and walks in through the mysteriously-unlocked-but-not-swarming-with-cops Tire Center, and finds the wayward angel bending over the candy dispenser as expected, still wearing the sweatpants they’d left on the floor by the bed and nothing else. His wings are out and fully extended in an arc around the machine.

“I don’t get an invite to the egg laying?” he asks as he comes in, brushing some loose feathers smooth on Cas’ left wing with a sigh.

“Sorry. I wasn’t sure how long it would take, and you have work tomorrow. This morning, I mean. You needed the sleep.”

“Still.” He feels it deserves more complaint on his part, but he’s too tired to work out the reasons why, so after a moment of silence, he gives up.

“Whatcha got in there?”

“Look at them,” Cas says, expression loving and reverent as he gazes into the machine.

Dean bends down, hands braced on his knees, and takes a look. The empty machine from yesterday is now filled with about forty or so tiny plastic bubbles, each containing an identical sleeping angel with red hair, a grey blazer, and blue jeans.

He feels like he needs a moment. He doesn’t know quite what to say. That it appears a company was never involved in Cas’ origins at the bank, that Cas is probably carrying out some natural mating pattern of his species, that this is half Dean’s kid in there, sleeping and curled up in three dozen tiny separate versions all waiting to come together.

“I don’t wanna ask how you laid those in there, do I?” is what he eventually comes out with.

“No. I suspect not. It was… difficult and unpleasant to watch.”

“Ok, then.”

He looks around, feels for his wallet which thank god he remembered to grab before he got in the car, and opens it to start checking for quarters. He may need to break into the register, swap some out for a couple of ten’s he’s carrying, and god knows how he’s going to do that without setting off some alarm someplace but maybe Cas can work whatever mojo he used to get into the closed building in the first place—

The moment Cas notices the wallet come out, he stops Dean’s arm.

“Ah! No. You can’t.”

“What? Can’t what?”

“You can’t work the machine.”

“Cas, that’s our kid. We can’t leave her in there.”

“But the eggs aren’t mature yet. That’s what the nest is for. She’ll need time.”

Dean stares at him. “She’ll need time? How much time? You aren’t gonna sit here and wait ‘til the tire guys come in, are you? ‘Cause I’m pretty sure you’re gonna get nabbed for breaking and entering, babe, employee friendship aside.”

“No, I’m not staying. We can leave her. I’ll head home with you.”

Now Dean’s appalled. “What?! No! Dude, I’m not abandoning our kid!”

“She’ll be perfectly safe.”

“She’s not safe if we just leave her here! What if someone buys her? What if one person buys some of her and another person buys a few more before we can get back? What if some psychopath walks away with the whole frickin’ bunch?”

“That won’t happen. She’s got a telepathic field around her regulated by the vibration of her wings. She won’t be noticed until she’s ready to hatch and wants to be. She’ll know who’s the right person to wake up for. Until then, she won’t be seen.”

This is more information than Cas has ever been able to come up with before about the angel origin story, but Dean’s horror is not much abated by such serene reassurance.

“Ok, even if that’s true, what about us? We’re her parents.” Which sounds weird, given how Dean didn’t even know Cas could get pregnant—or, well, fertilized, at least—until this morning when he woke up. “How will we find her again if some ‘right person’ walks off with her?”

“I can do it by instinct. I’ll know.”

“But how do you know you’ll know?”

“I just woke up knowing. I knew when I saw the empty nest here. I’ll know.”

“I don’t like it.” Dean shakes his head emphatically. “I don’t like the idea.”

“I know. That’s why I love you.”

Cas kisses him and wraps his wings around the man, attempting to soothe him by stroking fingers through his hair. Dean just returns the hug around Cas’ waist and grumbles, still staring into the dispenser at the kid he didn’t know he was not exactly having until just an hour ago. He doesn’t care what Cas’ instinct says, or whether his baby is in pieces in a bunch of see-through plastic balls. That’s his kid. He’s not abandoning his kid.

“Anyway,” Cas says, still smiling like this is no problem at all. “I know my mate. You’re going to stalk this place until she’s hatched by someone, and get Benny and me to take shifts when you’re not able to.”

“Damn straight.”

“And we’ll watch her grow up, and coalesce—”

“Yeah.”

“—And make sure her right person knows that cats aren’t eating some of her—”

“Because it’s fucked up to place that kind of guilt on a person, Cas.”

“And the circle of empty gumball machine life will go on.”

“You’re a freakin’ poet, you know that?”

****

 

Two harrowing weeks of fast food stake outs, complaints from Les Schwab over parking space squatting, and testing the limits of Benny’s patience later, the couple watches as a young redhead in a Pac-Man T-shirt leaves her yellow AMC Gremlin with the gents outside and heads into the waiting area with her laptop bag over one shoulder.

“Holy shit, these things are alive! Can I get some quarters over here?”