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Expiration

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Variety is the spice of life. Castiel underlines the sentence twice. Once for irony, twice for unintentional wit. He really ought to stitch the line on a pillow somewhere.

          The kettle whistles down the hall. Castiel replaces the real estate ad he’s been utilizing as a bookmark and swings his legs off the bed. He grimaces. The wood is cold beneath his feet, chilled from the dropping fall temperatures. He usually avoids casting thermostat spells, since they’ve a tendency to take a life of their own and either trap the heat in his apartment to suffocating levels, or frost icicles into his eyebrows, but if this decline continues, he might have to. Hypothermia doesn’t appeal.  

          The increasingly shrill shriek of the kettle spurs Cas to the kitchen. He flips the steaming mouth back, cutting off the noise, and snaps his fingers. The cupboard to the right of his head flies open, and he crooks his finger toward his Debussy mug. An overcast and gloomy morning like this one calls for soothing classics and…chamomile vanilla tea. As soon as the decision solidifies, the ceramic white jar on the counter rattles. It’s lid lifts only high enough to allow one teabag to escape and settle into his chosen mug. From there, Castiel waves at the kettle, and while it pours his tea, he goes in search of his slippers.

          Where did he wear those accursed things last? Certainly not in the cauldron room. Last time he made the mistake of forgetting an inanimate object inside for the night, he’d returned to discover a gargantuan teddy bear, weeping, swearing, and attempting to drown itself in the cauldron. The cleanup for that situation was nothing short of a disaster.

          Perhaps they’re in storage? The heavy metal door opens with a snick-click. Cas braces himself for the blast of hot, humid air, necessary to keep the magical ingredients from losing their potency. Jars line the shelves that stretch from wall-to-wall. The lower shelves he’d lined with wet ingredients for easy reach. Besides the hourglass shaped jars with colorful spices, there’s the stepladder and his woven handbasket. No slippers.

          Resigning himself to numb feet, Cas pads back to the living room. His tea steams cheerfully from its place on the coffee table. He drops onto the couch and curls his fingers around the handle. The musical notes on the mug begin to revolve, the soft melody of Debussy’s Clair de Lune inviting him to hum along.

          Soon he’ll have to stop by Vulcan Vault to buy mareshade for the new potion. It’s been a series of sleepless nights and singed brows, and he still can’t influence the watery potion to congeal and thicken like they should. It can’t be the ingredients he’s using; those come straight from the Vault, and Charlie’s products are irrefutably the best outside of Asia. Maybe he’s not measuring the dilution drops evenly enough.

          The mug is long cold and silent by the time Cas finishes scribbling notes in the legal pad he keeps on the table. There’s officially nothing keeping him from donning his trench coat and departing for Banning Plaza.

          Except, of course, the overwhelming nausea that descends into his gut. Ridiculous. Weak. He’s charted the path to and from the Vault countless times. He could walk there blindfolded, which he’s seriously considered on more than one occasion. But the slim chance that a Keeper might stop him and demand identification is almost more frightening than the trip itself. It’s bad enough Cas doesn’t announce his designation by wardrobe, like most of the other black-robed Magi or gold cufflinked Gifted. His plain tan trench coat and bare wrists have drawn their fair share of curious glances, but most tend to chalk it up to disrespectful Mortal behavior and leave Castiel in peace. The only person who’d ever known better was Charlie Bradbury, the Gifted quirky redhead who owned Vulcan Vault and nearly keeled over when he’d gone to ring up one hundred and seventy-five items on his very first visit.

          She’d kept up a constant stream of conversation regarding the shop’s name-some Mortal film enterprise- while she rang him up. She accidentally brushed his hand while passing over the receipt, and Castiel was forced to look up from where his gaze was trained on the ground when she fell abruptly silent. A catatonic kind of wonder was gripping the girl. Her entire body trembled, beginning from the hand that touched Castiel. Her pupils blew, swallowing the whites of her eyes and startling Cas a step back.

          It hardly lasted a moment, and then she was blinking normal hazel eyes. “Wowza,” she said. “That’s a lot of power you’re packing there, dude.”

          He’d left quickly after that. On his return visits, he’d try to find times Charlie wasn’t working, but the girl was wily. She chatted with Castiel while packaging his orders each time, and after a month, Cas lost the last of his patience. She was friendly and kind, and never questioned why Cas refused to meet her eyes after their initial meeting.

          He’d straightened and glared, vindicated in the surprise brightening her eyes. Of course, the moment he met them, the numbers scrolled across his mind again, bold and conclusive.

          Charlie Bradbury’s death date.

          She had decades left, a long life to lead. Cas told her as much, and something clicked into place for her.

          “A Reaper,” she breathed. “That explains it.”

          Cas didn’t ask her to elaborate on what exactly it explained, too distracted correcting her. “Not a Reaper. I see date of death, not the method or the reasoning. I certainly don’t collect souls.” Charlie was the first person he’d told in years, and he was prepared for the question. The one they always thought they wanted to know.

          But Charlie only scribbled her personal phone number on the back of Castiel’s receipt and shoved it in one of the paper bags he was floating home. “That’s a shit hand you’ve been dealt, buddy. Then again, life’s a pretty shitty dealer, huh? I’m off at nine; invite me to dinner sometime.”

          Initially, Cas had worried it was some sort of flirtation and called Charlie to express his platonic attitude towards her, but she’d guffawed in his ear and informed him he was in possession of malfunctioning equipment.

          Suffice to say, Charlie is hardly why venturing into Vulcan Vault inspires a sour tang on his tongue. He shoves a palm-sized tin box with pills he’d made to cleanse the stomach upon ingestion. Just in case his body decides to test him.

          He reminds himself he needs that mareshade. If he perfects this serum, he’ll possess the strongest, safest anti-inflammatory pain-killer on the continent. Kevin has sent photos of pale and drawn adults from the hospital constantly since Castiel made the mistake of sharing his latest undertaking with the Chief of Medicine. Altering the dosage to suit children will take him at least another month. He won’t make the mistake of handing over a drug before extensive testing, not after the disaster with the hemophiliac toddler and the blood thinners.

          He wrenches open the door and stuffs his hands into his trench coat. Walking past the dying garden, with its drooping sprouts, wilting peonies, and overgrown grass is depressing. When Cas bought his home, he’d been riding on the high of home-ownership and dreamed of a flourishing garden, where he could have his tea in the midst of sunshine, birds, and bees. He’d found ingredients for his potions that weren’t too difficult to plant and reveled in the cost-cutting measure of growing his work.

          But the day he finished planting the peonies, dirt firmly encrusted under his nails and enjoying the sense of accomplishment, his mailwoman came by. She’d walked up the short gravel path to the mailbox hanging beneath the outdoor light and complimented Castiel’s efforts, gushing about her own botanical experience. The heavy mail bag thumped against her leg as she walked away, and Cas had stared after her for a long time.

          Then he retrieved his mail delivered by a woman who would die in six days, and forgot his gardening dreams altogether.

          No matter. He’ll hire a Gifted with a green thumb. They litter the internet, so it shouldn’t be unreasonably difficult. And if he plants seedlings this month, there might be signs of growth by spring. Perhaps he’ll simply move his mailbox to the curb and enjoy the fruits of his hired help’s labor without fear of running into another soul.

          The trip to Vulcan Vault is much easier than usual. Perhaps the cold kept the usual bustling crowds of Banning Plaza from venturing outside and risking the wrath of the gloomy clouds. Whatever the reason, Castiel is in a rare good mood when he waves at Charlie. He activates the mesh and metal basket near the counter with a press of his thumb to the stimulation print. The basket follows him, floating beside his waist while he peruses Charlie’s latest acquisitions in exotic herbs. The prices are steep. Charlie stocks items from around the globe, and never distills it like a few swindlers Cas has made the mistake of giving his patronage.

          Regardless, money is hardly an issue. As horrendous as Castiel’s youth was, he has it to thank for his monetary comfort. And if he feels like a cheat sometimes, a dirty swindler himself, well-that’s for him to know.

          Cas loads his cart enough that it sinks to his knees, and he has to physically pick it up when he reaches the counter. Sitting on her high stool behind the register, Charlie doesn’t balk at the size of Castiel’s order. He’d briefly explained his Pursuit as a medical composer when Charlie began to jokingly-not-jokingly ask if he was a drug dealer.

          “Hey, Cas,” she greets him cheerfully, scanning the items with practiced speed. Cas lazily browses the informational Guides for the Young and Gifted pamphlets set out in front of the register. There’s a collection of ‘Ask Charlie!’ sex-positive pamphlets promising free NoNatal herbs and the latest in TipStop condoms for those who can’t afford it. “What’s the four-one-one?”

          “Pardon?”

          “Sorry, Mortal phrase. How’s it hanging?”

          “…Anatomically?”

          “Good gravy,” Charlie laughs with good-natured exasperation. At least, Castiel hopes it’s good-natured. Lately, his grasp of colloquialisms has descended into blissful geriatric ignorance levels. “How’re you doing, dude?”

          “Ah. I am well. How about you?”

          “I’m not dying,” Charlie cracks. She’s a font of morbid jokes, this woman, and Castiel barely refrains from rolling his eyes.

          She wraps the small herb jars in recyclable brown paper and carefully slots them into one of the six long rectangular boxes Castiel will be hauling home. He’s considered portaling them home ahead of him, but the fluctuating realms of time and space are fickle.

          Casiel asks about her latest spices and Charlie launches into a spiel on the merits of Moroccan soil and the undiluted magic in Nubian foliage that ya just can’t find here by the frackin’ magic-sucking Pacific, Cas.

          When she’s prepared two weighty bags for him to carry- he made the mistake of levitating his bags through Banning Plaza once and suffered a substantial loss of profit when one was stolen midair- Charlie tucks a strand of her fiery red hair behind her ear and scrunches her nose. It’s a sign of an incoming interrogation. Cas groans internally, just in time for Charlie to prod him right under his collarbone with a ruler. “You didn’t come to movie night last week.”

          “I apologize,” Cas says dutifully. He is sorry, sorry that Charlie harbors this futile hope that Cas will participate in her social life.

          “There’s another on Wednesday night.”

          Castiel nods like Charlie hasn’t invited him to every Wednesday movie night for the last two months.

          “I worry about you, Cas,” Charlie sighs, and the uncharacteristically somber shift in tone forces his attention from the buttons of his shirt back to her. “I’m your only friend, and you refuse to see me outside of your house or business hours of the store. You won’t let me introduce you to Gilda, you won’t come watch movies at my place, and the last time I visited you hadn’t slept in two days and you reeked of Rumrot.”

          “You seem to like this Gilda, correct?”

          “She’s the raddest,” Charlie affirms.

          “If I look into her eyes and find that she’s meant to perish in two weeks, would you want to know?”

          Charlie blinks in rapid-fire succession. Cas indulges a moment of guilt, but this is for her own benefit. The longer she perceives Castiel as simply a quirky member of society, she’ll invite him to more movie nights, more events he’ll have to refuse. More disappointment.

          “Uh…I don’t know, Cas,” she murmurs. “That’s a tough one.”

          “I am sparing you the ‘tough ones’ by withholding my presence.”

          Charlie’s crestfallen expression makes something uncomfortable twist in Castiel’s chest. He’d raged, rebelled, fought against this fate the universe had seen fit to thrust onto him. But there’s no more fight left within Castiel.

          “That’s an awfully lonely way to live, Cas,” Charlie whispers.

          Cas lifts his bags and aims what he hopes is a pacifying smile at this girl, the lone person in the world who cares for the kind of life he leads. “Life and death are quite similar in their loneliness, Charlie. Most people just don’t know it.”

          “Thanks for bumming me out, bruh!” Charlie calls on his way out, and he chuckles under his breath. Nothing will deter her, and Cas finds her constancy rather soothing.

          Foot traffic has picked up, and Cas has to train his gaze down while he navigates. At the age of twenty-seven, walking without watching has become his own personal song and dance, but he still gets muttered obscenities and ‘watch where you’re walking, asshole!’ thrown at him aplenty. Once upon a time, Cas would grind their faces into the gravel for it, but that time is long gone. He mumbles an apology and soldiers home.

          The tension seeps from him the moment he passes the wrought-iron gate closing off the front yard from the street. He kicks the gate shut behind him and stops at the front door long enough to blow a puff of air on the sensor by the spyhole. He’d opted for maximum security when he bought this home, forgoing the common full-body scanner for the specialized and expensive magic-detector equipment. Individual magic cannot be replicated or retrieved, making it a faultless security system. The kind of enemies Cas has demand nothing less than the best.

          The door clicks shut behind him. Cas deposits the bags on the kitchen island and leans against the counter, resting his forehead against the cool marble. It’s done. Another successful excursion outside, and without the nausea pills to boot.

          He’s in the middle of unpacking his herbs and reading the maintenance instructions Charlie scribbled when there’s a pounding knock on his door.

          Castiel jumps, the jar of Rose Odor tumbling to the floor. It shatters, splashing pink liquid onto his pristine white cabinets. At least it wasn’t the mareshade.

          There’s another frantic knock, convincing Cas it wasn’t his imagination conjuring the foreign sound. The door vibrates in time to Cas’s racing heart. He approaches the door as one would a viper poised to strike, gingerly peering through the spyhole.

          It’s a man he’s never seen before, shifting his weight from foot-to-foot and glancing over his shoulder. Grace, the magical backbone of his house, activates. A projection appears on Castiel’s side of the door, identifying the stranger as a Magi, classification unknown, twenty-three years of age. The name listed is unfamiliar.

          The door vibrates with another hard thud. This man isn’t planning to leave until Castiel answers, is he?

          Before he can think better of it, Castiel opens the door, throwing up a ward to prevent the man from crossing the threshold in the same instant. He trains his gaze on the man’s throat and barks, “May I help you?”

          “Are you Castiel?” he demands, despite the fact that he’s spent the better part of five minutes beating down Castiel’s door.

          “Indeed. And who are you?” As if he hadn’t just skimmed through his mother’s maiden name and his personal details a mere moment ago.

          “I’m Dean Winchester. I need your help, like now.” There’s an urgency in his voice that perplexes Castiel, because if this Dean knows his name, shouldn’t he know his classification?

          “My Pursuit is Medical Composition. I have a short supply of consumable potions, but I’m afraid if you’re in some sort of medical crisis, the hospital is-”

          “No, no, I need you to use your mojo to actively heal. Charlie said you knew how. Please, man, my brother’s in trouble and there’s not much time,” he pleads, and Castiel is so shocked to hear Charlie’s name that he slips and glances up.

          He meets green eyes filled with desperation and sees nothing.

          Castiel gasps, his grip on the doorknob tightening to the point of pain. Impossible. It’s impossible. He stares until there’s a green tint to his vision and he has to blink, but nothing changes.

          Where Dean Winchester’s death date should be, there is only green.