Two brothers currently working a case that made no sense, Dean and Sam Winchester stood inside yet another generic motel room and looked at the black cliché of a briefcase on the generic pseudo-wooden table. Even though he was frustrated, Dean was a little relieved nothing looked back at them.
Still, the hunter shook his head. “What the hell does a demon got to do with this, anyway?”
Sam shrugged. “Believe me, I got no idea.”
Dean scowled at his little brother. First Cass had been acting all twitchy at the restaurant, and now Sam looked shaken up.
“Yeah, yeah.” The kid wasn’t all that reassuring, but he was OK enough, Dean thought. “I'll be all right.”
Dean nodded at the briefcase. “Let's crack her open. What's the worst that could happen, right?”
They crouched down, took a look each, and popped the lid. Warn, bright light blared out with the faintest hint of a chime. Blinking, they both looked away until they were able to look back, but the case was empty.
“Whoa!” Sam said.
“What the hell was that?”
A familiar whiskey-and-gravel voice answered from behind them: “It's a human soul.” Castiel was standing there in his usual trench but not looking usual at all. A thin outline of the lightest gray ran over the wall behind him, a tracing of massive, hawk-like wings. “It's starting to make sense.”
Sam nodded back to the case. “Now, what about that makes sense?”
“And what’s with the wings?” Dean demanded.
Castiel nodded, looking both eager and uncomfortable. “Exactly. My wing. They’re a clue, actually.”
“For what?” the brothers asked.
The angel shifted slightly on his feet, then obviously forced himself still. “This town is not suffering from some love-gone-wrong effect. It's suffering from hunger—starvation, to be exact. Specifically: famine.” The wing outline wavered, or perhaps fluttered.
“Famine?” Sam asked. “As in the horseman?”
A horseman? Dean snorted. And he was affecting Cass? “Great. That's freaking great.”
“I thought famine meant starvation,” Sam said, “like as in, you know, food.”
Castiel nodded. “Yes, absolutely, but not just food. I mean, everyone seems to be starving for something: sex, attention, drugs, love—”
“Well, that explains the puppy-lovers that Cupid shot up.”
“Right.” Cass’ wing outline fluttered just a bit again. “The cherub made them crave love, and then Famine came, and made them rabid for it.”
Dean nodded. “OK, but what about you? I mean, what does hunger have to do with your wings?”
The angel looked down in some personal defeat. “It’s personal and something only another angel would understand.” His chin came up, eyes daring. “Suffice to say, I’m taking care of it.”
“So, Famine just rolls into town, and everybody goes crazy?” Sam asked.
Castiel turned away a bit, the faint outline of his wings moving with him. He was obviously quoting: “‘And then will come Famine riding on a black steed. He will ride into the land of plenty and great will be the Horseman's hunger, for he is hunger. His hunger will seep out and poison the air.’”
“So, he’s poisoning you?” Dean asked.
“My wings are not relevant. I’ll take care of them momentarily. What’s much more important is that Famine is hungry. He must devour the souls of his victims.”
“So, that's what was in the briefcase? The Twinkie dude's soul?”
“Lucifer has sent his demons to care for Famine, to feed him, make certain he'll be ready.”
“Ready for what?” Sam asked.
“To march across the land.”
“Well, an army marches on its stomach,” Sam said, but the inflection was flat.
“Seriously, dude,” Dean said, turning to his brother while keeping one eye on Cass, who was shifting on his feet again. “Are you all right?”
“I, uh.” Sam looked around, then tilted his head toward the bathroom. Dean watched him stomp through the narrow door, waiting for something until he heard the water running.
Dean the turned around to see Cass doing something he’d never seen him do before. The angel had backed up against the doorjamb of the open closet and was scratching his back against the sharp edge of the wood.
Blue eyes and a strong, stubbled jaw arranged themselves into an expression almost, but not quite, entirely unlike embarrassment. “My apologies. I would ordinarily take care of this in Heaven, but as you know, I’m cut off from my brothers and sisters at this time.”
“Take care of what?”
Cass opened his mouth.
“And don’t say, ‘It’s an angel thing.’”
Cass closed his mouth, then scratched his back some more. Finally, he said, “It’s an angelic instinct exacerbated by Famine’s influence.”
“Just what is—”
“Dean!” Cass said, actually sounding annoyed. “When you have to tend to someplace indelicate, do you really want to discuss it with others?”
OK, well. Cass was right, then. An angel thing.
“So, what? This whole town is just gonna eat, drink, and screw itself to death?” Sam called from the bathroom.
“We should stop it,” Cass said, eye half-closed as he rubbed his back back and forth.
Now he knew it was like scratching his junk, Dean looked away. “Yeah, that's a great idea. How?”
“How did you stop the last Horseman you met?”
Thank God for a straightforward question. “War got his mojo from this ring, and after we cut it off, he just tucked tail and ran. And everybody that was affected; it was like they woke up out of a dream. You think Famine's got a class ring, too?”
Castiel’s eyes were closed now. Back and forth. Back and forth. “I know he does.”
“Well, OK! Let's track him down and get to chopping.”
Cass hummed. Back and forth. Back and forth.
“Sam!” Dean called “Let's roll!”
But two seconds of watching his brother come out of the bathroom, and Dean knew what was wrong even before Sam explained. Famine plus demon blood junkie equaled, well, shit.
“You’ve got to get him out of here,” he told Cass, who stopped scratching his back long enough to pay some attention. “You got to beam him to, like, Montana, anywhere but here.”
“It won't work.” Castiel looked horrified for a second, and then made another non-expression. “He's already infected. The hunger is just going to travel with him.”
In the end, they handcuffed Sam to the plumbing and shoved a wardrobe in front of the door. Castiel managed to get control over his itchy back long enough to sit still in the car and walk like a semi-normal person into the St. James Medical Center. He was even able to tell that Dr. Corman’s soul was still in his corpse. He nodded and blinked out, though, when Dean went back to the Impala. Hopefully, he’d found an angel luffa or some lotion, or something.
He parked outside the Biggerson’s, trying to peer through the tinted windows of the chain restaurant, but only seeing lights on inside.
Castiel appeared beside him, which was great. The car was crammed with barely-there feathers, which was not.
“Cass, what the hell?”
“They’re not really here, Dean.” Cass’ slightly feverish eyes scowled at him.
“Are you serious?”
“”If you would ignore them—”
“The Impala is full of semi-dimensional angel feathers!”
“They are completely incorporeal. Just pretend you can’t see them.”
Dean would have said something more, but the look of some of the feathers, now they he could see them so clearly, bothered him. Some of the feathers near Cass’ shoulders looked more like tubes, and while all the feather were black, the tube feathers were glossy, while other feathers looked kind of gray and ragged, and others were downright fuzzy. No wonder the guy’s back was itching.
“Stop looking at them!” Cass said, his voice higher than Dean had ever heard it before.
Dean whipped his eyes front and center. The dark asphalt road had no pedestrians.
The red light turned green, then red again.
“It’s no thing.”
“Where is your hunger, Dean?” Cass’ voice was accusatory, almost angry.
“What?” He ventured a look back, relieved just to see the angel scowling at him.
“Well, slowly but surely, everyone in this town is falling prey to Famine, but so far, you seem unaffected.
Dean half-shrugged, tapping a thumb on the wheel. “Hey, when I want to drink, I drink. When I want sex, I go get it. Same goes for a sandwich or a fight.”
“So, you're saying you're just well-adjusted?”
Dean let himself smile. “God, no. I'm just well-fed.”
Castiel didn’t smile back.
“It’s not always a matter of feeding, Dean.”
It was pretty clear whatever cap Castiel had been keeping on his emotions was slipping. Dean just put his hands up in the traditional, “Hey, don’t kill me, dude” display.
But Cass was on a roll. “Sometimes, it’s a matter of not having a connection you’ve relied on for thousands and thousands of years, something you took for granted, a connection you sacrificed for a cause you felt was worth it. And sometimes it’s about being reminded that no matter how hard you try, you need that connection more than you need to be noble, more than you need to believe in anything, even God, even the salvation of mankind.”
In the next breath, Dean was going to say something comforting. He really was. But Cass was angel and didn’t really need to breathe.
“Sometimes it’s about remembering why you go forward, why you bother to take another step. Sometimes it’s about wondering why you care when one opinion, one act of rebellion doesn’t just mean being cast out, it means being cut off. It means even when you need the simplest of acts from the community you’ve served for millennia, no one will touch you. No one will help you. No one will care as you suffer. No one will help even if you beg!”
Dean would very much have been proud of himself if he had said right away, “I will help you.” But the truth was that the mere idea that Cass needed his help—a human’s help, his help—just stymied him into silence.
So he had to watch his best friend start to fold up into himself for at least three seconds before he managed to clear his throat.
“I’ll help you.”
Suspicious blue eyes looked up at him. It occurred to Dean not at all for the first time that Castiel’s vessel was attractive for a guy. Did any of that carry over? Was Cass aware he looked good to humans, or human straight women and gay men? Did that sort of thing even occur to him? Did Cass know that he sometimes used his human suit effectively for things like making another guy feel like a total jerk?
Then Cass just shuttered up, blue eyes losing their light. “You’re not an angel.”
Dean knew he should have just let that one go, but screw it.
“So only an angel can help you? No humans allowed?”
Castiel looked forward through the windshield, reminding Dean they had a mission, right before he said, “It’s nothing a human would want to do.”
“And that’s why?”
Cass shot him a look of plain resentment. “You’re not going to want to help me, Dean. Let’s just get on with this. We need to stop Famine. That means I take the knife. I go in. I cut off the ring hand of Famine, and I meet you back here in the parking lot.”
Dean had no idea where the words in his mouth came from. “And if Famine offers to scratch your back?”
The angel looked like someone had punched him in the chest. His words actually wheezed. “He wouldn’t do that.”
“Damnit, Cass. This is just stupid. You go in there with a need, Famine’s going to find a way to meet it. Isn’t that the point?”
Blue eyes glowered at him, not hiding the pain behind them.
Dean let his voice go soft the way it wanted. “Come on, man. You’re obviously in pain. You go in there, you’re done.” He waited a moment, but all Cass did was drop his gaze. “Let me help.”
To his astonishment, God’s warrior actually bowed his head, looking exhausted. “You have no idea. None. How much I want it.”
Dean waited, then asked, “Want what?”
“C’mon, Cass. This is no time to be shy. What do you need?”
“Cass, look, we’re not going to be, you know, eating each other for lunch, right? Angels don’t want to—”
“I have no desire to eat your flesh, Dean.”
“Then what? Damnit, Cass, throw me a line!”
The words boomed through the car like a pronouncement from above: “I can’t reach!”
Dean actually waited a moment for the sounds to stop echoing off the car’s windows. Cass took the time to look down again, like the foot well of the Impala could answer some great question.
Dean too a second.
Dean blinked. “You can’t reach behind your own back? You’re an angel!”
“It’s not about being flexible!”
“It’s about wanting to help!”
“I want to help, you son of a bitch!”
Castiel glared at him, took a breath, and then swiveled on his ass, presenting the back of his trench coat and now what looked like hundreds of large, vaguely outlined, black-to-gray feathers.