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A Crash Course in Computer Safety

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Within five minutes of their first hello, Dean knows that this isn’t going anywhere.

The girl seems nice enough, definitely pretty – big brown eyes, sun-streaked hair and a flowy maxi dress that dances with every gust of wind blowing through the courtyard – but it soon becomes painfully obvious that they have nothing in common. Which isn’t that surprising, considering that more than half of the people at this party are Sam’s friends (fresh-out-of-school lawyers) or Sarah’s friends (hospital residents). Both Sam and Sarah went out of their way to invite as many single people around Dean’s age as they could, in the hopes that Dean would click with someone. And hey, Dean would love to click with quite a few, like that tall blond guy currently chatting with Sam or even the girl he’s talking to right now, but not exactly in the way Sam and Sarah would want.

They’ve been nagging him about trying for a serious relationship for ages. Or rather Sam has, because Sarah is much too tactful to voice it. She doesn’t say anything when she catches Dean’s one-night stands in the kitchen or in the hallway of their shared apartment, in various stages of undress and with embarrassed, apologetic smiles on their faces. She doesn’t comment on the fact she never sees the same person more than two, maybe three times. With the calm and composure of someone much older than her 25 years, she watches these endless walks of shame, seated or leaned against the kitchen table as she eats her breakfast. The only sign of her worry is the subtle knitting of her eyebrows as she offers Dean his travel mug, already filled with coffee, and pats him on the arm when he leaves for work every morning.

Sam on the other hand...

Sam means well, of course. He’s in a happy, long-term relationship and he wants the same for Dean. Being an overprotective big brother himself, Dean can’t begrudge him that. He can, however, snap at him and ostentatiously march out of the room every time Sam suggests that the reason Dean can’t commit to anyone is because he still hasn’t gotten over Cassie.

It’s been six years. Of course he’s gotten over Cassie. It’s not like your girlfriend dumping you for your best friend would give you trust issues, anyway.

“Sam tells me you went to Stanford, too.”

Dean blinks, and remembers he’s in the middle of a conversation. “Oh— yeah. I did.”

“What was your major?”

Dean shifts his weight from one foot to the other. He does not like this line of questioning. “Engineering.”

“Oh, cool. So what are you doing now that you’ve graduated?”

Dean forces a smile and doesn’t correct her. “I’m the Nerd Herd supervisor at the local Buy More.”

“The what?” she asks. The corners of her mouth are still lifted, but Dean can practically see interest drain from her eyes.

“The Nerd Herd,” he repeats with resignation. “It’s tech support. Broken phones and laptops, that kind of stuff.”

“Oh,” she says.

They’re both quiet for a moment, and then the girl (Gail? Dean thinks her name is Gail) starts talking about what she majored in and what she’s doing now. Dean can’t even muster up any righteous indignation at the blunt change of topic. To be honest, he’s grateful she didn’t say it’s “nice”, or try to pretend like leaving Stanford only to end up in a dead-end, minimum-wage job isn’t utterly humiliating. He nods along as Gail fills him in on all the uninteresting details of her job, and wonders if there’ll be any more cake left once she’s done.

Salvation comes a few minutes later in the form of Charlie, who passes by on her way to the refreshments table. Holding Gail’s gaze to ensure she doesn’t look down, Dean grabs his left wrist with his right hand, then spreads and curls his fingers. It’s a signal him and Charlie have been using for years; it means get me out of this, please.

Dependable as always, Charlie makes a sharp turn and walks up to him in three quick strides.

“Dean, there you are!” she exclaims, grabbing his face and planting two quick, noisy kisses on both of his cheeks. “Happy birthday, old man! Can’t believe you managed to stay alive long enough to hit 29.”

“I’m as surprised as you are,” Dean grins. They’ve already done the whole birthday ritual earlier that day, but Gail doesn’t need to know that.

“Oh, I’m sorry, am I interrupting?” Charlie says, turning around as if she’s only now noticed Dean’s not alone. “I hope you don’t mind me butting in like that. I’m Charlie, by the way.” She sticks her hand out to Gail. “Oh, I love your dress. I’m too short to look good in a maxi myself. It’s the bane of my existence. But you look the bomb, girl.”

Like everyone who finds themselves on the receiving end of Charlie’s chatter, Gail looks equal parts confounded and amused. She barely seems to realize it when Charlie whisks her away to the other side of the courtyard, and only manages a distracted “see you around, Dean” before they’re both gone.

Heaving a long sigh of relief and making a mental note to thank Charlie later, Dean makes a beeline for the liquor table.

 


 

“Nothing?”

Dean rolls his eyes, but moves a little to the left, making room for Sam to sit next to him on the couch. “What did you expect, dude?” he mutters, scrubbing a hand over his face. He’s not even drunk. What a useless party.

“I expected you to at least try to socialize,” Sam says.

“I did plenty of socializing.”

“I meant with new people, not your Nerd Herders. I saw you talking to Gail earlier, how did that go?”

“Well, I’m here talking to you, so clearly it went amazing.”

Sam huffs and opens his mouth to say something, but Dean beats him to it.

“Seriously, Sam, you need to stop. I get you want me to be happy or whatever, but you can’t force me into a relationship.”

“I’m not—”

“You are a little, Sam,” Sarah points out, appearing behind them with an armful of dirty plates. She pops into the kitchen to drop them in the sink, then comes back to plunk herself on the couch next to Sam. Her smile is warm and tired as she presses herself into the crook of his arm. “I know you have good intentions, honey, but Dean’s an adult. Let him be.”

“Thank you,” Dean says, shooting Sam a triumphant look.

“Even if,” Sarah continues, “his idea of adulthood involves holding onto past hurt and refusing to make himself vulnerable with anyone.”

“Okay, I’m going to bed now,” Dean says. Despite the grumbling tone of his voice, he grabs Sarah’s outstretched hand and squeezes it to let her know he’s not mad. Then, for good measure, he throws Sam the middle finger before disappearing into his bedroom.

He doesn’t have the energy to take a shower, so he limits himself to brushing his teeth and changing into his PJ’s. As he crawls under the covers and shuts off the bedside lamp, his hand instinctively reaches for his phone.

Cassie hasn’t contacted him since the day they broke up, but Dean can’t help but hope that maybe this year, he’ll at least get a stupid, simple “Happy birthday” text. If someone asked him why he wants to hear from her again, he wouldn’t be able to answer. He’s not in love with her anymore, and enough time has passed that they both must be different people now. Yet there’s a part of him – a masochistic, self-flagellating part – that needs to know how she’s doing, if she graduated as planned, where she lives. If she’s happy.

His heartbeat speeds up as he unlocks his phone and stares at the screen, its bright light harsh in the otherwise dark room.

No new text messages.

He does have an email notification, though.

“What the hell,” he mutters when he sees the sender’s name.

Sure, expecting your ex to send you birthday wishes is weird. Dean will be the first to admit that. But getting an email from the guy who stole her from you and then got you kicked out of school is probably weirder.

Dean hovers his finger over the notification, unsure if he should swipe it open. Him and Michael used to be thick as thieves in college. They were both smart, handsome guys with their whole lives ahead of them and the world at their feet; they both loved video games and had a knack for programming; and, as it turned out, they both liked the same girl.

Even after all these years, Dean still can’t decide whose betrayal hurt him worse, Cassie’s or Michael’s.

“There better be some nice fucking birthday wishes in there,” Dean says under his breath, and thumbs the message open.

It’s empty.

Before he can choose an expletive juicy enough, he notices a little icon below the empty subject line, indicating the message came with an attachment. The file’s name reads simply “Stanford”, and Dean frowns at it, confused. While Michael did stab him in the back, Dean wouldn’t suspect him of sending him a virus. Especially not out of the blue, after six years of radio silence.

In the end, curiosity gets the better of him. He taps the attachment, and the screen goes black, words starting to appear in white, block letters.

 

The Leviathan charges at you.

 

Whatever Dean thought could be hiding in that file, it wasn’t this.

“Purgatory, Michael? Really?” he mumbles to himself. “Feeling nostalgic, are we.”

Purgatory was a simple, text-based video game the two of them had programmed during their first year at Stanford. It wasn’t particularly elaborate or clever, but it was their own, made in the spirit of harmless fun. Dean had just begun getting into RPG back then, and together with Michael they crafted a short adventure that was less about actual gaming and more about flexing their programming muscles.

Seeing the opening words of the game blink at him in the dark, on the day of his birthday, stirs something heavy in Dean’s chest – something that feels suspiciously like regret.

At the time Purgatory was programmed, Dean had it all. The brains, the looks, the girl, the whole college experience unfolding before him like a pop-up book. His biggest worry was if he had any clean underwear left, and his greatest fear was his pen running out of ink in the middle of an exam. In hindsight, he had no idea how good he had it, how effortlessly everything came to him. His life was ripe and ready for the taking, his future bright and promising. At the age of 23, he was reaching for the stars.

There’s no point to this, Dean tells himself as he types in his next move. He doesn’t even have to strain his memory to remember it.

 

Attack Leviathan with machete.

 

The words disappear; the screen goes black. A second passes, and then—

His phone bursts with images. They change too fast to make out individual scenes, everything blurring together into one stream of colors and shadows. There must be hundreds, thousands of them, flashing before Dean’s eyes like a PowerPoint slideshow at 100 times the normal speed. As he watches, his mind seems to pick up more and more singular images: a dog in a metal cage – an ultrasound – a coffin – a cardinal in ceremonial robes – an explosion – a long hallway – a smoking gun – a cluster of buildings – a train rattling along the tracks – a silhouette emerging from the water, holding something in their arms – a formation of four fighter jets banking steeply to change direction...

Distantly, Dean becomes aware that his eyes are starting to hurt. They sting and water, tears running down his face in rivulets, dropping from his chin to his t-shirt. He hasn’t blinked in a while, and he should; blinking is good. He should blink.

His right hand tightens around the phone and his left curls into the sheets, like his body is trying to fight, but Dean doesn’t look away, can’t look away. There’s more to see: a dark beach – a staircase – a group of men sitting around a table – a woman dressed in black – a crowded concert hall – a military parade – a man sobbing… The man fades away and there’s no new visual to take his place. The phone goes back to the inbox view, Michael’s empty email still sitting there, open.

Dean blinks, and blacks out.

 


 

“Whoa,” Charlie says when Dean opens the door. Her smile fades as she takes in his unshaven face, rumpled shirt and crooked tie. “You didn’t look that drunk when I was leaving last night. You okay?”

“Huh? Yeah, I— I’m okay,” Dean says distractedly, grabbing his car keys from the catch-all dish sitting on the dresser. “We’re good to go.”

“Seriously, Dean, you look like crap,” Charlie insists as they leave the apartment and walk across the courtyard. It’s back to its original state, no sign of last night’s party save for the extra table Sam and Sarah borrowed from one of their friends, now pushed out of the way and cleaned out. It was one of the conditions their neighbors had given them: they could throw Dean’s birthday party in the common area of the complex, but any evidence of it was to be gone by morning. Dean, Sam and Sarah agreed happily, because their apartment didn’t offer nearly as much space, not to mention ambiance. With its central three-tier water fountain, eye-pleasing greenery, wood-spindle balconies and time-worn concrete tiles leading up to the apartments scattered around it, the Spanish-style courtyard was a perfect backdrop for a social gathering.

“Didn’t sleep well, is all,” Dean hedges. It’s not technically a lie; while he slept like a log, it was the kind of sleep that leaves you exhausted. When his morning alarm went off, he woke up with his phone still clutched in his hand, fingers cramping around it, and a splitting headache to boot.

For a brief moment, Dean considers telling Charlie about Michael’s email. Aside from Sam, she’s the one person Dean can always confide in and expect nothing but support (albeit interspersed with some light ribbing) in return.

Dean opens his mouth, then closes it. What would he even say? “Hey, remember the asshole who got me kicked out of school? He sent me an empty email with an attachment, and when I opened it I found a game we programmed at Stanford and a fuckton of pictures that seem to have fried my brain.” Jesus. No, he’s keeping that one to himself. It’s probably nothing, anyway. Just Michael playing some stupid prank on him or something.

Charlie eyes him suspiciously, but doesn’t press the issue. Together they pile into the car, and Dean puts it in reverse, pulling out onto the street. That monstrosity, a white-and-red Toyota Yaris with the Nerd Herd logo on each side, is possibly one of the worst aspects of working at Buy More. Company policy dictates that as the Nerd Herd supervisor, Dean can’t drive his own four wheels, which means it’s Sam who gets to use Dean’s beloved Chevrolet Impala. He hates it – God, the injustice of this world – but he’d rather Sam drive it than have his Baby sit unused and gathering dust. She needs the open road.

“Maybe some music will wake you up,” Charlie offers as they’re waiting to merge into traffic. She turns on the radio and fiddles with it for a minute, searching for something Dean won’t veto. (He vetoes a lot. Company car or not, he won’t allow any hip-hop.) While jumping from station to station, they catch a snippet of a news report.

…at Universal City. Watch out for delays near Burbank Airport, security's checking all vehicles. We got a sigalert on the I-605, San Gabriel River Freeway, Ut South Bound. A fender bender on the I-5, Santa Ana freeway, north bound...

The windshield disappears from before Dean’s eyes, replaced by an array of images. This time, the stream is much shorter, and Dean wouldn’t be able to name a single scene. His hands tighten on the steering wheel, his vision blurring, something echoing in his ears – something – something he’s just heard…

“Dean!” Charlie yells.

Abruptly, the world comes into focus again, and Dean swerves back into his own lane. The car on their left blows its horn long and hard as it passes them.

“Christ,” Charlie gasps. “Did you just nod off?”

“No,” Dean says, horrified to discover his voice is shaking. “No,” he repeats, louder and firmer.

“Listen, if you’re feeling that out of it, maybe skip work today? If you ask Bobby, I’m sure he’ll let you.”

“I’m good,” Dean protests. “Really. I promise,” he adds, because Charlie frowns at him in a way that suggests she’s not buying into his bullshit. “Side effects of partying too hard,” he jokes weakly.

“Dude, if you think that yesterday had anything to do with partying hard, I can only offer you my condolences.”

“I’m almost in my thirties now. Should probably update my standards.”

Charlie snorts, and Dean sends her a smile before turning his eyes back on the road. The view is as clear and sharp as ever, no disturbing flashes, no trace of anything wrong. Dean squints into the distance, and can easily make out the text written on the green signs mounted above the road well ahead of them. 20/20 vision.

What the fuck.

Although Charlie keeps glancing at him like she expects him to have a seizure, they make it to the Buy More without incident. Once there, Dean doesn’t have the time to wonder what might be wrong with him, because there’s a new crisis that demands his attention – a crisis by the name of Belladonna.

“Yes, yes, Belladonna like the porn star,” he says, rolling his eyes when Andy elbows Adam in the side, and they both snicker. “No judgment from me, kids, but you might reconsider going to her website unless you want your computer infected with a real nasty virus. We just got a tip from the Buy More in Pasadena, and it turns out the sucker fried the display version of their Prism Express laptop when one of their employees decided to get down and dirty after hours.”

Dean opens up their own display version of the same laptop and types in the website address into the browser.

“Here’s what happens. Charlie, close your eyes.”

“Not a chance.”

Dean winks at her, and hits enter.

Once the page loads, they’re treated to a rather crude collage of naked and semi-naked pictures of a curvy blonde, Photoshopped to high heavens. As Charlie gives a low whistle, a new window pops up, with yet another, this time highly explicit picture, and a smooth, sensual voice says: Hello, sexy. Hello, sexy. Hello— hello s…. he-hellooo…. – and with that, the laptop dies.

“As you can see,” Dean continues, shutting the laptop closed and putting it away under the counter, “it works fast and takes no prisoners. It’s not ransomware, just plain destruction. Gear up, ‘cause the lonely dude call volume will be high. Uh – some girls might call too, I guess,” he adds, throwing a glance at Charlie.

“No, I don’t think they will,” she says lightly. “Our tastes usually go beyond ‘huge tits and glistening tan’, you know. But thanks for the addendum, boss.”

“What’s wrong with having simple tastes?” Andy exclaims.

“I didn’t say there was anything wrong with it. It’s just boring. So boring.”

“Charlie… porn is entertaining just by being porn, that’s the point.”

“Oh, you poor boy.”

Dean takes that as his cue to leave and make himself some coffee.

His morning passes in a way most of them do, slow and tedious. Belladonna’s victims start calling in after ten o’clock, and by the dozenth time a guy tries to deny having entered the website despite clear evidence in the form of a fried laptop, Dean’s patience is hanging by a thread.

“No, sir, of course a cat walked across your keyboard,” he says into the phone in his best customer voice. “But the result remains the same: the virus destroyed your hard drive. You need to send or bring it in so we can replace it for you.”

The guy bitches and grumbles, but ultimately says he’ll come by later during the day, and hangs up without a goodbye.

Ah, customer service. So rewarding.

“I swear to God, these straight guys need to own up to their porn,” Dean says, rubbing his eyes.

Charlie snickers. “They need to own up to a lot more than that, but I get what you’re saying.”

Dean sighs and looks down at his watch. It’s not even noon yet.

“Hey, Charlie, do you mind taking over for a while? I need a break or the next person who calls is gonna get an earful.”

“Sure thing,” Charlie says. She abandons her post at the helpdesk and gently pushes Dean out of the way to sit down in his chair. Technically speaking, she’s just doing her job, but Dean leans down and kisses her forehead in a silent thank-you anyway. She grins up at him and pulls the phone closer, propping her elbows on the counter.

“These dudes are gonna be over the moon when they realize they have to explain their porn habits to a girl,” she muses. “Their discomfort is gonna fuel me for the rest of the day.”

“You are actually terrifying,” Dean tells her.

Charlie gives him the finger guns, and then her expression morphs from smug to curious as she notices something over Dean’s shoulder. “Customer incoming,” she mouths.

Dean turns around, and his well-practiced “Welcome to the Nerd Herd, how may I help you?” dies on his lips.

The man leans against the counter and gives him a polite smile. “Hello,” he says.

Dean has always prided himself on being an equal opportunity guy, dating-wise. Boy or girl, blond or brunette, tall or short, it’s never really mattered to him much. He’s down for anything: soft curves or hard planes of muscle, leaning down or standing on his tiptoes for a kiss, picking someone up in his arms and being picked up himself, running his fingers through short hair and pulling on longer hair. It’s all good and fun and thrilling, and Dean definitely doesn’t have a type.

But if he did, this would probably be it. It would be this exact guy, right down to clear blue eyes, unkempt dark hair, and a bicep the size of Charlie’s head.

“Hi— hello,” Dean manages. His eyes sweep over the guy’s body, taking in his denim jacket and a well-fitted black t-shirt underneath. Although the counter is hiding the rest of him, Dean thinks he saw a flash of a silver belt buckle.

“What can I do for you?” he asks, praying the man doesn’t notice – or doesn’t mind – being ogled.

“My phone’s acting up on me,” the guy says. He pulls it out of his pocket and slides it across the counter, screen up. “I was hoping you could help me?”

“That’s why I’m here,” Dean assures him. He spares a second to thank the universe that it’s not another case of Belladonna before picking up the phone and unlocking it. At first glance, it seems fine.

“I think it’s the battery,” the man clarifies, unprompted. “When I plug it in, it’s not charging. Or rather, it starts to charge, then stops, then starts again and so on.”

“Oh. Well, that sounds more like the cable’s to blame, actually. Hold on, let me check – Charlie, do we have a micro USB cable lying around here somewhere?”

They do, and once the phone is plugged in, it lights up to indicate charging in progress.

“We should wait a few minutes to make sure it keeps charging,” Dean says, “but I’m willing to bet the cable you’ve been using is frayed. Buy a new one and problem solved.”

“Thank God,” the man laughs, a low, delightful sound Dean immediately wants to hear again. “I thought I’d have to get a new phone.”

“If you ever do, drop by and I’ll help you choose,” Dean says before he can think what he’s doing. Hitting on a customer who might not even swing that way. Great strategy, Winchester. He almost expects to be punched in the face, but the man’s smile doesn’t waver. In fact, he leans closer, giving Dean a whiff of his cologne, and there’s definitely a glint of amusement in his eyes.

“I might take you up on that…” He glances down at the name tag on Dean’s chest, then back up at his face. “...Dean.”

“Anytime, customer whose name I’ve yet to find out.”

The guy flashes him another smile, closed-lipped but wide, and Dean’s heart does a somersault.

“It’s Castiel. Cas, for short. Shall we make our acquaintance official?”

The guy – Castiel – extends his hand for Dean to shake, an endearingly formal gesture that makes Dean roll his eyes. Cas’s palm is warm, and his handshake firm. When he lets go, Dean finds himself mourning the loss.

“Do you think we’ve waited long enough?” Cas asks, nodding towards his phone still lying between them.

“Yeah, it’s good. Here,” Dean says, unplugging it and handing it back. “You’ll find a new charging cable in aisle 3.”

“Perfect,” Cas says, without taking his eyes off Dean. “Before I go, could you do me one more favor?” He twiddles with his phone, like he’s weighing his options, then pushes it back into Dean’s hand.

“Is there something else wrong with it?”

“Yes,” Cas says, voice serious. “The contacts list lacks your number.”

As far as pickup lines go, it’s truly horrible, and Dean can’t help but laugh. Judging by a snort quickly covered by a cough, Charlie thinks so too.

“Well, we must do something about that,” Dean says, aiming for equal gravity. He punches in his number, then shoots off a text to himself for good measure. “There.”

“Thank you. Well, I better go get that cable then. I’ll see you around, Dean.”

“I sure hope so,” Dean says. He gives Cas a warm smile, and is rewarded with one in turn.

As soon as Cas is out of earshot, Charlie grabs Dean’s arm and uses it to wheel her chair closer to him. “Well, well, well,” she says in a singsong voice.

“What?” Dean asks defensively.

“That was one of the smoothest meet-cutes my eyes ever did see. I didn’t know you had it in you.”

“There was nothing cute about it.”

“It was the cutest. Also – holy crap, Dean, that guy’s hot. Are you gonna call him?”

“I don’t know,” Dean says, trying to sound casual. It’s a blatant lie; he’s already itching to reach for his phone. He should probably wait for Cas to at least leave the store, though. And then add another twenty minutes as a cushion. Don’t want to come off desperate, after all.

“What’s there to know? You’re into him, and he’s clearly into you. Just ask him out.”

Dean latches onto that one word like a drowning man onto a lifeline. “Clearly?”

“Yes, clearly. He didn’t take his eyes off you the entire time he was here. Trust me, I was watching.”

It’s been a while since Dean experienced such a strong attraction to someone, and an even longer while since that attraction was mutual. So when his lunch break rolls around, he takes Charlie’s advice and sends Cas a text.

 

>>> Dean

How’s your phone doing? Everything ok?

 

<<< Cas

Yes, everything is in order. You were right, it was the cable.

 

>>> Dean

I’m often right about IT stuff, it’s kinda my thing

 

<<< Cas

I figured :)

 

>>> Dean

Not a technology guy yourself?

 

<<< Cas

Hardly. Don’t be surprised if I become a frequent visitor. Electronics don’t like me.

 

>>> Dean

No worries I’ll force them to cooperate with you

 

>>> Dean

Wouldn’t mind you becoming a frequent visitor though

 

<<< Cas

Careful what you wish for, Dean.

 

>>> Dean

Oh I know exactly what I wish for

 

<<< Cas

Enlighten me.

 

>>> Dean

Drinks tonight?

 


 

The prospect of a date with Cas effectively pushes any thoughts of Michael and his weird-ass email out of Dean’s mind. The disturbing flash that almost made him crash his car doesn’t repeat itself, and the rest of the day passes uneventfully, or at least as uneventfully as the Buy More standards dictate (Adam gets sick after eating leftover lasagna that has been sitting in their break room fridge since well before Thanksgiving, and Bobby yells at Andy for playing Xbox with an 11-year-old customer instead of fielding the Belladonna calls). By the time Dean makes it home, he’s thrumming with excitement, mentally picking out the outfit he’s going to put on after hopping out of the shower. His good mood wanes a little when he finds out Sam has taken the Impala and won’t be back with it until late, but Sarah points out that it’s a pretty solid incentive to score a second date.

“Besides, if he doesn’t like you without your sexy muscle car, he doesn’t deserve to see it,” she says, a teasing edge to her voice.

“I know you’re making fun of me right now, but I don’t care.”

“Me, making fun of you? Never.” She straightens out the collar of his shirt and smiles up at him. “Now go take your nasty Toyota and charm the pants off this guy. Where are you taking him?”

“Just a bar.”

“Very romantic.”

“Sarah,” Dean says, suddenly not liking where this is going. “It’s just a night out with some guy I met at work. Don’t make a big deal out of this. And don’t tell Sam.”

Sarah’s eyebrows draw together, and her hands drop from Dean’s collar. “Why not?”

“Because he’ll get too excited and start planning my wedding. If this flops, he doesn’t even need to know.”

Sarah considers this for a moment, her eyes searching Dean’s with disconcerting, laser-like focus. Sam’s own stable relationship and his desire to see Dean settled and happy makes him look at everyone Dean’s interested in like a potential brother or sister-in-law, but Sarah – she gets it, Dean thinks. She gets that sometimes people just hook up, then move on. That they may date for a while, and decide it’s not going to work out. That not everyone is lucky enough to meet the love of their life at the age of 18. That sometimes, a person you thought would stay in your life forever dumps you for your best friend and leaves you loath to trust anyone again.

“Okay,” Sarah says. “I’ll hold off on telling him, but if there’s a date number two, you’re gonna own up to it.”

“Fine, Jesus. If there is one, I will.”

“Good.”

Dean’s already halfway to the door when Sarah’s voice stops him.

“He’s aware of it, you know.” She doesn’t say the name, but she uses that warm tone she reserves only for talking about Sam. “He’s aware that he can come off strong sometimes. He’s working on reigning it in, but he wants to see you happy. After all you’ve been through with Michael and Cassie and – and everything. You’ve taken care of him his whole life, and now he’s trying to return the favor. In his own way.”

Out of the blue, Dean’s throat closes up. He nods. “Yeah. Yeah, I know.”

She stares at him, and nods back. “Good,” she repeats. “Good. Now skedaddle.”

So Dean skedaddles, and drives his “nasty Toyota” to the bar where him and Cas are supposed to meet. Since he’s a little early and Cas is nowhere to be seen, Dean slides onto a stool and orders a beer. His thoughts circle back to what Sarah said, to the memories of the shocked and devastated look on Sam’s face when Dean told him Stanford had showed him the door. Poor kid took it almost as badly as Dean himself. If it weren’t for Sarah talking some sense into him, he would have broken Michael’s face and gotten himself suspended.

“You’re very punctual.”

Dean whirls around, almost spilling beer on himself. “Christ, you scared me.”

“Sorry,” Cas says, taking a place next to Dean and signaling the bartender to bring him whatever Dean’s having. His hand touches Dean’s arm in greeting, a light pressure that’s gone way too soon. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I hope you haven’t been waiting long?”

Mutely, Dean shakes his head, well aware that he’s staring again. For some reason, Cas has swapped the denim jacket from earlier for a black leather one, and if Dean thought it was bad before, he had it wrong.

If he manages to go the entire evening without jumping this guy, it’ll be a goddamn miracle.

 


 

As it turns out, talking to Cas is easy. He’s a little rough around the edges, doesn’t get some of Dean’s jokes, and stares at him blankly when Dean asks if he likes video games, but overall he has an effortless charm about him that seems almost too perfect. He listens attentively when Dean tells him about his work and his friends, about Sam and Sarah, and some other crap Dean should probably skip on a first date. In turn, Cas tells Dean that he’s just moved to California from D.C.; that he doesn’t know anyone here yet; that the reason he decided to uproot his life was a bad breakup.

“It’s probably not what you want to hear,” he murmurs, thumbing at the layer of condensation gathered on his glass, “but I think it’s only fair to warn you that I come with baggage.”

“We all have some of that,” Dean says. At some point during the evening, they’ve moved closer to each other, so he doesn’t have to raise his voice to make himself heard over the din of the bar. Their hands lie on the counter, just shy of touching, and Cas’s eyes are very blue up close.

“So what’s yours?” Cas asks, taking a sip of his beer. “Any skeletons in your closet?”

Michael’s and Cassie’s faces float to the forefront of Dean’s mind, but he forces them back. Cas doesn’t need to hear about that.

“Nah, I’m boring,” he says with a rueful smile.

“That’s not the impression I’m getting so far.”

“Maybe you’re not very observant,” Dean quips.

That idea seems to amuse Cas, because the corner of his mouth twitches, and – Jesus, Dean really wants to kiss it. Perhaps he shouldn’t try that in the bar – it’s not a gay bar, just a regular Burbank pub – but their glasses are almost empty and it might be time to move this party somewhere more private. He’s about to suggest as much when Cas glances idly over Dean’s shoulder, and his face falls.

“What?” Dean asks. He tries to turn his head to follow Cas’s line of sight, but Cas grabs the side of his face and keeps their eyes locked. His smile is back, easy and relaxed as ever.

“Nothing, just thought I recognized someone. I was wrong. Do you want to get out of here, Dean?”

That is exactly what Dean wants, but the bluntness of the offer and the heat in Cas’s voice take him off-guard. He inhales sharply when Cas leans in, his stubbled cheek grazing feather-soft against Dean’s clean-shaven one.

“I— sure, yeah,” Dean breathes. A rustle of fabric comes from somewhere around their waists, followed by a swift whoosh of something sharp slicing through the air, but Cas’s lips are brushing the underside of Dean’s jaw now, and Dean’s too distracted to give a shit.

“I’ll take care of the tab,” Cas says. There’s a new, urgent undercurrent to his voice that gives Dean pause. It sounds more apprehensive than lust-induced. “Meet me in the car.”

Against his instinct, Dean draws back to catch Cas’s eye. “Come on, you don’t have to pay. Let’s split it, okay?”

“Dean. Go to your car.”

Something’s wrong. Cas drops his hand from Dean’s face and tugs at his arm, pulling him off the stool.

“What—”

Now, Dean. I’ll explain la—”

It all happens simultaneously. Cas pushes Dean to the floor; the mirror above the bar shatters; someone yells “Alive, you moron!”; terrified screams of other bar goers erupt around them; a series of shots echoes so close, Dean’s ears start ringing before he realizes it was Cas who fired them.

“What the fuck are you d—”

Cas grabs his hand and drags him toward the door, swerving around disoriented people clamoring in the same direction. Dean glances backwards, searching for the source of the panic, and notices two men in black suits sprawled across the floor. One of them has a knife sticking out of his thigh, and the other clutches a bleeding arm to his chest.

And then there’s a third one, taking aim with a Sig Sauer.

Two more shots pierce the air, and the man falls backwards, crashing into a table. Cas withdraws his gun and tugs at Dean again, his fingers twisted almost painfully into Dean’s shoulder. Together they stumble onto the sidewalk, where Dean’s car waits for them parked outside the bar.

“Cas, who are these dudes— Cas—”

“Give me the keys,” Cas orders.

In theory, only Nerd Herd employees are allowed to drive company cars, but adhering to those stupid policies about even stupider cars is the last thing on Dean’s mind right now. Without thinking, he fishes the keys out of his pocket and throws them to Cas, who jumps behind the wheel and revs the engine before Dean can blink.

As soon as the passenger door is closed, the tires squeal and the car lurches backwards.

“You’re in reverse!” Dean yells.

“I know!” Cas yells back, and floors it.

The reason becomes clear when Dean looks out the windshield. There’s a black Dodge Journey speeding towards them, way too close to allow any maneuvers. It leaves them no choice but to zig-zag backwards around oncoming cars, followed by the sound of blowing horns and the Dodge hot on their heels.

Dean’s no stranger to reckless driving, but even for him, this is insane. They’re going at least 50 miles an hour, in the wrong direction, dodging cars left and right, and Cas is only barely glancing at his rearview and side mirrors.

“Do you mind telling me what the fuck is going on?” Dean hollers over the sound of the roaring engine and the rush of blood in his ears. In a burst of sudden clarity and common sense Sam would be proud of, he fumbles with his seat belt and snaps it into place. “Cas?”

“Tell me when to turn.”

“What?”

The Dodge is so close now, they’re caught in its headlights, and Dean can make out the stern, grim face of its driver, dark-skinned and sporting a goatee that Dean would find hilarious under different circumstances. The next second, their bumpers crash into each other with enough force to rattle Dean’s teeth. I’m so glad I didn’t take the Impala, he thinks, and then amends it in his head: But Bobby’s gonna take the new bumper off my salary.

“Dean, look behind us and tell me when to turn,” Cas repeats sharply, speeding up to restore some distance between them and the SUV. Pushing thoughts of potential and actual car damage out of his mind and stifling a hysterical laugh bubbling up in his throat, Dean turns around to search for the nearest side street.

“Okay, uh – left in three seconds?”

“My left or your left?”

“I—”

“Too late.”

Cas takes a sharp turn to Dean’s left, and they tumble down what turns out to be a set of stairs connecting to another road – mercifully, an empty one. There’s no sign of the Dodge following, but Dean doesn’t sigh in relief just yet. His heart thumps wildly against his ribcage, and he’s so high on adrenaline he’s dizzy with it.

“Cas, who the fuck are these people?”

“The NSA.”

“Jesus Christ, are you wanted or something?”

“No. You are.”

Dean gapes at him. “Me? I’m a fucking nobody, why would—”

“This car is too conspicuous,” Cas decides, like Dean hasn’t said anything. “We need to proceed on foot.”

“And leave it here? No way, my boss is gonna kill me.”

“He won’t have to if you don’t move,” Cas says, one foot already out of the car.

Dean’s first instinct is to argue, to explain that all of this is some huge misunderstanding. It must be. The idea that an intelligence agency like the NSA would expedite any resources to kill a nameless, insignificant civilian is absurd.

...and yet, the man driving the Dodge and the men back at the bar didn’t look like random psychos. They didn’t start shooting left and right at the crowd, the way most deranged gunmen do. They went for Dean and Cas, specifically. And when Dean made eye contact with the driver, right before he slammed into their bumper, the intent behind the guy’s eyes was unmistakable. He knew Dean, and he was out to get him.

“Okay, what do we do?” Dean asks, joining Cas on the sidewalk. He throws one last look at the Toyota. He hates that car, but it doesn’t deserve to be abandoned like this.

Instead of answering, Cas pushes Dean towards the entrance of the nearest high-rise building, with at least 30 stories and glass on all sides. Ignoring a distrustful glare from the concierge, they enter the elevator and ride it all the way to the top, which finally gives Dean an opportunity to press Cas for an explanation.

“Why are they after me?” he demands.

Cas catches his eye. His breathing is a little heavy, and he’s still clutching a gun in his hand. Dean tries not to look at it. They stare each other down as the floor numbers on the display above the elevator doors go up: 5th floor, 6th, 7th, 8th...

“How well do you know Michael Milton?” Cas asks at last.

A chill climbs up Dean’s spine. “How do you know him?” he deflects.

“We used to work together.”

“Like, in the same office?”

“No. Like at the CIA.”

It’s the most ridiculous thing Dean’s ever heard.

“The CIA,” he repeats. “Michael is CIA? Wait, you’re CIA?”

“I’m afraid so. Did Michael attempt to contact you? Did he send you something, perhaps?”

The opening words of Purgatory resurface in Dean’s mind. “Yeah,” he whispers. The elevator stops on the top floor and the doors open, but Dean doesn’t move. “He sent me an email.”

Dean’s mind is running a mile a minute, fruitlessly attempting to put the pieces together, and he lets Cas manhandle him out of the elevator, down a corridor and up a set of narrow stairs.

So Michael sends him an email with a boatload of images... some of these images flash in Dean’s mind at the sound of something said on the radio... a guy comes into the Buy More and flirts with Dean... the guy turns out to be a CIA agent who knew Michael... the NSA is involved… No, this makes absolutely zero fucking sense.

Dean shakes himself off, and realizes they’ve made it to the roof. “Why are we here?”

“I made a call earlier. They’re sending a helicopter to evacuate us. Should be here any minute.”

Dean should be surprised by that, but his supply of shock for the day has run dry. Of course the CIA is sending a helicopter to save him from NSA assassins. Apparently that’s his life now.

“I don’t believe this,” Dean says. He glances up at Cas in defiance. “This is a load of bullshit. I know Michael. He’s not a spy.”

“No, he’s not. He’s a rogue operative,” Cas corrects him. “Dean, that email he sent you – what was in it?”

“Purgatory,” Dean answers without thinking. Cas blinks at him. “It’s a game we programmed at Stanford. It was like a – like a riddle, I guess? I solved it, and then there were lots and lots of pictures.”

“Did you look at them?”

“Yeah, I— wait, was I not supposed to do that? Is that why all these black-suited bozos are chasing me?”

Cas looks over Dean’s shoulder, and his stance shifts. “Dean,” he says. His voice is low, and his mouth barely moves as he speaks. “I may need to point my gun at you. Stay calm and trust me.”

These are not the kind of words a guy wants to hear on a first date.

While the men from the bar and the driver of the black SUV rank higher on the list of Things Dean Should Be Worried About, Cas definitely features close behind. The crazy car chase delayed that realization, but it’s now dawning upon Dean in all of its horrific glory. Cas is not a random customer who came into the store to get his phone fixed. Cas is not Dean’s actual date. He’s been lying this whole time, and now has the balls to ask for Dean’s trust like he has any right to it.

Dean’s about to articulate that when slow steps echo from behind, and a harsh voice says, “Hand him over, Novak.”

Dean spins on his heel. The Dodge driver approaches them at an almost leisurely pace, glancing between Dean and Cas with an expression of mild boredom on his face. He’s about Dean’s height, though older by at least a decade. His buzz cut and the way he’s holding himself practically scream ex-military. He’s armed, too, but the gun hangs by his side in a somewhat casual manner. Casual enough to immediately raise Dean’s suspicions.

“He’s not going anywhere with you, Henriksen,” Cas says.

“Of course he is. He belongs to the NSA.”

“Excuse you,” Dean bristles. “Who do you think...” He tapers off, because Cas raises his arm and aims a gun at his head. Henriksen responds by lifting his own gun and pointing it at Cas’s heart.

To be fair, Cas did warn Dean it might come to this, but even a written notice wouldn’t lessen the terror of staring down the barrel of a Glock.

“The CIA gets him first,” Cas says, his gun trained on Dean and his eyes on Henriksen. “Come any closer and I shoot.”

Dean’s heart thunders in his chest. Cas wouldn’t shoot him, would he? Maybe he’s not who he said he was, but he saved Dean’s life back at the bar. Surely he wouldn’t do that just to off him half an hour later in a different location?

“Fine, do it,” Henriksen says easily. “You shoot him, I shoot you, still a win in my book.”

“You’re bluffing. You need him alive.”

“Are you sure?”

At this point, Dean has seen and heard enough. His hands are shaking, still raised in a reflexive “don’t shoot” gesture, and his pulse is racing, but the predominant feeling clawing its way out of his throat is anger. All he wanted was a nice night out, a couple of drinks, and getting laid. He didn’t sign up for any of this shit, for two government schnooks debating whether or not to kill him. He doesn’t care if Michael is CIA or what those images were. He wants to get the fuck out of here and go home.

Castiel and Henriksen are still staring each other down, so Dean takes a tentative step sideways, towards the stairs leading back to the building. Emboldened by being unnoticed, he turns around—

Two voices yell at him not to move, but they seem to come from very far away. A new series of pictures assaults him, bright and fast – faces, documents, maps. He sways and gasps when it’s gone, gaping at the silhouette of the hotel across the street. He’s almost certain it was the view of that hotel that made something click in his brain.

He’s also certain of something else.

“They’re gonna kill him,” he whispers.

“What did you say?”

Dean turns around to stare at Cas with wide eyes. “General Stanfield. You know, the NATO guy? I— he’s in that hotel over there. I just saw…”

“What did you see? Talk to me.” Cas steps forward, eyes earnest but the gun still raised. “Dean. Dean, look at me, not at the gun. How do you know Stanfield is in that hotel?”

“I’ve no idea. I…” Dean hesitates, and then decides to bite the bullet. (So the speak. He prays it remains a metaphor.) It seems like he’s going to have to trust someone, and it definitely isn’t going to be that NSA asshole. “Cas, I think something’s wrong with me. I’m remembering things I shouldn’t know.”

“Like what?”

“Like – okay, so this morning I heard something on the radio, and I remembered that Stanfield had arrived at LAX the day before. Except that I couldn’t remember it, because I’d never known it. And just now, I looked at that hotel and I remembered that the NSA intercepted its blueprints.”

Henriksen redirects his gun from Cas to Dean. “Looks like he was working with Michael after all.”

Like a well-practiced dance, Cas switches his own aim from Dean to Henriksen.

“No, he wasn’t. He opened Michael’s email. Dean,” Cas says, glancing back at him, “those images you saw had data encoded in them. Top secret intelligence compiled by the CIA and the NSA. If you saw them, it means you know all of it.”

“You gotta be kidding me,” Dean and Henriksen say in unison.

“Trust me, I’m not. I spent the last twenty-four hours searching for that intel. I cloned your phone when I stopped by your store earlier today, and I broke into your house to inspect your computer. We had a team recover your emails from your provider. The data is no longer there. Michael must have made sure it would be permanently erased upon first viewing.”

Dean makes a stifled noise in the back of his throat. “You broke into my house?” he manages.

“Dean, focus,” Cas says urgently. “You said someone’s going to kill the general?”

“Yeah, they have a bomb.”

“How do we stop it?”

“How the hell should I know? Call Michael, he’s the spy.”

“Michael’s dead.” Cas’s voice wavers, but his gun doesn’t as he lowers it to his side. “Sending you that email was the last thing he did.”

Dean’s heart drops to the pit of his stomach. Michael did him dirty, but there was a time when he was like family to Dean. Not just his fellow student or roommate, but his best friend. As much resentment as Dean still feels at the thought of him, the news of his death strikes hard.

“That’s very touching and all,” Henriksen drawls, “but in case you two forgot, we’ve got a bomb to defuse.”

“We?”

Henriksen narrows his eyes, then uncocks his gun. “Yes, Mr. Winchester, we. We’re the good guys who defuse bombs, and apparently you have a supercomputer in your head that’s going to tell us how.”

Dean takes a step back. “I can’t. Don’t you guys have a – a bomb disposal squad or something?”

“Dean,” Cas pleads. He starts to walk towards him, but stops and raises his hand in a placating gesture when Dean flinches. “Even if they make it in time, we don’t know where the bomb is hidden. I understand that as a civilian, you’re not used to this, but like it or not, you have the knowledge that might be crucial to stopping an assassination attempt. Help us, please. People are going to die if you don’t.”

There’s no way Dean can defuse a real, actual bomb. He’s a computer nerd, not fucking MacGyver. He has nothing going for him.

Except the super-secret database in his noggin.

He inhales through his nose, then releases his breath in a whoosh. This is going to be the craziest thing he’s ever done, or will ever do.

“Alright, Cas. But if we die, I’m gonna kill you.”

The three of them are already in the elevator by the time the CIA’s rescue chopper begins its slow descent onto the now empty roof.

 


 

There is something to be said for adrenaline and its wonders.

For one, it’s relentless. It first hit when the NSA goons attacked them back at the bar, and Dean has been riding the wave ever since, through the car chase and the confrontation on the roof. His brain should be completely maxed out on it by now, yet when he barges into the hotel lobby with Castiel and Henriksen in tow, a new rush of it floods his veins. He has no idea why he agreed to this or how to access the database stuck in his head and search it for answers, but his fight-or-flight response has kicked in, and settled on fight.

He’s doing this.

“Is there enough time to evacuate the building?” Cas asks, glancing at the people milling around the lobby.

“No, according to the schedule the general’s already on stage,” Dean says, too wired to wonder how he knows this. “We gotta – just – follow me,” he adds, and runs.

The hotel blueprints he remembered earlier are clear like a map in his head, leading him easily up the stairs and towards a large conference room on the second floor. Castiel and Henriksen flash their badges to the security guards stationed outside, and then they’re in, greeted by an audience of at least a few dozen people and an elderly man in a dove gray uniform, standing on a podium front and center.

Nobody pays them any mind. In fact, nobody seems to notice their arrival at all. The audience are seated at round tables scattered around the room, and they’re all focused either on the stage or the plates set in front of them. Waiters flit around here and there, refilling glasses with champagne that likely costs more than Dean’s monthly salary. From military top brass to wait staff, no one’s aware of imminent danger.

“Dean, where is it?” Cas whispers. “Where’s the bomb?”

When the knowledge doesn’t immediately come to him, Dean can feel himself beginning to panic. He scans the room, eyes frantic, unsure what he’s even looking for. What little he knows about explosive devices comes from action movies, and he doubts it has much to do with reality. Is the bomb small enough to be hidden under somebody’s chair? One of the tables? Or is it planted right under the podium?

“I don’t know,” he says miserably, though his eyes keep moving, taking stock of his surroundings. If he only knew where to look to trigger one of those flashes, if only there was something—

And then it comes, as unexpected as the previous ones.

“It’s there,” he says, pointing at a trolley standing between the tables. There’s a large, stainless steel cloche on it, covering what should be a platter of gourmet food, but what Dean’s now certain has been swapped for enough explosives to blow this whole joint sky-high.

He’s proven right when Cas lifts the cloche and reveals a laptop connected to a dizzying amount of C4, packaged into rectangular demolition blocks.

“Oh God,” Dean says. “It’s real. It’s a real bomb.”

“Get it together, Winchester,” Henriksen snaps while Castiel opens the laptop. The screen displays a countdown clock like something out of a bad spy movie, red numbers dropping at a steady, but relentless pace.

“We have less than three minutes,” Cas says. If Dean weren’t currently trying to withhold a massive freak-out, he would marvel at how steady his voice sounds. He must have done this before.

“Disconnect the laptop?” Henriksen suggests.

“Auto-trigger. The cables?”

“Definitely a trap.”

“Dean? Ideas?”

Dean stares at the bomb and the laptop until his eyes begin to water, but no flashes are forthcoming. Either the database in his head doesn’t include any handy how-to manuals on bomb disposal, or he can’t access it on cue. Whichever it is, they’re screwed.

“I’m sorry. I got nothing.”

The only giveaway of Castiel’s emotions is a tick of his jaw. “Alright then. Get out of here while Henriksen and I deal with it.”

Dean doesn’t move. “What are you gonna do?”

“I don’t know yet, but you can’t be here in case we fail. You’re way too valuable.”

“I can’t believe I’m about to say it, but he’s right. Move it,” Henriksen orders, pushing Dean out of the way and kneeling next to the trolley to further inspect the wires. Dean stares at them too, though without any hope of flashing. There are six of them, all connecting to the laptop.

A laptop with a familiar, slate-gray frame.

“Dean,” Castiel prompts, waving him away. “You need to be as far away from here as possible.”

“Yeah,” Dean mutters, but his feet remain glued to the floor. On some level, he knows there’s nothing more he can do. He should join the last wave of people fleeing the room (and when did that exodus happen) while he still has a chance of making it out with all four limbs intact. Just like Cas said, Dean’s a civilian, and he would do well to leave this whole mess to actual government agents.

He should run.

“It’s a Prism Express,” he mumbles to himself. The countdown shows one minute thirty-four seconds until detonation.

“What?” Henriksen barks, just as Castiel says, “Dean, go.”

“We sell those at the Buy More.”

An idea begins to form in Dean’s mind. It’s crude, preposterous, and it might not work, but Dean has decided – to his own great astonishment – that he won’t hightail it out of here like a coward. He doesn’t have qualms about leaving Castiel and Henriksen, who understand the risk, but there must be other people around, people who haven’t made it out of the hotel yet or maybe don’t even know they should. The staff, the guests on upper floors. If the whole building collapses, there are bound to be many casualties.

“Let me try,” he says, and elbows his way past Castiel and Henriksen to get to the laptop’s keyboard.

“This isn’t a video game, asshat,” Henriksen growls.

“Dean, you have invaluable intelligence in your brain. You can’t die here.”

“No one’s dying, Cas,” Dean says distractedly, clicking on the browser icon. When a Google home page appears, he types in “Belladonna”.

Castiel frowns. “How is researching a poisonous plant going to help us?”

“This idiot is searching for porn,” Henriksen says, fuming.

Dean’s mouth ticks up. “I see you know your porn stars. But no, it’s a virus. It can override the programming. At least I hope so.” He can feel Cas and Henriksen exchange a look behind his back, but there’s no time for second guessing. Either he’s right, or they’re all dead anyway. “Just trust me. Both of you.”

Catching Cas’s eye in the reflection of the laptop screen, Dean clicks on the link. The page loads, showering them with pornographic images Dean’s all too familiar with. Henriksen scoffs, then mutters, “Not the worst thing to see right before you die, I guess.”

“Hello, sexy,” Belladonna’s tinny voice says. “Hello— hello sss…. he-hellooo….”

The laptop makes a sizzling noise and shuts off.

The three of them stare at it, frozen, for five long seconds.

“You did it,” Cas breathes, bewildered.

“I did it,” Dean echoes, and lets out a delirious laugh. “I did it. Oh my fucking God,” he says, and collapses back onto the carpeted floor, where he plans to stay as long as it takes for his heart to calm down.

 


 

It takes Dean’s frazzled brain almost the entire walk back to his abandoned Toyota to realize that they’re not going to let him go. Castiel and Henriksen are trailing behind him, speaking in hushed tones that grow louder as the conversation turns into an argument, but Dean barely listens. Now that the adrenaline is wearing off, he’s light-headed and feels a sudden urge to pass out on the nearest flat surface.

“…not a good idea,” Castiel is saying. “We don’t know what triggers the memories.”

“We can figure that out by bringing him in and letting our experts have a go at him.”

“You want to lock him up?”

“You want to let him go?”

“Well, what about his family? His brother?”

That instantly gets Dean’s attention. “What about him?” he demands, halting mid-step so that Cas almost walks into him. “What the hell does he have to do with all this?”

“Nothing yet. Did you tell him about the email and the flashes? Did you tell anyone?”

“I didn’t.”

“That’s good,” Cas says, nodding. His unflappability makes Dean’s blood boil.

“Oh, is it?”

“Yes. Any civilian who knows about you would be forced to go into witness protection.”

Dean stares at Cas, then at Henriksen. They both look dead serious.

“That sounds like overkill,” he protests.

“Dean, I don’t think you understand the gravity of the situation.”

“No, I do. For some reason, Michael decided to fuck up my life yet again, and now I’m a vessel for government intelligence. Fine. But my family is not a part of this. I swear I didn’t tell them anything, so do whatever you need to do with me, but leave them the fuck alone.”

Though his words come out sharp and biting, Dean doesn’t feel all that confident. He’s standing in front of two special agents of the government of the United States of America, both of them armed and dangerous. Neither of them cares about the wellbeing of Dean’s loved ones – hell, they don’t even care about Dean’s. The only thing they’re here to protect is the data embedded in Dean’s head.

“I still vote we dump him in a padded cell,” Henriksen says, unperturbed. “If he wants to protect his family so much, that’s the best way to do it, anyway.”

Dean slumps against the Toyota. That’s it, then. His shitty life has run its shitty course. He’s going to spend the rest of his days locked up in some top-secret CIA facility, getting poked and prodded until he either croaks or goes insane.

Maybe they’ll let him say goodbye to Sammy, at least.

“No.”

When Dean looks up, Castiel’s shoulders are squared in determination.

“No,” Cas repeats. “He helped us find a bomb, Henriksen. A bomb we didn’t even know we were supposed to be looking for. He saved a NATO general’s life, and that’s just within a day of acquiring the data.” Cas’s eyes slide from Henriksen to Dean, scrutinizing. “I think he could help us stop something bigger, if given a chance.”

Treacherous hope flares up in Dean’s chest. If Cas is on his side – if he convinces his bosses, or whoever it is he answers to, that Dean should be allowed to stay in Burbank…

“Could’ve been a fluke,” Henriksen says.

“Or the beginning of a pattern.”

“Jesus, let me live,” Henriksen grunts. “Fine. You call your supervisor, I call mine. You,” he adds, jabbing a finger at Dean. “Go home and don’t do anything stupid. Don’t try to run. Don’t talk to anyone about what happened here. Got it?”

“Who would believe me,” Dean says glumly.

“That’s the spirit,” Henriksen says, then thumps him on the back before disappearing down the poorly lit street, leaving the two of them alone.

Silence falls as Henriksen’s footsteps fade in the distance. It’s late and there’s no one around, no cars or pedestrians. Dean can just about make out the distant noises of the main road, but here, the only vehicle is the Toyota still parked at the curb, and the only presence himself and his date-turned-CIA agent.

Correction: a CIA agent who was never his date to begin with.

“So, what about you?” he asks, staring down at his shoes. Only now does he notice that the asphalt beneath his feet is slightly wet, glistening under the small patches of light coming from the streetlamps. It must have rained while they were inside the hotel defusing the bomb.

Jesus Christ. How is that a sentence that describes Dean’s life.

“What about me?” Cas asks.

“Why aren’t you leaving? I thought you had a call to make. Plead my case or whatever.”

A thoughtful humming noise comes from alarmingly close. Dean keeps staring at his boots.

“It can wait,” Castiel says. His shoulder brushes Dean’s jacket as he leans against the car. Dean can feel his eyes on the side of his face, but he resolutely avoids looking up. “I wanted to make sure you’re okay first.”

A mirthless laugh bubbles out of Dean. “Okay? I have a fucking supercomputer in my head.”

“The Intersect.”

“What?”

“The computer. It’s called the Intersect.”

If Dean were looking for signs of goodwill on Cas’s part, sharing information like that – undoubtedly classified – could be considered as one. Of course, Dean isn’t looking.

“Its creation was a joint effort between the CIA and the NSA, focused on exchanging intelligence between the two agencies,” Castiel continues, in a tone that’s almost conversational. “I don’t know what you see when you have these flashes, Dean, but the Intersect contains an unfathomable amount of data. Information on terrorist groups, arms dealers, personal files of the most wanted war criminals, their known locations, aliases… everything. You know everything.”

Dean slides his palms down his thighs and tries to control his breathing. “I didn’t ask for this.”

“I know.”

“I have no idea why Michael sent this – this Intersect to me.”

“Neither do I,” Castiel says gently. There’s something about his matter-of-fact, no-nonsense approach that Dean finds comforting. He tilts his head to the side and finally allows himself to catch Cas’s eye. To his surprise, Castiel smiles at him and says, “You did really well tonight.”

“I didn’t get blown up, so that’s a plus,” Dean mumbles. “So, impromptu bomb disposal… that a regular evening for you?”

“Not as regular as you might think.”

“Only every second night, huh?”

“Before this goes any further,” Castiel says, a hint of amusement in his voice, “I would advise you to discard any clichés about the world of espionage that Hollywood led you to believe.”

“You’re about to ruin it for me, aren’t you,” Dean sighs.

“If you treat James Bond movies as gospel, you deserve it.”

Dean laughs, and the corner of Castiel’s mouth lifts ever so slightly. For a brief moment, it’s like the past hour didn’t happen; like they’re still on the world’s most normal date, flirting and making each other laugh.

The thought wipes the smile right off Dean’s face.

“It was all a job,” he says flatly. “You coming to the Buy More, asking for my number, the bar – you were on a job this entire time.”

Castiel doesn’t look contrite, and he doesn’t deny it. “Yes,” he says simply.

Dean stares at him, and wonders how he could ever think otherwise. What screw went loose in his head to make him believe that a guy like Cas would look at him and think: This man makes 10 bucks an hour in an electronics store. I’m gonna ask him out.

“Why didn’t they send a girl?” Dean hears himself say. It’s a stupid question, but now that he’s asked it, he wants to hear the answer.

“The CIA doesn’t know or care about your sexual orientation, if that’s what you mean. I was only told to get close to you. I didn’t have a plan when I walked into the store, but seeing your body language, I decided that playing up a romantic interest would be the most efficient way to ingratiate myself with you.”

Dean hopes the darkness around them conceals any signs of redness creeping up his cheeks. It’s pathetic. He is pathetic. He was checking Cas out so blatantly that he gave him a perfect opening. And didn’t Charlie say Cas had been watching Dean closely the entire time he was at the Nerd Herd counter? Well, mystery solved: he was studying his target. Nothing more.

“Well, you did great,” Dean says, pushing himself off of the car. “Fooled me, at least. Are you even into dudes?”

“That’s irrelevant.”

It sounds like a polite “no”, and Dean feels sick. He was so certain it was mutual, with the way Cas was looking at him and touching him and leaning so close—

Turns out, he’s just that good at his job.

“Give me back my keys,” he demands. Wordlessly, Castiel reaches into his pocket and throws them at Dean, his expression inscrutable.

“I’ll be in touch,” Cas says; a promise, or maybe a threat.

Dean drives away, and doesn’t feel at all bad about not offering Cas a lift.

 


 

By the grace of some unspecified higher power, Sam and Sarah have already retired for the night by the time Dean makes it home, so he doesn’t have to explain how his date went or why his shirt is drenched in sweat as if he ran a marathon in it. He resolves not to turn on the lights and ends up stumbling through the dark apartment, trying to make as little noise as possible. If he remembers right, Sarah has an early shift in the morning. The last thing he wants is to fuck up her much needed sleep.

Since their bathroom pipes tend to squeak like they’re in dire need of an exorcist, he opts out of taking a shower and settles for a quick, perfunctory wash over the sink before slipping into a clean t-shirt. Even with the moon peeking through the window as his only source of light, he takes a moment to study his own face in the bathroom mirror. He doesn’t look as rattled as he should, all things considered. He looks like he always does.

His brow furrows. He turned from a regular guy to an intelligence asset practically overnight. He was manipulated and chased and shot at, he found out his old college roommate was dead, hell, he was mere seconds away from being sent home in a fucking ashtray. It would be enough to make anyone flip their lid. So why doesn’t it show on his face? Why does he look so normal?

He averts his eyes and avoids catching any glimpse of himself again while brushing his teeth.

Sleep doesn’t come for a long time after he turns in. From the relative safety of his own bed and knowing what he knows now, he finally has a chance to dissect the evening’s events and try to make sense of them. He thinks back to the bar and how he let Cas sweet-talk him; how Cas flung knives with his lips against Dean’s jaw and shot a guy point-blank; how he swerved the Toyota left and right down the street, as if he’d done it a dozen times before; how he didn’t hesitate one second to aim a gun at Dean.

Several conclusions make themselves known. One, Castiel has no real interest in him and is way out of his league. Two, Castiel is a trained assassin (do CIA agents have a license to kill? He’ll google that later) and Dean should stay away from him. Three, Dean had his first proper brush with death today, and it looks like it’s not going to be his last. Four, for some reason, he’s less scared than the circumstances dictate.

I should be more afraid, he thinks. Whether they ship him off to some underground bunker or let him stay in Burbank, his days as an ordinary IT guy are over, that much is clear. If the first twenty-four hours involved a car chase, a crippled version of a Mexican standoff, and a near-explosion, there’s no reason to believe the following will be any less exciting.

He’s drifting on the edge of consciousness when his phone dings with a new text message.

 

<<< Cas

We have green light. You don’t have to leave your family, but you must tell them nothing to keep them safe. I will stop at the Buy More tomorrow with more details.

 

The relief that washes over Dean is so overwhelming that a breathless laugh catches in his throat. He doesn’t send a text back; instead, he burrows his head into the pillow and lets sleep pull him under.