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(Traced Your) Shadows on the Wall

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i.

 When Dean is seven, in second grade, the kids at his new school play a game called Kiss Chase.

 Dean is always at new schools. He hates it, mostly, but he makes friends okay. At this school, Dean’s friends’ names are Thomas, Richard, and Harry - and Kiss Chase is what they always play at recess. There’s another kid called Dean too,  but he just sits on the benches reading his books with some of the girls, because he’s broken his leg. Dean wants to be the cool Dean, wants people to like him. So when Tom, Dick, and Harry play Kiss Chase, Dean does too.

 The problem is, they like the game. They like chasing the girls and grabbing them and kissing them. Dean doesn’t. It makes Dean think of all the things Dad chases and kills. The things chase Dad too, and might catch him one day, and Dean and Sammy would be left alone. And Dean doesn’t understand why the boys like kissing the girls. Dean’s seen lots of kissing on TV before, and he thinks it looks gross. But Tom, Dick, and Harry like it - all the other boys in second grade do - so Dean pretends he does too.

 Dean knows he isn’t staying here long, so he doesn’t let it get to him too much, but he still feels alone.

 On Tuesday of the second week, Dean takes Sammy to the library after school one day, even though he knows he isn’t supposed to. Four year old Sam is bored with being cooped up in the hotel room until Dean gets back, and Dean knows what that’s like. So they sneak off to the library – it’s not like Dad will find out anyway. He won’t be back until dinner. Dean takes them to the children’s section and reads to Sammy. He only reads the colourful books with big pictures though, and only the animal ones – puppies and monkeys and giraffes and whales, and other things that won’t hurt them.

 They go again on Thursday. But on Thursday, there’s a girl sitting on the green and blue bean bags under the big sign on the wall saying “CHILDREN’S”. She’s wearing a frilly red dress and has her curly brown hair in pigtails tied with red ribbons. Dean doesn’t know her name, but she’s in his class. She plays Kiss Chase too, except the boys can never catch her.

 Dean says hello and doesn’t want to talk to her anymore, but while he’s finding a book for Sammy, she keeps talking. Sammy looks at Dean in a way that’s asking permission, and then he talks back to the girl. She introduces herself to Sam as Maria.

 When her mum comes two hours later, Dean and Sammy have only read one book, and Dean has another friend at school. They’ve decided that Maria will let him kiss her in the silly game, so he doesn’t have to be uncomfortable kissing anyone else. Because that’s what friends do – they help each other. She’s the first girl he kisses, if only on the cheek, when they play at recess the next day and he’s made ‘it’. The boys think Dean must be good if Maria will let him kiss her, because no one else can. Their agreement is their little secret. The loneliness inside of Dean doesn’t feel as huge after that, but it’s still there .

 The kids at the next school don’t play Kiss Chase.

 

ii.

 When Dean is in eighth grade sex ed class, he doesn’t understand any better. He knows why, logically, people kiss (to show love) and do the do (to have babies), but it doesn’t equate to pleasure in his head.

 Somewhere between knowledge and understanding, there’s a break. Instead of racing into ‘hell yeah, let’s go’, he gets caught up on the hows and whys. None of the other boys in his group do, so he goes along with what they say. He’s probably just not old enough yet, his hormones haven’t kicked in, he’s a late bloomer. Or maybe it’s his upbringing - but Dean doesn’t like thinking that. It’s not John’s fault something killed Dean’s mother and tried for Sammy too. It’s not John’s fault he wants his boys safe. Moving around while John works cases is just a part of that. He’s just doing what fathers do.

 It’ll happen eventually, Dean reasons with himself, because all men want sex. That’s just the way it is.

 Two years and fourteen schools later, Dean sits in another sex ed lesson. He’s older, and he understands exactly nothing more. The other boys aren’t pretending they know all the stuff already like last time. This time they do actually know the stuff. And Dean knows explicitly, for the first time, not just as a whining maybe that he pushes away, that he’s not like the rest. That there’s something wrong within him. Something’s broken.

 He’s still somewhat normal, he supposes. He has to be. He can tell when the girls look good, smell good, but the words ‘hot’ and ‘sexy’ just don’t feel comfortable to him. He’s curious about boys sometimes too. He’s evolved from wondering what the hell  they have that he doesn’t, to appreciating that some of them are good to look at too. Some of them have nice hands or collarbones or  ridiculously long eyelashes. But he knows he’s not gay, because he has no interest in their dicks at all - the thought of that makes him turn away. And if he’s not gay, that means he’s straight - even if he has little interest in the girls either.

 It makes Dean feel like he’s the only weird one in the world.  He feels like he should hide it. He’s already weird enough.

 But then, not long after that, John starts asking about girls. Who’s he interested in, do any of them flirt with him, why doesn’t he flirt with any of them. And Dean feels trapped. He’s gotta be a good role model for Sammy, one John approves of.

 The first girl who comes to mind when John asks again one night is Jenny Marsh, who sits two desks in front and one to the right of him in English. She’s blonde, wears a bow in her hair, is a teacher’s pet. That’s how he knows her; she always has her hand in the air, her nails painted the crimson red of blood. Dean knows that colour far too well, it sticks in his mind, so it’s her name that spills from his lips. He tells himself to shut up, but his mouth keeps talking, copying lines and words of what other boys have said over the years. His words leave a sour taste in his mouth, a scratch in his throat. He feels like he’s invading her privacy, touching on her how he shouldn’t. But he can’t be. None of the other boys feel like this, and there’s no way she’ll ever know what he’s saying anyway. But it still feels wrong.

 He has no idea what he’s doing, but he knows he has to keep his secret a secret, or John will think he’s gay. Dean’s heard more than enough from John about what he thinks of gays. Dean honestly doesn’t care - they never did anything to him, and they never will. He’s a better fighter than all of the boys on the sports teams, he knows about chloroform and other drugs, and how suspicious people act, look and talk – there’s no way any school kid is overpowering him, gay or not. He probably has the upper hand against most adult men as well.

 His desperate copying of the other boys pays off though; John nods and turns back to the television and the cold beer by his elbow. Sam, buried behind a book in one of the armchairs, looks at Dean as though he’s noticed something is off but doesn’t know what.  

 A week later, Dean’s flirted with Jenny Marsh every chance he’s had, and has finally been cornered by her in the school library during a study period and been directed to the romance books, because frankly, he’s awful at smooth talk, and Jenny is embarrassed for him. Dean doesn’t tell her that’s the point. He likes the chatting up and embarrassment at a level that’s charming, he likes sweet talking people into liking him. Jenny has also noticed that Dean’s not actually that interested in her, and he’s gained a friend close enough that John assumes she’s his girlfriend from the way he speaks so fondly of her.

 Four weeks after that, they move on to the next job. After three months, it’s the longest Dean’s stayed at one school in a while. He’s a little sad about having to say goodbye to Jenny, but he knows how it is, he’s played the gig a hundred times. He tells her he’ll keep in contact, but he knows it’s a lie to placate her. He’s not allowed to stay in contact. He does keep a polaroid of them together, though.

 John doesn’t bother him again for months after that, as long as he points out the occasional girl from time to time, using the words ‘hot’ and ‘sexy’ or a wolf whistle. But that feels wrong to Dean somehow. And sometimes the weight of the guilt is too much to bear (because it is heavy, the unease). Those days, he takes a Busty Asian Beauties mag with him when he goes to the bathroom. He doesn’t do anything more with it besides hide his homework in it, settling on the floor to write an essay or a page of math calculations against the hard surface of the tiles - but John doesn’t need to know that. John doesn’t need to know how alone the subject of girls and sex makes him feel.

 When Dean goes to Sonny’s, he has two settled months in one place, two months of normal teenage-ness, two months of Robin. She’s the first time it’s real , his first fancy, first kiss, first girlfriend. He doesn’t want to have sex with her either, but the weird pull Dean feels to wanting to date her is real. He feels like he finally understands what other boys have felt forever, and his soul shudders out a sigh of relief. Maybe the other boys have been pretending to want sex, like he has been, but this... this is what they must feel. He is normal.

 The next school Dean’s at, right before they leave for the one after, Dean has sex for the first time. The girl doesn’t matter much to him, not like Robin had, but Dean doesn’t care. He’s planned it this way –  a first time to learn, mechanically, for knowledge, and then he can do it properly. But past that, it’s not really about him. The initial rush is good, sure, but there are lots of other things Dean enjoys more - hunting, for one. But since Dean doesn’t care much for sex himself, he makes it good for her the best he can. It’s not completely awful, but it’s not brilliant either.

 He gets better at it, learns exactly how to give his partner the most pleasure, how to treat them after. He also gets better at avoiding it, at making excuses, at pretending , until the pretence is so familiar sometimes even he forgets he’s pretending. But one thing he never gets better at is ignoring how he feels after it. Afterwards, Dean’s whole body seems to revolt. His skin crawls.  There were hands touching him, and he doesn’t want that. But he can’t say no, he can’t stop, not with the way John looks at him, measured and disapproving, when it’s been a while, too long. The after feeling gets worse every time he does it.

 

iii.

 Digging himself out of pine wood box in the ground in Pontiac, Illinois, in September of 2005, and discovering a handprint on his left shoulder is when things start to change.

 The only jewellery he still has on him when he pulls himself out of his grave is a ring on the middle finger of his right hand. It’s silver, mostly, with a band of black around the middle. The chick he’d bought it from had said it was hematite. A different chick, in a different state and a different year, in a pseudo-witchcraft store he went looking for ritual ingredients in, told him hematite is a calming, balancing stone that attracts kindness. Dean doesn’t know if he believes that, but whatever – the ring is part silver, and it’s his favourite one, and that’s what matters.

 Back with his feet on the Illinois earth, his first mission is to gather some shit and head to Bobby’s. It’s essentials only, but it’s not like it matters – the place is completely deserted. No one’s gonna arrest him for it. Food from the shelves, ransack the cash register, water from the fridge (it’s cool and refreshing in his throat, soothing. Four months it’s been, according to the newspaper. Four months). He steals everything, but he doesn’t care. Dean’s never been an honest man; he isn’t going to start being one now. There’s a Busty Asian Beauties magazine in the rack, and Dean grins at the absurdity of it.  He’s died and gone to hell and come back to life in some random abandoned shithole place, and the porn is still the same. He flicks through it and adds it to his supplies, just for the normalcy of it. He’s decided he isn’t having sex with anyone now, not if he doesn’t want to - and he doesn’t. He really doesn’t want to. John’s dead, and Sammy won’t care. Compared to hell, his hang ups on this don’t matter – the less he wants to tear himself apart for his guilt, the better. Let Sammy think it’s hell related if he wants to.

 And then the thing happens – the awful, high-pitched white noise. And it happens again, makes his ears bleed with it. Later on, Pamela loses her eyes, and Dean knows that whatever’s happening, it’s powerful, and it’s after him. And then Dean meets Cas.

 And Castiel is an Angel of The Lord, and he brought Dean back. Bitter, broken, Dean.

 There is nobody else who has ever come back from hell. It is simply not possible. But Dean has.

 And Dean has never felt more alone in his whole life.

 

iv.

 Dean had been nineteen when he met Lisa in Cicero, Indiana. She was a yoga instructor and he’d been on a solo road trip. Dean remembers the sweltering heat of the Cicero summer, tarmac sending up hot waves of heat, a reprieve found in the soft shadows of Lisa's bedroom. He’d stayed with her, and while the sex did nothing for him, he still tried to make his being there as good for Lisa as possible. He’d cooked for her too, enjoying being able to – shitty motel rooms just didn’t have kitchen space. He didn’t let Lisa know though – because what sort of man enjoys cooking more than sex? And he certainly hadn’t told her about his job. He wasn’t there for a case, so why did it matter? He knew not to bring anyone into his world unless he had to.

 Dean remembers that time fondly – of all of the people he’s ever tried being with, Lisa was one of the ones who treated him well back. He remembers how soft her skin was, how he could talk and keep talking, didn’t have to have motives behind it. He remembers her home – because it was, it was a home, not just a house, even though she lived there alone – and how the light came in through the windows above the sink, bright on the patterned tiles of the floor even through the thin blue and pink zigzag curtains. He remembers her shower, the pressure of it, the way the condensation fogged up the sides and the mirror. If he tries hard he can remember how the bathroom smelled, something that made him think of the colours of purple and white, and the rest of the house made him think of yellows. He remembers thinking that if things were different, if he were different; this would be a life he’d like to fit into.

 When Dean was twenty-eight, he met Lisa again. Things were a lot different. For one, she had a son, a son like Dean himself, a son who’s eighth birthday it was. And this time, his presence was unwelcome - until things went wrong and she was standing in front of him not as a familiar stranger but as a client. And because Dean cared about Lisa, just a little, residue from being nineteen and somebody else, he hoped the best for her. But a case was a case, even if he cared – he just had to be more careful. Instead, he ended up playing Atlas. The kid was okay,  all of them were – Dean knows how to do his job. And that was what Lisa became on this visit, a job. So when she kissed Dean and invited him to stay, he knew he couldn’t. A life in suburbia with a wife and a son to raise – that’s just not a life he can have, not while he’s a hunter with better reflexes than the military, not while he lives a life of running, never quite stopping to catch his breath, not while there are other people out here depending on him doing his job like Lisa had. Dean still cares though, and that’s enough to hope someone else can be around for her what he can’t.

 He visits Lisa after Hell, and he tells her this – that above all, he wants her to be safe. Because she’s the one person he cares about outside the hunting life, the one person who doesn’t have hunting skills to protect herself with. She tells him not to do it, whatever it is, but. He can’t. He feels the truth of his obligation right into the depths of his bones. Feels it as much as he feels the stone of her front steps beneath his feet, the stiff leather collar of John’s jacket against his neck, the chill of the air stinging his cheeks. Standing on her doorstep, his face worn, his hands trembling, his body older - he promises her all he can. He doesn’t stay long.

 

*

 

 When everything falls apart, when he loses Sam to Lucifer, he does stay. He comes to Lisa and he stays, because he promised Sammy he would.

 It’s not the same as it was before. There’s the kid – Ben.  And Dean - Dean’s a different person. He’s been to Hell and back, after all. But Lisa takes him in, is kind to him. And, while nothing feels right to Dean (there’s an ache in his chest, constantly, and he’s restless, like he should be prepared to run at any moment), eventually he settles enough that he stops being a stranger. Instead, he becomes a father, a husband - in a family that’s not his. And Dean knows it’s not going to last, he just knows . There’s no way it can, not with his track record. But it’s good, it can be good, and Dean stays.

 He cooks for them often, enjoying creating instead of destroying. The way it makes him feel isn’t really a thing he can describe, but being in the kitchen gives him a sense of purpose. Purpose that doesn’t make him think of Sammy, or make him more than subconsciously aware that half of who he is isn’t there .

 He sleeps beside Lisa, wrapped up in her, always touching her in some way. But he never sleeps with her. He told himself he wouldn’t, and he doesn’t. He tells her the truth about how he feels about sex, for the first time to anyone ever. Dean knows she doesn’t really understand – hell, he doesn’t either – but she tries. She doesn’t push him into anything, asks before she kisses or cuddles him. And Dean’s so thankful for her, he can’t believe it. Warmth spreads through his chest, and, as he stays longer, days passing into weeks and weeks into months, it grows.

 He goes to Ben’s games, cheers him on like the embarrassing father his own father never was. He teaches Ben lots of things he thinks Ben should know, important things he learnt from Bobby and not his own father. But he refuses to let Ben near guns and weaponry, and he won’t play those types of video games or watch movies like those with him either. Ben doesn’t comment on it, but Dean knows Lisa’s told him something about the marines or the military or something anyway, and warned him Dean Doesn’t Talk About It. The other thing Dean doesn’t talk about with Ben is cars. He wants to though, oh how he wants to. He wants to take the canvas off Baby in the garage, show off her beauty, teach him all about how she works. But he doesn’t. He doesn’t because it hurts too much. Baby is his and Sammy’s, and Sammy is gone.

 So, although he knows this family he’s become part of loves him, and he loves them in return, sometimes he just feels so alone.

 Because they aren’t Sammy. They aren’t his brother who loved him regardless of how gross he was, how drunk he was, how fucked up he was. They aren’t his brother there to snark ‘Jerk,’ back at him when he calls them ‘Bitch,’ (because he’d never call Lisa that, it’s not right ). They aren’t his brother pushing him into shit he doesn’t want to do because he knows it’s best for Dean. Lisa and Ben, as much as he loves them, don’t know him inside and out.

 Later, he doesn’t stop loving them. Ben’s the son he’s never gonna get to have, not in this life. Because what he feared was going to happen did happen, he had to get up and leave them. But because he loves them, they were always going to be in danger. Anything in Dean’s heart makes him vulnerable, and that’s not good to have in his life. Not when they’re outsiders, not when they can’t protect themselves the way hunters can. Ben’s a child, his son for those two or so years, and it hurts to have to say goodbye to him with Ben having no memory of their time together. But it hurt Dean more to see Ben and Lisa so hurt, so he knows it’s for the best.

 

v.

 When Dean is thirty four, a man falls through the closet of the motel room he and Sam are staying in. His name is Henry Winchester, and he’s looking for his son, John, because he’s being hunted by a knight of Hell.

 John Winchester is dead.

 He has been for a number of years, and his soul is in heaven now (Dean assumes), and Dean has no intention of ever disturbing him there. Dean loved his father, and he knows John did the best damn job he could raising him and Sammy, but he also doesn’t know if he’d ever be able to look him in the face again. There are a lot of ways John failed the two of them as well.

 Henry Winchester also failed his son – he went to work one night and never came home. Instead, he ended up in the year 2013, with two of his grandsons.

 His grandsons are legacies to his work, the Men of Letters, passed down the paternal line. And the Men of Letters know a lot of information. A vast library of information, on almost everything there is to know. Dean thinks, maybe . And it is this vast library that the knight of Hell that Henry is being hunted by wants. Or rather, she wants to destroy it. But she can’t do that without the location, or the key to it, one of which Henry has. The other, Sam and Dean must find. And that they do.

 When Abbadon holds Sam captive, demanding to trade for Henry and the key, Henry knows that he would die defending his son and that he will die defending his grandsons as well. Dean knows this too.

 The drive to the warehouse is the only chance Dean gets to talk to Henry. They make a plan; a bullet with a devil’s trap carved into it. Henry will get one chance, and it is vital. He will die anyway, but Sam and Dean don’t have to. And then Dean enquires after the library, the books, the documents, the film reels. After himself.

 Dean’s heart, the way he can’t make himself care for almost anyone, the way he can’t even force himself to feel things everyone else can– this is what he tells Henry. How his feelings on sex since coming back from Hell are messy and incomplete and a solid no. He has never, not once, wanted like everyone else seems to. At first, Henry doesn’t get it, and it makes Dean’s chest hurt. But he keeps explaining, because Henry is from back then, he has knowledge most people don’t even consider to exist. If anybody is going to understand, it’s Henry. More explanation leads Henry through perhaps the dusty archives of the Men of Letters Bunker or perhaps lost corridors in the back of his own mind, to a word. Asexuality.

 And Dean thinks there’s no way they’re talking about the same thing. It sounds like something out of a lore book. There is no way he fits into the clean-cut, silver and white, sterile definition that Henry gives, like a disease or an illness, or non-sentient, or something , something that is none of the mess that Dean feels, something that makes him less than human.

 People who don’t have sexual relationships with others, don’t enjoy them, don’t have a desire for them- those people are asexual.

 So now Dean has a word,and an uncomfortable definition that doesn’t line up to how he feels in the way he’s told it.

 But, Henry tells him, no matter what, Dean is his grandson, and no matter what he classifies himself as (hunter, Sammy’s brother, disaster ), Henry is proud of him, and John would have been too. It’s comforting, but it also makes Dean feel alone, because what sort of a person must he be to be like this?

 When Henry is dead, Abbadon under concrete, Sam and Dean find this bunker, this vast library, near the Kansas-Nebraska border on the Kansas side, near a small town named Lebanon. And in it, Dean goes looking for more . But the books – what few he finds – tell him little more than Henry did.

 The internet tells him a lot more. And the internet’s definition fits . The internet’s definition makes sense, and it feels right, and Dean is not the only one. There are hundreds of people like him, thousands of people like him, people like him who all live normal lives. Even though Dean still feels like a fundamental part of him has always been missing, he understands now, in a tentative, fragile way. He understands that he might not be broken.

 

vi.

 And then there is Cas.

 Cas, who was Castiel, Angel of the Lord, until he spoke Dean Winchester’s name for the first time. Cas, who Dean made doubt, Cas who pulled Dean from Hell, Cas who rebelled against the only home he ever knew, and who did it all for Dean Winchester. Cas, who became Dean’s best friend.

 Cas left an imprint of his hand on Dean’s arm before they properly met, he made Dean’s ears bleed the first time he tried to talk to him, he burnt a woman’s eyes out for trying to see him. Cas, who saved Dean more times than he can count.

 He had appeared at the doors of the barn, an imposing figure in a trench coat, John Constantine style. Had walked through all of the sigils from every language, faith, and culture that Dean had known, and could not be shot, stabbed, or intimidated. His first words to Dean were ‘I’m the one who gripped you tight and raised you from perdition’, and his last words to Dean were supposed to be ‘he’ll be back, and upset, but you got your five minutes’. Cas, whom God brought back because Dean needed him, because he needed Dean.

 Everything angels are supposed to be – purity, divine, inhuman – Cas is not. He has not been since he saw Dean’s soul for the first time. It was bright, the brightest soul he’d ever seen, but with so much darkness too. And Dean doesn’t care, for this angel who is too human is not human enough to know all the ways that Dean has never been human enough either.

 And maybe that’s why – one day when Dean makes a crack about porn or prostitutes or pole dancers, and Cas’ head tilts a little in confusion, in the way that always makes Dean weak on whatever Cas wants – Dean is honest when Cas asks why.

 Why does Dean make the jokes, why do they always feel like Cas is missing a darker kind of humour, why doesn’t Cas ever understand them (“ Dean, they’re people too. That’s their job, what if they don’t actually like it and they just need the money to survive? ”). Now that Cas has been human, he understands some things better. This, though – this is not one of them. Dean doesn’t know why he’d expected it to be.

 They’re in the kitchen at the time, Sam making gross smoothies at the counter, Dean leaning back in his chair, feet up on the one at the opposite side of the table, flicking through a magazine. Cas is sitting on Dean’s right, poking at a plate of egg with a fork. Dean abandons the magazine, and abruptly stands.
‘C’mere,’ he says to Cas, making a head gesture to the door. Cas gives the egg one final poke before he stands too. Dean grabs him by the wrist to lead him out of the room. Still at the counter, Sam laughs awkwardly.
‘I’d have just left if you said you wanted to talk alone, jerk,’ he says.
‘Nah, Sammy,’ Dean calls back over his shoulder, ‘Stay where you are, it’s cool. Bitch.’
When they leave the room, Dean lets go of Cas. Cas probably got the point by now, he reasons.

 When they get to the library, Dean points to a chair at one of the long central tables and tells Cas to sit. Cas sits.

 Dean hums to himself as he searches the shelves for the books, a Metallica song he finds comforting. Cas doesn’t comment, but Dean figures Cas probably knows him well enough by now to recognise Dean’s nervous Metallica-humming habits. The books that Dean is looking for took him a long while of Sam’s-out-of-the-way- time to find the first time, but when he looking for them for Cas, he knows their precise location. It’s not that there are many - but there are some.

 Dean doesn’t find comfort in any of them, not now, and not even to start with really. But as objects, knowing they prove the existence of how he feels, who he is, they calm Dean a little. He likes knowing about something in a book in this library that Sam doesn’t, likes having this carved-out corner of safety.

 The books’ long-windedness and archaic phrasing make Dean feel alienated, but maybe Cas will find reassurance in it. Dean doesn’t know, but after plonking the stack of books down in front of Cas and taking a seat opposite him, Dean checks to make sure his computer is within arm’s reach. Cas is still looking at him curiously, unsure what exactly Dean is showing him. Then Dean starts opening the books, leaving them spread, open, around Cas. On the one furthest to Cas’ left, Dean taps a paragraph about halfway down the page and tells Cas to read.

 Cas reads. When he reaches the bottom of the page, he stares across at Dean, gaping a little. From the corner of his eye, Dean sees the movement and looks up from his laptop, where he’s been opening pages from google search: asexuality.
‘You’re…’ Cas starts, ‘humans have a word for this?’

 

*

 

 There is Castiel, Angel of the Lord. And then there is Cas . Cas, who understands like nobody else ever has, because Cas is that way too.

 There is Cas, and there is Dean Winchester, and neither of them feel like they are living half lives anymore. Neither feels like they are missing a part.

There are Cas and Dean Winchester, and they make up part of the most badass supernatural-hunting team the world has ever known. And if they happen to be asexual doing it, well. What does it matter, really.