The heat is like a blast furnace. Dean's skin is starting to blister. The back of his throat is scorched and raw. The roof groans overhead. The whole building shakes. A rafter shears off with a crack like lightning, crashing down near Dean's feet. Sparks catch in his hair and clothes. Ash billows in his face.
Everything is smoke. Dean crouches down, sucking in air with his face pressed to the dirty concrete. His lungs burn. His lips are bleeding. His dad shouts, but the thunder-roar of the fire drowns out the words. The roof groans again. Dean crawls forward a little. Gray spots shimmer at the edge of his vision, blurring the orange-red glare of the fire.
The air shifts beside his ear. Flutters. The searing heat ebbs slightly. A hand grips his shoulder. Someone whispers. Tugs him. He can't move. Sirens are blaring. He can't –
Dean gasps awake to his phone screaming in his ear. A cold sweat is drying on his skin and his hands are fisted in the sheets. Groaning, he rolls toward his nightstand. His clock tells him it's four fifty-two; he slept for an hour and change.
His phone shrills off mid-ring, but it starts up again a beat later. Dean thumbs it unlocked and grunts, "Yeah?"
"Dean, it's Sam. Are you up?"
"I am now, asshole. D'you know what time it is?"
"Yeah, sorry. It's – it's important."
"Important?" Dean heaves out a noise and rubs his burning eyes. "Someone better be fucking dead."
Sam doesn't say anything. And doesn't say anything. And doesn't say anything. A cold weight churns in Dean's gut; if Sam's trying to be delicate, it's got to be someone close to home. Someone – fuck. Bobby. Bobby conned his way into the Douglas County DA's office after a demon knife to the spine cost him the use of his legs. Now he runs the phones for guys playing fed and sends out the monster signal when a suspicious death crosses his desk. He also cleans up the mess when a hunter steps in their own shit, mostly by making in-the-line-of-duty misdemeanors disappear. It's the safer end of things, but hunting is never safe. Something he failed to kill back in his glory days must've come home to roost.
Bobby was John Winchester's first hunting contact; he helped John track down the werewolf that killed Mary. He also helped John raise his sons, filling in whenever John had been too busy or too drunk. And that had been more frequently than Dean cares to remember. He thinks he might puke. If –
"Alastair," Sam says finally.
It's the last thing Dean expects. He blinks at the ceiling for a second before asking, "What–? Alastair?"
"I – I, um." Alastair hadn't texted him last night, but he never did after a job. Not unless he turned up something that couldn't wait until morning. Dean had just figured whatever went down with Castiel had been a cakewalk. Or that Castiel had been a no-show. "He – was he shot?"
"No, he wasn't shot."
Sam sighs. Through the phone, the sound rattles in Dean's ear like laundry on a clothesline. "He – look, can you come up here? I'm at the Bel-Aire."
"Yeah." Dean sits up and swings his feet off the bed. The floorboards are like ice cubes. The sliver of sky peeking between the curtains has barely begun to bruise. "Gimme thirty, thirty-five."
Dean says, "Fuck you," and hangs up.
He stills feels a little sleep-drunk, so he sits on the edge of his bed for a minute. He stares at the dusty floor while he waits for his brain to start firing on all cylinders. Taps his phone against his thigh. If Sam's at the Bel-Air, that means Alastair's body is there, too. His wife won't be notified until after he's been bagged up and shipped off to the coroner. That could take hours. Once the sun rises, she'll spend all of it leaving Dean angry voicemails because Alastair hasn't come home yet. Sighing, he thumbs his phone awake and dials Kevin.
It rings four times. Then Kevin picks up and whines, "Are you fucking kidding me? It's –"
"Shut up and listen," Dean cuts in. His knees pop as he stands. "Alastair's dead."
Kevin just breathes at him for a few seconds. "How?"
"I don't know. Sam just called me about it. I'm headed up there now. You gotta tell Lilith."
"Yep," Dean admits. Lilith hates his guts. She blames him for Alastair's long PI nights and his shitty PI paychecks, like Dean had begged him to quit his cushy nine-to-five at the law firm. Like Alastair hadn't spent two months duffing around on his savings accounts before scratching at Dean's door for a job. "Look, I – just call her. Then go back to sleep and come into the office when you wake up again. I'll leave a note on the door that says we're opening late."
Kevin grunts out, "Yeah," and hangs up.
Dean starts a pot of coffee. He uses the Starbucks French Roast Sam's partner gave him for Christmas because the heartburn might help him stay awake. What's left of his forty minutes doesn't really leave him enough time for a shower, but he takes one anyway. He's itchy from night-sweating, and last night's six-hour flip-flop to Oklahoma has wrapped a dull ache around his spine. Afterward, he pulls on a reasonably clean pair of jeans and throws a fresh flannel over yesterday's t-shirt. The coffee looks and smells like tar. He pours it into an empty Fuel & Go cup he finds sitting on his kitchen counter.
The note he sticks on the front door says, "Opening late because of bereavement." The note he sticks on the back door catches the wind, rips loose, and air-surfs toward the tattoo place. The rain stopped overnight, but the parking lot still looks and feels damp. The two guys who clean the dentist's office once a week are sneaking cigarettes under the sodium light, shivering as smoke clouds around their heads. Dean left his jacket inside, but getting into the car is faster and easier than going back upstairs. By the time he hits US 59, the sky is an ugly, livid purple.
Sam gives it forty-four minutes before he starts texting. Dean's already over the river by then; instead of replying, he just leans on the gas until the Bel-Aire comes into view. The parking lot is a clusterfuck of people and the driveway is blocked by the coroner's meatwagon. Dean stashes the Impala at the greasy spoon across the street and jaywalks to the crime scene like five hundred cops aren't watching him do it. Sam's waiting for him, his shoulders hunched impatiently and his Columbo coat flapping against his legs. He waves off the beat cop who tries to stop Dean from ducking under the police tape.
Dean grins and tugs Sam's lapel. "Looking good, Detective Winchester. Where's Jody?"
"She's –" Sam pauses as a pair of forensics guys slink by. "She's working another angle. You look terrible. Rough night?"
"You know me. I like to party."
Sam sighs and gestures over his shoulder. "Come on."
The Bel-Aire is a snake of twenty-four seedy rooms with a check-in office at the head and a meningitis swimming pool at the tail. A narrow brick path cuts the snake in half. It leads to the service track that runs behind the rooms, and the alley it makes houses a bank of vending machines and an Employees Only laundry area. Alastair is sprawled out in front of the ice hopper. A sheet has been thrown over him, but Dean recognizes his tired loafers.
He also recognizes the rotten-egg hint in the air. Wrinkling his nose, he says, "Dude. You smell that?"
"Yeah," Sam says, nodding. "We're lucky this place is such a dump. Everyone thinks the sewer lines are backed up."
After a quick glance over his shoulder, Dean hisses, "Demons?"
Sam opens his mouth. Closes it. Then his throat works as he swallows what he almost said. He crouches beside Alastair's body and pulls the sheet down to his neck.
Alastair's eyes have been burned right out of their sockets. The skin around his nose and mouth is singed, like whatever did this scorched him from the inside out. Faint bruises mottle his throat. A handful of sulfur dusts the collar of his coat. The smell is fighting against a stiff dose of Taylor of Old Bond Street.
"What the fuck? That's –"
"Yeah." Sam covers Alastair's face again and stands. "Sulfur means demons, but I've never seen a demon kill like that. They usually just –" Frowning, he twists his hands like he's snapping a neck.
"Right, yeah," Dean says. He sighs and rubs his hand over his face. "Who found him?"
"A guest. She came out to get a soda about one."
"Anybody hear anything?"
Sam snorts. A cockroach is scaling the wall just above his head. "What do you think?"
"And lemme guess, the manager stepped out right about that time."
"Of course he did. Lester's –" Sam waits as an airplane thunders over the motel. "Lester's out of his office more than he's in. That's what makes this place so popular with the wildlife." Sam's phone buzzes; he checks the message and types out a quick reply. Then he asks, "Was Alastair working on anything?"
"Yeah. He – tail job."
"Who hired him?"
Something itches under Dean's skin. Something soft and warm but also electric and bright. It makes him hesitate.
"Look, I'm not trying to crowd you," Sam insists. He leans his shoulder against the wall. "I know PI clients have privileges. You know I know that. But this isn't – if this is monster stuff, we –"
"No, I know," Dean says. Sam's right. And Dean knows Sam's right. He just – fuck. For some reason, he wants to talk to Castiel first. "I just – it was Alastair's gig. I'm up to my neck in the Stark divorce."
Sam winces a little. "Yeah, I've heard that's getting ugly." He pauses and splits a frown between Dean and Alastair's body. "Do you know who he was tailing?"
"Yeah. Some clown named Ellsworth."
Sam looks at him sharply. "Ellsworth?"
"Yeah. He – wait. Lemme guess. That's the other angle Jody's working on."
"Yeah. Joseph Ellsworth. He bit it in one of the rooms."
"And is he –?" Dean vees his fingers and gestures at his eyes.
"Yep." Sam says. After an awkward pause, he asks, "Where were you last night?"
"C'mon, Sammy. I –"
"You know I've got to ask. If I don't, Jody will. She already knows you weren't home."
"We got the call about this around two. The uniforms had already ID'd him. Since he was your partner, we stopped by your place to see if you wanted to ride along. You didn't answer."
"You missed me by an hour," Dean says, pinching the bridge of his nose. An exhaustion headache is throbbing in his temples. "I popped down to Oklahoma to gank a coupla ghouls."
Dean blinks at him. "He – Alastair didn't hunt."
"What?" Sam asks. He sounds horrified. "You – have you been working alone all this time?"
Dean shrugs. Two or three weeks after Sam left, Dean had hired a hunter named Rudy. But he'd turned out to be lousy at both jobs, so Dean had let him go before the month was out. After that he'd Jo. She'd been younger than he was comfortable with – barely twenty-five – but she'd been a damn good hunter and she'd been willing to learn how to snoop. About two months in, her mother decided to get back on the road; Jo had headed back to Nebraska so they could hunt as a team. Alastair came in looking for a job a few weeks later. He'd had decent PI instincts but he'd been out of the monster loop. Dean never got around to letting him in.
"Since Jo, yeah," he says finally. He shrugs again. "It's not a big deal. If I get into something really hairy, I call Lee or Garth."
"Damn it, Dean. You –"
Dean waves him off. "Look, I gotta get back to the office. Kevin already wants my head for waking him up at ass o'clock."
The greasy spoon is a squat little place called Mabel's. The brown leather booths are shiny from thirty years of truckers' asses, and the green and white curtains are thin and faded from the sun. Dean thanks the staff for not towing the Impala by coming in for breakfast. He sits with his back to the window so he doesn't get caught up watching the circus over at the Bel-Aire. He orders a country-fried steak with scrambled eggs and hashbrowns. He gets a short stack on the side. He takes his time eating it because something doesn't feel right.
Demons don't need a reason to kill people. Maybe Alastair was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe he settled in for his stakeout right next to a room some demons were using for a party. And maybe the demons got tired of the bedbugs and moved out to the parking lot to make their noise. It's not half bad for a morning-after breakfast theory, except for the part where the demons nabbed one of the two guys in Lawrence who shares an office with a hunter.
Dean hates coincidences. Demons picking Alastair out of a hat is one. Those same demons also killing Ellsworth is another. Maybe Alastair and Ellsworth were chatting when the demons turned up. Maybe they snuffed Alastair and then chased Ellsworth back into his room. But Ellsworth should've been chatting with Castiel. Alastair should've been in his car.
And his car is missing. Dean hadn't noticed it when he first got to the Bel-Aire; there's been too much going on. He might not have noticed at all, but he'd spent ten minutes pacing the Bel-Aire's parking lot while waiting for a traffic window that would let him jaywalk back across the highway. The Continental is an unregistered piece Alastair picked up while tailing a child-support dodger from Lawrence to Mason City. The police wouldn't have impounded it because there's nothing connecting him to it.
Marcy bustles up to his table with a coffee pot cocked at her hip. "You need a refill, hon?"
"Make it to-go," Dean says. He's already halfway out of his skin with jitters, but it's looking like it's going to be a long day. "And box me up a big slice of apple pie."
"It's too early for that."
"It's never too early."
She sighs indulgently. A pen is speared through her bright red bun. "You in trouble again?"
"Me? No way." Dean winks at her. "What makes you think that?"
"Oh, I don't know. Maybe 'cause you stopped by this town's favorite crime scene before sunrise?"
"Nah," Dean says, shaking his head. "I was just in the neighborhood. Make it two slices of pie. I can't go back to the office empty-handed."
Traffic is stop-and-go over the river. Everyone is plugging along just slow enough that Dean has time to peck out a text to Kevin asking for the name of Castiel's motel. The sun has finally climbed into the sky, but clouds are gathering on the horizon. It'll be raining again by late afternoon. Dean turns on the radio and spins the knob until he finds some Zeppelin. He hums Gallows Pole under his breath and drums his fingers on the steering wheel. Kevin gets back to him just as he's closing in on the office.
The street parking out front is full again, so Dean pulls around back. The lot is empty now aside from the dentist's elderly minivan and a charcoal Prius that's been lurking beside the dentist's hedge for two straight days. Dean thinks it belongs to one of the tattooists, but since it's a hybrid he's tempted to have it towed on principle. Creedence comes on the radio; instead of going inside, Dean leans back in his seat and dials the number for Castiel's motel.
The Glen Capri's phone rings six times. Then a chick sighs out, "Motel," in the tiredest voice Dean has ever heard.
"Yeah, I need room fourteen."
She pauses for a second. Dean hears a faint clicking – fake fingernails against a computer keyboard – then, "Fourteen checked out."
Dean's pretty sure he knows the answer. Still, he asks, "This morning?"
"Dark hair and blue eyes? Trenchcoat?"
"Something like that."
Dean swallows a sigh. He mutters, "Thanks," as he's hanging up and kills the Impala's engine.
When he gets inside, Kevin is on the office phone. He lines Dean up with an evil eye and says, "Yes, Mrs. Alastair. Absolutely, Mrs. Alastair." He's holding the receiver with both hands. His knuckles are white. "I'll have him call you as soon as he gets in."
She slams the phone down so hard that Kevin jumps and drops the receiver. He blinks for a second. Shakes his head like a dog with water in its ear.
"Sorry," Dean says.
"That's like the fifth time she's called."
"Yeah, well, until she loses her voice or I figure this out, I ain't here."
Kevin stares at him. Then he asks, "How did he die?"
"That's... what –? Why would demons kill Alastair?"
"No fucking clue," Dean says, rubbing his temples. His head is pounding. "They wasted his tail-job, too."
"Jesus Christ. What about the other guy? The –" Kevin waves his hand "– you know. Trenchcoat McSex-Hair."
Dean rolls his eyes. "He checked outta his motel. I think he stole Alastair's car, 'cause it – wait. You got the details on that heap?"
"Maybe." Kevin rolls his chair back and opens the top drawer of his desk. He digs around until he turns up an orange post-it with Alastair's chicken-scratch on it. "Yeah. Iowa plates. B-2-6-7-6."
"All right. Start calling the flops in this town. Ask 'em if that junker's in their parking lot."
Kevin tries the evil eye again. "That sounds like Donna's department."
"Yeah," Dean says slowly. Donna's a weekend hunter and head of parking enforcement at Lawrence PD. Between her red-light cams and her army of meter jockeys, she can find a car anywhere in the city in under an hour. "But she likes to talk, and I don't need this getting back to Sam. I'm withholding evidence all over the place."
"Oh. Well." Kevin's voice is flatter than a pancake. "I guess it's a good thing I already called your lawyer."
"What?" Dean asks. The DA's office is a little slow on the uptake; he figures he's got about three days before Henriksen crawls up his ass. If he can fabricate something believable between now and then, he won't need a lawyer. "Why'd you do that?"
Kevin hands him a giant envelope. "Because you're being sued."
Dean barks out a laugh – it's either that or scream. The return address is for a Mara Daniels on Massachusetts Street, which makes Dean groan under his breath. Daniels, Daniels & Daniels is the only outfit in town that charges more than James Langston Roberts the Third, Esquire. Dean stares at the envelope for a few more seconds. Then he rips off the flap and pulls out the complaint.
"Don Stark?" Kevin asks.
"Yep. He's saying those pics I took invaded his privacy."
"Jesus Christ," Dean mutters. "Look at this thing. Three people work in this office and she included a hundred Does." Sighing, he flips to the middle of the complaint. "This Mara chick must get paid by the hour and the page. She wrote a separate cause of action for each pic."
"Anything to it?"
"No way. A restaurant's a public place." Dean tosses the complaint on Kevin's desk. "I bet Daniels moved to suppress and got denied. This is just a stall. Maggie can't use those pics against Stark until this is settled."
"Aaron's in court all day today. He said he could fit you in tomorrow afternoon. You want me to call him back?"
Dean sighs again. He – fuck. He doesn't know. Aaron isn't a chiseler, but he's still pretty expensive. And this is some civil bullshit, so Bobby can't make it disappear. Dean's picked up enough law over the years that he could probably piece together a decent motion to dismiss; he just doesn't have the time. Roberts the Third might help him out if he put the request through Maggie, but he hates owing rich assholes a favor.
"Lemme think about it. I'm going upstairs."
Kevin glares at Dean like he's trying to decide where to bury his body. "Is that a joke?"
"Look, kid. If I don't crash for an hour or two my head's gonna explode." Dean hands Kevin the bag from Mabel's. "Eat some of this pie. Come get me if you find Alastair's car."
Dean jolts awake to someone banging on his door. His headache is still going strong, so it sounds like they're using a battering ram. His phone isn't on the nightstand. According to his clock it's eleven thirty-seven. He slept for a little over two hours. At this rate, he'll get a full forty winks banked by the end of the week.
The banging continues. Dean heaves himself up with a grunt. He sits on the edge of his bed while he waits for his pulse to come down, his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. His back aches. His stomach is pissed off about all the coffee he's had in the last eighteen hours. He rolls his shoulders and scrubs at his hair. Down on the street, a car blares its horn.
The banging stops. Then it starts up again. Louder. Sighing, Dean stands and shuffles out of his bedroom. He figures it's just Kevin, so he doesn't bother bringing a knife. He also doesn't bother throwing a pair of jeans over his boxer-briefs.
It's Jody Mills.
"Morning, Winchester," she says brightly. "Can I come in?"
"I ain't decent."
She rolls her eyes and nudges her way through the door. "I was married once. Nothing you're packing is going to surprise me."
"Suit yourself," Dean says, glancing around. He hopes nothing freaky is sitting out. His weapons and lore books are in Sam's old room, but that door is closed and locked. If she tries to get in there, he'll make her come back with a warrant. That would give him about a day to move everything into one of his lockups. "You want a beer?"
"No thanks. Technically, I'm on the clock."
"Well, I haven't had lunch yet, so if you don't mind..."
She quirks an eyebrow. "Suit yourself."
Dean edges past her and heads into what passes for the loft's kitchen. It's wedged tightly between the bedrooms and pushed up against the naked brick of the back wall. The curtains are open, but the pressing clouds are heavy enough that the rectangle of light hitting the sink is a watery gray-white. Dean snags a beer from the fridge and pops the cap. He uses the first mouthful to chase two aspirin.
When he turns around, he finds Jody sitting in the only chair he's not using as a laundry hamper. His forty-five is lying on the coffee table amid a forest of empty beer bottles. Its nickel plating glints in the dim light like an accusation. He pauses. The floor creaks under his feet where the kitchen's linoleum lips into the living area's scuffed hardwood.
Jody nods at the gun and asks, "Is that yours?"
"I'm just surprised you leave it out."
"My partner just got iced. Excuse me if I'm kinda jumpy."
She doesn't say anything, so Dean decides to let that simmer. He perches on the arm of the couch with one leg bent and one foot on the floor. Thankfully, his boxer-briefs behave themselves. Jody wastes the next two minutes of her life watching him drink his lunch. The last time they butted heads, her hair had been dark brown. She must've dyed it recently because now it's hinting at auburn.
Finally, she asks, "Where were you last night?"
"I know that much."
"I was out," Dean says, resting his beer on his knee. The condensation on the bottle chills his skin. "Drinking."
"On a Monday night?"
Dean shrugs. "I was sad. My girlfriend dumped me."
"That was months ago," Jody points out. "That either makes you a hopeless romantic or a liar."
A car coughs to life down in the parking lot. Dean shrugs again and says, "Dealer's choice."
"Winchester, you –"
Dean waves her off. "Look. Kevin and Alastair both split early last night. I got bored, so I came up here, had some dinner, and crashed for a coupla hours. I woke up lonely." He lets a smile tug at his mouth. "I hit the bar and had a few drinks and made a friend."
"Okay," Jody says slowly. "Your friend... does she have a name?"
"If he did, I didn't catch it."
Jody leans back in her chair and gives him another eyebrow. "You went to The Bulge?"
"All right." Her voice is kind of brittle around the edges, but it's irritation, not judgement. Lawrence is conservative enough that the gay spots in town have a dicey history with the law. Beating the bushes at the The Bulge would be a waste of time. The people there would gnaw off a foot before talking to the police. "Tell me about the guy."
"My height. Dark hair and blue eyes. Good jaw." Dean smiles again and puts a leer in his voice. "You wanna –"
"I just ate," Jody deadpans. She leans her elbow on the arm of her chair. "How long did you stay?"
"And then you found a motel?"
"The Sleep-EZ, yeah."
Jody chews on that for a few seconds. Then she says, "The Sleep-EZ is five blocks from the Bel-Aire. You showed up an hour after Sam called you."
"Well, I took a shower. And I hadn't slept much, so I stopped for a cup of coffee. And then – oh, yeah. I'd just heard my partner got snuffed. Maybe I needed a minute to wrap my head around that."
"Sam says you didn't like him."
"No, I didn't," Dean admits. Alastair had been a decent enough PI, but he'd had a mean streak and a nasty sense of humor. He'd ogled Lisa when she still came around. He'd treated Kevin like a servant. He'd worked a few cases that had felt questionable in a way Dean could never quite pinpoint. "He was a dick. He – we never really clicked. He wasn't –"
"He wasn't Sam."
That one goes in like a knife. Instead of acknowledging it, Dean asks, "Where is Sam, anyway?"
Jody sighs quietly. "He's down at the DA's office, trying to convince Henriksen that working his brother's partner's murder isn't a conflict of interest."
"How's that going for him?"
"Not well. You know how Henriksen is."
Dean grunts out a noise. Victor Henriksen is a good Dean, but he's also a world-class pain in the ass. And he's the only person in Lawrence who hates Dean more than Alastair's wife. A couple of years ago, the City Bank Lawrence got robbed by an inside crew. They lined up a patsy so they could get away clean, and Henriksen fell for it so hard he'd charged the guy and tried to talk him into a plea deal. He hadn't been thrilled when Dean showed up at his office to tell him he had it all sideways.
Jody sighs again. Her chair squeaks softly as she crosses her legs. They listen to the bathroom sink drip for a minute: plink-plink-plink. Dean drains his beer and heads back into the kitchen. He sets his dead soldier on the counter and grabs two new recruits from the fridge. On his way back, he rescues his phone from a laundry pile on the other end of the couch. His head still hurts. He has five voicemails from Sam.
He offers Jody one of the beers. She barely hesitates before taking it. As he's settling back on the arm of the couch, he says, "So, tell me about Alastair. How'd I kill him?"
Jody replies, "Preliminary reports are inconclusive." Dean snorts – that means the coroner has not fucking clue – and Jody shoots him a dirty look. "Off the record, Doc's thinking some kind of acid. She's still waiting on tissue samples."
"All right," Dean says, tapping his phone against his thigh. "How about this: why'd I kill him?"
"The rumor is he was skimming. Charging two-fifty an hour and pocketing the difference."
It's possible; Alastair had liked money. Most PI clients pay in cash, and Alastair had done all the paperwork on jobs he worked alone. Still, Dean asks, "Where'd you get that yarn?"
"Like inside inside?" When Jody doesn't deny it, Dean whistles through his teeth. "C'mon, Mills. I've never known you to listen to jailbird songs. Who is it?"
"You know I can't tell you that."
"Yeah, all right. Can you tell me about Ellsworth?"
Jody drums her fingers on the arm of the chair. "What about him?"
"I know he died the same way. With the –" Dean wags a finger at his eyes. "Let's say Alastair was shorting me. Let's say I offed him for it. If that floats Henriksen's boat – fine. But there's nothing connecting me to Ellsworth. I never met the guy."
"Let's say he was a witness. Let's say he caught you killing Alastair and you didn't want any loose ends."
Dean takes a long pull from his beer. Then he rolls the bottle against his aching forehead and says, "That's pretty thin."
"Well, thin is all we've got," Jody snaps. She narrows her eyes. "You won't give us Alastair's client, so –"
"Okay, Mills. This has been fun, but I got work to do." Dean slides to his feet and snatches his jeans off the back of the couch. "Drink your beer and get out."
Jody tips her head back and unloads her beer in four long swallows. Then she stands and sets the bottle on the coffee table, right beside Dean's forty-five. The bathroom sink drips some more. Dean's phone buzzes with a text from Kevin. Jody straightens her coat and walks to the door, but she doesn't let herself out. Instead, she turns around and leans back against the jamb.
She says, "Listen, Winchester. I wasn't thrilled when they put me with your brother. It's no secret Bobby Singer greased some wheels to get him into homicide so quickly. And I didn't want to housebreak a former PI. But he – I was wrong about him. He's very good at his job. I like him. I like working with him."
Something in her tone suggests "like" is an understatement, but Dean lets it go. His brain is still sleep-fogged and he hasn't put his jeans on yet. That's not a conversation he wants to have in his underwear. "Okay. What's that gotta do with me?"
"I don't think you did this. But I do think you're hiding something. And I think Sam will stick his neck out until it breaks if he thinks he can help you."
"Just –" Dean looks up at the ceiling and heaves out a sigh. He really thought he'd have more time. "Just gimme another day, all right?"
"All right, Winchester. One day."
After she goes, Dean slouches into the bathroom to piss and slap some water on his face. He could use a shave, but he only gets as far as staring at himself in the mirror for a minute before shrugging and walking back out to the living area. He checks the text from Kevin. It says, "Got him." He throws a flannel over his t-shirt and brews another pot of heartburn coffee. Its thick, tarry smell slowly fills the kitchen. When it's finished, Dean pours it into the same Fuel & Go cup he used this morning and heads downstairs.
Kevin's in thesis mode; he has three books open on his desk and he's typing like he's trying to break a land-speed record. A styrofoam clamshell of Korean barbecue is waiting stinkily at his elbow. He looks up as Dean is closing the door and rolls his eyes.
Dean helps himself to a chunk of the barbecue. Chewing, he asks, "What's up?"
"A guy named Wes Mondale came in. Forties, glasses, bad comb-over. He wants you to track down his high school crush. He didn't say why."
"Sounds creepy," Dean says, shaking his head. "Lose his number. What about Castiel?"
"He's at the Starlite. Room eight."
The Starlite is a no-tell off I-70, far enough to the east that it's practically kissing the Lawrence city limits. It charges fifty a night, but it also has an off-book hourly rate for drunks and cheaters willing to pay in cash. It takes Dean almost thirty minutes to get there because an overturned semi has the hammer lane closed for a three-mile stretch near the water treatment plant. Dean chews his lip and hums And Justice for All as he waits for orange-vested KDOT guys to move a hundred broken crates of peaches off the highway. Anxiety hammers in his chest. His eyes feel gritty and raw.
He looks at the duffel hiding in the passenger-side footwell. He packed two rock-salt shotguns, a box of extra rounds, a jug of holy water, an iron crowbar, and an assortment of silver knives. He also has a demon-killing shank Sam picked up when they busted a coven of overachieving kitchen witches in Duluth. It seems like too much, but it probably isn't enough. Dean can't swallow Alastair and Ellsworth getting snuffed out of sheer shitty luck. It all points to Castiel, and a demon who can burn people from the inside-out isn't something Dean's in a hurry to tangle with.
The sky finally breaks as Dean is swinging into the Starlite's parking lot. The rain starts out easy, barely enough to mist the Impala's windshield. Potholes pockmark the tarmac. The Impala rattles over three just getting in the driveway. The Starlite is a double-decker dump with ten street-facing rooms on each floor. Room eight is on the west end, closer to the vending machines than the office. Dean pulls into a spot two spaces down from Alastair's Continental. He grabs his duffel and climbs out into the drizzle. The brick path lining the rooms is littered with cigarette butts and choked with weeds.
He listens at Castiel's door. He doesn't hear anything but his own heart; it sounds like it's beating in his throat. He leans back and shoots a sideways glance at the office. He could try strong-arming the manager into giving him a key with his PI license and blackmail threats about prostitutes and drug deals. But his chances are only sixty-forty, and he doesn't want to make a scene. He can't afford to make a scene. He figures Henriksen is chewing his nails right now, just waiting for Dean to start a bar fight or run a red light.
An old guy in khakis and a ratty sweater slouches out of room seven and heads for the vending machines. Once he's gone, Dean slips his tension wrench and pick into Castiel's lock. Its innards are smooth and loose from being turned a million times. The pick keeps slipping over the tumblers and refusing to catch. So much for the element of surprise. Gritting his teeth, he swaps his pick for a three-quarters rake and tries again. The lock pops just as the old guy is shuffling back with his Dr. Pepper.
Castiel isn't there. Dean locks the door behind him – it won't give him a lot of warning, but something is better than nothing. He sets his duffel on the table and pulls out the crowbar and a couple of the knives. Then he checks out the room. Balding, powder blue carpet creeps across the floor and blue-striped wallpaper sags on the walls. Navy blue bedspreads cover both beds; they're dotted with yellow and white stars. Neither bed has been slept in. Dean doesn't see any luggage. No McDonald's bags or beer cans. The fridge in the kitchenette is empty. The toilet lid is down; a handful of dingy towels are still folded on top. The room key is lying on the nightstand.
Dean doesn't smell sulfur. He does smell something else – ozone laced with fresh-cut grass. It's warm. Pleasant. But it feels wrong in a place that should reek of stale cigarettes and sex. Dean palms the key. He needs to salt the door and windows. He should probably call Sam. He –
Something rustles behind him. It's a strange sound, like the air is being ripped in half. Dean's skin crawls. He whirls around and whips his forty-five out of his jeans.
"Dean Winchester," Castiel says. He's in the same cheap suit and dumpy trenchcoat he'd worn in Dean's office. His tie is still crooked and his eyes are still incredibly blue. "I didn't expect you to seek me out. Although –" He pauses, his head almost tipping to the side. "I'm not surprised."
"You shouldn't be," Dean says. Fear-sweat is beading on his forehead. It runs down his temples and stings his eyes. "You killed my partner."
"Yes, I did."
Dean glances at his duffel. The table is about a foot behind Castiel; he'll never get to it in time. "Who are you?"
"I told you. My name is Castiel."
"Okay. What are you?"
"I'm an angel of the Lord."
Dean chokes out a strangled laugh. "Get the hell outta here. There's no such thing."
Castiel's eyes narrow slightly. A burst of white-hot something explodes in Dean's shoulder – just like last night, but stronger. Brighter. Thunder rumbles in the distance, and Dean sucks in a shaky breath. The windows rattle and the walls creak. The star-shaped light above Dean's head explodes in a shower of glass and sparks. Slowly, shadows crest behind Castiel's back. Sweat drips off Dean's chin as they unfurl into wings.
"You – some angel you are," Dean manages. His throat feels like sandpaper. He doesn't remember dropping his gun, but it's lying on the floor between his feet. "You burned Alastair's eyes out."
Castiel studies Dean for a long, uncomfortable moment. Then he sits on the bed closest to the door and says, "Alastair was a demon."
"What –? No. He –"
"Alastair was a demon," Castiel insists, an angry edge to his voice. His wings are gone, but Dean can still sense them, an elephant in the room. "As was Ellsworth."
"So that story you gave me? That was bunk?"
"Yes. I do have a sister named Anna, but I haven't seen her in almost a decade."
Dean's legs feel weak. He sits on the other bed and rubs his hand over his face. He doesn't bother grabbing his gun; it's not like it'll do him any good. "I don't get it. Why the front?"
Castiel pauses again. Then he says, "I knew there were two demons in this city. I tracked Ellsworth to his motel, but I couldn't find the other. After I killed him, I discovered Alastair carried a hex bag that prevented me from locating him through celestial means."
"Sandalwood," Dean mutters, shaking his head. "I thought it was cologne."
Castiel nods. "He did wear it, likely to cover the sulfur smell. I assume he chose that scent because it corresponded with the contents of the hex bag." The bed whines as he stands. "I came to your office because you're a hunter. I'd hoped you'd seen something that would point me toward the second demon."
"Buddy, that story you were telling wasn't gonna get you anywhere."
"I was... uncertain about revealing myself," Castiel says, moving to the table. "Angels haven't openly walked the earth in two thousand years." He studies the stuff laid out beside Dean's duffel for a moment, palming the crowbar's hook and running his fingers over the grip of the longest knife. "I intended to look into your mind, but –"
"Hey, no. No way," Dean says, getting to his feet. Anger roils in his gut. "Mind-reading is not cool. You can't just –"
"I didn't. Alastair interrupted me before I had the chance. Once we were face to face, the hex bag was of no use to him. I saw his true form. I persisted with my story so I could lure him to Ellsworth's motel and... kill two birds with one stone. I –"
"Just shut up a second," Dean snaps, throwing up his hands.
His headache is back. His temples are throbbing, and it feels like someone is drilling for oil at the base of his skull. He goes into the kitchenette, cracks open the honor bar, and snatches up two mini-bottles of rotgut whiskey. He chases the first one with the second. They both go down like turpentine. The burn is so bad he has to breathe through his nose for a few seconds to keep them from coming back up
When he turns around, Castiel is still there. It seems like his wings are hovering around the edges of the room. Dean scrubs at his hair and says, "You left a huge fucking mess behind."
"I know. I –" A muscle tics in Castiel's jaw. "Ellsworth was nothing, just a common demon. But Alastair – he was stronger than I anticipated. Far stronger. There's a spell that will force an angel from its vessel. Few demons can work it, but Alastair came close. I managed to overpower him, but it left me weak."
"So... what–? You had to go somewhere and recharge your battery?"
"Essentially, yes. I was unable to fly, so I stole Alastair's car and returned to my motel. Once I'd rested, I went back to the Bel-Aire, but by that point the police had arrived."
"Yeah, well, you – wait. Vessel?" Dean waves his hand around. "Is that – you're possessing some poor bastard?"
Castiel hesitates. A strange look crosses his face. Then, quietly, he says, "Jimmy was a devout man. He prayed for this."
"Was? He's dead?"
Castiel looks away. "It's not of import."
"You know what? Never mind." Dean stoops and grabs his gun. He walks over to the table, stuffs the weapons in his duffel, and zips it closed. Castiel is right beside his shoulder; the smell of ozone and fresh-cut grass is stronger and warmer. Dean clears his throat. "I'm not buying what you're selling. Demons, hex bags, mind-reading, angel vessels – whatever you are, you killed two people and the police are trying to pin it on me."
"Save it. I'm outta here."
Just as Dean reaches for the doorknob, Castiel says, "Eight years ago, an archangel gave me a mission. I came to earth and took this vessel. I failed the mission, and the archangel obliterated me as punishment." Pausing, he moves closer to Dean – close enough that Dean can feel the heat of him against his back. "God brought me back. I don't know why. But this vessel – it's mine."
Dean turns around. His gear clanks as his duffel bounces between his hip and the door. "Why'd you change motels?"
"I knew the police would look for me. I hoped if they couldn't find me it would just become a... cold case."
Dean huffs out a rough noise. "No dice. I told you: they're trying to pin it on me."
"I can deal with that. I just need a few days to –"
"Damn it, Castiel. I don't have a few days." Dean pushes away from the door and puts himself right in Castiel's face. "In a few days I might already be in the cooler."
"Dean, I said I'd deal with it. But I need time. There's something else I must do first."
"Something else," Dean mutters. He clenches his hands at his sides. "Like what?"
"It doesn't concern you. But it's important. Grievously important. Please trust me."
"Why?" Dean asks, his voice half a whisper. He's so fucking tired. "Why should I?"
Castiel touches Dean's shoulder, pressing his palm right over the scar. A slow shiver curls up Dean's spine.
"Because I'm asking you to."
Dean opens his mouth. He starts to say, "It's not that easy." Or, "It doesn't work that way." But the words stick in his throat. Castiel just stares at him. The space between them is heavy and charged, arcing like a live wire. Heat burns in Dean's cheeks and jaw. Castiel's mouth parts. Dean nearly jumps out of his skin when his phone buzzes in his pocket.
It's Sam, asking Dean to meet at Bobby's as soon as possible.
"I gotta go," Dean says, shrugging away from Castiel's hand. "You'd better still be here when I get back."
Bobby's house lurks on what's left of an auto salvage yard. It's way up US 59, right about where North Lawrence blurs into Midland. Bobby stopped bringing in new wrecks after he took the nine-to-five with the DA, but there are still plenty of cars on the lot, rusting as they wait for someone to rescue them from the raccoons and the weeds. Dean pulls in through the front gate and parks between Bobby's piece-of-shit van and a drunken pile of tires. The rain is coming down hard, chopping the yard into mud and making the tires stink.
Dean gets as far as the porch before Bobby barks, "What the hell took you so long?"
"Sorry, I was in no-tell country." As Dean closes the door, the old clock on Bobby's mantle chimes two with a sound like tin cans hitting concrete. Bobby's suit jacket is off, but he's still wearing his dress shirt and tie. Dean quirks an eyebrow and asks, "Shouldn't you be at the office?"
"I told 'em I had a doctor's appointment," Bobby explains. His rotgut bottle is on his desk; he tops off his own glass and pours one for Dean. "I had to get outta there. Henriksen's so far up my ass I can taste those cinnamon Altoids he chews all day."
Dean peels off his wet jacket and tosses it over the back of a chair. Then he picks up his rotgut and asks, "How bad of a spot am I in?"
"Sit down, will ya? You're giving me a crick in my neck."
"All right, all right," Dean says, grabbing the other chair. The rotgut smells like gasoline, but he kills about half of it in one swallow. "Spill."
"It ain't too bad yet. Acid sounds good coming outta the coroner's mouth, but she's got nothing backing it up."
"The tissue samples didn't wash?"
"Nope," Bobby says, loosening his tie. He pulls it over his head and tosses it on the desk. "If there's anything hinky on that skin, the doodads at the lab ain't picking it up."
"What stopped their hearts? Shock?"
"Doc's thinking Succinylcholine, but she can't stand a spoon in it yet."
"Any needle marks?"
"None on Alastair. A few on Ellsworth, but they're older than last night. He prob'ly liked to chase the dragon." Bobby leans back in his wheelchair and drums his fingers on his desk. "They're grasping at straws right now, but you ain't in the clear. And if you keep sitting on Alastair's client, Henriksen might can you for obstruction outta spite."
"PIs have privileges."
"Some. It ain't like you're a goddamn priest."
That's a horrible thought; Dean shakes his head to clear it away. "So, who's the canary saying Alastair was shorting me?"
A shifty look creases Bobby's face. He nurses his rotgut for a few seconds before saying, "Jeffrey Becks."
"Jeffrey –? What?" Dean grates out a noise and rubs his hand over his face. "He – are you fucking kidding me?"
"Sam dug up the evidence that proved Becks killed those women." Serial killings aren't normally a PI gig, but the family of one of the victims hired Sam when the police stopped making any ground. It had been a nasty case; Dean feels sick just thinking about it. "He figured out where Becks was buying the roofies and where he was working on the bodies. He pretty much put that bastard away."
"Listen, son. You –"
"Besides, that was before Alastair's time. Like years before."
"You all finished?" Bobby asks. When Dean shrugs and rolls his eyes, Bobby huffs under his breath and says, "Becks had a cellmate a coupla months back. His name ain't crossed my desk yet, but I guess this clown hired Alastair to settle some blackmail thing for him. It didn't shake out the way he wanted, but Alastair charged him anyway. Sent him to collections when he tried to duck it."
"Yeah. Alastair was a peach." Dean drains his glass and pours himself another finger. "Go on."
"Right after that, the guy went upriver for something unrelated. He got put in with Becks, and they... bonded over their mutual hatred for your office."
"And he told Becks Alastair gouged him." Dean whistles through his teeth. "Sounds like hearsay."
"It is," Bobby admits. "It won't hold water in court. But it puts a motive on at least one of those bodies, so Henriksen ain't looking it in the mouth."
Dean finishes his shot and sets the glass on the desk. It hits the old wood with a dull, hollow thunk. He sits there for a minute, listening to the clock tick and the rain pound while Bobby pretends he has crumbs in his beard. Hearsay can't be used against him, but if Henriksen believes it enough he'll try to make it into something solid. He'll subpoena Winchester & Alastair's books. And since Linda still does taxes for family and friends, he'll send someone up to Meditations to hassle her about the office's returns. Financially, Dean's clean. His paperwork is on the level, and if Alastair was skimming he never knew about it. But cops poking around his office and his loft and Linda's shop could turn up monster shit he won't be able to explain.
Bobby's wheelchair squeaks as he leans in and rests his elbow on his desk. He asks, "What's the deal with Alastair's client?"
"He, uh. He – where's Sam?"
"Hell if I know. You boys keep your own schedules."
Before Dean can say anything, the door creaks open and Sam squeezes inside, muttering, "I'm here, I'm here," as he drips water on the carpet. His hair is soaked and he's carrying a Starbucks cup. When he notices Dean glaring at it, he says, "Sorry. Jody called and asked to meet right after I texted you. I was afraid if I blew her off she'd –"
"Don't get me started on your girlfriend."
Sam says, "She's not my girlfriend," but his face heats slightly. Dean gives it a month. Maybe a month and a half.
"She busted in on me this morning and tried to grill me. I wasn't even dressed!"
Sam's mouth twitches, but he drowns the asshole remark caught between his teeth with a long swallow of coffee. Then he sets the cup on Bobby's desk and dumps his wet jacket right on top of Dean's. He smells cold and damp and a little like the inside of the wine-colored narc cruiser he shares with Jody – leather and stale "new car smell" air freshener.
As he's moving some books and papers off the only other chair, Bobby looks at him and asks, "How'd it go with Henriksen?"
"I'm out. He says it's too close to home. He's left Jody on it for now, but he's itching to take it away from her. If she doesn't get anywhere in a few days, he'll probably pass it to Walker and Kubrick."
"Great," Dean gripes. Walker and Kubrick are two of the best detectives in the city, but they're hard-nosed and old-school in a seventies cop thriller kind of way. And they work like dogs. If they get this case, Dean'll be bumping into them every time he turns around. He'll have a wet-eared uniform tailing him whenever he makes a beer run. The next sucker he hustles at pool will be a street snitch on their dime. "You got any more good news?"
"No," Sam says. He stretches his legs out, balancing one foot on top of the other. His boots are caked with mud. "Listen, we need to figure this out. Alastair –"
"Demons," Dean says.
Bobby snorts. "No shit, Sherlock. Whoever killed those two didn't stint on the sulfur."
"No," Dean says, shaking his head. "Alastair was a demon. Ellsworth too."
Silence. They both stare at Dean like his head is on fire. The rain batters the roof. A car turns down the road behind the salvage yard, rattling like it's dragging its muffler.
Sam recovers first; he clears his throat and says, "That's – there's no way. He worked with you six months. There are devil's traps all over the office. He –"
"He wasn't possessed the whole time," Dean says. "I gave him a holy water beer when I interviewed him, and he was clean. I think it was recent. I mean, I never really liked the guy, but he was way more of a dick the last five, six weeks. I just –" he shrugs " – I didn't think anything of it. His marriage was on the rocks. I figured –" He shrugs again and sighs.
"You figured he was sleeping on the couch," Bobby says.
Frowning, Sam says, "A few weeks is still –"
Dean waves him off. "Right after Jo left, this chick came in to see me. Ellie. She'd made a deal. Her mom got Parkinson's, and she'd – you know. Anyway, her bill was coming due. The sonofabitch holding her contract was wearing a banker from Kansas City. I called him with a blackmail story and set up a meeting. I broke the traps at the office so I could get him inside."
"All of them?"
"Yeah, 'cept the ones on the chairs."
Bobby buys himself another drink. "You get her off?"
"Yeah," Dean says, nodding. "He sat in a hot seat and got stuck, and I showed him the demon shank. I told him if he junked Ellie's contract and left her mom alone, I'd send him downstairs the old-fashioned way instead of giving him a sore throat."
Sam picks at the lid of his coffee. "And you never fixed the traps?"
"Nah." Heat digs under Dean's jaw. He feels like an idiot for being so sloppy, but the office traps are painted on the planking under the carpet, and he never found the time to move all the furniture out and rip it up again. "I wasn't –"
"Look," Bobby cuts in gruffly. "We need to get back to Alastair and Ellsworth."
Sam nods. He asks Dean, "What about Alastair's client?"
"I talked to him earlier."
"And what did he say?"
Dean hesitates for a second. Something is itching at the back of his neck. He takes a breath and admits, "He says he killed 'em."
"Hunter?" Bobby asks.
"Not exactly. He, uh. His name is Castiel. He – he says he's an angel."
Bobby just blinks at him. He grabs his glass of rotgut, slopping about a finger's worth over the rim before knocking the rest back in one swallow. After he's finished, he rubs both hands over his face. Then he sighs and asks, "You buying that?"
"No. Maybe. I – I don't know." Dean pinches the bridge of his nose. "Iron and silver didn't hurt him. When I said I didn't believe him, he – the lights blew out and the room shook and he – he, um." He opens his mouth. Closes it. Then he clears his throat and makes himself say it. "Wings. He had –"
"Wings?" Sam asks, his eyes wide. "Like actual wings?"
"No. They were just shadows. But I –" Dean pauses, unable to explain it. How he'd still felt them after they disappeared. How it had still seemed like they were rustling around the corners of the room. "I don't know."
"I knew it," Sam says. He sits up straight and raps his knuckles on the desk. "I always knew we'd run into an angel one day."
"Don't go all choirboy on me," Dean grumbles. "I'm not sure I believe him. He – I don't know. I –"
Bobby shuts him up with a sharp whistle. "All right. Just for laughs, let's say this guy is an angel. Why didn't he clean up his crime scene?"
"I asked him about that. He said he snuffed Ellsworth easy, but I guess Alastair gave him a run for his money. He limped off to catch his breath for a coupla hours. When he got back to the Bel-Aire, it was crawling with cops. So he flew off."
Sam's eyebrows inch up. "Flew? Like –" he flaps a hand in the air. "Like flying?"
"Yeah." Dean shifts in his seat. "He was out when I got to his motel, so I let myself in. And I locked the door, but he – I don't know. One second he was gone, and the next he was right behind me. And I heard – fuck." He scrubs at his hair. "It sounded like feathers."
"Jesus Christ," Bobby mutters. His tips his head back and stares at the ceiling for a moment. Then he huffs out a noise and says, "None of this gets you off the hook."
Something itches at the back of Dean's neck again. He rubs at it and says, "He told me he'd deal with it. He said he had something else he had to take care of, but after that he'd put me in the clear."
"And you believe that?" Bobby asks.
Dean shrugs. "I guess I'll find out. I told him not to skip town."
"Well," Sam says thoughtfully. "We have his name. If he does pull a runner, we can probably summon him."
"Yeah," Dean says. He shivers a little. "Probably."
Dean leaves Bobby's place in the middle of a downpour. The rain is ruthless, coming down at a slant that hits the Impala's windshield like buckshot and falling fast enough that US 59 is practically a river. Water arcs along the Impala's fenders in twin waterfalls. Dean settles on a speed that'll get him back to Lawrence sometime today but won't send him hydroplaning into a ditch. He spends the drive trying to decide his next move. He needs to get back to the Starlite before Castiel gives him the slip. He wants to grab a shower and put on a t-shirt that isn't a giant sweat-stain.
The early afternoon traffic makes the decision for him. He's in the wrong lane when he gets even with I-70; it's either keep on keeping on or run the car next to him off the highway. He shakes his head and turns up the radio, tapping his fingers in time with Hair of the Dog and Number of the Beast. The street parking outside his building is open for a change; the weather probably chased all the window shoppers away. When Dean gets inside, the sound of Kevin typing is echoing up and down the hallway. He skips the office and climbs the stairs. The ancient red carpet running up the center of the steps is starting to curl at the edges.
His stomach growls as he walks into the loft. He hasn't eaten since he stopped at Biggerson's this morning. He dumps a can of tomato-rice soup into a saucepan and sets a burner on low. Then he hops in the shower. When he gets out, he throws on a clean set of clothes. He starts a third pot of heartburn coffee and eats the soup straight from the saucepan while he waits for it to brew. He pours the coffee into his trusty Fuel & Go cup. This is probably its last stand; its bottom feels soft and a stain is spreading along the seam running up its side.
After he grabs his keys and stashes his gun in his jeans, Dean pauses in front of Sam's old room. His personal stock of lore is pretty thin. He has two or three books on demons; everything else is about regular monsters. Nothing on angels. Bobby had said he'd check his own library, but he'd also told Dean not to get his hopes up. There's a retired hunter named Rufus who might have something useful, but it takes a bottle of Blue Label and a drive to Montana to get an audience with him and Dean doesn't have the money or the time. The Letters bunker in Lebanon is only three hours away; Dean dials its number as he heads back downstairs.
After two and a half rings, a cheery voice says, "Letters. This is Charlie."
"Hey, Charlie. It's Dean."
"I'm sorry, I don't know a Dean. Unless you mean Dean Winchester, who is dead to me because he hasn't come by for a visit in like four months."
"Sorry, kiddo. I've been working a lot." Dean tucks his phone against his ear so he can open the front door. Kevin is still typing. He's also muttering under his breath; Dean doesn't bother saying hi. "How are you and Dorothy?"
"Dorothy's great. She's out on a hunt right now."
"Yeah. A vampire broke my wrist, so I'm on the bench for six weeks. It's just a salt-and-burn, though. She promised to be home by breakfast."
Dean flops into his chair and sighs. "Charlie."
"Don't you dare give me a lecture. How many times have you –"
"Okay, okay," Dean says, laughing under his breath. "No lecture."
"So, is this call business or pleasure?"
"Business." Dean leans his elbows on his desk and tries to stretch his stiff shoulders. Rain beats against the window behind him. "You got anything on angels?"
Charlie pauses for a second. Then she says, "Did you – angels?"
"Yeah. I know it's weird. Just humor me."
"Okay. I can't think of anything off the top of my head, but I'll take a look." She pauses again. Static from the bunker's crappy landline buzzes in Dean's ear. "Actually... Gilda would probably know. She went back to faerie for some festival, but I can summon her later."
"Why didn't you go with her?"
Charlie huffs. "I couldn't. My splint has steel in it."
"Bummer. I bet they throw a mean party."
"Oh, yeah. Killer."
The doorknob rattles Dean back to the present. Kevin comes in, stands in front of his desk, and shifts his weight from foot to foot like he has to take a piss. Dean gestures for him to hold on and tells Charlie, "Listen, kiddo. I gotta get back to work. Lemme know if you dig anything up."
Dean says, "Thanks," and hangs up. Then he rubs his temples and looks at Kevin. Kevin is wearing his coat and holding his backpack. He has class on Tuesday afternoons, but it's barely three o'clock. Frowning, Dean asks him, "You going somewhere?"
"Yeah, school. The rain's like – it's going to take me two hours to get out there."
"You know, I don't get it," Dean says. He grabs the aspirin bottle out of his top drawer and scatters two pills on the desk. "Why are you going to KSU when there's a university right here in town?"
"KSU has a better mythology department," Kevin says.
He has barbecue sauce on his cheek; Dean thumbs at his own until he figures it out. "Better, huh? Who's got the best?"
"Berkeley. But my mom didn't want me that far away after the whole demon thing."
"Right." Dean knocks the aspirin back with a mouthful of coffee. It isn't really cool enough yet; he coughs a little as he points at the door. "Go. Drive safe."
Kevin turns around but stops short. Over his shoulder, he says, "Oh, yeah. There's a guy here to see you. Said his name is Crowley."
"What's he look like?"
Dean's lip curls. He's probably a cheater and wants Dean to get him out of the doghouse. Or he's being blackmailed and wants Dean to get him out of the doghouse. "Send him in."
Crowley enters almost as soon as Kevin leaves. He's shorter than Dean and dressed in a black suit and black tie. The suit is expensive and the tie is silk. His black overcoat is perfectly cut. His hair is thinning on top, but he doesn't seem bothered by it. He studies Dean for a few minutes, lurking in the doorway like it'll make Dean uncomfortable.
Eventually, he invites himself all the way in and asks, "Dean Winchester?"
Crowley takes a second to straighten his tie. Then he rests a hand on the back of the tan and white client chair and offers Dean the other. His palm is clammy and cold. "The name's Crowley."
"Yeah, Kevin told me. What can I do for you?"
Crowley doesn't answer. Instead, he burrs, "Charming place," and looks around.
Dean looks with him. Dishwater carpet that's seen better days. Walls somewhere between beige and colorless. Two windows – one partially blocked by a fire escape ladder. The middle drawer of the filing cabinet is sagging open an inch. The wastebasket needs to be emptied. Alastair's desk is getting dusty. It's still cluttered; the police haven't sent the vulture squad to pick through his things.
When Crowley finishes his five-cent tour, he asks, "Tell me, Winchester. How much do you charge?"
Dean already hates this guy, and he needs to get back to Castiel. But he can't afford to turn down a legitimate job. Leaning back in his chair, he says, "Two hundred an hour, plus expenses. Unless the job doesn't smell right."
"And then what? You charge four hundred?"
"No. Then I tell you to get the hell outta my office."
Crowley hmmms at that, a snake-in-the-grass kind of sound. He has an accent, but it's vague enough that Dean can't pinpoint it. Irish, maybe. Or Scottish. He says, "Well, I'm not here to hire you in your... usual capacity. But I do have a business proposition for you."
"All right. Hit me."
"I have this friend. Well, no. He's more of an associate. You know what I mean: I wouldn't have him over for tea, but I might tell him if his hair was on fire." Crowley waits for Dean to laugh; when it doesn't happen, he thins his mouth and continues, "My associate is a collector. Dumb curios, mostly. One of these knick-knacks has been stolen. I'd like for you to get it back."
Dean sips his coffee like he's thinking about it. His tongue is still burn-tender. Once the pause is brittle enough to break, he asks, "How many reasons do I have?"
"How does twenty thousand sound?"
"Twenty thousand dollars." Dean shakes his head and whistles through his teeth. "That's a lot of paper for a guy who makes his living snooping at keyholes. What's the catch?"
Crowley sighs irritably. "There's no catch. The fee is insurance. My associate wants the job done well and he wants it done quietly. He's a... private person. He doesn't want any scenes or newspapers. Nobody's encouraging you to break the law, but if you do: don't get caught."
"Your associate... does he know who stole it?"
"Why doesn't he just go to the police? They work for free."
Crowley misses a beat before saying, "It's complicated."
An ugly laugh bubbles into Dean's throat. He swallows about half of it before saying, "No, it ain't complicated. It's stolen. This thing was hot property before your buddy's pocket got picked. He wants it back but he doesn't wanna get his hands dirty." Christ, he fucking hates rich people. "What is it, anyway?"
"It's –" Crowley cuts off, a frown pinching his mouth. "It's a length of wood. Narrow. Slightly curved at one end."
"Doesn't sound like much. At least, it doesn't sound like twenty grand."
"Does it sound like twenty-five grand?"
That's a lot of money, but Dean makes himself shrug and say, "That ain't my problem. I just don't get why your buddy's willing to drop that much change for a stick."
"He's a little eccentric. And the... stick has sentimental value. His father made it."
Dean chews his lip. Everything about this is screaming "illegal activity," and he's already up to his neck in police problems. But no one offers twenty-five grand for a piece of wood unless there's something freaky about it. It's probably cursed, and a cursed object floating around in the general population is going to end in deaths. A few years ago, he and Sam got tangled up with a hexed rabbit's foot that had jerked them around like a carnival ride. They'd barely made it out of that mess with their skins.
"Yeah, all right," Dean says. He won't see a dime of the money – not if he "loses" the stick in a curse box – but he lets a greedy smile tug at his mouth. "Tell me about the guy who stole it."
"He came into this office yesterday," Crowley says, leaning across the table. His eyes burn red. "His name is Castiel."
Dean tries to jump up, but he's frozen solid from the chin down. A thread of sulfur stings his noise. He hadn't noticed it earlier, but between the heater and the weather, the whole office stinks like oven-baked dust and wet wool. Crowley straightens. As his eyes fade to normal, Dean looks him over again. He should've realized. The rain is coming down like a waterfall, but Crowley's overcoat is dry.
"Crossroads demon?" Dean asks. The banker holding Ellie's contract had flashed red eyes.
"The King of the Crossroads," Crowley says smugly. He spreads his hands. "I'll admit, this little caper isn't my usual thing, but finding the stick has incentives. Where's Castiel?"
"I don't know."
"That's a lie, but we'll get back to it later. I'm more interested in the stick." After a long pause, Crowley adds, "I know you're a hunter. I also know about your cheap tricks." With a flick of his hand, he sends the client chair flying across the room. It upends against Alastair's desk, showing the devil's trap chalked underneath the seat. "You cost me a perfectly good soul a few months back."
Crowley squeezes Dean's throat with an invisible hand. Once he has Dean red-face and gasping, he asks, "Did Castiel leave it here?"
"No," Dean croaks, trying to suck in air.
The pressure on Dean's throat shifts, but it's just a threat. Crowley hums quietly and says, "You might not know. Those bloody treetoppers play all sorts of games. They can fly and stop time and scramble your memories like eggs." He pauses for a moment, his eyes narrowing. "Castiel wouldn't stash it without protection. He's a poor excuse for an angel, but he isn't stupid. Is anything in this dump warded? A box, or a drawer – anything like that?"
"That might be the truth. Hunters are hoarders by nature, but they always live in one-room shacks when they aren't living out of their broken-down vans. You don't have the space here." Another pause drags out; Crowley almost lets Dean breathe. "Where's your storage unit?"
"Don't – don't have one."
Crowley squeezes Dean's throat again. Invisible fingers dig into the skin below his jaw, hard enough to bruise. Dean's vision swims a little. Crowley says, "Of course you do. You have at least two. There's one close by, for rare books and weapons you only need once in a blue moon. The other one is the next state over. It's full of all the things you'd rather not think about."
Between his own crap and his dad's, Dean has five lockups spanning Nevada and West Virginia. But he isn't admitting that to Crowley. He can't speak, so he grunts out a noise and shakes his head.
"Huh. You're a tough nut to crack. Or... at least you think you are." Crowley glances at the wooden chair beside the door, and it skids across the floor, snagging the carpet as it goes. The box of junk from Lisa's garage topples off with a rattle. Dean bites the inside of his cheek until he tastes blood as Crowley says, "I guess we'll see."
He sits. A horrified look crosses his face.
"Comfy?" Dean asks, rolling his shoulders. Gingerly, he touches his throat. In an hour, it's going to be a furious, purple bruise.
"You don't want to do this."
"Yeah. Pretty sure I do."
"I'm not some two-bit smoker," Crowley says, jerking his head. "This won't hold me forever."
"Forever's overrated. I just need a few minutes." Dean's chair whines as he stands. He walks around the desk, sticks his hand into Crowley's suit jacket, and grabs the wallet from the inside pocket. He dumps everything it's holding on the desk and says, "Let's see what we're dealing with."
There isn't much. No ID and no credit cards. Close to a thousand in cash, most of it in c-notes. A receipt for a room at the Eldridge Hotel under the name Thomas Brighton. A magnetic keycard with the same room number – 206.
Dean's legs are a little shaky, so he shoves it all aside and sits on the edge of the desk. He says, "Tell me about the stick. Is it cursed?"
"No. It's – it's an angelic weapon."
Dean chews on that for a second. It means Castiel isn't a liar, at least not about being an angel. Jesus Christ. An angel. He spends thirty-seven years thinking God is a fairy-tale people tell themselves so they can sleep at night, and now this.
"Okay," he says finally. "If it's one of heaven's toys, why do you want it?"
Crowley looks at him like he's stupid. "It's powerful. Why wouldn't I want it?"
"What about your buddy? Animal, vegetable, or mineral?"
"Why does he want it?"
"He doesn't know what it is. He's a religious nut. He thinks it's a piece of the True Cross." Crowley sighs and jerks his head again. His shoulders almost follow the motion; Dean's running out of time. Crowley continues, "When Castiel stole it, the man was frantic. He resorted to some... unsavory channels. I heard about it, and I offered to help him find it to get my finger in the pie."
"And Castiel... what? He's gonna take it back to heaven?"
Crowley twitches in a way that's almost a shrug. "He's been off God's Christmas list for years. He probably wants to flap into the clouds with it and make Daddy love him again. The Prodigal Son, et cetera, et cetera."
Dean walks back around his desk and grabs his office bottle from the bottom drawer. He helps himself to a shot without bothering with a glass. "What's all this gotta do with me?"
"Interested parties have been closing in on Castiel for weeks. He –"
"Alastair and Ellsworth?"
"Yes, them. But other demons as well. A few angels, too. When I heard he visited you, I figured he stashed it in some hunter oubliette to take the heat off. That would let him lie low for a spell without worrying about it falling into the wrong hands."
Brakes squeal out on the street. Crowley's foot spasms. Dean stuffs his office bottle back in the drawer and weighs his options. Exorcising Crowley will just send him back downstairs in one piece. He'll be topside again by lunchtime tomorrow, and if he hops into a new meatsuit, Dean won't see him coming. The demon shank is out in the Impala; with the luck Dean's been having today, he'll get back inside just as Crowley is wriggling out of the trap.
"Tick-tock, Winchester," Crowley says, shifting in the chair. "I'm a minute or two from crawling straight up your arse."
Dean snorts. "Don't talk dirty. It makes you sound cheap."
He fishes around in the filing cabinet's top drawer, tossing out papers and folders until he turns up a salt canister. He draws a fat line across the doorway. Crowley starts to say something, but Dean just steps over the line and slams the door in his face.
Dean heads out to the Impala at something that isn't exactly a run. He needs to move fast, but he doesn't want to attract attention from anyone on the street. He only sees one person – a woman smoking a cigarette under the low sweep of the tattoo shop's corrugated awning. The neon sign buzzing in the shop's window washes her tan raincoat a gaudy green. A paisley scarf is bursting out of her collar and a floppy hat is angled across her face. She checks her watch as Dean climbs into his car. He hauls his duffel onto the seat and rummages around for the demon shank, freezing when he hears a low, angry rumble that isn't thunder. He glances back at the office. The street-front window is rattling and the lamp peeking above the sunbleached café curtain is flickering.
"Fuck," Dean spits, jamming his key in the ignition. His misses twice because his hand is shaking too hard. "Fucking shit."
The engine grumbles awake reluctantly, like it's unhappy about the crappy weather. Dean revs the bad attitude out of it, muttering, "C'mon, c'mon," with his blood rushing in his ears and his heart at a full gallop. Once the Impala perks up, Dean gives the dash a smack and throws it into gear. He peels away from the curb, pitching a thin wave of water up onto the sidewalk. Rain pummels the windshield. Steam starts patching the glass because Dean's breathing like he just ran a marathon. He wipes the worst of it off with the back of his hand and switches on the defroster. His throat feels swollen and raw.
Three blocks from the office, Dean gets stuck at a red light. He uses the time to type out a text to Kevin that says, "demon trapped @ office, stay away!" A police cruiser pulls up alongside him just as he's pressing send. The cops inside are zeroed in on their cups of coffee, but Dean isn't taking any chances, not when he has a bag full of weapons practically in his lap. He drops his phone on the seat, nudges his duffel back into the footwell, and puts both hands on the wheel. When the light finally turns green, he glances in the rearview mirror and eases on the gas. The car behind him is a charcoal Prius. An uneasy feeling knots in Dean's gut; he checks the rearview mirror again and takes a good look at the driver.
It's the same chick he saw standing outside the tattoo shop. She's traded the hat for a pair of Farrah Fawcett sunglasses, but Dean recognizes her coat and the loud pattern on her scarf. He lets her follow him for a few blocks. There's not much else he can do with a cruiser riding shotgun. At the next light, he studies the Prius so he can give Donna a description later, something better than, "gray and ugly." It doesn't have a front license plate. There's a dent on its nose near the passenger-side blinker, and a faded Avis sticker is peeling in one corner of the windshield. She must notice him watching; she tugs her scarf up over her mouth and she backs off his bumper slightly.
Another half-mile down, the cops flip a u-turn. They chirp their siren and flash their disco lights and then cut in front of Dean, giving the Impala's grill too close of a shave. Once they're out of Dean's hair, he leans on the gas. She lets him have the breather; eventually, enough space opens up that an elderly Buick slides between them on its way to the suicide lane. Lightning flares behind the clouds. When Dean moves right, the chick only waits a few beats before following.
Dean figures she's human. A demon wouldn't be tailing him in a fucking car. She might be someone who ended up on the wrong side of a PI job. Or she might be on Don Stark's dime, hired to dig up something that would discredit him and those pictures he took. Even so, an itch behind his teeth is telling him to ditch her before he gets to Castiel's motel. His hands are white-knuckled on the wheel. He takes a few deep breaths to slow his jackrabbit pulse. He'd need more cars on the road to get lost in traffic. The storm has plunged Lawrence into an early twilight – dark, but not dark enough to really hide in.
About four blocks from the Starlite, Dean turns right down a side-street. It's narrow and curbless and poorly-lit. He turns right again at the end of the block and then takes the next left. He coasts around the second corner, glancing in the rearview mirror just as she pulls over beside a mailbox. She probably knows she's been crowding him. Chewing his lip, he takes another left. The residential stretch of no-tell country is a warren of streets Dean's only somewhat familiar with. He doesn't want to slam into a dead-end or get quicksanded in a gravel pit because the pavement ended without warning. He swings into an empty driveway, kills his lights, and hunches down.
He doesn't hear her approach because goddamn hybrids don't make any noise, but her headlights fan across the face of the house as she passes. They whitewash the wood-paneled garage door and the overgrown bougainvillea climbing the drainpipe. She realizes her mistake about five houses down. She hits her brakes as Dean throws the Impala into reverse and backs out. He keeps his lights off. He tears back the same way he came, spitting rainwater and loose gravel as he rounds the turns. He idles for a split-second when he reaches the main drag. If he's going to shake her, he'll have to ditch his car.
Instead of cutting left or right, he guns it and makes a straight shot for the red and yellow glare of the Biggerson's across the street. He parks near the entrance, snags his duffel, and ducks inside. The late afternoon crowd is pretty thin, just a handful of teenagers fresh from school and a few blue-haired, early-bird specials. A waiter passes him with a nod and a tray stacked with food. The restaurant is L-shaped; a long dining room straddles the cash register and two smaller dining rooms branch off one corner. The one farthest back is dark. Dean heads for it and hopes it has an emergency door.
A tower of highchairs looms against the wall. A busboy is sleeping at one of the booths. Dean eases by him so his gear won't clank and wake him up. This dining room is right on top of the kitchen; the air feels greasy and thick and smells like frying oil and burnt bacon. The emergency door is in the far corner. Dean hip-checks a table on his way over, and he grits his teeth as the silverware clatters and the salt and pepper shakers rattle and bounce. Predictably, the door is alarmed. Dean presses the bar with a wince, but the buzzer just whines like it doesn't really mean it.
He comes out on the other side of the restaurant's horseshoe parking lot, right where it rubs up against a no-tell called the Lucky Lady. The Lucky Lady has red doors instead of blue, and its parking lot has been repaved in recent memory. Other than that, it's the Starlite's twin. They're facing each other across the street, standing nearly eye to eye. The wind has picked up again, forcing the rain into a slant. A styrofoam Biggerson's cup skitters past Dean's feet.
After checking for the Prius, he slogs across the wet tarmac and melts into the shadows cast by the Lucky Lady's vending machines. Rain soaks his hair and jacket and drips into his collar. The ice hopper wheezes against his back. He waits for what feels like a long time and then waits a little more. He buys a Coke and drinks it while the hems of his jeans soak up the puddle swirling around his feet. Once his teeth start chattering, he chucks the can in the Lucky Lady's dumpster and jaywalks across to the Starlite.
Dean has Castiel's key, so he doesn't bother knocking. The lock sticks slightly. The door groans open like it's dying. When Dean walks in, he finds Castiel sprawled on one of the beds without his trenchcoat or suit jacket. His tie is off and his sleeves are rolled up to the elbow. He's watching Criminal Minds.
"Really?" Dean asks, tossing his duffel on the table. "You're an angel of the lord, and this is what you do when you ain't on the clock?"
"You didn't want me to leave," Castiel says blandly. He kills the TV by glancing at it. Then he slides off the bed and moves toward Dean. "Why are you all wet?"
Dean pauses as he's shrugging off his water-logged jacket. His shirts are somewhere between damp and moist. "I got stuck –"
"And you're injured."
Tentatively, Castiel reaches for Dean's throat. His hand seems huge; Dean flinches back a step on reflex. His bruised muscles and skin have started to ache in the last hour, and he feels like he's swallowed a cheese grater. Castiel studies him for a moment, his head tipping to the side. Dean takes another half-step back, but he bumps into the table. It wobbles against his hip. Castiel makes a soft but pointed noise and reaches for Dean again. This time, Dean lets him. He doesn't really have a choice.
Castiel brushes his hand over Dean's cheek. His eyes glint silver and a blue-white light blazes from the center of his palm. Something spreads through Dean's body, something that's hot and cold at the same time, something that feels bright. It reminds him of the weird heat that keeps flaring in his shoulder, but it's softer and slower. It rolls over in him in waves instead of stabbing straight into him. The smell of ozone crackles around the room, like the aftermath of dry lightning. Dean shivers as his pain subsides and the warmth finally ebbs away. He tries to say, "Thanks," but nothing comes out.
"Some humans find that tiring," Castiel says, saving Dean the trouble. His eyes are a normal blue again. "You should probably sit."
Dean yanks out one of the chairs. It's a metal and molded plastic job, the kind of thing IKEA would sell if IKEA made its furniture on the moon. The curved back has a star-shaped hole punched through the center and the seat dips and creaks under Dean's weight. Fatigue nudges him as soon as he sits, but it's garden-variety sleepiness, not the bone-deep exhaustion that comes from a stakeout or a long hunt. Dean knuckles his eyes. Then he leans his elbow on the table and yawns. Castiel hands him a towel.
"I stood out in the rain for forty minutes," Dean explains, blotting his face. The towel is rougher than sandpaper and reeks of motel-grade detergent. "Some chick stuck herself to my shoe when I left my office. I wanted to lose her before I got here."
"You were followed?" Castiel asks sharply. "By a demon?"
"I think she was human." Something about her is nagging Dean a little – something familiar, something that made him stop at look at her when he should've been worried about Crowley busting loose and killing him – but another yawn carries that thought away before he can really get ahold of it. "I don't know."
"But you... lost her?"
Dean scrubs the stinky towel over his wet hair. "Yeah, I lost her. You think she was looking for you?"
"I'm sure of it."
"Can't these people just –?" Dean can't find the right words, so he just frowns and wiggles his fingers. "You know."
Castiel untucks half his shirt and hikes it up under his arm, flashing a tattoo slightly larger than Dean's hand. It's four rows of letters and symbols done in heavy, black lines. Dean doesn't recognize the language. It sits low on Castiel's abdomen, close to his navel. It looks good there.
Dean distracts himself from staring by asking, "What's that?"
"Protection." Castiel drops his shirt but doesn't tuck it back in, so it just bunches awkwardly around the waist of his slacks. "It hides me from angelic and demonic sight. I can't be compelled by a summons, and my location can't be divined through witchcraft."
Dean clucks his tongue. "Huh. Crowley said you were on heaven's shitlist, but –"
"You spoke with Crowley?" Castiel asks. The words are clipped, like bullet casings hitting concrete. "He – is he the one who hurt you?"
Dean snorts out a noise. He touches his throat, even though it doesn't hurt anymore. "Yeah. It was a fun conversation."
"What did he want?"
"He asked me where you were. He also seemed to think I had the stick." A hunted look flits across Castiel's face. His mouth thins slightly. When he doesn't say anything, Dean presses, "He said it was an angelic weapon."
"Yes. It – yes, it is."
Dean tosses the towel on the table and rubs the back of his neck. A train whistle hums through the silence, muted by the rain and the motel's distance from the river. Castiel paces toward the beds. Then he sighs under his breath and paces back. His shoes whisper over the threadbare carpet. His shirt has straightened itself out.
Finally, Dean asks, "You didn't come here just to kill two demons, did you?"
"So you lied to me."
Castiel hesitates. Then he says, "Essentially, what I told you was true. Ellsworth –"
"Cut the crap," Dean snaps, smacking his hand on the table. Anger flashes in Castiel's eyes, but Dean ignores the fear thrumming under his ribs and keeps talking. "I wanna know what's going on."
"I don't want to involve you."
"An hour ago, a demon almost choked me to death. I am involved. I just don't know what the game is."
Castiel hesitates again. A car pulls into the Starlite's parking lot; its headlights briefly peek into the room through the flimsy blue curtains. Dean sighs and drums his fingers on his knee. If this was just a regular job, he would've walked out of the door ten minutes ago. There's an itch under his skin pushing him to grab his shit and hit the road. But he – fuck. He doesn't know.
After another beat or two of indecision, Castiel sits down across from him. His chair doesn't whine about it. He folds his arms on the table and says, "Heaven has a cache of special weapons. Some were created during the war in heaven – the war that banished Lucifer to hell. Others were created for specific purposes. They've been locked away for millennia."
Castiel wastes a few more seconds frowning at the table. Then he looks back up and Dean and continues, "Twenty years ago, they were stolen. These weapons – they're all dangerous. Some are deadly. The archangels were concerned they would fall into the wrong hands. I was tasked with recovering them."
"Okay," Dean says slowly. His headache is coming back; this shit is way above his paygrade. "You – wait. You told me you've been down here eight years."
"I took this vessel eight years ago," Castiel says, glancing down at himself. "I used others before it, for short periods of time."
"And are they – are they, um."
"Alive?" Castiel asks bluntly. When Dean nods, Castiel says, "Yes, they are. They're alive and healthy. Only one even remembers it. But Daphne was – she has... special gifts. Humans would call her psychic."
Dean shakes his head and blows out a breath. "Wow. You guys can really –" he cuts off, hearing Crowley's voice in his head – "scramble our memories like eggs?"
A frown pulls at the corner of Castiel's mouth. "Yes," he admits. "I find it... distasteful, but it's expected. As I told you, angels haven't openly walked the earth in two thousand years. When we come here, it's with purpose. Once that purpose is fulfilled, we return to heaven."
"After windexing your meatsuit's brain." Dean shakes his head again. "You guys sound like a barrel of laughs." Castiel makes a quiet, affronted noise, but Dean doesn't give him the chance to start an argument. He says, "Let's get back to these heavenly nukes. Who stole them?"
"An angel named Balthazar. He'd grown tired of heaven, so he –"
"He came to earth and set up shop as an arms dealer?"
Flatly, Castiel says, "Yes. It took me almost three years to find him. He changed vessels frequently and used hex bags to conceal himself. When I brought him back to heaven, he was interrogated. He eventually named his buyers, but by that point the items had exchanged hands several times."
"Yeah, hot property usually does," Dean mutters. The detergent smell lurking around the towel is itching his nose, so he balls it up and lobs it toward the bathroom. "So, what's this stick everyone's all excited about?"
"It's the Staff of Moses."
Dean just stares at him for a second. Jesus fucking Christ. "Moses? Like let my people go? Like parted-the-Red-Sea Moses?"
"Yes, Moses did use the Staff to part the Red Sea," Castiel sounds perfectly calm, like all of this is normal. Just another day at the office. Dean blinks up at the ceiling as he continues, "He also used it to create the ten plagues."
Dean chews his lip. He knows this story, but he's so fucking tired he can't remember the details. "Frogs, right? Locusts? First born sons?"
"Among other things."
"Yeah, all right. I can see why you guys don't want this thing just lying around." Dean shivers; his clothes are still a little damp and the room is an icebox. He stands with only a mild complaint from his chair. Rolling a kick out of his shoulders, he heads over to the window unit. He pushes buttons at random until it starts coughing out warm air. "Is this what got you in trouble upstairs?"
Castiel shifts uncomfortably. His jaw tics. Then he admits, "Yes. The Staff is capable of blighting crops. Such a blight occurred in a wooded area outside Pontiac, Illinois eight years ago. I took this vessel and searched for it. Rumors placed it at a warehouse in the city. I was... delayed on my way there. By the time I arrived, it had already been moved somewhere else."
Dean shivers again, and not just because of the chill. He studies the floor and rubs the scar on his shoulder. He doesn't like coincidences. And this probably is one. There's no way a bunch of heavenly bullshit has anything to do with his dad dying on a hunt that went sideways. But – fuck. He doesn't like it. He doesn't like it so much it's making his teeth itch.
"Dean?" Castiel asks.
"Sorry. I was just –" Dean shakes his head and huffs himself back to reality. "Where's it now?"
"I don't know."
"Crowley thinks you have it. He said you stole it from some guy – a human who collects religious junk." Dean moves back over to the table. He skims his hand over the arm of his chair, but he doesn't sit. His legs are too restless. Instead, he stands beside Castiel and breathes in ozone and fresh-cut grass. "He rattled me because he thought I'd stashed it for you. In a curse box, or – you know. Something a demon can't touch."
Castiel huffs. "That's –"
"Is that what happened?" Dean asks roughly. Anger simmers in his gut. "It is, isn't it? You got me to ditch it for you and then screwed my head around so I'd forget it."
"Dean," Castiel says, his voice rumbling into the corners of the room. It's a dangerous sound. "Ellsworth had the Staff. At least, he claimed he had it when I spoke with him."
"You –? Ellsworth –?" Dean sighs and sits on the edge of the closest bed. "You – just tell me the whole fucking story."
Castiel echoes Dean's sigh. Then he leans back in his chair and says, "As I told you, I've been searching for the Staff for eight years. Recently, rumors put it with Ellsworth. I tracked him here – to the Bel-Aire motel."
"He checked in Thursday evening, but he rarely stayed there. He –"
"Can't say I blame him. That place is a dump. It's almost as bad as this – sorry. Go on."
"Ellsworth spent his time out in the city. He always visited places that were crowded with humans – restaurants, bars, night clubs, pool halls. I wanted to get him alone, so I called his motel yesterday morning and offered to buy the Staff. I let him believe I was human. We arranged to meet at eight o'clock. During our conversation, he implied that he wasn't working alone."
"Right, yeah," Dean mutters. "Alastair."
Castiel nods and continues, "When I couldn't sense a second demon in the area, I went to your office –"
"So you could poke around in my head!"
"Which I did not do," Castiel points out sharply.
"Only 'cause the demon found you first," Dean gripes, rubbing his eyes. "You said you could tell he was a demon once you were looking at him. Could he... see you, or whatever?"
"Yes. My protective tattoo has limitations, just like the hex bags he carried. Once we were face to face, he knew me as an angel."
"Huh." Alastair had flinched when he first saw Castiel at the office, but Dean hadn't thought anything of it. Having a bad marriage had made him a short-tempered sonofabitch. He'd never needed a reason to gnash his teeth. "I'm surprised he tried to get frisky with you. I mean –" Dean wags a finger at his eyes "– you guys don't screw around. You just blast people outta their bodies."
"He probably thought that spell would... take care of me. It almost did."
Thinking about that puts a burr under Dean's ribs, so he asks, "But you tangled with Ellsworth first, right?"
Castiel nods again. "I hired Alastair so I could get them together and kill them at the same time. But after I left your office, I began to reconsider. Demons are selfish creatures, loyal only to themselves. I worried that confronting them together would give one the opportunity to take the Staff and disappear. I called Ellsworth again and asked to meet at five o'clock instead. He agreed, but when I arrived he wasn't there."
"Alastair tipped him off. He heard an angel was coming for him and he panicked."
"Probably." Castiel pauses and runs a hand through his hair, the gesture a little to stiff to be completely human. "I searched his room, but I didn't find the Staff. He returned eventually, and –" He shrugs. "You know the rest."
Dean tries to say, "Yeah," but his voice catches in his throat as his jaw splits around a yawn. An undertow of exhaustion is quickly dragging him down. Hunching over, he rests his elbows on his knees. He yawns again.
The air rustles with a sound like the wind. When Dean looks up, Castiel is gone. An eyeblink later, the air rustles again and Castiel is standing in front of him. He's close enough that their knees are touching. He's giving off heat like a banked fire, steady and slow.
"You should sleep."
"Yeah, right," Dean scoffs. He'd love to sleep; he just doesn't know where. Sam's studio has a futon that belongs in a torture chamber, and Bobby has two second-floor bedrooms he never uses, but Dean doesn't want to sink them into this angel crap unless he absolutely has to. "If I go home, I'm gonna wake up to Crowley standing over my bed."
"Stay here," Castiel says simply. "I'll watch over you."
Dean blinks at him. "What –? Dude, that's –"
"It's the most reasonable solution. Your home isn't safe. If you stay here, I can protect you."
"Yeah, okay, but –" Dean yawns again.
Lightly, Castiel touches Dean's shoulder. "Dean, go to sleep."
"Okay," Dean mumbles. "Okay."
The heat is like a blast furnace. Dean's skin is starting to blister. The back of his throat is scorched and raw. The roof groans overhead. The whole building shakes. A rafter shears off with a crack like lightning, crashing down near Dean's feet. Sparks catch in his hair and clothes. Ash billows in his face.
Everything is smoke. Dean crouches down, sucking in air with his face pressed to the dirty concrete. His lungs burn. His lips are bleeding. His dad shouts, but the thunder-roar of the fire drowns out the words. The roof groans again. Dean crawls forward a little. Gray spots shimmer at the edge of his vision, blurring the orange-red glare of the fire.
The air shifts beside his ear. Flutters. The searing heat ebbs slightly. A hand grips his shoulder. Someone whispers. Tugs him. He can't move. Sirens are blaring. The hand on his shoulder tightens. Tugs him again. His legs feel like lead. His nose and mouth are clogged with ash. He can't breathe.
Something slides over him. Soft. Soft. He hears a rustle. Something –
Dean wakes up in a dark room. Fingers are gently carding through his hair. His headache is gone, but his brain feels stale and dusty and wrinkled, like a pile of dirty laundry. The lights flashing in the corner of his eye are brightly-colored and erratic – probably a TV. His knife isn't under his pillow, and the mattress isn't memory foam. The bathroom sink is dripping too fast. Everything smells like industrial-strength bleach instead of Gain.
The TV's next outburst is bright-white, nearly blinding as it flares across the scratchy bedspread. Dean gets a split-second glimpse of the stars dotting it and remembers that he's in Castiel's motel room.
He's cottonmouthed from the musty scorch of the heater. He croaks like a frog two or three times before asking, "Cas –? What're you doing?"
Castiel's hand pauses. His thumb hides behind the shell of Dean's ear. After a short, cautious silence, he says, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have –" He cuts off with a quiet noise. "You were restless. You seemed to want comfort."
"It's, um." An embarrassed flush crawls across Dean's face. He isn't a little kid. He doesn't need to be coddled. He just – Christ. There's a part of him that wants to squirm away. There's another part of him that wants to lean into Castiel's hand like a cat. "My dad – he died in a fire. Sometimes I have this dream. It's, uh. I –"
"You don't have to tell me about it," Castiel says quietly. "Not unless you want to."
Dean doesn't know what he wants, but a knot is burning in the back of his throat, so he just breathes through it and keeps his mouth shut. A door slams upstairs. A loose thread on the bedspread is tickling his nose. Sighing, he rolls over. The mattress bounces and squeaks like a truck with bad shocks. He ends up with his face about an inch from Castiel's thigh, but he tells himself it's fine because the bed stinks like the world's cheapest laundromat and Castiel doesn't.
He's tempted to just close his eyes and go back to sleep. Let the world twist in the wind for another hour or two. Instead, he sighs again. Then he flops onto his back and rubs at his sweaty face. He's got so much on his plate right now that gravy is dripping on the tablecloth.
"What time is it?" he asks.
"Ten after eight," Castiel replies. The ceiling light blinks on. "I was going to wake you at eight-thirty. Crowley wants to meet."
Dean sits up and rubs his face again. An episode of M*A*S*H is playing on the TV – the one about a marathon poker game. He blinks at it for a second before asking, "How'd he find you?"
"He called you," Castiel says. When Dean just fishmouths at him, he reaches over and grabs Dean's phone off the nightstand. "He said your number is on your front window."
The landline number is on the front window, but Kevin usually forwards it on the nights he leaves early for school. Dean thumbs his phone unlocked and dismisses a reply to his "demon at the office" text that says, "WTF!!!!!!!" Crowley's number shows up as 666. He has two missed calls from Bobby and four missed calls from Sam. The voicemail icon at the top of his screen feels like an accusation.
"All right," Dean says, shifting to the edge of the bed so he can start on his boots. If his feet could talk they'd be screaming in his face. "What time does the ashy bastard wanna pow-wow?"
"At your office."
Once his boots are on, Dean stamps his feet a couple of times just to remind them who's boss. Then he heads over to the window and peers through the gap in the curtains. His breath fogs the dirty glass. The rain seems to be taking a coffee break, but the Starlite's parking lot is still waterlogged. Oil spots glint in the sliver of moonlight pushing through the clouds. The vacancy sign flickers tiredly beside the driveway, washing the passing cars an eerie blue.
Dean turns back to Castiel and says, "We should get going. I wanna be there early in case Crowley tries to pull something funny."
Castiel disappears. A heartbeat later, he reappears at Dean's side fully dressed. The TV and the ceiling light gutter out like candles.
Dean shakes his head and laughs. "You're a showy sonofabitch, you know that?"
A smile tugs Castiel's mouth. "Are you ready?"
"Yeah, lemme grab my bag." Before Dean moves, he glances out the window again. This time, he spots a dark-colored Prius across the street at the Lucky Lady. It's either charcoal gray or black, and its nose is pointed at the Starlite. "Shit. Looks like my shadow caught up with me."
"The woman from earlier?" Castiel asks dubiously. His tie is already crooked. "Are you certain?"
"Yeah, I'm pretty sure," Dean replies. He shoulders his bag and stashes his gun in his jeans. When Castiel still doesn't look convinced, he adds, "I'm really pretty sure. Now, c'mon. We can take the bathroom window and cut over –"
Castiel touches Dean's sleeve and asks, "Dean, do you trust me?"
"I, um." That's a loaded question if Dean's ever heard one. "Yeah, I – yeah, okay."
Castiel pulls Dean closer and wraps both arms around his waist. It's the last thing Dean expects; he grunts out a confused noise and jerks like he's been punched in the gut. Before he can say anything, something presses against his back. Something that feels heavy and soft at the same time. Something he can't see. Castiel's eyes flash silver. The air crackles around them, arcing and snapping like a live wire. The restless weight at Dean's back flutters and shifts. He feels a strange tug at the base of his spine, and then everything is swallowed by a blaze of blue-white light.
When the light flares out, Dean is standing in his office. He's standing in his fucking office. He blinks at the desk and the ugly carpet and the long, sooty smudge Crowley left on the wooden chair, but his brain just keeps returning the information to sender. He turns in a slow circle. Then he scrubs at his hair and mutters, "What the fuck was that?"
"Flight," Castiel says blandly. "You did well. Most humans vomit the first time."
Dean just stares at him for a second. Then he double-checks with his feet to make sure that they're on the ground where they belong and that the ground is actually there. His knees wobble a little. A cold sweat is itching at the back of his neck. He isn't one hundred percent sure he isn't going to puke.
"I'm going upstairs," he says, just in case. "I want some coffee before he shows up."
He pauses outside his office to send Donna a text with all the information he has on the Prius. It isn't much, but the rental company will help narrow it down. Once he's done, he takes the stairs two at a time. The old wrought-iron railing is shakier than his knees. It needs a new coat of paint, and the dust covering it leaves a chalky smear on Dean's palm. The faded red carpet running up the steps is dusty too. He pays a cleaning service to vacuum the office and mop the hallway twice a week, but they never remember to do the stairs.
As he fishes his keys from his pocket, he hears something inside the loft. Footsteps. A murmur. The tired whisper-whine of old linoleum. It probably isn't Crowley; the braided rug just inside the door has a devil's trap spray-painted on its rough side. It isn't his shadow in the Prius, either. She didn't see Dean and Castiel skip out of the Starlite. That leaves the cops, but Dean figures Jody would call him first. Walker and Kubrick would wait outside so they could pin their warrant to his forehead.
He eases his key into the lock and gently turns the knob. The soft click echoes around the hallway. It feels like a bomb going off. Dean takes a deep breath. Then he kicks the door open and shoves his gun in Sam's face.
"Jesus Christ," he snarls, adrenaline thrumming under his skin. "You trying to get shot?"
"I was trying to make a pot of coffee," Sam says primly. He's wearing a plaid shirt and jeans instead of his detective get-up, but there's a bulge under his jacket the size of his sidearm. "Where the hell have you been all day?"
Dean drops his duffel on a chair and says, "Out."
He tucks the demon shank in his belt and stows his gun in his jeans. The beer bottles on his coffee table have been cleared away and replaced by several cartons of Chinese food and a six-pack of the pale ale Sam likes. The TV is on, the volume turned down to a low buzz. It's showing the same episode of M*A*S*H Dean left behind at the Starlite. His gut gives a dangerous lurch.
He shuts his eyes for a second. Then he opens them with a sigh and says, "How long've you been here?"
"A couple of hours," Sam says, heading back into the kitchen. While he's filling the coffee pot at the sink, Dean swaps the French Roast for a bag of his regular stuff. His heartburn is already at four alarms and his stomach is ready to stage a revolution. Sam pours the water into the machine and continues, "You weren't answering your phone."
"Yeah, sorry about that," Dean says.
Sam side-eyes him while he measures out the coffee grounds like he wants an explanation, but Dean doesn't have one. He doesn't want to talk about falling asleep in Castiel's bed, or how good it had felt to have Castiel touching his hair. And the dream – fuck. He's dreamed about the fire before, but this time it took a weird turn before he woke up, weird enough that goose-pimples skitter down his arms if he thinks about it too hard.
Instead, he says, "I'm grabbing a shower." He fucking needs it after standing in the rain and crashing at a place as skeevy as the Starlite. The clock on the microwave reads eight-thirty-five. That's cutting it close, but if he hurries he can find out what's eating Sam and still get him out of here before Crowley shows up. "Just gimme twenty minutes."
"Fifteen minutes," Dean promises, heading for the bathroom.
Dean spends exactly fifteen minutes in the shower. For about half of that, he just stands hunched under the spray so it can beat against the knots in his shoulders and back. It doesn't really help. After he gets out, he spends another four minutes throwing on a fresh set of clothes. His feet still hate him, but he figures a clean pair of socks is a decent apology for putting his boots on again. The smell of coffee laps at the space under his bedroom door. He needs a shave, but it's already eight-fifty-four. He can practically hear Sam tapping his foot.
"All right," he says, walking into the kitchen. His hair is still damp. "What happened? You and Bobby called me like nine times."
Sam chews his lip. Then he sets his coffee aside and pulls his phone out of his pocket. After poking at it for a moment, he holds it up and asks, "Jody sent me these right before I called you. You know him?"
Dean squints at the phone, tilting Sam's wrist to get an angle without so much glare. It's a picture of a bald and bulky black guy in his late fifties. He's stiff as a board and dressed in a navy blue or black suit. White shirt, no tie. He's lying on a pile of garbage – slats from a broken pallet mixed with plastic bags and cigarette packs and soda cans. He's been stabbed in the chest once, straight through the sternum.
"Never seen him before," Dean says, shaking his head. "Where'd he turn up?"
"An abandoned warehouse a few blocks from the Bel-Aire. Some squatters found him this afternoon."
"Anything on him?"
"No ID. No wallet, no cash, no cards."
Dean looks at the guy again. He could've been robbed, but suits don't lurk around warehouse districts unless they're buying drugs, and suits who buy drugs don't usually make it into their late fifties. They cark out at their shiny mortgage loan desks at forty. Dean zooms the picture to get a better look at the stab wound. It's diamond-shaped and about the size of a broom handle. The hole in the guy's shirt is black around the edges, almost like it's burned. But the lighting is poor; it could just be dried blood.
"I don't get it. What's this gotta do with our demon problem?"
"He –" Sam cuts off with a frown. Then he swipes to the next picture and says, "Check this out."
It's a longer shot; whoever took it was standing at the guy's feet instead of zeroed in on his chest. Mud is spattered on his slacks. One of his legs is bent at an angle that makes Dean grit his teeth. Two ashy-black shadows are curving away from his body. One is unfurled across the garbage and onto concrete floor. The other is stretching up the corrugated wall at the guy's shoulder. They look like wings.
"What the fuck?" Dean asks.
Sam starts to say something, but Castiel picks that moment to blip into the living room. After a split-second of shock, Sam blurts out, "Who the hell are you?" and reaches for his gun.
Dean grabs his arm. "Sam, don't. It's – this is Castiel. The angel."
"What?" Sam looks at Castiel, then looks at Dean, then looks back at Castiel. The linoleum grouses under his feet. "You –"
"Hello," Castiel rumbles. He offers Sam his hand – stiffly, like he isn't sure he's doing it right. "You must be Dean's brother."
"Yeah. I – Sam. Sam Winchester."
They shake like two middle-schoolers meeting at a church social. Sam's face is a car crash between stunned and excited, like he's freaked out about meeting a real live angel but also itching to ask Castiel a bunch of nerdy questions about heaven. Dean grabs a coffee mug out of his dish rack so they won't catch him rolling his eyes. He figures if they don't see it, it's a victimless crime. He fills his mug, fits the coffee pot back into the machine, and settles against the counter again.
He notices a wad of red cloth clutched in Castiel's other hand. He points at it with his coffee and asks, "What's that?"
"A hex bag," Castiel says, crushing it in his fist. It flames out with a swirl of sparks and a sharp, acrid smell, something like raw peppermint and singed hair. "I found it behind one of the pictures in your waiting room. Crowley must've hidden it before he spoke with you. It kept me from –" he stops himself. After a short pause, he huffs and starts over, saying, "He –"
Sam cuts him off again. "Who's Crowley?"
"Some bag of dicks demon," Dean explains, tapping his thumb on the rim of his mug. It's black and covered in cartoon magnifying glasses. Bobby gave it to him a couple of Christmases ago. "He came by the office earlier and roughed me up a little." Sam grumbles under his breath, but Dean waves him off before he can dive into one of his lectures on being careful. He says, "Show Castiel the dead guy."
Sam hesitates; the lecture is probably still in his mouth. Once he swallows it, he nods and says, "Yeah, okay," and hands Castiel his phone.
Castiel stares at the picture for a long time. He sighs. A strange, sad look crosses his face.
Dean is pretty sure he knows the answer, but he needs to be sure. Quietly, he asks. "You know him?"
"Yes. He – his name was Uriel."
Dean drinks his coffee while he waits for the other shoe to drop. It's a pinch weaker than what he usually brews for himself, but it tastes good after all the mud he's had all day. Castiel's shoulders hunch a little, but he doesn't say anything. And he doesn't say anything. And he doesn't say anything. A car honks its horn down on the street. The bathroom sink drips: plink-plink-plink. The hex bag's ghost itches Dean's nose.
Eventually, he clears his throat and asks, "An angel?"
"What –?" Sam shows his teeth like he doesn't really want to know the answer. "What can kill an angel?"
"Another angel, obviously."
Dean whips his head around so fast something pops in his neck. Crowley is standing in the doorway, his shoulder leaned against the jamb. Behind him, the hallway's yellow-white morgue glare flickers and hums. He's dressed in the same black suit and black tie he wore earlier. His hands are stuffed in the pockets of his coat. Carefully, Dean sets his coffee mug on the counter and eases the demon shank out of his belt.
Sam ducks his mouth close to Dean's ear and whispers, "Demon?"
"This is cozy," Crowley says, glancing around the loft. He lingers on the scuffed floors and the second-hand couch. He taps his fingers on the thrift-store table beside the door. "Mind if I join you?"
The clock on the microwave insists it's only nine-seventeen. Dean says, "You're early."
"No time like the present." Crowley starts to step inside but stops short. He toes at the braided rug. When it folds over and flashes its bright orange devil's trap, he scoffs and walks around it. The door slams closed behind him, hard enough to upset the walls. After straightening his tie, he looks at Dean and says, "You lied to me, Buttercup. When I asked you where our feathered friend was, you said you didn't know."
A sleek, silver blade slides out of Castiel's sleeve. He puts himself in front of Dean and says, "Crowley, if you hurt him again I swear I'll –"
"Relax, Angel," Crowley says, holding up his hands. He moves to one of the chairs and rests his elbow on the back. "I'm not here to hurt anyone. This whole Staff thing is getting a bit hot. I think it's time we sit down and talk it over like civilized people so we don't have to keep killing each other like barbarians."
Dean drops his arm and holds the demon shank against his thigh. "Yeah, all right. Talk."
"Wait," Sam says, glancing at Dean. "What's the staff?"
Crowley studies Sam for a moment. Then he looks at Dean and asks, "Who's the moose?"
Crowley hums thoughtfully. Then he wags a finger at Sam and says, "Sam, isn't it? I heard you cashed in and joined the boys in blue."
Sam crosses his arms. "Yeah, I did. But I still remember my Latin."
Sighing, Crowley mutters, "Everyone is so touchy today. The staff, Sam, is the Staff of Moses. A heavenly weapon capable of blighting crops and killing firstborn sons. It's been misplaced. The angels want it back, for obvious reasons. My side just wants it... also for obvious reasons." He thins his mouth and turns to Castiel. "Where is it?"
Castiel lifts his blade slightly and says, "I don't know."
Crowley sighs again. "You both keep telling me that, but for some reason I don't believe it. You –" he points at Castiel "– you've been searching for it for years. And you –" he points at Dean "– one of the demons involved in this Easter egg hunt was working for you." Pausing, he cocks his head to the side. "Right now, this charming little hovel of yours is being watched."
"What?" Dean asks. He glances at the kitchen window, even though it opens to the narrow pedestrian alley between his building and the tattoo shop. Nightfall and the rain have dulled the adjacent bricks to a heavy brown. "A woman in a tan coat? Ugly scarf? Uglier car?"
Crowley nods. "She's parked at the market across the street."
"Who is she?" Castiel demands, his hand flexing around the grip of his blade. He takes a step toward Crowley, but Dean catches his arm. Instead of shrugging Dean off, he settles a fraction before asking, "Who does she work for?"
"I don't know who she is, but I do have suspicions about her employer."
Dean glances out the window again. He nearly expects to find the chick sitting on his fire escape. To see the outline of her floppy hat in the shadows behind the glass. But there's nothing out there – just a spider-plant Dean forgets to water and an old patio chair his dad had used when he'd wanted to smoke without Sam complaining about it stinking up the loft. The sodium light in the alley casts a pale yellow glow along the window's horizon. The rain is back on the clock, pattering against everything with a sound like buckshot.
Dean asks, "Who?"
"The collector I mentioned earlier."
"The religious nut?"
"Yes," Crowley says. He slides his elbow off the back of the chair and brushes a piece of lint off his shoulder. "I told you, he was frantic when Castiel stole it."
"I didn't steal it," Castiel insists. Dean's hand is still fisted in Castiel's sleeve; he feels a jolt of furious tension chase itself up Castiel's arm. "Ellsworth had it. I don't know if he stole it himself or if he obtained it from someone else. But he had it. That's why I came here."
"All right, fine. Let's say Ellsworth stole it." Crowley waves his hand lazily. "You have it now."
"No, I don't."
Crowley huffs out an incredulous noise. "Do you really expect me to believe that?" His voice is suddenly edged like a knife, and an angry flush is seething up from his beard. Dean moves the demon shank to his hip. Beside him, Sam shifts his weight, like he's gearing up for a fight. "Between parties interested in the staff and the police, Ellsworth's flop has been searched twenty times. The Staff isn't there. You have it. You took it after you killed Ellsworth."
Castiel shakes his head. "I didn't kill Ellsworth. He was –"
"What?" Dean asks sharply. A new headache is starting to throb in his temples. A muscle tics in Castiel's jaw, but he doesn't say anything. Dean tugs his sleeve until he turns around. "You told me you did."
Crowley clucks his tongue. "Really, Angel? Telling lies to your only friend?" Turning to Dean, he continues, "Castiel didn't kill Ellsworth because Ellsworth was already dead. Uriel killed him. When Castiel got to the Bel-Aire, he caught Uriel sacking Ellsworth's room, and – well." An ugly smile pulls at the corner of his mouth. "Like I said, it takes an angel to kill one."
"Damn it, Castiel. You –"
"Uriel wanted the Staff for himself. He was –"
"So you killed him?" Dean snaps. He's still holding Castiel's sleeve; he can't make himself let go. "Just so you could take it upstairs yourself and get right with God?"
"No. That's not –" Castiel cuts off like a record scratch and looks upward. His eyes widen as something begins whispering around the room. Something so furious and cold it makes Dean shiver. The windows start to rattle. Castiel grabs Dean and Sam by the fronts of their shirts and hurls them out of the kitchen. "Get out! Get out right now!"
Dean stumbles and crashes to his knees and pitches shoulder-first into the couch. Wincing, he rolls over. Sam grips his arm and pulls him up, but before he gets to his feet, two blinding pillars of light scream down through the ceiling. Castiel takes a step back. He looks over his shoulder. Looks at Dean. His eyes spark silver and a second blade drops out of his other sleeve. He looks at Dean again. Then he spins the blade in his hand and tosses it at Crowley.
"Get them out of here alive and I'll give you the Staff."
"Deal," Crowley barks. He waves the couch out of his way and darts a glance at the door. As it flies open, he points the blade at Dean and Sam. "Come on, kids. Let's go."
Dean doesn't move. He – fuck. He can't. A hollow ache is digging under his ribs. "No. I ain't leaving him here."
"It won't do any good," Crowley insists. The walls are shaking, hard enough that plaster dust is raining down from the ceiling. The light above Crowley's head explodes. He waves again; something like a hand bruises into Dean's arm and yanks him a few steps back. "You can't help him. So help yourself. Help your brother."
Dean touches Sam's wrist and jerks his head toward the door. "Go on. Go."
"No. No way."
A silver-white gust of wind shrieks past Dean ear. The door slams shut, and Crowley snarls, "Great. Now none of us are getting out of here."
The pillars of light blaze brighter for a second. Then they burn out with a deafening electric ripple, leaving two guys behind in their wakes. Two angels. One is tall and pale and thin, hook-nosed in an Ichabod Crane kind of way; the other is shorter with dark hair and dark eyes. They look like tax attorneys, but they're also wholly inhuman in a way that makes Dean's skin crawl. The air around them shimmers like a heat-mirage. The lines of their bodies are too sharp, too precise. Dean thinks he could cut himself just by touching them. Terror hammers in his chest.
"Jonah. Efram." Castiel's voice is full of broken glass and razor-wire. "Why are you here?"
"You know why," the taller one – Jonah – says. "We've come for the Staff."
Castiel hefts his blade slightly. "I don't have it."
"Castiel," Efram says, his mouth thinning. "Lying will not save you."
"I don't have it."
The angels exchange a glance. They seem a little less alien now. Dean doesn't know if they've dialed back the theatrics or if he's finally wrapped his head around what he's seeing. Fear-sweat is beading on his forehead. Sam's elbow is digging into his side. Dean sucks in a breath. A thin thread of sulfur is weaving through the ozone-bite in the air.
Jonah makes an irritated sound and says, "You either have the Staff or know of its location. We will take you to Heaven for questioning. If you come quietly, we will not harm your companions. Even –" his lip curls "– the demon."
Castiel looks at Dean. Then he rushes at Jonah, swinging his blade.
"Bugger," Crowley hisses, his eyes flashing red.
He starts to ditch his meatsuit. The smoke pouring out of his mouth is a bloody maroon instead of black. Efram zaps out of the kitchen and zaps back in near the door. He catches the smoke in his hand as Crowley's body begins sagging to the floor and shoves it back in. Crowley comes back to himself with a gasp. His eyes burn red again, and Efram wraps his other hand around his throat.
Castiel grunts in pain. Blood is staining the corner of his mouth. Jonah punches him in the jaw. Punches him again. Castiel rears back, then rights himself and lunges in. Their blades clang with a sound like bells. They circle each other, putting Dean at Jonah's back. Castiel clocks him square in the gut. He jerks back with a groan, then straightens. When he cocks his arm back for another punch, Dean runs at him and grabs him around the neck.
Snarling, Castiel jabs with his blade. Jonah twists away; the blow slices up his arm. Blue-white light streams from the tear in his jacket. He wrenches Dean off his back with a handful of Dean's collar and sends Dean flying across the room. Dean slams into the fridge, knocking his head hard enough that he bites his lip. His vision swims as he stumbles to his feet.
Sam shouts as Dean is wiping the blood from his mouth. He sinks his fist into Efram's kidney and cracks his elbow against the back of Efram's head. Efram flings him away with a gesture, then turns back to Crowley. His hand is still around Crowley's throat. Crowley's face is purple, and reddish smoke is wisping from his nose and mouth. He swings his blade. It grazes Efram's side, catching in his jacket before clattering to the floor.
Castiel's blade clanks against Jonah's again. And again. Jonah fists his hand in Castiel's tie and yanks him close. His next blade-jab is aimed at Castiel's neck, but Castiel sweeps his feet away and they both crash to the floor. Castiel crushes his hand around Jonah's jaw. He bashes Jonah's head against the floor once. Twice. Jonah plants a foot and flips them and Castiel smashes into the stove. His blade skitters away and rolls into Dean's feet.
Dean picks it up, his head swimming again as he bends down. It's lighter than it looks and balanced oddly, but it's all Dean's got. He squeezes his hand around the grip and charges at Jonah as Jonah reaches Castiel and starts dragging him to his feet. He shoves Jonah around with a handful of his jacket and stabs at Jonah's chest. His dizziness makes him swing to wide; the blade sinks into the meat of Jonah's shoulder. A gout of light follows the blade when Dean pulls back.
Jonah clips him in the side of the head. Ears ringing, Dean stumbles back a couple of steps. Someone screams. It's a woman's voice; Jody's standing in the doorway with her gun out. Sam shouts her name. Efram punches Sam in the chest, then knocks Jody back against the door jamb. Jonah clips Dean again. Over Jonah's shoulder, Dean sees Castiel drawing something on the kitchen floor in blood. Dean punches Jonah in the jaw. It feels like he's bashing his fist into a concrete slab.
Dean slams into the fridge again. He hits the floor right next to Castiel. The scar on his shoulder is throbbing harder than his head. When he looks up, Jonah is standing over him. Blood is dripping from his nose and light is still seeping from the hole in his shoulder. He bends and catches Dean around the throat. Castiel grates out Dean's name. Then he grabs Dean's sleeve and slaps his bloody hand to the thing he drew on the floor.
The angels flicker out with a blazing wash of light and a strange shift in the air, enough reverse pressure that Dean's ears pop. The throb in his shoulder starts to dull. Castiel tugs Dean up until he's sitting against the fridge. It hums tiredly against his back. Castiel shifts closer, then cups Dean's jaw in his hand. Dean gasps as the same bright, white-hot feeling from earlier courses through his body. His hand curls around Castiel's wrist, heat and light pulsing against his thumb as it brushes Castiel's palm. Castiel rests his forehead against Dean's for a moment, then sighs and gets to his feet.
"Sam," Jody says. Her voice is shaky but there's still plenty of steel in it. "What the hell is going on?"
Dean grabs the counter beside the fridge and heaves himself up. The loft is a wreck. Glancing around, he asks, "Where's Crowley?"
"He skipped out as soon as the angels –" Sam cuts off and looks at Castiel. "What happened to the angels?"
Castiel still has blood on his hand. He frowns at it for a second before saying, "I sent them back to heaven."
"Angels–? What–?" Jody fists her hand in Sam's sleeve. Blood is smeared down her neck and under her jaw. "Sam –"
"Sammy," Dean says, walking toward them. "You wanna give her the talk or you want me to do it?"
Sam tells Dean, "No, I got it." Then he turns to Jody and says, "I can explain. I just, um." Wincing, he touches his nose. It's swollen enough to be broken. "Just give me a minute."
Castiel edges past Dean and reaches for Sam's face. Sam's eyes widen. Before he can duck away, Castiel's fingers brush across his forehead. Light flares from Castiel's palm, and Sam shivers and grits his teeth. He whines out a noise that sounds like a dying transmission. Once the light fades, he sucks in a breath and shakes his head like he's got water in his ear.
His nose looks normal again. After poking at it a few times, he smiles at Castiel and says, "Thanks."
Castiel looks at Jody, but she takes a step back and puts her hand on her holster. "You just stay right there, buddy."
"He ain't gonna hurt you," Dean says.
Jody splits a long, narrow look between Castiel and Dean. Instead of sticking around for his full share of it, Dean heads into the kitchen. He needs a drink. As he's grabbing his bottle of Maker's Mark from the cabinet above the fridge, Jody says, "Look, it's just a bump. I'm going to let Sam explain first. If what he says doesn't sound too crazy, then... maybe."
"Yeah, okay," Sam says, running his hand through his hair. "I'm going to make some coffee. Then I'll tell you all about it."
Jody gives him an eyebrow. "Really, Winchester? Coffee? I think this is a whiskey conversation."
"Here," Dean says, passing her the bottle. "Just save me a coupla shots."
The loft looks like a tornado ripped through the middle of it. The bookcases flanking Sam's old room are overturned, one tipped sideways against the wall and the other lying face down on the floor. The braided rug is lipped over the bottom of the dead one, still flashing its bright orange devil's trap. The chairs are scattered around the room; one is bleeding stuffing from a diagonal slash scoring the seat. The thrift-store table is in pieces. What's left of it is piled beside the door. The splintered wood is jumbled with the stuff that had sat on it – a picture of his mom, the box holding his dad's service medals, a brass key-bowl he'd never used.
After staring at the mess for about five minutes, Dean decides it can wait until morning. Maybe not even tomorrow morning – just a morning. Somehow, the coffee table weathered the storm – Chinese food and pale ale included – so Dean pushes the couch back where it belongs and flops down at one end. He takes his boots off, puts his feet up, and turns on his laptop. Once the laptop stops pretending it can't find the building's wi-fi, he downloads a blank pleading template from a DIY law website.
The TV also weathered the storm; it had been hunkered down in the far corner of the room. M*A*S*H is still playing because it's a few minutes after ten and M*A*S*H plays from eight to midnight in pretty much every time zone in America. Now it's the episode about Margaret asking for a transfer to another unit. The volume is less than a buzz, so Dean doesn't bother trying to find the remote. He eats cold Kung Pao chicken with one hand and pecks at his motion to dismiss with the other. A few lines in, Castiel sits beside him. He's down to his dress shirt and slacks, and he's drinking coffee from a white mug with cat faces on it. Dean has no idea where it came from, unless it got mixed in with his crap when he moved out of Lisa's place.
Castiel doesn't say anything. He just sips his coffee and watches M*A*S*H: the Silent Movie and gives off heat like a weird furnace. Everything else in the loft is colder than ice. Dean can hear the building's old heater humming, and he can smell it cooking all the dust Jonah and Efram stirred up, but it's barely making a dent in the chill. He inches closer to Castiel because that's faster and easier than getting up and grabbing a blanket. Fatigue is swamping him; he bleats out a pair of yawns. He manages to hide the first one behind his fist, but the second one yanks at his jaw like a fishhook and leaves him a little wet-eyed.
"You should sleep," Castiel says quietly.
Dean rubs his face and nods. "In a minute. I gotta do this court crap. And I –" he glances at Sam's old room "– I wanna see how that pans out. I'm kinda worried she's gonna murder him."
"I doubt that. She seems fond of him." Castiel shifts slightly. His thigh brushes Dean's. After a pause, he tips his head to the side and adds, "She's angry because he never told her. She thinks he doesn't trust her."
"It ain't that," Dean says, leaning back against the cushions. The couch whines like it's had the hard day. "It's just – you know. Most people –" He shrugs and frowns at his laptop.
"Most people don't want to know."
Dean nods again and hides another yawn. Sometimes, a guy gets attacked by a vamp and he ends up hitting the road with a machete. Sometimes. Usually, he just tries to forget it ever happened. He tells himself it had all been a bad joke or a bad dream or a bad trip. He swears he's never drinking that much tequila again. Whatever it takes – as long as he doesn't have to face the fact that a monster climbed through his bedroom window one night.
Castiel hums and sips his coffee. He's cradling the mug in both hands like a toddler using a big-boy cup for the first time. His hair is all over the place. He shifts again, pressing his thigh against Dean's from hip to knee. The slow, steady warmth coming off him makes Dean want to curl up and go to sleep for a week. He tries to focus on his motion to dismiss, but his eyes are so tired that the laptop's glare feels like an icepick to the temple. Instead, he sinks deeper into the couch and watches Castiel.
Eventually, he asks, "Does that stuff even do anything for you? The caffeine, I mean."
"No," Castiel says, taking another sip. It shows off more of his throat than Dean should be looking at. "I just like the taste."
"Huh." That's a weird thought – an angel doing something for just the hell of it. Dean nudges him and points at the Chinese food. "You want some of this? There's a ton of it, and Princess Sam won't eat it after it gets cold."
Castiel briefly considers the spread on the coffee table. Then he sets his mug down and takes the carton Dean is holding. He fishes out a chunk of chicken with his fingers. After chewing thoughtfully, he says, "All I taste is molecules." He wrinkles his nose a little. Then he licks the sauce from his fingers and continues, "I taste the chicken, but also the corn the chicken ate and the water it drank. And I taste those things down to their atoms."
He almost sounds disappointed. He also has sauce at the corner of his mouth. Dean clears his throat and says, "It's, uh – it's better when it's hot."
Castiel hums again and wraps both hands around the carton. His palms flare blue-white for a split-second. When he passes it back, the chicken is steaming. The smell of peanuts and garlic stings Dean's nose.
"How do you do that? When you –" Dean waves his hand around. "What is that?"
"My grace. It's the power and light granted to me by God. It's what makes me an angel."
Dean doesn't know what to say to that. Because – yeah. Angel. The guy might be barefoot and fuck-haired and drinking coffee out of a cat mug, but he's still from heaven. And Dean's using him as a hot-water bottle. He's practically sitting in Castiel's lap just because he's cold. He sighs at himself under his breath. Then he props the laptop on the arm of the couch so he can scoot over and give Castiel some space. So he can give himself some space.
Right as he starts to move, Sam's door creaks open. Sam comes out first, looking exhausted and kind of white around the mouth. Jody must've put him through the wringer. He blinks at Dean and Castiel; they're still sitting too close and Castiel's arm is stretched across the back of the couch. Before Sam's eyebrows can make a comment, Jody squeezes into the room. Sam's giant shoulders are hogging the whole doorway, so she huffs and elbows him in the side. Then she narrows her eyes at Dean.
Crossing her arms, she says, "Really, Winchester? Monsters? And you never told me?"
"You wouldn't've believed me." Dean sets his laptop on the coffee table. He's only fooling himself about getting any work done tonight. "No one does. Not 'til they see it."
She opens her mouth. Closes it. Opens it again and sighs. "So... Alastair and Ellsworth?"
"And that story you told me about picking up a guy at the bar?"
Castiel makes a very quiet noise. Heat burns under Dean's jaw as he admits, "That was a dodge. I was down in Oklahoma killing some ghouls." Her eyes widen slightly. Dean gives her half a smile and says, "You picked a hell of a night to invite yourself over, Mills. Lemme guess... you wanted to ask me about a dead guy in a warehouse."
"Yes. Sam said he's an angel, but I –"
"Sam is correct," Castiel says. His voice is brittle around the edges. "Uriel's death is regrettable, but it was necessary."
Jody gives him a look that's at least two parts disbelief. Then she gets her detective face on and frowns like she wants the rest of the story. Castiel doesn't say anything. He just grabs his mug, drains it, and blips himself into the kitchen. Jody cranes her neck a little and watches him refill his mug. The rain pounds against the window behind him. The fire escape rattles and groans with the wind.
Before the silence really starts making Dean itch, Sam jerks his head toward the door and says, "We should get going. We've got to be in bright and early."
"I'll accompany you," Castiel says. In an eyeblink, he's standing at the door and wearing his shoes. "I want to make sure Crowley isn't waiting downstairs."
As Sam and Castiel file out, Jody turns back to Dean and says, "There's a warrant coming through for your office. Either tomorrow or the next day. So if you've got anything hinky down there, you better stash it at Singer's tonight."
"Okay," Dean says. His office is clean, and Bobby's place is too obvious anyway. If he needs to dump his hunting stuff, he's got a lock up over the Missouri line in a fake name. "Thanks, Jody."
Once they're gone, Dean makes himself get off the couch. He's old enough now that falling asleep there would mean hobbling around like a geezer in the morning. His heartburn is down to about two alarms, so he shovels the last of the Kung Pao chicken into his mouth without really bothering to chew it. Then he gathers up the other cartons and puts them in the fridge. The kitchen isn't quite as wrecked as the living area, but the copper-tang of old blood is lurking in the air like cheap cologne. Castiel's art project is still smeared on the floor. Dean sidesteps it as he texts Kevin to say the office is all clear.
Donna calls right after he hits send. He picks up and says, "Hey, Donna."
"Deano," she says brightly. She must still be at the office; the white noise behind her is all hushed voices and keyboard clacks. "I was kind of surprised to hear from you. Word is you're on the wrong side of the law these days."
"You know me. I'm always in a reasonable amount of trouble."
Donna laughs heartily. "Well, that's the truth. I don't know much, but what I have heard sounds pretty bonzo. Weekend job go sideways, did it?"
"Something like that." The spoonful of coffee Castiel left in the pot is starting to burn. Dean switches off the machine and leans back against the counter. "You dig up anything on that car?"
"You betcha. I – oh, I had it here a second ago." She pauses; Dean hears papers shuffling on the other end of the line. Then she says, "You ready to write? I'd email it to you, but I'm thinking this conversation never happened."
"Hang on." Dean digs around in the drawer at his hip until he turns up an old receipt and the dry-erase marker for the fridge board he never uses. "Okay. Shoot."
"Alrighty. It's a 2014 Prius. Magnetic grey metallic. Kansas license plate 3-7-3-J-W-L. It was rented from the Avis on Twenty-Third by a Mina Harker out of Twilight, Pennsylvania. Her ID went through clean, but we both know that doesn't mean anything these days."
"Yeah," Dean says, snorting under his breath. "When did she roll into town?"
"She picked up the car Friday afternoon. It's due back at the end of the week." Donna pauses again. Then she sighs and says, "Does this have anything to do with the sticky spot you're in?"
"Maybe," Dean says. His jaw twitches as he swallows a yawn. "Thanks, Donna. I appreciate it."
"Any time, Deano."
Dean hangs up and studies the receipt. The name Mina Harker is ringing a few bells, but those bells aren't playing a song he knows well enough to sing. His laptop is asleep, so he pulls Google up on his phone. A quick search tells him Twilight, Pennsylvania is a township in the southwest corner of the state. Dean will eat one of his boots if "Mina Harker" has ever been there. No one has ever been there. Its population is a bare handful over two hundred. Its Wikipedia entry has a picture of two horses grazing at its main intersection.
Sighing, Dean folds the receipt into his wallet and shuffles into the bathroom to piss and brush his teeth. His reflection looks rough. Castiel's mojo got rid of the scrapes and bruises, but his skin is waxy and the bags under his eyes could fill up a hotel luggage cart. He still needs a shave. He slaps some water on his face like that will do anything about it. Then he heads into his bedroom so he can pretend to sleep for a couple hours.
Dean's door has been shut for the better part of two days, so his room is stuffy as hell. The musty chug of the heater itches his nose and nags the back of his throat. He glances outside, but the rain is coming down hard and the wind has forced it into a slant. Cracking the window enough to bring in some air will make a puddle the size of Lake Michigan in under an hour. Sighing, he strips down to his t-shirt and boxer-briefs and tosses his clothes in the direction of laundry pile. When he turns around, Castiel is perched on the foot of the bed like statue.
Dean only jumps about halfway out of his skin. He hisses, "Jesus Christ," and scrubs a hand through his hair. His heart is going to give out if this kind of shit keeps up. "I'm getting you a fucking bell." He takes a few deep breaths. Once his pulse is somewhat back to normal, he asks, "Jody let you heal her?"
"Cool," Dean says, glancing at his laundry pile. He feels like he should put on some pants, but his only pair of pajamas is buried so deep he'd need an archaeologist to find it. And there's zero chance they don't stink like dirty clothes. "And Crowley?"
"I didn't see him," Castiel replies. He's barefoot again. "Nor did I see the woman he claimed was watching your office."
"Huh." Dean isn't surprised. Anyone with half a brain would've hightailed it as soon as the fireworks started, whatever they're getting paid. He sits beside Castiel and rubs his tired eyes. "What about those angels? You think they're coming back tonight?"
Castiel pauses. Then he shakes his head and says, "No. Right now they're being punished for returning without the Staff."
"Really? I mean, it's not like you gave 'em a choice."
"Heaven deals in absolutes," Castiel says tonelessly. "Jonah and Efram were ordered to retrieve the Staff. They didn't. Their superiors won't care why."
"Wow." Dean whistles through his teeth. "Heaven sounds like a nightmare. You really wanna go back there?"
Castiel looks at Dean for a moment. Then he looks away and says, "I – yes. Angels belong in Heaven."
That's not exactly a dark horse answer, but it still lands like a slap to the face. Stung, Dean shifts a little and mutters, "Okay, yeah. So where's the Staff?"
A horrible looks twists Castiel's face. He stands. The air rustles around him like he's about to zap out. After a short, tight silence, he grates out a furious noise and demands, "How many times must I tell you that I don't know? You said you trust me, but you –"
"Hey, an hour ago you told Crowley you'd give it to him!"
Castiel glares at him for another moment. Then his body slumps like his anger is bleeding out all at once. Softly, he says, "I wanted you out of danger." He lifts his hand. He stops short of touching Dean's face, but Dean nearly leans into it anyway. His heart hammers in his chest. He closes his eyes as Castiel says, "He wouldn't have helped you without an incentive, and the Staff is the only thing he cares about."
Dean takes a breath. And another. He's not stupid; he recognizes the warm ache blooming under his ribs. But he can't – fuck. He just can't. He stands with a sigh and walks over to the dresser. Walks away from Castiel. He digs his nails into the chipped wood until he feels a bit more grounded.
Finally, he asks, "What about Uriel? You think he had it?"
"I don't know," Castiel says. He paces the sliver of space at the foot of Dean's bed. "He insisted he didn't, but I – I'm not sure I believe that."
Dean rests his elbow on the dresser and rubs his face. "What happened?"
Castiel hesitates. The air stirs again. A sound like feathers whispers against everything in the room. Before it really settles, Castiel says, "Crowley's guess was nearly correct. I made the appointment with Ellsworth. When I arrived, I found him dead. Uriel was searching his room. We argued, and he flew away from me. I eventually located him at the warehouse. We argued again, and I –" He cuts off with a sigh.
"And you killed him," Dean finishes slowly. Turning away, Castiel nods. Dean drums his fingers on the dresser and frowns at his back. The pieces don't fit right. When Castiel doesn't say anything else, he asks, "Why? I know you think this thing is your ticket back upstairs or whatever, but you coulda – I don't know. Taken it up there together."
Rain lashes against the bedroom's tiny window. Lightning flashes behind the clouds, briefly washing the sky purple and white. Dean counts in his head; he gets to six-one-thousand before thunder booms in the distance. A car alarm starts blaring. Dean yawns into his hand and blinks at the ceiling while Castiel paces in front of his bed. He needs to sleep, but he's not sure he can. He's not sure of anything right now.
Gravely, Castiel says, "Uriel didn't want to take the Staff to Heaven. He wanted to give it to Hell."
"What –?" Dean sputters out a noise. "That's – what?"
"Uriel believed the earth had become godless," Castiel explains. His voice is like a funeral dirge. "He wanted to give the Staff to Hell so it could create plagues and blights. So it could create chaos. Then the angels could come down and perform miracles. Restore order." He gestures in a way that's bigger than the four walls of Dean's room. "He believed we could restore humanity's faith."
"By giving Hell the juice to make frog rains and blood rivers?" Dean scoffs and shakes his head. "That's nuts."
"Yes, it is. And exceedingly dangerous. But when I told him that, he just –" Castiel shrugs and sits on the bed. "He laughed at me. He said I'd been down here too long. He said I wouldn't understand."
Dean walks over to him. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Castiel's shoulders hunch slightly. After another tight, horrible silence, he says, "I was ashamed. Uriel was one of my brethren, but he was also – he was a friend, if such a thing is possible among angels. We fought together for millennia. He rarely came to earth, but in recent years he found this garden he liked. The Jardim Botânico, in Brazil. He would go there to seek revelation. We –" his voice hitches "– we prayed there together many times."
Another silence. Dean knows what he's supposed to fill it with – "It wasn't your fault." Or "You didn't have a choice." Or "He was dangerous." All of that's true, but it's also the kind of Hallmark crap that makes Dean want to punch a wall. He doesn't think hearing it has ever made anyone feel better. So he keeps his mouth shut. He just stands there and breathes Castiel in.
Castiel's head dips a little. Dean reaches out and pats his shoulder. Squeezes. Eventually, Castiel sighs out a quiet "I'm okay" noise. Then he shifts sideways like he's making room for Dean to sit down. Dean's hand ends up at the back of his neck. His hair is soft and thick, and Dean's fingers curl into it before he really realizes what he's doing. His thumb brushes the hollow behind Castiel's ear, and Castiel rumbles out a lower, darker noise.
He palms Dean's hip. His thumb teases under the hem of Dean's t-shirt. After a moment, he pulls Dean closer and leans in, resting his forehead against Dean's chest. He murmurs something Dean can't hear, and his other hand skims up the back of Dean's thigh. Dean bites the inside of his cheek. A slow shiver twists around his spine.
His fingers are still carding through Castiel's hair, but he clears his throat and says, "We ain't doing this."
"Do you –?" Dean clears his throat again. "Have you – have you even, uh."
"No. I've never wanted it before."
That only makes Dean jumpier. A thread of panic weaves through the heat gathering in his gut. This is a dumb idea – and Dean would know; he's had plenty of dumb ideas over the years – but his fingers are still stroking through Castiel's hair. A fever-bright flush is burning in Castiel's cheeks. He's holding both of Dean's hips now. His breath is fanning through Dean's t-shirt and tickling Dean's skin. Dumb idea. But when Castiel tugs lightly, Dean slides to his knees and runs his hands up Castiel's thighs.
They look at each other for a minute. Castiel's eyes are wide and dark, and his lips are parted, just enough for Dean to see the slick hint of his tongue. He cups Castiel's jaw in his hand. Rubs his thumb at the corner of Castiel's mouth. Castiel turns into it, letting it drag across his lip. Letting his teeth brush the pad of Dean's thumb. Dean shivers again. Then he pulls Castiel in and kisses him.
It's soft at first. Soft and a little awkward. Castiel freezes for a split-second; he bunches Dean's t-shirt in his hand, and a surprised sound shudders in his throat. Dean leans back to give him some space, but he follows, almost chasing Dean's mouth. He curves his hand around the back of Dean's neck and breathes out against Dean's jaw. When they kiss again, he relaxes into it. Opens up for it. He hums Dean's name and flicks his tongue along Dean's lower lip. His foot brushes Dean's thigh.
Dean kisses Castiel's mouth and the point of Castiel's chin. He drags another kiss down the stubble-rough line of Castiel's jaw, and he lets his teeth graze the spot just below Castiel's ear. He sucks a mark there because it makes Castiel pant and tug at his hair. The mark starts to fade as soon as Dean pulls away, but Castiel's eyes flutter closed. He tips his head back like he wants Dean to do it again. Dean bites kisses down the side of his neck. Sucks another mark at the dip of Castiel's throat.
"Dean," Castiel says, his voice an urgent thrum. "Dean."
"Yeah, yeah." Dean doesn't know what he's agreeing to. Doesn't care. He fumbles with the buttons of Castiel's shirt and says, "C'mon. Get this off."
Castiel lets Dean shrug the shirt over his shoulders, but once it's pooled around his elbows, the air shifts and it disappears out of Dean's hands. Dean blinks and huffs out a quiet laugh, but Castiel just wraps his arms around Dean's neck and draws him in for another kiss. Dean thumbs Castiel's nipples and palms the curve of Castiel's ribs. The trail of hair arrowing away from his navel is soft and sparse. Dean scratches his nails through it before pulling open his belt and popping the button on his slacks.
Castiel freezes again. Dean backs off a little, sliding his hands down to Castiel's knees, but when he looks at Castiel's face, Castiel's eyes are nearly black. The flush heating his cheeks has spread down to his jaw, and his tongue is waiting on the well of his lip. He murmurs, "Dean," and reaches for Dean's face. His fingers skim down Dean's jaw and trail across Dean's lips. They pause there, so Dean opens up and wets the tips of them with his tongue. Then he sucks them in – first two, then three. He sits back on his heels and takes them in as far as he can, curling his tongue around them until his mouth and chin are slick with spit. Until Castiel is fucking them into his mouth.
He brushes his other hand through Dean's hair, pausing at the back of Dean's neck before palming the curve of Dean's shoulder. He rasps out a moan that digs straight underneath Dean's skin. Dean nips at the pads of Castiel's fingers and knuckles Castiel's dick through the front of his slacks. It's a soft touch, barely a tease, but Castiel moans again and his hips snap off the bed. Dean grabs the waist of Castiel's slacks and tugs. The bed creaks. Then the air rustles and Dean's hands are sliding over skin.
Castiel's dick is as gorgeous as the rest of him. Dean runs his fingers over it, making Castiel's hips snap off the bed again. He rubs his thumb through the precome beading at the head. Then he leans in, nudging Castiel's legs apart with his shoulders. His knees are probably going to file for divorce tomorrow, but he doesn't give a shit. He kisses the inside of Castiel's thigh. Bites a little. Then he noses into the crease of Castiel's hip and kisses him again. His dick is a hot streak against Dean's cheek. He plants another kiss at the base of it. He mouths up the length, swirling his tongue around the head before sucking it in.
"Oh," Castiel says quietly. His thighs are already shaking. "Oh. Dean, you – oh."
Dean draws up and sinks back down. Lets Castiel fill his mouth and push against his tongue. Castiel shivers and knots both hands in Dean's hair. His heel bumps the small of Dean's back. Dean wraps his hand around the base of Castiel's dick, stroking up to meet his mouth as he sucks in and in and in. Heat is coiled in Dean's gut like a snake; he's harder than a rock from the salt-taste of Castiel's skin and the way Castiel keeps breathing his name. He rubs himself through his boxer-briefs. An electric jolt of want sparks through him, and he chokes out a noise that makes Castiel gasp and tug his hair.
The bed creaks again. Castiel slides a hand down to Dean's jaw and rubs his thumb over Dean's cheek. Dean turns his head a little so Castiel can feel the shape of himself. So he can feel Dean swallow him down. Castiel moans and thrusts into Dean's mouth. His fingers twist in Dean's hair. The lamp on the nightstand flickers when he comes. Dean sucks him through it, soft and easy and slow. Doesn't pull back until Castiel's thigh muscles start to jump. Then he tucks his hot face into the crease of Castiel's hip and shoves his hand into his boxer-briefs.
"Fuck," he hisses. He's so close he can feel it waiting at the base of his spine. "Cas – Jesus Christ."
Castiel hauls him up and kisses his sticky mouth. Licks inside with a sound so filthy it makes Dean shudder and clutch at his arms. He nips Dean's lips. Then the air rips in half. In an eyeblink, Dean is naked and flat on his back in the middle of the bed. Castiel leans down and kisses Dean again. He curls his hand around Dean's dick, and Dean squirms underneath him, fucking up into it. His back arches. Heat rushes under his skin.
Castiel rolls them over, urging Dean to straddle his waist by hooking a hand under Dean's thigh. He gets his other hand back on Dean's dick and strokes him hard and fast. Dean rocks his hips and moans Castiel's name. Castiel palms his ass and nudges him closer – close enough that he's going to come all over Castiel's chest. Just thinking about it tugs at the tension in his gut. His mouth drops open and he sucks in a breath. Castiel's hand slides up his arm. His fingers brush the scar on Dean's shoulder and Dean whines behind his teeth and comes and comes and comes.
Shaking, he slumps against Castiel's chest. His pulse is pounding in his throat. Castiel runs a hand down his heaving back and noses at his temple like he isn't dripping sweat. His other hand is still touching Dean's scar, and for some reason it has Dean jittering with aftershocks. It's almost too much, but he can't make himself move away. He just lies there and shivers and mouths at the curve of Castiel's shoulder until Castiel shifts them onto their sides and cleans them up with a lazy gesture.
"You should sleep."
Dean's eyes are already closed. His lips bump Castiel's throat as he asks, "What 'bout you?"
"I'll watch over you," Castiel says, wrapping an arm around his waist.