With Wandering Steps and Slow
An old man and an angel walk into a bar, and as cosmic jokes go, this one isn't all that funny.
"Get me a Corona?" the angel says, tucking a sheet of long hair behind her ear. The man grunts his assent, and she slips her arm from the crook of his elbow. She settles at one of the dimly lit tables, and his rocking horse limp carries him to the bar.
He doesn't draw the attention he used to, sauntering into a new place with a pale, auburn-haired beauty on his arm, but nor is he the sort of man strangers ignore. He's one scarred-up son of a bitch, for one thing. If he's asked about the milky mess of his right eye or the whipcord of silver that bisects his eyebrow, he says he got that in the war. When someone says, "Oh, Iraq or Afghanistan?" he goes oddly deaf.
For another thing, it's clear that in his prime he was a fine figure of a man. People cross continents to stare at ruins and broke-down glory.
When he returns to his redhead with a beer in one hand and a whiskey in the other, she's already spread a series of news clippings across the table. "Thank you," she says absently.
He settles across from her. "It's an erinys."
"It can't be," she says. "The victims all say they were attacked by a solitary woman. You of all people should know that erinyes work in threes."
The glare from his scarred face would be enough to send small children crying. "The signs fit. I know these bitches when I see them."
"Fine, it's an erinys," the angel says, throwing up her hands. "You've been threatening to rip the wings off somebody for weeks," she adds testily. "So I guess this is your chance."
"Don't think you're off the hook," he says. "And Anna?"
"Go on, ask," she sighs.
He meets her eyes, the tired lines of his face twisted into hope. "Is this the one?"
Anna stares back with her usual impenetrable patience. "No, Dean. This isn't the one."
Thirty-three years Anna has walked the earth at Dean's side, and they've each lived their own separate loneliness—interminable and untouchable as two parallel lines. As it turns out, an apocalypse is a capricious thing. A few people watch their world burn to ash, and everyone else goes on untroubled.
Once Anna figured that out, she went looking for Dean.
"I don't need a babysitter," he snarled at her when she first appeared in the living room that used to belong to Bobby Singer. She'd woken him quietly, sinking her weight on the sofa next to his feet.
"That's not what I'm suggesting," she said diplomatically.
"I don't need a buddy, and I sure as shit don't need a guardian angel."
"You need someone, Dean," she replied. Why else had he come to this familiar, empty place? Why else was he curled up in nightmares on a dead man's sofa?
"Fuck you, coming here telling me I fucking need someone." One sweep of his leg, and he knocked her off the sofa. Then he was up, through the kitchen, and at the back door. He yanked it open, stood there in his boxers, and swept a hand at the grungy yard outside. "Out."
"Please," Anna said, bent double on the floor. "I can help you."
"You don't need to do this alone."
"Out—" and the growl rose to a roar—"or I will put you out!" For all her strength and his mortality, she found the threat perfectly credible.
"Heaven won't have me," she blurted out, head bowed and pleading. There was no one to go home to—Castiel was fallen, Uriel was dead. Earth remained to her, dull and underwhelming through the eyes of an angel, like an image that wouldn't come into focus. She could think of no soul but one who might have a place for her now. "Please. I have nowhere else to go."
He stood in the leaden stillness of despair, dead eyes fixed on her.
He gave in. He tipped his head back on his neck, resigned to one more angel bestowing one more task. He slammed the door, stalked past her, and collapsed back onto the sofa.
For the next three days he utterly ignored her—he even drove off without her once when she didn't make it to the car fast enough—but never again did he tell her to go. With his world stripped from him, he still couldn't resist the siren call of someone else's need.
Anna doesn't like to think about Dean's first hunt after she joined him. For one thing, he drove off and left her in the motel parking lot without a room key. For another, it ended with Dean as the prey.
The first erinys caught up to him in a graveyard, where he stood alone over an open casket with a canister of salt by his feet and a lit match in his hand. With one swipe of her talons she made red jelly of his right eye, laying his face open to the bone.
Then her two sisters showed up. They got him on the ground, slashing and tearing at him in brief bursts. Erinyes were all about the pain—their kills were slow and messy.
But they didn't bargain on the homemade flamethrower. There was a lot of shrill screaming when Dean crawled to his bag, plunged both hands in, and rolled to his knees with that thing.
When Anna found him, he was braced with his back to a crypt, a long arc of flame sweeping side to side in front of him. Just beyond its reach, gorgeous winged creatures hissed and shrieked, waiting for him to run out of propane.
His grin was vicious and a little unhinged.
"Dean! Where's the knife?" Anna yelled, sprinting between tombstones. The erinyes took no notice; they weren't here for her.
Dean's face twisted angrily. "Bag by the open grave," he panted.
The smallest erinys fell with the knife in her back, yanking it out of Anna's hands as she writhed. Weaponless, Anna found herself staring the other two erinyes in their beautiful faces.
A bellowing, bloody weight smashed into her and bore her to the ground. It was Dean, free of the flamethrower, and he dragged her sideways behind a tombstone and covered her with his body.
She didn't realize what he'd done until the propane tank exploded among the erinyes in a thunderclap of blue flame.
The graveyard went quiet except for the sizzling of grass.
"Did you see that?" Dean muttered dazedly.
"I saw," Anna said, steadying him. "You've lost a lot of blood, Dean." His red-flooded eye dripped blood onto her shoulder and down the V neck of her t-shirt.
"Shut up." And he slumped on top of her.
Anna spent her wrath on the Impala's gas pedal, and the engine whined and tires begged for mercy all the way to the nearest emergency room. Fool mortal. Didn't he know he was all she had?
Six hours later, in yet another hospital bed, Dean asked exactly who the crazy winged women were and why they'd been trying to rip his face off.
"They're chthonic vengeance deities, sent to punish those who break the laws of nature," Anna explained, perched in a chair nearby. The white-hot anger had left her when she'd seen his good eye open. "They usually work in groups of three. And please don't fiddle with your stitches."
"Furies?" he rasped, glaring at her with one hand poised near his swollen cheek. "I had Furies on my ass?"
"They've been disposed of, and the knife is safe in our possession."
"But Furies don't show up on their own. Someone had to send them," Dean said. "And why wait 'til now? I mean, I've been breaking natural laws for years."
Anna held his gaze, offering compassion. "You know what Furies are," she said quietly. She could feel the chill run through him while he dredged up old myths about Orestes and Clytemnestra, about sons murdering mothers. She could see it in his face when he worked out what she meant by "natural law."
"Son of a bitch." His lip curled at her when he said: "You should have stayed right where I left you."
"This one wasn't it," she murmured.
The lacerations healed over into scar tissue, Anna never mentioned that night again, and Dean stopped driving off without her.
"Why'd you come to me?"
"Because I thought you would let me."
"And if I hadn't?"
Anna takes a moment before she answers. "I never thought it through that far."
Dean rolls his eyes in disgust.
Thirty-three years, and Anna has watched Dean go gray. These days she's often mistaken for his daughter or even his granddaughter, which comes in handy in a con no matter how much Dean gripes about it.
She loves him, though not quite in the way the preacher's daughter would have loved him if given half a chance. The angel Anael can only watch over him in the cold splendor of reverence for a man doing her Father's work, however grudgingly.
Still, she often finds herself disappointed. Dean is here with her only because he hasn't got anywhere better to be; he's killing time until she isn't his problem anymore. He's bitter and rude, and he takes his bad moods out on her. There's a deep well of hate in him, and from it crawls the kind of rage that makes taller, heavier men back away with their hands held up in appeasement.
But on the hunt - well. Anna can't help being reminded of her brother Michael.
Long ago in the dark, she crawled into bed with Dean, telling herself she meant to quiet his nightmares. He woke as soon as he felt the mattress dip, and with desperate possessiveness, he rolled over and pulled her close to his chest.
She'll stay. She'll stay until she outlives him, and she'll try to give him the peace her Father promised to his children.
When Lucifer lay dead, Dean sat next to him and stared into his pale, bruised face. Perhaps he would wake. Perhaps he had last words yet to say.
After Castiel and Anna had wrestled the gun away from Dean's head and out of his grip, they had left him alone, but only for a little while.
"Look at me," Anna said, crouching next to him and seeking his eyes. An hour before, those eyes blazed ruthlessly as he fought his way to his brother's side. Now she saw only blank exhaustion. "Come away," she whispered sadly.
Cross-legged on the ground, Dean clenched his fistful of Sam's shirt and shook his head. The fabric pulled taut across Sam's chest, the pocket pinned over his heart by the blade that killed angels.
"It's over," Anna said.
"Not leaving him," Dean gritted out.
"I wouldn't ask you to."
The hem of a trench coat swung into view on Dean's other side. "I can help you to bury him, Dean," Castiel offered.
Dean didn't look up, but he bared his teeth in a snarl: "Don't you touch him."
"Please come away," Anna said. "Please."
Slowly, he tore his eyes from Sam's livid face and stared at the hand she offered him. "What do you want from me?"
And again, she left him. She found a tree stump twenty yards off and sank onto it. Castiel hovered nearby, looking useless.
"We've destroyed them both," he said, voice wrecked and gravelly. It was dangerously close to his true voice, spilling from his stricken vessel. "I promised him."
Anna looked up sharply. "You promised what?"
"I promised it wouldn't come to this."
She sighed bitterly—"Castiel, you idiot"—but she reached for his hands where they were clasped neatly in front of him, and he unclasped them to grip her tight. They watched Dean bend over his little brother's body, whisper to him, and press his forehead to Sam's.
"Sam will be remembered for this," Anna said, turning determined eyes on her companion of millennia. "Did you hear him, at the end?"
"Kill us," Castiel echoed, choked. "Do it now."
"You'll tell heaven? You'll tell them of the mortal who fought Lucifer to a standstill?"
"Our Father knows already," Castiel said, shrugging free of her. "I must go elsewhere." He spared a last glance for Dean's bowed head and hunched shoulders. "Tell him—"
But angels are clumsy when faced with remorse. And so Castiel left Anna alone among the corpses.
"You tried to stop what they did to Sam," Dean mutters in the darkness of the car at midnight. "I never thanked you."
"You never needed to."
Thirty-three years, and Anna still gets her hand slapped away when she tries to change the music. She's learned how to tiptoe around the spaces where Sam used to be. Don't sing along in the car, don't call Dean a jerk. Never, ever touch the perfectly maintained Beretta.
Take away Sam, and there isn't much left to Dean but the here and now. Juicy burgers, scratchy motel sheets, trusty steel in his hands, and the next annoying thing Anna does—those things are to be felt and spoken of. The past is shut and barred.
It leaves him and Anna little to talk about but the hunt.
Whatever Dean's tracking this time has left a trail of chaos across three states, including some horribly mangled bodies. Here in Indiana, the omens read badly. Non-native venomous snakes keep turning up in garden beds, every animal in the county has gone mute—not a bark, not a whinny—and a few local politicians have made the front page by checking themselves into mental institutions.
"If you're right about the erinys, it won't be long before someone's killed," Anna says, lacing up her boots while Dean finishes brushing his teeth.
"We'll go have a look at the police records," Dean says through the foam. "See if anybody's implicated in the murder of a family member."
"And if there's no one?"
He spits, wipes his mouth. "There's someone."
Someone's name is Lucy, and she shot her father to death in '39 when he came home drunker and meaner than usual. She did time for it, but not much. She works at a grocery store now.
"Get out of here!" Dean bellows at her, putting another round in the gorgeous, shrieking erinys at the end of the pet food aisle. "Anna, take her!"
Lucy stands frozen next to a pyramid of Campbell's cans until Anna grips her arm. "Come with me," Anna says, low and very definite.
Lucy follows her to the sliding doors. Few people disobey the voice of angels when they use that tone.
Afterward, Lucy runs up unabashed and throws her arms around the old man who saved her. "I can't believe you did that. God, I don't know—thank you. Thank you."
His shoulders go rigid, and with the hand not holding the flamethrower, he gently pries her loose.
"Thank you," she repeats, still shellshocked. "What can I… What's your name?"
Dean offers Lucy a grimace that might have been meant as a smile. "Go on home, sweetheart. Get yourself cleaned up."
When he and Anna leave the town in their rearview, she waits for him to settle on a radio station and fall into his Zen driving state. Then she turns to him curiously and says, "She threw you off guard."
"The erinys? I had the bitch extra-crispy in less than a minute."
"I meant Lucy," Anna says patiently. She has to tamp down a smile when she adds, "You never know what to do with people who cuddle up to you and don't mean to screw you in one way or another."
"I thought feelings weren't your strong suit, angel girl."
After that, they let the silence stand. He steers them down endless highways to South Dakota and the house Bobby left him. It's old and rickety, and it's the place they go back to in the lulls. They call it home because they don't have a better word.
"Quit staring," Anna says, leaning in the bathroom doorway. "You haven't gotten any prettier."
Dean turns away from the mirror, fingers falling away from his face. "You need something?"
"I need to brush my teeth."
She steps aside and lets him stalk irritably past her. But damned if she'll let him stand and stare at that ruined eye, tracing the reminder the erinyes left him.
In September, Dean saves a little boy with wide hazel eyes and a mop of brown hair. The kid is the precocious type—he argues with his mother like he's practicing for the courtroom. He will never know what his life cost that night, but Anna is there to bear witness.
"This is the one," she whispers with bright eyes and a trembling chin.
"You know," Dean growls, head cradled in her lap, "I'd figured that out for myself. You useless sack of feathers."
His lips frost to pale blue, and old scars stand out sharply on his ashen face. Anna's jeans are soaked from ankle to knee in the dark spread of his blood. "Go in peace," she murmurs, pressing a kiss to his forehead.
"Shut up," he says, weakly batting her away.
She smiles, sending a droplet sliding down her nose and onto his cheek. "You see him?"
Finally, finally he smiles, wry and twisted and genuine. "Yeah," he says, fond and weary. "Kid's a fuckin' giant. Hard to miss."
"Go on, then."