"What's good today?" Dean asked the elderly cook who came out of the kitchen to greet him. He'd made himself quite the regular at the Mongolian restaurant in Jackson Heights, Queens.
She grumbled out an epithet involving a type of coitus involving goats that he'd thought only a figure of speech when he first heard it from the Khan.
They burst out laughing. These guffaws at the creative profanity Mongolians seemed to have a hereditary genius for were the only laughter Dean got. "I've got a nice stew-I can skim off the broth for you," the old woman said, used to his liquid diet. "Salted milk to drink?"
"You betcha, ma'am," he said, actually looking forward to the meal for a change. The cook walked away muttering something about how he looked like he hadn't eaten since the last time she'd seen him, and Dean wondered if he would be healthier if he broke down and moved to the small Mongolian community in Queens, or better yet, to Mongolia itself.
The only time he felt remotely alive was when he went to go get a haircut at a Mongolian-run barber in New York's most diverse neighborhood, and then stopped for a meal at the adjoining restaurant with the strong-smelling stews that brought a warm feeling to his heart a block or two away.
Dean nodded at a few of the taxi drivers he knew from previous visits. If there wasn't much left of the famous warrior inside him, he was homesick for things that reminded him of his former inhabitant, and that wasn't limited to stinky food. For whatever reason, the people at the restaurant, and the guys hanging around the barbershop, they treated him completely normally—something Dean couldn't take for granted anymore from his family, the resistance or the general public.
After being the head of some cause or other for his whole life, Dean was realizing there wasn't much to him minus the hunting and plotting, and other people were bound to see it as well.
"Hey Red," the waiter said, using the Mongolian word for redhead that the small community chose for his nickname. He placed his steaming bowl on the table. "Did you hear the one about the camel?"
While he ate the two men traded dirty tales, the waiter sitting back in admiration at the classical style Dean had inherited from his ex-spirit. When he was finished, Dean headed out to the street, decided that he would spend the next year or two of his life around the only people that didn't make him feel like they were merely reflecting his own energyback at him.
Not up to dealing with the train, Dean found a discreet place to beam himself back to Manhattan from. He decided to hit one of his favorite health food joints to pick up some more protein powder.
"Hey, Dean!" The voice came from behind him and filled his heart with dread. Anyone who knew him by name wasn't anyone he wanted to talk to.
Dean turned, expecting someone from the Cause he would have to gently rebuff. He didn't recognize the face at all. Damn. Much worse.
"How's things?" asked the blonde-haired man in his mid-thirties who was wearing some expensively casual black blazer with a t-shirt. Not a combination Dean thought most people could pull off without looking like they were trying too hard. Could he have really poured his heart out to this guy during the phase when he still believed people were being kind to him out of the goodness of their hearts, and not because they were helpless before his huge power?
"What was the name of that guy who broke your heart? Christian?" Apparently he had. Dean met these people every once in awhile and felt terribly ashamed at the way he'd roped them into his own drama.
"Yeah, that was a hard time in my life. Thanks for listening, but I've turned the page since then," he said politely but firmly.
"You look real good," the man persisted, looking him up and down thoroughly. "I saw you across the street in midtown once, but you were getting on a bus. It's hard to mistake that look of yours."
"Oh yeah?" Dean grasped the canister and edged towards the cashier.
"You know, you look like a Benetton ad," the man said. "Exotic mix of features. You do remember me—Barry the photographer? You promised to let me take your picture sometime. Why not now?"
Kicking himself for a tearful promise made during a vulnerable time, Dean put his virtues back into place, the way he'd trained himself to flit around town for the last couple months. By hitting exactly the right frequency, people scarcely noticed him, or if they did, they were soon turned away.
"There's this great club where you can see some of my work," the man was running on as he followed Dean out of the shop. "Just take a look and if you don't like my style, no harm no foul."
Telling himself it was the least he could do to repay this stranger for acting as an extension of his own psyche, Dean got in a cab with the guy, who seemed just as friendly as all the other New Yorkers when he first arrived. Damn involuntary sunbeam, damn.
The photos Barry was showing him on his phone were really good-he wasn't kidding about being a professional.
"You never said what you did for a living," Barry said as the cab stopped in Hell's Kitchen.
"No I didn't," Dean said. "I'm actually thinking of going into farming," he said with a smile, holding on to his resolve to move to Mongolia.
"You've got the rugged thing down," Barry observed, walking into a nondescript warehouse building near the water.
The music hit Dean like a wall.
"Oh man, this is not my scene," he said, backing towards the door. Ever since he had become attuned to the Enochian vibrations surging across the planet's face, Dean was very sensitive to certain loud noises.
"Give it a minute," Barry urged, taking his arm and steering him towards the bar. Though it was only early evening, the place was rather full with people right in mid-intoxication. "These are mine, by the way," he said, pointing to the huge photos on the warehouse walls.
Dean didn't know much about art, but he could tell these were quality images because they made him feel something, he wasn't sure what, or even if he liked the feeling. It took a moment to see that they were artsy bondage shots cut up into pieces and reassembled into a montage of leather laces and metal grommets and lips curled back in some strange kind of fulfillment.
"Most magazines don't go for this sort of thing, so I do fashion as my day job," Barry yelled in his ear over the music. "What are you drinking?"
"Club soda," Dean yelled back, wishing to have all his wits about him so he could get out of this place as quickly as possible. It was interesting, though, he thought as the drink was placed into his hand. Now that the shock of the sound was over, he felt very relaxed.
"Techno music—everyone says they hate it because they don't give it a chance," Barry said, moving them towards a table.
Some of the other patrons came over to greet the photographer, and Barry indicated which of the photos were actually representations of these people who seemed unashamed at being depicted in handcuffs and harnesses.
Some were drag queens in towering boots and odd wigs, and others were completely normal-looking businessmen. Dean couldn't put his finger on what the people all had in common, but everyone was very friendly, as if it were an odd sort of family he'd stumbled upon.
Dean had more than enough family weirdness to consider adding kinky exhibitionism to the mix. Nevertheless, he felt thoroughly entertained. He was having a good time! This was the sort of anecdote-worthy stuff he was supposed to be doing in a big city! Maybe he just needed someone to force him out of his comfort zone.
"You're obviously really talented—" Dean began.
"Have you played Barry's drinking game yet?" one man asked. "He can read your mind."
"Somehow I doubt that," Dean said, sitting back with a smirk. He had so much practice mastering all of his virtues that it was only a vague kind of curiosity that had kept him in this odd club for this long.
"Sure you wouldn't like something stronger?" Barry asked. "No matter, the alcohol is not the operative factor. Now answer the first thing that pops into your head."
An odd assortment of the bar's denizens were gathering around. "Barry's a genius," one tipsy woman advised him. "That's how he captures who you really are in his pictures."
Seeing as this lady had figured in one of the more lurid photos, Dean wasn't sure that this was information he wanted to know.
"Word association: the sexual experience you had with the partner you were most compatible with," Barry asked.
"Motorcycle," Dean replied, thinking of the first time Cas drew him into his arms and vibrated him into a full-body orgasm.
"Interesting," the photographer replied. "Your favorite animal."
"Kitten," Dean answered without thinking. "Wait, I mean—"
"It's merely a game-next question," Barry quieted some of the smiles with a look. "What was the most significant thing you ever said to this partner?"
"Yes," Dean whispered, feeling the memory of Cas holding him in his arms and the kiss that spoke their bond into being.
"Last one. What was the hottest sexual position you shared with this person?" Barry asked with a frank smile. Ordinarily Dean would never let anyone ask him personal questions about this, and certainly nothing having to do with the supremely painful memory of the lost Castiel.
"Hands only," Dean said, feeling just a small hint of the experience he and the angel had shared in one body while in Las Vegas, the one that had changed them both forever.
"Hmmm," Barry murmured. "Let's move to your last sexual partner. What were the power dynamics like between you? Were you taller, for instance?"
"Not taller or bigger physically. This was a big dude we're talking about. But I think it's safe to say I was the one with the power," Dean said, thinking of Adonis marveling at the first sight of the Nephilim in the sky.
"He's not asking about money or any other kind of power, he's talking about in bed," one of the larger cross-dressers confided through silver lips that glinted in the strobe lights.
"In bed, he was more experienced, he was—"
"In control," Barry surmised. "You threw me a little bit with your sexual position, but now you must tell me—how long have you been a sub?"
When he was dating women Dean had been up for anything, and now that he'd expanded his horizons to men, he didn't know enough to be sure where to draw the line between the new world he was still discovering and what was off the map.
One thing he did know was that his experiences with Cas and Adonis were not things to be put in a checkbox of perversion. They were sacred, so much so that he had forbidden himself to think of the two men he hurt. In some part of his mind his ex-hunter's instincts were trying to reassert themselves. He didn't feel angry and defensive like he normally would at this extravagantly dressed crowd smiling encouragingly at what they thought they understood him to do in bed.
"You put something in my drink," he said, sniffing at the fizzy water.
"No, not at all," Barry replied, getting up. "There's something you should see."
Dean followed because he couldn't formulate a reason why he shouldn't. Everyone was smiling at him, giving cheery little waves or air kisses at him, and after these couple of months feeling alone with his immense self seeping into the people around him, Dean had to admit it touched him in a place that needed the warmth.
They went into a back area that was almost as big as the front bar. Barry walked up to some of the huge variety of expensive-looking camera equipment strewn about the room. There were subdivisions in the empty space, so that one area had a backdrop with red velvet paper and tasseled lamps. Another was very futuristic, with cream-colored pillows in irregular organic shapes all piled around and being used at that moment to prop up three people.
Dean didn't get a chance to examine all the other decorations because he was rooted to the spot, staring at one participant in each scenario.
They were angels. Angels in vessels.
"You were really upset when I talked to you all those months ago," Barry said. "All I knew is you made me feel something I had never felt, and never wanted to let go. I actually did take a picture of you when you weren't paying attention." The man took out his phone and flipped to a picture.
There was a reason why Dean would have never agreed to someone taking his picture. Darla had discovered it long ago when they first set up the surveillance equipment at Bobby's.
Dean and the other Nephilim appeared on film as if saturated with light, their human features barely detectible underneath.
It was a hell of an inconvenience at the DMV. Dean had had to take over the mind and body of a DMV attendant to allow a current-day, red-haired, high-cheekboned photo Darla had doctored for him to be placed in the new ID he had made before leaving for New York.
It was easier for Dean's brain to think about his driver's license than to process what this photographer had surmised about the meaning of the halo. Dean's virtues seemed stuck on some cheerful mode.
"I know enough about cameras to know that this wasn't something I did," Barry said softly, with a new urgency. "I asked everyone I could think of what could produce an artifact like that. Finally, I found an answer."
The blond-haired man contorted right before Dean and his eyes lidded over with black momentarily.
"Oh yes," the mouth said with a new intonation. "What your tawdry little cause didn't realize is that we're like viruses—you find one way to detect possession or cast it out, and we'll simply find a new way you haven't thought of trying to defend against. You didn't catch even the whiff of the demonic from Barry here, did you?"
"No, not at all," Dean said neutrally. "How did you manage it?"
"We have many new methods, make no mistake, but in this case it was very simple. I wasn't possessing your admirer at all. I merely explained to him what a rare find he'd set his sights on, and said that if he followed my instructions, I'd let him help."
Two kinds of lust skittered over the one face.
"What is your name?" Dean asked. "What have you done to me that I'm not fighting back?"
"Valac." The photographer bowed smoothly, making Dean think that the human and the demon must be cooperating to an unusual extent. There was barely any of the usual wrestling of wills. "And it's the music. You find it extremely pleasant. All of your kind do."
Dean's eyes were scanning the angels acting out any number of submissive scenarios. Now that he knew what to look for, he could see that most of the dominators were demons, although in a few cases they were humans.
"Angels have long felt alone at the pinnacles of power. There have always been places like this where they could let someone else be in control for a little while."
He didn't know how he would feel if these were merely consenting humans acting out their little fantasies, but all Dean knew was this warehouse of sad angels was nothing like what he'd had with his two lovers. He was watching something infinitely miserable and dangerous, something that no angel would seek out if he knew how to achieve true union.
It was enough to make him go back into politics, to show Heaven why Nephilism could help a lot of angels.
Dean wanted to shout out the formula for becoming a Nephilim and finding the intimacy these poor cousins of his obviously lacked, but his virtues seemed stuck like a broken record.
"You can't make me do anything with anyone," Dean said with much less fervor than he felt. "I know how you demons work. I'd have to say yes."
A black tendril flitted out from Barry's body and just grazed the back of Dean's hand.
The contact that seeped into his skin gave him a violent jolt of arousal, despite some muffled portion of his brain screaming at him—"Get the hell out of here, stat, dumbass!"
"Some people find more prosaic forms of penetration to be irresistibly pleasurable, particularly when mild coercion relieves them of any responsibility for choosing it," the flat tones Valac imposed on Barry's voice came out with a reasonable cadence.
Dean's two sets of ears hung on the next words.
"But you like something both more subtle and more severe. You find having your very will taken over by another to be the highest form of satisfaction. Am I right?"
The dark tendril snaked up Dean's arm and he watched his limb respond by unbuttoning his shirt.
"I do enjoy possessing someone myself, so you are going to be a rare treat, Dean," Valac said. "You had quite the wall built up around yourself, but Barry managed to catch you in an unguarded moment. Well done."
The human photographer was allowed to come to the fore for a moment as a reward. "When I met you that night, you were irresistible: a badass in a leather jacket and just underneath, so vulnerable. Can I start taking pictures now?" he asked the demon inside him.
"Of course," Valac said as more black tendrils licked at Dean's increasingly exposed skin, pushed him back against a cushion. "Make sure you use audio. I want to get this."
"Fuck-you-" Dean spit at the demon with difficulty. If that was all he could get out on the physical plane, he couldn't even manage a peep in Enochian on the angelic plane. He tried to reach the other angels in the room, but they were lost to activities they didn't even know were too sordid and small for their natures.
As he had done many times since he'd bonded with Cas, even after he thought his mate dead or knew everything to be broken beyond repair, Dean prayed.
That was the word for it, he supposed. He conjured up the image of Cas' vessel and the profile of light and cantilevered wings he had begun to know before it was taken from him. This was the truth that had hauled him back from Hell—once literally, one figuratively. The avalanche of light from their bonding that had left a few crucial pebbles inside his soul—these grains of Cas had never left him. Dean never doubted that much, and he didn't doubt it now.
"Cas, I need help. Even if you hate me too much to rescue me one more time, tell Balthazar or Sam or someone who still cares. New York City, Hell's Kitchen, near the water, I think it's 47th street. Beware of the music, they have technology against angels and humans—"
"You're a rare breed. I can't wait to study you," Valac purred. "All the others are so predictable, you understand. Like all military creatures, if you have a whip and a boot they can enact their little servitude rituals for hours. But you're not just experiencing a release. You're thinking of your lover."
Dean glared back with a stony face and willed his body to stop receiving the black wisps with a shameful relief.
"Your lover, who, if the gossip is to be trusted, has cast you off forever," the demon continued.
"Don't listen to him. They all lie," Dean's mind told the rest of him.
"You'll never experience the real thing with him again. Nor with humans, who experience you as an overload in a light socket. So who then? Who else will make you feel this way?"
Parts of Dean's consciousness were being taken over by some dark, syrupy feeling as if he were looking through black amber. To be able to not think. Not think of losing Cas, or Adonis. Not think of his poor showing in the apocalypse. Not to be a disappointment. Not to have to cart around all this extra self and continually try to jam it into a small glove.
"No," he said, feeling his body bucking at the many black hands skidding over the surface of his lonely skin.
"Do you think you deserve to be with anyone after what you did?" Valac pursued.
"No." The word came much more softly this time.
"All your old files are still in Hell," the demon's voice seemed to echo within Dean's head. "I've had time to study them. You've always had these tastes, Dean. Before Hell, certainly after Hell. Inclinations that can't be satisfied by any human or angel, by anyone other than one of Hell's denizens. Didn't you often feel your angel to be holding back, afraid of abusing his greater power, when that's what you wanted from him?"
"I wanted him to not hold back because he's a little uptight, sort of obsessive," Dean said without being able to hold the thought back. "But I like him that way! He's good. He cares about me because he's good."
"This isn't good, precisely." A few of the black hands were working on him with greater purpose, as if they knew more than Dean did about what he wanted, and how. "In fact, I'd say it's rather bad. But unlike your angel, I won't hold back. I have no compunction about taking you to your limit and beyond."
The whimper came out of Dean's throat and he wished he could yank it back.
"How does that sound—surrendering to someone who cares more about your desires than some silly old rules? Not being alone in your flesh and your power anymore? Being small rather than huge?"
"Yes," said one one-millionth of Dean that apparently meant more than all the rest of him that was rioting in impotent horror in his mind.
"I didn't hear you. Say it again for the camera," Valac wheedled.
Some indefinite length of time later, about which Dean could remember very little except the persistent flash of a camera, he lay back against a couch and drank some juice someone pressed into his hand.
"How do you feel?" Barry asked. Or maybe it was the demon.
Dean had never cared so little for anything in his life.
His lip curved very slightly.
"I thought so. Don't you want to get dressed?"
"You ought to, because we're going on a little journey."
His hands pulled on his clothes and laced his shoes.
"You're not even curious where we're going?"
The ex-hunter's mind struggled to parse the word.
"Very good. As a reward, I'll tell you. I'm taking you home to meet the family, so to speak."
The half-angel didn't know if Barry had ever said where he was from.
"Valac, I'm Valac," the demon said patiently. "We have no more use for Barry at the present, though some of his photos are going to bring a lot of delight the universe over.
"May I have some more juice?" Dean asked.
"You can have all the juice you like," the other man was saying while drawing some symbols around them. The Latin words roared in Dean's ears.
"We've been finding that without Crowley and Lucifer there is quite the power vacuum down here. I, myself, believe I can remedy the first vacancy, but for the second, well, there's just a certain cachet in having a titular leader who is a type of angel."
"I hope you don't expect me to do anything," Dean muttered.
"No, dear, you're the eye candy. My trophy spouse, so to speak. And don't you worry, after a hard day of administrating hell, Daddy's going to have more than enough energy to give you the punishment you need."
With a calm smile, Dean stepped through the gates of Hell.
"Have you felt it again?" Balthazar asked Castiel again.
"No, I keep telling you, I got the first clear sense of him many months, but the meaning of the message was garbled in some way."
Cas took a deep breath. He was trying to fight this new irritability that was so easy for him to fall into these days. "And then an absence took over. I don't know how to explain it. A terrible absence that is not death."
Sam and Bobby were also in Cas' old room to discuss Dean having missed checking in for two weeks in a row. Etienne was by Balthazar's side.
"You say some of your angel buddies have seen Dean out and about in New York. Did they say how he looked?" Bobby asked.
"They say he looked slightly troubled, but that could be a typical angelic understatement or merely a reflection of Dean's nervous temperament," Balthazar replied.
"Most angels are not very good with emotions," Etienne cut in, and they smiled.
"Whatever, he's not been at his apartment for two weeks, and I guess when Dean paid cash for a year in advance the landlord stopped paying attention." Sam said. "The weird thing is, everyone we talked to seemed to remember him. We've spent our lives trying to fly underneath the radar—that's not like Dean."
"I, too, am having a hard time understanding that Dean has changed in some ways," Cas said quietly. "As a wise person once suggested, let's look for the man he is and not the man he was."
"Don't you have demonic contacts?" Bobby asked Balthazar.
"I did. The souls I rescued from Limbo volunteered to fight for the apocalypse but had the expectation that they would be released from Hell afterwards. It's certainly what I thought, because they released Etienne, but apparently their appeal is going through channels." He and his mate exchanged a dark look. "They may be every bit as irritated at the bureaucratic delay as I was at mine. Not sure they'll help me."
"It's worth a try," Sam said. "I don't think any of the Navajo gods are anxious to meddle in this plane again, but they've got this whole pantheon of minor spirits who can be used as spies in almost any subtle realm. I'll get some scouts going."
"Good idea," Balthazar said. He and Castiel exchanged a look on the angelic plane. Ever since Sam had attained his well-deserved respect in the tribes, and then had taken over the lead role in the apocalypse, they knew Dean might be feeling a little unnecessary. They were unsure of how to remedy that, however.
"Is this how you go about solving problems?" Etienne waved his hand dismissively. "The man saw his life fall apart in the space of a day, he has no purpose, and you propose to haul him back to some place where he doesn't feel he has a reason to be? To what? Lecture him about how worried he made you?"
"Actually, that's the way we do things," Bobby said. "You want to share with the class or stop your bitching?"
"I don't know Dean at all, but I know an existential crisis when I see one," Etienne said, and he wheeled on Cas. "Do you care for him or not?"
"Of course I do," the angel grumbled.
"Would you take him back?" He saw Cas' hesitation. "This moment, if he appeared right before you, would you take him back?"
"I'm wiling to give it a try," Castiel said testily.
"That's good enough. All the rest of you, it's your job to get the message out to as many channels as possible so that it inevitably reaches Dean's ears."
"And what are you going to do, if I may ask?" No matter how many times Balthazar told Bobby about his mate's humble beginnings in a small Spanish town, the old hunter didn't like the French, particularly French intellectuals. He felt like Etienne was talking down to him.
"I am going to write the message. No offense to any of you in this room-I'm sure you're lovely people, but I have some idea of what it is like to have one's soul crying out for someone who seems gone forever. Being rational is unlikely to reach him."
The newest member of their group pulled out the notebook that went everywhere with him, and even Bobby looked away from the memories of Hell just under the surface of the tanned face.