"He's good, don't get me wrong." Balthazar sighed as he settled beneath the broad leaves of the fig tree, still wearing the Amorite trader's son he'd donned for the mission, though he'd taken care to remove the more egregious splatters and stains before he came to the oasis. Camael did not like to see the more...practical evidence of an angel's certain duties. "Obviously, the city-wide stuff needs a bit more oil than a Seraph has in his lamp, but when it comes to individual demons, the Father's gifted that boy."
"Where is he now?" Camael did not look at him, too focus on the careful splinting of a newly grafted branch on a nearby almond. Always the gardener; even when the plants were not heaven's own but those of whatever fiesty little nomad had laid claim to this particular lifeline in the desert sands. "You were both to come."
"Oh, he'll be here." Balthazar made a face, plucking a ripe, dark fruit and splitting it open with his thumbnail to expose the soft, pink sweetness inside. "Deserves his prize, I suppose. Still, though, I'd have rather gone with Uriel. Castiel takes all the fun out of a smiting like that. It should have been our best outing since the Chalcolithic period. Two targets in one night! An utter elimination from the face of the earth! I got to raise a volcano!" He licked a bead of nectar from the rim, grinning. "Volcanoes are always so much fun. Love it when the Father lets me play with those."
"Demon cities on earth." Camael shuddered, the heavily bearded face of his Elamite scribe twisting in revulsion. "I ususally don't abide such total destruction, but when humans not only summon such demons but offer them rule -"
"In exchange for such things, though!" Balthazar popped the fig into his mouth, savoring the snap and texture of each tiny seed against the creamy flesh and faintly bristled leathery skin. "You should have seen it, my friend. Certain bits of it were just glorious, the debauchery of the Seven aside - though Castiel has a real talent for the dramatic; buggered Asmodeus with his sword like a bird on a spit."
"We destroyed them for such things, Balthazar. And righteously so." Castiel had appeared just outside the circle of the fig tree's shade, and the angel frowned, noticing that nothing of the Amorite's gilded baubles remained to catch the sun, leaving him in nothing but a plain undertunic. He began to ask, but Castiel caught the question from the vessel's clumsy process, already shaking his head. "I gave it all to a family of goat herders as a dowry for the girl."
"The girl?" None of them pretended Camael didn't know, for of course the Father had known before they even acted. It was a courtesy, a prompt to the lesser angel that he was to offer his own perspective and lay himself thus for judgement.
Castiel knelt, giving his respects to both superiors before unbelting his sword and setting it near Balthazar's. It was custom for an angel to sacrifice his weapon until he had been found righteous or wanting. Ever since Lucifer, at least. But before Lucifer, there had been no such blades. Balthazar shook his head, plucking another fig to dispel the memories that would never again make the smell of sulfur the harmless geological incense it had once been allowed.
"When we entered the city, it was worse than I had been brought to expect. It was a 'city of pleasures' only to those who had traded their souls at the gate-keepers. For the thousands of others, it was a hell upon earth. Demons roamed openly, pimps and merchants, selling all manner of cruel delicacies...animals roasted live, harmal, weapons, slave fights, fine leather tanned from the skin of infants. I..." Castiel's cheeks flushed darker with shame. "I lost my composure briefly, sir."
"Demon must have known he was an angel," Balthazar pointed out gently. "He was baiting the boy." The flare of fire in Castiel's eyes made him laugh softly. "I've thirty million years on you, I can call you boy for a few millennium yet."
Something about the too-tight set of the vessel's shoulders in the respectful nod of reply gave Balthazar a twinge of guilt, and he stood, crossing to crouch next to the Seraph. It was easy, sometimes, in all of Castiel's skill and strength, to forget that this was the first time he had truly seen up close the horrors that demons and men could mete in collusion. "The demon," he clarified to Camael, "offered him a pair of children. Siblings, a boy and a girl. They were perhaps six and eight; naked, oiled, rouged and gilded pretty as a pair of new lambs. As he put it to Castiel, fifteen to fuck any hole he pleased as long as he fancied, ninety to buy them both outright and make new ones."
"As I said, I lost my composure," Castiel murmured. "I smote him."
"You lit him up like the Chixculub crater!" Balthazar cut in proudly. "Best smiting I've ever seen from a six-wing!"
"But it angered the Seven and alerted them to our presence," Castiel retorted, the flush of shame even deeper now, his voice rasping awkwardly across his vessel's throat. "They sent a mob to the House of Lot and interrupted our mission."
"Lot was ready," Balthazar shrugged. "They're Hunters. Salt-line and demon traps at the door; they hardly noticed. It wasn't their first flood season."
"The girl, Balth-" Castiel's vessel's face had begun to bubble, and Balthazar healed it with a flick of his fingers, the gesture a sharp reproach and warning at once. Talent only went so far against rank.
"The girl," he reminded curtly, "was just that. A hairless, hipless, unpromised, undowried child of a lesser concubine. To these people, she was worth nothing. He threw them a steak to quiet them so that we could talk. It was a gesture of hospitality in their view of things, not a sin. It is not our place to judge."
"Was that not what we just did, sir?" Oh, it was bold, how he could walk such a thin boundary between deference and insubordination. He liked this one, maybe even beyond his skill with a sword. When this was all over, he'd see if Castiel wanted to have a bit of downtime, skim a white dwarf and take in a few cataclysmic variables.
Camael was still watching silently, and Balthazar stood again, motioning towards the column of ash still staining the distant horizon. "The Father judged them. We are only His tools. And they were not judged for whether they valued their daughters; they were judged for building entire cities devoted wholly to sin and blasphemy on a deal with and ruled by demons."
Castiel's head nodded briefly, too sullenly for Balthazar's liking, but he said nothing, and he chose to let it go. At last, Camael spoke, slipping the tip of his staff beneath Castiel's chin and raising the impossibly youthful face until their eyes met. "You resurrected the girl from the ashes of the city and wiped her memory."
It was not a question, and Castiel's answer was not a choice. "I did."
"I listened to her scream all night."
The staff did not move. "And why her rather than any of the other innocents slaughtered and suffering in that pit?"
Balthazar was surprised to see no hesitation, nor any sign that the question had been either a revelation or challenge. "She was my fault."
Camael nodded, satisfied. The staff withdrew, and he turned away, crossing to the oasis to scoop a dipper of the cool water. They were in the realm of rote and ritual now, and Castiel extended his hands, ready as the liquid poured over them in what looked, in the scathing desert light, like a stream of gold. "It is not the place of a tool to judge the quick and the dead. You are forgiven this time, in light of your valor and righteousness in smiting the Seven. Return to the Garrison and await your next task."
"Amen." A single nod, and Castiel vanished.
There was a long, uncomfortable pause, and Balthazar cleared his throat, tossing aside the stem of the fig he only now realized was still in the vessel's hand. "Camael..."
He was stopped by an upraised palm, but he heard it at almost the same time, and he fell to his knees, prostrate without hesitation. It made no sense to him, it could not, but it resounded the every echo and wave of his being like the sweetest ecstasy drawing tears of blood from his vessel's eyes and leaving him breathless, shivering, wanton with praise for its perfection. It was a moment or an age, unneeding of time, and when it ended, his vessel had melted away, leaving him glistening free against the oasis that had now spread to grasslands as far as the eye could see from the power of such rarefied glory.
Camael had likewise been freed of his vessel, and his words were truer now, unhindered by the clumsy twitching of shreds of meat, and there were the layers of humor and authority, yielding and certain. "The Father speaks."
He narrowed the wavelength of his infrared respectfully, trying to hide the open, hungering, quivering intensity of his gamma spectrum. "Let me receive the Word."
A sinusoidal signature appeared within the depths of Camael, giving no question to the origin of the Word. "Eremiel will not retrieve the Sword of Michael from the fire. The task will be given to Castiel."
He could not conceal his shock, near-blasphemous though it might have been. "But Eremiel is practically an archangel! Why would a Seraph -"
"Because the Father is all-knowing." The sinusoidal wave intensified, humbling any thought of further protest, even as Balthazar remained both stunned and baffeled by this impossible upending of the Order. "And while the Host rejoices in the righteous smiting of a wicked city, that Seraph weeps for a single, worthless little girl."
And then Camael was gone, and Balthazar rose slowly, pensively through the layers of the atmosphere, letting the growing ultraviolet sooth his churning thoughts. It was not his place to question the will of God. That much was absolute. But perhaps it might be indeed a very, very good idea to invite Castiel to that white dwarf. This one, he needed to know better.
** Author's note: Camael is an older form of the name of the angel referred to as Joshua