Song Remains the Same

Chapter 64 / Breakfast at Balthazar's

"I faced the fathoms in your deep, withstood the suitors' quiet siege. Pulled down the heavens just to please you, appease you."
- Smashing Pumpkins

One Month Later
Sioux Falls, South Dakota

It had been over thirty days with no word from Cas. Thirty plus days of wondering, fretting, laying awake in the dead of night and listening for creaking floorboards or soft whispers of wings to alert her to his presence. But there was nothing. Consigned to wait, that's what she did. There had been a hunt with Bobby over in Wyoming three weeks ago and there had been a demon interrogation they put together (trying to see if they could snake-oil Crowley out of Sam's soul—looked like no), then Alex had spent about a week up North trying to track down Jamie to no avail—Jamie either didn't want to be found or was dead.

Other than doing those few tasks, the rest of Alex's life had been books. Sorting books, stacking books, searching through books, carrying books up and down the stairs, going to the library to rent books Bobby needed, making copies of books, scouring the internet for rare or hard to find books… nothing but books, books, books. None of which, so far, had told of how to get a soul back into a body or how to loose a demon's hold over said soul. Still, Bobby and Alex kept searching. And searching. And searching. After two months of books and no Dean and Sam plus an entire month with no word from Castiel, Alex was both listless and anxious, high-strung and lethargic at the same time.

On a lazy thunderstorm-ridden early July morning, Alex slouched in the attic bed and tried to stay awake as her eyes blinked with increasing slowness. She wore a jacket and her shoes and kept thinking about taking them off, but that would require getting up and moving. No thanks. Bobby was downstairs napping thanks to the monotony of reading and the steady whisper of rain, the here-and-there grumble of thunder. The text of the thick volume Alex had propped up on herself kept steadily toppling forward as she kept almost dozing off. The Life on Earth, The Soul, and The Unshakable Bond Between was monotonous and banal and the lull of the rain shower outside was calling Alex to dreams and sleep. Guilt was the only thing that made her refocus. Dean and Sam are out there risking their asses to get Crowley monsters. Alex widened her eyes forcibly and blinked, willing her body to resist the call of sleep. Concentrate, dammit.

Instead, her mind drifted to Cas and the last time she'd seen him. His memory made her feel better, always, as did the thought that every moment that passed assuredly brought her closer to seeing him again (and hopefully soon). Alex remembered how he'd told her he was going to post an angel over Bobby's house to watch her comings and goings and wondered if he actually had, because she'd seen no signs of one at all. Honestly, the only angel she ever wanted near her was Castiel and it made her slightly uncomfortable to think about some unknown angel skulking around, checking in on her, watching. She guessed that she had to trust Cas's judgement on this one. Still, the thought of some angel out there watching invisibly just made her all the more ready for the entire situation to be over: the war in Heaven, Sam soulless, the Winchester family divided needlessly, Cas gone all the time.

Please let this damn war be over soon so everything can just be okay again, at least in one part of my life.

Dean hadn't been calling every day like he was supposed to. He was calling every few days and texting on the days he didn't call. Alex didn't push because even though she'd set that as a term (him calling every day). She heard the emotional exhaustion in her brother's voice when he did call. Truthfully, Alex had no idea if she'd be able to keep this up much longer. Dean needed her, needed someone right now. She couldn't even imagine being on the road with apathetic Sam in the passenger seat. That had to be devastating and discouraging on a whole new level. Life was just a frustrating mess right now.

Alex's thoughts returned to Cas again and she dwelled on their time together a month ago. The shower, the gut-wrenching discussion about Jimmy, the irresistible fall from grace to each other again afterward; the slow, desperate encounter between them that left her in tears of guilt and ecstasy both.

Trembling underneath his weight, having just touched the stars, the tears in her eyes were both because of how good it felt and because of how her emotions were so cut-raw and so drawn to the surface. Cas pulled his head off of her shoulder after leaving a soft kiss behind. Then he saw her face and the contentedness and peace left his features. "Alex, what is it?" He asked, and the tenderness in his voice made it even harder for her to maintain composure. His face showed growing confusion and worry. "Why are you crying?" he asked, touching her face as his newly-anxious eyes held hers. He grasped for understanding of her struggling state and seemed to have a terrible thought occur to him. His face showed the beginnings of something like panic and he faltered in the question he asked next: "Did I not… please you?"

Surprise softened her face. How could he even ask that? She grinned at him despite the tears swimming in her eyes, smoothed the hair down at the side of his head. He was so precious and sweet, this fierce being who could kill with a single touch… and here he was worrying about if he made her feel good or not. "Cas, of course you did," she said. He always did, and it should have been extremely obvious to him that she'd been extremely satisfied by what he just did. Her smile faltered as she stared into those skyblue eyes that she so fully associated with Castiel.

"Then what?" He asked, his perplexed expression deepening. And then realization shimmered in his eyes as the ghost of guilt and shame quickly followed. "…Are you upset because of what we were talking about before?

What they had been talking about before: Jimmy Novak. Alex tried to explain, because Cas probably thought she'd lost her damn mind to freak out about it now after all this time. A little ashamed of herself, she plunged forward and attempted to tell him why there were tears in her eyes and guilty things knotted in her heart. "I just, I thought that when you died, when Raphael killed you at Chuck's…" she trailed off, sobered by the memory of him perishing. "I guess I thought that Jimmy was gone for good and maybe he is, but…" her eyes flickered up to peer into his anxiously and she thought of him glowing with light and power when she'd seen him smite his enemies, she thought of how a single touch of his hand healed her every wound, she thought of those other-worldly midnight-black expanses bristling from his shoulder blades. "But seeing your wings today… it just reminded me." Her voice softened. "What you are."

They both understood what she meant. Even though he possessed a human body, he simply wasn't the same species that she was and he might never be. The only way to reach across that divide was for him to exist in the borrowed body of a man—they had to live with that, like it or not. Cas's eyes were sad but full of conviction as they looked into hers. "What I am," he murmured, moving some hair back from the side of her face, "is the one who loves you."

What he was, was the one who loved her. That was what counted: what they felt for each other. Alex let that thought and moment replay in her mind over and over again; she called to mind everything about when he'd told her that: the closeness of their beating hearts, the reassuring way his arms cradled her, the feeling of not being alone, the steadfast hope and happiness that burst to life in her by being so deeply loved by him. One thing was for sure: she'd never really known what it meant to truly miss someone until now and until Cas.

She'd missed Sam when he went to college. But that had been different.

She'd wanted to die from missing Dean when he'd gone to Hell. But that, also, was different.

Nothing quite compared to Cas's absence now. It wasn't that she was despairing or hopeless or thought that he would be gone forever. It was just that she carried the feeling of missing him with her wherever she went and everything in her was strained toward the day when the goodbyes would be over for good, when she wouldn't have to worry over if he were alive or dead or winning a war in Heaven or not. Thinking of him up there alone with that insurmountable burden on him of having to win the war or die trying was awful—she couldn't bear for him to be so pushed to his limits and so stretched thin. Why wasn't there a way to help him? Just let it be over quickly, for his sake. All he wants is for it to end. So do I. That was what she was thinking as she drifted off sitting halfway up, book forgotten.

And just as she was fading into the blissful confines of a warm and cozy nap…

"Ugh, wake up, will you?"

A voice she couldn't place right away—accented and annoyed and impatient—startled her out of that descent into sleep, jolted her upward to a flailing sit as her hand automatically grabbed for the blade she kept beside the bed. Nothing was there.

"Looking for this?"

Alex gaped at the intruder who leaned casually a few feet off. He had her angel's blade and was waggling it at her with a little coy smile. His face was weathered and roguish, his fair blond hair was tousled thoughtlessly and Alex realized she recognized him, had seen him before. "Balthazar?!" She exclaimed, beside herself with surprise and confusion and suspicion. "What are you doing here?"

"Being bored to absolute absolute bloody tears, that's what," he said flippantly. "Catch." He tossed her blade at her (she caught it just barely as she stood) and fixed her with an expectant gaze. "Are you really going to spend another day in bed with a book?" He huffed and rolled his eyes, paced a few steps to the left as if he were feeling cagey. "I'm about to go sodding mad," he told her in no uncertain terms, pointing at her for emphasis.

Alex squinted at him gawkingly—put two and two together, but it made no sense to her. Cas had put this guy in charge of watching her? "You're the one he picked to watch me?" She asked, and it was obvious from the way she asked it that she thought he was a ridiculous choice.

Balthazar smirked, uncrossed his arms, sauntered over her way. "I am. Good old Cas is a little short on options these days, love."

Skeptical and letting him know with a threatening raise of her angel's blade that she wasn't exactly convinced of him, Alex narrowed her eyes. "…I thought you weren't involved in the war."

He looked at the tip of the angel blade that was currently in his face. His eyes looked into hers cooly and he very grudgingly backed off, an annoyed, cynical little smile on his face. "I wasn't," he said carelessly. "Now I am. Although suffice to say I didn't think I'd get stuck on babysitting detail. At first, didn't know if it was punishment or privilege… but after a month of watching you do nothing… definitely's got to be punishment. Don't tell me you're actually content to sit around and read all day. What's he see in you, an encyclopedia of the boring?" He gave a frustrated sound and gave her a lecturing, chastising look. "Well. I've had it with sitting around and being stuck here in the rear end of South Dakota. We're going for breakfast. I know just the place."

Even as she was making to protest and raise her blade even higher to keep him away, it was too late.

Café Les Deux Magots
Paris, France

Beep beep! A car horn that sounded like a toy kept angrily jabbering amidst a sea of other city sounds. Alex found herself on the corner of a busy european street and overwhelmed by the sudden change in scenery, temperature, noise, and climate. A bright blue sky and afternoon sun were above and all around people bustled by, minding their business, checking their phones, hailing cabs. Huge buildings that must have been centuries old lined cobblestone streets, a big tour bus rumbled by and brakes squealed over the sound of laughter and conversation nearby. Gaping and disoriented, Alex stared. Balthazar had taken them here without even touching her. Beside her, he cracked a huge grin at the surrounding city. "Much better," he said, the picture of contentedness. "Oh—might want to put your little paring knife away." He pushed the offending angel blade toward her and in a dumbstruck trance, Alex let it slide into her jacket where it was concealed from the public. Geez, glad I was wearing pants when he decided to spirit me away she thought offhandedly.

Not paying her much mind, Balt chuckled and manhandled Alex into a seat she hadn't even noticed at the table they'd appeared next to. Balthazar was squinting at his wristwatch as he settled in languidly across from her. "Right. Forgot about the time difference. Lunch then."

"…Lunch?" Alex echoed blankly, gawking around with a sense of apprehension. She didn't really like just being spirited away without notice or permission with an angel she didn't know. And to a clearly different country where she didn't speak a word of the language. Everywhere she looked, she saw what she recognized as French writing: Les Deux Magots, Rue Saint-Benoit, Cette Fon de Pont des Arts, Venir étudier àÉcole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. It made her dizzy because she wasn't even sure how to pronounce half of those words in her mind.

The café they were seating outside of was bustling and quaint, settled on a corner that boasted of Parisian old-world allure. All around them people were chatting, laughing, conversing with gusto. Wine glasses clinked and traffic honked to no particular tempo. Across the street there was a large tower stretching into the sky—it looked like a church out of the middle ages or something. The construction was amazing and intricate and it was clearly so old yet had stood up to the test of time and weather. Alex had never, ever seen a city like this in America and felt out of her element, dumbstruck by the commotion.

A waiter in a tuxedo seemed to appear out of nowhere, bending over the table abruptly to greet them with a nod as he filled two already-waiting glasses with water for them with a flourish. "Bonjour Messieurs dame—comment allez vous?" He asked pleasantly, and Alex stared at him. Say what? He produced two paper menus and smiled with congeniality even as Alex wondered why a simple waiter looked as though he were ready for a red carpet event. "Aujourd'hui nous avons en plat du jour un—"

The waiter began to hand the menus down but Balthazar waved them away and cut the waiter off, began to rattle off French comfortably as if he were fluent… which, actually, it seemed that he was. "Ce n'est pas la peine, nous avons déjà fait notre choix : nous voudrions un mille feuille de tomates et de chèvre frais, des escargots de bourgogne.. et du saumon fumé avec des toasts s'il vous plaît. Je voudrais aussi une bouteille de votre cuvée spéciale de champagne Delamotte s'il vous plait."

It was perhaps a stupid thing to be impressed by, but Alex sat there flabbergasted at the waterfall of elegant language that had just poured out of Balthazar's mouth. The waiter nodded graciously. "Bien sûr Monsieur, ça arrive tout de suite." With a graceful turn, the waiter moved away, heading into the restaurant interior. Alex gaped, because even the way the waiter guy walked was fancy. Alex looked at Balthazar speechlessly.

"I hope you like champagne," Balthazar said, stretching his arm onto the chair beside himself and smirking at her as he crossed a leg over to rest ankle over knee in a rakish pose. His smirk only widened. "Oh stop looking at me like that," he coaxed playfully.

"Like what?" She asked, keeping her guard up.

"Like you don't trust me."

Alex gave him a catty look. "…I don't."

There was an airy little chuckle. "Cas trusted me enough to have me watch you, so what's the problem?"

Alex crossed her arms. "Angels and I don't have the best track records and I don't trust any of you," she said, seeing no reason to be anything but blunt. "He's pretty much the only exception."

"I did save your life a bit ago, remember that? Surely that's worth something to you?" Balthazar's eyes almost sparkled with mischief as he forced her to think back to that night at the mansion when Cas had been unable to heal her and Balthazar had instead. He waggled his eyebrows at her. "I'm sure you can find it within yourself to make another exception."

The more playful he got, the more sullen she got. "Yeah, I don't think so," she replied flatly. She hadn't forgotten what Balthazar had done—but she hadn't forgotten what he hadn't done, either. "You're one of the ones who was supposed to deliver a message to me. A message it really would have helped to have."

"Look, you have my apologies for that," he said, as if that settled the whole thing.

That was pretty damn rich. "Your apologies," she repeated stone-faced, because if this asshole had just delivered Cas's message to her like he'd been asked, Alex wouldn't have spent a year thinking Cas had abandoned her completely, wouldn't have been half as wounded as she had been by his absence.

Balthazar blinked, his face showed mild confusion, like he didn't understand why an apology solved nothing. "Yes, of course."

Alex's eyes flickered to one of the empty wine glass that was set onto the table. "Throw that glass down onto the ground," she said abruptly. Balthazar looked both bemused and intrigued. He hesitated in slight suspicion, then decided to play along. He picked up his glass of water, held it beside himself, then let go so that it dropped to the ground and shattered loudly. A few patrons gasped in surprise nearby. Alex was deadpan, eyes boring into Balthazar's. "Now tell the glass you're sorry." Balthazar's face worked oddly as if he were about to question her sanity. Before he could, Alex cut him off. "Do it."

Playing along with an air of flippant sarcasm, Balthazar sat back in his seat and folded his arms. "So sorry, Mr. Glass, for breaking you," he said, looking at Alex the entire time. He then waited challengingly for an explanation.

"Did apologizing fix the glass?" Alex asked, challenging him in turn.

Balthazar's eyebrows rose mildly as he understood her point. "Hm." He observed her thoughtfully even as she grew even more insolent and impatient, moody. He leaned closer to the table again, his eyes studying her with mild curiosity. "You are intriguing, once you can get past the bad hair and unbecoming attitude."

Not in the mood for hanging out with a wiseass angel, Alex started pushing her chair back. "You know what, this has been a blast, but think I'm done."

Her chair stopped as if it were suddenly glued to the floor. "No, no, please. Food hasn't even arrived yet," Balthazar said pleasantly, getting an irked frown from Alex. He looked at her in teasing lecturing jest. "And what, are you going to just walk back across the Atlantic to that little dump you've been holed up in?" He chuckled, but at the increasingly foul look on her face, Balthazar's light mood turned to slight exasperation. "Come on, Alex! Don't be such a stick in the mud!" He sighed and looked around, indicating she do the same. "Look at this—bright blue sky, quaint little café, champagne, me…?" Well that comment got him the bitchface of the century. He just smiled, unruffled by her reaction. "Look, I just want to get to know you a bit better. Humor me, darling."

A waiter came over at that moment, fussed around with the broken glass, glanced up at them with hooded irritation as he swept up the wet glass pieces with a little hand brush. Balthazar chuckled lightly and addressed the waiter. "Je suis désolé pour le verre cassé," he said, and even though Alex couldn't understand the words, his tone was sort of braggy and smug. "Cette fille a un sacré caractère ! Vous devriez la voir au lit..." The waiter looked a touch amused at whatever Balthazar had just said, like he was privy to some inside joke. He glanced at Alex, hid a smile, left.

Sharp eyes on Balthazar, Alex was of a one-track mind. "Why would you want to get to know me?"

The slightest instance of seriousness came forward in Balthazar's demeanor. "Look, I've been called flighty at best," he said. "But Cas is truly one of my favorite brothers. I worry about him and want to know he's making the right choices."

Not convinced at all, Alex let her this is bullshit attitude be known. "Well you're a regular Mother Theresa, aren't you."

There was a mildly impatient sigh and Balthazar cast his gaze off into the street beyond. "Yes yes, I know I've been selfish, but that doesn't mean I don't care about him." He looked back at her and there was a cast of suspicion in his eyes now. "Nothing wrong with me being skeptical of you, is there? Truth be told, you don't have the best reputation in Heaven… I'm not the only one who's ambivalent about what you're doing to him."

Alex's hard exterior was knocked down a couple pegs by the surprise and worry Balthazar's words inspired in her. "Doing to him?" She asked, because it sounded like an accusation of wrongdoing.

Balthazar sounded as if he were talking to himself. "On the one hand, good for him, getting a good roll in the hay and that but… he's made the bizarre mistake of falling quite in love with you to the point of near insanity, should you ask me." He was looking at her with sharp, studious eyes, as if he were trying to understand what Cas saw about her. "An angel who's interests aren't vested in Heaven or himself but instead a little speck on the map… it's peculiar and unsettling and I don't like it."

Alex stared, unsure of how to react. "…I'm sorry?" She asked, deferring to sarcasm in lieu of not really knowing how to take what he was saying.

Balthazar contemplated a passerby with vague disinterest. "Angel-human relationships always end badly, dear, without fail."

There was a bad feeling growing in the pit of her stomach at his dour statements, but she ignored it, feigned casual indifference. "First time for everything, right?"

"That's certainly what he's hoping," Balthazar said offhandedly, further setting Alex at deep unease. "Look," Balthazar continued conversationally. "Raphael's followers seem to think you're nothing but a two-bit abomination on legs, leading one of the host's most faithful astray, seducing a son of Heaven to lowly wretched humanity, etcetera etcetera… even most of Cas's followers secretly don't quite like the idea of you. And then there's me." He paused, letting all that stuff sink in.

Hearing someone other than Dean talk about their relationship in such negative terms was shocking for Alex. She thought of Timmy, the rogue cupid who had mentioned that all the other angels said "mean things" about her and Cas, but she'd thought it was hyperbole or something. Was everyone in Heaven against them being together? It sort of sounded that way… was that maybe one of the reasons Cas had seemed so depressed lately? Of course it was the war and the separation, but there was some other something Cas wasn't telling her and this could very well be it. God, if he were trying to protect her from knowing that…

Balthazar wasn't done making his opinion known. "I find you overall mousy and generally uninspiring, but you do have your moments I suppose and well he thinks you're the best thing since Creation so there's that," he said as if commenting on something that he was only slightly interested in. He paused and his tone became more invested, more focused. "But you see… my brother's not like the other angels. Never has been. In fact, I think that may be why you like him. But he's…" Balthazar didn't even seem to know how to word himself. "He's investing everything he has in you and setting himself up for quite a long fall should you… elect to drop him like he's hot."

Alex sat back in her seat a little, not even sure where to begin. "You think I'm gonna… let Cas down? Leave him?"

"It's what humans do," Balthazar said dispassionately. "Change their minds."

Oh. My. God. What a moron. "And you've never changed your mind?" Alex retorted, and the attitude she gave him was award-worthy. "Balthazar, I'd like you to go look up a little word in the dictionary: hypocrite. I think I saw your picture in there beside the definition." Amusement twinkled in Balthazar's eyes and Alex, short on grace, rolled her eyes upwards. "Listen, it's nice that you're worried about him, I guess," she said, voice laced with cynicism and bitterness. "But if you care so much about him, you would have stuck around and helped him, not run away."

There was that self-assured smirk again. "Don't get me wrong—I care about Cas but I care about me more," he said, then waved his hand as if he were brushing away an annoyance. "War's so unpredictable. Didn't feel like staking my life in it, always wanted to give life on earth a try anyway…" he trailed off, smiling easily.

"So, what, now that you think Cas is gonna win the war you're jumping on board?" Alex prompted, judging him harshly for it. There was nothing she despised more than a fair-weather friend.

Balthazar's face showed mild ruefulness. "Oh no. No no. Quite the opposite I'm afraid. Cas isn't doing so well, darling. Maybe he's trying to keep it from you to protect your precious feelings, I don't know or care—but I re-enlisted because I saw my brother floundering quite spectacularly." Alex did not know that. Cas was floundering? Not doing well? Her chest tightened and worry surged forth wildly—since when? Helplessness and near-panic stretched and unfurled inside of her. She knew it was unstable up there but hearing in such black-and-white terms that Cas was struggling badly hit her hard. Seeing her expression Balthazar's smile returned. He appeared to know that he now had her where he wanted her: thinking Balthazar might be an ally after all, not an enemy. "See?" He asked, sitting back and stretching his arm across the chair beside himself again as if he were the king of the entire planet. "I'm not as bad as you thought. And handsome to boot!"

"Your humble nature is what I love," she wisecracked with no shortage of insolence.

"Ha!" Balthazar grinned, eyes wrinkling up at her catty sense of humor. "There it is. Delightful."

Not in the smiling mood, Alex narrowed her eyes. She reminded herself not to take everything Balthazar said at face value. She didn't trust him and didn't know why Cas would, either. This angel might be trying to take her for a fool, she didn't know if he were who he was saying he was or not. So, she attempted to dig deeper for answers. "Why would Cas trust you after what you did to us?" She asked, still not sure why Cas would post Balthazar as a watcher over her. Maybe he really was shorthanded.

Balthazar's smile was faraway and thoughtful, fond if self-serving. "My brother is forgiving in his heart above all else. Always willing to give a second chance. Some say that's his tragic flaw." He feigned a sudden epiphany of remembrance. "Ah, and it didn't hurt that I gave him some of the Heavenly weapons he so desperately wanted…"

"Only some?"

There was a disarming little shrug. "Have to protect my interests, don't I? Keep a few in-pocket, just in case. Besides, Hezion has the other half of them and without all of the weapons, they're not much use to Cas anyway." Balthazar clasped his hands onto the table and gave a satisfied sigh as his eyes followed a few birds taking flight from the café sign. "Cas is paving new roads and I say about damn time," he said, then turned slightly pensive. "Never would have quite guessed he'd be the one to blaze this trail although I suppose it's been a long time coming now that I think about it."

"…What do you mean?"

Balthazar leaned back in his seat again, eyes off to the side as he recalled. "There were issues here and there with him… pitched a fit about flooding the earth back in the Noah's ark era, didn't want to kill the firstborns in Egypt, dug his heels in about destroying Jerusalem…"

Even though Balthazar was saying those things like they were something he could make fun of Cas for, it made Alex's heart swell and break to hear that about him. Yes. That sounded like the Castiel she knew and loved and had seen from the beginning. At his deepest core, he was kind and gentle and deeply protective of humanity. "Just didn't have the stomach for violence or smiting humans," Balthazar continued, sighing regretfully. "And we all thought he was just mentally deficient or defective." He smiled to himself. "Maybe he was just a forward thinker all along."

Alex suddenly pictured Castiel sitting alone at a table in a bright white Heavenly cafeteria looking lonely while his angel brothers and sisters sneered at him from where they all sat together in cliches all around. Of course, it was a totally ridiculous mental image but still. Alex thought no wonder I love him. He's always been abnormal and ridiculed among his own kind, just like me.

At that moment, the waiter returned with their food piled onto a serving tray. "Voici votre repas. Madame, Monsieur," the waiter said, setting down three plates of food that looked like rabbit food to Alex. He popped open the champagne he carried with him and poured it into narrow flutes for Balthazar and Alex alike, then left the remainder of the bottle perched in ice for them to drink at their leisure. "Bon appétit!" The waiter exclaimed and gave a little bow before leaving.

Alex stared at one of the plates in particular, aghast. "…Are those snails? You have got to be kidding me." And besides that there were too many vegetables, and none of them were potatoes. Wait, were potatoes even a vegetable? Alex turned her nose up at Balthazar's offer of snails—he held the plate out to her, indicating she take one. "Bleurgh, no thanks," she said. "Where are the french fries?"

"French fries?" He rolled his eyes. "Typical. Wouldn't know a good meal if it came and bit you in the perky little ass," he said as he daintily picked up a snail shell with specialized tongs and then dug out the dark goopy meat part with a little two-prong fork. "Mm." He seemed to find the bite almost erotic. "Exquisite."

Face held in something like disgust, Alex couldn't look away from the display. "…Yeah," she said, thinking the exact opposite. "Awesome." She reached for her champagne flute and took a hesitant sip, not sure what to expect—she'd never had champagne before, only beer and cheap wines and hard liquors. The champagne was punchy and tart, bubbly and crisp and… super good. "Whoa," she commented and held the glass back to look in admiring surprise at the bubbles fizzling up through the light golden liquid. "This stuff's not half bad."

"At a hundred euros a bottle, it better not be," Balthazar replied cheekily. "Maybe your taste isn't as deplorable as I thought."

"You're the one eating snails right now," Alex replied, sipping at her champagne again.

"And they're delicious," Balthazar said, putting another dark-brown blob into his mouth with the silly little snail fork.

Alex looked at him in mild curiosity, beginning to wonder. He seemed different from the other angels she'd encountered for several reasons (jaunty attitude, entirely human demeanor) but even his clothing choices were curious. He wore a deeply v-necked shirt, some goofy I'm so cool necklaces, rings on his fingers, a blazer style jacket, dark jeans. "So… what's up with your outfit?" She asked, drawing a questioning look from him. She shrugged. "Most angels I've seen are business casual bastards. You dress… normal. Ish." She paused. Abruptly she remembered another angel who had displayed personal style and her mood sobered. "So did Gabriel, now that I think about it."

"Ah. Gabriel," Balthazar said with a surprising note of regret. "Sad to hear of his passing. He and I did so enjoy pranking and playing on occasion." There was an almost somber pause. "And you wondered why I avoided the war. Because of things like what happened to good ol' Gabe." The angel cleared his throat and put that disarming smile back on his face, glanced down at himself briefly. "Right, the outfit. Well, when I first possessed this bloke I had to figure out something and quick. Real religious bore, this one. Polos, khaki dress pants, polished shoes… celibate… I had to change all those nonsenses very quickly." His mouth turned upward even further as he pulled another snail up off the plate with his tongs, scooped out the meat and slurped it into his mouth enthusiastically, maybe enjoying her disgusted expression. "Mm, fabulous! Don't you want some?"

"Yeah, no," she said and glanced at the champagne as the slight charm of all of this fell flat for her. A pang of deep-seated loneliness washed over her and she felt homesick for someone, not someplace. Everything suddenly seemed dimmer and less interesting and all she could think about was Castiel and if he was okay or not. "When you're done eating your pile of cat food you're taking me home," she said to Balthazar, voice soft and distracted.

Balthazar smiled as he chewed, trying to get her to liven up. "Mm, bossy," he purred. "Bet Cas likes it when you tell him what to do." Alex looked off, rolling her eyes even as Balthazar paused, became more serious. "You never did answer me, did you." His eyes bored into hers. "What's to stop you from changing your mind about Cas and breaking his heart into absolute smithereens?"

The implication that she would "change her mind" about Cas was absolutely alien to Alex. This wasn't some fling and it never had been. She was committed to Cas, more than Balthazar or any other angel except Castiel himself knew. She smiled a little to herself, thinking of him and worrying about him alike. "Cas and I are a forever thing," she said honestly. And they were, and they always had been, even before she'd known she loved him at all. "You don't just walk away from what we are."

Balthazar looked intrigued and mistrustful at the same time. "Hm. Well then. To love's eternal glory." He raised his flute of champagne her way and Alex wasn't sure if he could be any more sarcastic.

Evergreen, Missouri

In an abandoned and drafty old prison, screams and howls of pain could be heard. Music to his ears, honestly.

Crowley dusted off his bloody hands and then wiped the remainder of the crude red business off onto the white apron he wore. The dead kitsune alpha laid at his feet, bound and stabbed through the heart with a rare dagger. Little bitch wouldn't say where Purgatory was… a running theme with the big bads lately. At least the process of trying to find the place was fun. Crowley turned toward his table of cruel glinting torture instruments, smiling to himself… then came up short when he saw that he wasn't alone in his little house of horrors.

Well, it was about time. Crowley had summoned the bloke ages ago. "Ah, Cas. It's been a little while," he greeted levelly, smiling pleasantly at the always-constipated looking Castiel. The angel in the trench coat said nothing, just looked off to the side of the old cellblock where Crowley had set up shop. There was a crumbled, destroyed wall there—the very place Cas had hurled the King of Hell into a couple months back. The reason? Angel boy had found out that Crowley was the one who told Alex about the Lucifer rumors and subsequently (unintentionally) gotten her, hmm, killed last year. Obviously, Cas hadn't been happy to hear that. In fact, Crowley had barely been able to weasel his way out of being decimated on the spot. Still, here he was today, and as cocky as ever.

To Cas's glance at the still-destroyed wall Crowley smirked slightly. "…No. Still haven't fixed that. Billing you for repair costs, by the by." He tossed the bloody dagger he'd been holding down onto the metal tray where the rest of his favorite toys laid.

Cas was giving the demon a dead-inside glare. "What do you want, Crowley?" He asked with dark impatience. "I'm busy."

Always one to goad, Crowley couldn't resist. "Too busy for me? …And here I thought we'd be in love forever."

There was the slightest eye roll and Castiel came forward, using his size and height to intimidate Crowley. "I don't have time for your absurd jokes," he said lowly, his jaw tight. He let a silence hang as his dangerously glinting eyes burned into Crowley's. "What is it that you need?"

"For you to untwist your knickers, for one," Crowley said, holding his ground and remaining outwardly aloof as always. He did, after all, have a very important point he needed to make about the newest pain in his ass: "The old ball and chain. I need you to get her to back off or we're going to have a problem." He strolled off a few steps, took off his bloody apron and folded it just so.

Cas's eyes crimped ever so slightly in mistrust and antipathy. "…What problem?"

"Your little human pet and Bobby Singer are poking their noses where they don't belong," Crowley said matter-of-factly, setting the apron down and then beginning to roll down his dark sleeves from where they'd been shoved up halfway. "They interrogated one of my demons last week trying to figure out a way to steal Sammy's little soul from me," Crowley said, and Cas's face showed both understanding and dread. He tried to hide the latter. "They keep digging and they find out I don't own his soul," Crowley said languidly, which they both already knew. "They keep prodding and everything we've so carefully put into motion comes crashing down. Do you see the problem now?"

There was a long tense silence and Cas, resigned and reluctant, obviously hated every second of even having to be in the same room with Crowley. Still, they both knew that Crowley had a point. "What would you have me do?" The angel asked grudgingly.

"Put your little desperate housewife back in the game," Crowley replied immediately. Cas's gaze was getting stormier by the second but Crowley kept going. "Get her back on the road with her brothers, good and distracted." The King of Hell smirked and sauntered over to Cas, tempting fate with what he said next. "All you've got to do is say the word and she'll obey." Smiling at his cleverness, Crowley made a mistake in giving his next little remark: "Not very much unlike a trained dog."

Crowley suddenly found himself seized with strong hands and yanked in close to Cas's furious face. "The next time you insult her to my face I will destroy more than a brick-and-mortar wall, Crowley," the angel growled forcefully, and Crowley couldn't entirely hide his surprise and fear at the sudden temper tantrum. Cas was getting more and more volatile as the war carried on and Crowley realized he should probably be a little more careful about egging the fellow on. After the cloud-hopper had breathed down Crowley's neck for a couple of long seconds, he let him go with an unceremonious shove. Pointedly, Crowley straightened his dress shirt even as Cas lowered his chin. "No. I will not allow her 'back in the game.' Sam is dangerous. I don't want him anywhere near her right now."

The second he was out of Cas's grip, Crowley forgot himself and kept on with the assuming airs and superiority. "Right," he said in cool disdain. "And wouldn't want her to find out you're the one who raised him wrong, would we?" He paused and let the guilt settle in over Cas, who looked down, forever ashamed of the fact that he'd raised the middle Winchester half-ass and soulless. Crowley chanced a step closer and got pushy. "Look, you want to win this war, don't you? You get a third hunter in on the gambit and you're sitting pretty. The faster we get these alphas, the quicker I find Purgatory. The quicker I find Purgatory, the sooner you get the super-powered souls therein and kick Raphael's holy-roller ass out for good. Case closed, all's fine and dandy, we all go on our merry way. So what's the problem?"

Cas shook his head stubbornly, further confounding the demon. "Alex stays where she is," he said darkly. His eyes held contempt for the demon. "It's bad enough that I'm working for you. I won't let her work for you too."

Crowley rolled his eyes lightly. "Really, you make me sound like such a villain, Cas," he said in a voice drenched in cynicism, and his quickly-growing anger prompted Crowley to get a bit sassy and loud. "Get your head in the game, halo-brain. She's not stupid and she's going to figure it out if you don't get her in line."

"Even if she does discover the truth—"

"What? She'll forgive you? She'll understand?" Crowley lost his cool. "This is a bloody Winchester we're talking about! I don't care how good the sex is or how deluded you two are over each other, she'll turn tail and run to Dean the second she finds out you're in league with me!" The ringing silence was a stark contrast to his outburst and Crowley fixed the stony angel with a seriously admonishing look. "The bottom line is this: The Winchesters find out about our little arrangement and it's over. They discover our little tête-à-tête and they don't just put the brakes on the monster business Cas, they see you for what you really are… a liar in league with the King of Hell. You really think the missus'll like knowing how you've hidden so much from her? You think that brother bear will tolerate her involvement with such a shady guy? They'll turn on you in a steaming second, my friend. Alex included… mark my words."

Cas clearly took it to heart but only clenched his jaw tighter. "If she finds out, I'll explain," he said, but even he sounded doubtful about that. "She'll understand why I had to do this and why it must be carried to completion."

"Please," Crowley scoffed at Cas's naivety. He invaded Cas's space, intense and trying to get the angel to wake up and listen to reason. "They find out and Purgatory might as well be Atlantis my fine feathered friend. They find out, they muck it all up, and then Raphael takes you to the slaughterhouse." He let a pause hang but Cas's stubborn expression remained. Crowley shook his head balefully, wishing he could toss the angel through a wall or two at the moment. "Tell you one thing, if your refusal to put Mrs. Castiel back into the game costs us this entire operation, I'll have your head," he said threateningly, unhappy with Cas's hardheadedness.

"Will you?" Castiel asked challengingly, and there was a surprising amount of brazenness to his tone, a coldness and sharpness in his eyes. "Your idle threats mean nothing to me, Crowley," he said brusquely. "I tire of your attempts to control me."

Well, that was insightful. Still. "Whatcha going to do, Cas?" Crowley asked playfully, knowing that Cas had no choice but to go along with this arrangement of theirs. "Torture and maim all these alphas in your spare time? Find Purgatory on your own while you fight that little war of yours on the side?" He smirked, his self-importance bleeding through. "You need me, mate. Sad but true."

Cas seemed done at that point. "If you're done stroking your own ego, I'll take my leave," he said, and his penchant for sassy sarcasm was quite endearing, really. But Crowley was never one to let a visit end on someone else's terms.

He stopped Cas from leaving with a soft, knowing voice. "Before you go, riddle me this: do you know where your scrawny little spouse is right now?" Cas paused and the beginnings of suspicion, aimed at Crowley, showed. The demon's smile widened. "Hint hint: it's not where you think." Enjoying the angel's growing temper, Crowley milked it in his typical fashion. "Boredom does things to a girl," he said with a dramatic sigh, sauntering across the room in a lazy, disinterest fashion as Cas, scowl deepening, watched. "Really should put her back on the road where she won't be prone to run off across the globe on romantic getaways with other angels," Crowley said, enjoying the power play.

Confusion and what almost looked like pain showed in the angel's stormy face even though he struggled to remain doubtful. "Explain. Now."

Crowley didn't. "Go see for yourself," he said coyly. "Café Les Deux Magots. Paris, France." He smirked, because Cas looked like he were wondering how the hell Crowley would know this if it were true at all. Feigning humility, Crowley shrugged. "You're not the only one with eyes and ears out, darling. Send my love to your better half, will you?"

Castiel, stone-faced, disappeared without anything further. Crowley blinked once. No goodbye? "Rude."

Café Les Deux Magots
Paris, France

Balthazar slapped down four hundred-euro paper bills nonchalantly even as Alex's eyes slid sidelong to the money. One, why did he already have european dollars with him? Two, four hundred euros? No way this little bit of food and champagne had cost that much… maybe the angel was trying to show off or maybe he had no concept of how money worked.

"You sure you don't want any?" Balthazar asked suggestively, indicating the salmon on toast things as he nibbled on one of the last ones delicately.

Wrinkling her nose, Alex gave him a tight, sarcastic smile. "Oh no, please. I couldn't."

Balthazar's eyeline was enticed away by a curvy blonde woman sashaying by in a dress that was much too small and tight and he turned slightly to ogle the sway of her hips. Seizing the brief window of opportunity, Alex's hand darted out and she palmed two of the euro bills discreetly, slipping them into her jacket pocket in about two seconds flat. She did it half for fun and half for the fact that hey, money was money and the conversion rate would probably turn this into about a two hundred and eighty US dollars. Forget snails and salmon; think of all the pizzas and cupcakes that money could buy!

Apparently feeling very happy after leering at the passing frenchwoman, Balthazar turned back to Alex, a shit-eating smile stretched across his face. The smile abruptly fell into a stunned expression as his eyes went up to look at something beside and behind Alex. She followed his gaze and nearly fell over. Right beside and behind her, standing there with a sternly confused look on his face: Castiel. Alex stood up so fast she knocked her chair back. "Cas!"

He only glanced at her, and his deep scowl at Balthazar surprised Alex, cued her into the fact that he was off. He seemed… angry. "Cas old chap! We were just talking about you," Balthazar said, laughing nervously.

"What are you doing, Balthazar?" Cas asked, and he only had wrathful eyes for the other angel. Alex withered internally at the tone in his voice. There was no doubt. Cas was pissed. But why? "What is the meaning of this?" He questioned balefully, warningly. He moved forward slightly so that Alex was behind one of his arms and shoulders… a protective gesture. Why?

Balthazar was standing up, holding his arms out in a shrug of simpering innocence. "Just a little lunch, that's all," he assured, smiling and trying to appease Cas, who didn't seem to want to be appeased.

Cas's eyes narrowed dangerously, his jaw was tight, his fists were clenched. "I gave you strict instructions, Balthazar…" he growled, and Alex was too shocked at his behavior to do anything—was she in danger? Why was he acting like this? Balthazar was harmless, wasn't he? Or had she misjudged?

Balthazar was backing off slightly, clearly nervous, clearly seeing the signs of an impending explosion. "I know you did, Cas old boy, but—oof!"

In a shocking display of speed and aggression, Cas darted forward and knocked the table over that stood between himself and his brother to grab Balthazar by two fistfuls of clothing. "You have gone against what I've said for the last time," he said, and his gravelly voice was angry, volatile, promised punishment. All around, the café patrons were disturbed and shocked, staring, leaning away even as Alex was protesting, "Hey, hey, stop!" Cas looked like he was about to fling Balthazar halfway across the city or slug him in the face.

Before either of those things could happen, the waiter, indignant and incensed, barreled over out of nowhere, chattering in French forcefully, his face turning red as he held two hands out, indicating that Cas and Balthazar separate. "Excusez-moi messieurs! Les combats ne sont pas tolérés dans notre établissement!" Then in broken english. "No the fighting, no no!"

Castiel held Balthazar's gaze fiercely for a second more as a tense silence froze the entirety of nearby occupants. Seeming to realize (at least to some small extent) what he was doing, Cas glanced around at the flabbergasted audience he had gained. He looked back at Balthazar, loosened his grip then let go with a little shove and stepped away. His grumpy expression was attesting to the fact that he did not want to do anything less than kick Balthazar's ass at the moment. Nevertheless, he looked at the waiter begrudgingly. "Veuillez accepter mes excuses," he said crankily, shell-shocking Alex all over again. His deep sandpapery voice speaking French was pretty damn sexy, even if he was acting sort of crazy.

"You speak French too?" She asked, a little dumbstruck by the day she was having so far.

Finally, he really looked at her. "I speak all languages," he replied tersely. Again, Alex was taken aback at his almost callousness. Confused, she wondered: had she done something wrong? Was he all right? Wait… he didn't think her and Balthazar…?!

The waiter seemed unimpressed by Cas's apparent apology. In a tight voice, he addressed them all as he pointed to the street emphatically, shooed them away. "Je vais devoir vous demander de bien vouloir partir maintenant!" Alex didn't need to speak the language. She understood what was being said: leave. Now.

Balthazar, regaining a bit of his calm swagger, straightened his mussed blazer and nodded at the waiter jovially as he took the bottle of champagne from where it had rolled down onto the ground. It still had some liquid in it, miraculously. "Bien sûr, mes excuses monsieur," he said cheekily, raising the bottle in salute.

Cas, one hundred percent done with it all, gave Balthazar a bitchy side eye and grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, steered him down the busy sidewalk and into an alley. Alex followed in a daze. Even the alleys were pretty here in Paris… Cas let go of Balthazar roughly. Everything about him spoke of high agitation and mistrust. "What is going on here?" He demanded of the other angel.

Balthazar had his hands raised defensively but he still held the champagne bottle. "Look. Your girlfriend was driving me absolutely bloody bonkers and I decided to whisk her off for a little luncheon, that's all, come off it Cas, will you?"

Cas stared at him long and hard, then looked to Alex. His expression softened marginally, but there was something in it that mystified Alex. Why did he look at her so strangely? He turned his hardening gaze back to Balthazar. "Step away," he told the other angel darkly, indicating further back in the alley. "Give us a moment."

Petulant and annoyed, Balthazar rolled his eyes but did as he was told. Cas waited until the other angel was an agreeable distance then he came to Alex. He didn't say hello or smile at her, he didn't look at her like he hadn't seen her in a month. He was angry and upset. "Why did he bring you here? What did he want with you?"

Alex was little stung by his attitude and coldness. "Hi, nice to see you too," she said, and even though it was a sarcastic comment, her sadness and confusion was impossible to disguise.

Cas's expression shifted and he looked immediately stricken by guilt and surprise. He faltered. "Yes, of course—I'm sorry," he apologized, and whatever crazy idea he had gotten in his head about Balthazar seemed to begin to fade away. His anger gave way to abashed earnestness. "It's very nice to see you, as always."

Alex stared at him, still taken aback at everything, not able to get over his strange demeanor just a moment ago. "…Why are you acting so mad?" She asked. It seemed insane to even ask, but she couldn't think of another explanation. Still, he couldn't be thinking that, could he? "Are you being jealous right now?" She asked, her voice suggesting how could you? Her question seemed to render him confused and chastised alike and Alex saw that he had been jealous or thought the worst of the situation and it broke her heart, made her feel terrible. She had messed up before with Glen, sort of (entertaining the idea of being with him before the truth came out, allowing a kiss despite being committed to Cas). And maybe that's why Cas thought she might do the same again, contemplate taking another in his absence, but… no. No of course she wouldn't, especially not now, didn't he know that? Apparently not from the way he was flipping out. "You really think I would…?" she trailed off, at a loss. What did he think? That the idiotic angel with the champagne over there had seduced her in the last month or something? "Cas don't you trust me?" She asked, because it would really hurt her if he thought so little of her.

Cas's features working in shame as he clearly realized his error. "…Now that you ask me, I see how ludicrous that was of me to think." That was a tiny relief to her but still. He breathed out heavily and looked back at her. His bright blue eyes showed contrition to the highest degrees. "I'm sorry. It's just… I should be the one to take you on dates, not… Balthazar."

The frustration and helplessness he felt was apparent and Alex sighed, rubbed her forehead with her hand errantly. She agreed, but… "That was not a date. It was… watching Balthazar slurp snails and listening to him bitch about the war. Not my favorite thing." She softened at Cas's expression and squared, slumped shoulders and she hesitated, tried to reassure him even though she felt like she was on emotionally shaky ground herself. "Trust me, I would have much rather have been with you than him. Any day of the week."

Castiel was quiet now and glanced off and down the alley where Balthazar leaned against a wall casually, taking a sip out of the champagne bottle. He stopped drinking to wave and make a smart-ass face when he saw Cas looking at him. "It's no big deal, really," Alex assured, drawing Cas's attention back to her. "I don't think he meant any harm. He showed up out of nowhere about an hour ago or less, said he was bored, dragged me here, tried to treat me to lunch."

He latched onto one word she'd used in particular, his expression becoming slightly foul again. "Dragged?"

"Er, metaphorically speaking," Alex quickly corrected. "Not literally." The look on Cas's face seemed to say: …Ah. He seemed almost disappointed, like he wanted an excuse to kick Balthazar's ass. However, there wasn't one at least from Alex's perspective. "I'm fine, Cas. I mean, he tried to get me to eat snails, but other than that, he's not too bad."

Cas shook his head, expression still cloudy. "This was his proving ground. He went against explicit orders. Again." His eyes met her waiting gaze and Alex had the beginnings of epiphany. Cas had been trying to give Balthazar a second chance to prove himself after he failed to deliver the message he was supposed to deliver last year. The message that would have saved a lot of heartache on Alex's part. Cas must have really wanted to be able to trust his clearly-irresponsible brother but even this small act of defiance was unacceptable to him. Alex looked at him with growing understanding—it was hard when your siblings let your expectations down. Cas was frustrated not only with himself and the situation he was stuck in, but with the people he was forced to depend on. "I'm done giving him chances," Cas said with a heavy finality, looking toward the other angel again. "Wait here," he told Alex, and turned to go approach Balthazar.

"Ah, Cas," Balthazar said, standing a little straighter at his brother's approach. He held up the bottle, smiled airily. "Champagne?"

Cas's stony face didn't budge and he intruded upon Balthazar's personal space. "You were not to appear to her or speak with her much less take her out of the country," he said intensely."You were to stand outside the house and watch her comings and goings only." His face twisted in dismay and hurt. "You honor nothing I ask of you, Balthazar. I placed trust in you—why would you do this?"

"Aw come on Cas, live a little," Balthazar said, brushing it off and remaining casual in the face of his brother's admonishment. "You've worked up over nothing. She's bored stiff in that South Dakota attic! I was just giving her some fun while her boyfriend's off in the clouds. And I mean you weren't taking her on dates, she needed a bit of culture and champagne."

Cas's expression soured further. "It's not your place to assume to know her needs," he said stiffly then narrowed his eyes in cool thought. "Also, I think it's you that wanted culture and champagne." Balthazar's face registered faint surprise at the insight. Cas wasn't done. "Alex would never choose that café as the location for a date," he said, asserting himself as the one who knew her better.

Balthazar teased him. "And you know this how? Take her on a lot of dates, do you? What's her favorite restaurant, Cas? What's the best place you've taken her, hmm?"

Castiel faltered briefly then returned to cold anger. "That's none of your concern," he said, sidestepping. "I told you to observe only, Balthazar, I told you to only let your presence be known in the most dire of circumstances." Disappointment and chagrin made Cas shake his head at his brother. "I should have known you would be as impetuous as ever."

Balthazar accepted the criticism as if it were a great compliment: with spread arms and a disarming smile. "If nothing else, at least I'm predictable," he said then pointed a finger suddenly, indicating he was about to say something that was important. "And remember, I didn't ditch her, right? Give me points for that at least. I made sure to follow your first rule to always know where she was." His eyes twinkled as a smile broadened his face. "Here with me in Paris, enjoying some escargot."

Cas sent a darting glance sidelong toward Alex."She didn't enjoy the snails," he corrected grumpily.

Balthazar sighed, having had it with Cas's lack of reaction to his joking. "I tried Cas, I did. I'm sorry. Look, you got me," he said, growing serious. "I'll give you the rest of the bloody weapons if you will just please, please take me off babysitting duty. I can't do it Cas… it's driving me up the tossing wall." Cas looked at Balthazar in hard silence. Balthazar wouldn't be trusted with the task of watching Alex again, but if he was so foolish to think that he would be, perhaps Cas could use that to his advantage. Growing riled underneath Cas's silent glower, Balthazar threw his hands up. "Fine. You win," he said. "I surrender. I'll go find Hez and the other half of the weapons, get them back from him, give you the rest of mine too—just make someone else keep tabs on your sweetie—I'm wasted on this."

Castiel's brow drew in slightly. "Keeping her safe will never be a waste."

"Right, no, not what I meant," Balthazar said quickly. "Of course not."

Cas, tired and disgusted and left little other choice dismissed Balthazar bleakly. He didn't have much hope for the prospects of his brother actually doing as he said but was finished with Balthazar either way. "Go. Find Hezion. And don't return to me until you do."

There was an unspoken warning in Cas's command and Balthazar seemed to hear it. His cavalier attitude dropped surprisingly and he nodded. "I'll be in touch, Cas. Don't hesitate to call me should you need me." And without anything further, Balthazar disappeared.

Cas didn't move from where he stood for a long moment. He was feeling what he recognized as embarrassment at himself. He should have known Crowley was trying to sow discord and create dramatics, sending him here and saying what he had. Cas shouldn't have assumed his brother would attempt to take Alex for his own—Balthazar was impulsive and selfish, yes, but he was also shortsighted and obviously didn't recognize Alex for the rare jewel that she was. …But most of all, he shouldn't have mistrusted her. Castiel was confused at his reaction which had seemed to come out of nowhere and been influenced by no logic or clear thought process at all. And truthfully he was jealous and frustrated that someone other than himself had been free to spend time with her. That was what Castiel wanted the most: just to be with her. He had spent so long being stuck in Heaven and away from her that he did maintain the fear that she would grow tired of waiting for him and move on, forget him, abandon him. Perhaps it was a foundless fear, but he felt it all the same. Was that selfish? To fear losing her affection and devotion? He didn't know.

"Everything okay?" she asked, and he realized she had approached him, was looking at him apprehensively. Her familiar face made him feel happiness and sadness at the same time, but sadness overwhelmed him more than anything else.

He answered honestly. "No. Not until this war is over." Everything wouldn't be okay until it had all ended. He thought of the things he was keeping from her and had to look away from her bright and worried hazel eyes briefly. She seemed mildly hesitant with him at the moment and Cas wondered if it was because time had passed. By his best guess, maybe a month or so had gone by for her. More sadness settled into his heart and then despair because this needed to end. When her hand came to gently hold onto his arm Cas's guilt multiplied by a thousand. It felt wrong to deceive her, but what choice did he have? He wanted to protect her from the unseemly things in the world, even if some of those unseemly things were put into motion by him. She would understand when the war was won and Raphael was dead and they could be together and not fear the return of the apocalypse. She was currently looking at him with vast amounts of worry and he softened, touched at how she always did that: concerned herself over him. No one else did that. She loved him, and he was reminded of it all over again. Would she still love him if she knew…? He was afraid to discover the answer and resolved to work even harder to win this war so that he didn't have to keep being dishonest.

Cas thought back to Balthazar's questions about where the best place was that he'd taken her on a date—and it occurred to him that he hadn't ever really purposefully taken her someplace. She'd always been the one to take him places. Simultaneously he realized that they were in Paris, France and that he could and should spare some time to spend with her. It may have been irresponsible of him, but he was so harrowed by his weighty responsibilities that he felt if he didn't take a small leave of absence he would collapse in on himself like a dying star. And more than that, he desired nothing more than some time spent with Alex, the one he thought of ceaselessly, the one who made his hardships worthwhile. Cas looked at her softly as a pleasant idea came to him. "…Would you like to see the eiffel tower?"

Alex reacted with a face like she wasn't sure she'd heard him correctly. "…What?"

Cas thought she would have understood what he was asking and he felt himself falter slightly. He pushed forward. "I am going to take you on a date," he said, thinking she would be excited by the idea.

Even more confusion showed on her pretty face. "A… date?"

"Yes," he said slowly, losing confidence. "Unless… you don't want to."

"No, of course I want to, but… now?" She asked. "I mean…?" she pointed upwards questioningly, silently asking him about the Heavenly war.

Cas shook his head, held her gaze. "It can wait," he said, because it needed to. "Everything can wait."

Alex looked both surprised and touched by what he said and also hesitant to believe. "Really?"

He was struck all over again without warning by a surge of feelings—the kind that only she had ever inspired in him. His voice was softer and deeper when he replied. "Really."

The tenseness that had been between them was abruptly pushed aside as Alex's face went soft with a beautiful and relieved smile. She reached out to him, circled her arms around his middle and pulled herself close to him, pressed her cheek into his shoulder as she hugged him tightly. A rush of endorphins and reassurance came over Cas as his arms found their way around her and held her there to his chest. His eyes fell closed without prompt and he savored her there against him like that. On the Paris streets nearby, traffic noise (honking, brakes, engines running) continued. Alex pulled away after a moment, but not much, only enough to look up into his face. The questions and upsets that had been present in her demeanor seemed to have blown away like clouds and Cas was stilled by the thought of how fragile emotions and relationships could be. She'd been unsure and shaken only a moment ago, now was hopeful and warm towards him again. He wanted to be clear with her on something just in case she was still doubtful though. "I do trust you," he said quietly, shame coloring his tone, because she had asked him a few minutes ago if he did and he did. How could he ever do anything but? He held her gaze, searched the depths. "With everything." Her lips parted a little—surprise. Why was she always surprised when he told her the things he carried inside? He didn't know. Perhaps love was never-ending discovery and epiphany… after all, he was always surprised at how there was no end or bottom to the feelings he associated with her.

Fond, he deferred to her for direction. "Where would you like to go?" He asked, eager to hear her answer.

She shook her head, eyes bright and smile making them crinkle a little. "I don't care. Anywhere."

Cas wracked his brain for something she would like. He would show her the entire world someday, see her drink in every wonder small and large alike, but for now, he needed to choose just one thing. "The pyramids?" He asked. They were great feats of manmade innovation. No, she would like some wonder found in nature better. "The Cliffs of Dover?" He asked, then realized maybe those weren't right for a date. Didn't people go dine while courting? "Some restaurant, perhaps?" He remembered with a growing smile and slight excitement a restaurant he had personal familiarity with. "We could go to The Waffle House." He then remembered how food cost money and he deflated slightly. "…I just realized I have no money."

A little smirk on her lips, Alex whipped out two pieces of paper money and made them snap twice as she showed them to him. "If they have Waffle Houses in Paris, we could eat there for a month on this," she said, a certain note of playfulness to her voice.

Cas however had just thought of something else. Something better than the pyramids or the Cliffs of Dover or Waffle House. Something his Alex would love and delight in. He felt himself beginning to smile. "…I just had a better idea." He held his hand out to her. Intrigue played on her face and questions of where? What? were in her eyes, but she didn't ask. She just put her hand into his and he spirited them away through space and time both.

Tromsø, Norway

Paris was gone in the blink of an eye and instead of sunny warm city life, they were suddenly plunged into frigid darkness, the dead of night. What the…? Alex shivered automatically, eyes adjusting weakly at first. She didn't let go of Cas's hand. They were standing on a mildly sloping snowy ridge in what looked like the dead of night and wintery wind blew in whistles across a landscape devoid of civilization. Alex could see snowy mountain fjords cutting across the horizon opposite of them and down below them laid a vast, slow moving river with… her eyes continued to adjust… faintly glowing green water.

Glowing green water?

It looked like a reflection and Alex looked up, suddenly realizing what she was looking at—she took in a sharp breath, suddenly euphoric at the sight of the sky above. In the star-spackled black velvet the great northern lights twined through space magically like misty ribbons. Green at the moment, they were breathtaking, spanning over the entire sky, so vivid and surreal that it didn't look like it could be anything less than special effects. Thin pillowy cloud cover smudged the sky here and there and they reflected soft yellows and limes, adding to the majesty of the scene. "Wow… holy crap…" Alex breathed. Her breath made little puffs in the crisp air. And then it got even better. Like a time-lapse, the lazy movement of the lights began to speed up and rush across the sky, vivid purple hazes snaking through the green tinged hot pink at the edges sometimes. Alex gaped, held onto Cas, stepped closer without realizing it. "How are you doing this?" She whispered, wonderstruck. She tore her gaze away from the sky and he was almost smirking at her question, like he thought it was cute. "Oh yeah… angel," she said, grinning. Her nose was quickly growing numb and her jeans, shirt, and jacket weren't warm enough to stand this for long but the exhilarating display was too good to miss. She curled in towards Cas in pursuit of warmth, teeth chattering as she looked upward again; she was entranced but freezing—how was it so cold? It was July. "It's so cold," she said, and there was a mystified quality to her voice.

Cas put his arms around her, brought her against himself snuggly. He was warm, not shivering, and it made her less cold immediately. "The aurora borealis is only visible in the winter months," he explained. "This is sometime in January."

Wait… Alex looked up at the side of his face from where she huddled against him. "Jeez Cas—time travel?" She asked, taken aback.

He looked down at her and his eyes caught some of the northern lights off the water below. "I wanted you to see this," he said modestly in that plain but childlike way he had. He seemed timid almost, seeking her approval. "I thought you might like it."

He thought wrong. "I love it," she corrected with a grin and looked upward where the green and purples danced together as clouds shot forward in wind patterns. Time moved triple speed around them and Alex suddenly felt giddy, high, punch drunk on gulps of crisp cold air, the insane light show mother nature was putting on, the millions of vivid, sharp stars above, Cas's closeness. This was so much better than seeing pictures of it in a book or videos on the internet… the northern lights were so much more amazing than she'd imagined, taking up the whole damn sky—it was one of those experiences that almost put tears into her eyes as it thoroughly reminded her of how good life could be, how unshakable some things were. She felt peace welling inside of her in response to the wonders above. "God—I've never seen anything more beautiful in my damn life," she murmured in a choked voice. Damn.

"Neither have I," his husky, warm voice said beside her ear. Alex looked at him oddly, because he wasn't even looking at the sky. He was looking at her.

She rolled her eyes self-consciously, grinning and groaning at the same time. He meant her. "Ughhh."

Cas looked torn between confusion and innocence and even slight playfulness, maybe. "I'm merely stating fact."

In moments like that, Alex could have completely forgotten all the bad stuff surrounding them. All she saw was his clueless, hopeful little expression and it was so good to be with him again that she could just bust. "Stop," she told him teasingly, sliding her arms into his trench coat to hug his waist as she grinned up at him. She was the happiest she'd been in a month, dizzy and silly on endorphins and freezing her ass off but loving it.

His confusion doubled. "Stop?"

"Being so damn cute!" She said, chuckling now.

She wasn't sure if he were playing along or actually clueless. "…How do I stop being so damn cute?"

Breaking into laughter, Alex shoved him playfully. "Not like that!" She said, and he seemed confused as to her actions but had a hesitant smile on his face because she was laughing. And on a whim, Alex bent and scooped up a handful of snow and packed it into a snowball with a single cuff of the hand then tossed it at him. It hit his lapel and broke back into powder. He looked down in confusion and she threw another, boisterous. It hit the top of his head, scattered snow throughout his dark hair. Cracking up, Alex watched him.

Mystified, Castiel looked up at her questioningly. "…Why are you throwing snow at me?" He asked, seeming to withhold judgement until he knew if it were a good thing or not.

Alex fixed him with a coquettish gaze. "Why aren't you throwing it back?" She challenged.

Cas's handsome brow furrowed deeply. He looked at the snow, at her, then his hand. "…You want me to launch frozen ice crystals at you?"

Alex was prepping another snowball in icy hands and giving him a friendly you're dead look as she did. Surely he had seen this happen before in all his years watching humans. "It's called a snowball fight Cas, and you're losing right now."

He opened his mouth to protest and was promptly hit in the shoulder with another ball of snow. Alex gave him a challenging look, a big cheeky grin, and indicated the snow at his feet encouragingly. He hesitated. Really? His expression seemed to ask. Oh yes—really. With extreme reluctance Cas bent and picked up some snow, awkwardly packed it into a pancake (not a ball) then looked at her, waited, then very gingerly tossed it at her, looking like he'd rather eat dirt. The snow hit the top and side of her thigh with no force or speed at all.

"…that all you got?" Alex asked, unimpressed and totally amused. She waggled her eyebrows daringly. Cas, still not sure about it, making a face the entire time grudgingly did it again, made a snow-pancake and tossed it at her with no gusto, seeming to be vastly unsure of the point of all of it—so damn cute. Alex sidestepped the snowball easily and made a faux-surprised face, egging him on teasingly even as she hurled another snowball at him without mercy like a baseball (she had after all grown up with two wild brothers… roughhousing was standard, a way to show love even).

If nothing else, Castiel was at least becoming hesitantly amused at her antics. "This is a a strange custom," he observed, clearly thinking about smiling even though he was still perplexed. His comment inspired her to laugh boisterously… he was so wonderfully weird and forever bewildered and she loved that for whatever damn reason. "Is it some kind of dominance display?"

Alex threw her head back and laughed loudly. Leave it to Cas to psychoanalyze a snowball fight. Getting more intoxicated by euphoria by the second (and the champagne she'd had earlier didn't hurt either) Alex began to circle him clumsily, lobbing snow at him helter-skelter as he just turned and watched her, his trademark shy grin growing as she circled closer and closer, daring him to "get her" as she showered him with sloppy snowball after snowball. The knee-high deep snowbank concealed an uneven portion of the ground below and Alex's shoe caught on it, she pitched forward, tripping toward him mid-snowball launch. He very abruptly took hold of her, bear hugging her around the waist with one arm as the other curved around just under her butt—he lifted her up high, stopping her from throwing the snowball she had in her hand and keeping her from falling at the same time. She had shrieked in laughter when he grabbed her, but when he lifted her up and held her there with feet dangling above the ground, nothing seemed funny anymore. Her little snowy weapon forgotten, she stared at him breathlessly, forearms resting on his shoulders, her face suddenly directly above his, close enough that his warm breath hit her face when he breathed out. His eyes clung to hers and the moment became more intense automatically—he was obviously more interested in something other than throwing snow at her. The snowball in Alex's hand dropped away as she took hold of him by the back of the head with both hands and pulled his face to hers for a kiss that seemed long overdue.

Even though her skin was cold and everything was beginning to feel numb and dead, his kiss made her feel warm inside, made her shiver in a way that wasn't from being cold—his strong, familiar arms tightened around her in a way that felt protective and secure, he kissed her with notes of relief, tenderness, and love alike. Abrupt snow flurries, maybe from the sky or just loosely swept up from the snowbanks, danced in the wind around them, kissing bare skin and catching in hair.

Entranced with each other as they came apart, Cas slowly set her down to stand on her feet again but didn't let go of her. They were both speechless for a moment, gaze holding. "You're every kind of magic I've ever heard of," Alex breathed out before she could stop herself. It's just what she felt because think about it: He was standing with her on a mountain a million miles from anywhere, the northern lights were on fire above their heads and he had taken her through time itself to show her that… but the things he could do weren't where she saw the true wonder and magic. She saw miracles and marvels in his heart, his spirit, those eyes and the way they gazed upon her. His arms were still around her and she didn't want to let go—in fact, she hugged him suddenly, her chest tightening out of anticipated misery for the moment when he would inevitably have to leave again. She buried her face in him and her nose grazed his tie. "I've missed you every second of every hour of every day," she confessed in a stark murmur into the shoulder of his trench coat—it felt sort of pathetic to say that but it was the truth. She held on tight, one of her cold hands sliding up and grasping the warm back of his neck. She shivered, sniffed—it was cold as balls out here.

Cas reached up and took that hand of hers in his, pulled it to rest between them as he held it. "It won't be much longer," he promised heavily, but she heard a wavering doubt and worry there. What if this took years? Could they really survive on stolen moments like this? It was like slowly starving to death. His hand turned hers over in his, rubbed her numbing skin lightly. She was distracted out of her thoughts. His tenderness always caught her off guard anew because sometimes she forgot that Cas was more than the stoic and awkward angel who wasn't sure how to even use a fork. She was privileged to know this side of him. Like right now. "Your hands are so cold," he said in mild surprise, voice just a murmur even as he raised her hand to his lips, kissed the icy space of her fingertips with warm lips: first the outsides, then the insides.

Pulling back to look at at his face as he sent sparks flying with those soft lips, Alex's eyes drank in the sight of his furrowed brow, his hand holding hers, his lips pressing a kiss to her fingertips so reverently and sweetly. It was funny… he was being so tender and innocent yet she was suddenly taken by the urge to do things to him that were unholy and animalistic, carnal. Forget a date or more world traveling. She didn't want anything but them, alone, together, under sheets and as close as two people could get. "Take me home, Cas," she told him quietly, her voice thick and low and giving away her thoughts. His eyes swept up to hers, interest flaring in his eyes at the tone she used.

He did as she said and they were in the attic, in the current time again—July, afternoon. Outside, the lazy rain and thunder still gave concert.

Still holding each other, clothes steeped in arctic chill, hair full of a melting lace of snow, Alex kissed Cas again, one thing on her mind. She didn't bother being coy or initiating it slowly—the things she wanted to ask and talk to him about could wait—she crushed herself to him even as she let her mouth suck lightly on his lower lip mid-kiss. Cas, a little surprised at the forwardness, was left to keep up with her as she walked him backward, kissing his neck now and clutching at him, pushing his coat and pulling his tie sort of ineffectively (her numb hands felt very little).

As soon as they were close enough to the bed she pushed him down quite forcefully (and he allowed it, obviously). He laid on the bed with his feet still on the floor, his hands on either side of her waist and she paused for a moment to let herself just look at him—her hands braced against his shoulders. He looked up at her in rapt attention. "You seem very eager," he observed almost coyly.

She was, and she got slightly embarrassed at herself and how he just looked at her. "I've missed you," she explained, three words that were the truest thing she knew. Her embarrassment faded when understanding showed in his eyes, then sudden hunger that matched her own. He pulled her down over him, craning upward to meet her with a kiss that consumed her, startled her with the passion behind it. Oh. He had missed her too.

In rising frenzy, Cas grabbed hold of her and pulled her against himself so that her legs came onto the bed on either side of his. In a single deft movement he flipped them over and pressed her down onto her back, his hand caressing the side of her face as his mouth conquered hers in the sweetest war ever waged. His hand traced lower, sneaking up her shirt to press against her abdomen then ribcage. His hand felt so good against her chilled and stinging skin… he paused, drew back from the kiss, concerned. "You're so cold," he said.

She thought about flirtatiously saying "you can warm me up" but really, she thought she was at the sappy pun limit for the day. So instead she just pulled him closer, kissed him deeply, encouraged him to forget it and just continue. He did, breathing her in and stoking her internal fire expertly with every little wandering touch and soft sound his warm, sweet mouth let loose into hers.

One of his hands traced down, closer and closer to the zip of her jeans then suddenly swept down to cup her between the legs—a soft, strangled gasp of approval escaped her mouth. "You're not cold here," he murmured almost teasingly at his discovery of her already-blazing arousal.

"Shut up," she moaned, grinning as her eyes shut and he pressed another kiss into the side of her neck. Then his hand moved over her and her face screwed up into a silent cry of yes as she clung to him tightly. He invaded her every sense and overloaded her pleasure circuits as he kept touching her and then looked down at her with dark, watchful eyes to see her reaction to what he did. Two could play at that game and Alex abruptly slid a hand down his body to touch him too. His face contorted at the softest graze of her fingers there, then he lost composure completely when she gripped firmly through his slacks. The most delicious groan broke from his lips, inciting further heat between them both and his mouth came to hers again, demanding and giving all at once as one hand cradled her face and the other one fumbled with her zipper—he might have been having problems concentrating because of how she was touching him over his pants—oops.

And then, he abruptly stopped everything and made a sound of frustration that was not sexual. Even before he said it, she could tell that he had just been called away. No… she thought, devastated already, hoping she had it wrong. Cas looked at her regretfully, his lips soft and flushed from kissing her. "They're calling me."

Dammit dammit dammit was all she could think but willed herself to rise about disappointment. She nodded, accepted it even though she didn't want to, grabbed the hand he had on her face and pressed a kiss into the palm, a silent promise and I love you. Apologies swam in his eyes and she wore a brave face even though she worried about him already and was irritated at the shortness of the time they'd had together. She held onto his hand tight for the moment, focusing on him and nothing else. "Be careful," she begged him, hating this so much. All of it.

Cas recognized her distress and his fingers gently traced against the side of her face. "This will not last forever, Alex," he said, speaking to both of their despair at their lot in life. "I won't let it."

She nodded, forced a little smile for him even though that was what she feared the most. "I know." She brushed a goodbye kiss up to his mouth, throat constricting as she did. When they came apart, his eyes killed her. She had to urge him to leave before she cried. "Go, Cas."

And he did, leaving her laying on the bed with unbuttoned jeans and an emptiness that wasn't physical.

Two Weeks Later
Sioux Falls, South Dakota

A gunshot cracked the air and Bobby lowered his smoking pistol, squinted into the distance. He'd missed and he gave a sigh, glanced at Alex who was beside him. "Twenty bucks if you can do it," he said crankily, taking a pull straight out of the whiskey bottle that he'd set onto the junker they stood beside.

"In my sleep," Alex returned, cocky, sticking her cigarette back into her mouth and letting it hang out the corner as she took aim with her pistol for the empty can of creamed corn sitting on top of an old semi-truck hood. The pistol sounded and kicked and the empty can went flying as the bullet punched through it. Swaggering almost, channeling her oldest brother unintentionally, Alex waggled her eyebrows at Bobby, took a drag of her cigarette and blew smoke lazily, tucking her piece back into her jeans, acting like she was the most self-assured person in the universe.

Bobby shook his head, chagrinned and a little proud too. "I'll be damned kid, cleanin' me out. Must be those young eyes'a yours. I'm gettin' too old for this."

Alex, all show and good-natured pride in her work gave her uncle a sympathetic look as her cigarette perched between two fingers. "Bobby, we've talked about this," she said, for all appearances very earnest. And then came the teasing. "You will never be too old for me to kick your ass at target practice."

The older man shot her a hooded, faintly amused look. "I remember when I was the one who had the better aim," he said fondly, accepting his defeat but trying to remind her that she hadn't always been better than him.

Feigning over-thoughtfulness, Alex tapped her chin. "When was that, again? I can't remember."

That earned her a mildly indignant look. "You watch it or you'll be sleepin' out here in the yard, kid," Bobby joked—she thought. He then chuckled, letting his serious face fall. He patted her shoulder with gruff affection then jerked his thumb back at the house, letting whatever soft and emotional stuff that had been present disappear in favor of his typical resigned demeanor. "I'm gonna go get a brew, want anything?"

Hmm. Did she want anything? How about my brothers back and Castiel safe from harm and life back to normal again? Alex shook her head, squinting off into the salvage yard unseeingly. "Nah. I'm good."

Bobby's feet crunched away on the gravel and Alex flicked her cigarette away, eyeing it sidelong. Bad choice, yeah, but she was going stark raving looney here lately and the nicotine soothed her shot nerves. Dean hadn't called in a few days, was just texting still, no word from Cas, and Alex was getting ridiculously sick of books. Bobby kept trying to convince her to be patient but she was losing patience fast. She couldn't sit around like this much longer fruitlessly or she'd go nuts.

Well, the target practice had been fun while it lasted, she guessed, turned to follow Bobby back in. In her pocket, her phone suddenly went off and she pulled it out, stopped walking, the words on the screen startling her.

Dean Calling.

Wow, he was actually calling? Was something wrong?She picked up, anticipating his familiar rumbling voice. "Hey you," she said, cautious because what if something bad had happened?

She could hear ambient car-noise on the other end. "Hey, is this my long-lost sister?" He asked in playful confusion, and the jest set her at ease. Everything was fine.

A grin broke her face and she played right back. "It is—what, you finally remembered how to dial my number again?"

He chuckled. "Wonders never cease, right? Guess where Sam and I are."

Stumped, Alex said the first thing she thought of. "Uh… The Mall of America."

She could hear the smile on his voice, could picture him with one hand on the wheel as he held the phone to his ear and tried not to sound overly zealous. "Try one day's drive away from Bobby's and closing."

"And closing?!" She asked, suddenly insanely excited—was it over? Were they done catching Crowley monsters? She was gonna get to see her brothers again!? "Are you coming back like for good?!" She must have deafened him with her loud and jubilant exclamations.

"Whoa whoa, calm it down a little—" he said, obviously through a grin. He was laughing at her enthusiastic response, enjoying it. "It's just a visit, it's just a visit."

Dammit, she wanted it to have been for good. Oh well. She wasn't going to get down in the dumps that the big issue wasn't solved yet. She was elated at the news she'd just gotten, suddenly antsy and unable to imagine waiting a whole day for reunion. "I am gonna hug the shit out of you, Dean Winchester," she told him in what could only be called a deeply fond threat.

There was an affectionate chuckle at the other end. "I'll hold you to that, Mouse."

Author's Notes: And with this chapter, SRS has crossed the ONE MILLION WORD mark! Wow wow wow! Life destroyed. Insanity achieved. *Questions self deeply* I'm so proud of this silly little story! Thanks to everyone out there reading and supporting :)

So, obviously we are gonna get some Soulless and Dean next chapter, yay! As well as some angels we haven't seen in awhile… should be good! I sure am looking forward to Sam getting his soul back ughhh omg. Poor Dean and Alex.

I hope everyone is enjoying the fluff (and if you're not, don't worry, there's a lot of darkness ahead and you'll miss the cuteness I'm sure). Remember to leave a review because it really is nice to know people read this stuff I write hurrhurhrrr :D

Thanks to curlylapin for help with the French in this chapter! Oh, weird thingI was writing the Norway snow scene this morning and it started to snow outside for the first time this year… I'm scared. *Twilight Zone music plays*