zipper-suited sun god
"What the hell, Cas? How do you suggest we 'hold off' a whole squadron headed for us? We've got no ammo, not that it'd be of any help even if we did."
"I don't understand, Dean. This is what the last few months have been all about: you're an excellent flier, and that's all that we need. Fence in, this may get… complicated."
Against the backdrop of civil war in a distant country, a mercenary pilot and a mechanic hatch an audacious madcap scheme for desertion. Dean thinks is the worst lead-up to Christmas Day yet, Gabriel is criminally cheerful, Castiel is unwillingly aiding and abetting, and Crowley thinks he's the only sane man left — and it's upto him to pull the plug on everyone else's fun before it's all shot to hell and a war is lost.
"Gabriel's been found."
Crowley parted the closed blinds with a finger, watching it the rescue chopper come back with Gabriel, after two days in the desert and the base commander's cold prediction that he wouldn't be found alive. The stir it was causing didn't reach the base commander's office, because Kali's attention was already diverted. There was new information that the rebels were going to smuggle their tactician commander out of Ruritania within the week, so her only reaction was: "How many years and how much?"
Resuming his seat, Crowley didn't need to reach for the personnel file to know. "Twenty-six months, and he's in debt to the tune of a couple of thousand. Maintenance is expensive if you're going to keep bringing back Hornets with wings practically falling off. As you can imagine, his OPR is a thrilling read."
"How many is 'a couple of thousand'?"
"Four. That number keeps shrinking, considering the kind of big moving targets he goes for. He might buy his way out sooner than you think."
Kali pressed her knuckles against the paper of the map, which covered a segment of her office wall; it was pierced with coloured dots, noting the constantly-moving positions of the rebels and their allies. She looked away from it long enough to pin Crowley with the most withering look in her arsenal. "You think he's going to go from insolvent to four million sooner than I think? While wrecking planes every week and destroying his liver, not to mention how Balthazar matches the prices of his supplies with inflation? Remind me who you had to blow to get your job in Intelligence."
The slow whir-creak of the low-hanging ceiling fan was the only sound in the office. Crowley propped up both his booted feet on the edge of her desk, and smiled. Kali's glare hardened in loathing. "My job is to make forecasts, not to always be right. The latter just happens to be an occupational perk."
Kali merely sneered and walked forward, kicking the leg of the chair, and sending his feet crashing back to the ground.
One man and two officers watched Gabriel be carried away on a stretcher, standing in the shade of the wing of Anna's Eagle. A team had gone out to salvage Gabriel's crashed Hornet from the sand, mostly because Balthazar thought he could use the parts and Kali wanted what was left of the wreck to be burned so that the Ruritanian rebels couldn't arm themselves with the unspent ammunition. She had great faith in the powers of a crash to send aircraft up in flames, but she was also a firm believer in not handing out candy to trick-or-treaters just like that.
"He's going to be okay," said Anna aloud, with some degree of confidence that wasn't reflected on the others' faces. "If there was an award for having destroyed more planes than special edition porn DVD boxes, we'd be giving it to Gabriel."
Balthazar raised an eyebrow. "Really now. The crazy tosser landed in the desert. I don't believe he was carrying a bottle of Perrier with him at the time."
Castiel glanced sideways at him, but tried not to comment. "It's a Christmas miracle."
"Old Dean must not like that," Balthazar chuckled, clearly pleased at the prospect. "Probably interferes with his atheism."
"Dean? As in your old Dean, Castiel? Why would he even care?"
"Live under a rock much, sweetheart? Who do you think flew our dear Gabe back?"
Castiel pressed his lips tightly together in a thin line, and the look in his stark blue eyes might just have set the corner of Balthazar's shirt on fire. ("Flew?" repeated Anna, eyebrows knitting in suspicion.) It wasn't lost on Balthazar, who just laughed again. "Oh, whoops. Just meant that he was in the flying copter at the time too, of course. Can't be spoiling the movie before it even begins, can we, Cas?"
"Can I just see him already? I hear he's talking, so why isn't he also allowed visitors?"
There was a long pause before the head nurse even looked up from the paperwork she was filling out, and the visitor considered repeating himself. Eventually, she treated Dean, who was hanging in the open doorway of her office, to a deeply venomous look. "I'm a little busy, Winchester, so if you don't actually specify what you want within the next five seconds, I'll yank your entrails out through your throat and strangle you with them."
"Gabriel, Ruby. I want to see him."
Her lip curled at the name. "Gabriel. Oh yes. Our special… celebrity."
So much for professionalism and the Hypocritical Oath or whatever, he thought dryly. At least he was clear on Ruby's stand on mercenaries now. To be fair, it was unsurprising, because whispers, cold shoulders, and dark, sceptical looks tended to follow Gabriel wherever he went.
"Look, nurse, can I see him? He may be a FAG, but he's my FAG." He wasn't being disparaging, he was just referring to the Fighter Attack… Guy… who happened to fly a Hornet… alright, so he was being contemptuous, but he and Gabriel had reached a place where he could be.
Ruby's sour look lifted faintly. "Not yet. He has been severely dehydrated, concussed, and is lucky he didn't die of sunstroke. Which he managed to avoid by crawling into a long metal tube, which eventually also exploded. Smart moves on both counts. You're going to need to give us more than twelve hours to pull a Lazarus on him, alright?" The faux-honeyed smile that accompanied her words made Dean blanch. He could nearly see the fangs protruding past her lips. She antagonised him, and she enjoyed it.
He fought down his reflex to fight, and muttered, "Just, uh, tell him I came by, will you?"
"Sure. I'll just jot it down next to all the other messages I'm taking, since I'm the official secretary to the patients and all. Oh look, my pen's all out of ink, mind letting me use your blood?"
He got the hint. Clearly, this one just wasn't a fan of his company. "Just, y'know, one last question."
Ruby's scowl deepened to see that he had still not fled for his life and out of her hair. Dean was sorry to inform her that he wasn't that easy. "What."
"You used to take the presents out of your younger brother's Christmas stocking, and fill it with coal, didn't you?"
"I didn't have a brother. But if I had a stocking full of coal, I would have used to whack any guy who tried to crawl down my chimney over the head."
"For fuck's sake, you're back here already? Didn't I kick you out a while ago?"
"Yesterday, actually, Rubes, and have a heart. Cut a guy some slack. How's Gabriel doing? Has he stopped trying to grab your ass each time you turn your back on him— I mean, has he been restored to his fantastic, er, sunny disposition?"
"He's still out, and never call me that again, Winchester. And if you don't leave five minutes ago, I'll put you on my list."
"Ooh, scary. What are you going to do, practice your bondage gear on me?"
"No, but I will tell your brother about some of your particular… preferences that I learnt about from Anna, so good luck ever facing him again. If you managed to go home during the holidays."
Dean really did leave at that, snarling "manky bitch" under his voice loud enough for her to hear. Her answering smile was brighter than even Gabriel's if the latter had woken up in the lap of a busty angel. "At least I have a home to go to during the holidays," he said, even louder, but her answering grimace was of little satisfaction.
"I have a message for you, Dean. It's from Ruby."
The low gravelly voice enunciated clearly over the usual noise and din of the mess hall, and Dean dropped his fork with a loud clatter. He twisted around in his seat to see Castiel standing behind him, holding aloft a dinner tray. The Ruritanian armed forces were already limping by on the elevated version of a shoestring budget, and there was no officers' mess. Dean had no illusions about that tray in Castiel's hands being set down at his table, since officers usually tended to dine only with other officers. The spook was nice, as Dean had learnt over the years, but some things were unspoken.
"What did she say? Was it some kind of summons? Is it about— Gabriel?"
"No, she said a letter had come. Two letters in one envelope addressed to her."
The tiny bit of disappointment sank like a rock straight through Dean's insides, but a second later, he mentally kicked himself. It was obviously letter from Sam. Sam, who meant a whole lot more than a pilot. "Sure. Of course. Thanks, man. For letting me know. I'll go take it from her later."
"Actually, she gave it to me. For safe keeping."
"Uh, okay. Hand it over, then."
Castiel's face clouded with an exasperation Dean found inexplicable.
"Everything okay?" he asked tentatively, sandpapering down the brusqueness in his tone so that it sounded marginally more polite. "You were saying… about my letter?"
"Yes, Dean, everything is fine. And your letter is my careful possession. Please come and take it from me— later."
The queer, significant emphasis that Castiel was putting on made Dean's eyebrows rise in dawning comprehension. So that's what this was about. Subtlety, Castiel had it in spades, and it rubbed off on whomever he spoke. "Sure, no problem. I'll see you 'later' then." Nodding to indicate he understood the end of this conversation, Dean turned back to his food. He realised belatedly that Castiel was still standing over his shoulder, piercing blue eyes cutting a laser-guided hole through his back. "Er, can I help you?"
"Actually, Dean Winchester—"
"I have been looking for you everywhere, guess what I just found out."
Jo had appeared out of nowhere, plonking her dinner tray down opposite Dean, and sliding into her seat. Her sleeves were rolled back, and her hands were reddened with a vigorously-scrubbed look, like she'd been trying to get the grease off after a long day at the motor pool. She gave Castiel the most cursory of indifferent once-overs, but proceeded to ignore him. Dean gave her a distracted 'hey', but he was waiting for the other guy to finish. Or even start on whatever ominous-sounding thing he was going to say.
"We shall finish this conversation later," was what Castiel said, and he was gone. Very weird.
Jo stabbed the mockery of mashed potatoes on her plate and stared at Dean curiously. "What was all that about?"
Dean shrugged, keeping his mask carefully expressionless. "Nothing really, Anna needs me to look at her F-15. What's up with you, what's this big thing you heard?"
"Why would Anna send him with a message like that?" asked Jo, persisting. "I thought she was talking to you again. Or is it still awkward between you two—?"
"After we had that fling and I realised she was using me for thank-god-we're-still-alive sex and I was using her for I'm-bored-let's-make-the-bed-rock times?"
"You know, you'd think a no-strings-attached situation like that couldn't be awkward, but you never fail to amaze me." Jo grinned. "But let's face it: knowing you, it could be much worse than having her use another guy to courier messages to you."
Dean grimaced, shaking his head. "Let's not even go into that." He really needed to steer away any suspicion before it could form. Jo was nice, more than competent at her job, but not someone to whom he was especially close. Of course, he could count on one hand the number of people on this base with whom he was close.
To clarify, close for the sake of it, not out of necessity. Dean had no intention of getting too pally with these weirdo foreigners.
"So. What were you saying again, about suspension of disbelief and all that?"
(Well, define 'close'. Maybe he wouldn't need hands after all.)
"Oh, nothing much, in retrospect." Despite the indifference of her demeanour, Jo seemed puzzled over Castiel's presence at the table. "Hey, listen — that guy in the blue tie — isn't he, you know—" Dean just looked at her, and she frowned, lowering her voice, trying to convey her point. "You know, like a royal?"
"You really believe that? Some people will make up anything about other people."
"Oh yeah? Well, the stuff they say about Gabriel—"
Dean said nothing. Pilots were rarely wrong pinpointing someone's loyalties. "So, hey, you were saying, remember? Things that I wouldn't believe?"
It worked. The dark cloud cleared off Jo's brow, and she smiled, bolstered by what seemed like good news. "Mom wired about coming down to visit. Well, not here per se, duh, but she's flying down to the capital for Christmas, and maybe… you'd want to spend the day with us? Obviously, you should tell your brother to come too. Christmas is a time for family."
Sam was a JAG lawyer back home, and Dean was unsure about his holiday plans. "Sure," he told Jo nonetheless, thinking of sock-clad versus bare feet propped side-by-side in front of a toasty fire, beer bottles clinking together in a silent toast. I can't speak for Sam — yet — but I'll be there with bells on."
"Great," she beamed. "I'll tell Mom. I swear that woman may secretly love you more than she does me."
"Innit the truth."
Jo laughed, kicking him under the table. "Jerk."
Dean waited an appropriately correct amount of time after dinner, before picking his way out of the mess and toward the hangars. The gigantic lights were on outside, a strip of the runway distantly illuminated like a football field. He yanked on his collar in a subconscious effort to stay warmer as he crossed the supplies store, aware of how much he needed to be reacquainted with Jack Daniels, but at Balthazar's current prices, couldn't afford to.
"Winchester," called out a male voice from what sounded like the interior of the store, now lit by a single bulb. "You're late."
Think of the devil. Dean squinted, but could see no one. "And you're a gentleman. How the hell can I be late for something I wasn't told about?"
Balthazar stepped out of the shadows, eyebrows arched. "Are you sure?"
Dean's patience was being strung out like it was on the rack, and he was just not equipped to handle Balthazar's brand of accented smarminess tonight. He had a… prior engagement, and he didn't enjoy talking to this guy on any terms, anyway, so he was about to walk away, when it slowly dawned on him that they weren't alone.
"Castiel," he greeted dryly. It was as if the dude had silently teleported into existence. "Why am I not surprised?"
"Surprised?" Castiel blinked, cocking his head in that birdlike manner that had Dean gnashing his teeth. "Should you be?"
"Do you, er, have my letter?" Unsure of the full extent of Balthazar's involvement, Dean was committed to maintaining their cover story. Imagine his surprise then when Castiel pulled an envelope out of his pocket and handed it over.
Had the 'ruse' been real after all?
"It's alright, Dean, Balthazar knows."
"…That my idiot brother writes letters?"
Balthazar glanced blankly at Castiel. "I'm sorry, but I thought you told me he was evolved from the monkey. How does he fly anything if he's still figuring out how to use his opposable thumb?"
"Lucky for you I know how to use my opposable thumb to make a fist to smash your face in with—"
"Balthazar. Stop antagonising him. If nothing else, this is only proof of how committed Dean is to helping us."
"Really." Balthazar pursed his lips and surveyed Dean with more scepticism than what the latter found fair.
"Yeah, really, so now you done yapping and dancing around the point, or can we get down to business?"
"Business," Castiel answered quickly, cutting off anything Balthazar might have had to say. He produced a ring of keys out of the pocket of his trenchcoat, holding them up for Dean. "They're Gabriel's. He would want you to have full access: to his room, to his safe box, to his plane, everything. He obviously won't need these once this is over."
"Yeah, about that…"
"What, you're backing out already?" demanded Balthazar, voice laced with instant distrust. "Some commitment."
"Let him finish—"
"Gabriel could have died before we found him, Cas. It's some kind of miracle that he's still around. How the hell is he going to pull this off if he keeps going at his current rate?"
Castiel pressed his lips together, and examined the toecaps of his shoes. "Would you rather that we sit back and do nothing? Because I do not think I could let him endanger himself, without at least attempting to help."
A few weeks ago— hell, even a few days ago, Dean would have readily disagreed. No one could write him a check big enough to make him care about Gabriel or this overly audacious stunt he was trying to pull. Castiel was obviously quick to misinterpret the silence between them.
"I see that you can't either," he said softly, but Dean jerked away from Castiel's touch.
"Gabriel's plane is headed for the scrap heap," he said aloud instead, nodding in Balthazar's direction. "What the hell do we go for a trial run in?"
Castiel glanced at inquiringly at Balthazar, who smiled secretively. Dean rolled his eyes. "I have a feeling I'm going to hate you guys for this later."
"I hate you," growled Dean, ignoring the sight of Castiel serenely gazing back at him in the mirror. "You thought it was a good idea to go up in an unarmed plane and I can't even—"
"Please, Dean. You can consider this practice. This is a new experience for me," he added musingly, referring to the fact that he used to be the one carrying people in the backseat and not the other way around. "I'm not used to being a sandbag."
"Have I mentioned lately that I consider you insane?"
The reason for Dean's vitriol blinking on the long-range radar: little blips indicating bogeys approaching the horizon from what looked like over the distant dunes, where the Ruritanian rebels were lodged. They were up in Castiel's old F-14 Tomcat, a Navy plane that had Balthazar had procured under dubious circumstances years ago. Kali had pulled Castiel out of active duty after the third time he'd ejected himself out of a plane, and the Tomcat had gone to someone else. It was useful for their purposes because it was a two-seater, but the controls were alien in Dean's hands. The Tomcat might have been the father of Gabriel's Hornet, which Dean was more used to, but the older plane was already less easy to manoeuvre. This was especially worrying considering the evidence on the radar.
"You have, Dean," said Castiel placidly, but sounding a little hurt all the same, "and it is unnecessary. We time and room to turn around and no one shall know any better."
The radio crackled to life.
"Angelman, this is Ground Control."
"Oh fucking hell."
"Don't be redundant, Dean."
"Redundant? How the fuck are we going to explain what I'm doing in a cockpit?"
"I'll handle it. Ground control, this is Angelman. Castiel speaking."
"Castiel, this is Crowley, wondering why your desk is empty."
"I was wondering how you remembered that name."
"That's also irrelevant at the moment. Seven bogeys, inbound. Headed your way."
"I am aware of that. Shelf your overflowing concern, I'm headed back to base."
There was a burst of static that could have been anything from interference to an incredulous snort. "Stay where you are. Anna and backup is on the way, but right now, you need to stall. Hold the fort, but do not engage. Do not — I repeat, do not let these guys follow you back to the base. Do not let them get within bombing reach. Hold them off, mislead them, take them down if you still remember how to do that. Which is likely, considering that you remember how to fly that—"
"Understood," came Castiel's clipped voice, and he flicked the radio off.
"What the fuck, Cas? How do you suggest we 'hold off' a whole squadron headed for us? We've got no ammo, not that it'd be of any help even if we did."
"I don't understand, Dean. This is what the last few months have been all about: you're an excellent flier, and that's all that we need. Fence in, this may get… complicated."
Dean didn't reply; his hands felt like they had turned to ice.
"Incoming. Ten thousand. Visual in five seconds. Use your fear, Dean," said Castiel like he could see it etched into the mechanic's face.
They heard it then, the missile dropping. "Drop the chaff!" The missile burned right through. The light stayed on, stuck on the radar screen. "Still locked. Doppler-guided. Here it comes!" He didn't know if he was still breathing, he couldn't even feel his fingertips. It was spinning, that was all he could see. He flicked the switch on the joystick, the Tomcat banked into a steep climb. The missile was closer. The radio burst in his ears. He pushed, he felt the world move even though he was hanging in nothingness. The missile rocketed past under them, and they drove right into the stars over its snub-nosed always-seeking head.
There were days when Castiel hated his job, and there were days when he simply bypassed those levels of resentment and hated Kali. He hadn't been reassigned to Intelligence because she found him especially well-suited for the job, or even because she couldn't afford to retire someone like him once he had been deemed unfit for flying ever again. She put him in a cramped room with Fergus McLeod day in and day out because she needed someone to keep an eye on Crowley, and she probably hoped that mutual mistrust would help Castiel cancel him out.
Every day as he tramped up the stairs with the feeling of rising up a long, thin funnel, the visceral memories of smoke, flames, and breaking metal pressed on Castiel. It reminded him of the very last time he had slammed the ejection button in sheer desperation, aware that there was no hope of dragging his machine (a poor substitute for the Tomcat, which was in repairs) back to the base. The only alternative pressing against the cracked glass was death. By the time he had woken up, surrounding by sterile hospital walls, the next thing he saw was Kali's grimly smiling face gazing down at him. The third ejection of his career had effectively ended it.
On the other hand, she had been waiting for this opportunity for years.
Castiel walked into his shared office the next morning with some measure of dread, perfectly aware that Crowley would have questions that he wasn't sure how to answer. Last night had ended too late and with too many unwelcome memories for him to piece his excuses together. He set a ceramic mug filled to the brim with steaming latté on his superior's desk, hoping to cut off all questions at the pass. It didn't work. Crowley took a long gulp of the coffee, looking like he was swallowing with some difficulty.
"What is this slop? Toilet bleach diluted generously with drain water? I don't have to remind you I prefer a frappe, if you're going to bring me my morning drink."
"Balthazar says he's down to packets of powdered milk, and coffee is still being rationed. I'm told toilet bleach is also scarce, so it will only get downhill—"
"Alright, alright," said Crowley hastily, "no need to regale me with alternatives. Ignorance is bliss and all that." He watched, narrow-eyed, as Castiel shrugged off his trenchcoat, and flipped through the stack of urgent messages left on the edge of his desk. "Care to explain what you were doing in the air?"
Castiel didn't even blink. "Indulging nostalgia."
"Please, Cas. Between the two of us, you can cut the bullshit. That plane you took up was fresh off the repair line; in fact, it was just barely Code 2, and it was a two-seater. In fact, it bore an uncanny resemblance to your old Tomcat, and your old mechanic was seen walking away from it. I suggest you dispense with the tissue of lies you're using to wipe my face."
"It was Balthazar. We… he wanted— it was his idea."
"Uh-huh. Castiel, really, you've got to come up with a better story than that."
"Reality is unrealistic, Crowley. Balthazar thought, er, that particular Tomcat was so old that if it ever needed another repair job, it would have been a joke, so he wanted to confirm for himself… whether or not he should slice it down for parts. He asked me to fly it for the obvious, and also because he didn't exactly want to advertise that decision."
"Oh… right." Crowley tilted his chair back on two legs, enough so that he could pour the contents of his mug into the nearest potted plant. "And I would cross-check this story with Balthazar, except that I have no doubt he would confirm it to the letter. Whatever faults he has, no one's ever accused him of being an honest bastard."
"I'll tell him you said that," said Castiel with a carefully constructed air of distraction. "Now if this pointless conversation is over—"
"Yes, yes. Go."
Castiel picked up the first thing he found (his so-far-unfinished report on the events of last night) and sank down into his chair. He was exceedingly glad that Crowley was mentally two steps ahead; otherwise, a simple "What was Castiel doing in that Tomcat?" to Balthazar would have produced a wildly different cover-story, destroying the credibility of them both. Now to fabricate something in the report that would sound something like the truth…
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