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The Love Story of the Runner Up

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The story starts like every love story worth telling: at one in the morning in an alley behind  the only gay bar in the county. Officially, Miguel was taking out the trash. Unofficially he was giving up his latest attempt to quit smoking. He took a drag and watched the smoke curl up towards the crisp winter stars. It was below freezing and he had left his jacket inside, but he lingered anyway, leaning against the brick wall and listening to the muffled thump of the dance music barely curated by Luis, the club manager who worked as DJ on Tuesdays. Too much Gaga, Miguel thought and tried for a smoke ring. 

“Hello,” said the man who had not been in the alley before. 

“Fuck,” said Miguel who had the shit scared out of him. 

The man was white, wearing a button down and a loose tie topped off with a tan trenchcoat. He did not look like a someone who should be outside a gay bar at one in the morning, except in that he did look like a nominally heterosexual father of three looking to cheat on his wife. This was categorically not the kind of man Miguel was into. But there was something about him. (Isn’t there always? With men like this?) He stood very still in the moonlight. He watched Miguel as though he were the most fascinating person in the world.

(Six years later, Miguel is in a different city, at a different club, and he is talking to Paul who co-owns the coffee shop with Miguel and explores identities with a freedom and even whimsy that Miguel fiercely envies, as though pronouns were pages in a flip book. Paul is a she as of today and they are out celebrating that because she is also Miguel’s best friend for the last two years, but she has never heard of the Castiel affair. Tonight, warm with alcohol and twitchy for the cigarettes he hasn’t smoked for a record three months, it seems like the perfect time to rectify this ignorance. 

“So you saw a white man in a trench coat pop out in an alley,” Paul says, “and you thought, what, ‘I want to see where this is going’?” 

“If you get hung up on details like that,” Miguel says, “it will take a very long time to get through this story.”) 

Miguel brought his cigarette back to his lips, and watched the man watch his lips. “Club entrance is over there,” Miguel said and pointed. The man followed his finger and then looked back at Miguel.

“You are the most handsome of the men at this establishment,” the stranger said. It should have sounded like a pickup line recited by a robot. And it did. But damn if it didn’t work. 

(“He’s going to murder you,” Paul says.

“You know this story happened in the past.”

“I’m predicting the ending.”)

“Thanks,” said Miguel.

“I am stating a fact. Will you confirm that you are a gay man?” 

That sentence was decidedly less charming. The bluntness was as unsettling as the man’s unblinking blue eyes. The answer to the man’s question should have been obvious--Miguel was one of those men who could not help but be Out, by some je ne sais quoi always apparent to other gay men and cruel thirteen year olds, and Miguel didn’t know which of those two this man was more like. It was at this point that Miguel thought for the first time about how he was alone out here, where he would not be heard by his people inside the club no matter how much he yelled.

But Miguel raised his chin and asked back, “Are you?” 

“I don’t know,” said the man. “That is why I am here.” 

Ah. That explained that. This confession should have made Miguel feel less safe, not more--God save him from confused men in the throes of sexuality crises, for men so often hated being confused and turned it into the brutal certainty of anger. But there was something (isn’t there always?) about the stranger. The droop of the shoulders. The steadiness of his gaze, and the weight of that gaze that held not attraction exactly, but fascination. The man watched Miguel take another drag, and his undivided attention made Miguel feel beautiful in a clinical sort of way. 

Miguel should have gotten back to work. But the club was practically empty tonight, and Miguel was lonely and horny. Luis would understand. 

“What exactly are you imagining is going to happen?” Miguel asked. 

“I am in love with a man,” the stranger explained. “I told him this tonight. He suggested that I do not know what I am talking about.” The first emotion besides fascination rolled across the man’s face. Miguel couldn’t tell if it was anger or anguish; he was not sure if the man could tell either.

“Ouch,” Miguel said sincerely. 

“Indeed. He expressed to me that he is not ‘into’ men.” The man made finger quotes. “He advised me to find someone who is. I explained to him that I am not ‘into’ men, I am ‘into’ him. ” The finger quotes, Miguel had to admit, were challenging. “He expressed that this was impossible.”

With a bartender’s instinct for grasping the heart of the issue, Miguel asked, “Impossible to only be attracted to one man or impossible for you to only be attracted to this man?” 

The man in the alley stared at Miguel. “You are a psychic.” 

Miguel laughed. “No. Just six credits short of a bachelor’s of psych--so, nothing--and fifteen years of customer service insights.” The man did not look convinced. Miguel shook his head. “I don’t think I can help you, man.” 

“Castiel.” 

“Castiel.” I bet he’s Mormon, Miguel thought. That’s a Utah-ass name if ever I’ve heard one, and all of this makes sense if he’s Mormon. “I’m--”

“Miguel Sánchez,” Castiel said impatiently. “You share a name with a priest of the 17th century who made several incorrect assertions about the nature of divine healing. I would like to kiss you, firmly, on the mouth as a trial, and then if that is amenable, I would like to have sexual intercourse with you. You may determine the particulars of the sexual intercourse. I am unaware of my own preferences.” 

(“He! Is! Going! To! Murder! You!” Paul says emphatically. 

“This story has already happened! There is no murder!” 

“That is frankly impossible.” Paul leans back in her chair. “Please don’t tell me you sleep with this man.” 

Miguel is silent for a beat too long.) 

Miguel, as the blood drained from his face, asked, “How do you know my name?”

Castiel ignored the question. “Dean is stubborn and...stubborn,” he said, with a pause implied he’d decided to be kinder in his adjectives than his first instinct. “But, inadvertently, he has raised a compelling point. I am unaware of my own sexual identity. I did not have one for the vast majority of my existence. It is, as far as I can tell, a human condition.” He paused. “Also primates. Some types of penguins. More fungi than you would expect. Let me correct myself. It is a corporeal condition.” 

“Huh,” Miguel replied.

“I am an angel of the Lord,” Castiel said. “The brochures I have procured on healthy sexual relationships have led me to believe that concealing such a fact as my true species would be dishonest and undermines your ability to give informed consent.” Castiel paused. “I must also inform you, from my informal observation of hunters, engaging with sexual intercourse with me will raise your likelihood of severe bodily harm or even death. This often seems to be correlation rather than causation, but I feel I must mention this as well.”

(Paul, her hand over her mouth, says, “Miguel. Do not fuck this man.” 

“Paul, you know what is going to happen next.”)

Miguel, sorting through the wildest shit he had ever heard, latched onto one particular sentence like a man in a storm tossed sea might grab at driftwood. “Are you going to cause me severe bodily harm?”

“No,” Castiel, angel of the lord , said. “Other things might.” 

“Other things?”

“Vampires. Demons. Ghosts. Or others.” Castiel said this the way he’d said everything so far, so matter-of-factly that Miguel found himself, against all logic, nodding like that made sense. 

“Right. Right. Okay. And you know my name--”

“Because I am an angel of the Lord.” And there was--and this was insane, Miguel knew it was insane, but he saw what he saw--a flicker in the moonlit alley, like shadows passing. And the shadows looked like wings. Wings, coming out of the back of this man who didn’t look like an overly intense accountant anymore. Wings the span of the alley, and as much a part of the alley as the dumpster and the puddles and the starlight. 

And then they were gone. 

The cigarette fell from Miguel’s limp fingers into the puddle at his feet. Castiel’s eyes followed it. He stepped forward, so close Miguel could reach out and touch his back, touch the wings that weren’t there. Castiel bent down and picked up the cigarette. When he held it out to Miguel, the cigarette was dry and new like it had never been smoked. 

(Paul is silent. Miguel sips his cocktail. Paul was, in another very distant life, bound for the clergy, and she had been devout and believed and ached with love and fear for God who she was ready to marry in her heart despite the fact he hated all the ways she was. And now she is an atheist, and married to two people who could not be further from the distant divine, and still wears a cross. “You know I get horny for blasphemy,” she says at last. “But this is insane.” 

“I’m telling you what I saw.” Miguel smiles at the inadequacy of words in the face of wonders. “It was insane.”)

“You are under no obligation to say yes,” Castiel said as Miguel, against all better judgment, reached out and took the cigarette. He did not let their fingers brush. “However this evening I have surveyed the population of South Carolina. With the exception of Dean Winchester, you are the only person I would like to kiss.”

“Oh,” said Miguel dimly. “And why is that?”

“Because you are a good person,” Castiel said, once again like it was a simple fact articulated only to confirm its inherent truth. “Additionally, you are very beautiful.” 

“Oh,” Miguel said again. He put the cigarette behind his ear, an affectation he had never done before and would never do again. “Okay.” Castiel was still standing close. He tilted his head at Miguel. Miguel tilted his head as well. He stepped closer, and his body remembered how cold he was, out here in the winter night, and it noticed how warm this stranger was, how warm and solid and intense. They were the same height. Miguel thought he ought to look at the man’s lips, but he couldn’t look away from his eyes. 

“Are you going to kiss me?” Castiel asked. 

“Yes,” said Miguel, and kissed him.  

Castiel kissed like he stared: like for whatever man had brought him to this alley tonight, there was nothing so fascinating, so worthy of his current attention as Miguel. 

When they broke apart, the mist of their panting breaths mindling the freezing air, Castiel pressed his forehead against Miguel’s. Then he stepped back. “I would,” he said, paused, licked his lips, continued. “I would be amenable to more.” 

Miguel squeezed his eyes shut, thought about the strangeness of this man, this angel, this man claiming to be an angel who had shadows that hung off of him like wings and who knew Miguel’s full name and who said Miguel, who often didn’t feel like he was much of anything, was a good person. “I have to think about it,” Miguel said, regretting it as he said it but knowing common sense needed a moment to catch up. 

Castiel nodded easily. “I will wait. Will you decide tonight?”

How long will you wait, Miguel thought about asking, but did not want to know the answer. “We close in a couple hours. Out by three thirty, probably.” 

Castiel nodded again. “I will be here.”

Miguel looked around the alley. “Here? It’s freezing. Come inside.” 

“I’m not cold,” Castiel said.

“Come in. I’ll get you a drink.”

“I don’t drink.”

“So you’re going to stand in this alley.”

Castiel answered with the perfect stillness of his body, not so much an unwillingness to move as a readiness to stay. Miguel said, “There’s a park two blocks over.” 

Castiel heard this, nodded, and was gone. Was simply gone. As sudden as a blink. As sudden as he’d arrived. 

Miguel went back inside. Luis yelled at him for being gone so long and then went back to playing Gaga’s B-sides. Time passed. The shift ended. The money was counted, the alcohol locked away, the last stragglers--all of whom Miguel knew by name--gently brushed out the door into the night. Miguel wore his jacket this time as he stood in the once again empty alley and smoked the cigarette Castiel had resurrected. He thought, and thought, and thought. Then he finished smoking and walked to the park. 

Castiel looked like a statue in the dark when Miguel found him. He turned his head as Miguel approached. Miguel, who had done quite a lot of thinking over the last three and half hours, held out his hand, and Castiel, who perhaps had done his own thinking, took it without hesitation. With gentle words, with the strange responsibility of Castiel’s trust and good opinion weighing down upon him, Miguel took him home.

And what happened there belonged to them. 






Miguel tells Paul this. Paul props her head up on her hand, squints at Miguel like she’s trying to figure out if he’s joking. Whatever she sees there, it makes her shake her head and bring her empty glass to her lips. She frowns to find it empty. 

“What the fuck,” she says.

“Yeah,” Miguel agrees.

“You did not fuck an angel.” 

He shrugs a shoulder. 

“You did not,” she insists. 

“I can’t make you have faith,” he says and grins when she flicks a straw wrapper at him. 

“You didn’t,” she says. She shakes her head again. She looks back at Miguel’s face. She picks up her empty drink again. “Goddamn it.”

“You want some of mine?” 

Paul, who is a recovering craft beer snob and afraid of any drink that’s neon, says, “Absolutely not. You’re fucking with me.”

“No, I’m genuinely offering my drink.”

“You did not fuck an angel.” 

“If you want to get into the semantics, an angel fucked me.” 

Paul laughs. “Cool. Cool. You bottomed for a seraphim, that’s what you’re telling me.”

“I don’t know his rank. He could have been a cherub.”

“Jesus Christ, Miguel.”

“No, he was an angel.”

They laugh again, together, and when they’re done, Paul isn’t looking at Miguel like he’s crazy. That’s probably the best progress he can hope for tonight. He can see her trying to make this a thing she understands. She laughs again and says, “You have the weirdest hook-ups.”

Miguel should probably let that stand there. Instead, because she’s his best friend and he loves her, Miguel downs his drink and says, “Actually we dated for six months.” 

“You did what.

And he thinks about telling her--and he will, someday he will-- about the boyfriend who was rarely there in person but who came to Miguel in dreams, and who texted him paragraphs typed out painstakingly on a burner cell’s number pad, and who appeared on Miguel’s thirtieth birthday without warning, was there waiting for Miguel inside his apartment in South Carolina even though earlier that day Castiel had told Miguel that he was in Michigan. “I have been informed,” Castiel had said solemnly as he pulled Miguel into his arms, “that birthdays are important.”

He’ll tell Paul about the hunts Castiel told Miguel about, half work anecdotes and half campfire tales. He’ll show Paul the tattoo Castiel asked him to get, the one his mother glimpsed and had a meltdown about her beloved baby boy engaging in devil worship, and he’ll explain sigils he’d carved in the coffee shop walls during renovations, and the salt and the silver and the iron always on hand. He’ll tell her about Heaven, what he’s reluctantly learned, what Castiel told him one night with a bitterness that left Miguel cradling Castiel naked in his arms until morning. He’ll tell Paul about how Castiel always kissed with his eyes open. Even as he loved another man, Castiel made love to Miguel with his eyes wide open and it was always Miguel’s name (shared with a 17th century priest) spoken with reverence, formed like a sacred incantation by that precise tongue. 

But Miguel’s too drunk and the music (Lady Gaga. Again.) is too loud to explain something so strangely straddling the sacred and profane. He pulls her to her feet, to the dance floor, grinning. She shakes her head and lets him.




 

They were never going to make it for long. Castiel was too strange, too inhuman, even without the issue of Dean Winchester, a name Miguel became well acquainted with in their time together. Castiel knew Miguel slept with other men and had no issue with it; Miguel knew Castiel loved another man and had no issue either. You might visit a church, the most beautiful cathedral you could imagine, and ooh and aww over the stained glass, and marvel at the history, and swoon over the choir, but that didn’t mean you wanted to live there. That did not make visiting the church a waste or anything less than wonderful. 

The issue of Dean Winchester, however, did help end things. Arguably more than Castiel’s death did. 

Miguel hadn’t ever planned to speak to the man. He imagined Dean felt the same way. But  after a week of radio silence, Miguel called Castiel’s phone and a different gruff voiced man picked up. 

“You’re him,” the voice chewed out. 

“I’m Miguel,” Miguel had replied cautiously. “And you’re not Castiel.”

The man laughed humorlessly. “Cas is gone.” 

“What do you mean ‘gone’?” Miguel asked. 

And the man, who Miguel understood then was The Dean Winchester, started to cry. 

In whole, it was a three hour long conversation. Perhaps the oddest in Miguel’s life, which should say something after six months of a long distance relationship with a man who claimed to be (and who Miguel truly believed was) an angel. Miguel, the grieving boyfriend, comforted and was sporadically comforted by his dead boyfriend’s best friend who sounded more like a widower in an unconsummated marriage. They talked about Castiel, or rather Miguel talked and Dean offered sentences more full of silence than words, with every other noun dropped and peppered with some staggering homophobic sentiments that Miguel would have pushed back against in literally any other circumstance. They talked about Dean. They talked about Miguel. Dean asked Miguel about himself with a hunger that, again, in different circumstances could have been flattering. Or insulting. Why you was the subtext of every word; so was why me. 

“He said you said you weren’t ‘into’ guys,” Miguel told Dean. He couldn’t help but do the finger quotes. Castiel’s bad influence. 

“I’m not,” Dean said firmly. And then, less firmly, “I’m not.”

“Okay,” Miguel said. They listened to each other’s breathing, both a little ragged. 

After a moment of silence, Dean said unprompted, “When you’re watching porn, everyone looks at the guy sometimes.”

Miguel, who had a slight headache from crying and a larger headache from Dean, put on a pot of tea and considered himself lucky that he did not love Castiel, not the way Miguel dreamt of loving a man who in turn loved him back, because otherwise Dean being his romantic rival would be absolutely devastating.

And he didn’t love Castiel. Fascination is not the same thing as love. He mourned him anyway, with a keenness that took him by surprise in quiet moments. Miguel didn’t pray as a general rule and didn’t know if it would be appreciated for an angel with a contentious relationship with Heaven, but he thought about Castiel frequently and figured it was probably the same thing. 

Before they hung up, Dean (who had grunted several times at Miguel’s exquisitely sensitive and patient explanations of bisexuality) said, “He liked you, you know.”

“I know,” said Miguel, who did. He couldn’t imagine Castiel spending time with him if he didn’t. It was what he liked most about him. 

“He talked about you a lot. A lot for Cas, I mean.”  Dean was silent. “I think you made him happy. I mean. You did. So. I don’t know. Thanks.”

“You made him happy,” Miguel said. And then, because they were being honest, “And mad. And annoyed. Tired. I think you taught him the emotion of irritation. And pride. And horniness. Well. I helped with horniness.” Miguel was rewarded with a huff of something like laughter. “You made him feel everything. And he loved you. More than anything.”

Miguel didn’t know Dean very well (despite the hours of conversation he’d spent with Castiel dissecting the man), but he knew the sound of a man in silence trying very hard to think of a joke, or an insult. Anything that would stop the truth from hitting him at full force. 

“I don’t get why,” Dean said at last, and then he hung up. 







A year after the phone call, after Castiel’s disappearance or death or whatever the hell happened to angels, Miguel saw Castiel in his dreams one last time. They were in the alley behind the club where Miguel hadn’t worked for months (rightfully fired by Luis for “just the worst work ethic” which made it all the more surprising when Luis offered to be the coffee shop’s first investor), and the stars were clearer and brighter than they ever could be in the waking world. Castiel was there, impossibly solid in this dream world, and warm as the sun. Miguel knew him immediately. 

“Dean said you were dead,” Miguel said as way of greeting. 

Castiel cocked his head. He really did look more like a bird than a human sometimes. “I was. More or less. It was an accurate statement at the time.”

“You guys die too much.” 

“I agree.” 

“It’s good you come back.”

“I agree with that too.” 

Miguel embraced Castiel, breathed in the familiar smell of ozone and motel soap. Castiel hugged him with something more than arms, wings that would hurt Miguel’s eyes if he tried to look at them straight on. They drew apart. Miguel studied Castiel’s face, which was tired, yes, and haggard, but still as intense as the day they met. “How long have you been back?"

Castiel’s hesitation was damning. Miguel stepped further back. “A while,” Castiel confessed.   

“You son of a bitch,” Miguel spat.  

“I’m sorry.” 

“I mourned you.” 

“I’m sorry. I thought--I thought you would be safer without me in your life.” 

“Don’t treat me like some hunter’s girlfriend. Don’t tell me my grief was for my own good.”

Castiel’s shoulders drooped. “I’m sorry,” he said again. 

Miguel sighed and rubbed his head. He wanted a smoke. Because this was his dream, a lit cigarette appeared between his fingers. “Well, you’re alive,” Miguel said, and in saying it, forgave Castiel his tardiness, his careless infliction of unnecessary pain. 

(Miguel was rarely angry or even annoyed, and forgave very easily on the rare occasions he was. This was Cas’ favorite thing about him. Cas, without orders and buffeted by the horrible winds of free will, who had lived for millenia in perfect harmony with Heaven and now felt as though he couldn’t go an hour without making a mistake, had sunk so easily into the gentle understanding of this man. The simple ease with which he listened without judgment and accepted what was said. This man who had taken Cas into his bed and asked, do you like this? Or this? Or this? Let me tell you what I like, and you can tell me what you think. Who took Cas’ annoyingly limited hands and showed him without condescension or scorn how to hold, to touch, to read the body of a lover and how to ask for further explanations when reading was not enough. Who spoke to Castiel as if he were a man when Cas felt like humanity was utterly beyond his grasp, and who spoke to him like an angel when Cas was homesick beyond words. Castiel had tried to be worthy of such consideration. He had fallen short. That Miguel forgave him of this failing made Cas’ failing all the clearer.)

“I have come to break up with you,” Castiel announced solemnly. 

Miguel laughed. He couldn’t help it. “You died,” he said. “That usually ends it.” 

“I thought so,” said Castiel. “But as I am no longer dead, I thought I should make it official.”

Miguel laughed again. “Goddamn it, man. Break my heart, why don’t you.”

“No.” Castiel took Miguel’s hands. “There is nothing I want less.” 

They stood eye to eye, Miguel’s hands cradled with a sparrow in Castiel’s. “Is it Dean?” Miguel asked, and smiled at the tender hope that fluttered up in Castiel’s eyes. 

“Not yet,” Castiel said. “I wanted to take care of this first.”

“This?”

“Us.”

“I slept with other men the whole time we dated, Castiel.”

“And I loved another man. I believe he loves back now.”

“He loved you back then,” Miguel said wryly, and smiled deeper to see how the sentiment made Castiel falter. “This is goodbye then.”

“This is a breakup,” Castiel corrected. “May I kiss you?”

“How can I say no to that face?” said Miguel and closed the space between them. 

The real bitch of the thing, Miguel thought, was that even now Castiel kissed Miguel like there was no one else he’d rather at this moment be kissing. 

Then Miguel woke to the distant sound of beating wings and the early morning sun slanting golden through his window, and he felt, with one last burst of sadness, the weirdest era of his life slide definitively into his past. 







Miguel walks Paul home from the bar and drops her off into the loving embrace of her two lovely spouses. The cold air sobered him up some and he’s nearly walking straight by the time he reaches his own apartment, where he slides in as quietly as he can for all that matters. Luis has blasted his hearing so much over the years he could sleep through the apocalypse. He rolls over when Miguel climbs into bed, tosses an arm over Miguel without waking. Miguel holds his hand, rubs his thumb over the gleaming engagement ring that still gives a thrill even after seven months of Luis wearing it, and fumbles to text with his nondominant hand. 

The last thirty texts from Castiel are all pictures of seemingly but apparently not identical grey rocks. Miguel scrolls through, confirming that there is absolutely no context for them.

Castiel had told him once that Miguel was right: intense thought was not too different than prayer. More of a tickle at the back of his neck than full summons. Miguel likes the idea of that. He imagines sometimes it works the same in reverse, and he thinks he might be right though Castiel won’t admit it. He’ll feel a prickling in his scalp and hours later Castiel would text him--well, he’d text thirty seemingly but apparently not identical grey rocks where other people send thinking of you

Miguel texts slowly, unwilling to let Luis go, and sends, Talked about you tonite. Could you feel it? And then, as a follow up and with even more effort, Remind me to tell you how Dean defended his heterosexuality the first time we spoke. And then he tosses his phone onto the bedside table. If Castiel has a reply, he’ll see in the morning. Right now, his bed is soft, and the night is dark, and the love of his life is warm against his back, and Miguel, as if it was the easiest thing in the world, slips with a sigh into private and wonderful dreams.