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The Return Policy

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Cas wears gloves at work. Not many people know this, because not many people see him work. But if anyone is ever granted access to the rare archives—the Restricted Section, as the other librarians like to call it—then they might see Cas in his element. The gloves. The manuscripts. The careful way he touches the ancient paper, a father’s touch.

Cas is the Reference Librarian for the Rare Books and Special Collections Reading Room at the Library of Congress. He realizes it’s a mouthful, so he’s stopped saying all of that to those who ask. To most, he says he’s a librarian. If they want to know more—well, rare books are his life. He spends his days cataloguing, organizing, restoring and protecting them. He decides which collections can or should be digitized.  He makes sure everyone who comes to visit the Reading Room has been properly vetted and can handle the collection there with care.

Most of his visitors are academics. They come from universities all over the nation, sometimes beyond. Others write books. The man in the Reading Room today is neither. He’s a tall, irritated man with a federal badge.

Cas has already pulled the man’s catalog request. Federal Agent Matt Joplin. It’s from 1824, an unfinished version of what would later become John James Audubon’s Birds of America. Each page is several feet wide by several feet long—the birds pictured are life-sized.  The pages are lined with silk, the edges jagged and rough. It’s thicker than his fist. Cas lays it carefully across a book cradle for the agent.

“Thanks,” the agent says. He rubs his fingers across his eyes. “This might take a while.”

Cas smiles sympathetically. “Let me know if I can be of any assistance.”

“Yeah, sure,” the man says. He looks up. “Normally my partner does this. The research part of it. But he’s laid up at the moment.”

Cas thinks carefully. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he says. “I’m sure you’ll get ‘in the groove,’ so to speak, in no time.”

Something like a disbelieving smile crosses the man’s face and then is gone. “Maybe,” he says. He looks around the room, which is almost entirely empty but for a woman bent over a book of pictures by the far wall. Otherwise, there’s nothing but long tables, the dull glow of desk lamps, the rows of bookshelves, the plush, muffling carpet. “Really quiet here, huh? Like a tomb.” He snorts. “Or a library, I guess.”

“I’ll be over here if you need me,” Cas says. The main pulls out a chair and falls into it. After a second he shrugs out of his long black coat and hangs it on the chair behind him. Then he rolls his shoulders and opens Audubon’s book.

Cas realizes he’s still looking and turns away. He should be past the point, by now, of finding any of the library’s patrons or the rare books they choose to look at notable in any way. Nothing should surprise him anymore. He’s let people handle the oldest book printed in North America, the smallest book in the library (the size of a period), diaries of presidents, sketches from South Asia in the 1700s. He admits he feels a quirk of curiosity that a busy federal agent is currently perusing Audubon’s “elephant folios,” the birds pictured there as wide as the man’s head. Not to mention the man seems to have no idea what he’s looking for. He flips back and forth between pages with a frustrating uncertainty. His hair is very golden, appealing, in the light from the lamp. His profile, the slight snub of his nose, is beautiful. 

He doesn’t realize he’s staring until the man’s head suddenly jerks up and he looks over. For a second they do nothing, and then the man gestures him over.

“Is this book in any particular order?” he says. “Or the guy just did whatever he thought suited his aesthetic?”

“The latter, I believe,” Cas says. “Was there anything—any bird in particular—you were looking for?”

The agent thumbs the corner of a page before dropping his hand. “Let’s say that I found an old diary of Audubon’s in Pennsylvania. Let’s say he wrote there about seeing certain…birds that ended up not being published in the final version. But the rough drafts, they’d be here, right?”

“Which diary is this?” Cas says. “That sounds like it belongs here, with the rare books and special collections.” The man stares at him. “Sorry. Yes. To my knowledge, this right here is the rough draft of Audubon’s book. The only rough draft.”

“Okay,” the agent says. “Great. Only two thousand pages to go.”

The agent turns away, which is as good a dismissal as any. The man continues to pore over the book as late morning melts into the afternoon, as the Reading Room’s only other patron stands up to leave. Cas puts the book of photos she was looking at away. He covertly checks on the federal agent, who is kneading his forehead with his knuckles, looking exhausted.

The next time Cas looks over, the man is suddenly hunched over the book, his nose to close to the page he’s practically touching it. Cas slowly makes his way over, watching. Now the man’s got his phone out and he’s scooting the chair back in order to take a picture of it from above. He’s got a sudden, giddy lightness about him. He turns the page over and reads something on the back. Then he frowns. Drops into his chair.

“Oh, you have got to be kidding me,” he mutters.

Cas pads over. “Is there anything I can help you with?” he asks.

The agent looks up at him, considering. “So I believe the, um, Adobebun guy wrote a description of this bird on the back of his engraving. Stuff about its characteristics and maybe how to kill it since, you know, he was a bird-watcher guy and always shot the birds he found so he could paint them. Right? That’s what my partner told me, anyhow.”

“That’s true,” Cas says, to put the man at ease, since he’s talking pretty quickly. “Audubon was both an ornithologist and a skilled marksman, not to mention an incredibly skilled painter.”

“Okay,” the agent says. He gestures to the crabbed, faint writing on the back. “The only problem is I can’t read it. I think he wrote it in French.”

“That’s…odd,” Cas says, but, leaning forward, he can see that the words are, indeed, in French.

“So you see my problem,” the agent says.

“Yes,” Cas agrees. “You can’t read French.”

“Bingo,” the agent says. “Plus the writing’s barely readable. This is not my day. Not at all.”

It is late afternoon, now. The man smells of something pleasant. Cas pulls back the chair next to him.

“Lucky for you, I can,” Cas says. He draws a pair of gloves from the pocket of his waistcoat and snicks them on past his wrists.  He smiles briefly at the agent before bending his head over the blurred, old writing.

It takes Cas longer than he expected. He admits to himself he did it partially to see the man’s hopeful, pleased expression, the light in his green eyes. And it is nice to sit in the quiet of the Reading Room with the man’s presence at his side, his steady breathing and jiggling foot. Cas forgets about him, for the most part, for a little while. His fingers make a slight rasp over the page as he smoothes it. The writing is old and has not survived well. What’s more, it’s not just French.

When he looks up, his eyes feel heavy, exhausted.

“I translated it into English, as much as I could,” he says. “I’m not sure it will make any more sense to you than to me. ‘Attracted to flame, with eyes like candles. Wings long as a man is tall. Stronger than the might of a bullet. Can be…forestalled,’ I think.” Cas looks up. “This next line is interesting. ‘The method is within the diary.’”

“The diary,” the agent repeats.

“Probably the diary from Pennsylvania,” Cas says.

“Yeah, I know that,” the man mutters. “And I already busted my ass trying to look at it just once.” He sighs. “Okay. I can—I can have my partner try to take a look at it again. Maybe we missed something when we checked it out the first time. This…method, or whatever.”

“Maybe that’s it,” Cas agrees. The man is busy fishing his cell phone from the pocket of his coat but he looks up and he catches Cas’s eye and he suddenly smiles, a heart-melting smile, one that is no doubt calculated, one that Cas is no doubt unable to prevent himself from responding to.

“You were really helpful,” the man says. “Um, mister…”

“Cas,” he says. “I’m Cas.”

“I’m—Matt,” the man says. He holds out a hand for Cas to shake, Cas only belatedly realizing he’s still wearing gloves. Matt’s thumb dips below the wrist of one, hooking inside, the pad of his touch lingering over the place where Cas’s blood beats fast.

“Hello,” Cas says. He wonders if he’s embarrassing himself.

Matt smiles, wolfish. “I know the library’s closing soon. I’m gonna get out of your hair now. Cas,” he says again, thoughtfully. Then he shrugs on his coat and, with a last lingering look—at Cas, at the Reading Room, at the book on the table—he goes on his way.

When Matt’s gone Cas lets out a long breath. He goes to shut the book and then stops. He looks at the note Audubon left in the margins of his book, and then turns the page over. He wants to see what bird a federal agent would go through so much trouble to find.

It does have wings, Cas allows, after a few minutes of looking. But it’s no bird, that’s for sure. Dark and feathered, with humanoid legs and arms. Eyes as red as blood, as round as bulbs. And, almost ridiculously on such a menacing creature, two antennae, faintly fuzzy looking.

Cas thinks how strange it was for Audubon to keep a method of killing this “bird” in a secret journal. Cas thinks about how this particular engraving never made it to the final version of Birds of America. His eyes linger over the strange wings, the antennae, the human shape beneath the feathers.

“Mothman,” he says aloud, looking down at the painting. A thrill goes up his spine at saying it. It doesn’t seem to belong here, with the weight of thousands of years of science, reason, fact, in the library that Thomas Jefferson built back up again. It doesn’t belong in a life like Cas’s at all. He quickly closes the book and puts it away.

**

When Cas leaves the library at six, he plans to grab the Orange line, a few blocks away, and head home. That’s before he passes the sleek long car parked in the wet fall leaves just down the street, and before he spots Matt Joplin sitting in the front seat.

It’s only been a few hours. Still, Cas gets a thrill at seeing him, remembering the warm feel of his thumb against his pulse, the smile that felt as heady as a drink. When Matt sees him, he gives Cas that same smile, and rolls the window down.

“Hey, Cas,” he says. “Gotta talk to you.”

Cas comes over, his feet shuffling through the leaves, until he’s next to the driver’s side door.

“Hello again, Matt,” he says.

Matt reaches out and fusses with the lapels of Cas’s trench coat. “Nice coat,” he says. “Is it also from a rare, special collection?”

“You’re funny,” Cas says fondly. He brushes his fingers over Matt’s as he tugs his coat straight. The agent quirks an eye up at him.

“So I have a question for you. I had my partner look over that journal again and he did manage to find a secret entry from the bird guy. It was hidden in the lining of the front cover so he had to slash—” He falters at whatever look was on Cas’s face and quickly says, “Had to delicately remove the lining, a really, uh, careful, gentle process, like doing surgery, I’m sure you’re familiar with it—anyways, the good news is it’s not very long.”

The good news. Cas waits, but the agent just keeps on smiling at him, encouraging him. Finally Cas says, “Your partner can’t read it, can he?”

In a defensive tone, Matt says, “He’s really smart. He’s just feeling kind of under the weather. Slight dust-up on the job, you know. And for once he has no WiFi, not to mention he’s saying this French is like no French he’s ever seen before.”

“Because it’s not,” Cas says. “Audubon was raised in Haiti. In order to protect, well, whatever that method may be, he’s writing in a mixture of French and Haitian Creole.”

Matt tilts his head. “And you just happen to know the 1700s versions of both,” he surmises. Cas shrugs.

“Look,” Matt says. “I’m sure you have plans and I’m sure you’ve had a long day, and you’ve already helped me with my case today. A lot. But if there’s even a chance—like, I could pay you—”

“Yes,” Cas says. His heart is a bird in his chest. “I will, yes.”

Matt’s surprise makes his face seem years younger. “I don’t often get it the easy way,” he says. “Wanna hop in?”

Cas walks around the front of the car while Matt leans across the passenger seat and unlocks the door for him. Inside is spacious and roomy. It smells like him. Matt looks at him askance, then smiles at the steering wheel.

“Sorry,” he says. “Kind of weird to be doing this in my car.”

“Nice vehicle, Agent,” Cas says. Matt schools his face and nods.

“Thanks. So my partner sent me pictures of bird dude’s letter. And I have a pen and pad of paper here if you need it—” He reaches into the glove box and a pen and a pad of paper do come cascading out, as well as several drivers’ licenses. For a few seconds they just sit there, unmoving, and Cas hears him swallow. Cas carefully gathers them from his feet, and stows them back into the glove box. Matt seems to be thinking up and dismissing several things to say. His mouth moves around soundlessly.

“Sometimes I…go undercover,” he says finally. He clears his throat. Cas nods and takes the phone from his hand.

“This might take me a little while longer than the last one,” he says. He arranges the pad of paper on his knee.

“Yeah, no worries. Take your time,” Matt says quickly. Cas squints down at the phone. The lining of the book has a yellowish cast, and the ink is a color closer to dried blood. That’s an interesting thought. Normally his thinking isn’t so perverse, but normally fake federal agents don’t come to the Library of Congress interested in unpublished bird paintings of rumored monsters. Today is a day of firsts for Cas. He finds himself smiling at the thought, and then starts translating, the car silent but for the scratch of his pen.

He’s about halfway through when he realizes it’s hardly even light out anymore. The street outside is practically deserted. Matt himself is half-dozing in the other seat.

“We could, uh, go somewhere else for me to finish this,” he says. “I don’t mind doing it here, of course, but you seem uncomfortable. And the sun’s going.”

Matt reaches overhead and switches on the dome light. He looks faintly apologetic. “If you don’t mind…” he says. “I didn’t even get a place for the night, or anything. I’m heading back to Pennsylvania as soon as you’ve got this translated.”

Cas nods wordlessly and looks back down at Matt’s phone. Matt suddenly sits up next to him, stretching.

“If you need to take a break, though,” he says. “Rest your eyes, feel free. Could take, like, a fifteen minute breather.”

“Okay,” Cas says. He puts his pen down carefully. “Your name isn’t Matt, is it.”

“It is,” the agent says easily. He is an accomplished liar, that much is clear.

“But you have other names besides Matt,” Cas offers.

The other man theatrically rolls his eyes and doesn’t answer. He seems to contemplate going to sleep again. But then he turns his head slightly towards Cas, his eyes still looking through the windshield, and says, “It’s Dean.”

“Dean,” Cas says. He likes the sound of it. Rounder, fuller. It fits the shape of his mouth better.

“Yeah, don’t get too excited,” Dean says. “It’s just a name.”

Cas turns the pen in his hands.

“Your partner isn’t a federal agent either, is he.”

“Of course we’re federal agents,” Dean says, but there’s no real heart in it.

“Okay,” Cas says. “Is he all right?”

Dean stares at him, confused, and then says, “Oh,” and lets his head fall back into the headrest. “Yeah, he’s banged up. That, uh, perp got him pretty good. But he’s fine. Once I close this case I can go get him and we’ll be on our way.”

“I’m happy to hear that,” Cas says. He knows his voice sounds too fervent, earnest. But he means it. Dean seems like a good person. His partner must be, too.

“Thanks,” Dean says. Cas doesn’t pry any further, but he’s not ready just yet to return to translating. They both look out the windshield, the deserted street.

“So what makes a guy get a job at the Library of Congress?” Dean asks. “Seems like a question I’ve got to ask.”

“You work your ass off,” Cas says, bluntly, which startles a laugh from Dean. The laughter is like a blast from a furnace on a cold day, warming Cas inside and out. “But you also have a special…sense. One that helps you recognize value when you see it. You need to be able to know when something is rare, so you know how to care for it.”

“Sure,” Dean says. He sounds slightly—envious, maybe. Cas is a librarian, he should be able to come up with a better word than that. He’s looking at Cas’s hands again, skin naked without his gloves. He looks Cas full in the face. “And do you like it? Holding something and knowing its worth?”

“We don’t appraise books,” Cas says. “I’m not talking about monetary value. More like—history, knowledge. Memories. Thousands of years worth of them. Whatever I touch is, well, priceless.”

“Priceless,” Dean repeats. Maybe the word is ‘wistful,’ Cas thinks. Dean whistles. “Yeah, that sounds pretty nice.”

They subside into silence again. Cas reaches for the phone and takes up his pen. Dean shifts closer in the seat next to him, craning to see what he’s written so far. Time melts away as Cas shapes each word, each phrase, into something he knows better. When he’s done he looks up and finds Dean is already looking at him.

‘Well?”

Cas looks over his transcription. “It seems to be something like a…spell.”

Dean looks more alert. “I see. Go on.”

“To summarize,” Cas says, looking between the paper and Dean, “Audubon says he was unable to kill this particular, um—”

“Bird.”

“Yeah. But he found out a way to incapacitate it. And he believes if someone else could do the same, he or she might be able to do what he could not, and kill it.”

“So,” Dean says. “If someone were to hypothetically attempt to kill this bird…?”

“He lists several natural elements. Sage, coriander, yarrow power. Also, chicken bones. They are mixed with dead man’s blood in order to make a paste.”

“Okay,” Dean says after a moment. “That would be easy enough. Hypothetically.”

“The paste would be applied to the point of a stake. Only a stake, he’s quite clear. More, uh, manmade technologies do little to repel it.”

“Sure, a little pointy thing to use at close quarters with a humongous creature that can fly,” Dean says tiredly. “Any particularly kind of wood, for the stake?”

“None. He does make note of a Latin incantation.  I inscribed that for you, hopefully in clearer writing.”

“Okay,” Dean says. “And that will ground it, at least briefly?”

“Paralyze, it seems like,” Cas says. “Perhaps that’s how Audubon was able to capture its likeness so thoroughly before it was able to escape.”

“And does he give any hint whatsoever on what he thinks could or could not take it down?”

“I’m afraid not,” Cas says. “But I have several ideas.”

The corner of Dean’s mouth flickers up. “You do, do you?”

“It’s quite simple, really. If we were talking about the Mothman—”

If we were talking about the Mothman,” Dean agrees.

“What attracts moths? Lights, flame. That’s what lures them out. What kills moths? When they get too close—the very same. Light. Fire.”

“So you’re saying—”

“Lure him in. Stake him. And then set him on fire,” Cas says. Dean’s just looking at him. “Hypothetically,” Cas adds, as afterthought.

The kiss that follows is not hypothetical. It is very, very real. Dean’s hands come up and around the back of his skull and hold him in place, cupped in his palms, when he surges forward. His chest presses Cas back against the door. Dean’s fingers twist in his hair, drawing out all kinds of interesting noises.

The street is deserted and oh so dark. Somehow the seat is reclined back. Somehow they fumble over it, into the backseat. The dome light blinks away. Dean is above him, around him, breathing hot against his throat.

“All day long—been thinking,” Dean says. “That voice—those fingers, Jesus—”

Cas hears the metallic sound of his buckle popping open. He lifts his hips from the seat, lets Dean drag his pants down his legs. Cas’s hands are just as nimble. Like magic, Dean’s federal agent slacks slide away, imagined elsewhere. His hands on Dean’s hips. In the dip of his back. His hands, drawing Dean out into his hand.

“Fuck yeah, Cas,” Dean says. His hand joins Cas’s, wet with spit. Dean is so hot and heavy in Cas’s hand. He wants to see. He lifts his head from the handle of the door only to have Dean kiss him back, tease his tongue into his mouth. Dreamy, passive, Cas’s head falls askew, wedged between the door and the seat.

“Touch me,” he says. Dean does. His  hands burn down Cas’s hips. His thumb circles the head of his cock, teasing beneath his foreskin, too slow to do anything else but draw out more hoarse demands—“Harder. More.”

Dean’s hand leaves him. With a gasp of pleasure, he crushes Cas’s fist around his cock; his palms and fingers molding Cas’s grasp into a tight vise. Dean starts fucking into it. He is thick in Cas’s fingers. Dean’s breath grows ragged. He pets over Cas’s knuckles—gratitude—before repositioning his fingers into the meat of Cas’s thighs.  “Wait, wait,” Dean says. He pulls Cas’s legs apart. Lines himself up between them. Pushes them back together and rolls his hips forward, deeper.

“Shit, Cas,” Dean breathes. He thrusts in harder, his dick riding into that hot place pressed so tight. Cas’s fingers clench in Dean’s shirt. Dean’s stomach drags over his cock. Dean is in his arms and he is panting, he is so thick and so close between Cas’s legs and he stays so still for Dean, so tight, and feels Dean push in again and again until he is sobbing out a breath like relief, coming hot and wet and apart; Dean comes apart for him so lovely. He trembles against Cas, hips still circling in a vague way, and then he sits up and pushes Cas’s legs apart again.

Cas follows him with a come-wet finger circling his hole, and Dean’s warm, generous mouth sliding down over him. He grabs onto what he can—one hand, the back of Dean’s headrest; the other, the back of Dean’s head. Dean leans into his touch and keeps him there, on the bed of his tongue, before drawing away.

“Wish we could do more,” Dean says after a minute. “Wish I could fuck you.”

Cas nods in a muzzy way. “You could.”

Dean laughs. Cas feels Dean slide his cheek up over his stomach, over his chest. He kisses over the sweaty tendons in Cas’s throat. “Can’t, though. Gotta get back to the grind.” His face lifts away. “Gotta get back to the job.”

Cas sighs when he hears Dean start shifting around for his clothes. When Dean sits back on his knees Cas is able to pull his pants up, buckle his belt. His coat has been flung into the front seat. He snags the sleeve of it, reclaiming it. The windows are fogged over  now. The air is warm.

They sit in silence for a moment and then Cas cracks open the back door and eases out of it. Dean follows him headfirst. They stand by the car for a moment, looking at each other.

“I want to say thanks for everything, but I don’t want to sound hokey,” Dean says. His head jerks back to indicate the backseat. “Thanks for helping me, in there and out here. You spent hours on that translation, and…you didn’t have to.”

“I was happy to,” Cas says. “Good luck, Dean. In Pennsylvania. And elsewhere.”

Dean nods. His throat seems to work around a word, bobbing up and down, but he doesn’t say anything. Finally Cas leans forward and kisses him, just once, on the mouth. He can see Dean’s face this time when he does. He likes the way Dean closes his eyes when he does. He looks almost happy.

Cas turns his collar up against the Fall chill. He thinks he wants to remember Dean like that, almost happy, and it’s almost enough. But he turns around for a last look before he turns the corner of the block, and by then, the black car is gone.

**

Two Months Later

Winter always seems to bring life and people to the Reading Room. The academics come in, as if blown by the December wind, to pore over the fusty old books that Cas loves so much, to turn pages that haven’t been turned in years, decades.

Cas, much like those who come to the Reading Room, normally finds what he is looking for in documents from the past. His questions and interests have hardly ever lain in the present. So it’s been a change for him, when he gets home after six, to tune into the evening news after dinner. At first it was to see if anything ever came from that whole federal agent business. He was half-afraid of any news that would confirm what he had couched in terms of hypotheticals—news of strange flying creatures, dead or alive, or arrested fake federal agents, or the death of a John Doe under mysterious circumstances.

In a way, then, he’s glad he hasn’t seen anything. It probably means that he did his job well, as Cas had suspected, and left nothing behind. Cas prefers this train of thought. Sometimes he worries, of course, about the things that do not make the news. Somehow, it helps to watch more news. It distracts him. And it informs him, although not in the ways he’d initially been anticipating.

Since meeting him, Cas has become more cognizant of worlds that exist beyond the scope of his beloved Reading Room. He has always been aware of these other worlds, of course, in the way he is aware that there a next page in a book, even if he hasn’t read it yet. The magical world. The supernatural world. When he thought about them at all, he thought they were as dead, as old, as the pages of the books they were sometimes referenced in—like the children’s book of Aesop’s Fables in the collection, from 1467, illustrated on woodcuts. The beings in there—the witches and wolves—were threats in a dreamlike way, long dead, their power leeched by time.

Cas has always been open to new things. The news is incredibly edifying in that regard. Just last week he’d watched a bit about a tragic death in New Jersey. Three teenage boys drove off the road and into a pond. Initial reports hinted at drunk driving but, on the last day of news coverage—close-ups of bouquets on the shore of the water, cards fluttering in the breeze—it was released that their blood-alcohol level was zero. Reckless driving was the new theory. Boys being boys.

Cas has his own theory. He’s been educating himself on sirens.

When Cas carefully puts a periodical from the early 1800s onto a cradle, he is not paying attention. When he brings it over to a table at the far corner of a room, his eyes take in a black long jacket, wide shoulders, without really seeing. It’s not until he places the cradle in front of the man that he realizes why his heart is beating fast and wild, already understanding.

“Dean,” Cas says blankly. “Or should I say, Federal Agent…”

“Greg,” Dean says. He snorts. “Greg Van Halen.” His hand brushes against Cas’s on the edge of the table. “How you been, librarian?”

“I’ve been fine,” Cas says. Dean furrows his brow, his smile wilting a bit. Cas can’t understand the sudden freeze in his voice himself. He’s thought about Dean often. He thinks about Dean as he was in the Reading Room and as he was in the backseat of his car. Cas understood the parameters of their day together quite clearly. Seeing Dean again, here in the Reading Room, simply does not make sense.

“Are you…are you here on a case, Agent?” Cas says. He tries to compose himself, gripping the edge of the table with his fingers.

“Uh, yeah, kinda,” Dean says. “In my line of work, I guess you would say I just closed a case, and I’m starting my next one.” He turns his face fully up to Cas. It’s only then Cas sees the long red line that runs from his temple to the bolt of his jaw.

Cas’s hand comes up to hover in the air over Dean’s cheek. “What happened?”

Dean bats at his hand. “Put that away, will you?” he says sourly. “It’s nothing.”

Cas reluctantly draws away. He waits for Dean to dismiss him, to turn to the periodical—he remembers last time, the energy rolling off of Dean, his single-minded focus. But Dean sits loosely, at ease, in the chair.

“Is your partner hurt?” Cas asks gravely.

“What? No, not at all,” Dean says. “Not last time I checked.”

“I thought you said he was the one who normally does the research,” Cas says.

A few things happen then. A blush blooms red up Dean’s face in a way that seems to surprise him just as much as it surprises Cas. He fishmouths at Cas for a moment. For a moment he seems poised to burst up, storm out. Cas braces himself for Dean to leave. But then Dean slumps back into his chair and gets an uncharacteristically bashful look on his face.

“Gotta good memory, Cas,” he says. He raps his knuckles on the table. “My partner went on ahead to check out a potential case in Virginia, see if it was anything up our alley. I stayed behind to tie up some loose ends.” He looks up, shrugs. “Happened to be in the neighborhood.”

Cas nods. He pretends, like Dean does, that Dean’s word mean only what they mean, nothing more. He doesn’t ask about the periodical that Dean has yet to look at, that he probably chose at random from the Rare Books card catalog in order to have a reason to come into the Reading Room. He doesn’t want to do anything, now, that would make Dean want to leave.

He sits down next to Dean. Leans forward so his voice only carries to him.

“And your other case? The one in Pennsylvania?”

Dean quirks a smile. “It’s been, uh, closed. Successfully.”

“Good,” Cas says. “I’m glad. I’ve been watching the news—I didn’t ever see anything about it.”

“What, did you expect a headline? ‘Fake federal agent kills giant moth?’” Dean laughs, but his laughter has a slight edge to it.

“No,” Cas says, stung. “Of course not. I was looking for something…unexplainable. A mysterious fire in remote Pennsylvania, something like that. Something that would show me you were there.”

Dean has a strange look on his face. He glances around the Reading Room and then back to Cas. “You been watching the news a lot, then, since I left? Been keeping up to date on strange occurrences?”

“Yes,” Cas says.

“Oh yeah? What have you found?” Dean’s voice is light, curious.

 “There’s been one story on the news lately. In New Jersey.” Swift recognition crosses Dean’s face, but he says nothing, so Cas continues. “Three boys driving the back roads. Even though they weren’t drinking, they somehow end up in a pond fifty feet off the road, far enough into the water for the car to be completely submerged. They all drowned.”

“And you don’t think this happened by chance,” Dean says.

“No.”

Dean leans closer. “So what do you think caused it, then?”

Cas can’t fight down the compulsion to answer, to prove himself to Dean. “I thought, maybe, a siren. According to the lore, they were creatures who would draw men—or teenage boys—to the water, where they’d be killed. Anyone who hears a siren’s song is helpless to resist it.”

Dean nods like Cas just proved something. Then, to Cas’s surprise, he starts to stand up. Cas grabs his arm.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m leaving,” Dean says.

“But—”

“Sirens don’t go singing for their male-order Happy Meals, okay? Just because you read that in a book somewhere, it doesn’t make it true. Sirens are nasty pieces of work that try to seduce you, yes, with the face of someone you want. The face of anyone you want. They don’t hang around in a pond waiting for you. They find you and seduce you, and you know what they do then? They don’t kill you. They drive you so wild with love for them you willingly kill everyone you’ve ever cared about. And then they leave you.”

Dean grabs Cas’s chair by the seat of it, right between Cas’s legs. Cas gasps, but Dean’s intention is only to swiftly yank his chair forward another few inches, so that he’s whispering directly against Cas’s ear.

“You don’t know the first thing about sirens.  You didn’t even know it was possible that I could be one, right now. Because you’ve wished that I would come back, right? Because I showed you a hint of the nasty, evil monsters that live under the bed, and then I left. Did you want to see this face again? Craved that walk on the wild side?” His hand is still clenched tightly in the wood between Cas’s thighs. Cas stares straight ahead, over Dean’s shoulder, and doesn’t say anything. “You wouldn’t know how to tell if I was a siren. And, if by some stroke of luck you figured that out, you wouldn’t know the first thing about killing me, because you don’t know shit, Cas.”

There’s a silence where all Cas hears is the rustle of a page being turned elsewhere in the room, Dean’s close breathing. He can’t think of what to say. Dean is dangerous. Even with knowing Dean’s profession, it’s the first time the thought’s occurred to him.

Dean speaks first.

“I’m sorry I ever dragged you into this mess,” he says—practically spits out. “I should have known better. Shoulda known better than to come back. Stop watching the news, Cas. Stop trying to look for signs, to see what isn’t there. Go back to your normal life. Because sometimes accidents are just accidents, you got that?”

Cas opens his mouth, but Dean jerks the chair again, in warning.

“You know how I know? Because I went to Jersey, and it was nothing. Because that’s my life, looking for the bumps in the night. And you don’t need to become some suspicious, paranoid fucker like me—you don’t need to become someone who starts looking at every other person as a potential victim, and every freak accident as a potential monster. You don’t need to become some guy who cheats, lies, and swindles in order to make ends meet; you don’t need to become just another worthless, conscienceless soldier who goes haring across the country every time you catch a whiff of demon blood.”

He stands up.

“Sometimes accidents are just accidents, Cas. So I want you to forget this, forget me. You don’t want my life. Go home. Go to bed. And you wake up in the morning and come here with your books and your table lamps and your reading room, you hear? This, right here, this is where you belong.”

Cas, still sitting, looks up at him. Dean’s green eyes are hard as flint. His mouth is a thin, disciplined line. Dean doesn’t bother to say goodbye. He stands up and strides out. No one looks up from their studies, their pages before them. The quiet resumes, loud as ever. It was like Dean was never even there.

**

Two Weeks Later

Part of Cas’s job is to be a guardian. It’s up to him to help protect the millions of books in the library.

So that’s why Cas isn’t only knowledgeable about the Civil War, for instance, and the archived documents from that time period; there are also names that he knows as well as him own. Names like Denning McTague, or Howard Harner, people whose greed tried to turn that knowledge into profit. It wasn’t under his watch that people such as them had stolen priceless Civil War documents and tried to sell them for profit, but Cas has learned his lesson nonetheless. He has to watchful and vigilant. And he has to be patient, and wait and hope that somehow, someway, what was stolen will somehow be returned to him.

Cas’s life is his job, and he does his job very well.

It is mid-December now. Cas is thinking, as he turns off the lamps in the Reading Room, that he would very much like to go home and brew tea and—a guilty pleasure of his—read something written after the turn of the century. The room is empty but for him, silent expect for the click of the lamps as they go out. He turns to go and immediately runs into something—a body—that has somehow crossed the carpeting, entered the room, entered the Library itself, even though it is after five and closed. Cas inhales, surprised.

“Hey, don’t yell, okay? It’s me.” It’s dark in the room but for the red illumination of the EXIT sign, but Cas knows whose voice it is.

“I won’t yell,” he says stiffly, taking a step back. From what he can tell, Dean isn’t wearing his federal agent getup. He is wearing jeans and a bulky shirt, he thinks he can see a plaid pattern to it. On his feet are heavy work boots. It is, Cas thinks, Dean’s real uniform.

Dean doesn’t say anything, just stands there. Cas wonders what he is looking at.

“You shouldn’t be here,” Cas says. “You’re trespassing.”

“I know.”

“And you’ve made it very clear that you—that I—shouldn’t have anything to do with each other.”

“I know.”

Dean’s acquiescence is too easy. Cas falls silent again, the room returning to its library hush.

Finally, “Why are you here, Dean?”

“I need your help.” Dean does not sound very happy with himself as he says it.

“No,” Cas says. “Absolutely not.”

“Cas—”

“I’ve already helped you. I did all that I could. And then you pushed me—”

“I know, I know—”

“Pushed me away, and now you come back again. You shouldn’t have made the drive. You must’ve known my answer.”

It is gratifying to hear Dean make a noise of frustration and turn away, pacing the floor. He runs his hands through his hair and comes back.

“Cas—”

“There’s nothing you can say that could make me—”

“Does the name John Beckley mean anything to you?”

Cas was prepared to throw him out. He was even prepared to call security—the security Dean has somehow snuck past—in order to make sure. It is no fair, then, for Dean to bring up that name in particular.

“John Beckley, the first Librarian of Congress? That John Beckley?”

“That would be him,” Dean says easily. Cas makes out the white of Dean’s smile. Smug. “So. I need your help.”

**

Dean briefs Cas by the light of a reading lamp, sitting at one of the long tables. Cas is already mostly informed.

John Beckley, first Librarian of Congress back in the library’s conception in the early 1800s, had only one child who survived past infancy, Albert.

Albert, Dean says, was a bit of a ne’er-do-well, couldn’t live up to the heights his father achieved, but things started turning around after his famous father died and he inherited his father’s five thousand acres, now in West Virginia.  This was where Albert thrived, becoming successful, rich, and becoming mayor of the town that was eventually named after him.

“So basically we have a son who was pretty much a black eye for his father suddenly turn it all around after his father dies,” Dean says. “Everything’s a silver lining. He wasn’t even supposed to get his father’s estate, because his father bequeathed to the government. And yet suddenly, after years of litigation—boom, it falls into his lap. Boom, he meets a hot colonial girl and gets married. Children, money, mansion, status. He’s got it all.”

“And you think something about this was…not normal,” says Cas, who’s been treading lightly on a topic he knows Dean is touchy about.

“Well, yeah. Because something weird was going on. Albert was really getting busy. Had ten children with his wife, and all ten of them turned out really strange. Local town lore makes them out to be these creepy Uncanny Valley kind of people. And after the last kid turns eighteen, Albert suddenly announces that he knows he’s going to die on his birthday and, you guessed it, he does.”

“Murder?” Cas says. “Suicide?”

“Peacefully in his sleep, of course,” Dean says.

“Okay,” Cas says. “Perhaps suspicious; it also happened over one hundred and fifty years ago. Tell me where I come in.”

Dean rolls his eyes. “Hold your pants on; I’m getting to it. So come to find out that Founders Day in Beckley is celebrated December 16th—today. And right around Founders Day, every decade, a child goes missing from town. They’re always recovered, alright, and it’s pretty much written off that the kid just wandered off, got lost, nothing to worry about. But the family always says there’s something…off about the kid afterwards.”

“Off, how?”

“Like they don’t have a soul,” Dean says. And then, “So this Founders Day is, of course, exactly a decade since the last kid’s disappearance. Which means sure as shit there’s another kid on the docket.”

“You’re afraid another kid’s going to go missing,” Cas surmises.

“Another kid already has,” Dean says. “Todd Weber. Eight years old. Cute kid. We’ve been tearing Beckley up for the past four days, trying to find something—anything—that would prevent this from happening. Did the whole normal procedure.”

“Which is…”

Perhaps it is because he needs Cas’s help—Dean is surprisingly honest. “Visited Albert Beckley’s grave, doused it in kerosene. That was before Todd went missing, too. Something’s keeping his spirit around, preying on kids. And then we realized we had a roadblock.” He gestures to the room at large. “Albert’s dad being the first Librarian of Congress, and everything, almost all Albert’s stuff—documents, journals—they’re not in Beckley. They’re here, ‘cause they’re historically relevant or whatever. You’re basically sitting right on them.”

This is what Cas has been waiting for—after all, Dean has not come back to see Cas. He has come to call in a favor, to use Cas’s connections. Perhaps at some level Cas feels slighted by this, but at the moment he intrigued, even excited. He is already itching to comb through the records and retrieve every dusty scrap of parchment, every sepia-toned photograph, connected with the first Librarian’s son.

Only one thing is keeping him back. He is thinking of Dean’s words—“doused it in kerosene.”

“Dean,” he says. “I’ll help you, but only under one condition. Nothing can leave the premises; nothing can be destroyed. You have to promise me.”

“I promise,” Dean says, appropriately sincere.

Twenty minutes later, they’re in the archives. Luckily with Cas’s key card he gains easy access, and they don’t spot anyone on their way there, either. The room is huge, fluorescently lit, and filled with hundreds of metal shelves filled with hundreds more boxes of documents. Dean remarks that it’s like being inside a filing cabinet; Cas, who’s trying to find row 583, ignores him.

It is in the archives that Cas realizes he has another condition. He scowls when he sees Dean handling a scarred leather album of Beckley’s with his naked hands. He reaches into his pocket and thrusts his extra pair of gloves at Dean. 

“Have some care,” he says.

You—have some…care,” Dean mutters mutinously as soon as he turns away,  but at least he puts them on.

Cas sits down on the tiled floor, carefully paging through Albert’s journal with the tips of his gloved fingers. Unfortunately, Albert’s journal is more like a twenty-first century day planner. Plenty of notations about dinner parties, mayoral responsibilities, and so forth. He talks about surveying the site of his future mansion in terms of strict measurement—one and half acres for the house and the gardens, not a foot more or less.  Nothing, as far as Cas can tell, that speaks to the desire to abduct children.

“Huh,” Dean says, from next to him. “Check this out.” He slides down next to Cas and puts the photo album between him. He flips a page back and then forth again. “There’s Alfred Jr. in 1852, and there in 1853. 1852. 1853. See a difference?”

There is one, not that Cas can put his finger exactly on it. In the first picture, Alfred Jr. is a young boy with carefully parted hair. His face is unsmiling, as was the tradition, but he seems nonetheless boyish, young. In the next picture, taken only a year later, there’s something ominously vacant about him. Cas looks closer at the boy’s eyes, which look as empty as voids.

“All the kids are like that,” Dean says. “One after the other, oldest to youngest. Looks like Albert Senior doesn’t notice, or doesn’t care.” He points to the patriarch, who’s sitting in the midst of his brood of children. He’s got a spare face, light hair. In other words, not very memorable. In the picture, his hand rests heavily on his son’s shoulder. In his hand there is a gold chain, from which dangles a pocket watch, resting just over his son’s heart.

Cas’s attention is jerked away by the ringing of a phone. Dean produces a cell phone from his pocket and, after a moment of deliberation, puts it on speaker.

“Hi, Sammy, found anything?”

Sam’s voice is slightly staticky. “No leads on Todd. Was hoping you might have turned something up by now; we don’t have much time.”

“I’m doing what I can,” Dean says. “Please tell me you didn’t call me just to tell me that.”

“No,” Sam says. “There’s something else. Get this: every Founder’s Day celebration is kicked off the week before by the elementary school choir singing a song in honor of Albert. It’s been part of their tradition since forever, The interesting thing is the song was written by Albert himself, and the chorus is in Latin. Wanna guess the gist of it?”

“I think I already know,” Dean says.

“Basically all the kids sing that the founder—Beckley—is their father for the day, because he takes such good care of children and everything. And that, as a father, he takes over all duties and responsibilities for them. Creepy, huh?”

“So it’s probably some kind of binding spell,” Dean says. “And, let me guess, Todd Weber’s singing soprano. So any kid who participates is pretty much, what, potentially placing themselves in his custody?”

“Well, I’ve been thinking that’s the key to this whole thing,” Sam says. “If we’re gonna believe the old stories, Albert got everything he ever wanted in his life in a way that definitely screams ‘too good to be true.’”

“Except he didn’t participate fair and square,” Dean says, jumping up to pace up and down the aisle. “This stinks of demon deals. He traded his kids’ souls for everything he ever got.”

“No wonder he had so many kids,” Sam says. “He could keep cashing them in while they were still minors.”

Cas, listening, is interested by the concept of this “demon deal,” although neither Dean nor Sam pauses to explain it. He looks down at the photo album, which slid off Dean’s lap and onto the tile floor when he jumped up. Idly, he flips a page. Only seven children in this picture, although Beckley’s wife, sitting down, is noticeably pregnant. Beckley is standing like the generals do in old Civil War photos—legs cocked, hand stiffly at his waist. From the pocket of his trousers—although it’s hard to make out fully, given the age and color of the photo—there’s a thin chain. He flips another page, his gloves whispering over the glossy photos.

“Okay, so where are we at now?” Dean says. “We’ve got a very dead guy whose remains recently got smoked, but he’s still kidnapping kids on Founders Day. So a ghost,  maybe, who gets back to his old routine every decade after his Pledge of Allegiance is sung.”

“So there must be something else tying him to the town still,” Sam says. “Something old, something powerful. And that’s gotta be destroyed too in order to destroy the cycle.”

Cas turns the next page of the photo album. A breath of wonder escapes his lips, although it goes unnoticed in the midst of Dean and Sam’s brainstorming. Here, Albert is holding the pocket watch in his hand, open, although the minutiae of the clock face have long since been obscured by age. He recognizes this pocket watch, he realizes. He’s seen it before, and not just in old photographs.

“—thing that’s been bothering me is that’s not how a classic demon deal works. Demons might cut corners, but they can’t break their own rules. If Albert showed up to a crossroads with a kid and tried to pawn off their soul, it would be no dice. But if he showed up with just the soul, no kid—well, a demon might be willing to overlook policy.”

“If that’s the case, Albert must have found a way to extract the kids’ souls himself,” Dean says. “That’s serious mojo.”

“Well,” Sam says thoughtfully. “If he was keeping souls somehow, we’re talking exactly about something old and powerful.”

“Great,” Dean says. “So we need to find a soul-catcher that’s tying Beckley’s ghost to the early plane, and we still need to find Todd.”

“And the place to find Todd is probably wherever Beckley performed these soul extractions,” Sam says. “It can’t be the mansion; we already went through it with a fine-toothed comb.”

“Jesus,” Dean says. He rubs at his eyes. “There has to be something we haven’t thought of.”

Cas is finally pulled away from the old photo album. “Albert mentions in his journal that the mansion was still being built in 1857.”

Dean’s head jerks up like he’d forgotten Cas was there. Then he thrusts the phone into Cas’s hand and starts wildly digging through the files, saying over his shoulder quickly, “Catch him up.”

Cas holds the phone up to his mouth uncertainly. “Um, hello.”

“Hi,” says the voice at the other end of the line. “I’m Sam.”

“I’m Cas, the librarian,” Cas says. He hears Dean snort behind him, so he tries to get his thoughts in order. “We have an old journal of Albert’s here where, among other things, he recorded the progress on his mansion. It still wasn’t finished in the year 1857.”

“So his family wasn’t staying there, even though most of his children were born by then,” Sam says. Cas is glad that he caught on so quick.

“It’s quite likely that they were staying at another location while the mansion was being built, perhaps some kind of cabin,” Cas says. “There are no other structures in Beckley on the historical registry belonging to Albert?”

“Nothing,” Sam says. “Just the family house.”

“The good news is that the whole town is built on what was originally the Beckley estate,” Cas says. “So we know the other house must have been somewhere in the immediate area.”

“Yeah, and the estate is also over five thousand acres,” Sam says wryly. “That’s a lot of distance to cover.”

“I’m working on it,” Dean says loudly, for Sam’s benefit. “I thought I saw a map or a—a blueprint, I don’t know, somewhere in all this historically relevant junk.”

“If we can get our hands on that, I bet you a million to one that’s the site where he was taking souls,” Sam says. “That’s gotta be where Todd is. Now all we gotta do is hope that whatever he was using to cull souls—maybe it’s still there, too.”

“Maybe,” Cas says. “Sam, I have a question for you. You think it’s a very material item, whatever Beckley was using to collect souls?”

Sam is more patient than Dean would have been, which Cas appreciates. “Well, it’s not like we’ve run into very many of them,” he says. “But yes. Albert was probably using some kind of item that he’d enspelled, somehow, to keep souls inside. Like a transport vessel. It wouldn’t have to be very big, since souls aren’t exactly material themselves. In fact, it would probably need to be something small or inconsequential, so it wouldn’t attract attention when he was using it to transport souls to the nearest crossroads.”

“How would you be able to tell, then?” Cas says. “Is there nothing about it that would give away its true purpose?”

“That’s harder to say,” Sam says. “If it’s survived this long—if it’s still caught up in Beckley’s demon deal cycle—it’s gotta be something personal to him. Maybe it would have some kind of engravings or runes to keep the souls locked inside. Right now this is all theory.”

“Of course,” Cas says. Dean jostles his shoulder as he sits down next to him and grabs the phone back.

“Got it!” Dean says triumphantly. “I’m gonna send you a picture as soon as we hang up. There’s an old map that shows some kind of Beckley homestead northwest of the actual mansion, halfway up a hill.”

“Northwest?” Sam says. “I think that’s all forestland.”

“Maybe there’ll be some ruins left in there. It’s gotta be pretty much untouched if there hasn’t been any housing development,” Dean says. “Check it out ASAP, because if Todd’s not there, we’re running out of time.”

“I’m going now,” Sam says. “Thanks—thanks, Cas.” And then he’s gone.

Cas hadn’t thought Dean was really paying attention to his conversation with Sam, considering he was trying to find the map at the time. He’s surprised when Dean turns to him with a frank stare.

“You’re keeping something from me,” he says.

“Of course not,”  Cas says immediately.

“Come on, man, don’t start worrying about all the laws we’re breaking now. You’re way too interested in this soul-Tupperware idea. You know something. So spill.”

Cas’s chest is tight, twisted, with indecision. “You promised,” he says. “Nothing leaves here, and nothing destroyed. But you and Sam good as said that the—it, whatever it is, needs to be destroyed in order to stop Beckley.”

“No,” Dean says. “No, I promised nothing would happen to your rare books and special collections.”

“So you were purposely giving yourself a loophole.”

“Cas, goddammit, this is bigger than that, this is bigger—” Dean cuts himself off and drags a hand down his face. When he looks up at Cas again, his voice is calmer. “Look. Do you believe me?”

“What?”

“Do you believe me or not? Do you believe me when I say that there are things out there beyond imagination, things that aren’t human, things like demons and ghosts and the friggin’ Mothman? Do you believe me when I say that it’s my job to keep people safe from them? Do you?”

“Yes,” Cas says.

“Do you believe me when I say that the only way to save this kid is to destroy whatever’s keeping Beckley’s spirit here?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, so…” Dean spreads his hands wide. “Do you trust me? Whatever it is—however rare, however priceless—do you trust me that I’m doing this for the right reasons?”

“Yes, of course,” Cas says.

“Well, then, I’m gonna need you to tell me. Because I need you on this one, Cas. Big time.”

Cas nods and flips open the photo album and points to Albert. “The pocket watch. He inherited it from his father—the first Librarian of Congress. It was gifted to him by Thomas Jefferson and it’s worth a quarter of a million dollars.”

Dean’s eyebrows wing up. He lets out a whistle. “That’s, yeah, that’s a lot.”

“He’s wearing it in every picture,” Cas  says. “And the fact it’s a time piece seems significant, given his obsession with harvesting children’s souls on a very specific day, in very specific years. It has to be what you and Sam were talking about.”

Dean doesn’t say anything, he’s watching as Cas’s hand gently traces over the iteration of each pocket watch in each picture. He reaches out and gently fingers the knob of Cas’s wrist, just above the glove.

“Dean?”

Dean snaps out of it and draws his hand away. “Sorry,” he says. “Got distracted. Any idea where I can find this pocket watch? And find it pronto?”

“It’s not very far,” Cas says, standing up. “In fact, it’s just a few floors above us. It’s kept in a case in the Librarian of Congress’s office.”

“Awesome,” Dean says, standing up too. “You coming with?”

Cas nods.

The library is silent and dark as they sneak across the main level to the staircase that leads up to the offices. Twice they see the beam of a security guard’s flashlight, patrolling the shelves, and they dart soundlessly behind desks and bookshelves to elude it. Cas’s breath is fast and shallow and in his throat. He thinks this is the most daring thing he’s ever done.

They crouch by the staircase for a long moment before Dean ascertains that it’s clear to go up. He tugs on Cas’s arm and they set off up on the staircase, down the hallway, and then to the heavy wooden door belonging to the Librarian. Cas peers around anxiously while Dean fiddles at the knob. Finally, it unlatches and swings open with a slight whine.

Once they’re inside, Dean closes the door and flicks on the desk lamp. It really starts to hit Cas what they’re about to do. The Librarian’s desk is huge, elaborately scrolled with designs on the side panels. It’s probably sat in the same spot there since Jefferson’s days. Three of the walls are entirely made up of bookshelves, bristling with heavy tombs. Behind the desk there’s a fireplace; the mantel is lined with more priceless objects. On either side of the fireplace are glass cases. One contains a Gutenberg Bible, its pages so old and fragile that a single touch might make it disintegrate. The other case holds the pocket watch.

Dean and Cas come up close to the case to look inside. The glass slightly fogs over with their breath. The pocket watch sits on a cushion of velvet. It’s large, bulbous, on a delicate gold chain. The outside of the watch is inscribed with a cursive-looking rune. It’s nothing that Cas has ever seen before.

“All right,” Dean says. “I’m gonna shimmy this case open, and then we’ll get out of here and dispose of it. Keep watch by the door, tell me if you hear any footsteps coming.”

Dean’s phone goes off as Cas walks to the door. Cas whips around.

“Sshhh,” he says, affronted by the noise. He waits for a security guard to burst in out of nowhere.

“Seriously?” Dean says. “That’s so stereotypical.” He flips open the phone. “Yeah, Sam.”

Whatever he hears, the humor on his face quickly drops away. He suddenly reaches behind him and draws a gun from the waistband of his pants. “Got it.”

“What are you doing?” Cas says.

“Sam found Todd. Albert’s ghost was really giving it to him until it suddenly disappeared.” He gestures to the pocket watch. “Think this might have something to do with it.”

Cas’s heart ticks loudly in his ears. “Can a ghost travel here from West Virginia?” he asks, in a very calm voice.

“We’re about to find out.”

Apparently there’s no time. Dean bashes the butt of the gun into the glass of the case and it shatters. Luckily the floor is carpeted; the falling glass does not make as much noise as it could  have. Cas watches as Dean’s fingers close over the watch and, almost simultaneously, Cas is suddenly lifted off his feet and thrown into the bookshelves behind him. He scrambles groggily to his feet, head ringing.

Dean is struggling with—something—on the other side of the office. It is Albert Beckley, and yet not. He is wearing clothes much like the ones he wore in the old photo album. But the clothes are gray, and his whole body is blurred, like  Cas is seeing him underwater.

Dean is trying to keep the watch, Cas realizes. The ghost is trying to prise it out of his fingers.

“Cas!” Dean whisper-shouts. The ghost’s incorporeal hands are fitted around his neck, lifting him the ground. “Iron—find something—” His voice chokes away as the ghost lifts him higher.

Later, Cas will not know how he was able to think so fast. His eyes catch and hold on the fireplace. He vaults over the Librarian’s desk and looks around desperately for a poker—there’s none, because the fireplace has been purely decorate for the last fifty years. And then he sees the wrought iron grate and he lifts it out of the fireplace—“Cas!” Dean shouts in warning—and he swings around with it, sending up decades-old ash in a cloud around him, just to see the ghost of Albert Beckley hurtling towards him, screaming.

Albert Beckley has black holes where his eyes should be, and one cheek is eaten away, so that Cas can see through to where his mouth is. He raises the grate up in front of him like a shield just as Albert Beckley reaches for him; the iron passes through Beckley’s form and he swirls away into a cloud of smoke.

Dean is coughing on the floor next to the desk. He’s still got the pocket watch held fast in his hand.

“Gun—where’s my gun—”

It’s by Cas’s feet. He kicks it over to him.

The only warning Cas gets is a slight lift of the hair on the back of his neck. He turns around to see Beckley’s desiccated grin in the air behind him, and frantically swings the grate again. It’s so heavy and ungainly that he almost topples over as Beckley disappears again.

“Dean—” he says.

“One second, one second—” The pocket watch clicks open, revealing the glass-faced clock on the interior. The miniature hands are spinning around madly, fast enough to blur. There’s a scream of rage, and Beckley rushes at Dean and Cas, too far away, throws the grate, and Dean fumbles with the safety and then shoots a bullet straight into the face of the clock.

Silence settles over the office. There are still bits of ash in the air, falling softly like snow. The grate is on the floor with its spokes sticking up in the air like an animal carcass’s legs. A few books are on the floor next to it, casualties from where the grate struck the bookshelf first.

Dean is on his knees, breathing heavily still. He’s looking down at the pocket watch, its splintered face. Cas understands that now it’s simply that, a pocket watch.

They should probably be going. With the whisper-shouting and the grate-throwing, not to mention the gunshot, it’s quite possible that a guard has overheard them, despite how vast the Library is. But Dean doesn’t seem to be too worried so Cas waits, catching his breath. Dean’s phone vibrates, and he checks it and shoves it away into his pocket again before standing up, groaning.

“It’s over,” he says. “Todd’s safe. Sam’s getting him back to his family right now.” He scoops up the pocket watch and, after a moment of deliberation, puts it into his pocket. “Wouldn’t want someone fixing it and starting up the biz again,” he says. Cas nods.

Dean surveys the office. His eyes linger on the grate, and he starts laughing. “Did you really—did you really discus throw that at his ghost?”

“I was running out of options,” Cas says tersely, since he doesn’t appreciate the laughter. But Dean comes up and claps a hand on his shoulder, smiling warmly, so Cas doesn’t think he did too badly, all things considered.

They clean up what they can and turn off the lights and sneak out the employees’ entrance. Cas still feels giddy, flushed with adrenaline. He goes along easy enough when Dean steers him to the familiar black car and backs him up against it and kisses him, slow and skillful. In fact he doesn’t say anything at all until Dean reaches to pull open the door—the back door, not the passenger, and starts to maneuver Cas inside.

“Wait,” Cas says. “Wait. Not here.”

“What’s wrong with here?” Dean murmurs, hot, against his cheek.

“Too cramped,” Cas says. “Let’s go somewhere else. We could go to my house.”

Dean stills and pulls back a fraction. “Your house,” he repeats, inflectionless.

“Yes,” Cas says. “We’ll have more room there. A bed.”

Dean’s eyes slide away, his discomfort clear, so Cas catches his chin and forces his gaze back.

“Dean. It’s a place to fuck me, not a marriage proposal.”

That startles a laugh out of Dean. He nods. “All right. Sure. Yeah. Why not?” Suddenly amorous again, he pushes Cas back against the car again and kisses him for another few minutes and finally fumbles the passenger seat door open. Cas peels himself off the car and slides inside. He touches his lips thoughtfully, watching as Dean rounds the hood of the Impala, confident, and slides behind the steering wheel.

They don’t talk much on the drive there, beyond Cas giving directions. The night is sleepy, with the gentle drifts of snow, and the Christmas lights outside the window start to blur together. Dean parks on the street outside of Cas’s house and then they go up to the porch, hand in hand. Dean lifts Cas’s palm to his mouth and starts laving kisses over the stretch of skin there while Cas struggles to fit the key into the lock.

They stumble over the threshold and upstairs, shedding clothes as they go. Cas’s room is half-lit from the streetlight outside and it’s enough to go by. Enough that he can see Dean this time, all of him, as he hooks his fingers over the neck of his t-shirt and pulls it over his head. His jeans follow.

Cas skims his palms over the lines of Dean’s arms as Dean fits himself over him, down the curve of his back, his fuzzy thighs.

“You’re beautiful,” he says, dazed, and Dean smiles like it’s the first nice thing he’s ever heard.

First Dean spends what feels like hours kissing over Cas’s chest, mouthing over Cas’s nipples, sucking them into peaks. His hands are elsewhere, rubbing seams into the bones of Cas’s hips. They hold him still, hold him down, as Cas jerks against the sensations he didn’t know a mouth was capable of producing there.

His voice is already hoarse from groaning by the time Dean draws away, satisfied, and works Cas’s pants down his legs before throwing them behind him. He draws Cas out through his boxers and works him ruthlessly through his fist, gently kneading his foreskin up over his cockhead and down again. Cas can hardly struggle up to watch as he writhes with every pass of Dean’s hand.

Finally Dean stretches over him and finds the lube Cas gestures to and, once he’s found it, he spreads Cas’s legs and kneels between them, his knees digging into Cas’s upraised thighs. Cas lets Dean take his hand and pour a liberal amount over his fingers.

“Just one,” Dean says. “Slowly.”

Cas doesn’t want slow, but Dean wants compliance. He reaches down and slowly eases his first finger into himself. The angle is slightly awkward. Even so, he’s so turned on that even his own touch is startlingly good; he gasps. Dean leans his cheek on the inside of Cas’s knee and watches as Cas crooks his finger at the knuckle, pulsing in and out. His breath is hot against Cas’s thigh.

It feels very exposed to be under Dean’s unwavering attention. Cas likes it. He works another finger into himself, sighing at the stretch of it. He can hear the slick sounds of Dean touching himself. He closes his eyes and strokes inside himself, hips shifting in pleasure, and when he opens his eyes Dean’s head is still heavy against his knee, still looking intently there, at the intimate place where his fingers slide into his body. At some point Dean joins in, working a finger in next to Cas’s, grinding it into him in tandem. It is a special kind of madness, Cas thinks, that Dean produces in him. Their knuckles rubbing together, pressing into the tender skin of his rim. He rolls his hips down over their combined fingers over and over again.

Dean doesn’t let him come. Not from that, at least. He draws Cas’s wrist away and helps pull Cas up—Cas, ragdoll-like from overstimulation—and lays down flat on the bed, pulling Cas over him. Cas kneels over Dean’s hips and pushes back on Dean’s cock and it slides within him with gratifying simplicity. The full feelingness of it is exquisite. So is Dean, looking up at him with such open adoration Cas’s breath is taken by it.

Cas rides him for what feels like hours. There are things he wants to study, here—the slick feeling of Dean filling him up, again and again. The sweat sheen across Dean’s chest and arms. The smooth stretch of his neck as he throws his head back on Cas’s pillow and swears. His neck, even with the slight bruising from earlier, at the Library, is limitlessly lovely. Cas leans down over him and presses kisses over Dean’s Adam’s apple, which vibrates beneath his lips. At this angle it is easier for Dean to really fuck him, to plant his feet into the bed and thrust up with abandon. Cas feels Dean’s knuckles running down the line of his spine, the bump of each one slotting against his vertebrae. Dean comes with a helpless gasp, one last, powerful thrust, his hand grinding into a fist at the base of Cas’s back.

Cas unbends himself, sitting up. Dean’s eyes are screwed shut; he’s panting hard. After a moment he opens his eyes and reaches for Cas, jacking him off between his fingers. Cas looks down, between the obscene, taut spread of his legs over Dean’s hips, and watches his cock riding in and out of Dean’s grasp. Dean’s still pulsing into him, lazily, and that will be enough for Cas. He sits back on Dean’s softening cock and lets his head fall back as he spurts over Dean’s stomach.

Somehow Cas gets maneuvered around again. He feels around on the floor for his boxers and slides them up over his legs before falling back onto the bed again. Water is running in the bathroom; he turns his head and sees through the open door of the bathroom Dean standing naked before the sink. His skin is pale in the bathroom light. Dean’s running a hand towel under the faucet, but he’s not looking at it. He’s looking at the granite of the sink top, the thick towels hung on the rack. He turns towards the bedroom, but not to look at Cas. His eyes rove over the large bed, the TV hung on the wall, the curtains moving in the breeze coming through the windows.

“Come back to bed, Dean,” Cas says. It seems important to snap Dean out of whatever he’s thinking.

Dean obediently turns off the water and comes back. He gives the hand towel to Cas and curls up next to him, silent, still naked. He doesn’t say anything as Cas uses the towel and tosses it haphazardly toward the hamper by the night table.

“Dean?”

Dean shakes his head and pulls Cas to him. His hand is warm against Cas’s back, idly drawing a pattern. Cas’s eyes start to slip closed.

“You have a nice home, Cas,” Dean says softly, almost sadly.  “A nice life.”

Unsurprisingly, when Cas wakes up in the morning, Dean is gone.

**

Three Months Later

Even if Cas is excellent at his job, things will still go missing. In the late 2000s the Library surmised that seventeen percent of its 160,000,000 items had been stolen, misplaced or lost. Cas thinks about that a lot. Systems can break down, things can be misshelved; human error. What is stolen is probably gone for good.

He cannot account for every rare book and collection in his domain. The letters and journals, the maps and paintings and pictures and magazines. He has come to accept the fact that things will disappear—because people are greedy or cruel, because things can slip through the cracks. Things will be lost: precious invaluable things.

But sometimes things do not stay lost. Sometimes things come back. Loose sheaves of paper that were accidentally tucked into someone’s notes and taken home; documents illegally sold on the black market and returned from a private collection. These things do not always look like much. They might be old or discolored or ragged. In Cas’s hands, though, they become themselves again. Whole, and worthy, and priceless. They are back where they belong.

Cas keeps an eye out for those that go missing. Some are books. Some are items, like eye glasses or pocket watches. Some are something else entirely.

Cas’s days are slow and mostly silent but for the whispered snatches of conversation he has with those who visit the Library. They are good days. It is always a good day when Cas wakes up and realizes he will unlock the heavy wooden doors of the Reading Room, turning on the lamps and throwing shadows across the bookshelves. When he receives a request for a rare book he hasn’t seen in years, that he retrieves from the archives with a soft, gentle touch, like he would use to greet an old friend. When the room is full of other people, like himself, in the unexhaustive pursuit of knowledge and learning, that gives the room a pulse, sets the silence to singing.  He has realized it takes a very particular kind of person, a special kind of person, like him, to have this job. And that is okay. That is good.

When he leaves the Library it is evening, gray, sleeting. He’s standing at the top of the steps, fumbling with his leather gloves, when he sees it. The long black car parked in the street below. There’s a man leaning against the door, facing the Library, watching him with an apprehensive look. When the man’s eyes catch with Cas’s, the look becomes tinged with something else—hope, Cas thinks, as the man’s face grows bright and beckoning as a beacon. The man pushes himself off the car and takes a few steps forward.  

There is this, too: Cas’s job, above all, is to be patient. His job is to wait, and to wait, and to know that some days, like today, he is lucky, and things return.

So he smiles, and pulls his gloves on over trembling fingers, and goes down.

**