When the brink of ruin lies,
Upon the world, a judge shall rise
To lead the Fall, you'll remember well,
~ Blue Öyster Cult
He sat alone in the pew, fifth one from the front, the tails of his tan trench coat flipped over his knees. He wanted the intimacy that being close to the alter gave him, but hesitated to claim a closer seat. He was, after all, not the best of followers - wayward and wavering in his dedication. Above him, marble angels gazed down from their enclosures along the stone buttresses. He felt their unseeing stares and hunched his shoulders forward to shield himself from their disapproval.
It was silent in the sanctuary of St. Mary of the Angels. Polished wooden pews reflected the many points of light that streamed in through the high stained glass windows and dappled the gilded walls and the floor. Enclosed confessionals lined the walls beneath stone arches - all empty. Since no one was in there, the large chandeliers were only lit at their lowest setting, their dim yellow glow barely competing with the colored sunlight.
Up at the front, huge frescoes of the Virgin Mary and various angels dominated the walls. Below, in its lit enclosure on the white and gold altar, a silver Christ hung from a golden cross, flanked on either side by saints and angels.
Castiel felt their gazes too.
"Do not look at me like that," he muttered as he shifted his gaze away. "You got to talk to God Himself. We are not all that lucky. Not all of us know what to do."
The fallen angel peered around the chapel, taking in the ornate decorations and paintings.
"They always forget You were a carpenter's son."
"Not at all," a deep voice said from behind him.
Castiel turned and saw a large man approaching. He projected assurance and strength despite having to lean on a cane for support against his limp. His cropped hair and brown beard were neatly trimmed and just beginning to grey. He smiled gently as he lowered himself into the pew behind Castiel. He dropped his grey eyes and briefly made the sign of the cross before looking back at the angel.
"We fashion our worship spaces to reflect His power and glory. We fashion our lives to reflect His humility and kindness."
The man smiled again and reached into the pocket of his plaid shirt, pulling out a worn rosary. Quietly, he rumbled out the Apostle's Creed and the Lord's Prayer, lovingly rubbing the polished wooden beads between his thumb and forefinger as he moved through his prayers, causing the little cross, fashioned out of a paler wood than the beads, to sway gently against his wrist.
Castiel stared at the man, a small smile lifting the corner of his mouth. He could feel the power of this man's faith, solid and sure, rolling off of him in waves. The angel tilted his head back slightly and closed his eyes, allowing himself to bask in the comfort that such faith brought.
"You are lucky, you know," he said almost wistfully, "to have faith like that."
The big man ended his Hail Mary and turned to face Castiel, compassion in his eyes as he took in the other man's scruffy stubble and exhausted blue eyes. The angel's hair stuck out in messy spikes and his tie hung crooked at his throat.
"Not lucky," he leaned his arms against the back of Castiel's pew, "blessed. But that blessing isn't unique to me, my friend. God extends the capability for faith to all of His children. We need only ask." He held out his hand. "Michael Carpenter."
Castiel silently thanked the Winchester brothers for instructing him in the various human social customs as he took the man's hand and shook it. Like his faith, Michael's grip was strong and firm.
"My friends refer to me as 'Cas'. It is a nickname," Castiel said gravely.
"I've earned a few of those myself. Though, come to think of it, 'Mike' isn't among them." He tucked his rosary back into his pocket and settled his cane across his knees. "I assume 'Cas' is short for something?"
"It is short for my name," Cas frowned, confused. "Castiel."
"Named for the angel of Thursdays." Michael nodded. "It fits in well in this place."
Castiel smiled as he looked around. His smile faded as his gaze landed on a depiction of Gabriel delivering a message to Mary. He looked away to another wall and saw the archangel Michael locked in battle against a demon. He frowned and looked away, only to encounter the painted eyes of the archangel Raphael, healing a blind man by a river. He sighed.
"It is usually very soothing here. Today, however, I feel... watched." He flicked a glance back at Michael, gauging the man's reaction. "The quiet is unnerving."
Michael nodded understandingly as he adjusted his seat in the pew, wincing as he did so.
"Self-reflection isn't always an easy thing. Perhaps God is trying to tell you something."
Castiel chuckled bitterly, shaking his head as he looked down at his lap.
"God hasn't spoken to us in a long time. And He's never spoken directly to me. If He had, all of this would be a lot easier. Clearer. I'd know what I'm supposed to do."
Michael sat silent for a long while, staring thoughtfully at cross on the altar. Castiel looked there a while as well, but could not find the comfort there that his companion obviously did. At length, Michael patted the angel's shoulder, but said nothing.
"This 'Free Will' is troubling," Castiel said, frowning. "I do not know how you stand the uncertainty, having to anticipate and take responsibility for all of the shifting outcomes of your choices. It was much easier to just take orders."
Michael chuckled, a warm sound that caused his shoulders to shake and deepened the lines around his eyes as he continued to gaze at the altar and its statues.
"I find that the right path is often clearer than we like to admit, even when it's hidden in between impossible choices." Here, the big man looked sad and his shoulders slumped slightly. "It's rarely neat or easy and is often hard to bear afterwards, but it is there."
"I have an opportunity to bring peace to my family, but I am uneasy about it." Castiel shook his head. "It would mean crossing a line that I have never crossed and I cannot be sure that the outcome will be worth the cost." The angel's forehead furrowed as he looked pleadingly at Michael, hoping that he would have some sort of an answer. "I used to have friends that I would turn to when I needed advice, but they are," he hesitated, "gone."
"Hm," Michael nodded. "I know something of choices that come at a high price." He glanced ruefully at his cane. "Even now, it's hard to reconcile myself with some of them." He sighed. "All I know is that God gives us the strength to do what we must, even when we can't see how it will possibly work out. And His own strength will sustain us even when ours fails."
Cas had to wonder what choices this man had had to make that had led him here, a cripple in the house of his God. From his build and the way he carried himself, it was obvious that he had once possessed great physical strength. There were remnants of it to be seen in his hands and arms.
He shifted forward and noticed that Michael did not react at all to the sudden movement. Cas frowned mournfully as he realized that his friend could not see him. Though his eyes were clear and it was obvious that he was not blind, whatever had crippled Michael's leg had also damaged his vision on that side. Castiel cocked his head as he continued to frown at Michael's cane.
Michael finally noticed the angel's stare and turned to more fully face him, lifting his eyebrows in polite inquiry.
"How did you come by that injury?" Castiel asked.
The pleasant expression on Michael's face didn't shift, but his eyes darkened slightly.
"I was shot in the line of duty," he said slowly, "helping a friend save someone dear to him."
"So, you followed the right path to your own hurt? God allowed that?" Cas tried desperately to understand how those two things could go together in the life of this righteous man.
For an instant, Michael looked troubled as he absently rolled his cane back and forth across his thighs. Finally, he sighed.
"It is not always easy, but I am learning to bear it and to see God's providence in it." Michael flashed a sudden brilliant smile. "My old line of work took me away from my family and caused them a lot of worry. It may seem like a poor reward for faithful service, but the need for this cane means that I no longer have to leave them and they no longer need to worry about if I'll come home to them. And, as I grow stronger, I can take part in more of their lives instead of watching it pass by in snatches."
A faint buzzing from his pants pocket grabbed their attention. Michael fished his cell phone out of his pocket and glanced at its display.
"Ah. Time to pick up Alisha from softball." With a soft grunt, he heaved himself stiffly into a standing position, gripping his cane as he eased himself into the aisle. "You know, talking to you has reminded me - they need more coaches in the program my daughter is in. At the rate that I'm healing, perhaps I'll volunteer."
With a happy grin, he clapped Castiel on the shoulder.
"I will add you to my prayers, Cas. I know God will show you the path He wants you to take. You just need to pay attention."
With that, he limped slowly down the aisle, pausing only to say something to a little priest as he exited. Cas turned back to the altar. After a minute, he looked up, his face set in grim determination.
"You see? He is one of Your most faithful followers, who loves You even as he struggles. But You let him live in pain." Castiel glared up at the crucifix. "Well, I will do what I have to to stop that kind of pain, even if I have to take roads that You would not approve of."
And then, the pew was empty, the faint rustle of wings the only indication that anyone had ever sat there. Up at the altar, saints and angels alike stared with stone eyes out into the sanctuary, while the Christ's melancholy face looked down from the cross at the spot where the angel had rested.