He wakes up alone and knows today is the day it ends. He knows because he cannot feel the racing of time anymore. But behind him he feels a linear progression of events trying to push him forward. A stubborn collection of memories in single file. Clamoring. They slip in under the door of haze and apathy, fucking up his plans for forever, putting meaning into his deliberate meaninglessness. Castiel rolls over and reaches for the pill bottle beneath his pillow.
There were shudders in the atmosphere so loud Castiel clapped his hands over his ears. It was a testament to how human he'd become already that he associated the discomfort with his vessel first. But the "sound" wasn't in the room or in the city or trembling in the crust of the earth. It was his brothers. It was the gust of their relief as they gave up the endless fight, denounced earth as a lost cause, and prepared to go home.
Detroit, they sighed.
Their retreat was like the drawing back of a warm blanket that left Castiel exposed to the world. He was standing in the pharmacy section of a convenient mart with a bottle of hydrogen peroxide in his hand. The chill traveled through him and he knew he was alone. The lights didn't even flicker.
A hand coming down on his shoulder kept him grounded.
Dean Winchester's hand was heavy.
"That was it," Dean asked softly, "wasn't it?" Cas nodded.
"Detroit," he said.
Dean's heavy hand lifted, and the skies were open.
"I guess this is your last chance to jump ship," said Dean. When Castiel turned Dean had taken a step back, put three white tiles and a toothbrush display between them. "I wouldn't blame you," he added. It was a lie, but he was giving Castiel the chance.
"Shut up, Dean." The choice was meaningless. Castiel was tied to Dean, and he would always choose Dean even if it meant watching the whole world end and falling from grace and dying in the mud like a human. He probably wouldn't even regret it at the end. But the pain of being abandoned and the sudden silence of the battlefield made him raw on the inside. "I wish to be alone."
He left Dean to deal with Sam's mistake and his grief and went to find some introspection. His grace began to bleed out through the empty space left by Heaven's sudden absence.
There weren't many churches in outer Philadelphia, so Castiel sat on the steps of a museum. Ants crawled in and out of the cracks in the concrete. Men and women walked in and out of the building. A maple tree was planted beside a statue of a white lion and had grown strong even in the city ground. The sun glared off the rows of cars that were wedged closely together, metal and glass. They ruined the illusion of the stone-carved vines and Greek columns. They betrayed the building to its purpose, a tomb for the hubris of dead societies. Castiel put his hand against the warm rock and felt the imperfections of his new home. And for the first time in his long existence, Castiel wanted forgetfulness.
Cas wanted to believe that God would end the world with love. That, beautiful and gentle, God would lay creation to rest with a mother's arms and all the dead would sleep.
But God was missing, or dead, or had decided that humanity was a failed experiment in free will. And without him the end would be ugly. The continents would waste away under a mire of hypocrisy and bureaucracy and those meaningless pretences that Dean referred to as "bullshit".
Castiel closed his eyes to pray. He got as far as time enough to forget or time too little to remember and then let it go. His last rope to immortality swung out into the universe without him. He took a deep breath began a list of beautiful things that he'd known that were dying. Human kindness. Human song. Family. He sank into the illusion of linear time and the confusion that came with it. He tried to root his mind in something as intangible as human philosophy.
What he asked himself do humans do to find peace?
Twilight fell. A streetlamp was glowing soft iridescence into his face when he opened his eyes and Dean Winchester was standing under it. His arms were crossed in front of him. From Castiel's viewpoint it looked those arms were the only thing holding Dean up. Like without them he would just topple forward and suffocate with his face in the asphalt. There was some kind of strength, at least, in human arms.
The museum was closing. The ants had crawled into their warm tunnels. The people were climbing into their warm cars. Dean walked over and sat close beside him. They touched at the elbow and at the thigh. Dean dug into his pocket and pulled out a napkin, holding it out for Cas to take.
"I don't have any tissues," he explained. It was a poor explanation because Castiel still didn't know what he was meant to do with it. He looked down at Dean's hand and then up to Dean's face. His eyes were red and his lips were chapped. Dean barked out a harsh noise, a laugh with no smile, and shook his head.
"Right," he muttered and leaned forward to tip up Castiel's chin. "Sorry man," he said. "You looked..." a sigh, "I forgot you still don't know how to be human." The napkin was wiped gently under Castiel's eyes and across his cheeks. Castiel realized with surprise that there were tears on his face and Dean was wiping them away.
"Thank you, Dean." Dean handed him another napkin.
"Whatever. But you're going to have to figure out how to blow your nose on your own." Castiel took the napkin, consider the mechanics of the task, and did as Dean suggested. He put it in his pocket when he was done. He felt better, emptier, but less like he had a hole in him.
"C'mon," Dean stood up, "let's get the hell outta Dodge."
Cas didn't have the energy to point out that they were in Philadelphia. He followed Dean to the Impala, shuffling under the weight of the empty sky. His knees felt strangely weak. His shoes, he noticed, were over-warm and clumsy on his feet. He didn't like them. His tie was constricting and he pulled on it until he could breathe again. His face was itchy; he scratched it. Dean watched out of the corner of his eye.
The radio was tuned to a classic rock station.
Classic rock was, as Dean had explained it, the only real music in the world and it was performed mostly by people who were dying or already dead. When Dean started the car the music in the speakers was soft and melancholy. The lyrics were sung carelessly by the gruff voice of a man who sounded tired and upset. Who sang about how his shit was fucked up.1
Those were the exact words. Castiel and Dean both sat motionless, not yet buckled in, staring at the radio. Castiel was still trying to identify the sensation rising quickly in his chest when Dean bent over and began laughing so loud it made Cas jump. Dean was shaking, bending at the waist until his forehead bumped against the steering wheel. Cas watched and realized there was another sound he didn't recognize, deeper, underneath Dean's voice.
It was his. It was his laugh. He'd never heard it before. It poured out of his stomach and bubbled out of his chest and made him clutch around for something to hold himself up with. He found Dean's shoulder and held on like Dean was a rock and he was a mountain climber riding out a bizarre earthquake.
Humor had always been beyond Castiel. But the song had snapped something in his chest and his throat. It was the surprise, he thought; the joy was in the coincidence. Sam Winchester had said: "Yes," and Heaven was gone and God was missing and Lucifer was free to end the world however he pleased and someone was playing this song on the radio. This song, and not another one.
Dean whacked off the radio and tipped sideways into what was nearly Cas' lap. There were tears in his eyes, he was gasping for breath, trying and failing to form a sentence. Dean held on to Castiel and Castiel held on to Dean and they laughed together until it hurt and their breath was gone. The silence fell naturally after a few moments.
"I think we just heard our theme song, man," Dean gasped. He was slumped over, his forehead on Castiel's shoulder, his breath on Castiel's neck. He was warm. Cas was gripping Dean's t-shirt and wondering when the world would stop spinning quite so fast. And because Dean was right up against him, because there was nothing but some cotton and muscles between them, Castiel felt the final split in Dean's soul when it happened.
"What is a theme song?" he asked.
Dean grinned against his shoulder and thumped him on the chest. It resonated through Cas' ribs. Dean was broken and grinning and Cas didn't feel like he was doing any better, but he grinned back. His emotions had a hold of him. It was part of being human, losing his mind to the feeling of things, to things that made no sense. Like laughing at the end of the world.
"A song that describes your life, like, perfectly," said Dean.
"Our shit is certainly fucked up," Cas agreed.
Dean laughed again. Cas didn't, he felt sobered. He just held on, feeling warm on his left and cold on his right. He closed his eyes against the chuckling sound of a beautiful thing falling apart.
His panic fades with the wash of the amphetamines and his fingertips go numb.
Today his world ends.
But the world's been ending everyday for five years, so he could really give less of a shit. He throws his arm across his eyes to cut out the glare of morning sun while he takes a moment to giggle and curl his toes in the sheets. He stretches his back, and it's wonderful. The hot blanket slides away with his movement, and its absence is a relief. The fabric makes a wsssshhhch noise as it slips to the floor.
Wsssshhhch; away go the whispers of the dead people he knew. Cas flicks the fingers of his left hand to wave as they go. As they trickle back to sleep.
As they slumber again under the empty sky.
It's too early to get out of bed.
Lucifer started in Fort Rock, Oregon. With fire. It took two weeks and then the whole state was ablaze. It burned until the rains came and flooded everything. Then, stumbling out of the wreckage and across the state border came the wordless people. Out of the mud and the burned stakes of trees came screaming men and crying women and bleeding children. They were like rabid animals. The National Guard responded and made efforts to keep them contained. The EMT's and the doctors were flown into quarantined areas to treat for trauma. They took blood samples and made guesses that were wrong. Some of the doctors were bitten before they went home.
The news cameras showed a strange pattern of vandalism spreading out from Oregon, through towns along the main highways. Croatoan. Painted onto brick walls and traffic signs, across parking lots and sidewalks. Carved into benches and doors.
Dean was sitting on the edge of the motel bed watching the tv reports. He shook his head, pulled his pistols out of his duffel bag and started to clean them. Castiel sat with his back against the headboard just watching Dean's shoulders.
"You wanna know what's stupid?" Dean asked him after a while. They were in Panton, Vermont and it was July. It was also snowing outside. The weather was fucked everywhere. Castiel didn't answer because he had learned that Dean's questions did not always require answers. Dean's hands were still moving over his gun but his eyes were on the news. Cas could tell by the tip of his head and the tension in his neck. Nothing stressed out Dean in those days like the news.
"If people would just see the shit that's right in front of them, we might have a fighting chance." He gestured at the dancing colors of the screen. "I mean, look at that. Planes. Helicopters. Tanks." The first time Castiel had looked at a tv all he'd seen was a mess of colors and lines. He could see the pattern now though, the picture behind the redundancy. "We could use that shit! Can you imagine how much easier it would be to kill a vampire with a tank?" Dean's fingers slipped on the barrel of his Beretta and it clatter to the floor. "Shit," he muttered. Scooped it back up. "But instead they're gonna lie to themselves, and everyone dies."
The gun clicked as Dean put it back together.
"The CDC has announced that there is no reason to believe this could become a pandemic. They report that incidents of the disease are isolated and it is likely an unusual strain of the West Nile Virus, which can cause swelling in the brain and severe disorientation. The origins of the outbreak have not been determined, but it was likely brought over—" Cas wanted to turn off the sound on the tv. He would have, if he thought Dean would let him get away with it. He could see Dean listening too carefully, thinking too hard.
"West Nile," Dean grumbled to himself. "I guess it's easier to believe in than zombies."
"Perhaps we should get a pizza," Cas suggested. Dean turned with a rag in one hand and the gun in the other. The pile of bullets next to this thigh rolled down to his hip with the shift in the bed. He frowned.
"You hungry?" he asked. It was a layered question. Cas was beginning to sleep. Some times he would drop off while Dean drove, or while he was sitting in chairs. His wings were gone too. Not severed, but they wilted and faded as his grace grew weak. Castiel considered the question carefully before he answered.
"Perhaps," he said. 'I would not know the sensation, but I will need to become accustomed to eating regularly before long." It was almost a lie. He was not hungry, but he was empty. However, Dean was more likely to pay attention to his own needs if he was also looking out for the needs of someone else.
Heaven had been wrong to call Dean a weapon. The Books were wrong to call Dean a warrior. Dean was a caregiver by nature. Castiel thought it was obvious.
Dean dropped the contents of his lap onto the bed and strolled over to the cheap wooden table in the corner. There was a brochure of take-out restaurants that delivered tucked under the lamp. He handed it to Cas and stood waiting.
Castiel picked the pizza that he knew was Dean's favorite because Dean would never choose to do something for himself on his own. The glance Dean gave him said he knew exactly what Cas was doing. He called the pizza place and started pulling dollars out of his wallet and onto the table. Against the dark glass of the window he looked almost normal in that casual act.
The apocalypse would soon put an end to pizzas.
"In Michigan, a flock of seagulls mobbed a group of picnickers yesterday. Four were hospitalized. This is the third case of hostile bird behavior in the North East. Marine biologists have begun a study of the birds' food supply to see if they can determine the cause of this sudden aggressiveness," said the woman with the perfect hair on the television.
When he can't stay still any longer he gets up and makes coffee in a soup pot over a little propane stove. While he waits for the water to boil he watches the fire. It flickers, bright and warm, and roars like the ocean at a distance. This day is the same as all the others.
The beads of his doorway rattle and Castiel smiles at the woman who patters in. She's early. He offers her comfort with the expression of his face because she is nervous, new to the camp, and she needs to find a connection somewhere but her old morals are still pulling at her thoughts. She is beautiful, probably. Or so he is going to assume; it's easier that way.
He offers her a warm cup. She declines and says she doesn't like coffee.
He makes her tea with honey instead.
It took five failed attempts for the Colt, a two a.m. phone call from a panicked Chuck, and Castiel getting a letter opener to the throat before Dean finally agreed to drive to Kansas to find Missouri.
"She is a powerful psychic, Dean," Cas gurgled around his wooden tongue and the blood in his mouth. "She has been connected to your destiny since your father went to her for help. She can help us find the Colt." The blade was wedged between his trachea and his windpipe and it hurt. But Dean's eyes were wide and frightened and Cas had try to take that away. Dean was not mollified by his attempt.
"Can it!" he snapped. He had a towel in one hand, wrapped around the base of Castiel's throat, and the handle of the letter opener in the other. There was blood smeared on his face. "Stop talking until I get this out, at least." He moved his hand to the back of Cas' neck to steady him.
"If I pull this out, will you heal?" Dean asked.
"Yes," Cas choked.
Dean yanked the intrusion out in one fluid motion and tossed it away. He clamped the towel down quickly on the warm flow that followed. He knelt there, keeping the pressure constant until the wound healed over. It took twenty minutes.
"I don't like how long this is taking," he said darkly.
Castiel didn't respond. He didn't like it either.
He coughed up red spit for hours afterwards and his throat was sore when he spoke.
"Tea with honey," announced Missouri when Dean and Cas showed up at her door. She was in all ways unsurprised to see them and pulled them into her kitchen before the neighbors could notice her visitors were covered in dry blood. She took one look at the bandages around Castiel's throat, clucked with her tongue and bossed him into a chair.
Chuck was already in her living room, idly making a house of cards with the Tarot deck. He waved vaguely when they entered the house, keeping his eyes down. He was wearing a denim jacket and torn jeans. There was a trail of mud from the door to where he sat. There was a half-empty bottle of whisky on the table. He looked like he hadn't slept in days. He probably hadn't.
Dean went to talk to Chuck.
Cas stayed in the kitchen while Missouri bustled about with things like cups and spoons and tea leaves. He studied the calendar on the wall beside the window. It was inaccurate, over a year old, but the pictures were beautiful. He flipped through them, learning the Latin names for ferns and herbs from the tiny letters beneath the photos.
Missouri brought him a steaming cup and set it in front of him. Then she sat down on the other side of the table, the place where it was hardest to look away from her. Her seeing eyes picked him apart and the sunlight from outside fell in her hair. She was going gray at the roots. There were crickets beginning to sing. Dean was arguing low and urgently with Chuck in the living room.
It had been a long while since Casteil could see the whole of time like a roadmap before him, with the future just another part of the north and the past a growing territory in the south, but he had learned that some things were inevitable. Even humans couldn't fail to notice them.
If Missouri came with them she would die.
"I change my mind, Dean," Chuck was saying. He had noticed too. Dean's hands were still where they were folded between his knees. He was crouched in front of Chuck.
Castiel took a sip of his tea. It was bitter. Missouri took it from him and stirred in more honey. It was perfect when she handed it back. Cas met her eyes by accident and said "I'm sorry," before he could stop himself. He tried to think of something more comforting to say but all he could think was that he would be very sad when she was lost.
"Suck it up, honey," she said, not unkindly. "We're all dying now."
"Well fuck that too!" Chuck yelled suddenly. He pushed past Dean and stormed out of the house. Dean looked over at Cas and shrugged. Missouri rolled her eyes.
Her things were already packed and she was ready to leave. Dean tossed her bags, gently, into the trunk. Chuck waited sullenly in the back seat. Before Dean could slide behind the wheel Missouri stopped him with a fist to the back of his collar, hauling him back upright.
"Don't you dare let that novelist write my eulogy, boy," she told him. "You do it yourself."
Missouri died in Jackson. There was no time for a funeral.
He is speaking and the women are watching him speak and nodding like they understand his words. Words he has crafted specifically to say nothing. A shadow intrudes in the early afternoon, falling across their circle.
Cas sends the women away to wash and stands slowly. If he moves without hurry maybe the day will follow his example. There is no reason to rush into oblivion, he wants it to come gradually, he wants to slip peacefully into the dark. He looks over his shoulder.
Dean Winchester is standing framed in light. Unbroken. Dean: as he was before. It puts the taste of old ash in Cas' mouth. Dean's green eyes are confused and hurt. They dismantle Castiel like a child dismantles a house of cards.
There is a hiccup in the gears of his body and time starts speeding up again.
He speaks words and struggles to find the neutral ones.
"This is bullshit!" Dean shouted over the sound of his gun as he blew away the toddler that had chased him across the parking lot. He slammed the car door closed and rolled up the widow, slapped the tape deck and ripped out Bob Dylan before it could play. He tossed the tape into the back seat. "Find something appropriately pissed off would you?" he said to Cas as he tore onto the road. Cas pulled the box out from under the seat and started rifling through the cassettes.
Dean turned on the radio while he waited and scrolled until he found a station that wasn't static. They were getting fewer and farther between.
"Hawaii has closed down all ingoing and outgoing traffic to the islands. The white house has been in teleconference all morning and the rumors are that Hawaii is planning to secede permanently. Homeland Security has announced—"
Dean turned off the radio.
It was the same everywhere. In Europe the Falkland Islands were suddenly prime real-estate. Greenland was the hot spot for tourism "this season", but the tourists weren't leaving. The wealthy were establishing colonies on Antarctica. The whole world was in a mad dash to find some imaginary panic room, huddling away the in the most remote corners of the world.
It was Chuck's idea to set up a safe space at Camp Chitaqua. It was in Colorado and it wasn't actually much of a camp according to Dean. But it had cabins and high fences around the grounds so the modifications to the perimeter would be minimal. There was a local Baptist church group that funded the upkeep of the camp.
Their first recon into the nearest town they found the Pastor eating what was left of his congregation and figured no one would bitch if they moved in right away.
"How do we zombie proof it?" asked Chuck.
"Barbed wire and land mines," said Dean.
Bobby took one look at it, grumbled something about "handicap accessible" and went to work on his spare wheelchair. It was an off-road vehicle by the next morning.
Castiel sat in Bobby's living room, tired but too weary to sleep, and watched the construction process, trying to determine the difference between art and utility and if useful things could still be art. It was only wheels and screws and welded metal in the composition of its parts. But it was also the representation of a broken man's determination, made so he could keep fighting.
"I admire your creativity, Bobby," Cas said softly.
"You my goddamn kindergarten teacher?" growled Bobby. "Hand me the socket wrench and shut up." Cas did, smiling a little to himself because he liked it when Bobby yelled at him. Technically he didn't have a family anymore, but Bobby did things like boss him around and call him an "idgit" and put him through guilt trips every time Cas allowed Dean to do something dangerous. Those were the sorts of things that human families did for each other.
"You should see what he can do with macaroni," mumbled Dean from the door. "I'll go let Chuck know we're about ready."
Cas set to memorizing the contours and details of Bobby's chair. It was a beautiful thing even if it wasn't art. He stayed, fuzzy with exhaustion, until Bobby told him to fuck off and do something useful. Castiel rose and went into the kitchen with the intention of making sandwiches for the long drive. He got as far as the bread and then discovered there was no meat or cheese in the refrigerator. He stood staring down at his non-sandwiches in consternation until Dean came back in and demonstrated how to work tuna fish.
They were supposed to take everything they could fit in the Impala to the camp and then drive back for Bobby. They were an hour and a half out on I 90 when Dean's cell rang. Dean answered on speakerphone.
"I got bit." The crackle that stretched between Bobby's pause and Dean's gruff response was the loudest sound that Cas had never heard. It was the static in the storm. Chuck made a strangled noise in the back seat.
Cas was slammed against his door when Dean whipped the Impala around.
"By what?" asked Dean, probably inappropriately.
"The fucking mailman. Get here quick, boy. I've got maybe two hours left and some shit to tell you before I kick it." Bobby ended the call. Dean had a white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel so Cas closed the phone and put it in his pocket.
Looking out the window Castiel was overtaken with the impression that the car was standing still and the trees were flying by under the revving of the engine as South Dakota peeled off the planet.
"Who dies at eleven in the morning?" Chuck mumbled in the back.
When they rolled into Bobby's driveway Chuck opted to wait in the car with a silent shake of his head.
Bobby's porch was still standing, his screen door still held up the doorframe, the windows reflected the blue sky and the late morning sun. Sometimes Castiel thought it was odd that homes didn't die with the people who lived in them.
They stepped over the body of the postal worker and walked inside.
Bobby was in the kitchen, in his old wheelchair, looking frustrated.
"About damn time, " he said and handed the worn journal in his hand to Dean. He glanced at the sink and muttered, "Knew I should have done the dishes yesterday." Bobby's kitchen was not a big room, but it felt huge with the windows all thrown open and the silence shoving at the walls. Castiel stood against the fridge, watching Bobby and Dean, wishing that the moment could be over already. Dean swallowed and frowned and nodded while Bobby talked at him, hard and fast, for an hour. Bobby told them where all his hoodoo shit was hidden, where the black magic books were, how to decode the spells recorded in the journal, and that the secret to making good chili was two grams of baking chocolate. He made them promise to salt and burn his body as soon as he was dead.
Cas could feel every single shift of the second hand in his bones.
"Thanks for everything, Bobby," said Dean hoarsely with his back turned. He grabbed a bottle off the table and took a long swig out of it before handing it to Bobby.
Bobby toasted him grimly and drained it dry.
"Good luck with the end of the world, son."
While Dean was checking chamber of his pistol Cas put four in Bobby's chest.
Chuck helped Dean burn the body. Cas went through the house and found everything on Bobby's list.
Dean, as he Is, comes back with the colt. Cas does not argue. He has given up arguing because arguing is one of those activities that makes time fly. He does what he's told. He allows things to happen to him and makes sure he himself affects no change.
Time flies anyway.
They are ready to leave and Chuck looks frightened, the sky is dark. They are driving and Dean as he Was is asking questions, they sky is dark. The pills are like stones in Cas' throat, the sky is splitting at the seams. Dean and Dean are arguing where they can't be heard, the sun is rising.
They are too loud.
The sleeping dead are stirring. The sleeping dead are singing out of tune.
Doors, despite their heavy meanings, were fragile. Just wood and bolts.
Castiel discovered this when Dean kicked his door down the night after Bobby died. Cas was sitting on the edge of his army surplus cot, a mess of guilt and grief and anger. The splintering of the wood pissed him off.
He hid his head between his knees and beneath his hands and wished not looking could mean not seeing. Dean's boots fell in footsteps across the floor.
"I don't wish to speak with you, Dean. Please...fuck off." The hope that he would be left alone was an exercise in futility. Dean came closer.
"Stand up," he rumbled.
Castiel did was he was asked, pulling himself upright with a deep breath. He looked Dean Winchester in the face and folded his hands together. Just let it happen, he told himself.
He said, "Dean."
Dean punched him in the face.
Castiel let the strike topple him backwards onto his ass. He cradled the pain in his jaw and lay back against the floor with his eyes closed. He breathed through the hurt. His jacket smelled like Bobby's house. Dean stepped over him.
"Get up," he snarled. Cas opened his eyes to see Dean's teeth were bared and his hands were curled in fists. The moonlight made him smoky.
"No," said Cas and looked away to the wall, to the falling shadows of the cot. He was too low to the ground to cast a shadow. He was invisible, untouched by the light, unknown. He was un-guessable.
Dean dropped to his knees and twisted his hands into Cas' collar.
"You shot Bobby." Dean was finishing a conversation they had never begun. It was Dean's job to take on all the crap in the world. It was Dean's job to shoot his friends. Cas had crossed a line.
Dean's knuckles were digging bruises into him.
"Yes," said Cas, and then he couldn't help it, he brought up his own arms in resistance. Dean's irrationality was understandable, he was in pain, he was human. But he was being an idiot. Castiel took his anger and misdirected it to Dean. He pushed Dean back hard with his hands. ”So you wouldn't have to," he said and shoved Dean off of him.
Dean winced when he hit the wall. Castiel followed him off the floor and pinned Dean against the oak.
"I don't need you protecting me," Dean said like he was reminding Cas. Like it was a fact of life. Cas pushed into the space that Dean kept between himself and everyone else. He was furious. His body was a coil of adrenaline and accusations.
He had killed for Dean. He was dying for Dean.
"I know what you need," Cas breathed. Then he swallowed Dean's protest with his mouth.
There was nothing else he could do. Dean would accept no help, and most of the things Dean really needed were beyond Castiel's power anyway. A comfortable pretense was the best he could offer. Dean could pretend he loved Cas, and Cas could pretend he believed it.
Dean was warm. He exhaled brokenly through his nose and, after a tense pause, returned the kiss with a question. He sucked hesitantly on Cas' bottom lip, uncurled his fists to push his fingertips into Cas' hair.
Castiel would always choose Dean. He poured his answer into Dean's mouth. He wrote it into Dean's breath with his tongue, scratched it into Dean's back.
The tension fell from Dean like flaking paint. He relaxed away from the wall, wrapping an arm around Castiel's waist and his fingers around his shoulder. He kissed Cas with all the words he'd choked up inside and forgotten about. He licked his apologies into the aching bruise on Cas' jaw. He bit his thanks into Cas' neck. He walked them over to the bed and undressed Cas with gentle hands.
They were reckless with each other. Testing the thin ice they lived on. Trying to get the surface to crack and plunge them into the cold dark. But reality held up, stubborn, and they were still mostly whole in the morning.
The dawn came despite them. Dean's unsteady voice woke Castiel from his familiar nightmares.
"Cas, I need..."
"I know, Dean." Castiel got up and dressed without glancing at the bed. He left the cabin without looking back.
His body was sticky and sore. He went to take a shower.
One Whole Dean and one Broken one, arguing over the worth of a friend's life.
Cas takes two more pills. Even if they don't slow down time, they slow down his mind. They let him pretend things are going his way.
Dean punches Dean in the jaw and Dean goes down with an unheard crash. When Dean looks up, and meets Cas' eyes, Cas winks at him. He grins with his teeth and doesn't say goodbye.
He leads the sheep to slaughter, high with adrenaline, giddy with the finale of his fucked up story.
The sun is too low in the sky still to cast their shadows. They are close to the ground, invisible and un-guessable. Running into the building is like running downhill. Gravity is on their side. Pulling them in. Tipping them over to spill.
Dean parked the Impala for good and once again demonstrated the fragility of doors by ripping them off. He used a crowbar and a Black and Decker Sawzall. He handed a door to Risa.
"That's bullet proof armor plating," he said, "use that."
"You really think they'll fire on me?" she asked.
"They've been ordered to fire on anything that moves. This is the only way you'll get close enough to prove you're not infected."
Two miles south they'd discovered a smattering of National-guardsmen and former marines. Unfortunately their first welcome party came back two men short and full of bullet holes. Radio contact wasn't working. Risa said "Fuck'em" but Dean said they could use the help and those people had bigger guns.
Castiel was standing on the concrete block Dean had told him to hold as Risa walked away. He was tipping it back and forth with his feet, playing with gravity until it got the better of him. Too far back, the momentum caught him and he fell. Somewhere between his startled gasp and the ground slamming into his lungs, his grace went out like a candle.
Dean leaned over him and didn't ask if he was okay, but held out his hand to help him up. Cas didn't take it. He gasped desperately for air and groaned through the tightness in his chest.
"I'm human," he announced.
Dean's hand fell back to his side. He swallowed and asked "Officially?" Cas nodded. Mud stuck in his hair. Dean pushed at the offending cinder block with his toe.
"I guess you had to fall from somewhere," he said.
Friendly fire does him in.
It must be Risa's gun, since she's behind him. Cas feels bullets tearing through his back and out his stomach before the shots ring out.
He hears himself grunt and then he's collapsing against the wall. He's fighting the parting mists, sliding down onto his side, railing against the returning clarity of his mind. Reason floods his thoughts and slows time down, slams him right up against it like a brick wall.
He's dying. He's dying in Denver and there's a song about that.2
He's finally dying and it's going to take fucking forever.
At night Dean and Cas would hold on to each other on until it hurt and they were out of breath. Dean pressed kisses into Castiel's hair and face and throat, gentle and forgiving. He loved Cas after all and didn't pretend a damn thing. Cas had never needed to pretend.
Dean was always gone by the time the sun rose. And though Cas would sometimes catch Dean looking at him across a room, soft and sad, Dean never touched him during the day. Not because it was a secret, everyone knew, but because Dean didn't touch anyone that he wasn't punching or stabbing or hauling to their feet.
Cas gave Dean whatever he needed, whatever he asked, and tried to stop thinking like a fallen angel and started thinking how he thought a person thought. Castiel allowed the events of the day to damage him.
Then, at night, he allowed Dean to put him back together. He drank up the searing heat of Dean's mouth, he soaked up the unseen light of Dean's fingers. He could have played for more balance, he could have pressed Dean into the mattress and reassembled him the same way. But he knew Dean didn't want that.
And he was happy to burn in the dark.
There are two hundred and twenty eight bricks in the wall opposite him. He doesn't have to count them because as it turns out he isn't human at all. He's just an angel without his grace. The two are close, but they are not the same.
Risa is dead now. The hallway is empty except for corpses and Castiel, wondering if he'll fall asleep before his heart stops.
He has been trying very hard over the crawling seconds to let go. He let go of his own mistakes and his own regrets. He let go of the ghosts he knows and the blame of his brothers. He lets go of fear. He tries to let go of Dean, who disappointed him by turning out exactly as Castiel knew he would, but Dean is stuck in him like broken glass.
And he's a little bit afraid to find peace when he knows that Dean never will.
Shit fell apart in Cheyenne.
Cas broke his foot, and it was as if everything that mattered was standing on that one appendage. The delicate infrastructure of his hope and his philosophy crumbled.
It was supposed to be a simple supply run. And like all simple things it quickly became a complicated disaster. Cas was breaking into the United Medical Center on Warren, for the obvious, while Chuck waited three streets down in the truck with his clipboard and Dean and Risa searched for the armory. Cheyenne was long dead and empty. The doors of the hospital were shattered glass. Cas stepped under the jagged, clear fringe and moved into the lobby.
There were decaying bodies slumped over the tiles. Blood splattered across the floor. Bullet holes lined the walls and the reception desk. The sign that read "ER" had an arrow pointing left. Cas made to follow it.
And stepped on a bear trap.
The improbability of finding a bear trap in the lobby of a hospital was lost on him under the sickening crunch of his foot and the incredible effort it took to not scream. He collapsed and grabbed his thigh. He took shallow, uncontrolled gasps through his teeth. He could feel the glass slipping beneath him and he didn't want to cut himself so he tried to lie still, but the pain. Holy shit the pain. It was like lightning and thunder in the bones of his leg. It was unlike anything he had ever experienced.
Cell phones didn't work anymore, so he didn't have one. His mojo was long gone and screaming would only bring Crotes down on top of him. Radios were too dangerous by then, if you were hiding and loud static suddenly gave away your location...Cas had no choice. He could wait for Dean and Risa to find him. He could wait and hope they had the time to come looking.
He had no idea how long it took. He just kept breathing, kept not screaming. He occupied himself with trying to figure out the difference between external and internal pain because he'd been experiencing a lot of both lately and he couldn't decide which was worse. Although there was something to be said for the immediacy of physical pain.
Somewhere, within twenty yards probably, was a supply room filled with Vicodin and synthetic opiates that he was powerless to reach. Cas turned his face against the tiles and the tiny shards on the floor and continued to breathe. His chest felt strange and his face felt stranger. Numb. His hands were cold.
Pain had seemed like such a transient thing when he was an angel. It was passing, temporary. He couldn't understand back then why humans spent so much time desperately avoiding pain, even at the price of wonderful and beautiful things.
He was no longer confused on that point.
He heard gunfire. Then:
"Cas, we gotta go!" Dean's voice found him, and then Dean's footsteps, and finally Dean, skidding on the loose glass to a halt just outside the doors. His voice was tight and urgent. Chuck and Risa were with him, giving cover fire.
Cas couldn't really see Dean; he was on the other side of the broken doors and his image was fractured by the glass. But Cas could see Dean's knees, the worn fraying of the jeans where Dean was always ducking out of sight, the slight bend in his legs preparing to fight or fly. Cas could see, and he saw Dean's knees hesitate. He saw Dean's knees almost turn and leave him behind.
It only made sense. If Chuck was with them then, for whatever reason, they were on foot. Cas' foot was broken. He was lying on shards of glass and blood that wasn't all his, in a hot zone. He was a slew of liabilities. Dean and Chuck and Risa were being pursued. There were rules about such situations, rules about acceptable collateral loss.
"Shit," hissed Dean and made a gesture at Risa. She ducked into the room and ran past Cas, grabbing his duffle bag as she went, rounded the corner to the ER and was gone. Dean jumped through the door, shouting at Chuck, and dropped to his worn knees to wrench apart the device trapping Castiel's foot with the barrel of his rifle.
The pain tried to snatch Castiel away. But then Dean's shoulder was under his arm and they were fumbling their way deeper into the building. Chuck was behind them, sending wild bullets and panic shouts over his shoulder. Then Risa was back, and she was saying something unkind to Dean, who told her to shut the hell up.
They buried themselves in the basement with medical supplies and things that went boom. They were on their own. Recon teams that didn't return to camp were assumed dead. Man-power couldn't be risked on rescue operations. Cas wondered, in a vague and distant sort of way, if it would be his fault if they all died? Had his mistake been the avoidable or the inevitable kind?
Dean doped him up until they could quarantine him to check for symptoms and get his foot fixed. For that reason Cas missed the details of whatever their death defying escape was. It was a haze of booms and fire and being dragged around. He dropped off on the ride back to camp and was in the medical tent when he woke up again.
His head was pounding and his foot was wrapped in a terrifying amount of gauze. His whole body was incredibly stiff. However, he wasn't cuffed or dead and that meant he wasn't infected. So, because there was no one there to tell him to stay put, he grabbed the crutches at his bedside and began the long hobble back to his cabin.
Two steps out the door his foot began to kill him. He did his best to ignore it. The sun, at least, was nice on the back of his neck. He had a full two minutes of feeling glad to be alive before Dean intercepted him.
"You look like shit," Dean said. He was holding a plastic orange bottle gingerly in his right hand, like he wasn't sure he really wanted to be holding it at all.
"I feel like shit," Cas answered. Dean's honest face had the name of every friend they'd ever lost written into it. Cas saw his own name was there too. As a probability, a close call.
Dean helped Cas up the stairs and through the doorway of his cabin. He followed Cas in uncomfortably, like a stranger.
Cas sat on his ass on the floor next to his bed. His foot was pounding in time with his heart. He curled his arms around his chest and leaned his head back against the bed with a shuddery sigh. Around him fell the vast indifference of Heaven.3 It looked like sunlight but he knew better. His stomach was rolling over and over, all twisted up, like a noose in the wind. Dean was going to speak.
"Cas," he said, "I need—"
"I know," Cas snapped. He didn't want to hear the excuses. He didn't care if they were justified or true. He knew Dean needed his distance back—too close to a mistake he could never take back—before his giving a shit ruined their chances of killing the devil. He knew Dean was attempting to do the right thing.
But Dean was also giving up the only beautiful thing they had so he could become a better killer. Cas could hardly condone that. He was not okay with that. And, in fact, he was done being okay with things for Dean's sake.
Dean was standing, stunned and silent, wearing the last look of regret he could ever afford.
Cas reached behind him and under his mattress, careful to keep his foot still. He dug with clumsy fingers until he found the sock. It was stupid, he knew, to keep important things in a sock. But he'd begun it years ago, after being misinformed by a television show, and he'd never found a better hiding place.
There was only one thing left that was important to him.
He jerked the amulet out of its wool wrapping and threw it at Dean, who caught it with a wordless frown. When he opened his hand his eyebrows betrayed his surprise. His mouth fell open and formed a shape that looked like the beginning of Castiel's name.
"Get out," said Cas, making it easy for Dean. "Leave the drugs."
The perspective of a dying mortal is very close to that of a falling angel, Castiel finds. He's gasping and bleeding and confused and cursed with a lens of perfect objectivity that he can turn nowhere but on his mistakes. The previous five years are condensed into a litany of Oh wells and why didn'ts. He has the distinct impression of his last bridge burning, even though he never set fire to it, and he's standing on the other side with no idea what's behind him.
If there was distant gunfire it has faded. Everything is fading.
He cannot feel the racing or the stopping of time. There is no time, he is slipping away from it, he is falling through the cracks to be lost.
If time has no meaning for him anymore, what a funny thought forever is.
Chuck, hypocritically, was the only person who was of the opinion that Castiel did not have the right to self-medicate for existential angst.
Chuck said: "Cas, you just need some perspective, man."
Cas had perspective. He had the real perspective. He had thousands of years of hindsight and forsaken divine duty giving him the God's asshole view of perspective. But unlike Chuck, he didn't have a lifetime of practice lying to himself. And so, however much he hated his perspective he was powerless against his own rationalizations.
He didn't need perspective. He needed a permanent buzz of dopamine.
After he found his high Cas invented a new religion to fill up the time he had left. It was based in his experience of humanity, the physicality of it. He decided that if humans were hell bent on being so preoccupied with the tangible he might as well indulge that, it was hardly likely to change in the next year.
"The world is meant to be treated on a short-term basis, like a scale that needs to balanced," he said. "In a nutshell: seek pleasure because pain will seek you." He borrowed from all the religions, from Christianity and Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism.
He didn't find peace, or truth, or even convincing lies. But he found a distraction, and that was enough.
He thought that, maybe, he did help others find peace. The men and women who came to him for advice, and listened to his empty words, often told him how he made them feel...together. He made them feel that sex wasn't about sex, but community, and love was about everyone.
"I just wanted you to know that you've done some good," one young lady told him. Castiel stroked her hair until she fell asleep and let her think he was thankful for her words.
Really, it hardly mattered. Good was negligible in a dying world. It was a diminishing return.
He traded in his perspective for apathy.
And then, the room isn't empty any more.
Lucifer, wearing Sam Winchester's face, walks up and looks curiously down at Castiel. He's white. He's stainless. Cas, warm in a puddle of his own blood, looks up at his ruined brother and sees something beautiful.
Dean never fired the gun.
Suddenly Cas is laughing. He's lying sideways on the floor, bleeding through his fingers, and laughing. It hurts. It's agonizing. But he cannot stop.
Lucifer looks at him in confusion, tipping his head in the parody of a familiar gesture Castiel had once known in himself. And even though Cas knows Sam is gone from that face, Sam is what he sees. Sam, frowning and convincing Dean to be sensitive, frowning and trying to be kind, frowning and feeling responsible for the end of the world. The memory makes Cas laugh harder.
He's just been the ass in the world's biggest joke.
His shit is so fucked up.
And the funniest thing, the funniest thing, is that he'll die before he can even tell Lucifer what the punch line is. Cas looks up at a creature he can no longer identify with, at his brother, full of grace and anger, and laughs and laughs in his face. His stomach is tearing itself apart inside. The blood loss is making him helplessly dizzy. The pain rips up his spine. He's splintering like light falling through a jagged prism. But he can't stop laughing.
Because Dean never fired the gun. Dean loved Sam too much, he couldn't do it.
Dean Winchester ended the world with love.
Clutching his stomach, crying with agony, beneath Lucifer's puzzled frown, Cas laughs until his breath is gone.
He laughs his way into the peaceful dark.