It’s only been a day or two since this town was wiped off the map. That makes it risky. Even when it seems quiet you never know if some Croats still hang around, waiting for more meat to tear apart, another soul to turn. But, it also means that there is a bigger chance of finding tools and supplies . Maybe even fresh food, even though that is generally pushing it these days.
There are always weapons, most of them still dark red with the blood of innocent and infected alike. Sometimes neighbors slay each other, just because they aren’t sure enough that Mr. Williams from across the street is really still Mr. Williams. Which is none of Castiel’s concern. They all die one way or another. Even the ones that escape. He is only here for the things they leave behind.
It used to be a bit of a fight before Dean let him go alone. It took some doing, but he has managed to convince their fearless leader that he is faster that way. And if there really is an attack, what difference does it make whether there’s one or two or three of them? You can shoot, and you can run. That’s about it. The thing is, being alone on these supply runs through empty farms and towns is about the only thing that still gives Castiel a little bit of peace, real peace, not the kind he finds at the bottom of a bottle filled with Whiskey or pills.
He has searched through most of the larger buildings, and the results aren’t too bad. Some canned goods, a few knives, some ammo, even toilet paper – Chuck will be pleased. It will be dark soon, he faces a long drive back, but he decides that he still has time for two or three more houses.
The one he’s looking at now was probably a nice little family home back in the days when there was such a thing. It still looks cosy, despite the broken fence and the smashed windows and the puddle of blood on the front lawn. The door swings open without a sound when he nudges it with his foot, shotgun at the ready. The interior looks almost too tidy to be part of this world. Car keys lie next to a vase of withered roses on a wooden dresser, like people here carried on with their daily lives as if nothing was wrong, until the day they just disappeared without a trace.
There is a kitchen through a door to the left, and Castiel is just about to go search it when he hears movement from a big cupboard next to the stairs. He feels his muscles tense, finger on the trigger, while he watched the door open slowly. A small hand appears first, clutching the door for support, followed by a mop of ash blond hair, and finally the rest of a little boy with a dirty face and stained clothes. Castiel watches him carefully for a moment, but there is life in the blue-grey eyes when the child looks up at him. No sign of infection, and Castiel finds himself lowering the gun.
The boy can’t be older than two or three, but he stands firmly on his short legs and Castiel feels a strange tug of familiarity when the kid looks at him with open curiosity and without any sign of fear.
“Seems you were smart enough to stay out of trouble,” he comments, and before he really knows what’s happening the boy has waddled over to him and is holding up his arms expectantly.
Castiel isn’t good with children, he certainly wasn’t as an angel, and his newly found human state hasn’t really changed anything about that. When he picks the little guy up, for whatever reason, it feels awkward, but at the same time strangely natural.
He feels a small fist clutch at his shirt, and a warm face bury itself on his shoulder with a content sigh.
“You know I can’t take you with me, right?” he clarifies but the child just snuggles closer.
Castiel wonders why he even brings it up, like it could be an option. There was a time, very early after the first outbreak, when they talked about the best strategy back at the camp, and bringing in as many survivors as possible seemed reasonable. Back when they still clung to the hope of saving humankind. Back when Dean was still all about saving as many people as they can, but that was before he lost his brother. It’s about survival at this point, about making it through another day. What for, Castiel has long forgotten.
Fact is, they are low on food and water, so they have adopted a strict policy that doesn’t allow any new people into Camp Chitaqua. They have left behind men and women of every age, some of them begging, some of them trying to convince them of their value as fighters or strategists. Dean has said no to all of them. Castiel doesn’t care either way. Not anymore.
The child in his arms is just another one of those who have run out of luck, who would have been better off not survived in the first place. For a moment Castiel wonders if it would be kinder to shoot the boy, just get it over with. He’ll be dead in a few days anyway. But Lucifer has already won and Heaven, Earth or Hell, it doesn’t make a difference anymore so why bother?
He puts the kid back down, and turns away before he can take too close a look at the frown forming on the little face. It takes him two strides and he’s out the door, but oddly, he can’t bring himself to leave the porch and walk away just yet. He needs to rest, just for a moment, so he sits down on the top step, squinting at the setting sun.
He feels something brush against his arm and turns his head to look into big sad eyes. It’s not the sadness of a scared and lonely child, though, Castiel realizes. It’s closer to sympathy, like the hand on his shoulder is trying to comfort. Castiel feels his heart clench.
“Do you have brothers?” he asks for no reason. “I had more than you can imagine. But they all left me, one way or another.”
Castiel hasn’t thought about his own brothers in a long time. He doesn’t know why he suddenly thinks about them now.
Small feet shuffle even closer, a clumsy hand reaches out to touch Castiel’s cheek in an almost caring gesture, and Castiel has to blink away tears.
“What is it with you that makes me so sentimental?” he asks and the boy’s head tilts to the side in response. Castiel imitates the gesture and smiles.
They just stay that way for a second but then a noise snaps Castiel’s attention back to reality. A little further down the road a garbage can has tipped over, spilling plastic and paper on the street. A vaguely human figure stumbles around the corner. It stops for a moment, head raised like a dog following a scent, and then starts running towards them, snarling with a hunting knife raised. Croat!
Castiel jumps to his feet and raises his shotgun.
“Get behind me,” he barks, but when he looks down the kid stands right in front of him, shaking like a leaf but unwavering, hands curled into fists.
“It’s not your job to protect me anymore. If anything, I should take care of you.” He is vaguely aware that there is something odd about this statement but he doesn’t have time to think about it.
He waits for the Croat to get closer, hands steady, eyes flickering between the approaching enemy and down the other side of the road. Croats aren’t smart enough to plan an attack from different directions. Doesn’t mean it can’t happen. The infected is still a block away, and Castiel can now see a second one following just a few feet behind. Still nothing he can’t handle. He waits a few seconds longer. Two shots, a reload, and the street is quiet again.
“I think it’s time to leave.” He grabs the child’s hand and drags him a few steps before he remembers that his new friend has the disadvantage of really short legs. So Castiel picks him up and jogs down the street, past the dead Croats, to where he has parked the car.
He puts the boy down again and very pointedly pushes him into the relatively safe space between himself and the car before he takes another careful look around. His eyes linger on every shadow for a moment to make sure that nothing hides there to attack as soon as he turns his back. Everything stays quiet.
Castiel opens the passenger door and throws the shotgun on the backseat where it will be out of the way but still within reach if needed. Before he can even say anything, the boy has already climbed into the floor room of the car and is now busy pulling himself up onto the seat.
“I assume you don’t want any help with that,” Castiel comments before slamming the door shut and walking around to the driver’s side.
For a moment he considers seatbelts but it seems ridiculous, and he is afraid that they’ll end up strangling the child rather than saving him, so he just turns the key in the ignition and pulls out to leave the town behind.
The next time he looks over, the boy is standing on his seat, supporting himself on the window sill and watching the world fly by. Castiel lifts his foot from the gas just a little bit and follows the road into the approaching night.
Dean is even angrier than Castiel anticipated.
“Why would you bring him here?” he all but yells. Risa and Chuck make sure they look busy and like they are most definitely not listening.
“I couldn’t just leave him behind, could I?” Castiel snaps back, as if it isn’t exactly what he knows he should have done.
“We have rules for a reason, Cas. We send away able-bodied men because we have hardly enough food for our own people, and you expect us to feed a toddler?”
“Come on, Dean. He doesn’t even need that much. I’ll share my ration with him.”
Dean shakes his head. “I have no idea why this is so fucking important to you, but fine. It’s not like I can just go out there and shoot him.”
They glare at each other for a moment and it feels good. Arguing, emotions.
Then Dean turns around without another word and storms out of the room. Castiel fishes for the pills in his jeans pocket and pops two into his mouth. He isn’t even entirely sure what they are, but they still have an effect and that’s all that matters.
“You know he wouldn’t let anyone else get away with that, right?” Risa states when she takes the bottle from his hands to steal a pill for herself.
“I know.” Castiel says without even looking at her as he waits for the drugs to drown the guilt that’s rising from the pit of his stomach.
There is only one bed in Castiel’s room, and even that is not much more than a mattress with a sleeping bag. The boy doesn’t seem to mind. He snuggles up to Castiel and his breath evens out almost instantly.
Castiel isn’t used to sleeping with another person next to him. Oh, he is used to warm bodies, but only for sex. They never stay. He lies in the dark and watches what he can see of the peaceful face half covered by blond curls in the moonlight. He counts deep, even breaths for hours.
It is dawn when Castiel finally falls asleep, and when he opens his eyes again a few hours later, his arm feels slightly numb where it is wrapped around the small body next to him protectively. He breathes in the salty scent of sea air under a layer of dust and dried blood still clinging to the boy.
One of the girls, Natalie, agrees to take care of his charge for the time of the meeting.
“So, what’s his name?” she asks when Castiel hands over the boy.
Castiel can just look at her. He hasn’t even thought about that yet.
“He needs a name.” She is right.
“So, do you have a name?” he enquires later that night, sitting on the mattress cross-legged and watching the boy carry an old, battered copy of Milton’s “Paradise Lost” from one end of the room to the other like it is the most important business in the world.
The boy puts down the book on an apparently very specific spot on the floor and turns around.
“Come on, buddy. You have to be old enough to speak. Just tell me your name. What did your father call you?”
The boy walks over, grabs Castiel’s left index finger, and looks him straight in the eyes.
“Cas-tel” he says, and Castiel is strangely aware that this is the first time he has heard the child speak.
“Yes, that’s my name.” he replies, wondering where the boy has picked it up. No one calls him by his full name anymore. “But what’s yours?”
Grey eyes look at him expectantly, like he is supposed to know.
“I can’t read minds.” ‘Not anymore’ he almost adds. “You’ll have to tell me.”
A frown forms on the child’s face before he turns around, and sits down next to the book with his back to Castiel, like he is pissed at him or something.
“Fine. Do you want me to call you ‘useless brat’? That’s what Mike said when he first heard about you and tried to convince Dean to use you as bait on our next run.”
The only reaction he gets is a small hand clasping pages until they rip. Castiel sighs and buries his head in his hands. Everyone in the camp knows that he and Dean have been close long before they even met any of the others, and as cold as Dean has become, he still does give Castiel special treatment whether he will admit it or not. And now that he has allowed Castiel to keep the child – like he is a fucking stray dog or something – things got a little tense in that respect. But Dean stands his ground on this, and it reminds Castiel of the old Dean, the Dean that was all about family, the Dean that still cared. But that Dean is gone, so Castiel takes another pill to forget him, and pretends he doesn’t care either.
When he looks back up the boy without a name is standing right in front of him. The trail of tears down both his cheeks makes Castiel feel bad for snapping at him, even more so when he sees the book held out with both hands like a gift. Castiel looks down at the cover that shows Lucifer plunging through clouds, his wings trailing behind, useless and unable to break his fall. Of all the books in his little collection, why did he have to pick this one?
The door flies open and Risa is standing there a little out of breath. “A breach at the southern fence. It’s probably just a badger or something but Dean wants you there.”
Castiel jumps to his feet, grabs his gun from the table, and is almost out of the door when he remembers to turn around.
“Stay here. Hide until I’m back,” he orders. “And think about what you want me to call you, or I will go with useless brat.” He adds with a warm smile.
Risa gives him an odd look that says ‘Who are you?’ and then they are on their way.
A small boy watches them leave, book still clutched in both hands.
It’s not a badger. It’s a boar, and that means fresh meat for at least a few days.
When Castiel walks back into his cabin, the boy isn’t there. He feels panic rise in his chest and now he really wishes he had a name to shout.
Castiel looks around. The door was closed, and the child is too small to reach the handle.
“Paradise Lost” is placed neatly on his pillow, and there is no sign that anyone has been in here since he left.
He hears rustling from the corner behind the book case and catches a glimpse of blond where the boy is sitting and hiding. Just like Castiel told him. Smart kid.
“False alarm. You can come out.”
Castiel steps closer and sees the black ballpoint pen held awkwardly in too small hands, the boy’s face furrowed in concentration.
“What are you…?” Castiel gasps and takes a step back. The lines are imprecise and not clearly visible on the dark wood of the floor, but the symbol looks too much like an Enochian ‘B’ for Castiel to feel comfortable about this.
He hasn’t used his native language in months if not years. He has no books about it either so there is no way that the boys could have seen the symbol and copied it from somewhere. Castiel picks up ‘Paradise Lost’ and quickly leafs through it but of course there isn’t a trace of Enochian in there. It’s just a stupid book, written by a human.
He crouches down and takes the boy’s hand to stop him from drawing more. It’s too unsettling.
“How did you know how to draw this?” He asks, voice low. He has to keep himself from shaking the child. “Who are you?”
The look he gets for this is annoyed, like the boy can’t believe that he still hasn’t figured it out. Or maybe he just doesn’t appreciate being interrupted when drawing letters of a language that no one fucking speaks anymore because everyone else who has ever used it is dead. Or currently turning the world into a second Hell.
“You have no connection to Lucifer. I may not be an angel anymore, but I would still be able to feel that.”
Angel. The grey eyes are still looking at him steadily, and they feel too familiar. It feels like back in Heaven, like home. Like a warm golden glow, and summer, and the endless sky. Like love, and grace, like loyalty and an eternal bond, like pain and betrayal and loss.
It can’t be. It’s not possible. It’s the drugs playing tricks on his mind. It’s the guilt about the one thing that still haunts him at night. He has done many things he will never be able to set right, but only one has him waking soaked in sweat, no matter how hard he tries to push it away. The one brother he could never let go.
“Balthazar…” The name is out before he can stop himself.
The boy’s face brightens at the sound of the name, and there is a light in his storm-grey eyes that gets rid of every trace if doubt Castiel had and makes him realize that he knew from the moment his brother climbed out of the cupboard in the abandoned town. He just didn’t believe.
“But how?” he asks and squeezes Balthazar’s ink-covered hand. “You didn’t Fall. You died. I –“ He can hardly keep his voice from breaking. “I killed you.”
Balthazar yawns and tugs on Castiel’s shirt, asking to be held for warmth and comfort.
Yes, this is Balthazar, is closest brother and fellow soldier for thousands of years, but he is also just a child, and as human as Castiel is now, with only shadows of memories from his former life that will most likely fade away when he grows older. But Castiel will remember. He will always remember, and he will do the best he can to right his wrong. He has been given a second chance, and Castiel silently promises that he will not waste it.
“I'm so sorry,” he whispers as he buries his face in Balthazar’s hair and holds him close.