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Are We in Trouble Now?

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2009 - Summer

The screaming hasn’t stopped in five hours.

Outside of his hospital door, all Dean can hear is screaming and moaning, and sick and blood hitting the floor. Gurneys collapse, tray tables clatter to the floor, and metal implements fly into walls. Meanwhile, Dean clutches his sides and inhales through his mask, fighting off the urge to cough and claw at his throat, just barely. By some miracle does Dean not manage to rip his own lungs from his chest, just to escape the pain and the blood seeping from his eyes. Death waits for him beyond the locked door.

Occasionally, if he looks out of the window, he can see nurses covered in red and doctors with bloodied surgical masks walk past, some healthier than others; more often than not, they have that same jaundiced look he has, skin yellowed and eyes just as discolored. Everyone in Lawrence Memorial, even the staff, is infected and dying, just like everyone else Dean has seen for the past two months. The bodies are piling, and what’s left of the military has been tasked to dig mass graves wherever they can find empty land to dispose of the sick, even if they’re still breathing.

“Don’t come in contact with any of the infected,” the President told the nation two weeks ago, just before the news outlets gave up reporting their imminent demise. “If you suspect someone has contracted H4N7, report them to the Centers for Disease Control and keep them comfortable, but do not, under any circumstances, come in contact. Mortality rates are peaking at 99.8%.”

Two weeks ago, the world population, according to the final reports, was centering around twenty-five million and plummeting. Whatever number that is now, Dean doesn’t want to know. All he knows is that he’s sick, and there’s no cure. Atlanta was the first to go, and without the CDC, no one could mobilize fast enough to fight the virus or to even contemplate a vaccine.

Everyone’s dead—Bobby, Ellen, Jo, and Sam, if Lucifer took pity on him and put him out of his misery beforehand. Dean still can’t believe it; Lucifer took his brother—his only brother, without even a question—and he’s lived for the past few months drowning himself in hand soap and sanitizer and vitamin C. Two months after the first victim, he’s taken down by a sneeze. His only saving grace, that he had been in Kansas at the time, and close enough to the hospital that he could seek treatment before the inevitable.

Dean doesn’t want to die—even if the world is doomed to perish, he wants to survive, solely to see the outcome, to see humanity prevail.

Coughing fits come and go, but each is accompanied by shooting pains in his chest and bloody phlegm; internal bleeding, probably. Untreatable. Next, he’ll vomit the last of his blood supply, followed by blindness and hysteria. Death takes place within seven to ten hours. “God,” Dean weeps, hands fisted into his eyes. “God, don’t take me, not yet.” I need to find Sam—I need to get out of here.

The door to his room opens with the swipe of a card key and a soft click. That doesn’t startle him as much as the voice calling, “Winchester,” does, rough and haggard but healthy. Healthier than himself, at least.

Uncovering his eyes, Dean blinks away blood to look beyond the window, at the procession of silver-plated men and women marching through the hall; in their wake, the screams begin to calm, and the lights begin to shutter. The man in his room, dressed in silver, unpolished armor down to his toes, closes the curtain with silver-clawed fingers, extinguishing his view.

Their only light is that of the exterior window, and the monitor at his side. His heart rate is untraceable on the screen, but Dean can’t bring himself to care. Wings—this man, this armor plated, black haired, blue eyed man has wings, adorned in silver plating, several spikes broken along the top arches. His suit is scarred and dented, years upon years’ worth of battle wounds etched into the surface, patinated in places, but strong, impenetrable. “Angel,” Dean says, the word ending in a cough. This time, unlike the others, it doesn’t stop, and Dean barely gets the mask off before he heaves on the floor, pure red.

“I’m here to reap you,” the man speaks again, feet clanging on the tile floor. “You’re not going to survive here.”

“I am,” Dean rasps, one hand on the bed. Great—not only is an Angel here, but he’s here to murder him in his bed. “You bring your buddies too?”

“This isn’t our intention.” Standing by the bed, he extends a hand; Dean rears back, just as the Angel pulls away. Angels have been reaping humans as fast as they can. Before the cell towers died, hunters were relaying the presence of what they speculated were Angels, but could never confirm. One-track minded, solely there to complete their mission; no one ever met them without death looming at their back.

The last he heard from Sarah Blake, she had learned a name, but had died before she could relay it. Dean still can’t get her last breaths out of his head.

“I don’t wanna die,” Dean confesses, a hand over his mouth and tears in his eyes. “I don’t—This isn’t supposed to be this way. You—Lucifer took my brother,” he spouts; the Angel’s eyes widen, blue irises suddenly fearful. “Satan hijacked my brother, and… Why aren’t you going after him?”

“This was prophesied,” the Angel says. Carefully, he pulls his hand free of his glove and palms Dean’s forehead, carding his fingers through his sweat-matted hair. “We can’t interfere with God’s plan.”

Dean hurls on his boots.

Outside, Dean can barely hear the screams anymore, the voices silenced; at least they died peacefully, he thinks. His death, though, won’t be as calm. “God’s plan my ass,” Dean hisses through his teeth. “God didn’t want us to die like this. God didn’t want us to die of the flu!”

“This isn’t just the flu,” the Angel says, but Dean ignores him. “I can take your pain away. Please don’t make me watch you suffer.”

“Eat me,” Dean shouts. His IV is almost gone; it shouldn’t be long now. “Go reap someone else, I’m staying here.”

“You can’t—”

“I am.” Dean palms his eyes, uncaring of his bloody his hands are. No one will mourn him, anyway; the military will take the bodies no matter how disgusting they are, and they’ll dump them all in a landfill and torch it afterwards. He doesn’t want to die this way, not yet. A monster is supposed to kill him, not a virus. And certainly not an Angel. “Either get the fuck out, or stay here. But I ain’t dying today.”

The Angel squints at him, eventually sighing and removing his helmet, winged above his ears. His hair comes away matted and stuck to his head, poking up at odd angles. At least Dean has someone here to watch over him, even if it is the Angel waiting to take his soul to Heaven. “My parents,” Dean says, grunting as he lies back on his cot. “Are they there?”

A nod. “They’re waiting for your return.”

“Sam?”

At that, the Angel shakes his head. “We’re unaware if he’s passed.”

Dean swallows, leaning his head back. “Then I’m staying alive for him.” The Angel doesn’t respond. Doesn’t do much of anything, other than pick up a chair from across the room and place it at Dean’s beside, seating himself in it. Such a human reaction from something so alien. “What’s your name?”

The Angel takes Dean’s hand in his own, pure warmth bleeding into his palm. “Castiel,” he says, pressing his lips to Dean’s fingers. “I’ll watch over you.”

Dean doesn’t have a chance to respond; he passes out just before Castiel can steal his soul away.

-+-

Silence meets him, but there’s no white light at the end of the tunnel. Everything is dark, night-like, save for the blue lights emanating beside him, pulsing with his breath, slow and rhythmic. Faintly, Dean can smell blood and the beginnings of decomposition, the originally sterile air now tainted. The air conditioner doesn’t run. His monitor doesn’t beep. No buzz of fluorescents, no computers, no idle chatter.

Everyone is dead, and he’s… not.

“Castiel,” Dean rasps; his mouth tastes like copper and his throat isn’t any better, but blood isn’t seeping from his skin anymore, and his stomach isn’t threatening to escape through his nose. It’s over—it’s over, and he’s alive, and an Angel is still in the room with him, still holding his hand. “Castiel, are you…”

Please don’t let him be dead, Dean thinks. Please don’t let me leave here alone. I don’t even know him, and

Gentle fingers come to life in his grasp. With a rush of air, Dean feels Castiel sit up, the lights in his wings growing brighter, illuminating even the darkest corners of the room. “Winchester,” Castiel says, but there’s no malice behind it, no longer despondent and duty-bound. In fact, he sounds amazed and a bit terrified. Dean can see his eyes shine in the dark. He places a plated-finger on Dean’s forehead, cold silver cool against fevered skin.

All at once, Castiel’s face softens: his lips part just the slightest, his jaw unclenches, his eyes open wider, more youthful. He’s beautiful—and with his soul intact, Dean can look at him without seeing his life flash before his eyes. “You survived,” Castiel whispers, blinking. Both hands cup Dean’s blood smeared cheeks, and Dean can’t help but smile. “This isn’t possible. You’re only human, you can’t survive Hell’s poison.”

“But I did.” Dean practically beams. Fatigued as he is, Dean swings his legs out from under his bed sheet, shining with sweat, but real. Tangible. He’s alive. “Holy shit, I’m—”

“You’re a miracle.” Castiel stands, his hands still cradling Dean’s face. His wings shudder, cold air rushing through his feathers. It feels like solace. “The other Angels have talked about you, but we never thought you were capable of… this.”

“Of what?” Bare feet hit sick-soaked floor; Dean ignores it in favor of finding his clothing, a shirt and jeans left on a table when he first arrived. No blood, no sweat. He had only been awake for an hour before the infection. That kid is probably dead by now; the thought stops him cold. “…Why did Lucifer pick Sam?”

Castiel turns to him, sliding his glove back onto his hand. He waves his fingers towards the roof until the individual joints fit in place. “You have to understand,” he starts, just as Dean is ripping his stained hospital gown off and pulling his jeans on over his briefs, “I’m just an Angel. I’ve never…”

“You’ve never left Heaven,” Dean finishes for him. Castiel nods, wary even in the shadows. “So God just sent you down here to pick off poor souls without giving you a reason why?”

“My garrison is tasked with soul retrieval,” Castiel hisses. He clangs when he walks, grating in Dean’s ears. “Whatever happened with you or your brother, I have no knowledge of.”

Dean pulls his shirt on, the comfort of cotton only lasting a good five seconds before sweat begins to drip down his back. Without the air conditioning, humidity begins to seep in, drenching everything it touches. Never once did Dean ever consider how mid-summer would be the worst time to have an apocalyptic pandemic. “What do you know?” he asks, pulling his socks on.

“That I have to protect you,” Castiel says, with all sincerity in his heart.

Dean sucks in a breath just to steady himself. “You can’t mean that,” he mutters, barely a whisper. “You don’t know me. All you did was hold my hand and wait for me to die, you can’t—”

Castiel shoves him against the wall, silver pressing into his breastbone, his other hand denting the wall. “If the other Angels find out you’re alive, they’ll come for you. You’re a mistake in their eyes. Hell is supposed to destroy every last human on earth, and survivors are at risk. If they find you, they’ll throw you into the Pit.” He stops, nose pressed to Dean’s; their breath mingles, and for a split second, Dean smells freshly fallen snow. “You said you wanted to find your brother, and I can help you. But I won’t let you die because you’re too obstinate to accept help when it’s given.”

“Hey,” Dean rebuts; he can’t find it in himself to fight now, not after he spent the last few hours hurling and anticipating his own demise. “How am I supposed to believe the guy that just tried to kill me?”

“You don’t have to believe me,” Castiel breathes. “But the other Angels won’t be as lenient if they find you. Your soul is…” He runs his hand down Dean’s chest, pressing over his navel; the points of his glove dig in, fisting his shirt in his hand. “It’s bright, and it’s pure, the purest I’ve ever seen. But it’s tainted.”

Dean swallows, sighing through his nose; the last thing he wanted to hear, that he’s tainted, that he’s poisoned. A low blow for a man that spent his whole life being told he was never good enough; but Castiel wouldn’t know that. Castiel knows nothing about him, other than that literal Satan is running around in his brother’s body. “I’m not tainted,” Dean mutters, petulant.

Castiel releases his shirt, only to palm his neck. “Your soul bears the mark of Hell. Angels can see souls of every creature we meet, and yours has a scar. Here.” He sweeps down to Dean’s forearm, over the soft flesh just below his elbow. “They’ll kill you, Winchester.”

“Dean,” Dean says, watery in his throat. “Please, just… Dean.”

“Dean.” Castiel holds his arm, soft enough to be a caress through his armor. “Please. I’ll protect you, but believe me when I say, they won’t see you like I do.”

“How do you see me?” Dean asks, just before Castiel rests his forehead on Dean’s shoulder, breath warm through his shirt. “Castiel…”

“Let me save you,” Castiel begs. Dean can’t help but obey.

-+-

“Maybe I should start at the beginning,” Dean huffs, hoisting a duffel bag over his shoulder, stocked with more than enough nonperishables to last them at least a month. At his side, Castiel shoves a portable induction cooktop into another bag, along with several pots looted from a TFAL box. Between them, they have four duffels, the other two stuffed with blankets and clothing and toiletries, and more than enough batteries to power the flashlights and lamps they pilfered.

Walmart really does have everything, especially when you don’t have to pay for it.

“You’re a hunter,” Castiel states in the parking lot.

Outside, at least two dozen cars are parked, almost all empty, another few with bodies slumped over steering wheels. A dog runs wild underneath the lit street lamps, joining with its mate and peeling out onto the interstate. Dean knew it was desolate yesterday, but in the cover of night, he never realized how barren Kansas was. Three months ago, Lawrence was bustling and vibrant: college students were graduating, families were getting ready for out of state trips. Now, the Army patrols the streets in tanks—fucking tanks—and gathers the dead into semi-trucks.

Survival mode is terrifying, Dean thinks. Even hosing off blood behind the Walmart didn’t help him feel any better.

“Me and Sam, we’ve been hunting since we were little,” Dean starts. The street lamps pass as they walk, pouring light onto the abandoned highway and the cars strewn about, some on the roadside, some scattered in the median. One hangs precariously over the side of a bridge. “A demon killed our mom, and dad just… He wasn’t the same after that. Me and Sammy, we spent years in the backseat and in motels while he hunted, and I tried so hard to keep him safe, to get him out of the life. But dad dragged me in because I needed to, ‘Protect him, Dean. Keep him safe, Dean. He’s your responsibility, Dean.’”

He shakes his head, breath shaking when he exhales. “Kids shouldn’t have to go through that. I wanted to be a rock star, y’know? Or an artist. Here, look at this.” Pulling a moleskin notebook from his back pocket, he hands it over to Castiel. “It’s not much, but…”

It’s all he has. Given a pencil or a ballpoint, and Dean will scribble to his heart’s content, monsters and landscapes and cars. Belatedly, he regrets not pulling his Impala from the parking lot, but gas stations stopped operating last week and the last shipment had been more than two ago. The more he thinks about it, the more anxious he grows. Priorities keep him in check, though. They have to get out of town. He has a friend in Louisiana that can help, if he’s still alive. For both of their sakes, Dean really hopes so.

Castiel peruses the pages, thumb daintily spearing them apart without poking holes. The last image he drew was of the sunrise in El Paso last month, when hope was still on the horizon. A vaccine had been developed; they were starting to gain the upper hand against the virus. But the study participants died, and even worse, they came back. Whatever they evolved into hadn’t been released to the public, but whatever they are, it can’t be any good.

“You’re amazing,” Castiel remarks, flipping back to a particular page, illustrating a cemetery with an Angel leaning against a headstone. No wings, but with a halo, dressed in a threadbare suit with eyes as bright as snow. “Is this what you think we look like?”

Dean snorts. “Not anymore.” He takes the notebook back and shoves it into his pocket, afterwards looking to Castiel, his face lit underneath yellow light, his features even sharper here, more menacing. His cheekbones swoop at hard angles from his eyes, and his nose is perfectly straight, his profile something to admire. Next time I get a pen. “What’s with the knight getup though?” Dean points to the armor and the helmet adorning Castiel’s head. “Expecting a fight?”

Briefly, Castiel looks down at himself, then over his shoulder to the sword Dean didn’t even know was there until now. “We’re always armed,” Castiel mentions. His wings flap behind his back, kicking up sand; blue lights their way. “Heaven has been at war over whether or not to let Croatoan proceed.”

“Croatoan?” Dean asks. “That’s what you’re calling it?”

Castiel shrugs. “Essentially. It was the name Lucifer gave it during Creation, and God locked him and it away before he could unleash his wrath on Humanity. I suspect with his release, he found it a fitting time to wipe out the planet.” Castiel looks to him out of the corner of his eye, a gaze Dean finds concerning. “How did Lucifer escape Hell?”

That, Dean doesn’t know. Yes, there had been a rise in demonic events across the United States over the last few months, but nothing out of the ordinary. Not until the earthquakes started. Not until the earthquake that put sinkholes into Atlanta, or the tornadoes that ripped apart entire towns in Washington. New York caught fire. Miami flooded up to rooftops. Los Angeles suffered a complete grid shutdown that never fully powered back on. The government called them infrastructure failures—hunters called them premonitions.

“All I know is, one day Stull Cemetery just vanished. Like, massive sinkhole that went down farther than any scientist could figure out. And then one night, me and Sammy were asleep in Omaha, and this guy just shows up in our room. Snatches Sammy out of bed and just…” Dean rubs his eye. “He didn’t even say anything. Just possessed him, and… That’s the last I saw of him.”

Castiel doesn’t offer condolences; Dean doesn’t expect him to. “Whatever happened, please know it wasn’t your fault,” Castiel says instead; silver claws cradle Dean’s shoulder, fingers digging in enough to smart. “But Lucifer’s rise wasn’t… No one in Heaven knew. The date was far in the future, not anywhere close to now. But the fact that your brother could contain him…”

Abruptly, Castiel stops, fingers dragging down Dean’s back; looking back, Dean notes the sudden horror on his face, a streetlamp above him sputtering. His wings glow red. “Cas?”

“Are you John Winchester’s son?” is all Castiel asks; Dean nods, wary, and nearly falls as Castiel approaches, all righteous wrath and fury. He grabs Dean’s collar, tearing a hole in the fabric. “If your brother can carry Lucifer, then he’s the True Vessel. And if that’s the case, then you’re Michael’s Vessel.”

Dean sputters—what? “Hold up.” Batting at Castiel’s hands doesn’t work, not as long as he’s shielded by his suit; he really needs to lose that thing. “Like, Archangel Michael? God’s first?”

“If Lucifer rises, then Michael follows.” Castiel cocks his head, considering. “How has he not found you?”

“I don’t know,” Dean manages; Castiel lets him go, and only then does Dean realize that Castiel had hoisted him six inches into the air. His throat suddenly feels tight, skin clammy. Not again. “Cas, I swear, I don’t know—”

Castiel shushes him before he can fully panic, both hands clasping Dean’s shoulders. “Dean,” he calls, but Dean can’t hear him, not with the sudden tinnitus or the incredible realization that the world is ending and he survived a near-lethal virus, and an honest to God Angel is standing in front of him. His family, his friends are all dead and his brother is possessed by Satan, and here he is, standing in the middle of an interstate running on adrenaline and fear.

He should’ve crashed when the pandemic first started. “I didn’t—I didn’t realize—” He stops to cover his eyes; no manner of pressure stops the tears, and no matter how long Castiel touches him, or even when Castiel leads him into the forest, he can’t stop shaking.

The world hits him with the force of a truck. This time, Castiel is there to carry him to safety.

-+-

Dean wakes before sunrise cradled in something soft, something he can run his fingers through and feel a pulse. Warm lights greets him from between black feathers, soothing the ache in his bones and the last vestiges of a headache behind his eyes. Wings arch above his head, and behind his back, Dean can feel Castiel breathing. Castiel—Castiel the Angel, currently keeping watch over him at dawn.

It feels surreal, to realize that the world is ending and he’s in the arms of an Angel. Alanis Morissette would be proud.

“Do you sleep?” Dean asks, reaching up to touch Castiel’s face, warm and soft under his fingertips. Not at all like Dean pictured, but he’s real.

Castiel stirs slowly, cobalt eyes blinking open, hazy with sleep. So he really was. “I meditate,” Castiel slurs; slowly, he peels his wings away and tucks them at his back, the light extinguishing in his wake. “If I suppress my Grace, I can recharge. It’s been… a long few weeks.”

Right. Castiel was reaping souls before he found Dean. Castiel was taking lives with a gentle hand and an even softer smile. “Your vessel,” Dean starts, sitting up and stretching his arms above his head; his spine pops in all the right places. “Who is it? Was it?”

Castiel hums and glances to the trees. Here, Dean can’t even see the sky. “His name was James Novak. His wife and daughter had died the night before, and he was dying, and he prayed. I told him, if he allowed me to use his body, that I would send him to Heaven with his family.” He sighs, wringing his hands together. “He accepted, and I ended his suffering.”

Dean looks over his shoulder at Castiel, at the concern knitting his brow and the despair in his eyes, and itches to touch, to soothe his ache. “Do you think he’s happy?” Dean asks.

Castiel nods slowly. “I think he is,” he says. In those four words, Dean senses his fear and his disbelief, and holds it close. They’re both scared, albeit for different reasons. Together, though, they can survive. At least, Dean hopes.

-+-

Walking is tiring, Dean decides around Overland Park. They’ve barely gotten out of Lawrence, and Dean already wants to quit; maybe he should just hotwire a car after all, one that has gas. As it is, it’ll take at least two weeks days to get to Shreveport, and another two to get to New Orleans. The only thing stopping him is Castiel’s wings, unless he steals a El Camino or something. “Can you even put those away?” Dean asks from the shower, the door wide open but the curtain pulled.

One good thing about an apocalypse—free motel stays. The water runs and the electricity works, but for how long is the question. The grids can operate without interruption until a line breaks or a storm tears through a power station, even without human interference; hopefully without plant workers, they can keep the lights on for a little longer.

Castiel organizes all of Dean’s snack boxes on one of the beds, his wings taking up most of the mattress—and the room, if Dean had to accurately gauge his wingspan. “I can,” Castiel answers, “but I don’t. I find it keeps creatures away, if they know I’m near.”

Dean scrubs his face under the spray, the last of the blood bleeding from his hair and down the drain. Hopefully where they’re going, the cities will have decent water pressure and comfortable beds; he’ll revel in those until he’s forced to sleep on the floor, hopefully a long while down the road. Maybe there, he’ll find other survivors too. “You don’t get hot? Or uncomfortable?” Shutting off the water, Dean reaches around the curtain to grab a towel, scrubbing his hair before wiping himself dry and wrapping the towel around his waist. For his modesty, mostly. He just met Castiel, and the last thing he wants to do is expose himself to an Angel.

“I don’t feel,” Castiel shrugs. He dumps the food stuffs back into the bag when Dean steps back into the room. Somehow, riffling through the clothing bag for a pair of underwear, Dean knows Castiel is watching, knows Castiel’s eyes are on the scars littering his body, some small, others more gnarled, never quite disappearing. “How many monsters have hurt you?” he asks, silver creaking as he stands; a frigid hand skates over the small of Dean’s back, over the longest of them all, but the most tender. “Who did this?”

Dean huffs and stands, briefs in hand; shame heats his face and spreads to his chest, all under Castiel’s observations. “Hellhound,” he admits; Castiel narrows his eyes. “Not after me, but… This woman we knew, Bela. She was a pain in our ass, but she was a friend. Saved our asses a few times. But she made a deal. Her dad was abusing her, and she thought if she sold her soul, then she’d be better off.”

“But her time came,” Castiel suggests, and Dean nods.

“We killed it,” he laughs. “Fucker tried to take me out with it, but we got it off her tail, and she took off. Haven’t seen her since.” Rubbing the back of his neck, he fists his underwear tighter. “All my friends, Cas. Everyone I know, they’re all dead, and I’m… How am I supposed to keep going like this?”

Castiel trails a cold finger across his cheek, knuckles brushing against his ear; Dean falls into it, eyes slipping shut. “You’re strong. You’re stronger than any Angel than I’ve ever seen, and stronger than the humans I had to reap. You were the only one who fought me. You begged to live.” He drops his hand; Dean still can’t look at him. “And you’ll survive this. We can save your brother.”

“I know,” Dean wheezes, head bowed. “I know, but it’s… I never thought it’d happen. I never thought I’d have to watch my family die, and it’s… It’s not even a monster. It’s a fucking virus, and I can’t save everyone. I can’t tell them it’s gonna be alright, I can’t tell them I’ll kill the damn thing. I just feel so… useless.”

“You’re not,” Castiel whispers. He takes Dean’s empty hand in his own, threading his fingers through Dean’s and clasping tight. “There’s a reason you lived. But we can’t figure it out here.”

Dean looks to their hands, and how Castiel’s looks in his, all silver and no warmth. “Do you need your armor?” he asks. Castiel doesn’t answer immediately, more affronted that Dean would ask than anything. “If we’re gonna be walking, you need something other than a museum piece. C’mon.” Pushing Castiel towards the bed is more like shoving a brick wall, but Castiel acquiesces and moves, mattress springs creaking under his weight. “Give me a minute.”

Changing out of his towel for briefs shouldn’t take a closed bathroom door, but Dean shuts it anyway, mostly to regain his composure—he just asked to take Castiel’s armor off. Castiel, an Angel he’s only known for a day, almost two now. Do Angels even wear clothes under there? Does he even have a body? He has a hand, that’s for certain, but the rest of him?

No use hiding in the bathroom asking, anyway. By the time Dean leaves the room and shuts the light off, Castiel is unfastening his boots, the straps coming free after some unbuckling. Bare feet come free, tanned and lined red from pressure. He has feet—that’s a good start. “Give me your hands,” Dean orders, seating himself by the headboard. Castiel faces him without a question, offering both clawed hands to him, palm up.

As Dean moves, he can’t help but consider how intimate it must be, to touch a creature of such magnitude so freely, without the threat of murder hanging over his head. Piece by piece, Dean lays each plate and guard to the side, exposing Castiel’s arms to open air. Whoever Jimmy Novak was, he must’ve worked out, or at least tanned; freckles dot Castiel’s shoulders and back, a few peppering his chest when Dean removes the breastplate. No shirt—he better be wearing underwear.

Castiel watches him all the while, Dean unbuckling every individual loop and sliding straps free. “Has anyone ever done this?” Dean asks, freeing Castiel’s left hand and massaging life into his fingers, calloused digits brushing against his own.

“No human has ever touched me,” Castiel says, like it’s a secret, like the other Angels may be listening in. “No one…”

Dean shushes him with a whisper, pressing his lips to the tip of Castiel’s thumb. Too intimate. Too many boundaries being crossed, but he can’t bring himself to care when Castiel smiles, red highlighting his cheeks just the slightest. “It’ll be better like this,” Dean says, and places Castiel’s leg in his lap. “Trust me. If we run into anyone, we’re gonna wanna blend in.”

“I’ll only put my wings away if you can steal a car,” Castiel mentions; if Dean listened hard enough, he could swear he was trying to lighten the mood. “I wish I could fly, though.”

Dean looks up, hands idly undoing Castiel’s thigh plate. “You can’t fly?”

Castiel shakes his head. “Until we’re designated to return, no Angel can enter Heaven. We’re earthbound until the dying are purged. Survivors are to be left until they perish on their own accord.”

Dean hisses. “So you get roped into reaping against your will, and God traps you down here?”

“To be fair, not all Angels have to do this,” Castiel huffs. “Archangels and Principalities are still in Heaven. Lesser Angels have to fulfill their missions or else Fall.”

“Wait, they’ll make you fall?”

Castiel gives him a look, one eye narrowed, his other brow raised high. “God has worse punishments for us. Falling is the least of our problems.”

The casualness in which Castiel says it gives Dean pause, like an Angel being punished with becoming human is a common occurrence. Who knows; to Castiel, it may be.

Castiel’s final plate comes free, and to Dean’s relief, Castiel is wearing boxers. Thank God. “How’s that feel?” he asks, watching Castiel shake out his limbs and bend his knees and elbows. His back cracks, his neck pops, but all in all, he’s whole. “Less weight, right?”

“I feel naked,” Castiel says in all honesty; Dean can’t help but laugh. “I’m not sure I can fight like this.”

“You’ll get used to it,” Dean grins. “You wanna sleep? Or meditate, or whatever you do.”

Thankfully, Castiel nods. “I’ll watch over you,” he says, sincere in a way that makes Dean’s heart hurt. This time, when he touches Dean’s cheek, it’s warm and every bit of comfort he’s ever needed.

-+-

Dean finds a Ryder wagon in Harrisonville’s Walmart and promptly shoves all of their belongings inside. It even has offroad wheels, in case they decide to cut through the forest. Also in their new cart is a portable hand generator and several handguns and a rifle, the bottom filled with more ammo than they can possibly need. “I can fight them,” Castiel says in their motel room that night while Dean loads every weapon in their possession. “A gun won’t kill the survivors.”

“No,” Dean cocks his pistol, pointing it at the static television screen, “but it’ll get ‘em off our ass for a few seconds.”

What they’re dealing with on the outside, Dean doesn’t know, and Castiel hasn’t put a name to them yet. But according to Castiel, some survivors of the virus have mutated, specifically around the point of origin in Georgia. “They’re spreading,” Castiel says on day three of their trek, still southward bound; today, though, it’s cloudy, a swift breeze cooling the sweat from their necks. Even in the heat, Castiel wears tight jeans and an even tighter shirt, his biceps threatening to tear out of his sleeves; he really needs to ask what Jimmy’s profession was. Maybe bodybuilder, or some sort of athlete. “They’re probably more your territory though. I just pray we don’t run across any.”

Dean whistles and drags the cart behind them, his shoulders no longer aching from the weight of the bags. “You said they were in Georgia, right? Do you think the mutation could’ve spread this far?”

“Under normal circumstances, yes.” Castiel walks with his sword in hand, like he expects someone to leap out of the trees and attack; four feet long, it’s apparently forged from solid Grace, a material Dean didn’t even know existed, but apparently is created in Angelic forges and handed out amongst their kind. His other, smaller blade is tucked in the wagon amongst the Glocks. “But the lack of ground and air transportation has halted it. Humans can only walk so far so fast.

Speaking of. “Hey, do you wanna hotwire a car?” Dean asks; Castiel doesn’t exactly say no. “I mean, I can siphon gas. Can’t pump it, but I sure as shit can steal it.”

Castiel shrugs and starts looking, eyeing every car they can find outside of Harrisonville. “I’ve never been a fan of walking,” he says. Has he ever walked a day in his life?

“Then look for a sedan. Two door, four door, something that can get far but not leave us on the side of the road.”

It takes another hour; most of the cars left outside of the city are Escalades or Suburbans, nothing like similar to an Elantra or a Prius. Just as drizzle begins to fall, they find a black Ford Taurus, newer model with drive-out tags and a full tank of gas. The owner is nowhere in sight; hopefully their death was quick and not like the guy in the Cooper a mile back.

The trunk is unlocked, to Dean’s relief, and together they pile in their belongings next to a gallon container of unleaded, possibly stored by the dealership. “I miss my Baby,” Dean says, shimmying open the driver’s side door with a cleaning rod; it pops without setting off the alarm or starting any wildlife. Castiel jerks upright, nearly bashing his head on the tip of the passenger door. “I’d have to stop for gas every fifty miles though—”

“Listen,” Castiel hushes him; his wings expand to shield the entirety of the car and then some, blocking out some of Dean’s view, but not all. “Do you have the keys?”

“I don’t—” No key in the ignition, but there’s a spare in the middle pocket. Preparedness never hurt anyone. “Cas, get in the car—”

Something—or someone—charges out of the woods just as Dean turns the engine over, a rush of teeth and limbs and clawed nails. Castiel fights the first off with a slash to the neck, head rolling off its shoulders and leaving a bloody smear on the asphalt; Dean takes out the second with a shot to the forehead, not immediately killing it, but knocking it back a few steps. Shooting them only makes them madder, apparently. “Cas, get in the damn car,” Dean shouts again.

Castiel ignores him in favor of decapitating the other one, afterwards kicking its body into the grass. Okay, so they have gotten this far—which means there’s more out there. Walking is no longer an option if they’re being followed everywhere they go by rabid former-humans. He should really think of a name for them, now that he knows that they’re real.

“Cas,” Dean hisses in the silence. Rain begins to fall, dotting the windshield. “Are you done?”

Castiel turns to face the car, glaring at Dean over the roof. “I’m beginning to think there may be an issue,” he says; Dean barely, just barely, resists the urge to tell him, “You think?”

-+-

Dean’s old car, a 1967 Chevrolet Impala, used to be the love of his life; a gift from his father, Dean was her sole caretaker with any dents or dings, and on several occasions, he rebuilt her with his own hands, replaced doors and windows, reupholstered the interior, painted her midnight black in an out-building in Bobby’s scrapyard.

This car is not his Chevy, but she gets better gas mileage than anything he’s ever driven. They pull over outside of Fort Smith to stretch their legs and for Dean to suck gasoline through a pilfered garden hose, all while Castiel keeps watch with sword in hand. God, he’s never gotten used to the taste of gas in his mouth.

“How long do we have?” Castiel asks from the trunk, rummaging through one of their bags; he comes back with a prepackaged sandwich from the cooler and places it in Dean’s seat, along with two bottles of water.

From the stories Castiel has told him, Angels are meant to be unfeeling, unthinking, all blind devotion to a God that let his greatest creation die. But Castiel is thoughtful in a way that still surprises him, from small touches to offering Dean food when he himself doesn’t need it. There must be something wrong with him, or he’s playing a long con—or maybe he’s different. Special.

Maybe it’s close proximity and the fact Castiel watched him puke his guts out, but Dean is beginning to like him, inhuman as he may be. “Nine hours,” Dean says, still spitting gasoline; rising his mouth with water only helps so much. He needs toothpaste. Or an orange. “If we keep going, we’ll get there by nightfall.”

Everything feels unreal, and not in the way Dean ever expected. He’s driven down this road before multiple times, crossed it at different points, stayed in a variety of motels in the small towns off each and every exit ramp. But that was months, even years ago, when the world was still functioning and the sky didn’t feel like a cage. The further into the mountains and through the valleys, the less of civilization he sees; cars don’t exist between exits here; billboards are beginning to collapse without maintenance, road signs are graffitied over and collapsed, and the few cars that are there are dumped into the median, most likely by passing Army convoys and bulldozers.

“I know this is the first time you’ve had a vessel,” Dean starts, hands on the wheel; exit signs pass without observance. “But, you’ve watched us, right? You know what we were?”

Castiel leans back in his seat, tennis shoes slipped off into the footwell. “I used to watch, years ago,” Castiel says, unsure but awed. “I always thought it was brilliant, what humanity could accomplish with the advent of electricity. Even before they turned the lights on, with factories and tools and weaponry… You were constantly growing, evolving in ways the other Angels never expected you to.” He looks out the window, hands folded in his lap. “After a while, I was the only one who cared to watch.”

Dean relaxes his shoulders a bit. Castiel may not have been among them, but he’s watched humanity; he knows what they were like on the surface, but the deeper complexities are probably still a mystery. “Hell of a time to decide to join us,” Dean murmurs. “The last few years, did you… sense anything?”

“Did I sense your demise?” Castiel asks.

“Something like that.” Topping eighty, Dean maneuvers out of the way of a parked Hummer. “All the disasters and all that, was anyone saying anything?”

“Not particularly,” Castiel sighs. “For a long while, though, we didn’t hear Lucifer. Though in hindsight, we should’ve taken that into consideration.”

“You think?” Dean scoffs. “I mean, you see it in movies and read about it, but… It just doesn’t feel real. Last three months, I’ve been driving across the country trying to find Sam, and I watched entire cities go dark overnight. The news guys were terrified out of their minds, and after a while, the President stopped showing up. He could be dead for all I know, man.”

“He is,” Castiel deadpans. Just what Dean wants to hear, the most powerful person in the world is dead. “The only world leader left is the prime minister of Canada, and he’s currently hospitalized.”

“That mean Canada rules the world?” Dean jokes, but Castiel doesn’t humor him. The entire planet is being governed by Canada—how did this happen? “Like… if someone were to tell me last year that I’d be driving to Louisiana in a stolen car with an Angel, I would’ve told you to go fuck yourself.”

“It isn’t the most ideal of circumstances, but I have to wonder, if I would never have found you, would you still be here?”

Dean side-eyes Castiel, hands gripping leather; for all Dean knows, he might have died in that hospital and then been dumped without a headstone. It always seemed better to die than to watch the world burn, he thinks. Preferably first, so he wouldn’t have to witness everyone he knew die before his eyes. But nothing has ever worked in his favor, and the only thing keeping him alive now is making it to New Orleans and getting Lucifer out of his brother. And, incidentally, the Angel riding shotgun, with his bare feet up on the dash and arms crossed over his chest.

Surreal, uncanny—he needs more words.

“You’re good company,” Dean admits; reaching over, he pats Castiel’s shoulder, letting his fingers squeeze gently into fever-warm flesh. Why is he always this hot? “I just… Thank you, for staying with me. Pretty sure I’d be out of my mind if it wasn’t for you.”

Castiel smiles at him, ever so faintly, and leans his head back against the headrest. And for a brief moment, Dean’s pulse quickens.

-+-

Their car runs out of gas half a mile from the end of the Lake Ponchetrain Causeway, leaving Dean and Castiel to walk the rest of the way into New Orleans in the dark. Castiel’s wings light the way, no matter how many times Dean tells him to put them away. “Someone could see you,” Dean chastises, a lantern in his hand and the wagon’s handle in the other. “What’re they gonna think then? Shit, they’ll probably think you’re gonna reap them.”

“They can’t kill me,” Castiel huffs and snaps his wings, feathers rustling like thunder. “Though, they can try.”

Dean rolls his eyes, but keeps on. “Now’s not the time to get cocky, Cas.”

New Orleans is terrifying in the dark, a labyrinth of aging architecture and empty, silent streets. Rain falls in thin sheets, wetting the asphalt and running into storm drains; in the scant light cast from his lamp, Dean might think it was beautiful, if not for the circumstances that brought him there. Having Castiel nearby is a constant reassurance that he’s not dreaming, that the world really is ending and he just drove in a stolen car to the Gulf with an Angel in the front seat.

No use stewing on it now, Dean thinks, switching arms; the longer he stands there and thinks about how he managed to survive out of everyone else, the more he’ll hate himself for it later. Because out of everyone on earth that deserved to survive, it sure as hell wasn’t him.

The readout on his watch reads somewhere close to midnight when Dean begins to hear chatter, not loud, but enough to get Dean excited. “Put your wings away,” Dean hisses again, this time looking over shoulder with what he hopes is a stern glare; by the time he turns, though, they’re already gone, Castiel reduced from a looming presence to just a man with an otherworldly air and too-tight clothes.

Castiel rolls his shoulders, exhaling in what Dean knows has to be relief; he can’t be comfortable peacocking to an audience of one. “First you make me take off my armor, and now I have to conceal myself,” Castiel huffs, but there’s barely any malice to it. One of his saving graces, that Castiel doesn’t take himself too seriously. “Are you ashamed of me?”

“Oh God,” Dean laughs, for the first time in days, maybe even weeks, and all over an Angel acting like a child. Castiel humoring him doesn’t stop him from doubling over, hands on his knees. “That shouldn’t be that funny.”

“But you’re happy,” Castiel says, and Dean can’t even lie about that. Despite everything, Dean is… happy. They’re hopefully close to civilization, they have their health, and they didn’t have to walk for two weeks to make a distance Dean has driven in a day before. Happiness feels so alien now, but Dean will hold onto it as long as he can. “Dean—”

A presence cuts short their revelry, in the form of two men dressed in fatigues and brandishing rifles, and a woman with a crossbow—a fucking crossbow—aimed at Castiel’s head. Not the welcome Dean wanted. “Hey, whoa,” Dean lets the wagon handle drop and moves to stand in front of Castiel, hands raised. None of them lower their weapons; in fact, the woman, all auburn hair and legs and familiar green eyes, pulls back on her string.

Her resemblance nearly knocks the wind out of him. “Bela?” Dean stutters. Both men turn to the woman, who in turn drops her weapon and bursts into tears. “Holy shit, you’re—”

Bela practically throws herself into her arms, and Dean can’t help but clutch her jacket burying his nose in her hair. “I could punch you,” she muffles into her throat; she does, once, the pain insignificant to the fact that he just found an old friend at the end of the world. “We have cell service, and we’ve been calling everyone we could.” She pulls back, her hands on his biceps, nails digging in. The apocalypse hasn’t done her any good; no manner of hot showers can wash the fear from her eyes or the dark shadows on her face, or the scar over her eye, iris beginning to grow pale. Belatedly, Dean wonders if a life spent in Hell would’ve been easier than living here. “Why didn’t you answer?”

Phone—fuck. “Shit, I left it in my car,” Dean groans; also left behind are his wallet and weapons and stash hidden in the tire well. “We were running—”

“Who’s he?” one of the men asks, gruff and overcompensatingly assertive; probably trying to suck up to a higher-up. Maybe the other guy, maybe Bela. Does Bela lead all of New Orleans?

Dean looks over his shoulder to Castiel, Castiel’s face pinched in what could probably be called physical strain. “They’re not gonna hurt you,” Dean whispers, and out of sight of their eyes, he takes Castiel’s wrist in hand. “This is Cas. I met him at the hospital in Lawrence.”

Bela’s lips part; the other man, scrawnier than his partner and higher pitched, chimes in, “Did you catch it?”

That question earns hard glares from everywhere; Dean backs into Castiel as a reflex, but Castiel holds him steady, a hand gripping his shoulder hard enough to bruise. “He survived,” is all he says, but it doesn’t stop both men from pointing their guns, this time at him.

“It could come back,” Tall says, just as the Kid adds, “He could infect everyone here.”

“If he survived, then he can’t transmit the virus,” Bela remarks, earning pointed looks in her direction. “What, you think everyone here is a saint? I caught it last month and never told anyone.”

Kid blinks. “Ma’am, you should’ve—”

“What, and risked everyone throwing me in the Gulf?” Bela laughs, ultimately facing Dean and Castiel. “I’ve been through worse.”

Damn right she has. “How many of you are there?” Dean asks.

Bela places a finger to his lips. “We’ll talk tomorrow. There are rooms on the first floor of the La Quinta. Both of you, go rest, and we’ll talk in the morning. Deal?”

Castiel nods; his grip tightens on Dean’s shoulder. “We left six cases of water in the car. We broke down on the Causeway.”

Cases of water shouldn’t be this exciting to anyone, but here Dean is, watching Bela clap like she just found gold. “I knew I liked you for a reason,” she says with a grin. “Now go. We’ll go get your stuff.”

-+-

Even with the air conditioner running, New Orleans remains one of the muggiest places Dean has ever stayed in. Scrubbing himself raw in the shower doesn’t help, and neither does leaving the door to their room wide open to feel the air rushing in from the hall. It has to be seeping through the walls; there’s no other explanation as to why he’s sweating in bed while Castiel polishes his armor at the desk, wings out and everything.

Maybe it’s just Castiel, Dean thinks before flipping onto his stomach, sheets bunched around his ankles. No, it’s just proximity; he can’t possibly be attracted to a person—an Angel—he just met four days ago. But what if he is? What if it isn’t a fluke and he isn’t falling back on his immediate affection for anyone that touches him? What if he actually loves him and his body is trying to tell him something?

Every fiber of his being tells him not to pursue it. But partnering up, especially now, platonically or otherwise, is better than being alone.

“Rise and—oh.” Bela stops in the doorway with wide eyes, dressed in silk pajamas and hair tied into a bob. Dean has the urge to run across the room and slam the door in her face; he knows what she sees, and what she sees is Castiel, naked except for his boxers, with wings plastered against the wall and his helmet in hand, like he isn’t an Angel. Her smile stops him, though, admiration in her eyes. “So you met an Angel?”

“I was supposed to reap him, but he decided he didn’t want to die,” Castiel shrugs and places his helmet on the desk, reaching for the Turtle Wax. “He’s stubborn.”

“You followed me,” Dean complains. Covering his head with a pillow doesn’t keep Bela from looking at him, nor does it stop her from grabbing his ankle. “Come on—”

“Get up,” Bela coos, running her fingers along the sole of Dean’s foot; he could kick her. “Everyone’s having breakfast downstairs. You, though,” she points at Castiel, the paint on her nail chipping, “Wings away. Right now, you’re as good as an omen.”

“I told you,” Dean snorts. Castiel rolls his eyes. “Hey,” he grabs Bela’s wrist before she walks away, nearly jerking her backwards. “You haven’t seen Benny, have you?”

Bela regards him with sympathy and pats his hand, gentle and everything Dean feared. “Humans weren’t the only things it killed.”

-+-

Breakfast consists of waffles and pancakes and questionably dated muffins, but it’s considerably more than Dean has eaten in the last few days. Maybe weeks, if he’s counting. The next time he sees a wrapper, he might scream. Before Bela comes over to their couch in the La Quinta’s lobby, Dean attempts to get Castiel to eat part of a waffle, no matter how many times Castiel says he doesn’t need food. “It’s fun, though,” Dean says, spearing a chunk through maple syrup and holding it out to him. “C’mon, just ‘cause you don’t need to don’t mean you can’t. Can’t go wrong with breakfast.”

Castiel stares at him in exasperation, looking halfway ready to walk out the glass doors and leave. “Has anyone ever told you you’re persistent?”

“The Madame said you would be,” a man says to their right, grinning and too chipper for seven in the morning. He has to have another few inches on Dean, all bulky arms and even sturdier legs, with hazel eyes and next to no hair. Young, though, maybe as old as Sam, but with less scars, save for the burn covering his neck and a portion of his arm, visible underneath his shirt sleeve. “I’m Jace.” He extends a hand to both of them, Dean setting his plate down on the coffee table to shake it. Castiel considers him before mimicking Dean, probably with more force than needed; Jace winces. “Out of towners?”

“You could say that,” Castiel says as Jace sits on the opposite couch, leaning back in the cushions.

“Seriously?” Dean picks up his plate again, eating Castiel’s offered bit of waffle. “Madame?”

“That’s what she wants to be called,” Jace shrugs. “She’s pretty much saved our asses the entire time we’ve been here. Me ’n a couple of other guys are fencing off the French Quarter to the water, and then we’re gonna take the Superdome and set up lookouts.”

“So you’ve seen them?” Dean asks, going for his water bottle. “The things with the,” he stops to mimic teeth with his fingers over his mouth.

Jace laughs. “Oh, they get worse than that. Some of ‘em can run, and I mean run. Saw one chasing a rabbit the other day, sucker didn’t stand a chance.”

Great, so they’re feeding off the wildlife—next up, humans. “How many of you are there?” Castiel asks. He glances towards the reception desk, where a handful of people are gathered and chatting amongst themselves, battered and bruised, but alive. “You only have five here.”

“There’s at least sixty. Most of ‘em stay inside all day. A couple’ve started a garden in Jackson Square, ripped up all the concrete and tore down the statues and everything. Really pretty when the suns out, plus it gives people something to do.” Right, food. Another thing Dean never planned to have to become in his life, a farmer. “We’re trying to rebuild, or what we can while the power’s on. By the time we got here, the Army’d dragged everybody out of their homes and set the pets free. I’ll tell you, we sure ’s hell don’t have a rat problem anymore.”

Dean chuckles; the idea of the cats and dogs roaming the streets instead of dying in their homes sets him at ease. “How’s the food situation?”

“Eh, could be better.” That’s always reassuring, to hear that they’re running low on supplies. “We’ve gone through most of the Walmarts here and the Costco, and we got all the clothes from Target for the kids. It ain’t gonna be long until we have to start heading out into Mississippi and Texas if we wanna find anything.”

“All the stores between here and Kansas haven’t been raided,” Dean offers. “Everyone started heading west and just packed up.”

“That’s an idea,” Jace considers. “Our gas stations are running, but we’ve probably got another two months left each, as long as they don’t dry up. Can’t get very far, but we can get to and from wherever we need to go.”

It still astonishes Dean, that he’s having to have this conversation about food and gas shortages and animals roaming the streets. And the fact that they’re building a barrier wall, as well. Three months in, and it still feels like a horrible nightmare. “How many of the buildings around here have apartments?” Dean asks, his eyes on Castiel. “I’m sure as hell not staying in this hotel forever.”

“You clean it out, it’s yours.” Jace grins. “Most you’re gonna need to do is clean out refrigerators and maybe wash sheets, but that’s it. Oh, I should run you by the rules.” From his back pocket, he pulls out a yellow legal paper, marked in the most legible cursive Dean has ever seen. “Five minute showers once a day, don’t flush unless you gotta, and the kitchen sinks are for cooking only. We burn trash once a night, and that includes food scraps and clothes. Lights out until dawn. If you’re strong enough, a group of us get up early and work on putting up the fence, so come out if you can.” He stands, knees popping with the strain. “Oh, if you want a pet, we hoard all the dry food in the pantry. We got a soup kitchen and a general store in the Cathedral, so take what you need, and if you come back with anything, drop it off.

“We’re a community here,” Jace assures them. “We’re tryin’ to get by, just like you are. So,” he pats both of their shoulders, jostling them a bit. “Welcome to Old Orleans, boys.”

It seems too good to be true—and in a way, it probably is. How long this peace will last, Dean doesn’t know.

-+-

The first home that Dean ever owns is a middle floor, two bedroom loft on Decatur Street, complete with balcony and overlooking the Mississippi. Dean may not have much in his possession anymore, but he and Castiel make it work, and together they gag their way through cleaning out the refrigerator and finding whatever’s salvageable in the pantry, including massive bags of sugar and flour and more than enough boxes of pasta to get him through several weeks, if necessary. A sectional sits along the wall in the living room, facing a TV that’s only use is to watch DVDs and listen to the few CDs the previous owner has in the rack sitting in the media cabinet beneath it.

Both bedrooms have access to the balcony and have queen mattresses, formerly owned by roommates who were obsessed with photography and their extensive collection of portraits on the walls and in the closets. Two men, roughly the size of Dean and a little smaller than Castiel, but it’ll work. As weird as it feels to wear a dead man’s clothes, it will do until they find a car and make their way to whatever big box store they can find in the area.

Or in Texas, if Dean can leave tomorrow. Kansas would be a hell of a trip at this point, but he wants Baby back, even if it kills him in the process.

As much as he hates it and the circumstances that brought him here, this is their new home, in a once-expensive apartment a block away from Jackson Square, with window air conditioners and a view he could’ve only dreamed of.

“Are you comfortable with this?” Castiel asks that evening while Dean is reading a recipe book pilfered from Walmart earlier in the day, along with underwear and toilet paper and nearly every paperback from the book section, most of them donated to the food pantry. “We could keep moving. We don’t have to stay in one place.”

Dean sighs through his nose, closing the book and pushing it aside. “I know you don’t know me, Cas, but… Having a house is all I’ve ever dreamed about.” He leans his elbows on the counter, staring at a particularly interesting spot in the granite. Five days, and it’s just now hitting him that Castiel knows nothing of his past other than that he is—was—a hunter, and his brother is possessed by Lucifer and running rampant across the country. “And yeah, it’s not the way I wanted it, but… I wanna settle down somewhere. I just wanna sit still for more than five minutes, and I want my own bed, and I’m just…

“I’m tired, Cas.” Slowly, Castiel rounds the table and takes Dean’s shoulder in hand, afterwards drawing him into his arms. No matter how many times Castiel touches him or holds him, he’s still warm, a beacon in the cold, a source of comfort he can always fall back on. Someone he can turn to when reality sets in and the world feels too small. “I don’t wanna die. I just…”

“I know.” Castiel tucks Dean’s face into his neck; for all his inhumanness, Castiel must’ve learned bedside manner somewhere, must’ve learned just how to console the grieving and give them hope, with just a touch. “You’re safe now.”

Dean breathes, holds Castiel tight. For what it’s worth, Dean certainly hopes he is.

Chapter Text

2011 - Winter

The lights begin to flicker on a Friday.

Dean doesn’t notice it at first, what with Jace’s apparently new policy on never turning on lamps unless necessary, but Castiel has a habit of reviewing city planning maps in his room with a drawing lamp, and Dean has nothing better to do than to watch him and read the same book for the fifth time. It’s slight at first, barely noticeable, but that night, it sputters entirely for three minutes, leaving them in the dark for the first time in weeks—and this time, there’s no storm to blame it on.

Bela holds a meeting in the Cathedral that evening for the ones who are still awake, namely Dean, Castiel, Jace, Sandra, and a few others that Dean still hasn’t learned their names. New residents from Oklahoma, apparently escaping from their colony in the Dakotas that had been overrun by Croats. The more the merrier; at least, that’s what Jace says. Jace hasn’t smiled in a month.

“I started trying to hook up a landline last week,” Sandra says in one of the now shoved aside pews, dark arms lying along the backrest. “But no one’s picking up. I’ve called everyone I can think of on every frequency on the east coast, but no dice.”

“But what’s the need to call?” Castiel asks, rubbing one of his eyes; he’d been asleep when Bela barged into their apartment, and Dean had been going over Castiel’s notes for the day. For the last three weeks, Castiel had been looking into ground line maps to see if there was any way to reroute electricity from the Texas grid to New Orleans if necessary. Apparently, now it is. “We haven’t had a problem until now.”

Both Bela and Jace look to their feet; Sandra’s head falls back. “Right?” Dean accuses, dragging out every letter he can. Someone’s lying here—someone’s been watching the fucking power supply and never told any of their community. “Have y’all known this was going on?”

Bela rolls his eyes, hands on her hips. “We were hoping it was a fluke, but last night we were dead until five in the morning. Lights out, no power, no gas, nothing. Think about it, Dean. We haven’t been able to contact anyone on the outside in a year, and we don’t know if anyone’s watching the Eastern Grid anymore.”

“So it’s failing,” Castiel assumes; Jace nods. He pulls a face and looks to Dean, something Dean can only describe as the overwhelming urge to smite someone. “When were you planning to tell us?”

“We’re getting worried,” Sandra says, crossing a thin ankle over her knee. “And if we can’t get word from anyone out on the coast, then we’re gonna have to pack up shop and leave.”

Dean balks. But this is his home; this is the only home he’s had, and imperfect as it may be, he doesn’t want to leave it now, right when he and Castiel had something good. Castiel helped them fortify the damn wall—what good was it now, if they couldn’t live within it? Plus, how are they supposed to move fifty people to wherever they deem fit? They don’t have cars, and the two wagons they have will only get them so far with supplies.

Plus, what if they’re attacked?

“You do realize how ridiculous this sounds?” Dean rubs the bridge of his nose, willing himself to stay awake another hour. “We’ve been fine here. So what if the lights go out?” I’ve been through worse, he thinks; I’ve lived in the woods for a month with nothing but a knife in my belt. “It’s not like we’ll die if we can’t use the stove for a few days.”

“You really don’t get this, do you?” Bela crosses her arms. Castiel squints in her direction, now standing at Dean’s side, his hand over the small of Dean’s back beneath his shirt. A small comfort, but nothing that can take Bela’s glare off him. “We’re down to the last of our food, Dean. We can plant and till and pick all day, but we can’t sustain ourselves like this. And if the grid is going, then we have to move.”

“Bela—”

“You’re so…” She cuts Dean off, rubbing her temples. “You’re so blinded by this idea of home sweet home that you can’t see that we’re all going to die if we don’t do something. Why do you think your buddy here’s been looking at maps for a month?”

She points to Castiel, who simply looks away, red-faced. Dean’s jaw tightens with the implication. “Dude, have you been lying to me?”

“I haven’t lied,” Castiel growls, but his fear betrays him. “I just didn’t tell you why.”

“Castiel’s been looking for a plan B,” Jace interjects, “but it’s not working. There’s no way with our manpower that we can string up some lines and run them all the way to the border. And who knows if they’re even running, anyway?”

“Called Texas, they’re almost out,” Sandra comments. “Dallas is still functioning, but Austin is already evacuating north. God knows what they’re gonna find.”

But I don’t want to, Dean considers, hanging his head. The last thing he wants to do is move again, especially now without a car. The few horses they have haven’t pulled anything larger than a cart in months; if they could even carry all of their things across the state line is seriously up for debate. “You’re serious about this?” Dean folds his arms, throat thick with betrayal. Not what he wants to hear at midnight in the middle of December. This is how the Donner family died, alone and in the mountains in a snowstorm. “You seriously just wanna leave everything we made? This is…”

“I know you like it here.” Bela consoles him with a hand to his shoulder. “We all do, and if we could stay, then you bet we would. But this is a cage. There’s nothing good here for us, not anymore.”

Jace offers Dean a smile, but it feels like a knife in his back. “Sandra’ll start calling out west in the morning. Give you some time to think.”

Great—the last thing Dean wants to do right now is think.

-+-

Dean is half asleep in bed when Castiel wanders into his room the next morning, pale light beginning to seep through the open windows. For a while, Dean watches Castiel lean against the patio door jamb, hair a little long around the edges and scruff in desperate need of a shave. Dean’s probably not looking any better himself; he stopped keeping track of the last time he took a blade to his face when the water pressure began to drop.

Maybe they are right—maybe New Orleans is doomed to sink into the Mississippi.

“I didn’t think you’d lie to me,” Dean mutters into his pillow, fists clenched tight in the sheets. It’s certainly nothing to cry over, but Dean can’t help it, not with the sudden bombshell and the weight of two years’ worth of hoping, praying for a better life. He’s supposed to be looking for Sam, but most days, he’s too scared to leave the apartment; Castiel is the only thing that keeps him moving, keeps him breathing and eating and showering when he needs to.

Castiel pads over on bare feet to sit on the edge of the bed, hip close to Dean’s elbow. Dean won’t admit it out loud, but Castiel has grown… colder of the last few months, his skin regulating a near-human temperature, no longer in the throes of a fever. What it means, Dean has no clue. Castiel still has his wings, and he can still abuse his Grace to feed their crops when they need it, but he doesn’t feel at all like the looming presence Dean met in that hospital.

Maybe he’s falling—maybe he already did. Whatever it was, he hopes Castiel is happy with his decision.

“I didn’t want to betray your trust,” Castiel murmurs; he runs his hand through Dean’s hair, fingers trailing behind his ear. They’ve always been intimate, Castiel’s hands a constant source of comfort to him when he needs it, but this is different. Dean always figured Castiel was just a touchy kind of Angel, but maybe that was never his intention. “I’m doing this for you, Dean. I…” His hand stills, and briefly, Dean’s heart stops. “I want better for you. And I was hoping, if I helped Bela, we could stay here, but…”

“I’m tired of moving,” Dean says, ashamed at how distraught he is, just from having to leave. He feels four years old again, forced into the back of a car and leaving the only home he ever knew. Different situation, but it still hurts all the same. “I’m comfortable here. I like…”

“I know,” Castiel soothes. He scoots over enough to sit at the headboard, allowing Dean to rest his head on his thigh. “I know, but you can’t stay here. You’ve had three colds in the last year, and you’re not eating as well as you should. When was the last time you saw the sun?”

That’s the question; with winter came clouds, and with clouds came depression and Dean’s constant urge to sleep for all hours of the day. Before, he would work through it; now, with a bed all his own, he wants nothing more than to die in it. “Are you gonna come?” he asks; Castiel narrows his eyes. “I’m not used to people staying, Cas. And you’re an Angel, and you could go anywhere. I’m just…”

“You’re more than just a human.” Slowly, Castiel strokes along Dean’s jaw, thumb wiping away stray tears. “I’ll come with you wherever you go. I wouldn’t leave you, not after what we’ve been through.”

Dean sniffles in the cold, inwardly hoping that Castiel doesn’t notice practically clinging to his leg, fingers digging into his sweatpants. “You gonna tell me when you start getting desperate again?” he asks in all sincerity.

Castiel chuckles and cradles Dean closer. “You’ll be the first to know.”

-+-

Sandra tries to call anyone and everyone over the next three days, making no headway no matter who she dials. Seattle, Boise, Portland, San Francisco all come up empty. The longer she tries, the more their hope dwindles, and Dean sleeps fitfully through the night. He’s felt hopeless before, but after years of abuse and working himself to the bone just to hear someone praise him, waiting for a phone call is what tears him apart.

Not even Castiel can help, really; the most he can do is sit beside Dean and console him, but Castiel’s sense of hope is wearing thin by the hour. “I tried to help yesterday,” he says Tuesday morning, just as Dean is dragging himself out of the shower; one day, he wants to be able to waste water again.

Half of the living room is converted into what Dean refers to as a secondary nest, consisting of a mattress and couch cushions and pillows ransacked from other apartment units. It’s more for lounging than anything; sometimes they listen to music together curled up in the blankets, or Castiel reads books aloud until Dean falls asleep. More than once has Dean woken up with Castiel spooning him, something they’ve never really talked about, but Dean wishes Castiel would mention, just once.

“What’d you do?” Dean asks, falling back into the nest and promptly covering himself with every blanket he can find. Castiel joins him, a napkin and an orange in hand; Dean takes them when offered, sitting up long enough to peel the skin. “Did you break it?”

“I did reach someone,” Castiel says, every bit as ominous as Dean never wants to hear. “I think I called Hell.”

Dean sputters, orange wedge halfway to his mouth. “How’d you manage that?” he squeaks; at least Castiel finds it funny.

“Apparently Angels dial on different frequencies. But,” he pauses to steal a slice, popping it in his mouth; Dean never should’ve never taught him to eat, “we did have a pleasant conversation. Did you know Hell is a bureaucracy?”

Dean snorts, nearly choking himself. “Pretty sure I’d rather be set on fire than have to watch CSPAN for the rest of eternity.”

“That’s what he told me,” Castiel laughs. “Though—”

Sandra shouts in the street, “I got Malibu!” and effectively ends their conversation.

Dean barely puts pants on before they’re out the door and sprinting down the stairs, meeting up with Sandra and almost everyone in their community in the Cathedral. Most gather on pews amidst the crackle of static, but Dean and Castiel walk closer, standing next to Sandra as she removes her headphones, hanging them around her neck. “Sarah’s on the line, you wanna say hi?” she asks, her grin infectious.

Dean can’t help but laugh. “How are y’all doing?”

“We’re incredible,” Sarah’s voice rings out over the line, shattered but audible; Dean has never been so glad to hear someone else talk. Neither has the crowd behind him, based on their incessant cheering. “Never thought I’d be glad to have an oil rig in my backyard.”

“Can you drive?” Castiel asks.

“Don’t really need to, but we can. We’re set up on the coast. Pretty sure I’m living in DiCaprio’s old house, and let me tell you, he had a lot of shit in here.”

“Good to know,” Dean chuckles. If he ever had to live anywhere in California, he’s glad it won’t be in the city. “What’s your situation?”

“Boy,” Sarah says, her grin practically sentient. “I’m from Idaho, and I’ve never seen windmills work like this. We got turbines running and we jacked some solar panels when we were walking through the Bay, and we’re self-sustaining from food to power. Got about a thousand people spread out around here, but most of ‘em are up in the hills. Say they like the view better.”

“You think you got room for about fifty people?” Sandra asks, and Sarah gives a long, self-satisfied ‘mhm’ into the microphone. “We ran out of gas two months ago, but we’ve got horses. Dean’s got a car he’s determined to drag with him.”

“Hey,” Dean scolds. “I drove all the way to Kansas to get her the first time.”

“If you’re willing to haul a tanker, you can drive back and get her,” Sarah adds, much to Dean’s delight. “Did the same with mine, don’t do much with her but I like to look at her.”

“You think you can have a welcome party in Pasadena in about a month?” Sandra asks; Sarah agrees. “Then we’re out in the morning.”

Sarah tells them goodbye before Sandra cuts the line, slamming her headphones on the desk. Dean has been exciting many times in his life, even ecstatic, but nothing compares to when Sandra shouts, “We’re going to California!” in a crowded church. Hugging Castiel has never felt this right before.

-+-

The only things Dean owns that he’s willing to drag halfway across the country are a few antique pistols he stole from a shop in town, the necklace Castiel gave him for his birthday in January, and a photo album from the previous occupants of their home. It’s not large, the spine two inches and only filled about three quarters of the day, but whoever they were, they visited never every country in Europe and the south Pacific together, always arm in arm, always with that same grin.

Castiel catches him looking at it Wednesday morning, just before Dean shoves it into his duffel, alongside his guns and three well-worn paperbacks. “They died together,” he says, seating himself on the foot of Dean’s mattress. “You’re keeping their memory alive.”

Dean sighs, rubbing the back of his neck. The truth is, he likes to see the world as what it once was. Bustling, vibrant, with shops and food and everything he dreams about. He misses it; he misses the simplicity, when all he had to worry about was where his next meal was coming from, and if he would survive to see the sunrise. Now, he wonders if his stomach will grow any smaller or if his heart will give out if he strains himself. Depression works wonders for physical stamina, really.

“I never got to do that,” Dean admits, suddenly sheepish. Castiel knows this about him; Castiel knows a lot more than he should, but he’s never used it against him, and he’s never told a soul. Never could Dean have asked for a better friend in his life. “I’m too chickenshit to get on a plane, and now I just… can’t. I missed out on that. I never got to see London or Berlin, I never got to walk through Japan at night.” His duffel only exacerbates the weight in his shoulders, his body almost too much to bear. “I think that’s what I regret. My old man’s been dead for years now, and I was free, but I never pushed myself.”

Castiel casts him a solemn look, almost despairing. He shouldn’t have to pity Dean; he shouldn’t have to care, but he does. “I wish I could fly,” he admits, head bowed. “And I wish the Angels would return. Given the word, and they could help civilization thrive again, but God doesn’t care.” He exhales through his nose; his clothes don’t fit him right, too baggy and loose, and here, he looks like a child, ashamed for something he had no control over. “If He did, He never would’ve allowed the virus to come into being in the first place. He would’ve smote Lucifer rather than let him fall.”

Swallowing, Dean moves to stand before him, their knees brushing together ever so faintly. “How long has God been gone?” he asks, unsure if he’s ready for the answer.

But he has to know—he has to know why everything happened the way it did, why dictators thrived while advocates suffered, why war had to tear families apart, why his mom had to burn to death on a ceiling. Why Sam’s soul was being flayed alive by the Morning Star, and why Dean couldn’t save him.

Castiel doesn’t answer immediately; he draws his arms around Dean’s waist instead, resting his cheek against his stomach, and Dean touches his nape underneath the collar of his shirt, just to feel warm skin against his own. “It can’t be pinpointed, but the Angels were led to follow His Word. It didn’t matter where it came from as long as His instructions were followed.” He swallows, holding Dean tighter. “We’ve always heard His voice, and He’s always spoken to us, but… Some say He disappeared after the sixth day.”

So God has never been here. God never answered prayers because he’s disappeared into the ether and left his children to wage war against one another and to suffer under their own supervision. And now, with no word from their Father, the Angels were biding their time in Heaven, waiting for another order that will never come.

In his anguish, Dean sinks to his knees and holds Castiel, hands in hair and lips against foreheads. Once, in the midst of tears and choked whimpers, Castiel kisses him, and if Dean had ever known peace before, he feels is now, embraced by Castiel and surrounded in the shadows of wings.

Their world may be crumbling around them, but they have each other; Dean wouldn’t change it for anything.

-+-

The days pass with enough monotony that Dean begins to wonder whether or not they’re moving at all. Castiel leads the community with his sword in hand and Dean at his back, while Bela and Jace keep watch to either side, in case something jumps out at them. During their entire stay in New Orleans, nothing once attacked the perimeter, but that was there; now, they spend fourteen hours a day walking in the direction of New Mexico with their ten horses and their wagons, and not nearly enough food and water, but they go.

Through the rain and the snow, and the one occasional sunny day, they walk as far as they can, sometimes resting in a wagon until someone else needed it more, other times taking to one of the horses. Dean never rests even after he’s offered; Bela calls his stubborn and Castiel urges him to stop when he can, but traveling on foot is the least he can do.

After all, he played a role in this whole thing. At least, with Sam’s possession and Dean apparently being Michael’s vessel, that’s what he’s led to believe. The Angel in heaven who decided to eternally fuck with two strangers’ lives can rot for all he cares; if Lucifer decided his time and place to rise, even better. Not only can he kill the devil, but he’d also kill the one responsible for this whole mess in the first place. Because without Lucifer, without the Angels and the Demons, he could’ve lived a normal life. His brother wouldn’t be a skin suit, his parents wouldn’t be dead, and he wouldn’t be stuck walking through half a foot of snow in Texas.

But then, he wouldn’t have met Castiel, and Castiel wouldn’t be the best friend he’s even had. Two different realities, neither of which he can stomach. As much as he wants a perfect life, as much as he wants his family and friends and a roof over his head, he doesn’t know if he could live without Castiel at his side.

Maybe this is what it feels like to love, he considers, brushing snow from his hair; maybe love feels like he can’t live without Castiel, but his existence simultaneously condemns him to a life of nothing but pain.

Dean stumbles into Castiel’s shoulder, nearly falling into the snow by Castiel’s sudden stop. “Dude,” Dean grumbles, righting himself, only to look up to see a shadow along the white-bathed horizon. Bela raises her crossbow from atop her horse, and Dean pulls his pistol from his interior coat pocket. It’s either a Croat or someone living in El Paso; Dean hopes it’s the latter.

“Wait for it to get closer,” Jace orders, rifle steadied in his hands.

Castiel grabs Dean’s wrist with a crushing grip; Dean narrows his eyes, white mist pouring from his nose with every exhale. The possibilities are endless: if it’s a Croat, it would’ve run at them by now; if it’s a person, they would’ve waved or at least shouted. Even a bear would’ve made a noise, if they’re even in the low desert in the first place.

It’s none of them, though. The closer it gets, the harder Dean’s heart beats; the shapes fit what Dean last remembered, but they’re broader, with longer hair. His suit blends into the snow, but his face is soaked in red, dying his collar and neck scarlet. His hands shake, bathed in dried blood.

Dean lowers his weapon and ignores Bela’s bark of disapproval. “Sam?” Dean whispers.

Silence bathes the plains; all eyes are on Dean and the man collapsing to his knees five feet away, eyes wet and wild. “He’s—He’s inside me,” Sam cries; all of Dean’s hairs stand on end. “Please, get him—Get rid of him—”

He catches Sam before he collapses, dragging his brother into his arms. Two years too late, but he’s here, and he’s alive. And Lucifer is still inside his head.

-+-

The Doubletree in El Paso rises at least eleven floors into the sky, all of the lights save for a scant few dark. Most of the blinds have been ripped off the guest room windows, leaving open holes on every side of the building; some of the windows are broken in and shattered, glass littering the concrete outside, now covered by two feet of snow and rising. A chill sweeps the building, a bone-deep cold that even the heater can’t cure, no matter how many doors are closed or windows are slammed shut.

Dean locks himself, Sam and Castiel in a suite on the top floor, this one thankfully with all its glass panes intact. Castiel, without mentioning whatever plan he has filtering though his head, shoves the dining table and couch toward the window and pulls a jar out of seemingly nowhere—his wings, probably, or whatever hyperspace he keeps his apparent arsenal hidden away in—and pours it out into the hardwood in a circle.

And without even consulting anyone, he shoves Sam inside the circle and sets it ablaze. The floor doesn’t burn, and neither does the nearby furniture—the oil is all that lights, and Sam stares at both of them from inside it, draped in a blanket and looking every bit as terrified as Dean feels. “If Lucifer is inside him, this will keep him from escaping,” Castiel remarks, finally shrugging off his backpack and setting it atop the TV stand, now TV-less and covered in dust.

“So what, you’re just gonna lock him up?” Dean snaps. Castiel nods. “We don’t even know if he’s in there!”

“Then we’ll just make sure,” Castiel asserts.

“I trust him,” Sam says from the circle, now seated and clutching the blanket closer to himself in an attempt to keep warm. Blood still dyes half of his face, from a source Dean doesn’t even want to think about. “I’ve seen what he does, Dean. This is better than letting me free.”

But you’re here, Dean thinks, hanging his head. You’re alive and breathing, and you’re not dead somewhere in a ditch. “I need a drink,” Dean sighs and heads for the mini fridge.

For a long, arduous hour, they sit and wait, all while Sam spills his guts about everything—Lucifer’s siege against humanity and the bodies left in his wake, how many people he watched die just from Lucifer’s touch, the cities set ablaze in the night—and Dean drinks the few Jack Daniel’s bottles left after two years of looting. Castiel offers Sam snack cakes, all of which Sam inhales without even questioning the expiration date.

He’s thin, is all Dean notices. Thin and haggard and pale, like Lucifer has been starving him, letting him waste away while he rides shotgun and peruses the wastelands at his leisure. For all Dean knows, he could be. “I fought back a few miles ago,” Sam says, still chewing a Snowball and pounding down water, barely coming up for air. “He got bored, and I took my chance, and I started running. Figured I’d find a town at some point. Didn’t think I’d find you, though.”

Fiddling with the wrapper on the mini bottle, Dean lets out a breath and deflates; tears prick behind his eyes, no matter how hard he tries to keep them at bay. “I wanted to look for you,” he admits, a hand over his face; Castiel strokes his shoulder, warm even though his thick coat. “Believe me, I tried, but I just… broke down. Half the time, Cas had to drag me out of bed.”

“It’s alright,” Sam soothes, but Dean still hears it as a lie. The one thing their father always told him to do, protect Sam, and he couldn’t even drag himself out of their apartment. “Trust me. If I’d’ve gotten control before, I would’ve called you. But he’s too strong.” Fiddling with his blanket, Sam looks to the flames. “It’s like being strapped to a rocket. He doesn’t stop, and he just… No mercy.” He wipes his eyes. “I just want it to stop.”

“I know,” Dean chokes, head in his hands. The last thing he wants for Sam is to suffer, especially in his few waking minutes. Two years, and the first time he gets to see his brother again is with Lucifer in the room, his presence sending shivers across Dean’s skin. “I know, and Cas is thinking of something.” Out of one eye, he watches Castiel, waits for an answer that doesn’t come. “Right, Cas?”

Both he and Sam look to Castiel, who’s currently attempting to set fire to the floor with his eyes. “Sam, do you have Lucifer’s blade?”

Sam blinks. “His—You mean the sword?” With Castiel’s nod, Sam curls into himself, forehead pressed to his bent knees. “That lady at the door took it. Why, what is it?”

“The only thing that can kill him,” is Castiel’s reply, an answer that sets Dean’s blood ablaze.

“No, no way,” Dean growls, fisting a bottle. “You’re not killing him, you hear me? I just got him back—”

“I won’t kill Sam,” Castiel shoots back with a glare. “But in order to kill Lucifer, Sam has to expel him.”

“I’ve been trying,” Sam says, a near cry. Dean’s heart breaks from the sound. “Trust me, I’ve been trying, but I didn’t—I never said yes.” The very air around Castiel thickens, bleeding vitriol with every breath. “I’ve prayed, and I’ve begged, but he won’t get out.” He cracks his neck, probably not of his own volition. “Please—”

“I’ll get Bela,” Dean announces. He barely stays to wait for Castiel’s nod before fleeing the room, darting down the stairwell floor by floor, until his feet hit the lobby tiling. Adrenaline fuels him, his only motivation to get Lucifer out of Sam before Lucifer decides to take the reins again, whenever that is. Hopefully, it won’t be with just Castiel in the room.

Next to the elevator, Bela stands with a duffel bag in hand, filled with water and weaponry, and Lucifer’s sword in hand. She barely startles with Dean’s approach, waving with her free hand and afterwards adjusting her bag. “You’re jumpy this evening,” she says.

Dean just grabs the sword by the handle and jerks it towards him; Bela holds on, skepticism in her eyes. “We have a situation,” Dean hisses, hopefully out of earshot from the rest of the community.

“And it involves this piece of junk?” Bela asks. She holds it up with Dean’s hand still attached, displaying the blood-dyed steel to the overhead lighting. “It’s scrap.”

“It’s Lucifer’s,” Dean announces, hushed. Bela flinches away, wiping her hand on her pant leg. “Cas is gonna try to get him out, but I need you to keep everybody off the top floor, you hear me?”

“It’s cute when you think you’re in charge,” she laughs, albeit pained; from the way she sighs, Dean can sense just how on edge she is. She has been ever since Dean decided to throw Sam into the wagon a mile from El Paso without explaining to the rest of their community just who he is or why he was covered in blood. Dean’s only reassurance to them, “He’s not infected.”

“Just, please,” Dean swallows, sucking in a breath. “Please. I’ll tell everyone tomorrow, I’ll even spill the beans that Cas is an Angel, just please don’t let anyone up there.”

Bela looks him over, fear in her eyes, her hands beginning to shake. “Can you kill Lucifer?” she asks.

For all of their sakes, Dean sure as hell hopes so.

Ascending takes considerably more time than going down, but Dean makes it one lungful at a time, slowing from a sprint to double stepping just to make time. Something reminiscent to the foundation settling rumbles through the stairwell for a long few seconds, followed by a longer silence and another bang. A door slams open somewhere near the ninth floor. By the eleventh, Dean grows even more worried than he already is, his grip on the sword tightening.

At the end of the hall on the twelfth floor, the suite door blows open, slamming against the wall—and out with it flies Castiel, wings exposed and one ripped to shreds. Blood coats the wall, only furthering when Castiel struggles to crawl away, one arm functioning, his other hand clawing at the carpet.

Dean nearly hurls on his shoes.

“Now, now, Castiel,” Sam announces—no, Lucifer. The intonation is all different, Sam’s vocal cords warped the wrong way, almost like he’s trying too hard. Out of the suite, Lucifer walks in his brother’s body, his white suit charred around his ankles, a sleeve burnt. He actually walked out of the fire, and Dean wasn’t there to stop him. “You honestly thought you were a match for me? With that excuse for a sword, for shame.”

Lucifer stomps on Castiel’s spine with his heel, directly between his wings; Castiel lets out a shout somewhere near a screech, but not quite making it. Regardless, Dean feels his ears grow wet, blood seeping from one and dripping down his neck. If that was Castiel’s true voice, Dean doesn’t think he can survive actually hearing him talk.

Flailing his arm doesn’t work. Neither does rolling over, not with how Lucifer is pinning him down, knee to his back, a hand shoving his face into the carpet. “You don’t know what you’re doing,” Castiel spits, mouth thick with blood. “You’re—”

“I know exactly what I’m doing,” Lucifer laughs; Dean’s stomach drops somewhere into his shoes. His feet won’t move out of fear; his hands won’t do much else other than grip the sword and steady himself on the door jamb. “I’ve known what I was doing from the start. Do you know how I escaped?” He sneers, twisting Sam’s lips in a face Dean has only seem him wear when Meg possessed him. “I killed the guards, and I ate them. And anyone who got in my way, I slew them too. And do you wanna know why?”

Castiel growls. Dean takes a step. “Whatever you say, you’re lying,” Castiel grunts.

“Now, you know better, Castiel.” He shoves Castiel’s face into the carpet, attempting to suffocate him. “I don’t lie.”

“Let go—”

“Oh, no,” Lucifer snickers. “We’re not done here. You know, it’s hilarious how you think you’re doing this for the greater good. Palling around with your human over there.” Dean swallows when Lucifer looks at him, Sam’s hazel eyes dyed red and glowing in the single fluorescent light. “Did you know Croatoan wasn’t lethal?”

Dean forgets to breathe. The sword almost slips from his grasp, the words too much to comprehend. What does he mean, Croatoan wasn’t lethal? Then what killed everyone in the medical trials? What killed entire towns and villages and countries in a month? What—oh.

“Don’t lie,” Castiel growls, nearing a beg. Dean can’t bear to listen.

“Did you really think God told you to ‘save’ them? Did you really think God would ask his children to destroy his greatest creation, just because they were defective?” Castiel’s spine cracks under Lucifer’s knee, and he wails in despair. “They would’ve lived. Give them a few hours of puking their guts out, and they would’ve survived, and the world goes on. But you and your siblings—and mine too, or they would’ve been if you didn’t kick me out—decimated the entire population, because ‘God’ told you to.”

He laughs, and Dean’s blood runs cold. Determination fuels his next movements, along with the red tainting the edges of his vision and the rapid beat of his heart, pounding against his ribs. This man—this creature, currently wearing his brother like a second skin—killed humanity just for kicks, and got his siblings to do it for him. “This is my revenge,” Lucifer roars. “This is for everything you and Father did to me!”

“Sam,” Dean starts, sword raised, while Lucifer begins to pound his fist into Castiel’s skull, Castiel’s wings twitching with every blow. “Sammy, I need you to close your eyes,” he mutters. “Close your eyes and trust me, do you hear me?”

“I loved him more than he loved all of you combined,” Lucifer shouts. Castiel groans, his mouth making horrible squawking noises, all of which tear at Dean’s resolve. “And this is what he gave me in return? He banished me!”

Down the hall, Castiel is dying, or at least having his ass handed to him by Not-Sam, and Dean can’t stop it. Or, the more terrifying of his current thoughts, he can—but at a cost. Somewhere in his life, protecting Sam turned to self-sacrifice, turned to a loss of Sam’s innocence and Dean’s own sense of self. Dean should’ve died in Lawrence—Sam should never have gone hunting with him.

Both hands gripping the handle of Lucifer’s blade, Dean considers that if they were never born, then none of this would’ve ever happened. The world would be right on its axis, families would be cooking dinner and sitting around the television. Kids would be graduating college. Led Zeppelin would be releasing another greatest hits album. Now, his entire existence is in shambles, knowing the cause of the outbreak and who the perpetrators were behind the demise of civilization. His stomach roils the more he dwells on it, and from every wet smack of Castiel’s face into the carpet, the Angel no longer breathing, if he ever had to in the first place.

“Sam,” Dean swallows, throat thick. Lucifer looks to him with red-tinged eyes, blood spattered across Sam’s face. “Sammy, close your eyes.”

Lucifer smiles with Sam’s mouth and stands with Sam’s legs, Sam’s hands clapping and sending spatter onto the walls. All of it screams wrong, wrong, wrong—just as wrong as Dean rearing back and jamming the sword through Sam’s chest, into the squelch of blood and bone and cartilage, until white pours from Sam’s eyes and mouth and nose and he lets out a scream that shatters every lightbulb on the top floor of the Doubletree, plunging the penthouse into darkness.

Sam falls with a thud and Castiel gasps for breath, and all Dean can do is watch the snow, pouring into the newly shattered window down the hall.

-+-

In his mourning, Dean carries his brother into the suite and lays him out on one of the three beds, sword still jammed deep. The blood had slowed, but not enough to keep from staining the sheets. In the dark, Dean could care less, even after ripping the blade from his chest and tossing it towards the plate glass windows. Cold air pours in from a shattered pane; the chill pricks his skin, but not enough. Nothing will ever be enough.

“Give me five minutes,” Castiel gasps in the doorway, a hand over his mouth, coming away bloody. How he can manage to see with two swollen eyes, Dean has no clue. The same goes for his wings, now torn apart and mangled, sagging on the floor and trailing red in his wake. He’ll regenerate, probably—the psychological wounds, though, will never heal.

The first time Castiel touches him with a scarlet-stained hand, Dean flinches and pulls away; any and all contact disgusts him, bile threatening to rise in his throat. “Did you know?” he asks, slurred, and runs his hands over his face, tainted with his dead brother’s blood. “Did you know you were… You killed people.” That, Castiel doesn’t disagree with. “Did you know they would survive?”

“I was following orders,” Castiel mutters. “I didn’t—”

“But you could’ve seen,” Dean shouts. In the dark, his voice sounds like thunder. “You said it yourself, God fucked off years ago, and all of a sudden, you think he’s telling you to kill off an entire planet? Are you stupid?”

Castiel doesn’t answer. His breathing is his only tell, staccato and jagged, thick with snot. “You know me better than that,” Castiel whispers after a long pause. “You followed the orders of your father down to the letter, and you never questioned his reasoning.” A strong hand fists Dean’s collar, forcing him to look into Castiel’s eyes; all Dean sees is blood and misery, all of his own creation. “I never wanted to do this. And you’re the only one who stopped me, and you’ve proven to me that this was all a lie.

“I loved humanity,” Castiel finishes, verging on a sob. Still, his grip stays true, no matter how many tears he spills. “I watched you since the dawn of creation, and I watched you build cities and empires. I watched you destroy your families and the lives of people you never knew, and I watched you give birth to ideas and innovation and your own children. And it killed me having to watch you die, and it killed me to carry your souls to Heaven.” He swallows, lower lip trembling; Dean can’t bear to look at him anymore. “I hate that I ever met you.”

All Dean can manage to mutter is “I know” before throwing Castiel into his arms, burying Castiel’s face in his neck. “I know, I know.”

-+-

Sam doesn’t die, not exactly. But maybe a part of him does, the part that Lucifer slaughtered when he raped Sam of his dignity and wore him like a prize for the better part of two, nearing three years.

The minute Castiel recovers enough to stand without lurching into a wall or a chair, he climbs onto the mattress and places a hand over Sam’s heart, stitching his bones and flesh back together. “His soul never left his body,” he remarks, eyes bright blue, his feathers glowing bright enough to light the room. “Reapers took back their posts last year, but I fear they’re in short supply.”

“Considering one didn’t drop in on us,” Dean says from a chair. Castiel nods from the bed, one hand covering Sam’s eyes, the other sinking grotesquely into the thick of Sam’s chest, a white light emanating from the chasm.

Just watching him, Dean feels sick. If he weren’t experiencing a lifetime’s worth of shock, he probably would vomit, or at least pass out. He killed Sam—he killed his own brother in cold blood, without consulting the Angel in the room if it was even possible to resurrect him. “I didn’t have a choice,” Dean says, bowing his head. “Lucifer was killing you, and he was gonna kill Sam, and I couldn’t…”

“I never thought I’d have to tell you how to kill an Angel, especially one so powerful,” Castiel sighs. “You killed Lucifer. That’s all that matters.”

“I just want him back,” Dean weeps, both hands over his face. Tremors wrack him down to his bones, and in the night, he cries until his stomach hurts and his head aches. “I want my brother back, Cas.”

Kickstarting a soul, as Dean learns, is less like turning over an engine and more like replacing the fuse on a bomb. Castiel spends several minutes in Sam’s chest while his wings alternate colors, growing dimmer as time goes on. “You’ll kill yourself,” Dean mutters after a while, pulling himself from his misery long enough to sit beside Sam’s head. His hair is tacky under Dean’s fingers, several inches longer than Dean saw him last, auburn hair almost reaching his nape.

“He’s hiding,” Castiel says, childlike and wondrous. Has he ever done this before? “Tell him you’re here.”

Dean gives him a look before turning back to Sam, hand over his forehead. “Hey, Sammy,” he breathes, shaking a bit. “Hey, did you close your eyes like I told you?”

In the light of Sam’s soul—his soul, Dean still can’t believe it—Castiel smiles, his eyes closing. “Talk to him.”

Dean talks. About the weather, about how their mother used to sing to them at night, how John used to play guitar in their hotel rooms when Dean was pretending to sleep. Storms ripping through Kansas. Autumn winds filtering through open motel windows. Brown sugar and cinnamon, pecans fresh from their shells. Dogwoods in the spring. Soundless footsteps in the snow. All the while, the color returns to Sam’s cheeks, and Castiel draws his hand free, until all they’re left with is Sam’s bloodstained body and wide, hazel eyes staring back up at them, astonished and teary.

“Dean,” Sam weeps—both Dean and Castiel hold him, and for the first time since the outbreak, Dean cries in joy. He has his brother back, and Castiel is still there, wings and all. And despite everything that brought them there, he’s staying. At least, Dean hopes he will.

Castiel kisses him just before sunrise, their second in their two years of living together—this time, curled up in musty blankets with snow pouring in through one of the suite windows, he savors it and pulls Castiel close, tasting the pure nothingness of him, clean as air. It’s not perfect—nothing about it ever will be, their meeting at the end of the world and the blood of innocents staining Castiel’s hands—but just maybe, it’ll work. Castiel has stayed this long; only a tragedy could rip them apart now.

“Look, I get the whole cuddling for warmth thing,” Sam says at Dean’s back, and heat immediately rushes across his skin, cheeks burning red, “but do you have to do that right now?”

“We’re sorry,” Castiel lies. Dean smothers a laugh in Castiel’s collar. “I don’t believe we’ve been formally introduced.”

Rolling onto his back, Dean draws his arms around both Sam and Castiel’s shoulders and pulls them close. “Sam, this is Castiel. He’s the Angel that saved our lives.”

-+-

Malibu is still another two weeks away through the snow, and only by miracle do they make it through the desert without losing anyone along the way. No horses killed, but they do take down a stray cow or two just to get them through. They add a few horses to their team, mostly for carrying supplies, freeing up enough space in their wagons to sleep or rest when need be.

It never warms enough to rain, and the threat of frostbite grows even more real by the time they reach the San Bernardino County line. The last Dean has ever experienced a winter this cold, he was still a child, snowed into his home for weeks, waiting for the thaw. Castiel becomes their miracle worker in the wagons, warming people’s feet and limbs when the cold grows too much to bear, and at night, he holds Dean close in their tent until the shivers subside and he presses kisses to sweat-warm skin.

“Another two days,” Castiel tells him inside of a hotel in Pasadena, electricity long since lost, but it has blankets and mattresses, and they’re even outside of a car dealership with trucks behind unbroken glass. He sucks a mark to Dean’s navel under the sheets, just out of sight of everything Dean wants to see, but is too scared to witness. “We can get a cottage by the beach.”

The beach sounds nice. And a bed, and food that doesn’t consist of beef or snack cakes or water from a questionable stream. Maybe air conditioning in the summer, and a functional heater to escape the cold with. Sam can live in the next bedroom, and Castiel can sleep with Dean whenever he wants, if he’ll even settle down enough to rest. “I’d like that,” Dean admits; he chokes on a gasp, Castiel’s hands cupping his hips and lips doing all the right things just where he wants it. “Cas…”

“I’d like a place to settle down,” Castiel says. Reaching up, he pulls the blankets away and exposes Dean’s nakedness to the cold, his eyes just as alluring as his mouth. “And a garden. And I’d like to make love to you every chance I get.”

Dean moans just from the suggestion, head thrown back. They’ve been so busy for the last two years, he hasn’t had a chance to itemize every nuance of his affection for Castiel, admiration turning to love and even more. What they have, despite their faults and harsh words on their travels and Castiel’s looming inhumanness seeping into everything he touches, can’t be described in English. Another language could probably encapsulate it, tell the story of how they met and how they fell into each other, melted and converged into one soul.

Castiel hasn’t been at his side for long, but he’s been there, and he’s stayed, and Dean can’t thank him enough for that.

The minute they reach the peak of the Santa Monica Mountains, their entire community shouts a cheer. Sandra sends up a flare, and across the few miles between them and the coastline, a firework answers it, bright even in the noon sky. Sam doesn’t let go of Dean for two minutes, and Bela claps his shoulder as they begin to descend into the remnants of Malibu, past formerly million dollar homes and down promise-lined streets.

Castiel never lets go of his hand.

Lamps shine in windows along their walk, and heaters roar in courtyards. A car drives down the street, filled with ecstatic new neighbors rushing out to greet them. Though their community begins to separate down alleyways, they always wave goodbye with their belongings slung over their backs, families and friends in tow. Seeing them disappear no longer fills Dean with dread like it had in New Orleans, where the fear of death loomed around every corner.

In Malibu, they have a new start. They can live again and settle down, without monsters and the virus lurking, and the Croats spawned. Sam and Castiel can live with him along the shore, and they can grow old here, restarting generators and power grids, bring fresh life to a city that once was.

This is the end of the world, Dean thinks, arm around Sam’s shoulder and hand clutching Castiel’s for dear life. And now, he has all he needs.