The blood is still fresh enough for his boots to leave a trail behind him as he makes his way through the remains of the city's residential district, the occasional abandoned convenience store slotted between crumbling apartment buildings and elementary schools, narrow alleys choked with debris from overturned dumpsters and chunks of broken concrete, glass crunching beneath his feet. The roads here are nearly impassable, the blackened skeletons of long-forgotten cars slowly rotting to rust between jagged craters where the asphalt was ripped from the grey-brown earth below.
Following the hazily familiar length of a brick wall, he emerges into the courtyard of a burned out apartment building, lawn grown wild, a grey stone fountain pushes out of the chaos like a landmark as tangled vines creeping up from the empty base. Bathed in the thin light of a cloud-choked sky, the world seems to be fading more with every moment the passes, sickly yellow-greens and muted browns melting into a unending grey, and Castiel crosses a silent lawn the stretches the length of the universe beneath the gaze of windows like lidless eyes.
In a tiny clearing of bare dirt broken by scrubby knots of dying grass, Castiel stumbles to a halt, and the slow crawl of time comes to a stop as he looks down at the end of his world.
Dropping heavily to his knees, Castiel tosses the blood-clotted knife to the ground beside his rifle before resting his fingers against the non-existent pulse, the fragile warmth of Dean's skin already vanishing with the fading day. Reaching for his jaw, he ignores the dull grate of shattered bone as he carefully straightens his head and looking into the still, quiet face. The fine lines of fighting an unwinnable war are smoothed away from the corners of his eyes and from beside the bloodless lips, still half-parted to take an unneeded breath. Lying on the undisturbed grass like the sacrificial victim he never wanted to be, Dean's green eyes stare sightlessly into the stillness of the dying sky.
"You look good on your knees, little brother."
Castiel observes pristine white-clad legs emerging from the gloom, shoes polished to a brilliant white gloss, but the instinctive hatred is muted, heat leeched away like a half-forgotten memory that belonged to someone else entirely.
"I didn't think you meant to survive," Lucifer continues, coming to a stop beside Dean's hip. "I know he didn't mean you to."
Castiel allows himself to brush his fingers one last time against Dean's rapidly cooling cheek, the skin rough with stubble, before he gazes up at his Brother.
Lucifer wears Sam Winchester's body with the casual entitlement of unquestioned ownership, hands shoved casually into his pockets as he studies Dean's body with clinical interest. It's only a container, however, no matter how well he's learned to use it, a faint glow limning the lines of his body, a sketched suggestion of wings looming behind him fading in and out of view. The brown eyes are nothing like he remembers Sam's: the cold of a heatless universe looks back, devoid of even the memory of light.
He's aware of being the subject of the same chilling scrutiny, eyes flickering over him in undisguised curiosity. Looking down, he realizes in surprise that his hands are coated in still-drying blood, violent arcs splashed across his sleeves to the elbow and trailing down the faded material of his jeans in tacky blots.
Lucifer's mouth quirks in amusement. "Didn't feel like going quietly into the good night, I take it?"
Mouth dry, he licks his lips and tastes iron and copper, tacky-wet, the smell filling his nostrils more with every breath. Lucifer's pitiless stare deepens, groping beneath his skin as it searches a body that is no longer a vessel, that houses something that is no longer an angel.
"Not that I expected anything less from you. Or him." Lucifer looks down at Dean's body, expression unreadable. "Sam knew he'd never stop fighting. I should have believed him." The fondness in his voice is obscene, warmly approval and wistful regret in each word. He supposes, skin crawling sluggishly, it might even be genuine. "Why did you come to me now? To spare your life or end it?"
"Neither," he replies. "I came for him."
Lucifer hesitates only a moment before his lips stretch in a humorless smirk. "Humanity has so many meaningless customs, it's ridiculous. I wouldn't have thought you, of all people, would be susceptible to that." He waves a hand at Dean's body before making a show of stepping back. "Your last words to the dirt, if you must. I'll even burn the body for you after you're done." He smirks down at him. "It's the least I can do."
"Thank you." As if they belonged to someone else entirely, he watches his own bloody fingers close the dulled green eyes that had once housed the last light left in all the world, quenched by a single bullet that didn't succeed and a broken neck that did. Closing his eyes, he presses his hand to Dean's forehead, where even the last ghost of warmth has fled, skin cool and rubbery: I'm sorry. "Go ahead."
Still smirking, Lucifer looks down at Dean's body, and fire burst from the ground to engulf Dean's body and shooting upward, dancing red-orange flames licking at the dark sky for a few long moments, searing air burning across his face in a flash of heat, and vanishing before he remembers to breath. Blinking, he waits for the spots to fade from his vision to see the blackened, charred ground surrounding ash in the shape of Dean's body, already crumbling to join the earth from which it came.
"I promised Sam they'd be together in the end," Lucifer tells him, shrugging to rearrange his still immaculate coat. "Don't worry, Cas, he'll be fine. From what I understand, he had a pretty good time the first time. He'll adapt."
"No," Castiel answers. "He won't."
Lucifer looks up from his sleeve, a pitying smile freezing on his lips, eyebrows knitting together in dawning confusion. "What--where is he?"
"How would I know?" he answers curiously. "Slaughtering the reapers was possibly a miscalculation on your part. Without their guidance, it's very easy to get lost."
The brown eyes jerk up to meet Castiel's, almost incandescent with fury. "What did you do?"
"What could I possibly do? In case you've forgotten, I Fell." Castiel watches in reluctant fascination at the sudden flush across Lucifer's cheeks, hands clenching into fists at his sides, and wonders if it's too much to ask to actually see him stamp his foot.
"What. Did. You. Do." Abruptly, Lucifer's hand closes around his throat, impossibly hot fingers burning into his skin as he's jerked to his feet. "I've waited a long time for this, Castiel. The Host is long gone and lost their claim. He's mine."
Castiel smiles into the enraged brown eyes. "He'll never be yours."
Lucifer's hand tightens, cutting off the last trickle of air, and Castiel's feet hang inches above the ground, lungs burning as he gasps helplessly, fingers too slick to get purchase on Lucifer's wrist. Distantly, he can sense Lucifer pushing around the edges of his mind, poking, pressing, searching for a way inside, rage growing exponentially at finding each connection burned away, sealed shut to encase the mind of an angel in a human form. As black spots begin to consume his vision, Castiel clings doggedly to consciousness, reaching back to the gun at the small of his back and wonders if he'll have to resort to shooting Lucifer to break his concentration. It's not an unattractive possibility; generally, angels don't feel pain as humans do, but Lucifer's spent enough time in this particular vessel to have developed a sympathetic response to it.
Then he's abruptly sprawled across the grass, starved lungs dragging in sulfur and rose tainted air with every gasping, coughing breath. Raising a hand to his swelling throat as he eases himself upright, he traces the beginnings of new blisters rising up on the skin in the shape of Lucifer's fingers and swallows experimentally before looking up.
"I would ask if you have any further questions, but--"
"What did they do to you before they left?" Lucifer asks, staring down at him.
Castiel stiffens. "I Fell."
"The methods of discipline in the Host have changed since I was among them," he observes. "Enslave the infinite to rotting dirt. It would have been kinder to kill you. Fill me in--is that what the Host calls love these days?"
"You were in that cage for far too long," Castiel replies harshly. "Love has never been kind, and the Host least of all."
"You could have come to me." Lucifer's mouth quirks at his expression as he drops into a crouch in front of him. "I left the Host and you Fell, but that doesn't make you any less my Brother."
Lucifer extends a hand, palm warm and unexpectedly soft--it's been years since Sam's body was that of a hunter, years since he held a gun or a knife and had to use them--fingers curving against his cheek. Lucifer's Grace washes over his skin, honey-thick as it soaks into him, searching deeper than irrelevant barriers of flesh and bone; closing his eyes at the slowly spreading warmth, he can pretend for a moment that he never left this for a world of harsh angles and finite surfaces, stark planes of defined space and sharp limits and glaring brightness, the misery and pain and constant, unending work required for simple existence, and he's so tired. He doesn't remember a time that he wasn't.
"They trapped you in there," Lucifer whispers, sounding startled, and Castiel jerks back from the drugging touch, scrabbling desperately at the grass, the absence of Grace like physical pain, bone deep, impossible to ever heal or forget. "Even Hell shows more mercy than that."
"Mercy can only be freely given," he answers roughly. "It can't be bought."
"Mercy is an illusion. This is an offer. I can still help you."
Castiel snorts and regrets it as it sets off another round of coughing, the taste of rotting flora filling his mouth. "If I fall upon my knees and worship you, yes. You should acquire new material."
"That's not the worst idea I've heard today." Lucifer grins at him with a flash of too-white teeth. "I can't give you back your Grace, per se--"
Lucifer rolls his eyes and stands up. "--but I can offer you a place at my side in Hell." He gesture vaguely. "You know, the usual. At my left hand, raised above all others for all eternity, on Earth as it is in Hell."
It's the end of the world and the death of Dean Winchester, and there was never a time that he expected to bear witness to either one. Staring between the crumbling remains of the man he Fell for and was willing to die for and the Brother who killed him, he wonders why that was not payment enough for whatever transgressions he's committed. Apparently, he also has to be propositioned by Lucifer himself before he's done.
"Or all the kingdoms of the earth, if you really like crawling in the dirt with them," Lucifer adds with a moue of distaste. "I can't decide; which one would you choose?"
"'All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it.'" Lucifer grins at him, and all at once, it clicks into place. "You want me to worship you?"
"You look very good on your knees, little Brother. I think I like it." The grin widens as Lucifer crouches before him again, fingers tilting his chin up, and warm tendrils of Grace burrow enticingly beneath the surface of his skin, a reminder: and you can have this, too . The almost invisible glow of Lucifer's true form pushes itself against of the confines of his vessel, bathing him in the brilliance of Morningstar's light, the wide sweep of wings blotting out the entire world. "Wearing a meatsuit doesn't change what you were created to be. You were meant to kneel in worship of someone. When I'm done with you, you'll do it for me."
Castiel can't feel the ground below him, the crisp evening air, or his own body; there's only Morningstar, an archangel as far above him as a human from a single cell, and once upon a time, he might very well have done just that.
"You'll want to," Lucifer promises, breath hot against his cheek. "You will. I'll teach you. And then I'll send you to Earth, and you'll teach all of humanity to want it, too."
"You want to be their God."
Lucifer shrugs, amused. "Why not?"
Prophecy's proved itself useless more times than he can possibly count, but never more than at this moment; it spoke of prophets and righteous men and the Apocalypse that would decide the fate of all Creation and somehow missing entirely there were worse things than the end of the world. There was the possibility of Lucifer creating one in his own image.
"You don't need me to help you become their God."
"Maybe I just want it." Lucifer smiles at him. "What do you want, Castiel?"
Castiel thinks: I want Dean to be alive, and Sam Winchester to be free of you. I want the world not to have ended and the Apocalypse never to have begun. I want to have died tonight or died when I Fell or died when I rebelled. I want to go back to before the moment I Fell, when the Host condemned me, and tell myself that it doesn't matter what I choose, that we will always, always lose.
"I want," he says, looking into Lucifer's eyes, "to have told the Host they could fuck themselves before I Fell."
Lucifer's smile vanishes.
"That," Castiel adds thoughtfully, "still bothers me sometimes."
Getting to his feet, Lucifer stares down at him. "It would be a waste to put you on the rack for eternity, but the entertainment value might very well make up for that."
"You don't put an angel on the rack," Castiel answers. "You suborn them or kill them."
Lucifer smirks. "You're not an angel, and I rule in Hell. I can do anything I want."
"You reign in Hell," Castiel corrects him, watching the smirk fade into nothing. "Our Brethren rule it, and I don't think they would let you."
The backhand isn't just physical, fingers of Grace ripping through him in jagged blades like being skinned alive a hundred times--a thousand--as time twists slower and speeds up, seconds like hours, like days, like years, like eternity, but it's nothing at all. Dean suffered worse on the rack, and even more when he left it; Castiel has lived in this human body alone for two years. It's nothing, no deeper than flesh and blood and bone, an illusion of biology, a reminder how long Lucifer has been absent from the Host, how much he's missed, unaware of the discipline the Host once meted out to bring a recalcitrant angel to heel and make him betray his own charge. Nothing Lucifer could possibly do could match the crawling horror of that.
When it vanishes, aftershocks still sparking from every nerve, Castiel is spitting blood onto the dusty ground, fingers knuckle deep in the dirt, throat so raw even breathing hurts. Prolonged screaming can have that effect.
"Are you--" He winces at the sound of his own voice and tries again. "Are you done yet? I have better things to do than indulge your temper tantrum."
"Even for Dean's brother?"
He looks at Lucifer, surprised. "What?"
"I could set him free," Lucifer answers. "All you have to do is say yes."
"Even if you offered to end the Apocalypse and crawl back into your cage in Hell," Castiel answers breathlessly. "To know you want it would be reason enough to say no."
Lucifer is so still he could be a figure carved in marble. "That's your answer?"
"I thought that was clear, but to observe the formalities: get thee hence. Be gone. Go away." Castiel grins, feeling his lips crack and tasting fresh blood on his tongue. "Fuck yourself."
Getting unsteadily to his feet, he tests his balance on legs gone stiff and numb, but the prickling eases enough to move. Turning his back on Lucifer, he retrieves his weapons and starts back through the tangled greenery, aware of the eyes burning into his back with every step he takes.
"Even for you," Lucifer says from behind him, "that's a very stupid choice."
"I paid for the right to make it." In so many ways.
"You think I'm just going to let you walk away?" Lucifer asks curiously just as he before he reaches the mouth of the alley.
Castiel swallows before turning around, gazing at Lucifer over the shadowy mound of Dean's body. "Yes."
"You're not wrong."
"Imagine my relief."
Lucifer studies him coolly. "Do you want to know the reason I'm going to spare your life today?"
"I don't care." He wonders if Lucifer has ever understood what it means to be tired, so tired that even caring is an effort. Everything left in him is already fully engaged; there's nothing left for this. "Is there anything else?"
"You've corrupted yourself so much already," Lucifer says softly, voice perfectly clear in his ear. "I suppose the question is how long it will take for you to hate yourself more than you hate me."
Castiel sucks in a breath.
"Let's find out."
The sense of demons vanish with the sudden absence of Lucifer, leaving him almost entirely alone in a slowly rotting city.
Leaning against the wet brick just inside the alley, he closes his eyes, concentrating, but there's no sense of any demons or even Croatoans close enough to be a threat. Satisfied for now, he retraces his steps to where he left the jeep, aware of that sense of absence beginning to grow, and something else as well, like an itch beneath the surface of his skin. It could be his imagination, but he's never had one of those before, so he doubts it manifested today just to fuck with him.
Quickening his pace, he emerges into a deserted parking lot, a mess of half-destroyed asphalt and the twisted remains of vehicles, picking his way between them to his jeep huddled against the crumbling remains of a strip mall. The late grey of afternoon is far too still, not even a breezes to stir the rotting remains of the trees, but it's not just that; half-way across the parking lot, he catches himself in a jog, urgency bubbling up stronger with every breath.
Pausing at the door of the jeep, Castiel hesitates briefly, and a surge of adrenaline hits him hard enough to make his hands shake, don't stop as clear as if the words were spoken in his ear, don't look back.
Only Orpheus was stupid enough not to listen to warnings delivered without ambiguity; it's too rare to get one of those to discard with impunity.
I don't want to hurt you.
Castiel stiffens, turning to search the empty parking lot. "What?"
There's nothing but the lack of breeze to answer him.
Pulling the door open, he climbs inside, turning the key automatically. "Don't say anything," he manages, hearing the tremor in his voice as he begins to back out into the nearest clear street. "Not yet."
The silence that answers him is both accusing and wary, which is as much as he could have expected. Turning his attention to the road, he concentrates on driving, the city limits like a flashing beacon screaming along every nerve, get there get out now, and he's not, not, not high enough for this.
Imagination, he thinks: long term drug use, of course: insanity, very likely: trauma, who could blame him. But he's not Orpheus, ascending from the underworld unable to follow a single, unambiguous warning: he doesn't look back.
As if to underline the insanity argument, the feeling vanishes upon passing the broken city limits sign, and Castiel swerves for the side of the road and puts the jeep in park before dropping his head onto the steering wheel and dragging in a full breath like someone drowning just reaching air.
He's not sure how long it is before there's the sound of impatient shifting from the floorboard of the passenger side seat, but it's enough to remind him he's not actually alone, no matter how much he might wish to the contrary. Lifting his head, he looks down at the Dean Winchester glaring at him from the floor of the jeep, cellphone still clutched in one hand. Castiel wonders what exactly it will take to convince him that even if there were any working cellphone towers within five hundred miles of their current location, he doesn't believe they reach alternate worlds. Or at least, not very often.
"Can I get up now," Dean asks warily. "What the hell--"
"I'm not nearly high enough for this," Castiel tells him, dropping his head back against the headrest. "It was a mistake to abstain, it seems. Yes, you can get up."
Climbing into the seat, Dean belatedly tucks his phone into his jacket, and Castiel finds himself tempted to reach across the cabin of the jeep and poke him, just on the off-chance this really is an extended hallucination. It's a lovely thought, but it implies that his life will ever, even in this small way, be that simple.
"Cas?" Less suspicious, still wary, but now threaded with worry. Castiel feels his throat tighten, filling with everything, a range of horror and grief and hilarity and utter disbelief. Leaning on the wheel, he bursts into laughter, vomited out in great, painful gusts that scrape his throat raw and make his stomach ache; this happened, this is happening, and he has no idea what he's supposed to do now. He never thought beyond tonight; there was never going to be anything to think about.
Alarm joins the medley of emotions emanating from the other side of the jeep, which just adds to the hilarity--helpless, breathless, painful, it hurts--and it doesn't seem to want to stop. Gasping against the wheel, Castiel tries to calm himself, but focus is beyond him right now; it's all he can do to get enough breath not to pass out.
"Cas." A warm hand touches his shoulder, tentative before the grip tightens, and he freezes, laughter dying in his chest. When he turns his head, Dean is half-way across the seat, green eyes dark with--yes, worry, how strange, how… He's not sure. "You need me to drive?"
Castiel imagines Dean driving into Chitaqua, and abruptly, he's more sober than he's ever been in his not quite human life.
"No." Straightening, he feels the hand fall away--almost reluctantly, he thinks, but that can't be right--and looks at Dean as he settles back into the passenger seat. "I don't think it would be a good idea for anyone at the camp to see you." For so many reasons, and none of which he thinks Dean needs to know, for his own sanity.
Dean frowns, opening his mouth to argue, but as this is a night of impossibilities, he closes his mouth again and nods reluctantly. "Right. So we're going to Chitaqua?"
"Yes." If Castiel could think of another option, he'd take it, but unfortunately, there isn't one. Before Dean can begin to ask any unanswerable questions--the number of which are legion--he says, "You were returned to your correct timeline after Dean died. How long ago was that for you?"
Dean gives him a startled look. "About three years, I guess. How did you--never mind, special angel power?"
"Human aging is erratic, but I know the progression of Dean's," Castiel answers quickly, not wanting to encourage that line of questioning; more importantly, he doesn't like the way Dean answered him. "You don't know for certain?"
Dean's eyes widen in alarm, and he likes that even less. "I was on a job, I think--"
"You don't remember?" Leaning back against his seat, Castiel swallows, trying to decide how to elicit further information without alarming Dean further. Zachariah is sadistic, but generally, there is some form of logic, however twisted. "Why did the Host send you this time?" Literally to watch the end of the world: that's not sadism, that's insanity.
"I don't--I don't think they did."
Castiel stills. "They didn't?"
"Zachariah's dead." What an unexpected and gratifying piece of information to have. "The Host--" Dean's eyes skip to him and then away, focusing on the dashboard. "They're kind of distracted right now. It's complicated. We won the Apocalypse, by the way."
"Congratulations. We didn't."
Castiel hadn't realized reality could mimic the effects of a particular unpleasant acid trip with such devastating accuracy.
"Cas, what's going on? Why am I here again?"
"Perhaps we should start with everything you remember about your arrival here?" Dean looks as if he wants to protest. "And everything that you can remember of what happened before that."
Dean snorts. "What, the last three years?"
"Yes," Castiel agrees, ignoring Dean's annoyance at being taken literally and putting the jeep into drive. "Let's start there."
Dean reluctantly agrees to hide in the back of the jeep when they're five miles from Chitaqua and beyond the perimeter of the local patrol. Once they reach the camp, Castiel listens to his own voice coolly summarizing a somewhat edited version of the night's disastrous events to the watch, hyperaware of Dean listening to every word he says.
The garage is unsurprisingly deserted, and as it's well after dusk, it's simply a matter of walking the distance to his cabin with the protection of darkness obscuring the identity of the person with him. If anyone happens to see them, no one will assume something as incidental as a terrible mission with a high death count will interfere with his pursuit of pleasure.
Castiel takes only enough time to wash away the worst of the blood, leaving the ruined jacket and overshirt on the floor of the bathroom before returning to the small living room to find Dean Winchester--how it this happening, why is this happening--sitting on his couch, hunched and staring at nothing. Just looking at him is jarring despite the fact that Castiel blocked the migraine-inducing resonance of a person so dramatically displaced in time and space. He's grateful that he bothered to learn that trick the first time this Dean was here, even though he never expected to have any need to use it again.
He isn't sure how long he stands numbly at the door of the bathroom before Dean's head snaps up, green eyes narrowing in fury as he gets to his feet.
"What the hell was that about?"
The sense of the question eludes him even as Dean stalks toward him, still talking at a dangerously high volume, dissonance in every particular; jeans and t-shirt and jacket, newer boots, unarmed, younger in more than years, but all of it pales before the body memory of Dean's cooling body before Lucifer burned it into ash and dust.
"--didn't tell them he was dead! Why did you…" He has no idea what Dean is saying to him, only that it abruptly comes to a stop, and Dean's staring at him from only a foot away with an expression that Castiel can't remember how to interpret. "Cas?"
Castiel crosses to the couch, leaning over the arm enough to retrieve the mostly-full bottle he never expected to finish, because he hadn't expected to survive tonight; because he'd never expected to survive the end of the world; because no one survived Dean Winchester and he has no idea how it feels to be the first.
"Cas?" Dean's still standing in the middle of the room where Castiel left him, and it's possible that this is what sympathy looks like on Dean Winchester's face; it might be the strangest thing he's seen this night, but the competition is so high he can't be certain. "Cas, what happened back there?"
"I had to--" he pauses to concentrate on the surprisingly difficult task of unclenching fingers gone numb from their clutch on the neck of the bottle. "I had to see to his body."
"Shit." Dean closes his eyes briefly, anger draining away. "I forgot--that was only an hour ago here. Are you…."
Mercifully, he cuts himself off before the word 'okay' can be added; the novelty of a Dean Winchester editing himself in any way is fascinating.
"It took longer than expected. Lucifer distracted me soon after I found him."
"Lucifer?" Dean takes a step toward him. "He was there?"
Castiel nods slowly, tipping his head back to gaze blindly at the ceiling. "I should have anticipated that. He wouldn't be able to resist gloating over the body."
Perhaps it was for Sam Winchester's benefit: a belated punishment for resisting him for so very long. Lucifer would enjoy that very much. Twisting off the lid, Castiel takes a blind drink, but the anticipated burn of alcohol is entirely absent; all he can taste is smoke and death. Wiping his mouth, he blinks in surprise at the presence of this Dean less than a foot away, looking worried. Wariness he knows how to deal with; worry he can't, and doesn't want to.
Smiling up at him, he extends the almost-empty bottle. "Would you like some? I'm sure I have more somewhere--"
"Cas." Ignoring him, Castiel starts to take another drink before the bottle is abruptly jerked out of his hand. "Cas," he says urgently, then frowns, green eyes dropping lower and narrowing. "What the hell happened to your neck?"
Reaching up, Castiel winces at the first touch against blistered skin of his throat. "I forgot about that."
"Lucifer did that." Before Castiel can respond to the obvious, Dean's fingers close over his chin, jerking his head up. "Jesus. Where's your first aid kit?"
"It doesn't hurt." It hurts, but everything hurts, so it is not as if it's a distraction. "He has always had poor impulse control. It's like dealing with a spoilt child."
Dean cocks his head, peering into his eyes. "Cas, you tracking?"
"That is my first bottle."
"Not what I meant."
"He burned Dean's body." There's not enough alcohol in the house for this. Dean opens his mouth then stops, going still. "Patience is a virtue, did you know that?"
Dean swallows, nodding tightly. "I've heard."
"It may be the only virtue I still possess." He searches Dean's face. "Can I have the bottle now?"
"Cas--" Dean unexpectedly reaches out, grabbing his wrist and almost jerking him off-balance, turning it over to reveal a still oozing wound he doesn't quite remember getting. "Cas, I was there when you were fighting. Is there anything else?"
"Jesus Christ." Dean stands up, letting go of his hand. "Where. Is. The fucking first aid kit?"
He makes an effort to focus. "Under the sink in the kitchen."
When Dean returns, there's a grim set to his mouth that discourages commentary, seating himself on the couch and doing a quick inventory of the kit with an expression of reluctant satisfaction before taking out the gauze and tape, alcohol and a small tube of antibiotic added to the pile as well as a small pair of scissors.
"Give me your hand," Dean says firmly, in almost the exact voice that Castiel's conditioned to disobey on principle. It's not quite, though, and the delay simply means Dean reaches over himself, taking Castiel by the wrist and setting his hand palm-up on one knee. Head tilted, Dean cleans away the remaining blood with unexpected care, wiping a thin layer of unneeded antibiotic over the cuts before bandaging it neatly, tape secured with practiced ease.
"Heads up," Dean says softly, but the callused fingers are already on his chin, tipping his head back against the couch. It's easier to let him do it than protest the necessity. There's a faint sense of pressure down the sensitized skin, and from his peripheral vision, he sees Dean's mouth quirk in recognition. "First degree Grace burn. The things you learn from being dragged out of Hell by an angel."
"That was a manifestation of my Grace marking your soul," Castiel answers, feeling his lips stretching into a faint smile when Dean rolls his eyes. "It's not an actual physical injury to my body. It'll be gone before dawn."
"So what was he trying to do to your true form in there?"
Dean's very smart. "There was nothing he could do, unless he wished to kill me. The Host, to his dissatisfaction, already destroyed far too much themselves trapping me in here."
"Fuck them." Sitting back, he cocks his head. "You get you're in shock right now, right?"
Oh. "Is that what this is?"
"Yeah." Dean licks his lips. "Cas, you need to lie down or something."
"I need that bottle."
"Drinking isn't going to help."
"Nothing is going to help!" he snap before he can think better of it. "I want it anyway."
Dean visibly counts to ten before he gets up, grabbing the bottle and shoving it into his hand. Being silently judged by Dean Winchester is at least familiar when at this moment, nothing else is. Finishing it takes only a moment; surely there's more here somewhere.
"Why'd you do that to your hand?" Dean asks, settling beside him again; a hunter even now, eliciting information from the most useless of witnesses at the most pointless of all times. "Cas?"
"I don't remember." Reaching over, Dean takes the empty bottle from his hand, leaning over to set in on the floor. When he straightens, he's holding--a full one. "Where--"
"You gave me the grand tour the first time I was here, remember? Bathroom in the bedroom, food nowhere, drugs everywhere, Jim Beam under the table, take whatever I wanted. I paid attention." Dean waggles the bottle enticingly. "Who's your supplier, anyway?"
"Payment for services rendered," he answers distractedly, reaching for the bottle, which Dean immediately raises just out of reach. "Give me that."
"Make it worth my while," Dean answers. "What happened with Lucifer?"
"What always happens with Lucifer? He made ridiculous threats and even more ridiculous offers. I declined and left."
"And he just let you."
"I wasn't interested enough to hear his explanation. Can I have the bottle now?" Dean's mouth tightens, but before he can answer, Castiel retrieves it himself, twisting off the top and taking a long drink, waiting for something--anything--to happen, but while his mind remains distressingly unorganized, there's no appreciable difference in outlook yet. Sliding to the floor, he pulls a box from under the couch, wondering where his lighter is. "Do you have a lighter?"
Dean stares at him. "What?"
"A lighter?" Flipping open the box, Castiel retrieves one of the baggies, weighing it thoughtfully in one hand. "I'll share, of course."
"Seriously?" Dean asks incredulously. "You're doing that shit now?"
"I don't know if you are aware of this, but Lucifer won the Apocalypse," he answers flatly. "The world is over. Now is all we have left."
For a few long moments, Dean is silent. "Lucifer won," he echoes quietly. "I forgot about that, too."
"I am endeavoring to achieve the same." He fumbles the bag, almost dropping it, hands oddly clumsy. "As this is the first time the world has ended, there's a lack of reliable information on the exact progression of events. This wasn't--" supposed to happen, he thinks. For a second, he can't see anything but Dean's body cooling in the grey afternoon, air choked with the smell of roses. "I don't know how long we have."
"Then we gotta get out of here," Dean starts, trailing off in belated realization of how ridiculous that is.
Castiel says it anyway. "Dean, where on this world do you think we can go?"
Abruptly, Dean slides down beside him, pulling a lighter from his pocket and dropping it in his lap before taking the box and removing the papers. Spreading out one translucent-white square on the lid, he holds out his hand. "Give me that. How long do we have?"
"I don't know." Castiel loosens his hold enough to obediently drop the bag in Dean's hands, watching as Dean expertly rolls the joint before licking the edge to seal it shut. "Perhaps before morning. The wards won't survive for very long against his entire army." Or they'll run out of food waiting to die; it could go either way.
Picking up the lighter, Dean flips it absently in one hand, eyes fixed on the doorway, beads stirring faintly from an unexpected breeze. "That's why you didn't tell them."
"All we have is now," Castiel whispers, picking up the finished joint and almost dropping it; distantly, he realizes his hands are shaking. "They should have that much, at least."
"Hold up." Plucking the joint from his hand, Dean tucks it between his own lips and lights it before handing it back. "Give me a second. I'll get another couple of bottles."
Jerked awake at the unexpected noise, Castiel fights down the instinctive panic, blinking uncertainly into the gloom of the room, barely lightened by the weak grey light beginning to spill through the window. Which means it's less than an hour before dawn, a time he didn't expect to ever see again.
Far more unsettling, he's beginning to suspect there's been more than one of them.
"You awake?" the same voice asks with a ripple of amused annoyance, adding a discordant rap of knuckles against wood. Still frowning, he follows it to the doorway, where a familiar body slumps against the wall, idly looping a beaded string around one wrist.
"No," he answers deliberately, tempted to bury himself in the couch cushions and refuse to emerge until she goes away. It won't work, but he can't think of a reason not to at least try. "Go away, Vera."
"And good morning to you, Cas," Vera answers brightly, letting the beads drop and crossing to perch on the arm of the couch, boots knocking his feet out of her way. Resting an elbow on her knees, she smiles down at him. "Long night?"
"What are you doing here?" Sitting up, he's almost painfully aware of the fact that despite his best efforts to the contrary, he's somehow managed to achieve perfect sobriety, and he's not sure how he allowed that to happen. There's also something wrong with the room, though he can't make himself focus enough to work out what with Vera staring at him. Peering up at her, he takes in the twists of hair piled into a messy knot away from a tired-looking face, the dark skin, like her unbuttoned jacket, jeans, and boots, liberally sprinkled with dirt and dust. Distracted, his gaze drops to the worn grey t-shirt, noting her sidearm in its shoulder holster, and flickers a glance at the doorway, where her rifle leans against the wall. "You're on patrol?"
"Just got back." She reaches up to push a stray twist back into the loose knot of locked hair before fixing him with cool brown eyes. "You don't remember?"
"I remember everything." It's true, even if at this moment he's not quite able to retrieve the specific memory. As far as he knows, she wasn’t assigned to any patrols this week. And what is wrong with the room? Scanning it, he tries and fails to identify the discrepancy. "Is there something--"
"I'll give you this," she interrupts casually, crossing her legs. "I probably wouldn't have noticed if you weren't so shitty at covering your tracks. What the hell are you doing?"
Castiel keeps his expression neutral as he frantically attempts to recall the last one--two?--three days of memories, searching for some kind of context.
"Let's make this easy on us both," Vera continues flatly. "Hour after dusk to an hour before dawn, you're stealth searching the entire goddamn city for Dean. I get it, you want to find him, everyone does, but going alone to Kansas City every night--Jesus Christ, even you're not usually that stupid!"
"Why would you think--"
"Jeep's still warm," she says flatly. "I checked before I got here. Wanna try again?"
Castiel doesn't flicker a glance in search of his pants. They could, quite literally, be anywhere in this camp, and in any case, their location is now apparently separate from that of his keys. Vera waits for a few pregnant moments before finally saying with an unmistakable quaver in her voice, "Cas, tell me--here, you can lie to me--that you aren't going to the city while you're fucked up--"
"Unless you wish to count speed, no." The faint unease blossoming into panic between one breath and the next as the last three days begin to fall into place with an almost audible click. "I'm not an idiot."
"Because three days no sleep, that's good for you," she says acidly, but the relief in her voice strips the words of any heat. "Cas, why--I mean, I get it, it's Dean, but come on. I know you can take care of yourself, but--look, right now, we can't afford you--" She hesitates so briefly that he almost misses it, "--anyone taking that kind of risk right now. You know Dean's orders as well as I do."
"And I'm famous for my obedience." The jeep is in the garage, she checked, but he's going to need more than that. "Has anyone else noticed--"
"You being more than normally crazy?" Vera asks, rolling her eyes. "Protip: subtle is not telling everyone to leave you alone because you want to spend some time praying for your various sins in alphabetical order. Or was it by severity?"
"That would require far more than three days to accomplish." He can guess who might have thought that was funny, and he must have been very high to have actually said it. "Has anyone been to Dean's cabin?"
"Of course not. I told everyone, it's fine." He blinks slowly at that, focusing on her serious expression. "Cas, he's alive. I know that, you know that, everyone knows that. I get it's hard to wait, but--"
"We can't afford for me to leave the camp." Vera nods distractedly, glancing toward the door, and he notes the darkening circles beneath her eyes that he missed earlier, the weary slump of her shoulders beneath the oversized olive Army jacket, the barely-there tremble of hands locked together to hide it, but while bloodshot, the brown eyes are unnaturally alert for this early in the morning. "You look tired. Is patrol more active than usual?"
No, it's fine," she answers dismissively, turning to face him with a quick smile, though one leg begins to bounce impatiently. "Pretty quiet, actually, Amanda and Mel say day's about the same, though, so no idea. Look, I need to--"
"Give me a minute." Tossing the blanket aside, he ignores her annoyed sigh as he tugs a pair of jeans from under the couch that on brief examination may even be his own. "When did Mel join the local patrol?"
"A couple of days ago," she answers impatiently, then winces before adding, "We had to keep patrol going. She volunteered."
"Excellent idea," he tells her, standing up to pull on the jeans and make his way across the almost obstruction-free floor to the kitchen to count the number of bottles piled neatly by the trash can, then in the sink and the floor beside it before taking in the entire kitchen, feeling vaguely unsettled by the amount of visible floorspace. "Who's was it again?"
"What?" Vera asks from the living room, sounding strained; a glance shows her frowning toward the doorway again. "I gotta go, so can we--"
"Indulge me." Three days, what was he doing, why would Dean be going to the city; he can be stupid, but it usually involves some form of logic, however incomprehensible it might be to anyone but himself. Opening the door to the small utility closet where he keeps his books, he notes the six missing on a glance, reviewing their subject matter and finding the common theme before he closes it. Turning around, he sees Vera standing by the couch, eyes nervously darting between him and the doorway. "You're expecting someone?"
"No, why would I--" She shifts in place, rubbing her hands along her thighs nervously as Castiel takes in the room again and finally realizes what's bothering him about it. "Just tired. Uh--"
"Has it been this clean every morning?" Dropping his gaze to the rug, he wonders uneasily if it's always been that color. Or for that matter, if he's always had a rug.
"Yeah, I was wondering about that," she answers, looking around with a baffled expression. "Are you drunk cleaning or something? You do that?"
"That's really the only explanation." Concentration is so difficult when there's so much to deal with at once. "Did you say the jeep was still warm?"
Vera shifts her weight uncomfortably, but she nods. "Yeah, that's why--"
"Yes, why you went to find out. Because every morning I was here an hour before dawn, you knew that, because every morning you checked. And apparently right before dusk, though that must be a guess, since night shift goes on duty at dusk."
She stills, brown eyes widening briefly, before she nods again, raising her chin. "I was worried. I wanted to make sure you were okay."
"You could have asked Amanda to watch me," he says, leaning his shoulder against the kitchen door. "She would have been happy to oblige."
"You said--" She grimaces. "Look, she was respecting your privacy, okay? Whatever happened in Kansas City--I get you don't want to talk about it yet, fine."
"The camp is running smoothly?" he asks, never looking away from her face. "No panic, worry, belated realization that with Dean missing and all of his lieutenants dead we lack even a rudimentary command structure…." He closes his eyes at the way she stares at the wall just over his shoulder. "Please tell me I should be congratulating you on carrying out a successful coup on Chitaqua and you wish to be referred to as 'Your Dread Majesty'."
"It wasn't a coup," she says deliberately. "More a re-organization based on our existing resources, which I don't know if you noticed, don't include four of Dean's lieutenants and there's some uncertainty on the exact location of our leader. You had a better idea, you should have voted."
"There was a vote--you were being facetious, thank you, that helps." Spying a t-shirt by the closed bedroom door, he snatches it from the floor, tugging it impatiently over his head. "I don't have time for this, so if you would, please explain who is currently in charge of Chitaqua since all of Dean's lieutenants are dead in Kansas City?"
"Four of them are dead," she corrects him. "One of them came back."
She glances toward the door, expression melting into resignation, and following her gaze, he sees the four people--presumably the day shift--standing outside, milling nervously near the sagging steps of the porch in the sullen grey light of morning. Biting her lip, Vera goes to the door, leaning out to shout, "Five minutes!" before glancing at him, expression the familiar mixture of resignation and disappointment he's seen it on Dean's face more times than he can count.
Taking a deep breath, she crosses the room, coming to a stop only a few feet away.
"They think I'm getting orders from you," she says simply. "Now, you got a choice."
Amanda, blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, glances toward the cabin, and for a moment, the blue-green eyes meet his; he looks away. "The answer is no."
"You get your goddamn gun, walk outside, and give them their orders," she continues flatly. "Or tell them I lied, you're opting out, and good luck with that survival thing, because I'm sure as fuck not doing this for you."
Castiel jerks his gaze back to Vera. "Why not? You've done an excellent job so far."
"Fuck you," she answers, brown eyes hardening. "Playtime's over, Castiel; time to deal. What are you gonna do?"
Outside, Mel and David are talking, flickering nervous glances toward the cabin, expressions tight with growing worry as the sun begins its ascent into the sky, and beyond them are the walls of Chitaqua and the hum of the wards that protect them. It doesn't matter, he wants to tell her; the world's already over and they're already dead. All they're doing now is marking time until the end.
"You said the local patrols have been unusually quiet?"
Vera starts. "Yeah. We checked twenty-five miles out, and there's nothing."
What would Dean do, he thinks, ignoring the slice of pain for later; what Dean would do would know what he's doing. What would he ask, what would he need to know, what would he do--
"Patrol is suspended until further notice," he says. "I need a full report of everything--and I do mean everything--that's happened since we left for Kansas City. Everyone who was on patrol is to meet me here at noon and be ready to answer for every moment of their shifts."
She frowns. "Why--"
"The camp will be locked down for the next forty-eight hours," he continues, trying to think of anything he might be missing. He's lived here all his mortal life; he should know this. "The watch will be informed that anyone trying to enter or leave should be shot on sight." Vera sucks in a shocked breath, which reminds him of what she said about the jeep. "Wake up Sheila and tell her to temporarily disable all the vehicles, and she and Frederick are to find and confiscate every set of keys we have and bring them here by dusk. I know how many we should have and if a set is missing, I'll want to know why."
In the silence that follows, he sees his belt, coiled neatly on a nearby chair, and picks it up, threading it through the belt loops before pulling his gun from under a cushion of the couch. Checking it automatically, he pauses, remembering the first time Dean handed him a gun and told him it was time he learned how to use it.
"Cas," Vera says slowly, "what happened in Kansas City?"
Dean said: Cas, it's just you and me now. If we're gonna do this, you have to learn everything you can.
"The team leaders were killed," he tells her, sliding it into the holster before retrieving his knife from under a pillow. "Dean's orders were for anyone who survived the confrontation to secure the camp until he was able to make contact."
"He survived?" Vera licks her lips nervously. "You're sure?"
Otherwise, you're useless to me. So, what's it gonna be?
"He's alive," Castiel answers, meeting her eyes. "Until he returns, his last order will be obeyed."
Vera closes her eyes, shoulders slumping in visible relief. "Okay. Anything else?"
"I need to check the wards this morning, so I'll be unavailable until noon," he starts, then remembers the day shift is waiting outside for his orders. He doesn't know anything--what he might have missed, what will need clarification, what he's forgotten, what he doesn't even know to tell them.
Closing his eyes, he thinks: I can't do this.
"Cas?" Vera says quietly, and he feels a nudge against his arm. "You ready?"
Opening his eyes, he looks at the doorway to this tiny world within the protection of the wards. He has to be ready, because all they have is now. He has to be ready, he has to be, because the world is over and Dean's dead, but asleep in his cabin is a man who doesn't have anyone else.
So, what's it gonna be?
"Yes," he breathes. "I am."
The maintenance of the camp's wards is one of the few duties he never relinquished, a routine so ingrained that he could do it in his sleep. Making a clean cut across his palm over the half-healed wound from Kansas City, he mechanically swipes his fingers across the key before stepping back, but finds himself staring at the bright streak of crimson, glistening in the thin grey light of early morning.
Distantly, he hears the thud of the knife dropping from fingers gone numb, but all he can think is that Dean's been dead three days and he's still checking the wards as if he's not.
Abruptly, he finds himself seated on the rocky ground, unable to draw a full breath; the world's over and Dean's dead, but he's not.
Pressing his forehead to his knees, a choked sound claws itself free of his throat and spills into the air; another follows, and another, and he can't stop it or even control it, vomiting jagged-edged sobs it hurts to make and even more to hear.
It's obscene, that he can possibly be alive in a world where Dean isn't; it's impossible, that he can live when most of him died three day ago and burned to ash before his eyes. Whatever this is can't possibly be called living.
He can't do this, he can't survive this, no one could expect it of him. He can't. He can't.
Castiel quietly opens the unlocked door of Dean Winchester's cabin and slips inside, bone-deep exhaustion making every passing second feel like forever. It's only been three hours since dawn, but years have passed since he woke up in a world that should have already been dead.
Tiredly, he forces himself to recall what he needs to tell this man, to make him understand; even through the numbness, he feels a flicker of hatred for whoever sent him here after winning his own Apocalypse, force him to experience the slow death of a world that lost.
Taking a deep breath, he turns around to see him exactly where he was when he checked this morning on his way to the wards. Slumped over the scarred table, head pillowed on the open pages of one of the books that Castiel so helpfully provided him between equally helpful joints, he seems every minute on the verge of tumbling from the chair and onto the floor. From the quantity of drool and the soft sounds that he's certain Dean would deny could be anything like snores, it's possible his only reaction would be to go back to sleep.
Despite the sleep-flushed cheeks, he looks paler than he did three days ago, faint blue circles growing beneath red-rimmed eyes. It's not a surprise, now that he considers what kind of schedule Dean's keeping; spending his days reading in this cabin or engaged in trading vodka and whiskey for answers to his endless questions, and his nights searching Kansas City with a stolen jeep doesn't leave much time for something as mundane as sleep.
Castiel pauses, the room blurring unexpectedly as he takes in what this Dean's wearing, eyes dropping to the sagging waist of his jeans he arrived in, t-shirt rucked up to reveal a narrow strip of pale skin, then down to the dingy white socks emerging beneath the frayed hem. A quick scan of the table reveals nothing, and before he realizes what he's doing, he's opening the closet door to stare at the pristine collection of Dean's weapons; the only ones that are missing are the ones he took to Kansas City three days ago.
There's an arsenal in the jeep, he reminds himself, but he doesn't think that during that drive to Kansas City that it came up in conversation.
Returning to the front room, Castiel watches blankly as Dean--this is Dean, not the same, no, but Dean--mumbles wordlessly into the pages of the book, smacking his lips before sinking back into sleep with a wet sigh; he was in Kansas City for three nights, unarmed and alone, in the same place that one Dean Winchester already died and Lucifer would choose to begin the dawn of his reign.
Dean could have died at any time in the last three days, and he might have awoken this morning to Vera telling him a jeep is missing and an empty cabin; Vera might not have told him anything, and he never would have known that Dean was dead at all.
Castiel could have died in Kansas City that night and never knew this Dean was even here.
Pushing the table back, he kicks the chair out from under Dean, watching as the green eyes slit open in belated alarm before he hits the floor hard enough to knock the breath out of him. Disoriented, Dean doesn't move for a moment, trying to catch his breath, before he slowly sits up, scanning the room in bewilderment until he sees Castiel leaning against the edge of the table. "Cas? What--"
"Shut up," Castiel answers, lazily retrieving the chair before planting a foot in Dean's chest and shoving him back to the floor. Ignoring his grunt of pain, he sets the chair on top of him, the legs pinning his arms to his sides. Before Dean can gather himself to throw it off--he isn't used to living in a warzone, Castiel reflects--he sits down and crosses his arms over the back to peer down at Dean's reddened, outraged face, eyes still wide in almost comical surprise. "Good morning, Dean. How are you this morning?"
"What the fuck--" Dean shouts, shoulders just coming off the floor in belated reaction and hitting the metal slats with a hollow sound before thumping back onto the floor. Castiel watches Dean struggle for a few moments before planting a foot in his shoulder and pushing him back to the floor. Blinking, Dean stares up at him, the furious green eyes wary: good. "Cas? Why--"
"I already knew you were far slower than he was," Castiel says conversationally, "but I thought I could use the practice. I didn't realize how optimistic it was to assume you were capable of being even that."
"Let me go," Dean grates out, voice trailing off into a groan when Castiel increases the pressure on his shoulder. "Cas--!"
"You're stupider than he was as well: imagine my surprise." Drawing his knife, Castiel leans farther down, ignoring the audible gasp as he shifts his foot enough to slit Dean's left sleeve to the shoulder, taking in the familiar symbols, almost impressed with himself considering how drunk he was when he came up with that. The black ink from the marker that Castiel vaguely remembers using to draw the sigils on his arm is faded enough that it probably won't last until sunset. "Dean," he says, straightening, "this is possibly the most important question I will ask you, so pay careful attention. What are you willing to risk to test which of you is better at lying to me?"
Dean seems to also lack the ability to control his expression, which might make this somewhat easier. "I'm not gonna lie. Now you gonna tell me what the fuck you're doing?"
"I was visited by a very annoying revelation this morning," Castiel answers. "I wasn't so drunk that I don't remember how many times you asked me to help you, but my impaired judgment meant that I didn't realize what you were actually doing. Unfortunately, sobriety assaulted me at dawn, and you'll pay the price for it. The books and that symbol I understand, but what exactly did you think you were going to accomplish going into the city alone for the last three nights?"
"What the fuck do you think?" Dean asks incredulously. "I was trying to find the place where I appeared so I could figure out how to get back!"
While he guessed the reason Dean was going into the city, it didn't occurred to him that Dean might not even know where it was he had appeared.
"--you weren't really all that helpful when it came to research. What the hell was I supposed to do?"
"I was apparently extremely helpful with your research," he says numbly, trying to think. "I remember answering every one of your increasingly inane questions." Dean glares up at him. "In fact, I remember being very specific when you asked me how you could get back."
"You told me to try prayer," Dean answers bitterly. "That was a lot of help, thanks."
"That's because prayer is your most likely source of assistance, which is saying something." Dean starts to answer, but he cuts him off. "I thought I explained this to you."
"You were kind of busy doing lines of shots," Dean answers contemptuously, and one knee comes up hard against the seat of the chair; Castiel shifts his balance automatically and considers kicking him somewhere non-damaging but very, very painful before he injures himself. "So if you don't mind--"
Castiel savagely increases the pressure on Dean's shoulder, waiting for the stifled gasp before easing.
"If you move again, I'll dislocate your shoulder. Do you believe me?" Panting as Castiel slowly eases the pressure, Dean nods; he isn't, at this moment, lying. "I told you it couldn't be done. Did you bother listening the entire explanation or were you too busy lining up more shots for me?"
"Fuck you," Dean says, looking away, but not before Castiel sees the trace of guilt in his eyes. "Let me up!"
"I'll try again," Castiel says. "This time, pay attention. Your arrival was caused by a deliberate manipulation of spacetime by someone who has the ability to both see and control it. You're human, and your mind isn't designed to even comprehend the multiplicity of time in its entirety, much less hope to manipulate it with any degree of success." He flickers a glance at the books, guessing by number in each stack which ones Dean managed to read. "You've read enough by now to know what I'm telling you is true."
Dean licks his lips, looking marginally less certain. "Then I need to find out who did this, or somebody else who can fix it."
"That would be useful," Castiel agrees. "However, there is a problem with that plan, such as it is. There is no one left who can."
"Bullshit," Dean breathes, face the color of chalk "There's gotta be a way, someone--something--"
"The gods were slaughtered," he interrupts, surprised by the effort it takes to keep his voice steady. "Lucifer was thorough; those who could leave did so, and the rest were hunted down and killed when they were found. When the Host left--" he pauses, horrified by the break in his voice and forces himself to continue, "--when the Host left, those that still lived destroyed themselves rather than face what he would do to them. Only an angel or a god would have the power to do this, and here, there are none left."
"How do you know?"
Castiel fights a brief, bitter battle for control of his voice before he answers. "I know."
"Your lack of faith is devastating," Castiel interrupts. "It's also irrelevant. You went alone and unarmed into a city that's populated almost entirely by not just Croatoans and demons, but a variety of supernatural entities without any idea of where it was that you manifested--"
I was careful," Dean snaps defensively. "Not that it mattered, there was nothing around." He rolls his eyes at Castiel's expression. "I'm a hunter, Cas. I know what I'm doing."
Dean would think that. "If you're attacked," he asks, tilting his head, "how does this story end?"
"I just told you--"
"Humor me. If you're attacked, what do you think happens next?"
"You care if I'm killed?" Dean responds bitterly. "Seriously?"
"Lucifer's minions have tried for some time to breach the defenses that were designed to protect this camp and failed. The lack of success has been a constant source of frustration, not least because of the simplicity."
"What does that have to do with--"
"The only way to do it was simple," Castiel continues, resting his elbows on his knees again and looking into Dean's eyes. "Ironically enough, the key only requires one thing: Dean Winchester's blood, freely given."
Dean's expression melts into a frown. "I don't--"
"When you go alone into the city," Castiel says softly, "being killed would be the preferable option but it is extremely unlikely. Anyone who found you would have no reason not to curry favor with the one who won the war. Now tell me, Dean, how this story ends."
"They'll give me to Lucifer." Dean stares up at Castiel with growing incredulity. "You think I--"
"Your tolerance for pain, not to mention your experience with torture, would be a challenge even for him," he admits, ignoring Dean's flinch. "Especially considering 'freely given' is subject to interpretation. But I doubt he'd need to resort to such time-consuming measures when there's a much easier option available."
Dean mouth shuts with a click.
"I lied to you." Castiel watches as the color drains from Dean's face. "There is someone left who has both the ability and the power to manipulate space and time. All that would be required is meeting the price he would set in payment for the favor. How does this story end, Dean?"
"You think I'd deal with him?" Dean says, voice blank with disbelief. "Cas, you can't think I'd ever--"
"Make a deal with Hell?" Castiel tilts his head. "Of course you would. You've done it before, and this time, it won't even cost you your soul to do it. Just those of everyone here, as we don't have the good fortune of being your brother."
Dean's mouth works soundlessly for a moment. "You son of a bitch! I--"
"After all that we have given," Castiel says softly, implacably, "and all that we have lost, I will not permit you to shorten what little time that remains to us. He will not breach the boundaries of this camp until there is no one and nothing left for him to take. Do you understand me, Dean?"
Dean doesn't answer, eyes fixed on some point in the middle distance. Finally, he takes a long breath, looking at Castiel with an expression that he doesn't think he will ever be able to forget.
"Yeah," he answers, meeting Castiel's eyes. "I do."
"I don't trust you, and that's a problem. I can't let you leave the camp without assuring our immediate and messy deaths at Lucifer's leisure, but if anyone in the camp were to discover that you were here…." He glances at Dean's arm, almost painfully grateful that Dean had both thought of the need for concealment and approached Castiel at a time when he was least likely to wonder if what Dean wanted was even possible. "I can't predict what the response would be to your presence now, and I don't intend to test it."
Dean doesn't move, green eyes fixed on him. "Are you gonna kill me?"
"There are advantages to be an addict," he says quietly, watching the color drain from Dean's face. "I have a great deal of experience with narcotics."
"Accidental overdose to keep your conscience clear?"
"Nothing so final. I can promise you it will be a very pleasant way to live whatever time we have left. Far better than that of anyone else in this world."
"Why the hell are you even asking? So you'll feel better about it? You think I don't get--" Dean stills, head falling back against the floor. "Fuck you, Cas," he breathes, staring at the ceiling. "He wouldn't have to deal. All he'd have to do is show up at the gate with me and every fucking person here would walk out of their own free will. Right?"
Castiel nods slowly. "You understand now why you are a problem."
"I didn't think…." Dean closes his eyes and abruptly stops fighting. "I didn't think I was risking anything but myself."
"Now you know differently." Castiel take a careful breath; he can't afford to make a mistake now. "So are you ready to negotiate the terms of your residence here?"
Dean blinks, surprised and wary. "What?"
"They are simple. First, you will remain within the confines of the camp at all times and make no attempt to leave. Before full dark, you will return to my cabin for the night," he answers, watching him carefully. "Don't look so horrified; I assure you I won't be there when you are. Otherwise, your time is your own to do with as you please. As long as you wear those sigils and avoid egregious errors, you should remain undetected in the camp. No one can know you are here, Dean; when you are not within the confines of this cabin or mine, you must be careful. Do you agree to these terms?"
"Or you'll drug me to death?"
"Or I may as well kill everyone here immediately; it's a kinder fate than what Lucifer has prepared for us. Your choice."
Dean's jaw locks for a minute, and Castiel fondly hopes that Dean will take that literally. "Okay."
"Then we have a deal." Standing up, Castiel removes the chair and steps back, watching Dean sit up warily, hands deceptively loose at his sides. "There are seven hours left in the day. What you do--" As expected, Dean's on his feet before he finishes the sentence; catching the punch easily, Castiel turns him before shoving him into the wall hard enough to knock the breath out of him. "That was incredibly stupid."
Before Dean regains his balance, Castiel pins his hips and twists his arm up and behind his back, ignoring the grunt of pain. Even relatively immobilized, Dean continues to struggle for several long seconds before Castiel feels him go still.
"I told you that you weren't as fast as he was," Castiel tells him. "What I didn't tell you is that neither of you will ever be as fast as I am. He was very good, and he could compensate for that. You aren't, and you can't." Freeing his wrist, Castiel turns him, holding him there effortlessly with one hand against his chest. "Are you done?"
Dean blows out a breath, mouth a rigid line, then nods shortly, and Castiel lets him go. Stepping back, he watches Dean straighten, aware of the way the green eyes tracking him with the cool evaluation of a hunter.
After a few long seconds, Dean says, "What the hell are you?"
"I Fell," he answers. "It didn't make me human."
"Not even close." Dean crosses his arms. "I mean, I get why you decided to hide it. I liked you better as a junkie, too."
Dean's aim has never been less than flawless, cutting into the raw edges of an open wound that even time could not bother itself to heal. He doesn't understand how after all this time it can still hurt like this. "Is there anything else?"
"You know that the deal we made isn't binding," Dean says. "Contracts require I know what I'm dealing with, and I thought you were human."
Of course Dean would see it that way, of course he would. "For my purposes, your word is sufficient."
"Why the hell should I keep it?"
Turning around, Castiel forces himself to meet Dean's eyes. "Because you know the danger it would be to everyone in this camp should you break it, and I trust you to protect them the way you wouldn't bother to protect yourself."
"That's not what I meant!" Dean almost looks uncomfortable. "Cas, look, I didn't--"
"I know the value of a hunter's word," Castiel says, choosing each word for maximum impact. "That's why I will not be at the cabin when you are there."
"Eventually I have to sleep, and I would prefer to do so with some assurance I'll wake up."
"You think…" Dean stares at him. "I'm not gonna kill you, Cas, Jesus!"
"Do you give your word?" Castiel asks, smiling slowly at Dean's horror. "Unless I take your soul as collateral, why on earth should you keep it?"
Opening the door, Castiel goes out, just avoiding slamming it closed behind him and cutting off whatever Dean might say to that. He's halfway to his cabin when he realizes that his day has just begun, and somehow, he has to get through the rest of it.
Dean marks his one week anniversary in Camp What Fresh Hell Is This with three hours of throwing each useless book at the walls of this Dean's cabin that seem to be steadily closing more closely around him. They aren't telling him anything he can use and what little seems applicable also seems to be quoting Castiel on exactly how a person goes about traveling time. The overwhelming opinion seems to be they don't, which is a surprise to Dean considering how much time he seems to spend either dead or alive not in his own time.
Picking them back up, he dumps them in a rickety chair before dropping into the other one with a sigh, staring up at the exposed beams of the ceiling, aware of a sense of growing panic. The truth is, there's nothing in the books that he didn't already know. One thing holds true for any version of Castiel, angel, proto-god, or junkie; they might lie for a lot of reasons, but at least in their own minds, it was never to cause him actual, physical harm. Whatever Castiel is here, this much he's pretty sure of; he doesn't want him to die, and if there was a way to get him back, he would have found a way to do it. If for no other reason than the fact he seems to resent his existence, which Dean will admit, in retrospect, he's given him pretty good reason to do.
Leaning back in his chair, he props his feet up on the table and tries to think of something--anything--but his world is contained inside the wards of this camp, and since Castiel's managed to avoid him entirely since their friendly chat earlier this week, it sure as hell it's not for his company.
Half-listening to the drone of the radio, his only link to the outside world, Dean considers the fact that this is the most positive and optimistic Apocalypse he's ever experienced. Even granted the lack of knowledge about Lucifer--who is noticeable in his army-of-demons-leading absence--these people are way too calm about the FUBAR of the world.
Leaning over to turn it up, the perky voice of the happiest radio host in history talks about traffic and rationing before moving smoothly onto the fallout from the destruction of Houston. Apparently, all the Croats were wiped out, good news, but he's not hearing a lot about survivors.
You don't go to bombing unless you're pretty damn desperate, but turning major metropolises into rubble isn't something anyone sane announces between car commercials and ads for Axe deodorant. Which makes him think of the reasons you don’t even try to hide it; maybe, and he might be reaching here but hey, he's been in two major cities now so he can think this, maybe because you're distracted by hiding that it's happened before, and possibly in plural.
He surfaces from his thoughts to realize the room is a darker shade of grey and edging into full night. Getting to his feet, he pretends it's his agreement with Castiel and not his own uneasiness that drives him from Dean Winchester's abandoned cabin come dusk and has nothing to do with the fact that this cabin never feels like anything other than a prison or an open grave for a man no one else knows is dead.
Checking the sigils on his arm--and God, he wishes he could find out what the hell they are, he could have used something like this on a hunt--he slips out of the cabin, crossing the wide expanse of tangled brush as the sun dips below the horizon and ignoring the feeling of exposure. It's getting chillier, what should be late summer melting into what feels like an uneven fall, and he has yet to identify anything like a working heater, or for that matter, where the hell the generators are that are powering the cabins.
Taking the steps two at a time, he brushes by the beads in annoyance, reaching for the lightswitch and flipping it up as he crosses toward the kitchen and whatever Castiel left him in the way of food. He's three steps late in realizing that the lights aren't coming on and stops short, frowning into the darkness.
So that generator question is kind of urgent now. Blinking, he tries to think of what to do next when he's startled still by the sound of Castiel's voice.
"Someone tried to fix the generators again. It seems they failed."
Turning in the direction of the sound, he waits impatiently for his eyes to adjust to the gloom, eventually making out the shape of the couch and Castiel stretched out on it.
"More like broke them." Dean scans the room a little frantically; he's not ready to deal with Castiel's social life right now. "What happened?"
"My understanding of the results of the industrial revolution are more theoretical than you seem to believe," Castiel answers with a faint snort. "I have no idea."
So that helps. "When'd it start?"
"I don't know," Castiel replies without interest. "Dean's cabin wasn't affected?"
"No idea," he answers, squinting a little into the darkness, trying to get a better read on Castiel. "Mysterious lights going on and off in the missing leader's cabin? I'm not sure how I feel about anyone attempting to exorcise me."
"I didn't consider that." There's a faint sense of movement from the couch. "Have you found anything of use to you in your research?"
In no world does any Castiel do small talk. That's not a human or angel thing; that's a Castiel thing. "Not yet." Unable to stop himself, he adds, "Haven't summoned Lucifer to deal, either."
"There is a spell for that," Castiel answers in amusement. "Would you like me to show you where to find it?"
"You don't have to work this hard," Dean assures him uneasily; every instinct is telling him there is something profoundly wrong here. "I really don't like you already."
"And my work here is done." Castiel lifts one shoulder in the impression of a shrug, like he can't bother himself to even make the effort to do it right. Dean didn't realize he started toward him until he's close enough to see Castiel's face, a blur-edged oval with skin bleached of all color in brutal contrast to smudges like bruises beneath shadowed eyes. Feeling like he's walking on glass, he crosses to the couch and eases into a crouch, frowning when Castiel looks away before he can get a good look at him.
"Cas, what's going on?"
"It's not working." Tilting his head back, he gives the ceiling a betrayed look. "It's supposed to make it easier, and it's not working. It always did before. At least for a little while."
Dean does the math. "What did you take?"
"I'm not sure," he says after a while. "Not enough, it seems." He stares up at the ceiling. "Why are you still here?"
Because that's what I promised and I'm keeping my word, you dick, Dean almost says; he doesn't. "Why do you want me to come back here every night?"
"Habitation rules are ridiculous." Castiel's eyes flicker to the door, so quickly that Dean would have missed it if he wasn't watching for just that. Glancing back at the beaded curtain--Jesus, what the hell--he pushes to his feet and goes to the doorway, seeing dark smudges too regular to be shadows. Running his fingers over the wood, he finds exactly what he was expecting all along and wasn't able to locate no matter how closely he looked: the unmistakable curve of a sigil, the carving so shallow it would be invisible to the naked eye, following the grain of the wood almost flawlessly. There's only the faintest tackiness, almost gone; the blood was refreshed an hour ago, tops.
He patiently traces the line of sigils to the floor where it meets the salt line before checking the other side, then the length of the top, trying to get the shape of them with his fingers so he can draw them later. Enochian, he thinks vaguely, and at least a couple of them match the ones on his arm. He cocks his head, wondering if it's worth it to ask; Jesus, after a week, Castiel should be able to suck it up and--
It's been a week since he got here, suddenly scrambling for footing behind broken dumpster and staring at eight demons surrounding an armed man that even after three years Dean would recognize anywhere. The skinny, slumping mortal body in a too-big jacket with an indifferent hold on a rifle stared at him with the infinite blue eyes of an angel who might have traded his sword for a gun and immortality for the dirt of humanity, but had never stopped being a soldier. And very abruptly, to the surprise of those demons, he seemed to remember just that.
It's been a week since Castiel took him out of the city, a week since Lucifer had won the war. It's been a week, seven days, since Castiel looked for the last time at the body of Dean Winchester and watched him burn.
Yeah, he thinks blankly, nothing works when it's something like that, not for long.
"I wasn't supposed to survive him," Castiel says, voice stripped of expression. "That was never part of the deal."
Three years ago, Dean watched in disbelief as his very own ghost of Christmas future sent his team to die, sent Castiel to die, before going off to die himself. They knew what Dean sent them to do; even then, he guessed that much. He understands being willing to die for a person, a cause, an idea down to his bones; he also understands the difference between choosing to step in front of a bullet for someone and someone stepping behind you because they know you'll take it for them. It's not that he thinks that the Dean Winchester who watched Castiel walk away to die for no better reason than a distraction didn't know the difference; it's that he didn't care.
Turning around, he watches Castiel staring into the shadowed ceiling, strains of faded moonlight spilling through the window catching on shimmering silver trailing down the pale skin like a punch to the gut. Abruptly, he realizes his hands are clenched into fists, fingernails digging ragged half-moons into palms already growing tacky with blood; a little distantly, he wonders if that should hurt, because he can't feel a goddamn thing.
It's been a week since Dean Winchester died, and in this whole camp, the two of them are the only ones that know. And in this entire goddamn camp going about its daily routine, the one person with the most right to do it can't even grieve.
"I can't get drunk enough to forget," Castiel whispers, eyes fixed on some distant point; from his expression, wherever it is, it's not any better than here. "But that doesn't mean I can't spend the night trying."
With an effort, Dean unclenches his fists, numb fingers sluggishly tingling back to life as he wipes them clean on his jeans.
"Where's the generator?" Castiel's head snaps around, and he hadn't thought it could be worse, but Jesus, he was wrong; he hadn't seen what was in Castiel's eyes. "I saw a toolkit at Dean's. You think you can wait that long? I'll make it fast."
Taking a step toward him, he makes himself meet the wide blue eyes, the stunned look of animal in the middle of a highway as death bears down on it at sixty miles an hour, nowhere to run, or maybe a man staring down at the lifeless corpse of his brother stretched out on a cot in front of him. There's more than one way for a world to end, and Dean knows them all, every goddamn one.
"Cas--" Dean licks his lips and tries again. "Me being here, is it gonna make it harder?"
After a moment, he sees his head move, an abbreviated shake. "Nothing can make it harder."
"Okay." He lets out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. He wouldn't have left, even if it was exile on the goddamn porch all night, but he didn't realize either how badly he wanted to stay. It's a lie, about time healing anything; those kind of wounds never stop bleeding. "Okay. Where's the generator?"
Cas swallows. "Dean--"
"I can't get drunk enough to forget, not anymore," Dean says roughly. "Sometimes I can pretend, though. I'll show you how it works. Now where's the goddamn generator?"
Cas blinks at him, another gut-punch of shocked blue eyes and searing grief, but maybe relief, too, there and gone in a moment. "I'll show you."
Dean doesn't get drunk enough to forget that night, and he doesn't think Cas does either. But they both pretend that they do.