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Thursday’s Child

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Warnings: This is future!Castiel, so be prepared for Castiel/OFCs, drug use and alcohol abuse (hey, it’s all canon!). In addition there’s the odd bit of violence, some whump, muchas porning and very brief implied non-con (nothing graphic at all). Please be warned if you don’t like death!fics that this story is set after Dean had to kill Lucifer!Sam, so clearly there’s (a) no Sam and (b) some mourning. On the bright side, though, there's also a guest appearance from a real-life Hollywood star! (Well, sort of.)

 

 

~ ~ ~

 

1. Camp Chitaqua ~ Zihuatanejo

 

 

Castiel knows the precise moment when Dean succeeds in his mission.

He knows despite the fact he’s currently grappling with a Croat in a room that used to be a canteen before it was torn to shreds by hungry refugees. He knows because when Dean finally, blessedly fulfils his goal and kills Lucifer, Castiel can feel Lucifer die. Lucifer is the last angel on the planet besides him and when he vanishes it’s as though somebody’s cut Castiel’s last, faint connection to the celestial realms, leaving him fully human and totally and utterly helpless.

The knife that slips into his side mere seconds later only reinforces the feeling, and he’s on the floor and breathing what he thinks is his last breath before he even has time to wonder whether Dean is alive or dead.

~ ~ ~

There’s nothing for a long time; only faint flashes of sensation, none of them pleasant. When he eventually opens his eyes he’s lying in his own bed surrounded by candles. It’s night and Chuck is sitting on a chair a few feet away, his eyes wide like an owl’s in the gloom.

“Hey,” Chuck says, and Castiel’s first thought is that he looks like a bundle of nerves. His second thought is about the man who isn’t in the room with them.

“D-Dean,” he croaks, the hoarseness of his voice – the weakness of it – scaring the life out of him.

Chuck frowns, his eyes flashing confusion. “No, Cas. It’s not… I’m not him. I’m not Dean. I’m Chuck. You know that, right? You didn’t bang your head or anything? I’m Chuck. You know, the prophet guy?”

Castiel frowns back, licking his lips to speak again, and then realization dawns on his companion’s face.

“Oh, sorry. I’m such a doofus. You mean ‘where is he’, right?” Chuck leans forward, looking like he doesn’t know what to do with his hands. “He didn’t come back, Cas. I mean, we think he survived. Lucifer’s… Sam’s… body was gone, and he took the car. We think he took him home to Kansas. We think he wanted to bury him with the rest of their family. But we don’t know for sure.”

Castiel is too busy feeling relieved to wonder what kind of mindset Dean had to be in to go like that, without a word to anybody. And then it strikes him that he feels terrible; his head is pounding and his mouth is painfully dry, and there’s a growing, nagging feeling that something’s really wrong with his ribs on his left side because breathing hurts like hell. He tries to lift his head to look, noting that he’s under a pile of blankets and doesn’t seem to be wearing a shirt, but Chuck hurriedly places a hand on his shoulder and gently pushes him flat again.

“Give the moving around a raincheck for a while, okay buddy? You got hurt bad. You’ve been out of it for a few days now. The best thing you can do is lie still.”

“Thirsty,” Castiel manages to gasp out, his head falling back onto the pillow as pain lances up his side. Chuck nods enthusiastically and leaps to his feet, clearly pleased to be doing something, and a moment later he’s holding a bottle of tepid water to Castiel’s lips and it’s the most wonderful thing in the world as the liquid slides down his razorblade throat.

“We didn’t know if you were going to wake up,” Chuck tells him as he drinks, color rising in his cheeks. “You lost so much blood and then you were sick – like, really, really sick, and none of us knew what to do until Ed thought maybe you were going through the DTs or something. And then it all kinda made sense, seeing as you’re usually… well, you know.”

He removes the bottle and Castiel licks his lips, trying to figure out what Chuck just said. His confusion must have shown on his face because Chuck coughs slightly in embarrassment and adds, “What I mean is, you got stabbed and we fixed that, but then you went through withdrawal as well. I guess you’re kinda dried out now, though. Clean start and all that.” A smile, even though it’s small, transforms his face suddenly, and his eyes flash blue above it. “It’s the end of the end of the world, Cas. Lucifer’s dead, the Croats all got better… everything’s gonna go back to normal now.”

Castiel stares up at him, trying to arrange all this new information in his head, but he’s too tired and hurt to do much more than file it away for later. He closes his eyes and hears Chuck say, “Oh, man, but you only just woke up…” and then he’s dead to the world again.

~ ~ ~

Three days of detoxing turn into six, then eight, and after that Castiel feels better, but only a little. He can’t do much – his ribs scream whenever he moves and he’s exhausted all the time. Too exhausted, really, for it to be a side-effect of his injuries, or even the comedown from all the alcohol and drugs he’s fed himself over the past few years. He’s tired because he’s lost too much. He’s human. One hundred per cent mortal. The last angel to walk the Earth beside him has gone, and with him went any last vestige of his old self.

Castiel isn’t just weak and vulnerable and frail and hapless. He’s ordinary.

It’s a cold, bitter thought, and one he’d normally cover up by swallowing a handful of pills or lighting up a joint or downing as many glasses of whiskey as he could without passing out, but it just doesn’t seem right to do that now. There’s a strange mood in the camp, one of heavy grief mingled with furious relief. The ragtag band of survivors filling the place don’t really fill it any more; they lost too many in the final, suicidal fight, and their loss is bitter. The ones who are left feel guilty for feeling overjoyed now that Lucifer is gone. There are parties and celebrations which are followed by tears and anger. Everybody wonders what the hell they’re going to do now. There’s a lot of rebuilding to do, and the prospect is overwhelming.

The atmosphere is peculiar, and it unnerves Castiel. He’s not used to seeing the world so clearly, not since he started to fall into it; he’d done everything he could not to see it for years. But he’s pleased to see one thing: as the days pass Chuck loosens up and relaxes before his eyes, finally free of those crippling visions and able to function properly. He seems to grow taller somehow. More confident. He spends a lot of time with Castiel, keeping the throng of women who’d normally be in and out of the cabin away so that his patient can rest, but Castiel sees enough to register that the rest of the people in the camp are turning to him for leadership. For once Chuck is able to give it.

Castiel is happy for him, but he misses his predecessor so much it frequently startles him.

“You need to get some fresh air, man,” Chuck informs him one morning, handing him a cup of coffee and grinning in the sunlight streaming in through the window. Castiel still can’t believe how young he looks like this, when he’s content. “Come on, let’s go for a walk today. The lake’s beautiful now we don’t have to patrol it and keep our eyes open for Croats. Oh, oh! And I heard a rumor they’ve got the power back on in town and someone’s opened up one of the bars. We should totally go and check it out. Interact with real people again. Civilians.”

Castiel shakes his head, staring down at the coffee. “You go.” A thought strikes him and he smiles a little. “Take Sara. I think she’d like you to.”

Chuck huffs in mock indignation. “Why, thank you, Cupid. I happen to know that already, but she’s busy today. She’s trying to get her laptop up and running so we can see if the internet’s still out there.” He sits on the bed, scratching at his neck. “Why don’t you wanna go? I hope you don’t mind me asking, Cas, but I thought you’d be pleased to hit a bar after so long without drinking anything. Or have you turned over a new leaf?”

“Something like that,” Castiel says softly.

When he doesn’t speak again Chuck sighs. “You’re so quiet these days, dude. You were much more fun before. Although, uh, obviously I’m glad you’re not a pot-headed alcoholic any more. That’s probably not the best way to live your life.”

I have a life to live now, Castiel thinks, the thought scaring him a little. I have to plan it out. Think ahead. Decide what I want to do with it, now I know Lucifer isn’t going to end it all. Choose who I want to spend it with.

“Has anybody heard from him?” he asks, knowing he doesn’t have to explain who he’s talking about.

Chuck’s face softens. “Not a dickie-bird. I’m sorry. I think he’s gone for good. I think–” He stops and looks away, then continues, “He sent everybody to their deaths, Cas. He must have known, going in. You were the only one who made it out, and I don’t think he even knows you did. He probably thinks the rest of us don’t ever want to see him again.”

Castiel nods. “Yeah, that sounds like our Dean. Always assuming everybody thinks the worst of him.” He looks sideways at his companion. “Do they want to see him again?” He nods his head at the door as he speaks, indicating the camp and its dwindled population.

“Some of them,” Chuck reveals, after a moment’s pause. “But not all of ’em. He… he didn’t have a lot of friends. Not really. Just you and me. And even then I’m not sure he liked me all that much.”

“He liked you, Chuck,” Castiel tells him plainly. “You were always straight with him. That’s all it took.”

Chuck shrugs, looking dubious. “If you say so. I just never really got that impression. You and him, though… you never let him get away with anything, did you? I think he would’ve shot anybody else who talked to him the way you did.”

“Special privileges,” Castiel says wistfully. “I pulled him out of Hell.”

“Yeah, like he ever thanked you for that.” Chuck grins hugely and then his face suddenly crinkles. Castiel has just enough time to move his coffee out of danger before he sneezes mightily. “Gah! Sorry. Damn pollen. All this grass is bad for my sinuses. I hate this place sometimes. I’m a city guy through and through.”

“Maybe I will go into town after all,” Castiel announces, sipping at his coffee. “Do you think the gas stations are working again? I’m going to need more gas than we’ve got here.”

“Why, what for?”

Castiel looks at him seriously. “I’m going to find Dean.”

“Oh.” Chuck sniffs, looking not in the least bit surprised. “Well, I suppose somebody should do it. It’d be nice to thank him for saving the world ‘n’ all.”

~ ~ ~

Moving around is tough, but Castiel’s getting used to feeling stiff and sore by now and refuses to allow himself be cowed by his body’s weakness. He lets Chuck drive, however, leaning on the passenger door without making it look too obvious and watching the trees flash past the car as they move. To his surprise – and delight – there are other vehicles on the road. They’re a strange mixture of rusted junkpiles and modern cars with smashed windows or dented panelwork, but they’re moving, and the people who drive past smile at them and sometimes wave. At first their behavior puzzles him, but he watches Chuck nod and grin at them in return and realizes there’s a sense of camaraderie among the population now as they come to terms with the fact that they survived.

“They were all trying to kill us just two weeks ago,” Chuck observes brightly, as he cheerily salutes a man and a woman trundling by in a jeep that looks like it’s running on their willpower alone. “For all we know, Dean was shooting at those guys on his last mission as they tried to claw his eyes out.”

“I wonder what everybody’s thinking,” Castiel muses, idly making a fist with his right hand and watching his knuckles whiten. “Do they remember it? Once the virus leaves you, can you remember how many people you killed?”

“They all look happy enough,” Chuck declares, shooting him a troubled look. “Maybe it wiped their brains clean. I dunno.”

“Do you think anybody’s in charge? Who’s running the town? Who’s running all the cities?” Castiel imagines an America divided into thousands of settlements that are battling to find their feet again, like frontier towns in the Wild West.

Chuck shakes his head. “The army, I guess, although they’ve been trigger-happy for so long I can’t say I’m happy about the idea.”

Castiel thinks back to the night Bobby died and how the soldiers hadn’t given a damn that he was in a wheelchair or clearly virus-free. He thinks back to all the atrocities he’s seen the government commit in the last few years and he sighs, rubbing his forehead.

“You okay?” Chuck asks gently. “Is this too much? If you want to go back, you just have to say. You’re still pretty beat up.”

“I’ll live,” Castiel replies, and he can’t decide if his voice sounds bitter or relieved at the thought.

~ ~ ~

They smell the smoke long before they hit their destination and it’s enough to make them exchange nervous glances. Bodies have been lying rotting in the streets for months now, ever since the situation with the Croats got so bad nobody was fit enough to remove them. Now there are pyres lining the roadside as they approach the town, piled high with corpses that have probably been brought out from the center. The stink of burning flesh is unmistakeable. The people tending the pyres are soot-stained and weary-looking, but there’s a sense that they’re organized. There’s a method to what they’re doing.

“Someone’s definitely calling the shots,” Castiel says.

“I hope that bar is open,” Chuck mutters, almost to himself. “I really need a drink right now.”

So do I, thinks Castiel. But I’m not having one.

There’s electricity in the town. Music is blaring out of open doors; kids are sitting on the sidewalk playing on their Nintendos and several of the stores are open, their broken windows covered in cardboard or strips of wood. There aren’t as many people milling around as there should be, true, but the ones who are seem to be doing their damnedest to look normal as they chat to friends and sweep up garbage. Several makeshift stands have been set up outside burnt-out houses and are selling everything from toilet paper to fruit.

Incredibly, the town square’s Starbucks is open. Chuck peers inside the door at the customers happily sipping coffees and glances back at Castiel with an incredulous look on his face.

“They’ll survive anything,” Chuck says, pointing at the Starbucks sign. “Like freakin’ cockroaches.”

“They’re getting their supplies from somewhere,” Castiel announces, narrowing his eyes as he watches the baristas through the cracked glass of the window. “There must have been deliveries or they wouldn’t be open. If someone’s bringing stuff in, they’d need fuel to get out again, too.” He stares around them; there’s a gas station on the corner at the end of the block. Its sign is illuminated, but the last time Castiel had been here the whole display had been lying on the floor. “Hallelujah,” he breathes, a smile spreading across his face.

“So you drive away, but what if you can’t find any more gas after that?” Chuck points out, his voice a little jittery. He waves a hand at the horizon, currently black-smudged with smoke. “We have no idea what’s out there.”

“I guess I’ll take my chances.”

“You’re really leaving us, huh?”

Castiel looks round at his friend, who’s staring at him mournfully, suddenly the nervous, unsettled man he used to be. It hadn’t occurred to him that Chuck would miss him. To be honest, he hasn’t really given much thought to anything except finding Dean.

“You can come too, Chuck,” he offers, patting him on the shoulder. “We can go find Dean together.”

Chuck slumps beneath his hand. “The two amigos, huh? It’s a nice thought, Cas, but I think I’ve had enough excitement for one lifetime. I kind of want to go home, you know? See what’s left of my house. And, uh, my town.”

Castiel nods, lowering his hand and smiling. “Of course. And that way I’ll know where you are so I can find you again, once I’ve caught up with Dean.”

“Me and Sara,” Chuck emphasizes, with forced cheerfulness. “I’m sure we’ll be goin’ steady by then.”

“Have you even kissed her yet?”

Chuck blinks and looks flustered. “Uh, no… not quite. But we’re workin’ up to it.”

Three teenagers push past them as they exit the coffee shop and Castiel hisses as he has to step to one side hurriedly, the movement jerking at his knife wound. The pain makes his knees weak and for a moment he thinks he’s going to fall, but Chuck’s hand is strong on his arm and the sensation passes.

“Idiots,” Chuck growls at the boys in uncharacteristic anger. They look back at them and shrug in unison, everything about them derisive and arrogant. They’re faintly ludicrous; teenage boys filled with bravado in a world that has already taught them that bravado will get them nowhere.

When Castiel glances up and into their eyes, though, all three of them pale in seconds.

“You’re that angel dude,” the tallest teenager says, his jaw falling slack. “The one that hangs around with Winchester.”

Castiel racks his brain but doesn’t recognize the boy at all. “Have we met?” he asks, his voice still a little edgy from the pain.

The boys suddenly look nervous. They gaze at each other mutely and shake their heads. “Naw,” says the tall one. “We haven’t.”

They’re gone a moment later, hurrying their pace as they cross the street and disappear around a corner. Castiel stares after them, unnerved.

“Weirdness,” Chuck says succinctly, and releases his arm.

“I think they knew me because they saw me when they were Croats,” Castiel muses. “They remembered.”

Chuck swallows hard. “Damn. There goes the theory that nobody remembers anything. I’ll tell you this, man, the shrinks are gonna make big bucks once several million people decide they want to talk about everything they did when they were infected.”

“They knew I was an angel,” Castiel murmurs, only half-listening. “And they knew Dean… I wonder how many others know our faces. Maybe we didn’t meet at all. Maybe our pictures were circulated by Lucifer or something. His demons were hunting us for years, after all.”

Chuck sighs. “Well, it beats the kind of fame you’d get from starring in a reality show.”

Castiel feels relief flood over him. If Dean’s face is well-known, he’ll be easier to track. There’ll be sightings. It’s probably a huge leap of faith to think so, but Castiel’s been faith-leaping all his life; the only difference here is that God isn’t involved.

God hasn’t been involved for years.

“There’s a bar,” Chuck grins suddenly, pointing a few blocks down the street. “Look, the sign’s lit up. It’s open! And if Starbucks here is serving drinks, there’ll definitely be beer in there. Coffee and beer are the two staples of American life in the 21st century. No town could live without them.”

Castiel takes two steps forward, still thinking hard about Dean, but then something catches his eye and he finds himself walking stiffly towards it. Chuck follows him, puzzled, and when Castiel comes to stand before a foldaway table piled high with cellphones he huffs out an incredulous laugh.

“Seriously? You want to gear up?”

“We’ll need these,” Castiel explains, picking up one of the cells and examining it. “I’ll have to stay in touch with you in case you see Dean before I do.”

“Oh-kay,” Chuck says doubtfully, “but I’m betting there’s not much of a service right now.”

The man standing behind the table scratches at his beard and sniffs. “There will be,” he drawls. “Government says com’ication’s the first thing it’s gonna fix, once it’s seen to fixin’ up the hospitals ‘n’ shit. Give it a week or two and these babies will be singin’ again.” He nods at Castiel. “Dey all come with power leads. And you can get the numbers by looking at their menus. I wouldn’t sell ’em with no numbers.”

“How much?” Castiel asks.

“What you got?”

Castiel puts the phone on the table and turns out his pockets. It’s been months since he’s used money – since anybody’s used money – but he still has thirty-seven dollars and twenty-nine cents scattered about his person. The salesman sniffs and collects it up without much enthusiasm.

“Is that even worth anything right now?” Chuck asks him curiously.

The salesman shrugs. “Shops are acceptin’ it. Guess our ’conomy ain’t as bust as it could be.”

“You need a cell too,” Castiel reminds Chuck, then watches in veiled amusement as his friend spends five minutes rooting through fifteen different pockets until he finds a battered old wallet. Ten dollars later, they’re walking towards the bar with cellphones sitting in their hands, the weight of them in their hands unfamiliar after so long spent without holding one.

“Uh, you do know there’s no power in the camp to charge these?” Chuck points out. “I think Sara’s using up the last generator juice today.”

“You’re leaving there soon anyway.” Castiel looks around him, then winces at the music blaring from the bar as they approach its door. “Are you sure about this?”

Chuck grins widely. “Well, duh. Pass up the chance for a cold beer after all this time? Are you nuts?

Castiel orders a Coca-Cola, and it somehow tastes offensive on his tongue.

~ ~ ~

When it comes down to it, Castiel has no idea what to do.

It’s the reason he’s going to look for Dean. Without him he’s completely lost, adrift in a sea of humanity he can only connect with when he’s wasted, and he never wants to get wasted again. He’s like this because of Dean. Everything is because of Dean. Even if Dean isn’t really Dean any more; even if the Dean he gradually befriended all those years ago is nowhere to be seen, he’s still him. Somewhere underneath all that scar tissue and anger and self-loathing is the man Castiel once knew.

Dean killed his brother. Castiel knows him well enough to understand that saying he was going to do it and actually doing it must have been two completely different things. The moment he’d fired the Colt and Sam’s body had hit the ground, Dean had doubtless died in his own way too.

Which, naturally, makes his disappearance all the more worrying. Castiel doesn’t think Dean’s committed suicide in despair; he’s fought too hard to survive over a lifetime to do that. But he suspects Dean might be subconsciously trying to end things instead. That he’ll be lashing out at people, or plunging headlong into danger without thinking, or just generally being an idiot. Either that, or he’s gone to ground somewhere and can’t react to the world at all. Castiel would understand if he’d snapped. A human mind can only take so much, and Dean’s mind has suffered things no other mortal on the planet has suffered.

What’s truly astonishing to him is that he knows all this, and yet just a few short years ago humans were a mystery to him. Castiel has been struggling to come to terms with his new, diminished existence for so long that he’s forgotten there are advantages; empathy is probably the biggest.

He checks over his cabin one last time, making sure he hasn’t forgotten anything, flinching a little as he bends too quickly. He hopes he’s well enough to travel. He’s still unused to how injuries can drag you down with them, and just because he feels good today doesn’t mean he’ll be fine tomorrow. But the thought of staying any longer is abhorrent: he must find Dean.

“I’ll miss you,” comes a voice from the door, and he turns around to see a young blonde woman standing there with a sad look on her face. For a hideously embarrassing stretch of time he can’t remember her name and he struggles to recall where he knows her from. Had she been there the night he’d dropped acid? That night with those red-headed twins from Norway who’d giggled non-stop, and their drunk brother? In fact, hadn’t she had sex with the brother while he’d…

“It’s Lisa,” she pouts, looking a little annoyed.

Apparently Castiel isn’t very good at masking his thoughts when he’s sober; his confusion must have been written all over his face. “I know,” he says unconvincingly, and smiles at her. “I’m sorry I have to go, but it’s important.”

She twirls a strand of hair around her finger and tries to look at least ten years younger than she is, which would make her positively illegal. And as Castiel watches he realizes she’s not the girl he’s thinking of. He knows her, yes, and he’s sure he’s slept with her, but for the life of him he can’t remember a damn thing about it. The knowledge – or lack of it – hits him with the force of sledgehammer. He’d spent almost two years as high as a kite, shoving so many drugs down his throat to escape real life that he’d lost entire weeks of his existence to the blackouts that followed. He’d completely forgotten everything he’d done. And, more importantly, every woman he’d done.

“Can I come with you?” Lisa pleads, as he struggles to comprehend how he feels about the realisation. “I won’t be any trouble.”

“I’m sorry,” he says again, but it’s not an apology for the fact he doesn’t want to take her with him. He takes a step forward and clears his throat awkwardly. “Look, what we did that time? I was really out of line. For that you have my apologies. I wasn’t really myself.”

She blinks at him. “That time?” she repeats. “Which time? You’re going to have to be more specific, Cas.”

It was more than once. Castiel still can’t remember her and now he feels sick. How had he sunk so low that he’d been capable of seducing a woman repeatedly and then totally forgetting about it? What kind of creature had he been?

And how many more women were out there that he couldn’t remember?

She’s staring at him, perplexed, and he realizes he must look totally horrified. He controls himself with an effort and flashes a fake smile. “Ah… I might be mixing you up with someone else. Never mind.”

“I’ll bet it’s Tina,” Lisa returns, and giggles. “She said you were pretty rough with her.”

“Oh sweet merciful Jesus.” Castiel sits down hard on his bed. This was getting worse by the second. Who the hell was Tina?

“She enjoyed it though,” Lisa adds quickly, looking a little bewildered by his reaction. “She said she asked you to do it.”

“Can I… can I have a minute?”

Lisa studies him for a moment before nodding uncertainly. “Sure.”

The moment she steps outside, Castiel turns and stares at his bed. He tries to remember everything he’s done in it since he became mortal, but he can’t. He looks at the floor as well, and the chairs, before rolling his eyes upwards in despair.

He’d enjoyed it at the time, yes. But all he’d been doing was demeaning himself and demeaning everyone around him. He’d thrown away his principles for a handful of pills and a stomach full of booze and hadn’t given a damn what had happened afterwards. He can’t remember. There’s so much missing from his mind; blanks that shouldn’t be there, blanks that would be impossible for an angel’s vast and unfathomable consciousness. Back then it had all seemed to make perfect sense: he’d laughed and joked and done everything he could to mask the pain that came from knowing he’d played a part in the end of the world. After all, he’d been the one who’d let Sam out of his cell in Bobby’s house all that time ago. He’d never told Dean that. It had been selfish of him to keep it to himself, but he hadn’t wanted to see Dean’s disappointment. He hadn’t wanted to lose him.

But he’d completely lost himself somewhere along the way instead. Now he knows it isn’t the end of everything, he’s ashamed.

He’s never been ashamed before, not ever, not even about letting Sam go. Back then he’d been following orders… which wasn’t really an excuse, of course, but it had been all Castiel had known at the time. Afterwards, though, he’d been following his own course, and it had taken him to depths that he hadn’t been aware of until now. The shame feels almost physical: it prickles along his skin and makes his stomach churn. He thinks about how many lies he’d told to get women into bed, the things he’d done to them, the promises he’d made but hadn’t kept. He thinks about how Dean had looked at him sometimes, as though he couldn’t believe how far Castiel was taking things – hell, his actions had made Dean’s wayward sex life look like a nun’s. He thinks about how many times he’d lashed out at Dean with criticisms and complaints when he’d known damn well Dean was doing the best he could. At the time he’d thought he was keeping him grounded, stopping him from getting carried away with his power. Now? He realizes it was because he was angry. Not just at Dean, but at the universe.

It wasn’t easy being human. It had started so slowly he’d barely even noticed; his powers had faded out, one by one, and he only discovered it when he went to use them and they weren’t there any more. Then there had been tiredness, his body slowing down to sluggishness and his mind losing concentration and focus. After that had been thirst and hunger and, charmingly, what happened to his body after he’d drunk and eaten. Most profound of all had been sensation, when he’d started to feel heat and cold and, most galling of all, pain.

Somewhere underneath it all, he’d still known he was part-angel. He’d clung to the knowledge desperately, even though he could barely feel it, because the alternative had been unbearable. But now… Since Lucifer’s death there’s no doubt it’s gone. His grace has disappeared. Jimmy has moved on. This is his body now, and he isn’t wearing it: he’s living it. He’s no more angelic than anybody else on the planet.

Thanks to his actions over the past two years, he’s a damn sight less angelic than a lot of them, too.

~ ~ ~

Saying goodbye to Chuck is a lot harder than he’d expected. They’ve seen each other almost every day for over two years, barring the weeks when Castiel would go off with Dean on some mission or other. They’ve struck up an easy familiarity, a friendship that Castiel recognizes as comfortable and comforting. It’s nothing like his relationship with Dean, which is all tangled trust and desperation and need. What he has with Chuck is enjoyable.

“You go easy on those ribs, okay?” Chuck’s face is stern. “And get lots of rest. Don’t drive when you’re tired. And eat properly.”

“Yes, mom,” Castiel returns dryly, grinning. It strikes him that Chuck has never judged him, not once. Not when he was so drunk he couldn’t even carry himself off to bed; not when he’d taken too many valium and Chuck had spent a night anxiously trying to stop him passing out in case he didn’t wake up again; not when Castiel had thrown up on his bed – although that had kind of been Chuck’s fault, seeing as he’d supplied the tequila in the first place. Through everything, Chuck had just accepted him. Drunk, sober, stoned, trashed, high, low – Chuck was fine with it.

“Thank you,” he tells him, and pulls him into a hug that Chuck is clearly not expecting. “For everything.”

There’s a gentle pat on his back and Chuck says breathlessly, “Take it easy, man. Keep in touch.”

As Castiel drives away he watches Chuck in the mirror. His figure gets smaller and smaller and just before he fades out of sight Sara comes up behind him and they walk away together.

Castiel smiles, happy that his friend isn’t alone, before it occurs to him that he hasn’t the faintest idea whether he ever slept with Sara. His smile fades.

~ ~ ~

He heads south to Kansas. There’s not much of Kansas left, to be honest, as he discovers when he gets there, but that doesn’t make it any different to any of the other states he drives through along the way. Some of the freeways are impassable, blocked with piles of ruined cars and trucks or completely obliterated by earthquakes or other side-effects of Lucifer’s reign. Castiel has to take a lot of detours and the journey takes over a week, but it’s not as though he wasn’t expecting it to be difficult.

One thing that does surprise him is that most of the hotels he passes along the way are open. Sadly, they’re not open for guests; they’re acting as makeshift homes for those who’ve lost theirs. There aren’t any rooms to spare, and nor would he wish to take one away from a family in dire need of somewhere stable to stay. Every time he pulls up at a motel there seem to be children playing outside, their games full of screams and fighting, as though they’re acting out what they suffered while they were infected. Some don’t play at all. They just sit and stare at him as he walks past them, their eyes dull and lifeless. Like they’ve seen too much already.

It’s lucky Castiel’s used to going without a decent bed and a shower, although the nights spent curled in the back of his ancient 4x4 aren’t exactly doing his ribs any good. At least there are places to eat, though, and the majority of truck stops have fuel. Castiel has money but it alarms him when he notices that the price of gas goes up from day to day, as though people didn’t know what to charge at first, but are now realizing they need more money than they did before. What the hell, though. If he runs out of money he’ll just have to find some more. Sooner or later the ATMs will start working again, and Castiel has three cards that belonged to Dean and knows how to use them. He’s not sure how much money’s on each, but life’s full of surprises.

People fascinate him. Every time he sits down in a diner or walks into a store to see what goods they have on the shelves, it shocks him that everybody’s acting so normally. Many people have injuries – broken bones, limps, cuts and bruises – but they just seem to accept them. Castiel assumes the vast majority of the people he sees were once infected; they would have been hurt while fighting each other or those who still hadn’t succumbed to the virus. It amazes him that so many could have been under the control of the Croatoan virus and survived, and it amazes him all the more that they seem able to just pick up where they left off and get on with their lives afterwards.

After a few days he finally gets it: it’s because there’s nothing else they can do.

He listens in on conversations, hearing talk of Lucifer and angels. Many people take Bibles with them wherever they go. There are impromptu church meetings on streets. It makes him uneasy, because God did not help these people when things were bad, and yet they’re thanking Him now. Dean Winchester saved them, not God. God did nothing. No matter how much Castiel has wanted to believe his Father was out there over the past five years, the proof to the contrary has been too strong.

Castiel has no faith any more, and he misses it. He can’t turn it on and off like a lightswitch, though. Either he has it or he hasn’t. He still doesn’t know who resurrected him all those years ago, but he suspects it must have been Lucifer, because God did nothing else to prove his presence, not even when things were terrible.

But people still pray, and Castiel finds their blind faith comforting and tragic at the same time.

Occasionally, someone recognizes him. Two sisters stop him in the street and ask if his name is “Cass”. When he answers yes, they look as though they’re going to cry and hug him until he begs them to let them go for the sake of his ribs. When he tries to ask how they know him, they both just shake their heads and walk away. The same thing happens a few days later, when an old black man sitting by the counter in a diner turns on his chair and stares at him for so long Castiel actually blushes.

“You’re him, ain’t ya?” says the man, his voice unreadable.

“Who do you think I am?”

“The angel,” the man replies, shaking his head. “Shoulda known you’d come out of it okay. Hiding, were ya? Didn’t wanna get yer wings dirty?”

Castiel is intrigued. He stands up and sits beside the man, who pointedly turns away. “How do you know me?” he asks.

The old man sighs and runs trembling fingers over his lips. His fingernails are jagged and crusted in blood. He smells of ash and stale cigarettes. “Was told to find you,” he mutters, staring into the cracked mirror behind the counter. “Spent two years searching high and low, and now here you are, just when I don’t need ya. Son of a bitch.”

“Who told you to find me?”

The man wheezes out a bitter laugh. “Who do you think?”

“You didn’t have the virus.” Castiel leans forward and meets his gaze firmly. “You were possessed, weren’t you?”

A faint laugh. “And the angel wins a shiny penny for bein’ so damn clever.”

Castiel doesn’t answer. He stares at his companion for a moment, thinking hard, before asking, “What about Dean Winchester?”

“Your special friend? Yeah, I was lookin’ for him too. He’s one slippery customer. Never stayed in the same place for long, from what I hear.”

“I’m trying to find him.”

The old man looks down. He rubs at his forehead and sighs. “You’re not the only one. Them demons are after him, too. I hear they want revenge.” He lifts his head and meets Castiel’s gaze for the first time; his eyes are dark, dark brown with whites in their centers. Cataracts. Castiel’s amazed this man can see at all. “If you wanna find him, I’d head south if I were you. I hear that’s where they chased him, bastard that he is.”

Castiel frowns. “That ‘bastard’ killed the Devil for you.”

“That bastard set him free in the first place, so I hear. Kinda hard to feel obliged to a man who destroyed the world. Excuse me if I ain’t got much love in my heart.”

“How far south did he go?”

“Do I look like some kind of GPS device to you?” The old man pushes Castiel away with hands that are surprisingly strong. “Now git outta here and leave me be. I hated you while I was possessed and I hate you now. You were supposed to save us, Castiel. What happened to that? You’re a goddamn coward, is what you are. You and him both. Cowards.

Castiel leaves the diner. He sits in the car for an hour before his hands stop shaking long enough for him to drive it.

~ ~ ~

Lawrence, Kansas is pristine.

Every house is intact. All the stores are open. The cars are shiny and in perfect condition. The streets are swept clean of October’s fallen leaves; the streetlights work and the air doesn’t smell of smoke. Castiel drives through the place with his heart thumping and acid churning in his stomach.

This was where Sam Winchester was born. Lucifer let it survive.

There are more people in the city than Castiel has seen in years, all of them going about their business as though absolutely nothing untoward has been happening in the rest of the country. He parks downtown and goes to find a bookstore, needing to buy a map so he can find the cemetery where the Winchester family is buried. The whole time he scans the crowds for Dean, knowing that the old man told him he’d headed south but wondering if he’d decided to stay here. After a while he almost gets a headache from the strain of constantly looking, looking, looking, but he doesn’t stop.

He buys a map, leaves the store and then realizes the shop next door is selling television sets which are actually working in the window display. He stands in front of the glass and stares at them, strangely relieved to see moving pictures again after so long. It feels like normality. One TV is showing something he faintly recognizes as a soap opera; another is showing a football game. The third set is tuned to CNN. He watches the words scrolling under the video images of bomb craters and overcrowded hospitals and he doesn’t know whether it heartens him or not when he reads that over one million Americans have died in the last few months.

He’d thought the number would be higher.

Castiel watches the broadcast for a long time, learning that many countries overseas have terrible problems of their own – drought, famine, disease. There have been earthquakes and typhoons, tsunami and hurricanes from one end of the Earth to the other. The Arctic ice cap doesn’t exist any more. The economies of dozens of societies have completely collapsed in the wake of the Croatoan virus. People are starving. Dying. It seems that America, as crazy as it would seem, got away lightly.

A group of children laugh shrilly as they race past him, and he steps back and looks around. Lawrence got away lightest of all. He only hopes these people know how lucky they are; as the birthplace of the Devil, they were blessed.

~ ~ ~

He finds the graveyard that evening, just before dusk. There’s a mound of fresh earth beside Mary Winchester’s grave. At its head is a small wooden cross with the word “Sam” carved into it.

Dean’s amulet hangs from the cross.

Castiel looks around him at the deserted graveyard, suppressing a shiver as the wind gusts in the trees. Dean has been here. The grave looks a few weeks old, as it should. Dean buried Sam and moved on. He wonders why he didn’t cremate him – Dean’s a hunter, that’s what hunters do – but he can’t figure it out.

Castiel only knows two things now: Dean headed south, and there are demons are after him.

He crouches at the foot of Sam Winchester’s grave and says a prayer for him, although he knows, deep in his heart, that it probably means nothing. He can’t stop himself from reaching out to touch the amulet, but it’s cold in his grip. He studies it for a few moments before sighing and straightening up again.

He leaves Sam behind and goes to find his brother.

~ ~ ~

The days turn into weeks; autumn turns into winter and Castiel never stops looking for Dean. He’s constantly scanning crowds, the faces of countless strangers lining up before him in such numbers that he finds himself dreaming about them at night. He has no idea where his quarry could be. ‘South’ isn’t really much help. It soon becomes abundantly clear that there’s a whole lot of ‘south’.

And there’s a vast expanse of it that he can’t even enter, too. Texas is cordoned off, its edges patrolled by reservist soldiers. Nobody’s allowed inside unless they can prove they were born there or that they live there now. Texas doesn’t want to be part of the rest of America. Texas tried to control the Croatoan virus in its own way, by seceding from the United States and shutting its borders, but all that happened as a result of its actions was that the President ordered the bombing of Houston. Castiel is a little out of touch with the news; he doesn’t know the whys and wherefores of what happened, but he knows he has to get into Texas in case Dean decided to hide out there.

However, after encountering troops two days in a row and, on the second day, finding himself frog-marched back to his car and forced to drive away at gunpoint, he decides he probably needs some fake ID. That night he also finds himself wishing Chuck was with him, just so he can use him to help practice an accent the border guards might find convincing. In the end, unable to stop obsessing about it, he calls him and Chuck listens silently as Castiel tries to train his tongue to work around the vowels and consonants of a Texan drawl.

“You suck,” Chuck says eventually, after an incredulous pause. “You haven’t got a snowball’s chance in Hell of convincing them. You’d be better off pretending you’re mute, dude.”

Annoyed, Castiel spends the next day pondering what to do. He’s just outside Waynoka, Oklahoma, and he’s pleased to discover that their library is still open; most public buildings have become temporary homes for refugees these days. He spends an hour using their printer and photocopier to surreptitiously doctor the fake passport Dean had made for him back in 2010, changing his birthplace from San Francisco to Odessa. Studying it afterwards, he thinks he’s done a good job. It looks torn and battered, but that just makes it seem all the more genuine these days.

Waynoka Public Library has a row of computers which are working. He has to wait a while before one comes free and then he sits down and stares at the screen with a frown. He types two words into Google: “Dean Winchester”.

There are 1.9 million results.

He blinks at the screen, stunned, before clicking on “Images”. In between all the photos of Shia LaBeouf in Route 666 – and Castiel smiles as he remembers how outraged Dean was that they cast such a “wussy douche” to play him – there’s one photograph repeated over and over, a black and white police mugshot of Dean pulling a strange face and looking far younger than Castiel can remember him being when they met. It’s clearly the only real photo of Dean anybody can find; it’s somehow fitting that it had been taken by the police.

He looks cocky and carefree. Like the old Dean. The longer Castiel stares at it, the sadder he feels.

He scans through the links to find the ones that aren’t referencing the Dean Winchester from the movie. There are hundreds of sites that ask, Have you seen this man?, sites possibly set up by the demons hunting him. But there are also sites which proclaim Dean Winchester to be the saviour of mankind. They’re makeshift and messy, many of them nothing more than a place to host a message board, but all the forums and blogs have one thing in common: they claim that the Dean Winchester from the movie and Carver Edlund’s books is real, and that he was the one who put an end to the apocalypse.

Castiel doesn’t know what to make of this. He’s seen the future, the one in which the Winchester Gospel is as popular as the Bible, but it had been a quick fact-finding mission for Zachariah and nothing more. He’d only been able to find out a small amount, enough to give his superiors proof that Chuck Shurley really was a prophet, and to know that the Winchesters really would save the world. Once he’d returned to 2009, however, that future had seemed a distant and unlikely place. The parts of the Winchester Gospel he’d managed to read hadn’t mentioned him disobeying or the angels’ plan to free Lucifer or, indeed, any of the things that he’d lived through since. He wasn’t sure where the story had taken a left turn, but the future he’d seen wasn’t this one.

And yet people are reading Chuck’s books now and believing them. Even though nothing has been published for years, people are discussing how Dean had killed his own brother. The books aren’t fuelling this any more – the Winchesters’ story has become a folk tale, passing from person to person by word and rumor.

Perhaps the Winchester Gospel was going to be accepted after all.

Castiel’s name keeps jumping out at him as he searches the sites but he seems to be an incidental character, a shadowy, angelic figure Dean turns to for advice every now and then that nobody seems to know very much about. He’s pleased to see he doesn’t play a big role in the stories people are telling, but when curiosity gets the better of him and he Googles his own name, there are still almost a million hits.

And, somehow, there’s a photograph. It’s grainy and washed-out, which makes Castiel think it was probably taken by a security camera somewhere indeterminable, like a gas station forecourt or inside a mall. In it he’s wearing Jimmy’s clothes, that ridiculous coat that was too big for him, and he’s staring unknowingly right into the lens. This is the photograph all the demons had been given to find him with. This is why he is being recognized now.

Castiel feels a chill run down his spine as he studies himself. He’s still an angel in the picture. He doesn’t know how he knows, but he does. It’s like he can see it in his eyes, even though they’re pixelated and blurry; there’s something behind them, something that seems to be staring right into his soul. He doesn’t look tired or thin or stoned. He looks like an angel wearing a human being. He looks powerful and full of purpose.

He’d still had faith, back when that was taken.

The knowledge brings tears to his eyes. He shuts down the page, picks up his bag and leaves the library before anybody notices.

~ ~ ~

It’s all he can do not to buy as much alcohol as he can carry and drink himself into oblivion that night. Only the disgust he feels for wanting to get drunk in the first place keeps him sober.

That, and the fact he can’t find anywhere that sells it.

~ ~ ~

He successfully crosses into Texas the next day.

Texas is too hot, too dusty and too disorganized for his liking. There’s precious little food and barely any fuel; what there is costs a fortune, and Castiel has to hand over almost all of the money he’d managed to take out of the ATMs in Lawrence. By the time he reaches San Antonio he’s really starting to worry that he won’t be able to find another working cash machine, and nobody in Texas accepts credit cards. Eventually he finds himself having to choose between buying food or filling up the 4x4, and he chooses the latter.

He’s not the only one with problems, though, and he’s humbled by the misery he sees in San Antonio. The city has been swamped with refugees from Houston, many of them injured or sick. Castiel stares around him at the crowds of people sleeping in makeshift tents on the streets and feels guilty for not following the news more closely over the last few months – he doesn’t even know why Palin bombed Houston in the first place. He starts to talk to some of the refugees, struck by the urge to find out, and discovers that the general consensus is that she was trying out prototype ‘dirty’ bombs that would hopefully kill off the Croats and leave the uninfected alone. They’d been her guinea pigs, and all because the state had had the temerity to declare itself independent.

The bombs had killed half a million people, whether they were infected or not.

Castiel wonders how the hell he’d missed all of this. He wonders what he’d been taking the day it had happened, how Dean must have reacted, whether anybody at the camp had family or friends in Houston. All he can recall is Risa mentioning that Houston was gone and him shrugging and taking a swig of beer, totally failing to comprehend the importance of her words. He’d been such a self-centred, selfish bastard back then. How the hell had they all put up with him? How the hell had Dean put up with him?

He gives the remains of his money to a woman weeping outside a fire-gutted school and leaves the city behind.

~ ~ ~

 

Castiel realizes he’s heading for Mexico when he’s only a few hours away from the border, but he only makes it far as Encinal before he runs out of gas. The town’s unusually quiet and it gives him the chills as he draws up on its empty main street, looking around him uneasily as he steers the silent vehicle to a halt by the kerb. He can’t see any gas stations but there has to be one somewhere. Once he’s found it, he’ll have two more things to worry about: whether it has gas and how the hell he can pay for it.

There’s a beautiful sunset settling over the town as he walks for a few blocks, not that he looks at it with more than a passing glance; he’d decided to stop admiring the sunsets a few months back, once he’d realized they were a result of all the pollution in the atmosphere generated by Lucifer’s disasters. It’s not too hot now the day’s almost over and there are insects humming as the evening approaches. A dog barks somewhere off in the distance and he can hear music drifting faintly on the breeze, though it’s hard to pin down where it’s coming from. Otherwise, Encinal is far, far too quiet.

Every other town Castiel has visited in Texas had been crammed with people fleeing the Houston disaster, but this one seems to have been forgotten. It worries him. Something else must have happened here, something that’s keeping people away, but he has no idea what it could have been. If he was still an angel he’d have been able to sense it, but like this… well, he’s hopeless.

For the first time since the day he’d stormed into the building after saying goodbye to Dean, Castiel feels scared. It’s not a feeling he’s familiar with and it makes him sweat. He’s a little light-headed, too, because he hasn’t eaten since yesterday, and the further he walks into the town the sicker he feels.

He has no choice but to search for the gas station, though. When the streetlights flicker into wakefulness overhead he jumps, but then feels heartened; the town has power, so that’s a good sign. And the music’s getting louder, so he’s heading towards life. There are people here after all. Maybe he can persuade them to help him. Maybe–

“Lost, are ya?”

Castiel almost stumbles in surprise when the voice sounds in his ear. He whirls around, instantly defensive, but the man grinning at him on the sidewalk doesn’t look like a threat. He looks perfectly ordinary: fresh-faced and scrubbed clean, dressed in a plaid shirt and slacks that are a little too big on him, like he’s lost weight recently. It’s a look Castiel’s familiar with. Everybody’s clothes are too big for them these days. He blinks at him for a few seconds, trying to decide whether he should trust this guy or run like hell – he still has that feeling, like something’s terribly wrong – but then the man frowns and asks, “Are you okay, sonny?” and Castiel recklessly decides that he’s too tired to worry about it any more.

“I need gas for my car,” he says, clearing his throat first. “You’re right, I’m a bit lost. I don’t know which way to go.”

“There’s Ted’s place, just four blocks over,” says the guy, nodding in the right direction. “He had a delivery yesterday, so he’s all fuelled up.”

“Great, thanks.” Castiel looks across at the empty street, following his companion’s gaze. “Do you know if he takes cards? Or if there’s–”

The fist comes out of nowhere and lands in his gut so hard that white light starbursts behind Castiel’s eyes. He’s on his back before he even knows what’s hit him, hands clutching his stomach and lungs straining for breath, and then the guy’s straddling his waist a second later, throwing his hands to either side with terrifying ease. Castiel can’t move, can’t speak – all he can do is gasp and wheeze as the pain envelops him, pain that’s still unfamiliar and horribly real.

“It’s you, ain’t it?” says the demon, and Castiel sees black eyes slide into place in the glow from the streetlights above him. “You’re Castiel. Fuck me if you ain’t him.”

“W-who?” he manages to croak, but playing innocent isn’t going to win this guy over. A hand grips Castiel’s chin and squeezes so hard it feels as though his jawbone is going to crack under the fingers; somehow, he finds the air to moan as it happens.

“All this time and then you come walking into demon central, bold as brass. Who’d have thunk it?” The demon grins, clearly delighted with its new prize. “And I saw you first.

He raises his head and looks up the road, and suddenly Castiel understands that the music he can hear is coming from a bar, and that bar must be filled with demons. He’d almost stumbled right into it. One demon versus a roomful? He’ll take these odds, thanks. With that he starts to struggle wildly, but he doesn’t stand a chance as a human: this creature is way too strong for him, and it holds him still so easily Castiel could weep. He doesn’t, though. He swears defiantly instead, spitting on his captor for good measure.

All it does is make the demon laugh. “You’re definitely no angel any more, are ya? But it’s all in there, isn’t it? You lost your wings, but all your angel thoughts are still cramming up that headspace of yours.” He leans down until his lips are resting over Castiel’s left ear and whispers, “I want them.”

A hand forces his mouth open and Castiel stifles a scream as black smoke pours down his throat… then coughs and chokes down vomit as it streams straight back out again and into the man, who gags and roars in anger. He tries once more but the demon is repelled again; the ward Dean drew on Castiel’s skin all that time ago is clearly doing its job. He spares himself a moment to feel triumphant but he knows it’s only temporary. A ward is only a defence when it’s complete – one slash to break the design and it’s useless.

The demon knows it, too. “Where’s that fucking tattoo?” he barks, slapping Castiel’s face hard enough to daze him. Fingers tear at his shirt as they search and Castiel’s eyes follow the demon’s hand helplessly as it reaches for the knife tucked into its boot.

“My back,” he gasps, and the demon instantly rolls him over and rips the remains of his shirt and t-shirt off in one swift movement. There’s a pause as he stares at the seven sigils inked between Castiel’s shoulderblades, and then the cold tip of the knife meets his skin.

Castiel says the two words that will activate the spell. He cringes as the power surges through him with ferocious speed and strength, the ancient runes on his back igniting and flaring in the presence of evil, just as they are meant to do. The demon screams as light overwhelms it, light so bright Castiel has to bury his face in his hands as he flattens himself on the concrete, and then everything goes black and silence settles upon the street.

He removes his hands from his face and blinks, thinking for a moment that he’s gone blind, but one glance upwards tells him that the streetlight above his head has simply exploded. He pushes himself to his hands and knees and looks behind him at the demon, or what’s left of it, anyway; it’s mess of burnt skin and seared muscle. The smell of charred flesh hangs heavy in the air and Castiel coughs as it hits the back of his throat. The coughing rapidly turns into something else and suddenly he’s bent over, retching miserably as the pain from the spent wards on his back arches through him. They’re disappearing from his skin, burning off his body one by one; they’re only meant to be used once. This is probably the first time they’ve ever been used on a human instead of an angel. Castiel only asked Dean to put them there on a whim, and they just saved his life.

He vomits up water because there’s nothing in his stomach, then pulls the remnants of his shirt around him as he staggers to his feet. He feels terrible – the after-effects of the spell have left him shaken and dizzy, and his ears are ringing from the demon’s screams. He looks up and down the street but they don’t seem to have been observed or overheard, which is more than he could have hoped for, and he’s alive. Headache or not, he’s grateful.

Castiel takes a few steps back the way he came before being struck by a thought. Wrinkling his nose, he kneels beside the corpse and checks the pockets of its jacket, which is singed but not entirely ruined; the spell was aimed at flesh, not cloth. He finds a wallet. Inside it is over two hundred bucks.

He smiles and limps away, but has to stop and throw up twice before he makes it back to the car. Then he loads his bags into a green Dodge pickup parked nearby, spends half an hour trying to start the engine without a key – not as easy as Dean made it look – and drives away.

~ ~ ~

Castiel doesn’t sleep well that night, and not just because he’s uncomfortable in the unfamiliar seats of the pickup. His back is burning and even though he knows it’s not serious, just the after-effects of the spell, it’s painful enough to chase sleep away. He lies in the dark beside Interstate 35 and listens to the wind blowing the grass outside the window, thinking about luck and providence. He should be dead. Or, at the very least, possessed.

He’d asked Dean to tattoo him back in 2012, just after he’d lost his powers. If he’d still been an angel the tattoos would have vanished as his skin renewed the damaged cells – but then again, if he’d still been an angel he wouldn’t have needed them. Getting tattooed was pretty definite proof that he wasn’t a celestial entity any more. As Castiel remembered it, it had been a depressing day. He’d been drunk for most of it.

He’d drawn out the designs for Dean, who’d studied them carefully before tracing them onto Castiel’s shoulderblades. It had been painful, probably the first time he’d ever felt pain as a human, but he’d bitten his lip and remained stoic. The alcohol had helped, of course. When Dean had finished he’d handed him a beer and said, “Halfway there. Where do you want the other one?”

It was the anti-possession tattoo Dean had insisted everybody in the camp get inked on them somewhere. Several of his soldiers had shaved their heads and had it inscribed on their scalps like a cap. The women thought they were cool and had them on their midriffs so they could show them off above their low-slung jeans. Dean had probably tattooed thirty people by this point, and Castiel was drunk enough to decide he wanted something different from everyone else. He’d been struck by an urge to shock his friend, so he’d dropped his pants and turned his back.

“Jerk,” Dean had said, but that was the only reaction Castiel got from him. He’d tattooed his left buttock, Castiel had carried on drinking, and when Dean had finished and slapped him hard on his butt, right over the new design he’d just drawn there, Castiel had choked so hard at the pain that beer had come out of his nose.

Castiel remembers that night well because it had been the last time he’d seen Dean laugh without restraint. The next day they’d heard about Detroit and Sam, and after that the only laugh Dean had ever managed was a bitter one; the kind of laugh that was more like pain than humor.

Castiel misses it. He misses Dean. He misses companionship and conversation, comfortable silences and the knowledge that someone gives a damn about him. He talks to Chuck a lot but it’s not the same as having him with him and besides, Chuck isn’t the person he wants to talk to. This is the longest he’s been away from Dean for years – Dean was a constant in his life, something to be certain of, a friend and a partner. They’d treated each other badly and they’d argued and bitched and moaned, true, but underneath it all they’d always been there for each other. Now there’s nothing.

Castiel lies in the truck and stares out of the window at the stars, wondering if Dean’s looking at the same ones now. He wonders if this quest he’s on to find his friend is a wild goose chase. He may never find Dean; Dean might not want to be found. Dean could be dead by now, or possessed, or crazy. Castiel has absolutely no idea what’s happened to him, only that he needs to know.

He thinks about what he’ll say to Dean when he sees him, but he doesn’t have a clue. He only knows he wants to see him more than anything, because Dean is all he has.

~ ~ ~

Getting into Mexico is easy – far easier than it was to get into Texas – but as Castiel drives through border control he’s staggered by the sheer number of vehicles queuing to enter the United States from the other side. Or at least they think they’re entering the United States: actually they’re entering the new country of Texas, and Texas has decided it’s got enough people to worry about already, thank you, and so most of the cars are being turned away. The vehicles perform awkward u-turns on the scorching, shimmering tarmac before reluctantly heading back home, passing hundreds of other hopefuls who are in line to face the same disappointment.

Now Castiel has seen life in Texas, he has a suspicion most of these people will be better off staying where they are.

And Mexico surprises him. It’s actually in pretty good shape: there’s food, fuel, power, even internet cafes. Whatever crap went down across the world with the Croatoan virus and the disasters, it seems a lot of it bypassed this country. Castiel doesn’t know why, but he’s grateful when he reaches a hotel that has empty rooms and checks in right away, middle of the day or not. He needs a shower and he needs to sleep in a proper bed for the first time in months and everything else can wait, even Dean.

He’s asleep the moment his head hits the pillow and doesn’t open his eyes again for fourteen hours, which is when the sound of cheering and fireworks bring him lurching out of a confusing, muddled dream with a startled gasp.

He sits up, rubbing his eyes in the early morning sunlight, and climbs out of bed. Stretching, he pads over to the window to see what all the noise is about. People are dancing in the street. He watches them for a while, puzzled, seeing them brandish newspapers with headlines he can’t make out before remembering his room has a television set. He turns it on, finds a news channel and his jaw drops.

President Palin has been impeached. Not only that, but she’s being prosecuted for war crimes against her own people. Castiel stares at the screen, amazed and not a little thrilled, and laughs aloud when the newscaster reports that she claims to have been “possessed by a demon”. Nobody believes her. Which is funny because everybody believes in demon possessions these days; too many people were ridden by demons for it to be put down to mass hysteria or mental illness, and yet Palin’s protestations still fall on deaf ears. She wasn’t possessed. She was just wrong. That’s all there is to it.

Her successor is a young, nervous-looking Senator named William Fitch who doesn’t look at all confident to be taking over the running of the most powerful country on Earth. Then again, it’s not as though Congress have many Senators to choose from these days, but at least this one’s never ordered the bombing of Texas, so he’s already ahead in the public’s estimations. Castiel mentally wishes him luck, flicks off the TV and goes back to the window, watching the citizens of America’s sister country dance and sing to celebrate the loss of a world leader they hated. It’s surprisingly inspirational, and for the first time in an age Castiel feels a little hopeful.

It’s not helping him find Dean, though, so he checks out of the hotel an hour later and begins his search afresh.

~ ~ ~

Weeks pass and Dean is nowhere. He could be in California or Seattle or Timbuktu for all Castiel knows; he’s only guessing that his friend is in Mexico, after all. Days of endless, fruitless searching start to take their toll, and as Christmas comes and goes Castiel finds that it’s getting more and more difficult to focus. He’s itching for something, and it’s not just Dean.

January rolls on, and Castiel wants a drink.

Alcohol is everywhere in Mexico; people seem to be drinking all the time. It’s a hot country and the beer is cold. Castiel becomes more and more aware of the fact with every town he visits, his gaze lingering on the people drinking in taverns with such reckless abandon, as though the alcohol they’re consuming is no more dangerous than water. Castiel knows different. He’s seen the person he becomes when he’s drunk and he doesn’t want to ever see that person again, but sometimes…

It’s hard. He’s been around death and destruction; he’s killed and been killed. He’s lost everything he ever knew. He’s lost friends – Uriel, Anna, Sam, Bobby and now Dean. He even lost himself for a long time, and his actions during that period still haunt his conscience. He’s lonely and he’s miserable and, worst of all, he’s losing hope. Dean hasn’t contacted Chuck or interacted with anybody they know; despite him being discussed on the internet all the time, there are no sightings for Castiel to follow up. Trying to find him had seemed like such a good idea, so achievable, when Castiel left Camp Chitaqua, but now, five months on, it’s hard to imagine he’ll ever find his quarry.

Dean seems to be gone for good. The thought of never seeing his friend again is enough to make Castiel despair, and the last time he’d been filled with despair getting drunk had been the perfect way to deal with it. With every day that goes by with no sign of Dean, Castiel wants to give in just a little bit more.

He’s in some tiny town with a name he can’t remember when the feeling gets so bad he nearly caves in and heads to the nearest bar. It’s touch and go for a while as he stands by the pickup and stares down the street at the welcoming lights a hundred meters away, trying to talk himself out of walking towards them and asking the bartender for a million drinks at once when he gets there. His feet move forward before he can stop himself, but then he feels the heavy weight of his cellphone in the back of his jeans and somehow summons up the strength to call Chuck instead. He needs moral support. He needs a friend. He needs someone to remind him what he’s doing here. He needs someone to tell him no.

It takes a while for Chuck to pick up, and the whole time Castiel feels his palms sweating and his breath catching in his throat, knowing that this is his only chance. If Chuck doesn’t answer, he’s going to give in. He’s going to get drunk and then it’ll be the end of everything because he’ll never be able to stop. He hasn’t got the strength to give up twice: this time he’ll sink so low it’ll kill him.

Ring.

Ring.

Ring.

He’s not there. Chuck’s not there. This is going to happen. Castiel is going to fall–

“H-hello?”

The relief’s almost physical. “Chuck,” he says, his voice deep with desperation, after a few moments spent gathering himself together.

There’s a long silence before Chuck replies, “Cas? Is that you? I was just… that’s so freakin’ weird, man… I was just dreaming about you.”

Castiel looks at his watch and realizes it’s two in the morning where his friend is. Oops. “Did I wake you up?” he asks stupidly, before Chuck’s words sink in and he adds, “You were dreaming about me? Was it a vision?”

Chuck sounds a little disoriented, which makes sense seeing as he’s just woken up. He clears his throat before he answers, clearly trying to come to terms with the fact he’s awake and talking all of a sudden. “I don’t know… I don’t think so. You were just standing on a beach, is all. Nothing was happening. You were just there. Looking at the sea. It was super-peaceful, like paradise or something.” He pauses. “It didn’t feel like a prophecy. I don’t have those dreams any more.”

Castiel turns back to the pickup, moving his gaze away from the bar at the end of the street. “So you’re dreaming about me, huh?” he says, trying and probably failing to inject some humor into his voice. “You must miss me.”

“It’s the middle of the night, Cas,” Chuck answers with a trace of irritation. “What’s up? Did you find Dean?”

“No.” Castiel stops, his next words sticking in his throat. He tries to speak three times before he finally manages to choke out, “Chuck, I want to get drunk. I need you to stop me.”

There’s another silence, and then Chuck sighs. “That’s tough, man. I wish I was there.”

Castiel laughs bitterly. “Yeah, I wish you were here too.”

“Where are you, anyway?”

Castiel can’t remember, so he just says, “Somewhere in the south.”

“You’re still in Mexico?”

“Apparently so.”

“No Dean?”

“No Dean.” Castiel’s voice cracks.

“You’ll find him. I know you will.”

“Is that Prophet Chuck speaking?”

Chuck huffs. “I kinda wish it was. Look, Cas… I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say. ‘Don’t get drunk’ probably won’t cut it, huh?”

Castiel leans on the pickup and slides down the side until he’s on the floor, leaning his back against the cool metal and trying to let it ground him. “It helps,” he confirms, and it takes all his willpower to stop his voice from shaking. “Just having someone to speak to helps. It’s kind of... lonely down here, you know?”

He feels pathetic saying it, but it’s true. Thankfully Chuck seems to understand. He remembers how Chuck doesn’t judge people and it makes him feel better.

“You need a vacation,” his friend says matter-of-factly. “You need a break. Go find a beach and look at the sea, like in my dream. Go swimming. Learn to surf.”

“Beaches don’t really interest me, Chuck. And I can’t swim.”

“Then learn to swim and then learn to surf.” Chuck pauses before saying incredulously, “Are you telling me you’ve been in Mexico all this time and you’ve never once sampled the beach life?”

“I haven’t even seen the sea.”

“That’s what you’re doin’ wrong, Cas!” Chuck sounds triumphant. “You need to go and be a beach bum for a while. Get some sea air, watch the waves. Dammit, now I’m jealous.”

Castiel rubs his eyes, already feeling better. There’s something about the effortless way Chuck can look on the bright side of things that’s contagious. “Okay, I’ll find a beach tomorrow,” he promises thickly. “I think I’m fairly near the coast right now.”

“Great. You do that and forget all this Leaving Las Vegas crap. You don’t need the booze, Cas. You’re better than that.”

Castiel doesn’t know what to say to that, because he’s not, so instead he focuses on the part of Chuck’s sentence that he doesn’t understand. “I’m nowhere near Las Vegas,” he points out, “so how can I leave it?”

Chuck snorts. “It’s a movie, Cas. Nicolas Cage plays an alcoholic who goes to Las Vegas to die. Uh, not that I’m saying you’re an alcoholic or anything, dude.”

“You don’t have to say it. It’s true.”

There’s a moment of silence and then Chuck says, “But you’ve got more hair than Nicolas Cage has. At least you have something going for you.”

Castiel laughs and it feels good. Encouraged, Chuck continues talking about Cage while Castiel half-listens, simply enjoying the enthusiasm in his friend’s voice. He stares at the lights of the tavern and realizes they’re blurring a little. By the time his thoughts come back to the conversation, Chuck’s nattering on about a film called Ghost Rider.

“That sounds good,” Castiel interjects when Chuck falls silent, though he wasn’t really paying attention to what he was saying. “I’ll have to see that one.”

“You’ve already seen it, you doofus,” Chuck corrects him. “That night in Chicago, before Dean pulled that heist to get that magic sword that didn’t amount to diddly squat. Don’t you remember? It’s the film where Cage’s head was a fiery skull.”

Castiel frowns, surprised. “Oh. You mean that was the way he was supposed to look? I thought I was having a bad reaction to the LSD I’d taken the day before.”

Chuck sighs, but even down the phone it sounds less ‘exasperated’ and more ‘fond’. “You’re hopeless, you know that?”

“I’m less hopeless now I’ve spoken to you.” Castiel wonders if that makes him sound like too much of a girl, then smiles sadly as he realizes he’s thinking like Dean. “Thanks, Chuck,” he adds, wishing there was some way he could pay his friend back for being there for him. “I think I’m okay now.”

“No problemo, buddy.” Chuck yawns. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to try to start that dream up again, only I’m putting myself on that beach and surrounding myself with a bunch of Hawaiian Tropic babes.”

“Sounds like a plan to me. Goodnight.”

“Night, Cas. Get some rest, okay? And then go feel the sand between your toes.”

After he’s gone, Castiel stares down at the phone in his hand for a while, listening to the music drifting towards him from the bar. Then he shakes his head, climbs in the pickup and heads to the nearest beach he can find so he can watch the sun rise over the sea in a few hours’ time.

~ ~ ~

The beach at Zihuatanejo is sandy and seems to go on for miles. The sea is so blue it almost hurts Castiel’s eyes, and he forgot to bring his sunglasses with him when he left the car so he has to squint awkwardly against the glare of the sun on the water. But it’s beautiful and the beach is peaceful, deserted in the early morning calm. It’s just him, the soft whoosh of the waves hitting the shore and a few swirling gulls who ride the air currents and make him yearn for his long-lost wings.

Chuck was right: this is paradise. He wishes he’d found it sooner, but he was too busy searching for Dean.

He’ll never find him. Castiel realizes it now. He takes a lungful of fresh sea air and sighs, mourning his friend. Giving up doesn’t feel as bad as he’d thought it would be – this isn’t admitting defeat, it’s being realistic. If Dean wants to find him, he will. Until then, Castiel will have to get on with his life. He’ll have to make new friends, settle down, earn money and exist the same way everybody else on the planet does. He can’t chase a ghost to the ends of the Earth any more. It’s destroying him.

I’m sorry, Dean, he thinks, and closes his eyes and raises his face to the sun.

Something uncomfortably sharp presses into the small of his back and Castiel senses a presence behind him a millisecond later.

He tenses, his eyes snapping open to the blinding glare of the sun, and then Dean Winchester says in his ear, “I don’t know what you are, you son of a bitch, but you’re not making it off this beach alive.”

~ ~ ~