Castiel crouched with his back next to an overturned wreck of a car they were using as cover outside the old, dilapidated Jackson County Sanitarium. Checking his weapon, he tried not to think too much about what was about to happen. But not even the diminished remains of the chemicals still swimming through his blood could make him completely oblivious to Dean, to what Dean was doing, to every minute expression that flickered over the man's face and in his hardened eyes. He knew what Dean was planning. He knew, and not even when Risa spoke her own doubts aloud did he put voice to what he knew was coming. Even now, he would follow Dean Winchester. And why the hell not? He'd already died for him once, after all.
And that was it, wasn't it? Dean Winchester, the man who had never been able to make the big sacrifice when Heaven demanded it of him, or when life demanded it... That Dean was long gone. Cas suspected that man had died the day he got the news that Lucifer had taken his true vessel; the day that Dean learned his baby brother was well and truly gone, beyond his reach forever. The Dean of today, the man looking over the small band he lead and commanded with ruthless efficiency, well... This Dean wouldn't hesitate to make a sacrifice if he felt it offered him the slightest edge against Lucifer. And, Castiel knew, that was exactly what he was planning to do. Risa, Cas himself, the rest of the group – they were nothing but bait to draw off the demons so Dean could go kill the Devil, though Castiel was the only one who was truly aware of this fact.
The weapons check complete, he let himself focus on Dean. And Dean met his gaze steadily, no trace of hesitation in those hard green eyes as they stared back at Castiel. The former angel acknowledged the man he fell from Heaven for with a slight tip of his chin, letting that old, familiar, silent communication be his only farewell, and his offer of forgiveness for what was about to happen, all at once. He found his eyes widening when it was Dean who looked away first, though the hunter turned leader smoothly covered the brief lapse by turning his hard gaze on each and every person in the gathered band, each in turn.
Castiel studied Dean a moment longer, then let his attention drift away, deciding it was better to think of the Dean who was in his last hour on Earth rather than the empty, hard, driven man he was now. Instead, he focused on repacking gear that had been pulled out to be checked over, gear that the former angel didn't expect to ever actually be used. No, he felt it was a near certainty that none of them were getting out of this alive – one way or another.
A single, silent gesture from their leader, and the band rose almost as one, prepared to make the rush right in through the front of the former sanitarium. Refusing now to even look at Dean, Cas let his eyes meet with Risa's briefly. They nodded to each other, and then she took point and the rest of the group followed after her, weapons at the ready. Cas brought up the rear, reprising his role of guardian one last time before the end.
The silence got on his nerves very quickly. The stillness, the utter lack of Croats got on his nerves even more than the silence did. The little band made it across the partially overgrown lawn and to the front doors of the building without incident. That made Cas more nervous than the silence and the lack of Croats combined. Lucifer was here somewhere; Castiel had just enough angel left in him to be able to feel the fallen angel, the last of his kind aside from Cas himself to walk the Earth. And where Lucifer was, there were always demons hovering around seeking his favor like the sycophants they were. Warily, he readjusted the grip he had on his pistol, eyes still faintly bleary from drugs darting around as he sought any sign of, well, anything at all.
Single file, the little group entered the building through the front door that had swung slightly in the faint breeze. Aside from their own movements, it was the only signs of motion within the entire area. When Cas came to the door, he hesitated, letting himself look back to where Dean had been. He was already gone, and the former angel was unsure if the lead weight it seemed he had in the pit of his stomach was fear or regret. He turned and slipped quietly into the building, joining the rest of the group just around the corner where they'd stopped to wait on him. Risa eyed him as he came up to them, and he only offered a shrug in response. The time for words, any words, was past now. The only thing left to do was to try to stay alive just long enough to give Dean the time he needed.
He tipped his chin, indicating silently to the waiting group that they should proceed down the hall. And, without a word, the well-trained group did exactly that, with no questions and no arguments and no hesitation. Just for a moment, he could almost let himself believe he was still an angel, still in command of the now long gone garrison, back in the time before he'd laid his hand on a tormented, broken soul and raised that soul from Hell. Back before he learned what it was to feel, and to care, and...to hurt. Shaking his head at his own folly, he moved on silent feet down the hallway after the ragtag band, hesitating only to peek into each open doorway before passing on to the next.
He watched Risa ahead turn suddenly, and disappear through a doorway. The rest of the group followed, and when he came to the doorway himself, he saw that it was a stairway leading upward, rise already on the landing midway up with the group following obediently behind her. He had to stifle a giggle at the sudden run of lyrics through his mind from one of Dean's old tapes, from a time back when such things confused him and things were so much simpler. '...and she's buying a stairway to heaven...' Except, of course, they were far more likely to find Hell at the top of those looming stairs than they were to find Heaven. Heaven was gone, closed for business, all hints of it lost when the angels up and vanished.
Castiel huffed a sigh and started to climb. Despite the band's practiced efforts to remain silent, small sounds – the clink of a bit of metal on someone's jacket against the metal of the railing, the ever-so-faint squeak of a shoe on the linoleum of the landing, the sound of someone rechecking the safety on their pistol, the soft sounds of breathing and life itself – echoed in the darkened stairwell. He looked up as he climbed, only to meet Risa's gaze once more, looking down at him from above. He could see frustration clearly written on her face, but he could see the fear and suspicion that lurked just underneath that public mask. He wondered, briefly, if she could read his resignation of his fate as clearly he could read her fear, and what she might think of it if she could.
Castiel lowered his head and trudged up the stairs, refusing to look up as the rest of the little band shifted aside to make room for him, and even as he came to a stop before the closed fire door. He took a deep breath, glancing up at Risa, only to see her watching him. He knew in that instant that she had figured out what he'd been hiding, and what Dean planned for them. Despite that sure knowledge, however, she gave no signs of anything except readiness and acceptance. Her steady gaze said more clearly than any words that she would follow him and trust that he was doing the right thing. It was trust and loyalty he knew he didn't deserve. But, for Dean's sake, he nodded his own acceptance back to her.
He took a moment to check the shotgun braced against his side on a strap over his shoulder, then readied his pistol. Hr gripped the doorknob and threw open the door, some feeling deep in his gut making him sure that the demon's they'd been waiting to run across lurked just beyond. And it turned out that feeling was right. Demons swarmed toward them almost before he was able to get the door flung open. He stepped out into the waiting hallway, meeting the demons with a twisted grin. He fired off the rounds in his pistol, each of them marked with a devil's trap to slow as many demons as he could as quickly as possible. His accuracy and precision were on point, despite the haze of drugs clouding his thoughts, and demons fell – immobilized – almost as fast as they came.
The rest of the band moved out of the doorway behind him, fanning out with an ease born of experience and repetition. The sounds of gunfire rang around him, drowning out the screams of the demons still coming at them in what seemed like an unending wave, drowning our the sick sound that was somewhere between laughter and a howl of defiance and grief being torn from his own throat as well. When the magazine in his pistol was used up, Castiel tossed the gun aside carelessly.
He pulled the shotgun around from where it rested against his side, letting the strap slip down his arm so it didn't hamper him. He started pumping round after round of the special mix of rock salt soaked in holy water into the demons as they continued to swarm. In his focus, he never noticed the bodies falling around him – demon and human alike – right up until Risa staggered in front of him, distracting him from the mindless killing he'd let himself submerge into. She collapsed at his feet, sightless eyes staring up at him.
Unaware of it, a growl fell from his lips and he pumped the last three rounds from the shotgun into the demons before him before they closed in on him. They dragged him down, a writhing, crushing mass of bodies. Cas struggled with all his might – thrashing and fighting, biting and kicking, screaming defiance. Anything to buy Dean just a few more moments, to buy as much time as he could with his life.
And then, it seemed to him as though the world just stopped. A frozen moment in time and a feeling of something breaking deep inside, it told him he'd not failed Dean after all. He felt the moment when Lucifer died, the moment the last angel on Earth died, the moment the last of his grace faded away into nothingness.
The world snapped back into a blur of motion and pain when he felt a blade sinking deep into his left side, sliding easily into the space between his ribs. He felt the blade jerked out, the feeling of something within him ripping. He could feel the sticky, warm wetness of blood pouring from the wound. He could feel the press of demons lessen, and finally vanish altogether as they, too, must have felt their Master, their Father, die. But it no longer mattered. None of it mattered anymore. Lucifer was dead, and he hadn't failed Dean, and nothing else mattered.
It was finally over, after millennia he could finally rest. “Finally,” Castiel said, the word little more than a soft breath as darkness closed in around him.
The first thing Cas felt was pain. It was excruciating, worse than anything he'd ever felt before. Breathing hurt, causing pain to lance through him. Which, he realized distantly, meant he was actually breathing. He could feel himself trembling, sometimes outright shaking violently. He was somehow burning hot and freezing cold at the same time. Despite the cold associated with Lucifer, he didn't actually remember Hell being cold. The worst of all, though, was the desperate, wracking need he felt, need that just went on and on and on until he drifted away into senselessness again.
It was, he felt, some time later when he felt a hand gripping his, just tightly enough to tug at his senses without being uncomfortably tight. He twitched, a low groan rising up from within him at the pain even that slight movement caused. Oh. He'd been stabbed in the side. He'd thought he was supposed to die. He'd even welcomed it. He'd bought Dean the time he needed to kill Lucifer...
Castiel's eyes flew open and he struggled with the blankets weighing him down as panic struck with the return of the memories of what had happened. Almost immediately, however, he sank back into the mattress, the brief struggle enough to have left him panting shallowly and drenched in sweat. Only then did he remember someone had been holding his hand, though that had gone away when he'd started to panic. His eyes slid over to see who it was that was with him, he spoke a single word in a voice roughened by lack of use and illness. “Dean...”
It was Chuck that was sitting by his bedside, looking haggard and deeply concerned. And somehow, this didn't surprise him, beyond the brief confusion about how he could have ended up here, in his own bed within his own cabin back at camp in the first place. “Dean's...gone, Cas,” the prophet said with regret. Cas began to struggle to pull himself up to sit, intent on doing anything beyond lying helplessly in bed, anything to avoid the pit of emptiness that opened in his chest upon hearing those words. Chuck studied the former angel, then his eyes widened in understanding. “No, no. Cas, no, he's not...dead. He just... He left. I'm sorry. He just took off right after he brought you back to camp. Not a word to anyone, he just.... He left us, Cas.”
The former angel collapsed back into the mattress again, relieved that Dean wasn't dead, but finding that did nothing to ease the clenching in his chest around that strangely empty space. “Risa? The...others?” Cas glanced at Chuck, and then away again, ashamed that he couldn't even properly remember their names. Then again, nothing had ever really mattered for the past several years except the next high, and the next mission. Chuck cleared his throat, drawing Castiel's attention back in time to see Chuck shake his head simply, grief deepening the worn and haggard look he wore.
Looking decidedly uncomfortable and unwilling to talk about it, Chuck leaned forward and gently untangled the plastic tubing that had gotten twisted around Castiel's arm in his struggles. Cas watched quietly as Chuck moved to stand to check the bag of fluid the tubing was attached to, only then realizing the other end of the tubing was attached to a needle stuck into his arm and taped down. “How long...has it been,” it occurred to him to ask, his eyes moving to meet Chuck's.
Chuck settled himself back into the rickety chair beside the bed and shrugged awkwardly. “A couple of weeks. I'm sorry. You... You almost bled to death. Then there was infection. It was bad. And, uh... I'm pretty sure you went through withdrawal.” He hesitated, his eyes sliding uncomfortably away from Cas' as he continued, “that part was really bad. I really thought you were gonna die.” Chuck's hands were grasping at an edge of one of the blankets covering Cas, twisting at the cloth nervously.
Ah, so that's what this feeling was; it was being sober for the first time in years. Castiel wasn't sure he liked it. But, maybe – just maybe – he needed it. A soft sigh escaped his lips, and he closed his eyes, allowing himself to sink back into the darkness. It wasn't death, and it wasn't the escape the drugs always offered, but it would have to do.
When Castiel woke next, he left his eyes closed as he used his other senses to slowly feel out his state, and his surroundings. He was covered only by a single thin blanket, and he was just this side of comfortably cool. The pain in his side had lessened somewhat, but he could still feel it pulling at him with every breath. Thirst burned in his dry tongue; his throat felt like it was filled with razor blades when he tried to swallow, not that he could even summon up enough moisture in his mouth to swallow properly. He curled his hand into a fist, the flexing of his arm telling him the needle he distantly remembered being there was now gone. Ah, that might explain the thirst, and the faint hunger he could feel in his gut.
“Cas, come on. Wake up. Cas, wake up,” said a familiar voice – Chuck's voice. He could hear the worry and the fear in the prophet's tone. Breathing out a sigh, he forced his eyes open. Squinting against the bright sunlight that was falling across the bed from the doorway, he sought out Chuck, to find him bent over the bed, his hand hovering just over Castiel's shoulder as though he'd been just about to touch him. “Cas, don't you go and leave too, damn it,” the man said as he pulled his hand away and sank into the chair that was still beside the bed, relief in his tone that didn't quite make it to his eyes.
He struggled to sit, pulling himself into a position where he could use the headboard to prop himself up, trying to reassure Chuck as he did so. “I'm a'right. Not going...anywhere.” He was surprised by his own voice, slurring a bit and rougher than usual from the dryness in his throat. Yet, despite all the aches, and the pain pounding in his head and tearing still at his side where he'd been stabbed, he felt clearer and more aware than he had in years.
“Liar,” Chuck replied, a gentleness to his tone that softened his words. “You're going to go after Dean. I know it, and you know it. Or, you will, when you've thought about it.”
Castiel slid his eyes over to regard the man, then let them drop away. He was right, of course. As soon as he was able, he'd go searching for Dean. What else was there for him, after all? Slowly, he nodded agreement. “How long's it been?” He didn't clarify what he was referring to. Somehow, he just knew Chuck would know. Chuck was the one who'd watched the whole camp. Dean may have been the 'fearless leader' but, in many ways, it had been Chuck who really kept everything together while Dean and Cas each fell apart in their own particular ways.
“Sixteen days since Dean dropped you practically in my arms, climbed back into the truck, and took off. All of it without saying anything to anyone.” The prophet hesitated, then sighed. “Except me. Cas. He.. Dean told me to give you a hunter's funeral, and then he just stared at you, turned, and walked out. I think.. I think he thought you were going to die.” Chuck scrubbed his hand over his face, unwittingly drawing attention to how just plain worn out he looked. “For awhile, I wasn't sure about it myself.”
Cas studied him silently. He wondered, then, just how much of that time Chuck had spent at his bedside, caring for him, waiting to see if the former angel would live or die. Chuck met his eyes, the look surprisingly steady given his nervous little movements. “Looks like I still can't manage to die properly,” Cas finally replied, his lips twisting into something he meant to be a grin, but that ended up just looking broken.
The recovery was agonizingly slow, at least as far as Cas was concerned. Chuck patiently kept assuring him it was perfectly normal, and that, really, he was lucky to have survived at all. The former angel had reservations about that outlook, but, out of respect and a growing fondness for the man, Cas kept his feeling that he should have died to himself. The only thing that gave him any motivation to continue on was the drive to start his search for Dean.
During most of his recovery, he'd kept to himself, staying within the confines of his tiny cabin. Chuck had told him that, with Dean gone and a bit of a hero anyway for having finally brought Lucifer down, Cas had become the scapegoat for the deaths of the rest of the little band that had gone in that day. Assumptions had been made, and with Dean not talking to anyone aside from his terse instructions to Chuck before leaving, and with Castiel unable to explain anything for a couple of weeks, there hadn't been anyone to really halt the rumors from spreading.
When he had finally recovered enough to leave the cabin – though, if he were honest with himself, something he really hadn't been in a long time, it had been more of an unwillingness to face the people who remained in camp than it had been physical limitations that had kept him to his cabin for so long – the harsh stares were enough to turn him from the camp and into the woods surrounding it to work on building his stamina. Every step still pulled on his side, leaving it burning and sore. But he'd let another two weeks pass, thirteen days to be precise. Every day Dean's trail would be that much harder to follow.
Chuck hadn't had any idea where he could even start looking for Dean. But, Castiel had his suspicions, and some of them where downright terrifying. He'd made Chuck sit and explain everything he could remember about the afternoon Dean had returned to Chitaqua. The things that had stood out to him were the utterly calm manner the hunter had had about him, despite the events that had happened...and the tarp that Chuck had noticed but not thought much of bundled into the back of Dean's truck.
Cas had said nothing to Chuck, but he suspected the thing that the prophet had overlooked had been Lucifer's empty vessel, Sam's body. And Castiel felt sure that Dean was taking it to lay his brother to rest. The question of where was also something he felt sure of. Dean would return his brother to Lawrence, to bury him with their mother. He couldn't have said why he was so certain this was what Dean would do, but he was. He knew it in the deepest parts of himself; Dean would return Sam's body to Lawrence. After that...well, that was the part that terrified the former angel.
Sam was gone. Lucifer was finally dead at Dean's hand. And he'd given Chuck every reason to believe he'd thought Castiel was as good as dead before he'd left, though Cas only considered this as a marginal purpose for Dean to go on, considering their increasingly strained relationship over the years since the apocalypse. Any way around, Cas was afraid this all added up to Dean having lost every reason he'd had left to continue on after he'd laid Sam to rest. He kept asking himself if it was even worth going back out into the world to search for the hunter. But deep in his very essence, down where the parts of him that had remained as an angel had lived on until the very last of his grace had faded away, something told him he'd just know if Dean was no longer walking the Earth.
It had now been twenty-one days since Lucifer had died. News had come to Chitaqua just yesterday that Lucifer's death had unexpected consequences; many of the surviving Croats had begun to recover from the virus. As best as people could figure, the moment Lucifer had died, the virus had just simply started to...fade away. People were recovering from the virus, and hope was spreading through the country.
Of course, everything was still a mess. Bodies littered streets, supplies were still in high demand and low supply, and communications were still rudimentary at best. But rumor had it that the military had stepped in, and electricity was coming back up in places. Some people were even saying that slowly, one by one, radio and cellular towers were even coming back online in an effort to provide people with much desired communication capabilities.
Castiel had listened closely to all the reports and rumors, taking it all in as preparation for his departure from the camp. No one – well, no one aside from Chuck – wanted him here. Lately, there had even been talk of holding him accountable in some way for the deaths of the small band that had died during the assault on Lucifer's lair. Chuck never mentioned these whispers of a threat to Cas, of course. But Cas heard them all the same. Occasionally, he was tempted to go and stand in the middle of the camp and yell out to them that their beloved hero had been the one to knowingly send them all to their deaths, just to buy him time. But, he knew he'd never do it. He was still loyal to Dean, even now.
So, here he was, standing beside a beat up old Jeep, faintly amused that Chuck was the only one present to see him off. Well, assuming he didn't care to count the eyes he knew were watching secretively, waiting for the hapless, hopeless, useless stoner to just finally leave. He couldn't really fault them. He hadn't used since that fateful day he'd gone to meet his death willingly. But that desire, that need, it was still there, simmering just under the surface. It was a a burning ache, an itch that went down to the center of his being, an emptiness that never quite went away. Addiction was something he'd never been able to grasp as an angel. Now, it was something that haunted his every moment.
“Cas, please, be careful. Don't forget you're...human,” Chuck said to him sternly. Castiel huffed a laugh in reply. Forgetting that he was human wasn't going to be an issue. It was something he could never forget. “Don't go getting yourself killed. You and Dean, man...you guys are the only ones I have left that know the whole story.”
“I don't manage to die right, Chuck,” he said with a wry grin. “Don't worry. I'll find Dean, and I'll find a way to get word back to you.” He forced more confidence into his tone than he actually felt, trying to offer reassurance to the prophet. He might be certain the hunter still lived – though, occasionally, some little voice whispered to him that Dean had nothing left to live for once he'd laid his brother to rest, but it was a voice he steadfastly ignored lest he lose his own reasons for continuing on – but he realized he had very little chance of actually finding the man in the chaos left after Lucifer's death.
Chuck appraised him, likely trying to decide how much of what Cas said he actually believed and how much was supposed to be comforting bullshit. Whatever he saw seemed to satisfy him, and he nodded. “Okay, Cas.” A quick flash of a grin that somehow reminded the former angel of times before the apocalypse, and the nervous alcoholic man Chuck had once been, and Chuck nodded again. “Castiel,” he said, offering a hand which Cas took in his own firm grasp, “good luck.”
Surprised by his own sudden burst of emotion, he simply nodded and climbed into the packed Jeep. “Take care of yourself, Chuck.” Resolving himself not to look back, Cas started up the Jeep, the rough engine making enough noise that speech after that became pointless, allowing him to avoid any more awkwardness and feelings he didn't want to examine just then. He lifted a hand in farewell, and drove out the waiting gates of Camp Chitaqua, his only thoughts on finding his way to Lawrence, where he was certain his best chance of picking up Dean's trail would lie.
Cas headed south, looking to divert around Kansas City before heading west toward Lawrence. The Croats may not be an issue anymore, but he didn't even want to see what the city – which had been a fenced and walled off hot zone – looked like now. Besides, Dean would have had to go around the city as well, as he would have expected Croats there. Just in case, he'd decided to follow the route Dean was most likely to take.
The first part of the trip was easy, though that wasn't much of a surprise. They'd worked at keeping the roads around the Chitaqua as clear as they could, to make their foraging trips and missions easier. But even when he hit Interstate 470, the highway was startlingly clear of the usual debris of empty and rusting vehicles. He found it downright creepy as the miles passed on the bare roadway. He began to wonder if the rumors of the remainders of country's military force stepping up and starting to try to put things to rights might actually be true, instead of something borne of a desire of those so long without hope to have some sort of stability come back into their lives in the form of just knowing someone out there was in charge, giving orders. Well, it was a desire he could understand, even if it wasn't one he entirely shared. He'd spent eons with no other purpose than to have someone to look to, to obey orders from on high.
It went on like that, with Cas lost in his thoughts and driving down the empty highway, until nearly 45 minutes had passed. Up ahead, he saw a tangle of rusting and twisted wrecks of vehicles. They'd been pretty obviously pushed around with some sort of heavy machinery, leaving what looked to be fairly recent marks in the asphalt and concrete of the roadway. More evidence, Cas decided, that maybe the American military really had stepped in.
However, he decided, as he let the Jeep roll to a slow stop, it also presented a problem. The road ahead was blocked, and it wasn't like he could just call up a map on his phone as he'd seen Sam – and just thinking his name was still like a punch to the gut, even now – do in the past to find a new route. Sighing, Cas turned the Jeep around and went back to look for a smaller road leading toward Lawrence, urgency tugging at him faintly. So much time had already passed, and every little thing that delayed him made that sense of urgency grow.
It took another frustrating hour to even find a road off the interstate that was headed west, and he'd never been more grateful that his perfect sense of direction was one of the things that hadn't faded along with his grace and powers. Once he found a road going in the direction he needed, finding his way to the Lawrence city border was, if not simple, at least easier. The entire trip, one that he'd made an educated guess likely took about an hour or so before the rising of Lucifer, took him a total of five hours.
He pulled up even with the neat little sign announcing 'Lawrence, Kansas – Population 87,643' and stopped the Jeep. On some level, he'd expected what he'd seen in so many other little towns that they'd scavenged in for food and supplies; the wrecks of vehicles and homes and lives destroyed. So, he supposed, he could be forgiven for needing to take a moment and just stare at neatly kept houses with neatly kept lawns. It was almost as though everything inside the invisible border of the city limits existed in some other world, one where Lucifer had remained in his Cage.
Eventually, he wiped the sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his shirt, silently cursing the late August heat, and sighed. “This is either very good, or very bad,” he murmured to himself. Frowning, Cas jerked the Jeep back into gear and started down the road once more. He wasn't sure where within the city the graveyard he was looking for was, but he knew what it looked like, what Mary Winchester's grave looked like. And he knew that was where he had to really begin his search for Dean.