At World's End
Nighttime had fallen over Lawrence, Kansas, but the flames licking up tree trunks and charring buildings down to their foundations illuminated the city with an eerie half-light. Castiel stood silhouetted against the firelight, scanning the land before him slowly. He didn't speak, instead listening to the crackle of the flames and the voices buzzing inside his head. They reported on the destruction all over the world, as well as calling out messages to other angels—those that were still alive, at least.
Castiel sighed and started walking through the remnants of the Winchesters' hometown. It could be said this was all his fault, or Sam's, or even Dean's. However, Castiel knew the truth—that the world had been leading up to this for a long time, before the Winchesters were even an idea.
He just wished things hadn't ended up like this.
Dean's heart raced as he crouched behind a collapsed building corner, a semi-automatic clutched to his chest. He heard a scream rip through the night, and Dean had to dig his fingernails into his sweaty palms to keep himself from leaping out of hiding.
The scream subsided into strangled sobs, and a woman's voice pleaded, "Please, just leave me alone. I don't know anything." There was a harsh sound, and her sobs escalated. "I swear, I don't know anything!"
A snap echoed through the block, and the woman's cries cut off abruptly. A month ago, Dean would have charged out and saved the woman without thinking twice about it, but not anymore. Not now, when the end of the world hovered within spitting distance.
Soft footsteps sounded in the main street as polished white dress shoes crossed the cracked asphalt, impossibly clean despite the thick layer of ash that coated everything. Dean tightened his grip on the gun in his hands and slowly moved forward until he could see clearly around the corner.
A stark white suit stood out against the blackened buildings and the dark clothes of the five men surrounding it. One of the black-clad men was bent over a crumpled figure, his hands cupped in front of him as he spoke in hushed tones.
Dean ignored everything but the man in the middle. He scanned the streets around him with a look halfway between nonchalance and amusement. Dean felt a sharp wave of hatred towards him come over him, burning through his veins like wildfire. This bastard had turned every square inch of the world into charred ruins. Billions of people were dead, millions more possessed—a fate worse than death in Dean's mind—as well as most of the angels who'd fallen from heaven. Even all the vampires and werewolves and shape shifters, all the monsters Dean and his brother used to hunt, had been almost completely eradicated. Now here he stood, Lucifer himself, looking at it all and laughing. It sickened Dean.
"I know you're there, Dean."
Dean snapped back to the present as the words cut through his thoughts. He clenched his jaw and remained hidden.
Lucifer laughed softly, the sound chilling Dean despite the intense heat that had overcome the planet. "There's no point in hiding. Come on out; it's been so long since we've talked."
Dean hesitated for a moment. Revealing himself would be suicide, he knew that—Lucifer wanted Dean dead just as much as Dean wanted to kill Lucifer—but Dean had tracked Lucifer for so long now, coming so close just to have him and his demonic cronies slip away into the shadows. He couldn't let him just walk away again.
Sheer desperation compelled Dean to cautiously rise to his feet and slide out into the open, his shadow stretching across the street and stopping just before Lucifer's feet. He let the gun drop to his side; now that he no longer held the element of surprise, it wouldn't do him much good anyway.
Lucifer pressed his hands together, his face lighting up with a smile that would have been warm on anybody else. "Here we are at last," he said, waving his minions away with a dismissive flick of his hand. They reluctantly melted away into the dark recesses of the building skeletons, leaving their master alone with Dean. "I know you've been trailing me since Denver. Just couldn't stay away, could you?"
When Dean didn't respond, Lucifer pouted. "Talk to me, Dean. Demons can be so boring sometimes."
"I'm not here to sit around and have a conversation with you," Dean spat, caution giving way to rage and frustration. "I'm here to send your sorry ass back to Hell where it belongs."
Lucifer whistled. "Harsh."
"Oh, I'm just getting started," Dean warned, taking a step closer to Lucifer despite the cautionary voice in his head telling him to stay back. "You have stolen everything from me. You've burned the whole world down to the ground and you unleashed the Croatoan virus upon the human race." Dean swallowed a bout of sadness that rose up within him. "You took my brother from me."
Lucifer held up a finger. "As I recall, Sam said yes. He let me in out of his own free will—how could I decline his generous gift?"
In one fluid motion, Dean had his gun raised and braced against his shoulder, the muzzle pointed directly at Lucifer's heart. His vision flooded with red, as vibrant as blood. "Shut up," he hissed through clenched teeth. "Shut your mouth or I swear to God I'll—"
"You'll what?" Lucifer interrupted, suddenly serious "Shoot me? Shoot Sam?"
Dean shook his head. "That's not Sam anymore. Sammy's gone."
"Nah," Lucifer said, a slight bit of humor entering his voice again before drying up. "He's in here." He tapped a finger lightly against his temple, once, twice. "Sometimes we talk, late at night when I get bored."
"You're a lying bastard," Dean spat, hovering his finger over the trigger. Sure, buckshot wouldn't kill the devil, but it would stall him long enough for Dean to get close and finish the job. He could feel the cool pressure of the silver angel blade against his back from where it was tucked in the rear of his tattered, ash-streaked jeans. It just took one quick thrust…
"Oh Dean," Lucifer sighed, face falling in disappointment. "I thought we had more trust in each other."
"Trust?" Dean echoed. "That's the last thing that comes to mind."
"Do you want me to prove it to you?" Lucifer asked, holding his hands out in an open gesture. "I can step down, let Sam take the wheel for a bit."
Dean regarded him suspiciously. "Why would you do that?"
Lucifer just smiled, and then his eyes flashed a bright, icy blue before returning to the familiar warm hazel that Dean knew so well. A gasp escaped his lips, his face contorting into a look of astonishment. "Dean?" he said in wonder, as if he couldn't quite believe what he was seeing.
Dean's arms felt like jelly, and the gun fell heavily to his side. For a moment, he only registered his heart beating loudly in his ears, his breaths whistling in short gusts against his lips, and the man standing before him. As if from a distance, he heard himself say hoarsely, "Sammy?"
His brother's eyes filled with emotion, and the next thing Dean knew he'd dropped his gun and rushed forward, clasping his arms around Sam like a drowning man grasping at a lifesaver. He gripped the smooth, satiny fabric of the white suit jacket in his hands tightly, listening to the ragged gasps of his brother's breaths sounding in his ears.
"I can't believe…" Dean paused for a moment, releasing his brother and looking into his eyes. For months, he'd been associating those same eyes with Lucifer, coming to hate every picture he had of Sam and the image of his brother's face imprinted upon his mind. He'd never been able, however, to burn the photos. Every time, his hand would stop just short of the flames, feel the heat of the fire for just a moment before tucking the paper back into his jacket. Maybe it was because, deep in his heart, he'd always hoped that Sam wasn't truly lost forever.
Dean cleared his throat and continued, "I can't believe you're here, Sam." He managed a small smile, his hands still locked on his brother's white-clad upper arms, as if afraid that if he let go, his brother would slip away again. "God, it's good to see you."
Sam's eyes were wide and warm. "It's good to see you, too." His voice, without Lucifer's influence, rang just as kind and strong as Dean remembered it.
"I don't know how long we have," Dean said quickly, feeling a sense of desperate urgency settle over him, "and I have something I need to say to you." He swallowed. "I forgive you."
Sam's eyes widened, and Dean continued before he could speak. "I forgive you for leaving. I forgive you for all that you said, back at the bunker and before, ever since you left Stanford to chase after Dad with me. I forgive all your faults and mistakes because you're my brother, Sammy, and I love you. Nothing can ever change that." Dean looked intensely into Sam's eyes. "We're family."
"Yeah," Sam said, putting his hands on Dean's shoulders. Their strong grip flooded Dean with a sense of security, one he never thought he'd have again, and his heart swelled. "But Dean?"
Dean recognized the change in his voice too late, saw the sly gleam return to Sam's eyes for only a moment before the hands on his shoulders spun him around and one arm locked around his neck, the other snaking around his arms and waist. Dean fought against the restraint, but the man holding him simply tightened his iron-like grip.
"It's too late for apologies," Lucifer purred into Dean's ear, mimicking Sam's tone with startling accuracy. "Why do you think Sam sought me out?"
"Don't," Dean tried to say, hating how pathetic his voice sounded, but the pressure on his throat tightened and the word fell away with a choked gasp.
"Maybe he felt lonely," Lucifer continued, ignoring Dean's silent struggles as he fought for air. "Or forgotten."
"No," Dean managed, his head fuzzy from lack of oxygen. Through the fog, he remembered the angel blade. If he could only get his hands behind his back…
Lucifer kicked Dean's knees out from under him, and he crumpled to the ground, his vision swimming. He turned his head just in time to see a silver glint in Lucifer's hands before it pressed to his throat, the cool edge digging into Dean's windpipe. A trickle of blood ran down his neck, and he didn't dare move. Lucifer had slit enough throats—one twitch of his fingers and Dean would be done.
But what was there to go back to? Dean found himself struck by the realization that even if he did manage to kill Lucifer and escape with his life, the world was too far gone. He supposed he could seek out the pockets of people hiding in corners across the globe, battle-hardened and starving, but how long until the evil that had permeated the earth consumed even them?
Dean hadn't considered the option that presented itself now—to close his eyes and sink into whatever lay in wait for him on the other side. Did Heaven still exist? Did Hell? Or did death just entail a descent into darkness now, a fade into nonexistence and oblivion?
Dean expected himself to be apprehensive. He'd died before, of course, so it was nothing new, but the thought of spending his last moments kneeling at the feet of the devil like a condemned man before falling into blackness should have frightened him. Instead, he found himself leaning into the blade, the trickle turning into a stream that wound past his collarbone and soaked into the neckline of his shirt. "Do it," he said, his voice strong and certain. "There's nothing left for me here."
Dean had never known Lucifer to show mercy, so when he closed his eyes and waited for a quick slice that never came, he frowned and reached towards his throat. Before his fingers could touch the knife and drag it across himself, however, the pressure lessened suddenly as Lucifer withdrew the blade, leaving Dean crouched on the ground, his head reeling with confusion and dizziness.
Through half-closed eyelids—Dean had lost a lot more blood than he had initially thought—he turned his head to see what had caused Satan to stay his hand.
Lucifer stood facing another man, silhouetted black against the orange-red flames. Dean couldn't see his face clearly, but he recognized the set of his shoulders, the way his hair stuck up from his head in short spikes, and the long trench coat that flapped around his legs in an absent breeze. Dean's heart skipped a beat before racing on double time. It couldn't be…
The angel blade hung leisurely at Lucifer's side. "Castiel," he purred, his voice humored—but also a hint surprised. Clearly Lucifer had believed that Castiel was dead as much as Dean had.
"Hello Lucifer," Castiel said. It had been so long since Dean had heard his voice—the way it seemed emotionless unless you knew what to listen for, the low timbre of it. Dean remembered sitting in an abandoned motel room, back when sections of cities still remained intact, tears burning their way down his cheeks when he thought he'd never hear that voice speak his name ever again. First Sam and then Cas… he'd almost ended it then.
Instead, he wound up here, fueled by a powerful desire to feel the life drain out of Lucifer and avenge everybody he'd lost. To have Castiel standing so close, to have him speak, to know that he was still alive… it made Dean sick to know he'd almost taken his own life.
Castiel's eyes, nearly undistinguishable in the shadow that shielded his face, left Lucifer for a moment to connect with Dean's. "Your hate has blinded you," he told Lucifer, breaking the eye contact and looking back at the other man. "Our father cast you out of Heaven for loving Him more than the humans, and so you have turned against us both. But what will you do once you have killed us all? The humans are few, and we are fewer. Soon it will just be you, Lucifer, you and your demons. Eventually, you will eradicate those, too, and you will stand alone on a planet scorched with fire and burned to the very core."
Lucifer's fingers tightened around the thin blade, as if anticipating lunging forth and thrusting it through Castiel's heart. Dean prepared to leap forward and stop him—he wouldn't just sit back idly and watch Castiel die—but instead of attacking, a laugh ripped its way out of Lucifer's throat. "You known nothing, Castiel," he said, flipping the angel blade in his fingers and spinning it off of his thumb. "Your love for humans has weakened you, made you forget everything our father wanted for us."
"Our father wanted us to accept the humans—"
"He forced us to bow to them!" Lucifer exploded. "Us! We are more powerful, more perfect, than them. They are flawed and corruptible. I proved it to Him." Lucifer sounded smug. "I took His humans and twisted them down the path of sin and damnation. And now look at His precious little apes." He spread his hands wide, gesturing to the world around him. "Look how easily I destroyed them all."
"Not all of us," Dean said, unable to keep quiet any longer. Lucifer turned to see Dean struggling to his feet, his head reeling at the sudden change in altitude.
Lucifer pointed the angel blade at him and said, "Oh yes, I almost forgot. Noble Dean Winchester, out to destroy the devil." He smiled, his teeth as blindingly white as his suit. "You and Sam, you were my favorites, you know. You fought and fought and somehow you two always managed to hold on and make it through the day."
Then Lucifer was face-to-face with Dean, the blade inches away from his rapidly beating heart. "But even the Winchesters have to fall," he said, eyes glinting as he prepared to pierce Dean's skin and take from him the life he now so desperately wanted to keep.
Lucifer's eyes shot open wide and exploded with a blinding whiteness, cutting through the blackness of the night with knives of light. Dean flinched away from the harsh glare, shutting his own eyes tightly. Lucifer let out a long, desperate yell that ended abruptly in a choked gargle. The light disappeared all at once, and the pressure from the tip of the angel blade dropped from Dean's chest. He cautiously opened his eyes again to see a white-clad body sprawled across the pavement, a large set of charcoal-black wings burned into the ground surrounding it.
Castiel stood few feet away from Dean, an angel blade matching Lucifer's grasped tightly in his hand. After a moment of shocked silence, his fingers lost their grip and the bloodstained blade slipped from his grasp, clattering against the stone by his feet. The noise echoed through the street before silence crept in again, broken only by the deep breaths that caused both Castiel and Dean's chests to heave.
Dean focused on Castiel, keeping his eyes averted from the body on the ground. He knew it was Lucifer whom Castiel had killed—he could see proof in the charred, empty eye sockets and the wings scorched onto the pavement—but in death, with all of Lucifer's twisted expressions and sly glances permanently stilled, the body was Sam's. Dean felt his stomach lurch, and he turned to the right and threw up violently, his shoulders shaking with spasms and sobs that he couldn't contain any longer.
A gentle hand rested on Dean's back and rubbed small circles as the tears ran down his face, dripping off his unshaven chin onto the hard ground. Castiel remained silent, standing over Dean like a guardian angel as his sobs rang through the empty city and into the night.
Dean and Castiel stood side by side, feeling the heat of the funeral pyre turn their faces a bright red. Long-fingered hands were crossed on top of a white suit slowly being devoured by flames, and Castiel couldn't help but feel that today they had both lost a brother. While Lucifer had been hateful and consumed with rage, cast out of Heaven by their father Himself, his death had been that of an angel. Fallen or not, Lucifer had still been one of God's children, and Castiel found himself looking upon the pyre with a sorrow he hadn't known he could feel towards the brother who had been exiled so long ago.
Of course, there was Sam as well. Castiel had made the decision to kill one Winchester for the sake of saving another, and though Dean wasn't blaming him, he was taking it hard. His eyes, as they reflected the flames licking up towards the sky, glistened with so much pain and desolation it seemed impossible, but his tears had dried up back in Chicago. He'd silently taken Sam's body in his arms as if he weighed nothing and nodded at Castiel, his face tight in an effort to be strong. A hand on Dean's arm and a flutter of invisible wings had brought them home to Lawrence, and if Dean had felt any nostalgia or sadness at seeing his birthplace burned to the ground he hadn't shown it, instead focusing on building up a pyre with the limited wood they could find and using a match from the container in his jacket to light it.
The two stood by the bonfire and watched in heavy silence as the pyre slowly reduced to ash and dust. Light gradually returned to the sky in the east, though the sun didn't really shine—the layer of smoke that coated the atmosphere caused a gray, foggy half-light—and as the world eventually came back into view and details sharpened into focus, Dean finally turned away.
"We had no choice," he said huskily, his voice hoarse from lack of use. He cleared his throat and continued, "Sammy wasn't coming back, not for good—he had no chance of getting out of this thing alive." Dean looked at Castiel, his eyes wide and sad, almost pleading.
Castiel felt his face drop, and he shook his head slowly.
Dean bit his lip so hard Castiel feared he would draw blood, and then nodded. "Yeah." He hesitated for a moment before walking away from the pyre.
Castiel followed him, concern etched onto his face. "Dean—"
Dean stopped walking and spun around to face Castiel. "What are we gonna do, Cas?" he demanded, distress clear in his voice. "The whole world's gone south, and even with Lucifer dead we're still overrun by demons and the Croatoan virus. The damn apocalypse is still happening!" His voice cracked, and Castiel recognized that, past all Dean's external anger, he was actually empty inside, hopeless. "I've survived a lot of things, seen a lot of crap, but Cas, I don't know how to fix this." His green eyes bore into Castiel's. "I'm not sure I can."
Castiel wanted to tell Dean that everything would be okay. He wanted to say that the world wasn't completely gone, that they could find a way to right all of the wrongs, but he couldn't. He couldn't bring himself to lie to Dean, even thought he knew it would be kinder than the truth.
"The world cannot go back to the way it was," he said, struggling for the right words. "But perhaps that is not necessary."
Dean's eyebrows turned inwards in confusion, and Castiel clarified, "Earth has seen much change over the years. From the beginning, God made it resilient, able to recover from great tragedies. He would not have wanted it to collapse on your race." A half-smile rose to his lips. "He loved you too much to allow for that to happen."
"So do you," Dean said, and suddenly Castiel felt the weight of the conversation fall on him. "I'd like to think that, out of all the angels, only Lucifer disliked humans, but really he was the only angel to act on that hate. Uriel and Zachariah and Raphael weren't exactly a part of the human fan club." Dean may have been trying to keep his mind off of the distressing state of the planet, but Castiel found himself wishing that Dean would talk about anything else. "You gave up so much for us—was that all because of God?"
Castiel remained silent for a moment before he realized Dean actually wanted an answer. He swallowed nervously, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down. "I do believe that God would have wanted us to ally with the humans," he said, trying to dodge the real question, but Dean wasn't an idiot. He fixed Castiel with a bitchface that could only have been derived from years of living with Sam.
Castiel sighed, feeling his excuses melt away under the heat of Dean's intense green eyes as they always did. "I've told you before, Dean," he said, giving the safest answer he could. "I did it—all of it—for you."
"Right, because of our 'profound bond'," Dean said, and Castiel couldn't help the twinge in his chest at Dean's swift dismissal of the thing he thought about constantly when it was late, the humans were asleep, and he had time to let his mind wander.
Dean must have seen some small change on Castiel's face, because his voice softened when he said, "Come on, Cas. I know you're not some middle-aged guy whose most exciting moment in life is Sunday night football. You're a billion-year-old angel whose true form is a big-ass blinding light and whose real voice shatters glass. Grabbing my arm and lifting me out of Hell probably wasn't the most interesting thing you've ever done."
If Castiel was human, like he had been at various points during his association with the Winchester brothers, he may have had inhibitions about what he said next. Instead, he spoke from his heart and the emotions he had found there after so, so long of being devoid of feeling. "You are correct, Dean. I have lived for many, many years, and this body," he gestured to himself, "is just a vessel. But you are also incorrect." He stepped forward and laid a hand on Dean's left arm, exactly in the spot where the angry red handprint had once been. Dean looked down at Castiel's fingers, gripping his firm muscles with a hold that was both soft and steadfast, and then back into his bright blue eyes.
"When I fought my way into Hell, past all the demons, and pulled you out, I thought I was just following orders. Someone higher above me had commanded it, so I had obeyed." Castiel shook his head. "But the more time I spent on Earth, in this body, here with you, I realized that there is more than following orders, especially when those orders are wrong. Watching you and Sam fight your destinies showed me that free will is something to fight for, and it made me question everything that I have ever done in the name of God or by the command of someone else. I came to regret many things, Dean, but there is one thing I could go back to again and again and always do the same—the day I gripped you tight and raised you from perdition. Then, it was an order; now, it is a choice." Castiel was still holding Dean's arm, but Dean had moved his other hand to grip Castiel's free arm in the same place Castiel gripped Dean's. Castiel didn't know if Dean was even aware that he had done it, as he seemed to be focused on Castiel's face with an intense concentration.
"So you're saying you got that stick out of your ass and decided to join the side of the humans because of Sammy and me?" Dean said, and Castiel was surprised that Dean was asking. Hadn't he already known all of that? Or maybe Castiel had never gotten the time to put it all into words before.
"Mostly you," Castiel said without thinking, still puzzled over the fact that, in all his years of knowing the man in front of him, he'd never once told Dean what he meant to him and how he'd changed him. When Castiel realized what he'd said, however, his eyes got very wide, and he let go of Dean's arm as if it had burned him. "I am sorry, Dean," he apologized, the words tripping their way out of his mouth faster than his brain could comprehend them. "I did not mean to be so forward—"
"Cas—" Dean tried to say, his hand still on the angel's arm, but Castiel barely heard him over the rapid beating of his own heart. They had a good thing, him and Dean—after so many bumps in the road, all the problems they'd faced and overcome, they trusted one another. Castiel had a faith in Dean he'd never had in anybody, and Dean knew he could trust Castiel. Castiel didn't want to ruin what they'd spent years building up by telling Dean, who was clearly strictly into women, how he felt about him—how he'd never known he could feel about anyone.
"Perhaps it is time we left," Castiel continued, knowing his voice probably sounded strained. His panic was blatantly obvious, and Castiel wished that he knew how to deal with emotions better. He'd never imagined that something so simple as an arousal of neurotransmitters could overwhelm his whole being.
Castiel prepared to take flight, the embarrassment too much, but Dean's voice rose above the blood rushing in his ears and said his name—his full name—with a force so commanding it rooted Castiel to the spot.
"Jesus, Cas, calm down," Dean said, his grip on the angel's arm tighter than it had been before. "I get it."
Castiel turned his head slightly and met Dean's green-eyed gaze. Dean continued, "You and me, we're all we've got left. I only cared about two more people in the whole damn world, and now Sam…"
He choked up, and Castiel saw the strongest man he'd ever known on the verge of breaking. "My pain-in-the-ass little brother is…"
He couldn't say it. Saying it aloud would make it real. "I promised," Dean managed, his voice raw and bare. "I always told him, when we were younger and Dad would be MIA for days and leave us in shitty hotels, 'Don't worry, Sammy. I'll always be here for you.' I swore that I'd protect him, and time after time I failed. No matter how much I tried, I always failed. And then, by some miracle or fate, he'd come back. We'd fight and he would forgive me. That's how it was, over and over again."
Castiel knew he should tell Dean that this time was different. Sam wasn't locked away in Hell or Heaven where he could be found and retrieved, and no demon would make a deal with either of them. This time, it really was the end. But as he stood in front of Dean, watching him fall apart, he saw in the set of Dean's mouth and the pain in his eyes that he didn't need to say that. Dean knew that it was over—maybe that was why, before Castiel knew what was happening, Dean's arms wrapped around Castiel's back and his chin hooked over Castiel's left shoulder. His breaths, echoing in Castiel's ear, rattled, and Castiel froze, not quite knowing what to do.
"I need you, Cas," he said, his hands gripping at Castiel's tan trench coat so tightly Castiel thought it would tear like flimsy paper beneath his fingers. Castiel could feel him vibrating against him, and after a moment's hesitation he wrapped his own arms around the small of Dean's back. He feared that if he didn't, the hunter would break and he'd never be able to put him back together again. "You have to promise me you won't disappear again."
"I will not leave you, Dean," Castiel promised, knowing the words were true and would always be true. The time he'd spent away from Dean in the past year had been so, so hard, and wouldn't have kept his distance if he'd thought his presence would have helped Dean in any way. He'd watched from afar as Dean had hunted Lucifer, feeling the space between them like a hot knife in his stomach, but he knew after the way they had parted for the last time that approaching Dean would be more harmful than helpful.
Castiel remembered with sharp clarity the day he and Dean had split apart and gone their separate ways. It had only been a week since Sam had said yes to Lucifer and the apocalypse had started to descend upon the earth. Dean and Castiel had been in Phoenix, Arizona tracking Lucifer's trail after he had vanished from Denver seemingly without a trace. Castiel had tuned into the angle radio, listening through the buzz of many different voices for any information he could find about his fallen brother, and what he'd heard among the mix had pulled him from Dean's side—though at the time he never would have imagined just how long he would have to stay away.
"The trail ends here, Cas," Dean said, pulling up with the Impala in front of an abandoned Shop-and-Stock. Phoenix had been one of the first places to go, and Dean and Castiel had sped there as fast as they could when they'd spotted strong demon signs in the very center of the dry, hot metropolis. However, Castiel could only find out that the last demon sighting had been at this grocery store, and as he and Dean stared at the broken-in windows and unlit lights it felt to them like the trail had gone freezing cold.
Castiel closed his eyes and concentrated, looking for some new information, anything. He sent out a message that reverberated through the network in seconds, but he only received silence and a few negative answers.
Castiel prepared to tell Dean that there was nothing he could do, hating the prospect of seeing the defeated look that would most certainly come across the other man's face, when he heard among the many voices overlapping one another a name that spread like wildfire through the network until it was impossible to ignore.
"Gadreel," Castiel said aloud, opening his eyes just in time to see an astonished look on Dean's face turn to one of fury. The only person Dean hated as much as Lucifer was the angel who had lied to him, taken over his brother, and killed Kevin Tran. Castiel knew that that last fact alone put Gadreel at the top of Dean's hit list—he'd loved Kevin like a brother, and Castiel had seen the change in the man after his sudden, violent death. He'd become hard and calloused on the outside, but inside Castiel knew he was really in a lot of pain and denial. Together with Sam, they'd vowed to hunt down Gadreel—and Metatron too, because they were most likely traveling together—and while Dean may have forgotten about the other angel for a bit in lieu of Lucifer, that pain and hatred had risen back to the surface at the mere mention of his name.
"Gadreel?" Dean repeated sharply, his hands clenched tightly at his sides. "He's here?"
Castiel concentrated on the radio for a moment, picking out a location among the babble. "No. He is with Metatron in Boston. An angel stationed there saw them entering an apartment building."
"We have to go." Dean's words were short, clipped, and slightly forced. Castiel could see the battle raging inside of him: stay on Lucifer's trail or go after Gadreel. Information on Lucifer at the moment was more than scarce, but they had an exact location on Gadreel. Castiel knew why Dean had made the split-second decision to abandon the hunt for the devil and go after the angels that, in his mind, were just as horrible, but he wasn't sure it was the right one.
"Dean," Castiel began, prepared to explain why finding Lucifer was more important at the moment than hunting Gadreel, but Dean cut him off.
"We can't let him and that mega-douche Metatron get away." Dean sat back in the Impala's drivers' seat and stared up at the Shop-and-Stock. Its lights flickered once, as if agreeing with his words, before sputtering out again. "Lucifer's off the map again, so there's no point stumbling around looking for him. We know where Gadreel and Metatron are."
"I know, Dean," Castiel said patiently, "but the fate of the entire human race is at stake here. Lucifer will start the apocalypse and burn down everything God created, on Earth and Heaven alike." He hoped that Dean's desire to do things for the good of the humans would outweigh his own personal vendetta.
Dean was struggling, Castiel knew—he could see the man's jaw working, trying to decide if he should follow his moral beliefs or demand justice. Castiel fixed Dean with intense, clear blue eyes and said, "While I myself would like to go after Metatron and Gadreel, believe me, finding Lucifer is more important."
Dean's eyes snapped to Castiel's, candy-apple green meeting watery blue. "You go," he said, the words spilling out of his mouth so quickly Castiel didn't know if he was thinking about what he was saying, what he was asking Castiel to do. "I'll keep tracking Lucifer and you can go after those sons of bitches. Then, once you've ganked them, you can zap back here."
Castiel wanted to make Dean happy, but he was also afraid of what might happen if he left Dean by himself. He might be hurt, killed… Castiel trusted the man to take care of himself, but he would be lying if he said he didn't feel like he had to protect Dean anyway. "It is too dangerous," Castiel insisted. "Lucifer is deceitful. He may be hiding, waiting for you to turn your back before he strikes. It is better for us to stay together."
"Maybe," Dean conceded, and for a moment Castiel thought he'd gotten through to the hunter. But Dean's eyes were still insistent, his face still fixed in an intense expression. "But you sure as hell can take care of yourself, and I'm a hunter. This is what I do, what I've done for my whole life."
"Never alone." He spoke the words softer than he would have prior to his time as a human. Before, it would have been just a simple fact, stated as such; now, he knew emotions and their immense fragility. Mere words could break someone.
Dean stayed silent for a few seconds, and Castiel began to worry that he'd said the wrong thing, or maybe used the wrong tone to convey his concern to the other man. "Just go, Cas," Dean said, his voice cracking like Castiel knew it did when he was on the verge of fracturing. "Please."
Castiel couldn't say no, not with Dean's large green eyes staring into his like they were. In fact, he couldn't say anything at all, consumed with the fear that if he opened his mouth, all the reasons that he didn't want to leave Dean's side would spill out into the open, and Dean clearly didn't share his feelings or he wouldn't have fixed Castiel with that green-glass-bottle stare and begged him to leave him. So, with a short pause and then the minutest of nods, a quick flutter of his wings took Castiel to Boston. He'd found Gadreel and Metatron, killed them both swiftly, but he'd stayed away from Dean. Maybe it was because he didn't think that Dean wanted him there; maybe he didn't want to distract Dean when he was so focused on Lucifer; or maybe he was still afraid.
And then he'd let himself get distracted for one moment, let his attention get drawn away from Dean for one moment, and the man had almost gotten himself killed. Castiel couldn't just watch that happen.
Now, although Castiel still walked in fear of his feelings and the fact that they were becoming harder and harder to suppress, he couldn't leave again—not with Dean clinging to him desperately, those same green eyes now begging him to stay. And maybe, though he told himself not to hope, maybe the reason that Dean couldn't let go of Castiel was because he loved him as much as Castiel loved Dean.
But then the thought fragmented into a million little glass shards, piercing through Castiel's new-feeling heart, when Dean pulled away from Castiel and said, "We're family, Cas."
Castiel felt his whole body shrink, the hope that had sprung up at the other man's hug withering and dying. So this was the flipside of emotions, then; where there was happiness, love, relief, there also lived fear, pain, anger, and longing so intense it had the power to bring a person down with a single word—or three. "Right," Castiel said, his voice flat and emotionless to hide the pain blossoming in his chest and spreading throughout every fiber of his being. "Family."
He wanted to melt away into the ground, his anguish mingling with vivid embarrassment. How could he have ever thought that Dean loved him as anything more than a brother, someone to protect and be protected by? He was just a replacement for Sam, filling the spot in Dean's heart reserved for brotherly affection. "I think we should leave," Castiel said, suddenly wishing they were anywhere but there, anytime but then. They had so much to do—a whole world to fix—and the two of them could easily get lost in the work. They could forget about everything and just work, unfeeling, numbly. It didn't matter. Castiel didn't want to feel anymore if he couldn't love Dean.
"What's going on with you, Cas?" Dean demanded, his voice another jab in Castiel's raw heart. "One moment you're saying you won't leave and the next you've got one foot out the door." His voice dropped, softening. "Is it something I did?" he asked, green eyes suddenly searching Castiel's for some sort of hidden answer. "If you want to leave and I'm keeping you here—"
"No, Dean," Castiel tried to say, shaking his head in stunned disbelief, but Dean plowed on.
"—if you're mad at me for making you go after Metadouche and Gadreel back in Phoenix—"
He refused to listen. "—if you don't want to be family—"
"Dean Winchester!" Castiel shouted, louder than he ever had in the whole of his existence. The force of the words made the ground resonate with a thousand shaking tremors, and Dean choked mid-sentence, mouth still poised in preparation of words to come. "Fine," he continued, words spilling out of his mouth in a wild torrent, "you are correct. I do not wish to be 'family' with you. Sam was and still is your brother—I cannot and will not fill that space."
"Oh." Dean spoke quieter than Castiel had ever heard him. His bright eyes brimmed full with an emotion that Castiel had seen in the man many times before—one he'd never dreamed of instigating himself: pain. "All right, then." He cleared his throat, glanced over his shoulder at the burnt pyre, and when he looked back at Castiel the suffering was tucked away again, masked underneath a hard exterior. "Then you don't have to stay."
Too late, Castiel realized his mistake. "That is not what I meant, Dean—" he began, but the other man spoke over his protest.
"Then what did you mean, Cas?" he demanded, anger rising to hide his hurt. "'Cause from what I heard, it sure as hell sounded like you can't stand to be around me. If that's the case, fine, leave."
Castiel winced at Dean's biting words, hated the spikes of agony that shot through his whole body with every utterance. He wanted to turn it all off again—become the unfeeling, order-following servant of God he'd been before Dean Winchester. "Okay," Castiel said simply. He repeated the word as he took a step back from the man he loved with all his heart, the man he was preparing to leave forever. "Okay, Dean." The name scalded its way through his mouth like acid, burning his tongue, but he had to say it one last time.
He turned, taking a step towards the lonely, hellish life without Dean, when Dean's voice rang out through the gloomy morning air.
"But I just want you to know that we've gone through a lot of crap together, Cas. I was bad, or you were bad, but no matter what happened we always bounced back. Every time I got you back because it killed me watching you hate me or lie to me or leave me. I couldn't stand it because…"
Dean's words jerked to a sudden, strangled halt, like they were forcing themselves up his throat in too big of chunks and sticking in his airways. Seldom had Castiel experienced Dean in a state of speechlessness, and for a moment he found himself struck with a petrifying, seizing terror that the hunter was choking to death.
"…because I care about you, Cas," Dean managed, and just like that Castiel's fear dropped and left him slightly stunned. "Sam was my brother and I loved him like a brother, but I care about you."
Castiel's heart sped up, like it had moments before in terror, but this rapid beating felt much, much different—anticipation mixed with something stronger and almost toxic.
"Maybe you're right," Dean said, his words strong and loud, as if he needed to forcibly ingrain them into Castiel. "Maybe you can't replace Sam, maybe you can't be family, but you don't need to fill that space because there's always been a place for you. If you don't want to take it that's your choice, but just know that I will watch you walk away and that spot will always be empty because it has always been yours and it will always be yours."
Now Castiel found himself speechless, his mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water. "I…" he stammered, not quite sure how to process what he was hearing. "Dean…"
"If you're leaving I don't want to hear about it," Dean said, his eyes filled with a raging green fire, "because every word cuts like a knife in my heart. If you're leaving, just walk away right now because the more you stand here, the less likely I am to let you go. Maybe it's selfish, but if it were up to me I would never let you go because for some reason the thought of you somewhere else, dead or living without me, hurts me more than I ever thought possible. However, there's one thing I can't do, and that's keep you by my side if you don't want to be here."
Castiel wanted to say a million different things. He wanted to cry and yell and plead and reassure and crumple to the ground all at the same time, and the emotions overwhelmed him, crashing over his body in one wave after another. They paralyzed him so he could only stare at Dean with eyes wide, hands clutching desperately at his trench coat with knuckles white from lack of blood.
"So go," Dean said, his words low and soft. He sounded so defeated, so lost and empty and desolate, and Castiel wanted nothing more than to rid Dean of his throbbing pain. "Walk away. I can't be selfish with you so I won't try to be, even though everything in me screams not to let you go."
Castiel swallowed, the movement of his throat tight and painful. "Do you… hate me?" he asked, needing to know but at the same time dreading Dean's response.
"Dammit, Cas, did you even listen to a thing I just said?" Dean said, his voice rising to a shout. The loudness, resonating through the ruins of Lawrence, made Castiel shrink back, fear and an awful acceptance filling his heart full to the breaking point.
"You hate me," Castiel moaned, his whole body shaking. He couldn't take Dean's hard stare or his harsh words, but he couldn't leave them, either.
"No!" Dean roared, and if Castiel weren't so paralyzed with terror he would have recognized the snap in Dean, the frustration spilling out rather than hatred. "Goddammit, Castiel, I love you!"
Dean's words bounced back and forth between the charred buildings before fading into an absolute silence. Everything just fell away, all the fear and the pain and the noise and the world and it was just Castiel and Dean, separated by five feet that suddenly seemed like five miles. Castiel felt numb, so numb, almost emotionless if not for the words repeating over and over in his mind. LoveloveloveloveIloveyou loveyouloveyouloveyouCastielCastielCastielloveyouILOVEYOU!
Dean swallowed, and Castiel noticed with acute awareness every undulation of his Adam's apple, watched it move under Dean's skin with a sort of detached fascination. "I… I love you, Castiel," he said again, sounding slightly stunned at his own revelation.
All at once, Castiel snapped back into reality. He could smell ash and char and sweat, hear the wind gusting over the burnt and desecrated land, taste destruction on his tongue, see a ruined world in front of him, and he knew he was supposed to look at the mess and feel hopelessness or sadness or anything but the brilliance that radiated through him. He felt light, as if he was freed from his cumbersome vessel and simply being without care or worry. Through this tranquility the world seemed bright and alive, with anything possible. For a moment, he felt blissfully high, his blood pumping through his veins at a billion miles an hour and his pupils dilating. His vision narrowed until the fire-chewed world around him disappeared and he could only see Dean, Dean standing in front of him with wide candy-apple green eyes and matted tawny hair and staring at Castiel with such a look of wonderment that he was sure he was melting under it.
Then, Castiel's feet took him forward, carrying him without instruction across the gray-coated earth and towards those eyes, locked intensely with Castiel's. The gap closed: four feet, three feet, two feet, one foot…
Castiel jerked to a halt, painfully aware of the small sliver of space still separating him and Dean. Dean's breath caught in his throat, his eyes closing, opening, closing, opening. "I love you as well, Dean," he said, the words piercing through his high and bringing him slamming back to earth. "Of course I do."
Dean grinned. "No chick-flick moments," he teased, tugging Castiel closer with his entwined hand and snaking his other arm around Castiel's lower back.
"I understood that reference."
Dean's grip on Castiel tightened, and Castiel's brief pride rapidly morphed into shock lust bliss when the space between him and the emerald-eyed hunter vanished completely and Dean's rose-pink lips pressed to his.
Shock. Castiel had been kissed before, but never by another man, and certainly never by Dean Winchester. For a split second, his body stiffened, his eyes wide and panicked and his heart beating so fast he feared it would burst right out of his chest.
Lust. Shock melted away into a burning desire that overtook Castiel like nothing he'd ever experienced before. It raged stronger than any storm, more powerful than any angel, and it consumed him with white-hot flames that scorched their way through his veins and melted him from the inside out. He relaxed into Dean's firm grip, reaching his free arm up and weaving his fingers through the copper hair he'd admired ever since he'd set eyes on it. His lips gave out under the intense pressure of Dean's, falling into a natural rhythm that came so easily to the both of them. Castiel had gazed at those lips so, so many times, imagining what it would be like to connect them with his and then wondering why he even looked at all. Now, the reason made itself obvious: there was nowhere, no one, nothing without Dean and his soft lips and the taste of blood and ash and sweat.
Once Castiel molded to the kiss, they could only go up and up and up, the movement of their lips becoming faster, stronger, more heated as years of longing and yearning came together at last. Castiel knew nothing and everything about kissing, but it didn't matter because Dean took charge. He nipped at Castiel's bottom lip, licked it with the very tip of his tongue, and the contact made Castiel shudder like an electric shock reverberating through his entire being. He gasped, his lips parting, and their breaths mixed for a moment before Dean's tongue darted inside Castiel's mouth and touched the angel's tongue, his teeth, his lips.
Castiel wanted more. He had received so much—Dean offered him so much more than he ever could have hoped for—and he wanted more. His hand moved from Dean's hair to his neck to his back to his ass, and when he squeezed Dean let out a low, guttural moan that made all of Castiel's hair stand on end.
"I love you," Dean murmured in between kisses, using his stolen breaths to keep saying those three words. "I love you I love you I love you."
And then Castiel found it. Bliss. Complete and utter bliss. It seemed nothing in the world could go wrong because there was him and there was Dean and Dean loved him and he loved Dean. It calmed his nerves, calmed his mind, and then he started saying the words. "I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you." His declarations mingled with Dean's until there was less kissing and more speaking—promising.
Castiel found Dean's free hand, took it in his, and locked eyes with the man he never wanted to let go of ever again. "I love you. I want to give you everything, do everything with you, live the rest of my life with you."
Dean could only smile, a truly happy thing without the underlying sorrow that would surely return once the buzz of the moment faded and his brother's death hit him full-force again. "We'd better fix the damn world then. Because you know what?"
He ran a hand down Castiel's jaw line, and a small shudder of pleasure went through the angel at Dean's tender caress. "I'd do anything to come home and see you standing at the door waiting for me. No more shit, no more going through each day and not knowing whether or not we're going to come out alive. Just you and me."
They had so much to do. Castiel could picture in his mind the state of the planet, of Heaven, even Hell. It would certainly take more than his and Dean's lifetimes to repair the damage, but he didn't say that. Instead, he looked into Dean's eyes, clear-water blue meeting candy-apple green, and said, "I would like that very much."
In that moment, it didn't matter that the world consisted of ash and bones. It didn't matter that angels and monsters and humans alike had perished in such massive amounts. It didn't matter that so much misery had happened and so much more waited to be felt. It only mattered that he had Dean and Dean had him, and that was enough.
Because their love could restore worlds.