Title: The Bird that Feels the Light, written for the deancasbigbang
Pairings: None. Dean, Cas, mentions of Sam. Gen.
Warnings: General spoilers through Season 5. Show-levels of violence, angst, swearing. Human!Cas (do I even need to warn for that?).
Summary: AU from 5.18 (or thereabouts). Castiel awakens in the middle of a smoking crater, stranded and very much human. According to the people who have discovered him, it's six months to the day after Michael and Lucifer faced off on the field of battle outside of Detroit, and Castiel isn't the only one to have returned. When, at his insistence, they take him to this other person, he finds a child –a little boy– and realizes that, contrary to all his expectations, he has been reunited with Dean Winchester.
The world has changed in their absence, and not for the better. Sam is gone, whether dead or simply missing is uncertain. Castiel is given the name of a man in Idaho who may have answers for him. He is faced with the task of travelling cross-country with Dean, who is dependent on him now in ways he never was before, in order to discover the truth. But along the way, as he and Dean learn to know and trust each other once more, Castiel begins to realize that the answers he thought he wanted might not be the ones he needs.
"Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark."
Very Brief Author's Notes:
There will be a long, long section at the end of all this in which I thank a bunch of people and lavish well-deserved praise upon all the people who helped. Nonetheless, pride of place on this master post must go to the spectacularly talented daggomus_prime, who not only created art for my story, but created something so beautiful it quite took my breath away. Be warned, one of the pieces of art is a MASSIVE spoiler for the end of the story, but it moved me to tears, to see it illustrated. I'm not kidding. daggomus_prime put up with my enthusiastic flailing and constant PMs and IMs with grace, and deserves extra cookies for being a very good sport indeed. :)
I can't link to her art here, because fanfiction dot net won't link me, but I really recommend you check out her livejournal and look at the gorgeous art. The entry number is 17985.
I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my patient and long-suffering beta, pkwench. She brainstormed with me and helped me pull the story together. Some of the best scenes from the story are the direct result of her suggestions and prodding and poking. She fixed my grammar and syntax, pointed out typos, told me where my fic was veering off-course, and has basically helped mould this into a much better story than it started out as. She did all this and more, all the while working AND studying and producing her own fantastic fic to boot. I bow to her awesomeness.
Part 1: Visitation
Later people will tell him that it was like watching lightning, or a meteor strike. No one quite has the words to describe it, save that there was a brilliant flash of light in the sky, that seemed for a moment to set the heavens themselves on fire.
When Castiel opens his eyes, the first thing he sees is the tiny silhouette of a raven, circling high above him in the brilliant white sky. He blinks, realizes in doing so that he is still very much human, and experiences a moment of disappointment so bitter he nearly chokes. He stares up at the sky, doesn't remember ever seeing it so white, pristine and beautiful, until he understands that what he's seeing isn't clouds, but a blanket of ash that spreads as far as the eye can see, spilling over the horizon and down over the earth.
He sits up, takes stock. He's still occupying Jimmy Novak's body, although Jimmy's soul has long since departed from it. Physically he thinks he's unharmed, for the most part. He inspects his hands first, palms and then the backs, pale with a dusting of dark hair, absently pleased to note that they are unblemished. He's dressed in the same pair of jeans and the faded black t-shirt that Dean picked out for him months ago, when it was apparent that, as a human, he was going to have to adapt to living in more than one set of clothes. The jeans are torn at one knee, though he doesn't remember the events that might have led to such a circumstance. His feet are bare, and there are painful scrapes on both his arms and on his right ankle.
Castiel rises to his feet in one fluid motion, feels the muscles of his legs burn, as though the movement is one to which he is unaccustomed. He's standing at the epicentre of a still-smouldering crater, about a hundred feet across. The ground is surprisingly warm under his bare feet, the blackened remains of asphalt cracked and broken, glinting in the light where the intense heat has turned it to glass. The air is acrid and bitter on his tongue, the scent of ozone still sharp in his nostrils. He tilts his head from side to side, trying to ease the stiffness in his neck and shoulders, feels the cartilage crack satisfyingly, rubs the back of his neck.
Before him, the city of Detroit squats, stolid and immovable, a formless grey hulk. He finds its continued presence oddly reassuring, after everything. In the end, he remembers nothing save a light so brilliant and beautiful and bright even he couldn't see past it, the sound of shrieking and voices raised in terror and bewilderment and sometimes in prayer filling every crevice of his being. He believed the city to have been destroyed, along with everything else. He doesn't recall the end, save that the clash of the archangels was more than even he could withstand, even with what was left of his grace shielding him from the worst of it. He imagines it must have been a thousand times worse for any humans with the misfortune to be nearby when Michael and Lucifer faced off on the field of battle.
He recognizes the destroyed highway he is on as being one of the main thoroughfares leading to the city, although there are no cars around. There is nothing to see for miles except the blasted remains of the highway, the scorched earth where there used to be grass. The few houses around have been reduced to piles of rubble. Apart from the solitary raven overhead, there is no sign of life.
There is no logic in staying where he is. He has no way of knowing how much time has gone by, nor does he have any idea what happened to Dean and Sam after that last, terrible moment. He's stiff and sore, but otherwise his limbs are fully functional, and so he sets out to walk toward Detroit, padding silently along, on the broken ground, mindful not to cut his feet on the rough surface.
After a few minutes he catches sight of movement in the distance, coming from the smoky silhouette of the city. As he approaches, he sees that it's a small group of people, four or five at most, making their way toward him. There's a woman in the lead, dressed in a long brown skirt and a green down sleeveless jacket. The sleeves of a grey cotton hoodie hang down over her hands, and somehow he's not surprised to see the sturdy army boots on her feet, nor the shotgun slung over her shoulder. She appears to be in her mid to late thirties, white, long brown hair with streaks of grey braided neatly down her back. She's flanked by two men and another, younger woman. She steps forward to meet him, grey eyes fearless but wary, and he comes to a stop, waits for her to come to him.
"I know who you are," she says.
He tilts his head, considering. She reminds him a little of Dean with her forthrightness. "Then you have the advantage of me."
That earns him a laugh, head thrown back in genuine mirth. "Fair enough. I should say I know what you are. You were there when it happened. I was far away, but I saw you. I'd know you anywhere. You're one of them."
"If you mean angels, then you are only partly correct. I was an angel, once."
"Like the others?"
He shakes his head. "Not like the ones you saw. Far lesser. Even less so, now."
She reaches out with one hand, and places it on his forearm. "You tried to stop it."
"I did, and I failed. I am sorry."
She shakes her head. "You have nothing to be sorry for. You're the only one who tried. If nothing else, we're grateful for that."
"I am not the only one. You simply could not see the others who made sacrifices."
"I don't even know your name."
He pulls his arm free from her grasp, then reaches out to shake her hand. "I am Castiel. You may call me Cas, if you wish."
She seems amused. "Okay, Cas. It's nice to meet you. I'm Katie." She turns and motions to the others. "This is my little sister, Libby," she smiles at the younger woman. "And these disreputable-looking thugs are Bill and Jethro."
"It's a pleasure," he remembers the niceties, most of them memories from Jimmy Novak's former life, a few of them learned from the Winchesters. He treats the latter with a certain degree of wariness, conscious that Dean's grasp of social proprieties was sometimes more limited than he was led to believe.
"Katie," one of the men, Bill, speaks up. "We gonna go check out that other lightning strike or what?"
Katie looks at him. "Do you know where the other angel is?"
"What other angel?"
"There were two flashes of light. It's why we came out here, to see what was happening," she says, with a grim smile. "We're all a little on edge these days, but you of all people should appreciate that. One minute we were trying to get through the day, and the next the sky was lighting up like it was the Perseids. It's about the right time of year for it, but as you can see, we don't exactly do much stargazing these days."
"Flashes?" he prompts her, and she nods.
"Two of them, close enough together that I can't say for sure that I didn't imagine it. Since you ―landed in one, for lack of a better word, I just assumed you would know where the other one was. If you're an angel, doesn't it stand to reason that the other one would be an angel too?"
He shakes his head quickly. "I'm not an angel anymore. I'm human, same as you."
"Oh." He can't tell if she's disappointed. "In that case, we had better get you some proper boots."
At Castiel's insistence, though, they forgo the footwear in favour of heading toward the site of the second flash. If there is another like him, then he wants to know who it is sooner rather than later. If it's something else... living with the Winchesters has brought home to him the lesson that knowledge is power. The reports of the second flash are vague, but they eventually determine that whatever, or whoever it was landed within the city limits. Word reaches them quickly of a destroyed building, and Katie increases the pace, giving instructions as they walk to people who run up to them.
"You are the leader here, then?" he asks.
"Sort of. I'm not sure how it happened, really. I used to be an administrative assistant, if you can credit it. I was just there when it all happened. People are calling it the Visitation."
"What happened? All I remember is light and sound and fury," he says.
"That about sums it up," Katie nods. "A lot of people died," she says softly, and there is a world of sadness in her voice that he doesn't even know how to begin to comfort. That has never been his role in this world.
"They sky turned white. It's like ash, but not really. As far as we know, it's all over the world, but it's hard to tell. Communications are iffy at best these days." She shrugs. "Nothing has really worked right anymore since then. Someone said it was the onset of nuclear winter, but it's only been a little bit colder than before. No one really knows."
"How long has it been?" he interrupts before she can explain further, and earns himself a curious look.
"You truly don't know?" When he shakes his head, she looks away, won't meet his eyes. "It's been six months. To the day."
"It's November." It feels like a revelation. "What did you mean when you said nothing worked right?"
"Someone said it was like an electromagnetic pulse: it knocked out all the sophisticated equipment we built for ourselves, made everything except the most basic analog technology completely useless. There aren't many people left to rebuild, either. So we've had to improvise, pull together in smaller communities than before. Detroit is mostly empty these days, so few of us survived. I don't know, to be frank. It's not like any of this is explainable by science. We'd better go," Katie turns aside so abruptly that it's obvious the subject is closed for now. "It's this way, come on."
She ducks down a side street lined with abandoned town houses, leaving him to hurry after her, along with Libby, Bill and Jethro. The streets here are filled with debris, and he begins to regret his earlier decision to forego finding boots. As an angel, healing his vessel used to be a mere question of thought, a hint of will, but he remembers clearly waking up in a hospital and being unable to so much as raise his own head. If he injures himself now, there will be consequences to face. When he was an angel, Jimmy Novak was an afterthought, his needs, his emotions, his ties to this world. Briefly Castiel wonders if Claire and Amelia survived the Visitation, doesn't know which outcome he's hoping for. It's impossible to ignore his human limitations now.
Once they're near the site, it's impossible to miss. Windows and doors have been boarded up, and already the houses are showing the signs of months of neglect. At the far end of the street, one house lies in smouldering ruins, half of it torn away by the impact. A small crowd of onlookers has gathered nearby, clustered together in small groups, hugging their arms to their chests as they talk anxiously among themselves.
"Has anyone gone in yet?" Katie calls out, but receives only headshakes as a reply. "All right, then. Fan out, see if there's anyone trapped in there. Be careful, I don't want anyone else to get hurt."
Cas pauses for a moment outside the house, his chest constricting with an emotion he can't quite identify. He doesn't have to be an angel to recognize that everything is about to change again. "Thy will be done," he whispers, and steps forward to meet his fate.
They pick their way across the rubble, the rough edges digging into the soles of Cas' feet ―just enough to hurt, but not enough to pierce the skin. He has to scrabble over some of it using both hands and feet, like a cat or a monkey. Those who came armed have slung their rifles and shotguns over their shoulders in order to free their hands. They sort through what's left of the structure, wooden beams jutting out like broken ribs against the ash-white sky, the ground a mess of broken plaster and drywall and splintered furniture. Castiel carefully avoids the remains of a shattered mirror, finds himself staring down at the eviscerated form of a plush rabbit. There must have been children here, once. He deliberately turns his gaze aside when he catches sight of a crib lying broken and crushed beneath a section of drywall.
They are none of them entirely sure what they're searching for, but they keep going doggedly, sifting through the rubble, until a cry goes up:
"I've found something!"
It's Libby, standing bent over at the far end of the house. He scrambles over to her, fuelled by a sense of urgency he can't quite explain, puts a hand on her shoulder.
"Down there. I'm pretty sure I heard something. Someone," she amends. "But they won't answer when I call." She turns wide, frightened eyes on him. "I don't want to go in there."
"It's all right. I think I should go."
The house had a cellar, once. It's all but collapsed in on itself now, nothing but a hole in the floor leading to a narrow, damp tunnel. Castiel kneels, listening, hears nothing for a moment. Then, almost too faint to hear, a tiny scuffling sound, and an all-too-human sniffle. He eases himself down, wincing and hissing in pain as his luck finally runs out and he feels something sharp slice into the side of his foot, just below the ankle. He ignores the flare of pain once he determines that the injury is superficial. The cellar has mostly collapsed in on itself except for where he's standing, and he drops to his hands and knees, forced to crawl in order to move forward in the rest of the cramped space. He wishes he had a light of some kind, but his eyes adjust to the dim light as he stares. When he was still an angel, he would have known exactly what was there. Now, though, he has to make do with perception made dull by the intermediary of human senses. He makes out a small shape in the shadows, huddled up against the far wall, bare arms and legs pale in the dark. A child. He thinks of the crib upstairs, makes his voice gentle when the small form flinches away at his approach.
"Don't be afraid. I am here to help you. Are you hurt?"
There's no answer, but he hears another soft sniffle, a hiccup of barely-contained tears. The child's head is buried in his arms ―Castiel is reasonably sure it's a boy. He creeps forward again, keeping his gestures slow, remembering how Sam Winchester used to deal with frightened children.
"I am going to put my hand out," he says softly. "I would very much like it if you were to take it and come out with me. It's not safe for you in here."
There's still no answer, and if he had more room to move he would be tempted to simply scoop the child in his arms and carry him out. As it is, though, he is going to have to coax him out, convince him to follow.
"My name is Cas." He remembers Sam introducing himself to the tiniest of children very seriously, as though they were the most important people in the world. They never failed to respond, tucking tiny hands into his much larger ones and looking up at him with nothing but trust. Castiel thinks he may not be able to hold himself up to those standards, but he has to try. "What's your name? Will you tell me?"
The child jerks, raising his head and squinting at him from under an unruly mop of messy, sandy-brown hair. Castiel's breath catches in his throat as hazel eyes lock with his, and a soul he'd recognize anywhere stares back at him.
Castiel kneels, sitting back on his heels, head brushing against the low ceiling of the wrecked cellar. He doesn't understand how any of this is possible, but he is certain that the small boy huddled against the wall is Dean Winchester. If there was any doubt in his mind up until now, the child uncurls and crawls toward him without hesitation, allowing Castiel to fold him into his arms. He clings to Castiel's t-shirt with grimy hands, face buried in his collarbone. Castiel brings up one hand to rest briefly on the tangled mop of hair.
"It's all right," he murmurs. "But I can't carry you out, Dean, there isn't room. Will you come with me?" He feels Dean's breath hitch, then a quick nod. "Good. Come on. We should go in case this tunnel collapses. It is structurally unsound."
It's a little more difficult to get out than it was to get in, if only because Dean slips a sticky little hand in his, wrapping his fingers around Castiel's index finger and refusing to let go until they're directly under the hole through which Castiel first lowered himself. Castiel stands slowly, careful not to hit his head.
Her face appears in the hole in the ceiling just above his head. "Are you all right?"
"Fine. I'm going to hand him up to you now."
He's already leaning over, grasps Dean under the armpits. "I'll be right behind you, all right?"
He doesn't wait for Dean's answer, simply hoists him above his head and into the waiting hands above him. It's more difficult to pull himself up than he anticipated, with nowhere to find purchase. Several sets of hands grab his arms, and someone grabs him by the belt in order to drag him the rest of the way. He lands in an ungraceful heap, scraped and bruised and not a little winded. He sits up, dazed, and a moment later he finds himself with an armful of small child. He looks up to find himself confronted with faces whose expressions range from curious to outright suspicious. Katie is the first to speak.
"So who's this?" she keeps her tone mild, but he can see the concern in her eyes. He understands it, to a degree: it's her responsibility to keep all these people safe, whether she asked for that responsibility or not.
He clambers awkwardly to his feet, hampered by Dean's clinging to him as though he's the one piece of driftwood in rough seas. "This is Dean Winchester."
Her face doesn't register any recognition. "Okay. But we never found any kids in this area of town when we searched."
Castiel shifts Dean in his arms until the boy's weight is resting on his hip. "He's not from here. I knew him... before."
Something he can't identify flickers in her eyes. "When you were an angel?"
He nods. "He was my charge, before what you call the Visitation."
"So... you're his guardian angel?"
He barks a laugh, surprised in spite of himself. "I suppose that's close enough."
"What's he doing here?"
"I have no idea. I don't even know what I'm doing here. I've spent six months precisely nowhere. I haven't the faintest clue what's going on. Sorry."
She believes him. He can tell they don't all share her faith, but she's their leader, they'll follow if she says so. There's a beat, and she blows out her breath in a frustrated sigh. "All right. Is he hurt?"
Castiel looks Dean over as best he can. "No, I don't think so. Dean? Does it hurt anywhere?"
Dean keeps his face hidden against his collarbone, shakes his head.
"Not all that talkative, is he?" Amusement tinges Katie's tone. She steps forward, puts a hand very gently on Dean's arm, her fingers barely brushing against his skin. "Hey, little guy. You think you and your friend here are ready to come back with us? Looks like you could both use a change of clothes and some decent shoes."
It's then that Castiel realizes that Dean is barefoot, just as he is, dressed in only a faded blue t-shirt and shorts. He's covered in streaks of dirt from head to toe, his hair tangled and dirty. He gives Katie a sheepish look.
"I hadn't thought that far ahead."
"I can tell," she says drily. "All right," she addresses the whole group. "Questions can wait. Let's get back, grab something to eat, try to sort this mess out."
It's a testament to her leadership, Castiel thinks as he falls into step behind her, that no one even thinks of questioning her decision.
There isn't much by way of luxuries in this new world, but Castiel never paid much attention to such things anyway, nor did Sam or Dean ever much indulge in them. Still, even running water appears to be difficult to come by, and there is little electricity to spare for anything other than heating food and the bare minimum of lighting.
"We do have the capacity for more," Katie tells him as she shows him through the shelter to which she's taken them, "but it's easy to overload the small grid we have. So we ration everything, keep people on a pretty tight leash for some things. Everything else, people have as much leeway as possible. It works, for the most part. Come on, the infirmary's this way. I want you both to get checked over, just in case. I'll see about finding you some clothes in the meantime."
Castiel finds himself in the competent, if slightly bossy hands of a skinny girl who looks as though she's barely out of her teens, her wiry hair cropped short in an effort to keep it out of her face. She seats him on a cot neatly made up with a serviceable grey blanket and a worn white sheet, Dean tucked under his arm.
"Okay, stay put," she says sternly. "It's not a bad cut, but the last thing you need is for it to get infected. Do you remember when your last tetanus booster was?" She rolls her eyes at the blank look on his face. "I'll take that as a no, then. You're in luck: we still have a fair amount. Can't say the same for all our supplies. I'm Joline. What's your name?"
"You can call me Cas."
"All right, Cas. And who's the barnacle?" she smiles, genuine and sweet, and pokes Dean playfully just under his arm. "You got a name, sweetie?"
Dean squirms, and to Castiel's surprise smiles back shyly before hiding his face in Castiel's armpit. Joline's smile widens.
"Oh, we're shy, are we? I've got something for that. You hold on." She gets up, goes to rummage in a drawer, and when she comes back she has whatever it is concealed behind her back. She crouches in front of Dean, and whispers conspiratorially. "This is extra special, so it's going to have to be our secret, okay? Okay, here you go," she says when Dean nods, and produces a red lollipop. "You hang onto that while I take care of Cas, here."
Small fingers wrap themselves around the candy, and Dean watches, wide-eyed and solemn, as she settles on a stool in front of them, a small tray with supplies on the bed next to them. "All right. Let's take care of that foot first."
The rest of the day goes by in a blur. Castiel finds himself being led from one room to another, from one person to another until the faces all blend together. The quick shower he's afforded feels like bliss, and since Dean refuses to be separated from him even for the shortest amount of time, wrapping both arms around his leg and hanging on for dear life even at the mention of separation, he simply opts to take the boy with him. He applies soap to a washcloth and wipes the dirt from him, kneeling carefully in order to wash his hair. When they're both sufficiently clean he wraps Dean in one of the rough towels they've been given, tousles his hair dry, and surveys him critically.
"I think you'll do," he says, and is rewarded with another shy smile, to his relief.
He feels entirely out of his depth, dredging up mostly-forgotten memories of Jimmy's on how to handle small children, a few from his own experience watching Sam and Dean deal with the few children they'd come across. He's never had to deal with one all on his own before, even if it's Dean, whom he knows down to the core of his soul.
"Dean, aren't you going to say anything?"
For the first time Dean breaks eye contact of his own accord, stares at the floor. He worries at his lip with his teeth, glances up at Castiel anxiously through his lashes, then looks back down at the floor. Castiel can see his breathing speed up, ribs rising and falling just under the pale skin, and when he sees tears pooling in the boy's eyes, he realizes he's made yet another huge mistake. He rubs Dean's arm just below the shoulder reassuringly.
"It's okay," he says, even if he doesn't believe anything is okay anymore. "You don't have to talk. I'm not angry with you."
That gets him a hopeful look, along with a faint, wobbly smile.
"I promise," he answers the unspoken question. "Now, why don't we see about clothes, and then we'll go in search of food. Is that okay?"
A nod. Dean slips a hand back into his, and Castiel feels his heart skip a few beats, can't help but feel unworthy of the unquestioning trust that has just been placed in his all-too-fallible hands.
Dean nearly falls asleep in the bowl of chicken noodle soup that's provided for dinner along with a dish of cooked cabbage that Castiel has never heard of before called sauerkraut. Culinary terms have never been his area of expertise or even interest, and up until recently he never bothered to learn much about food beyond the basics of human nutrition, since his vessel never required sustenance while he was occupying it. Even when he was human for that short space of time, food had simply been given to him: at the hospital, or by Sam and Dean and even Bobby, without any of them so much as asking for an opinion. Now, though, he realizes that he's hungry, and that he will have to learn this kind of thing for himself, or continue to go hungry. Around him the air is filled with the buzz of a dozen or more conversations.
"Poor mite," an older man looks at Dean across the long table at which they're all sitting in the communal dining area. "He looks just about done in."
"It's been a long day," Castiel agrees, grabbing hold of Dean before he spills his soup in his lap, allowing him to list against him instead, eyelids drooping in spite of his valiant efforts to stay awake.
"You two got a place to sleep tonight?"
He nods, blows carefully on his spoonful of soup before putting it in his mouth. He's already burned his tongue once today, and he's not keen on repeating the experience. "Katie has been kind enough to let us stay here overnight. After that... I suppose I will have to work something out." The expression is one he learned from Dean, and it feels unfamiliar and clumsy on his tongue, but the man nods as though it's the most natural thing in the world.
"In a manner of speaking. He's... a friend."
The man arches an eyebrow, then shrugs. "Okay, then. I didn't catch your name, friend."
"It's a pleasure, Cas. I'm Daniel."
"The pleasure is mine," he says, surprised at how easily he's able to slip into the human conventions he never bothered with before. He suspects it may be because he never had to, up until now. They exist for a reason, though: humans need each other, and now that he is one of them, the sooner he adapts, the easier it will be. "I would shake your hand, but," he looks down meaningfully at the sleeping child in his lap, and Daniel laughs softly.
"No worries, my friend. We've all heard about you: word travels fast in our little community. Any idea what you're going to do next?"
He shakes his head. "I'm not certain. There is one person I should try to reach, though I don't know if he even survived what you term the Visitation. He is something of an expert in ―unusual occurrences, you might say. Do any of the telephones still function?"
Daniel purses his lips before taking a bite of his sandwich, wiping crumbs from his beard with a napkin. "Some. How far's your friend?"
"He lives in South Dakota."
"Huh. Not likely to reach him from here, in that case. You can try, of course. Ask for Helen, she's the go-to person for communications around here. What did you mean by unusual occurrences?"
Castiel hesitates, remembering Sam and Dean's insistence that 'civilians' not be told anything about the supernatural. Then again, these people have all lived through the apocalypse.
"It would take too long to explain in detail, but he knows a great deal about supernatural phenomena, and I believe he may be able to help us."
Daniel gives him an appraising look over his now-empty soup bowl. "Your friend wouldn't be a hunter, by any chance?"
Castiel blinks, but doesn't give anything else away. "You know about hunters, then?"
He gets a grin in response. "There aren't many of us left, but we've spread out as much as we can. There's a handful of us here in Detroit, since this is Ground Zero, but there's a few dozen scattered around the continental U.S. Fewer of us than there were, though."
"You didn't sit there by chance."
"Give the boy a prize. I know who you are. And if you're looking for Bobby Singer, well, I'm sorry to tell you that no one's seen or heard from him in over six months. Most people think he followed those boys straight through the gates of hell."
Castiel chokes, swallows hard. Dean stirs against him but doesn't waken. His eyes sting, and he's surprised to find that his cheeks are wet when he brings a hand up to rub at them. He's never cried before. Daniel seems taken aback by his reaction.
"I'm sorry, I didn't realize you were close to him," he says gruffly, ill at ease. "I'd have broken it to you more gently if I'd known."
He sniffs, cuffs at his nose with his sleeve, wonders just how humans deal with this all the time, every day. "It's all right." His voice is hoarse, throat tight. "You simply caught me off-guard. He was ―a good friend."
"I'm sorry," Daniel repeats, and Castiel believes him. "There's someone else you can try," he adds, "but he's not exactly available by phone. You'll have to go in person."
Dean is limp in Castiel's arms when he carries the boy away from the noise and bustle of the communal dining room, arms and legs flopping bonelessly. He feels impossibly light, as though he might simply float away if Castiel lets go, and Castiel finds himself tightening his hold even as he tells himself the thought is irrational. Katie has told him he and Dean are welcome to some of the spare beds in the shelter until they're 'on their feet,' as she puts it, but he knows that they are an added complication in her already-burdened life. The people of Detroit are eking out their existence, gradually pulling themselves out of the chaos into which the apocalypse ―or Visitation― plunged them, and the addition of a renegade angel and a small boy guaranteed to make everyone's existence harder.
Dean doesn't wake up as he strips off his clothes and tucks him under the blankets of one of the army-issue cots, but he stirs and whimpers quietly, the first sound he's made since he was found that morning. Castiel strokes his head briefly, relieved when that appears to be enough to make him settle down. He sits on the bed next to him for a while, alone with his thoughts for the first time that day, and finds that the experience isn't exactly a pleasant one.
Castiel has never been free of doubt, not since the moment when he and his garrison tore their way into hell and he found himself reaching out to grasp the broken, beautiful soul of Dean Winchester in order to rip him from the depths of perdition. He experienced doubt, then, that he was doing the right thing, experienced it increasingly as he spent more time with Dean and later with Sam. He thought for a long time that it was akin to an infection, some shameful, dirty thing he acquired from humans, but he's no longer sure of that, either. He doesn't long for his previous certainty, but it seems to him that his existence used to be much simpler. All he has now are questions. He doesn't know where he's been, nor why he's back. His last memory is of being relieved at the thought that he was going to die. Now he's faced with the prospect of almost a full lifetime of being human, and he doesn't know quite what to make of that.
Watching Dean sleep raises a thousand other questions about what's happening. He can't think of a reason for Dean to be alive at all, let alone restored to the age of four or five, as he appears to be. As far as Castiel is concerned, the three of them ―himself, Dean and Sam― should all be long dead, consumed in the final conflagration. There has been no sign of Sam, even though Castiel and Dean were returned simultaneously. He doesn't know what it means, only that the thought of Sam and Dean being separated now doesn't bode well. If Sam somehow survived and is still out there, then Castiel owes it to him to try to find him, to reunite him with his brother. After that... he's not sure he can think that far ahead.
Right now it's all he can do to think all the way until tomorrow. Daniel has given him a name ―Nicholas― and the imprecise location of a bar near Meridian, Idaho. He has two choices now: stay here, where it's ostensibly safe but there are no answers, or take a small child out into a world which is even more dangerous, in the hopes of finding ―what? He's not even sure. Answers, perhaps, or meaning. Or maybe simply somewhere else to be. There has never been a moment in the past two years in which Castiel hasn't been searching for something or someone. His eyes burn again, his vision blurring and he scrubs at them impatiently with the back of one hand. Under his other hand, Dean sighs quietly in his sleep, and Castiel chokes back a sob.
"Father," he whispers, "why am I here?"
Castiel isn't sure what awakens him at first. He opens his eyes, blinking in the unaccustomed darkness. Before, even when he stayed in motels with Sam and Dean, or even at Bobby's, there was always some ambient light by which to see: either from a streetlight or a motel motel light, or the stars themselves above the salvage yard. Now, though, he's in a room in a shelter, surrounded by two dozen other cots, and the stars are hidden behind a thick cloud of ash and smoke. He sits up slowly, every muscle protesting, and looks around, waiting for his eyes to adjust, and sees that the cot next to his is empty.
He reaches out, groping blindly, and finds the covers turned back, the bed still warm. He can't be far, Castiel tries to reassure himself. He's a small boy. Perhaps he needed to use the toilet. Castiel seems to recall, thanks to Jimmy's experience, that sometimes small children get up in the night for such reasons. Still, he can't quite silence the small voice at the back of his mind that tells him that all won't be well until he has Dean in his sight again. He throws back his own blanket, swings his feet to the floor, and pads softly among the beds lined up side by side, searching the darkness. He's careful not to jostle any of the beds, out of care for his bare feet and out of concern not to wake any of the sleepers, whose heavy breathing and occasional soft snores keep the room from seeming unnaturally still, but the very act of taking care makes him worry that he might have missed Dean, who's so very small, perhaps hidden under one of the beds. He doesn't dare call out, doesn't want to attract attention to himself.
Dean isn't in the room. After several minutes of fruitless searching, it's obvious enough. Castiel stumbles over the threshold of the door leading to the hallway, stubbing his toe on the sill, and he barely manages to catch himself with a muffled yelp of pain. Flexing his foot gingerly, he hobbles into the hallway and heads in the direction he thinks leads to the makeshift toilets they've set up behind the shelter in an effort to conserve water.
He hasn't gone more than a few yards before a scuffling sound from another room draws his attention. He finds himself in one of the storage areas, surrounded by boxes of supplies, though it's too dark to read any of the labels. Going around one of the bulky industrial-strength shelving units, he catches sight of a small figure peering tentatively into the darkness away from him, both hands around one of the steel posts, the side of his face pressed up against the cold metal.
The boy startles, turns to face him so quickly that he loses his balance and almost falls, fear and relief warring on his features. Castiel holds out a hand in a clear invitation for him to come.
"I didn't mean to startle you. Why are you out of bed? Did you get lost?"
Dean comes forward, a bit more timidly, and in the dim light Castiel can see traces of tears on his face. He takes the proffered hand without hesitation, though, and tugs on it, as though asking Castiel to accompany him somewhere. Castiel studies him for a moment, has a flash of intuition.
"Were you looking for Sam?"
A nod. Dean bites his lip when it threatens to wobble, eyes averted, and Castiel hears his breath hitch.
"Sam's not here. I asked," he says, watching Dean's face crumple in disappointment. "But we're going to find him, starting tomorrow. You would like that, wouldn't you?"
"Good. Now, we both have to sleep. We can't find Sam if we're not rested. Would you like me to carry you back?"
Dean puts his arms up, which seems a clear enough signal, and so Castiel hoists him back onto his hip. Carefully he takes them both back to their assigned bunks, only to have Dean cling to his neck with both arms and refuse to let go. For a moment he's at a loss: he doesn't understand children, not really, and while he knows Dean, he's only ever known him as an adult. He doesn't understand how to deal with this small, frightened creature who can't seem to communicate even the most basic thoughts and needs.
Dean holds on to him tighter, and he thinks he knows what to do, this time anyway. He keeps one arm securely wrapped around the boy, and eases himself back onto the bed, tucking the thin blanket around them both.
"Is this all right?"
He doesn't get an answer, not that he was expecting one, but Dean wedges himself as close as he can along his side, and soon his breathing evens out into sleep, warm and slightly sweet against Castiel's face.
"You're definitely going to go, then?"
Katie is leaning in the doorway, arms folded over her chest, watching as he packs a few changes of clothes into a duffel bag. All of it has been given to them, scrounged from a few generous locals, including a woman who lost her entire family to the Visitation who provided clothing that would fit a boy roughly Dean's size. Castiel has been on earth long enough, human long enough, to know that it's unusual for complete strangers to give out charity like this. He doesn't want to think too hard of the woman whose son's clothes Dean is wearing, nor about the role they played ―however indirectly― in the circumstances that brought about her small, personal tragedy amidst the hundreds of thousands of small, personal tragedies.
"I think it's important to speak to this Nicholas."
"You think he'll be able to tell you anything?"
Castiel pauses in his packing, shrugs. "I can't be certain, but the answers we are seeking aren't here."
"The world's a dangerous place. You're just one guy, and you'll be taking a little kid out there with nothing but your clothes and a couple of sleeping bags."
"I know. I believe it's necessary. As much as I would like to keep Dean out of harm's way, I think trouble will find us whether we look for it or not."
"He seems like a good kid."
He smiles. "He is that."
"Any idea why he doesn't talk?"
He's not sure if he can explain that this was how Dean was when he was five years old before. Not without getting into more explanations than he has time for. "Not really. I think he can talk, if he wants to. He'll talk when he's ready."
"Poor kid's probably traumatized. Lord knows there's enough of that going around."
He nods, but doesn't comment.
"You give any thought to how you're going to survive out there? Things are different, now, but not that different. You're going to need supplies, money. Transportation, too, although there are still enough people driving around that you can probably hitch a ride in most places. Supposing you want to drag the poor kid hitchhiking."
Castiel hasn't given it any thought. "I took a bus, once."
She snorts softly. "There are far fewer buses out there now. Besides, do you even have money for a bus ticket?"
"I suppose not. I've never been particularly useful... not as a human, anyway. I used to be able to travel without regard for time or distance. It used to bear no meaning at all, no relevance."
"Yeah, well, you're human now. Time for these things to start being relevant."
"So I gathered."
Katie unfolds herself from the doorway and comes to sit on the bed next to the duffel bag. She holds out a wallet. "Look. Here in Detroit, we know who you are. We also know what you were, and what you did for us. Out there, the further you go, the less people are going to know. So we're going to help you as best we can, but if you insist on going, there's not much more we can do for you."
He stares at the wallet for a moment, then reluctantly takes it and tucks it into the back pocket of his pants. "Thank you. This is more than I can ever repay, you know."
She shakes her head. "The way I see it, we still owe you. The only saving grace here is that some things are a lot cheaper than they used to be. Of course, other things are way more expensive. You're heading to Idaho, you said?"
"Well, there's not much more I can do, but we do have people who run supplies back and forth from Toledo. There's one leaving today, if you want a ride. From there you'll pretty much be on your own."
Castiel swallows, his throat tight. "I keep saying 'thank you,' but it seems inadequate," he manages hoarsely.
"I know there's nothing I can say to keep you here, but... I think you should leave the boy with us. It's too dangerous out there for him, and we can take care of him here. Miriam... she lost her boys. I think it would do her good to have him to look out for."
"I'm sorry. I have to take him with me. I'm... responsible for him," he says, even though it's not the half of it. He can't begin to explain this to her, what lies between him and Dean.
She sighs, and it occurs to him that perhaps he doesn't have to explain it. "Yeah, I thought so. Come on, I'll get you your ride."