"What do you mean it's not there, Sam?" Dean asked harshly into the phone, his voice cracking over indelible hoarseness. Dean kept his eyes on the road, narrowed them as he listened to Sam on the other end. A deeper frown enveloped his face. "Well, keep looking!"

Dean's words reverberated like thunder, as quick and angry as the coming storm. Without another word, Dean snapped the phone shut and hurled it into the backseat, losing it to shadow and leather.

Castiel issued a small, shallow breath past his lips. Yet another dead end. He didn't need to read the disappointment in Dean's face—he could hear it. The strain of the wheel beneath his calloused fingers, the low growl in the back of his throat. Even in the transcript of his body language—the harsh, clipped movements. The whip of his head, the heat of his green eyes on the back of his skull.

He didn't dare look at him.

Ignoring him, he concentrated on the world beyond glass. It had grown dark and ominous. Not yet brave enough to strike, lightning marbled the night sky as thick raindrops pitter-pattered against the window. They ran like tears, converging into a distorted lens and magnifying the broken pieces of a world he no longer knew.

The promise of yet another Apocalypse left him aching.

"Cas."

The tree line zipped past as the Impala took another hard bend in the road; a rural highway that had taken them through several states on the hunt for the Colt—the supposed answer to all their trials and tribulations. The supernatural weapon that would kill Crowley and put an end to this… suffering. His or the world's—he couldn't quite tell.

"End of the fucking world to Cas!"

He turned his head. That frown had never left Dean's face, only deepened when he didn't say a word. "The Colt's not in Arizona—what's left of it anyway."

"My apologies," he whispered, focusing straight ahead.

"That's all you gotta say to me? 'My apologies'?" Dean growled.

"What would you prefer me to say, Dean?"

"Something—anything."

"Anything I say won't make matters better for you, Dean, or put us closer to finding the Colt."

"I fucking know that, Cas."

A bolt of white lightning tore the sky in half and a growl of thunder echoed among the clouds. More rain, harder and quicker, pelted against the windshield in thick sheets. The Impala's headlights devoured black asphalt but didn't penetrate beyond the darkness. Here, in rural Montana, they were blind as the sky fell apart around them.

A ripple of nervousness spread through him like dark ink.

"This place's going to shit," Dean mumbled, flipping on the windshield wipers. They whipped across the glass, unable to keep up with the downpour. Their watercolor world darkened and a finger-painting of light raced through the sky. The radio crackled. His heart thumped.

Something dark cut across the road.

"Shit!"

Dean swerved. The Impala jolted, a sickening thumpthump and an otherworldly squeal of pain cut through the storm. Everything else—a blur. The spinning. The Impala's tires screaming in agony. Worst of all, the sound of Dean's voice; a ragged cry like the mournful call of a dying bird. The flash image of a tree trunk and the crunch of metal put an end to his immediate concern. His head hit something hard and a blunt force shock of pain slithered down his face, past his neck and into his chest.

Then there was nothing. Only stillness.

As the agony throbbed inside his skull, he sat there motionless, riding the waves of his humanity. The aches and pains, his labored breathing. The hard and relentless pounding of his heart. Its sound spoke of shock, fear—Dean.

Blindly, he reached out a hand, touching and grabbing Dean's shoulder. He found the courage to open his eyes. A broken man, Dean sat crumpled over the steering wheel, bleeding from a head wound. Breathing but unconscious. His heart jumped into his throat, his voice as dry as sand. "Dean…"

He shook his shoulder, pulling him back against the seat. Dean flopped against it with a groan, his eyes fluttering opening as a wince of pain lanced across his face. "What the fuck…"

"You're all right, Dean."

"What… what the fuck just happened?"

"I… I don't know. Something ran across the road."

"Fuck," Dean groaned out, clutching his head. The bleeding hadn't stopped. Dean pulled his hand back and looked at it with a confused frown. "Shit, that hurts."

With a two-finger touch, the pain disappeared from Dean's face; the wound completely healed. The effort and energy it took… it left him breathless.

"You okay, Cas?"

"I'm fine."

Dean gave him a quick cursory glance then focused straight ahead. His face fell immediately, a different kind of pain twisting it. In front of them, beyond the torrential rain, the Impala's dimming headlights betrayed the wreckage; her crumpled hood like one of Dean's beer cans, the tree nearly split in half.

"Aw, baby, no. No."

Before he could stop him, Dean flung open the door and stepped out into the rain. More pain wracked his body as he jerked to attention, intending to follow him. Hard raindrops smacked against his face as he opened the door, mingling with his bruises and cuts. As Dean hovered over her hood and mourned, Castiel stood quietly. Eyes to the darkness, ignoring his own pronounced discomfort. What he had seen of the dark figure—it hadn't been human.

An eerie wail chilled his bones.

He rounded the back of the Impala to stand beside Dean. Together, they watched the haunted black until they could risk breathing again. Dean reacted first, pulling out his gun and a flashlight. The small tube of light did nothing to penetrate the darkness, scintillating the fast-falling rain in front of them. Dean took a step forward. Another dying wail. A shiver ran down his spine and prickled his skin.

The flashlight caught the silhouette of a twisted form. Small. Limbs twisted and broken. Blonde hair, patterned dress torn—Dean lurched forward, urgency marking his downward flight to crouch next to the little girl. Something… wasn't right. It began creeping up the back of his neck—a sixth sense itching and gnawing at him. Warning him to keep Dean away. When he took a step closer, a pervasive sense of evil seeped into his pores and burrowed into his bones. Not human at all.

Demon.

"Dean!"

Dean rocked back, scrambling away as the girl twisted her neck impossibly. Bones snapped, protruding past ashen skin, eyes as black as night. Her once-pretty face twisted in horror, her mouth a dark gaping abyss. The little girl lifted a clawed hand, pointing, her haggard voice hoarse and dying. "Dean Winchester."

Instinct broke through the wall of pain and hesitation. He stepped in front of Dean and held out an arm, staring the abomination down. Her black pitless eyes never broke away from Dean, transfixed as if he were the only thing in existence. Only the cold steel of his angel blade, slipping into his fingers, kept him composed.

Her eyes grew wide. "Dean Winchester!"

The scream ripped through his brain, shrill and murderous. He didn't hesitate, striding forward with surety and confidence, wielding the blade quick and true.

"Dean Winch—"

Castiel plunged his angel blade into her chest. A simmering heat burned beneath her skin and went out with her dying breath. When she stilled, he mourned the passing of innocence—of the little girl that had been twisted and cursed into a tool of Crowley's design.

He closed her eyes with his fingers and stood.

"Dean. We have to go."

Lightning crashed overhead.

:::

The storm clouds pulsed, lightning spreading like fissures on old, dilapidated brick. Brick that kept him walled in, trapped. Just like the prison of his looming humanity.

He stood on the inside looking out, drenched and cold. His trench coat clung to him like a funeral shroud, his suit breathing with him like a second skin. While Rufus' cabin kept them safe physically, it didn't shield him from the doubts and fears in his mind. He inhaled deeply and exhaled. It hurt.

The shower's faucet squeaked and the pipes shuddered. The water stopped.

Castiel didn't look over his shoulder as Dean rummaged in the bathroom. Behind him, a door opened and the sound of bare feet on concrete drew his shoulders in a tight, even line.

"Cas."

He spent a glance over his shoulder. Dean stood bare-chested, towel wrapped around his hips. With a quick, nervous swallow, Castiel looked away, focusing his attention on the distant storm clouds. He fought through the steady rise of his beating heart, the twist low in his gut. All unfamiliar bodily reactions that left him bewildered, confused. Hating himself. Only the dull thrum of his Grace comforted him.

"Cas," Dean said more sternly. "You need to get out of those wet clothes. You'll catch a cold."

"I don't need to concern myself—"

"Don't give me that bullshit. Ever since the angels left, you've been losing your mojo. You forget about that?"

Leave with us, Castiel. This world is dying.

No. I'd rather be here.

Because of Dean.

Yes, Samandriel. Because of Dean.

Castiel clenched his jaw. How could he forget?

"Let me bottom line it for you: you're practically human. Just like the rest of us."

Human. He swallowed the bitter pill as a dark cloud blossomed with light and released a growl of denial. The same denial etched in the frown on his face. This mortal coil… he clenched his hands, a tremor of pain quickening along his skin. Aches and bruises certifying how human he had become. Human and weak. Practically useless.

Dean nudged his arm, a mechanical touch with no warmth to it at all. In his extended hand were clothes—his clothes—a pair of jeans and a simple, black t-shirt. "Put these on."

He didn't have a chance to utter a word before Dean left him behind, alone in the main room of the cabin. Somewhere, a door clicked closed with a note of finality. The wide-open room fell victim to silence.

He issued a single breath and peeled off the trench coat, folding it neatly before setting it aside. With its weight gone, vulnerability set in, robbing him of confidence and safety. More importantly… his angelic identity. He ran a finger across one of the buttons fondly as if he'd found a long-lost friend. The coarse fabric of the trench coat betrayed years of wear and tear, the glory days of an angel in its stitching. Days that were fast becoming no more.

Turning his back to it, he went about the pain-staking process of undressing; an entirely human endeavor. Long. Aggravating. He slipped the blue tie from his neck, fingered the buttons of his shirt. Discarding layer after layer, he faced his reflection in the window. Naked. Defenseless.

Finite.

He tore his eyes away and shrugged into the shirt, slipping on the jeans with little effort. The clothes—they didn't fit properly. The jeans hung off his narrow hips; the shirt a little large for his smaller build. But they smelled like him. Earthy with the demands of the road; an undertone of sweat from the effort of saving a doomed world. Bravery and heroism. Fragility and a hollow brokenness. Dean.

The sound of a door opening drew his eyes away from his discarded clothing. Dean stood there in the openness of the room, staring him down. His face wore the light touch of a frown; an edge that never seemed to soften.

Just then, the frown disappeared, leaving behind a shade of warmth he hadn't seen in months. Dean stepped closer. His own muscles tightened in response, a reaction that had become more than normal. His body reacted differently as his humanity dawned; as his Grace died, awakening the functions of his vessel—a body that had been his for years since the original inhabitant—Jimmy Novak—had moved on. No longer did his Grace thrum with life as Dean neared, as Dean brushed his fingers along his collar. Instead, his breath hitched, froze in his lungs until he ached. His skin prickled and lit up with warmth anywhere Dean touched. And his heart... it whispered Dean's name with an urgency that threatened to explode from his chest.

As Dean dipped his fingers into his shirt's collar, the world around him was lost. The thunder and rain stopped. The air in the room grew thicker and his face burned. He inhaled deeply and the scent of Dean's shampoo and soap invaded his olfactory. Lightheadedness ignited his senses, overwhelming him. The closeness, the touch of Dean on his skin—his smell. Him.

"Cas…"

He exhaled a strangled breath as his nickname washed over his face, bringing with it the remnants of alcohol. With Dean so close, he wanted nothing more than to bridge the gap between them, to find shelter in his warmth. Weak and vulnerable, hiding in his arms, tucked away and safe, was the only thing that would mend the torn hole in his chest.

His heart jolted when he looked up to find Dean studying his face, to find him closer than before. His eyes fell to his lips as Dean opened his mouth, his fingers tugging on the collar. Time froze. It was just them, inches apart. He couldn't breathe.

"You've got your shirt on backwards."

Swallowing, he angled his eyes down. The garment's tag stared at him accusingly. He frowned but the amused glitter in Dean's eyes washed the feeling of stupidity away. The shrill wail of the phone interrupted their moment; a quiet second amid the chaos of the world. Dean abandoned him immediately, leaving him to the menial task of righting his shirt. Cold, without Dean's touch—it reminded him how alone he truly was.

"Yeah, just... get back here in one piece." Dean's voice raked over coarse gravel. "Hey, Sammy? Be careful."

Dean tossed the phone onto the small table next to the window and melted into a chair. A heaviness bowed his strong shoulders—the weight of the Apocalypse impossible. Dean sighed, his lungs' entire capacity exhaled in one labored breath. And that was all he needed—a moment to voice his silent anguish before the hardened soldier in him found his sure footing.

He watched him open a beer and take a long drink. Dean's attention found the world outside and a flash of lightning painted pale color across his face. Without a word, Castiel settled across from him, turning his head to stare out the window. Channels of rain ran together, creating a system of veins; a circulatory structure that mimicked the branches of trees. Reaching, reaching toward Heaven… a pang of sorrow, a deep pervading homesickness, lanced through him in tandem with another strike of lightning.

"You think there's a tow truck out there or something?"

The Impala, simply a subject to breach the silence between them. But important to Dean nonetheless. He exhaled softly, passing him a partial, sidelong glance. "I'll bring her here in the morning."

Dean smiled. "Thanks, Cas."

He nodded and returned his gaze beyond the windowpane. Anything for that smile—even if it meant expending all of his remaining Grace.

"If we don't find the Colt, we're fucked."

The words carried with them exhaustion. Hopelessness. Quiet anger bubbling beneath the clipped notes. Dean's suffering echoed through him, just as the thunder did, and ripped him asunder. He swallowed down the flood of emotions, clenching his fists at his sides as it overwhelmed him. Hurt because Dean was hurting. Concern, a burning need to fix everything—the world, his broken pieces—just because Dean wanted it. And a violent anger because… he couldn't. A sense of becoming lost in it—all of this—threatened to drown him.

The world outside flickered and the rain pounded against the window, a steady drumbeat to the hopelessness of their reality. "Our future seems… bleak."

The heat of Dean's eyes burrowed into his skull. He turned. Clarity registered on Dean's face. "What did you say?"

He tilted his head. "Our future—"

"That's it…"

"I don't under—"

"That's it, Cas. The future."

He frowned his confusion.

Dean rolled his eyes. "The future—two years from now. Five. Ten. You can bet your feathery ass that future me would have found the Colt by now—then… whatever."

"I don't see how this helps us now, Dean."

"If you zap us into the future—"

"It's too dangerous."

"Listen to me—"

"Dean," he intoned firmly. "It's too dangerous."

"What other choice have we got, Cas?"

He huffed out a breath and turned his head. Dean's eyes caught his before they were lost to the storm. "Huh? Do you have any other idea? Because I don't."

"Dean—"

"Look, Cas. We can run in circles with our heads cut off, looking for this thing, or we can do this. I don't know about you, but with another Apocalypse around the fucking corner again, I don't want to be wasting any more time."

"It's too dangerous," he said again, every word holding emphasis.

Dean clenched his jaw, pointing a finger his way. "We're doing this, Cas, and that's just how it's gonna be. So you're either with me… or you're not."

The chair screeched as Dean stood abruptly, his boots thumping out a hollow, angry cadence on the floor toward the bedroom.

"What if there is no future, Dean?"

A growl of thunder replaced the sound of Dean's angry departure. Dean stood in the middle of the room, still as a statue, his shoulders a hard line. "We'll figure that out once we get there."

Without another word, Dean retreated into the back bedroom and closed the door behind him. The chorus of rain and thunder accompanied his descent into the implications of Dean's plan. The state of the world's future was unknown to him. The dangers, the effect it could have on Dean… He blew out ragged breath and watched the storm churn in the clouds. They would be heading into a world of Crowley's design—chaotic, on the verge of unraveling. A broken world orchestrated by its conductor, the King of Hell.

But if that was what Dean wanted…

He stood, moving to the kitchen if for no other reason than to keep his mind occupied. In disarray, plates and cups littered the kitchen counter, still peppered with the memories of meals or filled with liquids. He cleaned each of them, putting them away one by one as restlessness settled in, as the lack of Dean's voice left him hollow inside. At the table again, he pulled John's journal from Dean's duffel bag, losing himself in the entries; something he did often to find moments of peace and foundation. The storm dissipated under his study of John Winchester's knowledge and handwriting; the tale of a vampire with heart; the l's and t's that stood straight like well-trained soldiers.

Eerie silence moved in.

It tickled his skin, walked up his spine and prickled the hair on the back of his neck. It dug holes in his psyche, unsettling him. The shadows grew darker somehow and tiptoed on the edge of his peripheral. For the first time in his existence, he feared the dark—of what he couldn't see, of what waited for him just beyond reach. For the first time in his existence, he feared… mortality.

He closed John's journal and stood, leaving behind the haunted whisper of the dark. In the only other bedroom, he lay on the bed, straight and stiff, his hands folded across his stomach. The ceiling spiraled above him as his thoughts raced through his head.

Loneliness claimed him long before sleep did.

:::

The water stretched before them. Calm. Endless. Dean sat beside him on the dock, a fishing rod in his hand, his eyes intent on the clear water. A cool breeze drifted over them, taking with it their troubles, their exhaustion. Just them and serenity, and the little fish swimming beneath the lake's surface.

He smiled at Dean. Dean smiled back. Looking out at the water again, Dean heaved a breath and said, "This is nice. The water… me and you." Dean drew back the pole to test the line. An idle gesture more than anything else. "Let's stay here… just for a little while."

"I'd like that."

"Me too."

This quiet moment, with Dean at his side, was all he needed to keep going. It was all he needed to face the journey that lay before them. To face the end of the world. Together.

But it wouldn't last forever.

A tinge of regret stained the beauty of their quiet moment. He swallowed it down and stared out at the water, narrowing his eyes against the sun's glare. Behind them, the trees swayed with the wind. Leaves rustled and the smell of fresh water, earth and spring lifted his spirits. A small fish, with the courage of a lion, crested the water, leaving behind small ripples.

When he turned, he caught Dean staring at him. The intensity of his green eyes, the warmth he found there—breathtaking. Dean held out his hand, the small smile on his face telling. The beating of his heart quickened, pounding against his chest. He extended his own hand, fingertips brushing against Dean's skin, and—

"Cas, get up. Let's go."

He opened his eyes with a start. Dean stood at the doorframe of his room, his face edged with a frown. Impatience; the need to end the hunt for the Colt once and for all.

"You up?"

He nodded. Without another word, Dean left the room, the sound of his heavy boots fading as he moved further into the cabin. He sat up on the bed and swung his feet over the edge. Tired, he dropped his head into his hands. The pleasantness of the dream left a wound he couldn't heal; a ghost of emptiness he couldn't exorcize even if he tried. That place was lost to him—a place of stolen moments; of warmth and serenity; of quiet and simple understanding. Moments with Dean. Precious seconds he'd never have with him again. Not in the chaos of this world.

"Come on, Cas!"

He sighed and stood. Quietly, he crept out of the bedroom and peered into the main open area of the cabin. Dean hovered over the table, palms flat on the surface. A small stash of weapons fanned out before him—an insufficient stock that would hold no meaning in their future; dull knives, a shotgun without rounds, and Dean's silver pistol. Whatever arsenal they had—the inventory in the Impala's trunk—had been long gone; lost to theft, search missions gone awry and ravaging monsters.

The expression on Dean's face betrayed his thoughts; it wasn't enough. It would never be enough. Dean rubbed a hand down his face to wipe away the disappointment, to get rid of the fear that lurked underneath. Invisible fingers clenched his heart as a whisper of pain flickered over Dean's face. When Dean hurt, so did he.

He slipped to the basement door and crept down the stairs. Rufus Turner had been known to be resourceful in the hunter community—he had read it in John Winchester's journal. No hunter was without a stash of weapons—he'd read that too. But the basement didn't hold secrets of a hidden armory. Dust caked old bottles, books far too old to be of any use. On the table lay containers filled with liquids, a chair strictly used for interrogation and a rickety cabinet covered in cobwebs.

A sudden draft sucked out the warmth in his body just then, as if Death's fingers had run down his spine. He shivered, turned… and tilted his head. A door peeked out from behind the wooden cabinet, masterfully hidden amid the dirt and thick shadows. He moved the cabinet aside with the touch of a finger, the legs screaming against the cracked foundation and echoing in the small space. He'd simply open the door if he hadn't known any better. If he hadn't known Rufus Turner to be much like Bobby Singer; a careful, meticulous, paranoid man.

In the dark, traps fired off harmlessly and locks fell away, squeezing out a little more of his Grace like a well-juiced orange. He took in a sharp breath and braced himself against the cabinet. Once the near-crippling pain of loss faded away, he straightened himself and opened the door.

What lay inside sparked a glimmer of hope.

Racks of weapons hugged the four walls of the small room. From a crude, makeshift axe to rifles and guns—all covered with years' worth of dust and forgotten memories. Dean would be happy with the discovery and the very thought of his smile twisted his gut in anticipation. He needn't wait long. Above him, Dean's boots crossed the main room and thumped down the stairs. Angry. Filled with purpose.

"Cas!"

The tone of his voice, sharp and demanding, marked his anger.

"I'm here," he answered above the silent judgment of the armory.

"What the fuck are you—holy shit."

Castiel sent a glance over his shoulder. Dean stared past him with wide eyes and gaping mouth. After the shock wore off, Dean grinned. The sparkle in his eyes, his whole demeanor—he was pleased. It translated into the grip on his shoulder, a tight squeeze before Dean slipped past. A tremor of pride washed over him as Dean went from rack to rack, like a child in a candy store. In the brokenness of their world, he had made Dean happy.

"Look at this stuff, Cas…" Dean said with wonder as he picked up the crude axe. Dean looked it over and then flashed him a grin. "Awesome."

The touch of a smile found his lips as he turned away, looking over the inventory. The brute force of fabricated weaponry, of rifles and crossbows, didn't suit him, but these—twin wakizashi blades originating from feudal Japan fit him perfectly. He ran a finger along the smooth, lacquered wood of the saya, smiled as he lifted the short swords from the rack. Nearly weightless and expertly balanced. He nodded his approval and turned, fixing Dean with a cursory glance from head to toe.

Dean slipped his silver colt into his thigh holster and flashed him a grin. A shotgun was slung across his back and Ruby's knife glittered from just beneath the hem of his jeans. With the crude axe gripped tight in his hand, Dean appeared ready to face their future… and a small army.

"You ready?"

He nodded.

"Good. Let's go."

"Dean—"

"Beam me up, Scottie."

He rolled his eyes heavenward. Another reference he didn't understand. "It's not that easy, Dean."

Dean didn't question him when he handed over the dual wakizashi blades. Didn't utter a sound when curious fingers inched closer, diving under his jacket to bump along his ribs. The air between them grew hotter. Intimate. Dean swallowed hard while studying him with those green eyes. His silent question didn't need to be voiced.

"Finding you—your future incarnation—won't be simple," he explained. He searched along his side with exploratory touches, becoming lost in everything that was Dean in that moment. The soft texture of his simple cotton shirt, the blazing heat of his body bleeding through. The smell of him, notes of alcohol mingling with desperation and hopelessness; the sharp undercurrent of false bravado and self-loathing. He didn't need to graze a hand over his ribs for this, palm his hip while his other fingers memorized the Braille of his beating heart.

Dean licked his lips purely out of nervousness, but didn't dare break the hold of their eyes. He opened his mouth and, with the clearing of his throat, he whispered, "Cas…"

Castiel blinked as reality hit him cold in the face. Embarrassed, dumbfounded, his Grace shot-fired from his fingertips and Dean let out a squeal of pain. The blades dropped to the floor and Dean hunched over as he backed away, hand clutching his bruised ribs. His glare said everything.

"Fucking hell, Cas! What did you do?"

"I… engraved your ribs—" he stammered.

"Again? Why—"

"To find you… in the future."

Dean grunted as he straightened his posture, taking in a cleansing breath. "Don't they hide us from—"

"These sigils are different," he explained. "But—"

"But?"

Nothing came through. Not a signal, not a single determination of Dean's whereabouts. Nothing. Like he didn't—

Exist.

The revelation thundered through him, rocking him back a step. No. His Grace must be weakened. Nothing more.

"Cas. Talk to me, man."

His fingers drew lines across his own ribs. A pinch of pain carried the engraving and a far-distant signal, a pinpoint of direction, flared in his conscience and echoed in his Grace. Without a word, he swung an arm low and scooped up the blades in one hand, and pressed two fingers to Dean's forehead.

They left their torn world behind on the beat of wings.

:::

His feet touched soft earth before dizziness overtook him, before a loss, so great and painful, nearly folded him in half. He clutched his chest and braced himself against a tree, his lungs burning with the acrid smell of sulfur; a minor discomfort compared to the pain of losing his Grace.

Just a little bit of it. Nothing more. A parent losing a child, the loss of a loved one to suicide—human experiences that would have felt similar to this; the devastating ache of being torn apart, the agony of losing something so precious. As part of his identity slipped away, he leaned against the trunk, his side suddenly flushed with warmth not his own. Gentle fingers grabbed his shoulder, firm yet careful hands holding him up as his knees suddenly gave out. His voice, soothing and almost razor-sharp, cut through the darkness clouding his mind.

"Cas? You okay, buddy?"

Silently, he nodded, gulping down a breath of stagnant air. It clung to the insides of his throat, clawed its way down into his lungs. A sickness belonging to evil hung in the air, burning the edges of his fragile Grace. He tried to look beyond his narrowed view of rough, slick bark, turning his head to find—

Dean. An inch away from him.

His eyes were wide and dark, the expression on his face intense with tangible concern. Dean's hands held him tight on his upper arm, gripping it like the fear of either of them disappearing would kill him. His own heart ricocheted off his ribs, the pulse point in his throat marching straight up to his head. He found it difficult to breathe with Dean so close.

He swallowed thickly and his eyes fell to Dean's lips. "I'm—I'm fine, Dean."

Dean stood there still, a warrior statue amid a thick forest of trees and… darkness. After a moment, Dean nodded, squeezing his arm once more before releasing and backing away. He watched him turn and take meticulous stock of their surroundings.

With a strangled breath, he straightened his posture, taking a moment to regain his composure. A stiff, poignant breeze knocked him out of his reverie. Cold reality centered him and his eyes focused.

Darkness… everywhere. A forest of shadows, of wide tree trunks and a canopy of boughs like skeleton fingers. And the sky—a living, breathing sheet of undulating darkness, a rolling sea darker than pitch. Endless. Foreboding.

"Where the fuck are we?"

The End.

Castiel took a step. His foot sunk into spongy soil, greedy earth sucking him down with abandon. The air weighed on him, heavy and wet, clung to his skin and crawled all over him. A recent rainfall, then. The note of dirt and coppery undertones caused him to pause, another sick sound of sucking as he pulled his foot from the wet mosses. The familiar smell of copper grew stronger as he wiped his brow, its thickness lingering on his fingers.

"What the fuck?"

Ahead, Dean looked down at his hand and from there, to his feet, to the wetness beneath his boots. Curiosity drove Castiel to tentatively lick at his fingers. The taste… thick, coppery, displeasing—blood.

Unending darkness. Blood as water.

"Revelation…" he whispered.

"What?"

"Revelation—the seals. The plagues," he began. "My Father's… journal."

"The Bible," Dean lamented, making a disgusted face at his hand before wiping it on his jeans. "So. Another Apocalypse of Biblical proportions." Dean huffed out a breath. "Fucking peachy."

"Crowley couldn't have orchestrated this—"

"So, then what? Dad's back in town? He finally got sick of all the shit—"

A deep growl cut through the dark.

As one, they fall back against the tree, side-by-side. Unmoving. Barely breathing. Silence answered them. He gripped his wakizashi blades tight as the sound of a grunt and the sharp inhale of a hulking beast pierced the air. The soil groaned and the suck-slurping resumed as the animal moved on, its intimidating bulk treading over shrubs and breaking low-hanging branches. He tossed Dean a glance.

The manic grin on Dean's face shot a shiver down his spine.

It was the same grin he had seen in Purgatory, every time Dean killed. Dean had whispered of it once, had told him that Purgatory had been pure; a place where he had been free, a true hunting ground. He knew true fear when Dean flashed him a wider grin, darting out from behind the tree—quicker than he could catch him. The same fluidity returned to Dean's strides as he carefully crept along the shadows, following in the wake of his intended kill. Jolting forward, he mirrored Dean's steps, one by one, inching closer. Together, they stopped behind the large trunk of a tree and peered into the small glade.

The beast feasted on its latest kill. One of its own.

The red slick of entrails oozed out of its mouth, bones snapping between its jaws. Enormous, the beast hovered over its brother, lapping up blood with its long tongue like a dog on a hot summer's day. His Grace tremored with a certain familiarity. The beast had a signature, a stroke of darkness he recognized. Although twisted, body misshapen, he knew it to be a hell hound—one of Crowley's abominations. Thick hair, corded and coarse, bristled along its back, its muscles rippling along its body. In place of dog-like features, a face more human than he cared to admit slurped and sucked at bone marrow. Claws, charcoal gray skin stretched over bone, blades for teeth and red fire for eyes. Horrifying. A creature born from a nightmare.

Not even a nightmare could shake Dean Winchester.

When the beast looked up, snarled viciously at them and charged, Dean stood unflinching. "Come on, you ugly son of a bitch."

Castiel stumbled back as Dean met it head on, swinging his axe high over his head. The beast's overzealous momentum put it in line with Dean's vicious strike. But instead of cleaving its shoulder, the axe grazed its underbelly as the monster sailed over his head in an effort to avoid the blow. It landed ungracefully right in front of him. Bared its fangs and snarled.

Its sudden yelp echoed across the forest.

"Oh no, you don't, asshole."

The beast turned and bounded after him as Dean moved deeper into the forest. Luring the monster away—away from him, freeing him of immediate danger.

Or so he thought.

A small twig snapped behind him. When he turned, a smaller beast stared back at him, long tongue darting out to lick at its maw. A fighter, this one. Lithe, tight muscle on its flanks, its movements perfectly honed for the hunt. He would have marveled at this twisted yet graceful creation if it hadn't wasted an opportunity to attack. It darted out, lunging with all its strength. He had to jump back and scurry a few steps just to avoid the blade-like teeth and the swipe of claws. At the ready, he eased into the flow of it—the dance around each other. Gauging, calculating. The quiet, mutual respect.

The monster lunged again and he answered with two-sword strike, one after the other in a horizontal sweep. He spun, used the momentum to deliver a staggering blade-arc with his left. The tip of the blade sliced into gray flesh, its jagged edges oozing out red, thick blood. The beast didn't flinch, didn't howl. A flicker of pain never reached its humanoid face.

But anger did.

With a deep growl, the monster snapped low, then high, and didn't stop there. It kept coming, keeping him on his toes and on the defensive. He blocked another swipe of claws with his right blade—the sound of claw and metal grating to his ears. The creature snapped its maw close to his face, earning it a jab to the throat. Out of nowhere, its barbed tail swooped in, cutting the air as it sped toward his body. It nicked his chest before falling completely away, severed with the quick-forward swipe of his blade. The monster howled in pain.

Three more of its kind answered back.

The beast became more daring, energized, and launched a flurry of attacks almost too quick to counter. Each swipe of claw and snap of teeth netted the creature a series of small wounds—scratches and grazes that inhibited but didn't kill. Aching, tired, he looked for a quick end, an open defense. When he found none, he took a chance, recklessly thrusting his blades forward, aiming for the beast's throat.

He screamed out in pain as claws sunk deep into his shoulder.

The creature slunk forward as he held his torn shoulder. Its tongue tasted the air and the monster grinned a bladed smile before lunging again—for the kill. He jumped away, stumbled and fell on his back, twisting in the dirt to right himself. The beast was on him in a second, narrowly missing with another snap of jaws as he ran. The most human thing he'd ever done—running. Retreating instead of meeting his aggressor head-on. Instead of fighting for victory or worse, finding a brave end to his existence, he ran. Toward the trees. Anywhere.

The beast let out a shrill cry and took up the chase.

His labored breathing drowned out the sound of the creature behind him; his heart drumming a beat in tune with his fear. He sped up, leaping over branches and small, dried-up streambeds. His legs burned, his lungs clenched tight with the effort. The creature snarled behind him, closer than before. The sound of branches breaking under its weight, the anticipatory snap of its jaws. Its putrid breath on his back.

A large tree loomed ahead. He ran toward it, pumping his legs until he couldn't anymore. At the last second, he leapt, pushing off its trunk with his right foot. The angle propelled him toward a second tree trunk and he bounded off it by using his left leg, twisting in the air—lining him up to grab onto the creature's corded mane. With a howl, it thrashed, but he held on tight with his uninjured limb. The pain rippled down his arm as he shot his unused hand up and against the beast's flesh. Grace streamed from his fingertips and burned the creature from the inside out. It cried out, snapping its jaws in agony and thrashed until it lay in a lifeless heap beneath him. He slumped against the corpse, sucking air into his spent lungs while agony and heartache overtook him.

Dying would have been less painful.

"Cas?"

His vitality rushed to greet him as Dean knelt by his side, invigorated by his presence alone. His regained his will to keep on fighting, to continue his miserable existence. Dean sent a brief flutter of fingers against his face, his attention darting to his tattered shoulder. Even here, in the dark, with his face covered in blood, he was no less beautiful.

"Dean…"

"You're okay," Dean whispered after inspecting the wound. "You're okay."

He looked Dean over, searching for wounds, scratches—anything. Anything he could heal with what little he had of his Grace. Nothing. "You're not hurt."

"Nah. That son of a bitch had nothing on me," Dean said boldly. "Come on. Let's get you up."

With Dean's support, he stood on his own two feet. The blood rushed to his head, made him dizzy and caused his knees to buckle. Dean caught him without complaint and held him close. In any other circumstance, he might have feigned weakness as long as he could—just to stay close to him, to feel Dean's body against his own. These human urges, the need for physical contact… it left him breathless and confused as Dean leaned into him even more. His lips grazed Dean's jaw line, the stubble rough against his skin. It took him seconds to realize that the sudden closeness had been due to protectiveness, not ill-timed lust.

Just then, another beast slunk by, hugging the base of trees and shadows. It pitched a howl and several other unseen creatures answered back. Another series of calls and answers. More distant than the first.

"They're falling back," he whispered against Dean's neck.

Dean turned his head an inch, sending him a sidelong glance. If he had any courage left, if they hadn't been neck deep in danger, maybe he would have breached the millimeter that separated their lips. For a long time, for what seemed like an agonizing eternity, they stood still on the precipice of unspoken needs. Waiting for the other to take a chance… or for the danger to subside. When all was silent, when all he could hear was their hearts beating as one, Dean whispered, "We should go."

Dean took a step back and, just like that, the tether between them snapped and they fell back in place. Clarity returned; the urgency of mission renewed. Clearing his throat, he looked inward, searching for the familiar signal—the invisible road sign that'd lead him… to himself.

"This way."

They traversed through the heart of the forest quietly, taking every precautionary measure to remain unseen in the darkness. Small otherworldly creatures lurked, darting behind trees and disappearing further into blackness. In tandem, they collapsed against another tree as a hulking beast lumbered by, oblivious to their location. Another one bled into the darkness across a small, dried-up stream. A howl, deep and authoritative, with several more answering.

"They're guarding something…"

"Out here?" Dean asked incredulously. "What—"

"Me."

"Shit."

They broke through the ring of creatures miraculously undetected, slipping further into the trees. Against one leaned a broken form, too familiar to ignore. With a shaky breath, he pointed and uttered, "There."

Dean rushed in, stooping low to crouch beside… his duplicate. With gentle fingers, Dean cupped his face, whispered, "Cas?" and searched him. Claw marks led his eyes to a hole in his side, a wound that'd prove fatal if—

He swallowed hard and stared. The future version of himself lulled his head to the side, staring into Dean's eyes. Though weak and... dying, shock registered on his face. "Dean…" a fragile answer followed by a chuckle. "You're not real... you can't be. I—" a pause and then, "I gave you a hunter's funeral."

The revelation knocked him back. As Dean sent a thumb across his jaw line, he could only stare. Dean… dead. His stomach clenched and almost revolted, nausea causing a riot through him. Faced with his own mortality, their bleak future—he wobbled on his feet, swallowing down the bile in his throat.

"I'm here," Dean said to him, holding his head upright. "Where's the Colt, Cas?"

His blank look said everything.

Dean bowed his head, snapping it back up as more howls ripped through the dark. "Take us back."

Castiel looked at him incredulously, then to the mirror of himself, wounded and bleeding on the ground.

"We're not leaving him."

Dean stood up, supporting his future incarnation with his shoulder. As the tree line came to life, as the beasts came charging, Castiel placed a two-fingered touch to their foreheads.

They disappeared before teeth could sink into flesh.

:::

Dean took a second to register his surroundings, supporting Cas with a shoulder and a hand about the waist. Moving to the bedroom in the back of the cabin, he laid Cas down on the crumpled bedspread before leaving him behind. His mind rolled over everything as he moved from place to place, gathering supplies to patch him up—

The heat of Cas' eyes—the real Cas, his Cas—stopped him cold. He turned, found him collapsed in a chair with a pained look on his face; the same pain he'd seen after they arrived in their shitty future. Like a part of him had died, went missing.

"You okay, Cas?"

How many fucking times had he asked him that?

"I'm fine, Dean."

How many times had he gotten the same goddamn answer?

He issued a quiet sigh. Tired of the lies, he pointed at him. "This isn't over. You hear me? We're gonna talk. I just gotta deal with…"

Losing you again.

He didn't say it aloud, just let his uncompleted sentence hang in the air. Like the thick tension between them. Cas nodded and struggled to get out of the chair, using the arms as support to hoist himself up.

"Dude, you gotta rest. Sit down."

"I'm fi—"

"Say that one more time to me and I swear—"

Cas stopped dead in his tracks, fixing him with another one of his soulful stares.

"Because you're not fine and you know it," he breathed heavily. "I know it."

Instead of answering, Cas nodded, but kept his ground. Almost started following behind him as he moved toward the back bedroom. Even a cold glare didn't stop him. Dean ended up closing the bedroom door in Cas' face, a little harder than he'd intended.

With his back against it, he took another deep breath. There were certain things he couldn't let Cas see—himself dying for one thing. If nothing else, he'd save Cas from that horrible reality; the cold, hard slap in the face of mortality. Shit. Cas was having enough problems being almost… human.

As other-Cas let loose a shuddering breath, he inched toward the bed. Tiptoeing as if he were creeping up on Death, hoping to catch him in the act. Fuck if he could handle this himself; watching Cas die. Maybe he wouldn't. Maybe he could save him. He swallowed hard.

No. I will save him.

Dean grabbed a rickety old chair from the corner and dragged it with him. He placed it next to the bed and sat in it, laying out all his supplies in the space that separated him from Cas. A packaged needle, thread, alcohol—everything to sew up that wound nice and good. Stuff that'd put Cas back together again.

Cas opened his blue eyes. They were dull, glassy; not the usual vibrancy he was used to. Not the perfect blue of a Kansas summer sky. The curiousness and amusement of life's little things had gone. In those eyes, in the faded blue, he saw nothing but death and the tragic future ahead of them. As Dean sat there and watched, Cas' eyes grew bigger and a light returned—a sparkle he knew all too well. Something he saw every time Cas looked at him.

"Dean…"

With his name, said so reverently, so carefully, came the soft touch of fingers against his arm. Explorative, grounding, touching what couldn't be believed.

"It's really you…"

"Yeah, Cas," he answered quietly. "It's me."

"I've missed you…"

As Cas touched his face, he couldn't help but lean into it and close his eyes. The ability to decide what to say or do, to even think clearly, left him as he lost himself in the moment; in a connection he'd craved for years. This was Cas touching him, dragging a thumb across his jaw line, over and up to brush against his bottom lip.

But not his Cas.

Painful as it was, he reached up to wrap his fingers around Cas' hand, pulling it down and away from his face. He gave it a squeeze before laying it on the bed, before ripping his eyes away from Cas' hurt expression. Swallowing thickly, he whispered, "Let's get you patched up."

Dean didn't wait for a response and went about his duties. He pulled the thick thread from its spool and soaked it in the small container of alcohol, pulling open the needle's package with his teeth. He dropped the needle in the alcohol too before leaning forward to pluck at Cas' shirt, lifting it up—

Cas grabbed his wrist. "Stop. It's over for me."

"No," Dean nearly growled. The defiance in his tone took him by surprise. He licked his lips and softened his approach. "I can fix this."

Cas studied him quietly and let him go. He'd done this many times before; stitch up scratches and bites, small holes that teeth had left behind. Even when they were kids, he'd patched up Sam more times than he could count because they couldn't afford to go to the hospital. This wouldn't be any different.

Except that it was.

It wasn't Sammy he'd be patching up; it was Cas. Cas who, as an angel, could heal wounds with a touch. The same Cas that had stayed with him when the angels left this dying world behind—who risked it all for a low-life with nothing to his name except a car, a couple bucks and a thirst to save the world. Because of him, because of some need to protect him, Cas lay in a bed, fucked up to hell and back.

Pulling up Cas' shirt made him suck in a breath. A deep hole with jagged, angry edges stared back at him. Blood oozed out, not coagulating quickly enough to stem the blood flow. It'd prove fatal if he didn't get his head out of his ass and start—

A fire lit his belly, quick fingers reaching out for the comforter. He dragged it up over the wound, pressing Cas' hand to it before turning to prepare the needle and thread. He poked the thread through the eye of the needle and took a steadying breath. He'd save him. No doubt about it.

Dipping a hand low, he grabbed the bottle of whisky from the floor beside the nightstand. He twisted the cap off with his teeth and spat it out, leaning closer to Cas. He slipped an arm behind Cas' neck, cradled his head and lifted him up enough to make sure he wouldn't choke on it. "We're gonna get you nice and buzzed, okay? You won't feel a thing."

Cas fixed him with his blue eyes, painfully filled with complete trust. Without complaint, Cas gulped it down, coughing from the strength of the whisky when Dean let him have a break. He tilted the bottle again, the amber fluid plummeting into Cas' mouth. Watching him drink it, looking him over, he almost forgot that this wasn't his Cas at all.

Suddenly, it didn't fucking matter.

He leaned his head in, resting his forehead against Cas, nose brushing against his cheekbone. Cas swallowed down the harsh liquid and used his hand to right the angle of the bottle—no more, the gesture said. Here, in this tender moment, Cas took in a deep breath and closed his eyes, leaning into the physical contact. He wanted nothing more than to say his sorries, to apologize for all the shit he'd put him through. He said it in the way he brushed his hand against Cas' face; a gentle flutter of fingers and a sweeping thumb across his cheek.

Cas let out a strangled sound when he backed away.

"You nice and fucked up, buddy?"

He grabbed up the needle again, examining it while Cas muttered, "I'll get there."

Dean nodded, grabbed the comforter and pulled it back. Cas grabbed his wrist again, the grip weaker than before.

"Just let me go."

"Cas—"

"Plea—"

"Not gonna happen," he snapped. "You lay there and let me do this, all right?" He swallowed again. "Let me do this."

Cas stared back at him, but otherwise didn't struggle as Dean pulled him closer. With the wound in close range, he could clearly see the damage. Not as bad as he'd thought, but still bad. A wave of hope crashed into him. Encouraged, he grabbed the small lamp from the nightstand and handed it to Cas. "Hold this so I can see."

Cas did as he was told, holding it tight, using the mattress as support. The needle slid easily into his skin, into one jagged fold and out into the other. Above him, Cas hissed in pain, his skin shuddering under the duress of the procedure. "Keep drinking, Cas."

The sound of the sloshing whisky bottle kept his mind clear as he continued his work, threading the pieces of his broken friend back together. The silence unnerved him though, pinpricking his conscience with the reminder of death. Silence equaled the end, through and through. "How'd it happen? Start from the beginning."

In truth, he just wanted to hear his voice.

"Dean…"

"Please. Just… humor me, okay?"

Cas sighed quietly, licking his dry lips. "The last Gate of Hell… opened on a sunny, summer afternoon. You and I, Sam… had just finished eating lunch at a small diner off Route 66, between New Mexico and Arizona. Sam had a double cheeseburger—"

"Bullshit," he cut in, keeping his eyes on the stitching. "Sam doesn't appreciate finer American cuisine."

"We were on the cusp of the end of the world, Dean. A salad didn't feel right to him at the time."

"Huh. Glad he came to his senses." More importantly… "How does the End of the World pie taste?"

"The sky grew dark, impossibly dark, before you had the chance."

"Lame," he grumbled.

Cas took another breath, wincing as the needle poked into his skin. "Then the rain came… but… it wasn't rain at all."

"Blood," they said together.

"Cas—er, other you—said that Crowley couldn't have done this. That maybe—"

"It was my Father?" A shallow chuckle. "Perhaps. What difference does it make?"

None.

"So, we didn't stop the Apocalypse," he stated evenly. "The Colt? We didn't find it?"

Cas didn't answer. This time, he pulled his attention from his work. The expression on Cas' face told him everything.

"The usefulness of the Colt was a fabricated lie. Little bits and pieces of information planted by Crowley to lead us astray." Cas licked his lips and said quietly, "We didn't stop the Apocalypse because... we couldn't."

Fuck.

"So…" Dean trailed off, holding the needle idle in his hands as he stared at the gaping wound. "That's it, then. The bad guys win."

Cas didn't answer. He kept his anger at bay by continuing with his stitching. Doing something useful because saving the fucking world clearly wasn't. He poked and prodded Cas, tipping up the bottom of the whisky bottle with a finger as Cas hissed in pain. More slosh of the whisky, tumultuous against the glass. Perfect representation of his gut right now. Churning and turning from the shocking revelation that they'd… lost. All of them. Cas. Sammy—

"Sam. How'd he—"

He couldn't finish his sentence.

"He went after Amelia. Crowley caught him and…"

Dean tried so hard to breathe evenly. Fucking Crowley. God fucking damnnit. He blew a breath out of his mouth, releasing all his pent up anger and worries and stress. Fucking didn't help at all. Wiping a bloody hand down his face, running an arm across his nose, he kept on with his delicate needlework while he fought with himself. He couldn't save the world. Not Cas. Not even Sammy…

"Do you want to know how you di—"

"I don't fucking care, Cas," he bit out.

I hope it was fucking painful.

"You died a hero—"

"Some fucking hero!" he shouted. "I can't even save my own goddamn brother—or my best friend. So don't fucking tell me I went out a hero. I'm not a fucking hero. Heroes save the people they love."

Cas didn't say a word for a long time. When he finally finished his stitching, when he finally looked at Cas, the expression on his face… it was like he'd said the most beautiful thing Cas had ever heard. His blue eyes brimmed with tears, his chin wobbling before he steeled it tight. So many things passed between them—love, devotion, regret—before Cas looked away and a tear slipped down his face.

"Talk to me."

Cas shook his head and squeezed his hand instead, closing his eyes. Tears tumbled out from beneath his dark lashes, streaming down his dirt-covered cheek.

After a moment of watching him, he stood up from the chair and reached over, wiping away a tear with a finger. Cas was keeping something from him so precious and so important that it seemed physically painful to keep inside. Whatever it was, he'd let it remain locked away.

"You'll be okay," he said quietly. "Get some rest."

Dean stole another glance at Cas before closing the bedroom door behind him.

:::

"I know you're here."

Castiel frowned, averting his eyes from his future reflection. He had seen it all; the tender touches, the recount of their hopeless future. An unsettling flood of emotion, so raw, so painful, echoed inside his Grace. More disturbing was the quake of jealousy that shook him to his core, when Dean touched his face; spared him tenderness that he'd never truly experienced.

He settled his quiet anger with a forced breath, dismissing his invisibility with the wave of a hand. Grace squeezed out of him once more, and the pain of it—the loss of it—rippled across his face. The afterburn of emptiness subsided and he was left to face himself. Alone.

They stared at each other from across the room. The same… yet not. The same person at two different points of his journey—and what human wouldn't kill for a chance at this. To know the unknown, to learn from his future, wiser self. He resented it. The mirror of himself reflected the end, the absolute and utter definition of weakness. Completely human. No signature of Grace inside that broken body. Useless.

The silence continued, each gauging each other—what used to be; what will be. He lifted his chin proudly, clinging to the dull thrum of Grace inside him. He didn't need to say a word—his reflection knew.

"Your heavenly Grace doesn't define you," it said. "It's what's in your heart—"

"No," he said simply. "My Grace… it's who I am." Castiel frowned again. "I'm an angel."

"You haven't been an angel since you—we—touched Dean and raised him from perdition."

The idea resonated within him, in his heart. It thumped with warmth, mingled with the hum of his dying Grace.

"You're more than an angel," his reflection said. "You're an angel who always had too much heart."

"If I become human—if I'm no longer an angel... then…" Castiel swallowed hard and looked himself evenly in the eyes. "How will I be useful to Dean and Sam?"

"Your usefulness isn't dependent upon—"

"I am useful because I am an angel," he said angrily.

"Usefulness has nothing to do with worth."

"I'm worth nothing if I'm not—"

"Dean loves you. Isn't that enough?"

Castiel fell silent.

"Worth, usefulness, angel, human—means nothing, weighs nothing in comparison to the sheer strength of his love for you." His mirror image sat up straight on the bed, wincing with the effort. Serenity washed over his face. "All of this—all you've ever done—was because of him. Because of love. How can you not see that?"

"I don't—"

"Listen to your heart—"

"I can't hear what it's saying!"

Neither of them said a word. Castiel avoided his eyes, tipping his toward the floor. Human love… was a foreign concept. The only love he had ever known, the only love he had been created to feel, was the love for his Father—a Father who had abandoned him, who had never looked back. If that was love, it was something he would want, more than anything, to spare Dean from.

"The true dawning of my humanity… was when I could fully feel every skip of my heart when Dean was near; every subtle, accidental touch shiver across my skin. It was a rebirth—a chance to start over; the promise of forgiveness for everything I'd ever done."

Castiel watched him as he closed his eyes, to revel in that mythical moment. When he opened them, they were glassy. His reflection looked away. "I was never able to tell him how much he meant to me; how much I loved him. If I could do anything, somehow turn back time, I'd shout it to the sky until I no longer had a voice. I'd face my fears and pour my heart out to him until I no longer had breath. I'd memorize every line, every inch of him, until I could no longer see." He swallowed hard and looked at him evenly. "For the love of the Father, please. Please. Don't let that chance slip away. Don't—" He shook his head, a tear falling down his cheek. "Don't be foolish like I was. Don't wait until… it's too late."

Castiel rested a hand over his heart. It threatened to jolt out of his chest, its pounding beat marching up and down his body. What he felt for Dean transcended… everything. Dean was more important to him than his own existence. Was that the true definition of love? Deep and encompassing? Was this the object—this human love—coveted by all angels of the Heavenly Host? A love so pure and breathtaking, so precious that his Father had given it to his most important creations?

Had his Father given it to him too?

Castiel staggered back, his body bumping against the wall. The revelation struck him like a bolt of lightning, left him paralyzed. His Father's most intricate creation—love. And he felt it. For Dean. It shouldn't have come to a surprise to him but it did. A startling awakening so stunning, so meaningful, that he almost lost the strength in his knees.

After it had sunk in, after he had regained his strength, Castiel moved to the bed and settled on its edge, his back to his future existence. Silence spanned between them like the maw of a canyon. It was him that asked, "Does it hurt?"

"Love?"

"No," Castiel answered. "Humanity."

"Yes," he said quietly. "It does. But nothing compares to loss—losing someone so precious to you, that you'd rather die than live without them."

"I will ensure that that doesn't happen… to Dean." Castiel sent himself a sidelong glance. "I'm afraid to die."

Quietly, barely audible, he said, "I am too."

Castiel sent a cursory glance down to the wound. Blood seeped through the bandage. He didn't need to see it again to know how grievous it was. Without healing, he would—

He reached back, fingers almost grazing the patch before his mirror image grabbed his hand. "Don't."

Castiel met his eyes. The heartache there, the hopelessness and pain. Perhaps he wanted to die. Without Dean…

But there wasn't going to be a future where he was without Dean.

Castiel touched two fingers to his forehead. His future incarnation collapsed on the bed, asleep. At peace. His head filled with a dream where he could tell Dean how much he loved him—on the end of a dock where the lake stretched endlessly before them.

:::

Beyond the bedroom, Dean stood at the kitchen sink, looking out the window. Castiel watched him quietly, stepping toward him with a surprising amount of carefulness. His shoulders bowed with the weight of the world, his expression unreadable from this angle. But the pain in his voice—it made him ache.

"We gotta stop this shit," Dean said, his voice hoarse. "I can't lose Sam. Cas…" his voice cracked over the shortened version of his name. "I can't lose you either."

Castiel bridged the small gap between them and reached out. His fingers ghosted the line of his shoulder but didn't touch. He should have, he should have pulled him close, held him until the world fell in pieces around them. Instead, he let his hand fall lifelessly at his side.

"We'll find a way."

A lie, but for once, Dean didn't call him on it.

:::

Dean drank a quarter of a whisky bottle that night. Barely able to stand on his own feet, Castiel had dragged him to bed and lifted the blankets high to his chin. Not even a minute had passed before Dean started to snore, fast asleep. The few steps back to his own room had felt like a mile, long and endless, filled with pitstops on the road to inner understanding.

Everything he'd done for Dean…

He sat on the edge of the bed, palms sweaty against his slacks. His heart ran amuck in his chest, a hollow thump lifting up to his throat. Suddenly, his mouth ran dry, his nervousness palpable in the dark. And although he was alone, with only shadows keeping a watchful gaze, he faced a judging audience.

"I…" he said, swallowing hard. He blew out a breath and closed his eyes, kneading his fingers into his thighs. He took a deep, steadying breath. Another. Yet another. He opened his eyes.

"I love you, Dean."

:::

Morning came early. Sunlight stretched lazily through the dirty windows, past the heavy curtains. Warm, comforting. Castiel tucked the blankets under his chin, rolled over and closed his eyes. The coarse fabric scratched his neck, a musty smell tickling his nose. The birds chirped outside, unbeknownst to the Apocalypse just around the corner. If he tried hard enough, if he imagined, he could almost hear Anna's singing—

The front door snapped shut.

Immediately, Castiel jolted up, slipping out of bed. The cold floors returned him to reality and with it came a sinking feeling in his gut. Perhaps it was Sam, having finally come home. Maybe Dean went for a walk. Somehow, he knew neither would be the case.

He found him—himself—outside, standing on the porch and looking up at the sunrise.

"It's beautiful."

Castiel followed his gaze, to the myriad of beautiful color, splashed against an orange canvas. The way he had said it, filled with awe and reverence, made him realize that he hadn't seen a sunrise in… years, possibly. Months at least. Their future had been bleak, more than figuratively speaking. They stood there for a long time, each taking what they could from the spectacle. Simple. Serene.

The calm before the storm.

He peeled his eyes away from the sunrise, focused them on himself. Pale, ashen skin spoke of a worsened condition, eyes once blue now gray and glassy. Blood soaked the patch on his side, his movements slower and lethargic.

Mortality stared him in the face.

He tore his eyes away, forcing them up into the sky again. They said nothing, letting the rays of light warm their faces.

"What exists after this life?"

Castiel regarded him sidelong, before his eyes tipped up to the sky again. The question gave him pause. Logically, there was no Heaven. Not any longer. Without a Father, his brothers and sisters had left this existence entirely. No shepherds to lead souls into Heaven. No gatekeepers to allow them entrance to the Streets of Gold. Perhaps Crowley had taken it over and sat proudly on his Father's throne.

But his heart told him something else.

"Somewhere… good," Castiel said at length. He laughed out a breath, a smile touching his lips. "Somewhere where there's pie… for Dean."

"Do you believe that?"

"Faith that Dean will end up somewhere good… is one of the only things I have left."

The smile he found waiting for him was genuine, heartfelt and deep. With a nod, his other half looked up at the sky again. "I like that," he said quietly. "Somewhere good."

Silence found them again. A mutual respect. Shaky, his other half held onto the porch railing and walked down a step, half-turning to give him another glance. "Don't allow Sam to leave your side on January 24th, 2014. It starts a devastating and irreversible chain reaction of events."

Castiel frowned. Before his mirror reflection could take another step— "Stop."

His future reflection looked back at him.

"Take this," Castiel said, shrugging out of his trenchcoat. "I don't…" He swallowed and took a deep breath. "I don't need this anymore."

His other half smiled a little bit and took it, smoothing a hand over its fabric. When he looked up, there was a spark of… life there. "Thank you."

He pulled it on and walked down the steps, down the winding dirt path and into the forest. Castiel watched him until he couldn't see him anymore. Among his Father's creations, on the morning of a beautiful day, he'd die out there and wake up in Dean's arms. Somewhere good.

He clenched his jaw and stared up at the sky. The sound of someone behind him caused him to startle.

"What are you doing out here, Cas?"

He smiled back at Dean and pointed. "Watching the sky."

Dean stepped up beside him, looking at the fading colors—stretches of orange and red blending into blue.

"Where's—"

"He's gone."

"What?" Dean growled out. "He'll die out there."

Before Dean could storm down the stairs— "Dean, stop."

Dean clenched his jaw and looked back at him.

"I'm here."

Dean angled his head down, his jaw line tighter than before. The pain of letting go—it registered on Dean's face. Without answering, Dean blew out a breath and bridged the gap between them, their elbows almost touching. As if closing the distance would prevent Dean from losing him too.

"Dean…" he said suddenly. His heart hammered against his ribs, throat dry. "I—" He huffed out a breath, turning his head to look at him. Underneath the scrutiny of those green eyes, his resolve fell apart. "I… care about you… immensely."

Dean arched a brow and he didn't respond for a long time. Looking down and away, Dean let a half-smile find his face. "Yeah, Cas… me too."

Castiel studied his face carefully. After their eyes met for several seconds, Dean cleared his throat and rubbed the nape of his neck. "So… Last night on earth. Any plans?"

He looked away, back up at the sky. "I thought I'd stand here quietly."

He flashed him a glance; a glance that became a long stare as Dean closed in and cupped his face. He sucked in a breath, letting it freeze and die in his lungs as Dean leaned forward to place a gentle brush of lips against his own. His heart pounded in his chest and the sound that came out of his throat—something between a groan and an undignified whimper. Like this, pressed together, they were warm. In the cold shadow of the oncoming end of the world, they were safe in each other's arms. If he hadn't witnessed Heaven with his own eyes, he'd swear it was this; touching Dean, kissing him. Because nothing else could be more beautiful.

Explorative, tentatively, he inched his fingers across Dean's hips, reveling in his body's warmth through the thin fabric of his t-shirt. Dean slid his hand into dark hair and pulled him closer, opening his mouth in a way of surrender. Confidence dared him to grab a hold of Dean's waist, to let his tongue wander into his mouth. As soon as their tongues touched, Castiel melted into his arms, giving himself solely over to his body's direction—his wants, his needs. His mind begged him to take it slow, savor every second with him.

But his body wanted more. Now.

Castiel grabbed Dean by the nape of his neck, deepening the kiss by pulling him closer. The passion grew between them and their mouths traded in tentative kisses for urgency and greed. Dean backed him into the doorframe, hard support jarring his spine. Still lip-locked, they fell into the house on unsteady legs, barely sparing any time for breath. Their tongues and lips explored and nipped, Dean's body pressed hard against one of the bare walls inside the cabin. Castiel arched his hips forward, grazing his painfully hard cock against Dean's. He nearly buckled under the sweetest sound he had ever heard.

It was low, gravel-rough and starved—a groan coming somewhere from deep within Dean. So raw and needy that it left him breathless. Yearning to hear another one just like it, Castiel grabbed Dean's hip and steadied him, kissing him while driving his pelvis forward. This time it was a different sound—a gasp; choked back and desperate, and beautiful all the same.

Their passion quickly turned animalistic.

Dean abandoned the grip on his hair, fingers unfastening his belt. Their lips never broke contact, still fumbling around each other with a need for more. Dean bit at his bottom lip and Castiel responded with a hard kiss, hands on either side of his face to keep him still. To claim him.

Pants fell down to their ankles. Dean reached for his hip and pulled him in. Their hard cocks slid together, hot and wet. Castiel cried out and lowered his forehead to Dean's shoulder, nearly buckling under the newest sensation. His heart leapt to his throat, beating hard and fast. This experience—it was nothing short of incredible.

Castiel lost control of his strength when Dean grabbed both of their cocks, holding them in his hand while he pitched his hips forward. Quickly, Dean wrapped an arm around his waist, whispering against his lips, "Stay with me, Cas…"

He nodded quickly, sealing Dean's lips with a hungry kiss. He rocked his hips forward, following Dean's movements, and a tremble of pure bliss started building in him, mounting, mounting… Their rhythm became erratic, born from the need of immediate satiation. At the crest of something powerful, he leaned forward, nipped at Dean's neck with his teeth, up to an earlobe. A nibble, drawing it into his mouth—another breathtaking groan from Dean.

He couldn't take it anymore.

Before he lost himself completely, before his body's culmination, he tore Dean's hand away and took a step back. Dean's frustrated growl couldn't make it out of his throat before he was turned roughly, pushed into the wall front-first. Castiel pressed his hard cock against his ass, nosing the curve of Dean's spine. Dean groaned his approval, spreading his legs as far apart as he could with his pants around his ankles. He blew laborious breaths against Dean's neck, spat in his hand and gave himself a few strokes—each one of them bringing him closer.

Gently, he pressed himself inside, slowing even more when Dean hissed out in pain. Castiel wrapped his arms around him, gripping the front of his t-shirt, and leaned his head against his back as inched his way in. Sheathed to the hilt, he pressed little kisses on the knob of Dean's spine. He didn't dare move his hips, allowing Dean the time to adjust—when all he wanted to do was fuck him hard.

Dean bounced his hips back and Castiel pulled back slowly, inching forward again. One more thrust like this, fragile and gentle—before he slammed into him with the snap of his hips. Dean groaned deep and pressed his head against the wall, arching his back to prostrate himself. Castiel took it as invitation, deepening his thrusts over and over again. Harder. Rougher. Every one of them earning yet another one of those beautiful sounds.

Thighs slapped against his ass, his cock slick and wet. Castiel hooked his hands beneath Dean's arms, turning them to grab onto his shoulders. Like this, chest pressed to back, the intimacy rose. He lay his head at the base of Dean's, whispering sweet kisses onto his neck. His orgasm hit him from nowhere and ripped him apart, devouring every part of his body and its senses—and blowing them out like fuses. Beyond his own blissful haze, Dean called out too, rendering them both boneless against each other.

They spent the rest of the early afternoon making love, hiding in each other's arms. On the couch, Dean lay on his back, arms wrapped around him. Castiel listened to his heartbeat, ran his fingers in lazy circles on his skin. As Dean sent a hand through his dark hair, he closed his eyes and took in a deep breath.

"I'm not gonna let anyone take this from us," Dean said suddenly, raking his fingers through his hair again. "The Apocalypse may come, but I'll be damned if that's the end."

The resolute steel in his voice filled him with hopefulness. He knew Dean would fight tooth and nail until the end, until the very last shudder of his breath. And he'd be there beside him, every step of the way.

Castiel nuzzled into his chest, nosing his way up to kiss him on the lips. Dean gripped his hair, sliding his tongue into his mouth—

A sudden, distant boom shattered his Heaven to pieces.

"What the fuck was that?"

Together, they leapt up from the couch and shrugged into clothes, stepping out onto the porch. Sam stood at the base, his back to them, and stared up at the sky.

"Sammy?"

Dean jumped down, moving up beside him. With all three sets of eyes skyward, thick smoke—no, demons—filled the sky until it was black, forming a living darkness to blot out the sun. An undulating, eternal darkness. The last gate of Hell had been opened and marked the beginning of the end of the world.