Chapter 1: LAKE TAHOE | MAY
LAKE TAHOE | MAY
Dean linked their fingers together next to Cas' shoulder, smiling to himself as they stared up at the endless night sky.
“I’m not going to see this many stars in Berkley,” Cas said, squeezing Dean’s hand and shifting his head closer to Dean’s arm.
Dean shifted onto his side, nudging his nose against Cas’ bare shoulder and pressing a kiss there. “Wouldn’t be worth seeing it without me anyway.”
Cas huffed a laugh, elbowing his stomach under the blanket. “I shouldn’t get to see the stars without you? So romantic.”
Dean raised up on his elbow, leaning over Cas to smirk down at him. “Call me C. D. Bales.”
Cas squinted up at him. “Who?”
Dean rolled his eyes and collapsed against Cas’ neck, kissing it. “Steve Martin movie. We’ll watch it on Skype.”
“Already planning dates before we leave? That is romantic.”
Dean trailed kisses down his neck. He let go of Cas’ hand and slid his arm out from under Cas’ head as he started moving south. Cas buried his hands in Dean’s hair, messing up the gel more than he already had. “I’m going to miss this,” Cas said on a sigh.
Dean pulled his mouth away from where he had been kissing Cas’ breastbone, swallowing down his own apprehension. “We’ll see each other again at Christmas, right? And we’ll Skype. We’ll text. We’ll talk every day.” He crawled back up to peck Cas’ lips, holding himself up on his elbows on either side of Cas’ head.
“Most people who enter college in a relationship don’t leave college in the same relationship. And that’s just people who go to the same school. We’re going to be on different coasts.”
Dean looked him straight in the eyes. “We aren’t other people, Cas. We’re us. I don’t have any doubts that I want to spend the rest of my life kicking your ass in Rocket League until we’re old and covered in grandkids. Do you?”
Cas’ worry softened into something warm and sweet. “Since when have you ever kicked my ass in Rocket League?”
Dean snorted and kissed him.
CRASH. Dean's machete was up before his eyes were open, and he was half-way to sitting by the time the zombie stumbled into the doorway, all grabby hands and filth and shit. Dean was on his feet in the next instant, blade out in front of him, his other hand spread wide to shield the rest of the sleepers from the threat.
It was a woman, a grandma type with elastic jeans and a torn sweatshirt that declared she loved her grand-puppies, complete with cartoon corgis and garish fuzzy hearts. Her jaw was half-rotted off and one of her arms was gone, but she was still coming at him like a linebacker. She lunged, grabbing at him with her one arm, but he managed to dodge her, stabbing up into her chin and right into her brain stem at the same time. She stopped with a grunt, fingers falling away from his shirt as she slumped against him. He pushed her off the blade and let her drop, already reaching for a cloth to clean the black blood off.
"Who's Cas?" Kevin asked from somewhere behind him. Dean frowned over his shoulder at the kid, up and already rolling his sleeping bag up.
"You were talking in your sleep. That your girlfriend?"
Dean ignored the question, turning back to the door to check that there weren't more zombs coming. He stuck his head out, but the surrounding area looked clear. "Must have been a loner. Get everyone up. I wanna be moving in ten."
Kevin knew better than to argue.
Chapter 2: CAMBRIDGE | DECEMBER
CAMBRIDGE | DECEMBER
It started on a Tuesday, but Dean didn't hear about it until Thursday, when a classmate leaned over his desk to whisper to him during a lecture. "Hey, you hear about this zombie shit, man?"
"No idea what you're talking about," Dean whispered back, keeping his eyes on the board as he scribbled down an equation.
"Don't you read the news?"
"I got three major projects going. I barely remember to eat."
A phone was shoved in his hands, a news article opened on the screen declaring that a virus had broken out on the Yale campus and was spreading quickly. Dean skimmed it without paying much attention. There was an epidemic every few years, and it was always fine. He handed the phone back with a shrug and tuned back into his professor.
But then Cas called that night, and it was a little harder to dismiss. "Dean, the reports I'm seeing on the news are not good. Are you sure you're safe?"
"It's fine, babe. I'm sure this is just another bird flu or bath salts or something crazy. It'll die down in a couple of weeks."
"I don't think so. This feels different."
"It'll be fine, Cas. Don't you have finals to study for? This is the last thing you need to worry about."
"But it's so close to you, and you're so far away from me."
"It'll be fine, sweetheart. We'll both finish up the semester, and we'll see each other in two weeks."
Cas dithered for a little while, but Dean talked him off the deep end and hung up with promises to skype as soon as his last final was done.
Five minutes after he hung up the phone, Ash burst into his dorm room with his computer in his hands and a wild—wilder than usual—look in his eyes. "Dude, I've been running the numbers, and this zombie shit might be the real deal."
He sat Dean down and showed him a projection map with creeping red lines spreading out from their coast all the way across the country. It was fast, much faster than Dean would have assumed. Faster than anything Dean had seen in recent years.
"They'll find a cure in a week," he said, even as doubts started popping up in his own head.
Ash shook his head. "My friend from New Haven says they can't. Engineered it so they couldn't make an antidote."
"That doesn't make any sense. Why would they make a disease without making an antidote?"
"I don't know, dude. I just know they didn't."
Dean stared at the ever-expanding red stain on the map and felt the hairs on the back of his neck begin to rise.
He called Cas an hour later.
Cas didn’t wait for Sam to finish opening the door before he started talking. “I just talked to Dean. We need a plan,” he said, pushing past Sam into the apartment. Jess was sitting on the floor with her back against the couch, study notes spread out in a fan shape on the carpet surrounding her. She smiled when she saw Cas, surprise arching her eyebrows. It was unusual for him to be there, he knew. He hadn’t had time to make the trek across the bay in a few weeks, and with finals a few days away, by all rights he should be hunched over his books at home just as Sam and Jess were. But this was too important.
“A plan?” Sam asked, closing the door behind him and easing onto the couch like any sudden movements might send Castiel into a manic frenzy.
Cas pulled his hat off and shrugged out of his jacket, depositing it in a pile near the door because there was nowhere else. “The outbreak. It’s getting bad out east. Ash ran some kind of epidemic projections, and he thinks this is a legitimate crisis. There have already been a dozen cases at Saint Francis Memorial. It's shown up down in LA, too. We need to plan what we’re going to do when things get bad.”
Sam and Jess exchanged a look. “Are you saying we need to come up with a zombie apocalypse plan?” Jess asked, the ridiculousness of the question clear in her voice.
“Yes.” He saw their faces. He knew what they were thinking. “I’m not crazy. I called Dean earlier, and he told me I was overreacting, too, but then he called me back an hour ago. They’re planning on leaving in a couple of days, heading this way. Dean…” Cas tried to keep his voice steady. The ghost of Dean's voice in his ear was enough to send shivers through him for a second time, and not in a pleasant way. “I think Ash’s projections scared him. They aren't even waiting until finals are over. He's already told his professors he won't be turning in his final projects. He told me we need to get out of San Francisco if it gets bad.”
“He hasn’t called me,” Sam said, pulling his phone out of his pocket to check for messages.
“I told him I was coming to talk to you in person. Here, he said he was emailing me what Ash showed him.” He pulled out his phone and pulled his email up. Dean had sent him the maps he promised, three in total showing the progress of the disease as it spread. They both looked over the maps, their heads close together, eyes growing wider as they passed the phone between them.
They were quiet for a long minute, having a conversation between the two of them without words. Castiel was patient. This wasn't the first conversation he'd witnessed them have without speaking. He could wait.
After a long moment, they turned back to him as a unit. “Okay,” they said together. Cas dropped onto the couch next to them, and they started to plan.
Transportation was a problem. Neither Dean nor Ash had a vehicle in the city, and neither of them was old enough to rent a car without a co-signer. So Ash called his dealer, Andy, who lived out of a badass van he'd had painted with a picture of a woman in a bikini riding a polar bear. Andy was cool, if a little strange. Without a permanent home, it wasn't hard for the two of them to convince him to go on a road trip with them.
They started packing Andy’s van up with supplies the next morning, but they waited a few more days before heading out. Dean wished they hadn't as soon as they hit traffic on 76 outside of Akron. When things got too congested on the highways, they started taking back roads. Around Indianapolis, they had to start siphoning gas, the lines at the pumps too long to wait and the prices sky-rocketing with everyone trying to head as far away from the East Coast as they could. Once they hit Champaign, the roads became completely impassable. The outbreak had hit Chicago hard and everyone fleeing south clogged the college town with abandoned vehicles. There were words.
“We’re not gonna survive on foot,” Andy argued, pulling at his hair as they stood in front of the van.
“You suddenly turn into Magneto? ‘Cause that’s the only way we're getting through all that in the van.” Dean waved his hand to indicate the endless line of cars blocking their path. “We’ll pack what we can. We can find something else on the way.”
Andy turned to Ash for back-up, but Ash was already busy packing up his bag and laptop. Andy looked back at Dean, up at the line of cars ahead of them and the few stragglers walking. “Fuck,” he muttered under his breath. He slumped a shoulder against the van, stroking her side like a long-lost lover. Dean understood the sentiment. He hadn't liked leaving the Impala behind when he went to college. He was hoping she would still be around when they got to Kansas. "Are you sure we can't find a way around?" he asked.
"I'm sorry, man. We've been driving around for a day trying to find a way through. We can't afford to linger anymore."
Andy whipped around to glare at him. "Why not? What hurry are we in? The world's fucked over. There's literally nothing for us to do but run from fucking zombies. Why not drive around for a few days?"
"Because we're eventually going to run out of gas and food. And look, man, I get that you don't have anyone to try to connect with, but I do. My family's all west of here, and there's a good chance at least my parents haven't gotten hit yet. If you want to hang out with your van for a few more days, that's fine, but I can't wait with you, and Ash isn't gonna stay here either." He indicated all the cars around him. "Something stopped all these people from moving forward, which means there's probably a shitload of zombies nearby. I don't want to wait around to run into them. Do you?"
"Of course not, but… Bessy." He stroked the painted portrait of a woman riding a polar bear on the side on the van with a pout.
"It's not like she's likely to go anywhere. If things get better, maybe you can come back for her. Once this all blows over."
"If it all blows over," Andy muttered.
Dean shrugged. That was all he could give him. Andy didn't look like it was enough, but there was also nothing more he could do to argue the point. He hopped into the back and started packing what little he had, exchanging a grim look with Ash, exchanging a grim look with Ash as he did.
They were on foot an hour later.
The day the evacuation was announced, Castiel gathered his pack and walked to their meeting place, thankful that he wouldn't have to battle the crowds of panicked evacuees trying to head out of the city by car. He spent the day hiding from military personnel trying to get him to move along. Once impatient service members realized he wasn't budging, they left him alone. Later, there were roaming gangs of teenagers and a veritable swarm of infected people. Most stayed out of the park, but he could hear them and what sounded like a battle down in Sunset.
He tried calling Dean several times, but too many other people must have been clogging the lines because he could never get a signal. He managed to keep himself alive, but it was well passed dark before familiar figures walked through the underbrush and into the tea garden.
They were bruised and already tired-looking. Their trip was significantly longer than his, and the tired droop of their eyes showed the strain. He was happy to see them alive, even if Brady was with them, a pack of his own on his back. Cas had quietly hoped they wouldn't ask him to come, or that he would refuse if they did, but Sam would have been unhappy if he outright asked them not to invite him.
"I was starting to get worried," Cas said, hugging Jess, then Sam. He stopped at Brady and gave him a nod instead. Brady wouldn't offer him a beer at a party, let alone accept a hug, even if Castiel was so inclined. Brady eyed Castiel like a rat in an alley, but didn't say anything.
"We got caught up at a military check-point outside the airport," Sam said with a pinched look.
Jess reached up to pull out her pony tail and comb her fingers through her long, tangled hair. "I get that they're trying to keep us safe, but they have no right to force us to go where we don't want to, especially when it has such a high probability of being unsafe."
"They were real dicks about it, too," Brady said.
"They were just trying to do their job. They asked us questions for like half an hour, though." Jess wound her hair up into a fluffy bun and tied it on top of her head. Castiel couldn't help but watch, mesmerized by the ease with which she did it. Anyone who said women weren't capable of surviving on their own had never watched a woman tie her hair up without a mirror.
"I was looking at the map while I waited, and I think Steep Ravine might be too far south for us. It's too close to the resort areas and the safe zone." Cas pulls out the map and spreads it out on a large rock to show them. He had been thinking about it all day, going over the map, looking for better alternatives. "I think we should aim for Muir Woods. There's a couple of campsites with cabins that could work, and they'll provide more tree cover."
"I thought you guys already planned all this out. We can't change the plan before we even get to the camp," Brady said, snatching the map off the rock and shoving it in Cas' chest.
"Excuse me? Who elected you leader? You weren't even there when we made the plan. Did you even bring food with you?" Castiel snapped back, holding the map out to smooth out the crinkles and check for tears.
"Of course I brought food, asshole. Just because I wasn't there when the plan got made, doesn't mean I don't get a say in what we do now."
Cas turned to look at Sam, questioning without speaking why he had allowed Castiel's least favorite person to come with them. Sam gave him his puppy eyes as answer. God dammit. "Fine. We'll go to Steep Ravine, check things out. But I still think we should consider other places farther north for permanent settlement. I don't know what the soil quality is going to be like there. It seems sandy."
Sam nodded, patting his shoulder. "We'll cross that bridge when we need to. Let's just get out of the city."
Jess slipped a hand in Sam’s in solidarity. “It’s already dark. We need to cross the bridge before the military moves in and tries to stop us.”
She hesitated for a moment, giving Castiel a sympathetic look he wasn’t quite prepared for. “If we change where we go, how will Dean be able to find us if…”
If. Cas’ heart seized up painfully and his breath caught. He wasn’t ready to think about the possibility. Not yet. He hefted his pack onto his back and turned north without looking at any of them. He heard the crunch of their boots on the grass behind him the next moment.
They crossed the Golden Gate Bridge in silence.
Castiel tried his phone again, trying to check on Dean, but the cell towers were still too congested to get a call out. By the time they made it out of the city, there was no signal at all. Cas went to sleep on his bedroll that night with the realization that he might not ever get to speak to Dean again. He fell asleep with tear tracks down his cheeks. No one mentioned it in the morning.
They were bunked down for the night with a family of strangers when they heard it, groans of pain like nothing Dean had ever heard before. He climbed out of his sleeping bag and stood to walk over to where Andy was sitting watch. "Should we check it out?" he asked.
Andy's look of horror said loud and clear what he thought of that suggestion. They didn't have much of a choice when the first infected person stumbled out of the underbrush, moaning and grabbing for them. It was a young guy, his clothes torn and dirty. There were deep tears across his face and chest, some sort of bodily fluid oozing out of the wounds. He didn't look sick. He looked dead.
Dean shuffled Andy behind him and pulled out his pocket knife, holding it in front of him as a barrier. The guy didn't even flinch, didn't even look at the knife, just kept coming for them, moaning like he was in the greatest pain of his life. "Hey buddy, let's just take it easy..." Dean tried, because as much as they'd been calling them zombies in gest, this was a human being, even if he was basically rabid. Dean had to hope the guy could be spoken to, maybe reasoned with.
The guy didn't react to Dean's words. He barreled forward, knocking into Dean with his mouth open, foul breath hot on Dean's neck as he attempted to bite down. Dean brought the knife up to stab the guy in the shoulder, shoving him away. The guy didn't react, just kept coming for him. Dean stabbed him in the shoulder again, shouting. Nothing.
He started thinking about trying to get the guy's hands behind his back to tie him up, but then three more people shuffled into their clearing, obviously sick, one on a broken leg with the femur jutting out of torn skin. Panic set in.
Dean stabbed his knife into the temple of the guy he was struggling with, hearing the crunch of bone and feeling the resistance of skin and muscle beneath his blade. To his horror, the knife lodged itself in the bone and wouldn't come out. And the head wound didn't seem to be slowing the guy down, either.
Before Dean's brain could catch up with his body, he pulled the machete he had gotten at his dad's behest from the leather sheath strapped to his belt and shoved it up into the guy's chin. The guy dropped like a wet towel. The knife was easy to slide out, which was a good thing because he needed it. After the first kill, the fight was a blur of limbs and angry grunts and mashing teeth and confusion. By the time the last infected person was down, Dean was panting and covered in blood and so close to tears he could barely stand.
He turned to check the other healthy people in their camp, and his heart stopped when he caught sight of Ash and Andy. They were huddled on the ground, Ash trying to get Andy to show him his arm. Both looked scared. Dean never thought he'd see Ash truly scared, but there was no getting around it. He was gently pulling at Andy's arm where he had it cradled against his chest. Andy was shaking his head violently, tears streaming down his face. As Dean approached, he could hear the stream of what Andy was saying. "No, no, no, no, no, no, nononononono..."
Dean knelt down next to them, tucking his machete back into its sheath. "Let's see it, Andy," he said.
Andy shook his head, but Dean ignored his protests and grabbed his wrist, extending the arm out. The sleeve of his hoodie was pushed up, revealing an angry, bleeding wound. Teeth marks, clear against his pale skin. There was a greenish substance smashed in with the blood, a little like puss. Dean cursed under his breath.
"That's a bite," the wife of the family they'd been camping with said, shielding her children from seeing it. Dean frowned at her.
"Obviously. It's okay, buddy. We've got peroxide. We'll bandage this up. Ash, go get the med bag." Dean didn't look up to see if Ash complied. He spoke quiet words to Andy, trying to keep him calm. He was shaking hard, like maybe he was on the verge of a panic attack.
"That lady came out of nowhere. I tried to shove her off, but she wouldn't stop," he said. Dean nodded.
"They were fast."
"I thought they were just sick, but that was... They weren't human anymore, Dean."
Dean refused to look at the bodies. He nodded again, mouth straightening into a grimace. "Yeah. I've never seen anything like that. Ash?"
Ash dropped down next to them the next instant, hands shaking as he pulled the zipper of the bag open and searched for the peroxide.
"Cleaning the wound isn't going to work. The news said the virus takes hold in seconds. He's infected," the woman said. Out of the corner of his eye, Dean saw her herding her children further away.
"Lady, no offense, but shut the fuck up," he said, not looking at her.
She made a distressed noise, but Dean was too focused on cleaning his friend's wound to pay attention to what she did next. The news got shit wrong every day. No reason they didn't get this wrong. He cleaned the wound and bandaged the arm up, ignoring Ash's worried mutterings.
When he finished, he looked at Andy. Andy’s face had lost color and there were still tears trailing down his dirty cheeks. "It's gonna be okay, buddy," Dean told him, patting him on the shoulder. Andy didn’t look reassured.
"I think we should get moving. There might be more zombies coming," Ash said. Dean flinched at the word. They were people, at least they had been. Were they already at the point of dehumanizing them because they were sick?
He made the mistake of glancing at one of the bodies and felt his stomach revolt. He stumbled a few feet away and bent forward, his meager dinner coming up without his permission. He coughed, wiping the spittle off his mouth. "Fuck," he muttered under his breath. It took a physical effort to suppress the hot tears itching to fall.
When he turned back around, Andy was standing by his sleeping bag, cradling his bandaged hand, watching Dean with a haunted look. Ash was packing their things, muttering to himself as he worked. The family was packing up as well, eyeing the three of them like they might be radioactive. Dean stared dead-eyed at the mother, any interest in their safety gone. The two little kids with them both looked terrified, and Dean couldn't blame them. He also didn't have the time to be sad for them—he was beginning to be fucking terrified himself.
They packed up and quickly went their separate ways, Dean and Ash bracketing Andy, exchanging looks over his head every once in a while. It was dark, but the moon was bright enough to help them see. They walked until morning, found an abandoned frat house, and bedded down for a few hours.
Dean didn't need much sleep, but he had barely gotten an hour the night before. The shadows in the tiny bedroom he'd commandeered had moved significantly by the time he woke up. A check of his watch told him it was passed three in the afternoon. It would be getting dark again soon. He stared up at the ceiling for a minute and thought about calling Cas. He had a decent chance of getting a signal in a more populated area. He would need a charge, though.
He got up and went to check on Ash. Still dead to the world. Andy was sitting up in bed when Dean poked his head in, bleary eyed and looking far worse for wear. Dean stepped into the room, and Andy's glassy eyes flew to him. They were dilated, almost as wide as they got after a night with Moby Dick—Andy’s favorite bong—but without the humor that kind of a night usually offered. "How you feelin', buddy?"
Andy shook his head, reaching his injured arm out for Dean to see. It looked bloated and bruised well passed the bandage. Andy moaned. "Hurts… so fucking bad," he said in a raspy, desperate voice.
Dean approached slowly, heart sinking to his stomach. The smell of decay was thick in the air around them. He had a horrible feeling that he wasn’t going to like what he saw, but he reached out anyway and took Andy's wrist in his hand, tugging at the edge of the bandage to see underneath. The skin closest to the bite was black with decay and clearly not healing. "Shit."
"Does it look… bad?" Andy asked, trying to peak. Dean dropped the bandage, hiding the worst of it from him. Standing so close to him, Dean could see that Andy's face was covered in a thin sheen of sweat and he looked as pale as slab of marble. For a brief second, he thought about amputating it, but even if he could manage it and somehow keep Andy from bleeding out, Dean could already tell it was over.
"It'll be okay. How about you lay back down, get some more sleep? Ash is still dead to the world. I'm gonna see if these frat guys had any food."
"Doubtful," Andy said, taking Dean's advice. He looked like it took a supreme effort just to slump down the few feet to lay his head down. Dean patted his knee and got up to go raid the kitchen. He needed an excuse to be busy or he was going to start freaking the fuck out.
He stopped in the upstairs bathroom first. It was a long-shot that he might find antibiotics—not that they would work, according to the news reports—but a frat house was bound to have some pain killers. Probably some strong ones if he dug around a little.
By the time he got back to Andy's room, he'd found a stash of oxy, codeine, and almost a pound of weed. He brought Andy the oxy with a glass of water and a sandwich he'd managed to cobble together from what wasn't expired in the fridge. Andy had been right about the frat's food stock. It had probably been pretty low before the occupants had fled, and the pantry had shown signs of raiding by others already.
Andy looked even worse when Dean handed him the water and the pills. He swallowed them with a grateful grunt but no words. Dean left him to eat and went to check on Ash again. Still out cold. Dean should probably have woken him—if left to his own devices, Ash could sleep for literal days—but he wasn't in a hurry to leave yet. He wanted to check a few houses around them to see what other food and medical supplies he could find. And maybe a charger for his phone.
Ash was awake when he got back, successful on all fronts. He'd had to take out three infected people, but it was getting easier to do without feeling like a monster. He wasn't letting himself think about what that might mean for his mental state. It didn't matter. Surviving did.
Ash was sitting on the couch in the front room, eating his way through a bag of crackers that Dean was pretty sure were stale, but food was food. He dug his hand in when Ash held the bag out to him and didn’t complain.
"How's Andy?" Dean asked as he pulled out one of the portable chargers he'd found and plugged his dead phone in. A little empty battery image appeared before fading back into black. None of them had been solar, but he figured he could chuck them once they died unless he found a place to charge them.
Ash shook his head, eyes hooded. They sat with that for a few minutes, the only sound in the room the crunching of stale crackers between them.
"I found some med supplies and a shit-ton of protein bars at the sorority house next door," Dean said, tipping his open pack towards Ash to show him the haul.
Ash gave him a thumbs-up. "The freezer still had ice in it, so I think the meat in there is probably still okay. Thought I'd try to get the grill going out back and cook up supper. Might help keep his strength up."
Dean doubted it, but he nodded all the same. It had been a few days since he'd had any meat other than jerky. "Awesome. I'm gonna go check on Andy."
Dean's stomach rebelled when he found Andy, drenched in sweat and moaning the same as the other infected people. He was awake when Dean popped his head in, but his eyes wouldn't focus on anything. He writhed on the bed, groaning in pain. Dean thought about giving him more pain meds, but he didn't think it would help, and he didn't want to waste them.
He closed the door, worry churning in his gut, and went back downstairs to find Ash fighting with the grill. They worked together to get it going and had burgers and sausages cooking within the hour. Dean stared at the flames, brain still focused on Andy upstairs, his moans drifting down to them through the closed upstairs window. The early dark of winter somehow made all of it worse.
"Should we do something?" Ash asked in a flat, emotionless tone.
"Like what?" Dean couldn't keep the accusation from his voice. He had a feeling he knew where Ash was going with the question.
Never one to bow to intimidation, Ash looked up from the grill to meet Dean's glare with eyes that looked tired beyond his twenty years. "You know what."
Dean didn't answer, couldn't answer. The thought of what they were talking about made him want to throw up again. Strangers were one thing, but one of his friends? Could he really do that? Would Andy want him to?
"He's not gonna get better. If it were me, I'd want to go out before I took anyone with me."
Dean couldn't argue with that. He felt the same way, and he knew Andy probably did, too. "I don't know if I can do that, man."
"I'll do it. You did enough of that last night."
Dean nodded, not ready to tell Ash about the three earlier. "After dinner."
Ash agreed. They pulled the burgers off the grill and put together a semblance of a decent meal, neither making any move to fix Andy a plate. Without saying anything, they both knew it wouldn't be worth it.
Dean followed Ash upstairs after they ate and stood in the doorway, intending to say goodbye, but as soon as Ash stepped into the room, Andy was crawling out of the sheets and reaching for him, growling. Nothing of the Andy they knew was there in his eyes. Ash stood frozen in fear, the knife he’d planned on using rattling out of his trembling hand. Dean pulled Ash out of the way before he could get hurt and stabbed his knife through Andy's throat in one quick motion.
Andy's eyes shuddered for a moment, and his mouth fell open in a prolonged groan. It faded off as he slumped, lifeless, to the floor. Dean let go of the knife, beginning to shake with the immediate threat gone. He turned and vomited into a corner of the room, not caring that he was leaving a mess. Ash stood behind him, staring at the body of their dead friend. He soon followed Dean in emptying his stomach.
Dean stepped out into the hallway, unable to look at his friend's body any longer. There were sounds of shuffling in the room and a wrenching sound, followed by the slick sound of blood. Ash stepped out wiping the blade of Dean's knife off on a t-shirt and handed it to him. "I'm sorry you had to do that, man."
Dean nodded, not looking at Ash. He turned the knife around in his hand a few times, not wanting to think about it now that it was done.
"Should we bury him?"
Dean went to nod, but another wave of nausea hit him, and he turned away to let nature take its course.
They left the next morning, a fresh grave in the backyard marked by a plastic dinner plate with Andy's name written in sharpie behind them. They didn't talk until they were on the other side of town. That night they slept in an abandoned gas station with five strangers, taking turns staying up to make sure they didn't get robbed. They didn't talk about Andy again.
Every step moved them farther west, and yet deep in his soul, Dean's hope of making it to Kansas alive shrunk to a tiny dying star.
“Man, babe, I’ve never seen so many abandoned cars in my life. It’s like everyone just gave up at once,” Dean told him. There were sounds of grass crunching under Dean’s boots, and Cas could recognize Ash’s voice in the background.
“You’re on foot now? Is that safe?”
“Not much of a choice. The roads were so congested with abandoned cars, we couldn’t find a through-way. We’re gonna find another car as soon as we can, I promise. I’m gonna get to you if it kills me.”
Worry swooped through his stomach like an unexpected ice bath to his insides. “Don’t let it kill you. I need you safe, Winchester.”
“I won’t do anything stupid, babe, I promise.”
“Good. I love you.”
“I love you, too, honeybee.” Cas could hear snickers in the background and Dean’s grumbling at his friends. “You assholes are just pissed you don’t have someone to call cute names,” he tells them.
The sound of an ATV cut through the quiet of the forest, interrupting Castiel's memory of his last conversation with Dean, two days prior. He tucked the dead phone he’d been stroking absently as he walked and turned towards the noise just as a blonde head appeared through the trees. A park ranger in uniform emerged from behind a giant sequoia on a park-issued ATV. She stopped a dozen feet away and pulled her helmet off, revealing an open, friendly smile. "Howdy," she said. "You all know there's an evacuation set." Her accent was not Californian.
"We're going to Steep Ravine," Sam informed her.
"Well, the park's closed, buddy, so no you aren't." She planted her hands on her hips, standing up while still straddling the ATV.
"What do you care, lady? There are literal zombies in the streets. Opening hours don't matter anymore," Brady said, a sour expression marring his well-proportioned face. Castiel shot him a withering look.
The ranger’s expression mirrored Castiel’s. "Just because there's a few sickos out there, that's no reason to get nasty. The army's got designated areas for evacuees. I'd be happy to escort you."
“No thank you. We have a plan," Castiel told her in a far calmer tone.
She looked long and hard at him. "You have a plan."
"We're going to Steep Ravine. There are cabins there, access to fresh water. There's a natural barrier on one side with the ocean and a few miles of thick forest between us and populated and potentially infected areas. We have enough supplies to last us about a month and means to start growing more," Sam explained.
"And we don't want to go to the government-designated areas because the likelihood of an outbreak there is high. This way we can be assured that no one coming into our area is infected," Castiel added. The ranger didn't look convinced.
"Some people might listen to the military and follow the law," she said.
"Some people might get themselves killed." Brady crossed his arms over his chest, the move made awkward by the thick straps of his pack.
The ranger opened her mouth to respond, but Jess got there first, stepping in front of Brady as if to block him from the ranger's view. "We're getting off on the wrong foot. I'm Jessica Moore." She introduced all of them in a soft, confident voice that seemed to put the ranger at ease. It took a little while to convince the woman, Donna Hanscum, as Jess finally got out of her, but she finally agreed to give them a few days to hide out before moving on. Castiel knew they had no plans to move on. Jess had been right. Steep Ravine was where Dean knew to find them. Steep Ravine was where they would stay.
Dean stopped keeping his phone charged around Jacksonville when it became obvious that he wasn’t going to get a signal again, but he didn’t get rid of it. Late at night when he couldn’t sleep, he pulled it out, popped in headphones, and watched the old videos Cas used to send him before the world went crazy. Short silly things about his day or interesting things he wanted to share with Dean. A few sexy videos Dean had kept for when the separation anxiety got bad. He never watched those anymore because they hurt too much, but it was amazing to hear Cas’ voice again, complaining about the cafeteria being out of his favorite soup or showing Dean a project he was working on.
“I’m doing an experiment on how diet can affect honey production, and check out what my little worker bees are doing.” The video panned from Cas’ smiling face to a frame of honeycombs that were dark blue instead of their normal golden color. “I’ve been giving them access to artificially dyed sugar along with their normal pollination diet, and they’ve started making blue honey! I’m going to sell it at the farmer’s market downtown next weekend. I’ll save a jar for your mom. Blue’s her favorite, right?”
The video cut off with a flash of Cas’ smiling face again and a wink. Dean had barely thought about the video when Cas had sent it to him, warmed that Cas would think of his mother but nothing more. Re-watching it now that he and Cas were separated was so much more heart-wrenching. But he couldn’t stop himself and didn’t want to.
He was watching the short video for the hundredth time, awake on his turn at patrol, when movement out of the corner of his eye put him on alert. A woman walked up to their fire and sat down a few feet away, looking for all the world like she belonged there. Dean immediately pulled his earbud out and shut his phone off, hiding it away in a pocket of his coat.
“Hi,” the woman said, holding her hand out in the space between them. “I’m Charlie.” She was small and pale with bright red hair and freckles to match. She looked about his age, maybe a year or two younger. Dean had to squint to see that she was wearing a Princess Leia shirt under several layers of open flannel, hoodie, and jacket. Dean stared at her, but didn’t shake her hand. She dropped her pack behind her and leaned back against it, stretching her feet out to let her boots warm close to the fire. “You mind if I stop over with you two tonight? It’s a tough world out there for a lonely rebel.”
“Where did you come from?” Dean managed, still unsure what to make of the woman. She didn’t look like she could be a threat, but they had been burned before.
“Quincy. Figured it might be a good idea to head south once the power grid went down. I can’t light a fire for shit, and it’s frickin’ cold. What about you?”
Dean hesitated to answer. His gut said he could trust this woman, but his gut had been wrong before. “Cambridge, Mass.”
“Woah, dude, that’s a trek. You didn’t do it all by foot, did you?”
“Our car got stuck near the University of Illinois.”
“I heard that was bad. News hasn’t been running for a week, but I still had internet until a couple days ago. Rumor was there are huge groups of infected people wandering around outside campus.”
“We ran into some, yeah.” He refused to think about Andy.
“Yeah, I met a few, too. Never thought I could…you know.” She made a stabbing motion with her hand, the accompanying face almost comical. Dean’s stomach untwisted for just a second before knotting back up again. “It’s pretty easy when it’s you or them, though.” She paused, wrinkling her nose and tilting her head to the side. “Man, I never thought I’d say that. This is nuts.”
Dean couldn’t help but agree. She turned and started rifling through her pack, digging deep for something. He reached down a hand to pull a knife from his boot just in case, but when she found what she was looking for, it turned out to be a chocolate bar, the small kind you bought at holidays. It had a little snowman on it. Dean’s stomach sank seeing it. He hadn’t had chocolate since before…everything. The last time he could remember, he was on Skype with Cas, and they were both trying dark chocolate with chili powder for the first time. Cas’ face when the heat hit his tongue had made Dean fall over laughing. They’d had sex after and fallen asleep together with their cams still on. It was a good memory.
Dean didn’t realize he was smiling until Charlie unwrapped a square of chocolate and held it out to him. “Knew I could win you over. I raided the candy aisle at Target before I left. Never gonna regret it.”
Dean accepted the sweet and almost melted as the flavor hit his tongue. You never knew how much you missed something until you found it again. As he pushed the piece around in his mouth, he absently wondered whether or not he would ever get to have pie again. Probably not. Best not to think about it.
He tucked the knife back in his boot. “Thanks,” he said.
She nodded, grinning at him. “Merry Christmas.” She held out a piece of chocolate of her own with a wink before stuffing it in her mouth. “So, cool if I sleep with you guys tonight?”
The reminder of the holiday turned the chocolate to ash in his mouth, but he swallowed it anyway. He had almost forgotten what day it was. He was supposed to be drinking spiked egg nog at Uncle Bobby’s with Cas under his arm and his parents bickering over whether ‘A Christmas Story’ or ‘Christmas Vacation’ was the better movie, not sleeping outside in the middle of nowhere Missouri. “If you think you can trust us.”
Charlie gave him an appraising look. “You look cool.” She unbuckled the sleeping bag and pillow from the bottom of her pack and stretched it out beside her far enough away from the flames to avoid stray sparks. She hesitated before climbing in. “Think it’s safe to take my boots off? I’m really bad at climbing out of this thing with them on.”
Dean swept his eyes over the empty fields, nothing visible to him in the limited moonlight. He nodded. “I think we’re clear for now.”
“Cool. I’m gonna sleep, but wake me up when your watch is over and I can take the next shift. Won’t rob you, I promise.” Dean gave her a look, and she rolled her eyes. “I’m tougher than I look, dude. I got mad skills.”
Dean didn’t doubt she was capable of more than her slight frame gave her credit for, but he doubted thievery was on her resume. He kept his gaze steady for another few seconds before going back to his look-out duties. Charlie took her boots off and crawled into her sleeping bag, making a big show of fluffing her tiny pillow before settling down.
When his shift ended, he woke Ash to take over. He fully expected her to be gone when he woke up, but she wasn’t. And when they packed up and headed out after breakfast, she came with. Neither of them minded.
No one mentioned Christmas again.
It was early morning on their second day at camp when the sound of the ATV broke through the argument Brady and Sam had been having about water-collecting duties. Castiel was busy poking holes in an old plastic coffee canister to make a watering can, but he was listening to the argument without looking at the two of them.
"Why can't the old guy go get the water? He's strong,” Brady asked.
Sam pushed his hair out of his face with a pinched look. "We don't know him, Brady. You trust a stranger to get water for you?"
Castiel checked the immediate area for the man in question, Cain, the one person who had already been staying at the cabins when they arrived. So far, he hadn’t said much, but he didn’t seem interested in leaving, either. They hadn’t pushed the issue yet. He knew how to set snares. And fish.
"He seems fine to me. He hasn't tried to kill us in our sleep yet," Brady said.
"Just get the water for now, dude. We’ll figure out a routine later,” Sam said as Donna’s ATV rolled down the path into view.
Donna climbed down to the ground with a quirk to her mouth that spoke volumes of her mood. “Still here, I see.”
“We told you what our plan was,” Sam told her.
“Just thought you might have seen some sense once you got here. See you’ve already made yourselves comfortable.” She nodded towards the tarp they had stretched out to collect rain water next to Brady’s cabin.
“There’s an old guy, too—”
“Stop calling him the old guy. He has a name,” Sam said, smacking Brady’s shoulder.
As if sensing he was being talked about, Cain came out of his cabin at that moment. He wasn’t even old, early fifties at most, and his lack of shirt served as a reminder to all of them that he hadn’t let his age affect his physique. He paused upon finding them standing a few feet away, scowling at them all. “Officer,” he said.
“Donna Hanscum. You are?”
“Cain Smith. Can we help you?”
“Just checking in. I told the kids when I found them heading this way a coupla days back that I was gonna give them a few days to move on.” She turned to Castiel, Sam, and Brady. “It’s been a few days.”
“You realize we’re not leaving, right?” Sam waved a hand over the camp, signs of their settling in everywhere. Beside the water tarp, there was a line between Sam and Jess’ cabin and Castiel’s with clothes hanging to dry. They’d gathered garbage cans for water collecting for their future garden. There were lines in the sandy soil indicating where they planned to start planting said garden. Cain had two rabbit skins stretched over his balcony, drying in the sun.
“No one is authorized to be on this land right now. You’re supposed to go to a government-sponsored safe zone for evacuation and quarantine.”
“What authority do you have to force us to vacate?” Cain asked, leaning over so his elbows rested next to the rabbit skins on his railing. Castiel hadn’t known it was possible to be so disinterested, and yet so capable of damning judgement at the same time.
Donna hitched her pants up, scowling at him. “The United States government. The park’s been closed due to the evacuation order.”
“The last estimate I saw had the TFW-13 infection rate at fifty thousand and rising, just in the Bay Area. Are we supposed to believe the US government cares about half a dozen transients trying to stay clear of the infection on government land?”
“I care, buddy. Closed is closed. You gotta go.”
Cain looked at her for a long moment. Then he straightened and turned back into his cabin. They waited for a few minutes, but he didn’t come back out. Donna seemed to take this as a refusal and huffed under her break. “Rude.” She turned to look at the rest of them, eyeing each of them in turn. “Don’t suppose I’m gonna talk you outta this silly plan then, huh?”
“No,” Sam said.
She shook her head. “Fine, be stubborn. If you get killed, don’t say I didn’t warn you.” She walks back to her ATV and climbed back onto it. “There’s a mountain lion that likes to patrol around here. Den’s about eight miles that way.” She pointed northeast. “I’ll come check on you in a week.”
“Thank you,” Sam said, nodding to her even as his eyes tracked the tree line in the direction she’d pointed. He and Cas exchanged a look as she drove off. They had a week to solidify their camp. Sam nodded at Cas, and they both headed in different directions to start their days. No one brought up water collecting duties for the rest of the day.
“Dude, that’s a myth,” Charlie said, shaking her head at Ash.
“I don’t think so. I did some digging right before we left and found some blueprints and work requisition orders. They were buried pretty deep, but they looked pretty real to me,” Ash insisted. The two of them had been talking plans for a good hour while they walked. Dean hadn’t said a word. Ash knew his plan. He didn’t see the point in telling Charlie about Cas or Sam.
“The government didn’t build a secret apocalypse bunker in Lebanon, Kansas. That doesn’t make any sense. We know where the nuke bunkers are. It’s public record.”
“Which is why they’re all probably fucked. You make a thing public record, guess where everyone’s going when a real crisis hits. They’ll probably all be hot zones inside another month. But a secret bunker in the middle of nowhere?” He nodded as if that explained everything. Charlie didn’t look impressed.
“That’s a pipe dream, dude.”
“I’m still gonna try. Not like it’s that far. And the plans looked like there was some serious crisis-ready tech hidden inside. If it’s good, I might be able to get satellite access.”
“What would be the point? No one else will have it. The TFW-13 virus went international before they knew there was a problem. Who are you going to contact?”
“Other bases. The entire global community hasn’t had time to collapse yet. Might as well try, right? Maybe someone’s figured out a cure by now.”
Charlie turned to Dean. “What do you think?”
Dean shrugged. “I don’t.”
“Dean’s got his own agenda,” Ash said. Charlie’s eyebrows crinkled.
“You aren’t staying together?”
“I’m going to the coast,” Dean said, keeping his eyes trained on the town they were approaching. He could see a few shambling zombies wandering the gas station at the edge of town. Dean was already calculating how to take them out.
Dean isn’t looking at her and misses the sudden spark of interest in her eyes. “Really? Why? Reports said the outbreak hit California hard. It’s gotta be a hotbed.”
“My brother was a freshman at Stanford.”
“And you think he got out? I’m sorry, Dean, but those are shitty odds. I’d give anything to have family still alive, but that’s a huge risk.” She sounded genuinely remorseful about it. They hadn’t talked about family yet, but he had a feeling she had a story behind hers. He had decided a while back not to ask.
Dean glanced at her. “The last time I talked to them, they were making a plan to get out. I gotta see if they did.” He shrugged. “Not like I got anything to lose.”
“Speaking of, map says we’re only half a day outside of Kansas City, but I think we should probably avoid it unless we can find a car. If anywhere in Kansas got hit by the outbreak already, it’s there,” Ash told them, holding their atlas out in front of him and pointing to the dot marked Kansas City.
“Let’s see what we can find in this next town.” He pointed at the zombs they could see shuffling closer. They were still too far to hear them, but the movement of them walking closer must have alerted them. Charlie squinted at them, shielding her face from the sun.
“We need range attack. Next sporting goods store, we’re hunting down a bow and arrows.”
Dean snorted. “You think you’ll be able to pull a bow back with those bird arms?”
Charlie punched him in the shoulder. “Watch it, buddy. I’m gonna be a level 100 archer by the time we make it to California, you just wait and see.”
Dean didn’t argue. He didn’t miss her mention of going to California with him, but thought better of bringing it up. Why she would want to risk going with him was beyond him, and he wasn’t in the mood to argue it out at the moment.
They found a drivable car after clearing out the gas station and siphoned gas from all the nearby cars to get the tank filled. And when they drove passed a sporting goods store on the north edge of KC, Dean cleared it of a few infected people and helped Charlie pick out a bow. She proved to be surprisingly good at it.
The now-familiar sound of the ATV broke through the quiet morning. Cas and Jess were busy clearing a spot for the vegetable seeds they brought with them. Cas had been right about the soil being sandy, but they'd found a cash of top soil under one of the cabins and were using it to improve their situation. They both paused to watch as Donna drove up. She had a large pack with her and a frown Cas was beginning to recognize as bad news.
"Good morning," she greeted them, turning the ATV off and climbing down.
"Is it?" Castiel asked, standing and brushing the dirt from his hands on his pants. Jess followed suit.
"Oh, you know. Got a report over the radio early this morning. Outbreak in the safe zone. A few infected people got through the scans."
"How bad is it?" Jess asked.
"Doesn't sound good."
"The ranger's station is pretty close to the safe zone," Cas said.
Donna locked eyes with him. "It is."
"There are plenty of extra cabins if you want to stay with us."
"Oh, I couldn't, but thank you."
Cas frowned. He learned early that Donna liked to talk around the things that made her uncomfortable, but he couldn't imagine why she would directly reject his offer, especially since she was holding a packed bag. It wasn't as though she was going to be able to remain safe for much longer if the safe zone was infected. The map had made it look like it was only a few miles from her outpost. "Are you sure? We’ve got plenty of supplies, and an extra pair of hands would be great."
"You're very sweet, but no thank you." There was a hesitance that made Cas ask again.
"I already cleaned out the one next to mine in case we got a few more refugees. Are you sure you don’t want to take it?"
Her eyes went to the giant pack strapped to the back of her ATV. "Well... if you really don't mind. It's probably safer to be close by, right?"
Cas' sinking heart lightened. He was starting to like Donna. The last thing he wanted was for her to be killed by a wandering infected person. "Definitely. Come on, I'll show you where to put your stuff. I hope you brought food?"
"Oh, I cleaned out the station kitchen. We can go back to raid the pantry later. We had a couple months-worth of food stockpiled in case something happened. We were thinking forest fire, mud slide, that sort of thing, but ya know." She flung her hands up in a what-can-you-do gesture that was remarkably flippant given the circumstance, but Cas could see the tension in her shoulders.
"That's really good news," Jess said, smiling encouragingly.
Donna unstrapped her pack and followed Cas to the cabins, leaving Jess to get back to planting. "The cabins aren't big, but they’re pretty well-protected and there's a wood stove in each. And they’re so close together that we can hear if something happens from cabin to cabin," he told her as they walked.
Donna nodded, eyes focused on the horizon. "I was supposed to fly home to Minnesota for Christmas. Pretty sure that's not happening," she said.
"I was, too. I'm just grateful we thought ahead and had the means to get somewhere remote. My boyfriend—" He stopped, unable to complete the thought. Dean had been a constant presence in the back of his mind, lurking, reminding Cas of what he had probably lost. He kept his phone charged thanks to his solar charger, but there hadn't been cell service since they left San Francisco. The last he heard from Dean, he was on foot looking for new transport in southern Illinois. He didn’t like to let himself wonder where Dean was at the moment. Too many mental images of him bloody and broken, lying in a field somewhere. Or worse. "He was at MIT," was what he told Donna.
A hand dropped onto his shoulder and squeezed. "I'm sorry to hear that."
Cas nodded, but didn't look at her. They walked the rest of the way to the cabin in silence, the sounds of the sea their only companion. He opened the door and indicated the bed shoved into the corner. He had cleaned the space out the day before as part of the inventory check, but there hadn’t been much. "It isn't much, but it's relatively comfortable."
"I don't need much," Donna said. She plopped her pack down and started sifting through it, producing canned goods and condiments. Cas showed her where to store them, and they spent an hour talking about long-term plans before joining Jess in planting once more.
Chapter 3: LAWRENCE | DECEMBER
LAWRENCE | DECEMBER
They drove into Lawrence in silence, Ash and Charlie both seeming to understand that Dean wasn’t in the mood to talk. His heart was pounding as he maneuvered the familiar streets of his hometown, so much different now than it had been when he left. The abandoned cars lining the streets were difficult to navigate. The infected wandered openly, shuffling after the car as they drove passed. He hadn’t really thought about what he’d find, but Dean was starting to worry that they were going to have a problem when they reached the house.
His block was in the same disarray as the rest of town. And when someone wandered out of Mr. Johnson’s house, Dean was dismayed to see that it was Mr. Johnson, infected. Dean parked the car in front of his childhood home and left Charlie and Ash to take care of their followers. It wasn't a fair move, but these were his neighbors. He just... couldn't.
The front door was unlocked, not a great sign. There was no movement in the house as far as he could tell, but when he stepped inside, he could hear moaning upstairs. It froze his heart.
He sat down on the couch, the familiar sink of it barely registering as he dropped his head in his hands. He had been putting all his hope into coming home. He knew it wouldn’t be normal, but he had hoped… His parents were supposed to be resourceful. They had survivalist training. His dad had survived two tours in Vietnam, and his mom was a self-defense instructor wand who grew up in the house of two nuclear war conspiracy theorists. If anyone knew how to survive something like the zombie apocalypse, it should have been the two of them. He dropped his head against the back of the sofa and thought back to his last conversation with them.
“Sweetheart, you don’t have to worry about us. It’s probably going to take a while to get to us, and we’re going to bunker down with Bobby if things get bad. We’ll be fine. You just get here safe,” his mother told him, giving him a reassuring smile. His internet connection wasn’t a strong one, but it was holding for the Skype call.
“You got a weapon?” his dad asked, popping onto the screen behind Mary. He had a bowl in one hand and was stirring whatever he was mixing together.
“I uh… I got a pocket knife,” Dean said, unsure how to feel about the serious expression on his father’s face.
“Get a machete or a hunting knife. I know it’s grim, but things are gonna get harry quick. You need protection.”
Dean took a minute to process what his father was telling him. “I uh… yeah, I’ll get one.”
“Good. You’re leaving in the morning?” Mary asked. She didn’t look any more fazed by the idea of Dean being armed than John did.
“Yeah, as early as we can get Andy awake.”
“Good. Make sure you get gas whenever you can. Get a couple of extra canisters to keep in the car. And take as much drinking water as you can with you. You never know what it’ll be like once you’re on the road.” The feed started buffering as she talked, taking much longer to play than it probably took her to say.
“I will,” Dean said. The screen began to flicker. He sighed, not ready to let his parents go. There was no way to know if he’d be able to talk to them again until he got to Kansas.
“It looks like we’re going to have to go. Be careful, sweetheart. We love you.”
“I love you, too. Stay safe.”
“You, too. Get here as soon as you can.”
His mother’s words replayed in his head, “We’re going to bunker down with Bobby if things get bad." Had they gotten infected before they could do that? Was Uncle Bobby still alive? What happened to the town? Lawrence wasn't necessarily a small town, but Kansas was about as middle-of-nowhere as you could get. It should have taken a lot longer to get bad enough to have zombies wandering around in the street.
“Dean?” Charlie asked, walking through the front door with a knife in her hand coated in blood. Ash was right behind her, fresh blood splashed on his jacket. They both looked up the stairs at the sound of a moan. Dean cringed and looked down at his hands. His heart felt like it was caught in a vice, slowly squeezing him to death. Charlie sunk onto the couch with him, rubbing his back with her free hand.
“It might not be one of them,” she said after a long moment.
“Want me to go check?” Ash asked from the doorway.
Dean shook his head and stood up. If it was his parents, it was his responsibility to take care of them. He wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he let Ash or Charlie do it instead. Ash patted him on the shoulder as he passed by with a grim nod of support. Dean didn't acknowledge the gesture. He walked up the stairs on boots made of lead, holding onto the banister as if it might be able to take the weight of what he was about to do.
When he reached the landing, a scratching sound came from the direction of Sam’s room. The moans came from the opposite direction—his parents’ room. He went to the scratching noise first and opened the door slowly, holding his machete out for protection. It wasn’t an infected person, though. It was a dog, a little fluffy thing that started barking as soon as he opened the door, flinging itself at him and gnawing at his shoes. Dean stared at it, confused. They never owned a dog. His dad never would have allowed a little purse dog like the one bothering him now in the house.
He nudged the dog away, ignoring its attempts to trip him up, and checked inside the room. It had been ransacked, Sam’s drawers open and their contents strewn everywhere. The bed was a mess. Dog shit all over the floor and deep scratch marks marred the inside of the door. The dog must have been in there for a while. There were no people, though, and that was good. Dean checked his own bedroom next. His stuff was thrown everywhere, too, but still no people.
The dog was still barking, too loud in conjunction with the moaning. Charlie called up the stairs to check that everything was alright. He called back down to explain the dog, still confused about its presence. He crossed to the other end of the hallway, stopping in front of his parents’ door. It shook with the pounding on the other side and the moans were so, so loud. There was definitely an infected person behind it. Only one, it sounded like.
He took a deep breath, trying to calm his racing heart, but hot tears still stung at the corners of his eyes. He reached for the knob and turned it, trying to use it to push the person back into the room. What he found was a rabid infected woman, scraggly black hair and deep olive skin spotted with black splotches. She grabbed for him, but he was quicker with the knife, stabbing up into her chin and dropping her. He starred at her for a long moment, trying to puzzle out who she might be, because she wasn’t his mother.
When he took stock of the bedroom, he was relieved to find no signs of his parents. The pictures his mother kept on her nightstand of the family were gone. His dad’s gun locker was open and had been emptied of its contents. Their room had been ransacked as well, but even thorough checking found no signs of them being there anymore. Dean turned back to the hallway, hope bubbling up again. Maybe they went to Bobby’s after all.
He went back downstairs, the dog still barking at his heels. Ash and Charlie stood at the bottom of the stairs on either side, watching him. He shook his head at them. “It wasn’t them.”
Charlie deflated with a sigh of relief, a hand drifting to her chest and pressing against her breast bone. “Oh thank god. Who was it, then?”
“Don’t know. Someone squatting maybe. Someone definitely rifled through everything. The bedrooms are a mess.”
“Do you know where they might have gone?” she asked.
“My uncle’s house, maybe. He had a fall-out shelter in his basement.”
“Want to grab anything before we head over there? It looks like someone already cleared out the food in the kitchen.”
“What about the dog?” Ash asked, picking the prickly thing up and holding it out to avoid getting bitten. The fluffy little thing was barely bigger than Ash’s head.
“We can’t have a dog. It’ll attract attention.”
“But he’s so cute,” Charlie cooed, reaching out to pet the thing. It tried to bite her, growling. Ash dropped it immediately, watching it wriggle around onto its feet, yelping. Charlie gave him a sharp look, but didn’t lean down to try and pet it again.
Dean looked back up the stairs, ignoring the dog trying to bite him through his jeans. No wonder someone had locked the little hellion up. Dean debated going back up. He wanted to go to Bobby’s and find out what happened to his parents, hopefully find them, but he also doubted he would be coming back here whether he found them at Bobby's or not. This might be his last chance to ever find pictures of his family. He knocked the dog out of the way with his foot and climbed the stairs again.
Whoever raided his old room had ignored most of his desk. The drawers were pulled open and the contents flung everywhere, but the pictures were still intact, if knocked over. Dean pulled the one of him and Cas posing in the backyard before prom out of its frame. Cas had insisted on them wearing three-piece matching suits in dark blue and purple. Dean had thought they looked silly until they stood next to each other for the pictures. Cas had looked stunning. In the picture, they were looking at each other with their arms around each other’s waist. Both of them looked ridiculously in love. Dean thumbed over Cas’ face with a fond smile before tucking the photo away in one of his jacket pockets. At least now if his phone stopped working, he had a picture of Cas to remember him by.
“Woah, you really like cars, huh?” Charlie said from behind him. He turned to find her in the doorway, looking around at the posters plastered to his walls. He had been meaning to take them down at Christmas, his mom hinting that it was time to turn his bedroom into a guest room, especially since he had been planning to move to California after graduation to join Sam at Stanford for his graduate work. Cas already had a neighborhood picks out for them to live in, outside the city because neither of them could afford to pay San Francisco rates on graduate student salaries. None of it mattered now.
"I was going to school for automotive engineering and design, double major."
Charlie stepped into the room, eyeing the disarray as she stepped over to the dresser. There was another picture knocked over on top of it, and she picked it up to look. Dean knew which one it was, a picture of him, Cas, and Sam in front of Old Faithful. They’d gone on a camping trip to Yellowstone the summer before Sam’s senior year of high school.
“You look like an Abercrombie & Fitch model here. Who else am I looking at?” she asked, holding the picture up to him.
He took the frame from her and opened the back, pulling it out too and pointing. “That’s my brother, Sam.”
“And the other guy? He doesn’t look like a brother. Are you grabbing his ass?” She takes the picture from him and peers at it.
“That’s my uh… my boyfriend, Cas.”
Charlie whistled. “He’s dreamy.” Something flickered on her face, and she looked up at him warily. “Do you know where he is now?”
“He was getting his Master's in Environmental Science at Berkley.”
“So it’s not just your brother you’re looking for in California?”
Dean shook his head and took the photo back, glancing at it again before tucking it in with the prom one. Charlie turned around and started picking up random items of clothing flung onto the floor. Dean wasn’t sure what she was looking for. He rifled through his closet, pulling out some clothes that he knew were sturdier than what he had with him. His jeans were already starting to show wear from weeks on the road. Most of what he left at home had been work clothes for the shop and things he didn’t wear anymore.
Charlie held up a Firefly t-shirt that stopped fitting him freshman year. “You like Firefly?”
Charlie grinned at him. “Can I have this?”
“Take whatever you want. Not like I’ll need it.” She draped the shirt over her shoulder and kept digging. Dean went into the bathroom across the hall, surprised to find his toothpaste and new toothbrushes still in their drawers. He grabbed a couple, along with some unopened bars of soap and the half-used bottle of shampoo in the shower. He tried the faucet just to see, but no water came out. No electricity to get the pumps working.
They spent a half hour picking through his house. Charlie took another couple of shirts and a few books from Sam’s room. Ash took a few of Sam’s clothes. Dean packed the rest of his clean socks—he definitely hadn’t factored walking twelve-plus hours a day into his sock-packing plan—and a few small things for Sam.
The garage was empty, which meant his parents must have taken the Impala wherever they went. Hopefully to Bobby’s. The sun was lower in the horizon when they exited the house. Dean wasn’t surprised to see a dozen corpses scattered across the driveway. Mr. Johnson was slumped against the mailbox, a gaping hole in the middle of his head. They siphoned what gas they could from the neighbors and climbed back into the hybrid they’d stolen— “It gets better gas mileage, Dean. Who cares what we look like?” Charlie had countered when Dean complained about it under his breath— She was right, of course, but he still didn’t like having to drive it. The engine didn’t even make a noise, which, yeah, that was useful. But still.
Bobby lived in an old farmhouse outside of town, set in the middle of his junkyard. Dean drove out barely paying attention to the zombies they passed. He was going too fast for them to catch up anyway, and Bobby had a ten-foot high aluminum fence around his property, so even if they could follow, they wouldn’t get in.
The gates were closed when they pulled up. Dean parked the car and walked up to see if he could get them opened, checking for possible threats. The gates were locked, but Bobby still had the bell hanging next to the gate. Dean rang it as loud as he could, hoping someone was home and alive to hear him.
It was a few minutes of banging the rope back and forth before he heard the wonderful sound of his uncle shouting and footsteps. “Can it before you get every zomb from here to Kansas City over here, ya idjit.”
There was a rattling of chains and a little window Dean hadn’t noticed opened in the gate. It must have been a new addition, because Dean had never seen it before. A shotgun barrel poked through it. “What do you want?” Bobby asked.
Dean stepped in front of the window, grinning. Seeing a familiar face in this shit-show of a world was more amazing than he expected. A tiny part of the back of his brain had been expecting to find everyone he knew dead. “Hey Bobby,” he said. He could just see Bobby’s face beyond the shotgun barrel.
The gun disappeared, and Bobby stared at him with his mouth open. “Dean? Ah hell…” He started working at something behind the gate and a moment later it opened.
Dean didn’t wait for the door to open all the way before he was pulling Bobby into a tight hug. Burying his face in Bobby's shoulder.
“It’s good to see you, boy. You okay?” Bobby asked, hugging Dean back just as tight.
“I’m good, yeah. I’m so glad you’re okay.” Dean didn’t care that he had tears in his eyes. He never thought he’d see Bobby again, and here the guy was, holding court like nothing had changed. And behind him, gloriously, he saw the Impala parked in front of the house. He pulled away from the hug. “Do you know where my mom and dad are?”
Bobby’s face fell, his eyes dropping to their feet, and he shook his head. All the good feeling in Dean turned to ice in his veins. “I’m sorry, kid.”
“What happened?” Dean asked, voice suddenly rough and scratchy.
“Don't know if you noticed driving in, but we got hit hard. Infection came in from KC, and no one took it seriously. It got to the campus, and before we knew it, the whole town was crawling with them. Your dad got bit at the shop. He was packing up, getting ready to come here. Some fucker walked up behind him and got him before he even saw it coming.”
Dean swallowed around the lump in his throat. “Mom?”
“Some woman broke into your house. She was sick, but hadn’t turned yet. Scratched Mary across the face so hard she made her bleed. At first we didn’t think she’d get sick, since it’s a bodily fluids kinda thing. Girl must have been chewing her nails.”
Dean wanted to cry, but part of him was already so tired. What was the point? He had Bobby. He made it to Kansas alive and in one piece. And he’d killed the woman who apparently killed his mother.
Bobby pulled him into another hug, and it was the most physical contact he’d had with another human being since leaving for school that fall. He let Bobby take some of his weight and waited for the tears to come.
A week after the outbreak hit the safe zone, two strangers walked up to their camp. Castiel had been chopping wood in front of his cabin while Jess read passages aloud to him from the homesteading book they’d brought with them. The two of them had been trying to plan out the food crops, figuring out how much space they’d need to keep themselves fed long-term. Sam had gone with Donna on the promised raid of the ranger’s station pantry. Brady was off collecting water at the spring. Cain was out checking his snares. They hadn’t heard from another human in days, not since Donna came to stay with them.
Jess stopped reading when a tiny blonde woman appeared over the top of the hill and collapsed on her knees with a loud sigh of relief twenty feet in front of them. “I have never been so happy to see other human beings in my life,” she said.
A tall man in a dirty suit appeared behind her, looking less certain of the people they had found. He had dark hair and was disarmingly attractive, but layer of grime stuck to him didn't add to his charm. He looked like he had been wandering the wilderness for several days. “Who are you?” he asked.
Jess stood and walked over to where Castiel still held the ax in his hand. “Who are you?” she replied, matching his confrontational tone.
The blonde woman had a pack on her back that was nearly as large as she was. She looked like she had come to the forest expecting a hike, unlike her companion. She stood slowly, adjusting the pack as she climbed back to her feet. “We were both staying up by Muir Beach when the evacuation got called. There was an incident. We got out and headed north,” the girl said, ignoring the ax in Cas’ hand as she approached them and held out her hand as if to shake theirs. “I’m Jo Harvelle. That asshole is Michael.” She thumbed back at the guy, who only had a small overnight bag—an expensive one, if Castiel had to guess. They both looked haggard and hungry. Castiel exchanged a look with Jess. Neither of them accepted the handshake.
“Do you have any food?” the guy asked from his spot at the tree line.
Castiel gripped the ax handle tighter, eyes narrowed on Michael. They had been incredibly lucky with the people they’d met so far, but Dean had taught Castiel hand-to-hand combat while they were still in high school. He was prepared to use it if necessary.
Jo rolled her eyes. “Like I said, asshole. You can’t just walk up to strangers and demand they feed you, idiot,” she said, glaring back at the man. He only bristled a little.
“We haven’t eaten anything but granola in two days.”
“And whose fault is that?” Jo asked, crossing her arms over her chest.
Michael looked down at his scuffed, muddy shoes and didn’t say anything in response. Cas looked over at Jess again. She gave him a tiny nod. “We have some stores, but not enough to give away for free. We would need you to work. Do you have any useful skills?”
Jo’s hand darted to a pocket in her pack and she flipped out a large bowie knife and flung it passed Cas’ head. Cas turned to find it lodged in the letter sign on his cabin. He wasn’t sure whether or not he should consider the move a threat, but he was impressed. “He never shuts up, but I don’t know if that could be called useful,” she said, thumbing in Michael’s direction again.
Cas looked at Jess, who was looking between the knife lodged in the thick wood and the tiny woman who put it there with nothing less than awe. “Do you hunt?” she asked.
Jo’s lip curled into a smile that was nothing short of wicked.
Jess turned to Cas and nodded, grinning. They might be able to plant an entire crop of food, but adding another experienced hunter to their group would always be a boon. Cain only had a small pocket knife to take down game. Sam was experienced, too, but all his hunting had been with shotguns, and the one Donna brought with her didn't have enough ammunition to justify using it for hunting.
“We have four cabins available. You are welcome to pick any one you like that isn’t already occupied,” Cas said, pointing to the buildings behind him. "For the time being," he added. They would have to decide as a group if the newcomers could be trusted enough to stay long-term, but they had already agreed to let anyone who showed up join their camp as long as they contributed to the group's survival. He had no doubt this woman would be able to do just that. Michael, on the other hand…
Jo nodded and walked over to Cas’ door to pry the knife down and tuck it back in her pocket. Michael didn’t follow. “I don’t know if we want to stay…”
“Do what you want, loser. I’m ready to find a bed that doesn’t have a zombie lurking nearby,” Jo said over her shoulder, not looking back. "I'm gonna go take a nap, and then see what there is around here to stab for dinner." She disappeared between Cas’ cabin and Sam and Jess’, ducking under the blankets drying on the line between them.
Michael stood slumped, wary, holding his bag like it might give him the answers he sought. Jess walked over to him slowly, holding out a protein bar she pulled out of her pocket. “You guys are clearly tired. Here. You can help me clear space in the visitor center after you’ve eaten.”
Castiel didn’t know whether or not it was safe to trust this man, but there was no arguing with Jess when she was on a mission to help someone, so he went back to his wood chopping, eyeing Michael eating the bar with every swing of the ax. He ate the entire thing in less than a minute with a groan of appreciation.
“I’ve never been so hungry before, thank you. Are you all planning to live here permanently?”
“For now. We figured this was the most protected place to be in the area.” Jess shrugged, telling the story of how they came to be there, of Donna and the news from the no-longer-safe zone. Michael was more reticent to talk. Cas broke from his task when the two of them started heading to the visitor center they had decided to use as storage and rec room. He still had work to do, but there was no chance he was leaving Jess alone with the stranger. He kept his ax tucked into the back of his belt, just in case, and followed them into the building.
In the end, he didn't need the weapon, though he thought about using it a few times. Michael was insufferable once he grew comfortable with the two of them. As Jo had warned, he did not stop talking. None of it was interesting or useful, just inane chatter about his life as a brand ambassador and how important he was in his former life. Castiel kept reminding himself that everyone dealt with trauma differently and resisted the urge to knock him out just to shut him up. Jess kept patting Cas on the back every time she passed by as if to tell him she could see how much restraint he was showing.
The thing that irritated Castiel the most about Michael wasn't his talking, though. It was his tendency to try to talk others into doing his work for him. Watching Jess easily bypass his attempts to get her to move boxes for him was Castiel’s only consolation. She could dance around manipulation like a ballerina, and it was a beautiful thing to witness.
By the time the ATV engine could be heard returning, they had the shelves cleared of guide books and useless trinkets and were ready to stock them with what Donna and Sam brought back for them. When they stepped out of the visitor center, there was a trailer hitched to the back of the ATV packed high with boxes of canned and dry goods. Castiel wanted to hug the two of them as they climbed off the vehicle.
"This is amazing," Jess said, giving in to the same desire Cas had and pulling Sam and then Donna into a hug.
Sam pulled away from her just as his eyes fell on Michael, and he straightened, frowning. “Who’s this?”
“Michael. He and Jo showed up a couple hours ago. We told them they could stay for now. Jo knows how to hunt,” Jess told him, looping her arms around his waist. Sam didn’t settle into her attempt at casual. He slid from between her arms like water on beeswax and walked over to Michael. And then the questions started.
Castiel left the interrogation to Sam. He was better at it, anyway, and Cas wanted to get the new food shelved before they lost the light and had to start worrying about the cougar getting into their supplies. Jess helped him, but it was obvious she was paying more attention to the conversation than he was. “We said we would take in strangers if they could contribute, Sam,” she reminded him as she stacked bags of rice on top of Castiel’s armful.
“Increasing brand recognition isn’t going to be helpful in keeping us alive, babe.”
“I don’t care how useful you think I am. I’m not planning to stay here, anyway. I just need to get to a military base. I’m sure they’ve already figured out their plan,” Michael said, straightening his suit and brushing dried mud from the torn lapel. Castiel hid his smile behind boxes of macaroni. His cat used to groom himself when he was embarrassed, too.
“Yeah, I’m sure they’re getting right on that plan.” Sam looked over at Donna, who hadn’t said much, but was standing at his elbow with her arms crossed over her chest and her eyebrows scrunched together.
“The closest military base got hit by the virus. We just tried to radio them at the station and got nothing,” she said.
A muscle in Michael’s jaw tightened. “Either way, I’m not planning to stay.”
“But you want somewhere to sleep tonight.”
“And food,” Sam added.
“I helped clear out the visitor center. I think I deserve at least that.”
Castiel narrowed his eyes at that, but didn’t comment as he picked up a giant box of toilet paper and walked away with it. By the time he came back, Jo was there fielding questions of her own. Sam looked a lot less skeptical of her answers, though. By the time the trailer was unpacked and shelved in the center, Cain was back with a handful of small game and a decision had been made. They would be allowed to stay on a probationary period.
Bobby buried his parents in back of the house. There were two big rocks marking the graves, their names carved into each. Dean didn’t want to think about how long it had probably taken Bobby to carve those names. He sits on the strip of dead grass between them for a long time, not saying anything. Not crying. Just sitting, committing his parents’ graves to memory. There was no telling if he would ever be back to visit them again.
Charlie and Ash were sitting down to a meal with Bobby when Dean finally got up and walked into the house. Dean could hear Charlie talking a mile a minute as he opened the front door, but the voices suddenly dropped off when he stepped inside. Charlie’s sad eyes followed him into the kitchen where a plate was waiting for him. He took the seat and started eating without saying anything. There wasn’t much to say.
“So, what’s the plan now? Still going to California?” Charlie asked after a long, awkward silence.
Dean nodded, mouth full of roast chicken. It was the first hot meal he’d had since the frat house in Champaign.
Bobby looked hard at him over a dinner roll. “California? What makes you think Sam or Cas made it out?”
“What else am I gonna do, Bobby? Not try?”
“You could stay here and stay alive, ya idjit. Give it some time.”
“Why? It isn’t getting any safer out there. I missed my mom and dad by a couple weeks. If I ‘give it some time’, Sam or Cas might be dead by the time I get there.”
“They’re probably dead now.” Leave it to Bobby to not beat around the bush.
Dean scowled and took another bite of chicken instead of answering.
“Bobby, would it be okay if we stayed here for a couple of days before heading out? I could use a bed to sleep in that doesn’t require a look-out for a little while,” Charlie asked. Dean turned his frown on her.
“You aren’t coming with me.”
“Why not? You’ve kept me safe so far. And I’m useful. Have you spent more than like a weekend in San Francisco?” Her eyes were focused on her chicken, but something in the set of her shoulders said she was lying—No, not outright lying. But he had the feeling she wasn't telling the whole truth, either.
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“You need a navigator. I lived all up and down the coast when I was in high school. I went to Berkley, too.”
Dean gave her a hard look. Definitely hiding something. “You know what kind of shit show I’m probably heading for. I’m not gonna be responsible for you dying in it.”
“You won’t be. I’m making this decision for myself. You’ve kept me alive so far. I trust you to keep it up.” Charlie ignored his look, stabbing a carrot onto her fork and crunching on it as if that was the end of the argument.
“And we’re not taking that muscle car,” she added. “I don’t care how much you love it. We need the best gas mileage we can get, and that thing’s not gonna cut it.”
Dean whipped his head back around and glared. “I’m not leaving my baby.”
“You gonna find the gas to drive her? She gets what, ten miles to the gallon?”
“She gets fifteen, thank you. Twenty on the highway.”
“That’s… not even close to acceptable. Are you serious?” Charlie dropped her fork, staring at Dean like he had just suggested she run around the yard naked.
Dean grumbled into his roll. She was right, of course. But it was a hit. “Fine. We can drive the piece of shit hybrid.”
Bobby watched the entire exchange without saying a word, but Dean could see something cooking behind his eyes. “I know that car means a lot to you, boy, but it’s not gonna get you across the country. She’ll be here when we get back.”
“Are we coming back?”
“You wanna stay in California for the rest of your life?”
Dean hadn’t thought about it. He wasn’t thinking much past getting to Sam and Cas. With the uncertainty around whether or not he was even going to get to do that, there wasn’t much point in thinking about after. Dean shrugged, stuffing his face with a forkful of food instead of an answer.
Bobby let it slide. “Stay for the New Year. Might be the last one any of us are alive for. Might as well go through my scotch.”
Charlie perked right up, clapping her hands in excitement. “Oh, let’s have a dance party! I can raid the liquor store for champagne. I bet we could find a little battery speaker, and my phone’s got a ton of music. It’ll be a great send-off. I don’t know about you guys, but I could use a little stress relief.”
A dance party was the last thing Dean wanted to do, but he could get behind getting good and drunk for a night or two. And staying in town a few days would give him time to stop in at Cas’ folk’s house. They might have cut ties when they found out he and Dean were planning to get married after grad school, but Cas would want to know what happened to them. He might be able to find a couple pictures for Cas to have, at least. “Yeah, we could do that. But I’m leaving New Year’s Day. I want to get on the road as soon as possible.”
“Fine, but if you’re making me get in a car with a hangover, you’re going to dance with me.”
Dean made a face, but he didn’t say no.
After dinner, he wandered back outside and found the Impala parked on the side of the house. She needed a wash and probably a good detailing, but so did Dean, so who was he to complain. “Hey sweetheart,” he greeted her, running a hand over her hood. Her doors were unlocked, the keys set on the dashboard where his mom usually put them when she parked the car in the garage. He climbed inside, the smell of warm leather and oil a balm to his aching soul. He buried his nose in the seat back and breathed in his mother’s scent, vanilla and apple shampoo.
He closed his eyes and stretched out along the bench seat, breathing in the familiar smells and remembering his last trip in the car. His parents had driven him to the airport for the fall semester a week after Dean had done the same for Cas. His drive had been full of encouragement for a successful final year in undergrad, light ribbing about how long it had taken him to finish the double major, and talk of his planned final projects. His mother had teased him about extending his data plan so he wouldn’t go over face-timing with Cas. It was a good memory. Cas. It was a good memory.
“What are you doing?” Charlie’s voice cut into the quiet of the night. She pulled the passenger side door open with a creak of the hinges and peered in at him.
He sat back up in the driver’s seat and stroked a hand over the steering wheel. “Just saying goodbye.”
“This was your parents’ car?” she asked as she climbed in beside him, looking around at the interior. He nodded. “It’s pretty badass. I’m sorry we can’t take it with us, really.” She ran her fingers across the dash. “I bet we could kick some ass in this car.”
“She’s like a tank,” he admitted with a tiny smile, patting her seat.
Charlie smiled at him, but that seemed to be the extent of what she wanted to say. Dean stroked the steering wheel absently, letting the memories of long summer drives and endless days back and forth around town float over him. Normal stuff. Life stuff. All gone. He was never going to wrestle Cas out of his clothes in the backseat while his parents slept upstairs again. He was probably never going to listen to Zeppelin again. Except…
He grabbed the keys and turned the ignition just enough to turn the lights on. It was a testament to what sort of state his mother was in when she drove to Bobby’s that the music wasn’t on. He pushed play and laid back against the seat as Zeppelin filled the car, loud the way his mom loved it. Charlie didn’t say anything, but as ‘Nobody’s Fault but Mine’ faded into ‘No Quarter’ she leaned her head against his shoulder and slid her hand into his. They sat like that late into the night. When she went to bed, he curled up on the front seat and fell asleep with his nose buried in her leather. He dreamed of his parents. His eyes were dry in the morning.
“Man, when they said the new kid got the locker next to mine, no one told me he was hot,” said a voice behind Castiel. He was trying to figure out his class schedule while simultaneously planning trips back to his locker, hoping he wouldn’t have to carry all of his heaviest books between breaks. He looked up to find a gorgeous guy leaning against the locker next to his, spiked blondish hair and green eyes that sparkled even under the oppressive tube lighting. Castiel’s heart skipped a beat. He wasn’t going to let the guy know, though.
He narrowed his eyes. “Do cheesy lines like that usually work for you?”
The guy smirked back. “Fifty-fifty.”
“You’ll have to change your percentage, because it isn’t working on me.” Cas turned his attention back to his schedule, hoping his cheeks hadn't turned pink under the guy's attention. He could feel his eyes on him like a heat lamp.
"I'll just have to try something else, then. I'm Dean, by the way. You're Cas, right?"
"Castiel," Cas corrected, refusing to look up.
"Castiel. Different. I like it." He didn't move, his eyes still trained on Castiel. It made Castiel antsy, but in a good way, his whole body buzzing with the attention.
"Are you going to make a joke about angels? Because that doesn't work, either." Castiel risked a glance to find an adorably confused expression on Dean's unfairly perfect face.
"I was named after an angel. It's a cheap line."
The confusion morphed back into a lazy confidence that would be obnoxious on anyone else, but somehow suited him. "I'm a lot of things, Cas, but cheap ain't one of them."
"Is that so?" Cas stepped closer to him, unsure what sort of flirtatious demon had possessed him.
Dean's eyes hooded over. "Uh huh."
"Prove it." They were close enough to be touching, but weren't, Dean a few inches taller than Cas and looking down at him with what could only be described as delight. He looked like he wanted to lean down the two inches and kiss Cas.
"Pick me up at six. I have an early curfew." Cas turned to shut his locker and walked away without checking for Dean's response. The feel of his eyes on Cas' backside all the way down the hallway was response enough.
“Happy memory?” Cain raised an eyebrow at Castiel as he handed his pocket knife over so Castiel could cut the twine. They were putting up a barrier around the vegetable garden to guard off the animals that had started munching on the delicate new leaves just starting to pop out of the ground. The last thing they needed was their food crop to be eaten before it even produced food. Castiel had gotten into a zone tying the twine around the stakes they’d whittled from fallen tree branches and let himself daydream. He shouldn’t have. Re-living his first memory of Dean made his chest ache.
“One of my best. Shouldn’t think about it, though. It only makes all this… worse.”
Cain hummed, nodding. “Easy to forget the giant hole in your chest if you don’t think about it.”
Castiel cocked his head to the side, pausing in his movements to consider Cain. He was such a solitary man normally that Castiel hadn’t thought about what he might have lost in this disaster. “Did you have someone…before?”
Cain sat back on his heels and pushed the long strands of his hair from his eyes. “I lost my wife to cancer three years ago, long before this scourge.”
“I’m sorry.” He fiddled with the edge of the twine, fraying the plies apart between his fingers. “Does it get easier with time?”
Cas nodded. “The last time I heard from my boyfriend, Dean, he was in southern Illinois, trying to get here. That was the day before the evacuation was called. It’s probably unrealistic to believe he’s still alive. And even if he is, I’ll probably never see him again.” Cas dropped the twine and handed the knife back, forcing half a smile. “We weren’t married, but we were planning on it once school was finished. I was ready to spend the rest of my life with him.”
“Life is a cruel mistress.” There was no inflection, but his eyes swam with a thousand years of pain and understanding. It didn’t improve Castiel’s mood, but knowing he had a companion in his pain was a comfort of its own sort. They got back to work without further conversation, the ocean a constant calming noise behind them.
Sam came by later, biting at his nails, eyes glued to the north. “They’ve been gone a long time,” he said.
“They’ll be back soon, don’t worry. Jo’s an excellent fighter, and she knows the area,” Castiel reminded him.
“But Jess isn’t. She can barely hold a knife.”
“She’s the only person with medical knowledge. She needed to go. Jo will keep her safe. It’ll be okay.”
Sam didn’t say anything for a long moment. Cas went back to work on the makeshift fence, exchanging a glance with Cain. “I should have gone with them. I’ll never forgive myself if something happens to her,” Sam told them, dropping onto his knees to help them.
“There's only two seats on the ATV. If you'd gone, it would have taken three times as long. They’ll be fine.”
“You don’t get it. Jess is my whole world. I’d be lost without her.”
Cas went still. He set the twine down and looked straight at Sam. Hard. Memory must have clicked in Sam’s head because he had enough shame to look away, mouth tightening at the corners. “Sorry. I forgot.”
“I’m glad one of us can. He's your brother.”
“I’m never going to see my family again, Cas. I’ve come to terms with that. But Jess. And you. You’re both my family, too.”
Cas clenched his teeth, fury waring with frustration and grief in his head. It was one thing to doubt Dean's survival in his own head. It was entirely another to state it outright. Cas felt like he had just been slapped. “Jess can handle herself. If they aren’t back by dark, we’ll go after them at first light. For now, let’s finish this netting before the deer eat all our greens.” Cas shoved the ball of twine in Sam’s hands and pointed to the far end of the garden and the empty stake poking out of the ground. Sam took the hint.
The sun went down, and still they didn’t come back. Cain built a fire, and they sat around it eating grilled salmon. No one spoke, but the air was thick with the silence. Sam didn’t eat. Castiel prayed for the safe return of his friends and tried not to think of Dean.
The sound of the ATV broke through the quiet of the evening. Sam was up from his seat the next instant, walking in the direction of the vehicle even before they could see it in the low light of the moon. The 4-wheeler appeared over the ridge, Jo at the helm, Jess leaning heavily on her back. The limp set of Jess’ shoulders had Cas standing as well.
“We need antibiotics, now,” Jo said, jumping off the ATV and turning to help Jess to stand. Jess almost collapsed when she got to her feet. Sam swept in and took her weight from Jo, worry creasing his forehead.
“What happened? Are you okay?” he asked her. Jess shook her head, trying to pull away from him, but she didn’t look strong enough. And then Castiel saw it in the moonlight. Teeth marks. On the back of her bicep. Sam was on the other side of her and couldn’t see them, but Castiel knew what they meant.
“Fuck,” he cursed under his breath, hurrying to get the medical kit in their cabin even though he knew it wouldn’t help. If antibiotics were effective against a bite, they wouldn’t be camped out in the middle of the wilderness growing their own food and scrounging for medical supplies.
His heart was pounding as he tore the door of Sam and Jess’ cabin open and tore through their supplies until he found the kit. They all had one, but Jess’ nursing school experience meant hers was the most complete. He grabbed the large plastic box and ran back to where Sam had Jess laid out on the ground. He was crying, which meant he’d seen the bite. The bulk of their group was circling them, expressions sour and scared. Castiel dropped down next to Sam and opened up the kit.
“What do we do? Can we stop the infection from spreading?” Sam asked, stumbling and cracking over every word.
Cas shook his head, looking to Jess for answers. Her eyes were open, but she didn’t look very conscious. “Jess? Can you stay with us? We need you to stay with us,” he said, stroking a hand down her cheek.
She smiled at him, tears leaking from the corners of her eyes. “It’s too late. I got bit a couple hours ago. Even if you could do anything, it wouldn’t help.”
“No. Fuck no. We’re gonna fight this, babe. You’re gonna be okay.” Sam pushed the hair from her face and bent over her to press their foreheads together.
Jess’ uninjured arm came up to comb fingers through Sam’s hair. “Can you give us a minute? I… I don’t think I have much time,” Jess said, glancing at Cas. He didn’t want to leave her, but he understood needing to say goodbye. He got up from his spot and led the others far enough away to give them privacy. Jo looked like she wanted to punch something, but only to keep herself from crying.
“What happened?” he asked.
“I don’t know. We were raiding a few of the outer houses by Muir Beach, looking for supplies. We did a sweep of one and then split up to look for stuff. I thought we were clear. Then I hear this commotion, so I ran upstairs, and Jess is fighting this dead guy who's trying to bite her. We took care of it together. She seemed okay, so we kept looking for supplies. When we got back to the ATV, I noticed she was bleeding through her sweatshirt. That’s when she showed me the bite. She hid it so I wouldn’t stop looking for food. Fuck, man. I made her come back as soon as I found out. But it’s too late, isn’t it?” She bit at her bottom lip until the skin around it turned white.
Cas touched a hand to her elbow, eyes trained on Sam’s slim shoulders slumped over Jess’ supine body. They were shaking.
“If there’s a cure, we don’t have it. I told Sam you would both be fine.”
“I thought we would be. We were cautious. We checked every room before we split up. Every room. Jess said the guy was in a closet. What the fuck was he doing in a closet? It’s so…” She cut herself off, shaking her head.
“You did everything you could.”
“Yeah well. Not good enough, obviously.”
“Cas…” Jess called in a croaky, broken voice. Cas pulled away from Jo and walked over, digging his nails into his palms as he sunk to the ground next to her once more. Sam was openly weeping now, cradling her close.
Jess reached out a hand and unclenched Cas’ fingers to lace their hands together. “Cas, I don’t have a lot of time. The news said the virus takes twenty-four hours, but I don’t think that’s true anymore. I… I don’t want to turn. I need you to…” She bit back her words, fresh tears trickling down her cheeks as she looked up at him. Sam started crying harder, curling into her body as if he could shield her from the inevitable.
Cas squeezed her hand, biting his lip to hold back his own tears. He needed to stay calm for Jess. He needed to understand what she was asking him. He took a deep breath. "How do you want me to do it?"
"Has to be spinal, right? That guy... the guy last week... he didn't go down from the temple." Her voice was a faint whisper of its former self. “I know it’s a lot to ask, but I can’t… Sam can’t…”
Cas nodded, bringing her hand into his lap and stroking his fingers over her soft skin. Her fingertips were hot with fever. "I can do that,” he lied. “I'll borrow one of Jo's knives.” He didn't think he could do it, not really, but he was going to have to. He expected Sam to object to the plan, to the idea of there being a plan, but Sam only continued weeping, holding Jessica close to his chest and rocking her.
Cas looked towards their group, huddled together a few feet away, all of them anxious. Jo had tears down her cheeks, and Donna had an arm around her. Cain stood to the side, watching the entire scene in stony silence.
"Alright," he said, turning back to Jess. "I'll do it, but not right now. We've got some time. We'll wait until you're close, and then I'll get you some sleeping pills. Are you in pain?"
She nodded, and Cas wasn't sure if she was nodding to his plan or to the question. He frowned at her, and she nodded again. "It hurts, but I can wait. Sam, sweetie, can you take me to our bunk?"
Sam didn't speak, but he did pick her up and carry her to their cabin. Cas followed behind to help with the door, and then watched as Sam gently laid her out in the two twin beds they'd shoved together. He nodded at Sam when he looked up. "Take some time together. I'll be back in a little while."
Sam didn't seem to be paying attention to him, but that was probably for the best. He backed out of the cabin and walked back to their group, all of them watching him as though he held the world in his hands. "Does anyone have any sleeping pills? Dramamine? Benadryl? Anything to get her drowsy. I don't think I can..." He swallowed around the lump in his throat, choking back his tears. "If she's awake."
"I've got some Ambien," Michael said, eyes drifting to Sam and Jess' cabin as he stepped away from them to head toward his own. Castiel smiled through watery eyes, heartened by the offer. It was the first selfless thing Michael had done for them.
"Jo, can I borrow your sharpest knife? I want to make it as quick as possible."
"You sure you don't want me to do it? This is my fault," she said.
Castiel shook his head. "Thank you, but Jess wants me to do it." He paused, not sure how to address the guilt. "This isn't... It wasn't your fault. We're in a dangerous situation. We've been blessed not to experience the hardest parts of this crisis yet, but that doesn't mean we're immune."
Jo gave him a long look before pulling him into a hug, standing on tip-toe to reach his shoulders. All at once, the horror of the situation welled up inside him and burst out in a choked-off sob. He slumped against her, burying his face in her shoulder until it was soaked with his tears. How was he supposed to kill one of his friends? His entire body began to shake as reality hit him. He was going to have to kill someone. Not just someone. Sweet, kind, sharp-witted Jess. Jess who ran flashcards with him until three in the morning during finals week last year, then baked cookies to celebrate when they all passed. Jess who accepted him and his relationship with Dean when most of his family had turned their backs on him. Jess who was the solid rock on which they built their life in California. Jess who let him cry on her shoulder when missing Dean got too hard. Beautiful, wonderful Jessica. How was he supposed to end her life?
He took a deep, shuddering breath and pulled away from Jo, wiping at the tears with the sleeve of his sweater as he tried to gather his composure back up. He would have to do it. It was what Jess wanted, and that was what mattered more than what it was going to cost him. Her last wishes were more important.
Michael was standing a few feet away from them when he looked up, a bottle in one hand, his face contorted in an awkward half-frown that looked to be his own sort of grief. Castiel took the bottle from him with a tiny smile. “Thank you, Michael. I’ll give what we don’t need to use back when it’s done.”
Michael nodded, still not making eye contact. “Whatever you need.”
Movement at the edge of the camp drew Castiel’s attention away from him. Cain was walking away up the hill, a shovel in one hand. Castiel could only guess what he was going to do, and it warmed his heart even as it broke. Cain didn’t say much, but taking the burden of digging off their shoulders meant more than Castiel could vocalize. He found himself breaking down in sobs again, and Jo was there, holding him through them.
Time passed. Around midnight, moans of pain trickled out of the cabin windows. They grew louder during the night. Eventually, Castiel went up and knocked on the door. Jess sounded like she was in so much pain. Castiel felt helpless listening to her. When Sam let him in, it was a shock to see Jess writhing on their bed. Her eyes were dilated and unfocused in the dim candlelight. Cas paused in the door and turned to Sam, who looked like he was about to fall apart at the seams. “You don’t have to stay if it’s too hard.”
Sam shook his head through his tears. “I want to be with her.”
Castiel choked back his own tears, nodding quietly. Jess moaned again, an anguished sound that took a sledgehammer to Castiel’s heart. He grabbed a bottle of water and walked over to the bed and perched on the edge of it, reaching out a cautious hand to push sweaty hair off of Jess’ brow. “Jess?”
She turned towards his touch, eyes trying to focus on his face but not managing. “Hurts…” she croaked out, grabbing onto his wrist.
He nodded, lacing their fingers together. “I know. I’m so sorry, Jess. You deserve so much better than this,” he managed before his voice cracked, and his vision blurred with tears.
“Finish…” Jess rasped, squeezing his wrist.
He tried to blink away the tears, but it was a fruitless effort. He held up the pills Michael had given him and gently pulled out of her grip to open the bottle. “I’ve got some medicine. You should be able to sleep.” He shook out four pills, not caring if they caused her to overdose. “Can you swallow?”
“Try…” She let him put the pills on her tongue, and Sam helped her sit up enough to swallow them down. She coughed at the water, violent coughs that shook her whole body. When it was over, she calmed. She looked up at Sam, managing an approximation of a smile. “Love you…” she whispered. Sam nodded, tears coming too quick to speak. Jess turned what focus she had on Cas. “Love you… too…” she managed. Cas squeezed her hand and kissed her forehead, not caring that his tears dripped into her hair.
When she’d settled more and finally fell into a sort of sleep, Castiel pulled the knife Jo had lent him from his back pocket. His heart was beating hard enough to hurt, and he could barely see through the tears. He looked to Sam for reassurance. Sam was stroking Jess’ hair, not looking at Cas or the knife.
“You don’t have to look,” Cas said.
“Yeah, I do.”
When Castiel walked out of the cabin a few minutes later, his knees were shaking as bad as the knife in his hand, wet with his friend’s blood. He dropped it on the ground at the bottom of the stairs, not looking at anyone as he walked away from the camp and towards the water.
They buried her at dawn.
Chapter 4: LAWRENCE | DECEMBER
LAWRENCE | JANUARY
“So this is the boyfriend’s place?” Charlie asked as they climbed out of the Impala. There weren’t any signs of zombs around, but the Novaks lived about as far out of town as Bobby, so that wasn’t a surprise. The house was dark, cold.
Dean pulled his coat closer to him, trying to steel himself against the freezing winter weather. “His parents’ house. They don’t get along.”
Charlie quirked a brow at him. “Homophobes?”
“Evangelicals. They don’t like me much,” he explained as he knocked on the front door. There was no sign of life in the house. He knocked again, louder. Still nothing. They both tried looking through the windows, but there was no movement inside.
Dean jogged down the front steps again and went digging for the spare key, hoping they still hid it under the Madonna and child statue. They did. “Jackpot.”
“Use their spare key a lot?” Charlie asked with a wicked smirk.
Dean ducked his head, keeping his eyes trained on the door as he unlocked it. “Cas had me sneak in a couple times while his parents were asleep,” he explained. He ignored Charlie's snickering behind him.
The house was silent when they stepped inside, barely warmer than the outdoors. There were no signs of recent occupation. Dean checked the garage, but their car was gone. They must have evacuated. At least he wouldn’t have to tell Cas they were dead.
A sound upstairs sent him on high alert, and he pulled his machete out as he crept towards the stairs. Charlie followed him, pulling her own knife out. Dean’s heart began speeding up as they ascended. He might have fantasized about stabbing Mr. Novak in the throat in the past for some of the things he’d said to Cas, but he never actually wanted to do it.
Once they reached the upstairs landing, the sounds became clearer. Not a human. Dean recognized what it was immediately. “Pearl,” he muttered under his breath, dropping his knife back into its holster and rushing to Cas’ old bedroom door. The squeaking got louder when he opened it.
“What is that?” Charlie asked, following him more slowly.
“Pearl. Cas’ guinea pig. Jesus, I thought Gabe gave her away in a poker game.” And sure enough, there she was, trying to climb up the side of her cage to get to them, her little nails scratching against the glass. Dean walked over to her cage and picked her up, holding her up to get a look at her. She squirmed in his hands, yelling unhappily at him. “Cas wanted to take her to school, but he couldn’t have pets in the dorms. We were going to take her with us when we moved in together,” he told Charlie.
Charlie squealed herself when she laid eyes on Pearl, dropping her knife to the ground and scrambling over to coo at the little monster. “Oh my goodness, look at you!” she said.
Dean handed her over, turning his attention to checking her cage for food. There was a sad wilted carrot, mostly nibbled off already. Her water spigot was empty, but there was still a bit left in a dish next to her food. The Novaks couldn't have been gone for more than a day or two. When he looked back up from his inspection, Charlie was looking at him oddly, Pearl held close to her chest, still squeaking. “What?”
Charlie turned her attention back to Pearl with a little smile. “Nothing, I just wouldn’t have pictured you as a fan of guinea pigs.”
Dean scowled, crouching down to look for her spare hammock and the little sweaters Cas made for her. Cas would want them. “I’m not. Cas loves her.”
“And you love Cas.”
Dean didn’t need to answer that one. “Let’s get her some food, and I’ll see if I can grab a couple things for Cas before we go. It looks like his parents probably bailed already.”
They were back in the car half an hour later, Pearl tucked into the inside pocket of Dean’s coat, fed, watered, and squeaking happily. Her little head poked out of his coat collar. Charlie looked over at him when she slid into the passenger side and snickered. “What?” he asked, annoyed.
“Nothing. I just can’t believe your bringing a guinea pig with us.”
Dean stared her down. It only made her laugh harder.
“Let’s get this stupid dance party over with,” he grumbled. She grinned at him and turned the music up as he pulled out of the Novaks’ driveway. Pearl squealed the whole way back to Bobby’s.
"We're building a fence," Sam told him one morning three days after they laid Jess to rest. It was the first thing he'd said since the funeral, and Castiel didn't know how to respond.
"Okay." He stirred the oatmeal in his bowl and took a bite. "How?"
"The forest starts a quarter mile that way." He pointed towards the northwest, towards where they knew the cougar's den was. "We can cut down trees and use them to build a barrier around the camp."
Castiel took another bite, hoping to give himself time to think. "That sounds like a lot of work. Is it worth diverting our energy away from food production?"
"We won't have to. Brady, Michael, Cain, and I can do the work. Jo can keep hunting, and you and Donna can take care of the garden."
Another bite. Two. "Is there a reason you've decided to do this? Did something happen last night that I don't know about?"
"Michael brought up the idea. The mountain lion's been prowling around here more lately. And it would protect us from zombies."
A crack in his voice made it clear what this was really about. Cas looked at his friend, really looked at him, and understood. "Okay. Let's build a fence."
Two weeks into the project, he was beginning to regret the decision. Sam tackled the work with a kind of tunnel vision Cas had never seen before, sheer determination fueling him where food and sleep had been abandoned. They had a large pile of hewn tree trunks, all much larger than Cas would have expected the four of them to be able to handle, even with the ATV's help. Sam looked like he was about to fall over at any moment. He was thinner and the dark circles that rimmed his eyes made him look a little like the dead. He refused to listen when Castiel suggested he take a break to get more than the four hours of sleep a night he was permitting himself.
"He hasn't eaten a full meal since before Jess..." Castiel couldn't get himself to say the rest, but Donna and Jo knew what he meant. They were huddled around the fire sharing a salmon Jo had caught that morning.
"Sometimes people cope with loss differently. He needs to work through this. Just give him some time," Donna said, patting his knee.
"I'm just worried that he's going to collapse. He's barely sleeping. He isn't eating. All he does is cut trees down and build the fence. Michael said he thought he was going to kill himself with work."
Jo gave him a sharp look. "Why are you talking to Michael about anything? He's not wrong, but that idiot wouldn't know good work ethic if you smacked him in the face with it."
"I wouldn't call what Sam's doing good work ethic. Michael isn't wrong," Donna said.
"But what do we do about it? I understand that he's grieving, but this is bordering on dangerous."
Donna shrugged. "There's not much we can do about it. Sam's a big boy. He's going to figure this out on his own. Support him. Offer him food. Remind him to sleep. Let him talk if he wants to. Let him work if he wants to do that instead."
Cas looked at the salmon left on his plate. A vision of blood-stained blonde hair flashed in front of his eyes, and he dropped the plate into his lap with a sigh, unable to stomach another bite. "I guess you're right."
Donna patted his knee again and offered him a bite of her corn. He shook his head.
That night he curled up in bed and cried until there were no more tears left.
“You sure you don’t want to come with us?” Dean asked for the second time that morning.
Ash peered up at him through blood-shot eyes, wincing at every slight noise. They’d stayed up until 3am celebrating the New Year. Dean wasn’t faring much better, himself. “I told you, I’m gonna find that bunker and get set up. There’s gotta be other people trying to connect. I’m gonna find them.”
“Just stay safe. I spent a lot of energy keeping your ass alive this long. Don’t want it gone to waste.”
Ash scoffed at him. “I do fine on my own, man. Go find that boy of yours. I’ll be up in Lebanon when you decide to come crawling back.”
Dean rolled his eyes and hooked an arm around Ash’s neck, reeling him into a bear hug. “Take care of yourself, man.”
“You, too, man.” Ash patted him twice on the back before pulling away, and that was that.
When Dean dropped his bag into the trunk of the stupid hybrid, two other bags swung in on either side. Charlie’s on his right, and a worn, old army duffle that Dean didn’t recognize on the left. When he looked up, Bobby was standing there with a stone expression. “Bobby…” Dean tried, but Bobby shook his head.
“Lost everyone I’ve ever known, boy. I’m not losing you, too.”
He didn’t stay to let Dean answer, just walked right passed him to the driver’s side of the car and climbed in. Dean looked at Charlie, but her expression said she knew this was going to happen. Ash was standing on the porch, watching them go, and he didn’t look any more surprised than Charlie. Dean sighed under his breath and walked over to the back passenger side door, holding a hand up in Ash’s direction. Ash waved, looking small and skinny on the big front porch. Dean didn’t like leaving him, but he couldn’t make Ash’s decisions for him.
So instead he climbed into the front of the car and shut the door with more force than necessary. It didn’t even slam right. “I guess you’re driving, then?”
“Like I’d let you drive, boy. My life flashed behind my eyes the last time I let you behind the wheel,” Bobby muttered to himself, starting the car up and making a face at the lack of an engine roar.
“I was fourteen,” Dean protested. It fell on deaf ears. Bobby was still muttering to himself as they pulled out of the junkyard, heading west.
The light was barely creeping over the horizon when Castiel propped his foot on his balcony and stretched his leg muscles, reaching for his shoe to get the best stretch. The last thing he needed was a leg cramp in the middle of the forest without back-up. He checked his pocket for the knife he borrowed from Jo and jumped up and down a few times to loosen his muscles. The excitement of getting out and working his body again after the long stretch of short-distance exercise was starting to bubble inside him, overcoming the nerves and the worry over what kind of danger he was getting himself into.
No one was up and about when he set off, heading north to the beach-front area that had been Jess' demise. There were valuable supplies that he could get. He just needed to be cautious. He had debated using the ATV, but the noise might attract unwanted attention, and their gas reserves were so low. He might consider looking for alternatives at some point, but this trip was for essentials. If he was quick enough, he could be back before lunch.
The run was shorter than he expected, the sun having barely moved by the time he reached the closest houses, huge, glass-covered structures that must have been worth millions mere months ago. Now they sat empty, eerily quiet. Castiel approached the first one and pried the front door open with a crowbar, working as quietly as he could until it swung open. No alarm sounded, not surprising given that the electricity had failed a few months back. Castiel stood in the doorway listening for any sign of life or movement. When no sound was forthcoming, he stepped inside, hyper-vigilant of the slightest noise.
The first floor of the house was an open floor plan, and it didn't take more than a few minutes to ascertain that no inhabitants were going to pop out and attack him. He went to the kitchen and started rifling through cabinets, stuffing what dry goods he found into the empty pack he'd brought with him. He wouldn't be able to carry as much as the ATV could, but it was something.
The first-floor bathroom had pain meds, bandages, and tooth paste. Castiel packed all of it up. A noise upstairs caused him to jump, but a few minutes of stillness made him think it was an animal and not a human. He shouldered the pack and headed to the next house, not willing to risk going upstairs.
The next house wasn't as unoccupied as the first. He thought about just walking past, but the infected person caught sight of him and went into a frenzy, banging on the glass front window loud enough to be heard at a distance. His moans of pain filled Castiel's ears, memories of Jess' last night flooding him and making it difficult to breathe. He decided that he couldn't risk this zombie alerting any others, and slipped into the open garage, knife out.
"Stay alert, eyes up, ears open. I know you like to daydream, babe, but if you want to stay safe in the city, you need to stay alert," Dean's voice ran through his head, the old self-defense training he had put him through popping up as he entered the house. At the time, Cas had thought Dean was being overly cautious in teaching him how to defend himself, letting John Winchester's survivalist paranoia get the best of him. "I'm moving to San Francisco, not Nakatomi Plaza. Relax," Cas had teased him at the time, but he was grateful for the lessons now. Dean had been a thorough and relentless teacher, and his efforts were proving useful.
Even having already done it once, even not knowing the stranger, even knowing that his life was at risk if he didn't act, it was still one of the hardest things he ever had to do. Not just because the man was fighting him, trying to get at his skin with his teeth. Not just because every moan reminded him of Jessica. Doing this made everything so much more real.
Castiel still stabbed up into the man's throat, using all his strength to penetrate his soft pallet and cut into his central nervous system. He felt the knife cut through tissue and bone, felt every centimeter of damage all the way down his arm. And when he pulled the knife out again, the sound of the man's lifeless body collapsing to the marble tile was the loudest Castiel had ever heard.
The sun was tilting towards the ocean when he walked back into camp to find Sam standing by his cabin with a concerned look on his face. "Where were you?" Sam demanded, storming up to him.
It was only then that it occurred to Castiel that the others might worry if he left without telling anyone where he was going. But he couldn't have told them. There was no way Sam would have let him go without an argument. And he'd brought back such useful supplies. He dropped the pack and opened the top zipper, pulling out an unopened bag of white flour. "I went up to Stinson Beach to see if I could find anything. Look what I got."
He tried to be nonchalant about the revelation, but Sam looked like he was about to lose his mind. "You what?! It isn't safe, Cas. What the hell"
Cas set the flour aside and pulled out the pitcher he'd found with a water filter built in and a dozen replacement filters. He'd filled the pitcher with six pill bottles full of Ibuprofen. It rattled around as he set the pitcher on the ground. "I came back fine, didn't I? I took care of the zombie I found. You can check me for bites if you want, but I'm clear. It's okay, I promise."
Sam checked him over all right, grabbing his arms and pushing his sleeves up to check his unblemished skin with a little more force than necessary. He was still at it, grumbling at Castiel about keeping himself safe and taking unnecessary risks when Donna came up and picked up the sack of flour with a curious look.
"Find us a prize, there?" she asked, holding up the bag.
"Can we use it?" Cas asked, ignoring Sam lifting the back of his shirt up to check his back.
"I can use it," she said, nodding to herself as she stood up with a wink and walked off.
That night they had fresh bread to share. It was the first time Castiel had felt normal in months.
Sam didn't protest the next time he went out.
The click of the gun at the back of his head had Dean’s hands up faster than his brain could process what was happening. He held them up high, turning slowly around to find a skinny guy with a wicked grin and startling hazel eyes holding a pistol on him. “You got the keys to that snappy little Prius, gorgeous?”
Dean cocked his head to the side, raising an eyebrow at the guy. “Not gonna lie, having a gun on me is kind of a turn-on, but you’re really gonna steal the piece of shit hybrid I’m driving? Not worth it, dude.”
“I’m stealing your hybrid car full of supplies and excellent gas mileage, yes. Keys. Hand them over.”
Dean returned the guy's smirk. “You’re gonna have to frisk me for them.”
A curly-haired girl who looked remarkably like the guy exited a building nearby and walked over, frowning at them both. “Who’s the guy?” she asked.
“Our meal ticket. Get his keys. Front pocket, I think. Unless he's got a surprise for us.”
The girl rolled her eyes and strode over to Dean and began picking his pockets without ceremony. She paused when his coat started squealing and gave her conspirator a look. "You try to take guinea pig, and we're gonna have a problem," Dean warned, staring her down. He could feel Pearl squirming around inside his jacket, trying to scratch her way to the surface with her useless little nails.
The woman rolled her eyes and kept digging. She pulled out the keys a few moments later and dangled them in front of his face. "Thanks." She turned to show her companion. Dean thought about grabbing his knife and holding it to her throat—he didn't think the guy was prepared to use the gun, even if he held it steady—but things might get too loud if he did that, and there were an uncomfortable number of infected folks nearby.
Instead, he glanced around for any sign of Bobby or Charlie. "Are you really gonna strand us with nothing but the clothes on our backs in a town full of zombies?"
The guy considered this, narrowing his eyes at Dean as he dropped the gun to his side. "Do you have backpacks?"
"You can take those. Nothing else. And I'm keeping the gun on you the whole time you grab them."
Dean nodded, keeping his hands nice and high. "That's fine, dude. Thank you. I got pictures of my family I don't want to lose."
"You should keep those with you," the girl said. She smirked at him, a wicked match to her companion's. "In these troubled times, you never know when someone's going to help themselves to your stuff, do you?"
Dean took a deep breath to stay calm. "I'll keep that in mind, thanks."
They marched him over to the Prius and the guy popped the trunk. Dean shouldered his pack and grabbed Charlie's and Bobby's, too, eyeing the water and the packs of ramen they'd been hording. He couldn't be too mad about losing the car with the number of abandoned ones around, but the supplies had taken them weeks to gather. He'd been hoping to bring them to Cas.
The girl elbowed him back and shut the trunk with a forceful show. It didn’t bang—the hydraulics were too smooth for that—but it still made a hell of a sound. It set Dean's nerves alight, the sound loud enough to alert the zombies nearby. He pulled his machete out without caring about his assailants' reactions. "You know we didn't fuel that up yet, dumbass."
The girl rolled her eyes and walked quickly over behind a car, coming back with a gas can. She tossed the keys to her sibling—Dean was pretty sure they were at least that, if not twins—and filled the tank quickly. The brother hurried away and came back with an extra pack. Before the first zombie came stumbling out of a house, they were both in the car and driving away.
Dean spied Bobby turning a corner with a concerned look. He waved his hands in the air to indicate that they'd been had and went to take care of the first zombie. By the time Charlie was back, he had taken care of five more. By the time he dropped onto the sidewalk panting and covered in blood, the street was littered with bodies.
"What happened? Where's the car?" Bobby asked, standing over him with his arms crossed, blood spattering his coat.
"I got hijacked by twins with a gun. They let me take our bags, but we're gonna have to find a new ride."
"They had a gun?" Charlie asked, plopping down next to them.
"Yep. Don't supposed either of you found a car we could take?"
"I'm sure there's something," Charlie told him, patting his arm. He nodded, looking away towards the edge of town. The Prius was parked, and he could see the two thieves standing in their open doors, watching them. The girl had what looked like her phone out. They both nodded at him. He couldn't see their expressions from his distance, but he got the sense they were impressed. He couldn't imagine what about. They climbed back into their stolen car and drove away before he could think too hard about it.
That night, bunked down in an abandoned convenience store, Bobby set a pistol on Dean’s sleeping bag with a tight frown. “I thought you were still too young to be carrying one, but if you’re gonna be gettin’ carjacked by idiot teenagers, you might as well take it now.”
Dean picked the gun up and cradled it in his hands. He recognized it immediately, the ivory-inlaid handle, the engraved barrel. It had been his mother’s gun. “Have you been carrying this with you since we left your place?”
Bobby shrugged, not looking at him. “Thought you’d want to have it. I got your daddy’s in here, too. For Sam.”
The words hit him right in the chest. Bobby had made it clear back at the house that he thought Sam was dead, but the gun told a different story. Dean looked at Bobby with fresh eyes, smiling despite their circumstances. “We’re gonna find them, Bobby.”
Bobby didn’t answer, but he gave a short nod before climbing into his own sleeping bag and turning his back on Dean for the night. Dean sat up, tracing the filigree inlay on the barrel long into the night.
Cas had been avoiding the house for weeks, running past it and searching the surrounding houses for supplies. A dog barked inside, loud and incessant, every time he ran passed. He wasn't sure if the dog was infected or had been living off the infected all this time, but he also didn't want to find out. Knowing that the virus could spread to animals was not information he wanted to learn, regardless of how useful it would be to their survival. Some knowledge just wasn't worth the hit to your sanity an answer might cause.
But this day was different. This day, the dog was in the fenced-in back yard. It was a big wolfhound-looking thing with thick fur and a healthy-looking physique. Not the kind of animal that had been left to starve by absent or deceased owners. He looked well-fed and taken care of. Which meant his owner was likely still alive.
He paused a few feet from the fence, cocking his head to the side in curiosity. If the owner lived here, were they alone? How were they surviving? The town had been abandoned for at least three months.
He didn't have to wait long before a hooded figure crept out of the back door of the house and shushed the dog. "What's the matter with you, Kurt? Stop making so much noise before we attract visitors," a woman's voice admonished the dog. The hood was dark and pulled over her hair, but Cas recognized the odd shape of a bun raising up the hood at an odd angle. She stopped dead when she turned and laid eyes on Castiel.
"Hello," Cas greeted, giving a tiny wave. The dog continued to bark murder at him.
"Hi," the woman said, dropping her hood. She was older than him by a few years, but still unlikely to be over thirty. She looked clean and healthy, if a little worn. She walked over to the dog slowly and put a hand on his head. He stopped barking immediately.
"Are you staying here alone?" Cas asked, then realized what that question might sound like. "Sorry, not um... I wasn't trying to be creepy. I'm Castiel. I live in a small camp out at Steep Ravine, about a mile south?" He pointed awkwardly behind him, but the woman continued to watch him without comment, so he kept talking. "I've been coming here to find supplies for our camp for a while, and I've noticed your dog barking at me every time I run by. I thought maybe he was trapped in the house alone with... his former owners, I guess. I'm glad to see that isn't the case."
"You're the one who's been stealing all the food around here? I keep going to houses and finding half the kitchens raided, but I couldn't figure out who was taking the food. Or killing the zombies."
"I don't enjoy that part, but I do have seven mouths to feed. We have a crop going that's doing fairly well, but it isn't enough yet to sustain us."
She glared at him. "You're cutting into my food supply."
Castiel blinked at her. She looked like she wanted to hide from him and slit his throat at the same time. It was almost as intimidating as Jo with a knife. "I'm sorry about that. You're welcome to join our camp if you like. We have individual cabins to stay in and the park ranger is there. And we have fresh produce from the garden."
The woman still looked skeptical. She dropped a hand on the dog's head again as if to remind Castiel of his presence. The dog snuffled and sat up straighter, eyes focused on Cas.
"Donna makes bread once a week. Most of my supply runs have been for flour. We haven't found any seeds for wheat yet."
The mention of a woman’s name seemed to perk her up almost as quickly as the prospect of bread. "Do you have butter?"
"Sadly no. Long-term, we're trying to figure out where to get a dairy animal, but we haven't managed it yet. We have eggs, though. I rescued some chickens from a backyard coupe a couple of weeks ago."
Her glare came back. "I'm aware. I was eating those eggs."
"You could continue to eat them if you wanted to join us. If not, I'd be willing to bring you a dozen when I come this way again as apology."
Her expression softened. "I'll think about it."
Castiel gave her a gummy smile. Having a new person in the camp would be a great distraction, especially for Sam. Even two months after Jess' death, he was still a shell of himself. The fence was built, a hinged gate even installed, and still Sam worked tirelessly to patrol and keep them safe. It was hard to watch. "Take your time. We're at Steep Ravine just down the coast line if you decide to join us. Can I ask your name, so I can tell my camp who to expect?"
"Madison," she said.
"It's nice to meet you, Madison. I'll leave you and Kurt to your day, then. I think I'll try the houses a little further north today." He waved and waited for her to nod in farewell before heading off at a walk up the north-eastern path towards some of the smaller homes further inland.
Three days later, Castiel looked up from his pruning at the sound of a dog barking. Several minutes of conversation between Sam, who stood on the raised look-out perch, and the person outside their camp later, and the gate was being opened to reveal Madison and Kurt, complete with a bulging pack and a wary expression. It softened when she spotted Jo and Donna hanging sheets up between the cabins.
The next instant, Castiel was up and brushing the dirt off his hands on his pants and heading over to her with a giant smile. "You came. Welcome!"
"You stole my chickens," she reminded him.
He laughed, nodding towards the small coupe they'd built next to the visitor center turned store house. "They're completely safe, I assure you."
"I guess I'll stay here, then. Just to keep an eye on them, of course."
Kurt turned out to be an excellent hunting dog. By the end of the week, they were more than set for meat. And if Sam looked a little lighter every time he talked to Madison, well, Castiel wasn't going to say anything to him about it.
Their next car was a Chevy Astro and not a new one, but it was the only vehicle with at least three quarters of a tank of gas that didn’t have slashed tires. Choices were limited. Twenty miles into the journey, Dean missed the Prius. The old van was clunky and loud and the doors rattled every time they hit a bump in the road. It wasn't very well-insulated and they didn't want to risk keeping the heat on and wasting gas, so they ended up huddling for warmth. Probably not even a good tune-up would help get her engine back up to snuff. They had to refuel before they even reached Colorado Springs. Dean got out, cursing under his breath, and retrieved the half-full gas can from the back. It wasn’t anywhere near enough to fill the tank, but they were hoping to refuel at one of the Air Force bases when they got farther west.
They were able to trade some medications for fuel at the Air Force Academy, but even with a full tank of gas, they could only get so far through the snow. It had never occurred to Dean that the mountains might be impossible to cross during the winter. Without snow plows, even a few inches was a serious problem to navigate through in their shitty van. Just getting passed the mountains around Denver took them three days of hard roads and near white-out conditions.
Sheer determination can only get a person so far in the dead of winter when snow plows are no longer running. In Dean's case, it got him to very western edge of Nevada and no further. They tried to find an open route through the mountains for three days before Bobby made Dean give up and find somewhere to bunk down until the snow melted. Which is how they ended up parked outside a FEMA camp on the outskirts of Reno.
They got out as a group and approached the first volunteer they could find, a short woman in a FEMA jacket with a clipboard, standing at the opening of what looked like the command center. She eyed them as they introduced themselves. "If you want to stay here, you'll have to submit yourselves for a physical and go through processing. Did you bring IDs?"
Dean pulled out his wallet to show her, as did Bobby and Charlie. While the woman looked them over, Dean wondered what they did if someone didn't have ID. It wasn't as if they could pop over to the DMV and get a new one, not anymore. The woman jotted down their names and ages and handed the cards back, then pulled aside a flap of the tent for them. "Welcome to Camp Reno," she said in the flat, lifeless voice of someone who has lost all hope.
Dean took a deep breath as he stepped inside, trying to remind himself that this was necessary. They had no way of getting to Cas and Sam at the moment, not without ending up dead on the side of a mountain or in a reenactment of the Donner Party. Neither scenario was a good option. So he let another volunteer usher them into separate curtained-off areas and stripped when he was asked to get naked. There wasn't anything but a chair in the room, so he ended up having to hold Pearl to make sure she didn't wander away. A doctor popped in a minute later to check him over for bite marks. He eyed Pearl as he worked.
"We don't give extra rations for pets here," he told Dean as he lifted his arm to check his side.
"Don't expect you to. She doesn't eat much," he said, keeping his eyes on Pearl squirming in his hand, kicking her little legs in the air and yelling at him. She wasn't a fan of being held like that.
“What’s this?” the doctor asked, lifting his arm up to show him a scratch from his wrist to his elbow.
“Cut it on a rock under my sleeping back last night. I’m not infected.”
“Just being thorough. It’s my job to make sure we don’t let anyone who’s infected onto the camp. A lot more than your life is at stake.” He glanced up into Dean’s eyes, his gaze boring into Dean’s as if he could will Dean to cooperate with the force of his eye contact alone.
“I get it. I’m naked and getting felt up by a stranger, aren’t I? One infected person gets in and the whole place goes down. I just want to make it through this stupid winter. The last thing I want to do is spread this thing, believe me.”
“I appreciate the sentiment. You look clean.” The doctor pulled his plastic gloves off and dropped them into a receptacle. Dean wondered if they recycled them, now that there was no way to get new ones. What would they do when they ran out? "Get dressed. One of the volunteers outside can tell you where to go from here.” He jotted something in his notes and walked out of the curtain, not even giving Dean a second glance.
Cold and annoyed at having been exposed to the wider tent by the doctor leaving, Dean quickly got re-dressed. He set Pearl on the chair next to his jeans with a quiet, "Okay, girl, stay there for a minute," and started pulling his boxers on. He tucked his pistol into an inner pocket of his jacket to hide it from view, just in case, and strapped the leather sheath of his machete to his thigh, high enough to hide the bulk of it under his jeans. He stuck his knife back in his boot. He didn't think they had the authority to take his weapons, but there was no way to know for sure.
When he stepped out from behind the curtain, a volunteer took his ID and started processing his paperwork, asking him a battery of questions to figure out where they were going to place him in camp. She was a little less soulless than the first woman to great them, and even took a moment to pet Pearl.
"I'm only planning on staying as long as the snow lasts, and then I'm going to go find out what happened to my brother and my boyfriend. They were both going to school in San Francisco before all this went down. Whatever I need to do for you guys to survive long enough to get there is fine.”
The girl chewed on the end of her pen and glanced up at him through her lashes, quick and uncertain, before she spoke. “I’m sorry, but your people are probably dead. San Francisco got hit as hard as Los Angeles. The last report we got, even their Safe Zone got hit. The entire city is quarantined.”
“The whole world is a quarantine zone. They had a plan to get out before it got too bad. I just want to see if they did.”
"Doesn't sound worth the risk to me, but we can accommodate you for a few months. The snow usually doesn't clear through the mountains until April, maybe May without state snow services."
May. An ice berg cropped up in Dean's stomach and settled in for the winter. It could be months before he gets to California. Months.
"If you were studying engineering, you might be able to help get the solar power set up. I think Mike has a team working on it right now. They want to get the system up and running before we run out of gas for the generators." She jots something down on her clipboard and tears off a duplicate copy and hands it to him. "Bring this to Beverly and she can show you where your bunk assignment is and explain the meal vouchers. Once you're set, she'll introduce you to Mike and you can get your work detail from there." She turns and picks up a neat pile of bedding and hands it to him with an uncomfortable-looking smile. "Welcome to Camp Reno."
That was that, then. He took the new bedding with him over to the woman introduced to him as Beverly, and she showed him to his tent after she introduced him to his temporary boss. It was an odd feeling, settling in to stay. After months on the road, he thought he would be with Cas by now. Instead, he was facing down months of cramped quarters and strangers and waiting. So much waiting.
Charlie flashed her paperwork at him when she found him half an hour later. "We're officially refugees." She sounded a lot more cheerful about the situation than he was.
"Yay for us."
She made a face at him. "It isn't that bad. I get to work on their communications tower, maybe try to talk to some other camps. If we’re really lucky, maybe Ash found that made-up bunker and has his radio going. Apparently, there's a communications chain going up and down the Rocky's. And there are rumors that there are camps up and down the coast. Obviously, they won't be able to talk to them until the weather's better, but there's hope."
"Hooray for them. My brother and my boyfriend might be dead, and instead of finding out, I’m stuck in a refugee camp."
She punched him in the arm playfully. "Suck it up, buttercup. We can't help them as it is. Might as well make the best of a bad situation, right?"
And so they did, whether Dean wanted to or not.
Movement to his right alerted Castiel to the knowledge that he might not be alone in the hotel. He had been crouched down behind the bar, trying to reach the three cans of unopened pineapple juice he'd spied when someone darted across the mirror, too fast to be the dead. He stood up to look and was surprised to find a woman frozen in the lobby, standing near the front desk, looking right back at him.
"Hello," he said, loud enough to be heard across the distance.
"Hello," she replied, slower.
"Where did you come from?" he asked, realizing too late that this was the second time he'd asked a strange woman a strange question. He hoped it was a little more appropriate given the circumstances.
"Steep Ravine. Are you a scavenger, too?"
"Yes. Have you seen any deodorant? We're running low, and that is the last thing anyone wants." She scrunched up her nose, and it made him laugh.
"I saw a little gift shop by the elevators. There might be some in there."
“Thanks.” She smiled at him and turned towards the gift shop. He crouched back behind the bar again to finally snag the pineapple juice, but in the back of his mind, thoughts were building. There was a cash of deodorant sitting in their inventory, a good thirty sticks for every person in their camp. They surely didn’t need that many, wouldn’t run out until well past the point that people stop caring about wearing it or found alternatives.
He stuffed the cans in his bag and stands, hoping she was still in the lobby. He found the woman behind the counter display, holding two sticks of deodorant with a little frown, eyes scanning the storage underneath the shelving for more. “I was thinking. We have a huge case of deodorant back at my camp. Would you be interested in possibly setting up a trade?”
The woman paused, turning to look at him with eagle eyes. “What kind of a trade?”
“We have a surplus of meat and eggs and bread, but our vegetable crops aren’t doing the best because our soil is really sandy. I was thinking you all might be faring better on that end, since you’re a little more residential than we are.”
The woman perked up. “You have bread?”
Cas smiled, recognizing the excitement in her eyes. He'd felt the same way the first time Donna had dropped a slice of warm fresh-baked bread on his plate. It had been what hooked Madison, too, and for good reason. “One of our people bakes it fresh. I could maybe bring a loaf next week, if you wanted to trade?”
She stared at him for a long moment, thoughts clearly flying around in her head. “We have more zucchini than we will ever be able to eat.”
Cas grinned. “We would love zucchini. Why don’t we meet back here next Friday with the items we’d like to trade, and we can go from there?”
She nodded, and they shook on it. “I’m Castiel,” he told her, a new kind of excitement bubbling up inside him.
“Hannah,” she said.
When he came back the next week, she was there with a backpack full of fresh vegetables.
“So you’re from MIT?” the kid he’d been assigned to work with, Kevin, asked him. They had been working together for the better part of a month, and Kevin never ceased asking him questions.
Dean twisted the wrench a few more turns before glancing up at him. “Yeah. Was almost done with my BA. Doesn’t really matter now, though.”
“It’s still pretty awesome. I was aiming for Yale.”
Dean raised his eyebrows at that. “Good thing you didn’t have time to get in then, isn’t it?”
Kevin frowned. “They made a mistake. It happens.”
“A mistake? They let a virus out that’s killed millions of people, including both of my parents. They shouldn’t have been playing God like that.”
Kevin let go of the panel he’d been holding down for Dean to work on and brushed the dirt off his hands. “They were scientists. It’s what scientists do.”
“Scientists have protocols they’re supposed to follow. One of those is making an antidote for any virus they create. They didn’t do that. From what my friend Ash could find out, they didn’t even try.”
Kevin opened his mouth to answer, but no words came out. For a long while, they worked in silence. And then suddenly, the silence was broken. By a moan. A loud one.
Dean whipped around to find a zombie stumbling around the edge of the house they were setting up panels next to. They’d canvased before they started work, checking the building nearby to make sure they wouldn’t have any surprises. Dean didn’t know where this one came from, but it was moving on quick feet directly for Kevin. Kevin stumbled backwards, terror taking over his face. Dean didn’t think he’d had many interactions with the dead yet—from what he could tell, Kevin’s mother was a little overprotective of him. There was no way he would be able to defend himself.
Dean pulled his machete out of its sheath and got between Kevin and the zombie, stabbing it in the throat in one quick movement that stopped it in its tracks. Its mouth hung open in a stalled attempt to bite at Dean, decayed fingers loosening their grip on his shoulder. It fell to the dirt with a soft ‘whomp’ sound. He pulled the machete back out and wiped the black blood off in the dirt next to the body.
When he stood up again, Kevin and Mike were staring at him with eyes wide-open. “Holy shit,” Mike said.
"What?" he asked, pulling the back of the zombie's shirt away from its skin to clean the rest of the blood from his blade.
"You didn't even hesitate. That was amazing," Mike said.
At the same time, Kevin said, "You saved my life." He stumbled over to Dean with his hand out as if to shake.
Dean ignored him and put the blade back in its holster. "Where did it come from? We checked the houses nearby." He walked away from them, checking around the back of the house in the direction the zombie had come from and was relieved to see no more threats. He tried to peer into the windows, but they were boarded up. None of the doors were open, either. He had no idea where the zombie had come from.
“We swept this area a few days ago and didn’t find any infected people. I don’t know how they missed one,” Mike said, coming around the back of the house to join him in looking. Kevin stood at the corner of the house, watching them with his bottom lip trapped between his teeth.
Dean tsked under his breath. He’d seen their sweep team. Two former sheriff’s deputies and a guy who spent six months in the army before he got discharged for a foot injury, two decades ago. None of them were well-trained, nor did he get the impression that any of them liked physical labor much. “Cool. They did an awesome job clearing the area.”
“Maybe we should call it a day, head back to camp. This area clearly needs to be swept again before we get back to work setting up panels,” Mike said.
Dean does one more visual sweep of the area before nodding. “Yeah, let’s get back before something tries to eat Kevin again.”
Kevin made a little noise and scurried back around the side of the house. Mike and Dean followed after him. They packed up quickly, leaving the panels where they had been laid out without worrying about them being stolen—there was no one left alive in town to steal them—and headed back to camp.
In the surprise of seeing them back so early, the story of the rogue zombie was retold. Mike and Kevin embellished too much as far as Dean was concerned, but no one would hear him trying to correct them. Before he knew what was happening, he was being assigned to join the useless excuse for a sweep team.
“We’ll still need you working on the solar panels, obviously, but that will be your second priority. We barely have a chain-linked fence around this facility, and the last thing we need is an outbreak,” Kathleen, the head of the camp, told him, writing something on her ever-present clipboard.
Dean leveled a look at her. “Really? You want a 23-year-old taking care of zombies for you?”
She returned look for look. “Yes. You’ve proven yourself more than capable of the job. And if what Charlie’s been telling me is true, you’ve got a lot more experience at this than the three amigos. I need to protect the camp. You need to eat until the snow clears. Deal with it.”
Dean didn’t let himself get huffy at the order. He took a deep breath and nodded his head in understanding, straightening his spine the way he had when his father issued an order. “Yes, ma’am. Whatever you say goes.”
“Good. Now go find the team and catch them up with what happened today. I expect all four of you to go check that neighborhood house by house tomorrow. No threats left. Understood?”
He nodded again, considered saluting, but she didn’t deserve the mocking, and walked off to find the douche-canoes running the shit show.
Jo dropped next to Cas and pulled a wicked-looking pocket knife out of nowhere and started whittling away at a stick. If Castiel wasn’t gay, he might have been turned on by the nonchalant show of badassery. Instead, he held out an apricot half for her to eat. She paused in whittling to take it from him. “So, a runner from the Petaluma bunked here last night. He says there’s a zombie hunter heading this way. Said the guy leveled a horde of fifty zombs by himself.”
“Oh?” Rumors had started to travel in the three months since they’d established the trade route. Word-of-mouth was their only source of information, limited and distorted as it often was. But there were still a few radio towers functioning, and their operators liked to talk. Legends had started springing up around May, and quickly become the new Keeping Up with the Kardashians. And no matter how much Jo might deny it and threaten to eviscerate anyone who might accuse her of such, she was the gossip queen.
“Yeah, some guy named Dean. Aaron said he heard it from a FEMA camp on the other side of the mountains. Supposedly the guy stayed with them for a couple months while he was waiting out the snow. Apparently cleared out their whole town, made it livable again.”
For a moment, Cas’ heart stopped when he heard the name. Green eyes and the warmest smile, only for him. He’d spent a whole afternoon trying to convince Cas he’d be able to survive in the woods by himself because of his dad’s crazy training. Cas had made fun of him. “You’re about as dangerous as a raccoon and twice as obnoxious.”
“Am not. I’m a lion on the prowl, baby, and I’m hunting for you.” Cas had smacked his shoulder and knocked him onto his back, unable to handle the cheese of it. But he hadn’t fought it when Dean pulled him down with him and kissed the giggles from his lips.
Cas pushed the memory away. Dean was a common name. There was no way it was him, if this mystery hunter even existed. He huffed under his breath to hide his reaction. The last thing he needed was to spill the sob story of his lost love to Jo. As much as he trusted her with his life, the story would be all over the camp by dinner. “There is literally no way to prove that,” he said. “I don’t even think it’s physically possible for one person to take down that many zombies in a single fight, not unless he’s Captain America.”
Jo shrugged, sucking juice off her fingers before picking her whittling back up. “It’s pretty badass to think about, though, isn’t it?”
Cas picked his knife back up to keep cutting fruit for their lunch. “I bet you have a higher kill count.”
“Doubt it. Not like we see many zombies around here anymore.” She almost sounded disappointed about it. Castiel raised an eyebrow at her. She made a face at him in return and stole another slice of apricot from the bowl.
“We could send you out on solo missions if you’re looking to for more action. Michael keeps insisting I should try Marin City.”
“That death trap?” She snorted, shaking her head. “No way he’s trying to get you killed like that. He practically has heart eyes for you. You just want all his attention for yourself.”
Cas rolled his eyes. “That is exactly what I want. More than anything in the world. How did you know?”
Jo flicked a wood shaving at him, making him laugh.
They were interrupted by the man himself walking up to them with a pinched look. “Is that for lunch?”
Jo shot Cas a look. “It is,” he answered, ignoring her and smiling up at Michael. Sometimes, it was just easier to be friendly than call him out for his bottomless stomach. He was lucky he kept such a good inventory of their supplies. “I’ll be ready in a few minutes, if you wouldn’t mind getting bowls for everyone?”
Michael’s eyes were fixed on the fruit, but he nodded and walked off to find the bowls. “Wrapped around your little finger, I swear to God,” Jo muttered once he was out of earshot. Cas smiled, watching Michael stop to talk to Brady for a moment before both of them walked off towards the former visitor’s center. They came back out with a stack of bowls a few moments later, and Castiel turned his smile on Jo.
“See, you just need to know how to talk to him,” he told her.
She flicked another shaving at him with a roll of her eyes. “Fucking suck up,” she teased. A moment later the two men were on them and the conversation diverged into lunch plans.
Castiel didn’t remember the rumored hunter until much later that night, alone in his cabin, flicking through the photos on his phone. He fell asleep with a heavy heart and dreamed of Dean. He woke up with tears crusting the edges of his eyes.
“You want to what now?” Dean heard a woman’s voice outside his tent. He was busy getting his pack ready to head out again. They’d gotten word that the roads were clear enough for travel that morning, and he wasn’t wasting any more time. He had no interest in finding out what Mrs. Tran was talking to her son about.
“I said I want us to go with Dean and his people to California,” Kevin replied, and that stopped Dean in his tracks.
“You have lost your mind, kid. Why on earth would we leave a perfectly safe place to follow a teenager around? Most of California is under quarantine. Do you know how wide-spread the virus has to be for them to do that?”
“Dean’s the only reason this place is safe. He saved my life five times already. I think we should stay with him.”
Dean had heard enough. He dropped his pack on his cot next to where Pearl was gnawing at her dinner of leftover vegetables and stalked over to the tent opening, flinging the canvas flap serving as a door aside to find Kevin and his mother standing nearby. Mrs. Tran had her arms crossed over her chest and her eyes narrowed at him, but he was too annoyed to be intimidated. “First off, I’m twenty-three, thanks. Second, who said you were invited to go with us? I’m not running the Oregon Train, here.”
“Come on, Dean, you’ve got a van. What are two more people in it? Mom’s got an in with the kitchen staff. She could score us extra supplies. And we’ve got a couple more perks up our sleeve,” he waggled his eyebrows in a way that made Dean equal parts annoyed and weirded out.
“What’s he talking about?” he asked, turning to Mrs. Tran.
“He’s lost his mind, obviously. We aren’t going anywhere.” She waved him away with a pinched mouth. “Go finish your packing or whatever it is you’re doing. The sooner you leave, the sooner he’ll lose this stupid idea.”
Dean turned to do just that, but Kevin grabbed his arm. “Come on, please? You saved my life. I want to make sure you’re around long enough for me to return the favor.”
Dean sighed, running a hand down his jaw. “Look, Kev, I like you, but I really don’t need two more people slowing me down.”
“We won’t! We know how to keep on the move and avoid zombies pretty well. We got all the way here from Michigan, remember?”
“You said you were staying in Las Vegas with family for Christmas when you were evacuated.”
Kevin got cagey at the reminder. “We were. But we still managed to survive the city. It got hit pretty hard.”
Dean just stared at him. Kevin wilted the longer Dean’s eyes stuck to him.
“Mom’s a nurse. She’s been helping at the first aid tent.”
Mrs. Tran shook her head, mouth still a tight line. “I worked in an OBGYN office. I haven’t done anything but help with delivery and minor contraception insertion surgeries since I was in nursing school. In 1985.”
“But you can suture wounds and set bones and stuff. And you’re amazing at diagnosing things.” Kevin turns to Dean, clearly eager. “I’m telling you, Dean, she knew my dad had prostate cancer before they ever did a test. She’s amazing.”
Dean shook his head. “That’s great, man, but I don’t need a nurse right now. I need to move fast. I’ve already taken too long as it is.” He patted Kevin on the shoulder and nodded at Mrs. Tran before turning back into the tent.
“We have water filters,” Kevin all but yelled at him. “Good ones. They should give us clean water for almost a year.”
That gave Dean pause. He’d made an agreement with Kathleen that if he helped clear out the zombies, she promised him a cache of spare rations to take with them, but it hadn’t included much water, and they hadn’t had time yet to find any extra for the rest of their trip. Kevin must have seen his in, because he perked right back up. “See? Tricks. We can help you if you take us with you. We won’t be a burden, I promise.”
“We aren’t going with them, Kevin. This is ridiculous. This camp is safe. And quiet. If we go with them, we’ll probably die.”
Kevin flings his hand in Dean’s direction, face contorting. “He’s the only reason we’re safe here. How long after he goes are we going to get zombies wandering into camp again? A month? Two? Those guards they have are useless. You were complaining about them and talking about finding a more secure place before Dean even showed up. Now you want to stay?”
Mrs. Tran opens her mouth, then closes it, then opens it again, but nothing comes out. “I’m right, aren’t I? When the zombies come back and we need to evacuate again, we’ll be on our own. If we stick with Dean, at least we’ll be safe.”
Dean’s not a fan of having that much responsibility on his shoulders, but he’s still thinking about the water filters. It could make the rest of their trek a lot easier, and if—when they find Cas and Sam, they’ll be excited about it. He peers up at the sky to see the sun has moved in the time they’ve been talking and curses under his breath. “Talk to Bobby if you want to come with us. I’m not gonna be responsible for you staying alive. You’re going to have to pull your weight, got it?” He points at Kevin to make his point. He knew Mrs. Tran could take care of herself in a fight. He saw her sock another refugee when he tried to cop a feel once. She had a mean right hook.
They kept talking, but Dean tuned them out. He got himself packed up and picked a protesting Pearl up and tucked her in the sling he made for carrying her when it grew too warm to wear his coat. He held a carrot up for her to nibble on to try to placate her. “I know you’re still hungry, girl, but we gotta get moving. If we’re lucky, we’ll be with Cas in a couple days.” He waited until she got a good grip on the carrot before slinging his pack onto his opposite shoulder. He grabbed Bobby’s by the handles on the way out, glancing around for any indication that Charlie was out of the women’s tent.
When he found Charlie a few minutes later, she was standing near the entrance to the camp, pack on her back and her bow and quiver swung over one shoulder, talking to the Trans, who had packs of their own. Looked like Kevin won that argument. He dropped their packs next to Charlie with a dark look and went to check on Bobby’s progress getting their promised food rations. He found him in an argument over how many potatoes they could take.
Twenty minutes of headache-inducing argument later, they had their rations and were packing up the Astro. They all piled in and were finally, finally on the last stretch of road between them and Castiel. Dean expected to be outside San Francisco within a day, maybe three if the mountain roads were rough. Relief warred with the tiny voice in the back of his head that kept reminding him Cas could already be dead. Sam might be a zombie already. He didn’t let those voices win. He would see them in a few days. Just a few more days.
Except that halfway through the mountains the Astro sputtered to a stop with an angry little dying cry. Dean cursed, leaning over to see what the instruments looked like to get an idea what they needed to try to fix. But it wasn’t a repair problem. It was gas. “Are you fucking kidding me?” he grumbled, turning to Bobby when he saw the needle well past E.
“What do you want me to do, boy? That camp didn’t have much for us.”
Dean understood what he was saying, but it didn’t make him less frustrated with the situation. He had hoped they would find a car or two on the side of the road to siphon gas from, but the only one they’d found had had an open gas cap and was mostly water when Dean had tried to siphon from it.
"What's going on?" Mrs. Tran and Charlie asked at the same time.
"Out of gas. Get ready to pack up,” Bobby told them.
"I thought we had reserves," Mrs. Tran said, sharp look darting from Bobby to Dean and back again.
"We did. We used them. There wasn’t much to begin with," Dean reminded her.
"You could have said."
"We did," Dean and Bobby chorused.
There was more grumbling, not all of it comprehensible, but Dean ignored it. They got as far as they could go with the stupid van, and now they were back to walking. They had only been a couple days from Cas at most. Now it could be weeks. Dean clenched his teeth and cursed God in his head. "Fuck," he muttered under his breath.
Charlie dropped a hand on his shoulder over the seat back and squeezed. "We'll be okay. We've walked before."
"But we're so close," he said, staring out at the narrow road ahead of them, steep mountain walls boxing them in on both sides stretched out in front of them, a reminder of what kind of environment they were about to walk through. There probably weren’t any zombies in their way for the time being, but there were mountain lions. And bears. He wanted to scream until his lungs gave out. Instead, he climbed out of the now-dead van and gathered his things.
Chapter 5: SAN FRANCISCO | MAY
SAN FRANCISCO | MAY
When Castiel looked up from his gardening to find Michael approaching, he expected some form of complaint, possibly about someone taking more than their rations of potatoes. For a man who didn’t look like he’d ever eaten a carbohydrate willingly in his life, Michael was very fond of the potatoes. What Castiel didn’t expect was for Michael to kneel down in the dirt next to him with an earnest expression that was bordering on genuine concern. “We’re running low on flour,” he said.
At face value, it was an odd thing to treat so seriously, but Castiel knew immediately what he was saying. Bread was their most important currency with the other small colonies nearby. Until the apiary Castiel was still in the process of building got off the ground, bread was their only unique trade item. Never mind the kick to camp morale not having it would be. “I’ve cleaned all the houses of it I could find in Stinson Beach.”
Michael glanced around them as if to gauge who might be close enough to listen to their conversation, and Castiel understood why as soon as he spoke. “Have you thought about trying Fairfax? It’s farther, but it’s far enough inland that it probably hasn’t been picked through yet.”
Castiel sat back on his heels, surprised at the suggestion. Fairfax was a few more miles away than he was used to running. He could do it no problem, but it was completely unknown territory. At least in Stinson Beach he had a relative idea of the landscape from Jo’s description before he went himself the first time. Fairfax was nothing but a question mark. “I don’t think Sam would want me to go without back-up.”
“If you take someone with you, the trip will take three times as long. I think you should try a quick trip just to see if it’s worth taking anyone else.”
Castiel bit at his bottom lip, weighing his options. On the one hand, he might run into more trouble than he could reasonably handle if he went that far out on his own. On the other, it wasn’t close to any other settlements as far as he was aware. It would probably yield good supplies. There might even be a hardware store he could find seeds in. He glanced up and eyed the ATV, long left parked just inside the gate. Their access to gas had been so limited that they'd stopped considering it as an option months ago, but maybe for this.
"Maybe I should take the ATV. Then I could have someone with me without having to slow down."
"What if you run out of gas on your way back? Then we'll be out a vehicle and you might have a horde chasing after the noise."
Cas continued thinking it over, running scenarios in his head until he had to agree with Michael's assessment. He had no idea how far the ATV could go on a full tank, and he knew theirs wasn't full. The last thing he needed was to get stranded with a pack of zombies following him. Better to go on foot and stay quiet until he knew what the town's population looked like. “I’ll need a map and time to plot a couple of contingency routes. I haven’t been that far northeast yet.”
Michael nodded. “I kept a whole drawer full of trail maps just in case we needed them. They’re in the office.”
Castiel gave him a long, considering look. He didn’t see the twitch of an eye that usually meant Michael was lying about something. Perhaps it wasn’t such a terrible idea for him to go. “Let’s see what the options are. If I think I can get there and back safely in a day, I’ll go tomorrow morning at dawn.”
“Great, let’s go look at the maps.” Michael stood up and walked towards the visitor center without checking to see whether or not Castiel was following him. Castiel narrowed his eyes at the man’s back, but he still got up and followed.
The next morning, he was up before the sun and stretching on his porch. Sam was up as well and paused in his own morning exercises in the grass in front of his cabin to watch Castiel. “Going somewhere?”
“Just on a supply run. I’ll should be back by the afternoon.”
It must have satisfied Sam’s curiosity, because he went back to doing push-ups. “Be careful. I think a storm’s coming in.”
“I’m always careful,” Cas said, squinting up at the horizon. The sky did look a little cloudy. It was too bad they no longer had reliable weather reports to check. He would have to turn back if it started raining. He hoped it didn’t.
Sam twisted onto his backside in the grass to start doing sit-ups, but didn’t say anything more. Cas knew without asking what Sam was thinking. Jess had said the same thing, and she was dead now.
Cas finished up his stretches and headed out of the gate in his usual direction, following the same trail as normal for a little while, but instead of turning left up Shoreline Highway, he kept straight on the trail leading closer inland.
Most of the running he had been doing of late had been short distances, three miles one-way at most. It felt good to really stretch his legs and let the rhythm of his feet on the pavement take over his higher thought processes. The mindlessness of it helped him clear his head, stop thinking all the dark thoughts that swirled around in his brain. Thoughts of Dean and what had happened to him. Whether or not he had made it to Kansas. Whether or not he was lying dead in a ditch somewhere. Or worse.
Running shut off the part of his brain that reminded him that he had killed one of his closest friends while the love of her life held her hand. It drowned out the flashes of dead people coming at him with grabbing hands and rancid breath, mouths gnashing to bite him, eat him. Of the sound of their bones and muscles crunching under his blade, their blood oozing out in congealed clumps that made him want to vomit.
It was his peace. But seven miles towards his destination, his peace was interrupted by the devastating sound of an engine roaring towards him. Engines meant people. It also meant zombies. Likely lots of them. He hadn’t taken the ATV for fear of this exact scenario. He cursed under his breath and pulled out his knife, ready for whatever fresh hell was awaiting him. He wasn’t prepared to fight living humans, but he would if he had to. They hadn’t interacted with many people who still used vehicles, but it wasn’t a good sign that whoever was coming his way wasn’t concerned about attracting zombies to them.
As the giant black truck appeared around a bend in the road, Cas thought it might have been a better idea to turn around and head back before he attracted anyone’s attention. It was too late now, though. The driver definitely saw him, and the truck was slowing down. There were two people inside. As they rolled to a stop in front of him, Cas was confronted with an older man with thick sandy hair and gray eyes. A pretty brunette peered over the man’s shoulder at him. The man took one look at Castiel’s drawn knife and lifted a shotgun from where it must have been sitting in his lap.
“Good morning,” the man greeted him in a voice like whiskey.
Castiel lowered his knife, knowing he stood no chance against two people with guns. “Good morning,” he said slowly.
“We don’t get many visitors ‘round here anymore. Where’d a young thing like you come from?” The question was galling, but Cas bit back the sharp reply he wanted to give.
“I’m on a supply run for my camp.”
“Your camp, huh? You’re awfully far from any camp I’ve heard about.” The man held the gun loose in his hand, but Cas had no doubt he would pull the trigger the moment Cas did something he didn’t like. He’d seen John Winchester hold his rifle that casually before, too, right before hitting four targets from twenty yards away.
“I cleared our usual looting spots for the supplies we need. We thought it might be useful to try farther out. If this is your territory, I can turn back around and find somewhere else to scavenge, no problem.”
The man considered him for a long, tense moment. “I don’t think so, kid. Just not your lucky day today.” He cocked his head towards the younger woman, who turned and hopped out of the passenger side of the truck and circled around to Castiel, smirking like she was enjoying herself.
“Hey there,” she said, stepping up to him with all the confidence of someone who knew they weren’t going to be rebuffed. She was at least a half a head shorter than him even in high-heeled boots, and yet he had never felt more intimidated.
“You don’t have to do this. I’m no danger to either of you,” Castiel tried to tell her, but she shook her head at him, tsking.
“Hands behind your back, or my friend gets real trigger happy.” She circled around to the back of him, slipping the knife out of the belt sheath Cain had made him. There was a little bit of shuffling around, and then she clicked handcuffs onto his hands, and the real worry started to set in. If they took him in their truck, he doubted he would ever see his camp again.
“Please, really, if you let me go, I’ll run back to my camp and neither of you will ever have to see me again.”
“Sorry, sweetheart. Get in the truck.” She pushed him in the back of the shoulder with just enough pressure to get him stumbling towards the passenger side. A little fumbling later and he sat wedged in between the two of them up in the truck, the woman holding the shotgun to his torso as the man did a U-turn in the narrow road and headed back north.
“Please, just let me go,” Cas said, trying to maintain calm even as the panic started building in his chest.
“And let you go back to your camp and tell them you ran into a couple of strangers with guns? Try again,” the woman said.
He decided against telling them that his camp only had one gun and only three people with knowledge of how to use it. “Can you at least tell me who you are?”
They exchanged a look over his head, and the man shrugged. “I’m Ruby. That’s Azazel,” the woman told him, nodding towards the man.
Castiel was taken aback at the name. He knew the reference immediately thanks to his own upbringing. “You’re named after a fallen angel?” he asked, looking at the man.
A wicked grin curled over Azazel’s mouth, and he gave Castiel an appreciative look. “Know your Bible, huh?”
“My name is Castiel. I grew up reading about angels.”
“Aren’t you just full of surprises. You gonna pray to God that we don’t kill you?” Ruby asked him, poking him with the barrel of the gun in an odd sort of tease.
Cas shot her a sharp look. “Are you intending on killing me? For what? I haven’t done anything.”
“You saw us. That’s enough.”
Cas growled between clenched teeth. “Who would I even tell? The military appears to have disbanded. There’s nothing left of law enforcement. Even if I had any idea why you are so against being seen, I wouldn’t have anyone to report whatever you’re so worried about being discovered for to.”
“Feisty, aren’t you? Meg’s gonna love you,” she said, ignoring his question. Cas kept his jaw clenched and straightened in his seat, trying to shift his cuffed arms into a more comfortable position, but there wasn’t one. He could feel Ruby watching him, but he ignored her. He needed to keep calm and figure out how to get out of this situation. Michael was the only one who knew where he was headed, and how long would it be before they even realized he wasn’t coming back? Would the group try to look for him, or give him up as lost to the bite?
Probably a mix of both. If they did go looking, the possibility of them figuring out that he got picked up by strangers was minuscule at best. There was no question that he was going to have to find his own way out of his predicament. And that meant figuring out why these people kidnapped him in the first place.
They only drove a few minutes up into the mountains before they reached the fields. Acres of plants it took Castiel a full minute to recognize. Cannabis. He recognized what he was dealing with in the next instant, news article after news article flashing behind his eyes. Castiel could not believe what he was seeing. The zombie apocalypse had come, and there were still people running illegal growing operations like they still had a chance of turning a profit.
“Who are you selling all this cannabis to?” he blurted out, unable to control his mouth in his astonishment.
“Don’t worry about it,” Ruby told him, poking him again with the gun.
He ignored her, staring out the window at the acres upon acres of pointy-leafed plants. “This is ridiculous. Please just let me go. I just want to see my friends again. I could not care less that you’re growing pot.”
“Quiet, boy. We’ll do what we want with you,” Azazel snapped at him.
Castiel bit back another sharp comment, putting his energy towards memorizing everything he could about their camp as they pulled up to a small group of shacks and parked. He was shuffled out of the car by Ruby and ended up falling to his knees out of the truck without the use of his hands for balance. Ruby hauled him back up by his t-shirt and marched him towards the largest of the ramshackle buildings. People appeared from a few of the other buildings, a whole cluster of them. They were all a little dirty and mean-looking, and they watched him with open distrust. He ignored them, trying to pay attention for possible escape routes. Ruby had him inside before he could see much of the layout of the camp.
She shoved him into a chair without any concern for his comfort. Azazel followed them inside and stood over Cas' prone form, looking him over as if searching for weaknesses. Out of the corner of his eye, Cas saw a blonde woman walk into the building. She was wearing a long, flowing, flowery dress, but something about the way she moved reminded Castiel of a predator.
"I see we have a visitor," the woman said, stepping up next to Azazel and looking down at Castiel the way she might look at a decadent dessert.
"Found him on the road up near Fairfax. Claims he's from a camp nearby, but I don't know if I believe him."
The woman bent over to Cas' level and lifted his chin up with one fingernail digging into his skin, her big blue eyes dancing with a delighted kind of violence. "I don't know. He looks like he might be from Steep Ravine."
Cas pulled away, shocked to hear the name. "How do you know where I'm from?"
She slipped onto his lap and cupped his jaw with sharp-tipped nails. "I know so much more than that, pretty boy."
A cold sweat slid down his back.
"I still think this is a dumb idea. You're gonna get hurt,” Dean said as they walked towards the city limits. There was a mess of cars abandoned on the highway they’d parked beside, as if everyone had suddenly abandoned their cars all at once and run. It was unnerving. Dean hadn’t let the Trans come with them for this very reason. They were waiting at an abandoned house just outside the city with Bobby to protect them and reassurances that Dean and Charlie would be back in a day or two.
Charlie rolled her eyes at him and strode quickly ahead. "Hate to break it to you, but I'm not here for you. I've got my own thing."
He’d known there was something more. It hadn’t made sense for her to follow him so far if there wasn’t. She must have been lying to him from the start. But no, she hadn’t known he was going to California until days into their traveling together. It didn’t make sense. He cursed under his breath and glared at her. "What thing?"
Charlie didn't meet his eyes, focusing on the arrow she was twirling between her fingers. "It's a... private thing."
"I can't keep you safe if I don't know what we're walking into. Tell me."
"I didn't ask you to keep me safe. I'm dropping you off at the campus and then going my own way."
Dean stopped dead and pointed towards the city limits with the tip of his machete. The moans of the dead were already audible in the distance. "If you think I'm letting you go through this place alone, you lost your mind in the mountains. I'm not gonna have you dead or worse on my conscience. We go together or we don't go."
Charlie whipped around with her hands flailing like she really had lost her mind. The arrow went flying behind her. “This isn’t your business! I’m not your responsibility. We helped each other get where we needed to go. That’s it.”
Dean crossed his arms over his chest, machete held out away from his face. “So you’re just gonna go, then? Not gonna say goodbye to Bobby or Kevin and Mrs. Tran? That’s nice. Real classy.”
Charlie nearly turned purple, her lips pressed so tight together they turned white. Her eyes darted around as if looking for an answer to him. When she didn’t find anything, her whole body deflated like a week-old balloon. “It’s my mom, okay? I didn’t go to Berkley for school. My mom was in a long-term care facility nearby. I just…wanted to…” Her eyes watered up and she looked away, biting her lip as if that might help her hold back her tears. It didn’t look like it worked any better for her than it ever had when Dean tried it. “Look, I know she didn’t make it, okay? She was on life support and in a coma. Even if they had back-up generators, there’s no way anyone stayed behind to take care of the patients. I just wanted to… say goodbye, I guess? Maybe try to give her a real burial.”
Dean’s insides felt like they were dissolving. He had a flashback of his last conversation with his own parents, and was reminded of the fresh hell of it all once more. He took the three steps to Charlie and pulled her into a hug, tucking her head under his chin and holding her close as he felt her shoulders begin to shake. Neither of them spoke for a long time. Out of the corner of his eye, Dean spied a lone figure shambling out from behind a car, but it was too far away at the moment to be a problem. He pulled away to make Charlie look at him. “Let me help you. We can find your mom and Sam and Cas. Together.”
“I feel like I need to do this by myself, you know?” The way she was clutching at him said differently, but he let her give him the puppy eyes.
“You can go in her room alone to say goodbye if you want to, but let me make sure you’re safe. You’re not gonna be able to say what you want if you’re worried about being attacked every second. And you’re definitely not gonna be able to get her out, let alone buried, without some help.”
She pulled away from his hug and turned her back on him. “Maybe that’s what I deserve.”
“Don’t be stupid. Of course that isn’t what you deserve. Why would you ever think that?”
“My mom wouldn’t be in that coma if it weren’t for me.” She picked up the fallen arrow and fiddled with it without any purpose. “I was at a sleepover, and I got scared. So... I called my parents to come and get me. They should never have been driving that night.” She was crying again by the time she was done, and Dean reeled her back into his arms, rocking her a little to try to calm her.
“You were a scared kid. That’s no reason to try to get yourself killed. It’s not gonna bring her back, and she’d probably be pissed at you for trying. If you were my kid, I’d be.”
She frowned at him, but some of the stubbornness had worn off her edges. “I guess. I just... I wanted to tell her I was sorry and I love her. I know she's probably already gone, but I need the chance to try.”
“We can do that. I’ll go with you. We’ll find your mom and give her the send-off she deserves. And then we’ll find Cas’ dorm and figure out where they went.”
She wiped at the tear tracks down her cheeks with the sleeve over her flannel and nodded, pulling out of his hug. “Okay, yeah. That… yeah.”
“Great. So you wanna take care of that zomb before it gets closer, or do you want me to do it?” He pointed with his blade, and it was a testament to how upset she was that she jumped a little noticing it. She whipped the bow off her shoulder and had an arrow cocked and flying the next minute. The zombie fifty yards from them dropped like a stone with an arrow through the eye.
Burying a body while trying to remain quiet in a city full of zombies proved to be a much more difficult task than Dean anticipated. The body hadn’t been in a great state when they found her, badly decomposed after months in the open air. It wasn’t a pretty state, but they had both spent so much time surrounded by decay that it wasn’t as upsetting as it could have been for Charlie. It was the first—and probably only—thing Dean had ever found to be grateful to the apocalypse for.
They ended up digging a shallow grave underneath a giant cherry tree in the back yard of the hospital. It had taken a while to figure out how to wheel the body out of the hospital without alerting some of the more…active residents. In the end they managed it, and Charlie was able to say her goodbyes while Dean kept lookout.
They didn’t speak again until they reached campus and navigated the buildings to found Cas’ dorm.
Dean looked around the room as soon as they entered, ignoring the moans of occupants of other closed doors down the hallway. It was the kind of messy that indicated that looters had already been there and rifled through Cas’ stuff. Cas would never have left it like this, even if he had to leave in a hurry. Even so, the sheets still smelled faintly of Cas even months after he left. Dean sat on his bed hugging his boyfriend’s pillow to his chest and smelling it for much longer than he cared to admit.
Charlie wandered the room, giving him the same space he had given her earlier that day. She looked out the window as the light changed. “We should stay here tonight. I don’t think it’ll be safe if we try to get back to the others after dark.”
Dean nodded, not much interested in speech for the moment. Charlie went through Cas’ desk, poking through his notes and the maps he had pinned to the wall with even more notes. Dean sat and smelled his pillow and lost himself in memory.
Late that night with just the moonlight to light the space, Charlie curled up in Cas’ roommate’s bed and looked over at Dean with a grief her recognized. “What will you do if they aren’t there?” she whispered into the quiet of the room.
He swallowed around the grapefruit in his throat, shaking his head. “I don’t know, Charlie. I don’t know.”
The silence between them was so heavy Dean thought he might suffocate, but he had nothing to fill it with. Nothing that wouldn’t hurt to say.
“Tell me about Cas,” Charlie whispered. And even though it felt like a knife was digging into his heart and twisting slowly, he did.
“How long we got?” Dean whispered against his mouth, pressing him down on the bed and climbing on top of him.
Cas kissed him hot and hard, pulling Dean down on top of him with hands pushing under his t-shirt. “An hour, probably,” he managed between kisses.
“I can do a lot in an hour,” Dean told him, eyes glinting as he dove in for another kiss. Cas ran his hands all the way up Dean’s smooth back, tracing the lines of muscles bunching across his shoulders as he held himself above Cas. He pushed his hips up into Dean’s and was reward with a groan of approval.
But as their kisses intensified, so did the groans. And not in a pleasant way.
Cas pulled away to check that Dean was okay, and found dead eyes looking back at him, mouth drooling. Before he could stop it, Dean lunged forward and bit him.
Castiel woke up screaming on a dirty floor in a tiny tin hut with only his empty pack as a pillow. The woman Cas knew as Meg was sitting against the wall across from him, a rifle draped across her lap. He blinked a few times to push away the flashes of Dean dead and ready to attack. The nightmares had gotten bad in the three days since his abduction. It could have been the constant threat of death, or the knowledge that any chance he had of ever seeing Dean again was gone forever. They had assured him multiple times that they had no intention of killing him, but he knew better than to trust their words.
“Bad dreams there, Clarence?” Meg asked, nudging his knee with her boot in a gentle tease.
“Something like that,” Cas mumbled, shuffling around until he could sit up with his numb hands still cuffed behind him. He flexed his fingers to check they were still there, but he could only tell that they had moved because of the sensation against his back.
“Should be some fun today. Your pal’s due by any time now to deliver the goods.”
Cas frowned at her, not quite sure what she meant. They had teased him for the last few days, hinting that he’d been set up by someone from camp, but not who. Or why. He just knew it wasn’t Sam or Donna. Sam was like a brother to him, and Donna wasn’t the type to betray a close friend. The woman in the flowery dress who had interrogated him—Lilith, he had found out during the course of her interrogation—had laughed at him when he asked to radio them and told him he would never see his friends again.
He didn’t have to ponder her words for long before the sound of a bike bell rang outside the shack, followed by the crunch of rubber on gravel not far from the open doorway of his tiny makeshift prison. Meg shifted around to look out the doorway with a smirk. “This should be good. Promise not to try to run, and you can come over here to watch,” she told him, patting the dirt floor next to her.
He crawled over on his knees, curiosity overtaking his survival instincts. Meg had proven to be fairly innocuous thus far, prickly sometimes but not interested in harming him. He was fairly certain she had a thing for him and wasn’t above using that knowledge to his advantage. She patted his knee when he settled next to her, shifting his legs around to a criss-cross position to try to lessen the strain on his numb shoulders.
From his seat, he could see the makeshift courtyard that connected all the shacks in the middle of their camp. Lilith was there in another long, flowery dress, barefoot and menacingly beautiful. Azazel stood next to her, a pistol tucked into the back of his pants clearly visible from Castiel’s angle. A figure stood astride a bicycle, a large backpack on his back. It took Castiel a moment to register the figure as someone he knew, someone he knew well.
Castiel cursed under his breath. “Of course that assbutt is behind this.” He hadn’t even known Brady had gotten a bicycle, let alone what he had been using it for.
Meg snorted. “Assbutt, Clarence? Pulling out the big guns.” She nudged him with her elbow. He ignored her, straining to hear what Azazel was telling Brady.
“That was the deal, but Castiel is so cooperative. It would be a shame to kill him, wouldn’t it, dear?” Azazel turned to Lilith. She smiled a smile full of knives.
“Look at him, so small and sweet. How could we harm a hair on his pretty head?” she purred, waving a graceful arm in Cas’ direction. Brady whipped his head around and glared at Cas.
“You were supposed to kill him. That was the deal. What the fuck?” Brady snapped, turning back to the two growers.
“That’s right. You’ve already told your friends that he’s dead, haven’t you?” Lilith asked. The quick straightening of Brady’s shoulders told Cas what he had already suspected. But how would Brady have been able to convince the others that he was dead without evidence? Michael had been the one to make the plans with Castiel for him to go to Fairfax, not Brady. How had Brady even known where to send Azazel to pick him up? And when had he run into the growers in the first place? There were so many questions swirling in Castiel’s brain that he almost missed Azazel’s reply.
“It would be difficult to explain if he were to show back up at camp then, wouldn’t it?”
Brady growled under his breath loud enough to be heard at Castiel’s distance. “What do you want?”
“Your price has doubled. Whatever you have in the backpack is just your down payment,” said Azazel.
“If you don’t bring us the rest of your camps’ supply, we’ll deliver Castiel back to his home ourselves, and we’ll let Sam Winchester know exactly who tried to have his best friend killed. It sounds like he might be the type of person to take revenge, doesn’t it, sweetheart?” said Lilith, looping her arm through Azazel’s with a sweet smile at Brady. Azazel nodded his agreement. Lillith’s questions about the inner-workings of the camp made much more sense now.
Brady cursed loud enough for half the surrounding fields to hear him. A crowd had gathered off to the side, the farm workers all watching him with amusement and a harsher disdain than they had shown Castiel when he was brought in. “We had a fucking deal,” Brady snapped.
“And now that deal has changed. Castiel is a valuable asset. Why would we want to dispose of him?” Lilith asked, still unaffected by Brady’s response. “All that agricultural knowledge floating around in his pretty little head.”
“You didn’t tell us he knew how to take care of bees, by the way. We might have considered taking him for free if we’d known that,” said Azazel. Castiel was surprised by the comment. He had thought they were making fun of them when they’d asked him about his hobbies and made him talk about the apiary he was building for Steep Ravine.
“What the fuck does that have to do with anything?” Brady snapped.
Lilith swept her hand around her as if indicating the entire farm surrounding them. “What do you think we do here, idiot boy?” It was the first slip of her serene countenance, and the flicker of annoyance put Castiel on edge. She had only left scratches on him during his questioning, and that was warning enough of her wrath. Brady clearly didn’t understand what he was dealing with.
“I don’t care.” Brady whipped the backpack off his back and opened it, pulling out bags of what Castiel recognized as their store of heavy duty medications, most of which Castiel had collected himself. “Here, have what you asked for. I don’t know where you think I’m getting the rest of it. Cas cleaned out most of the area.”
“Then you’ll have to do some searching, won’t you? I’m sure Marin City has a plethora of tasty treats for us. All those fancy houses full of unhappy people.” She smiled sweetly at him again, waving over an underling to take the bags from him. He scowled at the lot of them.
“Marin City’s infested. I won’t make it two blocks.”
“Well, that sounds like your problem, now doesn’t it? You have one week.”
Brady cursed again as he tugged the pack back onto his back and turned the bicycle around. “Fine. I guess I’ll see you assholes in a week.” He threw a vicious look at Castiel before climbing back onto his bicycle and riding off. Castiel cursed again, clenching his jaw to try to stifle his anger.
“I told you you don’t have to worry about getting killed, Clarence. The bosses have big plans for you,” Meg told him, patting his knee again. Cas turned to her, frowning, not sure what she meant. The talk of his bee-keeping couldn’t have been a real plan on their part. Surely they were just using him as leverage to keep Brady in line.
And yet, later that afternoon he was marched to an open clearing in the middle of a cluster of trees and presented with familiar framework. Castiel had thought he was being marched to his execution until he saw the tools, but then he was too confused to feel relief that he wasn’t being killed. Azazel walked behind him and unlocked his cuffs, stepping back to give him space to shake out his arms until some semblance of feeling came back to them. Castiel groaned, trying to massage away the sharp pain of feeling returning. It was a long time before he could feel his fingertips again.
“Thank you,” he said, rubbing at one of his chaffed wrists.
“Try anything and they go back on, and you’re back on your ass in your cell until your friend gets back with another bunch of goodies,” Azazel warned him.
Castiel nodded his understanding, waiting for further instruction.
“You said you know how to start a beehive, right?”
“An apiary, yes.”
Azazel slapped him on the back, sending shooting pain down his spine as his nerves continued to wake up. “Then get started.”
Cas frowned at him. “I want to go home.”
“You are home. You heard the deal. Get to work.”
Cas stood his ground. This could be his last bit of leverage, if he ever had any. “I will do this for you, but then you have to let me go. Brady will bring you the drugs you want, or he won’t. It takes several months to establish a new hive. I will build the supers and find a new queen for you, but you have to let me go back to my people after it’s done.”
Azazel laughed at him. “I don’t have to let you do anything, kid. You build me some bee hives or I shoot your brains out.”
Cas clenched his stinging fingers into fists. “Please. I promise you that I will make your hives. I’ll even show your people how to care for them, and come back every few weeks to check up on them.” He took a deep breath, an image of Dean flashing behind his eyes. “I can’t stay here forever.” Not if I ever want to have a chance at seeing Dean again, he thought, but didn’t dare say. A possibly dead lover was just the kind of knowledge that would result in him being mocked mercilessly. His fragile, withered heart couldn’t handle that. “My people need me.”
Azazel appeared to consider this offer for all of a minute before shrugging. “If you get a hive going, we’ll talk about maybe letting you go. But for now,” The wave of his lazy hand towards the boxes waiting to be built finished his sentence for him. Cas looked Azazel over, sighed, and walked over to the supplies. He never had any real leverage in the first place. Talking about it later is better than a flat rejection. Maybe if he did a good enough job, Azazel and Lilith would take pity on him and let him go.
At least he had to hope so. He picked up the few tools they’d given him and got to work.
“It should be right there,” Charlie said, eyes still on the map as she pointed straight down the hill towards the ocean. The view was blocked by a giant fence of hewn tree trunks. It circled the entirety of what Dean could only guess was the camp. His heart sped up seeing it. That hadn’t been on any of the aerial views Cas had left in his room. This was a good sign. He started down the hill at a trot, not checking to see if anyone was following him. Just before he made flat land, he caught a glimpse of a blonde head above the fence line.
As he got closer, a girl popped up above the fence line, a shotgun in her hands. She must have been standing on a platform, because there was no chance she was taller than the fence. “Stop right there, buddy,” she said.
He froze in his tracks and held his hands up. “Woah there, hey, we don’t mean you any harm. See, no weapons?” He turned his hands back and forth in a mimic of the royal wave to show her that he was unarmed. She didn’t lower the gun.
“What do you want?”
“I’m looking for someone. Uh… two people, actually. They were supposed to come here when the evacuation was called in San Francisco.”
She flicked her gaze behind Dean to the sounds of his companions approaching, and back to Dean. “Who? We got a bunch of people left over from the evacuation.”
“Sam Winchester and Castiel Novak.”
He saw her grip tighten on the gun when he mentioned Cas’ name, and his heart began to pound. “Adorable. Real fucking cute. Did you take him? Who the fuck are you?” she snapped at him, real anger crossing her face.
His heart beat started thrumming in his ears. “Is Cas here? He’s… he’s alive?” He wasn’t proud of his voice breaking, but there were tears gathering for the first time in six months. He had done it. He made it here in time, and Cas was alive. He didn’t let himself think about the fact that she hadn’t mentioned Sam yet.
“Who. Are. You?” she asked again through clenched teeth.
“Dean Winchester. I’m Cas’ boyfriend. Sam’s my brother. Are they here?”
She stared at him, not moving, apparently speechless by this information. Dean’s attention was pulled away to what looked like a makeshift gate being pushed aside, and then a figure he never thought he would get to see again was standing there, staring at him just as speechless as the girl. “Dean?” Sam asked. He was leaner than Dean had ever seen him and scruffy, but hard living had done him good.
“Sammy?” Dean asked, a tear trickling down his face. The next few minutes were a blur of motion and warmth as his little brother strode the three feet to him and pulled him into the tightest hug of his life.
“You’re alive. We thought for sure… I can’t believe you’re here. Cas is going to be so—” Sam cut himself off mid-sentence and stilled in Dean’s arms. Dean pulled slowly away, a cold sweat starting up the back of his neck.
“Where’s Cas, Sam?”
There was an ocean of pain in Sam’s eyes when they met Dean’s. “I don’t know. He… We have a trade going with a couple of other camps up the coast. He went out looking for supplies to trade about a week ago, and he hasn’t come back. We’ve had scouts out looking for him, but no one’s found anything yet.”
Dean frowned, catching movement behind Sam and looking over his shoulder to find half a dozen people standing at the gate. He looked up towards the blonde girl, who had dropped the gun but was still standing on whatever perch they had rigged, watching them with her elbows resting on the top of the fence. He turned back to Sam. “Who saw him last?”
“Me. He left camp around the time I usually do my exercises.”
“Way earlier than normal, by the way,” the blonde girl added.
Dean looked from her to Sam, already calculating plans. “What direction was he going in?”
“You’re not going to find him, Dean. We’ve been looking for a week. We’ve checked every trail. We had some of the people we trade with check their trails. There’s no trace of him,” Sam said. Dean called bullshit. Cas wouldn’t have just run off to disappear into the woods without leaving a sign.
“And no one knows where he was going that morning?” He focused his attention on the group of other survivors standing behind Sam. All of them shook their heads, but one. A guy on the edge of the group wouldn’t look Dean in the eyes when he got to him. Dean pushed past Sam and stalked straight to the guy. He was obviously trying to feign ignorance, but his acting job was terrible. He would not look at Dean, even close-up.
“You. You know something. Tell me.”
The guy crossed his arms over his chest, hunching his shoulders. “I don’t know anything.”
“I saw you talking over maps with Cas the day before he left,” a brunette woman said, elbowing him. There was a giant wolfhound at her feet. She had no problem looking Dean in the eyes.
“We were trying to figure out where he could go to get more flour. I don’t know where he decided to go. I’ve already told you,” the guy said, scowling at the woman.
Dean grabbed his shoulder and pulled his attention back to Dean. “I crossed the entire fucking country to get to Cas. You think I won’t kick the shit out of you until you tell me where he is, you better think again, asshole.”
“Dean, calm down. Michael’s a douche, but he wouldn’t do anything to Cas,” Sam said, trying to take hold of his elbow to pull him away from the guy—Michael. A shift in his shoulders told Dean he was on the right track.
He pulled away from Sam’s hand and grabbed the guy by the shirt collar, shoving him back until his back hit the fence. “Where’s Cas?”
“I don’t know! I know where he was headed, but Madison already checked that way, and he was gone. Something must have happened while he was on the trail. I don’t know.”
“You said you didn’t know where he was headed,” a man’s voice said from behind Dean, but he didn’t look back to see who spoke.
Instead, he shoved Michael back into the fence again, hard. “If something happened to him on the trail, then he would be on the trail, wouldn’t he? If he’d gotten bit, he would have gotten sick. He’d still be wandering around. If no one can find him, that means he hasn’t been bitten. So where is he?”
Michael flailed under his hold, waving his arms around wildly. “I don’t know, okay? I have no idea where Cas is.”
Dean could see the lie in his eyes. He lost what little patience he had left and pulled the gun out from his thigh holster and held it to the guy’s head. A chorus of protests followed, several hands attempting to pull him off of Michael, but he held fast. “Tell me,” he demanded.
Michael burst into tears, holding his hands up against the fence and shaking his head. “It was Brady! It was all Brady’s idea, I swear! I didn’t think they would actually do it,” he sobbed.
“Do what? Who’s Brady?” As soon as he said the name, a face popped up in his head. In the background of Skype sessions with Sam. Pictures on social media. Too loud vaguely homophobic comments, drunk at a diner at 3AM the last time Dean was in for a visit. He whipped his head around to find Sam. “Tyson Brady? That idiot who tried to get you to pledge with him?”
Sam nodded. His jaw was set, eyes focused on Michael. This was obviously new information to him, too. “No wonder he’s been trying to tell us Cas is dead all week,” he muttered to himself. He shook his head and returned focus to Michael. “Why didn’t you tell us this before?”
Michael was still crying, curled in on himself and apparently no longer concerned with the fact that Dean had a gun trained on him. “Brady threatened to kill me if I told anyone.”
“I’m going to kill you if you don’t, buddy. Which one of us you think is for real?” Dean snarled, pressing the gun to his temple.
“Dean…” Sam warned, but Dean ignored him. He missed Cas by a week. A fucking week. If Sam thought he wasn’t willing to do whatever it took to get him back, he didn’t know Dean as well as he should.
Michael shook his head, more tears dribbling down his cheeks. “There’s a group of illegal pot growers north of here. Brady’s been stealing supplies from the inventory and trading them with the growers for months. He made a deal with them that if they killed Cas, he’d give them all of our narcotics.”
“What? Why would Brady want Cas dead?” Sam asked, stepping closer to Dean without trying to get him to drop the gun this time.
“He wants to be in charge of the camp. He thought if he got rid of Cas, that it would break you enough so that you wouldn’t be able to keep control of the camp and he could step in.”
“And what do you get out of helping him?” Dean pressed. Of course that asshole would want to be in charge. Dean had told Sam he was a narcissist at least a dozen times, but had Sam ever listened to him?
“Protection. Sam’s been trying to get me to go on supply runs. Brady promised I could stay in camp, stay safe.”
“So you lured one of your fellow survivors into a trap and got him killed?” Dean pressed the gun harder into his temple, pulling the safety off with his thumb.
“He’s not dead!” Michael yelled, flinging his hands out again.
“Then where is he?”
“They took him to their farm. They’re holding him as leverage to get Brady to get them more drugs.”
“And you know this how?” Dean asked.
“Brady told me. He was up there to deliver his part of the deal the other day, and they told him they’d doubled their price. He’s looking for more drugs now.”
“Instead of looking for Cas, like he said he was doing?” the brunette woman asked from behind Dean’s left shoulder.
“Do you know where these growers are keeping Cas?” she asked.
Michael shook his head, and this time he didn’t look like he was holding back. Dean cocked the safety back into place and tucked his gun back into his holster. “Where’s Brady now?”
“I don’t know. He said he was going to try Marin City, but that place is infested. I don’t know if he’ll make it out alive.”
"Fine. Show me where you think they are." Dean made sure his expression brooked no argument. Still wiping the tears from his face, Michael led him inside the camp. There was a cluster of small cabins dotting the rocky cliff, full of signs of a thriving camp. Dean was surprised at how much cultivation they'd managed, given how sandy the soil looked. They must have brought in some sort of fertilizer. There was even a chicken coup set up next to what looked to be the park visitors' center.
It was towards that building that Michael led him. He was vaguely aware of the rest of the camp and his own people all following them, but his focus was on finding a way to find Cas. They spent the rest of the afternoon pouring over maps, Michael explaining the route he had planned with Cas and where the growers had been instructed to pick him up. He even showed them where he thought they might be set up, but he was guessing at best. Brady was the only person who knew for sure where to find them.
Brady appeared back in camp just before the sun went down, haggard and exhausted-looking and claiming to have run into a few zombies while looking for Cas up north. Sam, Bobby, and a man Dean had been told was named Cain pull him into one of the cabins and talked to him without listening to his protests. They were adamant that Dean not be a part of the questioning, worried that he would be more likely to kill Brady than get answers from him. Jo stood at the door with a wicked-looking knife, holding Dean at bay from going in. Dean paced in front of the building like a caged tiger and waited. Charlie stood off to the side, biting her nails, watching him.
Jo against the porch railing and picked at her nails with her knife, trying to look nonchalant, but Dean could tell there was something she wanted. “So, there’s been this rumor for a few weeks now about a zombie hunter coming this way named Dean. That you?” she asked, glancing up at him, but clearly trying to pretend she wasn’t eager for the answer.
Dean scowled at her, not interested in the stupid rumors that seemed to travel from camp to camp like locusts. There were a lot of those at Reno, too. “No idea what you’re talking about.”
“Rumor was you cleared out the entire town of Reno and made it habitable again. Over fifty zombs?”
Dean grit his teeth. “Not all at once. I’m not fuckin’ Captain America.”
“But you did do that?”
Impatience was growing in Dean. What was taking them so long to get the information from Douchecanoe? “Yeah, I cleared the town. We were stuck there until the snow melted.”
“Badass…” Jo said, eyes glittering with interest. One glare from Dean stopped any other question she had for him, thankfully.
When Cain came out an hour later, he had blood on his hands. He nodded to Jo, then to Dean, and headed off down a path to the rest of the cabins. Dean paused in his pacing. Charlie came over and laced their fingers together in solidarity. Mrs. Tran appeared at his other side, looking as fierce as she did the day she’d taken down a zombie with only a steak knife when it tried to eat Kevin. Dean spotted Kevin several feet away, watching them with a grim expression.
Bobby stepped out of the cabin next, his eyes cold stone and his mouth pinched shut.
"Well?" Dean asked.
"The kid agreed to take us to the farm in the morning. Cas is safe. They're having him build them an apiary."
Jo nodded from behind Bobby. "Makes sense. He was starting to make one here. Said he likes bees?"
Dean scowled at her. "I know he likes bees. That's what he was studying in school. Why would a drug operation want him for that?"
"Pot needs pollination, too," said Bobby. Dean wanted to rip his hair out in frustration. He almost lost Cas because of fucking bees.
“I’m coming with you tomorrow,” Mrs. Tran said. Dean turned a sharp look at her. “What? Like you’re going to talk to them with a clear head.” She raised an eyebrow at him before sweeping her eyes over the rest of them standing nearby. “None of the rest of you look like you could get a dog to do what you want, let alone career criminals. I’m coming.”
“It’ll be dangerous,” Dean reminded her.
“And I owe you. You’ve saved both my life and Kevin’s a dozen times over. Besides, I don’t think it’s going to take much to talk them into letting your boyfriend go. He’s another mouth to feed. These days, that’s a real concern.”
Dean took a deep breath, nodding. He tried to smile at her in thanks, but found his chest too tight to move. He had to start taking deeper breaths, suddenly overwhelmed with emotion. He hunched over, bracing his hands on his knees and fought for breath, reminding himself over and over again: Cas was okay. Kidnapped, but okay. They were going to get him back. And in the meantime, he was safe.
He barely noticed when Charlie pulled him into a hug, but it helped. He lay his cheek on her shoulder and breathed. Cas was safe. It was going to be okay.
In the nine days of his captivity, Meg had become his constant companion. Always armed, but never particularly interested in intimidating him. She watched him more than not, but she had never made him feel unsafe. In another life, he thought they could have been something like friends.
For the two days since he built the new honey supers, the two of them had been wandering the mountainside, looking for possible swarms, hoping to lure one to the new supers. When civilization still functioned, a beekeeper could purchase a new queen off of the internet without much effort, but they were going to have to get their colony through old-school means. Meg kept track of their activities via walkie, much like Cas was used to doing with Sam when he was on runs to Stinson Beach. Meg’s walkie had a much wider range than his ever did.
He had been tracking a possible colony for an hour when a voice crackled over the walkie. "Meg?" It sounded like Azazel, but Cas couldn’t be sure.
She confirmed, and they both listened for a reply. "We have a situation. Need you to bring the kid in."
"Is there a storm coming?" Meg asked, raising an eyebrow at Cas as if he might be able to answer for her. They both looked up at the clear sky through the trees.
"Just bring him in."
Meg shrugged and picked up her rifle from where she'd set it against a tree. She knew Cas wasn't skilled enough to try and take it from her. "You heard him, Clarence. Let's move."
"What do you think's going on?" Cas asked as they turned back towards the camp.
"No idea. Boss gets a lot of strange ideas. Still thinks we're gonna get raided sometimes. I don't think he's really caught up to the state of the union, if you know what I mean."
"State of the... do you mean the apocalypse?"
"I do, Clarence. I do."
Cas considered this as they trudged through the tall grass, the crunch of their boots on the underbrush the only noise between them. "Why do you call me Clarence?"
Meg looked back at him with another raised eyebrow. "You've never seen It's a Wonderful Life?"
"Is that a movie?" Meg's incredulous face was answer enough. "Unless Dean made me watch it, I haven't seen that many movies."
"My boyfriend. He's... gone."
Meg nodded, but had enough grace not to press the subject. They made the rest of the trip in comfortable quiet, and for a moment, Castiel could almost believe he wasn't in captivity. That feeling fizzled away and grew heavy on his shoulders as the clearing and the row of shacks that served as their living quarters came into view. Meg paused behind a tree and made Cas turn around so that she could tie his hands behind his back again. She wasn't supposed to let him roam without being tired up.
As they drew closer, he could see that there were people standing in a cluster in the middle of the communal space, Azazel and Lilith and a small older woman Cas didn't recognize. He could tell there were other people, but they were standing on the other side of the truck, and he couldn’t see them. He followed Meg out of the woods and onto the gravel path. An SUV he hadn’t seen before was parked behind the truck, black and newer than anything the growers owned.
He turned his attention from the car to the group of people standing with Azazel and Lilith and stopped in his tracks. Sam was there, with Cain, and… Bobby Singer? And. And…
“Dean?” Cas whispered, blinking hard against the tears that were threatening his vision. There was no possible way he was seeing what his brain was telling him he was seeing. He had to be hallucinating. He turned to Meg, helpless and betrayed in a way that he could not express fully. “Did you… give me something? I can’t… Dean—” He choked off, shaking his head to try to shake off the hallucination, but it defied his efforts. The figure that was Dean strode towards him, all big smiles and wide-open arms.
Cas was swept up in those arms, both familiar and foreign, lips chapped and warm and so known to him that they hurt pressed against his. Dean, close and wrapped around him like the safest blanket in the world. Dean’s mouth pressed dry and insistent against his. Dean’s hands spreading over the small of his back, up his shoulder blades to cradle the back of his neck in their wide expanse.
Dean pulled away and pressed their foreheads together, a soft smile overtaking his face. “Hey honeybee. I’ve been looking for you for a long time,” he whispered, bright green eyes glittering at Cas with a spark he never thought he’d see again.
“Dean?” Cas whispered back, raising his hands up over the lean expanse of Dean’s back under the thin t-shirt he wore. “Is it really you?” he asked in a voice that cracked and broke under the weight of this new revelation.
“Yeah, babe, it’s me. I know it took me a long while, but I made it.”
“I thought you were dead,” Cas said, fingers digging into the new muscles under Dean’s skin. His Dean had a softness to him, a layer of pizza and beer that this Dean lost along the way. It was both sad and exciting to know that his lover had changed, that he would have to learn him all over again.
Dean kissed him again, a hard press of lips as if to prove that he was real. “I thought you were, too, but it looks like luck was on our side, huh?”
Luck. Reality slammed into Cas’ chest like a round-house kick, and he looked around at Lilith and Azazel and Meg and the other growers gathered around them with genuine panic. “You shouldn’t be here. They outnumber you. They’ll take you hostage, too,” he tried to tell Dean, pushing at him to get him to go back to where he was safe, back to camp, far away from this place of constant danger.
Dean shook his head, trying to grab onto Cas’ flailing arms to calm him. “It’s okay, sweetheart, we talked to them. We made a deal.”
“They go back on their deals.”
“Not this one, little one,” Lilith said, stepping closer to where the two of them were curled around each other, both attempting to protect and shield the other without much success.
“What’s the deal?” Cas asked, dread turning the contents of his stomach to ice.
“Open trade between our groups and all the fun treats your gorgeous man brought with him,” Lilith said with a little clap, her eyes dancing to the pack on Dean’s back. Dean nodded, mouth in a tight line.
“And you’ll take care of our bees the way you said you would, of course,” Azazel added, nodding to Cas.
“I don’t understand…”
“This kind lady was so good as to point out that you, dear Castiel, are another mouth to feed and clothe. One we do not need to take on if, instead, we can get your assistance periodically as needed,” said Lilith, indicating the tiny woman Castiel didn't recognize from before. She stood next to Bobby Singer in a defiant stance, arms crossed over her chest, gaze sharp. Cas had to wonder who she was that she would negotiate his release from captivity without any apparent benefit to herself.
“So you will agree to visit us once a week to take care of our bee colony and trade goods and services with our camp, and we will let you go to frolic on the beach with your people, or whatever you do down by the coast.” Azazel waved a hand at him as if to dismiss their camp as utter nonsense. Cas knew that he thought it was only a matter of time before the government returned the country to normal, and he was only biding his time for that day, stockpiling marijuana and taking advantage of law enforcement distraction. Their camp probably was nonsense to him.
“I think I can do that,” Cas said, nodding to the two of them. “If I do, I’m free to go?”
“For now. Should you decide you no longer wish to fulfill your side of the deal, we will readdress the issue,” Lilith said, a sharp tinge to her words that promised violence should she be disobeyed.
Cas nodded, reaching out to link his fingers with Dean's. He had no plans to disobey. Beekeeping was something he enjoyed, and if it meant he got to return home and be with Dean, more the better. "I won't. I still haven't lured a swarm to the hives yet, though. That will take time, as I've already told you."
Lilith smiled at him. It wasn't a nice smile. "Do what you must." She turned and walked away as a period to the conversation, not even looking back to check that her wishes were being met. Azazel didn't move, but he also didn't try to stop them when Dean tugged Cas away in the back seat of the unfamiliar car, climbed inside behind him, and pulled Cas in his lap. Cas leaned against Dean’s chest while they waited until everyone else had piled in and Bobby was backing up and driving away from the camp before he said anything else.
"How did..." He failed to pull together words to describe what just happened. He turned to Sam in the front seat with wide eyes. "Brady did this. He's been stealing from the camp for months," he said, wanting to make sure Sam knew in case something went wrong. Azazel and Lilith could change their minds and decide to go after them at any moment.
Sam nodded, his mouth a grim line. "Michael told us."
"Your man pulled a gun on him. Made him wet himself. Very impressive," Cain said, reaching over the small woman wedged between them to squeeze Dean on the shoulder.
Cas whipped back around to stare at Dean. "You pulled a gun on someone?"
Dean brushed off the concern with a shrug, burrowing his nose in Cas’ neck and pulling him close. The warmth of him was a bit distracting. "You were missing."
Cas turned his head away towards the front, taking a deep breath. It was hard to process what had just taken place, let alone that he was sitting in Dean’s lap, their torsos pressed together, the heat of him making Castiel's head swim. He had never missed someone half as much as he missed Dean. "So, Michael told you that Brady had me kidnapped. How did you know where to find me? And how did you talk them into letting me go?"
"We got the location from Brady. Dean hot-wired a car up in Stinson Beach to get us here. Linda did all the talking." Sam told him.
Cas turned to the woman wedged into the middle seat next to Dean and him with a curious look. "Are you Linda?"
"I am. Linda Tran. You must be a remarkable person for Dean to have gone through as much trouble as he has to find you," she told him, holding out her hand to shake.
Cas shook her hand, not sure how to respond. "It's nice to meet you. Thank you for helping release me. I owe you a debt."
Linda shook her head. "No, you don't. Dean's saved mine and my son’s lives more than once. We're even."
Cas turned to look at Dean, wondering what else he’d done in their time apart. “I’m glad,” he said, hunching down to kiss his cheek. Dean pecked his lips, his hand warm up the back of Cas’ t-shirt.
“Oh, by the way,” he said, lifting his free hand off of Cas’ hip to fiddle with the strip of fabric he had looped across his chest. He came up with a small furry thing and dropped it in Castiel’s lap. A familiar squeaking started immediately and the ball of fur tried to climb his chest, sniffing him and chattering happily.
“Oh my goodness, Pearl!” Cas exclaimed, picking her up and holding her up to his face. He’d almost forgotten about his pet in the tumult of the last six months. She looked healthy, if a little lean. He’d have to fatten her back up when they got back to camp. For the moment, his heart was bursting with joy. He looked at Dean again with open delight. “Where did you find her?”
Dean raised his eyebrows at him. “The Grand Canyon. She was taking a donkey ride.”
Cas laughed and elbowed him in the side, grinning. “I can’t believe you brought her all the way from Kansas.”
“I wasn’t gonna leave her behind,” Dean muttered, quiet as if he didn’t want the rest of the car to hear him. Pink bloomed across his cheeks, making his freckles stand out.
Cas brushed a kiss against them before leaning his forehead against Dean’s. “I love you,” he said with a little smile. He didn’t ask about what happened to his family. He got the sense that if Dean knew, he would have said.
“I love you, too, honeybee,” Dean said back, pressing a quick kiss to his lips. Cas set Pearl back in his lap and stroked her back the whole rest of the ride to camp. There would be time to worry about the rest later. For the moment, there was this.
Chapter 6: STEEP RAVINE | JUNE
STEEP RAVINE | JUNE
“I brought treats,” Dean announced, dropping onto the blanket Cas had spread out across the sand.
Cas looked up from the picnic basket he was unpacking with a smile and accepted the peck Dean placed on his lips. “Oh?”
Dean pulled a bottle of Woodford Reserve Double Oaked from his pack with a smile as bright as the sun. Cas sat on his heels, staring wide-eyed at the present. How on earth had Dean found a bottle of his favorite alcohol? “Where’d you get that?”
“Found it in one of those big fancy houses up in Marin City when we were doing a sweep a few weeks ago. Thought I’d save it for this special occasion.”
“You are so getting laid tonight,” Cas told him, leaning all the way over his open pack to kiss Dean hard. Dean made a happy little sound in the back of his throat and tangled his fingers in Cas’ hair, helping him push their things out of the way so he could climb into Dean’s lap to deepen their kiss. Cas licked into his mouth, grinding his hips down on Dean’s crotch, pleased to feel a little bit of interest.
Dean pulled away with a furrow of his brow. “What if someone decides to go for a walk down the beach?”
Cas sat back on Dean’s thighs, playing with the hem of his shirt, lifting it out of the way of his hands questing for Dean’s bare skin. “I’m pretty sure over the course of the last year every person in camp has stumbled onto us fucking at some point. If they don’t know to stay off the stretch of beach we picked for our anniversary celebration, that’s on them, don’t you think? Your hand down the back of my pants at breakfast wasn’t subtle.”
Dean reached a hand down the back of his shorts and squeezed his ass cheek, grinning. “How could I resist? Have you seen your ass?”
Cas rolled his eyes. “My point being, I think it’s safe for everyone in camp to assume that we’ll be having sex on the beach tonight. If they don’t want to see it, they’ll stay away.” He tugged the shirt up higher and pulled it off of Dean, grinning at the view of tanned, toned skin it afforded him. All the work Dean had been putting into clearing the nearby towns with the camp guards had done him well in making him look like an underwear model, and Castiel was into it. Very into it. It was almost worth all the worry Castiel had over him getting bitten before he came home every night, covered in grime and sweat and more blood than should be appealing. It shouldn’t have been as arousing a sight as it was for Cas, and yet reveled in stripping Dean bare every night and doing as he pleased with him.
“Before we get too carried away, let’s dig into your anniversary present,” Dean said, reaching behind Cas’ back to grab the bottle and work the cap off. The deep smoky scent of charred oak hit Cas’ nose and made him grin. Dean held the bottle up to his mouth and tipped it for him to drink. He closed his eyes as the delicious flavors of honey and caramel hit his tongue.
He only allowed one swallow before he pulled away, shaking his head. “Oh no, we’re using glasses like civilized people. You don’t guzzle nice bourbon,” he said, twisting around to reach into his bag for the glasses he’d brought along. He left the champagne he’d found for later and pushed the glasses into Dean’s chest for pouring. “You take care of that. I brought treats of my own.” He climbed off Dean’s lap and went to dig deeper into his bag, pulling out the little battery-powered speaker he’d found and Dean’s phone that he’d swiped that morning before Dean woke up. He’d made sure to charge it all the way with the solar charger before bringing it.
Dean watched him with a curious look. “What are you doing?”
“What’s a celebration without your favorite music?” He found the phone’s music app and hooked it up to the speaker. The next moment Led Zeppelin was playing. The speaker didn’t get very loud, but it was enough to light Dean right up. He set the glasses and the bottle aside and pulled Cas back into his lap, kissing him silly.
When they pulled apart minutes, hours later, Dean rubbed their noses together with a secret little smile that bloomed warm and happy in Cas’ chest. “And to think, the last time we spent the night under the stars you thought we weren’t going to make it out of college together.”
Cas wrinkled his nose at him, still smiling. “Technically, we both dropped out, so I wasn’t wrong, per say…”
Dean growled his annoyance at the cheek and kissed him again, pulling him in tight. “Fucking technicalities.”
Cas grinned at him, pecking his lips again. “I love you.”
Dean’s eyes turned soft, and he kissed the tip of Cas’ nose. “I love you, too, honeybee.”