The blinding light of Dean’s smile was cut short, like a blown fuse, and an unfortunately familiar voice spoke up behind him.
“How sweet. Time to go.”
It was the boy from the convenience store by the motel. Or, more aptly, the body was that of the boy from the convenience store. The wide, toothy grin and empty eyes told of an entirely different inhabitant.
Castiel felt himself slump and he released a heavy breath, one that he had been holding for months, it would seem. A moment of happiness should have been impossible, or at least very improbable, to achieve. Happiness was a human emotion – it wasn’t made for angels, who were meant to feel bliss in the presence of God, a feeling of rightness and serenity, but not happiness.
Angels were also not meant to inhabit the same vessel for as long as he had – not meant to have had their vessel constructed around their grace again and again. They were not meant to spend as much time as he had in the presence of humans. They were not meant to care for humans as closely as he did – yes, care for them as their father’s treasured creations, but no more than they were meant to care for lions or bacteria or individual molecules of hydrogen. Castiel was not meant to care for the Winchesters. Not meant to care for Dean.
He was not meant to feel happiness.
It had seemed tragically easy not to achieve happiness. The lives they lived were hard and disjointed. Every day was a battle of some kind. Every moment of relief had a dark side waiting to be revealed. He was an angel, separated from his brethren by their choice and by his own. He had gone against heaven. He had betrayed his family. And he had betrayed his new family as well, several times over. That the Winchesters, that Dean, still accepted him, still trusted him, after everything, was a testament to their giving nature.
He wanted to feel happiness. But he didn't think happiness was likely for a long, long time, if that.
But then he had almost died. Again.
One of Michael’s unholy creations had captured him and tortured him. It was all a ploy to capture Dean, the vampire/archangel hybrid had explained – revenge for the death of Michael, as misguided as that was. The creature had left clues that indicated Castiel’s death – his trenchcoat left in the alley behind the motel – his tie, torn and caught in a chain link fence – his blood, smeared along the pavement. There had been enough clues to show Dean where they had gone, to a warehouse where the creature had several more of his kind in wait.
Sam had freed him while Dean and Jack had slaughtered their way through the creatures.
“You’re alive!” Sam had exclaimed in a sharp whisper. He’d thrown his jacket over the holy flames, dousing them, and then entered the circle to pick the warded handcuffs from his wrists. “C’mon. Let’s get out of here.”
The corpses of the creatures lay scattered and headless about the warehouse and Sam led him toward a doorway through which shone a golden glow that must be Jack. With his depleted grace, he wasn’t able to see the tendrils of power snaking through the air, nor to see Jack’s wide wings, but he was able to see the shock on Dean’s face as the light died down, as the last of the creatures slumped into dust, and he was able to see the brilliant, blinding, sensational light that was Dean’s joy.
One human’s happiness should not have been enough to cause his own. Any other angel would have been immune. But he felt it within himself – an answering swell of happiness, bubbling inside his chest like a geyser, overwhelming his senses until it must have shone through his eyes as brightly as his grace might have. He was suddenly very aware of his heart beating in his chest, of his fingertips, of his pelvic bone, of the green of Dean’s eyes.
This was not new, but it had never had a cost before.
“You made the deal, Castiel. Don’t be naughty. You didn’t even try to negotiate!” The Empty laughed and wiggled his vessel’s fingers at Cas. “Come on. I don’t have all day. It’s time to sleep.”
“What the –”
“No!” Jack interrupted Dean’s confusion and stepped in front of Cas. He held out his hand, fingertips already bright with power. “I won’t let you take him.”
“Oh, fiesty! I can’t wait until it’s your turn to sleep. But not now, not yet. We made a deal, didn’t we, Castiel?” The Empty grinned again, widely, showing off the multi-coloured braces lining the vessel’s teeth. “Not his turn now, but your turn instead. That was the deal, but more than that. Oh! And you didn’t disappoint! All that shiny happiness turning into pain! It’s beautiful.”
“Who are you?” Dean pointed his gun at the Empty and he demanded, “What do you want?”
“TO SLEEP!” The Empty roared back and then coughed delicately and smiled again. “And what’s mine.”
“Cas, what?” Sam still had Cas’s arm, and his fingers tightened into the fabric of his bloody shirt.
“He made a deal,” Jack growled. “For me. When I was dead, the Empty,” Jack nodded at the grinning boy, “wanted to take me from Heaven and my mom and put me in the Empty, where angels go when they die. But Cas made a deal. Him for me. But the Empty said he wouldn’t take Cas right away. He was going to wait until Cas was truly happy before he came to take Cas away.”
“Excellent synopsis! And you felt it, didn’t you, Castiel? Happy? Truly happy? This blob of meat and goo looked at you with love and joy and you felt it!” The Empty sighed and offered Dean a soft smile, from which Dean visibly recoiled. The Empty then clapped its vessel’s hands together loudly and said, “So… time to go!”
The Empty laughed and looked at Dean. “Oh cute. The human has an opinion. There’s no no here. Castiel belongs to me. Castiel comes with me. Castiel sleeps for eternity. I get some peace and quiet. It’s all in the fine print. Except it was a verbal agreement, wasn’t it? Yes, angel’s honour and all that. Off we go.”
“No,” Dean said again and primed the rifle. “Cas isn’t yours.”
“Oh yes he is. All angels are mine, eventually. Castiel may be a terrible excuse for an angel, all full of human emotion and wants and hip thrusting feelings, but he’s still an angel. And angels are mine.”
“Take me instead.”
The Empty laughed openly, doubling over and clutching at its stolen stomach. “I don’t want you. Humans don’t sleep quietly. They talk and talk and think and cry and feel and feel and feel and they don’t sleep. They never sleep. Ugh. No, I don’t want humans. Angels sleep; at least, they’re supposed to. And you will, right? You’ll sleep all nice and quiet for me, for eternity?”
“He won’t. He can’t.”
The Empty looked at Sam with clear disdain. “Of course, he will. He agreed to it.”
“No,” Sam shook his head. “He can’t. You’re the nothingness that existed before God, right? God made everything and shoved nothingness out of the way for his creations, and to appease you, he let you have the angels.”
“This goo can read, I see. Yes, yes. I get the angels, exactly.”
“But you get the angels because human souls are noisy, and you hate noise. Angel grace is quiet, no feelings, no chatter.”
“You’re proving your own point, chatterbox,” the Empty glared at Sam.
“Cas has thoughts. Cas has feelings. Cas is not going to be quiet, no matter what promises he gives. He isn’t going to sleep quietly like an angel. He can’t.”
“He isn’t yours,” Dean said quietly. His eyes flicked from the Empty to Cas and back, so quickly, Cas barely had time to marvel at their depth and the feeling that evoked in him.
“Yes, he is.”
“No, he isn’t. He’s… He’s his own person. He’s ours.”
“He’s your friend? Are you going to miss him? Are you going to spill salt water all over the place, like the goo that you are? Boo hoo hoo.”
Jack turned and frowned slightly at Dean. “You should just say it, Dean. The words don’t have power until you say them.”
Dean’s eyes slid from the Empty to Jack to Cas and then back to the Empty. His feet shifted uneasily. “I already said it, kid. Cas isn’t this weirdo’s. He’s his own person. He gets to decide.”
“Dean,” Sam warned, but the Empty laughed again.
“Oh, Castiel here already decided. He knows exactly where he wants to be. But that doesn’t matter. He goes where he belongs. And he belongs to me.”
“He doesn’t belong to you.”
“Yes, he does – ”
“He belongs with me!”
“Jesus, finally,” Sam muttered and held Cas up firmly as he wavered slightly on his feet.
“No, he doesn't. He’s mine.” The Empty reached out its vessel’s fingers and waggled them. “Mine, mine, mine.”
“Cas is mine,” Dean said more firmly, his face flush. “I’m not letting you take him. He’s not going with you now, and he’s not going with you later. He’s staying right here.”
“What hold do you have on him, meat? Hmm? What hold do you have that overcomes me?”
“He’s mine,” Dean repeated stubbornly and the Empty lifted a sceptical eyebrow.
When Dean didn’t immediately answer, the Empty laughed again, a hollow, chilling sound and it asked again, “Why?”
“Because I love him!”
The Empty laughed loudly and grinned so widely, the corners of the vessel’s lips split a little. “He said it! I didn’t think the meat would say it! Oh, well, this changes everything!”
“It does?” Sam asked and the Empty shot him a hard look.
“Of course not. Castiel’s grace is still mine.”
“You can have it,” Cas said quietly.
“What was that?” The Empty slid toward him and it cocked its head. “Didn’t quite catch that.”
“You can have my grace.” Cas took his own step forward, and he shook off Sam who tried to hold him back. Jack turned to block him but he shifted around him, standing before the Empty. “You can take my grace. It will sleep quietly, if you leave my humanity behind.”
“Interesting.” It looked over at Jack and said, “That one is still mine, when it’s done. This doesn’t fix that.”
“We’ll see,” Jack answered.
“We will! We will see, won’t we?” It turned back to Castiel and smiled, wiggling its fingers greedily, and Castiel took one of the outstretched hands. “Well? Let’s go. It’s so late.”
“Cas, no!” Dean yelled, but Castiel didn’t hesitate.
He leaned forward and sealed his mouth against that of the Empty and breathed his bright grace into the shadowy nothingness that occupied the vessel. They separated and the Empty licked its lips and sighed.
“Delicious. Pleasure, Castiel. Have a wonderful, if comparably short-lived, life. And you,” the Empty smiled at Jack, “be seeing you later.”
It opened its mouth and inky, viscous sludge poured out of the convenience store clerk and sank deep into the cracks of the concrete floor. The clerk gasped for air and collapsed to the ground. Jack and Sam both moved to collect the young man from the floor as he gaped at them all.
“What, where am I?”
Jack reached over and touched the man’s head, his fingertip glowing, and the clerk’s eyes fluttered closed as he slumped into unconsciousness.
Sam glanced from Cas to Dean, and he winced and said, “Uh, Jack and I will get this guy back to where he belongs. We’ll, uh… meet you back at the motel.”
They carried the unconscious store clerk between the two of them and when they were gone, Castiel looked up at Dean, who stared intently after his brother, only when the door closed did he turn his head. His eyes were furious.
“Why did you do that? We could have figured out a way.”
“I’m sorry, Dean. I know that, as a human, I’m… I’m lesser than I could be. Less useful, certainly. I’m… I’m sure I can still have a purpose, though. I can still fight. And, at least for now, I still remember everything I knew as an angel – that might diminish as I age.” Cas thought a moment and shrugged. “I could try to write it all down, but it is extremely substantial. It would take some time.”
“I don’t… You don’t have to… What the hell, Cas! You just gave away your grace! To some kind of… sludge monster. And what’s this about deals you’re making? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Do you tell about every deal you make? How many times have you given away your soul, as if it meant nothing? As if it weren’t the most precious thing in creation?” He stepped toward Dean who took a hesitant step back. “I held your soul in my hands. I know how beautiful it is. And you would give it away. You just tried to give it away again! How many times do I have to watch you give away your soul to those who have no understanding of how cherished it should be.”
Cas watched as Dean swallowed thickly.
“My grace, it means nothing, literally nothing to me, if it is what will keep me away from your side.”
“Cas, I – Jesus, I… I have no idea what to say.”
“You said it before. You told the Empty. You could tell me.”
Dean looked at him. His heart was beating clearly in his throat. “I…”
Cas slid another step forward and Dean, another half-step back until his back was against the dingy wall of the warehouse. Cas split the difference again and he reached out, his fingertip brushing against Dean’s hand, the way the wind rustled through one’s hair.
“You were…” Dean shook his head lightly, his eyes downcast. “You’re calling my bluff, huh?”
“It’s not much of a bluff.”
Dean huffed a laugh. His neck was flushed. His fingers tightened against Cas’s.
“I guess not.”
Dean looked up at him and his mouth turned up.
Cas grinned. “You’re also mine. Stop giving away your soul.”
“Can do. You too. If you… Wait, do you have a soul now?” Dean tilted his head. “I mean, if you’re human now, do you… Are you soulless? Do you… get to have Jimmy’s soul? I thought he was gone. Do you get your own soul? Where does it come from? How does that work?”
“I love you.”
Dean gaped at him. “You bastard. You don’t get to say it first!”
“You clearly weren’t going to.”
“I did say it first!”
“Not to me.”
Dean huffed again in mock annoyance, but his free hand slid hesitantly against Cas’s hip, where his shirt had come loose.
“Dean. Sam will be very disappointed in you if you… chicken up.”
A helpless laugh burst out of Dean. “Chicken out.”
Dean grinned at him, his fingers sliding against the skin of Cas’s hip with more confidence.
“I love you.”
Cas smiled. “I know that too.”